Brom’s left foot was cold. In truth his entire body was cold, but his left foot was also wet, so it stood out as especially uncomfortable. His mind had little else to do but ruminate on the irony of having a leaky boot as he trudged beside his ox, carrying a wagon load of shoe leather through the winter forest.
Under better conditions, on better roads, he might perch himself on the cart and ride along on the ox’s strength. Of course, that was least advisable when it would be most welcome. This road, hardly worthy of the name, wound around the side of the mountain with a wall of rock on one side and a steep and perilous descent into bare trees and rocks on the other. It was bad enough in the summer when holes, rocks, and roots alternated with impassible mud. Now, in the heart of winter, a bed of snow obscured and enhanced the risks, alternating only with sheets of ice. There was no chance Brom could rest his feet at least until he reached the relative safety of the wide, well traveled road that led into Troutbeck.
It was only mid afternoon but already the sky had a faint yellow tint that hinted at the coming sunset. Clouds covered the sky and he couldn’t tell exactly where the sun was. He guessed he probably had about two more hours of usable light. Enough, he thought, but not a comfortable margin. He forced himself to push a bit harder.
Perhaps it was the cold of his foot, or his study of the sky, but Brom didn’t see this sheet of ice. Suddenly, without warning, he was slammed in the back by the sliding cart. It threw him backwards off the side of the road and he, the cart, and the ox all tumbled uncontrollably over rocks and branches and bushes, past tree trunks, over snow and ice, into darkness.
When Brom woke he was warm. The cart had spilled its sacks of leather over and about him, but that wasn’t all. This wasn’t the winter warmth of blankets or coats or a fleeting fire. It was an encompassing, stable warmth of summer.
He opened his eyes and it took some time to remember where he was. But where was he really? He looked up at the hill he must have fallen down, but it was not covered in snow, not shrouded in clouds on a short winter day. It was dry and green, and bushes and trees flourished with leaves waving in the mild breeze.
Brom didn’t understand how it could be warm down there, but he had heard old Ned speak of the hot springs he’d traveled to in his youth, and he was mostly concerned with recovering his wagon. His ox was nowhere to be seen. Glancing up the hill he’d just tumbled down. he decided to look for a more suitable path back to the road. A thin trail weaved through the trees and he started following it.
As the woods grew increasingly thick and tangled with vines, Brom started to catch wisps of music. Faint and barely perceptible bits of song on the wind. Though he could hardly hear it, Brom was compelled to follow the music. The singers could perhaps help, and at the very least they would know the terrain and would be able to advise him on the best plan for recovering his wagon and returning to the road.
Suddenly wolves began to materialize from the brush. They formed a solid wall of teeth, fur, claw, and muscle around him. Brom had no weapons, no possible way to fight off even a single wolf. He felt faint as he braced for the biting attack that would soon tear him apart.
But the bite didn’t come. Instead he saw a blur of motion from the trees and the wolves turned from him to confront their new threat. Sounds of battle rose in the wood. Snarling and shrieking; the thud of arrows finding their mark; the roar of blazing torch waved in the wind; the vicious tear of spear and blade through fur and flesh; snarling, barking, whimpering; the rustle of scurried retreat back into the bush.
Dead and dying wolves lay all around Brom. He was shaking with fear as the figure walked past the wolves towards him. He struggled to speak without wavering his voice, and almost managed it.
“The wolves. You saved me…” he said. The figure continued to advance slowly, gracefully, but said nothing.
“Who are you?” Brom asked.
The figure was dressed entirely in dark green with a face in shadow. It stood only feet away now, but the reply came from behind Brom.
“Who are you?” said the figure.
Brom turned to face the speaker and saw a mirror image of the dark figure. His gaze darted back to the original figure. He couldn’t manage to keep both figures in his line of sight at once. Whichever way he turned, they seemed arranged to show only one in his range of vision at a time. Sometimes he managed to catch the fleeting glimpse of one in motion at the corner of his eye, but when he rounded on it stood as solid as a statue.
“I am Brom…,” he said, trying to direct his answer in every direction at once. “How many of you are there? Two, three, ten?”
“How many of you are there?” came the answer.
“Just me,” Brom replied, “I have no weapons, I don’t mean to trespass on whatever land this is.” He paused a moment, but no reply came from whatever figure he turned to. He was verging on dizziness trying to follow the figures, although they didn’t seem to be moving, he felt he couldn’t moving his gaze between them.
“My cart fell down from the mountain road. I just need help recovering it…” Brom paused again, then said, “or directions back to town.”
Brom’s vision blurred as if he were looking cross-eyed and a multitude of figures seemed to converge on the single figure standing before him. He was overtaken by dizziness and fell to his back. A gust of cold wind broke through the trees behind the figure, throwing leaves and sand into a thick cloud.
When Brom recovered his vision he was alone. The leaves in the air were orange and lit by an autumnal sun. He stood and looked all around. The trees seemed to have aged months in that moment with leaves bursting into vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows. Dry leaves blew in the wind and the ground was quickly covering with fallen leaves.
Brom turned on the path and started to run for the ruins of his wagon. The trees grew bare and the air grew colder and colder. The day’s light faded from autumn’s sunset to winter’s night. The air grew thick with snow and between the fallen leaves and the snow, the trail was gone.
Brom wandered for hours. Both feet were wet; both legs too. Everywhere was cold. He called out in desperation for help, but there was no sound. No movement, no figures, no wolves, no song. Just the crunching of leaves, and the trudging sound of ever more snow.
The snow was past his ankles when he finally stumbled upon his wagon. Overcome with relief, he took shelter under the overturned wagon. He walled himself in with bags of leather to hold out the cold.
Late the next morning, Brom woke among the wreckage of his supplies. Hardly believing he’d survived the night, he crawled his way back up the hill to the road. It took much of the day to walk back to town in his weakened state, but with help the remains of his wagon and supplies were eventually recovered.
Brom never forgot the music he briefly heard in that summer wood. Not on that day or any that followed in the rest of his long life. As the years passed, he spent many lonely days searching the woods around the site of his accident, but never again felt the warmth of summer in the heart of the winter forest, and never caught another wisp of that sweet, distant music