I was beginning to wonder why this journey through the mountains was as dangerous as I had heard. Why would even soldiers meant for the cruelty of life fear this tedious trek?
But then the storm hit.
We had seen it brewing over the past couple of days, but the force of the blizzard was unforeseen. The strength of the wind was unbearable as we managed to put up the tent in the best way we could. There would be no fire tonight, for the weather prohibited such a thing, so we sat bundled up in everything we had for warmth.
The only true warmth was the blazing pain in my foot. It had begun throbbing even harder as we hiked upward, but I my pride got the best of me and I kept my mouth shut.
I wasn't sure whether the brunette had finally fallen asleep; regardless, I sat there, knees drawn up as my teeth clattered against one another. A wicked howl swept through the trees sounding like the echoes of a thousand lost souls, stolen from past victims of the mountain. We would be lucky if we weren't frozen to death by the morning.
I needed warmth severely and looking over towards the other woman, I was fairly certain she did too. Barely placing a hand upon her arm, I could feel her shivering, but as soon as contact was made I recoiled back. In that instance, this already confined space grew smaller.
I clutched the blanket around me urging whatever deity that existed to provide me some form of warmth. Oh how I wish we could go right back to the springs. I would give anything. At least if I froze tonight, it would be a fitting death for a woman with no heart.
Eventually, I found myself lying down. There was a sliver of heat emanating from our bodies, but not enough to provide any comfort. With my back turned away, I clamped my eyes shut and willed for this hell to be over with. I didn't care anymore about vengeance. I didn't care anymore if I even survived. All I wanted was to be warm again.
Just as my thoughts bitterly passed through my mind, I heard a movement behind me, and before I had time to register what was happening, a strong arm wrapped around my waist as a body was pressed into my back. I froze, but not from the cold. There was an instant difference of temperature once our bodies came into full contact and I did the only thing I could think of. My frozen fingers found her arm and I pulled her closer.
The contradictions of my heart and soul were tearing away at each other, but I tried to push it aside. I told myself simply to focus on the warmth, not where it was coming from, but I felt her warm breath against my neck as she nuzzled closer. It was unknown whether this was an act she did in her sleep or by consciousness. Nevertheless, I couldn't let out a single word from my lips, so I laid there entranced by a smell that I had come to know as the brunette's and soon drifted off into sleep.
When I awoke, I realized something was different than the previous nights. I was warmer than one would expect to be with only the shelter of a tent in the middle of a snowstorm, but the origin of the warmth wasn't from a body either. My brows furrowed when I saw the extra blanket that had been thrown overtop of me.
I tried to suppress a smile, yet it came anyways. I looked over to find that, once again, Snow wasn't beside me, but the crackling of something outside told me I would find her near.
As I pushed back the flap, I noticed that the wind had stilled for the moment, but the frozen flakes still floated downward in a steady but slow cascade. I was more than surprised to find that Snow had managed to start a small fire as she held her hands out to the flickering orange. It struggled against the damp ice all around, but lived nevertheless.
"Hey," she said with a soft smile when she spotted me watching her.
I gave her an awkward nod in return and arose from the tent, pulling my fur coat close to me. As I did, however, I winced when pressure was put back onto my right foot, having forgotten all about it from a surprisingly dreamless sleep.
She was, presumably, about to ask me how I had slept until she caught the look of pain on my face and rapidly rose.
"Is it bad? Your foot?" I didn't care to filter out my worries of pride at the moment and I nodded. "Let me have a look at it."
She motioned for me to sit down upon one of the only dry spots and I did, slowly undoing the strings to my boot and slipping it off with a bit more difficulty than there should have been. For as bad as it had been aching last night, I shouldn't have been surprised at the array of colors that danced around pale, swollen skin. However, we both let out a gasp.
"Wilma!" her hands immediately went to the damaged limb, her cool hands easing the burning instantly, "Why didn't you tell me it was this bad?"
"I," I stuttered for words as if I was being yelled at, "I didn't know."
I pursed my lips and stared into the forest around us. I wasn't used to someone caring about my wellbeing. From the corner of my eye I saw her balling up a handful of snow, enough to cover my swollen foot.
"You need to rest it for a while."
But I had to oppose. We needed to get off this mountain before the storm became worse, but who knew how close we were to the end. The snow was already slick as it is and the longer we rested, the icier it could become.
"No," I told her firmly before looking at her.
Hazel eyes looked into mine as if they were studying me, searching for something but coming up empty. She sighed.
"Why must you be so stubborn?"
"Why can't you accept that I'm fine?"
"Because you're not Wilma! You've barely slept at all in at least a week from only nightmares I can assume. Of what? I don't know because you won't tell me." My heart stopped. She knew I was having nightmares? Although I hadn't asked aloud, my face was enough. "I've heard you during the night tossing in your sleep and you jumping awake."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I tried to ask, but you're so closed up," her eyes closed only to open up a few seconds later, "what's going on with you?"
I bit the inside of my cheek almost to the point of breaking skin. She knew I hadn't been sleeping well. Except last night…last night was the first time in a while I had slept without those burdening visions.
"My mind is plagued by unspeakable things."
I remained silent, but just as I did there came that wicked howl again from the night before that made me shiver down to my core. I had never heard wind sound so unnatural and sinister before.
"Nevermind," Snow said as she sat up and began collecting a pot that was on top of the fire. She poured water the hot water into the mug and handed it to me, "drink this and we'll be on our way. I'll go find you a suitable walking stick."
