A Heart in Winter

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Awakenings

Time passed. Wildwinter raged. When its time came to go, it did not pass quietly. It melted into a flood, leaving the land raw, an open wound in the earth. But wildspring would not be denied. An explosion of life and beauty like none had ever seen burst throughout the ruins of Toth Dail. There was time before wildsummer for people to return and see if there was anything to salvage.

Most settlements had little to offer; only splinters of wood left to prove humans had ever altered the place. The Greywoods, in wildspring hunger, spread out far across what had been Ceodra.

In a clearing where a house once stood, huge, broad leaves lit the night. They were the bright green of spring, and they smelled of grass and growth and wet earth; a flower waiting to bloom.

One day, it did. It drew back. A thick, leathery, translucent husk within dried in the open air.

Aeron awoke and blinked, the sun shining down on her. She rubbed her eyes and sat up. Running an absent hand down her cheek, she felt a strange kind of familiarity; an incomplete wholeness. Her hands were new, pale green, slender and strong, like flowers made flesh. She turned to her side.

Caoile lay beside her. Her hair was thick, brown as earth and streaked with green so deep it looked all but black, interwoven with thin vines that grew from her scalp and encircled her arms and webbed over her chest. A long scar ran between her breasts, and the vines and the scar were one. Her eyes fluttered open and turned. Her cheek twitched, and the motion echoed into a smile. Aeron suddenly remembered how to cry.

They clung to one another for a long time with no sound but trilling birdsong. Too many words better spoken by none.




Aeron sat up, drawing her knees to her chest and gazing out at the world around them. Unfamiliar. The entire face of Toth Dail changed in the wild seasons.

“Caoile, I need to tell you something.”

“What is it?”

She sighed. “I was desperate. To save you. I did things… put myself and all of Toth Dail at risk.”

Caoile shifted, laying her head in Aeron’s lap. “I know. I remember some of it.”

“But you were… you’d gone by then.”

“I know.”

Aeron shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m not sure I do either. Some part of me was still alive. I think it might have been…” Caoile’s words trailed off.

“What?”

“I’m not sure how to say it. But something’s different now. Do you feel it?”

“Feel what?” Aeron asked. Caoile looked around at the forest in wonder.

“Springtime. Within you. Everywhere.”

Aeron concentrated for a moment. She heard birdsong, felt the sun on her skin. She shrugged. “It feels like any other spring to me.”

Caoile closed her eyes and sighed. A cool, gentle breeze flowed through the clearing.

“I was dead. But you gave me the heartseed, and somehow I remember. I think I have its memories. Maybe even some of yours. I think… I think I’m spring.”

“How is that possible?”

Caoile shrugged. “I’m hardly an authority on the subject, dear. This is your world more than mine. But I can sense… growth. All the life bursting out all around this place. The breeze.”

A lump formed in Aeron’s throat. She wasn’t sure why, but now more than ever she felt the guilt of her actions.

“I’m so sorry.”

Caoile rolled sideways, curling herself around Aeron. “Why?”

Aeron laughed to mask the tears that were forming in her eyes. “I just… all of this is my fault. Everything’s different now. Toth Dail isn’t even recognizable. People might be dead because of me; I don’t know who listened, who got away. Your father…” The words caught in her throat. “I don’t even know what happened to him.”

“My father was… Aeron, you know I loved my father.”

Aeron nodded. “More than he deserved.”

Caoile forced a smile. “You may be right. But I have to be honest with you, he exhausted me. I was ready for him to be gone. He WAS gone, years ago. My father died with my mother. There wasn’t much of him left after she…” She sighed. “All he cared about was family, but even when I was the only family he had, it wasn’t me on his mind. It was what I could give him. How I could save him. By the end, I wasn’t on his mind. Not as anything more than some kind of… extension of himself, I suppose. I’m not even sure he loved me.”

“No, Caoile, he must have—”

Caoile shut her eyes. “Maybe in some abstract way, he did. Just… not the way I wanted him to. But you always did.”

“But all I did…”Caoile frowned. “What you did was… You made mistakes. Big, dangerous ones. I won’t lie to you, it frightens me a little that you have mistakes like that in you.”

“Me too.”

“And I think moving forward we’ll need to address that. I love you, and I love that you care about me so much, but…”

“I made a selfish call.”

“You did. If we’re lucky, there was no blood in that price beyond us. We have to make it right, you know. Or as close to right as we can.”

