The Fae Queen of the Winter Kingdom was angry. No. She was furious.
Blue lips pulled down, her face twisted and set in a terrible scowl, body taunt, her gaze sharp enough to cut, eyes dark as the ocean’s depths and as sharp as ice. Her heels click like gunshots against the stone as she marches down the empty halls of her palace. Her handmaidens and advisors following at her heels, attempting in vain to stop her, their frantic words falling on deaf ears.
Young and new to her throne and her title as she is, the recently crowned Winter Queen’s determination could be matched by none. Especially now. She is furious, a sickening frigid fire blazing without apology in her breast. A terrible burning cold that she hadn’t felt since –
(That night, only a few weeks ago — had so little time passed? — when she was still just a Princess waiting for her parents to return home. When she was free to act as the child she was, well, as much as she could with a war raging beyond her home’s walls.
A war had been going on between the Winter Fae Kingdom and their Darkling neighbors. Demonic-like creatures of the night. With dark magic and beastly personalities, monsters who drank blood and were some of the fiercest and best warrior’s known to the world. But, despite the odds, with the Winter’s magic, her kingdom had been winning.
The Winter Kingdom’s King and Queen had been leading the charge, their skills in combat and magic unparalleled. Or so they the Winter Kingdom had thought.
After nearly a month, the outcome of the battle reached the Winter Kingdom. And that night the Princess was rudely awakened to find Rayne, her mother’s advisor, a woman so close she was practically family, hovering over her, tears in her bright eyes. That night the young fae’s heart had grown cold, iced over at those terrible four words.
“Your parents are dead.”)
The young Queen growls, sharp canines flashing under the moonlight streaming in through the windows lining the halls. She barks a sharp command, startling the guards posted at the doors leading out to the courtyard, uncaring of their erratic scrambling to heave open the heavy doors, weapons slipping, falling from their hands.
She pays them no heed, sweeping past, a gust of frigid of air following in her wake, frost growing along the edges of the heavy metal. Ignoring the calls of her name and the flinches of her guards, she pauses at the top of the steps leading to the courtyard, where a hastily put public execution is taking place.
A scream builds in her throat, but the young Queen presses her lips tight, trapping and swallowing the sound. She watches, unnoticed by her subjects, their attention captured by the man about to have his head removed from his shoulders. A man who came from the army her kingdom was at war with. A man of the race who had murdered her mother and father, never mind the countless citizens of her kingdom. A race who’s actions had forced a heavy crown atop her head before she was ready. Who had made her heart cold, who had caused the fear in Rayne’s eye, a woman who should have loved and supported her with joy, not the cold detachment of a servant. The people who had made her a murderer –
But he was also a man who had saved her life not two nights ago. A man who had fought his own kin to get her home.
She had insisted in riding into battle, a sneak attack that should have landed her within the halls of the Darkling King, and instead, she had been left cornered, drained, and alone. Caught out of familiar territory, tired and injured, magic unstable in her trembling hands, and facing down three of the Darkling’s highest generals, while her guardsmen bleed out at her feet.
She was the most powerful ice magic user (aside from her now dead mother), but she had let her emotions get the better of her. She had let herself be distracted, drawn out into a fight she knew she couldn’t have won, and it had cost her the lives of her men and nearly left her shaken kingdom without a ruler.
Then, out of the shadows he had appeared. This young Darkling Commander with nothing but a simple shield and sword and no magic to speak of. The two of them should have been killed, might have been of they had stayed to actually fight, but the Darkling had simply gathered her up and flown off into the night. He had been strong sure, all Darkling’s were, but the she was certain his strength lied in his speed rather than the brute force most Darkling’s employed in battle. How else could he have flown so fast, faster than her own wings, his comrades cursing his name, labeling him a traitor as he raced towards the Winter Kingdom’s borders.
He had taken her home, flown right into enemy territory with a smirk, handed her back to her people, and promptly surrendered. And when she had demanded to know why he had saved her; he had said he simply wanted to put and end to the war. Offering his insider knowledge and his own life in exchange for having her listen to him. He put his life in her hands without hesitation, that stupid grin still painting his expression.
She had promised him sanctuary, handed him off to her guards with explicit instructions. Had her words meant nothing? She had toldher advisors and guardsmen the man was notto be harmed. Not until she had her answers.
