December 2007 Volume One Issue Five

The Heart of Winter - Emily M. Z. Carlyle

My father hunted wolves and bears, trapped foxes and wild hares, the kind that will kick a novice huntsman black and blue with their hind legs if you catch them by the ears. He built his home halfway between the village and the great forest. In summer, the meadow and fringes of the forest feed us as well as my father used to, but we never venture where the trees obscure sunlight and a thousand eyes seem to be watching.

But for six months of the year, we live in the very heart of winter. The forest becomes an impenetrable keep, and we can only rely on dried mushrooms and pickled berries for sustenance. Snow swirls around our house like the dervishes that traveling peddlers speak of. The winter storms have been known to drive unwary travelers to madness. Spring reveals them, their faces frozen in lunatic grimaces, arms clutching at the melting snow as though it were a fickle lover.

My sister Blanca was named for her fine, pale hair and her fragility -- sunlight seems to shine right through her. Though she is transparent and still as thin ice, she likes to keep close to the hearth at all times, shying away from strangers like a wild thing. She was born premature, and I suppose the time she failed to spend in our mother's womb left her forever bereft of warmth as surely as it cut our mother's life short.

Our father named me Rozsi because he claimed I came out of the womb with a red face puckered like a tight little rosebud and a squall indicative of a prickly temperament. I know I am far hardier than Blanca -- I fventure out in winter to check our rabbit traps, wearing father's old boots, which used to fit him snugly but swallow me up to the thigh.

Father died seven years ago, when I was a girl just started my monthlies and Blanca was still a child. He tumbled down the stairs on Christmas Eve, reeking of brandy. I do not blame him -- there's not much for a huntsman to do in winter but drink by the fire and think dire thoughts.

The Queen of Winter arrived even earlier than usual before the seventh anniversary of his death, with her sleigh bells heralding storms and her ermine cloak smothering the land in white. I came home after the first big snowstorm of the year with a small rabbit in my bag to find Blanca huddled by the window in her nightdress. The fire had died down, untended, but she didn't seem to notice she was shivering.

"Blanca!" I scolded. "How long have you been up like that? Has the snow bleached all sense from your head?"

She looked at me with her doe's eyes -- the longing in them stopped my fussing. I cannot help seeing her as a mother sees her child. It is hard to remember she started her monthlies this fall, and is likely to get a little restless and curious about the world.

"The snow's so beautiful," she said softly.

"You'll be tired of it soon enough," I grumbled as I wrapped her in mother's great woolen shawl and raked up the embers. "Or have you forgotten how long the winter lasts, how cold and still it gets?"

"That's why I like her," she said. I turned from the hearth to see a fevered look in her eye, which had nothing to do with her sitting up almost naked in a cold house.

"Who?" I demanded, more harshly than I intended.

She hunched her shoulders like a hen over an egg and wouldn't respond. Blanca's never had much imagination before. I let it go, but watched her carefully.

I know the monthlies can turn a girl's head so she sees things that aren't there, infers great promise in words casually passed, and generally brings grief on herself. But who was there to tempt my little Blanca in this wilderness? Surely none of the village rogues would venture out in this weather just for the sake of teasing either of us -- not when they know I still keep father's old gun well-oiled and close at hand.

The storm picked up again towards evening, shedding snowflakes from a leaden sky like small fat chickens.

Creaking floorboards and a shuffle of bare feet woke me well past midnight.

"Blanca?" I called, lighting a candle. When she didn't respond, I got father's gun and crept down the stairs.

The fire was dead and the stone walls were just starting to emanate the bitter chill of deep winter. Blanca wore nothing this time, not even her nightgown. She was pressed to the icy windowpane -- pale thighs, breasts, hands and lips left damp traces on the glass when I tore her from it, shocked at the sinewy feel of her limbs and the heat coursing under her skin.

I shook her roughly. "What the devil are you doing?" I shouted, my anger fueled by fear.

Blanca smiled, an eerie specter of the merry laugh with which she rewards my mocking versions of local gossip. She lifted a slim hand -- there was so much grace in the gesture it shocked me to my core -- and pointed at the window. "See for yourself."

I almost slapped her then -- I'd raised her better than to talk back, but I went to the window instead.

Condensation left by her fevered flesh dripped down the cold glass like sweat or tears. I wiped it away just in time to see what seemed like the back of a large sleigh vanish into the swirling snow. Long dark shapes loped around it. Father used to joke the wolves of the forest were so a-feared of him they wouldn't dare venture close to our house, but he has been dead a long time.

Blanca's voice startled me. "The Queen of Winter comes for her beloved," she chanted, eyes clouded over. "She comes with silver bells on her sleigh and her faithful hounds for wedding guests."

I stared at her where she stood by the cold hearth, pale and chill as a human icicle yet radiating a strange searing heat from her young woman's body. When she laughed at my pleas and threats wouldn't work, I had to hit her before she would go back to bed. Then I locked her in and returned to the kitchen, got a fire going and brewed tea, the dried essence of summer. The strong smell of chamomile and father's gun by my side calmed me down some, but a creeping dread still clung to me. I had never before imagined things that weren't there, not even when I was Blanca's age.

