A Heart in Winter

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Aeron started awake at the sound of a howling wind, suddenly conscious of the burning of heavy, tear-raw eyes. She pressed them shut again for a few more moments. She felt weak, brittle; far older than her thirty-two summers. Perhaps love’s innocence took youth with it when death came calling. She sat up and found herself behind bars. She knew this place; holding cells in Dailham Hall. Prisoners were often held here while waiting for their cases to be brought before the Oldonnaich. How long had she been locked in here?

Dailham was only half an hour’s walk south of home, but even from inside a cell it seemed a different world. The city always smelled of hot food and sweat and ambition. It was big and brash and crowded, at least by Galrith standards. Its thousands of people would seem a plague-pruned village next to the sprawls of Martath. But here in the Clanlands, few cities were so grand as Dailham.

The Oldonnaich lived here. The Oldonnaichs had held Toth Dail for more than two hundred summers. As thrúil, Aeron dealt with their clanmaster often; he was a good man and a fair one. Perhaps too fair; the Oldonnaich liked and trusted her, but even so he’d likely hear out Seavan’s entire twisted, desperate worldview. So much time wasted. She needed to be home, with… Caoile. Or at least her body.

Aeron ground her teeth. Caoile was gone, and Aeron had to see to her burial. That was her duty, not just as thrúil, but as Caoile’s wife. She had to be the one to lay the body down, to release the soul to the eternal plane. What happened to Aeron after that didn’t matter. They could put her to death, or leave her to stumble through the rest of her empty days; it made no difference.

She sat motionless in the cell for close to an hour before a guard came to fetch her. He brought her into the Oldonnaich’s torch-lit hall. It was crowded, but an uneasy silence reigned, broken only by the building’s low creaks in the furious wind. The windows displayed swirling walls of sunless snow. Late evening, then.

Aeron swallowed. In her grief, she’d forgotten what she’d loosed on Toth Dail. A full day past without a winter spirit to guide the season. No wonder the wind raged so.

The Oldonnaich called Barra to speak. He offered a host of accusations, but they faded until they were only a dull buzz in Aeron’s ears as she stared out the window. The air in the hall was thick with quiet dread. The people did not understand what was happening, but they could tell it wasn’t right. The hall’s attention soon turned away from Barra, until even he fell silent, caught up in the growing fear. For nearly an hour, there was no sound but the wind against the walls.

Aeron stood. The guard watching her held his sword to her. She pushed it aside and stepped to the center of the room to speak. She looked at the Oldonnaich, and he nodded.

“You all have to leave. Now. Through the Greywoods, over the mountains; don’t stop until you reach Martath. Lord Oldonnaich, send messengers to evacuate every settlement.”

A burst of protests rose up from the crowd. The Oldonnaich hushed them with a gesture. “Are you mad? No one can travel in this storm.”

“This isn’t a storm. It’s wildwinter.” No way to stop it now. It’s already begun. Hells and harrows, what have I done?

Panic rolled over the congregation. Even the Oldonnaich started. “How has this happened, thrúil?”

“I made a foolish mistake. Gather your families and go.”

“What will you do?”

“I’ll bury my wife. Then the storm will bury me and the rest of Toth Dail. Make sure it’s empty before that happens. By morning.”

The Oldonnaich shook his head in disbelief. “Messengers will never make it to the border communities that quickly.”

“It’s at its worst here. It’ll spiral out gradually through the night. If your men go now, they’ll run with the wildwinter at their backs and arrive in time.”

The Oldonnaich stared at her hard for a few moments, pursing his lips, then barked orders to guards and soldiers. He turned back. “Are you truly at fault for this, thrúil?”

Aeron nodded. The Oldonnaich’s eyes darkened and locked on her face. “Then I hope your sacrifice will cleanse you.” He walked away shouting commands.

Aeron stepped to the door, preparing herself. She sensed a figure striding next to her. Barra.

“You should go with the rest," she said. "I won’t survive, and neither will you if you come with me.”

“Good. I want to see it. Be sure of it.”

The blast of cold wind as Aeron opened the door to the night carried a chill that passed flesh and sunk into bones. Her muscles ached. She welcomed it. Against the ice in her chest, mere physical cold felt like a summer’s breeze.

The wind threatened to rip houses from the earth and send them careering facade over foundation into infinite abyssal sky. Wet snow was waist-deep on the ground, and almost as thick in the air. Aeron’s legs were numb within seconds of stepping into it. The pain of a cold burn stabbed through her body, but the longer she walked, the less she felt. She relished the growing absence of sensation and pressed further forward.

The packed, heavy snow resisted their advancements, and the blizzard felt like a river current. Progress was slow and exhausting. Barra tired first. Aeron half-considered leaving him behind; he’d die within half an hour anyway, and with all the trouble he’d caused her… but no. Summoning strength from somewhere within, she seized his arms and pulled him behind her.

