Chapter One: General
It had been thirteen years.
Thirteen years since the armies of the North had declared their crusade against the lands of the sun, rising behind a man known only as the Master in a dark hoard of grim-faced fanatics. Their armies had swept out of their ice-cloaked homeland to descend on the southern lands like a plague of snow wraiths, decimating all in their path; the ruins of kingdoms lay in their wake, forests and plains taking back the lands that had once held flourishing civilizations. It had been thirteen years since the splintered lands of the south had been forced to lay down their petty grievances, uniting in a desperate attempt to quell the ruthless horde.
There had been, however, some place that had managed to remain relatively unchanged despite the threat of encroaching doom. Kingdoms where laughter and good food and sunshine prevailed, free of the ominous clouds of war. One such land was the Western Kingdom, where people went on in relative prosperity and the Northern Armies were little more then a hushed tale told in the grimy interiors of the local taverns in the early hours of the night. It had, after all, been thirteen years since they had had cause to fear the Invasion. Thirteen years of relative peace and well-being.
Thirteen years since Arthur, King of the Western Lands, had handed his youngest son to the invaders as a sacrifice.
Alfred Jones (Not Kirkland, not again, not ever again) glared down at his father from his seat on the throne. His hands clenched on the arms of his seat, finely worked doublet of red and gold flickering in the torchlight like living flames as he deliberately broke eye contact with the smaller man. Alfred was tall – he loomed over most of the noblemen who frequented the halls of the palace, graced with bright blue eyes and a head of blonde hair. The young man wasn't much more then a teen; even so, his face was flushed with a grim maturity. He'd paid for it with too high a coin – paid for it with his brother's life.
Matthew hadn't been very well known. He'd been the younger of the royal twins, constantly overshadowed by his brother's bombastic personality. Not many people in the Western Lands had even known of the existence of a second prince. It was pathetically eager to overlook Matthew in favor of his older brother. All attention had been fixed on Alfred, the firstborn – and, to be perfectly honest, he'd done more then his fair share to garnet their regard. The Crown Prince had been the darling of the court, an uppity toddler who got into mischief at least once a week on average. The court loved him, fell over themselves for him, practically worshipped him…. The younger blonde had lacked his bother's overwhelming sense of presence – he'd been quiet and reserved, content to cuddle with his stuffed bear and wander the palace gardens. Matthew had been fonder of books then of sword practice, and, despite his almost supernatural tendency to fade into the background, had never displayed the sheer magical potential that made his brother infamous throughout the sun-warmed lands.
Fire loved Alfred. Even as an infant, he'd been entranced by candlelight, reaching out chubby fingers in clumsy attempts to grasp the dancing flames. His nannies and his father had clucked at him, carefully removing the candles to a safe distance from his grasp – Alfred's ensuing wails had kept the castle up for weeks at a time. The toddler had been found crouched in front of the fireplace shortly after learning to walk; his fine clothes had been stained with years of accumulated soot as he played with living coals. His father's frantic screams of panic had faded to gasping wonder as he saw his son completely unharmed by the flames.
There were those who whispered that Alfred was an avatar, the manifestation of the living flame - it wasn't really all that hard to believe. Fire loved Alfred. Flames reached out to him as he passed, trailing after him and loving caressing his exposed skin… Alfred had been surrounded by flames as long as he could remember, gentle guardians who were always eager to play for him and light the night in a blaze of glory. The Prince was seldom seen without at least one flame licking the tips of his fingers or wrapping him in a protective embrace. And the prince's very nature made the world itself seem just a bit brighter, his smile lighting even the darkest of halls. He was a prodigy, a natural at all forms of fire magic, a mage of unsurpassed potential –and Arthur, who had the Gift himself, had nearly burst with pride, bragging outrageously at his son's skill.
He hadn't had much time for boasts when the Northerners had descended on his capital, demanding his son as weregild for leaving his kingdom be. Arthur's choice had been obvious, if agonizing; he was King before all else, and the welfare of his subjects came first. Even before his son. At the same time, however, he was also a father - and to lose a Prince, to lose the First Prince, the Crown Prince, was simply unthinkable. Especially the son that had the greatest talent for magery the world had seen in seven generations, already unmatched save by the wizards of legend. Such a gift could not be allowed to fall into the hands of the North. Their armies were already formidable; with a mage of Alfred's caliber at their disposal, they would have been unstoppable.