The hands of her advisor’s land upon her shoulders, jerking her back to reality. Old men who spoke with a familiarity they had not earned, not with her. A part of her wished Rayne was here instead, but the elder fae was busy, strategizing with her generals and lending her magical skills to the kingdom’s injured. That cold fire in Queen’s chest bursts anew, flames rising so high she’s surprised she doesn’t catch aflame. Pale slender hands curl into fists, nails pressing sharp into the soft flesh of her palms as she hisses out:
“Why is that man set to be executed?” She asks, voice steadier than she expected. Her (worthless) advisors bristle, hands trembling as they leave her shoulders. The old men’s wings flutter wildly, while hers remain pressed tightly against her back. Still and laced with frost.
“W— well, as your majesty knows – the – p-proper actions must be taken when one threatens the crown.” One stutters, the rest nodding sharply in agreement. Her handmaidens know better it seems, as they shake their bowed heads, frowning as they step back, away from the stuttering men. The sight nearly brings a smile to the Queen’s lips. Nearly. She missed being able to smile with ease. She misses a lot of things from two weeks ago. When her parents were still alive. When she was allowed to be a child.
The Queen says nothing, and she can practically taste the fear coming off her advisors in disgusting waves from her silence. They do not know her, this child Queen dressed for war, Crown too large and heavy for her delicate brow, and with her unpredictability, comes anxiety and fear. She breathes out, a strange calm settling over her as she makes her decision. The Queen uncurls her hands, tingling skin numbing under a small burst of her power. One that still makes the old men flinch, weak as the burst is.
“I would remind you, sirs,” the Queen hisses, eyes still trained on the scene below. “That I gave explicit orders that the Darkling not be harmed. That he stay and say his piece before myself and the Court before judgement be passed.” She says, voice cold, unflinching. The Queen glances over her shoulder, watching with (hidden) satisfaction as the old men flinch back violently. Their wings abuzz as they tremble, staring, eyes wide, as what little color their naturally pale complexion allows drains from their faces.
“Does the word of your Queen mean nothing?” She asks, slowly and evenly, voice low as she returns her eyes to the proceedings below. Her lips twitch as she sees some of the crowd have taken notice of her, but she steels her expression once more with a minute roll of her shoulders. Behind her, the advisors stutter and trip over their words as they attempt to explain themselves, attempt to appease her.
She ignores them, instead turning her attention to her handmaidens. With a gesture from her hand, all three woman nod and reach for the men as the Queen turns away and takes to the air. Her wings buzz softly at her back as she soars down, flying just above her subjects heads, before dropping between prisoner and Executioner, halting the swing of his axe.
By catching the blade between her palms.
A wave of gasps and cries roll over the crowd, and the Executioner freezes, frost beginning to grow up his blade. “I would advise you,” the Queen begins, voice echoing in the ensuing silence, face a blank porcelain mask. “To stand down.”
As she finishes, the frosted metal between her hands shatters under her magic. The shards falling at her feet as the Executioner stumbles back. Without a second of hesitation, she pivots and falls to a crouch, settling her hands upon the captive’s bonds, shattering them as well.
The Queen stands, pulling the man with her, enjoying just a brief second of satisfaction at the awe and surprise in his wide eyes, emotion still hidden behind her mask, before she turns to address her subjects.
“This man gave himself willingly. Traded his brotherhood and safety for my own. Spilled the blood of his own kin for ours; does that sound like someone who should lose their head at ourhands?” A murmur washes through the crowd, emotionally charged voices rising and calling out in raised tones; outrage chief among them. Outrage that is no longer directed to the outsider beside her, outrage that has turned to fall upon the shaking Executioner and his men. New as she may be; the loyalty of her people has never been in question.
The Queen nods, stepping away from the man, turning her gaze towards her huddle of advisors. She catches the eye of one of her handmaidens and nods sharply, flaring her wings and snapping them twice against her back. Immediately, the three women disengage from the advisors and rush to the Queen’s side, drawing attention to the old men who stand, hunched, unmoving at the top of the stairs.
The men cower as the crowd turns hateful and suspicious glares on them. The Queen pays no mind to any of this, instead she bows her head and instructs the three women to attend to her prisoner. The three nod back sharply, then wrap their hands around the man, and together all four dart past the advisors and into the palace.
“I apologise for this disrespectful event,” The Queen bows to the assembled, spreading her wings submissively. “It will not happen again.” She insists, raising her head, eyes still as dark and fierce as they had been the moment she stepped outside. The Queen nods, rises, and gestures for the Executioner to leave. He bows and darts off with his shattered weapon, summoning his men to take down the rest of the hastily put up equipment. “I ask that you return to your homes, and for the soldiers to return to the palace. We will be moving up the scheduled briefing. For the rest of you, I wish you all a well rest.” With that, she takes to the sky again, darting to the still-open palace doors, but not before she pauses next to her advisors.
