Silver Necklace, Golden Ring

“He takes them for his servants, and never after are they seen again.” That was how the tale used to end, told by grannies at the fire, by performers at the fair.

It always began with a young woman alone, working in the fields or carrying water from the well, on the first day of the absent moon—for it used to be that three days out of the month, that silver circle vanished from the sky. “He cannot enter any house other than his own,” the tellers agreed, “but it’s no use running, if Nievre comes for you—he’s fast as thought and twice as cruel. He’ll catch you before you reach safety and take you to his castle of ice, high in the highest mountains. No, there’s only one way to save yourself.

“On the spot you must swear a holy oath, never to step under the roof of one who has not fulfilled some condition. But you must make it an impossible condition, for he is both cunning and powerful, and he will try to do what you have named. Forever after that you’ll sleep rough, because holy oaths cannot be broken—but better that than to let Nievre take you.”

So the story used to go.

She was weeding in the garden when he appeared.

It was the first day of the absent moon, and she knew it—but who could afford to stay inside, idle and afraid? Only the rich, of which she was not one. And she’d been outside on such days before. Nievre was real enough, she had no doubt, but he didn’t come for everyone. Only one girl each month, all the tales agreed, spread across many lands. A slim risk against a thick certainty of hunger for herself and her brothers, if she let the weeds choke out the potatoes.

A chill wind; a dimming of the sun, though no cloud covered its face. Then he was there.

“I need a servant to care for my house,” he said, in a voice as resonant as it was cold. “You will come with me, and after one month I will reward you.”

In quiet moments, she’d given thought to what she might say, if Nievre ever caught her. One condition after another, each more impossible than the last. Now that the time called for fancy to become reality, this is what stumbled off her tongue:

“By the powers above and below and those in between, I vow I will never step under the roof of one who has not died three times.”

Only then did she dare look at him. A tall figure, cloaked and gloved in black, with eyes as pale as frost. Tales of Nievre had been told for centuries; if he was immortal, she reasoned, then he could not die once, much less thrice. And so he could not take her to his castle of ice, high in the highest mountains, to be his servant and never be seen again.

Nievre said, “Then kill me.”

Her hands tightened in the dirt. The tellers all said a young woman must name some impossible condition…but had it ever worked? He agreed so readily.

The weed she’d just dug up was mousebane. She had to wear gloves when she rooted it out; women had died for not taking that precaution. Surely for Nievre, it would do.

She offered him the mousebane and said, “Then eat.”

He accepted it and ate without hesitation, leaves, roots, and all.

Within moments his breathing tightened to a rasp, and sweat broke out on his face. He collapsed to the ground, and she only just stopped herself from clapping her hands to her mouth—her gloved hands, that had touched the mousebane. As he convulsed, as his face froze into a rictus of pain, she thought, Powers above and below and those in between, what have I done?

Then it was over. Nievre lay dead, and he did not rise.

When her brothers came home, they helped her bury him. “Tell no one of this,” she said.

The eldest laughed. “Whyever not? Our clever sister has killed a monster out of tales! Surely people will reward you for it.”

But she did not want reward. When she closed her eyes she saw Nievre dying in agony, poisoned by her own hand. Monster though he was, the memory haunted her. What have I done?

That night she slept outdoors, as she would every night for the rest of her life, because holy oaths could not be broken. In the morning she got up, stiff and numb from more than cold, and went to get water from the stream.

When she turned around, Nievre was there.

“One death I have had,” he said. “Kill me again.”

His black gloves and pale face were immaculate, as if he’d never been under the ground. She dropped her bucket and snatched out her knife—the knife she’d kept with her the previous night, in case a wild animal troubled her. With a shriek, she leapt forward and buried the blade where Nievre’s heart should be.

She staggered back. He wrapped one black-gloved hand around the knife’s hilt and drew it free. The blood sheathing the steel was as red as any man’s. She didn’t take the knife when he offered it to her; it tumbled from his hand. Then he staggered, going to one knee, then to the ground. Blood seeped out and sank into the earth, and Nievre stopped breathing.

