One by one, seven winters passed: the lord of the Northern wind still met with the young mortal every time he rode through that land, but things were not the same.
Every winter, lord Jensen found Jared a bit changed: a little taller, a little stronger, most of all a little older. At first he found those changes fascinating, for the land slept when it was his time to ride and he had never seen anything grow, save for the icicles that hung from tree branches and roofs. However, as the years passed, he realized that soon Jared would grow old and his immortal soul would cross into Their Father's reign, where no wind blows. His only friend would then be lost to him forever.
“It does not have to end like this,” his sister the Lady of the Southern wind often reminded him. “You know that well: was not my Aldis human, once, and mortal?”
But Lord Jensen shook his head: “Aldis loves you as a lover does, Danneel, I am only Jared's friend. Should I ask him to forsake his family and the land where he was born, all in the name of friendship? I'd be a poor friend indeed! He has his whole life before him...”
“A mortal life!” Lady Danneel huffed.
“Well, who are we to judge? Maybe you are right and he would come if I asked, but do you suppose he would never grow tired of my company? That he would not long for a family of his own? I was alone for a long time, sister, I shall grow used to it again, but if Jared came to hate me... no, that I could not bear!”
In a way, the lord of the Northern wind was right: as he grew older, Jared's world had expanded from his own little farm in the middle of the fields to the other farms and the nearby village, with all their inhabitants.
He was a kind, cheerful lad and soon his neighbors came to love him well. What the Lord Jensen didn't know, however, was that no one could claim to know him well: sure, Jared was always ready to lend a hand, always ready to laugh and joke and play, but there was always a sense of reserve about him. One couldn't really call him quiet, the boy could talk fifteen to the dozen when he wanted to.
The one thing he never seemed to want to talk about was himself: he was friendly to all, but close to no one and of his dreams, his opinions and his innermost thoughts, nobody could say a thing – nobody but the lord of the Northern wind, that is, had anybody thought to ask him.
Luckily for Jared, it was generally decided that, growing up as he had, without a father he could confide in and with such a spoiled younger brother, he had simply become accustumed to keeping things to himself. It was all perfectly natural and once he was a little older, a pretty girl would surely break through his reserve.
But spring and summer came and went, and Jared never showed the slightest interest in any of the girls.
“Well,” people said at first “he's still young. He's only 15, some boys grow more slowly than others. Give him time, next year he'll be sighing like a young calf.”
But the next summer came and went, and so did the summer after that and nothing changed at all: Jared came to all the festivals and all the dances, but he never seemed to favor one girl over another.
That couldn't be quite normal and people puzzled over it for a while, until an explanation was found: “Well,” they started saying, “Jared is a serious young man, but he hasn't come of age yet: if his stepmother denies her consent, he can't take a girl into their house. Mark my words, he'll wait until he is 20: as soon as he inherits the farm, he'll start looking for a bride!”
This explanation greatly reassured his neighbors and provided them with a new pastime: instead of trying to guess which girl Jared loved, they started discussing his farm and what he could offer to his future bride. It started out as an innocuous game, almost a joke, but after a couple of years, when Jared turned 19, the subject started coming up more and more often – so much that, one bright market day in mid-autumn, it finally reached his stepmother's ears.
None of her neighbors was so crass as to bring it directly to her attention: she simply stumbled up it by chance, overhearing a snatch of conversation between two women. Only a handful of words, yet they made her heart tremble.
At first, she tried to quench her fears with reason: “Jared is still a boy and he wears his heart on his sleeve,” she thought to herself. “If he were in love with a girl, he would not be able to hide it, not from me. I have nothing to fear.”
But still those words returned again and again, burning like hot coals in her mind.
As autumn turned to winter, she watched her step-son carefully: Jared was a dutiful boy and would not shrink from his responsibilities, but did he look distracted as he worked? Was he saddened by the arrival of winter, which would be spent indoors with his family?
But no, Jared looked like he always did at the turning of the season – for some strange reason no one could fathom, the boy loved winter.
However, it was too late now: the spark had been struck and her mind knew no peace. “If Jared is not in love now,” she thought “It does not mean he'll never be and next mid-summer, the farm will become his. How long until a young, pretty girl catches his eye? One year, two? I'll have to give her my keys and she will be able to do and undo as she pleases. All the years I've labored, all my sufferings will count for nothing, I'll be cast aside like a broken pot! And my poor, darling Adric will have nothing left.”
Such thoughts smoldered in her mind all through winter.
Meanwhile, Jared kept sneaking out of bed at night with a racing heart – but not because he feared being caught.
Thus passed the eight winter, although when the time came, the lord of the Northern Wind was very reluctant to depart from those lands. Still, not even he could refuse the turning of the seasons: on the very last night he was allowed to ride, he saddled his white horse and quickly made for a little farm in the middle of the fields.
It was not late, yet Jared was already waiting for him. The hours flew by as they talked and talked – longer than they ever had before, but every time Jensen tried to send Jared back inside to sleep, the young man refused, saying “There's still time and I am not tired yet.”
