Circle of Sisters

27. Winter's First Day

Camp was struck early the next day, after Queen Scarlett declared herself fit to ride. Virginia had next to no baggage, as did Wolf and Willem, so they stood off to one side with Wendell and Tony as the soldiers made short work of dismantling the tents and loading up the horses. Down the beach, the House of Red similarly went about packing up, but they were considerably slower, having several noble ladies and gentlemen and many less guardsmen. Wendell had sent some of his men over to assist, but they had been politely rebuffed. Virginia saw that many of Scarlett's guards had taken personal affront at their own inability to stop the rampage of Elias. The fact that someone had made an attempt on their Queen's life was an additional insult. Mixed expressions were thrown her way on several occasions. Some of the courtiers that Scarlett had brought along gaped at her in open adulation. Virginia had heard the whispered name of "Lady of the Lake" that many of them were using when they spoke of her. She really wanted to set the record straight, but she doubted that they would accept her explainations. Just the fact that she had spoken with their esteemed Ruby was enough for them, much less the fact that she had controlled the werewolf and had been uncermoniously dumped out of the Lake on the back of a great wave. And then she had saved their Queen's life. It made Virginia acutely aware of the differences between the peoples of the 9 Kingdoms and her own world. Here they were a people raised on legends and magic. They saw storylines and portents in their everyday lives. In the 10th Kingdom, Virginia would probably be locked up in a mental institution by now.

Virginia had already bid farewell to one of their party who would not be travelling 'upland'. Clayface bowed and bobbed his lumpy green head in acknowledgement. He had been loath to appear in front of too many humans at once, and Virginia was reminded suddenly that he was in fact still an escaped prisoner from the 4th Kingdom. Clayface and Tony had spent several hours last night comparing stories and swapping beanstalk soup recipes. Virginia leaned forward to hug the little creature impulsively. His mishapen face and clammy skin were endearing to her now.

"Thank you, Clayface. Without your help, I would not have made it to the Goddess in time. I would have run riot through the forests, causing goodness knows what harm to the folk here". And it wouldn't have ended there, she added in quiet thought, remembering her vision of the bloodsoaked hall. Clayface was fidgeting, his hands in pockets as always. "Clayface, will you show me what it is you are carving?"

"Sorry, Miss. It's not finished yet"

"I had a feeling you'd say that" Virginia replied, but the smiling goblin had already turned to go. She watched as he smoothed back a small section of overgrown fronds to reveal a narrow fissure. It seemed to close behind him as he slipped through. Virginia hoped they would meet again soon, but she suspected that the hidden underground passages that defied the natural laws of time and distance would soon be sealed off from the rest of the world. She hoped they would be safe, but inwardly she knew otherwise. For a race of people so dependant on the flow of water, they would be hard hit in the months to come. Her will felt strengthened like someone had put a rod of iron down her back. One aspect of the wolf that she had not lost, it would seem. No, Virginia. You've always had this. Virginia glanced involuntaily at the Lake behind her, half expecting to see the form of Coventina hovering there. But then she corrected herself. In the presence of so much glorious water, the Goddess appeared exactly as she really was.

"It was worth it, just to have met you" she spoke softly at the Lake. A small ripple made it's way to shore as the Lake smiled back at her.

And we, you. One day, we hope to number you amongst us, Virginia. We are the Circle Of Sisters...

"I hope I don't let you down..."

Coming back to the busy camp, Virginia patted the nose of her horse Apple, who Wendell had brought along all the way from Little Lamb Village. Last night, over dinner, he and her father had recounted their travels. Tony had been matter-of-fact in his recounting of how he had come to know his daughter was a werewolf. He had laughed when Wolf had told him glibly that this meant he was truly becoming a proper member of the 9 Kingdoms if he could come to such a fantastical conclusion ahead of other more mundane reasons for her odd behaviour. It had pleased Virginia mightily to see them laugh together. It hadn't happened much lately between them. Will was sitting in a corner of the tent, with his girl-cub Alice scribbling down notes for him, in preparation for his making a story out of their adventures. He had pestered Virginia for much of the day for her recollections, Alice in tow. Virginia in turn had learned of what had occured in the gypsy camp. It didn't make her impressions of the actions of Red soldiers any softer, but looking at their dispirited, downcast faces this morning made her decide that perhaps they had paid for their incursions. They still cast Wolf hard stares though, and Will had taken care to keep his cub out of their way. Virginia had felt immediately sorrowed when she learned of Alice's mother being killed. She wondered whether she ought to tell Scarlett this; that men of her command were going about ambushing women and children. Maybe later. The young queen had enough to think about at the moment.

