Aging widower Shannon Hart remembered the sound of the crackling of burning logs in the fireplace at home in the middle of a dark, quiet night as he stared across the low, rolling hills, watching fog freeze onto the widely spaced pine trees, a faint, unending dawn resting on the eastern horizon. Three weeks ago, his youngest grandson Drew came up here to perform the solitary winter solstice ceremony at the family’s wilderness wickiup. He was due back late last week but never returned.
The twelve clans all sent volunteers ready to search for him, but Shannon respectfully declined, and as a clan head, it was his prerogative. The secrets of the wickiup had been jealously guarded for untold generations. Even his own clan, the Tromsø, didn’t know what was hidden in the sacred acres owned by the Harts.
The eighty-year-old had been worried, and even tried to dissuade Drew from performing the ritual that the old man normally observed, but the twenty-eight year old had become a father earlier in the month. He claimed the right of a single boon from the clan elder as a birth gift, and Shannon had no choice but to grant it.
Now he was making the pilgrimage anyway, though his breath became shorter and his limbs less sturdy with each passing year, and unfortunately the circumstances were rather dire. There would only be one reason Drew hadn’t returned, since he was too good a woodsman to have gotten lost or been fallen on by predators. She had found him, found a weakness in his praxis that allowed her to enter, and now he was enslaved by the charms of the Frost Giant’s daughter.
Ice crystals hung from his full, gray beard, from his eye lashes and the few tuffs of hair that had escaped his tall, fur shtreimel. His great coat covered him from collar to ankles and that, plus his undercoat, shirt and pants were finely groomed Caribou skin lined with a thin layer of seal fat, all rendered white by the frozen fog that encompassed him. His boots crunched in the snow with each step that brought him closer to the wickiup and the weight of the pack on his shoulders wasn’t nearly as heavy a burden as guilt.
He continued east, looking at the thin line of light on the edge of the world that would get no higher for the next four months. The Giants roamed during the winter darkness, but respected the ancestral lands of the twelve clans, including the Tromsø, all of them that is, except one…her.
The clan elder stopped when he was just over nine meters from the snow and ice shrouded dome of hides, sticks, and pine branches, a distance the length of five grown men. Thick layers of antelope hide covered the wickiup entrance. He knew she heard him approaching, smelled his scent upon the frigid breeze, but there was no indication of anyone inside. As custom dictated, now he had to stand and wait. She would make sure it was long enough for the inactivity to make him feel the cold, even through all of his protection.
He could hear a snow hare scurrying off to his left, but he kept his eyes on the sheets of fur hiding the wickiup opening. It was a matter of respect, which she demanded, and of course, it was her right. The presence of the hare meant that there were no direwolf packs nearby, though if they sensed the Princess, they would avoid the area anyway.
With no passing of the sun, he could only guess at how long he had been standing there. Shannon felt the first signs of numbness at the tips of his fingers and his toes, as well as his nose and cheeks. She was taunting him, daring the elder to break with tradition and call to her. If it were only his life, he would rather freeze, but when he released Drew to make the journey, perform the ceremony, he had also taken a vow to his wife and newborn son that he would allow no harm to come to his grandson.
The skins at the entrance rustled and then a slender feminine arm, as white as the ice on his coverings, reached out and pulled the heavy hides aside as if they were thin gauze.
She stepped out and the hides fell back in place. The title “Giants” was a slight misnomer, since the males were no more than two or so meters tall, while the females, including her Highness, reached heights of no more than a human male.
He knew she couldn’t age, but was still startled at her youthful beauty. A Princess of the Snow Giants, the daughter of their King, was as immune to the cold as the rest of them, so she was nude. The hair on her head was a rich body of ice shards which she wore as a mane, with her glorious eye lashes, and the all but invisible fur on her body, each hair no longer than a mote of dust, all glistening in the half-light. Her eyes and lips were a pale blue, like the shell of a robin’s egg, and when she smiled her perfectly formed teeth were the self-same ice in appearance. Her body was curving and pleasing to the eye, breasts large enough to describe half-globes, but not so bountiful that the world’s gravity could pull at them. Thighs and hips were supple and sensuous, what his own Grandpa used to call “child-bearers.” She was hundreds if not thousands of years old, and yet perpetually looked as a lass of seventeen.
