The Girl with the Frozen Heart by Y.M. Pang
A girl lies bleeding in the snow; an arrow piercing her heart. A god takes pity on her and saves her life, the only way he knows how.
The girl is taken in by a nearby village, her memories and past completely erased. Telzo, the blacksmith’s apprentice, is drawn to her and soon enough begins to fall in love with her. He allows himself to hope that one day she might feel something for him in return–but is that the right thing to hope for?
The Girl with the Frozen Heart is a tale of a different kind of Awakening—one with heart-wrenching consequences.
She was dying when the god of winter found her.
She stumbled through the snowdrift, one hand pressed to her chest. Blood dripped between her fingers, mingling with the heavy white snowflakes. She had snapped off the arrow’s shaft, but its tip remained embedded in her heart.
She managed three more steps. Three steps into wind and emptiness. Three steps from the bodies, Vilocet and Casenna alike. Then her legs finally collapsed and she fell forward, one more body in the snow. Her blood pooled around her, marking her grave, if only for a few hours—soon, the snow would bury every trace of her.
Then she heard his voice. A voice like snapping branches and tortured wind. A voice foreign to her, but one she had no trouble placing. She’d seen those wreaths on the doors of the Casenna villages, heard the songs they sang: folk songs, drinking ditties, but most of all, hymns that praised him and begged for his mercy.
“Why did you come this far,” the god of winter asked, “for someone who abandoned you?”
The girl drew a ragged breath. Coughed. “She was my mother.”
Her tears froze in the wind. She reached forward, clawing for something that was not there.
“Do you want to live?” the god of winter asked.
But the girl was no fool. She knew the old tales of the god of winter. “I don’t need anything from you,” she gasped.
“But I want you to live.”
The truth. For in that moment the god of winter pitied her, this human who travelled so far searching for a mother who never loved her. His pity reined in the snowstorm, quieting the winds just a little.
He descended toward her on wings of ice. Cupped her face in his ancient hands and tried to breathe life back into her. But his breath was cold and only pushed her further into death. He tried to pluck the arrowhead from her chest and close the wound, but her skin shrivelled and blackened at his touch. He was the god of winter, destined to take life and not to give it back.
So he did the only thing he could: he inhaled, then breathed out over her heart. His breath was snow and wind and crystallized solitude, and it spun a cocoon of ice over her heart, enclosing the arrowhead, the wound, and her death.
The girl opened her eyes. Sat up. She stood and began to walk, no longer stumbling, instead moving with such grace that many would swear she floated. Not once did she shiver, even as the winds resumed their howling and her legs sank knee-deep into the snow. She did not glance back at the bodies. She did not tire, even as the sun set and rose, even as the landscape changed from plains to forest to village.
On the second day of the Winter Reverence, Telzo trudged down the snowy path toward a house at the edge of the village. Alsen had ordered metal clasps for his flute case, and after more restarts than Telzo cared to admit, the clasps were finally ready. While Telzo hammered away at the metal, the blacksmith had grumbled about something as superfluous as a flute needing so finicky a part. But when Telzo presented the completed work, the blacksmith had grunted and nodded. About as much approval an apprentice could expect.
As Telzo neared Alsen’s house, a fluttering black flag in the distance caught his eye. He stared, blinked, stared again. No, not a black flag. A girl dressed in white, her long black hair fanning out in the wind.
Her steps, lithe as a faerie of folk legend, carried her toward the village, toward Telzo. Her expression was serene, not like someone who’d braved the Winter Reverence snows. As she drew closer, Telzo noticed the reddish-brown stain on her coat. Blood.
He ran toward her, stumbling in the thicker snow beyond the path. “Are you okay?” he called. “Do you…”
She glanced at him. Their eyes met, and Telzo forgot his original sentence. “I—I’m gonna find the doctor, okay?” he said. “Wait here!” He took off, half-convinced he’d imagined the girl. Blood… A beast, perhaps? But her coat was not ragged or torn.
Doc Shozo was in his fifties and walked with a limp, so when Telzo returned with him other villagers had already emerged from their houses and gathered around the girl. Strangers drew crowds here, even more so when they were lone, bloody girls appearing in the middle of winter.
The villagers followed, chattering, as the doctor led the girl back to his hut. Shozo gave the crowd a disapproving glare before he shut the door.
A few minutes later he emerged, shaking his head. Telzo ran over to ask what was wrong.
“Nothing,” Doc Shozo said. “That’s the strange part.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Lass told me she’s fine. Like any doc with a brain, I point to the blood. So she takes off her clothes to show me.”
“What?” Telzo yelped, flushing with embarrassment.
The doctor shrugged. “I’m used to ’em lasses being shy, but this one… Mayhap she’s from somewhere with different traditions, or mayhap she’s used to takin’ them off…”
“No way!” the apprentice found himself shouting. The doctor’s suggestion drove a spike of anger through him, though he couldn’t say why.
“Well, you’re probably right, kid. No sense in me judgin’ her. Anyhow, ain’t no scratch on her beneath the blood, so you can rest easy.”
