I didn’t think they would follow me out here where the ice thins and I can hear the crash of the ocean. The wind is wilder here and has freed the ice of its protective layer of snow, making it slick. Slipping now would be fatal. The wind whips off my hood, but I can’t stop to fix it. Their chilling calls rise above the roar of the wind and sea, and I know the Howlers have nearly reached me. My lungs ache with each cold breathe I take, but I push myself harder. I have to.
My eyes leak frozen rivers across my cheeks. I lost my goggles when I tripped and rolled down a powdery hill before reaching the flat ice. The cold and wind burn my eyes. That, and I might be crying. A rush of heat runs up my thigh and all I hear now are Howlers. They’re breathing on me! I scream. It doesn’t help me run faster or release the fear clawing at my heart, but it excites the Howlers. I want to cover my ears to their deafening cries; they know a kill is soon.
No one will hear me out here, days from the shining citadel of Hiverfryt, but I can’t go quietly. I release another scream. It’s part fear and part anger. I was so close to finding my sister when the Howlers caught my scent. Now I never will. Suddenly, my fur boots slip. I try to correct myself by flailing my arms, but there is nothing to catch. I’m grabbing at air as I fall backwards. The Howlers are so close, one leaps over me in a giant stride before turning on me.
Squinting at the sun, he is nothing more than white wisps. Despite this, their teeth are sharper than knives. I’m nearly nose to nose with him, staring into his red eyes before I think to turn on my stomach and cover my head with my hands. Teeth try to find me through the layers of my clothes as I press my nose into the ice. I scream again as one tears off my mitten and bites my wrist. There are paws on my back and my hood pulls taut across my neck. It cuts off my scream.
I watch from atop the fences as two lanky boys kick up clouds of dust under shuffling feet. The sword master and a group of five other boys line the practice circle. The reek of unwashed bodies made worse by vigorous thrusts and parries catches on the breeze. Lantsida and her twin, Basina, escaped inside to finish their needlework rather than be subject to the rank odor for one instant longer. I’ve grown used to the musky roughness of young men. It sings of hard work and determination, an outlet for frustration and anger.
It’s home. It’s Hal.
The layered fabric of their practice doublets blunts the sound of a solid hit. Hal always wins and gives a raucous cheer, which most of the boys echo. He raises his arms in celebration, reveling a strip of bare skin that sends waves of delight through me. Even missing his left eye, Hal never fails to strike a killing blow. Basina says the other boys let him win because he’s their One True Prince. Mama slapped the back of her hand with a wooden spoon the last time she said it. We’re not to speak of Hal as anything other than the orphan boy we took in nearly ten years ago. He’s not His Royal Majesty Prince Henry Louis Philip Charles Valois. That name is supposed to taste like ashes in our mouth.
Instead, it tastes like hope. The royal line didn’t all expire in that tower.
Hal’s taller and more slender than most boys his age. Raven-haired and gray-eyed like his mother. The shape of his full bottom lip closely resembles his father’s mouth. Anyone who worked in the palace would know him, even with the ragged scar that mars the perfect symmetry of his facial planes. He wears his hair longer on the left side to hang down over the deformity.
He’s beautiful in ways that other boys will never be. His kindness shines like the stars at night: quiet and delicate.