Fiction: Bones of Green and Hearts of Gold

Banner for Bones of Green and Hearts of Gold. Image features a tree landscape background with a grassy foreground, tinted to resemble the greens descending into golds hues of the allo-aro flag. A sun sits in the top left corner and the bottom of the foreground is layered with ivy leaves and trailing vines. Text is written in black handdrawn script with the words green and gold in their respective colours. A cross-hatching frame in the colours of the allo-aro flag surrounds the banner.

Constance, princess of Blackvale, knows the duty of a summer-hearted heir: wed the prince, birth the child, symbolise her people’s prosperity and fecundity. Love, joyously and passionately, a man even she believes handsome and kind. But what if her heart can’t cast summer’s warmth? What if she feels solely the profane desires of skin and flesh? What if Blackvale’s crops wither and rot unripened because their future queen can’t—and won’t—bow to the nonsensical-seeming rule of seasons?

She knows only one way to avoid catastrophe, falsehood and marriage: surrendering herself to the Forest Witch. Not even for his daughter will the king risk angering the feared but necessary master of briars, protector of forests and abductor of women.

Constance expects a lifetime’s bondage to a dangerous witch, freeing her cousin to inherit Blackvale’s throne. The witch has other ideas…

She owns no place in a world ruled by sacred seasons, and even a witch’s tower must be more welcoming of a princess whose heart beats unknowable.

Contains: A multisexual allo-aro princess who, in the name of duty, wants the witch to lock her away in a tower; and a trixensexual allo-aro witch who sees hope and possibility in the princess seeking hir protection.

Content Advisory: Depictions of and references to amatonormativity, allonormativity, aro and allo-aro antagonism, misogyny, and sex negativity (particularly as it overlaps with misogyny). This story makes the use of colour/seasonal metaphors that do not fully correlate to our understandings of a-spec identity and (intentionally) fail to include all a-spec identities. It also takes place in a culture of general allosexual alloromantic privilege where a-specs of all identities experience (non-identical) shapes of marginalisation. Please expect descriptions of physical intimacy, kissing and sexual attraction along with the usual fantasy fare of death mentions and references to violence.

Length: 7, 087 words.

Note: While this story borrows from our colours used to represent a-spec identity (aro greens, ace purples, allo-aro golds, allo-ace reds), the “rule of seasons” metaphor absolutely does not correspond to modern comprehensions of a-spec identity. (For one, behaviour and attraction are in this model more closely linked. For another, it doesn’t encompass non-SAM aros and aces.) It’s simply my imagining of how a fictional culture may conceptualise what we know as a-spec experiences and allonormativity without our language. Constance and the witch know that their model has flaws and gaps–just like our own.

“Witch!” Constance’s bare feet, her slippers long since lost, pound against the forest floor. Ferns crumble, sticks crack and leaves rustle, but she runs heedless of sound’s betrayal: none ring louder than her own desperate voice. “Witch, please! Help me! Take me!”

Her father’s huntsfolk and their dogs, following, will find her as sure as the sun sets. They will return her to the castle, to the betrothal ceremony, to chains ritual and legal. How Father excuses her absence, Constance can’t imagine, but he needs make only perfunctory explanation to a lovesick suitor: Prince Resolute, a fourth son, won’t refuse this chance at a throne from mere delay in signing papers. Even should he glean her reasoning, Constance expects that he’ll wed even despite weakening love.

Father won’t understand her trespass: if his hunters catch her, this flight will only provoke his bewildered rage and disappointment.

Witch! Please!”

Coloured spots whir before her eyes, but the blurs of browns and greens offer no salvation—just spindly trees and shrubs knit together by the sprawling, inexorable blackberry. She drags in a heaving breath, already exhausted, unable to slow: the faster she runs, the longer she can imagine her life absent that cruel moment of inevitability. If she stays far enough ahead, she’ll escape the fate waiting to twist her soul—and Blackbriar’s people—in its python’s coils.

She must escape!

Blackvale’s Forest Witch never ignores a woman’s call. The Forest Witch saves girls from predatory men, attacking beasts or turned ankles, should she cry for aid within the forest’s borders. The Forest Witch saves her … and steals her away from family and kin, cursing hir claimed women to suffer in unknowable bondage. What follows, Constance can only surmise based on stories of witches trapping princesses in dragon-guarded towers and forcing merchants’ daughters into servitude. Legends from outside the vale speak of bones ground into flour and children shapechanged into crows, but Blackvale’s tales are more licentious: their witch, the master of briar and guardian of trees, has hir wild way with women.

The logical, pragmatic part of Constance—the part that wrestles with manners, expectations and customs—thinks the truth more prosaic: some missing girls, said to be seduced and taken by Blackvale’s witch, ran away from home. Kinsfolk must prefer to blame a witch’s abduction than complicated truths about domineering parents or abusive partners. For all hir strange powers and mien, the witch has served the vale for generations, hir forest a greater protection against foreign armies and invading kings than any soldier-defended wall of stone.

