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The Children of Seasons

Once upon a time in the kingdom of Peric, the Autumn King, like all men, faced the end of his days.

Aged and conscious of every breath, the King stirred restlessly beneath a burden of his own making. For though he had been blessed with two daughters of Spring and Summer, and a son of Winter, all of whom he loved in his way, the dearest among them was the boy, in whom, the king felt dwelled every quality a prince had right to possess.

The Winter Prince was as large as a bear and twice as strong, with great, rocklike hands capable of tearing trees out by the root. His voice was immense, his ambitions a thousand-fold and even his rages, like great wracking blizzards, were a joy to behold.

For many years the king indulged the boy, encouraging his every appetite, all the while dreaming of the man he would one day become.

But in his last remaining hours, the Autumn King found himself facing a truth he’d too long ignored, for though the prince was strong he was not kind, and though he was fierce his soul was a greedy, spiteful thing that lashed out at the merest slight. His every ambition had turned to recklessness and his rages were unbearable storms.

And so, it came to pass that the king turned his eyes away from his beloved son and considered his daughters afresh.

But while Summer, his second eldest, was bold, forthright and intense, the thrill of battle had taken her long ago. Even as a child she’d begged to hear great tales of war, and he’d obliged, hoping the horrors would dissuade her, but instead her interest only grew and in no time at all she threw herself into the fires of combat. Not a soul had seen her off the battlefield since.

Left with naught but the breath in his lungs, the king turned his thoughts to his youngest daughter Spring, a bear slip of a girl that he’d long discounted, much to his shame.

Though she was not even half her brother’s size, the Spring Princess bore a resolute strength that few in the kingdom could match. Her kindness was well known throughout the land and though her voice was soft, her words were filled with a simple wisdom. Where her brother brought strife and discord, the Princess brought peace, where he sowed violence, Spring brought only calm. And though at times it felt like the king only had to blink to miss her passing, the princess never failed to appear when she was needed.

Cursing himself for a fool, the king called the two before him and, through cracked and trembling lips, told them of his decision. Tearfully the king begged Spring to forgive his failings and implored Winter to see the wisdom that had eluded him for far too long.

Then with a deep and shuddering sigh, the Autumn King took hold of his children’s hands, and breathed his last.

There were those present in the castle that night who would, for many years to come, say it was a blessing the King died when he did, for he did not live to see the bastion of fury his son would become.

The prince’s rage burned long into the night, shattering furniture beneath his feet, deafening servants with his screams, and driving great cracks and fissures into the very walls with the relentless beating of his fists.

By morning, not an edge of the castle lay untouched and the prince stood wreathed in a cloud of brick dust. Swearing revenge upon his sister, he stormed out of the gates, shaking the ground with each thunderous step.

For her brother’s sake, the princess prayed only that his temper would not cost him his soul, while the courtiers, vile, feckless men, prayed only that the prince did not return with an army in his wake.

Little did they know that the prince had no desire for sword or axe or armored fleet. For so black was his thirst for vengeance that no force of arms could equal it.

Only witchcraft would suffice.

And so, Winter set out in search of a power heard of only in tales, one which would break his sister and all who come to her aid. And it was at the bottom of the deepest ravine, in the lair of the Black Witch, that he proffered a bargain he felt no devil could resist.

“Conjure me a curse!” he demanded, shaking his great fists. “One which will plague my sister from dawn until dusk!”

In exchange, the prince offered gold, more than could be spent, but the Black Witch, a wizened and canny creature, only shook her head and spat. “Keep your gold, Fool Prince, for what good is it to me? All my friends are long since dead and gold has lost its luster here.”

Stunned, the Prince instantly flew into a rage. Screaming in an unholy voice, he stomped his feet ‘til the earth cracked, threatening to tear down the entire ravine and bury the witch beneath it.

But for all the Prince’s bombast, the Black Witch only smiled. “I’ve lived in darkness all my life, and this ravine is well known to me. Bury me beneath it and I would still be home.”

Having gold and strength and threats fail him for the first time in his life, the prince stood before the witch completely at a loss. Petulantly, he implored her to tell him what, if anything, she would take for such a curse.

Smiling wickedly, the witch eyed Winter with a calculated disgust. “You wish to take all from a sister but risk none of yourself? Your tantrums betray you, prince, more than you could know. Word of your sister’s strength has reached even this dark corner of the realm. Much she has borne because of your tantrums and that be no lie! But if it is suffering you seek then I am all too happy to oblige. You shall have your curse, Fool Prince, the worst the world has known. A curse to plague your sister and all who come to her aid! But hear me now and hear me well, for it will be in blood not gold that I’ll be paid. One fat drop each day for your sister’s suffering. If she breaks beneath it, then all is yours, but if not, then I shall take all from you little fool, and whatever is left shall frighten the sun from behind the clouds.”

