Stranger in the Storm
It was early evening at the great Summer Court, but it was storming outside and already quite dark. The lanterns and chandeliers had already been lit, and there were those who shivered when standing near any of the great windows of the royal hall. It had been winter for a very long time.
The King and Queen of that court had already received the heralds of the coming storm—watchers blasted their trumpets, gates were shut, but the doors for the wayfarer and stranger left unlocked though guarded, for their kingdom was not at war with anyone at all, but for the endless winter of a hundred years, and no man could do battle with that.
Except perhaps one.
No one looked twice at the Summer Prince. Some thought him one of the royal princes, though it had been generations since all thought him so. Some thought him the Court Mage, who reserved his powers for the growing of their food. Even the King and Queen only knew as their parents had told them that the Summer Court was obliged to house the Summer Prince until such time as his father sent for him. As his title and not his name went in the books of the records, no one even realized that Arot had been in this court for more than a hundred years, from before permanent winter had claimed the land.
Arot felt winter batter against the royal palace, the fortress surrounding, the city surrounding that, the lands surrounding that. He felt the cold like frostbite at his fingers, felt the overcast sky like an oppressive weight hung from his shoulders, shivered though he stood at the very heart of the room near the great roaring fireplace and did not look towards the King and Queen, one the great-grandchild of his one-time foster mother.
There were other things he felt—bitterness, anger, regret. Storms came frequently during the long winter, but even now, he was colder than ever, thought he’d never felt quite as cold as this but once.
A long, low gong sent a hush through the hall.
It was almost time for the court to adjourn for dinner, but that sound. Arot looked up, eyes narrowing. It made a lady hovering nearby start as if frightened. Arot was brighter and redder in coloring than anyone else and when he grew suspicious, as he did now, his eyes tended to flame into brilliant gold.
He did not smile to reassure her as he usually did. He kept his eyes on the door, listened to the measured tread of a guardsman leading in whatever stranger had stumbled in out of the cold, white dark, waiting for the great doors to the hall to open and a cloaked figure to emerge into warmth, dripping with slowly melting snow and frost.
“The Summer Court greets you, traveler,” said the Queen most graciously. It had always been the rule of the Summer Court to shelter those near captured by winter. “From where have you traveled?”
The stranger pulled back his head and bowed, and Arot’s breath arrested in his throat. “The north,” said the stranger in a dark low timbre that seemed to crackle with ice.
When he rose up again, he was so much more beautiful than he’d ever been before, all his melancholy lines sharpened into impenetrable mystique, eyes blue and piercing, the faint hint of his smile more honed and less easy than before. He’d become a man from the boy’s mere promise, and to look at him was to feel alive with cold and humming with power, and the word was out before Arot could stop it.
“Heresh,” he said flatly, feeling locked within his chest where he felt his heart had stopped beating years ago as his land had turned to ice.
The stranger looked over, for Arot no longer chose to stand near the royal pair, not when the woman who’d told him everything she could remember of his father, who’d raised him as her own, and chided them both for every caper they got up to was now nothing more than an ache in his chest and heart where all his lost had settled.
Heresh’s smile should have sharpened, become more cruel. Instead it softened, eyes seeming to look back over the years toward their childhood. “Arot,” he answered, and for a moment, just a moment, it was as if no time at all had passed.
Arot’s anger burned white hot and livid, but he did justice to his duty and turned back to the King and Queen and told them, “We knew each other a long time ago.”
“Ah,” said the King with cheer, mistaking his meaning. Arot did not correct him. “Then you are welcome to join our evening feast.”
Heresh bowed, and Arot went out before he could see Heresh sent to a warm chamber to dry himself, before memory could do more than bite at Arot’s heels as he left.
Two young boys running over the gentle sunlit forest, laughter filling the warm, soft summer air. They were at the Summer Court, not in the Lands of Eternal Summer. At some point, numb crisp air would overtake the woods, but winter was mild near the Summer Court when it came, for it was the heart of the kingdom closest to summer.
It was said the power of both the Summer and Winter Kings waxed and waned. When one grew strong, the other began to grow weak, and so the lands between the wintry north and the summery south moved from one season to the next over the course of time.
The boys felt free from this cycle for a time, caught up in the joys of youth and the long stretch of the end of a decade long summer or more. There was no end immediately in sight.
Arot, tired of swinging from the branches, fell back on the grass beside Heresh for a moment to catch his breath. It wasn’t always this easy. It wasn’t all play. There was a lot of time spent learning to rule, running around and easing the problems of those who occupied this land, and hearing the stories from the Queen about his father, the former Summer Prince, whom she’d loved like a brother.
