by shukyou (主教)
It was difficult to believe in such a chill, even as Hrolf stepped out into it. Breathing it in was like taking a blow to the chest every time. With his hands, hobbled as they were in fur-lined mittens, he redoubled the scarf around his mouth and nose. The morning sky was the clear blue-grey of a bird’s egg, but he would not see the sun’s weak winter face today, not this late in the year. It would give him enough light, though, to do what was needed.
There had been no snow yet this year, and in some ways that made the cold worse; even if its dense white blanket was the opposite of his wool one, Hrolf could pretend it was like a blanket, and thus feel better when he looked out at the landscape from within his cozy cottage. Without it, there was no pretending that the ground was frozen solid. He left no footprints behind as he set off into the forest, his small pack hitched up on his back. No one knew he was going, and if he froze to death out here, no one would find him until early spring at least.
That thought, to Hrolf, was a comfort. He’d chosen the cottage for solitude, after all, and if that meant quietly decaying among the animals as the winter rose and melted around him, well, that was all right too.
Though he’d made some modifications to it since coming to live there five years ago, he hadn’t built it himself; it had been the home of one of his mother’s brothers, a loner much like Hrolf himself. Uncle Throndr had been found that spring at the bottom of a ravine with a broken neck, which had given Hrolf the idea of taking the cabin for himself. His mother had been worried sick and cried at the idea of sending her baby of barely fourteen summers out into the wild, but he’d also seen her calculating in her head how much easier rations would divide now among only twelve children instead of thirteen. He still went to visit often, and to bring them the bounty of the woods to fatten their stews. But it was winter now, and even without snow, travel was inadvisable, when the night took up so much of the day and the scold could steal the heat from your bones before you could blink an eye.
That was all right, Hrolf reasoned, because he wasn’t going far.
Uncle Throndr hadn’t left much behind beyond the basics of survival, except for a small wooden chest at the end of his bed. Everything else in the cottage was plain, utilitarian, but this box was lovely, with a mistletoe design carved across its lid. That chest was what was in Hrolf’s pack now; he supposed he could have taken its contents and left their heavy wooden shell behind, but somehow that seemed improper.
His face was warmer now than it had been in years past, in part because this was the first year he’d managed to work up a proper beard. From reflections in the well on sunny days, he could tell that it was rust-red, a deeper color than the reddish hair atop his head. He supposed he looked quite handsome with it, for all that no one was out here to appreciate the effect. He’d once been a rather vain young man, but solitude had cured him of that vice. What did he hope to impress out here, the deer? The game birds? The wolves that kept a respectful distance from his fire?
His breath poured out of him in great white clouds as he walked. Everything was harder at this temperature, in this milky grey light that served as day in the deep winter. The path he took had become overgrown during the year; late autumn storms had also washed it over with mud in places, leaving Hrolf to squint in the dimness at times and wonder where he was going. He tried to hum a cheery tune to himself, but that took more air than he had to spare, so he chose to walk in silence. There was no birdsong, and Hrolf smiled to think of them all buried in their little nests, huddled together to wait out the long dark. He made no effort to disguise his walk, letting frozen grass crunch and fallen branches snap under his feet. Stealth was as valuable to him at the moment as vanity. He was not hunting, so why not give the little animals fair warning to keep their distance? He wasn’t hunting today.
At last he came upon the circle. It was so well-hidden by the dense forest around it that every time, Hrolf wondered if he had gotten on the wrong path right until the moment it deposited him in the clearing. Twelve ash-pale stones stood in a ring, all of them taller than he was, and he was not a short man. The ground nearby and the mountains in the distance were made of a different rock; he had no idea where they must first have been cut.
Hrolf rolled a little towel on the ground and placed his knees on it, protecting them from both the hardness and the temperature of the ground. With no small difficulty, he managed through mittened hands to get his pack open and the box out. At rest in the quiet center of the ancient ring, he began.
Uncle Throndr had left no instructions, and as such, Hrolf had no idea if what he was doing was correct, or vital, or even harmful in some way. But as he set up the candles in a ring before him, twelve to echo the shape made by the stones around him, he decided as he had before that his worst crime in this was likely giving in to the unnecessary. He struck a flint and sparked one to life, then used it to light the others. Already the glow was the brightest thing he’d seen in what felt like months.
