Gia was doing her best to forget what Pete had told her about the Winter Folk. After all, she reminded herself, Pete had been plenty wrong before. She might have succeeded in getting her hands to stop shaking if it weren’t for the memory of Amelia nodding along to Pete’s words from her hammock. Amelia was never wrong.
While the locations of some fairy lands were a well-kept secret, everyone knew where to find the Winter Folk. They were said to welcome guests, but that wasn’t necessarily a kindness. A fairy’s love for mind games rivaled mermaids’, and even if the Folk stayed hidden from view, the Winter Lands were a maze of ice and snow so perilous one’s bones couldn’t even be found. Whether it was footprints or remains, the snowfall swallowed everything in seconds.
Gia had had nightmares after that particular detail.
As the rowboat got closer, Gia glanced at the captain. Hailstorm rowed toward them without a hint of fear. It might be true then—that the Winter Folk had raised her. Gia tried to picture what it would have been like to grow up here. The long stretches of ice and snow glittered like stars in the sun. It was as beautiful as it was dangerous, she would give it that.
While she looked around, her eyes caught those of a fairy. Crystal-like antlers sparkled above her head and long gray locs styled much like Hailstorm’s were wrapped in a bun at the base of her neck. Cool undertones resided beneath her dark brown skin. Her face was unsmiling.
As the boat was pulled ashore, Gia avoided the gazes of the other two fairies that were with her. If things went wrong, she could still swim for it. Although, the water would be very, very cold.
“Another friend of yours, Brooke?” the fairy asked. “How lovely. I was worried that nasty personality of yours would scare people off, but look at you. I’m so proud.” There was a dryness to her voice, whispery light and sharp around edges. At first, Gia couldn’t tell if the two got along or not, but Hailstorm placed a hand on the fairy’s shoulder and the fairy brought a sharp-clawed hand up to rest atop it.
“This is Kari,” Hailstorm told Gia. “She raised me. I doubt you’ll lower your guard, but I’d at least like you to know she won’t hurt you.” With that, she turned to greet the other fairies who’d begun loading trunks of gold onto the boat.
Gia studied Kari, trying to estimate the truth of Hailstorm’s words. “We aren’t friends,” she finally said. “I’m here for my mother.”
“I see.” Kari narrowed her eyes, her lips pulling to the side in the smallest smirk. “We should hurry, then, merchild. Time is not on your side.”
Captain Hailstorm was already moving, and Gia rushed to follow her through the snow as Kari trailed behind them. She wasn’t sure how Hailstorm could tell where to go; there wasn’t a landmark in sight, only hills and cliffs of powder and ice for as far as Gia’s eyes could see.
The cold air cut across her cheeks as she struggled to keep up, and she pulled Calder’s scarf over her nose so it was easier to breathe.
A scowl settled over Gia’s face as the captain stepped soundlessly, the snow giving Hailstorm no trouble at all while Gia sank and slushed about. She worked hard to keep the lily’s wooden chest steady even as she struggled to remain upright.
Behind her, gleeful snickering reached her ears every time she nearly slipped, but when she looked back, she only saw Kari’s stone-still face.
As if just remembering Gia was there, Hailstorm looked back right in time to catch Gia’s arm before she could face plant. She cast her signature glare in the direction of the invisible laughter, and it stopped immediately, leaving Gia to wonder how many of the Folk were out there watching them and just what they’d seen the captain do for her to be able to silence them with a look.
“It will be faster to carry you,” Hailstorm said.
Gia tightened her freezing fingers around the wooden chest. The offer could be a trick to get the bloom.
But it wasn’t like Gia had anything else to lose. She was too far from the water now to fight off Hailstorm and who knows how many fairies. It was cold, the wind stung, and if she got any more snow in her boots, she’d probably spout fins.
Still, if Hailstorm was lying, Gia could make a grab at her heart before the Folk got her. She wouldn’t go down alone.
Gia nodded, and Hailstorm swept Gia up into her arms. Without missing a beat, Hailstorm adjusted her hold on Gia and kept going.
The urgency in her steps, the worried crease between her brows had Gia wanting to believe again that maybe Hailstorm was telling the truth. Maybe her mother really was alive. Maybe they really were on their way to heal her.
She had to remind herself to crush those thoughts before they took root and the hope left her irreparably broken when it fell through.
It seemed as though they’d been walking forever when Hailstorm approached a hill of snow that looked just the same as all the others. As they rounded the other side, Gia realized it was a little cottage, tucked away in the cold. Its windows glowed with light, promising warmth.
That is until the door burst open, likely letting out the warm air, and Gia’s aunt Lory stomped from inside. She was wrapped up like a fish tangled in seaweed, her clothes similar to Kari’s but with several more heavy layers. The sea green tips of her hair whipped about in twin plaits as she spun to face Hailstorm. “It took you long enough, you snail-legged—Gianna?”