Not many people had known of the existence of their second prince – at least until he was gone, given to the invaders as a sacrifice for leaving their kingdom be.
Alfred swallowed thickly, turning his gaze to the front of the room.
It had taken him years to discover what had happened to his little brother – the small, innocent blonde who had trailed after him, arms clasped tightly around a battered toy bear. He hadn't paid attention when the Northern envoys had come calling, he'd simply been too young at the time to understand what was happening and absorbed in his own infantile concerns. His first notion that something was terribly wrong was when Matthew had - simply disappeared. He hadn't noticed at first; Matthew disappeared all the time, but when his brother's prolonged absence had finally registered, he'd ransacked the palace from top to bottom. He'd spent idays/i combing even the most obscure corridors, frantically searching for the little brother he'd vowed to protect; it was when he'd found his brother's stuffed bear discarded in a corner of his room that he'd known something was horribly wrong. His father hadn't been of any help; when Alfred had barged into his room, nearly hysterical with fear for his younger brother, the monarch had frozen for a long moment before simply telling him that his brother was gone.
It had taken him years. Years of accepting that Matthew was – was gone, that his twin, his other self, his little brother was… He'd spent over a decade believing that Matthew had died. And then his father had taken him aside the day he'd come of age and told him the true story of Matthew's disappearance.
He'd started calling him 'Arthur' the very next day, unable – or unwilling – to acknowledge the man as his father.
Alfred tapped his fingers on the marble arm of the Western Throne. His throne now, in all the ways that mattered. The rift that had sprung up between the Fire Prince and his father after the revelation of his brother's sacrifice had various long-ranging implications. If his father – if Arthur could trade away his own son for a guarantee of safety, then what was preventing him from similar abominable acts? Alfred had turned all his attention to the Western Lands, nearly consumed with the obsession to keep his people safe. He wasn't able to protect his brother; damned if he was going to allow it to happen anyone else. He didn't trust Arthur anymore – not as his father, not as his king, and not as his teacher. It had taken years – years of study and subtle manuvering, years of mingling with the common people and learning the art of politics, but he'd gradually usurped the reins of power until he was king in all but name. In the thirteen years since his brother's – abduction, he'd more or less managed become the sole authority of the Western Lands. The Fire Prince hadn't really been a bad ruler – despite some people's protests.
Alfred scowled at his father. Arthur glared right back from his place at the side of the throne. Even though the Fire Prince was the de facto leader of the West, the King still had his say, stubbornly refusing to let go of what little power he had remaining. Alfred snorted and turned his head, stared at the front of the room with narrow eyes.
The duo's heads jerked around at a sudden fanfare of trumpets. Alfred faced forward as a herald stepped through the broad double doors at the head of the hall, forcing his mind to the matter at hand. In a strange twist of irony, the Northern army had chosen to cry parley with the Western Lands instead of outright attacking the kingdom itself. They had even sending an envoy to the Summer Throne, in cruel mockery of the events of thirteen years ago – and despite Alfred's protests, the negotiator had been allowed safe passage to the palace. His hands clenched on the arms of the throne, swallowing thickly as memories of his younger twin came to mind.
"Keep your temper, you idiot boy!" Arthur snapped, stepping forward to stand at his side. A subdued pain danced in his green eyes – eyes the color of frozen jade instead of the dancing leaves that had safeguarded Alfred's childhood. "Do you want to provoke the North to war?" His words were cold, falling from his mouth like polished stones. The King might not have been entirely unwilling to stand on the sidelines, but damned if he was going to go easily.
"They've already declared war on us." Alfred muttered, hate thick in his voice as he glared at the doorway to the Hall. "I don't see what this – this fucking thing is supposed to prove." He shifted uncomfortably, doing his best to find a more comfortable seat on the gold-and-granite throne. "Damn it, I knew I should have brought a pillow."
