I wake this morning with the chill in my bones. For only a few weeks now, the winter has blown over the lands. The fire died at dawn. My wife and I burned thatch from the roof, over what was going to be the nursery when I hauled the stone from the White River and built the walls. I had struggled out to the Lord’s Woods the day before and threw my axe at the ancient oaks. The sovereigns had all frozen solid in their silk robes and feathered beds, so I feared not the legal retribution. My axe hit the frozen tree like a clapper to a bell, and the oaks rang like church music. We have no more fuel. I’ll claw at the hard ground until my hands rip bloody to burn the roots.
My wife stirs. We huddle together, our bodies locked, suckling warmth from the other’s flesh, yet there is still a distance, a void draining from between.
“You no longer love me,” my wife says, slurring her words. “And I’ve grown so old from it. You dream, and you no longer love me. You dream of another.”
I say nothing. Three years hence, when the dreams started, I still saw my Fiona as my sun burning at the heart of me. The dreams were a fantasy from childhood, when I climbed the mountains for a game. The dreams returned to me in the boredom of the daily toil of my farm, to distract me from hog stink. I have lied since then, and she believed my deceptions. We all delude ourselves in life, that the warm seasons will never die. Still, my thoughts circulated in cyclone around the ice lady in my night reveries. And I held to Her when I made love to my bride, longing to feel my skin harden and crack to Her touch.
“You did this somehow, killed the land. Brought this ice to the world. An ancient god slept, and you woke Her. I felt it when you betrayed me. I fell on my knees. Don’t bother ripping down more thatch. Let the wind come. I’ll sleep. Oh let the ice come.”
“My vow to you before Heaven, to cherish and protect you.”
“You are a villain, Andres. Do not have a heavy heart over it. All men are villains.”
I break from the bed. The air whips my flesh, and I wrap myself in bear and fox furs.
“Stay here and sleep then,” I say.
“Going out to die alone?”
“I have my love. And I have my vow.”
I dress in three layers of burlap and wool and tie the axe sling to my shoulder. I throw my body against the cottage door, finally breaking through the ice layer. It freezes over the windows in a lacquer. Wind rakes its fingers through the portal, and I slam the door. I seal it with quilts before I forever leave my home. I pump my legs twice as hard to trudge through the snow sea above my thighs. The snow rolls and crests down the hillside, blanketing the turf and potato garden, piling over the fence. Somewhere beneath the hoary splendor, our hogs have petrified in place. I march to the shed and dig through the mounds, searching for my axe that I flung in anger from the futility of chopping wood. My hands burn through the rabbit skin gloves, and I pause to wrap the heavy wool scarf Fiona wove for me over my bearded mouth. It’s frayed at the edge. I’ve always handled it with care. I find the gnarled handle, and I pull it up through the weight of the snow. I holster it in the sling on my back, then I look to the hills and onward to the Dragún-sneachta mountains, where I played as a child and dreamed of falling in love. That’s where She first touched my heart, the night a sudden blizzard trapped me in the caves that early spring. I’d driven her from my mind, a child’s fantasy. Then three years hence, I trapped fox deep into the old stone giants and found the cave once more, read the carvings in the walls, felt my fingers in the grooves.
My mother warned not to play in the hills. ‘Snow Dragons.’
I climb the hill, struggling over the rise to push deeper into the foothills. My axe weighs me to the earth, but I push forward, marching into the raw face of the wind. After a day’s travel, reaching the trail into the mountains, I rest beneath the cover of statue beech trees, their leaves frozen in ice like mint sugar candy.
I climb through the night, wondering how long Fiona will last. My muscles ache, burn like hot coals, and the warmth flows through me, distracting me from the conditions. I climb over the granite rises, following the old trapper’s trail, deeper into the snow dragons. She waits for me, higher along, near the clouds. Instead of slowing from the fatigue, I move faster on fleet fox feet, dancing on the top of the snow banks. I am homecoming. She waits. Snow dragon. The old Goddess who slept, shackled to the twilight realms by the pagan priests who lived in this mountain, who drove the long winter from this land so we could till the soil and swim in the rivers. Just a story. A legend. Then the dreams came, and we made love in the reverie, in the cold mist, our bodies freezing into a solid mass, always now united, merged in ice. I denied the love as spurious, but slowly I moved from my bride Fiona. Then, a week hence, I could stand it no longer. I aimed my lips to the hills and kissed the wind. I spoke those few mortal words of consequence to the inchoate Goddess, that incantation reserved only for Fiona. I broke my marriage bond, and I broke Her bonds.
The pagan shamans never considered this key. Who could love the winter?
