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Hold Me Tight and Fear Me Not

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It was hard to remember the time before they had come to the Winter Queen’s court. Elise didn’t know if living in Faerie had dulled her memory of the human realm, or if it was just the normal passage of the years. It would not have surprised her if the Winter Queen had washed away her memories on purpose. She could recall jumbled pictures and sounds, the lullabies her mother sang. But Elise didn’t want Thomas to ever know that when she tried to picture their mother and father, the faces were blurred, like a reflection in a lake.

Still, she remembered the last winter she and Thomas had lived in the human realm. She remembered the sickness that overtook her and the racking cough that shook her whole body. She remembered struggling to gulp down freezing air into her lungs. The physician pressed a hand to her forehead and listened to her cough. Then he spoke in a low voice to her father and went away again. Either the physician could not fix her, or he asked for more than her parents could afford. Elise didn’t know which. For days, she was bedridden, sleeping fitfully and eating little.

In the middle of the night, Thomas gently shook her awake. “I know who can help you,” her brother whispered urgently. “But we have to go quickly.”

For a moment, she was too groggy to understand his words. She wasn’t sure if she could walk. But it was her brother—fifteen years old, old enough for her to idolize when she was thirteen, but in hindsight just a child—who asked it of her, so she would try. He helped her out of bed and wrapped the blankets around her. Together, they hobbled out of the little cabin and into the woods.

“Queen of Winter! Queen of Winter!” Thomas shouted into the cold night air.

For a moment, Elise didn’t know what was supposed to happen. She heard the faint sound of bells in the distance. Then, as if out of nowhere, the Queen appeared. She sat regally in a sleigh, draped in rich furs. Cold blue eyes shone in a face as white as porcelain. On either side of her was a mounted knight in armor. Elise gaped. Was she dreaming?

“So, you have brought her,” the Queen said. “Excellent.”

“And you can heal her?” Thomas asked quickly.

“Of course. As we agreed,” the Queen said. “But tell me, human child, are you truly certain that you know what you’re getting yourself into? When you owe a debt to the Winter Queen, you can be sure that you will pay in full. With interest.” She smiled.

Thomas tightened his grip on Elise’s shoulders. “I will do anything you ask,” he said, head bowed. “Just make her well. Please.”

“I will,” the Queen said. “In return, you and your sister will come live in my court and pledge fealty to me. To serve me as long as you both live.”

“Yes, my queen,” Thomas said.

She looked pleased. “Let us return without delay.”

The Queen clapped her hands, and the knights dismounted. One picked up Elise and put her into the sleigh; one lifted Thomas onto his horse as easily as if he were a sack of grain. Elise slipped into unconsciousness as the sleigh drove off.

When she woke up, they were in the Winter Court.

Immediately, Thomas and Elise were a nine days’ wonder: the two human children in Faerie. The Queen announced that they were her new pages and had them dressed up in her livery. Faerie courtiers gawked at the two humans as they were brought into the palace. Two seven-foot-tall ladies with inhumanly long, drawn faces murmured to each other. Pixies hovered here and there like hummingbirds. A satyr with a sickening grin under heavy eyebrows reached out a hand toward Elise’s skirt, and Thomas quickly stepped between.

They were seated at a table where a gorgeous banquet was laid.

“Eat up, child,” said a bespectacled elf to Elise, kindly. “The food before you will make you well again.”

All the warnings Elise had ever heard about accepting faerie gifts and faerie food rang in her ears. Pressing in around them, a crowd of faeries watched with intense eyes as the children took their first hesitant bites. Gleeful whoops of laughter shook the leaves of the trees above.

They fell asleep that first night curled up on a pallet together, Thomas’ arms circled protectively around Elise.

“It’s strange here,” Elise whispered in the dark before she drifted off. “Those people…” She was too old to admit that she was scared.

“If anyone makes you frightened, they’ll answer to me,” Thomas said with a youth’s bluster. Then, softer: “We’ll keep each other safe.”

Elise recovered from her illness and grew strong within days. Thomas threw himself into every job he was commanded to, grateful that she was safe—and afraid that the Winter Queen could take her gift away as easily as she bestowed it.

