New Year's Issue Table of Contents


The end of 2016 is now upon us, and I, for one, am very grateful. Let's hope 2017 is better. This issue of EC has six wonderful works to help us ring in the new. Classic fairy tales are thoroughly and charmingly explored, and some new enchanting ideas are featured as well.  I hope you'll find the variety as entertaining and intriguing as I have. There's magic in this issue.

Happy New Year!

Dance Me to the End, Alicia Cole

The Three Princesses, Penny Jo McAllister

Diamrem's New Year Dilemma, Christine Tapper

The Turn of the Year, Gerri Leen

Bite, Shannon Whalen

New Leaf, Subhra Bhattacharya





Dance Me to the End, By Alicia Cole


What does it feel like to simply let go?
Leonard Cohen, like so many,
had had enough. So, what does
it feel like to simply let go?
It feels like the changing of years,
the year's body once strong and robust
with spring-sapped arms and torsos,
the year's body remembering
the sap as it withers and turns.
And what about the sound?
The year and life sing a song like this:
once upon a time, there was a prince
who lived in a lofty tower, a tower,
a tower of song. And that prince loved
his tower and lived there in a stalwart
way until the princess of his dreams
beckoned him down to the ground
to get into the rain. He left the tower,
as all lovelorn princes do, and hit
the ground running towards her.
And love is why he died. Yes, Love.
Love of all princesses and queens
and ladies of the night. Love of all
mornings and mists. The princess,
as many princesses do, left the prince
for another, left him standing outside
his tower, left him in the morning
with the flowers blooming just past
his straining grasp. Love is why
he lived. And Love is on the other side
of the changing body, the changing year.
See the chandeliers on New Years,
the way they catch the light of every soul.
See the candles flare and Leonard Cohen
laughing. He'll be in the new year
also, really, as all matter of things
skip over that way in time, in due time,
especially singers and song tellers
and men who understand the tower
of time and rhyme even when they leave
for expected riffs.



Bio: Alicia Cole lives and writes in Huntsville, AL.  She's the editor of Priestess & Hierophant Press, and a visual artist.  You can find her at www.priestessandhierophant.com and www.facebook.com/AliciaColewriter.

The Three Princesses, By Penny Jo McAllister


“Remember Cinderella, we need it spotless for the new year so we’ll come home to a lucky house,” said Genevieve tossing her curls and showing off  her new dress to her cousin. The green and silver silk was lovely, and the emerald tiara matched her eyes perfectly.

“A clean house for a new year makes everyone lucky,” said Josephine. She was as vain as her sister but much kinder. She paused to give her cousin a quick hug, pressed her hands and kissed her on the cheek. “I do wish you’d come with us Cindy. It would be so much fun.”

“I hope you both have a wonderful time,” she said and kissed her cousin back.

“Come on Josephine! We don’t want to miss the first dance.”

Josephine hurried out the door after her sister. “Happy New Year!” she called as she was stepping into the carriage.

Cinderella smiled and blew her cousins a kiss.

Cinderella loved her two cousins. They’d grown up almost like sisters after her parents, Thom and Estelle,  died in a carriage accident. After this tragedy, Cindy went to live with her Uncle William and Aunt Camilla and her two cousins. Though they all had their flaws, it was as loving a family as she could wish for--at least in childhood.

Genevieve and Josephine grew into the two most beautiful young maidens in the kingdom, while Cinderella remained plain. They took on different interests as well. While her cousins were obsessed with the latest fashions and luxuries, Cinderella was tidying up and either reading in the library, gazing at the stars, or working on mathematical equations. She had a regular correspondence with Sir Hubbleton about astronomy. Her cousins thought her rather odd. Genevieve felt embarrassed by her and told people that she was their servant rather than their cousin.

Genevieve, her eldest cousin, was so beautiful that the king’s gardener named a rose after her and every artist in the kingdom wanted to paint her portrait. With her flaming auburn hair, flawless skin and emerald eyes, she had her choice of suitors from kingdoms near and far. Though her beauty outshined the stars and her manners were perfect, she was haughty when her parents were away (as they were now). She took every opportunity to remind Cinderella that without the goodness of her parents, she would be a beggar and would convince her that it was their will that she do not only her own chores, but hers and Josephine’s as well to earn her keep.

