Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Midwinter by Matthew Sturges

Matthew Sturges had already established quite a name for himself in the comic book world, with titles like House of Mystery, Blue Beatle and the Eisner-Award winning, Time magazine acclaimed Jack of Fables (with Bill Willingham), before Publisher's Weekly called his novel, Midwinter, "An impressive debut." With the sample below, you can see why they say that, "Sturges deftly works in superb character development, solid action sequences, and engaging heroes and villains, as well as an original and fascinating mythological backbone for the Fae world." My own opinion is that this tale, which begins as "The Dirty Dozen in Faerie," continually surprises with all the places it finds to go from that premise. And while it's a completely stand-alone work, those who have read it will be glad to know that Matt returns to Faerie, and some of these characters, in the forthcoming novel, The Office of Shadow, which he is hard at work writing now. Right, Matt?

Part One

Winter comes to the land only once in a hundred years.

When it comes, the always-blossoming cherry trees close their petals and turn away from the chill wind. The animals of the forest come down from their trees and rocks and burrow deep into the ground for warmth. The Channel Sea grows angry and gray. The sun shines less brightly, hiding its face behind clouds rough as granite. When the River Ebe freezes over and a man can walk from Colthorn to Miday over the ice, then Midwinter has officially begun.

Midwinter is the darkest season. It is a time of repentance and of somber reflection during which even the Queen will wear black. In the mountain temples of the Arcadians, the icons are covered with dark cloth and the ancient censers are unwrapped and burned; they swing dangling from the fingers of silent monks who walk the frigid stone floors of their temples barefoot. Around lakeside villages and in certain city shops where gaiety is the order of business, signs are hung reading simply, “Closed for Midwinter.”

There is a rumor in the court of the City Emerald that during Midwinter even Regina Titania’s powers ebb, that the Queen herself becomes pale and cold to the touch. But this is only a rumor, and a treasonous one at that.

It lasts until the ice cracks and the first new fish is caught in the Ebe. The lucky fisherman who catches it becomes Lord of Colthorn for the day, and so for months before they have any chance of succeeding, the peasantry bring their poles and lines to the water’s edge, waiting for Firstcome to return.

Firstcome is the time of rebirth. Every city in the land, from the tiniest hamlet to the City Emerald herself, has its own centuries-old tradition for celebrating the coming of the new summer and the greens and yellows and blues that accompany it.

But until then, the trees will wear a wreath of white around their heads and the hills will be capped with reflective ice. From the farthest north expanse of the land, the snow will creep southward, stirring hurricanes in the Emerald Bay to lash at the city folk. Even the desert gnomes will feel a chill in their mud homes in the far south, but the snow will melt over the swamplands and its inhabitants will suffer a year or more of icy rain before Firstcome rescues them. Italic

Until then, it is Midwinter.

the prison of crere sulace

and certain of its inhabitants

Dumesne, huge and crazy, took a step toward Raieve and flashed his ugly teeth. He showed her the blade of a thin knife in his belt and smiled at her.

Raieve spared a glance for the Low Guard of Watch and found him nowhere in evidence. She planted her foot and stood firm in the freezing narrow courtyard that separated the towers of Crere Sulace, facing Dumesne. A new fall of snow twisted in the windy courtyard, settling on clothing and hair and dusting the courtyard walls with white. Many of the assembled prisoners, in their ragged furs and cheap boots, clapped their bare hands against the cold and urged Dumesne on. Some of the others, the pretty folk, hung back and watched with feigned disinterest from afar. Mauritane, the strong quiet one, stared directly at her. She felt his eyes watching her movements, appraising her.

Raieve glared at her attacker. “See these?” she said, pulling three of her braids from the left side of her head and holding them before her. “I earned each one of them facing an armed opponent with my bare hands.”

Dumesne ran his gloved fingers over his recently shaved head, the tips of his ears rising just above the top of his skull. “I once had more braids than you could count, foreigner. Don’t make me cut your tongue out before I kill you.”

Raieve whirled her metal-tipped braids like whipcords and flashed them out. One of them caught Dumesne in the eye and he staggered back, clutching his face. He went for the knife then, but it was already gone. When he managed both eyes open again, she was holding it in his face.

There was courteous applause from the pretty section. From the corner of her eye, she watched some of them pass coins back and forth. They were betting on her. Mauritane, though, did not move.

“You fight like a woman,” said Dumesne, sneering.

Raieve planted the knife in his thigh and dragged it out at an angle. Dumesne pinwheeled backward and she advanced on him. “Where I come from,” she said, “there is no higher compliment.” She swept with her left leg, and Dumesne fell to the ground, clutching his wound. “Must I kill you now,” shouted Raieve over the yells of the crowd, “or do I have your oath of respect?”

“I would rather be dead than swear oath to a woman and a foreigner.”

“That is your option,” she said. She raised the knife.

“Halt!” came a voice from the side. Mauritane rose and approached them. Raieve held the knife still, waiting.

“This is no concern of yours,” said Raieve.

Mauritane approached her and took the knife from her hand. He made her feel like a child; it never occurred to her to defend against him.

“I don’t need rescuing from you, Captain,” Dumesne sneered the title.

“Give me your oath,” said Mauritane, “and you can suffer your humiliation and live. Otherwise, I’ll leave the two of you to your business.” He glared at Dumesne.

Dumesne looked back and forth between them. He hung his head. “I swear it. By oak and thorn I swear it. No harm will come to the woman by my hand.”

“Wise choice,” said Mauritane. He helped Dumesne to his feet. “Go,” he said, “or I’ll fillet you myself.” He handed Dumesne the knife, handle first.

“You made me look small,” Raieve said, once Mauritane had led her back to the fire. The crowd was dispersing, and the ragged onlookers gave Mauritane a wide berth.

“No, I saved your life,” Mauritane answered. “Dumesne has blood oaths sworn with twenty other inmates. Any of them would be honor bound to kill you if you’d slain him.”

“I would face them all,” said Raieve, her pride making her face glow red.

“No doubt,” said Mauritane, sweeping his braids back from his face as he leaned over the fire. “But that would be a poor strategy for survi

val here. You’re new. You need to learn patience.”

“Why did he call you Captain?” asked Raieve after a brief pause. “Are you an officer of the Unseelie Army?”

“No,” said Mauritane.

“What then?”

“The honorific no longer applies to me, so it doesn’t matter. You may call me Mauritane, if you wish.”

He was quiet then. He pulled out a pipe and lit it, squinting at the sky. Raieve looked up as well but saw only gray. Around the cornice of the East Tower, a few crows flitted through the swirling snowflakes.

She looked at Mauritane, and he allowed her the look, studying the contents of his pipe. He was not young, but far from old. The thin creases in his face stood out, ruddy in the freezing air. His braids were long and precise, done in the military style of the Kingdom, unlike Raieve’s, which she’d tied herself without the aid of a mirror, standing over the men she’d killed to earn them. Built compactly, Mauritane was only a finger taller than she, but he carried himself the way a taller man stands, and his shoulders were wide and strong.

“Do I meet with your approval?” Mauritane asked, not looking at her.

She scowled and turned away, breathing a curse only when she knew he could not hear it.

The prison was once the summer home of Prince Crere Sulace, the Faerie lord of Twin Birch Torn, but the Queen appropriated it in the distant past over some forgotten sin, and its lord was incarcerated there. Over the years, Crere Sulace became the Queen’s favorite dumping ground, home to those not fated for the hangman’s noose or the executioner’s ax. It was a gulag for lords who no longer found favor at court, ranking officials in the polity who were caught with their hands in the coffers, and visiting dignitaries from worlds who managed to earn the Queen’s spite. Those prisoners of the lower classes were lumped in with them, it was rumored, simply out of spite.

