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Sneedronningen

Chapter Text

It was cold. The cold crunched underfoot and prickled up her feet, all up her legs. It danced soft across her arms. But still she walked forward. She walked forwards until she could go no further.

At first the mirror was just a mirror, big enough that she could see her whole self in it and then some. Then she saw something move in the corner of her eye, and she tried to look at the frame, but it was strange, blurry, shifting under her gaze. It never kept to one shape for more than a few seconds. When she looked back into the mirror it was just a frame again.

Two sets of blue eyes gazed back at her. One was her own. The other was bright and piercing, staring at her out of the falling snow. Dark hair, pale skin. Cold, soft arms wrapped around her.

“Do you like what you see?” said a voice in her ear.

She stared into the mirror. It suddenly seemed big, so big that she couldn’t see the frame any more. It stretched out to eternity in all directions. When she looked down, the ground beneath her feet was gone, there was nothing but the darkness and the falling snow and her dangling feet.

She gasped. The arms tightened around her. “Don’t worry,” said the voice. “I won’t ever let you go.” Silence. “Don’t you trust me? Hmm?”

The ground must be so very far away, she thought. But she didn’t feel cold anymore.

“Yes,” she said, breathless. “Yes, of course I do.”

“Good,” said the voice.

Then she let go.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, a long time ago (or it felt like a long time to them), Guinevere met a girl.

Both of them were in the same hall, on the same floor, three doors down from each other, but they didn’t speak to each other for two weeks. Not until Gwen happened to walk into their shared kitchen just as the plate the girl was washing slipped out of her hand and shattered on the floor, bright white shards and soapy bubbles spreading across the blue linoleum.

She swore, loudly, and crouched down to pick them up. And, Gwen being Gwen, she rushed over to help.

“Are you alright?” she said, snatching a cloth from the worktop, just as the girl’s fingers closed around a particularly sharp piece of broken china. “Careful, you’ll –”

The girl swore again as the edge of it sliced into her finger. “Christ,” she said. “I’m so clumsy.”

Gwen had thought that the girl did not look clumsy at all. She was the kind of beautiful willowy athletic girl who would have been on the cross country team at school. But she didn’t say so out loud. “No, you’re not,” she said. “Do you want a plaster? I have some in my room.”

“Thanks,” said the girl. “It’s Gwen, isn’t it? I’m Morgana.” She smiled. Gwen couldn’t help but smile back.

Morgana was the first person aside from Gwen’s dad to see the inside of her new room, the walls still bare, one box of books still packed away in the corner rather than on the shelf.

She was studying linguistics, which seemed to much more impressive and interesting than Gwen’s sociology course. She had laughed at Gwen’s flowery plasters and called them adorable.

 

*

But Morgana said later that no, that wasn’t how they’d met. And maybe she was right.

“First day we moved in,” she had said one evening, a few months later, while they were up late with coffee and mountains of textbooks. “We said hello in the corridor, and you introduced yourself, remember? I thought you looked friendly.”

“No, I’d remember that,” Gwen had said. “Must have been someone else.”

“I think I know what you look like by now, Gwen,” she had said, laughing.

But Gwen didn’t believe it. She had introduced herself so many times that first day, but she would have remembered Morgana, she was sure of it.

*

(In fact, they were both wrong. Once, years before, they had passed each other on the street when Gwen had been on a day trip with her family and Morgana out shopping for clothes with friends, and they had seen each other, if only briefly.

But that hardly counts. Perhaps they were both right instead.)

*

It was two weeks into the term that Morgana had invited Gwen to come to the pub down the road with her and some friends. And that was that.

There were nights out and essays and exams and flat hunting, and then their first year away from home was over as quickly as it had begun. They had moved in together, with three other girls at first, but then just the two of them, in a little two bedroom flat above a news agent.

When Morgana’s father was killed fighting overseas, Gwen had sat up with her all night until she could stop crying, then stayed home from lectures the day after to make sure she didn’t start again. She had held her hand all through the funeral.

When Gwen got her heart broken for the first time, Morgana had been there with chocolate and ice cream and wise words and tissues with flowers printed on them, because she had been through it already and she knew how it hurt.

Everything seemed perfect. If sometimes Gwen found herself absently watching the way Morgana’s hair fell or following the contours of her legs with her eyes, or if Morgana sometimes wished that her boyfriend was as easy to talk to as Gwen was, well, that didn’t matter.

 

(The boyfriends never lasted anyway.)

But then one winter it snowed.

*

It snowed and it snowed and it snowed. The snow built up around doorsteps and window ledges. The people on the news said stern things about cold fronts and snaps and ice on the roads and grit shortages. At first they just sat huddled up together on the sofa with hot water bottles and hot chocolate, but then something changed.

“Your breakfast is cold,” Gwen said when Morgana wandered into their kitchen one morning.

“Breakfast?” said Morgana.

“I made you breakfast,” said Gwen, poking at the eggs mournfully. “But then, well, I didn’t want to wake you, because you just looked so peaceful, and it went cold. I put out the cereal, though?”

Morgana rubbed at her eyes and surveyed the kitchen table. Gwen watched her hopefully, watched as her gaze slid over the cornflakes, the selection of spoons, the chipped milk jug, watched as she frowned down at the neatly folded napkin. She rubbed her eyes again and squinted at her watch.

“I’m good, thanks,” she said. “I have to go, I think. I have a lecture at half nine.”

“Don’t forget your scarf, then,” said Gwen, lifting up some of the eggs on her spatula. They slipped sluggishly back into the pan. “It’s freezing out. It snowed more over night, did you see?”

The novelty of the snow was long gone. It had been nice for a while, but it was the middle of February, now, and it was getting boring.

“I’ll be alright,” said Morgana. “I’ll buy coffee on the way, alright?”

Gwen nodded slowly. “We should go out tonight,” she said. “We haven’t been out in ages. It’d be fun.”

“I have a presentation tomorrow,” said Morgana. “And I am so not ready. I’m sorry.” She shrugged on her rucksack. “Maybe next week?”

Gwen hummed in response and moved towards the kitchen sink with her saucepan. Behind her, the door clicked shut.

They used to eat breakfast together most mornings. They used to have lunch together most days as well, but she couldn’t remember the last time they’d done that. She couldn’t even remember the last time they’d had a conversation that had lasted longer than a few minutes. Morgana would say that she was busy, but then Gwen would find her staring into the mirror in her room for long minutes, pensive, evasive. She didn’t know what had happened.

There didn’t seem to be any hot water in the taps, no matter how many times she tried.

*

 

Morgana liked the cold. It meant that the benches outside the library were empty but for the odd smoker, so she could brush away the snow and sit there where it was nice and quiet and she could actually concentrate on her reading.

Most days, anyway. But today, every time she caught a glimpse of herself in a reflective surface, she saw another face looking back.

“Excuse me?” said a voice. A rich, beautiful voice. Morgana started and glanced up.

“Hmm?” she said. There was a strange girl standing nearby, dressed in a white coat with a fur trim, clutching a neat white bag and a packet of cigarettes.

“You haven’t got a light, have you?” she said.

“I’m sorry,” said Morgana, tearing her gaze away from the girl with some reluctance. She seemed familiar. “I don’t smoke. Ask one of them.” She jerked her head towards the smokers a few benches away.

“You looked nicer,” said the girl. “More interesting.” Morgana turned to look at her again. She smiled a dazzling smile. “I’m Nimueh,” she said. “It’s Morgana, isn’t it?”

She nodded. It did not occur to her to ask how the strange girl knew her name. It seemed quite natural.

“It’s nice to meet you properly,” said Nimueh.

“You too,” said Morgana. Her gaze drifted down of its own accord to the sliver of Nimueh’s neck that was visible from behind her white scarf. Everything about her was white. She seemed to blend into the background, somehow.

Nimueh smiled, shifted to reveal a little more skin. “Do you like what you see?” she said. Morgana’s mouth fell open.

Then she blinked, and the world seemed to twist out of shape for a moment, and Nimueh was gone, as if she’d never been there at all. There wasn’t even a footprint.

But then when Morgana turned back to her book, there was a little dusting of snow that seemed to spell out words for a moment before a breeze swept it away.

Do you trust me?

*

thought id make dinner, Gwen texted, what do u fancy?

i don’t know, Morgana texted, not that hungry.

ur never hungry, what’s wrong?

Gwen’s thumb hovered over the keypad for a moment. Then she sighed, and deleted the last message. Texted back something vague, and went to poke about in the fridge.

The whole flat was cold. She rubbed her hands together and turned up the radiator in the kitchen, but that hardly seemed to help. If anything it seemed colder. She reached for her hoodie, draped over the back of a chair, but it had slipped down to the floor. She had to go down on her knees and grope under the table.

The lights flicked abruptly, on-off-on, startling her enough that her head jerked up and collided with the underside of the table, hard. But the lights were back to normal by the time she staggered to her feet, so she ignored it and walked over to turn on the oven.

Behind her, strange frosty patterns spiralled across the window, unnoticed.

By the time she realised that something was really wrong, it was almost nine o’clock, and Morgana still hadn’t arrived, and the lights were flickering on and off periodically, and dinner was going to need to be reheated in the microwave.

The wind was picking up outside. It was snowing again, building up against the windows. It was all very unsettling.

Gwen got up from her chair to fetch her coat from the hallway – somehow it had got even colder, she’d have to get someone to look at the heating soon – but then after that her feet carried her through into the living room, over to the window, the window which looked down onto the street, and, and…

And there was Morgana. She was standing on the very edge of the pavement, snow covering her head and her shoulders, just standing there, watching the cars trundle by.

But no, it wasn’t the cars. It was the snow. She was watching the snow. Before she knew what she was doing, Gwen had raced out of the flat and down the stairs, not even stopping to pick up her keys or put on some shoes. Her feet would probably turn blue, but she wasn’t sure she cared.

“Morgana!” she cried, staggering through the snow. Morgana didn’t turn around, not even when Gwen was standing right beside her, shivering. Gwen grabbed her arm and tugged. “Morgana! How long have you been out here?”

“Hmm?” said Morgana, finally, finally turning to face her. Her eyelashes were caked with snow. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The snow?”

“What are you doing? You’re going to get hypothermia! Or pneumonia! Or something!” said Gwen. “Have you been out here since you got back, Morgana?”

“I don’t know, maybe?” said Morgana. “I was… waiting. For someone.” She blinked and rubbed the snow away from her eyes. “I guess she’s not coming.” She stared vaguely at the rear windscreen of a nearby parked car.

“I made dinner,” said Gwen. “It’ll be alright if we microwave it, yeah? Warm you up?” Morgana didn’t move. “Come on, you’re freezing!” Morgana blinked and nodded, but kept staring out into the snowfall.

 

*

 

The next morning came in a haze of sunlight and warmth. The snow had stopped falling overnight and the malfunctioning heater in Gwen’s room had started working again. She rolled over and sighed and smiled into the chink of sunlight that slipped through the curtains.

It wasn’t until she stepped out into the hallway that she realised something was wrong. It was cold, too cold, and there was an odd gentle banging noise from around the corner. She stepped forwards, rubbing her eyes sleepily, and found that the door was open, swinging back and forth in the breeze from the stairwell outside.

“Morgana,” she said, horrified suspicion building in her chest, “why’s the door open?” No answer. “Morgana?” She turned and rushed back to the other bedroom – she was just being silly, Morgana was still asleep and she’d be annoyed at Gwen for waking her, or maybe she’d got up earlier than usual and found that they’d run out of milk and –

Her room was empty. The covers on the bed rumpled, pulled back. Her shoes were spread haphazard across the floor.

She thought no, no, no as she hurried down the stairs, half in half out of her coat. She had no idea what she was dreading, what she thought might have happened that was so awful, but something, something

There were footprints in the snow outside, footprints left by bare feet. They went down the path outside, then left, down the pavement ten paces or so, then – stopped. Just stopped, stopped dead, as if Morgana had walked this far then disappeared into thin air.

“Morgana?” she called. It echoed in the icy empty air. “Morgana?” But the only person in sight was a man walking his dog, who looked at her funny. The door barked as it passed, barked and growled and pulled at its leash. She thought for a moment that it was snarling at the footprints in the snow, but then its owner tugged it back and dragged it on, and it quieted.

*

Half an hour later she was sitting in the police station, still wearing her pyjamas under her coat, bare feet jammed into trainers, trying to explain what had happened.

“Yes, I’m sure she hasn’t just gone out,” she said. “None of her clothes are gone! She wasn’t even wearing any shoes!”

“So you’re saying you think she’s been kidnapped?” drawled the man behind the desk.

“No,” said Gwen, “No, I’m sure I would have heard something if someone else had come in, but I didn’t, so I think she’s just… I don’t know, got confused and gone outside and maybe she’s lost. Or something.”

Or maybe, Gwen thought to herself, maybe she was kidnapped by someone who doesn’t make any sound. Or something.

*

Two hours, a lot of questions, and one missing persons report later, Gwen trudged home through the snow. It was at the crunchy, icy stage, more frost than snow now, really.

But it still left footprints. When she reached her street, she found that the marks left by Morgana’s bare feet were all but gone, covered up by layers and layers of prints, boots and trainers and awkward high-heeled shoes. She stopped and stared down at the ground, feeling as if she might cry, which was stupid, really, it really was, because it wasn’t as if this was all that was left of her. Morgana had left a room full of her things and dirty dishes in the sink that Gwen would need to wash and half a jar of the kind of pickles that everyone but her hated in the fridge.

As she stared, a robin leapt down from a rooftop and danced across the remaining prints, living little twig-like marks in its wake. Then it hopped around and stared up at her as if looking for approval.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “That was very nice. Now go away, please?”

She realised she had spoken aloud and looked up sharply, glancing around to see if anyone had heard. But there was no-one in sight except her and that robin, staring up at her with an odd intelligent glint in its eye.

She stared back down at it. It hopped and fluttered a few more feet down the street, then tweeted as if to say ‘follow me!’.

Gwen took a step forward. And another. But no, this was silly, wasn’t it? It was just a bird. It was a bird and she was imagining things. She stepped back and took a deep breath of icy air.

The robin flew away. A car turned the corner and rumbled down the street. A man came out of his front door and stumped down his garden path. It was as if some strange spell had been broken. She shook herself and marched up the steps to her front door.

The next week or so passed in a flurry of phone calls and posters and missed lectures and sleepless nights and endless, endless questions – had Morgana ever done this before? Had she seemed upset at all lately, like she was going to run away?

Sometimes, they told her, sometimes people just wanted to disappear. And when they really wanted to disappear, when they didn’t want to be found, well…

“She wants me to find her,” said Gwen. “I know she does.”

Then the robin came back.

Chapter Text

The snow had thawed to an icy, slippery slush, coating the pavements and mingling with grit on the roads and freezing solid every time there was a cold night. Gwen was sitting in the kitchen with a mug of hot chocolate, wondering what to do next.

She had done Morgana’s washing and her dishes and tidied her room so everything would be nice when she came back. She had done everything the police had told her to do. And yet there was not even a trace of her. No-one had seen a thing. It was as if she had just vanished into thin air.

