Thick, green, hissing, serpent shaped forest danced in the rain, freezing to death. Uncommon chill punctuated the night with sounds of breaking bones as limbs older than kingdoms fell to earth. Blocking roads. Crushing bodies. Crystallizing over them as they died.
Non-night hung, eternal before-dawn twilight which lingered in the far moon seasons. Cold always its cousin, but this...An eerie icing fell for three days. Travelers became desperate. Oases became overrun and stripped bare by squatters. Firewood did not thaw enough to burn. Warmth survived in the shape of heaving stench wrapped around the refugees like the same rimey tomb accruing for them without. A day away by horse from anywhere, on a near moon night. But they had eaten all the horses, fatting themselves out of fear, as vermin do.
This was no resting house. What refuge it offered was claimed long ago by Father Patience. The house lord’s bones rested black in the home fire now. The spare cottage was being slowly hollowed by some fifty odd souls within. When cold first came there had been singing and bravado. When others pressed in, prayers levered in with them. When the first dog died sorrow and fear broke plague. When the first dog was killed and eaten, the fifty odd were silent. They did not look at one another. Not those loved. Especially.
For five days. For sixteen, and darker sky, more piercing howl.
There was a night like this eight long years ago. A night none can say he witnessed, of deeds forgotten by all but swift dark, ill regarded by even He. A freeze to your bones never truly breaks out, not even aflame. A night like this meant all nights were like this, if you lived. Always alone, among the heaped trunks of infidels and banner mates. Alone in lovers’ beds. An island among…
Some things Father Patience does not watch. He sees, but he doesn’t look, and will not remember for you. The weight of remembering all alone is heavier than cities. Heavier than exactly twenty. Some rules all animals know. Most can go unsaid. Those who lived did not die. Let this lie. The fire did not perish. Let that be.
His eyes were yellow and candle wax. Beard iced. His clothes smelled new, for even fireside he could not sweat. They were not all his clothes, of course. His wardrobe grew all the time, and he watched the room - now it was, inner walls burned - from a shrew’s nest of many colors and many layers. He watched the old people by the fire, in neat stacks. He watched the heartbeat of the fire cast shadows, devilish and blue-orange. There were longer shadows still, gold and black, shadows seen only by the man. These shadows watched him back. They danced wilder, and they stood stiller, and took shape and stood around him like iron bars. He saw through them. He knew what they wanted. He knew what he wanted.
He watched the stool by the fire. It should have been filled with a young boy, begging for a story, or at least an ending. He got his reward. It might have been filled with a dark haired girl in unseasonable fashion. Crying. She did not cry for being cold, thought the man, for though slight her cloak was surprisingly warm. Once it had held his brother. Once he had held his brother. Now he held his brother. The dancing things told him so.
They danced and stood still and watched him watching them in the terror wide gazes that did not watch the man. They watched the floor, in the middle of the great room, between they and his fortress by the fire, where rested the old stone hammer. The stone was dull and gray. The stone was dazzling and red and danced. Warmth and life draped cold-kissed across its smoothed edge, fastening it to the boards.
They mean to kill me, thought the man.
Again. They mean to brain me and gobble me up. I have seen them, all of them, they are monsters, they are insatiable, they have gone mad, even the children, especially the children. How many days ago did the children run out into the freeze? See? Mad. I see it in their eyes, all of them...Most of them. The Coward cannot even lift his eyes.
The Coward had food, at first. The forty odd demanded it, and the Coward gave it up without a word. The Coward had begged for water in a croaking cracking rasp which grew worse as the ice aged. At first the thirty odd had humored him, bringing icicles from the eaves of the great sloping roof. Now there was only silence, and the Coward was too afraid to speak. Perhaps he could no longer speak for thirst.
Perhaps he could no longer speak. All fire in the room seemed to go out in the glow of the man’s eyes. Of course. The monsters. The Coward had died, crying like a woman probably, and the monsters huddled around him still lived. They still lived, so they must have. Thought the man, who lived, and ground his teeth. They are killers. They are worse than killers.
Dawn came, unnoticeable. Another day, uncounted. The dark skinned man with the glass eye liked to count. The eye that caught the smoldering brown light in the room. The better to watch them with. Them! All twelve of them. How the place reeked. They were animals, lying down with filth, nestling on a picked clean corpse. The Coward’s large cloak shook, surely with the weight of questing vermin. It moaned a belated death rattle.
“There is a traveler,” hissed the man. “He comes to town. He stays when others go. Even when so many have left. He has bad fortune. Town is rich and fat when he comes, lean and bare when he goes. He is a big man. He has big needs. He would not stay in any place which could not fill his needs. He loves godly men. He likes pretty women. He adores children. He would not stay any place not good enough for him
“if he could help it.”
They are weak, thinks the man. He has waited them out. He was warm and strong, and they were thin. And few. He stood and they bowed to him. It was an excellent story. They did not look at him. They did not want to watch any more.
