Five

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Time lost all meaning while I sat motionless in the snowdrift, numb to the cold, tears frozen to my face. Presently I became aware of another note on the breeze. Although faint, it was higher and softer than the wind's own breath. At first I dismissed it as yet another ethereal lilt to this uncanny wind, but the sound grew steadily, until I could discern it clearly. Someone was singing. Renewed hope surged through me, rousing me from my stupor.

The moon lighting my way, I crept through the forest as silently as I could, my heavy walking boots leaving deep prints behind me. Above the sweet voice of the singer, my own breathing sounded harsh in my ears. This time, I wasn't going to rush headlong into danger. I only intended to watch from a distance. It could still be a trap, after all. But what if it wasn't? I had to find out for certain.

At last I came to a clearing, and I darted behind the thickest tree. Heart pounding, I peeked out from my hiding place.

The singer was kneeling on the banks of a frozen stream, still continuing that soft melody, in a language I didn't recognise. From the fall of pearlescent hair, I thought she must be an old woman, although her graceful figure suggested otherwise.

She broke off singing, then turned and stared directly at the tree behind which I stood. My stomach clenched. I hadn't made a sound. Had she somehow sensed my presence?

"Your spirit is lost. You cannot find your way home," she called out, her voice soft and childish.

There was no point in further concealment. I breathed in deeply of the sharp, cold air and stepped out from the shadows. She kept her gaze fixed on me as I walked slowly towards her. As I came to a stop in front of her, a slight breeze whipped back her hair, revealing small, dainty features set in a heart-shaped face. A garland of white lilies crowned her head, and a silver band encircled her neck. Her skin was so pale that, coupled with her wispy white dress, she seemed almost translucent in the moonlight. Delicate and ephemeral, she seemed to have no more substance than the wind.

Her pale blue eyes were glazed and empty.

The urge to turn back and run was almost overpowering. But where could I go? I spread my hands out before me to show her I meant no harm. "Hello." It came out as a squeak. I took a breath and tried again. "I'm Frida, what's your name?"

The girl grew agitated, and clasped the teardrop pendant at her throat. "The hawk grows hungry by the hour."

Poor, mad creature. Before I could think about what I was doing, I knelt beside her. "Could you help me please? I need to get home."

She lowered her dark lashes. The tips were white, as if dipped in snow. "He says I mustn't give you my wreath. Would you like to have my wreath?"

"Um, no thank you. It looks very pretty on you."

Her laughter flowed like liquid silver. "No one wants my wreath, yet all must wear it in the end."

Frustrated, I glanced around. I'd lost all sense of direction long ago, and besides, there was nowhere to return to. This girl, touched by madness as she was, was my only hope. I leaned towards her again.

"Can I do anything to help you?" I searched her face, but she remained impassive. "Then, can you help me? Do you know the way home?"

She laughed again; this time the brittle, tinkling sound of icicles shattering. "Blood sacrifice." She spoke so quietly I had to strain to hear her. Wreaths, sacrifices. She was quite clearly mad. I probably should have been afraid, but all I could feel was relief that I was not longer alone.

"Please. I can't stay here. Don't you want to leave, too?" Impulsively, I reached for her hand. A chill that had nothing to do with the cold swept through me. Her hand was colder than ice. My first instinct was to withdraw but the desire not to be rude overrode it.

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