Tracks in the snow, traces of frost
If you ask the wind where they lead
You get no response
Let them be, follow them never
They lead only to the valley
Of eternal frost
The fire that flickered on the hearth gave little heat, the thin branches that burned gave only light and she almost wished it had not been the case. She certainly did not want to see the misery for she knew perfectly well how everything in the little stone hut looked. She could find anything in there in the dark should she need to. She looked into the glowing coals and pulled the old sheepskin tighter around her thin shoulders, the cold was biting its way through everything she had of clothes and cover. She shivered and pulled her legs under her, waited patiently and faithfully for her husband to come back with food rations from the lord. He claimed that he ate his part on the way back and she knew he was lying. She’s got it all and she saw it on him, he had become even thinner these recent days and his face was ripped and no longer looked like the cheerful and boyish man she had fallen for.
He was growing weaker day by day and she noticed that the fear soon gobbled her up. She needed food for two now, was seven months pregnant and it was as if this damn winter never ever would let go of their country. They had always been poor, they were used to surviving on little up here in the mountains and knew the tricks that saved themselves and the livestock through the winter but now everything had changed. She did not understand all the men talked about but she realized that something was terribly wrong.
Dafvydd had been a strong man, cheerful and optimistic no matter what life threw at them of problems but he had withered and become withdrawn and quiet as the others there. Nobody saw any more hope, the Gods had abandoned them. The real food had ended months ago, all animals were slaughtered and people would eat almost anything they found to stave off the hunger.
She had not believed it herself when she discovered she was pregnant, had not believed that it was possible cause she had already become very thin and her monthly bleed had stopped long ago. This nightmare winter had lasted almost a year now; it was so one thought the world would perish in the snow.
Dafvydd had cried when she told him what would otherwise be happy news, he knew they probably would not survive very long. He was a good hunter, but there were no longer any animals to hunt, and the men would whisper quietly about the cause when they gathered in the ceremonial hut.
She had already sent with him everything they had of value and he had traded it for food in the villages that were lower in the terrain. They were not as affected by this strange phenomenon but they were struggling too. It spread whatever it was that was the reason. She had even given up the last belongings of her mother, beautiful embroidered ribbons the women used as decoration on dresses and blouses in summer, she cried when she gave them to him, but there was no choice. They had to have food!
The Lord tried to help them; he owned the area and was a great ruler who cared for them. He was not one of those people who use their land as a source of wealth and personal luxury; he understood well from day one that this site did not give any wealth, but a plethora of concerns and problems. He had tried to ration out the food that existed on the estate, and even the seeds that were saved for next year’s crop was used for food now, and she was grateful of the kind heart of the aging man but knew that the estate’s resources were inadequate.
For a noble in the south it would not be an estate but a hunting lodge, just a simple fortress-like building with a round wall and a few extra buildings around. It was a primitive place but it had its own old fashioned charm that she had liked the few times she had been there. The rations were small, they were not enough to keep one alive but too big to die from the others said.
Several in the small village had died in the past, for the most part young and old and those who were infirm in any way.
The family who lived closest to them had lost all five of their children during the past three months; the two parents had somehow almost faded away. It seemed that nothing mattered to them anymore. She feared being like that, so consumed by grief that nothing remained except pain and despair.
The village was small, clung onto the mountainside with its small stone huts and primitive cabins.
There was little wood so high and so most of it was built of stone and for one who did not know off it the buildings could look like a snow covered scree in the distance. Few had any firewood left either; they had to try to keep warm as best they could. Sooner or later they all died, it was the only thing most people agreed on.
She flinched, had almost fallen asleep when she heard he rummaged outside the entrance. A thick layer of snow had fallen just since the sun rose; the snowfall would certainly never end. She held her breath; he pushed open the door and entered, covered with snow everywhere. He almost looked like a snow bear a brief moment before he shook most of it off. He tried to smile as he pulled off his wet outer clothes, it was something dark in his eyes that had not been there before and it frightened her. It seemed as though he had lost hope.
“Athlinn look here, eat this. I’ve had good luck today!”
She made big eyes, next to the small package of food from the feudal lord was a hare, a tiny lean animals but it was meat and she felt that hungry howling of her stomach, her teeth ran in water. Without really thinking about what she did she tore at the carcass with her bare hands, sank her teeth into the soft fur and shook it like a wild animal. There was flesh and blood in there even though it was cold and almost half frozen. She struggled until she felt the taste of blood in her mouth, then she stopped in shock and looked startled at the bloody carcass. What in god’s name had gone into her? She was a human, not a wolf or some other predator! This was not her!
Dafvydd swallowed nervously and sat down beside her. “It’s okay dear; it’s the hunger that makes you act thus. Just eat, it will do you well, you need it!”
She sighed, feeling sick but knew she had to eat, how unappetizing and strange it was. He handed her the knife. “Here, cut it up, then it becomes easier.”
She nodded mutely and took the knife, then looked obliquely on the package he still held. “Only if you eat the ration!”
He gritted his teeth. “You shall have it, it’s for you, you and our child need it more than me”
She scowled into his eyes, suddenly threatening. “And when you are well and good starved to death, who then will feed us?”
He looked down, seemed so little, small and weak. “But ... “
She shook her head. “No excuse, eat it, or I won’t eat either!”
He sighed and packed up slowly. It was a piece of stale cheese and something that might have been bread once upon a time. “Athlinn, you’re a hard woman!”
She tried to smile. “We mountain people are hard you know. Was there any news from the lord?”
He sat down and tried to eat that wretched food, it was clear that he had not eaten in a long time. “No, they said that he had tried to send for help some time ago but there has not been any response.”
She swallowed a piece of meat; by God it was wonderful, just to feel something in her stomach again. She felt that the kid moved, perhaps it felt that she got food again? “No, who would help us? Do they know something more about why spring is not coming? Why the wildlife is gone?”
He put down the food, staring into the hissing embers. “I asked one of the feudal lord’s men, he said that the temple up by Phairtran is looted, perhaps it is the gods who are angry because mortals have desecrated their holy place. Moreover, it is whispered that there is an evil sorcerer who has thrown a spell of winter over the country and some believe that it is a monster on the loose too, that it banishes all life. He said someone had seen tracks of it and they were not of any creature ever known by mankind.”
There was something pleading in his eyes, he practically begged her not to ask more. She looked down, concentrating on the food. Whatever the reason for the cold and winter was, they could hardly expect any rescue. Why would the gods care about them? The country was small and poor and even the king who officially ruled it barely knew anything about it and cared even less. No treasurer had been there for many generations, it was simply not a coin to be found anywhere. No, they were forgotten by the world, as simple as that.
They could have fled but it was too late now, too late. Those who had been so predictive and fled down to the lowlands had been few, only a few families. Winter had seemed natural and normal to begin with and they were used to spring being late up here. When they finally realized that something was wrong most of the trails and roads were long gone and no one would take the risk of moving the family down to the lowlands when there was such avalanche danger as now. The snow hung in the steep mountain sides as grim omens of sudden death, and she had heard several slides in the past.