Heart As Light As Snow

Originally written for Burning_Nightingale. Thank you to Ann and Sharyn for edits. Calligraphic scene breaks by www.josweb.co.uk

The sun was at its peak when Usra reached the mountain cave. Even though the sun should have felt warm on her, even on the snowy mountain, she was chilled to the bone. No other point of her trip up the mountain, or leaving her wintery forest, had been this cold. It meant she’d found the right cave.

“Good afternoon, Mitsuki. Today I’ve brought you a lovely selection of bread, cheese, and some pork from the pig I slaughtered last week. I’ve even included some preserves to put on the bread,” said Usra, apparently to the thin air. She pulled sticks and bark out of her pack, placing the food on top and with a snap of her fingers lit a fire.

She didn’t sit, as sore as her legs were, because the cold would surely seep up into her bones. She watched the dark cave as the food burnt, not looking at the fire.

If there was movement, it was too fleeting to be sure of. Or perhaps it was the smoke.

“This should be enough for now. Keep to the deal, Mitsuki,” said Usra once the flames had died down and the food she’d brought was nothing but cinders. She picked up her pack and went back down the mountain.

Eight years ago Usra had moved to the forest at the base of a powerful mountain. That was why she’d chosen the forest. Every stone, every drop of water, every herb that came from the mountain seemed to hum with magic.

The forest itself wasn’t too bad either. Usra preferred living in the deep dark forests, where it was easy to stay hidden. She had no time for travelers. The most she ever saw people was when she would be forced to go into a town at the edge of the forest to trade for supplies. Every year two new pigs, for instance. It had been one pig originally but then she’d started to need meat for two.

Five years ago, Usra had been in town trading poultices when she heard – travelers didn’t come back from the mountain. Which was odd, as she had been using it as her main source of supplies and nothing had happened to her.

Witches were naturally nosy, so of course she eavesdropped.

The mountain was forbidden, as far as the village was concerned. But every year at least one person would go, claiming they were the ones who’d bring back some prize from the top to prove they’d conquered the mountain. And they never came back.

The latest one had been the son of a very rich local lord. The villagers were fearing retribution.

Usra decided to see if she could find him.

Usra found the lordling’s path with the help of a friendly fox. He hadn’t crossed her path. His route took him far out of the way of her hut buried deep in the woods. It looked like a likely way up the mountain. It was even and didn’t touch the snowline too soon.

Usra began her climb to find the lordling, or what remained of him. The fox had decided not to stay with her, barking out a warning to keep her wits about her.

When she was halfway up, a snowstorm began.

Usra did what came naturally, which was pour out a bag of herbs and command the winds to stop. An old, but useful, spell.

The winds did not stop. In fact the snow bit at her even more harshly.

This, thought Usra, was not normal.

So she persisted, walking forward into the storm.

When she saw the woman kneeling in the snowdrift, her breath caught in her throat. She’d never seen anyone so beautiful before in her life. Skin that almost blended into the snow around it, hair as dark as coal, and a robe made of rich silk, covered in blue flowers. But the woman’s makeup and hair… Usra had only seen women like that in old artworks.

“Hello,” said the woman in a soft, gracious tone. “I’ve become lost. Won’t you help me?”

Usra hitched her bag full of solutions to problems on her shoulder and nodded. “Of course. I’ll walk you down off the mountain to where it’s safe.”

The woman shook her head and gestured for Usra to come closer.

Usra sighed. She knew what was coming now and wished she didn’t.

So she walked through the snow following the beautiful woman until they came to a nearby cave that was colder than it should be, even allowing for the snow. The woman walked inside.

“We can shelter here,” said the woman.

“I bet we can,” muttered Usra. She wasn’t surprised to see, once she entered, the discarded body of a rich man. The lordling.

The woman lunged for her.

Usra grabbed her and threw her to the ground.

“Not today!” she yelled.

“Hungry…” gasped out the woman, scratching and struggling.

“Of course you are,” said Usra, maintaining her grip. “You can’t eat food of this world. No amount of humans will ever fill your belly.”

The woman stopped her frenzy.

“Who were you?” said Usra. Her gloves were lined with the shed skin of a dragon. No ghost could break her grip. No human, for that matter.

“…Mitsuki,” said the woman. Even with the transformation of bait to attacker, she was still beautiful.

“Hello, Mitsuki. I’m the witch of the forest. I solve problems,” said Usra. “And I will solve yours. But I need you to stop killing people because eventually someone is going to realize and exorcise you and a spirit like yours will go straight down to to the underworld.” She reached up with one hand to pull a packed meal from her bag, she’d planned to give it to the lordling if she’d found him alive.

“I’m hungry…” hissed Mitsuki.

Usra dropped the food on the floor of the cave. With a flick of her fingers, it burst into powerful flames.

Mitsuki’s eyes widened and she reached out to the burnt offering, experiencing food for the first time in a very very long time.

Later they spoke.

Mitsuki had died on the mountain so long ago she didn’t recall when, fleeing something or someone she didn’t remember. And she had been hungry ever since. Animals naturally avoided her. That left the only creatures not smart enough to heed the warning that permeated the area: Humans.

Usra dealt with the bodies in the cave, giving them pyre funerals and prayers. Mitsuki looked less like a beautiful construct by the end and more a living, breathing woman.

“I can come back and feed you regularly,” said Usra once she’d dealt with the last one. The flames’ warmth had barely reached her in Mitsuki’s lair. “But if you kill another human, the deal is off. I’ll exorcise you and you’ll find what comes next.”

Mitsuki hugged Usra tightly. Her embrace was that of a statue of ice, but a little part of her felt warm despite the bone-chilling touch

And so Usra would come each month to burn food for Mitsuki. Sometimes Mitsuki came to talk to her, sometimes the cave seemed to be uninhabited except for the unnatural cold.

Sometimes, when Usra had an empty day ahead of her, she’d bring a boarskin to sit on and visit with Mitsuki as long as she could. The ghost was a good listener, even if she was often confused by the present times. With each visit Mitsuki seemed more and more alive, her pale skin taking on a healthy flush, her hair moving in the wind.

And one day when Usra came with a meal, the cave was not cold and she could see rabbits playing nearby.

Usra pulled out the bundle of incense she’d been carrying each visit since she’d begun visiting and burnt it, praying over Mitsuki’s grave. She hoped the next life was kinder to Mitsuki than this one had been, now that her spirit was light enough to not be dragged down.

And then she went home. There were other problems in the forest to deal with.

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