A Heart in Winter

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Beginnings

She’d only seen two days of her thirteenth winter when word came from Ceodra that Moran had lost his sight in his old age. She’d known since her sixth summer that the day would come when she’d be thrúil. But that had always felt distant; forever a few years away.

She packed her things to leave her father, her friends, and her home behind, and only cried when her father wasn’t looking. He cried whether she was looking or not; said he’d come with her. They both knew he couldn’t. It had been a poor harvest, and Edonna would starve without him. It was only a day’s ride to Ceodra, but it may as well have been a thousand miles for the chief huntsman of a starving village and his daughter, the apprentice thrúil.

Bundled in furs, she rode through the new snow alone, aching as Edonna shrank behind and dreading her destination.

Everyone stared as she rode into Ceodra. Her face grew hot under their collective gaze, and she spurred her horse on, staring into his mane until Moran’s house grew into her peripheral vision.

She knew no one here except the old thrúil. He’d come to Edonna once every summer for as long as she could remember, bringing winter grain to the remote village. He’d sensed her potential early, and spent a few days teaching her each time he visited.

He smiled now at the sound of her voice, and she fell into his arms sobbing.




Three weeks had passed since her arrival, and she hadn’t spoken to a soul apart from the fluffy white winter spirit and Moran. There was much she had to learn as she claimed his responsibilities.

Twilight was fading to night. Her duties were finished for the day, and the village was quiet. She stood in the doorway, trying to shut out the throbbing in her bandage-swaddled left hand. She’d had to perform bonesong two days before. That had been the most painful thing she’d ever done until today, when she’d had to do it again, re-opening the wounds on the stone spikes of the circle. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lip, trying to shift her mind’s focus from one pain to another.

“That must hurt.”

Aeron’s head jerked back in shock, rapping hard against the doorframe. She yelped out half an oath and clutched at her head, then exhaled in an odd sort of relief as the focus did, indeed, shift for a moment.

The person who’d spoken giggled. Aeron looked up. It was a girl; maybe two summers older than Aeron.

“It does," Aeron nodded. "Moran’s been doing this for sixty-four summers. I don’t know how he lives like this.”

The girl tilted her head. “I asked him once. He says the spirits make it not hurt so much anymore. Help him heal faster.”

“Well, they must not like me, then.”

“I’m sure they’ll come around. I’m Caoile.”

Aeron started to reach out her bandaged hand, then grinned and extended the other instead. “Aeron.”

“That’s a pretty name.”

“Thank you. You’re pretty too.” The words tumbled out faster than Aeron could manage them. She blushed down to her bones.

Caoile’s cheek twitched, an almost imperceptible motion that bloomed into a smile.




Moran died by winter’s end. Aeron had to learn to birth a season on her own, with only vague instructions from Moran’s books to guide her. Whenever she wasn’t performing her duties, she was with Caoile.

Her father came to visit in the spring. He asked her if she was lonely with Moran gone.

“I’m going to miss him… but no. I’m not lonely. I think I’m going to like it here.”




After four summers, Aeron asked Caoile to marry her. Aeron’s father hugged them both and gave them his blessing without hesitation. Caoile’s father just stared into space until they left.

“He could have at least looked at me.”

Aeron didn’t know how to comfort Caoile. That was an unsettling sensation. “He just needs time to adjust. I think he had other plans for you.”

“If he did, I never heard about them. I don’t think he cares. I don’t think he cares about anything anymore.”

Aeron kissed Caoile’s temple. “You know that’s not true.”

“I know. I just wish he could be happy that I’m happy.”

“I’m sure he’ll come around.”

He didn’t.

With almost every man, woman, and child of Ceodra and Edonna in attendance, Aeron and Caoile were wed in autumn, and warm for winter.



The spirit listened as Aeron finished her story. In their thirteenth spring of marriage, just a few moons earlier, Caoile had grown sick; unable to draw enough breath, too weak to leave her bed.

After a few moments of silence, the spirit arranged its leaves into another rune.

Love.

Aeron nodded. “More than I could tell you.”

The spirit pointed at her.

Many seasons for love.

“Yes. But not enough. Never enough. I don’t really know how to explain it.” She felt guilty talking to an autumn spirit about love and loss on human timescales. It would have only moons to live its entire life. She was still searching for words when the spirit made more runes.

Cure possible. Ask.

“There’s no one left to ask. I’ve spoken to everyone in Toth Dail, and some from Toth Eaich. I even asked a Martathim scholar that passed through.”

Iel.

Aeron’s breath caught as she read the rune, and she quickly brushed the leaves around to erase the words. The deep spirits could feel their names, and she feared that even their title would call unwanted attention.

“We don’t speak of them here, autumn. Only at the circle, and there only when we must.” Thrúils seldom contacted the Iel. They asked high and strange prices for their assistance. Even in the controlled environment of the circle, dealings with deep spirits were delicate and often misleading. Glancing over her shoulder, she stood and turned to go.

“Come. The villagers will want to meet you.”

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