The snow comes down, covers the black earth. The river freezes and the ice is black.
Thick as a shield boss. Smooth as a king’s crown. Somewhere down beneath the ice men’s bones lie stained yellow.
The reeds at the water’s edge are grey, they glitter with frost rhime, they hiss in the wind whispering, the cold has dried them sharp like knife blades. Winter floods spill over the fields, freeze in hollows. Geese pick across the ridges where the plough tracks are preserved by the ice. Willow trees, bare branches trapped in the frozen river, tugging. A woman, her hair caught. A hawthorn, its black branches misted in red berries. An apple tree crusted over with lichen, gilded, gleaming like yellow storm clouds; there are still apples in its branches, paler yellow, the colour of the winter sun. Two boys on horseback, riding, slowing to stopping. One fair blond, stocky, the other thinner, taller, his hair red-black. They take a track along the river bank, Marith throws a coin onto the ice with a flick of his wrist that makes the coin skip. They cross the field, the floodwater crunching under their horses’ hooves. Beyond the field the slope of a hillside rises steeply, the low sun and the frost streaking it black and green and silver, on the hilltop there is a knot of trees battered down by the wind, clotted with rooks’ nests. On the lowest branch of the largest tree there is a great green globe of mistletoe.
Marith looks up at the tree, his eyes shining. Pulls his horse to a stop.
‘Up there?’ Carin says.
‘It’s tomorrow that it’s supposed to flower.’
‘Tomorrow. Not today.’
‘No,’ Marith says, ‘it’s─’
‘Tomorrow. Yes. You’re right. Damn it.’
A flurry of snow blows in their faces. Carin pulls his cloak more closely round him. His horse snorts out a great plume of white steam. Snorts in complaint at stopping in the cold. Heart’s Gift, the horse is called. Chestnut brown, tall but not too tall, a high arch to its neck and its legs. Its mane is plaited with green leather, to match its saddle. Its bridle and bit and its head ornaments are polished bronze. Marith is very proud of it. Almost, almost as beautiful as his own horse.
‘Up there anyway,’ says Carin. ‘Let’s see how it goes up something that steep.’
They kick the horses and ride. Fast fast across the frozen earth. Shouting. A cry of panic from the geese. There is a boundary ditch around the field, the horses leap it together, take the hillside easily. At the top Marith pulls his horse to a stop beneath the mistletoe.
‘It’s better than my own horse,’ Marith says. ‘Look how it took it.’
Carin strokes Heart’s Gift’s neck. ‘Of course it’s not better than your horse.’
‘Maybe I want it to be better than my horse. ‘The best horse in the world,’ I told the horse dealer. ‘As long as it looks exactly and in every way like my own horse. Only … maybe a hand or two shorter. And its trappings … exactly like mine, only … not quite as good.’’ Marith shakes his beautiful head, makes his beautiful hair dance out. Flecked with snow like he’s been showered in love from the heavens.
‘That’s better,’ Carin says.
‘My father would kill me,’ Marith says, ‘if I found you a better horse than mine.’ Thinks. Says in his wry sad way: ‘And he really would kill the horse dealer who sold mine to him.’
Carin nudges his horse right up to Marith’s. Reaches out, puts his arms around Marith’s neck. It’s awkward, kissing when you’re both on horseback. This is the sixth time Carin has kissed Marith. Marith’s mouth tastes sweet and sharp, all at once. And there’s a smell to Marith, up this close, cool and sweet and good. A cool summer breeze in the morning. The horses jostle and they break apart and are sitting on horseback looking awkwardly at each other beneath the bare branches of an oak tree.
‘It’s unlucky,’ says Carin, ‘standing beneath a mistletoe bough.’
‘Is it? It’s lucky I’m sitting on a horse then.’ Marith thinks. ‘Or is it unlucky for a horse, too?’
Carin gets down from the horse, loops the reins around a branch, steps out from the shadow of the tree. ‘That, I can’t say.’
Marith says, ‘At sunset on the first day of the new year, the oak tree on Mere Hill will flower, and the birds in its branches will speak a secret thing. And if any man hears them, he will die before the year is out. And thus no one has ever been near the oak tree on Mere Hill at sunset on the first day of the new year, and thus no one can say whether the story is true or not.’
