The Blackknives come for their sacrifices in the middle of a feast day. The ribald music that trills through your village tapers off unevenly, leaving high notes from a stubborn flute to cut through the hush.
Once, a god ruled these lands. Their name is lost. Some say the Blackknives cut out the tongues of anyone who would whisper it, but others counter the notion, suggesting that even the children and the grandchildren of the Blackknives who took up their parents’ obsidian daggers have forgotten who they once served. The dead god is called the Lost, the Fallen or, most often, the Dissolved.
All that remains of their rule is a cup of grey ice, a crown of red leaves, a shimmering acorn brooch and a golden gauntlet covered in tiny suns. Once, the Dissolved used their power to keep the seasons in balance, with neither holding sway over the other. The tales vary as to how the god met their fate, but all agree that when the Dissolved abandoned these lands, chaos ruled. No one human could hold the power of the artifacts, but if siblings were bound to each object, the winds calmed and the seas stopped their heaving. The searing heat and biting insects were held at bay.
Four children taken every few hundred years, and the seasons are held in balance with blood and breath.
The sacrifice is necessary.
Still, it is a fate that nobody seeks.
The six guards are grinning in their armour, black as Acheron. Each of the Blackknives boast a drop of godblood in their veins. They claim to be immortal - nobody has heard tell of one dead or dying or killed, so it must be true. All will obey if they take you, for all believe that the Blackknives cannot be refused. You realise that this moment has been inevitable since the day the youngest of you was born, making four siblings.
Your parents stare at their plates; they'll not fight for you. Everyone has noticed the days growing toothsome and dark, even in the middle of summer. The old sacrifices must have faded or died, or the Blackknives would have stayed in their citadel and left your village be.
Still, when the Blackknives pull you and your siblings up out of your seat, you are allowed to choose your season. The twins clutch each other and take up Spring and Autumn.
[[You’re the youngest. You’ve never felt like a brother or a sister; you hold yourself as simply you. You choose Winter, drinking from the heavy cup made from dull, grey ice.]]
[[You are the eldest, the brother. You choose Summer, sliding your hand into the golden gauntlet scattered with tiny suns.]]
It's Winter for you, then.
The water at the bottom of the cup is half-slush, and you can feel it chilling you down to your bones as you drink.
You understand that you'll never be warm again.
You'd seen the previous Winter a handful of times, riding across the white of the mountain-top with her Ghouls in train, their stone armour standing dark against the snow like ticks on a white dog.
She'd howled as she rode, a cry that was both lonely and triumphant.
Some said that she'd perished under the weight of her palace of ice, but you'd once marched up to the snowline out of pure, aching curiosity and seen it still standing, all stark and lonely.
It'll be your hall now, and they'll be your Ghouls to command.
[[You wonder if her silver armour will fit.]]
[[Suddenly scared, you reject the Cup and run your knife over your palm to see if your blood is still hot.]]
It does, although your shoulders are heavier, more muscular. The bright plate reforms itself around your body, nipping in tight around your waist and sliding as smooth as the moon when you lift your arm to strap on her sword.
Polar bears crouch on your rondels and a spike of black ice sprouts from your helm in a crest.
When you draw her sword - your sword, now - you are surprised at the perfect heft and balance of the rime-frosted blade.
The march up to your hall of ice was long and rough, with two of the Blackknives watching your every step. To make up for it, your Ghouls serve you a torn-apart deer for dinner. Your stomach turns from the sight of the rare meat, but your teeth ache for warmth.
[[You eat, and though it is unwilling, something in you sings.]]
[[You refuse the deer, and suck on the scrap of a glove.]]Your blood steams. It pumps straight from your hot heart and as it tumbles out of the cut on your palm you drink in the sight of your village, of your cowardly parents, of the Blackknives who were too slow to stop you.
Perhaps they were surprised that someone would turn down the power that they offered.
The red seems to break the spell that holds the crowd immobile. Suddenly the baker is shouting over his lost niece and the blacksmith is running for the swords in her armoury. The Blackknives pull their daggers, astonished that anyone would dare attack them. They fight, savagely, but they are so few, and the villagers, your villagers are many.
When the six are dead you wonder what to do. Nobody has ever dared to touch them, and everything seems unbalanced, untethered.
They look to you, freshly blessed by Winter's cold. Better you than any of them, they say.
[[You tremble as they bend the knee and wonder what will come next.]]
