Flash Fiction Contest Winner #31 – “The Lost”

Please note: Flash fiction stories are submitted by members of our Discord server. Many contain adult themes and may be objectionable to some readers.

“The Lost”

The warhorse tore through snow and leapt past the gate of spruce and pine. Fresh needles showered down in a cloud of powder as the beast—a stallion silver as the moon—reared. Its rider clung neck and mane.
     Wintley seized the reins.
     The horse planted its hooves, caught him with one wild eye, and flared its nostrils in resignation. Animals were easy. Even beasts bred to kill. Wintley rubbed its nose, waited for the sword to be drawn.
     The rider, all night-clad armor and billowing cape, all grim-faced and twitching with terror, fumbled for his blade. The tip met Wintley’s throat and hesitated.
     “You don’t look like one of those barbarians,” the rider said. Scared as he was, his voice rang hard, commanding. A general, no doubt, dressed in his best for watching blood spill at a distance.
     Wintley glanced at his own armor—shining steel as clean as the morning he’d put it on.
     “Still, you’ve got that northerner blush.” The general sheathed his sword.      “Conscripted, then.”
     No arguing that. Nodding, Wintley said, “If you like, sir.”
     “I ordered them to retreat. Look, you heard it.”
     “I’m sure the rest are making their way.”
     The general winced. “Those others, you mean. Relentless, rabid! They can’t be far behind, so tell me, northerner, how well do you know the area?”
     “I can guide you, sir,” Wintley said.
     A nod of eager approval, and Wintley led the reins. Snowdrifts defined their path, but it was more than that. They glided swiftly along as though by sleigh. Guided by wind, whispers. By the constant sound of tinkling ice, of restless trees in an ever-shifting forest. Shadows flitted in the dark, empty and wandering across paths unseen.
     “Did you see that?” The general shivered, squirming in his saddle. “Nevermind. A nightmare, this whole thing. I’d give six of my seven children to wake up in my bed, heat of the sun on my face. Never should’ve come to this accursed place.”
     Accursed was right. “What’s it like?”
     “The south?”
     “The heat, sir.”
     A snort. “As miserable as the cold. But you get used to it. A man gets used to anything, given time—the sun sweats him, the sea grows him gills. Queen’s sweet embrace, I bet a man’d have to have fire in his blood to survive in this freezing hell.
     Wintley smiled thinly. It wasn’t fire what pumped life into this place.
     “And fear?” came a soft voice.
     The trees opened up, and water rippled in the pond ahead. A sound like a thousand tiny crystals chimed in Wintley’s head, edging him back alongside the horse. It shook its mane, unbothered. Animals were never bothered. But its rider braced himself, frozen by words unsaid as much as said. By her.
     She waded to the bank, her lithe form pale in the starlight. Goddess to those “barbarians” and as old as the first frost, she was the very icy veins of the forest. Its frigid core. One whisper from her and the warhorse bucked, throwing its rider.
     “What—” He crashed into the water.
     You led hundreds to slaughter,” she said. “Then ran like a spooked beast. Even now, while you tuck your head ‘tween my branches, their blood steams the air. Oh, how I welcome your entry, General. How I’ve longed to savor fear such as yours. I will feast for eternity.”
     “Eternity?” He splashed, gasping and sputtering, and found his footing and his sword. “You speak as though I’m dead, witch!”
     “Dead?” She melted into the pond, voice hissing and creaking like the wind through ancient boughs. “No. Death is release.”
     The general stumbled as mist crept up in her place. He turned all around. Screamed as it entered him, filled him in place of his soul, and doomed him to forever wander between snowbanks.
     Wintley watched from beside the passive stallion. That had been him once, swiping at the truth reflected in the waters. A coward, abandoned by the memories of those who had followed him as much as he had abandoned them.
     A final scream pleaded for his help.
     But Wintley was already heading back to the beginning. He knew only one path, and that was to the heart of the forest. Any other way he turned—left, right, a quick spin and a mad dash—always landed him back at the entrance, a threshold of trees he’d crossed only once in shameful retreat and abandonment, to wait for more like him. Those who strayed too far into her domain.
     The fearful, the lost.