“I don’t want to go away,” he said suddenly.
Heresh lifted his dark head from a tree root he’d pillowed it against.
“I like helping people, being here, with them.” Arot frowned. He stared up at the sky, unaware of the picture he made stretched out on the grass, red hair tousled, glowing like the sun itself had taken root under his skin. “The King rules summer,” he added, “not the people.”
It was true. The season of the prince was for living among people. The season of the king was for wielding power over the earth itself.
“You like people,” Heresh commented.
Arot bumped his shoulder. “Don’t you?”
Heresh thought of those who had mocked and scorned him when he was a child, little more than another manufactured container for his father’s power, to keep it from overwhelming the man’s body and killing him. He rolled over and breathlessly tangled a hand in Arot’s hair, drawing those golden eyes to look up at him curiously. “I like you.”
There was feasting in the Summer Court, meals served at frequent intervals to different guests of the royal household. The strangers within the gates partook with the royal court, but there were other cycles when those of the city were fed, when the leftover harvests of the day were carted out for distribution to those in the land.
The storm howled outside, but within was light and warmth.
Arot did not avoid the dinner table, as Heresh’s presence was not enough cause to despise the court or insult its rulers. But he made sure to sit far from the place given to strangers, where Heresh sat now, dried and refreshed and still too handsome by far.
“What have you seen in your travels?” asked one of the lords, Kagos, who liked to ride through the frozen woods over icy roads to other lands and learn of tales worth entertaining the court on a winter’s evening. There was plenty of trade still to be had, despite the reign of winter everywhere.
But Heresh shrugged, disinterest in his eyes if not quite his tone. “I’m rarely away from home. I’m sure you’ve heard more interesting.”
Ha! Arot wanted to laugh. Heresh was the most interesting tale of all and a mystery to even its fellow participant.
“Have you ever heard of the Winter Court?” Kagos asked then. “Our colder mirror and the last bastion of the north where people always dwelt,” he added.
Who hadn’t heard of it? But that wasn’t what Kagos meant, and many at the table quieted or leaned forward to better hear. Surely he meant to tell what had become of it.
“I heard they stopped sending messages to our court more than a hundred years ago,” Lady Aurek said, eyes gleaming with interest.
It was enough to convince Kagos of his audience, though Heresh barely looked up from his soup.
“Ah, yes. I went up there at the zenith of the heat and sun,”—what would have been summer had they any—”to see for myself what only legend now speaks of. But the mountains were shrouded in drifts so deep, a loud cry could send snow over all the villages below. The ice was so thick, only wells in houses give forth water. There was no passable way up.
“But in the last village of the foothills, there’s a small well-established inn they say has been there since before the endless winter, and they told me that up the mountain sits the palace of the Winter Court. It is frozen solid,” Kagos said, looking around keenly at the listening lords and ladies. “The ice has swallowed it up and rises high above the walls. All the people within have succumbed to winter and died long ago, still frozen there, unburied by anything but the snow.”
“How gruesome!” declared the Lady Aurek. “Surely it can’t be true!”
But “It’s true,” a voice said flatly.
Arot stared at Heresh, suddenly dropping his silver utensils with a clatter, horror blooming in his chest.
Heresh looked back, eyes dark and unsurprised.
“It’s been there for a hundred and twenty years,” Arot whispered. From when they were children.
Heresh stared back for a long moment. “Yes.”
Arot didn’t even try to hold back the sudden arousal of feeling. “Were you always a monster?” he demanded loudly, too loudly.
The guests at the table stirred in unease, uncertain of what had just happened, what shifted from a mere tale to something else altogether. The King and Queen did not speak against Arot. They had generally always left him be, even when he seemed inexplicable.
Heresh put his chin on his fist and stared at Arot, as if he were drinking in a sorely missed sight. Arot had exploded on more than one occasion in their youth.
But he had lost the right to do that. Arot glared at him.
“What else did you think I was?” Heresh asked.
Arot growled and stood, barely pausing to bow to the King and receive a permissive gesture to leave, before he turned and stormed out of the banquet hall, unwilling to hear anymore.
It was getting colder, the Summer King’s power slowly fading enough to let winter’s edges turn the color of the leaves, turn the air cooler.
Arot shuddered sometimes as his body began to warm and hum with a strength he had no concept of how to wield. Heresh would look at him worriedly, but Arot would wave it off. He’d told Heresh he was the Summer Prince, and this was a natural part of that.
The power would overcome the King’s body eventually and as he burned out, the power would go to Arot.