Regardless, what the witch desires of Constance bears no relevance.

She’ll take servitude or imprisonment if she no longer needs pretend at a heart warmed by the prince’s sincere declarations of love.

She’ll take servitude or imprisonment if she no longer needs fear Blackvale’s withering death from her inability to form the monarch’s sacred, land-renewing union.

If a princess and a queen must be summer-hearted, and Constance knows hers lacking the requisite passion, shouldn’t she flee? Shouldn’t she discharge her obligate duty as Blackvale’s princess-heir to protect the people from her coldness?

If the witch takes her, Father will—furiously and grudgingly—accept this loss and name his sister’s son as heir. The witch’s inviolate right to dictate hir year’s payment owns as many centuries as the kingdom’s charter, and ze has before claimed the labour of ostlers and nobles alike. No other reason will Father tolerate, and Constance long considered them in the weeks and months of watching Resolute’s love blossom into devotion while her own lay fallow. How else does one flee a king possessing the services of guards and spellcasters, allies in surrounding countries, and a desperate yearning to see his only child inherit after him?

A desperate yearning, Constance thinks in moments of dour bitterness, to see his only child make up for his failings in love.

“Witch! I beg your aid! I surrender to you!”

A daughter of two summer-hearted kings should have no reason to flee a well-chosen prince’s bright love for her. Summer seeks summer and winter claims winter, for like needs like and love craves love. A truth—the kind chanted by nursemaids to a toddling child, akin to rhymes about identifying edible mushrooms and cattle leaping over cutlery—as certain to Father as the name binding her nature, another conviction she now discards and defies. Constance? What irony!

The shouts behind her grow close enough to form audible words: the guard captain, Fealty. “Princess! Princess Constance! Halt! You must return!”

Witch!

She fights her dress, once-ornate panels of silk damask pieced into voluminous skirts and sleeves, as much as the fallen logs, damp earth and blackberry sprays choking the forest’s underbrush. Her gown owns purpose in a ballroom, a courtyard or a library; her gown owns beauty in displaying a princess to a prince’s mother prior to signing a document preluding the legal delicacies of alliance and marriage. Now, costly fabric snags on branch and bramble, weeks of fine stitches ruined in but half an hour. Her dark hair sheds pearl pins and crystal beads, locks tumbling from a confection of curls her dressing maids took hours to style.

A princess must never disrespect her people’s labours.

A princess must never falter in her devotion to duty.

What other option has she?

Father rejects even the hint that Constance’s heart lacks summer’s fire, a lone cygnet raised in a family of ducks. Such circumstances aren’t uncommon: even Papa’s kin claim an unwed cousin whose doings are mentioned only in context of their occupation and studies. No shameful thing, in most cases: the winter-hearted, Father explained in his many lectures on rule and governance, make ideal scholars, advisers, financiers, guards and chaperones. Should Constance be the daughter of a summer-hearted bookbinder, soldier, apothecary or farmer, winter’s heart may provoke limited opportunity as much as disappointment. She can seek out the enclaves of winter-hearted families or take up work in her own that requires travel or is best performed without personal entanglements. While expecting, desiring and exalting summer, Blackvale does permit winter.

A future queen owns no equitable freedom. Why else did Father take such pains to find a consort from another summer-hearted family?

It matters not whether one questions her heart’s colours: red and gold or purple and green. It matters not if Constance fears her soul more akin to winter’s chill. An heir must wed and beget further heirs. An heir must demonstrate fire and warmth, the scarlet-hued love upon which rests a thriving queendom. An heir must represent summer’s bounty and security, the nurturing centre to which her people cleave when fighting drought, raiders or grain-blight. No princess can promise fecundity, for all that the land’s bestowal of such speaks favourably of her future reign, but she can promise her devotion to her partner and her people.

She can’t pretend at passionate feelings for Resolute when their union—their marriage, their love—renews the sacred rituals upon which rest Blackvale’s uncommon prosperity.

A princess cannot be anything but summer-hearted, so how can she blame Father for his refusal to see her?

“Princess Constance!” Fealty’s voice rings so horribly close! “You must desist!”

Constance doesn’t waste time in glancing backwards. Some small part of her, stumbling up an incline of rotting logs and damp earth, knows pain slicing across the soles of her feet, toes throbbing as they smack against unseen rock and stump, a chest heaving beneath a dress too heavy for prolonged flight. The rest of her, overwhelmed by fear and need, pays such hurts no mind. She owns no place in a world ruled by sacred seasons, and even a witch’s tower must be more welcoming of a princess whose heart beats unknowable.

In this overgrown forest—protecting the northern flanks of Blackvale’s castle for as long as any castle needed protecting—she must, somehow, find the Forest Witch.

Witch! Please!”