"Like it or not." Arthur snarled at him "You are the Crown Prince of the Western Kingdom, gods help us all. That means acting in a matter fitting to your station, not prancing around like you're on a lark! If you want to wear the crown, you wear it, and all that comes with it – meaning you have to pay attention to the slightest chance we can get through this without being dragged into a meaningless war that will get half our people killed."
"Like you did?" Alfred felt a tinge of grim satisfaction as his father paled, flinching backwards as if struck. "Forgive me, your majesty, if I think some things have too high a price." He glared at the smaller man, the torches set about the throne bending in odd spirals for the briefest of moments before he dismissively turned away from the fallen king.
Arthur's rejoinder was cut off by another blare of trumpets. The gathered nobles quieting, shrinking backwards as a herald stepped forward, hands shaking with terror.
"All hail." The herald swallowed nervously. "All hail. My lords, allow me to present – " he went pale, quailing backwards as the double doors swung open and a dark figure casually came forward.
"I cam speak for myself." Alfred watched form the corner of his eye as Arthur stood bolt upright, eyes wide with shock and – recognition? The voice was a low baritone, rumbling with unsupressed amusement as the large figure strolled into the throne room, leather armor creaking as he gave a short, sardonic bow. "I am the Master of the North. Lord of the Wild Hunt. Keeper, Breaker, and Beloved of Winter, greatest of the Four." The last few words were echoed by the small retinue that followed in his footsteps; their voices held all the cadences of a ritual observance as they drew themselves up in a rough formation. Dark eyes fixed on the Western Court with beady-eyed suspicioun, hands whitening around the hilts of short, sharp swords.
The Master of Winter was very tall and thickly set; his enormous girth was the hard solidity of muscle rather then fat. The man himself appeared moderately well-groomed, with broad features overshadowed by dense black hair and dark, amused eyes. He smiled. "I am come as an envoy, in order that we might – discuss the current situation." The words dripped lazily from his mouth, the Dark Man visibly preening in response to the outrage that spread like wildfire across the king's face.
"You were specifically told to come alone." Arthur snapped, drawing himself to his full height and coming forward to stand by Alfred's side. A horrible, barely-suppressed rage flickered over his features before it was forcibly suppressed; the effort left the smaller man vibrating with unaccustomed strain. Jade-green eyes swiveled to the side, staring suspiciously at the figures arranged in a scraggly line behind their leader.
The Master smirked, leaning slightly backwards. He yawned. "I chose not to." He shrugged, eyes falling halfway shut in dark amusement. "This – he gestured at his followers "– is my personal guard. I believe I am allowed a detachment for, ah, 'self-defense.'" He quirked an eyebrow. "It's only – 'civilized', isn't it?" The distaste was thick in his voice.
"Then who's that?" Arthur's eyes narrowed in suspicion as he jerked his chin forwards.
The Master's servants were shadows. Dark hair and dark eyes flickered in the dancing torchlight, alien forms only briefly illustrated by inconstant illumination. The Northerner's wore dark, oily furs in seeming defiance of the summer heat; sweat glistened on swarthy skin, gleaming in the firelight and highlighting the ritualistic tattoos snaking across lean muscles. The Master's troop appeared unarmed – but Alfred was uncomfortably aware of just how much weaponry could be concealed beneath their bulky fur. The Fire Prince's eyes landed on the unfortunate man to garner his father's attention and felt his own eyes narrow in suspicion.
The man – if it was a man – stood in polar opposition to his fellows. He was dressed utterly, entirely, in the purest white, shining like a wraith among shadows. Floor-length robes and soft leather shoes made no sound as he glided forward, taking his place beside and slightly behind the Master's bulk. A fur-trimmed hood was drawn across the smaller man's face; the most the onlookers were able to discern was that the Master's companion was very pale, fairly thin, and stood slightly above average height. A staff was clenched in one hand, its sleek form all but obscured beneath layers of white linen; the figure stared at the floor, hood blocking any sight of his face.
"This – " And the Master reached out, settling a huge, paw-like hand on a thin shoulder. "- Is my General. I go no place without him." A deceptively warm smile danced across his features as he grinned down at the smaller man.
"Your 'General' got a name?" Alfred spoke for the first time, face openly suspicious as he gazed down at the interlopers with wary eyes.
