I froze, staring at the pair of eyes. I couldn't let him die alone, could I? And yet those eyes ... that voice ... all of it. It scared me. It shouldn't be happening - this was a walk, just a walk.
"Child," said the voice once more. "I ... Could you please uncover me? The snow ... I don't want to die unseen. I want ... I want you to see me, before I die."
I remained rooted to the spot.
"Please," added the voice, sounding weaker than before.
I wanted to run, but would I really let my own fears prevent me from fulfilling an old man's dying wish? Gingerly, I stepped forward. My hand shook as I reached out to brush the snow away from the eyes. I kept my movements brisk and shallow - I didn't want to touch skin.
Gradually, the face of an frail old man appeared before me. He smiled, coughed. "Thank you. This ... this is all I need, to have my face free from the snow. I ... I don't feel cold anymore. I think I'm almost there."
I wanted to ask where 'there' was, but the question caught in my throat. 'There' was death, plain and simple. Asking wouldn't change the answer.
"Talk to me, child," the old man said softly. "Say anything. I don't want to die in silence."
"It won't be silent," I said, forcing the words through my lips. "The Auriye are singing."
An unreadable expression flickered across his face for a moment and then was gone.
"I don't hear them," he said.
"They're there," I said, trying to hide my fright. How could he not hear them? Their song was to the night as the sun was to the day. Everyone heard it. Even the dying.
"Don't lie to me," he coughed. "Dying ... but not a fool. I know I killed them."
My blood ran cold. "What?"
"Didn't want to kill them," he mumbled, blinking hard. "Just wanted ... the truth. But now ..."
"They're not dead," I said, more loudly than I had intended. "They're singing right now. I can hear them!"
"Not dead? Im - impossible," he spoke slowly, as though each word were a deliberate effort. "They died. The effort ... too much for them ... and me. The old were never meant to see the Auriye."
"What?" He wasn't making any sense.
"Too weak." His voice was a whisper. "But you ... you're young. You can still find the truth."
"From the Auriye? What do you mean?"
"Take it from my hand," he said, so softly I had to put my ear almost up against his mouth to hear him.
"Take what from your hand?" I asked. There was no reply. Frightened, I put my hand to his mouth. I felt only the cold air of the mountains. He was dead.
Take it from my hand.
Mechanically, I reached for a spot where his hand should be and began digging. My hand hit something cold and hard. I scrabbled and eventually got a hold of it. The moon had passed behind a cloud, making it difficult to see whatever it was. It didn't matter. The man was dead; all that was left was to leave.
I tucked it into my coat pocket and hurried down the mountain.