“Winter Bride” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
One of the girls has been made into a doe again. Laughing wolves chase her through the palace halls, and you turn your face away as they pull her down. (They always do.) She screams with a human voice. You cannot help her; bite-scars cuff your wrists from when you tried before.
“Come join us, trinket?” one wolf asks.
“Our lord has called for me.” You walk on, your expression masked with indifference. Compassion will only harm the girl more. Games are far more entertaining when the toy pieces care for each other.
The doe’s blood flecks your slippers as you pass. (The wolves will play with her for a while yet.)
You pretend not to see the other fae in the halls, cold and beautiful. Those who look human, like the Winter Lord, frighten you most. You do not show it; you must not. (You do not know how much longer you can endure.)
The Winter Lord lounges on a bed of velvet strewn with frozen birch leaves. When you first saw him, you thought him beautiful. Hair like snow, his body tall and slim and strong, and if you kept your gaze sidelong, you did not see his eyes. (It made your bargain no easier, but neither was it so unpleasant to look upon the creature you had given yourself to forever.)
You dip into a curtsy. “Good day, my lord.”
“Ah, pet.” He curls a hand, beckoning.
“You are so distant of late.” The Winter Lord’s fingers — one hand made of ice, the other flesh as cold as snow — trace your collarbone and the line of your jaw. “Are there not amusements enough for you?”
“There are plenty, my lord.” You offer a vague smile and tilt your head back. Through the glass-domed ceiling, you watch the twin moons rise in an empty sky. They are the Winter Lord’s eyes, as the land is his skin, the air his senses. “It is merely the weather,” you add, as snowflakes drift and shatter against the glass.
He laughs, rich and deep. It is better to amuse him with words. “Winter is forever, my sweet.”
Silent, you shrug free of your fur robes. Winter has overlaid another part of your world — your old world, he would remind you — and the fae lord rests from shifting his realms. His court is lethargic and passive. This is the time to act.
But he keeps you in his arms far longer than ever before, and you smile mechanically as he strokes your hair. (You will not become his favorite.)
When you fall asleep, the dream — the terrible dream — comes again.
You stand in a desert, wind that never warms you blurring the dunes with dust, your ankles buried in sand.
“We will leave here,” says the sorceress, hidden in the darkness. Her voice is soft as a razor’s caress. She is the lord’s favorite bride, the untamable one. “Soon.”
You push aside the sand like curtains, but she is always just shy of your reach, a silhouette. You have no voice in the dream.
“I will take you away from him.” The sorceress is the mistress of illusions. It was how she won the Winter Lord’s favor. (She claims he cannot find her true nature, and so he tries, continually fascinated.) “Soon the moons will be dark and Winter will sleep. It is then we will be free.”
The sorceress is the only one you believe can manipulate dreams in Winter.
Still you cannot find her in the sands.
You panic. If she cannot see you, will she forget? You cannot stay here alone. You cannot.
The sand darkens, chills, and turns into snow.
Upon waking, you find the moons have waned and the pale, cold day has replaced them. There is no sun in this world.
The Winter Lord still holds you curled against his chest, his eyes closed. “You are so restless in sleep, pet.”
Your pulse trembles. The Winter Lord does not dream — so you spin a lie before he compels you to give him truth and betray what you saw. “I dreamed of the Spring Hunt, my lord. You were a doe and I a bear.”
He caresses your throat with one hand. “And how did it end?”
“How does it always end, my lord?”
He laughs in delight but unwraps his arm from your waist. Dismissal. You kiss his hands and don your robes.
You must find the sorceress, yet you cannot betray your hurry as you glide from the Winter Lord’s chambers. Your heartbeat flutters moth-like in your ribs.
The girl-doe is human once more, curled on the marble floor among tufts of deer fur and blood. The wolves, bored, have wandered off. You pick her up and cradle her, though she’s as tall as you. (You have always been stronger than you look.)
