One gibbous-mooned night, winter waning but still holding fast, the wild things gathered in the Forest to dance.
Elle didn't dance, didn't brave the kaleidoscope of light and noise--strobes and pounding drums, snarling voices, air thick with sweat and perfume and a dozen kinds of magic. Instead she lurked in a shadowed corner. Those that wanted her would find her.
She smelled the heady scent of faerie a heartbeat before the sluagh appeared, melting out of the darkness with boneless grace. They huddled together, shivering despite the close heat of the club. Elle reached into her skirt pockets, produced three tiny cloth pouches, one for each. Hands stretched toward her, white blossoms unfurling in the gloom, and the charms vanished into their shabby clothes; they sighed as one.
"Thank you," whispered the leader, light as wind under a door. His hand was steadier already as he pressed money into Elle's palm. Real money, not faerie gold. They knew better.
She nodded. The sluagh bobbed their heads and vanished. A little less pain for them now, as they walked the tangled city streets, the maze of glass and steel with its scabby concrete skin and cold iron bones, veins full of dragon-fire and dragon-greed.
She needed the money, might as well do business while she was here, but she'd rather be home with her books and her plants, her potions and spells and quiet. But Rowan wanted to go out, and Elle had followed. She tucked the money away, walked to the railing overlooking the sunken dance floor to find her sister.
Rowan swayed among the crowd, red dress glowing under the scattered lights, scarlet ribbons shining in her long cinnamon hair. So at home among the wild things. She raised her head, glanced unerringly at Elle, and her eyes flashed copper-green as she grinned. Come and dance, her smile said, but Elle smiled back and shook her head. She'd be tired enough tomorrow as it was. Rowan rolled her eyes and spun away, arms raising as she writhed to the beat.
Elle tilted her watch toward the erratic light. Late, the witching hour come and gone, and time for this witch to head for bed. She had to go out tomorrow, and Rowan had to stay in, and they'd both need their rest.
She felt someone watching her, a breath of displaced air, and turned to see a man beside her. Patchwork leather coat, beads plaited in his long black hair, a whisper of magic fine as mist. She cocked her head expectantly--someone else looking for charms.
"Dance with me?" he asked instead, his voice nearly lost beneath the music.
She blinked, cheeks prickling. She couldn't remember the last time someone besides Rowan had asked her to dance. Through the haze of smoke and sweat, she smelled the clean musk of his skin.
Only a dance... But she'd heard Rowan say that often enough to know better.
"I'm sorry," she said, more truth in her voice than she intended. "But I should go."
He nodded and stepped aside with a rueful smile.
Halfway down the curving staircase, Elle paused. A woman moved across the dance floor, and the dancers parted like waves, followed helpless in her wake. Dressed in shining white, her hair a silver river--too beautiful to be human. Her magic sliced through the murky air, sharp and heady as winter.
The woman moved toward Rowan, and Rowan swayed to meet her like a flower turning toward the light. Red and white circled, came together. Elle's grip on the banister tightened.
A hand closed on her arm as she took a step. The man in the coat. "You shouldn't interfere."
She frowned, trying to shrug away without losing her balance. "That's my sister." Below, Rowan danced in the white woman's arms.
"Even so, it would be better if you didn't get involved."
"What is she?"
"What do you think she is?"
Elle swallowed, tasted predator musk. "Dangerous."
One corner of his mouth curled. Shadows hid his eyes, slid down the sharp hook of his nose. "Very true. She'll take it as a challenge if you interfere."
Her jaw tightened. For an instant she hesitated, then pulled away. He didn't try to stop her again.
She shouldered through the press of vinyl and velvet, leather and lace, till she reached the center of the dance floor. People cleared a space for the woman, staring with wide glassy eyes. The desperate want of glamourie.
Rowan's eyes shone, her lips parted to catch her breath. She spun to the music, stepped back into the faerie's arms. As the last notes died Elle stepped forward and held out her hand.
"Time to go."
Rowan turned, blinking. The woman's eyes narrowed, lashes sharp and white as icicles; Elle couldn't meet that winter-pale gaze. Her sister's name weighed on her tongue, but she swallowed it.
"It's time to go," she said again, voice steady.
Rowan shook her head like she was coming out of a daze. "What?"
The woman chuckled, low and soft. "Do you want to leave so soon?"