And now the flat was all clean and tidy ready for her, but she wasn’t there. Gwen set her mug down beside the sink to wash later, then took her head in her hands and tried very hard not to cry. But by the time the robin came back, she was sobbing.

It landed on the outside of the windowsill. The window was open a crack, just enough for a little bird to poke its head through and chirrup at her. And then again, when she didn’t respond.

She wiped her eyes. “Now, don’t be silly,” she said. “There’s no reason why I should think you’re the same robin. Or anything other than just a normal robin. Now don’t you dare come in to my nice clean kitchen.”

The robin, disobedient to the last, squeezed the rest of its body through and fluttered over to land on the rim of her mug. It tweeted at her and fluffed up its feathers for a moment. Then it hopped back across to the window and looked at her expectantly.

“You don’t know where she is,” said Gwen, “And besides, I’m not going to climb out the window. That would just be silly.”

The robin tweeted at her again and hopped about, agitated.

“You’re just a robin,” she said.

It seemed to glare. Don’t be such an idiot.

“I mean, really,” she said. “How would you know?”

The robin squeezed itself back out the window and chirruped at her again.

The window opened out onto a bit of low sloping roof, because they lived in an awkward, old, haphazard sort of building. It sloped up a little, then down a little, and then there was the back wall, and the garden that belonged to the flat downstairs. There was nothing even out there.

“There’s nothing even out there!” she said.

The robin fluttered out onto the roof, out of sight. Gwen stepped around and pushed the window further open to see it. She’d have to climb over the taps, she realised, and avoid the toaster, but she could manage it. Just about. But no, that would be silly.

She climbed up onto the worktop, just as the bird fluttered up onto the crest of the little roof. It was covered with snow, more snow than had been there earlier. Earlier it had been all slush and ice.

“At least let me fetch my shoes!” she called after it as it vanished out of sight. “I’m only in socks! And it’s cold out!” She struggled out of the window. “Hello? Can’t you wait a moment? Little bird?”

The snow was shockingly, sharply cold beneath her feet. Her socks seemed to be soaked at once. But she crawled up the roof anyway and peered down the other side. From the top it seemed to slope down and down forever like a mountainside. She supposed it was an awkward angle or something. Trick of perspective.

She reached the very top of the roof and tried to balance there for a moment, get her bearings – she couldn’t see the bird any more, but she could see its footprints, and hear it tweeting off in the distance somewhere – but then she lost her footing and slipped and slithered all the way down the roof, making a horrible mess of the lovely smooth snow. She’d reach the edge soon, she realised, and fall and hit the ground – there was a concrete patio down there, she’d crack her skull – so she braced herself for the impact, but it never came.

Instead, she slid smoothly from the snow to bare, dry earth, coming to a gentle halt with her legs splayed out in front of her as if she’d just come down a slide. “Oh!” she said, and closed her legs quickly, feeling rather childish.

She was in a forest of leafless trees. It was dull and grey and cloudy around her, little tufts of mist drifting by her and around the trees. When one passed close by her head, she could hear strange whispering voices in it.

“Hello?” she called out. “Hello?” There was no answer. She blinked, wondering what in the world had just happened. “Little bird?” she tried. “Robin? Are you still here?” There was a soft, sad little chirrup beside her. She looked down.

The robin was lying on the damp earth, crumpled and oddly faded, as if the colour was being drained from it. It stared up at her sadly.

“What’s wrong with you?” she said. She reached out to pick it up, but didn’t quite dare. She wasn’t sure she should touch it. It chirruped one last time, then went limp, the light fading from its eyes. She gaped down at it. “But you led me here!” she said. “You can’t just die! How am I supposed to go back?” The bird didn’t say anything. It was just a dead bird now.

The sun broke through the clouds.

The first shaft of green-gold light struck the body of the little bird, illuminating it. Then there was another, and another, so clear and bright and neat that it was almost as if they were real, solid. And everywhere they touched, grass sprung out of the earth. Leaves burst out of the tree branches, swelling and unfurling. Flowers leapt out of the ground in little clumps. Daffodils grew beneath her splayed fingers, and she leapt up and away, letting the light fall on the space she’d left, bringing the grass to life. The snow behind her melted and flowed down, forming a little stream that rushed straight through her legs, sweeping away the body of the robin with it. On the tree beside her, blossoms swelled up and burst, showering her with petals.

“Goodness!” she exclaimed, then looked around guiltily, just in case someone had heard. “I mean, well…”

The trees creaked and groaned as they grew taller and taller around her. A new branch almost hit her. It wasn’t until she ducked out of the way that she noticed the birds’ nest nestled away between the twigs. There was a single blue-spotted egg in it. It began to crack open as she watched.

The bird flopped out, pink and wet and tiny. It’s little beak opened up and let out a few small, frantic sounds.

“Are you hungry?” she said. “I don’t have anything to feed you with.”

But the bird did not seem to be hungry. It pulled itself up and sat shivering and shaky in the nest. Once it seemed to feel a little stronger, it hopped up onto the branch, downy feathers breaking out all over it. It was growing fast enough that she could see it.

It hopped a little further down the branch, then stopped and seemed to concentrate for a moment. Inky-black feathers broke out in a rippling wave all over it. It grew still larger. Then it hopped around in a circle as if chasing its own tail or trying to look at itself, spread its wings, and chirruped up at her.

“Yes,” she said. “You’re a blackbird. That’s very nice. I don’t suppose –” But it was already gone, a black blur vanishing away through the trees. “And you want me to follow you too, I suppose?” she called after it.

There was no response except a distant tweeting sound. Gwen sighed, rolled her eyes, and took off at a run through the budding wood.

The trees and plants seemed to have stopped growing, but that wasn’t the end of it. Animals kept crawling out between the roots of the trees, birds and rabbits and badgers. She passed a tree with a great swarm of insects crawling out of a hole in the bark and moved on hastily.

“What is this place?” she called after the bird, giving a little snake a wide berth. But the bird just tweeted in response and kept flying.

By the time he came to a halt, she was so out of breath that she doubled over, only just managing to keep her balance. They were by the stream again. It had grown a little wider, but she was sure it was the same one. The blackbird was sitting on an overhanging tree branch, staring down at her with something that may have been pride.

“Now what was the point of that?” she said. The bird chirruped, leapt off its branch, and rushed past her. She twisted round to see where it was going, heart sinking at the thought of more running, but it wasn’t far.

A little way behind her was a building, a short twisty tower with a turret on top like something out of a fairy tale. The bird had come to rest up on the roof. Gwen forced her aching legs to walk her over to it.

There was a little lamb sniffing at the grass at its base, which didn’t even make sense, when she thought about it, because it wasn’t as if there was a farm nearby, and anyway, where was its mother?

The tower seemed rather taller up close. “Hello?” she said, and then, without thinking; “Rapunzel?”

The window near the top opened with a bang. “Now that would just be silly,” came a voice from within. A wild-looking woman with blonde hair and dark eyes glared down at her. “Whatever are you talking about?”

“I’m sorry,” said Gwen. “I wasn’t thinking. If you don’t mind, where am I, exactly?”

“Oh, all sorts of places,” said the woman. “And nowhere at all. I suppose you want to come up, don’t you?”

“If you don’t mind,” said Gwen. “Do you?”

“Yes,” said the woman. “But never mind me. Bring the lamb, will you?”

Gwen looked at it doubtfully. She wasn’t sure how one picked up a lamb, if at all. “I’ll try?” she said. “And, um, how do I get up, exactly?”

“Through the door,” said the woman, waving a hand vaguely. The window banged shut.

“Well, she was helpful,” said Gwen. “I don’t see a door at all.” She made a quick circuit of the tower just in case, but there was nothing but bare stone wall. She stared at it more closely on the second circuit, but all this revealed was that it was strange and warped at the bottom, shaped almost like tree roots. There was definitely no door, though.

Except, of course, that when she got back to where she’d been, there was a loud creak and a wooden door swung open, revealing a light, airy wooden staircase within.

“Well, fine,” she said. “Be like that.” She snatched up the lamb, ignoring its bleats of protest, and marched on up and in.

The second door at the top was made of little diamonds of coloured glass instead of plain wood. The light streamed through it, multi-coloured, marking her skin. She hesitated, shifting the lamb about in her arms, then knocked awkwardly.

“Come in, child,” said the woman.

Gwen opened her mouth to ask how, for there didn’t seem to be a handle on the door, but then it creaked open all by itself. “Oh,” she said. “Thank you.”

The room inside was round and white and mostly empty. The window was of the same coloured glass at the door. There was a little ladder in the middle that led up to a circular trapdoor, and a little round table, and a stove and a fireplace and not much else.

The woman was kneeling before the fireplace, fetching a brass kettle that was singing away gently to itself. Really singing, with a human voice, la la la la. Gwen thought it was the woman at first, but her mouth was definitely closed.

“Your kettle is singing,” she said.

“Yes,” said the woman. “Yes, it is. Would you like some breakfast?”

“It’s tea time, really,” said Gwen, because it was. She’d been about to make beans on toast at home, in her and Morgana’s flat. But that seemed like such a long time ago all of a sudden, and it was morning here, without a doubt. “But alright.”

The woman gestured at the table, where there were two plates, painted with coloured diamonds, and two tea cups and saucers, and a tea pot, and two folded napkins.a winter. Your friend is in the Winter.”

“And this is… Spring?” said Gwen.

“Is it?” said Morgause.

“Sunshine and baby animals and things growing,” said Gwen. “Things growing everywhere.”

“Things beginning,” said Morgause. “Eat your breakfast.”

“Can I reach her?” said Gwen. “Morgana?”

“Follow the bird,” said Morgause. “It can guide you. If you lose it, follow the river. It goes all the way to the edge of Winter. Then it freezes.”

“The bird died, I think,” said Gwen.

“It dies and is reborn every Spring,” said Morgause. “It’s in flux. Nothing stays the same for long here. You’ll find it… uncomfortable. Not what you’re used to. You’re not of this place.”

“What does that mean, though?” said Gwen.

“You ask questions,” said Morgause. “You look at things closely. You can move from one season to the next as freely as the wind without changing. You’re not bound to any one place. There aren’t many like you here.”

“I’m nothing special,” said Gwen.

“Not where you come from,” said Morgause. “But here you’re different. Here you stand out. You’ve already marked this place indelibly. You’ll leave a trail like fire wherever you go. They’ll all be expecting you.”

“I don’t mean to cause any trouble,” said Gwen.

“You already have,” said Morgause. “But you’re here, now, and your friend might be homesick.”

“Might be?” said Gwen. “What do you mean?”

“She wasn’t taken against her will,” said Morgause. “But she might go home with you, if you can convince her.” She reached out and took Gwen by the hand. “Follow the river on into Summer,” she said. “When you find a man who can move as freely as you can, talk to him, and he’ll lead you on to what comes next.”

“This is like a fairy tale,” said Gwen. “I feel like I’m being sent on a quest.”

“Maybe it is a fairy tale,” said Morgause. “Now. Eat your breakfast.”

Gwen ate her breakfast. It was quite delicious. She supposed it came of Morgause being a witch (because she must be, or a fairy, but she wasn’t friendly enough for a fairy).

“Who took my friend?” she asked as she ate the last few morsels.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Morgause.

“Of course it matters!” said Gwen. “I have to find her! How am I supposed to find her if I don’t know who took her?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Morgause, “because you’ll find out soon enough.”

Gwen stared glumly down at her plate. “I don’t suppose they wash themselves as well, do they?”

“No,” said Morgause. She pulled herself to her feet and lifted a bucket from near the wall. “Take this down to the stream and fetch me some water. You can wash the dishes, and then I’ll show you where to go.”

“But –”  But all those stairs. And water was heavy, and Morgause was clearly a witch, so couldn’t she fetch some by magic? Why couldn’t she fetch some by magic?

*

“Bloody thing,” she muttered to herself as she hauled the bucket up the stairs. The little blackbird was perched on the handrail, looking far too cheerful. “Stop that. This isn’t funny at all,” she said. “I need to find Morgana before something happens to her, and she has me carrying water around.”

The bird tweeted at her. It’s not that bad.

“I’d like to see you carry it,” she retorted.

The bird tweeted again, like laughter, and fluttered away up into the rafters. Gwen groaned and dragged the bucket up another step. A few droplets slipped over the edge and pattered down onto the floor, far below, bringing a few more wisps of grass out of the earth.

Morgause was waiting for her at the top, holding the door open in one hand. “It shan’t take long,” she said. “There were only two of us. Make sure you wash the tea pot as well.”

“This doesn’t seem fair,” said Gwen, lifting the bucket in both hands and dragging in through the door.

“I made you breakfast,” retorted Morgause.

“With magic!”

“That takes work,” she said. “Now hush, and get on with it. I left some rags on the table for you.”

The water got all over her clothes (and they were still damp from the snow as well). The rags were horribly ineffective at wiping away drying egg yolk. She missed her sponges, carefully arranged by her sink at home. And the lamb would keep trying to drink the water from the bucket.

“Get away,” she said. “It’s filthy, you don’t want it, see?”

The lamb bleated and trotted away to sit under the window, where it was nice and sunny. Gwen rolled her eyes. But she was almost done, at least.

“That’s the last of it, I think,” she said, rinsing out her tea cup.

“Good,” said Morgause. “Put the water out the window, then bring me the lamb.”

Gwen did as she asked, picking up the lamb gingerly. It struggled a little, then went still. “You won’t hurt it, will you?” she said.

“Of course not,” said Morgause, holding out her arms for it. “You must take it with you.”

Gwen handed it to her. “But why?” she said. “It looks like it’ll get in the way to me.”

“Not for long,” said Morgause. “Go to the cupboard. There should be some ribbon. It’ll need a collar, to lead it by.

The ribbon was in the same place as the honey, coiled up in a little roll. Morgause must have put it in there while Gwen was fetching the water, but she doubted that somehow.

“But what’s the lamb for?” she said as Morgause knelt to tie it around the lamb’s neck. She seemed to be tying a very large collar for a very small lamb.

“You’ll need a gift,” said Morgause. “To enter the court of the King.”

*

One year, Gwen tried to make her own Easter eggs. It had been a horrible disaster, of course, no matter how much research she did on the internet, because, when it came down to it, sociology students did not tend to be very creative.

She and Morgana had ended up sitting on the sofa, eating half-melted chocolate out of the bowl with wooden spoons, getting very sticky in the process.

“It tastes nicer when it’s melted,” Morgana had said. “Don’t you think?”

“It gets sweeter,” Gwen had said. “Maybe I should have used dark chocolate.”

“I doubt that would have made a difference,” said Morgana. “Although,” she sucked on her spoon thoughtfully, “it is the best kind.”

Gwen had picked out a dark chocolate Easter egg in a chocolate shop instead. Morgana had bought her a fluffy bunny toy.

“It reminds me of you,” she had said. “You’re both just so cute.”

Gwen had laughed.

Chapter Text

The lamb came with her without protest. It did tend to get distracted by every pretty flower that they passed, but other than that it was fine.

“I do hope you’re not meant to be a sacrifice or something,” said Gwen. “That would just be awful. I mean, she didn’t say what kind of king. You get good kings and bad kings in fairy tales. And I think I must be in a fairy tale.”

