Fantasy Friendship

The sky was gray, and snow fell lazily in large clumps. The light was fading; it would be dark soon. The air was still and not a sound could be heard save for the soft, shallow breathing of the girl in the cloak.

She had stopped before the tall iron gate that stood between the world she knew and the one she didn’t. Her eyes scanned up the pickets that towered above her. Fleur-de-lis finials capped the metal rods and cast-iron ivy adorned the bars in scrolls. The girl took a deep breath as she mustered the courage to open the gate and continue her journey.

In her left hand, she held a lantern which was shining bright from the flame inside. The lantern was ornate, clearly the work of a skilled craftsman. The painted-white frame was decorated with a gold inlay and the glass panes that comprised each face of the lantern were etched with forest scenes. The pane belonging to the hatch of the lantern bore a detailed spruce tree and, on its frame, a golden swing latch kept the lantern closed tight. The beveled edges of glass captured the light within its prism and scattered it in angles around the girl.

The girl reached out with her right hand to push open the gate. The cold iron burned her fingers at first touch, and she recoiled slightly with a gasp. She stood with her hand outstretched for a moment and reconsidered her mission. The path up the mountain was long, and the sky darkened with each passing moment. She looked back briefly to the road that had brought her here, and she thought about the journey she’d endured thus far. Then, turning back to the road ahead, she took another deep breath and furrowed her brow in determination before pushing through the gate to enter the grey forest.


Snow and gravel crunched under her boots with each step. The path was narrow, unpaved, and wove around the hills and gorges that textured the forest. Twilight enveloped her, and the girl relied on the light from her lantern to see the trail. Snowflakes illuminated by its light shined gold as they passed through the girl’s gaze. On either side of the trail, naked aspen and birch trees collected snow on leafless branches.

As she made her way along the trail, the sound of her breath and steps gave way to the gurgle of running water. The sound grew to a continuous rumble as she neared its source. Ahead of her, the silhouette of an arched bridge appeared. At its base stood a thin, bent figure.

The girl approached the old man who didn’t notice her as he was preoccupied examining the contents of a conical woven basket. The man’s face was gaunt and sagging and his crooked long nose was nearly encircled by a bushy grey mustache. He wore a dirty brown tunic embroidered with red thread around the sleeves and collar. His feet bore torn fur nutukas that were held together with linen wraps and his head was covered by pointy woven hat that bent down to his shoulder. He appeared crestfallen at the state of the basket and its contents.

He finally looked up at the girl and his eyes widened in surprise.

               “Oho!” he exclaimed gently in a voice much deeper than his frail frame would suggest, “A traveler.” He set the basket to the side and turned back to the girl. “Strange to have a traveler on this road at this hour,” he stated while his cloudy eyes studied the girl. “What business brings someone so young to the Grey Mountain?”

               The girl paused for a moment before answering; clearly unsure if she should converse with the stranger. “My name is Gwen,” the girl eventually answered, “I’m on a mission to return light to the mountain known as Ranischokka.

“Ah,” the old man replied pensively, his brow rising with understanding, “I have not heard the mountain’s name in the old tongue for a long time, a very long time.” He regarded the girl for a moment in silence before turning his gaze to her lantern.

               “What’s in your basket?” asked Gwen, breaking the silence.

               “Oh this?” started the man gesturing to the item he had set aside moments earlier. “This is no basket. It is a fish trap with two very frozen trout inside.” He grabbed up the trap and proffered the opening to the girl to look inside. “I am unfortunate,” he continued, “For I am very hungry, but I have lost my flint and these old fingers can no longer scrape fire from wood.”

Gwen stared into the device. Indeed, contained within were two trout, definitely frozen, and perhaps slightly terrified. She looked from the trout to the man, and then back to the trout.

               “Allow me to help you,” she said softly before bending down to kneel in the fresh snow. She placed the lantern on its base in front of her and twisted the gold latch to open the door. In the center of the chamber sat a burner with four protruding wicks, each alight with a gold-orange flame. Gwen stuck her hand into the chamber of the lantern and let her palm hover just over the flames. She then slowly turned her hand and grasped one of the wicks between her middle and index finger. Moving her hand up gently, she lifted the flame away from the wick and let it settle peacefully in her palm.

               “Ahh,” said the old man in wonder as she pulled her hand out of the lantern. With her free hand, she closed the hatch tight and twisted the latch shut. “You must be one of those fabled lantern keepers,” stated the man, his tone still full of awe, “Maidens who tend to and even speak to fire.”

