Once upon a time there was a kind and beautiful girl who fell in love with a charming prince. She had hair golden as the sun, and eyes blue as cornflowers. The Prince she loved was tall, strong, and handsome.
Neither of them lived happily ever after.
That girl was my mother. And me… well, that’s a whole other tale. See, I kinda broke the world. Completely shattered it, like it was a sheet of glass. Not my fault – really. I thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe I was. You tell me.
My story begins not at the beginning – what’s the point of that? It begins, as every real story does, at the beginning of the end.
Of course, it started like any other day. Days that change your life – that change everything – usually do. I was half an hour late for my lessons and had no idea where my history book was. It didn’t help that the castle chamber I shared with Gran was absolutely stuffed to the brim.
Not with furniture, oh no, nothing so mundane as that. In fact, the only furniture we had besides straw beds was a giant wooden table with two hard, heavy chairs. And the table was completely covered in glass tincture bottles, bundles of dried herbs, jars of animal parts, candles, rolled parchments and lots and lots of books… just none of them the one I was looking for!
So, I banged and flung things about, even moving the cauldron that hung over our massive stone fireplace to see if I had dropped my history book behind it somehow. I’d hate it if I had accidentally burned my school book. Well, not really, but it’d be an inconvenience.
Above the mantel was a giant portrait of my mother seated on one side of the Summer Queen, who she served as a lady-in-waiting along with her best friend. In the portrait, all three are in elaborate court dresses, and two small white dogs lie curled up nose-to-tail in Queen Katherine’s lap. Mom’s the blonde wearing a simple but rich deep blue dress; Queen Katherine had red hair a lot like mine, and wore an appropriately royal gleaming beaded white satin gown. Cerise, our Queen now, is swathed in red velvet. Appropriate since she would leave the Summer Queen’s service less than a year after the portrait was completed to become the Red Queen, and she took my mom with her.
Arabella (Mom) and Cerise were Queen Katherine’s favorites for many years. Gran told me she pulled the painting off the castle wall and took it right out of its frame. She just took it, rolled it into her saddlebag and rode off with it. I didn’t really know why the painting was so important to her; she didn’t tell me the whole story. Not right away. Not for a long time, really. And never the whole whole story.
Anyway, that portrait has watched over me my whole life. Which has been a good thing, I guess, since Mom herself wasn’t around to do it. I always felt her eyes looking at me fondly from though, softly blue and round and laughing. She still looked lovingly at me that morning, however both Queens seemed quite judgmental about the whole situation.
I stomped my foot in frustration.
“Gran!” I yelled, “Any idea where my History of the Red Kingdom is?”
I didn’t really have to yell, to be honest. Gran’s little area was only separated from the main chamber with a heavy curtain; it just felt cathartic.
“Stop yelling, Katherine Cerise!” Gran said quietly but firmly from behind the heavy brown curtain. “I can hear you perfectly fine. Your book is underneath the dried frog skins, exactly where you put it when you were trying to avoid your reading last night.”
I went to look. Yep, there on the corner of the massive table was a stack of dried frog skins, splayed out and fragile as autumn leaves, and underneath those, my book. I moved the skins as gently as I could (only two crumbled) and grabbed it.
Gran emerged from behind the curtain with a messenger pigeon perched on her shoulder. She walked across our chamber to the window. With a little wave of a wing, the bird flew out the window.
Then Gran sighed and sat down on the stone window seat in front of our one small window. The giant tree that stood outside our window, blocked the view of the stables, framing her in a green halo. Reaching into her apron pocket Gran drew out a heavy silver brush and began to thoughtfully draw it through her hair while she looked out the window, following the tiny dot of the bird as it disappeared into the sky.
Gran looked absolutely beautiful as she sat brushing her long hair. Her face was wrinkled as an old apple, but her eyes were snapping black and her hair fell in an amazing silver waterfall. I eyed it with envy, uncomfortably aware of the explosion of bushy red hair that flamed around my own head. I hadn’t bothered to brush it that morning – I’d just pushed it back haphazardly. Chunks of it were actually standing out in knots three inches from my head.
“KC, you’re a mess. I am not sending you out in the castle looking like birds are nesting in your hair! Come over here and sit down, and I’ll tidy you up.” Gran winked a bright eye at me. “Remember, Gran brushing makes you strong!”
I wanted to laugh at that, but was too frustrated and rushed to do more than smile. That was our joke – Gran had cajoled me into letting her brush my hair since I was a child by telling me that every stroke from her ornate silver brush made me stronger and smarter. I hadn’t really bought that story since I was ten, but Gran WAS a witch, so you never know. Could be. I didn’t have much talent for witchcraft, but she was teaching me to help at least. Mostly, I was convinced she’d just been saying that because I absolutely loathed brushing my hair and avoided it like the plague.
With a moderately pouty sigh, I accepted the inevitable. Setting my book back down on the table, just to the right of a bat wing and well clear of the dusty frog skins, I flopped impatiently onto the cold stone floor in front of Gran, just like I had done every day of my life.
As Gran pulled the bristles through my resistant curls, I sourly observed,
“Not that anyone cares what I look like anyway. It’s not like I’m a court lady. I’m not going to the big party tonight – why bother with my hair at all?”
Gran tugged none-to-gently at a particularly obstinate snarl, and responded tartly,
“You stare at that fancy portrait of your mother every day, but did you know that she was as stubborn as you? It took me and Cerise AND the Queen to get Arabella to comb her hair and put on a clean dress.”
Gran never called the Red Queen we served “Queen Cerise.” It was always just “Cerise.” Gran was the only one in the entire Kingdom who dared, even in private, to be less-than respectful about the Queen. Rumor had it the Queen had ears in every wall and eyes in every candle.
She continued, “Of course, she was so beautiful it didn’t much matter if she ever made an effort. No one could have kept their eyes off her even if she’d worn rags and shaved off all her hair.”
“And she had silky golden hair, not the mess I’ve got, I know,” I grumbled. “It probably didn’t hurt like hell when you brushed hers out.”
Gran laughed a little at that. “She whined nearly as much as you do, even so.”
Hearing about Mom relaxed me a little. I leaned back against Gran’s bony knees for a moment. She shrugged her knees to get me to move.
“Sit up, KC, and hold the brush for me. I need to get a ribbon to tie this mop back with.”
A little reluctantly, I sat up and took the brush she handed me. It was cool and heavy, solid silver, with boar bristles and an intricate etched design on the flat side. I traced the design with my fingers – two rearing horses facing each other surmounted by a crown and banners.
Gran stood and moved briskly to the trunk that held her few clothes and trinkets. She rustled in it efficiently for a moment, before emerging satisfied, holding a length of green silk ribbon.
“Now that will look lovely. Your dress may be mended, but it’s clean, and with your hair braided up out of your face, you’ll be just fine.”
I grumbled under my breath. Something to the effect that there was no point in me looking like anything at all, no one noticed me anyway. I knew Gran heard me because she heard everything, but she ignored it and came to sit behind me again.
“Give me the brush, KC. I’ll finish up real quick and you’ll be on your way to lessons.”
I handed it back to her, feeling the absence of its weight immediately. It was by far the most beautiful thing we owned.
“Did you brush Mom’s hair with this same magic brush?” I wondered aloud. Somehow, that had never come up.
Gran paused her brushing for a just a moment, but enough that I noticed. She answered without hesitation though.
“No, the brush was a gift from someone at Court. She got it much later, when she was all grown up. Just before you were born.”
“Did it come with the super strength and smarts spell?” I asked, teasing.
I could almost hear the rustle of the Gran’s cheeks wrinkling as she smiled behind me.
“No, I put that spell on there just for you, my dear.” She paused again, this time setting the brush aside and starting to braid. “Of course, it did come with some magic already on it.”
“Really?” I asked, curious. This had also never come up before. I may have been skeptical about any spell used as a tale to get me to sit still, but this sounded different.
“Yes,” Gran said slowly as her strong, clever fingers worked my hair into order, “when it was given to your mother, it was spelled so it can only be touched by those of her blood. It’s very valuable, you know.”
“I know,” I replied. After a moment’s thought, I asked “Who gave it to her? And I’ve always wondered if there are other pieces. You know, like a comb or a mirror? Or did the person just give her the brush? Seems a bit cheap, if you ask me, all on its lonesome like that.”
I swear that right then Gran’s fingers grew a little firmer and she yanked a snarl for good measure to distract me. Her response was brief.
“There was another piece, a mirror, but we didn’t carry it from the Summer Kingdom. It was too big. And I don’t remember who gave them to Arabella. She was very beloved at the Summer court.”
I didn’t believe Gran had forgotten who gave mom the brush and mirror. Gran remembered everything. But I was late enough already and Gran was done. My hair now coiled around my head in a heavy braided style topped by the bright green ribbon, shining a shade lighter than my forest green dress.
I knew the hairstyle made me look far more sophisticated than my 16 years. In a good way – it brought out the width of my cheekbones, which just barely balanced out the width of my jaw, and focused attention on my thickly arched brows and green eyes. Whether the brush was magic or not, I did feel better.
“Now, off you go!” Gran said, swatting me gently on the shoulder with the brush. “Remember to grab your book, and the packet of herbs by the door. Make sure to give the herbs to Natalie and only Natalie. She’s in charge of Cerise’s preparations for tonight’s ball. Tell Natalie to add the herbs into a tub of warm water and have Cerise sit in it for at least half an hour. Then she is to use the hair oil I made up for her last month.”
“Right, right, got it, Gran,” I muttered, hustling back into action. Snatching my book from her bed, I blew her a kiss as I headed to the door. Sure enough, a bag full of herbs sat next to it. Picking it up, I caught sight of the portrait of Mom above the fire place again and blew her a kiss as well. Then, with a last bang of the door, I raced out into the castle halls.
The hallway just outside our chamber was pretty much always dark, cold and quiet, but especially so in winter. We lived at the far, far end of the castle next to the stables. I walked as quickly as I could towards the main section – I’d have run, quite honestly, to make up a little time, but the floor out by us was too rough. I’d trip every other step if I tried to run on the uneven stones and scattered rushes of our neglected little corner.
Along the hallway there were a few arrow slits that acted like windows, and let in a little bit of the faded November sun. Not a lot – any opening in this stone behemoth of a building that was large enough to let in air and light also let in the chill, even when covered in yellowed oilpaper.
Back when I was little, I’d clamber up the stone hallway walls like a little squirrel and hang in front of these small openings so I could gaze out into the castle grounds. That was when the Red King was alive, and things were brighter and cheerier, even out where we lived.
King Stephen kept a whole menagerie of exotic animals on the grounds. They ran on the grass just outside our hallway. I’d wait patiently at the slit, toes gripping one stone and fingers curled around another, watching for a long-necked giraffe, or sharply contrasting zebra or, my favorite, the glorious jewel-colored peacocks, to wander by. Watching them would hold me mesmerized until my fingers cramped and toes grew numb. Once I could no longer hold on, I’d reluctantly clamber down and return to our rooms.
Most of the time, I played alone in the hallway or in our chamber, at least until I grew old enough to read and start my studies. Gran has always been adamant – a witch, even a half-witch without much natural talent, needs an education. She tells me that ‘It’s no use being able to mix herbs and potions if you can’t read a spell, and no point being able to do spells if you don’t have any sense.’
Gran’s got a good attitude, I think.
As I moved deeper into the castle, it grew a bit cleaner and brighter and a lot noisier. I could hear the shouting and banging of pans from the kitchens grow louder and louder as I got closer, and grinned. If someone was yelling, that meant Cook was in the kitchens. If Cook was in the kitchen, that meant I got breakfast.
Two guards stood at the kitchen door, but I’d known both of them since I was running around in pigtails, so all I had to do was smile and wave as I passed them.
“Hiya, Tom! Hey, Robert! Gran sends her regards. Oh, and Tom, I think she said she’d have your salve ready by the end of today, if you want to stop by after your shift.”
Tom bobbed his head back at me and murmured that he’d be by to see Lady Hannah by nightfall. That’s what they call her – Lady Hannah. She wasn’t actually a lady, but being the castle witch does prompt a certain level of respect. Tom was almost as old as Gran, and nearly as spry. Robert was younger, maybe ten years older than me, with black hair, an easy smile and a knack for cards. Both wore the scarlet livery of the Queen’s guard.
Not all the guards were old friends; the Queen had brought in a whole bunch of new guardsmen over the past few years. Some of them were a little rougher and scarier than the others. Quite a lot of them, actually. I would have thought them shifters, to be honest, if that wasn’t absurd. No one had seen a shifter in a decade, not since the King had died and the Queen set up the reservations. Everyone knew they were trouble, and best far away from society. At least, that’s what the Queen’s order had said. No way she was bringing them back into the kingdom, much less her court. No way at all.
As I opened the door into the kitchen, Robert instructed me. “Make Cook give you a nibble of the apple pastry she made for the Queen’s breakfast, not just some nasty bowl of porridge. She let us have a few earlier and they’ll put some meat on your bones.” He smiled at me with genial flirtatiousness.
“Got it. Apple pastries. Sounds good. Thanks, guys!” I called back as I swung through the heavy wooden door.
The kitchen was twice as cluttered as our messy little chamber, a lot hotter and infinitely more active. Scullery maids and kitchen boys swarmed around the stations occupied by more senior staff, bringing them hot water, or chopping herbs, or stirring pots. The senior staff created; they didn’t bother with the scut work. (Which kinda reminded me of Gran’s witch training, frankly.) But what the kitchen staff turned out was magnificent – I’d seen pastries sculpted into swans, entire roasted animals turned out in golden perfection, and massive birds made by stuffing pigeons into ducks and then cramming the result into a turkey. It smelled amazing in there.
Looking around, I spotted Cook exactly where I knew she’d be – standing beside the roasting spit. A wild boar turned slowly on it, rotated by a boy with remarkably dirty hands and face. Cook was busily engaged in berating the boy.
“Matthew, you can’t just walk in here from crawling around the stables without even washing up! It takes five minutes to use the trough out there. Don’t you dare ever show up here again with nasty dirty hands and your face covered in more smut than the chimney sweep! Now, you go and wash up while KC here turns the spit for a minute.”
Somehow, Cook always knew when anyone was around. I smiled at her as she turned to me, wide plain face shifting from thunder cloud to sunny day.
“Now, KC, it’ll just be a moment. Matthew here will be right back. I know you’re late.”
“How do you know I’m late?” I asked, taking the wooden handle of the metal spit. I could feel the heat of the fire radiating up my arm as I started to slowly turn it.
“Because you’re always late,” Cook said offhandedly, rustling in a nearby cupboard. “I’ve saved you a bit of apple pastry from the Queen’s breakfast this morning, and I have a hunk of last night’s bread. There’s milk to wash it down if you’d like – you can take a cup with you to your lessons, just make sure to bring it back before the Prince’s birthday ball tonight. We’ll need all the cups and dishes we can find for that.”
I turned the spit in silence for a moment as Cook waddled around, putting together a little bundle for me to take and eat during class. I didn’t know why Cook had to bring up the ball. Tonight’s ball. The one I wasn’t going to. Made no difference to me, of course. I wouldn’t want to go to a stupid ball anyway.
As if she could read my mind, Cook added kindly over her shoulder as she tied up the cloth holding my pastry and bread, “It won’t be much of a time, really. Bunch of lords and ladies stuffing their faces and dancing badly. Though I do have a wonderful braised boar and spaetzle dish planned…”
Cook rattled on, describing the fate of the fat boar that was sizzling in front of me, destined for accompaniments of red cabbage and egg noodles, covered with a spicy brown sauce. It sounded delicious.
“Think you could set a bit aside for me? Just a nibble of the cabbage and noodles, no boar,” I asked, handing off the spit to little Matthew. He had returned with at least four more clean spots on his muddy hands and two or three clean areas of his face. Cook eyed him sharply, then abandoned the endeavor and focused on me.
“Of course, dearie,” Cook said kindly. “And you’ll be going to balls in a few years, I know it. You’re only 16 – by the time you’re 18, like the Prince, you’ll be the belle of the ball.”
I nodded; it was easier and kinder than arguing with Cook. She meant well. But there was no way that somehow in the next two years I would go from being be the penniless daughter of the castle witch into a lady of the court. I was not destined for fancy ball gowns and fashionable manners. For better or worse.
So, I took the bundle she offered in the same hand as my history book and the bag of herbs and secured the cup of milk in the other. Then Cook waved me off. I blew her a kiss and trotted out the other side of the kitchen, slurping at the milk. It was fresh and cold. Matthew had probably milked the cow and brought the result in from the barn with him when he came in to work at dawn. And Cook’s word was good – I’d be having fresh egg noodles and cabbage for breakfast tomorrow, if not for dinner tonight.
As I moved through the castle hallways away from the kitchen, the tone of my surroundings changed. Instead of bare stone, brightly colored tapestries warmed the walls, interspersed occasionally with a portrait of some royal ancestor or other. I didn’t pass through the main hall, but close enough to it that maids and footmen hurried around me, carrying candles and moving furniture out of the big ballroom. I gave everyone a smile as I went by and they smiled and waved back, even the occasional guard.
I knew I was almost at the royal apartments when the cheerful flurry of activity shifted into a worried panic. Queen’s guards stood silently at every other doorway. These were the new guards, the ones I didn’t know. They all seemed professional enough, but also had an odd similarity of look and stance – like these men were once feral, and quite recently at that. I thought unavoidably of shifters again – not that I could tell if they were or not. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a shifter, not even when I was a little girl before they were sent to the reservations. But I still avoided their eyes as I hurried by, looking down at the rich carpets that now covered the stone floor.
As I result, I actually ran full-on into Natalie, the Queen’s head lady-in-waiting, as she dashed out of the Queen’s chamber, arms filled with red silk as bright as a ripe cherry. She made a delicate “oof” sound as I walked directly into her. Looking up to apologize, I saw that Natalie’s hazel eyes were rimmed in pretty much the exact same color red as the fabric she held.
“I’m so sorry, Nat,” I whispered. We were right outside the Queen’s room after all and she hated noise. “I was hoping I’d run into you, just not quite so literally. Gran sent me with the Queen’s herbs.”
Juggling the cup of milk in my other hand, I raised the little bag and took a deep inhale, sorting out the scents o the mixture. “Smells like chamomile, jasmine, lavender…” I paused and sniffed again, letting the herbs tell their story like a book. “Oh, and rosemary, rose petals, dandelion and stinging nettles. Don’t worry about the stinging bit – that’s just the name. They’re good for circulation.”
“Sounds good,” Natalie responded, voice quiet and kind. She was about the age my mother would have been; she might not have had Mom’s stunning beauty, but she was a comfortable, round brunette who was the closest thing to a mother I had. Well, except for Gran of course. Who’s a lot more than a maternal figure, and also sometimes a bit less.
“Just lay the bag on top of this pile, KC. I need to drop the Queen’s gown off for a few alterations and will bring the herbs to her after that’s done. She won’t be starting her bath until afternoon, anyway.”
“She’s got you running today, hunh?” I observed as I stacked the fragrant bag on top of the bright, heavy silk. I could see a drip of black lace trailing down onto the floor from what must have been a giant skirt. The Queen had dramatic tastes.
“Well, it’s not every day the Prince turns 18, I guess. It’ll be quite an event.” Leaning forward, Nat added in a stage whisper, “And she’s bound and determined to make sure everyone knows she’s not old enough to have an 18-year-old son, even if he is her stepson. She’ll be doing your Gran’s rituals for hours this afternoon.”
I sighed. Devising youth and beauty concoctions for the Queen took up at least half of Gran’s time these days. I didn’t want to think about how much more work the Queen would be as she got older. But, hey, at least I didn’t have to wait on her.
Just as I thought that, I heard the Queen’s voice from the room behind Natalie.
“Natalie?” she called, voice smooth and sinuous as a snake. “Hadn’t you best get my gown to the castle seamstress? The dear girl does need a ridiculously long time to make a few simple alterations, and I want to be able to try it on again before nightfall.”
Natalie made a face at me, but answered clearly and politely. “Of course, Your Majesty. I’ll run it to Maggie and be right back to clear your breakfast dishes.”
I didn’t say anything as Natalie and I headed our separate ways. Last thing I wanted was to attract the attention of the Queen. I honestly could never figure out what my mom had seen in the Queen, back when she was just lady-in-waiting Cerise and my mother’s best friend. But that was sixteen years ago and I figure people change when they marry a king.
As I walked the last hallway to the study where I had my lessons, I reflected that, while I might not be the biggest fan of the Queen, the Prince was okay. Even if he didn’t invite me to his birthday party. Rat fink.
Approaching the door of the study, I had to bang on it with my elbow. Both hands were still full even after handing off the herbs, what with the breakfast bundle, my book and the half-drunk glass of milk. Unfortunately, I accidentally used the elbow attached to the hand holding the milk to bang the door.
“Damn! Drat!!” I squeaked as the last of the cold milk spilled directly down my dress. It was a very basic green wool, nothing special, but the thick fresh milk was bright white against it and really unnecessarily wet. “Bother! Bugger! And blasted!”
The door swung open and I scowled at the tall, floppy haired boy that stood behind it.
“Gee, KC, can’t you get through five minutes without cursing?” Prince Nicolas asked teasingly. “Between the lateness and the swearing, I’m starting to think you’re a bad influence on me.”
“Harumph,” I muttered, squeezing past him. He’d gotten broader in the past year but never seemed to realize it; it seemed like he was always standing too close and I had to push past his bulk. “Looking who’s talking, birthday boy.”
Our tutor, Brother Algernon, hadn’t arrived yet. Bless his heart, but the Friar was worse with time than I was. Some days he would get distracted and pray through both matins and lauds, finally wandering in just as Nick and I were ready to break for lunch. But he was smart, and a good teacher, so we all made do with each others’ faults.
Not that Nick really had a lot of faults, at least for a Prince. He closed the door politely after me, and lent me a handkerchief to mop up the spilled milk. Side effect of being rushed all the time: I can never remember to bring a handkerchief. I wondered if Nick carried an extra one or two for me on purpose.
“You’re not going to cry over that, are you?” Nick asked playfully as I toweled myself off. “I can’t handle when women cry.”
“What?” I asked, distracted by my mopping activities, “Why would I cry over it? I don’t cry.”
“Just a joke, KC, just a joke. Crying over spilt milk?”
I looked up at him blankly. Oh, I knew the phrase. I just wanted to bug him.
“Never mind,” Nick sighed, giving up teasing me surprisingly quickly, “If you’re relatively dry, perhaps you could share some of that delicious-smelling food that Cook wrapped up for you? I’m starved.”
“Didn’t you eat breakfast with the Queen, like an hour ago?” I asked, untying the bundle. A half dozen flaky pastries shining with glazed apples lay fatly stacked on top of an entire loaf of bread. Bless Cook.
“I avoided that entirely by the handy method of simply not showing up,” Nick said, tearing off a hunk of brown bread. “Sent a message with a footman telling her I needed extra sleep to manage the ball tonight. Actually, I spent the time reading.”
“Good for you, Nick!” I crowed. It had been hard for Nick to learn to read. Words wiggled, he used to tell me, when he was a little boy missing his two front teeth. That’s when the Queen had Gran bring me in to study with the Prince. She figured it’d be good for him, and Gran figured it’d get me a better education than she would have time to do herself. I was two years younger than Nick, but could already read thanks to Gran. It worked out.
“What were you reading?” I asked Nick, picking up a pastry and gnawing on it. It scattered crumbs across the desk like snow. Nick looked at me with laughter in his expressive brown eyes, thick brows arching up wildly towards his tousled hair.
“Your manners are astounding, as always, KC.”
“I’m not bothered with eating all mannerly at state dinners and balls. Makes it a lot more fun. Tell me what you were reading!”
Nick swallowed his last bite of bread and wiped his hands delicately on a handkerchief. A SECOND handkerchief! Mystery solved – he did bring extra for me.
“Actually, just reading ahead for today’s lesson. I want to stay on track – no more letting a little girl beat me at lessons!”
He said this kindly, elbowing me. Which resulted in the bite I was eating going down wrong. I coughed. Nick pounded my back, and as the coughing subsided, he started to rub my back instead. I stood up immediately and walked towards the fire.
Nick said nonchalantly, “How about after class we get out of here this afternoon? Do some hunting. Let me work up an appetite for the birthday feast.”
“Sure,” I answered, keeping my face turned to the fire. It burned cheerily in the midst of its stone confines, giving the small, windowless study a warm glow.
“I’ll need to be well-fed, of course. It’s going to be a busy night. The Queen has invited every girl at court, and a few from the country estates.” He sighed dramatically. “I shall be exhausted running away from them.”
“Sure,” I said again, turning back towards Nick. His eyes glinted mischievously. “Not like you run away very fast. Or very often.”
“Nonsense,” said Nick, “I run quite frequently. Sometimes towards the girl, sometimes away.” He winked. “Must keep everyone guessing.”
“You’re going to marry the daughter of that Duchess. Or the heiress to Lord What’s-His-Name. The tall one, with all the hair.”
“Oh, you mean Lady Daphne. Nah, she’s boring. And the daughter of the Duchess is worse – can’t talk about anything but clothes and dances. Ghastly.”
“Well, it’s not like you have much choice, do you?” I added, just as the door opened and Brother Algernon drifted in in a haze of incense and piety.
“No, it’s not like I have much choice,” Nick said. His voice sounded a little sad. I squashed that thought down hard as Brother Algernon wandered to the other side of the desk and set down the large book he was carrying.
The book looked like the older, bigger brother of the one I had been hunting for earlier that morning. It was almost as impressive as one of Gran’s grimoires or spell books. Leather-bound and fragile, this tome was twice as thick as the one I carried. It had a gold imprint on the front cover that included the Red King’s coat of arms, which paired a lion and a unicorn both wearing crowns. The title, beneath the embossed arms, was also done in gold leaf. It read ‘The Complete History of the Red Kingdom.’ The date, directly under the title, wasn’t in gold but I could just make out that the book was over a decade old.
Interesting. That meant the Brother’s book dated from back before the old Red King died. Ours were newer, copied and illuminated by the court monks under the order of the Queen. That meant my book had the coat of arms of the Queen. She’d designed it when she married up in the world, as it were, and it featured a garland of peacocks surrounding a tiara. Considering how vain she was, this seemed quite appropriate.
Without even acknowledging the Prince (and definitely not bothering to acknowledge me), Brother Algernon thumbed the book open to the first chapter heading and began to read.
Brother Algernon began, his reedy voice high and thin. “Soon after the marriage of the Red King to the Lady Cerise, a mysterious plague struck the shifter community…”
He stopped reading, fleshy face pale with dismay. His hair was cut in a monk’s tonsure, so the top of his head was bare. It looked paler too.
“My mistake, children,” (he still persisted in calling us children, when he realized we were in the room at all). “I grabbed the wrong edition. So many books, so many books…” he trailed off, looking down at the book in front of him like he’d never seen it before. “We shall use one of your current editions. Prince Nicolas,” he said, “If you would be so kind, perhaps you could lend me your copy and we shall start the lesson again.”
“In truth, Brother,” Nick chimed in as he slid his history book across the table to the monk. “I was able to do a little reading this morning, and would enjoy just discussing the topic. If KC doesn’t mind?”
He looked at me, pleased with himself for being ahead. Show off. Two can play that game.
“That would be wonderful,” I said. “I read the entire book the other week.” Glancing at Nick, I added coyly, “Got bored, simply couldn’t put it down.”
Nick’s eyes flashed with some combination of irritation and admiration. Good, I thought. All the Prince said was, “Delightful. Count on KC to be ready to talk.”
“Well, then, of course,” Brother Algernon said, interlacing his long narrow hands over his surprisingly paunchy belly. Even in his brown habit, it bulged into the edge of the table. “If that is what is best for the Prince, we can go directly to discussion. What would you like to discuss?”
“Well, what I want to know,” Nick said, “is how the Summer Kingdom has managed under King Arthur. After their Queen Katherine died, how did he manage their shifter population? I know that my father and the Queen worked things out here with the reservation system to contain the disease? I know my step-mother – our Queen – shut the borders between the two kingdoms not long after the plague. How did Mad Arthur manage? Just let them run wild in the streets? Did they all die off?”
It was a good question. I’d been born after Nick’s father had died and Cerise had become the Queen-Regent. Right after that, she’d closed the borders between the Summer and Red Kingdoms, and helped the remaining shifters enter the reservations so they’d be taken care of during the plague. I had no idea what things were like in the Summer Kingdom today. Granted there was now some travel between the two kingdoms – official delegations and the like – using the river that ran through both kingdoms, but a system of locks and checkpoints kept it contained. I’d never met anyone from the Summer Kingdom before. Except Gran, I guess.
Brother Algernon had gone from pale to red. His cheeks were flushed and I could see broken blood vessels coloring his nose. Even his scalp was turning a shade of crimson remarkably similar to the Queen’s ball gown.
“That is an excellent question, Prince, but one for another day. Perhaps it would be best to simply read the chapter for tomorrow, since you are all caught up for today?” With this, Brother Algernon clumsily pawed my copy of the current history book open to Chapter Two.
He droned on for at least two hours, all about the story we already knew – how Queen Katherine was succeeded by Prince Arthur when she died. Once King, Arthur went mad, supposedly from grief over his mother, and became a recluse. Meanwhile, Cerise had brought the Red Kingdom to order, saving humans from the shifter plague.
I might have tuned out after a while and spent the time staring into the fire, watching it dance and play. It cast shadows through the room, making the fat monk look wise and giving my friend Nick’s face a blade-like aristocratic cast. Almost handsome, I decided. Quite handsome, my deeper voice chimed in. I told it to shut up and went back to staring into the fire.
Finally, Brother Algernon closed the book. I think Nick woke up at the noise, though his eyes had been open the whole time. As the Brother stood up, Nick reached to reclaim his loaned book. Nick glanced down as he picked it up, eyes focused on the signet ring he wore on the fourth finger of his right hand. It held his coat of arms, distinct from both his father’s and the Queen’s.
“One more question, Brother, if you would?” Nick asked, then continued without pausing. “I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen the Summer King’s standard. He still uses his mother’s, doesn’t he?”
Brother Algernon nodded, eyes pale gray and unfocused. “Yes, of course, he does. I’m not sure he has ever gotten over her death. Never really seemed to want to be King. However…” The Brother paused and pulled his old copy of the book towards him. He leafed through for a moment, pausing on a page towards the back.
“Here, Prince Nicolas,” he said, showing the page to Nick. “This is what the Summer King’s coat of arms looks like. He hasn’t used it since he was Prince, of course.”
We both looked down. Drawn on the page in lush gold ink were two elegant horses rearing over a crown.
The design on my mother’s brush. The one given to her by some forgotten admirer in the Summer Kingdom, according to Gran. No bloody way was Arthur, the former Prince and current King, some faceless, nameless suitor. Gran had some explaining to do.
I must have gasped. Nick looked at me a little strangely as Brother Algernon swept out of the room. I began to gather up my things – the history book (unused after all that trouble this morning!) and the bit of cloth that breakfast had been wrapped in. Cook’s entire breakfast had disappeared hours ago and I was starting to get a little hungry again.
Nick reached out a hand and rested it on mine as I went to pick up my book. I paused, startled by its warmth. Glancing down, I saw it was the hand with the signet ring. I pulled my hand away.
Undeterred, Nick said “I’m sorry – it must be hard to study the Summer Kingdom. Your mom came from there and all.”
I didn’t respond.
“I miss my mom too, every day,” he continued. “We’ve got that in common, you know. Lost our mothers too young. Maybe that’s why we’ve always gotten along so well. We understand each other.”
“Except that your father is a King and no one knows who mine is. And you’re a Prince, and I’m… well, not.” I snapped, mind still reeling from what I might have learned. If I was the daughter of the Summer King… well, that would change things, wouldn’t it? That would change things with Nick. This excited and confused me. I sometimes get snappy when confused.
Nick ignored my comment and continued, “So, meet at the stables to hunt in half an hour? An hour?”
With a sigh, I returned to the matter at hand. Getting outside sounded wonderful – the freedom of a hard ride and some fresh air would do me good. Spending time with Nick would be nice too, damn it. Hunting, however, isn’t something I’m too crazy about.
“Do we have to hunt?” I asked Nick. “I know you love it, but perhaps not today?”
“Oh, don’t fret. I don’t necessarily have to hunt. At least not today.” His eyes twinkled. “I might, though. It is part of the whole Prince thing. Falcons, arrows, bringing down a white stag.”
I glared at him.
“Relax, KC. Just meet me and we’ll have fun. How long will it take you get to ready?”
“Not long. I can meet you at the stables by noon or so. Want me to swing by the kitchen and ask Cook for a bit of lunch to take along?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Nick said, heading for the door. “I’ll take care of it.”
Just as he opened the door, Nick turned back and smiled at me. His smile lit up his face, crinkling the corners of his eyes and sending his high cheeks up practically into his hairline. It was a good smile.
“Hustle along, KC – we’ve got things to do! I promise – it’ll be fun.”
Hard to argue with the Prince of the Kingdom. And I didn’t want to argue with my friend Nick. I nodded and followed him out. He took off with a wave towards the royal apartments as I made my way back to our little chamber at the far end of the castle.
The hallways were crowded with staff and courtiers, all hustling about purposefully to get the Queen and the ballroom ready. I wondered which would take more effort – making one woman as beautiful as she felt she needed to be, or decorating the entire main hall. Frankly, I leaned towards the Queen.
When Natalie rushed past looking worried, I smiled at her. She tried to smile back, but it was a bit strained. I didn’t blame her one bit.
By the time I made it to our chambers, it was nearly midday. I could tell because Gran had left her curtain open and the sun was streaming directly down through the large tree outside our window, dappling the stone floor and making the straw of her bed sparkle gold. There was no sign of Gran, so I dropped my book on the table in the center of our room and noted that it was lying next to a jar of moss from the windward side of a dying tree. That’s what the label said, anyway. Witch stuff. I preferred the simplicity of herbs and medicine to her spells – less chanting, more thinking.
After dropping my book and trying to be sure I remembered where it was for tomorrow, I headed into my little room. It had a door and everything, because it was supposed to be the closet. Standing in the center of the room, I could stretch my arms out and touch all the walls. My straw mattress lay up against one wall. I closed the door so I could get my riding gear – it hung off hooks on the back of the door.
My riding gear had been a gift from Nick. It was beautiful– thick, black wool jodhpurs and soft leather boots, topped by a dark green wool coat worn over a white shirt of fine cotton. It was pretty much a copy of what Nick himself wore, without the trim and braid and geegaws required for a Prince.
I think the first few sets of riding gear that he gave me back when we were kids were his hand-me-downs, stripped of the royal furbelows. I really was straight and skinny enough to be his little brother up until a year ago. Then, suddenly, everything started to get curvy and I shot up at least three inches. After a few weeks of having to literally hold my breath to squeeze into the pants and nearly bursting the chest buttons of the coat anytime I took a deep breath, one day a brand-new outfit appeared in a bundle outside our door. No note or anything, but I knew – who else would give me something so practical but perfect at the same time? I never thanked him, and Nick never said anything. We were just like that.
I’d already pulled on the pants and was buttoning my shirt when the door slammed. I moved to open the door and greet Gran when I heard the Queen’s voice, pleading yet still slippery.
“Hannah, you might be the stubbornest subject in the entire Kingdom. This is a simple request from your Queen – make me a potion that will keep me young. Keep me just the way I look right now. I’m not even asking for you to make me younger, or as beautiful as I once was. Just stop me where I am.”
I could hear Gran sigh from my room, behind a closed door. I’m not sure Gran ever really considered herself a subject of Cerise – they went back way too far.
“Cerise,” she answered steadily, “I’ve been doing all I can for you. You are a gorgeous woman. Let it go.”
“Never,” the Queen hissed, all pleading gone from her tone. “Queens do not ‘let it go.’ Queens get what they want.”
There was a pause, and I heard Gran sit down on one of the chairs. It sounded like she sat a little more heavily than she used to, like she was tired. Then the Queen continued.
“Look at that painting. How young we all were. How fresh and lovely. Don’t you think? Arabella was so exquisite.”
Gran harrumphed. That almost made me laugh but I stifled it so as not to be discovered.
“And look at Queen Katherine! My, she reminds me of KC. Or, I should say, KC reminds me of her. How strange, isn’t it? It’s the hair I think – so distinctive. Or perhaps around the jaw. Katherine always had a very strong jaw. Arabella’s was more delicate, I think.”
“Of course, Katherine’s son, Arthur, had a very similar jaw as well. King Arthur. Interesting.”
Gran hissed. She hissed, loudly enough that it resounded through the wooden door I stood behind.