In the morning, I took up a breakfast tray but Blanca refused to acknowledge me. She sat wrapped in her quilt but wouldn't put on any clothes or comb her hair or come down and warm by the fire. I could get no word of explanation or sense out of her.

It was dusk when the knock sounded on the door. Thinking that maybe Blanca's strange tormentor had come to show her face, I hid the gun behind my skirts before unlatching the kitchen door.

A man stood on the doorstep, ice crystals rimming his reddish-orange beard and brows. I am not very tall but he had to look up into my eyes. His were very blue, full of laughter and mischief.

"Good morning, mistress, on this fine and lovely day," the stranger offered with an elaborate bow. I noted he carried no peddler's wares or tinker's tools. Though he wore neither hat nor gloves, he did not seem chilled. I said nothing, waiting for him to explain his presence so far from the village, squeezing the butt of father's gun for comfort.

He straightened finally and asked: "Might a lonely traveler trouble you for some bread and cheese, and maybe even a cup of that lovely tea I smell?" He sniffed the air exaggeratedly, long nose held high, for all the world like a fox sifting through a spring breeze.

"You might, if you were a true traveler," I said crisply. "But seeing as you can't have come far in that thin coat of yours, I suggest you turn back right now and tell whichever merry soul in the village sent you to leave me and my sister be. If you hurry, you might make it before the storm returns."

I stepped back into the kitchen and would have closed the door in his face, but in a trice he squeezed past me and was warming his hands on my fire as though he lived here. I'd never seen a man move so swiftly and elegantly, almost like he was dancing. My mind made up that this was no ordinary man, I lifted the gun from its hiding place in my skirt and pointed it at him.

He laughed when he saw it and shook his head, red hair shedding melted snow all over my kitchen. "Put that away, mistress Rozsi," he crooned. "It'll not help you."

"How do you know me?" I demanded, quavering with apprehension, sending up a prayer of thanks that Blanca was safely locked up.

"I knew your father of old," he replied conversationally, turning to face the gun and sticking his arse closer to the flames. "Many was the time when I barely got away from his traps and bullets only to see friends and relatives perish. My queen would have taken his life as token payment for theirs, had you not beat her to it." His tone and face darkened momentarily before he spotted my shock and discomfort, and grinned.

"Your secret is safe with me, mistress. I don't blame you -- 'tis not easy living with a man long wifeless and burdened by the care of two such tempting flowers. You did what any creature with brains would have done, pushing him down those stairs, brandy-sodden as he was."

He scratched his head with a hand obviously unused to aught but running.

My voice broke. "You saw?"

"Aye, through the window. And such a racket he made going down, we could hear it out in all that wind and snow."

I felt as though we were both telling a story, perhaps a bedtime tale to keep Blanca quiet when she used to get frightened of hobgoblins as a child. "I told my sister it was St. Nikolaus stuck in the chimney."

He smiled with teeth yellow and sharp. "My queen was mightily impressed with you, decided to give you a reprieve. Seven years, same as everyone gets. But now 'tis time to pay your father's dues, mistress."

The sound of breaking glass came from upstairs like the slash of a hunting knife. Forgetting about the fox by my hearth, I tore up the stairs, skirts bunched in one hand, gun gripped in the other. I fumbled with the key, calling to Blanca, but only the wind answered me from the locked room.

A small, strong hand fell on my arm. The fox looked almost solicitous. "Leave be, Rozsi. Your sister was lost to the Queen of Winter already."

I got the key into the lock, turned it, shoved the fox roughly away.

Inside Blanca's room, snow enveloped me with a maddening rush, wind keening, claws of ice tearing at my flesh. I saw the broken window, the empty bed, and screamed like a soul in hell. My throat filled with icy crystals.

Then a furry paw was clamped over my nose and mouth, protecting me from the worst of the onslaught, and sharp teeth seized the cloth of my dress, tugging desperately. By the time he laid me on the floor of the landing and got the door to my sister's room shut, the fox was a man again.

He spoke gently. "You should feel honored. My queen has nothing but respect for your courage and strength, or she'd not have sent me to distract you with pretty talk. Do not mourn -- your sister will be well cared for."

I wasn't going to mourn. If I hadn't dropped the gun in Blanca's room, I'd have shot him for sure. As it was, I felt as exposed to the wilderness as I'd never felt before. I used to think us secure in the protection of my father's house, its flimsy stone walls defying the heart of winter. No wonder the fox's queen felt entitled to something of our own, something precious.

I curled up and wept, my face pressed to the floorboards. The fox's hands were gentle on my face and arms as he cooed gutturally, like a mother fox comforting her cubs.

"Leave me be," I sobbed. "I've lost everything now."

He was silent for a long time. I expected to find him gone, but when I'd cried my fill and sat up, he still crouched by my side, studying me.

"What would you give to have her back?" he asked.

"I'll not let you trick me like some silly girl at market day," I snapped. "You'd take my last and vanish into your queen's land, but I've nothing left."