The setting for Crere Sulace, among the granite cliffs and the weeping heather of the Channel Sea lands, is dreary enough in the fair years, but in Midwinter the snow-clad peaks and ashen parapets sing of gloom and frustration. In Midwinter the prisoners can see their own breath; they must wear scavenged heavy furs out in the courtyard; they linger by the braziers at the guardhouse gates, swapping stories with the grizzled deputy wardens and guards.

The South Tower was once the primary residence of the Prince Crere Sulace in the time of the Unseelie Wars. Old prisoners believed that the Prince could still be found there, wandering the spellturned halls of the tower, singing spirit songs of death and decay. The towers had been turned dozens, if not hundreds, of times in years past, and now it was no easy thing to say which room was next to which other or what distance separated any two places in the tower. In recent years, the ghostly apparitions and vertiginous twisting hallways finally caused enough harm that the Chief Warden was forced to take notice. He shut down the tower for all but bulk storage and the maintenance of the sea lamp in the cupola.

In the highest floor of the tower, Jem Alan, the Vice Warden, checked the lamp oil for the sea lamp and tilted the reflector out a bit in case some fishermen from Hawthorne were north this evening, hunting the dark northern lanes for sturgeon and salmon. The hour was approaching sunset, or what passed for it in this icy hell of a season, and he didn’t want to get caught in the South Tower after dark. Buttoning his fur cloak, he edged his way carefully down the slick steps along the tower’s inner wall. Tired green witchlight cast multiple shadows over the steps, and as there was no rail, Jem Alan hugged the wall, holding his torch before him like a ward. He tried to ignore the heaving, moaning sounds that came from the barred doors at each landing.

He closed the tower’s inner door and sealed it with its rune before opening the outer door. Across the main yard he saw a cluster of inmates singing shanties with Gray Mave, the Low Chief of Watch. Mave was a local, one of the Hawthorne natives who eschewed fishing in the cold Channel Sea waters for lighter duty at Crere Sulace.

“Enough, Low Chief,” called Jem Alan from across the yard. He marched to the guardhouse and leaned on the cord for the Evening Watch bell. The snow that had begun earlier in the day was erratic now, coming in fits and starts, visible only in the slowly growing halo around the fire. “Get up and relieve Drinkwater; the Evening Watch is upon us.”

Mave reached slowly into his pockets for a pair of gloves, his heavy frame causing his own cloak to billow around him comically.

“And have someone brought in to recharge the witchlight on the tower steps,” added Jem Alan. “I nearly killed myself coming down just now.” Jem Alan removed his own gloves, tired brown things with holes cut for the fingers, and held them over the fire.

“Riders will come tonight,” said Mave suddenly, his eyes pondering the firelight around the grill. “It will be the beginning of bad things.”

“Don’t be superstitious,” said Jem Alan. “Are you a witch woman, that you can see things in fire?”

Gray Mave shrugged. “I only know it, is all.”

Jem Alan rolled his eyes. “Get to your post.”

Night had nearly fallen on the mountains when the riders appeared in the Longmont Pass. Even from a distance it was clear that this was a royal emissary, sporting the blue and gold griffon standard of the Seelie Court. Gray Mave, keeping the Evening Watch, sent up the spot flare and rang the visitors’ bell in the guard tower.

Chief Warden Crenyllice summoned Jem Alan to his office, which comprised the entire second floor of the North Tower.

“Vice Warden, did I just hear the visitors’ bell?”

“Aye, sir.” Jem Alan struggled to fasten the straps of his dress tunic around his barrel chest.

“This is unexpected.”

“Aye, sir. The supply train isn’t due for a fortnight. This party flies royal colors, sir.” Jem Alan chose to omit his hearing of Mave’s prediction earlier in the evening.

The Chief Warden ran his fingers through his hair, drawing his single braid forward so that it brushed against the medals on his chest.

“If they’re here out of turn then it’ll be a special prisoner or a pardon. Have the guards come to line in the yard, and be quick about it. And by the Queen’s tits, have the men in uniform.”

Five riders in formation approached the crest of the pass, which was a knife’s edge crevice that received snow year-round during Midwinter. Framed neatly between the nearly vertical rock faces that composed the pass, the Prison Crere Sulace rose from its plateau of rough basalt and granite like an embedded snowflake, its spellturned towers and crumbling spires forming a ghostlike symmetry against the darker rock face from which it projected.

The lead rider was the color point, carrying two standards cross-armed. One was the blue and gold griffon of the Queen. The other, smaller flag was the purple sign of the Royal Guard, the Queen’s personal army. Flanking the center rider was a pair of Standard Guards, bearing the insignia of their companies on their capes, their lances slung at their backs. The post rider was the junior officer, a lieutenant by rank.

In the center of the formation, riding an armored mount, was the party’s leader, wearing the cape of a commander in the Royal Guard. He rode in the chill wind with the hood of his cloak pushed back, his nine victory braids whipping behind him in the wind. He stood his mount with perfect poise, even over the slick terrain of the rocky pass, his eyes fixed on Crere Sulace.

The commander, whose name was Purane-Es, motioned the party to stop just past the summit of the pass. The road dipped gently here down to the flat plateau abreast of the ocean. At the far end of the plateau, the road led up a steep incline to the gates of Crere Sulace and ended there.

From Purane-Es’s vantage point, it was clear that Crere Sulace was no longer the summer estate of a grand lord of Faerie, nor had been for many, many years. The walls showed signs of age and disrepair. The balconies along the rooftop of the structure’s South Tower had been replaced with rough crenellations and archery nests. Around the main wall, a coil of iron wire angled down toward the palace; a measure meant to keep people in rather than out.

Originating in the South Tower, a spot flare sparked in the sky, reaching an altitude that brought it over the ocean. It crackled three times in a welcome of tenacious recognition. It was now Purane-Es’s turn. He nodded to his lieutenant, who retrieved a signaling flare from his saddlebags and sent it into the air. Three more cracks signaled the party’s friendly intentions. Purane-Es dug in his spurs and urged the party forward.

A trio of mounted guards, including Jem Alan, rode out from the gates to meet them. They quickly exchanged formal courtesies (a process much accelerated due to the cold) and rode through the gates together.

Chief Warden Crenyllice stood at attention in the loggia that lined the main yard’s south wall. When Purane-Es dismounted, Crenyllice bowed deeply to him and quickly waved to the grooms to fetch the party’s horses.

“Welcome to Crere Sulace, Commander,” said Crenyllice, bowing again. “It is indeed an honor for us to receive a guest of your rank. May your children meet you in Arcadia.”

Purane-Es nodded. “Take me to your office,” he said. “I’m here on important business.” His silver braids fell around his face.

Crenyllice frowned at the lack of etiquette but had no room to show his displeasure. The commander outranked him by orders of magnitude, and his impropriety would have to pass without comment.

Once in Crenyllice’s office, Purane-Es removed his gloves and brushed snow from his shoulders and hair. He seated himself without being asked.

“May I offer you a drink?” said Crenyllice hopefully.

Purane-Es’s face softened. “Aye, a brandy will do.”

Crenyllice squirmed against the vague insult of “will do,” but said nothing as he fixed the drink himself, waving the guards back, and handed it to the commander.

“We are a remote outpost of the Queen’s Army, sire, doing our best with what we receive,” said Crenyllice. “I’m afraid this brandy is the best I can offer, you see.”

“Please spare me your homespun attempts at courtesy,” said Purane-Es, bored. “It embarrasses both of us. In my presence you will simply do as I say and leave the formalities for your betters.”

