The traveller moved like a cloud. She moved with a silent, still grace, but all of us felt her shadow pass overhead, bringing snow and hail. The crowd melted before her, nobody wanting to be around for when the things she forecast began to fall.
She stopped walking at the very edge of our town, content to wait in the cold rather than press forward. It was easy to tell that she could, though. Whatever tidings a traveller brought, nobody wanted to get in the way of them.
I couldn’t help myself, though. My eyes refused to leave her, drinking in every detail of the person who had been beyond the horizon. She carried no pack, but the inside of her coat shone with charms. She carried a twisted iron lantern, inside which a golden rock shone. Her hair was long, and as a little breeze stirred, it was carried just outside the reach of her lantern’s light, dusting the ends with a slight layer of ice.
Otherworldly, was my thought. I wanted to ask: what worlds have you seen? Where have you been? What’s out there, in the endless ice? Her presence kept me quiet, though. It was hard enough to talk to normal adults, to try and glean a new charm or a scrap of harvester gossip. A woman like this? It felt as though my voice had drifted into the cold, like her hair did. Observing was easier. It let the barriers between us stay up.
The forgemaster pushed her way through the crowd, my father at her heels. The pair of them made quite a sight. My father was a slight man, with thin delicate hands and a thin pair of spectacles that always seemed to be moments away from toppling off his nose. The forgemaster was a head taller than him, her hair shaved off like all those who worked the forge so it wouldn’t become an alight snack for the forge’s flames. My father stooped a little, long hours inside the study doing nothing for his posture. The forgemaster stood tall, her shoulders wide, an imperious expression on her face.
“This is Scorched Rock,” the forgemaster said.
The traveler bowed her head.
“Welcome,” the forgemaster said.
The traveller stepped over the edge of the town. She tucked her lantern into her coat, and a brief flare of light inside it told me she wore a kind of storage charm around her.
“Where are you from?” the forgemaster asked. I crept a little closer. I hadn’t known there were other wheres to be from at all.
The traveler said, simply, “Nowhere.”
“I am Juno,” the forgemaster said. “Our forge has been flickering, since before I was placed in charge of it. Can you help?”
Flare said, “Let me see.”
The forgemaster looked around herself at the crowd. She bellowed, in her forge-work yell, “Don’t you have homes to get to?” The crowd vanished in moments.
My father slipped past me, into the house. I didn’t move. Curiosity held me fast. I watched the ice every day, but here was someone who lived it. Who walked through it like it was nothing. Who the cold couldn’t stop. Curiosity was bright and hungry, and it carried me along in the wake of Juno and Flare as they began to walk.
“We haven’t had a traveller in a long time,” the forgemaster said, as they walked. “Do you have news? I remember my father telling me there was a town on the other side of the mountains, Gleamridge. Have you passed through there?”
The traveller said, “Gleamridge is gone. The scar in the earth they drew their heat from has cooled.”
There was a moment of silence as they walked. Then the forgemaster said, “Could you have helped? The stone you carry, it’s a witch-stone, isn’t it? I’ve heard stories.”
Flare didn’t respond. Instead, she turned and looked at me over her shoulder. She reached out with one hand, and I could see her fingers begin to shine with a charm’s light, tracing out a form I had never seen before. She wrenched the air, and a sigil shone under my feet. I was trapped in a thin cylinder of light.
“Eavesdropping is wrong, girl,” Flare said, and her tone made me flinch. I’d been rebuffed by others for poking my nose into things, but hearing it from someone who’d come so far made the words hang with the weight of every mile she’d traveled. Then she turned to walk with the forgemaster again, leaving me trapped in the street.
This wasn’t magic like I’d seen before. But I could learn. I knelt down to the sigil under my feet, as they walked away. It was complex, twisting whorls and hard edges mixing to create a symbol I had never seen before. But I had seen things like it. If I blocked one half of it out of my vision, I could see the charm-symbol for ice. If I blocked the other half, I could see the charm-symbol for plant.
In the forge, the harvesters sometimes brought trinkets they’d found to sell. One of the trinkets that caught my eye was a golden-yellow stone, inside which a small strange creature with many legs and two wings had been trapped. I had asked my father to buy it for me, and when he did he happened to ask what exactly the stone was. The merchant had told him it was called amber, and it was a stone made from the sticky sap inside trees hardening under the ground for ages. I kept it in the house, on the side farthest from the cold, to keep it safe. I didn’t understand it, and that made it exciting.
And, looking at the sigil under my feet, I thought that was what it might mean. Tree-ice. Amber. I traced the sigil with a finger, trying to commit it to memory. Then I reached inside the sigil, and bent it, and the barrier vanished from around me. There was a charm-maker in town who liked me, Katrine, and she’d once shown me how she unmade faulty charms that her customers occasionally brought to her that had frozen themselves onto their belongings. She had passed away the year before. I still remembered the obituary my father had written for her.
Flare and the forgemaster were long gone at this point, and Flare had made it clear she didn’t want to be followed.
I made for the building nearest me, and as I did, I activated my own little sticky-fingers charm. This was a charm I’d figured out for myself, once upon a time. The sweetening charm chefs used on their food mingled with the heat charm they used to heat it to coat my fingers in sticky, gooey magic. It was a relatively simple charm, but it was also mine, because nobody needed to be able to climb walls. No job required wall-climbing. There were a couple charms like that I knew, charms I’d discovered for myself because nobody else needed them.
I scaled the front of a building. Someone passing by below looked at me, then kept walking. A lot of the town was used to me, honestly. There goes Grace, the quiet charm-girl. Figuring out something else useless.
Once on the rooftops, I let go of the charm so as not to strain myself, and then I ran for the forge. I’d see the forgemaster with Flare at some point.
A jumping charm let me cross the streets without having to climb back down. Normally they were just used to harvest fruit from trees in the tower-farms, but I’d found that if you were running, you could leap vast distances while barely breaking stride.
I was starting to tire, though. This many charms one after the other was hard work, especially when I usually only used one or two in a day.
Finally I made it to where Flare and the forgemaster were walking, and I could pick up their conversation again.
“That’s exactly it,” the forgemaster was saying. “There shouldn’t be anything wrong, but every year homes are lost as the flame dies.”
Flare said, “I think I can help. What–” Flare cut herself off abruptly, and then she held up a hand for the forgemaster to wait. And then she turned to look directly at where I was sitting on the rooftop.