The Winter Goddess

CHAPTER 1

Fateful decisions

 

Michael Joseph Adam MacGregor lay with his son curled against him on the beach, under the stars, and he watched the slow rhythm of the tyke’s respirations. Jamie had been so excited from the moment his father told him they would go to the “secret place” of the mother his son had never known. On their first night in the wilderness, Michael had explained that Jamie’s mother had saved him from a bad man when the boy was very little, only a few months old. But the bad man had hurt her, and she had gone away.

Did his son understand death? Michael had thought not, for there had not been a single mortality in The Flats since the day he lost Anne. The boy had been told his grandfather had gone to Heaven when Jamie was a baby, it was true, but Michael had always avoided using such terms, and the neighbours still spoke of his wife as though she were merely away from home.

But a recent query from the lad suggested he had discovered the meaning of a grave and its connection with Heaven, from which none return. Michael had prevaricated, unwilling to address the subject with which he, himself, still struggled.

The Scot knew his son felt not so much the loss of the woman who had given him birth and cared for him in his first weeks of life, but the absence of a “mam” such as his cousins and friends all had. True, Jamie had never lacked attention from his grandmother and his aunt and the ladies of the small, close-knit community in which they lived. But he had no mam, and so he was different from the other children of his acquaintance. There were orphans nearby, in the self-built and self-run Sunshine Farm that housed former urchins from the core of the city (a revolutionary idea Anne had promoted and facilitated), but Jamie, he believed, had not yet grasped the distinction between the residents of the orphanage-cum-school and the other boys and girls of the neighbourhood.

The mournful yodel of a loon sounded over the whine of the mosquitoes that hovered about them, the hungry insects kept at bay by the strongly scented herbal repellent Anne had once taught him to make and that he had slathered on himself and his son from the moment they stepped off the coach that had brought them from the train station to the inn where he had led his own mother to think they would be staying. He sighed guiltily at the lie he had told Hermione MacGregor, herself a widow, for he had not dared tell the truth about this holiday.

Michael closed his eyes, wondering whether this was all just madness. During their vacation to this area before Jamie was born, Anne had told him to keep the soulmate stone he had found in the creek on the other side of the ridge above. At sight of the quartz, she had felt some intuition, some foreboding of her death, though he had refused to accept the possibility at the time. Only a year later, when she lay in the street where she had been shot by his long-time enemy, the bastard who had tried to kidnap his son, she had promised with her last breath that she would find him.

Tears seeped under his eyelids and down his temples at the memory of that day still fresh in his mind after all these years.

That was the true reason he had come here: He had brought the tantric twin crystals that he might summon her through the point of power she had told him could be found on the island just a few dozen yards from where he now lay. She had once come through time on that island, from the mid eighteenth century to the late nineteenth, where—when—they met in an alley in one of the seedier parts of town into which he had accidentally stumbled. Though on that night he was being beaten by footpads and thought he would be killed, he had soon come to consider it the luckiest night of his life, for he had met the woman who became his wife.

But then his Anne, the woman he loved more than life, was abruptly ripped away from him.

For years, now, he had gone through the motions of living for the sake of his son—their son. He had waited, and he had hoped that Anne would come back to him as her dying words had promised.

Now, he would wait no longer. She had not found him; so, he would find her. Insanity though it might be, the mere desperate yearning of a fool, nonetheless he would take Jamie to the island, tomorrow, and try to call his wife from that mysterious place whence she had come.

AS HE SAT astride the old log his father was pushing across the lake, Jamie could hardly contain himself, he was so excited. He and Da were going to Mam’s secret place to find her. She must be there, living among those big trees on that island, maybe in a little teepee like the Indians in the picture-books he had seen.

He paddled with his bare feet, trying to make the log go faster.

THE MOMENT he set foot on the islet, Michael felt the faint prickle of electricity on his skin and up his spine. Now, with a shiver of trepidation, he recalled Anne’s fearsome description of travel through time and wondered, again, whether he had chosen correctly in coming here. Deciding it was too late to turn back, that he must try to summon her while he had the opportunity, he lifted Jamie off the log and set him on solid rock. Then, he unstrapped from the fir the sack containing their belongings and he tossed their shoes onto the ground.