The forest grew denser. The stream grew wider and wider. The little twisting path alongside it let her over a bridge that look as if it might have grown out of the river bank, all moss and tree roots. It made an odd whistling hum as she stepped on it, then a higher one, then higher again…

She stopped in the middle and walked backwards. Hum-hum-hum. Hum-hum-hum!  The bird chirruped along with the tune. “Oh,” she said. “A musical bridge. That makes about as much sense as anything else in this place. I wonder how much further it is?”

She rounded a bend in the path, then stopped. Ahead of her, the forest ended abruptly, as if a line had been drawn with a ruler. The trees grew closer together, forming something like a hedge, with an arched gap in it at the end of the path. There were even roses growing tangled in it.

“Like Sleeping Beauty,” she said. “This is… insane.” The lamb was straining against its ribbon leash, bleating frantically, desperately to get to the edge of the forest. Gwen let it pull her forward.

The bird went first, over the boundary in a flash. It flew in a rapid twirling spiral in the air once it was over. It seemed to have changed when it stopped. Its belly had turned bright white all of a sudden.

Then the lamb. It sprinted through ahead of her, then stopped dead, closed its eyes, and burst into sudden growth. One moment it was a lamb, then wool was spurting out of it on all sides, and then it was a full-grown sheep, the ribbon tight around its neck.

Then finally Gwen. She braced herself, half expecting something to happen to her as well, but there was nothing, unless you counted her clothes suddenly drying on her skin.

When she turned around, all that was behind her was that arch with the roses. The rest of the hedge had vanished. But she could still see through into the forest. “How surreal,” she said to herself. The sheep bleated behind her and took off at a run up the hill, so quickly that the ribbon was snatched out of her hand. “No, don’t go that way!” said Gwen, for the stream curved away to the left, around the bottom of the hill and away. “I need you!” She looked at the bird. It seemed to be a swallow now, but she didn’t get a good look before it chirruped and dashed away after the sheep.

Summer seemed to be a vast bumpy network of little hills. She must have chased the sheep up and down almost all of them, she thought, before she caught it, resting in the shade of a tree at the top of one. “There you are, you naughty thing!” she said, snatching up the ribbon before it could dash away again. “You’ve got me completely lost now.”

For she was very lost. The bird had settled herself into a branch of the tree and looked quite happy. She wasn’t sure it was going to show her the way. “There must be a castle or something, if there’s a king,” she said. “Or a palace, maybe?” She stood up, dusting off her knees, and looked around. There was nothing in sight but little hills and trees and bushes. It was beautiful, unspoiled, perfect, just as the forest had been, but hopelessly confusing.

“Bollocks,” she said, folding her arms.

“Watch your language, will you?” said a voice behind her.

Gwen felt as if she may actually have jumped out of her skin. She half expected to see it spread out on the ground before her. Because either the sheep had gained the ability to speak quite suddenly, or there was someone there.

She turned around. A young man with dark hair and bright, bright blue eyes was leaning against the tree, looking at her with one eyebrow raised and a strange sort of half smile on his face.

“You’d have got lost anyway,” he said. “Don’t worry. You can’t follow the stream for very far here before it goes out of reach, and even that bird of yours can’t find the King easily. He doesn’t stay in one place.”

“So no castle, then, I assume?” said Gwen.

“No castle,” said the blue-eyed man. “Guinevere, isn’t it?”

“Gwen,” she said. “Actually. No-one calls me Guinevere.”

“I do,” he said. He unfolded himself from the tree and held out a hand. “I can find him. I can always find him.”

“I think I’m supposed to give him a sheep,” said Gwen, fidgeting with the edge of her t-shirt.

“And a very fine sheep it is too,” said the man. “Now, take my hand.”

Gwen took his hand. It was surprisingly cold, given the heat of this place, and long-fingered, but it felt quite nice her hand. He twined his fingers through hers, squeezed them quickly, then took off at a run down the hill, dragging her and the sheep behind him. The bird flapped after them, tweeting frantically.

“Keep a hold of that sheep,” said the man. “It’ll get lost before you know it, and I’m not chasing after it again, you hear?”

Gwen opened her mouth to answer, but the words were whipped out of her mouth by the sudden strong breeze. It felt to her like they were going at an incredible pace, a great galloping rush of motion, with the sheep bleating indignantly as it raced behind them and the swallow tweeting happily above their heads, but the hills and valleys and trees sailed by in graceful waves, even as her legs began to feel the stress of it.

There were huge colourful birds careening in the sky, strange misty figures striding in the distance, a ridiculously incongruous party of people having what looked like a very formal picnic with little sandwiches and tea and lemonade and big hats and suits (who took having the cake stand upended remarkably well, considering, though Gwen still apologised as many times as she could manage before being pulled away). They almost collided with a group of happily dancing fauns playing on pan-pipes, who played a cheerful little tune in response to the blue-eyed man’s greeting.

But then Gwen found she had a stitch in her side and was so out of breath that she could hardly breathe. She dug her heels into the ground desperately. “S-stop!”

He stopped. She let go of his hands and doubled over, gasping for air. “Is it much further?”

“Just round the corner, now,” he said. “Take a moment, though.”

She nodded gratefully and sank to her knees. The bird rested on her head. The sheep busied itself with a mid-morning snack of tufty grass. They were in a little valley between two of the hills, near a standing stone that jutted out of the ground like a tooth. Nothing in this place quite matched up.

“How far did we just run?” she asked. But he didn’t answer. He’d wandered away from her and was turning slow circles on the grass.

“There’s bones of giants in these hills, you know,” he said. She frowned and opened her mouth to ask him what he meant, but she didn’t get the chance. “You ready?” He held out his hand. “We’ll walk the rest, it’s not far now.”

Gwen dragged herself to her feet and took his hand. True to his word, he led her up the next hill at a rather more gentle pace, though her legs still felt as if they might drop off. The sheep trotted behind her, unperturbed.

She could hear the stream before she could see it. It sounded like it had grown since she’d left it at the border. And yes, there it was – a small river now, spiralling along the valley floor. Most of it was hidden by trees, but she could hear the great thundering roar of a waterfall.

The trees were tall and green and lush and leafy, forming a great dappled cavern of shade along the riverbank. The blue-eyed man spread one arm out in front of him, gesticulating expansively. “The King’s castle!” he said. “Want to come and see?” He gave her hand a quick squeeze and began to amble down the hill.

“What’s he the king of, exactly?” said Gwen.

“Summer,” said the blue-eyed man. He hopped down the last few feet of the hill and pushed aside a swathe of greenery. “In here.”

Inside, everything was dim and green-tinted, but once they were past the first few trees and alongside the rippling river, she could see the waterfall – it seemed vast and towering from here, far larger than it could have been, they were just little hills, after all – and make out vague figures moving in the plunge pool.

“The King,” said the blue-eyed man, “and his court. He’ll let you join if you’re good.”

The grass was soft and damp beneath their feet as he led her forward. But there was something strange about the people under the waterfall. It wasn’t until they were a little closer that she realised.

“They’re naked,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s Summer and it’s hot.”

There were random articles of clothing tossed haphazardly across branches of trees, she noticed. Shirts and trousers and gold belts and the odd pair of boots, and, once they got closer, a crown hanging from a twig at a jaunty angle.

When they passed the crown, it was as if they has crossed some sort of invisible boundary. One man in the group under the falls looked up sharply, then strode out of the water, shook his head like a dog, sending sparkling droplets across the grass., and grinned at them. The blue-eyed man slowed to a stop and grinned back.

“There you are,” said the man. The King. For he had to be the King. He was naked and dripping wet and grinning like an idiot, but he was unmistakeably regal. “I was wondering where you’d got to.” And with that, he marched over, took the blue-eyed man’s face in his hands, and kissed him greedily.

The blue-eyed man let go of her hand. She stepped back hurriedly, flushing, trying not to look. The King’s hands had already slipped up the back of the blue-eyed man’s shirt. One was starting to drift lower.

They kissed for what seemed like an eternity (and maybe it was, Gwen wasn’t sure how things worked here), before the blue-eyed man broke away and whispered something in his King’s ear.

The King turned to look at her. “Guinevere,” he said, beaming. He nodded at her. It was almost a little bow. Gwen blushed still harder. Her knees were shaking. He would’ve been intimidating enough were he not completely naked. She tried very hard not to look at his – you know.

“Hello,” she said, then, “I’ve brought you a sheep.” She tugged gently on the ribbon to demonstrate. The sheep bleated.

“Oh, have you, now?” said the King. He stepped over and knelt beside the sheep, easing the ribbon away from its neck gently. “There, you go. Have fun, now.” He sent it off with a quick slap on the rump, then twisted on the spot to look up at her. “I don’t see many sheep,” he said. “Why a sheep?”

“Morgause gave it to me,” said Gwen. “She said I’d need a gift.”

The King laughed a short friendly laugh. “She’s much too formal,” he said. “I don’t mind. But sheep are always welcome.” He pulled himself upright and stared at Gwen. You’re quite welcome here, don’t worry. Feel free to join us.”

And with that he was gone again, back to the river in the blink of an eye.

“Well?” said the blue-eyed man beside her. Gwen jumped. She’d almost forgotten he was there. “Are you going to join them?”

“Would that mean…” She plucked at her clothes.

“Well, you’d get them very wet otherwise,” he said, laughing. He held out a hand. “Come on. It’ll be fun.”

“I really should keep looking for Morgana,” she said.

“Do you know where to go?” he said.

“Follow the river,” she said. “I think?”

“That’ll only get you so far, Guinevere,” he said. “Stay a while, won’t you?” Gwen took a step backwards and shook her head. “Suit yourself,” he said. He slipped his shirt over his head and tossed it onto the nearest tree branch, then reached down to the laces on his trousers (they seemed to have laces rather than buttons or a zip, it was really very odd). “You sure?” Gwen nodded. He unfastened the laces in swift, jerky tugs and let his trousers pool around his ankles for a moment before he stepped out of them and kicked them away, leaving him quite naked. He stared at her for a moment, smiling slightly, then turned and ran away.

Gwen waited until he was in the water, then took a few hesitant steps further down the bank and arranged herself on the grass to wait for… something. For the blue-eyed man to come back, or something else to arrive.

The swallow landed next to her and tweeted in a way that almost sounded scolding. “No,” she said firmly. “I don’t even know those people. I am not getting naked in front of them.”

But it was hot, even in the shade of the trees, and the water did look cool and inviting and, well, perfect, free of sharp rocks and twigs and slime. Just cool, clear water rippling over smooth pebbles.

She took off her socks.

*

Gwen wasn’t sure how long she had been sitting for when she started to finger the hem of her t-shirt. The people in the river were still laughing and screaming happily and wrestling, swimming in the deeper parts and paddling in the shallows. They went round and round, in and out of the curtain formed by the great weeping willow that grew over the plunge pool. She had long since lost track of the time she’d been watching. She felt as if she could make out every detail now – breasts, hips, elbows, penises, backs, necks, flesh, dancing and dripping in the green sunlight.

She reached up under her shirt for the clasp of her bra. It was too hot and itchy, she thought to herself. And she could take it off pretty easily, slide it out through the sleeves of her shirt.

That done, she unzipped her jeans and wriggled out of them carefully, curling her legs up underneath herself. How long was it since she had shaved them? Too long.

A few more minutes past. Then she was hit by a sudden surge of decision, stood up, and tugged off her shirt.

She left her clothes in a neat pile behind a bush and went to join the rest of them.

The King offered her his hand with a smile.

Everything was bright shining water and rainbows, undulating bodies and laughter and a flurry of names and introductions – Leon, Gareth, Sophia, Gawaine, Freya, Elaine, Owain, Vivian, and more besides. They were all beautiful and perfect, sculpted muscles and smooth skin, and for a while Gwen felt hopelessly inadequate next to them all. But then they were all smiles and welcoming eyes and she was caught up in the elation of it all (what were they celebrating, did they even have something to celebrate?). She lost track of time again. They could have been there for years.

Afterwards, they lay in the sun on top of the hill, drying their skins out. All around here were people talking and laughing and comparing clouds.

She turned to the blue-eyed man. He was lying with his head pillowed on one arm, eyes closed, smile on his face. “Who are you?” she said.

“Hmm?”

“Well, do you have a name?” He shrugged. “A title?”

"Sometimes,” he said. “But I don’t like it so I don’t use it.”

“What is it?” she asked. He was silent. “I think Morgause sent me to find you.”

His eyes fluttered open. He stared up at the sky for a while before he spoke. “I told her, I don’t want any more to do with it,” he said. “I live here now.”

“There’s no good telling me that,” she said, rolling over onto her belly. The grass tickled her breasts. “I can’t do anything, can I? She said you’d help me.”

“Who says I haven’t already?” he said.

“She said you’d lead me on,” said Gwen. “She said you can walk from one place to another without changing.”

“Did she now,” came the reply.

Silence.

“Well?” said Gwen.

“Hmm?”

“Can you?”

“I won’t take you all the way,” he said. “You have to do that alone, I think. And, well… I don’t want to go back there. To those places.”

“What places?” she said.

He rolled over onto his side to face her. “Spring and Summer,” he said. “They’re wild, but they have rulers. Good rulers. The King and the Mother. They keep the wilderness in line, a little. Make sure everyone is happy and not tearing each other to shreds. Autumn isn’t like that. Autumn is wild and dark and things coming to an end. And Winter is just an ending. A full stop at the end of the sentence. Once you’re there, that’s it. You can go forward, but you can’t go back.”

“I understand,” she said.

“No,” he said. “I’m not sure you do. It used to be renewal.”

He rolled onto his back again and closed his eyes. Neither of them spoke for a while.

Then, “Who took my friend?” she said.

“Winter,” he said.

“I thought that was a place?” she said. “Where she is?”

“It’s both,” he said. He waved one hand vaguely. “This is Summer, where we are now. But the King is Summer as well. He’s like sunlight, y’know?” She nodded slowly, because he really was. “And Morgause, she’s… Spring. All potential and the beginning of things. And then there’s the Witch. She took your friend.”

“Why?” asked Gwen.

He shrugged. “Ask me again some time.”

“You’re being very evasive,” she said.

“I know.”

A shadow fell over both of them. It was the tall, naked figure of the King. “Get your clothes, you two,” he said. “We’re eating.” When they didn’t move at once, he kicked the blue-eyed man hard in the side and stalked away.

“Ow.”

*

The King led them all in a great winding procession around and over and between the hills, past the dancing fauns and the Victorian picnickers and some wild-looking people with leaves for hair who seemed to vanish in and out of the shadows. All of them stopped to hail and bow to the King, clad in dark trousers and a red tunic with the faded remains of gold embroidery on the front.

Gwen wasn’t sure what had happened to the crown she’d seen. It had been gone when they came out of the pool and no-one had mentioned it.

Eventually, they came to a cliff with a flight of sharp, rough steps carved into the rock, too steep for them to see what was at the top.

“Up here,” said the King. “We’ll eat up here tonight.”

For it was evening, or it seemed to be once he had spoken. The sunlight had started to fade, dusky pink around them. The air on the cliff-face had an odd spicy smell, like some kind of strange herb was growing nearby. There were little tufts of white flowers and coarse grass growing out of the rock around them.

