Winter’s Loan

A short story written for the Fox Spirits ‘Winter’ prompt before I re-read, and realised that it was probably too fan-fiction to go in. Oh well!

My story starts – and ends – with scars.

Scars of the body. Of the mind.

Of the heart.

———-

I knew from an early age that I had been promised to Winter. My father had sworn his first-born child for some reason that I never found out, and when I was born the Queen touched my forehead and promised to claim me on a day of her choosing. I didn’t get the traditional lock of white hair, but my eyes never faded from the bright blue of a baby. Apart from that, I thought I was normal.

I went to nursery, and then school. I ran after a ball with the mob of neighbourhood children. I hated maths, loved sport, and filled my summer holidays with books and climbing trees. I argued vehemently against having to wear nice clothes to parties. I fought with my brother, three years younger and alternately my worst enemy and my best playmate. I wanted to learn archery. I wondered about being a vet and then decided that I didn’t like animals. I started to grow up.

And all through it, the scarred lady watched me.

She was tall; although to a child, all adults are tall. But she stood out from the rest of my adult world in a way that I couldn’t put into words until much, much later. Part of that was her air of confidence, of surety, of complete calm and indifference. I was never sure how old she was – not that it really mattered – but she always projected an air of easy command. She came and went as she pleased, with her own agenda and her own secrets.

It was also her appearance that made her stand out. She had two deep gashes on her face, white against her skin. One ran down the side of her eye and cheek, and the other crossed behind her ear into her hair. The hair itself was white, streaked with an almost translucent look where the scars ran into it, and it would glitter in the sunlight.

She visited the house about twice a year, staying for half a day and sitting with my parents, talking quietly – but I wasn’t really interested in what they were talking about. I’d show her my drawings or my schoolwork, and she would nod gravely; she’d sometimes come and watch me climb a tree in the garden. I would gloat to my brother that she was only interested in me, as she entirely ignored him; but in truth, I was relatively indifferent. She wouldn’t play with me and therefore she was just another grown-up, talking about grown-up matters.

———-

Sometime after I started at the local school, she began to appear in the rest of my life. Sometimes she’d just watch me; I’d catch sight of her at odd intervals, and I soon learned that others weren’t able to see her. Sometimes she intervened; it was her arms that caught me the day the branch broke high up in a new tree and I tumbled towards the ground, and it was her cold hand that stopped me as I was about to run into the road after a ball. I was angrier about the flattening of our ball by the car than I was about my near-miss – and I suppose I ended up with a sense of entitlement that set me apart. I knew I’d be protected.

I got confirmation of that when I was eight, on the day that I was messing around on the railway bridge, walking along the parapet, and a brick gave way beneath my foot. I spent a terrified instant teetering on the edge with that horrible feeling in my stomach, half butterflies and half cold fear, and then I began to fall-

And a hand grasped my shoulder, pulling me back onto the bridge.

I was doing that weird hooting breathing you do when you’ve just had a horrible shock, and then, for the first time, she hugged me.

I curled into her arms and sobbed my heart out. I wasn’t quite sure why I was crying; loneliness, possibly. Anger. Fear. All the usual human emotions that we can’t admit to and can’t put into words, that tie themselves into a ball in your heart and wind through your bones until they’re everything that you are.

She let me cry myself out until I was hiccoughing and sniffling, and then handed me a square of white cloth when I tried to use my sleeve to wipe my nose.

“You will be protected, little one,” she said quietly, and then left me on the bridge as abruptly as she had come. My brother found me two minutes later, still hiccoughing.

Of course, being the child that I was, once I’d got over the shock I promptly put myself in more danger.

Or tried to.

The playground bullies that I insulted couldn’t hear or see me. It was only when I tried to kick one of them that my collar was grabbed and I was swung backwards. The scarred lady held me up and glared at me, ignoring my futile attempts to hit her. “Do not presume upon protection, child. It is not your place to cause trouble.”

I hung at arms’ length, glaring sullenly.

“It seems that I should see to more of your education, if you are this ill-bred.” She lowered me, and gave me a rare smile. “Be ready on the morrow.”

