The clock struck midnight. It rang flat in the darkened cottage. Tired, arhythmic. Shockingly loud in the still night.
On the fourth strike, something stirred. In a nest of woolens, curled close to the dark and fireless hearth, Leif lurched aright. Eyes yet shut, he listened for the twelfth strike.
It came, soft and weak. Barely a dying knock of hammer against bell. There was a slither as the chain wound out, clunked its weight to the long case's bottom. The pendulum slowed, quit, ceased its ticking. All was again still, silent.
Leif rolled upright, staggered, clutched for his woolen cloak. He fumbled the clasp, pulled it snug round shoulders mounded with coat and scarves. With shaking, gloved hands, he pulled one scarf over red cheeks. White breath slipped through the knit, shon dully in moonlight cast through the cottage door's small, snow-caked window.
He tottered to the door. Neath the window panes bleeding frigid light, a horseshoe had been nailed. Leif touched the iron, breathed long, then, with his other hand, gripped the door's bolt. He withdrew it slow from the jamb. Hinges scraped. Lief drew them open, gasped at the cold.
Beyond lay a stark domain. A plain of drifted powder, thick with rimed spruce and the bones of naked birches. A white forest, awash with luminous, metallic fog; domed by stars and yawning black. All still. All silent.
Leif stepped out onto the snow. It keened neath his boots, inches deep. He did not shut the cottage door, nor look back at all. His grey eyes, blinking fast to ward off the cold, fixed clear ahead. He walked.
The way was pathless, obfuscated by fog and blank snow. Leif carried on ahead, straight and sure, regardless. His gaze wavered not at all, not even to his shuffling feet. He hesitated, shirked only for sharp licks of wind, like white, lashing tongues in the mist. Despite, he trudged onward, drug troughs through the snow with tired legs.
He continued like this for a mile or more, deep into the wood. The birches here were long masses of many silver trunks. The spruces, great walls of snow and black needles. In alcoves midst their bows, unlit by moonlight, there glittered droplets of eyes. Swaying dots in black, reflecting stars, blinking and staring. Leif did not meet them. Whispers, barely separate from the wind, met his ears. Leif did not reply to them. He only walked.
Ahead, a forking, black rift showed in the white wood: The knuckled, titan bole of an old oak, so dark against the snow as to seem an extension of the night sky. Leif approached it, stepping over its high skirt of roots. A branch creaked over his head. Snow dribbled on and around him. Leif flinched. He breathed fast, shallow, but paid no heed to the shaking boughs, to the rustling of feet over rimey bark.
He stepped upon the oak's broad feet, touched its inch-deep knurls of bark. Round he went, over the knobbly roots, searching the surface. Half around, he found it: A knothole, high as his head. He averted his gaze from it, hasty, instead put an ear to the dark interior. There he listened, shivering, eyes tight shut. Where it touched the icy bark, his flesh turned raw pink. A shiver wracked him; traversed first from clenching jaw, then down the back.
Leif tore his ear from the knothole, from the susurrant voice. He stumbled fast from the snowy roots, eyes wide and fearfully averted.
Walk, Leif did. Back into the forest with delirious fervor. He trudged on, eyes fixed ahead and unfocused into biting fog. A ragged trough of snow trailed behind him, more crooked with every minute. Beside, as if on a road, many trails accompanied his own. Dozens of sets of footprints, carefully picked. Prints left by quick steps, by feet lifted clear and nimble over deep powder. Their makers were heard by Leif as snow rustling in the fog, never seen.
Twice more, Leif visited great oaks, giants of the wood. Twice more, with differential gaze, he found their knots and listened. At each, he shuddered. Only at the last did that shudder come with a nod and a chap-lipped sigh of relief.
He crept from the last oak's canopied domain, back to the inexplicable path carved through white woods. Footprints appeared about him in scores, as if planted by the fog now swirling in sharp eddies.
From some far angle ahead, a figure showed in the fog. Seeing it, Leif startled, averted his gaze abruptly, buckled at the knees. He composed himself, and, cautious, eyes tearing, caught it in the bare periphery of his downturned gaze. It was a mere walker like he, thin ankles churning snow neath a tartan coat and a bobbing wrap of fur. A human woman.
A vaporous heave of relief blew through Leif's scarf. He continued, sped slightly to pull ahead and walk aside her.
They walked in silence. Solidarity, without acknowledgement or even gaze. Beside, Leif could hear her heave and pant, breath dry and raw in lungs pierced by cold. She shivered, teeth clicking, harder than even he. Still, she walked.
As they went even deeper into the wood, a deeper pall of fog descended. With it, deadly cold. Leif's jaw had now seized, for all its shivering. He now shook, shoulders and arms and spine, employed grimacing effort to fix his eyes ahead.
