Chapter 53: The Fangs of Winter
After reassuring Jade that she would return to Hawthorne Manor to visit, Carina left the young mother to feed her fussy, hungry boy in privacy.
‘It’s strange to think she’s changed this much, but—’ Carina shook her head as she wandered down the halls of the Manor until she spotted Ivy seated at a table inside the library.
Ivy was engrossed in a conversation about Lafeara’s history with an unfamiliar man. Carina glanced curiously at the sandy blonde-haired noble, who appeared to be presenting Ivy with a small stack of books. There was something in the tone of their conversation that conveyed a closeness Ivy had never shown with anyone outside of Maura before.
Not wanting to intrude, Carina backed away from the library door, only for Ivy to notice her appearance and rise quickly to her feet.
“Lady Maura! This-this is Lord Barclay!” Ivy hastily explained as she introduced the stranger. “He is my tutor.”
“Ah, the little lady I’ve heard so much about.” Barclay’s pale azure eyes surveyed Carina with a hint of surprise as he offered her a courteous bow. “Greetings, Baroness.”
“Tutor?” Carina echoed as she glanced between them. ‘That would explain why they were discussing history but not the way Ivy was looking at him. No, wait a minute—’ she cringed ‘—I’m the last person who should be jumping to conclusions.’
“Yes,” Barclay nodded as he leaned against the table beside the stack of books and offered Ivy a smile. “The Earl hired me to prepare Miss Ivy for her future position as Matron of an orphanage he recently purchased.”
‘He’s referring to Turnbell Manor. Come to think of it, Percy did list Ivy for that position. It’s good to see he’s been preparing her for that.’
Carina smiled as she stepped forward into the library. “Yes. I think Ivy will make an excellent Matron. She will certainly place the interest of those children above all else.”
“The Baroness before us stands as an impeccable representation of that fact,” Barclay observed with another smile directed at Ivy.
“Oh, no!” Ivy raised her hands in protest, aghast. “It was the Countess who taught Maura everything she knows—Lady Maura, I mean.”
“But it was Ivy who kept me alive, grounded, and hopeful,” Carina pointed out as she moved to stand beside the taller girl and squeezed Ivy’s hand tightly.
“A glowing recommendation if ever I heard one,” Barclay pronounced with an affirming nod. “However, Miss Ivy and I go back much further than lessons at Hawthorne Manor. My father served with her father, Lord Koresh, as a royal scribe and historian in the royal palace.”
“Oh?” Carina attempted to contain her surprise. Ivy had never revealed much about her family before, aside from her father’s death resulting in her mother selling Ivy into slavery. ‘So he was a historian? That would make him a noble at least—’
“That was—a long time ago,” Ivy whispered as she returned to her chair.
Barclay appeared to notice Ivy’s change in mood. His brows drew together briefly in a troubled expression as he offered Carina an apologetic smile. “I hope you ladies will excuse me then. I would hate to intrude any further on your time together. In any case, I have other tasks to perform for the Earl while I’m here.” He offered Maura another formal bow, then whisked himself through the library doors and shut them discreetly as he left.
“Lord Barclay seems—nice,” Carina commented casually as Ivy picked up one of the books her tutor had given her. “Does he treat you well?”
“Very well,” Ivy answered warmly and then blushed. “Lord Barclay is highly educated and doesn’t mind my background in the least. He is also very fair in his compliments and criticism.”
Carina narrowed her eyes at the praise. “Perhaps that is because he knew you before—”
“We only met once or twice before my father’s fall from grace—” Ivy drew in a sharp breath as she reorganized the books before her. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter who my father was. I am still a slave.
“Ivy,” Carina murmured as she took Barclay’s empty chair. “You won’t always be a slave. Aren’t you about to be the Matron of an orphanage sponsored by royalty?”
“A position I cannot hold while I’m still a slave,” Ivy corrected solemnly.
“I will speak to Lord Percy when he returns. The Earl believes you are ready to take up such a position, and so do I. If a piece of paper is all that’s standing in your way, then I will ensure he burns it.”
