It was Deepwinter.
The land was locked in snow; it lay like a blanket, clothing the trees and filling up the ravines, turning everything into a featureless mass of white. There was nothing, no place, that was free of the snow. It was easy to imagine, in the depth of Deepwinter, that the snow had lain like that for eternity and that it was only a fantasy that there had ever been a time without it. It was even easier to imagine that the snow would never melt again.
The snow ruled over everything. It ruled the lives of the Tribe, too, as surely as it did those of the animals of the forest who slept away Deepwinter if they could or hunted despairingly for food if they could not. It was Deepwinter that was the time of renewal, when the Tribe marked the passage of time and the end of phases in its existence. Even more than Highsummer, Deepwinter was the most important part of the life of the tribe.
It was Deepwinter.
In the caves where the Tribe had shut itself in, the People huddled around the fires and stoked the flames with some of the increasingly scarce fuel; the walls ran with the condensation of their breath and the air was fuggy with their exhalation and the smell of their bodies and their clothing. But they noticed none of these things, because they were used to them and because old Kutti was talking. When she talked, everyone listened.
“So it was in those days,” she was saying, “the old, who could no longer work their share, used to take their leave of the Tribe and walk away into the snows of Deepwinter. They would do this as a gesture of kindness to the Tribe, because they had generosity in those days. Yes, they had moral fibre.” She paused to sigh, and nobody dared suggest that she, being old and no longer able to work, should do what she praised and take herself off into the snowbound wilderness.
“And it is in the deepest of Deepwinter,” she continued, “on the night when the cold is at its most intense and the snows at their thickest, that the Cannibal Spirit walks the land. Just on that one night of all the cycle of the seasons she walks, and any human creature that is abroad on that night is lost beyond redemption, never to be seen again.” She paused again, and put a piece of boar fat into her toothless mouth.
“Bekur had been a young man once,” she resumed, “and he had been a great hero. Oh, he had been young, and strong, and in the Highsummer of his life he had fought and hunted; he had made maidens sigh for him and bedded them and fathered many children for the Tribe, and he had brought on himself all manner of glory. Oh, he had been someone for the Tribe to be proud of, had Bekur.
“But time passed and the seasons went by, and Bekur grew older and his strength began to ebb; he took to sitting by the fire while the young men, among whom were his children’s children, went a-hunting or to war. And little by little his eyes began to dim and his teeth to wear away; his hearing worsened and his hands, which had once been so clever at making things when he had had no other work to do, began to lose their cunning.
“And Bekur decided, although he was held in such high esteem in the Tribe that none would have ever suggested it, that he would leave the People and go out on his own into the snows of Deepwinter, while he still had enough of his senses and strength left to leave this life on his own terms, dying as he had lived, according to his own desires.
“So, one night, when the snows had the world in their grip and the People slept in their caves, Bekur rose from his place by the fire, and picked up the great old bronze knife that had been his companion through a lifetime of hunting and combat, and he tucked it into his belt. He pulled on his fur-lined jacket and hat, and his heavy old boots and then – pausing only to pick up a bag of smoked meat from the cave’s larder – he passed like a ghost between the rows of sleepers and out of the cave’s entrance. There was a sentry, but he, too, slept at his post; and no one saw him go.
“It was Deepwinter; and the snow had fallen all the day. Before dawn, it would fall again.
Bekur paused outside the cave to get his bearings. It had been a while since he had been outside, and the blanket of snow changed every part of the familiar topography, sculpted a new world for him to explore.
High above his head, the sky was cloudless for the moment, except for long wisps of cirrus, and brilliant moonlight rained down on the world. The moon glittered on the snow, so that the land was brighter than the sky; it gleamed on the ice that covered the stream down in the valley, and, when he breathed out, it turned his breath into a gleaming cloud of tiny ice crystals.
It was quite amazingly cold.
It was the cold that got him going, because he could no longer bear the bite of it settling through his thick clothing down into his bones. The cold was like a living thing that twined about him, embraced him, and tried to draw him into itself. He felt its teeth inside his lungs with every breath he took, gnawing him from the inside. He felt its hands run over his body, testing him, prodding and pinching. The cold promised death. The cold was death. It whispered to him, and told him that it would claim him before the morning. It would have driven him back into the shelter of the cave if he had waited another instant, so he took one last look around and plunged down the slope towards the stream.
Down where the frozen strip of water lay, the snows that had slid down the sides of the valley all Deepwinter had hardened and packed themselves so that it was like walking on a hard floor. His boots sank above the ankles in the previous day’s fall of soft powdery snow. When he turned for one last look back at the cave, he could see his footmarks imprinted deeply enough to show up in the moonlight.
