Lily could see the warmth, flickering and dancing across the backs of her closed eyelids. It tickled at her nose, smoothed its grasp over her cheeks, and sent rivulets of heat shooting down throughout her body, slowly beginning to banish the cold that seemed to have encased her very veins.
She had been elsewhere, a cold, dark world where she was completely alone. Lost, with only the howling of the wind in her ears to keep her company, she had floated in that hazy state. She had wondered only vaguely if she was dead, if this was her afterlife. Even that unsettling thought had only poked lazily at the edges of her mind, though, before floating away and losing itself amidst the utter cold.
The longer she had drifted, the more certain her weak thoughts had been that she must have died in the blizzard, but she just couldn't seem to make herself care. Drifting further and further away from all coherent thought and hope had been remarkably peaceful, and even the image of a pair of gentle eyes looking into hers with tenderness and love had evoked only a passing sadness. She didn't even know whose eyes they were.
Suddenly, though, had come this strange warmth, the color of fire, a faraway voice saying – of all things – "He'll never keep his bargain if you die, so wake up, you mealymouthed Princess!" and in the first real thought she'd had in – oh, she couldn't say how long; it could have been hours, days, it could have been years – two words implanted themselves in her mind.
Not yet. She wasn't done yet. It wasn't time for her to drift away, to just let go of life as if there were nothing she held precious. It wasn't time for her to turn away, forsaking everything – and everyone – she'd sworn to protect. It wasn't her time. There was too much left to do.
The longer those two words beat out a rhythm in her head, playing themselves over and over again, the stronger their sound became and the deeper it entrenched itself into her soul. Not yet. Not yet. Not yet. Her blood pulsed to the beat of Not yet and the roaring in her ears was no longer the wind, but millions upon millions of tiny whispers overlaid, all saying only one thing.
Memories began to pour back, filling and warming the frozen void. Memories of a father, looking down at her with affection. Memories of a boy who didn't know how to speak to her, but whose grateful and awed expression had spoken volumes. Memories of a sword, briefly in her hands, but taken away again. Memories of a forest, dazzling in the sunlight, and mysterious in the moonlight. Memories of a man making her laugh until she wept, holding her with tenderness even though it was her fault that his execution papers had been signed. Memories of terror and madness, of the great horned Beast who looked at her with such desire, and the awakening lust she hadn't been able to stop.
It was her life, all of her life, but the memories didn't stop there. They continued to flood back to her, little things, tiny details and anecdotes long since forgotten. The golden flecks in the eyes of her mother's portrait. Falling down a staircase as a toddler, but only crying until her father had been fetched. A dark-haired boy who wouldn't look up from his book no matter how she flounced and pouted. The silken rasp of another's hands against her skin. The autumn bite in the air when she went to see the Swordmaster, clad in only a nightgown.
So much that had been lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life now revealed itself, and now she realized that her life was full, so very full of colors and sensations and so many people and she wondered how she could even have thought of giving it all up, even for a moment's peace, because, after all, she had so much to live for…
Lily opened her eyes.
Darkness sat impatiently in the recesses of his dark cave, taloned fingers tapping impatiently against the stone of his rough-hewn throne. He could see in his mind's eye that the sprite had found Lily, had started a fire, and was even now attempting to restore some circulation in the girl's deadened arms.
Perhaps he had underestimated that wisp of a sprite… or, at least, underestimated the depths of her fairy lust for that human boy. It shouldn't have surprised him, just how far she was willing to go. After all, she – formerly the companion of that pesky forest spirit – had come to him, after all.
If he had one true weakness besides light, it was that he underestimated his foes. Darkness frowned, considering that in his powerful mind. He had underestimated that boy and his ragtag band of dwarves and fairies, and he had certainly underestimated the strength and resolve of the Princess Lily – not that her strength was unattractive. On the contrary, when he thought of taking that resolve into his own hands, caressing and weakening it, playing on it as though it were a fine-tuned instrument until she was his entirely… A smile of anticipation crossed his face.
Once Lily arrived, had come to him, there would be no need of locks or restraints. Her largely untapped passion would betray her, and though she might weep and rage, her body and soul would belong to him as clearly as if he had taken a brand and stamped his mark into her flesh.
He would, of course, have those pathetic humans who sought to protect her destroyed. During his previous assignation with the princess, he had grown careless, had allowed those annoying insects to dart about his Fortress, assuming that they could do him no harm, had even, in a moment of terrible weakness and desire, confessed his aversion to sunlight to the wise-eyed beauty the princess had seemed to become.
Those had led to his downfall, to his near-destruction. He would not allow that to happen again. Not this time. He would brook no interference from those foolish mortals and their ridiculous, starry-eyed affections. If there was to be any interference, it would be from him.