“But-” I had school the next day.

She was already walking away.

———-

I went home and hovered in the living room doorway until my father looked up from his book. “What is it, Ciara?”

“Who’s the scarred lady?”

He lowered the book. “Why?”

“She said she wants to educate me. Tomorrow.”

My father got the story of the railway bridge and the bullies out of me, and nodded. He didn’t seem surprised. “Yes, she’ll probably take you into her country. You’ll meet quite a lot of people. It should be very interesting for you.”

“But what about school?”

He’d returned to his book. “You won’t need to go to school if you don’t want to.”

I raced down the hall to boast to my brother; not going to school was far more exciting to me than the looming visit to wherever the scarred lady’s home was. My brother was suitably sneery, and our evening devolved into another fight that entirely took my mind off the next day.

But the scarred lady did come, and I lingered in the hallway to listen to their conversation.

“She’s asked to learn,” the scarred lady said in her quiet voice.

“She’ll need a normal childhood too,” my mother insisted. “I don’t want her with you until she chooses to.”

“My Queen will ask for her.”

“She hasn’t yet.” It was rare that my mother took that tone, but she sounded implacable. “Until that day I don’t mind you spending time with her, but she’s got to go to school as well.”

“As you wish. I will visit her school to discuss the matter with her teachers.”

I got a slightly amused look from her blue eyes when she swept past me in the hallway, and I sulked for the rest of the day. My father had said I wouldn’t need to go to school!

It was sorted out that I would go to school three days a week, and the other two were for the scarred lady. It was only on the first day when I was walking down the path from my home that I asked, “What’s your name?”

I got a rare smile. “You may address me as the Lady Emissary.”

“What’s an Emissary?”

“An ambassador.”

“For who?”

“The Queen of Winter. And the lands of Winter are where we are going.”

———-

Over the next few years, I was a delighted child in the wildness of a new world. I played in the snow. I ran chases and had pouncing fights with huge, scarred bobcats, trying to mimic their hissing voices and being batted into snowdrifts by their velvet-soft paws. I was carried on the shoulders of the ogres, tried to lift the troll’s huge clubs, talked to the winged faeries and the beautiful sirens, and learned to swim in freezing pools with the nixies, all flowing limbs and trailing green hair. I saw the beautiful, frozen world of icebergs and snow, lay on my back to watch the Northern Lights with the wolf-pack, picked blue ice-roses from the hidden glade, danced (badly) in Court balls, dodged icicles and avalanches, ate foods that I’d never experienced before…

It was a world of wonder and beauty for a child.

But then I started to grow up.

———-

I was fourteen. And I was scared.

The chases had been turning more violent; the monsters no longer held back their force. I was putting my athletic skills to good use and I’d definitely learned to dodge. My tree-climbing had got better, too – the real test of that one had been an irate wolf. I was learning that insults, even if unintentional, still result in violence, and that a monster’s nature can’t always be held at bay by kindness.

And there really were monsters after me this time.

The bobcats had been jumpy for a few days, riled up by something that we couldn’t identify. They’d already mauled two of the fauns and tried to take down a troll, which is a stupid idea even for a bunch of large cats, but they’d had a good go. The Lady Emissary and I were returning from an excursion and had to skirt across the edge of their territory when I’d broken a branch, and thirty seconds later I caught movement in the forests around us.

It was dark, cold, and there were things out to get me.

“Run,” the scarred lady ahead of me murmured, and we raced off as silently as possible into the forest. We didn’t have to get far. We’d be out of their territory soon, and then they’d find other prey.

I just didn’t know how far.

The Lady Emissary hurdled a fallen tree but when I went to do it, my foot caught and I went tumbling. My training had included enough on how to fall that I rolled and came back up, but I’d lost time. And now there were shadows ahead of me in the trees, and I couldn’t see the flash of white hair. A yowl to one side suggested there were more cats keeping pace with me.

Then the flash of hair. The Lady Emissary was ahead of me, and I slowed in relief-

And something landed hard on my back, knocking me forward.

