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Chapter 51: Heart of Winter
Sarai's extra keen eyesight caught the shimmer of blue and white forms even as she stepped through the Gate and closed it behind her. Under her breath she swore as the shimmer resolved itself into the ghostly forms of five frost wraiths, unquiet spirits of the damned that the Unseelie bound to their service, setting them to guard their borders. Their slightest touch would freeze a person in their tracks and prolonged exposure to them would kill. She should have remembered there would be guardians and gone ahead.
As the frost wraiths materialized, a long low howl of malice sounded, and from out of the trees burst six massive dire wolves, misshapen parodies of real wolves, with humped shoulder and iron gray fur, and burning red eyes. They were about twenty yards away, and closing fast.
"Severus! 'Ware the wraiths!" Sarai yelled, her sword drawn inbetween the drawing of two breaths. "Get down!"
The Potons Master, to his credit, did not hesitate or question her orders, but simply dropped to the snow, unfastening Cafall's lead as he did so.
The misthound halted, the scent he followed still in his nostrils, but it was now eclipsed by the sight and odor of dire wolf, a misthound's natural enemy. Cafall lowered his head and snarled chillingly, his fur abristle.
The wraiths drifted forward, chillingly silent, as deadly as the frost from which they took their name. They had long sharp talons and their faces were half-formed twisted things, as they had once been mortal, victims or unlucky allies of Winter, who had died a slow death at the hands of the Unseelie.
Sarai bounded right over Severus, using a kin-sa-dor master technique to make herself able to leap like a mountain elk, landing lightly in front of the encroaching wraiths. A single word coated the edge of her blade with fire and she thrust at the nearest wraith, her blade quickly finding its mark in the semi-corporeal creature.
The frost wraith shuddered, its mouth opening in a soundless scream as the fiery blade struck a mortal blow. Its tattered robes caught fire and blazed like a beacon before it died, unable to withstand the enchantment.
Sarai whirled to face the others, the four that were left surrounded her, hungrily reaching for her, eyes glowing with the eternal hatred of the living. She kept them at bay with calculated swipes of her sword, her eyes hard.
Severus regained his feet and brought his staff into play. The Staff of the Magi was an ideal battle instrument, and at a soft word it shot tiny iron pellets, which slammed into two of the wraiths like shrapnel and destroyed them. Since they were animated by Winter magic, iron could shatter the bindings and cause them to die a natural death.
Sarai leaped and spun in a deadly dance of death, keeping her sword moving deftly, and the wraiths shrank from her blade, hissing softly, their mouths twisted in grimaces of hate and fear. One fell to her lightning quick backhand thrust, the other two circled warily, radiating an unearthly chill that made her fingers ache, in spite of the warmth of her sword hilt and gloves.
"Where did these bloody ghosts come from?" Severus growled, thrusting his staff at one.
"Frost wraiths," Sarai corrected, ducking a clawed swipe. "They're guardians of Winter. As are the dire wolves."
The dire wolves were almost upon them, their cries of savage glee echoing upon the wind. Cafall waited, growling viciously, as the lead wolf charged at him. Though smaller than the massive wolf, Cafall had the advantage of speed and an instinctive ability to target weaknesses in his dire wolf foes.
Before the lead wolf reached him, Cafall darted in and clamped his jaws upon the dire wolf's foreleg, a favorite attack of his breed. A broken leg would render an opponent disabled and easy prey for a throat hold. The dire wolf yowled and tried to shake off the misthound.
Cafall clung, biting down hard. Though he was not a bulldog, the misthound possessed the ability to adapt his fighting methods as needed, and his initial bite had not been enough to snap the wolf's thick bone. So he gnawed harder, and the dire wolf snapped at his shoulder.
The wolf's teeth opened a gash in the young hound's shoulder. Cafall yelped and released his hold, rolling to avoid the wolf's second snap. When he got to his feet, he found himself surrounded by the rest of the pack. The misthound backed away, still snarling in warning, looking for a way to break through the deadly circle before the dire wolves tore him to pieces.
At the sound of Cafall's pained cry, Severus turned to see what was happening to his dog. Horror intermingled with fury rushed through him as he saw Cafall surrounded by huge gray shapes slavering and eager for the kill. He shouted the word to activate the staff's flaming meteor swarm, and twenty-five balls of celestial fire erupted from his staff and slammed into the pack of wolves.
