Winter's Orphans [Shadow Fae Trilogy Book 1]
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by Elaine Corvidae
Description: At the dawn of the Industrial Age, the kingdom of Niune is ruled by the Seelie Court-half-human faelings descended from seelie fae. Sworn to the forces of light, the Seelie Court is dedicated to the destruction of all who bear the taint of unseelie fae blood. Mina Cole is an indentured worker--a factory slave. She has lived her entire life ignorant of her fae heritage, until at last a moment of terror reveals the winter magic that has lain dormant within. Now that her power is awakened, the hunters of the Seelie Court will not rest until they have slain Mina and all who stand with her. Her only hope of survival lies in the hands of man crippled in both body and spirit. One terrible night thirty-five years ago, Duncan RiDahn lost both his lover and the use of his legs to the Seelie Court. Into Duncan's web of regret comes Mina, whose dark power both alarms and attracts him. For Mina wields a terrible magic that may ultimately prove a greater threat to the faelings of Niune than all the hunters of the Seelie Court combined.
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2005 2005
eBookwise Release Date: November 2005
71 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [379 KB]
Reading time: 254-356 min.
"5 Angels! Recommended Read! Winter's Orphans gripped me from start to finish."--Dena, Fallen Angel Reviews
"Five Stars! Full of action, and with captivating secondary characters, Winter's Orphans held me enthralled until the last page."--Jennifer Macaire, Sime~Gen
"Winter's Orphans is a superb ORIGINAL dark-ish fantasy with a great romantic subplot."--Linnea Sinclair, Award-winning author of Finder's Keepers
"Five Stars! It gets no better than this!"--Detra Fitch, Huntress Book Reviews
It began the day the girl was dragged into the machinery.
Her shrieks took a moment to pierce through the clattering din of gears, the clanging song of shuttles. Mina lifted her head slowly, her fatigued mind taking time to register the new sound, to wonder what it might be. Then with a terrified oath, she grabbed the clutch to stop her looms, saw at least one shuttle snarl the cotton threads into a hopeless spider's weaving before she had even turned away.
The victim was on her knees, her arm between two massive drums turned by heavy belts. Blood from the crushed limb slicked the drums as they rumbled on, grinding her bones and seeking to drag more of her into their hungry maw. She was a new girl, perhaps not yet cautious enough around the machines, perhaps just unlucky enough to have a sleeve flutter where it shouldn't.
The overseer, Jacob, grabbed ineffectually at the drums and the belts driving them, only to have the skin stripped instantly from his palms. The belts hooked onto the huge drive shaft, which was turned by the gigantic water wheel that powered the mill.
And there was no way to stop the wheel.
The girl's shrieks turned into a high, keening wail that sounded like nothing human. Other girls were screaming now, for the horror of it, or because they knew that the same thing could happen to them all too easily. The male mule spinners ran past, going to Jacob's aid, as if the combined strength of all their muscles might somehow cease the wheel's turning.
Mina's body shook, a sick feeling pooling in her gut. She wanted to turn away from the sight of the girl being devoured by the machines, from her horribly slow and agonizing death. She wanted the screams to go away, the blood to vanish, the smell of fear to dissipate. She wanted it to stop.
Agony constricted around Mina's throat like a noose. Her legs went out from under her, and she crumpled to the hard wooden floor. Pain spiked through her neck, into her spine, down to her belly, and for a single instant of terror she thought that she had somehow gotten tangled in the machines herself.
The belt connecting the drums to the drive shaft snapped.
Then Abby was there, bending over her, long curly hair hanging into her face. Hands the color of fine chocolate touched Mina worriedly. "Mina! What's wrong? Are you all right?"
The pain eased, receding to an angry burn encircling her throat. Mina nodded, sat up, and tried her voice. It scraped coming out. "I'm fine. I just ... got light-headed."
"Who wouldn't, seeing that?" Abby whispered, and fear crept into her rich voice. She turned to stare at the broken drive belt, pulling Mina's gaze involuntarily behind her. "The belt snapped ... did you see it? It was a miracle. God must have been watching over us today."