Even as she screamed for her brothers to come, she knew there was no point.

They buried Nievre again, in ground that showed no sign of having been disturbed.

“We’ll stay with you tomorrow,” her brothers said. That very night they slept at her sides, wrapped in blankets, weapons at hand, so they would be ready when Nievre came.

None of them had any doubt that he would come.

She was the first to wake, when dawn’s light flared across the land. She got up, frozen and afraid—and Nievre was already there.

“They will not stir,” he said, before she could make a sound. “This is between the two of us. Two deaths I have had; the time has come for you to give me the third.”

Poison had not worked. Neither had a knife. Knowing already that it would do no good, she took up her youngest brother’s cudgel and swung it at Nievre’s head.

He staggered at the first blow, but didn’t fall. She had to swing again—then again, and again, impact shrieking up her arms, even after he’d dropped to the ground, because she couldn’t tell if he was dead, because it didn’t matter if he was dead; he would only come back. She kept beating him with the cudgel, with all the strength of a young woman who worked hard to keep her family fed. Breaking bones, splitting skin. Striking his head again and again until his skull lost all shape and his brains spilled out. She struck until she could strike no more, and the cudgel fell from her exhausted fingers and she sank down next to the unrecognizable mass of red that used to be something that looked like a man.

Horror sobbed in her chest. He wasn’t a man. He could die, but it didn’t matter. He would take her to his castle of ice, high in the highest mountains; he would take her for his servant, and never after would she be seen again.

When her brothers woke and saw what she had done, they flinched away. They’d vowed to save their sister…but their sister was a sweet girl, not a beast capable of such violence. And besides, she could not be saved.

They didn’t bury Nievre. They barely said good-bye. They fled back to their house—her house no more—and left her in the woods one final night.

She didn’t think she slept. But somehow darkness became dawn, and the carnage she’d wrought became Nievre once more.

“Three deaths I have had,” he said, in his cold, resonant voice. “I need a servant to care for my house. You will come with me, and after one month I will reward you.”

And so she went.

His castle was not wholly built of ice.

It was as cold as the snow, and as imposing as the peak it stood upon. The stone of its walls was black; the panes of its many windows were of ice, freezing to the touch. She stood, gripping the silver necklace her brothers had once given her, under the only roof that would accept her now.

Nievre said, “Your job is to maintain this place. Several days you have delayed me; you must work hard to catch up. Begin by sweeping the rooms clean of warmth, and dusting away any brightness that has gathered on the furniture. Tomorrow you can air out the winds.” Then he went away, leaving her with her tears frozen on her cheeks.

His castle had many rooms, most of which were unused. He took his meals in a great hall where no fire burned, dining on raw venison and fish; where they came from, she did not know. She had to scrub his plates and his silver clean in water that chilled her hands to the bone. During the day, he walked in a garden of bare trees and withered flowers. At night, he slept in a bed with a canopy as white as new snow. He did not forbid her entrance into that room, even while he was sleeping: why should he? She already knew what would happen if she killed him.

For her own survival, she ate his leavings and slept in a room small enough for her own body to warm it. No one else lived in the castle. Whatever had become of his previous servants, there was no sign of them now.

But it was not quite true to say she was alone.

She discovered this on the second day, when he set her to air out the winds. Each one had to be shaken out, a vigorous exercise that was the only source of warmth she had in this place, even though the winds themselves were icy. They came in all sizes and kinds, from faint breezes to blustering gales, and some of them, it turned out, would talk.

Her favorite was the playful little zephyr that nipped at her nose and stirred up wisps of fresh snow from the ground. After she’d dealt with the last of the winds—a big, roaring squall strong enough to carry a blizzard on its back—she sat, exhausted, on the castle’s front step, and the zephyr blew just enough to cool her cheeks. “You came late,” it said. “We thought he might have failed.”

“Has it ever happened?” she asked. “Has he ever come home without a servant?”

