Bards still sing of Winter's last Queen, how she led her army into battle after her husband fell. She had always been a warrior, gifted with the spear, and neither marriage nor motherhood dulled her skill. They say she fought well, inspired her warriors to stand brave, though Summer's forces outnumbered them six to one. And they say she fought clear through the field to the Summer Queen. Their duel lasted three days and nights, until luck finally favored the Summer Queen's hand.
The Winter Queen's last thoughts were of her threatened son.
Bards do not yet sing of him.
His eighteenth birthday dawns bloody red, the same as when his mother had died. He had not been surprised that day when his Godmother came to tell him his mother had fallen to the Summer Queen. He had felt it that morning. The first slice of light had pierced like an arrow, and oh, how it had hurt! But then he had felt his mother, the reassuring curl of her fingers on his shoulders, the swirl of her scent around him.
I am forever in your heart, standing guard.
He is not surprised now when his Godmother enters his room unbidden. He makes no comment. He is, technically, still a guest in her home, and he remembers his manners. So he hides his annoyance, smiles and bows instead.
She returns his smile, warm as always, but he does not like the sharpness in it. "The Summer Queen arrives at midday."
Ah, the treaty. His pulse quickens, and he feels his mother. ...forever... "Then I'll thank you now for guarding me all these years."
She looks surprised, and that is rare for her. "You intend to forfeit your life?"
"My mother..." He falters. "No. My mother died so I can live."
The conditions of the treaty are nothing new. He can forfeit his throne or his life. "The House of Winter died with my mother." His mouth is dry, and his tongue feels thick. He is surprised he can form the words. "This realm belongs, unchallenged, to the House of Summer."
The Summer Queen is beautiful. Ageless. His Godmother belongs to the Summer House, and he wonders if he finds the Queen beautiful because Summer is all he knows. He no longer remembers his mother's face, only knows the feel of her in his heart.
His heart forces him to sign the treaty. The ink flares red, and he feels their covenant take hold. The Summer Queen smiles and rises, "You are now of Summer, my son."
He allows her to embrace him. Her lips are warm on his cheek. He feels his mother's jealously...should be me...and hides his grimace. Though he agrees. It should be his mother embracing him.
"A feast, then," his Godmother says, placing a hand on his shoulder and pulling him away.
They eat the finest food, drink the finest wine, his Godmother has to offer. The Summer Queen stays long enough to be polite. His Godmother does not beg her to stay longer when she rises to leave.
After the Queen leaves, he is alone with his Godmother. He does not like the way she looks at him. "You have grown tall under my care." Her gaze darkens. "And handsome."
His heart stutters. Be cautious with your words.
"Skilled, too, Godmother. You've spared me no lessons."
She smiles, glides closer, and touches his cheek. "It was my duty to ensure you'd make a fine husband."
He waits. His mother offers no more advice. "You've...selected a bride for me?"
Her smile widens. "I have had fifteen years."
He rejects his Godmother's proposals. "You are like a mother to me," he says, and the first two nights, she is angry, but she leaves his room without a word.
The third night is different. Even before his Godmother enters, he can feel the magic building. Three is a powerful number, especially in the hands of a being like his Godmother.
"Please, Godmother," he says, though he knows his words cannot stop her.
She stands in his doorway, even more beautiful than her Queen. "Marry me," she says, gliding into the room. "You'll want for nothing."
His Godmother keeps a fine house, and she cannot lie. He will want for nothing. Nothing except his freedom.
I am forever in your heart, standing guard. Be brave, my son, brave and strong.
He steels himself. "No. You are like a mother to me. I cannot, Godmother."
"Foolish boy," she snarls, and then she is before him. On him. She tears at his face, her nails raking his cheek, slicing deep. "You owe your life to me. Had you been given to anyone else, my Queen would have struck."
"I curse you now." She strikes again, and this time, he feels more than his skin tear. He screams, no howls, and his heart stutters, and for an awful moment, stops. "I take your tall and handsome form," his Godmother says. "I take your skills, your grace, everything that makes you a man."
...strong, my son, be strong...
"You'll leave my house, neither man nor beast." She strikes him again, and he falls to his knees.
His body burns as it shifts. He's three things at once: wolf, snake, and raven. Three separate beings, and his mind cannot handle it. He's stretched too thin, his nerves drawn too ragged, and he does not know how to control three bodies. Not all at once.
You are strong, my son. Find your centers.
He obeys. His Godmother is gone. No, he is no longer in her house. He is outside, well outside, deep within a forest. He focuses on his raven self, sends the bird high up past the treetops. The forest stretches beneath him, full of old, tall cedars. The ground beneath his wolf's paws is spongy, russet with fallen needles.