I trip over a brown carcass, still loose and wet. The bear had recently died. I hack its body with the axe, chopping out layers of fur. I rub its body fat on my skin and chew down a mouthful of its raw flesh. The salty blood warms down my throat, and new energy surges into my limbs. My heart beats faster. I hike forward. The wind blows the snow down the cliffs, stinging my eyes, fogging the air, but the snow is shallow.
By next nightfall, I crawl to the flat summit, up over the granite shoulders of Dragún-sneachta. My hands and legs fall numb, and I crawl with faith, driven forward to the ancient stone circle, the sacrificial ground where the early tribes drove stone knife into living hot hearts of virgins to quench Her thirst, to fight Her winter.
I reach the circle in the dark, low-lit through the moon still breaching through the heavy cloudbank imprisoning the sky, chaining my Fiona’s stars. I owe my life to her. I have my debt to repay. When my heart slipped away, I pulled my body from my wife. The cot sat empty in our nursery. Fiona still so young could love again and sprout and be fulfilled.
I am a villain.
I stand before the pillars, the ancient stone dolmans raised in praise of Her. A cyclone spins the circumference, whipping wildly at the sky. The petrified dead wearing armor, warriors who came to end the eternal winter, heroes who could not breach the cyclone, litter along the wall. My love waits for me through the manic winds. I strip off the furs and burlap. It fails to snow here. The still air vibrates like a plucked guitar string. I leap through the maelstrom. It scratches my red skin, rips my face. I scream into the roar of the cyclone from the pain from tearing muscles. It snaps my bones. I fall down the other side in the stone circle, a clump of shredded flesh and pulverized bone. I bleed into the compressed snow floor, staining it crimson. My vision darkens. Then I hear a voice, deep in a cello hum, whipping like the winter gales:
“Flesh. Flesh be easy. Flesh was born of water. Water by my command.”
Ice needles pierce my skin, poke my bones. I fight not to scream in the agony, not in front of Her, but I howl while the needles travel and seek wound and fracture to mend.
“Stand now. Be whole now my mortal. Come to me.”
I push myself up, still weighed by my axe, the hard iron, the fine edge. She stands in the circle heart, beneath a statue stump once raised to her likeness and forever beauty. Her ivory skin glows in the dark, the flesh of her thin limbs. Her transparent ice dress reveals the fulsome curve of her breast, fleshy round thigh, the gentle turn of her back. Her damp hair blows in her resident wind. I move to her, and ice flakes grow on my skin.
“You weren’t real. I never believed.”
“Always have I been, born in the absolute cold of dark space. This is my world, lost only for a time. It shall be mine again. Warm blood. You too are mine to nourish me.”
“How can winter love?” I ask.
“Cold is not a force. It is a void, an absence, always longing for love, to be filled.”
“And I am here.”
“This shall be our ever kingdom, frozen in place, never moving. Love ever and ever.”
I embrace her, wrapping my arms around her back. She sighs, and a blizzard blows from her blue lips. Those lips I kiss, and our mouths merge. Her ice flows through me, and I sigh in this ecstasy. We bond in new marriage but not true marriage. I cannot. My promise ties me to Fiona, though for moments I dream of this love forever in a frozen white kingdom of ice trees that ring like church bells.
I must pay my debt to Fiona.
I reach to my back and pull my axe from the sling. I throw my arm, aiming the blade at our joining neck. She lashes her head, but she cannot break free of me, doesn’t wish to be emancipated of me. Her body grows, limbs surging into clawed feet, arms into white wings. Her eyes burn azure. The snow dragon takes flight, and the force fights my arm, my axe from connecting, cutting, slicing. We break through the cloudbank, and I close my eyes from the white froth, focused, struggling my axe. I swing fast with the last of my strength, and it spits her neck, breaking free ice scales. Her head breaks to the side, hanging off her tendril neck. Violet blood rushes over my body. We fall.
She speaks into my mouth:
“I loved your hero’s heart. I knew you’d free me. Heroes always free their love.”
“And now I must slay you. Kill us. Not for my love but for the all the loves to come. Heroes honor their promises. We pay our debts.”
“I am your debt. Winter is your debt.”
“And I am here.”
Before we strike the ground, I feel peace. We will be together, frozen here on the mountain in ice, listening to the bells in the ice.
My love winter.
©T. Fox Dunham 2012
T. Fox Dunham resides outside of Philadelphia PA—author and historian. He’s published in over 150 international journals and anthologies, and his first novella, New World, will be published by May December Publisher. He’s a cancer survivor. When he’s not writing, he’s catching trout with a black lure or play D&D with his mates. His friends call him fox, being his totem animal, and his motto is: Wrecking civilization one story at a time. Blog: http://tfoxdunham.blogspot.com/. http://www.facebook.com/tfoxdunham & Twitter: @TFoxDunham