Josephine was almost as beautiful as her sister with golden hair and grey eyes, but was sweet and kind even when no one was looking. Though she was not as close to Cindy as in childhood, she loved her cousin dearly. Even though she couldn’t cross Genevieve, who could belittle her as well and make up lies to get her in trouble with their parents, she would often help Cindy with the chores when her sister wasn’t looking and would always bring her books from the library when she went out.

The truth was Cinderella liked being alone in the house and didn’t always like balls--the crowds, the endless chatter, always worried someone else would look prettier. Sometimes she didn’t mind cleaning as it gave her time to think, and she’d write out mathematical proofs in the dust. Sometimes, though, she wished Genevieve would clean up after her parties herself.

She’d have the house clean before they came back; they planned to be well after midnight. Then she could walk in the garden--a truly magical place at night.

But as she surveyed the room, her heart sank. It was a mess. She didn’t know where to start, so she opened a window to let the breeze in. A shooting star whizzed by. She  picked up a cloth, and began to polish a mirror.

Not knowing why, she let out a sob. Then another. “Maybe I should have gone tonight.” Then she began to list the reasons why she stayed behind. “I won’t dress right. I always say the wrong things. My mother never came back from the ball.”

She sat down on the floor, hugged her knees to her chest, and wept. She choked on her tears. She couldn’t wipe them fast enough.

Then she heard someone softly say, “My princess.” She stopped crying and looked around, but no one was there. She looked at the mirror. It was twinkling like opalescent diamonds. She went over to it. A familiar face appeared, but it was impossible. Her mother was dead.

“Mother?” she whispered.

“My little princess,” Estelle said and stepped through the looking glass and embraced her daughter. “Let’s get you ready for that ball.”

“But--”

“But, nonsense my dear. You’re going to the ball.” She looked around her, and her gaze fell on a portrait. “Yes, I think that’s the dress--with a few alterations of course. But the color’s perfect for you.”

She took out a wand and waved it around Cinderella’s head. An almost identical fabric now draped over her.

“Let’s see, I’ll take it in here and here. And I’ll bring the hem up just slightly. Lovely! Come look at yourself in the mirror.”

Cinderella gasped. A beautiful princess gazed back at her. She smiled; the princess smiled back. She laughed and twirled around, a whirl of blue gold.

“Is that really me?” she whispered, giggling.

“Of course it’s you. Now let’s get a carriage.” Her mother said.

She studied the Christmas tree, which would be up for a few more days,  for a few moments before picking off a perfect silver globe.

Estelle gave a wistful smile and said, “Come with me outside. But first let’s get you a wrapper.” She waved her wand and wrapped a gold shawl around Cindy’s shoulders. (Cindy thought that was silly as it December was quite warm in this part of the kingdom, but her mother was not one to argue with.)

The December night was cool but clear , and the stars shone like sapphires, the moon was like newly-polished silver.

Her mother laid the ornament gently on the ground. And singing softly over it, she waved her wand. It grew into a beautiful coach, blue and gold to match her dress.

Two brave mice came out of the shadows, and Estelle waved her wand over them, turning them into two magnificent white stallions.

“Now to find you a driver,” said Estelle. She pointed her wand at a small frog, and in a shower of silver dust he became a royal coachman.

Cinderella mused to herself, “Could I really be going to the ball?”

Estelle took the dazed Cinderella by the hand, to the coach. Just then a shooting star went by.

“I don’t want to go,” said Cinderella.

“What?” asked her mother.

“I’m sorry Mother, but the night is so beautiful. Have you ever seen the stars so bright, and the meteor showers are tonight.”

“But--”

“There’s another one!” Cinderella squealed as another star went by. “I don’t understand why anyone would want to spend an evening like this in a crowded ballroom. Have you ever seen such beauty?”

“Hundreds of times. It’s time to find you a prince.”

“Oh, why do I always have to do what people expect me to do? I wish I could stay out here all night, but all that work-- and now I’m expected to go to a ball.”

Her mother sighed. “I see. I was hoping you’d meet your prince tonight so I could have some grandchildren, but you’ve plenty of time for that,' and she pointed her wand at the house, and it began to glow. She pointed it at the stallions, and they turned back into mice. The driver once again became a frog.

Her mother looked sadly at Cinderella and said, “Well I suppose we should give you back your comfortable clothes.”  A wave of her wand had her back in her housedress.