I rolled and kicked out, knocking the huge cat sideways. We tumbled for a bit, and I felt the claws score my ribs. A quick glance over revealed the white hair, but she was standing there with her arms folded as I scrambled backwards and a huge claw came down towards my throat-

I couldn’t rely on her.

She wasn’t protecting me.

I threw everything I could into the kick as the claws grazed my temple, and my feet hit the cat solidly in the ribs and sent it tumbling away with a hurt yowl. I shot up and forward, my heels digging into the frozen ground, and raced for the white light that I could faintly see through the trees. There were things following, a swish as something went past my head. My legs were aching and lungs were burning, but then I was out into the snow, the blinding light hurting my eyes. I heard a hiss of disappointment from the trees behind me, and I risked a glance over my shoulder. Nothing was following.

I slowed to a jog. I couldn’t risk stopping but I needed to get my breath. The world around me was barren and cold; an icy wind blew across the open space, picking up a faint hint of fresh snow as it came. There was no crunch of paws, but also no footsteps. Nothing marred the white surface except my own tracks.

I was alone in the snow again.

———-

I trailed back towards the icy Castle that was Winter’s home. No-one was around, and so I stomped off through the portal-doorway that led back to my world. It was a permanent one, and took me back to a broken gateway near the railway bridge. I stopped for a moment, hands jammed into my pockets, and then went to sit on the railway parapet and fume. I was fourteen, hurting, angry and terrified. I wanted a fight.

So when the white-haired figure leaned wordlessly on the wall next to me, I snapped out, “You left me?”

“You should not presume protection.”

“They wanted to kill me!”

“You handled it very well.”

I was fuming. “I want some answers.”

She nodded, as if she had been expecting it. “Very well. But you will not be returning here.”

“What? Wait, I didn’t want-“

“What you want has no bearing on this. You have asked to learn. Let us return to your home, and I will inform your parents.”

I trailed after her sullenly, robbed of my fight but desperately curious.

She sent me upstairs to pack a holdall, and I heard the murmur of voices from downstairs as I threw things together. I’d collected a standard kit for my visits to Winter, so that went in, plus a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and The Collected Works of Shakespeare. I figured I might need them. Then I headed back down.

The three adults were in the living room, and looked up as I came in. My father had been crying, but my mother was calm. I wondered how other people’s parents would take the knowledge that their daughter was leaving home…but I suppose they had known it all along, as had I. My brother was their child; I was only there temporarily.

My father stood and held out his arms to me. “It’s ok, Ciara. You’ll come back to see us, don’t worry.”

It wasn’t the hollow platitude I’d expected – it sounded like a statement of fact and somehow, it reassured me. So I hugged him, hugged my mom, and hefted my bag.

The Lady Emissary nodded to both of my parents, and then we turned away from the home I’d grown up in.

———-

We stepped through the portal as usual but instead of turning left, the Lady Emissary stopped. “Daido!”

The tiny Faerie appeared five seconds later with a buzz of wings. “Lady Emissary!”

“Please take Ciara to wait in my rooms. I will join you shortly.”

She abruptly turned to the right, and we went left. I mutely followed the tiny Faerie as he buzzed up several flights of polished stairs, and stopped at a door. “Here!”

The rooms inside were elegant but plain. There was a sofa and a long table, and through two open doors I could see a bedroom with an intricate patchwork blanket over the large bed, and a marble-clad bathroom that looked rather cold. I wandered over to the window, and found that it looked out over the snowy plains. Nice, I suppose, but boring…I decided to try the large bookshelf instead, and had just found a copy of The Collected Works of Shakespeare when the door opened.

“I will run you a bath,” the Lady Emissary said as she closed the door, “and then you must be made presentable.”

Daido was squeaking excitedly. “She has agreed to see you!”

“Who?” I asked, bemused, as I was herded towards the bathroom.

“The Queen!”

“We have been granted an audience in an hour,” the Lady Emissary said, looking up from where she was kneeling next to the taps. “Get those clothes off, child. Daido, go and fetch my Court clothes.”

