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Showing posts with label Christmas Story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christmas Story. Show all posts

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Winter Relict

Estimated read time: 24 minutes

     The hooded woman grumbled to herself and rubbed her thin arms furiously against the cold. No cloak was thick enough at this time of the year, no matter where she was. Even the mildest winters were bitter. But this...the mountains, the drifts, the trees hidden somewhere under that thick white sheet...ugh. This was just ridiculous. And she was fairly certain her lungs had frozen solid.
     'Needs must, needs must, needs must,' she reminded herself again, gritting her teeth behind chapped lips. As wretched as it was, it was a good sign. She certainly wasn't going to find the old man - man? - in a tropical setting. So, rather than follow a hunch, which had not been working out for her, she'd decided to actually do some recon. She'd moved from one town to another, listening rather than asking, and among the pleasant atmospheres, Yule pyres, mulled cider and pine needle tea, she'd finally found exactly what she'd needed regarding the giant goat that had been carrying people off in the night.
     Aaalllll of which had led her out here, tracking through frozen mud in the dark, shivvering, small teeth chattering as she searched for prints and traces under the half-lit moon. She could still hear the town's horns, drums and bagpipes blaring in the distance. Casting a wistful look backwards, she was sure she could see the light of the bonfires from there.
     She sighed witheringly and trudged on.
     'Needs must.'

