The Winter Walk

Content warning: references to death, suicide, abuse, rape

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It comes as no surprise when the five village elders come for me an hour before sunset on the longest night of the year. I answer their knock and greet them with a stone face. Though I have only fifteen winters to my name, Father always said I have the eyes of a wise old woman.

Frey Torvanson, the village headman, nods to me and speaks slowly so I can read his lips. “Zia Lanrendaughter, the village council, by a vote of four to one, has chosen you for this year’s Winter Walk. When the sun sets on this solstice, we shall send you forth to the Queen of Winter. Your sacrifice will bring springtime and a bountiful harvest to your people, and your name will be remembered for seasons to come.”

It takes all my discipline not to smirk at the headman. The townspeople will be glad to forget me before the snow melts. The sacrifice is always a boy or girl who has between thirteen and eighteen winters, and they are almost always the village’s castoffs: the orphans, the troublemakers, the ones who don’t quite belong. Or people like me, who are thought to be burdens on society.

I could fight them. The thought flickers across my mind and is gone. The boy chosen two winters ago fought so hard that two strong men had to restrain him during the ceremony and literally throw him out of the gate. For hours, he pounded on the palisade, trying to get back in, but eventually, the sound of his screams and pleas died away. When dawn broke, all they found of him was some blood in the snow. Everyone assumes the Queen took him, though no one has ever seen her. No one knows where her citadel is. All we know is that once a sacrifice passes beyond the gates, they are never seen again.

I have no father, no worth to my fellow townspeople, but I do have my dignity. So I nod to the elders, throw on my warmest woolen tunic and boots, and follow them into the darkening day. I don’t allow myself to look back at the cottage I’ve called home since I was born. I don’t allow myself to wish for my father’s warm, loving presence. He is three months in his grave, and no amount of wishing will bring him back to me. If he were alive, he would kill the elders before letting them send me into the night. He would grab the large ax that hangs above the door, the one we used to cut wood, and—

The white yearling stallion stands in the lane just a few paces from my front door, his halter ringed with silver bells. I’m glad I cannot hear their cold, sinister jingle. I feel a flash of resentment for the horse as Jemand Harnanson and Athyan Karidson lift me into the saddle. This animal has more value in the eyes of this village than I ever have.

I squeeze my legs together as Frey Torvanson takes the reins. Our cottage is on the outskirts of the village, so we have a long ride. Bonfires line the path, keeping the snarling cold at bay. I have always loved the smell of woodsmoke, so I take the time to savor this simple pleasure while I still can. But underneath that sharp, sweet tang, I can also smell the coming storm, building as it always does on this endless night.

The headman leads my mount at a sedate pace, ensuring that all the gathered villagers can get a good look at me. The Winter Walk is meant to be a solemn time of silence, but a few people can’t contain themselves and cry out in excitement, their words escaping their mouths in white puffs of mist. They scrutinize my face for any sign of fear and weakness. I am determined not to give it to them.

As we enter the village square, I wonder which elder voted to spare me. All of the elders appear serene and stoic, but Shirene Gregondaughter, the only woman on the council, has the slightest tightness around her eyes, the tiniest slump to her shoulders. If I had a coin to wager, I would put it on her. Father once told me that long before I was born, Elder Shirene’s older brother was chosen. She at least takes no joy in this.

The villagers form a circle around me, and Frey Torvanson recites some ritual prayers, his lips moving too quickly for me to read. The crowd chants something in response. I suppress a smirk. Hearing people just don’t understand that all these words are unnecessary, nothing more or less than wasting breath. Do they truly think the Queen of Winter or anyone else cares about what comes out of their mouths?

Several townswomen step forward and drape me in glossy white furs, the pelts of the finest snowcats our hunters have killed since the last solstice. I let them manipulate my body as if it were an object, detaching myself from my flesh and looking up into the cold, cold sky. The first snowflakes of true winter fall, kissing my cheeks and lips and eyelids, the brush of the Queen’s hand. Will she kill me and devour my soul? Will I become an eternal servant in some hidden icy palace? No one knows. All that matters is that after tonight, I will no longer be the girl no one will miss, the girl whose own mother abandoned her. Anything is better than that, isn’t it?

