Winter is particularly harsh this year. It blows in early, a cold wind from the north that scrapes across the land like no obstacle, man- or nature-made, can stop it. The plants and trees freeze, their final leaves growing brittle from frost and dropping to the ground. And the snow comes soon after.
The long days of summer have more than stocked the castle's kitchen and cellars. Huge fires are built in every room, and the heavy winter furs are brought out to pile on beds until they're so thick and high that it's possible to burrow into them and get lost until spring. With nothing else to entertain the knights, the kitchens work all through the day to provide warm roasts and hot cider to keep the castle's occupants too fat and content to care that they'll be stuck inside for at least another five months.
Prince Theodore knows all of this not from direct knowledge but because he has lived through eighteen winters at the castle and knows its patterns, rituals, and deep winter smells as well as he knows just about anything. He feels a moment of intense longing for the corner of the library that sits right above the baker's ovens and will smell like fresh bread from now until things begin to thaw.
His horse, a steady, light brown Trakehner his grandfather had given him a year ago, shakes its mane and whinnies quietly in what Theo first takes as a sign that he should be paying more attention to the snowed-over trail ahead and less to fond thoughts of home. A moment later, he realizes it's actually because Sir Elijah is coming up on his right, and he pulls back on his reins to fall in beside him at an easier walking pace.
"He wants to speak with you, your highness," Elijah says gruffly, clearly annoyed that, despite all his training and his many accomplishment, he is currently reduced to being a messenger.
It's that annoyance mixed with the very particular way Elijah says he that leaves Theo with no doubt whom he's referring to. There's only one person in the train who the men speak of with such a mix of fear and superstition and grudging respect. For the most part, Theo's knights are young, hand-picked to be something like age-mates to their prince. They've grown up together. There's only one who is still relatively new – and not really a knight, either – and they don't quite know what to make of him.
"Well," Theo says, twisting slightly to see if he can spot William behind him, "why doesn't he come up here?"
Elijah's frown carefully implies that he is judging in the politest way that it is possible for him to judge right now. "He's having trouble. With his horse."
Theo waits patiently for a minute or two, assuming that more detail about these horse-troubles will be forthcoming. But Elijah continues to look back, his eyebrows an exasperated line over eyes which are clearly asking, How can you put up with someone who can't even ride a horse properly? Eventually, Theo just waves his hand at the silent question – it's one he's heard before, one he'll no doubt be asked again – and adjusts his grip on the reins, turning his horse about to march back along the line.
Without a word of protest, Elijah takes his position at the front of the train, and the men all adjust to follow his lead smoothly. They like Theo and would give their lives for him if they needed to, but they respect Elijah, and Theo honestly wouldn't have it any other way. As he moves back past the men, most nod their heads at him as he passes, not quite formal bows but signs of acknowledgement anyway. Only Nathaniel doesn't, choosing to meet Theo's eyes instead and rolling his own. But then Nathaniel has spent more time babysitting their newest recruit than anyone; Theo figures this is allowed, though he raises his own eyebrows in return and tries not to smile.
Will is far at the end of the line, bundled in something approaching twelve layers more than anyone else in the line and still shivering a little despite it. While his hands technically grip the reins of his horse's bridle, they're lying lightly in front of him, not doing anything to direct or steer its steady plodding. Snow crunches noisily under the hooves of Theo's own horse as he loops around in a lazy half-circle so that he and Will are side-by-side, both facing forward. Ahead, the sky is grwy and the snow covering the ground and trees is faintly blue in the waning light.
"I hear you're having some trouble with your horse," he says.
Will's face is largely obscured by the cloth and shadow of his heavy winter hood but at the sound of Theo's voice, he lifts one hand and pulls it back. His hair, once revealed, is mussed and flying out in nonsense directions. His cheeks and nose are pink. But Theo is more interested in the small smile lifting one corner of Will's mouth. It seems to perennially appear when they talk. Theo hasn't quite figured out what it means yet.
"It's a horse," Will says simply. "You know they don't listen to me."
"You say that as though you think it's a conspiracy," Theo observes, managing to conceal his amusement only because many, many years of court functions and standing at his grandfather's side while he listens to grievances has taught him how.
Will lifts his chin, an oddly proud and defiant gesture for someone who never really bothers to be either. "Maybe it is one," he says defensively, and his smile curls upward a little further.
Theo just shakes his head in response. Will was born in a little town on the western border with Kree, which Theo has never been to and which, until he met Will, he had never heard of either. He finds himself wondering sometimes if visiting that town would make Will somehow less mystifying, if there he'd find a whole population with the same light brown eyes and quick wit and hard-to-interpret smiles.
But Theo knows that isn't likely. Will is mystifying because he's Will, unique and strange, sarcastic and awkward and a little bit magic. Not at all like anyone Theo's ever met before because of it.
"Elijah said you needed to speak with me," he says to break his reverie before it becomes too noticeable.
The smile disappears from Will's face, replaced by a look of serious concentration. He nods, eyebrows furrowing, and raises his hands up to his mouth for a moment to blow into them – completely letting go of the reins, Theo notes with a fond shake of his head.
"We're going to want to turn right when we come to a fork," Will says through his fingers. "Some of the snow off the hill over there slid last night. The whole path to the left will be hard to navigate."
Theo listens and nods and doesn't need to ask how Will knows this. In all honesty, he can't tell anymore if he trusts Will because of his visions or if he trusts the visions because they're Will's. He doesn't know whether it would matter even if he could. "All right" is all he says in return.
Will huffs another breath into the cup of his hands. The condensation billows out the cracks between his fingers in a cloud, and he crinkles his nose. Without thinking, Theo reaches out and grabs one of his hands, circling his palm and fingers tightly around three of Will's fingers, pulling his hand slightly away from his mouth.
Will's fingers are cold against Theo's skin, slightly damp from the moisture of his breath, and the look that comes across Will's face in that moment is probably not half as surprised as the look on Theo's own. He's not used to touching being so easy, so immediate. Even with Lady Kate, who's been a friend since childhood, there's always been propriety to think of, how his behaviour will look to other. With Will, he forgets, constantly, and yet always finds himself surprised when he does. It's like the first snowfall of the season, anticipated but still unexpected. He's not sure he'll ever understand.
So Theo clears his throat awkwardly and gives Will's fingers a squeeze, trying to turn the unexpected gesture into something more amiable and normal. Will doesn't comment, but the surprise drifts off his face, and a look that's speculative and curious lights in his eyes for a moment before vanishing as well. Theo lets go entirely and catches Will's abandoned reins as his hand drops down.
"To the right?" he asks, calm, focused, like nothing out of the ordinary has happened at all.
Will's hand hangs in the air for a moment, like it's not certain what to do now that it's been released. Then it moves backwards, under the hem of his hood, fetching it up to lie on the crown of his head again.
"To the right," he agrees.