     It didn't take long - though it certainly felt it - to find the prints, and they were exactly as people had described: a goat. A bipedal goat, with a...
     She took as natural a step as she could while being so aware of it.
     ...With a longer than average human stride. And given the depth of the prints in frozen mud, it was big. Or, more likely, heavy.
     "Looks like I'm on the right tracks," she murmured to herself. So, glad no one had been around to hear her pun, she wrapped herself tighter in the never-thick-enough cloak, took a deep breath, and followed the prints onwards into the snow-laden forest. The chill rapidly seeped through her boots, and a second set of tracks - a simultaneously pleasing and worrying set - appeared just as fast: the unbroken marks of something dragging through the ground on either side of cloven hooves.
     She paused and looked closer. The edge of the snow wasn't crisp; it had collapsed back in over them.
     So they were made by something heavy. Like a thick iron chain...
     A smile stretched her pale, grey lips. "Bingo."
     But she couldn't celebrate too soon. It was an old beast, a relic; unique. Powerful. Intelligent. Capable of reasoning, if only in black and white. And that reasoning, it seemed, was failing. After all, it was only December 2nd, yet the Krampus was up and about.
     Evidently, somewhere in recent months - or even days - he'd become corrupted, and, since he wouldn't have been easy to handle at the best of times, untouchable as he was by her inter-realm magic, all that was left open to her - or all she could think of while the cold built icicles inside her skull - was good old-fashioned assault.
     Extending her gloved hand, a silver blade appeared within it. Conjured, yes, but now her fingers wrapped around the hilt, it was real enough. And just as heavy.
     Her lips twisted doubtfully as she wielded and hefted its weight. But she'd just have to manage.
     A cold wind tugged her gaze back out along the tracks.
     Pulling her cloak tight again, she stiffened and moved on, stepping quietly, covering the distance faster than any human, and listening even closer. The air was cold; sound would travel further, and the first thing she'd hear would be--
     The tinkle of the bells and clang of the chains.
     A grunt rumbled in her throat. 'Found you, fella.'
     Silently, she stopped at the edge of the pines and stared on ahead from the shadows, half-blinded by the open white snow beyond. It took half a heartbeat for her eyes to adjust. Then, there he was, a dark shape moving across the field, ninety metres away.
     Clink. Clink. Clink.
     The chill the beast gave off reached her even from that distance, seeping deep and paralytically into her organs. So she set the briefest flame in her core in answer.
     The shock of the heat pushed a gasp from her throat and her legs back into action, and she left the shelter of the trees, flakes of falling snow melting as her red-hot breath cut through. Fast and silent she moved, until both he and the sack on his back were defined in the dark. She'd seen enough bags of bodies to know what was in it. They may not be dead yet, just entranced - but if he was out already, breaking the laws of his...what was it? A 'deityship'? Well, if he could do that, what else was he doing?
     But victims were second to the Krampus. He had to be stopped first. And she wasn't exactly under any obligations anyway. If there was time to save them, there was time. If not...well, she was never there.
     She wondered for a moment just how literal that truly was.
     The closer she drew, the colder it became, and the air darkened just as unnaturally. It was as if she'd stepped into some kind of bleak, corrupt atmosphere, and a grey, sour smell soon began to thrash inside her nose. She closed herself off to it, losing some sense of balance in the process, but it was better than the lethargic submission that would come from the aura's exposure.
     When she was finally just ten paces away and her heart was hammering in her chest, she stopped, straightened, thrust the blade into the snow beside her, loosened out her arms, and took a deep, steadying breath. She'd faced off against the Devil Herself, and successfully - she assumed - fled from Hekate. She could handle the Krampus.
     "Sorry old boy," she said aloud, since there was absolutely no way to get the sneak on a creature like this anyway, "I need a moment of your time."
     The figure slowed to a jangling stop. She waited. Then, slowly, cumbersomely, he turned and cast her a look over his shoulder.
     Her hammering heart leapt up into her throat.
     He looked almost as she'd always imagined he would: a goat-man, upright; dark, hairy, tall, with a long, sharp tongue lolling out from a mouth twisted in misery. But she hadn't expected his build to be quite so broad, nor for his teeth to be quite so long nor so yellow, nor for his goat-like horns to be so thick and twisted. He looked...ancient.
     And his eyes betrayed just how ancient. Primordial, almost.
     She stalled at the sight of them, then fought motion back into her body. Withdrawing the sword from the frozen earth, she steadied her grip just enough for control while keeping her arm loose enough to relieve at least some of the image of threat. "I realise you're busy," she continued coolly, "you've got your work to see to, but I was sent by theeee errrmm deeeiiity council...the Deity Council, and I'm afraid I have to take a look at your list--" She ducked sharply beneath the lashing chain. "Either that's a 'no'," she muttered, "or I'm on it."
     He struck at her again, booming an old, ragged howl over the bells, but she shifted where she stood, barely missing the strike as she collected her strength and burst ten feet backwards in a single movement. "I guess you're right on that count, though I'd rather it wasn't you who gave me the spanking."
     The sack he'd carried as if it weighed nothing crashed like lead to the ground as he swung at her for a third time, chains and bells clamouring, following unwittingly as she lured him away for the trees. He wouldn't be able to swing so easily in there, and if he tried, he'd save her the trouble by tangling himself up. Then she could get what she needed and be off, back to somewhere warmer, brighter, with pleasant company and absolutely no bells.