Ivy exhaled and turned to Carina with a faint smile. “Thank you, I—as much as Barclay tells me I am ready—I think I needed to hear it from you.”
“I’m so pleased you value my opinion above others,” Carina replied with a hint of smugness as she clasped Ivy’s hand. “But you should not discount your tutor’s opinion. Anyway, it is good to hear that Barclay doesn’t mistreat you.”
“Oh, he would never,” Ivy hastily protested. “The idea of violence is abhorrent to him.”
“Oh?” Carina raised a brow as she tried to keep her smile from widening suspiciously.
“We were discussing the war between the church and the Emperor before you came in. That is why he brought over these books. Barclay believes that the current conflict between the Pope and witches is due to the mismanagement of history.”
“Mismanagement of—history?” Carina echoed as her smile dimmed. “Your tutor believes that thousands of witches have been burned over the years because of improperly recorded history?”
“If you think about it, history is like a double-edged blade,” Ivy replied with a note of firm confidence. “Depending on the recorder’s intentions, it can be used to guide and warn; or mislead and manipulate.”
Carina considered the notion and dismissed it with a shrug. “Who would even have the foresight to pull off something like that?”
“Well—” Ivy hesitated as she glanced towards the library door “—aside from—Frost, the Saints were also able to predict the future.”
Carina frowned. “But unless they controlled every possible means of recording history, other accounts would differ. Why would one perspective be given more credibility than another? Especially if a conflicting view could be proven.”
“Part of the church’s efforts to eradicate witches in the past included burning any secret libraries kept by the covens,” Ivy explained practically.
‘How ironic that Ivy is learning more about the church’s history with the covens than me.’
“But even mortals outside the church would record history diff—” Carina hesitated. “No, I suppose if the church really wanted to erase certain aspects of history, they would only have to accuse someone of being a witch to discredit them.”
A sudden cold chill washed over Carina as she studied Ivy, whose father had been a royal historian. ‘Is that what happened—is that why you became a slave?’ She curled her fingers into a fist as Ivy replied.
“Exactly, the church believes that witches are innately evil because their bloodline is cursed,” Ivy explained. “That’s why a witch can’t be saved by faith. Even after death, a witch’s body must be burned to prevent their soul from returning to torment the living.”
Carina thought of Maura and sighed.
“Furthermore,” Ivy continued passionately, “The church believes that witches are the source of great calamities that will unleash a destructive force upon the world. They’ve linked dozens of natural disasters to witches over the years: plagues, famines, floods, wars, and even the lost continent of Esyllt.”
‘Esyllt? I’ve never heard of a continent by that name.’
“Alright,” Carina shrugged amicably. “I won’t argue that most of the church’s teachings sound like mere superstition and manipulation. But Lafearians have blindly followed those teachings for centuries—I’m not sure a history lesson is going to change their faith in the Saints.”
“That’s—true,” Ivy admitted reluctantly.
‘Nevermind the rest of Lafeara, why are you so quick to believe a history that paints witches as victims and the church as villains?’
Carina shook her head ruefully and studied the book in front of the passionate student. “The History of the Warring Kingdoms,” she read aloud with a raised brow. This book had certainly not been among the mountain of books the Countess had her study before entering the palace. “It is rather terrifying to think that, just because one of the church’s faithful miswrote history, intentionally or otherwise, thousands of innocent people have been tortured and killed over the years.”
“What if it wasn’t either of those reasons,” Ivy replied with a note of trepidation. “What if someone is misleading the church to create chaos and division?”
Carina studied her with a frown. ‘What sort of nonsense was this Lord Barclay putting into Ivy’s head? This sort of radical thinking could get her branded as a heretic.’
“Ivy, who would have the power to mislead the church? The Pope?”
Something akin to madness blazed behind Ivy’s jade green eyes. “No, not a mortal, but what if—”
Before Ivy could finish her answer, the library doors swung open, and Lady Serilda walked in with a triumphant, “Ah! There you are, Maura.” The marchioness gestured towards her hurriedly.