“Come put your shoes on,” he said when Jamie turned to walk on. Reluctantly, the boy obeyed and, together, father and son sat and shod themselves. Then, as Michael picked up his bag to fetch the crystal, that he and his son might gaze into it and call to Anne from here on the shore, Jamie dashed into the forest, calling, “Mam!”

“No! Jamie!” Michael cried as he scrambled up and raced after the child in panic.

He darted among the trees, stumbling repeatedly as he tried to grasp the surprisingly swift boy who managed to elude him again and again. Abruptly, the woods gave way to a broad clearing containing a huge, slate-grey outcrop upon which even lichens did not grow. His terror deepening at the realization of what this place must be, Michael stretched his strides on the open ground and caught up to lift his son into his arms just as they stepped into Chaos.

SHE RAN AS FAST as her little legs would carry her, in the night, through brush that whipped her legs and arms and face. Her snowy hair and pink nightie caught on pokey things, but Annie kept going. “Run!” Mommy had whispered. “Run fast and don’t stop! Don’t wait for me.”

The tears that ran down Annie’s cheeks were not from the leaves and twigs and spiky things that scratched her and the stones that hurt her bare feet. She cried because she saw it all in her mind, over and over: The bad men that came, both of them filled by so much darkness that she could hardly see their faces and clothes. The big noise, and the light going out of Daddy when they shot him with a gun like the ones in the movies she wasn’t s’pposed to watch. The big red spot growing on his shirt where he lay on the tile floor just inside the front door. Her dog, Rufus, growling and biting one man’s leg, and the other man kicking Rufus so hard he flew through the air and hit a wall and fell down and did not move again. Mommy picking her up and hurrying to the kitchen and out the back door. The bad men chasing Mommy and her into the forest. Then, Mommy was getting tired and they were catching up; so, she put Annie down and told her to run away, and she turned around to face the bad men. Annie did not see more, but she heard Mommy scream before the bangs of the bad men shooting Mommy and making her fall down just like Daddy. Making the light go out of her.

Annie kept running and running, too scared to stop, for she heard the men crashing about behind her. There were more bangs from behind, but she did not fall down. All at once, she came out of the black forest into bright moonlight that shone on the stream. Mommy and Daddy had always told her not to go into the water by herself, but maybe she could do it this one time. It was cold when she stepped in, and the water made noises when it jumped over rocks and turned into white bubbles.

Suddenly, the moon winked out and, in the dark, Annie screamed when a rock slid out from under her and she splashed into the stream. Going down, down, she felt so cold as the water pulled her away. She paddled hard, like Rufus, and just when she thought she could not hold her breath anymore, her head came up into the air. She had just caught a breath when the whirling water pulled her under again, but she paddled with all her might and found her way to the air once more. She coughed and sputtered as water dribbled over her eyes and her face. And when the moon came out again, she saw for a moment a big man far away and black in shadow, looking toward her as the stream carried her on and on. Then, she was under the water again.

SHE WAS COLD and she was tired and she was wet all over, but Mommy had said not to stop. Annie stumbled through the woods on the other side of the river that the stream had taken her to. She hoped the bad men could not follow, but she did not know if they had a boat. Her friend Florence had a new daddy with a boat that would go even on little creeks and fast water. A “canoe,” he called it. Annie hoped with all her heart that the bad men did not have a canoe.

The sky was lighter now, and birds were tweeting and chirping and cawing and whistling all about her, up in the trees. Black flies and noseeums were awake, too, but they never bothered Annie except when they flew around her head sometimes. That was ’noying.