When the girl emerged from the hut, the villagers surrounded her though none came too close. Perhaps it was the blood still staining her clothes. Perhaps it was the wintry calm in her eyes.
“You from around these parts?”
“How’d you get here?”
“I don’t remember,” the girl said. “I don’t remember anything.”
So that night they called a village meeting to decide what to do with her. She had been left with Doctor Shozo for the day; he grumbled at first, but when the meeting came around he had shown up willing to take her on as an apprentice. He was old, his last apprentice had run off with some travelling troupe, and he had tested the girl with a few tasks during the day. She seemed smart and obedient, if a little strange.
A few muttered about extra mouths to feed, but Ms. Limbard voiced her support. The girl could live with her and earn her keep, lending an extra hand with the farm work.
So they gave the girl a place in the village and a name to call her by: Inara, after a heroic wood spirit from “The Song of Grey Leaves.” Telzo felt an odd sort of triumph. He had spoken on the girl’s behalf, though he was only the smith’s apprentice. No matter how dismissive the villagers had outwardly seemed, surely his words had helped a little.
A week passed. Doctor Shozo called the girl a good assistant. She never complained, never seemed to tire. Ms. Limbard said she was “quiet and helpful, but distant.”
Telzo glimpsed her every day as she went about her chores, but he could not work up the courage to talk to her. What would he say? Ramblings about his days spent working the bellows and hammering iron? Questions about the world beyond—the world she could no longer remember? For now, he contented himself with watching.
He noticed the girl had a ritual: every morning, she would stand at the edge of the village, raise her arms, and feel the rush of wind and snow.
On the last evening of the Winter Reverence, Ms. Limbard rang the village bell.
It had been a cold winter, and the villagers had gathered to sing their songs inside the village hall rather than outside by the bonfire. But as the clear, urgent sound of the bell interrupted Lisa’s fiddle, the villagers flocked outside, racing toward the square. The bell was saved for dire occasions, and the villagers had plenty to worry about that winter: the constant snowstorms, the Hydas beasts becoming more active, and rumours during autumn—before the last travellers were snowed in—about renewed trouble at the border with Vilocet.
The villagers found an angry Ms. Limbard and three tearful, shamefaced children. The children had run off into the woods on a group dare. They had lost their fourth member, Ms. Limbard’s son, in the darkness.
The villagers formed search parties, lit torches, grabbed weapons. Telzo was about to leave with his own party when he caught sight of Ms. Limbard yelling at Inara.
“Don’t just stand here! Can’t you see my son is missing?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Look for him like everyone else is doing!”
At those words, the girl headed toward the woods. Alone, unarmed, without a torch or weapon. Ms. Limbard, perhaps realizing her mistake, tried to stop the girl, but her feet sank into the snow and gave her no chance to catch up. Inara, as always, seemed to float.
I can’t let her go. Telzo broke off from his group, and—through determination more than anything—overtook Ms. Limbard. He saw the tail of the girl’s white coat vanishing into the trees and plunged in after her.
He shuffled through a veil of aspen, their white, reedy trunks jutting from the ground like the incisors of an impossibly large monster. He managed to keep the girl’s coat just in sight, yet as they plunged deeper into the forest, among the dark, sweeping pines, he lost her. He held his torch aloft, a buttress against the darkness, but wondered with every step whether he should extinguish it. It allowed him to see beneath his feet, preventing him from tripping in the snow or getting caught in the traps set by their own hunters. But the light killed his night vision, making it impossible to see beyond its shaky circle. The bears would be in their winter torpor, but there were always the wolves—or worse, the Hydas beasts. They might hesitate to attack a search party, but a lone man…
He shook off his fears and continued walking. All the more reason to find Inara. At least he had a spear. She had nothing.
The snap of snow and twigs beneath his feet made an odd percussion to the wind’s song. Each breath of cold air burned his lungs. Winter pierced through his skin and settled in the bones and joints of his fingers.
After wandering for an eternity, he had to admit defeat. He had found no trace of either Inara or Ms. Limbard’s son. His hands had grown almost too numb to hold his spear, and every time he stopped, it felt like an invitation for a beast.
Feeling useless but resigned, Telzo made his way back to the village. By the time the trees cleared and he could see the houses again, a small crowd had gathered by the bonfire. The smith’s apprentice stumbled up to the villagers, peering into the centre of the commotion.
It was Ms. Limbard’s son, carried by Liam Harow and his brother Selz. The boy’s face was pale, his left leg a bloody mess. The smith’s apprentice caught whispers of “trap” and “accident” and surmised what he had worried about in the woods had happened to the boy: stepping into a trap set by another villager. He heard whispers of “the new girl.” He looked around but could not find Inara.
The Harow brothers brought the boy to the doctor’s house. Inara opened the door. Before anyone could ask questions, they were shooed away by Doc Shozo. Tired but too full of adrenaline to sleep, Telzo went home and asked his father about what happened.
