What Fools These Immortals Be
I’d only glamoured him so I could get a better look, maybe ask a few questions, but when I looked back the man was dead. It hadn’t been long, barely enough time to watch a flower grow.
“I told you not to do it.” Nisse shifted uneasily from foot to foot, tiny hands kneading the fabric of her magic cap.
I stepped from my cave to kneel beside the man. He’d gone all gaunt and gray. His wide, glamoured grin made his cheekbones look like sticks pressed through silk. He was the first man I’d ever seen. “Why is he dead?”
“Died of thirst, I reckon,” Nisse said.
“Why would a mortal be so far up the mountain?”
Nisse shrugged. “Probably looking for your hoard. You should call the wolves. Get this cleaned up before they come searching.”
She shivered as my shadow fell across her. “This man’s family – he has a wife, maybe a child.”
“There are more around?”
“A whole village in the valley — with torches and scythes and iron axes that bite and burn.” She drew herself in.
I lifted the man’s hand, then let it drop. “Why would they care?”
Nisse looked sideways at me. “They take note when one of them dies.”
“They also die?”
Nisse winced. “They all do.”
I’d seen death before — little creatures frozen in their burrows, wind-scattered bones, barren pine branches. I never thought that it might spread like cracks across an icy pond.
“Listen, if you’re feeling bad about this, leave some gold outside the wife’s door.”
My scowl spun frost through her dark hair. “I want to see her. Explain.”
“Yes, go for a nice visit to where my people have sprung from, where’s there’s dirt and green, warm, sunny things. You’ll learn more about mortals than you’d ever care to know.”
My people were of stone, and pine, and icy winds. We seldom ventured below the snow line, and it was already late spring. I called up some snow to help me consider the situation, then swept back into my cave.
Nisse ducked beneath the overhang and watched the thick flakes fall. “Good idea — they’ll never find him in this storm.”
“Where is this wife and child?”
Nisse cupped her hands and blew on them. “Down the mountain, past the stands of khnor and brown oak, where the ground just starts to turn stony, in a little cabin with red painted windows.”
I gathered the snow around me and swept off.
“You forgot the gold!” She called after me, then put on her magic cap and became a holly bush.
I thought she would be prettier. In the stories, they always are.
But she was short and thick-limbed, her cheeks windburned, her hands strong and lined as old stone. She wore a heavy coat and shawl that might have once been red but was faded to the same rusty brown as her skin.
Nisse had said she would be searching for her husband. Stooped over weeds in a field of millet, she’d made a very poor job of choosing where to look.
I’d ridden a storm down from the snowline, cloaked in swirls of wind-driven ice.
She straightened, squinting into the icy gale. For a moment, I thought she’d seen me, but she only shook her head and hurried to the house, slamming the door behind her.
I went whistling around the house, but the shutters were barred and gaps in the slats were packed with sod. Snow fell thickly as I searched for a way in, trees bowing beneath the icy weight, the ground turning hard and cold. Drifts piled up across the fields, millet already wilting. At last, I found a knothole in one of the lintel boards just above the window, not big enough to slip through, but enough to take a peek.
She was sitting next to the embers of a dying fire, hands bunched in the fabric of her shawl as she muttered to herself. I had to send the wind away before I could hear her words — low and angry, hissed between gritted teeth. Her curses were for the storm, the unseasonable cold, the dying crops.
Her curses were for me.
I surveyed the herd. “I think that’s enough.”
“That’s half the mountain’s worth,” the holly bush said.
“She’ll be pleased to get so many goats.”
“They’re wild animals.”
“More milk than they could ever drink.” I said, quite proud of myself.
“Gold. Outside her door.”
I silenced Nisse, sending an icy gust her way with an irritated flick of my fingers. “You can’t drink gold.” I set a wind to hurry the goats down the mountain. They took off with a rather loud rumble, scattering rocks as they rushed off.
This time, I knew better than to bring a storm, but when I slipped down an icy breeze to check on the woman, I found her house in shambles, stampeded and half-buried in a rocky landslide. Holes had been kicked in her walls, chairs trampled, pots and dishes dashed to the ground. Goats milled through the fields, chewing on what was left of the millet.
Although the cabin was empty, sounds of crying drew me to a little stone smokehouse nestled against the hill. There were wild dogs scrabbling at the door, but they scattered at my approach. I slipped inside through a smoke hole in the sod roof, careful not to let my frost creep down the walls. The inside was dim, the air thick with smoke and animals smells.
The woman held a squalling bundle of rags. She bounced it on her hip, biting her lip, looking as if she wanted to scream. The boy was ugly and red-faced, eyes slitted, mouth wide as a mountain cave. Not a good child at all. She deserved a better one.
So I took him.
I laid a glamour on them both and spirited the child up to my cave, fashioning him a bed of feathers and soft pine boughs. He would need to eat and drink, eventually, so I set a late frost to wake Nisse. She would know what to do.
Reasonably sure the child wouldn’t die, I set to work cutting flint from the walls, knapping it with my fingers into light, strong bones. From my distant kin the pines I coaxed thick, gummy sap to weave my boy’s tendons and sinew. Around it all, I packed the softest snow, filling his veins with pure meltwater and spinning hair from frost. I made my boy’s face kind and loyal, the type of child who would comfort his mother rather than add to her misery. For his heart I used purest gold, for his eyes I set diamonds. A breath of mountain wind and he stood, tall and beautiful, his laughter like morning birdsong.