I wish mightily that I had been born a snowflake instead of Zia Lanrendaughter. Though their lives are short, snowflakes are never asked to be more than they are. Perfect or imperfect, existence is enough for them.

Once the women are satisfied with the furs, they draw back into the circle. The headman says more useless words and nods to the butcher and carpenter, the two largest men in the village. They flank me on either side and begin dragging me toward the palisade. I focus on not stumbling. This proves difficult when my foot catches on something buried in the snow and my ankle twists. The butcher hauls me upright, and we keep going, always and forever.

The headman flings open the gates. The villagers take in a collective breath as the wind intensifies, blowing snow into everyone’s faces. The flakes are coming down in earnest now. As the men push me out of the gate, out of their lives, Shirene Gregondaughter touches my shoulder. It is the briefest brush of her hand, something the old woman probably does for every Winter Walk sacrifice. But it almost means the world to me. It almost warms me, but I don’t permit myself to smile at the elder who voted to spare me because her gesture is meaningless in this place where tradition and superstition hold far more sway than the High King in the south or the Queen of Winter. I am alone in the snowy vastness and the gates of my home slam behind me.

The cold is a living thing with teeth, biting right through the layers of furs and my own woolen tunic to pierce my flesh. It’s just in your mind, Zia, I tell myself. It’s no colder out here than it was inside the palisade. I have never been good at lying to myself.

The townspeople are still watching. Their eyes crawl over me as they stand on their toes or each other’s shoulders to peer over the wall. Soon, they will go have a feast, but they wish to see me beg for my life and pound on the gates first. I have already determined not to give them a show, so I turn my back to the palisade and resolutely walk northward. Before long, the white swirl of snow blocks the village from sight. No great loss, I tell myself.

As I trudge up one hill and then down again, I break one of the rules I’ve lived by for as long as I can remember. I think of my mother’s departure from the village twelve years ago. She is nothing more than a stern face, a hand slapping me because I couldn’t hear or speak like a normal child, a foot catching me in the ribs. She drew away from Father and me in the weeks before she left. I believed then that her indifference, her absence, was worse than her cruelty. It took me many years to recognize that for the childish idiocy it was.

Mother left in high summer when the king’s men braved the steep, narrow mountain roads to collect taxes. I had seen her speaking to one of the taxmen but thought nothing of it until she started packing a satchel. Father didn’t try to persuade her to stay, or at least I don’t think he did. She was poisoning his spirit little by little, day by day. So we just watched her mount up behind one of the king’s men and ride into the unknown. My mother wasn’t the first mountain woman to abandon her people for the allure of warmer weather and a new start, and she won’t be the last. I wonder if the lowlanders find them as strange as we find people raised among sunlight and green things.

I’m shivering quite badly now, and my boots are filling up with snow. I make myself walk faster because that’s the only way to keep a modicum of warmth. I squint against the painful needles of wind and ice blowing into my face. After an interminable stretch of minutes, I turn slightly, putting the wind at my back. I splutter as I fall into a snowdrift that goes nearly to my waist.

There is cold, but there is also an unexpected softness. Just because this is called the Winter Walk and not the Winter Sleep doesn’t mean I must keep going. If the Queen of Winter truly wants me, she can bloody well come in her sleigh pulled by snowcats and fetch me herself.

If I close my eyes, I can almost pretend I’m curled up on my straw mattress at home, or snuggled in my father’s arms. I imagine his rough, capable hands combing and braiding my long, black hair. I feel the scratch of his beard as he kisses me on the cheek. I picture him teaching me how to shoot a bow, helping me skin my first rabbit, and cook my first meal on my own. In high summer, we walked down to the valley to the strawberry orchards. I can still taste the sticky sweetness of the fruit, still feel the red juices dripping down my chin. To me, the taste of strawberries in summertime has always meant all that is good and right in the world. The years between Mother’s departure and the fever that took my father from me were so good. Why did that time have to end?