What if Constance thinks herself winter-hearted? Her situation won’t differ, given Father’s refusal to see past her duty and his future atonement, but she’ll find some surety in knowing herself. She’ll know whom she is, not whom she isn’t. Won’t that be easier? Yet every time she holds her feelings up against what she knows about winter’s folk—those references made by tutors, chaperones and dressing maids chosen to resist a princess’s temptation—Constance finds only partial resonance.

She wants.

She looks upon chefs and stablemistresses, fantasising about bedding either or both. She knows herself giddy over a pretty smile and a clever word, pondering the brush of someone else’s skin against her own, waking hollow from a dream-craving still unfulfilled. She even knows herself wanting of the good-humoured, boyish Resolute—wanting in a raw, profane way that owns nothing of a shared lifetime and everything of simply assuaging the golden pull from one person to another.

Constance will give the prince her body without hesitation. Her heart, though? Her partnership? Her love? Her years? The culmination of a difficult-to-define sacred that the summer-hearted won’t explain but just know?

“Princess!”

Where is the witch?

What if ze rescues only summer’s girls and women?

Excited shouts signal the sighted, betraying flashes of red and gold damask. Tears rain down her cheeks: of folly, of panic, for a woman the witch won’t save. Yet even as Constance reaches the hill’s peak and looks down at a gully of trees protruding through brambles, her panic at the witch’s unlooked-for absence doesn’t stop her. She drags in a breath and plunges into the ocean of blackberry. Let the briars scratch her skin and skirts to ribbons! Let the mother forest, her land, render her unfit for a betrothal ceremony!

Let everyone who must force her back to a life of ballrooms, princes and symbolism be torn and rent by bramble.

Why are the winter-hearted excused from marriage’s constraints but denied sacred leadership and union with the earth that birthed them, reduced to serving summer’s folk? Why do they reckon summer in golds and reds when Constance thinks of those colours as autumn’s falling leaves and winter’s warming fires? Why do they reckon winter in greens and purples when Constance thinks of those colours as spring’s flourishing flowers and summer’s ripening fruits? What of autumn, what of spring, what of lands possessed of no seasons, fewer seasons, more seasons—where local climate and weather find no sensible reckoning in her native quartet of time?

Do other people want in ways devoid of what Blackvale most reckons sacred?

Briars whip at her legs, slice through dress and chemise, cut across cheek and neck. A violent, stabbing pain races up her left foot just as her right lands on a trailing scrap of sleeve and, finding no purchase, slips free. Her soles scream their agony as she fights to stay upright, the once-glorious silk gown forming a prison as relentless and spiteful as the ripening blackberry’s thorns.

Fealty, his black and purple uniform visible from the corner of her eye, orders his huntsfolk to follow.

“Witch,” she sobs, despairing.

The land vanishes beneath her feet.

She falls, fabric billowing and tearing, into the void’s devouring maw. She screams, the backberry’s teeth snagging her hair, her limbs brushing unseen objects, her body plummeting into nothingness. She lands, softly and improbably, on something damp, velvety and no more bruising than a feather mattress.

“Quiet.” A soil-scented hand closes over Constance’s mouth. “If you wish them to think you lost, Princess, find your quiet.”

Shock and terror keep silent her shriek, but salt moistens her cheeks and her limbs quiver like gale-blown leaves. She presses her lips together, afraid of the guards and woodsfolk above, afraid of the hand touching her face, afraid of the human-shaped shadow crouched over her body—afraid of the pain burning through the soles of her feet and the profound sense of a world now unknowable.

Be calm. Breathe. Think.

Where is she? Trickling water suggests a nearby soak or creek. She can tilt her head to look up at a dim light, as if she lies in a space beneath a crevasse. Perhaps a split in the rock above a hillside cave? One large enough to consume an adult, yet so overgrown by riotous blackberry that even the careful or the knowing can’t see the danger?

A second hand gently brushes a lock of hair from her eyes and cheek. “Are you—”

“Princess Constance?” Above, Fealty commences a sound that sets her heart atremble: the swishing thud of a blade hacking at blackberry. “Princess! Are you hurt? Princess!

“We should not idle here,” the voice whispers, raising their hand from her mouth to squeeze her shoulder. “You have pursuers enough that they may clear the entrance despite my asking, and I dislike their mood. May you stand?”

Stand? She tries to say something, anything, but she can’t make her mouth express more than gasping pants. Her fall should have killed her, Constance’s body rent and broken despite the bed of moss moistening her skin and gown. That truth possesses her with an immobilising horror, as though the rest of the world rests too distant for more than barest acknowledgement. She shouldn’t have survived this fall, and that means one thing.

Only in that moment does she realise how much she fears the Forest Witch.

“Are you hurting? May you stand?” The witch moves hir hand to Constance’s brow, probing her scalp with feather-light fingertips. “Are you hurt?”

Above, guards grunt and curse as they hack at the brambles. Every creak, crack and cry tightens her ribs and lungs in panic—the vice loosening when she hears no call of discovery, constricting in terror at the next sound that may prelude it. She tries to croak an answer, but she can’t work her words past the fear stoppering her throat.