Crenyllice’s face reddened, but he said nothing.

“I come with a letter from the Chamberlain Marcuse,” said Purane-Es, finishing his drink. “The letter instructs you to release several inmates on my recognizance, to perform an errand for Her Majesty.”

Crenyllice sputtered. “But sire. Surely the guard . . .”

Purane-Es waved his hand. “Even in this darkened corner of the world, I presume things do not always follow the straight path. It is not yours to question. You will do as you are instructed.”

“Which prisoners?” Crenyllice managed.

“There is only one I have in mind: Mauritane. Do you know of him?”

“Aye, sir. He’s been mine for two years now.”

“Now he’s mine. I want him brought to me, and I will allow him to choose the remainder of his party.”

“What is the task for which he is summoned, sire?”

Purane-Es laughed. “I’m sure that’s none of your concern. Only see that Mauritane is brought to me quickly.”

Gray Mave knocked quietly on the door to Mauritane’s cell. Once a grand bedroom, the space had been spellturned so many times that it seemed an echo of itself. Not even Gray Mave, who’d been a guard at Crere Sulace for twenty years, knew how many of it existed in the tower.

“Come,” said Mauritane. He lay on his bunk, fully dressed, as though he were expecting to be disturbed. Around him, the gilt-edged walls angled blankly to the ceiling, the original wall coverings and paintings having been removed ages ago, light shapes on the tattered wallpaper their only legacy.

Gray Mave fitted his key into the lock and opened the door outward. “You’re to come to the warden’s office right away.” Mave’s fat face heaved as he strained to catch his breath.

“What is it?” Mauritane sat up warily.

“A lord from the City Emerald, sir. Rode in flying royal colors. Wanted to see you personally.”

Mauritane rose and pulled on his fur cloak. “You don’t have to call me ‘sir,’ you know,” he said.

Gray Mave bowed his head. “I know, sir. But considering your history, it doesn’t seem right to call you by name.”

“Much lower men than you have called me worse,” Mauritane said. “I don’t see that it matters much these days, anyhow.” He joined Gray Mave in the hall, accepting the manacles Mave placed on him without question.

“I should tell you,” said Mave, as they walked the darkened hallway. “Since you’ve given me no trouble during your stay here and all.”


“I’ve had a premonition. Bad omen. The riders that have come.”

“I see,” said Mauritane. “Is Premonition a Gift of yours?”

“Aye,” said Mave. “But you’re having me on, aren’t you? You don’t believe that one such as me could have the Gifts. Jem Alan doesn’t.”

“I’m built from coarser clay than you, Gray Mave,” said Mauritane. “And I’ve got more Gifts than do me any good. I wouldn’t put too much stock into what Jem Alan says.”

Gray Mave smiled, then frowned. “This sign was very dark. I fear for you to be caught in it.”

“If I am,” said Mauritane, “then at least I’ve been forewarned.”

Gray Mave led Mauritane, shackled, into Crenyllice’s office. The glow from the fire and the lamps in the warden’s elaborate wall sconces were bright after the dim hallway, and Mauritane squinted against them briefly.

“Hello, Mauritane,” said a familiar voice. “I see that imprisonment agrees with you.”

When Mauritane looked up, it was into the eyes of Purane-Es, seated at the warden’s desk across the room.

For a moment, Mauritane stood completely still. No emotion showed on his face.

With a single fluid movement, Mauritane twisted around Gray Mave and ducked behind him, pulling the larger man down to his knees. Dislodging his arms, he planted his leg on Mave’s back and then drew the guard’s sword with both hands. “Your premonition was correct,” he whispered in Mave’s ear.

He turned the sword in his hands as he leaped, directing the blade’s gleaming point at the throat of Purane-Es.

the chamberlain’s letter.

Purane-Es flinched and fell backward into his chair, raising his hands to his face. Mauritane’s leap was carrying him far enough to compensate, but he was tackled before he reached the desk. The commander’s Color Guard, who had flanked Purane-Es silently since Mauritane entered the room, moved with an impressive swiftness. One went for the body while the other went for his sword arm. Their attack was precise, calculated, seemingly rehearsed, though Mauritane had seen no signal pass between them. He wondered about it until his head made contact with the floor, and then he stopped wondering.

It was less a loss of consciousness than a temporary withdrawal of the senses that quickly subsided, leaving Mauritane seated in a wooden chair across the warden’s desk from Purane-Es, his still-manacled arms now restrained by means of a ring set into the stone floor. His chains did not allow him length enough to sit up straight, so he was forced into a bow that made his shoulders ache and his ears redden. His head throbbed from its blow, sending bright pulses of pain down into his left eye socket.

Purane-Es was seated calmly at the warden’s desk, while the warden himself, Jem Alan, and the Color Guard stood in a rough line behind him.

“Well met, Mauritane,” said Purane-Es, as though nothing had happened. “It seems I’ve made an impression on you after all.”

Mauritane spat on the floor. “I vowed I would kill you the next time we met.”

“And yet, you haven’t.”

Mauritane said nothing.

Purane-Es opened an ornate leather satchel, inset with colored metal studs, and withdrew an envelope sealed with bright blue wax. “But I say, ‘He who forgives shall be forgiven.’ Isn’t that how the Arcadians put it?” He held the envelope aloft for Mauritane’s eyes. “Do you recognize this? It’s the seal of the Chamberlain,” he said, breaking it.

Mauritane nodded.

“This is an ironic situation,” said Purane-Es, tapping the letter on the desk. “You despise me, have even made an attempt on my life, and yet I am here to offer you deliverance from your current downcast state. I, for my part, have no love for you either, but I have been employed as a messenger from Her Majesty to you. I do not claim to understand the mind of Our Sovereign Lady, but I think, and this is merely my opinion you understand, that she appreciates ironies such as these. Perhaps she even orchestrates them. What do you think?”

Mauritane only spat again, running his tongue over a bruised lip.

“Here’s what I think,” Purane-Es continued. “I think you’re very fortunate that you did not slay me just now, since the Queen herein orders you to receive instructions from me personally, and that would have been difficult with the Low Chief’s blade in my throat, would it not?”

“Read the letter,” said Mauritane.

“I will,” said Purane-Es. “But we must clear up something first. You will get your opportunity against me, you have my word, for I’ve long awaited it myself. Until then, your errand requires that you refrain from assaulting me. Understood?”

“If Her Majesty requires me, I am hers.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Guard,” he said to Crenyllice, who grimaced at the insult, “remove the prisoner’s manacles.”

Crenyllice waved at Jem Alan, who took a heavy ring of keys from his belt and removed the chains from Mauritane’s hands and feet. Mauritane spat one last time, then sat up straight, stretching his shoulders and arching his back.

Purane-Es took the letter from its envelope and unfolded it gracefully. He read:

To Mauritane, Erstwhile Captain of Her Majesty’s Royal Guard:

Though you languish at Crere Sulace, your Queen is merciful; she has not forgotten your many years in Her Service. She regrets the unfortunate circumstances leading to your imprisonment there and wishes to offer anopportunity wherein you may earn parole.

Your Queen requires that you perform an errand of the utmost importance and of the utmost delicacy. This task can be given to no one in Her Majesty’s court yet must be undertaken by one whose trustworthiness is unquestioned. The Queen appreciates your loyalty to her State and to her Person and is certain that you will treat your assigned task with the dedication and discretion that has distinguished your efforts in the past. Upon successful completion of this errand, your imprisonment will cease, and your name shall be restored. You may then pursue any occupation within the realm with the exception of public service, from which you shall be permanently barred. The same offer is made to those whom you choose to assist you in your endeavor.