“Well, that new girl found him,” his father said. “Carried him outta those woods. Quite the sight, actually. Liam kept enough wits about him to ask her to give the boy to him and run ahead to notify the doc, to prepare and all.”
The smith’s apprentice knew he should ask about the boy: how badly was he hurt, whether he would recover. But what he said was, “How’d she find him?”
“Said she heard him calling. Me and the rest, we got no clue what that means. None of us heard a damn thing and the boy’s passed out besides.”
His father retired to bed, but Telzo could not stop thinking about the girl. She had strode into the forest with no worry, no fear. She had faced the winter night like she was greeting an old friend.
The snows melted. Old Joen, who continued to live in the low-lying house his mother had left him, once again experienced a flood. The villagers shook their heads in exasperation but dropped by to help him rebuild.
Inara continued to stare into the woods and sky every morning. But one day, as the last of the snows melted, Telzo saw a shift in her routine. Usually she held out her arms and closed her eyes, lost in her own world. But this day, a frown creased her brow. She opened her eyes and looked around in confusion.
Telzo, watching from his window, felt a pang of worry. This was the young woman who had walked into the woods alone with no hesitation. What could have disrupted her routine, made her show something close to unease?
He found himself outside before he realized how he got there. He clenched his fists. Just go. Walk over. Talk to her.
One step, then another. He stood beside her, shivering, even though winter was finally receding.
“Um, hi,” he said.
Wonderful. Great first impression.
She turned. Blinked, as if returning from a dream. “I can’t hear it,” she said.
He was not sure how to continue the conversation, so he just stood there while she stared at him.
“I—I’m Telzo,” he said at last. “I live in the house over there.”
More silence. Then she turned away, returning her gaze to the sky. Telzo wanted to say more, but every attempt died in his throat. So he left, heading for the smithy. But even as he traipsed toward another day of sweat and tedium, a new flame lit within him. He had spoken to her, been ignored, but it was not the end of the world. He would survive to try another day.
He joined her the next morning at the village’s edge. He offered a quick greeting, but she did not seem to hear him. Her eyes remained fixed on the woods. He tried to start a conversation: the first traders of the year had arrived the day before, and they brought news. Vilocet soldiers had attacked Joma in the middle of winter, perhaps trying to catch the defenders unawares. By all accounts it was a massacre for both sides.
But he soon trailed off, as Inara did not respond to his chatter. Silence returned, and stretched between them like a tug rope.
Telzo shuffled from foot to foot. “Do you… do you mind?” he asked.
She finally glanced at him, as if just noticing he was here. “Mind?”
“Do you mind… me being here?”
She turned away. Then: “No, not particularly.”
The day after that, he did not try speaking again. He knew he’d have equal luck holding a conversation with the metals he smelted. So he mimicked her position and looked out into the woods. Didn’t she mention something about a voice? He listened, wanting to understand her world, but all he heard was the unintelligible howl of the wind.
The silence was awkward. Her actions, incomprehensible. But those few moments with her became the brightest parts of his day.
The villagers began looking at him the same way they looked at her: with distrust and mingled curiosity. Still, he had been born and raised here, his family dating back more generations than they could count. The villagers could not call him an outsider or exclude him from work or daily life. A few nudged him and asked why he liked her so much. He answered with a shrug and silence.
Silence. Time with her made him appreciate it. There was something comforting about it, and he pitied the villagers for their hurried lives, their inability to ever experience it.
The silence between them changed from awkward to companionable. He no longer spent every second thinking of what to say, nor did he feel like slapping himself every time she did not reply. He was content watching the woods with her, and sneaking occasional glances in her direction. Her long, dark hair streamed in the wind, and her eyes were like a calm lake. Was she beautiful by other people’s standards? He did not know, nor did he care. He just knew he wanted to be beside her—the mysterious stranger, the doctor’s apprentice, the quiet heroine who had braved the winter woods to save Ms. Limbard’s son.
Spring changed to summer. Flowers bloomed then fell, replaced by fruit. Green leaves covered the tops of the incisor-like aspen trees; what had, in winter, resembled the jaws of a fallen monster now served as shelter for tenacious foliage.
One morning, Telzo made his usual trip to their spot at the edge of the village. No tree or house was close enough to provide shade, yet it felt pleasantly cool here. Inara was wearing a white dress that looked like it had once belonged to Ms. Limbard, stitched in places to suit her smaller frame. She seemed to be listening again, but she turned at the sound of his footsteps. And, to his surprise, she spoke.
“Can you hear it?” she asked.
“I…” He looked away. “No. Not right now. But I’m trying.”
She cocked her head to the side. “I wonder, why has the voice deserted me?”
“Maybe you can ask when it comes back?”
She gave a brief nod. “I think I will.” She gazed into the woods again for a moment. “I will need to head back now.”
“Yeah, I need to head to the smithy too.” Telzo smiled. “I hope Doc Shozo and Ms. Limbard aren’t as grumpy as my master.”
The girl actually seemed to contemplate his words. “I have no comparison.”
Do you want to stop by sometime? But he dared not ask. “See you tomorrow then?” he said instead.