Page was a vague term, and their roles in the Winter Queen’s court were vaguely defined. They encompassed, at times, everything from message-carrier to pet monkey. Thomas was inducted into the Queen’s hunters and learned to ride to hounds with them at the Queen’s behest. He trained with a sword and a bow to become a soldier in her army. Elise, meanwhile, found that The Queen delighted in setting her to petty tasks: fetching things, carrying things, reading to her. Sometimes she would command Elise to sing songs from the human world while brushing her hair with a thousand strokes.

The moon waxed and waned. Years slipped by.

One autumn afternoon, Elise was obediently trailing in the Queen’s wake, as she often did. The Queen paused as they walked through the colonnade that overlooked the training grounds. Below, Thomas was sparring with a member of the Queen’s personal guard.

The knights of the Queen’s guard had all been elves once. Not anymore. After their transformation, they became nothing but unthinking servants of the Queen’s will. Their bodies were twisted into grotesque shape. Every knight was identical to a hair: their skin was armor-like hide, ash-grey; their faces as severe and emotionless as granite; their eyes like coals. Elise couldn’t pass a knight on sentry duty without having to suppress a shudder. She hated even more to see the Queen take one into her bedchamber and close the door. It was incomprehensible to her that the Queen could actually desire the touch of one.

The knight was a foot taller than Thomas and outweighed him by at least three stone. Nevertheless, Thomas was meeting him blow for blow. He wasn’t the gawky boy, barely old enough to shave, that he had once been. He’d grown tall and filled in with lean muscle gained from hunting, riding, and swordplay. The knight’s blade missed him by an inch and Elise’s heart thumped. She watched avidly as he circled his opponent. A sudden lunge forward—his sword flashed, and he knocked his opponent’s weapon out of his hands.

Thomas grinned, breathing hard. For a second, Elise wished she could capture the moment to keep: the sun on his face, the laughter in his eyes. He was beautiful in her eyes. Her brother was beautiful.

“Good fight,” he said with a friendly nod to his opponent. There was not a flicker of emotion on the knight’s face. The knight simply gestured, and the sword reappeared in his hand. He sheathed it and walked away without speaking.

“Elise,” the Queen said, shifting her posture. The tone of her voice was one that Elise hated. It never boded well.

“Yes, your majesty?”

“I believe your brother needs some refreshment. Go and take him a drink of water.”

Elise kept her features carefully blank. “Of course, your majesty.”

She went down to the training ground and drew a cup of cold well water. As she approached, Thomas was unfastening his padded gambeson and pulling it off. The tight garment snagged on the fabric of the shirt beneath; Elise’s eyes were riveted as his shirt rode up enough to reveal a thin strip of stomach. Then the fabric settled back down. Elise could hear nothing but her pulse pounding in her ears. These thoughts she was having—they had to stop. They sickened her. This was her brother, and yet her eyes lingered over his body.

“Water for me?” he said, walking over to her.

“Y-yes,” she said. “Sent by the Queen.”

His eyes flickered to the colonnade, where he saw her. Thomas bowed and she nodded graciously to him.

“Thank you,” he said in a quieter voice, turning back to Elise. He carefully took the cup out of her hands. Holding it from the top so that there was no way their fingers would touch. He suddenly seemed shy of her gaze. Turning away slightly, he drained the cup and then gave it back to her, not looking as he held it out. Elise quickly walked back to the Queen.

“How long has it been since you and your brother came to my court?” the Queen asked her.

“Six years this winter, your majesty,” Elise answered.

“Your brother has grown, has he not?” she said thoughtfully.

“Indeed, your majesty.”

“I would almost call him handsome, for a mortal man. Would you say so?”

A cold panic clutched at Elise. Could the Queen see the unnatural thoughts inside her? “Your majesty?”

The Queen laughed. “Of course, sisters don’t notice such things.”

“Of course not, your majesty.” Elise relaxed. She should have known that the Queen never actually desired her opinion. The Queen didn’t even notice her guilty start. She was still watching Thomas.