Even before she gained years enough to understand the fullest consequences of the title “princess”, Constance knew that being one is akin to guiding a strand of hair through the eye of her finest needle. She must be polite, obliging, sweet, obedient. She must be warm, welcoming, engaging. She must show enthusiasm and passion in her pursuits while never taking or causing umbrage. She can’t say the wrong thing—and there are more wrong things to say, and wrong ways to say the right things, than the forest has leaves—but neither can she escape this complexity by retreating into silence. She must, with the consistency of her name, ensure the unobjectionable prettiness of her manner and speech.

Nobody regards as pretty a princess’s criticism of the extremes to which she must navigate these myriad, nonsensical and even contradictory expectations.

One of the witch’s hands wraps her fingers inside a warm, callused embrace. “Brush your fingers against my palm. Once for no, twice for yes. Does your head hurt?”

Such kindness shames her, but, trembling, Constance moves her pointer finger across her companion’s palm … thinking of Father’s refusal to let her avoid speaking, thinking of a tutor’s punishments after her giving answers deemed too direct. Thinking of the many people uninterested in her becoming anything but the polished, perfect veneer of “princess”.

“Glad,” the witch says. “Your back?”

“F—feet.” Finally, she forces one strained word through her lips.

“Only your feet?”

Pain sears everything below her knees, but the distant brush of her body against the sides of the crevasse makes her wonder how much of her took unknowing injury. Such a thought feels too big and bewildering to express by lips or hands, so she moves her fingers twice over that hardened strip of skin beneath the witch’s knuckles. Pen? Wand?

“Do you wish them finding you, Princess?”

No.”

A soft burble, almost a laugh, sounds by her ear. “Glad. I am crouched by your side. Think you to place an arm about my shoulder? I will not carry you, but together we may hobble outside, where my horse waits. Close.”

“Princess?” Fealty’s shout sounds unwontedly desperate. “Are you hurt? Please answer me!”

Constance again twice brushes her fingers across the witch’s palm. Raising her arm feels like knowingly stepping over a cliff’s edge, but the witch takes her hand and guides it to a shoulder covered in a loose swathe of wool. She clenches the fabric in her fingers, before—her heart pounding in panic, her breaths short and rasping—sitting up and leaning into a soft, warm body.

The witch slides a hand about Constance’s waist, pulling her closer. Fabric hangs and rustles between them, as though ze wears a dress or a cloak bearing faint memories of cedar chests and herbal sachets. Lavender, mint, a hint of lemon. She recollects little about Papa but his similar, comforting habit of so scenting his clothes. “When willing, we will together rise.”

“Can you see anything down there?”

The scrape of brambles falling into the cavern, followed by the brightening light, provides all incentive.

“Now. Please.”

Rising to her feet, even with the witch taking much of her weight, hurts like stepping on broken glass, upturned pins, sharpened knives. A small, twisted grunt escapes Constance’s lips.

“Wait! Stop! Did you hear—Princess?”

Constance clamps her teeth together, steeling herself to silence. Fire shoots up her heels like worms boring through apples, an agony at odds with the hammer-crushing throb in her toes. How can two parts of her body hurt at once in such different ways? How did she bear it while running? Clutching the witch, she balances herself on the balls of her feet like a child learning to position her boots in her pony’s stirrups, but every step brings twin moments of dread and pain. Never has she felt so attuned to and aware of the way she moves, and her world contracts to a simple, singular question of how best to place her feet on the damp, rocky ground. Nothing matters but the delicate art of walking on the sides of her feet, of never allowing her right large toe to meet ground, of the horrors wrought by unseen sticks—and always, always, silencing the gasp seeking to flee her throat.

All the while, the witch talks, a soft and babbling sort of conversation, in Constance’s ear. Only sometimes does she catch snatches of meaning: a warning for stones underfoot, a boulder they must clamber over, reassurances that hir horse isn’t far.

Sunshine, spilling into a cave mouth littered with twigs, leaves and a muddy creek trickling into yet another blackberry-smothered gully, frees her from pain’s endless eons. A saddled, sweaty horse stands by the creek, swishing its thick tail at flies. Constance collapses against a large boulder even as the horse whinnies and, without waiting for direction, walks toward them.

“Glad, Cat.” The witch leans against Constance’s boulder, breathing hard. “Glad.”

Other than a tree-perched crow preening itself, she sees no creature but the horse.

The light inside the cave mouth bears little brightness but permits Constance fair detail: blonde hair cut with a raggedness suggestive of impatience, a pert nose, white cheeks and jaw dappled with freckles uncountable, a brown dress worn beneath a laced-up vest and hooded cloak, both a dusty pink. The witch wears several belts wrapped about a plump waist, bearing a score of leather pouches, purses and pockets. Some flap open, revealing their treasures: a smooth sphere of glittering crystal, a bunch of leaves, several wooden wands, squashed blackberries. A leather pass-token hangs from a belt buckle, the front stamped with Blackvale’s briar crown, although Constance has never known insignia needful in according the Forest Witch due respect and service. All know hir ageless visage.

