The stone was smooth and clear and smoky all at once, so convincing that it looked cold to the touch. It was wrapped all around in silver so fine that it hurt Bronne’s heart. She rubbed her thumb against it, hard, wishing it would shatter. Then she swung the fine chain around her neck.
Someone had to pay the cost of winter. The cost of the ice.
Alrik had taken the children away yesterday, back over the hills to their own village. They were fine children, and he was strong, and Bronne should not have been leaving them. But her village had been called upon this year to make the tithe. Reykjin was a small community, and one of the northernmost. Even so, the journey to the temple would be hard. An elder too frail could not be expected to make it, and it was not fair to ask someone too young, with life yet to live. Bronne had married late, and though her children were small they were old enough to fend for themselves, not babes in arms who still needed milk and care. That is what she told herself. If her marriage bed had become cold, if Alrik no longer touched her as he used to – well, it happened sometimes that a man wandered. It was not enough to throw her life away for, or shouldn’t have been. But a priestess does not return from the ice.
She had white already in her golden hair, and her womb would birth no more children. He was young and beautiful, and yet it broke her heart all the same.
When the call came, she headed north. He came with her, to the lodge where she would be purified. It was customary for the family to come, to say their goodbyes. Then he took her children, took the light of her life imprisoned in his eyes, and left her.
Outside, she heard the women who would walk with her packing up their things. She stood, draped in blue upon blue, robes over white underclothes as thick as any she’d ever worn. It was spring here, nearing summer, but it would only get colder in the time it would take to reach their destination, no matter that the days grew longer. Such was the way of the temple. These clothes would be all that was left to her. She tried not to resent them for it.
Her companions carried flowers, and they sang. She walked among them, north, ever north.
Her own voice was silent.
Reykjin was one of many villages on a long spit of land between a bay and a harsh sea. Farther south, that land opened up into more verdant, temperate climes. Across the bay, impenetrable wilderness stretched. But at the tip of the peninsula, glaciers perched like shards of quartz emerging from the mountains, fading into the clouds and the cold grey ocean that seemed to stretch forever. Bronne had been there as escort, when her bosom friend Ingrid had made her own walk. Ingrid had been sick for a long time, and the women of the other villages had nearly demanded that she stay behind. Bronne had argued for her fervently. Let her death mean something. It was all Ingrid wanted.
When they had made the trek together, and Bronne had seen what became of her friend, she had not regretted it. But the loss had stayed with her.
A young girl walked with Bronne from her village, Gretta’s child, Ygritte. Bronne’s own mother had died in childbirth, leaving no siblings to make Bronne nieces and nephews. Her father had taken himself off to die only a spare handful of seasons ago. But the village must send someone to witness, and Gretta’s girl was old enough to make the walk but not so old as to marry. There were other children to take her chores. So here she was, a pale and sullen thing. She knew the songs at least, though her voice was breathy. Not the high, lilting wail of the greatest singers, but she could carry the tune.
Bronne watched her struggle, and neither pleasure nor pity took up in her heart at the sight. She felt grief, and then rage, walking alone with only the singing for company through the scrub grass and rocks. Patches of snow could already be seen in the lees. When she noticed that, she felt fear.
The land narrowed, and the snow became thicker.
The women walking alongside her carried flowers, and the flowers did not wilt. It was a small piece of magic, of prayer. Every girl was taught the songs to keep flowers from wilting. They were old songs, older than the temple, older than the ice that sprung up about it in rippling waves and jagged crystals. Not, probably, older than the mountains, or the peninsula, though it was hard to say.
They had brought with them bricks of honeycomb, and hard cheese, and fresh-baked bread, all saved for this occasion. They had brought cider and beer and dried fruit and nuts, and fresh vegetables and mushrooms for the first few days. No fire was lit, though all of them shivered. Fire would not do, here, in this ice, in this world beyond the seasons. No meat was eaten. That would not do either. The women carried their heavy packs, each day lighter, and sat together and took turns eating so that the songs never ceased. Their throats grew hoarse, but the flowers did not wilt and their hands did not freeze and the honey stayed soft enough to eat.
Bronne walked among them, and apart. She ate only honey and bread, at dawn. She drank only snowmelt. The songs did not warm her. The singing was ceaseless, one song bleeding into another. It lasted all through the dark of the night, when stars speckled the sky like frost. It lasted all through the morning, pink and fragile as an eggshell. It lasted all through the evening, bruised and blue as her fingers. Her heart slowed. Her steps grew heavy.
She thought of the pain of childbirth, and how it had seemed endless but had ended. The long, slow months afterward had been gray as a stormcloud, and as heavy. Even after the aching of her womb had healed, she would stand and feel surprise as the strangeness of her weight, her own weight without child, would reach to cradle a belly that wasn’t there. It was the same with both Leif and Annika, though with Annika perhaps a bit easier. She’d known what to expect then, and had Leif to worry about, ricocheting around their small house with the wild abandon of a toddler who hadn’t yet learned he could fall. That a fall could shatter you. Bronne would walk to the cradle, pick up the child inside, and hum to it and wish that she could have it back. Then she would drive herself to each task that needed doing, because there was no returning a baby to the belly, no keeping oneself whole when one had been split down the middle.
