Winters Passage, Page 3Julie Kagawa
The Living Cold
Ash stopped, every muscle in his body coiling tight, as the echo of that eerie cry faded into the mist.
“Impossible,” he murmured, his voice frighteningly calm. “It’s on our trail again. How? How could it find us so quickly?”
Grimalkin suddenly let out a long, low growl, which shocked me and caused goose bumps to crawl up my arms. The cat had never done that before. “It is the Hunter,” Grimalkin said, as his fur began to rise along his back and shoulders. “The Eldest Hunter, the First. ” He glanced at us, teeth bared, looking feral and wild. “You must flee, quickly! If he has your trail he will be coming fast. Run, now!”
The woods flashed by us, dark and indistinct, shadowy shapes in the mist. I didn’t know if we were running in circles or straight into the Hunter’s jaws.
Grimalkin had disappeared. Direction was lost in the coiling mist. I only hoped that Ash knew where he was going as we fled through the eerie whiteness.
The howl came again, closer this time, more excited.
I dared a backward glance, but could see nothing beyond the swirling fog and shadows. But I could feel whatever it was, getting closer. It could see us now, fleeing before it, the back of my neck a tempting target. I stifled my panic and kept running, clinging to Ash’s hand as we wove through the forest.
The trees fell away, the fog cleared a bit and suddenly a great chasm opened before us, wide and gaping like the maw of a giant beast. Ash jerked me to a stop three feet from the edge, and a shower of pebbles went clattering down the jagged sides, vanishing into the river of mist far below. The crack in the earth ran along the edge of the wyldwood for as far as I could see in either direction, separating us from the safety on the other side.
Beyond the chasm, a snow-covered landscape stretched away before us, icy and pristine. Trees were frozen, covered in ice, every twig outlined in sparkling crystal. The ground beneath looked like a blanket of clouds, white and fluffy. Snowdrifts glittered in the sun like millions of tiny diamonds. Tir Na Nog, the land of Winter, home to Mab and the Unseelie Court.
“This way. ” Ash tugged my hand and pulled me along the chasm, where the mist from the wyldwood rolled off the edge and down the cliff sides like a slow-moving waterfall. “If we can get to the bridge, I can stop him. ”
Panting, I followed the edge of the gorge and gasped in relief. About a hundred yards away, an arched bridge, made completely of ice, sparkled enticingly in the sun.
Something snapped in the woods at our right, something huge and fast. The Hunter was silent now, no howls or deep throaty bays; it was moving in for the kill.
We reached the bridge, and Ash pushed me forward onto the icy surface. There were no guards or handrails, just a narrow arch over a terrifying drop. Stomach clenching, I started across, trying not to look down.
Because the bridge was ice, it was perfectly clear; I felt I was walking out over nothing, seeing the dizzying fall right beneath my feet.
My foot slipped, and my heart slammed against my ribs, pounding wildly as I flailed. Right behind me, Ash grabbed my arm tightly, and somehow we made it to the other side.
As soon as we were off, the Winter prince drew his sword. Sunlight flashed along the blade as he raised it and brought it slashing down on the narrow bridge. The bridge cracked, icy shards glittering as they spiraled into the air, and he raised the sword for another blow.
Across the chasm, something dark and monstrous broke out of the trees, fog swirling around it. Through the mist and shadows, I couldn’t see it clearly, but it was huge, black and terrifying, with burning, yellow-green eyes. When it saw what Ash was doing, it roared, making the air tremble, then bounded for the bridge.
Ash brought his sword down again, then once more, and with a deafening crack, the ice bridge shattered. Our end slid away and dropped into oblivion, taking with it the entire arch, which clashed and screeched its way down the side of the cliff. The shadow on the other side slid to a halt, green eyes blazing with fury as it stalked up and down the edge for a moment, panting. Then, with a snarl that showed a flash of huge white teeth, it turned and slipped back into the misty wyldwood, vanishing from sight.
I shuddered with relief and sank down into the snow, gasping, feeling as if my lungs and legs and whole body were on fire. But as the adrenaline wore off, I realized how frigidly cold it was on this side of the chasm. The icy wind cut through my bones and stabbed into me like a knife.
Ash knelt beside me and gently pulled me close, wrapping me in his arms. I leaned into him, felt his heart racing, and shivered against his chest. He was silent, resting his forehead against mine, saying nothing. Just there.
“Come on,” he murmured after a few moments.
“Let’s find a place to rest. ”
“What about the Hunter?”
He rose, pulling me to my feet. “The Ice Maw runs for miles in either direction,” he said, nodding at the chasm behind us, “until it meets the Wyrmtooth Mountains in the north and the Broken Glass Sea in the south. The Hunter won’t find a way across for a long time. Besides,” he added, narrowing his eyes, “this is my realm. I doubt he’ll attack us here. ”
“Do not be too sure of that, Prince,” said Grimalkin, popping into view on what was left of the shattered bridge. “The Hunter is older than you—much older. He does not care whose realm he is in when tracking his prey.
