Slowly, the King of Winter sank into his throne, exhaustion showing all his years. The comforting embrace of the throne cushions began rubbing away all the aches of eons upon eons. Weary golden eyes dulled slightly, not truly seeing the throne room of the purest white-blue ice. Servants hid in the shadows of pillars and alcoves, waiting to be called upon – silent when not needed.
And the King desired silence, desire loneliness. Even as his eyes became heavy, he knew his desire would go unheeded. That feeling before the dreams came over him and he knew his sleep would be plagued with the past.
Darkness rose to greet him as he descended into dreams, pulling him deeper into the unconscious realm.
“Father, Queen Mab requests an audience,” the youngest prince of Winter said quietly, afraid to disturb his war-minded father.
With a nod, the King murmured, “Send her in.”
Maer did not notice the young Sidhe slip away as the King bent again over his maps. Though the Sidhe realm often shifted and changed, many parts remained the same. Maer poured his tactical expertise into ridding the Winter realm of Summer – and every foe who dared enter.
Though she approached soundlessly, the King knew she was there, knew her silent presence, the vibrations of her mantle’s silent power.
Power calls to power, Maer thought to himself, an ironic and pain-filled half-smile on his lips.
“What do you need?” the King murmured, his voice a quiet warning. He was no longer the approachable monarch he once was, before the death of Myra – before his heart was torn asunder.
No, now he was cold, emotionless to others – even to his sons and daughters.
“I am here for our daily lessons, King Maer,” the young Sidhe replied, not really offended by the King’s tone. She had grown used to it, over the few months she had been here.
“Ah…is it that time already?”
“Yes, Sire,” Mab inclined her head slightly, knowing the differences in their power. “You said we would practice mind speech today…”
The King nodded, placing a marker on the table map. “As we shall…”
It’s a pity she was chosen so young… barely seventeen years old… not much experience or even abilities of her own…
Slowly, the King turned toward the young queen and was acutely – painfully – aware of how closely she resembled Myra. Taking a slow, calming breath, he nodded her toward an archway in the ice wall, leading onto a balcony overlooking the Winter courtyard. Mab took the hint and preceded Maer onto the balcony, her dark blue gown glittering in the winter sun. It contrasted beautifully with her delicate, pale skin, blending masterfully into her blue-black hair.
She was, just like Myra, the picture of a Winter Goddess. Just how the Queen should be, entwining cold beauty with a deadly grace.
And when the King was through with her training, she would be as deadly as he.
Though it was a pity the mantle chose her so young, it was alternatively fortunate that he could shape her, mold her, into the embodiment of Winter itself.
She would be the perfect Queen when he was done.
Gone were the days when Winter could be kind, when Winter had the opportunity or the luxury to be gentle. Gone were the days when Winter could open their doors and welcome visitors.
There was no room for luxury now. No room for kindness.
Maer stood beside the Queen, gold eyes gazing out across the courtyard. His voice, though soft, commanded; undertones of a predator’s warning were always present now. His white and silver armor took the place of flowing robes. A sword remained belted at his side, always within reach.
“Look upon our people, Mab,” the King began, his voice toneless, emotionless – betraying his pain even as he sought to hide it. “Tell me what you can feel from them-” tension, apprehension, anxiety, fear, “-tell me what you hear from them.”
The young queen remained silent for a time as she gazed down upon the courtyard, her pale lips pursed in through and concentration. “They’re anxious…”
“About?” the King prompted.
“… the coming battle… the recent ambushes…one is fearful… her son… he went out and never returned… she fears… he’s dead…” Slowly, Mab turned her eyes to the King, questioning. “Is he dead?”
Maer answered slowly, carefully – this was a test – “That is the belief of the Court.”
But Mab shook her head. “Maer, I know better… you can sense your land, your people – so could Myra. I can’t yet; tell me, is he alive?”
Though the name awakened his pain, Maer swallowed down his retort, his hurt. “Does it matter?” he answered quietly instead.
Mab stared at him for several moments, weighing her options.
Good, Maer silently approved, showing none of his thoughts, she does not speak without thought.
“…to the cause, it would add more reason to destroy Summer… more outrage…. to the mother, it would give peace – or a need of revenge…”
The King nodded. “And so I remain silent. Neither option is beneficial to my people. Rage clouds judgment; revenge dulls the wits. Peace makes one complacent.”
Though Mab nodded, the King could feel her unease, her dissatisfaction with the answer.
But she did not press. For that alone, she passed this test.
“Continue,” he nodded to the Sidhe in the yard, “What else do you sense? Broaden your range; open your walls. But remain on guard.”
Taking a breath, Mab nodded and turned her eyes – and presumably her mind – back to the Sidhe below.
“…bloodlust…” she said after a moment, surprising herself and Maer. The King ranged out with his own mind – and found the assassin just as the foe’s blade cut through his youngest son’s neck, severing the boy’s head from his body.
Maer’s cry of anguish and rage shook the foundations of the palace, shook the Winter realm to it’s core.
In the next instance, Maer was soaked with foe blood, standing over blood soaked, churned snow. Flesh bits and small remains of the foe lay scattered around the King. Eyes flecked with red turned slowly to the limp form of his son, his Mar’nel. The King sank slowly to his knees and cradled the boy to his chest, Sidhe blood mingling with foe.
“Release the leanhounds,” his voice rippled over the courtyard, stunning everyone into silence.
But the spine-chilling bay of the hounds tore through the silence. Gigantic, feline hounds surged into the courtyard, black and gray against eh snow and ice. They surrounded the Winter King, panting in excitement and whining at the smell of foe blood.
The King turned red eyes – not red from crying; his irises were a pure blood red – to the hounds and growled in a voice half crazed, “We hunt.”
In a blur, the King moved, forming his body into a hound-feline twice the size of the leanhounds, red eyes glowing against the white fur. In the next moment, the King and his hounds surged in one wave out the gates, growls and baying echoing off the palace of ice.
Misted golden eyes opened upon the throne room, ghosts of his past dancing before his eyes. After that day, Mab had shielded herself from him, distancing as much as she dared.
Not that he blamed her. After Mar’nel, any foe who managed to slip by the security of his court attempted to take out every single one of his children. Not many succeeded – but enough did.
His children… his and Myra’s children… none survived the foe. Poison, arrow, sword, dagger, magic – all were employed with deadly accuracy. His children lasted and fended off attackers many times, enough that they grew cocky, sure of their power –
Only to be cut down by another method: betrayal.
It didn’t take much, just a sympathetic ear to an aggrieved and terrified princess. A fae who claimed to be Sidhe, a foe who became her champion – her corrupter, her despoiler.
And when he was through using her?
He played the part of her executioner.
She had betrayed her siblings, her father, her people, for this foe who claimed to be Sidhe. For this foe who claimed to love her.
Death was, Maer deemed, too kind for that filth. When the King had caught the vermin, every foe in the Sidhe and Wild realms knew it.
The vermin remained painfully alive in the Winter courtyard, a permanent reminder upon a thorn tree of what happens when one defies the Winter Court.
After that foe, the King had lost all he had loved, all his children. But Maer exterminated every single foe in the realm.
But it hadn’t been enough.
Breathing slowly, the King leaned back in his throne and shut his eyes.
No… it wasn’t enough… I should have stopped, should have been satisfied with their extermination…
The screech of crows filled the air as the blood red sky dripped tears upon those who bled – and died. Not for the first time, the damp ground gave beneath his boot as he swung his sword, slashing up from the ground. His sword went wide, but his opponent fared no better. In the moment it took for his opponent – a red haired ogre – to correct his movements, Maer swung again.
This time, the sword took the ogre’s head, making it fly off into the rest of the melee. Maer had only a few scant moments to take his bearings before the next opponents advanced upon him. This time, a group of boggarts circled around him, weaving and waving their hands wildly. The wood of their bodies showed the dark dampness of the battlefield even as the King sorted out how to face this new – yet incredibly outmatched – threat.
