Part of my Tale Before the Trial series. 

The world of Faerie is plunged into even greater turmoil.

***

Winterthorn stepped over the decapitated remains of a banshee and spied the figure kneeling beside the dead king. Although his footsteps were silent, Queen Credeilia of the Meadowlands whirled on him with a feral hiss. Her hands curled into claws that crackled and shot silver sparks. Thin whips of lightning cracked over their heads. He held perfectly still. Her white-blonde hair was drawn back from her face in a series of elaborate braids, pinned here and there with moonstones. When she recognized him, her rose-petal mouth twisted with contempt, but she lowered her hands.

“Where were you?” He braced as the accusation slammed into him with the force of a hurricane. “You could have prevented this. He was your king!” She wave her hand toward the sculpture of flesh and bone that had once been High King Finvarra. A piercing whistle filled the air as her emotions spun out of her control. Wind whipped around, tearing at their hair and clothes, but the two fae stood upright, as if the gales didn’t touch them.

Winterthorn said nothing. Though he could command souls to do his bidding, he could not lie. He had stood by as the King of Annwyn was slain by the Solitary horde.

Queen Credeilia’s gaze rose from his dark, solemn face to fix on the crown of holly that now adorned his head. Static crackled in the air, adding flashes of light to the whirling wind. She sank into a crouch, her face contorting into a mask of savagery. Power ignited her fingertips again.

“Traitor!” she flung out both arms and thick vines shot from the ground like geysers. Winterthorn held up a hand.

The entire cave iced. Even the water molecules in the wind froze into great sweeping waves of ice as thin as the membranes of a bubble. Her vines withered and fell beneath a crust of hoarfrost that crunched as it stole their life force away. The Queen bared her teeth, but her eyes held fear at finding his power greater than her own. He lowered his hand in a show of peace.

“I did not act, but I did not betray my King. By the time he called for my aid it was already too late to save him.”

It was the closest thing to an excuse as he had ever heard himself give, and he marveled that he felt compelled to make it. Slowly, he reached up to remove the holly crown. His antlers receded so he could pull it over his head. He stared at it. It was a circlet Woven from an unbroken holly branch. Each point was formed by the wicked spiked leaves. Red berries decorated the crown like jewels. For all its beauty it might as well have been a link of iron chains. With his eyes on the gilded symbol of servitude he said, “You should not be here. The Solitary fae are still close by.”

She drew herself upright and tossed her head. Her long hair shattered the curve of crystallized wind behind her that chimed like bluebells where it struck the floor.

“I will not leave his body to moulder in this ruin. Unlike you, I would not see him dishonored so.” Anger heated the air around her, melting the frost until the limestone walls glistened and dripped with the smell of April rain. Winterthorn studied her.

She was young by fae standards, perhaps only a few thousand years old, and she ruled in the realm of perpetual spring. Rarely did anything ugly ever venture there, and Winterthorn dismissed her impassioned speech as the tantrum of a child. His broad, pointed ear twisted toward a sound that echoed along the tunnel from the opposite side of the cavern. A rustling, scratching, scrambling sound of small, scuttling feet rushing up from the deep.

In an instant he was a warrior. A long jagged icicle formed in one hand while the other gripped a snow-white shield studded with crystal shards.

“If it matters so much to you, take his body and go. If you do not wish to join him in death then I suggest you fly while you can.”

The heat of her fury that he would dare dictate orders to her seared his back, but even she could hear the numbers surging up from the bowels of the caves. Unperturbed, Winterthorn summoned the Wild Hunt, and up from the shadows a semicircle of spectral wolves arranged themselves around him. Their red eyes burned as they waited for their prey to meet them. Winterthorn lowered his head to skewer anything foolhardy enough to meet him on his antlers.

The smell of lilies wafted through the cave. Up from the earth more green shoots emerged, snapping whips of rose vines armed with vicious thorns. Winterthorn resisted the urge to snort. Did she think such a trick would hold the Solitary forces at bay? Many of their kind were born and bred in the wilds. What did they care about a few bramble scratches?

A horn sounded, echoing long and deep along the tunnels. It was meant to inspire fear, but Winterthorn merely adjusted his grip on his sword hilt.

“When this is over you will still have me to answer to, you dark creature.”

He slanted a look over his shoulder to where the Queen was heaving the dead king over her shoulder. His weight was nothing to her fae strength, but she was trying to spare his dignity at the expense of speed. Winterthorn huffed his impatience.

An arrow sped through the doorway straight for her. One of his wolves snatched the bolt out of the air and snapped it between its teeth. The Queen nearly dropped her burden, whirling to face the attack. Winterthorn lifted his eyes to the ceiling as if he expected to find patience hanging among the stalactites. He issued a low soft command.

Two wolves broke away from the formation and raced to create a cyclone around her. When she realized what they were doing her eyes snapped to his face in cold fury that promised retribution. Winterthorn inclined his head in a bow of both respect and dismissal. She was no match against him, young and unseasoned as she was, but she had courage and he regretted having to force her. In the days to come he would need her as an ally, and this would certainly pit her against him.

