Carriel felt like a cloud of gloom hovering over a parade. The morning sun cast the snow into piles of glitter. Excited, bubbly people swarmed around her sister, Lionye’s golden child, winner of the Emberithshire Skating Championship, Junior Division. Bree laughed and chatted with friends, rivals, and fans.
Even Garray looked excited. Well, of course he did. Their grasping brother had set up this race to give himself another reason to gamble. He’d be thrilled all day, unless their little sister lost.
A whisper, like a sudden gust of wind, ran through the crowd. She turned, following the ripple. The crowd shifted, allowing a woman and a girl about Bree’s size to cross the park to the pond. She shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun on the snow, but even standing on tiptoes, she couldn’t catch more than a glimpse of the competition’s knit cap through the press.
Whistles sounded. Cheers erupted. Her sister flashed an elated grin. The head of the Lionye’s Skating Commission stepped away from the judges’ table and raised a megaphone to his lips.
“Welcome to today’s special event race. We’re pitting our very own Bree, the Winter Wind, against Tayla of the Peolline district of Feballiase.”
The crowd roared. Bree waved to her cheering fans. Tayla turned at her name and gave a tentative smile. Carriel blinked. What?
“Ladies, please take your places at the starting line.”
Snapping out of her shock, she grabbed her sister’s arm before she could hobble more than a couple of steps towards the starting line.
“What?” A bemused smile on her face, Bree turned. She clearly expected wishes of luck or advice. The usual before a race.
“She’s not human.”
“Huh?” Her sister glanced at the starting line.
“She’s some sort of winter Fae. I think she’s an ice sprite.”
Wild excitement filled her sister’s face. “Really?”
She gritted her teeth. “I know what I see.”
“Bree of Lionye, please join us at the starting line.” The ice sprite already stood there. She smiled, too innocently to be believed, when they looked at her.
“I’ve got to go.”
“So she’s an ice sprite. It’s just a race.”
“It’ll be a laugh. Tell Stacia.”
“You cannot hope to win.”
Her smirk turned mischievous. “Tell my coach. Let the word spread. Think about it. Racing an ice sprite? Sure I can’t win, but depending on how close I come? How fast and famous does that make me?”
The officials called for Bree again. Laughing, she spun and hobbled quickly to the ice sprite.
Carriel dashed over to her sister’s coach. Stacia cursed at the news and ran to the alert the head of Lionye’s Skating Commission. Blood drained from his face. Stacia continued to talk for a few minutes. The Commission Head turned and raised his whistle to his lips. One bleat.
Ice sprayed from their skates. The crowd roared. Neck and neck as they neared the first curve.
Carriel’s heart pounded. This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t have allowed this.
The ice sprite pulled ahead on the first curve. On the opposite side of the pond, the ice sprite lengthened her lead. The crowd screamed for their Winter Wind to speed up.
A determined frown creased Bree’s face. Carriel had watched her sister skate enough times to pick up the minute increase in speed. She skated as fast as she could, perhaps faster than her fastest time. They wouldn’t know for sure on that until she crossed the finish line.
Which she did a good forty-five seconds after the ice sprite.
A crack echoed across the park.
Bree flashed out of existence.
The ice sprite pivoted. The glee on her face twisted into a good facsimile of shock.
The constable took the ice sprite and her coach into custody. Angry townsfolk followed them to the jailhouse and refused to go home. Bree had disappeared by magic and the ice sprite was magic. She–and likely her coach–must have done it.
The constable put both in a room for questioning and left them alone for no more than two minutes to send a fast messenger to Feballiase to request Winter Knight assistance. With their magic dedicated to protecting the kingdom, the Knights would be best suited to negotiate Bree’s return.
The constable left to inform Tayla and her coach about the wait. He returned, ashen and trembling. The room was empty. They were gone.
Numb, Carriel staggered back to the park. The two guards exchanged a look, but allowed her to enter. She fell to her knees beside the finish line and stared dumbly at the ice.
She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go home. Not without her sister. What could she tell their parents?
Hands lifted her. Her frozen legs refused to cooperate. Stacia and a guard carried her to a carriage. She understood nothing of what the coach tried to tell her on the way home. The only words that mattered, Stacia couldn’t offer. At the house, someone wrapped her in a blanket, shoved a hot mug of tea into her hands. An arm rested over her shoulders. The tea grew tepid. Her brain remained numb.
People chattered around her. None of the words cut through her fog, not until she heard the name “Garray.” She looked up sharply.
Her dad blinked at her. “Honey?”
“He arranged the race. Where is he?”