"Very well, fairy," he murmured, his voice echoing to the cave around him. "It seems you will actually save her. Perhaps I will keep you alive a bit longer. In the meantime…"
Darkness closed his eyes and reached for the blackness within himself, entering the World of Dreams as easily as opening a door. It was a grey, misty place, enlivened only by the flashes of color that were people's dreams. Those two simmering blotches of green and grey just over there belonged to those two men up on the mountain, the flash of silver over there was that foolish princeling's, while the brown wisp behind it belonged to the squire. And just there, that curving, tawny-colored dream was the Princess Lily's. All living things dreamt, and he could find – and influence – any of those dreams here, in this world that let him invade the sleeping mind. For once, though, he did not seek out Lily's dream, nor even the grey dream of the man on the mountain, though his presence filled Darkness with such wild thoughts and ambitions.
No, Darkness floated above all of those tormented dreams, gazing with a heated eye upon the dreams of the three he was looking for. One was beige, one was purple, and one – the one that Darkness eyed most eagerly – was such a dark blue as to almost be black.
These three dreams belonged to three men of power, three kings. Lily's father, her betrothed's father, and the third, the one upon which Darkness pinned his ambition. He had already subtly influenced that man's daughter, whispering to her, poisoning her mind, but her power over her father was limited. Unless Darkness acted now, influenced the father directly, the foolish man would soon take his armies and return home. No, he could not allow that. Not now, when things were finally going so well.
It was so simple to do: Darkness stepped into one man's dream, whispering doubts, feeding anger and mistrust, strengthening pride. When he was done there, he moved on… and then again.
Mortals were so easy to influence.
Only the Princess had ever even tried to fight back.
"How did you find me?" Lily asked through chattering teeth, warming herself at the small campfire that had brought her back from the brink. Though the blizzard outside seemed to have subsided, the air was still quite cold.
Oona shrugged coolly, her bright blue eyes shadowed in the dark of their cave. "'Twas fairy instinct, Princess. Any of my kind could have found you easily. I was just the only one with a mind to."
"Oh," Lily said weakly. Despite the new clarity of her memories – all the more vivid, Lily suspected, because of her recent brush with death – her mind was still sluggish, and her thoughts something of a blur. "Well, I… Thank you, Oona. For saving my life."
Oona reached behind her and tossed another branch on the fire; Lily half-suspected that the fairy was pulling the sticks of wood out of thin air. Unless the fairy had brought the branches with her from Gump's forest, which Lily doubted… A new, urgent thought occurred.
"Gump!" Lily gasped.
Oona paused, her hands frozen in their task, and she seemed to actually look at Lily for the first time, but her mouth remained closed.
"Is he all right?" Lily asked pleadingly. "I was… I was in the forest, and then something happened, I don't know what, but all of the trees suddenly…" She trailed off, struck to silence by the look in Oona's otherworldly eyes.
It was a look of such utter desolation and rage that it nearly took Lily's breath away, but then it was gone, and a frosty glaze slid over her eyes, leaving them emotionless, as though they'd never been filled with turbulent passion. At the same time, Oona tossed the stick into the fire, but it was a graceless movement, unlike her usual lithe gestures.
"Dead," Oona said shortly.
Lily's hand flew to cover her mouth as she stared in horror. Hoping against hope that the curt word hadn't really been dead, had been something else – maybe wed or even fed – she took a deep breath. "Did you… Did you just say –"
"I said dead. Died in my arms. Gone. And the forest with him." Oona threw another stick on the fire with ill-concealed anger.
"Oh, no," Lily breathed, her eyes filling with tears. She hadn't known Gump very well, but his mischievous smile and words of advice had stayed with her. "The – the forest is completely…"
Lily drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, shivering. "Was it – Darkness?"
"Of course it was," Oona mumbled. "And it was—" She clamped her small mouth shut tightly.
"Was? Was what?" Lily asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Oona blinked and tossed her head, her wispy hair floating around her like a nimbus. "You."
While Lily was still trying to find a way to respond to the accusing word, sharp as a knife, Oona transformed into her natural state, a darting ball of light, and flew from the cave, leaving Lily quite alone.
For a long moment, Lily just stared into the flickering fire, not even bothering to brush away the tear that overflowed her eye and brushed down her cheek. The forest, her forest was gone. Dead. Jack's home… All those animals, those ancient trees, even the soil teeming with life.
And Oona blamed her.
"Why me?" Lily whispered, her voice a thread of pain. "Why would I ever, ever…" She trailed off, having suddenly caught a glimpse of what Oona might have been saying. "I let it happen," she said out loud, her hollow voice bouncing back at her from all directions in the cave. "I didn't get to Darkness in time. I let it…"
Though her limbs were still half-frozen, Lily struggled to her feet, scrabbling for her meager possessions. Tearing off a hunk of stale bread from inside her pack, she choked it down as she hurried to the edge of the cave and stepped outside, blinking in the bright sun. The snow reached up past her knees, but she took one step, and then another. Goodness knows she'd been in deep snows before, and she had no time to waste.