Mina stood up carefully, forcing shaky legs to hold her. Jacob and the other men were carrying the injured girl out, and Mina caught a glimpse of the red ruin of her arm. God wasn't watching any of us today, she thought grimly. With a hurt like that, the girl would never work again. If she survived, she would find herself in debtors' prison for being unable to fulfill her Contract of Indenture.
Mina made her way back to the narrow aisle formed by the four looms she operated. The threads on two had become hopelessly snarled and would have to be untangled and knotted back together. The pieces they were in, by which Mina was paid, were probably ruined. The other girls went back to their own looms, even though it looked like there would be no more work today. They were already ten hours into the shift, and it wasn't likely that the belt would be fixed before the factory bells tolled.
Once the girls had passed by and left her in relative solitude, Mina slowly reached up to touch her throat. The iron collar around her neck had left a narrow band of burn-tender skin beneath.
She'd wanted the screams to stop. She'd focused on the drive belt. And something had gone out of her, like a bird flying free from her mouth ... and the belt had snapped.
Mina closed her eyes and drove her fingernails into her palms in a futile attempt at denial. "Not again," she whispered. "God, not again." * * * *
Duncan's hands jerked sharply when the wave hit him, sending his bow flying across the violin strings and into the street. For an instant, his head spun and rang, as if the world was a kettle filled with water, and a giant had just struck the side. The smell of dark water, of earth, of the cold caverns beneath the ground, filled his nostrils like wine. He inhaled instinctively, holding the memory of it as its reality faded.
One or two passers-by glanced at him curiously; others averted their faces, perhaps fearing that he was having some sort of embarrassing fit. They had not heard the sound, of course, had not smelled that elusive scent which whispered of power more heady than the finest brandy. They only saw a crippled old street musician thrashing about at things no one else could perceive, as if perhaps his mind had started to go the way of his wasted legs.
Stupid, he berated himself. How many times had he warned his students against reacting to things that could be sensed by no one fully human? How often had he schooled them in keeping their expressions neutral before others, no matter what assaulted their faeling senses? Odd behavior was the quickest way to get noticed, and to get noticed was to court disaster. One wrong word spoken to the wrong ear would ensure that no one ever saw them again.
It had been shock that momentarily robbed him of his self-control. A burst of unwarded power ... that wasn't the sort of thing one anticipated. Generally speaking, faelings who forgot to ward their spells died quickly, hunted down by the Seelie Court before they had the chance to make the mistake a second time.
It must be a child, who does not know any better, he thought uneasily.
But it hadn't smelled or felt like the work of a child.
A young man paused and bent to pick up Duncan's fallen bow.
"Thank you, kind sir," Duncan said distractedly.
The man smiled, tipped his hat, and dropped a small coin into the tin cup sitting within easy reach of the wheelchair. Although Duncan normally remained on his corner throughout the day, half-performing and half-begging, he began to pack his violin and bow back into their case. He had to find out who had been the source of the power he'd felt.
For if he didn't, they would be dead before the next day dawned. * * * *
It seemed odd to walk across the courtyard to the factory gate without the bells tolling behind her. The sun was still high in the sky, its merciless glare beating into Mina's tired eyes. Her swollen feet dragged, and all her bones felt as though they had been taken apart and put back together wrong. She wanted nothing more than to go back to the one-room apartment she called home, lay down on the straw mattress, and never stand up again.
Abby caught up to her at the gate. The girls pooled inside the counting room that guarded the only exit, waiting on shrew-faced Mr. Parsim to scuttle out from behind his desk and grudgingly unlock the heavy door. Their eyes were tired, sunken hollows in pale faces. In a way, they all looked alike, with their long hair tied up in buns, their skirts gone gray from a thousand washings, their dull iron collars. A few of the children bounced from one foot to the other, eager to be out early even though it meant less money for either their indenture or their families.
"Did you see how it happened?" Mina asked quietly as the gate swung back.
Abby shook her head. "No. Julia did, though. The girl's sleeve got caught somehow."
