Last week, Rhianna’s story, Midwinter Requiem, debuted on the site. Today, we’re going to conclude that story. That said, just know that as with many other tales that we tell, just because one story ends, that doesn’t mean another doesn’t begin soon after. Rhianna and I have already discussed sequels to this wonderful idea.
This conclusion marks the very last story for 2015. I hope that you enjoyed what Tellest brought you this year, and that it shows that there’s plenty of entertainment for decades to come!
A Story by Rhianna DeAngelo
The sun rose and set in the blink of an eye, but a blink that brought a thick blanket of snow. Her people skinned the last few rabbits and rationed the rest among the fifty dwarves seated by the fire. The queen commanded the doors opened so she could tell whether the stone stairs were still visible with the frozen floor ever rising. Lost in silent worry for both her hunter and her people, she barely noticed the thin woman crouching by her side. When she finally acknowledged her, she looked upon her with tentative curiosity.
“Why have you come? What brought you here?”
“I’ve seen it,” the woman said. “You will save your people.” Days among the clan seemed to have tamed her wildness, as if awakening sanity in the woman that had long been buried. “They are lost,” she whispered.
Ylva bit her lip so hard she tasted blood on her teeth. “Thank you for your opinion. You may return indoors or return to wherever you came from, but ye’ll do well to leave me in peace.”
The woman swayed her body slightly, like a leaf blowing in the wind. “You can bring them home,” she cooed.
Ylva’s cheeks burned with rage and from the sting of the cold. “I want none of your riddles, shrew. Leave me.”
The woman bounded at Ylva and pointed a gnarled finger towards the moonlight dimly glowing through the thick white clouds. “Give yourself to her, as I did. Give her your voice, your flesh, your soul, and she will transform you.”
A shiver crept up Ylva’s spine as she heard the witch’s voice become desperate and deep, as if a spirit within was breaking through the surface.
“Sing! Your voice will ride the wind and reach them.” She gripped Ylva’s arm tightly. “I have seen their footprints fade and their last breaths rise into the air. I have seen many things. She gave me the sight. It is my joy and my despair.” Her frail body sank into the snow as she kneeled in front of the queen.
“Tomorrow night, you shall sing a song of return. And they will hear your call. They are blind through the storm. Call them, and they will hear. But this is the gift I have promised, a warning. You must stop your song before the dawn. You must only use your gift when she is watching above. Betray her, and you shall be cursed. And you shall be alone, always alone.” Tears falling from the woman’s eyes froze on her pale skin.
Ylva turned her head toward the sky, letting the heavy snowflakes cling to her lashes. She thought of her husband’s warning to stay away from the woman, but if the hunters did not return to feed the clan, her people would have no hope of braving this storm. Even in the faint moonlight, she could see the frozen landscape blanketed in a thick layer that nearly reached her waist. She knew she must break her promise to Halvard and accept the woman’s offer if she hoped to save the clan.
“What must I do?”
The woman jumped to her feet in front of Ylva and gripped her shoulders painfully. She threw her head back and let out a guttural cry of delight. “Do you hear? She will be your servant! I have found her!” She shoved Ylva with astonishing strength, considering her weak frame, toward the entrance to the halls. “Sleep now, and come tomorrow to sing your song. She has heard you. She will give you the power.”
“And you? Am I to leave you out here all night?”
“It is almost dawn; it is almost done. I will return when she returns.” The woman looked lighter, more beautiful but no less frightening, as she ran straight into the storm. Ylva gazed into the blackness of the night and nodded to the guards to close the doors behind her.
The third night came, and the woman returned as promised. As soon as Ylva sang her first word, her voice echoed from every corner of the mountains. The words resonated crisp and clear, cutting through the storm like a beacon leading home. The woman smiled a genuinely kind smile, with no malice behind her crooked teeth, as she listened to the queen’s powerful song.
Mountains are full of a thousand voices,
Of stone and snow and sacred earth,
Singing songs of brave spirits defending
These frost-covered lands of our birth
Ride hard through the night, my hunters
O’er the hills and valleys wide
Let my voice be your light in the darkness
Return home to your place at my side
The storm calmed as the moon lowered in the sky. Across the distance, she could barely see shadows of slow-moving figures trudging through the snow, but surely they headed toward her. The clouds dispersed to reveal a cerulean sky behind the shroud of white.