Dad turned and bellowed in the direction of the door to the living room, “GARRAY!”
She leapt to her feet. Her father on her heels, they ran up the stairs to her brother’s empty room. Sighing, her father went back downstairs. She searched the room. Tore apart his bed. She shook his books and papers, ignoring the drawings, looking for anything related to the race. Tossed everything not useful on the floor. Hidden in his dresser, she discovered a dozen betting tickets and pocketed those for leverage.
Downstairs their father stood at the door, bundling up.
“Where are you going?”
“To find him.” He slammed out before she could offer to go with him.
She paced the room. Dad would never locate him. He hadn’t the slightest idea where Garray went to drink. She strode to the door and shoved her boots back on.
“What are you doing?” Her mother looked up from the cold cup of tea she’d been staring at for at least the last hour.
“Going out to help find Garray.”
Her mother only slumped back over her tea. Sitting alone at the table. Though her heart ached at the sight, Carriel left anyway.
He wasn’t at either of the closest bookies, but she hadn’t expected to find him there. Not at this time of night. He thought the neighborhood pubs beneath his notice, but she swung through them before going to his hangouts. He wasn’t drinking at The Lost Hound, Lucky Star, or Flecks. Nor did she see any of his friends.
She ran into Dravitt drinking at The Checkered Past. Gods, she hated him. Why must he be the first of her brother’s friends she found? She strode to the table, jerked his drink out of his hand, and demanded to know where Garray was.
“Who?” Smirking, he reached for his drink.
Holding the beer out of reach, she growled. “You know damned well who my brother is.”
“Haven’t seen him, have I? He’s courting that fancy girl. Too good to drink in The Checkered Past these days.”
What fancy girl? “Where is he?”
“Give us a kiss and I’ll tell.”
“Tell me and I won’t upend this beer on your head.” She bared her teeth.
Dravitt snarled. “Try Pillars.”
She huffed and tilted the beer towards his head. “Bullshit.”
He held up both hands. “Swear it. I know, their beer is total swill, but that’s where his fancy girl’s brother and their friends drink. He’ll be there.”
Garray lacked the funds to drink there. She lowered the glass and set it on the table. Couldn’t afford the stakes at cards. No wonder he needed Bree to win for him again. His winnings from the championship must be gone.
But he would have won nothing on today’s race. Unless he bet against her? She clenched her fists. If he’d planned all this, she’d kill him.
Just as soon as he explained where their little sister was.
Pillars’ doorman was not inclined to let her inside. She’d dressed that morning to watch a race in the park, not visit an aristocrats’ pub. They argued for ten minutes before a group of young lordlings arrived, rolled over the doorman, and swept her inside with them.
Their compliments left her blushing and off-balance, and untangling herself from them wasted a good half hour. The longer the Fae had Bree the more harm they could do.
She stood alone in the center of the bar and turned slowly searching for her brother in the crowd of bright-colored silks and satins and smoky blacks. Garray dressed as flamboyantly as he could afford, which wasn’t much since he couldn’t hold down a job.
She found him at a booth in the corner with four extravagantly dressed young men. Beside them her brother looked like a valet. No, not quite well dressed enough for a servant. He looked like a charity case.
He wasn’t. She clenched her jaw. Their father was a barrister, who’d sent them all to the same good schools, provided a decent allowance, and offered all his offspring the chance to pursue their interests whether in sports or the arts or education. Garray neither appreciated nor took advantage of any of it.
She strode across the room and grabbed him by his aubergine ascot, pulling him out of the booth, choking him. “Where is Bree?”
“Are you crazy?” He easily broke her hold. “How did you get in here?”
“What did you do with our sister?”
He looked around with an expression of horror on his face. “I didn’t do anything with her. Something magical–”
She backhanded him. A couple of men seized her before she could decide her next action. Bouncers tossed the two into the street. She slipped and fell on the ice. He landed beside her.
“Banned for life. Both of you.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” her brother protested. Ignoring him, the bouncers strode back inside the pub.
She took advantage of his distraction and pinned him down. “Where is she? What did you do?”
He started to cry, of all things. “I thought she’d win.”
She slapped him again. “Against an ice sprite? How?”
“She’s the best–the fastest skater–”
“But the other girl was–”
“An ice sprite.”
He shook his head. “No. I met them both. They were human.”
She raised her hand to smack him again, but he caught her arm. Pushing her away, he staggered to his feet.
Glaring against the burn of tears, she scrambled after him. “What did you bet? Why’d you set up that race?”
He winced. Tears continued to trickle down his cheeks. “They promised me a fortune if she won.”
