The Wind Like a Knife's Edge
A The Ones Who Call story
Start at the beginning of The Ones Who Call series
The wind blew. Grains of sand and ice sifted past the windshield, the sound of their passing like snake scales rasping against the broken glass.
Jenny shivered and tried to stuff more newspaper into the space where the side window had been. It was getting desperately cold in the cab of the truck, and her fingers were stiff and clumsy. Kyle moved to help her, but Jenny glared at him and shook her head.
"You shouldn't be moving." She said, pushing him back down.
He frowned. "Neither should you."
Jenny shrugged. "I'm ok, but you'll only make your head worse if you move around."
"It's not bleeding as much anymore." Kyle said stubbornly, but Jenny noted that he looked paler than he had just after the crash. The rag she'd tied around his head was nearly soaked through, and the dull red seemed even brighter against the pallor of his face.
"Here." She said, shifting around him so that she could reach the glove compartment. She pulled out the bottle of aspirin and offered him some, hoping that it would help dull the pain.
He shook his head, and then winced and shut his eyes tight as the pain of moving pounded through his skull. "Bad idea." He said when the need to retch passed. "I think it thins the blood, makes it harder to clot."
"Does it?" Jenny squinted at the bottle, trying to read the label in the pale grey light of the storm.
"Yeah. I'm pretty sure I heard that somewhere... I dunno." He said, sinking back against the seat and waiting for the pain to lessen.
Jenny sighed and stared helplessly down at the bottle, wishing that she could help him, but she'd already used the extent of her first aid knowledge by binding his head and telling him to put pressure on it. She had no idea how badly he was actually hurt, only that the flinched whenever he moved his left arm and that the wound on his forehead just kept bleeding. She'd never seen so much blood before.
She supposed that she should have felt grateful that she hadn't been injured when the truck rolled. She was bruised, sure, and her neck twinged in a strange way whenever she turned her head, but otherwise she was still in one piece.
Twisting around in her seat, she rubbed the thin layer of ice away from the inside of the cracked windshield and stared outside, wondering once again whether she could make it to the farmhouse she'd spotted just before the crash. However, nothing was visible through the window except for the torrent of snow that flew nearly horizontal, driven by the fierce winds.
The storm wasn't letting up, which meant that flagging down someone passing on the road was looking more and more unlikely. No one knew that they'd been out on the road when the storm hit, and even if her mom realized she was missing, no one in their right mind would risk driving in weather like this. Jenny felt a stab of deep, cold panic as she realized it could be hours or even days before someone found them.
She bit her lip and slid back into her seat. Kyle's eyes flickered open and he motioned her closer with his good hand. She snuggled up against his side, glad for the little bit of body heat they were able to share, and tried not to cry.
A long time ago...
A long time ago, a warrior was lost in a terrible winter storm. The wind whipped at his hair and the cold, icy rain had long since crept through his furs to sting at his skin and numb his limbs. He stumbled, half-dead, and sent up a prayer to the Creator to help guide him to safety.
But it was not the Creator who answered.
The ice blizzard had pushed him away from his camp and into the valley of The Ones Who Call, the spirits of the water. They peered at him from the depths of their frozen home, seeing him tall and strong as he fought against the winter winds. The tribe laughed at him, calling him a fool for angering their cousins, the spirits of ice. Their cruel laughter rang all around him, disorienting him further, but though they longed to leave their home to torment him directly, they dared not leave the safety of the lake while the world belonged to the North Wind.
"Ai-yah. I am lost, and you laugh at my plight." The warrior said, falling to his knees. His frustrated tears froze upon his cheeks even as they fell. "You are as cruel as your cousins, the people of the ice. Awass, you cursed spirits. I was your friend once, but no longer."
The warrior laid down upon the ice to die, and was startled to feel the touch of a cold, wet hand against his face...
The early November blizzard had caught the entire valley by surprise.
The autumn had been a strange, lingering period of mild temperatures and still air, which was uncommon for the windy prairies. For weeks, Kohkum Agnes had been warning that such weather would bring an early and fierce winter, but since the weatherman's reports spoke only of more unseasonably warm weather, few had heeded her warnings.
Kyle and Jenny were on their way back from seeing a movie in the town of Qu'Apelle when the first fierce gust of wind came howling down the valley.
"Jesus Christ." Kyle swore as the truck shook. "What the hell was that?"
"Was that the wind?" Jenny said, pressing her hands against the window as she stared up at the sky. It was the unassuming slate of high cloud cover directly overhead, but she could just make out the leading edge of ominous grey at the other end of the valley. "Looks like a storm."