The sky lightened, and Ylva could see the figures in the distance. But seven brothers had left, and she saw the figures of only three. The dawn broke above the mountain, and a small sliver of golden light touched her hair as she sang her last note. In that instant, she felt her bones begin the painful buckle beneath her flesh. A wave of white fur washed over her skin, and her teeth grew painfully long within her mouth. The song on the wind became a wailing howl.
Ylva’s body glowed as soon as the sunlight touched her flesh. Bones cracked and danced under her skin that soon became covered in thick white fur. The queen reached out her hand pleadingly toward the woman, who was too busy caressing her arms as if bathing herself in sunlight. A growl formed deep in her throat as Ylva’s body grew three times the size it was moments before, and the pain of her transformation became unbearable. The woman regarded the giant wolf looming over her with disinterest as she lightly touched her once blind eye. It became a clear blue as the darkness left her fragile body, and she twirled in the morning light.
“My last vision was seeing you fail to keep your promise,” she said happily. “Your husband, your people, your goddess. You’ve failed them all. But don’t worry, you haven’t disappointed me.”
Ylva leapt forward, catching one of the woman’s twirling arms in her massive teeth and ripping it from her body in one sharp tear. The woman’s agonizing scream pierced through the dying blizzard. The great doors opened a moment later, and when the clansmen saw the huge white wolf and the mutilated woman, they advanced on the creature with swords and axes drawn.
Ylva ran, her giant paws pounding through the ice and snow that coated the hundreds of stone stairs with ease. Her mind struggled against the waves of freedom that accompanied her new form. She felt the longing to run, and howl, and hunt tugging at the last strings of her humanity. The dawn warmed her fur as the snow fell far more softly, and the scent of dwarves and pine and blood filled her nostrils. Halvard, she thought, but she could think nothing else. The name became a mantra—Halvard, Halvard, Halvard—as instinct drove her onward, but she could no longer remember why.
It took only a few bounds for her to venture into the hunter’s line of sight across the snow-covered hills. The small dead creatures hanging from the leather ties around their bodies made her mouth water, but when she drew close enough to see her husband’s face, her thoughts flooded back. She remembered the touch of his hand on her heart, and she remembered the look of love in his eyes and his promise to always find his way home to her.
She sensed his fear before she could process her own and watched as he expertly aimed his bow. The sharp tip whistled through the air and pierced her heart. Ylva’s steps faltered, and she fell to the ground, looking up at her love, seeing him smile with pride at his kill.
“This beast’ll feed the clan for weeks, lads!” A cheer was heard through the weary band of brothers eager to reach home.
The deep imprints from the wolf’s paws through the snow made a clear path for the wayward huntsmen to follow. The brothers hoisted the bloody carcass onto their shoulders and began the long trek to the staircase, each silently mourning their mounts that died in the storm. While their ponies were hard-bred for the mountains, they lacked the resilience of dwarves in the cold.
“Imagine it, lads: When this is done, we’ll have something other than pony in our bellies.”
As they neared the great doors, they heard a shrill whining coming from within. Halvard was the first to drop the beast at the doors and bang loudly with the blunt side of his axe.
“Open up, ya fools!”
It took only a moment for the clansmen inside to open them. As the wind that morning blew softly, Halvard stepped over the wolf at his feet to see the once-mad woman weeping by the fire pit in a pool of blood pouring at the shoulder of her mutilated limb.
When her eyes, both clear blue yet red from crying, met Halvard’s, her weeping ceased and turned to laughter.
“She’s done it!” she cried, looking past him to the wolf at his feet. Her face, much fairer than Halvard remembered, contorted into a sinister smile as her laughter filled the halls.
“No dreams, no visions, I see nothing! We’ve pleased the goddess, and she’s blessed me as she’s blessed your clan for centuries to come, never to be lost again.” Then her clear blue eyes fixated on Halvard, and through her smile, she said, “And you, my king, have the throne to yourself.”
A chill settled in his bones as he became painfully aware of Ylva’s absence and the worried expressions on the faces of his clan. “That’s the queen’s throne, and I’ll not go anywhere near it without her.”
The woman smiled again, her eyes flickering to the wolf and back to Halvard. “Well, you could always wear her like a cloak”
Her words echoed throughout the hall as the clan fell into a shocked silence.