Father wouldn’t abide me giving in like this. I don’t know what I’m fighting for or against, but it isn’t in me to lie down and die. Just because it’s inevitable doesn’t mean I have to make it easy. I wasn’t raised that way. I don’t know how far I’ve come from the village, but it isn’t far enough.

Climbing to my feet is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I manage it. I stumble more than walk onward. Time loses its meaning as the storm rages all around me, buffeting me this way and that. I may have walked for hours or mere moments, even days. The sky is white. The earth is white. If not for my memories of other sights, I would believe that white is the only color that has ever existed.

As my walk continues and my hands and feet first tingle painfully, then go numb, I name the snowflakes that land on my hair and cheeks. I name them for people I knew in the village, the strangers I grew up with. I name them for the heroes and villains of our legends and history. I name them for the folk of those legends and histories, mostly women, who were not deemed worthy of a name.

My lips are cracked and bleeding. At least the blood that drips down my chin is warm for a heartbeat before it freezes into an icy rime. I’ve mostly stopped shivering. I know, as every child of the mountains knows, that this is a bad sign, but it’s one thing to know this and quite another to care. I don’t have the strength left for strong emotions. I fall a few more times, but my stubborn pride drives me on like a whip. I become a mindless thing, a conglomeration of flesh, blood, and bone that knows only how to walk and blink snow out of its watering eyes.

The wind lets out a deep sigh, like a satisfied mother, as I stumble onto a frozen lake. I peer through the inches-thick ice into the dark water far below. I jump back as the pallid face of a corpse stares back at me. It’s Miklard Ketalson, an old farmer who lived on the outskirts of the village and died last winter during a blizzard when he left the safety of his house to tend to his goats. They found his body frozen solid less than six yards from his front door.

The wind presses invisible hands into my back, shoving me forward so violently that I fall. I get up for what seems to be the thousandth time as my chapped hands split and bleed. The scarlet droplets remind me for some mad reason of the strawberry juice that stained my hands on long summer days when I still had my father. I take another hesitant step, telling myself not to look down.

Naturally, I do. This time, it’s not Master Ketalson I see reflected in the lake’s depths, but Deira Freydaughter, who died in childbirth three summers ago, when she was scarcely more than a girl. Deira raises one hand as if to beckon me forward. Horror almost makes me turn back, but there is nothing behind me but the wind. Am I going mad? Has my mind finally broken under the wind’s icy onslaught? Or is this some awful vision brought on by the Queen? As long as I don’t see my father in this lake of death, I think I can press on.

A few paces beyond Deira, I see Elfren Arlokson, who took his own life the day after we sent his blind brother out into the storm six winters ago. He too beckons me onward with a ghastly, knowing smile. I’m sure there are others, but I close my eyes to preserve what shreds of sanity may remain to me. This act of surrender to the storm galls me, but those dead faces in the ice are more than I can take.

When the ice cracks, all I feel is relief that everything will soon be over. But instead of plunging into black oblivion, I find myself standing at the edge of a cleft. Stairs, far too smooth and even to be natural, lead beneath the ice. Is this the way to the Queen’s palace? There’s only one way to find out.

The steps seem to go down for several forevers, long enough that part of me believes that these slick, icy stairs are all that has been and all that will ever be. I slip and twist an ankle but keep going, stepping more gingerly this time. The pain helps me focus, think beyond the cold. Unfortunately, that leads me to imagine the tons of rock, water, and ice above me, just waiting to cave in and crush my fragile flesh and bones. Being buried alive is not how I wish to die. It is the opposite of becoming a snowflake.