     But she had to get him in there, first.
     Again she evaded, ducking low beneath two more swings before spotting the pattern and stealing a precise attack of her own.
     Black blood hit the snow with a single satisfying nick, and a colossal roar ripped the night immediately after it.
     Her head rang as the howl knocked her balance and twisted deep in her gut, rattling her eyes inside her skull. She barely collected herself in time to avoid the retaliation, and looked back in confusion, searching urgently through his fur.
     The edge of her silver blade had liquified on that single cut, and she could see it now, sizzling, mixing with his blood and oozing with an acrid stench. So she had hit him. Clearly, it wasn't enough. And now, he was moving faster.
     She sprang backwards again despite the dizziness, closing herself off further from the smell, and desperately avoided the chains, reading his pattern again to work in another strike. It took more concentration than she had. If she got it wrong, if she moved too soon, she'd get her blade tangled in those ringing chains and wouldn't get the chance to summon another. All she could do was move and wait until she could guarantee a clear strike. However long it took.
     The chain clanged back in, a bigger movement than the others and a noise that was beginning to make her feel sick, but it was wide enough to be able to dart away from. Until a second chain swung in behind it, longer and heavier than the first.
     The pain it fired through her shoulder tore a yelp from her lips, and she was sent skidding sideways on her feet through the snow as the bells rang mournfully between them. But there was no time to find solid footing nor prod at the swelling; the Krampus was already on her, howling while his chains flashed by yet again.
     She bit back the useless squeak, tightened her grip on the sword and struggled through the snow, summoning more attention and lowering her defence against the smell of his burning blood. Her nose was cold and numb enough to withstand it, and if she fell again, she might not be quick enough to get back up. She was fairly sure that single hit had broken something in her shoulder. She couldn't afford to waste her energy.
     So when he closed in, she tensed, ready to spring away, and watched both of his chains for the cue.
     But it didn't come. He bellowed directly into her face instead, an impossibly loud sound that rattled her eyes all over again and reverberated into her bones. For a long moment, her mind escaped her, and she found her sword swiping recklessly, ignoring the chains. Somehow, it hit.
     More liquified silver seeped into his bloodflow, another wave of the acrid stench pulsed into the air, and another wretched howl of pain ripped from his old throat.
     She stole the moment to jump back to her feet, drawing on magic to aid her speed before he launched into an enraged fury. But it didn't come. Instead, something wrapped tightly around her left leg, then her right, and as she looked down in alarm at the two small, grey, flickering figures, more chittered and leapt gleefully onto her arms. Then the pain burned through the weaves, and the toxic smell of sulphur irritated her eyes.
     But a simple ice shard spell seemed to take care of them. Goblins apparently couldn't take very much.
     Though that, she soon realised, wasn't their point.
     While more swarmed in, she growled and cast again, and the snow reached up to root the goblins in place. Then er attention fell sharply back to the Krampus, already galloping, bellowing and swinging his chains.
     She dropped sharply when his weapons were within range, and struck out with her leg in a move she really didn't have the practise for. But, by more luck than skill, she still managed to catch and stagger him. If not for his fetlocked legs, she'd have missed completely.
     While his chains fell limp, she stole distance, dancing backwards through the writhing snow and clawing goblins still stuck in its reach.
     Then a sharpened birch stick flew towards her face.
     Instinct dragged her to one side even as she cursed. She should've grabbed for it.
     Then, once again, with the speed a creature that size shouldn't have possessed, he was suddenly in front of her. He was getting faster, she was sure of it. And his eyes were wilder, too.
     When something suddenly struck her backwards again, she was sure nothing had hit her but his voice, and though her ears rang with the sound and her eyes weeped under the smell of his breath, she still made out the sound of horns and bagpipes drifting in from the distance.
     The town. It was too close.
     But so, she realised with a leap of her heart, were the trees.
     She gritted her teeth, scrambled back up, struck clumsily, and made to run the final stretch. But heat pierced her shoulder before she could even turn.
     The lethargy already creeping through her arm told her what had happened.
     She ripped out the birch stick and clutched it tightly even as the heaviness spread to her chest. Just how potent were these ruten?
     She had little time to wonder. Despite the jingle of his bells and the clatter of his chains, the Krampus was on her too soon, knocking her to the ground before she even thought to try to move.
     'No,' she thought as his heavy chain withdrew, 'I underestimated him...'
     Then the goblins were back on her, burning her through her clothes. Her spell had collapsed.
     Maybe this was too much after all. At this rate, she was going to get dragged back to his realm, and--
     Her eyes widened. 'Ohhh...'
     Quietly, she spat out a curse and sighed, pushing herself slowly to her feet while the goblins giggled and the hooves stamped up behind her. Her vision doubled, but she cast the spell anyway, regardless of whether it would work fast enough or not.
     The hooves stopped, and the chains moved again.
     The goblins retreated.
     She slipped the blade into the sheath that appeared at her hip, just as the clatter and ring of steel swung its way around her.
     The deafening bells and chains' tight squeeze were the last things she knew.