If he is after you, you will see him again. ” I sneezed, causing the cat to pin his ears. Ash took my elbow and drew me away from the chasm, positioning himself so that he blocked the wind howling up from the gap. “We’ll worry about that if he ever gets across,” the prince stated calmly as I hugged myself to conserve heat.
“But night is coming, and so is the cold. We have to get Meghan inside. ”
“Before she turns into an icicle? I suppose. ” Grimalkin hopped off the shattered post, landing lightly in the snow. “The only shelter I know of is old Liaden’s place in the frozen wood. Surely you are not taking the girl there?” He blinked under Ash’s steady gaze. “You are. Well, this will be interesting. Follow me, then. ” He trotted away, making light paw prints in the snow, a fuzzy cloud gliding over the whiteness.
“Who’s Liaden?” I asked Ash.
An icy gale howled up from the chasm before he could answer, slicing into me and tossing drifts of snow into the air. “Later,” Ash said brusquely, giving me a slight push. “Follow Grimalkin. Go. ” We trailed the paw prints into the woods. Icicles hung from frozen trees, some longer than my arms and as sharp as a spear. Every so often one would snap off and plummet to the ground with the tinkle of breaking glass.
The cold here was a living thing, clawing at my exposed skin, stabbing my lungs when I breathed. I was soon shivering violently, teeth chattering, thinking longingly of sweaters and hot baths and burrowing under a thick feather quilt until spring.
The woods grew darker, the trees closer together, and the temperature dropped even more. By now I was losing feeling in my fingers and toes, the cold making me sluggish. I felt as if icy hands were grabbing my feet, dragging me down, urging me to curl up in a ball and hibernate until it was warm again.
A flash of color in the trees caught my eye. On the branch above me, a small bird perched on a twig, bright red against the snow. Its eyes were closed, and it was fluffed out against the cold, looking like a feathery red ball. And it was completely encased in ice, covered head-to-toe in crystallized water, so clear that I could see every detail through the shell.
The sight should have chilled me, but I was so cold all I felt was the spreading numbness. My legs belonged to someone else, and I couldn’t even feel my feet anymore. I tripped over a branch and fell, sprawling in a snowbank, ice crystals stinging my eyes.
I was suddenly very sleepy. My eyelids felt heavy, and all I wanted to do was lay my head down and sleep, like a bear t
hrough the winter. It was an appealing thought. I wasn’t cold anymore, just completely numb, and darkness beckoned temptingly.
Ash’s voice cut through the layers of apathy, as the Winter prince knelt in the snow. “Meghan, get up,” he said, his voice urgent. “You can’t lie here. You’ll freeze over and die if you don’t move. Get up. ” I tried, but it seemed a Herculean effort to even raise my head when all I wanted to do was sleep. I muttered something about how tired I was, but the words froze in the back of my throat, and I only grunted.
“The cold has her. ” Grimalkin’s voice seemed to come from far away. “She is already icing over. If you do not get her up now, she will die. ” My eyelids were slipping shut, even though I tried keeping them open. If they closed, they would freeze and stay shut forever. I tried using my fingers to pry them open by force, but a layer of ice now covered my hands and I couldn’t feel them anymore.
Give in, the cold whispered in my ear. Give in, sleep.
You’ll never feel pain again.
My eyelids flickered, and Ash made a noise that was almost a growl. “Dammit, Meghan,” he snarled, grabbing both my arms. “I am not going to lose you this close to home. Get up!”
He rose, pulling me to my feet and, before I could even register what was going on, pressed his lips to mine.
The numbness shattered. Surprise flooded in, as my heart leaped and my stomach twisted itself into a knot. I laced my arms around his neck and kissed him back, feeling his arms around me, crushing us together, breathing in the sharp, frosty scent of him.
When we finally pulled back, I was breathing hard, and his heart raced under my fingers. I was also shivering again, and this time I welcomed the cold. Ash sighed and touched his forehead to mine.
“Let’s get you out of the cold. ” Grimalkin had vanished again, perhaps annoyed with our display of passion, but his delicate paw prints cut plainly through the snow. We followed them until the trail finally ended at a small, dilapidated cabin beneath two rotting trees. I wouldn’t think anyone lived there, but smoke curled from the chimney and a dim orange light glowed through the windows, so someone must’ve been home.
I was eager to get inside, out of the biting chill, but Ash took my hand, forcing me to look at him.
“You’re in Unseelie territory now, remember that,” he warned. “Whatever you see in that room, don’t stare, and don’t make any comments about her baby.
I nodded, willing to agree to anything if I could just be warm again. Ash released me, stepped onto the creaking, snow-covered porch, and knocked firmly on the door.