“I’ll have to go south soon,” he figured aloud. “It’d be horrible to ascend here,” he added with a grimace. The Lands of Eternal Summer were not as hospitable as the Summer Court at their edges. At Arot’s ascension to the position of King, he would be the epicenter of so much heat and light and blazing intensity as to overwhelm any people near him.
To be the Summer King was to be lonely.
Heresh huffed. “You say it like it’s easy.”
Never that. Arot knew what he really meant though. You’re saying you’re going to leave me.
“Hey.” Arot caught Heresh’s hand. “I’ll race you back to the palace!”
More than one hapless person had to jump to evade their careening helter skelter run that followed.
Heresh had arrived, a stranger in a storm, just a few years before when they were both fourteen years old, and now they were almost men, but for a short precious time, Arot allowed himself to forget that and enjoy the brief days he had left.
A stranger in the storm. The Summer Court had long held the rule that they could not turn away strangers in the storm. Once, that had brought Arot his truest friend, and now it brought the traitor back to him.
Arot tried not to focus on the bitterness aching inside him as he made his way to the private gardens and found the warm soil of the inner courts. The seeds had been planted already, and now he used what power he had—not enough to fight back the winter, but enough to feed the people.
He put his hands to the earth and breathed in the good scents of growing things, felt the strum of life in the land, and breathed out summer.
Seeds sprang to life, grew with their roots stretching down to the waterways built into the gardens, stretched green and alive upward toward the glowing lamps overhead and the light and heat of Arot himself.
Fruit trees hung heavy with ripening apples and peaches and pears. Wheat filled a plot to its edges. Herbs and vegetables crowded each other and clambered over trellises. It grew until Arot gasped and lifted his hands from the soil and dropped to the stone beside.
He only had so much power. Somewhere the Summer King was trapped and sealed away behind an immense wall of winter and ice, rising over the mountains before the great deserts and the Land of Eternal Summer. Somehow the power of the Summer King could no longer pour into Arot as it poured out of his father.
He clenched his fists, even surrounded by a summer harvest to feed the kingdom for another short while. He was the Summer Prince, but he wasn’t enough.
Heresh hadn’t planned to ever return to the Winter Court. He stood there now, breath coming out in icy puffs, the power he’d hidden deep inside his body thrumming coldly. Arot didn’t know he’d been the Winter Prince, let alone…
The Court was ghastly, as horrific as his memory had served. The Winter King had not been content with tradition. Instead of leaving his child among the heirs of the Winter Court, he’d taken up residence and ruled cruelly, pouring his power into icy crystals whenever it threatened to harm him, and eventually taking his son, far too young, far too early, and pouring far too much into him.
Their kind did not live long. Traditions held for centuries had a purpose, but though the traditions were passed down, the purpose was not.
The Winter Prince wrestled with his father for the power and became the Winter King in the most devastating landslide of snow and ice raging from his very body that any Winter King’s ascension had ever caused.
Heresh stared at the ruins of his land, his people, the ones he’d never had the opportunity to care for and rule, nor even the opportunity to learn how. He never told Arot it made him jealous sometimes.
But sentiment was wasted. His body eased into the feeling of the cold of his land, the strength of the old earth and stone of his mountains. He began to walk and let the feeling of his power returning to him change the way he walked, the way he stood. He’d associated the feeling with everything he hated, but he could not deny it felt good.
He found the seals his father had made, receptacles of power Heresh had used to anchor the cold up north despite his own flight south. They were cold, so cold, and to take one up in his arms felt like drawing all the power back into himself.
Everywhere Arot walked, summer blossomed in the earth around him, grew plants beneath his tread. He was a breath of warm sunlight wherever he went.
Heresh felt it now that he was too close to the seals, winter rooting into his flesh, stretching out from his touch, his breath, his very thoughts as the land welcomed home its king.
He swore, wrestled a seal from the ground anyway, like an icy statue in his embrace. He had a very long way to carry it, so he had best get started.
Something was wrong.
Arot frowned as the quality of the cold stealing over the land shifted. There was too much frost on the ground in the mornings, too much death burrowing into the earth below. His senses rejected that winter would come so hard, so soon, and before he’d received his power.
Surely, the Summer King could either hold back the winter or pass summer into his son.
He wanted to tell Heresh he was worried, but he couldn’t, because Heresh had left for a few days to visit family. Arot frowned. Heresh had never even spoken of his family before.
He followed the wrongness with his own instincts, letting his sense of summer and winter guide him toward the sting of cold coming from the north unchecked. Had the Winter Prince come to visit? he wondered. A Prince would make it unseasonable but not destroy the balance altogether as the visit of a King would.