"You think?" Kyle said. His knuckles were tight on the wheel as he tried to keep the truck on the road. The wind buffeted the cab sideways in unpredictable bursts, and within a few minutes, a heavy rain began to fall.
"Maybe we should head back to town." Jenny said. She was suddenly very aware that Kyle had only just received his learner's license a few weeks ago and technically shouldn't have been driving without an adult in the car.
"Maybe." Said Kyle. "But there's no place to turn around for a few klicks. We're better off just going to my uncle's at that point."
"I guess." Jenny said, but there was a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
The tap-tap-tap of rain against the windshield grew quieter, and after a few seconds Jenny realized that the rain had turned to sleet. The wet flakes melted as soon as they hit the windshield, but the sheer number of them turned the glass into a slushy mess that the wipers struggled to clear. She glanced over at Kyle, and saw that his face had gone hard and distant as he concentrated on the road.
"Pull over." Jenny said, and Kyle's frown deepened.
"This is a bad spot." He said, still pointedly not looking at her. "I thought I saw some headlights behind us and I don't want to get rear-ended if we stop. I can't see anything in this mess."
He slowed the truck down a little, but Jenny privately thought that he was still going too fast. She sighed, wishing that she knew what to say to make him forgive her.
She still wasn't entirely sure how the fight had started, but somewhere just after the movie theatre, they'd gotten into an argument. After several minutes of snapping at one another, they'd agreed to just forget about it, but as they sat at the restaurant, picking at their burgers, Jenny had brought it up again and the fight had started anew. By the time the waitress had brought their cheque, Kyle had refused to respond to anything she said, and she was nearly in tears.
Jenny turned away from him, watching the sleet thicken into full snowflakes that flew past the window, obscuring the countryside. The swirling, flickering wall of white lulled her into a calm meditative state, allowing her to forget, for a time, all of the things she'd said to him.
The truck lurched suddenly, startling her from her numbed thoughts, and before she could yell at him to keep the truck steady, the sick feeling of vertigo silenced her. The hit the ditch hard, throwing up clods of sleet-dampened mud, and then rolled.
For a moment, the shattered glass hung before her vision like snowflakes.
Then, there was darkness.
The warrior opened his eyes to see the face of a young Memegwaysiwuk woman staring anxiously down at him. She smiled shyly, stroking his face, and he felt the chill leave his body at her touch.
Out of all the people of her tribe, she alone remembered the kindness the man had shown them in the past. He always left generous offerings for them on the full moon, and praised them when he crossed a stream or river safely.
She sat with him and sang sweetly, caressing his face and arms, and slowly the strength returned to his body. She kissed him, and laid powerful protections upon him so that he would never again loose his way. Finally, she told him her Name, so that he could call upon her in times of need. Then she bid him farewell and disappeared back beneath the ice to be with her people.
Renewed, he followed the rivers back to his village, given new strength to fight against the bitter winds and killing cold. The people of his tribe were shocked to see him appear out of the depths of the storm, and sent thanks and praise to the spirits of the water for seeing him safely home.
This angered the spirits of the ice. It was their time to reign and the Memegwaysiwuk 's time to sleep under the ice. And yet, the water people's name was being sung in praise for defeating the winter winds and killing cold.
The spirits of the ice gathered in force over the lake and sang their own songs. These were dark songs, cold songs, songs so powerful and cruel that a single note of them would freeze a man's blood in his veins. They wove the magic strong over the waters, and when spring finally came to the lands, no water flowed. Every lake, river and stream, down to the smallest creek, remained frozen.
The men of the land quivered with fear at this unnatural ice, and the animals of the land would not touch it, though their thirst pained them greatly. Any rain that fell froze as soon as it landed, and soon the land was covered in ice even through the heat of the summer.
For a time, the entire world was frozen.
The temperature continued to drop, and Jenny felt the sting of cold in her fingers and toes. She flexed them to keep the blood moving, but her hands felt stiff and numb and two of her toes refused to flex.
"How are you doing?" She asked, cuddling closer to Kyle's side.
"Ok." He said, but she could hear the exhaustion in his voice.
"I think..." She said through chattering teeth. "I think I should try to find that farmhouse."
Kyle scowled. "You just said that we shouldn't leave the truck. Stay with shelter, and all that."
"This hardly counts as shelter." Jenny snapped, her words coming out sharper than she'd intended them too. Kyle flinched, and she saw by the set of his jaw that she'd hurt him. He closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath.