“We had a deal. Whatever you think you know, you have no proof. Without proof, no one will ever accept it. No one will believe it. Your suspicions do you no good whatsoever.”
“Perhaps,” the Queen said, sounding remarkably satisfied for someone who supposedly had not gotten what she wanted. “Perhaps. I have preparations to make for tonight. We will speak of this later, Hannah.”
One final pause – probably the Queen waiting for Gran to stand up and curtsey or something. Once it became obvious that this wasn’t going to happen (it never happened), I heard the rustle of the Queen’s skirts and the door open and close.
I exhaled loudly. Gran shouted from the main room, “Come out now, Katherine Cerise. We need to talk.” When Gran shouts, I obey. Creaking my door open, I slipped out of my little room.
Gran was still sitting at the table, surrounded by glass jars, herbs and books. She rested her chin in one hand – it was indeed a delicate jaw, just like Mom’s, and not at all like mine – and was looking at the fire but quite obviously not seeing it.
“Sit down, KC. You heard quite a bit, didn’t you… What happened has always been coming; just a matter of time, to be honest. I just hoped I’d have a little more of it.”
“Gran,” I said in a small voice as I slid into the other chair. “What does the Queen know?”
“The Queen knows a great deal and nothing at all,” Gran sighed. “She suspects. It didn’t matter for a long time, not while you both were so young.” Gran looked towards me, her black eyes focusing and some of their familiar snap returning. “And, quite frankly, it’s just gotten more obvious every year. You do look exactly like your grandmother.”
“Queen Katherine,” I whispered. “It’s true.”
Gran sighed again. “It’s complicated, is what it is.”
I let her hesitate. Gran never tells anything she doesn’t want to tell; there was no point in pressuring her. Eventually, after a few minutes of silence, she started,
“You know that Arabella and Cerise were in service to Queen Katherine. Prince – now King – Arthur was a lot like Nick, honestly. Charming, handsome, bit of a flirt. He flirted with all the ladies-in-waiting, including Cerise. No one expected he would care for your mother. Certainly not me. And that seemed to be the case because when Arabella became pregnant, the Prince was taken aback, to say the least, and she was devastated.”
Gran stood up, and walked toward the open curtain that separated her sleeping area from the rest of the room. She picked up the silver brush from where it lay on the window seat. The brush with Arthur’s coat of arms. I felt suddenly sick to my stomach again – Cerise had been within a few feet of the proof she wanted. Or something that would serve as proof, anyway, precisely because she wanted it to.
“Arthur may have come around in time. He might have just been surprised. We’ll never know. All Arabella and I knew at the time was that she sent him a message telling him about you, and he sent back this gift – a silver brush and a mirror with a note that they’d talk when he got back. Then he left, and the Red King came to our court to meet with Queen Kathrine. Cerise had the Red King wrapped around her finger within the week, and your mother was desperate to leave. It seemed the perfect opportunity to start fresh.”
Gran handed me the brush. It felt cold in my hands, heavy with secrets.
“Your mother wanted to leave the Prince’s gifts behind. But I took this one. The mirror was also silver, but far too big and heavy to carry. I figured I could melt down the silver which would remove the blood spell, and sell it, if we needed to.”
“And you wanted it because it was bewitched, to make us stronger…” I said in a tiny voice. Too much had happened. I clung to the story she’d told me since I was a little girl with tangles in her hair. In other words, that very morning.
Gran laughed gently at that. “There was that to consider, as well. Arabella and I certainly needed everything we could find to stay strong.”
“So, the Prince… the King… Dad… didn’t want me?” I asked in an even smaller voice, barely louder than a mouse squeak.
But Gran heard everything.
“I don’t know what Arthur wanted, or didn’t want, to be honest. It broke Arabella’s heart, I do know that, but in the years since…” Gran rested both her hands on my shoulders, light as bird wings. “I do truly wonder, sometimes, if your father would have come around. He’s never been the same, not since Arabella died.”
“I thought it was because his mother died?” I asked, leaning into the warmth of Gran’s hands. Strength flowed from her much more powerfully than the silver brush in my hands.
“They died not far apart. Perhaps it was the combination? I have pondered this for years, knowing that this day might come, that the Queen might decide it was worth the scandal to declare you Arthur’s child.”
“Why would it be worth the scandal?” I asked, feeling in the pit of my stomach a nauseating combination of hope and fear.
“To marry you to Nick, of course. Arthur has no other children. You are the heir to the Summer Kingdom.”
“The illegitimate heir,” I added, stomach turning in somersaults. Marry Nick? Was it possible? Did I want that?
“Power is more important than legitimacy, at least to the Queen, KC. You’re brighter than that.” Gran sounded almost disappointed in me.
“Don’t you want me to marry Nick?” I squeaked. “I thought you liked him.”
Gran removed her hands from my shoulders, leaving a warm imprint behind. She paced to the fireplace and turned to look at me. Even standing as tall and straight as a young tree, she barely came up to the bottom of the mantel.
“I want you to make your own choices. I want you to be free. I don’t want you to be owned by a Queen simply because she thinks everyone and everything is hers to command.”
She had a point. Did I want to spend my life ordered around by Cerise, even if it meant marrying Nick? Did I even want to marry Nick? Marriage at all terrified me – I was 16, for heaven’s sake!
Gran suddenly clapped her hands together in determination and pursed her lips.
“Well, no help for it. This just accelerates the timeline. I’d hoped for another year or two – you’re still young. But, we do what we must.”
“What do you need me to do, Gran?” I asked, feeling a tiny bit of her steel creep into my spine.
“No, no, KC, it’s okay. You go riding with Nick, act completely the same, at least for today. I need to send a few messages, figure a few things out. There’s the ball tonight anyway; nothing will happen at least until morning. I can have word back from some friends by then, and we’ll have a better idea what to do.”
Gran’s eyes softened as she looked at me.
“Take one more day, child, as a child. There’ll be plenty for you to do soon.”
Raising her hands in a shooing motion, she added lightly, “Now, scat. Be off with you. I’ve things to do and the charming Prince is waiting.”
I stood, walked the three steps to the fireplace (it was a small room!), and planted a kiss on Gran’s soft, wrinkled cheek.
“I love you Gran,” I told her firmly. “More than anything.”
She tapped my cheek lightly. “Me too, child. Me too.”
Within moments, I was down the castle stairs and outside. I gasped as the cold air hit, and leaned for a moment against the castle wall. The grey stone felt rough and bracing. The castle lay directly along the river; I could just hear it above the pounding of my heart. A river gate in fact lay not far from our end of the castle, opening directly into the dungeons.
I had always thought that change happened slowly – that tomorrow would always look pretty much like the day before and the day before that. I guess I thought I’d help Gran, study with Nick and roam the hallways forever. But apparently, sometimes change comes in an instant, or a few hours. You do something that can’t be undone, or learn something that you can’t ever forget. Everything changes.
The cold is what pulled me upright. Our rooms might have been a little chilly, but leaning on the stones outside was like having ice pressed against my skin. I sighed and squared my shoulders. Gran wanted me to act like normal. I could do that for Gran.
The temperature felt better as soon as I walked out from under the shade of the giant tree that stood between the castle and the stables. The November sun was bright and the air clear. Feeling buoyed by the warmth of the sun, I picked up my pace and was at the barn within a few moments.
Nick stood just outside, looking around with a strangely irritated expression. When he caught sight of me, though, his face brightened. He raked his long fingers through his thick, tousled hair and called out,
“Thought for a little while there you’d stood me up! I was gonna give you another half hour and then invite that Duchess’s daughter to go riding! Or perhaps the heiress to Lord What’s-His-Name!”
“Oh, pipe down,” I called back with what I hoped was my normal friendly teasing tone. “First off, neither of those silly things can ride worth a damn. Second, you know perfectly well that anytime I say to meet somewhere, I mean to be there an hour later than planned – just show up late yourself!”
Nick laughed at that and reached to swing open the stable door.
“I did, KC, I did. You’re over an hour and a half late.”
“Ooops,” I replied, feeling honestly chagrined. I hadn’t meant to be that late. It had been sweet of him to wait. I glanced at his riding costume, which was the twin to my own, except that his black riding coat was trimmed in gold braid at the cuffs and collar. He looked great – tall, lean, graceful. Something was missing though…
“Hey, where’s your hunting gear?”
Nick looked back at me like he didn’t quite understand what I was asking.
“Your falcon, Percy? Your bow? Even a slingshot?”
“Oh, that,” Nick said offhandedly. “You said you didn’t want to go hunting. I can do it another time. I’ve other plans for today.”
He shrugged, “Besides, there’s supposed to be some training exercise for the Queen’s guard in the forest today so all the animals will be scared off anyway.” He grinned then and added, “And most importantly, I don’t want you and Percy to spend the whole day chatting. I hate feeling like the third wheel between my girl and a bird.”
My hands and cheeks felt a little warm at that. His girl? Third wheel? Not my fault he couldn’t talk to animals – it’s a witch thing, or half-witch in my case – but I never would have thought he was… jealous.
I kept my mouth shut though as I followed Nick into the stable. Maybe I was getting smarter. Our regular rides, Callowen and Finola, were waiting for us, saddled up by the stable boys and ready to go. Though Finola seemed a little put out, shaking her gray tail and flicking her dappled flanks as if swarmed by non-existent flies.
“KC,” she neighed, “little late even for you isn’t it? I’ve been wearing this saddle for over an hour. Let’s go!”
“Sorry, Fin,” I replied, rubbing my hand gently down her silken muzzle. “Gran wanted to talk.”
At this, Fin made a soft whicker and rubbed her nose into my hand. She liked Gran. I was forgiven.
Mindful of Nick’s odd talk about feeling left out, I swung up onto Fin’s broad dappled back with only a nod to Cal. Cal graced me with a regal nod in reply, shaking his shiny black mane. He was a true, proud warhorse.
Nick was ready to go moments after me. I looked over to him, lightly holding Fin’s reins.
“So, where to? Since we’re not hunting, where do you want to go?”
Nick leaned forward over Cal’s elegant black ear and whispered into it. Nick couldn’t understand horses when they talked to him, but I’d told him again and again that Cal could understand HIM perfectly well. Then Nick sat up as Cal flashed his teeth in a horsey grin.
“It’s a surprise,” Nick said. “Cal knows the way. Just follow him!”
At this, Nick gave the signal for the stable boys to open the doors again and lightly tapped Cal with his heels.
“Try to keep up!” he called as he and Cal burst out of the stable. Finola whickered a horsey laugh and followed at a canter.
Fin was no war horse – in fact, she was a little round and squat – but she had legs! We flew across the brown grass to the path through the forest only a few yards behind Cal and Nick.
I also think Cal was very consciously running no faster than Fin could keep it. They’re kinda an item. I kept my head low, right between Fin’s ears to help her hold speed, and, quite frankly, because I didn’t want to get knocked on the head by a tree branch.
The trees had nearly overgrown the path; only Cal and Fin’s surefootedness kept us safe as they raced along. The trees were mostly bare, stretching skeletal limbs over the path like they were frozen in some sort of grisly yawn. It took a few hundred yards before I realized where we were, which path we were on, and of course by that point we were deep into the woods.
We were riding towards the Summer Road. The road that directly connected the two kingdoms. It had been well-traveled at one point, clear and wide enough for two carts to pass each other. But that was before the borders closed. Now, with the cold peace under the Red Queen and poor, mad Arthur (Dad…?), nature had taken over and reclaimed the road as her own.
I was just about to shout ahead to Cal and Nick to ask where on earth were we going when I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my right eye.
It was only a rustling in the trees, and I would have dismissed it as some small critter – a fox, perhaps – except for one thing.
The rustle was keeping pace with us, running as fast as a warhorse.
And then the rustle grew louder, like a heavy wind was whipping through the trees, except the air was still. The entire forest rippled with the surge of movement through it.
I sat up in the saddle, ignoring the possibility of a concussion, and searched the motion for some detail that would tell me what was causing it.
Black fur flashed. A long muzzle poked through the branches for a split second, followed by a huge head with glaring yellow eyes and an open, toothy mouth. Then it was gone, leaving a glistening trail of saliva that hung in the air for a moment before dropping onto the ground like rain. It was followed by a flurry of brown fur streaking behind it; none of the other, smaller creatures were visible through the trees but from the surge of movement, I guessed that there were at least 20 of them.
Wolves. Big, possibly bad, wolves.
I shuddered and folded over Fin as far as I could, pressing my chest to her neck, my breath hot and ragged.
“Let’s see if we can put the pressure on Cal, shall we?” I asked.
She was breathing hard also. Through her sharp panting she made a short, sour neigh that told me she knew perfectly well that we were running alongside a pack of wolves and she was going as fast as she could. It wasn’t a polite sound. I shut up again – getting smarter all the time – and just stayed low as Fin ran.
After about forty-five minutes of hard running, Cal pulled up abruptly. Fin almost ended up nose to rump with him, and peeled back, eyes wide.
“Sorry about that,” Nick called over his shoulder. “But we need to turn off the trail here to get where we going. It’s not far now, but it’ll be a little slower going cross country.”
For a second I feared Nick would take the right turn off the path. The rustles flanking us had died down, and I hadn’t seen even a flicker of fur in almost fifteen minutes – which was honestly far too recently for me – but I still didn’t want to get any closer to that wolf pack. Fortunately, Nick and Cal turned left, delicately stepping down the slight incline of the path into the deeper forest. As we went further from the trail, the trees transitioned from dry, brown dead things into patches of evergreens clustered in small green clumps.
With the running wolf pack far away from us (I hoped!), it was now eerily quiet. Not a rabbit or even a starling. I guessed that the animals were all in hiding, what with a bunch of wolves running around the forest. Nick had said there wouldn’t be any animals around, because of a… Queen’s Guard training exercise.
I felt cold and a little sick. I had to ask Nick about this.
But he was too far ahead for any real conversation, and the evergreens were coming in thicker and thicker. I nestled close in to Fin’s back and let her negotiate the undergrowth while I kept my head down and eyes closed. So, I had no idea we’d reached our destination until Fin stopped and I heard Nick slide off Cal’s back.
“We’re here, sleepyhead!” he called, sounding exceptionally pleased with himself.
“Where’s here?” I asked, raising my head and looking around. It was beautiful – a small waterfall ran down a stony cliff before us, creating a large pond surrounded by emerald evergreens.
I answered my own question. “Well, wherever it is, it’s absolutely gorgeous.” Then I considered, “Bit cold for a picnic outside though, isn’t it?”
Nick shrugged, still looking pleased. “That’s the rest of the surprise.” He moved on briskly, “Now, let’s just unsaddle the horses. Let them roam around for a bit while we go on ahead.”
I raised one eyebrow at him quizzically. It’s a satisfying talent.
Nick was used to it, though, and continued on unfazed, “I’ll grab the saddlebags with the food off of Cal’s gear if you can just take care of Finola.”
I raised the other eyebrow and then gave up.
“Sure,” I conceded, “No problem.”
Swinging off Fin, I unstrapped the saddle and bridle, setting them down under an especially large pine tree. Fin shook her gray mane in delight at being free and gamboled like a filly to the pond for a long drink. By the time I was done with this, Nick stood beside me. He tossed a black leather saddle bag stamped with his coat of arms in gold easily over his shoulder.
“Follow me,” was all he said, before beginning to navigate the perimeter of the pond as it arced towards the waterfall. I trotted after him, mindful of the rocks and roots. We reached the waterfall after a few minutes of silent walking.
Once we were directly beside the cascading diamond drops, Nick stopped, turned, and took my hand.
“This last bit is a little slippery. Let me help you.”
I almost tartly replied I could handle anything he could before I was distracted by the warmth of his hand in mine. Again, I shut up – I’m not too sure if it was wisdom in this particular case.
But I let him lead me behind the fall along a slick stone path, the rush of the water moving steadily behind us as we went deeper into the cliff side.
We emerged into a dry, open cave. At the center of the cave a ring of stones circled a pile of branches, as if waiting for a spark. The sides of the cave canted steeply, soaring from just above Nick’s head at the entrance of the cave to a cathedral-high pinnacle centered over the wood waiting for fire.
Looking further, I could see that some yards past the stone circle, the cave narrowed again, stalagmites and stalactites gnashing like the teeth of a closing mouth. Long, like the muzzle of an animal. I thought of the sharp teeth on the black wolf.
Nick stood a few feet inside the cave, facing me.
“Whatcha think? Pretty neat, hunh?”
“It’s amazing,” I said honestly, walking towards him. “Truly. How did you find this place?”
With satisfaction, Nick replied, “Brother Algernon, actually. We got to talking the other day when you were even later to class than he was. He told me about this series of caves that shifters used to use when they were in hiding, before the reservation system. I checked it out and knew it’d be perfect.”
I didn’t ask ‘Perfect for what?’ Instead, with my thoughts still on fierce white teeth and a bright red tongue, I asked,
“Shifters. I wanted to ask you about that. Did you see those wolves running alongside us, back on the main path?”
There was no way Nick could have missed them. And there was no way his horse, Cal, could have EVER missed them. Nick shrugged though, and knelt down next to the pile of branches, busying himself with a flint.
“It did seem there was some action in the woods today. Didn’t really see what it was.”
I walked up to him, and crouched next to him, resting a hand on his shoulder to get his attention.
“Were they regular wolves, or weren’t they?”
He sighed, and shifted so he was facing me. The fire began to crackle behind him.
“You’ve seen the new Queen’s Guard.”
It was a statement, not a question. He held my gaze and continued, “Not everyone recognizes them. I’m not surprised you did – I forget sometimes that you are your Gran’s child, when it comes down to it. She knew right away when the Queen brought the shifters in.”
I remembered the fierce, almost feral guards in the center of the castle.
“Yes, I saw them. I thought it was just a rumor, but they seemed… different.”
“They are different,” Nick said seriously. He reached out and took both my hands in his. “They are closer to animals than humans. They’re ferocious, excellent fighters, as you’d expect, but be keep away from them. Okay, KC?”
He squeezed my hands at this, and leaned closer, eyes solemn. I wriggled my hands slightly in his, but didn’t back away. His eyes were a bottomless brown with sweeping lashes. Darn boys with amazing lashes. I couldn’t look away.
“They’re being trained though, and taking to the discipline surprisingly well, considering. They’ll be special guards specifically dedicated to the Queen. It’s good for them, really. Gets some of the young ones off the reservation and into society. Gives them a chance to learn to be more human.”
He cleared his throat. “Though, talking about them isn’t why I wanted to come here.
Then I felt his fingers moving in mine, curling them around a small metal object. I felt it inquisitively, still staring into Nick’s eyes. The object was round, with a hole in the middle, and an engraved top… Nick’s ring. His signet ring.
I sprang up to standing and dropped the ring like it was a hot coal.
Nick stood up easily and picked up the ring. He stepped closer to me again. I didn’t move away.
“It’s for you,” he said simply, holding the ring out again. It glinted yellow in the firelight. “It’s always been for you.”
“What do you mean?” I squeaked, frozen.
“This ball, tonight, it doesn’t mean anything. The girls, the court ladies, whatever, they don’t mean anything. I want you, KC. Just you.”
My mouth was dry and my hands shook. It felt like I couldn’t get any air. He placed the ring in my fingers again, cupping my cheek with his other hand.
“I know it’ll be a little while, that you’re still just 16. But consider it a promise for the future.”
He looked nervous suddenly. Perhaps he could feel my hand shaking in his, or how cold my cheek was.
“If that’s what you want?” he asked, suddenly tentative.
“But… but… it’s impossible,” I stammered. “I’m not someone who can marry a Prince. You know that. The Queen will never allow it. Don’t be ridiculous.”
In the depths of my mind flashed the silver brush, the Summer King’s coat of arms. The possibility that I could be someone able to marry a Prince. Marry my Prince.
“I’d have to marry beneath me anyway – you see that, right? There’s no Princess. Why shouldn’t I marry someone I care for, if I’m marrying down anyway?”
Nick spoke sincerely, running his thumb along the apple of my cheek, sliding his fingers into my hair. The words stung, but I couldn’t think with him so close.
With a slow tilt, Nick pressed his mouth onto mine. His lips were full, soft, magnetic. I surged into the moment, moving closer to him. Nick wrapped both arms around me and drew me right up against him. I slid one hand up his back, wiry under the wool riding coat. The other rested on his hip. I kept hold of his ring as we kissed.
I still had it when he dropped me off some hours later. The ring was far too big for my fingers, and, more importantly, I hadn’t said yes yet. But Nick wanted me to keep it, so I strung it on the green ribbon Gran had tied in my hair that morning and wore it under my shirt against my heart.
I let my hair fly freely behind me as we rode back. No sign of wolves, which I was grateful for – it was nearly dark by the time we made it back to the stables.
We handed Cal and Fin off to the stable boys. Nick walked with me all the way to the large tree at our end of the castle.
“I need to stop by and pick up my suit for tonight from the seamstress,” he said. “Maggie couldn’t get to it until she’d finished alterations for the Queen’s dress. She wants to fit it to me one last time before the big event.”
Nick said this with a tinge of excitement that stuck me like a dagger.
“Yes. I see. Have a wonderful time at the ball tonight,” I said a little coldly, heading for the door.
He caught me and swung me into his arms.
“Sneak out,” he whispered in my ear, holding me tightly. “Pretend to be one of the maids, or a footman, if you prefer. Come dance with me.”
“Are you nuts?” I said, pulling back. “That’s impossible.”
He drew me in again, wrapping one hand around my waist and clasping my hand with the other. He waltzed with me under the tree, light and aristocratic even in his riding boots, finally concluding with a sweeping dip. He kissed my neck as I draped over his arms, hair trailing into the dirt. Gran would be thrilled with me showing up with grit in my hair.
Setting me upright, Nick swept a bow over my hand.
“I beg a dance, on this the day of my birth,” he extolled with exaggerated courtliness. “Meet me at the fountain at midnight, just outside the main ballroom. I shall pine away if my lady neglects me on this most important evening.”
There was a crack of vulnerability behind his confident tone. I had a flash of memory – Nick and I dancing through the fountain when I was ten and he was 12, stomping soaking wet back through the castle, dripping on the priceless rugs. We’d both been punished for that; Gran had made me read an entire book on the medicinal uses of river plants and write an essay on it. Nick never really said how he was punished, but he had bruises for weeks. I couldn’t imagine the Queen striking him (I think?). She must have had one of her guards.
I couldn’t turn that boy down.
“Midnight. By the fountain. I’ll be the one in the nightgown,” I said. He swirled me into a turn and kissed me as he wound me towards him. We stood for a moment, entwined, Nick’s chin resting on the top of my head.
He said, still holding me,
“Hey, what’s your Gran up to tonight?”
I let my head rest on his chest. I could hear the thick thump of his heart.
“I don’t know. It’s Gran. Could be anything. Why do you ask?” I answered.
“Well, because she’s tossing pigeons out of her window.” Nick said, a touch of humor warm in his voice.
I drew back and looked up. Sure enough, there was Gran – leaning out our window and setting a pigeon loose with a toss and a flick of her wrist. It flapped noisily through the branches of the tree above us. I remembered what she’d said, about getting in touch with her friends. I remembered why it was important. I didn’t tell Nick.
“Oh, I expect she’s just requesting ingredients. Or new spells. She corresponds with everyone, you know.” I told him lightly. “Elders, witches, wizards… if there’s a touch of magic on someone anywhere in the kingdom, they are on Gran’s mailing list.”
Nick almost seemed willing to accept this, just noting, “Funny she doesn’t use the castle pigeons. There’s an entire aviary available for sending messages.
I didn’t explain that Gran didn’t need pigeons trained to carry rolled messages tied to their legs. Gran could just tell the pigeons what to pass on to her friends. No need for Nick to fully think through the implications of being able to talk to animals, not if he hadn’t already.
Instead, I angled my face up towards his.
“See you tonight, then?”
“I will count the minutes,” he said. He kissed my forehead, both cheeks, the tip of my nose and my chin. It felt dizzying. I pecked him back, directly on the lips, then turned and dashed into the door. I could feel his eyes on me as it swung shut.
Once inside, I leaned heavily against the door and exhaled. The metal strips that bound the wood planks together pressed coldly into my back. From across the room at the window seat, Gran eyed me thoughtfully.
“Kissing Princes is what got us into this mess in the beginning,” she said tartly.
“How did you know?” I asked, startled.
“You look just like Arabella did after a visit from Arthur,” Gran replied, turning her attention back to the pigeon she held. It was soft grey and cooed hello to me; I nodded back.
Gran brought the pigeon up level with her eyes.
“Now then, friend Colin, you have the most important mission of all tonight. Do you understand that?”
Colin nodded, eyes beady and bright.
“You’re to fly to the Summer Kingdom. Follow the river, and cross the border at night – there are eyes everywhere. And you’re to find my old friend, Laurence. He’s the Summer court’s elder. Tell him exactly what I told you. Do you understand?”
Colin angled his head one way and then the other. “I will, mistress,” he gurgled.
“Very well then. Be on your way, Colin. Fly fast and safe!” Gran leaned forward and held Colin out the window. With a flap and a flutter, he was gone, heading in the same direction down the path to the Summer Kingdom where Nick and I had just returned.
Standing up, Gran dusted her hands and focused her sharp gaze back on me.
“Now then, Katherine Cerise, whatever you and that Prince are up to, it can wait.”
“But why, Gran?” I whined, caught up still in the warm fire of his kisses. “Would it be so bad to just marry Nick? We could stay here. I would be Queen one day.”
Gran walked over to me and reached up to take my chin firmly in her hand. However small and delicate her fingers were, she had a grip like a vise.
“You can marry Nick when you are free to make the decision yourself. When you are not in Cerise’s power. When you are old enough to have seen a few things and know what you want. You will not marry him because you have no other choice.”
I nodded. Sometimes I hate it when Gran is right, which is awkward because it happens so very, very often. With a sigh, I leaned down and gave her a hug. She felt like a tiny bundle of twigs in my arms.
“I love you, Gran,” I said into the top of her silver head. “What’s the plan?”
Gran extracted herself from my hug briskly.
“The plan is that we wait. We keep our heads down until I hear back from my friends. I sent Colin and Louise. It’ll take Colin the longest, but I expect to hear back from Louise within the day.”
“Where did you send them?” I asked, curious.
Gran started to reply when a harsh pounding shook the wooden door behind me. Actually shook it – the hinges rattled. I heard muttering and then a slam, like a boot on wood. We stepped back just as the door broke open.
A Queen’s guard stepped into the room. He was huge. At least a foot taller than me, and twice as broad. The red coat he wore strained against his shoulders and chest. His face was sharp and clever, and he had soot black hair tied in a braid that fell down his back. He looked capable of violence. A lot of it. Very professional violence.
Ignoring us, he swept a bow to someone just outside the door. “Your Majesty,” he said.
The Queen glided through the door imperiously. She wore the bright crimson dress lined and trimmed in black that I had seen Natalie carrying earlier. Her shining black hair was coiled in elaborate tendrils around her face. The Queen looked amazing; all that time soaking in Gran’s herbs had done their job. She had a timeless beauty, fusing exquisite bone structure with absolute confidence. Her eyes were the only thing that belied her – they were pale grey and frozen as ice.
“Search the chamber,” was the first thing she said, almost offhandedly to the giant guardsman beside her.
Gran moved so quickly I could barely see it.
“Not so fast, Captain Wolf,” Gran said, holding up a small hand with absolute authority. “For what reason?”
The Queen smiled. It was chilling.
“My stepson Nick mentioned that you were sending pigeons. Quite possibly communicating with… undesirables, shall we say?” The Queen paused, a slow smile spreading across her beautiful face. It should have made her more attractive. It made her terrifying.
“Though, of course, I really need no reason at all, do I, Hannah? This is my house. I do with it and its inhabitants what I will.”
A storm passed over Gran’s face so quickly I was barely sure I saw it at all. Within a moment, she was calm again.
“Of course, Cerise. It is your house. Have your men do their job.”
The guard – Captain Wolf? – had paused. I had a feeling he took Gran pretty seriously and was in fact evaluating whether it would be more dangerous to defy the Queen or Gran. Smart man. But Gran waved him in and he moved forward, followed by two other guardsmen. Each of them were almost as large as the Captain himself, and had the same part-feral hungry look.
As the men began their search, the Queen instructed, “Look particularly for letters. And anything else. Look for anything that stands out. Bring it to me immediately.”
Gran glanced at the queen sideways.
“Please, Cerise, you know perfectly well I have no need for letters. Don’t insult anyone’s intelligence.”
Cerise pressed her red lips together tightly and said nothing. Gran continued conversationally,
“You do look quite good, Cerise. Considering. Not quite what you used to be, but still beautiful. Well done. You’ll be the belle of your stepson’s ball.”
Two hot red spots appeared on the Queen’s cheeks. She still said nothing. I tried not to look as the three men rattled through our stuff. The Captain had headed directly for Gran’s little area, while one of the other men went into my room and the third started shuffling through all the herbs and spell books on the large wooden table. Quite frankly, this last guy looked rather nervous about pawing through a witch’s things. Another smart man. Smart shifter, I guessed.
The shout came from Captain Wolf, as I knew it would. Gran didn’t look surprised either, just alert.
“Your Majesty, I’ve found something you should see,” the Captain said in a deep, rough voice.
With a satisfied expression, the Queen swept past us to join the Captain at the window seat. I stepped back to let her pass. Gran did not. The Queen took a step to the side to avoid her. I think Gran smiled at that, though it was so fast I couldn’t swear to it.
Captain Wolf stood in front of the window, nearly blocking it out entirely. He pointed to the silver brush that lay at the far end of the stone seat, but seemed reluctant to get too close to it. I heard the Queen’s sharp intake of breath as she strode over and reached out to pick it up, then her exclamation of pain as she dropped it.
“What witchcraft is this?” the Queen hissed, looking over her red satin shoulder at Gran.
Completely unperturbed, Gran replied, “Blood magic. Only I can touch it.”
“Nonsense,” the Queen answered sharply. “I can see perfectly well whose coat of arms this is. It’s obvious Arthur gave it to Arabella. Any blood magic is tied to her.”
At this, the Queen fixed me in the cold prison of her gaze. “Which means your lovely granddaughter can touch it. KC, come here.”
I glanced to Gran for permission. She gestured me forward almost nonchalantly while the Queen gritted her teeth. Really, one shouldn’t defer to a witch in front of a Queen, but I know perfectly well where my allegiance lies.
Now I knew I had Gran’s support, I walked forward confidently and picked the brush up.
“Show it to me,” the Queen commanded. I held the brush up and turned it side to side. It was fully dark out, but it glinted softly still in the firelight.
“I see,” the Queen said, though I wasn’t really sure if she did. “Now, what does it do?”
Gran shrugged, accompanied by a single raised eyebrow. (I get my talents honestly.)
“It gives strength,” she said easily. “But I doubt that’s something you really need more of… you’d be more interested in the mirror.”
Avaricious light bloomed behind the Queen’s eyes.
“The mirror?” she asked intensely.
“The mirror,” Gran responded calmly, “It’s a set.”
“And what, exactly, does the mirror do?” the Queen hissed.
Gran paused. It was a tiny pause; perhaps someone who didn’t know her as well as I did wouldn’t have noticed.
“It keeps you young,” Gran said softly.
The Queen was hooked.
“Bring it out. Give it to me,” she ordered, looking around the room as if the mirror was hanging somewhere and she just hadn’t noticed it before.
“I’m afraid I can’t,” Gran answered, not sounding sorry at all.
“Why not?” The Queen’s tone was dangerous.
“We left it behind, in the Summer Palace. In the Summer Kingdom, you remember – where you and Arabella served the Queen?”
Cerise eyed Gran like she wanted to slap her.
“We served Katherine. I am your Queen.”
“If you say so,” Gran answered calmly. “The point is, the mirror isn’t here.”
I felt fixed in amber, standing there holding the brush, while Gran and the Queen locked eyes. It was like watching two tornadoes meet. They stared each other down. Cerise spoke first, but she didn’t drop her gaze.
“Then I will just need to take it, shan’t I?” Her expression was as cold as her voice.
“No one but myself or my granddaughter can touch it. Feel free to try.”
The Queen turned her attention to me so quickly and ferociously that I took a step back.
“Yes, your granddaughter. KC, what’s hanging on that ribbon around your neck? I can see it at the top of your collar. Show it to me.”
Still holding the brush, I reached up and slowly dragged my improvised ribbon necklace out. Nick’s ring hung from it, a heavy drop of gold.
The Queen crossed the room like a warship at full sail. Taking hold of the ring, she tugged it none-too-gently away from me so she could look at it closely.
“The mirror will be mine,” she said with absolute confidence. “The mirror, the brush, your granddaughter. The Summer Kingdom. All mine.”
Dropping the ring so suddenly it bounced hard against my chest, the Queen pivoted to the door. She crossed our room in three long, majestic strides, red skirts swaying dangerously near a jar filled with newt eyes.
“Leave them,” she said over her shoulder to the guards. “Lock them in. I’ve a ball to attend. We will deal with them in the morning.”
The guards followed. The big one, Captain Wolf, brushed past me as he went by. He was honestly just too big for our room. He didn’t look at me though.
The Queen didn’t look back again as she floated through the door, followed by her guardsmen. All together, they looked like a flock of crimson birds of prey.
The door slammed and I heard it lock from the outside. The Queen’s voice pushed forcefully past the heavy wooden door.
“Captain, leave one of your men to guard the door. The witch and the brat go nowhere.”
I heard a non-distinct rumble in reply, then fading footsteps.
Gran was in motion the instant the door clanged shut. She moved efficiently around our crowded room. I thought at first she was tidying up, then as my brain caught up with my eyes, I realized what she was doing.
Most of the books, she threw in the fire. Just directly in. Along with some of the more powerful ingredients she had lying around – you don’t want just anyone to be brewing up stuff with batwings and belladonna. Other bits she set aside on the corner of the table. A parchment scroll joined a small bundle of healing herbs.
Without slowing down, she said briskly to me, “Now, then, KC, fetch me your mother’s old saddlebags. They’re in the box beside my bed. And if you happen to have yours here, rather than in the stables, bring those also.”
I went immediately to dig in the box filled with Gran’s clothes. At the bottom, beneath her everyday homespun and the glittering gowns she once wore in the Summer Kingdom were Arabella’s saddle bags. I touched them with some reverence – we had a few of mom’s things left, but not many. These were soft white leather, tooled with an intricate floral design.
I brought them to Gran. She started packing up the things she’d set aside. Without looking up, she instructed,
“Now then, Katherine, listen carefully. Stay in your riding clothes, but bring me your warmest dress – the green wool will do. Then, I need you to go fetch us some horses. We will leave as soon as the moon sets. It’s just a day off the full moon and far too bright out until then.”
“Far too bright out for what?” I squeaked, though I knew. I just didn’t really want to know.
“For us to leave, child. Stop playing stupid. You know perfectly well we can’t stay. That door is never opening again without a guard on the other side. I won’t live that way, and I certainly won’t have you living that way.”
I exhaled hard through my nose. There was no way I was going to dissuade Gran, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to. My mind was as unsettled as the sea in storm; turbulent thoughts of Nick, Natalie, Cook and everything and everyone I had known my entire life at war with Gran’s fixed mouth and absolute focus on saving us. When Gran is on one side though, there really is no contest at all.
“How do you want me to get out or bring the horses around? There’s a very large looking man outside the door who disagrees with us leaving anytime soon.”
“The window, of course,” Gran replied, still as if I was a five-year-old who just wasn’t very bright.
I looked at it. It was dark out; moonrise was a good hour away. I could just see the branches of the tree like fingers stretched towards us in the firelight. I assessed the distance.
“Well,” I considered, “I might be able to make the jump and climb down. I don’t quite know how we’ll get you out though.”
Gran stopped mid-toss – a priceless spell book inches from the fire – and glared at me.
“You worry about your own little rear-end, missy. I’ll take care of mine.”
This made me grin.
“Sure, Gran,” I said, “you’re the boss.”
“Don’t you ever forget it,” she replied, getting back to destroying everything we couldn’t carry.
I considered being sad about all the things destined for the flames, but decided that in the circumstances it really wasn’t worth the bother. I had a lot of other things to worry about. Instead, I headed to my little closet and pulled out the green dress I had worn during the day. Handing it to Gran, I thought for a second about whether there was anything else I really had to bring with us – anything else that mattered enough to grab while fleeing for our lives. Looking around the room, my eyes fell on the painting. Mom.
Gran had followed my gaze.
“Don’t worry, Katherine,” she said gently, “You’ll always remember what she looks like. She’s in your heart, and mine. The painting is just a thing, nothing more.”
“Right,” I swallowed, blinking back tears. I felt the heaviness of Nick’s ring around my neck. Midnight. We were supposed to meet at midnight, at the fountain.