He took the other items in the box and placed them as gently as he could in the center: a long-dried sprig of holly, berries and all; a stone with a rune cut on it, one that Hrolf’s meager literacy did not give him the ability to understand; an iron knife with a bone handle, its ceremonial blade having never been sharpened; a silver bracelet that bore a wheel design all the way around. He’d thought more than once about wearing the last one on these treks, but the idea of metal against his skin in that temperature had made him think better of it.
At this point, he had to admit he was not wholly certain what to do.
Devotion to the old gods had never been much of Hrolf’s life before leaving home. Indeed, general sentiment had considered it superstition at best and blasphemy at worse, and Hrolf himself had never felt strongly about it one way or another. But there had been those few in the village who maintained their small shrines and their midwinter gatherings, so while Hrolf had never participated, he had known what he was seeing when he opened Uncle Throndr’s mistletoe box.
There were no words there, though, or if there were, Hrolf could not read them. But he could remember the words to a hymn his maternal grandmother had sung to him when he was a child, and he supposed they were better than nothing:
“Bless darkest winter, longest night,” he began, speaking instead of singing, as he had never been particularly able to carry a tune and did not wish to insult anyone with an off-key rendering. “Bless bitter chill and pale moonlight.” The moisture in his breath gathered and froze on the scarf in front of his lips, so Hrolf pulled the fabric down, exposing his face. “Bless death and sleep and time and tide.” He cleared his throat. “Bless waking on the other side.”
That was it. He didn’t know what else there was, or could be, especially alone. With twelve short, plumed breaths, he blew out each of the tapers, then put them and the objects back in the box. The box went back in his pack, the pack went back on his shoulder, the scarf went back around his face, and Hrolf set off for home.
The first year he’d done it, he’d felt stupid. He had, in fact, taken most of the year dithering about it, caught between not being able to ask anyone and not being able to figure it out on his own. The whole while, he’d felt like looking over his shoulder, waiting to see if his brothers had gathered to laugh at their foolish, quiet sibling. They hadn’t been shy about letting him know they gave no credence to the idea that the same boy who would not play their roughhousing games could survive one his own. He would never admit aloud how much of the first year he’d given himself courage by remembering that he was proving them wrong.
He didn’t feel stupid now. He felt at peace. If it meant nothing to the world, it meant something to him, and that was what counted. Hidden from the elements, a smile curved his lips.
That smile, however, began to fade as he took stock of the sky. The earlier clear blue was gone, replaced with a high bank of clouds. Tucking his pack on his back, he focused on his feet and hurried home as fast as the chill air would let him. He had to make it back to more familiar territory, at least, or he would be stranded with nothing more than a dozen ceremonial tapers to light his way. Cheery as they were together inside a cozy grove, they would not do much against the coming night. Hrolf sank his teeth into his lower lip with concentration. This part of the path had been washed out by a small mudslide, but he thought he recognized the way on the other side — didn’t he? He had to believe that he did. He hopped a small ravine and set off on the other side.
Not too long after, he realized he’d made a wrong decision. The trees were now completely unfamiliar to him, and there were no signs of the directional marks he and other hunters had left in their bark. He thought about retracing his steps, but as he looked back in the fading light, he wasn’t sure he could do that either. His teeth were chattering; had he noticed that earlier? Best to take what little daylight he had left and build himself a makeshift shelter, get a fire going, try not to freeze before the sun rose again.
Just off the path there was a rocky outcropping, one which would cradle a stream in the summer, but was now dry and barren. He had a small axe in his pocket and set to hewing down some of the lower branches, looking for protection against the storm. There was no real place that would protect a fire from the wind, but he could at least curl up and trust his own heat to hold him through the night. There was a little notch about the size of a man; Hrolf pressed himself into it before drawing up the branches around him. It wasn’t much, but it would do.
Closing his eyes, he thought of his uncle. He had barely known Throndr, though he supposed men of their kind didn’t need to know much of one another to know one another anyway. Despite his tall, powerful frame, Throndr had not participated in the sports and games enjoyed by his brothers and brothers-in-law. He had always been quiet, reserved, Hrolf remembered, willing to exchange a few words or even a tale with the children, but no more. He had no wife, nor did anyone expect it of him. He appeared from time to time during the warmer months, but came and went as he pleased, and stayed no longer than he wished. No wonder life in such solitude had suited him so well. No wonder it suited his nephew as well.
Hrolf had few illusions about his cursory attempts at shelter; he would likely die here tonight, and so far off the path that maybe not even spring would have his family find him. He tried not to be afraid. His teeth chattered, and he chose to believe it was wholly from the cold.
