Flushing, I turned my face aside. "Please, just...tell me what this is about."
"It is easier if I show you. Come with me."
We walked side by side, the wind hurrying us along. The full moon cast a blue tinge across the snowy landscape. Arrested by the sight, I paused for a moment to gaze up at it. A shiver ran through me, and I gathered my cloak tighter with my free hand.
"Cold?" Søren asked, his voice pitched low.
"A little," I admitted.
"Just a bit further now," he promised.
We continued towards a narrow avenue where the trees grew so close together on either side, they formed an arch of entwined branches. The entire world was made of crystal and moonlight and shadows.
"Where are you—where are we going?" I ventured after some minutes. I'd almost said, Where are you taking me? but stopped in time. It sounded too much like I was his prisoner.
Søren pushed aside an overhanging branch, bringing down a cascade of snow. "Somewhere warmer."
His lips were curved in a playful smile, and I imagined gently circling my fingertips around his mouth. Horrified, I glanced at the ground before my expression betrayed me, but he pressed my palm briefly, almost as if he'd heard my unspoken desire.
We seemed almost to glide through the snow. At first, my breath misted white but, as he had promised, the air became warmer the further on we walked. Gradually, trees and shrubs of powdered snow gave way to green. In the branches above the eerie cries of night birds echoed.
"Close your eyes," he murmured, breaking the prolonged silence. "I'll know if you pretend." There was a teasing lilt to his voice again.
That melodious voice compelled me to do as he bade.
"You may look now."
I opened my eyes and found I was in a large, circular space, surrounded by a warm golden glow. The velvet sheen of winter grass carpeted the ground. It was hard to tell if this was indoors, for although there was a carved wooden staircase off to my left, gnarled tree roots grazed my ankles, and a twisted tree trunk thrust its way up through a ceiling so towering, it became swallowed by shadows.
"Welcome to my domain, my lady," Søren announced with a flourish.
"You live here?"
"In a manner of speaking, yes."
"But where exactly are we, indoors or out?"
Soft laughter escaped him, and he gestured towards a doorway I hadn't noticed before. "Allow me."
The door was of solid oak, and covered with an intricate leaf design. Some kind of insignia was carved into it, but before I could examine it further, Søren hurried me past it and into a small passage. Ahead lay huge double doors, engraved with that same leaf motif.
Vague sounds of merriment were just out of reach. Tinkling laughter and ethereal music were coming from somewhere nearby, but only footmen in moss green livery stood on either side of the doors.
"Welcome, Your Majesty," the two intoned in unison.
Startled, I pulled back. "You're the Winter King."
One corner of Søren's mouth quirked upward. "Surely you haven't only now realised this? I must say I am a little disappointed, my dear." He glanced briefly at the footmen throwing open the doors, then turned his attention back to me.
"No, I think I always knew. I wasn't ready to admit it to myself."
"This is not a conversation for the hallway. Come." Catching my elbow, he steered me past the servants and into another passage. This one looked more like indoors, and the intricate leaf motif was subtly placed everywhere: on door handles, wall tapestries, and even skirting boards.
"This way." He led me down the hall, stopping in front of a similarly-decorated door at the end. "My study, of sorts. This place is my retreat when I don't wish to be bothered with court duties."
He ushered me inside and closed the door. The room was large, airy, and circular, with a fireplace and an oak desk forming the centrepiece. Rows of leather bound books lined the walls. In relief, I noted we were still on the ground floor, and the velvet-draped windows ran the length of the ceiling. If it came to escaping, I had a chance at least, however slim.
"Do you like it? Everything here, I wrought with my own will."
"You mean the entire building?"
"I mean the entire domain." He laughed at my expression, before sauntering over to the fireplace and placing his hands before the fire. "You must be cold. Why don't you come here and warm yourself?"
"I'm fine." I didn't move from the door.
"You need not be afraid. You see I am quite harmless," he said.
He was fey. He was dangerous. I'd known that all along. Yet I'd still followed him right into his home.
"I have been so bored, for so many years. Time passes differently here," he said, as if continuing an altogether different conversation. "You rather piqued my interest." His eyes, solemn and holding not even a hint of their earlier mischief, now regarded me wistfully. "I have been quite lonely."
A king would have no need for the likes of me. He must be surrounded by hordes of admirers and never lack for companionship.
"It gets tiresome being fawned upon constantly. I yearn for genuine interaction. Is that too much to ask?" He read the doubt in my eyes. "Of course, you're thinking, why you? Well, why not?"
"But I'm nobody." I could barely manage to contain my frustration.
To my astonishment, Søren laughed. "I like your direct manner. You've grown into a rather splendid young lady."
This was another thing that had been bothering me about him throughout but I'd been unable to pinpoint it so far. His stream of cryptic statements, his vague insinuations at some connection between us years ago.
"How do you know me?" Belatedly, I realised I hadn't been showing the proper respect due to him.
"Are you still saying that?"
"What can you mean, Your Majesty? We couldn't possibly have met before."
"You don't honestly believe that, my dear girl. You and I are bound together by the past."
I took an involuntary step back and slammed against the door handle.
There is no point in trying to run, his expression said.
There was no keyhole, no method of locking the door that I could discern, but the handle wouldn't budge. Frantic, I began shaking the handle, then pulling on it.
The Winter King's soft laughter filled the room, and his voice was mellow and hypnotic. "It is my will that created this place, and my will that opens the door." He followed the direction of my gaze, and smiled. "Yes, the windows, too."
Tears welling, I gave up at last on the door. "You said you wouldn't hurt me."
"And I haven't."
"Then please let me go."
"I can't do that."
"What do you want from me?"
"You really are a silly girl."
Within a few strides he closed the distance between us. Leaning in close, he took up a lock of my hair and curled it with a casual grace around his long fingers. Trembling, I stared down at my hair flashing burnished gold in the firelight.
"Your fate was already sealed long ago, my dear."
No. I wanted to scream out the word, over and over, but somewhere, deep down, buried in the darkest folds of winter, I knew.
YOU ARE READING
The Heart of WinterFantasy
"Wait a moment." His voice was soft and insistent. It seemed also that I heard the words inside my mind, their tendrils brushing gently against my consciousness. I knew I should disobey, but my breath caught. Midnight hair fell across his temple, wh...