The Winter King

Page 4


As he and his men rode west, following the call of the wolves, the temperatures began to drop. If the Summer Prince fought back with his own weathergifts, that would pinpoint his location. If he didn’t, the rapidly worsening weather would slow his escape. Either way, Wynter would track him down and make him pay for what he’d done to the people of Hileje.
The prince had hours on him. That was the purpose of the fire in Hileje—a distraction to get Wynter and his men out of the palace so Falcon Coruscate could steal what he came for and make his escape. But the distraction had been much more than a mere fire. The Summerlanders had raped and murdered dozens of villagers, then locked the rest in the meeting hall and burned them alive.
Eighty-six lives wiped out in one senseless act of violence. Eighty-six innocent Winterfolk who had depended on their king to protect them. And he had failed.
The tone of the wolves’ howls suddenly changed, the howls becoming longer, mournful, announcing a loss to the pack. Wynter sent out his thoughts, connecting to the pack mind and seeing through the wolves’ eyes as he searched for the source of that cry. He caught a glimpse of scarlet splashed across the snow, bodies that were clothed not furred.
“No!” He knew instantly why the wolves howled and for whom. “No! Garrick!” He spurred Hodri faster, galloping at a reckless pace. The wind whistled past his ears. Snow flew from Hodri’s hooves.
It didn’t take long to reach the clearing where the wolves had gathered. The smell of death filled the air—a dark odor Wynter had smelled before. It was a scent few men ever forgot.
He reined Hodri in hard, leaping from saddle to ground before the horse fully stopped. The first two bodies were boys Wyn recognized. Garrick’s friends. Fifteen and sixteen years old, barely more than children. Arrow-pierced through their hearts. They’d been dead within minutes of being struck.
A moaning cough brought Wyn scrambling to his feet. He half-ran, half-stumbled across the snow towards the source of the sound, but when he got there, he felt as if his heart had stopped beating. He fell to his knees.
The coughing boy was Garrick’s best friend, Junnar. He’d been gut-shot, and the dark, matter-filled blood oozing from the wound told Wynter the boy was a dead man even though his body still clung weakly to the last threads of his life.
Junnar lay atop the prone, lifeless figure of Wynter’s brother. An arrow—its shaft painted with the Prince of Summerlea’s personal colors—protruded from Garrick’s throat.
“Garrick?” After moving Junnar to one side and packing his wound with snow to numb the pain, Wyn reached for his brother with trembling hands. His fingers brushed the boy’s face, and he flinched at the coldness of his brother’s flesh. Garrick had been dead for hours. Probably since before Wyn had left Gildenheim in pursuit. How could Wyn have lost the only family he had left in the world and not known it the instant it happened?
Horses approached from Wynter’s back. Then Valik was there, laying a sympathetic hand on Wynter’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, my friend. I’m so sorry.”
Wyn nodded numbly. The ache was consuming him. The pain so deep, so indescribable, it was beyond feeling. His whole body felt frozen, like the ice statues he and Garrick carved together.
“Help Junnar.” How he spoke, he didn’t know. His voice came out a choked, gravelly rasp. “Make him as comfortable as you can.”
“Of course.”
He waited for Valik to lift Junnar and settle him off a short distance before gathering Garrick’s body into his arms. He held his brother for a long time, held him until Junnar breathed his last, and the White Guard packed the bodies up for transport back to Gildenheim. Their hunt for Prince Falcon of Summerlea had ended the moment Wynter found his brother’s corpse. But there was no doubt in any of their minds that this was far from over.
Wynter carried Garrick in front of him on Hodri’s back, cradling his body as he had so many times over the years after their parents had died and it had fallen to him to raise his brother. He carried him all the way to Gildenheim, releasing him only to the weeping servants who would prepare Garrick and the others for the funeral pyre.
Wynter stood vigil by his brother’s side throughout the night. He murmured words of sympathy to the parents of the other lost boys but shed no tears of his own though his eyes burned. At dusk the following night, he stood, tall and dry-eyed beside the pyres as the flames were lit, and he remained standing, motionless and without speaking, throughout the night and into the next morning. He stood until the pyre was naught but flickering coals. And when it was done, and there was nothing left of his brother but ash, Wynter mounted Hodri and took the long, winding road to the Temple of Wyrn, which was carved into the side of the next mountain.
Galacia Frey, the imposing and statuesque High Priestess of Wyrn, was waiting for him inside the temple. She had come the night before to bless his brother and the others and to light their pyres, before returning to the temple to await his visit.
“You know why I have come.”
Her eyes were steady. “I know. But Wyn, my friend, you know I must ask you to reconsider. You know the price.”
“I know and accept it.”
“There’s no guarantee the goddess will find you worthy,” she warned. “Many men have tried and died.”
“You think that frightens me? If I die, I will be with my brother. If I survive, I will have the power to avenge him.”
She closed her eyes briefly and inclined her head. “Then take the path to the left of the altar, Wynter Atrialan, King of the Craig. Leave your armor, clothes and weapons in the trunk by the door. You must enter the test as you entered the world. And may the goddess have mercy on your soul.”