Night had crept cold around the mountain, wrapping the air in an icy blanket and sucking the day’s heat from the barren stones on the heights. Thorsur slapped his numb fingers against his thick, bare arms and breathed a cloud of white from between clenched teeth. It did little to warm him on this night.
He sat in a crevice long ago formed from rock slabs fallen off the mountain side, without the warmth of a forbidden fire, and stared down into the dark valley below. Somewhere in that black mass was a forest, cloaked by night, and his village, visible only as inviting, burning-orange sparks in the enveloping darkness around it. High above, the night was clear and the stars shone blue and white, glittering crisply in a sky that seemed brighter than the land below, a dark blue opposed to the earth’s inky black.
Perhaps the bridge to the Gods’ Halls would appear to him tonight, and he might seek wisdom from the spirits who had gone before, his fathers and brothers and ancestors who had fallen in battle and been accepted into the shining Halls beyond the mid-of-night. Given the chill this night upon the mountain, Thorsur thought it appropriate to expect them — only the dead would be comfortable.
For not the first time, he thought this choice of times for the ritual too was too close to the cold season, that the winter snows would blow soon. That they might blow tonight and leave him a frozen corpse hidden among the crags was a lingering and distasteful thought. He slapped his numb fingers against his bare arms once again to warm them; the sharp sound echoed down the mountainside like clattering stones.
Yet waiting to seek this vision until the thaws and milder climes of spring would have left him wintering the mutters and quietly disapproving stares of the village elders. The cold, he could hear grizzled Olfur chastising, was a test from the gods and spirits of his ancestors–a test of his mettle and resolve. He quietly grumbled something unflattering about the choices of the spirits, though not loudly enough for them to hear even if they had been seated invisibly next to him, and comforted himself in the fact that the night was at least moonless.
For with that at least none of the legendary white mountain wolves would be out hunting warm flesh; and instead all be safely curled together in their dens until the silver crescent of Nal’s Ship again shone down upon the forests and barren mountain rock. A small comfort that he would not have to fight them off in the mid of night. His hand brushed unconsciously against the hilt of the heavy sword buckled at his side and he chuckled grimly…if any had been out, he would probably die before he knew the hunter was upon him in this blackness!
Another blast of cold wind roared down off the heights above, stinging his bare skin bitterly and bringing painful, icy tears to his eyes. He knew the snow was coming. Vision or not, freezing to death in the on-coming storm would do very little to show him the pattern of his life, except its end, and he groped for his things in the dark. He wondered if he could reach the shelter of the boreal forest before the first flakes of ice fell, if it were even possible to navigate a mountainside made featureless by the night using only starlight.
His eyes caught a flash of white in the darkness down the slope from the shelter, like a ghost half-glimpsed which vanished when one stared. Curse this Hel-blasted moonless night! He slid rear, put his back into the crevice, trying to hide even the slightest hint of his pale flesh in the heavy, hungry shadows there.
His sword slipped out quietly, and the hilt had settled comfortably into his hand long before the thought occurred to him that perhaps what he had seen was no creature, but a glimpse of one of the very spirits he had been seeking. Still, if it was a spirit, it would call him a fool for not meeting it with sword drawn. So he stayed crouched, eyes locked onto the black, unseen slopes below, trying to ignore the tricks the dark played with his eyes, watching for a certain flash of white once again.
He did not need to wait long.
It approached, coming straight up the mountain at him, weaving out from behind what must be a pile of rocks below, loping low to the ground. A hungry white wolf out hunting in the moonless dark that must have caught his scent…well it would find no easy meal here!
He checked himself from rushing the wolf in the darkness and breaking his neck tripping over unseen rocks. The form moved swiftly towards him, the white coat shining pale under the stars, almost the only thing visible among the black stones of the mountain. He pulled the sword back to skewer the beast as it approached and…
…she screamed as he lunged, and cursed. Thorsur stumbled back and lowered his sword, for it was a woman who stood before him. She wore pale furs that caught the starshine, and had eyes as blue as the winter ice that seemed to hold some inner light. He had mistaken the hooded fur cloak she wore for a wolf’s hide, unsurprisingly, for it was the white hide of a mountain wolf.