“Shannon. I knew you would come for him.” Her voice was husky and resonant, it was the same vision and voice that still haunted his dreams, though it had been a half century since she had him.
“Eira.” He said her name as if he were speaking a solemn oath or a prayer.
“I haven’t harmed him. In another day, I would have released him.”
“The legends say there are times when you don’t, when you keep what you have taken.”
“It is out of respect for you that I freely give him back. Call to him. He will come.”
“Drew.” He raised his voice to make sure he could be heard inside. “Boy, come out now. It’s time to go home.”
A few moments passed, the antelope covers once more rustled, and then Drew, fully clothed and wearing his own pack, emerged. He cast his gaze down in shame and then up at her, as if unable to break her spell.
“Let him go, Eira.” Shannon’s voice was soft, sounding neither like a plea or a demand.
She raised her left hand and motioned to the boy without looking back. He slowly trudged forward and stopped at her side. The Ice Princess turned and whispered in his ear, the mist of her breath tickling his lobe and the side of his jaw. “You may depart, my love. I shall never forget you.”
The elderly man remembered those words when she spoke them to him coming on fifty years past.
Drew blinked, turned to look at her and then quickly spun away. Shannon knew the fear of losing yourself in the pools of her deep azure eyes to be drowned below a frozen sea forever. The younger man was walking more quickly as he left her behind to join his Grandfather.
“Grandpa, I’m sorry. I made a mistake.” Drew’s back was still to Eira as he grimly confessed.
“Not to worry, boy.” Shannon patted his shoulder with a gloved hand. “Every man’s been young enough to make one. Even me.”
Drew turned to Shannon, their faces almost touching, and he saw a knowing look in the old man’s brown eyes.
“You go on down the trail, Drew. Make it three hundred meters or so, then stop and wait. I’ve got some final words with her.”
“Yes, Grandpa. I’ll wait for you. Thanks. Thanks for coming for me alone.”
“Go on, boy. Get moving.”
The Grandson started walking without a word, and Shannon waited until he could no longer hear the young man’s footsteps before he spoke again.
“Thank you for releasing him to me. Next year, the Great Spirit be willing, I will be back and perform the spell myself. No mistakes next time.” As the words left his mouth, for a moment, he thought he saw sadness in her eyes, but then the moment passed.
“Pity. I so enjoy the young men.”
“How well I know it.” He could feel himself blushing at the memory of those passion-filled nights from across the long decades.
“I am with child.”
He considered several different things he could say in reply, but decided against all of them, and so remained silent.
“She’s a girl. I’m going to have a daughter, Shannon.”
Finally, he risked the question he’d wanted to ask for the past fifty years. “How is my son?”
“He is well. I speak of you to him often. My father dotes on him, of course, and he has become a mighty warrior, a leader of his own troop. It will be my honor to tell him you inquired.”
Eira, normally appearing light-hearted and carefree allowed her expression to take on a more serious tone. “He has your eyes.”
The old man fought back tears at the thought of a son he would never see, one who was part of him but more of the Giants.
“I should never have let the boy come.”
“You feared this occurrence, but why?”
“As I said, I’ve heard tell legends in our clan of men you did not return.”
“Only in ages past, and yes, it is only your clan, isn’t it, the only one among the twelve who can perform the highest solstice ceremony. It is the greatest magic.”
“And it carries the greatest risk.” His tone was angry and bitter.
“Summoning me to mate with the speaker. Yet I returned you to your people, my love. Also your father, and uncle, and eldest son. You all make the, what did Drew call it, ‘mistake’ at least once.”
She began walking toward him, and Shannon took an involuntary step backward. If she meant to catch him, he’d never escape on foot so he stood still.
“What do you mean to do?” At his advanced age, her magics reached him with difficulty, which was why he could look into her eyes without danger, but as she drew closer, he realized age had not made him entirely immune to her charms as she called forth his dormant male energy.