Time is critical, Mauritane. You must make the City Emerald before the Sun enters the Lamb. Failure is death.

You will receive your assignment from Commander Purane-Es. His instructions are to be obeyed to the letter.

Her Majesty’s wishes go with you.

In the name of She whose word is law, She whose breath is the wind, She whose heart is that of Her kingdom, I am Marcuse, Lord Chamberlain of Faerie

Purane-Es refolded the letter and slid it across the desk to Mauritane, who picked it up and stared at it.

“I am shocked,” he finally said.

“And well you should be, Mauritane. Well you should be. That the Queen should choose you, a traitor and a liar, for such an important assignment proves only that Her ways are mysterious indeed. I trust you accept the assignment?”

Mauritane saluted slowly, deliberately. “I await your command, sir.”

Purane-Es grinned. “Prison has eroded none of your natural charm, Mauritane.” He turned to Crenyllice.

“Leave us. What I have to say to Mauritane is for his ears only.”

Crenyllice moved to protest, but Purane-Es stared him down, and the warden allowed himself to be escorted from the room by Purane-Es’s guards.

“I haven’t forgotten Beleriand or what happened there,” Purane-Es said, when they were alone, his smile vanishing. “I’ll have my vengeance on you, and soon.”

“It’s good that you haven’t forgotten, only a pity that you take no lesson from it,” Mauritane said. He stretched his arms and stood. “But that’s not relevant right now. Our feud can wait; Her Majesty, apparently, cannot. What is my task?”

Purane-Es rose as well, pacing as he spoke. “Your task is to retrieve an article of utmost importance to the security of the land and bring it to the City Emerald before the first day of Lamb. You are to form a party of four or five of your fellow inmates. Who you choose is irrelevant, but let it be known that any word breathed of this operation is suicide, swift and painful. You are to receive mounts and supplies from Crere Sulace, with provisions for three days. From Crere Sulace you will leave at sunrise tomorrow and proceed with all due haste to Sylvan, where you will rendezvous with Commander Kallmer in the Rye Grove, at highsun on Fourth Stag. You will travel without papers and without identification. If you are detained by the Seelie Army, or by local constabulary, all knowledge of you and of your mission will be disavowed and you will be eliminated.

Are these orders understood?”

“What am I to retrieve?” said Mauritane.

The grin returned. “I have no idea. None of us knows the whole of it. Presumably Kallmer knows.”

“Does Kallmer know that it is I who will be meeting him?”

“He does,” Purane-Es said. “One assumes he is as eager to kill you as I am, although he must forswear it until your task is complete.”

“Most important, how am I to make Sylvan in so short a time? Traveling without papers will force us to skirt the border crossings at Obore and Reyns. Even at top speed it would be at least twenty days, and that’s without this weather.”

“It should be no trouble for an accomplished strategist such as you. Don’t you have the Gift of Leadership? I might remind you that since you will not be an official platoon of the Guard, there is no reason you cannot travel directly west.”

“You expect me to lead a group of untrained prisoners through the Contested Lands and survive? You overestimate my skills.”

“Your group’s survival is not a requirement. Only the completion of your objective.”

“I see.”

Purane-Es sat. “I recommend you begin your preparations. In Midwinter, dawn comes all too quickly.”

Purane-Es took a pipe from his leathern satchel and lit it contemplatively. “I’d wish you luck, but of course I won’t shed a tear if you fail.” He smiled.

“Of course you won’t,” said Mauritane, turning on him. “Your predisposition to place personal grudges over matters of state is what brought me here.”

“Spite is a luxury you cannot afford right now, Mauritane. You have work to do.”

“Fine. Tell the warden to give me two men and then get the hell out of my way.”

Mauritane saluted again, turned on his heel, and left the room. Purane-Es smoked his pipe and swore every curse he could think of.

Outside, Mauritane nearly stumbled over Crenyllice and Jem Alan, who hovered by the door. Catching himself, he drew his shoulders high and spoke to Crenyllice for the first time not as a prisoner but as a commander. “Go inside. Purane-Es has orders for you,” Mauritane told the warden. He took Jem Alan’s shoulder. “You’re coming with me. Time is short.” Neither of them questioned him. The Gift of Leadership, he realized, had not fled him.

Within an hour, Mauritane had two guards, as well as a number of prisoners, helping him make preparations. The overnight kitchen detail loaded dried meat and biscuits into folds of waxed paper, then into the saddlebags Mauritane requested. They filled skins with water and hung them alongside. In the prison armory, Jem Alan helped Mauritane select arms, all the while complaining in his rough voice about the breach of protocol it entailed. He did, however, compliment Mauritane’s choice of sword: a long, curved saber with no adornments, but a wicked blade.

“What is its lineage?” said Mauritane, swinging the sword gently, thrusting into the air. “It spoke to me.”

“None as I know of,” said Jem Alan. “Perhaps you’ll give it a start in life.”

“I rode into many battles with my Guard blade,” said Mauritane. “Purane-Es’s father wears it now. Perhaps it’s time for a new one.” He handed the sword to Jem Alan. “Give that to Gray Mave and have him sharpen it.”

Jem Alan took the blade. “Haven’t you heard, Mauritane? Mave’s been fired. They sent him packing after you took his sword. Worthless lump of dung, he was, anyway.”

Mauritane took the sword back, his eyes cast downward. “I’ll sharpen it myself,” he said. He paced the prison stables, asking the head groom about each beast in turn, ordering that his selections be spellwarmed and saddled by dawn.

“Which of these horses is touched?” he asked the groom.

“None, sir. We’ve no call for smart horses around here.”

Mauritane approached Purane-Es in the warden’s office.

“Give me your horse,” he said.

Purane-Es laughed out loud. “You’re dreaming if you think . . .”

“If I’m going through Contested Lands with four undrilled prisoners at my back, I’m doing it with a touched mount, or I may as well slit my own throat here and now and save some buggane the trouble.”

“Fine,” said Purane-Es. “Take the horse. Just one more debt to collect on when you’re through.”

Mauritane left the warden’s office and found Jem Alan at the guard station, drinking chicory with the other guards. Mauritane took a page from the logbook and dipped a quill, writing out ten names. “Bring me these ten,” he said, pushing the page into Jem Alan’s hand without bothering to blot it.

Jem Alan held up his fingers, black with ink and swore. “I much preferred him as a prisoner,” he said.


The cell was empty save for a cot, a chest of drawers, and a few personal items on the windowsill: a hairbrush, an opal ring, a long pipe and tobacco pouch. Moonlight, filtered through clouds, dusted the floor of the chamber in pale gray. The cell’s occupant, Perrin Alt, Lord Silverdun, Master of Oarsbridge and Connaugh manors, knelt at the edge of his prison cot, his head bowed as if to pray. He often knelt this way, thinking of nothing, coming close to mouthing the words of his mother’s Arcadian prayers, but he always stopped short, disbelieving, scowling. At times he wept bitterly for his wasted future, for his sisters and the ignominy they must face, for the loss of his title and deeds to his lands, those things that identified him as a peer and a nobleman. Other nights, such as tonight, he simply watched the moonbeams grow across the rough wooden floor until his knees ached and he stumbled into bed, his mind racing, but his sleep, when it came, was black and dreamless.

When he heard the key sound in the lock of his door, he bolted upright, smoothing his tunic and running his hands through the waves of black hair that fell around his face as he stood.

“Do you require something of me?” Silverdun asked, referring to the guard who stood in the doorway, a bright lamp in hand. The lamp cast long flickering shadows across the floor that evaporated the pools of moonlight there.