She looked at the carriage and waved her wand over it, and in its place was an enormous telescope, blue and gold like the carriage had been.

Cinderella gasped. “I never imagined such a thing. It’s beautiful!”

She walked around it, studied it from every angle and peered into the eyepiece. She gasped. “There are people on the moon. Who knew?”

Estelle loved seeing her daughter so happy, even if it wasn’t what she had in mind. “If you turn this crank, you can point it anywhere in the sky. And this one makes it zoom in and out.”

“Oh! I love it!” Cinderella hugged her mother. “I just wish Josephine and Genevieve were here like when we were children.”

“But don’t you find Genevieve kind of mean?”

“She wasn’t always mean. When we were children, the three of us would look up at the sky for hours. That constellation over there is the 'Three Princesses.' Genevieve named it after us…”

Estelle spread a blanket on the ground, and the two of them gazed up at the sky watching stars fly by. Just before midnight Estelle said “I have to go now.”

You may be wondering how Genevieve and Josephine are doing at the ball. Genevieve danced almost every dance with the dashing Prince Darien and was picturing the wedding that was sure to be when a mysterious young woman entered the room. She wasn’t exceptionally beautiful, but the prince, ever polite, danced with her as he did all of the guests at some point. As the young stranger spent more time with the prince, Genevieve could see her future slipping away and excused herself to find Josephine.

When Josephine saw the look on her sister’s face, she inquired whether she were ill and escorted her back to the carriage. It wasn’t quite midnight. Genevieve cried all the way home.

Upon entering their own home and seeing how it sparkled, Josephine said to her sister cheerfully, “Look Genny, it’s sure to be a lucky year for all of us. I’ll go make us some tea.”

Just as she passed the window, a shooting star flew by. “Genevieve, come look!”

The sisters stared out the window at their cousin and the enormous telescope.

They went out and joined her on the blanket. After some time Genevieve pointed to the sky, and said “Look, The Three Princesses.”


Bio: Penny Jo McAllister is a US-based writer. She enjoys stargazing, but someone else can do the cleaning.

Vintage Image by Edith Ballinger Price.

Diamrem's New Year Dilemma, By Christine Tapper


The volcano rumbled in the dusk light, steam spouted and hissed from cracks in the earth’s crust.  A sage in long silver robes appeared by the royal pond and spoke to Prince Diamrem. “Destruction is imminent. Why haven’t you left? I warned you hours ago.”
“It’s my home, I like it here.”
The sage’s face creased making him look more wizened. “At midnight when the New Year begins the volcano will send clouds of red dust billowing into the sky. Rivers of molten lava will cascade down the mountain slopes creating barren fields and craters. You must find a princess, start a new life."
 “A princess? Where?” Since the recent death of his parents, Diamrem had lived alone on the island.
“One awaits you. You must walk the land now.  Find your way to the whispering ocean.”
"In the darkness...all by myself?" gulped the prince as a mantle of grey cloud concealed the moon.
“Go if you want to meet her and see the New Year. Your choice.” The sage vanished.
Back pack in place, the prince crossed the drawbridge and trudged away from the castle, chill wind at his back. Time and again, he stumbled and fell; picked himself up, pushed on.  Before long, his leather boots crunched on a gravel surface and something nudged his elbow. Heart pounding, he turned expecting a beast to confront him. But he realised he had connected with a signpost. He wiped sweat from his palms and headed toward the scent of coastal pines.
After a hundred easier steps, he encountered a barrier of thorns and shouted in despair at the dark sky. He groped through prickles and vines and emerged scratched and bleeding not far from a hollow tree where he sat taking refuge.  Night creatures skittered through the undergrowth. Diamrem trembled and breathed deeply trying to settle his nerves. He soon sensed a shift in the cloud coverings. Taking advantage of the moonlight he set off through the trees and when he reached a clearing, he stopped and listened to the crash of waves upon rocks. Salt-laced air filled his nostrils He looked around and frowned. The only access point was by way of a steep path.
Carefully he made his made his way but just as one foot reached the sand the other slid on a moss-covered rock and wedged in a crevice. He tried to free himself. The other leg buckled. Pain speared through him. Diamrem fainted on the rock.
 #
He awakened to a hazy image of strawberry blond tresses cascading over a lady’s torso. Her blinked and saw she was combing her hair with a piece of coral. Her body, below the waist was buried in seaweed ribbons and sand. "Your legs are damaged. Fear not, I will help,” she whispered through crimson lips. Her slender, cool fingers caressed his forehead. He realised she had released his feet and removed his boots.  As he reached out to touch her shimmering hair, she unfurled her long, elaborate tail.
Diamrem spluttered.  "Where are your legs?"
"Don’t need any; my flipper propels me through the water."
The prince asked her name. "I have no special name until my husband gives me his letters. Write your name in the sand."
He picked up a white shell and wrote in large capital letters. DIAMREM.  She flipped into the breakers. “Believe in yourself Diamrem." Her sweet voice echoed. "Swim to me."
 “I cannot swim."
The volcano reverberated.
 “Hurry Diamrem. You walked in the dark of night. You can do anything. Come to me."
Her melodic voice mesmerised him. He dragged himself to the seashore where waves lapped around him. She pointed to a passing starfish. “Let the water carry you. Like that.”
He floated and grinned in surprise. The princess removed his shirt and ran her fingers down his spine.  His whole body felt suddenly lighter. When he saw his legs had been replaced by a magnificent tail, he emitted a throaty sound.  His first attempt at using the new tail made her laugh and she buried her face in a sea of bubbles. He managed to wriggle, at first like a tadpole, then found he could weave through the water more easily.
 “Now try this.” The princess soared like a porpoise in and out of the curling waves. Sunlight danced on her silver scales. They dived and swam together until loud rumblings and a red explosion erupted from the centre of the volcano.
 “The New Year has begun.” Diamrem pointed to the palace silhouetted against the crimson sky.
Later, when the rumblings ceased and fringes of lava cooled all around the island, they lay on the beach and he stroked her hair. “Will you be my bride? Will you take my letters?’
“Yes DIAMREM. And you should know this. It is my privilege to reverse your letters if I want to. So I shall call myself MERMAID."  
“Mermaid? I like it. It suits you.”
She smiled. “I like it too.”   


