Cozy Flash: “On a Snowy Evening”

Wyllus’ fingertips reddened at the touch of new snow. He brushed the powder from a leafy head of cabbage growing in the cottage garden, then reached for its stem and began to fight the frozen earth for it. The ground’s frost bit into his hand, further chilling his fingers—but Wyllus knew it would be worth the struggle just to have a bowlful of his great-aunt’s stew on a cold winter’s evening.

The plant’s roots sent forth a spray of dirt as the young boy fell back with the cabbage into a row of frost-covered herbs. His eyes watered at the feeling of grit. He dropped the cabbage beside him, bringing his palms to his face in an attempt to wipe both dirt and tears from his eyes.

In the close-eyed darkness, there was a sound. Not like the familiar gusts of wind that travelled through the verdant evergreen woods surrounding the cottage, nor like the chatter of any creature he was acquainted with. The sound was of something hard clanking against metal. It carried itself as a steady, drum-like beat in the dark.

The sound multiplied into several—clanking now accompanied by metallic jangling, heavy footfalls, and shuffling.

Wyllus opened his eyes. He crawled on his knees behind a garden fencepost and brought his face close to its worn, knotted wood. His breath floated in the winter air, mingling with the gently falling snow. From his hiding place, he watched the spot where the path from the cottage ended and the forests began. The sounds drew closer.

What he first saw of them were their lights—dim glowing from their orbits in various blues. The party of the dead emerged from under an archway of snowy spruces and pines into the cottage’s glade. Their armour, worn yet intricate, shimmered in the remaining dusk. Wyllus noted their weaponry: rusted halberds clenched between skeletal digits, sheathed blades that clanged against their hipbones, and quivers aback ribcages.

Wyllus frantically crept his way to the cottage door. He quietly slipped into the small, thatch-roofed lodging. The cottage’s interior was alight with hearth fire, the flickering of flames illuminating old cobblestone and wall tapestries.

“Aunt Mebbeth,” Wyllus said to the stout silhouette seated by the hearth, “come quick.”

“Aye? What is it?” old Mebbeth asked, turning toward her great-nephew.

“An army of the dead,” the boy whispered. “They walk.”

A smirk appeared on the old woman’s face. She reached for her staff and pulled herself to her feet. “Show me, my boy,” she said.

Wyllus opened the door a sliver to peer out. With the knobby head of the staff, Mebbeth shoved the door completely open. The two shuddered at the sudden chill.

The undead now walked upon the cottage path. Wyllus held himself as he shivered. He looked towards his great-aunt, who made a ‘humph’ of acknowledgement and continued studying the deceased.

“What are they?” Wyllus asked softly.

“My boy,” she began, “they were folk from my day, when I was your green age. What’s left of them, anyways. Old warriors and adventurers from long ago.” She glanced at Wyllus. “Look.” She pointed at a skeletal warrior garbed in an amber and vermillion tunic. “That one wears the colours of a noble house that lived on the other side of the Visian Valley. No longer do they reside there. But I remember them.”

Old Mebbeth pointed to another one of the dead, hooded in chainmail, its shoulders adorned with powdery snow. A brass torc in the shape of a fern sat loosely on its clavicles. “That one wore a torc for protection. Wearing a fern given to you by a lady was considered a charm for safe travels in my day.”

Mebbeth furrowed her brows. Wyllus caught a brief look of pity cross his great-aunt’s face.

“Why do they still walk if they’re dead?” he asked.

Mebbeth tapped her fingers along the head of her staff, rhythmic patter indicating thought. Her eyes drifted towards the mounds of snow growing along the cottage’s fences. “It’s hard to say, my boy. Sometimes, it’s that the dead couldn’t let go of life, and use some of their memories to cling to it. Usually their last memories.” Her gaze shifted from the snow to the papery wrinkles of her hands, still coiled around her staff. “And other times, it’s the other way around.”

Wyllus continued to watch the dead walk, hoping it’d help him to understand what his great-aunt meant.

Mebbeth put a hand on his shoulder. “Invite them in to warm their bones and I’ll put a kettle over the fire,” she said, her voice suddenly bright. “My own auntie taught me proper etiquette for encountering weary travelers.” Her staff clacked against cobblestone as she turned away from the boy. “They have a long journey ahead of them,” she added, slipping back into the warmth of their cottage.

— Sam Lesek

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