               The girl cupped her hand in front of her face and examined the flame for a moment. Then, she closed her fingers around the fire and pressed the hand against her chest. She whispered something the old man couldn’t hear and then reached with her free hand for a pinecone just visible under the snow.

               “Why don’t you gather some wood,” Gwen suggested as she scooped the flame onto the pinecone, “This little one will need a home soon.”

               The man shook himself out of his bewilderment and hastily started grabbing fallen branches and brush. He heaped the mass in front of the girl and began assembling sticks into a tepee. The flame spread across the pinecone which started to emit pops and cracks as the seed burned. Gwen picked a handful of lichen moss off one of the limbs the old man had gathered and made a bed for the burning pinecone in the center of the tepee. Gingerly, she set the flaming orb inside the enclosure and placed several twigs in its proximity for kindling.

               Still kneeling in the snow, Gwen reached to her side under her cloak, and withdrew a small, wooden pan flute. The old man, slightly short of breath from the hurried fire-building, sat on an exposed rock and regarded the girl with curiosity. The flute, though less ornate than the girl’s lantern, exuded beautiful simplicity. The light wood cylinders were set on one end on a curved piece of mahogany and bound together toward the other end with a woven red cord.

               The girl raised the instrument to her lips and blew softly. The sweet, rhythmic tune she played rang though the silent winter evening. The old man found himself swaying and bobbing with the music with closed eyes. The rise and fall of the notes she played reminded him of the hills near his childhood home. The tune was comforting, almost familiar, and wrapped him in warmth that reminded him of his mother’s hugs. As the girl played, the fire grew.

               The old man was transported to a memory. A memory of fishing on the bank of the creek that wove through those grassy hills of his youth. There he lay as a young boy, head propped on a rock, chewing on a reed whose stem drooped nearly to the ground. His hands held a wooden fishing pole which the boy had just finished cutting from a green sapling. A line extended from the tip of the pole into the middle of the creek.

               Suddenly, the line taunted, and the pole bent forward. The boy sprang to standing lithely and spat the reed onto the ground with a hearty, “Ptoo”. The boy’s hands, which would eventually bend and ache with rheumatism in his twilight years, grasped the pole vigorously. He pushed and pulled with his arms to leverage the length of the pole and bring in his catch. The fish on the end of the line fought with equal vigor, and its flapping tail sent water sailing through the air.

Countering the fish’s struggle, the boy shifted his weight back and pulled. The taunt line vibrated before snapping in two. The boy, off balance, fell backwards and landed on his rump. The fish flapped its tail in defiance one more time, spraying the boy with water before swimming away. The boy sat in surprise for a moment before breaking into laughter. The sun was warm. His energy was boundless. Altogether, the memory seemed worlds away from the cold, snowy forest he found himself in years later.

               The old man opened his eyes and saw the Gwen sitting in silence in front of the fire. It had grown substantially; the full pile of wood was alight and radiating warmth. The snow around the fire had melted in a ring at the perimeter of the heat. He could not recall when the girl had finished playing, nor how long they had sat around the fire. Cinders rose above their heads and danced with the lightly falling snow.

               “I have not given you my name,” the old man spoke, now staring into the fire pensively. He looked up at Gwen and smiled, “I am Cornelius, and I am honored to have met you this night.”

               Gwen returned the smile and stood from her kneeling position. “I am glad to have met you, Mr. Cornelius,” she started. She stooped to sweep snow from her frock and then grabbed the lantern.

               “Won’t you stay,” Cornelius pleaded, “And share this catch with me?” He gestured to the straw trap sitting beside him.

               Gwen smiled again. “You are very kind,” she answered, “But my journey yet is long, and I must reach the mountain’s peak.” Her tone was steadfast and determined. “Farewell Mr. Cornelius. May your kindness kindle warmth in this night of bitter cold.” With this, she turned and walked across the bridge that spanned the creek. Her lantern’s light shimmered on the running water and reflected off the islands of ice that formed around tree branches that had dipped beyond the water’s surface.

               “Farewell,” spoke Cornelius softly as the glow of the lantern faded, “Shepherd of Light.” 

December 06, 2023 20:08

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J. D. Lair
20:22 Dec 09, 2023

A well-spun tale that left me yearning to know more of this lore. I do hope you add to this story in the future. It very well could be a novel. Well done!


Michael Jurasek
18:16 Dec 13, 2023

Thank you for the kind words! I definitely envisioned this as the start of a longer tale. I'm glad you enjoyed it.


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