The freezing winds heralded their arrival and their arrival meant death. The winds were always cold this time of year, but these winds were far more ominous, bringing polar temperatures that the north had not seen in centuries. The fields of barley had stood no chance, each stalk ripped from its home and cast into the night. Starvation had begun to take hold of Natalia long before the first signs of them had approached their cottage. The locals called them frostmen, beings that walked silently, the cold was the only omen of the frostmen’s approach. They came in the night and her mother’s screams reverberated in the confines of their small cottage. She didn’t run to save her. Instead, she hid under her thin blanket until she was sure all that remained in the cottage was her mother’s frozen corpse.
She found her mother panting heavily on the floor, her skin deathly pale. Pale, but alive. Her mother gasped when Natalia’s light footsteps approached her, but smiled a weak smile at the realisation that her daughter was safe.
‘Natalia…my flower, safe and… and all alone in this world now…’
‘Mama, I’ll get you warm! I-I’ll s-start a fire and we’ll be w-warm and…’ she stopped when she realised her mother was crying. She reached for Natalia’s face, gently caressing her cheek and sliding a lock of golden silk behind her ear.
‘My flower…leave me, Mama will be fine. Run Natalia, they’ll be back and-‘
‘I won’t go Mama, I won’t leave you, please don’t make me run,’ she whispered, clawing at her mother, desperately clinging onto the life she had known for nine years. Her mother smiled and her eyes drifted shut, tears frozen on her face as a silent prayer formed on her lips and the cold overtook her.
‘Run Natalia…’ She murmured as the ice overcame her face and she lay still, limp and cold and dead.
Natalia ran into the night, panting, her breath condensing as shimmering vapour streamed from her mouth. She stopped and looked back at the cottage, the sight of her mother’s body still visible in her mind, branded into her memory. She wanted to go back, to hide herself in her mother’s arms, to hide from the cold and the ice but she knew better. She knew they would catch her like they caught her mother so after a final glance at her security, she whimpered and bolted into the forest of larches.
Freezing tendrils grabbed at her, spreading a plague of glacial dominance over the lands. Their winds chilled her, ice creeping into her bones. It was cold. It was so very cold. She had wandered down the path warm, heat in her soul, warming her like a wildfire blazing through a forest. She had to run, she would always run, but her fire was dying and those frigid fingers would not release her.
She gained sanctuary from the winds as she stumbled into a cave, blinded by the snow whipping around her face. The sight of the dull embers burning in the cave made her rub her eyes. Could she be so fortunate? Natalia crept towards the flames but the sight of a figure resting against the wall caused her to jump back. She shrank back but the fact that the figure was wrapped in furs made her realise this was not a frostman. It was a human.
She inched closer to the fire, warming her palms, the heat filling her up, and she greedily accepted it. The figure was forgotten and all Natalia could think about was this relief from the cold.
‘A child should not be running around in the night.’
Natalia spun around to face the speaker. It was a woman, wrapped up tightly in furs. Brown strands of hair poked out from under her hood, which covered up most of her head. A pair of gentle brown eyes observed Natalia, welcoming and kind.
‘It’s cold out there, take this to warm yourself,’ the woman said, as she threw a cloak to Natalia. Natalia buried herself in the cloak, grateful of the stranger’s kindness.
‘Th-thank you. Please don’t l-leave me, my mama’s gone and I-I have nowhere to go,’ she sobbed, her small eyes pleading for the woman to stay. The woman smiled a reassuring smile and reached for Natalia’s hand.
‘You’re safe now, little one. Don’t worry, I won’t leave, I’ll protect you,’ the woman repeated into Natalia’s ear as she drifted off to sleep. She was tired, she had run for a long time. But now she was safe, she was safe. Her thoughts of home and her mother and this kind stranger dissipated as she gave into her weariness.
Bernard Tso 9L