Two days later, autumn died at sunset. Its death bothered Aeron for different reasons than she expected. She should have cared more. It should have hurt her as it always did. But there was little room within her for more pain than she already carried. Was she changing? Was a callus forming over her heart, dulling her? Or was she just too tired and confused, too full of old pains to take in new ones? She took autumn’s heartseed just after midnight. She did not plant it.
She carried it home, all the while wondering what she meant to do when she arrived. Could she truly drain it? Condemn her neighbors to flee or die? People she’d known since her childhood? Could she run away with Caoile to some strange country without the musk and song of home? Could she ever be happy knowing the cost of such an existence?
None of these questions had answers. Caoile had already gone to bed by the time she arrived. Aeron sat before the fire, holding the heartseed in her hands. It silhouetted in her vision against the sparking glow, and she stared at it for a long time. Toth Dail was a large region. Many people lived under the Oldonnaich’s rule. Thousands. Thousands of people with thousands of lives and fears and loves, none of them any less real than her own. If she chose Caoile, they’d all blink out or be scattered. But if she chose them, it would be Caoile who disappeared.
By the time she made a decision, the first whispers of dawn cleared the air. Late winds calmed, the absence of their whistle through the grass outside leaving a humming silence in her ears. Birds began to call their names, muffled by the first snowfall, thick on the ground. Pale blue light filtered in under the door. And Aeron Mailloy knew her choice.
She stepped across the room to where Caoile lay asleep. Peaceful. Perfect. Aeron gazed down at her, then at the heartseed in her hands.
And she turned towards the door.
She took a deep breath and prepared herself. She knew what the first step away from her wife would mean, and how it would feel. Like she was betraying a beautiful trust. She’d almost steeled herself for that stride when she heard a choked gasp from behind her.
Alarm spiraled through Aeron’s veins. Her heart dropped and color drained from her face. She whirled in time to see Caoile’s body shake once, then twice, then begin to convulse. Aeron dropped to her knees beside the bed.
“No, no, no, not like this.” Panic tried to freeze her in place. Her hands shook, and she wasn’t sure how best to use them.
Caoile’s body rocked, foam roiling from her mouth. Aeron grabbed Caoile’s wrists and struggled to hold her flailing arms to her sides to no avail.
The war in her skull broke free to rage across her entire body, paralyzing her in the moment. She couldn’t do this. But she had to. She couldn’t live with blood on her hands. But she hadn’t said goodbye.
She hadn’t said goodbye.
A few agonizing moments crawled by. Finally, decision made almost by reflex, Aeron set the heartseed on her wife’s chest, holding it down with both hands. She focused, and felt something vibrate within her. She pushed through the seed, and felt its energy begin to sink into Caoile’s body. White light shone through her fingers as she focused.
She pushed harder, but Caoile’s body couldn’t accept the energy any faster. She felt sick as she worked. I’m stealing lives. They’re not mine to give away, to rewrite.
But they’ll die anyway. Whether now or later, here or somewhere far away… means nothing.
Aeron’s palms grew slick with sweat, and she felt the seed slip. She tightened her fingers. She could feel the shape of the seed’s energy. It buzzed through the sweat on her palms and into her skin. She’d transferred just over half of its energy when Caoile’s body bucked hard and twisted. The seed slid from Caoile’s chest and shot from Aeron’s grip. She felt the power inside spray into the air and disperse uselessly around them as the now empty seed clattered to the floor.
“No!” Aeron tried to reach out, but it was too late.
Caoile’s convulsions grew more violent.
“Caoile, don’t do this! I can’t, please, don’t go!” Aeron’s voice grew raw and hysterical as the fear that had lived inside her for months took over. She threw herself over her wife’s body, but Caoile only shook them both.
Until she stopped.
Aeron leaned back. Her mind was frozen. She didn’t want to look up at her wife’s face, but a perverse, horrible question drew her eyes. She choked as she saw what waited.