If the sacred union between ruler and consort enables Blackvale’s uncommon prosperity, the witch enables Blackvale’s uncommon freedom from conquering outsiders.

“Did you…” She hesitates, unsure of the language. “Magic me? So I didn’t … break?”

“I heard my knowing, your calling, so I asked the trees and bramble to guide your direction, I rode to catch you, and I asked the blackberry to cover the hole through which you passed. Telling, though, can’t stop their blades, and I wish causing no harm. This goes best when kin think you vanished.” The witch raises hir head as the horse reaches their boulder and lips at hir cloak-covered shoulder. “Nothing now, friend, but when we reach home, Cat will have her something. Promise.”

The horse, little more than a pony, wears a bridle without bit and a worn stock saddle, resting her off hindleg as though finding little surprise in Constance’s presence. As horses go, oversized ears and stocky limbs mean that even Cat’s golden-coloured coat and white mane preclude her from the canon of equine beauty. Nor does the witch possess what Constance first thinks of as beauty or handsomeness, embodying instead the homely practicality of sun-creased skin and wind-tossed hair … and humour enough to name hir horse after the expected familiar.

Ze scratches Cat on the shoulder before standing and untying the reins from their knot around her poll.

“Knowing?”

The witch runs down Cat’s stirrups, frowning. “To say … I am knowing when our own call, but I am also knowing when to harvest, and how to tell the birds to let be your tame crops and how to read words in a book.” Ze shrugs, turning towards Constance. “When a princess knows her season doesn’t augur a wedding and speaks for aid, I know—but I think it easier if I knew this before your calling, the way we tell the coming season by the present’s shortening days. Magic is … small, sometimes. So small.”

This odd pronouncement steals all words from her lips. Constance stares at the witch, bewildered, as ze clucks hir teeth and guides Cat closer to the rock. In her fall, did the world twist upside down? How can the witch know why Constance sought hir? What does ze mean by “our own call”? Have other women, for similar reasons of love and fear, begged in desperation for a witch’s salvation?

For this alone do people speak of hir seductions as dangerous?

“How may we get you ahorse? We shan’t rest here while your father’s guards lower ropes down the cave.” The witch chuckles, hir eyes and cheeks creasing in a warm, broad smile heedless of good manners. “They dislike the briar, but it can’t stop them, even when thick.” Ze pauses, as if considering. “This forest-part has lost balance. I should return, later.”

Constance can’t hear any pursuit over the soak and her breath, but she doesn’t doubt the witch’s reckoning. Fealty won’t stand at the top of a crevasse, call for half an hour and shrug at his charge’s loss.

His name, unlike hers, truly binds his nature.

“I can mount,” she murmurs, sure of no such thing—but also sure that the witch will do hir best to help, even through the whimpering agony of putting her weight on her right foot, even when Constance battles her dress as much as her body in swinging her leg over Cat’s broad back. The worst moment comes as she slips her left foot free of the stirrup iron to cross both before Cat’s pommel: her skirts shift, baring a scraped, bruised, swelling left foot.

“Look not.” The witch pats Constance’s calf before tugging torn linen and silk down to hide her nail-less toes. “I will tend when we rest, soon from here.” Ze clucks hir tongue and—reins clasped in hir right hand, walking close to Cat’s shoulder—urges the horse alongside the creek and out of the cave. “I am knowing of your questions, should you wish to ask now. Or not.”

The great weight of difference on her bones, the fears and realisations she has carried into adulthood, the absence of place in her understanding of her world—an impossible complexity now become a simple conversation in the same way that the witch navigates shock’s theft of Constance’s voice? Can it be this easy?

>When a princess knows her season doesn’t augur a wedding.

“I’m not summer-hearted,” Constance says slowly. Cat shifts into a swaying walk as the witch leads them down the gully, a rough track by the creek free of blackberry sprays. “Neither am I winter, I think. I … want.” Despite the witch’s intimacies, she blushes. While everyone presumes her to desire with crimson passion, she gleaned lust’s specificity through eavesdropping and stealthily procuring the wrong sort of books. A princess must want, her desire entwined with her fecundity, but only as part of a sacred partnership—and while lust may be sacred in that context, never should anyone speak of it. A princess must want, safely behind closed doors and for a singular audience.

Want, required but contained.

Why do these rules possess so little consistency and so much contradiction?

“Want what?”

“People think that a princess must be pure and pristine,” she says, hesitant.

“People think that witches steal their wives and daughters.” The witch shrugs, stomping alongside hir horse in a pair of worn leather boots. “Maybe now I roast you, grind your bones and use the dust to make grow the kingdom’s berries?”

