I was an ice child, having the ill luck to be born early, in the deepest storms of the winter, when the drifts of snow can bury whole caravans without a trace, and the winds will cut a man open with slivers of ice. So they say, in any case, in the village in which I was born, the village huddled at the base of the mountain that houses the Winter Castle, the last outpost before the road winds west into Ismir.
And so, ill luck to me, and ill luck to my mother, for I came months early. The peasants who make their living in the unforgiving world of the mountains are notoriously superstitious, but it does not take superstition to make ill luck of a birth in a blizzard. With no way to call for a midwife, the birth nearly killed her, small as I was, and when it was over, she and I huddled together in the drafty little hovel, wrapped in the only blankets the family could afford. I, despite being undersized and weak, screamed to high heaven, and my mother, being half-dead of blood loss, slipped into a fever and spoke like a madwoman.
So it was that the sorceress Roine was called from the great castle itself, and she made her way down the steep steps, in the biting cold, to see me and cure my mother. Her poultices and teas—“Aye, and spells,” the maids whispered knowingly—brought down the fever, and at last my mother’s soul returned from its wandering in the lands of the dead, and came back to her body.
Roine begged my mother’s leave to take me to the castle itself until I was stronger. The Lady had given birth not a month past, Roine told my mother. The wet nurse could take another child, and there was goat’s milk as well, and Roine had all of her herbs. It would spell my mother, so she could recover as well. When I was healthy and strong, Roine would bring me back.
“And then what?” I begged to know when I first heard the story. I was six years old, and in the way of children, I had taken a liking to one of the maids, Anna, and had followed her on all of her chores, dogging her heels and clinging to her dress despite her sharp words to go sit by the fire. Finally, when she had told me that she had no time for a cuckoo’s child, I had demanded to know what that meant. Anna, tired of my questions and eager to teach me a lesson, had been only too happy to tell me the story.
“And then,” she said, leaning towards me, and smiling, eyes bright with malice, “your mother said not to bring you back. She didn’t want you back at all, for she said you were a cursed child.” I stared at her.
“So?” I asked. I had been raised by Roine, a woman I knew was not my mother. I knew that other people had mothers, but I had only the dimmest concept of what mothers actually were. In the self-centered way of children, I had never wondered much about them, and so I could not be entirely sure what to think about this new development—although I was somewhat offended, even at that young age, that someone had not wanted me around.
“Cursed,” Anna repeated.
“Well, what does that mean?” It was my favorite question at the time. Anna did not think much of it, having been subjected to an entire morning of the query.
“Go ask Father Whitmere if you don’t know,” she said rudely, and I—not thinking highly of Father Whitmere—heaved a great sigh and went to go find Roine instead.
Roine sighed as well when she heard my question, and she set aside her spindle and lifted me onto her lap, where she ran her fingers through my fair hair as she talked. I leaned back and looked up into her beloved face, and I wondered, as I often did, why it was that Roine always looked sorrowful.
“Your mother did not say you were cursed,” she said. “She told me that you were born to be betrayed.”
“Well, what does that mean?” I demanded at once, and Roine considered.
“What do you think it means?” she asked, finally, and I shook my head so that my braid flopped about.
“I don’t know.”
“Neither do I.” Roine kissed my forehead and set me down on the floor again. “Maybe it means nothing.”
“I don’t think so,” I said stoutly. “How could it mean nothing?”
Roine had a peculiar look on her face. “One can always hope,” she said.
“Did anyone ever say something like that about you?” I asked, for a moment she went quite pale.
“Not quite like that,” she said. “Now run along, and keep out of the way. The Duke is coming, and there is much to prepare.”
The Duke. The one terror of my childhood was the Duke, the Lady’s brother. Her husband had died in the war, and the Lady had never remarried; she lived in this castle on the charity of the Duke, some said as a half-prisoner. I heard servants whisper that she wished to go back to the court, but he would not allow her—not after what had happened the last time. When they spoke of it, the servants would laugh in a way that I, as a child, could not quite understand, and once or twice it was murmured that Miriel was lucky she had her father’s hair, her father’s eyes.
The Lady might plead with the Duke—and, to be sure, there were always eavesdroppers to those conversations, and whispered accounts of her begging, and his cold refusals—but she would never defy him. No one defied the Duke. When he rode into the Winter Castle, it was with a great train of retainers and soldiers and priests, all wearing black and looking as grim as their lord. As if the soldiers were not terrifying enough, and the priests in their robes, like a flock of ravens, the Duke went nowhere but that he was accompanied by Temar, the man they called his shadow—and, some whispered, his assassin.
