“Galenorn’s imagination is a beautiful thing.”
The Painted Panther
There came a time when Myst, Queen of the Indigo Court, rode in on a glacial tide, attempting to devour all who opposed her. Battles were waged, alliances were formed, and a small faction stood the front line against her. Cicely, Queen of Snow and Ice, and her cousin Rhiannon, Queen of Rivers and Rushes, were there to meet the challenge. Behind them stood their loves, their people, and an alliance of vampires and the magic-born. Together, they faced the Vampiric Fae Queen’s onslaught as Myst attempted to silence the balance of fire and ice. Some survived . . . but there were losses. . . .
From The Last Days of the Indigo Court
I stood on a hillock near the Barrow. The land was covered with snow and ice, the horizon stretching out in a vast panorama of winter. It was the perfect picture. The snow gleamed under an overcast sky, sparkling with the cold. Here and there, patches of ice glistened, a sheen rippling across the landscape, casting pale blue shadows to blanket the world. Evergreens—firs and cedars—stood cloaked in white, the snow weighing down their limbs so they brushed the ground.
My breath emerged in puffs, visible in the early dusk, a cloud of white every time I exhaled. But the pristine chill that made the very air shimmer barely penetrated the feathered cloak I wore. And what little of the cold that did make it through had ceased to bother me over the weeks. For I was the Queen of Snow and Ice now, and cold was no longer my enemy.
As I surveyed the land around my Barrow, I was aware that not ten yards away, Check, my personal guard, kept watch. Beside him stood Fearless, who had thankfully recovered from his wounds. Cambyra Fae healed quickly, and Fearless had mended right up, even with the severe wounds he’d sustained from the Shadow Hunters. While he had been in great pain for several weeks, now he was back in action. I had noticed a side effect of the attack that was both welcome and curious: His attitude toward me had shifted. Where before he had simply been doing his duty, now I sensed loyalty mingled in with that duty; an impression of respect that he hadn’t offered me before.
As I stood there, I plunged myself into the slipstream, searching for information. The realm of Snow and Ice might be mine to command, but we were terribly vulnerable. While Myst was still out there, we were in danger, and we couldn’t let down our guard. I trusted the scouts and my advisors, but ever since my coronation, my awareness had heightened. If I listened carefully enough, I could reach out, almost touch Myst’s energy. After all, we were bound together from a lifetime long before this one. She had been my mother, and I had been her daughter Cherish, the shining star and hope of the Indigo Court, until I betrayed both her and my people.
Ulean, my Wind Elemental, swept around me. She was stronger here, in our frozen realm. The winter kingdom agreed with her. While I’d always heard her clearly—from the very beginning when we were first bound together—here I had become even more aware of her.
At times, I thought I could catch a glimpse of her. Strict, my advisor, had told me it was one of the side effects of taking the crown. One more in a long line of shifts and changes that I had been going through. Some days, I looked in the mirror and wasn’t entirely sure of who I was.
Cicely, there is danger close by. A looming shadow. I believe Myst is on the rise again. Ulean swept past me, swirling snow in the gust of her wake.
It was only a matter of time. We knew she was regrouping. I’ve been hoping she would hold off until Rhiannon and I were more settled in our positions—that it would take her more time to re-strengthen her forces, but I don’t think we have that leeway. I’m afraid we’ll be fighting her sooner than we’d hoped.
Shivering, but not from the cold, I pulled my cloak tightly around my shoulders. The owl feathers used to make the cape had been gathered one by one, hand-sewn by a talented seamstress. My Uwilahsidhe brethren had gifted it to me for my wedding, an honor that meant they’d accepted me into their people. My people. I was half magic-born, and half Uwilahsidhe—the owl-shifters, a branch of the Cambyra Sidhe. I’d only discovered the latter half of my heritage six weeks before. Everything I thought I’d known about myself had changed in that time.
We will do as we must. If we fail, Myst will extend her reach. She will take control of this realm and drive the eternal winter into the world to blanket the land with ice and snow. She will loose the ravenous appetites of her Shadow Hunters on anyone who stands in her way. We cannot let her win, Cicely, or everyone—the magic-born and the Weres and the yummanii—will all be so much prey for the Vampiric Fae. Even the true vampires, Lannan and Regina’s people, will fall to her fury if we don’t stop her.
I reached out, trying to sense the danger Ulean had mentioned. It was like stretching a new muscle—not a physical one, but mental. Focusing, I sent out feelers, probing the landscape. They crept like vines through the slipstream. There, I could sense an arctic fox, and over there—the hare it was stalking. A ways beyond I felt the silent passage of a group of Ice Elementals, their focus so distant and alien that I couldn’t have deciphered their intent if you paid me to. But the creatures were my subjects, they were aligned to me, and so I simply touched their energy before I passed on.
Beyond the Ice Elementals, I came to a tree line, and the dark sentinels of the woodlands whispered rumors in my ears. There were creatures in the woods—monsters who did not belong here, even though they, too, were born of winter and hearkened to the dark months of the year.
I softly began to move forward, my attention drawn by a familiar presence in a stand of snow-covered bushes nearby. As I approached the Wilding Fae—I knew who she was—Check and Fearless flanked my sides.
Ulean laughed. Your friend wishes to speak with you. You have won the hearts of the Wilding Fae, and that is a double-edged blessing.
The Wilding Fae were dangerous, a breed unto themselves. Ancient even by the standards of the Cambyra Fae, they were feral, belonging only to themselves, aligned with no one. But they had chosen to live in the realm of Snow and Ice when I took the throne. Bargaining with them could prove dangerous, but once they’d accepted my rule, they knew better than to try to trip me up with their deals. A good thing, too, considering my lack of bargaining skills.