When the stairs end, I’m in a long passage, the icy walls and floor as smooth and unyielding as stone. When the mountain people speak of the Queen’s palace (which they only do in fearful whispers as if just speaking of it will draw her wrath), they say it is filled with an eerie blue light and eldritch music. But this subterranean corridor is as dark as the grave I buried Father in, more of a tomb than a court.

The passage turns left, and I find an empty torch bracket set into the wall. A few long moments and two turns later, my right foot kicks something that clatters against the wall. I bend down to examine it. It’s a human skull. I fling the vile thing away from me, and it lands somewhere in the blackness.

Is that the skull of a past Winter Walk sacrifice? Or some unlucky bastard who somehow found their way down here? There’s no use pondering it either way. If I stop, mine will be the next skull discovered down here. If the Queen wants me to give in, she’ll have to do better than a bloody ice maze.

Has the sun risen in the world above? I wonder as I continue my wandering. Have the villagers awoken from their drunken sleep? Who is rising from a bed that is not their own after the solstice feast? I shake my head to rid it of thoughts of the ones who cast me out. Cravens, the lot of them. They would have lost their minds if they had seen even half of what I have this night. Instead, I wish I could read this perfectly carved ice the way I can read snow, woods, and people’s body language. What stories could it tell me of a place that has never known sunlight? What stories could my touch impart in return?

I’m so exhausted and deep in my own mind that I hardly realize the twisting passages have finally led me somewhere. A watery blue light comes from nowhere and everywhere, illuminating an immense and deserted chamber. Ice sculptures line the walls: one of a knight riding down a group of bound prisoners with a drawn sword, one of a faceless girl on her knees holding a dagger to her throat, one of a woman wrapping her hands around the broken neck of a child. The statues surround an empty throne, also made of ice. The only thing missing is the Queen of Winter.

What does this mean? I sign, expecting no answer.

Shadows flicker at the edge of the room. A figure glides toward me like the wind. At first, her face is a miniature whirlpool of snow, but it comes clear as she approaches. I’m looking at Sati Merrondaughter, who had seventeen winters when she strode out of the gate, proud and unbroken as the last sacrifice. Sati was exiled from the village for murdering her stepfather. She claimed (though the elders did not believe her) that the blacksmith, one of the most respected men in the village, had been raping her repeatedly since the age of twelve, until the night she fought back and poured a kettle of boiling water over him and herself. He died, while she was merely disfigured, her face a melted and misshapen ruin. Children ran from her in horror and threw stones from a safe distance, but she never frightened or repelled me. I never got the chance to tell her I believed her.

I am simultaneously horrified, fascinated, and relieved by Sati’s appearance. This creature who bears the face of a girl from my past is not human. She wears the same dirty, ragged furs the townswomen draped around her for the Winter Walk. Her hair, once as black as mine, is now an icy white. Her skin is unnaturally pale, and her once-dark eyes are the blue of a frozen lake and utterly lifeless.

Sati raises her (its?) hands. I flinch, but no blow comes. Welcome, Zia, she signs.

I wouldn’t have been more stunned if Sati had grown wings. Do I sign back to her? My hands are slow and unsure as I ask, How do you know how to speak to me like this? Father was the only one who ever spoke to me this way. He invented these signs just for us.

Sati smiles, revealing sharp, glistening fangs. Language is no barrier here. Once you join us, you can open your ears if you wish. Some keep their scars, while others don’t, she signs.

As her hands flicker in the motions she has no right to know, others emerge from pools of darkness. Some I recognize, most I don’t. The blind boy, the girl with a malformed arm, the hunch-backed boy who now walks straight, the girl who never grew past three feet, the twins whose torsos were fused together, now separated. One heartbeat, their shapes are solid; the next, nothing but swirling snow and shadow.

But where is the Queen of Winter? I sign with shaking hands as the orphans, outcasts, and cripples dance around me.