But Arot’s frown deepened as he turned southward and felt an unnatural bastion of cold hard winter there.
South was where the Summer King dwelt. South were the Lands of Eternal Summer. There should never be winter there.
He was still frowning when surprise widened his eyes and he saw Heresh coming up the path from the southern road.
Heresh looked up suddenly, startled, eyes dark and haunted. He stared at Arot coming toward him for such a long moment, naked hunger on his face.
It was as wrong as everything else. Arot stopped walking, suddenly terrified, and started running toward Heresh.
Heresh smiled then, too sweet for his always melancholy face. He spread his arms and the world exploded into cold.
Arot hadn’t seen Heresh in more than a hundred years, and here he was now, spent with exhaustion in the face of what Heresh had wrought upon Arot’s land, weary beyond grief.
He’d never had the chance to talk to Heresh. There had been ascension—winter’s ascension—in the middle of the lands of the Summer Court, then Arot recovering from the sudden onslaught of power too great for him to fight, then waking to find the Court knew nothing of what had happened or where Heresh had gone, only that it was now winter.
A winter that never ended.
Arot stared at his own unaging hands. He’d never heard of their kind being immortal either, only that their life waxed and waned with their power. Arot scowled as it struck him again, not for the first time, that he knew nothing of what had happened either or why.
And Heresh was here.
He forced himself off the stone ground by the new harvest and made himself get to his feet, walk the distance necessary to leave the gardens, then gripped the wall and made his way down the corridor. He knew where the guest suites were.
The Summer King had never met a Winter Prince, not the one who’d become King, not this barely grown youngling trudging up to his mountains with a seal of winter in his arms.
It had been a long time since the Summer King felt winter sapping his strength and fighting him powerfully. It extended his own life and reign and how long before the Summer Prince would have to ascend. But now, something had changed and winter walked the land again, no longer anchored distantly, no longer dormant in the lands between their powers.
There used to be enough power in the Summer King to fight even this, but he’d lost enough to his child as it burned through his body that this new cold threat might be beyond him should the Winter King follow on the heels of this Prince.
“Why are you here?” he asked politely. No need to ask for a battle if that’s where this was headed.
The Winter Prince looked up at him but only looked minutely thoughtful. He wasn’t coming up the mountain, the Summer King realized. He was planting winter’s seal at its base.
Only a King could flood it with enough power to stand against the Summer King in his stronghold, but that made it no less a threat. He sighed and drew on the light and heat of summer, pouring power into a land that rejected the seal of winter, pushing against it and drowning it with life.
The Prince frowned at it a moment, then looked up at the Summer King again. There was no regret in his eyes as they turned cold and blue, and the sudden chill that bit through the earth was no half-gained Prince’s power.
The Summer King stared down, stunned, as a Winter King, at the beginning and height of his strength, raised a wall and mountain of icy cold and thick sweeping drifts of snow right at the Gate of Summer. It was a seal, not a battle. It never crossed the mountains into Eternal Summer, nor did it continue to wrestle with the Summer King’s strength when he reached out into the land. It shoved him back with an aching cold sting.
It was unheard of.
“You cannot hold back summer forever,” he said to the boy, at last.
The King acceded with a small shrug. “You cannot pass this seal with what power you have.”
He couldn’t. It frustrated to no end, but he couldn’t, not unless the Summer Prince came with his power and they reached together. He couldn’t help but wonder though, “Why?”
It didn’t harm either Summer Prince or Summer King, but it would harm the land to have no summer. Winter had never seemed interested in ruling everything.
The Winter King turned his back and started to walk away, then paused. He murmured quietly, “He doesn’t deserve to die yet.”
The Summer King stared wide-eyed, suddenly realizing who and what he meant, though he couldn’t fathom why. It was time for the Summer King to die soon, and once the Prince ascended, his time would be set from that moment.
Except he wouldn’t ascend, couldn’t—until this seal was removed.
“You can’t hold the seal forever,” the Summer King said, compassion softening his words. He’d loved his child. He couldn’t hate someone who also loved him.
The Winter King didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. Just as the Summer King’s power felt no battle from winter with the seal between them, neither did winter have to fend off summer. The Winter King’s power would last a very long time.
Arot was neither gentle nor polite when he banged on Heresh’s door and shoved himself inside. He stopped, frozen, a few steps inside.
Heresh was standing near the window, well away from the fire, breath frosting the wall. His cloak, jerkin, and shirt had all been discarded and his body looked like a mass of scars—ice burns and ice itself spread through his body. He looked frail and tired and beaten, and yet strangely, infuriatingly beautiful.