“I will attend to you all later. Return to the war room.” The men nod vigorously, and the Queen rushes inside, the heavy doors slamming behind her under a burst of frigid wind.
Inside, deeper within the castle, within the cruel walls of the war room, the Queen meets again with her prisoner.
“We will only have a short time to speak, but I offer my sincerest apologies for the rough treatment you were shown. Such a disgrace should not have occurred.” She says, bowing her head. The man chuckles. A shudder runs through the room as the temperature drops a degree as the Queen whips up her head and stares at the man.
He continues to laugh, the sound growing louder after she utters and indignant “What?” The Queen huffs, straightening and waiting for an explanation. As she waits, ignoring the mutterings of her generals and advisors (and the peculiar look from Rayne. What was the elder thinking, looking so amused?), she sweeps her sharp gaze over his features. Having had little time to admire them before. Running for your life and tearing through enemy soldiers, exhausted and injured tended to make memorizing a profile difficult.
Dark hair, short and messy, curls around his pointed ears. Hanging in front of amber eyes. One clawed hand comes up to his mouth, almost hiding the pearly fangs that peak out from between his dark lips. Ashen skin makes the dusting of white freckles across his cheeks and nose stand out even more, as well as the scar crossing just above his left eye. There’s a sound as he shifts, closer to running heavy fabric across stone than the gentle buzz of Fae wings. Large dark leathery wings lie across his back, curling around his shoulders, tips nearly touching the ground. A long thin tail sways behind his legs, and two black horns twist around his head.
“My apologies, your Majesty. I do not mean to laugh.” He soothes, shaking his head, dark bangs swinging. “I just, well. I was not expecting you to let me live to be honest, regardless of last night’s strange circumstances.” He smiles, flashing fangs as he raises his hands, wings fluttering at his sides.
Different as they are, she reads his body language well enough, and relaxes her shoulders, the temperature returning to normal. She ignores the vocalised relief from her war council and handmaidens. As well as the smile Rayne hides behind one delicate hand. Whatever, she can question her Aunt at a later date.
“Well, as you said; these are strange circumstances.” She says, straightening her back and gesturing towards the map laid before them; a heavily detailed outline of her kingdom and the Darkling Kingdom. “You said last night you wanted to end the war, that you would offer your inside knowledge to us.”
“Aye. I did.” He nods, brushing a claw over his homelands image. The previous humor falls from his face, leaving only a dark anger and fear. For what, she’s not sure.
“Did you mean that?” The Queen asks gently, stepping next to him, much to the chargin of her kin. If the sudden halted movements and stuttered concerns were any indication.
“Yes.” He breathes, turning to face the Queen, nose nearly brushing hers. He blinks and shivers but does not back away, and the Queen is surprised. No one aside from her family had managed to stand equal to her but he does, as if doing otherwise would be strange. As if treating her like the higher authority she was and not an equal, not just a person, was bizarre. But perhaps thing were different with the Darkling’s?
Regardless, the Queen preens internally at his reaction, swallowing a smile that would surely frighten her comrades if she wore it. (It hurts that her joy would be considered strange, but she has no time to deal with that now.) She had missed this push and pull, this lack of submissiveness. Outside, she merely nods, face remaining blank, and gestures for her handmaidens to leave. Then beckons her council closer, laying her frosted fingers upon the table, her eyes colder and harder than before. Personal issues could wait, they had a war to win after all.
“Then let us begin.”
Planning takes less than a full day, and soon, everyone is wrapped up in the preparation. The Queen never gets the chance to speak to Rayne – well, about anything personal. But she swears when the dust has settled, they will have words. Those strange looks Rayne gives her every time she and the Darkling are together confuse and frustrate her. Not that she lets it linger as a distraction for long. Not that the ever growing list of her duties will let her even if she did.
The battle that rages less than a few nights later is long and bloody, not that either side was expecting different. Perhaps daylight would have been better, given that Darkling’s were weaker under the sun, but it was a full moon, and any extra edge to Winter’s magic could not be dismissed.
Ice rains from the sky, arrows glowing both a chilling blue and a toxic green are fired from either side, causing bodies to fall and crash to the ground. Every noise echoes across the field; a storm of screams and cries, of swords clanging against sword and shield, of the crack of ice and the buzz and harsh flap of wings.
The Queen sees all of it, and more than once has to be pulled back into formation by her own small squadron. She hates seeing her kin hurt, hates all the death and destruction, but soon, soon it will be over. One way or another.