I paused by the juniper bush. As I waited, a figure stepped out from behind the laden branches. She was short and dressed in a ragtag patchwork of a dress that swept the ground. Her hair was matted into clumps, draping to cover her shoulders. A withered roadwork of lines crisscrossed her face. Gaunt, her limbs were long and lean, her fingers gnarled with the knots that usually came from old age. But to be honest, I had no clue as to how old she was. The Snow Hag might be old as the world for all I knew, or as timeless as the stars.
She flashed me a cunning smile, and one of her teeth curved up from her upper jaw to rest against her bottom lip. She did not kneel, but I didn’t expect her to. The Wilding Fae lived by their own rules, and while they might now make their home in my realm, they were a force to be feared and respected.
“A queen might be listening for danger, but looking in the wrong direction.” She cocked her head.
I stared at her. Apparently we were dispensing with the niceties today. Usually there was a set format—a pattern with the Wilding Fae that held sway even when discussing nearby dangers.
“It would be helpful if one of the Wilding Fae could help to guide a queen as she seeks for the source of danger on the wind.”
I didn’t have the full cadence down, but Chatter—my cousin’s husband and the new King of Summer—had been drilling us. He was adept at bargaining with the Wilding Fae. Right now, I wished he could be here to help me. But I had to learn for myself at some point, and if I made a mistake, well . . . then I made a mistake.
“There is a learning curve to this. A queen might be making good progress, however, even while she trips a step here or there. If a certain Wilding Fae were less scrupulous, there might be trouble brewing, but luck will out. One of the Wilding Fae respects the young Winter. And at times, luck has little play in matters of destiny; desire wins out instead. And there is desire to see the new rule continue.”
She winked and laughed. It reminded me of the wolf out of Little Red Riding Hood, but then the slyness vanished, and good humor shone through. Once again, I could feel the Snow Hag’s power emanate through the forest, down to my very bones. They were a crafty, cunning lot, the Wilding Fae, and were dangerous enemies to have.
I thought over what she had said and tried to pinpoint my mistake. Where had I slipped up? But right now the thought of danger lurking in my land preoccupied me, and I was having a hard time concentrating.
After a moment’s silence, the Snow Hag broke a small branch off the tree. “Looking into the distance often leaves a queen ignoring what is directly below her nose. Danger can be alluring, and seemingly, the best of friends. Danger might also throw a cunning glance, begrudge good fortune, and be trapped by what was thought to be a good deed but turned into a snare. Usually, such hints will be visible if one chances to look for them.”
That didn’t sound good. “A spy? You’re saying that I have a spy in my midst?” When she remained silent, I rephrased it as best as I could. “One might think, by your comment, that a queen might have a spy in her Court, as eyes and ears of Myst.”
And with that the Snow Hag cackled. “One might think the Queen of Snow and Ice is growing into her throne. She is wise to listen to and understand the Wilding Fae. One might think the Queen of Snow and Ice is on the right trail and should look in the dark recesses of her Barrow for mice that do not belong there.” And with that she vanished back into the bushes.
Hell. The last thing I needed was one of Myst’s people hiding in my Court. And the Snow Hag had said the danger was right under my nose. I glanced back. Check and Fearless were standing at attention, studiously ignoring my conversation. They had learned the fine art of being present without intruding, a difficult tightrope for anyone to master. But this information meant I couldn’t trust anyone, and while Check and Fearless seemed more than willing to protect me, when I thought about it, I really didn’t know them. I’d have to corner my husband, Grieve, when I returned home, and ask him what we should do.
While I made my way back to the guards, a sudden shift in the wind alerted me as Ulean slipped past.
Cicely—move. Fly. Get yourself out of reach!
I trusted Ulean with my life, and if she said there was danger, I knew it was true.
“Danger! There’s danger coming.” As I warned my guards, I was already closing my arms, transforming, my arms spreading into wings. I shifted into owl form. And then I was aloft and on the wing, in my barred owl shape. Until recently, I’d had to undress in order to transform, but one of the perks of becoming a Fae Queen meant that my clothes changed with me now.
As I spiraled up into the chill evening air, I looked down to see a creature racing out of a nearby bush—and then, with a shimmer, another figure appeared. Shadow Hunters! And they had to have gained entrance to my realm via some way other than the front gate. We had guards set up, watching. Unless those guards are corrupt and working for Myst. The thought crept in as I circled the fray below.
I watched as Check and Fearless engaged the Vampiric Fae.
I wanted to be down there, fighting, but I was the Queen, and I wasn’t allowed to fight my own battles. At least, not unless there was no other option. It felt more and more that my freedom had been pared down. Although I had more power than I ever had possessed, I also had more restrictions. I chafed at the constraints, even though I understood the reasoning for them.
The two Shadow Hunters launched themselves at my guards. They were twisting, morphing into the great cerulean-colored beasts of the Indigo Court, as they prepared to destroy. They were hungry, and unlike the true vampires, the Vampiric Fae fed on muscle and sinew as well as the life force.
Check engaged them with a jeweled sword while Fearless scrambled out of reach. One of the Shadow Hunters had snapped at him, almost catching him in its slathering jaws. Fearless had just recovered from a similar attack, and my blood rose as I watched my men struggle to keep the Shadow Hunters’ great bared teeth from latching on to them.
There was no way I could survive an attack should I set down on the ground. Not even my queen’s dagger could deflect the attack of one of these monsters. But then I knew exactly what to do. It was a dangerous choice, but I couldn’t fly off and allow the Shadow Hunters to ravage my guards.