Bio: Christine Tapper, in Australia, writes fairy tales, fact and fiction. ABC radio broadcasted some of her stories; she’s been published by Oxford University Press, online and in anthologies.

The Turn of the Year, By Gerri Leen


Snow trickles into the barn, blown by winds grown suddenly gentle after gusting all night. You can hear the sound of festivities from the castle: the humans are preparing to welcome in another year with dances and great spreads of food and drink and embraces when the clock strikes twelve. There's no clock in the barn, but you'll know exactly when the year slips over: the sense of potential will build as the minutes tick down and then be gone again until next year.

You turn away from the cold, feeling it despite the lushness of your fur. Your joints ache as you move and you want nothing more than to go up to the castle and lie in front of the kitchen stove, but you're expected down here. Kittens and half-grown cats circle around you, their tails up in the universal cat-sign of friendliness, their hopeful faces beaming silent messages of: "Choose me. Choose me."

It's New Year's Eve, the night you can choose to change, and there are more candidates than last year even with the storm.

They look so appealing--they feel even more so with their spirits strong and their energy high. You can barely remember your first incarnation, when you jumped at the least sound, your back arched, your tail like the sword you're known for carrying.

You don't carry it anymore--and you think that disappoints the clowder. They know your body is worn and scarred and that it's time.

Truth to tell, it's long past.

Lilac meets your eyes and her look is knowing as she glances at one young cat in particular--a lithe buff tabby with stunning turquoise eyes. Tulip is her son. She has prepared him despite the cost to her and her bloodline.

To be the vessel of "the Puss" is an honor, after all.

Your boots hang with your sword, just above the shelf you like to sleep on, the one that gets sun no matter the season. It's been so long since you last wore them, when you fooled an ogre and a king and made your person rich and loved. A favor he never forgot nor did his heirs--the care of the estate cats is written into every will. You'll always have a home here even if the latest marquis doesn't know it's really the famous "Puss" in this old gray body.

You were a brown tabby when you wore the boots. You've been so many other colors before and since: a longhaired white, a black and white shorthair, solid black, silver striped, even once the seal brown and tan of a cat from the exotic east. In the early days you preferred to be striped, to mimic the wildcat and take advantage of its natural camouflage when you went into battle. It's been some time since you battled anything more dangerous than a rat. But you could fight again, if you choose the change. Your body wears out, but your soul--your gift of language and cunning--does not. All your experiences comes with you when you jump to a new vessel.

