The fire had burned out hours ago, but the wind would not stop. It screamed outside, dragging snow in through the window to pile up in lumps on the wall and small drifts on the floor, where it didn’t melt away but only moved around across the wall into the corners. The icicles were growing longer, dripping down the wall like the claws of some unclean thing.
He had tried, a little, running around in circles to keep warm; rubbing his hands over himself or breathing into them. But it didn’t help anymore. The very air hurt to breathe, stung the insides of his nose and mouth like it was fire. Even as he sat huddled in the blankets on the bed, the cold had leached all the feeling out of his hands and feet and the flesh of his face, turning them into hard stone, or metal. He’d stopped shivering a while ago, and now had no strength but to sit, and wait.
Probably he was going to die. After all, it seemed that the night was not even half over, and no-one would come until the morning. No-one would care to come. And the storm would not end, the storms never ended in the winters.
Was it going to hurt? Was it going to hurt, to die, once the numbness, the stone-ice-feeling had crept all the way up his limbs and through his chest and into his heart?
Even time seemed to be running oddly, for it felt both fast - with every blink he expected the sky without the window to have grown lighter - and yet very very slow, the seconds, heartbeats on a loop each running back into the one before it. Or maybe that was just another part of dying, that time stopped working for you.
He just wanted someone to come. Even if it was her. Just not to die alone. Please.
And, as though his thoughts had summoned it, there came the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside, and they stopped outside the door, blocking the thin slit of torchlight that came through the gap beneath. Their owner seemed to hesitate for a second, and he thought no, please don’t go at them, please, they couldn’t just leave him to the cold, they couldn’t be so close and yet -
And the person stepped in through the door, torchlight puddling around their ankles. The light from the window was very faint, filtered as it was through snow, but it was still strong enough to pick out their features all in grey and black edges.
It wasn’t her. It wasn’t him, either. This new man was younger than both of them, his eyes dark as soot and hair cut off ragged just over his ears. He wore strange clothes, too, a short square tunic that was not made of wool or of linen but something thicker, duller, and furry trousers that were left loose all the way to his feet, and round boots. Shadows had been painted under his jaw and disappeared down the neck of the tunic, and in his right hand the man held a wooden staff tipped at the end with three white points that looked very very sharp.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from that spear, not though the man stepped forwards and said something he didn’t listen to, not though he scuffed through the snow on the floor to bend down next to the bed, and when the man stretched out his free hand towards him he flinched away, not wanting to feel its bite. Something pained flashed over the man’s face at that, and he let his hand drop back down. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The sharp edges were still there, though, and the cold that was binding him down and making him too sluggish to crawl away or to shield himself. Why wouldn’t he hurt him? It would be even easier now, and he was going to die anyway.
The man seemed to think for a second, and then he stepped away and crouched down to the floor, setting down his spear. Empty-handed he stood back up, and looked back towards him. “Better?” he asked.
He had burrowed so deeply into himself to get away from the cold that he almost didn’t recognize it was a question. He made himself nod, although it took some effort.
“Do you have no wood?”
He shook his head slightly. No, no wood and no peat, because if he did he would not be freezing to death, he would have rewoken the fire and would be curled up in front of it now, like he always did when the winter storms came. A few times it was the only way he had made it through the night, by almost putting himself in the embers.
“I’m going to come closer, now,” said the man, and took two steps in his direction. “Is that okay?” One more step. And another. And then the man lowered himself slowly to the floor next to the bed, and leaned back into the frame so that when he looked at him he was looking up. From this angle, he didn’t look quite as threatening as before, and he could see that his hair was reddish under the faint sky-light.
And “Here,” said the man, and he raised up his hand, and there was a flame in his palm, licking at his fingers and throwing long shadows over both of them and onto the walls. Despite himself he leant closer to it, letting the warmth spill out over his frozen face and frozen hands. Seeing this, the man held it closer, surrounding them both in a ball of orange light.
