Heart of Winter

The respectable society matron Jannia Pickthorn has a secret identity; she is also the author of gothic romances authored merely as “A Lady.”  This is her latest short story to make the rounds in Bree’s copyhouses.

This is the tale of the man who wanted to slay Winter.  Once, in the dawn of the world, there was a man who had a farm.  On this farm was an orchard and a field, a garden and a bee-field.  He loved nothing more than this farm, so much so that he never married.  “My land is my wife,” he would say, “And it is her I love best in the world.”

But every year, the cold would blow from the North and his garden would wither.  His fields would lie frozen, and his fruit trees bare.  The bees slept in their hives, and he mourned as a widower at his bride’s grave all the cold months through.  In time, not even the returning Spring could lift his spirits, so angry was he at the yearly devastation Winter brought to his land.  And so it was that he planned to stop Winter forever.

He took from the midsummer’s sunrise the first ray of light and bottled it up tightly into his store-room.  Then, he started on the long trek Northwards to the place where Winter lives, and to the home of Mab, its queen.  “If I kill Mab,” thought he, “I slay only the tormenter of my summer fields.  Winter is cold and evil and harsh; they will call me a savior.”

And so he journeyed North and North.  At first, the lands were merely like winter-lands everywhere in a blanket of white and glittering snow.  Wind tore at him savagely and wolves howled in the trees.  And then, it grew dark too, dark as dreams from which there is no waking, dark as the caves of the Earth or the breath of Ungoliant.  By the time the farmer reached the doors of Mab’s palace, he was nearly frozen through, and so furred with ice that he looked like a North-Bear himself.

“Who comes?” the voice was cold as death and brittle as ice.

“Hildebrandt the Farmer,” he said, or tried to say between chattering teeth.

“Your wrap.”  He looked to behold a blue hand outstretched. “You will not need it here.  You have come beyond the Cold to the Palace of Memory, where dreams are woven and legends are nursed.  Come, mortal, and partake in the hospitality of Queen Mab.”

His heart lept, for he knew he had reached his goal.  But somehow, as he stepped into the high, dark hall in which shadows of the past peered at him from floating lights in the ancient gloom, he felt a sudden pang of conscience.  True, the fey who took his coat was stern and silent, and the hall was somehow still cold, though he felt himself thaw in it.  But he was in a house, just as he had welcomed others to his own home.  Sternly, he reminded himself of his beautiful farm and the ruin that was to befall it, and hardened his heart even as he tightened his grip on his bottle of sunshine.

The Fey gave him a garland of snowflake filigree and teardrop gems that did not melt, though it touched chill against his brow.  His silent guide led him to the Garden of Forever, whose fountain flowed backward and whose waters showed in their glimmers of light all the tales of Arda.  He heard it whispering to him as he passed among the Winter Court.

Pale maidens danced like snow blown by the wind while more sober courtiers strolled the winding avenues of ice and bare branches that made a labyrinth of the garden.  And a garden it was, he saw after a time, though it was no garden he would have made.  Here, the bare branches were a lacy beauty and he could see every color hiding in the sensual curves of the snow.  He saw that snow is blue and lavender and pink and gold, and ice black and navy and umber and cream.  The sky above was the clearest he had ever beheld and the stars could be heard singing a crystalline chorus over the still ground below.  He found his breath taken away as he saw the perfection of winter beauty whose shadow had so repulsed him.

He walked those roads for a time in lost wonder.  Through the endless beauty of ice he saw the forms of winter wolves and bears, both of them in brocades that splashed bright like the winterberries that dotted the ice of the garden.  The King of Cardinals flew by with his Queen, pausing only the chitter at the Lord of Foxes as he lounged slyly against his silver-topped cane.  When the young man finally came upon Mab, he almost missed her among such strange sights.

But Mab cannot be missed for long, for she is the Winter Queen and the Bringer of Dreams.  Every creature knows her, for she visits them all in the night, for good or ill.  She knew the farmer, and what he wanted from her.  It was the piercing regard of her eyes that stopped him and drew his gaze up.

She was like her garden, stately and solemn and dark in her garments.  Her hair was the white of new-fallen drifts and her eyes bright as stars, weighted with the wisdom of ages.  Her black robes fell in shadowy folds about her ice-wrought throne over the winter red of the dress beneath.  On her shoulder was perched Bran the Raven, speaking wise council to her as her court held session.

Her voice was quiet as a whisper and forceful as a blade as she called to him, “Hildebrandt who Farms.  You have come to undo me.  The means lie in your hand even now.”  Her wolf-guards made to leap at his throat, but she stilled them with a gesture.  Hildebrandt saw that her eyes, though inhuman with their wisdom, were profoundly sad.

“Before you raise your hand, I offer you a choice.”

His courage returning, Hildebrandt said, “There is no choice!  Winter is an evil thing that kills all that is green and good.”

Mab was silent, but he could feel the pain of the nerve he struck.  At last, she carried on, “That may be, Summer-child, but you are in my home.  I have given you safe passage hither, and even now my hand stays the cold from taking your breath.  It is a small thing I ask.”

“Ask then,” he said, though he felt his pride sting.

“I send to you three dreams this night in my gardens.  Only three.  They will not harm you, but they will speak truth.  When they have come and gone, you may strike at me with the sun, or join me at my table.”

