The Winter Charlatan

First three chapters

(I'm sorry the indents stop working halfway through. I attempted to put all three chapters here and I think I broke it! The link below takes you to a pdf document with the full three chapters.)

CHAPTER ONE

After frost bites your fingertips, you have two hours until it circulates to your heart, freezing it forever; that’s what the cave mages say. That, and that belliberries make the best pies.

I believed them when I was younger, until a treacherous snowstorm caught our family on the outskirts of the Wandering Mountains with little protection from the unrelenting snow that surrounded us through the bleak night. Though my fingers froze, my heart didn’t, and I never believed the cave mages again.

Except about the belliberries. Those pies were divine.

            Still, frozen heart or not, I pulled my parka closer around my neck and nuzzled into the thick fur as a harsh wind lashed across my red nose.

            It was the strongest winter we’d had in ages, though they say that every year. Elenvérs hadn’t seen the heat of summer in hundreds of years since the kingdom moved to the ice palace nestled between the calm Northern Mountains and the enchanting Wandering Mountains. While the snow lessened during half the year, the ice never melted and the flowers never bloomed. We lived too far north for heat to find us now, and the court that once overlooked autumn colors now saw nothing but white mountaintops and endless icicles, until those who remembered warmth were gone and replaced by those who knew nothing but the heat of a mage’s magic.

            The snow whipped up from banks along the rocks, swirling in the air and funneling through trees before settling back on the ground as the wind travelled to find a new playmate. Crystals draped from frosted trees, casting the glow of the morning sun into tiny fragments around me. White flakes rested on green pines that grew along the mountainside. The occasional cluster of snow fell from the trees with a soft sound as wind interrupted their slumber.

            For a moment, the beauty captivated me.

The Wandering Mountains might carry a fair amount of uncertainty, but they were far more beautiful than the predicable Northern Mountains. The crystallized trees. The calm snow. The frozen lakes. The peaceful air.

            Focus.

            It’d be easy to get lost in these mountains, but I had to stay alert. This was my one chance. If this didn’t work, I didn’t know what else I’d do. This was already a long shot.

            My mind banished the doubt. I had to break the curse.

            The White Bear only revealed itself to the pure of soul, and I’d washed my soul in the spring of refinement three times this morning to be certain the tricky creature showed itself to me. My plan was foolproof.

            With my bow and arrow, I’d bring down the bear. An anxious finger rested on the relaxed string, rubbing nervously against the fletching while Elis gave my hand a sideways glance.

            “Stop your fidgeting, you’re making me nervous.”

            I peeked to my side. Elis looked anything but nervous, though I hardly knew what nervous looked like on her. Wolf’s fur lined her sharp face while subtle snowflakes rested against her brown hair and the tip of her eyelashes. She kept her frame hidden behind a large tree, utilizing the low pine branches as cover. Our vision was partly blocked, but we were equally concealed from the eyes of any who passed by if they didn’t look closely. Elis already mapped out our path up the tree if we needed to hide, putting a lot of faith in my ability as an archer to protect us once stuck in the tree.

No one should pass by. The only ones who travelled into these frozen woods were aspiring knights looking for the White Bear to prove their value to their king.

“It’s just a bear, we’ll be fine,” my voice came as a whisper.

Elis whispered back, “I don’t think you understand what a bear is.”

A grunt escaped my lips. “I’ve seen some of the knights who bring back the bear’s paw; I’m just as strong as them. It can’t be that ferocious.”

When Elis didn’t reply, I glanced her direction, but her hazel eyes remained fixated on our surroundings as she slowly scanned the area. Large pine trees made it difficult to see much, but I appreciated the change in color that would hopefully provide an easier background to spot the White Bear.

We’d travelled out early this morning before the sun peaked over the mountain tops. I’d always valued Elis for her reliability as a sister, but I’d never loved her more than when she agreed to join me this morning with no questions asked. Even still, as we’d crouched in the snow for hours seeking out the mysterious White Bear, she didn’t ask what I planned to do once we acquired its paw. Her unwavering loyalty amazed me, and I ranked it as one of her highest attributes.

I didn’t tell her that enough. “I really appreciate you being here.”

She glanced my direction. “Your nose is the same color as your hair. You look terrible.”

