HANDFUL OF SPRING, by Charles Paysuer
Mina watched each step fall into the snow, those brief shadows around her feet the only landmarks in the shifting white. Directly behind her she felt Natham stumble again, heard his curse as she was forced to stop, to wait, her arms full of spring.
“How much farther?” Natham asked to her back, and despite their closeness she could barely make out his voice over the howl of the winds, the assault of the snow on her face and ears. They had already lost Bertan and Oma to the swirling blankness, and Natham was losing part of his load every time he faltered.
“Can’t tell,” Mina said, not turning, knowing that he probably couldn’t hear her. She thought of Diana at home, their two small children, Theo and Andric. In her mind they were smiling and happy, all standing in front of their small house, the fields around them green and bright. But it had been three years since the last group managed to retrieve the spring, and Mina knew that even now the snow would be waist high and her family would be huddled in front of a meager fire, praying for her success as much as her return.
Eventually she could hear Natham stand, steady himself, and give a shrill whistle, his signal to continue. Mina drove forward, her hands wrapped tight together, close to her body, making a cradle with her arms for the spring, which warmed her as she walked, which was the only reason she was not dead now.
Every village needed the spring, the season of renewal, and every one had to get it the same way, by sending four people out into the place beyond the river to bring it back. It was a strange, magical place, beyond the river, always divided somehow into four areas that, while stretching on and on, always forward, looped back around so that any traveler crossing over the fifth divide found themselves right back where they had started.
It was a strange place, beautiful at times, and Mina wished she could have stayed in the spring, could have brought Diana and the kids and settled. But none were allowed to stay beyond the river. After five days they would find themselves empty-handed back at its entrance, would have to wait another year to try and retrieve the spring. If they managed to make it back before time ran out, though, the spring would spread like a warming wave around them, awakening the land, melting the snow, making everything alive and green again, ensuring a season of prosperity for their village.
Four days ago Mina had crossed the river with her companions, and found herself in the green fields of spring, the air crisp, damp, like life after so many years of winter. She had tried not to think of the three other groups that had been sent from their village in previous years, that must have come to that spring first and tasted the green fruit on the trees. None of them had made it back.
In the beginning it was enough to walk, and gather the spring in wide arms, feeling alive, young, strong. The spring was like an almost solid light, warm, granular so that it had to be held tight, carefully, and while it weighed some it hadn’t seemed like much then. Later it felt heavier, when their feet took them to summer where the sun beat and the grass dried in brown wastes, where the rivers slowed to trickles and the winds caught sand and sent it hissing through the air. It wasn’t until then, in summer, that they started to feel that the burden they had taken on in the spring might have been ambitious, naïve. But summer passed to autumn, their footsteps crunching among the leaves, and they had felt a slight lightening, a hope, because after autumn there was only one land left.
They never knew what happened to Bertan. One moment the man, large and strong as an ox, had been walking in front of them, his wide frame their guidepost. And the next he had dropped from view, gone. They had searched, kicked at the snows that showed no sign of disturbance, and then been forced to continue. Natham had said it must have been a river, or a lake, some ice too thin to bear weight that Bertan had crashed through, the air so cold and wind so strong that it had refroze and covered over in seconds. And because they could not drop their loads to dig for him, they had nodded, left.
Oma had been taken by a shadow. It could have been a bear, or a wolf, or one of the yeti that sometimes were driven out of the mountains by hunger and need. They had heard from the people in their village who had succeeded in retrieving the spring before that the winter held such things, lurking, find easy prey among the exhausted travelers.
Oma had been in the back, and her scream had ripped through the howling winds like a scythe. Mina had turned in time to see the shadow, to see the streak of red upon the white snow for a moment only until the white erased it, and she and Natham had run as fast as their legs could go.
They walked now, the two of them, and Mina tried to think of home and not of the white expanse around her, the unknown waste that seemed to swallow the world. Winter was erasing them, erasing their village too, their history. Another year without spring and there might be nothing left, just a clean sheet of white. Winter was for dying and forgetting. And while both were necessary, vital, there was no comfort to them, just in the proximity they forced onto everything else, huddling around the fire for warmth.
A new howl echoed through the white, and Mina paused. Behind her Natham seemed to be searching around them with his eyes, unaware that it would be useless, that the cold and the snow had taken away the use of their senses, taken away the use of everything but the stubborn will to keep walking.
“Did you hear that?” Natham said, and Mina nodded, held the spring in her arms slightly closer, tighter. “What should we do?”
There was an image in her mind of kicking out Natham’s knee and running on, leaving him behind for whatever creature was stalking them, perhaps the same one that had taken Oma. She didn’t turn, didn’t face him, knew that he would read her thoughts in her eyes. She tried to think of something else, of her family. Diana’s smiling face almost begged her to act, to save herself, but Mina didn’t, shrugged instead.
“We keep going,” she said, still not sure if he could hear her through the winds, though she repeated it again, even softer, just for herself. “We keep going.”