“Is that better?” he asked, and he nodded fervently, as his cheeks started to burn in the warmth, and his fingers and toes began to thaw out. With the thawing came pain, such pain, a crushing and tingling all at once, and he pressed them against his chest, lips, wrung his fingers against each other to try and relieve it. So focussed on drinking in the warmth and melting the ice that was beginning to invade his flesh, he didn’t notice the man’s skin beginning to redden and blister under the fire.
“You should go to sleep,” the man said, not unkindly, and as though the words had been a spell tiredness came on him all at once, running down from his scalp into all of his limbs and pushing his eyelids down. He curled down sideways on the bed, and with the hand that was not burning the man took the blanket and dragged it up over his shoulders, until he could bury his face in it so as not to lose the warmth of his breath in the night. The wind hadn’t stopped, but it seemed further away now, like it couldn’t touch him through the walls and the firelight and the blanket, and he snuggled down further, so that only his eyes were exposed.
Just before he fell asleep, he thought he felt the man’s hand come down on his skull, gently - too gently, he hadn’t known any touch could be that soft - thought he felt him stroke it back from his face, and it felt good, blessedly good. Vaguely he willed it not to stop, never to stop.
Sleep tugged him away from the touch, and deep, deep away.
When he woke up it was quieter - the storm must have died down. And for a moment the soft darkness he had wrapped around him was lovely and safe, and he tried to snuggle back down into it, longing for more -
And then the memories came back, and he snapped his eyes open and sat up. The light coming in through the window was stronger, and there were no more flakes of snow swirling outside. He could see the whole of the room in colour, not just in edges and shadows like he could in the dark.
The man had not moved from where he sat, his legs folded up in front of him and his head leaning back lazily against the bedframe. The flame still burned just below his right shoulder, although it was lower now, giving out a slow steady warmth more than light. The rest of his right arm from just above the elbow down to the fingertips had all burned away, leaving nothing but charred bones folded across his knees. Although the man didn’t seem to mind.
The stones of the floor were damp, all the snow having melted away from the fire’s heat, and the icicles under the window glistened and dripped gently.
So he was not dead, then. And all because of the fire, all because, somehow, this… person had known he was freezing and had come to share his warmth with him. That thought, he felt, was going to take a long time to worry out and understand. It wasn’t… something he’d known people could do.
He stretched out an arm and rubbed the sleep away from his eyes, and, as though the movement had been sensed - and maybe it had been, they always did seem to know although he couldn’t figure out how - there were more steps on the stone outside in the corridor. He jerked up straight, because these ones he knew, knew better than his own, and his heartbeat and breathing quickened as much as he wished they would not. Because these footsteps were hers, and when she came…
Evidently having caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, the man looked back at him. He must have caught the fear on his face, for he rolled to his knees without speaking and wrapped one skeletal and one normal hand around the shaft of his spear, which still lay where he had left it, and hefted it steadily. Soft boots soundless on the floor, he moved to stand between the bed with him on it and the door, and it was a lot less frightening now, to have something there blocking her, to have the tines pointed away instead of towards him.
Her steps approached, and stopped, just outside. A key scraped in the lock, and faintly he heard the mechanism click. And then the sliver of torchlight grew wider, and the door swung open, and it passed through the man as though he had never been there at all, and he was gone.
In his place stood only her instead.
Please don't judge me.
They’d finally made it back to the treeline in the late afternoon, and he was surprised at how much he’d missed green. Even the spruces, all uniform, their bark a barren and dusty grey and the needles thin on the branches and dry on the ground, seemed such a blessing after the endless white expanse of the tundra behind them.
And, with wood now readily available after cutting off some dead lower branches, they’d lit a real fire tonight, not just one of the small dish-lamps that they’d taken back from the land beyond the rainbow. Probably a larger fire than they had really needed to keep warm, but it had been amazing, watching how the flames had restored life to the entire band, brought the warmth back into Jessa’s cheeks and the light back into Hakon’s eyes.