“Rude as ever, I see,” Heresh said flatly.
Arot forced his eyes upward. It could have been for staring or for bursting in in the first place, he was chiding, but it didn’t much matter.
Arot closed the door and demanded, “Why are you here?”
Heresh stared for a long moment, face utterly unreadable. “I can’t visit an old friend?” he asked.
It made Arot clench his fists in anger. “After what you did? After how you left?” He growled, fighting back tears and failing. “I loved you.”
Heresh, the Winter King and the source of more than a hundred years of endless winter, looked up sharply and said with a scoffing tone, “How foolish.”
Arot hardened his voice, demanded again, “Why are you here now, Heresh?” He had no strength, no power; he’d exhausted it all on the harvest; but he demanded as if he could force Heresh to answer.
Heresh sidestepped the question. “Why are you here,” he asked, “instead of searching for your father to gain his power?”
“Like you did?” Arot was no fool. He knew the only thing that could have destroyed the Winter Court in that manner. “I’m saving my people!”
“Wouldn’t it be better to save them by ending winter?” Heresh said in an overly reasonable tone.
Arot lunged, fist moving before he could even think to stop it, a hundred years of hurt and betrayal and anger boiling out of him in a moment.
Heresh didn’t stop him or block the blow, just staggered into the wall, staring up at Arot with that naked hunger in his face that had never made sense before and still didn’t now. “Isn’t this what you wanted?” Heresh whispered.
Arot stared at him, confused.
“You wanted to stay.”
It flooded back to him, that idle wish he could stay among his people instead of reigning over the seasons. Arot stared in horror, at the very idea this could have started because of him. “No,” he whispered back. No.
Heresh said nothing for a long time, just studied him quietly, finally straightened gingerly, one hand against the wall. “I’m dying.”
Arot couldn’t find his voice, just looked again at the map of winter breaking Heresh’s body. “Your son—”
“I have no son,” Heresh snapped. “There is no Winter Prince.”
Everything was wrong, and Arot put a hand to the icy scars in Heresh’s flesh. Arot’s hand hurt at the coldness of the touch.
“We’re supposed to live for a season,” Heresh went on quietly. “We’ve lived like this more than a hundred years. I have no heir, there is no Winter Prince, and the Summer King cannot pass down his power.”
Arot growled. It wasn’t something that just happened to them. “And whose fault is that?”
“Mine.” There was no regret in Heresh’s voice. “I wanted to keep you.”
Arot’s eyes widened.
Heresh barely whispered, barely loud enough to hear, his own subdued horror leaking out in words. “We’re supposed to live for a season, and ours was almost over.”
“And this is better?” Arot choked out, the enormity of what Heresh was saying, of what he had done sinking in.
“You’re alive,” Heresh answered.
“You sense-forsaken, overdramatic idiot,” Arot vented and caught Heresh by the neck, dragged him close enough to cry against his neck, crying for real this time without fighting it.
He didn’t stop to think, didn’t question the impulse as he caught Heresh’s mouth under his and finally, finally, Heresh’s stiff distance melted into familiar knowing warmth, a touch that had embraced Arot before, that trembled with want.
Time renewed Arot’s power, and he took every flickering trace of it and spread his hands over Heresh’s broken body to pour in summer, to hold in the brittle excess of winter, to hold death at bay a little longer.
Heresh gasped, but Arot didn’t let him speak or question it. He kissed Heresh again like a man dying of thirst drank water.
He stayed with Heresh that night, letting his warm glow seep into Heresh’s body beside him, sated himself despite the lingering ache.
“What about your father?” Heresh asked, voice quiet in the near dark.
Their problems weren’t solved yet, and Heresh had clearly not thought everything through. Or Arot acknowledged to himself, he really was an idiot who thought the price was worth it.
“We’ll deal with that later,” he finally sighed. It would take more than a night to save them both and to right the balance Heresh had destroyed. “You should have stayed here if you hadn’t wanted to lose me,” he added.
Heresh didn’t answer.
The Winter King being here for so long would have starved the land for sure. Even so, Arot wasn’t yet willing to let go. Again.
He curled around Heresh and left the matter for another day. Exhausted but less bitter, he slept.
It was early evening at the Summer Court when a child blew in with an unseasonable storm, drenched and bedraggled and miserable, shivering in his cloak. The guards took him to the court and he bowed before the King and Queen of that court with their many children.
One of the children did not look like the others. He was too red and too gold and too vibrant, and he only had to smile once before the Winter Prince blinked back at him and realized he was in love.0