by David G. Blake
David G. Blake lives in a van down by the River Styx. His fiction has previously been published in Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many other publications.
Ellie felt the weight of the bearskin blanket against her skin and heard the crackle of the fire in the hearth, the air laden with its warmth. Her husband sat crouched at the end of the bed, firelight dancing along the muscles of his back. He kept his head down, long dark hair hanging damp around his face — below the sound of the fire, she heard the drumming of raindrops on the roof.
“Aeric?” Her voice quivered, burdened by tendrils of sleep stubbornly clinging to her like cobwebs in the dark.
His head tilted in her direction, though not so far as to expose his face. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
Hearing his voice intensified the fear that he was not truly there with her. She touched him, tracing the path of firelight down his back. His skin felt warm beneath her fingertips, but everything still seemed surreal. Two years had come and gone, and the war was no closer to a resolution than when Aeric left. Yet here he was.
He finally faced her. Two years of war had not been kind to him. His once strong, bright brown eyes were broken and dark, brimming with unshed tears. There was a measure of restraint tightening the muscles of his face, especially around those haunted eyes. Old and defeated. That was how he looked to her.
“I was wounded,” he explained, twisting until the firelight revealed a scar parting the hair on his chest, disappearing beneath the folds of his trousers. “I missed you so unbearably. I came home as soon as I could.”
The scar was terrible to behold — still a fresh, angry shade of red. Her fear gave way to a surge of conflicting emotions. She could not speak nor fully draw a breath. She brushed strands of wet hair from his face and clutched him to her, trusting that the strength of her embrace would convey how deeply she had missed him. He relaxed in her arms and kissed her, and there was no more restraint.
Ellie woke to find Aeric standing naked in front of the bedroom mirror; fire smoldered in the hearth, a curl of smoke drifting out and draping about his shoulders like a ghostly cloak. His hands clenched and unclenched at his side. The likeness in the mirror was of a troubled man she scarcely recognized. His scar ran from chest to thigh, ending a handbreadth above his knee. But she feared the worst of it remained unseen.
“Are you well?”
His hands stopped twitching. Only then was it that she noticed he no longer wore his wedding ring, although a pale strip encircled his finger marking where it had been. He faced her — his cloak dispersed and left behind the faint odor of charred wood — and traced her gaze without ever meeting it.
“Someone took it while I was unconscious,” he explained. “A camp scavenger thought I was dead or dying. Or did not care one way or the other.”
She wanted to ask again if he was well, needed to hear what had happened to change him so, but she could not bear to just watch him in such distress. She rose off the bed — with the fire little more than embers, the wooden floor chilled her bare feet — and wrapped the blanket around him, holding him close. He did not relax in her arms this time, and, after but a brief embrace, he pulled away.
“I should get dressed,” he said. “There’s much to be done before the first snow.”
Ellie had endured two winters without him, but held her tongue; there were worse ways a man could go about making himself feel useful. He had always been a good man with a vigilant conscience. How the blood on his hands must pull at him. Perhaps that explained it: he wanted to find out if he could still do something productive that did not entail bloodshed…she had little doubt it would give her some peace to know he could.
Her uncertainty felt like the lowest form of betrayal. Unable to look at him, she glanced around the small house; it seemed different somehow now that he had returned. He had pitched his clothes in the corner atop his boots. Not only were they filthy, they were not hers. That was the most unsettling variance, seeing things that were not hers in the house again.
“I will wash your clothes after I throw something together to eat.” She hated how the awkward tone of her voice caused it to sound more like a question than a statement. “You do whatever you want,” she added, hoping the remark made it obvious that she planned to do the same.
He shook his head. “Get rid of them. The boots, too. I want to wear my own clothes again.”
“The scavengers took everything they could carry, Ellie. The sword my grandfather left me, my armor, clothes, boots, and my ring…everything.” His hands knotted into fists again. “I took what I could find.” He tossed the bearskin blanket to the cold floor and turned his back on her, limping naked across the bedroom to the chest where he had stowed his belongings the day he walked out, two years prior. “War makes scavengers of us all.”
The air smelled of snow. Ellie put on her warmest clothes, secured her long hair beneath a thick fur hat, and hurried outside, calling to Aeric; he was on the roof mending the leaks. “The storm’s going to blow in tonight,” she said. “I’m headed into town for supplies.”
She should have already done so, but Aeric’s arrival had pushed her more than a week behind schedule. It would not do to wait any longer.
The hammering died off, and she knew what he was going to say before he spoke. “You shouldn’t go by yourself.”