Rowan licked her lips. "I--" She looked from Elle to the faerie and back again. "I should."
"That isn't what I asked." She stroked a long white hand down Rowan's cheek.
"Sister." A hint of compulsion and Rowan stumbled as if Elle had tugged a leash. Something dark smeared her face, sparkling as she moved toward the light. Only glitter.
"I'm sorry," Rowan whispered to the woman, loud enough for Elle to hear. Then she turned, brushing past her sister as she headed for the door.
Elle hurried after her, away from the faerie woman's mocking laughter. As she paused to retrieve her coat, she caught the man watching her, his expression lost in the darkness.
The night stung her cheeks, snatched her breath away in a shimmering cloud. Frozen slush crunched under her boots. "Wait up," she gasped, tugging her coat tighter, trying uselessly to keep out the wind's frigid hands.
Rowan didn't slow. Her hair tangled over her red hood, rust on blood in the glare of the street light. "You could let me have a good time just once."
Elle's lips tightened. "If you want to pick up strangers, do it next week. And not fae--you know better."
Rowan snorted; it steamed like dragon's breath. "Like you don't sell to them every chance you get."
"That's business"--she caught up, nearly jogging to stay even--"and you know it. And I deal with exiles, half-breeds. That woman was dangerous, Ro."
"Just because you're a coward--"
"I'm trying to keep you safe!" Her voice carried down the empty street and she winced. "Do you want to end up some glamour-fuddled pet underhill?"
Rowan stopped abruptly, and Elle nearly slipped. "Listen to you!" Her lips pulled back in a sneer, flashing teeth too long for her mouth. "You sound like Mom."
Elle flinched, her cheeks burning hotter. Rowan didn't speak the rest of the way home.
Darkness pressed tight against the windows when Elle's alarm began to shriek. She groaned and slapped it quiet, curling tighter beneath the covers. Hazy city-light snuck around the curtains. Across the room, the space heater glowed like embers.
Not nearly long enough since she went to bed, her eyes gritty and aching, but she couldn't sleep in today. Goosebumps crawled over her skin as she staggered up. Less than a month till spring, but in their drafty apartment winter seemed to last a hundred years.
Rowan was already awake, or maybe still, slouched at the kitchen table. She glanced up, eyes shadowed with makeup and not enough sleep. Elle shook yesterday's coffee grounds into the trash and took the can out of the freezer, waiting for her sister to speak, for last night's argument would continue.
But Rowan remained silent, and Elle filled the basket with fresh coffee and switched on the battered old percolator. A minute later the smell wound through the air, dark and rich, coiling on her tongue, drowning the stuffy heater-scent and the lingering reek of sweat and smoke on her skin.
"I'm working a double shift today. I'll be home late."
"I know." Rowan picked at the table's peeling varnish, her nail gone black and thick beneath red polish.
Elle swallowed a frown; her sister's ears were changing too, pointed and tufted with ginger hair. The first full moon wouldn't rise till the afternoon, but the change spilled over sometimes.
She opened the refrigerator, reached behind the orange juice and the milk until her fingers brushed cold glass. The bottle was half-empty, purple fluid separating into clear amethyst and murky silt below.
Rowan glanced away. Glitter still dusted her face, a dark shimmer above one absinthe-green eye. "Can I have a day off, just this once?"
Elle tried not to sigh. "I have to work all week. Next month I'll take some time off. We'll go to the park or something."
"You said that last month."
The sigh slipped out. "I'm sorry. But we need the money."
"I need to get out! You don't have to spend three days a month stuck in here."
No, I have to spend six days a week stuck in a shop smiling at strangers so we can eat. She kept the words inside, barely. "I'm sorry, Ro." She set the bottle on the table and rubbed cold fingers on her T-shirt.
Rowan rolled her eyes and reached for it, put a thumb on the cork and shook till the dark silt mixed again. Aconite and rue, and a dozen other herbs Elle grew in pots around the house. The poison her sister had taken for six years, to stop the change, or control it.
"It's better here, isn't it?" Elle asked softly. "Better than with Mom?"
"I'm not sure anymore," her sister muttered. She tugged the cork free with a quiet plonk and tilted the bottle. Her pale throat rippled as she swallowed, draining the last of the bitter potion. She gasped when it was done, and a tear slipped free of her coppery lashes. "I'm not so sure."