The circle seemed to grow out of the cliff-top in bouncing jerks of movement – just the tips of the stones at first, little humps poking out, then more, and more, and more. By the time they reached the top, the stone circle towered over them all. There were excited whispers behind her, but Gwen could only gape. There was a power in the stones. She could feel it.

The King turned around and clapped the blue-eyed man on the shoulder. “Get a fire going, will you?”

“Do it yourself,” retorted the blue-eyed man.

“Stop being an idiot and do it,” said the King. He strutted away. The other man grinned at? Gwen and rolled his eyes, then wandered towards the centre of the circle and knelt down.

The court was all trailing dresses that wouldn’t stay up on their shoulders and flowers tangled in hair and bare chests. Gwen felt slightly underdressed in her t-shirt and jeans, somehow, as she watched them all file forward and arrange themselves around the inside of the circle.

She felt a light touch on her shoulder, twisted round to find the King looking at her fondly. “We’re near the end of Summer here,” he said. “It’s not far. He’ll –” he jerked his head towards the blue-eyed man, “– take you on in the morning.”

“I can’t go now?” said Gwen. “It’s just –”

“I know, I know,” said the King. “You want your lover back. But you’ll need to rest first.”

Gwen stared at him. “She’s really not my lover,” she said. “Me and Morgana, we’re very close, and we live together, yes, but… separate rooms and all, and, well, I don’t know where you people get the idea that we’re lovers or something. We’re friends. That’s all.” She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. He looked more amused than anything.

“You’ll see,” he said. “It’s all over you.” He pushed past her and knelt down beside the blue-eyed man. She couldn’t make out what he said, but it sounded like teasing.

The swallow landed on her shoulder and tweeted a remark in her ear.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “The Nile has nothing to do with anything.” She tossed her head, inadvertently sending the little bird flapping away, and went to join the others in the circle.

Later, the stone circle felt more palatial than any castle she’d ever been in (not that there were many). Once the sun had set and the only light was the little fire, the stones were lit up gold and black, vanishing into the darkness. They could go on forever, she thought. Maybe they did not. Nothing seemed to stay the same here for long.

They were almost, she mused, shaped like a crown.

The food seemed to appear out of nowhere, and later she couldn’t recall what it was that she’d eaten. Just that it had been delicious. The grass felt very soft beneath her bare feet (her socks had been filthy by the time she’d taken them off beside the pool. She’d kicked them under the bush and forgotten about them), so she curled her toes up in it. She was starting to feel a little drowsy. The moon was out.

Eventually, she fell asleep on the grass, between the King and a blond girl called Elaine who had taken one of the roses from her own hair and twisted it into Gwen’s with a friendly smile and a quick kiss, The blue-eyed man was lying somewhere near his head.

Maybe they talked a little before she fell asleep, but later she couldn’t remember what they might have said.

*

Somehow, it seemed darker when Gwen woke up. The sky was leaning more towards grey than blue. The stones were black and jagged against it, silhouettes. She squinted up at them. She was sure that she had had something very important to do today, if she could only remember what. She thought for a moment.

Then she sat up abruptly. Morgana. She might have said her name aloud, for the King stirred beside her. “It’s very early, you know,” he said without opening his eyes. “Try not to wake them all. They won’t like it.”

Gwen looked around at the sleeping figures dotted about on the grass. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I was worried. That’s all. It’s time I left.”

He opened his eyes and propped himself up on one elbow. “You’ll have to wait a moment,” he said. “For your guide. I think he wanted to tell you something.” He flopped back down on the grass, pillowing his head on one arm.

“Morgause did,” said Gwen. “She told me to find him. I think maybe I’ll be looking for another person in Autumn. That’s how these things seem to go.”

The King laughed. “Don’t get too comfortable,” he said. “Rules can change here. I gather things are different where you come from.”

“Just a little,” said Gwen.

The swallow ghosted down towards her in great waving loops, chirruped as it landed. He’s on his way. “But where did he go,” she said.

The King waved his free hand vaguely in the air. “He goes off on his own sometimes,” he said. “I tell him not to, but he never listens. Idiot.”

The blue-eyed man appeared out from behind a stone on the opposite side of the circle, just melted out of the space behind it, like something out of a cartoon. Or something. “Did I hear my name?” he said. “My ears are burning.”

“Well, there’s certainly plenty of them to burn,” said the King.

Gwen winced. For the blue-eyed man did have rather large ears, but it seemed rude to point this out. Thankfully, he just grinned and ran towards her, leaping straight over the sleeping people. He held out his hand.

“Ready to go get her back?” he said.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she said. She took his hand and was about to let him pull her upright, but the King stopped them with a gentle touch, then rested his hand on Gwen’s cheek.

He kissed her once, gently, and it only lasted a moment, but somehow it seemed like a landmark. “For luck,” he said. “Tell them to answer to me, alright?” he said, and grinned.

Gwen grinned back, took the blue-eyed man’s hand, and let him pull her to her feet.

*

“Why did Winter take my friend?” she said once they were on their way, wandering down a meandering track that seemed to follow the banks of the river or not on a mere whim.

“Hmm?” he said from a little way ahead. They had drifted apart since picking their way down the stone steps hand-in-hand.

“You said to ask you again some time,” said Gwen. “I don’t think I’ll see you much after today.”

“Mightn’t you now,” he said.

Silence. There was a low mist gathering around them, obscuring everything. It was all vague shapes now.

“She likes her,” he said.

“Winter is a woman?” she said.

“You’re surprised?” he said. “Yes. Winter likes your friend. Winter thinks she’s one of us.”

“Is she?” said Gwen. She wouldn’t be surprised. Morgana had always seemed slightly unearthly, right from when they had first met. It was… nice. Special.

“She is and she isn’t,” he said. “She fits here better than you do. She… she might not want to go back.”

“Mightn’t she?” said Gwen. “But she’s not – I mean, this isn’t – but home.” The idea of Morgana not wanting to be rescued seemed so utterly alien that it was almost terrifying. It made her want to curl up on the ground right where she was and not go a step further. She resolved not to think about it anymore.

“She’s fallen down the rabbit hole and she might not want helping up,” he said calmly. “I don’t know what Winter might have said to her, but she can be… persuasive. Trust me, I know.”

Gwen thought for a long, long moment before answering. Thought hard about what he had just said. Then, “You’ve been to my world.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I have.”

What did you think of it?” she said, hopeful, apprehensively. Like she was searching for approval.

He shrugged. “I was born there,” he said. “I lived there for a long time before we came here.”

“We?” she said.

“The King,” he said. “He was a King in your world once, a long time ago. A proper King, with a castle an and army and a queen and all that. But then that – that ended, and now he’s here, and he’s happy, and I wouldn’t change a thing, not for the world.” It had all come out in a rush. He took a deep breath once he was done, turned to face her, walking backwards down the path for a few minutes. “Not for the world, you understand?”

“I don’t think I would either,” she said. “What’s his name? Or what was his name?”

“Take a guess,” he said. “But don’t say it out loud. I don’t want to hear it.”

“And you?” she said.

“I don’t have a name any more,” he said. Somehow, that seemed like a request for quiet. She fell silent. Neither of them spoke again until they had meandered along what seemed like miles of river bank, over a wooden bridge with roots on either side that played the same tune as the bridge in Spring, but deeper and somehow slightly sad. A centaur with wild eyes emerged from the mist and gave Gwen a longing look before being scared away by a few sharp words from the blue-eyed man.

The mist grew thicker and thicker, till eventually it was an impenetrable wall before them. The river vanished straight into it. Even the sound seemed to die away.

“This is it,” he said. “The end of Summer. You’ll have to wade through the river to get there. It’ll be cold, I’m afraid, but it’s the only way in from here.” He turned to face her. “When you get there, I want you to look for a man. He should find you. He’s like that. If they try and hurt you, he’ll stop them. He’ll help you, and once he’s done that, tell him… tell him the King has forgiven him, and will have him back now. Tell him he can come home.”

Gwen nodded. “I understand,” she said. She took a step towards the river, but he stopped her by grabbing her roughly by the shoulders.

“No,” he said. “No, you don’t, Guinevere. You need to understand – remember what I said about your lover? Your friend? About how she’s one of us?”

“You said she is and she isn’t,” said Gwen, frowning.

“Close enough,” he said. “She’s both, alright? This place and your world, they’re… different. Your world changes all the time, but things are always the same here. It’s just the details that shift. This place is ethereal and, and… spiritual. Elemental. That’s what marks your friend out. She doesn’t quite fit there, but she doesn’t quite fit here either. But you, you really don’t fit here. You’re real. You’re solid and real. You’re a being of earth rather than spirit. You’re all warmth and blood and bones. And do you know what that means, Guinevere?” She shook her head. “It means that nothing here can hurt you. Not really. They can scare you, make you think they’ve hurt you, but it’s not real. You wake up and this was just a bad dream. It’s not like that for us. This place is real for us. You can hurt them, but they can’t hurt you. And Winter, Winter is… fragile. It melts away into Spring where you come from, and it’ll melt away here too, if you look at it right. Do you understand?”

She looked into his eyes. He seemed so sad all the time. She wondered why. “It’s not all bad,” she said.
“The dream,” she said. And with that she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, hugged him close. “Thank you,” she said.

She could feel his grin against her shoulder.

*

One summer, Gwen and Morgana had saved up and gone abroad on holiday, to the south of France. They had lain around on beautiful beaches under the hot sun. Gwen had felt horribly inadequate next to Morgana’s acres of perfect white skin.

Until the day when Morgana forgot to put sun screen on her shoulders, and they were left burned and peeling for days.

“Just my luck,” Morgana had said in the evening, as Gwen helped her with her after-sun.

“It was your idea to come,” Gwen had said. “And you were so silly. You already burn. You use, what, factor one thousand?”

“Shut up,” Morgana had said, laughing. Then she had tilted her head to let Gwen get at the burnt patches on the side of her neck, and Gwen had found herself with a sudden, fleeting urge to kiss them better.

Chapter Text

The mist quickly grew so thick that Gwen could see nothing but endless blank whiteness. She could hardly see her own hand in front of her face. The swallow kept up a constant chirrup just so she could tell where it was.

She took little steps, terrified of tripping over. The water had been so clear that she could see the bottom, but now she couldn’t seen see her feet. And it was getting deeper. It was up to her thighs now. Her jeans were soaked, clinging to her skin.

By the time the mist finally, finally began to thin, Gwen was wishing that she had stayed in Summer. At least it was warm there. She had hardly even arrived in Autumn, and already she was feeling the chill of it. But then the mist was just translucent wisps around her, then nothing at all, and she found herself standing in the middle of a rushing, roaring river, the current tugging at her knees. She had but a moment to realise what had happened before she lost her footing and found herself being carried away down the river.

She cried out. The bird was flapping around her head madly. She began to swim towards the shore, but kept getting pulled further downstream instead. It took an age before she could reach out and grab the river bank, fingers twisting in the mud and the sodden leaves.

There were trees everywhere, skeleton trees, black against the grey-white clouds. Leaves lined the ground in great drifts, trampled into the mud underfoot. It wasn’t until she had wriggled her way up the bank and was lying stretched out and gasping along the path that she really looked at the bird.

The colour all seemed to be leeching out of it. Long black and white tail feathers dropped down to the ground, mingling with the leaves. The new colours that were emerging beneath were all browns and greys. The swallow’s face looked up at her for a moment, then melted away into something new.

It was a sparrow now. “Well, that was only to be expected, I suppose,” said Gwen. She held out a hand. The sparrow hopped up onto it and chirruped a little greeting. “Where to now, d’you think?”

The sparrow chirruped again. Gwen had a horrible feeling that it was saying they’ll find you.

“We’ll try forwards first,” she said, striding onwards along the river bank, resolute. “And we’ll follow the river.”

The sparrow made an unhappy sound, but settled on her shoulder anyway.

*

The river was brown and foaming alongside her. The light was dim. Everything felt sort of closed-off, claustrophobic. Maybe it was because the clouds were so low. Or maybe it was because she felt as if she might be being watched.

It wasn’t just a general feeling. She kept hearing odd rustlings in the trees on either side, seeing movement out of the corner of her eye. But that was normal in a forest, wasn’t it? There must be things living here. That was all she was hearing, she was sure.

But then the bird pecked on her ear and chirruped softly. “You too?” she murmured. “I was hoping it was just me. What should we do?”

Hold still, it was saying, and wait. They can’t hurt you, remember.

Gwen went one step further. She took a deep breath and called out. “Hello?” she said. “I know you’re there. Whoever you are. Just come out, will you?”

Silence. Then mud-coloured figures began to emerge. It seemed for a moment that there had been one behind every tree, but no, there was only a dozen or so. Men in furs and brown wool. Men with knives and sticks and rope.

“Evening,” said one.

“Good evening,” she said. “Can I help you? Because I have things I need to be –” The man stepped forward and took hold of her face in one gloved hand, silencing her.

“Are you she?” he said.

“That depends,” said Gwen. “Which she do you mean?”

“The girl Hengist sent us to wait for,” said the man. “Guinevere. He very much wants to meet her.”

The bird was sitting on a nearby tree branch, hopping back and forth, agitated. Say no, it was saying. Say you’re not Guinevere.

“No,” she choked out. “No, that’s not my name.”

“Then who are you?” he said. “You don’t belong here, that’s for sure.”

“My name is… Morgana,” she said. “I come from Summer. I was just… curious. That’s all.”

“Curious,” he said. He released her face and stepped back, a harsh laugh escaping his lips. “Well. I think Hengist will want to meet you anyway, Summer Princess. We don’t see many travellers here.” He gestured to the men behind her. Two of them surged forward and grabbed her arms. “Tie her hands,” he said. “I think we can indulge her curiosity a little, don’t you?”

*

The castle was sharp and pointed, jutting out of the hilltop like a curved fang. Gwen was pushed stumbling along the path up to her, bare feet slipping on the fallen leaves. It wasn’t fair. The men were all wearing boots.

She thought that maybe the bird was following them at a safe distance, but it was hard to tell. Whenever she tried to look, one of the men would push her further forward and grunt a warning.

I’m trying, she wanted to say, I really am. It was cold and wet and windy, and as inhospitable as the castle looked, it just had to be a little warmer and more sheltered, didn’t it?

If anything, she realised as the doors slammed shut behind her, it was colder. She stood shivering in the centre of the entrance hall. She could hear voices and music and laughter somewhere nearby, but here it was near silent.

One of the men vanished away into the shadows. There was the sound of a door opening, a breath burst of lively sound, then a slam, and silence again.

“What’s going on?” she said. The bird was locked away outside. She was sure of it. She didn’t quite feel safe without it, which was silly, because it was just a tiny bird, after all.

The leader of the men clapped a hand on her shoulder. “He’s asking if Hengist will see you, Summer Princess.”

“I’m not a princess,” she said.

“You come from the King’s land,” he said as the door in the shadows opened again. “That’s good enough for me.” He turned to face the man returning. “Well?”

“Hengist says bring her in,” he said.

Gwen twisted her head round to look at the leader. She had just enough time to see that he was grinning a slick, nasty grin before she was grabbed by the arms and dragged forwards, into the hall.