Halvard’s eyes widened as the meaning of her words took hold. He dropped to his knees and cradled the wolf’s head in his hands, looking into the unseeing eyes of his transformed wife in horror.
“No. No, no, no… Ylva, it canna be… What have I done?” His hands gripped the fur around her neck, and he placed his forehead against her as tears of rage filled his eyes.
The clandaughters tending to the woman’s wounds recoiled from her side as Halvard stood and approached her slowly, his voice dark and steady as he spoke.
“No… You. This was your doing an’ yours alone.”
The woman smiled prettily, as if blissfully unaware a vengeful clan of dwarves surrounded her frail body. “Your queen asked for the power to bring you home safely, for you to hear her voice, and to make sure your people did not go hungry. The goddess willed this all come to pass. You will all eat your fill, blessed with such a large wolf!”
The laughter rising in her throat was cut short as two calloused hands closed tightly around her neck. Halvard’s voice shook as he looked into her eyes.
“Blessed? You, you’ve cursed us since you knocked on the door! You conjured the storm. You transformed my wife and doomed the clan to eat their own queen to survive. I will cleanse the Frostveil of your evil…with fire.”
With one powerful shove he heaved her body into the hearth. Her screams of agony echoed through the halls and the embers danced high as she struggled against the flames.
* * * * *
Unattended, the fire had died to a soft red glow. A silence fell over the brothers as each contemplated the significance of the legend. Baldur looked again at the black eyes of the white fox and felt a quiet sorrow within him, imagining the horror of Halvard looking into the cold dead eyes of his beloved queen. Gudbrand, ever concerned with duty, looked at the pile of furs on his sled, enlivened with a sense of pride at knowing his people will not go hungry. Einar looked again at the moon with wonder at the powers he did not understand and pulled a small leather pouch from his belt. He carefully unwrapped a large white whistle, carved elegantly with runic symbols along the length of the handle.
“Only twelve pairs of these whistles were made, each from one rib of our great queen, and all remain with the elder clan hunters. When I’m gone, it will go to Gudbrand, then to you, or whichever of you have your own wee lad’s first, as it has passed clansman to clansman for generations.”
Baldur looked at the ivory instrument in Einar’s hand, the namesake of the Coldwhistle Clan, with wonder and could not stop the flood of questions filling his mind.
“But which is true? Was it all a blessing from the goddess? Or a curse from some mad hag? Did the clan ancestors really eat their queen? What became of the first king?”
Einar raised an eyebrow at him in amusement and placed the whistle to his lips. A low, piercing, and hauntingly beautiful sound echoed across the mountains. The night itself seemed to fade away with the music of the whistle, followed closely by the sound of distant wolves answering the mournful call. Warmth flooded the dwarves’ bones, and they felt instantly at peace as the magic of the whistle took hold.
“Magic is magic, lad. A blessing for some may be a curse for others. Halvard was surely cursed, having been the one to hunt, skin, and eat his own wife. He ruled the clan with an iron will and kept the doors locked tight for all winters to follow, never trusting the word of a stranger again. It’s because of his example the Coldwhistle Clan grew strong through the centuries, and without that mad woman’s sorcery, our clan surely would have died in an icy tomb long ago.”
Baldur looked at Gudbrand expectantly. “Does the whole clan know the story?”
The middle brother shook his head regretfully.
“No, the secret of the whistle’s power is kept between the hunters and the king himself. The king will only use it to bring hunters home in times of desperate need. Our clan has never gone hungry since our great queen’s sacrifice. And that is why we no longer have queens, lad.”
Baldur nodded in understanding. “Aye, because woman are tenderhearted—” Baldur rubbed the sore spot on the back of his head where the eldest brother smacked him.
“No, you daft fool. I won’t have you speakin’ of Lady Ylva like that. It was her tender heart that’s made our clan survive over a thousand years. No, the reason, and you’ll do well to remember it, is no matter how fair a dwarven woman may look in the moonlight, she might well turn into a beast by the light of day.”
At that very moment, somewhere across the mountain, a wolf howled intensely. Einar jumped as if the spirit of Ylva herself had taken offense. He looked around quickly and blessed himself. The three brothers shared a deep laugh as the dawn rose over the frozen mountains and the full moon faded behind the red and purple sky.