“I think the time has come for Thomas to became one of my knights.”

If the Queen had turned her head, she would have seen the horror on Elise’s face.

The Queen raised her voice. “Thomas. Come here.”

Thomas went rapidly, obediently. “Yes, your majesty?”

The Queen stood at her full height, regarding him. “After giving it much thought, I have reached a decision. Finally, you will become a member of my private guard.”

His eyes widened. Elise knew that he bowed his head not out of deference, but to hide his expression. She could only imagine what thoughts were whirling inside.

“Your majesty, this is an honor I did not expect,” he said. “I…I do not wish to presume.”

“Do not be so modest,” the Queen said. “For years, you have been one of my most loyal subjects. Always eager to prove yourself. Always grateful for all the kindness I have shown toward you and your sister.” She nodded toward Elise.

“I am…endlessly grateful,” Thomas said.

“Becoming one of my knights will be the ultimate proof of your devotion.”

“Thank you, your majesty,” Thomas said.

The Queen smiled. “Let us discuss this in private.”

She slipped her arm through his and began to lead him down the corridor. “Elise, you may attend to your other duties.”

Elise bowed. “Yes, your majesty.”

The whole rest of the day, she didn’t see him. He wasn’t there at dinner, when they would usually sit next to each other. He wasn’t there afterwards, when a fiddler struck up a reel and several faeries tried to get Elise to join the dancing. Worse, he didn’t appear outside her bedroom door that night the way he usually did. The hour before they turned in for the night was the only time they could be alone, and they took advantage of the time to commiserate with each other over the aggravations of the day.

Elise paced the floor of her room. She needed to know what had happened after the Queen took him away. She needed to see him. Her anxiety mounted until she found herself throwing open the door to Thomas’ room and striding in.

He was sitting on his bed, staring at his clasped hands.

“What did she do to you?” Elise demanded. “Did she hurt you?”

Thomas looked up at her, startled. He got to his feet. “I’m not hurt,” he said in a soothing tone. “Don’t be afraid.”

“How can you say that?”

“Close the door if you’re going to yell,” Thomas said.

Biting her cheek hard, Elise closed the door behind her. She sat down heavily on the bed, pulling her knees up to her chin. The mattress dipped as he sat down next to her.

“You can’t let her turn you into one of those monsters,” Elise said. “Tell her no.”

“I have no choice,” Thomas said. “You heard the way she spoke.”

She knew he was right. “But—”

“Elise. Do you remember when you were sick?” Thomas asked.

She frowned. “Only a little. Just fragments.”

“You were dying,” Thomas said. “Mother and Father didn’t want to say it, but it was true. You were wasting away in front of my eyes, and I couldn’t…” He swallowed hard.

The waver in his voice struck Elise painfully. He pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. Elise wanted to close her eyes and lean against his chest, let him keep combing his fingers through her hair, soothing her. But she held herself back.

“There was a pond deep in the woods where we used to go skating in the winter. Do you remember?” Thomas asked.

She shook her head.

“That was where I met the Winter Queen. I promised her I would do anything she wanted if she would only save you. I would give up anything,” Thomas said. “And she did save you. If this is the price I have to pay, then I will pay it.”

“No,” Elise said, her lips dry. “It’s too much. I’m not worth it.”

“Yes, you are,” Thomas said. “You have your whole life ahead of you. You deserve to be happy, even if I can’t be the one to—” He seemed to trip over his words. “You’re young and beautiful. Some man or woman will make you happy, and you’ll have children, and be safe here in the court, and that is all I need.”

Thomas glanced away, looking embarrassed. Elise blushed, flustered and confused by his jumbled words.

“And you’re wasting your breath trying to talk me out of it,” Thomas said brusquely. “It’s already done.”

“What?” She bolted upright, looking him over from head to toe. “What do you mean?”

“The Queen began the—the transformation this afternoon,” he said. For a moment, his eyes seemed to stare into nothing, as if he were trying not to remember something. “It will be complete within a few days.”

“A few days,” she echoed hollowly.