I spiraled up to the nearest tree and landed on the first bare branch I could find that was big enough to support me when I changed back to my normal shape. Balancing on the limb, I made certain it would be wide enough, then spread one wing so that my arm would be braced against the trunk as I shifted back. My cloak almost threw me off-balance, but I managed to catch myself and stood at the crotch of the limb where it met the trunk, bracing my weight against the tree.
Once I knew I was steady enough, I closed my eyes and summoned the winds. My hair began to lift as the currents of air rose around me, and a niggle of delight twisted in my stomach.
It was a dangerous prospect, for me to gather the winds, to stir up a tornado or a gale. Too often, they beckoned me to stay at their helm, to fully give myself over to their realm and become a mad queen on the crest of a storm. But I could save Check and Fearless—and I wasn’t about to let them die.
As I glanced down at the ground, the blood channeled across the snow in a delicate wash of rose that spread over the blanket of white. Whether the blood belonged to Check, Fearless, or the Shadow Hunters, I didn’t know, but if I didn’t act, my guards would be dead. Or worse. Myst could offer worse fates than merely being killed by her people.
“Gale Force.” I whispered the words, but the slipstream caught them up and sent them spinning into the air, and they took the form of a vortex.
A breeze wakened, starting lightly, but as I focused it through my body, the gusts increased. They were strong beyond the winds of my Winter realm. They bled directly from the heart of the plane of Air, a boreal wind sweeping down to buoy me up, to fill me full with a delicious sense of power. I rose to my tiptoes, balancing precariously on the branch.
As I raised my arms, no longer needing the support of the tree trunk, the winds lifted me into the air and spun me aloft, carrying me at the helm of a bank of mist and whirling snow. A second whisper of “Gale Force,” and the winds roared into a storm, hurricane strength, only instead of driving rain along the front, in its fury it picked up the snow and used it as a weapon.
Sleet and snow pelted against the Shadow Hunters, blinding the Vampiric Fae as they struggled against the biting wind. Check and Fearless fell back, Check shouting something to me that I couldn’t hear through the raging storm, but I understood his gestures. He wanted me to drop the winds, to fly back to the Barrow.
But they held me in their mania, and I couldn’t break free. Each time I used this power, it was harder to rein myself in. Each time, I was one step closer to being enslaved by the chaotic forces from the plane of Air. One day, I might not be able to free myself. They summoned me, cajoled me to dive headfirst into their strength, to give myself over to them.
But a shout from below caught my attention. A handful of my guards had noticed the battle and were wading into the fray. Armed, they pushed forward to attack the Shadow Hunters, even as Check and Fearless rejoined the battle. My forces were strong, and Myst’s pair couldn’t stand up against them.
In that moment of clarity, I released the storm, and as the Shadow Hunters fell under the wave of my guards and the snow was stained with their blood, I transformed back into my owl form and circled to land on the field below.
I sat on the edge of my bed. Druise, my personal maid, was helping me change clothes. She bundled me up into clean, dry black jeans and laced my blue corset snugly, then brought me dry boots and a thin black cloak embroidered with silver threads. The cloak was surprisingly warm, and I wasn’t sure from just what kind of material it had been woven, but it was light and pretty and would keep any chill in the Barrow at bay.
As she draped the material around my shoulders, she was careful not to touch the crown that circled my head. A diadem forged with silver leaves entwining on either side of the circlet, the vines met in the center of my forehead to embrace a glowing cabochon of black onyx. Below the onyx dangled a single diamond teardrop.
I sat on the bed, sipping tea and eating a cookie.
The huge four-poster bed was made from yew wood, the headboard intricately carved with designs and runes that I couldn’t decipher. The bed was old, and I wondered just how many queens had slept in its protection and comfort. Piled high atop blankets and sheets, the indigo comforter matched the pattern of the carpet. Covering the cobblestone floor, the rug was a sweeping panorama of swirling labyrinths embroidered in silver against the indigo weave.
Over the bed, inlaid in cabochons of iolite, sapphire, amethyst, and quartz, the pattern continued. The rest of the ceiling was jet-black, and the gems shimmered against the dark background, their inner light picking up the glow from the lanterns. The shadows in the room seemed to flicker in a slow, sinuous dance of movement.
“How long before you have to be at your meeting, my Lady?” Druise refilled my teacup and I inhaled the rich aroma, grateful as the peppermint cleared my thoughts. A glance up at the clock told me it was five P.M. Of course, it was an arbitrary setting. Time always worked differently within the Faerie Barrows, but I used the clock to keep me on track with my schedule when I was here. It gave me some sense of familiarity, a touch from the outer world that made me more comfortable as I adjusted to my new way of life.
“An hour. They’re conferring now, but I needed . . . I need to think over something before I meet with the others.” Actually, what I had needed was a chance to decompress from the afternoon.
I inhaled slowly, my breath grounding me back into my body, lingering over the comforts of the tea and food. Finally, able to put it off no longer, I sighed and stood. Time to face the reality we had all been dreading. But we’d known she would return sooner or later. Myst was out for my blood and bone.
It had been a month since my cousin Rhiannon and I had taken the thrones of Summer and Winter. A month since I had married Grieve and she had married Chatter. Since then, Rhia and I had poured ourselves into an intensive study of the language of our people and the customs of our Courts as we desperately crammed on what it meant to be Fae Queens.
The whole concept that we were effectively immortal was still too much to deal with, although truth was we could be killed. But if we avoided accidents and murder, if no one found our heartstones, we would live into the mists of time until we were ready to let go and lay down our duties.
Gathering up the messenger bag I carried within the Barrow, I made sure my notebooks were in it, along with pens, chewing gum, my EpiPen, and everything else I would need while out of my chambers. With one last look around the bedroom, I pushed open the door. Check was waiting on the other side to escort me to the council room.
