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Christmas With Mel Sterling!


Winterheart

by Mel Sterling


It was snowing at last. Small flakes, the sort that would keep coming down for hours, sifting and hissing along the iced-over tree limbs with a noise like sugar sprinkled on the surface of a well-scrubbed kitchen table.

Thomas rubbed his hands together rapidly, kindling warmth with friction. He wasn't sure why the snow made him think of a warm kitchen where a kind, pretty woman worked with dough and sweetening. The more he was with Tess, the more he remembered what it had been like to be human, two hundred years and more ago. Winter had finally come to Forest Park, pushing aside the tenacious and dreary autumn. The solstice neared. He felt it in his trow bones, in the slowing of his blood as the season tilted into darkness and chill. In the deadening cold of the Queen's ragged gold and bone band around his upper arm.

With the coming of the snow, the danger of another night of ice coating Tess's birch-girl boughs and threatening to break her slender fingers had lessened. Thomas stepped close to her, where she stood rooted in the earth in a tiny copse of other birch girls—maidens already asleep for the winter. A big leaf maple or two loomed over the slender birches, branches bare of leaves but still green with heavy sleeves of moss. Beyond the maples, the ubiquitous and towering firs.

It was to the unsleeping evergreens that Tess was secretly listening, twining her thinnest, longest roots with theirs. The firs heard everything that went on in the Queen's fae mound below their roots, and sometimes spoke of the things that mattered to the tree-folk. And now, so did Tess.

Thomas put his warmed hands on her twiggy fingers to melt the thin rime that had reformed before the freezing rain changed into something friendlier.

Tess's birch-girl eyes opened, shadow-dark, high on her trunk and fringed with curled-back cuts of silvery bark. She was not asleep, not yet. Not while Thomas could bring her enough warmth to keep a tiny bit of sap flowing. Tess had work to do. She could sleep later, after they got the answers Hunter, the Queen's rebellious and powerful rival, required. The answers they all required, for without those answers, Hunter would do nothing to eradicate the spells the queen had placed upon the two of them—Thomas, a half-made trow, bound to do the Queen's will so long as her band encircled his arm. Tess, made a birch girl at the Queen's bitter whim, for Tess had destroyed the Queen's power this past Allantide, thwarting the Queen's moonlit gambit to wrest new fae territory from the humans of Portland.

"So cold," she whispered to Thomas. "But it's not as cold as the dawn was."

"The snow will warm the air. You're beautiful," Thomas whispered back. "I wish you could see yourself. Silver and white. You shimmer."

"I feel so stiff." Between his palms, her fingers flexed slightly. "Your hands are warm. They help." Her lashes lifted a little as she slanted him a glance. "I know you stay here for me. You could be inside somewhere, spending the winter warm and safe and dry. I...think I'd be all right out here. I'm cold and sleepy, but that's all."

"You have to stay awake to listen to the trees. Learn what the enemy is planning. Besides." Thomas pressed a kiss to the corner of the gash in the bark that was Tess's mouth. "You wouldn't leave me on Allantide. I won't leave you now. The solstice is near."

Tess gave a small shiver. "Is the winter solstice as nasty a time as the fae Halloween was? Do we have to be on guard against the Wild Hunt again?"

"Midwinter is very dark, even in the fae halls. The pixies have either died out or crept away to sleep until the spring, like the trees themselves."

Tess turned her face away from him, and Thomas knew she was remembering the pixies that had betrayed them to the Queen on Allantide night. "Nasty things. Serves them right, to die."

"Many of the fae sleep through the long nights, or are slow and tired, like me. But there are a few for whom the winter is the finest time of all. Holda, for one. She who brings the snow." He looked up, drawing Tess's gaze to where the snowflakes sifted down, catching on everything, beginning to build up like salt spray at the shore. "Those creatures who delight in the wind, or leading travelers astray."

"Tell me again how the fae lured you in, if their world is so horrid." Tess pulled her hands from his and flexed the fingers. "That's better. Thank you."

Thomas smiled and kissed her again. "There are beautiful things, as well, like you, my ghille dhu. My birch girl. My Tess. Whisper to me what the firs and maples have said today."

"They've been talking about last night's ice. A few lost limbs—I mean boughs. They don't have a trow to keep them warm." She smiled at him, and Thomas felt his heart thump hard a few times. "A maple somewhere on the north side fell, but she was old. They say her trunk was weak. Some bogles have dug a den beneath one of the solitary spruces and are making a nuisance of themselves. A Will o' the Wisp led someone into that boggy place just over the ridge, sometime before dawn. That is all."

