The Snow MaidbyGlaze72©
The dying man got dressed.
Not that dying was going to be very hard, Bill Carter thought with a weak thread of his old humor. Easier than dressing, at least. Pain hampering every move in his hands and wrists, he managed to zip and button his heavy parka. A thick wool cap was forced over his head and ears, and he pulled the hood of his coat over it all. He eyed his boots with a malevolent glare, then bent down to force them over his numb feet.
Lastly, the gloves. Using his teeth to aid his clumsy, frozen fingers, he pulled them on, grateful that the weak light from the electric lamp did not show him the ruin of his once-healthy body. Breath steaming in the brutally cold air, he shuffled over to Olaf and nudged him with his foot. Once, then again. Outside, the raging wind howled inland from the Kara Sea, shrieking its fury at anyone who was stupid or foolish enough to dare to challenge it.
Olaf's eyes blinked open. The large Swede looked up, frost crystals in his beard.
"I am just going outside, Olaf," Bill said shakily, keeping his voice low so he didn't wake the others. "And I may be some time. Make sure you close and tie the door flap behind me. I can't do much with these anymore," he said with a weak wave of his hands.
"My friend," Olaf said, his voice weak, "Are you sure?"
Bill did not trust himself enough to speak. Instead, he nodded. Olaf slowly crawled out of his sleeping bag and staggered over to the front of the tent. Silently, he gripped Bill's shoulder. Frozen tears formed on his cheeks as he wept.
"May the good God bring you home safe, my friend."
"And you," Bill replied, though he had given up his belief in the almighty on this hellish journey. "Get back safe to that pretty wife of yours, and give her a child or two."
"If I do, one of them will share your name. Go now, before my heart breaks." He knelt on the frozen canvas and unzipped the front flap.
Bill Carter took one last deep breath, and committed suicide.
It was easier than he thought. The powdery snow did not hamper his movements much, and he was able to set a good pace. It was only a matter of moments before he had left the ragged, windswept camp which was all that remained of the once proud Russian-American Novaya Zemlya Expedition.
A tribute, Bill thought bitterly, to American arrogance and Russian incompetence and corruption. The expedition had been the brainchild of a consortium of oil and mining firms, who were convinced that vast amounts of precious metals and petroleum could be found and extracted along the hostile coast of Arctic Russia. They had underwritten the costs, and forty men and women had been chosen to take part in an expedition to Novaya Zemlya, a pair of islands off the northwest Russian mainland.
However, the expedition had been grounded for weeks by foul weather. With the narrow window to do fieldwork closing, the lead American, a geologist for the petroleum industry, had insisted that they fly in on a huge Chinook helicopter, and wait for the supporting water craft to meet them where their base was to be established. He had ignored the advice of the mission meteorologist, a bright young man from St. Paul, Minnesota, named William Carter.
Well, I showed him, didn't I? Bill thought morbidly, stumbling through a drift. McKenzie had died when the helicopter crashed, gale force winds throwing it down onto the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean like a wad of paper. Only eleven of them had survived the crash and the terrible days that followed, when they realized that most of the emergency supplies and medical equipment had been stolen or sold on the black market, and that the electronics and radio had been irreparably damaged.
And that for some crazy reason, no one had bothered putting in cell phone service at the top of the world.
Despairing, the survivors had made a grim bid for life. Using whatever tools they could scavenge or make, the had peeled away part of the hull of the helicopter to use as a sledge to pull their supplies across the ice in a desperate attempt to reach civilization. But they didn't have enough food or fuel or anything else, and three of them had already died of exposure and malnutrition.
Four, thought Bill. He looked for a sheltered spot.
They had made it to the southern of the two islands, but the food situation was growing desperate. Bill had come down with severe frostbite in the fingers of his right hand and in both feet. When the wounds turned gangrenous he knew his time had come.
Simple math, really. If I'm gone, there will be more food for everyone else. Maybe Olaf and Ludmilla can get them to Belushya Guba. I doubt it, though.
Better chance than you do, Carter, he snickered.
God, I'm tired.