The implications of Oona's accusation were clear. Gump was dead because she hadn't hurried enough, hadn't stopped Darkness. And now, if she didn't hurry… What else might be at risk?
Suppressing the little voice inside that was wishing with all its might that she had either Jack or Connor with her, Lily took a deep breath and started slogging forward. She'd started this alone, and, if need be, she could finish this alone.
All the same, she felt weak with relief when, not ten steps from the cave, Oona reappeared, still in her light form, only inches from Lily's face, and spoke in her little, whispery voice.
Lily blinked uncomprehendingly.
"Do you want to get to Darkness or don't you?" Oona lilted.
"You're going to take me there?" Lily asked.
If balls of light could have rolled their eyes, then that was exactly what Oona would have been doing. "I've been sent to be your guide. Gump wanted you to get there."
"O—Oh," Lily said, and smiled gratefully at the fairy, new tears springing to her eyes. "Thank you, Oona. I won't forget this."
Oona merely flashed in the sun, and flew several feet ahead. Lily lowered her head and, despite the chill still in her bones, plunged forward, following the sprite, wondering only in the back of her mind why Oona's silence felt as though she were trying to say, "I'm not doing this for you, you silly idiot."
Jack and Connor sat impatiently around the small campfire they had built, both waiting impatiently for the clouds in the valley to clear. It had been a long night – Though Connor had trapped a rabbit, neither had been hungry, and neither managed to sleep well. They hadn't spent any more time fighting, for which both were grateful, but that was because they hadn't talked. The silence that surrounded them had been both sullen and thick with tension.
Finally, looking like it was more out of discomfort with the silence than with anything else, Jack asked, "How did you get involved in all of this?"
Connor shot him an unreadable glance. "You certain you want to know the answer to that?"
From the look on his face, it was clear that Jack was reasonably certain that he didn't want to know the answer, but all the same, he replied, "Yes, go ahead."
Sighing, Connor leaned back and stared at the sky. "Hard to say. This whole mess has been kind of a blur. To, uh, make a long story short—"
"No, let's hear the long story." Jack laced his fingers together and stared at Connor.
Uncomfortably remembering when he had said the same to Princess Lily, Connor awkwardly cleared his throat. He rather wanted to tell Jack exactly where he could stick his questions, but, with an effort, he reminded himself that this was the man that she professed to love. She certainly didn't act like it – the way she had asked Connor to seduce her, the way she had looked at him – but she kept repeating over and over that she loved Jack. And, as her sworn bodyguard, he was bound to do the right thing by him.
That was another thing that was bothering him, even though not quite as pressingly as the issue of whether Lily was still alive or not. But… The ease with which he seemed to discard his scruples when she was involved disturbed him. He had no family, no friends, no future… All he had was his honor… Or rather, all he had to lose. Without his honor, he became…
"I suppose I take after my father after all," he muttered darkly.
"What?" Jack inquired from over the dying fire.
"N-nothing," Connor said, forcibly bringing his focus back to the present. "Uh, what was the question again?"
Jack gestured to himself with exaggerated patience. "I know how I'm involved in all this. You know how I'm involved, because you knew who I was when we met. But I don't know where you fit in."
"Oh. That." Connor raked his dirty hair back from his forehead, trying to think of a sensitive way to explain to Jack. "I swore to protect Lily… Okay, the Princess Lily," he corrected when Jack's brow furrowed. "And I saw her sneaking out from the castle, so I followed. That's why I'm here now."
"To protect her," Jack said. "And I guess that would explain why I found the two of you – the two of you…" He trailed off, seemingly unable to finish, but the hangdog expression on his face finished his sentence for him.
"I already told you," Connor said quietly, "that I l—care about her as much as you do."
"And what about her?" Jack asked, the casual tone belied by the intensity in his dark eyes.
Connor could only shrug, having wondered the same himself. "Do either of us speak for her?" he asked in return.
Jack stared into the flames for a moment. "I won't lose to you," he said finally, steel in his voice. "You should know that."
"Then we have a problem, because I don't intend to lose to you," Connor replied, equally intent. After a moment, though, he grinned crookedly. If it weren't for Lily, he could almost be friends with Jack, he thought.
"Do you think it's safe to go down there yet?" Jack gestured at the valley, which Connor could actually see now through wisps of mist.
Connor sighed. Much as he wanted to find Lily and keep her safe from the elements, as well as from herself – and anyone else who got in his way – he dreaded going down there. What if what they found was… No, he didn't want to think about that. Surely, hopefully, she was smart enough to keep herself warm in the blizzard, to find some shelter, or something.
