The Cold Has a Voice
All that day, Runa followed the track that led out of the village and through the valley of Eventyr, toward the wilds beyond. That evening, just before dark, she left the path, which would continue on down to the next land, and cut across the rocky terrain toward the cliffs where the Fall of Tears could be found. It would take another full day to reach the cliffs, and then another morning to find the Fall of Tears, which was at the very southern end of the cliffs. The Misting Wood was beyond that, and it stretched out for miles further south and even farther to the west. Her mother could be anywhere in this end of the wood.
Runa stopped for the night on a grassy hillock where she could survey the land around her and nothing could sneak up on her during the night. She gathered some dry grass and twigs and made a meager fire, then used its warmth to heat up one of her tins of fish.
Just as the sun was sinking, and she was opening her tin of fish, she noticed an old man walking very wearily across the open area below her. He looked to have been walking for days, and had dust and dirt all over his clothes and spattered mud all over his long, purple cloak. His beard was long and tangled and he leaned heavily on a stout oaken branch.
She looked at her meager meal, then called out to the Old Man, in the traditional greeting of respect. “Good evening, Grandfather. I can see you must be very weary. Please, come and share the warmth of my fire and some of my meal.”
The Old Man looked up at her, smiled gratefully, and climbed the low hillock to where she sat. He lowered himself to the ground with a sigh and stretched out his long legs. “Thank you, child,” he said, his voice warm and kind. “It is refreshing to meet a young one with good manners and a generous heart. You must have been raised by very good folk.”
She passed the tin of fish over to the Old Man. “Thank you, Grandfather. My father is a very good man, and my Nana. I am journeying to seek my mother now, to ask her help in finding my father. He has been missing for five years.”
“Five years?” The Old Man weathered face lifted with surprise and shock. “You poor dear. Do you know what happened to him?”
“No, Grandfather,” she said, taking the tin he offered back to her. She ate a little then said, thoughtfully, “He simply vanished. He’s a fisherman and captains a lovely ship. One day, he saw a light over the water, rowed a boat toward it and then, in a flash of light, disappeared. No one knows where or why.”
“But you intend to find him now. How?”
Runa looked at the Old Man a long moment before answering. She felt, somehow, that she could trust him with her secret. “I was hoping the Voice of the Cold would guide me. And that Mother could help me free him, wherever he may be.”
“The Voice of the Cold,” he repeated soberly. Runa thought he would then lecture her on not making up stories, but he surprised her by saying, “It will be most difficult to convince her to help. She is much too preoccupied with her own grief.”
Runa sat the tin of fish down in her lap. “You’ve heard the Voice, too?”
“Yes, Little One, I know her well.” He looked so sad and lonely when he said this that Runa’s heart broke for the poor man. “Though…I have not seen her in many years.”
“Please, Grandfather, please tell me who she is. I had started to believe I was imagining the Voice, started to worry…”
“You are not losing your sense, Little One,” the Old Man assured her with a slight chuckle. “She is very real.”
Runa waited a long moment, sure that he would tell her the story of the Voice. Instead, he folded his hands across his stomach and half-closed his eyes. “And?”
He peeked at her with one eye. Then, he took one big breath and let it out slowly. “Many, many years ago, a beautiful, kindhearted young maiden discovered she was the daughter of a powerful witch and a very handsome Fossegrimen. She discovered that, like her parents, she had certain… abilities. Because she was beautiful, and the only child, she was granted her every desire. And, because of that, she began to expect everyone to give her anything and everything. She became conceited, cruel and very, very selfish.”
Runa shuddered, caught up in the story, and leaned toward the Old Man to hear more. “Then,” he continued, “when she discovered all she could do, she began to make everyone fear her. Anyone who crossed her suffered her wrath, some even being turned into vile creatures and cursed to live in misery. But one day, she met a good young man and everything changed. He would not indulge her in her selfishness, nor give in to her every whim. He showed her the ways of kindness, of selflessness and she grew to love the young man more than she ever thought possible. She vowed to change her ways and be a good person and the two were married. Her husband told her then that he knew all about her past cruelty and selfishness, but that he had forgiven her long ago. However, he said, there were consequences to her actions, and that she must make amends to everyone she had ever wronged.”