"It's the only shelter we have." Kyle said, almost too patiently. "We wait out the storm, and then go for help."
"And what if the storm lasts all night, huh?" Jenny said. "You're bleeding and you probably have a concussion. You need help right now."
"No. We wait here." Kyle crossed his arms over his chest and settled back against the seat. "I'll be fine."
Everything was silent for a time. She could hear the snowflakes hitting the side of the truck, could feel the gentle rise and fall of Kyle's chest as his breathing slowed. She felt calm and safe and peaceful. It was very tempting to fall asleep, cuddled up beside him as she was, and she might have drifted off if her hands stung a little less.
Suddenly, she realized how dangerous sleep was.
"Don't you dare close your eyes." Jenny said shrilly, sitting up and clutching Kyle's arm. He slowly opened his eyes, and Jenny was alarmed at how long it took them to focus.
"That's it." She said, pulling herself away from him. She grabbed a handful of newspaper from the floor and wrapped them around her head as a makeshift toque.
"Wha... Where are you going?" Kyle said. His words slurred.
"I've got to find help." Jenny said. "Neither of us is going to make it until morning."
She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead. He tried to grab her with his good arm and hold her back, but she shrugged off his grip and stepped over him to the driver's side door. Hers was crumpled so badly that it would not open, but they'd had to tie his shut so that the wind wouldn't blow it open.
She paused, one hand on the handle, and smiled at him.
"Stay safe." She said, blowing him a kiss, and then stepped out into the storm.
The spirits of the water remained locked in their own realm, unable to leave the prison of ice that their cousin's had woven.
The Chieftain of the Memegwaysiwuk saw that his people needed to appease the tempers of the ice tribe, which burned slow and cold and could last centuries. He called for his people to seize the young maiden who had helped the warrior, and called upon the shaman of his people to bind her with their strongest spells.
"I do this with great sorrow." He said as the maiden wept.
"You need not have bound me." She said, eyes downcast. "I would have gone willingly. Now I leave you with anger in my heart, not mercy."
"You anger is meaningless." Said the Chieftain, angered by her prideful words. "It was you who brought this upon us. Go now and pay for your mistakes."
A small party of Memegwaysiwuk warriors took the young maiden to the place where their lands bordered on that of the ice people and offered her up to them. They also brought sweet words and small gifts from their Chief, apologizing for their people's transgressions during the months of cold. The ice spirits did not forgive easily, but the generosity of their cousins impressed them. They shrieked the high, shrill song of the North Wind and let the waters of the world flow freely again.
Then the ice spirits took the young Memegwaysiwuk back to their cold realms and danced about her, singing songs of triumph. Her blood and hair turned to ice as they sang, and her skin cracked and splintered. With the final beats of their drums, the maiden's outstretched arms became shards of crystal, and her body flew apart into a million flakes.
She was not truly ice, but neither was she of the water. The ice spirits had remade her into the first Snow.
Each fall, it is she who heralds the coming of the season of ice. It is only the touch of the Sun, who sees all things truly, that returns her to her true form.
Thus it is that the Ice spirits and the Water spirits reached an uneasy truce, but neither forgot the great misdeeds that had been done against them in the past.
Jenny stepped out into the storm.
The wind slammed into her, nearly knocking her off her feet. She stumbled and cried out, drawing in a lungful of air so cold that her throat and lungs burned. A hail of ice and dirt pelted into her, stinging her cheeks and hands. She coughed and drew her thin coat tighter around herself, shielding her face as best she could with her collar.
The path beside the road was gone, as was any sign of the farmhouse she'd seen earlier Within the swirling cloud of grey and white, even the edge of the road seemed indistinct, asphalt blending smoothly into the drifts of white that hid the line between ditch and road.
She choked back a cry of despair and whirled around, seeking any familiar landmark. As if sensing her disorientation, the torrent of white blew more thickly, cutting through her clothes to chill every part of her it touched. She scrabbled up the slope of the ditch, cursing as she jarred her numb feet against a stone, and began looking for the fence. She could follow it back to the farm if she didn't freeze first.
She wandered blindly for a few minutes, and just when she thought she must have picked the wrong direction and was now walking parallel to the fence, she nearly ran into one of the thin wires. She grasped it, feeling the cold metal sear into her hand, but was grateful to have something to follow.
Slowly, she dragged herself forward, her hand never leaving the wire. Her body grew numb as the wind swept past her and she began to stumble. Her very mind seemed frozen by the power of the storm, and breathing was becoming difficult.
This was a bad idea, she thought. I should have stayed in the truck. The snow's so sticky it's wetting my jacket. I won't last five minutes out here in the wind...
