Six

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I do not know how far, or how long I walked on that road of eternal winter. I'd pulled aside the veil separating the realms, and finally, here was that other world I'd so stupidly, so naïvely longed for. The fog was so dense it was impossible to see the horizon. Unfamiliar stars were scattered across a charcoal sky, and since there was no path of any kind, the light dusting of snow on the ground became the only thing to show the way. A world drenched in grey, so different to the frost maiden's realm I'd left behind.

All I could do was keep moving forward. The shadows that I'd caught glimpses of earlier began to take form. Things loomed out of the mist, some wearing only vaguely human shapes. People with deformed arms, another with clawed fingers, one with a pig's snout instead of a nose, they appeared on either side and kept pace with me. My heart was beating so fast it hurt. I began to pray in earnest then, sending up a silent prayer to Saint Adalbard, Lady Ragnbörg, and anyone else who might be listening. Anyone else benign, I hurriedly amended. My last serious attempt at prayer could hardly be considered a success, considering it was the Winter King who had responded.

A creature with skin like tree bark plucked at my sleeve. I shrank from his touch and quickened my pace. My prayers had only made things worse. It wasn't surprising. I'd never bothered to call upon them before, so why should they help me now?

The wind, sharp and keen, bit into me, almost causing me to lose my balance. Thoughts of my parents kept me going. I couldn't accept what the Winter King had said. They had to still be alive. I told myself over and over I would see them again. I wanted Mama so desperately, to feel her hands, rough from hard work, warm in my own. And Father, too, with his all-encompassing hugs and ready laughter.

Neither parent had ever mentioned belief in a place like this, but Parny had spoken of a realm inhabited by souls with regrets so numerous, they were unable to move on. Some amongst those souls would never be granted a key to the gate of eternal rest, and were doomed to walk this road for all time. I peered into the ranks of creatures, trying to see if there were any other travellers like me along this lonely road.

Out of the mist, a familiar, broad figure took shape up ahead. My heart thudded. Father? Then Mama must be here too! I had to catch up with him. He kept on, and I was afraid I'd lose sight of him. Couldn't he hear my pounding footsteps? Why wasn't he turning around? At last, I got close enough to touch. My fingertips brushed his sleeve.

"Father!"

He slowly turned and faced me and grinned, a hideous mockery of my father's loving smile.

"Help me, daughter," he said, in Father's voice.

"No," I whispered, backing away. How could I have been so stupid? The frost maiden had warned me to remain silent.

"Horrid child," one of the spectres hissed.

"Ungrateful girl," another added, seizing my arm. It was the creature with tree bark skin who'd tried to grab me earlier.

I jerked away from her but another reached for me. If only I could return to where I'd found the frost maiden, but there was no path, no way to know how to get there. Right after I'd passed through the gap between the trees, I'd looked back and seen only the grey fog surrounding me on all sides. Putting out my hand, I'd met with nothingness.

There was no one behind me now. The creatures were gathered around me on both sides and in front of me. My only chance was to run, before they realised what I was about to do. Pivoting, I darted away until I was a safer distance from them.

With the one wearing my father's form in the lead, the creatures moved towards me.

"Get out of my way." I cast about for a rock or a stick, but there was nothing in this barren land but snow and ice.

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