A Taste of Winter
by Laila Blake
Excerpt from Chapter 1
The cottage loomed in the distance like a crouching animal, like a tortoise—its shell covered in moss and dirt and snow. The roof had long started to slump under its weight but no one had come to repair it. Nobody ever came here—it was too deep in the forest, too far away from any trodden path.
Maeve stood still after the long walk, watching the quiet place. It looked abandoned, but she still felt the life inside, as she always had. She took a deep breath as though to settle herself in her disguise. The aging skin felt too soft around her tired bones, the white hair was brittle under her gnarly fingers. The mask had aged over the years in a way Maeve never would.
Finally, her steps led her down a narrow dirt path, past an ill-kept vegetable patch and a small outhouse. There was a well and a chicken coop, the only voices in the air came from there, high and excited among the beating of stunted wings.
She knocked on the door. It was courtesy more than anything. Inside, she heard a commotion: the clatter of a mug, a worried groan, the gentle hushing of a female voice. The dull, watery eyes of Maeve’s disguise filled with sorrow and again, she sucked a deep breath into her lungs. It tasted like snow and bark and memories.
Finally, Alma opened the door. She was middle-aged but looked prematurely older. The initial note of worry or suspicion on her face gave way to a relieved hint of a smile.
“Oh, it’s you. Good day, ma’am,” she stepped out of the way and Maeve entered undeterred. The inside smelled musty—like sweat and piss. It was an old smell, the bouquet of those last odors humans emitted when their bodies rotted around their still beating hearts. The Fae shuddered despite her long years among humans and breathed in through her mouth instead.
“How is he?” Maeve asked, looking around. She couldn’t see anyone else in the room but she knew he was there. She smelled him, she heard him breathing, she felt his heart beat fast and hard.
Alma followed Maeve’s gaze and then shrugged. “‘e’s not been doin’ well, Ma’am. The normal aches and pains, but… bad dreams. Bad dreams even when ‘e’s awake, Ma’am.”
Maeve could see her faltering and finally look away and it made her wonder what things Ronan rambled about in his panic stricken mind. They were infecting the woman, she could see that. She had been young when Maeve had first hired her—not beautiful or rich enough to marry well. She’d been grateful for the position, but Maeve saw the exhaustion in her eyes now. It wasn’t physical. Ronan’s affliction simply seemed too much for a human mind to bear in the long run, so dark and hopeless and lonely.
She put her hand on Alma’s shoulder, squeezed it gently and allowed a little warmth to flow. It was not quite magic, a trick even some humans could learn but it came easily to Fae. The relief in the woman’s face was slow but noticeable and, tenderly, Maeve moved her onto a chair. She placed a leather satchel of coins there and next to it, she emptied her backpack. Some meat, smoked or salted to make it last, a sack of wheat, a loaf of cheese. She always tried to bring something at least.
“I’m going to go check on him,” Maeve told the woman who was still sitting there with a relaxed and far-away look on her face. It was better than the haunted quality of before and Maeve felt marginally less guilty as she left her there and entered the only other room in the small cottage.
It housed a bed, a wardrobe, and the remains of a lyre that looked like it had been smashed too many times to repair on an otherwise empty writing desk. Her chest ached with leaden memories.
“Ronan?” she said quietly. She walked around the bed with careful, deliberate steps until she saw him there, hunched in the narrow space between the bed and the wall, his spotty, wrinkled hands pushed in front of his face, his stringy white hair a mess. “Ronan, it is I. Maeve. You remember me, don’t you?”
She watched him closely, watched his shivering hands and the way his chest rung with his fearful groan. It was true, he hadn’t been doing well.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been here in so long,” she went on, daintily sitting down on bed. It smelled foul in her sensitive nose, like the man, like the house. “But I’m here now. I’m here now, Ronan. You can look at me, I won’t hurt you, I will never hurt you.”
He let his shaking hands sink, slowly. They moved with the debilitating sense of age that had strung itself through his every muscle, his every bone. Grief cut her, like a blade. It was his beautiful, familiar face, hidden behind wrinkles and loose flesh, and the insanity that had eroded all the expressions that had once defined him. A mere twenty years ago, he had been a strapping man, strong and independent—with a rebel’s heart and a gentle soul. He had aged much too fast.