October Writing Contest Winner: Once Every Spring
This month, following up on our Tarot for Writers event, writers had to deal out a three-card Tarot spread and come up with a story with a 2,500 word maximum, working from the cards by any arrangement of their spread.
Once Every Spring
by Marília Bonelli
The splash of a single rolling wave onto her shins caused Aeran to open her eyes. Cold water reached forth, sliding along the uneven floor of the cave until it touched the tip of her toes. Even then she didn’t move.
A small gray fish plopped up out of the eye socket of the nearest half-submerged skull and proceeded to pick at the algae growing where the left cheek had once been. The seaweed made Number One look like he had a green beard.
Aeran knitted her brows—maybe that was Number Three.
She clearly remembered bashing Number One’s skull in during a fit of anger. And Number Two had been dragged into the deeper water near the opening of her cave by rather large waves during a winter storm. The rest… well, they’d all blended together after a few decades.
She directed her gaze to the opening, squinting when sunlight reflected off the burgeoning waves. She tried to distract herself from the thought that the equinox had passed. It was out of her control whether someone decided to venture to her cave or not.
A sudden shadow stretched out from the entrance. Aeran couldn’t see much but an outline, but her heart sped up. Stupid, lonely heart.
Dozens of little crabs scattered, hiding their dark forms against the black rock. Only the largest among them stood its ground, lifting its front paws to face the unknown menace. Aeran almost smiled. Which was wiser?
“How many years has it been, my queen?” A deep voice reached her. It was as deep as the ocean, sometimes just as dark. But now, it felt as warm as the sun.
Her heart, which had already been beating at full speed, pounded harder. Wetness threatened to form in her eyes. “Yours?”
Ephris’s form stepped further into the cave. Navigating the thin curtain of roots that had long pierced the cave ceiling, his features finally came into view. “Do you not remember me?”
How could she have forgotten that face? Even centuries couldn’t erase it from her thoughts. “Of course I remember the man I loved.”
Aeran waved him off. The motion caused a spider who’d been considering weaving its web along her fingertips to rappel down to safety.
“Am I allowed to be called queen still? What is a queen without anything or anyone to rule over?” She gestured to her makeshift seat, shaped from a millennia of water molding the rocks. “Is this my throne? Is this cave my castle? What difference is there to a prison?”
No matter that none of it could kill her—such were the advantages to being the lower kin of gods—but no food, no water, no comfort… She had nothing but this cave. That and the promise she’d made to the man she loved. “I don't even know if the world is still out there.”
“It is! Largely thanks to your will and power, which keeps the darkness mostly at bay.”
“Then why are you here?” She dared not hope to expose her wishes.
Without a hint of hesitation, Ephris went down on one knee. “My queen, the nine elders have summoned me from the land of the dead to beseech your return.”
“What is it? Am I not obediently wasting away here in my place of greatest power, letting myself be syphoned throughout the years to feed the magic which shields this world? What more would they want?”
“The barrier has not been working as well as we’d hoped. Despite your efforts, the darkness has not stopped completely. It continues to edge forth and consume the world, slowly but surely.”
Aeran averted her gaze. Yes, her grip had been relaxing a bit.
“We were hoping to have no issues during the first millennium, but I am told a few more centuries may see half the world devoured. The elders wish for your help in combating the darkness. They believe they have found a way to seal it away permanently and ensure no other evils enter this world.”
“Won’t it be risky to abandon this place?” she asked. “I cannot sustain the barrier from elsewhere.”
“The elders have said the barrier will hold without you for a few days. If we hurry, that should be enough. I have the fastest horses waiting for us and the path is sure to be clear.”
“Many have come for me over the years… Some with promises of gold, power, anything and everything I could possibly wish for. Even the evils came, intent on destroying the barrier by ridding themselves of me. So how can I trust that you are my beloved Ephris, who wanted nothing more than to protect this world?”
“I—” He rose as if intending to reach out a hand to her, then seemed to think better of it, his boot stopping short of kicking a pile of bones. “Remember the blossoms we would watch by the river each spring? Before you ascended to the throne, we would often sneak out—”
“That one said something like that as well.” She pointed a finger lazily to a skull near the left wall. “Or maybe”—her finger swept to the right, to a shattered skull turning to dust—“it was that one.”
They were all faceless ghosts now, the ground at her feet littered with the bones of the ones who tried to move her over the years. The crabs made them all look the same after a while. When she turned to the living ghost, once again kneeling before her, she saw his expression fall.
“I've been trying to get to you over and over and over again through the years. You never believe me.” His strength seemed to fail him. “It’s always been me, Aeran.”
Her eyes closed of their own accord as she savored the moment. It was good to hear her name emerge from those lips, full of warmth and caring.
Maybe… maybe it was real.
Dare she ask?
“If you're truly my beloved Ephris, then answer me this. You said you’d find another way to hold back the darkness without my having to forever feed the barrier. Why did you never return?” Tears pooled on the edge of her lids, but she refused to blink, hoping she could hide them a little longer. “Even if you couldn’t find anything, why wouldn’t you come tell me that yourself?”