"I was beginning to wonder if you could talk." The Master sounded almost insultingly surprised. "Indeed. How rude of me." His voice was anything but apologetic. "I haven't introduced you yet, have I?" A slow smirk crossed his features. "Lords of the West – " his voice rose, the man making full use of his height as he stepped forward. "I present to you, my most trusted advisor." His smile sharpened. "The General Winter."
Alfred stared, jaw falling open in shock. Arthur wasn't that far behind.
The Ice-Mage, who marched at the head of the armies of the North, living embodiment of the Principle of Cold in stark opposition to Alfred's position as avatar of Flame. Warrior beyond compare and assassin beyond peer, he was second only to the Master in unbridled cruelty, the engineer of atrocities that defied description through their sheer unbridled sadism. Half the dead of the last campaign could be laid at his feet alone; cities fell before him, gates shattering like frozen shards of glass at his slightest touch. Entire populations had died at his hands, writhing in agony as the blood congealed in their veins or simply froze solid in a single moment of unbridled pain. Their frozen bodies scattered his wake like snowflakes, twisted forms laid bare for the morning sun; the ice was his to command, and it loved him with a chill passion fit for a favored child. His face and past were unknown, and few speculated on his origins, afraid that he would somehow hear. Some whispered that he was nothing more then ice, ice given a face and a form who had walked from the desolate wastelands of the North in answer to the Master's will. He was the killing frost, child of the Northern ice, who asked no mercy and offered none. Death walked beside him and he brought it as gift and plague to all who stood before the Master's will. Whoever he was, whatever he was... He was the mage of the hordes of the North, Lord of the Sundered Host, right hand of the Master and answerable to him alone.
"You dare…" Arthur breathed, a fine trembling seizing his limbs "-to bring that, that abomination here!" His voice was full of righteous wrath, face twisted with wrath as he roared at the Northmen gathered below the dais. "This isn't an act of parley! Not in the least! Get that, that – filth out of my throne room immediately!" The veins on his face bulged as he flung a hand forward, pointing furiously towards the doorway.
The fur-lined hood quivered, the mage turning his head to face the furious shouts; he seemed to shrink backwards slightly as the Master draped a hand across his shoulder. "Why should he?" The Master's voice was mild, his mage standing motionless beside him. "This is where he belongs." His words were addressed as much as to the silent as to the king.
"There's no place here for that monster!" Arthur was beside himself with rage, nearly frothing at the mouth. His eyes blazed with green fire. "That – that perversity of a mage is not welcome in my Court!"
"It's not your Court!" Alfred's voice joined the discussion, voice rising as he turned furious eyes on his father, fists clenching. "Not anymore, old man!"
"You ignorant boy! You don't understand a thing! I am the Lord here, and this is still my kingdom!"
"I understand enough!" Alfred roared in response. "I understand that – " He darted a sudden look at the Master, face filled with abrupt distrust.
"Don't mind me." The Master waved a hand, amusement filling his face. "I'm quite enjoying this. But I've been rude." The Master purred, ignoring Arthur's furious shouts. The smile that slicked across his face shone like a fresh-drawn sword as he reached upwards. "I've failed to introduce you properly." One leather-gloved hand yanked the furred hood back, a cascade of pale blond hair following in its wake.
"Mattie?" Alfred's words were little more then a breath as emotion stole his voice. His mouth flapped wordlessly, face a picture of utter shock as he sat down heavily on his throne.
Soft blonde hair fell in gentle waves to either side of achingly familiar features; Alfred felt recognition hit him like a punch to the gut as he stared at a face he saw every day in a mirror. There was only one individual who could pass as Alfred's body double. Only one – who had been lost thirteen years ago. Who had been lost – Alfred's eyes widened incrementally – to the North. To Northerners, who were standing… directly in front of him….
The man – no, youth, he was barely more then a teen, barely more then a child flinched slightly, stricken blue eyes trembling as he stared at the small party on the dais, shivering uncontrollably as he looked at his family for the first time in over a decade. Matthew's skin was very pale, his eyes bright azure - not his brother's cornflower-blue, but the soft shade of the sky as the sun sets beneath the sea. His outfit was utterly dissimilar to that of the Northerners beside him; long, blue-white robes trimmed in white fur fell down his side. Linen scattered as he clumsily unwrapped the package in his hands at the Mater's silent urging until he gripped a wizard's staff – a delicate thing, forged of silver and set with spikes of quartz that shimmered like living shards of ice. His hands were pale along the scrolled grip, knuckles a bloodless white.
"No." Arthur's voice was almost hysterical. "No. I – I don't believe it!" He was shouting now, face pale and fists clenching convulsively as he screamed at the Master and his retinue. An inarticulate note of pain filled his voice. "This is some kind of trick, isn't it! It is! It has to be!"
"You gave him to us." The Master remained unpeturbed, reaching forward to tousle Matthew's hair. The blonde's breathing quickened; he closed his eyes, terrified anticipation coating his face as he bent his head in submission to the rough fingers.
"We were surprised, at first." The Master's voice was slow and thoughtful, almost conversational. "When we discovered that you gave us the younger prince." A soft sound of pain left Matthew's lips as the Master's fist tightened in his hair. The dark man grinned. "Did you truly think to cheat the North?" A gloved hand shoved forward, drawing a ragged cry from Matthew as the small teen took two stumbling steps forward.
Emotions were flickering across Arthur's face like a heat storm. Grief, guilt, loss, shame, rage… A dreadful certainty was rising in Arthur's face; the king went pale, trembling as he stared at the frightened, pain-filled face of his son. "Matthew….?" Blue eyes roved wildly, the younger man staring up at his father in mute appeal.
"As it turned out…" Matthew shuddered helplessly as the Master's hand slid suggestively down the side of his face. "Little Matthew was a treasure. All he needed was to be away from his 'loving' family in order to shine…" The dark man paused, leaning forward; wet lips nearly brushed the blonde's ear as a gust of hot breath gushed across his neck. "With the proper motivation, of course…" His grin sharpened, one gloved hand coming up and stroking the heavy collar set around Matthew's neck. It was a thick, seamless band of silver, blank and unadorned – save for the icy gem set into the metal, like a diamond – but darker, harder.
The Dark Man glanced up at the royal family, visage deceptively amiable. "It is a strange fate." He mused. "In seeking to cheat us of our prize, you handed us the most powerful mage to arise in generations." His lips curled in sadistic enjoyment. "For all your vaulted intellect, all your 'passion' and 'civilization', you never even bothered to gauge little Matthew's potential. If you had – oh, if you had…" An almost sensuous shiver ran through his body. "We came looking for Winter." And the Master's smile was like ice, the black ice that lurks beneath the skin of the waters. "We found it." He took two steps backward, smile elongating into a cruel grin. "Pet – " He drawled, one hand raising in an airy wave. "Kill him."
"Now wait just a – " Alfred came to his feet, shoulders bunching as his face darkened with the first touch of fury.
Cold billowed, an indistinct shape leaping from Matthew's hands; shard of ice was the size of a shovel, razor-sharp, and nearly tore Alfred's head from his shoulders, shattering as it impacted the granite throne. The blonde fell back onto his throne, face unaccustomedly pale as he stared down at the strained face of his twin brother.
Twin tears tracks ran down Matthew's cheeks as he stared helplessly at his older brother. The smaller blonde leaned forward, hands rising and legs moving into position as he shifted his stance. Matthew's arms rose, fingers open and spread at his sides as he stood in the classic posture of a practicing battlemage. His stance was perfect, his form unmistakable – for a moment there was silence in the throne room, broken only by the sharp clink as frozen tears dropped to the paving stones.
Moisture glimmered in the air, haze lingering for a single moment before coalescing into diamond-sharp blades. Ice roared into existence about Matthew, twisting into being beneath the blonde's fingertips in gnarled blue-white shards torn from the heart of winter. There was nothing beautiful in those blades – they were savage instruments forged for one purpose, and one along. Savage shards of ice curled lovingly around the blonde, an ice-storm howling with the savage hatred of a Northern gale as frost expanded in a circle from his soft-shod feet.
"I'm sorry." Matthew's voice was broken, full of the tears running down his cheeks. "I'm sorry!" Pale hands came up, cupped into a ready position. "I'm so sorry!" The blonde wailed, sobbing. The stone set into his collar flared with blue-white light, drawing an answering pulse from the blonde's eyes.
