The ice calls to her.
Each winter as it creeps across the lake the deeply resonant song aches through her bones. It bids her to come, to commune with it, at least for a moment of intimacy. Even when Asta was a child she was unable to resist it’s gut deep hook.
Tonight is no different.
The sun has not risen today, her tallow candle gutters as she trembles in winter’s embrace. Hoar frost glitters in the gloom, snaring the branches of mostly bare trees, only the skeleton leaves provide a crimson afterglow as a reminder of autumn. Sharp air caresses her cheeks, flushes them and exhilarates her in the way aquavit never has been able. It gives her permission to become something other. The last few structures of the village slip away into the vastness of nature. There is nothing human left.
Avoiding the well travelled path she slips between the trees, wending her way down towards the lake, faint mournful notes are already audible to her trained ear. Asta’s pilgrimage is a lonely one, who else would understand? The rest of the village has drawn as far into their homes as possible to avoid the ruthless cold.
What would Erik think of her now? Erik is a good man, a god-fearing man. No one can remember when the Kirke was built but it has driven away the old ways. Even runes of protection and poppets are viewed with stern disapproval. Would he think her a witch? An abhorrent woman that has turned from faith, that should be denounced and ducked? Asta loves him, as much as any woman loves any man and he is good to her. There’s guilt when Erik stirs and Lukas sucks his thumb greedily into his little mouth, missing the comforting warmth of his mother’s presence in their bed. Yet Asta has never been able to ignore the ice’s lure.
In the wilderness she is no longer a woman of the kirke, a dutiful wife or a loving mother.
Tiny snowflakes kiss her lashes, the first of a night-long dusting. Asta pulls her furs closer, tentative in her first few steps. The ice greets her, low, sonorous and almost playful. Tiny fractures pave the surface, lightning over liquid captured in the infinite patterns. The next few steps are bolder, until she sinks down to meet the ice. The thin rope of her blonde hair catches between her shoulder and cheek, impatiently she scrabbles at it with rough mittens to push it aside.
For a moment everything is silent. Asta’s thin frame presses urgently into the unyielding surface, breath stilled, waiting. The rattle of her heartbeat is percussive, she quivers and the song rises up from the depths. It is unearthly, soothing and akin to the ancient melody of whales, though she has no such frame of reference. Asta only knows true wonder when the ice sings. There is no magic left, no trolls or huldra, yet there is this. This connection to a force more powerful than she can comprehend.
Asta doesn’t see the dark shape slip beneath her.
It’s too late when the world fractures around her. Shards pop and skitter clear of the yawning maw that swallows her into the water below. Lungs wheeze out precious oxygen, an arm flails catching nothing but snowflakes. Wet furs drags her down, dizzied by the unwillingness of her limbs to respond. Above her the sky is dismissive to her plight, then the lake consumes her, closing above her vision.
As the ice closes above her, in the last flutters of consciousness she feels a warm flush, as though arms have wrapped around her.
All that’s left of Erik’s wife is a candle.
It’s Ole that finds it; out on the ice. Asta always was a strange one, often off in the forest playing alone whilst he and the other children wove in and out of the houses, chasing one another. It had been the only time they had freedom; too small to manage chores but big enough to get under their parents feet. Ylva always told him Asta was trouble, but despite that Ole had always had a soft spot for the girl with the far-away eyes.
The rumours were ceaseless. Ylva and the other wives said that she’d run away to start a new life. Some of the younger men thought she’d fallen prey to animals. Those who listened to Pastor Karlsson would have been forgiven for thinking she had been casting dark magic and had simply flown away to practice her arts elsewhere. Erik held his son tight and said very little. Only Ole thought the ice had taken her.
Well… the ice or something within it.