For all that your Ghouls love and worship you with their rocky hearts, the adjustment is dark and difficult.
The hearths within your palace are miserable, bare of kindling. The floors are scattered with meagre layer of straw. Even within your own royal bed, you lie like a snapped-off icicle underneath a crush of black bearskins, each animal killed in the middle of winter so that the hair was thickest. In truth, the mountain of furs is there for the weight, not the warmth.
Three years' pass. You grow taller, thinner, sharper.
Each morning you climb to the top of your palace to listen to the song of the wind. You've learned to listen to the mournful notes so that you may pick out whispers, news.
You hear word of Summer, bright and boasting of conquest, arming for war. He always was bold.
The twins, Spring and Autumn, are silent.
That's telling too.
Then again, there's another song in the air. It's something golden and shining and warm, a hint of sunshine in this new cold world you rule.
[[Marshal your Ghouls. You'll not be caught unawares.]]
[[Take your grey stallion out into the snow. Give him his head and follow the golden song.]]
Your Ghouls beg you to eat, and when that doesn't work they send for your mother. You hate her after she gave you up so easily, and refuse her pleading too.
The Ghouls find you other sustenance - fruits that burn with fiery warmth, strange fish that smell of apple blossoms when they're cooked. You try to eat then, but all that you've taken into your body is water from your goblet, and it will only be satisfied with red meat, the fresher the better.
It doesn't take you long to starve.
The Blackknives replace you with the squalling baby that your parents had after losing their children. It is a blessing that you don't see the newborn, frost-skinned and white-eyed upon your former throne.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]This then, is war.
You've been training with your Ghouls and the shadow-warriors they call up from forgotten histories and your body has grown strong and quick.
By the time your brother Summer has appeared with his Sprites, all light and flashing in their floral silks, you have armed and armoured yourself and your Ghouls for battle. Each of them is clad in grey stone armour, with a long blade of ice at their hips. Many of them eschew a helm - they prefer to keep their teeth free.
Your officers bear their ice-chipped daggers proudly.
"Winter, I ask you now, lay down your arms." Your brother is wearing golden plate and a crown of roses. His skin is deeply tanned, and his mouth is stained purple with wine. He is heavy, trembling, over-full. He is nothing like the grinning brother you remember. He is not even like the sad-eyed boy who rode off with a guard of Blackknives, one hand clad in gold.
[[You refuse him, of course.]]
[[You pass him your goblet, with feigned deference in your lowered eyes.]]You ride for three days with an honour guard of long-legged Ghouls at your spur. They keep you in freshly-killed rabbits and deer and quietly argue amongst themselves for the skins.
They wanted you to wear your shining silver armour but something about the golden song tells you that you'd do better in silk and fur. Still, they wouldn't let you leave unless you strapped a long dagger to each thigh.
The silks you found were all silvery and black and look particularly striking with a polar bear skin draped over your shoulders. The Ghouls even found you a crown of iron and obsidian. You feel regal as you ride through the snow. Your goblet is tethered to your saddle horn. You drink from it when you stop, and delight in the feeling of your bones re-freezing.
At the end of the third day the snow begins to fall away.
You pass through a thicket and find yourself in a clearing dominated by a towering oak tree. At its base, there is a woman.
You step down off your mount and offer your name.
She accepts it and offers hers in turn.
"Celeste," she murmurs. You realise that she is mortal in the same moment you realise that you are not. "And you?"
You tell her your name, and when she smiles at that, you tell her about the cup, the Blackknives, the role you've been thrust into. It's been so long since you talked to anyone but a Ghoul. The words keep tumbling out of your mouth.
She tells you of her days of questing for strange game, of new sights and smells, of adventure. She wanders where she will, trading skins for the necessities of life, sleeping in barns and under hedges. Free to seek and sing and stride to the sunset.
Celeste offers you pungent goat's cheese, a crisp apple. Her hands are sun-browned and strong, a striking contrast against your thin pale fingers. You're not sure if you'll be able to keep the food down, but you try.
The two of you sit on her blanket, spread out under an oak tree, and you talk until the sun sets.
[[When the moon peeps out behind the clouds, you reluctantly saddle your horse and return to your castle. The taste of her apple lingers on your lips.]]
[[You order your Ghouls to strike camp. The two of you share a fire. You marvel at the pop of wood and the flicker of sparks and the heat that soaks you to your bones.]]"Go," you say. "Send runners to Five Springs, to Boldgrove. Tell them that we're free."