The froth from Caoile’s mouth glistened thick, tonguebitten red, and her jaw hung slack. She was frighteningly pale, and her eyes laid half-open and rolled back, webbed with blood and unmoving.
“Caoile!” She shook Caoile and laid a hand over her heart, waiting. No beat sounded through her palm.
“No! No!” She repeated the word until it meant nothing and her throat ached. She shook. Her body began to fall into shock, but she hung on to consciousness. This wasn’t over yet. She had to do something. Anything.
The Iel’s warning echoed through the haze in her mind. She had to burn the heart. She lashed out against the thought in her mind, but she found herself reaching into her cloak for the ceremonial dagger, ripping open Caoile’s robe, struggling not to vomit as she plunged the blade into her wife’s chest. Perhaps she could break this Sheida’s hold on her. Maybe there was still some way to save her. Still blood coated the knife, but did not flow. Just as she did for seasons, Aeron severed the heart and pulled it out with a sucking gurgle. It was inky purple and swollen far beyond natural size.
This organ was not Caoile’s. Aeron didn’t know what it belonged to, but this hideous thing was no part of her wife. Disgust swirled through her, and she hurled the tainted organ into the fire. It sizzled and twisted, spitting thick drops of dark fluid, drinking the flames, reluctant to burn.
Aeron turned back to her wife’s body, pale and open and hollow before her. It shouldn’t be like that. Empty. It’s not right.
Without thinking, she reached for the heartseed. She turned the empty, woody husk over in her hands. It wasn’t much. But it would have to do. She pressed it gently into the hole in Caoile’s chest. A few moments passed in silent stillness. Nothing happened. At last, she could hold it back no longer. No reason to now. She began to cry.
Tears ran down her face, and she drew Caoile’s lifeless body close, sobbing into her hair.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
“What in all the hells?” The voice from behind her was familiar. Seavan Barra. He must have heard her screaming. She turned to see the man standing in the doorway with several of his followers, a look of shock and horror on his face. She couldn’t blame him; she must have looked monstrous, covered in the blood of his daughter who lay beneath her, chest open, gaping obscenely.
“What have you done?” he hissed.
She had no energy to answer him. She turned away.
A few silent moments passed before she felt hands trying to pull her away from Caoile’s body. She struck out with a feral yell.
“Don’t you touch her! Don’t you dare!”
She knocked a few of them off balance. As they fell, Aeron threw herself back over Caoile’s body, drawing it close to her in an embrace so tight that she felt the sharp ridges of the heartseed digging into her chest, scraping against her breastbone. She gritted her teeth but only held tighter, tears pouring down her cheeks, trying somehow to soak in Caoile’s final warmth.
In that moment, clarity arrived. Everything became real. Her wife was gone. Aeron’s heart broke. Breaking was no word for it. It tore. She felt herself shattering into tiny pieces. Two souls, even separated, were easy compared to this; every part of her fragmented, and every part of her screamed in unison.
A few strands of her hair shifted as if caught on a breeze. The wordless screaming in her heart escaped through her lungs, and wind howled out from her, shaking the walls of the room. A bubble of foreign power welled up between them until it enveloped them and burst, spraying blinding light into the wind. Something drained from within her. At the last of it, she lost hold of her wife’s body and fell gasping to her knees beside it, suddenly weak as an an infant. The light between them whirled and splintered as Caoile’s ribcage began to knit itself over the seed. Hope welled up in Aeron for a few moments, but died again as the light faded before the healing completed.
The room lay silent for a few minutes. Aeron had forgotten she wasn’t alone until someone seized her arms and hoisted her over his shoulder. She didn’t bother to fight him; she felt empty and confused and unsteady, and even if she’d been at her best, the man would still be twice her size. As she was carried away, she saw Barra, holding the half-charred, blistered heart that had once belonged to Caoile and staring with hatred in his eyes.
“Whatever you’ve done to my daughter, I’ll see to it that you answer for it.”
Aeron had no energy left to answer him. She stared through the earth beneath and drifted into stunned unconsciousness.