PRW Runner-up Tour: Heart of Ice by Kathleen Palm
I kneel in the choosing ring. Pressing my hands to the frozen ground, I stare at the forever-fire pulsing, dancing. The flames as tall as a man roar from within its stone circle, the center of our town, the symbol of life. With a whoosh, a mass of glowing embers scatter into the air. One by one the lights dotting the sky fade to cold nothing, leaving the three moons linked together in the dark above.
The Fire Keeper cracks his great staff against the ice. “The flames have chosen Alexei to save us.”
I stand, brushing the snow from my exposed hands. My heart pounds with pride and fierce determination. The Novaya clan stomp their feet wrapped in thick, brown hides. Their shoulders hunch under layers of coarse furs.
My breath puffs in the air like the clouds of fear invading my mind. No one has ever returned from this journey.
Firelight reflects in the people’s eyes, hidden in the shadows of hoods. I inhale, the air freezing my chest. “I take this honor upon my shoulders, Great Keeper. For the clan.” The fire pops in the sacred circle, adding strength to my words.
“For the clan,” the crowd echoes their faces protected from the cold by stained, ragged cloths.
The Fire Keeper approaches, black hair escapes from under his hood and frames his brown eyes, full of strength and a hint of sadness. His shoulders strain under the weight of what he must say. “Too many die, Alexei, from the ever-chill that blankets the land.”
I turn around, gazing at the white scene. Everywhere. Stone shelters and trees stand as dark shapes against the pre-dawn sky. A line of color stretches across the edge of the world as the sun prepares to offer a bit of warmth. Home.
“Too many,” the clan says.
Ice settles in my stomach, but I straighten my shoulders. “I shall face the spirit and save the land from her wrath.”
“Beware the ice spirit.” The crowd chants, following the ritual. They part, showing me the path I must tread.
I glance at the forever-flame, stretching up in waves from the great stone circle, then turn away, determination pushing my unease to a corner of my mind. Fear can’t keep me from my revenge. A cold darkness strokes my heart, spreading through my soul with each step.
The rest of my clan stand, stomping their feet in rhythm as I pass, speaking in hushed tones. “Approach her lake, she will strike.”
The legend is clear, the stories told since before my cries mixed with the chill in the air. She, once a woman, haunts the lake in the dead forest. Her vengeful ghost turned the world to ice.
“Forever cold. Forever ice,” they continue.
The snow crunches under my feet. My chest tightens with each word, familiar words recited every time the moons meet in the sky, the moment for another to begin the journey.
“Destroy the spirit and bring back life,” they say, finishing the words spoken as the chosen begins the journey.
I am the one to go. At the end of the group, two figures cling to one another, hands raised to wipe away tears, already mourning me.
I swallow, stopping to say good-bye.
“Alexei,” Mother says, my name wrapped in sobs.
“Keep the flames alive,” I say, fury burning in my heart at their unnecessary grief. “I will return.”
“No one returns,” my sister cries, placing her hand on my arm. “Father didn’t!”
I shake her hand from my arm. “I have been chosen, Elena. I must go… for the clan.”
Her eyes flash with sorrow and anger. “For the clan,” she spits. She pulls the cloth from her face, exposing her quivering lip, and leans close. Her cheek brushes my ear. “Don’t go.”
My fingers curl into fists. “You know what happens if I don’t,” I hiss through clenched teeth.
“Remember the stories,” I say. “How the ice spirit claimed us anyway, how she called to us from across the plain, how so many were lured—”
Her fingers tighten, stopping me. “An icy heart can’t set us free.”
Fear, like wisps of smoke, swirl at the edges of my emotions.
“You go to your death,” she whispers, her words soaked in sadness. “Like Father.”
My stomach twists with anger, my chest filling with the desire to act. “Father went to avenge our little brother, killed by the cold. The cold she created.”
Thoughts linger in the dark corners of my mind, of the possibility that the spirit can’t be destroyed.
I step back. “I am chosen.”
I push her away. “What if I am the one who can break the curse?”
Elena stares at the ground and tucks her arms against her chest. “How?”
I drop my gaze to the ground, refusing to admit that I don’t know.
Mother slips an arm around my sister’s waist and pulls her close. Tears shimmer in her eyes. “The fire has declared it so.”
Footsteps and the crackling of flames sound behind me. I glance over my shoulder. The Fire Keeper holds a burning torch above his head, the sacred flame. All eyes drift to flickering salvation.
“Flame is life,” the clan says. A wish for a victory over the evil that stalks our land fills each word.
No one has ever returned.
I glance from the torch, a spot of warmth in the cold, to my mother and sister, those who hold my hope for me. Saving the land and defeating the ghost means leaving them, forgetting them. I can’t let hope and love weaken my resolve.
