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Chapter One of Red Winter- Blood(TW)
Ayuna shot up her sword, every muscle in her body straining to put it in its target. She wanted this to end now. Red blood, hot and alive, sprang from the other girl, landing in the snow and leaving it red. She tried not to see it. The hot tears of horror in her eyes froze instantly into sparkling diamonds as she struck again. For the last time.
Ayuna had been in the market on a hot July day getting cloth for her tailors’ shop. She remembered thinking how hot it was and wishing it would cool down. She felt something cold prick the back of her neck and looked up to see snowflakes falling on a hot day in the dead of summer. Murmurs and whispers erupted in the marketplace. She had a rock in her stomach as she grabbed her cloth and went to her shop. Something didn't feel right.
Winter came within a week. Soon they heard rumors of people abducted, and finally, a traveling peddler had come into town and explained the rumors, though nobody knew how much he was embellishing the story.
According to him, a curse had fallen on the land, running on the blood of the innocent. There was an arena someplace, and once a week when the scarlet snow faded, strange winter spirits captured random people. Rich or poor, old or young, men and women. The spirits didn't seem to care. They were forced to battle to the death, their blood fueling the winter.
The winner’s heart was stained forever. They were consumed in guilt and never seen again. But they said that their hands were always red, always stained with the blood of their opponent. Forever.
Or at least, that’s what she knew. She didn't remember the peddlers exact words, and she had more information now. She sighed and looked up from the dress she was sewing. It did no good to dwell on the curse.
The fire crackled faintly in the background and she tried to hum something to it. Its irregular sounds forced her to give up. She sighed and returned her attention to the autumn-colored kirtle. Oh, autumn. It had been colorful, not bleak and white. But there were red hues in this world too. Hues of blood.
She shook her head to break out of her stupor. The kirtle was a vivid marigold anyway. How many years had it been now, anyway? Two? This was the 135th week of the winter. So many lives lost. A child in her village had been taken once. She had been in the market a few months ago, in September. There had been a howling wind whistling through the village and then something appeared in front of a little girl playing with her brother.
The winter spirit was in a human shape, whirring snow making up the body, pure white- but for its hands. Crimson ice. Its face had no eyes, but from the sockets were two twin lines of ice, meeting at where the chin was meant to be. The child screamed and tried to run away. The spirit had no struggle catching her. Then they disappeared and a wind howled away. The mothers’ shriek was burned into her memory.
Apparently a woodcutter who lived outside of town had been taken as well. The news that returned said he had won the battle. He had been taken a year or so ago, and they still hadn't heard from him. She had deliberately avoided hearing of the little girls’ fate. But she couldn't stop imagining a thousand killers of the girl, a thousand ways she had perished.
She swallowed against the lump in her throat and chastised herself. She only ever spiraled down when she thought about the curse. Think, Ayuna. Something positive. You can do it! But… what was there that was positive to think about?
Well… they were still alive. They had figured out ways to grow food, and some animals had managed to pull through. Mostly voles and foxes, the voles because nothing had happened to the roots, and the foxes because nothing had happened to the voles. A few predators stayed to eat foxes, including bears, which humans could eat. But when the plants died, the deer left for an uncursed land, and with them most of the game.
They had ways to grow crops inside. Everyone had become a farmer because nobody had a place to grow crops enough for more than their family. But people still needed clothes, and increasingly warmer ones, so she was in buisness. Even if she charged so little that her buisness was barely keeping her and itself alive. She couldn't let them freeze. They were all in it together.
She sighed and pushed up her sleeves. Then she shivered and changed her mind, tightening her cloak. She put aside the kirtle and walked downstairs to her shop, putting more wood on the fire.
She heard the wind outside howl and fetched her second cloak. Summer would come… someday. She hoped. Ok, summer would probably never come. She was restless, she couldn't just sit and sew. What usually calmed her nerves was just agitating her today. It was so quiet, so empty, and begging for thoughts to fill it.
Instead, she anxiously walked over to her fabric dyes. She was almost out of… everything. Soon that would be true of wool, too. They didn't have any food for livestock. The extent of animals kept was the occasional chicken. Her cat, Asalin, a recipient of much love, had left to the wild. She imagined Asalin feasting on voles, but the reality was probably much bleaker. Everything was.