“Forty-four,” she whispers against your shoulder. She counts the days she has been here, the only words she utters. Later, it will be forty-five, forty-six, on and on until there are no numbers left. (She has been here far longer than the days she counts. You do not tell her so. Lies are sanity here.)
Your arms ache by the time you return to the bride chambers. The doors, slats of carbuncle and jade, peel open and allow you inside. You lay the girl — you call her Doe — on a quilted bed.
Surprisingly, the other three are there as well. Quiet, the bronze-brown girl who is so close to shattering. Auburn, the girl with strawberry-blonde hair and a fox’s tail that regrows no matter how many times she cuts it off. (A gift from the Winter Lord; it smothers her in her sleep if she does not bind it to her leg.)
And last of all, the nameless sorceress. Black hair falls around her shoulders in a tangle she never combs, and she dresses in furs only for warmth. But she is not mad, as she has made all the fae believe. (You have seen madness.) She came here of her own accord — and that is all you know. She stands at the mirrored windows where you can see inside as well as out, overlays of snow and silk. Outside, vistas of ice spread out forever. “How is he?”
“Lady sorceress.” You never answer her questions about the Winter Lord. You do not know if she truly cares for him, or if she merely toys with him as he does all his subjects. “A moment?”
She spins toward you. “Always.”
You bite the inside of your cheek, hard, until blood pools on your tongue and the ache spreads through your jaw. She cups your face in her scarred hands and kisses you on the mouth.
Sharp heat curls through your neck and down into your belly. When you are alone some nights, you imagine she came to free you. But you must focus on the question, not the way her lips and tongue feel against yours. Is it true? (This is the only way the Winter Lord will not hear.) Do you have a plan to escape?
Yes, she murmurs, the unspoken words forming in your mind. We will be free.
Free. A perfect word. A forbidden word. You do not remember how long you have been trapped. Yet that taste, that word, excites hope you have dared not touch in so long. Free.
You wind your fingers through her hair and pull her closer, and she lets you. When? How?
Her hands slide over your hips. You cannot come, my love.
Your flesh prickles and you almost push her away. She takes your breath, deepens the kiss; her blood tastes of salt and shadows.
I know the paths to the border, the sorceress says, and how to open it. But I can only hide a few around me, and if we both disappear, he will know. He will find us. You, my love, are his favorite now, and I cannot take you away.
You wrench free, shaking. “No.”
And yet you are eclipsing the sorceress. He calls on you more than she; he watches you; he turns you into a sleek, white-furred hound that sits at his side so he may stroke its ears. But he does not hurt you, and you are not given as a plaything to the court, as are the other girls. A small mercy.
(Death is the only other escape from these lands.)
“No,” you say again, softer.
There is no sorrow in the sorceress’ eyes. She looks at you the way she watches the Winter Lord: calculating, mocking, pitying. “Your time will come,” she says.
You feel the other girls watching. The air is too cold in your lungs.
Emotion is an entertainment the fae adore, so you clench your hands and swallow the thorn-pointed anger. It hurts as it spreads inside.
“Will it?” you ask, your voice frigid. “Will the time come?”
The sorceress strokes your cheek. You slap her hand away.
“Yes,” she says. “But not yet.”
Quiet and Auburn have clustered around Doe, watching. They know. The sorceress will free them. Is that why you can never see the sorceress in the dream?
You turn sharp on your heel. “Good day, lady sorceress.”
How often have you distracted the Winter Lord for her sake, gone to him when she asked? You thought it desperation, that even she could not endure his attention endlessly. Perhaps it was an illusion. She needed a diversion to further her plans, and you served.
You have been here longer than any of them. (There are far more captives in Winter’s thrall. Slaves, prey, entertainment. You refuse to see them. They, at least, do not survive long.) You remember the brides before the sorceress came, all broken into shells and finally discarded as piles of bones. You cannot remain here forever and stay whole. Your mind is all you have that is still yours.
