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the night can kill you

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Not even snow could make it through the trees. The forest floor was dark and still. Dead leaves and needles lay frozen. Maeglin crouched outside his home. His breath looked solid in the light of his lantern. It filled the air, glowing white, then disappeared. He held his breath for as long as he could in the cold. When he had to breathe again, it was like being punctured.

It was a cold that could take your skin off. Maeglin dragged his scarf over his face so only his eyes were visible beneath his feathered hat. He had a bag made of feathers by his side. It had food and a flask filled with water that would soon be ice. It was too cold to go out, but Maeglin stepped forward.

It was night. Ever night. Night and night and night and night. Darkness can make you hallucinate.

Even as he walked, lantern swinging by his side, Maeglin saw patches of light and colours dancing in front of him. Purple fire hovered above his left eye; its light was sparking.

Maeglin tried to blink the light away. He concentrated on the ground.

It was too cold, he thought to himself as he moved soundlessly over the pools of ice that lay on the road. It was too cold, and he was going to die.

Light and colours slipped and folded before him. His scarf was growing stiff from where his warm breath froze on it. It was white silk, his mother’s. It was too cold.

Maeglin’s fingers curled into fists inside of his fur mittens. Maeglin coughed, and it was the only sound. His breath was silent. His heart was silent. His mind had fallen silent. It was too cold to think.

He moved as fast as he could without running. Running used too much air, and he wouldn’t have been able to suck it from the ice he was encased in. His lantern swung beside him; shadows flooded and shrank.

If he died, he wouldn’t care. Maeglin was star-caught and brittle. His mother was surprised he had lived this long. Why? he wondered. They lived forever. But he wasn’t one of them. He was something else entirely. He didn’t know what. He didn’t know why. Maybe if he found someone else, they could tell him.

His feet moved without him. Maeglin was no longer in his body. He was hovering beside it, watching it move down the road. It was going so far away. It was going so very far.

So far that he’d never be able to catch it. He was going to stay in the forest. He was going to stay beneath the trees in the night and drink sap and eat pollen and make flowers bloom from his hands.

Hours became minutes, and still his body walked. It was warm now, only the air was cold when it breathed. Maeglin knew this. Maeglin followed it. He thought about how funny it looked in its big fur coat and its feathered hat, its black hair braided and tucked down its back.

He wondered where it was going. Why it had gone out. It couldn’t have been that desperate for sunlight. It couldn’t be going to find the sun. The sun was too far, and it was going to die before that.

Then Maeglin would be left in the forest. He would float up through the twisting branches of the trees. He would smother his father. He would laugh, and his laugh would grow daffodils.

His body stopped at a fork in the road. Maeglin stopped beside it. It hesitated, as if it were waiting for someone to tell it what to do. Maeglin wondered if it knew it was just a body. It might be waiting for him. But he wasn’t going to go back into it. He was too tired, and it was safer this way. His body went left, and Maeglin followed it.

The forest was dark. The forest enslaved him. It had sprouted ages ago just to keep him. It had been planted and nurtured in times past to imprison him. It held him down, even now, when he was floating, free of his body.

Where was it going, he wondered. Why hadn’t it died yet. It was too cold for this. It was too cold. He couldn’t stay up here in the branches. He was sinking down towards it. He was touching it, and it was stiff, and it was cold; and he was sinking inside of it, and he was dying, for it was dying; and they were too far from home now.

Maeglin stumbled to his knees. The ground felt warmer than his hands. He sucked in air through the frozen scarf. The air wouldn’t reach his lungs. He tried again. He was dying. He was really dying. He couldn’t stand again when he tried. His body was frozen. He couldn’t breathe. He had gone too far. He always went too far. But this time, it would kill him. He would die without knowing what he had been searching for.

‘Such is the way in life,’ Eöl would say. ‘Such is the way.’

Maeglin did not know why he must die here. He did not understand. He would never understand. All he knew was that he wanted to leave, and if death were a way to leave, then he would take it.

He fell forward, too cold to hold himself up. He was crying, and he only knew it because the tears felt hot on his face, hot in the corners of his eyes, and he could feel the hardness on his cheeks where they were freezing.

Maybe he had wanted a way out, but this was too cold. He couldn’t feel his fingers or his feet. The cold was sharper than leeching. It pushed through his body, through his tendons, through his mind. It captured him tighter than the forest had.

This was cold. Cold which had been before the universe, and cold which would follow after. This was death. He was dying on the forest floor, and his lantern beside him would glow for three years after him. He wondered how soon they would find him. He couldn’t even tell them why he had run away into the depths of the winter, taking nothing but water, which would be ice. Taking nothing but a knife, which would be useless to fight the cold. Which would be useless for most things that aren’t cutting your own throat.

Maeglin watched the lantern. He did not know if there was sun or moon or stars above him. This was the last light. The last thing he would see, and the last thing he would know.

He did not want to die. This was the wrong escape, a prison worse than his life, one with no hope.

Maeglin wept.

He felt the warmth before he realised that someone had come. He was lifted from the dead leaves. His mother turned him in her arms, and she screamed, and it was a worse scream than any scream she had screamed in the night while she dreamt of the cold and the crossing. It tore through him harder than the cold.

‘No!’ she cried. ‘No, no, no, no.’

This was a worse nightmare. Maeglin stared up at her. His eyes felt glazed. He wondered if he were dead already. If he wasn’t, he would be dead soon.

She touched his neck and his face, and her hands were the only warmth he had ever known. She pushed his head back from the chin, and she opened his mouth and pinched his nose, and her breath was warm, but he did not think it had a hope of reaching his lungs. She pushed her hands on his chest, saying no to the rhythm of a heartbeat, but hadn’t his heart always been frozen? She breathed into his mouth again, and his lungs felt it, and he gasped for air, like air could save him. She screamed and kissed him, and he breathed again.

‘You won’t die,’ she said. ‘You won’t die.’ Her fingers sought his neck again. He could feel his heart beating.

He breathed in the cold, and it ached more than anything.

‘Why?’ she said. ‘Why?’

Maeglin had no answer. He had gone looking for something. He didn’t know what. She might be able to give it to him. She touched his face, and her hand was warm. Had he really wanted to die? Could he really leave her?

She did not wait for an answer (the answer he could not give). She lifted him into her arms, and she carried him through the tangles of sleeping trees, and her feet made no sound, as she brought him back to their home, the only place he had ever known. Maybe someday she would take him away from it. Maybe then he would know what he searched for.

In the still woods, his lantern glowed.