“Tomorrow,” she said.
The Midsummer Festival came and went. Telzo had wanted to ask Inara to come with him, but his mother and older brother wanted to make the village’s biggest lantern together. Telzo allowed himself to be roped along, glad for an excuse to delay a potential rejection.
Near summer’s end, there was another accident. Old Ben was gored by a Hydas beast, and left a trail of blood as Alsen and Ryensil carried him to the doctor’s hut.
Ben’s family wept and begged but Doc Shozo refused to let them in. Too restless to return home, they paced in front of the door while the doctor and Inara worked deep into the night.
The door cracked open at dawn. Inara stood there, blood splattering her white dress, her hands, her pale cheeks. A foul stench leaked from the half-open entrance to the hut.
Ben’s wife, son, and daughters crowded around her.
“Is he okay?”
“Let us see him!”
The girl looked at them. “He is broken. We couldn’t fix him.”
A wail rose from the group. Ben’s children clung to each other and sobbed. His wife, her face ashen, turned to Inara. “You should’ve done more! There’s no way… no way he’s gone!”
But all the girl said was, “You’re in the way.”
She brushed past the grieving family who were too astonished to stop her. She walked to the wash house to rid herself of the blood, then went to her usual spot to listen to the voice she could no longer hear.
Everyone attended the funeral. There were prayers and tears and mutters of disbelief. How fragile life was. How Martha now had to raise three kids on her own. How much those horrid woods had taken from them over the years.
The girl was there. But she did not weep or pray.
“We should’ve kicked her out from the start! Our village doesn’t need someone like that!”
“Martha, I know you’re upset, but—”
“You didn’t see the way she looked at us! I swear, she must be a demon! Every time she walks by the whole place gets cold.”
“Y’know, Martha has a point. She dropped by my place on an errand, and I swear I saw frost creeping over the mantelpiece…”
Doctor Shozo rose to his feet.
“What a load of hogwash,” he said. “We damn well did all we could for Ben. Or d’you doubt me too, huh?”
Martha quietened for a moment.
“Inara’s… composed, she is,” the doctor said. “That ain’t a bad thing, when it comes to healin’. Keeps her head clear in emergencies and lets her remember what’s best for the patient, which ain’t always easy.”
There were mutters of disbelief, but Ms. Limbard was quick to speak up on Inara’s behalf, reminding them of how Inara had saved her son. Several others nodded in agreement.
In the end, it was decided that Inara—demon or heroine, outsider or one of them—couldn’t be left to the mercy of the wilderness. They dispersed from the village hall, and Telzo heaved a sigh of relief as he walked home.
Telzo was the first to arrive at their usual spot. Inara came to stand by his side a minute later, and he wondered if he should bring up Ben.
She spoke first. “Why were they yelling at me?”
He could only stare at her. So she doesn’t know. She really doesn’t know. “They were sad,” he said. “Grieving. Someone they loved has passed away, and it’s natural to look for someone to blame.”
She sounded out those words, as if they were a foreign language she had not yet mastered.
“We couldn’t fix him,” she said. “That is all.”
“Well… He was someone they saw every day. Who Martha was married to for twelve years, who raised three children with her. He talked with them, worked the fields with them, made them laugh… Now he’ll never laugh or talk again. It’s like a piece of their lives is missing.” He paused. “Can you remember anything at all? Anyone who was like that for you?”
The girl furrowed her brow. “No. No one I can think of.”
In the coming months, the villagers’ eyes hardened and their comments grew sharper. Toward Inara, yes, but also toward Telzo, for he continued to stand beside her each morning. “If you’re trying to understand her, then don’t bother,” the blacksmith said to him.
Telzo barely heard. His thoughts were on the Harvest Festival which was fast approaching. He needed to do what he hadn’t done at Midsummer: ask Inara to attend with him. Because otherwise he’d never dare ask. Because now more than ever, he wanted to show the villagers that Inara was not some cold-hearted monster.
Two days before the Harvest Festival, Telzo stumbled up to their usual spot. “Do you—I mean, I… You, you want to come to the Harvest Festival with me?”
“There’ll be storytelling, music, dancing. Alsen said he’ll play a new song he learned in Elsach. Oh, and Lisa’s the best fiddler in southern Casenna. You need to hear her play ‘The Tale of Prince Kessand.’”
“Prince Kessand…” Inara’s eyes seemed far away.
Telzo’s heart skipped a beat. “You know the story? Do you remember something?”
“It’s the one with the ice palace…”
“Yes, yes! Merlida, Kessand’s true love, was imprisoned by the god of winter. And…”
He trailed off. Inara didn’t seem to hear him anymore. She reached out a hand, as if grasping something invisible that floated from the woods.
“Will you come with me?” Telzo asked after a moment.
“I want to hear that song,” she said.
On the day of the Harvest Festival, he found her waiting in front of his house. He hurried to the door, then paused, hand hovering over the latch. They had never met outside the usual spot before, he realized. His heart began to hammer.