Deeper and deeper, goes she and her squad; four of her best guardsmen, and the Darkling man. He guides them along hidden paths into the depths of the Darkling King’s Palace, with ease, despite being dressed in the colors of her land. Colors he wears well, glowing like a silver star under the flashes of moonlight. Gods, he was so —
The Queen shakes her head, wings trembling against her back, ignoring the amused looks of her guardsmen as they trudge onward towards the center of the enemy’s fortress. Now was no time for distractions.
Finally, after what seems like hours, they arrive, crouched low in the shadows on the balconies above. Below, standing at a table covered in maps, stands the King of the Darkling’s. Large and terrible, and surrounded by a handful of advisors and generals.
The Queen breathes deeply, hand curling around her sword. She turns and nods to her men, then leaps from the balcony with a cry, swinging her blade at the King. Her guards take positions behind her, taking on the remaining men as she uses their brief moment of surprise to separate the King from his aids.
It works, only, she hadn’t realised just how big the King was until now. Even young as she is, he towers over her and her guardsmen, taller than anyone she had met before. Sharp crimson eyes burn with a terrible fire as the King cries, drawing his own sword and clashing with her, pressing down hard enough to crack the stone beneath her feet.
The Queen gasps, before gritting her teeth, eyes glowing a frigid blue as frost grows around her feet, an icy wind springing into being between the two monarchs, putting some space between them.
With a thrust of her legs, the Queen leaps into the air, wings buzzing as the King rises after her, a snarl on his lips as he swings at her, the force of his blow knocking her down with a crash onto the table below, the wood splintering beneath her. She gasps, hands scrambling over the wood as the Kings blade comes down on her head.
Or it would have if another blade hadn’t come between. Dark metal straining under the King’s weight. The Queen blinks and stares as her Darkling companion pushes the King back, The King pauses, blinking, staring at his new challenger, then howls in rage, venomous curses falling from his lips.
“You can stand, can’t ya, your Majesty?” Asks the traitor Darkling, bracing with his shield as he glances back with one smoldering amber eye. The Queen’s breath catches, and not just for this one man managing to hold back such strength. For once, someone aside from her parents believes she can stand without aid, both physically and metaphorically. Someone, other than herself, believes she can win. The Queen nods, rising to her feet.
“Good.” He says, turning hos gaze back to his former ruler, using his shield to push the monarch back. The King howls, and races towards them. “Do what you came to do.” Her Darkling breathes.
“I call upon the right of single combat!” She cries, stepping forward, effectively stopping the King in his tracks and silencing the room. “As per custom, the winner will take control of both Kingdoms.” The King laughs, a terrible booming sound, and mock bows before her.
“As ye wish, your Highness.” The King drawls, twirling his sword, before dropping to one knee and placing the tip of his blade to the stone. The Fae Queen mimics his actions, glancing around the room out the corner of her eye. Both her men and his have backed off, lowering their weapons and pressing their backs to the walls. Giving them ample space to move. She catches the eye of her Darkling, and he smiles, a cruel and reassuring expression. She breathes easier, his confidence settling about her shoulders like a shield.
They monarchs count to three, then launch themselves at each other.
The Queen; screaming and glowing with blue energy, ice growing beneath her feet, frost dusting her blade armor. The King; wings flared as he wails, dark blade alighting with red markings, the metal hissing under magical heat. Blue meets red as the two monarchs begin their final deadly dance.
The Darkling King is strong, powerful on familiar ground, sure in his sword skills and the heat of his magic-laced blade. But the Winter Queen is fast, adaptable as a river, and her determination is fiercer than a blizzard.
They dance across the stone, blades clashing in bursts of heat and cold. The ground beneath their feet cracking with every missed swing of the King’s blade, scorching the stone, poisonous heat licking at the Queen’s feet. Wings buzzing, she flies back from his enchanted blade, the rancid smell of his magic heavy in her nostrils. She grits her teeth, knowing that it would only take one hit, and she would fall.
(Just like her parents.)
The thought boils her chilled blood, but no matter how much she desires to give into that rage, drown in those emotions she has had to bury, she resigns herself to darting back and forth out of his reach. Darting in to exposed joints and unguarded sides to swipe her thinner, icy blade through weak points in her opponents armor, before darting back out of his reach. Not a very honorable way to fight, but honor means nothing to her now. Not when victory is the only option.
No more will fall to this wretched King, she swears, ignoring the curses and taunts from the King’s men. Ignoring the shot of sickening pleasure that rushes through her veins at the beast King’s every cry of pain, at every curse that falls from his hissing lips. She cannot afford to be distracted.