A woman opened it, peering out with tired, bloodshot eyes. A gray robe and cowl draped her body like old curtains, and her face, though fairly young, was lined and weary.
“Prince Ash?” she said, her voice breathy and frail.
“This is a surprise. What can I do for you, Your Highness?”
“We wish to spend the night here,” Ash stated quietly. “Myself and my companion. We won’t bother you, and we intend to be gone by morning. Will you let us in?”
The woman blinked. “Of course,” she murmured, opening the door wide. “Please, come inside. Make yourselves comfortable, poor children. I’m Dame Liaden. ”
That’s when I saw her baby, cradled lovingly in her other arm, and bit my lip to stifle a gasp. The wrinkled, ghastly creature in a stained white blanket was the most hideous child I’d ever seen. Its deformed head was too large for its body, its tiny limbs were shriveled and dead, and its skin had an unhealthy blue tinge, like it had been drowned or left out in the cold. The child kicked weakly and let out a feeble, unearthly cry.
It was like watching a train wreck. I couldn’t tear my eyes away…until Ash nudged me sharply in the ribs.
“Nice to meet you,” I said automatically, and followed him over the threshold into the room. Inside, a fire crackled in the hearth, and the warmth seeped into my frozen limbs, making me sigh in relief.
There was no crib anywhere in the cabin, and the woman didn’t put her infant down once, moving about the room clutching her baby as if she feared something would snatch it away.
“The girl can take the bed under the window,” Liaden said, wrapping the baby in another ratty, once-white blanket. “I fear I must go out now, but please make yourselves at home. There is tea and milk in the cupboards, and extra blankets in the closet. But midnight draws close, and we must depart. Farewell. ” Holding her infant close to her chest, she opened the door, letting in a blast of painfully cold air, and slipped out into the night. The door clicked behind her, and we were alone.
“Where is she going?” I asked, moving closer to the fireplace. My fingers were finally getting some feeling back, and were all tingly now. Ash didn’t look at me.
“You don’t want to know. ”
He sighed. “She’s going to wash her baby in the blood of a human infant to make her own child whole and healthy again. If only for a little while. ” I recoiled. “That’s horrible!”
“You asked. ”
I shuddered and rubbed my upper arms, looking out the cabin’s grimy window. Moonlight sparkled through the glass, and the land beyond was frozen solid. This was Unseelie territory, like Ash had said. I was far from home and family and the safety of a normal life.
Closing my eyes, I started to shake. What would happen to me once I reached the Winter Court? Would Mab throw me in a dungeon, or maybe feed me to her goblins? What would a centuries-old faery queen do to the daughter of her ancient rival? Whatever it was, I couldn’t imagine it would be good for me. Fear twisted my gut.
I felt Ash move behind me, so close that I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. He didn’t touch me, but his presence, quiet and strong, calmed me somewhat.
Though the logical part of my mind told me he might be the one I should fear the most.
“So, how will this work?” I asked casually, trying to keep the accusation from my voice. It crept out anyway.
“Am I a prisoner of the Winter Court? A guest? Will Mab toss me in a cell, or is she planning something much more interesting?”
He hesitated, and I could hear the reluctance in his voice when he finally spoke. “I don’t know what she intends to do,” he said softly. “Mab doesn’t share her plans with me, or anyone. ”
“It’s going to be dangerous for me there, isn’t it? I’m Oberon’s daughter. Everyone will hate me. ” I remembered the redcap’s hungry gaze and rubbed my arms. “Or want to eat me. ”
His hands lightly grasped my shoulders, making my skin tingle and my heart flutter in my chest. “I will protect you,” he murmured, and his voice went even lower, as if talking to himself. “Somehow. ”
Grimalkin appeared abruptly, leaping onto a stool by the fire, making me jump and Ash withdraw his hands. I mourned the loss of his touch. “Get some rest,” the Winter prince said, moving away. “If nothing else happens, we should reach the Winter Court by tomorrow night. ”
Gingerly, I lay down on the bed beneath the window, trying not to imagine the last thing that used the mattress.
Ash claimed a chair by the fire, turning it so he faced the door, and drew his sword into his lap. Surprisingly, the bed was warm and comfortable, and I drifted off to the outline of Ash’s profile keeping watch by the fire.
I must’ve woken sometime in the night, or perhaps I dreamed, for I remember opening my eyes to see Ash and Grimalkin standing before the hearth, talking quietly.
Their voices were too low to hear, but the look on Ash’s face was scary in its bleakness. He raked a hand through his hair and said something to Grimalkin, who nodded slowly and replied. I blinked, or maybe drifted off again, because when I opened my eyes again Grimalkin was gone. Ash stood with his hands braced on the mantel and his shoulders hunched, staring into the flames, and didn’t move for a long time.