Get a grip, Telzo, he berated himself and opened the door.
He barely managed a hello before she turned away. Wordlessly, she started walking toward the bonfire at the centre of the village. He followed, and despite her nonexistent greeting and stony silence, a grin broke across his face.
They joined the crowd that had gathered to hear Alsen play. As always, the flute looked like a toy in Alsen’s big hands, but all that was forgotten when he blew the first note.
“Valeria,” Alsen’s new song from Elsach, stretched like a delicate, spiralling web, trills and crescendos mixed with softly held notes that had Telzo forgetting to breathe. When the last strains of music melted into silence, Telzo glanced over at Inara. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but her lips seemed to curl in something close to a smile.
Then Lisa stepped forward with her fiddle. She plunged into “Swiftly Runs the River,” and villagers rose to their feet. Telzo held out his hand to Inara, an invitation to dance. She took it; her hand was icy, but he did not mind in the least. They moved together to the bright, emphatic notes. She danced with a wild grace—not the precision of a practiced performer, but something more raw, unpredictable, like the pattern of dancing snow.
After a few more rhythmic songs, the villagers sat down. Drinks were passed around, and Lisa struck the first note of “The Tale of Prince Kessand.”
The opening was mid-tempo, melodic. After a few moments Lisa took on the countermelody, and the villagers began to sing. They sang of Prince Kessand meeting Merlida, a palace dancer. Of him falling in love with her, and vowing to marry her despite the disapproval of everyone at court.
Here the villagers fell silent, and Lisa took up the melody again. The notes came slower, darker. For on the night of the wedding, a snowstorm swept through the palace courtyard. The god of winter, who’d also fallen in love with Merlisa, whisked her away to his palace of ice.
The villagers sang of Kessand’s twelve years of waiting. And when Merlida finally escaped from the god’s palace, she had lost all her memories. Telzo glanced at Inara, and saw her mouthing along with the words.
Lisa lowered her fiddle, and the villagers’ voices told the next part of the tale.
Kessand treated Merlida with care, with patience. And eventually she fell in love with him all over again.
The song ended with their marriage festivities. Lisa’s hands were a blur as she played the staccato notes, and the villagers clapped along. She ended the song with a flourish, fiddle raised high, then bowed. The villagers burst into cheers and applause, as if this were the first time they’d listened to her and sang with her. No one ever grew tired of “The Tale of Prince Kessand.”
Telzo looked at Inara. She stared into the firelight, as if she could see Merlida and Kessand dancing within.
The following week, they spoke more than they had all those months before. They talked about “The Tale of Prince Kessand.” She did indeed know the story, but in her version the god of winter hadn’t loved Merlida. He’d locked her in his palace because he foresaw a terrible end for her, should she marry Kessand.
“And was he right?” Telzo asked.
Inara frowned. “I don’t know. I can’t remember how the story ended. I think… my father used to sing it to me.”
That evening, Telzo paid Alsen a visit and asked about other versions of Prince Kessand’s story. “Was there one where the god of winter didn’t love Merlida, but was trying to save her?”
Alsen stroked his chin. “Now that I think about it, that’s probably the most popular version in Vilocet.” His face twisted. “I’ve crossed over a few times, before their Reunionists started chanting ‘One Nation’ and attacking our borders. Where’d you hear that version?”
Telzo made up a story about hearing it from a trader. He kept the truth to himself. It mattered little to Telzo which side of the border Inara grew up on, but it wouldn’t be wise to let the villagers know.
The next day, Inara asked when there would be another festival, when they’d be able to dance again. Telzo’s heart soared. If only the villagers could see her during those conversations… they would never suggest kicking her out, never see her as anything other than human.
The leaves fell and were blown away by the increasingly cold wind. Soon, the first flakes of snow began to fall.
Telzo walked toward the meeting spot, lifting a hand over his eyes against the stinging wind. He found Inara with her arms outstretched, her eyes closed. Her face took on its closest approximation to happiness, and he immediately realized why.
“You can hear it again?” he said.
“What is it saying?”
She opened her mouth and… spoke. Her voice was an incomprehensible howl. A cold blast of wind struck him, and he dropped to his knees, shivering.
He took a few deep, chilling breaths. Those words she’d spoken, they hadn’t been human. He shook his head. No, no, he must’ve imagined them. She hadn’t said anything; it was only the wind. He climbed to his feet and did what he always did: strained to hear the voice she was listening for. He heard nothing that sounded like words.
He found her the same way a day later. Not a fleeting reunion then; what she was listening for had returned for good. A bittersweet taste permeated his mouth. Happiness for her, but sadness for himself at being left out.
“I have been thinking about your question,” she said. “Something I miss, like Martha misses Ben… perhaps it’s this voice? I feel incomplete when it’s gone.”
“But you don’t cry or tear your hair out when it’s not there,” Telzo pointed out. For some reason, he didn’t want to assign too much value to the voice.
“But I miss it.” She turned her head, staring at him instead of the tree-lined horizon. “What if it goes away again?”
Telzo shrugged. “Maybe it only comes in winter.”