Ignoring the witch’s dire warnings, the prince grinned nastily. “If you believe my sister can break this curse witch, then you are the fool, not I. For never in my life have I seen a sign of strength from her. She will break beneath my will, as all things do!”

The Witch’s smile widened as she held out her hand. “Be warned, young prince, for strength be a thing too many men mistake. Accept my bargain or bury me now but remember my words all the same.”

The Prince clasped the witch’s hand, then drew back with a gasp, for though the witch’s hands were small her nails were sharp, and they left a small cut in their path.

Cackling, the witch strode to her cauldron and sang softly to herself. “A bargain struck and much to come! Time to do what must be done!”

True to her word, the witch conjured a curse so insidious that not even the princess knew of its presence, though it crouched quietly at her feet come the day of her coronation.

That night, a grand ball was held, spreading light and warmth throughout the land. But as dawn approached and Spring crept tiredly to bed, the curse struck like an assassin from the shadows.

The new queen of Peric could not sleep, not for all the gold in the land.

As word of the queen’s affliction spread, the prince laughed atop his mountain for he had seen men drop dead from exhaustion and knew his sister could not last long.

And though the courtiers called upon every learned man in the kingdom to break this curse, neither sleeping draught nor potion could release the queen and, in their failure, each learned man too succumbed to a kind of waking madness.

Soon every room in the castle was filled with plaintive cries, every hall filled with the howling mad, ‘til finally the day came when none but the courtiers, those spineless men, remained unafflicted, begging the queen to surrender.

But though the queen was weary and her eyes as red as blood, she turned upon each man and shook her head. For she would not see her beloved kingdom languish beneath her brother’s childish cruelty.

Powerless against the queen’s resolve, the courtiers slunk away to kneel before the prince, offering him anything if he would only lift the curse.

But the prince mocked the courtiers to their faces and called them blasphemous names. He chased them down the mountain, his voice harrying them all the way. And only when they were gone did he stop and cringe for, in truth, it was not within his power to be swayed.

The witch’s curse was as binding as shackles about his wrists. It could be surrendered to or broken, but not called back, and each passing day saw another drop of blood carved from his once great fists.

And so it came, a year to the day, that the courtiers raised such a pitiless cacophony about their plight that almost no one heard the hard, insistent knocking that echoed throughout the great hall.

But heard it was and even the queen herself looked up in shock, for no one had knocked upon that door since the last good soul fell beneath the curse.

Together, queen and courtier watched as the doors swung open to reveal a cloaked and hooded figure standing in the light.

“What is the meaning of this?” the courtiers cried. “Who dares enter the great hall?”

“I have come to lift the queen’s curse!” the figure replied, in a dry and smoky voice.

The courtiers mocked the figure, laughing cruelly as it strode inside. “How can you possibly break the curse, when so many before have tried?”

To this the figure said nothing, only strode forth ‘til it faced the throne. Then, with a flourish, the figure threw back its hood to reveal a mane of fiery hair and the face of a woman known to one and all, for it was Summer, the queen’s long absent sister, returned from the battlefield at last.

Though overjoyed to see her sister, the queen shook her head and bade Summer to depart. “I cannot ask you to risk your life for mine. This is my burden to bear, and I dare not see you afflicted.”

At the Queen’s words the courtiers turned to Summer in earnest. “Indeed princess, it is hopeless! All who have tried have failed. Do not risk yourself in this, only help her to see reason. She must surrender, it is the only way!”

The Summer Princess, who had long disdained the courtiers, turned a disgusted grimace upon them. “I risk no less than some and far more than you! I ask nothing more than to try.”

Seeing Summer’s resolve, the queen nodded and bade her come forth. “What is your remedy, dear sister? How will you break this curse for me?”

Summer smiled and held out one gloved hand. “If you will but come with me, dear sister, I shall show you.”

Within the queen’s private chambers, the Summer Princess called for a bath with water as hot as could be withstood. Spring’s servants, afflicted but unwilling to leave their queen’s side, hauled bucket after bucket ‘til steam swirled about the room like a fog.

But as the last servant left, the queen turned to her sister in despair. “Oh Summer, you are brave to risk what you do! But I have had countless baths, and none have worked. Sleep eludes me no matter where I go.”

Summer held her sister gently and said, “You need go nowhere to escape this curse, my dear sister, merely lay down the burden that you carry. For though we have been apart, I have heard how you labored to soothe what our brother did rend, how long you have fought this wretched curse and I love you more now than ever I did. But lay down this burden, sweet Spring, and trust in me, for if I know anything I know this…Sometimes it is the simplest things which have the greatest power.”