Worse, this grim man was the sole authority in my world. If the Lady could not make a decision, she would say, “I will write to the Duke.” If someone would not obey, she said, “it is the Duke’s order.” If I misbehaved, from stealing a pastry to breaking a statue, the maids told me, “I’ll tell the Duke on you,” and I was told, in excruciating detail, just how the Duke had tortured a man to death once, or how he had put down a rebellion in the south, or just how he had won the Battle of Voltur, or how… until I ran away in tears.
Having a mortal terror of the Duke, who had most likely never noticed me at all, I had decided that the best way to avoid his wrath was to avoid being seen, and so I had become very good at that. I practiced by sneaking around after the maids on their chores, or the soldiers on their rounds. I knew where to stand so that the candlelight would not glint off of my hair as much, and I knew how shadows fell in doorways, and I knew how to move very quietly, and very quickly.
On his visit that day, the Duke took not the slightest notice of me. Nor did he see me the next time he came, or the next, or the time after that. For each visit, there were feasts in his honor, and Miriel, the Lady’s daughter, was paraded out and shown off. Each time, he was said to test her, to make sure that she was perfect. Never mind that the little girl was as isolated from the world as a girl could be—she must still be able to dance, and sing, and dress as finely as any lady of the Court. The Duke expected perfection from her, it was said.
“So why does she not go to court?” I asked Roine, and she only pursed her lips and shook her head. “Is it the secret about the Lady?” I asked, thinking myself very clever. The servants laughed behind their hands sometimes at the Lady, and they talked amongst themselves, about something in her past—but no one would tell me.
“Don’t gossip,” Roine reprimanded. Her tone was harsh; Roine hated gossip. Other servants were fascinated by the Lady and the Duke, but Roine did not share their interest, nor did she approve of anyone who loved scandal.
After that, I was careful to hide my interest in the Lady’s past, and the Duke’s doings. I was fascinated by him—not seeking scandal, as Roine would think, but only observing, daring myself to see him and yet not be seen. The Duke did not care in the slightest about me, but each time he came to visit, I melted away into the background, and I later congratulated myself on my success at evading him. I saw no further than the next test, the next opportunity to—I thought—outwit this man and thus keep myself safe.
I had no thought that the Duke might have greater worries than the whereabouts of a serving girl, for I had not the slightest idea of what went on in the world beyond the castle walls. I knew that Heddred had been at war once, and knew that there had been a great battle near the castle itself, that the Duke had fought in very bravely; the guardsmen sang songs about it sometimes, very bloody indeed, and I was never allowed to sing them myself. I knew that some talked still of the war, and some of the guardsmen muttered darkly about Ismiri soldiers, but that was the way of things. Guardsmen muttered. It was to be expected.
But that was nothing to me. The life of the castle, now, was the only life I knew: I ran errands and helped Roine with her chores, made a nuisance of myself stealing pies from the kitchen, and learned to sneak as well as a growing child can. Years passed in the sheltered conclave of the mountains, and I grew from a dirty, disheveled child to an only marginally better-behaved young woman. Being wholly unmarriageable by birth, having no standing with any family in the village, and being no proper part of the Lady’s retinue, I was given leave to wear britches, to run around as carefree as any young lad, and to get into scrapes with the servant boys.
I could laugh, now, to think on such a simple life: no intrigue beyond distracting the cook, no lies beyond covering up the grass stains on my tunic. But it was all I knew; we were isolated from the machinations of the Court, from news of the world. I lived my life as a peasant indeed, seeing no further than the next meal, or the next terrifying visit from the Duke. He was an organized man, was the Duke, arriving every three months, to the day, to inspect his lands, his keep, and his niece.
And then, late in my thirteenth year, the Duke came for an unexpected visit. That day, as every when Roine told me that the Duke would be arriving, I felt my stomach turn over. The Duke was coming to the Castle. He would arrive in a great clatter in the courtyard, and his retinue would follow after. First would come his hand-picked retainers: any fellow lords and his priest, his two guards—and the Shadow. Then would come the soldiers, horses lathered from the climb up the winding steps to the Castle.
The Duke would not dismount until he was surrounded by his men, and while he waited, his eyes would sweep from one side of the courtyard to the other, as if even here he was looking to scent out traitors to the crown, and every person there would look away to avoid meeting his eyes. No one was to be in the courtyard when the Duke appeared, save the Lady and her daughter, the hostlers, and the guards—and no one in their right mind disobeyed the Duke.
