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those who go do not return

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There is a way the light slants through the tree branches in early spring, before the leaves are fully out, like rays of light through high, narrow windows. The air is sweet and clear, lacking the heaviness of summer. There is the scent of wildflowers and new grass. The year is fresh and newly minted.

§

Her bedroom as a child was high in a tower, protected from all dangers, watched over by her ever-present nurse. Sometimes she would try to climb up to one of the windows, balancing on a chest, a table, dragging a chair up behind herself and climbing on that too before she was caught and gently lowered back down. From the windows you could see the land spread out far below like her father’s maps, or her mother’s embroideries. Like the pictures in her sister’s books, where knights set out on grand adventures.

Sometimes she stayed obediently on the ground (waiting for her nurse’s back to be turned), playing with her dolls, moving them to and fro, watching as the slanting sunbeams gilded their hair to a golden crown, before the relative darkness swallowed them again. Sometimes her nurse was angry with her parents, saying she should play outside and the room was too dark for a child, too like a prison or a grave, but her parents said it kept her safe, and in the end the nurse recalled her place and argued no more.

§

In summer the leaves grow thick, and the wood beneath is dark and secret, ripe for lovers’ meetings.

§

As she grew older, the nurse gave way to tutors, and she learnt to embroider like her mother, to name the countries on her father’s maps, to sing sweetly as the birds in her sister’s gilded cages. She had more freedom now to walk the castle hallways and wander in its courtyards, and she liked to loiter by the training yard, watching her brother and his friends, their swords flashing in the sunlight, their skill and precision. But better still she liked the cool darkness of the library, her patient tutor, the endless lessons, each a book a window wherein some strange and wondrous thing was laid out for her attention.

§

It is a strange alchemy by which just as the leaves are dying, falling and fading, the scent of damp mulch rising from the ground, just at that moment, at the same time and by the same action, the fruits are swelling with sweetness, plump and flushed and full of juice, their heady, honeyed perfume heavy over the rotting leaves and the smoke from autumn bonfires. The birds sing less, and less sweetly, but there is the hum of wasps, the rustle of leaves trodden underfoot, the distant sounds of the harvest.

§

It was, perhaps, time to be considering her marriage. Suitors were hardly lacking, young and lovely as she was, the daughter of the king, treasured and trained and ripe for the plucking. Nor was she unwilling, the thought of leaving the walls she had known so long, of going out into the world, of taking her place among adults, a place she might take root, might flourish, might make her own - these things were not unpleasing to her. Only, the world on offer seemed so small, so commonplace, so very unlike the sweeping histories she had read, patient and studious, the coloured tales her nurse had told, the land outside the windows spreading to the distant mountains, the horizon, the road winding out of sight.

She looked around at the world she was to occupy, the strangers waiting to be her husband, her friends, her servants, and thought: not one of them pauses on their way to listen to the wasps humming round the fallen fruit, not one of them sits to watch the passage of the sun across a room with high narrow windows, turning darkness to light and back again. Not one has seen the sunlight glance on the snow on the distant mountains, and felt their breath catch.

They tried to hold her attention, these strangers, these suitors, displaying themselves like strutting birds in spring, like stags in autumn, but she would have none of them. She would bend her head over her needlework, quiet, demure; she would watch her brother sparring with his friends, smiling her favour now at one, now at another, but letting none close; she would drift silently between her rooms and the castle library, safe behind the old stone walls, untouchable.

§

The clearest skies are on the coldest nights, the stars like distant ice, the land white and silent, snow-blanketed so you could hardly tell a field from a garden from a barren slope. A village, a forest: in the distance they are no more than an indistinct heap of white. The air is so cold it burns the throat like fire.

§

Ice hangs in spears from the gutters, and in the courtyards snow drifts into piles, the little ornamental ponds frozen into mirrors. The walkways are kept swept, but no sooner have the servants passed with their brooms than the snow returns, little by little, but inexorable, impossible to vanquish. Inside, in the grand hall and in the bedrooms, fires have been heaped high, the wood crackling and spitting, the heat pouring from them in endless waves. But out here it is chill and quiet, monochrome. Inside is painted in colours of orange and red, of firelight, and the air is heavy with the scent of meat and spices, of candied fruits and heated wine, laughter ringing out and songs being sung, the victories of the summer recounted. The sky is fathomless and dark, pinpricked with ice, and sometimes the light dances in its depth, green and unearthly, fae-fire. And all the earth outside the walls is silent, so silent, silent as the grave - if there is music in the heavens, it is too far distant to be heard, even though the wind falls still and nothing moves at all.

§

In later years they sing of her, sometimes, her courage, her resourcefulness. Her wisdom. And indeed, she had known from the first what he was: an attentive student, who had learned the ways of nature through every season, she had not expected kindness, not expected mercy or love or any human emotion. She had gone anyway - someone must go, and also, she had wanted to do it.

Her father and her mother had worried, had begged: she was their youngest child, and they loved her with all the possessive care of those who know they will have no more. She did not begrudge them it, but the music had played, and she was past old enough to leave the nursery walls. Her sister had fluttered, uncertain and afraid, unwilling to face the world outside the safety of a painted storybook. Only her brother had understood: he was expected to fight, to roam freely so long as he lived with honour, to win his own place. Why should it be different for her?

And it was a triumph, a victory. Where others had failed, she succeeded: her blow struck true. Nor did she listen to his blandishments afterwards, his promises (sound the horn and have my brethren at your command; rub salve into my severed neck and keep me as an oracle): her feet kept to the true path, returning home, step after step, although the way was treacherous as an icy path (this way lies adventure, his voice whispered in her mind, her soul), although it was as easy to stray as young lovers passing by a wood in early summer (come deeper, into the welcoming shadows, where there are mysteries to discover). No, she held her way, her will as strong, as true, as her brother’s blade.

§

In time there were more children, her brother’s sons and daughters, passing from nursery to courtyard to schoolroom and on out into the world. There were new storybooks, with her a heroine in a gaily coloured dress. There were sober treatises, bound carefully in leather: the risks of the otherworld; how cold steel could silence even enchanted song.

They did not mention a young woman, terrified, her heart pounding, death before her eyes. Nothing recounts her hands sweating, slipping on the pommel, or the moment afterwards when she realised she was still alive, would remain alive. They do not recount the blood, warm and spraying everywhere, nor how it cooled fast, went claggy and sticky and finally started flaking from her skin, even while her clothes were still heavy and sodden, soaked with it. They mention none of these things, although she would have told anyone who asked, probably did tell some of her nieces and nephews, those who were bold enough to catch her fancy, to dare question her.

§

Was it the time of wildflowers, or the soft, lazy days of summer? Was it the ripe fruit in her palm, its sun-warmed skin splitting beneath her teeth, the sweet juice trickling down her chin, her wrist? Was it the dancing light in the sky and the warmth of a winter fire? It was all of these things, and none of them, and this is the secret that she never tells: that she loved him even as she killed him, that she loves him still, that the entire world has lost its savour, its hidden magic, and that she lives in it anyway, making a place for herself day after day, her steps steady and certain, her life ordered in the way that she has chosen, deep-rooted and hers, but that there is no music left anywhere to be found.