Your optimism will last as long as your fingernails, before they frost over and drop off. Still, you live long enough to see change come sweeping in like fire.
It's a pity you've lost the ability to feel its warmth.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]You nod once, and your Ghouls fly into battle. They smash into the Sprites who are armoured in nothing but cobwebs. The Sprites crumple like wilted flowers, and you grin at every death.
Your blade flies into your hand, heavy and cold, and you fly like a howling wind through the ranks of crushed petals until you are eye to eye with your brother, with a boy you once admired.
He meets your blade and surprises you with his quickness as he cuts and parries with ease. Perhaps there is more muscle on him than you'd thought.
The Ghouls finish their killing. Several of them are experimenting with chewing on the flesh of the Sprites, but it's soon clear that it's honey-sweet and unfit for a meal.
You and your brother hack and slash at each other. His strength and reach are tempered by the slipperiness of the floor of your hall. He can't quite brace himself, can't quite find the right place to put his feet.
He falls, finally, exhausted. You hover the tip of your rimed blade over the hollow of his throat.
"Winter. It's not too late." He pulls a black knife from a sheath at his hip. You know it is one of theirs. "Join me, and we can be free of them."
[[And why not? Killing your own flesh will bring you no joy. You see a chance to rule your own life, to carve something that is not under the sway of the Blackknives and their augury. You sheath your sword and extend your hand to your brother.->You pass him your goblet, with feigned deference in your lowered eyes.]]
[[Killing the Blackknives and upsetting their order is tempting, but you might lose all of this. You will not give up the power you traded for your mortal bones. You finish it.]]
Your brother tugs off his gauntlet and passes it to you. You're surprised. You hadn't expected him to surrender his power like this. You begin to pull it onto your hand as he takes up your goblet.
"Wait," he says, and cracks open a locket. Inside are two oak leaves made miniature, flush with crimson, and a pair of tiny acorns. "Gifts from our sisters."
You take a leaf and an acorn each. You sniff yours. They smell of the twins, of their sun-warmed perfume and of cool mid-season nights. Your brother eats his, and you follow. They sting faintly as they go down.
"Now," says Summer, ever the older brother. "Now both of us are all of us."
He sips, and you clench your fist in the gauntlet.
You've been the cup's too long to really feel the Summer song in your bones, but there is something to it. A power, a softening, a fullness that you'd not expected. Summer starts, and you can just imagine the cold of the ice melt settling on his bones.
The Blackknives were wrong, in a way. Those bound in blood can indeed share the power of the Dissolved.
You've never felt stronger, and Summer's smile tells you that he feels the same.
"Call me Summer no longer!" he proclaims, taking your hand and leading you and your train of Ghouls down the steps of your palace. "Call me South, and you North! For we are more than our seasons now, so much more!"
<i>North</i>, you think to yourself. The north is vast and cold and yours. <i>Yes, North.</i>
With all of your seasons united, the Blackknives have no chance, not even when they call levies and hole up in their bleak castle at the centre of your territories.
All four of you meet, seasons no longer, but Cardinals.
You rule both together and in turns, and all of you share the cup's immortal ice-melt, and no more are families broken to serve the whims of the Blackknives.
There is peace.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]You've not forgotten your brother and his army. He was always so bold as a boy; the first to leap heedlessly into the river at the end of a long day of work, the quickest to dinner, the loudest in mirth.
You're almost surprised that it took him this long to ride to your keep.
Though you've never wanted to see him dead, you'll do what it takes to survive.
He may have been the boldest, but you've always been the strongest, even if your voice is small.
[[You grant all of your officers a silver dagger with a chip of ice in the pommel that'll freeze anything the blade touches.->Marshal your Ghouls. You'll not be caught unawares.]]You stay with Celeste in the clearing for five days. By day she hunts with speed and skill equal to the Ghouls, although she also brings you fruits and flowers and stones touched by the sun. You touch your tongue to each, savouring the honeyed flavours, the warmth.
You spend your days spinning her sculptures from ice. Most days she sees them before they melt, and thanks you for each with a kiss.
Very slowly, your heart starts to thaw, though your skin remains as pale as ever.
After three years of being nothing but a figurehead, you are shocked to be considered a person.
You tell each other stories, hopes, wishes. Your heart beats warm in your chest, and it hurts, it hurts, but it feels like coming home.
Eventually the Blackknives send for you. You kill three of their messengers before they come themselves, grinning and sharp in their obsidian armour.
