I realized that I was in the dark. My head ached like a mallet had crushed my skull. I squirmed around, reaching, groping for something, anything—
I heard the cries of children. Lost and alone, always alone. Always. This was why I never wanted to have children. They had nothing. No one cared. Spring was beautiful and verdant, but their hearts were desolate. I picked a cherry from a tree, vague memories of light surrounding me. Its juicy taste filled me with joy for a moment, but the pain flooded into me again more quickly and severely than ever.
Hollis. She was smiling at me. Laughing, holding my hands, spinning around and around—sunlight exuded from her.
“It’s just you and me!” she sang, loud and clear, as if that was all that mattered.
I loved her, but I wanted more. I needed more. Kari and his brothers exploded out of nowhere, racing with Hollis and lifting her spirits ten times as much as I ever could. I couldn’t take care of her. She didn’t know it, but she was dying. She was covered in tumors, weak, hopeless. This was only a temporary spell, and one day even this wouldn’t work on her.
My mother and father—they were gone from me. I didn’t remember them, but somehow… I missed them.
Suddenly, Tarquin appeared, surprising me. He lifted me off the ground and laughed, a deep boisterous laugh that resonated in my soul. It grew a little flame within me until I ached all over. I wanted something, but I couldn’t let myself have it. No, no, no! Stop—I can’t—this is too dangerous. Yet his deep brown eyes moved my heart tenderly.
“Let me down!” I cried, fighting against the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.
But his gentle look somehow caused the ground to give way beneath us. We tumbled downward, and I screamed as I lost hold of the young man. “Tarquin!”
And then I was in a bed, wrapped in warm comforters.
My parents appeared, smiling down at me. I laughed, but I sounded like a babe.
“We love you, Dahlia,” they said. “Gesu loves you.”
I woke up with a severe headache. When I smelled meat, I turned on my side to see Prima cooking something over a fire. The forest surrounded us. Thought it was nighttime, I could tell the trees were verdant and green.
“Looks like we’re back in Summer,” I murmured, rubbing my eyes.
“Yeah, I guess that queen didn’t want us around her place.” Prima chuckled but then sighed. “She took us away before I could even think to use my wand.”
“It’s all right.”
I wrapped the blanket we’d brought on our journey tightly around me in the cool Summer morning. “So, Gesu’s in Winter.” The memories of last night’s dream flooded me. Could he be what I longed for in my dream that was beyond simply finding Hollis? “Who is he, Prima? Will anyone ever tell me?”
Prima turned the juicy rabbit around on a stick over the fire. Her soothing powers made excellent hunting skills.
“Gesu isn’t like the others,” she said softly. “People just try to live, but Gesu lives—people just try to be good, but Gesu actually wants to be good and gives people the power they need to be more than alive.” She gazed off in the distance. “He isn’t like the others—he wants the whole world to be happy. He loves us, Dahlia—no one else is like that.” She took a little breath and sighed. “That’s why I love him, too.”
Love. Her voice was sweet and gentle, and I longed to understand her. I loved Hollis, but something inside me was empty, so empty. It was as if even if I found Hollis, even if she were alive and well, even if Gesu healed everyone from this awful plague… this restlessness would still cling to my soul.
My skin felt suddenly itchy. As I examined the numerous tumors on my hands and arms, I lowered my voice. “Have you been getting these weird bumps too?”
“What bumps?” Prima asked.
I lifted my hands up to show her.
She yelped. “The-the p-plague!”
I nodded briskly, trying to shrug it off for her sake. “We’ll find Gesu soon enough.”
Kari rolled over and started whimpering. I rushed to him. He was covered in tumors as well.
“Kari!” I embraced him, as he cried in my shoulder.
“What did you do?” he wailed. “It hurts so bad!”
“It was the water, Kari. It’s poisonous to humans.” I rubbed his back, murmuring comforting words, as guilt overwhelmed me.
The few people who had not been struck by the plague had each happened to not like the taste of Istagun’s river water. I should have realized there was a reason behind it all. I should have known. How would we ever reach Winter now? We couldn’t go through the center of Istagun. Perhaps we could travel around through Spring or through Autumn with Prima’s powers to soothe the mud walls, but that would take days. We needed to get there fast.
