A Winter’s Tale
The magpie was to blame. He'd been full of enthusiasm when he became Messenger of the Gods, before he realised what a bunch of deadbeats they were. He'd expected lots of excitement, maybe some intrigue, and to be part of great events where his role would be vital. What he'd failed to take into account was that the Gods had been doing their job for ages. Literally. Everything that could happen had done so a thousand times before; they had no need - or wish - to talk to each other. The magpie, dazzled by the title, had also failed to ask what happened to his predecessor. Died of boredom, he suspected.
The Gods were a huge disappointment. Mother Nature was friendly enough and Father Time was courteous, in a vague sort of way, but as supreme deities they left a lot to be desired. Where were the thunderbolts, the pomp, the majesty? Why did the earth not tremble where they strode? Mother Nature was short, fat, jolly and enjoyed the kind of jokes usually told in playgrounds; Father Time was tall, lean, patrician and wandered around with the air of someone who'd mislaid his glasses. The magpie, despite his inquisitive nature, was not much given to lewd speculation, but the fact that the pair had once been lovers gave him much to ponder during monotonous days and tedious evenings, not least the results of their union.
There were four children: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter; every one a spoiled brat. The argument had happened so long ago that none of them could remember the cause; the consequence was that they'd stopped speaking to each other, moved into separate residences, and employed a Messenger. The magpie had learned all this when it was too late, after each in turn had attempted to win him over and succeeded only in confirming his private view that none of them deserved a fraction of the worship they received on earth.
So the magpie was bored. No-one could blame him if he had a little fun, he thought, especially as he was scrupulous about the truth. All the gossip was just as he heard it - including the comment made by Summer, who at the time was reigning in the Southern Palace, that he was the greatest of the Gods.
"How can I help it, dude?" he asked the magpie. "The little folks love me. Mmm... mmm... higher, darlin', and more oil, huh?"
The minor deity who massaged Summer's well-muscled back did as she was told. Satisfied, the God took a long sip of pina colada, pulled down his sunglasses and settled himself on the lounger where he could keep an eye on the shapely water sprites who splashed around in his pool.
"I bring 'em sunshine and warmth, long days and good times. Who else can say that? Not that dopey kid and her pet lamb, not that schoolmarm in the tweed skirt, and definitely not that white-haired old bore who's lording it in the Northern Palace. The little folks will be glad to see him gone again."
He stood, adjusted the fit of his Bermuda shorts and winked at the minor deity. Her shape wasn't too bad either.
"Maybe it's time I reigned all year round. Who needs those other guys?" He dismissed the magpie with a flick of his hand and turned to face the pool. "Okay, ladies, make way for the Sun King!"
When the magpie repeated the monologue at the Northern Palace, Winter was furious.
"That pumped-up pup said what!" He flung his goblet of mulled wine across the room where the contents hit the wall and froze instantly. "He said what! That pineapple pap and those dimwitted sprites have softened what's left of his brain. Rule all year? That waster? It takes a man to rule, not a boy - one who knows that respect is more important than love."
Anyone else would have grown heated with rage, the magpie thought. Winter became more icy. Prickles of unease ran through the bird's feathers.
The God rose from his ice throne, pulled his furs around him and rapped his staff against the white marble floor. The echoes took a minute to die down.
"Messenger! You may tell my siblings that only one God is needed to rule this world." He stroked his beard thoughtfully. "And you may tell Spring that after the Vernal Equinox I shall remain in residence. Tell them now, that they may prepare for their new roles as my subordinates."
The magpie fluttered unhappily on his perch, aware that Winter could kill him with one frosty breath.
"What shall I tell Mother Nat..."
"You need tell our parents nothing. They long ago withdrew from an active part in our affairs. This does not concern them. You may go, Messenger. Now."
The magpie flew east, wishing he'd had the good sense to keep his beak shut, vowing that if he got out of this in one piece he'd learn from his mistake. Don't mess with the Gods. He flapped a little harder despite his reluctance to reach the Eastern Lodge, bearer of bad news. Such messengers often came to a sticky end, he recalled with a shudder. Yet surely Winter couldn't rule the world - how could he occupy the Northern and Southern Palaces at the same time? But who had the strength to kick him out of the Northern Palace? Spring was just a girl. Even if either of the others were able to oust him, how would the earth cope when the seasonal cycle was lost? Much better than if winter reigned perpetually in the north, he answered himself gloomily. Perhaps Mother Nature should be told, but what was the point? The old ones had been no more than nominal rulers for ages; the power rested with the current generation.
Autumn took the news better than the magpie expected, although residual cider probably helped. The lodges were where the Gods rested between reigns; Autumn made the most of her breaks, quickly achieving a condition she described as "Mellow". The magpie made sure that he arrived early in the day.
