The moon was full, hanging heavy and pregnant against the star speckled sky of the October night, its eerie silver light glancing across the landscape like a skipped stone. The winter air was crisp, freezing any water it could find and turning fields of grass into glittering carpets of blue white crystals by dawn. Evergreen needles donned thin robes of ice and the banks of the river had started to fan outward with thin icy fingers, one side reaching for the other like long separated lovers.
Karic huddled inside his heavy woolen cloak, the deep hood pulled up to shield his face from the biting wind and his azure eyes stared intently from the dark recess at the two shadowed figures in the distance. A milky fog was struggling its way into existence, wafting upward in thin tendrils that wrapped around his legs and Karic didn’t know whether to blame the fog or what he was seeing for keeping him rooted to the spot.
He and Winter had been recruited into the Althinians at the same time but hadn’t actually met until eight years into their training, finding themselves assigned the same target, and the assignment instantly became a contest. Their methods were both similar and different, having received the same training; however they each had their own preferences. Karic liked his bullets to only stun his targets, enabling him to move in for a close up kill while Winter preferred the quick and clean from a distance approach.
Another two years passed in friendship and camaraderie, yet with each passing day Karic noticed more and more that he was looking at his friend with different eyes, was seeing him in a new light. Fear gripped him at the thought of being rejected, of being brushed off or completely losing Winter and that fear lodged in his throat like a fist. Karic could recall in perfect detail the moment that fear was proven to be unnecessary, the moment when in his rash, impulsive way Winter had pulled him under the sheltering arms of a willow and pressed a kiss to his lips.
Karic let two years’ worth of memories play through his mind while he watched Winter now, two years of passion and laughter and quiet intimate moments. And now Winter held a woman in his arms, his cloak encasing their bodies as they kissed passionately, the sounds of their desire and hunger for each other being carried on the wind to Karic’s ears and he flinched as though wounded. The wind brought him her name, whispered in Winter’s velvety voice, and with that name was born in Karic a burning sense of betrayal. Lyna. Another Althinian.
He didn’t want to see any more. Didn’t want to hear any more. Turning on his heel Karic made his way into the night, his heart hammering in his chest, the broken pieces beating against his sternum like trapped birds with each step he took toward the Althinian compound.
Their confrontation was ugly; aren’t they always? Blame and guilt, pain and sadness, anger and loss. Winter tried to explain, to make Karic understand, but he wouldn’t hear it. Karic couldn’t bear the thought of Winter loving someone else, and with each word from his lover’s lips he felt his pain and hurt turn to anger and hate.
Days later Karic was promoted in the wake of their leader’s death, taking up the mantel of ruling the Althinians and under the façade of a finely woven lie his first official order was to kill Winter and Lyna.
For two years Karic’s agents tracked them, trailed them and hounded them across continents; always a step behind until at last they were found hiding in a small unassuming village a month’s travel from home. The report was finally delivered in person by those who had killed Winter; they shared every detail of the final chase, of the beating they had meted out on him and of the killing blow. They described the sound of breaking bones and the smell of his blood. They explained that the woman had escaped but they would continue to hunt her.
Karic waved them away.
Standing at his window he stared out across the icy landscape beyond the glass, his mind trying to process all that he’d been told and presenting him with an image of Winter’s gruesomely beaten, broken and bloodied body lying abandoned in some far away foreign land. With a sudden wave of nausea he pushed the window open and retched onto the lower roof, his eyes watering and his knees going weak as he lay doubled over the windowsill.
Never again would he allow anyone get that close; in that moment, with the knowledge that Winter was dead, he refused to feel this kind of pain ever again. The betrayal he’d harbored for two years, that he’d nurtured and fed with the memory of his lover’s lips on someone else’s flesh, hardened into a protective skin that no one would ever get under.