by Talia Hale
Winter’s cold draped over Almut like a thin blanket as she stepped gingerly through the snow. Even with the door shut behind her, she could still hear the festive music and drunken laughter inside. The massive yule log her father had chosen for the village was still roasting slowly away inside, but he’d ushered her out to fetch more wood to keep it lasting until dawn. “It’s very important,” he’d murmured to her.
“But why?” she’d asked sullenly, already dreading leaving the Great Hall’s warmth. “It’s just wood.”
Her father’s face twitched behind his beard. “Because we must show that we keep the one true God and His son.”
Almut had never known or understood the Old Gods. If she were telling the truth—and she never would, for truth-telling was dangerous these days—she didn’t really understand this new one, either. When her father was a boy, they had burned all the old temples and built strange new ones. They burnt some people, too, if the stories were true.
It was the longest night of the year, but the moonlight reflected off the snow and coated everything in an eerie blue glow. Soon the sounds of merriment had faded behind her, and only the muffled sound of her elkskin boots crunching over the icy ground filled Almut’s ears. The cold air crept its way under her furs, and her breath came out in warm clouds as she sighed and began heaping wood from the pile into her arms.
“A big job, for a small girl,” a voice echoed from the trees. A gaunt, long-faced man had appeared seemingly from nowhere, standing tall among the bare trees. He wore an aged crimson robe and hat, and his long white beard flowed over it like ice from an eave. He was impossibly ancient, yet not frail; the hand that gripped his great walking staff was strong and thick.
The man’s breath did not make any clouds.
“Who are you?” Almut barked, sounding much braver than she felt.
“An old, old man,” came the tired reply. “Long-forgotten, it seems.”
“Who…? Who forgot you?” Almut asked. He stepped forward, out of the shelter of the trees and into the moonlight. Almut could see him clearer now, and within the folds of his ancient face there was but one eye, and where the other should have been there was instead a scarred cavern.
“Oh, nearly everyone,” he chuckled with an unexpected warmth. “But that’s the way of the world, I suppose. We must change ourselves to accommodate Time’s passing, or be lost.”
Almut wasn’t sure what that meant, but the old man didn’t seem nearly as frightening as before. In fact, she felt a little sad for him.
“I’m sure people will remember you,” she said, shifting the weight of the wood in her arms. “People don’t forget that easily.”
The old man’s lone eye glittered at her. “Yes, yes I suppose you’re right,” he mused. “You’re a good girl, Almut Dankmarsdotter. Go now, help your father. Don’t waste your time listening to a nostalgic old fool.”
Hearthlight spilled out onto the frozen snow as Almut nudged the door open with her hip, and the warmth and joy of the Hall flooded out to envelope her like an old friend. Almut peered out into the darkness behind her, but the man had vanished. She wondered if he’d ever really been there at all. It wasn’t until the next morning, after the revellers had dispersed and Almut was cleaning the yule log’s ashen remains, that she found three tiny oranges placed neatly by the hearth and she knew that her visitor had been real after all.