The winter air seeped into her bones as she moved doggedly forward.
The cold, cruel wind snaked around her, erasing her footsteps as she made them. For all she knew she could be walking in place. She had to keep moving. They were close . . . so close.
Winter had come early this year, catching the village unprepared. A killing frost blackened the crops that hadn’t been harvested yet leaving the store houses only half full. Then an illness swept through the herds, decimating the livestock.
Many families packed up and headed south while they still could. Though most had been through hard times before, never had those hardships piled one on top of the other so quickly. They left in a hurry, hoping to beat the winter storms that were hard on their heels.
Those that were left fortified themselves as best they could and often gathered in the tavern with its enormous fireplace. As it grew steadily colder, many of them moved right in, finding even a pallet on the floor better than trying to sleep through the cold in their own homes.
Occasionally a traveller would pass through the village, stopping for the night at the tavern before pressing on, trying to reach the southern lands before true winter set in. They would bring with them what little news they had, how there was no escaping the cold, how even the game was migrating southwards.
One old man barely made it to the village alive. He collapsed near the fireplace in the tavern, clearly not long for this world.
“’Tis the feral winter,” he muttered, over and over again.
The tavern-keeper’s wife paused in her task of trying to coax some broth down his throat. “What do you mean, feral winter?”
“It comes every two hundred years to drive men mad.”
“Superstitious nonsense,” the woman muttered.
“No, it’s true!” the old man insisted. “My ancestors survived the last one and passed the story down through the generations.”
By this time the small crowd of remaining villagers had gathered around him.
“What causes this feral winter?” someone asked.
“Boreas, may the heavens curse his name.”
“The gods do not control the winter!”
“The god Boreas is so great that he need only draw a breath once every two hundred years. When he exhales, it is the icy breath of the feral winter with its cold that drives men mad.”
“How, exactly does the cold drive a man mad?”
“It seeps into his soul and gives him the strength of ten men. And with this strength he makes sure nothing survives the feral winter. No beast, no man.”
He lapsed into silence again and they could get no more from him. By morning he was dead.
Wolves came down from the mountain seeking food and put an effective end to any more visitors. For safety the hunters and woodsmen foraged together but found little for their efforts. The game had either died or fled; the trees were too frozen for the axes to bite through.
As it grew steadily colder frost began to form around the edges of the doors and the tightly shuttered windows in the tavern. A delegation was sent to try and persuade the few who had decided to stick to their farms to come to the tavern. They came back alone.
“The fools!” the tavern keeper’s wife exclaimed. “You mean not one of them . . .” her voice trailed off as she took in the solemn looks on the men’s faces. “They all froze to death?”
“They’s all dead,” the smithy told her. “And they’s frozen, but it weren’t the cold what killed them.”
The tavern-keeper rested a comforting hand on his wife’s shoulder. “It looks as though the old man was right. The cold made them mad and they turned on each other.”
The next morning, when everyone awoke, it was discovered that the two woodsmen nearest to the door were dead. The wind whistled around the eaves and rattled at the door. There was not a mark on them and the remaining villagers looked at each other with suspicion.
It grew steadily colder. Even the wolves deserted them, migrating further south. By ones and twos the remaining villagers were being picked off in the night – a farmer and his wife, the village blacksmith, a spinster seamstress . . .
For two nights running they set a watch, but each morning they’d awaken to find the watchmen sitting upright, eyes staring straight ahead, quite dead. One of the hunters panicked and tried to leave the tavern, but the door was frozen shut. They were all trapped together, and one of them was a murderer.
The next morning it was the tavern-keeper who was found dead, although this once it looked like the victim had put up a struggle. His wife was silent as his body was carried into the store room where the others had been put. Of those who had stayed in the village, only five now remained.
The survivors were too afraid to try and sleep that night, but sleep they did. When the two huntsmen woke in the morning it was to find the last two farmers were dead, still curled up in their blankets beside the fire. As they examined the bodies they were struck by a cold blast of air.
The tavern-keeper’s wife stood beside the now wide open door.
“Run,” she said, baring her teeth in a feral grin.
With nothing more than the clothes on their backs, the hunters fled. She gave them a head start and then followed.
They were a canny prey, almost worthy. The winter air seeped into her bones as she moved doggedly forward but she took no notice. It could no longer harm her. She belonged to Boreas now.
The cold, cruel wind snaked around her, erasing her footsteps as she made them. For all she knew she could be walking in place but if that were true then so was her prey. She had to keep moving, had to find the last two villagers. They were close . . . so close. It would not be long before they were hers. The god must be appeased.