“You are like Winter,” he whispered in her ear.
Nis snorted, and hugged her thick cloak tight around her shoulders, and hunched closer to the fire. The singer was young and thought himself a flirt. Thought he would woo an old woman with a few pretty words and drag some coin from her purse before the night was done. At least he did not touch her, Mother be praised he didn’t touch her. She was too tired, and she needed all her strength for her climb in the morning.
“Leave me be, boy. There are younger and prettier ones in this tavern for you to wheedle coin from.” A serving lad came by and deposited a bowl of thick stew and a tankard of strong ale in front of her. She ate to fill her belly, force some warmth into her bones before the morning. It made no difference. No matter how many times she came here, no matter how many times she ate until full, she could never drive away the chill.
“But you are, Lady,” the young dwarf said. “You have the winter winds in your hair and ice in your eyes.”
Nis didn’t look up from her bowl of stew. “My hair is white because I am old. My eyes were brown and now have clouded because of cataracts. Because. I. Am. Old.” She gnawed on a piece of gristle. “What else would you like to compare to the winter? Am I dark and unforgiving as a late winter eve? Or perhaps my wit is biting as north wind atop the mountains.” She laughed, loud and harsh amongst the din of the tavern. “I have been praised by far better than you, my dear dwarfling. What is your name?”
He flushed red from the tips of his ears and lost the cavalier grace in teenage awkwardness. Nis felt a small pang of guilt and pushed it aside with more food. Better a harsh lesson early than never a lesson at all.
“Vindir, ma’am,” he said.
“Oh dear me, named after that fickle one?” She said and pat his hand. “Oh don’t look like that, Vindal isn’t the worst of the lot. Many poets are named after him. You’re young yet, and I’m too old to be twisted by some lovely words.”
He shivered, and the fingers of his hand turned blue under her cold hand. She pulled it back under her cloak and finished her stew before it froze on her as well.
“Who are you?”
“Not the question you want to be asking, now is it?”
“If I ask the one I want, I’ll get in trouble.”
“And when has that stopped you before?”
He flushed again, but straightened his shoulders and looked her in the eye. Not many had the courage to do that.
“What are you?”
Nis met the young dwarf’s eyes. He had magic about him, a small bit, not enough to make a living as a mage, but sufficient to give him some luck. Enough for him to see past the face of things. She settled back in her seat and sat up to her height. “Tell me, Vindir, what moon shone on the night of your birth?” Her voice was stronger than it had been all evening, had lost the raspy aged quality. She had few nights left, they would forgive her an indulgence.
“There were three moons present in the sky, Halla, Myr’s and their daughter, Nis.”
“A lucky auspice to be sure, yet you weren’t named after them?”
The dwarfling winced and shook his head. “I was born in an elven village, away from our home. It was heresy to name a child after one of the Eight. And ill luck followed us in those years. Mum got sick, and Dad blamed it on the bad omen of the three moons. We left the elven lands and travelled until I was well into my forties. I was given the proper rituals on my fiftieth birthday, and reborn during the Feast of the South Wind.”
Nis sighed and nodded. “Myr has followed your steps hasn’t he, young dwarf?”
The young one flinched, and she bit her tongue to keep from snapping at him.
“He has, but tis unlucky to call attention to it.”
“Death stalks all mortals, young one. He is no more affected by luck than the wind can be changed with a prayer. He has not followed you out of spite or some vindictive nature. Likewise, he is a god and deserves respect. Your family gave you a secret name in those first days. I know for I know the names of all the children born and the names upon their hearts. The first whisper a dwarf hears through their own screams. You were named for him then, and I will rename you now, Myrnis Volfstag.”
Calling upon that part of her being taxed her greatly and she slumped into the chair. Her lungs rattled with each breath she took, and she could hear caution in the shadows. ‘You’re about to kill me father, it is too late to show compassion,’ she thought.
The poor boy had gone very pale, and Nis had been right about the little bit of magic he had could see beyond appearance. She waved her old hand, beckoning him closer. He hesitated, well, he might have some brains after all. She narrowed her eyes, and he flinched and came closer.
“What am I, little Abhartach?” She whispered, her voice cold as winter.