Kari didn’t know what could bring him back, since the fire hadn’t managed it. Not the fire, nor the sunlight that had blazing down all day, bright white off the snow.
Maybe he ought to have died there. Even in Eljudnir perhaps he would have been able to find more joy. There he wouldn’t have the whole weight of his future life stretching out before him, and no idea how to handle it. Too exhausted to believe he could live it, really.
The ravens had given up trying to comfort him, and had gone from riding on his shoulders, pressed soft and feathery to the sides of his jaw such that he could hear the offset beating of their hearts as he walked, to flitting from tree to tree around their group. Even them he couldn’t blame. If he’d had a choice he wouldn’t have been with himself either, would’ve run off and burrowed down beneath the snow and hibernated until all was well again.
Soon, thankfully, the other four had unrolled their bedrolls in a circle around the fire and lain down, breathing slowing as one by one they drifted off to sleep. Kari curled up atop his, blanket pulled up around his waist as the temperature dropped with the sun, and stared at the fire. If he slept, he knew what he would see. Every previous night had been full of ash, whole woods shattered, blood and warfare, his friends trying to flee or standing at the front lines with their minds wiped clean, and sometimes it was Gudrun’s doing and sometimes it was his own, always waking him choking, trying to seize the stars for balance. No, better just to let the orange glow, the ever-new dance of the flames, and the crumbling of ash hypnotize him into some kind of calm.
Something cracked, off in the woods, and his head snapped up. Probably just a tree branch giving under the weight of its snow, or a reindeer stepping on a twig. Even a bear would not dare approach their camp if it saw their fire. Nonetheless, his breathing refused to calm, his hand trembling as he debated whether or not to draw his knife.
Something moved, in the shadows of the trees. It didn’t have the silhouette of a reindeer. Closer, now, and he caught head, arms, eyes all human, and he was just about to stand up and call to wake the others when he saw that behind it the trees were still there, faint and smoky through the creature’s body, and he realized there was no point. None of them could see the dead. That was his curse, and his alone.
The ghost came closer, ignoring Kari’s careful ignoring of it, in the hopes that it could take a hint. How could he deal with someone else’s sorrow when his own nearly drowned him? It stepped over Jessa’s blanketed legs and settled down at his right hand, folding its knees neatly, and he couldn’t help peeking out of the corner of his eye. Certainly not one of his own people - its hair was more ragged than even a thrall would keep it, curling around its chin and not quite concealing barred shadows slashing across its neck. Though this far north it remained cold always, it wore only a single tunic of tanned hide, with, shamefully, furred trousers and soft boots sewn on the outside. Their soles were rough - sealskin, maybe? It - he, this close he could tell it was male - set down, across his lap, a spear with shaft split into three, each tine tipped with barbed bone points lashed in sinew. A trapper, maybe? Hunter? He was reminded of the scraeling woman and her goats, that impression that she was not only inhabitant but part of the land herself.
“What do you want?” he asked dully. Just leave me alone, he wanted to say, but that truly would be cruel.
“Don’t you remember me?” the spirit asked innocently.
“No,” he said. The woods were full of ghosts, when he chose to see them, and more all the time. There was no way he could remember them all, nor try without going insane. It had been long since he had mastered the ability to turn off that part of himself, to pull a panel across the sympathy. It was less than effective for himself, though.
The spirit didn’t take the opportunity to elaborate. Above them, the green ribbons of the aurora danced and shimmered like a great fire, or like an endless field of reeds bowing and swaying in the wind.
“What’s your name?” Kari asked finally. He had made an admittedly half-hearted attempt to find it, but there was nothing inside the spirit to gain purchase on, like trying to grasp a handful of smoke. He shook his head. “I don’t remember,” he answered. The flames popped loudly as a resin pocket within the spruce wood burst open, scattering sparks to snuff themselves out on the snow and whirl upwards to join the aurora. Kari flinched. The spirit didn’t. “I lost it, long ago,” he went on.