“That seems a lot of effort when you can ask the plants.” Constance frowns, her eyes caught by a shadowy rippling along the creek’s edge a few paces ahead: brambles shift and retreat to make space for a witch and hir horse. Wondering, she turns her head and gasps a laugh, for no track lies behind them. No chance of Fealty, guards or hunters easily following. Just a thick mass of fruiting briar all but shrouding the watercourse. “I … look at someone and want to bed them. Lust after them, nothing else. I dream, yearn or hope for it … want that touching closeness with someone interesting, or kind, or…”

She can’t help thinking of the witch’s gentleness as ze closed hir hand around Constance’s fingers … or the harder calluses of hir palm, so alien and intriguing compared to the cream-wrought softness of her own.

Embarrassed, she fusses with her skirts on pretence of freeing a wad of cloth from beneath her leg.

“Glad that you understand and voice your own wanting. Few own such clarity.”

Never has Constance seen her feelings in that light.

“That’s all I want,” she says in a breathless rush of words, her hands gripping fabric festooned with dirt, mud, bark and thorns. “I can’t … I try to see myself, in what Father had and wants for me, what others need from me. If I want the prince in bed, why I can’t I just marry him? But it’s everything else. Spending day after day with him, being a wife … I don’t even know why. I just hate the courting, the affection, the expectations…” She sighs, trying to steady herself. “I know I don’t feel enough, and I can’t risk marrying even if I could pretend. Better to be locked in a tower, never letting down my hair—why don’t they just use a rope?—for knights seeking to save me from the witch.”

Dangerous words dance on her tongue’s tip, and Constance pauses only for a breath before giving them life. “I choose the witch.”

What that yet means, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t think that she need fear it.

The witch, hir hand stroking Cat’s hide, crooks hir head. “What may you choose if everything you wish exists and nothing keeps you, stops you? Not for what you may settle; for what you may desire?”

Those too are dangerous words, and Constance frowns. “It can’t exist.”

“Please pretend, for the cause of conversation, that it may.”

“I understand,” she whispers, her throat taught and her tongue stiff, “my … obligation. Duty. This is my home.” She waves at the mountainward side of the valley, peaks hidden behind the forest’s cloaking greens, before gesturing back towards the castle, towards the town, towards the fields of ordered crops and the trade road leading out into the world beyond. “Someone must govern, must serve people and land—respect and protect them, and struggle with the hard questions when needs conflict. I don’t want to leave!”

She bites her lip, trembling, feet aching, again running headlong into the truth haunting her existence: how does she expect others to live by certain rules when she can’t survive the expectation that she do so herself?

Are her rules are just as irrational? Or is that a false equivalence?

“I don’t understand,” she wails in frustration, “why people must be summer or winter, why a princess can’t be seen wanting to fuck or even say the word, why I must love and wed and beget heirs and always be polite because the land depends upon such sacredness … even though good rule depends on ordinary things like justice, civil conduct, trade, services, fair taxation! I want to be a queen that has lovers like noblemen do—and let that, if they’re unwed or their partner agrees, not be scorned in the parlour and salon, either! Let the love I don’t feel and the marriage I don’t want not stop me from trying to be my kind of queen!”

The trees thicken as the gully levels out. Cat’s pace quickens as the horse turns from the creek to walk in an unerringly straight, northward line—leaving Constance with the nauseating impression that trees and bushes slip out of the horse’s way. She shivers despite the sinking autumn sun’s lingering warmth. Something else, alien and electric, raises the hairs on her arms beneath her torn sleeves.

Behind, she sees no gully or rising ridgeline, just a flat sweep of forest.

“We knew, once, that some people are born of spring and autumn. Those dangerous ones named witch knew that our words for the turning of the world don’t encompass all times, all people. Chosen, not given. Offered, not forced. Should be so.” Fine creases bunch beneath the witch’s eyes and across hir cheeks as ze talks in hir slow, placid voice. Has anyone ever tried to count those myriad freckles? Or is such a thing as pointless as reckoning the stars? “Some of us take winter’s rain and summer’s warmth, with bones of green and hearts of gold, and we call this spring. Maybe you dance, when feet are mended of thorns, to spring’s songs. What think you, Princess? Maybe you be a spring-hearted queen? Or a queen bound by no season or language? Or only your own?”

“Spring…?” Constance’s voice catches on the word, and while a lifetime of feeling storms through her mind, her habituated tongue builds dams of walls high enough to hold back raging floods. She can only breathe, shut her eyes against the giddy movement of trees, surrender to the internal deluge … surrender to the hurts of a word given so easily by a witch but unknown to a princess’s kin and people.

Spring.

A golden heart, but one absent summer’s crimson fire—one framed and supported, perhaps, by green’s sturdy bones.

“Summer and winter pair like feeling for like feeling. Summer, feeling everything, doesn’t understand feeling in some ways but not others. Spring … spring is the bed-want, unfettered by fire’s binding passion between people. Only unnatural when struck from the knowing.”

