The Winter Maw

winter scene with cave and rocks - illustration for dark fantasy story the winter maw

A Dark Fantasy Story

Abigail awoke feeling sick to her stomach. Even with two quilts and a heavy, flannel nightgown, the icy air slipping through the gaps in the farmhouse walls still made her shiver. It was the twentieth of December. Only one more day until the coming of the Winter Maw.

She climbed out of bed and tiptoed across the cold, wooden floor to the window. The previous night’s storm had covered the farm in a layer of snow. She dressed quickly, pulling on her heaviest gown and tucking her straw blonde hair under a white linen cap. She wanted to put on her cloak as well, but that was by the back door downstairs.

She walked down the hall to her brother Jonah’s room. At fifteen, he was only two years older than her and probably not much wiser, but he was easier to talk to than Mother and Father.  She knocked twice and opened the door. “Are you awake?”

“Yes.” Grunting with the effort, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. She stepped into the room and stood next to his wheelchair. He brushed his thick tangle of black hair out of his eyes and scratched the deep scar on his chin. “Have you come to ask about tomorrow’s sacrifice?”

She shook her head, chewing her lip. He shoved a pillow behind his back and pulled up the covers. Even under blankets, it was obvious that his legs had lost much of their muscle. “No,” she said, “I wanted to ask about your sacrifice last year. Why were you punished instead of Mother and Father?”

He folded his arms across his chest. “I went riding with a girl from school and got thrown by my horse. It was a random event, not a punishment. You will be fine.”

“Are you sure you didn’t do anything to deserve it? You… and her?”

“Yes! We didn’t do anything wrong, damn it!” He rubbed his eyes. “I followed the rules! I always follow the rules, for all the good it did me.”

“I just… I don’t know.” She stared down at her feet. “They say the Winter Maw never makes mistakes. There has to be a reason…”

“There’s no reason for anything!” He picked up the candlestick from his side table and hurled it at her, nearly hitting her in the head. “Get out! Leave me be!”

She rushed back into the hall. “I hope he’s telling the truth,” she thought. “What if I get punished like him? Or even worse? Everyone says the Maw’s rules are so clear and fair, but how can you trust something that’s not even human?””

The smell of breakfast invaded her thoughts. Bacon and sausage. Always bacon and sausage. At times, it seemed like everything in the house was covered in a layer of filthy grease. She trudged downstairs to the kitchen. Her parents were already sitting at the table. Her mother, Hester, was in her late forties. She was thin, her shoulders slumped. She  looked perpetually worn and tired, as if her body were losing a fight with gravity. Her father, Elias, had just turned fifty. His hair and clothing had gone gray.

“You’re late,” Elias said. “In this house, we eat breakfast with the sunrise.”

Hester slid a plate across the table. “It has grown cold.”

Abigail forced a smile. “No matter, I can place the food back on the stove and–”

“You will eat it cold,” Hester said. “That is what you deserve for your disrespect.”

Abigail’s smile faded. Hester cleared the other dishes while Elias poured over the farm’s ledger. “Not enough meat sold this winter,” he muttered. “We shall be short on funds this spring. We may have to sell more land. And we shan’t have enough corn to feed the herd. Every blasted year, there is a drought or a blight or insects or mice… And who can help us? Everyone is struggling. Our neighbors are just as cursed.”

“It will be alright.” Hester rubbed his shoulder and smiled, but her smile did not reach her eyes. “The Winter Maw will accept our sacrifice this time. We have kept our daughter untainted.”

After breakfast, Abigail bundled up in her gray coat and hat and stepped outside. As she walked along the fence, she waved at the neighbors’ daughter Rachel. Rachel had close-cropped hair and wore trousers. Most people thought her clothes were hand-me-downs from an older brother, but her family had no sons. Rachel raised her hand but before she could wave back, her father handed her an axe and shoved her towards the wood pile. As she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and smiled. Her eyes were bright like emeralds.

