THE WINTER CRONE by Loie Dunn
Frost caressed the crystal windows of the cabin, and Beira traced her iridescent fingertip across a pattern, cursing her heritage. Winter beckoned, and Beira of the Silver Woods would have to accept her rightful position as its goddess. Ushering in death and silence and smothering snow.
Even though she didn’t believe in winter’s kiss.
Beira inhaled sharply as a monstrous shape shivered from outside the window. Coughing, she rolled over on her side reaching for her spear just as the door to her cabin boomed open.
Standing at the front door was a creature taller than her house. Its crooked back rose with humps and lumps. Watery green eyes stared at her as it coughed, shattering the windows.
“What are you doing here? It’s not even the Solstice yet, Pied.” Beira snarled, shaking the glass from her long maroon cloak. “Did you have to break the windows? They were a gift from the Sun King.”
She glanced at the frosted remnants of the glass. The King never gave gifts.
Gritted her teeth when his cerulean gaze glittered down at her.
Jerking her head up to stare at Pied, she spat at his feet. “Get going! I know what I must do today. I don’t need you breathing down my neck.”
The giant snorted and shook its head, before ducking out of the doorway. She strode towards the doorway, glancing back and forth the well-trodden path around her cabin.
Sure enough, the Silver Woods crackled with energy. Winter fairies scampered across the faded leafy ground, giggling shrilly and pointing at her. Wincing, she shouted, “Mind your own business!”
A pure white stag strutted into the glen, shaking its majestic head. Long pearl tresses rippled in the cool breeze, its unblinking ebony eyes watched her.
Now what did it want?
“Can a goddess not get one last day of peace?”
“You can’t believe you’ll ever have a minute of peace, surely?” the stag responded. Little clouds streamed through his nostrils as he snorted, shaking his head.
“I should be able to,” she muttered. Squeezing the bridge of her nose, she grabbed the white pine staff from her porch.
“You know better than that,” it responded. “You’re the third sister. You have responsibilities. You can’t dream and dither about.”
“I wasn’t dithering about!” she said in a cross tone, pounding the staff into the forest floor. Sharp crackles filled the air as ice tendrils flew from the staff.
The stag merely stared at her, its gaze unwavering.
“Why do you always have to be right?”
“I’m not,” it responded with a mild shake of its head. “You’re simply easy to read. Now come on. We have things to do.”
“Fine.” She took one last look at her cozy cabin, eying the shattered Sun King’s gift and shivered violently. The windows laid splintered across the room.
What would he say if he saw what happened to her gift? Would he be upset? Think her careless?
Beira frowned, her snow-white eyebrows knitting together. She was only young yet. What did he expect? Everyone expected so much from her. The Winter Goddess. Meant to harken the winter season, to freeze the land and animals.
To welcome in the whirling winds from the four corners, icy and blistering. There she would stand with her staff and snow-white hair whipping about as she directed the gale and the snowflakes to their destinations.
Nobody understood that she had never asked for this.
She didn’t even like winter.
Darting her gaze to the stag, she watched as he sauntered away from the glen, as if expecting her to follow him.
“Why did I get this job? Miserable and cold. Nobody wants the Winter Goddess. A mistress of death and decay.”
“Are you still whining?” The stag appeared at the side of her arm and nudged it. “Come along. It’s time to go see your King.”
“The one whose gift lies shattered on my cabin floor?”
The stag shook his head. “Yes, I suppose that one.”
“I thought I had a few hours left to myself, today.”
“Come along. It won’t take long. Samhain is almost over. Then you will be free to do as you please until spring.”
Beira rolled her eyes. “Mhmm.”
“Sometimes I forget you’re only a seventeen-year-old. Other times I wonder why I forget that.” The stag replied primly.
They walked forwards, the soft crunching of the leaves the only sound in the glade. Cold shards of light peaked through the evergreens and birds chirped shrilly high above them. Beira caught a raven staring at her, its beady eye unwavering.
It was almost as if they all knew what was going to happen soon and who would be responsible for it. She shivered, goosepimples rising all over her even though she was cloaked in a bloodred robe that should have kept the cold out.
Too bad for her.
What would they do to her if they could somehow stop winter from coming? Would they rip her to shreds, leaving her body strewn across the faded pine needles, steaming of gore and muscle?
The Sun King’s eerie sunset eyes flashed in her mind. Would they go after him too, demanding he stop the decay and death of the promise after solstice?
Before she could think too more on that, the glade ended, and they reached the edge of the woods. Across the deadened beige plains, the wind whistled, rippling its way towards the crystallized castle of the Sun King.
Beira glanced at the lukewarm sky, the sun’s glare weakening as the moments passed. She could see partygoers streaking the sky with smoky fire. Music thundered in the distance and people danced and danced and danced.
They were welcoming the shift. Inviting winter’s deadly embrace. Beira’s shoulders slumped forwards as she glanced down at a half-dead primrose.
“I wish this didn’t happen,” she said to the stag.
The stag turned to look at her, its red tongue flickering out for a moment. “Why?”
“Because all the death,” Beira responded with a shake in her voice. “Is there any need?”