Part 2

     The sour sting in her sinuses finally permeated the fog behind her eyes, and dragged her from the depths of what had been an almost pleasant sleep. It was acrid, both natural and ancient.
     Burned...hessian? And...ffff...sssss...ssssomething... No. No, she couldn't place it.
     Slowly, the thought finally came to open her eyes, but the effort was far more than it should've been, and when she thought she'd managed, the ongoing darkness made her wonder.
     She adjusted after the third delibrate blink, and found herself staring at a hand and a knee, neither of which were hers.
     "Well. I'm inside the sack after all." And it was shockingly spacious - but she supposed it had to be to accommodate everyone else in there with her.
     Her gaze drifted upwards, though there wasn't really enough room to move her head, but she couldn't feel anyone pressing down above her.
     So no one else had been added since. Then her spell had worked fast enough; the birch rut's enchantment hadn't fully taken hold. She'd probably only been unconscious for a few minutes.
     Of course, that was probably little comfort for the others, who remained petrified solid, faces twisted and frozen in fear. Some were probably close to death already, whether they were back in the Krampus's realm or not.
     But, again, they weren't her problem.
     She turned her attention out through the sack, rocking with the beast's slow, ponderous steps, and listened, trying to map the route as rapidly as possible - the smells, the sounds, the creature's speed, the ditches in the ground, uphill or downhill...
     But the Krampus's own aura was throwing it all off.
     She strained over it as best she could, deciding not to risk raising her defence any higher or the dizziness would make orientation impossible, and soon noted the sound of horns and bagpipes, joyful music that played now like a beacon.
     And then a dreadful warning. However far he'd carried them in the few minutes she'd been out, they were already nearing another settlement, and if he put any more people in the sack, her chances of escape would plummet. And it would be bad for them too, of course...
     'The corruption seems to have made him almost wild, though... Maybe I can distract him...'
    Her eyes drifted back over the frozen, horrified faces and her voice rose through the sack. "So, how's business?"
     No reply. Had she expected one?
     Maybe she wasn't reaching him. Well, if her voice wouldn't, the snow would. Her fingers shifted where they were trapped and directed the spell, thickening the drift around his hooves and slowing him as he walked.
     "Must come pretty easy, given how people are," she continued anyway. "They rarely learn their lessons, do they?"
     No response.
     "But I have to wonder: this isn't a curse, so what do you get out of it? Reputation only goes so far, and it seems a pretty dull form of entertainment. So...what is it?"
     "Mm. No, then again, you don't seem the type for any of that - necessity, that's all. So it must be food then - enough to stock the coming year, I suppose. Can't say I wouldn't do the same when you only have to work one night of the year...though I hear you've been busy for the past four..."
     Her eyebrows rose as she felt him come to a stop and turn, then heard him grumble something beneath his breath.
     A frown slipped in as she listened, but he soon fell silent again and walked on. "Any particular reason for that? Is your list too long this year for one night?"
     But, again, no answer.
     "Mm... Well, what constitutes 'naughty' these days, anyway? Because I notice Queen Amelia is still knocking about.... And witch hunters. And witches, for that matter, so I think it's safe to assume that whatever forces you obey seem to have their own criteria. know, I'd almost go as far as to say there aren't any rules. Pick and choose; make examples out of restless sleepers. Should keep people on their toes, right? Of course, if that was the case, you wouldn't be out here right now..."
     Again, he stopped, turned and mumbled.
     She muttered a curse of her own. Mapping still wasn't working. She was fairly sure they were moving away from the village, but she couldn't be sure. With a purse of her lips, she redoubled the density of the snow and tried another tactic.
     "You know, you came to my town once. Took two kids, only brought one of them back. I was terrified I'd be gone the next year. Funny how things stick with you." She stifled her struggle as she attempted to free her trapped arm. "The wrong things, clearly. You know, I can't actually remember any Yule from my childhood other than that one. Realm-walker's lot; we live too long. Assuming we don't get done in by our own shenanigans." She grunted. "I'm sure that's how I'll go. It'll be my own fault. People always said so.
     "But, you know, I never really made a lot out of Yule. But I suppose you don't have to. Doesn't make a difference; memories happen when they happen, and whyever they happen. I've been around long enough to learn that. For example, my best Yule was in Navalehya. It was quiet, aurora was flowing, almost got frostbite and Nisska made a chicken eskellian that almost killed us." A grin snapped across her face even as she continued to subtly wrestle herself free. "At least I think it was Yule...
     "My worst, though, was definitely Yule. Xarinill - they do things differently there, that's why I know it was Yule - and I was hunted by a tribe of dracoria. My fault, I misunderstood, removed a curse I shouldn't have. Or, rather, one they didn't want remov--"