Whispers grew in the fog. Sibilant and calm; conversant. Quick to switch from one ear to the next. Startlingly close, oftentimes. Leif jerked, as if suppressing a reeling jerk of the head. Beside him, his fellow walker groaned, clutched her ears. Clumsy, without eyes to aim, Leif placed a hand upon one fur wrapped shoulder. Under that cautionary touch, she quit.
Out of the distance, something loomed. The trees had broken way, cleared to yield the banked slope and standing stones of a great henge. Stones, broad as a large man's height and twice again as tall, stood like vertical spokes in some great drum. Between them all stood a dolmen, like a giant, crooked table. Dark, but queerly shadowless in the radiant snow and fog. The walkers passed between them, and, with staggering step, began to circle.
Thrice, they circled within, wore deep paths in the drifts piled round each stone. With each pass, more footprints appeared aside, their makers invisible somewhere in misty tow. Neither walker dare looked for their source.
At the final circle's end, they stopped. Leif staggered to the nearest standing stone. He sat, crashed into the soft snow at its base. His eyes shut immediately, head lolling into layers of snow-caked scarves. Beside, his tartan companion dropped, too. Worn down, they slept.
Leif woke to warmth and light. He startled, cracked rime-frosted eyes to a squint. A wooden bowl of fire lay before him, its heat liquid and tempting. Eagerly, he grabbed for it, let the heat wash frost from his face. He then paused, as if struck by thought. Shivering, he looked up, cautious.
In the snow, there were gathered folk in white. They sat against the interior of the stones, like Leif, warming wiry hands over bowls of fire. Delicate faces black eyes, shining, ensconced in deep hoods sewn from cloth white and vaporous as the fog. Where they ended and the snow and mist began, there was no division. They spoke gently, indistinctly, oft giggling short and wickedly. Some danced round the towering dolmen, half-hidden, cloaks and soft, cloth shoes whipping whirls from the mist. None shivered, though their breath showed frozen in the air. All sounded queerly distant, despite their proximity.
Leif hurriedly averted his eyes, looked instead to the bowl before him. Smouldering spruce cones and hardwood chips. He held it welcomely, basked in the smoke, though it bit his reddened eyes.
Beside Leif, within earshot, his fellow walker could be heard awakening, shivering abruptly into consciousness. Furtive, Leif snuck a glance to her, found that she had scrambled to sit aright, looked openly upon the white folk. Fear and fascination showed in her wide eyes and frost-nipped features.
"What are they saying?" said the walker, hoarse. She turned to Leif. He flinched, shook his head hurriedly in response, kept his gaze carefully averted.
"Please, master älves. I have come so far. What are you saying?" she called, loud.
Round the stones, the pale folk flinched, turned large, whiteless eyes on the woman. An offended silence passed. Leif held his breath, suppressed shivers.
One älf, a willowy man, leaned about, whispered to his fellows. His eyes crinkled in a smile. Quick, suddenly, he stood, unfurled from the snow. He plucked up a bowl of fire, approached the woman, stepping light through the deep powder, almost skipping.
Leif, despite his trembling, stole a covert view. He watched the älf draw near, leading with his fire. Gently, with smiling eyes, he proffered it to the woman. "Come," he said softly, longly accented, extended his other hand in welcome. "You are so curious, so cold."
Unsure, the woman in tartan accepted, held the flame close to her chest. "Thank you," she mumbled, eyes flicking down, as if embarrassed.
The älf still offered his hand. "Please, come."
Hesitant, trembling with cold, the walker tilted her head, met the cordial, black eyes. She took the hand.
Leif watched them cross to the dolmen, hand in hand. Then, stop. The älf motioned into the interior, looked to the woman. "Pass through, and your walk will finally be ended."
Once more, they met eyes. "Go," said he. "You have come so far."
The woman in tartan welled tears of relief. "Thank you," she said, dashed through the dolmen.
She did not emerge from the other side. The älf with the smiling eyes let cry a peal of delight. The others did, to, oddly soft in the mist. Leif shook, curled round his flame with eyes screwed shut.
Abruptly, the älves stopped. Silence came. Utter, save for whirling licks of winds and the patter of new snow begun to fall. Leif sat, curled for the heat, and the stars turned above him.
When finally he dared open his eyes, the henge was empty. The älves had gone, leaving nothing but prints already half filled-in, and the wooden, burnt-out firebowl fallen from numb hands. Leif sighed shudderingly, frozen, rose to stand, limbs creaking. As he did, he paused.
Before him, sat upright in the starlit snow, was an acorn. Glossy and plump. Placed with purpose. Leif loosed a weird, halting chuckle of disbelief.
He plucked up the little gift, held it safe all the long walk home.
Requested by Semi Urge, who desired lore about those in solidarity with the Other, rather than in opposition to it. It's been a long time in coming, adn turned out way longer than intended. More like it will appear (likely concerning the Firlish Academy's infamous West Garden) as I grow ever closer to properly writing about the Otherworld and its black eyed children.