Tarquin was gone now. The strange dream about him still weighed heavy on my mind, but he was only a friend—a friend who now was locked away in the dungeons along with the Treelanders. I remembered how he’d told me his desire to go meet them across the sea. He’d shown me that beautiful boat, as if I were a trusted friend.
The boat. Perhaps that thing was faster than traveling by land.
I glanced up at Prima. “We have to sail around the island to Winter with Tarquin’s boat. It’s the only way.”
Prima stared at me in disbelief. “You’re not supposed to know what a boat is.”
So, Prima hid things from me along with the queen?
“Please. Prima.” Desperation filled my voice. “Maybe there’s some humans left in the village who will help us.”
She took a deep breath. “Let’s eat some breakfast and then get going.”
In the village, Prima used her being-a-fairy ability to gather the humans of Summer around us. The supervisor fairies only complied to let the humans go off work because Prima insisted it was the queen’s orders.
Only about twenty or so humans were left alive and well in the village. Trembling within, I stood on a platform and called out to my people. “Hello, everyone! You all have no doubt witnessed the enormous healing powers of the human Gesu. No human has ever been that powerful before. But then he supposedly transitioned to Autumn, leaving us vulnerable in the face of a deadly plague.”
Murmurs of sorrow rose through the air.
I sighed. “During this time I have been to both Spring and Autumn.”
At this, the fairies became uneasy, but Prima held them back with hushed words.
“The plague is everywhere, even in these other lands of Istagun. And after venturing to Queen Hazina’s palace, I now know the terrible cause behind all this.”
I glanced at the loyal Hazina-following fairies. Gesu loved me, my parents had said, in my dream. It didn’t make sense, but I had to trust this healer.
“The queen has poisoned our water so we will die,” I called out, bitterness rising through me at the thought of the tumors growing on my hands. “She desires to replace us with the stronger species, called the Treelanders who will take our place in producing food for Istagun’s economy…”
I paused, as two heavily armed fairies flew up to me in anger. They grabbed me, but I shouted, “We don’t have to give in to this! Gesu the great healer is in Winter, and the man Tarquin has a ship we can use to sail—”
The guard fairies covered my mouth, muffling the rest of my words. Prima brought out her wand, but they drew me away before she could use it to appease their anger.
And soon I was in darkness once again.
As I opened my eyes, frosty air blew into my face. I tried to sit up, but my fingers and toes surprised me with their stiffness. Soft white drops fell from the sky, chilling me. My head ached more than ever, and I coughed hard into the air, letting my brokenness echo into the desolate land. I had never been colder in my life.
Winter. It dawned on me that that was where the guard fairies must have taken me.
Slowly, I tried to push myself up with my numb hands. With great effort, I succeeded. The ground was white, covered in the soft drops that came from the sky. It looked strangely appetizing, so I stuck out my tongue and let a drop fall. The freezing substances tasted like water, but much colder.
A rush of understanding came over me. Snow. I had heard about this, long ago. In Winter, water turned into a solid.
Pushing myself to my feet, I stood up. I hugged my chest, trembling all over from the bitter cold. I looked around at the white ground, the white trees, and the white sky. Everything was white. As wind and snow whipped about, my teeth chattered. I could see now why people died here. But was there at least some who were still alive? The healthy old folks, perhaps?
I gazed again at my surroundings. It was so quiet, and I could not see light coming from anywhere to signal human inhabitants. Gesu was supposed to be here. If he was such a great healer, perhaps he had healed others and even himself if he had needed to.
I trudged forward into the white forest, but a few heavy steps into the thick snow told me I needed some other plan. I wore sandals, and my feet were frozen. A nauseous feeling rose in my throat.
The plague. I realized with sudden horror the tumors covering my entire body, my face, my hands, my legs. I wanted to scream.
Suddenly, I heard a low moaning, so deep and silent it was as if it came from beneath the earth, shaking the ground under my feet. My heart skipped a beat. I took a heavy, painstaking step toward the noise, but then fell to my knees into the snow. Crawling through the dense slush, I followed the moaning deep into the forest until it grew much louder.
As I came into an open glade, shock course through me. Humans of all ages lied everywhere, dead or dying, it was hard to tell. They moaned, weak and helpless. No one had lit a fire.
“D-Dahlia.” I heard a faint whisper, and turned toward it.