“You’re wanted in Jem Alan’s office.”

Silverdun studiously avoided meeting the guard’s gaze. “I didn’t hear a ‘milord’ in there anywhere,” he corrected. “You are not permitted to speak evenly with me.”

“Fine,” said the guard. “You lordship is wanted. Now move your lordship’s ass or I’ll move it for you.”

Silverdun locked eyes with the guard. “Much better,” he said.

The guard frowned.

“What does the old fool want with me at this hour? Am I about to be engaged in one of his drunken reveries? How much has he had to


“I’m to say nothing about it.”

“Ah, intrigue! And here I was just moaning about how dull my life has become.”

The guard’s frown intensified. “This way, milord.”

Silverdun followed the guard across the empty courtyard to the North Tower, wind from the sea catching his braids and lashing his face with them. The night air had a frozen tang to it that Silverdun could taste. It was not a wholesome flavor.

“This is the last night I will spend at Crere Sulace,” he suddenly said, and knew that he meant it, although he had no idea why. It was not uncommon, however, for his mouth to know things before his mind could consider them.

When they reached Jem Alan’s rooms in the North Tower, Silverdun pushed ahead and flung the double doors open with a shove.

“By the Queen’s tits, Jem Alan, do you never sleep?” he shouted. “One drink and one drink only.” Silverdun drew up short when he realized it was Mauritane and not the Vice Warden, at the desk in Jem Alan’s sitting room.

“Promoted from prisoner to Vice Warden all of an evening? I’d say you’ve been busy tonight, Mauritane. Tell me, is it really all about who you know?”

Mauritane waved the guard away. “Sit down,” he said to Silverdun. “I’ll be with you in a moment.” Before him

on the desk was a set of charts and maps and a compass, arranged neatly over the surface of the desk. In the center, Mauritane took notes with a long, black quill on a wide sheet of paper.

Silverdun dropped into a chair opposite Mauritane and took a cigarette from the carved wooden box on the table, lighting it with a bit of witchlight from his fingertips. He glanced around the room with a disconcerting sense of finality still lingering from his moment of lightheadedness in the courtyard.

Jem Alan’s rooms were once those of the Prince himself, or at least a spellturned version of those rooms; it was impossible to tell. The fire burning in the enormous stone hearth seemed solid enough. The same moonlight that had quietly played in Silverdun’s cell erupted here through the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall, their arched tops casting looming, rounded shadows on the double doors through which Silverdun had entered. The only other light came from the lamps Mauritane had on the desk, serving the dual purpose of illumination and of weighing down the scrolling maps.

Mauritane circled a sum with his quill and looked up, catching ­Silverdun’s eye for the first time.

“I need your help,” said Mauritane.

Silverdun leaned in. “Any assistance I can render, sir.” He saluted.

“You still find it amusing that I once outranked you.”

“Only in the military sense, Captain.”

“You heard that a party of riders came tonight, flying royal colors? They delivered this.” Mauritane held out the letter.

Silverdun scanned the page quickly, its charmed ink already fading from exposure to light. “Fascinating,” he said after a moment’s reflection. “What instructions were you given?”

Mauritane recounted his conversation with Purane-Es and Silverdun listened intently. His ears perked at the name of the commander.

“Purane-Es. That bastard,” said Silverdun.

“You know him?”

“I know of him. I flirted briefly with his sister when she was at court a dozen years ago. Pretentious brat, from what I gathered, deeply buried in the combined shadows of his father and elder brother.”

“You know that his father now commands the Royal Guard, and that he is the likely replacement?”

“Yes. The Elder Purane and my father had business with each other on occasion. But what became of the elder brother? Surely he would be in direct succession for the captaincy?”

“No. He’s dead.”

“You’re certain of this?”

“I killed him.”

Silverdun nodded. “Well, then, I suppose you’re certain. Hardly a trustworthy messenger, this Purane-Es, it seems.”

“The Chamberlain’s seal was genuine. And I recognize the handwriting.”

Silverdun shrugged. “I don’t doubt the veracity of the letter. But if what you’ve told me is true, and not even Purane-Es knows the full extent of the Queen’s plan, you can be sure that you won’t survive to tell the tale once this game is complete.”

Mauritane leaned back in the leather chair and sighed, the creases in his forehead darkening. “It would appear so, though I have doubts of that. If the Crown simply needed a patsy, why travel so great a distance to find one? There are any number of able soldiers in the City Emerald who earn the Queen’s disfavor on a given day.

And the Chamberlain’s word, even printed in invisible ink, still carries with it some honor.”

“You’re a dangerous optimist,” said Silverdun.

“I have to be. I have no choice in the matter.” Mauritane held up his hands.

Silverdun clucked his tongue. “Well,” he said, looking around the room. “I wish you luck, then.”

Mauritane’s eyes narrowed. “Wish yourself luck. You’re coming with me.”

“I? I’m no soldier. And I value my life.”

“I need you, Silverdun. You possess valuable Gifts. I know you have Glamour and Elements, and I suspect you have Insight as well. And . . .”

“Yes?” Silverdun leaned forward.

“You’re the only person I trust.”

Silverdun bit his lip, then burst out laughing. “Ah, dear Mauritane. If that’s the case, then you haven’t a chance.”

Mauritane smiled, but the smile was brief. “I’m serious, Silverdun.”

“Even if your optimism is well founded, there is a reason that the Queen hasn’t bothered to conquer the Contested Lands. There are shifting places there, and vast untamed fields of wild essence, not to mention Unseelie excursionary forces. It’s a death march, Mauritane.”

“Would you rather die here?”

Silverdun stared into the fire.

“Silverdun, I know you think I’m naïve, but consider this: what if this task is as crucial to the Kingdom as it purports to be? Would you rather die in defense of the Crown or cowering in a cell on a frozen mountain?”

Silverdun gripped the arms of his chair and leaned farther forward. “Don’t talk to me about loyalty, Mauritane. I’m stuck here because of my own misguided loyalties. If it’s love for Queen and country you’re trying to inspire, you can forget it. I’ve none to spare.”

Mauritane looked away. They both watched the fire dance for a time.

“Who manages Oarsbridge and Connaugh in your absence?” Mauritane finally asked.

Silverdun sat back. “An uncle of mine, a fatuous cretin with a tenuous claim and deep pockets.”

“Your estates are near the border with Beleriand, aren’t they?”

“What are you getting at, Mauritane?”

“I am owed favors in Beleriand,” Mauritane said. “I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions as to what that might mean.”

Silverdun’s eyes widened. “You know, Mauritane, you may not be as naïve as I thought.”

“Then you’re with me?”

“I . . . I suppose.”

“That’s a relief,” said Mauritane, returning to his charts. “Because I would have been forced to kill you otherwise.”

“Very funny,” said Silverdun.

Mauritane caught his eye again, and there was no trace of mirth there.

“Damn you, Mauritane. You are a bizarre creature.”

Mauritane consulted the hourglass on the desk. “Summon the guard,” he said. “I want to start interviewing the others.”


After Silverdun, Mauritane’s next two choices were deemed unsuitable. Dol was a mixed breed of elf, troll, and something neither of them could identify. He was strong but evasive, uncommunicative. Mauritane and Silverdun agreed that he could not be trusted. The second choice, Gerraca, was a wiry elf with fighting experience, but he and Silverdun had dueled indeterminately a few months prior, and he was avowed to slay Silverdun in a second duel to which Silverdun had never agreed.

