Jared would never remember the first time he rode as fast as the wind itself, he never saw the White Lands grow closer or glimpsed the shimmering spires of the Ice Palace. He would never know the terrified hammering of Jensen's heart, Jensen's desperate prayers and the long vigil by his bed in which there were neither nights nor days.
Little by little, several sensations started piercing through the veil of uncosciousness: a soft mattress beneath his back, warm blankets and pillows
surrounding him and the warm glow of light behind his eyelids.
Jared opened his eyes, then blinked in amazement. Any moment now and the rich room he saw would disappear, replaced by more familiar sight – such beautiful things had to be the product of a dream! But the thick furs and precious hangings remained in place and so did the carved furniture and the large bed on which he lay.
“Jared?” A well-known, well-loved voice whispered.
He turned his head on his pillow, not quite daring to hope, but the lord of the Northern wind was right there by his side.
“Jensen...” he smiled, raising a tanned hand to touch him only to have it clasped between two pale ones and kissed reverently, almost feverishly.
Jared said nothing, content to drink in the sight of the Wind Lord, but soon he started noticing worrying details, like the extreme pallor of his skin and the dark circles under his eyes.
“Jen– I mean, my lord, what happened? Are you well?”
“Am I...?” The Wind Lord stared at him as if he could not believe his ears, then burst into short, brittle laugh. “You incredible, impossible...boy!”
“I'm not a boy! And you look... in all the years I've known you, you have never looked any different and now you do, you look like you have been sick and you are not supposed to get sick or...”
Jensen put his fingers on his lips, stilling that torrent of words. “Hush, Jared, don't strain yourself. You are right, Wind Lords do not get sick like mortals do – I suppose you could say I have been sick with worry. I am well now, so worry about yourself and not about me.”
“About myself? Why? I feel very well. My lord, what happened? Where am I?”
The Wind Lord hesitated. “What is the last thing you remember?”
Jared frowned. “I was working in the eastern field. I was thirsty...” he cut himself off with a sharp intake of breath as everything became clearer: the poisoned wine, his agony, screaming for Jensen, the need to see him one last time.... “I was dying.” he whispered, shocked. “I was dying and I called your name. You came to me.”
Jensen's hands tightened on his own. “Yes.”
For a long time, Jared couldn't speak: too many thoughts swirled in his mind, too many feelings clamored for prominence in his heart, he felt like they were going to drown him.
“Am I dead?” he finally choked out, looking at Jensen with wide, frightened eyes.
“No, Jared, no, we reached you in time. We saved you. You would not be here with me if you weren't alive: no soul is allowed to linger on Earth beyond its time and I could not follow you in Heaven.”
“I see...” Jared said softly, still dazed. “She tried to kill me. She really did try to kill me.” He glanced up at the Wind Lord. “I should not be surprised, perhaps. After all, that's how we met.”
“I wasn't going to say anything.” Jensen said. “I was not sure you realized...”
“Back then? I did not. I always told myself that she didn't mean it, that she got carried away by her anger and didn't realize I would...” he trailed off. “Stupid. So stupid.”
Jensen bowed his head. “I'm so sorry, Jared, I should have warned you. I should have known she would try again...”
“No, don't be... you only had that one accident, it really wasn't enough. Besides, I never wanted to talk about it, remember? And you saved me again.” His eyes filled with tears. “You know why she did it, don't you?”
The Wind Lord gritted his teeth. “Yes.”
“Would you tell me? Please?”
“I'm not sure it's wise,” he replied, clearly uncomfortable. “You have just woken up, you shouldn't dwell on these things.”
Jared shook his head. “I can't help but think about it. I'd rather know the truth – please.”
Jensen hesitated again, then took a deep breath. “It was for your brother. You told me about your laws yourself, remember? All the land goes to the eldest living son.”
Jared was silent for a long time. “I loved them. I was going to take care of them. All my life I've worked to take care of them, I wasn't going to stop. But it wasn't enough, was it?”
His voice sounded so broken, so defeated, that the lord of the Northern wind could not contain himself: “My wind will bring the house down upon their heads.”
Jared's eyes flew open. “What? No!”
But the face he looked into was the cold, merciless face of winter.
“They deserve this and worse for what they did to you! They will both pay!”
“No, my lord, please!” Jared cried, slipping out of bed and throwing himself at the Wind Lord's feet.
“Jared, no! What are you doing? Get up, the floor is cold...”
“My lord,” Jared said, stubbornly refusing to raise. “If my company ever gave you a moment of pleasure, I beg you not to harm Adric. Please, he's my brother.”
“Get up, Jared.” He replied tersely, picking him up as if he weighted no more than a feather and putting him back into bed. “He's the reason you were almost killed twice and yet you ask for mercy for him! I swear I'll never understand you.”