After a moment he whistled again, and Mina pressed on into the snow, unsure really if she was even walking a straight line, unsure if that mattered at all. Perhaps there was something hunting the winter for them, and perhaps they would die in the cold and snow. Perhaps it was what had taken the three other groups the years before, and perhaps it was taking every group, from every town, and soon enough there would be no spring left, or summer, or autumn, just one long winter to make the world forget, and die.
Another howl seemed to wrap through the air around them, then another, both distinct. Mina heard Natham curse. It would be wolves, then, and it meant that they could be tracked by more than just the trail their feet made and the snows concealed.
Natham stumbled, fell hard this time, and Mina turned in time to see the last of his spring spill into the snow and vanish, like the memory of warmth. He just stayed there a moment, eyes wide and blinking furiously in the wind and snow. Then his head fell, and Mina waited.
“Go,” he said, the word that Mina had been expecting, had known would be coming. He had no spring left, and one of them had to reach the border, to return alive through the storm. And yet, even though she had been waiting for that word, had nearly been hoping for it, she found she didn’t like that it was there, in front of her.
“Go, please,” Natham said again. “Get back to the village. Tell them…tell them I tried.”
But Mina was already stepping back to him, kneeling in front of him. With her hands she divided the spring she was carrying, was careful but even so a bit sprinkled out into the air and was gone. She held half out. Natham looked at the bright, warm spring, then up at her, and she could see the conflict in his eyes.
“Come on,” she said. Around them the snow whipped in patterns they couldn’t see, white on white, and Mina knew that if she left Natham he would be lost to it, forgotten, dead. It was what the winter did. And this was her small way of fighting back, for warmth, for memory, for life.
“Come on,” she said again, and shoved the spring into his hand, grabbed him, and pulled him up so his arm was around her shoulder, each of them supporting the other as she pulled him into a walk. He didn’t speak, but as if in answer a wolf howled again, closer, and it seemed the winter was stalking them, offended that they should turn to each other now in warmth and not obliterating cold.
Mina tried to push away the numbness that began to seep into her, throughout her body. Without her full load of spring she had to rely on the heat from where she pressed against Natham, and it wasn’t much, wasn’t enough to keep the icicles of chill from stabbing into her. There was another howl, and another, and they were near, invisible. There was no choice but to keep walking, to make their small footprints that lasted only a breath of time.
A shape, more than a shadow now, burst through the snow ahead of them, and dark eyes stared triumphant at them as Mina stopped, stunned. The wolf was large, larger than those back near the village that only grew knee-high. Its head was level with their chests, and its light fur melded with the white around it, so that it was more a ghost than a living thing, half forgotten already and needing to assert its existence the only way it knew how, with teeth and claws and the taste of blood.
Without options, Mina ran, pulling Natham with her, aware that they couldn’t outrun the wolf, aware of only that, really, and the need to try. Natham stumbled slightly, seemed like he might fall, but Mina pulled him, forced him forward, in front of her. They ran, the spring clutched to their bodies, and the wolf growled and bounded at them. Mina listened for it, knew that looking back would be her death. She needed to think, to plan.
Diana’s face flashed in her mind, smiling, and Mina could imagine her with Theo and Andric, praying at the fire. She heard the crunch of the snow as the wolf landed behind them, and knew that in one more leap it would be over. Mina turned, pushed Natham forward, and brought the spring in her hand around. She had time only to see the wolf sailing toward her like a dream, then she was throwing the spring directly into the creature’s face, and where it struck there were bursts of light, and the wolf’s eyes went large from shock.
It collided with her, its huge wolf’s body slamming into her chest, knocking her back and into the snow. But it wasn’t concerned with her any more, was too absorbed in the pain that looked to be shooting through it, and it yelped and cried and tried to rub its face in the snow. With a last, desperate look at her, the wolf bounded back into the winterscape, disappeared. And Mina, sprawled in white, wondered if she would die. Her body was numb except where it hurt, and she felt like at least one of her ribs was broken. She looked down at herself, saw that the snow was already trying to cover her over, erase her. It would have been so easy to let it, to forget, to die.
“Come on,” came a voice from over her, and Mina looked up, saw Natham standing there, his hand outstretched. And in it was half of the spring that she had given him. She looked at it a moment, not sure what to think. They had already lost so much of it, and yet here was a little more, enough to help their village; the last handful of spring.
It was like waking from a memory, standing and taking the spring from Natham’s hand, letting him put an arm around her back and help her to walk. It was like being reborn. Clutching the spring against their chests, they began to walk again, and Mina thought she could feel the snow lifting.
Charles Payseur lives in the chilly reaches of Wisconsin, where his partner, books, and craft beer help him through the long winters. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Perihelion Science Fiction, Dragon’s Roost Press, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. He reviews novels and graphic novels for the Book Reporter suite of sites and short fiction for Tangent Online and Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together. You can follow him on Twitter @ClowderofTwo