The council chamber was lit by the ever-present lanterns that lined the Eldburry Barrow. The lights within, pale blue and violet, were young Ice Elementals, indentured into service before being set loose into the world. They did not object to their service.
Within the Fae world and the world of Elementals, human rules and emotions didn’t apply. In the Marburry Barrow—the Summer Court of Rivers and Rushes—the lights were fueled by young Fire Elementals.
Strict was waiting at the table, along with Grieve, my beloved Fae Prince turned King. Check and Fearless stayed after escorting me there, and several other advisors and guard leaders had straggled in. As I entered the room, everyone stood and bowed. Once again it hit me that I was the end of the line. No matter what everyone else did, it all came back to land on my shoulders.
I took my place at the table and nodded for them to sit. A servant offered me a tray filled with roast beef sandwiches, bowls of hot chicken soup, and the ever-present tea. I was weaning them onto coffee, but it was a hard sell.
The Barrow kitchen had already gone through culture shock when I banned all fish and shellfish products. If people wanted to eat them in their own homes, fine, but for me and my staff there would be no seafood at the table. I was EpiPen allergic, anaphylactic, and even though I didn’t like thinking about the possibility, the fact was it would be an easy way for an assassin to get to me. That I even had to think about things like this still sent me reeling, but I was quickly getting used to it.
Once we were settled in with food, Grieve leaned over and placed a kiss on my lips. He was my love, the heart of my heart, and I wore a tattoo of his wolf on my stomach that responded to his feelings. Grieve had been crown prince of the Summer Court—the Court of Rivers and Rushes—until Myst had overrun the Marburry Barrow, killing hundreds of the Cambyra Fae. But he’d been caught by her, and she turned him. Even though he had control over his nature now, he was still feral and wild, a hybrid. But he was my love, and that’s all that mattered.
“Myst is on the move.”
The room fell silent. I had abandoned the protocol of moving through business and polite chitchat.
“Check told us about the attack.” My advisor, Strict, picked up the thread, smoothing over my gaffe, but I didn’t care about faux pas or social niceties. The nightmare had returned. Small talk was all well and good, but right now we didn’t have the luxury to observe tradition.
“They would have bought the farm if our men hadn’t noticed the commotion and shown up to help.” I told them about my encounter with the Snow Hag, though didn’t mention that she’d warned me about a spy in the Court. “Luckily we weren’t far from the Barrow, or we would have been in a fuckton of trouble.”
“Your Majesty . . .” Strict winced. My slang still bothered him. We were speaking in English because I didn’t know enough Cambyra to make myself understood. I was learning, but it was a complex language and slowgoing.
“Bite me, Strict. When I speak my own language, it’s going to be in my own way.” I flashed him a smile.
That cracked his stern demeanor, and he laughed. “The Cambyra are definitely being dragged into a new way of life thanks to you and your cousin. As to Myst, do we know if she’s within the realm of Snow and Ice?”
I shrugged. “I can’t be certain, but I don’t think so. When I was flying overhead, all I saw were the Shadow Hunters emerge from behind the bushes. They had to get into the realm somehow, so either we have a breach at the gates, or they’ve found some way to transport them over here.”
“Myst could be here, however. We can’t discount the possibility, Your Majesty.” Check tilted his head slightly. “She might have sent them ahead as scouts. I think at this point in the game, we have to be open to just about any possibility.”
Considering what the Snow Hag had revealed, he made a valid point. I leaned back, wondering how much to tell them. The Snow Hag had said the danger was under my nose rather than in the distance, and I knew she hadn’t been talking about the Shadow Hunters. If we did have a spy in our midst, could it be Strict? Check? Fearless? Or one of the other members of my staff gathered around the table with me? Or even . . . my own sweet Grieve?
But as quickly as it passed through my mind, that last thought vanished. I knew my love, inside and out. I knew that even though he would forever be a member of the Indigo Court, he had broken the connection with Myst. He would always be wild-eyed and feral, my wolf-shifter husband, but he loved me and would lay down his life for me.
After a moment, I motioned to him. “We need to talk, my husband. Alone.”
He followed me into a private chamber just off the council room.
Ulean, keep watch. Make certain nobody is listening at the door. Warn me if they are. And listen to what they are saying while we’re sequestered. I want to know if it’s anything to worry about.
I will, Cicely. But the Snow Hag is right. Danger lurks here. Not necessarily in this room, but the Barrow feels uneasy, and I think there is treachery hiding in the shadows. The edge was not here yesterday, I don’t believe. Though perhaps I only notice now because I am looking for it. But I think, had it been here before, I would have sensed it. I could be wrong, however.
I shuddered and Grieve pulled me into his embrace. His long platinum hair shimmered against the dim light, and his olive skin was warm and musky. He smelled like cinnamon and autumn leaves, like the dark half of the year on a rainy, chill night. Like the blackness of stars against the snow. He held me close, kissing my hair, kissing my forehead.
“What’s wrong, my Cicely? What gives you grief?”
In soft tones, so as not to be overheard by any prying ears, I laid out what the Snow Hag had told me. “Someone is playing the spy for Myst in our midst. I don’t know who it is, or where to find them. Now I can’t trust anybody. My father assured me that I could trust Strict. He told me that shortly before he and Lainule left for the Golden Isle. But now can I believe what he said? Do I dare trust anybody?”
“Trust is a relative word. You were right to keep this a secret. We can’t take chances. While I doubt that Strict or Silverweb would be in Myst’s pocket, we have to know for sure before continuing. If any one of the council in that room happens to be in the service of Myst, and we talk openly about this, she’ll know we’re onto her plans, and then our advantage will be undone.”