“Woman, who are you to climb a mountain in the dark?” he growled, “I nearly had your head before I realized you were no wolf!”
“And who are you to point swords at strangers in the dark?” she shot back.
Thorsur realized he still held his bared blade pointed towards her, and after careful consideration of her strange-lit eyes he turned the steel aside, though he did not sheathe the weapon.
“What spirit are you to climb this mountain in the dark in the teeth of a storm?” he demanded.
She laughed, low and throaty. “You crouch in my doorway and ask me what I do?”
“What do you mean?” He slid his sword carefully back into its worked leather scabbard, careful not to cut his fingers in the dark. He searched her face, trying to make her out in the darkness, his eyes put together the image of a young, pale thing with graceful features and the dark hair of the southern folk. Though he could not be certain.
“You come up the mountain seeking spirits, and the place you chose to weather your night is mine. Come, there is a way through here. It is warmer.” She pushed past him into the blackness at the back of the crevice and disappeared from sight.
“Come.” Her muted voice echoed to him from the devouring darkness. After only a brief hesitation and a deep frown, he followed blindly, feeling his way forward using the cold, unseen walls. To his surprise, he slipped into and through a narrow passage that pressed in around him, the stone of the mountain crowding him. He fumbled through a curtain of heavy cloth, and thence into a wider space that smelled of the sweat of living.
Orange light flared and he clenched his eyes shut, watering from the sudden brightness. He slowly blinked it away, shading his eyes with one hand, and once he could see found himself in what was, for a cave, richly appointed. Hides blanketed the floor, there were thick furs for sleeping, a low table of oak masterfully carved with decorative imagery and set with gold-edged plates and drinking horns that winked at him in the dim light.
A low fire burned in a narrow space under one wall, the smoke drawn up and out through some hidden chimney in the rock. Thick shadows clung and stretched everywhere. She crouched before the fire, tending the coals, and glanced back at him. Her face was shrouded in shadow, all but her ice blue eyes which shone in the dark.
“Sit. Drink.” She motioned at the table and produced two already skinned rabbits from beneath her furs, spit them, and began roasting them over the fire. “There was good hunting tonight.”
She did not move or speak further, focused entirely on the spit with its rabbits, and after a silent moment he cautiously picked a spot to sit nearer the entry than not. If she were a spirit, and this her hall, it would be foolish to ignore the request. The hides made the floor surprisingly soft, and the honeyed mead in the horns upon the table warmed his chilled flesh to near drowsiness as he drained it and began to relax his guard.
“Why do you live in a lonely cave on the mountain?” he demanded.
“I suppose your people don’t speak of me any longer. My mother’s bones are buried nearby. She was a witch, a seer.”
Thorsur frowned, and shortly recalled once hearing the old men of the village speaking of a witch or spirit or…something who lived on the mountain. But the memory was vague and he was uncertain of even that. Truls and dirgir, these he knew the stories of, hiding in the rocks or under the mountain roots, though he had never met either nor anyone who had except known liars.
“I brew the mead myself. There is more in the tap.” She pointed to a dark alcove beyond her, and he made out a barrel balanced between uneven rocks.
“Hrm. I could use another few drops. Your skill at brewing is impressive, better even than crag-faced Hragan at the Hall, and I think his good.” He filled his horn and sat again, briefly trying to recall if he had asked a question, and if she had answered it, but the warmth of the mead chased the thought from his skull and the last of the mountain’s chill from even his bones.
“The snows fly tonight. It would be best if you stayed until morning.” She had finished the rabbits, and their juices spread out beneath the browned meat on a polished silver plate whose edges were wound with golden arabesque. This she placed on the table between them. He tore a chunk from one and shoved it in his mouth hungrily, trying to recall in passing if Was there not some caution about eating the food of the spirits. The succulent flavoring forced him to abandon any such concerns and soon enough the mead and meat had filled him to drowsing.
“You stay here alone?” he asked, “You say your mother sleeps in her barrow. What of your father?”
“Why? Do you desire to take me?”