In the absolute blackness, one could lose all track of time, place, self. Hrolf closed his eyes and dozed, not knowing how long he slept or if he would ever wake again.
But he did wake, as a noise caught his attention. Despite the din of wind through bare branches and dried leaves, his ears caught a different sound — something plodding, more deliberate. His eyes scanned the darkness, seeking information despite the utter lack of light — and yet he saw a tiny light bobbing in the distance. As he stared at it, he realized it was coming closer, and that it was swinging in the manner of a lantern carried on a tall stick. “Hello!” he called, hearing his voice echo through the trees. “Hello there!”
“Hello yourself!” called back a voice from the direction of the lantern. It was a man’s voice, deep and rich, with an accent Hrolf did not recognize. “Storm’s coming!”
“Well, yes, I–” Hrolf stepped forward toward the light, not caring that what little sense he had of the path or his sheltering outcropping was disappearing behind him. “I’m afraid I got lost.”
The lantern was closer now, and in its light Hrolf could see the shadow of a figure, a man broad and sturdy as his voice was. He appeared to be covered in a hundred different pelts, the clothing of a hunter, and he carried over his shoulder a sack much like Hrolf’s. The heavy hood of his cloak hid his face. “Is that little cottage yours, the one I passed back a ways? With the well out front and the stone fence?”
Hrolf had never heard such sweet words in his life. “Yes!” he said. “Yes, can you … would you point me the way there?”
“I’ll do better than that, friend,” said the stranger. “If you’ll let me ride out the storm with you, I’ll take you there myself.”
“Of course,” Hrolf promised. “Of course.”
“Then follow me!” laughed the stranger, turning on his heel and stomping back in the direction he’d come, and Hrolf tucked his head against the growing wind and followed as instructed.
For all he’d been sure he’d been lost forever in the deepest part of the wood, Hrolf was somewhat perturbed when after only ten minutes’ worth of walking, they came upon the edge of his stone wall. Hrolf hurried ahead on half-frozen legs to throw open the door to his rescuer and guest. The fire in the hearth had flickered down to little more than embers, so Hrolf threw kindling and logs alike on the coals, then fanned them until they caught into a warming blaze.
He turned back to his guest, who had removed his enormous coat, but who had not diminished in size much because of it. He was a tall, broad man with wild black hair streaked through with silver, and his lush, full beard made Hrolf more than a little envious. The man had also opened his pack and was pulling out a number of tins and sacks, setting them on the table like he was preparing for a feast. Balancing curiosity with the desire not to be impolite, Hrolf cleared his throat.
The man looked up at him with a broad grin. “I thought you might be as hungry as I,” he said, gesturing to the spread on the table. “Unless you had in mind another dish?”
Stew and dried meat for the whole winter was nothing Hrolf would ever complain about, but it seemed insufficient to serve to a guest — and besides, he wanted to know what was in the tins. “If you don’t mind,” said Hrolf, taking the seat opposite the man.
“Of course not! Wouldn’t have offered otherwise.” He pushed a tin towards Hrolf, and Hrolf was surprised to find that inside were strips of roast pork gleaming with fat. What kind of a man traveled with a feast like these? It was an excellent question, and one that Hrolf would answer as soon as he was done eating. “I knew the man who lived here before,” said the stranger as he pulled open a sack of walnuts, pouring them out on the table as a merchant might spill coins. “Are you any relation?”
Manners were a thing that disappeared in the wilderness, and so Hrolf had to remind himself to chew and swallow before responding: “My uncle,” he told the man. “My mother’s brother Throndr.”
“Throndr, yes,” said the man, unwrapping a paper parcel that contained several slices of thick-buttered bread. “There, have some of this. My cousin’s wife makes it, it’s very good.”
Hrolf didn’t have to be told twice. His fingers still greasy from the pork, he snatched up a piece and shoved it in his mouth. He felt ravenous, like a starving man, though he’d eaten just before he’d set out on his journey, and that hadn’t been so long ago. Or had it? When there was so little light to the day, all but the most general measures of time began to lose meaning. “It’s very good,” Hrolf agreed through a half-full mouth.
The man just laughed at that. “I’ll have to tell her, then! What a pleasure it is, to see someone enjoying food.”
Feeling a bit self-conscious, Hrolf bowed his head. “Thank you,” he said. “For this and for the guidance home.”
“That was also a pleasure,” said the man. “As I said, I knew Throndr, but I do not know his nephew.”
