I drew the seven of hearts for week 10 of the 2015 Deal Me In short story reading challenge (See here for an explanation of how the challenge – now in its fifth year – works). I had assigned this card of my deck to Marian Allen’s story “The Warmth of Midwinter” from my anthology collection “Gifts of the Magi.” (More about that anthology in this previous post)
Before I talk about the story’s specifics, though, humor me for a moment, okay? I want you to think back to your childhood and try to recall which were the first stories that you remember. Take a moment… all right, done? If you’re like most, they were likely ‘bed time stories’ or ‘fairy tales’ or maybe, most simply, the kind of stories that began with “Once upon a time.” Marian Allen’s “The Warmth of Midwinter” gave me that kind of feeling. It’s the kind of feeling that I enjoyed experiencing again.
**Some spoilers follow** Though related via an old storyteller in a framing story (told during a midwinter festival), our actual protagonist is named Andrin; he’s a very old man who lives in a stone cottage near his grandmother, Verrina. (“Don’t laugh, my children, for even very old men have grandmothers, you know.” – Our old storyteller advises) I should mention that Andrin also has a chicken. A magic chicken named Chandler. Each day, Chandler lays an egg and Andrin has but to think of what he needs and lo, when he cracks the egg open, it will appear for him. A pretty sweet deal for Andrin, who is now living in harsh exile along the banks of the Fiddlewood River, having been banished by the despotic ruler of Layounna.
Andrin’s existence in exile is disturbed one day, however, when Chandler alerts him to the presence of an unconscious young soldier (a “Sword” in the parlance of Layounna) who has “washed ashore” along the banks of the River. Andrin knows that this will lead to unwanted attention and thus trouble, but he is not so hardened as to not provide aid to the injured if arrogant young soldier. He learns the story of how the Sword came to such a pass: the young man, having attempted familiarities with the pretty young wife of a dairyman, was discovered by the husband and pitched off a bridge into the rapidly flowing waters of the Fiddlewood.
It might seem that the incident could have ended there with “no real harm done,” but the Sword’s comrades are intent on finding him and avenging his indignity. Verrina tells Andrin and the Sword the regional gossip and of how the Sword’s cohorts are turning the countryside upside down looking for him, using his disappearance as an excuse to commit more misdeeds, including the slaughter of the dairyman’s milk cow. At first the Sword is unsympathetic to these stories, but will time spent in the ‘magical’ environment of Andrin’s cottage lead him to change the way he thinks? Then, when the Sword is preparing to depart, Andrin is surprised to see that his chicken has laid a second egg of the day. It has always laid just one in the past. He and Verrina realize that, since they have a ‘guest,’ the second egg must be for him, and send him on his way with it. Will he use its magic for good or to further his own greed, though? Perhaps that question is what makes the story more of a fairy tale.
If you’re interested in purchasing this anthology, more information about it may be found at https://speculativefictionguild.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/announcing-gifts-of-the-magi-anthology/