“When do you think the moon will be down enough for us to leave?” I asked, trying to be as brisk and efficient as Gran.
“It should be low enough by two or three; it won’t fully set till dawn, and we need to be well away by then.”
“Where are we going?” I asked belatedly, too overwhelmed to have considered it before.
“To see a friend,” was all Gran said. “I think Louise should have reached her by now. She may not exactly expect us so soon, but she won’t be all that surprised either.”
Gran continued, “Now, hustle along. The stables will be busy with the ball, so you’ll need to be careful getting the horses. And I want you to have the horses in hand before you meet your Prince. Say goodbye from me, too. He’s been a good lad, considering.”
I gaped at Gran. She dropped me a quick wink, looking thirty years younger and mischievous.
“Like you weren’t going to see him tonight. I may be an old lady, but I’ve been in love.”
“I don’t know about ‘in love,’” I muttered. Dropping a kiss on Gran’s forehead, I walked up to the window. Looking out, the distance between the window seat and the tree seemed farther and a lot less certain than it had even moments before. Behind me, Gran added, “Now, shoo. Out you go. We’ve a busy night ahead.”
“Right, Gran,” I muttered. “Just throw me out the window yourself, why don’t you?” I said it very quietly, though. I suspected Gran would throw me out the window without hesitation if the situation demanded it. I heard a little “humph” behind me, which assured me that Gran had heard what I said, and was about four seconds from doing just that. With a deep breath, I bent my knees and leaped into the darkness.
Miraculously, I caught a branch within a few feet of falling. It wasn’t particularly sturdy, but enough that I could swing myself in closer to the trunk and grab a thicker section. From there, I pulled myself in as near to the trunk of the tree as I could and worked my way down, branch to branch. It took a good ten minutes and my arms were exhausted and hands scratched up by the bark by the time I reached the bottom.
When I was fully on the ground, I glanced up. I could see the white oval of Gran’s face leaning out the window and smiled up at her. She had been at least a little worried. When her face disappeared, I trotted off in the direction of the stables.
The stable boys carried lanterns rather than torches – open fire and straw aren’t a good combination – making them easy to see and avoid. The female guests who were arriving for the ball were bright spots in swooping ball gowns; the only hard people to spot were the men in dark uniforms. Conveniently, many were being escorted into the castle by members of the Queen’s Guard, resplendent in red.
I skirted the outside of the stables all the way to the back paddock. Fin and Cal tended to gravitate towards the stalls at the far end of the stables, where they could look out. I knew that Fin would come with me, but Cal… he was loyal to the Prince. And far too big for Gran to ride. After a little thought, I decided that one of the Queen’s ponies would do nicely – small enough, and, quite frankly, rarely loyal to Cerise. Cerise wasn’t known for treating her ponies well. Someone would be up for a little adventure.
I wiggled under the paddock fencing and pressed myself up against the building. Once I was in the shadow of the stables at the back, I sat and waited. That was the hardest part of the whole night, to be honest. I knew I had to see Nick, and Gran did too. I needed to have the horses ready to go before then. But stashing two saddled horses, even small ones, is no mean feat. I wanted to steal them as close to midnight as possible.
As I watched the moon rise to the pinnacle of the sky, I tried to calm myself, breathing deeply, fidgeting Nick’s ring in my hands. I may have even slipped it on a few times; it only fit my thumb and felt like it weighed at least three pounds.
At last, the stables quieted down, the moon was high enough that midnight was moments away, and it was time for me to move. I scrambled into the stables through the window into the paddock. The stable doors tended to squeak and the stable boys slept in the loft above the stalls. I didn’t really want any questions.
“Fin?” I whispered. “Fin? Where are you at?”
A quiet whinny came in reply.
“KC? What on earth are you doing up at this hour?” said Fin.
“Gran’s idea,” I said. “You up for a little ride?”
A pause. I heard a whicker from Fin, followed by one from Cal. They must have been sharing a stall that night. Fin’s answer came quickly, though.
“If your Gran wants a little moonlight ride, your Gran gets a little moonlight ride… May I suggest Leticia, the Queen’s preferred pony for Hannah’s mount? Leticia hates the Queen.”
I couldn’t help it – I giggled. It may have been a crisis, but Fin was always surprisingly clever. And had no love for the Queen herself.
I opened the stall door where Fin’s voice had emerged.
“Sorry, Cal,” I said apologetically, reaching for the saddle and tack that hung just outside. “You’d rather stay with Nick, I expect.”
“Nick would rather you stayed as well,” Cal rumbled.
“I’ll explain it to Nick,” I promised. I hoped I could.
Once Fin was saddled, I snuck up to the mid-section of the stable to find Leticia. Letty – she informed me she hated her full name and only the Queen called her that – was a beautiful young roan with a long white nose. She kicked up her heels at the thought of a midnight adventure and I shushed her. Abashed, she shook her mane.
“Take the plain saddle,” she whispered, “The fancy one hurts.”
I nodded and pulled down the plainest saddle the Queen had. It still featured gold embroidery, but at least the leather was soft and worn. With Letty ready to go, I had no choice but to risk opening the back door to the paddock. It slid creakily, and we all three waited for a breathless moment. No sound from the loft. The stable boys were sound asleep, worn out either from their day or from mead pilfered from the kitchens, or, most likely, both.
As silently as possible, we slid out the door. I left it open rather than risk the noise again. Hopefully, no stable boy would be punished too harshly. I went under the fence again while Fin and Letty leaped easily over it.
“Now, Fin, I want you and Letty to go hide under the tree. The one right by the castle. Stay close to the castle itself. I bet you can even find some grass right next to the foundation, if it hasn’t all frozen yet.”
Fin head-butted me gently in agreement and, followed by Letty, walked towards the tree I had just climbed down. I watched them go for the few moments I could still see them, then steeled myself. Time to meet the Prince. Time to say goodbye to the Prince.
I was early at the fountain, surprisingly enough, so I sat beside it, curled into a little ball, trying to be invisible. The fountain was in the main gardens at the front of the castle and I could see the light from elaborate candelabras and hear the whisk of ball gowns from the main hall. The music trickled out, reels and waltzes and cheery polkas.
I must have slept, because next thing I knew, Nick was kissing me awake. The moon had already started to set, meaning it was well after midnight. He was late. I didn’t care. Wrapping my arms around his neck sleepily, I kissed back. Then, with a start, I pulled away.
“Nick!” I hissed. “How did you slip out? It is your party and all.”
He sat down beside me and pulled me into his chest, pressing a kiss on the top of my head.
“Don’t you worry about that. The Queen thinks I’m behind a curtain with some Earl’s daughter, and the Earl’s daughter thinks I’m getting us ices. I’m glad you could get away from your Gran.”
“Oh, Gran’s not so bad,” I said, though I might have been lying. “I’m glad to see you, Nick. Are you having fun at your ball?”
“It’s deadly dull without you,” he replied quickly. “I’ve exhausted the topics of the weather, the state of the reservations and whether ribbon is preferable to lace. I have nothing left to say to anyone.” He stroked my hair, still hanging loose down my shoulders. “I like your hair down like this.” Tangling his fingers in my curls, he tilted my face up to his again.
I don’t know how long we kissed by the fountain. It was timeless – the musicians played a waltz and we swayed to our own rhythm. The thought that Nick had told the Queen about Gran sending messages floated through my mind briefly, but I let it go. This was the only time we had. Perhaps the last time we had. At last, Nick came up for air.
“KC, this will be perfect, you know that. The Queen will come around, she’s always liked you and respects your Gran. I’ll tell her tomorrow. She’ll want to know my decision from tonight. I’m so glad I’ve made one.”
I stayed silent, just twined my fingers in his and squeezed. He added, looking towards the lights from the hall, “I’d best get back though. I have to get an ice for the Earl’s daughter. I bet she’s still waiting, silly thing.”
Ignoring that, I stood up, pulling him along with me. We pressed together. The braid of his elaborately decorated red coat scratched my cheek.
“Till tomorrow,” he whispered huskily into my hair.
“Tomorrow,” I said.
When he left, I sank down for just a moment again, letting the spray from the fountains fall coldly on my face. It mingled with a few hot tears. Once I could stand, I did though, and crept resolutely to the far side of the castle to meet Gran.
The horses stood quietly nibbling the grass that grew right at the edge of the castle walls. I looked up at our window. Gran stood outlined by what light was left from our fireplace; she must have banked it before preparing to leave.
When she saw me standing at the base of the tree she flipped me a little salute and tossed the saddle bags down to me. I caught them. They were surprisingly light as I strapped them on Fin’s back. When it came down to it, I guess we didn’t have all that much that really mattered.
Nope, that’s not right. My heart pressed against chest as Gran walked out our window. I was absolutely terrified she’d miss the branch I’d caught. I think Fin and Letty were a little concerned too. They were both looking up and kicking around in the dirt as if trying to figure out where to stand to catch Gran on one of their broad backs.
But she didn’t need our concern, oh no. Gran stepped lightly out of the window directly onto a thick branch that I somehow had never seen and certainly hadn’t had the chance to grab myself. Honestly, it might have grown there just for her after a whispered request moments ago. Once standing on this branch, Gran looked down and stepped again. Another branch beneath her feet.
She walked down that tree like it was a set of stairs and smiled at me at the bottom. I just shook my head in amazement. With a finger to her lips, Gran swung up onto Letty’s back. I scrambled onto Fin’s.
Now, I’m an excellent rider in comparison to most, and a good one when compared to even the Prince. Gran looked like a tiny wrinkled centaur though. She murmured in Letty’s ear and they took off at a silent canter. Fin and I followed.
The moon was retreating fast across the sky, casting only a sliver of light across the castle grounds. We streaked across the open space into the cover of the forest within moments. We were several hundred yards down the same path that Nick and I had ridden before Gran slowed Letty to a steady trot. Still, she didn’t speak and neither did I.
We continued heading south down the path to the Summer Kingdom. The animals were out tonight, and I could hear the chirps and greetings from Gran’s feathered and four-footed acquaintances as we passed. She occasionally acknowledged them with a queenly wave of her hand. I stayed focused on keeping up.
By dawn, we were well past the point where Nick and I had broken off to find the waterfall, and deep into the thickest part of the woods. The path was barely cleared when Gran turned left off it. Letty stepped carefully and Fin followed. We made our way down to a small stream flanked by bushes and a few large boulders. I wondered if the stream came from the pond Nick and I had stopped at, then smacked the thought down.
Gran dismounted with a sigh. She sounded tired when she spoke.
“Best sleep through the main part of the day. We still have a night’s ride ahead of us to Camp Town.”
“Camp Town?” I asked. “Isn’t that the town right up against the reservations?”
“Indeed,” Gran said a little tartly. “At least you were paying attention in some of your lessons.”
I kept quiet as Gran pulled out some cheese and bread. If she was tired and cranky, it was really the best (possibly only) choice. After handing me food, she knelt by one of the large boulders. Slowly, she rubbed it with a powder from her pocket while whispering an incantation. In a few moments, it started to glow with heat. At this success, Gran leaned up against it with a sigh of relief.
“Old bones,” was all she said. I lay down next to her, warmed more by her presence than the enchanted boulder. The horses, who I’d freed from their saddles before dinner, stood nibbling the bushes and slurping from the stream as I drifted into an uneasy sleep.
We arrived at Camp Town just before dawn the next day. Riding up, the first thing that struck me was the smell. It wafted over what otherwise looked to be a relatively nice and normal town – I didn’t have a lot of experience outside the castle, but Camp Town largely consisted of tidy half-timbered houses lining a maze of cobblestone streets. A bright marketplace dominated the giant courtyard in front of a stone cathedral, watched over by grimacing gargoyles.
But the smell. It was fetid, like a barn that hasn’t been cleaned in a month, or food left out to rot for twice that long. Even the breeze off the small river that ran along the edge of town couldn’t dispel the miasma.
The market had started to wake. Merchants unfurled the banners on their shop stalls, proclaiming professions like butcher, smith, candlemaker. Gran had me tie Fin and Letty off at a hitching post right by the cathedral, just outside the bustle of the market. With a promise to the horses that I would return with apples or at least carrots, I followed Gran into the growing crowd.
Gran slipped between wagons full of goods, and around their patrons and purveyors. I could barely keep up and really only managed because the rising sun shone off the silver of Gran’s hair.
I almost ran into Gran’s back when she stopped abruptly at a stall filled with bundles of herbs and bottles of potions, presided over by a short round woman of about 40. She wore simple homespun with a dark apron covering the front of her dress. Her cheery curls were topped off by a snowy cap that only rivaled the whiteness of her smile.
Which was huge, as soon as she saw Gran. The woman rustled out from behind the counter and buried Gran in a hug, absolutely enveloping her in a rush of affection.
“Dearest Hannah!” the woman trilled. “I had not dared to hope to see you so quickly! Lovely Louise just delivered your message not a day ago.”
Gran held the woman’s embrace, like she was pulling life and strength from this kind, if excitable, stranger.
“Things came to a head faster than I expected, Eloise. It was a bit of a scramble there at the end, but we are here, and would be grateful for your hospitality.”
“But of course! Of course!” Releasing Gran, Eloise turned to me and rolled me into her arms as well. She smelled fantastic – like lavender and rosemary, sharpened by a touch of foxglove. Witch smells.
“This must be Katherine,” she cried, squeezing me hard and rocking a little side to side. “You look just like both your grandmothers. I have heard so much about you.”
When she released me, I had to catch my breath before I could subsequently catch my manners and drop her a tiny curtsey.
“Ma’am, an honor to meet you. And always an honor to be compared to Gran.”
“Yes, yes,” Eloise continued, gripping my chin in her hand and turning my face side-to-side. “Call me Eloise. I meant the Queen, though you do have a little of Hannah about you. Around the eyes perhaps. The shape. But that green color? And your hair? Pure Katherine.”
I looked at Gran and tried to not sound accusing.
“Did everyone else know who my father was but me?”
Gran huffed. “Don’t get snippy with me, child. Eloise is a good friend to us.”
Eloise laughed, a cozy deep rumbling sound that seemed to start from her neat leather shoes and travel all the way up her aproned body to shake her brown curls.
“Don’t worry about me, young Katherine. Your Gran and I go way back.” Turning to Gran, she added, “Now, would you like to rest from your journey? My cottage isn’t far from here, and I can send the boy to guide you.”
Without waiting for an answer, Eloise leaned into her own stall, narrowly avoiding a towering glass jar filled with what looked like snail shells and shouted,
“Thomas!! Come out here. Leave the herb chopping for now. I have friends you need to take home.”
Offhandedly she said over her shoulder to us, “Thomas here is an orphan. He’s apprenticing with me, though we’ve yet to discover if he has what it takes to be witch. He’s a good boy and shows great promise, though, and will get you settled.”
“Thank you, El,” Gran said, exhaustion and gratitude mingling in her voice. “A fire and a nice cup of tea would be just the thing.”
“Of course, of course!” Eloise hustled Thomas over to us as he emerged from the stall. He was no more than ten years old, though he could have been as young as eight, with bony shoulders and limbs that seemed coltishly long. He had short cropped brown hair, and a smudge of dirt on his face, just along the edge of his upturned nose.
He gave us each a quick bow. Eloise gently swatted his behind and waved us all away. “Go on now, I’ll see you after the market closes this evening, Hannah. Thomas, you’re to come right back, you hear? No dawdling on the river tormenting the ducks.”
With a bright expression, like he had just been reminded that he had the option to dawdle on the river persecuting ducks, Thomas nodded, gave me a gap-toothed grin and scampered off towards the horses.
Gran and Eloise hugged again, then Gran nudged me to follow Thomas.
“Do we need to ride, young man?” Gran asked him. He had pulled a sugar cube from somewhere on his raggedy person and was diligently feeding it to Letty. Fin was already sucking on hers, and, when I looked closer, I saw Thomas had his own sugar cube as well. I grew more impressed with Thomas’s talents – smuggling sugar to horses is something of a personal mission of mine as well, and I’d sorely neglected poor Fin.
Around the sugar cube, Thomas mumbled, “Best ride. I can ride in front. On the big one,” he added, gesturing to Fin.
“Very well,” Gran answered, seeming a little tired of riding. “We’ll ride if you’d enjoy it. KC, give Thomas here a boost and then hop on up yourself. Thomas can lead the way.”
Fixing her sharp gaze on Thomas, she asked, “Are you able to tell Finola where we’re going or do you need to tell KC and she’ll do it?”
Thomas held Gran’s gaze proudly, and he went up in my estimation again. Swallowing the sugar, he boasted, “I’ve been talking to ‘em my whole life. That’s why Mistress picked me.”
Gran reached out and ruffled what there was of Thomas’s hair. He stood almost exactly the same height as her. “Good boy. Let’s be off then.”
Thomas directed the horses through an outer ring of cobbled streets until we came directly up against the river, with the town to our left and woods to our right. Across the river, I could just see the outlines of what looked like shacks; I wondered if these were intended as hunting blinds. They seemed too small and ramshackle for full-time use, like they’d fall over if someone breathed on them too hard.
The smell grew almost overwhelming for a moment before we turned into the woods where a path ran parallel to the river. I coughed, and asked Thomas (who had up until then, been leaning far forward enough to frighten me while he carried on a mumbled conversation with Fin. The conversation seemed to delight them both, to be honest).
“Thomas, what is that smell? Is there a butcher shop, or a foundry or perhaps an abandoned barn problem in the town?”
Sitting upright fast enough he nearly hit me on the chin, Thomas answered eagerly.
“Oh, no, ma’am. That’s just the camp.”
“Camp?” I asked. “I know we’re in Camp Town, but I thought we were near the reservations.”
“That’s it, ma’am,” he said, twisting to look at me, brown eyes bright and intelligent. “’Cept it’s not a reservation. That’s not what we call it, anyway.”
“What do you call it?” I asked as Fin ambled into a large clearing. Three or four thatched cottages were scattered across it.
“We call it a prison camp, ma’am,” Thomas said matter-of-factly. “That’s what your smelling. The shifters. The ones that survived the sickness. Them were their houses, across the river. You saw ‘em just before we went in the woods.”
I gaped at him. People lived in those shacks? People lived in the middle of that stench? They were the cause of that stench? What was going on over there?
Gran was just behind us on Letty and pulled alongside us now.
“We’ll discuss this later, KC,” she informed me, as if she’d read my mind. I wouldn’t put it past her. Turning to Thomas, Gran ordered, “Now, young man, which of these charming places belongs to Eloise? I need a pot of tea and someplace to put my feet up, so hop to it!”
Eloise’s cottage was closest to the path in the clearing. Thomas did an excellent job slipping the latch (I had a feeling his previous career as an orphan had perhaps included a little light burglary), and stoking the fire. Within a half hour, Gran had settled with a sigh into a comfortable chair by the fire with her feet up on a footstool, beside an enormous pot of aromatic black tea. With a bob of his head, Thomas took off at a run towards the river. I pitied the ducks for a moment, then returned my attention to Gran.
“What’s the plan, Gran?” I asked, flopping down in the other chair that flanked the fire, reaching for a tea cup from the tiny table between us.
“Gran?” I asked, looking closely at her this time.
She was asleep. Mouth slack as a child’s, silver head nodding to her chest.
I let Gran sleep. It’d been a long few days.
Within a few days, we’d settled into a comfortable routine, snug in Eloise’s cottage. Gran shared the downstairs bedroom with Eloise. Thomas slept on a straw pallet in front of the kitchen fire. I had the whole garret loft – its steep, creaking stairs were a bit much for Eloise and even Gran looked skeptical and chose not to ascend to it. It had plain, worn furniture and a tiny window under the eaves. I considered it a paradise.
Just like in the castle, sunrise always brought the birds, and the birds always brought noise. A bunch of starlings woke me up singing in the trees outside my garret window every morning – “Good morning/happy day/everything’s going/my way.” Starlings are absolutely awful at lyrics, but they’re pretty good at a melody. This particular morning, I hummed along to tune out their terrible rhymes as I got dressed.
My hum turned into a groan as I splashed cold water on my face from the ewer on the chest of drawers. Giving up, I rattled down the ladder-like stairs to the main floor. Gran had a big cast iron pot of water boiling on the fire.
“Eloise and Thomas already leave?” I asked, pouring some of the hot water over a mix of black tea and herbs. I inhaled deeply, savoring the smell of cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric. Witches know their tea – even if the only magic this held was ginger.
“Oh, yes, lazybones, long gone. They left an hour before dawn to open the stall.”
Gran smiled as she said it, though. She was really enjoying being out of the castle. Every time she smiled, it was like twenty years dropped from her face and the sun came out. I smiled back.
“Well, best stop dawdling and hustle along, then, missy!” I teased back. “Don’t want to be late, heaven forbid! We have work to do.”
Gran had already been able to expand Eloise’s business significantly. Eloise was very talented, but still only about half Gran’s age. Which, I suspected, meant about half Gran’s power. Witch power is tied to wisdom, which is tied to knowledge (though these things are most definitely not the same). The older the witch, the better, according to Gran. Anyway, Gran now contributed a whole range of witchy concoctions, as well as some select quieter, deeper spell work to Eloise’s business, and the stall now had a line of customers stretching across the square by sunrise.
Eloise and Thomas brought about half the wares in a wagon with them to the stall for opening; our responsibility was to bring a second wagon holding enough to sell for the rest of the day after the morning rush. Gran stayed up late each night replacing whatever had sold out the previous day, and adding a few specials depending on what ingredients she had found in the forest on the walk to and from town. We walked to town every day now, leaving the horses to graze in a field along the river not far from the cottage during the day.
After swallowing down a last steaming bit of tea, I dragged our little loaded wagon out from under the cottage eaves and latched the door. Gran was already almost out of sight down the path into the woods so I walked as fast as I could, pulling the wooden wagon along behind me. It bumped on the dirt and I watched it carefully for the first hundred yards to make sure everything was lashed down tight.
Convinced our piled-up livelihood was secure, I trotted a little faster to catch up with Gran. She walked, like she did everything else, with complete focus. Not on the actual walking part. She was graceful and nimble, hopping over broken branches and bypassing divots in the dirt with an ease I envied. Rather, she was utterly focused on the plants and trees around her.
As I got closer, I could hear her murmuring to herself, like she was repeating a shopping list.
“Holly for love tokens; green moss for a tonic; bark of the evergreen to dry for prosperity powder.”
We’d be picking plants on the way back to the house, for sure. No reason to do it now on the way to the market, but it might mean that we’d leave Eloise to close the stall up so we could be back in the woods before dark.
Suddenly she stopped, stooped down and plucked something from the ground with delight. “Owl pellets! Perfect for the wisdom philter.” Turning back to me for a moment, Gran smiled again. “Can’t count on owl pellets to still be here on our way back! These are more valuable than hen’s teeth!”
Chuckling at her witch’s joke, Gran wrapped the matted mass of mouse bones and fur in her handkerchief and slid it into the pouch at her waist. It jingled with yesterday’s earnings. It had been a profitable few days.
Even with the wagon, the walk to town took only about an hour. As we approached the bustling central square, my step quickened and I drew alongside Gran. I had quickly grown to like the Camp Town market. It was the heart of the city, always filled with people, food and animals; cheerful noise rose from the stones and reverberated off the cathedral and town hall which flanked the square on either side.
The heavy, sick scent from the reservation – the prison camp, Thomas insisted – had faded the way smells do after you get used to them. I only noticed it occasionally when the wind shifted and brought the stench across the river in nauseating waves. Like just now.
I gagged, then shook my head to clear it, before giving Eloise and Thomas a wave and turning my focus to resupplying our shared stall. Eloise insisted on love potions being set to the customers’ right, wealth magic to the left, and wisdom in the middle, all of it framed with multi-colored candles. The glass bottles and jars sparkled in the morning sun, sending diamond reflections out into the square.
Finally satisfied with my work, I looked up for where Gran had got to. Eloise was helping a customer; Thomas had disappeared (possibly to pester the ducks, but most likely the local pigeons). Peering through the curtain that separated out the back of the stall from the public area, I could just make out Gran’s slight figure bent over a large piece of parchment.
Slipping through the heavy fabric, I stood behind Gran. She stayed focused on what she was doing. It appeared that she was drawing on the parchment. At one edge was a long wavy line representing a river, crossed with a few arches representing bridges. Behind the line, lay a small collection of boxes of various sizes, then a jagged range of mountains. Past their triangular outlines lay another collection of small squares, followed by a large circle.
“What’s that?” I asked, tapping on the mysterious circle.
“We’ll get to that,” Gran said. “Best focus on this first.”
With a tiny ivory finger, Gran traced the waving river line.
“The river towards the Summer Kingdom is constantly under watch, you know that. By both kingdoms. But there are other ways, if you’re willing to make the effort. See how the river separates Camp Town from the shifter camp? There’s only a few bridges. I’ve marked each of them with a X.” Moving her finger past the wavy line to the collection of boxes, Gran pointed.
“Here is the camp itself. This largest box is the main meeting house for the shifter community.”
Then, finally, she rested her fingers along the jagged mountain range.
“And this is the line of mountains that separates the Red and the Summer Kingdoms. Cross those, pass through a border town, and you’re only a half-day’s walk from the Summer Castle.” She pointed to the circle.
Just then, Eloise leaned through the thick curtain, round face a little pale.
“KC, dearie, think you could pop out in a few minutes and fetch us a wee bite? I’ve been on my feet since moon set, and could use a cuppa.”
“Sure, El,” I agreed, “I’ll pop over to the tavern in a few minutes.” Harry, the tavern owner, was a bit sweet on Eloise and always had tea and scones waiting for us by mid-morning.
“You’re a sweet girl,” Eloise said. Then, glancing at Gran and the huge map, she asked, “Did you need some ink, Hannah, for drawing on your parchment there?”
I angled my head quizzically at Eloise. Gran looked delighted.
“Umm, El, there’s drawing all over the parchment. Don’t you see the map?” I asked.
“No map or drawing at all that I can see,” Eloise said with interest. Walking through the curtain, she leaned down and sniffed at the parchment.
“Nice job, Hannah,” she exclaimed with genuine pleasure. “I’ve not seen a blood spell quite like this before.” With a shake of her head, she added, “Or rather, I’ve not not seen a blood spell like this before.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, leaning in to sniff the parchment as well. It smelled a bit like vervain and a bit like copper.
Eloise patted my shoulder. “Your Gran is a clever woman. Only her blood can see what she’s written.”
I gaped. “How did you do that?” I squeaked, impressed.
Gran shrugged, though her eyes twinkled. “Little blood in the ink, a few herbs, a phrase or two… it’s nothing much, but seemed a good idea to protect it best I could. Long as you and I can read it, that’s all we’ll need.”
“Why do you need to protect it?” I asked.
“Can’t be too careful,” Gran said, reaching her hands up in a shooing motion. “Now, then, KC, our hostess has asked a trifling favor of you. Best be on with it.”
“Yes, Gran,” I said, with a quick bob to her and Eloise. “I’ll be right back with the tea.”
Exiting through the curtain past Eloise’s round form, I saw that Thomas had returned and was presiding over the stall. The rush had died down, and he had taken a seat on one of the little stools, bare feet swinging. Reaching out, I plucked a pigeon feather from behind his ear and handed it to him with a wink. He winked back, shameless.
“Want anything from Harry’s?” I asked.
“Extra cream, please,” he replied politely, as he had every morning for the past few days.
I nodded and gave him a little wave as I headed out the side of the stall. I crossed past the booth of messenger pigeons that stood next to Eloise’s stall; a few of them did look a bit ruffled, but it appeared Thomas had done no permanent harm. With a smile to the proprietor, I kept going, across the open stone square to the tavern that lay beside the cathedral. Always best to keep the opportunity to worship and to drink in close proximity, according to Eloise.
Harry was working behind his bar, drawing pints of mead for the early crowd, but waved me amiably towards a basket at the far end. Harry had about four hairs on his head, and they all grew out of his chin. With his little round silver glasses and short stature, he looked like an elf. Dismissing that as idle fantasy – elves are a myth, unlike witches – I wiggled my fingers at him and picked up the basket. It was extra heavy. I raised an eyebrow and Harry grinned, showing his six teeth.
“Extra cream,” he called across the bar, startling an old woman who had just settled into what looked from the empties to be her third glass of mead that morning. “Sorry, Widow Thawn, didn’t mean to wake ye.” Harry apologized.
I left Harry to his customers and lugged the basket out the tavern door. For the first few yards, I was completely focused on keeping it balanced, head down. I only looked up at the sound of hoof beats. A lot of hoof beats.
When I saw the cause, I dropped the basket. Cream bled white across the cobblestones. A unit of Queen’s Guard, bright in their scarlet coats, trotted about halfway into the square before stopping at a gesture from their leader.
A dark man on a huge horse pulled hard on his reins and peeled off the group. He was so large he nearly blocked out the morning sun as he rode past. The horse’s expression was as fierce as the rider’s. The head of the Queen’s Guard, Captain Wolf, scythed directly through the milling crowd of merchants and customers. They pulled back fast from his approach, parting in a confused wave.
I shrunk back into the crowd, hunting Eloise’s stall for my Gran. She sat on a stool next to Thomas. Both of them were too short for the stools, and swung their feet in cheerful harmony.
Even from where I stood across the market, I could catch an unfamiliar facial expression flash across Gran’s beloved, wrinkled face as she looked up and saw the Captain. It might have been fear. It might have been sorrow. I couldn’t be sure.
For a moment, just a moment – a moment I will regret to the end of my days and be ashamed of for eternity – I considered running the other way. Gran’s face just threw me – I’d never seen the deep wrinkles in her chin, lips and forehead all converge into one hopeless line before. It froze my toes and made my hair stand on end. Which, frankly, as someone with curly red hair, is not necessary at all.
As soon as I realized I was making jokes to myself, I felt better, and could breathe. Thomas’s jug of cream still lay shattered on the street and the scones were way too far gone for me to care about, but at least I could do something. I could try. For Gran.
So, like an idiot, I ran at the armed men who were holding my Gran. Desperate to be terrifying, I screamed like a banshee, arms flailing and thrashing about like a complete fool. Note to self: if fighting the Queen’s Guard, have a plan, weapons, a gaggle of soldiers and preferably an entirely different option than acting like a crazy person.
Nonetheless, I sprang at the Captain of Queen’s Guard, the shifter as big as the sun with claws like daggers. I even yodeled a war cry. It was intended to be impressive. It may have dissolved in my throat like a strangled bubble.
But I did land, and I did fight. I’d never fought anyone before ever, but with a fury born from terror, I bit deep into the Captain’s neck, sinking my teeth in and tearing. Then I kicked, straight up into his crotch. I stepped onto his Achilles and sent the hard bony front of my knee into the soft squishy back of his.
It. Did. Nothing. The Captain whipped his long shining black braid around and smiled at me with long teeth – “You know I’m just messin’ around with you,” he said derisively.
Of course at that I redoubled my efforts. Biting, tearing, kicking and choking. He batted me away like a cat with a mouse. Perhaps the cat wouldn’t have smiled quite as extensively. Though perhaps it might have.
Finally, I lay hissing and huffing on the ground. The massive guardsman stood over me, literally blocking out the sun this time.
“Go to hell, mutt,” I hissed up at him.
“You first, witch,” he replied.
A complicated whistle from a few yards away stopped him. He looked down and peeled his lips back, baring his teeth.
“Seems my men have your grandmother all trussed up and ready to go. Perhaps you want to come along and care for her wounds?”
Lock up? Gran? Wounds???? None of this could be possible. Not without it being part of Gran’s plan. Right?
I sucked in a breath just deeply enough that it hurt. Able to speak, I hissed, trying desperately to carry the full power of my family in my breath: “Take me to her or you will regret you were ever born.”
The Captain sighed suddenly, bowing his long head. His nose was extended, perhaps half-shifted, delicate and querulous as a blood hound.
“I believe you. I have no desire to keep you from your grandmother, Red,” he said. “Quite the opposite. You’re coming with me too.” He said this with finality, a military man used to giving orders that were obeyed. I shrugged at that. I was neither military nor a man. I had different priorities.
“So long as I get to take care of Gran.”
“Fine,” barked the Captain. It sincerely sounded like a bark – throaty and harsh. He leaned down and scooped me up, tossing me on to the front of his saddle. I squeaked in protest, then decided that in fact this protest didn’t serve my best interests. I was upright, seated on a horse, and heading towards Gran.
“Good,” I answered firmly, wrapping my hands around the pommel. I had no idea where we were going, but if Gran was going there, so was I. Straining my eyes to look as far ahead as I could, I saw Gran’s white face, turned towards the ground. She had been tossed over the back of some guard’s horse like she was a sack of grain.
With an exhausted sigh, I leaned back against the Captain. I could feel the cold metal of his coat buttons push into the back of my head with every step. His heart was loud in my ears.
We rode out of the marketplace and out of town in the opposite direction from where Gran and I had come, towards the darkest, creepiest castle I had ever seen.
The stone building lumbered on the horizon, squat and threatening. Where the Red Queen’s castle had soared with elegant towers and turrets, this looked like a fortress. Still seated on the horse in front of Captain Wolf, we crossed a bridge over a moat to enter, and I swore I could see something swimming in its depths.
With a shudder, I looked straight ahead again. We approached a giant door, at least twice my height and wide enough that six horsemen could ride abreast through it. I’d lost sight of Gran; she and her captor must already be inside the fortress. We were the last of the pack of Guards to reach the gate, and rode through it alone directly into an open courtyard filled with armed men.
I felt hands the size of plates wrap my waist. A rough voice in my ear informed me hoarsely, “Time to get down, Red. I’ll give you a boost and one of my men will help you the rest of the way down.”
Ignoring him, I curled my hands in his horse’s mane and leaned forward, straining against his hands. “’Scuse the pull,” I muttered in the horse’s long tufted ear. Without waiting for a response, I tugged hard against the hands around my waist and sprung free off the horse like a jack-in-the-box. I didn’t exactly fall onto my behind, but I didn’t exactly not either. It was more of a flop than a fall, really.
A young, dark-haired guard amongst the crowd that surrounded me snickered and I glared at him. Boy, did I wish looks could kill. The guard did swallow hard though and turned his laugh into a poorly disguised cough.
With a shrug, the Captain slipped easily off his mount after me. Giving the horse a smack to its rump, he barked, “Go on, now, Atreus. Off to the stable with you. Tell the boy there to give you all an extra scoop of grain today – you did good.”
The horse whinnied a happy “Don’t have to tell me twice!” exclamation and trotted off. Interesting. The Captain spoke to the horse like I did – that is, like he expected an intelligible answer. Apparently, shifters had a touch of that magic too.
And, endearingly enough, the Captain nearly smiled in response to the horse’s delight. The smile pushed up against his broad cheekbones and stuck there, like it could go no further uphill. It didn’t reach his eyes and disappeared in a flash. Without looking at me, he barked,
“You, Red, follow me.”
Then he strode forward, crossed the courtyard and turned down a narrow hallway. I followed. I had to take two steps to each of his loping strides.
We went all the way down a long corridor that wound slowly down like a huge spiral ramp. At the bottom was a locked, barred door. On either side of the door were torches. Captain Wolf took a set of keys from his red coat pocket and opened the door. Then he grabbed a torch off the right side of the door and led the way through, still without saying another word to me.
The corridor we had exited had been chilly but dry and open. This one was dank, freezing cold, and smelled. I had a pretty good idea that we were close to a dungeon. The first set of barred cells confirmed it. These were large, open chambers cut into the castle. There was one on each side of the corridor and both were filled.
The masses of humanity in the cells was the source of the smell. That or the buckets of their waste that were scattered along the far wall of each cell. No one spoke. They barely moved. Perhaps just one or two twitched at all as we walked past. It was like they were hay bales made of flesh.
At the far end of the huge common cells was a final barred door. It wasn’t locked per se. It was secured with a crossbar and a long wooden latch.
Captain Wolf opened the door. I peered in. A single candle burned in Gran’s cell. Somehow through the sickening stench of death and mold, I could detect the faintest hint of Gran’s scent – herbal, fresh, smelling of the woods and open sky. I could have sworn the Captain could smell her too. He lifted his head up as we drew up to the cell bars and his nostrils fluttered.
That only lasted an instant, and he turned quickly to opening the final door. I rushed past him as soon as it swung inwards. Strangely, I felt a squeeze on my shoulder as I pushed through. Like a reminder to behave. Or a bit of sympathy. Unlikely either way. I have an active imagination.
Gran looked more shrunken than ever on a pallet in the center of the cell. Her face was dirty. No, wait, more than dirty. As I got close enough to kneel down next to her I realized her face was swollen and red, deepening towards bruised. Red blotches rose on my cheeks to match the blotches on hers. I swam in my anger, pulling strength from it. How dare they? How dare anyone lay hands on Gran?