“Hrodulfr, son of Leofsige, son of Raginhard,” offered Hrolf by way of introduction. “But most call me Hrolf.”
“And what do you like to be called?” asked the man.
No one had ever asked this before. “Hrolf, I suppose.”
“Then Hrolf, I shall call you,” said the man. “It’s important to call people what they like.”
Hrolf supposed it was. “And you?” he asked, gnawing at a bit of pickled carrot. “What do you like to be called?”
“Oh, I’ve picked up many names in my travels,” the man said with a laugh, “and I’m amenable to them all. What would you like to call me?”
This was an even stranger question than the one before, and perhaps the strangest part of it was how normal it seemed from the man’s lips, as normal as Hrolf’s impolitely gorging himself on delicacies while his guest and provider of the feast only watched, his brown eyes twinkling. “I don’t know,” said Hrolf. He looked at the man for a moment, considering his massive frame and his dark hair. “Perhaps … Bjarni?”
His answer made the man — Bjarni, he supposed it was now — light up with laughter. “Very well! I suppose I am a bit bear-like, especially in this condition.” He rubbed at his beard to make the point.
Pleased by the positive response, Hrolf relaxed a little. There was a hard cheese amongst the dishes, and Hrolf set to peeling off its waxy casing. “And what brought you out into the woods on such a night as this, friend Bjarni?” asked Hrolf.
“Oh, the same thing as brought you, I imagine.”
“I somewhat doubt that,” said Hrolf, less under his breath than he meant to.
Instead of replying, Bjarni looked around the cabin. “Have you any wine?”
Pushed on this point of hospitality, Hrolf’s face fell. “A single skin, but it’s gone to vinegar. It burst a seam and is hardly drinkable now. I should just have poured it out.”
Bjarni chuckled. “Bad wine seems less of a crime this evening than no wine, does it not?”
Hrolf could hardly argue with such logic. He stood, finding the food and warmth had left him feeling almost completely restored, and went for the skin hanging by the pantry. “I keep my larder better-stocked in the summer,” he said by way of humble apology as he poured his guest’s measure into his one fine cup and his own into a small soup bowl. At least he’d washed it recently.
“And who doesn’t?” Bjarni raised his glass high. “To my fine host, who has made me feel welcome on such a long night as this.”
“To my rescuer,” Hrolf added, lifting his bowl in kind. He turned his ear to the wind, which was already whipping branches against the roof. “Who has brought me in from a very unpleasant night.”
“To us!” Bjarni tapped their drinking vessels together, then put his to his mouth and gave no noise of complaint. Hrolf did the same and was shocked to find that the wine was still good! Indeed, despite how rank it had been only a week earlier, this was some of the best wine he’d ever tasted. Surely he’d been mistaken earlier, and what a lucky mistake it was for them both. He ate and drank in equal measure, and every tin he finished, Bjarni seemed to be able to open a new one, full of some new delight: mushroom and lamb sausage, smoked trout in oil, brined eggs, dried apples with honey.
At last, Hrolf was full. He almost didn’t recognize the sensation, as a full belly was not a sensation he had associated with the winter months. But he was well and truly stuffed, until he couldn’t eat another bite. “I feel so heavy, I might break my chair,” laughed Hrolf, patting his belly.
Bjarni stood and offered Hrolf his hand. “Then perhaps it is time to retire.”
Hrolf took Bjarni’s hand, amazed at how warm and soft it was. The backs of his knuckles were furred with dark hair, but his palms were soft as a child’s. What hunter could have kept his skin so smooth? He allowed Bjarni to pull him to his feet, and then to pull him into a kiss.
Kissing had always seemed to Hrolf something ridiculous at best and off-putting at worst, and he’d never been able to join in his brothers’ and cousins’ fantasies of kissing one particular village girl or another. This, though, was entirely different. He could taste the last of the honey on Bjarni’s lips and opened his mouth wide, taking it all in. He realized his hands were gripped in the skin of Bjarni’s tunic, holding himself upright. He could have let go, though, because Bjarni’s hands against his back were an even better defense against falling. And indeed, falling didn’t seem so bad.
They did not fall, though, but settled gently into the pile of furs Hrolf kept by the fire. He’d thought before about fashioning himself a proper bed, but had never seen the need. Now he felt he needed it even less, as his body was pressed against the soft pelts by Bjarni’s sturdy frame. One of Bjarni’s thick knees was between Hrolf’s thighs, pressing forward in a way that made Hrolf moan aloud. With a chuckle, Bjarni did it again.