Too tired to run anymore, she walked and walked and walked. And walked some more, falling sometimes and hurting her knees and hands on stones and twigs and scratchy things that grew in the forest. The sun was high in the sky, now, and she could see it above the treetops. Annie yawned, and picked some berries from a bush. She remembered these red berries from the days Mommy had taken her into the woods and shown her things she could eat. “Never eat white ones,” Mommy had said. “All of those are bad.”

Annie’s belly shook and her eyes got all wet again as she cried for her Mommy and Daddy and Rufus, and for herself because she missed them already. Mommy would never teach her things or sing to her again. Daddy would never hold her tight or tell her stories. Rufus would never lick her face or chase her.

She sighed a great big sigh and ate the berries in her hand as she walked on.

After a while, she noticed that she felt something strange: a tingle all over. It got stronger as she kept walking and she wondered if this was a good thing or a bad thing.

All of a sudden, she was somewhere else: a place that pulled and dragged her like the stream, but it did not feel wet, exactly; a place full of screaming and strangeness that scared her more than the bad men.

PHOENIX SAT bolt upright, soaked in sweat and glancing about wildly, trying to get her bearings in the dim. She had automatically grabbed for her hip-holstered pistol and a knife from her harness, but found herself clad only in her skivvies. Her chest heaved with her panting and her hands trembled as she reached up to wipe her brow and chin. Then, she threw off the sheet.

She had had the dream again: the nightmare that had plagued her for as long as she could remember.

She scratched her head with its buzz-cut, and she scratched her arse as she climbed out of the lower bunk that she had claimed as soon as the women’s barracks was built. After slipping into her straw-soled and canvas-topped sandals, she wandered out into the night air in search of coffee and conversation in the Mess Hall while her hut-mates snored on.

“BLOODY HELL,” Phoenix complained as she wrenched the seatbelt from where it had stuck between the grey-upholstered seat and back. The prop engines chugged and sputtered and finally settled into a whine as she buckled up and sat back to stare at the steel bulkhead between the passenger cabin and the flight deck. She smirked wryly at the familiar peppering of dents occasioned by morons who, on a previous flight, had tried to shoot their way into the cockpit to hijack the plane. At the memory, she tapped the pistols she wore at her hips in the style of a western gunfighter, the guns and holsters covered by the loose, long, many-pocketed, khaki-brown safari jacket that also hid the harness full of knives on her chest and the Bowie on her left hip.

Only an idiot would try to hijack a plane full of mercenaries, she mused. Glancing down, she noted that the bloodstains still darkened the carpet before the bulkhead.

“Christ!” said Mohawk as she subsided onto the seat next to Phoenix. “I thought I’d never get out o’ that fucking airport!” Sporting the hairdo that had earned her the nickname, the tall, sinewy woman of mulatto colouring grimaced as she pressed herself into the seat back and secured her belt

“It is crowded, today,” Phoenix agreed. “Any idea why?”

Across the aisle, Mouse—so named for his diminutive dimensions contrasted by incongruously large ears—sneered, “Movie people. I heard ’em talkin’.”

Behind him, fair-haired hulk Bulldozer said, “Reporters, too. I heard them. Off to the Holy Land to take pictures of Arabs and kibbutzim for some magazine.”

Ahead of Mouse and Shorty, who always chummed on base, on vacation, and when they were assigned to the same mission, Tinkerbell commented, “I wonder if they think they’re safer on the desert than they were in Viet Nam.”

Derisive snorts and chuckles all around evinced the mercs’ opinion of that absurdly naïve yet common notion. The war in Southeast Asia had finally wound down, but the scramble for safety as the Americans gradually pulled up stakes and took their marbles home had made the region as hazardous as it had been when the Yankees had tried in earnest to send the Communists packing. Now, it was rumoured, the Vietnamese victors were carrying out pogroms that wiped out families and communities as well as any foreign fools found in the country. Nonetheless, the Middle East, with its nomadic raiders and its drug dealers and its anti-Israeli Arab governments and its tribal warfare and its plenitude of spies from America and Europe, was by no means a safe place for economy-class looky-loos and jet-set globetrotters. The present company’s own outfit had a booming, if not particularly profitable, business keeping the medics of Doctors Without Borders alive and escorting food shipments to refugees.

