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A Heart in Winter

By David Zaine Aarons All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Fantasy

Endings

Summer drew a ragged breath as evening drank the sun from its final day. Aeron’s chest tightened.

This summer was so gentle, so sweet. It breathed the longest, warmest days she’d ever known. She stroked the spirit’s cheek. Its beard, once a lush green, was now rough and dry; peppered with amber and wine. The spirit reached up, taking her good hand in its own. Its fingers of vine and wood were as thick as her arms, but its grasp was as delicate as a wildflower’s petals closing at day’s end. A smile touched her lips, only to fade as she knew the spirit soon would. Dear ones live such brief lives. The unbidden thought stung. She shook it away. Caoile still lived. As for this nameless spirit, Aeron reminded herself that it was old for a summer; it had lived the better part of a moon longer than most.

How many summers had she buried since her naming as thrúil of Toth Dail? Eighteen? Almost seventy seasons all told. Every season’s face caught in her memory. She’d loved them all. Of all her duties, this brought her the most pain, and in times like these, the death of a summer only amplified the roar of worry.

The spirit opened its mouth. Seasons had no voices for human ears, but it seemed to want to tell Aeron something. It held out another massive hand to the earth. Light shone down like amber sun poured through treetops, and grass grew up in the shape of a rune.

Cure.

Aeron’s eyes widened, and her heart skipped a beat. She squeezed the spirit’s hand and leaned closer. “How?”

With great difficulty, the spirit raised another pair of runes.

Assume. Call.

Desperate hope welled up within Aeron. “What do you mean? Call on whom?” Even as the words fell from her lips, though, the emerald light in the spirit’s eyes froze and faded away. Summer died in peace.

Aeron sighed and leaned her chin into the palm of her scarred hand. The craggy tracks of countless bonesongs rasped lightly against her cheek. The runes burned inside her head, and frustration mingled with grief as she dug summer’s grave. Cure. Assume. Call. Who was left to call? Every healer in the region had echoed the first; her wife’s illness was incurable. The way they all said it upset her, like they expected her to accept it. She’d presided at hundreds of burials, made her peace as she read the ancient rites for friends, family, and spirits. But not Caoile. Not ever.

She drew her ceremonial knife and made a careful incision in the spirit’s chest. Its body, already dry and brittle, crackled around her fingers as she reached inside and drew out the spirit’s heartseed. She reverently laid it aside.

The sun set as she worked. The people of the village had known this summer; it had walked among them, helped tend to their crops, played with their children. But they were not allowed in this holy place; the forest gravegardens were only for seasons and thrúils. Perhaps better that they never had to see their seasons buried.

Aeron lifted the spirit’s body—huge, but light as dry leaves—to her chest and stepped down into its grave. Strange, how the air smelled different in a grave. How could fresh-turned earth smell so new and alive and so sad all at once? Wiping sweat from her brow, she laid the body down, crossing its arms and placing the heartseed in them like a cradled child. After a long last look, she clambered out and began filling the grave. The heartseed’s first sprout, suffused with a faint silvery glow, had risen by the time she finished. She watched it grow for a moment, running her hands through her short-cropped hair. By morning, the birthpod would stand two measures over her.

Perhaps she should stay; only a few short hours stood in dawn’s way. But no. She didn’t dare risk any more time away from her wife than her duties required; not with how weak Caoile had been of late.

Drained of emotional, physical, and mental energy, she walked home. The well-worn road through the Greywoods made for an easy journey, if not a swift one. Quiet reigned when at last she arrived. She stripped out of her dirty cloak and sat on the edge of the bed, cradling her head in her hands and letting out a deep sigh. A delicate snore emanated from Caoile’s side of the bed. Aeron’s silent laugh dislodged a shard of glass in her heart and turned into a dry, racking sob. She struggled to hold it in. Caoile’s sleep was too precious, and Aeron refused to free her tears. They’d do no good for anyone. She climbed under the covers. Caoile didn’t wake, thank the spirits of night, but she did lean back into Aeron’s arms. Aeron laid a soft kiss on Caoile’s head and stared into the darkness until it swallowed her.

* * *

Morning brought neither answers nor solace. Caoile’s comfortable weight against her made Aeron reluctant to pull away until time and duty could wait no longer. She left a light kiss on Caoile’s shoulder, and pulled on a clean cloak. Caoile stirred and looked up at her.

“Shh. I have to go see to autumn, my love. I’ll be back before noon if all goes well. Keep resting.”

