In the Bleak Midwinter by Zdenka

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Story Notes:

Title from a poem by Christina Rossetti. Written for the February 2017 Silmladylove Femslash Potluck, for this set of prompts from the December 2016 Femslash Lottery:

3: Midwinter
16: It's the season of grace coming out of the void
17: Sharing Warmth

Meril has previously appeared in this drabble, though it doesn't end happily.

The year is drawing towards midwinter. A cold wind blows from the north, and every day the night falls earlier. Aerin begins to dread going outside. The fear creeps into her even during daylight, when the sky’s unvarying grey is like a slab of polished stone above her, but at night it feels like the darkness of the sky is gathering closer and threatening to fall, pressing down on her until she can hardly breathe. She makes excuses to send others on errands that require leaving the house, and then she feels ashamed of it; Brodda’s thralls have troubles enough without Aerin sending them out in the cold for her foolish fancies. Being afraid of dogs is bad enough, she thinks, almost in tears, but being afraid of the winter sky? When she can, she stays close to the roaring fire in the great hall. It is not the warmth she needs, but the light; she is desperate for it.

Aerin makes herself rise from her bed, dress, and go through the round of household tasks because it is expected of her, and because if she did not, Brodda would be angry at someone. She cannot think of herself as the Lady of Dor-lómin -- that title will always be Morwen’s -- but as long as she is called mistress of the house and Brodda’s wife, she can give some small protection to her people. And perhaps something more -- midwinter should be a time of feasting and merriment. Brodda might let them celebrate, if she asked. But she rejects the idea almost at once. She remembers Húrin promising Morwen that the next midwinter feast would be the merriest of all, and suddenly she is blinking away tears. She misses them so much: her father’s wry humor, Húrin’s laughter and strength, Rían’s constant singing as she moved about the house. The North has swallowed them, as it has taken so much else. She walks through her daily tasks guided by habit, but it feels as if the winter darkness has settled in her heart.

When Aerin goes into a storeroom to check their supply of candles, she cannot concentrate and finds herself counting the same box three times in a row. She lets the candles spill from her hands and bows her head, momentarily overwhelmed by the simple task and angry at herself for her own foolishness.

She does not know how long she remains there, kneeling on the wooden floor with candles scattered around her. A soft voice breaks into her reverie. “My lady.”

Aerin looks up. It is Meril: once of Húrin’s household, now numbered among Brodda’s thralls. She must have just come in from outside; the cold air has made her cheeks pale but reddened her nose and ears, and the last snowflakes are melting in her hair.

Aerin feels her heart beating faster despite herself. Though so much else has changed, the way Meril looks at her is still the same. That last summer, when hopes were high -- after Húrin and all the others rode off to war, when those who were left behind dreamed of a great victory -- Meril found her alone in the garden and gave her a red rose, with that same look of devotion. Aerin blushed, not knowing what to say, and stammered out some words of thanks. But Meril smiled, despite Aerin’s lack of eloquence. A rose, Meril’s own namesake; why did she not see then that it meant I give you all of myself?

She and Meril have never even shared a kiss, Aerin thinks despairingly. Only that rose, and other small gifts since then -- a handful of pale violets left in Aerin’s sewing basket, or a half-crushed wildflower that falls out when she unfolds her cloak. She knows the giver without asking, though she and Meril have never spoken of it. Finding those small tokens lifted her heart, but there has been nothing since the earth froze; how could there be? Yet now in Meril’s hand is a small twig of pine with a cluster of green needles; she holds it out shyly, like a gift.

Aerin reaches out to take it. Their fingers brush, Meril’s still cold from the winter air. Aerin could take her hand, hold it until it warms -- surely she could do that at least--

Caution has become a habit. Instead, she looks down at the pine twig, defiantly green; she holds the cluster of pine needles close to her face and breathes in the scent, sharp and pungent. The scent of pine trees will always mean home to her; there is nothing else like it.

Aerin raises her eyes to see that Meril is watching her, intent and hopeful. Her heart beating fast, Aerin swiftly presses the twig to her lips. Meril gasps and puts her hand to her mouth as if Aerin had kissed her, and for a brief moment Aerin allows herself to imagine it, Meril’s soft and warm mouth instead of snow-chilled green pine.

Meril smiles at her, with an affectionate look. One moment more, and she is turning to go. “Wait,” Aerin says in a strangled voice as she struggles to her feet. She will never know how she found the courage to cross those few steps and wrap her arms around Meril.

Tentatively, Meril raises her arms to return the embrace, her hands resting lightly on Aerin’s back. Meril’s body is too thin beneath her dress, and she is still chilled. Aerin holds her close, trying to share the warmth of her own body, which is all she has to give. Meril’s grip tightens, and Aerin is dazed and drowning in so many sensations at once: Meril’s body pressing against hers from shoulder to breast to hip to thigh, her warm breath against Aerin’s ear, her hand twined in Aerin’s hair.

Aerin is trembling, desperate with longing. It is inevitable as sunrise that she should lean forward, that her mouth finds Meril’s, and they kiss at last, hungry and eager.

Aerin comes back to herself with a gasp; she is suddenly aware of their danger, and her heart is pounding. What are they doing? Anyone could come looking for her, and what could she possibly say if they were found thus? But Meril is clinging to her as if Aerin is everything that is good in the world. And then, softly and close to Aerin’s ear, Meril begins to sing. It was a song that Rían made; the words are in Sindarin, doubly dangerous in these times. Aerin cherishes the fragile beauty of the song, every note and every syllable, every moment that Meril is warm in her arms.

One verse only, and then Meril pulls away; Aerin lets her go reluctantly. Meril takes two steps backwards, her hands pressed to her chest and her eyes shining. “Aerin,” she whispers. Her lips part as if to say more, but she turns and hurries out; Aerin can hear her quick steps going down the hall.

Aerin takes a long breath and rests a hand on the wall to steady herself. Her eyes fall on the tiny pine twig, still clutched in her hand. An unexpected smile comes to her lips. She does not dare put a name to this feeling, but the sprig of pine seems more precious to her than all the jewels of the Elven-kings. She breathes in the sharp green scent once more and then tucks it carefully into the bodice of her gown, near her heart.

Aerin leaves it there for the rest of the day. From time to time, some movement presses it against her and she can feel the pine needles rough and prickling against her skin, or she breathes in the faint scent of pine resin. She cherishes the tiny spark of warmth it brings to her heart, a gift of grace in this season of darkness.

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