Winter's Kiss

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    Gallant really wasn’t the word best used to describe Prince Timeris. Nor was dauntless, valiant or courageous, but he knew what all of those words meant. What Timeris lacked in physical acumen, he more than made up for in sheer intelligence and book knowledge. He was under no misconception that he was of dashing personage destined to marry some noble lord’s fair, but likely undereducated, daughter. Timeris was far more comfortable alone in the castle library, squinting by the light of an ever-dwindling candle, and muttering to himself as he digested another leather-bound tome.

    King Ferox, on the other hand, was a brutal ruler who had conquered Timeris’ homeland years ago and found its abundance of natural resources a strategic advantage. So much so, that he took the castle as his base of operations, killed Timeris’ father and married his mother. Ferox deliberated long on whether or not to kill the young prince at the time, but finally decided against it.

    The people of the kingdom had been defeated, but they were a proud nation and Ferox was clever enough in politics to know that if he kept the boy alive, the populace might foster the hope that one day Timeris might ascend to the throne after Ferox. Killing him would produce a civil unrest that he simply did not have time, or patience, to deal with as he planned his next invasion.

    Some years later, Timeris’ mother died and the people mourned her loss deeply alongside him. The king, not a sentimental man, kept Timeris close at hand, continuing to reassure the country that their bloodline remained intact in the royal court.

    As the prince approached seventeen years of age, he was growing into a man’s body and while he still lacked the resemblance of any kind of warrior, his presence had developed a confidence that made Ferox wary.

    One day, the king convened his military council to discuss the next impending offensive. Timeris was still in the war room when the council arrived, he had been tucked into a corner, quietly reading one of his many books, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

    Ferox strode into the room, his bearing causing a hush to descend. He observed Timeris beginning to skulk away, and for whatever reason, this made him smirk, “Boy. You there, princeling. Why don’t you stay and learn about your great empire that is soon to become larger?” Ferox finished with a thunderous laughter.

    Timeris stopped and turned to face the brutish king. He abhorred spending more time with the king than necessary, but the proposition of being a party to this meeting of military strategy intrigued him “As you command my king,” Timeris replied with heavily feigned obedience.

    Ferox snorted, but gave the boy no further consideration as he and his lords gathered around the large mahogany table where giant maps and tokens with various flags were affixed. Timeris scanned the table as the generals around him discussed troop positions, supply lines and weather conditions in the northern kingdoms that Ferox had his sights set upon.

    The pieces on the giant puzzle seemed to click in his mind, and Timeris spoke giving no thought to how his voice would be perceived by the council, “If you move more of your cavalry to the east, then destroy the bridge over this river,” he pointed as he spoke, “you can back the opposing army into this valley and force them to winter there, leaving the bulk of your army free to march upon the capital.”

    Silence muffled the room like a blanket as they all stared at him slack-jawed. Ferox, while visibly fuming from the interjection, looked at the maps and troop positions. It took him only a few seconds to realize that Timeris’ suggestion said was, at best brilliant, at the very least it was a tactically sound plan.

    From that day on, Ferox included Timeris in each of his council meetings, particularly the ones involving the military. The kingdom continued to grow and with each victory, Ferox realized that the continued success of his campaigns relied more and more on Timeris’ tenacious mind. As more time passed, Ferox realized that this young boy was a shrew tactician, but could be a threat to his power. His blood was born of the people and Ferox grew ever more apprehensive that an uprising that would rally around the prince.

    Finally, drunk with his own power and paranoia, he called one of his generals to a private meeting.

    “General Dario, who in this kingdom is the greatest military mind?” he asked coldly.

    The general was not a fearful man, but he knew Ferox to be growing ever more irrational so his careful reply was that of a man trying not to incense his ruler, “My lord, you have grown your kingdom beyond measure these last ten years, your might is unquestioned.”

    Ferox’s laugh was dark and venomous, “I should have expected no less than your acquiescence. Speak freely, answer honestly.”

    Dario hesitated, but finally answered, “My lord, should we not continue to have the young prince as our advisor? His contributions to our efforts have been substantial,” he replied, carefully studying his king’s face.

    “You see? You see how dangerous that is? The whelp is too smart. If we continue to allow him to learn of our military operations, he will eventually come for the throne.” Ferox spat, his face red from the blood boiling within.