Carina squeezed Ivy’s hand again and glanced at the book in her friend’s hand worriedly before she followed her host out of the library. ‘I’m not sure if I should object. Ivy’s old enough to know her own mind and wise enough to know who she can discuss such a dangerous subject with—although, I wonder what Lord Barclay’s motives for teaching her this version of history is?’
“Sorry to cut your little reunion short,” Serilda said with a quick smile as she turned down the hall. “But you will be expected back at the palace before the day is through, so I want to make the most of the time we have.” She leaned in closer as they continued towards the side door that led to the bathhouse. “It’s time we returned to Anthraticus.”
The wide circular earthen room that connected to one of Anthraticus’s tunnels was dark and oppressive. Serilda walked confidently through the entryway. Her candle created a dim circle of light around them.
“Please don’t ask questions until I’ve finished my explanation,” Serilda said, all business-like, as she waved her hand. Two chairs appeared out of the shadows and scrapped across the ground towards them. “Please, have a seat, Maura.”
Carina entered and complied, folding her hands nervously across her lap. She wondered for a moment about the Winter Rose she had left in her palace bedroom but quickly focused on Serilda.
The marchioness spoke rapidly as she moved about the room, lighting a few candles notched inside the wall with a matchstick she pulled from a small cubby hole. “Most witches require at least three months of training to find and connect with their element. Pure-bloods, however, are born with a strong connection to a distinct element that they can control from an early age. For the Hawthorne family and many other noble witch families in Lafeara, that element is air.
“We’ve already discussed the different gods and the respective domains of their covens. Lafeara, as you may presume, belongs to the coven witches who serve Veles, the god of air.”
Serilda settled into the chair opposite Carina. The marchioness closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and then sighed softly. A rush of warm air filled the room as the candles danced. It teased the fabric of Carina’s dress and tossed her hair before it faded and disappeared. Serilda repeated her simple breathing exercise once more, but this time as her sigh filled the room, a rush of voices whispered back, their reverberation as painful as a choir of dull knives being scrapped across granite.
Carina cringed and covered her ears reflexively.
“Not all magic is visible,” Serilda intoned in a melodic voice. “Not all magic is destructive. An air witch can make a king kneel at her feet with but a few—pretty words.”
Carina nodded slowly, though she wasn’t sure why. The room’s oppressive feeling seemed to fade as the marchioness sighed again, and a soothing breeze tickled across Carina’s skin like the warmth of the sun.
“You’re—” Serilda blinked as her voice returned to normal “—not wearing the Winter Rose?” The marchioness’s tone was an odd mix of anger and delight.
“I—must have forgotten to wear it today.” Carina blinked sluggishly as a yawn crept up the back of her throat. ‘Crap, she’s not going to make me fall asleep again, is she?’
“You’re lying!” Serilda’s scarlet lips twitched as laughter danced behind her moss green eyes. “One thing you should know about air witches, particularly us pure-bloods, is that we can always tell when someone is lying.” She scoffed lightly. “So my cousin’s affections are one-sided, what a shame.”
“You’re referring to the rumors?” Carina shook her head quickly. “I wouldn’t put too much weight behind empty gossip.”
“Even gossip can hold a spark of truth sometimes?” Serilda tapped her manicured fingernail against the chair’s arm as her smile turned almost playful. “If you were to ask me if my cousin’s affection was genuine, I would say that he values you above all others.”
Carina blinked, then half-coughed, half-choked, unable to think of a response.
“However,” Serilda continued with a bemused smile. “I am well versed in the inconsistency of mortal affection. The more you love someone, the closer to paradise you feel, but then a week, a month, a year later, that paradise has dried up, and only a wilderness of tears remain.”
‘Is she talking about King Henri?’ Carina wondered silently as she studied the marchioness’s composed face.
“You are wondering if I am telling the truth?” Serilda queried with another quick smile. “Were you an air witch instead of an ice witch, you would be able to tell.”
“I—thought only pure-bloods could—”
“Well, normally, that would be the case,” Serilda grumbled with a raised brow. “But, despite your mother’s tainted blood, you have more magic than the average coven witch.”
