It's December 1889, late, ten below. Grandfather Winter's flexing his muscles, spitting frost-chaw all over the tree branches and pissing ice over Lady Superior. Moquabimetem "Johnny" Beargrease and his dogs are running the mail up the North Shore game trail from Two Harbors up to Grand Marais, ninety miles away.
Nobody makes better time than Johnny. He's been on the trail for eighteen hours and sixty miles, and he's just past Tofte, headed for Lutsen. That's when Johnny sees the huldre, sitting dainty as you please atop a six-foot stump that leans over the trail.
Johnny's never seen a manitou packed into a muslin dress that tight before. He wants to slow down and take a better look. He tells himself it's only polite to be friendly to the little mysteries that live along the North Shore, but his eyes are caught by the line of her hipbone straining against the fabric.
"Easy," says Johnny. But the dogs got more sense than he does. They speed up instead.
The huldre sighs and winks at him. She tosses her black hair behind her shoulders and catches his gaze with her own. And -- bam! -- just like that, she's got her hook set in his heart.
Johnny's just human; he jumps the brake bar and hollers, "Whoa!"
The sled slews to the side, plowing a furrow in the trail-crust. The dogs don't like it, but they stop. The lead pair whines, and the swing pair snarls, and the huldre jumps down from her perch.
"Hullo, stranger," she says, proper as pie. "What're you doing out here in the cold?" She's singing a different tune with her big green eyes and swinging hips, and it fills Johnny's ears full to bursting.
"I . . . uh. Mail." Johnny's tongue is thick inside his mouth. It feels as dry as his lips as he squints at the huldre. Truth is, she's made him forget about Louisa and his kids, even if he hasn't been but a night on the trail. And she's got him snared so tight that he don't even wonder what a manitou is doing talking with a Norwegian accent.
The huldre hikes her dress up a bit to keep it out of the snow. She's got a trim set of ankles, and shapely bare feet. "A man could get lonely doing that, don't you think?"
The dogs snarl and try to start moving again; for a minute, Johnny is too busy to answer. The huldre, she don't like that much at all. "It's cold," she complains, as Johnny gets the dogs settled. "Won't you help me up onto the sled, and take me with?"
Johnny grins at her and holds out a hand. The huldre, she sees the megis-shell pattern that Louisa's set into Johnny's mittens, and she flinches back from the medicine that the purple shell-beads hold.
"No, oh no." She's coy enough to curdle butter, looking up at him from under her lashes. "A gentleman would offer me his bare hand."
Johnny, he shrugs and pulls off his mittens without arguing, moving slow as mud in the river under the huldre's spell. He holds out a hand to help her up. But his dogs remember who feeds them when they're home. They start howling, all at once, and Johnny turns around to holler at them one more time.
"No, no, no!" Johnny yells. That tears it; the swing pair heads in two directions at once, and the lead pair tries to double back on their own mainlines. The sled lurches; he grabs the handlebar to stay balanced.
Johnny's skin sticks to the iron bar, and the hook in his heart loosens a little bit. When he looks back at the huldre, she's sporting horns and a cow tail. She lows at him, soft and mournful, and runs off into the woods.
Johnny's a couple hours late coming into Lutsen, too dazed to hurry the dogs along the trail. When he gets there, he don't swap news with the town. Instead, he stares out the window with a poleaxed look on his face.
He's like that all the way up the trail to Grand Marais. All along the North Shore, the oldsters take one look at him and start to mutter to each other knowingly. If they were Catholic, they'd cross themselves, but they're Lutheran, so they brood instead.
Johnny keeps an eye out for the huldre all the way back, but she don't come back. The dogs run fast and easy. Johnny tells himself that it's not any important thing at all, that there's no disappointment sitting in his stomach like leftover bait in a trap.
When Johnny finally slides into Beaver Bay, he greets his wife with a kiss. The hook in his heart's buried so deep that he's got himself fooled. But he don't fool Louisa Beargrease; the stories the dogs tell her make her tighten her lips and nod.
A ball of disappointment sits in Johnny's stomach, cold as a snowball swallowed whole. Even his bed and his children can't thaw it away.
Johnny puts sweetgrass in his blankets to keep from dreaming, but all he gets is a runny nose. He tosses and turns and grumbles and nitpicks, just itching for the days to turn. So Johnny frets and Louisa plans, and the cold deepens.