“Don’t— don’t call us that…. Not you. They named us after their demons, their fears.” He gulped aware of who he spoke back too.
She inclined her head. “You speak truth, I apologise. Tell me who I am, young dwarf.”
“You’re her, you’re the goddess. You’re the Crone, Mother Winter, Daughter of Spring. You are Nis.” His voice trembled, his whole body shook. “You’re not supposed to be here. I’m not meant to see you. Tuathan speak with their gods as friends. Dwarves don’t.” There were tears at the corners of his dark brown eyes and sweat beaded on his brow. His paltry magic was amplified the longer he looked at her. Looked and really noticed who and what she was. Terror and awe clung to his shoulders, and his knees were half bent, unsure if he should kneel in her presence or flee into the storm outside.
She took his hand and held it tight, preventing any foolish action.
“The Tuathan and their gods have their own relationship, they like mucking about in the affairs of their creation.” She turned Myrnis’ hand over and looked at the lines along his palm. “This is not your story, Myrnis. You did not leave when I told you, you continued to look even when your magic warned you to turn away.” She pat his shaking hand. “I have given you the gift of your name, no dwarf should be denied their true name.”
“Please, Goddess, I did not mean to be rude. You looked lonely, and I only wished to make an old woman smile. I did not mean harm.” He was crying, but he hadn’t pulled his hand from hers, he hadn’t stepped back, too scared perhaps.
She released his hand and left frost trails spread along his palm and up his arm. He shuddered as warmth returned. “Best you go now, young man. This is not your tale, go find a fair lad to bed and forget what you have seen this night.”
He ran. They often did when given the opportunity, when released from the gaze of immortality and power. He fled the chill of her aura and found someone much warmer, much younger. Nis settled back into her chair, ordered more food and drink and stayed by the fire until it dwindled and the tavern closed.
Her cloak did nothing against the winds on the mountain. The sharp rocks cut into her hands, and her blood dripped into the gathering snow. Sleet battered her as she climbed. Each step was agony. Her joints ached with cold, the chill born inside her had found an escape. She slept, clinging to the stones, trembling in the wind as blood ran down her hands and her hair snarled and knotted in the wind.
It took her days to climb to the top of the mountain. Day and night of endless climbing until she collapsed at the peak, gasping for breath, unable to tell where one hurt began and another ended. The wind had died down. She did not wait for the pain to subside; it never would. It was part of her now. She stood on raw and torn feet, her cloak hung about her body in tatters. She shrugged it off her shoulders and let it fall to the snowy ground below.
She greeted death naked, back straight, chin up and proud.
A figure stood across the plateau. He was bone white, pale of skin, eyes, hair, and his clothes were a soft dove grey. He looked at home atop the icy mountain, as much a part of the scenery as the snow itself. He carried a sharp scythe in his left hand, and he held out his right to her.
“Hello father,” she said as she stepped forward. She did not take his hand, nor did she seek comfort in his arms.
“You are late,” he said. “I thought I would have to go find you.”
“We have played our parts for aeons, and will continue to do so until the end of time. What makes you think I would shirk my duties?”
“He was a lovely young lad.”
She laughed. Not the croak she had in the tavern, but a full bubbling laugh of her in spring. “Father, you’ve been listening to the Tuathan too much these decades. Has Piran turned your head with the romance of mortality? Are you going to start creating clerics to worship you and bow at your feet?”
He glared at her and let his hand fall uselessly to his side. “Are you ready?”
“What, no witty banter before you kill me?” She waved her hand before he spoke. “Enough, I am tired, and I want to sleep. Mother is already mourning, and I would very much like a rest before Spring.”
Myr stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I will miss you, sweet child.”
Nis felt tears sting her eyes and she brushed them aside. “Do not be gentle with me. Do not lie to me here and now on this earth that will hold my blood.”
“My dear, I never lie, and I am always gentle,” Myr said above her. “I am ugly, hated, and feared in equal measure. But I am always gentle in the end.” He hefted the scythe over his shoulder. “It is you, my child, that is the lie, you are the cruel one.”
The blade came down, and she felt cold air, a bite against her neck; then nothing at all.