Did he think she had spent two years curled up on the bed waiting for him to come home to tuck her in? Helpless. Useless. She snorted. Those days were over and she was delighted to have seen the last of them. Why then did the notion conjure such a pang of loss? Perhaps Aeric was not the only one the war had scarred.
“I’ll only take an hour or so,” she said, but the sensation of loss left her feeling less independent than if she had fallen to her knees on the cold hard ground and begged him to protect her. “Do you need anything?”
He shuffled across the roof and peered down at her. He had trimmed his hair a few days before — something he would have once asked her to do — leaving nothing behind to cover those haunted eyes. “It’d be best if no one found out about me being here.”
“Is there something you need to tell me?”
“No.” When she frowned at his terseness, he held up his hand, forestalling her retort. “I don’t want people knowing I’m home, Ellie, not while the kingdom is yet at war.”
He had not changed so completely that she could not tell when he was leaving something unsaid, but again she held her tongue; in truth, it was a relief of sorts. There was a right way and a wrong way to care for every wound, and the one he suffered from required patience. He would explain everything when he was ready. Ellie could only hope she would be ready by then, too.
After nodding agreement, she headed for the pass that led down the mountainside to the town below. The moon was out early, gleaming above the pink and purple horizon amid a tiny cluster of stars. A hazy-white glow encircled it, and the nearest cloud had turned the color of a dead rose. She hunkered deeper into the warmth of her clothes. The signs were ominous. The storm was going to be a bad one.
“Ellie,” Aeric called out.
She looked back. Seeing him atop the roof, far enough out where she could no longer see the cast of his eyes, made her yearn for the simpler times of their past, before the war — a ruthless scavenger that begat scavengers — came and took what it could. Was this all it had been unable to carry, a man who from a distance could pass as her husband, and a woman no less a stranger than he?
“Be careful,” he said, and though Ellie still could not see his eyes, the sadness had slithered down into his voice and made even his distant self a shade.
Ellie hesitated outside the supply station. The wind carried the plunking of a badly tuned piano from the tavern across the way. The town had once been a small outpost; the final stop for those daring, desperate, or dim-witted enough to brave the mountains. But the birth of the tavern had brought with it a fresh way of thinking. She knew it would not be long before people started calling the town a city, giving it the curse of a proper name and all. Soon there would be nothing recognizable in her life.
She listened for only a moment; it was growing too late to dawdle. Streaks of thick snow already blurred her vision, and she knew she would soon be racing the storm to her house. Since her doorstep happened to be located on the side of a mountain, she would likely return to find the storm there waiting. She shook off the cold and entered the supply station, a burst of heat hitting her flush in the face.
“Close the bloody door!” The demand roared forth from the backroom behind the counter. “You’re letting my heat escape!”
Ellie smiled and quickly shut the door. “Have you started stamping your mark on the heat, Helga?”
“Is that you, Ellie?”
Helga tromped into the room, floorboards creaking and shelves rattling. She was a large woman, and Ellie knew it to be more brawn than blubber. She had watched Helga haul supplies from the wagons that came every few weeks, and had seen her deal with those men who thought they could do as they pleased inside a woman’s shop.
“It is you. I feared something bad had happened to you up there on that mountainside by yourself.” She maneuvered behind the counter and waved Ellie to an adjacent chair. “You must be mad. By midnight that pass of yours will be nothing but an icy grave.”
“I know it.” Ellie loosened a layer of clothing and took the offered chair. “It caught me by surprise.”
Helga raised a dark and bushy eyebrow. “There isn’t a storm this side of the Desolation could sneak up on you.” She poked her arm underneath the counter and retrieved a pipe carved in the shape of a cat’s head; its eyes were pits of scored wood where someone had pried free the gemstones. “Are you in trouble, hon?”
“No trouble, Helga, but thank you for your concern.”
“Uh-huh. Need more supplies than you generally would then?”
Ellie held back a smile. “Don’t go out of your way on my behalf.”
Helga shrugged and puffed the pipe to life. The smoke was a rancid shade of gray, but it smelled of roasted apples dipped in honey. “Which reminds me,” she said, reaching beneath the counter for a second time. “You have a letter.” Ellie felt as though the heat had struck her flush yet again.
The date — Aeric’s handwriting was unmistakable — was from five months prior. “When did it arrive?”
“Nine days ago, hon.”
A feeling of unease nearly overwhelmed her, though she was unsure why. Aeric was at home waiting for her…alive, if nothing else. She supposed the sensation arose from a sense of habit, but such suspicion did little to quell her anxiety.
“I would’ve had someone deliver it to you, had I known you would be coming this late in the season. I know how much the letters mean.”