‘A deaf man might…’
‘Or a woman, yes, yes, shall we bribe your sister to go up here tomorrow, then?’
‘Bring back a branch of silver oak flowers and tell us the secret the birds sing,’ says Carin.
Marith slides down from his horse, puts his arms round Carin. ‘They sing … ‘He knows it all, but he still loves you, Carin.’’
The seventh time Carin’s kissed Marith. Carin’s hands slide around Marith’s waist, burrow inside his cloak, push at the fastenings of his jacket. Black fur, so soft he can barely feel it. getting tangled in it, trying to find a way in through to Marith’s skin. Carin’s hands slide down pressing against Marith’s crotch. He can hear Marith’s breath come gasping. Feel Marith heart beating like a bird’s wings.
‘On top of an enchanted hill in the snow?’ Marith says. His face looks half dazed, like Carin’s must. ‘Really?’
The snow geese fly over them. The peasant folk say that the snow geese fly to hunt the souls of the dead.
Marith says, ‘Anyone around for a half a league would see us.’
The snow is falling thicker. Thick white feathers, like they’re riding through a crowd of people dancing. ‘Winter bees,’ the peasant folk call the snowflakes when they’re big and soft like this. Drowsing, drifting snow. The most dangerous, because it settles so thick and solid. Give it a good name, a kind name, pretend. The river is white snow-covered, the plough ridges in the fields are white with shadows of black frozen earth where the snow can’t reach. The reeds are sharp whispering knife blades. Marith’s mouth, Carin thinks as they ride, tastes like metal.
They ride through bare winter woodland where the trees are beginning to be lost in the snow. The thud of the horses’ hooves dislodges snow down onto them; Marith shouts somewhere between shock and laughter when snow showers down inside the back of his jacket. The snow, Carin thinks, has got closer to Marith’s skin than he has. They disturb two crows that start up beating their wings in thunderclaps. Marith claws the snow out from the back of his neck, throws it at them but it lands far too short and the crows seem to laugh at them.
There’s a group of beech trees up ahead. Great old trees that stand in a mass of flame-red leaf litter. Younger trees still brilliant red. Marith reins in his horse, shakes the snow off a branch to set the colour free. Breaks off a twig and tucks it into his horse’s trappings, copper beside the bronze.
‘I’d weave you a crown of it,’ Carin says, ‘if my fingers weren’t so cold.’
‘In summer the trees meet overhead like a vaulted hallway,’ Marith says. ‘Whenever I come here, I think that places like this must be where the idea for great palaces was born.’
‘If we don’t get back soon,’ Carin says, looking at the falling snow getting heavier and heavier, the red leaves on the ground almost buried now, ‘we’ll miss the feast.’
‘Why do you always saw we need to get back?’
‘I …’ I don’t know, Carin thinks. Do I? ‘I don’t always say it.’
‘You do too.’
‘But we should get back. The feast.’
Marith says in that wry sad way, ‘The feast lasts for three days. Stuck in the same hot room stuffed with food feeling sick. And father and─ and her, the Queen, and Ti, sitting there, having to be so polite and nice to them. What’s worth running back to? If you don’t mind staying out in the snow a little longer.’ He breaks off a few beech twigs, twists them together to make something like a crown, places it on Carin’s head. ‘Here with you, in the cold. I love you, Carin,’ Marith says.
The eighth time Carin’s kissed Marith. His lips move to Marith’s eyes, Marith’s throat. His hands twist at Marith’s clothing. Marith’s hands clutch back. Marith’s falling into him.
‘Here? Now? It’s cold.’
‘It’s freezing cold,’ Marith says.
Marith’s cloak is thick black fur. He fumbles with the broach fastening it, pulls it off, spreads it on the snowy ground.
Carin’s still wearing the crown of beech leaves. He can hear the dead leaves rustling beneath them as they lie down. He kisses snow from Marith’s eyelashes. Buries himself in Marith and buries himself in him. He can hear Marith whispering over and over, ‘I love you.’ He cries out, ‘I love you, Marith,’ and hears the crow fly up laughing at them, and then so quickly too quickly he can’t speak or hear anything.
The pin of Marith’s broach is bent, they find afterwards. The fur cloak is soaked with the snow.