And why did she let them? That was the next question that occurred to me. Gran is a little old lady, yes, but not just any little old lady. Guardsmen or not, it wasn’t like Gran to take whatever anyone dished out. Yet here she was, bruised, fevered and lying unconscious in a dungeon. Why did she let them do this to her?
Pushing this last question away, I reached out for Gran’s hand with both of mine. She was sleeping, or more likely unconscious. Her hand lay unresisting in mine, delicate as bird bones.
“What do you want from me?” I croaked at the Captain. He stood by the door, straight and solid as the frame itself.
“Nothing,” he said harshly. “But the Queen wants to speak with you. A bird is on the way to her now; with a fast set of horses, her carriage will be here by morning.”
For a moment he paused, and I saw again a tiny pull of a smile again in the stone of his face.
“Much faster traveling by the main road, Red. No need for the Queen to scurry like a rat through the forest on an abandoned old path.”
“You tracked us,” I said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Didn’t take us long. Whatever powers the old lady may or may not have, concealment doesn’t appear to be one of them.”
The Captain moved through the door and closed it behind him. I heard the bar and latch drop. I was getting very tired of people locking me up. With a huff, I turned my attention back to Gran. There wasn’t much I could do with water and straw, but I was determined to make her as comfortable as possible.
I dabbed water on Gran’s face, gently, and tried to dribble a little in her mouth. It trickled out immediately, slopping down her chin and pooling in the wrinkles of her neck. With a sigh, I tugged at Gran’s apron to lift a corner and dry her face.
Heavy. There was something heavy in her apron. After using my sleeve instead to wipe her face, I reached into the deep pocket that ran across the front of her plain cambric apron.
I pulled out the Summer King’s silver brush, and the long roll of the parchment map. Tears pushed hard against the back of my eyes; I pushed back. Only one escaped, dripping down onto Gran’s chin as well. I swore she shivered slightly when it touched her skin, but still she did not wake.
Setting the rolled-up map aside unopened, I gently unbound Gran’s hair until it fell in silver waves past her shoulders. I ran the brush through it lightly. If the brush gave strength, then Gran sure could use it. Though, honestly, I think the act did more for me than for her. As I brushed, I felt stronger and steadier. It might have simply been being close to Gran, though.
The night passed slowly. Gran stirred on occasion and whimpered but didn’t wake. After brushing her hair, I stashed the brush and the map under the cot and covered them in straw, then simply sat by Gran’s side holding her hand. I might have slept. I don’t think so. I didn’t look up when I eventually heard the cell door open.
I could tell it was the Queen because the velvet of her dress gave off a distinct cold rustle. Looking up, I saw Cerise looking down at me. Tiny signs of age crept along the edges of her face for the first time in my memory. A scattering of crow’s feet, a slight wattle under the chin. She looked significantly older than she had even a few days before, to be honest. The consequences of losing Gran’s magic beauty routine, perhaps?
But it was assuredly the Queen. Her straight-backed posture and graceful movements were unmistakable. She extended a long, black-gloved hand as if to help me rise. I looked at it like it was a spider and ignored it as I scrambled to my feet.
By now Captain Wolf was also in the cell, standing two steps to my left, head and knee bent in a remarkable impression of nonthreatening obedience. Not willing to give her the satisfaction, I barely bent a knee. It was more of a flicker behind my kneecap, really. The Queen let it pass, which surprised me.
Seeing Nick at the door surprised me even more. He stood tall in a plain black coat and leather riding pants. His face was expressionless as he eyes slid over me to look down at Gran, heavy brows and full mouth flat and unresponsive. The blankness chilled me.
Standing up from his obeisance, the Captain pointed at the pallet where Gran still lay unconscious.
“The girl stashed the objects under the old lady’s bed. I can smell them.” Directing the order at me, he continued. “Retrieve them, girl.”
I ignored him. Just stood there, looking at Nick.
“Get them for me, KC,” the Queen bit off sharply. With a look to the Wolf, she added, “Convince her.”
Strangely, I heard the blow a fraction of a second before the pain registered. He slapped my face a second time, and I bit my tongue. Spitting the blood at the Captain’s feet, I scowled and knelt down.
I hated turning my back to any of them, so I half-slid my arm under the pallet sideways, holding murder in my gaze as I pulled the brush and parchment out of the straw, barely feeling Gran’s weight. Nick’s face stayed frozen, a stranger’s face.
Keeping the precious pieces close to my chest, I stood, teeth gritted.
“Well, well, well,” the Queen murmured, “How convenient. Hard to believe Hannah would be this careless – to be taken with these on her.”
Her white brow furrowed, then unfolded into marble again. “Perhaps she thought them safe from any touch but yours. Fortunately, we have you as well.”
With a sweep of her arm, the Queen commanded me, “Lay out the parchment. I would read it.”
With a shrug, I spread it out on the floor in front of her.
The Queen knelt gracefully to inspect it, spine still perfectly erect and sighed.
“Blank. At least as far as I can tell. More of her magic, I expect. What do you see written on it, KC?”
“Nothing,” I answered calmly. “Just a blank sheet.”
The Queen wiggled her fingers at the Wolf. “Again, Captain,” she said casually.
This time he punched me in the stomach. I fell to my knees in front of the map, gasping.
“We can do this all day,” the Queen said, sounding bored. “Or you can tell me what is on the parchment.”
“A map,” I coughed. “I don’t know of what or where or anything,” I lied, “Just a bunch of lines.”
Looking down, I saw something else though on the parchment. Something beyond the wavy lines of the river, rugged mountains and square boxes. I saw writing in the corner. It was a tiny scrawl; even without the magic cloaking it, it’d have been hard to see. But Gran’s handwriting was a signal to me. I squinted and looked closer, masking my movement by hacking up some more blood. I was just able to read what she’d written:
‘Make it to the Summer Castle in the Summer Kingdom. You’ll be safe there.’
Leaning away from the map, I spit out the clump of blood and saliva. Conveniently, I managed to hit the Captain’s shiny black boot. I smiled up at him then, teeth bloody. His expression flashed briefly from stoic to disgusted to… intrigued?
The Queen spoke then, and I turned my grimace to her.
“Disgusting, Katherine. But no matter.” Looking to Nick, the Queen said, “Fetch ink and a quill, Prince Nicolas. I would see what’s on this map.”
With a silent bow, Nick stepped out of the cell. As he did, the Queen stepped forward towards Gran. I moved in front of her bed protectively. The Queen smiled – it was almost as gruesome as my own red grin.
“I will not harm your Gran, child,” she said. “I would have spared her this rough handling if I could have.” Over her shoulder, as she bent over Gran, she told the Captain “Your men will be disciplined for their lack of respect.”
The Captain cleared his throat.
“We never touched her, ma’am. The men swear it.”
“Oh?” The Queen asked, running her black-gloved hands along Gran’s bruised face. “Interesting.”
The Queen then stood and peeled off her gloves, quickly, one elegant finger at a time. She handed them to the Captain who let them dangle from his hand as if he was holding the shed skin of two black snakes. Bending back over Gran, the Queen stroked Gran’s face with ungloved hands, gliding down her shoulders, breast, belly, and legs all the way to her feet.
“I see,” she said, standing once more. “Apparently, this was Hannah’s choice. Her own spell to bring about unconsciousness. A bit brutal, if you ask me. Perhaps she thought if she could not speak, she could not answer to me.”
“Fortunately,” she continued coldly, “her granddaughter can. And has. And will.”
I shuddered, though I tried to hide it. My courage was coming and going in waves rough enough that I felt seasick from it.
The cell door opened and Nick stepped back in. Wordlessly, he walked up to me and pressed the ink and quill he carried into my limp hands. His hands were cold, and I could feel them shaking through the vibration of the quill. I avoided his eyes, keeping mine focused down on the dirt floor of the cell.
“Excellent timing, Nicolas,” the Queen said. “Now, KC, if you would trace over whatever map your Gran has drawn. With the regular ink, we’ll all be able to see it. And,” she added in a lower, more threatening voice, “I know every inch of my domain. And I grew up in the Summer Kingdom. I will know if you deceive me. Don’t.”
Stepping back a little so she was alongside Nick, she squeezed his hand. My head jerked back a little in surprise. Nick did not pull away. Conspiratorially, the Queen leaned a little into him and said in a loud whisper,
“I have a feeling I know what this is.”
Slowly, I did as she asked. With precision, I outlined everything I saw. Almost. I did not trace the note Gran had written me.
Once I was done, I stood and took a step away from the map. The Queen released Nick’s hand and gazed at the map.
“Of course,” she murmured, mostly to herself. “As expected.”
She went on a little louder, her voice filling the room, like she was telling a tale, “This all began when your mother met your father, you see. The Summer Prince was completely enamored of Arabella. I expect your Gran has told you that… My friend was beautiful, back then. We both were. Like the sun and the moon, with her golden hair and my dark. Your mother knew her place though.”
The Queen’s voice chilled ever so slightly. “At least, she did, for a while. Your father turned her head completely with his gifts. Jewels, clothing … yes, Arabella returned every shiny token for a long time. But still, it would have been quite overwhelming for a young girl. And he persisted, showering her with poems as well as gold.”
The Queen was almost hissing by now. The climax of her story near, she stepped closer and rested a hand low on my belly, just below where Wolf had struck me. The waves of my courage roiled and crested; I choked back vomit as she stared at me, eyes like a snake.
“He left, of course. They all do. Left her with a few trinkets and a child in her belly.”
Removing her hand, she added icily, “Of course, she died when you came along.”
I felt acid return to my throat, but clenched my jaw and lifted my chin. Now, the Queen reached up one ivory finger and stroked it down my cheek, leaving it to rest on my chin.
“But a few things of hers remain. Her mother, your Gran. That brush. The mirror,” here her eyes glinted avariciously before she finished with a harsh whisper, face inches from mine. “And she left you.”
I glared at the Queen, which frankly seemed to please her.
“Glad to see you have Queen Katherine’s fire. You’ll need it. You know what the map really shows, don’t you?”
I nodded. It showed the way to the Summer Castle from Camp Town. Where my mother met my father. Where she left the mirror. Where this all began.
“Good. You’re going to get the mirror for me. Then your Gran will break the blood spell. Both pieces will be mine.”
Nick finally spoke. “I thought…” he stammered from where he stood behind the Queen. I couldn’t see him, but his voice shook. “I thought the only way to break a blood spell was for everyone in the family to die.”
The Queen waved a hand dismissively. “Hannah will find a way around it. She’s a clever witch.”
I kept silent, knowing that the other way to break the blood spell was to melt down the pieces and lose whatever magic they held. Or didn’t hold.
Moving her thumb to meet her finger, the Queen pinched my chin hard.
“That is, if Katherine thinks she can do the job.”
I felt dizzy. Sick. Nauseous. About ten seconds from vomiting, to be honest.
So of course I told the Queen firmly,
“Not a problem. Give me a fast horse and a month and I’ll get you your magic mirror.”
I didn’t know the Queen could laugh at all, much less that hard.
It seemed rather rude given the circumstances.
I didn’t get a fast horse from the Queen, but I did get a horse. It ambled along behind Wolf and his horse Atreus like an ugly duckling following a swan. Because that’s the main thing I got from the Queen – an armed escort.
Captain Wolf seemed in fact less happy about the whole situation than I was. It was just the two of us, for speed and stealth, and we were traveling secretly through the mountains, rather than directly by river to keep the soldiers of the Summer Kingdom from knowing we were approaching. I got the feeling he would have preferred a direct assault, rather than this sneaking around. His square-jawed face was fixed in a rather grim scowl. Though considering that his resting face tended towards the terrifying, it wasn’t that big a change.
We left with just the clothes on our backs – I was in my old green dress, and sorely missing my riding gear as I straddled my little horse – and a small bundle of supplies the Lieutenant of the King’s guard had handed Wolf. Well, and one other thing.
I had already gotten up on my horse – a dappled mare whose previous career had been as a packhorse for the Queen’s Guard– when Nick came running out to the huge open courtyard at the front of the fortress. He didn’t speak, just lifted a crimson bundle up to me and pressed it into my grasp. I held it like it would bite me. He gave me a half-smile and pressed a kiss onto the top of my hand, running his thumb lightly along my wrist. I resisted kicking him, and for that, I am proud. He mouthed one word before dashing back into the castle: ‘Soon.’
What was coming soon, he didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. Instead, with a kick of my heels, I followed the Captain across the moat, riding towards Camp Town. Once we were well out of sight of the castle, I unwrapped the bundle. Inside it was a set of riding gear, just like the ones he had previously given me, except more ornate, with a flowing ruffle down the front of the shirt and tendrils of gold embroidery creeping along the hem of the black riding coat. He must have had a new set made. A set fit for a princess.
Stowing the clothes in my saddle bag, I resolved to put them on as soon as we stopped and wrapped the red cloak around me. The air was cold and even with the bright December sun, the wind bit through my simple dress and wraps. Wearing the cloak was like crawling into a warm feather bed. I stroked the intricate black needlework that decorated the front with flowers, fleur-de-lis and trailing vines. It was truly a thing of beauty. Redheads frequently don’t get to wear much red, and I loved the bright richness of the color. Made me easy to find too, in the gray and brown of winter. Considering that made me a little uneasy.
Startling me out of my reverie, Wolf barked “Try to keep up,” over his shoulder.
I pulled alongside him, pressing my little horse forward.
“Do you know the way? I’ve got the map if you need me to help.”
“I know the way to the shifter camp. I grew up there,” he growled. With that, he whispered in Atreus’s pointed ear and they took off at a trot. I swear my horse sighed as she picked up her pace.
Wolf and Atreus maintained a solid lead of several hundred meters the entire day, well out of conversation reach. We rode several miles past the town, skirting its western side then bearing east until we were moving on a trail parallel to the river going upstream with the forest on our other side. The smell of the camp wasn’t quite as overwhelming this far upriver. Unlike on the other side of the town, there were no shacks or structures at all. Just the river bank, lined with trees and reeds. I could see the outline of a ramshackle wooden bridge in the distance.
We stopped for the night just as the bridge came fully into sight. Wolf halted Atreus at a cluster of weeping willows. They retained some of their leaves despite the winter weather, dripping branches in a cascade over the riverbank.
Wolf didn’t speak, just hopped off his horse as lightly as a huge, threatening feather. He gave Atreus a smack on his sizable shining hindquarters and said,
“Thanks, Tre. Good day’s ride. Go shake it off and I’ll have your feedbag for you in a few.”
Atreus – Tre – answered in a slightly choppy rumble. “Gotta go like a warhorse. ‘Scuse me,” and ambled off into the woods some ways. I could actually hear him start to relieve himself. Embarrassed, I slid off my mount. Her name was Nala, and we’d barely introduced ourselves before I was on her back for over eight hours.
“Hi,” I said, walking up in line with her bridle. “Thank you for the ride. I’m sure that the Captain has some feed for you too. I’m afraid I don’t really have anything.”
Nala huffed at me, the dappled gray skin around her huge brown eyes rippling and followed Tre into the trees.
The Captain snickered. Truly. It was a snicker. I glared at him. He was not impressed.
“Aww, Nala will come around. It’s better than hauling gear for the Guards. Trust me, she’s thrilled to be along for the ride.”
Indifferent to any further glares that I might have in store for him, Wolf stepped under the cover of the trailing willow.
I saw only flashes of skin and fur, but what I heard turned my stomach. Wet squelching flesh punctuated by cracking bones and the pop of dislocated joints… but not a single exclamation or cry. The sweeping branches quivered, then parted.
A huge black wolf with a long muzzle stepped out from behind the curtain of the willow. His eyes rolled, and tongue lolled in a wolfy grin.
Then I recognized him – it was the huge wolf I had seen running alongside Nick and I my last day in the castle. I’d know those long teeth and golden eyes anywhere. With a gasp, I took a step back.
The wolf stepped forward, running its huge red tongue over its canines. I backed up further until I was standing smack in the center of the trail. The wolf loped closer. I could smell it’s – his – breath, hot with magic. I froze as he brushed up against my leg, trying desperately not to collapse into a weeping puddle of fear.
Then he butted me with his cauldron-sized head and yipped in a remarkably wolfy laugh before dashing into the woods with his tail swishing wildly.
I sat suddenly on the dirt path, shaking even in the warmth of my new cloak. I shook for a long time.
Fortunately, I had collected myself by the time the wolf trotted back, and had even taken the opportunity to change into the riding breeches, shirt and coat that Nick had provided. When he returned, Wolf was proudly carrying two rabbits in his massive jaws. He held them so delicately that when he dropped the little bodies at my feet, I could find no marks on them. They may have died of fright, best I can figure.
I stepped well back from the poor rabbit corpses. The Captain emerged from the shelter of the willow, rebraiding his long black hair. With one hand he gestured at the rabbits.
“Best get to skinning those. I’ll build a fire and we’ll eat.”
“I don’t think so,” I said coldly. “I’d rather starve. They had families, you know.”
“I do know,” Wolf shrugged. “Thousands of brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. More rabbits in that woods than we could eat in a year. It’s amazing, considering.”
“Considering what?” I asked, curiosity prickled.
“Once we cross the river, you won’t see game like that for miles and miles. They know not to live with a bunch of shifters. Bad for their little rabbit health. If you’re not going to eat, that’s not my problem. More rabbit for me.”
“Humph.” I grouched, stomach rumbling. “You wouldn’t happen to have a bit of cheese or something in that pack would you?”
He chuckled again; his laugh was still remarkably wolfy. “I might,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Then he turned to building a fire, pulling a skewer from the bundle his Lieutenant had handed him and generally making himself indispensable setting up our camp. Feeling at loose ends, I collected a few twigs and branches to help out.
Shortly after full dark, the fire was burning steadily and Wolf called me over to eat.
“Here,” he said gruffly, handing me a skewer of bread and cheese that he’d toasted over the fire until the cheese melted and dripped in golden orbs. My mouth watered.
I flounced over and took the skewer delicately. After considering and discarding using it as a weapon (where would I go? I seriously doubted either Tre or Nala would let me ride them without the Captain), I began to nibble at the cheese and bread. It was good. The nibble turned to a gnaw and soon I was face-deep in dinner.
When I looked up, Wolf was watching me with some amusement.
“No wonder I can’t seem to call you Lady, Red. You just aren’t one, are you?”
I swallowed and rubbed crumbs off my chin. “Highly overrated. Ladies aren’t much use.”
He smiled fully at me then, a remarkably warm lifting of his lips that sent cozy crinkles across his cheeks. Holy moly, Wolf had dimples. That may have been the single most surprising thing about the past two days.
“Fair enough. A lady’d certainly not be much use on our little errand.” He paused, then asked the question I had been dreading. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing, Red? Magic’s deep and dangerous stuff. Your Gran has the sight, the touch, the eye, whatever you want to call it. You? Not so sure about that.”
“Hmph, shows what you know,” I replied, continuing to demonstrate my remarkable qualifications as a lady of noble blood by licking my fingers.
“Gran taught me everything she knows. Says I’ve got a gift.” Which she had, and she did say I had a gift – for herbs and medicine, not witchcraft. But no reason for Wolf to know I couldn’t turn him into a toad, heat up a rock, or even spell a parchment. Best to keep him on his toes.
“Unh hunh,” Wolf replied, not convinced. I didn’t blame him. Before I could figure out a good comeback, his ears suddenly twitched. And lengthened. Then swiveled on his head like a… well, like a wolf’s.
He reached for his sword, which lay in its scabbard six inches from his hand. Drawing it he stood and moved to my side. I shrank back, startled, but he didn’t even glance at me. Facing away from the fire towards the woods, he spoke in a low, carrying growl.
“Come out. I can smell you and I can hear you. Might as well speak your piece.”
A long moment passed; I heard the call of a bird. A hunting bird. A trained hunting bird.
Nick stepped out of the woods, lit by the moonlight across the path, astride Callowen with a hunting falcon perched on his shoulder. Silently, Cal stepped delicately across the path towards the riverbank until the Prince loomed over the Captain. Wolf didn’t blink or flinch, just stood steadily, sword half-raised.
“Your Highness,” he said, without bowing.
“Captain,” Nick answered, without saluting.
They held each others’ gaze. I sighed in impatience.
“Nick, what on earth are you doing here? How could you think I’d want to talk to you after what just happened?”
Nick swung off Cal with the ease of long practice. He moved towards me and I shuffled back just as Wolf strode forward, sword lifting, like we were in a complicated dance. Nick froze and the falcon on his shoulder ruffled its wings.
“Captain, I came to speak to Katherine. You know perfectly well I intend her no harm. Leave us.”
A yellow glow flickered through Wolf’s eyes as his teeth lengthened. Then he shook his head, his canines retracted and the glow faded.
“What do I care? Talk to her all you want. We leave at dawn. Be ready.”
The Captain sheathed his sword and moved purposefully to the far side of the fire. Tossing his cloak around himself – as crimson as mine, but bearing the insignia of the Queen’s guard – he lay down and closed his eyes. Within seconds, he was snoring. Or doing a fine job of faking it.
Nick stepped closer, setting one hand on my shoulder, using the other to tilt my chin up to his. I wrenched my head out of his hands and spit at him. He ignored it, reaching for me again.
This time, I put both hands on his chest and shoved. He stepped back with a grunt of surprise.
“KC, you have to understand, all I want is to protect you. To help you. And your Gran.”
“Nice way to show it, Nick,” I spit. “You told the Queen about Gran sending those messenger pigeons. You let her take us. You let her keep Gran prisoner while she sent me away, and for what? The Queen’s vanity? How dare you try to speak to me?”
“It’s all for you, KC, I promise. For us. You do this one thing for the Queen, and we can be together. I had to follow you, had to tell you.”
His handsome face was pleading, eyes wide and dark as pools. I felt my heart soften, just a little. He was my best friend. My… Prince. Right?
Taking advantage of my momentary silence, Nick reached up for the falcon on his shoulder. The bird stepped easily onto his hand. Nick wore no gloves; the brown falcon gripped his fingers gently as a baby.
“I brought Percy for you. He’s my best falcon. He’ll keep an eye out for you, keep us in touch. Send him with messages to me. Please. I can’t lose you.”
I extended my hand tentatively. Percy stepped onto it and executed a small bobbing bow.
“A pleasure, miss,” he said in a businesslike manner. “Honored to serve.”
“Nice to see you, Percy,” I responded politely. “I think we’ve been hunting together before.”
“Indeed, miss, spectacular hunt. Caught a fox, as I recall.”
I shuddered. I remembered that hunt. I’d try to save the fox; it hadn’t gone well.
Suddenly it occurred to me to ask, “How did you find us?”
“There’s one bridge to the main part of the reservation in this part of the kingdom. The others lead to nowhere, or to… well, nowhere you’d want to go. Not hard to figure you’d be heading to it.”
“Unh hunh,” I said skeptically. But then he stepped closer and took my hands in both of his.
“Scram, Percy,” he told the bird in a friendly way. Percy hopped into the air and fluttered off into the night to a nearby tree.
“I still feel the same way, KC.”
Nick drew me near enough that I could feel the warmth radiating off his body and the brush of his breath on my face.
“You’re still the only one for me, no matter what.”
I closed my eyes. His lips brushed my forehead and slid to my ear.
“Come back to me. Please.”
I squeezed my lids shut so tight stars danced behind them. The warmth of his presence faded and I heard the clopping of iron horseshoes. When I opened my eyes, he and Cal had gone.
Wrapping myself up in the crimson cloak, I lay down beside the fire. Somehow, it wasn’t as warm as Nick had been.
Once I was tucked up as cozily as possible, I reached into the pocket tied to the front of my dress. When my fingers wrapped around the cool silver of the brush, relief washed over me in sweet waves. I traced the outline of the Summer King’s coat of arms and ran my fingers through the boar bristles. Whether it held any magic or not, touching my mother’s talisman gave me strength.
Nevertheless, I slept uneasily.
Gran woke me up, humming the same tune the dratted starlings at Eloise’s cottage did. I sighed a little at that. Powerful witch, can walk in dreams like a champ, but can’t come up with a better song?
“C’mon, Gran,” I said, “couldn’t you make it a lullaby? Maybe a nice rollicking drinking song? The starlings are terrible lyricists.”
Gran finished the verse with a trill, holding her ground like a four foot nine-inch diva.
“You really should pay more attention during our walks. I’ve told you a dozen times that starlings have particular songs in particular nests. The song that Eloise’s birds sing is entirely different from any other group of starlings. Which means that you can be certain it’s me.”
“Are any of the other nests better at lyrics? Because Eloise could move.” I smiled at her. Really, I had been hoping she’d appear, but she’d looked awfully sick in the dungeon. “I’d know you anywhere, doesn’t matter what song you sing, and you know that. But you really shouldn’t be here – you looked terrible this morning.”
In my dream, Gran stepped forward and brushed a curl out of my face. She had to stand on tiptoe to do so and it was the best thing I’d ever felt in my entire life. Or dreamt I felt, that is.
“Thank you, lovely child, compliments like that warm an old lady’s heart.” Dropping the playful sarcasm, she continued seriously. “I can’t do this often. The fever is real. As are the bruises. I’m weaker than I’ve been in a long time. But we needed to talk.”
“Gran, you weak is stronger than an army,” I replied, convincing myself more than her. Gran didn’t need convincing. She knew her own power.
“Be that as it may, KC, you’ve got yourself quite the task. You understand what you need to do?”
“Sure, no problem, of course. Just cross the border and steal a potentially worthless mirror from the Summer Kingdom. It’ll be a snap.”
Gran harrumphed. She enjoyed my sass, I was sure of it. Mostly sure of it.
“You know perfectly well that’s not the plan. Get to the Summer Kingdom. Find the king. Explain to him who you are. Never come back, KC. Do you hear me? Never.”
Gran looked down at herself suddenly. Her spirit felt just as present as she had when she first appeared, but her dream body had turned insubstantial as mist.
“I’m going to have to go.”
She reached the foggy tendril of an arm towards my cheek. I leaned my head forward to meet her touch, but it passed through my skin like a cloud.
“I love you, Katherine. Save yourself.”
Gran was gone. Wolf was shaking me awake. Time to ride.
The bridge to the shifter reservation consisted of bleached wooden beams precariously dangling over a white-water section of the river. It foamed below the slats in a dirty confusion, unforgiving.
Percy, Nick’s hawk, had flown across already and waited on a branch at the other side. I looked at the bridge skeptically; my horse paused all on her own, reluctant to set hoof on it.
“Don’t blame you a bit,” I said aloud to her. She whinnied agreement. Wolf drew up alongside me on his warhorse.
“It’ll hold, Red.”
“You first, Wolf.”
Without a backward glance, Wolf dug his heels into Atreus’s flanks and the two leapt onto the creaking planks. Tre trotted across the weathered monstrosity like a show pony, heels and nose high.
“Show off,” Nala huffed. With a slow, steady clop, my mare walked across the bridge. I closed my eyes so as not to look down, but the roar of the river beneath combined with the creaking planks unnerved me so much that my lids flew open within moments.
I could see Wolf at the far end, watching us cross with a strangely guarded expression. The sharp planes of his cheekbones seemed to almost angle downwards and his eyes were wary.
By the time we emerged safely on the far side, his features had rearranged themselves back into professional stoicism. I looked around us with interest.
This side of the river hadn’t appeared all that different before we’d crossed, but now I could see the sparseness of the trees and patchiness of the grass. The smell was stronger too – that same sick sweetness I’d caught a whiff of down by Camp Town was thick and pungent here.
Still without speaking, Wolf turned Tre and rode down a trail away from the river into the meager forest. Nala and I followed while Percy flitted through the trees. I had no idea what lay ahead; I only felt pretty sure Wolf didn’t want to take me there. And I didn’t think it was because he was worried about me. Something else worried him.
Before too long, the path through the woods opened up to a rough road. Wolf and Tre slowed down enough for Nala and I to ride alongside them. I kept feeling eyes on me, kept imagining I caught a flash of fur and teeth between the trees but no matter how quickly I turned my head, I couldn’t pin it down.
“Don’t bother, Red. This is shifter land. You’ll never see us coming here.”
He paused and the wariness lit his dark eyes again.
“The tribe I come from,” he said at last.
“Really?” I was intrigued. “So, you do have a mother? And father? How interesting.”
“I’m sorry.” I knew how that felt; unwanted sympathy warmed my chest. “That’s tough.”
“I have a sister,” he added gruffly.
“Why did she stay here?” I asked, curiosity outweighing manners. As it so frequently did in my case. I could have bitten my tongue off from the coldness of his response.
“No choice. They only took the healthy. Adrienne has… a condition. She stayed behind.”
“I’m… sorry?” I didn’t know how to soothe him, and it quite frankly was a surprise that I wanted to.
He grunted. “She takes care of the old, the young, the weak. She has her work here.” He paused and looked around, sniffing the air with his long nose. “We’re about to have company.”
He stopped abruptly and I pulled Nala to a halt.
An old man materialized in the middle of the path. I hadn’t heard him at all. Also, he was completely naked, though the gray hair that covered his chest and legs was almost thick enough to be a pelt. Almost. I looked down quickly. That didn’t really help. I looked up to the treetops where Percy sat preening his feathers. Better.
“Lucien.” The old man stood tall and proud. I had to look higher up past Percy, all the way to the clouds racing across the silver winter sky.
“Maximilian.” Wolf swung off his horse and approached the man. They scowled at each other fiercely.
The old man broke first, pulling Wolf into a hug with a deep belly laugh. I looked down in astonishment at the sound. Wolf had his arms wrapped around the naked man, pulling him close to his chest, pounding his back in that friendly-yet-violent way of men who have seen blood and love in equal measure.
“Welcome home, nephew. Have you brought your unit with you?”
“Not this time, Max. Small mission, just passing through. Your son sends his regards though – I left Simon back at the fort.” Breaking the embrace, Wolf gestured to me. “Traveling with the Lady Katherine this time.”
I bobbed my head politely, trying to keep my focus on the man’s eyes. They were dark like Wolf’s, but with a humorous flash to them. He held up an open palm to me.
“Walk as an honored guest on our lands, Lady Katherine,” he said formally. “Eat our meat safely as pack; neither hand nor paw ever raised against you.”
Wolf gave the old man a sharp look. “Kind of you, Uncle Max,” was all he said. “Appreciate the warm welcome.”
“Come,” Max said, weathered face bursting into a broad smile that showed long white teeth. His teeth looked thirty years younger than he did. “Let’s get you settled, Luke, and introduce your friend to the pack. I know Adrienne has been wild to see you since we first caught your scent last night across the river.”
Wolf led his horse and walked next to his uncle. I rode Nala slowly just behind them to their right, keeping my gaze to the trees as much as I could. Percy landed on my shoulder; I could just feel his sharp claws piercing through my thick red cloak. They felt comfortingly painful, a reminder to stay alert.
I heard murmurs of quiet conversation between the two men, but my human ears could make out nothing more than their inflections – they sounded relaxed and cheerful. Stealing a glance at Wolf’s profile, I was shocked at the difference. He looked… relaxed. At ease. The hardness in his forehead and the firm set of his lips had dissolved. He was really rather, well, breathtaking.
The road continued to broaden until finally it opened into a huge clearing dotted with shacks and filled with people. Shifters, I guessed, considering their shining teeth and various states of undress. Children ran around wearing simple loincloths at their hips even in the frigid weather. Older people were wrapped in colorful faded blankets. Only a few wore what I considered standard garb – even then, their gowns were simple homespun, and their breeches and shirts were ragged. No one wore shoes.
A dark-haired girl about my own age pushed through the cluster of children that gathered around Wolf. She was one of the few in clothing. She wore oversized leather pants held up with a frayed rope as a belt, and a threadbare white shirt. I guessed that both must have once belonged to Wolf. Upon catching sight of her, Wolf picked her up bodily and swung her feet in the air in a half-circle. She giggled and hugged him hard. A wave of strange jealousy washed coldly through me. I shoved it back. This had to be his sister, Adrienne. Right?
Holding Wolf’s hand, she approached me where I sat awkwardly on Nala.
“Ah! I thought I smelled a stranger with you. And a lady! Welcome, my dear.”
“How d’ye do?” I said, dismounting with little grace. Once down I extended a hand. “Katherine Cerise, though everyone calls me KC.”
Ignoring the hand, the girl pulled me into an embrace. I swear I heard her sniffing my hair. Figuring it was the polite thing to do, I inhaled her scent as well. She smelled like wood fires and leaves, with only a hint of the miasma of rot which hung over shifter lands.
“I’m Adrienne,” she said, still squeezing me. “Lovely to meet you. My brother has never brought a girl home before.”
I heard him clear his throat loudly.
“Lady Katherine – KC – Red – she’s my charge on this mission. We’re just passing through, heading to the mountain.”
Adrienne pulled back from me and looked wide-eyed at her brother.
“You have to be mad. Heading to the mountain? In the middle of winter?”
He shrugged. “Special mission. For the Queen.”
Adrienne turned and spit a giant globule of saliva onto the ground at the word. So did every shifter within earshot. I looked about, surprised.
“Curse her name,” Adrienne muttered like it was a response at church. Those around nodded agreement. Then, with a shake of her walnut braid, Adrienne smiled at me.
“Let’s get you settled and we’ll discuss it. Follow me. There’s someone here who’s been waiting quite excitedly for your arrival.”
I raised my eyebrows questioningly, a pit opening in my stomach. I didn’t know what I’d do if it was Nick. Adrienne just kept smiling.
“Delightful young man. Says his name is Thomas. It’s been all I could do to keep him from driving Annabelle’s messenger pigeons quite mad with his attentions.”
I smiled back with heartfelt relief. Thomas! Eloise must have sent him. I walked eagerly forward with Adrienne into the ragged crowd.
The camp consisted of scattered shacks with fire circles out front, all arranged in a large half-circle around a sizeable wooden structure. It looked more like a stable than a building, honestly, but seemed to serve as the center of the camp’s life. The huts were individualized, with patterned hanging fabric doors, and the occasional herb garden out front. I assumed these were where the shifter families lived.
It smelled of dogs when we entered, as well as a light touch of the same sickly sweet smell that hung over the camp. I guessed the animal smell was tied to the shifters themselves, but I still had no idea where the other stench originated. Adrienne led me to a small area towards the front of the long building.
There, behind a small firepit, sat an impossibly thin older woman – perhaps in her sixties, though her eyes seemed at least a hundred years old. Her face was sharp as a hatchet, and her dark hair streaked with gray. Her only clothing was a thick blanket wrapped around her. It had once been blue, but had faded to a soft blue-gray like weathered old wood.
Beside her sat Thomas, barefoot with mussed hair, poking a straw into a cage holding three messenger pigeons. He was completely absorbed in his work, looking up only when the woman greeted us. Her voice was strong and clear, whatever her age was.
“Katherine. Good to finally meet you, my dear. Call me Annabelle. For the tribe, I’m their elder but I supposed you’d call me a witch, like your Gran.” She paused and looked around, ancient eyes alert. “Your Gran said you’d be coming – where is she?”
Before I could respond, Thomas flew at me, wrapping his skinny arms around my middle and pressing his head into my stomach. Surprised, I leaned over and hugged him back. He whispered into my apron, “Eloise sent me to protect you.” My eyes misted for just a moment.
Standing up as Thomas released me, I addressed the old woman.
“It’s just me. And Captain Wolf – Lucien? I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but Gran is being held by the Queen.”
Adrienne leaned over and spit on the ground again. Thomas followed her example with great enthusiasm, if perhaps not much understanding. Annabelle just kept her bottomless dark gaze on me, her face leathery and impassive. Slowly, she nodded.
“It was only a matter of time, I suppose. The last pigeon she sent was from Camp Town and said to expect visitors. I assumed she meant herself and you, but perhaps not.”
With a wave, she beckoned me to sit. I settled in cross-legged onto the dirt floor across the fire from her. Shaking her head, she pointed to the spot on her other side. I slid over.
With a fierce grip, she caught my face in her hand and held it, staring at me, turning my head side to side to look at my profile.
“You do look just like her, child. Your other grandmother, the Summer Queen. You have her cheekbones, and of course that hair… Cerise must have suspected all along. I wonder why she decided to play her hand now?”
It hadn’t really occurred to me that perhaps the Queen had known all along. Though, it made sense – she’d suspected, just not had proof. Or hadn’t looked for proof yet. Or didn’t need the proof. That did beg the question, just like Annabelle said: Why now?
Annabelle kept speaking, so I shoved the question down in my mind, promising to return to it later.
