Snow fell on the path. The first snow of the year, heavy flakes spread throughout the air in their infinite designs, drifting to the ground and mixing with pink petals, fallen from the delicate black-branched trees that gathered there. Below an ancient limestone bridge, dark water swept the petals and snow away, weaving between smooth rocks with deceptive speed.
The old man could hear the river rushing, beyond the whisper of the snow. The air was cold; an occasional breeze passed through his threadbare robe to send the message home. Winter had come. He shivered himself warm. He could feel the long bridge before him—a rigidity stretching ahead—just as he could feel the dense, deep and sturdy earth beneath his feet, though he saw neither. He leaned on his staff. It was straight and hefty, carved from a limb of oak. As he stepped onto the bridge, it clacked on flagstone.
He could feel the river, rushing beneath. Unstoppable, even by the cold; for now, at least.
He could feel a vast emptiness in the falling snow ahead. The warmth of life, and an iciness of something else. Breath fogged in the air.
“So this is where it happens,” he said.
“You were hard to find.” The voice was like cold metal.
“Was I? I didn’t hide.”
“It is hard to find a single crow in a murder. But when the crow wanders off…”
“Damn. Should’ve gone south with the rest of them.” The old man stopped leaning on his staff.
“I would have found you, no matter where you went.” The emptiness was moving closer, snow swirling off the ground with each step.
“You never were one for jokes, old friend.”
“A frivolous pastime.” The emptiness had stopped ten feet away. “Give it to me. I will make sure you do not suffer.”
“You’re far too late for that.” The blind man turned his face to the sky. Snowflakes settled on the fraying cloth over his eyes, frosting over his ragged beard. He could feel the brittle stone beneath his feet. He knew that the snow was not yet thick enough that he was in danger of losing his footing. He also knew that it didn’t matter.
He felt the iron club parting the air in front of him, and he moved towards it, ducking low, pulling on the hilt of his staff as he did so. Steel rasped in the cold air as the old blade came free from its scabbard. He swung it at the emptiness. There was contact; a clang as it met armor; breastplate. Now he had moved behind his foe, and backed up further along the stone bridge. He held the sword in both of his hands. It had not been used in many years, but he kept it sharp.
Iron footfalls on limestone. Snowflakes parting, and a whoosh as death came for his head. He stepped back and let in pass in front of him, then lunged with his sword. It glanced off armor again; a neck guard. The blind man moved as the club shattered the flagstones beside him. His sword sliced a snowflake in twain, and found an opening in the armor, beneath the spaulder; he heard and felt blood splash the ground, bright red and hot, melting the snow.
His enemy made no sound, but moved towards him again.
The old man deflected the next blow, circling, and the club shook the bridge. There was a chip in his sword. He dropped under the next swing, and they were shoulder to shoulder. He felt the heat of his foe. He turned on his back heel to drive the point of his sword into the place where he knew there was no armor, in the space beneath the raised arm, between the ribs; straight to the heart.
He smiled, because he knew he was too slow; he had known he would be too slow, and had tried anyways.
The club struck the old man in the side and sent him tumbling across the bridge where he lay still, one arm dangling over the edge. His sword fell into the cold water, far below, with hardly a sound.
“You cannot win.”
There was blood in the old man’s mouth. His body was broken. Something in his chest cracked with each ragged breath. He reached for a small cloth pouch strung around his neck, fumbling with cold, arthritic fingers.
“Give it to me. I will grant you a clean death.”
“No death is clean.” The old man could feel a pair of small, beady eyes, watching him. Circling. He smiled. “No life is, either.” He felt the pain, as real as the snow falling over him like a shroud. It was falling heavier now. “That’s why you need a sense of humor.” From the pouch he pulled a tiny statue, carved from pockmarked, greying wood that looked like stone.
“Give it to me!” The footsteps quaked towards him, an iron gauntlet reaching out.
“Not all the crows flew south.” The old man threw the statue up with the last of his strength.
“NO!” The hand swiped, and got nothing but snowflakes.
Wings beat the air, glistening like coal. Obsidian talons glinted, the statue in their grasp. The crow laughed, sharp and clear, and then it was gone, taken into the expanse of snow that filled the sky.
The old man breathed in, one last time. He smelled the faint, fading sweetness of the fallen petals. The gentle coldness of the falling snow. The swift freshness of the water, rushing far below to who-knows-where.
“Now, that was a good joke.”
He sighed, and left it all where it was.
The iron club’s head lowered, resting on the snow. A steel-toed boot nudged the body from the bridge. Eyes like dying embers watched as it was enveloped by the water below.
“Shit,” the emptiness said.
The bridge shook, and was still. Within minutes the snow had erased the massive footprints, the small imprint where the blind man had died, the dimple where the club’s head had had rested. The last of the fallen blossoms disappeared, as did the dots of blood upon the ground. Only the fragile black boughs still stood out, stark in the cold whiteness.
Then night fell, and those too became nothing but shadows.