Howls of agony and fear emerged from the dire wolves' throats, for next to iron, fire was the thing they most feared. They scattered across the snow, yelping as the meteors pursued them, and Cafall darted through the gap in the circle, escaping the deadly trap.
One dire wolf followed, and Cafall spun, coming up under the big beast and tearing at its vulnerable underbelly.
Meanwhile, Severus concentrated on killing or driving off the rest of the wolf pack, allowing Sarai time to finish the last frost wraith off with a quick thrust and turn to assist her fiancée.
One dire wolf, bolder than the rest of the pack, sprinted through the snow and sprang at Snape.
He managed to get his staff up in time to block the dire wolf's jaws, but the one hundred and fifty pound wolf slammed him into the ground, jaws closing upon the black staff.
Severus gasped, the wind knocked out of him temporarily. He would have been finished, except for the fact that his staff was a Staff of the Magi, made to repel evil.
The wolf's jaws closed upon the enchanted wood, which seared its tongue and the roof of its mouth, causing it to wail and release the glowing wood, shaking its massive head to ease the burning pain. Spittle flew all over the prone Severus, who at last managed to draw in a gulp of air and breathe again.
"Sev!" Sarai screamed, and she lunged at the monstrous wolf, her lethal sword taking the carnivore through the shoulder blades, penetrating its lungs.
One quick twist and the sword withdrew, and Sarai brought it back for another strike.
The dire wolf staggered, blood spewing from its mouth, and tried to face the warrior, though it had been dealt a mortal blow.
It lunged feebly at the slender half-fae, its jaws snapping shut on empty air as Sarai dodged, kicked it in the ribs, and then finished it with one neat thrust behind the head as it sprawled in the snow, which was now red with blood.
She cleaned her blade in the snow and then bent to help Severus to his feet. "Are you all right, Severus? Did it bite you?"
Snape shook his head, still trying to catch his breath. "No. Staff protected me. Just . . .got the wind knocked out of me, I'll be all right. Help Cafall." He grimaced at the flecks of dire wolf spit and blood that stained his clothes. He was bruised, but otherwise unharmed. Though he knew he would be feeling ten times worse by tomorrow.
The guard captain headed towards the misthound and the wolf he was fighting, only to halt in astonishment. Cafall had managed to climb atop his enemy's back and bite the back of the gray wolf's neck, severing the spinal cord and making the big beast paralyzed. The misthound quickly finished the job with one swift slash, then Cafall stalked away, leaving the dire wolf dying in a crimson swath of blood.
"Good dog, Cafall." Sarai crooned as the dog limped up to her. "Come over here, boy."
Cafall halted and lay down, his shoulder was still bleeding sluggishly and hurt like blazes.
Sarai knelt to examine the wound and the misthound lifted his head and growled warningly. "Easy, boy. Let me see how bad it is."
But Cafall snapped at her.
"How bad is it?" Severus asked, coming up to them.
"It's a deep cut, unless you can heal it magically, we'll have to stitch it." Sarai told him matter-of-factly. "But he won't let me near him to see for sure."
Severus knelt beside the now shivering dog. "Calm now, Cafall," he murmured, lifting the misthound's head. The dog whimpered, his eyes staring straight into Snape's face. "You're hurt, let me help you, understand? It might hurt, but I need to see what that bastard wolf did to you, all right?"
Cafall whined and licked his hand.
Snape nudged Sarai out of the way and examined the wound. As the warrior had said, it was deep, curving from the top of the shoulder and down towards the foreleg. "Sarai, do those dire wolves have any kind of venom in their bite?"
"No, but they have filthy mouths from eating carrion."
Severus nodded. "I'll need to clean this first before I heal it. Hold still, Cafall!" he ordered sternly. Then he withdrew a vial from his emergency potions kit along with a soft cloth.
First he picked up some packed snow and pressed it into the wound, numbing it a little. Cafall curled his lip in protest but remained still. "There's a good dog. Snow to numb it a bit," Snape murmured, stroking the dog's head.
Then, once the snow had melted, he took the potion, an antiseptic wash, and soaked the cloth in it and began gently swabbing the wound. Cafall whimpered loudly, and Severus whispered, "Steady. I'm almost done. Good dog."
The misthound panted, but made no attempt to bite Severus. Severus was his Alpha, and he trusted him, despite the pain the Potions Master caused.
After thoroughly cleaning the slash, which had laid open Cafall's shoulder nearly to the bone, Severus took his wand and chanted a Blood Halt charm and then a Healing charm, closing the wound. There would only be a faint scar. "Done. But we should find a place to rest, Sarai. At least for a little while. Cafall needs to rest for an hour, give the spell time to set and recover from blood loss. Are you hurt anywhere?"
