Heart of Winter – Lauren Gilley

It so happened that Oliver’s father was a profligate, a playboy, and an exceptional warrior. He was also not at all married to Oliver’s mother, a washerwoman, who died when Oliver was only six. His father was the younger brother to the Lord of Drakewell, the duchy named thus for the duck population who’d made the quiet, bounteous region home. Oliver inherited his red-gold curls, and, some told him, his smile, but none of his titles. Those all passed back to his father’s older brother, the honorable William, and his wife, and his children, upon his death, about which Oliver learned on a sunny, early autumn day nearly eight months into the war. Uncle William’s wife – now widow – bowed her head a moment, hand curling tight on the parchment the runner had just brought. Lady Katherine was a stern and forbidding woman; never outright cruel to Oliver, but she’d never doted on him, as a bastard, either. He admired her; the solid steel of her. He watched her sink down in her chair, now, and he knew a kind of fear he’d never felt before. He stepped forward. “My lady?” She drew in a ragged breath, and peered up at him through gapped fingers. Swallowed with an audible click. “My husband…William…is dead. On the front. Killed by…by an enemy arrow.

And John…” His mind filled with images of his cousin, the heir of Drakewell, tall, and strong, and humble, for all that he was a lordling, solid rather than handsome, steady and always ready to clasp Oliver by the shoulder and assure him that, bastard or no, he was family. His throat ached, suddenly; his lungs tightened. “My lady?” “Dead,” she choked out, her face to the floor. A tear dripped off her nose. “As is Alfred – your father.” She lifted her head, and though tears coursed silently down her cheeks, her gaze was steady – and terrified. “We are doomed.” ~*~ No male heirs of Drakewell remained: a situation none had thought to find at the start of the war. It had seemed so distant. A foreigner had killed the crown prince, and the lords of the South had rallied, as was their duty.

Oliver’s father and uncle had surely never thought to lose their lives. Nor that of John, the sole heir. Oliver, as a bastard, couldn’t inherit. But he could help his aunt, amidst the chaos, and he sought to. The war had reached a ceasefire, one that no one thought would last. The enemy was gloating over the slaying of so many lords. It gave them time – but not much. “The girls will have to marry,” Lady Katherine said, her eyes and nose red, her tone firm, as she sorted through a mountain of correspondence. She turned an imploring gaze on Oliver. “It’s our only hope.

If the girls make smart matches with powerful lords, then we might preserve Drakewell.” Oliver thought of his young cousins, the ladies Amelia and Tessa, and he didn’t envy them. “The Lord of Hope Hall…” he started. Lady Katherine shook her head. “No. They refused the initial call to arms. We must look beyond the kingdom – we must look to the most martial of our neighbors.” Oliver froze, hands crimping the parchments he held. “The kingdom isn’t exactly friendly with its neighbors. Not since the war started.

” “And whose fault is that?” she huffed. “The king’s. That’s whose. They’ll join if they have an interest. They’re only waiting for a chance.” He swallowed with difficulty. “Who are you thinking of, my lady?” “The king of Aeretoll is still unwed.” Oliver gasped. “The Great Northern Phalanx.” She nodded.

“One of the girls must marry him. And, with his army, maybe we can finally end this blasted war.” ~*~ Thus Oliver, bastard son of Alfred, The late Lord-Heir of Drakewell, set out for the Great Northern Waste, as chaperone to his cousin Tessa, not knowing just how both their lives would change. 2 “What’s the delay?” Oliver demanded. So far, his official tone hadn’t garnered one ounce of respect on this journey, and he couldn’t decide if it was because he was a bastard, or because, given the war, no one cared about anyone’s breeding anymore. “It’s the ice floes,” one of the boatmen said, and spat over the side. “They make it tough going.” They’d set sail out of Blue Harbor, to begin, and sailing had been steady up the coast. But when they hit the northern climes, their captain had put ashore, and they’d been forced to book passage on a sequence of shallow barges, steered by long poles the boatmen plunged into the icy waters. The coast of Aeretoll, it seemed, was a kind of cold-water swamp, its reeds coated in a thick sheen of ice, its inlets and bays numerous, irregular, and non-navigable for anyone not born to them.

