Of Ice and Shadows – Audrey Coulthurst

WHEN MY MOTHER WAS ALIVE, I WAS A DIFFERENT PERSON . That little girl wore simple clothes and wildflowers in her hair and could sing any aria or tavern song known in the Northern Kingdoms. She believed in the Six Gods and trusted that they would protect her and her family. That little girl was a fool. Winter’s last rains and the spring’s early sun battled for dominance over our city the day I took my last ride with Mother. Dressed in my favorite breeches and a plain cloak, I met her in the gardens, eagerly keeping pace with her all the way to the stables. “Are we performing today?” I asked her, keeping my voice soft. “I think we are,” she said with a conspiratorial glint in her eye. “Neilla sent a message saying they’ve missed us at the Bell and Bridle.” Anticipation made me bounce on my toes. Neilla, the owner of the alehouse, made rich, buttery cakes so delicious I could have sworn all Six Gods had blessed them. Mostly, though, I was glad that my mother felt well enough to leave the castle. Over the winter she’d become a thin shell of herself, her skin sallow, her face drawn. Even the flaming auburn of her hair seemed to have dimmed. Still, she was the queen, and everything I wanted to grow up to be.

“Is your stomach feeling better?” I asked. That was where her illness had started. She took the reins of her horse, Lion, from a groom, and the big chestnut stallion nudged her shoulder fondly. “I’m well enough,” she said. “Don’t you worry.” My heart sank. She said that when she didn’t want me to know how much pain she was in. I may have been only ten summers old, but I was no fool. The gauntness of her face and the careful way she moved gave her away. More telling was that this was the first year since my little brother’s birth that she hadn’t taken on any horses to train herself.

I whispered a prayer to the wind god, asking him to carry away her illness. We mounted up and headed into the hills behind the castle. The air couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to be still or in motion, and every few minutes a cool gust blew raindrops off the trees into our hair. I sat tall in the saddle, still so proud to have my first horse after years of riding naughty ponies. Cinnamon wasn’t a warhorse and I hadn’t trained him myself, but he was a beautiful roan palfrey with floating gaits. Nothing gave me more satisfaction than being able to look down on my little brother and his pony from these new heights, or telling him to back off because Cinnamon had the temperament of an angry drunk when it came to other horses. We rode under the budding trees down a barely visible trail to a secret gate. Mother had told me my father and brother had secrets too, but I couldn’t imagine theirs were nearly as exciting. Did they leave the castle? Had they tasted the summer corn at Cataphract Square, blackened and coated in cheese and spices? Had they earned a hundred coins as musicians or played quat with friendly strangers in the pubs? Did they know where Mother and I went, or that we went at all? The hidden gate opened onto a narrow cobbled lane that Mother and I followed into the city. Drops of water clung to every spring leaf and every tight bud, the sun making them glitter like a thousand tiny mirrors.

Deep in the merchants’ district, we rode into a small, quiet courtyard hidden from the bustling streets and busy shops. Planters bursting with greenery surrounded us on all sides, giving it the feeling of a garden in spite of the bricks under our feet and the buildings on all sides. We tied our horses in the simple run-in stalls, loosening their girths and tossing some hay into their shared manger. “Let’s go.” My mother beckoned me into a servants’ tunnel and through a secret door. Inside, we changed our clothes—me into a plain peasant dress with flowers stitched untidily along the hem, and my mother into short breeches and a tunic with sleeves gathered to the elbows. She brushed my hair with soot and tucked it into a snood to hide the coppery waves, then put on a vest and topped her ensemble with a flat cap that sported a large purple feather. “How do I look?” she asked. I giggled. The outfit made her look almost like a boy.

“Like the most handsome musician in all of Lyrra.” She laughed. “Then I will need the most beautiful singer to accompany me.” She produced a small sprig of cherry blossoms from behind her back. As she wove them into my snood with expert fingers, I closed my eyes and basked in her love. When we emerged from the servants’ tunnel into the back of the Bell & Bridle, we were no longer Queen Mirianna and Princess Amaranthine of Mynaria. We were Miri and Mara. I loved being Mara. Mara didn’t have to go to history lessons or balance books on her head or make polite conversation with boring courtiers. Mara walked with her mother through the city without a second glance from anyone.

