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The Man in White: A Dark Tale of Sacrifice By Jean Lowe Carlson

A hacking cough ripped Litha, tearing her body from the inside out. She doubled over in her cane-woven chair, succumbing to its vile clutches. Gasping, the heavy wetness in her lungs clung to her insides, and left her perspiring with an acrid sweat. Litha clutched her ribs through her worn woolen wrap, trying to breathe without the hard thump of panic in her chest, her head hanging and eyes closed.
The Man in White: A Dark Tale of Sacrifice
The Man in White: A Dark Tale of Sacrifice By Jean Lowe Carlson
“Mother?” A gentle hand settled to Litha's knee, squeezed her leather leggings. Gwynnae had always been a kind child, but her fingers were not wan. No, Gwynnae was a strong as Litha had once been, before this last illness, her hands calloused from chopping wood and tending goats. A billy-goat bleated in a lonesome corner of the farmhouse, nosing in the straw hopefully. Its bleat was returned by the few nannies they had left, three of which were pregnant. All had joined them indoors after the second week of snow. And now, as the winter wore on, snow piling ever higher atop the roof and making the gables groan, there were few of the herd left. And fewer stores in the cupboards. Litha tried to breathe easy, but the rattle in her chest had that death-knell sound. She knew it well. Her own father had died of a lung malady in a winter such as this. And Litha, hearty though she had once been as a young woman, and even this past summer, was now not far behind. “Mother?” Her sweet girl prompted again. “Can I get you anything?” Litha shook her head, gripped her daughter's hand with her own hearty calluses. “No. I'm fine, child. Just a bit of a cough. That's all.” A goat bleated again, and suddenly, Litha heard the woeful little wail of Gennoch from his crib in the back of the house. Gwynnae paused, called to feed her little one, but a worried frown pinched her dark brows for her mother. Litha could see that Gwynn's woolen shift and leggings hung off her broad-shouldered frame now. Haggard bruises deepened her calm brown eyes, and her breasts seemed flat beneath her shift as she stood with a sigh. Her hipbones protruded from her woolens as she turned, listening again for her infant son. Again, the shrill little wail came. He was good and truly awake. And hungry. They all were. A hacking tirade doubled Litha over again, her head hanging by her knees. She gasped for air around the thick rattle, whooping. Spittle dripped from her lips and Litha sucked it hastily away so that her daughter didn't see it. “Go to Genn, my child,” Litha managed between coughs. “He needs to be fed.” “You need more medicine.” “The medicine runs thin. Save it. Cold is the best thing for my lungs.” Litha gasped herself to standing, feeling a familiar trembling in her limbs. The emaciated weakness of starvation. Just this summer she had been hale and fit, slender and tall like her daughter, robust with muscle from hunting and tending animals. Now there was little of her left, and nothing could be spared to feed her back to health. Litha brushed back her silvering black locks and bound them into a bun at her nape with a bit of cording. “I'm going out to hunt. See if we can't get some game. I'll be back in a little while.” “Mother!” Gwynnae put a stalling hand upon her shoulder, even as Litha shrugged into her thick woolen coat from the peg by the farmhouse door. “You can't go out there! Jenndar went just yesterday and nearly froze to death getting a few squirrels.” “I'll be fine.” Litha sat to pull on her high-topped leather boots, then stood, yanking her woolen hat from a peg. “I know these woods far better than your husband. He's a potter, child, not a hunter. But we can't eat fine porcelain, and he hasn't got nearly as much practice with a bow as I have. I got that wolf two weeks ago. There will be something hungry in these woods today. And I will find it.” Another fit of coughing bent her double, and Litha braced with hands upon her knees, struggling against the panic of asphyxiation. She hawked phlegm at last, and turned to spit it into the fine blue porcelain spittoon, one of Jenndar's creations. It belonged in a better house than this. Litha's farm was roughshod, just like she was, just like her father before her. Gwynnae was a good girl, but she ought to have finer things. Maybe if they survived this winter, Gwynnae, Jenn, and their baby could move to the city. Litha fetched her yew-wood bow and tucked it behind her foot, stringing it swiftly. Her arms trembled from the strain, and she wondered if she would have the strength to pull it. But then she remembered that this outing wasn't about game. Litha would never shoot her bow again. Another rasping fit took her, bringing the acrid sweat out all over her body beneath her woolens and leathers. Her flaxen undershirt was already soaked. It was never really dry these days. For weeks upon weeks, Litha had been sweating like this, and coughing so deep. Wasting away, bit by bit. Chills swept her with a wash of faintness, but she did not put out a hand to steady herself upon the stout beams of the doorframe. She would not cause Gwynnae to hold her back. Litha was going, and she was going