There was no going back.
Inch by inch, she was becoming one with the winter.
She felt the awareness in the ice when they were still two days from the temple. It crawled into her sleep, and gave her dreams.
The landscape had turned to white, for a time, but now color crept back in unexpectedly. The sky was bright and clear by the light of the distant sun, the cold so bitter that it should have killed her. Perhaps that is what let the thing into her dreams, that bitterness. She could feel it there, restless, wanting. Wanting something sweet to take the sting of the cold away.
Not the cold, she thought, and woke up staring into the dark sky. The stars were like needlepoints. The air cut her lungs. All around, the ice glowed, unearthly. The other women were mostly asleep now. Two lone voices braided together in the eerie darkness.
Bronne sat up and shuffled away from them. They did not follow, though she was sure their shadowed eyes watched her.
The land had narrowed, and their path had brought them close to the sea. It stretched out into the distance, and the pounding heartbeat of the waves throbbed beneath the ice that held her up. It should have been terrifying. She was too numb to be terrified.
She had made a mistake.
Surely her husband no longer loved her. Surely she was growing old, and ill with it, her heart sick with the loss of her beauty, of her youth. Bronne had been tired and lonely and sad. She had cared each day for her children, and each day watched them clamber and whine for a father who would not spare her a glance or touch. All of this was true. Yet, staring over the depthless black of the ocean, Bronne longed to see Leif and Annika again, to run her fingers through their dark hair and smell the scent of them cuddled up against her. The enormity of it struck her, that she would never see them again, and that she would live for the rest of her life in regret of it.
Almost, then, she thought to end it. To throw herself into the sea and be done. She raised her foot to shuffle forward.
The sound of her name jarred her to stillness. It was not the same reaction she would have had in another place, in another time. Already the ice had its hold on her.
Gretta’s girl had followed her out of the camp. She stood, wrapped in furs and shivering. Bronne turned her slow way around to look at her, at her still-pink cheeks. She remembered how Ingrid had looked, this close to the temple. She had been otherworldly, strange, and gaunt and beautiful.
Bronne did not feel beautiful, there at the edge of the bitter black sea. She felt nothing.
“Are you alright?” Ygritte asked.
Bronne found words buried deep in her chest, chipped them free.
“I dreamed of home,” she said. A dream that was more than a dream. Ingrid had not cried when her dreams began to come. Bronne realized now that she could not. Tears seemed an impossibility, or perhaps the ocean and the ice were all the tears that were needed.
“Tell me about it?” Ygritte said, not quite a question. She settled herself on a rock, hunched around herself to keep warm. This far from the singing, the cold must bite and pinch her small frame.
Instead of answering her demand, Bronne said, “Have you ever been in love?”
Ygritte shook her head.
“Love is like the sea,” Bronne said. “It picks you up and moves you where it wants you, and you don’t have much say in that. You might stand against one wave, but not a hundred.”
Bronne turned wide eyes on the horizonless dark. Wind gusted around them, and somewhere in the distance the ice moaned with it.
“I think Alrik was relieved when I left. I was just tired of standing against an ocean.”
Ygritte surprised her.
“I don’t think all love is like that,” she said. “I think -”
Bronne waited, staring at the sea. Ygritte was shivering, still, and Bronne found herself longing to have warmth to share with her.
“When I was little,” Ygritte said at last, “my grandmother became a priestess like you.”
Bronne had forgotten that. She looked at her, but Ygritte had tilted her head back to look at the stars.
“Gran said that she wasn’t sad to be going, because it meant that there could be flowers. She said that’s why we bring flowers with us. I didn’t understand it at the time. I was too little, and when you’re little losing someone is just sad, nothing else. But I think love can be the way the earth holds you up. That’s how Gran’s love was.”
Bronne was silent for a while. The wind wailed and the ocean thrummed, one singing to the other. She remembered the feeling Ygritte spoke of; it was like sunshine in winter. You could see the light, but it did not warm.
“Let’s get you back to the camp,” she said to Ygritte.
For the last days of their journey, she and Ygritte walked together. Ygritte did not sing. The flowers she carried were frosted the way Bronne was: perfectly alive, perfectly frozen. In the sunlight, ice was a tracery on her bloodless skin, yet Ygritte met her eyes unflinching.
At night, Bronne dreamed.
Her dreams were like memories. She walked through them, or was dragged through them by someone else. Awake, she knew that the presence in the dream was the ice itself. What slept there, what she now moved to serve and quiet, no one was sure of. The stories said a lot of things, but it had been a long time sleeping.
“What do you think it is?” Ygritte asked her one evening. Bronne was watching her eat. Her own body no longer hungered, but watching Ygritte brought a sparkle of memories like blown snow—fresh-baked bread and warmth and hard cheese, honey bright like golden sun on the tongue, apples and the smell of fall.
