9.1 – Mark of the snow claw
Trudging through snow without skis is hard. Going downhill even more so. The silence between them is as thick as the masses of snow underneath their feet, only broken by soft curses as the white tries to swallow their legs for every careful step they make. Bridge and his bleats add to the ambience, as he dances breezily around them, his winterborn legs hardly making a dent in the snow. Like the tiny water striders running rivertops in spring. „If only you were big enough to ride,“ Brittle thinks wistfully as her left leg is engulfed yet again, this time all the way up to her hip. By the Seven Hardships! Maybe the legends of the snow claws were true, after a fashion. The stories did scare the young ones from walking on thick snow without skis far more effectively than trying to explain the prosaic but still dangerous facts of the matter. That snow could eat you whole. Even without the help of dreamspun creatures.
„Aah!“ A most unwelcome rupture of their shared quietude. Brittle strains to turn herself towards the sound behind her, towards Brand, but her stuck leg doesn’t let her. All she can feel is the tremor, there one moment, gone the next. She wants to cry out for him, to check that he is well, but stops herself just in time, biting her lip. She remembers the other part of the story. Never shout close to the mountains, the snow claws will hear you.
Of course, now that she is a woman grown, she understands that this, too, is a truth dressed in the shroud of a lie. The snow claws won’t come for you, but the avalanche surely will. „Brand?“ she says, as loudly as she dares.
A length of time feeling far too long.
„Yes.“ The voice feels far away.
„Are you hurt?“
„That’s a good question.“
„Wait, I’ll..“ Brittle starts pulling her leg fervently.
„Don’t! Don’t…move too much. There’s a fissure just next to you. I should know, I fell into it.“
She feels her breath grow shorter, her body starting to panic in a most unhelpful way. Not now. Please. Calm yourself, Brittle. Bridge starts to whine and fret. Stay calm, Brittle. hhhhh. Stay calm.
„I don’t know how deep it goes. I’m on…a ledge of some kind.“ He snortles. „For a while there, I actually believed the snow claws had got me. For the littlest while, as I fell, I was a child again, afraid of the monsters hiding in the unknown corners of the real. Heh. I wish that it were still so, that I was a child scared of imagined horrors lurking in the dark. Far better than getting burned by the light. What am I to do with this…“ He spits the last word out: „..knowing?“
A faint, rustling sound. As if he’s trying to get up. No. She does not like the sound of this at all. „Brand!“ she shouts, despite herself. Thankfully no terrors, neither real nor imagined, respond. „Brand..hhh..wait, let me talk to you. Proper..hhh…ly.“ Slowly and with the utmost care, she extracts herself from the snow’s clammy grasp. No more noises from below. A heartening sign. When she’s finally able to turn, she sees Bridge standing close to a wide rift in the snow, whiffing the air. Making herself as light as possible, she edges closer, semi-crawling over to her preoccupied fawn.
He hasn’t fallen that far, but far enough. Unreachable without a rope of some kind. Brand sits dejected with his back to the uneven stone wall. The ledge that saved him is but an arm’s length wide on each side of him, covered in clumps of fallen snow. Beneath is narrow, jagged darkness.
Seeing him from this angle makes her notice something for the first time. At the back of his head, a new streak of white in his otherwise dark hair. She gasps. Though it’s probably a result of the ordeal through which Grandmother put him, she can’t help but think of her actual grandmother Brunt telling cautionary tales by the fireplace, just days before she died. Brittle was hardly out of her swaddling clothes, aware in the dreamlike way a suckling can be, but this stuck to her. Her original memory.
It was the first, but not the last time Brittle would hear the story of the snow claws, whose mythology she had been going through in her mind these last short snippets of time. Brunt had added a detail at the end that no one else had told her since.
„And it is said, crustling,“ Brunt said, her face half cast in shadow, fire-reflecting spittle forming in the corner of her mouth, „that if anyone has been in the snow claws’ grasp and escaped with their life and limbs intact, that they will forever…“ She spat a glob into the flames. „….carry their mark.“ Brunt took a few strands of her hair and ripped them out without wincing. She waved the white, dry strings in front of Brittle’s young, barely formed face. „They will winter before their time.“
Brand looks up at her with eyes the colour of self-loathing. „I understand why you hate me.“
„I..hhh…don’t hate you, Brand.“
„But you do. I saw it.“
„That was Brute. Brute is gone. You were stripped clean of him and reshaped. hhh. Reborn. hhh. Didn’t she show you that as well?“
Brand shakes his head. „I don’t know.“
„What did she show you? Tell…hhh…me.“
He scratches his head, just at the point where the white pathway starts. Bridge has moved away, but Brittle is not worried about him. „Pl..hhh…please.“
Brand sighs in a way she has only heard old men do.