Wicked Winter

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Chapter 16

We waited for hours, stashed in an old broom cabinet like wilted sacks of flour. Vibrations shook the ground, and the undeniable screams of fae and witches melted through the door and into my skin like a leaching, nerve-numbing cold.

“Not much longer,” Foster promised, just as gunfire ignited outside in the hall. He sat next to me, his shoulder resting against my own. It was so dark, I could only make out the brief outline of his face.

“What about my mom?” My voice was lacking emotion. I felt raw over what I’d done.

“She can hold her own. Her only instructions were to keep you safe and to stay with you.”

I rubbed my hands together, running them down the soft fabric of my nightgown.

I believed Foster. I knew my mother could hold her own, just as I knew he could. But something inside me of wanted to run out into the fray of gunfire, magic blasts, and bombs to retrieve her.

I understood they were here for me, that much was obvious. But why? “Why are they here?”

“For you,” he said.

“Obviously. But why? What would they want with me?”

I felt Foster squirm next to me, and he was silent. When I thought he wouldn’t answer, he sighed. “They want you because if they can kill you before you take the crown, the Winter Court will fall.”

“Well why won’t Maeve just put the crown on my head and get it over with already? She could’ve done it the second I got here. I would’ve done it with no questions asked, and you know this. She’s my mother, and though I don’t know her as much as I would like too, she’s still family. The only family I have. I’m not sure about faerie morals, but from where I come from, you take care of your own.”

Foster began to chuckle, a soft, mesmerizing hum that sent my blood singing. I shook it off and bristled. “What?”

“You’re so different from the others,” he snickered, but then sighed. He sounded tired, and I could hear the hurt in his voice.

“What others?”

Just then footsteps sounded outside, and Foster put his hand over my mouth. I could taste the saltiness of sweat on his palm, and smell the scent of evergreens and fresh air lingering on his surcoat. I shifted under his hand, gently pulling it from my face.

He didn’t even glance in my direction. Instead his eyes were trained on the shadow below the door. The only thing separating us from whoever stood on the opposite side was a thin slab of wood.

The doorknob rattled... and then it stopped. I strained my hearing, but all I picked up was harsh whispers, too distorted for me to decipher. The shadow moved away from the door.

There was a splintering crack that sent my heart racing, followed by human screams. I cowered into Foster’s chest, fisting my fingers in his shirt, trying to keep them from shaking. It was no use. While I quivered like a newborn foal trying to keep its footing, Foster was a statue, completely motionless. I almost couldn’t tell he was breathing.

A howl of rage came from the other side of the wood, and the humans screamed again. They were closer - I could see their shadows dancing under the door. A woman screamed for a third time, but it was cut short by a crunch, and soon thick liquid started seeping under the door.

I tried to scurry away from the blood, tucking my feet under myself, but it was no use. It wasn’t long before the heat from the blood began soaking through my nightgown, causing my stomach to clench and groan.

The doorknob rattled again and the door flew off its hinges, soaring to the air before bursting apart in splinters on the opposite wall of the kitchen. An orc stood in the doorway, his shoulders hunched and his black beady eyes glared down upon us. He snorted, as if sniffing the air, and grunted. He held a large club in his left hand, and a dark stain was starting to seep into the wood.

Foster got to his feet, not saying a word and helped me up. It was hard to stand after being stuck in the broom cupboard for God knows how long. Something warm squished between my toes, and even though I knew I shouldn’t have looked down, I did.

A woman, no, a girl, with fiery red hair lay at my feet. My stomach crawled up my throat when I realized I knew this girl.

Her pale face was littered with freckles, and she looked peaceful in death, almost beautiful. I ground my teeth as I stared into her open, unblinking eyes. They were green - the shade of emeralds or and rolling green hills. Her mouth was open, frozen in a silent scream that only angels could hear. A large, gaping wound ate up most of her head, the bone completely caved in. The orc must’ve bashed her skull in with the end of his club.

Lucinda wasn’t a friend, not even close. If anything, she probably hated me for what I’d done to her - humiliating her in front of all of the other dulers back home... But that’s just it. She was from home, a little reminder where I came from, and I lost it.

I ran a corner in the room and vomited, the stench of last nights meal not nearly as appealing as I remembered.