Johnny's waiting for the next mail run, trying to hide how eager he is. But Louisa's one step ahead of him: she tells his brother Daybosh to take the next, and his brother Skowegan to take the one after.
"Moquabimetem's got some resting to catch up on," she tells them, with a sideways glance that makes them wonder just how many kids Johnny's gonna end up with.
Daybosh makes the trip in four days. Skowegan takes his time, stopping along the traplines and coming back with a brace of rabbits and a wolverine. Neither one mentions the huldre. Louisa and Johnny both stop talking, for different reasons.
The night before Johnny goes back out he sleeps with the dogs, to keep his wife from giving them more ideas than they already got. Louisa sleeps inside, surrounded by a pile of kids and puppies all huddled up for warmth. Neither one sleeps. Johnny stares up at the stars; Louisa follows the smoke patterns against the ceiling.
But Louisa gets up before Johnny finishes buckling the last tugline. She comes out into the cold, her nipples showing against the store-bought cotton of nightshirt and overrobe. She holds out a hood trimmed with wolverine fur.
"Got some things for you, husband. This'll keep you warm."
Johnny doesn't want to take it at first. Then he looks at the dogs out of the corner of his eye; they aren't paying it any mind. So he relaxes and bends his head. Louisa steps close to tie the hood under his chin.
"The dogs are watching," he tells Louisa, stepping back instead of stealing a kiss, although that never stopped him before.
Louisa don't seem to mind. She clucks once, low and pleased, in the back of her throat. And then she fumbles something else out from under her robe: a pouch all lined with megis shells.
Louisa turns the flap back so Johnny can see the chaw inside. "And this'll keep you awake."
Johnny bites off a hunk of tobacco and tucks it into his cheek. He smiles a chipmunk smile at his wife, and she smiles back. For a minute, he can't remember why he was so anxious to get on the trail.
But the dogs are whining and the mail don't wait. All too soon, Johnny's cutting zigzags across trapping lines and frozen inlets, listening to snowbirds whistle and the dogs pant.
He doesn't linger as long as usual in Silver Bay to trade gossip. By the time he hits Finland, he's barely stopping long enough to offload packages and parcels.
The dogs don't slow down. Johnny wonders if Louisa's told them to hurry. He can't decide if that's a good thing or not. Finally, he falls on the side of "not looking for trouble" and just lets the dogs run.
Whether or not he's looking, trouble finds him: a mile outside of Lutsen, he's taking a shortcut across the lake. The right swing dog tangles in the mainline. All four huskies go down in a pile.
The sled tips over. The mail sheets out onto the harbor surface, and Johnny starts cussing fit to melt the ice. The dogs whine; the ones who aren't limping cover their ears with their paws.
That's when Johnny hears the ice shift; the cannonball sound makes his ears ring, and cracks run through the ice by his boots.
It's not the first time Lady Superior's turned in her sleep this trip. After his hearing recovers, Johnny's inclined to pay it no nevermind. He sorts the dogs out and picks up the mail, spitting tobacco juice until it looks like he's tracking mud everywhere he walks.
The last package is sitting right over a patch of rotten ice. Johnny figures he'll just lean over and grab it, but Lady Superior, she's got a weakness for other people's things.
The ice cracks again, one sheet sliding over top the other. Johnny's boot gets stuck in the gap. No matter how he twists and wiggles, the Lady's got her mind made up: she's not gonna give that boot back, and anything inside it is hers to keep.
The dogs puff plumes of frost Johnny's way. They don't seem disposed to help him any, aside from the occasional howl for help. So Johnny sits down while the cold seeps into his ankle.
For a while he can't feel anything at all. Then for a while longer, it hurts like hell. And he's got nothing with him to pass the time except that pouch of chaw.
He's just about finished with the chaw when the huldre shows up. He's pretty happy to see her; he's getting back to not being able to feel his feet. So he waves, and calls, and tells himself it's just relief he's feeling that today's not his day to die.
"Well, I was beginning to think I'd never see you again," she tells Johnny, sitting down on the ice next to him. Her shoulder bumps his, and he swallows his chaw. "How've you been?"