    Dario could only watch helplessly as his king calmed himself then darkly laid out his plan, “Take Timeris into the western forest on a hunting expedition. Bring with you a flock of loyal assassins and see to his end there. We will blame the death on the Northerners of Algidus. The people will be outraged and his death will lend strength to our campaign,” Ferox said coldly, but with the wild eyes of a tyrant. “You see Dario, I will be the only one to rule this land. I will be the greatest military mind in this court, there will be no others. Now begone, carry out my orders. Bring back the boy’s heart or forfeit your own,” Ferox finished dismissing the general with a wave of his hand.

    Dario left, unsettled by the encounter and questioning his loyalties.

    ~*~

    Timeris gazed skyward to the canopy of the ancient trees as they rode. Clear sky against the green leaves were a welcome sight. He breathed deeply the early summer air and relaxed his mind.

    Hours of riding brought them to a clearing where camp was constructed. Dario assembled their party for the hunt and the yelping of anxious hounds punctuated the subtle sounds of the forest.

    Timeris had never much been enamored with the hunt, but it was good to be away from the Ferox’s constant war planning and oppressive personality. The dogs had caught a scent, the chase was escalating. Dario broke off and Timeris followed. The prince could feel the exhilaration as he watched the hounds bear down on their prey, the fact that they were no longer with the rest of the soldiers went completely unnoticed.

    Timeris’ mount took him down an embankment and into a small stream where Dario was stopped. The general sat stoically silent upon his horse as Timeris approached.

    “General, have we lost our quarry and our party?” Timeris mused.

    “Silence my prince,” Dario replied, his voice a whisper against the trickling stream.

    Timeris scanned the tree line, expecting to find the silhouette of a stag camouflaged against the flora, but what appeared baffled him. Three armed men, clad in black, moving noiselessly, were stalking slowly in his direction. He wheeled his steed and looked to Dario.

    “General Dario, what is this? What’s happening?” Timeris pleaded, fear breaking into his voice.

    Dario urged his horse towards the prince, drawing his sword. Timeris’ eyes widened and he reflexively raised a hand to shield himself, but the aged warrior continued past and engaged the nearest assassin.

    “Flee my prince,” were the last words Dario ever said to him.

    Awash with confusion, adrenaline and terror, Timeris dug his heels into the flanks of his horse and drove deeper into the forest, leaving behind a noble soldier to meet his end defending his prince by betraying his king.

    Timeris rode hard through the trees until the underbrush became thick and tangled around his horse’s legs. Minutes turned into hours and when the last rays of sunlight disappeared, Timeris finally dismounted and continued leading the horse slowly through the dense thicket.

    Fueled only by an instinct to survive, he just kept walking. Timeris had foolishly believed over the past few months that his contributions to Ferox’s reign might have earned him some sliver of deference. Ferox had taken his mother, father and homeland, had used his mind and tactics to grow his power.

    “Enough,” he thought, “He will not take my life too.” Timeris painfully continued his march to a destination he did not known.

    ~*~

    Timeris had lost all track of time, his body ached and he was cold to the very bones when he finally emerged from the constant throng of trees and vegetation. At the far end of the clearing was a modestly sized house with stout stone walls and a thatched roof. A spindle of smoke wafted from the chimney, a sight that nearly made Timeris weep.

    Wary of what dangers might lie within, his apprehension gave way to his hunger and exhaustion. When he reached the oaken door, he knocked hesitantly but with some urgency. He was met with no response and after a moment he rapped again, this time more loudly. Still nothing. Timeris could almost feel the warmth radiating from within the dwelling. Thinking only of the hearth and possibly some food to fill his belly, he opened the door.

    Inside he was met with the site of a cozy domicile, but no people to greet him. Timeris was actually relieved, his near assassination still fresh in his mind, he did not want to have to explain his presence or the events that lead him there.

    A well-worn, but sturdy table was before him, long and staged with a number of chairs on either side, it ended in the radiance of the beaconing firelight. Unable to perceive much else, Timeris shuffled along the table to the hearth and collapsed, his cloak draped over him like a blanket, plunging into a dreamless sleep.

    Hours later, his eyes fluttered open slowly and he felt the stiffness in his joints before even moving them. As his sight began to clear, a small face came into focus. Nearly believing it to be a dream, he rubbed his eyes with his fists but when he opened them again, she was still there. Her face was that of a child, no more than five of six years of age, but her eyes were deep and soulful, more than was possible from one so young.

    She looked concerned, but not afraid. Not knowing what else to do, he smiled at her. Her concern seemed to lessen and the corners of her mouth turned up a bit to return his smile.

    “Hello,” Timeris said, trying to sound as friendly as possible.

    “Hello,” she replied, still quizzically studying his face but offering no further conversation.

    “I’m sorry for intruding, but I was cold and alone, I was only looking for a warm place to sleep.”

