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Loralee hates the cold—until she meets the God of Winter.
‘I hate Winter.’
‘Oh—I don’t know. Winter’s not so bad,’ her friend Micah said, gazing up at the sky as flecks of snow fell upon her face. ‘It can be beautiful—all that rolling white, the perfectness of life reborn.
‘Hmph,’ Loralee grunted. ‘The cold, the ice, the deadness of everything, the lack of food.’ She closed her eyes and sighed. ‘Give me Spring, give me Summer, any day.’
Her horse nickered as she led it down a small slope. Micah followed close behind. The trail was deep with snow, and its hooves sank into it with a wet slosh at every step. In the Spring the woods were full of life and flowers and beauty. The village could catch conies and small deer, and pick fruit. Now, it looked dead: leafless, lifeless and stark against the snow.
Loralee tugged at her cloak and shivered. ‘How much further?’
‘Another hour, if the weather holds up.’
Loralee looked up with a frown, the sky grey through the branches. She nudged at her horse. It was usually a two-hour journey between their home village and the neighbouring village of Dunrow, but it was Winter, and they had to take it slow.
‘Do you believe in the old legends?’ Micah said as they levelled onto flat ground.
The trail widened, and they trotted side by side.
Loralee scoffed. ‘My Grandmother used to speak of them—old wives’ tales.’
Micah held out her hand, catching snow in her glove. ‘Perhaps. Perhaps not.’
‘Don’t tell me you believe them?’
She shrugged and wiped her hand on her cloak. ‘How else do you explain the fierceness and the length of this Winter?’
‘It happens. Just like some Summers can be unusually long.’
‘Eight months long?’
Loralee didn’t answer.
Micah looked towards the sky again and began to sing.
Spring is a princess, innocent and free,
Hair of dandelions and gold, she’s a beauty from forest to sea.
Proud and bold, Summer blazes across the land,
A lord of remarkable strength as he takes the world in hand.
The Lady of Autumn, wise and careful, brings forth the chill,
Cooling Summer’s fun and fever as he bends beneath her will.
Then Winter descends, all harsh and might, a god of unequalled power,
Only through him, beginning and end, can Spring come to flower.
‘Can’t believe you still remember that,’ Loralee said. ‘I haven’t heard it since I was a tot on my grandpa’s knee.’
‘My family never lets me forget the old legends. There is always wisdom behind the words.’
They walked in silence. The sky grew steadily darker, the falling snow thicker, the wind frostier. Loralee gripped onto the reins hard, heart pounding, the snow so thick she could barely see ahead. An icy wind blew off her hood and gusted through her hair. Her horse neighed and shook its head.
‘Micah, how much further?’ No answer but the howling of the wind. ‘Micah!’ As she spun around in the saddle to look behind her, the reins slipped from her hands. There was the crack of a snapping branch, and her mount bolted.
‘Oomph.’ Plunging through the slushy snow, she hit the ground hard, the wind knocked out of her.
She gasped for breath, the air so icy it seized her chest and froze her lungs. The wet snow seeped through her cloak and through her clothes, freezing against her skin. She struggled to sit up and squinted against the white. Other than her raven hair coiling and twisting on the wind, she could see nothing.
‘Micah,’ she coughed.
She heaved herself to her feet, slipped, stumbled, and fell again. ‘Micah.’
She gripped onto herself and shivered. Her gloves were soaked through, her cloak was heavy with wet, and her boots were soggy. She had to get home and get warm—now. And where was Micah?
‘I hate Winter,’ she sobbed.
She yanked herself to her feet and trudged into the white. She only hoped she was heading in the right direction.
She got nowhere fast, legs aching with the effort, heart thumping, breaths ragged. It wasn’t long before she fell to her knees and slumped over, so frozen she could barely move her fingers, barely take a breath, shivering so violently she cracked her teeth together. She closed her eyes—so tired.
The slosh of a footstep, another slosh, and another. She groaned and opened her eyes a slit as someone lifted her off the ground, strong arms around her, warm breath against her cheek. It was a man: matted beard, tangled brown hair, eyes the glorious blue of deep ice.
She parted her lips to speak, but no sound came out. Slumped in his arms, she squinted above. The branches were invisible in the swirling snowfall. Then she sagged against him and knew no more.
Loralee yawned and drew her blankets around her tightly. Micah was right. There were things to like about Winter, such as being curled up in a warm bed while the weather raged around you. She opened her eyes with a start. Micah. The storm. The cold.
She sat up, then scrambled to her feet with a cry. ‘You!’ It was the man with the beard. He was lying in a bed of furs, where she had just been lying, tight in his embrace. She wrapped her arms around her breasts with a gasp and squatted, hiding her pubic hair. ‘What have you done?’
He lifted a big hand, palm outward. ‘Warm,’ he said, pounding a fist to his chest. Then he pointed a finger at her. ‘Cold.’