today. The few goats left would last Gwynn and Jenn and the baby through the winter. They would have a better chance without her. Gwynn gave her mother a hard look, her lips set in that stubborn press Litha knew well. They say children become a mother's clearest mirror, and Litha lingered upon this thought as she brushed a lock of her daughter's black hair back from her fine, strong face. Her high cheekbones were wide and robust, just like Litha's. Her jaw was angular and her nose straight. Her tall limbs were hearty with muscles even in her starvation, and Gwynn had her mother's curvaceous hips. She had borne her son with absolute ease. And she was a fine huntress and tracker, just like her mother. “I'll come with you,” Gwynn murmured. “Just let me get my bow.” “No.” Litha cupped her daughter's haggard face. “I'll be fine. The baby needs to be fed. That is your priority. You can come out with me tomorrow. I'll be back before sundown, even if I find no game. But you know the rules.” Gwynn sighed impatiently. “No coming after you in the dark, if you're not back.” “Yes. I can make a snow-blind and hunker in until morning.” Litha drew her daughter forward, setting her lips to Gwynnae's concern-wrinkled brow. “The cold is good for my lungs. I'll have stopped coughing soon, without using up the last of the medicines. Keep them for Jenn. His fever is worse than mine. Kiss the baby for me.” Gwynn sighed, her arms reaching around her mother's middle in a sullen embrace. “Yes, mother.” She rested her chin upon Litha's tall shoulder for just a moment. The baby wailed again, a thin, gurgling cry. Litha heard Jenndar wake, coughing, heard the creak of the bed as he shifted, and then cooing as he shushed and rocked the baby. “Jenn is a good man.” Litha murmured into her daughter's ear. “Never forget that.” Gwynn pulled back with her brows knit and confusion in her steady brown eyes. But then the baby began to wail in truth, too long unfed. Gwynnae kissed her mother upon the cheek, then turned, heading towards the wolf hide flap over the stout doorframe and into the back room. A hot prickling of tears stung Litha's eyelids as she watched her daughter go, but they weren't shed. She took up her bow and buckled her quiver around her waist, then pulled on thick woolen gloves. Litha unbarred the farm door and lifted the latch, a heavy spill of snow falling inwards as she opened it despite the depth of the eaves. * * * The high-peaked eaves dripped white icicles in the thin daylight. Like the fangs of saberbear, they were glassy and ominous, fascinating and haunting. Litha stood a moment, her breath puffing in the frigid air. Snow skirled down in a blanketing hush beyond the eaves, not a full storm today but the gradual accumulation that killed them all bit by bit. The incline of white lifted up nearly eight feet beyond the house, almost meeting the fey shine of ice dripping from the roofline. Litha kicked her feet into her sinew-strung snowshoes one after the other, then bent to buckle them. The cold was bracing, and indeed, her coughing had stopped. But that deathly rattle in her lungs was not gone, and Litha felt herself struggle for every breath, her chest heavy and thick. Before she could think about it, before she could stop herself, she set her bow behind her ankle and un-strung it, then hooked it up on a peg outside the house. She unbuckled her quiver and hung that up, too. Then Litha removed her woolen hat, her coat, and her gloves, knowing that she would leave this world far faster without them. She hung those up with the rest. Someone would find them, later. And they would know what she had done. Litha didn't allow herself a moment before she turned and strode quickly up the ramp of snow, elbowing icicles to snap them and admit her passage. High noon, the day had a skirling softness to it as she set a fast march away from her home, the place of her birth. Litha didn't look back at the high-gabled farmhouse with its eaves and family additions. Instead, she gazed at the tree line beyond their pastures, aiming for a hunting-path that angled off towards Hemmer Pond. White was the only color upon the fields and in the thick-flaked air, a haunting white of shrouds. The evergreens mourned this winter, bent and aching beneath their heavy weight of suffering. Bending their will to the endless storm that had taken their hope, as it had taken Litha's. But as she walked now, gaining the tree line and picking a path long-memorized through the trees towards the pond, Litha allowed herself to really see it. The winter, the white bliss of it. The way each frond of bough swayed slowly in the wind, shedding little falls of glimmering crystals. The sound of their shedding, a soft, powdery hush that trickled down from limb to limb from the upper reaches. The gentle whisk-whisk of her snowshoes through fresh falls and drifts. Just as she had admired it so long ago as a hopeful, ignorant child. But forty years of life had taught her a sober respect of wintertime. Litha tucked her cooling fingers in her armpits as she admired the deadly day. Her nose was already cold-tipped and dripping as she set a more demanding pace in her snowshoes, a brisk trot over the roiling, snow-softened gulleys. All the underbrush had disappeared. Only frost-kissed black