He moved back, holding me by my shoulders. “I know you aren’t going to like this, but there is a way to find out. We have to be cautious about how we go about it so word doesn’t get around, however.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about, and he was right: I didn’t like it.
The shamans of the Cambyra Fae had a procedure they could perform. Painful and intrusive, the ritual allowed them to delve into someone’s mind, to root through their thoughts and feelings and secrets. Essentially it came down to a form of mental torture. But it got the job done. And everyone in the Barrow had been through it before I took the throne, so either someone new had joined us, or someone’s loyalty had been turned after the fact.
“I don’t want to order that.” Even as I said the words, I knew that I was fighting a losing battle. There was no other option. Simply going around asking, “By the way, are you working for Myst now?” wasn’t going to get me anywhere, and I knew it. “It’s mind-rape,” I whispered.
“Perhaps so, but it might also save our people. Leave a spy from Myst loose in this Barrow, and the bitch will have a good chance of sweeping through here again. And this time, Myst won’t leave anyone alive. If she gains a foothold again, rest assured the Barrow will be slick with blood and bone and gristle.”
“And she’ll turn everyone who she can use. And the rest . . . food for the Shadow Hunters.” I hung my head. “I really don’t have a choice, do I?”
Grieve slowly backed away and knelt before me. “You are the Queen of Snow and Ice. Wear your crown and wield your power.”
And so, reluctantly, I whispered, “Then how do we go about this without word getting out?”
“We tell no one else. Not Luna, not Peyton or Kaylin.” The warning in his voice was clear—our friends couldn’t know what was going on. “We visit the shamans. They alone can be trusted. They are chosen from birth for their discipline and power.” He rose, staring into my eyes. “And first, they put me to the test.”
“You?” Startled, I began to shake my head. “Not you—”
But Grieve took my hands and gently brushed my wrist with his razor-sharp teeth. A thin red weal rose as blood welled up. Even as I responded, melting under his touch, he shook his head.
“Remember, my love. I belonged to Myst for a time. I carry her blood in my body. She turned me into one of the Vampiric Fae, and while I have gained a modicum of control, as Queen, you cannot be complacent. You cannot trust even me, not without knowing for certain.”
And so, my heart heavy, we returned to the main chamber and told everyone to sit tight. And then Grieve and I made our way through the Barrow, to where the shamans lived. To where I would order them to torture the truth from my beloved husband and the rest of my people.
Deep into the Barrow we made our way, past guards, past the places where the ordinary citizens were allowed. We were headed into the heart of the Court of Snow and Ice. To the very core from whence the magic of this realm emanated. My heartstone might have revived the Court, but the shamans guarded the magic, communed with the Elementals, and kept the light flickering within the ice. Without them, the Barrow would be harsh and brutal. They were the keepers of comfort, the dreamers of dreams, the visionaries who walked between the worlds. They were the eyes and ears of my land.
The tunnel was labyrinthine and long, and as Grieve and I followed the twisting passages, accompanied by Check and Fearless, I thought back to the days of my life, less than two months ago, and how different my world had been.
My name is Cicely Waters, and I’m a Wind Witch. And now I’m the Queen of Snow and Ice and the Fae Queen of Winter.
My journey down this road began at birth, though of course, I didn’t know it then. My cousin Rhiannon and I were born on the same day—the summer solstice. Rhia was born in the morning, during the waxing half of the year, and I was born during twilight, after the tide had turned and the year had begun to wane. We called ourselves twin cousins.
Aunt Heather—Rhiannon’s mother—called us fire and ice, amber and jet, for Rhiannon was born tall and willowy with curling red hair, and I was born short and pale, with long, smooth, black hair. Our eyes had been different then. When she took the throne of Summer, Rhiannon’s eye color changed from hazel to gold. And as I ascended to the helm of Winter, mine changed from emerald to the frozen blue of northern ice.
When we were five, my cousin and I met Grieve and Chatter out in the woods, and they taught us how to tap into our magic. The magical Fae prince and his friend became our mentors, and by the next year, when Krystal, my drunken and drug-addicted mother, dragged me off on a journey that would last the next nineteen years of my life, I was prepared for the ordeal to come. Grieve had bound Ulean to me by then, and with her help, I was able to survive the cruel underbelly of the cities through which we traveled.
We’d never stopped long in one place, hitchhiking most of our way up and down the west coast. I explored the seedy streets as my mother sold her body to vamps and to men. I’d learned quickly that she wasn’t cut out for survival. Krystal was on a one-way path to self-destruction, and I didn’t want to go down with her. Even at six years old, I knew that if we were to stay alive, I’d have to figure out how to keep us going.
So Ulean warned me when danger was near. She told me when to run, when to hide. I’d played hide-and-seek with rapists and thieves; I’d hustled Krystal out of the dives we lived in too many times when the landlord was on his way down the hall carrying a baseball bat, looking for his money.
When we were first on the streets, I’d met Uncle Brody, an old black man with a heart a mile wide. He’d taken one look at my situation and done his best to teach me how to survive. I learned a lot of street smarts from the man, and would be forever in his debt. Uncle Brody’s Rules he called the set of guidelines he’d taught me. By the time Krystal dragged me out of that city—wherever it was, I could never keep them clear in my mind, one place was just the same as the next—I was older than I ever should have been at that age. But I was ready to play the game.
So we ran, from city to city, from man to man, as Krystal sought to escape the visions in her head. She was one of the magic-born, and she hated her ability to read thoughts. So she steeped herself in booze and drugs to escape. But there was no real way to leave it behind. If you have the power, that’s it. She refused to accept my abilities, too, and so I kept quiet and used them on the sly. Meanwhile, Krystal sank so deep that no one could reach her. Not even me, her daughter.
