Birdsong woke Aurelia early the next morning.
She felt dazed. Her eyelids were heavy and her bones ached as though she had slept in the same position all night. She rose up awkwardly from her pallet in the great hall. The fire had already diminished to thin embers and it crackled and wheezed behind her. She pulled her hand across her belly feeling the baby move inside her. A ripple burst up from her stomach near her navel and it made her giggle.
Aurelia moved away from the fire slowly, her memory of last night fuzzy and distant.
Oren, she quaked suddenly, bringing her hands down to her womb again, instinctively clutching onto herself for protection. It came back to her suddenly with a painful jolt. She hadn't meant to fall asleep last night. She only wanted to lie down. She planned on sneaking out to Oren as soon as Brynhild fell back asleep.
Aurelia's eyes darted around the room, but her mother was nowhere in sight. She brought her hand up to her forehead. She worried that her chaotic thoughts might suddenly burst from the underside of her skull and she stilled herself by breathing deeply.
The baby kicked again and she felt awkward and wary.
"Momma?" Aurelia called, pulling on her wolf-skin coat. Her mother had laid it out near the hearth and it was so hot it made goosebumps rise on her arms. "Momma?" She called again, but Brynhild didn't answer her.
Leaving the castle she pulled the wolf pelt tighter around her, the air was startlingly cold and Aurelia could smell the threat of snow. She mused that there were only a few more brief days left for she and Oren to still leave safely. If they delayed too long now they would be trapped in the mountains until spring.
Aurelia wandered away from the castle, moving slowly, searching all sides for her mother, and hoping to find Oren. Near the barn she noticed an old shovel leaning against the far wall. She thought it was odd because there was very little that you could dig up this time of year.
She thought briefly that Oren might have stalked off to the Mausoleum last night for shelter but she quickly brushed the idea from her mind, remembering his reaction the last time he was there.
The gate was open and Aurelia strolled through it and across the old bridge over the moat. The water was clearer this time of year and she could see the faint outlines of fish darting slightly underneath the glassy surface.
"Momma?" She called out again once she entered the barren field. Her feet sunk into the mud, and it made walking difficult. The land was empty and untilled. It stretched out in front of her flat and wet.
When Aurelia got past the tree line she stopped. She felt out of breath and clutching onto the side of a tree she tried to steady herself. Her breath came in heavy puffs and circled the air all around her, steam pooling above her head like a halo.
She looked on all sides of herself, turning slowly to take in the panoramic of the forest, the vacant field, and the sad castle. From here she could see the damage time was beginning to do to it. The wooden roof had sunken in slowly and portions of the top floors would soon be all but inhabitable.
Aurelia wanted to know where her mother was, but she worried for Oren. A sharp panic gripped at the back of her throat. The thought that Oren may have not understood her last night and actually gone made her heart race and jump in her chest. She brought her hand down to her belly protectively again and carried on deeper into the trees.
The river was strong and loud, and she followed it as far as she could without crossing. When she got far enough away from the castle she called out: "Oren?" Her voice echoed and bounced back to her. The trees were all bare now, and the leaves were dead and dry under her feet, the eeriness of that sound chilled her blood. "Oren?" Her voice rose out loud and came back on all four sides of her. Naked branch limbs jutted out like accusatory fingers pointing in her direction. She felt them scrape across her face and she carried on. Each pale colored tree trunk resembled a mocking ghost. "Oren…?"
When she got to the meadow Aurelia stopped. Her hands and feet were so numb with cold that they burned. She wrapped her arms around herself and sat down against the base of a tree. She let her body roll down slowly and readjusted herself several times until she became comfortable.
The yellow grass was dry and thick with a frigid layer of ice that shinned in the daylight like diamonds. Looking outward Aurelia gazed at the knoll where she and Oren had first made love. She marveled at how time had plummeted on so quickly, and how the previous winter had dragged on endlessly while he was away.
Aurelia was sure he would find her. The hardest part was waiting for him to arrive.
In the grass beyond her a solitary black crow darted and scurried through the frost. It's ebony plumage startling against the ghostly light all around her. When it got close enough to her she noticed that there was a thin layer of shinning ice on its back. It looked ethereal and strange. It frightened her.
"Corvus," Oren had told her once, "is how you say crow in the old tongue." The memory flooded her mind abruptly.
"How do you know that?" Aurelia had teased.
Her question perplexed Oren, "I don't really know," he admitted, "I think it was a teacher I knew before the plague. It's a fuzzy memory."
"All your memories are fuzzy," she laughed.
Oren ran a hand through his hair, "I know, but I'm sure in the old tongue it's Corvus."
"If you say so…"
The crow squawked away loudly, startling Aurelia out of her thoughts. The bird skittered across the field and took flight. Aurelia watched the blur of blackness dart across the grey sky.
The day wore on slowly but Oren had still not come. Aurelia went through all of the events of last night. How she had told Oren she was sorry. How she had told him to go.
She had nodded to him and she was sure that she had seen recognition in his face. He knew what she wanted; they had a plan. Aurelia refused to believe that he would leave without her.