trunks faced the sighing wind that blew powder down from above. Only the very tops of the merrisberry could be seen, their dense thickets nearly ten feet tall in the hot summers. They were picked clean of leaf and verge, and even their bare twigs had been disastrously chewed into a frothy, jagged pulp. Bark had been stripped from the trees she jogged past, the deer starving just as Litha's family was. Her breathing labored hard in her chest to keep this pace, but it was doing what Litha wanted. Her acrid fever-sweat had spread into a vast outpouring of heat, soaking her garments. As she ran, Litha stripped away her insulating wrap, leaving only her thin woolen jerkin and soft flax undershirt. Cold bit her ears. Cold sank deep into her collarbones, the last of her natural heat ebbing away and whipped by her fever-sweat. On and on Litha ran through the beautiful death all around her, tucking her chin and setting a hard pace she knew she could not recover from, her breath heaving and rattling in her throat. It was better this way. At last, she heeled around a copse of barren trees and saw the snow-shrouded expanse of Hemmer Pond. Something about it, this sight from her childhood, broke her suddenly. Litha stumbled to a stop, falling to her knees in the snow, coughing her lungs out, her hands plunged into frigid drifts. Thick ropes of phlegm hacked from her mouth and she spat them to the pristine snow. Litha doubled over, clutching her ribs, clutching the last of her life, wondering if she had made a vast mistake. Her body shuddered with cold, her fingers and toes and face numb with it, the chill of wet seeping into her leather breeches where her knees had driven into the powder. Sweat poured from her in rank rivulets, steaming away her heat and her life. But her heart pounded stubbornly in her chest, keeping her alive despite her wish. “So strong... such a determined creature you are...” A silvered voice stunned her coughing to a halt. Litha willed her rasping breath to hush as she listened, though she could not yet raise her head. When she finally had enough mastery, she lifted her chin, glancing to where the voice had issued upon the low-sighing wind. A man stood there, idling at his leisure, leaning up against a blackpine with his arms crossed over his chest. Lean and tall, he wore soft leather breeches of a tawny white, and his boots were snow rabbit fur to match the pelt slung about his shoulders. A trim jerkin of tawny leather matched the mottling in the rabbit pelts, and his shirt was of the softest weave, flat yet bright in the dull day. His hair was a white so pure it was nearly silver, his straight eyebrows the same. But his eyes where they rested upon Litha, were a blue so pale they burned. Litha coughed, growling in her throat to clear it so she could speak. She hadn't the strength to rise. “Who are you?” One corner of his smooth, pale lips turned up. Twin spots of color rode his white cheeks, as if to match the haunting burning of his very blue eyes. “I have no name.” “What are you... doing here?” Litha coughed, gasping for breath. “Watching you die.” Snow brushed from the trees around Litha as a gust of wind hit the topmost branches. The falls dusted over the man in white. He brushed powder nonchalantly from his rabbit-pelt, though his ice-curious gaze never left Litha. “A kinder man would leave, and let me die in peace.” Litha coughed, hacking phlegm to the bitter snow. “A kinder man would slit your throat for you, and leave your body to be devoured by the wolves so that your family never finds you.” Litha's head snapped up, her entire body paused, suddenly sensing a predator within the man. But he made no move from his regal slouch against the pine, only let his lips curl up into something vastly amused, but also surprisingly gentle. Litha took in his well-clad, slender frame from head to heels, and noted no weapons upon him, not even a hunting knife. “Have you come to kill me?” “Have you come to die?” That winsome smile curled his lips just a bit more. “That is a far more interesting question, I think.” “What do you want?” Litha coughed, brushing strands of iron-shot black hair back from her face, shivering in the snow. “If you're a highwayman, I haven't got anything. Snowshoes, I suppose.” “You may keep your snowshoes.” The man almost laughed, the cultured smoothness of amusement. “I want nothing from you, Litha! I am only here because you are here. And where there is a want, a desire, a need to fulfill... there is one to supply.” Litha's breath had frozen in her throat. “How do you know my name?” Slowly, he pushed away from the tree without seeming to move, like a drift of snow blowing down through boughs. A piercing blue, his eyes were the clear emptiness of icicles. “I have watched you, Litha... since you were little. How you would play in snow such as this when you were young! Sharpening your fine skates at the grinding-wheel all day to hone them perfectly, to have just one hour of glory upon this very pond. Rosy-cheeked and laughing, the ring of it like the fine winter bells upon the trapper's sleighs. That laugh captured my soul, Litha, the crystalline nature of it. That heady delight, that winsome glory! So devoured you were by such a winter! An obsession of white, a vastness of heaving limbs as