A new voice, rough as stone grinding against stone, shattered their privacy. "I care not for the sputterings of swamp gas. Even less for the fate of the human foolish enough to follow it. The bogles, however. That interests me. Bogles outside the mound, at the solstice."


Thomas spun to find Hunter far too close for Thomas's liking, clad in his stag mask and antlers and a charcoal gray winter cloak. Its hem just touched the first of the snow at his feet. For a change, the leader of the Wild Hunt was unattended by his Unseelie hound-troupe of ragged boggarts, bogles, kelpies, redcaps and assorted ill-tempered fae. Since Allantide and Tess's ruinous gambit, Hunter's red eyes had dwindled from embers to jet in the depths of his stag mask. They were every bit as unreadable as they'd ever been, but at least they weren't glowing with their own terrible, murderous light. Thomas had the feeling Hunter was in far better humor now that he was no longer in thrall to the powerful Queen of the Unseelie. At Allantide, Hunter had led away a considerable number of the Queen's own fae to his new mound in the bowels of Mount Tabor, east of the Willamette River.

Hunter always had been ambitious, Thomas reflected. Now that he had a fairy mound of his own, keeping the furious, warring Queen at bay required constant vigilance, which is where Thomas and Tess came in. Still, Thomas was surprised to see Hunter here at the darkest time of the year. The snow would both conceal and reveal him.

"Where's your nasty pack of boot-licking killers?" Tess snapped.

"Sometimes I welcome solitude." Hunter sketched a bow in Tess's direction. Ever since Tess had destroyed the Queen's magic-soaked trinkets and freed Hunter from his terrible crown of bondage, he had been respectful, though his respect was tinged with mockery. Tess was, after all, partly human, but despite that, Hunter needed what Tess could give him. "I thought I would come to see what news you have for me this solstice."

"No news." Thomas kept pace with Hunter, staying between him and Tess as Hunter circled the two of them. "At least, none worth repeating."

"How do you fare, birch girl?" Hunter ignored Thomas, pausing where he could look into Tess's face, since a ghille dhu with her feet in the earth could not pivot. "Do you have what you need?"

"Why do you care, so long as I dish up the dirt from beneath?" Tess wasn't drowsy now. She was alert and angry.

"I have a responsibility to the fae in my care."

Tess twisted her trunk and face away from Hunter. "Why are you still wearing that mask, anyway? You're free of the Queen—"

"Shhhh!" Thomas and Hunter hissed at the same time. Thomas leaped to press his fingers to Tess's mouth. "Don't speak her name." He checked the surrounding trees for movement, a sign they had heard Tess, but there was nothing but the wind. He could not tell.

Tess pushed his hand away. "The trees here think I'm too foolish and young to be of any consequence. Like all the birch girls. All sap, no substance. Shallow-rooted."

Hunter's voice was ominous. "And so you are. A fool. If only I had a choice other than the two of you, worthless—" He stopped himself with a visible effort. Thomas saw Hunter's chest rise and fall on a calming breath. "You must take more care. If the—if she should discover any one of us here in her territory, or hear even the slightest whisper of treachery—" The mask shook, the cornstalks and grasses twisted into his black hair whispered over Hunter's cloak. "I have made allowances for your human frailties and fallibilities. You and your Half-made, here. But do not fail me. The consequences for all of us are deadly."

Hunter stalked around Thomas and Tess once more, glaring into the firs and maples as if to defy them, deny them knowledge. Tess was sullenly silent, but Thomas caught a roll of her knothole eyes, and her upper limbs, where a few dull gold leaves still clung despite their glassy scrim of ice, twitched in aggravation.

Eventually she spoke again. "Then perhaps you should not be abroad, looking as you do. All the mound has seen you as..." she struggled for words that would not use his title, and instead appeared to settle for a rattle of twigs, like a wave of her hand. "This mask. Take it off. Or wear a different glamour. If you don't look like you're ready to lead the...your pack of monsters, you could perhaps do a little more of your own spying. Since you don't trust the two of us, who have every reason to do exactly as you've asked, to do it for you."

This time both Hunter and Thomas halted, staring at her. Thomas saw Hunter's head tilting as if realization was dawning.

Tess merely waited, silent. After long moments, Hunter swung off his cloak, reaching up to lift the stag's skull mask from his face and swathe the skull in the dark cloth. Beneath, Hunter looked all too human. Sharp cheekbones, deep-set dark eyes that pierced what they sought. Healing cuts across his forehead, and surely also the scalp beneath the wildness of his hair and braids, the last souvenirs of Allantide and Tess's liberation of Hunter from the Queen's thrall.

"You talk sense at last, birch girl. I ask again: do you have what you need?" Without the mask, his voice was less like the screech of stone on stone, and more like the low rumble of boulders tumbling in a clear stream.

"How about a fire in the hearth, and a full Christmas stocking on the mantel? Milk and cookies to leave for Santa Claus would be nice."

Hunter's stark, black brows drew down in confusion. The new-made fae king of Mount Tabor turned to glare at Thomas. "What fae is this Santa Claus? I do not know him. Where does he rule? What fae owe him fealty?"

Thomas shook his head, not bothering to hide his grin. Borrowing Tess's tactic of silence, he simply waited, while Hunter dragged the toe of his boot through the slow-building coating of snow on the maple and birch leaves underfoot.

Finally Hunter growled, "Human nonsense, I see."

Tess's branches moved in a shrug. "Santa Claus might be fae. We don't have any proof one way or the other. He leaves us presents that we find on Christmas morning."

"Presents?"

"Gifts."

"Ah. He is a fae, then. Striking bargains."

Tess moved slowly, in that dreamy, graceful way of the birch girls. Thomas could tell she was shaking her head at Hunter's dismissive conclusion. "They're gifts, not bargains. Something given willingly, without the expectation of repayment or exchange."

Hunter cocked his head. "No bargains? This is a hook that is hidden by the worm. What does this fae want, that he is so generous? Where can I find him?"

Tess laughed, the sound so much like her old human self that Thomas felt his heart lighten. Even in her slowly whitening surroundings, her pale bark shone like starlight. "It doesn't work like that. At Christmas, we—"

"What is Christmas?"

Tess snorted. "It's certainly not like Allantide. It's...it happens a few days after the winter solstice. It's a time when friends and family gather to share food and drink and give each other gifts, to show we care about each other. It's about friendship and love."

At this, Hunter grew ominously still. Thomas sensed his suspicion and unease. Thomas himself barely remembered Christmas with his family, but he had at least been abroad in the human world in the intervening decades since the Queen inveigled him into her service. He understood about Santa Claus; Hunter, more completely fae than Thomas had ever become, did not. Anything not of the fae could not be trusted. The fae were at least reliable in their utter unreliability.

Hunter said, after much thought, "I would like to receive such gifts."

Tess shrugged again. "First you must give. The giving comes first. Giving brings meaning to receiving."

"You talk in circles, birch girl. Perhaps you are more fae than you believe."

Tess reached out her twiggy hand to Thomas, without looking away from Hunter. It never ceased to amaze Thomas how trusting she was. Tess believed he would be there when she reached for him, and so he was. Thomas took the cool twigs in his great, warm trow-hand, only noticing afterward how closely Hunter had watched the two of them, and the glitter that looked like hunger in Hunter's eyes.

"Not yet." Tess's voice was soft. "And with luck, not ever. I keep my bargains, H—" She stopped herself before she spoke Hunter's name. "Even the ones I made as a human. See that you do the same. You promised we two could go free, be fae no longer, if we bring you what you need in this war."

Hunter nodded. His gaze slid to Thomas briefly, down to their linked hands, then away into the treetops, where the snow was settling first and deepest. "Give first, as you say, birch girl. Then you shall receive."

Tess's hand clenched on Thomas's.

Hunter nodded again, as if the snow—or Tess's words, perhaps—required much concentration and thought. Then he turned on his heel, the skull mask still bundled in his cloak. Snow had settled on his hair and shoulders, but it did little to lighten his countenance. In a moment, the firs swallowed him.

"That man is on Santa's naughty list," Tess pronounced.

Thomas, looking at the place where Hunter had vanished into the darkness, wasn't so sure. But he stepped close to Tess and kissed her scaly white cheek. "Milk and cookies sound really good right now."

"I don't suppose you have any of those in your little stone house, do you?"

"No. But now I know what to bring you for Christmas." Because he would give, first, and see about the receiving afterward. He smiled up into the slow-falling snow.

Copyright 2016 by Mel Sterling
All rights reserved



Mel Sterling started writing stories in elementary school and wrote her first full-length novel in a spiral-bound notebook at age twelve. Her favorite Christmas present was a typewriter and a ream of paper. After college, she found herself programming computers and writing technical documentation. A few years ago, she rediscovered romance writing during a bout of insomnia and began to indulge her passion with a vengeance. She lives with her computer geek husband in a quiet happy house full of books, animals and ideas.

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