Our king summoned us on his great crusade to bring right to the northern world, and to avenge his brother foully slain by the treasonous Slavs. We followed him with glad hearts and high courage, willing to endure the vicissitudes of war to serve our beloved homeland. But we found little glory and much pain. By the time we had crossed the harsh steppes of Slavia, and reached the border of Wolfland, many of us had died, many of us had run away, and most of those left were sorely afraid. There was worse to come…
Just before sunset on the day that changed many lives forever, we arrived in a broad, cold, flat-bottomed valley after running the gauntlet of the most frightening weather I have ever known: an ice storm of unprecedented ferocity in which sharpened spikes of frozen water as long as a man’s finger rained from the sky, piercing unprotected skin like vicious arrows. My companions and I were among the last arrivals as we were carrying several of those who had been injured by the cruel ice. We were cold and wet, but glad to get out of the screaming wind with its cargo of flying death. King Steven rode among us on his great horse, Deathbringer, lifting our spirits us with his very presence and promising victory would be ours on the very next day. I cheered and clapped along with my comrades, but a still, small voice inside my head insisted that our great king was lying, and that nothing lay before us except more pain and misery.
I was helping to tend the wounded, and my friends were occupied in a fruitless search for firewood, when the valley was filled with the strains of unearthly music. It seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere, it chilled and heated the blood, it uplifted the spirit and cast down the soul, it was beauty and ugliness, it was kindness and cruelty. I fell to my knees on the ground. A hand shook my shoulder. ‘Look up there.’
I forced my eyes upwards and I beheld her, silhouetted against a blood-red sunset. It was the Winter Queen in all her glory, mounted on her coal-black stallion, and with the Diadem of a Thousand Stars winking on her brow. As I watched, her horse rose on his hind legs and stayed there with the lady’s hair streaming behind her in the wind, and dyed crimson by the setting sun. Then I heard her voice, as cold and precise as the shards of ice that pierced our skin that afternoon. It went straight to my heart and lodged there like a dart.
‘Here is blasphemy dressed in the clothes of piety. Here is the brother of an oathbreaker bringing an army to do war on the innocent and the brave. Know that this will not be tolerated. Your forefathers in Valhalla spit upon your names. Men of Scandi, return to your homes and consider your sins, lest the wrath of the Gods fall on your heads. You have until sunrise tomorrow.’
And then the stallion rose into the air once more before disappearing as mysteriously as he arrived. The rocky promontory stood empty, and the song of the Gods slowly faded to nothing.
Our king fell back in his saddle with a face the colour of ashes. Then he rallied. ‘Trickery’ he cried in a great voice with spittle flying from his lips. ‘Trickery and witchcraft. I promise half my kingdom to the man who brings me the head of that foul sorceress.’
Some ran for the cliffside clutching weapons and ropes, but I, and many others, had heard what we had heard, and our hearts felt like shards of ice in our breasts.
It was a long night, a very long night, during which the discomfort of our bodies mirrored the disquiet of our souls. We were in a bad way, with little food, no firewood, and tents so sodden they froze as we tried to erect them. Even among the rawest recruits, it was noticed that the king and his Ox Guard did not share in the discomforts of the army. Savoury smells emanated from the tight circle of the royal encampment, a great fire burned to warm the royal heart, and the sound of drinking songs split the solemn night air. The mood in the camp grew more and more restive as the night wore on, and when the lords who had come here to support the king went to the circle of his guards to beg firing and sustenance for their men they were driven away with harsh words and sharp pikes. Nobody knew what the morrow would bring, and many of us endured a night of terror.
I sat alone on the frozen tundra with the words of the lady alternately burning and freezing in my breast. I wanted to run away, but I could not. I had to wait for morning in the hope of seeing the Winter Queen once more – even if it cost me my life.
From The Barefoot Runners by Jane Jago
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