She looked around the tent. It was small, barely large enough to stand in. A tent flap, currently hooked closed, was the only exit. Furs and bedding were strewn in layers across the ground, soft and warm against her feet. Sacks of supplies and goods were stacked on top of each other in the opposite corner. There was a ring of stones and kindling where a small fire flickered, the smoke blowing through a hole above. Her clothes were laid out around it. She sidled over to them in a crab-like walk as she tried to hide her nakedness, eyes never leaving his, arms wrapped around her breasts.
She threw on her clothes, now warm and dry, and wrapped her cloak around her. She looked at him and braced herself. He hadn’t moved, his blue eyes looking right back at her. Then she scurried to the exit, unhooked the flap and fled outside.
The force of the wind and snow almost sent her crashing back against the tent. She squinted ahead but couldn’t see more than an arm’s length away. The horizon had vanished behind a pall of white. The air was so chilled it hurt to see, hurt to breathe. The freezing wind cut through her clothes, icing her skin.
She looked back at the tent—there was no choice. She reached into her pants and felt around: no blood, no wetness, no pain—no rape. Maybe it really had been innocent.
Taking a breath, she dropped to her knees and crawled back inside. She hooked the flap closed and crouched in front of it, ready to escape if she had to.
‘Who are you?’ she asked. She gazed at him, trying to determine his age. Somehow, he looked old and yet looked young—ageless.
The man thumped a fist to his chest. ‘Winter.’
Micah snorted. ‘No you’re not.’
He sighed and shook his head. Loralee’s eyes lingered over him. The blankets had fallen around him, exposing his bare chest and the top of his britches. He really was handsome: broad shoulders, powerful arms, strong jaw, kind deep eyes that gazed at her with a gentleness she had never seen in a man before.
Hot, flustered and tingling, she dropped to her bottom. She cleared her throat. ‘I’m Loralee.’
Loralee smiled. ‘Fine. Winter, then.’
The bad weather didn’t cease. For most of the day, they stayed in the tent together as the wind howled and gusted. Loralee was wrapped in layers of wool and furs, while ‘Winter’ was warm enough in only his britches. Twice he left on errands, returning the second time late in the afternoon with a dead coney slung over his back.
‘How’d you find that?’ Loralee asked.
He simply smiled.
Later that night, Loralee huddled in her furs. They were sleeping separately, Loralee by the fire, Winter at the far side of the tent. Despite the fire, despite the furs, she couldn’t stop shivering. She looked at Winter as he lay bare-chested, his layers tossed aside.
You’re being ridiculous. Join him. He won’t touch you if you don’t want him to.
Her heart began to pound. Cold sweat beaded behind her ears. But if I go over, I will love him, she argued with herself.
And so what? He’s far from the first man you’ve had.
She climbed to her knees, then to her feet and padded over. She crawled in beside him and pulled the covers over them both. He opened his eyes, smiled, and drew her against him. Quickly, the shivering stopped, and she relaxed in his arms with a sigh. He was so warm, so comfortable. She pressed her nose into his shoulder and breathed. And he smelt so darn good.
They didn’t move for a time, listening to the crackle of the fire, the pull and snap of the tent against the wind, to each other’s thundering hearts, until Loralee bunched up the courage to press her lips to his chest. Winter grunted, shifted in her arms, then lifted her chin. Eyes sparkling, he leant in for a kiss.
He was gentle, his beard brushing against her chin. He tightened his grip around her and rolled her beneath him. He brushed at her hair as he gazed into her eyes, his own hair hanging around him in a tangle. There was something unworldly about his eyes—a depth, an age, a wisdom that didn’t fit his lonely and rough existence in the snow.
Minutes later, their clothes were off, their skin slick against each other as they rocked. Winter was a big man, both in the broadness of his shoulders and the size of him inside her. Just as he was a man of few words, so was he quiet while he made love. While Loralee’s cries of ecstasy echoed around the tent, he made no sound except for his ragged breathing, the occasional grunt, the smack of a wet kiss.
His grip on her wrists tightened as he came, his seed filling her up. Loralee gasped.
They lay alongside each other, chest to chest, Loralee’s arms tight around his back, his around her waist, sweating at their shared heat.
Flushed and throbbing with pleasure, Loralee brushed at his beard. ‘You can’t be Winter. You’re nothing like the song—harsh and cold. How can something built of ice and snow be so gentle and warm?’
He smiled and entwined his fingers with hers but didn’t answer.
‘When the weather calms, you must come home with me,’ she said. ‘It is lonely out here.’
His smile broadened, and he nuzzled her cheek.
‘When do you think it will calm?’ she said, nuzzling back. ‘Where is Spring do you think?’
‘Dead,’ he said.
She tightened her arms around him. ‘Dead? What do you mean?’
‘Dead. Gone. None.’
She pulled away. Of course, she didn’t believe him, couldn’t believe him. There was no such thing as the God of Winter, the Princess of Spring, and yet, when she gazed into his eyes, there was sadness and heartache and grief.