‘That’s probably because of Viktor’s magic.’ Carina shifted, somewhat unnerved that Serilda could sense that much about her despite never seeing Carina use magic.
“Hmm,” the marchioness murmured as a mischievous smile crossed her face. “Shall I demonstrate what the Winter Rose can do and why it is so valuable?”
“If you like,” Carina replied with a small sense of trepidation. The predator-like smile that flashed across Serilda’s pretty face did not make her feel any better.
“As we discussed, pureblood air witches can detect a lie easily,” Serilda explained calmly as she closed her eyes and drew in another deep breath. “But we can also compel others to obey our will, whether that is something as complex as murder or as simple as telling us their deepest secret.”
“When and why did you approach the Hawthorne family? And how did you win over the Countess’s favor?”
Carina felt a wave of magic push through her skin, trickle through her ears, and sink into her bones. Her folded hands relaxed their grip as her shoulders sagged, and her mind seemed to drift on an invisible breeze.
“I needed a powerful backer who could help me obtain my freedom from the Turnbell family and secure a position in the palace beside the Crown Princess. The Countess was Eleanora’s aunt, held the greatest power out of any noblewoman in Lafeara, and I happened to have valuable information that could place me in her good graces.”
Carina blinked as the answer rolled effortlessly off her tongue. ‘Not good, I have to stop—but—’ As if sensing her resistance, another wave of magic pushed through her as a soft buzz filled Carina’s ears.
“Six years ago, on Holy Saint’s day, there was an attempt set to assassinate the Countess on her way back from the capital,” Carina explained through gritted teeth. “I was able to slip a warning about the ambush to the Countess the day before. I told her what road to avoid and where the assassins were hiding. The Countess investigated the matter and afterward took me in as her protégée.”
“Six—years ago?” Serilda appeared shocked by Carina’s answer.
‘No—not just shocked—she looks furious?’
Carina watched as the marchioness’s nails tore into the wooden armrest of her chair in a visible attempt to restrain herself as the witch’s fierce, blazing green eyes jerked suddenly away from Carina into the darkness around the room.
“I can’t believe it—” Serilda hissed, “All these years I wondered how she avoided it—you were the one who warned her?”
Carina couldn’t speak—and was glad of it. The sudden hatred in Serilda’s voice told her that saying the wrong thing—or pretty much anything in this moment—might send the trembling marchioness over the edge.
Serilda sucked in one deep breath after another. As her breathing calmed, the marchioness plucked her nails free from the chair’s splintered arms and let out a hallow, empty laugh. “How could you have possibly learned about the ambush? You were all of what—ten years old back then?” Outrage trembled beneath Serilda’s forced calm.
Carina swallowed, unclenched her cold hands, but remained silent.
“I asked you!” Serilda shot up from her seat with bloodthirsty eyes. “How did you know the Countess would be ambushed on her way back from the capital six years ago!”
A riptide of magic rammed into Carina once more, bending and snapping her futile resistance with ferocious efficiency.
“I knew because—I have seen the future—” Carina panted as her lungs tightened and a high-pitched whine filled her ears. Something warm dripped down her cheeks, and she reached up in surprise to find her ears were bleeding.
“How long are you going to let her toy with you, little ice witch?” Viktor’s voice roared in outrage. “What is one pure-blood compared to the magic of a god?”
Carina’s vision blurred as Serilda stepped closer. The high-pitched ringing that filled the room seemed to rip through her skull. Following the instinct of a cornered prey, Carina stretched out her bloody fingers towards the dangerous air witch and unleashed the frantic claws of winter that howled within her chest.
A flash of white knocked Serilda from her vision as Carina collapsed against the chair, panting, trembling, but alive. Only the sight of the giant white beast that crushed Serilda beneath its massive paws as its frozen fangs glimmered a hairsbreadth from the petrified marchioness’s face kept Carina from celebrating her good fortune.
Serilda whimpered and closed her eyes as the winter wolf spread its jaws open and growled out a gust of cold air.