Sunday, 2 January 2011

Cold Snap

Sami huffed into the cold air. The ragged cloud of his hot breath reminded him of a drop of blood unfurling in water. He was wearing his thickest shirt and he tried not to shiver as they moved through the evergreens.

“We don’t really have much of a winter to speak of. This is about as cold as it gets.”

His diminutive companion remained silent.

Olla had arrived in their village three weeks ago on a crude sled pulled by white-furred dogs, the morning of the first frost when the wan sun was barely over the horizon. She had been unconscious, not too far from stepping the Bone Stairway, but Tuula the medicine woman had brought her back from the edge.

She was small and sleight enough that at first she had been mistaken for a child. Tuula had informed the village that the stranger was, in fact, a woman. Sami couldn’t imagine any man would have her for his wife though; she looked brittle, she would break too easily. He didn’t think she would survive a single childbirth.

This walk was the first time she had left the village and Tuula had insisted Sami escort her. The forests were not safe, especially at this time when prey was scarce and the wild animals hungry. Olla hadn’t seemed bothered by the cold but Sami had draped his fur over her anyway, it had made him feel colder to see her thin body in just a light shift. He decided she must be from much further north, where the climate was colder, snow a more permanent feature.

The village was out of sight now but Sami knew the forest well. Olla could wander wherever she liked and he would know the way home. There was a bear with cubs to the East, he knew to avoid her territory, but Olla had gone west anyway, towards Vaskya lake, the Vika lands and the fjords beyond. She was as silent and light on her feet as a hunter, avoiding dry branches as if it were second nature. The way she ghosted through the forest Sami felt she might disappear altogether if he didn’t keep his eyes on her.

He wasn’t the only one she spooked. Something about her paleness, her silence, her lack of presence and the piercing brightness of her ice-blue eyes had the sword-men muttering. They said she was a spirit, a sylph; that harbouring her could bring no good. When Tuula walked among them they said nothing; Tuula said she was a guest, and so she stayed, unharmed.

But Tuula wasn’t here now. Sami laid his fingers on the handle of his long knife. There was a lot that could happen between the dark pines. He needn’t even use his blade, a broken neck would be easier to explain.

Olla had stopped, distracted by something off the path. Sami moved softly up behind her, already seeing the whip of her silver hair in his mind’s eye as he twisted her head sharply. But before he could act a red splash caught his eye, where Olla was staring.

Brown red and blood red and dirty white and disturbed, bright snow. He stepped closer, his murderous intent allayed for the moment. It was a fox, torn into, torn apart, hot blood still steaming in the melting snow. Sami looked around, alert. Foxes were smart, cunning, and they were no beast’s prey. He drew his knife, watching the deep shadows intently.

Maybe the early frosts had driven something else south. The Northlanders had a hundred different names for things that Sami’s people would simply call monster.

Olla gasped.

Sami span, seeing where she was looking, seeing the matted grey fur, the bulk, the speed, the jagged claws, the bloody maw. A wolf that was nearer the size of a bear, leaping at the girl. He barged her with his shoulder, getting one hand under the wolf's chest and pushing it off-balance as its weight smashed him to the floor.

He was beneath it. His knife was out of reach. He felt the familiar battle-rage rising and dulling the pain from where claws had torn open his shoulder. This was a greater enemy than he had ever faced before. He felt nearer death than even the time Ulfrich the Mad had pinned him to the wall with one hand and swung at him with his own war axe. He could clearly see the furrows in the monster’s muzzle where its black lips were drawn back, baring its wicked teeth. Its yellowed eyes were bloodshot and wide.

He held its head up with his good arm, staring into its wild growl; his muscles tensed, straining against its bulk and strength. Its fetid breath misted across his face, thick drool and fresh blood spattering on his cheeks. It snapped at him and he pushed it one way, rolling his head the other. He grunted as its teeth nicked his ear. He tried to punch upwards with his injured arm, but it was weak, his shoulder was still trapped beneath the huge paw and the wolf barely felt it.

He saw a flicker of movement over the monster’s shoulder and then more weight pressing down on him, on the wolf. Slender arms reached round the head and before the monster could react they squeezed tight, small hands taking a firm grip. Then its whole head twisted violently as Olla flipped sideways off its back. There was a thick, tearing, snapping, cracking sound like when a tree trunk gives, but louder.

Then the weight on Sami was greater, but it was all dead weight.

He dragged himself painfully from beneath the wolf, the rage draining from him, leaving him cold. It was easily twice as big as the biggest he had ever seen. He would have difficulty dragging it back to the village.

He felt a touch on his torn shoulder.

Olla’s fingers were like ice, freezing, and Sami almost flinched away but there was some kind of relief in those chill fingers, dulling the pain. He blinked in disbelief as a patina of frost traced out across the wound from beneath her hand. The blood stopped, quicker than was natural.

She took her hand away. He flexed his arm; it felt numb, but it worked.


His mind felt numb in a different way. It tried hard to process everything that had just happened. He looked at Olla. “You broke its neck.”

“Better its neck than yours.” She looked straight into his eyes, “Or mine.”

* * *
(Snappy Titles: John Xero talks titles, narrative and names.)


  1. "he ragged cloud of his hot breath reminded him of a drop of blood unfurling in water." You have a way with imagery.

  2. Thank you =) I was setting the tone for the piece, foreshadowing and putting people's heads in a bloody frame of mind from the get go... ;)