The leader comes forward, holding the torch above my head. “The sacred flame, the weapon given to all the chosen.”
An untested weapon.
“Fire against ice,” the people chant.
The faces of the crowd hold love and sorrow, emotions with no use. I drink from the fight growing in my heart, growing strong. The sun peers over the edge of the world, beckoning to me, leading me to the battle. My mother’s sobs follow me. I don’t look back.
Yet, how do I fight a ghost?
Snow and ice give way under my feet, groaning in protest. Rocks jut up out of the white as if to point me to my end. The flames crackle and spit from the torch, its warmth a welcome touch in the vast nothingness.
Fire can melt snow and ice, but a spirit? What can it do against her? I’d rather have a knife, a familiar tool, but one only used on the living. There is no record of a weapon against the dead. My fingers tighten around the wood. A gust of wind tugs at my furs as if to warn me, to push me from the path. The fire erupts in a furious dance, fighting to stay lit. Maybe the wind tries to snuff the flame, knowing it can’t help.
The fire gives warmth and light, but hasn’t saved us from the frozen ghost. The image of my father taking this path, holding the torch high, flashes in my mind. He failed. Too weak. His heart heavy from the loss of his son, my brother. I purge the sadness and fill my soul with fire, like the sacred flame. Heat and scorching fury. Strength.
Too many have died. I shift my shoulders, adjusting the mounds of skins. Born a hunter, I am well suited for the task. Yet, each kill requires knowledge as to what weapon to use, how to strike, and how to stalk.
The ice spirit is a mystery, lurking in the water, for that’s where she died. Trapped, seeking revenge. Her death brought the ice and snow, imprisoning us in forever-chill.
I must face it, to set us free.
Dead trees appear, stretching like twisted fingers from out of the whiteness. I stop. Silence surrounds me, pressing in on my pounding heart. My breathing roars in my ears, and I force myself towards the forest.
And the lake.
And the evil that waits.
I squeeze my fingers around the torch, my weapon. Doubt swirls in my head that it will have an effect. But the fire is all we have as a people.
The wind whips through the trees, whispering and shrieking as if to drive me away. Blackened tree branches scrape and tap. Fear creeps up my spine, settling in the back of my mind. I glance at the fire, waving at the end of the piece of wood, then at the remains of trees. Only the chosen ever come this close. With the start of the disappearances, the deaths, the sightings of her, the Rusalka, scuttling along the shores, the people burned the forest and vowed never to return.
But the death continued. So the choosing began.
The sound of water splashing makes my stomach knot. I step to the edge of the gray lake where snow gives way to ice, which ends at water. Bleak. Lifeless. The scent of rotting meat rides the air. With my mittened-hand pressed to my nose, the knot in my belly tightening, I raise the fire above my head.
Ripples spread across the surface.
A giggle, cold and heart-stopping.
I turn, waving the sacred flame at each sound. On one side, then the other.
I plant my feet, calling on the images of my mother and sister hunched under furs, of my father, who gave his life, and of my little brother, blue lips and a blank stare, lying buried in the snow— an accident, a casualty of the cold. “The people of Novaya have sent me to destroy you! To free us from the cold prison!”
Laughter trips across the water like a stone. Fear twists in my heart. Instincts scream at me to run, to go home, and forget the task. I grip the torch, arm shaking, and draw strength from the forever-flame.
“I will have my revenge!” I call. “Who are you?”
A splash, then footsteps crunch through the snow. I spin, tracking the sounds, but there’s nothing.
“I am death,” a melodic voice sings. “Men deserve death.”
My thoughts tangle, my mind searching for an answer to the question. How do I destroy it?
Scratching sounds, as if great claws mar a dead tree, slice through the air. A low chuckle seeps through my layers, sticking to my skin like a disease. My gaze darts from one tree to another. “Men? Why?”
“A man killed me, drowning me in these waters,” she says, her voice changing to a raspy whine.
Confusion darts through my mind, mixing with possibilities. If it will answer my questions, maybe I can discover the way to end it. “Why?”
My heart stops when I spot a mass of red hair, long and stringy. Water runs from the strands in dark rivulets, splattering the white ground with black. I hold the flame high, hoping to disperse the shadows lingering on the spirit’s face. Pale, bony arms slither around the tree. Jagged knees jut out as she squats on the branch. Dark eyes glitter from behind the veil of hair, sending pulses of unease racing through my mind.
“I wronged him first,” she says with a giggle. Like water, she falls to the ground, her red hair pooling around her. On hands and feet, she crawls, her head cocked at a strange angle.
My gaze locks on hers. A melody weaves through my head, swallowing my thoughts and pinning my feet to the ground.
I open my mouth, but words elude me. Thoughts sift through my brain like water through fingers. Panic blooms, then disappears, swallowed by the emptiness created by the music.