She continued walking, and it was several moments before she remembered that the ice-cold waters of the lake couldn't touch her. Why, then, was the storm cutting her so bitterly?
What is snow, if not frozen water? She thought, and began to sing softly to herself, calling upon the songs her Kohkum had taught her.
Slowly, the prickles of cold that made her bones ache began to cease and a tenuous warmth surrounded her. She smiled, rubbing life back into her fingers.
"I can make it." She said to the winds. "You tried to stop me, but you couldn't."
Feeling stronger now, she sped up into a limping jog, still following the line of fence posts. The farmhouse was just beside the road, and by her estimate she was nearly there.
Suddenly, thin fingers raked down her arm.
Jenny cried out and clutched at the wound, wondering if she'd run into a section of barb wire. Hot blood ran out between her fingers and she stared at it, horrified.
A high, hissing voice whispered in her ear. "Spring daughter. Water child. Why do you defy us?"
She started, whirling around to see who was speaking to her, but saw only the thickly falling snow and the wire of the fence at her left. Cautiously, she bent and picked up a stone.
"Who's there?" She whispered, eyes wide.
The attack came from her other side now. Something sharp cut into her leg, and the touch of it chilled her worse than the winter winds had. She gasped and went to one knee.
Creatures so thin and stretched that they looked as though they'd been spun from glass stepped out of the curtain of snow and laughed, their voices high and clear as the sun on a winter morning.
"You have entered our realm now, child," one of the creatures hissed.
"Yes. The time of ice has begun," said another.
The creatures threw their heads back and laughed, and before Jenny could respond, they had disappeared into the whirling snow.
"Wait!" Jenny said, reaching after them. "Come back! You... You are like me."
Shrill laughter mocked her from the storm, but the creatures remained hidden. "No, water child. We are not like you. You are of soft times and gentle rains. We are of the North, and of the cold, hard and sharp and unyielding. We might be kin, yes, but we are not alike."
Cursing, Jenny got to her feet. She raised blood-soaked hands to the storm and began to sing. The language of the water people came to her unbidden, though normally it was a chore for her to understand it, let alone speak it.
She sang of kinship and of need, of blood debts owed, and of favors she could offer if they left her alone and let her reach the farmhouse. She sang of her love for Kyle, who was bleeding to death in the wreck of their car. She sang of her own fear and helplessness in the face of their power. (Flattery, she knew from experience, was as powerful a motivator to the spirit folk as was the ties of kinship.)
The howling of the winds became less, and the winds calmed slightly, no longer trying to knock her from her feet. She ended her song, exhausted, and leaned against the fencepost for support. For a moment, nothing moved.
Then, the voice came again. "We can help you, little cousin."
Another voice rang out from further away. This one was laced with poisonous mirth. "But we do not think you will like it."
Two gaunt figures drifted out of the storm and hovered before her. Two pairs of eyes, both as dark and blue as the heart of a glacier, stared at her. It took all of her courage to meet that gaze. The taller of the figures smiled.
"Your kind has always had too much love for the human people." It hissed. "You walk among them, marry them and wear their skins as your own. You have forgotten what you really are."
"Leave him." The second said. "Leave him to die and come dance upon the winds with us. We are family. The ice and snow cannot harm you if you come with us. Call it a gift. We shall take you to the lands beyond."
A vision rose up before her. She saw herself casting off her human shape. She saw the wind and snow embracing her like a lover, and knew that its cold touch would feel clean and renewing, not painful. Laughing, she stepped off of the ground and rose into the air, her hair spread out behind her like wings. The wind bore her up and up, spinning her around until she was swirling and dancing through the air like a snowflake.
The ice spirits danced beside her, and their hard eyes and sharp features no longer seemed so terrifying. They swarmed around her and caressed her, running their hands down her body. They held her tight, then took her hand and sent her spinning once again through the skies, whispering sweet words of belonging to her.
Higher and higher she went, until the glittering flakes about her seemed to shine like stars in the thin air. The last of the heat left her body, but she found that she did not mind. She embraced the cold, felt it spread through her and remake her into something deep and timeless. Her body slowed and stiffened, but her mind danced ever through the endless, inexorable dance of the blizzard.
It was exhilarating. It was right. It was where she belonged.
Or so they told her.
"No." She said, pulling herself away from the comforting vision. "No, I won't leave him, and I don't want to come with you. You nearly killed me."
"Fool." The ice spirits hissed in unison.
"It was not us who tried to kill you, but him." Said the shorter spirit. Jenny saw the truck tumbling into the ditch once again, and shook away the vision.
