Death At Winterfest
Snow falls in the heart of the forest, burying the trees, burying the ground, and landing on the great carved stele at the center of the circular clearing. The ground all round the stone is bare — bare of grass, of footprints, of any creatures with the courage or foolhardiness to approach. Bare even of snow, for though the forest all around is white and waist-deep with the stuff, each flake sizzles away to nothing the second it touches anything within the clearing. And though the rest of the forest teems with life, this one spot is silent, empty.
Then, with a soft hum, a gentle light begins to curl out of the standing stone and slides downward to spill across the ground, and from the mist a form takes shape. Tall, gaunt, robed in black, gold chain clasped around his neck and gripped in one hand.
Eldest of the dark gods, the lost, who were once mortal but who sacrificed their souls for immortality — this is Sryvaar, who has through worlds and time been a god of death and despair. Formed, he gathers himself and moves away from the pillar but not yet into the snow.
The weight of immortality bears down on him. He is to hunt this night, but the hunger has left him. A moment later his hounds follow him through the gate; three black dogs, each as tall at the shoulder as a tall man, with eyes that glow red. Unlike Sryvaar, they are eager; they mill about his feet waiting for him to release them to the hunt with a word.
But he does not, and they whine, frustrated and impatient. “Stay,” he tells them, and “Wait.”
He turns and walks alone into the forest, driven by an impulse he cannot put into words. His victim is ahead of him, unsuspecting; he can feel her. If he called the dogs, they would come at a gallop and he would have her life and the power from it and he could be done. But he does not.
Instead he walks, aware in unaccustomed ways of the cleanness of the cold night air, of the muffled sweetness of each sound on his ears, of the distant thuds and pops of snow sliding from branch to ground and the nearer sharp cracks of branches breaking. He breathes in and feels the cold burn the inside of his nose and chill his lungs.
Then in the distance he sees her. She stands in a clearing, dressed in pale colors that reflect as the snow reflects, with the hood of her long cloak thrown back so that the snow falls on her black hair. She is standing with her arms outstretched, her chin lifted to the sky, and she appears to be catching snowflakes on her tongue.
This intrigues him and he stops his forward progress to watch her for a moment. She is, in fact, doing precisely what she appeared to be doing. She’s no child. For her species she is of middling years. But she is … happy. Playful.
Sryvarr has not felt anything of happiness in — well, in eons. He leans against a tree to watch this display, and as he does, knocks loose showers of snow; these land heavily on him and make a great deal of noise in the process, and she turns, and sees him. And laughs.
“Happened to me, too,” she says, walking toward him. “I got snow down the back of my neck and the front of my shirt and like to have jumped out of my clothes.” She grinned. “But that would have been colder.”
He nods but says nothing. She steps within reach; he could, he thinks, have her life this instant and still call the dogs to feed. But again, he does not.
“Lucky you had your hood up.” She spreads her arms out wide and falls over backward and his first thought is, I didn’t do it. But she laughs again, and flails her arms up and down and her legs back and forth. When she stands, she turns and admires the indentation she has created in the snow as if it is some form of artwork.
He holds his silence for a long time, looking at the pattern she’s made. Then, in barely a whisper, because although he cannot understand why, he does not want her to hear his true voice, he asks, “What?”
“It’s a snow angel.”
A pause to digest this, but he can’t make any sense of it. “Why?” he asks.
“Why is it a snow angel, or why did I make it?”
She looks at him — straight at him, truly seeing him — and laughs again. This unnerves him. She says, “This is a snow angel because it has wings — there, see?, and I made it because it’s a happy sort of thing to do on a snowy night.”
“They don’t have wings,” he said after a while.
“No. But it makes a charming image, don’t you think?”
He is silent. He has no words for this. Now she watches him, a steady unflinching gaze. It makes him uncomfortable, and he says at last, “You may continue if you like.”
“I know who you are,” she tells him. “I know why you’re here.”
He has no words for this, either.
She watches him for a long time, and finally uses his words back at him. “You may continue, if you like.”
He stands, considering this possibility. Finally he says, “No.”
She smiles a little. “No, not right this minute, or no, not tonight?”
Immortality lies in his next words, and he puts it down slowly, carefully, on the ground between the two of them. “No, not ever.”
Now she nods. “Are you certain?”
He begins to lift the gold chain from around his neck, and she raises her hand to stop him. “If you take it off, you die tonight. Souless, you will cease to exist.”
He completes the motion and drops the chain on the snow.
Now a gentle smile crosses her face. She begins to glow, just faintly. “We’ve met uncounted times, Sryvaar, and I’ve worn a thousand faces. Nothing has stayed your hand until tonight.”
“I’m tired,” he says softly. “I’m tired … and I was wrong.” He looks at her. “Will you take my dogs?”
She nods, he calls them, and they come, whining, to shudder and cringe at his legs. They know. They know that he has changed, that something within him is different. He strokes their heads, and tells her each of their names. She calls them, and they go to her, and she touches them. The fear goes out of them; they no longer cringe or whine. Their eyes no longer glow.
“Thank you,” he says. He is tireder now than he has ever been. He thinks he could lie down in the snow and close his eyes and simply fade away, but she takes the steps that lie between them, and reaches out a hand to touch him. She is glowing more brightly, as if she has pulled the light from the moon into her. She touches him, and light within her pours into him, and with it joy — something that he has not experienced in since he sought immortality. A hollow pain in his chest heals — he realizes at last that he felt that pain every instant of his soulless eternity. And now the pain is gone. Does that mean what he hopes it does?
He smiles at her, then lifts his face to the snow and lets the flakes fall on his cheeks, and in a moment of impulse he sticks out his tongue and catches a single flake on it. The dogs and the woman watch him, still, unblinking. The sky gets darker, and his vision fades from the edges in. The dogs vanish, the trees, the snow, but he can still see her. And while she fills his vision, she slips free of her heavy cloak and unfurls wings that spread out and up like curtains of light. As even she disappears into the darkness, he hears her voice — the last thing he will ever hear in this flesh, but not the last thing he will ever hear.
“Sometimes,” she says, “we do have wings.”
Copyright 2001, by Holly Lisle, all rights reserved
(1381 words, just because I can’t resist counting)