The wind blew that night, but the snow held off. The four of them camped against the face of an old eroded hillside, back to the cold rock and facing a cramped, licking fire. Bryna and James had managed to gather up the meager amount of wood and light it with the flint rock and scraps of old rag from their home.
Jane found the energy to nurse Marie on what little left she was producing, but exposing herself to the cold reminded them of the long night ahead of them. The rest of them ate potatoes cooked deep in the embers of the fire and bits of old, hard bread softened by their own saliva. In the sole pan they had brought with them, they melted snow for water, offering them the reminder of warmth in their stomachs. Even the horse, tied up to a tree not far from the fire, managed to find a few old sprouts underneath the thin layers of icy snow.
As the fire died down with no means to secure more wood to stoke it, the darkness and cold of the night crept upon them. The four of them huddled together the best they could under the blankets to keep warm.
James awoke in the middle of the night, hearing the shifting of the dying fire. He was wedged between his mother and the old woman but somehow felt inexplicably alone. Above, through the naked branches of the trees, he could see no stars. To his front, the few nearby tree trunks could be seen in the glow of the embers, but beyond them was a pitch blackness that could have held anything. He blinked several times into the darkness, hoping for his eyes to adjust. It was no use. His eyelids turned heavy again, but after a few more strained blinks, the inexplicable light from his memories returned, now in the tangible presence.
The glow seemed to dart about the trees, illuminating the fine texture of the black and white bark. James attempted to struggle out from between the heavy arms and strangling textiles about him, but his mother awoke before he could escape. “What, James? Bathroom?”
James blinked a few more times, only to have the orb of light disappear from his sight. “No…” he said, sinking back to his mother’s hip. In a few more moments, sleep found him again, but the image remained stuck in his mind.
Jane cleaned and changed Marie as quickly as she could that following morning. The little girl complained at being exposed to the cold air, but soon rediscovered the sensations of warmth and cleanliness. James watched the ashes from the fire scatter in the wind and the memory of the previous night returned to him.
“Mama… ya’ know… I saw it again… las’ night.”
“Saw what?” Jane asked, half at attention while brushing the dirt off the blankets.
“Mama, it was the thing that Lewis told us about.”
Bryna had caught wind of the boy's words. “What did he say? A will o’ the wisp?”
Jane sighed and passed the little girl off her shoulder and to Bryna. She knelt down before James and stroked at his cheeks, red-stained by the cold air. “Those are just tales. You were probably dreaming. You don’t need to worry about things like that.”
“It was nice,” James said.
“I’m sure it was, dear. Help Bryna get the blankets up on the horse’s back, love,” Jane brushed off the words. “How much further, you reckon?”
The old woman bobbed Marie up and down in her arms, distracting the girl from the cold. “The men have made the trip there and back in four days, depending on how long they stuck around drinking and chatting with the folks there. If we move for most of today, I suppose we can get there within a few hours of tomorrow morning.”
Jane sighed, feeling the pack upon her back lighter than the day before. “Seems enough food and kindling for one more night…”
That day’s travel was no easier than before. The road seemed no different than the day previous, just a stripe of white among the trees, seemingly undisturbed. Jane and Bryna once again took turns upon the back of the horse, attempting to keep their strength up. James, restless, begged to be let down to trudge along on his own two feet, but the deep snow only allowed them to proceed at a crawl. It wasn’t long before the little boy was cold and tired out, asking to be returned to Jane’s back, or the saddle of the horse.
Jane began to feel the fatigue in her legs, and the exhaustion taking home in her back and arms from carrying the boy. The horse seemed to be growing equally frustrated with the trading of riders, the treading of the snow, and the lack of food about the snowy ground. Jane was with James upon the animal when she caught sight of the disturbed snow upon the road ahead.
“Bryna, what’s this now?” Jane asked, slowing the horse with little effort.
The old woman trudged forward, little Marie on her shoulder. She approached the strange tracks, running perpendicular to the undisturbed stretch of road. “Hmm.”
Jane looked either direction down the tracks that disappeared into the woods. “Did people come through here?”
“It ain’t people.”
“Wolves?” Jane asked warily.
Bryna shrugged. “We haven’t had wolves in these parts for many decades. Maybe even longer. Looks like deer. Nothing to worry about.”
“Where do the deer go, mama?” James spoke up weakly, turning himself about from his place by her stomach.
“I don’t know,” Jane replied curtly. “What sort of thing are you asking?”
“Wouldn’t they get cold out here?”
“They have fur, just like the horse here.”
James waited for a while before replying, “I wish I had fur ta’ keep warm.”