That Hrolf was a flustered virgin seemed to bother Bjarni none. In fact, his large guest seemed more than happy to take charge, wrapping his soft hands around Hrolf’s wrists and holding them back against the furs. Hrolf did not struggle, or at least did not mean to put up any resistance. Some portion of his mind knew that he should have at least given protest — the same portion that knew he should not have eaten so impolitely, taking all his guest’s delicacies for himself. But the rest of him could not care. In a life of austerity and discipline, he felt indulgent, decadent. And the more he showed visible pleasure, the happier Bjarni seemed to be. Who was he to deny his guest such happiness?
“I’ll keep you warm, little hermit.” Bjarni’s voice rumbled in Hrolf’s ears as Bjarni kissed and nuzzled them. His beard had looked so coarse before, like a bear’s indeed, but on contact it was as curiously soft as his hands were. “Nice and warm, through the long night.”
“Yes,” gasped Hrolf, not knowing if there was some more proper response. He let his arms be gathered above his head, then left them there as Bjarni pressed them against the furs and began unfastening Hrolf’s trousers. When he opened the flap, Hrolf’s cock sprang up, throbbing and ready. Hrolf was nearly stirred to embarrassment, except for how Bjarni stroked its head with his fingertips and smiled as though he’d accomplished something great. Thus, Hrolf decided not to disguise his reactions any further. If this was what Bjarni wished to accomplish, why deny him the satisfaction of his victory?
Bjarni shed his own tunic then, and oh, he was a mountain of a man, his pale skin covered in the same soft, dark hair that dusted his knuckles. He was solid, his shoulders broad, his limbs and chest muscled. The sight of him made Hrolf sigh and lift a hand to press against Bjarni’s chest, right over his heart.
Bjarni looked down at him and smiled, then pressed a kiss to the tip of his nose, a playful gesture for someone so large and manly. But if there was one thing Hrolf was learning about his guest, it was that he was a man who could embody several contradictions without breaking a sweat. He let his hands search Bjarni’s skin, in awe of being able to touch anyone like this, much less another man. He ran his hands across Bjarni’s shoulders and arms, up his throat and through his hair, indulging in the sensation.
All the while, Bjarni watched him with a smile, looking untroubled, unhurried. “Are you warm, little wolf?”
Hrolf nodded. He was warm out to the tips of his toes, which were never anything but ice, even in the summer months. He was warm inside his belly as well, full of good food and unexpectedly good wine. Beneath Bjarni’s strong body, everything was cozy and safe.
So when Bjarni nudged him to roll onto his stomach, Hrolf complied. He lifted his hips as Bjarni stripped him bare from the waist down, and as his skin hit the air, he did not feel cold. Instead, he felt excited, a sensation that doubled as he felt Bjarni’s body press over him. In the process, Bjarni had shed the rest of his clothes as well, until his bare cock rested in the cleft of Hrolf’s ass.
“Do you want me to fuck you?” asked Bjarni, his lips pressed to the back of Hrolf’s neck.
Surely the rules of hospitality said something about this sort of situation, but Hrolf had no idea what, so he chose his answer based on his own desire: “Yes,” he gasped, even though this very thought had given him pause when considered in the past. That was then, though, and here he was with a beautiful man atop him, ready and waiting for him. How could he say anything but yes?
The sensation was strange at first, at once friction and oil-slickness as Hrolf felt himself entered from behind. He pressed his mouth into the furs, crying out as the sensation overwhelmed him. He wanted to beg Bjarni to hurry it up, to give it to him, but Bjarni was slow, easing his cock inside with gentle pressure. One of his hands held on to Hrolf’s hip, holding him steady as he pushed deeper and deeper, until Hrolf was not sure how much deeper Bjarni could go or how much deeper he himself could take. But at last he felt the weight of Bjarni’s hips against his ass as Bjarni buried himself wholly inside. There he was, panting and whimpering, mounted by this amazing bear of a man.
Then Bjarni began to move, pulling out again before plunging in deeper. He was not slow, now that he had stretched Hrolf to fit him, but neither was he fast. He fucked with a heavy, measured pace, enough to keep the sensation going, but not so much that Hrolf’s own pleasure was lost in it. For his own part, Hrolf whimpered and rutted against the furs, looking for any friction that he could for his aching cock. It was not enough and too much all at once.
