The snow was not quite as deep here. Though the trees were bare, they were packed closely together, and there were numerous firs with heavy green branches. She was able to keep pace with the wolf as they continued up and up and up the slope of the mountain.
She did not realize they had reached the Glass Lake until the ground suddenly leveled out. The broad flat space stretched a good three hundred feet in front of them, and nearly as far to either side. On the far shore, she could just see the Cutting Trees, their trunks a ghostly white in the darkness.
Summer’s Grove lay across a meadow and atop a hill, just beyond the Cutting Trees.
They were almost there.
Klya cast a quick glance up. The sliver of moon was at its height. It was near to midnight. They had perhaps seven hours; likely less.
Gritting her jaw, she turned her attention back to the Lake.
It was completely smooth and perfectly mirrored the heavens above. From this distance and angle, she could not see her own reflection; and that was the only reason she even dared to look at it. Only the Lake’s unnatural stillness, its unnatural flatness, revealed that it was not water at all, but true glass.
Perhaps the Lake had been created by the Snow Witch. Perhaps the sun or moon had placed it there to reflect their divine glory. Perhaps it had been created by dragon fire or a malevolent magic.
Whatever its origin, the Glass Lake lay between her and the Witch. And the Red Cloaks of old had found only one way to cross it safely.
“Wolf, can you smell the roses?”
He huffed. “Of course.”
“Can you guide us by scent alone, without your eyes?”
The wolf nodded. “I can. You propose to blind us?”
Klya nodded. “I do.” Setting aside her staff, she pulled her cloak around, hunting for the tear created by the dagger of stone inside the Hag’s Teeth. Pulling it wider with her fingers, she ripped the cloth straight down, tearing off a strip along the left seam. She tore that piece again, creating a small blindfold for herself, and a larger one for the wolf.
He bent his head, stooping as she placed the cloth over his eyes and then tied it in place as best she could.
“Remember: if it comes off, keep your eyes closed. Do not open your eyes.”
The wolf whuffed in understanding.
Tucking her staff under her arm again, Klya closed her eyes and awkwardly tied her own blindfold in place. Her hood pressed against her ears, scratching. Reaching forward and to the side, her hand finally found his thick fur. She dug her fingers into it, feeling the heat of his body.
Klya drew a breath. “One hundred left the sanctuary and entered the Hag’s Teeth. Fifty faced the Glass Lake. Thirty reached the Cutting Teeth. Twenty battled the Snow Witch. Three returned to record it all in the lore book.” She straightened her shoulders. “I was terrified when I found myself alone on the side of the mountain. I carried on with my duty because I had no choice, even though I knew I could not succeed. I have survived what killed so many of the Red Cloaks of old, I have a chance at fulfilling my duty, because I was not alone — because of you. You have my deepest thanks, Suncup. I shall write of you in the lore book.”
His answer was a growly whine. “No doubt you shall record Suncup as my name in this book of yours.”
She almost laughed. “Ready.”
He whuffed again. She felt him move, and stumbled to follow. A few awkward steps, and she had the rhythm. The rocky ground dipped beneath her feet, and then suddenly it was flat. Flat and cold, so cold. She shivered as the temperature plummeted around her.
Klya tightened her fingers in his fur again, and they walked across the Lake.
Klya didn’t know how far they were across the Lake, how close to the shore with the Cutting Trees. One moment, she was standing. The next, her foot slipped and she slammed to the ground, her staff rolling away, arrows rattling in her quiver. She could feel the cold of the glass through her pants. The shock of the impact stunned her and she instinctively opened her eyes.
Her blindfold had shifted. It had dipped below her left eye.
She saw her own reflection. A flash of panic, and then she was caught.
The Red Cloaks of old who had looked into the Lake had never left it. They never moved again. They froze to death, the wind and the rain and the sun eventually wearing away their clothing and their bones to nothing.
The Glass Lake did not lie. It could not lie. It reflected your deepest desire, your truest wish, showing you what you could not admit even to yourself.
Emlia. In the library of the sanctuary, a pile of books at his elbow. Children — their children — played next to the big curving windows, cheeks smudged with ink, knees stained with dirt. Emlia smiled at her, held out his hand to draw her into his lap —
Sharp teeth sank into her arm, biting through her cloak and sleeve.
“You looked! You opened your eyes!”
“I’m sorry!” She scrambled for the blindfold, trying to ignore the pain in her arm.
“After reminding me not to look —”
He snorted, the sound filled with annoyance.
The scrap of cloth back in place, Klya reached out. Her teeth were chattering. The Lake was so cold.
Finally, her fingers found his pelt again.
Her staff? Where was her staff?
It was nowhere within reach, and they did not have time for her to keep looking for it.