She sang to earn pennies and always got to keep a few to buy something from a vendor at the market. Mara was free. Neilla stepped out from behind the bar and gave my mother a rocking hug that would have sent the noblewomen at court into vapors. A lively crowd had already gathered for the afternoon, filling the pub with a warm hum of conversation. While my mother spoke to Neilla, I opened the closet adjacent to the bar and pulled out a hide case. I laid it carefully on the floor and unclasped the fittings to reveal the instrument my mother had been forbidden to play since becoming queen. The burnished wood of the cello inside gleamed even in the dim tavern, the curves holding a promise of the beautiful music to come. “It’s indecent!” the courtiers had whispered behind her back. “Spreading her legs to play a cello is far too crass for her station,” my etiquette instructor had explained. Those dumpling-brained numbskulls had clearly never seen the raw joy on Mother’s face when music came to life in her hands.

“Thank you, Mara.” Mother picked up the cello. She tuned it while I set the case out to receive coins and Neilla cranked open the pub windows, letting in a bracing early-spring breeze. My mother adjusted her stool one last time and, with a deep breath and a nod to me, set her bow to the strings. The first notes resonated through the room, silencing all conversation. Mother’s weakness vanished as she leaned into the music. Each phrase rang clearly as an orator’s sentences, reaching inside those watching as if the gods themselves spoke through her. The music swept me away along with them, my heart so full I thought it might beat out of my chest. But now was not the time for me to lose myself. I had to sing.

My soprano carried over the low notes of the cello, weaving its own spell on the audience. It was so easy to sway to the music, to feel each word as acutely as if I had written the lyrics myself. I’d already let go of being Princess Amaranthine, but now I shed the disguise of Mara, too, instead becoming the lonely spirit of a little girl who got lost in the forest after her mother sent her to fetch water. The song was at turns playful and mournful, carrying the audience through a tapestry of emotion that culminated in deep loss. When we finished, the room burst into applause. Tears glistened in the eyes of our listeners. I curtsied, then looked to my mother, whose gaze shone with pride. She sketched the symbol of the wind god before her, then blew me a kiss. Happiness burst in me like a crescendo. Perhaps the wind god had heard my prayer.

How could my mother be dying when she played with such passion and life? We played and sang on as people flowed into the pub, drawn by the music. They tossed coins into my mother’s cello case and laughed, cried, and applauded for us until the afternoon waned. Little did I know that those were the last songs I’d sing with her. In less than a moon, she was gone. The gods had betrayed me. After she died, I prayed and lit my vigil candles every evening, demanding that the Six bring her back to me. I sobbed myself to sleep every night until Father thundered down the hall and smacked me into silence for keeping him awake. The only place I had to turn was the barn, and so the horses supported me through my grief. Between the amount of time I spent there and the surly personality I donned like a suit of armor, everyone started calling me Mare. As the years went on, I forgot the little girl who sang and danced and wanted nothing more than to be a good queen like her mother.

That girl had been naive. She was gone, and Mare became the only version of myself I cared to be. But some things require a person to be more than a name. A kingdom in need of a fighter. The threat of a war that could destroy everything. Or a girl holding fire in her hands. ONE Amaranthine WHEN I LEFT MY KINGDOM FOR THE FIRST TIME, IT WAS on a mission to serve the crown I’d never given half a damn about pleasing. My horse, Flicker, carried us at a brisk walk that quickly left the wide stone bridge and border guards behind. The red road we’d already been on for days stretched out ahead, flanked by evergreen trees identical to the thousands we’d already passed, and the chilly wind that had chased us out of Mynaria continued to gust relentlessly. “I expected Zumorda to look different from home,” I said to the girl riding behind me.

“Why?” Denna asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “People talk about this place like it’s some kind of mysterious death trap.” I thought the landscape would reflect that somehow—or at least justify the uneasiness that knotted my shoulders. After all, I was a girl without magic who had entered a kingdom where nearly everyone else had it. Coming here willingly made me about as sharp as a bag of wet barn mice. “People like to exaggerate,” Denna said. “This is a trade road, and the horse merchants cross here all the time.” “It seems too quiet.” My saddle creaked with the rhythm of my horse’s strides as the wind whispered through the pines.

