A flurry of snow whipped across the girls face as she ran, her hood pulled up over her platinum blonde plait, her azure eyes staring forward as she rode deeper into the forest on her horse, slowly putting distance between her and them. They’d surprised her, dispatching her companions with a hail of arrows while she’d had the good sense to throw herself atop her stallion, the saddlebags still packed from their journey, allowing her to escape the vagabonds as they slaughtered her people.
All in the name of God.
Looking up at the cloudy, starless sky of roiling pitch darkness, spotted with specks of white surging down in great waves of bitter cold. She could see her horse breathing heavily, the exertion of the day combined with the fierce ride for the past hour or so had most definitely left Swifthoof exhausted beyond measure.
Patting his neck with a gloved hand, she cooed soothing words into his ear as the tromped on through denser and thicker snow. While this may leave a trail, it certainly wasn’t an easy one to follow, which made it more than perfect for Jessica. For three weeks, she and her band of cohorts had been plagued by the hounds of the Church, like wolves nipping at their heels every step of the way. Two weeks ago they stopped going into towns, a week ago they decided to forego the use of roads.
Now… Jessica didn’t know what to do, other than ride faster and harder, and to put as much distance between her and the murderous clergymen after her and her special bundle. Leaning back to rest a hand on the saddlebag swathed in heavy woolen blankets, Jessica slid a hand into the satchel to probe at her passenger, smiling as a small hand wrapped itself around her finger. Chuckling, she pulled her hand out of the warm womb and grabbed hold of the reins, whipping them extra hard to push Swifthoof even further.
As the clouds parted and the snowstorm began to pass, the moonlight illuminated the forest enough for Jessica to see. Looking in the distance, she almost let out a whoop of joy at the sight of the lone crag, a shimmering palace of crystalline ice rising from the crevice the crag overlooking, small lights illuminating the village of packed snow and frost that surrounded Everchill Manor.
An arrow sinking three inches into the tree trunk beside her, Jessica let out a yelp that made her tiny passenger begin to wail. Looking behind her, she saw the heavy war horses of the Church, along with the soldiers riding them, reloading their crossbows while steering their mounts by the knees. In the dim lighting she counted only three; perhaps her comrades hadn’t fallen as easily as she’d thought?
Turning, she spurred Swifthoof into action and bolted from the crest of the hill, riding down the slow slope into the snow-covered valley, leaning forward as best she could to make herself a smaller target for the hunters vicious bolts.
Two whizzed by her, splashing into snowbanks harmlessly, while another pierced into her leather chest piece, slamming into her right shoulder with the vengeance of the Heavens themselves. Coughing, Jessica fought to keep Swifthoof on his direct course, guiding him ever closer to the Enchanted Citadel of Everchill. It was no more than a mile away at this point, and she could just make out the dim lights of lanterns from the town guard.
“Hey!” She shouted, waving an arm to try and garner their attention. “Over here!”
Another bolt whizzed past her head, forcing her to lay flush against Swifthoof’s body. Two twinkling beams of lantern light swiveled in her direction, bringing a smile to Jessica’s numbed face.
They’d seen her!
“I’m friendly, I come with child!” She shouted, banking Swifthoof to the right just in time to dodge another bolt. He leapt over a snowdrift gracefully, skidding slightly as he landed on unsteady legs. “There are hunters after me!”
That got a rouse of sabers being drawn from the guard, at least a dozen blades being drawn into the chilled night air. The hunter’s must have seen the glint of steel, as they all turned and began slowing down, giving up the chase.
Jessica was safe!
Riding up to the guard, a large man with icicles for a beard and twin ram horns jutting from his helmet approached her. “The Queen will want to see you,” He grumbled, his voice low, and hollow. Following his finger as he pointed towards the main gates of the settlement, which seemed to open of their own accord, the armored man creaked and groaned within his heavy, rime-coated coat of arms, a wicked battle-axe hanging from his waist.
“You go now. Bring the babe home, keep it warm. The Queen will want to see you,” the man repeated, eyes darting to the side satchel where the child lay hidden. He stared at it for a few moments, drawing in shallow breathes as he studied the leather case. He turned his gaze back up to Jessica, his face pale and lips chapped from the frigid clime. “Go, now!”
Jessica needed no other motivation, urging Swifthoof onward at a leisurely gait, patting his sweaty hide lovingly as his labored breaths created clouds of fog for me to pass through. Normally Jessica would complain, but now that she’d made it to the fabled city of Everchill, evading the shackles the church had kept her in all her life… she let out a whoop of joy, pumping her fist in the air once as she approached the city walls, perfectly chiseled ice blocks standing some twenty feet tall, and twenty feet thick.
