Through long wandering, I arrived in this village in the frigid north in my thirtieth year. I, a native of hot southern climes, came here at harvest time, when the days were still cool and pleasant.
I had no wife, no children. These fair-skinned villagers smiled at my sun-ripened swarthiness. They speculated to each other on how eagerly I would depart once the winter passed.
They were kind enough, however. For my help during the harvest, they gave me lodging in a cottage whose owner, an elderly farmer, had died the winter before. They sent two children, a boy, eleven, and his sister, twelve, to cook and clean for me. As they were orphans, explained the village elders, and as payment for their work, I would allow them to live with me.
The boy, Arnen, was good with an ax, and soon we had a wall of firewood stacked beside the cottage. The girl, Luda, immediately set about preserving berries and roots she foraged in the woods, and the meat I got by hunting. I cured the skins of those unfortunate animals and traded them in the village for grain and vegetables, in addition to my harvest duties. In this manner, we earned a sufficient living and filled our larders against the fabled winter.
The day the harvest ended, the first light snow began to fall. That evening Luda prepared a fine meal of venison and potatoes roasted with fragrant herbs, and a loaf of barley bread which she herself baked. She and Arnen set our table for four places as I built a fire in the common room.
“Why four places?” I asked. “Are we expecting a guest?” The children exchanged a smile as they filled the plates.
“It’s the first snow,” Arnen said, as if that explained it. We sat down to eat.
“You’re truly a stranger if you don’t know about the first snow,” Luda commented.
“Yes, I’m truly a stranger,” I laughed. “You must instruct me in your traditions so that I can observe them properly.”
“Every year at the first snow, we set a place for the Snow Child,” Luda explained. “It’s how we welcome her, and if she’s pleased, the winter will be kind to us.” Arnen nodded, his mouth full of warm bread.
“If the food makes her happy, she won’t send blizzards that destroy our homes,” he continued. “No one will die of the cold, not even the animals, and the wolves in the forest will be well-fed so they won’t prey on us or our cattle.”
“And we won’t be attacked by raiding parties, either,” Luda said. “The Snow Child will protect us all the winter if we invite her in.”
I nodded. “She’ll be well-pleased with this feast, Luda,” I said. “And she’ll know how strong and capable you are, Arnen, when she sees all the firewood you’ve provided us. You two have made the Snow Child most welcome this year.”
They both grinned and set happily to their food.
When our meal was finished, Luda took the Snow Child’s plate and set it in my hands.
“You’re the master of this house now, even though you’re a stranger,” she said. “It’s your part to set her plate out in the snow. If the food is gone in the morning, we’ll know she’s pleased, and we’ll be safe this winter.”
The two of them watched me with all seriousness. So I rose and took the plate outside, and they followed. We found a soft mound of snow between the garden and the forest, and there I set the plate of food, still warm and steaming in the icy air.
“Snow Child,” I said to the gray sky, “I am a stranger here, but I am responsible for this house and these children. Because they honor you, so then do I. Come and be welcome to what bounty we have, and keep these children safe through the winter. We thank you for your blessings.”
Arnen and Luda tossed a handful of snow onto the plate, and I followed their example. They smiled up at me with relief.
“It’s done,” Arnen said.
“You did well for a stranger,” Luda added.
“That’s good,” I chuckled. “Now let’s go in to the fire. It’s freezing out here.”
We spent the evening telling stories by the fire. They told me how they lost their parents to marauders from the north five winters ago, and how the villagers looked after them until I came. They said that no matter the hardships of the winters, this village always survived, as they had survived the loss of their parents.
“It’s because we respect the Snow Child,” Luda said. “We love her, and she loves us.”
“She always takes care of her own,” Arnen agreed.
I told them of my wanderings, which already seemed another life to me, far away and long ago. They listened with wide eyes, trying to imagine the mountain that could pour forth flames to devour the city of my birth.
“So you’re an orphan, too,” Arnen observed. “Don’t worry, the Snow Child loves orphans best.”
“She’s most likely drawn you here just for that,” Luda agreed. “You needed a home, so she’s made you one.”
The logic of children, in this cold and foreign place, warmed my heart.
“Well, I imagine the Snow Child would want her orphans to get a good night’s sleep,” I told them. I saw them to bed and lit a fire in the hearth in their room. Then I took myself to bed, and slept well and deep.
I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of quiet singing. I thought it was Luda, who liked to sing while she cooked. But when I looked into the children’s room, there they both were, fast asleep. I let the voice lead me outside to the garden.
There, sitting in the snow beside the offering we had made, was a girl a little younger than Arnen. She was pale, wrapped in white furs, and seemed to glow in the moonlight that glanced through the restless clouds. She was happily eating the food we had left, humming as she chewed.
I kept my distance and watched her. She finished her meal and licked her fingers like any child might. She got up and patted her belly with satisfaction. Then she saw me.
She smiled and laid her finger to her lips, cautioning silence. She drew her furs closer around her and went toward the forest, singing softly.
She vanished before she reached the trees. I gazed after her until the cold insisted I go back inside.
As I opened the door her song reached me again, and I heard these words: “This is your home now.”
“Thank you, Snow Child,” I whispered. I went back to bed, knowing my wandering was done.
I was ready for the winter.