With that the queen smiled hesitantly and, with her sister’s help, disrobed, and though the year had been far from kind, Spring’s beauty still remained. Her skin was as fresh and soft as full grown heather and her curves were as gentle as the land itself. Lowering her into the water, Summer could smell the subtleness of blooming flowers and kissed her sister’s weary brow, before stepping back to remove her armor.

More than either of her siblings, Summer embodied her namesake season, for beneath her cloak and boiled armor lay a woman cleanly divided.

The left half of Summer’s form was as ripe and full as any field at harvest, with generous curves, a passionate smile and skin as lushly tanned as burnished copper.

But if the left half begat wantonness, then the right inspired caution, for there her skin had the texture of varnished wood or glass. Her hair, so wild and free on one side was stripped smooth on the other and the fingers of one hand were fused together, as though she might at any moment palm a cup full of water from the nearest well.

To look at Summer was to be possessed by sudden passions, even as her smoky voice put the mind to thoughts of drought and tinder and the simple devastation of a careless match.

As Summer stepped heavily into the water and pulled her sister into her arms, the queen was gripped by a host of emotions. Joy at her sister’s return, fear for the danger she courted and gratitude at the comforting touch of her skin. Encircled, with her back pressed against her sister’s breast, Spring asked no questions, though sleep was still as distant as heaven’s farthest star.

In this companionable silence, the comfort was such that even as Summer’s hands began to glide along her limbs, Spring never stirred, merely settled further into her sister’s embrace, relishing Summer’s gentle, contrasting touch.

It was only as Summer, like a cavalry scout, slowly mapped the terrain of her body, that gooseflesh rose suddenly along Spring’s arms and shoulders. As her sister’s hard right hand skirted the lowlands of her hips and traced the curve of her belly, Spring let out a gasp.

“Sister?” she whispered. “What…?”

Her next words were stolen as those hands slipped quickly upwards to claim her breasts and drive all thoughts of sleep from her mind.

Caught off guard the Queen groaned as her breasts were grasped and cupped, her back bowing away from her sister’s skin, even as it pushed her even further into Summer’s touch.

Under this methodical mapping the Queen felt for the first time a new need building slowly within her. With each touch and stroke her breath passed raggedly and her skin became hotter and more alive than the water that surrounded them.

Summer’s hands possessed her so that Spring whimpered when they left her suddenly. Abandoning the soft curve of her breasts, Summer glided down the smooth path of her belly and into her private garden.

Spring moaned as her sister’s hand cupped her, the fused fingers teasing her as though made to do so. With slow, gentle strokes, Summer dipped into the Queen’s recesses, a fingertip slipping inside to draw out a wetness that brought Spring near to panting, her hips lifting to meet her sister’s touch.

As Summer guided her thighs apart, laying her quim shamelessly bare beneath the water, Spring quickly forgot all about her brother’s cruelty, the courtiers preening and the plight of all who’d come to her aid.

The warm, wet teasing went on and on ‘til Spring was sure it would kill her though she cared not if it did, for at that moment there was only the water and their shared breath. And as Summer’s fingers found the secret bud of Spring’s desire, Spring gave herself fully over to those implacable sensations, crying out so loudly it sent ripples across the water.

Thrashing about, the Queen moaned in a heavenly voice until she collapsed in Summer’s arms, spent and heaving, aware of nothing but the strain of a yearlong resistance finally leaving her in peace.

“Oh Summer,” she whispered. “Oh, my dear, dear…”

The Queen’s words faded as, at long last, she and all those afflicted fell into such a deep and dreamless slumber that none but the courtiers heard the terrible scream that issued from the top of the mountain.

For three days and nights the kingdom slept and on the fourth day all awoke hale and hearty once again. The mad no longer jabbered and the despairing ceased to weep.

From that day forth, Spring and Summer ruled as the Queens of the Fair Seasons, ushering in an era of peace and wisdom that would last for many years to come.

Of the courtiers, who’d risked nothing for the realm they’d claimed to love, the queen’s banished them, leaving them to wail forever in the barren lands beyond.

Of the Winter Prince, little is known for he was never seen again. Only those who travelled the long, dusty roads would ever speak of the wretched creature known to haunt them. A gnarled, fearful thing that shuffled from shadow to shadow, unable to bear even the meagerest light.

Of the Black Witch even less is known for she vanished from her beloved ravine. There is only a story, told third hand, of mountain shepherds who chanced upon a maiden one late, moonless night.

She was tall and strongly built they said, with eyes as old as the stones she trod upon. And though she passed a night with them, sitting quietly beside the fire, when asked where she headed or what she meant to find, the maiden only smiled, her black hair flashing in the orange sparkling light.

“Wherever I wish,” she said, in a strangely powerful voice. “And whatever there will be.”

In the morning, the shepherds awoke to find the maiden gone and the day dawning as bright as it had ever been. And though they were glad to see her gone, each was careful to wish her well. For such strange creatures bore long memories, and none could say when they might return. 

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