As the soldiers-for-hire settled in for the ride, the converted World War II cargo plane taxied to the runway, turned onto the long stretch of pavement, and picked up speed to lift off toward Paris.

WHILE MOST of her comrades had stayed in Paris for a weekender or headed for one battleground or another, Phoenix had come home for a little R&R. She had left her weapons in France, of course, there being a great deal less tolerance in North America than in Europe for side-arms and throwing knives as one passed through Airport Security. Phoenix smiled at the gaping guards as Wounded, behind her, stripped to his skivvies in full view of the disembarking passengers and flight staff. Another airport guard ran a metal detector up and down in apprehension and puzzlement as the smirking, scar-ridden soldier stood with arms out and legs apart. Finally, the security supervisor arrived. When he asked whether the nearly naked airline passenger had had any metal surgically implanted, Wounded blithely listed the pins and plates and rods that had replaced various body parts over the years.

Still chuckling as they exited the Arrivals area of Dorval, Phoenix and Wounded, Mummy and Digger hailed a cab and headed for the hotel.

IT HAD BEEN a long trip from Africa and she had expected to sleep like the dead, but the dream kept invading her mind. As the four comrades drove west into Ontario and north toward the peace of a wilderness vacation, Phoenix wondered why it haunted her so often, lately, for the frequency of her nightmares had gradually diminished through time—until the past few weeks.

She shook her head, forcing down her fatigue, and she checked the map once more. The highways had changed since she had last been here, with extensions of some main routes that eventually narrowed to the black-topped two-lane roads that led into the Canadian Shield. There, outcrops of grey and rusty red crowded the asphalt ribbons, and a variety of trees and shrubs coloured the summer landscape with innumerable shades of green. Grateful for the distraction from her personal demons, she concentrated on the rugged scenery and on fulfilling her job as navigator all the way to the little lodge northwest of Timmins.

GERTRUDE AND MABEL, Church and Mark IV had already arrived when Wounded pulled up to the front door of the cabin nestled deep in the woods, at the end of a narrow and rutted laneway off a barely navigable unpaved road. The age-greyed logs of the hunt camp’s walls blended with the trunks and contrasted with the needles of the surrounding forest. As she disembarked from the rental, Phoenix surveyed the scraggy jack pines; scrawny black spruces with branches dragging on the ground like the drooping hem of a hand-me-down dress worn by a gangly orphan; and majestic eastern white pines with their long, blue-green needles and deeply furrowed charcoal-grey bark. For a moment, she closed her eyes and drank in the resin-scented air.

The newcomers quickly emptied the trunk of khaki rucksacks and army-green duffel bags, and each laid claim to a bed in the rustic retreat. Then, chores were the first order of business: chopping wood, fishing, cleaning the catch, fetching water, washing the cupboardful of dishes that may or may not have been trod by rodents since last used, foraging for forest edibles, starting a fire, cooking dinner….

As twilight deepened and the yellow blaze in the pit to the rear of the cabin glowed brightly in the gloom, the eight sat in silence after their meal, occasionally swatting a mosquito or rubbing on a foul-smelling substance to repel the little buggers.

They had lost Puddin’ last week, just before furlough. She had been killed in a firefight during a patrol west of Zinderneuf (the droll name The Boss had given to Base One because it had been a dilapidated ruin of a camp originally used in World War I and not maintained until the outfit took it over). As a rule, they had few casualties during patrols and missions, and those usually involved only injuries of greater or lesser degree rather than fatalities. Once in a while, though, someone did not come out alive, and each loss was felt deeply by the survivors because all of them were friends.

Staring at the flames, Phoenix mused that, like Puddin’, she had found a home with The Boss and his troops, the only home she had known for as long as she could remember. She had always been a fish out of water, from childhood and adolescence in the orphanage; to her early teens with a foster family; to the years spent drifting from one menial job and crummy, rat-ridden flophouse to another. She was different, and considered by most to be weird, at best. All her life, she had been shunned by the majority, and persecuted by bullies who believed they had the right to torment her just because she was not like them. In the end, like most of her comrades in the outfit, she had found her way to the desert because she could not fit in with “normal” people.