And ice lashed out at Alfred, razor-shard shards of hatred launched from his brother's gentle hands.
Fire met it, a gust of incandescent flame roaring like a hungry beast as Alfred finally jolted out of his stupor. Red flames flowed from the prince's outstretched hands in an ingrained reflex, a shield of fire blunting the worst of the ravenous frost. Alfred's face twisted in with concentration, eyes never leaving his brother's face as he shouted. "Get out of here!" His words were scarcely audible above the roar of flames, but there were perfectly audible to the myriad nobles and minor lords stampeding in a panic around the throne room. "All you! Now!" He whirled, gold flames twisting into a painfully bright arc of power as a sword materialized before him; he hefted it, blade a reassuring weight in his hands.
Alfred disdained the traditional props associated with magic with a hatred that bordered on the obsessive. Some had speculated that his irrational dislike was intricately connected to his near-loathing of his father; Arthur Kirkland, after all, was nothing if not methodical in his observance of rituals and obscure traditions. At any rate, Alfred had refused to craft his own staff when he'd reached the proper phase of his training; he'd turned instead to the smithy, forging a sword suitable enough to serve as the proper focus of his powers. It was a trifle ameturish in places – the heft was of gold, inlaid with rubies and metal bands that swirled in strange patterns – but the steel was sharp, and the blade held true.
The fire died away, revealing a perfect sphere of seething blue-white frost; the dome quivered for a moment before exploding in all directions with the snap of breaking ice. A barrage of icicles materialized in mid-air, speeding forward faster than an arrow's flight. Alfred ducked to the side, bringing his sword forward in an elaborate twist as he shouted a Word; a curtain of flame billowed from the blade, intercepting the icy missiles with a hiss of angry steam. The prince let out a snarled curse, squinting through the flame; he let the fire die, grasping his sword in both hands as he ran forward.
Matthew stood in the middle of a circle of glistening ice, staff held in both hands; he looked up as his brother descended upon him. Silent tears spilled down the blonde's cheeks in a never-ending torrent, lips mute.
I'm sorry. Alfred read the words from his twin's lips even as Matthew brought his staff about, impact jarring up his shoulder as it met his sword in a perfect block. I'm sorry. Over and over again, a constant refrain even as Matthew darted smoothly beneath his next blow, swiveling on his heel and bringing his foot around in a kick that sent his brother staggering backwards. The wizard's staff gleamed; Alfred dodged to the side, eyes widening as the pavestone where he had been standing shattered to splintered shards of ice. Frost followed in Matthew's footsteps, a subtle half-mirage glittering in the air about him as he spread his arms wide; the ground rumbled and shook as vast columns of ice erupted, pushing aside stone and carpeting as they shot upward to puncture the roof itself.
Alfred fell back, whipping one sleeve in front of his mouth to block out the dust and ash that littered the air. He hacked convulsively, chest heaving. "Retreat!" He yelled to the few remaining stragglers. "Get out of here, damn you!" Frantic blue eyes narrowed in determination as he turned his attention to his brother's advancing form. Twin sets of hands rose in a deadly synchrony. Fire roared around Alfred, the uncontested wrath of the hungry sun; blue-white sparkled of ice solidified around his paler brother, coalescing into a lance of frost that slammed forward like the heart of winter's implacable hatred. Flames beat back ice as the brothers pitted themselves against one another. Alfred grunted, gritting his teeth in a growl as he pressed forward; his flames were nearly blue-white in intensity and all but indistinguishable from the dark ice sprouting from Matthew's hands. The twins looked startlingly alike as they pitted themselves against the other with all their will and all their power – Alfred's snarl was matched by the strain on Matthew's face. Fire and ice roared, clashed, careened against one another, winding together in a parody of affection before breaking apart in a flurry of quick blows. Alfred's flames billowed high, but could not consume Matthew's ice – and though Winter's snow melted before Summer's fire, it could not be beaten back.