She dragged herself and Barra on. Snow built and packed beneath them until she didn’t even know where she was in relation to the earth itself, and without context, time and distance meant nothing. Hours? Seasons? Fingerspans? Miles?

Just when the tiny sliver of her mind that remained conscious began to wonder if they’d veered off course, a jolt echoed up through her legs. She’d stepped on something solid, something that resisted her touch. She dropped to her knees and scrabbled at the object with useless, frozen appendages until she could see the surface. Shingles. A roof. She’d found Ceodra.

The wildwinter snows had engulfed Ceodra. By the time Aeron dug her way into what had once been her home, snow weighed so heavy on the rooftop she feared it would collapse.

Fear. Aeron laughed to herself. What a silly thing to feel. Death was a certainty now, and if it dropped a roof on her, at least it’d bury Caoile in the process.

Snow filled the tunnel she’d bored to get inside, some spilling inside through the half-open door, and an eerie quiet came over the house. Nothing exposed for the wind to catch hold on. Only a distant thrum.

Aeron lit a candle. Caoile’s body lay untouched on the bed in the same position as the last time she’d seen it.

Inching closer, Aeron brushed the body’s hand. Though her own hand was mottled and hard with frostbite and long past feeling now, she’d hoped to feel something within herself; perhaps a focused, directed shock of pain to contrast against the thick haze of aimless grief that shrouded her. But there was nothing. No special twinge, no flash of memory. Her eyes betrayed her; now that she wanted, needed to cry, they refused. This body that lay before her was false. Abandoned. It wore a crude mask of Caoile, but even that was only a memory; her face had been alive. This one was blasphemously pale and still and unfamiliar. Caoile’s face only existed now in memories. There would be no more tiny twitches of her cheek just before a smile. No more memory of her; that too would die with Aeron and Barra. What a lonely way to leave the world.

“I’m sorry, Caoile. Wherever you are. I’m sorry this happened. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry I won’t be able to release your soul. I hope someone does, someday.”

She wanted to say more. The moment seemed to cry out for more. But her words had run dry. There was too much to say, and so she’d say nothing.

Moments hung dead and numb like hours in the air. No longer inclined or able to force her thoughts into conscious shapes. World like still water, body too light to even disturb its surface.

Through the door, she touched the earth. It was hard, and she had no tools, but her frozen hands were well beyond pain now. She pawed at the ground until she had something like a handful of soil. She carried it to the bedside and gently turned it out on Caoile’s chest. Hardly the burial she deserved. Hardly a burial at all. But it was all Aeron could offer.

She worked for hours, wearing her frozen hands away.

“She was too good for you.” Barra’s voice shook Aeron out of the trance of her work. She looked over at him. He sat huddled and shaking against the wall.

“All you ever did was take from her. Not a damn to give for anyone else, least of all my daughter.”

Something like sensation stirred in her chest. Something like anger.

“Never say I didn’t care for her.” The words came low from her throat, thin and sharp as razors.

“You cared for yourself;" Barra continued. "Your own happiness. She was ill, and you wanted her to live so you wouldn’t have to lose her. She wanted a child of her blood; something you could never give her, and you were too selfish to give her to one who could. You never loved Caoile; you only used her.”

Aeron lunged onto the old man’s body, leaning her forearm viciously against his throat, sticky and rough with frozen rivulets of blood from her broken hands. “Don’t you dare speak her name! You didn’t even know your own daughter! How many summers have you lived moments away, and you wouldn’t even speak to her. You have no idea how much it hurt her that you couldn’t accept us, that you turned away when she passed by, that you couldn’t even put aside your stupid, petty silence while she was dying in front of you. You have no right to claim her now that she’s gone. Hate me all you like, I take it as a compliment. I knew what she wanted, and don’t you think for one moment that it didn’t pain me every day that I couldn’t give it to her, but that sacrifice was her own to make. Not mine for her. And certainly not yours, you worthless bastard.”

She shoved him back against the wall hard, hatred in her eyes daring him to respond. He stared back. Finally, she turned back to her work. Barra spoke no more, drifting in and out of a delirious kind of consciousness.

At last, she poured one final handful of earth over Caoile’s body. She blew out the candle and collapsed onto the bed beside the mound of dirt. Now she’d done all she could. Now she could die.

Sleep had almost taken her when she saw the light.

The light was bright white and shone from the center of the mound. A few white leaves poked up through the soil, shining like the moon.

Of course. She was dreaming. She had to be. What a gift, to leave the world with a dream so beautiful. A gift far greater than I deserve.

Aeron reached out to touch the luminous leaves. There was no shock, no special moment; but neither was there any pain.

She drifted off to sleep. Perhaps she dreamed of Barra standing, staring, eyes glowing violet, striding stiffly and strangely out into the night. Perhaps she dreamed of the earth shaking and opening. Perhaps she dreamed of vines and leaves, brilliant white and shining, encircling her. Perhaps she dreamed of silence.

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