She scrubbed a hand over her mouth and bolted from the table. The slam of her bedroom door sent a shiver through the apartment.
Elle sighed again and searched for a clean coffee mug.
It snowed on and off all day, heavy wet flakes that turned to grey slush in the gutters and treacherous ice on the sidewalks. The shop was quiet and Elle was grateful, even if it meant no commissions, just twelve hours of folding and refolding and adjusting mannequins, listening to the buzz of fluorescents and the same CD looping over and over.
She missed her job at the little bookstore, but it hadn't paid nearly enough. Most Old Town jobs didn't, unless you knew people, or could do dangerous work. Elle didn't know anyone, and wouldn't take risks that might mean leaving Ro alone if she died. So she caught the bus into Iron Town, to work with blind, deaf, distrustful mortals.
Her back ached by the time she stepped off the bus that night, feet throbbing in her dress boots. The crowds thinned, and people kept their eyes downcast as they hurried past. Cheaper to live here, in this uncertain stretch between Iron Town's careful maintenance and Old Town's burgeoning gentrification, though it meant pitted streets and crumbling buildings, uncertain pipes and less certain police. And hungry things that walked the streets at night.
Elle stepped aside for a grocery-laden woman and her boot slipped on a patch of ice. Her ankle wobbled, and something cracked loudly. A hand closed on her elbow as her balance failed, keeping her upright.
"Thanks," she muttered, glancing down. Her boot-heel had snapped, wedged in a chink in the sidewalk. Better than her ankle, but she cursed anyway--her only pair of nice shoes, even if they did pinch.
"Sorry--" She glanced up at the man holding her, and her voice failed. The man from the club.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"What do you want?"
He smiled, faint and crooked. "At present, not to see you split your head open."
A flush crept up her face. "Sorry." Keeping her eyes on him, she crouched to retrieve the broken heel; maybe she could glue it back. Pedestrians swirled around them without a glance. Safer to mind their own business.
"Thank you," she said again, balancing on one foot as he let go of her arm. "But what do you want?"
"I saw you get off the bus, and I thought--" His ginger-brown skin didn't flush, but he glanced aside, uncertain. "Not a dance, but would you like to get a cup of tea, or something hot?"
Elle's mouth opened, closed again. He wasn't fae, but the smell clung to him. "You're hers, aren't you? The woman at the club."
"Yes." Neither pride nor sorrow, just acceptance.
Elle swallowed. "My sister--"
"Isn't here. And it's you I'm asking."
She couldn't keep standing there like a clumsy stork. "All right. Just a cup of tea."
"Of course." He offered her his arm, and she took it to keep from slipping again.
"Why?" she asked, a cup of hot chocolate steaming between her hands. "Why did you ask me here?" The Gingerbread House was crowded with people escaping the cold, the air warm and thick with chocolate and coffee, spices and sugar.
He gave her another crooked half-smile. "Isn't that how it's done? Asking pretty girls out for drinks?" He glanced at the other couples in the room. "I admit, I don't have much practice."
She waved the compliment aside. "But why me?"
His smile fell away. "You opposed my mistress. Not many people do that."
"I was just looking out for my sister. She's--"
"I know. I smelled her." One hand touched a charm around his neck, a polished bear claw bound with leather and beads.
Elle frowned. "I was going to say she's young and impressionable." She sipped her chocolate; they served it thick and rich, spiced with cinnamon and pepper. The man dripped honey into his tea and stirred absently, the spoon tiny in his long brown hand.
"What should I call you, anyway?" she asked.
"She calls me Auberon. That will do. And you?"
She paused a moment. "Rose."
His dark eyes crinkled. "Not Snow White?" He glanced down at his tea again. "I'm sorry, I'm not used to this. Dancing, drinks...company. I'm no good with people anymore."
"Then why are you here?"
"My mistress will be gone within the week if this weather holds, and her court with her. I thought... I thought I could spend my time somewhere warm, while I have the chance."
Elle stared at her own cup, at the swirl of cream rising to the top. "I'm not good with people either. It's usually just me and my sister." She glanced at her watch and frowned. Already after ten. "Speaking of which, I should go. She's alone."
"She's a woman grown, isn't she? Aren't you?"
"I-- She needs me. I have to go."