By the time she died in an alley, drained by some vamp, I was staying with her out of a sense of responsibility. Love? What’s love when you have to take over your own mothering? When you have to mother the woman who gave you birth because she fucked herself up so bad?
The day I found her, sprawled there, throat ripped out, I realized that any love I thought I had left was curiously absent. I felt sorry for her, like I would any stranger, but she was just some poor hooker who had lost the game. I fished through her pockets, took her wallet and anything that might identify her, then I walked away. When I was long gone, I called in an anonymous tip to the cops. I never looked back.
I took to the road on my own, winning a car in a game of street craps. And from there I restlessly prowled, always wanting to return home for good but never getting up the nerve to ask.
Two years later, my aunt Heather sent a message on the wind. She needed me. As a teen, I’d been allowed to take a few trips back to see my cousin and aunt. Each time I’d wanted to stay, but the knowledge that Krystal wouldn’t survive without me haunted me and I always went back to her.
But now, Heather was frantic. Something was wrong at the Veil House, and would I please come home. Feeling happy for the first time in years, I rushed back to New Forest, only to find my aunt had been abducted by Myst in a war waging between ancient forces.
That was about two months ago. And now, here I was, a thousand miles away from the night I was pulled back into New Forest, Washington. I’d parked my car in the lot of a hotel, and walked into a life I’d never expected to live.
Reunited with my cousin, and now married to Grieve, I was a woman instead of a child. A woman fighting a desperate battle against the Vampiric Queen of the Indigo Court. And I wasn’t all that sure we were going to win.
The tunnels through the Barrow grew narrower and darker. They were infrequently used, and few dared to come this far. The shamans of the Cambyra Courts had a frightening reputation, and they scared the hell out of people, which was just as well, because it meant they didn’t get overwhelmed by curious members of the Court.
The walls glistened, and I realized that we were in a series of ice tunnels—glacial passages leading out of the actual Barrow into the depths of the ice field that spread out as far as the eye could see. We were still within the magical boundaries of my Court, that much I knew, but here the ice was illuminated from within, glowing with soft white and violet sparkles. The lights flickered, as if emanating from some cold flame deep inside the core of the ice sheet, and when I looked down at my feet, I realized the surface of the floor was the same smooth glass. But we glided over it as if it were a faint mist.
My transformation into the Queen of Winter had changed me into a creature of the snow and ice, and the elements were now my blood and soul. I belonged to Winter as sure as the flakes that blanketed the land.
Grieve moved in silence, his face set in a stony expression. Once we had married and he had taken the position of King, he had changed subtly, grown older in a way. His feral nature would never be tamed, but once he accepted the responsibility for our people, his stature had shifted. He had become regal, and to a degree, stern.
I glanced back at Check and Fearless, who walked a few steps behind us. While they were also suspect, we’d had to bring them with us. I couldn’t go wandering around without protection, and to order them to stay behind would only put everyone on alert.
But Grieve and I kept our eyes open, and with Ulean following, she could warn me before they moved more than an inch to attack. Ulean had my back, and she always would.
The tunnels ran deep, a labyrinth spiraling toward the shamans’ lair, and as we continued, it grew progressively colder. I watched the puffs of air hang in front of my face, freezing and then exploding into a fine powder. The decreasing temperatures told me we were reaching the outskirts of the Barrow, which meant from here on out, the wild would encroach, and even though we were still within the boundaries of the Court, we would do well to be wary.
There were no branches or forks along the way. These tunnels led in one direction only, straight to the shamans. There were no opportunities for any thing or any person to burrow in from an alternative entrance. I had no clue if there was an exit from their chambers to the outside, but if there was, it would lead into the chill desolation of the realm, where nothing could survive unless it was already acclimated to the area.
After a while, I fell into a light daze, not knowing how long we had been walking. I wasn’t tired, per se; everything had just become a blur.
The Fae Courts existed in their own world. Outside their boundaries, time flowed like a river, but inside? A week spent in the realm of Faerie could easily translate into minutes in the outer world. Or decades, depending on the will of the Queen. And here, I was the one who set the pace, though I didn’t know how to tinker with time yet. The thought scared the fuck out of me. What if I screwed up a friend who came to visit? What if I messed with someone’s life, keeping them here too long as the outer world passed them by? But sooner or later, I’d have to learn how to adjust the flow of the realm.
“Are we nearly there?” I glanced over at Grieve, wanting to take his hand. But now that we had taken the throne, when we were in public we had to watch our decorum. A kiss? Was acceptable in certain quarters. Holding hands? Passable, depending on the situation. But snuggling and cuddling? All of those affections had to remain in our chambers now. I didn’t like this part of being Queen much, but there was nothing we could do about it. At least, not yet. Perhaps in time I could change tradition, but right now we had a war to focus on. Changing the stance on how much PDA the royals were allowed, well—it wasn’t exactly high on the priority list.
“We are. It takes time to reach the shamans because they wanted to avoid the chance for invaders to reach them quickly. Gives them a chance to set up defense. That’s how they kept fairly immune from Myst’s first attack. Same with the Court of Rivers and Rushes.”
Grieve grinned. “I can feel your desire, you know.” He reached out and, with light fingers, caressed my hand. I lingered over his touch, then reluctantly pulled away. My wolf let out a low rumble in response. Grieve wanted me. It was a nice reassurance.
The tattoo on my stomach was that of a wolf’s head, staring out from in front of a trailing vine of silver roses and purple skulls. Running from my hip to the opposite ribs, it linked Grieve to me—he was a wolf-shifter—and I could feel his energy through it. When he was upset, it growled; when he was hungry for me, desire emanated from the core of the wolf. When he was in pain, I felt his pain.