The sun must have come up behind the clouds, for the thin light was growing stroner. Through the veils of blowing snow, Bill saw a finger of stone jutting up from the arctic plain. It was at least fifteen feet tall, and four or five feet wide. At its base, on the side away from the wind, a small patch of bare ground was in view.
With fading strength, he lurched into the lee of the stone. He sat down and curled his legs up into his body and crossed his arms across his chest. For a moment, his shivers eased and he felt almost warm. He looked up into the sky. The storm must have been breaking, because he could see thin streaks of blue between the ragged gray clouds.
He felt oddly calm. Does it hurt to die? he thought. I don't think so. Remember when you had the lower GI a few years back? One second you were on the gurney, waiting for a doctor to shove a camera up your butt. The next you were awake in the recovery room putting on your clothes.
I hope it's like that. God, I would have liked to see my folks again. And Jim and Nancy. And sit out at night with a beer and watch the sun set.
The last thing that Bill Carter felt, before Death came walking up to take him, was the false warmth of hypothermia.
Grandmother Snegurochka sat listlessly in her old rocking chair by the pale fire. Her head drooped, and the bone needles nearly fell from her grasp. The gray shawl she was knitting sat uselessly in her lap.
So tired, she thought despairingly. I am so tired. So long without someone to talk to. No one to share a cup of tea with in the evening. No one to play with in bed.
She snorted indelicately. As if anyone would want to engage in bed-sport with her now. Old, wrinkled, gray and spotted. She was missing teeth, and her fading vision told her that soon she would be blind as well.
Give it up, her mind taunted her. The old ways are gone, and you are a relic whose time is past. Give it up. Go to sleep with the rest of your kin.
"No," she said. Her voice quavered, but the will behind it was firm. "I am the daughter of Winter, in Winter's mightiest stronghold. I will not bid this earth farewell. There is still time."
Time for what, old woman? The globe grows warmer every year. Men defile it with smoke and poison. In time, endless summer will come even here. Snow melts, and even the mightiest glaciers can fall.
"No," she whispered. Tears rose in her eyes and traced wandering paths down her wrinkled cheeks, "I won't let that happen, I..."
From above came a brazen tone, as if a brass gong had been struck by a stone club.
"Sun and steam!" she swore. She shook her mind free of the web of deceit her wandering thoughts had woven about her and cast it upwards into the World Above.
A man; fragile, frozen, and exhausted, he sat huddled at the Gate.
A sacrifice. After all these years, a sacrifice.
Ignoring her screaming hip and aching back, Snegurochka leaped out of her chair and dashed for the exit of the House Below. Hobbled by her age, she ignored the cloaks and coats in the hall, pausing only to grab the long-forgotten carry-all by the door, which contained what she needed to bring a mortal into her home. All the while, her thought clung to the fading life above her. So fragile a flame, so close to being blown out by the elements.
With a chanted spell that was half a scream, she stepped across the threshold into the mortal realm.
Bill opened his eyes. Then he frowned and blinked. He was, it seemed, alive.
Which was, in a small way, a disappointment, considering how nobly he had acted to save his friends, he thought with a small smile.
He was lying on his back on a small bed that was almost sinfully comfortable. Fat pillows were propped behind his head, and soft cotton sheets caressed his body. A thick comforter, merrily decorated with warm designs in red and orange, brought needed color to the hospital room.
It has to be a hospital room, right? he thought foggily. Flogging his memory, he could only catch glimpses of the time from when he had sat by the standing stone and when he woke up. The clearest was that of a pale face hovering over him, and a voice asking if he was "the sacrifice", and his mumbled answer that yes, he was, and could she stop hurting his feet, since they would have to be amputated anyway?
If it was a hospital room, it was decidedly strange. Despite the clear white light that filled the room, he could not see any sign of light fixtures. And the walls, though colored in pleasant pastel shades of blue and green, were oddly curved where they met the floor and the high ceiling, without sharp corners, giving the room the feel of a tiny cathedral.
Bill shuddered, remembering how he had resigned himself to death. Any room, however strange, was preferable to that. He wiggled deeper into the thick blankets, reveling in the feeling of warmth that he thought he had lost forever.