The girl’s gaze sharpened. “That is it. Why didn’t I realize it before?” She stared out into the vast, snow-covered forest. “It’s not as clear as it was last year,” she said after a few minutes of silence.
“Maybe it gets louder as the winter grows colder.”
Inara nodded. They came back to the spot every day, listening. Their conversations dwindled to nothing, except Inara’s comments about the voice never rising above a quiet murmur. Telzo heard only the wind: an irritating howl, more wordless than ever. Sometimes it blew so hard that he could barely keep his footing, but Inara—light as a feather upon the snow—never seemed uprooted by the gusts. If this winter’s saying anything, Telzo mused, it’s telling me to get inside.
He took her to the Winter Reverence festivities. They danced, but she did not smile, did not sing along to any songs.
The days grew colder, then warmer. When the snows melted, Inara said, “It’s gone again.”
Telzo wanted to rejoice. The voice, his greatest rival, had finally peeled away from her. But he had never seen her so close to genuine sadness, and all he could say was, “I’m sorry.”
Alsen and Lisa were wed in early spring, with a bonfire and music and dance.
Alsen, ready to settle down after years of travelling, grinned so wide his face must have hurt by the end. Lisa, beaming, picked up her fiddle to serenade the village and her now-husband. Telzo didn’t know when they had fallen in love, but they suited each other, with their love of music, their liveliness, their good humour.
The marriage was a loud, rowdy celebration. Drinks flowed and bawdy jokes were directed at both bride and groom. Telzo feared Inara would feel uncomfortable amidst such commotion, but she stayed by his side the entire time. In the days after the voice’s disappearance, she had started speaking to him more again. He hadn’t even needed to persuade her about attending the wedding.
Before bride and groom were swept away by the crowd and chanted into their bedchamber, Alsen passed by Telzo and whispered: “It’s your turn now.”
Telzo could only manage a quick nod. He knew what Alsen meant, but could he, after seeing how the voice had stolen Inara away, allow himself to wish for something more?
Doc Shozo had to leave for a month that summer, handing the town to Inara’s care. Jane Withers caught a cold while drinking outside during a rainstorm. After Inara administered some foul-tasting but effective concoctions, she made a full recovery.
Alsen cut himself with a kitchen knife while attempting to cook. Inara stitched his hand expertly while he muttered sheepishly about trying to impress his new wife. Inara did not understand what he meant by that, but at least he promised to be more careful in the future.
Both patients complimented Inara, saying she had learned a lot from the doctor and showed them a surprising amount of care. Martha sat through that village meeting looking like she was chewing gentian root, but said nothing as the other villagers nodded their approval.
One morning, after Doc Shozo’s return, Inara asked Telzo, “I sometimes wonder, why do we wait here every morning? We know we can hear him only in winter.”
Him? It was the first time she had gendered the voice.
“Well…” Telzo swallowed. “The truth is, I couldn’t hear him from the start, and I never did manage to. I… had a different reason to be here.”
He waited one, three, five seconds. Would she tell him to go away? Shake her head in disappointment? Gaze at him with incomprehension, at best?
But what she said was, “I understand what you mean. I can’t hear him now, yet I still come back here.” She stretched out a hand. “But… maybe we should meet somewhere else. And return in winter. While we’re here so many of them stare at us, talk about us. There is much I want to talk about, to learn.”
Telzo’s world seemed to grow brighter, sharper, like he’d stepped from a cavern into sunlight. Was this an invitation to spend time together, finally, without that never-there voice occupying her mind? Could he show her his house, show her the smithy, work together with her during the harvest?
Grinning, he reached out and took her hand. Perhaps they were getting used to each other, for she felt pleasantly cool to him now, rather than cold as snow.
They danced at the Midsummer Festival. It was difficult to keep up with her easy grace, but it was a chance to hold her, to admire the sway of her body and the precision of her steps. Telzo caught whispers about how strange this was, that the cold-hearted Inara now danced with the hopeless smith’s apprentice at every festival. Telzo felt a surge of pride: that he’d played a part in how Inara had changed, that he had been right all along about her.
The day after, the blacksmith pulled his apprentice aside before they could start their current project. “You’re at that age,” the blacksmith said. “Settle down with a nice village girl. Inara… she’s plenty capable, and kinder than we gave her credit for. But she ain’t right for you, kid. Not as someone you’d marry.”
“We sing of Prince Kessand,” Telzo shot back. “He married despite his family’s disapproval and eventually got his happiness, even after twelve years of waiting.”
“That’s a song,” the blacksmith said. “Ain’t no pretty tales like that in our lives.”
Inara stood in a room of candlelight and blood.
She heard Lisa’s ragged breathing. She heard Alsen pacing outside, his footsteps crushing the fragile lives of ants and the last autumn weeds. She thought she heard the pounding of a small heart, a weak echo to Doctor Shozo’s barked orders.
She heard the wind, and to her ears it was a wordless wail.