Dawn was less than an hour away when Jensen finally mounted on his horse. “I have kept you almost all night,” said he. “Will you get enough sleep?”
Jared shook his head. “I do not plan to sleep it all, my lord. Do not worry, I am young and one sleepless night won't harm me.” He reached up and placed his hand on Jensen's knee, looking up at him with serious eyes. “On Mid-Summer Day, I'll turn 20. According to our laws and traditions, I will be a man. My lord, when you return next winter, there's something I wish to discuss with you.” He smiled a little sadly. “Perhaps it's madness, but I must know.”
“Can't we discuss it now?” Jensen asked, not quite daring to hope. Yet there was something in Jared's eyes, in his smile...
The young man stepped back. “No, there's not enough time – and it's not the right moment, not yet. Until we meet again, my lord.”
“Until next winter, little mortal,” the Wind Lord said before galloping away.
Jared stood by the house and watched the sun rise on the horizon.
In the following months, as the days grew longer and warmer, Jared had little time to himself: there was always something that needed doing and he gladly shouldered the heaviest jobs.
“I'm almost a man, mother,” he'd say cheerfully. “You can lean on me now.”
At night, he would fall into bed, exhausted, proud and happy, stealing a few more moments to daydream of his future.
One day, when he was going to work far away from their house, his step-mother stopped him at the door. “There's no point in coming back at midday and walking all the way out there again. Here's a basket with some food for your lunch, and a flask of wine if you get thirsty.”
“Thank you, mother,” said Jared, kissing her cheek. “I'll see you at dinner.”
She stood on the doorway and watched him go until he disappeared from sight.
The eastern field was very far from the farm and hidden from view from their neighbors' fields by a large thicket. Jared immediately set to work, whistling and humming to himself.
With every passing hour, the sun grew hotter, beating mercilessly on his head, and Jared started feeling thirsty. Deciding he could afford a few minutes' rest, he went to fetch the wine flask from his step-mother's basket, raised it to his lips and took a long gulp – the wine was bitter on his tongue.
He lowered the flask, but it was already too late: fire spread through every fiber of his body and dark spots danced before his eyes, blocking out every light. His body was no longer his own and he fell like a tree under the ax, without a sound – even the solace of screaming denied to him by the drug that flowed through his veins, locking every muscle in place to the point he had to struggle and fight for every mouthful of air. He couldn't feel the sun on his face or the earth under his back, all his world narrowed down to the frenzied beating of his own heart and the effort to draw breath.
Suddenly, with a flash of wordless clarity, he knew that his step-mother had poisoned him and he would die out there in the eastern field, alone.
He had no strength left to think, but his whole heart cried out for Jensen – beautiful, kind Jensen, who would not find him in winter and would never know why.
Jared opened his mouth, but all that passed his dry lips was a soft whimper. A sudden, mad determination seized him and he started fighting against the pain, forcing himself to take deeper breaths and trying to shout. It hurt even more, but he did not care: it would be his very last act on Earth, but Jensen had to know.
At first it was just a cough, then a rattle, a breathless whisper, then, finally, a desperate scream ripped through the air: “JENSEN!”
Dark spots danced before his eyes and he fought not to pass out, not to give in to the welcoming darkness. Suddenly, a shadow fell on him and for the second time in his life, he found himself face to face with the lady of the Southern wind.
“Jared...” she whispered fearfully. Several tears fell from her eyes and when they touched his skin, he suddenly felt some of that unbearable fire receding. Immediately he tried to speak, but she shushed him.
“Don't, don't, save your strength. I'll get him, I'll bring him here right away, but you must hold on, do you hear me? Please, please, hold on.”
He managed a tiny nod and she sprang to her feet, jumping on her black horse and spurring him Northward. In all her immortal life she never rode so fast and so hard as she did that day, when she tried to outrace Death. Cities and fields passed by in a blur, growing fewer and fewer until she finally reached the border of the White Lands.
“Jensen!” She shouted. “Jensen, come quick! Jared needs you!”
She had barely spoken those words that her brother appeared at a gallop. “What of Jared?”
Lady Danneel turned her horse and started leading the way. “He was poisoned, I think, and he's fading fast. I cried for him, but they were only tears of friendship. Perhaps it will be enough to hold him here.”
Then there were no more words until they reached the field where the young mortal lay with his eyes closed.
Lord Jensen jumped from the saddle and ran to his side. “Jared! Jared, I'm here, I'm here...”
At the sound of his voice, Jared opened his eyes and smiled. “Jensen...” he whispered.
“Don't speak. Everything will be all right, Jared, I...”
“ 's too late,” Jared said, still smiling. “I feel it.”
“Don't talk like that. I won't let you die, you can't leave me, Jared...”
“ 's all right. Doesn't hurt much. I... I'm happy I can see you one last time.” There were so many things he wanted to tell him, but he had no strength left. The darkness he had long held at bay finally rushed in and claimed him.
In the eastern field, Jensen held his love in his arms and wept.