[[You draw your sword and bare your teeth.]]
[[It was foolish to think you could run. You bid farewell to your love, and mount your horse.]]The Blackknives look startled for a moment and then draw their swords. You've already swept into the ranks by the time they've pulled their blades, your daggers shining as bright as the cold stars.
They don't expect the fight. Their legend has kept any from attacking them directly for centuries.
You wish for your armour, but the silks allow you to flow as smoothly as water. You strike out, slitting throats and plunging your blades into the gaps in the Blackknives' armour.
Celeste does not run but instead stands firm behind you with her bow. She shoots arrow after arrow, and not one of them misses its mark.
When it's over and the Blackknives are somehow crumpled and dead on the ground she sees to the minor cuts you've taken. Most of them heal quickly, for such is the power of the cup.
For a moment you stand, not quite believing that the Blackknives could be dead, that you could be free.
"Come," you say. "Ride with me. I would seek out my brothers and sisters, tell them that they are not bound anymore."
Celeste smiles at you, and her face is like the sun.
You spend your days thawing bit by bit under her light.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]The Blackknives surprise you by cutting down your horse. It rolls, squealing, and you barely manage to throw yourself free in time. Still, one of your feet is snared in a stirrup, and that catch is enough to slow you down.
You thought they'd take you home, so that you'd step once more into your palace of ice, resume command.
You almost even missed the raw deer.
But no, you've had your chance. They only want to see you destroyed, now that you've defied them.
You fight with tooth and nail. You fight for your very life. Still, their hands are swift and their daggers are sharp. You take cut after cut.
Finally, you are exhausted on the ground, bleeding and spent. You brace yourself for the final blow.
Arrows bloom in the throats of the Blackknives.
Celeste drops to a knee by your side before they've even hit the ground.
"You didn't think I'd let you go, did you?"
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]The journey to your new home is swifter than you'd realised it would be. You'd seen Winter's palace as a child, cold and lonely in the mountains, and you're glad that you had a chance to take up the gauntlet, to avoid that icy waste.
No, your palace is carved from pale yellow stone that is shot through with brilliant specks of gold. It is perched on a rolling hill from which you can see and hear the ocean. There are rosebushes dotted around the palace, and the Sprites who are sworn to serve you wear colours to match the blooms.
When the Blackknives bid you farewell the Sprites lead you to your welcoming feast. The grand table has been built from driftwood and is groaning with the bounty of the land and sea. There are crocks of aromatic honey, thick loaves of crusty bread and dishes of sun-coloured salted butter. There are slabs of fish that have been baked with lemon, there is a whole roast pig with skin that crackles as you bite into it. Nothing can compare to the potatoes roasted in duck fat, nor to the tender duck breast that accompanies the dish.
You drink cup after cup of fresh spring water, of wine the colour of straw, of wine the colour of heart-blood. The Sprites eat only when you've finished with a dish, but you make sure they all get a taste of the feast.
When you've eaten all you can the Sprites bring apples soaked in brandy and baskets of fresh plums.
[[You laugh, dizzy with delight. You'll never get up if they keep bringing food.]]
[[You take an apple and a plum and go to inspect your new home.]]
Before you leave, you beg a boon. The Blackknives grant it, knowing that a demonstration of your powers will quell any doubt you have in your heart.
The newly-numbed Winter has marched off with their guard and Spring and Autumn are noisily weeping in each other's arms. It was a mistake to try to pull the twins apart, but the Blackknives must have their sacrifices, or the seasons would stop and destruction would rain down upon the land.
The villagers are scared, they sit behind their plates and weep, or hold each other's hands under the table.
"Let me give you this," you say, as you touch the food that is yet uneaten. Dull river-fish give way to fat salmon, dark and red. The common greens that the village young spent the morning gathering bloom into hearty tubers and corn that gleams with a hundred colours. The simple bread rises and multiplies into loaves bursting with grains and flavours, with crunching crusts and flour-dusted sides. The meadow-flowers that dot the tables bloom and fill with honey.
There is now a lush, heady feast in lieu of the plain village fare.
[[The villagers push each other out of the way to eat. They fill their bellies and then some, and turn to you with greed in their eyes.]]
[[The feasts is loud and merry, and while your heart aches to leave this place, you are glad that you could show them something joyous before you left.->You salute to your past and turn on your heel. You follow the Blackknives, knowing that every step will bring you closer to your true home, your true family.]]
