And, as if the hand of the clock could not be stopped, Irrisen went back to normal. Queen Elvanna followed Baba Yaga onto a great adventure and life returned back to the way it was. Jawiga bickered and fought. Ulfen toiled. And the monsters returned from the other side of the gates, bring both treasures and tales from strange far flung lands. The new Queen was introduced to the populace and the old family shuffled off with Baba Yaga to join their mother as the rest of them stepped back and shouldered their way into the crowded throng of the older families. The Winter Guard was disbanded and the Iron Guard reinstated. A rapid series of political assassinations quickly erupted and fuelled the rumour of the Riders return. Then all was quiet again.
The old castle of Whitethrone was replaced by magic overnight. The high spires and jagged walls were transformed by the new queen into a squat wide manor house with onion shaped towers. The new Queen brought new fashions and the Jawiga quickly adapted. Petticoats and coiffured hair became the rage for women and capes and jackets flourished amongst the men. Most noticeable was the ban on wolf fur trimmings, which was replaced with ferret and weasel highlights. The theatre was opened once more to the public. The market was finally cleared of trees, except for a patch in the centre which was left as a memorial to Baba Yaga, named Dusk Grove. A sense of peace had finally returned to the land of Eternal Winter.
It was in this sense of tranquillity that four winter wolves, three travelling as a trio with the fourth coursing ahead as the scout, slipped through the open crack into the Howling. Once inside, they were discreetly met by two more winter wolves who lead them to a small inn. A carriage was hired as the six changed from wolf to human. Dressed in the latest finery, the wolves masquerading as people rode through the bustling city and over the long narrow bridge that lead to Whitethrone Manor. Servants hustled the Queen’s guests into a waiting room that was resplendent with rugs and brandy.
Piety, dapper in his frilled coat, opened the glass decanter of amber liquid and sniffed it delicately. “I’m impressed,” he said with a smirk as he began pouring out glasses for his siblings, “This is the good stuff.”
Heartseeker, elegant as always, took the offered glass and sipped it slowly, relishing the burning taste of oak. She smiled with her perfect teeth and savoured it’s all too human taste. “Indeed,” she purred, “Couri. Sip it. You are in the home of a Queen, not a bawdy house.”
Courageous, uncomfortable and out of place in the tightly fitting finery, look abashed at his empty glass. He cleaned his unkempt white beard with a wipe of his hand. “Sorry, Mum,” he muttered. Piety shook his head, and poured his brother another glass.
“Don’t fidget so,” Hope, comfortable in her beautiful dress, admonished while fixing her sister’s wayward hair, “You’ll tear it.”
“But it itches,” Mercy whined as she tugged at the lace on her collar with her hand, “How do you wear this all day? It’s awful.”
“I think you look stunning,” Piety said with his usual smirk as he handed each Patience and Mercy a glass, “The males will be following you all around the court if you aren’t careful.”
“Oh good,” Mercy replied with a sneer as she took the glass, “Just what I need. More clumsy males sniffing around my…”
“Mercy,” Patience warned over the rim of her glass, “Remember where we are.” She moved her simple braided hair over her shoulder as she scanned the room. “They might be listening through the mirror,” she said ominously.
“If they are spying,” Piety jokingly replied as he nervously looked at his reflection in the large mirror that hung over the unlit fireplace, “Then they’ll find Hope’s lecture on fashion does and don’t very revealing.”
“There is nothing wrong with knowing a bit of etiquette,” Hope said, ignoring the offered glass and focusing on fixing her sister’s curls, “You can’t act like a common bumpkin all the time.”
“Why not?” Mercy challenged back as she scratched her neck.
“Because here they will kill you, skin you and hang your pelt on the outer wall as a warning to others the price of rudeness in a Queen’s home,” Heartseeker answered firmly, “So listen to your sister and stop squirming.”
“Yes, Mum,” Mercy replied meekly as Hope gently smoothed her sister’s ruff.
“And you,” Heartseeker warned Patience, “Take care about what you say about our new Queen. At least, don’t be so obvious.”
“Of course, Mum,” Patience breathed quietly and toyed with her glass nervously.
“And sip it,” Heartseeker admonished Courage again, slapping his broad shoulder playfully, “Seriously. I can’t take you anywhere.”
Time passed and a servant came for the wolves, leading them to a lavish sitting room. Courtiers mingled amongst each other, whispering as the wolves entered. A tall fellow wolf with a determined bearing broke from his shallow conversation with a simpering human and approach them, a friendly smile gracing his full lips.
“Lord Chegar Tuvash. Prince of The Howling,” Hope muttered under her breath to her mother. Heartseeker smiled radiantly and nodded imperceptible in acknowledgement.
“Heartseeker,” Lord intoned formally, “Your reputation does not do you justice.”
“My Lord,” Heartseeker smiled coyly and curtsied, “You flatter us. I was not expecting a luminary such as yourself to be here.”
He cocked his eye. “The Queen named regiments after The Black Riders. She speaks very highly of them. And your son spoke very highly of his family. I have been looking forward to meeting all of you.”
“You’ve spoken with him?” Patience blurted out quickly only to be silenced by her mother’s disapproving glare.
“Please pardon my daughter. She is not use to such settings and sometimes forgets her place,” Heartseeker said pleasantly with a tone that was far from pleasant.
“It is not my place to speak on this topic,” the lord said carefully as he looked into Heartseeker’s lovely eyes.
Heartseeker frowned ever so slightly. She was not one to ignore a mystery and the lord knew it. “Have you met my other children?” She asked.
Introductions were done and each child bowed or curtsied. The lord greeted each until he got to Mercy. “You served the Winter Guard,” he said.
Mercy’s eyes darted around quickly. The fate of Winter Guard leadership was a taboo subject in the military nowadays. “Yes, my Lord. And The Iron Guard before them. I was assigned as a far-runner in the outlying towns.”
“Yes,” the lord replied curtly, “I’m aware of your placement. Tales tell that you outran the messenger bird.”
“It was a fat bird,” she said carefully, looking to her mother for help.
“Perhaps,” the lord replied, “Otherwise, I would be curious of how you knew to warn the citizens guarding the portals before their collapse. Saved a great deal of our people from being trapped on the wrong side.”
“My daughter’s speed is legendary,” Heartseeker interjected coldly, her voice low and not quiet dangerous, “And her actions where honoured by The Iron Guard. You make it sound like she was in some sort of collusion.”
“Mother,” Hope hissed alarmingly but Heartseeker cut her off with a wave of her hand.
The lord squared his shoulder slightly as he answered Heartseeker’s challenge. “Not at all,” he replied, “The Queen voiced a concern about the safety of the wolves who were placed on the far side of those mad gates and I acted as quickly as I could. Imagine my surprise to hear that a wolf was absent without leaving and was going from Gate to Gate, warning the soldiers guarding them of the dangers. Well before their collapse. She is fast but no one is that fast. And it would require her to know where each gate was to get to them. The Iron Guard is only willing to say so much so I thought I’d ask the hero herself if she would explain it to me.”
“And she did explain,” Heartseeker said darkly, “It was a fat bird.”
A sudden ripple came over the assembled courtiers who had gather to eavesdrop on the lord’s conversation. A butler in an embroidered vest entered the room with a purposeful stride. He took to the centre of the room and cleared his throat to gather attention.
“Queen Anastasia,” he said formally as the queen and her hand maidens entered the room, giggling as they tried to race one another will trying to look as regal as possible.
“Indeed,” the lord said coolly, “Quite fat, apparently.”