All else was silent. “After that fuss at the bridge, anywhere would seem quiet,” Denna said. “You’re right.” Perhaps the frustrating half-day struggle with the border guards to let us cross the bridge had made me forget the hush of the open road. Perhaps it was that we’d so recently left behind the steady rush of the river dividing my homeland from this place—a kingdom I’d grown up hearing was full of magic-using heretics. Or perhaps I was just waiting for something bad to happen. The frigid late-autumn wind pushed us forward, sending a bone-deep chill through me. I urged Flicker to extend his walk, hoping to leave my anxieties behind. I focused on the press of Denna’s body against mine, a reminder that I wasn’t alone. Without question, she was the only thing that had made the long, cold ride to Zumorda tolerable.

The way her eyes danced when she smiled lit me up like nothing else in the world. I loved her fierceness and her intelligence and her ability to find her way out of almost any situation with her wits. I didn’t love that everyone believed she was dead, or that her presence with me made both of us traitors. “I’m starting to think going on a quest in winter wasn’t my brightest idea,” I said with a shiver. “We should have run away moons ago and gone to Trindor and the sea,” Denna replied. I smiled at the thought, knowing it never would have happened. Denna had been much too concerned with doing her duty for both our kingdoms, and if I was being honest, I’d never especially wanted to leave Mynaria. “If I’d been the heir to the throne instead of my brother, we wouldn’t have had to run away at all.” “True,” she said. “But you would have hated that role.

” “Also true,” I said. Minding my manners and paying attention to my studies had never been my best skills, and expertise with horses would only take a princess so far, even in Mynaria, where horsemanship was a strong measure of rank. Still, I felt a little stab of guilt about the choices Denna and I had made that had ended her betrothal. In the past year my brother and I had lost our father and uncle, but at least I still had Denna. All Thandi had was a crown and the aftermath of a foreign coup to contend with. “Either way, I’m sorry this is what it came to,” she said. “Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault I’m not used to the cold. Besides, I’m the chowderhead who got my brother to send me to Zumorda to open a dialogue with them. I should have said I was going to join the Sisters of the Holy Wineskin or some other made-up nonsense.

If I’d told him I was off to run barefoot through the woods and become a vintner surrounded by other wild women, he’d probably have believed it with no questions asked.” The thought amused me in spite of the accompanying twinge of guilt at the idea of lying to my brother. We’d rarely gotten along, but we’d mostly been honest with each other—usually to the point of brutality. Denna laughed. “I’m glad you’re with me instead.” She tightened her arms. “Me too,” I said, lifting a gloved hand to squeeze her arm in return. Strangely enough, I was even a little bit glad to be doing something important for my kingdom. After years of being pushed to the sidelines by my father, who had only expected me to marry and run an estate somewhere, I’d managed to convince my brother to send me, the least diplomatic person in our kingdom, to lay the groundwork for an alliance. If we couldn’t get Zumorda to work with us, war breaking out with Sonnenborne on our southern borders was all but inevitable.

Somehow I had to convince the Zumordan queen that Sonnenborne posed a threat to both our kingdoms. They’d assassinated my father and uncle, using magical means to throw suspicion on Zumorda. If I could just open a dialogue with the queen, then Thandi could send in the real ambassadors and I’d be free to focus on helping Denna find someone to educate her about how to use the magic she’d been hiding all her life. Getting it under control was our only hope of being able to have a normal life together, especially if we wanted to live in Mynaria, where those with magic were often punished or exiled. Even if my brother’s reign helped make magic use more acceptable, attitudes would be slow to change. Still, I questioned whether I was up to the task of engaging foreign queens and nobles. My rank as princess made me worthy of the assignment, but my background wasn’t exactly in diplomacy—it was in training horses, sneaking out of the castle to spy in the city, and drinking cheap ale in seedy pubs. Moreover, Mynarians hardly ever went to Zumorda. The kingdom was full of magic users with the very powers we’d condemned—Affinities for fire, air, earth, water, and gods knew what else. “We should be getting close to Duvey now,” Denna said.

“The trees are thinning, and the border guards seemed to think we’d reach it by sundown.” “The trees aren’t just thinning—they look like they’re mostly dead,” I observed. Skeletons of evergreens stood everywhere amidst the live trees. They creaked against each other in the wind, and their bleached bones littered the forest floor. “It does seem awfully dry here, which doesn’t make much sense, given that there aren’t any geological reasons for the climate to be different on this side of the border,” Denna mused. “I’ll take your word for it.” I’d studied the maps well enough to know which way to point my horse, but my knowledge ended there. “All I know is, when we get to Duvey I want five tankards of ale and to sleep past sunrise for once.” We needed a refreshing stop to fortify ourselves for the rest of our journey. Traveling all the way to northeastern Zumorda, to the crown city of Corovja, wouldn’t be easy with winter weather on the way.