He took one of her hands and squeezed it. “Let’s make the most of the time until then,” he said.

Elise walked back to her bedroom with her head reeling. No matter how stubbornly Thomas went to his death for her, she couldn’t accept it. She couldn’t. She stared at her ceiling that night long after her candle burned down, still grasping for some way out.

The next night, Elise shook her brother out of bed as he had once shaken her, years ago.

“I have horses saddled for us,” she hissed. “I’m taking you to the Summer Queen.”

“What?” Her brother stared at her.

“I’m taking you to the Summer Queen,” she repeated. “Her magic is powerful, and her subjects adore her. I will beg her to reverse the transformation. She must be able to do something.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Thomas said.

“I am going to save you,” Elise insisted. “I won’t let you become a monster like the other knights.”

“There’s nothing to be done. Don’t even try. You’ll only anger the Winter Queen.”

“I don’t care.”

“Elise.” He grabbed for her arm. “I have to do as the Queen commands.”

All because of her. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I won’t let her take you from me. I have a bag packed; I have the horses ready.

“It will take her all of five minutes to catch us,” Thomas said.

“If you won’t come with me, I’ll go alone,” Elise said. “The Summer Queen is powerful—she can change you back.”

“You can’t go alone.”

Elise almost wanted to laugh. She covered her face with her hands to stop herself before she woke anyone up. “You wanted to sacrifice your body and soul to save me. Now that I want to protect you, you still insist on protecting me from—from my insanity, as you call it.”

“I guess so.”

Elise grabbed his hands and squeezed. “Please let me do this,” she said. “We have to go now.”

They had both travelled with the Queen and her baggage train to the Summer Court at least a dozen times. They knew the straight path that the High Road took from one court to another. That was where the Queen would look for them. Elise’s plan was different: They would ride into the back woods, heading west, before they cut back south. According to her estimate, they would arrive on the third day. If all went well. If they made it that far.

The sky was lightening to grey as they set out. They rode without speaking for hours, the only sound the muffled tramp of their horse’s hooves on the leaves that thickly carpeted the forest floor. Elise bent low over her horse’s neck to avoid tree branches above. At any moment, she expected to hear the thunder of horses in hot pursuit and the baying of hounds.

Elise wanted to keep riding without pause—they just had to put more distance between themselves and the court, they had to—but Thomas coaxed her into stopping to rest at midday. They sat on the ground beside a shallow stream while the horses drank. Elise unpacked bread and cheese.

After that, they walked the horses through the stream for some time, hoping to confuse their trail. More hours on horseback followed. Elise’s body ached and ached. Nightfall brought with a cold wind that made her shiver in her woolen cloak. They agreed to stop for the night. Thomas built a fire, and they huddled close.

“At the pond where we used to skate as children, we would go fishing in summer,” Thomas said reminiscently. “I would catch the fish, and you would cook them right there on the shore. I wish I could take you there again.”

Thomas’ voice, the crackling fire, the meal they shared—however simple—eased Elise’s worries.

“I wish we had that fish now,” she said. “And warm bread to go with it, and a big feather bed to sleep in. Everything aches.”

Thomas snorted. “I feel so stiff, I don’t think I could walk now. And the transformation—” He stopped himself.

“What?” Elise said, lurching forward. “The transformation is hurting you?”

“It’s not so bad,” Thomas said quickly, but a grimace crossed his features. “It comes and goes.”

“Let me see,” Elise demanded.

Thomas sucked in a breath, hesitating. Then he pushed back his cloak and rolled his sleeve up as far as it would go. Grey was spreading down from his shoulder toward his wrist. His skin was turning to rough hide. Elise touched her fingertips to the ashen grey, then traced down to the warm living skin. Thomas flinched.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly.

“No, I’m sorry,” he said with a shake of the head. His cheeks were flushed. “You just—startled me.”

“How long will it take before the transformation is complete?”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “But I don’t think it will be long.”

“We have to hurry,” Elise said.

“Let’s get some rest, then. We’ll need it.”