Mina nodded absently. That was why she had abandoned the fluttering skirts of the other women and adopted the more practical trousers, suspenders, and shirts of the men. Her hair she kept cut severely short, giving the machines one less thing to grab. So far, the only accident she'd had in sixteen years at the mill had come when a shuttle thrown from the loom struck her in the face, leaving a crescent-shaped scar over her left cheekbone.
So far. Confidence never paid.
Mina fished a rumpled cigarette out of her pocket and lit it. No open flames were allowed inside the mill, because of the cotton dust that choked the air. She tried to make up for it by chain-smoking her way through her few precious hours of freedom.
"Um, were you coming back to the apartment just yet?" Abby asked nervously.
Mina sighed, knowing what was about to follow. "Camilia coming over?"
"Yes." Three years and Abby still couldn't keep a note of happiness out of her voice. "Do you mind?"
Yes, I mind. I mind very much. Camilia's the daughter of the man who owns the biggest gun-making factory in Niune. She can damn well afford to pay for a hotel room if she's horny. Hell, she could pay off Abby's Contract and set her up in the nicest apartment in the city if she wanted to.
"No, I don't mind."
Abby broke into a sunny smile. "Thanks. I really appreciate it. We both do." She hesitated, looking down at her hands. The left one was missing the last two fingers. "I only have two years left on my contract, you know."
There was nothing to be said to that. Abby was too smart to truly believe that would change things in any substantial way. In two years, Camilia would probably have married some rich young factory-owner's son and started popping out a bunch of factory-owning babies. It would be harder for her to escape down into the tenements for a bit of quick sex. The chance that Abby would ever even see her again after that was remote at best.
Maybe Abby thought that once the collar was off, Camilia would somehow start viewing her as more of an equal. Maybe she thought Camilia would fall in love with her.
But Mina knew that love was just a pretty word for lust that people had invented so they wouldn't feel guilty about using others. It was too bad Abby wasn't a whore. At least then she'd get something for her troubles besides a broken heart.
Abby flitted away, dreaming of the evening to come. Mina sighed and turned her steps down towards the Blackrush. She briefly toyed with the idea of eating something, but that would cut into her money for cigarettes and alcohol, the only two things in the world she gave a damn about except for Abby. To hell with it--she'd have breakfast tomorrow.
She wove through the pedestrians until she reached the riverfront. The turbid water looked leaden under the cloudy sky. It sloshed rhythmically against bridges, piers, and boats, like the body of some huge, restless animal. A broken wagon wheel floated by, accompanied by the usual flotsam of waterlogged paper, fishing line, and sewage. Thin children searched the gray mud of the banks. Mina wondered what they could possibly be looking for.
The Blackrush was rank and foul with refuse, but she loved it nonetheless. The movement of its dark, peat-laden water was as compelling as the heartbeat of a lover. She liked to stand on the bank and smell the weeds that grew along the edge and watch the gulls that rose and dipped above. It would be foolish to actually enter the polluted waters, but sometimes she thought about it anyway; imagined the cold water closing over her head. If she dove down to the bottom, what secrets would she find there?
None. The water's too murky to see anything, fool.
Mina turned reluctantly away from the water and made her way along Fishwife Lane. Newspaper boys stood on street corners, crying out the headlines: "New Treaty with Grynnith! Queen Rhiannon to Hold Greatest Triumph Celebration Ever! Partially-Eaten Corpse Pulled from the Blackrush!"
No shit, she thought sardonically. Fish and crabs would do that to a body that stayed in the water longer than a day. I suppose it wouldn't sound so dramatic if they pointed that out, though.
Her cigarette was nearly burning her lips, so she put it out and got another. She had to stand with her back to the rank wind off the Blackrush to keep the match from blowing out. People moved all around her, people who had families and friends and real lives that included something more than grinding twelve-hour shifts at the mill. She drifted through them like a shadow broken loose from its moorings. Herds of pigs grown sleek and fat from the garbage of the streets jogged past, snorting amongst themselves, their little eyes wild and smart. Mina envied them.
She turned onto Blackstrap Alley, passed the bars and wild taverns that catered to the men who worked the wharves. A few sailors loitering in the doorways gave her hard looks. They probably thought that they were eyeing up a pretty boy. No one bothered her, though, for which she was grateful. She'd never found herself in a situation down here that she couldn't handle, but even so, it often seemed like it was only a matter of time.
