The Night Before Ashfall
By Rebecca J Payne
I know what you’re thinking… here’s grandpa again to bore us with stories. You’re good children to put up with my tales; like the summer when the tip of Hallows Hill melted so much you could glimpse the muddy earth beneath, or the year the iceberry harvest failed and the people of Brink shared their foodstores with us. But this isn’t one of those stories. This is something magical, something some folk don’t even believe in anymore, though it’s as solid and true as the ice beneath your feet. Gather round the last flakes of the frostfire now, I’ll tell you of the dry, black rain that came on Ashfall Day.
The night before Ashfall was always my favourite night of the year. My parents would let me stay up late to watch the shooting stars that lit up the night sky on Ashfall Eve. You don’t see them much anymore, but when I was a boy there were hundreds and hundreds, darting points of light in the endless dark. I liked to think they were silver phoenixes soaring high above me. I carved a figure of a bird from of a block of pale grey ice one, ice I had dug on a trip to the Husk valleys in the west. Its wings were so uneven I doubt it could have flown across my bedroom, never mind the skies! But it was mine, and I loved it..
One particular Ashfall Eve, when I was seven, there were so many more stars than I had seen before. I sat on the roof of our little house up near flatplains where we lived on the edge of town, and pretended I was flying a thousand feet high, up there with the birds, nothing but their silver feathers lighting the way as we travelled to strange lands. Lands free from ice, lands where warm plants grow green and red and gold – can you imagine! I was always daydreaming of fantastical worlds. My teachers would get angry with me, but secretly I didn’t care what they said. Imagination is the greatest gift we have, and this one night, it was as if all the birds in the heavens had come out to fly just for me, and I knew in my heart that something special would happen on Ashfall Day.
I went to bed too excited to sleep. My parents thought I couldn’t wait for my presents, and it was true I’d looked at the gifts on the mantelpiece and had my eye on the box of silver birchwood with my name carved on it, but I’d never peek before Ashfall morning. The waiting is half the fun! No, I was excited because the silver phoenixes were still wheeling in my mind. I finally closed my eyes just as the first pale rays of dawn peeked through my window.
I was shaken awake by your great aunt Hassie, then just a nine year-old with golden curls. “Come on, Manny,” she shouted. “You have to see!” She ran away laughing in that way little girls do. I shuffled to the window to look out on another white, crisp Ashfall morning, but what I saw was beyond even my wild imagination.
For as far as the eye could see, a heavy black blanket had fallen on the whole of the land – it stretched out across the flatplains and over the hills beyond. I threw on my clothes and ran out onto the street, where children from the town were all rushing around. I reached down and carefully placed my palm on the surface of the ground. It was warm and crumbly to the touch and I swept my hand through it, feeling it tumble over my skin. I looked up and saw Hassie skipping through the flakes and I picked up two huge handfuls, ran over and threw them up over her head. How she screamed and laughed! She threw a handful back, and suddenly all the neighbourhood children joined in, hurling flakes at one another, and we played for hours, in that strange upside-down world. Running through the blackened streets with a pale white sky above I felt I could truly be flying with my phoenixes.
We trudged reluctantly in for dinner, so filthy we had to scrub off all the dirt before we could sit down to eat. Suddenly the promise of a feast couldn’t compare to the world that lay beyond our door. We were happy to have presents, though! My silver birchwood box contained six beautiful shards of blue ice from the forests at Skabard, over a hundred miles from here. Your great-grandparents always indulged my love of strange things from far-off lands. They were very wonderful in their own way.
Hassie and I wolfed our food down; the seared hare and snowpeas, the traditional winter soup. Then we took our sleds across the flatplains to the blackened hills beyond. There we met children who had come from Brink on the far side of the hills, and in those days we could play together – this was long before the war, back when our two towns were still friends. We took turns to slide down those hills, our sleds cutting wild patterns of white through the black flakes. When the sun began to set, we said goodbye and set off home, tired and happy. I felt safer and warmer in my bed that night that I’d ever felt before.
The next morning, walking out from my house, the crunch beneath my feet had gone, replaced by the familiar slip and slide of ice. The cold night had frozen the slush of black flakes to form a silky black sheen across the land. Hassie had gone with our mum to the Temple and Dad was still sound asleep in his bed. Dad hadn’t been to temple in years – hypocrites and liars he called the Eldermen, and from all I’ve seen in my life I’m inclined to agree. Alone I walked the streets of the town to look for other children to play with, but all was quiet; doors were closed and the ground outside some of the homes had been chipped and swept of blackened ice to uncover older ice beneath. Roofs of houses had been swept clean. The town felt strange, colder and more harsh. I kicked around the streets, chipping up chunks of black ice and holding them up the light. They were like rough, opaque jewels – something from another world. I stuffed some into my pockets and went home, bored and lonely, not understanding why none of the other children could come out to play. When they returned from Temple, Hassie looked unhappy and Mum told me not to go outside again that day. She said the fallen flakes wicked things from older, ungodly times. I sat in my room, looking at the little black ice chips I had brought home. I thought they were beautiful. I hid them in the silver birchwood box, alongside the blue ice from Skabard. It was the start of my very own collection.
The next day I was woken early by a commotion – angry voices and the clatter of picks and shovels. From my window I saw Eldermen leading dozens of townsfolk through the streets, swinging their tools at the black ice wherever they found it, digging it up and sweeping it from the surface of the land. I ran to my parents’ bedroom and shook my mum awake – she looked at me sadly and told me to keep indoors, there would be no playing with the other children, not today.
In the weeks that followed all traces of the black ice were broken, swept up and carried away. People stopped talking about it. I don’t know where they took it or how they destroyed it. Nobody was allowed to ask. Four years later, at school, a teacher flatly denied to my face that any dry rain had come from the sky at Ashfall, and I was caned for standing on my chair and screaming at her that I’d held it in my very hands. I never was all that popular in town after that. The secret is, being unpopular is often the best way to be free. Your grandmother, rest her, felt the same way. That’s why she was the only girl for me.
Now, after all these years, most folk don’t believe it ever happened. They still say Ashfall is a time for giving thanks to the gods. But you must know the rumour, whispered here and there, that Ashfall Day really comes from an older age, an age when dry rain came every year and was celebrated by everyone. Do you believe my story? Perhaps not. I’m old, and not much longer for this world. But take a look at the silver birchwood boxes on the mantelpiece tonight, my dear grandchildren. Each one has your name carved on its lid.