"I'm fine. Let me scout ahead, make sure nothing else was drawn to the fight, and see if I can find a safe spot for us to recover."
"Right." Severus found a jerky treat in his pocket and fed it to the misthound, who stood and made as if to continue following the trail. "Cafall, stay."
The dog turned and gave him a reproachful look.
"Never you mind," Severus scolded. "You might feel good now, but you're not fully healed yet." He summoned the lead and snapped it back on the hound's collar.
Cafall huffed and sat down next to him while Sarai slipped away across the snow, gliding so quickly that she left no tracks, her enchanted cloak allowing her to blend seamlessly into the landscape.
Soon Severus could not even tell where she had gone, and he waited impatiently with the misthound, his thoughts consumed with worry and fear for his children. He prayed they were unharmed, though he knew deep within his soul that the chances of them coming through this ordeal without hurt was almost none. The Winter fae were not known for mercy or consideration, no matter how valuable the hostage or how young they were.
Inwardly he swore at the delay, though he knew it wasn't Cafall's fault. Still, every minute lost finding the children and their abductor was another minute the boys and Nesmay had to endure the wicked practices of Jarillion.
Ten minutes later, Sarai returned. "I found a small culvert within those fir trees," she reported, waving her hand off to the northeast. "It will hide us for awhile, I've warded it."
"Good." Severus said.
"Follow me," she said, and led the way to a small stand of fir mixed with stunted oaks. Once they were among the trees, Severus told Cafall to lie down, then he took a potion from his pocket and drank it down. It was a Muscle Relaxant. He then sat down and rested while Sarai made tea and they munched upon dried fruit and bread.
The warmth of the brazier and his weariness after the battle made Snape sleepy, and he soon dozed off, in spite of himself.
Sarai finished off her own cup of tea and then Severus' as well before snuggling next to him and dozing lightly as well, like any good soldier she took naps when she could, and the wards would alert her if anyone came.
Harry woke with his head throbbing and a dull aching sensation throughout his entire body. He was lying on a cold stone floor, and he sat up cautiously, wincing as his head protested. He saw Draco lying next to him, dried blood upon his cheek, bruised and frighteningly pale. Harry hoped that Draco wasn't injured too badly, but he didn't want to risk waking up his brother just yet. He glanced about him, shivering slightly, for the temperature was chilly.
He was in a room that was about the size of the kitchen at Prince Manor, but without the huge hearth and the cozy warmth of family that always permeated his home. The walls were unrelieved gray stone with tinges of white and blue veining it, and empty of everything except two straw-stuffed pallets and two thin gray blankets. Harry went to get a blanket to put over Draco, who was shivering in his sleep, and he saw tiny black specks moving on it. Fleas! He thought in disgust, and threw down the cloth. Angrily, he stepped all over the blanket and then shook it out in the corner.
If this is how guests of the Winter prince are treated, no wonder he doesn't have any friends, Harry thought, and then he carried the blanket back to Draco and draped it over him.
He decided to wait a little before waking up Draco, for though pale, his brother was breathing normally. He wondered what had happened to Nesmay, and whether or not his father had gone to search for them yet. Automatically, his hand went to clutch the medallion he always wore under his shirt.
His fingers encountered nothing. It was gone. Frantic, Harry searched through his pockets and his shirt. Could Jarillion have removed it? But no, he recalled Severus telling him when he first received the amulet that it could only be removed by Harry or a family member. Anyone of evil intent trying to steal or take the amulet would be repelled violently by the magic of the medallion. So that left the only other obvious choice, the medallion had fallen off during his fight with Jarillion. Not a good thing, but maybe it would help Severus find out where they had been taken. He wrapped his arms about himself and tried not to dwell on how cold he was.
He had been dressed warmly enough for the current summer weather they'd been having in London, but it was as if he had on nothing at all in this frozen realm. His breath coiled and misted in the air and he wondered how long he had been here. Where was Jarillion? Where was Nesmay? And what would happen to them now? He was suddenly terribly frightened and homesick. He also feared what Jarillion might do to Nesmay. Nesmay was as impulsive and headstrong as any Gryffindor he knew, she was also impudent and hotheaded, what if she made Jarillion so angry he hexed her? Or worse? The way the prince had looked at the girl . . .like she was some kind of trophy or prize to be taken chilled his blood. Jarillion had referred to Nesmay as his bride . . .did that mean the man wanted Nesmay for sex even though she wasn't mature enough for a relationship with an adult yet? The thought made Harry want to puke.