Why are hospital rooms always so cold? he thought sleepily, then drifted off again.
When he woke for the second time, he felt far more alert. Either the drugs were wearing off, or he was recovering from his ordeal.
Probably the first, he thought. He had seen pictures of arctic explorers in the old days, those who had not been careful enough, or lucky enough, to avoid frostbite. The photos of fingers and toes, black and hideously swollen, had warned him of the danger. But warning had not been enough. The unending, brutal cold had taken its toll on his body, and by the start of the second week on the ice Bill had seen the first traces of frostbite pop up. He had done his best to contain the damage, but by the time he left the tent he knew that even if by some miracle he survived, he would be missing both feet and at least three fingers of his right hand.
Remembering that, he steeled himself as he moved his right arm into view.
And saw a perfectly ordinary hand, completely unblemished.
He was still pale-faced and white with shock when she came into the room.
It was a good thing, he thought later, when he had time to consider such things, that he had been so surprised by the continued existence of his hand that the appearance of Svetlana caused no more than mild confusion.
She was dressed in the colors of an unhappy winter. She wore a heavy, shapeless dress, the color of dirty snow. Below the low hem, he could glimpse dark gray stockings and slippers made from the dark fur of some animal, possibly a wolf. She wore silver at her wrists and her ears, and a thin chain of pale gold around her throat.
She was very old. Old enough, Bill thought, to be his grandmother. Her long gray hair was long and straight, but raggedly cut around her pale, lined face. Years of wrinkles were in the corners of her eyes and her mouth. One eye was cloudy, as if a cataract was forming there. The other was as gray as her dress, and disturbingly alert and direct.
One of the old Soviets, Bill thought. A doctor or nurse who left her hospital or lost her job when the old system collapsed back in the nineties. He had read that there were many of them on the fringes of society in Putin's Russia, former professionals making do as best they could, living on the remains of their pensions and helping people when they needed it. Could she have seen our tent and called in a rescue for us?
She walked quickly up to the bed and threw back the covers, exposing him to the waist. She laid one hand on his forehead, and the other on the inside of his elbow. They were both frigidly cold, and he flinched away.
"Hush," she said in a distracted tone. "You'll make me lose count."
Confused, he held his tongue, even as he blushed in embarrassment. After a few moments, she removed her hands and smiled at him, displaying slightly crooked teeth in a careworn face.
"Well, the fever is gone, and your pulse is steady. The hand is well?"
He held it up and wiggled the fingers experimentally. "It seems to be...Doctor..."
"I am Polina," she said. She pulled the covers the rest of the way down, ignoring both his startled yelp and his nudity. His feet, he saw, were as undamaged as his hand. She tested them briefly with her hands, then nodded, satisfied.
"Your feet are recovered as well." Her cold hand dropped briefly to the inside of his thigh, and she examined his groin. "No damage there, thanks be to the High One." To Bill's intense relief his cock lay limp and flaccid against his leg. Despite the fantasies of young men, he knew enough to know that women nurses and doctors did not fall madly in lust as soon as one of their patients displayed an erect penis.
It would be even worse to do it in front of a woman who was obviously long past such recreational thoughts.
Polina tsked irritably. "Well, I suppose that will need some time to recover. You have had an intense trauma, after all." her voice was slightly accented, but she spoke English well. She looked at his torso critically, counting the ribs in his too-thin chest.
"Excuse me," Bill said. "I don't quite understand. Are you a nurse? A doctor? Where am I? What happened to my friends?"
"Your friends?" she asked. "That would be the men and women in the cloth hut a short distance from where you collapsed? Seven of them?"
"Yes!" Bill said eagerly. "Are they still there? Why didn't you rescue them, too?"
Polina's voice was confused. "Why should I save them? You are the sacrifice. You were at the stone pillar. I saved you. They are the ones you gave your life for. Their lives are in your hands now. What would you have happen to them?"
Something is very wrong, Bill thought. Either I am going crazy, or we are speaking the same language with entirely different meanings.
He had been dying of malnutrition and exposure, and had medical issues which modern science could not cure. He was now lying in a bed, warm and safe, with all his wounds healed.
Reason said this was impossible.
