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End the rule of winter

Jule untied his snowshoes, laid them against the log wall and straightened up, facing the door. His gloved hand hovered over the handle. He let out a shaking sigh. There was still time to back away, walk into the cold and disappear. Or was there? The inhabitant of the place must have heard him arrive. To compose himself, Jule swung the basket he’d been carrying on his back and held it in front of him, like a shield. He pushed the door open. Instead of the warm gust he’d hoped after his trek in the snow, the smell of cold wax and mouldy skins slithered under his muffler. No golden light warmed the large room. Some of the windows were blocked by snowdrifts. In the semi-darkness, Jule couldn’t see anyone. He stepped in, and muffled a cry when the door banged close behind him.

“Who are you?” a voice hissed like the wind on a frozen lake. Jule could make out a shadow on his left but he didn’t dare turn.

“Jule… I’m Jule. Your sacrifice.”

“Don’t lie to me!” the other roared, rough as pine bark. “You are no sacrifice. I can smell that.”

A weight dropped in Jule’s stomach. He’d hoped to keep up the pretence for at least a few minutes, or long enough for a clean and quick death. Was the spirit going to torture him? Or worse, were they going to send him back? This prospect chilled him more than the hours of trekking it had taken to get here. Jule slowly turned. The other was standing by the door, a quiver in the dark. They moved too fast, their translucent face close to their pseudo-sacrifice. They gave off no smell. More than the shimmer coursing through their body, that detail topped Jule’s cup of puzzlement. In whose hands had he placed his death? The other one didn’t seem decided to end Jule right now.

“Who do you think I am, if not your sacrifice?”

“I have no taste for riddles, Jule,” he spat the name with the violence of a sparkling fire. “However, I do enjoy sacrifices who turn my attention away from your petty, pathetic villages,” he added with a cruel smile in his voice.

“Well, here I am. Why should my name be a problem? You sacrifice me, you spare my village, everyone’s happy.”

“The lie would choke me. Or perhaps this was your plan all along? To get rid of me, end the rule of winter, make spring come and warm your bones from the same sun that will wreak havoc around you?”

In one sweeping move, the spirit jumped back to the door.

“Choose, human. Before I get really angry, you can go back from where you came from and send a true sacrifice in your stead.”

The door opened, and in the freezing gust the spirit coiled around Jule’s neck.

“Or?” the latter asked.

“Or you may spend the night here. At dawn, we’ll see if I had fun or not.”

“I’m not going back.” Jule’s tone was definite. “I won’t step through that door again.”

“But do you know what that will cost?” whispered the other. As if to mark their words, the door slammed closed.

“I’m the sacrifice. I give, you take.”

“How generous, my lord. What good heart. No, no. Your little village likes to think this a noble gesture, wrapped in tragedy. I merely see it as a transaction. Usual sacrifices come to me with a powerful desire – upholding your community. Have you ever tasted devotion, Jule? That is a nectar worthy of the gods.” The spirit paused. “As for you, it is mere blood running in your veins. I can feel its monotonous gurgle without even piercing your skin.”

By the aurora, why did it have to be complicated? Jule sighed.

“Selfishness is what brings you here,” continued the other. Their remark blew out Jule’s fear like a candle.

“Selfishness?” He choked. “I only ask to belong, to help! Is it my fault if I’m being rejected?” Burning tears threatened to spill. He’d made himself the promise to stay firm.

“Interesting. Most sacrifices weep with terror. I’ve never tasted tears of frustration yet.” An icy sigh caressed Jule’s cheek and spread a rolling tear. “How bitter…” the voice rustled… with pleasure?

Jule tried to slow down his heartbeats. Tickling the interest of his jailor was a dangerous game.

“But I forgot my manners,” they resumed, suddenly lifting from Jule’s shoulders. “Do come and sit by…” They busied themselves for a moment around the fireplace, whose lines undulated in their wake. “… the fire.” A blaze bloomed and launched into battle against the shadows. Jule blinked. He instinctively moved to the light. A chair covered with a grey fur slid near him. Jule took off his heavy skin coat and settled on the cold and slightly damp pelt. In front of him, a stool slid closer, pushed by the spirit who settled on it. The flames’ glow played on their outlines and brought a firmness to them: stocky built, high cheekbones, smooth head.