I found myself getting more and more nervous as I had my bath and then the Lady Emissary trimmed my hair. I would meet the Queen? Was this the point that she would claim me completely? Was that what the Lady Emissary had meant about not going home? My attention was diverted to my appearance as Daido returned with some smarter clothes (carried by a rather grumpy faun) and I dressed. And then we were walking back down the long staircase.

“It is courteous to kneel,” the Lady Emissary told me as we descended, “and do not speak until you are spoken to. Ever.” I nodded mutely.

The main ballroom was a riot of colour and sound. I recognised monsters from my playtimes but was careful to follow on the Lady Emissary’s heels as she strode through the throng, which parted before her.

And then there was a figure before us, seated on a polished throne. Her skin was the white of new snow, her eyes piercing green, her lips red…she was beautiful. But it was a terrifying beauty, and I didn’t need any encouragement to go down on my knees and bow my head, too scared to even try to speak. Beside me, I saw the Lady Emissary drop to one knee gracefully.

“My Emissary.” The Queen’s voice was smooth, with an undertone that made me shiver. It sounded implacable…if she wanted something, she would get it, but not in a tantrums-and-petulance way. She would grind everything down with the relentless drive of an iceberg and the emotionless fury of a snowstorm. Winter could be beautiful, but this was its heart.

“My Queen, I would like to present Ciara to you.”

I managed to raise my head; if nothing else, I was curious. The beautiful woman on the throne took a moment to examine me, and then smiled at me. “I will not ask for her yet, my Emissary, but I require you to undertake her training.”

The Lady Emissary bowed her head. “Of course, my Queen.”

The Queen’s eyes were still studying me. “Welcome to my Court, Ciara. May your time here be long.”

———-

The next few years were hard. I learned to fight, and even managed to inflict some hurt on others. I met people, and monsters, and nightmares. I learned to see the sun as an enemy, and how to throw a decent snowball; hard-packed, with a spin, guaranteed to knock any unwary monster flat. I discovered how sex worked, albeit with the addition of razor-sharp wings on the beautiful, deadly sylphs and the frisson of violence from the more powerful Faerie Lords. I read and talked and boasted and learned. I was a teenager; testing the limits, falling in love, learning about myself.

And all through, the quiet figure of the Lady Emissary watched.

“How did you break your arm?” I asked one day when she was teaching me how to throw knives. She’d taken off her habitual grey coat, and her left arm was lumpy.

“I fell off a mountain.” She put the knife point-first into the dead tree ahead of us. “Now you.”

“Did you get the scars then too?”

“Some of them.” She gave me the level stare that meant she was waiting for me to do something useful. She never really answered questions; it was almost as if she couldn’t see the point in them. I sometimes felt as if I should already know the answers.

“She turned down the Knight’s position, you realise,” Skeli rumbled to me one day when he was teaching me how to punch things without breaking my delicate human fists. Being a troll, his fists usually went through most things, but he was accepting of my limitations. “The Queen has great regard for her.”

“She did fall off a mountain,” was Daido’s comment on her scars. He was sitting on my shoulder as we walked through the snow on our latest errand, his legs swinging against my collarbone and his dragonfly wings brushing my hair. “She nearly died! The Queen saved her life.”

“Thou dost ask many questions about matters that are not thine business,” was my favourite Centaur’s comment. I promptly got a lesson in attending to things that were my business when a flurry of blows got past my guard and a staff-end went into my ribs.

But I did learn. The Lady Emissary was quiet but powerful; she had the Queen’s trust, and would often be sent on errands that I knew to be important, even if the details were never disclosed. However, while I was at Court she wouldn’t do anything that took her away for a long period of time…and it was only later that I realised how much she protected me. Every Court denizen knew that I was only a plaything, and should not be killed – I could be tormented and attacked, but for some reason her protection was respected.

And slowly, surely, I secured my own place. I began to land bruises on others. I was sent on a mission for the Queen, and succeeded. I gained a few friends, learned to play politics and to dance better than I had before. I turned from lanky teenager into a slightly more confident young woman – still human and mortal in the midst of monsters, but able to hold my own against some, or at least know when to back down. I began to accompany the Lady Emissary on her travels, and she became my friend as well as my teacher.