Sentries stood atop the parapets, shambling back and forth with pole arms swaying unsteadily at their side. The men are just as pale as the first guard, though Jessica could only see a small fraction of their skin due to their heavily armored state, more frost covered plate than man at this point.
Walking through the ice gates slowly, Jessica could feel the temperature drop in the area immediately. The streets, paved with pebbled ice bricks, were framed by frozen buildings. A few stragglers lurked home from the bar, bundled up against the chill of the winter snap, while some moved out from within their shops, sweeping off the gathered frost as if it were dust, shooing the wet mess into slush piles off to the side of their porch. Everywhere Jessica looked, finely wrought glass mirrors and storefronts glistened in the moonlight. Stopping at a stable, Jessica hopped down from Swifthoof, patting him on the side as she marched him into a stall, taking the saddlebag off of him and looping it over her shoulder. A lanky man, with a withered hand and a wandering eye, leaned out from a split door, the lower half of the ice hiding his lower half.
“That’ll be a pence Madam,” He said, his bullfrog voice deep and dark. “Four if you want him cleaned and fed for the day.”
Jessica fished out four copper coins, slapping them on the counter in front of him, ignoring his leer at her shapely curves as he swept the money into an apron draped over his near-skeletal frame.
“You must be new to town,” he said with a smile, revealing cracked, brown teeth and blackened gums.
Flinching, Jessica merely nodded.
The man sniffed the air for a moment, eyes looking around as if he smelled something pleasant, before they finally landed on Jessica’s satchel. “You have a child…”
Jessica pulled the satchel around, clutching it protectively to her chest. “Yes, not that it’s any of your business.”
The man licked his lips with a black tongue, eyes darting nervously from the saddlebag to Jessica. “May I… may I see him?”
“No,” Jessica said, stomping away and towards the twisting spires of Everchill Manor. She could hear the disappointed sigh coming from the stable master. He’d probably not seen a live child in years… not that he’d see Jessica’s precious bundle.
Walking through the empty streets, the single caw of a crow keeping her company, Jessica stopped in front of the frozen steps leading up to Everchill Manor. Unlike the perimeter of the city, no guards stood here. Just utter silence, framed by statues of marvelous creatures rising up from a fountain that the stairs flanked, leading to a set of double-doors that were wide open.
Jessica moved as quietly as she could, entering the manor of the Queen, though each step echoed painfully loud. After taking but three steps into the large circular antechamber, a whirl of wind whipped up the frost from the ground, and in a flourish that Jessica would not have believed if she’d been told, the Queen stood before her.
Obviously young, she was shorter than Jessica, as well as far thinner. Her waifish appearance, along with her rosy cheeks and golden braids, in her ethereal mist blue dress, formed from many layers of sheer silk, made her look even more like one of the Fey than she really was. Her solid blue eyes with white irises, and angular chin gave that distinction away quickly.
“Yes my dear? How may I assist you?” The Queen breathed, stepping forward a mere step, utterly silent within her sanctum.
“I… I came seeking sanctuary… the people of my land, they don’t understand…” Jessica began to prattle before the Queen held up a hand.
“You know the terms?” She asked softly, eyes drifting to the saddlebag hanging from Jessica’s body.
Jessica hurriedly dug out the young girl, swathed in woolen garments with a thick cap pulled over her ears. “Here, she’s the daughter of a herdsman, outside of Fredricksburg… I hope she’s enough?”
The Queen reached out, picking up the child with the gentlest, feather light touches, cradling the groaning little girl before waving her hands over her face, sending her to sleep. Without looking away from the child, the Queen smiled a cold smile.
“She’ll do nicely,” she said as the little girls pink flesh began to darken, turning blue as she began to freeze, the very heat of life being drained from her in a matter of moments. With a slight whimper, the child passed in a brief moment of pain, before becoming nothing more than a finely sculpted piece of art.
The Queen looked up. “You’ll find we have many homes, take residence in one of the empty ones. You’ll be safe here.”
“Thank you my Queen!” Jessica gushed, backing away slowly as she clasped her gloved hands together, wringing them nervously.
Bringing the frozen child’s outstretched hand up to her mouth, The Queen cracked off a finger and chewed thoughtfully. “No Jessica,” she said in between crunches. “Thank you.”