But you do not have a sorceress’ power. Even though you know all the paths in the palace, you cannot cross the border.
And she will not leave you behind.
“Have you freed any from your realm, my lord?” you boldly ask the Winter Lord.
You sit at his feet (not as a hound, this time) and watch the court dance and feast. The hunters returned with prizes — half a dozen humans now nothing more than echoed screams and droplets of blood upon marble floors. It unsettles you that you feel nothing as you watch the fae laugh and drink.
“You are curious, pet.” The Winter Lord’s hand rests on your nape, his fingers numbing your skin. “Why so?”
You tilt your head. Does he suspect the sorceress’ plans? “Would you free one of your brides, my lord, if it amused you?”
He leans close, his smile sly. “Do you wish to be freed?” His breath curls against your ear.
“Never, my lord.” You watch a pair of ravens duel for possession of the last human-prey’s shadow they have culled neatly inside a wine glass. “It was simple curiosity.”
Icy spindrifts swirl behind the Winter Lord’s eyes. “You lie so delightfully.”
Your smile never wavers, even as your breath freezes. “Do I, my lord?”
He strokes a thumb across your throat, feather-light seduction. “Oh, yes. But would you leave your ties behind?”
One of the ravens scoops up the wine glass in its talons and drinks the shadow; the other fae lies in a bloodied heap, feathers scattered, though it is not dead. You feign boredom, like the court, and turn your gaze elsewhere.
A tiny boy scampers towards the throne, weaving between the fae without touching them. Your son is a mirror to his inhuman father. Pale, beautiful, graceful as new snow. His eyes are too large, too green (not like yours), and he is too eager to please. You tighten your hands in your skirts. You hate him, though you never show it.
“Mother!” He beams and plops in your lap. “My lord!”
“Hello, kitten.” The Winter Lord lets you go, his gaze unblinking. “Tell me, my son, would you be happy if your lady mother left us?”
The boy’s smile crumples, his eyes wide with hurt. “You’re leaving, Mother?”
You pat his head without answer.
“She will never go, kitten,” the Winter Lord says, and he laughs as the boy hugs you and grips your hand.
Your smile is a mask.
You could deliver the sorceress’ plan to the Winter Lord with a word, but he would not reward you with freedom. If you let your girls go, you will be alone.
You sit in the bridal chambers and run a brush through Auburn’s hair and the treacherous fox tail. “What will you do if she fails?”
You nod toward the windows, where the sorceress now rides beside the Winter Lord on tundra dragons. Horns sound amid keening laughter.
Doe is once again one of the prey-animals in the lord’s hunt: a bull elk adorned with scarlet ribbons. Quiet joins her in lynx-form with bells in her ears. You show no relief that you are not compelled to hold a bow and hunt by the Winter Lord’s side this time.
Auburn wraps her arms about her knees. “She can’t. She promised.”
You grip Auburn’s chin and tilt her face up. “Think. What will you do if he finds out, if he stops her?”
Auburn’s eyes fill with tears, but behind the salt there is only despair. “I — I can’t. Stay here. Can’t.”
And she thinks you can?
You kiss her cheek and resume brushing her hair. She’s so young. Fragile. You think of all the girls that way.
Only the sorceress is different. Defiant, cunning, fierce. (It is why you want her and not the others.)
“Are you going to tell him?” Auburn whispers. She fingers a trinket in her skirts. Her favorite knife: a prettily scrolled heartwood hilt with an ivory blade.
You laugh, surprised at how hollow it sounds. “Put away your toy, child.” You lean your cheek against hers and grip her hair at the base of her scalp. “It would do no good.”
Her knuckles whiten, her spine stiffening. “Will you tell him?”
“I hate him too much.” You set away the brush made from bones and needles, then stand. “But I will not be left alone.”
She wilts under your stare. She understands.
When the sorceress returns, guiding Doe and Quiet (in human-form, bloodied and cold-lipped), you corner her near the window. You do not ask her this time before you pull her mouth against yours.