With a low sigh, Abigail headed for the barn. The barn had space for sixty pigs, but there were only two dozen. She held a handkerchief over her nose and examined each pig carefully. “Jonah keeps saying I will get used to the smell,” she thought, “but the smell is always there, even at the schoolhouse or in the woods. The stench of this place follows me everywhere.” At last, she selected the perfect sacrifice: a white Large Yorkshire. She led the pig out of the barn and over to the cleansing hut. The ritual cleaning took the rest of the day.

As the sun set, she trudged back into the house, her hands and forehead covered in streaks of black dirt. She washed up in the kitchen basin. After dinner came cleaning the kitchen, and after that was helping her mother darn socks and knit sweaters. At last, she could finally go to bed.

Despite being so exhausted, she was unable to fall asleep. She considered lighting her lamp and reading, but decided to save the oil. Besides, there would be plenty of time for reading later. Instead, she stared out the window and watched the stars until she heard her parents’ heavy footsteps climb the stairs head and down the hall to their bedroom.

An hour later, her eyes finally closed. Sleep was filled with strange, dark dreams. She was wandering an endless, icy forest. A glowing treasure in the distance taunted her, drawing her forward, but it was always just out of reach.

She awoke to the sound of her parents’ screams. She ran downstairs and out the back door. The barn was burning. Flames spiraled into the sky as the animals trapped inside squealed in terror. Her parents were racing back and forth between the barn and the well, throwing buckets of water into the fire, but their efforts were useless.. “Abigail!” Elias yelled. “Go get help!”

Abigail circled to the far side of the house, heading for the neighbors, but stopped short. A shape standing in the dark. Rachel. “You’re already here?” Abigail asked.

“I couldn’t sleep – too worried about the sacrifice. I went for a walk and saw the light from the fire, so I came over.”

“We need more help. Let’s go.” They ran to collect Rachel’s parents and some other neighbors, gathering hands to form a bucket brigade, but they were too late. The barn collapsed, destroying everything inside.

“The herd is gone,” Elias moaned. “All dead! All of them!”

Abigail touched his arm. “We still have the pig in the cleansing hut, Father. The sacrifice can still go on.”

“Then this sacrifice shall be painful indeed,” he said. “No breakfast this morning. The food in the house has to last us… there is no telling how long… Let us just pray that the Winter Maw will bless us greatly this year. Otherwise, we may not live to see the spring.”

Just after sunrise, Elias collected the horses from the field and loaded up the wagon. Abigail rode up front with Elias, but Hester stayed in the back to watch over the pig. A single bruise or cut could cause a sacrifice to be rejected. The journey to the ritual cave would take nearly an hour. Along the way, the wagon hit a rock in the road. The sudden jolt made the pig squeal. Hester stroked its back, shushing it until it calmed down.

“Oh no,” Hester gasped.

“What is it?” Elias asked, not taking his eyes off the road. “What’s wrong?”

“A spot! At first, I thought it was just some dirt, but it’s really a spot. The sacrifice is blemished! We have been abandoned this day!”

He steered the horses to the side of the road, bringing them to a gradual stop. He climbed down from his seat and then pulled himself into the rear of the wagon. “Where is the spot? Show me.” Hester gestured to a black splotch on the pig’s front leg. The pig’s great belly hung so low that the spot was hidden by rolls of fat. “May the gods preserve us… We must hope the Winter Maw does not notice the imperfection. We have already lost so much. To go home without making a sacrifice would be suicide.”

They rode the rest of the way in silence. Hester’s face was as pale as a prisoner on the way to execution. At last, they arrived at the vast field outside the cave of the Winter Maw. A crowd was already gathering. Abigail lifted the pig from the back of the wagon and placed it on the snowy ground. Tying a length of rope around its neck, she led it through the crowd, her parents following close behind.

Abigail stopped short, gesturing at a wagon that was just arriving.  “There is Rachel and her parents. Can we wait with them?”

Elias refused to look. “That girl is tainted. No female would wear her hair like that willingly. Her parents must have chopped it off as punishment for some gross misdeed. You stay away from her. Sin is contagious.” He grabbed Abigail’s wrist and pulled her onward.