Reason could go fuck itself, Bill decided. Either I am still dying, and all this is a hallucination before I slip away entirely, or this is reality. Either way, I have to try to help my friends.
"Let me make sure I have this right," he said slowly. "The place you found me means that I am a sacrifice. Which means that you now have an obligation to aid those I choose. Is that correct?"
Polina shrugged, displaying an appalling lack of concern for his companions. "Within limits. I cannot summon a boat to take them off dry land, or cause them to fly."
"They need food. Shelter. Warmth. A chance to survive until they can reach more of our kind."
Our kind? Why did I say that?
Polina nodded. "Let me think." After a moment she nodded and smiled, satisfied. "A very stupid bear has eaten a rotting seal carcass not far from where your friends are. He is going to collapse and die. I have made sure he does it within a few yards of your friends' tent.
"They will also be astonished to find an abandoned stone hut only a few hundred yards away from where they camped. Doubtless they missed it in the snow and wind the night before. It has, amazingly enough, a large supply of driftwood stacked outside. The fire, food, and shelter should be enough to keep them safe until the men searching for them can find them."
Bill bowed his head in gratitude. Tears formed in his eyes and dripped down his cheeks. Normally not an emotional man, he found himself overcome by the thought that the people with whom he had shared the most terrible of journeys would survive, even though he might never see them again.
"I am in your debt," he said softly.
"Yes, you are," she agreed frankly. She patted his hand where it lay on the coverlet. "Luckily enough, you will spend the rest of your life paying it off.
"Now, child, how would you like something to eat?" She sniffed the air disapprovingly. "Or maybe a bath first?"
Bill agreed eagerly. He had not bathed or washed since the night before the crash. Sweat, grime, and the stink of gangrene had suffused every stitch of his clothing until his own smell nauseated him. Though his clothes had been removed, the foul smell wafting up from his skin was far from pleasant.
He swung his legs out of the bed and stood up, staggering only a little. He tried to cover his nudity with his hands, and heard Polina sniff disparagingly.
"Don't be silly, young one. You don't have anything down there that could possibly offend me."
He walked behind her as she led him down the hall, and was startled to find that she was much smaller than her strong personality would indicate. Bill was not a large man, but the top of Polina's head would barely reach his chin.
Child's height, adult's will, he thought with amusement.
The floor of the hall was tiled in colors of pink and pale blue, and was frigid against the bare skin of his feet. Somehow, though, neither the freezing tiles or the cold air of the hall made him cold. It was as if the temperature was a fact which had nothing to do with his body.
Wouldn't even have to worry about "shrinkage", if there was anyone around who could possibly appreciate it, he thought.
She led him into a large room, which in contrast to the hall, was filled with warmth. Wisps of steam rose from a huge copper tub in the middle of the room, filled to within inches of the brim with water. Towels and soap lay nearby.
"Clean yourself. When you are done, come and find me, and I will feed you. To find the kitchen, go past the room that you woke in, then take the right-hand turning." She smiled, the expression surprisingly young on her seamed face.
"Or simply follow your nose."
Bathing was an unimaginable luxury. After weeks where the sweat of hauling the makeshift sledge had mingled with the acrid smell of desperation and fear, the sinful pleasure of washing (In hot water! With soap!) seemed to be the height of decadence.
He washed himself all over, rinsed, then did it again. He dunked his greasy hair repeatedly, and scrubbed it until his fingertips were raw and his scalp tingling. When he was done, he dried himself in a wonderfully warm and fluffy towel, then looked for his clothes.
They were nowhere to be found, which did not surprise him in the least. If Polina had any sense at all, she would have had them burned. Instead, he found a heavy pair of dark trousers, which fastened at the waist with metal buttons rather than a zipper. A bright red shirt with bone buttons followed, overlaid by a vest embroidered with intricate patterns of green and blue. Thick wool stockings and a pair of light boots lined with fleece were set on one side, ready for his feet. He put them on and grinned. He had thought he would never walk without pain again.
He took care of his hair with a wooden comb he found laying on a tray, then brushed his chin with his fingers, feeling the ragged growth of two weeks' worth of beard.