     She hissed, barely missing biting her tongue as the sack was dropped down. Then came the unmistakable smell of sulphur.
     Hell lay ahead.
     Good. At last. Stronger there, he might be, but the problem areas would be solved. He'd be more corporeal, easier to strike, and, more importantly, slower. And she could use the energy in that place just as well as he could.
     And, if she carried on irritating him, he'd get there even sooner if just to get rid of her.
     Finally, she freed her arm as the sack was lifted again. "So," she sighed in relief, though the limb was empty of blood, "what's it like for you? Are you as singular as I am? I suppose you would be. It's how you were made. Nowhere to go but your home, bound to one purpose, no deviation allowed, and feared by humans just for doing your job." She squeezed her fist to revive circulation. Not for the first time, she wondered if it was already rotting inside from starvation. "You know, even if you hadn't broken the rules, it would only be a matter of time before they started hunting you. There are a few already after me, and I didn't abduct or lose any of their children. Then again, I suppose some would argue I'd done worse, but regardless, hunted is hunted, and there are too many of them and far too few of us. It's only a matter of time before they come up with something to end it once and for all. Then neither of us will matter. All the children you've taken, all the lessons you've taught, all the things I've taken and lessons I've taught... Pointless. We're wasting our time really - but that's an awfully dangerous rabbit hole to go down, don't you think?"
     She puffed a quiet sigh. "You know, I can't help but notice you've not answered me yet. Must be that tongue of yours, hard to control, lolling out like that all the time. Good thing I'm perfectly capable of holding a conversation on my own, eh? Master of the monologue. Don't get much practice with people, but it's either this or lose the ability to speak altogether, and I don't much fancy that."
     The monotonous pace stopped, he turned again, and the smell of sulphur in her sensitive nose noticably thinned.
     Curses rasped behind her teeth, and she moved to finally reach out of the bag until the pattern of his mumbling registered. Then, she stalled.  'A Yuletide song?'
    The sack dropped again, and as the cold seeped deeper through the hessian, she frowned and listened to him walking off, his bells and chains clanging. They stopped several long paces away and swayed, presumably, as he looked around.
     The frown deepened as she waited. Then, she moved. Out poked her head, then her shoulders, then her elbows, and she watched him for a while. There was something else in his eyes when he finally looked back.
     A question?
     Slowly, her hand rose from the sack and pointed back towards the sulphur. His eyes followed, and his head bobbed a cumbersome  nod. Then back he clanged, pushed her back inside, lifted the sack and shifted it over his shoulder once again.
     As a stranger's hand pressed into her cheek, her eyebrows rose. 'He's just...senile...'
    And a better idea formed.
     She wracked her memory as the sack resumed its slow to and fro swing, and began to sing along. The rough, mumbling voice outside soon rose in tandem, and when the Krampus finished that jolly song in something half-resembling the usual tune, he moved immediately into another. The bells and chains began to rattle with the rhythm, and his hoofsteps stamped like a metronome.
     Slowly, with that measured pace and deciphered sound, the rest of the world presented itself around her, and the smell of sulphur grew strong again. And when the bag next dropped to the snow in the midst of the toxic stench, out she climbed, the pair of them still singing, sun on its way up, hellish gateway open beside them, and she summoned a flute to play along. For only a few minutes they stayed this way, until the Krampus suddenly turned and descended that fiery path as if he'd been called by something. She, the sack and its contents had been forgotten. Yet even as he disappeared into the fire, his singing drifted back out with the sulphurous gas.
     She wasted no time. Letting go of the flute, which continued to play itself, she stooped and drew a circle in the snow around the gaping, sputtering hole, whispering an incantation in alternating tones. Only when the final word and gesture had been made did she stop circling and straighten, and watched as the ground pulled itself back together and the toxic haze diminished.
     The Krampus wouldn't be visiting next year. If he even remembered to try.
     While the cold, white sun rose low on the horizon, a gusty sigh steamed from her curving lips, and her shoulders rounded. "Problem solved." At least until something else stepped in to fill his role. Something more suited to modern values. Necessity was necessity, after all.
     Then her gaze dropped to the birch branch she'd saved, its end covered in white blood, and smiled with satisfaction. The wound in her shoulder steamed itself shut in a heartbeat. "Jolly good." Then she moved on to leave. She had too much still to do.
     But she'd barely gotten more than five paces before her attention drifted to the sack. "...Ugh. I suppose I should get these people home first..."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Saturday, 19 December 2020