She was struck at once by a hideous cacophony of smells and sounds, music and laughter and noise, but at least it was warm. She was leaving damp muddy footprints behind on the flagstones, she was sure of it.

It took her a little while to notice Hengist himself. It wasn't that he was hiding – he was sitting on a grand, battered chair, on a little raised platform, at the far end of the hall, just where you would expect the man in charge to be, wrapped in furs, with a heavy chain around his neck. But he alone was silent. He was sitting with his head resting on one hand, pensive, staring at her. That was what got her attention at first, that silence, but then she realised who he was.

Once she was standing at the foot of his throne, he sat up straight and gestured vaguely to the man beside him.

“Silence!” the man yelled. His voice reverberated around the hall. The music and the laughter and the noise died away altogether. You could have heard a pin drop.

Hengist stood up and stepped down from the platform, standing just in front of her. He was a little too close. But just a little. Gwen found herself fighting the urge to back up. His men were still holding her.

“Your name is... Morgana?” he said, voice soft. Jarringly so.

“Yes, sir,” she said, scarcely more than a whisper, but it was quiet enough in the hall for him to hear.

“Not Guinevere?” he said.

“No, sir,” she said.

“Have you any news of Guinevere?” he said. “I do so want to meet her.”

She wanted to look away. His gaze was unsettling. She wanted to look at her feet, at the wall, anywhere but at his face, but she made herself hold steady. “I don't know who she is, sir,” she said. Then she cursed herself. Because everyone here was expecting her, weren't they? He already look incredulous at the idea of her not knowing Guinevere. “I've heard her name, sir, but nothing else, sir,” she said.

He looked her up and done. “You're so young,” he said. “How old were you in Summer? Scarcely even a child?”

“That's none of your business,” she said.

There were no children in Summer. Children were in Spring. He didn't believe her. It was quite clear. But he didn't seem to be getting angry, not yet.

“Did your king send you?” he said.

“No, sir,” she said. “I came alone. Sir.”

“A girl as young as you? To my kingdom?” he said. “Why?”

“I just wanted to see it, sir,” she said. “I heard you had... a castle. And I wanted to see it.” Our King has no castle. She didn't think it mattered, but maybe he did. Maybe he would think it a compliment, and like her better for it.

He smiled. Gwen relaxed.

“Well,” he said. “Then you are welcome here, of course,” He looked over her shoulder, nodded at someone she couldn't see. A moment later, two women appeared on either side of her, all straggly hair and thick make-up. “Find her something more appropriate to wear, will you?”

One woman nodded. The other smiled. Then there was an arm snaking around her waist, a hand clutching her shoulder, and she was led away again, back through the hall, cacophony starting again around her. But she caught a glimpse of another silent figure just as she was whisked away through the doors. A tall, dark man standing in a corner, arms folded. He wasn't watching her go.

*

The two women were called Rosalind and Mary-Belle. One was blond, the other a red-head, thought she thought that both wore wigs. Rosalind most definitely did. They were older than they acted. Mary-Belle had a high, screeching laugh. Rosalind was gentler, quieter, but both were harsh when they got her to their destination (a dim room with a chair and a mirror and rail upon rail of clothes), forcing her arms above her head and dragging away her t-shirt.

Gwen liked her t-shirt. She had bought it on a holiday to Spain when she was fifteen, and it still fitted, just about. She wore it when she needed cheering up, because it had a happy smiling yellow sun on the front of it (a sun in sunglasses, even). But they ripped it off and tossed it away to land on a pile of rags.

“I can have that back, can't I?” she said.

“Oh, of course,” said Mary-Belle, playing with the curls of Gwen's hair. Rosalind disappeared behind her. She felt cold fingers on her back, trying to undo her bra. “Just you wait, love. We'll find you something better.”

Her bra snapped painfully against her back. Rosalind muttered a curse. “Bloody thing!”

“Let me do it, then!” Mary-Belle pushed her aside, and then there was a new set of fingers. “You're all thumbs.”

A few more minutes of fumbling passed. Then Mary-Belle let out a stream of curses and stepped back. “How do you get that thing on and off, I don't know,” she said.

“Well,” said Gwen. “Maybe I don't want you to take it off. I mean I can wear it under a dress, you know.”

Rosalind appear in front of her and took hold of her chin with one hand. “Bloody uncomfortable, it looks,” she said. “Take it off, won't you, lovely?”

“But –” Cold fingers touched her lips, silencing her.

“No buts,” said Rosalind. “Take it off.”

Gwen reached up behind herself, slow, hesitant fingers, and unfastened her bra. “Ohhh,” said Mary-Belle behind her. “I see now. Clever, that.” She shoved the straps down over Gwen's shoulders and away. Rosalind caught it before it could fall to the floor and held it up, staring at it in wonder. Gwen folded her arms across her chest as quickly as she could, blushing.

Rosalind wandered away, still staring at the bra in confusion, and Mary-Belle glided round into her place, pulling Gwen's arms away briskly. “Nothing to hide here, love,” she said. “Don't worry. We'll look after you. You'll see.” She reached down and undid the button on Gwen's jeans. Her fingers halted on the zips.

“What's this, then?” she said, one eyebrow quirking up.

“It's a zip,” said Gwen, trying to breath. Mary-Belle's perfume was suffocating. The whole room stank of something like roses already. “You... pull it down.”

“Ah,” said Mary-Belle, “clever, that, ain't it?” She tugged it down and pushed at the waistband of Gwen's jeans. They slid down to pool around her ankles. “Doesn't do at all, trousers on women,” she said. “Rosalind will find you something. Won't you, Rosalind?” She turned her head to look at Rosalind, who was standing by one of the clothes' rails, still staring at Gwen's bra. She was squeezing at the bottom of it, investigating the underwire.

“Hmm?” she said, head jerking round to look at them.

“Find the Princess a dress, won't you, Rosalind?” said Mary-Belle, ever so sweetly. From the look on Rosalind's face, the sweetness was not genuine. She dropped the bras as if it had burned her and disappeared amongst the rails. Mary-Belle waited until her footsteps died away into the distance (just how big was this room, anyway?), then smiled at Gwen, encouraged her to step out of her jeans with some helpful nudges.

“That's better, isn't it?” she said, lifting them up and tossing them away to join Gwen's shirt. “That's better.”

“I can keep my knickers, can't I?” said Gwen. She tried to cover her breasts again, but Mary-Belle just tutted and tore her arms away.

“I don't wear anything under mine, love,” she said, suddenly very, very close. The scent of that perfume was overpowering now. Gwen gulped. Mary-Belle's eyes were very big. Gwen looked down instead. Mary-Belle was wearing little green velvet slippers with embroidered leaves. “Now.” Her fingers slipped down between knickers and skin, first on one side, then the other, sliding them down over her hips, her thighs, down to rest around her ankles. Gwen blushed, head spinning. She didn't protest when Mary-Belle knelt down and lifted first one foot, then the other, to free them. She wasn't sure she dared any more. “That's better, isn't it?” she said.

“I suppose,” said Gwen. It was freezing in here, every bit as cold as the entrance hall had been, but now she was naked on top of that. Maybe she was shivering.

“Oh, are you cold, love?” said Mary-Belle. “I can help warm you up, if you'd like?” An arm slid around her waist. A hand dipped between her thighs, long nails biting the skin there. “Gently, now. Don't want to spoil you for Hengist.”

“Hengist?” said Gwen. “What do you –” She fell silent. Her eyes fluttered closed. She had to bite back a moan. Mary-Belle was doing something wonderful with her fingers, deliciously slow and smooth.

“Don't be shy,” said Mary-Belle. “He's not all he seems. He'll be good to you. I don't think he's ever bedded a princess afore.” She leaned even closer, her face millimetres from Gwen's. She could feel hot breath on her face. “I know I haven't.”

There was a scuffling noise, then Rosalind's voice. “I found a few,” she was saying. “Just her colour, Mary-Belle...”

Mary-Belle stepped back suddenly, fingers slipping away, leaving Gwen suddenly feeling very empty. Then the realisation of what had just happened sank in, and she felt herself blush all over.

There was something about Mary-Belle that made it so hard to think.

She opened her eyes just in time to see Rosalind re-appear, dresses loaded over her arm. She selected one in her other hand, shook it out, and held it up as best she could. It was dark blue and silver. “Regal, don't you think?” she said. “It do?”

“I doubt he'll notice the wrapping,” said Mary-Belle, snatching the dress away. It billowed around Gwen, suddenly plunging the world into darkness, blue with stars everywhere. “There, now,” she said when Gwen's head and arms emerged. “Much easier. Get the fastenings, will you, Rosalind?”

She laughed again. It grated most horribly.

*

Back in the great hall, they had procured an extra chair from somewhere to put alongside Hengist, just for Gwen. Mary-Belle and Rosalind led her to it, sat her down, then vanished in a swirl of ersatz roses and snide winks. Gwen blushed. She wasn't wearing any underwear, and she was still damp and grubby from wading through the river. She was blushing and sweating and she felt slightly queasy. She was going to mess up the dress, she was sure of it.

Except, when she looked, there was already a dark stain on the velvety sleeve, of something that might have been blood.

“Do you like my ladies?” said Hengist.

“Rosalind and Mary-Belle?” said Gwen. “They're not exactly ladies, sir.”

Hengist laughed, wheezing. “That's my court for you, Princess,” he said. “Not as noble as you're used to, I think. But there is one man.” He turned and waved someone over. It was the dark man she'd seen lurking in the corner before, eyes downcast as if he was shy.

“Do you know him, Princess?” said Hengist.

Gwen studied him carefully. This was a test, she thought. He wanted her to say... something. She wasn't sure. But he didn't believe her and he was trying to prove that she was lying.

In the end, she decided to tell the truth, and leave it at that. “No,” she said. “No, I don't know him.”

“You're very young, then,” said Hengist. “He comes from the King's Summer court, same as you. But the King sent him away to me for – what was it you did, Lancelot?”

Lancelot muttered something unintelligible. But Hengist seemed to understand. He nodded thoughtfully and turned back to Gwen. “You see?” he said. “You're not alone here. Not at all.”

“I never thought I was,” said Gwen. She turned her eyes away, caught a glimpse of Mary-Belle sitting amongst the crowd, and looked back at Hengist quickly.

“You'll stay a while,” he said. It wasn't a question.

“Will I?” she said. “But I have to –”

“You have nowhere else,” said Hengist. “I doubt your King wants you back. You're a sinner like our Lancelot, aren't you?”

“No,” she said. “No, nothing like that. I just wanted to get away.”

“Don't lie to me,” he said simply. He sat back in his chair. Lancelot began to back away.

But only a second or two had passed before a great commotion broke out at the far end of the hall. The doors banged open and a few men came in, chasing after something in the air, arms outstretched.

It was the sparrow. Gwen sat up sharply, heart leaping in her chest. Maybe it could end this.

“Catch that bird!” someone shouted.

“Kill it,” said Hengist coolly. He sounded almost as if he was bored.

But the bird evaded capture, dodged the darting hands, all along and around the hall, till finally it was right in front of the platform, mere inches away, and then –

There was a twang and a burst of feathers and it was gone, fluttering away up through the nearest broken window, tweeting frantically. A bolt from a crossbow was buried in the dark of a nearby chair. It could only just have missed. Gwen turned around slowly in her seat. Hengist was holding a crossbow in one hand, but he set it aside as soon as he saw her looking.

“Spirits of the seasons,” he said. “Mischievous things. You don't want them indoors. It must have followed you, Morgana. Travelling through the seasons is dangerous. I'm surprised your King didn't tell you.”

“Oh, he did,” said Gwen. “I just don't care.”

*

Gwen had an inkling of what Mary-Belle might have been talking about earlier. Perhaps more than an inkling. A suspicion, one might call it. Or perhaps it might be better to call it a kind of numb, speechless terror.

As such, she was surprised when, come bed time, Hengist escorted her calmly to a room, then left her at the threshold.

The door locked behind her, the sound of it loud and sudden in the empty room. It was big and drafty, the remains of a bed in one corner, tattered curtains hanging in the window, half-melted candles jammed into their holders. But someone seemed to have tidied up a little, put out fresh sheets on the bed and a jug of water and a little bundle of matches on the wobbly table. It seemed almost nice until she noticed the bars in the window, lumpy and corroded, but solid.

She lit one of the candle stubs and stood staring out into the darkness. She could see the forest, painted in grey and brown and blue, spread out below her like a carpet. In the dress, with all of the room but her little flickering bubble plunged into shadow, she almost felt like a princess.

There was a sound, a little soft chirrup. Gwen shook herself and looked down at the windowsill. The sparrow was perched there, staring up at her beseechingly. It chirruped again.

“I’m so sorry!” she whispered. “Hengist – I mean, I don’t think he knew what you were, I’m sure he didn’t mean to –” But he had meant to. She couldn’t help but think that he knew exactly what he was doing.

He knows exactly what he’s doing. The sparrow had not made a sound, but the meaning was clear.

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’ve been so stupid. It’s like I just let them capture me. This is like some kind of nightmare.” She sighed, twisted the candle around in her hand so that the dripping wax would fall away from her. “I don’t suppose you know any way out of here?”

The bird hopped through the bars on the window with graceful ease, then back again, tweeting happily.

“Well, yes,” said Gwen. “If I was as small as you, maybe. But I won’t fit through there.” The swallow looked genuinely crestfallen. She couldn’t help but smile. She reached out a hand to touch it, but that didn’t seem right, somehow. “I suppose I can stay here for the night,” she said. “And look for a way out in the morning?”

The swallow chirruped. Yes, that sounds good. It gave her a little birdy smile, more of a feeling than anything else, then vanished away into the darkness.

Gwen opened her mouth to call after it, but, well – it was a bird. You could hardly reason with it. And it probably had places it would rather be tonight.

Of course, spending the night was easier said than done. There were blankets, but they would hardly have been enough for her to sleep under at home, with radiators and double-glazing, let alone here, were there wasn’t even glass in the window. Just bars and tattered curtains. She wanted to take the dress off, so as not to spoil it, but she was naked underneath.

“I miss my clothes,” she said into the darkness. The candle had burned out.

She was talking to herself now. Was that better or worse than talking to a bird, she wondered? Maybe she had gone insane and this was all in her mind. Maybe she was really back home in her flat, dreaming about rescuing Morgana.

But she hadn’t done that yet. She wasn’t even close yet. For all she knew, Morgana wouldn’t want rescuing.

“Everything,” she said to herself, “is topsy-turvy.”

*

Morning came first in a slow, misty daze, then abruptly and noisily when there was a loud knocking on the door. Gwen burrowed down under the meagre blankets as best she could, but they wouldn’t stop.

“Are you decent, Princess?” said Rosalind from the passage. Or perhaps it was Mary-Belle. It was hard to tell from here. “Shall I come in?”

Gwen gave up on trying to escape her fate, threw back the blankets, and sat up. The dress was a rumpled mess now. She couldn’t quite find it in herself to care. “More or less,” she called.

There was a series of harsh, fumbling clicks. Then the door opened and a woman stumbled in – neither Rosalind or Mary-Belle, as it happened, but someone a little younger, with dark curly hair that might even have been her own. She smiled sweetly and bobbed a little curtsy. “Sophie-Anne, Princess.”