In seconds Credeilia disappeared within the whirling vortex that stretched and spiraled up to the roof of the cave.

“Just because I dwell in shadows doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty of the light.” He sent the words to his wolves, knowing she would hear their echo as she and Finvarra were borne away to safety. Winterthorn allowed himself one lingering glance to be sure she got through before he turned to face the approaching army.

“It’s not enough that you killed our king but you’ve abducted my future bride as well?” King Darragh of Findias halted in the enormous arched doorway. He was a massive figure, nearly seven foot tall with a lion-like mane flecked with bits of leaf, twig, and acorns. In his right hand he held a sword that shone as if he carried a sliver of a star. He glared up at the hole through which Credeilia and Finvarra had disappeared. His lips peeled back to reveal sharp, pointed teeth.

“I hear we are to call you Winterthorn now? Bah!” He spat on the ground and the poison in his saliva hissed as it burned into the stone floor. “You may have the Hunt on your side now, but they can be trained to obey a new hand. I’ll see you shredded by your precious hounds for what you’ve done.”

“What I’ve done?” Winterthorn’s voice was low with scorn. “You are miraculously near at hand for having done so little to save your liege lord.”

“I was on my way to meet with him to discuss a marriage with the Queen your dogs just abducted. You will pay for that, mongrel. You thought with him gone you would steal his crown and steal yourself a queen? I’ll see your head mounted next my wall first!”

Winterthorn sank into a crouch, disbelief warring with disdain that Finvarra would ever have sanctioned a marriage between the Spring and Summer courts. Finvarra would never trust such an alliance not to lead to an eventual bid for his crown—as it apparently had.

Before either of them could say another word, Darragh attacked. Five oak spears appeared in midair and shot straight at Winterthorn. He threw up a wall of ice which caught all five shafts. Their pointed spikes embedded in the ice with heavy thunks. The wolves surged forward, ready to avenge the attack. But Darragh had not come into the hall alone.

Towering dryads swung their limbs, swatting the wolves into the walls. Elves armed with spears and bows fired round after round of arrows into the animals. The wolves were immortal, but in their corporal form the missiles still caused them pain, but that only enraged them further. The army could not hope to defeat the hell hounds, but they could buy their king time.

Darragh rushed forward, the Sword of Light blazing. Winterthorn transformed into a great silver stag. Though he had a sword of his own, the Sword of Light was an ancient fae relic that never missed an enemy’s heart. But the sword became just as another other blade when used against a common beast.

Growling, Darragh slashed at him, and Winterthorn reared up to reign terror with his hooves.

“Coward! Would you hide from your fate like a child behind its mothers skirts?”

In answer, Winterthorn tossed his head and a gust of wind exploded past him. Shards of ice sliced the Summer King’s face. At the scent of blood the nearest wolf swung around only to get crushed beneath a dryad’s rooted foot.

Darragh turned the wind against him, filling it with hailstones the size of fists. As Winterthorn ducked, Darragh tore an amulet from around his neck. With mad, hate-filled eyes he whispered a spell against the pulsing red stone, and flung it to the ground in the open space between them. Winterthorn knew what it was and tried to summon an avalanche to bury it.

White light blazed. The mountain of snow evaporated instantly against the searing heat of the trapped star. Winterthorn felt his stag form ripped away from him. He flung his arms up to cover his face against the red-hot heat. Dust and sand blasted against him, scraping away his flesh. The wolves howled in anguish.

Despite the grit and pain of the searing blast, Winterthorn’s mouth curved in a dark smile. It had been a long time since someone caught him by surprise. And now there was no High King to stay his hand.

“Do you hear that?” Darragh asked, walking closer. As ruler of the summer lands he could endure the desert heat with no problem. “The hounds know your end is near.”

Not wasting breath on speech, Winterthorn fashioned a spear of ice and slammed it into Darragh’s unprotected chest. It took all of his powers to maintain the weapon against the incredible heat. However, as soon as it sank into the faery king’s flesh, the miniature sun collapsed in on itself. There was a moment of absolute silence before the dying star exploded.

Darragh and Winterthorn were flung to opposite corners of the hall as a thousand new worlds exploded into existence. Winterthorn gritted his teeth against the all-consuming blast. The blinding light was inside him, electrifying the very molecules that made him what he was. It siphoned his primordial strength and fed it to the supernova. Across the hall, Darragh lay motionless against the base of a stalagmite. His army lay around, scorched by the explosion and shredded by the Hunt.

Channeling the last of his strength, Winterthorn sent a telepathic call to the Wild Hunt to aid him. The wolves came, whirling and spinning to spirit him away just as their fellows had carried off the Queen of the May.

Looking down Winterthorn saw Darragh watching him with hatred smoldering in his yellow eyes. The Summer King wasn’t dead, but a new enemy had been born.

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