Wicked Winter

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Chapter 8

They led me through the camp, and I couldn’t help but feel like an exhibit that just opened and everyone wanted to get a sneak peek of what lay inside. I still swayed on my feet, the man’s huge hand cupping my elbow, a steady support, his fingers as strong as steele. For a split second I wished they were Sebastian’s fingers, his touch gentle despite his hard eyes.

Blood trickled down my bottom lip, but I didn’t feel any pain. I used the tip of my tongue to inspect in inner walls of my mouth, feeling around until I noticed the hole in my inner cheek, the flesh inside mushy against my tongue. That’s going to need stitches.

Up close, I could see the large black tents were made out of silk, their ebony canvasses like glass under the high sun. The second largest tents were made of silver, cotton infused with metallic strands of silk that kept seducing my gaze. The smallest and unappealing tents, the white ones, were shabby and stained, the once white cotton now yellow from wear and tear of war.

I always assumed witches were treated like royalty, even in the army camps. I always figured they were respected. Was this what respect looked like? I found myself marveling at the diversity amongst the witches. It seemed even the highest division of beings still had a high and low class.

I guess I was just as low as they come. Well, I was anyway.

The white tents - if things ended as I feared - were probably going to be my sleeping quarters one day. I would become a witch, a soldier in the Order’s army, and camps like these would become my home.

We shuffled down the compacted roads through the labyrinth of makeshift buildings - the bald man, me, and a group that started to form around us, like how gostlings tail their mother.

My heartbeat increased slightly when a single black tent, probably one of the largest in the entire camp, stood tall at the foot of the road, a short, stocky man standing in the entrance.

The man, whose dark hair was shorn to his chin, glanced at me, his black eyes narrowing at the sight of me. He was pale, his skin seemed to be sundered from granite, and an accumulation of angry scars littered his forearms. He looked vicious - a wolf among sheep, like he’d seen war and went back for more eagerly. Predator against prey, and I couldn’t help but gulp when we stopped only three feet in front of him.

He wore the same color every other witch wore: black, with the Order’s crest sewn into the fabric and a heavy leather belt clinging to his hips. Weapons of every variety hung by his waist: knives, throwing stars, daggers, axes, and even a sword winked at me in the sunlight.

He stared at me, a slightly amused smile tugging at his lips as he said, “And who might you be, little miss? You must be important, getting Ulirc here to escort you to me and all. And by all means, why are you bleeding?”

The man holding me up, Ulric, bowed, his eyes glued to his feet. “Sir, this girl brings news from Count Sebastian.”

The man in front of me whom I presumed to be Fritz, nodded, his eyes holding a wicked gleam. He put his hands on his hips. “Aye, out with it then lass. What is it you need?”

I wasn’t quite sure I could find my voice. “Um, a code blue.. Sebastian said it was a code blue.”

The cocky smirk dropped from Fritz’s lips, his eyes rounding in surprise. “A code blue you say?”

I nodded. “I think so. That’s what he told me,” I quivered. The world swayed around me, the copper taste in my mouth was almost hot. I needed to sit down.

Fritz nodded, almost to himself as he surveyed the group that had gathered around us. He pointed to a thin boy around my age with mousy brown hair and large, frightened eyes. “You there! Yes. Come boy, come! I need you to fetch Count Sebastian. Find him. Tall bloke with dark hair and a tattoo of a moon under his eye. Think you can do that?”

The kid nodded franticly. “Yes sir,” he murmured.

Fritz hit him on the back, hard enough to make his teeth rattle. “Off with you then! Hurry!”

Soon his finger landed on he, his once teasing eyes now as hard as stone, almost frightened. “You come with me.” He motioned for a woman with salt streaked hair. “Fetch a healer to see to her wounds. And make it fast.”

The older woman nodded and bowed before turning briskly on a heel and strutting away from us.

Ulirc had let my elbow go, leaving me to swoop and sway on my own as I stumbled after Fritz. We entered his large tent, and I was amazed to see it was more elaborate than my dorm back at the academy; large rugs of red velvet and golden silk coating the floor. Large drapes clung to the walls, embroidered with dark beading and silver gems that glimmered in the little light that filtered through the opening in the tent.