Her candor was another one of her attributes that I enjoyed. Still, the corner of her mouth twitched upward as she repositioned herself. Her own nose carried a tint of redness to it as she sniffed.

Red was good. Red was not blue. We might come out of this with frostbite, but we were not frozen. Not yet.

I’d stay here until I froze beyond thawing if it meant I caught that bear. I needed this.

I took a moment to bury my nose into the hood of my parka as the frosted fibers rubbed against my skin, providing little relief from the chill. This had already taken longer than predicted, and my stomach complained of hunger while my skin complained of the crippling cold. Where was that blasted bear?

“Are you certain Briggs said he came here?” I asked Elis, whose suitor, Briggs, told her where he found the White Bear on his quest to become a knight. After retrieving the bear’s paw, he snuck past King Olin’s personal guards to hide it under the king’s pillow. The queen wasn’t amused but King Olin was impressed. Briggs was knighted the next day and began pursuing Elis a week later.

His instructions to the bear sounded clear. Travel east from the caves of the people, down the Lost Man Trail to the edge of the Wandering Mountains. Go to the second mountain on the left, then travel halfway until you find a stream—free flowing despite the frozen temperature. Follow the stream to the source. The bear will be nearby.

Besides the stream, there was little to distinguish this part of the Wandering Mountains from the rest of the range. Every inch of the rocks was coated in the same layer of snow and ice and pine trees. If it weren’t for the stream that flowed with clear water while the rest of the mountain stood frozen, I wouldn’t know this valley from the next.

Travelers often got lost here, and it was easy to see why. It wasn’t marked with mines and civilization like the Northern Mountains were. The Wandering Mountains were large and uncharted and lifeless. Mostly lifeless.

Perhaps we were lost. Crossing another mountain would take too much time; we must return to Elenvérs castle before anyone questioned our absence. It wasn’t unusual for Elis and me to take off for a week at a time, but whenever we left, trouble usually found us. After a few days, the king would send a few knights looking for us. It was his way of showing he cared.

Elis gave me one of her famous sighs. “Of course I’m not certain, but I’m fairly sure. Why are we here anyway?”

Ah, she finally asked. I wasn’t ready to share the answer. Instead, I mumbled in reply, and she frowned.

Customarily, these parts of the Wandering Mountains were only ventured into by brave men and women aspiring to knighthood, which could be achieved if they found the White Bear, cut off its paw, and returned it to the king. The way the paw was given mattered. King Olin didn’t see aspiring knights on request, so instead they had to find a unique and clever way to present the paw to him before he’d grant knighthood.

I enjoyed seeing the different ways knights offered the paw, like when Briggs snuck it into the king’s chambers, but my favorite was under the silver platter at dinner one evening. Even the cook was surprised.

It was a tradition that continued from before I was born, and the idea behind the ritual hadn’t changed. Knights proved their soul’s purity by their ability to spot the White Bear, then proved their skill by acquiring the beast’s paw, then their cleverness in how they got the paw before their king.

Pure, skilled, and clever. The three markings of an Elenvérs knight.

As far as I knew, no one ever sought out the bear unless aspiring for knighthood.

My legs tingled, and I shifted my crouched position from my feet to my knees to allow better blood flow. This position made it difficult to move quickly if needed, but it didn’t look like we’d be going anywhere any time soon. The snow started melting into my pants, and I instantly regretting the change in posture. I was about to shift back when Elis let out a sharp gasp.

My head sprang up and eyes skirted across the terrain, looking for the White Bear. My fingers pulled back the bow string slightly, ready to fire.

I saw nothing.

To my side, Elis aimed her bow through the tree with a steady hand. “Finally,” she whispered. She slid her foot down quietly and moved her knee up, giving her a balanced base to shoot from.

The trees must be blocking my sight. With as much stealth as I could muster, I tipped slightly to my left to find the same angle as Elis, whose eyes remained straight on the opening in the trees several meters ahead. Her arrow tracked some hidden movement.

From my new position, I could see more than before. I saw the mass of pine trees, most with layers of snow reaching to their tops and small icicles hanging from periodic branches. I saw the mouth of the stream bursting from the heart of the mountain, the water flowing from the rocks as they carved their path downward, meeting to form the stream. I saw the sparkle in the air as the sunlight gleamed off the endless snow and reflected with a blinding white.

I saw it all.

There was no bear.