With a hiss, she moves over the frozen ground like a breeze. I hold my breath, searching for strength. She circles my feet, gazing up at me, poking at my furs.
I gasp when her face appears before mine. Her hand reaches for my face, and she drags a long, pointed fingernail along my jaw, her eyes widening, then narrowing. “Your heart is cold, boy. It beats with a song I know.” She backs away, slinking to the ice rim that edges the lake and crouching like a predator.
I grip the sacred flame, unsure what good it will do. My heart flutters in a strange rhythm. “What song?”
“One of vengeance.” Her hands clench, digging into the snow.
Rage floods my mind, scattering hot coals through me. “You killed my father.”
“So many come. They all fail, but I never fail.”
“Fail to do what? What do you want?” I call, my heart pounding with the need for answers.
With a laugh, she’s gone. A splash sounds from the lake. Ripples creep across the surface.
“To lure you. To take you. To keep you here with me.” The voice rises from the gray water like steam from a warm bath.
I race to the end of the ice, where the water waves, trying to peer into the depths. My reflection gazes back. How do you kill something that’s already dead? Her pale face hovers just under the surface, her red hair surrounding her like a bloody halo. Her teeth gleam in the light from my torch. Bubbles pop to the surface, carrying her laughter.
My fingers curl, desiring to wrap around her neck. She disappears with a swish, leaving me gazing at myself bathed in the glow of the fire of hate.
I slam my fist against the ice.
I snap my head up. “Mother?”
She stands, bundled in furs, several steps in front of me, arms extended. Her eyes shine with a smile. My heart leaps as a bit of joy nudges the darkness away. “My Alexei! Come to me.”
I take a step forward, my mind spinning with emotion. Love. Fear. But I cling to my hate, I need it. “What are you doing here?”
“You saved us!”
Safe. Pictures of worry-filled eyes of the people of the clan flicker in my mind. My shoulders relax as the burden lifts. Leaving the ice, my foot enters the water.
“She is gone, my dear boy. Come home with me.”
She. Struggling to breathe, I stumble back, glancing at the torch, the sacred flame, dangling over the water. I am chosen. Like my father.
My heart flutters with the thought of failure.
“You didn’t fail, Alexei,” my sister’s voice drifts through the cold air.
Panic falters under the heavy boot of fear and confusion. “Elena?”
“We miss you, big brother. We need you.”
What am I doing? I should be home. They need me. The torch sputters. No. I need the fire of anger to fight.
“Don’t you love us?”
I press my hand to my chest at the ache, like claws squeezing my heart. Her eyes fill with tears, like the ones she shed when we said good-bye.
My legs push through the water, but I have no idea when I had started walking.
Cold crawls up my legs. Sharp pain burns in my leg. I drop my gaze, shock wrapping icy fingers around my mind.
The Rusalka. Her crooked fingers tighten around my ankle, her face lurking in the shadows. A triumphant grin wrinkles her cheeks with jagged lines, like cracks in the ice. She grabs a piece of wood. My heart freezes as I gaze at my empty hand.
The sacred flame gone, extinguished. Mind games. Tricks. Stripped of my weapon by images of love.
With a cry of rage, I yank my foot free and stumble out of the water. On hands and knees, I stare at the lake, shivering. Fury races through me. I was chosen to destroy her, to set the world free of her curse. To take revenge for my father’s death.
The flame is gone, but I’m still here.
A column of water shoots up from the lake. The Rusalka shrieks as she rises from the spray, rushing towards me. A dark shape hangs from her hand.
With a flick of her wrist, it lands on the shore, rolling over and over, coming to a rest at my feet. A head. The skin sags, the empty eye sockets staring into the nothing of forever. But the scar on the forehead is clear.
I scream in rage, snapping my gaze to the spirit, who sinks calmly beneath the dark surface. Her high-pitched giggle sets my nerves on edge. I rush into the water, a cry of war on my lips.
My fingers wrap around her form, cold and slippery.
Icy hands grab my throat, dragging me farther out into the lake.
We sink, locked in battle.
“A heart of ice can’t be destroyed,” she whispers, her eyes flashing. “Can’t be changed.”
The blackness of the water consumes us. A chill settles in my chest, creeping through my body, trying to erase the memory of my mother, my sister… their pleas, their sobs filled with warmth, with love. I made myself forget, choosing to bring revenge on the journey, a companion, a cold shard that grew, spread, and infected my entire being. Now I am cold.
Lost with the ice spirit.
A piece of my heart glows with thoughts of my sister’s smile, my mother’s eyes, and the memory of my brother’s laugh. But it’s not enough. If only I listened to my sister. For a heart of ice can’t save us.
The Rusalka’s eyes shine with triumph. We sink into the gloom.
Leaving the world blanketed in white.
Follow Kathleen on Twitter (@kathleenpalm)
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