The telltale flick-flak was all the warning Alfred had; he jerked, swearing as an arrow sprouted suddenly from his right shoulder. He'd been utterly unprepared for mundane attacks; his attention wavered for a split second as he stared at the shaft in utter astonishment. It was all the opportunity his opponent needed; ice roared, Matthew taking advantage of the momentary lapse to press his advantage. Alfred staggered backwards with a curse, flames spluttering as he glared helplessly at the Master. The dark man smiled, lowering his own bow and turning to his personal retinue; each man had pulled a weapon from the depths of their furs. "Fire!" The man's voice snapped across the sudden silence, Alfred's eyes widening as fifty arrow shafts flew high, each aimed directly at his heart.
"No!" Arthur's voice broke the eerie silence. The green-eyes mage was suddenly there, one hand pressing forward, fingers spread wide. A translucent shield glittered in the air around the royal pair, blocking the worst of the arrowstorm as Arthur dragged his faltering son backwards, strain obvious on his features. He paused, darting an agonized look at his youngest son before he pushed Alfred past his – their – throne and through the passageway that lay directly behind it, stone door closing with a grating click.
The Master turned amused eyes towards his mage. Matthew leaned on his staff, panting lightly with the effort of the battle; he flinched as he felt the presence of his master's regard, shoulders hunching as he slowly turned. The shadow-man grinned at him, raising a hand; Matthew stiffened, the jewel set into his collar burning with a frigid light.
"Hunt them down." The dark man smiled. "Kill them both."
Arthur slammed the metal door shut behind them, locking it and throwing the deadbolt for good measure. The dispossessed king turned frantic eyes towards the groaning form of his son. "Alfred!" Alfred leaned over the groaning teen, eyes desperate and voice filled with a desperate concern. "Are you – " His fingers hesitated above the protruding arrow shaft, green eyes flickering back and forth. "I – " The sullen discontent normally underlying his words had vanished completely, giving way to the man he had once been.
"No, 'm not alright." Alfred opened one glazed blue eye. "What just – that was – " He stared desperately up at his father, one hand clamped around his wound. "That was – it was, wasn't it?"
Arthur knelt, one hand brushing his son's cheek. "If you are suggesting that that was Matthew, I – " he paused. "Yes." He whispered, voice full of pain.
"But – " Alfred's eyes were wide with incomprehension. "But Mattie – Mattie wouldn't do that, Mattie – "
"He did." Arthur's lips snapped into a thin line, mind racing. The king stared out the nearest window – fires were springing up across the palace roof, and he knew with dread certainty that similar flames were dancing in the city streets. This was no diplomatic courier. This was an invasion. "I – you were right. I'm sorry." Alfred's eyes widened in shock as Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, kneeling down beside the younger man and wrapping laying a hand on his good shoulder. "We should never have let those bastards… I shouldn't have…" Arthur's shoulders heaved before he brought himself under control, focusing desperetly on the feeling of his son in his arms.
There was a sudden hammering at the door. Both men jerked, staring at the passageway behind them with wide eyes, Arthur's hands curling around Alfred's shoulders protectively. "Here!" It was a man's voice, full of rough triumph and the choppy accent of the North. "Here, my lord! They're in here! My lord, here!"
"Leave us." Arthur and Alfred blanched at the sound of that soft, familiar voice.
"But, my Lord Winter – "
Matthew's voice was soft and unthreatening – but there was a sudden sound of scraping boots, of solders scrambling frantically to the side and a pounding of feet as they rushing forwards. A wooden door flapped against a stone doorjamb – then silence, the echoing sound of footsteps fading in the far distance.
There was a soft clink, as of a silver-and-crystal staff being set delicately on the paving stones. Then – a single pair of footsteps, walking softly towards the steel door.
"Father?" Matthew's voice was hesitant. "Are you there? Al?"
Arthur swallowed. Mingled guilt and anger clogged his tongue. "Yes, boy." His voice was rough. The king stroked Alfred's hair softly in a belated gesture of affection. "We're here."
There was a soft thud; Arthur could picture his son leaning against the door, forehead resting against the cool metal. "Is – is Al alright?"
Alfred coughed, hand flapping uselessly against the stone floor as he struggled to rise. "'M okay, Mattie."