"Winter was a dreadful child, always bullying someone," she declared, tapping her walking stick against the stout brown brogues she invariably wore. "Summer is a fool and should not have provoked him..." She lowered her head to give the flustered magpie a searching stare over her pince-nez. "...But this was inevitable. Four rulers are too many. No-one will miss Winter. After he has gone, who knows what will happen?"
She gazed at the magpie for a moment then clapped her hands together twice.
"Mist! Fog! Here at once!" The two minor deities oozed into the room. "Pack my cases. We're visiting the Southern Palace. Now don't stand there gawping! Chop, chop!" The bewildered servants left. Autumn turned back to the magpie.
"Tell Summer I'll be with him tomorrow. We'll discuss what must be done." She paused and sighed. "I suppose you'll be seeing that idiot girl?"
"My next call is at the Western Lodge, madam."
"Tell her to be there too, for what that's worth." She shook her head. "An air-headed girl, a self-satisfied boy and a grumpy old man. The earth will do well without them."
This was getting worse. The magpie flew furiously, each flap of his wings taking him a dozen leagues nearer the west.
Spring was rarely to be found indoors. She preferred the meadows and gardens which surrounded the Western Lodge where she could play with her pet lamb. What the eternally adolescent lamb thought of this arrangement, the magpie had never discovered.
"Mithter Magpie! How wonderful to thee you again! Have you brought me more newth of what thoth other three thillith are doing now?"
"I have grave news, madam."
"Do you hear that, Mithter Woolly? Grave newth! You'd better tell uth all about it!"
The magpie did as he was asked, keeping his words as short as possible. Spring was a Goddess, so she must be brighter than she appeared, but he'd never seen any supporting evidence. However, she put aside the daisy chain she was constructing and listened carefully, twisting her blonde curls in concentration.
"Oh dear," was all she said when he'd finished speaking. The silence lengthened. The magpie was about to explain again when Spring, head on one side, brow furrowed in thought, added: "Thith ith not good. Not good at all. Thomething mutht be done."
Her expression darkened. Considerably. For the first time the magpie was conscious that the Goddess of delicate wildflowers and fluffy new life reigned with a capriciousness that also embraced storm and flood. April often was the cruellest month.
"You thay that Autumn ith going to meet Thummer? Then I mutht be there too. Thith ith too important to let thoth two get together on their own. Tell Thummer I'll be there tomorrow. Now I mutht pack." She clapped her hands. "Showerth! Thquallth! I need you here now!"
The magpie flew away, shaken. For all their differences, Spring and Autumn were sisters; Winter and Summer their brothers. Sibling rivalry was never pretty.
Summer still lounged by the pool when the magpie returned to the Southern Palace. The water sprites were gone but a gaggle of nymphs sunned themselves nearby and giggled whenever Summer looked their way. They giggled often.
"Hey, dude. Didn't expect you back so soon. You missed the rays I guess. Pull up a perch and tell me what's happenin'."
The telling didn't take long.
"So the girls are comin' here? Tomorrow? Wow! Must be heavy, dude. Can't remember the last time I saw them. You think the creep's serious about stayin' put? That's gonna cause a whole heap of trouble."
"I believe he is, sir. I also believe that Mother Nat..."
"Hey, my feathered friend. No need to bother the wrinklies. They're past it anyway. We can sort it out between us, finally put that frigid freak in his place. Then maybe I will give the little folks some sun all year."
"Do you think that's wise, sir?"
Summer's vacant smile faded. "You questionin' me, bird-brain?" The God's eyes blazed with an intensity which filled the magpie's mind with uncomfortable images of funeral pyres and furnaces. "You're the messenger, dude. You say your piece then scoot. So scoot."
Spring and Autumn arrived at the Southern Palace next morning accompanied by a cavalcade of minor deities and lesser immortals carrying enough luggage for a three-month stay. The suite of rooms they would normally use was occupied by Summer, so little-used accommodation had to be cleaned and furnished to the visiting Gods' satisfaction. Food had to be found for them, which proved difficult out of season, and both visitors demanded high-factor sun screen. "Thith conthant thun with thinply ruin my thkin," Spring told her exasperated brother.
The magpie, to his relief, was not expected to attend the conclave which began that afternoon: three Gods in one room would be too much for his mortal body to stand, they declared. Instead, like everyone else not required to be there, he followed the course of the discussions through the ebb and flow of dispute which drifted through the windows of the palace conference hall and across the pool. More tidbits of information were gleaned from minor deities called to take messages or serve food and drink. None reassured the magpie.
On earth, the inhabitants of the southlands were assailed by incomprehensible weather. Freak storms, floods and even mild frosts scarred the usually predictable midsummer days. "The Gods are angry with us," the shamen declared, and many needless sacrifices were offered to appease them. The Gods, too busy bickering in the conference hall, didn't even smell the sacrificial fires.
Spring and Autumn left on the third day, barely speaking to each other and neither speaking to Summer. An hour later the magpie was sent to the Northern Palace.