He pressed a hand to her navel. ‘Spring,’ he said, and patted her belly.
Loralee thought about the old legends, of Micah’s song, and her throat swelled in fear, then excitement and gladness. She placed her hand on top of his and swallowed. ‘Spring.’
Snow and sleet continued to fall. While Loralee’s belly swelled, the frost gathered, the rivers iced, the sky swirled grey and white—and she and Winter made love.
Between their lovemaking, Winter hunted, and Loralee would accompany him, wrapped in several layers as she walked at his side, hand in his. When the worst of the wind and snow let up enough for Loralee to see, she marvelled—the rolling white hills, the icing on the trees, the flawless snow. It was all so glorious. Then she would look up at Winter himself, and she could see all that beauty condensed in the ice-blue of his gaze, in his gentle look, his smile.
When Loralee went into labour, it was during one of the worst storms yet. A howling wind threw piles of snow against their tent, and it was so cold not even the agony of birthing kept Loralee warm.
But then their baby arrived, and there was nothing but the golden tuft on her daughter’s head, her pink and perfect skin, her tiny fingers and toes, her heart-wrenching cry. Suddenly, Loralee stopped feeling the cold.
Winter placed a big hand under his baby’s head as Loralee held her in her arms. He gazed down at her, smiling, a new light in his eyes. ‘Spring.’
Loralee stayed in the tent for the next several days while she recovered and Spring grew stronger. It was on the seventh day when she decided to go for a walk. Spring was tucked safely against her chest, warm in layers of fur. Winter had left earlier in the morning, probably to go hunting. It was an unexpectedly warm day considering how bad the weather had been: water dripped from branches, the snow turned to slush, rivers of ice cracked.
‘Shhhh,’ Loralee shushed as Spring squirmed and squeaked in her arms. Her golden tuft was the only part of her visible outside her swaddling. She began to whinge, then cry.
‘All right, all right.’
Loralee loosened the furs and Spring blinked against the brightness of the day. She reached out a little hand and smiled. Loralee looked at her boots as she walked, gasped, then laughed. The snow was peeling back, flowers and grass blooming in its wake. She looked up and laughed again as life and colour burst on the branches. Birds sang, bees hummed, dandelion spores drifted on the air.
‘Spring,’ she cried, nuzzling her daughter’s head. ‘You’re doing this.’
They walked all day, Loralee looking around her in amazement as the whiteness and gloom of the past seventeen months rapidly fell away around them. The sun burned brightly, animals returned to their homes, the scent of flowers and new growth carried on the wind.
Loralee was enjoying herself so much that by the time she turned back for home it was mid-afternoon. She had shed her furs and walked in only her shirt and pants. She gazed around her. The woods had exploded with life. Except for the occasional gust of cool air and a handful of snow caught in the rocks and branches here and there, it seemed Winter had never been.
She stopped with a gasp. ‘Winter!’
Clutching Spring to her chest, she rushed back to their tent. Darkness had fallen by the time she reached it, the full moon casting it in a blue glow. She crawled inside. There was no fire, no food, no scent of her lover. It was empty.
Winter was gone.
‘Come, Micah!’ her little sister cried, bursting into her room, flustered and flushed, curly red hair stuck-out everywhere. ‘Come see.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s Loralee. She’s back.’
Micah joined the shocked crowd outside, standing on her tiptoes to see over their heads. ‘Loralee,’ she cried. She shoved ahead, pushing people aside. ‘Loralee!’
‘Micah!’ They pulled each other into a fierce embrace. ‘I thought you were dead.’
‘I thought you were lost.’
Micah kissed her on the cheek, then pulled back as something squirmed and fussed against her. Her jaw dropped. ‘You have a baby.’
Micah touched the baby’s golden hair. ‘But, how?’
‘How?’ Loralee giggled. ‘How do you think?’
Micah shook her head.
Loralee smiled. ‘We’ll talk.’
Later that night, after everything had calmed down and village life returned to normal, Loralee and Micah sat at the river together, feet dangling in the water.
‘You just vanished,’ Micah explained. ‘One moment you were there riding beside me and then you were gone. We searched the woods for days but only found your horse. By the end, we lost all hope.’
‘I got lost in the storm,’ Loralee said, tickling Spring under the chin as her blue eyes, clear as the sky, gazed up at her.
‘What storm? The day was clear.’
Loralee raised an eyebrow. ‘Truly?’
Micah nodded, then smiled as she looked at Spring. ‘How is it she should have golden hair while yours is so black?’
‘Fine, keep your secrets.’ Micah drew her feet out of the water and clasped her knees to her chest. She gazed at the sky. ‘The abruptness of Spring has taken everyone by surprise. It’s strange.’
‘Certainly not. It’s only—with Spring here so suddenly, might not Winter be equally as sudden? I dread its coming.’
‘Really?’ Loralee looked down at her baby and smiled. ‘I can’t wait.’
© Morgan Tonkin 2018