They passed by a group of young boys standing around a cage full of hares. This was obviously their first time at the sacrifice. The oldest of the boys was saying, “I heard the Maw doesn’t actually control the weather, bless our crops, or any of that. I think our parents are just afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” another boy asked.

“Being responsible for everything,” the first boy said. “If children get hurt or sick, they have their parents to take care of them, but parents have nothing. They pretend the Maw protects them, so they don’t feel so scared.”

Another boy said, “I heard the Maw isn’t a god. I heard it’s a monster. If we don’t feed it, it will come into town and eat–”

Hester scowled, spitting at the boy’s feet. “Such blasphemy! May the Winter Maw take you!”

The boys began to yell but were stunned into silence by the appearance of a figure at the mouth of the cave. It was a gigantic woman, over nine feet tall, dressed in white furs. Two curled, ram-like horns jutted from the sides of her head. Her eyes were concealed by a band of black lace.

The woman spoke without opening her mouth, the sound coming from all directions at once. “I am the Maw of Winter. Those who sacrifice to me will be blessed. Those who refuse to honor me will be cursed. Those who offer me a tainted sacrifice will be destroyed without mercy.”

A boy of about sixteen came forward, pulling a large, white hunting dog on a leash. He unfastened the leash and picked up the dog. He held out his sacrifice, his eyes closed, his legs shaking. The Maw reached down and plucked the dog from his grasp. She opened her mouth impossibly wide, like some enormous snake. As she swallowed it whole, the dog’s muffled cries could be heard from inside her throat, the bones crunching.

The Maw leaned down to kiss the boy’s forehead. “You  have my blessing. Return home to your family.”

“Th-th-thank you,” the boy said, backing away quickly.

Rachel came forward, carrying a white hawk on a leather glove. Bowing, she presented the bird to the Maw. The Maw reached down to take the hawk, but the hawk flinched, screeching in pain. “This animal has an injured wing,” the Maw said. “Your sacrifice is impure.” Addressing the crowd, she said, “Bring forth the girl’s parents.”

“No, don’t!” Rachel cried. “It’s my fault! Take me! I was the one who chose our hunting hawk to sacrifice. I should have noticed the injury. Take me instead!”

The crowd dragged her parents in front of the Maw, forcing them to their knees. The Maw said, “So that the young may have room to grow strong, first I must destroy the old and the weak. Behold the blessing of death.” As Rachel sobbed, the Maw grabbed her mother and father, one in each hand, and tore out their throats. Stretching her jaw once more, the Maw devoured them. Blood splattered across her furs but dripped off without leaving a trace. Once the grizzly act was completed, some women from the crowd led Rachel away.

More animals were brought forward to be sacrificed. Most were accepted, but a few more unfortunate parents were killed, their children led away. At last, it was Abigail’s turn to present the pig to the Maw. As she walked forward, her parents held each other, her mother crying.

The Maw reached down and plucked the pig from the ground. She examine the animal, turning it over and over in her hands. At last, she said, “This sacrifice is unacceptable. I cannot take this animal from you. I know of your tragedy, and that this is the only survivor of your herd. Take this pig home with you. You have my blessing.”

Abigail and her parents returned to their wagon, too stunned to speak. When they arrived back at home, they found a small crowd waiting for them. Neighbors and friends from surrounding farms had brought gifts to help them get back on their feet – animals, seed, even a wagon full of lumber. The group spent the day clearing away the remains of the old barn and constructing the frame for a new one. As the sun set, her father built a fire and roasted the pig, presenting it as a celebratory feast.

Late that night, as everyone went home, Abigail slipped away into the darkness. She walked about a hundred yards, following the fence line. She stepped between the fence and a bush, so that she couldn’t be seen from the house. A few moments later, Rachel appeared on the other side of the fence.

“I’m sorry my plan failed,” Abigail said, her chin quivering. “We should be on our way to the seaside right now.”

“You tried,” Rachel said. “That’s all you can do.”

“I was so close! I chose a tainted sacrifice, and then burned our animals so they would have no choice but to let me bring it to the Maw. It should have worked! She should have eaten them alive!”

Rachel smiled dimly. “Don’t fret. We will be together soon enough. After all, you can always try again next year.”

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