Bekur had not left the cave without a specific destination in mind. He did not plan to wander in the snow until exhaustion and exposure claimed him. He knew of a place, far down the river where the cliffs arose on either side, where he could stay alone, and hunt for himself, and live as long as he could, without being a burden to anyone. It was a long walk, and he had not gone that way in many a long year, but it was the place he had decided on, before he had ever left the cave.
He started walking along the side of the frozen river. The wind had begun to rise, whipping along the ground, raising a fine flurry of snow as it blew. And if he had thought the cold intense before, it was as nothing to what it was like now; it sliced through his body like a million knives. The wind rose and rose; when he looked up, he saw that the sky was now full of shredded clouds, and the stars appeared and disappeared as though the wind was ripping them out of the sky.
It was clearly impossible to remain on the riverside, so, reluctantly, because it was much harder going and would take up so much more time, he left the river and went up the side of the valley into the shelter of the trees. He didn’t go far into them, because it was dark there and because the snow was deep-piled and treacherously slippery. He just moved far enough that the wind could not get at him with quite the same force. On his right the moon still shone on the frozen river, and the banks were white in the moonlight. It was all so white and so beautiful that he paused again, and came to the edge of the trees, for a good look, a thing of beauty to take with him to eternity should he not survive the night. Because the wind stung his eyes if he looked down the river, he chose to look back.
There were footprints on the snow.
He saw them at first without really noticing; the wind had blurred the prints and brushed them mostly away. He looked at them and looked away at the moonlit slopes across the river, then when he looked back the wind dropped a little and he saw them. Then he thought that they were his own prints, but he had moved off the bank long enough to have moved far too long a distance to be able to see his own footprints now. Then he saw something else and the sight made him feel a different kind of cold lay icy hands on his spine: the prints were still being formed. Even as he watched, they were still being formed, but there were no feet forming them. When he looked beyond them he could see the broad stretch of the frozen river, and the forested sides of the valley, and in the distance, he could just see the slopes where the caves of the Tribe were.
Not for no reason had Bekur, in his youth, won renown as someone with the bravery of a wild boar. As steadily as his old legs could bear him, he stepped out on to the river bank and walked towards the advancing prints. As he did, the wind stopped suddenly. As though a door had been closed somewhere, it completely fell away.
Whatever it was that was making the footprints stopped.
He actually saw the small puff of snow thrown up by the last step. It hung on the air in a little cloud, and then fell slowly back on to the bank. An instant later, something invisible rushed past him, through him, and over him, cold as the wind that had stopped, and much, much stranger. He felt it in every particle of his body, although just for an instant; and instinctively, turned after it, but there was nothing there to see.
Then he went to the nearest print and stood looking down at it. For the moment he decided to ignore what he could not understand and try to understand what he could.
It was a woman’s foot, he saw at once, and it was bare. Only a woman’s foot was so small, so elegant, and so delicately arched. But, he wondered, what woman would be out barefoot in Deepwinter, when the snow lay on the ground like this?
Then he bent for a closer look, and, for the briefest moment, fear shivered through his soul.
There were claws at the ends of the toes. He could see the marks clearly, now that he had bent low enough to put his old eyes almost to the snow. The clouds overhead had cleared, and the moon shone down with its milky light, and the shadows it threw showed clearly in the snow. The prints left by the invisible feet of a woman had the marks of claws like those of a beast of prey.
Then he remembered that he had nothing, really, to fear; for him, life was over in any case, and death today or tomorrow made a difference only to him. With that, fear departed, and a different, nameless emotion took hold; not fear, not hate, nor courage, just something he had never felt before and so had no name for. He straightened slowly, and, slinging his bag of food over his shoulder, he gripped his bronze knife with the other hand and began walking along the river, in the direction the footprints had been taking.
Although the wind had died, it was growing even colder; a great frost had gripped the land, and even as he walked he could feel the freezing snow crunch under his old boots. But in a way he had ceased to feel the cold. It had no meaning for him any longer, just as his decision to leave the Tribe no longer had any meaning. All that he thought of was to find out what it was that had made those footprints with the claws.
Bekur was not ignorant. Although a hero, a man of action, who had fought and hunted and rutted all his life with apparently no thought for anything else, he knew enough of the traditions and legends of the Tribe to know of what might be waiting for him at the end of the trail. If he had been anyone else, or if he had been younger with a life still worth the living, he would have turned back and hidden in the woods and hoped the night would warm up and pass, howsoever it could, without incident. But he was Bekur, and he was at the end of his life, and so he went on.
