Winter waits for no one

It was a cold afternoon, halfway the last month of the year. A young Tiger Halfling threaded through the thin layer of snow that had covered the land, on her way to a place she had not hoped to visit at twenty-three years of age. A place where the only life was represented by the abundance of flowers, brought by relatives and friends of the people whose time had ran out.
During this time of the year, however, the trees had of course by long dropped their leaves and there were only few people that put flowers at a grave during winter. Instead, people put small glass pots with tea lights on at the last resting place of their loved ones.

“Redfield – Ackeresdo National Memorial Garden”, the sign at the gate read. Everyone knew it was a graveyard, but that word had such a negative connotation. Maybe the founders shunned the word because it pointed out exactly what the garden was: a separated place, designated to bury the physical remains of dead persons in a colloidal wooden box, four arm lengths underground.
  The gate creaked as the tigress pushed it open with one hand, firmly holding on to her bag with the other. As she walked on, it shut behind her with hollow metal sound that boomed louder than strictly necessary. Maybe the silence of the garden made it sound like the gate was noisy.
  There was only one way to literally and figuratively describe the atmosphere in the garden: dead silence. The tigress let her head hang a little, staring at the snowy dirt path as she walked on. Her hears laid flat against her head and her tail twitched. ‘It’s because of the cold’, she told herself.

The silence around her was almost penetrating, merely disturbed by the sound of her boots cracking the snow beneath her paws. After a few minutes, she finally reached the place she had come for: Halfling Acres.
  A couple of decades ago, the curators of memorial garden had had a separate place set apart for deceased Halflings. Most of the graves were intended for humans and the curators felt it right to keep the graves separated from one another.
  During summer, the backyard must have been a relatively pretty place to set eyes on. Surrounded by a hedge of conifers, Halfling Acres was a place that was somewhere between ‘private’ and ‘desolate’. After all, Halflings were a minority in Ackeresdo, even after the significant migration that followed Halfling Upheaval in their southern neighboring country.
  In Ackeresdo, Halflings had a different social and political position, even though the country was far from free of racism. More reason to separate Halflings from humans, in life and death, so it seemed.

Halfling Acres was not a large place, as it covered not even a tenth of the entire graveyard. The amount of graves was equally as small with only a few rows of about twenty graves. The tigress took a left turn at the second row and counted the graves. At number thirteen, she halted and turned to the rectangular tombstone.

FRANK TREVOR
CALLAGHAN
White Leopard

* 1628-04-17
† 1652-11-23

“Empty pages never turn.”

Although she had been on the graveyard before, it was not until today that the actual tombstone had been placed. An intrusive sight, right in her face. No room to explain away, only to receive. No excuse, but rather a merciless message for those that knew the soul that had once dwelled in the decomposing remains under the large colloid plate of limestone.

The tigress sat down on her knees in the snow, dropped her bag from her right shoulder and zipped it open. She dug around through the various items until she found what she was looking for. Placing the glass pot on the tombstone, she went looking for her matchbox. Careful not to douse the flame of her freshly lit candle, she gently dropped it in the pot, where it burned with shimmering gloom.
   She put her belongings back in her back and zipped it shut again. A gust of sheer cold wind grated her muzzle and she shivered, but did not notice it.

    “Oh Trevor, I should have listened to you.”
   Of course, the dead Leopard did not respond, but that did not seem to bother the tigress.
   “Why am I so stubborn?” She asked herself, trying to decide whether she was sad or angry.
   “You always said that the two of us could do anything together. Now what am I supposed to do?”
   “You’re gone, and I cannot bring you back. Nothing can reverse death, not even all the magic you taught me.”
   “How can I go on without you? Where will I find a new magic teacher? Sorcerers of my element aren’t exactly widespread, are they?”
   “I wish I never found out about Flux, not even any of my magic abilities. All I wish for is to be with you for one last time.”
   The tigress looked around idly for a bit and noticed that the ground next to Trevor’s grave was empty. She pictured what it would look like if her grave would fill the waiting clearing.

CHELSEA
TRENT
Eastern Tiger

* 1629-06-03
† 1652-12-08

There were only four words she could fit below her supposed date of death. The only three that were appropriate for her, although she knew very well that it was too late and that it would not matter if she had said them before Trevor’s death either.
   “I’m sorry, Trevor,” She mumbled as she started to cry.
   Chelsea laid down on Trevor’s tombstone and curled up. She could not get closer to the leopard she admired and loved, separated by a death and a limestone slab. It had started to snow again, but the tigress did not notice. All she thought about was the love she had lost.