In The Heart Of Winter

Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
     Hmmm...a crackling hearthfire... It's quite a thing when the world outside is white, isn't it? Any other time, fire is something to be feared, something destructive, consuming...but now...heh, well now we adore it, don't we? We gather around it, we feed it, we welcome its warmth and the colour it casts over the cold, bleached world; it brightens even the wood of this old, dreary inn, glitters across these dented tankards, makes that tattered, ale-stained rug there seem a little less moth-eaten. I daresay even the woodworms are marvelling.
     But the hasn't truly gone anywhere, has it? After all, a simple fire can't stop a season. And yet...knowing that winter is still lurking outside makes these flames seem almost friendlier, doesn't it? They don't seethe and spit, they laugh and flicker. But...I wonder...would we hear that at all if not for that very cold?
     ...Heh, forgive an old bard her musings. Winter always slows me down, gives me too much time to think. Come, sit beside me while I tell you a story. There's plenty of room. And bring me a mulled cider on your way, there's a good neighbour.
     Actually, just bring the whole pitcher.
     Now, take a glance out through the window while you warm your hands over the hearth. What do you see?
     It's a silly question, I grant you; what else is there but the snowfall? Drifting flakes of pure winter, floating like feathers and coating the world so absolutely. 'Smothering it', some of you might say; 'blanketing it' say others. But whether all seems dead, or all seems asleep, nothing but time can move winter away. No fire can hurry it out, nor any amount of wishing or yearning.
     Nor can it hurry it in.
     "Why would you want to?" I see the words on your lips. But please, keep your comments to yourself for the moment. For 'Summer Smiles, Winter Woes' - are they not, as many other things are, down to perspective? Association? Temperament? Heart?
     This is an old tale, one forgotten but still familiar, as stories go: a wish against reason, a commitment to something impossible and irrational, powered by nothing more than the blind hope swelling in one's chest.
     It involves a knight, of course - one of the usual breed: chivalrous, formidible, romantic, determined to the point of raising serious questions about his intellectual wellbeing. He was the Champion of House Aestas, with ancient ties to the summer, and he carried many titles, accolades and honours in their defence. He was a fury on the battlefields, a breeze in the courts, and an artist in his own spare time. But despite his allegience, it was always in the quiet solitude of the winter, when the world slumbered and war was forgotten, that his heart felt most at peace.
     It had taken only one moment for that to change.
     His mount had been lamed on their lonely patrol one December evening, a treacherous fault in the road hidden by the depth of the snow. The stirrup had trapped the knight's foot as they'd fallen, and his leg had been crushed under the horse's weight. With no shelter and no help in reach, the soft, gentle, numbing touch of the cold had almost taken him. Never in his battle-hardened life had the knight truly been so close to death.
     From that moment on, winter's tranquil cloak had been replaced by something else - but it was not, as you might well expect, woven of anxiety or fear. Though it was also no less powerful.