“Think nothing of it. I should’ve been here sooner.” Nine days ago meant Aeric and the courier had likely crossed paths, but he had not mentioned it. Her worry mounted, reviving that surreal fear first experienced when she had wakened to find him crouched at the end of the bed.
“Well, girl, open the bloody thing and have done with it. It is his scrawl, so there’s no reason to fret.”
As soon as she applied force, the seal crumbled. She held the letter close and inhaled, as she did with every letter from him. Beneath the smell of ink and musty parchment, there was an odor of dirt. To smell the land Aeric traveled in had always caused her to feel closer to him, and this time was no different. She wiped her moist eyes and unfolded the letter.
My Dearest Ellie,
I swore to myself that I would spare you the details of war, but I must say this, without memories of you nothing but the screams of the dying would fill my nights, and the nights are unbearably long. In this way, I fear I’ve brought you with me to this dreadful place, and I can only hope its evil does not find a way to span the Desolation to scratch at you.
Feeling the claws of this place burrowing into your skin is excruciating. I’ve seen the sunlight solidify and rend men into ash with its teeth of flames. I’ve seen the sky rupture and monsters descend from the wound, bringing madness to those wretched enough to encounter them. Even the foliage thirsts for our blood…and the dead, what this place does to the dead truly is unspeakable.
I can feel the maggots of war writhing inside me. We should have armed ourselves with your beauty, to combat the ugliness of this place. Before your countenance, even the monstrous sunlight would pale, and the creatures that descend in the dark would flee from such marvelous light.
In that respect, my darling, I hope I have brought a piece of you with me…it is my only chance of surviving. And I fear never to see you again. Never.
A courier arrived in camp minutes ago but has nothing for me. I cannot help but wonder how many of your letters are lost for good. I’ve received so few. Perhaps this letter shall suffer the same fate. Considering the horrors described within, I hope for your sake it does. Yet I am too weak to carry such burdens on my own. I must send it…forgive me.
I love you, dearest Ellie. You are the reason I remain ever stalwart in the face of such an enemy. My love for you guides my sword and your love for me is a glorious shield. As long as I yet stand, I know your love has not wavered. I cannot thank you enough for that. I fear I’ve not done nearly enough to merit such devotion.
Until the morning comes, my love…until the morning comes.
Helga stretched across the counter and grasped Ellie’s hand with both of hers. “Are you okay, hon?”
She tried to dry her eyes, but could not staunch the flow of tears. “I have been such a fool, such a miserable fool.”
Ellie stomped around a bit to keep warm. It was so bitterly cold, ice had matted in the fur of her clothing, and she had only been outside for a short while. The snow was already to the top of her boots and streaming down steadily. The race to her doorstep had started without her.
Helga secured the last sack of supplies on the back of the mountain goat, and checked the saddle strapped to the larger one Ellie was to ride. “Once you get everything unloaded, go ahead and let them go,” she said. “They know the way back.” She stroked their beards and fed both of them something that crunched as they chewed. “Packed enough supplies for two people to make it through the storm,” she added, not looking up. “To be safe.”
Ellie mounted the goat, staying absolutely still until he grew accustomed to her. “Thank you for that, Helga. I won’t forget it.”
“Don’t worry about it, hon. Just you be careful with my babies…and with everything else. If you need anything, I’ll be here.”
She nodded and waved farewell, clacking her tongue to get the goats going. Her thoughts turned to what waited for her at home: a husband crippled by the wavering of her love. Not only had she failed Aeric as a glorious shield, she had betrayed him with doubts. Morning had finally come, and she had done her damnedest to ensure it was as ghastly as the night. There was plenty she needed forgiveness for once she was in his arms again.
Something flared orange in an alleyway between two empty buildings on the outskirts of town. Ellie glimpsed the briefest hint of an illuminated face scowling out at her, but by the time she gave it her full attention, it was gone. She shook her head and laughed at herself: her guilty conscience was conjuring fiends in the dark.
As she neared the pass, she clacked her tongue again and the goats increased their pace up the mountain. Staying in the saddle required her full attention, forcing her to drag thoughts away from the relentless echoing of Aeric’s letter, away from doubt and regret, and away from imagined faces in the night.
The goats scaled the mountainside in a fraction of the time it had taken her. And when she saw Aeric waiting at the door — despite her fears that she would return home to find only a cold empty house — joy overcame even her relief. She slipped from the saddle and ran through the knee-deep snow, hurling herself into his arms.
“Oh, darling, I am so sorry,” she said. “I’ve been such a fool. I love you, and I am so happy you’re back.”
He pulled away from her and untied the supplies. “Need to get these inside.”