“I’m not a Princess,” said Gwen. “Really.”

“You’re more royalty than anyone else here, Princess,” said Sophie-Anne, fingers twisting nervously in the folds of her dress. “Did you like your room? Hengist had me get something ready for you.”

“Oh, that was you?” said Gwen, pulling herself upright. Her hair had got caught up in the collar of her dress.

“I brought you some things,” said Sophie-Anne. “Shall I put them on the table, Princess?” Gwen nodded. Sophie-Anne turned away and busied herself arranging the contents of her pockets on the table. Gwen wanted back over to the window. The forest was all orange and brown and white with mist. It looked so much nicer from up here. She wasn’t sure she was entirely awake yet. This all still felt like some kind of dream.

“Shell I fetch more water, Princess?” said Sophie-Anne.

“You can call me Gwen,” she said sleepily. “I don’t mind.”

There was silence behind her, then a little clink of something being set down. Realisation settled in slowly.

Shit. Shit, bother and damn.

“Wasn’t it Morgana, Princess?” said Sophie-Anne. “I’m sure Hengist said –”

“It’s both,” Gwen blurted out. She kept her gaze fixed on the forest outside. She was sure she was blushing. She was a terrible liar, after all. “I mean – my name’s Morgana, but people call me Gwen. It’s a nickname. My mother wanted to call me Gwen, you see, but my father insisted on Morgana, but then she always called me Gwen anyway, and, well.” It had all come out in a rush, but it seemed to make sense to her. She was quite proud.

But Sophie-Anne said nothing. “It’s short for Guinevere, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s short for Guinevere.”

“Well, that’s why I didn’t say it,” said Gwen.

Footsteps. The rushing sound of a skirt hem over floorboards. Then Sophie-Anne’s hand was on her shoulder. Gwen jumped and twisted round. The other woman was suddenly very close, all red lips and rouge and big, dark eyes.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell.” She stepped back again. “Do you want more water, Princess?”

“No, thank you,” said Gwen. She managed a trembling smile. “There’s plenty here, thank you.”

*

The water was freezing, but Gwen was filthy, especially her feet. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t get them clean. The dirt seemed to be ingrained into them, somehow.

Once she felt a bit cleaner, if a little damp, she took a few minutes to work up the courage to leave her room. It was deserted outside, silent but for some distant voices, but she still couldn’t help but worry that she would be caught.

She tried to retrace her steps, at first, back down to the hall, and then maybe to the door and out, but following the passage led either to a dead end, or a flight of stairs. She tried the other way, and found a few steps down, then a crossroads of corridors. Choosing one at random took her out into a little dingy courtyard. She was about to turn around and try another one when she saw him – the strange dark man from the night before, Lancelot, standing in a window a floor up on the other side.

She rushed across the courtyard – there were dead leaves and twigs scattered across it, some of them embedded themselves in her feet – through the narrow doorway on the other side, and up the narrow staircase on the other side.

Up. And up. And up, and up, and up. She had to stop every so often to get her breath back. She wasn’t sure the castle had even been this high before. However had she managed to get so turned around? She felt as if she had been running for hours. Days, maybe.

Eventually, she burst out through a set of double doors onto the cold, hard battlements. Her momentum carried her on a little, almost to the edge, and oh, oh, it was high. She could see for miles, all the way to the distant mountains. But not a sign of Lancelot.

Except when she turned around there was a figure right at the other end, dim and hazy in the twilight (and it was that late alright? She couldn’t have run up stairs for that long, could she?). She forced her aching limbs to walk down there, but she was only halfway along, one hand skimming along the top of the wall, when he turned and vanished away through another door.

Except when she got there, there was no door at all, and she found herself wondering if she had imagined the whole thing. Or maybe it was just that things didn’t stay the same here for long.

She had only gone back down the first flight or so of the stairs when she was met by Sophie-Anne and a man she recognised as one of her captors the day before. “Hengist wants to see you,” said Sophie-Anne, smiling and taking her hand gently. “He wants you to dine with him tonight. Isn’t that kind of him?”

*

There was something about these people, Gwen mused as she was led towards Hengist’s rooms, these Autumnal people, that made it hard for her to argue. There was something wild and unsettling in their eyes, however kind and friendly they were, something that made her doubt what the blue-eyed man had said, that no-one here could hurt her.

When they reached the doors, Sophie-Anne patted her on the shoulder, and smiled, and said, “Right you are, my lovely,” before knocking and slinking away.

Gwen wondered for a fleeting moment if she could read minds. But then the door opened as if on its own, and Hengist’s soft voice came from within, summoning her.

“I understand,” he said gravely as she sat down, “That there were some indiscretions last night.”

“Indiscretions?” said Gwen, trying to look innocent.

“By some of the ladies of my court,” said Hengist. “They have been suitably punished. Don’t worry.”

“Suitably punished?” said Gwen. But then the door opened again and another, older woman came in with two plates of roast pork. Hengist gave her a fond stare as she retreated, then, once they were alone, changed the subject.

“You are enjoying your stay here?” he said.

“It’s… different,” said Gwen. “Not what I’m used to.”

“A roof over your head must count for something, my Summer Princess,” he said.

“I’m really not a princess,” she said. “I mean, I hardly even know the King. I met him once, but – I don’t know him at all. Really. I’m not a princess.”

“But maybe one day you could be a queen,” he said.

“Excuse me?” said Gwen. But he had begun to eat, and didn’t answer. She swallowed. She wasn’t hungry. She hadn’t had breakfast, and the rest of the day had just… disappeared, somehow, and she hadn’t eaten since Summer, but she wasn’t hungry.

“Today went very quickly,” she said.

“The days are shorter here than in Summer,” he said. “Something else to get used to, Summer Princess.”

“I’ve heard that,” she said. She should eat. Then she could talk less. She had no idea what the people in Summer were like or how much they knew. She wasn’t even sure if it was a real place or not. It didn’t feel real any more, now that she wasn’t there. Like something she’d dreamed. The castle was so enclosed, everything outside it had begun to feel like a dream.

“I think perhaps you are a sinner,” he said suddenly, “or a liar, rather than a Princess. But the others seem to love the idea, have you noticed? Especially the ladies. A Summer Princess. You mustn’t let anyone of them do anything to hurt you, of course.”

“I’m not a sinner,” she said. “Or a liar.”

“But that’s just what a liar would say,” he said. “Maybe your sin was lying. The King cannot abide deception. Our Lancelot is proof of that.”

“What did he do?” asked Gwen. She couldn’t imagine anything shattering the tranquillity of Summer. But then again, she could imagine the King banishing someone to this place. She could imagine him angry.

“That’s between him and the King,” said Hengist. “And myself.” He smiled. It sent a shiver down Gwen’s spine.

*

The day ended just as before; Hengist walked her to her room, said goodnight to her politely, then locked the door behind her. Except this time there were no matches to light the candles, and the bird did not appear. The room was dark and silent.

Gwen curled up under the blankets anyway, but sleep didn’t come. It didn’t feel like a full day had passed. She wondered if Hengist was somehow doing this on purpose, to confuse her, if it was just the way days were here, quick and vague, over in a flash and the blink of an eye.

She was just starting to drift off when there came a soft knock at the door. Gwen opened her eyes, stared into the darkness, but didn’t move to answer it.

“Princess?” said a whispering voice. “Summer Princess?”

It was a man’s voice, not any of the women she’d met. It wasn’t Hengist either, or any of the men who’d captured her. She sat up. “Hello?” she said. “Who’s there?”

He shushed her. “Can you open the door, Princess?”

“No,” she said. “I’m locked in.”

A pause. Then, “I was afraid of that. Hang on.”

A few minutes passed. She heard mutterings from outside, a soft thud, then metal scraping over metal, and a soft click. The door swung open.

It was Lancelot, of course. Gwen wasn’t surprised. He shut the door behind him, then turned to face her. “We need to leave,” he said. “Now.”

“Slow down, will you?” said Gwen, climbing out of bed. “I don’t suppose you have any matches or anything? It’s too dark to see. There’s candles, but I don’t have anything to light them with.”

“Hang on,” he said. He turned away towards the table. There was a scraping sound again, then a spark, and a flame. He turned back, candle in hand, half of his face lit up orange. He was older than she’d thought. Worry lines. “Tinder box,” he explained.

“Thank you,” said Gwen. “Now, what were you saying?”

“You need to leave,” said Lancelot, slower this time. “You’ve been here two nights already. If you stay a third, then Hengist won’t let you leave. He wants –”

“He wants me,” said Gwen. “I know. I think he might want to marry me. I tried to get out already, but I got lost, and people won’t leave me alone. Then they locked me in here. Do the days always go so quickly?”

“Hengist and Autumn,” said Lancelot. “They’re one and the same. He can shape things here as he likes. But you’re not part of this place, are you? I don’t think you’re who you say you are.”

“No,” said Gwen. “No, I’m not.”

He studied her face for a moment. Then, “Guinevere?” She nodded. “I thought so. You don’t fit, my lady. I know the Summer people, and you’re not one of them. You have to leave before Hengist –”

“I think he already knows,” said Gwen. “I’m not stupid and neither is he. Can you find the way out?”

“I think so,” he said. “I know the way, and Hengist is asleep. He shouldn’t be able to stop us. I can show you the way to Winter, if you have to go there.”

“That’s where Morgana is,” she said. “The real Morgana. I have to get her back before it’s too late. I’ve been too long already.”

He nodded. “I know another way out,” he said. “It’s not far. But once we’re out it’s a long way to Winter.”

“The mountains, I think,” said Gwen. “Isn’t it? I can get there.”

“If you’re sure,” he said. He took her hand. His fingers were warm and callused. “Come on. We have to hurry. If anyone sees us and wakes Hengist, he won’t let us leave.”

“I’ll be quiet as a mouse,” said Gwen.

*

The castle was dark and silent and empty, no sounds but their soft tip-toeing footsteps, the floorboards creaking, and a few snores from the rooms they passed. They didn’t speak a word to each other. She let Lancelot guide her. He was the man she was meant to look for. There was no doubt about that.

They got outside without a hitch, thankfully. It was almost too easy. Lancelot led her down a tight, narrow flight of stairs, through a door so low that she had to stoop and he was bent almost in two, then out onto the top of the cliff.

The sun was just coming up. There was a path cut into the cliff, all the way down, twisting and turning. Bits of it seemed to have crumbled away altogether. Far, far below was the forest, whispering like the sea, and the broad river.

“It wasn’t so high when I arrived,” said Gwen, voice trembling.

“I told you,” said Lancelot. “Hengist can change what he likes. The King can as well. He’s just more subtle about it.”

Gwen turned to look at him, properly look at him, now the sun was coming up. His face was lined, his air threaded with grey. He looked so sad. “What did you do?” she said. “To get sent away?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, not quite covering the bitterness in his voice. “Come on. We have to go.” He started down the path, one hand still in hers, leading her gently. The ground was dry now, but full of sharp rocks and sticks. She was barefoot. She hadn’t been so aware of it until now.

“Don’t you think it was a little too easy?” she said when they were about halfway down. “The way we got out?”

“Don’t tempt fate,” he said. “Hengist might not even be awake yet, and I doubt anyone will notice we’re gone till he wakes up. They won’t look. They don’t pay any attention to me, you know.”

“They think we’re the same,” said Gwen.

“They don’t think you’re a sinner,” said Lancelot. “They think I’m one of them, but with my head in the clouds. They think you’re a Princess. See the difference?”

“I’m not a Princess,” said Gwen, picking her way around a tree root, jutting out of the cliff face. “I’m a sociology student.”

“I don’t know what that is,” said Lancelot. “But it sounds very grand.”

Gwen laughed. “Yes, I suppose it is,” she said. Lancelot laughed as well, but he sounded as if he were choking it out. She fell silent. She didn’t want to hurt him any more than she had already. She thought maybe he was a little jealous.

The last part of the path was a slippery, dusty slide, then a sharp drop of a few feet. Lancelot went first and caught her when she jumped. The castle looked very small when she turned back. Nothing but a dark smudge at the top of the cliff.

The river was stretched out in front of them, grey and rippling. “We should follow it,” she said. “Downstream.”

He nodded, still breathing heavily from the cliff, and gestured for her to go first.

*

“So, what do sociology students do, exactly?” said Lancelot. His mood had brightened considerably now that they had been walking for an hour or so and the castle was out of sight.

“Not very much, to be honest,” she said. “Mostly I made sure Morgana didn’t drive herself insane. She’s a complete workaholic. Or she was until recently. She was so stressed, and then it was like she just snapped, and didn’t care at all anymore. Then she disappeared.”

“Winter?” said Lancelot. Gwen nodded. “I’m sorry. Winter’s like that, I think. I’ve heard, anyway. I know people who’ve met her.”

“I’m sure it’ll work out,” said Gwen.

There was a strange creaking noise coming from somewhere. The forest was too dense to see what it was. It was somewhere around the next bend of the river. It was probably just tree branches, she thought.

“Me and Morgana have been friends for years,” she said. “It’s only been a few weeks since Winter – I mean, they can’t possibly –”

“It can be as long as Winter wants it to be, remember,” said Lancelot. “I’ve no idea how long I’ve been here.”

The creaking noise was getting louder. It sounded like something swinging in the breeze. Gwen tried to ignore it. It was a horrible sound.

“Do you think Hengist will be angry with me for taking the dress?” said Gwen.

“I think he’ll be angry with you for taking yourself,” said Lancelot. “He won’t even notice the dress.”

“Well, hopefully I won’t have to face him,” said Gwen. They had begun to round the bend in the river. The creaking was even louder. She looked up into the branches of the trees to see what it was.

Then she stopped dead. For she could see something through a chink in the branches and the autumn leaves – a pair of feet, swinging back and forth gently, one bare, one still clad in a green velvet slipper. She stood still for a moment, Lancelot coming to a stop behind her. He asked her a question, but she didn’t hear it. She raced away along the river bank, round the trees, so she could see.

They were dangling in the branches, Rosalind and Mary-Belle. Or she thought that was who it was. It was so hard to tell. Their heads were bare, hair mousy and stringy and short. Their dresses were stained. The nooses were tight around their necks.

Gwen stumbled back, and would’ve plunged straight into the river had Lancelot not caught her.

“One sin too far, I suppose,” he said. Creak, creak, went the ropes.

“He did this because of me,” said Gwen, voice shaking. She curled her toes into the mud. She wished it would swallow her up.

“He did this because they were sinners,” said Lancelot. He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Why did you trust me?”

“I’m sorry?” said Gwen, her eyes still trained on the two women in the tree. Rosalind’s face was turned away, thank God, but Mary-Belle was staring out, eyes still open.

“You knew who I was,” said Lancelot. “Hengist told you I was a sinner, and I was one of his now. Why did you go with me? I could’ve taken you anywhere. You could have ended up like them.”

“He told me to trust you,” said Gwen. She thought she might be sick. But she’d not eaten in days hardly, there was nothing to throw up.

“Who?” said Lancelot. “Who told you?”

“The man with the blue eyes,” said Gwen. Lancelot was silent. His grip on her waist tightened.