You have no idea how it works. It just does. Probably a fairy somewhere was behind it. Everything seems to happen because of them.

The kittens dance and mock-fight with each other, and they raise dust that makes you sneeze.

"Bless you, great one." Tulip walks over, his stance assured. He knows he's the most likely choice to be your new vessel. He will consider it an honor to die for you.

"Walk with me," you say, and he stays close, his head bumping against yours in a way few who know you ever dare.

You love this cat. Have loved him since he threw himself between you and a garden snake, his kitten body puffed, his half-saber tail up in perfect battle-cat form. Neither you nor Lilac had the heart to tell him the snake wasn't venomous. Let him think he saved you.

This is his last year to be eligible. You only take the youngest, those under two. Before life has begun to mean too much, before they get attached to other cats and people and even dogs and horses and other mean creatures. It's a rule you've made for yourself: if you must steal bodies to fulfill whatever strange destiny demands you remain on this Earth, you will do so with as little damage as possible.


The cats whose bodies you take move on and get another chance, or so you assume. You cannot bear the thought that you've robbed them completely of life. None have ever come back to tell you it is or is not so, but perhaps they incarnate somewhere else, far from their old bodies.

"I stand ready," Tulip says, and his voice doesn't shake as some of the other candidates' have over the years.

You cannot in all fairness deny him. If you choose, you must choose him. If you refuse him, he will challenge whomever you do choose, and you don't think any can stand against him.

But you don't have to choose. You should have changed last New Years, mere months after he "saved" you from the snake. But you couldn't bear to. Even if everything in you said it was time, that your current body was nearly useless to you. Even then Tulip was the best candidate, young and green though he was.

You walk without talking, and he keeps up easily, not hanging back the customary head length. You always seek him out when you visit the barn, and all the other cats know he's your friend, and with that title comes great honor.

You know he considers you a friend, too. You have not, over the lifetime, had many of those. Loss is a hard thing if you can never escape the cycle of the seasons, so you've learned to keep to yourself.

Lilac managed to creep past your defenses; it's little wonder her son has too.

"I can last another year," you murmur. Normally there is no discussion. You choose or you do not.

"You can't last." Tulip's voice is strong, his faith resolute. He thinks he wants this.

You imagine the kittens he will father, Fine, strong, and brave. Beautiful like he is. Cunning like his mother. You, in his body, could never replicate that.

You're a terrible father. You've learned this over the lifetimes. But is it heartless to not want to get too close to a kitten you may eventually kill? Even if it's for destiny's sake? You've stopped fathering litters on the estate and go far afield for that sort of pleasure. Or did--your wandering days are over for now.

"I'm not dead yet," you mutter and Tulip sniffs, derision clear.

He's never been afraid to speak plainly.

"What is there to fight anymore--to be strong for?" you ask. "There's peace in the land and our human is respected and treats us well. I can afford to wait another year."

"So that you don't have to take me?" He slaps at you, and you would push him under your paw and hold his head to the straw as the Puss should any cat who dares offer such disrespect, but you lack the strength.

You do stop walking. You turn and glare, fixing him with the stony expression that's made more than one tom roll and show his belly.

Tulip only looks angrier. "What happens to you if your body wears out? You can only make the change on this night."

You've considered this. "Then I will die. As maybe I'm meant to."

"You're not meant to. You're the Puss." Tulip sits and stares at the ground. "I am the right choice."

"I know. That doesn't mean I will choose you." You turn and leave him, walking to the door and staring out at the snow that's drifted up against the side of the barn. In a young body, you would bound through the white fluff up to the banquet hall to steal food from the great table. In this body, you will feel the cold like fire on your paws if you try to make the walk tonight.

You feel a presence at your side and can smell Lilac, her sweet scent filling your nose. "Are you going to lecture me, too?" you ask her, sounding as surly as any ancient tom.

"No. It's possible I knew you would do this." She digs daintily at the snow. "The time draws close."

You can hear the candidates muttering. You should have announced your choice--even if it was no choice--by now.

You nuzzle her gently, then turn to them.  In your best voice you say, "I will keep this body another year."