The taller one smiled condescendingly, like a mother trying to convince a young child to give up her security blanket. "He is nearly dead. He will be so soon. Would you really give your life up for him, when you could come to our realms and live forever? We would treat you as an honored guest."
"I do not trust you." Jenny said, folding her arms over her chest.
The ice spirits cackled and suddenly the winds picked up again, buffeting at her. The piercing wind tore at her defences and for an instant she felt the keen edge of the wind cutting her to the bone. Then, the spell she'd woven about herself pushed their magic away, giving her a small cocoon of warmth.
"Then stay," shrieked the shorter spirit. "You may withstand our winds, but he will not!"
The taller one regarded her gravely. "You do not know what you have turned down. Live or die as you will, water daughter, but the human boy is ours."
The wind lashed at her eyes, and when Jenny was able to open them again, she saw the two ice spirits darting towards the truck.
"No." Jenny whispered, too stunned to think.
Before she knew what she was doing, she was racing blindly back towards the truck. She slid and stumbled through the mud and ice-slicked ditch, but managed to keep moving despite her wounded leg. Frantic despair drove her onward even as a voice whispered that she'd never be able to reach the truck before the ice spirits.
She struck something solid and fell to the ground, her head ringing from the impact. Dazed, she stared uncomprehendingly up at the tree.
There were no trees by the truck... She thought. She had gone the wrong way.
She scrambled back to her feet and whirled around, trying to figure out where she was, but nothing looked familiar. Choking back tears, she picked a direction and began running again. In her mind's eye, she saw the ragged, clawed fingers of the ice spirits stroking down Kyle's cheek, leaving bright cold wounds in his blue flesh.
She prayed as she ran, calling out for something, anything to help her, but she knew that she was too late.
High, cruel laughter rang in her ears, taunting her.
Then, a flash of light cut through the storm, and the laughter turned to shrieks of pain.
Startled, Jenny whirled towards the sound and squinted against the glow. Through the storm, she saw four bright orbs of light hovering protectively over the truck. Their light seared the ice spirits, who shrieked and disappeared.
Then she blinked, and where the lights had been, she now saw the cold halogen lights of a semi-truck rumbling to a stop where the truck had left the road. The brakes hissed as the semi came to rest, and a man stepped down from the cab. He waved his arms.
"Hey! Are you okay?" He shouted. "Anyone in there?"
Jenny nearly sobbed with relief. "Yes!" She croaked, hardly above a whisper. Then, louder, she shouted, "Yes, I'm here! My boyfriend's hurt pretty bad!"
"You stay there." The man shouted, and began scrambling down the bank. After a moment, he picked his way over to her. Jenny was startled to realize that she'd been standing only five meters from the truck.
The trucker put a steadying hand on Jenny's shoulder and looked at her with concern. "You look like you're hurt, too. What the hell were you doing out in this storm?"
Jenny shook her head, unable to speak, and let the tucker lead her to warmth and safety.
Slowly, painfully, Kyle returned to consciousness.
His head hurt. His feet and hands burned, and he felt so woozy and weak that opening his eyes seemed to take a monumental effort. Blinking groggily, he was surprised to see the bland institutional walls of the local hospital.
Jenny sat nearby, a thick bandage on her arm. When she noticed that he was awake, she stood and rushed to his side.
"Hey." She said, hovering nearby but not touching him, as though she were afraid he might break.
"Hey." He croaked, and then coughed. She offered him some hot water and he sipped at it.
"You're ok." He said, and saw her cheeks flush. She leaned over and hugged him tight.
"So are you." She hissed.
"What happened?" He asked as they disentangled themselves. His eyes darted to the bandage on her arm, and she shook her head. Something dark seemed to pass over her face, and he could see the fear and confusion in her eyes.
"I'll tell you when I figure it out, okay?" She said, and kissed him on the cheek. Then, she backed away quickly as the voice of Kyle's mother could be hear arguing with the nurses out in the hallway. "You just rest, okay? Your mom's going to want to know you're awake."
She smiled nervously at him, and for a moment Kyle thought that she was scared of him. But that didn't make any sense. What could he have done to scare her?
Jenny slipped out into the hallway, her heart still racing. There was no denying it now. She'd seen it in his eyes when he awoke. A glow, an otherness that had never been there before.
What had happened to him in the storm? Why had the guardian spirits of the lake come to his aid?
And, more importantly, what was he?
Story by Alina Pete, Copyright 2011
Image by Tara Willett, Copyright 2011