“Yes,” the zephyr said simply. Then it fell quiet while she wept. If she had chosen some other impossible condition—if she hadn’t said Nievre must die three times—

But the zephyr had told her the truth, and for that, it became her friend. It didn’t stay at her side all the time, knowing she needed to be away from the winds to conserve what warmth she had, but its playful dance was one of her few reasons for joy. After a while she began saving the strands of hair she combed from her head, and gave them to the zephyr to waft here and there. Nievre was angry when he found one on his chair, because her hair was as red as fire, and he did not like such brightness in his halls. “Then he shouldn’t have taken me,” she muttered—though not where he could hear. Nievre was indifferent rather than cruel, but she feared him all the same.

At night she gazed out her window of ice and looked at the stars, at the moon, and her tears froze on her cheeks.

In those days, as I have said, the moon was not like it is now. It hung full in the sky every night except for the three days when it vanished. This made the passing time harder to measure, and so she did not know how long she’d been in Nievre’s castle when the zephyr whispered, “Your time is almost up.”

She was used to the cold by now, but this chill went deeper. A castle empty of past servants, with only her to care for it. “What do you mean?”

“It is almost time for the absent moon,” the zephyr said, its whisper very small. “When that happens, Nievre will go to seek a new servant.”

“And what of me?”

Those he took were never seen again. It did not surprise her when the zephyr said, “He will kill you and bury you in the garden.”

As she had killed and buried him, more than once. She sank down low, as if that would hide their conversation. “Little wind…how is it that Nievre comes back to life?”

The zephyr shivered. She had not known that it could feel cold—or fear. “His life is not in his body. He’s placed it in some possession of his. Whatever you do to his flesh and blood, he’ll come back so long as that object is intact.”

“Where is it?”

Brightness swirled as the zephyr spun in agitation. She did not always dust her own room as she should, even though she knew it made Nievre angry. What did it matter, if he would kill her regardless? “I don’t know,” the zephyr said. “Something unliving. Something that was never living. Only that has room in it for someone else’s life.”

If she’d known this sooner…but Nievre had countless possessions. His life could be in any of them. There wasn’t time to destroy them all. He would kill her first.

She said abruptly, “Then I have to hide my life.”

The zephyr swelled up into a sharp wind. “No! How do you think Nievre got so cold? He used to be human, once. Your life is your warmth. Take that out, and you’ll become cold like he is.”

“Either I take it out,” she said, “or he does. But this way I’ll survive. Tell me how it’s done.”

And, with reluctance, the zephyr did.

The very next night, Nievre summoned her to his room and said, “I tire of your presence. As promised, I shall reward you for your service—with release from it, and from the burden of living.”

She stood straight and stiff, trying to hide her fear. “Then kill me.”

In his hands he had a length of white silk. He wrapped it around her throat and twisted it tight, and her face flushed dark as air and blood alike cut short. Despite her preparations, despite her resolve, she clawed at his gloved hands, but it did no good. The world pounded and spun and then it went to black, and she fell.

She woke to the zephyr nipping unhappily at her face. “It worked,” she said, sitting up.

The zephyr said, “He is digging your grave, and then he will leave to find a new servant.”

Down in the garden, Nievre had a shovel in his gloved hands. He stopped mid-strike when she approached, and she took cool satisfaction at the look of shock on his face. He’d never been jarred out of his composure before, not even when she poisoned him, when she stabbed him, when she struck him across the head and he staggered without falling. After a month in his service, that shock felt like wages, long overdue.

“What need have you to seek another servant?” she asked. “You still have me.”

“So I do,” Nievre said, his gaze sharpening.

He’d looked at her many times. In the field where she weeded; on the path to the stream; in the forest where her brothers lay sleeping. Many times since then, whenever he came to give her orders, the interest draining out of his gaze with every passing day. But now, for the first time, he truly saw her.

Nievre laid the shovel on the frost-laced ground. “It seems this is not yet needed. Enjoy your respite. Tonight I will reward you as I promised, and tomorrow I will find a new servant.”

She did no work that day. In truth, the castle did not need as much tending as he claimed; it was easier to dust off a few days’ worth of brightness at once, rather than scant traces every sunset. That day she walked in the garden, near where he had begun to dig her grave, and Nievre watched her from a window.

