The Skeleton Throne

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Frostbite: Mountain Child

Frostbite: Mountain Child

Year 1044

When Khole was six he lived in the mountains with his mother, his father, and his older sister Ruth. He did not remember a time that they did not live in their cabin at the foot of the peaks. He knew his family talked sometimes about a life on a farm, as though it were a memory they all knew. But he did not know. He did not remember. He had no memory of the village that once was before the beast came.

His mother always told him and his sister “You must learn magic. It will keep you safe.”

“It did not keep the village safe,” his sister Ruth would argue. His mother acted as though this meant something, but Khole did not know what village they spoke of, or what magic she meant.

Living in the mountains was not easy. Food could be scarce, especially in the late fall and throughout the winter when darkness fell quickly and deeply. The shadows of the mountains hid many treacherous paths and pitfalls, though Khole was too young to truly grasp the dangers he faced when he stepped out to play in the woods and rocky steeps.

His father was a hunter. Usually he brought home small game. Sometimes he brought home deer or boar or elk. Often this led him to speaking about the difficulties of carrying such a large meal back home through the wilderness, especially in winter when it grew dark early. Once, during a particularly vicious winter, his father returned home with chunks of meat that he’d already skinned and cut in the woods. His mother fearfully worried over how such a thing might attract bears or wolves upon him while he was out late and how it was unsafe to do. His father looked pale and agreed as a means to placate her, apologizing and saying the creature had simply been too large to risk carrying home that close to nightfall. For the next few days his father ate very little and watched quietly as his family enjoyed their warm dinner.

Once, only once, his father left to go hunting and did not return.

When Khole was thirteen he lived in the mountains with his mother and his older sister Ruth. He did not remember a time when he lived with his father, though his mother and sister sometimes spoke about him as though he were someone Khole should remember.

“You must learn magic,” his mother told him and his sister. “It will keep you safe.”

His sister did not argue, and she practiced very often.

His mother was a hunter. Often times she brought home small game. Never did she stay out later than when the shadows grew long and the light in the sky grew dim.

Once she brought home a traveler that she’d found in the woods. They were cold and suffered frostbite, and she used some of their food to help them regain their strength. Khole and Ruth stayed out of sight and watched the stranger. They did not interact with them. Their mother never brought home guests.

After that, more came. Never were they invited. Always Khole and Ruth stayed avoidant. Often their mother had to use some of the family’s food to placate them and let them rest before they would leave.

Once, only once, she left with a group of them. She was crying and bruised as she left.

When Khole was fourteen he lived in the mountains with his older sister Ruth. Ruth never spoke of a time when they lived in a village. Ruth never spoke of a time when they lived with their father. Ruth never spoke of a time when they lived with their mother.

“You must learn magic,” his sister told him. “It will keep you safe.”

Khole did not want to learn magic. “It has never kept us safe,” he said. He felt resentment, but it was not toward his sister. Ruth sat across from him at their table. It was too large for just the two of them alone. She took his hand and looked into his eyes.

“Do you remember when you would say ‘I am hungry,’ and then Father would tell you ‘No. You feel full,’ and then you did?”

“I don’t remember Father,” Khole said coldly and looked away.

“Do you remember when you would say ‘I am cold,’ and then Mother would tell you ‘No. You feel warm,’ and then you did?”

Khole fell quiet, though he still did not look at his sister.

“Do you remember when you would say ‘I am scared,’ and then I would tell you ‘No. You do not know fear,’ and then you didn’t?”

Khole looked back to his sister now. He was beginning to understand.

“I will teach you how to convince a mind of what you want it to believe,” she told him, her hands shaking as she held his. “But this magic is dangerous. It is why we live in the mountains alone. But it will keep you safe.”

And so Ruth taught him. And Khole learned.

When Khole was sixteen he lived alone in the mountains with his sister Ruth. Neither spoke of a time before now. Neither spoke of much at all. But often they practiced magic, hoping it would keep them safe.

Ruth was a hunter, but she was not very good. Not often did she bring home small game. Never did she go out when the shadows began to grow long. Often they were hungry. Often they told each other “No. You feel full,” because the magic that they did could not work on themselves personally.

Once, while Ruth was out, a stranger came to the door. Khole ignored them. The stranger knocked very loudly. Khole answered the door. The stranger asked to be let in, to be fed and given a place to warm up.

“No.” Khole told them. He focused on his lessons, he focused on looking through the stranger, looking past their eyes and into their mind. “You did not find anything here. This cabin is locked up and empty. You need to leave.”

The stranger looked glassy-eyed for a moment. Then they turned and left, muttering something under their breath about an empty, locked up cabin, and being mistaken about what they thought was here.

Once, when Ruth was home, a stranger came to the door. They knocked loudly and Ruth answered. They thought she was alone and so they spoke loudly, too. Ruth became scared. They stepped into the cabin and Ruth backed away.

“You should go back out,” Khole told them as they entered, looking through the stranger, not at them. “You should sleep in the snow under the trees.”

The stranger went quiet, then turned and left, muttering something about finding a place to sleep in the woods. Ruth looked at her brother and Khole went back to stoking the fire. Neither spoke about the instance again.

Once, only once, Ruth went out as the shadows grew long. They had been out of food for too long and they knew they could not continue to convince away their hunger. She did not return that night, or the next morning. Khole went out to find her, and after three separate days of searching he finally did, her frozen body fallen down a crevice that had been covered by a trapdoor of snow. With some effort he managed to pull her out and carried her home to warm her by the fireplace.

When Khole was sixteen he lived alone in the mountains. He did not want to live alone. He used to live with others. Khole was not a hunter. He was hungry, and no one was there to tell him he felt otherwise. Khole quietly sat alone in his cabin and watched the body of his sister as desperation slowly clawed at him like a beast eager to escape a cage.

That night Khole enjoyed a warm meal. And for the first time he was reminded of something about his father.

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