Long before the Red Queen of Mortmesne came to power, the Glace-Vert was already a lost cause. It was a forgotten taiga in the shadow of the Fairwitch, its hardened plains revealing only the barest hint of grass, its few villages mere huddles of huts and mires. Few chose to venture north of Cite Marche, unless no other option presented itself, for life on these plains was harsh. Each summer the villagers of the Glace-Vert sweltered; each winter they froze and starved.
This year, however, they had something new to fear. The frozen hamlets were sealed tight, surrounded by newly built fences, and behind these fences men sat sleepless, hunting knives across their knees, little more than shadow sentinels. Clouds covered the moon, though these clouds did not yet signify the snows of Fairwitch winter. On the foothills above, wolves howled in their strange language, mourning the scarcity of food. Soon desperation would drive the packs south into the forests to hunt for squirrels and stoats, or the rare small child foolish enough to venture alone into the winter woods. But now, all at once, at ten minutes past two, the wolves fell silent. The only sound heard over the Glace-Vert was the lonely moan of the wind.
In the shadow of the foothills, something moved: the black figure of a man, climbing the steep slope. He was sure of foot, but he moved carefully, as though anticipating hazards. Except for his quick, light breathing, he was invisible, nothing more than a shade among the rocks. He had come through Ethan’s Copse, stopping there for two days before continuing northward. During his time in the village, he had heard all manner of tales about the plague that beset its inhabitants: a creature who walked in the night, taking the young. This creature had an old name in the upper Fairwitch: the Orphan. The Glace-Vert had never had to worry about such things before, but now the disappearances were spreading south. After two days, the man had heard enough. Villagers might call it the Orphan, but the man knew the creature’s real name, and though the man ran like a gazelle, he could not escape his own sense of responsibility.
He’s free, the Fetch thought bleakly, wending his way through the thorns on the slope. I didn’t end him when I had the chance, and now he’s free.
The idea tormented him. He had ignored the presence of Row Finn in the Fairwitch for many years because the man was contained. Every few years a child would disappear; unfortunate, but there were greater evils to contend with. The Tearling, for starters, where nearly fifty children disappeared every month under a state seal of approval. Even before the vast evil of the shipment, the Tear had always been like a wayward child, needing constant care. The Raleighs alternated between indifference and predation, and the nobles fought for each scrap while the people starved. For three long centuries, the Fetch had watched William Tear’s dream sink further and further into the mire. No one in the Tearling could even see Tear’s better world any longer, let alone muster the courage to dig for it. Only the Fetch and his people knew, only they remembered. They did not age, did not die. The Fetch stole to entertain himself. He took a petty enjoyment in tormenting the worst of the Raleighs. He kept his eye on the Tear bloodline, almost idly, trying to convince himself that it might matter. Tear blood was easy to track, for certain qualities always presented eventually: integrity, intellectualism and iron resolve. A few Tears had been hanged as traitors over the years, but even under the noose, they never lost the subtle air of nobility that seemed to distinguish the family. The Fetch recognized this nobility: it was the aura of William Tear, the magnetism that had convinced nearly two thousand people to follow him across an ocean into a vast unknown. Even the Mort bitch, flawed as she was, carried a tiny hint of that glamour. But the Red Queen did not breed. For a long time, the Fetch had been convinced that the line was lost.
And then, the girl.