“Sorry,” he answered.
“Don’t be.” It reached out towards the fire, and he wanted to cry out no, magefire could destroy the dead as much as the living, but the spirit scooped up a tongue with his first two fingers, tilted his head to look at it as though it were appraising a gem at market. “Besides, I am not here for me.” The flame rolled over his knuckles and wound itself around his wrist as the spirit turned his hand, eventually letting it scurry onto his palm and sit there like a pet mouse. “The whole forest knows you are hurt. What is wrong, Kari?” he asked, and breathed upon the flame until it swelled to fill his entire hand.
And then he did remember. Well, half-remember, but a few memories started slotting together into the black space at the fire’s heart, and he realized that some of them he had known, and had just brushed away as fabrications - the impression of light in that dark room, and he had thought someone cared but had thought he only believed that because he had wanted it enough.
“You know what’s wrong,” he answered.
“Tell me anyway.”
So he told it of the assault on the Jarlshold, of their journey north to rescue Signi, of the land beyond the rainbow. His conflict with Gudrun, and Moongarm’s sacrifice. “And now -” I think part of myself got trapped in the spirit world with them. I don’t think we’re going to make it home, and even if we do I don’t know what I’ll do then. How I’ll survive.
“It’s going to be okay,” said the spirit, dropping the flame back into the fire, which flared to receive it.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s… more up to you, really.”
Sure. Of course. Leave it up to him, like always. His fault, always, that the Hold got targeted, his fault she had wanted him so badly she would cast everyone else aside in that pursuit. His fault, and so his to fix.
He was so tired of being strong. So tired of always having that abyss under him, that sucking pull that was corruption. Power was power, pure and simple, it had no morality to it; people brought their morality, and since he was person too he was so so fragile.
“I’m always going to be her son, though.” After all, wasn’t that what she had always said? Wasn’t it what they all thought, back in the Jarlshold?
The spirit turned his spear in his fingers, frowning at the joints where tines met shaft. “You have it the wrong way around,” he said finally. “She will always be your mother. But you have a whole life to be whatever you wish.”
No. No, he didn’t. Because what he really wished to be was who he had been before, when his mother hadn’t wanted to target him and had been content for him just to freeze in Thrasirshall and he hadn’t been a sorcerer, not really. When he hadn’t yet been forced to raise a hand against anyone, and least of all - “I didn’t kill her, but I did as good as. I didn’t want to die, so it had to be – but I don’t know if that makes it better or if I’m just -“
The spirit put a hand on Kari’s shoulder. “Kari Ragnarsson,” he said, “all sorcery requires sacrifice. You just have to decide what, and when. If it helps,” he added, a little apologetically, “it had to be done. I can tell you that. For the sake of more people than just you, and her. For the sake of the many,” and his smile didn’t get anywhere near his eyes, “if you’re willing to carry that, you are a good person.”
Oh, and who told you that? he wanted to snarl. If you were good only based on your intentions, and those could only be evaluated after the fact, then how was there any way to succeed at it at all? If it all rested on others and their judgment.
But something tasted wrong about the words, the way it had said it. Like they didn’t fit right in the spirit’s mouth, either, were bitter for it too. “If you are a ghost,” Kari asked, “how did you die?”
The spirit ducked his head and turned away, staring fixedly into the fire, and the empty hole inside Kari slipped a little wider. That had been the wrong question to ask. Could he ever stop hurting anyone? He terrified the living and dredged up the dead’s pain and he didn’t know what to say to try and mend it again.
“It had to be done,” he said eventually.
And all sorcery required sacrifice. For a long minute he was frozen, his mind’s eye calling up bonds set around the man’s wrists, calling up a knife between his ribs and blood on the snow - he knew it happened. It was a great taboo, to give the gods a man in sacrifice, but if people were desperate enough, and they thought their gods would hear - well, there was nothing that in ultimate extremis men would refuse to do. And the High One answered, sometimes, or so the stories said.