‘I love you, Marith. Love you.’
They lie breathless, hands clasped. Watch the snow falling. Marith stares, like he’s seeing something. White tumbling down. Feather-drift of snow. Petals? Ashes? Carin can nearly see it, the thing that Marith sees. The snow comes down buries them.
‘Love you love you love you. As long as I have you, Carin … ‘ Marith’s face is pained, thinking of things.
It’s getting dark now. The snow is stopping. In the west the sky is clear and the last of the light is lingering glowing red. ‘We should get back now,’ Marith says. Beyond the grove of beech trees they climb a ridge and Carin’s sees that they are riding towards the Hill of Altrersys, the burial ground of the Altrersyr kings. Blue fire dances on the cairns there. Men and women sitting up there among the dead. It will bring a man luck, they say, to spend the last night of the old year beside the grave mounds of dead kings.
Marith looks across at the hill and Carin thinks he’s going to speak. Marith’s horse flicks its head, kicks, whinnies. Carin realises that Marith isn’t looking at the hill and the cairns, isn’t seeing anything outside whatever there is still dreaming in his head. Brilliant light and brilliant darkness. He must see wonders, Carin thinks, when he dreams like that. Wonders I can never see. In the dark Marith’s eyes are huge and black as shadows, like shadows moving. Marith’s lips move in a smile, his hand reaches out, brushes towards Carin. He’s thinking of what happened, Carin thinks with astonishment. Hearing his voice still telling me of his love. Feeling me taking him.
Carin strokes his horse’s neck. Heart’s Gift. Thank you, you gods and demons, whoever whatever granted this to me.
They turn away from the Hill of Altrersys, ride side-by-side into Thealan Vale, through the gates into Mor Town, through the streets towards Malth Elelane the house of the king. The guards at the gate bow their heads to Marith, the people in the street turn to look at him, watch him. Marith can see it, feel it, tosses his head to make his hair shake out. A flag, Carin thinks. A few of the people cheer. Their fine beloved young prince. Marith has been looking tense, at getting back here to his home. When they cheer, his face lights up.
The windows of Malth Elelane are glowing, white-gold candle light. ‘We’re late,’ Carin says. Not dressed for it, rumpled up, Marith’s cloak is soaked with snowmelt. Smell of horses. Smell of semen. Dazed love dream hanging onto both of them. ‘We’re not that late,’ Marith says. The gates of Malth Elelane open, they ride through and again the guards bow their heads to Marith, a boy by the gates cheers him.
The guards at Malth Salene, Carin’s home, they bow their heads to Carin, obviously. But … this is the tower built by Eltheia, the wife of Amrath, the Queen of All Irlast, the wife of a god. This is the tower of the king. The guards bow their heads to Marith, people cheer him, and a little while ago he was lying on the snowy ground and Carin was fucking him.
The bonfire is lit in the great courtyard even as they ride towards it. A great rush of red flame. Pine and applewood, taller than a man on horseback, a gilded horse skull at its top with dried flowers on the sockets of its eyes. There’s a great cheer from the people gathered around it as the flowers catch fire. A barrel of wine is broached, cakes are handed round.
‘Luck!’ a voice shouts. ‘Luck for the dying of the year and for the next year to come!’
‘Luck,’ Marith says. His shadow is thrown onto the wall behind them, a huge thing man and horse together, writhing as the flames rise. They ride through to the stables, dismount, leave the horses to the grooms.
‘The new horse rides as well as you’d hoped, my Lord Prince?’ the head groom asks Marith.
Marith looks at Carin. ‘It belongs to Lord Carin Relast. I told you that. Does it, Carin?’
‘It’s the most perfect horse in the world,’ Carin says. Heart’s Gift.
‘Of course it is. I gave it to you.’ In front of all the stable servants, Marith grasps Carin’s hand and kisses him. The tenth or the twentieth time they’ve kissed now. Marith’s mouth tastes sweet. All my heart could desire, you have given to me and will give to me, Marith.