As he walked, the land began to rise on both sides, more and more, so that the valley became more like a gorge. He knew these places; he had hunted and loved here, but that was in Midspring and Highsummer. He had never been here on a Deepwinter night before, when no Tribesperson ever, without the strongest reasons, ventured out of the caves. Just here, the river made a wide turn to the north, to his left. The slope on the left almost touched the river, so that he could not see past the bend. He knew that just past the bend the land flattened out again, into a valley, but the snow and the Deepwinter night had so changed everything that it seemed as if the landscape he knew had changed forever.
Then he rounded the bend and stopped, looking up, his mouth open in a soundless scream.
She was huge. She was much taller than he could ever have imagined, towering over him, staring down at him from eyes of total blackness, the blackness of the night sky between the stars. She was pure beauty, and from her head to her feet she was the colour of ice, and all she wore was the cloak of her ice-coloured hair.
“You have been seeking me,” she said. He heard the words within his mind, and it was as though her voice was the voice of the ice, too. If cold had a voice, if snow and ice could speak, that is what she would have sounded like. And the voice filled him, echoed through his being, and it was the voice that filled eternity, a voice that came from the depths of the Hell of ice and the pitiless sky above. It was the voice of Deepwinter.
He tried to say something, whether to agree with her or disagree he did not know. He could say nothing, think nothing. He was nothing.
“You are nothing,” she agreed. “You have never been anything. And yet – in you lies the capacity for greatness. Come to me.”
“What?” he could speak again, but all he could utter was the foolish bleat.
“Do you know me?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I know you, mistress, Cannibal Spirit. I know you.”
“Then you know that I can complete you, make you whole,” she said. Her black eyes bored through him. “I have done so to many – more than you can count. Come to me.”
He took one step toward her, and then another. She stood waiting, a hand raised for him, and her breasts shone in the moonlight. “Come,” she said.
He looked up at her eyes. Her eyes were black and deep and full of the utter peace that knows no happiness and no sorrow. “Come,” she said, and her voice rustled through him.
Now he was no longer old and frozen and very, very afraid. Now he was the Bekur of old, young and strong, and afraid of nothing and no one, and she was comely and lovely and full of promise of happiness. No longer aged and wrinkled, his hand came up to meet hers. Their fingers reached out to touch.
And then – then, at that moment before their fingers touched – he remembered the footprints he had seen, the prints her bare feet had left in the snow, and he remembered the claws.
It was as though someone had restored sight to him. He saw again then, with the dim and blurred eyes of age but more clearly than the eyes of youth. He saw her hand stretched towards his, with the talons at the ends of the fingers; and he saw her ice-coloured lips part, and then he saw her teeth.
“Come,” she whispered, and the teeth glistened in the moonlight.
“No,” he said aloud. He took one step back.
She stood where she was and watched him calmly. “That is not an answer,” she said. “A rat does not say ‘no’ to a god.”
“I came out here to die,” Bekur whispered. The whisper dried to silence in his mouth.
“Death is simple,” came her voice, the voice that rustled through the universe. “I offer much, much more than death. I offer the wine of eternal youth and of immortal being.”
And then Bekur saw the she was no longer alone; even as he looked at her, he seemed to see another landscape within her, of snow and ice. And in that landscape within her, were people: men and women, young and healthy-looking all of them, who came and went and gesticulated to him and smiled warmly, and wished to make him welcome.
It was as though she was sucking him into that world; everything seemed to blur and whiten for a moment and then he stood on a white plain of snow, but it was not the same snow that he had stood on. Before him rose a Gate, a dark Gate that at the same time looked welcoming and gentle, for all that it was topped by a death’s head. And those men and women were, suddenly, all around him, with their friendly smiles and welcoming arms. That was not all of it: he knew these people. He knew them all. They were of the Tribe, or of other Tribes of this land, people whom he had met. But they were not old and wizened and toothless: they were young and strong and full of vitality.
“Come to us, and be like us,” they said, and smiled. “Come along with us and be like us.”
“Come, Bekur.” He heard the voice, and it sent his heart racing, so that he was almost afraid to look. But slowly he turned his head. It was Charpoka.