But that day, I wondered foolishly if I was so good at being unseen that I could stand in the courtyard and be invisible to the man. At the mere thought of it, I was gripped with excitement, such a mix of daring and fear that I felt my stomach twist as if I would be ill, but all the day long I could not keep from wondering: could I, little sneak that I was, creep into the courtyard where the Duke was waiting on his horse, and he would not see me?
As much as I could, I loitered in the courtyard. I took messages from the soldiers, and I brought them their lunch. I dawdled in the shadows by the steps up to the parapet, I snuck behind the barrels at the walls. I made a bet with myself, and with Tomas, the baker’s boy, that I could creep from the stairs at the back of the courtyard, to the barrels at the front without any of the Duke’s retinue ever seeing me.
In the end, that was easy enough. I thought I had timed my errands with care, but I was in the courtyard when the shout went up, and the soldiers pounded across the yard to lift the portcullis and let the Duke in. Like a frightened rabbit, I shot into the corner of the courtyard and huddled in the shadow of the stair. It was too soon, I was not ready; suddenly I was afraid that I had made a terrible mistake.
The Duke’s big warhorse was the first into the yard, sweat glistening on its night-black flanks, and the Duke thundered almost to the great doors before he pulled up sharply. As I saw his head turn, I shrank further back, hoping against hope that the stone could swallow me whole and keep me hidden.
I was saved only by the great double doors swinging open. Forgetting my fear for a moment, I craned forward to look, for I knew the Lady would appear, and raised in the servants quarters as I had been, I had never seen her close to me before. Dinner without the Duke and his retinue was a quiet affair, and I would never have been chosen to serve.
Now I had the opportunity to watch her. I thought that she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen; she was dressed in blue like the sky, with her shining pale hair piled below a tall headdress. She curtsied to the Duke so gracefully that I could scarcely believe she was human. She moved like a whisper, she moved like a dream, and trailing in her wake came a girl with hair the color of darkest night.
That was the first time I ever saw Miriel up close. She was my age—indeed, born a month to the day before me, sheltered from the blizzards by the thick walls of the castle—but there was a world of difference between the two of us. As soon as I had been weaned, I had been sent back to Roine’s care, in a drafty tower far from Miriel’s cozy nursery. Never would the Lady have allowed her precious daughter, born of a noble father, to be raised with a servant’s child. The Lady might have been born a merchant girl, but she was proud of her noble marriage, and she considered herself and her daughter far above the companionship of servants. Miriel had been raised in almost total seclusion, given the company only of ladies’ maids, while I had run wild around the castle since I was old enough to walk.
Now my skin was browned with grime and sun, and Miriel’s skin was the same perfect ivory as her mother’s. My hair had darkened from the white-blonde of childhood to the half-brown, half-blonde nothing color of the hill people, and Miriel’s hair was a tumble of gleaming curls the color of ebony. My eyes were the same grey as the storm clouds that crept slowly over us in the winter, weighted down with their bellies full of snow, and Miriel’s eyes—I could see even from this distance—were the same color as sapphires, a deep blue so beautiful I ached to stare into them. And where Miriel wore a version of her mother’s gown, a fine blue silk with slashing on the sleeves, I wore boy’s clothes, a shirt that was too large and pants held up with a frayed belt.
I disliked the girl on sight.
But there was no time to think: the moment had come to move: the Duke’s retinue was assembled, and the men were dismounting, handing their horses off to the hostlers who moved amongst them. I felt a terror like I had never felt before in my life, and although I wanted nothing more than to curl into the corner and hope desperately that they would go away, I felt myself began to creep along the stone wall. I moved slowly, a shadow amongst the flickering shadows of the evening, careful of where I moved and where I stopped, and in what seemed both like an eternity and only a half a moment, I was crouched behind the barrels at the front of the courtyard.
That was where I erred. The bet had been too easy, I decided. Why, I could sneak anywhere. The guards said I moved like a little cat. Tomas would be impressed that I had made good on the dare, but I knew I could do better: I could steal the dagger from the soldier who had just walked over to stand at the edge of the formation.
Breathless, heart pounding, I eased forward in a half crouch, my leg muscles screaming. Closer I crept, and closer. The Lady and the Duke were speaking formalities, but I had a little time still. Closer…
I stretched out my fingers for the dagger—
And nearly screamed with the speed with which the soldier’s hand clamped down on mine. When he twisted my wrist and brought me down in front of him, I did scream. My arm was on fire. I looked up into his black eyes and saw that I had chosen for my target not a soldier, not one of the rank and file of the Duke’s guard, but instead Temar, the Duke’s fabled assassin himself.
Genre - Fantasy
Rating – PG-13
Website http://www. moirakatson.com