You will not leave me behind, you say, or none of you will leave.
She smiles. Do you think to coerce me?
Ask yourself, my lady sorceress, what you can possibly do that he cannot? What threat can sway me?
She pulls away.
Truly, what can she do? Wounds will always heal. (The girls know this well.) Your son is a tool, one that can be replaced. You are already trapped, chained, isolated. A hundred possibilities flit sidelong in your thoughts, and you have an answer for each, a reason she cannot dissuade you.
The sorceress flicks her chin up. “Very well.”
She weaves an illusion around herself: the Winter Lord’s skin. You take a step back, startled. The guise is perfect — from the cruel smile to the way his hair drifts like gusting snow, from the ever-changing snowflake pattern on his jacket to the way he stands, unnaturally still. But the eyes are a lie. The sorceress’ illusion cannot mimic the Winter Lord’s gaze.
You run your fingers down his — her — arm. Ice prickles under your nails. “I’ve seen your tricks, lady sorceress.”
“Have you?” the illusion says in a flawless mirror-voice.
Unease knots in your belly. But you will not back down. “Yes.”
He catches your mouth with his — a kiss so familiar. Which one will replace you?
You jerk back, shaking.
The illusion flicks a hand lazily towards the three other girls. “You, pet, will stay — even if another wears your skin.”
You curl your slippered toes against the floor. “Why?”
“Someone must play the hare and distract the fox.”
Doe watches with blank eyes. “Forty-six,” she whispers.
Quiet’s jaw clenches in fury. Auburn is trying to cut off her tail again.
You hesitate. Of course — all five of you cannot simply disappear, or the land itself will trap you until the Hunt brings you back. “You can make a construct from bones and ice to hold your illusion.”
“Oh, no, pet.” The illusion leans close. “A body for your place at my side. Which one?”
This should be an easy choice. There are only three options — simply pick which girl you hate the most.
Your breath is quick, your blood frozen. The same terror you felt when you offered yourself to the Hunt so long ago, taking your sister’s place as rightful prey, has resurfaced. You cannot protect Doe, or Auburn, or Quiet, but you have never given one of them to the Winter Lord.
The one left behind will suffer beyond imagining. You have never seen his wrath at being slighted, for none have ever dared.
“You will find another way,” you stammer.
“No.” The illusion shimmers, melts, and the sorceress stands before you again. Her smile is gone. She kisses you, and her blood tastes of honey and ash. The one who stays must distract him, and all his court, so we may cross the border unseen. My son, and yours, will not leave — they are his, they belong to him. But we do not
You were certain she would free her son, a forgotten shadow though he is. And yours? Because you hate him does not mean you will let the Winter Lord have him. Winter has already claimed too much.
There is no other way, the sorceress murmurs, her voice pitying. Decide, my love, or I will choose for you. It must be tonight. The moons are dark and he will not see us.
“And what is this whispering, my pets?” says the Winter Lord.
All of you turn.
He waits in the doorway. Behind him, the huge snow bears — his guard, his offspring — smile in anticipation. Your son stands by the Winter Lord’s side, trembling and silent. The fae lord strokes the child’s hair and slowly curls the boy’s shadow around his fingers. (He always traps the shadows of his favorite offspring in jars for his collection. There is nothing you can do.)
“Forty-seven,” Doe says, covering her eyes.
“You wear my skin well, my lady,” the Winter Lord says. The sorceress remains silent. “It suits you. But tell, pet” — and his gaze drifts to you, holds you with cruel amusement — “why do you recoil from my touch?”
The compulsion curls inside your throat; you have no choice but to answer. And yet the Winter Lord’s gaze rests solely on you. Not the sorceress. Your stomach fills with stone.
Ever before, when you both were in his presence, he looked only upon her.
You hold hope, and freedom, in your palm. The words tip on the edge of a needle. You can condemn your girls, your sorceress, and perhaps win favor for yourself. It would be so easy, like counting.