She stopped outside the familiar splintered door and wide glass windows of one of the bars. The drinks served within were advertised in paint on the inside of the window: racehorses, moral suasions, smashers, and phlegm-cutters. The pub on the other side of the door was a quiet place that didn't attract the rowdier sorts. Broken-looking men drank in the corners, their eyes fixed on their mugs. A few women were scattered among them, but most didn't look to be soliciting. The clientele here were seldom boisterous or rich enough to provide for a good whore.
Mina passed them by and slid onto a seat at the dark bar. The man behind the counter was as familiar to her by now as her own face, but she had never spoken to him beyond the demands of ordering and paying. "Apple-jack," she said automatically, and he started to fill a dirty glass. She fished in her pocket for the very last scraps of her pay.
The alcohol burned the inside of her throat but eased some of the ache on the outside. It was a good thing that the collar couldn't be removed. Otherwise, Abby would want to know what had happened.
And Mina didn't have an explanation.
She stared into the depths of her drink, wondering bleakly if it could bring even momentary forgetfulness. A part of her had spent the last eight years on edge, she acknowledged bitterly, just waiting for another impossible occurrence. It had been a long time since William died, but she remembered the feeling; as if her entire body breathed out, or as if she'd pushed with some invisible muscle that she'd never used before. There had been that identical instant of euphoria, of complete and utter freedom, before the burn of the iron collar had dragged her back to earth.
Only the ending had been different: the broken railing, the screams, and William's shattered body on the floor below. Everyone had thought his death was just an accident--after all, he had been seen to stumble without anyone else touching him. The railing must have been weak, a flaw in the wood, impossible otherwise that he had fallen hard enough to go through it.
Impossible that an unseen blow had shoved him through it.
She closed her eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. There was still the chance that William's death had been an accident and that blind luck had saved the girl today. Maybe I'm cracking up. I just thought I killed William because his death made me guilty over what I was feeling towards him.
But her main reaction to his death had been horror, not guilt. Horror ... and the nervous fear that it might happen again.
But it didn't, not for eight years. So why now?
There was no way to answer that. She didn't even know what she was doing, so how could she speculate on how it might work? Hell, she wasn't entirely sure that this sort of thing didn't happen to other people. Maybe not commonly, or else she would have heard of it, but on occasion. Not for the first time, she wished that she'd had a little more education. She'd gone to school for eight years, three months each year--law required that much out of the mill--but that had been only enough to show her how little she really knew. Someone university-educated might be able to tell her what had happened. But that sort of person wouldn't be caught dead talking with a factory slave like Mina Cole.
And even if she did know someone to ask, who was to say that what she had done wasn't evil? She'd killed a man, after all.
Yes, but I saved the girl today. That has to count for something.
She let out a long sigh and tossed down the rest of her drink. For all she knew, it would be another eight years before anything else odd happened to her. It might be never.
She stood up and made her way out of the bar. This late in the month, she didn't have enough money to do any serious drinking, so she would have to find some other form of entertainment tonight. Maybe a long walk along the Blackrush.
The endless summer day was finally coming to a close, the heat-shimmer dying off the roadway. A hansom cab clattered by, curtains drawn. A dog barked somewhere nearby. The smells of rotting fish, rank riverweed, and stale vomit blew past on the breeze.
Mina walked aimlessly until the sun was a bloated red orb half-slipped below the horizon. The air lost some of its suffocating heat, and breath came easier as shadows descended. Lamplighters made their way down the street, and Mina felt a touch of scorn for those who tried to defy the night with pallid gaslight.
The faint click of nails on stone caught her attention. She slowed, glancing about warily. Her wandering feet had taken her back towards the tenements that housed many of Hobb Mill's indentured workers. She had lived there since leaving the orphanage at sixteen, long enough to know to step cautiously after nightfall.