    “You did, for a long time, we watched you,” the girl giggled, but before Timeris could reply again, two more faces joined the first in looking down at him. The first girl was a golden blonde, almost white, her companions had starkly contrasting raven hair, but all three bore that childlike visage with clear, discerning eyes.

    Timeris moved to sit up and the girls recoiled away slightly. He held a hand out reflexively, trying to show he was not a threat, “I’m sorry, I mean no harm to any of you.”

    “As if you could,” a voice spoke sharply from behind him. Yet another young girl, this one crouched in shadow, but Timeris could tell her hair was a deep curling auburn. Again he saw those eyes that did not match the body, but hers bore a striking fierceness the others did not. He saw a shimmer of a dagger gripped tightly in her tiny hand.

    “Maribeck, stay yourself. This young man is not our enemy,” another voice spoke from the head of the long table. Timeris was now on his feet and saw the girl along with two more seated at the table.

    “How many children live here?” he questioned.

    “There are seven of us, but we are no children,” she replied with a defined authority. Her hair was also a golden blonde but it seemed to shimmer in the low light of the room. She seemed just slightly older, and larger, than the rest. Timeris estimated her to be closer to eight or ten years of age.

    “I’m sorry, but ‘not children’?” he puzzled.

    “My sisters and I are not children of your kind,” she said cryptically, but offered no further explanation. “You may stay for a time, regain your strength. Very few have found their way here, and you are most fortunate to have done so. We offer our hospitality, such as it is, but when you leave, we only ask that you tell no one of this place. “

    Timeris nodded. He was still so weary from his ordeal and he felt as safe here as he could remember. If the only condition of his stay was to remain silent about the location, it was easily obeyed as he had no intention of telling anyone where he was. He heard the sound of a dagger being sheathed behind him and turned to see the one named Maribeck still staring at him apprehensively, obviously not trusting the young prince.

    Timeris seated himself at the table and the girls bustled around the room preparing and bringing food and drink. He tried to maintain his best royal composure, but he found himself devouring each item in front of him with the manners of a ravenous wolf.

    As he ate, they all still watched him, but some seemed to soften to his presence. Timeris learned the name of the older girl, their apparent matriarch if one could call a child that, was Aubrion. The two girls next to her with mousey brown hair were Breyet and Bromell, Brey and Brom for short, twins that seemed to never speak. The blond who he had first seen when he awoke was Alyinth, and the two black haired sisters were Muriet and Kaleria. Maribeck, of course, was not one forgotten and while they ate, she still wore an expression of mistrust, though he felt she might be just slightly less likely to stab him as long as he did not make any aggressive, sudden movements.

    Timeris marveled at the thought of seven children this far into the forest, not just surviving on their own, but seemingly thriving. They were kind and hospitable overall and he felt some of his stress seeming to ease. He had not forgotten about the assassination, about Dario’s courageous sacrifice or Ferox’s treachery, but he needed time to relax and think, and he could not have been more fortunate to have found such a place to do that.

    ~*~

    Days stretched into weeks with the sisters. Timeris did not intend on staying so long, but there was a comfort and peace in this place that he could not ignore. He found himself genuinely grateful at the opportunity to help them with their chores and perform tasks that their small bodies, while very capable, sometimes struggled with. He fixed the thatching in the roof, split enough wood for two winters, as hauled stones from the river bed to shore up one of the garden walls.

    Each day’s labors brought a satisfaction and clarity to his mind. Each night’s meals brought him closer to the girls as they shared meals and stories.

    Brey and Brom, while they rarely spoke, often sang in such beautiful harmony that Timeris actually found himself silently weeping at one point.
    Alyinth was always helpful and friendly, but Muriet was a bit of a practical joker, one time stealing his clothes when he bathed by the stream. Kaleria was the artist of the group, embroidering Timeris a tunic of such fine design, he would have sworn it came from a royal seamstress. Maribeck seemed to accept Timeris, but never gave up her perpetual scowl.

    Aubrion was reserved but cordial and asked of the outside world and its happenings. Timeris did not offer any details about the fact that he was a prince or what had happened to bring him to their care, but he did speak of Ferox’s campaigns and how the surrounding kingdoms were being enveloped by his reign. In all, they had found a warm contentment with one another.

    Unfortunately, Timeris was not meant for such a life of content. It was months after he arrived with the girls when their tranquility was forever broken. Timeris was gathering wood when he heard the screams. He bolted from his chore towards the sound of the distress. Timeris burst through the foliage to find a grizzled man with a frantic Maribeck pinned to forest floor. As fierce as the girl was, her struggles were fruitless against a fully-grown man, much less this leather clad soldier. A fury quickly erupted in Timeris and he shot forward against the warrior carrying the man away from Maribeck and sending the pair both rolling through the leaves and fallen pine needles.