As they waited for the next prisoner, Mauritane leaned back in Jem Alan’s leather chair, perusing the files of his fellow inmates. They were hastily scribbled, barely literate documents, written in poor hand, some accompanied by judicial decisions from Royal Courts, others nearly blank. Prison recordkeepers had attempted to make notes on the status of inmates as addenda, but these were spare, not uniform, and probably not very reliable. Mauritane found his own file in the stack, a loose sheaf of documents bound in a large paper envelope. One was from the Areopagus in the City Emerald, whose verdict was stamped in red ink above his name: Traitor. The word stung him as though he were seeing it for the first time.

Silverdun, on the other hand, had no file that Mauritane could find, nor even a proper cell assignment. “My imprisonment is of a solely political nature,” was all he’d said, shrugging. “It amounts to the same thing. I’m guilty of enough sins to deserve this fate regardless.”

While waiting for the fourth choice, Mauritane happened to look down at his feet. A spider was crawling beneath the desk, its legs moving fluidly over the coarse rug that covered the obsidian floor. He watched the spider traverse the rough surface of the rug to Silverdun’s feet, wondering at its natural elegance. Silverdun looked down, noticed the spider, and stepped casually on it.

“Who’s next?” he said. Mauritane handed him the file as the door opened and Brian Satterly was led into the room.

“Beriane Sattarelay?” said Silverdun. “What sort of name is . . .” he looked up and saw the man in front of him. “What in the world are you?”

Satterly shrugged, nervous. “Human,” he said.

“Really?” Silverdun said, leaning forward. “I’ve never seen one before. Do all of you have ears like that?”

“Yes, round at the tops,” said Satterly, smiling weakly.

“Fascinating,” Silverdun said. “Why is he here? Do we need a squire or a stableboy?”

“Actually,” said Satterly. “I’d like to know as well.” He nodded at Mauritane and Silverdun.

Mauritane said, “I’ve been charged with a task for the Queen, and my orders are to recruit a unit from among the prisoners here. Upon successful completion of this assignment, you are to be paroled.”

Satterly looked between them. “I don’t get it. Why prisoners? Is this a fancy way of saying work detail?”

Silverdun shook his head. “No, although it occurs to me that that would make an excellent cover story for the other inmates, after we’ve left.”

“Yes, we’ll have the guards spread the rumor that we’ve been sent down the Ebe to plow roads or something,” said Mauritane.

“What is this, then?” said Satterly

“It is the means by which you may achieve parole,” said Mauritane. “According to your file, you’re here for the remainder of your life. Is it true that humans live only sixty or seventy years?”

“Some longer than that,” said Satterly. “But that’s about right.”

“Sparse time to be wasting it here,” said Silverdun.

“What would I have to do?” said Satterly.

“Yes, Mauritane,” said Silverdun. “What is he for?”

“He,” said Mauritane, “is a scientist.”

“Really?” said Silverdun, eyebrow raised. “That is interesting.”

Satterly chuckled. “Well, I am a scientist, but I’m afraid we don’t really deserve the reputation we’ve developed in Faerie.”

“Don’t be shy. Do some science for us!” said Silverdun, raising his glass.

Mauritane leaned forward, mirroring Silverdun. “I’m not sure if one can simply ‘do’ science, at least not without the proper equipment. Perhaps Satterly can explain this.”

Satterly pursed his lips. “Mauritane is at least partly right. Many scientific displays require equipment of one kind or another. But it’s not the sorcery that the Fae seem to think it is; it’s really just a method of inquiry. To the layman, it’s often fairly uninteresting.”

Silverdun shook his head. “That’s not what I’ve heard. I once met a man who’d been to your world; he said you have houses that fly and boxes that transmit images and sounds from place to place. If that’s uninteresting, I’d love to know what intrigues you.”

“I may have one thing to show you,” said Satterly. “If you’ll let me return to my cell, I can get it.”

“Go,” said Mauritane.

When Satterly returned, he carried with him an item forged of black metal; a rounded base with a thick cylinder above connected to it by a rounded arm of the same material.

“This is a microscope,” he said. “One of the few things they let me keep. I told them it was a religious statuette.”

“What is it?” asked Silverdun.

“In your language you’d call it a Tiny-Thing-Appears-Itself-Large-For-You-With-It or something equally silly.”

“Does it work?” said Mauritane.

“Yes, I’ll show you.” Looking down, he noticed the dead spider curled into a tight ball at Silverdun’s feet. “If I may,” he said, reaching for it. He took the spider and wedged it between two differently shaped pieces of glass. These he slipped into a pair of silver guides on the base of the microscope. He placed the instrument gently on the desk and twisted the thick cylinder, which Mauritane could see possessed a number of protrusions on its bottom. Satisfied with his choice, Satterly manipulated a knob on the side of the device and peered into the top.

“Not enough light,” he muttered.

Silverdun suffused the air around them with green witchlight.

“Okay,” said Satterly. “Take a look.”

Mauritane peered into the top of the microscope, at first seeing nothing. Then his eye adjusted, and he discovered a circle of light. There, beneath his eye, was the visage of a hideous creature, with eight stalked eyes and pinching mouthparts, like something out of the Mere Swamps.

“What is this?” he asked.

“That’s the spider, only much, much larger. This magnification is fifty times how it appears with the naked eye.”

Silverdun looked down into the eyepiece, frowning. “Does the spider itself actually become extremely large at some point? Because I could see where that would be useful.”

“Well, no. It’s just how you’re seeing it that changes. The lenses inside the microscope refract the light coming from the spider to make it appear much larger than it is.”

“Hm,” said Silverdun, reaching for a jug of watered wine, “You’re right, Satterly. Science is boring.”

Satterly smiled, whether at Silverdun or at some internal joke it was difficult to tell.

“Silverdun,” said Mauritane, dismissing him, “if you knew how much of our existing war magic was based on human scientific knowledge, you’d be less glib. The development of explosives, field glasses, and some others I can’t mention have their base in the science of his people.”

“You think his knowledge will be useful on our journey.”

“I do.”

Satterly raised his hand. “I’m still not sure exactly what you’re asking,” he said.

“I will tell you what I have been told,” said Mauritane. He recounted the contents of the Chamberlain’s letter, the original having already faded to white. He explained as best he could the dangers of the Contested Lands and even reiterated Silverdun’s concerns about the legitimacy of the deal the Chamberlain offered.

“Now you know as much as we know,” said Mauritane. “If I’m going to ask you to risk your neck, you should understand the danger as well as the potential reward.”

“Thank you, and I’m sold, if you’ll have me. I’ve always wanted to visit the Contested Lands. If half of what I’ve heard of them is true, it should be quite an adventure.”

Silverdun snorted. “What a bizarre race of creatures you come from!”

“A few more questions,” said Mauritane. “Are you a skilled rider?”

“I don’t know how skilled I am, but I’ve ridden before.”

“Can you defend yourself? If we engage a threat, every soldier fights.”

“I’m a pretty good shot with a rifle, but I don’t guess that’s what you mean. If you’re talking blades, I’m useless.”

“Let’s see,” said Mauritane. “Take this.” He took a scabbarded cavalry sword from its place on the desk and pushed it over to


Satterly pulled the blade from its cloth sheath and eyed it warily. “What do you want me to do?”

“We’ll be on horseback, so I’ll be training everyone in mounted swordplay over the next few days. First, though, I want to see how fast you learn at basic engagement. Stand over there.”

Satterly stood where Mauritane pointed and held the blade loosely in his grasp.

“Hold it like this,” said Mauritane, drawing his own blade. “Put your thumb on the hilt and your next finger out toward the blade. Now lower your arm and hold the blade upright.”

Satterly did as he was instructed, following Mauritane’s lead.