Do people speak of witches as a dreaded combination of powerful and predatory because a bridge built of lies must collapse under wisdom’s weight? How many princesses rejected family and courtiers, their nature unknown to or denied by their kin, before accepting their witch’s offer of sanctuary in distant towers or forest cottages?

“I have no dragon or sugar-frosted house, just a cave and grass for Cat.”

Constance opens her eyes, giddy, to find a small glade backing onto a great granite slope—a shoulder of the mountains encircling Blackvale, several days’ ride from the castle. Little about the glade strikes her as remarkable: two boulders, cut from the sheet of rock by an eon’s rains and winds, frame a human-tall opening covered with draping ivy. Grass, starflowers and bracken fern flourish beneath a rare gap in the canopy. A small waterfall, several paces from the cave, trickles down another break in the rockface to fill a dark pool bordered by grass and duckweed, and a stone-encircled fire pit nestles in another sheltered section of curving granite. Clothes hang on a line strung between trees, an open-sided shed offers Cat shelter, and sundry baskets and pots rest on rough-hewn wooden racks by the cave’s mouth.

Nothing and everything here seems magical.

“Peaceful,” she murmurs.

“Hard work.” The witch makes a gruff sort of laugh, smiling. Ze guides Cat’s rein towards the fire pit, letting Constance see an overcropping lip several handspans above Cat’s head. Beneath, sheltered from rain and far enough from the fire to avoid smoke, rests a daybed—a thick pallet covered by a deer hide, sheepskins and three rough pillows. Big enough, easily, for two. “Sit you here while I strap Cat. May a princess lean forwards to keep the fire going when lit?”

A large basket, overstuffed with twigs and branches split into kindling, sits by the pallet. Never has Constance needed to do this herself, but she’s watched servants add fuel to a fireplace often enough to imitate. “Of course.”

Dismounting returns the duller ache of her feet to thundering agony, distraction enough that she almost misses the witch setting a pyramid of twigs alight by flicking hir hand. Constance flops onto the pallet, her breathing ragged, one bloodied toe peeking out from her skirts. A few gasping moments pass—in which the witch unsaddles Cat and places the tack inside the cave—before she notices the wooden mug sitting beside her pillow. When did it arrive? How? Some small part of her wants to quail at such mystery, but the rest gulps the water down like the tired horse now slacking her thirst.

Spring.

She still finds little sense in the assigning of colours or seasons, but neither can she deny feeling that the witch has named Constance’s nebulous truth.

Can she dance to songs of green and gold while vowing never to bind others in her own rule of seasons?

Can she accept spring as sense-making while promising to find or conjure a better, broader understanding?

While the witch curries Cat’s shaggy coat, picks her hooves and procures a measure of grain and two carrots, Constance arranges larger sticks into a glowing pyramid, almost burns her fingers, drinks again from a mug that refills itself and, anxiously, prods at her arms and face before working her way down her torso. Shallow scrapes and scratches mark her forearms, but her sleeves take the most damage, the draping cloth soiled and torn perhaps beyond salvaging. One shoulder aches beneath her fingers, suggesting a bruise, and a cut across her cheek oozes congealing blood.

She shudders and wipes her hand on her dress.

“Hurt?” The witch carries a wooden tray in hir hands and a basket on one arm, the tray bearing a selection of bowls, jars, bottles and folded cloth—some pieces large enough to suggest a shawl or dress. The basket holds a copper kettle sloshing with water, and ze sets both on the ground beside the pallet. “A woman’s scars tell her stories, but I doubt these will.”

“I don’t care,” Constance says. True, save for a soul-deep place accustomed to the requirement that she be beautiful, even if her greater sense of pragmatism scorns the necessity and the labour. “My shoulder hurts, but I think—above the knee—it’s just scratches and scrapes.”

“Not glad that I took long in coming,” the witch murmurs, adding larger pieces of wood to the fire and setting the kettle to boil. “I’m sorry.”

Surprise drags the words from Constance’s lips without pause for consideration: “I’m glad you came at all.”

“I honour my knowing, I honour my magic, and I honour our own.” The witch sighs and settles hirself on the pallet, adjusting hir cloak and skirts. “May I look? And may I ask of you, while doing?”

“Ask what?”

“What mean you to do,” the witch says, lifting Constance’s skirts and petticoats, “about ruling as a spring-hearted queen.”

In shock, Constance stares at the witch’s befreckled face. The witch, however, appears engrossed in raising her left foot to examine the heel—something at which Constance feels herself possessed of a strong, if cowardly, desire to look away. “How can I? I called to you because I can’t! Lock me in a tower, bind me to a dragon, turn me into a crow—whatever you wish, as long as my cousin rules!”

The witch lowers her left foot and, in hands so light and gentle hir touch sets Constance’s nerves thrumming like a fly alighting on her skin, raises the right. “Why?”