I was marked with three other tattoos. On both upper arms I had identical bands, a silver dagger through the moon with a pair of owls flying past. On my breast, a feral Fae girl hid behind a bush. They all connected to facets of me—they all were part of my essence and core.
I nodded. “I thought as much.”
A moment later, Check pointed out a shift in the color of the ice covering the walls. It had changed from a white fading into pale blue to a white fading into purple.
“Subtle, but enough to tell us that we are within their territory. Purple is the color of the shamans’ magic. I warn you, they may bow to the Queen and King, but they are beyond all laws save a very few. They live within their own world. Do not anger them. While they would not harm you, their cooperation is vital for our continued existence in this realm. While your heartstone brought the Court back to life, the shamans make that life habitable.”
As he finished speaking, we came to the end of the tunnel. What waited beyond was impossible to see because a veil of energy stretched across the opening. Shimmering like the aurora, the rays streamed across the passage.
“Here we are, then.” Grieve turned to me. “This will be your first time meeting them, though trust me when I tell you, they have followed you since birth. Lainule and Wrath told me that they were instrumental in setting up the circumstances of both your and Rhiannon’s conceptions. While the shamans are not like the Wilding Fae, I advise you, my love, do as you do with the Snow Hag. Think before you speak.”
“No jokes or snark, I take it?” I had a habit of mouthing off when I felt threatened, and it had fucked me over more than once. When I’d ascended to the throne, I had come to a swift realization that my days of free and easy speech were numbered. Everything coming out of my mouth would have to be thought out and planned in order to avoid rumor and to avoid stirring the waves. A mistake now could lead to far more than hurt feelings—one wrong word and I could start a war. End an alliance. The more power I’d gained, the more restrictions I found myself under. It was a sobering realization.
If this keeps up, in years to come, I’ll be locked in an ivory tower.
Ulean whistled past. But Cicely this is what it means to be the Queen. And yes, you will find your world narrows, even as it expands. The higher you climb, the less your life is your own. One day you’ll look back, and all the days before you became Queen will seem like a dream. A distant memory.
That thought terrified the fuck out of me, but I let it be. I turned to Grieve. “What do we do? Do we just pass through?”
He nodded. “Yes. But Fearless, go first. Check, bring up the rear.”
And so Fearless moved to the front and passed through the veil. I watched him go as the energy crackled and snapped around him, sucking him in. A moment later, Grieve stepped through, motioning for me to follow. With a deep breath, I obeyed.
Stepping into the crackling waves was like plugging my finger into a light socket. Even though I closed my eyes as I entered the veil, forked lightning played across my eyelids, spearing my vision. My skin prickled as a web of sparks danced its way across my body; it felt like a hundred stinging gnats. As my teeth began to chatter from the buzzing in my head, I stumbled through to the other side and was out. Grieve and Fearless were waiting for me. Check followed shortly after. It took a moment for my vision and hearing to clear, and I felt jarred, like I’d had way too much caffeine.
I looked around. “Are we in a secondary Barrow?”
Grieve nodded. “Yes, though this is still technically part of the Eldburry Barrow system.”
The chamber resembled a cave more than anything else, with walls that glistened like frosted glass. I ran my hand over them only to find they were ice. The illumination from within the walls cast a dim light through the chamber, silhouetting our shadows against the walls as we crept along in silence.
The room was large, with benches carved from the ice floes and frozen tables, and everywhere there was the feeling of stasis—as if time stood still here, even more so than out in the regular Barrow. I looked around to see if there was anyone in sight, but there were only shadows against the walls. And then I realized the shades were moving on their own.
Grieve motioned for me to join him at a circular table in the center of the chamber. Fearless and Check followed, taking their posts by our side. I kept my mouth shut. I had no clue what to do, and I’d discovered it was generally best to remain silent until I knew what I was dealing with.
As we sat there, the temperature dropped even further, and though I was wearing my cloak, a shiver of fear ran through me when the shadows stepped off the walls. They began to take form, the inky blackness falling away like grains of sand as a man—short and dark, with long hair caught back in a cascade of braids adorned with beads and feathers—stepped into sight. He was wearing leather pants with a fur cloak and bare chest. But the cold didn’t seem to faze him, and he strode to the chair between Grieve and me, and sat down.
I remained silent. There was a palpable energy in the room that threatened. Do-Not-Fuck-With-This. By his shimmering blue eyes and the crackle of his aura, I realized that this man was one of the shamans.
Grieve inclined his head. I followed suit.
Check and Fearless bowed, looking anything but sure of themselves. I began to realize just how much power the shamans wielded in the Barrow. I may be Queen, but they were in control when it came to the inner workings of the magic that sustained this place.
“Thorn, at your command.” The shaman turned to me. “I am the Speaker for our council. I am also the Elder. Instruct me.”
I stared at him, unsure of what to say. First, he understood me and I understood him. I wasn’t used to that with the majority of my people. Second, I realized that he hadn’t spoken aloud. I’d heard him like I heard Ulean, in my core.
Stammering, I tried to figure out what to say—and how to say it. Should I speak aloud? Should I try to project my thoughts to him, or speak into the slipstream? But as I struggled, once again a whisper-light touch ran through my thoughts. It was nothing like when Kaylin had intruded into my mind, which had felt very much like an invasion. This . . . This was cautious. A gentle hello, very respectful.
A moment later, Thorn spoke aloud. “I know what you fear. I know what we must do. We will begin with the King and your guards.” He stood and motioned for us to follow him.