They let the fire burn down to coals and curled up to sleep on a bed of leaves, wrapping themselves up in their travelling cloaks. The night was bitterly cold. Lying next Thomas, Elise keenly felt the bare inch that separated them. Her skin prickled over. She wanted to press as close as she could. She burned guiltily at the thought of being so close. Cautiously, she moved closer. She couldn’t see his face in the darkness, but she heard his breath hitch.

“We’ll be warmer if we huddle together,” he said in the darkness. He circled both arms around her and pulled her against him. Elise could feel his heart beating fast through his shirt. Fast enough to match her own.

When she woke up in the pre-dawn hours, they were tightly curled together. Thomas was still asleep. She hastily disentangled herself, feeling a stab of shame. It was cold in the thin, pale light, and she hugged her arms to her chest. Still drowsing, Thomas seemed instinctively to feel the loss of something. One hand groped in the leaves. Then his eyes opened and he came to reality, quickly sitting up. The siblings climbed back into the saddle without a word spoken.

The next day, more of the same. Above the trees, the sky turned hard and iron grey. Snow began to fall. The siblings exchanged worried looks, but the snow fell gently at first. Then it came faster. The wind whistled around them, driving snow in their faces. They bent their heads, with no place to go but forward, no shelter nearby.

A massive, dark shape loomed in front of them. Squinting, Elise realized it was an ancient, gnarled tree, and it was hollow within.

“This way,” she shouted into Thomas’s ear, pointing. He didn’t object; he just led her lead them.

Elise quickly dismounted and pulled the glove off one hand with her. Bracing the other hand against the bark, Elise drew out a sigil on the rough surface. The lines glowed with golden fire for a second, and then the tree began to grow, expanding as though it were a bubble of blown glass. Within seconds, the hollow inside the tree had grown large enough for Elise and Thomas to scramble inside and pull the horses after them. Elise threw out her hands in a sharp gesture and the opening sealed itself. She drew another circular glyph in the air, and a will o’ the wisp appeared, its soft glow illuminating Thomas’s face in front of hers. The chamber they were inside would not allow him to be more than six inches away, and it felt uncomfortably close.

“Where did you learn that?” Thomas asked, staring at her.

“I’ve picked up a few things while serving the Queen. Reading her books when her back was turned.” Elise slumped against the inside of the tree trunk, exhausted from the ride through the snow and the spell she had cast. The thought that she had learned the Queen’s magic, even if that magic could save their lives, suddenly made her feel as though she had touched something tainted.

“It was brilliant,” Thomas said.

Elise turned her face away, flustered. “I don’t think we can risk a fire,” she said. “The smoke would suffocate us.”

“Let me warm your hands,” Thomas said, irrelevantly.

He was on his knees in front of her. He removed her other glove and then his own, and then he cupped both of her hands in his gently, so gently. It was a tenderness completely at odds with the appearance of his hand. She gasped, seeing that they had completely changed into the scale-like texture that was overtaking his body.

She couldn’t feel the warmth of his skin. Though he rubbed their hands together, the contact was not enough to warm her up. She watched in shock as Thomas slowly bent his head to their cupped hands and blew his warm breath onto them.

A shiver ran down Elise’s body, and her heart turned to water. Thomas’s lips hovered a hair’s breadth from her skin.

“Thomas—” she said. Wildly, she tried to force down the rush of longing in her chest.

Thomas’s eyes seemed transfixed on their clasped hands. His lips came even closer, and then they touched her skin in a kiss. Then he kissed her hands again and again, as though he couldn’t stop himself, turning her hands over to kiss fingertips and palms.

“I love you,” he said quietly. “I have to tell you before it’s too late.”

“What are you saying?” Elise asked. He could not possibly feel the same desire that twisted her stomach in knots. That was what she wanted to believe in her delirium.

A look of guilt and fear washed over his face. “Forgive me,” he said, dropping her hands. “Forgive me.”

“Are you saying,” Elise asked carefully, “that you love me as your sister? Or as something else?”

“Something else.”