The whole of Malth Elelane is lit up, decorated with silk ribbons and green stuff, garlands of dried flowers, pine branches, silver bells, bird bones. Servants everywhere, running with platters of food, casks of wine, fetching, finishing. The court, all the great lords of the White Isles, in their finest clothes, gathering for the feast. When the sun rises tomorrow morning, the old year will die, the new year will be born. The town is brilliant with bonfires now, the people of Morr Town out dancing and feasting. The sky has cleared, the stars are very bright. As they hurry up the stairs to Marith’s bedchamber they meet Carin’s sister Landra coming down in a splendid green dress. She smiles at them.
I love you, Marith. Marith smiles back at her. ‘You do know, Landra, how terrible you’ll look in red?’
Landra flushes, sweeps away down past them. She slips on the stone stairs, they hear her stumble and recover herself, go on quickly with her footsteps very loud.
Trumpets, from the great hall below them. ‘Gods, we really will be late,’ Marith says. They run up to his bedchamber, Marith waves his arms for servants to dress him. Carin looks at the bed with its red hangings. It’s set so that the pillows give a clear view of a window and the dark sky. There are too many bonfires tonight to see the stars clearly, the night is lit up glowing, thick smoke like clouds. Out there in the sea there are whales swimming, night birds flying in the darkness over the water. He looks and looks at the bed, thinks of Marith lying in it pale and drowsy, red-black hair spilling over the pillows, white skin against the red coverlet. Big grey moth’s wings eyes, gazing up.
Marith is being pulled into a clean new jacket, black silk embroidered in red and black. He can see what Carin is thinking. He blinks and smiles with his eyes that could mean yes or no.
She’s trying to tug a red beech leaf out of it without really touching him. Marith’s hand touches hers, as he tries to do whatever it is he can feel her doing. She’s pretty, Carin thinks suddenly. Not something he often thinks. Her skin is very fine deep bronze, her hair is long and shining black.
Trumpets. ‘Leave it, it’s fine,’ Marith says crossly. ‘I’m late. I have to go.’ He shrugs across at Carin. ‘Get my friend dressed and ready. He can slip in late. No one will be angry with him.’
I’m the heir to Third Isle, Carin thinks. A great lord’s son, heir to the tower of Malth Salene that stood before ever the Altrersyr came to the White Isles.
‘I’ll stay only as long as I have to,’ Marith says in the doorway. ‘Sitting and drinking down there with them, father and the Queen. When I leave the hall…’ He turns back to Carin, ‘when I leave the hall,’ he says, ‘come up with me. Will you? I’d like you to.’
It’s like a new year bonfire’s been lit in Carin’s heart. And Marith’s face is brilliant, seeing it.
‘You say I see wonders with my waking eyes,’ Marith says. Carin can hear his footsteps running down the stairs. The servant girl goes with him to his own chambers, on the far side of Malth Elelane, to get him dressed for feasting as a lord’s son.
The hall of Malth Elelane is hot enough to roast meat in when Carin gets down there. Every lord and lady on the White Isles, or just about, crammed in. His father and his sister glare at him as he slides in beside them. Right down the end of the hall, as far from the King and Queen as is possibly decent, when once, his father has bored on and on at him, the Relasts sat up by the King’s right hand, and a Relast was once trusted enough to pour the King’s own wine.
Marith’s sitting beside the King his father, trying to look anywhere by at the King and the Queen and Prince Tiothlyn. Marith then the King then the Queen then Tiothlyn, the four of them in a row, obviously: Tiothlyn leans forward tries to talk to Marith across their parents, Marith tries to ignore him, Tiothlyn won’t let it go, keeps talking, Marith has to reply, says something brief, turns quickly away and buries himself in his wine cup. Tiothlyn’s face is like he’s been stung. Marith makes a show of gesturing for more wine. The Queen their mother says something. Marith has to reply to that, has to say something more to Tiothlyn. Carin can see from across the hall how angry Marith looks at his mother and his brother. A dark sad bitter look on his face. Tiothlyn sees it, still so young even compared to Marith, pales and falls silent. The Queen looks between her sons, tries to ignore the tension in them.
I’m here, Marith, look at me, I’ll smile back at you, cheer you. And Marith’s eyes do move across the hall, light on Carin and, yes, gods, yes, Marith smiles and the shadow lifts. Like a bright songbird flying between them. A blackbird in a maytree.