“What she shows are lies, my lord,” you answer, and the compulsion eases. “I do not want her touch any longer, no matter what falsity she crafts around herself.”
The Winter Lord tugs the last of your son’s shadow free and the boy collapses on hands and knees with a whimper. You do not flinch at the confused, frightened look he gives you. (If you care about the boy, it will only bring him far worse pain. It is kinder to hate him.)
“I think you lie, pet,” the Winter Lord says.
The sorceress grips your elbow until bone creaks in your arm. You shake her hand free, pluck the knife from Auburn’s skirts, and walk to the Winter Lord. “Do I?” you whisper.
“Oh, yes,” the Winter Lord replies. “Which of our lovely toys shall I take apart and find the truth, if you do not offer it?” He spreads a hand towards the girls, a lazy wrist-flick.
Doe curls into herself and Quiet steps in front of Auburn. Still the sorceress looks on in silence.
Your heartbeat is unsteady, yet you feel too calm. You would laugh, shrill and terrified, if you were weaker.
You realize, as you did the day you took your sister’s place, that you cannot live sane or mad with the knowledge you have abandoned another to these chains. Freedom would have no meaning. You have been here the longest. What is eternity?
“My lord,” you say, curtsying. You do not look at your son. (All you can offer him now is the promise he will never be alone.) “The truth: I have planned a gift for you since the day I came to your court.”
The Winter Lord’s eyes brighten. “Oh?”
“Your other brides did not approve, but they are too weak to appreciate it.” You feel his breath against your hair. All are forbidden from touching the Winter Lord without permission. “It has been my deepest desire to do this, my lord.”
His terrible smile widens. The bears watch unblinking. All the walls transform into mirrors so the court may witness what unfolds.
You do not look back at the sorceress or the other girls. You simply stab the Winter Lord in the heart.
A distraction: for one night and forever.
The knife shatters in his ribs. (You can never harm him in his own lands.)
The bears swarm you, bury you, and there is only teeth and claws and the Winter Lord’s delighted laughter.
Oh, he makes you pay for that indiscretion. He peels off your skin before he gives you to his fae to do with you as they please. And they are always eager for new toys. You cannot shut away your thoughts this time.
(Are your girls safe? Did the sorceress take them across the border unseen?)
Your son is made to watch before he, too, is given to the bears. Eventually, the Winter Lord cuts out your screams and puts them in a jar for his collection.
And when the court has finished with you, when you know you cannot endure anymore, the Winter Lord cups your face in his hands and you know he has merely begun.
(You hope your girls are free.)
You lie on the windowsill, the only bride in these chambers now. You no longer see the doe-girl pulled down by wolves, or swans pecking apart the fox-tailed girl, or the sorceress laughing as she makes the fae lord hunt her across frozen mountaintops. You no longer see many things.
Your son sits beside you, motionless save for the twitch of his fingers as he turns a silver knife. You do not remember when he ceased being a child — he is so like his lord father, grown and powerful and hollow.
The sorceress did not come back for you, but neither did the Hunt bring her or the other girls in as prized prey. In their world, your old world, does she remember you? (You still remember her.)
“Yes, my son?”
He leans his forehead against your temple, his eyes closed. “Will we ever leave this place?”
He is the Winter Lord’s favorite; you have seen what is done to him, what he is made to do. But you are the sole winter bride.
One day, you hope, your son will create a distraction and you can follow the sorceress. (Or perhaps you will do the same for him and let him go.) One day, you will leave Winter forever.
“My lady?” he whispers, and you grip his hand around the knife hilt and hold him close.
“Yes,” you say. “In time.”
|Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a biological construct (who’d rather be a robot) living in the Midwest United States. Between college (film major), work, and watching all the movies, Merc writes stuff. Their stories have appeared in Fictionvale (Episode One), Daily Science Fiction, Scigentasy, and Ideomancer. You can visit Merc on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor or their website: mercfennwolfmoor.com.|