Baroness Talisa leads the last few surviving members of her household through the mountains in the dead of winter, fleeing the changeling hordes that have destroyed the kingdom. In that world of white and gray she stumbles on an oasis of green, a garden, sacred to Treva, goddess of the wild things of the world. There, Talisa encounters the mysterious guardian of the place who possesses great and mysterious magical power and who claims Talisa's life as forfeit for trespassing in Treva's Garden.
The wind howled down off the mountain, blowing snow into Talisa’s eyes. She pulled her ice-encrusted scarf higher over her face and held up a hand to block the tiny frozen daggers. On the slope below the few remaining people of her household struggled single file through the knee deep snow.
“Milady!” Embron, her huntsman, shouted over the roaring wind. “We need to find shelter and build a fire.”
“Fire will draw the Schahi,” Talisa said. “They will...”
“This storm will kill us all,” Embron said.
Talisa found herself smiling despite their plight. Embron had grown bold in the last few days. “There are many ways to die, Huntsman. Some better than others.”
Embron shielded his eyes and stared through the snow back the way they had come, as if to conjure an image of their pursuers. “The storm will have covered our trail. Perhaps...”
“We must be sure.”
“Let me go back and check, milady. I will be sure.”
Talisa considered. “And if you are seen?”
Embron bowed. “Then I will lead them away. But I will not be seen.”
Talisa smiled again. “No, I suppose you will not. Very well. We will take shelter in the next copse...and build a fire. I rely upon you.”
Embron bowed again and then hastened down their back trail. The pine boughs tied to his feet allowed him to walk over the snow. She turned and trudged down the hill, wishing she could use Embron’s trick. Every time she tried, she tripped over the branches and fell.
“Kailin!” she called when she neared the first of the group.
“Next stand of woods, Kailin,” Talisa extended her arm in the direction of their march. “We’ll take shelter there. Hang on that far.”
Talisa stood by and waited as each of her remaining people passed. To each one she offered a few words of encouragement, telling them that soon they could rest. When the last had passed, she turned and followed in their wake.
Blinking frost away from her eyelashes, Talisa dredged up the energy to break into a trot. She caught up to Embron, her chest heaving with her labored breathing.
Embron pointed down the slope before them. Talisa looked. Her jaw dropped open. She wiped her eyes and stared again.
White. White, broken by an occasional bit of gray was the only color she had seen for days. The greens and browns below her almost seemed to burn her eyes in their brilliance. Trees in full leaf. Grass, just coming into seed. A brook that ran clear, not frozen. A vision of spring, of summer.
“Sorcery, Milady. It must be.”
“Sorcery,” Talisa agreed. “Or the Gods. But to our salvation or our doom?” She looked back. Even her eyes could now see the cluster of dots moving in the distance, the Schahi on their trail. “We have no choice. Onward.”
Embron cast a fearful glance into the valley below. He wiped his hand across his mouth, then looked back. He picked up his pack and looked back again.
Talisa placed a hand on Embron’s shoulder. “If it scares you, if it scares me, how much more will it scare the Schahi? Perhaps they won’t dare it.”
Embron just looked at her.
“No, I don’t believe it either.” Talisa shrugged. “But what choice have we?”