“Is that all you can say?”
Aeric met her gaze completely for the first time since his return, and she saw the anguish in his eyes, claw marks from that terrible place. “There are things you don’t know.” He dumped an armload inside the house and returned for more.
“I can’t know what you don’t tell me.”
“Things happened to me…unspeakable things.” He unloaded the remaining supplies before he spoke again. “I need you to give me time. In return, I’ll give you the same.”
Ellie said nothing. It was ironic he needed time now, after she had finally grasped how time was something they had wasted far too much of. He turned to watch the goats plod down the pass, but she could not take her eyes off him. How twisted things had become, so mired in regret. Their life together, reduced to separate nightmares about the same war.
His muscles tensed, the movement disturbing the flow of her thoughts, and she wondered what horrific moment he was reliv —
“What is it? You can tell me.”
He pointed toward the pass. “Were you followed?”
A cloud of snow billowed along the pass, too large for the passage of goats to have been the lone cause. Ellie remembered the orange flash on the outskirts of town, and the glimpse she had caught of what looked like a face; it seemed menacing in her mind, even more so than when she had spotted it in the dark alleyway.
“It’s possible,” she admitted. “I thought I saw someone on the way back.”
“Go inside and shut the door.” He gripped her shoulders. “No matter what you hear, do not look outside. In fact, clamp your hands over your ears and hum as loudly as you can.”
“What do you mean to do, Aeric? You do not even have a weapon!” She held back from mentioning his wound.
He held his hands in front of her face. “I so desperately wish that were true.” The words had more scars than his flesh. “Go inside. Do not look. Do not listen.”
The way he turned toward the pass and stood there with such restrained finality made Ellie feel almost sorry for whoever had followed her.
She ran inside and slammed the door, leaning back against its hard wooden surface; her harsh breathing was the only noise in the house, excluding the crackle of the fire. The hammer Aeric had used to mend the roof was lying on his chest, firelight gleaming off it like some grim omen. The need to do something — anything — gnawed at her. She crossed the room and raised the hammer. It weighed more than she expected, as though she had never held it before.
A scream caused her to drop the hammer. It struck the chest with an unnoticed clang. A second scream weakened her knees and she wobbled down atop the chest. Never before had she heard screams bulging with such anguish. She shielded her ears and hummed, hoping the uproar would engulf even the memory of those horrendous sounds.
The door burst open, the draw of the wind pulling in a mist of snow. For a moment of indescribable panic, the white haze obscured the figure blocking the doorway. But he walked out of the snow and into the firelight, and she saw it was Aeric. Cords of blood chunked with torn flesh spilled from his fists, the glow of the fire making it appear as if shackles of crimson anchored him to the floor.
Such a vision sent her running to his side. She scooped up handfuls of snow and used them to wipe at his hands, frantically trying to break apart those terrible shackles.
“Don’t fret,” he said, grabbing her wrists to stop her. “It isn’t my blood.”
Through the open door, Ellie could see where Aeric had stood. Blood covered the patch of snow round his footprints, the red a bright contrast to the white. She reached behind him and pressed shut the door. She did not want to see — did not want to see what he had done to extract such frightening screams.
“Were they here for you?”
He placed his hand under her chin and made her look up at him. It surprised her to find his eyes less haunted than before. “No,” he replied. “They were not here for me.”
She did not care if he had lied to her again. How could she blame him for wanting to spare her from the truth? There was mercy in such a lie.
Urgency seized her. It was time she did something to snatch the night from the clutches of that evil place, which had stolen her husband and returned a stranger. It was time to reclaim what was hers. To salvage. To rescue. She stepped back and peeled off her clothes.
“We’ve wasted too much time already.”
Ellie rolled over and ran her fingers down Aeric’s scar. It had lost its angry red glare in the weeks after the snowstorm, and he was now a healthier shade of pale. She needed so much from him, things that still pulled at him and her alike. But their wounds were healing, and both of them grew more and more recognizable every day.
She moved her hand from his chest to her stomach. There was one thing she understood wholly: they now had more to concern themselves with than just their own future, even if Aeric did not know quite yet. She trusted that the rest of their troubles would work themselves out in time…their wounds simply required patience. With something for them to look forward to, the healing would progress that much faster.
Beneath the pattering of the wind blowing flecks of snow against the house, Ellie thought she heard something. She sat up and listened. It was the snap of ice breaking under the strain of a wagon’s weight. She shook Aeric. “Wake up! Someone’s coming up the pass.”
He woke and scampered to the window — his leg had made remarkable progress, and his limp was hardly noticeable anymore. When he turned back toward her, she was disheartened to see the claws had scratched him yet again.