Her hands moved, but they never seemed fast enough. Her head spun as if she were the one bleeding. The tools took on a layer of frost, and Lisa’s skin seemed to blacken where she touched it.
No, that wasn’t right. Couldn’t be. She was tired, hallucinating. Concentrate, concentrate. She didn’t know if those were Shozo’s words, or her commands to herself.
Her hands fluttered like a caged bird, eternally in motion and eternally futile. Blood was everywhere, the lamps and candles were never bright enough, and Lisa’s heartbeat grew fainter and fainter.
Until it stopped.
Still Inara moved. She must do something, anything…
“Inara. Stop. You can’t…”
Shozo gripped her chin, forcing her to look at him and nowhere else in the room. “Stay calm. Remember what I taught you. Always do everything you can, but sometimes…”
That is not enough. She stumbled outside, away from the heat of the candles and the ice that seemed to rise from her own hands. She heard Doctor Shozo follow her, saw Alsen’s feet shuffle forward. She dared not look up. She knew she should apologize, but she couldn’t look at him right now, couldn’t speak.
She wandered through the village. She didn’t know where she was going, only that her feet moved and moved until she stood in front of a door decorated with a red-leafed wreath. She knocked.
“I’m sorry,” Inara said, and with the word came pain. Pain spreading from her chest to her limbs, until she sank to her knees. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Back then, with Ben… I didn’t know.”
They sprawled on the grass beneath the stars. Normally it would be snowing by now, but winter was late that year.
“I couldn’t save her.”
A gentle touch on her shoulder, the only comfort he could give.
“I know there was nothing more I could’ve done. Doctor Shozo says we did well to save the baby. So why do I feel… guilty?”
The word hung between them. Undiscovered until now, like a patch of sky she had never noticed before.
“Alsen doesn’t blame me, but I blame myself,” she said. “Is it normal to feel like this?”
“Yes,” Telzo said. “Of course.”
“Because you care. And you wanted to save Lisa.”
“It’s what makes us human.”
She ran a hand through the yellowing grass. “Afterward, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just… stumbled up to Martha’s door and apologized. I didn’t know, back then.”
Unsure of what to say, Telzo tried to distract her by pointing out the different constellations, their names and stories passed down for generations in the village. She asked questions for a while.
Then, softly, she began telling her own stories about the constellations. Different ones, or similar ones with details changed. “My father loved these stories,” she said. “He’d always say, wherever Mother was, at least we’d all gaze at one sky.”
The day the first snows fell, Telzo was not in the village. He had left on an errand to a neighbouring town, which turned into a two-week stay when they discovered his blacksmithing skills. The town had their own blacksmith of course, but he was sixty-eight and could barely lift a hammer on a bad day. The townsfolk asked Telzo if he would consider staying on a more permanent basis—he would have the winter to think it over, of course.
Upon arriving back at the village, Telzo dropped by the smithy and told his master the news. He stumbled when the blacksmith clapped him on the back.
“What luck! And here I thought you’d stay my apprentice ’til we’re both white-haired grandfathers!” The blacksmith’s eyes narrowed at Telzo’s silence. “Thinking ’bout her, are you? I tell you, ain’t no time to be throwing away an opportunity like this.”
Telzo knew. His master was still strong, still relatively young, good for a decade or two barring disaster. There were more opportunities in a bigger town. And yet…
The sun had slipped past noon when he emerged from the smithy, and Telzo did not think Inara would be at their old meeting spot. But the winter’s first snow had come that morning, and it wouldn’t hurt to check.
To his surprise, she was there. Not standing in silence, listening. Instead she sat, knees pulled toward her chest. She jumped up when she saw him and ran towards him, all her usual grace gone.
The winter sun lit the trails of her tears. “He’s gone! I can’t hear him at all!” She stretched out a hand, reaching for him as she had once reached for the wind and the voice. Telzo opened his arms, and she fell into his embrace. Her tears soaked his coat, and he felt her shudders spread through his own body. Her hands, her shoulders through her coat, felt cool. But her tears were warm.
A sudden blast of wind almost blew him to the ground. The snow, dancing around them, prickled his face like needles. But he was holding her, and she did not pull away for a long, long time.
“I’m… okay now,” she finally said, lifting her head. Her eyes were red.
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t worry. I—I’m sure it’ll come back. It’s just not cold enough.”
She shook her head, hair swaying in the wind. “You don’t need to lie. I know he’s gone.”
They returned to the same spot in the coming days. Telzo would tilt his head as a question, and Inara would shake her head in reply. The voice had not returned.
“Maybe next winter,” Telzo said.
“I hope,” Inara said. “But… it’s okay, if he doesn’t return.”
The door to a nearby house opened. Alsen stepped outside, holding his child in his arms. Inara stared at Alsen, the woods and voice seemingly forgotten.
“I was also raised by my father,” she murmured. “My mother… was a soldier. She was never home. Even when Father died, she wasn’t there.”