She sighed when Digger finally doused the fire. Exhausted as she was, she did not look forward to sleep.

DIGGER AND MUMMY had researched the region and had determined that there was a better-than-average chance of finding aboriginal artefacts just a few miles from the cabin. Phoenix and Mabel grinned to each other at the realization the two former archaeology professors had chosen this particular spot not for its beauty but for the opportunity it afforded to practise the skills of their first calling.

Church and Mark IV declined to follow the academics, citing the need for someone to keep the cabin and vehicles secure lest poachers, drug dealers, vagabonds, hippies, or other undesirables happen upon a lodge full of untended belongings. Everyone knew the two just wanted to relax and sun themselves, but no one could refute the need for a little security even in the wilds.

After breakfast, Phoenix took point, and the group of explorers headed off into the forest in the appropriate direction according to the map—as opposed to the bearing the scholars had vehemently demanded, they being able to teach the skill of orienteering but completely incapable of actually employing it. Through spruce-pine forest that showed signs of having experienced fires at one time and another as well as having been logged a decade or so back, they trekked for almost three hours before they came to the small lake where the professors hoped to find bits of metal or glass to indicate there had once been, in this location, a native community that had traded with the French or the English a few centuries ago.

While Digger and Mummy scouted likely places to excavate, with Gertrude and Mabel in tow to ensure the two eggheads did not get themselves lost, Wounded tossed a line into the lake to see what he could catch. In no mood to fish or to follow the academics, Phoenix wandered the strand and surveyed the treeline. There were bur oaks, maples, ashes, and willows, as one would expect near water. The juneberries and chokeberries, meadowsweet and bilberries were also common to any northern shoreline. But as she panned the verdure along the lakeshore, she had an odd feeling of déjà vu. Had she been here before? she wondered.

Shaking her head to dispel the sense of familiarity that was surely no more than the similarity of this landscape to many others she had seen during visits to the north country, she strode to Wounded, who had perched on a large boulder that jutted into the lake. She informed him, “I’m going for a walk. I need to piss and I’ll look for something edible to feed us for lunch.”

The weathered warrior merely nodded and touched the edge of his floppy-brimmed fishing cap to acknowledge the message received.

ONCE PERSONAL business had been taken care of behind a particularly dense clump of ferns, Phoenix scanned the immediate area and opened the canvas kit-bag she had brought along. As she strolled the woods, she deposited deep-purple mountain juneberries, round blue mountain-fly honeysuckle berries, and thimble-shaped blackberries into her sack, along with meadowsweet leaves for tea. She avoided the nannyberries that had not yet ripened to their characteristic powdery blue-black, but she chose broad blue-bead-lily and plantain leaves and dug Carolina spring beauty tubers to round out her foraging.

She had decided to return to the lake, but deeper in the wood a particularly large and laden blackberry bush beckoned. She ambled to the shrub, scouting for any other targets of opportunity along the way, and she began to pick the luscious dusky clustered drupelets. When she moved to the far side to take a few more, leaving plenty for birds and other wildlife, as always, she shook herself at a faint shiver that ran over her skin and up her spine. Suddenly anxious, she glanced about, wondering what had disturbed her. Though she saw no sign of a predator and the twittering of birds suggested she was alone, she felt an increasing unease she could not explain. Her respiration became ragged, and panic began to set in. She wanted to run. She needed to run.

Heart racing, she stumbled farther and farther into the wood, circling and scanning wildly as a sense of horrifying familiarity engulfed her and as the tingling electrical sensation sharpened. All at once, the forest opened to a large patch of scrub. Staggering into it, Phoenix abruptly fell into a vortex.

Preorder digital version

Print version also available 4 May 2020.

Preorder at Amazon or Barnes&Noble.