The question startled him, and seconds turned to eternity as no answer came.
“I’m not sure,” he whispered finally. “My memories are hazy. The elders said only that I have been dead for a very long time now. I believe even they do not know what became of me when I was living. Surely I must have died before I could return. I know I never would’ve left you like that.”
Unable to be contained any longer, her tears fell onto her thighs, soaking into the salty, tattered mess that were her clothes.
It was so tempting to believe his words.
Her body moved before she could command it, tightening the hold of the roots that were attempting to latch on to her arms and torso. Aeran rolled her shoulders, freeing herself from their embrace. One rather small root brushed against her cheek when she slid forward. Her hair trailed behind her, a dark veil clinging to everything it touched.
Feet that hadn’t supported her weight in months felt odd against the damp cave floor. Sharp rock edges contrasting with the softness of green algae distracted her for a couple of steps. The little crab which had held its ground until now finally scurried away into hiding.
The knight remained kneeling as she approached.
Aeran touched his cheek gently, drawing him back to his feet. She had trouble looking away from the face that had come straight out of her memories. It was always this way though.
His expression softened. “Were you sad when I didn’t return?”
Sad? “Not at first.”
She waited patiently for him. For years, decades, for longer even, unaware of the passage of time out in the world.
Then one day, he returned. A ghost of the Ephris she’d been waiting for, unaffected by the passage of time.
She realized then that Ephris had been dead and gone while she’d been sitting alone in that cave, waiting. Only then was she sad—if that meager word could explain the oozing, unsealing crater in her heart.
Ephris placed a soft kiss on her forehead, then another on her cheek, along the path of her tears. “I’ve missed you so much, Aeran.”
His breath felt like a warm breeze. How long had it been since she’d let herself feel that warmth? She snuggled closer to him, willing to go along with it.
“Please, Aeran. Will you come with me?”
She nodded, still a bit hesitant. She hugged him, a tiny little smile forming of its own volition when he wrapped his arms around her.
He squeezed her once before pulling away to meet her gaze.
“We should head directly to the elders now, they’ve been looking forward to meeting you. There’s a large city in the west of Farvaha that is on the verge of being devoured by the darkness. Leaving here would accelerate the process, but it might still be salvageable if we hurry.” He paused, likely having seen the disappointment she was unable to hide. “Later, maybe later, we could go to the Shindi river and see the blossoms. We’ll see all the blossoms you desire once this is done.”
She clasped one of his hands, examining his palm for markings. “The elders bound your soul, didn’t they?”
“Yes, I’m bound to this form until I do their bidding. I’m told it is a very difficult process to bring me back, and still an imperfect one as I do not retain all of my memories.”
Some things never changed. The elders were still too weak, they required an entire year to gather enough power to raise one imperfect person. It was unfortunate that even with all her power, that was one type of magic she could not wield.
He shifted their hands, leading her towards the cave entrance.
She’d followed Ephris so many times when they were young. She could probably describe the muscles on his back with her eyes closed. “Will the elders set you free if I return with you?”
“That was their promise.”
Aeran paused as the first rays of light touched her skin. Her feet would go no further. Her hand clutched at his. “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be.” He smiled. “I’ll be with you the entire time.”
“Will you?” Doubt leaked into her voice.
He pulled her into his arms, comforting her with a kiss. She’d gotten a kiss like that as well when Ephris first left her in this cave.
Memories of watching him vanish beyond the cave’s entrance without a backwards glance overwhelmed her. She latched onto him, kissing him with a desperation that felt like a long-lost friend.
Before she could regret it, she manifested her silver dagger and plunged it into his back. He tried pushing her away, but she held him close, twisting the dagger once before removing it.
She eased him onto the ground when his legs collapsed. His breathing became shallow and erratic.
Her own breathing felt ragged, her heart speeding at a pace she couldn’t control. The words she wanted to say died on her lips. She said instead, “Ephris' eyes were green.”
A tear made its way down his cheek. “No, my eyes were always hazel.”
His chest rose and fell in hypnotic repetition until it fell and rose no more.
Hazel eyes stared lifelessly out at her.
She caressed his face, running a hand along his hair to straighten it. “I know very well what color your eyes were.” She knew it down to the little fleck of dark brown right there in the corner. “It’s just…”
Sometimes, it hurt too much.
It was easier to pretend that it wasn't him. It was much safer for her heart to pretend to doubt who he was instead of doubting his words. She didn’t dare confront him, terrified to see betrayal in his eyes or, worse still, contempt.
Perhaps she was a coward after all.
“I would love to follow you back into the world, to see the blossoms at the edge of the Shindi River. But if I walk out of this cave, I’m afraid I’ll find only pain.” Her tears fell onto his lips, mixing with his. “I am much more comfortable here where you left me—where you abandoned me. Here, where you must come see me time and time again... for as long as you fail.”
She made her way back to her throne on shaky legs, nestling herself between the dangling roots. “Hurry back, my love.”