 

It was the end of a cold evening, halfway the last month of the year. An old, bald man with a short gray beard threaded through the fresh layer of snow that had covered the land. He was on his regular last round on the graveyard he had taken care of for over thirty years, making sure nobody was on the yard when he locked the gate.
   Although the graveyard symbolized sorrow for lost people and all that could have been, the old man had was content with his quiet life. He appreciated the atmosphere of silence and rest in the yard and lived a sheltered life with his wife and dog.
   During all the years they had lived beside the graveyard, Bob Redfield and his wife could still not decide what season they liked most. Each had its own emotional and abstract value towards the confrontation with imminent death.

Bob pushed his trusty wheelbarrow along the snowy dirt path, glancing past the rows of graves and stones. While it had been nearly windless around noon, the wind had become relatively fierce. Not quite strong altogether, but the cold made it feel like the actual temperature was lower.
   He noticed the wooden gate in the conifer hedge that marked the separation of Halfling Acres. Beside it, someone had left a watering can. When Bob bent over to pick the can up, his dog had walked on.
   Just as the old man had put the can in his wheelbarrow, he heard his faithful white shepherd bark from far side of Halfling Acres.

  “Easy, Monty. I’m coming,” Bob called out, maneuvering the wheelbarrow through the wooden fence.
   The dog stood at the last grave of the second row. When Bob came closer, he noticed that there was something on top of the tombstone Monty pointed at. Or someone, rather.
   He put down his wheelbarrow and hastened towards the grave. There, on the limestone slab, laid a young female tiger Halfling. Judging from how she looked, she must have been laying there for quite a while.
   “Good grievance,” Bob said to himself, “the poor thing must be freezing.”
   The old man sat down on one knee and groped the neck of the tigress with the back of his hand.
   “There is a pulse, so she’s still alive,” He stated, “although barely.”
   With paces swift for someone his age, Bob walked to his wheelbarrow and moved it next to the tigress and took the watering can out. He then gently lifted the hypothermic tigress and put her down in the wheelbarrow, followed by her bag.
   Regarding the watering can as no longer important, Bob grabbed the handles and started pushing the cart back towards the main gate. Monty heeled, well aware of the routines his old man sported, although being a bit thrown off by the still feline body his owner was transporting.
   Meanwhile, Bob only thought about getting the tigress to his cabin as fast as his aged legs could carry him and his arms could push the rickety cart over the dirt path. The arms and legs of the tigress hung over the edges of the wheelbarrow, swinging rhythmically with each step.

It had already began to dawn when Bob reached the cabin near the graveyard that had been home to him and three generations before him. Despite being small - and located next to a graveyard, of all things - the old man cherished the many good memories he had.
   He dug the key to the front door from one of his pockets and let Monty in. With a suppressed grunt, Bob lifted the limp tigress and carried her inside, closing the front door behind him with his foot.
   “Rose! I come bearing presents,” he joked when he reached the door to the living room.
   His wife quickly came to see what all the fuzz was about, stumbling upon Bob and the cold body he held. She was wearing her stained apron and judging from the smell of meat and tomato coming from the kitchen, Bob concluded that his wife had decided on his favorite dish for dinner.
   “Oh goodness, she’s not dead, is she?”
   “She is close, I guess. Can you lend me a hand?”
   “Of course,” Rose replied and took over the tigress’s paws as Bob moved his hands to carry the Halfling by the shoulders.
   “Let’s put her down at the fireplace.”

No sooner said than done, the old couple laid the tigress down on the soft carpet in front of the fireplace, where the wood crisped as it burned with a strong heat. Bob untied the tigress’s boots and covered the cold body with a fluffy blanket.
   “Be a good dog and stay with her, Monty,” he said to the white shepherd before turning back to the tigress, “now let’s see if this kitty has a name.”
   The old man carefully fumbled around the feline’s blue leather collar and unbuckled it. As he removed it from her neck, the tag rattled and dimly reflected the light of the fireplace.
   “Chelsea Trent,” he read, then turning the tag around, “and nothing on the back. Didn’t expect her to be a fresh-bred anyway.”
   He got back on his feet and went outside to pick up Chelsea’s bag from the wheelbarrow. Once inside, he put the bag next to her boots, near the fireplace. The old man then plumped down into the comfortable chair and sighed deeply.
   Although he expected it would take at least another dozen years before he would be buried on ‘his’ graveyard, Bob felt his age was a growing hindrance in his job.
   ‘Maybe I should look for someone to replace me,’ he thought, ‘but I’m not giving up this house.’

