The cold air burned my nostrils as I inhaled, my chest expanding until my lungs could fill no more. I exhaled a hot blast of air, the steam twirling like smoke from a dragon before rising to join the gray clouds overhead. It was the coldest day of the year. The blizzard from the night prior had left its mark, the tree limbs bowing like meek servants under the weight of the snow.
I clenched my fingers around my sword’s hilt, afraid that if I allowed my grip to loosen it would fall from my gloves. They were thick and it made it hard to feel if I held anything at all. But bare knuckles would ruin me. I promised that I would return home. I had to be careful.
My hood hung low over my eyes and partially blocked my field of vision. I shook my head until it fell away to my shoulders, then looked to the left and right. I had grown up hearing tales of my enemies’ cunning and ruthless nature but never before had I fought them–that duty always belonged to the elders of my family. Strong, smart, and brave, they were what I aspired to be but feared I’d never become. I thought of how I had watched them march to war from my bedroom window year after year with their heads held high. They were born bold. Brave. Fearless. But my steps were cautious. My breathing was quick. My pulse sped the further I walked afield until I could hear my heart beating in my ears and drowning out the snow crunching beneath my heavy boots.
Beyond the field was the enemy’s land. I was almost there. And there was no going back. I could not return a failure to my family. I could not explain to them how I had allowed her to fall into their hands and not saved her. I had to do it. She was counting on me. I was all she had.
My heart beat even faster as I approached the fortress. I craned my head back to take in the gleaming white blocks stacked far beyond what I could climb. The craftsmanship was impenetrable. The only way inside, the only way to save her, was to fight my way to the door.
I swallowed the lump of fear.
It was now or never.
Now or never.
“ATTACK!” came the cry from the fortress and from the snowy hills, from the trees, from the top of the tower, they appeared.
I ran. Not away. Not away. I am not the child they think me as. I could do this. I will do this.
My back foot slipped as I sprung forward, but I caught my balance before I tumbled to the ground. The snow slowed me but it slowed them too. Born of snow and ice though they were, they could not move any quicker through it than I.
I charged the first one as he came for me, his spindly arms outstretched, seeking my throat. My sword cleaved through his chest and he crumbled to the ground.
Immediately behind me was another but I turned on my heel and my sword caught him across the neck. His head fell with a muted thump into the snow.
I turned and saw her from the top of the tower, dangled by her smirking captor. I saw in his dark eyes how he delighted in torturing me. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind. I would never make it in time. She was doomed. I had failed.
‘Not if you’re bold,’ whispered a voice. ‘Not if you’re brave.’
Gritting my teeth, I charged for the tower. Could I run fast enough? Was it possible? I could hear the steps of another chasing me but I didn’t have much time left. Let him try to strike me down! I had to get to her. I had to save her.
Two guards stood before the door, their weapons at the ready. They advanced, charging at me in unison, and I saw my opening.
Flinging my sword, I dove to the ground. The compacted snow had melted and frozen and I slid inside. I heard the impact as my three enemies collided, piercing each other with their own weapons.
My legs pulsed with searing pain as I skidded to a stop and continued to run, leaping up the stairs three at a time to the top.
He turned his head to me. His eyes were like stone; no life reflected in them. His smirk grew as he let go. As she screamed, his laughter filled the air.
I leapt over the edge as she fell, grabbing her close to my chest and spinning in the air. Let me fall on my back! Let my body save her!
I felt the coldness of death sink into my bones as we landed. But I felt her stir atop me. I smiled. She was safe, at least. I had saved her. And then I exhaled my final breath.
“Jenny, get up, you’re going to catch pneumonia lying in the snow like that!” I opened my eyes to see my mother standing over me, her furrowed brows told me she meant business. “Didn’t you hear me calling you 10 minutes ago? C’mon, stand. Now, young lady. You’re going to have to clean up before you can eat your lunch.”
Her warm hands grabbed my elbows as she hoisted me to my feet, then smacked the snow from my coat and trousers. She tutted as she looked at who I held in my arms. “Ms. Bear is going to need a bath as well. She’s soaked.”
We walked across the battlefield together. In my mother’s eyes, the lumps of snow meant little to her. But I saw them for what they were and I told her of the battle I had won. I acknowledged each fallen snowman we passed, for he had fought bravely and a worthy adversary always deserves respect.
“Can I have hot chocolate?” I asked.
And she smiled and ruffled my wet tangle of hair. “I suppose a brave warrior deserves as much.”