     Five winters after that fateful eve, the knight clicked a younger horse along that very same snow-shrouded road, acutely aware all the while of its edge. The world glowed white around him, clouds puffed from the beast's muzzle and through the grate of his visor, and as he breathed deep the crisp air, an anxious shudder hummed in his chest. And when the road soon vanished and the thick, glittering, snow-muffled wilds closed in, it grew to a raging pounding fit to shatter his ribs.
     Knight and steed descended white valleys, crossed slippery fords, passed unmounted through the black and white tangles of trees, until the wilds finally opened out and a frozen lake stood still and silent at the centre of the shimmering glade.
     The knight stopped there, at the edge of the ice, and waited. His breath puffed a steady rhythm while his heart hammered at six times the pace. But it took only a moment for the radiance he awaited to appear.
     A young woman stepped out from the frozen falls, a vision of youth and tranquility. She had hair of silver, snow and ice, skin of the purest ivory, and eyes as blue as the deepest glaciers. She was like a fragment of the landscape itself. And as she moved towards him, her frost-woven gown tinkled a somber melody, and glowed in the thin winter sun like diamonds.
     And her smile, a smile just for him, was like the rise of the sun itself.
     The knight's heart blazed like a pyre, just as it had on that December evening five years ago, when her impossible magic had revived and nursed him back to health, and the ache in his soul overpowered him. He surged towards her, threw off his helmet, and they kissed with the passion of lovers kept apart for a lifetime. The chill of the air around her crept over his skin, but he held her only tighter.
     When they finally parted, the knight heaved a cloudy sigh and cupped Winter's chin in his hand. "Three seasons apart is too long."
     "You shouldn't wait for me," she whispered, her voice as quiet as the snow.
     But the knight shook his head, just as he had every other time she'd said it. "I will always wait. I could never love another."
    "Then Spring," she said sadly, nestling her ivory cheek into his gauntlet, "will always pull us apart."
     He could bare no other words, and drew her close again. In three months, he knew, she would be gone with the frosts, back to her own realm, while he remained in the plane of man and mortal. And he would not see her, hold her, kiss her, nor love her again for nine.
     But neither would he hold, kiss, nor love another.
     Every day, the knight dutifully tended to his master's wishes, and came back to her every evening. He slept in her arms, and she in his, and they walked, talked, laughed and sang together. With the snow flurries, her heart was warmest, her smile most joyful, and when the sky was as crisp, blue and empty as a glacial lake, her mind and demeanour calmest. And in every one of those moments, his own heart was at peace.
     But all too soon, the season passed, they kissed for the last time, and she faded with the thaw, just as he'd known she would. And he returned obediently to his master, his world and his life, rigid of shoulder and dead of eye, and worked through the spring, the summer and the autumn, until he could hold her again.
     The cold took an age to return, and, as things yearned for often do, passed in the blink of an enraptured eye; again she faded, the snow melted, the sun rose higher, and the flowers peeked and bloomed. And while the world awoke, his heart returned to its benumbed sleep.
     But it was after the eighth winter, the eighth parting, the eighth ride back to the world that was his and held nothing for him at all, when his heart refused to quiet. He spent that year trapped in a relentless longing, mindless, just waiting for the return of the chill so he could brush her lips again.
     He arrived at the lake one week ahead of the ninth winter, and watched the waterside every night, waiting for the first frost to creep and crackle over the ground. He gave her no chance to fully form when she rose from its fingers on that fifth night. But despite his haste, she saw how drawn he'd become, and the dim, faded flicker of the usual light in his eyes.
     The night sky clouded, and her voice scathed like an ice storm. "I told you not to wait for me."
     "I will always wait for you," he replied with a weak, crooked smile.
     "The wait will destroy you. You're withering."
     He said nothing. He knew it was true. He merely watched her instead. And she saw the thought in his eyes, a thought he refused to voice - a thought he feared would be set alight like a funeral pyre should even half the words come out. And a thought that screamed even louder for that fear.
     She shook her head with all the regret of the stars and moved up against him, draping his arms around herself. "I can't go with you, my love. I won't survive beyond the reach of the cold."
     "You control it," he reminded her hollowly. But she shook her silver head again.
     "I am a slave to it. I can't leave its reach. It will kill me."
     And how brightly that pyre burned.
     The pair stayed together through the winter nights, walking, talking, laughing and singing, sleeping in each other's arms. But all the while, the inevitable dogged him like a spectre. A year spent yearning, and the season itself spent in fear. Knowing they would part, three months wasn't enough. It could never be enough.
     The wretched world began its thaw, the sun chased out the frost, and with that final kiss, the knight's heart sank into his boots. And she saw the thought brimming in his eyes again.
     "I cannot go with you," she repeated in a whisper. But this time, her words didn't cut like a blade through his chest. Instead, he fixed her with a stolid look.
     "I know," he replied, taking her hands in his. "So take me with you."
     Winter's ivory skin drained truly as white as the snow. "No," she replied in a panic, the sky turning from azure to thick, ominous grey, "I can't, you'll die if I do; you cannot survive in my realm any more than I can away from it!"
     But the knight's eyes didn't waver, as firm as the steel that encased him. "You know this for certain?"
     Her hesitation was enough.
     He squeezed her fingers as the condemning sun crept higher through her clouds, she pulled him close against her, and with a kiss that was far from final, the world around them faded with the last of the winter's frost.
     The chill overtook him in a heartbeat. His lips became numb against hers. But it was a familiar chill - her chill. A chill that grew as he felt her body move back from him. He opened his eyes to find her again, his heart leaping in a panic, but the gleaming landscape stunned and blinded him. He winced and searched for her hand instead. But she'd already taken his.
     Slowly, his eyes adjusted, and he stared at the landscape, cautious first, then struck by awe like the kick of a horse. He took in the white hills, the crystalline pillars, the frozen lakes and bridges, the trees built from snowflakes; he watched the diamond dust shimmering in the air, the light glancing across the huge silver spheres that floated just inches from the ground, and the huge great bands of silver filigree that moved slowly across the sky, casting elegant shadows across the snow.
     Their fingers laced as he took a slow step deeper into her world, his skin prickling despite his furs, and relief, comfort and wonder eased out in a single, mindless laugh. He breathed the crisp air, drawing it in as deep as he could, unlike any he'd tasted before. It filled his lungs and reached deep into his soul, clearing his every fret. With another breath, it seeped into his veins and purified his blood. With a third, it lined them. With a fourth, it splintered them.
     His mind turned white, his fingers slipped, and he crumpled to his knees while his heart began to freeze. His rasping throat begged him to cough, his cracking chest begged him to breathe again, his numbing legs begged him to rise and run, to find heat. But he couldn't. Every motion burned in his tightening, seizing muscles. And while panic's frozen grip pierced deeper into his heart, he heard her voice beside him, roaring and chiming like an ice storm.
     Her hands grasped him, arms squeezed around him, and the world about him warmed.
     The knight lay on the thawing ground, staring up into the spring morning sky. Alone. Alone, but for the voice that trailed on a tendril of cold, frozen air.
     'Wait for me no longer.'