It was warm around Chelsea when she came to her senses. As the world of the awake dawned on her, she found herself on a carpet. Trying to rub the sleep from her eyes, she discovered that she was wrapped in a blanket.
   The next thing to draw attention was a large white dog that laid next to her. The tigress sniffed to investigate whatever place she was in, encountering the scents of at least two humans and some food Chelsea estimated to be tasty.
   She tried to sit up, but immediately lowered her upper body again as it made her feel dizzy. The sudden thump when the tigress hit the floor alerted the old man in the chair. The human put his book down and got up from his comfortable chair, kneeling next to Chelsea.

   “Easy now, girl.”
   “Trevor?” she mumbled.
   “I’m sorry, Ms. Trent, but Trevor Callaghan has passed away.”
   Reality hit the tigress like a falling brick. The leopard was dead and she knew very well why.
   “I assume you read my name from my tag?” she asked with a weak voice.
   “That’s something I like about you Halflings, you don’t always need to ask for someone’s name.”
   When the tigress turned to her side, so she could make eye contact with the old human, she noticed an absence around her neck.
   “Wait, where is my collar?”
   “Oh, it’s right here, actually,” Bob replied reassuring, “I merely took it off because I thought you’d rest more comfortable without it on.”
   “Thanks. And no, Halflings don’t exactly wear their collars while they sleep.”
   Bob smiled.
   “Sir? Can you explain who you are and what I’m doing here?” Chelsea asked politely.
   “Of course. My name is Bob Redfield and I am the porter of the Redfield Memorial Garden. On my last round through the graveyard, I found your cold body on top of a tombstone. When I saw you were still alive, I took you inside as fast as I could, which brings us to here.”
   “Thank you, mr. Redfield.”
   “Oh please, call me Bob. I know I’m not as young as you are, but you don’t need to call me ‘sir’.”
   The tigress let out a soft purr.
   “Dinner is almost ready,” a female voice called from the kitchen.
   “Are you hungry?”
   Chelsea nodded.
   “Let me help you sit up,” the old man offered, “do you think you can sit at the table with us?”
   “I guess,” she replied and took off the blanket and her coat.