Caoile nodded, and Aeron slipped through the door. She’d lost count of how many times she’d played out this betrayal in miniature.

Aeron hurried along the road. People already bustled about. Ceodra was one of the smaller settlements in Toth Dail, but farmers rose before the sun wherever you ventured. Seavan Barra glanced up from feeding his goats as Aeron passed, then averted his gaze. Aeron pursed her lips as she crossed the town’s rim and set into the forest. Cool, deliberate disregard was the old man’s way. A few weeks earlier he’d broken off a conversation with a neighbor mid-sentence to stare at the sky and remark on the weather until she’d passed. Toth Dail’s thrúil usually lived in Ceodra because it neighbored both the Greywoods and the Oldonnaich’s seat in nearby Dailham, so Barra had lived through at least three of Aeron’s predecessors. No doubt she was the first he refused to acknowledge. She was different. She was Twinsouled.

The previous thrúil had read her soul in her fourteenth spring and found one male and one female fused together. It made sense to her. She’d never felt wholly woman, nor indeed man. She was simply Aeron, as she had always been. Her body seemed to share her souls’ equilibrium; her flowering had brought shallow swell to her bosom, and widened her shoulders more than her hips. Such things were no true sign of anything one way or another, really, but in her case they reflected something from within.

Not many were born Twinsouled, and no two the same, but most would be made thrúils when they came of age. Dealings with spirits relied upon the strength of the soul, and two nearly guaranteed talent. Most people saw Twinsouled as blessed. Even Seavan might have once, before he let pain change him, and before one married his daughter.

Seavan was the last of the Barras; all of his clan brothers gone to the forest of souls since the Ullaich War, his wife since her heart seized eight summers later. He’d died along with her, so far as Aeron could tell; he bore no resemblance to the father Caoile described from her childhood. Since his wife died, he’d spoken no more than two words together to his daughter, and none in the fourteen summers since Aeron had married her. Aeron, who could never help Caoile give him grandchildren. Aeron, who he saw only as a sentence to die with his name. He wasn’t a monster. His fear of her was only the fear of a fading legacy. Truth be told, she knew Caoile ached for a child as well; they’d spoken of adopting before Caoile’s illness. But understanding Barra did not ease the trouble he dealt her. She’d taken his daughter. He’d abandoned her wife.

The energy it might have taken to hate him could be better spent on real matters, though. He’d garnered a small faction of small, like minds, but the lot of them were no more than creatures of the past; disciples of a lonely, broken old man standing firm in his place and frowning at the world as it changed around him. And it was changing fast; rumor had it some craftsmen in Martath had built a mechanical weaver that made good cloth four times faster than human hands. The new lord of the southern realms was of Aelweren blood, blue-skinned, born to slavery and now sitting a throne. The old world and its ways were boiling away. Only old fools would miss them.

She put Barra out of her mind as she arrived at the gravegardens. Vines radiated out from summer’s grave, carpeting the ground. In the center, a tight cluster of huge golden leaves stood, beaded with dew and reflecting morning light from their faceted, almost crystalline surfaces. The birthpod. Aeron drew her ceremonial knife and knelt before it. Each leaf had to be cut away at the base. They were thick and woody there, but it was the only safe way to birth a season. She carved at the leaves one by one, letting them fall away until she reached the core. She slit the leathery, translucent husk and stood, peeling it away. The spirit stood inside, eyes alight but dim.

It was slender and tall, wreathed in tawny straw and deep maroon. It smelled of ripe apples and a faint but sharp cold in the back of Aeron’s nose. After a few minutes in the sun, its eyes brightened, and it moved for the first time, turning its head to look at her.

She bowed in greeting.

It nodded after a moment, overwhelmed by waves of ancestral memory. The lives and duties of thousands of Toth Dail’s autumns gone before washing over this infant’s mind at once. Memories of the earth. Aeron waited until the far-away look melted from the spirit’s eyes.

She took its hand and began to lead it towards the village, but it would not follow. She looked back at it.

“What is it?”

It gestured, and a wind whispered through the woods. A few leaves fluttered down. The spirit knelt and arranged them into a pair of runes.

Sadness in you. It looked up, a question in its glowing eyes.

Aeron half-smiled. “Much of that, autumn. Nothing you can help with, I’m afraid.”

Autumn sat down, cross-legged, with an expectant look on its face. She laughed. It felt good; there had been too little of that in her life of late. The pressure in her chest eased for just a moment. She sat beside the spirit and began to tell the story from the beginning.

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