Once there was a hard-working farmer who had a fierce, lively daughter. When his wife died and he was beside himself with grief, this daughter Mya kept his hands busy with farm work and his mind busy with memories of their lost loved one. When he grew older, she took up some of his share of the outside chores so that he might keep on his feet for a while longer. And each winter, when he fell ill with an awful fever and a harsh cough, she nursed him back to health and kept his spirits bright.
Then came a winter when the fever was at its worst and the cough so rough it sprayed blood from the farmer’s mouth. It was a winter of great wind, deep darkness, and the kind of cold that can freeze your eyeballs in their sockets just for looking outside.
“Daughter, I fear I’ve seen too many winters,” the farmer said from his sickbed. “This will be my last. You must tend the farm and when you meet a man to make your husband, care for him as you’ve cared for me.”
This perspective of gloom and doom did not sit well with Mya. “I’ve kept you going for too long to give you up for winter’s dead,” she said. “If winter wants you, it will have to come through me. I’ll put an end to this wicked season and then we can tend the farm together, like always. You’ll live, father. You’ll see.”
“Wait!” the farmer called, but his headstrong daughter was already charging outside, where the voices in the wind whipped all other voices from her ears.
“Winter!” she shouted from the middle of her father’s frozen field. “Come to my land! I challenge you!”
The wind whistled and Mya heard no words, but she thought there was a snickering in the air. Perhaps some neighbor had heard her outlandish call or some spirit wanted to make mischief of her.
“Winter, I call you coward! Too afraid to face a mere mortal!”
“Lord Winter is not afraid,” said the wind from all around. “He is too great to even see you. Would you notice the challenge of an insect?”
“I would,” Mya said. “And I would accept, and crush the creature if necessary, but at least I would stand to the challenge.”
The wind laughed at her. “Intriguing. Then follow me, dear girl. Follow me to the home of my lord, the bringer of cold, the king with the frozen crown, the one who wears the mantle of winter upon his shoulders. Follow, if you can.”
With that, the wind blew wordlessly and the snickering surrounded Mya. She couldn’t tell from which way it came. There was no direction, no path to follow, and she feared she would lose her chance to save her father. The wind could not be seen, she knew, and no rain would come to hint its way for months. She tried wetting a finger in her mouth, but her spit froze around her skin the moment the finger emerged and hardened it into blackness.
“There’s rain all around,” she said, looking at the ground. “It’s only frozen.” She grabbed a clump of snow and tossed it into the air. The scattering flakes caught the wind’s tail and showed Mya a path to the northeast and Mya chased close behind. She ran through fields of snow and hopped across stiff streams of ice, heading northeast, then north, then farther north, until the flying snowflakes mixed with those of a terrible blizzard roaring down from an enormous mountain.
“So, you made it,” the wind said. “Well done. You’ll find my lord at the top of the mountain, where the cold is cruelest, though I warn you, girl, you may not make it so far. I am not Lord Winter’s only servant.”
The wind’s words drifted away and it began to whistle a cheerless tune, ominous and slow. Mya whistled the tune in return, and together she and the wind whistled their way to a sheer cliff face, where icy steps—each hardly a toe’s length—formed a perilous path upward.
“An excellent place for a coward to hide,” Mya said. She put the toe of one shoe onto a step, for that was all that would fit, and then put another shoe on the next step, and then moved to the next, and soon she was several feet up the cliff, her fingers gripping the steps that sloped up and above her feet. The wind laughed again and then emptied itself from the cliff, leaving Mya alone in the stiff air.
She went on whistling anyway and climbed the cliff step by awful step. Although every glance upward said she had made no progress, putting a newfound weariness through her body, a glance downward said she had come along way, though it put a newfound fear in her heart. She refused to give up on this chance to save her father and kept climbing despite all the turbulence inside her and around her.
“The mountain is not the most wicked of servants that Lord Winter coul have,” Mya said. “It sits still and behaves itself.”
“Indeed,” said a voice that was not from the wind. “But I am in no mood for behaving tonight.”
Mya looked every which way for the source of this new voice and saw not a soul. Then darkness clouded her sight and she saw nothing at all. She was blind, clinging to the side of the cliff, with a long way down and a longer way to go.
“What is this?” Mya asked. “Have you eaten the stars and moon?”
“No need,” answered the darkness. “I have eaten your eyes. Should you climb to the top without sight, you’ll not need to avert your gaze from Lord Winter. I’m certain a feisty girl such as yourself would find it hard to respect this custom without my assistance. You’re welcome.”
“I will not respect a coward’s customs and I will not respect your lord!” Mya could bluster all she wanted, but she did not have the means to carry on at the moment. She felt for the steps above, but had no confidence in each handhold or foothold. When one hand found an open rim on the side of the steep steps, she inched toward it and sat herself in an open cave on the cliff face. There she rubbed at her eyes, opened them, closed them, and tried waving her hands in front of her face. It was no use. Darkness had taken her, and if she couldn’t find a way onward, darkness would keep her until she died in this cave.