"Sure," he said finally. "Let's go." Standing up and stretching in the chill morning air, he kicked some dirt over the fire, slowly and deliberately. Jack, on the other hand, had leapt to his feet and was dashing down the steep mountainside. "You're going to fall and break every bone in your body," Connor muttered dryly, "and I'm not going to do a damn thing to help you."
Eventually, though, he followed, though more carefully, hand on his sword hilt, scanning the area around them. It took nearly a half hour to reach the valley, even at a surefooted trot. Stepping into the knee-high snow, Connor grimaced. It had been a nasty storm, and even now, he and Jack (Jack especially with his bare legs) would be lucky to escape the snow without frozen feet or limbs.
"Don't worry," he muttered to himself, watching Jack dash from rock to rock, looking for a familiar spill of brown ringlets, "She might not even be here. She might be miles ahead, laughing at us."
Despite his confident tone, Connor frowned worriedly. Somehow, and he still wasn't sure how or when, Lily had become the most important person in the world to him, and if they couldn't find her – or worse, if they did, and she wasn't all right – he wasn't sure what he'd do. He took a deep breath and started searching.
He was halfway across the valley before he heard Jack's shout. Immediately, Connor wheeled around and ran as quickly as he could to where Jack was standing, staring down at a trail in the snow.
"Someone was here!" Jack said excitedly.
Connor scanned the trail and nodded. "Yes. Someone in a skirt, not trousers." He looked around. The trail led on one end to a small cave, half-hidden by the snow. Peeking inside, Connor saw a dying fire, but not one single person. "Someone was in here, but there's no one now," he called back to Jack.
Jack groaned. "We missed her." He stared down at the trail.
"Hey, what are you mad about?" Connor asked. "She's alive. And – and we know which way she's headed! Shouldn't that make you happy?" For himself, at least, he couldn't keep a relieved smile from his face.
"If you had just let me come down here, we could have found her!" Jack shouted, whirling around in the deep snow to glare at Connor.
Connor stared back in disgust. "What are you talking about? Even if we were down here, we might not have found her in the blizzard!"
"I would have found her!"
"You're an idiot!" Connor shouted back, giving in to his temper, which had been sorely abused lately. "You live in a damn forest, shouldn't you know that you can't track in a blizzard!"
"I could follow her to the ends of the earth," Jack insisted stubbornly, hands on his hips.
Connor growled in frustration. "And that's why you didn't recognize her when she was right in front of you?" he yelled, viewing the shocked look on Jack's face with grim satisfaction. "That's right, she told me that you were this close to her, and you didn't even recognize her."
"You are a – a – " Jack apparently didn't have the vocabulary for what Connor was, but his lips curled back in a feral snarl, giving Connor just enough time to prepare before Jack leapt at him.
And then his world was all fists and biting teeth and the cold of the snow and the satisfaction of finally getting to vent his frustration and aggression on someone who didn't look at him with big doe eyes afterwards and make him feel like he was… nothing more than an animal.
Edgar couldn't help shuddering as their horses finally stepped up to the mountains, leaving the eerie dead forest behind. He'd never seen anything like it before. Certainly he'd seen sections of forest burned after lightning strikes or a campfire raged out of control, and he'd seen trees killed by some sort of sickness, but this was something entirely different. A whole forest, struck down by some unknown force, nothing alive but for him, Gavin, and their horses… This bespoke something beyond his understanding, something terrifying, which was confirmed by that strange fairy who had attacked them the previous day.
Gavin, too, seemed to be relieved. He let out a long sigh, his freckled face breaking into an embarrassed smile. "We're going into the mountains?" he asked.
Edgar looked around them, patting his horse on the flank. The poor horses had clearly been terrified the entire night, white-eyed, snorting, and ears pricked. "Yes," he replied after a moment. "It's possible that what we seek is still in this forest… but I cannot imagine that any living thing would stay here. Even if it's the wrong way, I need to get out of this forest. As do the horses, and, I think," he added, "you."
Gavin nodded gratefully, and the two young men urged their horses forward. Colder though it was growing, even the air seemed cleaner and more alive, the colors more vivid now that they couldn't see the forest all around them anymore.
They were no more than a few minutes into the mountain range when Gavin pulled his horse to a stop, frowning. "Prince Edgar," he said, "do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" Edgar asked, but now that he was listening, he did seem to hear voices raised in anger, far away, but echoing their rage to the sky. If he listened closely, he could even understand what they were saying. "Yes," he said wonderingly. "I do." He blinked. "Someone just yelled that someone else is an idiot." A tired grin touched his face. "And yelled it very loudly."
"Should we investigate?"
"Are you joking, Gavin?"
"Of course we investigate," Edgar replied firmly, his heart already pounding in nervous anticipation. "Anything could be the clue that leads us to the Princess." He exhaled shakily. "I'm coming, Lily," he murmured under his breath, and spurred his horse to a gallop.
A/N: I know I say this every single time, but I promise I won't abandon this story again. Really.