As he watched, two boatmen sank their poles at the edges of thick, white ice chunks that bobbed and slapped at the sides of the boat. He nodded acknowledgment and went to find Tessa. His cousin, only sixteen, stood at the rail near the bow, staring out across the frosted ice of the North Sea, her hands clenched tight together, the breeze blowing her auburn hair out behind her like silken banners. He paused a moment, to feel regret for her. Regret that she was young, and beautiful, and highborn, and about to marry for a military alliance. He moved to settle beside her, forearms braced on the rail. “Doing all right?” She gathered a breath, first, before she blinked and turned to him, and scraped up a smile. “Yes. I’m fine.” Her chin trembled, and her eyes were red-rimmed, but she held herself up bravely.

For all that his cousin John had loved him and made him feel like a welcome addition to the family, Oliver had always felt, in some ways, closer to the girls. Trueborn though they were, they lived and prospered at the discretion of their trueborn male relations. Her father and brother were dead, but Tessa couldn’t stay to comfort her mother; couldn’t take possession of Drakewell as its lady. Instead, she was being dragged across the kingdom to marry a king with a forbidding reputation, and a ferocious army at his back. At sixteen, she should have been mooning over soft lordlings who’d written her poems and offered her posies, not offering her trembling hand to a warlord more than twice her age. It was monstrously unfair. So were most things, in Oliver’s experience. He reached to pluck the hood of her new fur-lined cloak up over her head, covering her windchapped ears, and smiled back, feeling sure his own smile was as wobbly as hers. “It won’t be much longer now,” he said, for whatever consolation that was worth. “And the palace at Aeres is said to be impossibly warm.

They have great fireplaces, and underground hot springs. The kitchens and storerooms are built into natural caves that – what?” She laughed, a sad, bubbling thing, but he was glad to hear it – the first time she’d laughed since they set out from home. “You’ve been researching again, haven’t you?” she asked. “Again?” he huffed. “As if I ever stopped.” She laughed again, and shook her head – though it didn’t come across as cruel. Oliver’s father – it was hard to think of him as anything but Alfred; father had so rarely crossed Oliver’s lips – had despaired of his only son’s bookishness. “You can’t inherit, but you could at least make a name for yourself on the battlefield!” But Oliver had loved books more than swords. His mother hadn’t been literate, what little of her he remembered, but she’d loved stories; would spin him yarns while she worked, as he sat on the floor at her feet, hanging in raptures from her every word. She’d done voices for all the characters, and pantomimed the more frightening bits.

Oliver loved hearing and reading about brave derring-dos…but participating had always turned him clammy and sick (often literally). “I wanted to know what to expect of our new home,” he said. She glanced out across the water. “You mean my new home. You’ll be going home to help Mother, once I’m settled.” Her voice shivered in a way that he knew had nothing to do with the cold. “Tessa–” “It’s fine. I’m fine.” She offered another smile, this one tight and strained. “I know my duty, and I shall do it gladly.

” He stepped closer, so that their shoulders were pressed together, and together they watched the ice floes slip past. ~*~ For all her strengths, Lady Katherine did not have the most…subtle way with the written word. She had signed her name with a flourish at the bottom of the page, and pressed her signet ring to the wax seal, but it was Oliver who’d written to King Erik of Aeretoll. He’d approached the correspondence with delicacy, and tact, sure to begin with great praise for Aeretoll and its reputation. He’d spoken then in – perhaps too lavish – detail about Drakewell; about its people, and its farms, its trade, its agricultural bounty. Drakewell was a duchy of fields, and fells; of rolling hills, and bumper crops; of sleek horses, and fat pigs, and cows that came lowing every evening, bells chiming across the pastures, audible on a clear spring night even from the ramparts of Drake Hold. He wrote about the ducks, just a little, because he had to; the constant Vs flapping noisily overhead, off for a fresh pond that gleamed like glass. Perhaps, if he could write the letter again, he would tone it down a bit. But. From the pastoral beauty of Drakewell, he’d moved on to talk gently of an old alliance, a meeting long past, between his own grandfather and King Erik’s father.