"Urp," Johnny manages to say, around the roiling in his stomach. And then, "You got to help me. Please."
The huldre puts one slender finger to her lips and tilts her head to the side, considering. "What's in it for me?"
"Anything," Johnny says, reckless. All four dogs moan and roll their eyes until the whites show.
"Then I want a kiss," the huldre decides, wanting to cement her hold on him. "Do we have a deal?"
Johnny nods, just hoping he's not going to get sick all over her dress. The huldre shifts around until she's got her knees braced. She slides her fingers underneath the top sheet of ice and pulls, and damn if Johnny can't pull his leg free.
Once he's free, Johnny pukes up the chaw he swallowed. He lies on his side in the snow, hoping he's going to die. But not for long; the huldre's mind is all on their deal. She drags him back toward his sled, and sits him propped up against its brushbow.
Before Johnny's finished gagging, the huldre climbs right into his lap. She's warm like bread from the oven, and the melting snow on her dress makes the fabric transparent.
"Now, about that kiss."
Johnny's nose is full of the smell of her, and it makes him forget the pain in his toes. He reaches for her without thinking, and she leans into his hands.
Before their lips touch, her cheek brushes against the wolverine fur of Johnny's hood, all soaked with sacred tobacco and seasoned with a twist of redbud. She bellows like a milk-heavy cow, twists out of his grasp and runs away.
There's something warm trickling down Johnny's left cheek. He touches his face and his fingers come away bloody. But it don't matter as much as that huldre running away and leaving him again.
So Johnny arrives in Lutsen with a middling bad case of frostbite. He don't stay to chat. The oldsters bite their lips when they see the ice on his boots and the light in his eyes. One or two of them go so far as to ask him how his wife's doing.
Johnny, though, he just smiles and shrugs. It's not his wife he's thinking about. He packs up for the rest of the run with his feet killing him and two of his dogs limping, figuring he can tough it out.
Hell, he even makes it to Grand Marais in good time -- but he collapses once he gets there.
Everybody but Louisa gives Johnny up for dead when he don't come home within the week. Daybosh takes over the mail run with the spare team; when he gets to the end of the North Shore gametrail, he finds Johnny lying in bed debating whether or not to let the sawbones cut off a toe or two. When Daybosh comes back from Grand Marais, he's got a letter from the sawbones to Louisa, and eight dogs hooked to his sled instead of four.
While Daybosh is sitting at Johnny's bedside in Grand Marais, Johnny sorely wants to ask him about the huldre. But Daybosh never says anything about meeting any round-hipped young manitou out along the traplines. Johnny ends up staring up at the ceiling between bouts of fever, and fretting in silence.
One thing leads to another. Before Daybosh leaves for Two Harbors, Johnny's two toes lighter and stone deaf in one ear. All he can think about is getting back out on the trail again and finding that huldre. He talks about her in his sleep; he's got to be tied to the bed so he don't run out into the snow wearing nothing but his nightcap.
And even if Daybosh don't say a word to Louisa about the state Johnny's in, the dogs tell her the whole story when they get back to Beaver Bay. She don't cry; she don't even act like the news hurts. But this time, she sends the kids off to her mother and packs herself a bag and six coils of rope.
When Daybosh goes out to Johnny's wigwam to pick up the sled in the morning, it's gone, and there are four tired-out dogs tethered out where the fresh team should be.
Daybosh is just in time to greet Mathilda Harmala, who's kicking up a ruckus; seems that Mathilda's Blue Bessie sprouted an oozing stump where her tail should be.
Without a quarter-ton of mail to slow her down, Louisa makes good time. She's dressed in Johnny's second-best pair of boots and enough clothes to keep her warm, with his fanciest parka over top of it all. And she's braided her hair down into pigtails and decorated the plaits with Johnny's eagle feathers, like a man gone a-courting the old Ashinabeg way.
The sun rises and flings light back from the shoreline like thunderbolts to the eyes, but Louisa don't stop. By noon the lake looks like one big diamond, and the dogs are begging for a break. But Louisa don't stop, although tears leak down her eyes and freeze a salt-beard onto her chin.
Evening comes. There's not enough kin-love in the world to make the dogs go any further, not in the dark of the moon.
Louisa kindles a fire under a set of overhanging pines and looks around. From the shape of the trail she figures she's only a few miles to the wrong side of Tofte.
