In the forest it was late Summer: the path a dancing dapple of sunlight amidst birdsong and the background rustle of leaves.
In the forest it was always late Summer.
Unvisited by other seasons, the great belt of the Greenswathe encircled Garth, last city of High Men within the Circle Mountains, perhaps the last in the world. Now Sigurd, said to be the oldest of oaks, had sent for me, although there was never any sense of urgency in his communications, as if the sentinel lived life at an entirely different pace.
I raised the apple I was eating by way of salute. “Summoned, I came.”
The voice that issued from the malformed knothole was a low growl. “Havardr, by the Black Falls, sent word of one who spoke to him without speaking. Havardr is now silent. There may be danger.”
“Spoke without speaking? Did he say anything else about who this was?”
“It was a—” Sigurd lapsed into a long melodious flow, typical of their descriptive terms.
I half-turned my head, raised my voice. “Cuyler, I have need of your ears.”
Cuyler the bowman ambled up to stand by my side. “You should spend more time in the forest, little cousin, rather than at the forge.”
I bowed to the tree. “Great Sigurd, if you would repeat what you told me?”
He did so, causing Cuyler to frown. “One with four legs who eats carrots?”
“One who…Great Sigurd, do you mean a horse? A rider?”
Again, the low rumble of almost speech filled the glade. Cuyler’s frown grew deeper. “The same but, lettuce?”
“A rabbit, Sigurd? How would a rabbit pose any kind of threat?”
The great trees, the ‘elder wood’, stood resolute in their defence of the forest. We did not fight together, as when the anger took them, they could not tell one ‘meat bag’ from another, slaying both friend and foe alike. I had witnessed the aftermath of woodcutters, lesser men from the Iron Hills, straying too far into the Greenswathe; bodies crushed almost beyond recognition, bloodstained ivy, an air of smug vengeance that tasted on the tongue like ashes and milk.
Before Sigurd could reply a white rabbit – no, a hare – bounded into sight from along the path leading to the Black Falls. It had no eyes – not lost to injury or ailment, but seemingly born without them.
I am the Herald of Winter. All those who do not yield to the Lady will perish.
I could hear the voice in my head: peevish, full of self-importance.
Cuyler grunted and raised his bow. “Trickery and shades, but at least we shall eat—”
The hare turned its head sharply towards him.
Cuyler cried out. His arrow went wild and he dropped heavily to his knees. I stared at my friend in horror as he aged ten, twenty years in as many breaths. This was no way for a warrior to die.
I gripped the long handle of my sword in both hands, raised it high, and severed his head from shoulders with one clean blow.
My heart pounded like the drums during Broderbund, the great gelding ceremony. The bloody body of my friend lay before me, an honour debt demanding payment in full. I took my stance, sword ready, prepared to claim a life in return – or die as a High Man.
On the path a woman stepped out from the shadows, although it almost appeared as if the overhanging branches recoiled from her presence. She was clad all in white, even to her fur-trimmed cloak, with pale skin, colourless lips – and no eyes.
The voice of Sigurd rumbled, but it was beyond my meagre understanding of oaks.
The woman laughed and spread her arms wide. “I am the rest that nature seeks, the pause that brings forth life anew. Do not fear the slowing, the stillness, the slumber.”
Around the glade great trees shook in a wind that was not there; leaves showered down around us – not the heavy green of ages past, but red, gold, umber, all shrivelling to naught before they reached the ground. Birds leapt skywards from the stark branches, their song silenced, racing away into the west. I watched as the blight spread as far as the eye could see – not just oaks but sycamore, chestnut, beech, all stripped bare.
I raised my voice. “Sigurd! Gunvar! Ragna!”
She shook her head. “They sleep. They dream of a Spring not known for generations. For too long Garth has drained the Earth to preserve this pocket of the past. The world beyond the green has grown, and it is time for you to sit at the table of all men, both high and low.”
“I am Malklot, a sworn blade of Garth. You shall not pass.”
“And I am Efterar, handmaiden of Winter. Look around you, swordsman. It is a wise man who bows to the inevitable.”
It was the chill air that made me shiver, nothing more. But I felt more alone than when sent into the great forest as a boy, to emerge a man. Everything I had ever known was changing, slipping away…
I plunged my sword into the earth and stepped back, arms spread wide.
The Lady Efterar inclined her head in acknowledgement. “I welcome you to the Frostbund, Malklot, although that name does not suit the wider world. In the common tongue, then, ‘Jack’ you shall be. Now, all who serve bear my mark…”
I made to ask what she intended, but the words died as I caught sight of my reflection in the polished steel blade.
My hair – no longer fair but white, white as the snow on the distant Circle Mountains.
My new mistress smiled. “You will serve as my emissary to Garth, although the hare will tell you what to say. It is an honour few receive, and even fewer survive, but I have great hopes of you, Jack-of-the-Frost.”
I bowed, then started at a sudden sting to my cheek.
It had begun to snow.