I watched as she turned her back towards me and headed out of sight. Once her visual was gone, I looked down into the metal mug to find that it wasn't simply water. At the bottom there looked to me crushed up remains of an herb. I wearily examined it with a fine eye, my first instinct telling me it had been poisoned, but with a small whiff of the aroma I instantly knew it was quite the opposite.
As I sipped on the herbal tea, it wasn't long after that my pain began to fade away. I was more than thankful for the relief; however, I knew that it would only last a few hours.
Eventually Snow came back with a suitable branch for me to use in order to alleviate pressure on my foot. I continued to argue about it, but she simply disregarded me and packed up everything.
Walking. Walking. Walking. That's all we ever really did minus sleeping. I wouldn't admit it to her face, but the walking stick did more than enough to help the pain. It provided another source of traction against the slick snow. We continued upwards, unknowing that the peak wasn't far and soon we would be headed downward towards the other side.
To me, it was like being stuck in oblivion, walking forever onward against the trepidating cold. I took notice very quickly of the silence I was granted this morning, and for once I regretted ever opening my mouth. Normally the long hours of the day were filled with stories of her journey from the queen which aided in advancing time. With only the sound of the still earth, every footstep felt like an eon.
The air was beginning to grow thick with something I couldn't explain. For a very sure moment I thought I was going to suffocate under the overwhelming melancholy that surrounded us. I stopped dead in my tracks just as Snow whispered something inaudible to herself.
It was a group of travelers, perhaps half a dozen, frozen to the icy ground. Some looked as if they knew what was coming and had accepted it, their eyes closed while the other's eyes remained open, forever staring into the white snow around them with terror.
My knees buckled beneath me when my eyes fell upon one of the deceased corpses holding a bundled up blanket against their chest. It was an infant. A poor innocent infant that had become victim to the wrath of Mother Nature.
No, I cried to myself, this isn't right. This isn't fair.
I felt strong arms wrapping around me from behind, yet I couldn't move. I could barely hear her as she tried to coax me back into my sanity. It was a miracle that the tears spilling down my cheeks didn't turn to ice.
I was a heartless queen until it came to a child's innocence, for they couldn't control the world around them; they couldn't take actions into their own hands.
"Wilma," I heard her say to me for the first time in a few hours, "Wilma, we have to go. We can't do anything…"
"...That isn't fair," my eyes remained glued on the babies frozen gaze that was looking up at its mother, and of course my mind began to run away with ill thoughts.
Who froze first? Was the baby left behind to freeze while it wondered where all the warmth went, wondering why his mother wasn't soothing away his fears? or did the mother have to watch as her babies eyes glossed over with death, holding him close against her while crying for him to come back. Cursing at the gods for allowing this to happen.
It didn't matter. None of this mattered, yet I pondered over it as if my life depended on it.
"They knew what they were walking into through these mountains, whoever they are," I heard Snow say and with that I pulled away with a sudden jerk, snapping my head around in furry.
"Do not tell me that they were walking into their death," I scolded as cold as ice, "Do not tell me that the poor child had no hope to begin with once they started whatever crazy journey they were on."
My tears betrayed my voice and eventually even my voice broke.
"...We don't know what happened," her voice was solemn and sad just as it should have been when witnessing such a devastating sight, "nor should we stay here to find out for ourselves."
"That poor child…" frosty breath fell from my lips as I bent down to run a hand across the fragile, pale corpse. There was no saying how long they had been here; it could have been months for all we knew or perhaps only days.
When I found the mother's eyes, a wicked shiver ran down my spine. They were filled with death and terror of something that only an insidious force could provoke. I knew that look all too well, for I had once been the one to elicit it.
I wiped away my own tears and looked up to see the brunette looking down at me with sorrow-filled eyes. She extended her hand in which I took, my icy fingers suddenly wishing to cling onto something filled with life.
Why had they been running? What made them take this dangerous path? Were they running just as we were from danger only to stumble into another? My mind was plagued even as we turned our backs to the dead, and for once I was clutching onto the hand laced through mine, begging whatever god out there for an answer to why innocence must be stripped from all things precious.
Just as I was growing used to the brunette's warmth, she pulled it away.
"Where are you going?"
"Hang on," she replied over her shoulder and walked back towards the hikers. Kneeling down, she began searching through their frozen bags.
"Snow, you just can't-"
"They're dead. They have no use for their supplies anymore."
She had a point, yet it still seemed like robbing to me. But when did I care about stealing from the dead? Sighing, I leaned onto my walking stick and waited.
She was able to acquire a few more items. A bit of food that had been preserved from the cold along with other supplies that might come in handy.
"That wasn't natural," Snow said as we crept away.
"Of course it wasn't. When is freezing to death natural?" my voice was foreign as they spilled out.
"No, I mean...did you feel the air? Something wasn't right back there. They surely didn't just all freeze at once."
Her point was taken, but what could it have been? If magic was at my fingertips, I would have felt no fear and urged on whatever force to come, but without my security I was terrified of what was waiting for us.
Running all the stories I had heard through my head, I tried to piece together why the Mountain elicited such a dreadful emotion. Many adventurers that entered never came out, but those that did told stories that were deemed crazy.
We weren't even a half hour away from the hikers when I heard that howl again through the trees, but this time it was so loud that it pierced my ears. The wind began to stir violently as the snowflakes turned into ice pellets.
"...Snow?" I turned towards her with open fear.
Another shriek and I swore it sounded like it was right behind us.
"Don't move," she whispered as she reached for her bow.
The hard balls of ice fell down from the sky and I opened up my hand, watching the beads add up rapidly. There was a deafening shriek that I was certain sounded like trapped souls and I bit down on my lip.
Those were only stories. Only stories.
"...What is it?" I managed to whisper.
"Spirit of the ice."