———-

I had just passed my seventeenth birthday , which had been celebrated in the Court as an excuse for a party. It had also been marked by my first formal challenge, and I was still glowing with pride from having won it. I’d sent the minotaur off with a sword-cut on the shoulder and bruises from my combination of karate and pure thug-style violence, and I’d had a very nice night with my prize.

“He could have been you,” was the Lady Emissary’s comment when I started boasting about the sex for the third time. “He does not have a protector within the Court, and so is kept as a toy. Would you prefer to be watching the duel, waiting to see which one of them will take you tonight?”

I blinked. “But – I’m not…”

“You are not, but that does not mean you should treat others as less than yourself. Would you prefer that I treated you as you treated your playmate?”

I could feel the fury and embarrassment storming across my cheeks. “But that’s what you do with-”

“I do not.” The words were flat and quiet, but silenced me. “It appears that is one lesson that you have not learnt yet. That could have been you.”

The absolute fury and scorn in her voice stung me to the quick, and I could feel tears springing into my eyes. But all of the arguments on my tongue somehow dwindled into silence in the face of her judgement, and we walked for the next hour or so in silence.

“Why have you protected me?” I asked eventually. My voice sounded very thin in the cold air.

She stopped, and turned. We were standing in the wilderness of the Mountains, on our way to meet one of the wolf-packs, and the wind was bitter – but she didn’t seem to feel it as she studied me, and I took the opportunity to study my mentor. She did seem older, now. She hadn’t aged from the white-haired woman that I first remembered from a baby, but she did seem tired; something in her blue eyes spoke of age.

“It was necessary.” And then she gave me a gentle, fragile smile. It was one I had never seen before, and it scared me; it was as if I was being shown a glimpse of something deeper that I couldn’t understand. Her cold hand cupped my cheek for a moment, and she nodded. “You’ve got a lot of growing to do, but the base is there. You’ll do well, Ciara.”

“Are…what…” I struggled for words. “Are you all right?”

She shrugged. “I am waiting for everything to begin again. I did want life when I was your age, but now I’m older…I suppose I’m happy that I’ll be able to sleep.”

“You’re going to die?”

“We all are, child.”

“I’m not a child.” I was an argumentative teenager.

That got the fragile smile again, but this time there was sadness too. “No, you’re not.” And then she turned away again. “Let us go.”

And ten minutes later, the path we were on crumbled beneath our feet.

I remember rocks falling from above. I remember something slamming into my arm, my leg, tumbling me down and around and then all the pain rushed in. I remember my entire world being reduced to a cave as the mountain and I fell together, and hit the ground somewhere far below.

And I remember seeing the white hair vanishing into the rocks beside me.

———-

I woke in the Lady Emissary’s room in Winter’s Court, filled with a deep weariness and a lot of pain. The Queen of Winter was sitting beside me, her hand gently resting on mine above the patchwork cover, and I could feel the numbness sinking into me. She was pushing the pain away.

“Where’s the Lady Emissary?” I mumbled. My face really hurt. I wondered how much of a pounding it had taken from the rocks.

“She protected you.”

She was dead.

“Am I dying?”

“Yes. I can save you, but at a cost,” the Queen said. “I can only give you a lifetime.”

I was aching, and scared, and tired. I had just lost my one real friend in the Court, and I couldn’t bear to lose my life too. “All right.”

The Queen of Winter leant over, kissed my forehead, and claimed me as her own with a shard of ice into my soul. I screamed and arched in agony as the blizzard raged through me and my body repaired itself; and then it was done. The cold sank into my bones, along with the knowledge that death and decay were only a lifetime away. I was wholly Winter’s, now.

When my Queen had gone, I pushed myself out of the bed and limped over to the mirror. I had been right; my face had taken a pounding from rocks. My bright blue eyes stared back as I traced the scars on my face with a crooked arm. There was one running down past my eye, a deep gash that pushed into my cheek…and a second running up past my ear, into my snow-white hair.

I had a lifetime ahead of me.