BY L.M. LYDON
Ribbons of lilac, green, and yellow light rippled across the sky. Even in moon-dark night, the aurora cast more light than Oriel required to pick a path, particularly since she was surrounded by nothing more malevolent than thorn bushes. For now.
The sharp tug on her hand came mid-stride and nearly pulled her off balance. “Mama,” whispered a small voice. “Please, when will we be there? I can’t see well.”
Wincing at the “we” in Iola’s words, Oriel choked back her initial reply. “When we arrive,” she said curtly. “Do not speak: even if this appears to be one of the kinder realms, we do not know who or what might be nearby. We must not draw attention to ourselves.”
Oriel knew her daughter did not share her vertical-slit, night friendly eyes; the shimmering emerald eyes Iola had inherited from her father, as much as they had entranced Oriel during their first meeting, had not served her daughter well during their journey. Oriel refused to consider how terrifying a blind trek through Winter’s eternal night might have felt to Iola. Yet it was better that the child had not seen the twisted sentries of snow-smothered wastelands they had stolen past while crossing earlier Winter Court realms. Those grotesqueries would haunt Oriel’s own nightmares for centuries to come.
The answering woebegone sniffle tugged on Oriel’s heart, but consolation was a luxury she could not afford. Memories of even the tiniest word from Iola had transmuted into gem-like treasures to hoard. Oriel fought harder to swallow softhearted tears every realm they traversed. I am giving her the greatest gift I can imagine. Spring’s gentle warmth will let Iola’s roots spread deep in fertile soil without Summer’s parching heat, Autumn’s austerity, or even worse, Winter’s adversity. Let her become a flourishing child of the growth season rather than a child of the selfish, frugal harvest, cowering before the shadow of Winter.
Although she had never dared travel so far before, the seeming mildness surrounding them—and the aurora illuminating the sky above—told Oriel they had finally reached the Winter territory closest to Spring Court lands. But she could not relax her guard.
Regardless of the welcome that awaited her daughter, Oriel’s burgundy hair and golden eyes would proclaim her a member of the Autumn Court to any Winter Court minion within eyesight or to any Autumn Court pursuer. For her, their greeting would be considerably less cordial. As a lesser noble, Oriel’s power was dwarfed by Winter Court lords and ladies with the wherewithal to claim their own domains. Concealing the passage of one woman and a small child had demanded her full skill.
His message indicated that the lord of the lands nearest the transition to Spring was a trusted ally, and he would meet us there. But, still… Winter. Can any denizen of Winter be worthy of trust? Especially in the matter of a child? What if his unwary, Spring-born optimism had been exploited by a false friend? It was a terrible irony that they must flee through the worst of Faerie to reach safety for Iola. Yet such was the natural order: only by passing through fading Autumn and enduring Winter’s harshness did one reach verdant Spring.
Oriel refused to question whether he would be waiting. Of course a Spring Court high noble would keep his word: such was his nature. Besides, a true-born Fae child, shapely and strong in magic, was a blessing no Court would spurn. Even with her father’s Spring magic flowing through her veins, any Court would covet Iola and make her their own given the opportunity. Not so her Autumn-born mother…
“Mama, look.” Iola halted and gestured at the shrub nearest them.
Oriel nearly hissed a reprimand until she realized her daughter had seen true: no jagged thorns protruded to tug at cloak or hem. Blushing rosebuds as tender as a baby’s flesh adorned the bush. Sweetness oozed from the closed blossoms, grating on Oriel’s Autumn-honed senses. Wasteful. Overblown. Profligate. While Oriel would always instinctively reject this world, such was the inheritance she had chosen for her daughter.
Iola had shown a pronounced affinity for the few summer flowers that survived into fall, and delight at the roses brought true beauty to the girl’s face. The bush marked the true-border between Winter and Spring lands. Throwing a glance over her shoulder and spying nothing beyond arboreal shadows, Oriel decided this was as fine a grove as any to tarry in while awaiting Iola’s father.
At the thought of him, her chest tightened, but she reminded herself that their fleeting meeting would be for Iola’s benefit, not her own. When she gazed at her daughter, whose chiseled cheekbones and jaw were accentuated by the rapt smile Iola wore as she stroked lush green leaves, Oriel saw her erstwhile lover’s features reflected in her daughter’s. Such was the whimsy of Faerie: one never knew which parent a child produced by a cross-Court mating would favor. Little of her mother, and much of her father, graced Iola’s appearance and emerging magic.
But where was he? Part of Oriel savored the delay: in these last moments, she could clutch her daughter to her, wind her fingers in golden cornsilk hair, breathe in clean child scent, and engrave it on her heart.
She reached out and tugged Iola towards her, noticing in passing that the petals of the bud caressed by Iola had begun to spread into full bloom. A nagging voice pierced Oriel’s heartsick relief: they still stood in Winter lands… Winter lands… Winter lands… The thought pulsed like Oriel’s accelerating heartbeat. So close, but not yet sheltered within the haven of Spring.
Iola squirmed. “Mama, why are you holding me so tight?”
The time had come for the truth. Oriel’s throat prickled with the pain of a hundred tiny iron needles. She prepared to speak the truth: that Iola’s father’s people welcomed only Iola. Surely I will see her again one day at a High Court function when the courts mingle, once Iola is full grown and has sworn herself to Spring. I need only survive the return journey to Autumn.
“Look, Mama,” Iola said, pointing away and upwards over Oriel’s shoulder.
Alarm arced through her limbs. Oriel released the girl and twisted as she prepared to defend Iola with her entire being.
A golden glow escaped from between the trees barricading their clearing, painting the nearby rosebuds in pale yellow and pink hues.
Iola giggled and reached one hand towards it. “A light.”
So it was: a lantern, cutting through the shadows as the bearer approached their location. Yet, who carried the lantern? Iola’s father? His Winter Court ally? Or worse? Why would an elven lord need a lantern in near-twilight? Oriel could see nothing of the blurred silhouette past the lantern’s glaring light, her sensitive eyes watering at its growing intensity.
“Iola, hide,” Oriel said sharply, her sentimental vision of their long-dreaded farewell disintegrating like a torn cobweb.
“But, Mama…” Iola clung to her arm, the imprint of small fingers perceptible even through the multiple layers of cloaks shrouding Oriel.
“Now.” Oriel did not dare turn her eyes from the oncoming apparition to glare her disapproval at her daughter.
The grasp of Iola’s clutching fingers vanished. Rustling leaves proclaimed that Iola had obeyed and concealed herself among the half-flowering shrubs. If the worst came to pass, Oriel hoped Iola’s magic would help camouflage her presence.
Now near enough for Oriel to hear light footfalls, the lantern bearer continued to close the distance between them. He, she, or it stood just outside the grove.
A chill wind soured the thawing air, stirring fallen leaves on the ground as Oriel summoned shadow and terror to her aid. No one will take my daughter from me. Other than the one I have chosen to surrender her to.
L.M. Lydon writes fantasy, science-fiction, and historical fiction short stories, which have been published in Shorts Magazine, an anthology published by 4 Horsemen Publications, and online at History Through Fiction. Her short stories can also be found via her Facebook author’s page. While she has written fiction for private amusement since she was a teenager, she only recently escaped a nearly two decade-long career as an attorney. Even in the throes of drafting loan documents and contracts, it had always been her dream to pursue publication of her fiction.
© Escape from Brumal Night, 2023, L.M. Lydon