Fritz’s tent was one large room, a huge canopy bed in one corner, a gas stove in another, and large chairs and couches in the middle to comply for a living room.

I stopped and wavered in place, fighting to keep my balance. I just wanted to sit down, to rest, to set my head in my hands and close my eyes. Fritz must’ve saw my internal dilemma because he turned around and placed a hand on my arm, letting me settle my weight on his shoulder. “So Bash sent you, yes?” He asked, his voice rumbling in his throat. What was up with all male witches having scary, deep voices?

Fritz let me towards a chair where I could finally sit down, my knees almost ready to give out.

“Yes.”

“Are you sure he said code blue?”

I nodded, not bothering to answer this time. I let my head roll to the side, not having the energy to lift it. My head hurt so bad and I felt like I was going to puke.

“Is there anything else I need to know? Did Bash say anything else that might be useful?” It took me a moment to comprehend what he was asking, and I was duly interested in why he was calling him ‘Bash’. I thought only friends had nicknames. Were they close?

I groaned. Couldn’t he just let me sleep? “Yes,” I croaked. “He said you were to send for the Water Sage, Akan.”

Fritz’s eyes widened, his lips straightening into a firm white line, but I was too tired to care.

Suddenly the entrance of the tent pulled back, bathing the interior in light for a moment before it died and a small woman stood by the opening, a square briefcase in hand.

“I’m here to see to a young girl’s wounds.”

With Fritz’s command she flittered to my side, her black cloak flowing around her feet. She wasn’t old, not by any means. If anything she was my age or younger, her cheeks rosey and her emerald eyes bright. She golden hair was pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, and her fingers were gentle as they poked and prodded the tender flesh on my hairline.

“My, you must’ve took a nasty fall,” she mentioned with concern, her eyebrows knitting together. I didn’t want to talk, and shaking my head seemed to take too much effort, so instead I decided to go with a low grunting sound. It seemed to do the trick, because she chuckled and stopped talking to me. At this point I just wanted to lay down and calm my rolling stomach. With a sigh I closed my eyes.

“It looks like she may have a concussion,” the woman said, not to me.

“How bad?” asked Fritz. I heard footsteps come closer.

There was shuffling beside me, and the snap of a button. “Judging by the way she’s struggling to keep her eyes open, bad enough. She has a nasty cut on the crown of her head and I still need to check her mouth.” Another snap. “But I have a few herbs in my satchel that should make the pain go away -”

They seemed far away now, the hauntingly seductive call of unconsciousness dragging me further and further into darkness. Slowly I started to detached from the world, my consciousness only a tiny light, a burning candle down a long tunnel before it snuffed out altogether and I was bathed in blissfully cool sleep.


The world was fuzzy when I came to, my vision blurred and my hearing far from working properly. Something cool was placed over my forehead, slightly damp and moist.

It was night, Fritz’s tent was bathed in darkness and I watched as a silver sliver of luminesces danced on the rugged floor, taunting me to leave the safety of my bed and venture out into the cold night. Soft snores came from the other side of the tent, and once my vision adjusted to the darkness, I recognized Fritz, his thick arms and dark, chin length hair, sprawled over one of the intricate couches. It looked like he hadn’t even bothered to change clothes.

It was chilly despite the warm bed I was laying on, and for a few long minutes I layed on my side, listening to the sounds of camp at night. The murmur of soldiers and witches off in the distance danced over the breeze, a soft caress against my ears, like a quiet lullaby, and I found myself relaxing into the covers. My muscles unclenched, and I finally let myself melt into the mattress - a flower blooming, unclutching at the first sign of daybreak.

Except there was something nudging, poking, pestering the back of my mind, like an annoying itch that wouldn’t go away. Only I couldn’t think of what it was. I couldn’t picture it until I glanced at the large grandfather clock to my left, and my heart stopped.

Eleven fifty at night. I had ten minutes until I was supposed to meet someone in the woods.

All of a sudden something shifted beside me, and I froze.

Slowly, I moved my head and about swallowed my tongue when a familiar pair of golden eyes glared up at me through the darkness not six inches away.

“Going somewhere?” he purred, his eyes narrowing in accusation.

“Sebastian, what are you doing here? And why are you sleeping next to me?”