His eyes roved over my body as none of the village boys' ever did, scared as they were of me, a huntsman's daughter and unmarried to boot. They made gestures to ward off witchery when I passed, but even were I a true witch this fox wouldn't be frightened of a little magic.

I seized a handful of cloth and pulled my dress away from my body, allowing him a generous view of the flesh underneath. "This is cheap coin with which to buy back my everything," I mocked.

He grinned. "Not to one who'd know more of what it's like to live on two legs. I am curious by nature."

"And sly. How can I trust you?"

He spread his hands wide, eyes innocent and mocking. "Have you a choice, mistress?"

I knew what to do, though it was not aught I'd ever done before. Reluctant to let one such as him into my bed, I lay back right there on the drafty upstairs landing, my skirt bunched under my head, and let the fox take his fill. He was quick and no clumsier than I imagine the baker's or butcher's boy would be.

"'Tis easier on four legs," he teased as he helped me up afterwards, rubbing his sore knees.

I laughed, heartened in spite of everything. I offered him my father's knife or even the gun, but he wouldn't take anything.

He said, "I'll distract my queen till she falls asleep, and then make as if your sister changed her mind and ran away."

"Will your queen believe that?" I asked anxiously.

"Nay," he laughed. "But there never was a mess that Fox couldn't talk his way out of."

He made a great show of kissing my hand, like a proper courtier, then couldn't resist and kissed me quickly on the mouth, letting me feel his sharp little teeth, before he strode confidently into the white, his merry whistling snatched away by the howling wind.

All night I kept the fire going and waited. Towards dawn, the wind subsided sufficiently for me to hear sounds I hadn't heard for seven years: a hunter's horn and hounds.

I ran to the door, unlatched it with no thought for the gun, wiser now to just how much of a threat it posed to the queen's creatures. Snow, which already ruled sovereign in my sister's room, now came into the house, coiling around my feet and hissing on the hearth.

Fox came towards me through the blizzard with a graceless, heavy tread, weighed down by my sister's body slung over his shoulders. He seemed tethered to his pursuers by the red blood which unspooled behind him in the virgin snow.

Blanca did not move when he dropped her on the threshold, her lips blue and her eyelids crusted with needles of ice. Fox collapsed beside her, his breathing ragged, the wound in his side gushing forth life as though in defiance of the winter that filled the house. I feel ashamed now to think how I went to him first, more concerned by the sluggishness and pain, so unlike him, than by my sister's familiar, comforting stillness.

"Fox," I babbled, "I'll make you a poultice..."

He seized my hands and held them fast. The warmth was leeching from him fast, yet he managed a smile. "Nay, Rozsika, leave be. 'Twas not as easy as I said it would be, but still -- a bargain is a bargain."

The hounds bayed much closer now, and I recognized they were not hounds but wolves smelling fresh blood. They surrounded the house like pieces of the slate sky fallen to earth with the snow. I could see how their ribs protruded, how their eyes burned with hunger.

The Queen of Winter rode up between them on her wolf-drawn sleigh. She was lovely and severe, like a painted saint, dressed in naught but an ermine cape. Her face was the snow, her hair tangled like the stark wintry trees, and her eyes burned like the wolves'. Her eyes were the feeling that comes over a man falling asleep in the snow, enveloped by the petrifying cold yet believing himself as snug and warm as he'd been in the womb.

The wind keened louder than any hunter's horn, but she stood still and watched me with her inhuman eyes, a level gaze that one gives to an equal. Her wolves shifted anxiously, but didn't dare attack without her permission. I could feel Fox's breath grow fainter as I held him to me, my other arm wrapped around my sister's thin shoulders, my skirt sticky with rapidly cooling blood.

The Queen of Winter smiled, satisfied. Her gaze barely grazed Blanca as she tugged on the reins, turning her sleigh away from the house, back towards her kingdom. I looked down at my sister with newly kindled dread, only to see her breathe shallowly but steadily, like a sleeping child. It was Fox who lay on my lap still and heavy as a stone, trapped by death in that human form he had so wished to explore.

The queen knew better than me how precious something becomes once you've lost it. She had her tithe, and there was no trace of regret in her face as she left us, no more than there is hope for a traveler astray in the snowdrifts.

I kept Fox in the cold pantry till spring, with the cheeses and dried rabbit meat, then buried him by the front door, facing the forest, and marked his grave with a bed of foxgloves.

I still set father's old traps and pick berries at the edge of the forest, but I shall never venture within. I also set aside roots and bits of gristle and bone to put out for the rabbits and wolves when winter returns, lean and harsh. These days, nothing is as certain to put a smile on my face as the sight of a litter of fox cubs gamboling in the green, their barking pitched high as laughter.

I no longer trust our stone walls to keep the wild things at bay forever, but I value them for the protection they do provide -- against the wind and the chilling damp. There are many joys in my life: the taste of hot food and the smell of tea, the crumbling of dry earth in summer and the crunch of snow under my boots in winter, the hugeness of the sky and the scents of the seasons.

And Blanca -- my darling child, my everything. I fixed the window in her room and there she sleeps now, white as snow, still as marble, perhaps dreaming of the queen, perhaps waiting to wake and look into the heart of winter one last time.

- END -

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