She stared out the window at the swirling snow and screeching wind. Why? Why the blood, why the winter, why the starvation, why? She combed her fingers through her pale blonde hair nervously. Maybe she should leave. They had heard that outside kingdoms were in… well, winter, it being December. But other places had Summer. And food, and animals… and life.
She sighed. She wanted to try and go someplace else as others had, but she didn't know she would make it to the other side. She glanced down at the street from her window, shivering people yelling at each other, empty stalls where farmers once stood with shelves utterly bare, not even a crumb of food in sight. She might not survive this either.
Next July, when the winter was at its mildest, she would try to get to safety. If she survived to try… others had tried, they had never been heard from again. There was no more postal service, of course, and none of the people who had left would be making an effort to contact her, but she had seen people travel through from the heart of the kingdom. They verified stories, mostly, and even told of battles to the death in a strange arena at the heart of the winter they had seen first hand, but that wasn't the point. They had been hollow. Skeletans of people, their faces bone white and every ounce of warmth and life gone. But… maybe, maybe she would be different.
Now, the fact that she wasn't allowed to leave her lord’s land was not a concern to her. Any guard or knight foolish enough to be anywhere they might spot her would probably just let her go. Others in her village had left illegally, and one guard was even the one who carried the news back to town. At this point, nobody cared. They were all people now. Besides, in this cold, the lord wasn't keen on worrying about laws when his life, like everyone elses, was at stake. Nobody had heard from the king in a while either.
She put on more clothes, cloaks, and hats and walked outside, restless. She paced around, keeping her eyes on the grey cloudy skyes to avoid looking down at starving children with fingers freezing off, or the corpses left to rot in the middle of anywhere.
She heard a rumble of excitment in a crowd and looked back at the world. A man had come into town. What had once been thick layers of warm clothing were now frozen rags, with enough holes to clearly make out each and every one of his frostbiten ribs. Her stomach clenched but she ran into the crowd to hear what news he brought.
She stared intently at his face and imagined it without hollow cheeks and starved eyes, ruddy in the light of a fire. She recognized him! Almost. He lived in the same town as her cousin, they were good friends. She pushed through the crowd.
“Arthon! It's me, Ayuna!”
He squinted at her. “Ayuna?”
“Any word of my cousin?”
He shook his head sadly. “He was taken last month. The winter spirits.”
She hugged him. “I'm so sorry…” hot tears leaked from her eyes. It was so awful!”
“Thats when I left. Figured I should get out while I can.”
“Here, come with me. My house is warm, I can give you some new clothes and a little food.”
“Thank you.” he trudged behind her on numb feet.
“No trouble.” they got back to the tailors shop and she gave him some eggs from her chicken, Narutha. She pushed along a polite conversation, trying to find something to talk about besides the awful reality outside. It didn't help that he didn't have the energy to reply.
“It must be pretty bad.” she said, truth considering he looked half dead. Somehow her words enraged him and he woke from his stupor.
“Bad? Bad doesn't describe the torment. The cold keeps you up every time you consider sleep, theres a constant hunger slowly eating me inside, I can no longer hold to an ounce of hope. It's like heat in a blizzard. Just when you grab a shred it's ripped away by the wind. I wish I never left. I wish the winter spirits would take me, but that would be to merciful, no, my anguish is better dragged out. I wish to die, Ayuna. There is nothing left to live for in this forsaken land.” he shouted as tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
She wanted to shout back that there was hope, that life hadn't entirly forsaken them, that something somewhere in some distant part of the universe had to see, had to care! But she couldn't. She just looked away.
The next morning he was dead. So was she, apparently. She just pushed the body to the street and forgot about him, like all the others. The winter had killed them all. The ones it hurt worst were the ones who survived. Their fate was to be a shell forever, always wonder all the what ifs.
Nobody noticed the new body, of course. It was one of many. Too many. The dead eyes saw straight through them. Most, anyway. A few dead eyes saw food laying all over the streets. Nobody stopped them, it wasn't their buisness. Ayuna just kept staring at the sky, watching for, more often imagining, rays of sunlight.
She could make it in July. she was different. She was stronger, somehow. But what if he was right? Was it even worth surviving? Even if she did escape she would spend the rest of her life haunted by the winter. The cold memories would be her winter, cursing her wherever she went, however far she tried to run. Maybe Arthon was right. Maybe it would just be better to die.