Scarlett came out of her pavillion then, assisted by her maid to walk the short distance to where her horse stood. Virginia was not surprised when Wendell, seeing what was happening, hurried forward in a very un-royal way to give her his arm as she mounted. In the corner of her eye, she saw Wolf frown a minute, then smile to himself at the scene. Virginia looked closely at the careful polite movements going on. When he had Scarlett safely seated, Wendell turned to call his manservant to bring his own horse. His face was flushed and his eyes sparkled. Virginia smiled to see the seed, so long hidden within Wendell, begin to stir at last. With luck, it would survive the coming winter to blossom for both of them.

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Several days after leaving the Coven Lake, Scarlett rode back into her Castle in Hooded City. She was bone tired, but exilarated in a way that banished all aches and pains to a distant corner of her mind. She barely noticed the thronging crowds that lined the street to welcome her home. Word of her injuries had obviously gone ahead of her arrival, but she was not displeased. If they truly loved her, surely they would accept whatever decisions she made, wouldn't they? Her face turned as crimson as her royal cape as she thought about her 'decision'. Last night, he had kissed her for the first time, in full view of many. A chaste kiss, a proper one, as protocol deemed it, but Scarlett was sure that none now doubted Wendell's intentions for her hand. Scarlett felt as giddy as a girl and her mount Arrow picked up on her mood, prancing and jangling his harness as they rode through the cobbled streets. Ahead, the great Castle, and within, the expected questioners, the thwarted ambitions of her relations, and, her mother.

A groom came forward to take Arrow's head as she dismounted. Scarlett did her best not to run to the nearest parapet and scan the horizon for her departed love. Wendell had bid her farewell at the gates of the city, but he had made sure he had been the last to speak to her. Virginia, with her ever watchful Wolf in tow, had ridden her own horse forward as they parted.

"Farewell Scarlett. Think much on what I have told you. Only together can the peoples of the Kingdoms withstand what will soon come. I will contact you as soon as I reach home"

"What will we be able to do, Virginia?" Scarlett had whispered, keeping her voice low so that no one might overhear and start a panicky rumour through the city.

"I don't truly know, yet, Scarlett. I have a few ideas only. I think I will try and persuade Wendell to call a council of all the Kings and Queens. Perhaps together, a solution will present itself"

"I will be there". Scarlett couldn't quite prevent herself from stealing a glance at Wendell as she said that. Virginia had smiled knowingly.

"Good. I am glad to have gotten to know you, Scarlett. Remember, the winter has already started in the north. Times will be bitter for those who live there..."

"I know, Virginia. But you also must know the opposition I will face here, least of all from myself"

"That you will, that you will. But I have confidence in you, Scarlett"

"So do I" offered Wolf then, his expression still decidedly neutral in the presence of so many 2nd Kingdom humans that were crowding the gates and looking down from the walls. But he nodded his head, a gesture between equals. Scarlett found it an odd situation to be in the presence of those she had feared and hated all her life, only to find that she did not feel those things at all. He had saved her life, yet again, when he could have so easily just left her bleeding out in the dirt. Was it fair to punish him for displaying those very human qualities? Scarlett knew her mind would be in a flux for some time with these revelations, but it was a thing she looked forward to now.

The Castle doors opened before her, a vast crowd of courtiers, hangers-on, relatives and servants clustering around her. She felt almost stifled for a moment, longing for the fresh air of the forest about her again. Raising her hand, she beckoned her castellan forward.