I about screeched, my cheeks flushed a deep scarlet. Fritz snorted and tossed on the other side of the room before his soft snores filled the tent again. My tongue felt heavy in my mouth, bruised, but I didn’t give it much thought. How could I when there was a very sexy, very alluring Sebastian O’Neill lying not two feet away?

Now it was his turn to look embarrassed. “Some boy found me in the woods while I was on my way to warn Akan about the code blue. He told me you were hurt and I...” My heart swelled while I waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. Instead, he shook his head. “I don’t know. I just came back and you were bleeding from your head and Fritz had to round up a regiment to go stomping through the woods to look for more fae. Someone had to stay with you and I must’ve fallen asleep.”

I nodded, but I couldn’t keep the smile from inching its way onto my face. He came back for me. “Oh.”

He actually came back for me. Which meant... He had to care. He wouldn’t come back for someone who meant nothing to him, correct? Why bother?

But he did come back for me, and for some gay reason that meant more to me than if someone would give me a sack of gold out of their own pocket.

I could barely see his face in the darkness, the lines around his eyes, full of confusion and anger, and maybe even a little worry. They suddenly turned to yellow slits. “But where are you going? I felt you rustling around, and when I turned over, your legs were practically hitting the ground running.”

I shook my head, blood pumping through my veins. Oh shit, I was caught.

What was I going to say? That I had to use the restroom or something? Surely he wouldn’t go for something as simple as that... But wait. Maybe he would. Maybe it was so stupid and simple that he would have to believe it.

“I had to pee,” I said matter-of-factly, and I tried not to whoop in victory when Sebastian’s face when slack with shock.

Now it was his turn to say, “Oh.” My heart rate slowed, but my panic never ceased. I wasn’t sure why, but something inside me wanted, no needed to be out there in the woods at midnight. I had to meet the officer the gnome had told me about, for whatever the queen’s reasons. Even though my mind was screaming no, I shouldn’t leave the comfort of my bed, something was tugging at my heart with an invisible leash whispering, ”Yes.”

For the first time in my life I felt special; wanted. So many things were happening and taking place because of me, all because I could wield ice and use its power as my own.

I knew why the Sage’s wanted me - to them I was special, a rarity that only came around once in a lifetime. But as for the murderous fae? Their interest was unknown. At first I thought it was a coincidence that Sebastian and I had come face-to-face with a two-headed hellhound - a normality in a witch’s world I presumed, but twice in the same week? Each assailant mentioning the Queen of Winter? It couldn’t be by fortuity.

And though it killed me not to be with Jack, Buddy and the rest of the gang, I had to admit I enjoyed having people squabble over me. To let other people make the hard decisions - to let others put their lives on the line. Not to mention, I couldn’t leave now. Classes be damned, I was going to find out what was going on with the fae and what I, out of all people, had to do with their plot for power.

“Were you expecting something else?” I asked, trying to force as much bite into my words as possible.

It worked, because he puffed up, his shoulders squaring even while he laid down. “Would you expect anything else?” he accused.

Even though it was a slap in the face, I couldn’t figure out why he’d say such a thing. It’s not like I murdered his family or ran off into the night with some stranger. Well, I hadn’t yet, anyway.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” My temper was rising, and I couldn’t tame the fire that was igniting in my chest.

He might as well have rolled his eyes. “Nevermind.”

Nevermind? Hell no. He started this, and I was going to finish it. “No, continue Sebastian,” I snapped, my ears hot. “Please tell me how I broke whatever trust you had in me, when you’re the one that kissed me, walked away, and then pretended like nothing happened.” Whoops.

I could tell by the angry twitch in his jaw that I’d crossed a line. I’d broken the silent truce not to talk about what happened in my room earlier that day even though I’d never agreed to it.

His golden eyes were stormy, a battle raging within as he glared up at me through the darkness, his annoyance and resentment rolling off him in waves. His face was set; hard as stone. Almost as hard as his heart, I sneered in my mind. Good, let him be pissed. I didn’t care. I wouldn’t care.

With a huff I turned away from him, throwing my legs off the bed. “I’m going to the bathroom,” I said flatly when a hand grabbed my forearm.