And then, years later, between a young King Erik and Oliver’s Uncle William. No treaties had been signed, but an understanding had been reached, hands clasped in friendship over a brazier in a tent, while snow fell in silent profusion outside. He spoke of the war that was on now, the uncertain stalemate. Of advantages, opportunities for trade. Spoke lastly of his cousin Tessa’s gentle nature and rosy beauty. Of her readiness and willingness to pledge herself to a strong husband. It took up three pages, all told. The reply, which had come several weeks later, had said only: Come and bring the girl. We shall talk. Oliver had no idea what sort of welcome awaited them, as the barge pushed into the crowded harbor, and drew slowly in to dock.

Despite the hard chill and the ice on the water, the snow on the banks turned to sticky mud along the footpaths, the harbor bustled. Sailors called to dockhands; great booms lowered nets full of crates down onto ice-slick boards. In the cacophony, Oliver caught bits of song, angry curses, friendly ribbing, and hearty laughter. He recognized flags and sail shapes from all over the South, even, he noted with a lurch, the star-emblazoned banners of the King of Aquitania, his king, technically. One with no heir, and losing ground in every way that mattered to the Sels from the west. The air smelled of frost, and fish, and the deep breaths he took of it did nothing to quell his nerves. Tessa wasn’t doing much better, he didn’t think, judging by her wan complexion and the way she held a gloved hand to her throat, as if she was choking. The bargemen threw out ropes. “This is where you get off, your lordship,” one of them called. “Yes, yes, we’re coming.

” He took his cousin’s elbow. “Are you all right?” She shook her head, and swallowed with difficulty. Forced a smile. “There’s nothing for it, is there?” “No, darling.” He smiled back, and hoped she could take at least some measure of comfort from it. “There’s not.” She looped her arm through his, and together they walked up to the makeshift gangplank the crew had fashioned of a few loose boards. They were slick and shiny with ice, as was the dock beyond, but the porters who’d come to collect their trunks didn’t seem to be troubled by this – probably thanks to the metal cleats Oliver glimpsed strapped over their boots. He and Tessa, though, despite the heavy wool and fur cloaks they’d purchased before their trip, wore boots with soft, leather soles. Please don’t let us fall, he prayed, and took the first step.

He managed all five steps across the plank, Tessa clutching at him the whole time. Then they hit the dock, and a patch of invisible ice, and Oliver’s right foot slipped out from under him. “Oh, bollocks–” A hand grabbed his free arm. A large hand – a strong one. Somehow, miraculously, he didn’t fall and drag his poor cousin down with him. He was picked up, and set back on his feet, and a deep voice with an unfamiliar accent said, “You all right there, lad?” He glanced up, startled, a little afraid, he could admit, and laid eyes on the largest man he’d ever seen. Tall, and broad-shouldered, and draped in layers of fur that made him look more bear than man, his hair a long, wild tangle, save for where it was braided down the sides, and, at his temples, shaved in long, thin lines. “Shit,” Oliver said, before he could think better of it. The man grinned, revealing one gold canine tooth. “Well.

There’s a welcome.” “Oh, no, no, I didn’t–” “Are you from Drakewell? The Drakes?” “I…” “I am Tessa Drake,” Tessa said. “Lord William’s daughter. And this is my cousin, Oliver.” Other long-haired, fur-clad men waited behind the giant holding Oliver, he saw. All with braids, and beards, and heavy, embroidered cloaks. All of them watching with amusement – as the big man himself turned an appraising eye on Tessa. His grin widened. “Aye. You’ll do nicely, lassie.

” Oliver spluttered, and managed to brace his feet and jerk his arm free. “I beg your pardon?” The man laughed, and his hand finally withdrew. “Oh, you’re polite.” He laughed again. “See how far that gets you.” He stepped back, before Oliver could offer another protest. “Welcome to Aeretoll, my lord, my lady. This is the home of King Erik. He has sent us to retrieve you.”

.

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