The sun broke over the horizon.
I stared at it, numbly.
One more night to be a mother, it had said. One more night. The fear rose up from my stomach to choke my heart, my throat. One more night.
And one more day, whispered a calm voice in the back of my head, sounding so much like my own mother that I shuddered.
I pulled the cord, and sent my maid to fetch the wet nurse, and my daughter. And some food.
When my daughter was safe in my arms I sent everyone away, and did not summon anyone else. Instead I wrapped her to my chest and threw a pair of shawls about the two of us, then picked up the basket full of food the kitchen had sent. Balancing carefully, I descended from my chambers into the main portion of the palace, and from there out into the pleasure gardens.
They were empty of people, this time of year, but still beautiful. The rising sun turned the stretches unbroken snow into a blanket of glittering rose and peach, pierced through here and there by the beautiful black lattice of bare branches.
So very, very beautiful.
The cold air hurt my chest, but then my chest was hurting anyway, so I paid it no mind. I leaned my head down and kissed my daughter’s head, nestled in the warm pocket on my breast. She smelled of milk and honey and the languor of summer. She was far more magical than an entire castle-full of straw-spun gold.
I walked until I came to the edge of one of the decorative ponds, which had a thin skin of ice on it, gleaming in the early morning light. It would not last long- even now a fine steam was beginning to rise from the brittle surface, as the sun spread out along it. There were benches arranged around the pond, but I ignored them, instead spreading out one of the shawls on top of the snow. I smiled to see there, dancing pattern of black, white, and coal-banked red. It was the shawl I’d woven a lifetime ago, as a miller’s daughter. Simple as it was, it was still the finest piece of clothing I owned, golden gowns be damned.
I laid the basket of food down, then settled myself in the center. The wool protected me entirely from the chill beneath, and I reached into the second shawl to adjust my daughter and let her take her own breakfast.
We sat in the stillness of the morning, and I watched the sun climb higher in the sky, and I tried to think what I would do with my final night.
How I would spend my final day.
I ate the bread and cheese and sweetened oat cakes of my breakfast slowly, carefully, savoring their flavor. I left a little of each, as my mother had taught me, for the good spirits.
The good spirits.
...no mortal knows one’s name...
But the spirits were not mortal.
My heart lurched. Could it be so simple? Could they know what my mother’s spirit had not? I tried to force down the hope, not wanting to give that creature an ounce more pain if I could help it, but hope pays no heed to the wishes of humans, and rise it did.
Mouth dry, hands shaking, I called the name of an air spirit, one who had kindly cooled me on some of the hottest summer days. Nothing. I took a sip of the warm wine that was in the basket and tried again, louder.
Something tickled a lock of loose hair by my cheek.