“I will make you a bargain, girl,” the darkness said. “Renounce your challenge and return to your father. Then I will grant you half your sight.”
“If I give up so much, what’s the point?” Mya asked. “I may as well press on and win it all.”
“You have no idea what you’ve already given up. Take this bargain. Seal it in sound promise and go home.”
Mya’s hands patted for the cave’s rim and she found the steps once more. If a servant of Lord Winter was willing to treat with her, then the lord had something to lose. She began to climb, and this time she could not look down and feel fear or look up and feel weary.
A few steps onward, her feet slipped, leaving her dangling over the cliff’s drop. She pulled them up and tried again. With every ascending movement, the cliff grew colder and she at last could not feel her hands and feet touching the steps. All she had left was the empty air, a silent death surrounding her. It gave her no hint of where she was. She wanted to cry, but couldn’t let herself. Her face would freeze beneath the tears and that would be the end of her, if this wasn’t her end already.
Slowly, as if only remembering its notes as each one flew from her lips, Mya began to whistled the wind’s cheerless tune. At first it rang hollow and didn’t move far past her ears, as songs will do in wintertime. Then the wind picked up the melody and it soared up and down the cliff, echoing through the air, touching every rock, every tree, every upward step in Lord Winter’s domain. Together, Mya and the wind whistled up and up and up, as if the whistle told her the way.
In no time, there was no step to grasp and Mya’s hand flopped onto the top of the cliff. Her path stretched forward, not upward, though she could not see where it led. Her shoes crunched snow and then clacked on stone, and just when she thought the air couldn’t grow any colder, it warmed her face and hands. Mya went on whistling, fearing the wind would leave her, and the ominous tune echoed through a grand room that she could not see.
“Who dares trespass on winter itself?” a great voice boomed from ahead.
“Your greatest threat,” Mya said. “A blinded, half-frozen, nine-fingered girl who has climbed your mountain to save her father. Pull back your season at once so that he can live.”
A mighty breath filled the chamber, ousting the whistling wind. “You have challenge a part of nature. It is only right that you pay.”
“You won’t feel that way when I’ve bit off your finger and darkened your eyes. If you had a father, I’d threaten his life too.”
Someone paced close to Mya now, but she could not see him. “You’ve come with no weapons, no authority. Nothing.”
“I have teeth. You’ve not frozen them out of me yet.”
“Your teeth can’t defeat winter itself. Your determination can’t turn the seasons.” The speaker’s breath was close to her ear. “But it can distract you from your dying father, who couldn’t be saved even if a day of spring warmed his bones and calmed his soul.”
Mya balled her frosty fists and stamped her feet. “You do not know my father.”
“But I know distraction. I know that I play games with my season to distract myself from its inevitable end. When something is finite, you must treasure it, stay close to it. I can battle the spring all I want, but it will still come. Likewise, you can give yourself one impossible task after another, but eventually your father is going to die, and you won’t have been there when it happens. Neither will you have been there before the death, when he needed you.”
Mya shook her head. She could not cry, not out in the winter cold. “I promised him I would put an end to this wicked season that’s made him sick year after year. How can I return a failure?”
“We all do, some days. He will be happy you’ve returned at all.” Fingers snapped and the room grew windy. “Servant, return her to her place and tell the darkness to undo what he has done.” A hand touched Mya’s slowly-warming face. “Take on all the impossible tasks you want when he’s gone. Challenge me and I will crush you, if that is your pleasure after his death. But no sooner.”
Mya’s face went chilly with a sharp wind, so cold she couldn’t feel her own breath inside her, and then the darkness cleared and warmth returned. When she opened her eyes, she saw her farm, but not as she left it. Sunshine spread over the field where grass grew on the edges and soil waited to be plowed. Birds sang, rivers ran, and Mya ran too, all the way to her house.
“How long was I gone?” she cried. “How much time have I missed?”
“Fear not,” the wind sang in her ears. “It isn’t truly spring. Lord Winter is no quitter. He has only granted a day of it. Only a day, for a certain reason.”
Mya found her father still in bed, scarcely able to breathe. She held his hand and hoped he wouldn’t notice the frostbitten finger. For better or worse, he was beyond noticing much at all. Except her.
“You came back,” he said. “I was afraid. I’m still afraid.”
“Don’t be,” Mya said. “I won’t leave your side again.”
And she didn’t. Hours passed. She held his hand and told him of her journey, and her feelings, and they talked of her mother, and they laughed and cried, but no one’s face was frozen. Then as the hour grew late, her father did not laugh or cry anymore, and Mya cried a bit longer. When at last she stopped, she heard a familiar voice outside.
“You must dig the grave now,” the wind said. “Before the snow returns to your land and the ground hardens. It is only a day he’s granted. Only a day.”
Mya nodded, hauled her father’s frail body into her arms, and carried him outside, where she began to dig. As she drove the shovel into the soil, the wind whistled its cheerless tune, and did not stop until the digging and burying were done. Mya was alone when winter reclaimed the land, throwing a soft snowfall into the air.
After a moment, she began to walk. First northeast, then north, and then farther north. A challenge needed answering.