He frowned.  “You will not fight me if I strike?”

Mab turned to Bran, who shook his head vehemently.  But she said, “If you decide that Winter must die, then so be it.  I will not fight, nor any of my court.”

Around the Queen the wolves growled and the bears loomed.  No, he could not act now.  But a Fairy’s word once given is given.  Everyone knows this, even farmers.  And so he said, “The bargain is struck.”

Bran stretched forth his wing, and from it the Queen pulled three feathers.  She blew the first toward Hildebrandt and then –

A girl-child scampered past him in the step-hitch rhythm of her jumping rope.  He stared aghast at her, for her skin was sliced with long cuts that lay raw against her healthily tanned skin.  But she smiled and paused in her playing to drop a laughing curtsy.  

I know you!” he gasped.  And he did know her, though he couldn’t say from where or for what reason.  But she grinned and leaned against him, trusting as he imagined his own child would be.

“Of course you do.”

“But what has happened to you, child?  Surely you must hurt with all those cuts.  They should be bandaged!”

She smiled up sweetly and giggled. “But Mab already has!  She sends cool rains to soothe my furrows and soften my flesh.  She is my nursemaid, who will someday let me go into the world on my own.”

He grew angry, and asked, “Is it she who wounded you too?”

She said softly, with old eyes in her young face, “Oh no, Father.  Not she.”

And the dream was gone.  Angry, the farmer demanded, “What is the meaning of that?  The poor child!”

Mab’s face hardened at the tone, and her wolves raised hackles at him.  “One dream you have had.  Two remain.  Look, Mortal, and learn!”  She blew the second feather his way and he saw –

The air was thick, thick at a July hothouse and choking with the foetid smell of rotting vegetation.  A woman smiled up at him, flushed and glowing with a loving smile.  The air made her light summer shift cling to her curves, and he felt awkward as he saw that she was swollen with pregnancy.  She held out a hand to him, and her breath smelled of apples in the sun.  He knew her too; she had the little girl’s face, only healed without a scar and grown into lines of winsome beauty.

“Not long now, my love,” her voice rustled like the wind in an August wheat field and her hands were burning with fever-heat as she moved them to the swell of her belly.  He should have felt awkward, but instead he felt he was home.

“I know you,” he said, and her laughter was rich where she lay her golden head against his shoulder.

“I should hope you do, dearest love.  It is for you I bloom as I do.”

“Do you need anything?”

She sighed, and her heat grew to a restless intensity in the breathless air. “If only the rain would come.  I am parched for water and am like to faint.”

Anguished, he said, “I cannot cool the air for you, my sweet.”

Fading even as he grasped her, she said, “Then I must die…”

He turned tear-stained cheeks to Mab and said, broken, “What became of her?”

Mab said with a disdainful look down her nose, “In an eternal summer, she would die.  But with night comes the dew, and even at the waning of the cold, there is always a little winter, just as there is always just enough summer to keep the winter warm.”

“I know her.” He said, though there was more question in his voice than statement.

“Yes.” she said, and her smile was terrible as she blew the final feather his way –

An old woman went about her labors.  Her body was frail and bent, and her teeth gone from her sunken mouth.  She fetched wood and hauled water, though each motion seemed to draw agony from her pained joints.  And… he knew her too.  In her withered face he saw his summer lover and his spring girl.  Her eyes looked to him still with trust and love, but also with a weariness beyond knowing.

“Please, take your rest, Grandmother,” he said.  “It is wrong for you to work so hard.  Have you no grandchildren to keep you?”

She said with a sigh, “Only you, my dear.  Will you not let me rest?”

He was taken aback, saying, “Rest?  Of course you may rest!  What have I to do with your labor?”

She smiled and carried on hefting her pail.  He followed her up the hill slowly.  “Dear boy,” she said between pained huffs of air, “I bore the cut of your plow when I was young, and I gladly gave you the fruit of my body when I was grown.  But I am old now and tired, yet still you would have me give more!”

He stood stock still, and she finally held his eyes.  In them, he saw what his heart had seen before.  His land, his fields, his trees; all of them looked from her eyes.  “You are my farm!” he gasped.

“Yes, child.  Now you see.  There are seasons in which I give to you and revel in your tending.  But there are times in which I can no longer feed and nourish, but must be fed myself.”

“But I thought you died with the Winter!”

Her laugh was dry as leaves. “Oh, child, child.  Death to me is sleep, and sleep is as death.  So it is to you, and to us all.  That which is cold can be kind.”

And she was gone, like the rest, and Hildebrandt was left to look on the Queen.  Her eyes was still steely and her court ungentle, but he now saw in it all how needful, how necessary it was.  More than that, he saw mercy in her heart, where in his there had been only need.

“What is cold can also be kind,” he said, and bowed his head.  Without a word, he gave up his pot of sunlight to the Queen.

Her smile was frosty still as she raised her hand.  “To dinner, then.  You will lead me in.”

And in that moment, Hildebrandt saw that the Queen loved his land better than he, for she asked nothing of it as she gave what it needed.  He sat by her at dinner, and she told him many more things besides.  Ever after, when he had come home and tended to his beloved fields, he would greet winter as a friend, welcome to his hearth as he had been to hers.

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About celeveren

If you're here, you know why.
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