You see relief on the faces of some of the cats who will cycle out of eligibility. You see confusion and disappointment and maybe gratitude for more time on the faces of the others.

On Tulip's face, you see only anger. He stalks to you, hissing at the others until they scatter to the far reaches of the barn and only Lilac remains. "You will die. And everything you are, everything you mean, will be lost."

You dip your head down and rest it under his chin. It's a sign of appeasement, the only one you can give him.

Because he's right. Everything you are might be lost. But it occurs to you that undergoing change after change may have robbed you of what all these others live with daily.

The beautiful uncertainty of life.

Tulip presses his chin down and you can feel his purr--but it isn't a sound of happiness; it's one of self soothing. He's upset. With you, with a future he did not expect to have, possibly with himself for not being more convincing.

"Stay with me," you whisper. "Learn from me. If I die before the next change, you will be my replacement and will pass on what I know to others. If I last till next year, then after the change you'll still be my friend, and we can chase each other through the snow." It's the one thing you wish you could do tonight.

Play. Be young. Be strong.

You're giving that up and you feel the sense of destiny hammering at you, but you ignore it.

Not this time. Not this one.

The kittens hover at the edges of the barn, as if you might change your mind. Tulip stays close, too, but you see resignation in his eyes.

Lilac however, lies down in the deep straw and folds her paws underneath her. She gives you a long, deep eye-blink of love--and gratitude, you think--as the New Year dawns around you.

Bio: Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle.  She has work published by: Nature, Flame Tree Press’s Murder Mayhem and Dystopia Utopia anthologies, Daily Science FictionEscape Pod, Grimdark, and others.  She recently caught the editing bug and has just finished ing her third anthology for an independent press.  See more at http://www.gerrileen.com.

New Leaf, By Subhra Bhattacharya


In the mighty forest that lies nestled between the three mountains, the peaks of which have never been seen, there was once a little clearing at the center surrounded by tall trees, so high that they hugged the clouds above, their branches thick and strong. In the clearing was a cottage made of wood, with straws thatched into the roof, and it had one single room in it, and a fireplace in the corner. The cottage had been there forever and no one knew when it had been built. The old man who lived in the cottage had been living there for a long time, all by himself, and he could talk to the trees in the forest.

He walked around alone, stopping by the trees often, and he would gently touch their trunks, his fingers closed together in a straight line, palm resting on the curves of the bark, he would hear them speak. Each one had a different voice, and he got to recognize them all. Some were a deep bass, like the giant maple that shaded his house, its lower leaves brushing his roof when the wind blew, and some were a high crescendo. 

The maple was his closest friend. It was so full of leaves that he didn't know how tall it was. On those hot mornings when the sun was beating down hard, and it would have dried up his water in the cottage, the maple offered its shade. On clear evenings, the tree would sway and let him glance at the stars set in the dark sky through its leaves, and on the frozen nights, when the maple had lost all its leaves, it would still be there, guarding him from the snowfall, and reminding him that New Leaf was soon to come.

One day, a soldier from the king's palace beyond the mountains arrived at door to his cottage. He wore a tunic made of red velvet, with gold stripes across his chest, and he rode on a fine horse. The horse was black, like the midnight sky, and had white mane on the back. The man carried a long spear in his right hand and looked formidable, his helmet made of bronze with several dents in it.
The old man became afraid when he saw the soldier. He had heard of great wars beyond the mountains. Of people slaying one another.

"Do not be afraid, old man," the soldier said. "Our King sends you his regards and wishes you well. He knows of your power with trees, and his wizard has made him aware that you are the last tree-speaker in his kingdom. You do not have an offspring to pass your power on to--he is aware of that too. Tell me, old man, is that true, that you have no apprentice?"

"The wise King is right," the old man replied, "as is his wizard. I have no one to teach, for I have no child, and no human ever enters this forest. I am the last that the trees will speak to."

"Our King cannot let that happen," the soldier responded. "It is known that the trees are our protectors, and as long there is a person to speak to them, they will protect our land from all our enemies. You are too old to have a child, so the King sends you a child of the woods to raise as your own, and to pass on to her the knowledge of the forest."

Having said this the soldier produced a basket with fur lining, dried grass on top of the fur, and then another layer of warm wool covering the grass, on top of which was an infant, a girl with eyes brown like the tree bark, and her hair brown too.