“Since you’re in the mood for a talk, how should I address you?” asked Jule to whom politeness was the last protection.

“You may call me Winter.”

Silence settled in. Jule twitched in his chair. The high back irritated him, but he did his best not to attract attention. Winter’s eyes were turned towards him, and yet Jule felt that they weren’t looking at him. A log collapsed in the hearth. Jule started. The other one didn’t bat an eyelash.

They must be waiting for the right moment to jump on me. If only they could be quick about it.

The fire’s warmth was reaching Jule’s bones, relaxing him against his will. Biding his time was a dangerous game.

“Is it always like that?”

Winter’s gaze lit up. They kept staring at their prey, but this time with the strength of focus.

“What do you mean by that?” They sounded genuinely curious.

“Do you always play with your sacrifices? Do you enjoy making them wait, postponing the hour of their death the better to scare them one last time?”

“That’s really unfair, Jule. I’m not the one terrorising these poor people. They manage very well on their own.” Their victim’s look, all wide eyes, crumbled into a crystalline laugh. “Believe it or not, I’m not a blood-thirsty brute. I do like to make my guests comfortable.”

“Before killing them.”

“Before taking what they’re offering of their own free will, and what you’ve clearly forgotten to bring with you.” A spark of anger tightened his syllables before vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. “Why the bitterness, Jule? Why do you refuse to me the ecstasy of a devoted sacrifice?”

Jule kept silent. No matter whether he lied or told the truth, it would never be enough. All he wanted was that someone may see him before the end, and too bad if that someone was a primordial being thirsting for his humanity. Jule may not be devoted, but he was sincere, more than he had ever been.

“Here were are,” whispered Winter. “Here is Jule peeking. Why did you hide for so long?”

Jule locked gaze with Winter who was shedding his transparency as if to welcome the scrutiny.

“Because I’m not welcome in my village. I’m trouble.”

“But, tell me,” Winter jumped. “Coming here – was it your choice or were you picked like other sacrifices?”

“Let’s say it was a decision that satisfied everyone.” Jule’s voice climbed down into the deeps with each word, carried by the weight of a long anger. His long, thin fingers curled into fists.

“Compromising until the very last… Ah, Jule, why didn’t you burn everything?”

“I beg your pardon?” he spluttered.

“Since you couldn’t find your place, you might as well have wiped the slate clean. But perhaps you’ve come to ask for my help? Would you like us to pay your village a little visit?” Winter had risen and was headed for the door. Jule dashed to block their way.

“No!” He reached forward without taking the time to consider that the other had no body. Winter stopped at the last moment, his tawny eyes glinting. Jule looked down the body that was now blocking the firelight. He moved his hand forward a notch. It met the spirit’s skin. Under the freezing surface, Jule could feel a warm glow.

“How…”

“There is no extreme without its contrary, Jule. I’m ice, but also fire. Just as you’re a boy, born in the body of a girl.”

Jule blanched.

“I told you, you can’t hide anything from me. I smelt it as soon as you stepped in. How cruel, coming from your family.”

“Better mourn a sacrifice than find room for someone who doesn’t fit it a box.”

“You don’t believe what you’re saying.” Winter’s words were light as the first snowflakes.

“No. But they do.” Jule was glancing away. He’d come all this way to find himself at the starting point. Why did his village’s spirit have to be a chatterbox?

“Winter, let’s end this. Do with me as you do with usual sacrifices, and move on.”

The spirit didn’t answer. They stepped forward and swallowed Jule in their embrace.

At last, Jule thought. It’s over. He let go into Winter’s cold, felt his own warmth sucked by the other’s arms. A tremor ran through him. The body hugging him grew hotter. Jule poured his strength until his knees gave way. The spirit caught him and moved apart to break the touch.

“No, Jule, this is not the time of your death.” Winter looked into Jule’s eyes again and saw him for the first time. “Welcome to the world.”



A dark umbrella, hiding its owner, with a blurry building in the background.
 

This story was written thanks to Susan Dennard’s “Story a Month challenge”. On the first day of each month, Susan sends her subscribers an email with three prompts: a textual one, a visual one, and a sound. Have a look at her website to find out more (click here). “End the rule of Winter” was written thanks to the July prompt.


© Marie Bretagnolle 2021


Crédit photo : Radu Spătaru via Unsplash

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