Sometimes we have to deal with a load of shite in this world. We have to break a few skulls and spill some blood to survive. It’s my job to prepare them for the worst—to make sure that they have a chance. But what if that just isn’t good enough? And what if they die just because I didn’t push them hard enough?
Winter has a distinctive scent. It’s the smell of frost-laden leaves, the high cold-clear feel of air that washes down from the Frozen North. It’s the smell of still-green pine and snow that has yet to fall from flat, grey clouds. It’s the smell of icy water and bitter nights. It’s the smell of the Season.
The wind rattled the branches of the trees, howling through the forest as leaves scuttled across the ground. Thorny bushes quivered, their twigs snapping in the cold. A mournful call of a crow echoed, sounding out before the flap of wings beat their way across the air.
Winter had come.
Sydney walked through the forest, boots crunching across fallen leaves as they took her along lesser-known trails. Her breath frosted in front of her, puffing in the freezing air. She needed to be alone—needed the peace that the forest provided. She wasn’t ready to face the others right now—not yet.
Winter was supposed to be the time to turn inward—a time for contemplation and survival. It was supposed to be a time of rest and of endurance. And yet Autumn had been reluctant to let go this Season; it clutched life in its fingers and stole it away. The Reaping had not been kind.
I should have trained him harder.
Sydney paused for a moment as the currents of air stirred her pale hair and ruffled the brim of her hat. She took the opportunity to adjust the shield on her arm, the weight familiar and welcome. After all, it was always best to be prepared when walking alone.
And alone she was .There was only the trees and the silence—only the feel of bitter wind against her skin, turning her face red with the cold. If she closed her eyes, it would be as if she were the only living thing in that place, the only creature that breathed. She felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle as the realization struck her.
No birds called, no animals stirred. She sensed rather than heard it—that feeling of disquiet. Only one thing caused this sort of silence—only one.
Sydney turned slowly, moving her position as she raised her sword. Her eyes darted across the landscape, taking in every movement. She strained her ears as she filtered out the sounds of creaking branches and rustling leaves. All of her senses reached outward, waiting. Then she felt them.
That’s where the blodgers are.
Footsteps shuffled through the woods, a faint noise that probably would have gone unnoticed by others. If she was quiet, she could probably avoid them—allow them to pass unharmed. But she wasn’t about to allow that to happen. There was no sense in letting them get near Hayven when she could deal with them here. Besides, she needed this.
Sydney shifted her weight onto the balls of her feet, ready to move quickly as she turned toward the sound of movement. She breathed out once slowly, then again, preparing herself as the first of them crested the ridge. Now is the time for waiting, for watching. She glanced at her surroundings, noting how a stand of thorn bushes acted as an effective wall, assessing how a few trees might work as a way to funnel her quarry. Now is the time for thinking.
They came in droves. Frost-stiffened hair hung in clumps around blank faces, eyes milky-white in the cold. Their motions were stiff, half frozen as they shuffled toward her. Wounds gaped open on their bodies, congealed blood staining torn clothes. Some of them opened and closed their mouths, the remains of yellow teeth clacking as they reached and grasped with skeletal arms.
Now is the time for movement, for speed. Sydney suddenly burst from her location, muscles pumping as she cut the first of them down. She felt her blade connect with dead sinew, a pressure that lasted only for a moment as metal sliced through the monster’s neck. She turned and felled another—then another. Her blood was pumping now, roaring in her ears as dark liquid spilled on the ground. I will not let another one of my men die. She spun to the left, cutting off another threat as it tried to reach for her. I will not let another one of them fall. She slammed her shield into the face of one, causing it to stumble back with deformed features as she cut through more. I will make them stronger.
More of them came. She backed up, using the trees and thorn bushes to her advantage. Now they could only advance two at a time—their stiff bodies unable to maneuver through the underbrush. Her breathing was coming harshly now, sounding in her ears as it clouded around her face. She kicked one of the monsters in the chest, sending it stumbling over another as she sliced through the torso of a third. Her muscles worked and churned as body after body after body fell before her. They will learn.
Just as suddenly as it began, it was done. The corpses piled on the ground, limbs and bones protruding at grotesque angles as blank faces stared at the winter sky. A few still twitched, their fingers scrabbling against the dead leaves. Sydney closed her eyes for a moment, allowing her breathing to calm and become steady. One less threat.
One less threat for the town of Hayven to worry about. One less threat to those she cared about. Sydney opened her eyes once more as she gained control of her breath. Now for the messy bit. She walked over toward the bodies, raising her sword as she slit the throats of the ones still moving. They gurgled and squealed, their inhuman grunts mingling with the returning sound of birdcalls—with the croak of a crow. Then it was finished; the bodies lay there, dead and stiff in the cold.
The Reaping may have been harsh, but it was now Winter. It was time for preparation and training. It was time to become better and stronger—and she would make sure that they would succeed.
I will remember you, Caleb.