Inspired by Escorting the Spirit of Summer by Brian Woodward on DeviantArt.
Death-cold water lapped at Havarthr’s thighs. It seeped through fur, leather, armor and under-armor, and clothes besides. Even through three layers of thick wool socks and boots lined with bear skin.
Warm fingers tightened in his beard.
“You aren’t cold?” He asked, although he knew the answer. Beneath his foot, a rock slid to the right, the clack of wet stone on wet stone audible through his bones. Havarthr shifted his weight and braced for a moment against the pull of the river.
“No.” Summer said. Even her breath was warm, a sweet fog curling around his ear. “Not yet.”
He tightened his left arm around her legs, just briefly, and shrugged his shoulder so the heavy fur cape he was wearing would fall more neatly across her back. He knew he would get a smile. But he didn’t look at her to check.
His eyes were pinned on the mist around them, trying to sort swirling fog from snow-laden trees and crystal clear reflections from smoking earth.
This was the part of the journey where they were lost.
Havarthr hated this part.
When he’d first died, memories ago, he’d tried marking the trees as they passed, to find that marks appeared on more then just the tree he’d scared. He’d tried memorizing them, and found that every year they moved, as if the whole forest was plucked out of the water and shuffled around in their honor.
Hell, perhaps it was.
Summer had said she didn’t know. She only knew that the agreement was that they would be lost.
Now, Havarthr worked to get lost as fast as possible. It sped the process up. Slightly.
He stepped, putting his foot down through the water an inch at a time, and found a thick, twisting root. He tapped out into the fog with his sword hand. There was resistance, the distinctive soft thunk of metal on wood. A tree pulled out of the fog. Like it had been waiting for him to notice it to pull off its grey shroud.
The world, already muffled with the deadness of winter, went still. The water dripping from his sword was silent as it hit the river’s glassy surface.
Havarthr took a deep breath and shifted his weight to his toes.
He hated this part.
Summer looked behind them. He caught the movement of her golden dress in the corner of his eye. Her fingers tightened in his beard, and she pulled herself further into the crook of his arm.
“They’re coming.” She whispered.
Havarthr was already running. The weight of the water roared around him as he forced it aside.
Just a few paces. The first few paces were always clear. To encourage him to stumble. He counted, as his right foot pushed through the water and sank down the to river’s floor.
Havarthr slammed his left foot down. Momentum pushed them along the rocks, but Havarthr was braced and they slowed as they slid. The top of his right foot, still forward, hit a low crawling root. But he was already stopped.
Havarthr spat, casting a glance behind him.
The mist curled. There were no shadows. The light was too soft now, broken up by the endless water and the fog. It was dim light.
And then, something moved. Tall, slim antlers. Like branches reaching for the sky.
Havarthr faced ahead and began to move again. To move quickly, but not to run. If he ran, he would trip. The ground was more uneven then an old man’s face, and it bit with winter cold.
Far ahead and to the left he heard howling. Deeper then a wolf, louder. But it had the same effect on his soul: to remind him that he was in the depths of winter’s fortress with nothing to do but run.
Havarthr resisted the urge. Summer had whispered to him stories of his predecessors. Grim warnings, those old shades of long dead warriors. At that thought, cresting another slippery rock, Havarthr chuckled. He was a long dead warrior. And old, too. Now when had that happened?
“Two years ago.” Summer said, her voice a warming whisper in his ear. “When they touched you.” She sounded sad. Sad and tired.
Havarthr’s smile turned into a grimace. “We’re almost there, lass. Keep your chin up.”
Her train stretched behind them, bright against the dim of the world. That was what the spirits followed. Bone noses probably didn’t work. But no matter how much of it he wrapped around him, there was still more.
Perhaps it was her scent, made physical so that he could follow it the same as they.
Another rock slid under his feet, then a whole series of pebbles. Havarthr braced both legs as the ground seemed to slide.
Ice. The bottom of the river bed was frozen.
No wonder his toes were cold.
Damn spirit world. What the hell kind of river froze on the bottom?
The fog was rising thick and fast in front of him. No, not fog. Steam.
The river was cooling. Rapidly.
Havarthr looked around, taking a deep breath. The air bit sharply into his nose, mouth and lungs. Behind him, he could hear howling. But he couldn’t hear the spirits. They made no noise, not until they were close enough to touch.
He felt pressure grow on his boots, as the ice began to form around them.
Tree, three feet to the left. Branch, hanging overhead. Too thin for him. He shifted Summer in his arm, so that she was resting on his palm, and then lifted her over his head. “Grab, lass!”
She was already grabbing, train curled around him and trailing in the water. The branch crackled at her touch, and the ice fell off of it in shards.
Havarthr lept to the base of the tree. A pile of roots, raised like an island. Icy boots, already melting, hit icy roots. He slid. Havarthr slammed his sword into the ground.
He stopped sliding.
The tree groaned, and the roots screamed as they tried to grow.
Havarthr pulled himself up onto the roots, ripped the sword out.
“It’s chilly.” Summer whispered, from above him.
He raised his arm. “Come on back here, where it’s warm.”
She climbed onto his hand, and her curled her back up to his chest. She pulled the huge cape around her, and dug her warm fingers into his beard.
Through the fog, Havarthr could see the long, thin shapes of winter coming.