The sound came again, became more regular, the click-click-click of a dog making its way along the street. Mina paused, suddenly uneasy. The echo off the sagging walls must have deceived her ears, for it sounded as though the beast was only a few feet behind her, despite the fact that there was no living creature in sight.
A mound of moldy kitchen garbage suddenly moved on its own, as if something unseen had brushed against it. The clear print of a huge paw appeared in the slimy ruin of some unidentifiable vegetable.
For an instant, Mina stood frozen, staring at the print in shock. Then, as the sound of unseen claws on the cobbles drew closer, she turned and fled. * * * *
Duncan was not a man given to swearing, but by now a number of creative expletives were running through his mind. His arms ached with weariness. It had been a long time since he had stirred this far from home, and he had allowed himself to lose some of his former stamina. Of course, he could admit that he was tired and ask Bryan to push the wheelchair for a while.
Poor, crippled, invalid Duncan cannot even get across town by himself. I think not.
Bryan paused in the shadows, comfortably away from the nearest gaslight. His dark skin blended with the night. "I don't know," he said, his handsome face creased with a frustrated frown. "I thought we'd have caught up with him by now. Do you think he's hiding from us?"
"No." Duncan took a deep breath, tasting and smelling for power. It pulled at him, like the pull of the earth on a homing pigeon's brain, like the suck and drag of a deep riptide. Fainter now, almost lost beneath the smells of the city, but still there.
"He's near," Duncan said quietly, the taste of power on his tongue like musk and wine. "I can feel the call of his blood. He isn't using any wards to keep me from tracking him, so I doubt he knows that we're here. He may not know anything about his power at all." Duncan shook his head and forced his aching arms to propel his chair forward. The smell of the Blackrush came to him, and his heart lifted. "He's near, Bryan. He--"
The sudden yelp of a dog in pain broke the night. Duncan froze, the wheelchair trundling forward on its own momentum, until it fetched up against an uneven paving stone. Bryan's eyes widened, and he shifted his grip on the heavy staff he carried everywhere with him.
"A Hound," Duncan hissed. "Straight ahead, down by the water!"
Then Bryan was running, long legs moving with unthinking fleetness. Duncan wheeled after him, letting the slope of the street carry him recklessly fast. The crumbling tenements flanking the street ended suddenly, opening out onto a slender bridge that gracefully leapt the river.
Something moved among the pylons at the water's edge.
A young man stood beneath the arch of the bridge, wildly swinging a broken piece of driftwood. Through Duncan's right eye, it appeared that the youth was striking at nothing. But through his left, he saw the pure glow of the Hound's white coat, the blazing fire of its blue eyes.
Bryan came in from behind, slamming his staff full force onto the Hound's back. The Hound bayed in surprise and pain, its hind legs going out from under it. Another swing of the staff caught the side of its head, staving in the skull so that its golden blood spurted out in a hot jet. Bryan jumped back to avoid getting any on him.
Silence descended. The youth dropped the broken plank he had used in self-defense and stared blankly at the now-visible corpse of the Hound. There was a ragged tear in the left sleeve of his shirt, and blood trickled unheeded down his wrist and fingers to drip in the weeds.
Duncan skidded to a stop as close to the bank as he could go without tipping the wheelchair over. Startled by the movement, the youth looked up, and Duncan realized his mistake. The unknown faeling was a woman. Malnutrition had robbed her of height and had flattened out any feminine curves. Her pale blonde hair looked as if she had cut it herself with dull shears, in the dark, and was so short that it stuck out in every conceivable direction. Against her hair and the pallor of the skin, her black eyebrows and earth-brown eyes looked startling.
There was something odd about the arrangement of her features, in the pointy chin and slightly upswept brows. Something fox-like, perhaps, that no one would be able to name unless they already knew what they were looking at. The fae blood was strong in her, to leave its inhuman stamp so clearly.
Then she moved, and he saw the faint gleam of light off the iron collar around her throat.
She's a factory slave. His stomach turned over queasily--to have iron pressed against your skin like that, day after day, the power strangling inside of you ... God in heaven, it would be a wonder if she was still sane.
"W-who are you?" she demanded, glancing frantically from them to the corpse of the Hound. "What is that thing?"
