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The Last Day of Autumn


The frosted dew on the grass sparkled purple and deep red, reflecting the colours in the eastern sky. In her nest, in a dying foxglove flower at the end of the garden, Silverbell woke up and shivered.

     Fluttering into the air, she stretched stiffly and looked over the suburban garden. Her breath steamed in the air. "One more day," she said brightly.

     She flew around the garden, teasing colour back into drooping sunflowers, encouraging one last late rose to bloom, polishing each holly berry.

     There was a bumblebee lying motionless on the garden path. Its antennae twitched as she landed in front of it. She walked around it, murmuring soothing words as she checked its wings and stroked its back. She put her hands on the bee's face and closed her eyes for a moment. The bee seemed to glow golden for a second, and it fluttered its wings with new energy. She patted its back, and it buzzed gratefully before flying away.

     Silverbell looked after it, smiling.

     "You're out late," said an emotionless voice behind her. She turned. An indistinct, human-shaped figure shimmered gauzy-white behind her, the garden visible through it.

     "It's still morning," said Silverbell.

     "That's not what I meant," said the Spirit of Winter.

     "I know."

     "Most of your kind are already hibernating in the Enchanted Forest, recharging until the spring."

     "I've still got time," said Silverbell cheerfully.

     "It's futile. That bee won't last the winter. Most of these flowers will be dead in a week, no matter what you do."

     "But the people love them so much at this time of year," said Silverbell. "They like to see nature hanging on as long as possible."

     "Except wasps."

"Yes, the wasps were a mistake," admitted Silverbell.

     The Spirit of Winter tilted its head. Even though the figure had no visible features, Silverbell had the feeling of being looked over and was suddenly conscious of her frayed, drooping wings and the grey streaks in her hair.

     "You need to save your magic," the Spirit observed, without particular concern. "Or you won't have enough to fly to the Forest. You're already very weak."

     "Don't worry about me," said Silverbell. "You'll have the place to yourself from tomorrow."

     The Spirit faded away, leaving a patch of hard frost on the grass, and Silverbell went back to work.

     By mid-afternoon, she sat on a fence post and surveyed the garden with a mixture of satisfaction and sadness. "It was a good summer," she said to herself.

     She flew up, higher than the rooftops, and turned west. She hadn't flown one street before her eye was caught by a small creature limping slowly across the road, and she descended again.

     It was a hedgehog, small and shivering in the cold. "Hey, buddy," she said to him, reaching up to stroke his face. "You shouldn't be out now."

     Silverbell took a longing look towards the western horizon, where the sun was starting to set. Then she looked back at the hedgehog. It was obviously too thin to survive hibernation.

     She took a deep breath, placed both hands on the hedgehog's side, and gasped as she released all of her remaining magic. The two of them were enveloped in a golden glow, and when it faded, the hedgehog was noticeably fatter. It snuffled its nose at her before continuing into the garden.

     She stood watching until it had vanished under a hedge. Then her legs buckled. With the last of her strength, she flew up onto the roof of the house, almost collapsing as she reached the ridge. Leaning back on a chimney stack, she sat facing the sunset, eyes closed.

Something furry nuzzled her face. She half-opened her eyes. It was the bumblebee. "Hi," she muttered, reaching out a hand. "Thanks for staying with me."

     The bee nudged her again, insistently. This time she looked around. It took her arm gently in its mandibles and pulled and buzzed. Then, smiling weakly, she pulled herself up, threw one leg over the bee's back, and hung on. It took off over the houses, flying west.

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