The boggarts jeered in their way, waving their hands, until one jumped and tumbled in the air toward Maer. The King wasted no time and swung, slicing the boggart in half in mid-tumble. The rest of the boggarts advanced, attacking as one. As they jumped, the King crouched and rolled out of the way, muddying his white-silver armor. He came up swinging, slashing the boggarts and smashing their wooden forms to kindling.
Taking a breath, the King looked up into the sky, letting the rain flow down his face. He let out a slow sigh, the mud and water falling from his armor. The magic of the Sidhe kept his armor from rust, but it would not keep the King safe from attack.
The sound of boots splashing into water caught Maer’s attention and he turned, his eyes searching for the new opponent. His eyes fell upon a man in mottled green and brown armor, branches wrapping around and creating protective spikes. The King of Winter narrowed his eyes as he tightened his grip on the great sword.
“Looks like I’ve finally found you, King,” the man smiled, his eyes narrowing. “I’m going to kill you… and take your crown and your kingdom.”
Maer smiled and shook his head, his white hair flowing down his back. “You are so naïve…”
The man – whom Maer identified as the prince of Summer – rushed the King, taking offense to Maer’s words. Unsurprised, the King smoothly stepped aside, swinging his blade as he did so. The flat of the blade connected with the prince’s shoulder, sending him flying into the mud.
“Careful, boy… your father will not be pleased if you die by my hand…” the King murmured, watching the boy as he turned. Maer felt his glare through the slits of his helmet.
“Face me, coward!” the prince screamed as he charged again.
But the King was not one to be goaded into striking. Instead, he stepped aside and slashed at his back, cutting lightly into his back armor. The prince stumbled then growled, turning on his heel and charging again, slashing wildly.
The King wasted no energy on parrying; again, he stepped aside and slashed, cutting into the boy’s shoulder. The prince stumbled on the remains of another fighter, turning again as he regained his footing.
“Why do you not stand and face me, coward?” the prince screamed his challenge again, taking a wide stance. “Face me like a true warrior!”
“A warrior spends no time on speaking,” Maer replied shortly, weaving a simple spell – and freezing the boy’s leg in the puddle where he stood.
The prince shrieked and pulled at his leg in futility, the ice clinging with no care at all. “Coward! Magic has no place on this field!”
The King smiled, slowly, cruelly, “A warrior does not refuse a weapon available to him, child.”
Then Maer struck, his blow clean and swift. As the head left the Summer prince’s shoulder, Maer stared down at the body as it toppled backward.
“And you, my dear… late… prince… made your first mistake by killing my Queen.” Maer turned his back on the body and looked across the battlefield, meeting eyes briefly with his counterpart in the Summer Court.
The King of Summer did not scream, did not yell, did not become enraged. He looked upon the battle, the body of his dead son, and knew that this is the only outcome that could have come to pass.
But his pride, his foolish pride, would not allow him to leave things as they were. The Kings moved then, in unison, meeting in the center of the battlefield. Those who had the unfortunate timing to be there were swept off their feet, flown backwards several dozen meters. The swords of the Courts clashed and rang out, screaming in the voices of the seasons.
In a flash, the Kings leapt apart, then clashed again. The seasons warred – but the battlefield was still. Only the Kings fought now, their powers flashing and flying, striking even the bystanders. Those around them could only guard against the enormous outpouring of power from the two great Kings.
It was not a long fight, but it was a dangerous duel, a clashing of two giants. It was over in the blink of an eye-
And the Summer King lay upon the ground, a crystalline ice shard lodged deep into his heart.
“…forgive me, Jaeger… but you gave us no choice…” the King of Winter murmured as he stared down at the fatally injured King.
“…it was…” the Summer King shivered once, blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth, “…inevitable…”
As King Jaeger breathed his last, Maer knelt beside the Summer King, paying his respects to a long-ago friend. The King of Winter sighed and held out his hand, palm down, his eyes closed. “Sad as it is… yes… it was inevitable… however much I wish it were not…”
Taking a breath, Maer pulled the power mantle of Summer from the fallen King, holding it steady in his palm. Maer looked down at the green-brown glowing orb, his eyes narrowed. A power influx behind him made him turn, his eyes flashing.
“Peace, King Maer… it is only me…” Alric held up his open hand, stopping his steps before he appeared dangerous. “I do not wish to fight you.”
The King nodded, breathing out his adrenaline. “Alric… it is good to see a friendly face… why are you involved in this?”
Alric was silent for a moment, before he cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Sire… all of the Sidhe realm is involved. This affair… it has pulled everyone from their homes and into battle.” The Lord Hunter looked from the King to the body below him. “King Maer… what have you done?”
“You knew this was the outcome, Alric… there could be no other,” the Winter King murmured, barely holding back his raging emotions. “His son killed my wife… started this entire bloody affair… I killed his son… and we met in battle. This was how it was always to end, my friend. However much I wish it did not, I knew this was the outcome.”
The Lord Hunter held his tongue, looking from the two Kings to the battlefield below. “…at least the fighting is over…”
“Yes,” Maer nodded, standing. “It is over.”
Glancing to the soldiers around him, the King raised his voice, to be heard by all. “Summon the Queen of Summer and the Queen of Winter. The bloodshed must end.”
Runners ranged out with his order and Queen Mab rode across the field on her white palfrey. But the Queen of Summer did not appear.
Frowning, King Maer opened his mind and searched for her – but found nothing.
“Sire!” a soldier of Winter called, running forward. “Queen Sylvia – Sire, she’s dead!” Coming behind the soldier was a group of six, all of Summer, carrying a litter. Upon the litter lay the body of the Queen of Summer, her sun-bright red hair marking her instantly.
Maer took a breath and turned away, his voice heavy, “Place her beside her husband.”
The soldiers did as they were ordered, though several looked offended to be taking orders from their enemy. Glancing once more at the Queen, he had to turn his gold eyes away and back to Alric.
“… My friend, it is time to make sure this never happens again. The Sidhe realm… we cannot afford another war…”
“Sire, you know I was never for this bloodshed. A good hunt is fine – but slaughter?”
Maer nodded, his eyes clouded. “Yes… never again, Alric. I swear it to you.”
“How will you ensure that?”
“The slaughter occurred because we are too powerful,” the King of Winter replied, lifting his head and his voice once more. “From this point forward, the power of Winter and Summer shall be split – share – among more Sidhe. Guardians who watch the powers, to keep the powers in check. That is what is needed.” The King of Winter lifted the mantle of the Summer King and split it into thirds. The thirds were not even; to the largest third, he whispered, “You are the Father of Summer… you will be the watcher for the King, you will keep his movements in check, and you will ensure he does not threaten the balance.” When Maer released this new Mantle, it flew off to find its new carrier, its purpose now ingrained in the mantle.
Next, he turned to the smallest piece. “You are the Lord of Summer; you are the Heir to the King and you will learn from the King. You will strive to be the best Guardian to the power bestowed upon you and learn to govern your people.” He released this small mantle and it, too, went to find the new Lord.
Finally, he turned to the last part and told it, “You are the King of Summer. You are who the people see, you are their protector and the protector of your lands. You are the physical embodiment of Summer itself. And you have the most influence upon the human realm and the season of Summer manifest.”
When he released this mantle, it froze for a moment before leaping into the chest of the nearest Sidhe who was fit to be the Summer King- Alric, the Lord of the Hunt.
Surprised, Alric stumbled slightly, the power of the mantle hitting him full force. The power sent the Lord Hunter to his knees, gasping for pause, for a breath. Finally, the mantle settled.
Blinking back his own surprise, the King of Winter stared down at his friend. “…well, now I know we will not have a battle like this again…”
Gasping still, the King of Summer nodded his agreement. “Yeah… just… give me a second…”
Smiling slightly, the King of Winter turned to the late Queen’s body and held his palm over her chest. Maer called out her own mantle, his eyes narrowed. The mantle came – grudgingly – to his hand. To this mantle, he did the same, splitting it into thirds. The largest piece, he commanded it be the Mother of Summer, the Watcher, the guide. To the smallest piece, he bade it be the Lady of Summer, the flower in the field, the sunshine on a cloudy day, to be the Heir to the Queen one day. To the last piece, he bade it be the Queen of Summer, a firm hand upon her troops, a cool breeze upon her King, and a bright smile to her people. Each of these pieces left his hands eagerly, to seek out their rightful bearers.
Slowly, he turned his eyes to Mab. “I am sure you will be chosen again, my Queen, but now I must do the same to your mantle, or the balance will be uneven.”
Mab nodded, dismounting from her palfrey. She herself removed the mantle, pulling it from her chest, and handed it to the King.
As he did with the previous mantle, so he did with hers; a Mother of Winter, to be the cold, hard truth, to guide the claws of Winter; a Lady of Winter, to learn from the Queen and be her Heir, to earn the respect of her people – or their fear; and a Queen of Winter, to lead the soldiers of Winter, to be marble pillar of Winter’s strength, and to govern her people with a firm hand. These mantles left his hands just as eagerly as the last. As he had predicted, the mantle of the Queen returned to Mab; though it was lesser than before, she smiled at its return.
“It doesn’t feel so overwhelming now…” the young Queen murmured.
“Good,” Maer nodded his approval, “then you will be able to put all your strength into mastering it.”
“And your mantle, Maer?” Alric interrupted, watching his old friend with a bit of suspicion in his eye.
But Maer only nodded, not at all offended. “Of course.”
He removed the mantle from himself, he split it into three parts, one large, one small, and one in between. To the small piece, he bade it be the Lord of Winter, to be his Heir and apprentice. To the large piece, he bade it be the Father of Winter, to guide and watch, and always be on guard. To the last piece, he gave it very specific instructions: “You are the King of Winter. You are your people’s protector, your people’s friend. You cannot allow yourself to be swayed by passion or grief. You cannot allow yourself to give sway to your rage. Do not be blinded by foolishness of youth. Do not allow your emotions to control you. You are in control. You are Winter incarnate. Do not be me.”
When he released these mantles, the Lord of Winter sped off to the Winter Realms, but the Father’s and the King’s mantles stayed. After a moment, the two mantles leaped into Maer – together.
Used to such power, the King was merely taken by surprise that two Mantles chose him. Taking a swift breath to calm his racing adrenaline, he turned to the Queen of Winter and the King of Summer.
“It is done.”
A deep breath brought in the fragrance of the leanhounds, the wind brushing against his ear bringing him their baying and howls. Fighting back the dreams, Maer finally opened his eyes, clutching to the arms of his throne.
No, the King’s mantle screamed at him, you are the only King.
Maer’s body shook with adrenaline, his teeth bit into his cheek, and his muscles trembled with unexplained anger.
“I will not …be ruled by you,” he growled out under his breath, “I have had… enough… enough of this fighting… enough of this bloodshed… enough of this life. Let. Me. Die.”
“You can’t be going on about that again, Maer,” the tone of annoyance crept into the beautifully cold voice of the Queen of Winter as she strode boldly down the aisle, her deep blue blouse and jeans letting Maer know where she’d been all afternoon.
“Paying your pet a visit, Mab?”
“Can I help it if he has potential?” Queen Mab grinned, a wolfish, predatory gleam in her eyes.
“Potential… perhaps to destroy you… beware, my Queen, of the bite of a spurned hound…” Maer sighed and shook his head. “That wizard is not who he appears… there is something more to him and the answers are shrouded.”
But the Queen merely shrugged. “I will be careful, Maer, but I will not give up this hound. He is perfect… much better than that idiot who killed my last Knight.”
“…that I will agree with,” the King chuckled, slowly rising from his throne. “Shall we, then? I am sure he is getting bored with his current punishment. Perhaps an ice pick lobotomy will change his tone.”
The Queen grinned widely at that suggestion. “Oh, that sounds lovely.”