Tarquin was sitting there, pale as a ghost. He, too, was covered in tumors. And to my complete astonishment, in his arms lay Hollis, her face utterly tranquil.
“Hollis!” I gasped, shaken to the core of me. She was here at last. But was she all right?
I crawled toward him, weakness engulfing my limbs. Soon I would be like the people around me, motionless and miserable.
Tarquin looked up at me, his intense dark eyes searching mine. “Her heart stopped beating a few minutes ago.”
I nodded, taking in the girl’s fragile complexion, pale and broken from years of sickness. Her blonde hair rippled to the snowy ground.
“My beautiful sister,” I whispered, my voice choked with emotion. I hadn’t realized I’d said it aloud till Tarquin met my gaze again, studying me quietly.
I looked up at him, suddenly. “How did you know she was my sister among all these people?”
He said nothing for a long moment. “I… I watched you ever since I was young. I knew Gesu even when I was a Spring boy. He’d been a Spring boy with me for a few years before he had to go. He told me something about you…” He stared at me, and blood rushed through my freezing limbs. “He told me you would need me someday. I didn’t know what for, but now…”
Suddenly, voices cried out in the air, not from the sick people, but from somewhere far off. “Long live the King, who will never be King! One drop of his blood will meet all our needs!”
The voices were sweet and shrill, like fairies. I had no idea what to think. They repeated the chant over and over, and it grew louder and louder. What King were they talking about?
A smile played on Tarquin’s lips. “Dahlia, you don’t need to be afraid.”
But fear overwhelmed me as I looked at my dear sister in his arms, and I felt the plague consuming me with the pain that was gripping my body. “I have reason to be afraid,” I said in a low voice, “and, besides, I don’t even know you. So, please, get out of my life! Hollis is my sister. Whatever the ridiculous Gesu says, I will never need you, Tarquin.”
Silence fell between us, while the moanings of the sick ones and the loud chant filled the crisp air.
“Do you hear what they are saying?” Tarquin asked gently, though his voice was strained.
I hugged myself into a ball and sobbed. “I don’t care anymore. Hollis gave me hope, but now she is—well, look at her! She’s dead. There’s nothing more we can do.”
“But the King they are talking about—it is Gesu. ‘One drop of his blood will meet all our needs.’ That must mean that Gesu has to die, or is already dead.”
“So there, you admitted it yourself. Gesu can do nothing to help me anymore.” I looked up at him, bleakly. “Please, leave me alone. I just… I just want to die.”
Tarquin set Hollis gently on the ground and stood up. “Dahlia, don’t say that to yourself. Gesu’s death will meet all our needs. Don’t you understand? He is dying today so we do not have to die.”
At that, he ran off, to find the Gesu-following fairies, I supposed. I turned to Hollis, who lay with her pink lips parted, her blue eyes still wide with empty hope. Perhaps Tarquin had told her he knew me, and that I had been searching for her. Perhaps she’d tried to stay alive for me, but simply had no strength left. I held her head in my frozen hands, tears streaming down my cheeks.
Then I looked up at the stars that had appeared as the night came. The snow clouds had cleared enough for me to see them. I remembered how Gesu had talked to Prima through the stars, the night we’d given up hope on passing through the mud walls. I remembered how he’d spoken of his love and how we should never give up. And then how Prima had realized her powers could soothe the mud wall monster.
“Tell me now that you love me!” I cried out brokenly to the stars into the bitter cold night. I shivered as I wrapped my arms around Hollis. The stars said nothing to me—just hung in the sky like a million solemn lights. In fact, as I gazed at them in wonder, they seemed to fade slowly away, as if in time with Gesu’s heartbeat.
I grimaced. Gesu had not given me any power as he had given Prima. He could do nothing for me, so I had reason to give up.
Yet Tarquin’s words echoed inside me as I fell asleep in the snow that was beginning to feel warm against my skin. He is dying today so we do not have to die. Prima’s words, too, whispered within me: He isn’t like the others—he wants the whole world to be happy. He loves us, Dahlia—no one else is like that.
And then, strangely, I realized a simple fact that I somehow couldn’t refute: I needed Gesu so badly. Though my eyes were closed, in my dreams the stars twinkled in a beautiful rhythm, speaking a wordless melody into the depths of my heart.
And for a moment, I felt I at last understood what love truly was.