“And. If. She. Lost?”
He mumbled something.
He sighed heavily. “She said if her skater won she would take Bree. I didn’t know what they meant, but figured we’d win.”
“You asshole. You sold our sister.”
“I thought she’d win.”
“WINNING WASN’T POSSIBLE!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know–”
This was her fault. She knew better than to trust him. Should have shut the idea of the race down the minute he proposed it. “Where are they?”
He shook his head. “I have no idea.”
She spluttered unable render her feelings into words. In the end, she settled on, “Don’t come home.”
He followed her home. She tried to bar him entry but their father let him in. Even after she explained that he’d sold Bree to the Fae. Dad made an excuse for the “boy” as always. Poor boy only meant to set up a race, never could have known fairy folk were involved. After all, of this generation Carriel was the only one in the family who could see through glamour.
“I’m heading to bed. Your mother needs to know you’re back okay.” Dad kissed them both on the head and left them alone together.
“I can find them again,” he said softly.
“Why? To sell me into slavery as well?”
He looked pained. She didn’t buy it. He cared for no one but himself. “I’ll get her back. I’ll find them and get her back.”
“No you won’t. There’s nothing in it for you.”
“You can believe me or not, but I’m going after them tomorrow morning. At dawn.”
She laughed. She couldn’t believe she could still make that sound on a day like today, but he was ludicrous. He never rose before midmorning, and only woke by then if someone forced him to. He preferred to sleep in until–Oh.
“Oh, I see. You found them at some gambling den. Of course you want to return–”
That brought her up short. Moonsliver Falls stood more than half a day’s ride away. In the dead of winter. Her brother liked his comfort.
“What were you—never mind. Thank you for doing something right for once in your life. I’ll go after her at dawn. You can stay warm in your comfy bed.” She pivoted and stormed from the room.
“I’m going,” he called after her.
Before anyone could leave the next morning, a Winter Knight roused the house. Sir Drift wasted an hour in interrogations before setting out. He allowed both Carriel and Garray to escort him. The three remained silent until they’d ridden past the last farm on the outskirts of Lionye.
“What were you doing at Moonsliver Falls in the winter?” Drift asked Garray.
Her brother shot her an uneasy look. She pretended not to notice. He couldn’t possibly think she’d come to his aid. The Falls were a popular place for picnics, hikes, camping–summer sports all.
“There’s this story. Well, lots of stories about the most famous highwayman in these parts.”
“Tarvin of Vere?” Drift asked.
“Yes.” Garray squirmed uncomfortably. His horse shied to the side. “There’s this story I heard that his hideout was somewhere near Moonsliver. They said–the story included some key places to look for to find it. I thought maybe I could.”
Carriel snorted. Drift smiled.
“If it was ever there, I’m sure someone found it years ago,” he said. “Tarvin of Vere died nearly two centuries ago.”
“That’s not what the stories say.”
The Knight looked amused. “Would you tell everyone if you found it?”
“Hell, yeah.” Garray grinned.
“He’d want to be robbed blind,” she said. “My brother hasn’t the brains to keep his mouth shut and actually keep the treasure.”
He glared at her. “I am not stupid.”
“Of course, you’re not,” Drift said.
“Could have fooled me,” she muttered.
Drift shot her a warning look. “All of that treasure is stolen. Anyone who found it would not only confront other thieves coming after it, but the Winter Knights and other security forces pressing claim on the stolen goods on behalf of the original owners.”
“Original owners?” Garray scoffed. “They’re all dead.”
“Lord Yeterin is the currently Duke of Thistleflown. While Ladies Jioli and Johlyn have been fighting over the title of Countess of Gladevish for a decade now, they’re both much alive. Duchess Hashley rules Pommelith. The young Earl of Tawnloff might be underage, but he has regents running his territory who will press claims on his behalf. Jewels, silvers, golds, all of it on record–with drawings and descriptions–as lost at the hands of Tarvin of Verre. Any court in the Kingdom would uphold their claims.
“I would keep such possessions quiet should I have them.”
Garray’s jaw hung open.
“Then what would be the point of even finding them?” Carriel asked. “The coins are useful, but the rest of it is only good to sell.”
“Much of it could be melted down, or you’d need a fence, someone you already knew, someone you could trust–”
“Oh sweet gods,” she said. “Please do not give him any help on how to become a better criminal. He’s already sold his own sister to the Fae.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Yet you did.”
“Let’s focus on getting your sister back.” Drift held up a hand. “Tell me about the Fae. Were they there in a coach or on horseback?”