And then there were those like the lake people, whose gods wanted the blood of men. For the first time, Kari wondered if this ghost was one of them, or their kin; the blue-black marks on his neck stood out stark in the brightness of the night. One of the children choked and buried in the bog.
For all the equanimity he had before displayed, though, his death still seemed to worry him. He picked distractedly at the rawhide binding on his spear, the skin on his insubstantial fingers, and although flames still woke and died reflected in his dark eyes the movement was enough to draw Kari’s down.
It was a strange weapon, nothing like any other spear he had ever seen. Too heavy and too long for a fishing spear, and bone points could not be carried into battle against armoured men. “Where did you get this?” Kari asked.
“Did you think,” said the spirit, “that your mother was the first? Did you think no-one else ever fell to the lure of consequence-free cruelty sorcery gives?” Across the fire, Brochael sighed in his sleep, shifted an arm above his head, and both fell silent for a moment. Once Kari was confident that the others were still asleep and his voice had not woken them, the spirit spoke again. “I got this from the man who killed me,” he said. “Who knew that my life wasn’t worth the hundreds my death would save.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Even so. That wasn’t - that wasn’t a right trade. It was better than the alternative, it was just, but – he didn’t know if he could have made the same decision, if he had been in that man’s place.
But he had, though. Hadn’t he already? There was the shaman of the lake people, fed to the dark because he had decided his friends were more important. There was the hunter in the Ironwood, and he hadn’t even thought about that one, had just - And there were all the fragments of time he had taken from others, at the Jarlshold and beyond - “Others were, though,” he whispered. “It was for my friends and I didn’t think, just -”
“Do you intend to make a habit of it?”
“No!” he protested.
“Then what is it that you fear?” the ghost pressed. There was a rope around his throat, and it was pulling tighter and tighter with every second, so he couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t - “That what I intend doesn’t matter,” he eventually managed. “That I won’t be able to stop it, that - that even now, I’ll become - no more than I deserve. Just what everyone already thinks. That they’re right, and it’s just a matter of time until this power does corrupt me, because - what if it’s not possible? To be good, and - and this?”
“Do not say that.” The words were nearly a snarl, and for that moment the spirit looked barely human at all, fierce like an animal cornered knowing its only remaining hope was to fight and claw, anything to wound its attackers. “Do not ever say you cannot be good, do not ever say you don’t have a choice. You can always choose.” Kari’s breath had gone ragged, hands pulled up in a useless effort to fend off the anger. But the ghost’s wrath died down as quickly as it had flared up, and he turned back away and shook his head, resignedly. “I died because men chose good over evil. Don’t you dare take that away from yourself.”
Guilt poured slimy into him, coalesced and crushed his heart under its pressure. He swallowed painfully, turned his head away. “Is it supposed to be this hard?”
“I don’t know,” the spirit said. “That’s a question for the Great One, not me. But is it not worth it, even so?
“I won’t tell you that you won’t suffer,” he said. The spear shaft was pressed into Kari’s unresisting hands. “Make it mean something.”
The tears that had been threatening finally spilled over, and he dropped the spear into the snow to scrub them away. The water froze where he smeared it over his knuckles, but it didn’t help; the too-thin walls around that empty space finally collapsed, and a sob tore its way out. And then he couldn’t even try anymore, and the fire blurred and dissolved as all the weeping that had refused to come before shook loose.
Distantly he felt the ghost put his arms around him, and it was not cold like the other ghosts that wandered the forests, remembering nothing, banned from Valhalla or Eljudnir, but almost uncomfortably warm. Like the flame he had scooped up had taken up residence where marrow would have been. “It’s all right,” it murmured, stroking circles on his back like he was some kind of animal. “Shhh. S’all right.”