Carin’s sister’s foot nudges at his foot underneath the table. I’ll ask him later, Carin thinks, what it is, between him and his brother and his mother. Why he’s so bitter at them. Tonight, now, after what has happened, now he’ll tell.
The Queen is wearing dark red silk, of course, red rubies in her yellow hair. Altrersyr red. And Carin realizes suddenly what Marith meant about his sister wearing red.
She would look terrible in red, he thinks.
He can feel his father and his sister watching what’s passing between him and Marith. So the crows watched the host of Amrath as it readied itself for battle, in the old songs they’ll soon all be singing, knowing that they would soon be gorging themselves on the flesh of slaughtered men.
She will look terrible in red, Carin thinks.
But a queen’s crown will suit her.
He looks back at Marith and Marith is burying himself in his cup trying not to speak to his brother. The Queen’s face is sad. Twisted up. She’s talking to Tiothlyn trying to make him laugh at something. The King is sitting between the Queen and Marith staring straight ahead trying to ignore all of them. All around the hall people are glancing and whispering.
The feast breaks up early. The first Sun Return feast Carin has been to in Malth Elelane, and everyone said it would be the most dazzling splendid thing.
‘Gods, that was awful,’ his sister Landra whispers. ‘Thank all the gods it’s over.’
‘Yes.’ He feels embarrassed on Marith’s behalf. Everyone in the hall staring trying not to be seen looking, what’s happening, look, gods, look, Prince Tiothlyn’s almost in tears now what’s going on what’s going on?
‘Where are you going?’ Landra says as Carin turns on the stairs towards Marith’s chamber. ‘You’re─’ She clasps his hands, almost as Marith did earlier, in the stables. ‘You’re going to him?’ She gasps, fear mixed with excitement. ‘You’re─’
‘He asked me to go to him.’
She kisses his cheek, wine and perfume and sweat. ‘Oh, Carin! Oh, Carin!’
‘Don’t hope too much,’ Carin says. ‘Not yet. Early days. He might abandon me for a girl any day.’
Marith’s breath coming in fast gasps, his eyes black with longing, snow in his hair. Carin thinks: gods, please, please don’t let him leave me.
Landra hugs him tight. ‘Well done, oh, well done,’ Landra says.
There’s a guard at the top of the staircase, two guards outside Marith’s bedchamber; they shuffle their feet, all three of them, don’t know what to do when Carin goes past them. Everyone in Malth Elelane, Carin thinks, must have been placing bets on if and when Carin Relast would spend the night with Prince Marith. The guards will be listening outside the door, he’d guess. He knocks on the door. No answer. Marith said to come to him. He stands outside the door feeling stupid knowing the guards are watching. Opens the door and goes in.
The room is dark. A single lamp burning. Marith is standing by the window, looking out. He doesn’t move or speak. But he knows it’s Carin there. He must. Carin goes over to him. It’s very cold by the window, the fire has died down to nothing in the hearth. All across Morr Town the bonfires are still burning. Beyond them, Carin can see black darkness that’s the sea.
A single gull screams, very loud and very near. Marith turns at last. He’s flushed with wine, his eyes are big and glossy. The smell of wine on him makes Carin think of Landra’s breath when she hugged him. He feels a little sick.
The twentieth, the thirtieth time Carin’s kissed Marith. His heart’s desire. Heart’s gift. Marith’s mouth tastes of wine and roast meat. Far less pleasant. The bedchamber’s colder than the wood in the snow felt. They fall into the bed, Marith clutching him, staring up at him. Carin’s kissing Marith’s hair, the white skin at the back of Marith’s neck. That’s where you hold the sword to take a man’s head, Carin hears his father telling him, at the nape of a man’s neck, just above where that lump of bone is. Kisses it and kisses it. Marith’s hair is like a cloak over Carin’s eyes. A stream of dark water over him. Their heartbeats like horses’ hooves running. Marith cries out like the seabird. The lamp flame blazes up very bright.
I love you Marith love you love you love Marith.
They ride out very early the next morning, together, alone, to watch the sun rise in the east on the first day of the new year, when the days will begin to lengthen.
‘The world,’ Marith says, pointing out at the snow and the sea and the hills and fields and woods of the White Isles, his kingdom. ‘The world, for you, Carin.’
Well done, Carin.