"Good man. I need to speak with my Lady Queen Mother. Send a man and carriage at once to her estate, if you would". The man, bowing, turned to do her bidding. Scarlett allowed herself to be attended on her way to her private chambers, but shut the door firmly in their faces when she reached them. Behind the closed doors, whispers and rumours would abound for some time to come. But Scarlett went to the window, throwing it wide. In the courtyard below, a carriage was already thundering out the gates to fetch Auburn here. Good, she thought. Scarlett had a great many questions for her mother today.

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Someone had once told her that you should never cry in front of your own children, no matter the reason. But Virginia had thrown that advice well out the window as soon as Castle White came into view. Not even the fat dark clouds that hung over the pristine turrets could dampen her joy. Wolf had been howling his arrival for many miles already. Now, he kicked up his horse to thunder down the drive and Virginia let Apple follow. On the steps stood a familiar little figure, his hand held firmly by Elsie lest he be trampled by the approaching horses. Wolf was half off the horse before it had stopped moving. In two long bounds, he had scooped up Caelum. Virginia asked Apple for a more sedate dismount, given her delicate condition, but the waves of love that washed over her were no less intense. The three of them stood huddled close, their own little world of love and family, as the rest of the travellers arrived. Servants bustled, friends called greetings, but none really got through to Virginia. Caelum was energetically recounting his own cubbish adventures in the castle in his own unique mixture of human babble and wolfish growling.

Finally, after an hour or so, someone actually got them to move out of the way of the main doors and into the castle proper. Virginia and Wolf took Caelum to their own suite for some long overdue coddling. Later, they joined Wendell, Tony, Elsie and the priest Frederick for dinner, where they shared all the details to those who had been left behind. Virginia thought that Frederick looked more relieved that sorrowed when Wolf informed him all too casually of Connor's death. Though he didn't mention the details, nor had he ever spoken of them to her, Virginia knew Wolf had killed the former priest. Virginia had mixed feelings about the man. Clearly he had been but a pawn in Hera's attempt at double-crossing them. Hera's motives in the whole affair were still unfathomable to Virginia. Why would she prompt Virginia in Coventina's direction? Was she hoping that bereft of her new power and strength, Virginia would be easily defeated by the Ice Queen? Or was she in fact backing Virginia, and therefore choosing her rival? Virginia decided that a visit to the old witch was well warranted, and soon. But not tonight. Tonight was a celebration, a reunion, a space to draw breath before the final plunge into the unknown.

Will came down late for dinner, his hand still bandaged up but healing nicely. Alice had been bathed and turned out in a beautiful little dress. Wendell told her that she looked just like a princess, and she turned beet red. Will introduced her to Caelum who was playing in front of the fire. The two cub cousins stared at each other solemnly for a moment. Alice pouted at her father as of to admonish him for expecting her to play with such a little cub, but within minutes the two of them were happily wrestling, and stalking the servants in the corridors.

Tony had nudged Virginia in the ribs a number of times over dinner, pointing out Wendell's rather vague expressions. The King toyed with his food, sighed loudly and blushed furiously when Wolf made his none too subtle jibes about his courtship of Scarlett. But Virginia could tell he wasn't even the slightest bit annoyed that everyone in the Castle knew. It seemed that the hopes and aspirations of endless noble ladies in the 4th Kingdom were about to be dashed forever. But he had focussed just enough to agree to talk with Virginia in the morning.

"So, will you finally be telling me what's been going on with you, Virginia?" he said.

"Absolutely. But you may wish you hadn't asked when you know what I know"

"I guessed as much. Strange tidings have been arriving here in the past week, apparently"

"And more will come, Wendell" Virginia replied, knowing that her words had caused a chill to descend over the table.

Wolf ambushed her from behind the closet in their room after the dinner had finished. He was hungry for a great deal more than food, Virginia saw with a smile. He patted fondly at her stomach, where the new cub, just days into life, nestled within her.

"You smell differently already" he said, and Virginia knew he was referring to her early pregnancy hormones. "Terribly tasty...delicious" he added suggestively. He drew her away towards the bed, but instead of leaping on her like she knew they both wanted, he stopped to caress her brow gently. "I love you, Virginia".

'I love you too"

"Virginia, what was it like? Meeting Coventina and the others, I mean"

"It's something I can't ever have imagined getting to do. Coventina, well, I don't know quite how to describe her. Like a great spirit made of water, I suppose. A part of her is in every living thing, you know, just like the Coven Lake is connected to all the waterways of the Kingdoms"

"And what did she show you? Did you gain knowledge? Magic?" Wolf asked. Virginia thought she could almost detect a note of fear in his voice. Did he think he'd lost her to greater powers and duties then?

"She showed me her water-mirrors, and in them I was able to see many things. None of them were nice to see. I saw my mother as she would have been had I not struck her down that night. She was terrible, Wolf. She had a coat made of your fur..."

"Huff...puff"

"Yes, but you know, even though she had gained all the power over the Kingdoms she wanted, still she was afraid. I was sure that something was troubling her, and I know now who that someone was"

"The Ice Queen"

"Yes, I'm sure of it. How ironic, huh?"

"I thought the Queen of the 8th Kingdom was old, powerless, or at least that's what most people think. It's been nearly a generation since she or her soldiers have made any incursions into the other Kingdoms. Even her ranting emmisaries have stopped coming across the borders in recent years"

"That will change. I've seen it, in the last mirror of Coventina. And yes, the Queen that you speak of is indeed old, with little power left to her. She has poured it all into her much younger successor. Together, they have laid many wards and enchantments along all the borders of each Kingdom. They wait only for the natural turning of the cycles to unleash their full magic on us"

"It makes me afraid, Virginia, to hear you talk like this. Maybe we should go back to New York, or something...maybe"

"And leave the Kingdoms to their fate? No, sorry love. Coventina didn't call me to her side just to give me a heads up on what's about to happen. She wants me to do something, or at least she thinks I should try"

"What can you do, Virginia?" Wolf asked, and she felt him blush in contrition. "Sorry, that came out wrong!"

"I know what you meant, Wolf. To tell you the truth, I don't know myself, and I suspect that neither Coventina, nor the Circle Of Sisters know themselves"

"Pity you had to give up the power of the wolf. At least then you would have had some physical advantages" Wolf said. Virginia felt her insides clench at the remembered vision of herself. The werewolf Queen. And her King? Almost as if he read her thoughts, Wolf turned to whisper in her ear.

"Virginia, will you marry me?"

"I will"

"Thank you"

"Do you want me as a wolf or woman?"

"Either. Both. It doesn't matter. Never has. But, all of a sudden, being married, or mated to you, in whatever fashion you want, that does matter, to me"

"And me too, Wolf". Virginia replied, feeling his kisses becoming deeper. She let herself flow into the passion.

Afterwards, Virginia relaxed into her soft bedding and pillows, but sleep eluded her later that night. Slipping out from under Wolf's drowsy cuddling, she went to the window. As she had for so many nights, she looked first to the north. The thin crescent moon illuminated fat snow flakes as they fell to cover the ground outside. Snow at the beginning of Autumn. It was unheard of this far south, she knew. Virginia held Coventina's gift up to the light, wondering. The flakes piled up on the windowsill.

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Far away, a pale faced former Queen was confessing the hidden crimes of her youth to her daughter.

To the west, a long dead body, rolling listlessly in the current, fetched up against something, and that something...stirred.

Closer to home, another long dead creature, but with mind and will intact, drew her meagre spells about her, waiting out the coming storm, wondering if she'd made the right decision.

In the world between the worlds, a Goddess felt the brittleness of ice upon the edges of her watery home.

And to the north, in the Kingdom long given up as dead and sterile in it's bleakness, a Rose sprang to bloom amid the snow.

The End

(To Be Concluded)

Authors Notes: I have to thank some people for their input into this story. Firstly, my friend WendyG, for listening to my endless ideas. Lena, Tracy and Alice for lending me their names and likenesses! And finally Cory, for "introducing" me to Coventina. Please feel free to leave whatever comment or review you like, and stay tuned for the grand finale!

Cheers, Karen