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Unn and the cold fire

The fire had died when Unn woke; even the embers were gone. She found the flint and steel on the shelf and lit an oil lamp.

There was a patch of ice by the hearth, and hairy frost around the door. Unn sighed, put her coat on, and built a new fire.

“Not dead yet?” a voice called from the smoke-hole in the thatch.
Unn looked up, but only saw the dark sky.
“Who’s there?”

There was a rustle from above, then silence. Unn woke her father, who went out to check.
“Nobody, no footprints, nothing.”

Unn went out and looked around. The snow was pristine, and nothing moved, except a jay and a magpie chattering on a branch.

“Was it you?” Unn asked the birds.
The magpie laughed and flew off, but the jay turned around to look at her.
“Was it who?”

Unn stared at the jay. “Did you say that? Can you talk?”
“Jays can mimic anything,” her father said.
“We can,” the jay said.

The jay laughed, sounding just like Unn’s father. “Not every visitor leaves footprints in snow.”
Then it, too, flew away.

That evening, Unn’s father did not go to bed. Instead, he sat by the fire with an axe. Unn hid under her blanket, sleepless.

In the middle of the night, the door opened. A large figure, white and sharp, entered.
“Hrimthurs!” Unn’s father exclaimed.

The frost giant lumbered toward the fire and stared at the flames.
“So pretty,” it rumbled.
A puddle formed where it stood.

Unn’s father sat still. “The fire will die,” he said.
“You make more,” the hrimthurs said.
“But if the fire dies, we die.”

Water ran down the frost giant’s face.
“That is sad,” it sighed. “Where are other people, who make fire? I can go there.”

Unn’s father said nothing. The house grew colder, the fire shrunk, and soon it died. The hrimthurs left, without a sound.

The next morning, Unn lit the fire again, cut up a sausage, and went outside. The jay and magpie watched from the branch.

“Are you magic?” “All birds are magic,” the magpie said.
“Except ducks, of course,” the jay added.
“Yes. Is that sausage?”

Unn gave them sausage. “Can you stop the giant?”
“Only gods can,” the magpie said.
“But before you die…” the jay said.

“What?” Unn asked.
The jay looked away.
“My friend wants to try on human form,” the magpie said. “Want to swap bodies?”

Unn stared at the birds. “Would I be magic?”
“Well… you’d have magic,” the jay said.
“If you’re strong,” the magpie said.

She had an idea, and told the birds. “Will it work?”
“Yes!” the jay said.
“No, your colours are too dull,” the magpie said.

In the evening, Unn went outside. The jay landed on her head, she felt the world fall, and then she sat on a girl’s head.

The magpie sat next to her, spread its black, lustrous wings, and embraced her. She began to shimmer. Then they flew north.

For hours they flew, higher and further. Then Unn used her borrowed magic to leave a bright, shimmering trail in the sky.

“So pretty!” the hrimthurs said.
It headed north. Unn flew on, pushing until she almost fainted, painting heavenly waves.

“Glorious!” the jay said when she returned. “I want to do that!”
“Next time the hrimthurs comes,” Unn said.
“Every time.”

This story was serialised in 25 daily tweets from MicroSFF, December 1st to 25th, 2016, tagged with #AdvenTale.

Published inShort story