“It’s natural. It’s the cycle of life.”
“So you say. And so, we believed. What if we abolished winter?”
“Shhh,” the stag hissed, flickering his gaze from side to side. “You mustn’t say that. It’s treason, you know.”
“I don’t think the Sun King is going to get huffy about me. I’m only a girl.”
“With the winter lineage in your blood.” The stag raised a dark eyebrow at her, a smirk unfolding at its mouth. “You don’t understand who you are yet. You will.”
Beira exhaled and followed him across the long plains, the whipping of the wind becoming unbearable. What would the King say to that thought? Would he see it as treason?
Besides, what could she do? She had a staff that created ice and ushered in the end of fall.
She didn’t think he would be too rattled.
It was still light out. Whispers of soft-scented pine essence drifted on the wind. Beira looked up blearily from her cup of cider and watched as the merry goers danced around the towering fire, shrieks of laughter licking the sky.
Meanwhile, she sat there pondering if she should make a break for it.
“You look like you’re having the time of your life.”
Beira looked up from her bronze globe and raised an eyebrow. The white stag stood there with a wreath of holly around its neck.
“What are you wearing?”
It rolled its eyes and dug the ground with its front paw. “I’m celebrating. Like you should be.”
Beira downed the cup of cider and stood up, gazing down at the plain of revelers. Their eyes appeared vacant as they swung in each other’s arms. She wondered what they really thought about the solstice.
The Sun King stood at the far end, taking last minute gifts from patrons of the kingdom. She had avoided him for as long as she could.
“Where are you going?” she hollered as the stag started to saunter away.
“I’m going to get you a bauble or two.”
“Come on. I don’t want to face him alone.” She looped her arm over the stag’s neck and inhaled sharply. The familiar scent of hay and salt waved past her, and she squinted back hot tears.
“Why are you so afraid?”
“I’m not afraid!”
The stag snorted and nudged her. “Okay, sure.”
They slowly made their way down the flower-infested path. Thousands of people brought the King their dried roses from their summer gardens, as thanks for his great gift. Beira stared at the dead red roses crumbling beneath their feet.
“This is going to be fun,” she muttered, as she stared at the dwindling line. As if he had heard her, the Sun King’s gaze snapped up and locked onto her.
Her fingers trembled. Digging them into the fur of the stag, her companion snorted and nudged her again.
“Beira of the Silver Woods, you made it at last. I was wondering where you might be. Ah, I see you’ve brought a friend.” The King’s gaze narrowed at the stag. Beira felt the stag’s muscles tense as the King fingered his sword.
“I wouldn’t miss this party for the world,” she lied, tangy acid filling her mouth.
“Yes, as I understand it’s a big day for you and your sisters. Time to usher in the new Goddess of Winter.”
Beira slipped her fingers into the stag’s fur again and stared at the King. She glanced back at the people dancing and swirling across the plains. One might have seen merriment and celebration, but Beira saw death and darkness and chaos.
“I don’t want to be the Goddess of Winter.” She raised her chin and didn’t look away from him even as his expression darkened.
“What did you say?” His voice boomed like a thundering drum.
“Winter is deceitful and deadly. I do not wish to be the Goddess of Winter.” Beira clutched her staff and started as it burned beneath her fingertips. “I’d rather be a matron of the Silver Woods.”
“You dare defy my wishes?” The King roared. Leaning down so only she and the stag could hear him, he hissed, “The only reason I get such a celebration at year end is because of Winter.”
Beira frowned and pinched the ridge of her nose. “I’m only seventeen-years-old. I have a right to my life.”
“Winter is in your blood, girl,” the King hissed. Pointing at the stag, he hollered, “What have you told her?”
The stag shook its mighty antlers at the Sun King. “I told her nothing she doesn’t already sense.”
“Not another word!” The King roared and a sudden flash of light pierced the air around them.
Light hit her with a force unlike anything she had felt before. Falling to her knees, blood dropped from her forehead. Blinking away the tears, she gasped when she saw her hands.
They were wrinkled and gray.
Trying to get to her feet, she cried out as pain splintered her back. Trying to stand straight, she realized she could only go as far as her stooped back allowed.
“What have you done?” the stag bellowed.
The Sun King snorted and shook his head. “The Winter Goddess is not a young girl but an old crone with a crooked back.”
Beira clutched her face and felt the wrinkles. The stag didn’t jump away from her but looked at her with an expression of sympathy. She cried out and struck her staff into the ground. Splintered ice rose from it and shot into the Sun King’s chest.
Blood spurted from the lethal wound and Beira watched as the Sun King sank to his knees, gurgling She watched as their Sun King fell into the shadows. Glancing around, she saw that people were staring at her with gaping mouths.
Grinning sharply, she cried, “Winter is here!”
Loie Dunn is a full-time writer of fiction, blogs, and articles. Loie is currently querying her sea-faring young adult fantasy and writing a new fantasy novel. She has traveled to Ireland, Haiti, Israel, Mexico, Rome, Scotland, and England. Please visit her at: loiedunn.wordpress.com and on Twitter: @loiedunn. She loves to meet fellow writers and connect with them.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff