Greetings 10K fans and fellow writers! This is the final installment of my series that began nearly two years ago. If you have not read "Once Bitten", "Dark Moon Brother" and "Circle Of Sisters" (in that order) then I'm afraid you won't understand what is happening in this story.
This story will be posted in chapters, with updates on a weekly basis. I hope you enjoy it. Reviews or feedback are always welcome.
"The Ice Storm" picks up approximately one week after the return of Wolf and Virginia to Castle White following their adventures at Coven Lake in the Second Kingdom...
The Ice Storm
Wolf cursed quietly as he toiled through the great drifts of snow piled up against the door. The sunlight shining on the whiteness made for blinding conditions, though it did little to melt the smothering blanket that seemed to have covered the whole world. Wolf rubbed at his cheeks, sure that they would be rosy with the cold. Behind him, a cubbish giggle drew his attention, just as the wet crunch on the back of his neck announced yet another snowball. More giggles followed. With their white cloaks and hoods, Alice and Caelum were almost invisible against the snow covered lawn. Wolf made a show of pretending not to see them as they scuttled from drift to drift. His little son, barely a foot tall at seven months of age, toddled gamely after his much bigger playmate. Wolf watched as the boy fell face first into a loose pile of powder, the rest of the stack coming down to cover his head completely. Wolf held his breath, all his instincts at war with themselves in much the same way as his human and wolf minds often argued. In fact, it was an all too common human-wolf struggle going on, he realised. His human tendencies made him want to leap after his child, rescue him from his icy predicament. And yet his wolf mind looked on with an almost cold detachment. The cub needed to learn survival, not be protected from it. Caught between the two, he whined softly. A sudden spray of snowy powder erupted from the ground just as his legs poised to move. Caelum's head appeared, followed by shoulders, arms and behind as he scrambled free and tumbled down the slope to land at his father's feet. Wolf reached down to pull the youngster to his feet, mussing the flakes from the dark curls.
"Careful, my son" he spoke softly. Caelum's sea green eyes met his own for a moment. Wolf could see that the snowy tomb had not really bothered his son for a second. His wolfish pride surged, but he took care not to show it too openly to the boy. Courage was a good thing to be encouraged in a wolf cub's life, but recklessness was not. Besides, Virginia would make herself a coat from his tail should he ever let anything happen to their son. Wolf whistled, a sharp, high tone. Alice showed herself within seconds, another snowball encased within her mittened hands. Wolf had a mind to scold her slightly for leaving Caelum unwatched, but he had a change of heart when he saw her smile. The girl-cub hadn't had much to smile about in recent times, much less find the time to simply play about like a child should. She waited obediantly enough, but Wolf was not fooled. Defiance lurked behind her eyes. At five years of age, it was to be expected that a cub would show some sort of inner struggle with the rules of pack, but there was a gypsy-born independance in her stance that hinted at a tremendously strong personality that waited only for adulthood to bloom. Or maybe even before then, Wolf thought with a wry smile. Will would have trouble keeping her under control once she got her teeth, he chuckled inwardly. He dropped his gaze from her to scan the surrounds nonchalantly. Released from his scrutiny, Alice almost thought about throwing the snowball, but in the corner of his eye he saw her drop it to the ground. Caelum scampered over to her and she took up his hand.
Wolf turned back to his task. The unseasonal dumping of snow had kept them all cooped up in the White Castle for nearly a week. The blizzard that had descended on the 4th Kingdom on that evening when they had returned from Coven Lake had blown itself out overnight. Wolf had needed no encouragement from Virginia to make the trip from the castle to here, their cottage home. Had he not known the surrounding lands so well, he might well have driven the cart right past the gate. Everything was covered by at least a foot of snow, much more than was usual for this region, quite apart from the fact that it was only early autumn. The leaves on the trees had not even turned and fallen. Now, they were frozen onto the branches. As were many of the inhabitants of the disenchanted forest, he supposed with a worried frown. The forest, looming over the fields where Virginia's sheep stood huddled together was nominally his responsibility these days. Though he commanded no-one, and none would likely take his orders, he was it's Warden, it's spokesperson and protector. Nothing stirred from within the depths that he could see or hear. Perhaps the worst of the weather had not penetrated the vast network of trees and creepers. Tomorrow, he would return and find out, he reasoned with himself. Today, however, would be taken up with the unearthing of his house.
By mid afternoon, when the cubs had long since tired of building snow-wolfs, he managed to scrape away enough ice to gain access to the cottage. It was as cold as a cellar inside. As an adult of his kind, Wolf had some immunity from the cold, and even though his winter coat had yet to grow in, he had some protection from the long ridge of fur running down his back. Plus, Wolf had always suspected that half-wolfs and other folk of lupine descent had a naturally higher body temperature than purebred humans. They were hybrids, perfectly designed for their tough environment. Hardier than the humans, who muttered and grumbled and killed other creatures to keep themselves warm. And here he stood, chilled for another reason. Despite it's all too humanistic appearance, Wolf missed his home. They'd been gone for a month, chasing mysteries and deities and the waxing of the moon, and Wolf knew in his heart that it would still be a time yet before he would be able to return here in comfort and safety. A time of winter. That was what Virginia had called it, her breath fogging up the glass in the window that morning.
Stirring himself, Wolf darted up the stairs to the main bedroom. He pulled down a large satchel, tossing in various items of clothing belonging to himself and Virginia. Many soft woollen garments he stowed, along with much of the stuff that Virginia had brought back from the 10th Kingdom, the odd smelling and foreign feeling man made fibres that so many wore in that land. He did not neglect her undergarments either, knowing how much she liked her little frilly things that had no particular practical use that Wolf could ever imagine. He hesitated over her maternity clothes. Surely they would be back here before she ever needed them? His heart jumped in his chest at the image of Virginia heavy with child. If he had to admit it to himself, he absolutely adored her when she looked like that. It appealed directly to his wolfish beliefs. Pregnant females were the sign of a healthy, prosperous pack. But he reminded himself not to ever try and explain it to Virginia that way. She'd already complained that she felt like a brood mare, getting pregnant again so soon after Caelum's birth. Wolf thought that she might even be feeling slightly embarrassed about it, in that funny way humans had. He sniffed at the clothes, remembering her gestational scent fondly, before stashing them away back in the cupboard.
The two cubs were asleep in the back of the wagon when he returned to it. He stowed the clothing in beside them. Alice's eyes opened to slits to peer at him as he secured the baggage. Wolf smiled at her.
"No, uncle Lucian"
"Call me Wolf, if you must talk in human, Alice"
"Why? Are we not all wolf's together?"
"Well of course, but..."
"But nothing! I just decided a thing, and did it. Lucian is no longer my name. Hasn't been since I was a cub, older than you"
"Can I change my name then? My mother died too" Alice replied, soberly now. Wolf bit back the retort and tried to calm his irritation at being questioned by a five year old girl. Damn that she looked so like his own mother Sarah. She even had some of her grandmother's inflections in her tone and manner.
"What would you change it to then, Alice?" he asked, curious. The girl-cub's face creased in serious thought for a minute.
"That's no name for a wolf. That's a dragon's name, Alice" Wolf replied, remembering his history lessons. It would be ill luck to name oneself after such a devastating and doomed creature. He observed the girl quietly as she sat curled up in the wagon. She had an odd look on her face that he couldn't quite read. It prickled down his spine. "Stay Alice, for now, cubling. It's not right that you give up the name your mother gave you, not so soon, when her spirit may yet linger...". The cub nodded her head thoughtfully, looking up at the deepening sky. Clouds, fat with more snow, were gathering again on the horizon. Wolf sighed and secured the rest of the luggage, before going out round the back to check on the livestock. The chicken house stood quiet, it's inhabitants lying like little frozen mounds on the floor. Wolf nudged one with his boot. Solid. He left the hens where they were. The sheep were huddled together miserably in the barren field, but at least they were alive, which would please Virginia, Wolf thought. He opened the barn doors and tossed down all the hay from the loft and despite their worried stares, the woolly creatures fell to with grumbling stomachs. Wolf didn't know how long the hay would last, much less the sheep when word got round the lupine community that they were bereft of a human protector. Ah well, waste not, want not, as the humans often said.
Back at the house, he brushed off the ice clinging to the coat of the pony and took up the reins. Caelum clambered up to sit in his lap as he turned onto the road back to the castle. It was a good ten miles of track and road to Castle White, but it took twice as long for the cart to plough through the drifts. Several times Wolf had to get out and clear the way. On the eigth time, he came across something unsual lying in the road. It hadn't been there earlier in the day, he was sure of it. The elf was cold and still. The fairy like wings, usually pulsing with life and energy, were as brittle as dry leaves. Tiny cracks ran along them from the elf's back down to the tips. Wolf lifted the body carefully and put it in the back of the wagon. Though it looked quite dead, one could never be sure with elf folk. Alice came to sniff at the frozen form.
"What's it doing here, uncle?" she asked timidly.
"I don't know, but perhaps it's a messenger from the Elf Kingdom. See, it's carrying a baton in it's hand" Wolf replied, pointing out the slender silver tube clutched in the blue hands.
"How did it die?"
"Hmm, I don't know that either. But lets take it back to the Castle. It might not be completely dead, you know"
"Looks like it's wings froze. Must be even colder up there than down here" Alice continued, pointing up at the sky. Wolf followed her gaze. She was probably right, but who ever heard of it getting so cold that elves just dropped out of the sky? He covered the elf with a blanket and clucked at the pony. All of a sudden he wanted to be home before those clouds dumped more misery on the Kingdom.
There were fresh carriage tracks going down the driveway, Wolf noted as they covered the last mile. As they drew closer to the imposing Castle White, he saw a large and grandly fitted out coach with red silk banners and long red plumes attached to the horses bridles. So, Scarlett had arrived. Wendell's carrier birds had obviously gotten through to at least as far as Riding Hood Castle, although Wolf suspected that Scarlett would have turned up even if she hadn't been invited. Servants were unloading the various trunks and baggage when he drew up to the main doors. So she was already inside, thought Wolf with some relief. Perhaps he could avoid her inside the vast warren of the Castle, but somehow he doubted it. Virginia and Scarlett had become good friends during the journey back after Coven Lake. They had ridden their horses close together many times, heads close together as they whispered. Wolf had not thought to intrude on their discussions, even if the ever suspicious Red guards would have let him anywhere near their Queen, but now he fell to wondering just what they had been talking about.
Wolf gathered his stash of belongings together and helped the cubs down from the wagon. The youngsters bustled forward under the feet of the serving folk, keen to get inside. Wolf suspected they would likely head straight to the kitchens where they would be fussed over and spoiled by the good natured cook. Rupert, Wendell's castellan and friend, nodded at Wolf as he supervised the unloading of Scarlett's belongings.
"Found a frozen elf on the road a few miles back. It's in the back of the wagon" Wolf told him as he passed by. Wolf saw the man shift his attention momentarily, mentally adding the elf thawing to his list of things to do.
"That's the third one this week"
"Hmm, well this one's got a message on him. Perhaps for the King" Wolf called out over his shoulder as he made for the grand staircase and the upper levels where his and Virginia's suite was located. There was a subtle air of tension in the stance of the hurrying servants. The front doors closed with a thud, but Wolf, peering out at the weather closing in on the Castle, didn't feel as safe and secure as he once would have.
Upstairs, in a room little used and rarely entered, Virginia was trying to concentrate. All around her, black swathes of cloth covered many tall mirrors. One mirror she knew well. The travelling mirror she and others had used regularly stood in a corner, the only one on open display. Virginia had often come to this mirror, just to turn it on and look at New York. Chaotic and dangerous place that it was, she still envied it's ignorance right now. Men with bombs, random snipers, maddened drug addicts - these were things that could be dealt with. How did one deal with an Ice Queen, of all people? What were her motives, her goals? How could such a person (if she was indeed a person) be stopped? Virginia had a sudden smile at the image of herself marching into the headquarters of the CIA. Hi there, just a tip off. There's a woman-witch-queen-whatever, up north and she wants to send an eternal winter down upon the 9 Kingdoms. Why? Because she wants to. How, well, it seems she has found for herself a...Virginia's thoughts were interupted by a tap on the door.
"Virginia? It's me, Wendell" the quiet voice spoke from the doorway.
"Come in, come in"
"Oh...do I have to?"
"Just a little then, if you want. Is there something you wanted from me Wendell?" Virginia asked him. He came forward a pace and then stood uneasily eyeing the covered mirrors. He was dressed in one of his many hopelessly overdone royal outfits, but he'd obviously put it together in a hurry, Virginia thought. She crossed to stand in front of him, deftly untucking and rebuttoning his lopsided jacket. Wendell blushed furiously as she tidied his appearance.
"Scarl...I mean, Queen Riding Hood the Third...has just arrived. I saw the carriage coming down the drive. I hope they didn't have to drive through all that bad weather, just to get here"
"They probably did, Wendell. I don't think the snow was confined to just our little corner of the Kingdoms"
"Yes..umm, well...I suppose I should go down and greet her" Wendell said, fidgeting.
"I think that would be the polite thing to do, don't you?" Virginia replied smoothly, trying not to laugh at his discomfort. Of course, it was no secret in Castle White anymore that the King was enamoured of the beautiful Red Queen. It had been the chief topic of discussion for the past week, and likely the same rumours were circulating Hooded Castle in the 2nd Kingdom. Virginia imagined there would be an equal amount of nervous fidgeting going on somewhere in one of the guest suites. She took Wendell's hands between her own. "Calm down Wendell. I'm sure this is just as awkward for her as for you. And remember, she is here for more reasons than simply courting. Soon, all the Kings and Queens will be here. We have some work to do yet" she added, seeing his face fall with disappointment.
"Yes, you're right of course. Still..."
"I'm sure you'll be able to find some time, alone"
"Oh please! I'm the King and she's a Queen. We're never alone, not even for a second. And now that everyone, well, knows, we'll be watched even more closely. There's a lot more involved when Kingdoms go courting than two ordinary people, you know!" Wendell said, his brow wrinkling. Virginia reached to smooth down his errant curls.
"You'll be fine, I'm sure of it. Just have patience, and belief". Wendell kissed her palm in response.
"You've become very wise, little sister. Coventina chose you for good reason" he added, backing out of the room and closing the door. Virginia fought off the tiny chill that had stolen over her at his words. Choosing had nothing to do with it, I fear, she thought uneasily. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. She felt in her pocket for the object that had come floating out of the depths of Coventina's Lake that night.
It was disc shaped, slightly concave, gleaming with a pearlescent shimmer. Virginia held it up to the light, seeing the dark shadow of her fingers through the other side. It was about the size of her palm, completely smooth and unadorned. She sat crosslegged on the floor, the disc between her hands, staring at it. What am I supposed to do with you? The disc might have thrummed softly, or it might have been her imagination. She was hungry, she realised suddenly, feeling her stomach contort. As if on cue, the door opened quietly with a snick. A plate, with thick sandwiches and two glasses of warm milk appeared, followed in short order by Wolf. He came forward, setting down the plate on the floor. One of the bacon sandwiches had a bite out of it, she saw.
"Hey there gorgeous girl. Thought you might be in here again. Thought you've probably forgotten to eat lunch again, right?" he said quickly, proferring a glass of milk. Virginia took the glass, downing the creamy contents with great delight.
"Mmm, that's good! How did the trip go? Was the house much damaged?"
"Not too bad. Covered is more the word. Took a bit to get inside. The chickens are all dead, but the sheep looked okay. The cub's built a snow-wolf" Wolf replied between bites. Virginia rubbed at his wind chapped cheeks. They finished the rest of the picnic in companionable silence. Wolf licked his fingers as he lay back on the floor. "Scarlett's here, did you know? Brought enough luggage to fill an entire room" he said, face pensive. Virginia detected the subtle unease in his voice. Well, he had no real reason to like the Queen, let alone trust her. It would be an interesting few days, especially since she and Scarlett would be spending quite a bit of it together. Virginia was glad that the once haughty nod she had been given all those months ago had been replaced by a genuine friendship. In a way, they were very much alike, and now Scarlett would be facing an uncomfortable truth just like Virginia had done once. Wolf wound one of his fingers around a lock of her hair gently. "You still here?" he asked.
"It's okay Virginia. So what's this you've got here?" Wolf asked, nodding at the disc half hidden in the folds of her skirt. Virginia hestitated a second before drawing it out. So far, no one had seen the thing but she herself. She felt protective of it suddenly. Wolf's eyes were wide as he looked at it. Almost he reached out to touch it, but held his fingertip inches away instead. "Cripes" he muttered.
"What do you mean, 'cripes'? Do you know what it is?" Virginia asked.
"It looks just like...but no, it couldn't be...just like a drawing in a book my mother once read to me...history lessons of all things"
"Like what, Wolf?"
"A scale. But not from a fish, Virginia. That looks just like a scale from a dragon"