His tears dripped through the spirit’s skin and landed on the snow, burning small depressions where they fell. “No it’s not,” he mumbled into his shoulder. “It’s not.” Even though she was gone now, and he had nothing any longer to fear - “It should be better now. Why isn’t it better?” The last few words came out almost as a wail, and he pinched his lips together, not wanting to wake the others.
The ghost stroked his free hand down through his hair. “That isn’t how the world works,” he said finally.
“It should be.”
“I know,” he said. “I know, it really should be.”
“It isn’t fair.” Why did he have to be the one with all this power? Couldn’t it have been somebody else’s wyrd instead? Why did he have to always be good? “Why - why couldn’t - why did she have to -” Another flood of tears came at that, because there was no way to end that sentence. All of it. All of it was wrong, so how had it still been allowed to happen?
“She took away everything,” he hissed. “Even my childhood.”
The embrace drew even tighter with pity. “Do you want mine?” the spirit asked carefully. “I never did get to use it.”
It was obviously meant to be a joke, so he managed half a damp laugh. “No,” he said thickly, even though he did, more than anything he wanted those memories, half-remembered lullabies and mother’s kisses, father’s embrace and promises that I will always protect you and I will love you forever, running games and all the little things everyone else had, the support beams upon which everyone else had been built as people –
But the spirit didn’t even have a name. He was nothing but a childhood cut off, and sorcery’s casualty. He couldn’t take that away and leave nothing.
The ghost sat back and grasped Kari’s shoulders, forcing him to look at him. “Kari Ragnarsson,” he said for the third time, “you are going to be okay.” This time, it was a little more believable.
Quickly, before his eyelashes could freeze together, he wiped the remaining tears away with the heels of his hands and dried them on one corner of his blanket. “So what do I do now?”
The spirit gave him a pointed look. “Go to sleep,” he said, glancing up to where Surtr’s fire still scoured the whole sky green and red. “Your night is already part gone.”
I can’t, he wanted to say, you know what I’m going to dream about, but on the other hand, maybe it did. And anyway, staying awake was only a stopgap and wouldn’t solve anything for him tomorrow.
Resignedly, Kari flopped down and pulled his blanket around him, orange afterimages of the fire still flickering on the insides of his eyelids.
Just before sleep claimed him, deeper than the waters of the sea, he thought he felt somebody stroke the hair off his forehead with an ash-hot hand, thought snow crunched under departing steps. But maybe that was just a dream.
He woke to Skapti gently shaking his shoulder. “Arise, arise, Kari,” he said, and shivering down through the interface of his clinging sleep it sounded almost like a taunt.
“Enough,” he muttered, shoving the hand away and reluctantly unburying his face from the blanket and into the cold air. “All right, m’awake now. What do you want?”
The poet sat back on his heels. “For you to begin packing your things,” he said matter-of-factly. “We prepare already to set off again.”
Had he slept for that long? “Fine,” said Kari, waving him away. Stiffly, he got up and re-pinned his cloak around him before the heat could start dissipating, then bent down and began to roll up his bedroll again. The snow had refrozen in the night to a surface like crystallized honey, wiping out their footprints from before.
Maybe he had just imagined it. There had been stranger dreams. He shook slush off the cords and looped them around, kneeling on the roll to compress it.
“Brochael?” he heard Jessa say behind him. “Is this yours?”
“No,” came the man’s confused answer. “I don’t - where did you get that?”
Kari tied the last knot and straightened up, to see what it was Jessa was holding. Both were several paces away, but even at that distance he could recognize the long, narrow stem of wood polished by the grip of hands over years and years, and white at one end. The spear was just slightly too thick for her hands, and she rolled the shaft in her hands, examining it.
What would they do, if he said nothing? Would the spirit’s charge decay with it, if they chose only to leave it behind under the spruce to rot? For Brochael could not take it with him – what things would the weapon of a sorcerer and murderer do, with no master to rein it in?
Great things. Good, though – good is a choice.
He peeled apart his lips. “That’s mine,” said Kari.
Welcome to the club, Kari!
Also, feel free to judge me now.