The first thing he noticed was the cold, which had intensified. The Gods, who never forgot that their occupation was temporary, rarely did anything with the palaces and lodges beyond making them comfortable for the moment. Winter had made his intended permanence clear: not a thing moved in the frost-scarred gardens and parkland; slate-grey snow-clouds filled the sky; icicles thick as stalactites hung from the palace guttering.
Inside was even colder.
"There is no need for you to speak, Messenger. I know my siblings. They are weak. Nothing was agreed, nothing will be done."
The magpie took a deep breath of the frigid air before he replied. He regretted it at once. Winter laughed at his discomfort and gestured towards the goblet of wine.
"Take a sip, Messenger, and warm yourself before you depart. Tell the others what you have seen, that I am here to stay. The world order has changed."
Perhaps he's right, thought the magpie. A spark of generosity from Winter meant the earth really must have turned upside down.
In the next few weeks the magpie looked back with longing to the quiet, lazy, uncomplicated days before he'd been stupid enough to tease the Gods. Every day there were more messages to carry, each making Winter's supremacy more clear: the other Gods didn't have a clue what to do. Mother Nature and Father Time could not be found.
The people of the northlands suffered most, living - and dying - through conditions they'd never faced before and didn't understand. Their shamen, too, knew that the Gods were angry. More sacrifices were made. Only the closeness of spring allowed the people to endure. The magpie watched them, ashamed. If only they knew.
Days passed, the Equinox dawned and Autumn began her reign in the Southern Palace - a palace could never be allowed to stand empty. Summer moved to the Western Lodge and accompanied Spring to the grounds of the Northern Palace where they stared at the frozen wasteland aghast.
"Hey, dude. You told us it was bad but, but... wow! What a downer."
"I fear that even both of you will find it difficult to persuade Winter to leave, sir."
"Thith ith tho unfair! It'th my turn and Winter knowth it. He can't thtay here!" Spring's pet lamb pushed a small pink nose out of the folds of her robe, sniffed the air and burrowed back inside, shivering. "Look at that! Mither Woolly hateth it here, poor darling."
She tucked her robe more securely around the lamb and strode forward, pink wellingtons crunching on frosted gravel. "Winter! You come out here at onth! It'th time for you to go! Now!"
Summer joined her, uncomfortable in the heavy overcoat he'd borrowed from Autumn, awed by his surrounding. No wonder Winter was such a grouch if he woke up to this every day.
"Come on, dude. You've had your time. Let the girl..."
The massive palace doors were opened by Winter's two servants, Snow and Ice, who walked down the steps and stared defiance at the Gods. If they'd had trumpets they'd have blown a fanfare. Winter followed, just late enough to increase the tension a little more. I bet he's practised that, the magpie thought
"Spring. Summer. What a pleasure to see you after all this time. Would you care to come inside? I've..."
"Thtop it! Thith it my palath now. It'th my turn."
"Yeah, dude. Time for you to move on." Summer shuffled uncomfortably from foot to foot, a small boy caught out. "Look, man. What I said about being number one - that was dumb. There's four of us for a reason. There's got to be a balance."
"No longer, Summer. No longer."
"You horrid beasth! That'th not right and you know it! Who thaid you could change everything? Why do you think you're allowed to do thomething tho mean?"
"Why?" Winter asked the question mildly, almost amused, then roared at her: "Because I can, you stupid child!"
The God strode toward her, his face dark, causing both Spring and Summer to step back in alarm. Spring stumbled, fell, and the lamb spilled out of her robe. Winter smiled grimly and extended a hand, ready to turn the animal into a block of ice.
"Mithter Woolly!" Spring wailed. "Pleath don't hurt him!"
The magpie looked around to see who'd spoken, then realised to his horror that it had been him.
Winter glared at the bird. "You dare to speak to me, your God, in such a manner? You overreach yourself, Messenger!"
"But look! The lamb!"
The Gods turned to look. The lamb, still dazed, now stood upright, all four feet on the ground. Around each foot the frost had melted and the first green shoots of spring showed.
"No!" Winter shrieked, but already the power was gone from his voice.
The lamb tottered toward the open doors of the palace, leaving spring behind in every footstep. "Mithter Woolly, wait for me!" The Goddess scrambled to her feet and pursued the lamb into the Northern Palace. The doors slammed behind her.
High above, high enough to see all the Gods perform their annual dance, Mother Nature elbowed Father Time in the ribs and chuckled.
"You old rogue." She kissed him with a warmth not lost in aeons and which never would be. "You knew what would happen when you chose the magpie!"
"How did we produce such self-important children?" Father Time grimaced. "They need a good shake now and again. Keep them on their toes."
"What happens now?"
Father Time grinned a secret grin.
"Nothing. Let them think for a while. But the magpie deserves to go back to the world and forget about this. We won't need a messenger for quite some time. When we do, you'll never guess who I have in mind..."
A Winter's Tale was written for the HI-Arts Short Story Competition 2007-08.