The iron-barred doorway began to steam slightly, pale tendrils of frost crackling up and down its surface. The two men stared at it in incomprehension, blue and green eyes widening as white cold hissed over ornate carvings, expanding in a white circle of ice. It crept across door and doorframe, freezing the two together and lacing them in thick layers of perfectly geometric crystal. It was beautiful… Arthur felt his breath catch at the sight, absently noticing the white plume of his breath as he stared at an artwork unmatched by mortal hands, delicate, serene beauty sculpted from air and snow.
Alfred stirred, dragging himself upright. "What are you doing, Matt?" His voice was quiet.
There was a long silence from behind the door, and then a soft clink. "I – I'm killing you." Matthew's voice sounded dead. Frost sparkled in the dim light, twin plumes of breath misting as father and son huddled closer together in the sudden cold. "I – I'm lowering the temperature of the room to, to below freezing." Matthew swallowed, the sound echoing through the silence. "It's – I, it's like, like falling asleep." Tears were strung through the younger twin's voice. "You, you fall asleep, and you don't wake up again…" His voice sounded faintly hysterical.
Arthur's eyes flickered towards the windows spangling the sides of the room; he opened his mouth before closing with a violent snap. It would be a fairly simply matter to break the glass and drop down the comparatively easy incline into the cover of the shrubbery below; easy enough to sneak away – his gaze turned upward. Easier still to burn a hole in the rafters and escape into the crawlspace between wood and stone – but then why… The monarch glared at the doorway. What game was Matthew playing? Surely his memory wasn't bad enough that he couldn't recall the specifics of the palace grounds…
"M-Master said to kill you." Matthew's voice was miserable; heartbreak and sorrow danced in his words, but also a hint of desperate calculation. "He didn't say…" His words trailed off suggestively.
"Matt…" Alfred stared at the doorway, eyes brimming with tears. He reached out, laying a hesitant hand on wrought iron; the prince hissed at the stinging cold, but didn't draw back.
"Al…" Matt was sobbing now, little swallowed whimpers filled with determined desperation.
Arthur laid a gentle hand on Alfred's shoulders. "Why are you doing this, lad?" His voice was soft.
"Father…" Matthew's voice was broken now, and even closer then before - as if he had pressed himself against the doorway, strained forward as if to melt into stone and iron. "I don't – I can't disobey him, father. Not even if I – this is all I can do." An audible shudder wracked through him. "It's a – " His voice sounded suddenly choked; a strangled fit of coughing came to the ears of the listening duo as Matthew wheezed.
Arthur stared at the door, eyes focusing in sudden suspicion. "You can't say, can you."
A pause. "N-no."
Thoughts and observations ran through Arthur's head. Matthew's expression… the genuine heartbreak on his face as he launched his spell at his brother, his utter despair and genuine fear of the Northern leader… The sheer ferocity of the attack. He could have killed them instantly, at any time, but - the way he was following his commands to the letter, rather then the spirit of the order… His physical inability to even share specific information… Memories of spells and long hours spent pouring over grimoires flared in Arthurs mind, information and observation coalescing into a single, inescapable conclusion. "A slave-spell." Alfred jerked upright, staring towards the source of his brother's voice with horrified comprehension as his father's hand tightened on his shoulders. And there was fire and flame and death in Arthur's voice, all the heat embodied in Alfred's flames erupting in slow-burning wrath. "A slave-spell. He put my son under a slave-spell…"
Fury filled Arthur's voice, a rage flaring hotter then the sun itself - but at the same time, there was a desperate relief underlying his words, the horrible, wonderful joy of a child reclaimed. This – this wasn't Matthew's choice, not his will, his son – was still his son, was still… They had to compel his obedience, it was not freely given…
"I – " Matthew swallowed. "I have to go now." A shuffling from behind the door. "The – the temperature's set. You'll – you'll freeze in, in – really really soon. I have too – " He sounded halfway out of his mind with fear and the anticipation of pain as he repeated himself. "I have to go now." Matthew sounded faintly hysterical; he gabbled desperately, as if to convince himself of the truth of his words. "To tell him I killed you. He said – he said to kill you. He didn't say I had to watch…" The ice mage paused for a moment.
"Good luck." It was a whisper, scarcely more then a breath of air.