“Have you your Gran’s skills, child?” Annabelle paused, staring hard into my eyes. “No, I’m not sure that you do. Neither did your mother. Don’t worry, you’ll find your magic. There’s all sorts; you’ll find yours. Until then,” she released my face and looked to Thomas, who had returned to his spot poking pigeons, “this young witch has potential. He’ll take care of you.”
A gruff voice echoed from behind me, near the entrance to the long building.
“I’ll protect her, Aunt Annabelle.”
Wolf approached and sat in the spot across the fire that I’d just vacated. Adrienne settled next to him, leaning into her brother. He wrapped his arm around her with careless affection. I gaped.
“We’ve a mission across the border, so we’ll be setting out to cross the mountains as soon as possible. I’d like to beat any more storms, if possible. I heard from Uncle Max that the last blizzard closed the pass for three weeks.”
Annabelle nodded, leaning forward to stare into the depths of the fire. Our little group fell silent, paying rapt attention to the elder. After a long pause, she spoke in a hollow, steady monotone, an octave lower than her previous speaking voice.
“You have four days until the next snow. Make haste to be well clear of the mountains before the storm comes. Death lingers at the peak. Be far away when it comes or it will come for you.”
Shaking her head as if to clear it, Annabelle looked up and smiled at me. What teeth she had left were long and pointy like the rest of the shifters. “I have a knack for seeing,” she offered in explanation. I nodded, impressed. Even Gran required herbs and incantations to see the future. Apparently, all Annabelle needed was a fire.
“Now then, Katherine, do you know the story of why the shifters live in camps?”
“Well, no, I guess all I remember is that shifters have always been on the reservations…” I began.
“Not reservations. Camps. Child, we once lived as humans do, scattered through the kingdom, part of the community. Until the sickness came. You would have been barely a baby when it happened. Cerise had just become Queen of the Red Kingdom. It struck the shifters in the towns first. A rotting disease, that started with deep black bruises on the belly, then turned their faces and fingers the color of coal. They lost bits of themselves, gradually at first, then more and more, until toes, nose, ears, lips, even hands spoiled like old meat and fell off. That’s when they came for us.”
Annabelle stared into the fire again. Adrienne and Wolf sat listening with quiet familiarity for the tale and even fidgety Thomas was spellbound.
“The King’s Guard rounded up all the shifters. That was before the Queen had her own guards. Those who could walk, walked. Those who could not were put in wagons or carts and taken too. If they died on the way, they were burned at the side of the road. When we crossed the river, the guard left us. They left us for years. A decade as the sickness burned through our people. It took the young, the old, it didn’t care. Finally, the deaths slowed down. Those who survived the sickness live in hiding from their own people, afraid to show their mutilated faces. They live downriver, mostly. A few are unafraid.”
Annabelle lifted her thick, silver-streaked long hair up on one side of her head. A twisted mass of blackened scar tissue stood in sharp relief where her ear had once been. Catching my eye, Adrienne extended both her legs long, calling attention to her feet. Instead of toes, she had only shriveled black stumps.
“They’re not a big deal when I’m in human form, but it’s not so helpful to be a wolf with crippled back feet and no back claws,” Adrienne said softly.
Letting her hair fall, Annabelle continued. “Many years later, the Queen came to us. She offered our strongest a chance to leave the camp, to return to the world if they would serve her. We were near starving by then, having to roam further and further away to find any game. Some chose to follow her. Like young Lucien here.”
Wolf rumbled deep in his throat. “We had to eat, Auntie.”
“I know, dear boy. You have sent everything you could back to Adrienne, and to me. We are grateful, never forget that. But we are still imprisoned here, while our young are the Queen’s weapons. You need to never forget that, Lucien.”
“I never do,” he growled.
Adrienne gave her brother a squeeze, then stood. “Speaking of starving, I could use a bite and I’m sure our guest could as well. Thomas, come help me fetch our dinner. Lucien, could you get some more wood for the fire? It’s just outside the longhouse on the southern side, same as ever.”
Thomas dashed off after Adrienne, and Wolf followed at a more measured pace, broad shoulders held stiffly.
Annabelle took my hand, gently this time.
“He doesn’t know, does he?”
“Who? Know what?”
“Lucien. He doesn’t know what you are.”
I considered. “I think he does, actually. He was the one who searched our room. He’s the one who found…. Well, he saw something.” I thought a little more. “Though, I’m not sure he cares, honestly.”
Annabelle laughed – a throaty, rough, barking sound and her face wrinkled upwards in delight.
“I’m sure he doesn’t care, as a matter of fact. Lucien wouldn’t.” She tilted her head. “That’s not a bad thing, you know, Katherine. Someone who doesn’t care what you are, but only who.”
She paused, searching my eyes.
“Can you show it to me?”
I raised my eyebrows to indicate a surprise I didn’t feel. Of course she could feel it. Feel both of Gran’s objects that I carried. As if she could read my mind, Annabelle clarified.
“The brush. The map was just a tool for your Gran to lure the Queen into sending you away. But I would like to see the brush.”
I pulled it out of the saddle bag I’d carried on Nala and held it out to her.
“Go ahead, take it. Tell me what you think.”
Annabelle pulled back a little and shook her head. She stretched a finger out towards the shining silver brush, but didn’t actually touch it.
“No child, no, no. I’ve no desire to touch it. Only Arabella’s line can, even if it weren’t… well. Never you mind. It’s enough to see it – the Summer King’s crest!” She smiled, a little sadly. “Once upon a time, I used to visit your Gran there. Before Cerise. Before the camps. It was a beautiful place.”
She shook her head, gray-streaked hair swinging well past her shoulders.
“Now, along with you, Katherine. Go find Lucien.”
This conversation gave me even more to think about. I pondered it all as Adrienne and Thomas returned with steaming bowls of soup. Wolf fed wood into the fire while we ate. The soup was thin, mostly broth. A few bits of carrot and potato floated through it, dodging my wooden spoon. There was no meat – Wolf looked distinctly disappointed.
“Hunting still bad?” he grumbled. “I can take a swing through the forest tonight if you’d like.”
Adrienne patted his arm. “There’s nothing there. Hasn’t been for ages. We get by, brother, don’t worry. From what you send back we manage to trade with the humans. There’s a monthly market at the bridge.” She smiled, showing sharp shifter teeth. “Of course, not all the humans are comfortable trading with… our sort. But we get by, we get by.”
Wolf sighed. It sounded strange – like the creaking of an unused door.
“We’ve been getting by for over a decade. It’s not enough.”
“No, brother, it’s not. But it’s enough for now.”
After dinner, Adrienne led me to a separate hut to sleep. She swept aside a heavy woolen cloth that covered the door. The hut was small, but snug and dry. A pile of straw in the corner was the only furniture, except for a small clay pot of water.
“Thomas and Lucien will be sleeping in the men’s hut. This one is just for you.” She smiled. “You’re an honored guest, KC. I just wish we had more to offer you.”
“It’s just perfect,” I said, and meant it. Spontaneously, I pulled Adrienne into a hug. She was taller than me, solid and warm. She hugged me back.
“Thank you,” I murmured into her shoulder, not quite sure what I was thanking her for.
“Anytime,” she replied. “Sleep well.”
Once she left, I wrapped myself up in my cloak. It’s lush red softness made my straw bed fit for a Queen, much less a Princess. Princess. The improbability of the word still itched my brain. Annabelle was right – there’s what I was, and who I was. Who I was hadn’t changed since I’d found out what I was, had it?
I woke to Percy hopping on my head, his claws tangled in my hair.
“Ow!” I swatted at him, sitting up. With a flutter, he was across the tiny hut, regarding me with an intent expression, soft brown feathers ruffling in agitated waves.
“Shh…” he hissed through his pointed yellow beak, “Don’t wanna wake the wolves.”
I rubbed my eyes roughly and squinted at him again. “Where did you sleep, by the way?”
“Top of a tree, of course. Nice and safe. Out of the way. Out of reach. Bitey things, wolves. Hungry bitey things.” He huffed and paced. “The Prince wouldn’t be too sure about this, no he wouldn’t you know. Slashy animals. Very violent.”
“You’re a hunting falcon, Percy. I’m not really clear on the difference.” I yawned.
“I bitey animals. Animals what are animals, you know. Not animals what are people sometimes. Or people that are people always.”
“Whatcha want, Percy?” I finally croaked out, exasperated.
“Ah, well,” he declared, hopping onto my arm. I couldn’t feel his claws through the heavy cloak, so I let him walk on it. He approached my face and angled his beak to me, eyes shining and intelligent. “I think I can help. I do. I do think I can help. With the biteys.”
“Ok. Tell me how,” I asked, playing along.
“I go look at the biteys. All the biteys. I can fly, you know.” This he declared with absolute novelty and enthusiasm.
“Yes, I know you can fly.”
“I can fly and I can go and fly and tell you. I can look at the shifters, and look at the mountains, and look at the Summer Kingdom. I can go look. And then I tell you.”
I thought about it for about three breaths.
“Brilliant,” I declared. “Yes, please, do that. It’d be very helpful.”
“And I could go see Prince Nicolas.”
My entire body stiffened – from my toes to the hair at the top of my head.
“Why? I mean – well, I mean, why?” I stammered.
“Prince want to know, you know,” Percy advised sagely. “He want to know about you. He care about you.”
I stiffened more. Quite frankly, I hadn’t thought of that way. Percy was Nick’s hunting falcon, and I knew it. But I just hadn’t expected to hear Nick’s name, or think about him at all. The very word ‘Nick’ echoed through me like a voice in an empty cavern. It rang off my ribs and my skull and made my teeth clench.
“What I need you to do…” I said slowly, unsure of Percy’s allegiance, “is to check things out and tell me what you see. Just around here. We need to know – we need to know what it’s like up in the mountains. That’s what we need to know about.”
He pulled away from me. It was a small movement, but I could tell. His feathers felt cold.
“Not that I need you to fly into the mountains – of course not. Just tell me what things are like. Around here. I don’t know, you see,” I added, partly as a ploy, and partly because I really didn’t know. The world outside the castle grounds had always been a mystery to me. A few weeks in Camp Town had only whetted my appetite. And crossing the bridge into the reservation? That was like lighting a candle in a dark cave. I’d never encountered anything like it – it pulled me forward, shadows dancing on the walls, primitive and compelling.
Percy clicked his beak at me. It sounded off the straw walls of my hut like it was smothered in velvet.
“I take a look. I do what you need, missus. I look at the biteys. I come back. I tell you.”
I felt he was promising without promising. It was good enough.
“Thank you, Percy. Please look at the… shifters. Look at the biteys. Tell me what’s around. Tell me what’s ahead. I can’t, you know. I can’t do what you do.”
Percy blinked quickly a few times, a flutter of white over deep gold.
“I look. I tell. I promise.”
With a clack of his beak and a tilt of his head, Percy flew out the cloth door. I took a deep breath as it fell shut. I didn’t know what I’d asked, exactly, or what Percy had promised. My teeth felt hard and heavy in my head, and my eyes sagged. Without a sound, I slipped sideways into sleep, my fingers wrapped around Nick’s ring. It felt warm and soft in my hand – metal shouldn’t feel that way. I disappeared into unconsciousness with my fingers wrapped around his ring.
Breakfast the next morning was sparse. That is being generous. It was something resembling tea made from local herbs – more purple than brown, to be honest – supplemented by a few tablespoons of honey.
We focused on the map as we drank tea. My map. Well – sort of. The map that Wolf pulled out of his coat and presented as mine. I knew it was missing a few key things. I didn’t mention that. I just helped them trace the lines I had drawn over Gran’s mystical, invisible etchings.
“So, this is where we are,” I declared solidly, outlining the small boxes that represented the wolf reservation… camp. The camp.
“And this is where we need to go,” Wolf added, tracing the line over the mountains into the Summer Kingdom. “Not a big deal, really… quick jaunt over the pass, cross the barrier and there we go, off into the Summer Palace.”
Adrienne, standing beside Wolf, laughed hoarsely. Thomas looked up at her for a moment, then laughed as well. I don’t think he knew why.
“Cross the mountains? In winter? Then the barrier? Are you actually, finally, insane, brother?”
Wolf turned his back to his sister. It was abrupt. Adrienne slitted her eyes at the gesture, somewhere between puzzled and furious.
“We can do it,” Wolf growled, “Not tonight. But tomorrow. We can do it.”
“The storm is coming, Luke,” Adrienne pursed her lips. “The full moon too. It’s a narrow window across the pass.”
“According to Annabelle,” Wolf declared.
His sister smirked at him, full lips quirking up towards her thick brows. Small wrinkles spread from her eyes – I suspected she was pulling from years of shared history and warm mockery of their aunt.
“Because Aunt Annabelle… she’s often mistaken.” Wolf raised a dark eyebrow back at his sister. “Often. All the time.”
“Like, never.” Adrienne countered.
“Like, never,” he replied.
“So, might as well try what she says, hunh?” Adrienne grinned.
“Might as well.”
I watched them closely. The first time I’d seen Captain Wolf, he’d been all long nose, sharp teeth, shiny fur and big ears, running alongside me and Nick in his shifter form. Now, he looked to his sister with love, and laughed alongside me. Disconcerting. Possibly even uncomfortable. I looked downward, wondering as hard as I could where Percy had gone and whether he might have flown to see Nick, despite our agreement. Somehow, I wanted the comfort of Nick – the common ground, the absolution of shared history. Reaching up, I found Nick’s ring, still on the ribbon around my neck. It felt warm from resting against my skin. I twirled the ribbon absent-mindedly.
Wolf spoke before I realized he was looking at me, and his tone was harsh again.
“Nice little bauble you’ve got there, Red. I’m sure the Prince is pleased.”
I tucked it back into the neck of my shirt.
“It’s nothing,” I replied.
“Unh hunh.” Wolf stood and folded the map. “I’d best ask Annabelle to send word to anyone she knows on the other side of the pass. There’s a free shifter town just over the mountains where we might be able to rest before pressing through the border.”
“Free shifters? Really?” I sat up, interested.
“Small group, just a few families. They keep to themselves, mostly. Never got the sickness, that I know of, never been found by the Queen. But Annabelle knows their elder; bet your Gran does too.”
Adrienne stood as well. “And I’ve got to handle a few things before we leave tomorrow. See you tonight for the change, brother.”
As she turned to go, Wolf caught her arm.
“Before ‘we’ leave? What do you mean by ‘we,’ Addy?”
“I mean, you, and me, and Thomas and KC here, Luke.”
“You’re not going.”
“Yes, I am.” She sighed. “Look, I’m not all that much help these days, even around here. Not since I lost my backclaws. Let me do this.” She added with a smile that quirked into a single dimple, “Quality brother-sister time. Think of it like that.”
Wolf glared, then softened. “I’m always grateful to have you at my back, Addy, you know that. I just worry.”
“I know. Love you for it. Now, I really do have things to settle before tonight. See you later, KC. Thomas, stay out of trouble.” With a last look to her brother, “You too, Luke, if you can.”
He smiled as she walked quickly away.
“You okay on your own for a few hours, Red?”
He paused for a second, then shrugged. “If you like.” Then he too walked away.
Thomas tugged at my sleeve.
“Now what, my lady?”
“First off, best call me KC. Second, how about we take a little walk, see what’s up around here outside this little village?”
He nodded and sprung up. I had to hurry to follow him.
We headed away from the main area of camp towards the river. Thomas had been at the camp long enough to have figured out his way around. I realized that I was finally now referring to it in my mind quite directly as a camp at the same time I figured out that Thomas had a very definite purpose for where we were going.
“Hey, Thomas, hold up a minute!” I called. The small boy slowed his pace – he’d practically been running – until I was able to come up along side him. “What’s the rush?” I panted.
He shrugged. “Nuthin’.”
“Unh hunh. Then, where are we going?”
Thomas stopped entirely and looked up at me beseechingly. I leaned down.
“Tell me quietly,” I encouraged.
“Mistress Eloise said there was something you needed to see, somewhere I needed to take you. She didn’t know if they’d let you go… it’s important.”
I nodded. “Okay, I trust you. Lead on.”
Spurred back into action, Thomas broke into a trot. We covered the ground back to the river quickly, then turned left and headed down parallel to it. The smell increased as we walked, going from mild to foul to eye-streaming. We crested a small incline and the first shack came into view.
Shack is an overstatement; the main village had shacks. These were lean-tos built from mud and sticks, barely enough to provide shelter from the elements. At least thirty, maybe as many as fifty, spread over the bare brown landscape. Nothing grew around them, not a single weed or blade of grass. A frayed blanket served as a doorway for each shack. Thomas went directly to the closest one and flung it open. I gasped.
What lay in there wasn’t human, not anymore. Not shifter either. It was a pulsing mass of swollen black flesh, punctuated by an open, drooling mouth. A basket with a hunk of bread and a small clay vessel filled with water lay next to the poor creature; it had only to turn its head to eat or drink. It didn’t bother to move to relieve itself, that much was clear.
But the thing’s excretions weren’t the source of the smell. That was coming from its flesh. I exhaled quickly and backed away, hand over my mouth. I only made it a few paces before I vomited up the brackish tea that had been breakfast. I was briefly grateful I couldn’t smell it over the spoiled meat stench coming from the shack beside me.
“Thomas, Thomas,” I struggled to ask the question I had to know as I retched, “Thomas, what is that?”
“That’s the sickness. That’s a shifter. And Mistress Eloise… she’s pretty sure the Red Queen gave it to them.”
I sank to my knees and gave up the last of the contents of my stomach. They steamed in the cold air.
We were both tired and sad and it took a lot longer for us to walk back to the village. We made it just before nightfall. Luke was frantic.
“Seriously, Red, where the hell have you been? It’s almost dark!”
“I’ve been out after dark before, you know, perfectly fine and everything. What’s the big deal?”
He let out an exasperated sigh that ended in a growl. It also somewhat started in a growl. Frankly, it was pretty much a combined growl and sigh.
“I doubt you’ve been out after dark with an entire pack of wolves roaming around the woods, just waiting for a whiff of tasty little girl.”
“I’m 16! I’m not a little girl!”
I paused. Perhaps I had missed the point.
He chuckled this time, though it also was rather close to a growl.
“Who do you think you’ve been keeping company with, Red? Chickens?”
“Oh, no, no. I got that part. But, I mean,” I gestured at the milling people around me, benignly gathering firewood, or boiling water, or… or heading off into the woods naked.
“Okay, I understand you guys change. But everyone? Tonight?”
I swear Luke rolled his eyes. He definitely flattened his lips.
“What’s the moon tonight?”
I thought for a moment. I hadn’t seen the moon the night before, since we’d been inside talking with Annabelle well before moonrise. The night we stayed at the bridge it’d been pretty bright. Moon must have been nearly…
“Full. Full moon.” I paused. “Hunh, I thought that was just a myth.”
Luke just shook his head like he was giving up on me.
“Stay in the longhouse with Thomas tonight – that’s all you have to do. Stay put. We’ll head out mid-morning, after Adrienne and I get a little sleep. Understood?”
“I’m glad Adrienne’s coming,” was all I said as I walked obediently into the longhouse. Thomas was already there, sitting by the fire looking dejected. I slid next to him.
“No way we’re staying in tonight,” I whispered in his ear. He perked up. I nodded conspiratorially. “Take a nap now; we’ll see what’s what after moonrise.” He grinned.
I couldn’t sleep. I sat and stared at the small flickers deep within the fire, thinking of what Thomas had shown me that afternoon. When Annabelle and Adrienne had shown me their scars from this disease I’d thought… well, I’m not sure what I’d thought. I’d certainly never pictured the heaving black mass of pain and stench. How had they survived that?
And how had the Red Queen caused it?
Not the actual how, so much as why? Pestilence isn’t the hardest thing for a witch to bring; Gran had talked about that. But why? Why inflict so much suffering on people that hadn’t done any harm?
Two possibilities occurred to me. One, that the Red Queen didn’t consider them people. Two, that she thought they had harmed her. Or were going to.
A third occurred to me – she thought she could use them to harm others. The shifters were strong, no question, and formidable allies or foes. But they were also difficult to control… I knew that from my few days on the road with Luke. Captain Wolf. Luke.
Thomas slept heavily while my thoughts circled like dazed moths around the fire for hours, until the light of the moon was bright enough to pierce the blanket covering the door and pour through the cracks in the wooden walls.
I leaned over and gently shook Thomas’s shoulder. He awoke in a fluid start, leaping to his feet, hands balled into fists the size of crabapples, confirming my theories on his previous career in the street urchin arts.
Silently, I gestured towards the outside. We both slipped out of the heavy blanket simultaneously; suddenly, I was caught up.
It was like being in the middle of a whitewater stream – but filled with dark fur, coursing, pulling and frothing. I stood in the midst of a running circle of bodies, full of teeth with pointed ears, strong as a rushing current, turning and turning around me.
I saw a wolf with gray hair and a withered ear, circling. She slipped by me with a wink and a slobber and I laughed. The next pushed closer. This wolf was greyish-brown, like the sand at the end of the tide. She hobbled slightly, back claws turned under, scrabbling.
Finally, a huge wolf with dark fur and shining eyes overcame me. He leaped up until I toppled over, and we tussled like puppies, squirming in the dirt, him on top, then me, then him, then me, until up and down meant nothing and we were scrabbling, slobbering, and I laughed and laughed.
I felt fur, and dirt, and soft mincing teeth. The joy buzzed through my body against the heat of his fur. I had never felt more alive.
Then they were gone, and I felt cold and alone. It was a harsh moment of awakening – the swirling fur, the energy and comfort suddenly disappeared and I was awake and bereft in the middle of the village. Silently, I crawled back to the longhouse. The fire felt cold without them, but I slept anyway.
I woke just before dawn, and only because Percy was tugging at my sleeve. He inclined his head one way, and then the other, winking towards the world outside.
I followed him outside the tent. The world was gray, with only the barest hints of dawn stretching by the horizon. Percy settled on a branch just above my head; I spoke quietly, pitched just enough to carry without waking any shifters.
“How’d it go, Percy? What do things look like out there?”
Percy paced along the branch, head bobbing side to side in agitation.
“Bad, bad, dirty, death, bad. Stinky hovels, sick shifters.”
“I know…it’s horrible. Thomas and I went to see them yyesterday. What else did you see?”
“Snow on the mountains. Cold. Wind was fierce, I couldn’t make it even halfway up.”
“Any other shifter towns? Not with sickness, just ones like this.”
“Abandoned. Gone. Smell of sickness. This only one before mountain.”
I thought about that for a moment. So few shifters left – the weak and young and old and infirm here in the town; everyone else seemed to be working for the Queen as part of her shifter guard. How many had the sickness killed?
“Thanks, Percy. You did great. Anything else?”
Percy fluttered his wings and hopped on the branch in nervousness.
“Saw the Prince,” he said in a quick trill.
I bit my lip, torn between curiosity and disgust. Curiosity won, but it was certainly well-tempered with disgust.
“What did the creep have to say?”
“Prince loves you. Prince wants you back safe. That’s what he wanted me to tell you.”
Percy shifted his lower beak side to side, like he had more to say.
“What didn’t he want you to tell me?”
The golden slitted eyes blinked once, then twice before he answered, in almost a whisper.
“Prince heartbroken. Miss you and cries. Comforted only by knowing you safe, where you are.”
Despite myself, this touched me. I had never seen Nick cry before, not even when we were kids. Then the rest of what Percy had said settled in.
“How does he know that I’m safe? How does he know where I am?”
“Mistress didn’t know? Thought Mistress knew.” Percy’s narrow feathered shoulders slid up and down a few times and he flapped the edges of his wings.
“Mistress didn’t know. But you’re going to tell me,” I reached a hand up towards his branch; he backed away.
“Ring. Ring magic. He has map of kingdom. Ring shows where you are on map.”
So that was how he’d found me earlier. I wasn’t sure if this revelation was comforting or terrifying. Bothersome, at the very least. Not that the object was magic, but that he hadn’t told me. I thought about throwing the ring away, right now, before we crossed the mountain. But if I did that, it’d tip him off. He’d know that I had learned his secret and would be suspicious – I didn’t want him or anyone else coming to check on my progress.
While we’d been talking, the shifters had started to stir. They came out of the residence huts in ones and twos, moving slowly. Except Adrienne. She bounced out of the hut she shared with Annabelle and raced to me.
“Ready to go, KC? Luke said to be ready as soon as possible, so best get your things together. I’m already packed, and made up a parcel of food for each of us. The horses will stay here – the trail is too steep and too high for them.”
I couldn’t help but smile at her excitement. “Sounds good, Addy. I’ll be ready to go in a just minute; haven’t much to pack.”
She grinned at me, an open, easy expression so different from her brother’s tight control, and bounded off.
I went back inside my little hut and looked around. Not much at all to pack. I slid Gran’s map and my dad’s brush into my apron pocket, then touched Nick’s ring around my neck. No, best to follow my plan and keep it on. Wrapping my crimson cloak around me, grateful yet again for the heavy woolen riding pants and my hunting gear, I left my little shelter behind.
Adrienne, Luke and Thomas already waited just in front of the main longhouse. Thomas wore a sturdy oiled wool jacket and hat, Luke had on his dark Guard gear and Adrienne… Adrienne had assembled a scarecrow assortment of woolen breeches, a frayed linen shirt and a worn leather coat. She wore oversized leather slippers on her feet.
“Are you… are you going to be warm enough?” I asked her quietly. She shrugged and smiled.
“I’ll be traveling as a wolf a fair amount of the time. That’ll keep me warm.”
I must have looked doubtful. Her smile shrank.
“This is the best we had. In the whole town. I borrowed from everyone. It’ll do.”
“Of course it will,” I muttered, ashamed, “of course it will. I’m sorry.”
Annabelle’s voice called out from the longhouse. “Well, are you going to stand outside all day, or are you going to take your leave like well-mannered people?”
Hmmm. I wondered how much of that exchange Annabelle had heard, but followed obediently after Luke into the dusky house.
Annabelle sat beside the fire, reduced to embers now. She stared into it nevertheless, like she could read the glowing etchings of flame that danced across the crumbling remains of last night’s wood. Shaking her long gray-streaked hair, she looked up.
“It’s dangerous, where you’re going. Prepare for the worst. It’d be best to wait, you know.”
“No,” Luke said forcefully. “Queen’s orders.”
I felt a chill. For a brief time, I’d almost forgotten where his true loyalty lay. The strange beauty of his tribe and the warmth of his family had lulled me into complacency. No more. I’d be on my guard, from the dangers of the mountain, and from him.
“Thank you, Annabelle, for the warning. I want to get back quickly for Gran, too, you know. To take care of her.”
Annabelle studied me with her bottomless black eyes.
“Consider your path, Katherine. Consider it carefully.”
I opened and closed my mouth, finding nothing to say. I didn’t think I had much in the way of paths to consider – whatever Gran said, I wasn’t going to desert her and stay in the Summer Kingdom. I had no choices, thanks to the Red Queen, except to play her game and save Gran.
Annabelle stood and moved toward Luke. She drew him into a hug; he had to bend nearly in half and even then his chin hovered well above the crown of her head. Turning to Adrienne next, Annabelle embraced her as well. Thomas then flung himself into Annabelle’s arms; she leaned down and murmured in his ear and his face turned solemn. He nodded and withdrew, stepping outside the longhouse after Luke and Adrienne.
Finally, Annabelle approached me. I let myself be folded into her strong, wiry arms. For a moment, she rested her thin cheek against mine. I could feel the sharpness of her chin as she tilted her head to whisper in my ear,
“You’re wrong, you know. You always have choices, Katherine.”
Releasing me, she gave me a sad smile. I left the longhouse in a daze.
We walked for a while in silence. The woods were softened by mist, all sound deadened as if the forest had been wrapped in cotton. I welcomed the quiet. But I couldn’t help it. Before long, I tried to talk to Thomas. The drawn look on his small urchin face was just too hard to see.
“How’re you doing?”
“Thanks for showing me around the other day. Appreciated it.”
Still, silence. He walked beside me stalwart, wrapped up in his basic wool cloak as proud as any soldier. I nudged him, trying for playful.
“So, wolf got your tongue?” I teased. Or tried to. He held stoic.
“Seriously, what is up?” I asked, exasperated. “Not a word since we left the reservation. You doing okay?”
He turned, eyes wide and on fire.
“It’s a CAMP. A death camp. And you don’t know NOTHING. You haven’t seen what Annabelle has seen!”
I stopped short, aghast. “What has Annabelle seen?”
He walked off, ignoring me.
“No, wait, really – you have to tell me! What has Annabelle seen?”
I trotted after him for a few moments. Then Luke – Captain Wolf – drew alongside me.
“Let him go. Not much point to fighting whatever’s going on there. Save your breath,” he said out of the corner of his mouth, looking towards Thomas. I glanced at the hard corner of his cheekbone and the clench of his jaw. Not much point arguing. But I tried.
“He just needs someone to talk to – I can help,” I interjected.
“He needs to be alone,” Luke responded. “Let him be.”
I gritted my teeth – hard – and exhaled. Okay. Fine. Thomas wasn’t going anywhere on the mountain and we’d have to talk sooner or later.
For a few minutes, I was able to keep pace with Luke, but I quickly fell behind. He strode ahead, eyes focused deep into the forest, alert and vigilant. I let him take the lead and fell back. Adrienne brought up the rear; I kept pace with her.
“Your Aunt Annabelle is something else,” I started, “reminds me of my Gran.”
“How do they know each other? I mean, how did they meet? Have they met?”
Nothing but a shrug. “Dunno.”
Feeling I had exhausted my conversational options yet again, I fell silent and let her fall back a few paces behind me. The woods were quiet and cold; a few evergreens broke up the brown, though the cover from the bare branches was enough to nearly block the sun. The gray of the forest seemed to last forever, impenetrable.
We finally walked out of the trees just as the sun set, lighting the looming mountains in a bloody show of crimson, pink, and orange. We made camp at the edge of the plain that stretched in front of the white-capped mountains. Adrienne quickly built a small fire while Luke stepped back into the trees. I heard the wet, bone-crushing sounds of him shifting; he returned soon after in human form carrying a scrawny looking dead squirrel by the tail, which he tossed to his sister.
“Not much out there, same as back home. Best I could do.”
“It’ll be enough,” she said. “I brought some jerky from our winter stores, and oats for porridge. We’ll make it stretch.”
Thomas sat silently by the fire, small face serious. I sat beside him, resting my hand briefly on his thin shoulder. He didn’t look up.
We ate silently – I stuck with the porridge, wondering briefly whether to discuss how Luke could talk to animals and still eat them, but discarded the thought. He was a wolf. Adrienne was a wolf. They were carnivores. And Thomas needed to get some meat on his bones to survive the trip; if that required acquiring it from the squirrel, that’s what it would take.
I slept near Thomas, even though he didn’t acknowledge me. Luke and Adrienne set up a watch – Adrienne took first shift, and slipped into the trees like Luke had to change. Her wolf strode out moments later, shaking its head with what seemed to be very wolfy pleasure. She ran around the fire three times before settling near the edge of camp. I was smiling at that when I fell asleep.
When Gran appeared in my dream, I was surprised-but-not, in the way that it is sometimes in dreams. Her skin looked thinner than parchment, and her usually silver hair was a dull gray. Even in her dream-self, she could barely stand.
“Gran! Are you okay?”
She quirked her lips slightly, amused. “I am unconscious due to my own spell and imprisoned by Cerise. Okay would be stretching it.”
“Why did you do it, Gran? Why did choose this? I don’t understand.”
Gran sighed, settling gingerly to the ground.
“She was never going to let us both go, KC. This way, I bought you a chance, and she can’t get anything from me. You can’t waste this – promise me you’ll stay in Summer Kingdom once you get there.”
I deflected. “Gran, Thomas took me just outside the main shifter village to the huts… where the sick people are. It was… pretty bad.”
“It was a terrible thing, KC, what happened to the shifters. A truly terrible thing.”
“Thomas thinks the Red Queen started the sickness. Is that possible?”
Gran stared past me into the distance, black eyes dull. “Yes, very possible. Annabelle and the other elders did their best, but the plague hurt their people very much.”
“Annabelle had a vision, Gran, while we were staying with her. She warned of a storm on the mountain, and death. All she had to do was stare in the fire. It was something to see.”
“She has a great talent for visions. More powerful than my own – it’s worth listening to her, but remember, KC, nothing is fixed.”
Gran reached a bony, wrinkled hands towards me, barely brushing my hair. “Make your choices and do your best, child.”
Then she was gone, and I slept soundly until dawn.
After a quick, unsatisfying breakfast of thin porridge, we began the trek up into the mountains, leaving behind any trace of green. Percy had already flown to return my message to his master, Nick. I had written a note for Percy to carry, since Nick couldn’t understand his speech. The little scrawl told Nick that if he could help get my Gran safe, I’d be willing to talk to him. I didn’t know how I felt about this, or whether it was what Gran would have wanted, but it was all I could do. I had no other choice. Percy would take the river route to the Summer Castle – far easier for a bird, if a bit longer. He’d meet us there in two weeks, during the new moon.
Within a few hundred feet, the world shifted to a barren stretch of rock; in a few hundred more, even the rock was left behind – buried under a staggering fall of snow and ice. The trail disappeared, and soon we were climbing amidst blocks of ice, like tumbled giants. As the sun rose, the snow softened, and I stumbled and slipped, feet breaking through the crust. Luke grabbed me under the armpits and hauled me unceremoniously up.
“Watch your step,” was all he said. Adrienne and Thomas both walked light-footed ahead of me. Adrienne and Luke both had the grace of wolves, and I speculated briefly that Thomas might be part mountain goat.
The icefall around us was eerily beautiful – like the gods had tossed huge sets of dice and just left them scattered. I tiptoed through the mounds, once reaching up to gently touch the face of one of the monoliths. It trembled under my hand.
Two steps later, an explosive roar tore through the air. One of the chunks to our left had shifted, crashing down several yards in a torrent of flying ice. I ducked, flinging myself flat on the hard, icy ground. After a few desperate moments, the block stilled, and the world grew quiet again. We continued on.
After an hour or two of climbing, I began to feel the effects of the altitude, breath shortening and head feeling light and airy. The sun danced on the crystal world around me, dazzling my eyes. Then we mounted to a level plateau on the mountain – a glacier, according to Adrienne. Here, gravel and granite returned in patches, amidst a sea of pure frozen water, fissured with cracks and crevasses. Luke called a halt before crossing.
“It’s about to get dangerous,” he said without prelude. I wondered what it had been before. He continued matter-of-factly. “Watch out for meltwater streams, hidden crevasses, and rock slides or avalanches. We’re not even halfway up yet, and we need to keep everyone intact. Pay attention to anything that feels off – your instincts may save your life. I’ll go on ahead, and you’ll follow – first Thomas, then Red, then Adrienne. Got it?”
I nodded as best I could, neck stiff and cold. Thomas just blinked with large eyes like an owl. As we slowly started forward again, I glanced up and immediately wished I hadn’t. The harsh wedge of the summit towered over us, cutting a gash in the sky. It looked a long, long way away.
As we worked our way across and up, I tried to pay attention to what my instincts were telling me. Luke led the way with easy confidence, but as we moved across the glacier, the ice nevertheless rumbled and popped, like we were walking on snapping twigs. Every instinct I had told me to get out of there as fast as I could and never look back, but I forced myself to keep with the group’s measured pace.
When it came, the fall was like slipping into sleep. The ground simply gave way beneath me; I slid through the snow into the icy blackness of a crevasse.
Snow surrounded me as I dropped further and further – one breath, two breaths, three… still I didn’t slow down. In fact I picked up speed as I fell further and further.
The snow scrubbed my face as I succumbed to its embrace, ice crystals harsh. I bounced off the sides of the crevasse, rock and ice bruising my body. Finally, I landed hard on my back. A heavy wet whump, and I was buried in sloppy snow. I fought to get a breath, turning my head furiously side to side to try and preserve some pocket of air. A tiny prick of light shone briefly through the pile of snow, until, after another thump, more snow fell and shut me into darkness.
Breath short and heart pounding, I tried to curl myself up, fighting against the weight of the snow. I didn’t even know if I was facing up or down – I could very well have been digging myself further into the crevasse had I been facing the wrong way. I paused, tears running unwillingly down my face. Down my face. I realized I must be facing up and felt a huge wash of relief, rather unwarranted as I was still buried in a crevasse.
Instead of trying to move my whole body, I started shifting bits individually – wiggling my fingers, swimming my legs, and turning my head just enough to loosen the pack of snow around me. It moved more like mud than snow, but slowly I freed an arm into an airgap in the crevasse. As soon as it was free, I frantically swept my face clear, tossing handfuls out of the way until I had cleared a good foot of snow off my head.
Finally, I could see and breathe again. My eyes darted like a frightened animal, as I stared into the dark purple tunnel that stretched straight up above me. My face felt numb, and my brain too. I sucked in huge gasps of air, fighting back fear and panic.