Surging forward, she kissed him full on the mouth. Thomas gasped against her lips. His hands curled around her waist and he pulled her into his lap as she kissed him again. Her hands went to his chest. She wanted to drink him in, like there was wine on his lips. Feeling lightheaded, she laughed as he held her close. He kissed down the column of her throat.

In the morning, the storm had subsided. Elise and Thomas emerged from the tree to see a pale sun shedding light over a thick blanket of snow. Before them, the forest thinned out and disappeared, and a wide meadow opened up. No cover anywhere to hide them. Elise quailed at the thought of their fresh footprints tracking through it. Then she thought: The Winter Queen will catch us no matter what. The only thing to do is try anyway.

“Come on,” she said. They mounted their horses.

After a couple of hours’ trek, to Elise’s surprise, the snow began to melt. The watery sun above them gained strength. With the ground no longer covered, they found the High Road, the path that they followed with the Winter Queen’s entourage to the other courts, and they decided to take it. Walking cross-country, they would exhaust the horses before they travelled another league. Better to follow the path.

“Do you think—” Elise said. “Do you think it’s growing warmer because we’re nearing the Summer Court?”

“We could be.” Thomas shaded his eyes to scan the horizon.

How close were they? She wasn’t sure. Folding the map away, she gave herself one more moment to rest. Then she forced her legs onward.

At first, she didn’t hear the bells. Then the sound stopped her in her tracks. The Winter Queen’s sleigh, she thought—

From behind them came a carriage pulled by four shaggy horses. The driver called out sharply and drew to a stop. Elise saw him clearly as he stood up to his full three feet. It was a dwarf dressed in the Summer Queen’s livery.

“Good sir!” she cried out, almost falling in her haste to get out of the saddle. “We need your help!”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Elise, and this is my brother Thomas,” she said quickly. “I must see the Summer Queen. Now.”

The dwarf looked at her disapprovingly through his spectacles. “It is the Queen who decides who she will speak to and when. Not you.”

“Please,” Elise said. “Please. I must speak to her. I don’t know where else to go.”

“I will hear the human girl’s petition,” came a voice from inside the carriage.

“Of—of course, your majesty!” the dwarf said, startled. He sprang down to open the carriage door.

Summer Queen was seated inside as if on her throne. Her thick ropes of black hair lay over her shoulders, and a wreath of sunflowers crowned her head. But for a moment, Elise dared to think that the look in her eyes was maternal.

“Your majesty—”

“You wish to beg a boon of me,” the Queen said. “I know. I do not know if I can help you, but we shall see.”

“Your majesty—”

“Sit by me, and I will carry you safely to my palace. We shall talk.”

When they arrived in the Summer Court, the Winter Queen was waiting for them. Twenty of her knights stood at attention beside her. Of course, Elise thought. Of course she had made it there before them, had known all along where they were going.

“Give me my subjects,” the Winter Queen said.

“They asked for sanctuary, and that is their right,” the Summer Queen replied. “You cannot take them back by force.”

The Winter Queen sniffed contemptuously. “Thomas, to me,” she said in the same voice she would use to call a hound. Her grip tightened on the staff in her hand.

Elise watched in horror as all the life seemed to drain out of Thomas’s face. His limbs seized up. Jerkily, like a marionette, he got out of the carriage and marched to the Winter Queen. He saluted and stood at attention. Turning, he took his place among the twenty other knights.

The Summer Queen put a hand on Elise’s shoulder, gripping hard. Elise’s heart was pounding like a frightened hare’s, but the hand stopped her. “Wait a moment,” the Summer Queen said.

Calmly, she stepped down from her carriage and faced the other monarch. Elise hurried in her wake.

“Elise asked me to reverse the enchantment you have placed on her brother. Of course, that is outside my power,” the Summer Queen said. “As much as I wish that I could save that unfortunate man from your claws. I know I cannot interfere with one of your subjects. However, according to our laws, anyone may request a trial by ordeal to ransom someone they love.”

“Name the trial, and I’ll do it,” Elise said.

The Winter Queen pouted. “Very well. But I need time to think of the perfect trial.”