Your generosity is ultimately, your downfall. Your former family and friends eat, and laugh, and pour each other cup after cup of dark red wine.
Emboldened by your rich foods, the villagers beat down the two Blackknives that were assigned to you and hold them steady whilst they push carving knives into the gaps in their armour.
You'd never thought them fallible, but perhaps you underestimated the strength of those who go hungry at the whim of the gods.
When they have finished with the Blackknives, the villagers turn to you.
"Again!" They howl like wolves, like hungry spirits at the dawn. "Again!"
You try to run, but they catch you, bind you, hold you.
You spend the rest of your long days in a room of stone. You count yourself lucky when they change the straw.
They leave a gap in the wall large enough to fit your arm through, gauntlet and all. You wonder if one day your touch will imbue the food that they bring with darkness, with poison, with death, but day after day, they wring from you nothing but blessings.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]You spend your days with your eyes on the ocean. Every morning you run down the beach, kick up the sand and plunge into the bright blue waters. You swim until you're exhausted, laughing in the gentle waves, sun-dark and salty.
You stagger up the beach to feast and sing and enjoy the music that your Sprites play when the sun drops below the horizon.
One bright morning grants you the sight of a silver flicker in the water. At first you think it's a dolphin, or, with a thrill of fear in your body, a shark. But no, the silver reveals itself as the flash of a muscled shoulder, an ink-black cap of curls.
You've never seen anything like their seaweed-green eyes, their coral-sharp teeth. They play with you in the water, swift as a seal and as strong as the undertow.
[[You bring them gifts. Strawberries. Tender cuts of meat. Wine the colour of sunshine. They eat from your hands, they suck the scraps from your fingertips.]]
[[You're not ready for such a clench and thump of your heart. You turn away from the sea, you ignore the call of the waves.]]First you inspect the food stores. There are barrels of apples and slabs of dark red fish and bunches of fragrant herbs in the store-rooms. Sacks of grain stretch as far back as you can see, and one of your Sprites surprises you with a wooden bowl filled with edible flowers.
You think about the lean winters that your family and the village suffered through. There had been long days when none of you had eaten, save when you'd gone out to hunt, to bring back something, anything. A rabbit got you through one long night, a duck the next. But there was never enough.
You start to wonder what it would be like if winter was banished, if nobody ever had to feel the snap of cold, or a hungry belly on an icy night.
You inspect the armoury next. There are racks of straight swords with golden hilts, spider web armour for your Sprites that could turn even the heaviest of blow.
For you, there is a suit of gold plate, to match the gauntlet. It is heavy, too big, and you find a smear of someone else's blood on the inside of the helmet, but after you shrug it on and swing your new sword a few times, the armour re-forms around your lean body. Settles in. Lightens.
There, now you'll be ready to fight, if it ever comes to that.
[[You've not trained with a sword, so you decide to start each morning on the practice field, duelling with the strongest of your Sprites. You get better, slowly. You start to feel like a warrior.]]
[[What power do you have against that of the seasons, the Blackknives. You'll set aside all thoughts of war, of conquest.->You laugh, dizzy with delight. You'll never get up if they keep bringing food.]]
You hear of Winter's chariot, spoiling crops miles away from their ice-spoked wheels as they ride from their palace in search of sport. Do they know what it is they're doing with their Ghouls?
You send messenger birds - the finest and fattest of your pigeons - but none of them return, and from the lack of response, you assume that none of your messages are read.
You ride out one day with your Sprites, to visit your twin sisters. Spring and Autumn, they are, as alike and as different as all twins are.
Spring greets you and grants you a score of nights under a bower of flowers and sweet grasses. Her dryads play with your hair and massage your feet with their knotty wooden hands. She gifts you a pair of acorns. One for you, and one for Winter, if they may be swayed. You bid her farewell with a tight embrace - you've not forgotten that it was she who nursed you through a fever, who brought you flowers collected from her favourite meadow.
Autumn has made her palace out of oak trees bound together, shaped with her crown of leaves. Her eyes have turned mossy green, her teeth midnight black. She offers you a brace of roast squirrels, a cup of leaves filled with pure water that has trickled down from the canopy. She sends you off with two leaves plucked from her crown, both of them only as big as your thumbnails.
Both of the twins are concerned with the frost that has been creeping into their territories.
[[You march on to Winter. Something must be done.]]
