Character creation can be a great prompt for creative writing, but it’s rare that the storyteller gets in on the action. Recently, a 7th Sea player needed to reference a very specific folktale. It had to involve an otherworldy being that offers someone a dangerous bargain – specifically, to manipulate fire.
I couldn’t find a folktale that met these requirements, so I decided to write my own.
TL;DR Storytime! Suddenly it’s the season for folktales.
THE SOLDIER AND THE MOTE OF FIRE
Once a soldier was walking back to his village through a forest in the evening. On his way, he met an old crone sitting in front of an unlit fire. She said to the soldier, “The night is too cold, and I am too tired, to light this wood myself. Could you do an old woman a favour before passing on your way?” The soldier checked his pockets to make sure, but he had only packed for a short journey. All he could find was the piece of cured meat that he had intended to have for his supper. This he offered to the old crone instead of his tinderbox, which he had left at home.
She grabbed it, and soon was chomping lustily, worrying at the dried flesh with her worn out teeth. Then the soldier tried to create sparks using wood and twigs, like his mother had taught him, but a wind would blow out each tiny spark as soon as it caught alight. And so the soldier felt sorry for the crone, and guilty that he could not help her warm herself, and weak because he could not give her fire. And so he stayed, while the crone gazed back at him, and worried at her meal, for a long time.
When she had had her fill, she secreted what remained somewhere in her bundled rags, and looked directly at the soldier. “I used to have a special trick for situations just like this,” she said, “which I used whenever I had to light a fire in the hearth. You see, there is an invisible mote of fire on my fingertip. A creature of the forest bestowed this mote upon me, which I have carried with me since the woods were young. But now the woods are old, and my finger has grown crooked. And I am afraid that it would burn me, or set alight my clothes, which are threadbare, and tattered, and prone to catching fire.” And indeed, he looked and saw that her clothes were singed in diverse places all about her.
After making this speech, she remained silent for a long time, and they waited, together, as the wind grew ever colder. Eventually, when even the soldier’s shame could not shield him from the chill, and he was about to leave, the old crone spoke again. She said, “You have sat by me, and offered me your aid, and food, although it was not much. The vittles were scant, and hard, and hard to chew, and the comfort that you offered cold. Yet I should like to offer you something in return, lest the beings that roam these forests condemn me as ungrateful and punish me by sending rain to drench my spirits further.”
She picked up the walking stick lying next to her, and poked it at the pile of firewood. She continued: “If you would take the mote from me, I would show you how to light the fire with it. And it would keep us warm, and even help to warm some food. Surely this will be a more than generous payment for what little you provided.”
The soldier thought it over, and decided this would be a very useful boon indeed! And so he allowed the crone to touch her finger with the mote to his, and he felt a shudder run down his back as the old crone turned herself into a crow and flew into the forest, screeching, “Remember!” The soldier cursed himself for a fool then, as he realised that this was not a crone at all but a witch of the forest, capable of great good and ill to mortal folk. And yet he could see the mote upon his fingertip, although he knew it was invisible. And he found that he was able to ignite the spark, and knew how to control its movement. And so he flicked it at the fire pit, and willed it to remain there until the fire blazed high into the night.
The soldier took comfort that the crone had kept her promise. Thus enlivened by his good fortune, he cheered himself by the warmth of the fire. He set his mind on catching a rabbit for his supper, which he did. And cheering once more his own good fortune, he skinned, cooked and ate the rabbit under the stars. Then he gathered up some leaves and earth and put down his head, and watched the motes dancing in the fire and the stars peeking through the canopy of trees, and spent that night in the forest.
The next morning, the soldier continued to town. As he walked, the night in the forest became like a dream, and ordinary life filled and dulled his senses, so that soon he forgot about the mote, and the crone, and his night in the woods.
Time went on, and the soldier with his beloved performed the rites of joining. Together, they built a home in the village that was his birthplace, and settled down, and were happy. Years passed, until one day, at the height of summer, a large black fly was blown in through a window, and settled where the soldier’s wife was preparing their supper. And while she swatted and blustered at it, yet it would not budge, but hopped, and sat, then hopped from place to place, until she threw her hands up in disgust. Then it was the soldier came to see what had his beloved in such an upset. And yet the fly would sit, and hop, then sit again, until the soldier swore, and flicked it with his finger with the mote.
This awoke the mote, which set itself alight and leapt upon the fly, that soon became a ball of flame that flew about the place. And soon the soldier’s wife, and home, and the town was ablaze.
He cried out to alert his neighbours, and soon everyone was dowsing flames. But the mote, unfettered and impatient from long disuse, flitted about the town, borne aloft by the corpse of the fly, and set new parts alight wherever it did go. And the soldier was reminded of the crone, and the mote, and the ill-advised bargain he had struck, and knew that he must return to where he found her, and beg a way to put the fire out again.
And this he did, and returned to the clearing where he had found the crone before. He cursed his folly, and cried out to the forest, pleading for the witch to return, for the power to save his beloved.
Shortly, a fox appeared, and turned into the crone. She cried, “Stop all this hollering and carrying on! Who could rest with all this racket? I can tell you are impatient, and something is wrong, but that is no excuse for such lack of civility.” She sat where she had waited before, and waited again. The soldier could not check his impatience long, and was about to renew his pleas when the old crone spoke again, saying, “Did I not warn you to remember the mote? It is your foolishness and thoughtlessness that has done this, not me. Things are not gone that are invisible. Yet my own generosity of spirit will not allow me not to pity you, so I will tell you how to undo that which you have wreaked.”
She reached inside her clothes and withdrew a small vial. “Here in this vessel, I hold a gasp of the North Wind’s breath, a keepsake from a time before. Take this, and open it, and point it at the fire to blow it out, or guide the fire’s path.” Having said this, she opened the stopper ever so slightly and pointed it at the fire, rustling some leaves onto the flames. Then she unstoppered it completely, and blew the fire out.
The soldier grabbed the bottle and ran back to the village, not looking behind him, and so he did not see her smile. Soon he reached his village, and opened the bottle and pointed it at the fire, and blew it out. Just then his beloved came rushing towards him. The soldier flinched towards her, forgetful of the bottle in his hand. And the wind moved across her features, and the joy he felt turned to ash in his mouth, as he watched her turn to dust and blew away.
“He remained there, staring northwards, for some time. The sun rose and set over the soldier and his village; the perfectly burned-out husks of buildings that were all that remained of the village by the river. Many tales are told about the soldier and what became of him, and of his deeds in years to come. In some he was a highwayman, waylaying those who passed upon the roads in hopes of one day finding the witch and exacting revenge. In others, the man turned pirate, searching all the seas for signs of his beloved. Still others spoke of one blown by the winds, leaving behind him only burning lands and flesh, and always, always, a raging fire behind his eyes.”
His story concluded, the soldier gathered his things, and rose, and left the inn once more to set upon the road. He gathered around him his threadbare cloak, and mediated upon the mote. He knew well what he set free each time he used the mote. Even now, he could sense that somewhere, the invisible mote that escaped from that fire, was travelling far across the currents of the wind, around the world. And well he knew that what he had loosed upon the world would one day start a fire that will cause him more regret. For things are not gone that are invisible, and one never knows the end before the deed.