Garray frowned. “I don’t remember. They must have been.”
“You saw no horses? No carriages?”
“I didn’t pay any attention.”
“This is important.” Drift pointed at him. “Don’t just answer. Think about it. Remember. Picture the scene in your head. Look at that memory a few minutes. Then tell me what you saw.”
They rode along in silence for several minutes accompanied only by the clopping of their horses’ hooves. She cast skeptical looks her brother’s way.
“There were no horses. I was too stupid to notice.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. That’s great news,” Drift said.
“How?” she asked, glad of the chance to interrupt. Her brother deserved no sympathy. This was his fault.
And hers, a quiet voice in her head reminded. She was the responsible one. She was the one who knew better than to trust him or anything related to him. And still she’d not objected to the race.
She thought Bree would win too. Wanted another chance of riding on the glory of her little sister’s coattails. Basking in the sun that was Lionye’s champion.
She was almost as bad as Garray.
“No horses means they’re from there.” The Knight grinned grimly. “We’re heading to their home. How did they approach you?
“They sat–She walked–I turned–” He rubbed his forehead as if it pained him.
“It’s okay. What do you remember?”
“We picnicked. The girl skated on the frozen river. We talked about racing. Her coach and I. I bragged about Bree. She proposed a race.”
“Were she and the girl the only Fae present?”
“Yes. No. Wait. The girl was with a group, holding races. She wasn’t their fastest.”
He couldn’t provide any other information. Drift gave up after his following questions resulting in nothing but stammering. They rode the next few hours in silence after the Knight’s attempts at small talk fell flat.
Carriel was too worried about her sister to make polite conversation. Too upset with herself. She had seen what Tayla was, and still allowed the race to go on.
Her nose, toes and fingers ached and then went numb. She expected her brother to complain and insist on going back. To avow he’d done all he could in providing what little information he’d been able to recall for Sir Drift.
He didn’t. He fell back. Trailed behind her and the Knight. But he didn’t say a word, not the rest of the way to Moonsliver.
Her heart fell to see the frozen waterfall. As ridiculous as she realized it to be, she’d expected to find her sister here. To see her right away. Trapped amongst the Fae, but in plain sight.
Three crows perched on two trees in the field before the frozen waterfall. Regular crows, nothing eldritch. There was no sight or sound of any other living creature.
“She’s not here,” she pointed out the obvious as they dismounted.
“Give me a few minutes,” Sir Drift said with another grim smile.
He paced along the frozen bank, squatting a few times to touch the ice below his feet and whispering. She glanced at her brother before she could stop herself and found him looking back at her in puzzlement. Uneasy, she looked away. She didn’t want to share anything with him.
The Knight rose and turned to face them.
“I need you two to stay quiet and stay back. No matter what the Fae say, you must stay out of it. No bargaining, no accepting their offers. Let me do the talking. I’d like all four of us to leave here together. Promise me, you’ll stay still and quiet, no matter what is asked of you.”
“I promise,” Garray said.
She frowned. “What might be asked?”
“They like to bargain. They might propose something that sounds entirely reasonable, like the race did to your brother, but like that race, the proposition will be filled with hidden meaning and great cost. I aim to get your sister returned to us.”
She nodded. That was all she wanted.
“Promise me, Carriel.”
“I do. I promise.”
Drawing free the staff he’d worn strapped across his back, the knight pivoted on the spot and strode back to the frozen stream. He slammed the wooden staff down, it crashed through the ice. Flying shards glittered in the sunlight.
“Fae of Moonsliver Falls, I, Sir Drift of the Winter Knights, demand your presence as is my right under article four of the Treaty of Fallen Snow.”
He glared around the waterfall for several minutes. Nothing happened.
Carriel opened her mouth, remembered her promise, and snapped it close. Between one heartbeat and the next, Fae surrounded them.
Hulking abominable snowmen hovered on the tops of the cliffs. Creatures made of snow shaped like people and animals popped up along the opposite bank. Tiny snowflake fairies whirled and swooped around the falls. A dozen sprites twirled on the ice.
A whirlwind of snow spun on the far bank between two majestic snow griffins. The whirls of snow fell and a woman stood there.
Her skin and hair were the blinding white of snow in sunlight. Her dress glittered like ice as did the jeweled tiara on her brow. Carriel reeled. A snow queen, surely, but her face … her face was the same as the ice sprite’s coach.
How could she not have seen that before? Nothing magic had ever before been able to hide itself from her.
“Why do you trespass on our lands with your magics?” the Queen asked.
“You’ve broken the treaty. Stolen a human.”