[[The frost is strong, too strong for you. You set your sights for home, and do not look back for fear of disappointment.]] The merling visits you at dawn. Every morning, without question, you are there, to wade up to your hips in the sea and greet them.
The first time they kiss you it feels like coming home. Their lips are cold and taste of salt, but their tongue is warm as it darts against yours. You laugh, unexpectedly, as they tug you under the waves, and nearly choke on seawater. Then they are cavorting around you in the waves, and for the first time since you took up the gauntlet, you are truly happy.
The merling vanishes with the sun. You spend your nights dreaming of their eyes, trying to perfect a language that you can speak with your hands. You eat but little and seek your bed early so that you can see your love once more.
Your Sprites miss you. They make decisions where they may, but they need you to lead them.
After three glorious months, the Blackknives come, to see if they need to select a replacement following your neglect of your duties.
They forbid you from the sea.
[[It breaks something in your chest, but you agree to rule as Summer should. You spend one final morning with your feet in the sand, saying goodbye.]]
[[No, you will not give this up, Blackknives be damned.]]You turn instead to governing the land that is yours, to blessing the land with sunshine, with warmth.
This lasts, for a time, until the storms come. They are full of sleet and spite, howling in where they have no business. You consult the texts that sit within your vast library. Only when the seasons are out of balance is the weather so wild.
You wait another year, hoping for calm. Marching for war, against your own blood no less, is something that you have no appetite for.
Finally a storm comes that shakes your palace to its foundations and covers your courtyard with snow.
[[Well then, you must become a warrior.->You've not trained with a sword, so you decide to start each morning on the practice field, duelling with the strongest of your Sprites. You get better, slowly. You start to feel like a warrior.]]You feel nearly nothing when your sword pierces your brother's throat. And then it is done, and he is nothing but a stranger lying on the floor of your castle in his golden armour.
Your Ghouls beg you for his body. You assent. They feast on him, crack his bones with their teeth, fight over fragments of his armour.
In the end you ask the blacksmith to divide up his golden suit. You take a sunburst from his helm, and turn it over in your hands whenever you have doubts.
The Blackknives find a new Summer, some child your father got on a travelling minstrel. This one has the sense to leave you alone.
They all do. You live, but nothing about your power grows, and the world eventually becomes so dull and weary that you long for death.
So it is that you ride to the new Summer one season, after a thousand years must surely have passed. The ride shows you a land that you don't recognise. The folks who toil the fields swallow as you ride past, and you barely understand what they whisper to each other in fear.
Finally, you find yourself at the Summer palace. It is beautiful, vast. You can see how your brother would have been happy here. You cry, for the first time in many years.
The new Summer is darker than your brother. He wears the armour with ease, although his plate is simpler than the one your brother commissioned.
He's not surprised to see you. He takes your cup from your trembling fingers and offers you a final feast. You eat, even though your stomach twists. You take in every bit of life that you can while you still breathe.
In the morning, Summer leads you out to the beach.
"I can give you this," he says, his brown eyes kind as he rests his hand upon his sword. "Or I can give you this." He gestures at the sea.
<i>Yes,</i> you think. You'd not considered anything beyond a sweet release. But the sea has something of you in it. You could make a life there.
[[You nod at the sword. You want it clean.]]
[[You stride into the waves, seeking whatever there is to find.]]
The Summer who is not your Summer sighs, and nods. His blade rings as it pulls it from the jewelled scabbard.
You smile up at him, and say thank you with your eyes.
The blade falls, and you are, thankfully, done.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]Such a strange place, this sea! You take to it willingly, eagerly, and the ice in your bones expands to fill up every part of your body.
You can breathe, and you can sink to the bottom. You walk along the sandy bed of the ocean while the waves tussle and lilt above you. You find wrecked ships, bright red crabs, golden coins and bright coral.
You hadn't thought to find home again, but here you are.
Sometimes you even remember the child you once were, who became Winter. Sometimes you miss your Ghouls, although you cannot remember any of their names.
You seek, and explore, and remember.
You are, unexpectedly, home.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]The battle is bloody and brief. Your cold sibling is far stronger than you could have imagined.
They fight you. They beat you. And yet, they listen to you when you call for truce, broken and bloody on their icy floor.
"Winter, take my gauntlet. There is nothing to be won here. Let us join forces."
You tug off your gauntlet and hand it to your pale sibling. They take it with raised eyebrows. They examine it for a moment and then goes to pull it over their thin hand.
You pick up their cup. It is as heavy as a year of snowfall, as heavy as cold silence.