It is too cold for the snake. He forces it up onto the wolf, lets it coil loosely around his neck. The raven swoops back down. In the center of the forest, not far from where he stands, is a crumbling stone castle. So there is shelter for him.
He cocks his head, listens. There are birds in the trees, calling to each other between branches. And he can smell other prey, rabbits and squirrels, and also other predators. And in the distance, he hears a rushing stream.
So the forest offers food, water, and shelter.
His mother explodes from his hearts. Her presence is cool and soothing around him. Every curse can be broken.
He snarls and pads towards the castle.
Years pass. Slowly, he remembers the magic his Godmother taught him. Or perhaps his mother remembers hers. Her presence in his heart dwindles, but the castle grows around him. What were once crumbling walls are fine granite, untamed grounds now orderly gardens. He has stables and horses, holdings for chicken and sheep, and inside the palace, grand staircases, fine rooms, and marble tile.
He hates it all. He spends his time as a raven flying as far as his wings will take him. As a snake, he curls on the hearth in the kitchen, content on the warm bricks. As the wolf, he runs through the forest, tracking merchants and bandits.
He's jealous of them, he realizes. No matter how greedy or deplorable the worst who past through his domain are, they are still men.
He hunts some of them but eventually tires of the sport.
Every curse can be broken, his mother had said. She doesn't speak in his heart now, but when he returns to the castle, he can feel her presence. "How do I break it, mother?"
She doesn't answer. Perhaps she can't, or perhaps she doesn't know. Her silence drives him from the castle again. And again. And again.
He first sees the merchant through his raven's eyes. The man is attacked by bandits on the road curving along the boundary of the forest. He's close as the wolf, so he lopes closer. He's bored, he tells himself, and that's true enough. Thanks to his influence, the forest has developed a reputation. Humans fear it. The roads crossing through its depths have grown over. People only venture in when they're desperate, like the merchant is now.
The scent of the merchant's blood makes him snarl. The horse is injured, too, an arrow buried in its haunch, a jagged gash on its left leg. The bandits follow, and their horses are uninjured. They gain on the merchant, and from the scent of their bloodlust, they intended to kill the man.
He draws his lips back and snarls. How dare they! It's not so much that he wants the merchant to live, but rather that he wants to be the one to bring death in his forest. He attacks the bandits, leaps up and rips the first's throat out. Then he's upon the second, and before the third can turn on him, his raven self is there, clawing at the bandit's eyes.
The horses, free from their riders, scatter. The bandits put up a poor fight -- bobcats make better prey -- and he takes no pleasure in the killing. When all three are dead, he comes back to himself.
As the wolf, he stares at the raven, sees the blood on its beak and talons. As the raven, he stares at the wolf, watches himself lick the blood from his muzzle and paws. What a wretched beast he is!
He hears the merchant's horse limping along. He turns and trots down the path. The merchant's horse has rounded a curve. When he catches up, he sees the merchant slumped in the saddle. Three arrows are lodged in his back, one in the meat of his shoulder, two lower, the last dangerously near his kidney.
Well, here's a chance to prove he's not that wretched.
He leads the horse back to his castle. He, or his mother, tends to the man's wounds. Three days later, the merchant wakes. He provides food and drink for the man but keeps all three aspects of himself hidden as the merchant wanders through the castle searching for its Master.
He approaches the merchant in his sleep that night. "Your life is mine now."
The merchant looks more like a scholar in his dreams. He's dressed in tweed and soft cotton instead of riding leathers, and his hair is slicked back. He's even wearing spectacles. "Yes." He bows his head.
His mother stirs in his heart for the first time in years. "Do you have family?" she makes him ask.
He jerks his head up. "Yes." He smiles, quick and nervous. Even in the dream, he can smell the merchant's fear. "Three sons, three daughters."
"No wife?" he growls.
"She died in childbirth." He licks his lips. "My oldest are twins, old enough now to...carry on for me, but just barely."
His mother stirs again. A daughter?
"Is one of them your daughter?"
The merchant looks away. "Yes."
"Send her here."
"Send her here or stay yourself!" He growls, and it's a long moment before he can compose himself. "If you send her here, you will never lack for money."
The merchant glances at him, hopeful and wary, and it that moment, he sees everything about the man, how tempting the promise of financial security is.
He will send his daughter.
The merchant leaves thee days later, nearly healed from his wounds. He sends his raven self out after the merchant, follows him on his week's journey home. The merchant's family greets him warmly, the youngest, a daughter, cries and clings to him.