“He is my brother.” Jared said and didn't fight being tucked in like a child only because he had no strength to do so.
The lord of the Northern Wind sighed. “All right. I'll spare his life – but not that woman's, not even for you.”
“I did not ask you to.” Jared bit his lip and turned away. “I'm a wicked man... She's the only mother I ever knew yet I don't mind if you kill her.”
“She hurt you and betrayed you twice. If you gave her the chance, she would kill you and not feel a shred of guilt over it.” Jensen said softly. “I may not be human, but even I can tell that whoever acts like that does not deserve to be called a mother.”
“It's not that easy...”
“No, it cannot be. I'm so sorry, Jared.”
“It was not your fault.”
There was nothing more to say to that and, for a while, they were silent. Jensen hoped that Jared would fall asleep again and get more rest, but instead the young human spoke up.
“I shall never see my father's house again...”
Jensen forced himself to remain quiet and not trouble him further with offers he might feel obliged to accept out of gratitude and loss.
“It's so strange, I was planning to leave anyway...” Jared went on, his eyes finding Jensen's gaze and holding it. “I had to wait until I came of age, so I could leave the farm to... to her and you couldn't say I was too young when I asked you.”
Jensen's heart skipped a beat. “Asked me what?”
Jared bit his lip. “I was going to work on a speech all summer, have it all nice and ready by next winter... I know about courting, but it's usually coached in terms of, well, mortal women. Or mortal men and you are neither – obviously. You are so high above me, would it be presuming too much if I asked for your hand? Should I just offer you mine?”
“My hand.” Jensen repeated disbelievingly.
“Yes. In marriage.” Jared swallowed hard. “Or just in friendship, if you don't... I mean, why would you... But I'll be happy to be your friend, your companion, as long as I can stay by your side. I swear I'll never speak a word of my feelings again if they offend you. Believe me, I value your friendship, I would not lose it for anything...”
Jensen stared at him. “You... you are saying that you love me?” He couldn't quite make it an affirmation.
“Well, yes!” Jared replied, sounding thoroughly surprised it wasn't obvious and natural – as if he had been asked whether the sun rose in the East. “Of course I love you! I have loved you since I was a child, before I even understood what love was. How could I not?”
“And you don't want to marry a girl from your village?” The Wind Lord insisted. “Have children?”
Jared shook his head. “How could anyone ever compare to you? You are the kindest being I ever met – and the most beautiful, of course. But, please, if you don't love me...”
“Jared....” he interrupted. “Jared, how could I not? You praise my kindness, but it's nothing compared to yours. And your bravery, your loyalty, your patience, your smile...” he reached out with one hand, gently touching Jared's face. “You are everything to me. My sun, my moon, my whole world.”
Jared smiled. “May I kiss you, then?”
As an answer, Jensen moved to the edge of the bed and leaned down, his lips gently brushing against Jared's.
As first kisses went, perhaps it was a bit too shy, a bit too light – but it was theirs and they couldn't have imagined or wished for a different one. And if they had to limit themselves to kissing for the time being, even as a different kind of fire warmed their blood, they had all the time in the world to make up for it.
But there were other, less pleasant matters that could not be indefinitely delayed.
A month to the day Jared had been brought to the White Lands, after he had recovered his strenght and grown accustumed to his new surroundings, Jensen came to him at sunset, dressed all in black riding clothes.
“So it is tonight, my lord.” Jared said softly, slipping back into formal address without noticing.
The Wind Lord nodded coldly, mercilessly.
Jared rose from his seat and crossed the space between them before it became an unbridgeable chasm, reaching for him without fear. His mouth yielded under his stubborn kisses and for a moment he caught sight of his lover beneath the Wind Lord.
“I know what you are thinking,” Jared whispered, holding him close. “I understand. Carry out your duty and return to me.”
Jensen didn't speak, but Jared felt his arms tightening around his waist and the gentle pressure of Jensen's forehead against his shoulder.
Abruptly, the Wind Lord stepped back, offering a quick half-bow and striding out. A few minutes later, he was riding out on his white horse.
From the top of the highest tower in the Ice Palace, Jared watched him go. He fancied that if he looked hard enough, he could make out three blurred shapes, waiting for the Lord of the Northern Wind beyond the edge of the White Lands.
He had not lied when he said he understood. When Jensen returned, he would owe him an apology for thinking it was just revenge that drove him: Jensen would have renounced any retribution if Jared asked him, but this was something more important, more necessary. This was justice.
Since that winter night, when Jensen had kissed his brow and given him his name, Jared had been under the Wind Lord's protection – and what the Wind Lords had, the Wind Lords held and never let go of. His step-mother hadn't simply wronged him: she had meddled with forces beyond this world, forces no mortal was meant to challenge. For this crime, there could be neither forgiveness nor mercy.