Bronne considered the question, letting the memories fade. She could feel the shape of the presence in the ice, the awareness of it that never quite left her now. Looking at it directly would be like going snowblind.
“I think it’s like the stories say,” Ygritte said when Bronne didn’t respond. “Something large that moved through the sky. Something with scales and teeth that snapped up children.” She shuddered, an exaggerated motion. She was so young.
“I don’t think,” Bronne said slowly, “that it eats people.” She couldn’t say why, exactly, except that the presence did not seem hungry. It seemed lonely instead.
She understood lonely.
As they approached the glacier that held the temple, the landscape became shatteringly beautiful. Ice hung in fluted shapes around them, the wind carving it into massive spires and odd gullies. Bronne felt the beauty move her, despite herself. Light hit the ice and turned it blue, or purple or green. At night, the stars seemed so close that they blurred with brightness, and ripples of green and pink light danced across the face of the sky. Bronne remembered this now from her prior trip, though she had forgotten it. For the first time in days, she felt her heart fill and fly with something like joy. It was almost over. That should have been scary. Instead she felt the freedom that she had been looking for when she started this long trek to her end.
“Are you afraid?” Ygritte asked her that night. Bronne shook her head. The frost in her hair crackled and flaked.
“I don’t think I have any room for fear,” she said.
That night, she dreamed.
Far beneath her, in the heart of the ice, a shape hung, a darker bruise on the cerulean purity of frozen water. Bronne saw it the way she saw herself – from the inside, looking at her fingers, feeling her breath. This body was massive, cool and sinuous with claws like icicles. She was coiled around herself, and, dreamily, she sensed above her tens of small lights, like warm candles. Each carried a rope, and that rope connected to her heart. Memories dropped down these ropes, a web of honey, sticky and sweet. She felt sleep, restless and eternal, miring her. Consumed dreams of the sky, drinking them down as if they might be enough to sustain her soul.
Why? Bronne asked, suddenly angry. Why feed yourself on dreams when you should be able to reach out and grab what you want? She thought of her husband, of his coldness. How all she had wanted, all she had longed for, was a kind word, a touch, the precious sprinklings of love.
The answer came slowly, as if from great depths. A woman, with blonde hair like Ygritte’s, floated up into being. The warmth of her, the desperate love like a fire, the first chain she had wrapped around the neck of the thing below. “So there could be flowers” Ygritte had said, and Bronne heard this woman’s memories, heard the weight of her heart. She was the anchor to the web that stretched behind her, and Bronne looked into those lights and saw dim echoes of faces, all holding the heavy, complicated weight of love.
When she awoke that dawn, the light stained the glacier with purples and magentas. Bronne stood, feeling the slowness of her body, her skin. The air entered her lungs sweetly.
Ygritte did not walk with her today. She sang with the rest as Bronne started out, her blue robes dusted with snow and frost. The quartz at her throat swung with her steps.
Beneath her feet, the heart of ice stirred. In the morning light, the sensation was a sharp prickling on her skin. Would it be so bad if it woke?
She remembered then the face of her distant ancestor, the first priestess. All of her sacrifice, all of the sacrifices of hundreds of other women, depended on her now. It was likely she couldn’t turn back. The cold had her, after all, its magic sunk deep. But the ocean crashed nearby, steel grey. It was a final end. She understood, at last, that this sacrifice would not be.
The heart needed dreams to sustain it, and the dead did not dream.
In the end, it was not the choices of those who had come before her that moved her feet. Nor was it the companionship of those same – she understood now that she would never be alone again, and if it comforted, it was also an irony sharp as a cut. Her children crossed her mind, and her husband, but she had already made the choice to give them her death and found the choice wanting. None of these things brought her to the temple at last.
No, it was Ygritte. As they walked, she reached out her hand and took Bronne’s cold fingers in her warm ones. The touch burned, but Bronne held on.
They came, singing, to the temple.
It was carved all of ice, an impossible blue bell of it that swallowed them without effort. Beneath the thin layer of its canopy, the women of the other villages sang. Their wild voices echoed eerily from the heights. The flowers in their hands glimmered with the vibrant colors of spring. Bronne let the sound wash over her, let it echo and crash inside her, undercut by the ever-present throb of the ocean.
She stood as each woman walked forward to place her flowers on an altar piled high with the offerings of all those gone before. Ygritte was the last to place her offering. She released Bronne’s hand, her own hands shaking as she placed the frozen, beautiful flowers at the top. They were red against the curved columns of indigo, and Bronne felt her heart break at the color. The voices around her fell silent, at last.
Bronne looked at Ygritte, who had never been in love but knew more about it than Bronne had ever thought to.
“I wish you all the joys of spring,” she said. There were tears in Ygritte’s eyes. Bronne smiled.
Then she walked past the altar, and down into the depths below, to meet the thing beneath her feet.