The old man fell to his knees. "I beg your majesty's pardon," he said. "I am too old to feed myself, let alone raise a child. The woods are rough even in summer, and I survive on what I can gather and the fruits the trees offer me. I store them for the months of winter, when it snows so much that I can barely set my foot outside my hut, and everywhere the eye sees is frozen and white. The food I store is hardly enough to feed myself, and often the wood runs out before the New Leaf and my home is cold and dark. Surely, the King knows of this?"

"Alas, old man," the soldier said kindly, "this is the only way. There is no other tree-speaker left in the kingdom, and you cannot leave the forest, or your powers will be lost. You must raise this child, and teach her your secrets. Her name is Auria."

Having said this, he set the basket in front of the cottage and without any more words turned and trotted off.

###

The old man lived for three times four more years, and he raised Auria with all his heart. He shared his fruits with her, and worked twice as hard to gather for the two of them. He lugged in double the amount of wood to keep them warm in winter, and three times the water to make sure the child was never thirsty.

Auria grew up happy. She wandered in the forest, never afraid. She knew of the beasts that roamed the jungle, but the trees were there to protect her. She hugged them and leaned against them, and felt their heart. She heard their whispers when she touched them, and she whispered back, her mouth shut.

She spoke to the maple tree often. On afternoons when the old man was away she would climb the tree and lie on one of its strong branches, high up so that she could see the top of the roof of her cottage, and beyond, over the crowns of other trees into the misty peaks of the mountains, and she would dream of the lands beyond.

"What makes the snow fall so hard, maple?" She would ask. "Why does it have to snow, and everything frozen for months?"

"Because that is when we shed your selfishness," the maple would reply. "All year long, especially in summer, humans take the world for granted, and think only about themselves, and it accumulates, till the trees can't take it any more, it is too heavy a burden, and we shed our leaves, and herald the winter. That reminds the humans that there is a self beyond the self that needs to be cared for. When they shiver in winter, when food is scarce, they come to terms with reality, and start opening their hearts."

"What ends this winter?"

"The New Year."

"Which day is the New Year? How do we know that day?" Auria would press on.

"The day the first New Leaf sprouts on my branch. That is the first day of the New Year. That is when all the snow stops, and the summer begins, and food becomes abundant again."

"How do you decide when it is time to sprout the first leaf after all these months of winter?"

"It takes a single act of selfless courage and kindness in the land to make that happen. When I feel that one such act has been committed, anywhere in this forest or beyond, I sprout my first new leaf, end the winter, and begin the New Year."

"Who commits this act, maple?"

"Anyone. It takes just one human to do one act of selflessness. In the past there were plenty such acts happening all the time, and we hardly had any winter. Nowadays, such acts are becoming rare, and the winter months are growing."

This made Auria feel sad.

###

By Auria's twelfth year, the old man had became so old and feeble he could hardly walk. Neither could he see well. He knew it was time to go, and he wanted to visit the mountains and meet his end. He called her to his side.

"I must go, child" he said, "I must leave you now. I need to welcome my end, alone. That is the destiny of tree-speakers. But, do not think I am leaving you helpless. The trees will protect you. The great maple, the oak and the cherry. Listen to them. They will guide you."

He picked up his stick, and sauntered off into the forest.

It was still summer, and there was plenty of food around, but Auria remembered to store for the coming winter. For every fruit she ate, she kept one, for every nut, she stowed one away. She missed the old man, but she had all the sunlight in the world, and she was happy. She would walk to the stream, sit by it, dip her toes in the water, and watch the colorful Koi wiggle around her feet. She would visit the waterfall, and see the rainbow in the sparkling water.

Sometimes she visited the caves that lay in the foot of the mountains. She wasn't afraid to enter them, even though there were no trees inside. There was moss all over the walls, and some hardy shrubs that grew in the crevices on the floor, and those connected her to the forest. She would touch them, whistle to them, and they whistled back.

Through all of this, though, the only thing that worried her was the coming winter. What if the winter never ends? What if no one commits a selfless act of courage this year and the maple never sprouts the New Leaf? She would wonder.