She doesn’t know how long they continue like that. Him, striking without thought, driven by anger, and her; with darting precise strikes, fluttering about the ground, her blade laced with ice. All she knows is that when he changes tactics, the King is covers in frostbitten marks, his dark blood dribbling down his armor, and she is only slightly out of breath, her armored forearms singed. The King pauses, his men spitting curses at them both, and whispers words that bite at her soul into the metal of his chipped blade, alighting it anew with sickening crimson light.
Thankfully, the spell seems to take a moment, with waves of magic spilling from his words drive both of their soldiers back even further, weakening them, making some drop to their knees. And from the frantic and furious glare from the King, it should have driven her to her knees as well.
But it doesn’t. In panic, the King tries to rush through his spell. But magic, especially powerful magic, requires patience and precision. Something she knows that this King does not have.
The dark magic presses against her own magical shields, but her frigid magic, a force she had felt since she was a babe, controlled since she could read – holds steady.
The Queen smiles, a frightening and cruel expression, and raises her own blade, wordlessly drawing forth her own spell. She drops to her feet, eyes half-shut, her breath puffs of smoke as her blade alights with white light. A layer of ice, shimmering and dark, settles over the metal. She catches the looks of awe and fright washing over the gathered men, and without turning her head, sets her gaze on her own Darkling.
Casting magic without words was a level very few reached, even with centuries of practice. She had learned to do so several years ago. How to draw her frigid magic in with ease, wrapping the power so familiar and so terrifying around her like a blanket. She is safe in the cold, comfortable and powerful, and even in enemy territory, her arctic companion comes without hesitation. Biting and angry for her.
The Winter Queen, surrounded by growing ice, cold fog settling around her like a coat, tastes the magic of the King’s spell, and with a hiss of air between her teeth and a swipe of her blade, cuts down the half-finished spell. Dissipating the unnatural heat with ease. Leaving the King on his knees, mouth opening and closing like a fish, his soldiers, and her own, silent. Fear hangs thick in the air, and though the King’s men know a lost fight when they see one, their King still attempts to rise. To fight back against a force he must know he cannot win against. Especially when his enemies power hangs like a heavy cloud in the air.
The Darkling King should have stuck to his swordplay, for in matters of magic, the Winter Queen has no equal.
The Queen, face once again blank, marches across the floor to her fallen enemy at a leisurely pace. And when the Darkling King finally manages to rise to his knees, he finds his legs frozen to the stone. He struggles, frantic and furious as the Queen comes to stand above him, frost painting the surface of her armor as she twirls her sword, still coated in dark ice. The room is silent aside from the King’s grunts of frustration and the crackling of ice growing under the Queen’s feet.
Her parents had always taught her to be kind, compassionate and merciful, but standing here, staring down the man who had killed her parents, who had made her a killer, she finds no trace of mercy in her own heart.
She finds no joy either. No sense of relief or peace, only a stark realisation of finality. Bitterly, she resigns herself to the unnatural cold, even to her own kin’s standards, settling around her heart. She surrenders to the artic chill of magic she knows will never leave her, not after today.
With a sneer, she drives her icy blade into the King’s heart. Not a sound, no word or cheer, passing her blue lips.
The doors to the Dark palace are thrown open with a burst of frigid air, and into the rising sun steps the Winter Queen.
“Your King is dead!” She screams, frigid voice cutting through the noise. The battlefield falls silent, the Darkling’s turn their burning gazes upon her and the head she holds aloft. The Queen wills her face to remain blank as blood continues to drip down her arms, dark and unnaturally hot even through her armor. “He is dead by my hand, the Queen of Winter. I fought in honorable combat and won. Surrender to me, it is the law.”
There is a moment of tense silence, and then, one by one, the Darkling soldiers growl and drop to one knee, their weapons clanging against the ice beneath their feet. A cheer rises from the throats of the remaining Winter Fae. The Queen lets out a heavy breath, dropping her arm before her enemies can notice the trembling, the weakness in her limbs. She cannot fight another long battle, and even with victory in hand, she knows she cannot afford to show weakness.
(She wonders if she will ever be allowed to show weakness again.)
A hand touches her shoulder, and one of her guard takes the head from her hands. Behind, her Darkling comes to stand close, a wicked grin on his face as he bows, swearing his loyalty to her, not the Winter Kingdom, but her.
(How could she refuse?)
She accepts his pledge and commands him to rise. She nods to her guards and the men disperse; she leaves them to the matter of attending to the cleaning up the securing of her new subjects. She pivots and begins marching through the crowd, head held high as her kin chant her name. At her side, just step behind, her Darkling companion follows, and the Queen wonders how hard it would be to keep him there.
And if their hands should brush, and her lips twitch while she focuses on keeping her expression cold, well. She is allowed a little celebration, isn’t she? Just for a moment.