Bob guided the tigress towards the dinner table, where Rose had served his favorite dish. There were three plates on the table as well as a fairly large cooking pot on a wooden coaster.
   “It’s a good thing I always cook this for two meals,” Rose commented as she dished.
   “The food smells good as always, sweetheart.”
   The old woman smiled.
   “Would you mind telling us what you were doing at the graveyard, Chelsea?” Bob queried.
   Looking down at her plate, the tigress inhaled and sighed deeply.
   “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” the old man reassured.
   “No, it’s okay, really. I need to tell this once, then never again.”
   “Is it that serious?” Bob asked genuinely.
   The tigress nodded.
   “I assume it has something to do with the grave I found you on?”
   “Yush. Trevor Callaghan was a good friend of mine. More than a friend, I could say. There are not that many Halflings here around these parts, let alone felines.”
   “Is your species a minority among Halflings?” the old man asked.
   “Most of us live in Regnesca. I was born there as well, but I had a good reason to emigrate.”
   “Didn’t you get along with your family, dear?” Rose interjected.
   “I’ve never had a great relationship with my parents, but that’s not the case. A few weeks before I turned seventeen, I discovered that I am an elementalist.”
   “What does that mean exactly?”
   “I’m a sorcerer, a user of elemental magic. As you might know, there are six elements. My affinity is that of anima, which basically means I can cast spells that affect a living being’s body or mind. This element is the most rare regarding the amount of elementalists and is considered to be the second hardest to master.”
   “What could be harder than tampering with life itself?” Bob asked.
   “Imagine a human trying to manipulate lightning.”
   Bob’s face showed a comprehending expression.
   “Since my elemental affinity is so rare, it took me a while to find someone able to teach me. I eventually found Trevor, but when I asked where he lived, he told me that he originated from Ackeresdo and was merely visiting Regnesca. He was okay with teaching me how to handle magic, but it would require me to leave my parental home.”
   “Did you?”
   “As soon as I turned eighteen. I wanted to learn how to control my abilities as soon as I could. Whilst being only a little over a year older than me, Trevor had developed significant skill and knew quite a lot of spells.”
   “I’m sorry if I’m running ahead of you, but I saw that he died only recently. What caused his death?” the old man questioned.
   The tigress sighed and remained silent for a while. Her tail crept between her legs and tears welled up in her eyes as she began to speak again.
   “I did.”
   None of the humans was able to utter a single word.
   “In case you wonder, I didn’t murder him or anything. Let me explain. As I told you, I was Trevor’s apprentice. A couple of weeks ago, he told me that I was ready to take the exam I had trained and studied for in the past years; an event I looked forward to very much.”
   She paused for a moment to find the right words.
   “For any sorcerer of my element, an important part of practical study is to discern the element of anima from Flux. Flux is the magical energy that is drawn from a sorcerer himself and depends on the mood and state of mind of the caster.”
   “Why is that important?” Rose queried.
   “Since Flux heavily depends on the caster, it’s not a stable form, but rather erratic and whimsical. In Regnesca, it’s even forbidden by law to cast Flux magic. Unfortunately, I understand why.”
   Chelsea’s tail twitched.
   “During the past two years, I’ve studied magic spells and Trevor trained me to practice them, all in order to get me ready for the exam he had planned. The exam consisted out of a test of knowledge, demonstrating spells of different levels and something he kept secret until the day of my exam.”
   “It doesn’t make sense. Why would your teacher tell you what your exam would be about, but still leave something a secret?” the old man said, more to himself than as a question.
   “I think it was because of the nature of the test. The last part was a duel.”
   “Who did you need to fight? Another student?”
   The tigress shook her head.
   “Him.”
   Upon hearing this, the humans were flabbergasted.
   “It’s not unusual to include dueling into examination, but since I was Trevor’s only student, I had to fight him.”
   “What went wrong?”
   “In my eagerness to pass, I tried a spell I wasn’t familiar with yet.”
   “Did you misjudge yourself?”
   “Rather the spell itself. I flawed and drew upon Flux instead of elemental power. Both Trevor and I were surprised and he was too late to defend himself in anyway. My eagerness had produced a Flux so vicious that it had struck the poor Leopard right in the heart.”
   “So you effectively caused a magical cardiac arrest?”
   The tigress nodded.
   “At first, I thought he was just unconscious, but I soon discovered that he was dead. I spent the next hour searching his personal spell book, looking for a spell to revive him. There was none.”
   “I’m sorry to say this, but there is nothing a mortal can do about death. When your time comes, there is no resisting,” Rose said.
   “But it wasn’t his time!” Chelsea uttered through her tears.
   The old woman put a hand on the tigress’s shoulder. “I know.”
   “So do you have any plans, Chelsea? I mean, you came to our country to study magic, but now your teacher is gone, what are you going to do?”
   “I’m going back to my parents in Regnesca. I’ll tell them I did the best I could.”
   “Will you tell them about what happened with Trevor, dear?”
   “Maybe eventually, but not right now,” The tigress responded.
   “Sometimes goodbye is a second chance, that’s what my father once taught me,” Bob mused.
   “Unfortunately, that’s out of the question as soon as someone’s dead.”
   “Maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t. This might be your second chance with your family. I’m not going to condone how you are involved with Trevor’s death, but neither will I tell anyone about it. It was never you intention to kill him and you are sorry, so who am I to interfere with your business?”
   “It doesn’t erase the fact that I’ll have to live with the guilt. How can I ever use magic again without thinking of Trevor?”
   “That’s okay. He is the one that taught you and judging by what you told me, I think he wouldn’t want you to give up magic because you made a mistake. I agree, you have fallen down, but you need to get back on your feet - paws, sorry – and learn from it, even though you cannot repair the most significant damage.”
   “What is it that you’re trying to say, Bob?”
   “You can either huddle in a corner, or try to change your life for the better. There might even be a lesson in this, be it for you or possible later apprentices of your own.”
   The tigress looked down.
   “I guess you’re right, Bob. Staying here, brooding, it doesn’t make sense. I need to go on. Thanks for your wisdom and hospitality.”
   “You’re welcome,” the old man said, shaking hands with the tigress, “sometimes, goodbye is a second chance. It was my dad’s catchphrase. Remember it, Chelsea.”
   “Trevor had a catchphrase of his own, you know. I never expected it to backfire, though.”
   “What catchphrase?”
   The tigress sighed.

   “A lesson is learned, but the damage is done.”