The queen’s laugh was that of icicles shattering. “Does the boy lie to you? He traded a human child to us.”
“He traded someone not his to trade.”
The queen’s smile deepened. “He is her kin. The girl admitted as much.”
Drift whipped around and gestured for Carriel to shut up. She winced. She’d promised. The Winter Knight would handle this. She must leave it to him. She’d apologize later. Once he rescued her sister.
“You know the law. The Treaty of Fallen Snow states that a human may trade themselves away to the Fae without consequences, but cannot trade another person away. Bree is a person. She did not trade herself.”
The Queen drew herself up haughtily. “The girl agreed to the race.”
“A race only. No one informed her of any consequences if she lost.”
“The bindings that created the event required her advocate to inform her of the terms.”
Fist clenched, Carriel stepped forward. “She only agreed to the race to see how fast–”
The Knight glared her into silence. “The girl was never informed. Would never have participated in the race had she been. The peoples of Lionye use magical protections. Perhaps those destroyed your coercion before this young man could pass on the message.”
The Queen glowered. She twirled and half the Fae, the Queen included, disappeared in a swirl of snow.
Face twisted in fury, long white braids flying, Drift rounded on her. “Anything you say gives the Fae leverage and could change the outcome of this conversation for the worst. They left to consult amongst themselves.
“They know they’ve lost, but will try to find a way to squirm out of this. As long as you remain quiet, I will be able to retrieve your sister. They cannot afford to break the Treaty. Whatever happens from here, you must remain silent or risk losing her forever. Need I gag you?”
Tears pricked her eyes. His ominous words left her shaking with fear. She whispered, “I can stay quiet.”
He relaxed and nodded. “She’ll be okay. Stay strong.”
Another swirl of snow. He walked forward, but the sight before him caused him to miss a step. Carriel clamped her hands over her mouth. An abominable stood beside the Queen. Her sister hung upside down, her legs trapped in his massive hand.
“There are consequences when one lies to the Fae.”
The abominable clenched his fists. The snaps of Bree’s bones dropped Carriel to her knees. She screamed with her sister.
Drift yelled protests that went unheard over the screams. The abominable tossed Bree to the ground. Blood spilled from too many wounds to count. Shards of bones poked through her legs.
Drift’s yells barely broke through her horror. “–COMPLETELY ILLEGAL. –ACT OF WAR. IF YOU DO NOT FIX–”
A high-pitched scream tore through the falls. Sharp enough to break eardrums. Carriel slammed her hands over her ears and turned.
Garray held an ice sprite tight in his arms. No, not an ice sprite, the ice sprite. The one who’d pretended to be a girl named Tayla. The tip of an iron knife pierced its throat. A thin trickle of electric blue blood dripped down its snow-white attire.
“Unleash her!” The Queen’s growl vibrated bones and internal organs.
Drift looked wildly from Garray to the Queen. “Fix the girl, set her free, and he’ll release your sprite.”
“This violates the Treaty of Fallen Snows. I will kill you all,” the Queen screamed.
“You’ve already violated the Treaty. Look at what you’ve done.” Drift pointed dramatically at Bree. “Undo your damage. The longer the contact with iron the more likely your sprite will suffer irreparable damage.”
“And how will you fix what you’ve reaped?”
“This is in your power,” Sir Drift growled. “Fix the girl. Set her free, whole and well, as she was before you took her, before too much time passes. Save your sprite that damage.”
The Queen’s hiss knocked Drift off his feet. She flung out a hand over Bree. A flurry of snow engulfed her. Screams sounded inside the small blizzard. The storm floated over the river and landed a few feet from Drift.
Carriel ran, but the Knight beat her to Bree’s side. He squatted down, ran his hand over her legs. She shuddered at his touch. “Are you okay?”
Carriel crashed to the ground beside her sister, pulling the nodding, crying Bree into her arms. She barely noticed the queen screaming orders and threats in the background.
But the Winter Knight paid her heed. Rising, Drift pivoted. “Let the sprite go.”
Not moving, Garray glared.
“Let. The. Sprite. Go!” Drift thundered.
Garray held the knife up. Stepping back, he released the sprite. Free of his hold, the ice sprite disappeared. Moments later, she popped back up beside the Queen, crooning and squeaking. The Queen gathered the bleeding sprite in her arms. The look she shot Drift promised retribution. The Fae winked out of existence.
Drift hollered after them. Carriel didn’t care. Hugging her sister, being hugged back that was all that mattered. She didn’t even care that Garray looked pleased with himself. That her useless brother was now her hero.