TIME FREEZES STILL on the coldest of winter mornings.
“I dare you to touch her,” Tredan’s chilled whispers came to Edrick. Both their eyes never strayed from the corpse abandoned at the forest edge.
A nameless little girl.
Edrick only knew of her. She was from another village visiting family, Dregan’s kin.
Seeing her distilled the cold right out of the air.
“As cold as a grave,” Tredan had said when they snuck away and followed Edrick’s father here. It was a kind of cold that froze the world hard, denying it of all comfort. A cold that was absent of soft snow. A dim, frozen world where timber-lions snatched children at dawn.
Tredan shook his meager purse of animal fangs and claws slung from his belt. “Six wolf teeth if you touch her.”
“This is no game,” Edrick warned his friend, then stepped toward the girl, slowly, respectfully.
“I think we should leave then, Edrick,” Tredan called from behind him. He was nervous, Edrick could tell. “I don’t want your father to catch us here. We should have waited at your home, like he told us.”
Edrick did not heed Tredan’s words or share his fears. This girl was alone in death and he would not leave her. Dregan’s kin, her family, dared not chase after her. No villager dared braving the winter morning knowing timber-lions were hunting. Seldom do these beasts leave the shadowed forest of Wudelic. It must have been desperation that lured this starved hunter from the wilds, into the stark openness.
In past summer days of long light and playful moods, village children like this girl would wonder, “Why can’t we play in the forest like the Woodcutter’s children?” as they beheld the great and wild Wudelic.
“Because the ways of the forest are fickle and beguiling.” The sensible parents would answer. “Those children were practically born there, like the elves and other creatures of the fey. They aren’t quite the same like you or others. They are…strange.”
Strange, like the woods.
Like rumors of distant seas, or tales of enormous desert mountains of amassed sun scorched sands, stained in sunset hues, as wide and wild as any ocean. Things no sensible villager truthfully knew about, but heard enough to become disinterested and dismissive.
Today, such warnings would cut into every man, woman and child like bound rope, cinched so tight, it choked them all.
But not the Woodcutters. Not his father, Edrick thought with great pride. His father gave chase when they all heard the girl’s distant screams. Not one villager stirred as Edrick and his friend Tredan hurried through the village. Not a fearful peek was given from any window.
As soon as this girl stepped out of her cottage that morning, she was on her own, Edrick thought.
He approached the corpse-girl in slow reverence, stepping in his father’s footprints outlined in scraped frost. Father had tracked down the timber-lion and must have chased it back into the woods. He would return, to bring the dead girl back to her family, Edrick knew. Until then, Edrick would stay. It was the right thing to do. As a Woodcutter, it was their way.
She appeared as a doll, discarded by some passing forest giant. An innocent creature cast away with disinterest. An ephemeral thing. She lay sprawled on her side, turned away from his approach, arms and legs twisted, fingers half curled. She remained in stunning stillness, but not like sleep. Instead, a fractured suspension, like the air captured by the winter dawn.
Edrick shivered. The sight chilled him from the inside, beneath his thick winter furs.
Blood saturated her woven wool skirt, deepening the bright reds, distorting the sunburst oranges and light blues of the knitted winter pattern. Her torn shirt revealed where the timber-lion feasted. Edrick had seen this carnage before with lost sheep or deer they found in the woods, but never with a person. Entrails spilled out like shredded sausage. Her stomach, liver, and kidneys, snatched away in a frenzy.
Edrick could not take his eyes off the gaping cavity that was once her belly, soft and smooth like his own.
Unlike the death of village elders, which were somber but peaceful passings like drifting clouds against a marbled sky, this was his first glimpse of an ash stained storm swallowing the horizon. It was ugly and cruel and it forced Edrick to his knees.
He removed his winter gloves and held the girl’s hand. There was no warmth, just slick, cold skin. He slid his fingers between hers. She was not stiff despite the cold. He rocked her arm gently. It moved freely as if she was just sleeping. She rolled onto her back with the movement. Her lifeless eyes gazed above.
“What are you doing?” Tredan demanded, for the fourth or fifth time. Edrick continued and would not hear him. The dead should not be touched by the living unless you have protection. Protection of an alhíelda, a faerie-guardian. Edrick was irreverent to these concerns. All he knew was that she wanted someone by her side and he would not leave her until she was buried.
She was exposed to the cold world and she should not have been. Her stomach was gone, her mouth hung open, absent of breath, and her eyes stared far into the sky. Stared beyond the blue until she saw the blackness before the stars. Saw what no child should witness in their young lives - unkind Death, and through her eyes, her soul poured out into the infinite.
Edrick wept, holding her hand, imbuing her with one final touch of life as he cradled her fingers against his cheek. His tears smoked through the air.
“You are not alone anymore,” he whispered to her. “I am here with you. You won’t be alone anymore.”
There is a change in people when they die and Edrick saw it, though he did not know her. He wondered what her eyes saw now. Did she know he was there? Did she know his father hunted her killer?
“Bring me some straw!” Edrick ordered with urgency, remembering he was not alone. “As much as you can carry!”
