The apple was small and withered, but when she bit into it, a trickle of juice ran down her chin and the green skin snapped beneath her teeth. She found a black piece of rot and dug it out with dirty, ragged fingernails, and kept eating. She’d forgotten the names she’d always wanted to give to her children, the color of her favorite dress, the things her mother had told her about proper manners. All that existed was food, and shelter, listening and living. All she knew was survival.
“It’s warmer by the fire, love.”
Lily picked up her head, swallowing apple. In the clearing where they’d camped, Theo had built a sickly fire of damp wood and bark curls. He’d tended it endlessly, until exhaustion had claimed him, and he’d joined the others in fitful sleep, wrapped in a bedroll. The fire had burned on, without his assistance, tended by another. Now she was alone, with Liam.
The flames did sinister things to the already harsh lines of his face. His nose cast an angular shadow; his deep-set eyes were not blue, but a hellish white in the strange firelight of this patch of snow-covered forest.
“You’re not afraid of me, are you?”
She was. After yesterday, she was more afraid of him than of the shadows that lurked beyond the trees.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Liam said in the patient, gentle voice that had become so familiar to all of them over the past months. The blend of London streets and Mayfair ballrooms tainted by the American South. “I thought you’d heard the stories about me.”
“I have,” Lily said, ashamed of the whisper-thinness of her own voice. She worked a piece of apple peel from a back tooth with the tip of her tongue and studied him.
He was the same: lean frame, weathered face, reddish hair brushing the tops of his shoulders, long-fingered, elegant hands wrapped round a bottle of wine. But after yesterday, after what she’d seen at the abandoned farmhouse…he was wholly changed in her eyes. She’d allowed herself to think him a harmless eccentric. But he was terrifying.
“And did you believe them?”
“No.” She cast the core aside into the snow and wrapped her arms across her middle. “They were only stories for children. Magic isn’t real.”
“But you saw it. How can you deny it when it was right there, in front of your eyes?”
“Because I choose to deny it. I don’t believe in it.”
A smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “Come here, Lily.”
Her stomach knotted at the thought. “Why?”
“Because I want to show you something.” When she didn’t move, he added, “And because whether or not you believe, you’re fascinated.”
As if he’d hooked a lead rope to her, she rose, and stepped carefully over the snowy rocks of their glen, moving around the fire until she was seated on the felled tree beside him. The fire warmed the side of her face, brushed gently at the backs of her hands, reminding her how impossibly cold she was, and how much she craved comfort. She snuggled into her snow-dampened cloak. The woods smelled of…woods, the way all forests do. Of living and dying things, and the sharp, crystal punch of ice. She smelled the smoke, the crackling wood, the sweet tang of the wine Liam was drinking. He offered her the bottle and she took a sip, setting it in the snow between them after. She waited for his demonstration, but it didn’t come, not at first.
“What has our illustrious young Theo told you of me?” he asked, gaze landing on the fire.
Mostly, Theo talked of things he hoped to impress her older sister with, but there were moments when he put on his storyteller’s cap and offered all three of them grand stories of his not-so-grand travels. Liam was a chief subject of tall tales. “He says you are a magician, trained under a king’s own wizard. He says that, for a little while, all the women in the court were in love with you. He says you can talk to animals. He says a lot of things.”
“And what does he say of the fire?”
“A magician’s trick.”
Liam opened his hand and held it before him, fingers half-curled and pointing skyward. Lily’s eyes went to the center of his palm and, as it had before, a white speck of light appeared. It swelled, doubled, and burst into a tight, contained bundle of flame. He held fire in his hand.
Lily’s breath caught in her throat. “A trick,” she whispered. “It’s only a trick…”
Liam’s empty hand closed around her wrist before she had a chance to protest. And then she found she couldn’t protest, mute with a wild curiosity that she chose to call fear. Her hand opened of its own accord, and when he moved it in close to the flame he held, she could feel the heat coming off of it.
“It’s real,” she said, and it wasn’t a question.
Liam breathed a soft laugh. “Yes, darling, it’s very much real.”
In answer, he flattened her hand, turned it palm-up, and moved his own over it. “Here. You hold it.”
“No!” Panic flared. “I can’t! Liam, no – ”
He tipped his hand, and the bundle of fire fell gently into her waiting palm. A foreign sensation spiraled through her, a wash of nerves and energy and a sudden, inexplicable knowing. And then she held fire. It threw tongues of flickering shadow across her fingers; its light danced across the snow.
In the fire-lit dark, she searched out his face. It wasn’t surprise, but admiration that met her. “Not everyone can do it,” he said. “Hardly anyone, actually.”
She swallowed. “But you can.”
“And so can you. I had a feeling you could.” He smiled. “And I was right.”
Around them, fresh snow began to sift down between the trees. The forest was a hushed, haunted, sacred place, all in white and shadow, air cold enough to crack. Their breath plumed like smoke. Lily could hold the flame only a moment, and then it fizzled and died. Her hand felt frozen and hollow in its absence.
“It will take practice, and focus,” Liam said, “to learn to sustain it for long. It’s always easier in winter. When you want it. When fire is the thing you need most in the world.” He conjured another small flame seemingly without effort. “I was born in the winter, you know,” he mused, gaze becoming far away. My mother had me in an alley, in dirty snow. My first memory…” His voice grew thin and distant, hazy with memory. “Is of being cold. For the first eight years of my life, all I was was cold.” His eyes cleared, focused, came to hers, blue interlaced with bars of icy white. “I tricked, and stole, and fought my way into the homes of fancy lords who’d spit on my head as a child. And I made a promise to myself that I’d never go back to that. However many hells I wander through, I will never be cold again.”
Snowflakes were settling in his hair, on his shoulders; they were heavy on Lily’s lashes. The flame in his hand grew, flickering, until its heat touched Lily’s face; until she could hear it snapping in the air. Until the snowflakes started to melt.
“It’s been winter a long time, hasn’t it, love?”
She caught her lip between her teeth and nodded, feeling tears press at the backs of her eyes.
Liam reached for her hand again. “It doesn’t have to be.”