"Wait," you say, remembering. You take out the oak leaves and acorns that your sisters gifted you. You remember their troubled eyes. "Gifts from our sisters."
The both of you take a leaf and an acorn. You roll your acorn under your thumb, feeling the tug of life. You wrap the leaf around the acorn and pop it into your mouth, crunching down, feeling the sap, the sweet tart of seasonal power.
"Now," you say, trying to sound kind. "Now both of us are all of us."
You take a long sip from the cup while Winter embraces the power of the gauntlet.
The ice melt streams down your throat like a glacier. The cold clashes with your sunburst blood. For a moment the substances seem to war within you, but then the cold settles for your bones and leaves your blood for the summer.
The Blackknives were wrong, in a way. Those bound in blood can indeed share the power of the Dissolved.
You've never felt stronger, and Winter's smile tells you that they feel the same.
"Call me Summer no longer!" you proclaim, taking your younger sibling's hand and leading their Ghouls down the steps of their palace. "Call me South, and you North, my sibling. For we are more than our seasons now, so much more!"
<i>South</i>, you think to yourself. The south is warm and earthy, filled with wine and blossoms and lazy bees, and yours. <i>Yes, South.</i>
With all of your seasons united, the Blackknives have no chance, not even when they call levies from amongst the populace, and hole up in their bleak castle at the very centre of your territories.
All four of you meet, seasons no longer, but each with a compass-point; Cardinals.
You rule both together and in turns, and all of you share the cup's immortal ice-melt, the gauntlet's invigoration, the crown of leaves that was Autumn's and the acorn brooch that was Spring's, and no more are families broken to serve the whims of the Blackknives.
There is peace.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]Eventually, the frost creeps over your twin sisters, over the vast territories between you and up over the steps of your palace.
You'd expected as much.
Still, when you sibling Winter comes, you can see in their eyes that this was not of their will.
"The cup," they say, apologetically, when they have stopped weeping for the twins. "It's too strong. I'm too strong."
In your youth you would have challenged them, fought them. Now, older, and perhaps a little wiser, you simply nod and offer them a room.
Both of you scour the library, although the Blackknives are too crafty to have left much in the way of lore about yourselves, of what you can and cannot do.
Still, you find something one night, as rime begins to creep over the soft wood of your walls. A hint.
"The power cannot be contained, if it flows like this," you say, holding your voice steady. "But it can be subsumed, with sufficient will."
Winter simply sighs, knowing that it must be you.
You wish it was otherwise, but if the ritual is complete, the land will grow green again, and that is worth it.
Winter hands you one of their own ice-chipped daggers to slit their throat with. You kiss them on the forehead and make an end to it, quickly. No suffering. Your miserable Sprites prepare the body, remove the freezing bones and cook the flesh in a shell of clay dotted with herbs.
You eat, because you must.
When the body has been consumed, and you have finished crying cold tears for the sibling you once loved, you are relieved to see the frost receding.
One of your Sprites brings you the first flower that blooms, still rooted within its cradle of soil. It is blue, like their eyes.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]The years drag on. You order your Sprites to bring you looking glasses from across the land, so that you may stare into the sea from your tallest tower, hoping for a glimpse of your lost merling love.
Every now and then you are granted the sight of a flash of scales, a swirl of ink-black hair in amongst the surf.
A century passes. You do not age. You wonder, often, if merlings do.
That fragment of silver skin could be any denizen on the deep. It may not be your merling. You can only hope, and yearn.
You don't see your merling for a score of years.
Your power wanes, and another Summer comes to replace you.
Where do you go, those who were once beloved of the gauntlet? This one was not offered the choice that you were, but he comes collared by the Blackknives, the same immortal guards who plucked you from your home.
You surrender the gauntlet willingly. It has brought you only temporary joy.
[[Surely your merling is long gone. You turn for your home, for the village that birthed you.]]
[[You decide to visit the sea again, hoping, hoping.]]You're wearing your sword, though you've exchanged your plate armour for a shirt of golden mail. The Blackknives will return, perhaps stronger in number, if you do not finish this now.
Your Sprites are always ready for a fight, though they do not look it with their gossamer armour. When you draw your blade, their leaf-shaped glass blades leap into their hands.
"You'd challenge us?" says the leader of the Blackknives, the one with the decorative helm.
"For love? Yes." You say, and sweep into the fight.