He dragged herself back to her feet. She could hear him sniffing, and then they were moving again, one careful step after the other.
She felt the grunch of gravel beneath her boots. She could still feel the sand from the Hag’s Teeth, scraping at the skin between her toes. Her feet must be raw by now.
“We have arrived, Red Cloak. Do not move further until you have removed the blindfolds.”
Klya gratefully peeled the cloth off her head. Sweat cooled against her skin, and her hair was damp beneath her hood. As she turned to remove the wolf’s blindfold, she remained carefully standing with her back to the Glass Lake.
She would not lose herself now. They were so close.
The Cutting Trees stood before them. Pure white, they shimmered even in the little light cast by the crescent moon. Bare of leaves, their branches draped towards the ground like ghostly willow trees; the branches darkened near the ends, the tips hard and razor sharp.
Maybe this was the natural form of these trees. Maybe they had been perverted by foul magic, or were the creation of a demented God. None of that mattered. All that mattered was that every branch of every tree ended in a metallic barb sharper than any axe — and they did not like intruders.
Klya looked up, searching for the moon. “We have four hours, perhaps less.”
“We will move more quickly and cause less disturbance to the trees if you ride me again.”
“Not planning to run, are you?”
His ears twitched in an expression she took to mean no. “We shall move as the tortoise.”
“Not the hare?”
The wolf blinked yellow eyes at her.
“Another story recorded in our lore book. When this is all over, I shall tell you the tale.”
Securing her pouch against her belly and her quiver across her back, Klya climbed astride the wolf. Lying flat, she gripped his thick fur, angling her head so that she could see around his bulk.
The wolf stepped cautiously forward, moving across the narrow stretch of gravel that separated the Glass Lake from the Cutting Trees. His ears flicked and his nose twitched. And then they were among the trees. He slipped between the trunks, carefully scooting around the trailing branches.
The wind gusted suddenly, carrying the sharp sting of ice and the sweet scent of roses.
Branches lifted and fell all around them, moving with the wind. One branch brushed her leg. The entire tree seemed to groan. Its branches snapped, stretched, flashing down.
The wolf leapt to the side, and stilled.
The branches hit the ground, hacking at the dirt, and then slowly retracted. The wind stilled and the tree calmed, sharp branches falling back into place.
“The Snow Witch,” Klya whispered. “She is beginning to stir.”
The wolf’s growl rumbled up through her body. “My kin and the foxes and the bears will not be enough to stop her.” He shook his head. “I fear that she is already too strong.”
“But she still sleeps. And there are others who still stand guard: my kin still watch her.”
He snorted. “They are only seven.”
“Seven Red Cloaks.” Klya tugged one of his ears. “Onward, tortoise.”
The wolf huffed and inched forward, sidling around another tree. Then a second and a third.
The wind gusted again. Branches lifted and fell. One brushed her shoulder — and then swung high and down, hard, slicing through her sleeve, cutting a bloody line down her arm.
Klya grit her teeth, headache forgotten as pain radiated up and down her limb.
More branches sliced towards them. The wolf nimbly skirted away, leaving the sharp metallic wood to hack at the soil.
“Don’t stop.” Klya tore another strip of cloth and wrapped it tight around her bleeding arm.
On they went, around one tree and then another. Perhaps a third. Then the wind would gust again, agitating the trees. A few times, they managed to avoid the branches. Usually, not. They sliced and cut at Klya, tearing at her cloak and hood, nipping off bits of her hair. They slashed her left cheek, pierced her right hand, slit her left thigh, whipped across her back. They cut the quiver loose and it tumbled to the ground. Half her cloak ripped away, fluttering off with the wind.
The wolf’s fur was red with her blood.
“Don’t stop,” she said.
A branch sliced down through her ear. Another nearly took her right eye. Another cut through her boot.
“Don’t stop,” she whispered.
They stopped. She fell. She was on the ground, looking up at the sky.
“Red Cloak. Red Cloak!” A rough tongue swiped across her cheek. “You must stand! Get up! “
How much of that blood was his? How much was hers? It was impossible to tell the difference.
“Red Cloak, we must still cross the meadow and ascend the hill. I cannot enter Summer’s Grove. Only you can keep the Witch from waking. Stand!”
She pushed at the ground, but her hands slipped. Her feet slipped. She couldn’t see straight.
Was the sky getting brighter?
“Red Cloak, I ask that you trust me. Do you hear me?”
She might have answered.
She squinted, trying to see, but only one eyes seemed to be working.
The wolf loomed over her, getting closer, getting bigger. He opened his mouth. His jaws gaped wide.
His teeth looked very sharp.
He swallowed her whole.
[End Part Four. Continue to the conclusion in Part Five.]