And yes, soon the nights grew longer and the sunlight dimmer, and the wind became crisp and cold, cutting through the skin. The trees all around started to shed their leaves. They looked like half-eaten carcasses, some of the branches still covered with green while the others were bare. In a few days, they became like skeletons, and every branch looked rickety and old and frail. The great maple was the last to shed, but, one morning Auria woke up to find the last leaf gone from it too.

The howling of the wind began that evening, and then came the snow. First in flurries, then in sheets. The gale was so strong that it shook the cottage, and hurled big pellets of ice on the roof and the wall. Auria shut the door tight, barred it with a thick branch, and prepared for her long stay inside. I have enough food to survive through the winter, she thought as she glanced around at the storage. And maybe the storm will let up, and I'll be able to go out and collect some more.

The storm never let up. It went on for days, then weeks, then months. The bellowing was so constant that Auria barely paid any attention to it any longer. She drank sips from her water reserve, bites from her fruit supply and chewed on the nuts. Every now and then, she would burn a few of the twigs she had collected in the corner fireplace to would warm up the cottage.

The winter seemed tediously long. Maybe it was the longest, maybe it was because she was alone for the first time. She didn't know. She tried to call out to the trees outside, but did not hear a voice responding. She leaned against the wall and visualized the forest when it was green, she remembered every tree and whispered to each individually. "When will this be over?" She asked.

There was only silence around her. And the yellow glow of the lamp that she dared to burn only a few hours each day. Her stack of supplies was almost down to scraps. There were no more branches to light to keep her warm, and she huddled in a corner. There was one last pitcher of water left.
Three more days passed by, and the night that came seemed darker than ever. The screeching of the wind and the snow beating down on the cottage walls were relentless. Auria had used up her last reserve of oil and had no light. It was pitch dark inside save a sliver of moonlight that seeped in under the door.

Just when she was about to fall asleep, she heard heavy footsteps outside. It was as if a creature was dragging its weight on snow. Who would come to visit on such a day? Is it the old man? The old man was frail and light, she thought, and long dead. Is it the soldier? Why did he not knock?

The footsteps stopped right outside the door. And then there was a heavy thud, as if something was banging its head on the door. More thuds, and then a deep snarl. The light coming from under the door was blocked. The snarling grew louder. And then, Auria heard a howl, wolf-like, and a snarl again, then alternating howls and snarls.

She started trembling with fear. This must be the Bear-wolf, she thought. The most fearful of all creatures who lived high up on the mountains. Few people had seen the Bear-wolf, and no one survived to tell stories. Legends had it that it had the body of a bear and the face of a wolf, and it fed on whole sheep for breakfast, the only time it came down from the mountain was when there was nothing more to feed on, and it was hungry and mad.

The thudding was so intense now that the whole cottage was shaking. It's hungry, Auria thought. It has come to eat me. And then she thought of how cold it was outside, and how strongly hunger hurt one. Momentarily, she was thankful for the warmth of the cottage. She knew she still had half an apple left, and a few nuts, even though there was no more water. 

She walked up to the door, lifted the bar across it and threw it wide open.

The creature outside was more hideous than the legends described. It was taller than the door and had thick black fur covered in snow. It was so wide that it seemed to cover the entire opening, but what were most ferocious were its eyes. They were red, two huge pieces of burning charcoal, and they were ringed with white and had black pupils at the center. Below the eyes jutted the long snout of the wolf, its mouth wide open, saliva dripping from the fangs, and foam around the corner of the jaw.

The Bear-wolf was standing upright, forelegs raised, and they were higher than the girl's head. At the end of the paws were long talons that were curved like knives. There was a full moon in the sky, and the silvery light bounced off the creature's teeth and claws, their pale whiteness set against the animal's pitch black body looked grotesque.

The animal gave out a long rasping snarl and lunged inside. Auria backed away instinctively, tripped on a pitcher and fell down to the ground, her head hitting the floor before her body. Darkness enveloped her.

When she woke up the next morning, the Bear-wolf was nowhere to be seen. Bright sunlight flooded in through the open door and all the snow outside had melted away.

There was a single new leaf on the lowest branch of the maple tree.

Bio: Subhra Bhattacharya works with software and math in Manhattan and lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. He is an international writer and has been published in two languages. His most recent works have been accepted for publication inRats Ass Review - Love and Ensuing Madness and in Plum Tree Tavern. He workshops weekly with his local writers' groupand competes in local camera club contests in photography.