His eyes narrowed, but he only shook his head. "All right. Good night, Rose."
She almost touched his hand where it rested on the table, but thought better of it. "Good night. I'm sorry I wasn't better company." And she turned and hurried home, as fast as her uneven shoes would allow.
Elle shivered as she closed the apartment door, shutting out the sour-spice tang of kimchi that filled the hall--the fox girl next door was cooking again. The apartment was much too cold, and a draft whistled through the balcony door.
The sliding glass door was nudged open as far as its rickety bar would allow, just enough for the icy wind to slip in. Rowan lay with her head on her paws, nose pressed against the crack. Outside, icicles melted slowly, dripping into a puddle on the balcony.
Elle pushed the door shut, and swallowed a lecture on the heating bill. A brief otherwise touch told her that her wards were still intact, and nothing had slipped through the crack. "Sorry I'm late."
Rowan whined softly. The bowl of food in the kitchen was barely touched.
"Are you feeling all right?" She sank into a kitchen chair, tugging her boots off with a sigh. At least the heel had snapped off cleanly--she'd try glue tomorrow.
Rowan heaved herself up, russet fur rippling. A hundred and thirty pounds of leggy girl became the same mass of leggy wolf; her shoulder reached Elle's hip. It had taken months to perfect the dose--enough to allow the physical change, but keep Rowan's human mind intact, to dull the wildness that couldn't endure captivity.
Elle stroked her sister's ears, buried her fingers in the thick winter ruff. Rowan whuffed softly and leaned against her knee. Then she sniffed and pulled away. Licorice-black lips peeled back from ivory fangs.
The wolf shook her massive head, then slunk into her room, claws clicking on the floorboards.
Elle frowned--whatever it was would have to wait for morning. As she reached for the refrigerator her neck prickled, like something brushing against her wards. She turned, but there was nothing outside but the gleaming puddle and the wind whistling past the windows.
Elle woke in the predawn darkness to the sound of her sister crying.
Lost behind the steel and concrete forest, the moon was setting. Rowan crouched naked on the living room floor, teeth clamped tight on a rawhide bone, shuddering with the change. Her spine arched and rippled as the last inches of tail retracted, and her nails gouged the floorboards. Ginger fur vanished into white skin.
When it was over, Rowan slumped against the couch, shoulders heaving as she gasped. Elle grabbed a blanket and draped it around her.
"Who was he?" Rowan asked, voice rough.
Human lips pulled back in a wolf's snarl. "You were out with someone. I smelled him on you."
Elle's hands clenched. "It wasn't like that."
"What was it like, exactly? It's been so long I can't remember."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean--"
Rowan barked a laugh. "No, of course you didn't. You never do." Black glitter still clung to her eyelid, sparkling as she moved. "Mom never meant any harm either, did she?" She pushed herself up, shrugging off the blanket and shaking back her tangled hair as she disappeared down the hall.
Elle froze, staring after her. She should follow, explain, apologize... But there was nothing to explain. She slumped at the table, the blanket trailing across her lap. When had it gotten this bad? They'd had such plans, when they ran off to the city. They were going to be free. They were going to make a life for themselves.
But it was still poison and cages and no one was happy, no one free.
She didn't remember her father, her mother's husband who'd died when she was two. She remembered Rowan's father, though. All bright hair and shining eyes; when he carried her on his shoulders he'd been the tallest man in the world. He smelled of musk and fur, smoke and autumn.
And then one day, when Rowan was just a pink and squalling thing in the cradle, he didn't come back. Or the next day, or the next, and the years wore on and Elle still didn't know what had happened.
She wanted to think it was the grief that made their mother cling so, made her stifle and rootbind her daughters, fetter them with chains of guilt and poisoned kisses. It hadn't worked.
Elle had promised Rowan things would be different, but that hadn't worked either. Now she was losing her sister by inches.
She watched for Auberon as she walked home that night, but didn't see him. She cursed the disappointment twisting in her gut.
Until she unlocked the apartment, walked into a frigid draft that whipped her hair around her face and slammed the door behind her. The bottom dropped out of her stomach.
No answer, only the sliding door open, blinds rattling in the draft. The balcony and fire escape were empty, but as Elle glanced down she caught a flicker of motion in the ice-melt puddle. A woman's mocking smile.