Louisa digs the rope out of her pack after seeing to the dogs. She walks out into the trees with the rope in one hand and a cow-tail in the other. She shucks off Johnny's boots and dances barefoot out in the dark and the snow, winding the rope between saplings and leaving the cow tail in the middle of her tangle.
When she gets back to her campfire, she pulls Johnny's old courting flute out of the sled and plays one of the love songs four times over. She don't say a word, just puts that flute across her thighs and waits. When she figures she's waited long enough, she plays the song again, for another set of four, and another, and one last one.
Four times four, that's powerful magic, and it don't fail Johnny's wife. The huldre comes walking out of the woods, face hopeful and smile bright.
"I heard you playing," she says to Louisa. "It was beautiful."
Louisa, though, she don't say a word. She sits with her back to the fire and her face in the shadows, and she nods.
"Were you playing those songs for me?" The huldre moves a little closer. Louisa scoots forward, keeping the hood over her face. This time, she grunts.
The huldre's too happy to take that grunt for anything but a yes. She plucks at the coat-sleeve -- Johnny's coat-sleeve -- and whispers, "Don't you want me?"
Louisa hunches her shoulders against those words. The wind picks up, stirring the drifts until the snow looks like it's falling upward. She gets up, walking off into the dark. The huldre follows her, crying, "Lover, lover, wait for me!"
But Louisa don't wait: she ducks in and around the saplings that she's woven into her rope-web, crouching low and jumping high until she's through the trap and safe on the other side. She don't even brush the cow-tail with the edge of her boot.
The huldre's not so lucky. She don't know the dance. Quicker than you can spit, she's caught and struggling, calling for Johnny to free her.
It don't take her long to start to scream. It takes a while longer for her to start to cry. All through the night, Louisa sits and listens, stone-faced but bleeding inside -- that's the price for the medicine she's wrought.
The huldre's sobs are dying down when false dawn lights the sky. Just when she gets quiet, she sees the severed cow tail on the ground. She starts to scream again, little huffs of sound from a throat too sore to do any champion-type yelling.
Louisa steps forward, lowering her hood, expression flint-sharp and just as brittle.
"Little sister manitou," Louisa says, "You tried to take something that belongs to Spider's daughter with white man's medicine."
Louisa stoops and picks up the cow tail, worrying at the end of it with her teeth and then grinning with blood-streaked teeth. "That doesn't amuse Spider's daughter much at all, little sister. It just makes her hungry."
The huldre doesn't like this news any more than she likes the way Louisa looks; she saves her breath and starts thrashing. But the more she thrashes, the tighter the ropes bind her.
Louisa watches, unforgiving, until the huldre's still again. Then Louisa says, "You swear to me by the rice on the lake and the ropes round your wrists that you'll never trouble me nor mine again, and I'll let you go."
The huldre hangs in the web, considering this for a long time. "Done," she says finally. "Cut me loose, and I'll try my luck with some other man."
Almost, Louisa smiles. "Who said aught about cutting?" She puts two fingers in her mouth and whistles. The dogs lift up a chorus of howls nearby.
The ropes uncoil and fall to the ground, and the huldre, rattled, runs away. All that's left is a mess of rope . . . and Louisa.
Johnny spends the rest of the month healing up. It's Valentine's Day when he gets home with a box of chocolates melted enough that he probably didn't buy them in Silver Bay like he tells Louisa he did. But she smiles and kisses him long and deep, and he kisses her back even deeper.
That night after the children are all sleeping, Johnny's got his head pillowed on Louisa's growing belly. Louisa's staring up at the fire-hole in the roof and reading the future in the patterns the smoke makes. Outside, one of the dogs is snoring.
Johnny stirs, pressing his cheek against her thighs, and Louisa can just make out what he's saying. "Love you," he mumbles. She tenses, but he doesn't wake up. "Oh, Louisa. Love you."
Louisa closes her eyes and sleeps.
Copyright © 2004 S. Evans
Last in line when popularity was being handed out, Ms. Evans compensated by inventing an army of imaginary friends to take on imaginary adventures. This inevitably lead to the writing of speculative fiction.
Ms. Evans is a pediatric resident at the University of Minnesota; this is her second sale to Strange Horizons.