His touch was searing. I glanced over my shoulder at him. “You make me question everything,“was all he said before he shifted away from me. I sat there, stunned, until his breathing slowed and I was assure he was fast asleep.

Question everything? What was there for him to question? His life was perfect, he was pretty much a monarch to be, everyone either feared him because of his power, loathed him because of his title, or loved him because of his looks. If you asked me, his life sounded pretty amazing. What I wouldn’t do for a life of luxury. What I wouldn’t do to give the kids back home that life.

I sat on the side of my bed, my now bare toes grazing the scratchy material of the rug beneath the bed, and glanced at the clock. It was twelve - twenty now. If the officer was still standing somewhere in the woods, it would be a miracle, but I had to at least try.

I found my boots beside the chair I’d collapsed in earlier, and darted out the door, slipping my feet into them as I went. The night was cold, the wind biting at my bare fingers and at the tip of my nose. My hair, which now hung loosely around my shoulders, flittered around my skull in a silver halo, and I smiled. I could feel winter, almost a living thing, pressing and pushing its way into the region, a silent power that sent the hair on my arms and legs to stand on end.

But something was different this year. The winter’s before were normally cold and blistering yes, but never wild and sporadic. There was hardly ever any wind, nor blizzards - just a lot and a lot of snow. So much snow that it was impossible for the “rich” to drive their horse and carriage through the narrow streets in the village.

I didn’t get the anual feeling of peace, or calmness. Instead the air seemed charged, ready to rip open and unleash a hellish cold and amounts of precipitation upon anyone in its raging path. I could feel its fingers, icy and murderous, starting to lace their way in the trees, in the ground, even in the hearts and lives of everyone in camp. I wasn’t the only one feeling the change.

But despite the strange sensation, I enjoyed it. I felt empowered, aflame with a an unknown purpose that was lurking, waiting in the shadows for the right moment to surface. I would be lying if I said it didn’t scare me, but I loved it none the less.

I slithered through the shadows, thankful for the black clothes as I eased in and out of nooks and crannies undetected. Though it was night, the camp was surprisingly alive with chatter and gossip, drunken soldiers and witches gathered around camp fires telling war stories with shiny goblets.

From what I heard passing by, faeries were nothing to mess with, surprise surprise. One man said he’d seen a chimera, a monstrous creature with three heads; one of a lion, dragon, and goat, tear a witch in half with a single swipe of its talon tipped paws. Another had witnessed an ogre, a large humanoid monster with warty skin and mean eyes knock down a line of men with a flick of its wrist.

I didn’t sit around for long, in fear the officer waiting on me in the woods would get tired of waiting and disappear, melting into the shadows and make his way back towards the Mountain. I sunk low to the cold ground when I reached the perimeter of the camp, tucking my bright hair into the collar of my shirt. Last thing I needed was for someone to spot me this close to the woods because of my hair.

I crawled on my hands and knees, sliding in and out of bushes and ferns, thankful for the years I spent sneaking in and out of shops for food. The ground was cold, hard, and it bit into my palms. I darted up the steep slope, praying no one would spot me considering I was completely out in the open. If I was caught, I wasn’t quite sure what would happen. Maybe I’d get sent to the dungeons, be starved. Or maybe I’d be Stripped, my mind completely shattered and split open for the world to see. The thought made me shiver.

Once in the protection of the trees, I sighed a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. The forest was hauntingly beautiful, a painting of dark blues, blacks, and greens, all swirled together to create a nostalgic memory I would be able to recall for the rest of my life. Moonlight streamed through the trees’ canopy, spawning small pools of luminances on the trail - so white and bright they looked like puddles of frozen ice.nEven the trees themselves had something about then, their gnarled, spindly branches seeming almost sinister in the shadows - like large fingers ready to snatch you up and drag you into the gloom, kicking and screaming. Once in a great while, the occasional hoot of an owl cut through the silence like a knife, rattling me.

I jogged to the bend in the trail - to where Sebastian and I had been ambushed by the large cat with silver fur, and just as I feared, it was deserted. I even glanced down at the dirt, which bore no footprints to indicate someone had even made an attempt to show.

What if this was a trap, a test to prove my loyalty to the Order and I’d blown it? What if witches, maybe even the Sages themselves sat hunkered in the undergrowth, watching, waiting for my next move?