She bit back a shriek and brought her boot down. Icy water splattered the balcony, soaked her pant-legs. Laughter drifted on the wind.
Her nails carved crescents of pain in her palms; she drew a cold breath, let it out slow. She could deal with this. Not even faerie magic could hide her sister from her. Just calm down--
She jumped at a knock on the door, pulse drumming in her throat. Even as she reached for the knob, she knew. "You," she hissed as she yanked open the door. "You did this!"
Auberon nodded and stepped inside. Human, whatever other magics clung to him, and her wards were no proof against him.
"She was here last night, wasn't she? And you were only a distraction."
He nodded again. Elle's fist clenched, but he caught her wrist easily before she could strike. "I didn't lie," he said softly. "But you didn't ask the right questions."
She nearly kicked him, pulled away instead. The draft tugged at his hair, rattling bone beads.
"I did warn you."
"What has she done with my sister?"
He shrugged. "Shown her a good time, I expect. She did with me."
"And then you woke up and a hundred years had passed?"
"Not exactly. But she plans to take your sister with us when we leave. The girl is not unwilling."
"What are you doing here?"
"She promised your sister a night of freedom. I'm to keep you here, keep you from interfering."
"Really?" She reached for the door, but he braced one arm against it, eyes narrowing as he looked down at her.
"Don't, Rose. I have no orders to hurt you, but I will stop you."
She folded her arms tight across her chest. "Is this what you want?" she said after a moment. "To be a pet, a slave?"
He raised one hand, a helpless gesture. "It's what I have."
"Can't you escape her?"
"I tried and failed." His eyebrows rose. "Why? Would you win me free? Would you hold me fast and have no fear, though I changed shape in your arms?"
Her cheeks stung and she glanced away. "I have no claim to you."
Her hands were numb. Auberon tensed as she crossed the room, but she only closed the balcony door against the wind; silence filled the room. Elle rubbed feeling back into her fingers, but the cold in her stomach remained.
She'd need it.
They stared at each other while the silence stretched. Finally Elle sighed, and let her shoulders slump. "Sit down," she said, waving at the couch. "If you're going to stay, you don't need to hover."
After a moment's hesitation, he sat.
"Why my sister?" She sank onto a kitchen chair, arms folded against the chill.
He shrugged one shoulder, hair whispering against leather. "My mistress likes wild things. Things strong enough to survive her kisses."
"Where will she go? Where will you go?"
"Wherever winter goes."
She swallowed. "When was the last time you saw spring?"
"I don't remember anymore. A long time ago. I'm used to the cold by now."
She let the silence deepen again, rose and put the kettle on. Her heart beat hard and fast in her throat, but her hands were steady as she sorted through canisters, measured leaves for tea. Steam eddied around her face as she carried the mugs to the table, bitter and spice.
"You said you didn't lie last night."
"No." He glanced at her, took the offered honey. Their fingers brushed. "No lies."
"You really wanted to be there with me?"
His throat worked. "I did. I wish it could have been...different." He looked down, dripped honey into his tea in slow amber spoonfuls.
"It still could be." She laid a hand on his arm; he tensed, wary as any wild thing, but didn't move. The smell of his skin filled her nose. "Please, let me go."
He drained half the cup in one swallow, exhaled a steaming breath. His hand tightened on the cup, knuckles blanching, and she thought the ceramic would shatter. "Just a little warmth," he whispered, and took another drink. "There was never anyone to try and win me free."
Her stomach felt too small. She reached up, cupped his cheek and turned his head toward her. The light caught slivers of gold in the depths of his eyes.
"Elle." Her throat tightened around the words. "My name is Elle." She wished she could blame glamour for the ache in her chest, but it was only loneliness and regret.
His lips tasted of honey and herbs, sweet and bitter, and she made a noise deep in her throat as his tongue moved against hers. As he pulled her closer, she wished things could have been different. Her hands slipped down his rough-seamed coat as she pressed him against the cushions, and his fingers threaded through her hair.
Her lips and tongue began to numb.
Auberon jerked away, teeth scraping her lip. "What did you--"
Elle stumbled back, knocked over the coffee table. Cups shattered, tea and leaves spilling across the floor. "I'm sorry," she whispered, a hand pressed against her mouth.
He tried to stand, failed and fell. "What was it?"
"Where are they? Tell me and I'll give you an antidote."