And it was not Charpoka as he had seen her last, bent with the years and almost blind, who had vanished quietly from the cave the previous Deepwinter. It was Charpoka as she had been once, glowing with health and vitality, the same as she had been when she had – so long ago now! Bekur thought, feeling his aged limbs suddenly heavy – taught him about love and how to please a woman. There had been a time when they had both assumed he would take her as mate. But time had passed and he had grown to fame among the Tribes, and far above such a girl as she, for girl she had been, despite her womanly knowledge, and they had grown old apart. And one night she had crept from her place and walked into Deepwinter, and she had never been seen again.
“Bekur,” this new young Charpoka said, taking him by the arm. Her naked body was not icy, as he had thought; it was warm and full of life. “Bekur, come to the Gate, and be one of us. Come.”
He looked at her and he allowed her to urge him towards the black portal with the grinning skull atop. The others followed and flanked him, old friends and onetime rivals and those who had once been enemies but in this place could be enemies no longer; he saw even his old parents, restored to a youth in which he had never known them, smiling and laughing and beckoning to him from under the arch of the Gate.
“What lies within the Gate?” he asked.
“All that you ever wanted, Bekur,” Charpoka said, moving her naked body. “All you’ve ever wanted. Youth and health and life everlasting. Me.”
“You? But…” he scarcely knew how to articulate the things that were in his mind at that moment. He looked at her again, then, at her lovely oval face, unmarked by time and experience, and she brought her face to him, raised her lips to his.
“Kiss me,” she said.
It was then he really saw her, as she was – saw the serrated teeth and the black eyes without expression, the flat black eyes of something dragged up from deep under the water, something that belonged to another world.
He realised then that it was not Charpoka, and he tried to pull away from her. He shook himself, clenching his eyes shut from the sight of her eyes and teeth, and an instant later he was standing upon the river bank, before the ice-coloured lady clothed in her ice-coloured hair.
“I may be old and weak and a shadow of what I used to be,” he said, “but still, what I am, is I; not something else, something I cannot recognise.” He began backing away.
In an instant something happened to the face of the ice-coloured woman. The lovely planes and curves of it fell in on themselves, shrank, and transformed. The lips peeled back from her teeth, and her eyes seemed to grow until they filled their sockets; pools of utter blackness. In an instant more, Bekur was looking on a countenance very much like that of a skin-covered skull.
“This is what you have chosen,” the skull-face said.
“I have chosen,” he said, and began walking away. Because she stood between him and his planned destination, he began trudging back through the snow towards the caves of the Tribe. He had expected her to pounce on him, but when he looked back over his shoulder there was nothing there, except a shadow that stood upright and swaying gently in the moonlight. “You can kill me now if you wish,” he said. “I shan’t submit to you.”
For the last time that night, he heard her voice. “They always submit,” she said evenly. “They think they escape, but they never do. They always return, one day.”
The wind began to pick up again as old Bekur made his way back to the cave of the Tribe. It howled like a live thing, shredding the sky and stripping away the stars, and he hid his head between his shoulders as the wind lashed at him, but he made his way back before morning. The sentry still slept; nobody knew he had gone from his place.
And all the way back, he never looked back to see if invisible footsteps were following him.
“What happened to Bekur?” the listeners asked.
Old Kutti chewed at another piece of fat. “I was very young girl in those days,” she said. “I remember how he used to sit, by the fire, so old that it seemed that he was older than the stars. He used to sit there and warm himself all day long, even in Highsummer; and he used to say the cold had entered his bones and would never go away.” She paused. “And sometimes he used to tell the story, but only to a few of us, and only very reluctantly. He was not proud of it.”
“And what happened to him at last?” asked someone. “Did he die there beside the fire?”
“No,” Kutti said. “He went out again, one Deepwinter night many Deepwinters after the first time he had gone out to die, and nobody ever saw him again.”
Bekur stumbled in the snow.
He could hardly walk anymore now, at least in snow like this. The cold had become one with him. He was the ice and cold; he no longer even felt it. The sky was black, and the snow that had fallen earlier had already begun to freeze over, and he no longer had even the eyesight to pick his way; so he stumbled and blundered through the night, with no longer a thought of finding his haven by the cliffs, seeking only oblivion – or something else.
He became aware of her by degrees. At first he felt the silence, as the wind died and the night stilled. Then he saw the footprints, but they preceded him now, and then at last he knew she stood before him and he raised his eyes.
“You know who I am,” she said, and her smile seemed kindly.
“I know, lady.”
“You thought again of what you wanted.”
“It’s not the same world,” he said. “The men and women of my youth are gone, and the young make fun of what we held sacred. It is not the same.”
“So you came out again, before it is too late.”
He bent his head to acknowledge the words. There was truth in them.
“Come to me,” she said, and he came.