The snow had fallen hard for six days, and before that had been stewing in the grey clouds and the cold, waiting and building up before it finally fell in heaps. The Imperial had walked on as best he could around the snow drifts and through them when he had no choice with the command in his heart from the emperor driving his boots. The Imperial geas is a death sentence, but it is never taken unwillingly. He is calm. He is tired. He is cold.
He never knew when his worn boots would sink thigh-deep into a crevice in the rock below the snow. The journey was slow. Rations were low. The last two other members of the expedition had disappeared in the night, weeks ago. It could be they were dragged off by wild animals. There were bears, here, stronger and faster than an Imperial arrow. There were wolves that could overwhelm a traveler in the night. It could be — and this was more likely — that they had decided to go home and pretend like they had completed their task for the emperor until the sickness consumed them. What remained of the expedition was this one man with the sunken features of starvation, a sack on his back, and a heavy stick to walk with. Under his thick robes, which hadn’t been washed in months, was a small dagger, and what remained of a small broken crossbow hanging from his belt. His skin was ashen, but he was dark of skin, with short, curling black hair. He did not feel like he belonged in this cold place, but here he was, trudging forward. His thin boots were stuffed with rags and hay to keep out a little bit of the cold, but it only got damp from the cracks. The woods were thick, here, this far up the mountain. What trails there were disappeared into the snow.
He followed the smoke rising from the mountain. In every gap and clearing between the naked branches of the hibernating trees, he scanned the cold grey sky for lines of smoke rising. There was a village pushed against the mountain. There were crops and animals there. There might be somewhere warm to rest, if they were friendly. Some of the villages have been friendly. Some have taken one look at the dark man walking in out of the cold and casting him out as if he were a monster. It’s hard to tell what will happen when he reaches the village. There’s no way to know ahead of time how they will act.
The wind picked up again. It was just as cold as it had been for the last six days when the snow started. Every morning, he woke up beneath the snow, as if it was burying him alive.
He kept moving slowly through the thick trees to the smoke on the horizon. By midday, he was nearly upon it. He wondered that he did not hear any sounds from the village. Generally, people made noise. Children made noise. Animals made noise.
Each footfall in the snow crunched alone. When he paused to listen, there were no other footfalls. The stillness was disconcerting so close to a village. There were fires burning up ahead. There should be people at the fires. There should be laughter, blacksmith hammers, and children running through the snow.
The village was fenced high, but it wasn’t fenced strong. It would discourage wild animals. There were no gaps or broken places in the fence. There was no forcible sign of struggle.
He walked around once just to be sure. Again, there wasn’t anything wrong with the fence. If something was inside, it was going to be something that could open a gate.
He had seen troubles on this journey before. He searched through the knots in the fence before he opened the gate, to see if there was anything on the other side. He had seen nothing.
The town was empty, like a ghost town. The fires were burning inside the buildings still, but they were burning down since he first saw them. The houses were empty. It was like a whole village heard some kind of warning bell and dropped whatever they were doing to run into the woods. It had happened when he had been walking towards them, or their fires would have long ago burned out.