The Old Man stopped a moment, his eyes misting over. Runa, too, felt a lump growing in her throat, for she thought she knew how the story would end. “She tried, very hard, to undo all that she had done. Many folks, seeing that she genuinely was sorry for the hurt she had caused, chose to forgive her. But there was one, a cunning and deceitful man in his own right, who wanted to see her as miserable as he was and acted to destroy any chance at happiness she might have. You see, he had power himself, and he had wanted her to love him, not the good man. He thought that if she chose him, their power combined would make him more powerful than even the Great One. No one remembers what she said when she refused him, but everyone remembers what he chose to do to her for it: he vowed to destroy the happiness of her new life and curse her to everlasting agony.”
“Is that what happened?” Runa asked, her food set aside and completely forgotten.
A smile, sad and small, briefly bent his thin mouth. “Not exactly. Filled with love for his wife, the young man offered to take the punishment in her place. So, in a fit of petulant rage, the evil one unleashed untold torments on the young man, twisting and breaking his strong body until he fell weak, battered and broken.”
“Did he die?”
The Old Man nodded. “Being human, he did.”
Runa couldn’t believe it. “And she just let him?”
“It was done before she ever knew about the revenge the evil one had planned for her.”
“What did she do when she found out?”
Here, a tear drop fell from the Old Man’s eyes. “In her grief, she could not recognize the sacrifice for what it was: an act of love beyond measure. She withdrew, and her pain and grief turned her world as cold as her broken heart, and the coldness spread to all of Eventyr.”
Runa’s eyes went wide. “That’s why it gets colder earlier every year! She’s still mourning him!”
“Yes, she is, but she is also mourning the person she briefly was when she was with him. She wants to restore her heart and spirit to the way it was, but she no longer knows how.”
“How terribly sad! Will she ever be the way she was?”
“That remains to be seen, Little One.”
“Oh, if only he hadn’t died!”
“But if he hadn’t, she would still be lost. The eternal agony, the consequences for her evils would have turned her heart away from all good things. She would never have known love and peace and joy, however briefly.”
“But couldn’t she still change?”
“If she would accept what he did for her and see the truth, they would be reunited and she would be restored. But she must see past her pain and selfish cruelty.”
Runa tilted her head in confusion. “Reunited? But how is that possible? I thought you said the young man died?”
“He did. But by his sacrifice, he atoned for the evil she had done. And, since he gave his life willingly, the Great One reached down and restored him to life. For a brief time they were happy once more, but soon rumors came to her ears that this was not truly the man she loved. At first she refused to believe the whispers, but eventually she started to listen, and then she started to doubt. Her doubt clouded her mind until she no longer could see the truth before her. She refused to believe he was really alive and with her again, and she began to draw away from him more and more each day. Eventually, she turned her back on him, drove him away and shut herself up in her castle, wallowing in her misery.”
“He’s alive! But, then we must find him! If we can convince her that it really is him, maybe she will stop being so cruel and Eventyr will be free of the crippling cold winters. And maybe then she’ll help me find my father.”
The Old Man favored her with a sad smile as he struggled to his feet. “I thank you for your hospitality, Little One.”
“Where are you going?” Runa asked, jumping to her feet.
“I am needed elsewhere.”
“Do you see the path that leads to the Fall of Tears and then the one to the forest beyond?”
Runa turned to where he was pointing, and, in the moonlight, she saw a very narrow track that led directly to the falls and another one leading to the forest beyond. They were barely visible, but in that moment, she could see them clearly, although she could not recall ever seeing either before now. “Yes, Grandfather, I do.”
“Good. Take the paths and you will get to where you need to go. You will find your mother, and then, further along, you will find the lady whose voice you hear, and beyond that, you will find your father. But be careful not to stray. Stay on the paths, or you may lose your way entirely.”
She felt suddenly frightened of the journey before her. “Couldn’t you, I mean, are you sure you don’t want to come with me? You could meet my mother, and see the lady – you said you know her, maybe you could help me convince her to tell me how to find my father.”
“Do not be afraid, Veronika. If you need me, I will know it, and I will do whatever I can to help you.”
“We shall meet again, Little One. I know it well.”
With that, the Old Man pulled his cloak around himself against the cold, then started down the hillock and out of sight in the darkness. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that Runa realized the Old Man had called her by her real name.