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The King of Winter

This is how it always starts: naked, cold, and blood-soaked in a musty chamber of bare earth and stone. My teeth begin to chatter, and an uncontrollable shaking takes hold of long limbs that I am not yet accustomed to. I reach out in darkness, groping for a pile of clothes that I know will be there.

My fingers find smooth fabric. Cotton and light wool carry with them a distant sensation of wind-brushed leaves and warm, animal scents. These garments are by no means appropriate for midwinter, but at least the cold has lessened through the years. Dried blood sloughs away as I stand to dress, a gentle rain of red flakes falling to colour an earthen floor that grows a little more red with each passing year.

I can feel them above me. A pulsing knot of human life, vivid even through earth and stone. I feel their excitement, their impatience as they strain to glimpse a sunrise half hidden behind banks of cloud, and the inevitable hope that next year will be better than the last. It is almost dawn.

They used to come for me at sunset, I recall.

I wait for them to leave before I stride out to find my successor. Where once I went robed in furs and crowned with winter-bright leaves, and crowds had hailed my passing, and priests with their smoking censers, I must now drift stealthily away from my place of dying.

It is my experience that the solemn druids and bright-eyed revellers who now brave the cold to see the sun rise over ancient stones have no desire meet me here. They may, perhaps, be glad to feel some faint trace of me, but few of them would want to know that the wheel of the year is still lubricated by blood. Strange, given that humanity itself has become only a little less bloody with the turning of that wheel.

As their voices and footsteps subside, I ascend rough stairs and step out into the circle, phasing through a great megalith. The slow memories of stone wind through me, a firey birth and long ages passed at one with the earth before the clever tools of cunning men carved a new future for that great obelisk.

The ability never lasts long. Living among them, I always become more human with the turning of the year, until the time comes again to weave a new thread into an ancient pattern. I attach myself to the stragglers leaving the stone circle, tramping across frost-speckled grass and asphalt.

This year, I am a tall black man, inappropriately dressed in a smart business suit and slick-bottomed leather shoes. My name is -- was -- Nathan Okoye. I was an accountant, his memories tell me, and I lived in London. In one trouser pocket, I find a set of keys for a flat on which the mortgage will now never be paid off and for a BMW that I will find half-in, half-out of a ditch some three miles away, its upholstery slightly marked with the signs of a struggle. I have never been a good driver, and I hope that Nathan's memories will get me home before they evaporate in the consuming blaze of my consciousness.

As I emerge from the underpass that leads away from the stones, I nod and smile at the wan, patient attendant who sits at a ticket booth, clutching a cup of strong tea like life itself. She grips the cup tightly, between hands that are almost white with cold, although the new day seems mild.

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