“Naturally,” the Summer Queen said. “Would you be content to hold the trial at sunset?”

“I am content,” the Winter Queen said.

“Until then, please make yourself comfortable in my court.”

The Winter Queen turned away, the train of her dress sweeping the floor. A gesture, and her knights marched after her in lockstep. She would go to the same richly-furnished room that was always readied for her went she visited her sister monarch, Elise knew. The knights would go to the garrison. As they walked away, she waited for Thomas to look back at her. To give her some sign. Please, look back at me, she thought, holding her breath. The knight’s heavy footsteps echoed as they turned a corner and disappeared.

“You, my dear, need to sleep,” the Summer Queen said in a quiet voice. “And a change of clothes.”

Elise only nodded.

She wished the trial did not have to take place in front of a crowd—but queens always had to perform for an audience, didn’t they? She was standing in the middle of the tournament arena, with rows of benches rising up around her, as though this were a game. The sun’s glare shone in her eyes as she looked all around at the spectators. In the place of honor, the two queens sat side by side.

“The rules of my trial are simple,” the Winter Queen said. “Look at my knights, and tell me which one is your brother.”

The knights stood in a straight row, lined up like identical chess pieces. Not one seemed any different. Nowhere did Elise see her brother’s face among them.

“No word, no sound, no touch, and no outward sign may be exchanged. You must find him without any help. Will you accept the trial?”

“I will,” Elise said with a dry throat.

“Take your time,” the Winter Queen said with a smirk. After hating her every day for the past six years, Elise had never hated her more than now.

With a deep breath, Elise stepped forward to look at the knights. Up close, they smelled of moss and mildew and damp earth. They did not blink as she stared up at their faces or minutely studied their armor. She listened intently for any breathing, any sound of their feet shifting in the sawdust floor. The spectators around her had faded into irrelevance, not seen or heard. But there was not a whisper of sound from the knights.

One of them was her brother, Thomas, the one who had sacrificed for her and loved her, and the rest were her enemies. She wanted to damn every last one of them who were not him. She refused to cry in front of the queens, no matter if she felt the tears building up behind her eyes. She would not give the Winter Queen that satisfaction—nor did she want the Summer Queen’s pity. She wanted to scream and curse.

But she realized she could not hate the monsters in front of her. They had all once been thinking, breathing, feeling creatures. All alive. At some point, they too had been someone’s brother, someone’s sweetheart.

She wet her lips. The memory of Thomas kissing her in the hollow tree sprung up in her mind. I don’t want that to be the last time, she thought. I want—heaven help me—I want more. She did not care if that made her wrong. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she remembered. The love she carried inside for him, and the love that he had shown her over and over, felt like a fire kindled inside her chest.

She opened her eyes and began to pace down the line. She carried that warmth nestled safely behind her ribs as she looked into every face. Finally, she stopped in the very center. The knight before her still gave no sign that there was any life inside. Nevertheless, she knew it was Thomas.

“This is my brother,” she said in a voice that wavered. “This is him.” Without thinking, she reached out her arms and embraced him tightly.

The Winter Queen was on her feet, her cheeks mottled red and white. “How dare you?”

“She followed the rules of your trial,” the Summer Queen said. “She won it fairly.”

Elise was paying no attention to what they said or to the outburst from the crowd. Her eyes were closed and her cheek was pressed to her brother’s chest hard enough for the rough armor to hurt. Then she felt the change.

In an instant, her arms were around a rearing bear. She clung on as the bear fell to all fours. The beast changed again in her arms. A wolf howled, and she could feel it resonate through the wolf’s chest as she hugged it tightly. The wolf shrank without warning, and she was clinging to a sinuous wyrm as thick around as a young birch tree. She struggled against it as it thrashed. Bearing down with all her weight, she pinned the wyrm to the ground. The creature changed again.

Thomas was underneath her, human and whole. Her hands were on his chest. His lips parted in shock, and for a second she had to hold herself back to keep from kissing his mouth in front of the entire Summer Court. His expression changed from shock to joy as he realized what had happened.

“You saved me,” he said.