you pushed yourself over the ice, strong like the horses that run the sleighs and graceful as snowdrops bending in a breeze. You captured my heart, lovely girl, lovely woman... and I am here now, to return the gift you gave me.” “And what gift is that?” Litha coughed. Her mind skimmed over the absurdity of the strange man's words, their very content a thing of fae dreams and a cold-numbed mind. Litha had slipped into a fever dream. She was certain of it. Crystalline light seemed to bend around the trees as the man in white wafted closer, his footfalls carrying no sound and their tread marking the powdery drifts not at all. He paced to her upon a stride as soft as goose feathers, and hunkered in silence, one knee bent into the snow but not marking it. “Litha... beautiful, remarkable woman...” He sighed as he reached out, settling his fingers beneath her chin, making her drown in those snowfield-blue eyes. “I am here to give you the best gift of all... the one that will take you for what you are entire, and never give you up. I am here to hold you, to enfold you, and bring the bliss you seek... I am here to give you back what you've lost, Litha...” “And what is that?” Litha gazed up into those blue eyes, pierced to her heart by their icicle shaft. The man's fingers were chill upon her chin, as if his very body were made of the snow itself. “Your laughter, my love... your laughter... brazen as the little bells upon the sleighs...” His last words were whispered against her skin, and where his breath went, a fine frost of ice gathered upon Litha's face. But as he leaned in, as his chill lips brushed over hers, there was a sudden and unexpected warmth in them. Litha moved into it, her shivering, fast-numbing body warming to the lick of the strange man's flame. It began at their lips, with the softness, the quietness of that kiss. Bells chimed in the soft wind, that far-away jangle of a sleigh somewhere out upon the drifts. Snow crunched beneath her bare hands, but made no sound as the man kissing her shifted. His long white fingers trailed over her snowshoes, and their buckles twisted up with a wretched shriek, snapping apart with a final dull clink like a frost-ruined plough. Litha's boots were free, and the man suddenly moved forward in a lithe motion and scooped her up from the snow, cradling her in his strong arms like a babe. “What are you doing?” Litha murmured, shivering in her wretched fever-sweat. She had thought the man's touch cold at first, his skin chill as silent midnight, but that was wrong. A soothing warmth seeped from him, from his lean chest, his strong arms, and his soft lips as he kissed her temple, nosing her hair away from her face. “I'm saving you...” He murmured into her temple. “Your laughter saved me once, when I thought all hope was lost. Your joy... your determination. Come with me now. Let me save you.” “I'm beyond saving.” A wracking cough caught her, doubling Litha up into a ball in the man's solid arms. She barely realized that they were walking as she fought for air, willing her heart's frantic racing to slow, willing a bit of life to whistle through her tired, thick lungs. As Litha whooped and gasped, the man moved at a languid, agile pace that nevertheless carried him swiftly through the trees. His boots did not mark the snow and he did not seem to feel the cold in his thin raiment. And as Litha shivered deeper into his rabbit-pelt and soft leathers, her mind began to drift. He was warm. So very warm. Warm like a roaring hearth. Warm like stew in the pot. Warm like life. And when he laid her down upon evergreen boughs, tucked within a tight circle of winter-weeping cedars, Litha mewled to lose his warmth. He rose from her side but a moment, walking to the break in the bower. And with a motion of his elegant hand, the trees organized themselves closed at his behest, their circle of living green and shrouded white unbroken. Litha blinked, gazing at the impossibility of the closed bower. And then, at the wonder of a sky now clearing of clouds above the evergreens, their austere shroud wisping away upon the breeze to reveal bright azure above. The man in white returned to her side as the afternoon sun broke through, casting Litha in a radiance she had nearly forgotten. She reveled in the vast warmth upon her numb face, upon her shivering body, her frigid hands. Sighing, she closed her eyes and let the snow melt upon her lashes in the sunshine. She remembered fine winter days. Those blissful days of her youth, when winter had been a mild sojourn to be enjoyed. When a frozen pond had been occasion to celebrate. And celebrate she had. Litha's lips curled up in a smile. “Yes...” The man in white murmured, stroking her warming cheek with his gentle knuckles. “Remember, my love... remember those days of bliss, that joy of being free, that mercy of ice beneath your skates and warmth in your heart. Remember for me... oh, smile for me, Litha!” “Am I dying?” Litha murmured, her eyes still closed. “Aren't we all?” His warm lips moved over hers, tasting her, his tongue soft as drifts licking into her mouth. “I remember being young...” Litha sighed, kissing the stranger lightly. “The feel of fire in my veins, righteousness in my heart. My satisfaction at a good kill, as I cut the throat of the deer and