“Keep your left foot back,” said Mauritane, crossing behind him and tapping his hamstring with the flat of his sword. “All of your weight goes here. When you thrust, thrust with your right arm and foot in concordance.”

“Okay,” said Satterly, positioning himself.

Mauritane came around and faced him, nodding. “Come at me,” he said.

“I’ll try.” Satterly lunged with his right arm and leg extended outward, thrusting the point of his sword at Mauritane’s chest. With a flick of his wrist, Mauritane disarmed him, sending the blade clattering across the floor.

“Let me try it again,” said Satterly. “I think I see what you’re doing there.”

Mauritane nodded. “I’ve definitely seen worse.”

“I have one last question for you,” said Silverdun. “How did you come to be here?”

Satterly frowned. “In Crere Sulace? Or in Faerie?”


“I came here with some others of my world. There’s an organization that finds and rescues human changelings. I came with them.”

Silverdun winced. “A dangerous occupation,” he said. “I assume you ‘rescued’ the wrong human.”

“Something like that.” Satterly looked away.

Mauritane stood. “We leave at dawn. Find Orrel at the main guardhouse. He’ll fit you for clothes and a mount. Then report back here.”

Satterly turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. “Wait a minute. How do you guys know that I won’t just desert you a mile from the prison and go on my merry way?”

Mauritane smiled. “If you try to desert, I’ll find you and kill you.”


Satterly left the room, closing the doors behind him.

“Can we trust him?” said Silverdun.

“I don’t know. His manners are so different from ours; he’s extremely difficult to read. He’d be a fool to ride off by himself in the Contested Lands, which is where I believe his skills will be useful. If he deserts later, I won’t feel as bad about slaying him.”

“Will you stop talking about killing people?” said Silverdun. “I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all you think about.”

“If you want to survive out there,” said Mauritane, “you should think of it more.”

Silverdun grunted.

In the walls, between the blocks, floating in the chipped mortar, something stirred and flitted away. A cool breeze passed through the chamber then, and Mauritane shivered. He stopped short, thinking for a moment that he detected a young girl’s scream at the edge of his hearing. But when he motioned Silverdun for silence, there was nothing more.

the complete party/

the lord of twin birch torn

The remaining candidates were each called in and had the situation explained to them. During the second or third of them, snow began to fall outside, illuminated from above by witchlit security lamps around the walls of the castle. The monotonous pattern of flakes, angling sharply to the southeast, refused to admit any alteration while Mauritane watched. He and Silverdun dismissed Caeona, Adfelae, and Sybaic Id after brief discussions.

“There are only three names left,” said Silverdun, his fatigue beginning to show around his eyes. “I hope you saved the best for last.”

“We can be certain of Honeywell,” said Mauritane, surveying the remaining names on the list. “Ce’Thabar I included because I believe he possesses Resistance. Raieve is a mystery, but an intriguing one.”

“Not bad to look at, either,” observed Silverdun.

“Not even a hint of impropriety, Silverdun. In the Guard we had strict rules about such things.”

“Who is more proper than I?” asked Silverdun. “Besides, I freely admit that she intimidates me.”

The doors opened, but rather than Ce’Thabar, it was Purane-Es who entered.

“Your time grows near,” he said, striding to the desk and peering over the documents spread out there.

“Yes, we have a clock in this room as well,” said Mauritane, not looking up.

“Will you be ready? I’m not to leave this place until you do. And I’d like to be in the City Emerald by Stag.”

“‘It is often better to want than to have,’” quoted Silverdun gaily.

Purane-Es ignored him. “See that you are prepared to leave by sunup.”

“As you wish,” Mauritane said. He held up his provision list. “The prison is not stocked with the supplies I need. I’ll require several hundred silvers to purchase these things in Hawthorne.”

Purane-Es laughed. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you Mauritane? I know how you love barking orders at your troops; you must have missed that these past two years.”

Mauritane looked him in the eye and said nothing.

“Forget it,” said Purane-Es, handing over his sabretache. “Here’s more than five hundred, in gold and gray. Now you’ve got my horse and a month’s pay. Will there be anything else?”

“Only your head when the time comes.” Mauritane took the satchel and placed it on the desk. “Anything else, sir?”

“Don’t push it, Mauritane. If you were simply to disappear between here and Hawthorne, no one would ever know.”

“If I were to disappear between here and Hawthorne, you would no doubt be cursed by your own father as a fool and likely lose your commission. I won’t be looking over my shoulder.”

“You overestimate your own importance.”

“I don’t think so.”

Purane-Es swept out of the room, slamming the double doors behind him, nearly knocking over Ce’Thabar, who was led in handcuffed by a guard.

“What is this?” said the lanky Ce’Thabar, looking over the two Fae seated at the desk. “Where’s Jem Alan?”

“Ce’Thabar, we would like a word with you,” said Mauritane, rising. “There is an offer you should consider.”

“I can take no offer from you,” said Ce’Thabar. “I’m sworn against you on behalf of Dumesne. He’s covenanted against you for what you did in the courtyard today.”

Mauritane and Silverdun looked at each other. Mauritane sighed. “Fine. You are excused.”

After Ce’Thabar was led away, Silverdun said, “That leaves only two.”

“I’m certain of Honeywell. If Raieve doesn’t work out, we can take Adfelae as a last resort. He wasn’t so bad.”

“I hope for all of our sakes that Raieve works out. Adfelae is an idiot.”

Silverdun fell silent, and Mauritane heard the odd sound again, this time a bit louder, coming from the south side of the room. A girl’s scream.

“Do you hear that?” he asked.

“I don’t hear anything. What?”

“It sounded like a girl screaming.”

“Probably one of the cats in the courtyard. They’re all freezing to death out there. Someone should put them out of their misery.”

“You’re probably right.”

Geuna Eled, called Honeywell, saluted when he was presented. “Sir,” he said, his voice strong and firm in a way that his body was not. Prison life had not been kind to Honeywell. Without exercise his weight had increased over the past two years, and his face was puffy and red.

“Honeywell, you served me ably as lieutenant when I was Captain of the Guard. Will you ride with me again?”

Honeywell bowed deeply. “I would be honored, sir.”

Mauritane recounted the Chamberlain’s offer for the eighth time that night, barely listening to himself speak. Honeywell’s mouth was an “O” of wonder throughout.

“This is such an honor, sir,” said Honeywell. “I don’t know how to thank you enough.”

“You can thank me by surviving until we reach the City Emerald. I was responsible for your imprisonment; I’d hate to be responsible for your death as well.” Mauritane rubbed his chin.

“I know we’ve agreed to disagree on that one point, sir. But for Lord Silverdun’s benefit, I must say that I am here by my own leave, and it wasn’t anyone convinced me to be here other than me.”

Silverdun forced a smile. “It is . . . good of you to say so.”

“Thank you, milord.”

“Just cut the ‘milord’ crap. I only require it of the guards because it annoys them so. You may call me Silverdun.”

Honeywell bowed low, his outstretched wrist nearly scraping the floor.

Though it was still hours from First Watch, the sounds of prison morning life were beginning to seep in from all directions. Somewhere nearby the kitchen staff were lighting their fires, clattering their heavy skillets and pots. Elsewhere the laundry vats rumbled to life, their gears turned by the pale white slaves from Edan.

“Only one more, then Arcadia,” said Silverdun, resting his chin in his cupped hands, once Honeywell had managed to bow his way out of the room.

“We ride for Hawthorne in three hours,” said Mauritane. “Don’t tell me you’re going to fail me before we reach the gates.”

Silverdun smiled ruefully. “No, I’ll have a witch in Hawthorne spell me some awake time. That’ll keep me until we camp tonight. Which reminds me. Should we stop in Colthorn,” he asked, turning to the maps. “Or do we press on and make camp in the hills to the south?”

