She stepped into the cavern, her foot sinking into the layer of frost which covered the entire floor. Stalagmites and stalactites of ice built glistening pillars around the room. Crystals frozen deep within the ice walls glowed pale blue and pink, illuminating the cavern of ice.
She walked slowly, torch in one hand, a blade of cold steel in the other. Behind her another young woman, her younger sister, followed close behind, a second torch held in a white knuckled grip.
“Will we really be safe here?” she asked, taking another step toward her older sister.
“The lord's men won't follow us here,” she reassured her younger sister. She didn't look back, though. Instead, her eyes scanned the walls for movement or magic.
“Because they are scared of frost elementals?”
“Well… I mean…” What could she say? If the rumors were true, this was the home of frost elementals and lesser spirits of winter. It would be a lie to say the soldiers of the castle didn't give this area wide berth just to avoid this cave of ice and monsters. “No one has seen a frost elemental in nearly ten years.”
“Hasn't it been ten years since the last time the lord tried to have this area developed?”
She sighed. “That may be true.”
It was, in fact true. Ten years ago, the lord, the man whose men now hunted them, had wanted this region cleared and a manor built. Before the first tree had even been felled, frost elementals, primordial spirits of ice, had rolled out from this cave as a freezing mist. The mist had slipped into the lungs of the workers before any realized. Over half the work force suffocated, their lungs frozen solid, before any of the overseers realized what had happened. As panic spread through the remaining workers, the spirits manifested as men, eight feet tall, with clubs of ice for arms. They smashed any too slow to run away into frosty, bloody piles.
But, recounting this story to her already trembling younger sister was hardly good for moral. Besides, if the lord got them, they would hardly fair better. The possible death and dismemberment of the cave was far better than certain demise they faced if any of their hunters caught them.
“We just need to hide here until nightfall,” she added. “His men won't go out in the forest after dark. We can slip away then.”
Her sister nodded meekly, but she could tell she wanted to point out why the soldiers wouldn't enter the forest at night. Whether her sister was thinking of the direwolves or the snow drakes, she couldn't say. She supposed it didn't matter. Both could kill them with crushing ease.
They walked deeper into the cave, the temperature dropping with each step, the cold seeping through their winter coats, sinking down to their bones. Their torches flickered, as if the cold were trying to put out the flames itself.
“Do you think it's true?” her sister asked, her breath coming out in a cloud of moisture, freezing to her scarf around her chin almost immediately. “Do you think this is actually the gate to the Winter Court?”
She frowned. “The home of all winter Fae?” She shook her head. “That's just a story to scare small children into behaving during the winter.”
“So, you don't think undines will pull us into the ice or redcaps will come and steal our fires?”
She almost laughed. “Have you ever really heard of that kind of thing happening?”
Frost elementals were one thing. Those undoubtedly lurked in the cold places of the world. But true Fae? They had left this world for the wells of magic, if they had ever existed at all.
“But, didn't the villagers always say—”
“The villagers said all kinds of things. That doesn't make it true.” That came out sharper than she had meant. It was just, they had enough problems as it was, without borrowing more from old stories. “We can stop here. I doubt the lord's men will come this far.”
Her sister nodded without further complaint.
In truth, she didn't like that there was unexplored regions ahead of them still. But the cave had ever so slowly been angling down and she was unwilling to travel deeper. It wasn't unknown for caves like these to have pockets of unbreathable air or to suddenly collapse, and she wasn't going to risk it. Additionally, she couldn't argue that the air wasn't getting colder and colder the deeper they got, and she found it unsettling to say the least.
“Something moved,” her sister said. It had probably been about an hour since they had stopped. “Over there.” She pointed to the depths of the cave, her arm trembling.
“What was it?” she asked.
Her sister shook her head. “I don't know. A shadow, maybe? Tall enough to be a person?”
She frowned, peering down the hall of ice. The crystals in the walls lit the way enough she could see all the way to the next bend, but also enough that the pillars and icicles cast unusual shadows over the walls and floors.
“You're sure?” she asked.
Her sister nodded.
“Alright,” she said, making her decision. “Stay here. I'll go check.”
Her sister nodded again.
She walked down the corridor slowly, her eyes scanning each shadowed alcove. The worst thing would be if something managed to slip past her and get between herself and her sister.
She rounded a corner and immediately leapt back behind it. Ahead of her a snow drake lay sprawled across the frosty stone, its breath forming a small mound of snow before it's slightly open maw. It was asleep, and appeared to have been for quite a while. If anything had passed this way it was quiet enough to have slipped past this monster without waking it.
She turned to return to her sister, shaking her head. Whatever her sister might have seen, she wasn't following it past the lesser dragon.
A shrill scream echoed down the corridor from back where she had left her sister.
She sprinted back, her feet skidding and sliding on the icy ground.
She skid to a halt as she entered the chamber she'd left her sister.
Her sister stood against the wall, her eyes wide, her body frozen in fear. On the other side of the room, standing in the other entrance, stood a dark-haired man with skin like ice. Or, rather, he looked like a man. He looked like a man the way a dragon looks like a drake. The shape was the same, but he held an air of magic and majesty the other could never compare to.
She stepped between her sister and the stranger, her sword leveled before her.
“Who is he?” she hissed behind her to her sister.
“He just appeared there,” she whispered back.
“From around the corner?”
“No. One minute there was no one, the next he was standing there.”
He wasn't one of the lord's men, she could say that much. He didn't have the lord's insignia over his heart. And judging from the silver hilt on the sword at his waist, it was too fine a piece to have been provided by that cheapskate lord to a lackey.
“Who are you?” she asked finally, not lowering her sword an inch.
His dress was odd too for one in the wilderness. He wore no coat, despite the freezing temperatures of the caves. Just a long-sleeved tunic of a fine black fabric, embroidered in silver around the cuffs. It looked more like court dress than clothes of a traveler.
He raised an eyebrow at the question. “Do guests no longer declare themselves at their hosts doors in the mortal world?”
“Guests?” she asked.
“You've come to my lady's gate,” the man said. “What else does that make you?”
“Your-your lady's gate?”
The man nodded. “It's been many years since we've last had mortal guests. My lady is eager to see humans again.”
“And your lady, she's…”
“The Queen of Winter, naturally,” the man said. “Who else would rule the lands beyond Winter's Gate?”
“Then, you, you're…”
“Me? Just the gatekeeper.”
“Hm? Oh, yes, naturally.”
Her sister grabbed her coat sleeve, pulling herself close to her body.
“We-we didn't know this was the entrance to your home,” she said. “Please forgive our rudeness.”
The man frowned. “Then you did not come to be my lady's guests?”
She shook her head. “I'm afraid we did not come prepared to see one as noble as she.”
“Shame,” the man said, with a shrug. “Then I must ask you vacate the premises. My lady will be so disappointed.”
“Wait!” She had spoken without thinking, but it certainly wasn't night yet. The lord's men would still be waiting for the two of them. And it was certain death if they were caught by them. They could not go back out there.
Yet the other option was to meet the Queen of Winter, the cruel mistress of all Fae? To go with this man was probably death as well.
“If her majesty would really like to see us, even as unprepared as we are, who are we, humble travelers, to deny her?”
“What are you doing?” her sister hissed behind her.
The man's face lit up immediately. “Oh? Good! Most excellent. Come, follow me. Let us prepare you for the queen!”
She took her sister's hand, falling in behind the fae man. Maybe there was no hope of ever escaping the Fae. Maybe this too would mean their death. But again, even probable death was better than what waited for them outside.
Better or worse, she would take her chances.