Sati laughs, and the others echo her. The Queen has been dead for uncounted seasons, sister. There is only enough magic in this place to give us life for this one night. We may not leave the palace and roam the world as we once did with our mistress, but at least we are not alone when they banish us. When you join us, we will sleep for another year until our new sibling comes. You must give yourself to us.

Rage sings through my blood, giving it a new fire. It’s just as Father always suspected: the Winter Walk is pointless. The village was never appeasing a bloodthirsty spirit but using idiots’ fear and old stories to justify exiling their unwanted children. My fellow outcasts are little better: they exist only to survive, to feed on the life of each winter’s sacrifice. I wish I had the power to destroy this bloody mausoleum. In that moment of pure, sweet anger, I discover, much to my surprise, that I want to live.

Pain slashes into my left shoulder. I spin on my heel and see the boy who used to be hunchbacked grinning at me, his teeth stained red. I push him away in disgust, but as I take a step forward, the dwarf girl takes a bite out of my right leg. The pain is out of this world. Cackling, the little monster nips at my thigh. The splatter of crimson blood against ice reminds me again of the strawberries I used to pick with Father. I glance at the bite marks, then at the vacant throne across the room. The vitality of my warm, living blood, the icy emptiness of the throne. The connection comes clear like the first ray of spring sunlight.

Sati and the others may be willing to settle for cannibalizing each other in this pathetic half-life, but I am not.

I grit my teeth and begin to run, glorying in the fact that, for the first time since my father’s death, I have a purpose. The agony in my leg and shoulder is nothing now. Sati rushes me, her fingers curled into claws aimed at my face. I kick her in the stomach, and it’s like kicking fog. There is almost no substance to them. They can only absorb my life force if I let them. The others open their mouths in soundless wails of terror and despair as I scatter them with flying fists. They know that if I don’t add my vitality to theirs, the spark of magic left in this place will wither, and they will truly die. Things will be better for them if they have a new Queen of Winter.

I weigh less than starlight as I vault onto the icy throne that has stood empty for far, far too long. For three interminable heartbeats, nothing happens. I know an instant of panic, believing that I was wrong and will pay for my mistake by ending up like all the other sacrifices. But then the icy wind, the very breath of winter, howls through the room, and the storm enters me.

But that’s not quite what happens, is it? To say that the storm enters me implies some kind of separation, a place where I end and my element begins. As I spread my arms to welcome winter, I become the storm. I feed it all my fury, all my pain, all my pride, all my lost dreams. And still, it rages through my body, demanding more. I hesitate for a heartbeat, clinging to memories of my father’s touch and strawberries in the summer. Would my father want me to do this? Would he want me to become this?

I crush my last doubt. The world has left no other choice for a girl like me. I let go and give my memories of my father to the storm. As we merge, I twist its mindless rage as easily as breathing, forming a fifty-foot cone of wind and snow around my throne. I release winter’s power, knowing I can call it back to me with a thought.

I now have the same white hair and ice-blue eyes as my sisters and brothers. With a living vessel of winter magic once again sitting on this throne, their power is restored. My outcasts can shape themselves however they desire. As I watch, the twins who were once conjoined turn into pure-white snowcats, purring and twining their tails. Sati capers about and creates royal raiment out of snowflakes, a look of true joy making her disfigured face beautiful. I love all of my outcasts so much it hurts. After watching them for a few moments, I raise my hands for stillness.

Come, let us show the world that the Queen of Winter lives again, I sign. I see no need to restore my hearing. Silence is as much a part of me as my father’s blood and the mountain snows.

People like me have been powerless for too long, easily rejected and cast aside. That ends tonight. The new Queen of Winter shall speak for the unwanted and abandoned, and if our freedom comes at the price of those who have oppressed us? Well, no one can say they don’t have it coming, not without mocking and perverting justice. I step down from my throne and take my place at the head of my outcasts. They gaze at me with eyes as bright as coals and as frigid as the farthest stars. As the roof of the throneroom cracks above us, clearing our path to the surface, I raise my hands and ask, Are you ready to reclaim and reshape the world?

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