With my one free hand, which felt like a frozen claw, I kept flinging handfuls of snow off me, desperately digging myself out. It had only been a few moments since the world gave way, but it felt like I had been in that hole for hours.
As soon as I could sit up and free my other hand, I sat trembling for a moment. My mind balked and fled towards madness as my body slowly went numb. Then I cupped my hands around my mouth and screamed, desperately and stupidly,
“LUKE!! Luke!! Help!!”
No response. Silence. I opened my mouth to scream again, then just started to cry wildly, gasping and sobbing. Popping a hand to my face, I tried desperately to quiet myself – the noise could shift the snow above me and eliminate any chance of escape or rescue.
Then I heard a ferocious scrabble echo above me, like the sound a dog makes when digging for a bone in the dirt… or a wolf makes when digging desperately through snow. Fight renewed, I returned to digging myself out, clearing the piles of snow from my legs and stomach. I stayed on my hands and knees, hoping that if I distributed my weight as evenly as possible, the ground would hold steady this time.
The sound of claws cutting through snow and ice grew louder. A ray of sunlight burst through the ceiling of my snow prison and a long, black snout lowered down into the hole, sniffing wildly. Seemingly satisfied, the snout withdrew and the digging redoubled.
A long paw stretched down, then a huge wolf leapt into the abyss towards me. He landed hard on a ledge not far above me and stopped, looking down, head tilting side to side. Up above, I could see a smaller, gray-brown wolf head peering down, flanked by Thomas’s pale face.
Slowly, I stood up and reached towards the wolf – towards Luke. My fingers barely brushed the bottom of the ledge. He whimpered. I began to cautiously climb, thrusting the toe of my boot into the snow wall and jamming my fists into the snow for handholds.
After a few cold, struggling steps upward, my hand could reach over the crest of the ledge. A huge wolf’s head suddenly filled my vision, jaws open and glistening. Instinctively, I pulled back. Luke clasped his teeth around the hood of my cloak like he was holding a pup’s scruff and with a heave, I was up on the ledge beside him.
I flung my arms around his snowy fur and buried my head in his neck, overwhelmed with relief. A low rumble moved through his barrel-like ribcage and he headbutted my shoulder gently. I stayed holding him for a long few moments, until I had mostly stopped trembling. Then I picked my head up.
“Well, now what?” I worked to smile, though my lips were numb and my teeth chattered.
Luke-the-Wolf looked up towards the sky, like he was gaging the depth and structural integrity of the hole. Then he turned back to me and opened his mouth into a sloppy, wolfy grin.
Clamping his jaws back around my hood, he lightly dragged on me.
“Okay, I get the plan. Guess I just need to relax and go with it, hunh?”
A muffled bark – his mouth was full – was the closest to agreement he could manage. Letting myself go limp, I closed my eyes as he dragged and climbed, massive paws and sharp claws giving him far better purchase in the slippery snow than any human limbs possibly could. It was like being pulled across a frozen pond, if that pond went straight up and could collapse at any moment.
After a dizzying, sickening eternity, I felt a second set of jaws clasp my cloak and tug me up over the edge of the hole. I collapsed beside Adrienne-the-Wolf as Luke-the-Wolf scrambled out. Adrienne curled around me, fur and breath warm. I sobbed into her thick fur as she rumbled comfortingly.
Thomas stood nearby. Looking up, I tried to smile at him but failed miserably. He stepped forward and hugged me hard. I hugged back.
Luke and Adrienne’s clothes lay torn and scattered across the snow. Neither had bothered to take the time to strip, and had simply shifted as fast as they could. We bundled up what was left of their clothes and continued slowly on. The wolves stayed shifted – without their clothes, they’d quickly freeze in human form.
We had to get across the glacier and up to the next level before we could safely stop and make a fire. My mind had slowed to a crawl; the world felt both hazy and too bright. It took over an hour to reach safety. By then, the sun felt like it was boring a hole through the top of my head and I could barely see from the pain. Finally, at a rocky plateau, I collapsed then curled up into a fetal position, too exhausted to vomit.
Thomas built a fire as best he could – really a quite reputable job, considering he was burning mostly Adrienne and Luke’s clothes for warmth and using a knife for a flint. Without standing, I dragged myself as close as possible to the heat, shivering in my wet cloak. Adrienne lay down on one side of me, and Luke on the other to help keep me warm. I was asleep before I could cry more than a handful of tears.
I woke up a few times through the night, feeling like I was suffocating, gasping for breath. My eyes jerked open; the remains of the full moon lit the world with an eerie beauty. Adrienne had moved a few feet away, curled up asleep around Thomas. Thomas slept with a pinched, tight expression – almost like he was stuck in some uncomfortable place between fear and relief. Luke remained pressed around me; my head was at his thick chest, and his back paws were tossed over my legs. I drifted back to sleep, comforted by his presence.
I woke with a hacking cough and the rough edges of a headache still. Thomas didn’t look much better than me – his face was drawn to the point of skeletal and he seemed barely strong enough to stand, much less walk. The rigors of the journey were a lot for his small body, but we had to keep moving. It was walk or die. And walking didn’t guarantee survival.
The day started and stayed gray and overcast. The wolves held a steady pace; Adrienne was surprisingly fast, even with her crippled paws. I saw her struggle only once, when one of her mangled back feet spasmed and skidded. She righted herself in moments and pressed onward. Thomas and I had to work to keep up, but at least the exercise kept us warm. The route was steep, but solid. By midday, we had reached the summit.
At the top, the wind whipped my cloak in red billows around me. I glanced back towards where we had come, the green wash of the forest barely visible in the distance. Then I turned to face away, towards the Summer Kingdom. A valley lay far below us, dotted with buildings as big as anthills with a lake in the distance.
Looking down, I saw a circle of stones not far from my feet. Both Adrienne and Luke stood near it, massive furry heads bowed as if in prayer. The stones were no more than knee height, arranged perfectly spaced, standing proud in the harshness of the summit.
Thomas sidled up next to me and followed my gaze.
“The shifters made that. Either the Summer Kingdom shifters or the Red Kingdom ones. It honors the dead.”
“The dead?” I croaked.
“It’s the place closest to the sky in this area – they honor their dead like we do, you know. Well, not exactly like we do. Their own way.”
I just nodded. After a moment, the wolves picked their heads up and twitched their ears. We followed them across the ridge and began to make our way down the snow-covered slope towards what I hoped was safety.
The trek down should have been easier, but it quickly became obvious that it wouldn’t be. My knees and back hurt as I negotiated the steep angle, and the cloudy day didn’t do anything to help my altitude headache. Then, it started to snow.
Lightly at first. A few delicate flakes tumbling prettily about us, playing like kittens in the air. I opened my mouth and let them flutter onto my tongue, grateful for the cool moisture. The wolves frolicked, leaping to catch the flakes, wrestling and tumbling.
It picked up quickly, however. Flakes turned to clumps which turned to a heavy, thick curtain of snow. Within a hundred yards, I couldn’t see my hand outstretched in front of my face. I followed the wolves’ yipping to stay on track. I lost Thomas in the storm. The wind whipped around my hood, tugging and stealing at my cloak.
A sudden gust sent me off balance and I lost my footing, rolling down the incline. I fought to stand, but then fell over a large, solid object as I staggered down the hill. Reaching out, I touched a cold body and let out a small cry. For a moment, terrified, I was sure it was Thomas. Then I realized that it was so small because it was only the upper half of a body, clad in strips of a weathered shirt.
I couldn’t tell whether it had been a man or a woman in life, human or shifter. The corpse had lain on the mountain for years, I was sure. Its bare hands seemed to be frozen solid; its eyes were dilated and its skin was hard as glass. I whimpered and rolled over it, stumbling to stand again before pushing onwards.
Through the frozen haze of my eyelashes, I could see two indistinct four-legged shapes ahead of me. Thomas was a small two-legged figure just behind them. I forced myself onwards after them.
It grew darker and darker as we walked, yet I never saw the sun set through the swirl of snow and wind. The light just went away slowly, draining until the landscape was a black swamp of cold and ice.
Fortunately, by this point, the tiny lights of a village had appeared on the horizon to lead us onward. Thomas fell back and walked alongside me, close enough that if I stretched my arm out to my right, I could touch his cold hand.
We fought our way against the wind down the mountain, drawn by the warm yellow dots. As we drew closer, they resolved into candles in tiny square houses. Once, exhausted, I stumbled and fell. All I wanted was to sleep, to rest, to stop moving for a little while. Luke fell back beside me. He whined and pulled at my cloak with his teeth until I stood and pressed on.
One by one, the candles blinked out. The village was going to sleep. I kept my eyes fixed on my target – the house closest to us at the edge of town. It was half-timbered, with a thatched roof, and a light on in the front room. Whoever lived there was still awake and likely our best hope to live through the night.
With my focus on that one pinprick of hope, I wasn’t looking down as I walked. Suddenly, I went sprawling again, over a strange lump in the snow. Flat on my face on the ground, I looked closer, brushing some of the snow off so I could try to see what I had tripped over.
It was another ring of stones, just like the ones on the top of the mountain. These were slightly larger – about knee-high – and well-tended. Every one was upright and the circle was larger and more symmetrical than the one I’d seen earlier.
The house we were aiming at was only a hundred feet or so ahead. Not bothering to get up this time, I crawled the rest of the way. The wolves were already waiting at the door, whining quietly. Thomas silently joined me. In the faint light, his face looked like an old man’s.
Pushing myself up to my knees, I knocked on the door.
When it opened after my third knock, I fell forward, off balance. A solid brown hand lifted me up, delicate as an artist’s but strong as a farmer. I found myself staring into the rheumy brown eyes of an old man, his face lined and full beard grizzled. But his smile was as bright as the candle light that had led us to him.
“Well, well, well, look what the wolves dragged in,” he said, mostly to himself. “Come in child,” he added looking at Thomas. “All of you, come on in. Let’s see what we have here.”
“Thank you,” I croaked, taking a few steps into the house before collapsing onto a bench in front of his fireplace. Thomas sat down beside me, still without speaking, face pinched. I pulled him to me in a rough hug. “We made it, kid,” I said into his hair and felt him nod against my chest.
The wolves padded in like a prince and princess, heads up, feet high. After a quick sniff, both flopped in front of the fireplace, tongues lolling with pleasure at being warm.
The owner of the house (I presumed) just watched us for a moment. Then he picked up a kettle, filled it with water from a bucket by the door, and set it on a hook over the fire.
“Best get something hot in you all, then maybe you can tell me who my guests are tonight.”
I nodded, working hard to speak as my throat defrosted and teeth stopped chattering.
“Appreciate your kindness,” I managed. “My name is Katherine. My friend here is Thomas, and there by the fire are Luke and Adrienne.” I paused. Did he know they were wolves? Had he mistaken them for dogs? Could he know about shifters? I’d heard that things were different here in the Summer Kingdom across the mountain border.
“Laurence. Everyone calls me Larry though, so you should to.” He was gathering herbs and spices from a set of shelves that looked remarkably like something my Gran would have – completely covered in fascinating oddments useful for medicine, or teas, or spellwork.
“You know,” he said to the wolves in front of the fire, “Feel free to shift back anytime. It’ll make drinking the brew easier.”
“They don’t have any clothes. Not any worth wearing anymore,” I explained. “We had… a bit of an accident on the way.”
“Ah. I see. No matter. We’ll get you sorted out in no time.”
I had to ask. “So, you’re familiar with shifters?”
He laughed, not unkindly. “Just a little bit, girlie. Half-shifter myself. I don’t have the ability, but my ma, rest her soul, did.”
The kettle whistled, and Larry moved smoothly into action like a much younger man. He dexterously mixed the herbs and spices directly into the kettle and stirred – exactly twelve times widdershins, I noted. So the brew was a little more than some pleasant herbs. Then he poured a mug each for Thomas and myself. The remainder he poured into a large pottery bowl and set on the floor by the wolves.
“Mind your tongues, everyone. It’s hot. You’ll want to drink it as hot as you can stand it though, so don’t dally.”
Thomas had already started on his. Color bloomed on his face within a few sips and he managed a small smile and nod. I tried a sip. It tasted earthy yet sweet, and warmed me to my toes.
“Thank you very much, Larry, this is wonderful. I apologize for presuming on your hospitality, but we were desperate. Is there an inn in town, or somewhere that lets rooms? We can be out of your way and moving along…”
“Aye, there’s an inn. Nice place, few steps away into town. Finish your brew and I’ll take you all there. Likely someone will be up still there – there’s a pub there and it’s still drinkin’ hours for some.”
Larry pursed his full lips thoughtfully, drawing his mustache and beard to touch.
“I’d be happy to have you here, KC, but there’s just not room for all four of you. And they’ll have some spare clothes at the inn for your friends. I’ve not much need of more than what you see here.”
I nodded along then realized something. I hadn’t told him my nickname. As if he could read my thoughts, he smiled again, teeth strong and even.
“Your Gran sent a pigeon a few weeks ago, saying she and you were trying to get out from where you were. I was half expecting you for days now.” Turning solemn, he asked, “Where is your Gran?”
“She’s alive,” I said quickly, grateful that it was true. “The Queen – the Red Queen – has her. It’s a long story,” I finished, suddenly deeply bone-tired.
“Aye, there’ll be time for that later.” Looking around at our empty mugs and bowl, Larry stood and gestured to the door. “Best be getting on, getting you somewhere you can settle. It’s just a few steps. Can you make it?”
“I can,” I said, looking down at Thomas. “How about you?” He nodded agreement, eyes wide and blackened by exhaustion.
Luke-the-Wolf sidled over and licked my hand. I looked down in surprise, and rubbed behind his large ears. “Yeah, sounds like a good idea to me too. Glad you agree.”
Larry took a candle and placed it in a shielded metal lamp topped with a heavy ring. Carrying it in front of us to light the way, he opened the door and we stepped outside into the maelstrom once more. The wind hadn’t died down – it had in fact picked up. My face was scratched with flying snow and ice crystals. I shoved Thomas behind me to block some of the wind as we trudged into town.
I could barely see anything, but what I saw spoke of comfort, simplicity, and peace. The houses were small, but well-kept, with a stone square in the center of town. In the middle of the town square was what must have been a fountain in more benign months. No water flowed in it now, but it featured what looked like two leaping, playing wolves rolling around while a woman (goddess? Human?) smiled at them benevolently.
The inn lay on the other side of the fountain. It was about twice as large as the standard house, still half-timbered, but with a slate roof. And Larry was right; apparently some of the town residents had decided to wait out the storm in front of a glass of ale or mulled wine. Noise billowed from the room as Larry swung the door open.
The humans mostly were sitting at tables, but the wolves roamed the room freely. A pair were play-fighting in front of the fireplace, another few were lapping bowls that looked to be filled with ale. A middle-aged man and someone who I assumed was his wife were singing with their arms wrapped around each other, oblivious to the rest of the world.
From behind the bar, a pretty dark-haired girl waved, her soft freckled face alight.
“Hallo, Larry! Who’re your friends? Rare to see you out, especially on a night like this!”
“Aye, Emily, it’s fierce out tonight. But these travelers need warm food, a soft bed, and some clothes for our shifter friends. They’ve come a long way. Got a spare room or two tonight?”
Emily shifted into action, leaning through a door behind the bar to call out,
“Ma! Pa! Leith! We’ve overnight guests that need settlin’. Come give a hand!”
Stepping out with a smile, Emily crossed the room and reached out a hand. I shook it, feeling a little odd – she was no older than me, but with a very business-like and efficient air. I felt exhausted, bedraggled, and miserable. She smiled, blue eyes alight.
“Pleasure to have you! We don’t get many strangers, especially not in the winter. Let’s get you all something hot to drink and somethin’ to eat, and a spot by the fire.” She shouted to the wrestling wolves, “C’mon guys, take it outside or settle down! We need the spots by the fire for our new friends!”
Thomas gazed at her with stars in his eyes as she led us to the best spots by the fire. I noticed that he had his thumb in his mouth for comfort. This worried me; he had been retreating inside himself since we left the shifter camp. I resolved to talk with him tomorrow, after we’d all had a long sleep and some decent food.
Larry whispered to Emily, and she turned to our wolves.
“Nice to have you here, Luke and Adrienne. You are welcome to our pack, safe on our lands, and friends of our tribe. I’ll fetch you some clothes. I think maybe some of mine and my brother Leith’s will do the trick. Just follow me to the back and wait there, I’ll be right quick.”
Adrienne’s smaller, greyer wolf smiled toothily and butted Emily’s thigh with her head in thanks. Emily reached out a hand for her to sniff. Adrienne licked it. Emily laughed, and walked behind the bar, the two wolves trotting obediently at her heels.
During all this, Emily’s family had made an appearance. Ma was dark haired like Emily, with a fine-boned face just showing its first lines of age; she was scooping out stew for us from a huge cast iron cauldron over the fire into satisfyingly large ceramic bowls. Pa had taken over the bar. He had long gray hair, almost as long as Gran’s, matched only by the magnificence of a gray handlebar mustache that flowed well past his chin.
A young man with blonde curly hair and an open, cheerful face, who I presumed was Emily’s brother Leith, approached us carrying a full loaf of dark bread and a solid-sized wheel of cheese.
“Get started on this, why don’t you? Stew and ale are on the way, but you look half-starved. Especially you, young man,” he addressed Thomas. “Eat up. I’ll get your rooms ready and by the time you’re done with dinner, you’ll have a warm room waiting.”
Thomas took his thumb from his mouth and reached for the cheese. He coughed a few times as he broke off a piece and stuffed it into a wedge of bread, but managed to get it under control enough to eat. Some color returned to his face, but his eyes still looked haunted.
“Thank you,” I said, my voice shaking a little. The terror of the past few days was still coursing through my body. “Thank you. You’re too kind.”
“Not at all, not at all. Nice to see some new faces, especially such a pretty one.” He winked at me, and I felt the blood rise to my face and busied myself with bread and cheese.
A few minutes later, Adrienne and Luke returned in human form and their borrowed clothes. Adrienne looked lovely in a deep blue dress that must have come from Emily; they were much of a size, though Adrienne was a little more wiry with fewer curves.
Luke looked ridiculous. Leith was a fair-sized man, but Luke’s barrel chest strained his shirt, his tree trunk thighs struggled with what should have been loose woolen trousers, and the trousers themselves ended well above his ankles. I choked back a laugh. He glared, then smiled.
“Look a right fool, don’t I? Well, young Emily says there’s a blacksmith in town that’s closer to my size. I’ll see if I can buy some clothes from him tomorrow.”
He looked hungrily at the bread and cheese, which had been joined by steaming bowls of stew and a pitcher of ale.
“After dinner. And a proper night’s sleep. Everything will look better tomorrow, Red.”
Adrienne woke me the next morning by eagerly shaking my shoulders. I groaned and rolled over, swatting her away, burying my head in the thin pillow. She persisted, sitting down by my head and poking none-too-gently at my ear.
“C’mon, time to get up, sleepyhead. Emily said she’d have breakfast for us. Don’t want to be late!”
“I can do without breakfast. I can’t do without some more sleep.”
“Nonsense. Gotta get yourself strong again, and that means breakfast.”
“Why don’t you go down and then bring me some back when you’re done?”
“I don’t want to go down alone… C’mon get up and come with me.”
I turned over and opened my eyes, staring at Adrienne.
“You survived a plague, crossed a mountain, can shift into a wolf, and you don’t want to go down to breakfast on your own? What is up with you?”
Adrienne blushed and shrugged.
“Do you like someone down there? Is that why you’re acting ridiculous?” I thought back to last night. She’d ignored Leith, but headbutted Emily’s hand in her wolf form.
“You like Emily!” I exclaimed.
“So what if I do?” Adrienne looked vulnerable, even if she sounded defensive.
“So what nothing. She’s cute. Fine. Okay. I’ll get up and come down with you.”
The room was small, but clean and snug, just under the eaves. I had to bend down a little because the ceiling was so low. After quickly splashing my face with water from the ewer on the table, I pulled on my woolen trousers and shirt. Nick’s ring still hung on its green ribbon. I tucked it under my shirt, unsure if that was to keep it close to my heart, or away from anyone’s sight.
Adrienne practically scampered down the narrow stairs to the main room where we’d had dinner the night before. The fire blazed, though the storm had stopped outside and morning light now flooded the room, making it warm and cheery. Luke, still in his ill-fitting borrowed clothes, sat with Thomas in front of the fire. Thomas’s breakfast porridge was nearly untouched in front of him. As we approached, Luke swapped his empty bowl for Thomas’s full one and dug in.
“Hey, Luke, let Thomas eat his own porridge!” Adrienne swatted at her brother’s ear. “Get your own second serving!”
“It’s okay, Addy,” Thomas said in a small voice. “I’m really not hungry. He can have it.”
“You need to eat, Thomas,” I said, sitting next to him and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “You’re bony as an old chicken.” I ruffled his hair, hoping for a giggle. None came, but he did lean into my embrace, just a little. I squeezed tighter.
Emily came out of the kitchen with Leith. Each carried a tray with two bowls of porridge on it, as well as a pot of tea. Adrienne smiled at Emily as she crossed over to us; I was happy to see that Emily smiled back.
Leith set a bowl of porridge in front of me, followed by a tea cup.
“May I pour for you, my lady?” he said with a flirtatious, graceful bow.
I smiled up at him; his broad, smiling face and bright blue eyes cheered me.
“Why thank you, kind sir!” I replied, looking up at him with what I hoped was a queenly tilt of my head. “Please do!”
I heard a growl from a few chairs down.
“I could use some more ale, if you’re offering drinks, young man.” Luke said firmly.
Leith clicked his heels together, still smiling at me, “But of course! I’ll be right back, m’lady.” And he winked again.
Luke growled a little louder. I almost giggled. It was just as Luke had said last night, things did look brighter in the morning.
I tucked into the porridge and noticed that Emily had joined us. She was sitting in the chair by Adrienne’s place. In the silence that had fallen while Luke, Thomas, and I were eating, I could clearly hear their conversation.
“I can’t imagine why it’s call the Summer Kingdom?” Adrienne asked Emily. “It’s freezing here, same as back in the Red Kingdom!”
“Well, it’s not like the entire Red Kingdom is red either, is it?” Emily replied cheekily. “Though the summers here are exquisite. There are spots further south where it is milder all year round; we’re the northern edge since we share the border with your kingdom.”
“The castle near here,” she continued, “was made to be a summer retreat for the royal family. It wasn’t intended to be used during the winter. But the town has grown the past fifteen or so years, since the King retreated to the Summer Castle full time. There didn’t even used to be an inn here! My parents opened it when Leith and I were born.”
Adrienne latched onto that last detail, though I found the bit about the King moving here about the time I was born and my mother died rather interesting.
“So you and Leith aren’t just siblings, you’re twins?”
“That’s right – though we look nothing alike. We have an older sister also, named Willow. Willow and Leith are both shifters. Not me. I take more after Pa.”
“There aren’t many half-shifters in our kingdom anymore,” Adrienne said, a strange tone coming into her voice. I couldn’t place it. It might have been grief, or shyness. “The Queen’s forbade intermarriage. About the same time as the plague struck, actually. Most of the shifters died and their human spouses lived. The humans weren’t allowed to move to those so-called reservations. A lot of families were split up.”
Emily reached a hand out and touched Adrienne’s compassionately. “I’m sorry, that’s terrible.”
Leith had returned with Luke’s ale by that point, and flopped down next to me after giving it to him.
“So, what brings you guys in the dead of winter across a bunch of mountains to our neck of the woods? Traveling by the river would have been a lot easier.”
Luke lifted his head from his porridge. “This is shorter. More direct.”
Leith looked skeptical. “It’s ridiculously harder. Unless…” he paused.
Luke finished the sentence. “Unless you don’t want to attract too much attention.”
Indeed,” Leith replied. “Well, then, I understand. Discretion. Of course.” Leith looked uncomfortable. I was just reaching for something to say to relieve the tension when I heard a soft noise beside me. With a whimper, Thomas fell backward off his bench seat and tumbled onto the ground, barely breathing, flushed with fever.
I leaped up and raced to him, stumbling over the bench.
“Thomas! Thomas!” I cried, leaning down to listen for his heartbeat. It was there, but faint and erratic. Emily stood beside me while Luke, Adrienne and Leith crowded around.
“Back off, guys!” I blurted out, “Give me some room to work!” Gran’s training began to come back to me. She’d tried to teach me healing skills; frankly, of all the witchy skills, I felt it was my strongest one. They retreated. Emily stayed, resting a hand on my shoulder.
“Just tell me what you need,” she said calmly, “I keep the healer’s simples and herbs for the town. I can help.”
“Thank you,” I muttered, returning my focus to Thomas. His heartbeat was light and irregular, but it was there, and his breath was thready. Pulling up his shirt, I felt his belly area gently, trying to figure out if he had hurt himself internally somehow. I gasped at what I saw – his stomach and chest were covered in a scatter of black patches, ringed with an odd purple. They were strange to the touch, as if I was prodding a rotten peach. From the markings rose a fetid smell, like rotting meat. I recognized it from the plague huts in the shifter camp. Then Thomas moaned and I stopped my physical examination.
Leaning back on my heels, I directed Emily.
“Snow. A lot of snow. Fill a bathtub with it. We need to get his fever down. And bring some icicles if you can – knock a few off the eaves and wrap those in cloth for his forehead. Then show me to where you keep your simples; we have work to do.”
We worked through the day to care for Thomas. Together, Luke and Leith wrapped him in a sheet and settled him tenderly in a snow bath – the sheet protected his skin from the worst of the cold – while Adrienne held an icicle alternately on his head, and then allowed it to drip into his mouth to get some water in him.
Emily was an excellent helper. Together, we brewed a potion to combat fever, loaded with willow bark and elderflower, and a salve for healing bruises. I didn’t really know what was going on with those black spots on his belly, but threw together a recipe that I knew by heart from Gran’s teaching, meant for deep internal healing using arnica, comfrey, and cayenne.
While I completed the final mixing of the salve, Emily spoke.
“I haven’t seen it myself… the sickness didn’t cross the mountains… but it looks like what I’ve heard of the plague that the Red Kingdom shifters suffered.”
I gulped. The same thought had flickered like a shadow across my mind since Thomas had collapsed.
“I know. It does. Adrienne has had it already and can’t get it again. Luke didn’t get it last time, so hopefully he won’t get it this time either. I can’t imagine why Thomas got it – he’s not a shifter, that I know of, but he is an orphan. Could he be?”
Emily considered this.
“No, he’s probably not. He’d have shown it since birth. Shifters are shifters from the day they’re born. There’s no way he’d get to be 9 or 10 and not know that.”
“Hmmm.” I scooped the completed salve into a bowl. “Maybe it’s not the plague, if there’s no way a human could get it. We need to get this to him,” I added.
We hustled up to Thomas and Luke’s room, where we’d set the tub up. Thomas looked so small in it, his skin faded from flushed red to an almost lilac white. I took Adrienne’s place at his head and gently lifted it. Raising the first brew to his lips, I sung the incantation that completed the healing charm. I didn’t have Gran’s power, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to try.
The spell had no words, just a simple melody, warm and soft. Almost maternal. The rest of the room grew quiet as I sang; the sound echoed off the eaves of their room like a chapel.
When it was complete, I stood and turned to Luke. His eyes were misty and his face relaxed as he looked at me. I hated to interrupt the spell he seemed to be under.
“Is it the sickness? Is it the shifter plague?”
He shook himself slightly and his face tensed again.
“Sure looks like it,” he said shortly.
“But how? Thomas isn’t a shifter.”
“That’s true, he’s not…” Luke thought for a moment. “He’s a witch though, isn’t he?”
“Well, yeah,” I replied, thinking hard as well. “He was an orphan, but one or both of his parents had to be witches. I’d bet they both were, actually, considering how powerful both Annabelle and Eloise said he could be. Half-witches don’t tend be very talented.”
Like me, is what I didn’t add. No need to bring up my parentage one way or the other – I didn’t want to talk about the fact that one of my parents was human, especially since that particular parent was also the Summer King. No need to drag Luke into all that.
“Still,” he said, interrupting my train of thought, “The witch bit maybe why he caught the sickness.”
“Yeah…” That didn’t feel right to me. “But I don’t remember hearing that witches got sick during the plague.”
“Witches weren’t allowed anywhere near us,” he said bitterly. “The sickness and the rounding up of shifters happened so close together… they weren’t allowed to treat us. I don’t know that many witches have been anywhere near the sickness before.”
That explained why I had no training in it from Gran, and no idea of any particularly useful healing spells. I’d had to rely on what healer knowledge I had; I was grateful there was anything I could do at all.
Suddenly, Luke gasped and reached for my arm.
“That means you can get it, Red. You shouldn’t be treating him.”
I had to tell him, but not too much.
“I’m half-witch. My mom was the witch, but my dad wasn’t. I doubt I can get it. Did half-shifters get it with you guys?”
He didn’t look reassured. “Sometimes, yes. Sometimes they did. Not as frequently, and not as badly, but they did.”
I shrugged. “That’ll have to be good enough. He needs me.”
I turned back to my patient. As the day had worn on, his fingers had grown dark, first a deep, beautiful almost midnight blue, then purple, then black. I didn’t know if I could save his fingers. I didn’t know if I could save him.
Adrienne, Luke, Emily and Leith took it in turns helping me nurse Thomas that day. During the course of it, Luke found time to persuade the village blacksmith to sell him a set of clothes, and Adrienne managed to take Emily for a walk to ‘get some air’ – they both came back a little flushed but I wasn’t convinced it was from the exercise.
Thomas held on. He didn’t get better, he didn’t get worse. He roused a few times, just enough to ask for a drink of water. Once, he called out for Eloise which tore my heart. But then he fell quiet again, which was almost worse.
Sometime after sunset, Emily came up and tapped me softly on the shoulder.
“Best go downstairs for your dinner,” she said gently. “I’ll sit with the lad.”
I nodded and stood, my legs stiff. “Thank you. I’ll be back to check on him soon. Come get me if anything changes.”
She gave my shoulder a squeeze and I headed downstairs.
Emily’s family was gathered there, as well as Luke and Adrienne. No one from the village had dared to get close to the inn once they heard that there was sickness. The whole town hung with fear that Thomas had brought the plague over the mountains with him. That I had brought the plague over the mountain – because it was my fault that Thomas was with us in the first place, sick far away from the Eloise, the only mother he had ever known.
William – I had learned Emily’s Pa’s name sometime during the course of that nightmare day – handed me a glass of fortified wine. I toasted him my thanks; ale was far too weak right then. It took me three swallows to drain the glass.
William refilled it, then sat down with a sigh beside his wife, Rose.
“So, we was wondering – if this is what we all think it is, what should we expect? How bad’s it gonna get?”
I bit my tongue to push back tears. Luke touched my knee and answered.
“We’re not sure if it is the same sickness,” he said. “Thomas is no shifter. And the plague, for us, was tied up with being thrown out of our homes and driven to those ‘reservations.’ Prison camps, more like it.”
He took a breath, and his story tumbled out, almost like it was choked up, unwilling.
“We used to live in a town a lot like Camp Town – a small village along the river. We lived all together, humans and shifters mixed. Our mother, for example, was a shifter and our father was not.”
Rose & William smiled at each other, just a tiny bit, and took hands. I realized it was of course the same for them – Rose was a shifter, and William was not. But they’d all gotten to stay together. Luke continued.
“When the sickness came, it struck suddenly. First it was the children, and the old. Then, within days, it spread to everyone. Many of the humans fled. By then, the Queen’s soldiers were there, moving everyone who could walk away, bringing us all to that ‘reservation’ – that prison camp. Every shifter, that is. Our mother died of the plague. We had to leave our father behind. Our Aunt Annabelle brought us up.”
He took a sip of ale and swallowed hard. “Many died on the way. Some still die. There are a few still battling the disease out on the edge of town. We take them food when we can, but most will live or not with no help. It’s too risky for anyone to visit. Even when we leave food or supplies, it’s as far away as possible where those who aren’t too far gone might still have a hope of reaching it.”
He fell silent. I thought about Thomas and I visiting those huts just a few days before and felt sick to my stomach. Visions of blackened bits of skin danced before my eyes and I had to rest my head in hands for a moment to catch my breath.
I wasn’t surprised when Emily came running down the stairs, her pale skin ghostlike.
“Thomas has taken a turn, KC. Please come.”
I dropped my pewter cup of wine and sprinted after her, dizzy with fear. Fear for Thomas, for the town, and, I’m ashamed to say, for myself.
When I got upstairs to the boys’ bedroom under the eaves, Thomas lay slumped, his nightshirt darkened, wet with sweat and clinging to the strange blackened sores. His body was so thin that his ribs stood out in ridges against the thin cotton, with deep crevasses between them. Once during that long night, he became delirious, yelling “No, I won’t! Annabelle! No!” but that was his only cry for hours.
In the end, Thomas died far too quietly for a rambunctious little boy. He just slipped away without another word, or smile. I ruffled his hair as his forehead grew cold, and dropped a kiss onto his brow. I couldn’t cry. Not then. Not yet.
“Is there a pigeonkeeper?” I asked Emily as she drew the sheet up over Thomas’s head. “We need to send a message.”
Adrienne stepped into the room and embraced me. “I’ll take care of it, KC. Let me do it. Thomas told me about Eloise. I’ll send the message. You need rest.”
It was after midnight and I felt scooped out like an old gourd, hollow of feeling or sensation. Rest? Would that help? I didn’t know, but nodded anyway and turned to head downstairs.
Looking back, I saw Emily fold Adrienne into her arms. They stood very still, an entwined statue of sorrow. Suddenly, I had to escape. Had to be away from the simplicity of their affection, from the smell of sickness, from Thomas’s tiny corpse.
I raced into the cold night in just my shirt and trousers, running wildly until I banged into the stone fountain in the middle of town. I collapsed against it, forearms resting on the lip, watched over by a pair of dancing wolves and a serene lady. Right then, I hated them all.
“Why, why Thomas? Why did you leave me? Come back!” I half-screamed, half-whimpered like a desperate animal. Everything from the past few weeks ripped out of my chest in a maelstrom of tortured sorrow. Gran. Losing our home. The mountain. Nick.
Then I felt my own crimson cloak wrap around me like an embrace. Its heaviness soothed me. Kind hands pulled the hood up over my head to protect it from the wind. I’m only somewhat ashamed to say I wiped my nose on it, as well as the tears.
Looking up, I saw Luke’s broad face, set in an expression of granite sorrow and pity. Strangely, I didn’t mind the pity. Not from him. I slid my head over until it was in his lap as he sat on the fountain’s edge. He let me cry there for a long time, rubbing first the hood, then, when it fell back, he gently stroked my hair and murmured soothing nonsense.
When I could speak, everything spilled out.
“Gran wants me to leave her, did you know that? Just stay in the Summer Kingdom. With the King. Who’s my dad. Because he slept with my mom. But that’s obvious,” I hiccupped back more tears. “I have to bring the mirror back to save Gran, but Gran doesn’t want me to. She got sick for me, so she could set me free, but I don’t want to be free. I want to be home safe, with Thomas, and Gran, and…”
“And Nick.” He said it quietly, but with a sorrow that echoed under the words.
“With… I don’t know. With Gran. That’s for sure,” was all I could say before I dissolved into hysterical crying. Truly hysterical. I keened and wailed… anything, anything to get the pain inside me out into the world. I couldn’t bear it anymore. I couldn’t carry it. I had to cry it out and try to drain it from my skin.
After a while I fell quiet. I felt Luke scoop me up, steady and strong. He carried me up the stairs. My head lolled against his shoulder, eyes and mouth open, hair spilling in a bloody wave down his back. He laid me down on my bed. We were alone in the room. I didn’t know where Adrienne was, but hoped she was still with Emily. They would bring each other comfort.
His presence left me for a moment. I heard a rustling by the bag I carried. He sat down; I could feel the muscle of his thigh against my back. Slowly, he drew a brush through my hair. I recognized its touch – boar bristles, gentle and strong. My mother’s brush. My father’s gift to her. The memories of every morning spent with Gran pulling that same brush through my hair overwhelmed me for a moment, so painful I almost blacked out.
When I was able to breathe again, I could hear Luke crooning softly. He almost whispered as he sang the words to an old country lullaby.
“Hush, child, there’s nothing to fear
All that care for you are gathered here.
Sleep well, sleep quiet, sleep long,
Those who protect you sing this song.
Be brave, be kind, be wise,
The world belongs to those who try.
Held in the arms of a dove
Rest with those whom you love.”