Before his mind could create any more nightmarish scenes, Draco stirred. "Ooh . . . my head!" he groaned.
"Hey, Dragon." Harry greeted, helping his brother to sit up. "You look bloody awful, like something Cafall dragged in."
"Thanks ever so much, little brother," drawled the Slytherin, then he moaned again. "Why's it so damn cold in here? Ahh hells . . .I feel like I'm going to hurl." Draco looked about for something to throw up in, but the room was empty. He then crawled over to the nearest corner and vomited quietly.
Harry went over and helped him to his feet, wishing he had some water and a cool cloth to give his brother. "C'mon, Draco. Let's get you over to the mattress. I think you need to lie down."
"I need some potions too," his brother muttered through gritted teeth. He was woozy and still nauseated. "Where are we?"
"I don't know where exactly. Some place in Jarillion's kingdom, I guess." Harry said, helping Draco to lie down on the straw pallet. "I think you might have a concussion. I wish Dad were here. He'd fix you."
"Uh huh. And then he'd fix Jarillion," Draco said, grimacing. "Where's Nesmay?"
"I don't know that either." Harry said worriedly. "We need to get out of here."
Draco snorted. "That's a brilliant idea, Phoenix. Do you happen to know any spells that you can cast without a wand to blow a locked door off its hinges?"
"Never mind." Harry said irritably. "I wonder where His Iciness is?"
As if on cue, the door to the room opened and Jarillion stepped in, one arm clutching Nesmay, who was wearing a dress of ice-blue velvet with pearls and sapphires on it and a diamond tiara. She looked defiant and scared, but she smiled when she saw the boys. The next instant her smile vanished and she whirled upon Jarillion. "You said they wouldn't be harmed! You two-faced lying son of a pig!"
Jarillion's arm tightened about her and he gave her a cruel smile. "Now, now, my little spitfire, remember our discussion earlier?"
Nesmay went pale. "Yes, my lord." She said meekly. "I . . .I spoke in haste. But you promised that my cousins wouldn't be harmed. That they were your guests."
"And so they are." he purred. "I didn't harm them. Well, my orc soldier might have gotten a little too enthusiastic with his club, but orcs are like that, you know." He patted her shoulder. Nesmay stiffened.
"My brother's hurt. He might have a concussion," Harry interrupted the silver-tongued fae. "If you want us to be hostages, you should at least make sure we're healthy."
Jarillion's eyes turned ice cold. "You dare lecture me, human?" he sneered the word as if Harry was an insect. He wrinkled his nose as the smell of vomit hit him. "When you are so filthy that you foul your own quarters?"
Draco turned his head towards the wall, humiliated.
"It's not his fault, he was sick from being hit on the head!" Harry flared. "And you didn't exactly provide us with a bathroom."
"Mind your tone, boy. There are worse places in Castle Sorrow I could put you." Jarillion warned. "Like the oubliette. Do you know what that is, little wizard? A place of forgetting. You would forget your own name, Harry Snape, if left in the dark for so long."
Harry suppressed a shudder at the prince's casual threat. Jarillion didn't know that was one of his greatest fears, a holdover from his abusive childhood with the Dursleys, to be forgotten alone in a dark place, until he starved to death. Harry made himself glare at the fae lord. "If we're your . . .guests, then might I request a Healer?" he made himself ask.
"There are no Healers here, regrettably," Jarillion said smoothly. "Except me."
"No," Draco hissed in an undertone. "I'd rather die."
"You might die unless you let him help you," Harry insisted. "You could have a bleed on your brain. That orc hit you damn hard with his club."
"Who's to say he won't finish the job?"
"Because if you died, he'd lose a valuable hostage and have gone back on his word." Harry countered. "Even a prince of Winter has some honor."
Draco scowled, then slowly nodded. His head hurt like seven hells and his stomach was threatening to rebel again.
"Well?" asked the prince, smirking.
"My brother says he would like to have you give him whatever medical aid you can," Harry said.
Jarillion nodded and summoned a small vial with a snap of his fingers. "Give him this. It will raise his body temperature so he can endure the cold."
Harry took the vial and gave it to Draco, who drank it down and made a face.
"Tastes like charcoal. Ugh!" But an instant later color returned to his cheeks and he stopped shivering.
