They met snow two days after leaving the Fae camp, big heavy flakes drifting down from a gunmetal grey sky. Solan watched it from the passenger seat of the big supply truck, pulling his coat closer around him, and glanced into the back for what felt like the thousandth time just that afternoon. Kyr was sleeping, wrapped up in a pile of blankets in the corner so that only the top of his head showed, and Lokan had been unconscious since they left, but Torin was still awake, sitting with his knees drawn up and braced against the movement of the truck, his eyes distant. Ceridwen had stripped them of their weapons before they’d left camp but Solan couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that even without a weapon Torin could take them both on.
The wild Fae had already been splintering when they left, and reports on the radio indicated that most of them had split off into their own little groups without Lokan to pull them all together. Sionna had gathered up as many as she could and kept them with the original Fae army, but their power was greatly diminished and Solan had experienced first-hand how vicious the split-off groups could get without someone to control them. They’d almost been attacked by one group—Elio among them, with his wide-mouth smirk—claiming that Lokan was no longer king and that both him and the two humans must be handed over for execution. It had looked nasty until Ceridwen had put a bullet in their leader’s head and Lokan had called up another storm, exhausting himself into unconsciousness with it. They’d been moving since, heading north towards the mountains, with Kyr and Torin as nominal prisoners.
He looked out at the snow again, shivering, and was glad when Ceridwen called a brief stop to stretch their legs, have a bathroom break, and find something to eat. She’d gotten promises from both Kyr—grudgingly—and Torin on the first day, that they would cooperate until Lokan woke and was coherent enough to be convinced to let them go. It had taken both Solan and Torin to argue Kyr into it and he still complained every chance he got, but Solan trusted him enough to believe he wouldn’t break his promise. Their relationship was still shaky and unlikely to get any steadier until they had a chance to actually sit down and get to know each other again, something Solan was hoping would happen once they got up into the mountains.
He climbed into the back once the truck stopped, shaking Kyr awake and digging through their meagre supplies for food to heat over the little campstove. Torin offered to cook it, leaving Solan free to check Lokan. He pressed the inside of his wrist to Lokan’s forehead and frowned at the heat against his skin, then ran his fingers through Lokan’s fever-damp hair, trying not to touch the shattered stumps that were all that remained of his antlers. Lokan’s face had taken on a grey tinge and his breathing sounded rattly, but he breathed steadily. Solan could only tell himself that was enough, that it meant Lokan wasn’t dying slowly.
He ate without tasting it and sent Torin to sit in the passenger seat when they got moving again, curling up in the blankets with Kyr to try and catch an hour or two of sleep. When he woke again it was snowing so hard Ceridwen could only drive at a crawl, hunched forward over the steering wheel to try and see out through the windshield. By dark the snow and the shadows forced them to stop and huddle up together in the back to keep warm, taking turns sitting beside Lokan. Solan dozed off and on throughout the night, waking up each time convinced that Lokan had stopped breathing while he was asleep, but by the first filmy light of dawn his breathing actually seemed a little better.
They reached the base of the mountains by dusk the next day and camped out again, though Ceridwen promised they would stop in Awen to pick up supplies and spend the night somewhere warm. Solan drove most of the next day to allow her to sit with Lokan and cast her healing magic over him, a process that seemed to completely fascinate Torin. Kyr spent most of it sitting in the passenger seat, occasionally asking Solan questions about the mountains and the Fae in a disinterested voice. Driving through Awen was like driving through a ghost town; he saw one or two of the older Fae come out to watch them go past, but the majority of the buildings were closed and boarded up. From the look in Ceridwen’s eyes it creeped her out as much as it did Solan, but she just mustered a smile and told him that at least they wouldn’t have to struggle to find what they needed.
The old house was locked up but Ceridwen jimmied the lock and helped Solan carry Lokan inside while Kyr and Torin dragged in what few supplies they had left. Solan was exhausted by the time they got Lokan upstairs to his own bed, and collapsed in the armchair beside it, offering to watch Lokan while he caught his breath. Ceridwen left and he heard her voice downstairs, talking to Torin and Kyr, though he couldn’t hear her actual words. He idly wondered if she would just let them go, loyalty to Lokan or not, then decided that would be a stupid decision all around; if nothing else this was still Fae territory and it was fast approaching winter, when the snows would block the mountains off until late spring.
He dozed a little and woke to the sound of snow ticking against the window and the wind gusting around the eaves of the house. Blinking blearily, he glanced at Lokan and jerked up right when he saw Lokan’s eyes were open, feeling a jolt of fear ground itself out in his belly. For a horrible instant he thought Lokan had finally died, then Lokan blinked and glanced at him, expression tired but clear.
“We made it to Awen?” he asked, his voice scratchy and rough.
“Yeah.” Solan reached out and took his hand, checking his temperature. Fever still burned under Lokan’s skin despite the clarity in his gaze. “You feeling any better?”
The ghost of a smile touched Lokan’s mouth. “No. Ceridwen?”
“Downstairs, I think. Um, Kyr and Torin are still with us. Ceridwen made them promise to come until you were awake enough to change your mind.”
“Not changing my mind, little Fae.”
“Why? What’s the big deal about dragging them along? If it’s safety, Torin’s already proven he’s willing to go against his own army to help you, though I really don’t understand why. Kyr... He won’t do anything if I ask him not to, and without Torin telling him to. You can’t use the same excuse on them that you used on me, and I don’t even know why you’d want to when they’re human. Let me take them down to Arian Mawr. I’ll come back.”
“The pass will only open once, little Fae.” Lokan’s eyes slid closed and he took a deep, shaky breath that ended in a coughing fit. Solan thought he saw flecks of blood at the corner of Lokan’s mouth before Lokan wiped them away.
“Then let them go. Give them a truck and some supplies. What good is it going to do anyone to have them with us? Especially with this stupid fucking war turning around on us.”
“You talk too much, little Fae. Be quiet.” Lokan let out his breath and gradually relaxed, his hand hanging heavy in Solan’s. Solan sighed and leaned over to kiss his forehead and his chapped lips, then got up and went quietly downstairs.
They stayed a day in the house, where it was warm, before Ceridwen reluctantly got them moving again. Lokan still spent most of his time sleeping, occasionally muttering in the grip of fever dreams, but when he was awake he seemed mostly coherent. As they moved further up into the mountains he insisted on sitting up for a few minutes at a time, despite the ugliness of his wounds, which weren’t healing well despite Ceridwen’s magic. Solan split his time between sitting with Lokan and spending time with Kyr, even if it was snuggling up together to catch some sleep. Once or twice he woke to see Torin resting his fingertips lightly against Lokan’s cheek, his eyebrows drawn down in an expression Solan couldn’t quite interpret.
A snowstorm delayed them just before the pass and when it cleared at twilight, Ceridwen made the decision to keep pushing through the darkness, telling Solan she was afraid that if they left it any longer, the pass would snow in and they wouldn’t be able to get through. Sitting in the passenger seat, he tried to get a look at their surroundings but the wind-drifted snow and shadows left him with only a vague impression of towering mountain walls to either side and a narrow, icy path that even their winter-chained tires struggled on.
Dawn broke clear and cold, and Solan finally got a look at the valley they were driving down into. It spread out before them, a natural cup in the earth between the immensity of the mountains, already filled with deep white snow. A house sat in the shelter of one corner, seemingly tiny in the white expanse until they got closer and he saw it was actually a good size, three storeys tall and built of sturdy dark brick and wood. Smoke coiled up from the chimney and he saw a few fuzzy balls of fur in a paddock adjoining the house, too clustered up together in their dark shelter for him to decide what they actually were.
Ceridwen eased the truck to a stop in the cleared area in front of the house and cut the engine, looking up at the dark facade with an expression of almost uneasy relief. Solan opened his mouth to ask where they were, then shut it when the front door opened and a woman stepped out, shading her eyes against the cold light of the rising sun. As she approached Solan got a good look at her face and understood why Lokan and Ceridwen had wanted to come here.
On Lokan the violet eyes and slightly broad features were pleasant but not especially handsome; on her they combined into a regal sort of beauty that had Solan staring at her with his mouth slightly open. Even in heavy winter boots, leather and fur leggings, and a big fur coat, with feathers and glass beads braided into the blue-black curls spilling down her back, she had the elegance of a queen. The few streaks of grey in her hair only seemed to add to the effect, and he had no doubt she knew how to use the long curved knife at her hip.
“Don’t stare.” Ceridwen reached over and tipped his chin up with one finger then slid out of the truck, gesturing for him to follow. She hugged the woman tightly and nodded to Solan, switching into Fae to speak. “Little Fae, this is Lokan’s mother, Roisin. Roisin, Solan Yorke. He’s our... well, I’ll explain later.”
“Ma’am.” Solan nervously offered a hand, wondering if he should bow instead, and got a warm smile and a solid handshake in return.
“You are welcome, of course,” she said in Fae, her smile fading a little when she looked back at Ceridwen. “If you’re here, then there is trouble.” She glanced at the truck and her smile vanished.
Solan followed her gaze and saw Lokan standing unsteadily beside the truck, leaning heavily on Torin’s shoulder. Kyr had gotten out behind them but was hanging back, obviously torn between standing with Torin and staying out of the way. Roisin barely acknowledged them, crossing the snow to cup Lokan’s face in both hands before she reached up and hugged him. He let go of Torin to hug her back and Torin stepped carefully away, joining Kyr by the back of the truck.
“Stupid child.” She took his face again and shook him gently before pressing a kiss to his temple. “Come inside. Ceridwen.”
Ceridwen jumped slightly at the sound of her name but came to help, supporting Lokan on one side to help him into the house. Solan exchanged a glance with Kyr and Torin, then the three of them silently gathered up what was left of their supplies and followed.
Solan woke late that night, after they’d all gone to bed—Ceridwen and Lokan in their own rooms, Solan sharing with Kyr and Torin in a room that could have comfortably slept twice their number—and wandered down the stairs to the first floor. In the dark the interior of the house seemed to stretch on forever and he wandered for a little while, bare feet cold on the floors, until a soft orange glow drew him into the sitting room. Roisin sat in an armchair in front of the fire, her long legs tucked up underneath her, staring into the flames. For a second Solan thought he saw images dancing in the fiery depths, then she looked up at him and smiled the same crooked smile as Lokan’s, and the images vanished.
“Late to be wandering,” she said, gesturing to the chair opposite her. “Come warm yourself, you look cold.”
He gratefully took the seat, holding his hands out to the fire. “Do you... Is Lokan going to be okay?”
“If he’s going to die, he will tonight.”
He looked sideways at her. “That’s a little... cold.”
“Should I wail and gnash my teeth? Rend my clothes? My son is not dead yet, Solan. I have done what I can for him, so now I sit in front of my fire and wait for dawn to come and tell me if it was in vain.” She stretched her legs out. “You seem unhappy.”
“I don’t have a lot to be happy about right now.”
“I understand. Even for a child like you this war must seem like it has lasted forever.”
“Do you agree with it? With Lokan? Did you ever agree with it? Ceridwen said Lokan’s father died fighting and I sort of got the impression that you sort of fell on hard times when he was a baby. Before he got the...” He made a motion above his head, curling his fingers in when he remembered Lokan’s antlers were still gone. “They acted like it was his fault he... lost them, like suddenly he was a completely different person.”
“We hold too much to tradition at times.” She leaned forward to throw another log on the fire. “This war has lasted so long most people must have forgotten why it began. It’s become something of a cultural identity, Fae versus human. Both sides think the other is full of monsters, and I suppose both sides are correct.”
“How did it start?”
“As most things do, with a simple unkindness. One human cheated one Fae, and from there it built.” She smiled. “Or so our stories say. I’m sure human stories say something quite different.”
“Anyone ever tell you that you talk in circles?”
“Yes, frequently. I consider it a talent.” She had a throaty laugh, contagious enough that Solan found himself smiling. “Do you know why we continue to fight, Solan?”
“That as well. It seems that now war is all we are. There are legitimate complaints, of course; Fae fear for their lives in all but a few areas, the government of this country is all human, and we are crowded out and forced into corners to accommodate human expansion when they are the original interlopers. But I think a lot of the fighting now is because neither side would know what to do with itself if we stopped. And there is no one strong enough to stand out there and tell them to stop, that all they are accomplishing is death after death.” She glanced at the ceiling and smiled again. “Yet.”
He looked up as well, automatically. “Lokan doesn’t seem willing to tell anyone to stop. He still thinks killing them all is the best way to stop the fighting.”
“I never said I was talking about Lokan.” She pushed herself to her feet with a feline grace. “I need to walk, or I will greet the dawn too stiff to move. Go back to bed, Solan. You have time to rest now. Take advantage of it.”
He thought about staying up and waiting with her, but a huge yawn changed his mind. As he headed out of the sitting room, she said his name again and he looked back at her, seeing Lokan in the way she stood, and something that was much older and much more powerful.
“I met your mother once or twice.” She seemed to consider her next words. “And I’m glad that she found her own way.”
Solan smiled a little. “Me too. Night.”
He headed back upstairs and crawled in beside Kyr again, snuggling up to him under the warmth of the blankets. Kyr muttered something and wrapped both arms around him, pressing his face into the side of Solan’s neck. Closing his eyes, Solan fell quickly into a deep and dreamless sleep, and didn’t wake until early morning, when Torin shook them both awake.
“Is it Lokan?” he asked, fear jolting him out of morning grogginess.
“No. I mean, I don’t think he’s dead. But you should come look out the window.” Pulling away from them, Torin headed over to the big bay window, shrouded with curtains, at the other end of the room.
Solan exchanged a glance with Kyr then reluctantly got out of bed, padding over to the window in his bare feet. Torin silently held the curtains aside and after the first dazzle of the morning light cleared from Solan’s eyes, he got a good look outside.
It had snowed sometime during the night, laying a thick heavy carpet of white across the landscape. The truck was almost buried in it and the wind had driven the drifts into curving waves up against the walls of the house. It reminded Solan of the snowstorm that had trapped him and Kyr in a motel for two days, and he smiled a little, until a sudden loud rumbling rattled the window’s glass. The avalanche was so massive and so slow that he didn’t quite register what was happening until it had crashed down against the base of the mountains on the other side of the valley, sending a spray of snow at least ten feet into the air. For a long moment they just stared at the broad swatch of ice and snow where there had once been a narrow path leading out of the valley, then Torin heaved a sigh.
“Somehow I don’t think we’re going anywhere for a while,” he said, and let the curtain fall.