National Storytelling Day 2018

Someone sitting in a room somewhere decided today is National Storytelling Day (I guess it keeps them out of trouble), so here is a story - written, not told, because I'm just a rebel, me - which seems vaguely in keeping with the weather conditions. If anyone is interested, I am available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and nervous breakdowns.



The Harbinger

I am a creature of the winter. Sleet ran through my veins from the day I was born, ripping my mother from me even as she nurtured the ember of my life with her dwindling heat. The Others watched her die, cautious of approaching until they knew I was utterly alone in the world. That was when they marked me as their own, and I changed. I can never be fully one of them, but nor am I entirely what my mother bled to make.
Hairs grow from the place where they touched me, thick and dark. Yet when the change comes on me the hairs not only grow denser but paler until they are the one white patch in a gun grey pelt. In their language they call me Harbinger and they watch me intently, for they say I act strangely in the moon tide before the weather changes, twitching and snarling in my sleep, disturbing their deeper slumbers in the niches and crevices beneath the earth. I am become a barometer, read by creatures with eyes like mirrors.
Late summer weighs heavily on me, the memory of the deep earth offering such tempting solace that I cannot resist seeking out caves and shadowed glades during the sunlit hours. Yet when the craving wakens me, that unrelenting yearning that drags me from cool sanctuary into the dying heat of summer to sweat and stagger and stumble about, then I can feel the blizzards coming.
The Harbinger is always the first to fully waken, and it is my job to prepare for the Emerging. We are always hungry after hibernation and need to replete our wasted forms, the Others even more than I. It is my duty to stock the larder, otherwise they will not be able to control themselves in those first days. It is unwise to thin the herd too heavily. The feeding frenzies are terrible to behold; I once saw an entire hamlet consumed, their frigid, twisted, broken corpses thrown into the drifts.
Some might feast blindly, glutting on whoever comes their way. Some fools might wage vendettas, targeting chosen prey to sate the need for vengeance. I have chosen the path of the connoisseur, and I provide my kin with only the choicest of tastes. When I was but a child I wandered in the storm for what seemed like days, until at length I chanced across a wayside inn. The aromas from within were tempting, and I reverted to the shape my mother had given me. As I peered in the window at the patrons huddled about a fire, a woman peered back out and we both startled the other to such a degree that she shrieked and I fell backwards into a drift. Moments later she and her father, the landlord, were hauling me out of the snow and into the stifling dryness of the bar room.
The younger woman fussed and bustled, exuding a sweetness and warmth that  made my stomach rumble ~ so loudly, in fact, that she at once brought me food of the sort that I could barely keep down. Kindness is such a rarity that I could not bring myself to rebuff it, and struggled to swallow the stew. Her mother was of an entirely different ilk, burning with a corrosive disdain that drew me to her even as she grimaced at what she deemed an unwashed cuckoo in her nest. Where the girl acquired her goodness, I did not know, for her father oozed nothing but weak-willed indolence and avarice.
The suet-fleshed matriarch recoiled from my corpse-cold touch and complained bitterly that her husband must have left the door open, though all could see it plainly barred. Starvation nearly overwhelmed predatory prudence, but good fortune led one of the wall-eyed old drinkers to drag me back towards that suffocating hearth before I had drained all the heat from her flabby carcass. She collapsed shivering and cyanotic into a chair, eyes never straying from me even as her customers indulged the poor lost child who hacked his lungs raw ~ though from the dryness of the hot air, and not the cold as they assumed. I supped upon the drinkers, but only a little from each. Enough to remind them of the world beyond the stout walls, and by then I’d had enough fill of the landlady to need only a morsel from the rest. It was also enough for me to assess their flavours, some bland, some distasteful, one riper than a well-hung pheasant.
They asked question after question about how I came to be wandering in the snow, who my parents were, what had become of them and so forth. I did as the Others taught me, whimpered and stared wide-eyed and innocent at the prey. The cattle took pity on me even as I drained the warmth from their bodies. Really, there was so little challenge in it that I was in danger of becoming bored.
There were four customers alongside the family who owned the place; two toothless old men who lived on neighbouring farms and who clearly had loathed the sight of each other for years; a surly physician who tasted of regret and something that I only years later came to identify as morphine; and his hulking son ~ a lad so naïve and vacant as to be almost simple-minded. Heat radiated from them, and I could have basked in it all night had I not heard the Others whispering on the winds.
Talk changed to the harshness of the season and the need to preserve their livestock and which would be strong enough to make it through to spring. That was when the termagant, glaring with balefire, announced that she thought the weak should always be slaughtered before they became a drain on others. The patrons, and even her family, squirmed with embarrassment as she hissed lethargically about the burden that the weak imposed on others, all the while my lungs rasping with the smoke.
Since that night I have followed her suggestion, selecting the weak ones to sustain the pack. The rest grow stronger, freed of such onerous burdens. The weaklings burn brightest with an erratic, furnace heat flavoured by the iron tang of their hatred and sadism, the stale Verdigris of their envy, and the sulphurous stench of their rapaciousness.
She would have been the first to stock the feeding chamber that year, had she survived the walk through the snows. I may have drained her too heavily at the inn for numbed and confused as she was when we left the tavern, come the early hours of the morning, before we were even halfway home she made a stumbling effort to flee from me. I should have retained my childish form, instead of becoming Other ~ the shock must have broken my hold over her mind. Screaming, she struggled across a frozen river, taking a dozen steps before the ice cracked and she crashed through into the furious currents beneath and was lost to us. Doubtless some bear found itself a tasty treat several miles downriver.
I was compelled to retrace my footsteps and claim the scrawny, toothless old farmer who reeked of his own granddaughter. How he managed that journey, I cannot imagine. Every rasping breath sounded as if it might be his last, but on he staggered following my guiding voice until we reached the cave. There he slept, fitfully waiting for the time when he gave up his heat during the Emerging. His cold bones, like those of countless others before and since, became fit only for wolves to gnaw upon. We do not believe in waste, and there is strength in sharing.
That was all a long time ago, and my technique has been much refined since. Of course I cannot guarantee that I will always be able to harvest the weak, maybe one day I will run out of them and have to hunt for the strong and seriously deplete the bloodstock. However, I do not envision that day coming any time soon.

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