The fells of the North Marches are honeycombed with caves, made when the world was young and green and sunlit, that lead under the hill. Some of those fells are clear and open, grazed by livestock or glowing with wildflowers; others have close-huddled villages drawn together against the winds; yet others are crowned with a single woman or man’s keep, and rest under the command of their lord or lady.
To those, whenever they come under the hand of a new-minted owner—from the lowest knight to the highest princess, from cleric-lord to marchess—the Fair Folk come from Underhill to test the mortal keepers of their lands. They look for compassion, or courage, or simple common sense, and if their tests are passed nobody need ever know they were there.
Past Zephyr’s Spring and through the diamond-studded, gold-lined, silver-veined caves beyond there is a castle, the heart of a principality, whose most recent princess has died. She leaves a son new-grown to manhood, who is reported fair of face and selfish of heart. The Council deliberates at length, and decides at last to send Ariana of the Green Staff, an enchantress of no little skill whose greatest specialty is making things seem what they are not and become what they are.
Ariana dresses in a gown of green silk so fine it can be drawn through a man’s signet ring. At her waist she clasps a belt of silver mesh set with diamonds the size of hens’ eggs, flashing fire and rainbows whenever she moves. She sets emeralds at her throat and in the braided masses of her hair.
Her staff is made of oak, cut and polished, which despite all that flowers more richly than any garden. It is abloom with roses now—gold and crimson, pink and white, deep violet and blazing orange—and she slides her hands through the flowers and curls them around the wood.
When she reaches Zephyr’s Spring, she looks at her reflection in the pool and whispers a single word in a language even older than that of Underhill. Her gown fades to grey, roughens to wool; it shrinks raggedly until it reveals her bare ankles and feet. Her gems wink out, and the delicate metal of her belt twists into coarse rope. Her skin wrinkles, her body dwindles and sags and stoops, and the fine silver-white of her hair falls loose and straggly and yellowing around her face.
Clutching a thin and gnarled branch, the old woman walks into the caves separating the world of the Fair Folk from the world of mortals.
Winter in the North Marches cuts through your muscles and wraps around your bones, with claws and teeth and a roar like a dragon’s. The snow is like a rain of arrows. Ariana emerges in the space between storms, and even she, protected by layers of magic and warmed by inhuman blood, feels the chill in the air.
She sends out a thread of magic, drawing the new prince towards her. When she reaches the door to the castle and knocks, he is standing just behind the porter, with torchlight gleaming ruddy on his golden hair and bronze coronet.
“Please,” says Ariana, into the stillness. The world is frozen around her, crystalline, peaceful, lethal. “May I come in and sit by your fire a moment?”
There are clouds massing behind her to the east.
The prince says, “No.”
“But, sire—” the porter begins. He had already started to step back, to give her space to enter; now he looks at his liege-lord in horror.
It is winter in the North Marches: this was not even Ariana’s first test, because it had never occurred to her that anyone—even a mortal, even a new-whelped human boy—would turn an old woman back out into the cold. Even the mute beasts of the field have more tenderness than this. “Please,” she says again. She fumbles in the folds of her skirt. Her fingers brush against the roses growing from her staff, hidden as they are, and she breaks one off and holds it out to him.
The prince glances at the rose and away again, dismissing it. It is blue-white like lightning, deepening at the tips of the petals to the soft smoky blue of twilight; it is full-blown and velvet-soft, massive against her thin and gnarled fingers. “What need have I of flowers?” he asks.
“Then out of mercy, lord,” she says one last time. Her voice wavers. “Please.”
He turns away.
The gifts of the Fair Folk are not to be spurned, nor their aid rejected, nor their pleas dismissed. There are tales all along the length of the Marches, and down into the still-forested lands south, of the horrors you invite on yourself by doing so. The wealthy and the titled call them legends, stories to frighten disobedient children with; the people who live by the land have longer memories and still nail iron above their doors.
The porter’s eyes are huge with alarm as he stares at the fresh-cut rose Ariana holds, here in the depths of winter where no living thing can spare the energy from its long struggle to survive just to make beauty.
Ariana throws it to the ground and it shatters like glass.
Echoes rattle through the room, the sound somehow not fading, but building, until the entire hall rings with it. The porter flings himself to the ground as a wind rushes in, extinguishing the torches and setting every tapestry against the walls streaming like battle-banners.
When the prince turns Ariana’s glamours are gone. She is Wrath, all silver and green, with her staff covered all in great snow-colored roses. This man’s land holds a gate under the hill, and he cares so little for strangers that he would send them out to die; he is so ignorant that he dismissed a blue rose in winter as worthless.
“Please,” he gasps now, staring at her silks, her jewels, the crackling glow of magic beginning to burn out from her skin.
Ariana smiles at him, cold and sharp as a blizzard wind.