“The Wanderer?” he said. “I thought – I mean, I know the man. But –”

“He said you’d find me, and you’d help me, and then I was to give you a message,” said Gwen. “About the King.”

“What did he say?” said Lancelot. Gwen turned to face him and opened her mouth to speak.

“He said to say –”

“I see you found your friends, then,” said a soft voice. Hengist’s voice. He was standing between two trees just above the path. Another man emerged nearby. And another.

“They weren’t my friends,” said Gwen. “And they didn’t – well, no, they did, but they didn’t deserve this –”

Hengist stepped forward, eyes darkening. “Guinevere,” he said.

“No,” said Gwen. “No, that’s not my name.”

“My Sophie-Anne says differently,” said Hengist.

Gwen’s heart sank. “I don’t mean any harm,” she said. “I just want to go and find my friend. I’ll leave you alone, now, I promise –”

“You’re a liar, Guinevere,” he said. “That’s your sin, isn’t it?”

“I’m not a sinner,” said Gwen, who felt a little light-headed. “I’m a sociology student.”

Hengist held out a hand. The man behind him held out a crossbow. “You will not lie to me again!” he roared.

It couldn’t have been any louder than an ordinary shout, but Gwen swore the earth shook. She felt it shake. Birds were frightened out of the trees.

But he couldn’t hurt her. She was sure of it. She almost felt like a real princess in this dress, as muddy and blood-stained as it was. She turned to Lancelot.

“Get out of the way,” she murmured. Hengist was taking aim. The men had circled around them, blocking off the path. She couldn’t run even if she wanted to. Lancelot opened his mouth to object, but she shook her head. He stepped away, arms sliding off her waist, his touch lingering for a moment.

“You can do what you like,” she said, as clearly and bravely as she could. Her knees were shaking. “I’m not a sinner and I never will be.”

Hengist fired.

The world went strange and blurry for a moment. She could see the vague outlines of her kitchen window and the sink and a stack of clean dishes overlaid with the stark trees and the hanging, drifting corpses, and the hulking figure of Hengist. But it didn’t hurt. It never hurt.

Then everything drifted away like autumn leaves in the wind.

*

When the mist cleared, she and Lancelot were standing on the river bank. Only it was a different bit of river bank altogether, more red and orange than brown and grey. The leaves beneath her feet were dry.

“What happened?” said Lancelot.

“It’s like a dream,” said Gwen. “It doesn’t have to follow logic. It just is. And then it isn’t.”

“Where’s Hengist?” he asked.

“In his castle, I think,” said Gwen. She turned around slowly. The mountains were looming on the other side of the river, all misty and snow-capped and close. There was an arching wooden bridge rooted into either bank just in front of her. “It’s this way,” she said.

There was a flutter and a chirrup. The sparrow landed on one of the bridge posts and smirked up at her.

“Where were you?” she said. “You just vanished away. I could have used some help just now.”

The sparrow whistled. You managed. And besides, I was clearing a safe path for you. It hopped up higher along the handrail of the bridge. I think things will be better here from now on.

“I should hope so,” said Gwen. She twisted round to look at Lancelot over her shoulder. “Are you coming, then?”

He nodded slowly. Followed her over the bridge. It played a deep, mournful tune with each of their steps. He didn’t speak again until they were safely on the other side. “What was the message?” he said. “You said the Wanderer told you to tell me something.”

“He said to say the King had forgiven you,” said Gwen. “And that you can go home.”

She saw hope light up in his eyes, but he didn’t smile. “He’s optimistic,” he said. “The King will never let me back.”

“I think he meant it,” said Gwen. “And he will, you know. He’s got all of forever.” She took Lancelot by the wrist and led him forward. The trees seemed to slide apart around them.

There was a flash of white and green somewhere ahead. Gwen frowned and sped up a little. She passed under two trees that had tangled together to form an archway, and then there it was.

It. She wasn’t sure how else to describe it. It was as if the world had narrowed to a point for a little while. There was snow spilling forth on one side, and a splash of grass and wildflowers on the other. Two suns were burning in the sky, one bright, the other cold and pale.

“Oh,” said Lancelot. He let go of her hand and stepped forward, staring up at the split sky.

“What is it?” said Gwen.

“The place where Summer and Winter meet,” said Lancelot. “I’ve seen it before, but never from the outside. It looks different here.”

Gwen reached for his hand again. “You can go home, then.” He shook his head. “Yes, you can,” she said. “You can’t stay here with Hengist anymore, and you can’t come to Winter with me. The only other thing you could do is go to Spring and become a baby or something, but then you’d have to go through Summer anyway, wouldn’t you? And the King will forgive you now.”

He turned to face her and smiled. Beamed, even. “You really think so?” he said.

“I really do,” she said. “Trust me.”

They walked forward together, right up to the edge. The snow spilled out onto the grass a little, but it didn’t melt. It looked very strange, clumps of snow sitting out in the sunlight, next to a cluster of daisies.

“Shall I go first?” he said. He turned to face her. There stood there for a moment, under both suns. “You look beautiful,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll get her back.”

“Thank you,” said Gwen.

“No,” he said. “Thank you.” He smiled. Gwen smiled back, then reached upwards. He leaned down, let her kiss his forehead.

“Look after yourself,” she said.

“I will,” he said. His arms wrapped around her briefly, then he was gone, stepping back into the sunlight. The years seemed to melt off him. The grey faded from his hair. The lines on his face were gone. He looked hardly older than her now. He stared up at the sky for a moment, then took a deep breath and waved her good bye.

Gwen waited until he vanished, wandering away into the distance, then stepped onto the snow.

*

The Autumn when they came back to university for their second year was cold and wet, not all crispy leaves and sunshine. They had been moving into their new flat, with Christina and Lauren and Anandita, when Morgana had found Gwen standing staring out of the kitchen window with a mug of tea in her hands.

“It’s only September,” she had said. “It shouldn’t be so cold already.”

“It’ll get warmer again,” Morgana had said. “You’ll see.”

Then she had slipped an arm around Gwen’s shoulders, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Chapter Text

The cold was so biting that it was like fangs against her skin. The wind whipped up into a frenzy the moment she stepped into Winter. Behind her, the bird let out a mournful whistle.

“I don’t l-like it either,” said Gwen around chattering teeth. “But Morgana’s here somewhere. Think how cold she must be.”

The bird whistled again, then flew past her and flopped down on the show in a little heap. Gwen knelt down next to it cautiously. “Are you alright?” she said.

It sat up. The colours in its feathers seemed to be leaking, oozing out and blending. For a moment it didn’t look like any bird at all, just a vague winged beaked shape, then a spot of red appeared on its breast, and grew, and grew.

The robin was back, peering up at her, ever cheerful. “It’s nice to see you again,” said Gwen. “But I think we need to get going. Is it far, do you think?”

The bird tweeted and hopped, leaving little jagged footprints behind itself. You can’t go straight there.

“I should’ve known,” said Gwen. “Fairy tales are never easy, are they?”

No, of course not. People wouldn’t tell them if they were.

“So where do I need to go?” she said. “Show me the way.” It let out an excited little chirrup and flew away, straight past her shoulder.

Winter seemed to be nothing but wind and ice and snow, going on endlessly in all directions. Flat, with no hills. Where had the mountains she’d seen in Autumn gone to, she wondered?

The bird had stopped a little way ahead, on a patch of ground that was no different from any other. But it was hopping back and forth, making agitated sounds.

“What is it?” she said, kneeling down again. But once she was there it fell silent, just sat still, looking at her expectantly. Gwen glared back. She had no idea what it expected her to do, and she was getting colder by the moment. It had begun to snow, little soft flakes that would have been lovely were they not melting into her hair already.

Except, she realised, a spark of inspiration striking her, this must be about where the river would have gone. It had curved round ahead of them, and this was Winter, of course, so it would have frozen…

She brushed aside some of the snow and peered down. Dark ice stared back at her. “Is it safe to walk on?” she said.

Frozen solid. The robin hopped up onto her shoulder and whistled her on.

“Are there people here?” she said, wincing at the cold as she took the first few steps. Her feet would numb eventually, she supposed, and that might be a little easier. But she could still get frostbite or something.

Just the Witch. She’s very lonely.

“Is that why she took Morgana?” said Gwen. She glanced back over her shoulder. Her footsteps were already being filled behind her. The cold here could wipe her out if she stayed still long enough.

I don’t know, the bird said. Maybe. Winter is so very lonely. Gwen sighed. It puffed out in the air in front of her, then tinkled as it froze. The bird really wasn’t very helpful.

There was something in the distance, an odd shadow, like a heat shimmer, except that didn’t make any sense, because there was no heat here. “What is that?” she said.

You’ll see, it said. You’ll see everything.

*

The river was flowing up. Only it wasn’t flowing, because it was solid, but were it to be flowing, it would be going up. Straight up into the air. Gwen had followed the ribbon of ice for what felt like miles, but then it curved up gracefully out from under the snow, up and up, a great cliff of smooth, sheer, dark ice.

She didn’t realise how wide the river had become. She couldn’t see any way around it any more. It was vast.

“But how do I move on?” she said.

The bird hopped off her shoulder, down onto the snow. You’re not looking right. You have to work it out on your own.

“That’s predictable,” said Gwen. She reached out a hand towards the ice, then jerked back. It was so cold it burned.

A shimmering ripple of light passed through it. The gentle snowfall around her stopped gradually. She looked for the robin, but it had vanished, leaving behind not even a footprint.

She could see herself reflected in the ice now, wet and muddy and shivering. But the stars sewn into her dress sparkled regardless. “Hello,” she said. Her voice echoed.

“Hello, Guinevere,” said her reflection, an odd, icy glint in its eye.

“You’re her, aren’t you?” said Gwen. “Winter?”

“I’m you, silly,” said her reflection.

“I don’t believe you,” she said.

“I don’t believe any of this,” said she.

Then her reflection melted away. The ice was suddenly a mirror, a perfectly normal-sized floor-length mirror, with a strange silvery frame. Except when she looked into it she saw Morgana, spread out naked on a powdery snow drift. Pale hands were running across her skin, cupping her breasts, parting her legs. Gwen looked into the mirror. Bright blue eyes looked back.

She’s mine, they said. Gwen reached out to touch the mirror again.

It was cold, it was so cold, cold hands touching her, running up the inside of her thighs, between her legs. Cold like ice, freezing her to the core, making her shiver and moan, clever fingers touching her, chilling her, and it was all so good, she never wanted it to end…

Gwen jerked her hand back, panting. She could still feel cold hands on her skin. In the mirror, Morgana’s mouth opened in a silent moan. “She doesn’t want that,” said Gwen. “Not really. Not forever. She’s scared, I know she is.”

The reflection in the mirror changed again. This time it was the blue-eyed man, smirking at her. “Do you know who the King is yet?” he said. “Or is it too hard for you? You never were the brightest of them, were you?”

“You’re not him,” she said.

“None of this is real, Guinevere,” he said. “Did you really believe any of it?” He laughed, head falling back.

A noose snapped around his neck, and suddenly he was Mary-Belle, dangling limp in front of her, rope creaking back and forth. Except when Gwen made herself look at her face, it was Morgana, hair tangling down, hanging naked, hands slipping around her waist. Blue eyes burned out at her.

She’s mine.

“You don’t own anything,” said Gwen. “There’s no people here, are there? I think you’re the weakest of all.”

The image melted away. Instead, she saw the King, clad in armour, holding a sword in one hand. The blade shone like gold.

“I think I know your name,” Gwen murmured. “But I wish I knew what happened to you. How you came to be here.”

The King raised his sword, and there was Lancelot, pale and drawn, hair in disarray. He was talking, begging, but the King’s sword was at his throat. There was a storm behind them, around them, a wild summer storm, slicking their hair to their heads.

The sword leapt forward. Blood spattered across the mirror.

“No,” said Gwen. “No, that never happened. The King will forgive him. I know he will.”

Morgause gazed out at her scornfully, tutting as she wiped the last of the blood away with her sleeve. “You’ve got to try harder than that, child,” she said. “You aren’t the lamb.”

“It turned into a sheep,” said Gwen numbly.

“Summer does that,” said Morgause. “Your lover is waiting for you. You should be there.”

“I don’t know how!” Gwen wailed. For the mirror seemed to stretch out forever again, all around her, like she was inside a mirror globe. But it was a wall again. Just ice.

“Winter melts away into Spring,” said Gwen. “Spring is the start of things. Summer is forever, I think. Autumn is where things die. You’re just what’s left over.”

There was a screeching sound. The ice splintered all over and was whole.

“You could at least face me,” Gwen said. “The others had the decency to face me. Even if they tried to kill me after.”

Words formed in the ice.

You are nothing.

She is mine.

“You don’t even know her,” said Gwen. Could Winter even hear her?

Neither do you.

She reached out for the ice again. Made herself touch it, despite the burn. Her hand numbed quickly. But it was already turning blue. Would she be able to let go when she tried? She wondered if she would freeze solid.

“Autumn blows away,” she said. “And Winter melts into Spring. You’re made of ice, aren’t you?” She pressed her other hand to the ice, bit her lip to keep from crying out at the cold. “I came all this way. I’m not going back now. Let me through so I can see you.”

I am everything.

“Not in my world,” said Gwen. “You’re only part of the year, and you have to share. Good little girls share. Bad little girls steal. And I’m not a liar, or a sinner.”

Everyone’s a sinner.

“I’m not. I never do anything,” she said. “I’m here for Morgana, and I’m not leaving until you give her back. If you don’t like it you’ll just have to live with me. I can stand the cold.”

Silence. The ice was still beneath her hands.

Then the air around her leapt into life, searing, stinging snow flying into her face. The wind howled. Someone somewhere was screaming. She couldn’t feel the ground beneath her feet. She had to force her eyes open to read the words in the ice.

Nothing.

“You can scare me,” Gwen said. Or she thought she said it aloud, anyway. “But you can’t hurt me. The worst you can do is send me away, but I’ll come back again, every time.”

You lied to her, said the ice. She trusts me.

“I never lied,” Gwen shouted into the wind. Her voice faltered.

You never told her.

“That’s not the same at all!” said Gwen. “She never talked to me either! We’re as bad as each other!”

Which is worse? The liar or the thief?

“So you think you’re a thief?” she said. “Because I won’t say I’m a liar. Not ever.”

The wind was still howling around her, but she hardly noticed any more. The snow melted the moment it touched her skin. It felt more like a shower of gentle rain. The ice was slippery under her hands.

“You can’t have her,” said Gwen. “Not ever.”

The ice shattered beneath her fingers.

*

The winter before Winter, it had only snowed a very little, just a light dusting, but enough to make snowballs out of, if you tried. They had scraped it up with gloved hands and thrown it at their friends and at each other.

The cold of it was biting, but afterwards they had stumbled back up to their flat, laughing, and Gwen had made hot chocolate, and Morgana had told her that it was the best hot chocolate in the world, and the world had felt that little bit warmer.

Chapter Text

The palace was just as she’d thought it would be, acres of ice, polished like glass, vast pillows stretching off into the distance, up and out, wave after waves of icicles coming down from the roof. There were things whispering in the darkness as she walked forward. The hem of her dress whistled across the icy floor. The hem was encrusted with snow and ice and frozen muddy water from Autumn.