No, that couldn’t be it. They would’ve seized me once I left the camp. That was enough to charge me with treason. Leave it to the witches to come up with a way to trick me into making a mistake.

Suddenly a gust of wind blew through the trail, rustling the leaves and carrying a whisper within. “I feared you wouldn’t show.”

My spine locked, the muscles in my entire body clenching. I wasn’t alone after all. I knew I had come here openly, but the thought of a faerie with the intelligence to kill me where I stood and cover their own tracks sent a nasty chill spider-walking down my spine.

I turned slowly, shocked when I was greeted by darkness. “Who are you?” I whispered, though I knew it was a stupid question, I just hoped he would show his face. I knew who he was. Foster Quinn, General of the Aubrie Army of Elven Knights. And I was nothing but a human with a witch’s power.

A soft chuckle met my ears, close enough to raise the hairs on the nape of my neck, his voice as soft and smooth as honey. He sounded only inches away. “I must admit, I was expecting quite a bit ... more.”

I tried not to bristle. “How is it fair for you to hide in the shadows and judge me when you won’t even show your face?”

“Very well,” he purred, and suddenly a tall, slender man with hair as white as my own stood in front of me.

I choked on a scream, jumping back. He was extremely tall, easily reaching at least six feet in height, and his skin was as white as a corpse, hinted almost blue, but I assumed that was because of the moonlight streaming over his face. His eyes were hard, cut from diamond themselves as they glittered. like fractured ice as he stared at me, his gaze mildly amused. He was constructed beautifully of sharp angles and smooth curves. Where his face was sharp, refined like a king’s, his bulging muscles were smooth, graven from milky white stone, and for a strange reason I found myself longing to run my fingers over them, to feel how sleek and smooth his skin really was.

He wore a grey tunic that buttoned up the middle, the cuffs made up of sparkling silver. His pants were black, clinging tight to his pale skin and dark leather boots covered his feet, large silver buttons on the inner ankles. What caught my eye though, the thing that stood out the most, was the ring he bore on his left hand, a symbol of an owl with large black eyes staring up at me engraved in the metal.

He lifted his long arms in an arc. “Here I am.”

“There you are,” I whispered, my words almost getting completely swallowed up by the wind.

An impish grin clung to his features, and I found myself fidgeting under his subjective stare. “Do you know why the queen called for this little meeting?” he asked, and I found myself marveling at how cool and at ease he seemed.

I shook my head.

“Damn.” He snapped long, bone white fingers together. “I don’t presume she sent me here to kill you.” My heart stopped in my ribs. “Perhaps she wants me to bring you back to the Winter Court. It’s awfully grand.” I paled, instantly regretting showing in the first place.

I lifted my hands. “I think this was a mistake,” I said, my voice quivering. What was I thinking, meeting a elven knight of the Winter Court here in the middle of the night, no one around to hear my screams for help if something would happen? How stupid!

Legend has it fae can sense one’s fear, like a predator stalking its prey. I was always subjective when it came to it, not sure whether or not to rule it fact or fiction. But judging by the look on his face, the way his lips curled into a rapacious grin, I assumed I could finally rule it fact.” You don’t have to be scared of me, little human,” he purred, stroking the hilt of a lethal, onyx sword that hung by his hip. “I won’t harm you. Not unless my queen orders your death.” Great, like that should make me feel any better.

“I think I should head back now,” I murmured, almost to myself more than anything.

He quirked his head to the side, and for the first time I got a glimpse of his ears, the shells cresting to a sharp point - definitely not human. “Are you sure you want to do that, human? What if I have something to offer you?”

I shook my head. “You don’t have anything to offer me that I’d want,” I said back, praying it didn’t sound too snotty. I tried to reach within, to the magical power residing within me, but came up empty. Shit. Now I had nothing to defend myself with. I should’ve brought a weapon. I turned on my heel, praying he wouldn’t follow. I made myself walk, my back straight, as I refused to show fear. Fae were like ravenous wolves, feeding off the weak.

“What about information about your parents? Would you stay then?”

I froze.

I looked sharply over my shoulder. Though it was stupid of me, I said in a low voice, “Choose your next words carefully.”