A cold hand touched my arm, and I jerked back. Foster stood behind me, his eyes cold and unfeeling. How he could turn off his humanity was unknown to me. It was as if there was a switch inside of him, and whenever it was convenient he would flick it off and become the steel-willed soldier his army needed him to be. His face was hard but his touch was soft. “We need to keep moving. Your mother is waiting for us in the Throne room.”

I nodded, using the back of my arm to wipe at my mouth. Foster helped steady me as we slinked through the shadows, clinging to the cover of darkness. We didn’t see many witches, only a handful, but they were either fatally injured or fleeing a pack of murderous faeries.

Some parts of the castle were in ruins, burning and sending billows of smoke unfurling in the air like beacons for help, while others lay completley unscaved. I’m not sure how the witches did that much damage, but I was sure it was some sort of heavy artillery they only saved for special occasions.

When we reached the Throne room, I was shocked to see hundreds of witches huddled in the middle of the room. Their faces were dirty and blood soaked, their eyes sharp and unwavering. They knelt on the floor, some with her hands in the air, others cradling gushing wounds. I didn’t recognize many, and the ones I did, I’d only passed by on occasion in the Academy. I could tell from their hateful stares, they recognized me too.

Dozens of elves from the Aubrey Army stood around the circle of prisoners, their icy spears leveled with the witches skulls. I couldn’t see their faces behind their silver helmets, but I could only imagine the murderous hint glinting in their eyes.

My gown was heavy with blood, and I fought for my footing as I left crimson footprints on the cool ice. I had to step over a dead elven soldier to reach the throne where my mother sat, her chin held high.

She looked as perfect as ever. Not a hair out of place. Her crystal eyes flicked to me, and her shoulders relaxed. She didn’t get up to greet me, but instead gave me a curt nod in which I returned tentatively.

Foster bowed before his queen, murmuring something I couldn’t hear. She nodded, and stood.

“You dare launch an attack on the Winter Court?” she boomed, her face twisted in fury. The sea of witches huddled together even tighter, their faces blanched with fear. “You follow your Sages out of fear, not admiration or love. But let me tell you,” she hissed towards the witches, “you don’t know real fear. You pathetic human filth don’t know pain and suffering. And being the generous queen that I am, I will gladly educate you on the manor.” She clasp her hands in front of her. “When I am done with you, you will be begging for death. You will be pleading for me and my court to kill you. But only when I see fit, will you die.”

The room was silent. No one dared speak, or even breathe. Queen Maeve motioned behind her, and a low growl emerged into the room, making the marrow vibrate in my bones.

Claws clicked and scraped against the cool, hard floor as a wolf with three heads emerged from behind the throne, sandy blond fur rippling as muscle and tendons bunched beneath its flesh. Two out of the three heads turned in my directed, catching me in its heavy glare. Something clicked in its eyes, and soon its lips pulled back to reveal a mouthful of black, gleaming fangs. “You,” the heads snarled in union. “You killed our brother, Omen.”

I was suddenly whisked back into the past, back to the night where Sebastian was bringing me to see the Sages for the first time. I could almost smell the rotting breath of the ebony wolf as its two heads snapped its jaws in my direction. I could almost see the flashes of lightning as Sebastian tried to overcome the wolf lunging for his throat.

“Don’t be stupid, barghest.” Foster warned, his blade level with the wolf’s black glare.

The canine snapped its fangs close the edge of the blade, but soon prowled to the queen’s side, its shoulders tense as it stalked. The queen glanced down at the hellhound and smiled sweetly. “Come, Cerbus. You’re dinner awaits.”

All three head’s stared up at her with unyielding devotion before turning back to the quivering herd of witches on the Throne room floor.

The wolf snarled with gleeful triumph as it stalked closer to the unprotected humans, its black eyes gleaming in the dim light. One head gave an excited bark, its voice bouncing off the walls, while the others snapped their jaws and licked their lips.

The predator circled its prey, picking out which victim would be the easiest to kill. It got so close it actually brushed up against a few witches who squeaked when its fur touched their skin.

But then it froze, its eyes locking on something in the back of the pack. The barghest crouched low, its lips pulled back in a snarl as it prowled low like a slinking, all-consuming fog.

I could feel the tension in the air. Everyone’s eyes were on the golden wolf.

One head tilted its muzzle towards the sky and let out a ear-splitting howl before charging into the crowd, leaping, and sinking its fangs into a man’s throat.

I had to look away, but the undeniable crack of bone sounded like a gunshot in the silent room. Ripping and tearing followed. When I finally calmed my stomach enough, I glanced up. A fine spray of crimson lingered in the air, and the witches who were surrounding the man screamed and scurried away.

The wolf and its victim were now in view. Bright red blood pooled from the man’s torn neck, gushing out onto the slippery ice like a crimson waterfall. The wolf slipped, using its claws to dig into the ice to keep from falling on the blood. Its muzzles, which were still tearing open the man, were soaked in red, its fur matted and clumped.

The queen smiled. “Beautiful,” she murmured. Bunching up her dress, she stepped over the same dead elf I had earlier and continued down the steps. The witches watched her with paralyzing fear as she approached, their eyes wide and bodies stiff as a board.

My mother pointed to an older woman with thinning hair and wrinkles around her eyes. “Come here.” The woman’s eyes hardened in resolve, and she spit at the Winter Queen’s feet. My mother only smiled. “Foolish human.”

She didn’t even have to lift a finger, but the woman was lifted off the ground by an invisible hand. The witch clutched her throat, her dark brown eyes bulging out of her skull. Her legs kicked helplessly as she thrashed in the air. In a blink of an eye, the woman soared through the air before shattering like glass on the wall.

I couldn’t move, my feet glued to the spot as I stared at the pile of icy shards that used to be a human woman. My mother broke her like a vase, ripping her from existence without lifting a finger.

Women began to cry, cowering closer toward each other. Men closed their eyes, their lips moving rapidly in silent prayers, and my world swayed. Was this what being Queen of the Winter Court meant? Murdering people in cold blood? My mind traveled up the stone steps and into the small child’s room where Zafira lay, her body frozen solid.

I don’t think I can do this.

“Cerbus,” my mother called, and the wolf looked up from its meal, licking blood from its muzzles. It bounded over to her, rubbing up against her leg. “You’re not full yet, are you?”

The three heads blinked at her, saying nothing.

She nodded her head, a smug smile playing on her lips. She splayed her hands out for all fae. “Enjoy!”

Redcaps, phookas, and cucui swarmed into the room and more fae I couldn’t name. The witches shrieked in terror as the monsters closed in, attempting to flee through the open doors. Ogres and orcs blocked their path, sometimes bashing them with their clubs like tiny bugs.

A watched as an iele, almost identical to the one that attacked Sebastian and I so long ago, stalked a teenage boy. It’s sleek silver coat glimmered like coins in the light, its slitted yellow eyes narrowing. I could hear the steady hum of its growl and could only imagine what was going through the boy’s head. The big cat stalked low to the ground, its tail twitching in anticipation, its claws completley unsheathed.

The boy spun quickly on his heels, but it was too late. The iele had taken the opportunity and pounced at his open, unprotected back. I squeezed my eyes shut as the cat’s canines sank into the boy’s throat, crushing his vertebrae in one quick snap of its jaws.

Redcaps swarmed the humans like hungry piranhas, skinning and eating them alive until there was nothing left but a heap of stripped bones. Phookas played with their prey, hanging them upside down by their ankles with their blacks claws, their bright green eyes shining with wicked glee.

The only three beings in the room who were murdering or running for their lives were my mother, me, and Foster. Foster stared at the chaos unfolding around us with a calm mask over his features. His hand was on his sword, in case a witch or fae got too close, but otherwise he seemed almost completely unfazed by all the blood shed.

I understood he hated humans. After all, humans and fae had been at war for over seventeen years, and even before that they had tense relations. They’d both murdered thousands of eachothers kind. Sour feelings were understandable. But this was a massacre; the witches were nothing but cows and swine lining up for the slaughter.

I was repulsed by the fact Foster didn’t try to stop his troops from spearing defenseless men and women with their icy spears.

I couldn’t take it. My stomach heaved, my eyes stung with unshed tears, and it felt as if I had a large rubber ball stuffed in my throat. I had to get out of here.

I ran from the room, pushing past soldiers, fae, and helpless witches. I tried to ignore the forlorn stares and cries for help that followed me out of the room. What could I do? Nothing. If I dared lift a finger, I would be going against my mother. And then there would be no way in Hell that she would allow me to take the throne, and then the Winter Court would fall. And though I’d only been here a couple days, I was slowly growing to love the cold, the bitterness and cruelty.

It’s just the fae blood in my veins, I tried to reason with myself. That was the only reason why I loved it so much, right? It had to be.

I took the stairs to my room two at a time, flinging my door open and rushing in. There were no servants, of course, they were probably all in the Throne room murdering people I once knew, or hiding from the witches earlier and fruitless bombardment.

I tore at my gown, desperate to get the blood-stained fabric off my skin. It was as if I could feel the life still clinging to it, and it haunted me. The gown ripped in half and fell to the ground in a heap, and I kicked it away with a sob. Frantically I scratched the blood from the fallen from beneath my nails, from my arms and legs and feet. I scratched myself raw, my skin pink and puffy when I was finished. My vision was blurred by my tears, and my voice was obscured by my screams.

How could they do that? How could they murder all those innocent people? How could I murder Zafira? Oh my God. I murdered Sebastian’s sister. What had I done? I hadn’t let myself really think about it, but now that I was alone... The images wouldn’t stop.

The blood, the ice, the tearing of flesh and bone, and the screams... Oh the screams! I could still hear them! Why wouldn’t they stop?

It wasn’t until my throat was raw and I choked on blood that I realized they were my own screams I was hearing, my own screams that were tearing through my chest like a knife.

I’m not one hundred perfect sure how I ended up curled in the corner of my room, right beside the tub, but I did. I was naked, my torn gown in the middle of the floor where I’d left it. I shook so hard my teeth chattered fiercely, sending waves of pain through my jaw. My body quaked, completely physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. My eyelids drooped. I couldn’t sleep... I knew without a doubt that if sleep whisked me away, nightmares would be waiting, their sticky claws greedy and desperate to sink themselves into my brain.

But despite my best efforts, my lids finally closed and it wasn’t long before my prediction came true. The nightmares were waiting.

I think someone might’ve come up to check on me, because when I woke, I was nestled in the soft cocoon of my bed, and my ripped nightgown wasn’t in the middle of my floor anymore.

When the memories of the day before started rushing through my skull, I groaned out of heartache.

A maid rushed over to the side of my bed, her big blue eyes large and earnest. She had pale, beautiful skin like everyone else in the Winter Court, and a light lavender brain felled down her back. She bowed. “Princess, is everything alright? Do you wish for some soup, or perhaps I could fetch you some refreshments?”

I waved her away with my hand, not caring if I seemed rude or not. I wasn’t in the mood. “Just let me sleep.”

She looked undeniably uncomfortable. “Um, your majesty,” I was never going to get used to hearing that, “you’ve been sleeping for three days. I’m suppose to bring you something to eat or drink. Queen’s orders.”

My eyes popped open. “Three days?”

She nodded. “So do you wish for me to bring you soup, water, wine...?”

“Uh, just get me some water, thank you.” The small fae bowed at the waist, her light blue uniform billowing around her.

When she left, I sat up with another groan. My muscles ached, my eyes burned, and my head pounded. I felt like I’d chugged three barrels of the world’s most potent faerie wine, and I was suffering from the worst hangover in history.

My mind helplessly wandered away, drifting between nightmare and reality. I kept replaying the murders I’d witnessed in my head. The way the woman shattered like an ice cycles on the wall, or the small teenage boy, or, or... Zafira.

A lump formed in my throat as I relived the look in her eyes, the gasping off her breath as she slowly and painstakingly transformed into a statue of hard, polished ice. She looked at me the same way Sebastian had when my glamour dropped and he finally saw what I really was...

I swallowed hard, shaking my head and trying to dislodge those nasty thoughts from my mind. There was nothing I could do now. What’s done was done, and I couldn’t change the fact that I was the one that murdered her. And I couldn’t change Sebastian’s feelings towards me.

Or my feelings for him...

With a huff of frustration I flung the covers off my legs, relishing in the cold that lulled around me like a soft cloud. My footsteps were silent as I padded my way over to the vanity, not sure why I wanted to look at myself in the first place.

I definitely wasn’t the Eve that hobbled into the Academy with Sebastian on her side. I wasn’t the same girl that fought so desperately for his love, and I wasn’t the same girl that broke his heart. I wasn’t the same.

The girl staring back at me had large circles under her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept in days, though it was the exact opposite. The hollows in her cheeks were prominent - it looked as if she hadn’t eaten...

But the baggy eyes and protruding bones were somewhat of a norm for me. I was used to them. The one thing that scared me the most was the girl’s eyes... So haunted and so fragile. The light blue was almost completely eaten up by the fiery purple, but they seemed dull - almost dead.

I guess people were right. The eyes were the window to the soul.

The door open with a small whine, and I expected to see the same servant from earlier, but instead Cleon entered the room carrying a small silver goblet in hand. She bowed when she reached me and handed me the goblet when she straightened.

I took the cup, lacing my fingers around the cold metal. “Thanks.”

She didn’t say anything. Instead, she motioned for me to sit at the vanity and I was too tired to argue. I took a seat, the plush coutin soft against my back side.

Cleon ran her long black talons through my hair, her slitted eyes roaming over every strand. “Your hair is much more fair than your mother’s.”

“Thinner?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No, I mean lighter in color. I used to do her hair.”

This pricked a string of confusion inside me. “Used to?”

She shrugged. “As in the past.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know what used to means. I was asking why you stopped.”

I must’ve hit a nerve, because she suddenly yanked a little harder on my hair, twisting strand elegantly around each other. “You ask a lot of questions, Princess.”

I could feel the heat rushing to my cheeks. “Sorry.”

Cleon’s bright eyes met mine in the mirror. “You have no reason to be sorry. I was just stating that you ask a lot of questions, especially with this paper-thin human skin.” The claw on her index finger traced my jugular lightly, carving a path of goosebumps where her finger touched my skin.

She must’ve saw the terrified expression on my face, because I caught a glimpse of a shallow smile in the mirror. “You’re gutsy,” she explained. “That’s all.”

I squirmed in my seat, trying to subdue the heat that ignited in my cheeks. “Oh.”

Cleon played with my hair for a few more minutes, pinning strands here and there, spinning my chair for a full three-sixty view. When she was satisfied she finally allowed me to get a peek at myself in the mirror.

My face was still bland, but my hair was bound in a simple yet beautiful fishtail braid that wrapped around the circumference of my skull with small lilac and white flowers woven into the braid.

“Now for the face.”

I tried not to notice there was a lot more makeup on the table than it was the first time the servants did my hair and makeup. I had no doubt that it was due to the dark circles that had plagued me since childhood, and I highly doubted a little paint could make them go away.

No other servants enter my room - only Cleon was present. I watched as the candlelight flickered off her ebony scales like winks of stars. She payed no attention to me, only to my face and the paints and powders on her pallet.

It took a little longer than expected, but when she spun my chair around for a second time, I realized I was wrong. All those paints could get rid of the dark circles. And the blemishes, and pits and scars that I’d earned from years in the Village. I looked airbrushed, polished, and porcine. My lips were painted a deep blue which was a wonderful offset for my eyes, and bright silver liner framed my eyes. The apples of my cheeks glowed a youthful pink, and even though I knew it was fake, I was amazed by how young and healthy she made me look.

“You’re brilliant,” I whispered as my fingers caressed her work.

She flashed her fangs in a daring smile. “A painter needs a good canvas to work.”

I wasn’t sure how or why, maybe it was her spunk, but she somewhat reminded me of Nicola, and my heart squeezed. “Thank you.”

The smile slowly dropped from her lips. “The pleasure was mine.” With a curt nod she headed for the door. She pulled on the knob and walked through the threshold, only to pop her head back in. “The queen wants you downstairs for a late brunch. She wasn’t to discuss the plans for the ball we’re throwing in your honor.”

I gulped. “She was serious? And what about the castle? It’s in ruins!”

Cleon rolled her slitted eyes. “Do not worry about the castle. Instead you should be worrying about what to wear. General Quinn will be there you know, and he has his eye on you.”

My heart stopped and a thousand questions came to mind, but when I opened my mouth to ask, she snickered and shut the door.

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