“Get rid of them,” he said. “Whatever you have to do, don’t let those men know I’m here.”
There was no time to fully dress, so she draped the bearskin blanket around her and slipped on her boots. She hesitated at the door and glanced back. Aeric did not look like a stranger any longer, not even from this close, not even with those fresh marks in his eyes.
“I love you,” she said.
“Oh, my dearest Ellie…whatever they tell you, whatever you see, hold to that love. Be my shield one last time.”
Not trusting herself to speak — she did not wish to confront the men with tears streaming down her face — she turned away, the wind bitter even through the thickness of the blanket. The wagon cleared the pass. She recognized one of the men. His name was Marcus, and he had left for war alongside Aeric and the others. The second was a stranger.
She stood where Aeric had made his stand the first night of the snowstorm. It was her way of showing she would stick by her husband come what may…even if the gesture was too private for anyone else to understand.
“That’s close enough,” she called out.
The stranger pulled the wagon to a stop and laid the reins in Marcus’ lap, ice crunching as the horses settled in. He took off his hat, cold wind whipping the few curls of hair he had. “Ellie Hardin, wife of Aeric Hardin?”
“I am.” She motioned toward Marcus. He remained silent, eyes downcast; part of his right leg was missing, trousers tied off just below the knee. “I know him. Who are you?”
“Thomas Faraday, ma’am. You can call me Tom. I’m in charge of deliv — “
“Your vocation does not interest me, Mr. Faraday,” she interjected. “Why are you here?”
“Did you receive the dispatch from Captain Roan?”
She recognized the name from one of Aeric’s earliest letters: he had been in command of Aeric’s unit. “I did not.”
He frowned, fiddling with the hat clutched in his gloved hands. “I should’ve made certain you knew, ma’am.”
The wind suddenly seemed much colder. “Knew what, Mr. Faraday?”
Tom grabbed the reins from Marcus’ lap and guided the wagon to the side. There in the bed of the wagon — a few strands of rope keeping it secure — was a white sheet with the distinct shape of a man underneath. Ellie’s right hand began to shake, but she clutched it with her other hand and tore her gaze away from the shrouded body.
“Get off my land.”
“I am so sorry for your loss, ma’am. I’ll collect his effects for you and unload the body wherever you like.”
“Do not step down from that perch, Mr. Faraday.” She straightened and pulled the bearskin blanket in closer around her. “You get off my land and take whatever it is in that wagon with you.”
“You’re distraught,” Marcus said. “Perhaps it would be better if we came back in a few days.”
Ellie glared at him, furious that she did not see the same claw marks that scarred Aeric’s eyes. “Go!”
She told herself it was impossible for the wagon to hold what they claimed, but a phrase from Aeric’s letter whispered doubt into her mind: ‘…and the dead, what this place does to the dead truly is unspeakable.’ Had he not said something unspeakable had happened to him? She touched her stomach. The thought of her child — their child — soothed her enough to speak, her voice as bitter as the wind.
“If you do not leave, there will be more than one body lying in the bed of that wagon.”
Tom donned his hat and turned the wagon toward the pass; the splintering of ice beneath the wheels and hooves sounded more ominous than before. “I am sorry for your loss,” he repeated over his shoulder.
Marcus just watched her with his unscarred eyes. In that moment, she would have clawed them out herself if he had been within reach.
She had lost nothing. The war had stolen it all away…everything it could carry. How much more was it going to take? She hunkered deeper into the warmth of the blanket and ran back to the house. The fear that she would enter to find it cold and empty came back stronger than ever.
But there Aeric was, sitting on the edge of the bed waiting for her.
“You have to tell me what’s going on,” she said. “I’m ready to hear the truth.”
“I don’t understand it any better than you. That place…it does things to you.” He shut his eyes tight — the skin around them wrinkling — and breathed deeply, as though trying to find out if he was still alive, trying to feel the mountain air swell his lungs, to taste its life.
“War took everything from me,” he added, opening his eyes. “I took what I could find.”
“We are going to have a child, Aeric.” Tears that had been threatening to burst free since she first saw the shrouded body — his body — flowed unchecked. “Explain that to me.” Aeric did not seem as surprised as she had expected, which confused her even further. “Did you know this would happen? Did the evil in that place use you to do this to me? Answer me! Do I have some kind of monster growing inside me?”
He rose from the bed and wrapped her in his arms. The smell of the dirt from his last letter hung heavy about him; somehow, she had never noticed it before.
“I love you,” he said. “What kind of monster could come from love?”
“Winter of the Scavengers” first appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, November 2015.