She only did what she did to save him.
When twilight descended the sky turned into a pale-cobalt color. Aurelia wrapped her arms tighter around herself and breathed deeply. Her back ached and throbbed from sitting for so long, but she had to stay. With each new deep breath she told herself, Oren will come, Oren will be here soon.
There was a full moon spilling light over her. She watched it, the light lengthening the trees into thin ghoulish specters all around her. Aurelia swallowed a thick lump at the back of her throat, and it seemed to get darker with each passing moment. She hadn't brought a torch; she had no way to make a fire. If she stayed there much longer she would not be able to see her way back home.
"Oren?" She called out one final time. Her voice was broken.
She took the quickest way home, but she stopped frequently to rest. Aurelia kept her hand on her belly, and through her clothes she thought she felt her muscles harden and then soften again. Her heaviness made walking more difficult in the dark than it had during the day.
When she finally reached the castle grounds she went to the barn first. She searched the dark room quickly but she still saw no signs of Oren.
Entering though the castle door Aurelia was immediately shocked by how warm it was in the great hall after having been outside all day. Her cheeks were flushed and a thin layer of sweat had pooled near the small of her back and on her forehead.
Brynhild was sitting in front of the fire; her back to Aurelia. She took a step toward her mother, but then stopped herself when she saw that the King's great chair had been moved. The remembrance flowers were scattered on the cracked stone and Brynhild herself was curled up on to it. "Momma?" she asked hesitantly, bridging the gap between herself and her mother with a few more small steps. "Momma what are you doing?" As long as Aurelia could remember Brynhild had never allowed anyone to sit in her father's chair.
"Where have you been?" Brynhild's voice was monotone and empty, she still had her back to Aurelia.
"Out," Aurelia began, "I just went for a walk."
Brynhild sighed, and when Aurelia was finally close enough to her mother she reached her hand out and squeezed it. "What is it?"
Brynhild still did not look at her. The firelight lit her face up in a collage of harsh yellows and oranges and reds. "Oren came for you," she said absentmindedly.
"What?" Aurelia removed her hand from her mother's shoulder and turned back toward the open room hoping to see him.
"He wanted me to tell you," Brynhild began, finally turning away from the fire to look at her daughter. Aurelia noticed that her hands were smeared with what looked like dirt, "that he was sorry. He said to tell you that he didn't regret anything, but that he couldn't be with you anymore. He wanted to remind you that you are a Princess, and he is not worthy to be with you."
"What?" Aurelia's voice came out in a shuddering creak. She shook her head, disbelieving, "where has he gone?" She questioned her mother, "did he say?"
"He did not."
"Momma?" Tears sprang violently from her eyes. Aurelia could feel the tepid dampness spread across her cheeks and chin.
"Hush now," her mother soothed, getting up from the chair quickly and moving toward her daughter. Brynhild stroked the hair away from Aurelia's face. "There now, my sweet darling, everything will be alright."
"No," Aurelia pushed her mother away, the force of her fist startled Brynhild. "No! He wouldn't just leave, this is his home," she fought her growing fear and doubt, "he wouldn't leave me."
"He did," Brynhild countered, affronted by her daughters behavior. "He offered me coin for the trouble of the babe but I told him such things were of no use to us."
"Trouble," she tasted the word, rolling it between her tongue and teeth. "Trouble of the baby?"
He had put his hand on her womb just the night before. His fingers had flared out across the surface. The movement of their child was instinctive and awe-inspiriting. John, he had said. They were going to name the baby John.
"Aurelia," her mother reasoned, "He was no good for you. He's a brat, a spoiled urchin. He's not like us."
"Like us?" Aurelia repeated.
"Yes," Brynhild told her, "Like you and me."
"Like us?" A chill ran down the length of Aurelia's spine. She felt it reverberate across her back and into her belly. The pain made her clutch her hands into tight fists and bend her knees.
"Where is he momma?" She spat out through gritted teeth.
"Aurelia?" Brynhild questioned seeing her daughter hunch over further.
"Where is he?" She pleaded. "I can't live without him."
"Please momma?" The pain intensified so strongly that Aurelia cried out, clutching the sides of her skirt in fistfuls. Her knuckles turned white.
Brynhild approached her daughter, removing one hand from her skirts and interlocking it with her own. The other hand wrapped around Aurelia's back. "It's time daughter."
"Time for what?"
Brynhild saw that her daughter was holding her breath through the pain and she instructed her to stop and breathe. "The babe," her mother said simply. "The babe is coming."
"No," Aurelia's eyes widened, "It's too soon." Another wave of pain swept through her and Aurelia had to fight the urge to collapse onto her knees for relief.
Brynhild put her hand on Aurelia's abdomen, her palm kneading the bulge that had lowered since the night before when she touched it. The skin was hard and taught. "Yes," Brynhild reassured her, "It is time enough."
She helped Aurelia awkwardly take a step once the pain subsided, and moving toward the door she said, "This way, sweet one, I've prepared everything…"