The faerie snorted. “Did I strike a nerve?” Suddenly the power I so desperately tried to reach for before flared to life, the mention of my parents the flame to my match. “How annoyingly human.”

I practically growled, the small flame of anger blooming in my chest quickly changing into a raging inferno. The tips of my fingers tingled, and the air around us turned even more frigid as my anger grew.

From my peripheral vision I could see the icy glow engulfing my palms, spreading up my wrist and climbing up my arms like crystal gloves.

Foster’s eyes burned with a sickening intensity, his mouth curved into a impish smirk which grew into a sinister grin the colder the air got around us. “Marvelous,” he murmured. “Maybe you’re not as human as one may think.”

Ice coated my fingers, my arms, and a small flurry of snow had started to descend from above. “How annoyingly fae of you not to notice a threat when you see one,” I snapped back, though I knew for a fact he could probably kill me with a wave of his hand or a slash from his blade.

His teeth flashed in the darkness, his metallic gaze sharp as he studied me, sizing me up. “If you’re a threat, shouldn’t I run?” he cooed as he danced around me, his movements as graceful and fluid and running water.

“And if I flee, I’ll take whatever information about your parents with me. What a pity that would be.”

Damn.

I took a ragged breath and attempted to relax my shoulders. Everything inside me was so tense, so congested with a pulsing power I almost craved to release it. I was nearly sick as I suppressed the calling inside me, the glowing blue-white light radiating from my palms turning into nothing more than a faint glow.

“It’s hard, isn’t it?” the faerie asked, and I was expecting mockery in his tone. But there was none.

“Extremely,” I panted, my body convulsing in shivers. I felt weak, limp, lifeless... human. And that realization scared me the most. More than the powerful fae standing in front of me, or the Sages, or even my growing feelings for the Count of Night. I hadn’t even realized it. Since when did I not feel human? Had I already been sucked too far into this world that I lost condolences on what it feels like to be helpless - to be starved, struggling to survive? Had I become used to the power, to the way of the witches? Had I really forgotten about my little Lulu, or Milly, or Emma?

All of the ones residing at home?

Home.

This place wasn’t my home. I didn’t belong here, in the clutches of the witches learning how to become one of them. I belonged in a run down shack on the outskirts of the Village surrounding the core. I belonged in a tainted, yellow-with-age tunic and holey pants. I belonged with a brush in hand, humming to Lucy as I dragged the hairbrush through her dark curls.

Unwanted tears stung my eyes and I angrily wiped them away with the cuff of my sleeve. “Tell me,” I said in a low voice. “I need to know about my parents.”

The wicked grin he wore like a favorite jacket still clung to his features and he held out a hand. “First, we must meet a proper acquaintance. Faerie tradition, and all.”

I bit down the bile rising in my throat at the thought of touching those bone-white hands, so long and cold looking. I swallowed my complaint. I could do this. I had to do this. For seventeen years I’d been curious,haunted by the non existent memory of my parents, but too damn stubborn to admit it. This was my chance.

I stuck out my hand and grabbed his pale fingers.

A sharp jolt of electricity ignited where his ivory skin met my own, and I jumped with a yelp. My fingers tingled, the strange sensation moved up through my arm and into my chest. It was like a feather, gently tickling my skin, but from the inside. Something stirred in my ribs, like a mammal rustling around in its bed of leaves after a long winter of hibernation. It was primal, instinctual, and I didn’t know if I liked it.

Foster, the elf, had flinched too, and I glanced up to see him staring at me, his eye’s wide with shock and a little disgust. His metallic gaze was sharp, almost cutting right through me.

He shook his head slightly, the movement more animal than human. “Meet me here tomorrow night, same time. Next time, don’t be late,” he murmured in a steely voice. He turned to leave, his long, slender legs moving him away from me swiftly.

“Wait!” I called, panic shooting through my veins. I couldn’t let him leave, no yet. Not until I knew what he knew. “What about my parents?”

He glanced at me over his shoulder, his pale face stern, no hue of trickery on his features. “They’re alive,” was all he said, his words hollow. I blinked, ready to ask him to stay, ready to beg if I need be, but when I opened my eyes he was gone.

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