“We’ll bed at inns until we cross the border. No reason to deplete ourselves before then.”

“You’ll get no argument from me.”

They passed the next few moments in silence, then Raieve was brought in.

She was less enthusiastic than Honeywell.

“Do you think me mad?” she laughed. “It’s not enough that I rot in your prisons, but you want me to follow you on some twisted errand of fealty to your bitch queen?”

Mauritane held his tongue so he would not speak without thinking. Her words made him furious, but Silverdun was right. She was beautiful. Her long, metal-tipped braids framed an angular face, blue eyes inlaid over high cheekbones, arched eyebrows in a permanent slant of anger. There was something wild about her.

“You may hold what opinions you wish,” he said. “But in my presence you will refer to the Queen as Her Majesty or Regina Titania. If not out of respect for her, then out of respect for me.”

Raieve had been standing, pacing across the floor as Mauritane delivered his pitch. Now she sat, pulling her braids forward and peering down at them. “As you wish.”

“You have the offer, parole in exchange for your services. How do you answer?”

Raieve pursed her lips. “The only thing you could offer me is guaranteed transport back to Avalon when this is finished and the arms that I came here to purchase. Then I might accept.”

“I can probably guarantee your return to Avalon, but beyond that I make no promises,” said Mauritane.

“You can promise to do your level best. I would accept that.” She glared at him.

“I’ve watched you since your arrival here,” said Mauritane. “I believe you can be of great value to me. I’ll do what I can to help you when our task is complete, but it may not be possible.”

“You said it yourself,” she said. “The alternative is dying here. I don’t hate your queen enough to punish myself for spite. You have my word; I will fight by your side. I’ll take what you can offer.”

“I’m pleased,” said Mauritane. “Perhaps when this is done you will not think so badly of us.”

“I hardly see how it matters either way,” she said.

Mauritane started to say something else but stopped. “Fine. The guard at the door will take you for provisions. Move quickly; we leave in an hour.”

Mauritane watched her leave, feeling the curve of her legs with his eyes as she left. He forced himself to remember his wife, the Lady Anne, and put Raieve out of his mind for the moment.

He opened his mouth to speak to Silverdun and heard the scream again, even louder this time, definitely from the south. Could it be one of the Edani? They usually had lower voices and did not often allow their young to be taken captive. Raieve was one of four female inmates. The other three were locked in their cells on the other side of the prison.

“I’ll be right back,” said Mauritane. Silverdun nodded wearily, reviewing the list of provisions for the fourth time in an hour.

He picked up one of the guards at the door. “Where are we going, sir?” the guard said.

“Do you hear that sound?” said Mauritane. The girl’s cries were insistent, pleading. Mauritane wondered for a moment that a woman’s cries of pleasure and pain could sound so similar. Raieve’s face flashed unbidden across his mind. He frowned.

“I don’t hear anything,” said the guard.

“Come with me,” Mauritane said.

They passed from the North Tower into the main yard, where a trio from the night watch warmed their hands in the guardhouse. Snow continued to fall in its angled sweep, casting irregular diagonal lines across the faces of the guards.

“No!” the girl’s voice cried. The sound emanated from the South Tower.

“Come,” said Mauritane, taking his guard by the shoulder. “Don’t you hear this?” They approached the tower’s interior gate. Here, the wind caught the falling snow in an updraft and it swirled in tight ovals in the portico.

“Can you unlock this door?” said Mauritane.

“Um, sir, we’re not to go in there. Only Jem Alan goes to monitor the sealamps.”

“Do you have the rune or don’t you?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“But nothing!” Mauritane gripped the guard at both shoulders. “Did Jem Alan tell you to give me full run of the place, or didn’t he?”

“Uh, yes, but . . .”

“But nothing! Don’t say ‘but’ again. You have your orders. Open the door.”

Cowering, the guard took a set of runes from his belt and fitted one into the enormous metal door’s latch with a shaky hand.

“I’ll wait here,” he said.

“Fine.” Mauritane took a torch from the inside wall and lit it from the grate that burned there.

The door opened onto a wide hall with a curved stairway on the left, or east, side and a number of doors on the north wall. A dusty iron chandelier hung overhead, its candles burnt to tiny stumps, blackened and sooty. Besides the torch, the only other illumination was the dim green witchlight from irregularly placed globes along the stairwell. Their light glimmered on the damp gray stones of the walls.

“No! No! Father, help me!” It was the girl’s voice again, coming from above. Mauritane leapt for the stairs, noticing the curious antiquity of the girl’s accent, similar to that of the oldest men and women in his village, those who’d been raised centuries before his own time.

Darting up the stairs, Mauritane reflected that it could not have been possible for the girl’s voice, not much louder now than it had been in Jem Alan’s office, to have been audible at all from the North Tower. He grew more wary with each step, and by the time he reached the first landing, he was walking, his blade drawn and held at the ready.

At the first landing, the spellturning of the structure became noticeable. The stairs above were faintly doubled, one set of steps was superimposed on the other, as though seen through thick glass. From the landing, a pair of boarded-up doors let onto the second floor, their locks rusted and worn with age.

“Father! Somebody! Help me!” The girl’s cries became shrieks, still coming from farther up the stairs. Mauritane began to run again, taking the stairs two at a time, his eyes moving in every direction for potential threats. He stopped again at the second landing and listened again. The shrieks were muffled here, but they were not from above this time. Two more doors faced Mauritane, identical to the ones below. They, too, were boarded up, though Mauritane could see that the boards on the nearer one were fairly loose. Pulling a dagger, he wedged the blade beneath the board and strained against it, feeling the homemade nails slowly give way.

Mauritane’s muscles hummed from the exertion, and it felt strangely good to be in action again, regardless of the circumstances. His face reddening, he pried first one board, then another from the door and examined the lock. It was a simple keyed affair, one easily picked with the tools he’d liberated from the prison armory. As he knelt, the screams grew more and more muffled and eventually faded.

“Damn,” he said, finally managing the lock. The door swung open with effort, hanging from hinges that were nearly rusted shut. The passage beyond was dark, but there was a light some distance away. Before Mauritane’s eyes, the light became two lights, then four, then eight, then one light again, depending on how he turned his head. It was a disorienting sensation.

He stepped lightly over the transom and into chaos. The floor gave way beneath him and he stumbled forward to right himself, only to discover that he was suddenly sitting up on the frame of the door through which he’d just passed. When he’d crossed into the hallway, his sense of direction had pinwheeled backward over his head in a quarter circle, so now the wall had become the floor, and the floor was now the wall in front of him.

The light source was now above his head.

Mauritane began to feel queasy. Looking back through the doorway, he saw the stairway exactly where it had been, only now the stairs appeared to be sideways, their steps clinging to the wall beneath him.

“Salutations,” said a voice above him. Mauritane jumped and looked up. Standing on the ceiling was a man in ancient costume, wearing a long white wig and a frock coat that hung upwards to fall at his feet.

“I am the Prince Crere Sulace, Lord of Twin Birch Torn,” said the man, speaking in an ancient dialect Mauritane struggled to comprehend. “And you are trespassing in my home.”

Midwinter © Matthew Sturges

Cover Illustration © Chris McGrath

Matthew Sturges's works include the comic book series House of Mystery, Shadowpact, Salvation Run, Countdown to Mystery, Blue Beetle, and the Eisner Award-nominated Jack of Fables, cowritten with Bill Willingham. His short stories have been published on RevolutionSF and in the anthology Live without a Net. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two daughters.


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