Thorsur blinked in surprise. He had thought little of such, but upon consideration of her lithe form…
“You might as well share my bed. The night is chill, I have little enough regular company or chance for enjoyment.” She turned her back on him in the dim light, and in a moment her wolf-skin cloak and clothing slid from her. He watched, surprised, but growing hungry in a new manner, rose and came up behind her, clasping his hands firmly to her hips. She knelt face-down among her furs and offered herself to him, and he was quick to take advantage.
He awoke naked on a cold stone floor, shivering and numb. He shook his head confused and felt around him in the consuming darkness for anything other than barren stone. His fingers grasped fur and he froze at the thought of it attached to a beast. Quickly enough he found it to be a large fur that he wrapped around himself. There! A hint of gray light…he crawled forward out into the crevice formed by the fallen slabs of stone and wrapped the fur tightly around his frozen body.
Only then did he pause in confusion…what was it had happened last night? He remembered a wolf…no, a woman…a meal, warmth and drowsiness, bedding her, and…
Had he been visited by the spirits, or had the cold brought delirium? There had been no hides, no table or mead, no woman. His clothes were lost, his sword as well. Had he crawled into the hidden cave and slept there…perhaps he had stripped them in the cold and they lay scattered in the black cave. He would not find them without a light. And never unless he survived to reach home.
The snow from the evening had luckily been but a light dusting, but the rocks jabbed and cut at his feet. The wolf-skin cloak kept the rest of him warm enough, and in the wood on a trail to his village he was found by a man named Oarr, bundled into the man’s wagon, and brought quickly to the village warming house to sweat out the cold. Feeling returned painfully to his extremities, his feet were washed and bandaged, and the elders came to ask after his strange state.
All he could say was that perhaps the spirits had visited him, taken his clothes and sword, and left him with this wolf-skin in exchange. That he remembered nothing else. The elders frowned and spoke quietly to one another of a witch thought long-dead, and argued of fickle spirits and the meaning of wolf-gifts. Privately, Thorsur believed the cold had chilled his brain and filled it with visions and false-warmth, as sometimes happened in the winter to the incautious, that his things were likely scattered in the dark cave and the fur he fortuitously found had been thoughtlessly forgotten by some prior explorer therein. Though he dared not say this.
By the time he had recovered enough from his ordeal to think about going back, the snows had buried the mountain and trails and there was little to do in the way of satisfying his curiosity but wait until spring had thawed the paths. The fur, of a white mountain wolf with the head upon it still, he folded and hid away from his sight, for when he looked upon it the cloak nagged and bothered him with unanswered questions and unsettling dreams full of shining eyes.
When spring came, a late one in a long and bitter winter that had driven wolves down from the mountains to hunt the village livestock, and Thorsur had a few days free of his work, he made plans and set out. With him came a Seithja, young and raven-haired, stinking of earthy incense that had soaked into hair and skin from the long winter she had spent in the hall with her sisters, seeking counsel of the Seith from Friji’s ghosts. The accompaniment was not asked for by he, and but grudgingly tolerated. The village elders had certainly attached her to his exploration. She herself seemed oblivious, or uncaring, of his mood.
It took most of a day to reach the mountain, another to scale it and search for the cavern’s entrance. The Seithja made little conversation, nor did he try to stir her tongue with inane speech, only a word of caution here and a brief direction there, when gestures or grunts would not serve. For her part, only muted affirmations and the occasional brief question.
A storm was coloring the sky beyond the peaks shades of cobalt, the probing fingertips of its winds brushed at them.
“This?” he tilted his head, then crept round inspecting the split rocks. He stared down the slope towards the forest and the hidden village in the distance, marked by thin streams of white smoke emerging from the dark blur of pines; the slope itself seemed different than in his memory and he might not have found the crevice again had the Seithja not noted it, “It seems right. Must have been a rockfall on the mountain this winter.”
Almost buried in the crushed and fallen rock spilled down the slope, it was sheer luck it had not been hidden entirely, but enough room remained for one to crawl down into the hole. Once Thorsur had ascertained no beast had made it a burrow or den, with the flames of a lit torch thrust down within, he did so, the Seithja shoving his pack after him, then joining him once he motioned for her.
The narrow passage to the cavern hidden just beyond was easily found by torchlight.