He coughed, gasped. "You're as cold as she is. I should have known."
"Where are they?" His chest heaved, face draining sallow. "It was a high dose--you should hurry."
He laughed until he choked. "The Towers, downtown."
"For how much longer?"
"We leave tomorrow, with the first thaw." He coughed again, and saliva trickled from the corner of his mouth.
She grabbed the blanket off the back of the couch and draped it over him. "Lie down and keep your feet up. You need to stay warm."
"A lie," he whispered, trying to seize her wrist; she evaded him easily. "A distraction--"
She returned to the kitchen, filled a pitcher with warm water and emptied the salt canister into it. In the back of the spice cabinet she found a tiny glass bottle.
"Salt water to cleanse; drink it till you throw up. This is atropine--belladonna--to keep your heart beating." Before she could think better of it, she knelt beside the couch and pressed her lips to his salt-slick brow. His pupils were pin-points of black amid the brown.
"I never lied. And I'm sorry."
"Take my coat," he mumbled as she stood.
"My coat, take it. You won't survive her touch without it." He struggled up, tugged off the coat.
Elle swallowed, and the ice in her chest splintered to razor shards. Coarse black fur lined the leather; it smelled of him. Too long for her, but she could walk without tripping.
She left him to live or die.
Sleet rode the wind, biting her face and clotting in her hair, and Elle was grateful of Auberon's coat before she reached the end of the block. The streets were empty, even the predators driven inside.
The buses had stopped for the night, so she walked. The wind stole her breath, her warmth, pricked her with ice needles. Slush crunched under her feet, seeped through the eyelets of her second-best boots.
The wind was against her, the grey curtain of mist that turned buildings into canyons of brick and glass, street signs to trees of ice. Shapes moved in the haze, ghosts of snow and fog, phantoms to lead her astray. She turned too soon, or too late, or in the wrong direction, and time slipped past her as she stumbled on.
A night of freedom, the white woman had promised Rowan. Elle couldn't begrudge her that.
An hour from dawn exhaustion dragged at her limbs, and tears and snot crusted frozen on her face. She'd passed the same newspaper kiosk twice; the old man working shook his head sadly as she stumbled past again. Finally, Elle turned a corner and saw the Towers rising amid the sharp-toothed cluster of buildings, gleaming glass and damp-darkened stone. She sobbed against her gloved hands and straightened aching shoulders.
The watchman barely glanced up as she entered the lobby. A wet and bedraggled stray, wrapped in clothes too big for her, but he only nodded and went back to his magazine. No doubt she was expected.
The elevator carried her to the penthouse. The door was unlocked.
It opened into a blizzard.
Not real, she told herself as the wind staggered her and ice stung her face. Only glamour. She forced herself on, one numb step, and then another.
On the third step, the illusion died. White on white the room--carpet and upholstery, walls and wood. The wide window showed the glittering city, the haze draped pale and shimmering across the rooftops. The air was no warmer than the night outside and Elle shivered in her borrowed fur. A mirror stood beside the bed, black cheval glass as tall as she was.
Rowan sprawled naked--human--across the bed, her clothes a red and black tangle on the pale carpet. The white woman stood by the window.
"Hello, little witch. I wondered if you would best my hunter." She turned, and a slow smile curved her lips as she saw the coat. "Have you come to challenge me?"
Rowan swallowed, her throat like sand. The woman's face shone bright and blinding, but she didn't look down. "Yes."
"Which of them do you want--your sister, or my hunter?"
Never anyone to try... She banished the echo of his voice. "My sister."
"Do you think I keep her against her wishes? The way you do?"
Elle didn't flinch, took a step forward. "You will. You keep Auberon, don't you?"
The woman shrugged. "He made foolish bargains. Your sister and I have yet to come to an arrangement." Her voice was warm--the false warmth that made men lie down in a snowstorm.
"No arrangements. She goes free."
"Freedom like that box of yours? That cage?"
Another step into the thickening chill. "No, I mean free. Wherever she wants to go."
The woman reached out and stroked Elle's cheek; her touch was silk and thorns. "And what if that is with me?"
Elle shuddered, but stood her ground. "Then she can tell me that herself."
Rowan stirred, sheets whispering as she pushed herself up. "Elle?"