“What?” Tredan replied, uncertain and afraid. Edrick shouted his request repetitively until he heard Tredan’s boots gritting into the distance.
Edrick closed the girl’s mouth with his fingertips. Her pale skin took the likeness of flawless snow. He leaned over until he met her eyes. “I am Edrick,” he said, quiet as chill morning.
A corpse is not a person, yet the body should be respected in life and death.
Mother said people die at different speeds, some quite slow, others fast, yet it is hard to tell the moment when the soul departs. Some souls linger in this world long after the body is buried.
He hoped this girl’s ghost lingered. He needed her to know she was not alone.
Time freezes still on the coldest of winter mornings. The day does not grow brighter for long hours. Time was unchanged as Edrick knelt next to the girl, holding her hand until Tredan returned with arms full of straw. He dropped it on the ground next to them, then gasped.
Edrick ignored his friend’s shock and grabbed handfuls of golden stalks, stuffing her hollow abdomen.
“Stop doing that! Leave her,” Tredan pleaded, tugging his shoulder.
“We can’t leave her like this, empty,” Edrick said in a low voice. “We have to put it back. We can’t bury her empty like this.”
Edrick packed the straw against her torn diaphragm, gaping with holes. The beast’s maw had burrowed farther and farther toward the heart. He stuffed each space tightly, closing and sealing her. Replacing the emptiness. Warmth still clung deep inside, he thought.
Warmth. A small remnant of life remained. It gave Edrick hope the girl’s spirit knew he took care of her remains with a caring touch.
When he finished, Edrick removed his winter coat and laid it over her.
“She is dead, why are you doing that?” Tredan asked.
“To show my respect!” Edrick snapped, irritated.
Winter air rushed over Edrick’s bare skin, shaking his body. Punishing his body. Muscles flinched fast, faster than his racing heart.
Then Tredan leaned closer. “What if the timber-lion returns? How are you going to run frozen stiff?”
Edrick shook his head. “I will not run. I am staying here until my father returns,” he said through clattering teeth. His breath puffed like a chimney billowing white smoke. “You can go back if you want.”
Tredan said nothing else. He stood motionless over the two as morning wore on. He eventually removed his own cat-skin coat and draped it over Edrick. They took turns wearing the fur and shivering as they waited for Edrick’s father.
The world was terribly silent on that frigid winter morning, sluggish and harsh. The appearance of a lone figure emerged from the woods after long empty moments; Edrick’s father, the Woodcutter of Athelyn.
In one hand he carried a great ax, the head of something dark in the other.
“Edrick!” Father yelled out from the distance. His voice shattered the silence like slicing icicles crashing through the trees. His father quickened his pace as he approached them. Edrick fell back, away from the girl and stood at quick attention.
All of the Woodcutter children shied from their father’s wrath, but Edrick never feared him. He did his best to respect him though.
Tredan jumped. “Edrick, he killed it!” he shouted, patting Edrick in relief.
There, clutched in his father’s left hand was the devilish visage of a timber-lion’s severed head. It was huge. Edrick mistook it for a bear at first. This beast’s eyes were not empty like the girl’s, but remained menacing and fierce. Its maw still snarled. Its lips curled back revealing the jagged weapons that had stolen the girl’s vital organs, swallowed her life whole.
It is a tortured spirit that remains in the body of the dead, unable to flee into the afterlife, and this thing’s spirit did not yield.
Tredan stepped back as Edrick’s father stood over them.
“Did I not tell you to remain with your mother?” Steam blasted forth from each word. He seemed as an animal himself, clad in shaggy, dark wintery wolf hide.
“Yes sir, you d-d-d-d-did,” Edrick said, teeth clattering. The hard, cold air became an iron vice pressing into every pour of his exposed skin.
His father shook his head, then looked over what was left of the girl. Edrick had treated her remains honorably, without thought to his own exposure.
“Edrick, you are the most challenging child I have had yet. Willful. Defiant. Ignorant to what should terrify prudent children.” The two held each other’s eyes in the stillness. Edrick looked away first, only to look back upon the girl.
“You never waste a moment worrying your mother or I, do you?” His father asked, more kindly, with a note of resignation.
Edrick blinked. “I want t-t-t-t-to bury her.” He nodded toward the girl beneath his coat, while clenching down on his jaw, willing the cold away.
Father dropped the timber-lion’s head. It rolled toward Edrick. He picked it up, only to see how much it weighed. Heavier than he thought, like a wide bucket of rocks.
Edrick did not like the feel of the beast and wanted to be rid of it. But he would carry it for his father.
Father then knelt over the girl. “I will bear her to her family,” he said, taking the body into his arms, gentle as if he cared to harm her no further. “I hope they find peace knowing the beast is dead.” He let out a heavy breath. Edrick knew it came not from exhaustion, but from a different place.
“Follow me,” Father said and turned away from them.
The two boys did their best to match the Woodcutter’s long strides.
The Windows update prank can easily trick someone when opened in full screen. It looks and acts like a real install page.