He had sent the merchant home with gifts, dresses and jewels for his daughters, suits and cufflinks for his sons. He is not sure why he did that. Was it his mother's guidance or his own choice? Was it some lingering memory of the manners his Godmother taught him? Whatever the reason, seeing the delight on the children's faces as they accept their gifts makes him happy.
After three days at home, the merchant takes his eldest daughter aside, tells her what happened to him, what he promised. She is not pleased, but she agrees to go, and three days later, her father escorts her back to the castle.
The merchant's daughter is a bird of a woman, tall and thin with long, narrow fingers and a sharp nose and chin. He supposes men find her looks severe. He does not.
His mother seems to like her. The castle springs to life around her. Whatever the woman desires appears, and she desires some surprising things.
Surprising from his perspective, he amends. She is human, and his time among women was of his Godmother's kind. Perhaps human women favor tools over gems, prefer mathematics over poetry.
He spends more conscious time in his snake self. The library has a fireplace, one with a large hearth, and he begins spending his time there, watching the woman read. At first, she casts him nervous looks, but soon enough, she grows used to his presence. Eventually, she invites him closer, lets him drape himself over her shoulders.
She is cooler than the hearth, but more enjoyable.
When she moves into one of the workrooms and begins tinkering, his raven self perches in the window. She works with a single-minded focus, cutting small cogs and welding with a hand-held torch. She does not seem to notice him watching in the window, but her first finished product is a tiny mechanical raven. She even paints it black.
He cannot help his curiosity. When she turns away, he flutters down to the table and studies the bird. It is a little wind-up doll, and she's made it so its beak snaps, its wings flutter, and there are springs in its legs so it can hop across the table.
She laughs from behind him, and the sound is high and clear. It startles him, and he flies away, back to the windowsill. When he looks down at her, her eyes are bright and shining, and in that moment, she is more beautiful than he remembers the Summer Queen being.
"Oh, come back down," she says, raising her fingers to her lips. "Please. Other than the snake, you're the first living thing I've seen here."
He caws. The next day, he perches on her shoulder while she works.
He first visits her dreams in his snake form. Unlike her father, she presents herself exactly as she is. If she is embarrassed about being found in her nightgown, she hides it well.
"Marry me," he says. It's not what he intended to say, and perhaps he imagines it, but he can feel his mother wince.
"But you're a snake," she says, reaching out to stroke his head. "Aren't you?"
He hisses at her and withdraws.
He hisses at his mother, too. Then he sulks for three days.
The next time, he appears as the raven.
"Have you finished your pout?" She smiles at him and places the wind-up raven on her nightstand. It hops across the surface, teeters on the edge, but does not fall.
"Do you want for anything?"
"My family. My friends." She wraps her arms around her. "I thought, when I saw that workroom, that I'd be happy. I could finally work on what I wanted without any interruptions, but I'm lonely."
"My company is not enough?"
"You're a raven." The wind-up bird falls from her nightstand. "Aren't you?"
He sulks, or pouts, for another two days. On the third, she seeks him out. "I know you're here. Somewhere. Stop hiding."
She has not yet seen him as the wolf. He howls from the garden, and to her credit, she comes straight to him. She's holding a book under her arm, and when she sees him, she nods, then goes to sit on a stone bench near the rose bushes.
"I am going to visit my family. I can take you with me, or you can trust me to return."
"Are you saying I can't?" She leaves the book on the bench. "Well, I say I can."
He does not stop her.
The book she left on the bench is her work journal. She's made designs for a windmill, others for mechanical carriages. He wonders if it's her promise to return.
She is gone for too long. He misses her and regrets not accompanying her. Sorrow keeps him from being able to fly far, from being able to roam his entire forest.
But he can reach her dreams. She looks happy at home. "I've missed you."
"Then come back."
"Soon. There's something I need to do." She smiles. "A quest, but don't worry. I'll have help."
He wants to believe her.
His mother is silent. Her presence starts to fade from the castle, and that worries him, because she is no longer in his heart. He feels lost.
He lets the garden wither and the castle go to ruin. He refuses to hunt, except when hunger forces him to. Was this how his Godmother had felt when he refused her? Why, then, does he not want to curse the woman? He does not have his Godmother's skill with curses, but he does have some power. Doesn't she deserve it?
No. She doesn't. Her heart is hers. He has no right to it.
He never feels his mother's presence again, but the merchant's daughter returns after three years. She's changed, grown. He had been mistaken when he thought her a woman before. Now she is truly one, regal and tall and deserving of so much more than he can ever offer her.
"I'm sorry for making you worry."
Her riding leathers are old and infused with her scent. He tries to resist, but she is warm and inviting and smells so wonderful, so he creeps closer.
"Every curse can be broken." She kneels and kisses each of his heads in turn. "Marry me."