Hesitantly, I obeyed. Grieve swung in stride next to me, with Check and Fearless behind us. I wondered if they could guess what was happening—and if they could, how they would feel. Would they hate me for what was about to happen to them? Or accept it as their duty? The shadows on the walls were standing at attention now, watching as we passed. Ulean followed at the rear.
I whispered to Grieve. “What would happen if Check or Fearless tried to run?”
Thorn turned and, without missing a beat, said, “The Watchers would come off the walls and rip them to pieces. As they would your King if he tried to avoid our summons.”
Grieve leaned close. “He searched your mind and saw your need. We must all be tested in order to assure your safety. Once the Queen—you—gave the order, the shamans are bound to destroy those who try to avoid your ruling.”
“They took my thoughts as an order?” I blinked.
“The Fae Queen’s will is law, whether it be in word or action. Or thought. They heard your need and are responding. They live to serve you . . . and will die in your service.” He reached out and gently stroked my cheek as we followed the shaman. “As do I. And as I will.”
His touch was like fire, sparking off a flush of desire that raced through my body, setting off a deep, gnawing hunger. I pushed back my need. This wasn’t the place, but when we were done, I needed to fuck him, to press skin against skin and feel him thrust deep, drive himself into me. While I’d always been sensual by nature, ever since I’d returned home, my sex drive had taken an exponential leap. Every step I took, every movement, every touch, seemed to trigger me off.
We veered into a side passage that forked to the right, and Thorn stopped in front of a door. He whispered something under his breath, and as the door opened, he ushered us through into a softly lit chamber. Here, a circle of chairs surrounded a raised bed. Well, it wasn’t exactly a bed, but instead was a raised, padded bench covered with a fur cloak, reminding me of the place in which my heartstone had been created. Another row of chairs lined one wall.
He motioned for us to sit in the chairs against the wall as a group of men and women filed through a door on the opposite wall. They circled the bench and took their seats. Thorn motioned to Grieve.
While I had never seen this rite performed—for there was no doubt this was a full-fledged ritual—Grieve obviously had, for he silently stood and walked over to the bench, where he lay down. One of the women sitting in the circle rose to cover him with the fur blanket then took her seat again.
The shamans reached out and joined hands, creating a ring around Grieve. One of them began to hum, his voice low and resonant. The rest joined in, one by one, until they were weaving a rhythmic, sonorous tone that threatened to draw me deep, drag me under the waves. As I began to follow the thread of music, I found myself in a long tunnel. In the light that blinded me from up ahead, I could see the shamans standing, only they were once again the dark shadows they had been on the walls. They surrounded a brilliant indigo form, and I knew it was Grieve hiding beneath that glowing light.
The music began to swell into a tide, a wave that rolled far out in the ocean like the beginnings of a tsunami, biding its time before its inevitable march toward the land. It loomed over Grieve, rising up like a great shadow—roiling waves ready to crash down on him and drag him under. I could feel his fear. The wolf on my stomach whimpered, cowering down, as it watched the wraithlike ocean descend. And then, as our link tied us together, I began to feel his pain as the storm broke, ripping into his mind, tearing it to shreds with a whirlwind of questions, a flurry bombarding him as the shamans sought their answers.
He let out a long scream as they rammed into him, penetrating deeply, tossing aside every block, searching every hidden nook and cranny of his mind. They stripped away the covering to every recess protecting those private shadows we all have. I tried to break free, not wanting to intrude, not wanting to see something that I might never be able to forget.
But then, as I jockeyed for my footing, I found myself roughly shoved to one side. As our link was severed, I went reeling back into my body, slamming into myself so hard that I fell off my chair. Dazed, I allowed Check and Fearless to lift me up and help me back to my seat.
Grieve was convulsing. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he was foaming at the mouth. I struggled to go to him, but the guards held me down. He was in pain, in horrible, terrible pain, and I realized this was the most intimate of intrusions, forcing into his very essence. The shamans were raping his mind, ravaging him to shed light into every corner, uncover every secret nook.
Crying, I watched, helpless to stop them.
Check leaned over. “Your Highness, do not weep. Show no emotion. This must be done in order to ensure the safety of the Court. To ensure your safety. His Lordship understands this, and volunteered to do it because he cares for you. Do not fear. Do not cry. Don’t make his sacrifice meaningless.”
Bleakly, I looked up at him. “You and Fearless will have to undergo the same ritual. Do you understand this now? There’s a spy in our midst, and we have to find out who it is.” Perhaps I shouldn’t have blurted it out, but I couldn’t face watching anyone else get roughed up who might be innocent.
Check nodded. “And so will all who come into contact with you in any capacity. And, my Lady, while it hurts, we understand the nature and necessity for this pain. The good of the Court and the good of the realm come before our personal comfort. For your sake, and the safety of all, we willingly submit, so that we might avoid having to submit to a far more dangerous force.”
Fearless nodded, and then did something that surprised the hell out of me. He reached out and patted my hand. As if realizing he’d just made a gaffe, he pulled back, but his eyes still crinkled with kindness, and the feel of his cool skin on mine managed to calm me down.
I turned back to watch Grieve. He was shaking now, though the convulsions had calmed down. Even from the outskirts, I could still feel the racking pain that raced through his mind. Helpless, knowing this was one of those horrendous duties that I would have to face again and again, I forced myself to watch. As I did so, Ulean fluttered around me.
This is your life. This is your destiny. You must wrap up your feelings and fears and tuck them away in a box. During times like this, you must learn to observe and let be what must be. Grieve will survive. Your King will be all right. Will he remember the pain? Yes, as will everyone who undergoes this rite. But it will not harm them, unless they have dangerous secrets to hide. And then . . .