    Timeris came to his feet, not even realizing how the large branch in his hand had arrived there. Without regard for anything other than protecting his friend, he unleashed his anger on the man. His adversary tried to raise a short sword against Timeris’ flurry of blows, but before he could even muster a retaliation, he had been beaten back to the ground and into unconsciousness.

    Timeris returned to Maribeck, she seemed unharmed, but her clothes were torn, her hair a tussle of red curls and debris. She turned away from him, ashamed, and that is when he saw the long scars on her shoulder blades. They were not fresh wounds, but they looked angry and painful, whatever had caused them must have brought great pain with it.

    When she had collected herself, she turned back to Timeris and threw herself into his arms, sobbing gently. She embraced him gratefully and he held her protectively.

    Without warning, she threw him to the side and unsheathed her dagger. It flew through the air like a lightning bolt and struck the soldier who had regained his composure and had stalked towards the pair with his sword held high above is head. He fell, his eyes glossed with vacant death.

    They returned to the house, Maribeck, her torn her dress gathered around her shoulders in one hand, the other holding Timeris’ hand. When they entered, a shock rippled through the others, but none spoke, save Maribeck, “Timeris saved me from a man in the woods, but he has seen,” Timeris looked at her confused as she spoke the last part.

    “He would have eventually learned,” Aubrion comforted. Brom and Brey came to Maribeck’s side and lead her away, likely to change her clothes and be consoled by her sisters. “Young prince,” Aubrion continued, surprising him as he never recalled telling any of them his identity, “As I told you on your first night here, we are not children of your kind. We were once part of another world, one most men have forgotten or cannot hope to understand. We live here now, in your world, as our penance for betraying our queen. Our wings were taken, as was our home, so we have made one here, and I fear we will live out our existence never knowing the light of our people again.”

    There was a finality in Aubrion’s voice. Many questions ran through his head, but he did not ask a single one. The friendship and love that had blossomed in this house, the debt that he owed these strange and wonderful creatures was too great to impose any more into the privacy of their story.

    “That man was a scout,” Timeris replied, “There will be others that will look for him. That will look for me. Ferox is not one to leave loose ends. I must leave,” he finished nearly in a whisper.

    The girls that were still present gasped in protest and looked to Aubrion, but she only bowed her head sadly, acknowledging his truth.

    A sorrow hung over the forest cottage that night, very little was said. Brey and Brom sang the saddest song to ever touch Timeris’ ears. Their lament was reflected in each of the faces of the sisters he had come to know as his own.

    When the morning sun pierced the windows of the home, Timeris gathered his belongings and prepared to leave. All seven sisters, gathered around him outside the house, each in turn embracing him, the last of which was Maribeck. She held him tighter than the rest, the apprehension gone, her trademark grimace erased from her face by a stream of tears. They mixed with Timeris’ own.

    As he reached the edge of the clearing, he turned one last time to bid farewell to his family, the only one he had left, when the arrow struck him. He felt the sharp sting, even though he could not see the shaft or where it had originated. He reached back trying to dislodge it from between his shoulder blades, but he could already feel his legs weakening. As his vision blurred, the last thing he saw were the sisters running towards him, the sorrow of their parting replaced by the terror of their brother falling before them.

    ~*~

    She paced pensively around the tent, her mind completely lost in preparation for tomorrow’s battle. In the past few months, Algidus had turned the tide on Ferox’s army, and they were on the brink of repelling him, possibly for good. They would march south, attacking his capital through dense western forest. She hoped the surprise offensive from within his own borders would give the edge she needed.

    This northern princess, born in battle, would expel that venomous devil from her borders once and for all. Kaylynn was the last of her family old enough to fight. Her father and brothers had all died in battles against Ferox, and while they had all died with honor, they had failed to secure their kingdom. She was resolute in her determination that she would not.

    However, their progress through the forest was painstakingly slow. Her army, though small, had to move carefully. If they were discovered, Ferox would call in his garrisons, fortify his position and the battle would be decided before she could lay a single blow.

    “My lady,” a soldier said, bending to a knee after he’d entered the tent.
    Kaylynn detested the formality, but understood it. She was as much a solider as any of her men and while she would gratefully die alongside any one of them, she knew they needed a leader to keep their morale.

    “Yes corporal?”

    “Our scouts have discovered a small forest dwelling not far from our position. What are your orders regarding the inhabitants?”

