The girl looked at the window for a few moments longer before turning to the old woman. "Yes, please Auntie Nem! I love your stories." Amused at how quickly she seemed to have forgotten her fears, Auntie Nem sat up straighter and took a deep breath. Collecting her thoughs, she leaned toward the fire and began to tell her story.
"Long ago, in the time of the gods, the very first winter came upon the land...
Things were different in those long-past days; the night sky, for instance, was an infinite, velvet black, lit only by the shining moon. The moon didn't have its phases yet, and so it shone with its full strength over the land, making the night nearly as bright as the day. When the sun set each evening, the Nighttime Dragon would collect up all of the spilled light and spirit it away to the secret places where he kept all of his treasure, and thus the night would be prepared for the Moon to cast her light down as well.
The moon was tended by Tentei Mure, the Lord of the Celestial Schools, who would lead his people through the Heavenly Sea to collect any light the Dragon overlooked. This they would bring together on the Moon's shining plains, and they would prepare it to be sent down upon the lands. It gave them joy to know that they were bringing warmth and life to the night below, so they went about their task with dedication and devotion. This cycle continued for a long time, but eventually the Nighttime Dragon became jealous of the people below. In his greed and vanity he believed all of the lights left behind by the day to be his, no matter how small or overlooked.
For a great while he coveted silently, but it was not in his nature to want and not take. So it came to pass that his envy turned to plotting and plotting to action and one day, when the sun disappeared for its nightly rest, the moon did not shine at all. The land grew cold and great tempests blew over the oceans and across the plains. Huddled in their houses, the people cried out as they hid from the sudden fury in the sky. The howling wind tore at the roofs of the houses and struck at the windows, and many a home was damaged by the lashing gales or the hammerblows of falling branches. The people all wept with fear, because they had never known anything so harsh and unforgiving as that terrible night.
The next dawn brought its light to a changed world, one which forever after would bear the marks of that first winter's night. Everywhere there were great drifts of snow, some burying houses and others choking the fields that the previous day had held a burgeoning crop. The sun did its best to warm them, but when the day ended the people were still chilled. The next night was as terrible as the last, and again for the third night.
On the morning of the fourth day, the people gathered together from across the plains, meeting in the hollow where once their ancestors had held rituals of sacrifice. There, they sought amongst themselves for someone with the wisdom to explain the sudden fury of the heavens, or a plan to abate it. One priest of the old ways came forward, proclaiming that this was at last the vengence of the gods because the people had stopped giving sacrifices of blood and wine to the heavens. He declared that the only way to stop the terrible destruction was to choose a sacrifice and hold the rites immediately.
His declaration was at first met with resistance. The people had come far and learned much since their barbaric pasts, and the thought of spilling blood for the aloof gods in the sky made many uncomfortable. There were a few, though, who felt as he did, and when their voices joined his, more and more of the people began to murmur in assent. Most of these were good, kind people, and they were terrified that one they loved would be chosen as the sacrifice. They began to raise their voices in the old chants in the hope of sparing themselves and their families.
As the fourth night drew near, the priest of the old ways was preaching loudly to a jeering, shouting crowd, and the had begun to turn on each other. None wanted the blood of one they held dear spilled, and they had begun to form allegiances and draw battle-lines in the snow, preparing to fight to determine who would be the one offered to the gods. As the shouting grew louder and more angry, and as the violence all people carried in their hearts rose to the surface, there was a booming shout that could be heard clearly above the din.
"My people! My friends!" It was the great hero, Arnd, who had been roused from his meditation in the forests by the storms and the anger in the hollow. "Please, before you set upon each other like beasts and spill fresh blood in the snow, listen to me!" All knew his voice, though few had heard him speak this many words at one time, and so they quietened themselves, looking around with some shame at their behavior. There were a few, though, who still looked ready to begin violence, and so Arnd spoke on.
"I have been to many places in my travels. I have walked across the great Frozen Sea of the Southern Wastes and learned the tongue of the seal-people. I have traveled through the deserts of the lion-goddess Kharajh and spoken with the wind. I have crawled deep into the earth through the tunnels of the cave-dwellers and climbed high above the plains on the mountain-trails of the goatfolk, and seen wonders known only to them." The people had all heard many of these stories before, and so they began to nod and murmur in agreement with him. Seeing that he had their attention, he continued.
"In all of these places, there was one thing that was the same, that made me feel comforted in loneliness and warmed when I was cold. The sky above us here, now, is above everyone and everywhere. And in all of these places, the people belived that they alone held the attention of the gods in the skies." At this, the murmuring increased, and some began to look to the ground or at the sky, tring to hide their embarassment at their behavior from their fellows. "This change to the skies is grave, indeed, and the storms and the wrath of the heavens bring me as much sorrow and fear as they do you." Some few laughed at the thought of the great hero being afraid of anything, but many more nodded and reached out to embrace their neighbors.
"I will make you a promise, my people. I know of a secret way, never before used by men, by which one can ascend to the Heavenly Sea. I will travel this secret path and beg the gods for their forgiveness and their mercy." When he spoke this, the priest of the old ways grew furious.
"You! You speak of other people and other places, but none of us have seen them. You speak of secret ways and hidden knowledge, but none of us have learned them. You say you will enter the sanctum of the gods? Your blasphemy is surely what has brought this torment upon us!" His ardor and his rage rekindled the flames of wrath in some of his closest followers, and they agan began to glare about themselves with suspicion. "Perhaps the sacrifice the gods demand is yours!"
Arnd looked at the priest, smiling sadly. "You speak with wisdom, as always. It is true that none other than myself have seen what I have seen, heard what I have heard. And it is true that if your teachings are the will of the gods, I have committed a great blasphemy against. So I will make a promise to you. I will do what I have said and end the tempests, and I will do it within a fortnight. If I cannot, I will return here and willingly become your sacrifice." The crowd gasped as one, amazed that the great hero would pledge his life on such an impossible task.
"And what assurance do we have that you will not simply run away, to one of these other peoples you speak of, and never return?" But now the old priest had gone too far. Every man, woman, and child on the plains had at one time or another met the great hero and heard the tales of his travels, and he was well-loved. They began to murmur a third time, but their darkened glances now fell upon the priest and he became afraid. "Very well. I will take you at your word." And having made his decision, he quickly departed from the hollow, taking the few followers he had with him.
"My people, you should all return to your homes quickly. I fear that more storms are coming, and the sun is low in the sky. Keep yourselves safe and warm, and I promise to you, within a fortnight, this will be righted." Smiling to each of them and offering a kind word, he watched them depart until the hollow was empty. Then, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, he began to walk forward. If any had remained behind to watch him, they would have been amazed to see him stride up through the air as if climbing a hidden stairway, until he finally faded from view far away and high above the plains.
Rising stiffly from her chair, the old grandmother checked on the child lying serenely in her bed, eyes closed and sound asleep. She smiled to herself, stoked the fire, and made her own bed ready. Still laughing gently at the wonder the girl found in her old, tired stories, she too drifted off to sleep. As the fire slowly faded to hot, glowing coals, the winter winds outside kept howling. Inside, however, the small household rested peacefully, as if perhaps the spirit of the great hero were watching over them, too, in their dreaming.