He was a hunter in a harsh season. His name was Rom.
His people lived in the lowlands, near the sea, but the fishing had been poor this year, poorer than the last. The fish were so few, and many of them caught deformed. A strong man could live on fish alone and not get sick, but not the children, not women heavy with child, not the old. So Rom had set out to his old hunting grounds to trap and kill the beasts his forefathers had left him.
Last year he had been everyone’s favourite. He had come home with four sticks strung with rats and squirrels and rabbits. This year the cold had come early – the first snows seemed only a moon after midsummer, and he could count the days he had seen the sun on his fingers and toes. Today, the sky was closed with white cloud, and sky-dust was blowing on a wind that tasted sour and salt on his tongue.
This year he had set his traps but the beasts did not come. The cold had driven them further afield, or else they remembered Rom and his snares, and their dead relatives, and avoided him.
He knew the legends: how great magicians of an elder age had raised up the beasts and given them thought and speech, and how that had angered God, who had brought the winter to make an end of all the sinners in the world.
Rom wondered sometimes if he was a sinner, and how many sinners were left, for the winters were no less fierce than in his childhood. If anything they were worse.
Rom could not know that the pale masses of dust which still clogged the upper air had thrown back so much of the sun’s heat that his world was gripped between two hands of ice, north and south. Every summer they relaxed their grip, those hands, but each winter those fingers stretched out, further than the year before. All Rom knew was that the winters grew worse by little increments, and the hunting sparser, and life grew harder.
He had been forced to go further afield, each day’s travel a burden on him as the way back lengthened. Now he had come uphill to the broken stone land in the hope that the shelter of the place would have brought in perhaps cats or foxes or even swine, big game to make the journey worthwhile.
But the snows were closing on him, numbing his fingers and nose and ears even though he wrapped his cloaks about him, each one a patchwork of tiny pelts.
The broken stone land was ahead of him, as far as the snow let him see: some great towers still stood, reaching high enough to prop the clouds up. Many more had fallen, making the place a maze of shattered stone. There were riches there, they said, but it was haunted by terrible spirits and there were other tribes, too, jealous of what they had. And surely, if that was the case, the hunting would be no better there. But Rom was desperate.
He had heard that a great guardian had once stood before the Stone Place, warding off any who sought to claim its riches. Now he saw the truth of it, though she had fallen long before, her gigantic stone body strewn in sections down the slope from the broken stump of her feet. She had stood tall and robed and crowned, said the stories, and he believed them, seeing her now. She had held one hand high, bearing a sword to smite those who might trespass in the broken stone land.
Rom’s feet dragged: he could not feel them through the chill. Even his own weariness was just a distant drumbeat, slower and slower. If he did not find shelter soon, he would be simply one more hunter who walked out into the world and never returned, and his people would speak his name a few more times, and forget him.
The furthest-flung pieces of the guardian were ahead of him, stone wreckage looming high, half-smothered with snow. He could see the wind-shadow they cast, though, and forced his senseless legs onwards, step after step, even as the gusts blew fiercer and swifter, a blizzard building in the eternally white sky.
He saw the outflung arm, now in pieces but still reaching out towards him. She had been bearing something aloft, but amongst the fragments of her splendour he saw no shattered sword blade or spear haft. Whatever it was she had been holding, he could not make it out.
As his stumbling progress brought him closer, his mind drifted. He saw her, in his head: a beautiful tall woman standing defiantly, daring any to challenge her. In his mind she was not placed to warn away travellers, but to challenge the winter itself: standing firm against the wind and snow, and in her hand, a flame.
He collapsed at last, but he was in the shadow of the stone. With clumsy, unfeeling hands he got out his sticks and tinder, and lit his fragile fire in the shelter of a broken stone torch.