Through the night I felt his warmth around me; comforting, secure, almost like home, almost enough. I dreamed of Gran, yes, but I knew it was but a dream – we were young together, and playing in the flowers, Gran smelled like lemon and roses. It was just a dream.
I woke to his lips brushing across my forehead.
“Katherine… Red…” he paused and kissed my forehead. Again? I didn’t know. I hoped it was the second time.
“Katherine, time to wake up. We have to leave.”
I rolled over, mostly unaware, and rolled into him. My chin curled around his thigh with my knees on the other side; I turned my face into the straw mattress.
“Nope. Gotta sleep.”
He stroked my back more firmly.
“We have to leave, Katherine. You have to get up. No more time to be late. You’re past that now.”
“Sleep.” I curled in tighter, like a sea creature around its prey.
This time, he leaned down and kissed me on the lips. I wrapped my arms around his neck as his mouth pressed hard and harder against mine. He spaced his hands on either side of me and drew me up closer to him.
Then with a gasp, he let me go. I fell against the mattress, eyes wide, fully awake.
“We leave in half an hour,” was all he said. The door slammed behind him.
I lay flat in detached shock, drifting in and out of awareness. A few minutes later, the door creaked open slowly. I heard Adrienne’s steady tread and turned back to the wall.
She sat beside me, stroking my thick hair, twirling a curl around her finger.
“You did all you could, KC. No one could have done more.”
“Gran could have. Annabelle could have.”
She paused for a moment and said thoughtfully, “I’m not sure that they could have. I grew up with Annabelle, remember. And you did really, really well.”
I rolled over to face her.
“Thanks… Guess it’s time to leave, hunh?”
She nodded, dark hair swinging. “We have to keep going. You know that.”
Standing, she reached out a hand for me. I took it; strength ran through her grip and I managed to pull myself upright, legs wavering. With a deep breath, I steadied and gave her a weak smile.
“We all are… but, you’re sure you’re not feeling sick?” Adrienne’s dark eyes searched my face.
“I’m fine, really. Just tired.” I reached for my cloak and the bag holding my mother’s brush and the map. “Time to go.”
When we got to the base of the stairs, Luke and Emily were waiting. Luke avoided my eye. Emily wore a heavy blue cloak over a simple homespun dress. She carried a travel bag. Leith and her parents stood nearby; her mother dabbed at her eyes with a corner of apron.
Luke spoke directly to Adrienne, ignoring me entirely.
“Emily here says she’s coming along. Says you told her everything last night.”
It was a statement, not a question. He didn’t sound mad, even. More… curious.
Adrienne nodded briskly. “Emily’s sister Willow is a guard at the palace. She can help us. I trust Emily.”
Luke studied his sister, seeing the brightness in her cheek that offset the sorrow in her eyes. He shrugged. “The more the merrier, I guess. Not like we’re on a secret mission for the Red Queen.”
The Red Queen. The words sent a chill through me, tingling along the outside of my skin like cold lightning. When it came down to it, Luke worked for the Red Queen. Even if I got some help getting Gran out, and could stay in the Summer Kingdom, would he let me? For just a moment the night before, I had thought that maybe, just maybe things had changed with us.
Pushing that thought down, I pressed past him and Emily and out the door. Without speaking, I began to walk. They followed.
We set out just after dawn. The landscape was peacefully blanketed in white; it was so quiet that our footsteps echoed in a crystalline crunch as we walked in a small huddle. We passed the stone circle for the dead. William and Rose had promised to honor Thomas as one of their own, sprinkling his ashes around the circle. I stopped for a moment at the rocks and tried to take comfort knowing that he’d be taken care of. It didn’t help much.
Silently, we walked on. For a little while, we passed tidy wood and thatch houses with smoke curling from chimneys, and snug barns. Then the town faded away and the land was bare and cold.
It was midday before the castle was visible on the horizon. A haze seemed to surround it, like a collection of low storm clouds. I rubbed my eyes and they shimmered slightly. No one else mentioned it, so I just kept walking.
By late afternoon, the haze was close enough to look more like a tangle of dried brush, with a spiky texture. It shifted and flowed like turbulent water. I caught up to Adrienne and Emily walking ahead of me, heads together, and tugged on Emily’s blue cloak.
“What’s that?” I pointed. “That black clumpy wall.”
Emily looked at me strangely, blue eyes wide. “What wall? Do you mean the castle walls? They’re more of a gray stone than black, but…”
I shook my head emphatically enough that I felt a little dizzy.
“No, the big tangle up there.” We were close enough that it resolved into distinction. “The… brambles. Briars. Whatever type of plant that is.”
Emily stopped. Adrienne did as well. Luke took a few long strides and was beside me.
“KC, I don’t see anything but the castle. Maybe this is tied to you being part witch?” Emily glanced at Adrienne and Luke. “Do you guys see anything?”
They both shook their heads. I looked from face to face, astonished. With an odd lightness to my head, I walked away from them towards the black boundary. Reaching out a hand, I touched a thorn long and sharp as an iron nail. It pricked sharp as a needle. One perfect globe of blood sprang to the tip of my finger.
I heard Emily gasp beside me. “KC, you’re bleeding. I don’t see anything in front of you, but you’re bleeding.”
“I know,” I said, my voice hollow and distant. I felt my mother very strongly at that moment, like I never had before. I had no memories of my mother; all I’d ever seen of her face was the portrait that hung in our chambers back at the Red Castle. But I could smell the freshness of her cornsilk hair, and hear the rustle of her deep blue skirts.
I walked through the briars deliberately, letting them scratch my face and catch in the heavy crimson wool of my cloak. They tangled into my hair and pulled, and I just stepped forward again and again, leaving red remnants of hair and blood behind me. The thorns stretched for yards in front of me and splintered as I passed, shattering into dry, black shards.
The air was cold on my skin when I crossed the boundary and faced the Summer Castle. I raised a hand to wipe the wet from my brow and it came down shining with bright blood. I stared at it, and the world narrowed around me; I couldn’t breathe. I crumpled to the ground and heard Luke’s shout as sound fell away.
Strong arms carried me into a swirl of voices, rising and falling like birdcalls and making a lot less sense. Birds I could understand, but suddenly human speech turned into a screeching cadence of nonsense sounds. A rumble – that must be Luke – then a high strange squeak. The soft coo of Emily, another rumble and a shriek.
The next thing I knew, I woke in a sumptuous carved mahogany bed fit for a queen. Pale gold velvet hangings enclosed me on three sides; on the fourth side sat an old man, head bowed.
He lifted his head when I moaned. He wasn’t so old after all, not really. Just terribly sad – dark hair streaked with dirty gray, beard unkempt, and eyes scooped out and dark as an empty well. He reached out a hand towards my cheek.
“My child,” I heard him say with wonder. I turned my head away from him and the soft feather pillow swallowed me whole once more.
The next time I woke, I was alone. Another one of the gold curtains was drawn back; through the lead glass window, sunlight streamed in bright puddles, scattered across ornate carpets that warmed the cold stone of the chamber. My eyes were dazzled. I blinked until the light dissolved in multi-colored blurry haloes.
My head hurt terribly, my mouth was hot and dry. With trembling fingers, I lifted the white nightshirt I was clad in. Tenderly, I poked at the deep purple and black bruises that littered my torso. They felt dense and spoilt. Like the flesh of a bruised peach. I smelled the heavy sweet rottenness of meat gone bad.
I cried, for Thomas and his suffering, and for my own.
The door swung open, and I heard shuffling steps approach the bed. A weathered, masculine hand rested on my hair.
“You look just like my mother, Katherine.”
He stroked my curls, letting his fingers gently clench, tangle and untangle.
“Your Gran set that briar spell around the castle. It has kept me in this place for sixteen years, since the day your mother left. I’ve never stepped outside since.”
I looked at him, tongue thick and clotted in my parched mouth.
“Oh, not because of the spell, no – it was never intended to keep me in. As you realize, blood magic is powerful, and sometimes not very pleasant. It was intended to tell me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, if my child ever came to me, that it wasn’t an imposter, but my heir…”
He smiled sadly. “I guess I just didn’t want to miss it, if that happened.” He drew a long, solid finger down my cheek, catching wet tears. “Welcome home, Katherine.”
I croaked, “Bag,” gesturing weakly. I had to show him. Had to show him that I knew, that I recognized he had loved her. Even if she hadn’t been sure. If it had taken sixteen years for me to know. It wasn’t too little, it wasn’t too late, even if I was dying. It was enough.
He looked puzzled – his eyebrows drawing together just like mine into an arched exclamation – then his lean, dark face flashed with understanding. He pulled my oiled wool travel bag out from under the raised bed.
“Here you go. Is that what you’re looking for?”
I nodded, which made me nauseous. Shuffling through the bag, my hands fell on the ridged silver and bristles of the brush. The brush he’d given my mother. Because he loved her, and had just heard of me.
I handed it to him, pressed it into his palm and curled his fingers around it. I heard my father weeping as I drifted off to sleep.
Percy tapped my ear with his sharp beak, nipping at it and shaking his feathers in my face. Starlight flooded the room as my eyes flicked open, giving the shining curtains and wood a pale glow. There was no moon. Percy had promised to ask Nick for help, then meet me at the Summer Castle at the new moon. He had kept his promise.
I turned my head. Percy’s beady, flickering golden eyes were inches from mine.
“He’s coming! He’s coming!” Percy hissed excitedly. “The Prince is a day’s ride away. Bring him the mirror and he will be able to save your Gran.”
“Wh-what?” I sat up, startled. Reaching out a hand, I brushed Percy’s feathers, sure I was dreaming. He hopped out of my reach up onto the huge dark wood headboard, carved with my father’s crest.
“Shhh!” He hissed. “Just you alone. No one else must know. I’ll take you. Take you to the Prince. Tomorrow night. Have the mirror. All will be well!”
A flutter of his long raptor wings and he was gone.
Waking up the next morning felt different. I could breathe more freely; the deep bruises on my stomach seemed a little lighter blue around the outside, and a bit less black in the center. My fingers and toes were mercifully still pale as the rest of me.
I swung my legs out of the bed and they dangled well above the floor. The bed was huge, and tall, and came complete with two steps at the far end to reach the carpet. Feeling a little wobbly, though stronger, I chose to go down on my rear end, bump, bump like a child.
I was too tired to even feel silly doing it. Leaning on the bed post, I used it to lever myself to standing. My knees wobbled like dried out sticks. Steadying myself, I looked around. It was a sumptuously feminine room – the golden bed curtains complemented the old-fashioned blue velvet draperies, blue tapestries and blue carpets. They were a beautiful deep blue, just like my mother’s dress in her portrait. Just like her eyes.
Next to the bed stood a rich walnut cabinet. Taking two shuffling steps, I was able to balance against one door while opening the other. It was filled with silk dresses with high empire waists, most blue or emerald green, with white and gold stomachers. Lace petticoats tumbled out of the bottom. Everything looked a little out of date, a little out of fashion. It would have been the height of royal style, say, 15 years ago. And every stitch would have looked exquisite on a blue-eyed blonde, like my mother.
On the wall beside the wardrobe stood a delicate rocking chair, weathered and gray as driftwood. It moved slightly, eerily, as if in a draft. A crib made from the same wood stood in front of it. A tiny, elaborate gown made of white lace lay stretched across the bottom of the crib. It looked like an infant christening gown. Leaning over so I could look closer, I stretched two fingers out and brushed them over the embroidery – it was a white-on-white, exquisitely executed royal crest. My father’s crest.
I rested my elbow heavily on the edge of the crib, suddenly dizzy. Then I caught a reflection of the crib, bouncing off the far wall and jumped slightly. Turning, I saw myself staring back, face pale, hair deep red and tousled. The green ribbon crowned by Nick’s signet ring stood out brightly against the knee-length white muslin nightshirt that I wore.
Approaching the mirror slowly, I let my hand trail across a sleek wood chair, pulled it out and sat at the vanity. Touching the mirror itself was like brushing a frozen lake; I pulled my fingers back quickly.
For a moment, I just stared at myself, like I was seeing a stranger for the first time. My face had grown sharper, bones clear and angled under flesh that used to be soft and round as a child’s. I reached a hand up and ran it down the knife-edge of my cheekbone. Even my eyes seemed different – more angled, like a cat, and a darker green, like an evergreen in winter.
Someone had set the brush down in front of the mirror, wrapped in a gold cloth for safe handling. They were a perfect matched set, cool and shining. The mirror had a rearing silver horse on either side of its oblong frame. As if in a trance, I picked up the brush and pulled it slowly through my hair.
The tangles rent and I just kept brushing, dragging clumps of hair out while I stared at my own shadowed green eyes. I felt numb. The act didn’t make me feel better, or stronger, or younger. There was no magic in these objects, except the blessing – or curse – of my blood. Gran had lied. The Red Queen had sent me in pursuit of an illusion, a story told to soothe a motherless child and tempt a vain queen.
A knock at the door interrupted my daze. I set the brush down as it opened.
Luke leaned in quizzically, heavy brows pulled into a worried line. Seeing me sitting up at the vanity table, he exhaled with relief, broad shoulders dropping.
He strode in, casually dressed in trousers and a plain white shirt rather than his red Queen’s Guard uniform. I became suddenly aware that I was clad in just my nightshirt. His eyes flicked over me, but they seemed simply assessing, and relieved. He carried with him an ornate silver tray wrapped in golden cloth just as the brush had been.
“Glad to see you seem to be feeling better. We’ve all been worried.” His voice shook the tiniest bit.
“Thank you… thank everyone, for their concern.” My voice sounded harsh and unused, like a creaky gate. I cleared my throat. “It’s what Thomas had, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “You’re alive though,” he said simply.
“Yes. I’m alive.” My tone was flat.
Luke busied himself ostentatiously with the tray, setting it on a low table by the window that flanked by a graceful, curving ladies’ chaise. His fingers didn’t touch the tray or its contents, which included a silver teapot, delicate porcelain cups painted with gold, and several covered silver plates, each topped with a rearing silver horse. Instead, he just gestured at me, beckoning me towards him and the inviting tray.
“You need to eat. Emily made a brew for you; she’s been making for you the ones you made for… well, she’s been doing her best for you with the King’s stillroom and simples. Drink some.”
I grabbed a heavy silk blanket from the bed as I walked by and wrapped it around my shoulders. Thus cocooned, I sat on the chaise up against its single tufted arm rest and poured myself some of Emily’s brew. It smelled vile, and just like the ones I’d made for Thomas. I tried to smile as I choked a few sips down.
Luke sat on the far edge of the chaise, his plate-sized hands winding and unwinding.
“You can’t go back,” he said suddenly.
My hand shook and the brew slopped. I set down the tea cup with a chinking sound.
“Gran is back there. The mirror is right over there. I have to get my Gran back.”
“Your Gran knew what she was doing. I know that. You know that. The Red Queen might even have known that – you’re a nice prize, but a far more valuable one if you’re the recognized daughter of the Summer King. An acknowledged princess is worth far more to her than the granddaughter of the castle witch.”
“What are you saying?” I choked out.
“That the Red Queen released you on a meaningless quest just so that the Summer King would acknowledge you as his daughter. She’s holding your Gran hostage not to get some random orphan girl back, or even to gain possession of a magic mirror – she’s holding your Gran hostage to get the Summer Princess under her control.”
A long moment passed before I spoke.
“I’m not leaving Gran.”
“We’ll figure something out.”
His face was solemn, almost stern, betrayed only by a slight tremor in his curved upper lip.
“You’re afraid. Afraid for me.” Astonishment echoed in my words.
“You can’t go back to the Queen,” was all he said before standing, and leaving. The brew still steamed; I watched the curling fronds until they dissipated in the chill from the open window.
Percy appeared at the window in the dark of the moon as promised. His beak rang like a crystal sounding as it tapped the glass. I raised a finger to my lips.
I’d already wrapped the mirror up in the blanket from the bed, and changed into the simplest of the gowns in the wardrobe – a forest green fine embroidered wool. It was a little short, but I was able to loosen the ribbons enough to squeeze myself into it. My mother had been a small woman. I wrapped my red cloak around myself; with the mirror held tight against my chest. The cloak’s woolen folds covered enough of the mirror that I expected to be able to slip out relatively easily. It was manageable if I was careful.
No guard stood before my door; the halls were dark and empty. It seemed the castle ran on a skeleton staff. I hoped that Emily had found her sister, Willow. The thought of family made my stomach twist. Gran or my father – I felt doomed to betray one of them, no matter what.
Tiptoeing down the stairs, I found my way out of the castle through a side door by instinct. Percy fluttered just outside, golden eyes luminous in the darkness. He flew in short hops, pausing on the branch of a tree or on the path in front of me to make sure I kept up. He didn’t speak and neither did I. I didn’t know what to say.
I didn’t know what I was going to say to Nick, either. It felt like years since we’d kissed by the castle fountain, not a mere few weeks. I didn’t even know if I trusted him anymore – he’s told the Red Queen about Gran sending the pigeons, though perhaps he hadn’t realized the significance of it, or what it would lead to. Perhaps he had. He’d ridden out to meet me and give me Percy. Whether that was to help me or keep track of me, I didn’t know either.
My feelings swirled around my stomach, writhing against the glass of the mirror that I clasped. Even convinced as I was that it had no power but the power of my blood, it felt strangely dense and heavy – it was not as large as I’d thought, in fact, it was smaller than the single pane of leaded window – but felt as heavy as a sow.
Percy led me to a copse of trees north of the castle, just along the river. I could see a barge tied upstream, just the outline of it in the dark – they carried no flags, lanterns, or candles. A few shapes moved across the barge; I caught a flash of crimson, quickly quelled, and realized the ship was manned by the Queen’s Guard.
Nick melted out from the trees. His brown hair had grown longer and flopped across his thick brows. He brushed it back with one hand in a gesture both familiar and heartbreaking.
“KC… I’m so glad you’re okay.”
He pulled me into an embrace, made awkward by the mirror. Nick reached for it, but I stepped back. He couldn’t touch it anyway, and I had no desire to let it go.
“Thanks for coming, Nick. How did you get here so fast?”
Nick gestured with a long, graceful movement towards the barge.
“Took the locks upstream on a peasant’s barge. Traveling quietly, you know.”
I knew that was a lie, is what I knew. But I said nothing yet, instead looking behind him into the trees towards the river.
“Is Gran with you? Were you able to get her away? I have the mirror to swap. If we keep it wrapped in the blanket so you don’t actually touch it, I think you could carry it back to the Queen. For what good it’ll do her.”
He looked a little puzzled at that, but quickly pulled his face into solicitous composure.
“It’s all arranged, KC. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.” He stepped forward and I stepped back, pressing me against the rough bark of a tree. “We’ll be together and it’ll all be okay.”
For a split second I saw a tempting glow of affection warm his face. He rested his hands lightly on my shoulders and kissed me. I closed my eyes, basking for one moment in the love and security my past had promised me. Lips parted, he murmured against my mouth,
“I love you, Princess.”
I pulled my head away. “You knew.” I couldn’t keep the accusation out of my voice.
He shook his head. “No, not until recently, I promise. But don’t you see? We’ll be perfect together. We’ll rule the two kingdoms as one, together.”
My heart swelled… and deflated. I couldn’t see it. Not anymore. Or maybe not yet. I didn’t know. There was still too much to figure out – my father, the plague, Luke…
Nick gripped my shoulders now, and pulled back, face set.
“Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that what has always been meant to be?”
He studied my face. His next words fell heavily, like a boulder dropped in a lake, ripples spreading. “There’s someone else.”
I opened my mouth and closed it. Perhaps there was. Perhaps there was just a whole lot of life I had to figure out. Perhaps I just didn’t know. Nick kept going, words coming out in a heated rush.
“It’s the shifter. That wolf. I knew it, just from the way he looked at you. I can’t let you do that, KC. I can’t let you throw your life away on an animal.”
Before I could take a breath, before I could explain that it was more than that, so much more complicated, he pulled on my shoulders. I felt my body leave the tree then slam back hard against it. My head bounced. He slammed me again, and again, until my vision went as dark as the moonless night.
The smell of the river was thick and green when I came to. Bringing a hand to the lump on the back of my head, I thought ruefully of how much time I had spent unconscious in the past week. With a groan, I sat up and nearly banged my head again on a low timber just in front of me.
I was in a loft cot in a tiny wooden room with a flat ceiling. The rocking motion of the current finally clued me in – I was in the cabin of the barge and we were on the move.
Flopping back down on the cot, I winced again. The back of my head throbbed. Nick. Nick had done that. He had knocked me out and… and… kidnapped me.
I burst into tears. I was doing a lot of that also.
I’d almost cried myself out when the cabin door swung slowly open. Nick’s voice was soft and warm.
“KC, are you awake? I didn’t want to wake you up. I’ve brought food though, and something to drink. Can I come in?”
Fury dried my tears. Wake me up? He was the one who’d knocked me out in the first place. Asking if he could come in when he had kidnapped me? The rotten, stinking rat.
I said nothing, just fumed.
The door opened.
“Here you go, KC. It’s not much, but the best of the rations we have.” He didn’t bother to pretend any more that we were on a peasant’s barge; the food was clearly the hardtack and jerky provided to the Queen’s Guard. Beside it sat a cup of ale as well as a pot of tea. I eyed it all skeptically.
Nick reached up and set it gingerly on the cot beside me. Lowering his hands, he brushed back his floppy hair. The gesture didn’t seem so charming anymore.
I flung the tea at his face. The cup snapped lightly in my hand, and the brown droplets flew almost in slow motion at him. They landed with a satisfying splash.
“Go to hell.”
Sealing my lips together, I turned my head away from him.
After a few minutes, he left.
I turned back to the plate. I’d purposefully thrown the tea for two reasons. First, because it was hot and would hurt more. Second, because I needed the ale for courage. Gulping it down, I thought desperately of my situation: Taken prisoner by Nick, on the way to the Red Queen, and stuck with a useless bargaining chip in the magic-less mirror that no one could touch but me.
We traveled for days, maybe even a week. I lost track of time in that tiny cabin. Walked my hands across the walls to try and figure out how big it was and managed no more than 30 hands. The smell of the river and the sound of it kept me company, because I refused to speak to Nick and no one else approached the cabin where I was held prisoner. He brought me hardtack, jerky, ale and tea twice a day.
One morning, he also left with the tray a copy of our old textbook, The History of the Red Kingdom. Slid between its heavy cream pages were a few sheets of paper, and a quill was placed as a bookmark. Looking to the front, I saw he’d added an inscription:
We’re meant to be – please forgive me.
I ripped the front page with his note on it out of the book and shredded it into tiny pieces, but I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the book itself. I passed some of the hours that followed trying to fall asleep, trying to so reach out to Gran in my dreams, but I couldn’t find her. I wasn’t a strong enough witch.
The rest of the time I spent combing my memory for any and every spell related to youth, making copious notes on the parchment Nick had left. I listed ingredients, techniques, possible incantations hoping that maybe, somehow, I could remember enough to figure a way to actually bespell the mirror and use it to trade for Gran, as I’d been tricked into believing was possible.
But nothing made sense. Nothing sparked or seemed to fit together. I couldn’t figure out how to create something new that would work. Though I could recall a half dozen spells, I couldn’t figure out just the right thing – I couldn’t improvise anything, I could just remember. Yet again, not a strong enough witch.
Eventually, on the fourth – or maybe fifth? – day, Nick opened the door and gestured to me to go outside.
“We’re within sight of the castle. I wanted you to see it. Think about where you belong.”
Silently, I followed him onto the deck and obediently stood by the rails. The castle loomed in gray blocks, maybe another few hours downriver. I stared at it stone-faced.
But what caught my eye, what gave me hope, was what I saw running beside the barge. The flick of wolf tails rustled the reeds, and long muzzles emerged and disappeared through the long threads at the top. Wolves ran with us.
I looked around to see if Nick had seen them as well, but he was gone. I thought for a split second about just leaping off the boat and swimming for the shore, but it was too far. The sight of the wolves comforted me and I stood looking for another glimpse of them for close to an hour before quietly returning to the cabin on my own.
Once there, it looked different. Someone had been through and not only tidied up, but taken the wrapped-up mirror and the bag holding the brush. I searched the bedding; the notes I’d been working on, albeit fruitlessly, for a youth spell for the mirror were gone also. This bothered me, but only in so far as I suspected now the gig was truly up. It was obvious from those scrawlings that I hadn’t succeeded and anyone who saw them would know that the mirror was just that – a mirror. I flopped onto the loft bed and stared at the wooden slats above me blankly, thinking of muzzles and claws.
We arrived at the castle that night, passing through a final lock before gliding silently up to the river gate of the castle itself. Nick had fetched me to stand on the deck of the barge.
The iron portcullis separating the dock from the castle was raised up; green moss dripped wetly down from its spiky ends. The Queen stood, dressed in striking black velvet, flanked by a pair of guards in red. I could tell from their faintly feral look that they were shifters.
Misery stabbed through me. I’d forgotten, in my time in the Summer Kingdom and the camp, that shifters still served the Queen. And that Luke was their Captain of Guard. Perhaps he had been running to join them, rather than save me?
Pushing the thought down, I held steady as the barge docked. The Red Queen’s voice echoed against the stone.
“Welcome home, KC. Your Gran is waiting for you in a lovely cell. You’ll be happy to be reunited, I know.”
Nick protested, “I’m not sure that’s the best thing, Step-Mother. As a princess and my bride, shouldn’t she be placed somewhere more… appropriate to her station?”
Cerise bared her teeth in what should have been a smile. Wrinkles spread along her cheeks and pressed up beside her eyes, but they didn’t look like laugh lines. She looked far older than she had only a few weeks before.
“But, young Katherine here has missed her Gran, I’m sure. Perhaps thought she might never see Hannah again? Has that worried you, pet? She’s much the same, never fear. It’ll be a touching reunion. Not something I’d want to miss.”
Levelling her cold gaze at Nick, she asked, “And the objects? Where are they?”
He held up my travel bag, the one that contained the brush, and pointed to the blanket-wrapped mirror at his feet.
“I got them both, my lady. But I’m afraid they’re pretty much worthless. I also found these.”
Reaching into the bag, he gingerly drew out my parchment notes.
“It appears that KC here has been trying to add a youth spell to the mirror – I’m forced to assume because it doesn’t actually have one already.”
The Queen took my notes between forefinger and thumb with distaste, letting them dangle.
“You don’t have your Gran’s talents, that’s for sure, KC. Nor even your mother’s.”
She tossed them to the side. They landed in the water of the moat like crippled birds.
“No matter. The heir to the Summer Kingdom is a pretty prize. Once your Gran decides to wake, she’ll return to my service with her potions and spells. I’ll be feeling quite spry when we take your kingdom.”
Turning imperiously, she walked away. Nick gave me a shove and I stepped unwillingly forward off the barge, into the castle. He paused for a moment before following. Crooking his finger at Percy, the bird hopped down from his perch on top of the barge’s railing.
Nick whispered to the bird, too quietly for me to hear over the lapping of the water against the stone. Percy flew off, and Nick stepped across behind me. Pinned between Nick and the shifter guards, I was forced to walk forward, following the Queen.
She strode, skirts swishing richly. Without turning back or slowly down, she spoke again, loudly enough for all to hear.
“I do regret having to be the one to tell you, but my friend Hannah has taken a turn for the worse over these past few days. And, according to my sources, so has your father. The Summer King? Seems he’s come down with a fever, quite serious.”
My throat tightened and stomach dropped. I knew Gran wasn’t well, by her choice and her own spell. But last I’d seen my father, he’d been frail, but healthy enough. Was it sorrow at my kidnapping? Just the standard sicknesses of aged flesh? Or something worse – the plague that I had suffered in his house?
“Of course, I made sure that reports got back to him that you left with Nick willingly. Why wouldn’t you? He’s your childhood sweetheart, and you need to be with your Gran. I’m sure your father understands.”
I nearly choked. My father, who I’d just found, thought I’d abandoned him. Which meant that Luke, and Adrienne and the others… they thought the same thing. No. Impossible. They knew me better than that. Right?
We had taken a few turns in the cold corridor, finally reaching the cell blocks. With an imperious wave of her hand, the Queen directed one of the guards to open the heavy wooden door separating what I assumed was Gran’s cell from the rest of the dungeon.
The Queen’s face flashed with surprise as I walked eagerly through, desperate to see Gran. The door closed heavily behind me. I was grateful to have something standing between me and the Queen. And Nick.
Stepping forward into the gloom of the cell, I shuffled through the straw, searching for Gran.
I found Gran lying on the floor on a pile of dirty straw. There were no longer any cots in the cell. She lay flat on her back like a broken doll. The bruises she’d had immediately after her unconsciousness spell took hold had faded; her skin was waxy and pale.
Struck with a deep fear, I leaned in close, hovering my ear above her nose and then her chest. I felt the soft rush of her exhale, and could hear a scattered pulse. Eyes welling, I curled around Gran, wrapping both of us up in my heavy red cloak, letting my tears wet her tangled hair until I fell into a fractured sleep.
She came to me in my dreams, but couldn’t speak. Just floated in ghostly transparence, silent. I came as close to her as I could in my dream-body and sat near her. Gran reached down and hooked her hands through my hair, drawing them downwards through my curls in an eerie echo of the years spent brushing with that worthless silver brush. She faded from my dream very slowly, until the feel of her fingers in my hair was just an echo of a memory.
When I woke, I couldn’t tell how much time had passed. The sound of the main door creaking open sent me upright, panicked. Had the Queen returned? Nick? I took off my cloak and spread it over Gran, tucking it in about her shoulders like she was a child.
Looking to the door, I exhaled with relief at the sight of Cook’s round, friendly face. She carried a covered wooden trencher and a candle. Tom and Robert, my friends among the human guards followed her. Cook stepped to one side as Tom opened the cell door, ancient hands shaking. Robert tried to smile at me, his younger friendly face sorrowful.
With a nod, Cook came into the cell. Tom and Robert stepped away. Setting the tray down, Cook pulled me into a warm, soft hug.
“Natalie sends her love,” she whispered. “You’ve still got friends here. You and Hannah. Don’t forget that.”
“Thank you,” I choked out.
After she left, I took the cover off the wooden trencher. The smell of red cabbage and egg noodles topped with a thick brown gravy rose in a palpable savory cloud. I nearly cried again from Cook’s kindness – somehow, she had managed to recreate the feast I had missed when Gran and I fled the castle, so many weeks ago. Cook remembered. She cared. Hope returned as I savored the rich meal.
Once I had eaten every bite and seriously considered licking the trencher – who was there to notice? – I sat quietly for a little while, thinking. There had to be a way to wake Gran up. She was pretty far gone, but she wouldn’t have put herself in this position without some way out. Right?
After sitting for some time to no avail, I stood and began to pace, circling the cell, kicking straw out of my way with every step. I thought wistfully of all Gran’s spell books, burned before we left. Briefly, anger at Gran overwhelmed me. How could she have left me alone like this? What was she thinking? I wasn’t the witch she was. How on earth could I bring her back from the brink she’d chosen?
Then it struck me. Perhaps I shouldn’t think of it as a magical problem, but a medical one. A practical issue to be addressed with herbs and simples, not spellwork. I could do that. I could figure out a tonic, a treatment, if not a spell. I’d done what I could for Thomas; it hadn’t saved him, but I’d survived when Emily administered the same treatment to me. Maybe I could do something for Gran.
I ran through the list of stimulant herbs in my head – astralagus root, foxglove, gingko, ginseng, guarana, dandelion root. Cayenne, cloves, nutmeg and ginger to improve circulation of the blood. If I could get my hands on some of those, not even all of them, I felt certain I could bring Gran back. I could almost see the powdered decoction I would make. With Gran not swallowing, I’d have to rub the powder on the inside of her lips and tongue, so she could absorb it. It could work. I was almost certain of it.
Robert returned alone to pick up my wooden trencher. I told him what I needed in a whisper – even the walls might have ears in this castle. He repeated it back to me, promised that he understood and would talk to Cook and Natalie. Between them, they had access to all the gardens, spices, and simples available. He promised to return with everything he could gather with my next meal. I hugged him, ignoring the clatter of the sword at his side and the cold buttons of his red uniform coat.
Then, I waited. And waited.
My heart dropped hard when the door next opened. Instead of my friends Tom and Robert, two shifter guards stepped in. I didn’t know them, but a faint hint of wildness hung over them like a musky, intoxicating scent. Without saying a word, one set down the familiar wooden trencher after the other opened the door. They left as silently as they had come.
Sure that I’d be confronted with disappointment, I lifted the cover.
Success! Somehow, either the shifters had chosen to help me, or they just hadn’t checked the meal that Cook had prepared. I pushed both thoughts aside. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that sachets of herbs and packets of powder lay in piles beside a bowl of rich-smelling vegetable soup.
Setting the soup aside, I began to go through the treasures they’d brought. Almost everything I needed, except gingko but that wasn’t surprising – trade decreased in winter and it was always difficult to keep enough exotic herbs and spices in the castle to last until spring.
I picked up each packet one by one, inhaling deeply. A plan took shape in my mind. I’d use the bowl and spoon provided for the soup, maybe a little bit of the broth. I thanked Cook in my mind for her wisdom. This’d be perfect. I could do this.
The cold swish of velvet followed the scraping screech of the wooden door opening. I frantically covered the wooden trencher but it was too late. The Queen’s thick laughter swelled.
“Enjoying a bit of lunch, are you? KC, you’ve never been witch enough to break one of your Gran’s spells, or sneaky enough to fool me. I’ve known you your whole life. You’re Arthur’s child, for sure. He was nothing much as a prince, and less as a king. Only worthwhile thing he ever did was sleep with your mother. Fool that she was.”
I could almost taste the bitterness of her voice. Gone was the cooing, slippery politeness of last night.
“Guard!” she called, “Send your Captain in to clean this mess up.”
The steady tromp of boots gave way to a single stride. Solid, purposeful. I knew the walk. I didn’t have to look up to know it was Luke, but I did anyway. He looked a bit drawn, but calm and distant. The sight of him was like a kick in the gut. He didn’t meet my eyes as he bent and picked up the wooden trencher and carried it away, soup, herbs and all. He left the door open, as if mocking me.
Stunned, I just stared after him, then gaped up at the Queen like a fish. Ignoring me, she stepped across me and knelt beside Gran. Gran looked lost in my cloak, a tiny figure shrouded in crimson.
“You got what you wanted, Hannah,” the Queen said quietly, stroking Gran’s face with the back of one hand. “Mostly. KC will rule the Summer Kingdom. With Nick by her side. Isn’t that what you wanted, deep down? Too bad I can’t let you see it….” She paused, then picked up the hood of the cloak which I had tucked under Gran’s chin. “I expect the wedding to be beautiful.”
Cerise unfolded the hood and lifted it over Gran’s face. She pressed it down over Gran’s mouth and nose and held it there. I cried out and sprang to pull the Queen off Gran. Strong arms held me back. Luke had returned and had me pinned against his chest.
“There’s nothing you can do. Not now,” his whisper grazed my ear. I yanked my head away, struggling.
Gran didn’t tremble, or fight. She slipped away almost with acceptance. The Queen stood.
“Leave the body. Let the brat say goodbye to the witch.”
He released me so suddenly I crumpled to the ground. Crawling through the straw, I pulled Gran to me. Her body felt heavier without her spirit to lift it up.
The door closed behind my tormentors and locked with a decisive clang. I had never felt more alone.
I lay numb as Gran grew cool, then cold. Her face relaxed against its bones, cheeks hollowed, eyes sunken. She looked old, and tired, which somehow was almost worse than dead.
No tears came. Not anymore. I’d cried myself out over things that weren’t the true worst thing that could happen…Now that the worst had actually finally happened, there was nothing left. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to cry again.
The door opened behind me but I didn’t bother to look around. Not until a rustle of feet and a familiar voice cut through my fog.
“Shifters here. Take you away, make you safe. Wakey, wakey KC.”
Percy’s golden brown wings beat against the bars of my cells. Three wolves and one human entered just behind him. Emily’s pale freckled face was bright with adventure; one graceful hand rested on a wolf with crippled back legs. Adrienne. I didn’t know the other two wolves.
In her other hand, Emily held a metal ring of keys, just like the ones the guards had. With a smile, she opened the door. Then, seeing the body I held, her face fell.
“Oh dear,” she murmured. “We’re too late.”
I stood, pulling my tattered courage together with both hands. “We have to leave her. That’s what she’d want.”
Emily nodded. “I hate to say it, but you’d best take your cloak. It’s snowing and only going to get colder tonight.”
“Okay.” I bent down and pulled the crimson shroud off of Gran. Bending down, I kissed her ivory forehead. With a sweep of red, I had my cloak back on, hood pulled up. “Let’s go.”