Aeron nodded. Caoile shifted against her.

“What I hate most about all this is that you hurt yourself. Let yourself be divided. I’m not worth that.”

“You stop that. You just shut up right now.”

A laugh rocked Caoile’s body, the motion echoing into Aeron’s body. Aeron smiled and let it fade. “What I did terrifies me. I just couldn’t imagine living without you.”

“You can’t put me above the world. I’m not a goddess.”

“You are to me.”

Caoile grinned. “That’s sweet. But—”

“No, I know what you mean. And I wouldn’t have. I’d made up my mind. I was going to leave when you… I panicked. I hadn’t even said goodbye, and…” Aeron choked on the words.

“Oh, Aeron… I’m not going anywhere now.”

Aeron nodded. When she could speak again without her voice cracking, she continued. “I hadn’t said goodbye. That seems like such a tiny thing, but everything hinged on it. I had to make the decision over again, and I had no time to consider it. Part of me was screaming that this was the most horrible thing I could do, and part of me was screaming back that it was the only thing I could do.”

Caoile reached up and stroked Aeron’s cheek. “I’m sorry.”

“As much as I love you, I made the wrong choice. I’m not making an excuse for that, but I don’t think I would have made that choice if my souls had been in tune. The dissonance blurred my judgment.”

“Do you think that might happen again in the future?”

Aeron thought for a moment. “No, I don’t. I don’t feel the fog anymore. I think I’ve found equilibrium again, somehow.”

“I hope so.”

They were silent for a while, but it was a comfortable silence.

It was Caoile that broke the spell. “I’m sorry I put us through all this.”

“Stop that. None of this was your fault. But just so you know, I’m never letting you get sick again.”

Caoile laughed. A musical sound that tingled out into Aeron’s fingertips, made her feel alive.

Aeron smiled. She tried to lean in for a kiss, bending at an awkward angle, ultimately failing and falling sideways onto Caoile. The two of them giggled to themselves for a few moments. Aeron righted herself, spinning over her wife’s body and gazing into her eyes.

“I’ve made so many mistakes the last few seasons. If you can forgive me, you should probably get started; it might take a while.”

“Oh, I’ll see what I can do.” Caoile said, a mischievous grin stretching across her lips. Aeron kissed her, taking her waist into her hands.

She felt something. A spiritual presence. She pulled back in shock. “Oh my gods!”

Caoile stared at her in alarm. “What? What is it?”

Aeron goggled. “You can’t be.”

“I can’t be what? Aeron, what’s going on?”

Aeron laid a hand on her wife’s belly, searching. She felt the presence again.

“Caoile. Oh my gods. You’re pregnant.


The heritage of season spirits that now lived within Caoile brought instinct with it; only days passed before she could manage fine control of growth.

Many of the people of Ceodra never returned, but new faces filtered in. The Oldonnaich returned to his seat as soon as Dailham was rebuilt. Aeron’s relationship with him was strained for a time; even though only a few stubborn souls had died in the wildwinter, it ravaged the land. Buildings were destroyed, vital harvests and livestock wiped away. The aftermath left Toth Dail weak; undersupplied and open to attack from the greedier clans. The Oldonnaich might have arrested Aeron, but Caoile would not allow it. Instead, Aeron and Caoile exhausted themselves helping to establish the rebuilding settlements. They traveled from town to town, Caoile speeding the growth of crops so they could be harvested less than a day after planting and Aeron working in the fields alongside the farmers. Word of Caoile’s abilities spread quickly; she’d grown far stronger than any season spirit. If any of the other clans had considered attack, the talk of a guardian with such immense power over the seasons quelled them.

Before long, spring came to an end, as all seasons must. Caoile changed then. To Aeron’s relief, her wife took on the colors of summer. With the threats of famine and invasion curtailed, the Oldonnaich considered Aeron’s debt paid. Life, though forever altered, returned to a new kind of normal. Seavan Barra’s body was never found.

Caoile passed through the shades of autumn. Just after her hair whitened to winter, she gave birth to an impossible child. He was perfect. Everything Caoile had ever wanted. They named him Rain. They never learned the secret of his conception for certain. Throughout the boy’s childhood, the people who knew Aeron and Caoile’s little family often spoke of him. He had Caoile’s hair, dark and thick. He’d inherited a closeness to the nature spirits from Aeron. He had the wide Barra smile.

But most of all, they would always say, he had Aeron’s soul.

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