Summer in Winter
Then she pulled her heavy snow boots over her soft down-lined slippers, and engaged in the mild gymnastics needed to get her feet on the mat in front of the door rather than risk tearing up the wooden floor with the metal cleats on their soles. She stood up a little unsteadily. She pulled on her fine gloves - while she dearly wanted to wear the mittens her sister had made for her she knew she might need the dexterity granted by five fingers.
She grabbed her axe, and checked the edge was good and sharp. She strapped it to her side, and then checked her other, smaller axe was likewise up to the task of cleaving dead flesh, or the bark of the dubik (of which there had been several reports in the last few weeks). She hung the icon of Inga Tarn round her neck, paused to kiss the cold dragonbone hammer-and-axe on its smooth surface, and tucked it inside her coats. It was cold against her skin but would soon warm up once she started moving.
She took a deep breath, and then picked up the heavy shovel from next to the door. She hefted it in one hand, and then two, and took an experimental jab with it - the solid steel edge of the shovel-blade could cleave through a Wolf's neck if she needed it to. She traced the place on the handle where her grandfather had painstakingly carved an image of his old dogs, Lightning and Thunder. She missed all three of them.
Then she opened the door, and called back over her shoulder to the rest of the family.
"I am going to go and clear the path! If I am not back in an hour, then someone had better come and look for me or there will be all kinds of trouble!"And then she stepped out into the grey snow, and slammed the door firmly behind her.
It promises to be a particularly harsh winter in Varushka, full of blizzards, and dark winds, and howling beasts. Within a week of the Autumn Equinox the first flurries of snow fall across the north; by two weeks before the Winter solstice many of the more isolated vales are at serious risk of becoming snowed in. Those who make the trip to Anvil from the northernmost parts of Varushka - especially from Volodmartz - have surely already discussed what to do if they are physically incapable of making it back to their vales before Spring.
Of course the winter is harsh all over - snow is no stranger to Wintermark, nor to Hercynia or Skarsind. There are stories that the cold has crept farther south - sending hail and sleet into the Marches, and Dawn. But these winters are as nothing to the winter that grips Varushka.
On nights when the wind howls, it shakes the trees like a wrathful giant. When the snow falls, it is a roaring blizzard. The ice on the lakes forms three feet thick, and when the sun is high in the sky, those whose work is done can barely resist the siren call of their steel-bladed skates. When the moon and stars shine on the crisp, unbroken, newfallen snow it is a thing of beauty to move the heart of the stzena to song.
Beasts are stirred also - yet here there is an odd dichotomy. There are certainly more Wolves about; tales of sinister rusalka, snow goblins, and less nameable creatures haunting the northern shores of the Semmerlak increase dramatically, as do sightings of wood-skinned dubik haunting the forests of Volodmartz an Miekarova, while in Karov there are stories of unliving warriors caked in dripping hot wax attacking travellers along the roads in Kamienczka.
At the same time, some of the Sovereigns seem almost quiescent. There are stories of sacrifices that go unclaimed and observances that go unmarked. There are stories from a few volhov of dark spirits tricked or persuaded into fitful slumber ahead of their time, and stories of bands of angry horrors faced down and defeated by vales that should have been overwhelmed. This is not universally true - a few of the dark powers of Varushka seem to have been particularly effected, becoming more active rather than less, pursuing resolution of their own dark stories under the influence of this unexpected Summer magic.
The fact is that a potent Summer enchantment has settled across Miekarova, Karov, Volodmartz, and Karsk. In a season when the Varushkan people traditionally stay close to their hearths and ignore the moaning of the wind, something stirs in their blood, a barely heard whisper encouraging them to seek out and challenge the dark forces around them. Sometimes this ends as tragically as one might expect. More often though, in this unnatural Summer in Winter, the stories that unfold have achievable happy outcomes. Provided one faces the challenges, this enchantment seems to say, things will turn out ... for the best.
It has disturbed and unsettled more than one Varushkan. The expectation is that it will all be over by the start of the new year and things will return to normal; the wise ones warn the more foolhardy to be careful - this is an enchantment, after all, and the kind that could easily lead to overconfidence.
In each case, these extra rewards come as the result of encountering or overcoming the kind of challenges that would feature in a dark fantasy story. A fleet might find a sunken island risen from the sea under the full moon; a farm might be attacked by a horde of hopping husks who seek to drink the breath of sleeping children and must be fought off by brave valesfolk; a cabalist with a mana site might encounter an opportunity to deal with a dark spirit; a warden might end up engaged in a struggle to lay to rest a vengeful wraith in a ruined vale in Karsk, and in the process uncover valuable treasures - most of which are returned to grateful relatives. We leave the specifics up to the individual players.
Furthermore, many of the Sovereigns of Varushka seem to have mistaken the Winter for a second Summer. Those who would require propitiation, or would become more active, during the Winter months appear to be remaining quiescent.
Obviously, this does not mean Varushka has become a land of happiness and light. Many dangers do not care what the season is, and there are stories that the eerie Summer-in-Winter may have stirred up a few new horrors - eerie white stags, lurking wood skinned dubik, vengeful unliving magistrates - but of course if it had not, this would not be Varushka.