I remember white snow seeming to glow on dark, foreboding mountain peaks, the bitter wind sluicing down the hills, through the canyons.
We’d been defeated, the Oracle and me the only survivors of the butchery, now looking at the leavings of a human slaughterhouse, an abattoir of ill will and hostility, laid to rest.
Deandra, my wife, was the last, slain as she ran to my side; I was now a widower.
The tears were frozen on my face, and I saw the Oracle from the corner of my eye pulling her fur-lined hood tighter, watching me with tired, impatient eyes. She would leave, she said, in the morning, but would see me through this; we’d travel together through the dangerous parts, then go our separate ways.
Deandra was stiff now, with death as well as the external cold. This time, she would not hug me for warmth, or embrace me under our blankets, or tease me with her smiles as she held my cup of ale, turning her back to me as I reached for it.
“I can no longer warm you, Deandra. Not in the ways we knew.”
I set her on the prickling pyre: the last of the village firewood, the last of the kindling, the logs, the hay, then folded her hands across her stomach, stepping back to take a last look.
A blast of wind threw glittery ice in my eyes, and I had to turn away for a moment.
“Light it, please,” the Oracle implored. “I know you loved her, but we risk death ourselves when the light goes.”
I bristled, but she was right; even here, perhaps especially here, there was an urgency in the hunting of the nocturnal creatures.
Wind battered the flame as I approached the pyre. It had blown strands of her dark hair loose; they danced with abandon as the witches and fae creatures did when they thought no one was watching. There was enough fire left, though, that it did catch the wood, which began to crackle as the flame worked its way among the branches.
The gloom of night descended as the flames rose high, and the smell of burning flesh began to permeate the air. I stepped away, and watched the Oracle watching the fire. We just gazed at the flame for a while. I wiped the tears from my eyes, blaming it on the smoke.
In a few moments, the Oracle literally hissed air between her teeth, and pointed at the fire.
“Do you see her?”
“She’s there,” the Oracle put warm hands on my cheek, guiding my gaze. “She’s crying.”
“Crying? Crying? But how?”
“Go ask her.” She gave me a gentle shove
Something was present there, but it was in shadow, as if the fire lit an aura from the inside, a lantern with frosted glass. As I neared, Deandra’s spirit took her face from her hands, saw me, and came toward me. I couldn’t tell if she walked or drifted.
She’s not real; she’s still burning, there in the pyre.
I reached out to put my hands on her shoulders, but they passed through her, and got even colder.
It hurts, my love. The fire hurts.
“Deandra? That makes no…It can’t…You’re…”
It HURTS! There was a slight echo from her ethereal shout. Was there no other way?
I flinched at the pain in her voice. “I…I’m sorry for that.”
It’s not your fault, I know, but it hurts all the same.
“What do you want me to say?”
She reached up, and I felt her cold palm touch my cheek, hoarfrost spreading across my beard. It’s all been said.
“Then what do you want me to do?
She gave me a sad smile. Come with me.
“You know I can’t.
The smile went away, and she opened her arms to embrace me. I know you haven’t tried.
“I don’t want to die.”
Her spirit stared at me as the smell of burning hair and flesh wafted toward me.
I looked away, turned to see the Oracle’s dark-clad back retreating.
“I have to go, Deandra. We need to seek shelter; it’s getting dark.” I turned to go, not bothering to call out for the Oracle to wait; with the wind and the distance she wouldn’t hear me.
Deandra nodded once. I have seen your future, my love.
“Do I want to know?”
The pyre flared as the wind picked up, and I turned away from it to shield my eyes and keep what remnant of warmth remained.
I saw a preternatural tear gleam in the firelight as she shook her head, her eyes downcast, her translucent image fading with the last of the light as a distant wolf’s howl heralded the rising moon.
I followed the oracle into the trees, into my unknown, lonely future.