bled it out upon the winter snow.” “Yes, my love... feed those memories... recall whom you were once. The fevered youth that impassioned the woman to come. The young widow with determination in her eyes and a baby slung across her back, snaking her whip over the plow-horse's hocks. The budding mother laughing with her child catching butterflies on a summer's day when all the chores were done. Remember your life... let it feed us now...” The man had moved close, stretching his lean length out along Litha's side. And where he nestled into her, there came that seeping warmth. His fingertips stole over Litha's face, and she sighed to be touched so, with such passion and kindness, with the deep stillness of memory. And when his fingers slid over the metal buckles of her jerkin, causing them to twist and snap away, Litha did not protest. She rose to his kiss as he touched her, sliding her leathers and sweat-rancid shirt aside, then pulling them off over her head and laying her bare against the boughs, soft as the finest feather mattress. He kissed a gentle line down her forehead, over her nose, then her lips, down her throat to the hollows of her collarbones, which he sucked with a deft tenderness. Litha arched as he kissed her breastbone, his hands sliding down the sides of her emaciated body, cupping her waist as his kisses moved to her belly. Litha moaned as he breathed upon the buckles of her leather leggings, causing them to twist aside and break, plinking upon the boughs. She lifted her hips for him as he slid his hands down, shedding her leathers to her knees. His hands skimmed her boot buckles. Her boots sighed open and were deftly pulled away with the leggings. Litha lay naked before him, breathing softly in the luminous sunlight, every inch of her touched by its blessed radiance. The man in white gazed down, a sorrow-heavy smile lifting one corner of his pale lips as his long-fingered hand caressed her hipbone. “Such a form,” he sighed, in an ancient breath like windswept trees moaning. “So finely-wrought. But let us go back, my love. Let us go back to a time when these thighs were not so tired. When this belly was not so stretched from childbearing. When no silver streaked your ebony locks, and no lines weathered that strong face. When there was no chapping over your cheekbones, only the true blush of your heart pumping your life to expansion. When this breath,” his fingers skimmed over Litha's chest, and where they went, she felt her breathing suddenly ease, “when this breath was fast and shallow for a man touching you... loving you... holding you more dear than anything in this blessed world. Come to me now, Litha. Come to my everlasting love.” The man in white leaned over her, the tips of his rabbit-pelt tickling her breasts. Litha could feel the change he had wrought in her beneath the winter-high sun. She could feel vigor in muscles restored to youthfulness, surging with purpose and life. She could feel the heat of her blood pumping her veins, and her determined heart beating a steady dance in her chest. She could feel the tightness of her thighs and belly, her breasts ripe and firm once more, her waist narrow and strong. She could feel the gentle curvaceousness of her hips as the man in white ran his forge-hot palms over them, caressing them, kneading them, wanting her. Litha could feel her skin soft once more, her lips free of wind-chafing, her hands uncalloused. Her hair where it lay unbound over one shoulder was glossy and ebony as a midnight without stars. She gazed up into the man's fathomless blue eyes, and saw them not as chill ice, but fresh as a dawn just rising in a warm spring sky. Litha breathed his name, and wondered that she knew it. “Yes, my love.” He reached out, stroking her cheek. “I have come for you. Do not fear. Give me your breath in heaving gasps and your body in shuddering waves, and your heart in thundering ecstasy. Long have I loved you, my beautiful Litha, and now our time has come.” Litha gazed up, sliding her smooth young hands up to cup his beloved face. “I don't want to be without you any longer...” “No.” He turned his face into her hand, kissing her thumb with silken lips. “Not ever again. Come to me now. Be with me.” As he leaned over to kiss her, Litha breathed a soft yes out upon the spring-warmed air. And when he shed his raiment to the snow and lay naked atop her with a sigh, snowbells sprouted around them in a gentle shuffle, ringing them in mercy. He was warm atop her, within her, all around her. So very warm, his breath scenting of moss and new crocus and icicles melting, his skin sliding over hers like a spring river, that flood thick within her. And when they surged together, both arching with a cry of magnificence that lit the air and made the snowdrops burst into blossom, Litha gave her body to him, her heart, and her very soul. She felt them waft away upon the gentle spring breeze. She saw the last of her life go, a vague mist of breath from her parted lips, a soft laugh that was almost a sigh upon the mild air. His morning-blue eyes faded from her vision. Everything faded to a tender ease. Litha turned and walked away upon the breeze, and when she reached out her hand, spring-warm fingers twined in hers.

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