Her breath comes in fragments of forest air as she stumbles through drifts of snow.
She has to get to him.
With every inhalation, the cold rips through her throat and into her lungs like a thousand frozen burrs shredding her from within.
She has to keep going.
Her feet slide on the frosty ground, the icy chill seeping through her thin soles into her skin. She falls, regains her feet, and keeps running.
She cannot stop.
Her aching hands no longer obey, her fingers no longer uncurl, and her fists no longer unclench. They belong to the cruel winter.
Black branches claw at the heat-leached sky overhead, the baying of hounds shivering amidst them.
They’re gaining: the shouts, the keening howls of the tracking dogs.
Zarek, his dark eyes damning all who would dare keep him from bringing her back, his lips thinned in the unswerving resolve. He would never let her reach—
His face materializes in her mind like the embodiment of winter’s frozen core: fair hair the color of ice, eyes of frigid serenity, lips curved in a chill smile.
You have to make it.
The baying comes closer, Zarek driving his dogs until foam speckles their muzzles.
He won’t give up, and she can no longer feel her feet. Her entire being wants to collapse and let him catch up, lift her into his strong arms. He would nestle her up against his chest and carry her back to his castle, and she yearns for rest and warmth, for sweet, sweet capitulation…
Alexei’s tower is just over the hill. She staggers through the snowdrifts until white flurries float around her scarlet gown, pale dots on crimson.
The prophecy is nearly fulfilled.
The words spoken at her birth surface like a bloated fish:
Her beauty is a curse. It will plunge one man into the wrong kind of love, another to the wrong kind of sacrifice, and drive her to spill her own blood.
Too much of the prophecy has already come true, leaving only the last.
The dogs are closing in, their howls more piercing, their barks excited. They’ve found her scent.
She tops the hill and weeps with relief in the shadow of the ice tower. Her tears freeze into crystalline drops on her cheeks, pulling the skin taut: human agony frozen under winter’s fingertip.
Alexei’s tall silhouette awaits in the doorway, his figure dark in the rush of light and heat flowing behind him: a haven from the biting, killing winter outside.
He steps aside and she lurches past, warmth swathing her in deceitful bliss. He slams and bolts the door behind her, then leans back against it and measures her with eyes glittering like hell-wrought jewels cut from dark victory. “Have you done as I asked?”
The answer claws in her throat.
Pushing off the door, he saunters closer. His lips curve, smug. “Defeat got your tongue?”
She stiffens but doesn’t retreat. “I’ve broken my bond with Zarek.” She says it dully, another entity speaking the words that would raze her soul if she spoke them herself. She stifles the anguish threatening to rise up her gorge and engulf her. “I’ve left him.”
Alexei stops before her, contemplative, brushing a slender finger along her jawline.
She yanks her chin away even though it’s only a delay of what the obsession in his pale eyes says is inevitable.
“Call off your artificial winter.” Her icy tone is flecked with chips as cold as her heart is toward him. He cast this spell of winter over the land, uncaring that food was scarce, that streams froze, that men starved and animals died of exposure and dehydration – uncaring of anything except forcing her to come to him. “Too many have already died.”
“One more thing.” He dips his head and kisses her throat, his lips hot against her algid flesh. “Dance with me. Dance with me as you did with my brother,” he whispers, “and I will call off my winter.”
Go to the icy slopes of the underworld, you bastard.
But she lifts her arms in silent invitation.
He steps into her arms and sweeps her into the bonding dance.
She shudders, but this is the price to save them.
He makes the first revolution and the first tendril wraps around her spirit.
Her body jerks, wanting to shake the touch of unwanted bondage off. Alexei’s hold tightens.
Hers does, too.
This is for the people.
He sweeps her around again. The second binding slithers into place and her mind cringes, recoils; her heart strains and her soul writhes against the abomination.
Alexei’s wintry eyes watch her life become his, his slick smile rife with impending victory. His smile widens and widens…
Her hands hold on, trembling and slick with sweat. This is for Zarek.
The final bond locks around her and her heart stutters and loses its rhythm, falling in with Alexei’s. Her body fights it, but—
The door slams open.
“Aziela!” Zarek bursts in—and sees her in Alexei’s arms. His face drains of color. “What have you done?”
“I’ve made the sacrifice you should have made yourself.” The words emerge devoid of a conviction she despises. As his people’s lord, Zarek should have protected them, not let Alexei’s unrelenting winter strangle them. But he had been more willing to sacrifice his kingdom and his people rather than sacrifice her to Alexei.
She steps out of Alexei’s arms and he lets her go, confident that he has won in the way their hearts beat as one.
Her frozen tears melt and stream down her cheeks, shedding the life she had loved with Zarek.
But his eyes snap toward Alexei, and fury ripples the air around him. The dogs bay behind him outside, their sorrow howling around his shoulders on the wings of the blizzard gusting into the tower. The snow mixes with his lashing black hair.
He draws his sword–and Alexei draws his dagger.
“No!” She lunges too late.
The dagger pierces Zarek right through the heart.
She collapses on the floor beside him, but the wicked winter took him within a second. His eyes that had shone with so much resolve and love go lifeless.
His hounds keen on the wind whipping around her, sensing the loss as she does. The vibrations of their anguish echo in the cavernous depths of her own soul.
The world is lifeless, empty.
Her heart shatters even as Alexei’s heartbeat drags hers on to the next second along with it.
“Why?” she cries, her emotions fracturing, escaping through the rift in her soul. “Why did you kill him? I’d already given you what you wanted!”
Alexei shrugs and shuts the door on the mourning hounds. “He would never have given me a moment’s peace while I had you.”
Her gaze holding steady on his, she jerks the dagger from Zarek’s chest.
Alexei laughs and crosses his arms. “Be warned. I’ve cast a spell to keep you from taking your own life.”
“Maybe you have.” Her mouth twists in a mirthless smile. “But nothing can stop me from taking what you love.” And she slashes at her face—
And while Alexei watches in shock, blood washes away her beauty.
For more short stories, click here.
Thanks for reading! For anyone who likes my writing, you’re welcome to check out my books 🙂 I write sci-fi and fantasy love stories where the characters go through real sh*t but still stand by one another. They don’t have idiotic misunderstandings, they communicate with each other like healthy humans, they stand united against the crap world, and the guys are actually discerning enough not to want to stick their schtick in every woman that walks past. They know what they want and don’t waste time on what they don’t.
As to updates, this was my memorable moment this week:
On Thursday after leaving work, the cold nipping at my cheeks, I came across one of my work colleagues dancing at the tram stop while listening to his headphones, completely oblivious to all around him. He’s usually chronically unhappy, but when I walked up beside him and teased him about dancing, he grinned and said of course. He was listening to Billy Joel’s Piano Man. We chatted in the tram and it was nice to see him in a good mood. No, actually, it was surreal. I kept staring at his mouth – smiling – and I was like, Yes, I’m still in the real world.
In any case, it put me in a good mood, so one of the first things I did when I got home was look up the song and then I danced to it myself 🙂 My brother told me my dad said that when he was in the Navy, he and his friends would sing the part about “Davy who’s still in the Navy.”
By the way, is anyone else noticing how films all seem predictable and the same things happen at the same moments?
Well, an interesting moment came last night while I was chatting with my mom. She’s been watching all these made-for-TV movies and she now knows precisely what will happen in the shows – when there’ll be a crisis, when it’ll be resolved, and she says all that changes in each movie are the locations and characters, and there’s actually this barn that apparently crops up in every one. What she said reminds me of how a lot of people are getting tired of films because they’re predictable. They all follow certain plot points and start to feel the same. I guess it makes me feel better about not following the formula in my books (or if I do, it’s unintentional), so hopefully they don’t feel formulaic.
In other news, I’m being a grump! Insecure and moody about my book sales. There are just SO MANY BOOKS being put out and given away for free (why ever buy a book when you get fifty thousand of them for free?) and so many things are vying for people’s attention that it’s exhausting just thinking about it. The only indie authors to succeed are those who promote like crazy or get wildly lucky, and quality of the books has little to do with it.
Makes me want to bang my head on the wall. But I’m sitting down right now, so it’s all good.
Oh, and if anyone wants to sign up for my mailing list, feel free! I’ve sent out one newsletter in probably three years, but I’m planning on eventually sending out more with exclusive free content or something. Gah, I’m so disorganized.