Duncan sighed. Explanations were always the hardest part. "We call them Hounds."
"How did you know it was there? How could you see it? Why did it attack me?" She stopped and glanced at Bryan, who was busy shoving the Hound's carcass into the Blackrush. The water would obliterate it quickly. "Who the hell are you?"
Duncan smiled thinly. "My name is Duncan RiDahn. My friend is Bryan Shopper. There will be plenty of time for explanations later, but for now your wound should be tended to."
Her eyes narrowed in unexpected suspicion. "Are you some kind of doctor?"
"The old man is some kind of just about everything," Bryan opined as he climbed back up the bank to the road. There were weeds in his hair, and he stank of slime. "He knows what he's doing."
She shook her head, taking a step away from them. "I can't pay you."
"I don't want your money," Duncan said patiently. "If you'll come back to my home, where I have my things, I'll be able to treat you."
A sudden sneer transformed her mouth. "I don't think so. I'm not going anywhere with two men who say they want to doctor me and don't want any money for it."
Duncan blinked, shocked. Suspicion over sexual motives was not the normal reaction that a man in a wheelchair got from women.
Bryan burst out into gales of laughter. "The old man, luring women back to his house for--" He dissolved into chuckles, shaking his head in incredulity.
"That's quite enough, Bryan," Duncan snapped, mortified.
The girl quickly stepped back. Her dark eyes kept them both in her field of vision, not willing to lose sight of either. "I'm not stupid," she said softly. And then she turned and ran.
"Hey, wait!" Bryan shouted, startled. "Hey, we saved your life!"
"Let her go." Duncan listened to the sound of the wind, struggling to sort her footsteps from the lap of the water. If she made any noise, it was lost to him.
"But she needs our help!"
"I know." Duncan remembered the distrust in her look. Of men in particular, he wondered, or of everyone? "But she can't take it. Not yet, at any rate. Go down the bank and see if you can find any of her blood on the reeds where she stood off the Hound."
"We'll be able to use it to locate her. And it will tell us when we need to do so. A Hound has never bitten you, Bryan, but one has bitten me, and I remember its effects well enough. At best, the venom will make her very ill. If the bite was deep enough, it might kill her." * * * *
Rhiannon tapped the arm of her chair impatiently. It was late; for once, no sounds of servants chattering, or guards marching, or dignitaries stabbing one another in the back disturbed the tranquility of the palace. A sole human guard stood on the other side of the double doors leading to her private receiving room, unaware that his queen and the man who was supposedly her son needed no such protection.
She sighed and leaned back. For a moment, she considered dropping the glamour that made her appear the aging-but-still-regal stepsister whom she had killed so many years ago. But there was always the chance that the guard would enter for some unexpected reason, and she would hate to have to explain the man's disappearance.
Roderick stood arrogantly before her, golden curls falling delicately over his shoulders. He, too, wore glamour, although its purpose was more to conceal the alien features that came from blood more fae than human. He gave her a seductive smile that had once seemed appealing, but now irritated her.
Perhaps he thought that he could distract her from the matter of his failure.
"Let me make certain that I understand you aright," she said, giving him a cold smile that made his own grin fade like the sun before night. "The Hound sent to dispatch the faeling has not returned. Am I to understand that this person is still in my city, then?"
Roderick shook his head sharply. "No. Not at all."
"You think that the Hound killed him, then?"
"Of course. Otherwise, we would have felt him again, wouldn't we?"
Rhiannon rose to her full height and glared down at him from her dais. "Don't pretend to be stupid, Roderick. If the Hound did not kill him, then who killed the Hound? There aren't any unseelie faelings left in Dere!"
"We don't know that."
"I do." She sat back down, chewed delicately on a nail. "Or would you rather have me believe that the Knights and Hounds--which, I believe, are under your control--have somehow failed in their only task?"
He sulked. She had found his pouts becoming when she first assumed the throne. Of course, he had been five then, not forty. "Of course not," he muttered.
She settled back into her raised chair, folding her long-nailed hands over her stomach. "They had better not. Find me the faeling, Roderick. And do so quickly, before I lose patience." * * * *