Then Jarillion advanced into the room and knelt and put his hands on either side of Draco's face. "Look at me, boy."
As soon as Draco met his eyes, Jarillion's hands began to glow a pulsing blue color. Draco jerked and cried out, but Jarillion held him firmly until the spell was completed. When the fae prince removed his hands, the bruise on Draco's head was gone and so was the cut on his scalp. The headache was gone as well and so was the nausea. "There. Good as new."
"You call that Healing?" Draco snapped. "I thought you'd split my skull open."
Jarillion smiled mirthlessly. "I never claimed I was a skilled Healer. Pain is part of life, boy. Deal with it."
"What do you want with us?" Harry asked, moving protectively to stand in front of Draco.
"Have you ever played poker? Yes? Then you will understand when I say you're my bargaining chips, so to speak. I will ransom you back to the Summer Queen if she gives me permission to marry my sweetmeat here," he indicated Nesmay with a leer.
"You're disgusting!" Harry cried. "She's a kid!"
"Children have been pawns in the marriage game before, young Snape. Look to your own history." Jarillion sneered. "She has much power within her, she could be a great Sorceress of the Night. A fitting partner for me."
"I'd hang myself first!" Nesmay cried. "I'd sooner be a corpse bride."
"That can be arranged!" snarled the fae lord. He shook the small girl fiercely. "You try my patience, Nesmayallindra Highstar. Remember what we talked about before?" his voice was low with menace. "Behave, or I shall make you watch."
Nesmay looked suddenly ill.
"What are you talking about?" asked Draco. "Watch what?"
Jarillion turned back to him. "Why, watch as I try some experiments upon you. Good specimens are so hard to find these days, and the dark magic burns them up so inconveniently." His eyes glittered with malice. "Come, princess. I need to show you around my home. We shall leave these two to muse upon their fate, shall we?"
"Don't listen to him, Nesmay," called Harry.
"No matter what he does to us, don't agree to doing what he wants," added Draco. "Especially marrying the bastard."
"Enough!" Jarillion made a flinging gesture and the boys' throats seized up. The next thing they knew, they were gasping for air.
"No!" Nesmay shrieked. "Jarillion, stop! You'll kill them."
The prince laughed. "Hardly. I'm teaching them a valuable lesson. And you as well, you spoiled brat."
Nesmay watched helplessly as Draco and Harry writhed upon the floor, slowly turning blue. She wanted to rip Jarillion's guts out, but was helpless to access her magic with the collar on. All she could do was swallow her pride and beg her hated fiancée to spare her cousins' life. "My lord, please."
"Please show them mercy."
Jarillion grinned. "If I do, what do I get in return? Will you wear my ring, little one?"
"I . . ."
"Look at them. Would you like to see them suffer some more? I can keep stealing their breath away without them dying for a very long time." He snapped his fingers and the two boys gasped for air. Then he clenched his fist and they turned blue again. "Well, darling?"
Nesmay blinked away tears. "All right. Don't hurt them anymore. I'll wear it."
Jarillion reached into a pocket and withdrew a beautiful silver filigree ring with a huge blood red ruby in it. "Put it on."
Nesmay slid the band onto her finger, revulsion cramping her stomach as she did so. The ring shrank to fit her slender finger. "Okay! Now leave them alone."
Jarillion made a flinging gesture and the two wizards could breathe again. "Welcome to Castle Sorrow."
Then he shoved Nesmay out the door and shut it behind him, recasting a Locking Charm as he did so.
"Come, princess. Let me show you my library. I hear you have a fondness for books. I have quite a collection."
Nesmay cringed from his touch as he put a hand upon her arm. "What about Harry and Draco?"
"They'll live. If you please me, little sorceress, I shall let you see them tomorrow. Maybe even bring them some dinner." Jarillion bargained slyly. Then he led her back up the stone passageway to the upper floor of the castle. "And put away any foolish notions you have of anyone from the Summer Court coming to rescue you, Nesmay. My fortress is hidden in the Trackless Wastes and impossible to find unless you have a token from me. So best bridle your defiance and learn how to win my heart, my Summer princess. We're going to be together for a very long time."
Nesmay said nothing, but her heart was frozen with fear. This is all my fault. Severus, where are you?
I apologize for the delay, I meant to have this posted sooner, but I had to spend a few days in the hospital with my nephew who had a very bad concussion from falling downstairs. Thank God he's home now and will be okay. Accidents seem to just plague my family this year, as well as health problems.
Anyway, enjoy the chapter!