All four Wind Lords were riding out. It had not happened in centuries.
In a little farm in the middle of the fields there were two people: a sleeping boy and a waking woman.
Spring work was exhausting, yet she could not sleep. A month before she had walked to the eastern field, ready to “discover” her step-son's lifeless body, but when she had reached it, she had found nothing but a spilled flask and an abandoned basket. She had looked under the trees and behind the bushes, walked the neighbors' fields and even gone to the nearest farms, but Jared had simply vanished.
After a month, no trace of him had been found – the whole village was still talking about it and would probably keep at it all summer, maybe even all winter. They did nothing but talk and talk and talk: whenever they saw her, they'd try to comfort her or commiserate and she'd have to stand there and listen while her heart beat hard and fast in her chest.
No matter how many time she told herself he couldn't have survived, she could not be sure. If she had lived in fear before, that was nothing to the mindless terror that gripped her now: every shadow had Jared's face, every sound turned into his voice or his approaching footsteps...
She had been laying in the dark for a long time when she first heard the wind howling outside her window. At first it seemed to come from the South, then from the East and West at once, and then from the North, a wind so strong the whole house shook from the ground up.
Her thoughts immediately turned to her son: was he awake? Was he scared? She immediately lit a candle and jumped out of bed, but as she stepped into the kitchen, the flickering light revealed a tall man standing in the shadows. Her heart leapt in her throat and she almost called out her stepson's name – but no, it could not be Jared: that was not his frame, it was not his face and where would he ever find such rich clothes? And there was something strange about the man standing in her kitchen, something she could not quite name...
“Who are you?” she asked. “How did you get in?”
The man stared at her with ice-cold eyes. “Where is your son?”
“What do you want with him? Adric is just a child, he is sleeping now...”
“Nothing. I have no quarrel with children. But he's not the only son you have, is he?” The stranger said, his voice cutting like a dagger. “What of your other son? The little boy you raised, who knew no other mother than you? Where is he?”
She took a step back, trembling. “He...he ran away, he deserted us...”
The house gave a great shake, creaking fearsomely, and a strong gust of wind suddenly slammed her against the wall.
“Liar!” The man's eyes burned. “Even now you seek to harm him, killing his good name as you tried to kill him!”
She gasped as the full meaning of his words sank in: he had said “tried to,” so Jared still lived. Still, she desperately tried to deny her actions: “I did not...”
The wind picked up again, stealing her breath.
“Oh, yes, you did. Who made the poison? And who put it in the wine and gave it to him to drink on a hot day?” He sneered in disgust. “You swore to love him and protect him as though he where your own. When his father lay dying, you promised him you would look after both his children. And how did you keep your word? Twice you have tried to take his life and nearly succeeded both times. I will not let you make another attempt.”
The woman fell to her knees, begging. “Please, sir, have mercy! Think of my child...”
“Like you thought of your husband's? You'd deserve it, but I promised Jared I would not harm him and I am no oath breaker.”
As he spoke, the wind returned, the strongest, coldest gale she had ever felt. It should have destroyed the kitchen or brought the house down, instead is seemed to blow on her alone, holding her on the ground: her breath clouded over, billions of needles prickled her skin, ice was slowly forming on her clothes and hair. Soon, she realized, it would cover her completely. She would freeze to death on a summer night, the fate she had first tried to arrange for Jared eight years before would be hers.
The man stood by and watched, his eyes unblinking.
“Who are you?” she stammered through chattering teeth.
“I am the lord of the Northern Wind.”
She opened her mouth again, but the words would not obey, she could not string them together into sentences. Great tremors wracked her body, then slowly subsided. Her muscles stiffened, her breathing slowed and, finally, her heart stopped.
The lord of the Northern wind surveyed his work one last time: justice had been served. The ice would endure well past dawn, everyone would know exactly how she had met her end, who she had crossed, although they probably would not know how. It vexed him, being unable to denounce her crimes before the whole world. Her neighbors ought to know what serpent, what monster had lived among them.
The Lord of the Northern Wind walked out of the house using neither door nor window. His brother and sisters were already on horseback, waiting: Danneel handed him the reins of his white horse and he mounted easily, lightly. One by one, they spurred their horses, riding away from the little farm.
Even though that humble abode had been dearer to him than his own palace, Jensen never looked back: it was not Jared's home anymore, he would never return to that hateful place again... Except that he would, wouldn't he? Come winter, he would want to see how his brother fared.
Then, perhaps, his old neighbors would see him riding by his side and recognize him. Perhaps they would guess at the truth behind his disappearance... But there would be time for that. Now it was still Summer, his sister's time.
First, Jensen would help Jared explore the White Lands and then, when autumn came, he would show him the whole world.