Her footsteps echoed. It didn’t make any sense that they should echo, because she wasn’t wearing any shoes, and she was hardly making a sound at all, but they did.

“It’s dramatic, I suppose,” she said. “And this is just a fairy tale.”

“Is it?” said a voice. A high, sweet voice that reverberated around the icicles.

“It is for me!” Gwen called back.

Ahead of her, the icicles formed an archway. “Come and see,” said the voice.

Gwen walked faster. She didn’t feel cold any more, exactly, but her breath was freezing in the air in front of her, and her hands were shaking. You can’t die here.

On the other side of the archway was a bedroom, smaller than the hallway, but massive nonetheless. It was lighter, airier, and the bed was made of heaped snow and thin, twisted icicles. There was a dark smear stretched across it. Gwen was halfway across the room before she realised what it was.

Morgana. Still dressed in her navy blue polka dot pyjamas, stretched out on a bed of snow, looking beautifully incongruous. They were alone. All Gwen had to do was walk over there and wake her.

She took a step forward, but stopped. Because there was a figure behind Morgana, lounging behind her, a vague outline, like a magic eye drawing. Her blue eyes were burning like cold fire.

Her hair was dark and loose, trailing across her shoulders. Her skin was pale. Her dress was just snow, dusted across her, merging with the bed beneath her. Her lips were very red.

“You wanted me to face you,” said Winter. “Here I am.” Gwen opened her mouth to answer, but she had no idea what to say. Winter smiled and slithered off the bed of snow like a graceful snake, dress falling around her like a cloak.

“I’m going to take Morgana back now,” said Gwen, then added, “Please,” as an afterthought.

“Is that a request?” said Winter, gliding towards her. “Or a command?”

“She was mine before she was yours,” said Gwen. Winter slipped behind her, as gust of freezing wind.

“On the contrary,” she said. “She was never really yours at all.”

“She doesn’t belong to anyone,” said Gwen.

“Then shouldn’t it be her choice?” said Winter. On the bed, Morgana stirred, then sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes. Winter was there in the blink of an eye, curled around her protectively. “Hush, now,” she said, as Morgana looked around in confusion.

“Morgana?” said Gwen, trying to keep the hesitance out of her voice. The bed seemed much further away all of a sudden. “I’ve come to take you home.”

Morgana’s gaze alighted on her, but she hardly seemed to see her at all. “Who are you?” she said.

Gwen’s knees began to shake. The ice rose up to meet her. “No,” she choked out. “No, she wouldn’t forget me – not unless you made her –”

Winter curled around her like a serpent. “I wash everything away,” she said. “Hush, now. Everything’s fine.” She kissed Gwen on the forehead. Cold spiralled through her body, freezing the tears in her eyes and the blood in her veins. The world sank away into soft, gentle darkness.

*

Her rubber gloves were a little too large. They slipped down her arms constantly. And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get the mug she was washing clean. The remains of hot chocolate had adhered to it like glue. Or cement. Or cement-glue.

It was just a mug, she told herself as she scrubbed. Not even a very nice mug. There was no reason to get upset. No reason at all.

Gwen cried out in frustration and flung it away. Broken china and soapy water lined the floor, all different shades of white. She stripped off her gloves and fell to her knees.

“I don’t know why I’m angry,” she said aloud. “Everything’s fine.”

There was a scratching and a tweeting from outside the window, but she ignored it. Fetched a cloth to deal with the water. She had to make sure everything was clean.

The irritating sounds from outside grew louder. She pulled herself up by the sink with an irritated sigh. There was a little bird outside the window, a robin, hopping up and down on the sill, beating its wings against the window pane frantically.

“Go away!” she said. She tried knocking on the window, but that did nothing to dissuade it. She turned away and began to pick up the pieces of broken mug. “Everything’s fine.”

It was even written on the mug, one letter on each piece she picked up. They were in the right order and everything. That had to mean something, didn’t it? The whole world was telling her that everything was fine.

Once the pieces were safely in the bin, she thought about maybe going through to the living room, but – no. Better to stay in the kitchen, where it was safe and warm. Except the floor did feel so cold under her feet.

“Everything’s fine,” she said to herself. She smiled and began to put away the dishes on the draining board. It was written around the rims of the plates. Everything was safe and normal and happy and fine.

The irritating sound started up again just as she was arranging the cutlery nicely in the drawer. She ignored it for as long as she could, but once the teaspoons were neatly stacked, she had little else to do but see what it was this time.

he robin was back, but now it was clutching something in its beak, a crumpled piece of paper with a photo and some writing on it. It quieted once she turned to look at it, settled down on the windowsill and looked up at her imploringly.

“I don’t know what that is, but I’m sure I don’t want it,” she said. “You can put it back where you found it, thank you.” She folded her arms and glared. It glared back.

Except it was just a robin, and robins didn’t glare. They were cute and happy and sang nicely and they were safe and fine. She turned away from the window. She would clean the oven. That hadn’t been done in a while.

The cleaning things were under the sink, though, and the sink was under the window. The bird began to flutter and tap once she was out of sight, but, thankfully, it stopped before she’d even found the oven cleaner.

There it was, a smooth, shiny canister, pushed right to the back. Everything was fine. You didn’t clean ovens unless everything was fine, did you? People who were in trouble didn’t clean ovens. She wiped away a few tears. There really wasn’t any reason to cry.

Suddenly, there was a crack and a shattering sound. A rock came flying through the air, skittering across the kitchen table, followed by the robin, still clutching that stupid bit of paper in its beak. It landed on the back of a chair, fluffed up its feathers, and dropped the paper. It floated down gently, like a snowflake, landing in on the floor in front of her.

MISSING. Then a blurry black-and-white photo of a pretty girl with wavy hair who looked vaguely familiar, and a few lines of writing, about where and when she’d last been seen. It was a poster, the edges torn, as if it had been ripped off a lamp-post somewhere.

“Yes,” said Gwen. “Very sad. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an oven to clean.”

The bird whistled at her, infuriated. Dream within a dream! She made out. Dream within a dream!

“Of course I’m not dreaming,” she told it firmly. “I don’t dream about cleaning ovens, do I? That would be silly.” Except you don’t talk to birds when everything is fine. She decided to ignore it. That would be best, she thought. Now, where had she put her gloves?

The water in the sink was freezing. It had been hot just a few minutes ago, very hot. How had that happened? It must be because the window was broken, she decided. She would call someone to fix it later. But not now. The phone was in the hall and she was safe in the kitchen. She picked up one of the shards of glass gingerly. It slipped out of her grip.

Because it was melting in the warmth of the kitchen. When it hit the floor, it shattered further, each piece melting away into little droplets of water. Her window was made of ice.

“That’s not right,” she said. “No, that’s not right at all.”

She reached out to touch the window pane. It shattered beneath her fingers, taking the rest of the kitchen with it, a thousand glistening shards falling down onto the snow around her.

And then it was cold. It was so cold that she cried out at the shock of it. She was still crouched in the icy bedroom, just where she’d been before, wearing nothing but the velvet dress from Autumn, but Winter and Morgana were gone. There wasn’t so much as a footprint to show where they might be, what path they had taken. For there were so many ways out of this room, archways everywhere, arched windows high up on the wall that had corridors behind them. How was one supposed to get up there?

Except that the robin was back, sitting on the snow beside her. It looked as if it were waiting for instructions.

“I don’t know why you’re even helping me,” said Gwen. “I don’t deserve it. I think I am a liar.”

You didn’t know you were lying, it said. And with that it leapt up into the air and flew away down the nearest passage, tweeting for her to follow.

She slipped over on the ice three times before she even managed to get out of the room, but then at last she found her balance. It helped if she held her skirt out of the way.

The passage was tight and low, icicles jutting down from the ceiling at irregular intervals. The bird dodged around them easily, but she kept finding herself just inches away from slicing her face open. It didn’t matter how many times she called for it to slow down.

But then the passage ended suddenly in a slope, and she lost her footing, slid all the way down. Thankfully there was a snow drift at the bottom, a nice soft landing, but it still hurt. She had little cuts all over her hands. Snowflakes were sharp. She whimpered. The robin perched next to her and chirruped softly.

She’s here.

Gwen lifted her head and looked around. She was in another room, dark and silent, the ground covered in a thick layer of snow. But it was empty. There were no doors except the one she’d come in by. It felt strangely hushed. The ceiling was a great dome of murky, blue-green ice.

Something hissed. Then Winter rose up out of the ground, a serpent made of snow, bright blue eyes glinting above icy fangs. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. Gwen scrambled back over the snow, back up against the sloping path she’d fallen down, but it was too sheer and slippery to climb back up. She was trapped.

The Winter-Snake lunged down at her. Gwen screamed, rolled frantically out of the way, dressed pulled up around her thighs. She had only just managed to get to her feet when it lunged again, sending her flying out of the way.

She ran as far away from it as she could get, but more coils of it kept leaping up out of the snow, tripping her up. When it caught up with her, she was pressed up against the curving wall of the cavern. It loomed above her, rearing up as high as it could.

“You can’t hurt me!” she shouted up at it. “You’re not even really a snake!”

It was just snow, she told herself. She could even see the gaps between the flakes if she looked closely enough. It was hollow inside, she was sure of it. Except those fangs looked razor-sharp.

It lunged again. She dodged and sprinted for the doorway. The robin was still there, darting back and forth frantically.

It’s just like a dream, it was saying. Remember?

Except she knew that it was a dream, so it was more than a dream. She leapt up the slope and dashed back down the passageway. She needed more space. Then maybe she could win this.

She skidded out into the bedroom again, swung around to face it as it slithered out of the passage, all loops and coils and glinting blue eyes. It reared up, ready to strike, but she held her ground this time.

“You’re not real,” she said. “You’re just winter. Winter doesn’t last. Snow melts.”

It hesitated. Gwen stared up at the shining fangs. Her knees were shaking, but she wasn’t going to run this time. Not this time.

“You can’t hurt me,” she said. “And you can’t keep me here. If you send me away I’ll come back, and I’ll keep coming back till I get this right, do you understand?”

Winter swayed from side to side, as if it were a snake in a basket and Gwen were a snake charmer. She pushed her hair away from her face and looked it dead in the eye.

“So you’re just going to have to let me take her now,” she said. “Because it’ll happen one day anyway, won’t it? You can’t win.”

The snake let out a hiss of dissatisfaction, and moved to strike. Gwen squeezed her eyes tight shut and hoped with all her might that she could do this again.

There was a light, gentle sound, a sort of pfft, and something soft rained down across Gwen’s face. She opened her eyes again. Snow was falling gently around her, and there was no sign of the Winter-snake at all.

Or almost, anyway. There was a pair of blue eyes glinting at her out of the icy wall, but they were frozen, immobile. All they could do was glare. Gwen smiled, gave them a little wave, and turned around to follow the snowfall.

*

The snow had stopped falling by the time she found Morgana. The icy floor was becoming slippery beneath her feet. There were little clumps of half-melted snow dropping out of the wall around her.

She slipped and slithered down the gradually warming passage, then through the archway at the end, outside, where the cold was so sharp that she gasped and reeled back, wanting to go back inside, but there was Morgana, standing alone on a balcony that was more just a sheet of ice jutting out into the void. Snow was falling around her gently. She was standing on the very brink. Gwen had to hold herself back from rushing out to pull her away. That wouldn’t end well, she was sure.

“Morgana?” she called, tentative. It was snowing again.

Morgana didn’t move. Gwen tip-toed over – the ice was transparent, and in the dark it was almost as if it wasn’t there at all. She tried calling out again, but Morgana still didn’t answer, not until she was right next to her, one hand brushing her shoulder.

She had both hands stretched out in front of her, catching snowflakes. They weren’t melting on her skin. When Gwen touched her, she was cold.

“Morgana?” she said. “It’s time to go home now, Morgana.”

“It’ll be the same as before,” said Morgana, eyes fixed on the snow. She made it sound like a bad thing.

“No,” said Gwen. “No, I promise it won’t be.” Morgana didn’t answer. She didn’t move at all. It was as if she was frozen solid. “I can’t go home without you, Morgana,” she said. She slipped her arm round Morgana’s neck. “Come home with me?”

She felt Morgana’s skin warm a little beneath hers. She raised her head, looked away from the snow at last. “Gwen?” she said.

“Yes,” said Gwen. “Yes, it’s me.”

“Where are we?” she asked.

“Winter,” said Gwen. “But it’s alright. We’re going home now.” Morgana turned to face her, looking cold and lost and confused, and Gwen kissed her. She couldn’t not. The warmth of it spread right through them both. The world fell away. There was nothing but the two of them, for a moment that felt like it might be forever.

*

When Gwen opened her eyes, she was lying curled up in her own bed, in their flat. It was dark all around. She felt for Morgana, just in case, because they had been right beside each other in Winter, but she was alone. She sat up, looked all around. Her room was just as she’d left it. Empty.

Except she could hear footsteps outside, in the hall. She sat for a moment and listened. They were going past her door, past the kitchen. Out of the flat. Gwen leapt out of bed and through her out of her bedroom.

“Don’t!” she said. Morgana stopped with her hand on the latch, twisted round to face her, looking tired and guilty and a little bit sad.

“Gwen?” She sounded surprised. And she had never left, Gwen realised. She could feel it. It was the night Morgana had left and had been taken away by Winter, except she hadn’t left yet. She could hear the wind whistling around their building.

“Don’t go outside,” said Gwen. “Please?”

Morgana let go of the latch. “I must have been sleepwalking,” she said. “I don’t remember –”

“It’s alright,” said Gwen, stumbling down the landing to take her by the hand. “It’s alright. You’ve been stressed, I know.”

“It was like there was something calling me,” said Morgana. “Like – I don’t know, I don’t know what it was –”

Gwen looped her arms around Morgana’s shoulders and pulled her close. “I’ll look after you,” she said. “I think I like you rather a lot, Morgana. I think there’s a lot of things I have to tell you, and I don’t know if you – I mean, I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I hope you do, I really hope.”

Silence. Then Morgana’s hands slipped around her waist and hugged her back.

“I’m sorry,” Gwen murmured. “I should have told you before, But I didn’t –”

Morgana’s lips brushed her ear. “It’s alright,” she said. “Me too, alright? Me too.”

*

The snow melted away quickly after that, melted into slush and puddles and streams that rushed down the gutters and gurgled in the drain.

It rained instead, pouring down and soaking everything, drawing up the flowers from the ground.

They lay stretched out on the sofa inside their flat, Gwen’s head in Morgana’s lap.

“I love your hair,” Morgana. “I’ve always loved your hair, did I ever tell you?”

“No,” Gwen said, smiling. Then, “There’s a lot of things I should tell you. I’m not sure if they really happened or not, though. I might have dreamed it all.”

“What sort of things?” said Morgana.

“Why I told you how I felt,” said Gwen. “But I think you’d remember something, though. If it had happened.”

“I’m not sure it matters whether you dreamed it or not,” said Morgana. “If we wouldn’t have this without it.” She pressed a gentle kiss to Gwen’s forehead, then turned on the television.

Outside, through the window, Gwen caught a glimpse of a little waterlogged robin perching briefly on the ledge, and smiled.