#13 The Giftbringer
I can’t remember the last time I slept soundly. So soundly that I only wake up after several loud knocks at the far end of the room. Indeed, I still haven't left that cosy little inn in Arnara.
“Breakfast!”, a female voice yells. It sounds like it’s not the first time she’s come up this morning.
Ah, breakfast. The best part of the day, and I almost missed it.
“Down in a moment”, I say back as loudly as my shaky old voice allows. I tap all around to find my cloak in the dark.
By the gods, what time is it? I pull the leaf curtain aside and light makes its way to the room in an instant. I squint my eyes to make out the shapes outside the paper-thin window.
It’s windy and cold, and the trees would look completely dead if it wasn’t for the arnädraig posing as decaying leaves. The only people on the muddy streets are those who have somewhere to be.
Three knocks on the door, shorter and sharper than the ones before. I know exactly who it is.
“Storyteller! I saved a loaf of bread and tea for you. Oh, and some raspberry jam, too! I know you love it!”
“Ah, my favourite. Thank you, Aiga”, I mumble. I don’t even like raspberry jam.
“I said thank you!”
I can hear the jingle of… whatever she’s attached to her pointy shoes that day, as she dashes downstairs. It sure feels as if I rested for a whole week. My back pain is gone for the first time in weeks.
With a steady hand I open the door. It’s warmer in the hall than in the bedroom, and the faint smell of baked bread still lingers in the air. The latrine, however, is cold, damp, smelly, though not as smelly as in the summer.
Moments later, I’m chewing the gooey loaf of bread topped with layers upon layers of raspberry jam that Aiga took the time to prepare.
There’s also a cup of tea. Cold, very bitter, but still tea.
“Fankf”, I say, my mouth full of bread and jam. I gulp the mass down.
“Don’t mention it!”, the bard replies. “You do the same when I’ve been drinking all night. So…”, she quickly adds, her sharp eyes trying to scrutinise my face. “What’s kept you sleeping so late?”
She winks at me and jerks her head in the direction of the innkeeper lady. I roll my eyes and shake my head.
“Aiga, we’ve talked about this. Being friendly doesn’t mean one has a romantic interest.”
“What kept you, then? Drinking? Late storytelling? An escape to a mysterious graveyard?”
“Exhaustion, I suppose.”
“From not sleeping.”
“Perhaps waking late was a present from the Giftbringer.”
I swipe the crumbles off the table without replying. A present. It is the season for presents, indeed, if you believe in a winter spirit that rewards those who care for the forest.
The bard looks at me, expecting the question back.
“Alright, fine. Did you receive anything from the Giftbringer, then?”, I finally ask. Signs of truly magnified sadness begin to show on her face.
“No, can you believe it? I built my newest instruments with things other than wood. And my shoes! I replaced them for these made with some sort of dead leaves and twigs and things!”
She lifts her foot and intends to place it on the table, but I stop her with a sharp movement.
“Everyone got presents this past few days. Even the arnädraig got a bundle full of fruit.”
“Maybe we’re outsiders and we haven’t really worked enough for the betterment of the forest”, I venture.
“You don’t believe in the Giftbringer, do you?”
It’s the first time in a while she shoots an upfront question. I’m ready to provide an ambiguous but honest-enough answer.
“I believe the myths and legends surrounding it are very intriguing. They also make winter more meaningful, and I can't deny having an eye out for gifts is entertaining. Not to mention these gifts work as rewards for taking care of the forest."
Aiga folds her arms and sighs.
“So you believe it’s a myth or a legend. Well, I guess there’s always some truth to these.”
“An exaggerated truth, if I may say”, I point out. She’s pulling out a small thin scroll and one of the feathers off her hat. She also takes out a tiny ink bottle from her pouch. Expensive materials for a wandering bard.
“New poem?”, I venture.
“New song”, she retorts as she scribbles in her incomprehensible handwriting. “But there’s little light here. I’ll sit outside by the stump.”
As she reaches out to her coat and opens the door, the largest snowflake I’ve seen in years falls from the sky. It is followed by another one, and another one, and many, many more.
Aiga’s face changes. She turns around to look at me, beaming. I know exactly what she’s going to say.
“It’s the Giftbringer!”
She dashes outside and begins to dance and improvise a new tune. Both children and adults look at the odd ice drops that fall from the sky. A while after, many decide to join Aiga and try to collect the snowflakes, surprised they melt in their hands.
I smile in silence, sipping what’s left of the cold bitter tea.
It’s the first time snow falls in Arnara in over two-hundred years.