When she was only a foot or so away from him, she stopped, and he didn’t have to look downward to gaze into her eyes as she was the tall man’s height. Full breasts and nipples were frozen erect almost touching his chest, and a strangely warm haze drifted from between bluish, pouting lips.
“I meant what I said those many years ago, my love. I have never forgotten our all too few nights together in the wickiup.” She reached with both hands and took his gloved right one into hers. “Your days among men are few, Shannon. Come with me. You can see your son, and in our realm, you will never pass to the great beyond.”
He tried to pull away, to look back in the direction in which he’d sent Drew, but he felt frozen in time, a time that was half a century gone, and the passion that ran through his ancient veins was that of a young man.
“Yes, I see your passing, dear one. You will not survive to make the pilgrimage next year, and it will fall to your eldest son who I have also known. I promise, if you come with me, I will never return to the wickiup, even if inadvertently called.”
“Why? Why me?
She released his hand and embraced him, and he put his arms around her cool, naked back. “Oh foolish, Shannon. Yes, I call all of my young men “love,” but you were the only one across the centuries of humans who has captured the heart of the Frost Giant’s daughter.”
Eira had been resting her head on his shoulder and neck, but now she lifted it, and sapphire lips brushed his with the gentle caress of a dove.
“But Drew. I told him to wait.” I couldn’t bear him waiting out in the wilderness until forced to return to look for me or for him to freeze in his tracks.
“I have tasked the falcon and the fox to speak with him, telling him to depart. Of course, he’ll come back looking for you, but by the time he arrives, we will both be gone. My message includes your fate along with mine. Once he sees the wickiup is empty, he will return to his home, to his wife and child, and tell the fable of your loss in the great north. No mention will be made of me. The clan’s secret is safe.”
He thought of his newest great-grandson, the daughter-in-law he was still getting to know, the fires in the lodge of the twelve clans, days of rendering his wisdom to those who asked, for he was past the age of hunting and fishing, and nights gathered with the family, drinking ale, eating venison, and bouncing babies on his knee.
“Your life, all that you know is about to come to an end, Shannon,” she urged. “You can go the way of men, or…”
“…or I can go with you.”
“Please.” A single tear descended from her eye and then froze on her cheek.
Eira, the Frost Giant’s daughter, took his left hand in her right and once again faced the wickiup. When she felt him tighten his grip on her, she began to walk forward and he followed. They reached the entrance, and she suddenly stopped and whirled around, looking up at him almost in desperation.
“Know this. Once the threshold is crossed, there is no going back, o’ man.”
He smiled at her. “I’m going to miss my clan, my family, the community, it’s been a rich life and there are still many there I deeply love. But my wife has been gone these past five years, and it’s been lonely without her, even having everyone else.”
“You are ready.” She smiled in glee, waved open the coverings and pulled him inside the wickiup.
Eira spoke the truth, for a few minutes later, Drew came back to the wickiup running as fast as he could in his weighted clothing. But when he entered the shelter, it was dark and empty. He trembled and a sob escaped his lips. Then he remembered what was said by the falcon and the fox and was comforted. Shannon Hart would never know death, and if the totem animals spoke the truth, he would never know age again, returning to a time when he was younger than his grandchildren.
Drew Hart looked around outside the shelter one last time, seeing his Grandfather’s footprints in the snow, which was all that was left of him in the world of men. Then he returned, walking back down the trail with the snow and the ice and the trees standing like silent guardians in the winter mist. He smiled at the thought, as the fox had told him, that his Grandpa would help raise his daughter, the next Ice Princess.
I wrote this for Photo Challenge #244 hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use the image above as the prompt for crafting a poem, short story, or some other creative work.
I used a somewhat different version of the character Eira in a story called “Eira” which I’ve unsuccessfully submitted for publication twice.
A little less than a week ago, I wrote Raquel by Night which also depicted a conversation between an old man who had once been lovers with an immortal woman when he was young, but I wanted this tale to be different.
I named the clan after the city of Tromsø in Norway, which is 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, and doesn’t see daylight from November to January.
A shtreimel is a large, fur hat traditionally worn by married Haredi Jewish men. I thought I’d mix in different cultural elements just for fun. You can find out more about wickiups at Britannica.com.