She stopped talking. Silence returned as their third companion. Telzo, unsure of how to break it, chose to change the topic. “What did the voice say to you? When you could hear it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I used to understand him. That first winter. Ms. Limbard’s son, I found him because the voice told me where he was. But now I can only remember the sounds, not the meaning.” Then she smiled. “Maybe it’s strange of me to keep coming back here when he is gone. But this place is special to me.”
He almost told her then. It’s special to me as well. It’s where I met you. And meeting you, speaking with you—those were the best moments of my life. So come with me. Let’s leave this village together.
During the Winter Reverence, Telzo decided to ask her.
Music carried through the village hall, a countermelody to the wind outside. “The Tale of Prince Kessand” remained part of the festivities—now played by Alsen. His flute lent a more sombre note to the story, and even in the festive bits at the end, no one clapped. They just listened, teary-eyed. When Alsen finished, he too blinked back tears.
The food, removed in measured amounts from their stores, could not compare to what they had enjoyed during the Harvest Festival. But few had much appetite while listening to Alsen’s lament.
Alsen struck up a livelier tune just before the villagers drowned themselves in their beer mugs. The hall was too cramped for the dancing to anything but bodies bumping into each other. Several couples sneaked out the door, arm-in-arm and speaking with hushed excitement.
“Let’s go too,” Telzo said to Inara.
She nodded and followed him outside. It was a cold, barely lit evening. Telzo shivered and was surprised to see her do the same. It must be even colder than he’d thought. He could not remember another winter that had seemed to touch her.
They arrived at their original meeting place at the edge of the village. But instead of looking into the woods, Telzo took her hands in his and made her face him. “Inara,” he said. “I have something to ask you.”
A shower of snowflakes drifted from the sky, landing on her cheeks and melting.
“There’s a town nearby that needs a blacksmith,” he said. “They want me to move there. And—I hope you can come with me.”
She opened her mouth as if to say something, but stumbled from a sudden gust of wind. Telzo, nearly falling himself, ploughed ahead.
“I’ve been meaning to say this for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know what your feelings are. But I want you to know: I’m so glad you came to this village. You are the most precious thing in the world to me.” Perhaps it was his imagination, but he felt her hands squeeze his in return. “Speaking with you, dancing with you, hearing you talk about the things you learned, the things you remembered… it’s been more than I dared hope for.”
Numbness spread through Telzo, and for a moment he could barely move his lips. But no, he had come this far. He would not let the winter stop him.
“I love you,” Telzo said. “I always have, since the day I saw you walking towards the village. When you saved Ms. Limbard’s son, when you took care of Alsen and Jane during Doc Shozo’s absence… I admired you more and more. If you say you won’t come with me, I will stay here and be an apprentice for the rest of my life. If you say you never want to see me again, then I will leave… but I will always be thinking of you, and I will return if you ever need me. Perhaps it’s just a foolish dream, but I want us to spend our lives together. I hope you’ll give me the chance to be someone special to you.”
His breath made white mists between them. He watched her face the whole time, noting every flutter of her eyelids, every turn of her mouth.
“Telzo.” She looked at him with radiant eyes. “You are already special to me.”
Those words. Those few words.
“I’ve… changed,” she said. “It’s been hard sometimes. I started feeling worry, pain. Guilt. I started remembering, but in pieces I still cannot put together. But every time we spoke, you made me feel that it’s okay, that it’s all worth it. I realized, no matter what, I cannot go back to being empty.”
Her smile was brittle as ice in the spring thaw, bright as sunlight on freshly fallen snow. For a moment his thundering heart drowned out the wind.
“I will come with you,” she said. “I want to see where this takes us.”
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. “Truly? You’ll come with me?”
The snow, the forest, even the distant sound of flute music disappeared. He saw only the road stretching before them, long and golden.
He pulled back for a moment, so he could see her face. Her eyes danced with hope.
He kissed her. Her lips were soft as rosebuds, and for a moment he felt like the prince of a story. No mazes, no dragons, no disapproving kings would keep her from him. She was warm in his arms, soft and human in a way she had never been before.
Then her grip slacked. Her head fell back. Their lips broke apart, and he opened his eyes. A scarlet stain covered the front of her coat.
He heard a distant scream. It was the sound of a thousand windows shattering. It was the sound of the earth ripping itself asunder. It was the sound of a storm and a weeping god.
The god of winter, with his wings of ice and voice of wailing death, watched the girl and the boy exit the hall.
He heard the boy speak. He blew, and snow swirled from the still-clear sky. He howled and the wind came, but he could not steal the boy’s words.
He watched them embrace. He watched the foolish boy press his lips to the girl’s.
He felt, more than saw, the last of his work being undone. The remaining ice in her heart melted and the old blood flowed, a vivid red wound that refused heal.
The god of winter screamed as she collapsed in the snow. She drew raspy breaths, clawed for something that was not there, but this time neither he nor the boy could save her.
The god could only watch as the boy ripped off his coat. Tried to bind her wound. Called out for the help. Cradled her still-warm body in his arms, and wept.
At least the boy could hold her, the god of winter thought, and cry out the last words she’d hear and understand. The god’s tears, as always, came down as snow.
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