Percy led the way, swooping and diving ahead of us through the intricate maze of corridors that led out from the dungeon. The torches were all out along the stone hallways. Emily kept a hand lightly on Adrienne’s broad back. Following her lead, I rested one hand on a tawny wolf and let his night vision guide me.
I could barely make out more than few inches in front of my face. The cave-like closeness of the corridors was suffocating; I gasped a little and longed to breathe fresh air for the first time in the week since I’d been kidnapped by Nick.
Nick. Had Nick sent Percy? Was this another trap?
“Emily!” I hissed in the darkness. “Emily!”
“Yes?” She didn’t slow down.
“How’d Percy get into this? How did you get here?”
“Percy led us to you. Your father gave his blessing for us to try and rescue you. We’re to take you to Annabelle in the shifter camp. That’s all I know.”
Just then we burst out a side door in the castle, not far from where Gran and I had shared our chambers, which meant it wasn’t far from the stables. I picked up my pace, then broke into a run. It was the hazy time between dusk and full dark; I could just make out the stables a few hundred yards away.
Emily kept pace with me easily and the wolves barely had to trot. I flung the stable doors open heedlessly, not caring if I woke the stable boys this time.
“Fin! Finola! Where are you?”
A high-pitched, excited whinny rang from a stall about halfway down the row. “Here! Here, KC!”
Almost slipping in the straw, I ran to Fin’s door, tearing it open.
“No time for saddles, friend. Think you can take both of us?”
She tossed her beautiful head, thick mane flying, big brown eyes flashing.
“You two little things? Climb on.”
I turned to Emily, “Need a boost?”
She shook her head, a ghost of a smile lighting her face. Grabbing two handfuls of mane, Emily swung herself up gracefully. I scrambled behind her.
Fin broke into a canter before she had even cleared the stable doors. By the time we were out of the building, she had broken into a full run. The wolves were a bit more challenged now. Yipping with delight, they began to run full out. Percy soared overhead. He called hoarsely,
“Queen’s Guard! Queen’s Guard!”
He was right. They were not far behind us, maybe a hundred yards. Looking back, I thought I saw a huge black wolf running, but I didn’t know if he was running with us, or chasing us. An arrow whizzed past my ear, so close I felt it snap by. Fin dodged and bucked as more followed.
A piercing shriek echoed from above. A golden brown shape fell from the sky to the ground in front of us. I saw Percy, motionless, as Finola sidestepped around him. The wood of the arrow was stained with his blood and the fletching at the end was black and red. He’d been shot by the Queen’s Guard. At that moment, I wished my heart was big enough to handle more pain, but I just felt numb.
We rode on through the night and into the next day, heading directly for the closest bridge across the river into the shifter camp. We cut across it well before reaching Camp Town. The smell of the plague huts was almost overpowering even before the bridge was in sight. The three wolves ran ahead of us; Fin had run valiantly, but was exhausted and now limping slowly along.
Once Adrienne crossed the bridge, she turned to the tawny blonde wolf and yipped emphatically. He slavered and bowed his head, accepting her dominance. Then Adrienne and the third wolf kept running, away from the ghastly huts that dotted the landscape, away from the bridge, and towards the village where Annabelle and the other shifters waited. The yellow wolf stayed at the bridge, pacing like a sentry. Fin, carrying Emily and I, followed Adrienne as best she could.
Annabelle met us outside the great hall, as if she knew we were coming. She might have. I slid off Fin, followed by Emily, and staggered as my stiff legs touched ground. The other strange wolf with Adrienne – a beautiful gray beast with splashes of white on its face and bushy tail – nudged me upright and licked my hand.
“Thanks,” I said, overwhelmed, “Thanks for rescuing me. Thanks for everything.”
The gray wolf tossed its head dismissively, as if to say, “No big deal,” and followed Adrienne into one of the satellite huts. I turned to Annabelle. Her face was leaner and even more hatchet-like than before, and her expression was sad.
“Thomas didn’t make it,” was the first thing I said. “I think it was the plague.”
She nodded slowly, long streaked hair lifting slightly in cold wind.
“I know. He knew. I told him, before he left, that it was a risk. This is all a risk.”
“And Cerise killed Gran.” This choked up out of me like I was coughing up blood.
“I know that too. She was ready, if that helps. And you’re free, which is what she wanted.”
“Am I?” I said, feeling lost and trapped at the same time. “Am I free? It seems to me I’m on the run, and hiding, and afraid. And endangering my friends just by being here. I have to leave. Have to get back across the mountain to my father. Cerise said he was sick. Is he sick?”
“He is. Taken with a fever, according to Larry. Black patches on his belly.”
I leaned against Emily, who wrapped an arm around my shoulders to help support me.
“The sickness. Plague. How is that possible? He’s human. Not even half-witch, or half shifter.”
Annabelle looked at me steadily. “Everything changes, child. People change. Mountains and rivers change, it just takes time. Sickness changes. Maybe it changed as it passed through your body – as far as I know, you’re the first half-witch to have had the plague. Who knows what your blood changed.”
It was all too much. I sank to the ground, nearly pulling Emily with me. The earth was frozen and covered in a light dusting of snow. It felt strangely refreshing, like sitting in an ice-cold bath.
Somehow, Annabelle and Emily got me into the longhouse in front of the fire. A few minutes later, Adrienne came through the door, back in human form. She was followed by a tall, dark-haired woman with a lively, intelligent, freckled face. She looked like Emily, but cast in a warrior mold.
Emily got up and hugged her, confirming my suspicion that this was Willow, Emily’s sister and a member of my father’s Guard. Leith soon joined us – he had been the tawny blonde wolf left to guard the bridge after we crossed. Adrienne had already sent other wolves to guard each of the bridges along the river.
“We weren’t followed, not really,” Willow mused.
“I noticed that,” Leith added. “Luke did his job well.”
I looked from face to face and exclaimed tartly.
“Luke’s job is serving the Queen. He made that pretty clear when I was held prisoner.”
Adrienne pursed her thin lips. “You know, I should be insulted that you think so little of my brother. Think a little harder, Red. Better yet – don’t think for a minute. What do you feel?”
I stared at her, mouth dropped a little open, but didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to say.
Annabelle re-entered the long house with a small pot of brewing herbs and sat down next to me.
“I’ve sent word to Eloise, and a few of our friends at Camp Town. They’ll be here by dawn. And to Larry, asking for word on the king.”
I nodded my thanks, too exhausted to do more than accept a cup of bitter brew and stare at the fire until I fell asleep.
I woke while it was still light out, next to a large, black wolf. His fur smelled like the forest, and wood fires, and safety. I snuggled my face deep into the long, mane-like tufts about his neck and inhaled. The wolf crooned like a happy dog.
I slept again.
When I woke again, hours later, it was dark and the wolf was gone. I wrapped my cloak tighter around me and stepped outside the longhouse. The stars were bright against a sliver of a moon. Luke paced a few feet away in his human form, arms crossed in front of his chest, striding back and forth impatiently in front of the longhouse.
I stepped forward and touched his arm. He pulled me into a hug, pressing my cheek against the thick wool of his plain black coat.
“I didn’t want to leave. Back in the Summer Castle. Nick made me,” I choked out. It was all I could think of to say.
“I know. Percy told us. It wasn’t your fault. It’s over now.”
“Percy… Percy didn’t make it.”
Luke sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that. And I’m sorry about your Gran.”
“How could you just stand there?” I whimpered, knowing full well that he’d been playing a part, waiting until the others could stage the raid that rescued me. But it still hurt.
“I didn’t want to,” he said into my hair. “I wanted to grab you and run, get out of there if I had to slaughter everyone who stood in my way. I couldn’t do that. We had a plan. We have a plan.”
I pulled back and looked up into his face, steady in the starlight.
“The shifters from the Summer Kingdom. Us. Your father will help.”
“What plan? Why didn’t I know about it?”
Luke smiled, teeth bright, and squeezed me.
“Red, you’re a lot of things, but a soldier isn’t one of them. Willow, Adrienne and I have a plan. If you’re up for it.”
“Only if it involves killing the Queen.” My voice was cold and tight.
He paused, eyes serious.
“It could involve that. It may have to.”
“Good. She killed Gran. She killed Thomas. She killed so many shifters…” I stopped and thought. “Why didn’t you do this long ago? I mean, I don’t want to be awful, but, why didn’t the shifters, the shifter guards, why didn’t they do this before?”
“Annabelle was waiting.”
“For you. For something to shift, so to speak, for change. She sees things that we don’t, you know that. She sees currents and possibilities. I think we needed the alliance with the Summer Kingdom, I think we needed you.”
“I think I needed you,” was all I could say. He kissed me with the sweetness of summer under the cold winter sky.
Eloise arrived mid-morning from Camp Town. We clung together for several minutes outside the longhouse. Eloise felt soft, maternal, warm in my arms. She wept, for Thomas, for Gran, for all of us. I had no tears left. I simply stood rigid with grief and let her cry, providing what little comfort I could.
When we finally entered the low wooden building, a meeting was deep in session. We sat on the edge of the circle around the main fire by Emily and the other non-fighters and listened. Luke and Adrienne were standing on opposite sides of the fire and shouting across it, both lean, dark, and angry.
“Adrienne, you know it’s the best way. If I don’t return, the shifter guards may or may not join us – not because they don’t sympathize, or would fight against their own people, but just because there’ll be no one to lead them. I can do it. It’s the best chance we have.”
“Luke, you know it’s far too dangerous. You can’t go back there. Everyone knows where you stand now. I’m sure the human guards have orders to kill you on sight!”
Luke grinned, baring his teeth. “Let them try. About time we stopped fighting fair.”
Willow stood. She looked like she could be their sibling as well.
“Adrienne, I know it’s scary to let him go back.” She spoke softly, compelling. “I have a brother and a sister. It’s terrifying to let them out of my sight sometimes. But Luke can take care of himself. This is bigger than him, or you, or me, or any of us. You know that. This is the hope of our kind – you can’t live under this woman’s thumb anymore. She’s almost annihilated you, and enslaved those she couldn’t kill. You know what the right choice here is.”
Adrienne stalked over to where Emily, Eloise and I sat. She flopped down next to Emily, taking her pale, freckled hand.
“Fine. I’ll lead our wolves, Luke will ensure the shifter guards fight for us rather than against. And Willow will coordinate the Summer Kingdom forces when they arrive.” Looking up at Willow, she added “And when will that be?”
“Soon.” Willow assured her. “Soon. They’re taking the mountain route to avoid notice, so it’ll be another few days to a week. Which will put us right up against the full moon. I suggest we time our attack to the peak of the full moon, when the shifter advantage is even greater. That, and Luke being in place, might just be enough.”
Adrienne nodded, rubbing Emily’s hand with her thumb. She spoke quietly to Emily next; if I hadn’t been sitting right next to them, I would never have heard her.
“Em, you need to stay here. You’re not a fighter. And I can’t risk you too.”
Emily removed her hand from Adrienne’s and rested it against the other woman’s cheek.
“I’m a healer. Not as good as KC, but I’m good. You’ll need me. I’m going.”
Adrienne opened her mouth to argue, but Emily rested a finger on her lips.
“You know I’m right,” Emily smiled.
Then she coughed. Emily moved her hands to her mouth with surprise to cover it. And coughed again, and again, and again, a ferocious deep cough like a thunderstorm trapped in a mole hill.
When Emily next lowered her hands, they were spotted in a fine red spray. Blood.
Adrienne moved faster than I had ever seen anyone move. She scooped up Emily in her arms and ran out of the longhouse. I stood and followed, along with Eloise, my stomach dropping sickeningly towards my knees.
Once outside, Adrienne moved instinctively in the direction of the plague huts. She got maybe a hundred feet down the path towards this desolate collection of death, then stopped. After a moment, she turned sharply and headed towards her own hut instead. Eloise and I raced after her.
By the time we slipped through the door, Adrienne had Emily laid out on her bed and was giving her water from a wooden ladle. Emily drank without complaint, her face so pale her freckles stood out like ink blots. After a few sips, Emily fell back against the thin straw pillow and closed her eyes.
I stepped forward, touching Adrienne on the elbow. She didn’t look at me, just grunted.
“We should take her to the others, Addy. We can care for her there, without endangering everyone else. Eloise and I will do everything we can. I have a better idea now of what we need, really.”
Now Adrienne whirled around.
“Don’t you dare take her one inch away from me,” she hissed. “It’s too late to worry about endangering everyone – what do you think we’ve been doing this whole time? Everyone is exposed already, since you and Thomas got sick. We’re days away from trying to kill a Queen. We’re all a step away from death and I am NOT leaving her.”
I stepped back.
“You’re right,” I acknowledged sadly. “You’re right. It’s my fault. I know. Keep her here; we’ll find a way to treat her and keep her isolated. You’re right.”
Adrienne nodded forcefully and turned back to Emily, kneeling down by her side and resting a hand on her forehead.
“She’s burning up,” Adrienne said almost off-handedly, then continued in a voice that brooked no argument. “We’re bringing everyone else back too. Everyone left alive in those evil huts. We’re not hiding from this again. We’re not abandoning anyone, ever again.”
Eloise and I looked at each other. Her wide, plain face mirrored the horror and compassion I felt covering mine. Eloise spoke next.
“Adrienne, I’ve known you since you were a child. You’ve a good heart. But maybe this isn’t the best way…”
Adrienne stood again, turned, and glared at us.
“This is for the wolves to decide, witch. Get your herbs and your simples and save her life. The rest is none of your business.”
With that, Adrienne strode purposefully out of the small hut. A blast of cold winter air whirled around us for a moment, then died back down as the door closed.
Eloise sighed. “Best go to Annabelle, child, and start getting what you need. I’ve not treated this before, but I’ll do what I can to make her comfortable. Hurry.”
By the time I had taken the few steps back to the longhouse, I had a plan. This may have been a sickness started in magic, but that didn’t mean I needed to fight it that way. Maybe that is what went wrong with Thomas – I needed to stick with my strengths, not try to make up for my weakness. And that meant herbs, medicine, and common sense rather than incantations. Emily had saved me without any chanting; maybe that’s how I would save her.
Annabelle had a remarkable store of simples and herbs. I gathered what I needed in a fold of my cloak and was back by Emily’s side within a half hour. Eloise had already packed her with snow to address her building fever, and was inspecting the black bruises on her torso when I returned.
I studied them for just a moment. I knew full well what they looked, and felt, like.
“Arnica, willow bark, St. John’s wort, witch hazel and chamomile for the bruises, mixed with cold water,” I told her, “Treat them like any internal wound: dull the pain, reduce the swelling. Leeches might help in this case since they will draw out some of the pooled blood, but we’ll need to send someone to the river to find ‘em; apparently it’s not something shifters usually bother with. I’ll mix the rest of her medicine while you apply that.”
Eloise pulled Emily’s shift down and got to work. While she mixed the poultice, I turned to inventing the rest of the treatment.
“Garlic, yarrow, ginger, juniper and wormwood to kill infection…” I muttered to myself, tossing rough powders into a cup, followed by a golden thick stream from a small clay jar. “Honey will help with that and also make it all go down easier…”
Adrienne came in behind me with a pot of hot water. “Here,” she said brusquely, handing it to me, “Annabelle said you needed this.”
“Thanks.” I poured it on top of the mixture I had made. It bubbled into a strange smelling brew, topped with a hint of sweetness.
“There’s plenty more what’ll need your attention, soon as you’ve helped Emily.”
I knelt down beside Emily and began to drip the concoction into her slack mouth.
“Luke and the Summer wolves are moving our people back in from the plague huts. They’ll be in the longhouse now. You’re to go there next.”
“I understand,” I said, “I’ll do it. Can you do something for me, though?”
I didn’t wait for Adrienne to answer. “Can you send someone to the river to look for leeches? It’s cold, so they’ll be close to the bottom, tucked away, but they’ll be there. Bring back as many as you can.”
“Whatever you need,” Adrienne said simply, and I heard the door open and close again.
Eloise tapped my shoulder. “I can give her the rest of that, KC. You go prepare for your incoming patients. It’s going to be a long few days.”
I nodded and slipped out also, leaving behind the putrid smell of Emily’s disease, walking out into an entire village that smelled like death and rot. The plague had truly returned.
The next few days swirled into a blur of stink, sickness, and experimentation. Luke departed without me seeing him again; I was too busy. I tried the leeches, and they helped, some. They drained blood from the deep rotten bruising on Emily’s torso, and relieved some of the swollen pressure blistering inside the blackened shifters brought in from the plague huts.
Eloise and I gave everyone the brew against infection three times a day, as well as snow packs for fever, lots of fresh water, and as much gruel as the shifter village could spare. As this ran low, Eloise sent a message to Harry, her friend in Camp Town, the man who ran the inn at the market square. He arrived the next day with a pushcart filled with food and a heavy, rattling bag. Harry was just as bald and elfin as I remembered, and just as attached to Eloise – smiling with delight to see and be of service to her.
His smile faded when he saw the sickness around us. “Oh dear,” Harry murmured. “Oh dear.”
With a quick shake of his head, Harry focused on Eloise again. “How about a nice cup of tea?” he asked her. “Brought a little tea service, just for you. Thought it might help keep you going.”
Eloise reached out a hand to him from where she was seated beside a shriveled, barely breathing shifter. “Bless your heart, Harry. A bit of tea sounds like just the thing.” Her voice only shook a little.
Harry busied himself right away, fetching water from the cauldron bubbling over the fire, pulling out a silver tea service from the large bag he carried. It was almost absurd, seeing this delicate luxury amidst the naked suffering around us. It was also incredibly comforting.
When Harry offered me a mug, I took it gratefully, stirring in a copious amount of cream and sugar with a silver spoon that matched the tea service. I took the mug with me as I walked over the check on Emily, silver spoon rattling inside it.
She still lay in Adrienne’s hut. The treatment we’d been trying had kept her alive, but barely conscious. Her dark hair was spread across the mattress in sweaty clumps. I sat beside her and lifted a spoonful of tea to her mouth.
Emily cried out as the spoon touched her lips. Not sure yet what was going on, I just paused, letting the spoon rest a little ways in her mouth as the tea dripped in. A faint hissing startled me and I pulled the spoon back quickly. The silver had seared a small oval spot on her lips and tongue. Horrified, I put the mug and spoon down far away from her and leaned in to inspect the wound more closely.
Emily opened her eyes.
“That hurt like the dickens,” she murmured her first words in a day.
“I’m so sorry. So, silver hurts shifters? I thought that was just an old tale.”
“It’s not something we brag about,” Emily grumbled. “But, goodness, that tea tasted amazing. Can I have some more?”
I lifted the mug up, leaving the spoon behind.
“No, wait,” Emily said. “Use the spoon again.”
“Really?” I asked, reluctant to hurt her again.
She nodded. Slowly, I fed her teaspoon after teaspoon of tea. The awful hissing increased as her mouth grew red and raw. But strangely, her eyes also brightened with every spoonful and her breathing evened out. The color started to come back to her cheeks as the fever fell.
“Try it against the bruises,” she said after a few minutes, voice stronger than it had been.
Curious now, I lifted her shift and pressed the back of the spoon against one of the smaller black lesions. Emily whimpered as her skin reddened, but the darkness receded away from the silver, creating a tiny white oasis amidst her mottled belly.
“Silver,” I whispered to myself. “That’s the key, isn’t it? The last thing shifters would try.”
I handed Emily the spoon. “Here, keep going. I’ve got to get to back to the longhouse.”
Emily nodded and took the spoon. I could hear her small whimpers of pain mixed with relief as I hurried out.
Harry bravely sacrificed his tea service. I had it melted down within the hour, and added one drop of silver to every counter-infection brew and every poultice. The shifters screamed when Eloise and I gave the mixtures to them, but they screamed louder with each dose and struggled with more strength, so I decided the pain of the treatment was better than the suffering of the disease and closed my ears to their cries.
Somewhere in the midst of this, the Summer Kingdom force arrived. It consisted of about thirty human and twenty shifter soldiers. Willow took the lead in setting them up in shared huts around the village, and brought one of them to see me in the longhouse that evening.
“KC? I know you’re busy. But there’s someone here to see you.”
“Sure, sure,” I said, stirring the pot of melted silver to keep it from clumping. Just a minute.”
I looked up into the dark skin, white beard and kind eyes of Larry, the shifter elder from Summer Town. With a small cry, I stepped towards him. He gave me a hug, far more solid than his years would suggest possible.
“I’ve grave news,” he said into my hair. “The king, your father, is still quite ill. He has a fever and dreadful black marks, like your boy Thomas did. I’m sorry to have to tell you.”
I pulled back from him. “We need to get word back to him, to the healers around him. I have a treatment. It works… at least, it’s working right now. We have to tell them.”
Larry nodded solemnly. “We’ll find a way. We brought some pigeons with us.”
“Good,” I said. “Bring the bird to me. I’ll tell him what he needs to know. Nothing written down. There’s still shifters with the king, guarding the palace, right? Someone who can get the message?”
He nodded again, a small spark growing in his eyes. “Think you’ve really got something? That’s good news, KC. Annabelle will be glad to hear it.”
I didn’t bother to consider this last statement much. When the pigeon arrived, I explained to him as best I could all the herbs I’d used, as well as the leeches, and then told him about the silver. I made him repeat it all back to me three times to be sure he understood. Then, I took him outside and set him free to fly to my father.
Emily made the greatest improvements over the next few days, which didn’t surprise me. The other poor souls had suffered on the edge of death for some time now; it would naturally be easier to bring Emily back. Plus, she was only half-shifter, and it really did seem that she’d been hit relatively lightly.
The few full shifters among the plague hut survivors had lost body parts, everything from fingers to feet to noses just turning black and falling off. We could never bring those missing pieces back, nor could we bring back the many lives lost. But we fought back on every front we could – treating the bruises with poultices, and the infection with herbs and silver.
By the time the combined force of shifters and soldiers was ready to depart for the mission at the castle, I felt confident I could leave the sick under Eloise and Annabelle’s care. Adrienne hated this idea.
“KC, you have no business in a fight. You’re many things, but a soldier certainly isn’t one of them. Stay here. Take care of Emily and the others. I’ll send for you as soon as it’s done, I promise.”
“Absolutely not. First off, with Emily not going, you need a healer. Even if she could go, I’d still insist. This is mine to finish, just like it is yours. And,” I added, having held the best for last, “I’m the one who can actually take the throne. Without me, this is just a rebellion. With me, it’s a coup.”
Adrienne studied my face. “So you’re ready? To claim who you are?”
I let the thought linger in the air a moment like a heady perfume.
“Yes,” I finally said, though my voice trembled a little. “I’m ready. For whatever comes.”
We left that night, the night before the peak of the full moon, traveling in silence beside the river. In order to avoid any contact with Camp Town, we crossed it at a bridge just past where the plague huts sat like empty shells. The shifters traveled as wolves, fast and silent. Fin carried me in the midst of the pack of Summer soldiers who had come through the mountains on foot. Protected on all sides, I’d never been more afraid.
Leaving the camp meant bringing the plague with us. It was unavoidable. So far, no one but Emily had succumbed, but I feared it was just a matter of time. Looking around at the human silhouettes that surrounded me, I wondered if they were as vulnerable as I believed. It had struck my father. There was no reason to think it’d spare these men and women. Or any of the men and women in the kingdom.
Was it worth it? Avenging Gran, Thomas, avenging the shifters who’d died? Freeing the shifters who remained? Getting an evil brute off the throne?
Brute. That’s what Cerise was. She could posture and pose in her velvet and lace, but she was more of an animal than the ones that ran beside me in the darkness.
She was human, too. She might be susceptible to her own plague. I wondered about that.
Then it occurred to me – Cerise was human.
Who had created the plague, then?
Just outside the tree line, the castle filled the horizon, massive and still. We waited. I felt my breath heavy in my chest – like pushing against a sack of sand with every inhale, flattened into emptiness on the exhale. It felt like the last memory you have before you die. It felt like holding onto every moment as time slows down, because you know you are walking into something you will never walk away from.
Someone handed me a knife. I should know who. Not everyone hands you a knife right before people start trying to kill you.
But I don’t know who gave it to me. I owe him or her my life. It was a melee, an explosion of blood, wet, dripping, covering the ground. Fin and I moved within the cocoon of the soldiers from the Summer Kingdom, knife clutched close to my chest, stabbing out like a desperate child. Truly. Like a child. They carried me. They kept me alive. I just kept pushing on.
As they spread out, as they died, I slid off Fin and worked my way forward on foot. I jabbed, ducked, threw my cloak out as a shield. Hood back, red hair in wayward knots, I fought my way through.
Next to me, suddenly, a black wolf appeared. Larger than the rest. Thick chested, jaw wide, smile friendly despite the huge salivating teeth. He yanked his head to the left. I followed around the side of the castle to an area just level with where the river was on the other side.
The giant black wolf gnashed his teeth, spit flying. He jerked his head to the door. It was made of dark wood, with iron slats across it and a heavy metal latch. A door to the dungeon cells. Where Gran and I had been imprisoned.
I opened the door. The steep, dark hallways and the smell confirmed where I was – the corridor into the dungeons. I smelled death in the main hallway before I had even reached the door to our cells, and I knew it was Gran’s body, still abandoned down here. But mixed with that was a sickening odor with a rotted sweetness beyond death that I now knew well. The plague.
Flinging the heavy wooden door to the final cell block open, I charged in, armed with nothing more than the small knife that the Summer soldier had given me before the battle. I couldn’t leave that horrid woman free for a moment longer to wreak whatever havoc she chose.
But when I caught sight of her, I stopped dead, sliding a little in the straw.
She sat in the cell Gran and I had occupied. She had placed the mirror on top of one of the pallets and had tucked herself close beside it, carefully stroking just the glass slowly with one finger, staying well away from the enchanted silver. The pinky of her other hand was stuck in her mouth, where she sucked it slowly.
Cerise looked nothing like a Queen anymore. Her face was haggard, and her black velvet gown was covered in straw and dirt. It looked like she’d been in that cell every moment since I’d escaped.
Propped up on the other pallet was Gran’s body, shriveled and wrinkled with age and death. Gran’s color had drained from her face and pooled into her limps – her face was waxen white, and her arms and legs were swollen blue.
I approached the cell at a slow walk, wary. If this was a trick, and I wouldn’t put it past Cerise to feign madness, I didn’t want to be caught off guard. As I opened the door into the cell, Cerise saw me in the mirror and smiled around her finger. Her teeth were grey-green, like they’d been left under water for a week.
Removing her finger, Cerise spoke, in a childish, high-pitched tone, “Little Red, little Red in her little hood, come to visit me! Have you greeted your Gran? She’s been waiting for you!”
I took two more steps forward, silent, and stopped, watching her. She continued in the same creepy child’s voice.
“Got a fever, I did. Bit under the weather. And some big black blotches. Very unsightly. But I’m strong. I’ll beat this. Your Gran will beat it too – she made it, you know. She created this. It’s her legacy. That’s what she gave the world. Death and you. Or are those things all that different after all?”
I felt sick as the pieces fell into place. It would have taken a powerful witch to create the shifter plague, and Gran was the most powerful in the Red Kingdom. Of course it was her.
“How did you get her to do it?” I asked, voice breaking.
Cerise rolled over towards me, wincing as she put pressure on her belly. I could imagine the dark blooms that decorated it.
“With you, of course, little Red. You were perfect leverage. You got the time you did because of me, because I let you. Don’t you think I always knew? Who you were? Who you could be? But Hannah, she wanted you to grow up free, though I don’t know why or from what – free from power? Free from riches? Stuck in a remote chamber living in rags? Ridiculous!”
Cerise faced me now, and her expression turned from vacant to crafty in a flash.
“Of course, you know, I don’t really need you. Not really. I’ll beat this little cold and take the Summer Kingdom myself. The King is nearly dead. Haven’t you heard? Once he’s gone, with my soldiers and shifters, I will take his throne. Don’t need you for that.”
Cerise lunged for me, springing from the pallet in a burst of rage propelled by a mad strength. She clamped both hands around the collar of my red cloak and pulled me down towards her. I thrust at her chest with my small knife, but missed as she twisted away. In response, she leaned over, stretched her neck and bit my hand hard, forcing me to drop the knife.
I pushed her forward then, hoping I could slam her head against the cell wall, knock her unconscious. But the mirror rested on the wall.
In a rain of breaking glass, I shoved her head through the mirror and into the wall where it stopped with a dull thud, like a rotten apple falling to the ground.
The glass remaining in the mirror shattered with the force of the impact and rebounded. A jagged slice fell, scything the side of her neck. Blood sprayed sideways from the cut artery, creating a red fan on the far wall and drowning the straw in blood.
I released Cerise in horror, stumbled away and fell to the ground, but still I couldn’t tear my gaze away. I watched her eyes glaze over, a small smile still on her mouth like she’d somehow won. She couldn’t have won. I refused to think that. The Red Queen was dead. My Gran was dead. The dark, complicated game they had played had cost the kingdom enough. It was over.
I lay like the dead, though a tiny thrill moved through me – the Queen was gone. That thought was a surge of fire that fought through the deadening layers of my heart. Gran was gone. Thomas, gone. And so many shifters. But the Queen was gone, and that was a lightning joy piercing my consciousness.
Slowly, I came back to full awareness. At first, the howling of the wolves outside was hard on my ears, like it was directly pushing, pounding into me. I could hear their thick paws heavy against the ground, their snapping teeth and throaty howling. The battle raged on, but I was numb, immune to it, a marionette moving through a three-act play. In a jerky daze, I reached for the brush that lay discarded in the straw and made my way to the corridor and out the side door Luke had shown me.
Like a broken ghost, I walked along the outer edge of the castle, letting my fingers trail along the stone as if it was but water. Somehow a low hum bubbled up within me, a dark phantom of a nursey rhyme. I closed my eyes as I walked, letting the frosted stone carry me until my fingers rippled across the wood of a door. A door I knew quite well – the side door just next to my Gran’s castle chambers. My instincts had led me home.
I swung the door open without resistance, light as a dried leaf on the winter wind. The corridor stretched out long, far longer than I remembered. It pulled me forward with dry fascination, like I was walking into the skin a snake had long shed. Then I smelled it – hot, sweet, rotting.
I flung the door open. On the surface, the chambers Gran and I had shared still smelled like herbs – and the smoldering echo of all we had sacrificed in the fire as we ran remained. Beneath that though, resonated the putrid darkness of the plague.
I moved forward blindly. Our old table stood stolidly to my left, no longer covered in witches’ detritus – frog skins, bat’s eyes, newts and herbs. It had only a thin layer of ash over it, almost dust, but not quite. It had the blackness of matter, of things burned and scattered to make room for the next breath.
Mine came hard and fast. The dust rose in a glittering cloud. Pushing my way through the shining motes, I flung back the curtains to Gran’s old room. Then I crumpled to my knees, dragging the curtain with me. It ripped and tumbled around me, heavy with history and embroidery.
Nick lay in Gran’s old bed, face drawn, eyes wide. His brows arched in knotted bridges while his deep brown, almost cognac, eyes pleaded with me.
“You came back. I knew you would. Late, but not too late. Just like always. We were meant to be, KC, you know…” He gripped my hand. I squeezed back as hard as I could.
Somehow, alone together, that felt like comfort. It felt like home. Like we could hold each other tight and stay forever where we had started – a laughing prince and a redheaded witch’s child. It was really all we had ever wanted. At the start.
“We could have had a kingdom… two kingdoms. We could have ruled the continent, you know that.” He trailed off, looking towards the wall vacantly, eyes bright and skin flushed. I knew that if I pulled up his shirt, I’d see the dark blood blossoms of the plague.
“I loved you… even before you were a princess. You know that, don’t you?”
Nick looked at me urgently, gripped my hands tight and tighter until the blood fled from my fingers and deep into my heart.
“I know, Nick. I do. I loved you too,” I said, trying so hard to reach him with my voice. To make sure that he knew, that he knew whatever came before or came after, that he knew I loved him, once upon a time.
When Nick died, he died quietly, far more quietly than he had ever lived. Just a sigh in my arms as his body grew unnaturally heavy, empty of anything but flesh and bone. I slid the ring – his ring – off the green ribbon where it still was wound around my neck and placed it back on his finger. It hung slackly. I crossed his hands across his chest. The ring gleamed coldly in the moonlight.
Then I fell forward onto Nick’s cooling body, like I was diving into a still pool. For a long, long moment I lay on top of him, spent.
Then my battle energy returned with the biting edge of panic and I catapulted back off Nick’s body. I stood and walked out into the corridor, trying very, very hard to lie to myself. To make myself stronger, so I could face what lay ahead. I wanted to believe the old saying: that which does not kill me, makes me stronger.
In that instant, all it made me was miserable. My teeth pressed hard against each other, jaw fixed to the point just before tears that would not come, and I took a deep breath in. Queen Cerise was dead. Nick, dead. Gran, dead. My father Arthur, the king of the Summer Kingdom, sick with the plague, and as good as dead.
In a blind burst of misery, with my teeth clamped hard, I walked away. Walked away from Nick’s cooling body, away from our ring that he now wore again, and walked away from the hard, dark corridors of my youth.
No one was there – not man, nor wolf, nor anything in between.
In fact, the castle grounds were now eerily quiet. I strode purposefully around the outer edge of the castle, towards the front gardens. The gardens were desolate with winter; the only beauty was the cobwebs of ice latticed across the bare shrubs. The fountain lay still, it’s ornate spire of marble soaring up from a pale blue frozen pool.
The memory of the last time I had been at this fountain, with Nick, the night Gran and I ran for our lives, flooded over me in a rush. I gasped like I was drowning, and maybe I was. Drowning in loss, drowning in death, drowning in what could have been.
I crumpled to my knees in front of the fountain, resting my forehead against its cold marble, arms flung over my head as if I could silence the tide of memory crashing through my head. I heard footsteps, but didn’t bother to look around. I didn’t much care whether I lived or died just at that moment. Both choices seemed like far too much trouble to be worth it.
The footsteps stopped. A person sat heavily beside me, reached out a hand the size of serving platter, and gently brushed my hair. He – Luke, it had to be Luke, it felt like him, it smelled like him, and I needed it to be him right then – let his fingers gently tangle through my curls. Without picking up my head, I spoke into the marble:
“Did we win?”
His fingers tugged a little as he laughed, short and low in his throat.
“We’re in control of the castle.” He paused, and added in a more serious tone. “I don’t think anyone won.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, lifting my head, staring at him with a flicker of madness behind my eyes, voice rising with a tinge of hysteria. “The Queen is dead. The Prince is dead. How can we not have won?”
Luke released his grasp of my hair and took my shoulders, drawing me up in an embrace beside him. He was warm and bright and exciting as fire. I leaned into his strength.
“Shhh, shhh,” he said into my hair. “First battle is tough. You’ve been through a lot. Take a moment.”
I nodded against his chest. He kept going.
“We got… lucky. Though that’s not the right word for it. Half the human Guard got sick over this past week. I’m afraid your friends… some of them, they’re pretty bad off. With me leading the shifter Guards and most of the humans out of play, well, it was a good day’s work, but pretty easily done.”
“Sick?” I croaked, a vision of the Queen, drawn and mad, and Nick, delirious with fever, clouding my eyes.
Luke squeezed me a little harder, rubbing my back.
“I’m afraid so. You’ll need to give instructions for tending to the sick as soon as we’ve secured all the prisoners, then probably reach out to any nearby villages. See how far this has gone.”
“No, no, no, no, no. I’m not in charge. You be in charge. You’re the Captain of the Queen’s Guard. You take over.”
He squeezed me again, even harder.
“It’s always been supposed to be you, Red. Your Gran knew that. Annabelle does too. And you know it.”
I shook my head, terrified. I’d wanted to do the right thing, every step of the way. Save my Gran. Free the shifters. But I had never really wanted to rule a kingdom, much less one about to be overswept by plague. A plague I had started and spread.
Pulling away from Luke, I let my hands fall heavily into my lap.
I yanked my hand up, then felt for what I had hit it on. The brush. I’d taken it with me when I’d fled the Queen’s death scene. Sliding my hand into the folds of my red cloak, I drew the shining silver object out.
“Silver?” asked Luke, puzzled.
Brimming with a sudden flush of hope, I turned to him, waving the silver brush.
“Silver. Melt it down. All of it. Starting with this brush and that ridiculous mirror. Then start on the tea service, the silverware, candlesticks… anything you can find.”
He nodded, black eyes bright and probing.
“Got an idea?”
I nodded. “Just a little one. About how to save the world.”
Once upon a time there was a redheaded girl who was in love with a charming prince. And also with a big, bad wolf. She brought death to the world while trying to do the right thing, wrapped up in a crimson cloak. It would take everything she had to stop what she had started. Good thing she was finally ready to begin.