"Forgive me," the woman said to Rowan before Elle could speak. "But it can't be this easy." She made a delicate brushing-aside gesture and Rowan gasped and stiffened. Whatever she tried to say became a howling whine as the change rushed over her.
"The moon sets in an hour," the woman said as Rowan shook off the sheets and leapt to the floor. "If you can find your sister and hold her till then, I will leave her free of bindings and bargains. But that means you must leave her free as well. No spells, no trickery--the choice is hers. Do you agree?"
"Yes." "Then go." Elle wasn't sure if she spoke to her or to Rowan, but Rowan responded first, turning and leaping at the mirror. She vanished through the glass, nose to tail-tip, without a ripple.
The mirror stripped the warmth from her flesh as she passed through. Streaks of iridescent black sparkled on her hands as she stumbled over the threshold, flaked off skin and leather. Pulling the coat tighter, she started walking into a dark and winding maze.
The first door she opened showed her a woman tending a room full of plants. Grey streaked her dark hair, and years had etched sorrowful lines into her face. Elle couldn't tell if it was her mother she saw, or herself worn with time. She closed the door against the question. She didn't need to see her future.
The next showed her Auberon slumped on her living room floor, salt and tea leaves scattered around him in arcane patterns. Whether he breathed or not she couldn't see, and couldn't stop to read the answer. Scrubbing a hand across her mouth, she shut that door as well.
The third door opened into another corner of the maze, where Rowan sat, huddled naked and shivering against the dark glittering walls.
"Elle--" She held out a hand, a smile spreading across her face. "Elle, take me home."
The words carved lines of pain deep in Elle's chest, but she shut the door.
Tears burned her eyes as she turned away, blurred the glimpse of a rust-colored wolf. Elle scrubbed a hand across her face, smearing salt and shining mirror shards. "Rowan!"
The wolf turned and ran, and Elle followed.
The halls curved and spiraled inward, toward the heart of the maze. When they reached the innermost whorl, Rowan stopped and turned, teeth bared.
Elle fell to her knees, the burn in her lungs chasing away the terrible cold. "Ro-- Rowan, please."
The wolf growled.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry about everything. Please." She stretched out a trembling hand.
The growl died. For a long moment Rowan watched her with slitted green eyes. Then she moved forward and pressed her cold nose against Elle's cheek.
Sobbing, Elle wrapped her arms around her sister, pulled her close and clenched her hands in thick fur.
Beyond the mirror, the moon began to set.
Rowan shivered, then shuddered, but Elle held on. Spasms wracked her sister as the change came, but she held on. Rowan twisted and writhed, flailing and snapping. Claws scored the side of Elle's face, ripped her hands, and ivory fangs snapped beside her throat, but she held on. Until Rowan slumped in her lap, pale and shaking, both their tears slicking her white skin.
The mirror-maze dissolved, and Elle knelt on soft carpet, while the first bruise of dawn spread behind clouds the color of pigeon wings. The white woman watched them silently.
Elle whispered her sister's name, still clinging to her hand. "Rowan, what do you want?"
Rowan wiped her eyes with her free hand. "I want... I want to see things, to do things. I know you tried to keep me safe, but I can't grow in a greenhouse, Elle. I want to stay with her."
Elle's shoulders hitched, then sagged. "All right."
Rowan's eyes widened. "You mean it?"
Rowan pulled her tight. "I'll see you again," she murmured into Elle's hair. "We'll come back."
"Yes," the white woman said. "Winter always comes back."
Elle shook back her tangled hair and met the woman's eyes. "No bindings, no bargains. My sister is free to stay with you or go."
"As we agreed."
Rowan uncoiled from her crouch, tugging Elle to her feet. "Thank you." She kissed her cheek, then stepped closer to the woman.
"And I'm free to go in safety?" Elle pressed.
The woman smiled. "That was not agreed, but yes, little witch, you are."
She slid out of Auberon's coat, draped it across the foot of the bed. The cold bit deep, but she could bear it.
She smiled at Rowan, though it made her face ache. "I'll see you next year."
Her apartment was cold and empty, ice-melt falling in shining streams beyond the window as the sun climbed into the first day of spring. The smell of vomit and sick sweat hung in the air, but Auberon was gone. Her throat was too tight, but she didn't cry, only gathered shards of shattered mug and cleaned up the salt and poisoned tea.
© 2009 Amanda Downum