Mindful of the time, I hurried back down and slipped my boy into his new mother’s arms, dispelling my glamour with a wink and a snap, then darting away before she could fully wake.
“She’s out on the far cliff, calling for her son.” Nisse shifted the child, who’d just fallen asleep after devouring a surprising amount of goat milk and honey. I had to admit, he was almost pleasant when he wasn’t crying.
Nisse shrugged “Probably wants him back. And a sack of gold.”
“Why would she want him?”
“Mortals.” She planted a quick kiss on the boy’s cheek. “They get attached to things.”
“She’ll give up soon, once she realizes my boy is better.”
“Oh, he is,” Nisse said in a high singsong, as if to the child. “Your boy is leading her right here.”
I shook my head. I had made him loyal. I looked down at the sleeping mortal child, now my responsibility. None of this would’ve happened if the man hadn’t died. I hadn’t meant for him to die.
I snapped my fingers as the solution came to me. “Nisse, give me your cap.”
They had camped close by. She was tending a small fire when I stepped into the clearing.
I spread my arms wide, smiling, wearing the form of the man I hadn’t meant to kill. “Wife, I have returned.” I stood across the fire from her, infernally hot though it was.
She picked up a burning branch, glancing up at me. “Have you now?”
She touched the branch to the ground. Flames whipped hissing around us along an oily circle. I turned to flee, but there was powdered iron in the fire, sending jolts like lightning through me when I approached.
“See, Mother.” My boy capered lightly, clapping his hands. “I told you we could catch him.”
“Wife, I don’t underst–“
Swiftly she knelt and hammered two iron nails through my feet.
Fire filled me, hot as the mountain’s secret heart. I screamed for the wind to carry me free, the stone to crack and swallow me whole, the pines to lean in and beat the flames from my breast — but my voice came out a small, pitiful thing, pinned like my feet. I’d tried to stop the cracks of death from spreading, instead they were heading straight for me.
“You’re not Araq,” she said after I’d stopped screaming. “You’re the mountain spirit that’s been tormenting me.”
“Tormenting? No, I–“
“Take off your cap.”
The woman took a step back as my cold, glistening form took shape. She took a slow breath. “Return my son.”
“If you want the creature, Nisse will bring him. But let me explain.”
She glanced at her ice son. “Is this a trick?”
He shook his head.
“Go on then, but be quick about it.”
So I was.
When I was done, she snorted, then chuckled, the edges of her lips curling up into a full-throated laugh. At last, she sat down, wiping tears from her eyes. “You should’ve stopped at Araq – you did the world a favor killing that one. A mean drunk, and mostly drunk, smashed things, smashed me harder. Never a day of work, always out for easy money. That’s what brought him up here.”
I could only stare. But she looked past me, standing quickly, her hands going to her breast.
“Here’s your boy, safe and sound,” Nisse called brightly. The fire was now little more than embers, but the iron kept her back. She gingerly nudged the boy across the circle. His mother swept him up in a hug, kissing him on the cheeks and forehead and spinning him around.
It was so wonderful to watch I almost forgot the nails through my feet.
After some time, she set her child down, then held her hand out to the ice boy, glancing at me. “He’s been a great help, and… well–“
“Thank you. Now, my feet…”
“He’s been loyal and loving.”
“I made him that way. Now, about these nails…”
“I’d like him to stay with us.”
“Of course. I made him for you. If you don’t mind, the pain… “
“I have your word you won’t trouble us again, spirit?!”
“Yes, absolutely, you have it!”
She looked at her ice boy, who nodded again and smiled. “Well, then.” She pulled the nails out, then took both boys’ hands and turned to head back down the mountain.
“Wait!” Nisse called out.
The woman looked back, frowning.
I hid my feet in the snow, just in case.
Nisse nodded toward my cave, then cleared her throat. “You know what else would help them?”
I cocked my head, puzzled. She mimed carrying a heavy bag.
“Oh, yes, of course.” I hobbled off and returned with a sack of gold. “For your troubles.”
The woman gasped. Her smile was shy, but the way it lit her eyes made my cheeks hot. “Thank you. And if you ever miss your boy, you can come visit. Just don’t bring blizzards. Or goats. And don’t look like…” She frowned at the cap.
After they’d disappeared down through the pines Nisse turned to me with a smile. “I think that went quite well.”
I handed her back her cap and gazed at the holes in my feet. “That was ‘quite well’?”
“Oh, yes. There wasn’t even a mob.” She brushed some ice off her hat, then squinted up at me. “Are you actually going to visit them?”
“Perhaps.” I limped back to my cave, feet burning but with a strange lightness in my chest. “First though I want to watch some flowers grow.”
“What Fools These Immortals Be” © Evan Dicken
By day, Evan Dicken studies old Japanese maps and crunches data for all manner of fascinating medical experiments at the Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of these things. His fiction has most recently appeared in: Analog, Escape Pod, and Flash Fiction Online, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Chaosium. Feel free to look him up at: evandicken.com.
“Ice Spirit” illustration © Fran Eisemann, Stock used: YsaeddaStock (2).and YsaeddaStock (6) from Mountains pack 5. by Julia, UK; “Basalt beach cave“, by Nicolas Raymond, US photographer; “ice and frost texture“, by Emilie Léger, Canada; ‘water 08“, by Taeliac, Japan. Photo references: “isbrenna“, by Jens Beckstrøm, Norway; “wither”, by Abbey Marie Esparza.
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