    “Who occupies this place?” Kaylynn questioned.

    “The scouts report children, a number of them, but no adults have been seen.”

    “Probably orphaned by the war,” the princess responded, “Let us wait until morning, I will go and speak with them. They are likely less fearful to see a woman as a brigade of armed men. Perhaps they will have some useful intelligence about approaching the capital,” she finished.

    “As you command,” the corporal replied and promptly rose and left the tent.

    Kaylynn went back to her pacing, lost in thought.

    ~*~

    As she approached the house, she bid her guards to remain behind a distance. Kaylynn was still armed, she was no fool, but if there were indeed orphaned children inside, she wanted to frighten them as little as possible. Before she was able to knock on the door, she realized it remained opened. From inside she could hear the wistful notes of a sorrowful song being sung.

    Kaylynn eased the door open and stepped slowly inside to see the body of a young man laid upon a long wooden table. Gathered around him were seven small girls, all with bowed heads, clearly mourning. He was perhaps their older brother, Kaylynn reasoned, possibly lost to the war or some disease. The princess did not want to disturb their sorrowful wake, but felt perhaps there was something she could do to ease their pain, “My men outside could help you bury him if you wish,” she tried to speak as softly as possible.

    Aubrion looked to the girl, her eyes sad but strong, “He is not dead, princess.”

    Kaylynn was surprised to have been recognized, “Perhaps my healers could help…”

    “Nay princess, we have healed his injuries. He sleeps deeply and will not wake. The poison has wrapped around his heart like a coiled snake, but it cannot yet kill him. Timeris fights from within himself, but I fear it may not be enough.”

    “Timeris?” Kaylynn exclaimed, quickly recognizing the name, “Is there nothing to be done for him? No remedy for this wicked fate?”

    “I have heard of one your majesty,” Aubrion said, looking back to Timeris’ and gently stroking his peaceful face, “There is a flower of your homeland, a rare jewel that grows high in the mountains and blooms only once, just before the first snows.”

    Kaylynn’s trembling hand was already inside her tunic. Carefully she removed a linin wrapped object. Unfurling the cloth, she took out a small wooden box. With quivering fingers, she opened it to reveal the deep azure petals of a bloom not of this land.

    “Winter’s Kiss,” Kaylynn breathed, extending the gift to Aubrion.

    “It must be delivered by your hand princess,” she replied stepping away.

    Kaylynn approached with trepidation. The prince looked so serene she nearly resisted touching him at all, but pressed on to part his cool, smooth lips. She flushed with anticipation as she delicately placed one of the petals in his mouth then carefully closed it again. She gently brushed his face with the back of her fingers as she withdrew.

    “It will take time highness,” Aubrion said, leading Kaylynn away to a chair, one of the other girls fetching her some warm tea.

    Hours passed and Kaylynn drifted off to an uneasy sleep as the other girls kept vigil over their brother, daring to hope that this stroke of fate might return him to them. She finally awoke alone in the house, Timeris still on the table. She approached again and as she stood over him, his eyelids began to flicker, the rest of his body quivering slightly as he regained his consciousness.

    He beheld the face of the princess, confused, but alive. She helped him up into a seated position, and he closed his eyes again as his mind wrestled with the dizziness.

    “Where are my sisters,” he managed in a weak, dry voice.

    “I do not know Prince Timeris, they were gone when I awoke,” she replied.

    “They saved me.”

    “Yes, your majesty, you were wounded and poisoned. They knew the remedy, fate that I had this with me,” she replied offering him the wooden box.

    He did not look inside but simply repeated sorrowfully, “They saved me.”

    “I am set to march against your step father,” Kaylynn said, “Will you now save my people by helping to defeat him?” She dared to hope that the prince might provide the final advantage they needed to ridding the world of Ferox and his empire.

    Timeris look into her eyes and studied her face. There was a beauty there, hidden beneath the fierceness. A calm strength held both against her form and reminded him of his sisters. He held his hand up to her face and she cupped it in her own. He smiled and nodded, and the pair of royal born left the small forest cottage for the final time, to journey towards war.

    ~*~

    King Timeris the first dashed up the staircase towards his bed chamber. The midwives had alerted him only moments before. He needed to be by her side at this moment. As he entered the room, he heard only her cries of pain and frustration.

    Hours later, as he lay on the bed next to his beautiful but exhausted queen, he wept with the joy of holding his baby daughter, his flawless Maribeck. He looked back at Queen Kaylynn and kissed her sweetly on her lips as, outside, the first snow of winter fell.

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