“I could go for something with more kick than ale,” Denna said. “I wonder if Zumordans have a Midwinter festival with liquor. In Havemont we have a competition for the distillers. Mother would never let me or my sister taste any spirits besides the winners, but the people-watching was always good.” She spoke of home with a regretful fondness, a feeling I had a hard time understanding. Home for me had never been somewhere I felt entirely comfortable. Not in the castle, anyway. In disguise out in the city? Somewhat. The barn? Definitely. But my tendency to escape my maids and royal duties to do barn chores or play cards with liegemen meant I had fit in with the other nobles about as well as a jar of horse farts at a parfumerie.

“Well, I hope that by the time we visit Havemont, your sister is the one in charge of the festival. I doubt Ali will stop us from tasting all the spirits we want,” I said, already picturing sitting in front of a roaring fire with Denna on a cold winter’s night, both of us a little light-headed from good liquor and laughing too much. The thought of tasting sweet brandy on her lips instantly counteracted the chill of the crisp autumn wind. “She’d encourage us for sure,” Denna said, and I could hear the smile in her voice. “She’s always had a mischievous streak. Did I tell you about the time she wrapped me up in furs and tried to convince a tradesman at a party that I was a cat he should purchase?” I snorted. “That sounds like something I would’ve tried to do to Thandi. Although mostly I just threw him in the manure pile anytime he made me angry.” “If only his subjects knew he’d once been King of the Dung Heap.” Denna laughed.

“More than a dozen times over.” I smirked, but a twinge of unfamiliar regret needled me. My relationship with my brother had always been antagonistic, but maybe it hadn’t needed to be. If we had tried harder to overcome our differences of opinion instead of taking opposite sides of every argument, would the rest of our family still be dead? It was pointless to think about, but the question still rose up in the back of my mind to taunt me. The twilight shadows deepened as we rode over gently rolling hills past fallow fields carved out of the forest. All the houses we saw were closed and dark, their windows shuttered. There were no lanterns hung outside front doors, no other travelers on the road. It felt empty in a way it shouldn’t have. Even Flicker seemed ill at ease, his head up and ears swiveling back and forth worriedly. “The keep should be over the next rise.

Where are the people?” Denna asked. “Something definitely doesn’t seem right,” I said. “Let’s get off and approach on foot through those trees over there.” I pointed to a copse of evergreens at the top of the next hill. “We need to make sure it’s safe.” When we reached the trees, I drew Flicker gently to a halt and braced my arm for Denna to use as an assist to dismount. We left Flicker tied to a tree and crept into the woods. On the other side of the copse we had a clear view down into Duvey Keep, a stone fortress inside a high wall. “There are riders in there,” Denna said, puzzled. I squinted, trying to see enough in the fading daylight to make sense of the scene below.

Several people on horseback were inside the walls of the keep. At first I thought they were doing skirmish drills, until one of the riders veered closer and I got a better look at his horse. It had the distinctive convex profile and high neck set typical of a Sonnenborne desert-bred. In one smooth motion the rider nocked an arrow and stood in the stirrups, preparing to let it fly. Fear twisted around my spine. It wasn’t a drill—the keep was under attack. My stomach heaved and I grabbed Denna by the sleeve, tugging her behind a thick tangle of bushes. “What’s going on?” she whispered, looking equally shaken. “Sonnenbornes are attacking. Their horses look just like the ones Kriantz had with him in Mynaria.

That snake had bigger plans all along.” Grief rose to choke me. Speaking Kriantz’s name consumed me with memories of the night my best friend Nils had died—the night I’d been abducted from the castle and Denna had chosen to forfeit her crown to come after me. In some ways, that night had broken us both forever. In others, it had made us both whole for the first time. “His people must be more united than we thought,” Denna said. “But why in the Sixth Hell are they here?” It was true he’d given the impression that several tribes had only recently joined together beneath his banner—that they wouldn’t do anything without his signal. But for the Sonnenbornes to be here now spoke of a plan far more complex and organized than he’d made it seem. “They could be trying to take an outpost at the Mynarian border,” Denna said, her voice grim. “The keep would make a perfect settlement to fortify for attack.

” “Six Hells,” I said.


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