Bjarni kissed the back of Hrolf’s neck again, up and down the curve of his spine to the point where his hair began. “Are you warm?” he asked again, and if Hrolf had said yes before, well, that had only been that he hadn’t known what true warmth was. This was it, the sensation of being filled by heat and pressure as he was fucked. It was like summer inside of him, spreading out from his nether regions to the rest of him, filling him to the tips of his fingers and the tips of his ears. He wasn’t hot, per se, not so that he felt like he might break into a sweat at any moment. No, it was simply that on the coldest, darkest night of the year, he was pleasantly, gloriously warm.
It was then he felt the weight of the day crash upon him at once: the trek to the stone ring, getting lost in the dark, fear of death and rescue, the heavy food, Bjarni’s warm embrace. Put together, it all so much that Hrolf felt his eyelids begin to fall and his head start to nod. It seemed utterly impolite — Bjarni had not reached his release yet, after all, and though Hrolf was still a novice to the ways of sexual congress, he understood basic fairness — but the basic fact of the matter was that he could not keep his eyes open.
With a chuckle, Bjarni kissed the back of Hrolf’s neck again and eased him down into the furs. “Sleep, sweet host, gentle priest,” he said, and his voice was such a rumble that Hrolf did not so much hear it as feel it through where his back pressed against Bjarni’s chest. Bjarni had not pulled out of him, yet this caused less discomfort than Hrolf might have imagined. Instead, Bjarni was like one more blanket, the finest blanket, holding him snug and fast. Hrolf reached for Bjarni’s hand, twining their fingers together, and Bjarni squeezed right back. “Sleep, and when you wake, everything will begin to wake again with you.”
Hrolf only had enough time to register that this was a curious thing to say; then he was lost to sound, warm, untroubled sleep.
His first thought upon opening his eyes again was to wonder how on earth so much snow had gotten inside his home. His second was to realize he wasn’t home.
With a start, he kicked out his legs, knocking back the branches that had been set to shield him. All around him was snow, great piles of it, but those few branches seemed to have done a heroic effort of keeping it away. In the dim, pale light, the closest thing there would be to a full dawn for some months now, he saw that the storm had indeed come and gone. Meager as his shelter had been, it had been enough.
Most curiously of all, he wasn’t cold. Of course, where the wind raked across his exposed face, he felt the chill, and there was no mistaking the air around him for high summer. But in his core, he was warm.
He stumbled to his feet, hearing his knees crack with the effort of straightening after so long huddled tight. He took his hand and ran it over the top of his hat, shaking loose the few stray flakes that had piled there. Around him was unfamiliar, and yet — and yet, he could remember the direction in which he’d seen the lamplight, or at least the direction in which he remembered seeing it. There was a ridge down that way, with a rut cut through the snow like the path of some great animal.
Hrolf wasted no time in following it.
No more than ten minutes later, he was standing in front of his cottage, which was as empty as he’d left it, and twice as dark, the fire having gone out in the night. That would be restoked easily enough, though, and was a task he’d done many times before. It would only take him a moment, once he stepped inside, to complete such a very necessary chore.
Instead, he sat on the stone wall surrounding the house and stared back out into the woods around him. Everything was white now, deep and impassible and quiet. A snowfall like this would keep him tucked up here at least until the first break of spring, perhaps even later. It would make the ground soft to walk upon, and every time Hrolf looked out at it, he would feel at least a little warmer for its being there.
He did not know the old gods or their ways; he supposed he could name perhaps two and a half of them if pressed, and even those were the more important ones, those unlikely to take forms that dirtied the soles of their feet with common earth. He also did not know what had started the world or kept it spinning, and whether mortal interaction kept it going, or if mortal inaction could somehow stop it. If everyone had slept through the day before, with no moment of commemoration or reflection, would they still have had a world to wake up to the day following? Hrolf supposed they would. He wasn’t a vain enough man to believe that the whole continuance of the universe rested on his shoulders.
But one was not hospitable because it changed the course of history; one man welcomed another because it was kind, and through that kindness each man remembered what it was to be human. At least, that was what Hrolf believed, and if his choice was wrong, so what? It was his.
Hrolf sat there a long time, watching the sky brighten first, then slowly begin once more to pale. It was a little more than he had had the day before, and the day after there would be even more, and more again, until one day the sun itself would again show its face through the trees. The long night would come again too, but he would make it known it was always welcome in his house, as welcome as death and sleep and whatever light came after.