There used to be so much blood. There was less now, and in its place there was a white powder finer than any snow, and steel and yew beyond reach. It was so warm here in the room. The hot breath of Father Patience, and even this does not shake the frost from the ribs of one so long ago chilled. So many people in there. Must be, it is so loud. Well, not as loud any more...The shapes. The darkness. A presence closing in like a trap. Nowhere was there escape from the heat of the fires, the heat which follows across the years, the heat which burns but does not warm. Fearful eyes all around, the memory of eyes. Screams, or the memory of screams.
or the memory of the river,
and it was no longer so hot,
and it was not so bright,
and the air was thick with foul and death.
Every breath was the quickening of war. Night draped across the sloped roof imperceptibly. Bone-deep cold hardened once again, like stone, like iron, as the man began to speak.
“A merrier story: there is a dog. One day this dog finds” - just kick that aside - “a bone. He goes behind his master’s home to gnaw it. Master’s daughter is there with playmates. He goes under the bridge, but other dogs there, watching greeeeedily. He grabs the bone and looks for the deepest, darkest hole he can find, and when he approaches this hole a serpent rises from its depths and flares its hood. The dog takes up its bone, runs to the center of the village, leaps over the side of the bridge, and drowns.”
There used to be so little blood, now there was too much, far too much.
It is so funny. “‘Oh!’ he says,” he says. “Father! At last a familiar face! I know you are judicious and cool of temper so do not think too little of me: I just can’t stand having some stranger watching me eat!’”
The red red stone fell ruby thunder and struck...no one. In a motion they were swept aside, along with all else, deep cloak, wide hat, sick covered blanket. The Coward had vanished! Where did she come from?!
“Who?! Who are you! They brought you here didn’t they!”
She was weak, thin, with signs of fullness in better days. An icy layer of piss, sick, blood. Her mouth was black. He had seen that look before, but not from the shadows and not from Them and not from his betrothed and not in any village along the forest’s edge, but, somewhere, yes.
The sword was old steel and whitest Vaul. Her voice was grayer and sharper, only a whisper that filled the room and hushed the hiss of the forest serpent. Outside, the rain stopped. The whooping wind stood still and held its breath. Impossible survivors called out to one another in pain and hope. Screech and howl mixed with a whisper.
“Distant traveler,” cracked a throat of stone. “Mangy dog,” choked the crashing falls. “I am deep climber. I am mountain maker. I am sword which wields goddess. You know me in lakes, silver, and glass.”
He had seen those eyes somewhere. They had been the fire.
They nine scrambled for the door, letting in a wet and crushing presence which strangled the fire. Smoke and dark rose about the man, while she shone bright as blood.
“Thronesplitter. Coming Claw. Piercer and Rivener. Gallows wanderer! Fear Chaser! Sole Survivor!
“Little killer you meet Mother Patience in this room,” said Breaka.
The dancers betrayed...no time. Away.
Out the door, and leaf and stone were thick with ice. Stumbling, scrambling, the man thrashed his way into the trees like a stuck faun. Lose her in the forest. Do not listen to the deliberate, heavy, weary crunch behind you…
The log rolled and took his ankle with it. Keep going. On your knees. Crawling as a coursed beast from the maws behind him.
The man lunged for a rock to brace himself. He missed, and the icy blanket hid branches hardened by centuries and sharpened by the winds. Blood and scream and no time, no time, on knees and elbows, as a drunk, as a babe…
Sliding down the bank took his back. The rocks at the frozen river punch him in the side, and breathing was hard now. The icy rapids themselves claimed his fingers and stole the warmth in his blood, in all their blood….
All seasons change. There is a moment of a pure dawn, far beyond the trees. It casts them as brilliant black shadows, as dark as the dancers, standing, watching him, like iron bars. The dawn dies in moments and there is only that familiar steel sky.
A hand was on the back of his neck. Its grip was weak but insistent, and it was enough, through labored breathing, through violent thrashing, though weeping protests and curse filled prayers, to drag the man to the banks of the river underneath an oak older than wolves.
Those fifty odd bastards, they brought this here, they did this to him…
“There were fifty-eight of us,” says Breaka. “Exactly.”
He hadn't said that, had he?
She held him like a blessed elder, like a suckling child, and walked him surely and heavily back to the slope-roofed cottage. Strangers watched him from within the darkened doorway, fearfully. She strode past them, and set him on the cold red boards, and lay his hammer beside him.
“Take what clothes you want, and burn the rest. Burn my cloak as well. I have hot work ahead. While the storm is stilled find us food. I hear dinner baying about us even now, looking for an easy meal itself. We will yet be here a while so let them close in first. Lure them in. Let me know when I am needed.”
The far moon season grew warmer, Real nights came, and real days again, punctuated by the sounds of breaking bones echoing through the slumbering forest serpent til at last the air warmed, and the travelers, rested and whole again, stole out for the road again in thick cloaks of wolf and elk and bear.
Breaka watched them go from the doorway of the slope-roofed cottage. Soon it would be a spring. She walked out into the clearing and surveyed the horizon, hungry for her steel, promising glory and honor…
The wound in her side was nearly healed. It was time to go.
From an old stump by the forest’s edge she took a weathered and dulled hatchet. Breaka turned back to the cottage and shut the door against the nearing season.
For forty odd days. Sixty odd days. Breaka lost count.