     The knight didn't return to his duties that spring. Instead of service in war, he scoured libraries. Instead of mingling with courtiers, he hounded intellectuals. Instead of pursuing the arts, he bargained with witches. And only in the dead of autumn did he find what he needed.
     A legend within a legend, perhaps, but such is the way of things. Either way, the pellar answered his hopes.

First bright beam
Of winter's moon,
Owned by glass
Like glacier hewn;
Housed and cradled,
Of time-attuned,
Proud heart 'comes

     It was a long moment that the knight watched the pellar in his dark little hut, while the old man stared back in expectation. "What does it mean?" He finally dared ask. "I must capture the moon?"
     The pellar answered by taking a glass jar from one of his many cabinets, a jar thick and crackled, but whole. He pressed it into the knight's hands as though it had always been his.
     "I catch it in this?" He asked, his misgivings tumbling over the glass. "How will this help?"
     "The first beam of winter's moon, cradled until season's end, will break the spell of winter's realm, and frozen hearts will mend."
     Understanding soothed the knight's haggard face. "It will protect me from the cold of her world... Tell me, pellar: what do I owe you?"
     "What can you afford to spare, my lord?"
     And so the knight gave the pellar his entire estate. He wouldn't need it again.

     When the tenth winter neared, he left for the lake, jar in hand, and captured the first beam of moonlight to grace the frosting ground. The light swelled as he jammed the cork in place, and, for a heartbeat, the glass glowed like Winter's own eyes, before fading to a subdued little pulse.
     When she rose from the frost a moment later, she could see something had changed. He was aged and weary, but hopeful, and his smile dragged hope into her chest.
     "I told you not to wait for me," she said as he enveloped her.
     "And if I hadn't?"
     He showed her the jar, and explained the pellar's plan. Misgivings moved through her eyes, but she voiced none of them. Together, they nurtured the light through the season, they kept it covered, kept it glowing, and it charged them both with hope. And when that tenth winter began to fade, on the morning of the first day of spring, the knight opened the jar, coaxed out the tame moonbeam, and let it melt through his armour, his furs, his skin, and wrap itself around his heart.
     And again, Winter took a gentle hold of him, and the world faded and brightened to the realm of silver, snow and ice.
     His eyes adjusted, the chill touched his skin, but he stood tall at her side this time, and looked again across the crystalline pillars, the frozen lakes and bridges, the diamond dust glittering in the air, the trees built from snowflakes, the huge silver spheres and the bands of filigree moving slowly across the sky.
     And again, his skin chilled despite his furs, and he breathed deep of the crisp air. And still he stood tall. It filled his lungs. It lined his lungs.
     It splintered his lungs.
     And, again, the knight dropped to his knees while his heart began to freeze, and his wretched hope shattered like glass.
     His lips couldn't curse. His chest couldn't heave. His fist couldn't pound the snow. Every motion burned in his tightening, seizing muscles. And again he could hear her voice, roaring and chiming like an ice storm.
     Hands seized him.
     The world around him warmed.
     And he lay on the thawing ground, staring up into the spring morning sky.
     Helpless tears finally sprung into his eyes. "It didn't work..." The voice didn't feel like his own. He couldn't feel his lips move. But as his blurred eyes adjusted onto the shadow half-obscuring the sky, he found Winter kneeling over him, and he watched her form flicker, the sky itself shining through.
     Desperate urgency clasped his hands tightly around hers, and he dragged the pair of them back to their feet. "We can't be together..."
     "No." Her voice was already growing distant. "We can't be apart."
     Her lips pressed against his, her cold fingers brushed across his bearded cheek, and as irrational understanding gripped him, he pulled her closer and steeled against the ice splintering through his skin from her touch.
     The pair of them froze at the edge of that lake, and as their hearts beat their last, the knight's moonbeam surrounded them, the cold light of a winter moon warding off the warmth of the spring sun.
     When the next winter came, they awoke together and ushered the season in, and they walked, talked, laughed and sang as they oversaw it as one. The snow drifted with their joy, the skies cleared crisp more often, and storms were nary seen. And when Spring inevitably arrived to revive the world, Winter's final kiss froze them again under the shield of the knight's moonlight, until Summer's Woe passed, and Winter's Smile reigned once again.

     The next time you look out through the window, warmed by a hearthfire's glow, what will you see, I wonder? Smothering, death and woe? Or the soft comforts of Winter's heart?
     ...Would you mind refilling this? The cider's run dry.

This story and its artwork are not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock