The streets were a living, pulsing sea of bodies when I emerged from the Strip, and I had to try to hide the smug smile on my lips due to the clinking coins weighing down my pants pocket. The sun was high in the sky, and despite the hustle and bustle of everyday life here in the village there was still an undeniable chill that swept through the streets, coaxing goosebumps to dance on one’s’ flesh.
Autumn was taking a grip on the village, and it wouldn’t be long before its colder, more sinister sister sunk its icy claws into our homes. Winter.
Winter was a solemn time in the village. People were either mourning the loved ones they lost to the bitter cold or waiting and watching as another withered away from the season’s deadly diseases. That, and winter always meant the Order was on high alert.
Ever since I was a little girl, the first snowfall always meant more patrols and guns. More death. More witches. They were everywhere. Normally I couldn’t even make it into the Strip because they were scattered around the entrance, guns held high.
I hated them when I was younger because when the witches emerged from the Core like crawling bugs, it always meant kids in my orphanage would be dying. Some child would go to bed with an empty stomach and wouldn’t wake up again.
I was only five when I had the misfortune of asking Maggie why the High Witches hated winter so much and why they sent their troops to scour the village for unseen threats.
Pain exploded in my cheek, and soon the coppery taste of blood tickled my taste buds.
“You foolish girl! Do you wish for them to hear you?” Maggie sneered, her breath reeking of cigarettes and mold. Her old eyes darted back and forth like a cornered, paranoid animal.
I cringed back, fighting the urge to cup my cheek. “No, ma’am.”
“Then keep your damn mouth shut!”
I never really spoke to Maggie after that. As I got older, she did too. As I grew taller, she got smaller. As I filled out into the woman I was supposed to be, she shriveled into half of the person she once was; her skin as wrinkled and pruned as a dried raisin. I was honestly amazed she was still clinging to life.
I learned a few years later why the witches always freaked when snow started clinging to the ground. I had just turned twelve and one of the girls at the orphanage, Susie, had fallen dangerously ill. Considering none of the others in that god forsaken place took any responsibility for anyone but themselves, it was my job to scour and hunt for herbs that could be used as medicine for the dying girl. Maggie only showed a mild interest in any of us when we fell ill or it was certain we were going to die, so she’s the one that sent me out to begin with, with three copper coins in my pocket.
“Take these,” she said. “Bring back three peppermint leaves and a few drops of honey. I reckon that should do that trick.”
But why spend these precious coins when I could steal what I needed, and then some? Susie would surely get better if I stole more than three peppermint leaves and a few drops of honey. Plus, if I stole the herbs then I could spend the money on food for the kids. And me.
My stomach growled, as if seconding my idea, and I smiled.
“Wipe that smile off your face!” Maggie barked. “Did you hear me? Scat!”
I nodded once, sharply, and headed towards the door and ducked out of the shack.
Winter was in full swing, blanketing the landscape in beautiful ivorys and blues, which meant the black uniforms of the witches would be easy to spot. Icy snow flurried from the sky, creating low visibility for anyone. I crept down the alley leading into the main street, my boots crunching the freshly fallen powder beneath me. I ground my teeth.
Sure, my fraying leather jacket blended into the shadows well, but camouflage was nothing when the enemy would hear you coming from a mile away.
I had to work quickly.
I sprinted from one blanket of shadows to the next, my feet kicking up small clouds of snow in my wake until I made it to the Bootleg Trade, or in better terms, the black market. The Order knew it was there, just as we knew the actions we committed within it were extremely illegal. But even so, the Order continued to let our dark transactions commence as long as we continued to supply teenagers that they could use or transform into soldiers and more witches. It was somewhat of a silent agreement, I guess you could say.
They let us trade things and live, and we gave them our children to send off and slaughter. Sacrifice a few so many can live, or whatever.
Soldiers flanked either side of the Trade’s entrance - a small black door - their faces hidden behind ebony masks and fingers dancing on their triggers. I gave them a quick once over, my eyes automatically stopping on the seven pointed star sewn into their uniforms in silver thread, right over their left breast. A seven pointed star within a circle. The Order of the Seven’s symbol. Seven points for the seven High Witches, or Sages. Water, air, earth, fire, dawn, day, and night, and the circle to represent their unity.
Rage simmered within as I stared at that symbol. That symbol meant wealth, power, and prestige. Was that the only difference between me and the witches? A stupid thread symbol sewn into my clothes?
Just then a small figure dressed in a cloak so white it matched the descending snow made itself present. It was small, and the gender of the being beneath the ivory cloak was still a mystery, and my curiosity was automatically provoked. Obviously the guard’s was too becuase they suddenly became as straight as pins.
The one on the right lifted his gun, training it on the small clocked figure, his index finger itching on the trigger. “Under the order from the High Witches, I demand you state your business.”
Instead of responding like any sane person would do, the cloaked figure bowed at the waist, his nose nearly touching the snow at his feet as he did so.
Moments passed and the cloak was still bowed.
“State your business!” the guard on the left shouted, shattering lull that surrounded us like glass, and this time he too raised his gun. I could barely make out his frame in the blowing snow now, but yet the scope atop his gun winked at me over the distance between us, deadly and inviting.
I took a step forward, my heart hammering in my ears like roaring water. Ice crunched under my boot.
There was a distinct click I picked up over the howling wind, and the ivory cloak straightened and almost grew in size it seemed. I soon realized the click I’d heard had been the safety of the guard’s guns going off.
“Last chance,” Right Guard barked, this time tucking the butt of his rifle into the hollow of his shoulder. “State your business or I swear I’ll paint the snow red with your blood.” He practically growled the words, as if the cloak’s silence was somehow insulting. I mean, that was most likely exactly how he felt. Insulted. Who was this puny person to question him, a soldier of the Order, here in the center of town? At his post?
“You have three seconds.”
My heart pounded in my chest, begging to burst free and seek safety in my shack down the alley. But my feet were glued to the spot. No, rather, frozen, would be more like it. I couldn’t feel my toes, and my legs felt like thousands of pounds of lead each. I blinked rapidly, using my thumb and forefinger to dislodge flakes that had become frozen to my lashes.
This dumbass wasn’t going to move, was he? Living here, we only went by one guideline: survival of the fittest. And normally if you weren’t built like an ox, your brain tended to grow in size to balance that. It was obvious this small person, man or woman, hadn’t learned nature’s nasty little rule.
As impossible as it seemed my heart pounded even more frantically in my chest. Could they hear it? They had to hear it.
“I’m here under official business of the Queen.” I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of the twinkly, bird like voice that came out from under the hood of that beautiful ivory cloak. A woman’s voice.
Queen? We didn’t have any one queen. We had the Seven Sages, and four just happened to be females.
The wind that had been howling not seconds before seemed to stop and stand still. Flakes froze in mid air, looking like the night’s stars on a grey background.
I was surprised to see both guards blanch at the sound of the small woman’s voice, their arms suddenly shaky as if their weapons had became too heavy.
Were their multiple queens? I hadn’t even known there was one.
“Queen Maeve of the Winter Court. She wishes to remind your water Sage, Akan, that when the girl turns eighteen the power he holds over her will break. It’s already beginning to weaken as the years pass. Don’t you feel it?”
The guards may as well have been frozen ice statues because they weren’t even blinking.
I didn’t have to see the face of the person under the hood to feel it smile. I just knew it. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and it wasn’t because of the cold.
“Ah ha! You do feel it, don’t you?” the small woman cooed, her body shaking with her bell like laughter.
Left Guard jumped into action, training his gun on the puny woman’s chest, his body going rigid and the muscles of his arms shaking under the weight of his weapon. “Leave,” he commanded, though his voice shook slightly. “We’ll give Sage Akan your message, but I must ask you to leave and not come back or I’ll be forced to kill you.”
The wind picked up again, sending strands of white hair billowing in my face. I tucked the stray hairs behind my ear, not wanting to miss what was about to happen next.
Would the woman flee like she should? Or would she... stick around?
The woman moved her arms upward and grabbed the edges of her furry hood and sent it backward, revealing jet black hair that hung down to her waist like a waterfall of black ink. Even though the distance, I could surprisingly see her hands; small, frail, and pale. So pale they almost looked grey-blue.
I dug my fingers into the brick corner I was hiding behind in frustration. I still couldn’t see her face.
“How many guards does it take to deliver a message?” the woman with the inky hair asked.
“What?” the guards asked in union, taking a split second to glance at eachother in confusion. I shared their baffled looks.
“I said: How many guards does it take to deliver a message?”
Before the guards could utter another word, the woman raised her arm and gave her wrist a quick twist. A giant spike of opaque ice burst from the ground with a deafening crack, turning Right Guard into a human-on-a-stick in seconds.
Perhaps I screamed, but it didn’t matter because the roaring bark of gunfire filled the air and suddenly the woman in the white cloak flinched and the snow around her was stained blue.
Blue blood. The woman had blue blood.
My eyes flickered down to the corpse sprawled in the snow, bright blue blood pooling from her chest. A scream froze in my throat when I realized she was looking at me.
Finally, I was able to see the woman’s face. Just like her hands, her face was that greyish blue, almost dead looking. High cheek bones. Narrow nose. Her eyes were large and doe like and her iries could have been cut out of diamond.
Her large, beautiful eyes bore into mine, her mouth twitching and gasping to draw air into her now blown apart lungs. Slowly she raised her hand, curling her fingers into a small first and pointed. At me.
She saw me. She actually saw me.
I watched as her chest rose once more, her ivory cloak now stained a deep cobalt, and with one last wheezy breath she whispered, “You.”
I didn’t see if Left Guard followed her gaze or finger to where I was hiding in the shadows, because I was running. I was running back to the safety of my small shack. I was running back to the orphanage.
Needless to say, Susie didn’t make it that winter.
But that was then. This is now.
The children would survive this upcoming winter, and the coins dancing in my pocket were proof. I could win these magic duels easily enough. Benny was wrong. No witches were going to come out of the shadows and haul me off as their test subject. One human wasn’t worth their time.
The market - the one that wasn’t illegal - was bustling with sticky, sweaty bodies from the morning work and the stench was bad enough to make skunks flee in the other direction. With winter approaching fast everybody’s struggling to bring in their quota of crops, metal, or cloth for the year. The national deadline is the first day of January, my birthday, and the war’s anniversary.
Lucas, a boy in my orphanage that’s a year younger than me, always teases me and says that I’m the cause of the war. It started becase I was born, he jokes. Normally I just ignore him. That or he gets a backhand to the gut, but lately his comment stir something in me. And I don’t know what it is.
I made my way to the produce section, making sure to avoid stepping on piles of animal feces in the center of the streets. The air is thick with bartering voices and rude curses as I make my way to Chester’s stand.
Chester, a woman in her late forties - early fifties, sells fresh meat; like squirrels, rats, and sometimes animals as big as beavers and lynxes.
With her aged eyes she watches me approach, her mouth itching into a sly smile. Her thin, mousy brown hair is pulled into a loose braid that falls over her shoulder and I can’t help but think she looks like a princess of death with all the dead animals hanging around her on fraying ropes.
She grins as I pull the copper and silver coins from my pocket, letting them fall onto the rotting wood counter. “Well if it isn’t little miss Scotts. What bring you by today, dear?”
I glanced down at the coins.
She laughs. “Well with what you have, do you want me to get two squirrels down? My husband caught a badger last night in our smoke house and I know this,” she nods to the currency on the countertop, “won’t cover it but... Perhaps we can make a trade?”
I peered behind her at the grey and red squirrels dangling by their ankles, and then to the badger on the opposite side of her tent. At first glance the black and white stripes running down the center of it’s face made me think of a skunk, but then I caught a glimpse of its meaty legs and fatty rump. My mouth watered and my stomach ached at the thought of chewing on all that delicious, fatty meat. Two squirrels would barely feed four kids. Let alone seven. Eight including me.
I eyeballed the coins once more. with seven copper and two silver coins, two squirrels were all this money was really worth. What she was offering... I would be dumb not to take it. But first, I needed to know what I could be trading for that delectable, enticing badger.
“Name your price.”
Her sly smile grew larger. “Do you think you could train my son?”
My breathing stopped. “Excuse me, what?”
Her eyes scanned over my shoulders for any eavesdroppers. “Rumor has it you’re doing pretty good in the underground dules. You’re even using ice?”
Rumor has it? Benny was right. People were talking about it.
Chester continued, “But I was thinking maybe you could teach Rosco some magic for three, four squirrels a week? I don’t have any more and I wish I could give you more...”
If people were talking about my ice magic, this negotiation could be suicide. But when you were barely getting enough food a day, four squirrels a week was the universe’s early birthday present to me.
Chester stared at me, her eyes pleading as she anxiously rubbed her hands on her bloody apron. “So, what do you say? Do we have a deal? Is that a fair enough trade for you?”
If I refused, there was a good chance the kids would starve. And who says I couldn’t drag on Rasco’s “lessons” through the winter to guarantee food throughout the coldest season of the year?
I looked at the aging women in front of me, her grey hair blowing softly in the October breeze. “Five squirrels a week and you got a deal.”
Five squirrels a week through the winter was a lot, but if I was going to risk my neck for a little boy that wasn’t even my responsibility then I should get payed good, right? I tried hard not to think about how difficult it was going ot be to hunt, kill, and field dress the squirrels for my kids and myself, and still somehow find the time to hunt for themselves and their children.
Survival of the fittest.
If they wanted my help that bad, then they’d have to work by my conditions. Plus, I needed the meat. If I was helping Rosco wield the powers of the elements, I wouldn’t have as much time to go to the Strip and duel for money. It was a fair trade. Or at least that’s what I was telling myself.
Maggie was outside, sweeping dirt, leaves, and twigs from her door’s entrance when I turned the corner down our alley. The sun was still high but as the day progressed it seemed as if it gave off less heat. I could practically feel the temperature dropping, and though most people despised the cold... I loved it. Maggie wore the same, tattered blue dress she wore everyday, but this time a jacket that was a little too tight for her clung to her arms and shoulders.
My anger boiled.
“That’s not yours,” I accused, glaring profusely at the older woman who was supposed to be taking care of me and the other children, not the other way around.
Her cloudy, old eyes scowled at me under hooded, wrinkly eyelids. “It is now,” she snapped, but then her eyes traveled to the badger and red squirrel draped over my shoulder. Chester had given me an extra squirrel in thanks, and who was I to say no?
I clenched my free hand, my knuckles turning white with force as she smiled sweetly at me.
“I see you did well today.”
I said nothing. Just stared at her.
“Well, if you bring them into the house,” she motioned to her home opposite of the children’s and I’s shack, “I can cook those lovely creatures up for you. As long as I get some, of course.”
She was the nastiest woman I knew but she was still “legally” my gaurdian. I really didn’t have a choice as she reached a crippled hand for the rope the dead animals were tied too. But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t put up a fight. I held them high out of her reach. “You have to give Milly her jacket back first.” I replied cooly. “Then I’ll give you the meat.”
For being as old as time, the woman could still move remarkably fast. There was a sharp sting in my cheek, like a bee sting, and it took me a moment to realize she slapped me. Warm blood trickled down to my chin where her long, jagged nails had broken skin.
“You do not tell me what to do, little girl. Now give me the meat.”
Little girl. I gritted my teeth as my temper flared to life with a roar.
“Give Milly her jacket back,” I managed to grit out without screaming, still holding the carcasses high in the air.
Maggie scowled at me, resentment and hatred burning deep within her eyes and sunken into the wrinkles of her features.
The nasty hag’s eyes never left my own as she called Milly’s name and shucked off the jacket.
A small girl emerged from the shack, her honey blonde curls a birds nest atop her head. At the age of twelve, Milly was the eldest girl, second to me that lived here in the orphanage. She held a small straw doll in her first - one she made herself with my help - and her large brown eyes met mine. Her stained white gown hung loosely on her fragile form as she gave me a puzzled look that went between Maggie and I. Milly’s gaze traveled down our “caregivers” arm to the small leather jacket outstretched towards her.
Her coco eyes snapped up to mine once more, as if asking really?
I nodded, a small smile dancing on my lips despite the sting still resonating in my cheek. Milly quickly stepped up and snatched her jacket from Maggie’s grip before disappearing into the shack once more.
“There, she has her dumb coat back. Now give me the meat,” Maggie sneered, her lips curling back into a despicable snarl.
I stared at her a long moment before handing her the squirrel, and the squirrel only. “This is enough for you tonight. I can cook the badger.”
She stared at me, baffled by my clear defiance. “How will you cook it if you have no wood for fire?”
I shrugged. “I’ll find a way.”
She practically growled as she snatched the squirrel from my fingers and stomped back inside her broken house.
We ate good that night. I sent Jack, the only other seventeen year old, and Lucas out to hunt for things to cook the badger with while Steevy, Milly, Emma and I skinned and properly prepared the meat to eat; seasoning it with whatever we could find. Buddy, who was only four, and Lucy, who was three, just watched with wide eyes as we set the raw meat on a grate we found behind an old warehouse years before.
Jack and Lucas returned a few hours later with strips of cloth and a few pieces of rotten wood that would burn slowly but nicely and a handful of flint shards to create the flame.
All the kids pitched in as we pushed our bunk beds to the walls, creating a small space in the center of the room big enough for us all to sit crossed legged in a circle around the small fire. Taking two broken cinder blocks and positioning them on opposite sides of the fire, we balanced the grate with the dead, skinned badger sitting on it over the roaring flame.
Shadows danced on the walls from the glowing fire as the sun descended behind the mountain in the west.
After everyone had their fill of the fatty mammal, I wrapped the cooked badger in it’s previous skin, hoping to preserve it for another day while Jack and Lucas dressed the little ones for bed and pushed the beds back into their former positions.
A cry from the corner made me raise my gaze from tying the skin with spare strips of leather. Lucy threw her small fists into Jack’s chest, her face scrunched into a fierce scowl of determination.
“I want Evey to do it!” she cried, her dark hair flying around her head as she pounded her small, meaty fists into his chest. “Don’t touch me!”
Jack’s light eyes glowed in the candlelight and he gave me a pleading look, a small wire brush in hand. I chuckled and placed the cooked badger on top of the only dresser we owned before making my way to the toddler throwing the tantrum.
I kneeled in front of her as Jack handed me the brush with a groan and stalked off to his own cot in the corner of the shack.
“What’s going on over here?” I asked, toying with the bristles of the brush, running them over my fingers.
Fat tears fell from her electric blue eyes and she stuck her lower lip out in a pout. “I don’t want Jack to brush my hair. I want you do it.”
“You want me to do it?” I couldn’t help but smile.
I was fourteen when Lucy’s basket fell as Maggie’s doorstep, and considering Lucy was the youngest, I couldn’t help but think of her as my own child. We were different with our appearance in every way besides our eyes. Where she had midnight locks, I had hair as white as snow. Where she was tanned and golden from days in the summer sun, I was pale; practically grey. I’d pretty much raised her from birth, and once in a great while I even caught her calling me mommy.
“Pwease?” she whispered.
Leaning forward, I pressed my lips to her forehead. “Turn around then.”
She did as she was old and I pulled the wire brush through her dark hair, careful not to pull too hard when I found occasional knots. After her hair was brushed, I dressed her in a small blue nightgown that was so faded it was now a dirty grey and carried her to bed.
Standing over her, I leaned forward and kissed the tip of her nose. “Goodnight, Lulu.”
She was struggling to keep her eyes open. “Night Evey.”
“I love you.”
“Love you too.”
For some reason I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and listened to Emma’s soft snores above me for a few hours before sitting up and stretching my muscles. She didn’t moan her dead mother’s name that night, which was good. But for some reason I couldn’t fall into a deep sleep like her. I envied her.
I couldn’t shake the feeling of unease. I could have sworn a parrot crawled in my ear because Chester’s and I’s conversation kept replaying over and over in my mind.
Were people really talking that much about me doing ice magic?
I thought of Lucinda and her vengeful sneer when she caught a glimpse of my icy arrows. Perhaps she told people in angry spite.
Hours passed, and still, sleep did not come to whisk me away into it’s warm, silky current of unconsciousness. Normally the snores and mumbles of the seven kids dreaming around me was my lullaby, able to send into blissful darkness any other night. Why tonight was different was a mystery to me.
Pale light from the moon spilled through the broken glass window on the wall, causing shadows to dance and play on the walls as if it were a warm summers day and I wasn’t right next to them, suffering from insomnia.
Just then, the door a few yards from my bunk squeaked. Only slightly, but enough to make my muscles freeze in place.
It’s just the wind, I tried to convince myself.
But I wasn’t persuaded when booted footsteps echoed on the stone floor and the blood froze in my veins despite my raging heartbeat. Someone was in my home, and judging by the heaviness of the footsteps, it wasn’t Maggie.
Slowly, oh so slowly, I inched my hand to the edge of my mattress. If I could only get my fingers around the blade I hid underneath, I would have a chance to fend off this intruder. I squeezed my eyes shut.
The footsteps slowly got louder and closer, making my heart thud in my ribs faster than a hummingbird’s wings. Suddenly a cool, smooth hand closed around my wrist that was inching towards the edge of the mattress; searching for my dagger.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sweetheart,” whispered a smooth, silky voice in my ear, sending chills running down my spine.
My eyes snapped open and a scream lodged itself in my throat.
A hooded figure crouched over me. A hooded figure with a silver belt that I’d seen only once before.