The Blackknives are creatures of myth, said to be immortal warriors, descended from the Dissolved themself. Their word is law, their might unquestioned. But you have found that they die like ordinary folks. Perhaps the godblood has diluted over the centuries, and they rely on their myth more than they should.
Five of them are down, missing limbs, slashed from throat to waist, finished with stinging cuts from the glass daggers of your Sprites.
One remaining. You cannot let him get away.
"You'd have done well to leave me alone," you say. There is nothing but terror in his eyes. You end it, swiftly.
You wash off the blood of your enemies with water that smells of roses, of rot.
And so you visit your love, in the morning. They grin at the sight of you. You do not tell them of the price you've paid for their company. Perhaps, one day, you shall.
You kiss your merling love, and offer them a peach.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]The village is gone. Oh, there is <i>a</i> village there, but it is both bigger and smaller than the one you said goodbye to. The villages stare at you - you're clearly of their stock with your short nose and dark eyes, but nobody remembers quite who you are. Nor do they see you as Summer - the gauntlet's glow has faded, and you are just an ordinary human once more.
The house that you grew up in is occupied by a family you do not know. You're standing, sorrowful, just outside their door when a familiar voice calls to you.
"Brother? Summer, is that you?" You turn and see Winter, no, your sibling, your human sibling standing before you.
They are smaller than they were, older. You can sense the shadow of the icy cup on their bones. You wonder if they see the gauntlet in yours.
Your sibling is looking at you as if they are scared of how you'll react.
"Kolig," you say, naming them with their child's name. You stumble in for a hug.
And then it as if the cup and the gauntlet were dreams that you lived in for a century.
Kolig takes you to a low house just outside of the village. The twins are there, too, and you start to realise that you might capture something of your lost youth.
You're peaceful there. You almost forget about your long lost merling love, until.
A knock, one night, rousing you all. You roll out of bed at the frantic banging. When you throw open the door, they are there, somehow here, somehow with legs, though their skin has turned grey where it was once silver and bright.
Your merling love, come to you, when you could not come to them.
You embrace. You'll follow them back to the beach, if that will bring the sheen back to their scales.
Wherever you are, now, now you are home.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]
You arrive at the beach as the stars are starting to show. You kindle a small fire, nibble on a handful of apricots that one of your Sprites wrapped up in a cloth for you. The night passes, and you sift through your memories of the merling you love.
You'd done nothing but kiss and run your hands over their sea-slick body, but it was enough to enchant you. You've taken no other lovers since the Blackknives forbade you the sea.
You are knee-deep in water before the sky breaks. The water is cold and rough but you relish it. You dip your hands in and lick the salt from your fingers and nearly weep at the remembrance. Your love. Your love.
There, there is a flash of scales. Your heart is hammering and you can only hope that they remember everything, remember you.
The merling breaks out of the surf like a silver god. You gasp. They are older, their shoulders heavier, their skin a little rougher. But their eyes are the same and full of love.
The merling keens, and you know then that they missed you as you did them. You crush them in your arms, and their lips find your neck.
<i>You're here to come with me, come into the sea?</i> They ask you, their hands stroking over your back.
"Yes," you whisper, so that you don't shout. "Take me with you."
<i>It will hurt, for a moment.</i>
"Please," you reply. And then their teeth are in your flesh, tearing into you on either side of your throat. You shout with pain, you trust them, but the shock is great. Then their webbed fingers are there, rubbing something into your wounds. Seaweed? And then you gasp.
Your love has given you gills.
You fall into the water together, expelling your last breath as a land creature. Water pumps over your gills, you sigh and roll lazily in the water. The merling pulls you under with a gentle tug, and you are suddenly free, and you are suddenly happy.
[[Make your choice anew. ->Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold]]It's Summer for you, then.
The gauntlet is warm like the sun, warm like melting butter on your tongue. When you draw it on, something in your chest glows and you know that the Blackknives have brought you a gift, have enabled you to connect with a strength that is far beyond that which you'd have found on your own.
You feel bold, defiant, shining, even if your parents look terrified, and your siblings look lost and overwhelmed.
The twins refuse to part until forced. Still, they've changed somehow, in the moments since they took up their seasons. You can sense their powers, smaller than yours. Then again, Autumn and Spring are transitional seasons, without the brightness and bite of Summer and Winter.
[[You salute to your past and turn on your heel. You follow the Blackknives, knowing that every step will bring you closer to your true home, your true family.]]
[[You cannot leave without saying goodbye.]]