Why?” Sheer incredulity dizzies her. “The land! I can’t ensure its fecundity if I don’t make the sacred union—”

Some shift in the air sets, again, her hairs to rising, now followed by a sudden, horrid rush of sensation—quick brushes over her skin, invisible hands tugging at her clothes, stabbing pains in her cheek, in her heels, in her calves and the soles of her feet. A shrill cry escapes her throat, but before Constance can find comprehension, everything stops: the air eases, the pain ebbs, her skin settles.

She whimpers, sagging back against the witch’s coarse pillows.

“I am spring.” The witch extends cupped hands to show dirt, leaf fragments, thorns, splinters and other plant matter—the mess drawn from Constance’s wounds and clothes. “My song outlasts any other dancer; I desire no more than fleeting union, the bed-want, lust. The land welcomes me. It lets me ask and answers well and willingly. Binding, sacred love renews the land? Summer is not the only season. Summer is not the only sacred.” Ze opens and brushes clean hir hands before Constance’s aghast stare; unperturbed, ze takes up a hook from hir belt, plucks the whistling kettle from the fire and, with practiced deftness, pours steaming water into hir bowls. “Some find benefit to preach falsehood, and a queen may ask why. A queen may fight her own people believing such limitations. But a spring-hearted queen has her own sacred ways, and she should learn them … and wonder how her people, hearts of spring, autumn and winter, suffer under summer’s dominance. I again ask: what mean you to do about ruling?”

After a silent moment, ze pours a greenish liquid—astringent and bitter-smelling—from one of hir bottles into a water-filled bowl and moistens a cloth. “May I clean and dress the wounds?”

Constance nods.

She wants to believe. She wants to take as proof the witch’s power and hir term as Blackvale’s protector. She wants, more than anything, to live in a world where potential—maybe the thing the witch calls “knowing”—lies in another uncomplicated speaking of truth. She wants, in a way until now unrecognised, to give others that simplicity.

She wants.

The witch dabs at her feet and ankles with a fluid only pleasantly warm but possessed of a sharp, lip-biting sting.

“I can’t return.” Constance digs her nails into her palms, a droplet of stinging water running down her calf, the witch’s hands preternaturally careful as ze begins to wrap the larger of her fresh-seeping cuts with linen. “It doesn’t matter if summer offers but one way. It doesn’t matter. Father will wed me to the prince, and…”

She wants to believe in the witch’s truth that spring hearts possess their sacred, their own solemn and powerful connections to land and people, their own ways to symbolise and ensure prosperity. She wants to believe … and that means Constance knows, of her own will alone, that she can’t marry Prince Resolute. Not even if she finds some way to end or dissolve the marriage after Father’s death! How can she? If she is spring-hearted, won’t her forced partaking of summer’s rituals and unions profane her land, her people, her witch—and herself?

If passionate, bonding love forms some people’s sacred, what can be less corruptive than demanding all heirs’ ongoing mimicry?

I don’t want that.”

“May you vanish? May you take time to learn, understand, accept?” The witch knots a section of bandage and, choosing skin free of scratches and bruising, squeezes her calf. “Return when no king breathes to bind you? Return with knowledge, a plan for how you may rule, teach your people, refashion belief? What if you take time to become a little witch-hearted, so you may be knowingly queen-hearted?”

Father will suffer, but if Constance finds a witch willing to entrap her in a tower, he’ll endure the same fate of aching for his lost daughter. Her cousin will despise her returning after believing himself the unexpected heir, but her people know her face and her signet ring, as always, hangs from a chain about her neck. She can’t imagine court, guard or citizenry objecting to her claim while their Forest Witch supports her. Blackvale must pay for breaking the alliance with Resolute’s mother, but the vale, still protected, needn’t rely on outside trade for sustenance or subsistence. What better time will she have for such risk?

What if risk builds a queendom where no more spring-hearted people need flee family, friends and home?

Her heart pounds in her chest and her breathing quickens, nervousness coursing through her body to mingle with something Constance fears to name hope … and interest. “How do I learn of spring’s sacred?”

The witch breaks into another slow, cheek-creasing smile. “I have no forever to give you, but I may offer a season of learning, of knowing, of our shared sacred.” Ze stands, rounds the tray and settles on the pallet by Constance’s side. “I should look at a hurting shoulder. May you lean forwards?” Ze pauses; Constance shifts away from the alcove wall, giving the witch space to reach her shoulder and the laces at the back of her gown. “Do you understand, Princess?”

Even through cloth, those feather-light fingers set her to shivering.

A wild daring makes Constance rest her hand on the witch’s knee, stroking twice with two fingers.

She, spring-hearted, understands—and wants.

“Glad,” the witch whispers, gently parting silk to reach the inner layers of Constance’s stays and chemise. “Glad.”

Hir soft lips brush against the warm skin of her neck, and Constance needs no other word to describe this lesson in sacred.

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