Bryna tugged on the horse’s bit and started the animal moving again with Jane on top. “What will be better than some dirty, stinky fur is a nice fire. We humans don’t have need for things like that when we have brains an' hands an' tools for creating stuff to keep us warm. Jane, we best think about settling down soon.”
“Doesn’t seem like we’ve made the same progress as yesterday,” she said warily.
“Can’t push ourselves that hard. I think we can make it by tomorrow regardless.”
Firewood was harder to find that night, with only a sole dead sapling and some scraps from the burrows about the tall trees to keep the fire burning that night. The few evergreens provided some shelter from the wind, but the cold air still pierced their damp coverings. The fire died down quicker than the night previous, just enough to cook the remaining food.
After eating, James fell asleep against the warmth of his mother but awoke suddenly to the calling of his name.
“Huh?” He said, stirring. “What, mama?”
Jane’s head was drooped down over him, and her mouth offered no hint of movement. He shifted himself back to the fire pit which had crumpled to a blackened pile of charcoal. He realized that, despite being in the depths of night, he could see his surroundings. He looked to the sky imagining to see the moon above, but instead caught sight of the orb of light slowly circling their makeshift camp.
He blinked a few more times. His small hands grasped onto the blanket at either side of him, too entranced to close his eyes or call out to his mother. The wisp circled about slowly, strobing as it passed behind the trees. It had no clear form, but its light emanated from a central point, connected to nothing there in the open air. He blinked deeply again. Out beyond the aura of light, he noticed the many smaller, glowing orbs of light shining back at him in iridescent green. Attached to them were antlers of various shapes and sizes, and some with none.
The deer stared him down. The orb of light circled above still, not seeming to be attracted to any one thing. The horse was tied to a nearby tree, its legs locked in place while it slept, head drooped to the ground. The herd of deer continued to look upon them. James had seen the frail-looking animals before there in the countryside, usually one or two, feeding on the grasses in the brush near their home in the mornings. He had never seen them in such a pack, nor ones with such great antlers. He glanced again to the wisp, wavering back and forth in the same area.
The herd animals eventually began to trod away in unison. Their hoofed feet crunched the snow beneath. James heard the horse stir with a snuffle of its nostrils. It whinnied, detecting the other animals in the distance. The little boy considered standing and calming the horse with a pet to its snout, something that old man Lewis had taught him. He remembered his father telling him of one day that he would learn to ride.
The horse’s ears twitched, listening to the muffled sounds of the darkened forest, things that James couldn’t hear himself. The wisp danced by again, casting its gentle glow. The horse finally spotted the spirit. It stomped its feet and pulled on the reins attaching it to the tree. James looked back to his mother who had yet to move. He pried her arms off his midsection and stood.
“James?” Jane muttered as she felt him depart.
“It’s okay, horsey,” the little boy muttered, shuffling his feet across the icy ground to approach it.
“James, what are you doing?” Jane called out, the sleep still clouding her senses. She sensed the light about them, something unnatural, piercing through the night. “What- what is- Bryna, wake up. There’s something- James, don’t worry yourself with the horse right now.”
The horse snorted and rolled its head, attempting to free itself. Its eyes tracked the wisp above, still circling in irregular patterns. The approach of James’ hand was too much, and it yanked on its rope. Jane snatched up the young boy before the animal could kick up toward him.
The thin rope of the animal’s harness snapped. Bryna clung to Jane’s shoulder, pulling her back. The mother shoved James back and began to run after the animal. It dashed away through the trees, dodging back and forth among the trees.
“Stop! Dumb animal! Stop!” Jane huffed, the cold air streaming into her lungs. “We need you to get to the village!”
Her eyes blurred and burned and her feet ran cold from soggy ground. The horse gained more and more distance beyond her. She finally stopped, feeling the slick ground beneath her, the solid surface of something cracking and finally her breaking through. Her feet met the icy water, cold like nothing she had experienced before. Her hands caught the muddy bank of the stream before she slipped further.
As Jane pulled herself up, she couldn’t help but notice the light guiding her in what was supposed to be the dead of night. She caught sight of the pale green light above, disappearing intermittently behind the trunks of the trees. In her mad rush after the horse, she had lost the old woman and her children, as well as the road. She wiped her hands on her coat and tucked her fingers under her arms. She couldn’t help but follow the light.
Little Marie bawled loudly, a third voice calling out for her. The light approached them first, followed by the mother, guided by the glow and the voices both. As the group reconnected at the camp, the light seemed to keep its distance. James jumped up and grabbed at his mother’s midsection. Her clothing was cold from running about the dark forest, but he couldn’t release himself.
“Bryna,” Jane began, rubbing at Marie’s hair from the old woman’s arms. “What is that?”