At nightfall he summoned her to his room and said, “This time I will do better. By now you must be tired of the burden of your work and the burden of living, so I will release you from them both.”

Instead of strangling her, he drowned her. A bath of cold water stood in the corner of his chamber—a bath he had, for once, drawn himself. He forced her head into it, and despite her preparations, despite her resolve, she fought to free herself. To no avail: he was too strong, and the water entered her lungs, and eventually she went still.

“You should run,” the zephyr moaned when it woke her the following morning. “Every time you die, a little more warmth slips away. Soon you will be as cold as he is.”

“I have no way of leaving this place,” she said, sitting up and brushing her frozen hair from her face. “And I will not let him win.” He had won the day he came to her brothers’ house. Now it was her turn.

Out in the garden, Nievre was digging again, but this time he was facing the gate. He did not look surprised when she appeared, only wary. “Do you not want your reward?”

“I cannot accept a reward from a man who lacks the strength to overcome me,” she said, echoing the remote, amused tone she’d heard from him so many times before. She no longer feared his anger, and that gave her a boldness she relished. “Three times I killed you, and three times you came back. Then you had what you wanted. If I come back three times, I should get what I want.”

“And what is that?”

“I will tell you tomorrow,” she said.

She did not wait for him to make more promises or threats. She left the garden and went to sit in a window that gave her a splendid view across the highest mountains, and there she stayed all day.

Until night fell, and she went to his chamber without being summoned, and she found a surprise waiting there.

Nievre had built a fire in the hearth. Branches of one of the dead trees burned, filling the room with heat, shedding brightness over everything it touched. It was the only flame she’d ever seen in the castle.

“Perhaps it will take fire to kill you for good,” Nievre said. “If not…”

He did not finish his thought. She reached deep inside herself for the ice that would hide her own. The only unliving thing she’d brought with her when Nievre took her away was her silver necklace. Its links had bit into the skin of her throat when he strangled her; it had dangled cold over her face when he shoved her head into the water. Had he guessed where she’d hidden her life? Could it survive the fire?

Her hands stayed quiet at her sides, not rising to touch the necklace. If he knew, or if the fire was hot enough, she would die. Nothing she could do would change that now.

Nievre was almost gentle as he said, “Come.”

She came forward, and she let him push her into the hearth.

This time she did not fight. She did not even scream. She sank down into the flames, and let them take her.

The zephyr did not wake her. The room was quiet and dark—and Nievre was there.

He knelt in front of her as she stepped out of the ashes, clean and unmarked by the flames. In a hushed whisper he spoke, his frost-pale eyes as wide as the sky. “Countless women I have taken from their homes to serve me, and every one of them has died. Not one has come back…except you.”

He was a monster, cold as the mountains in which he lived, and he had killed untold numbers.

But not her. She had become as cold as he.

Melting silver takes more than mere hearthfire. Reaching up to her throat, she removed her necklace and offered it to him. “My life is hidden in this chain. Take it, wear it, and be my husband.”

His black-gloved hands took the chain and looped it around his own neck. Then, for the first time she’d ever seen, he drew off his gloves. On his left hand there gleamed a single touch of warmth: a golden ring.

He slid it from his finger and offered it to her. “My life is hidden in this ring. Take it, wear it, and be my wife.”

Nievre no longer takes a young woman every absent moon to be his servant. Instead, his wife Gialle now dwells in his castle, and keeps it clean when she cares to. The rest of the time, it goes untended.

For many long ages Nievre was set in his ways, and sometimes he drifts back. The moon now waxes and wanes with his fidelity, and on the days to either side of the absent moon you can see Gialle’s silver necklace, pulling him back to their castle.

She missteps less often. Even so, it happens from time to time. When darkness passes across the face of the sun, a rim of gold appears around the edge, and that is a glimpse of Nievre’s ring. It reminds her of his devotion—for what little warmth remains to them is there, in her necklace that he wears, and his ring upon her hand.

But the tales that are told of them now must wait for another day.


Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood. She is the author of the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent along with several other series, over seventy short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the epic Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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