Milo’s boots crunched into the snow as he walked, damp seeping into his socks. A chill billowed through his cloak and a shiver ran down his spine as he brushed snowflakes off his brow. He breathed into his hands in a vain attempt to warm them up, but his fingertips stayed red.
In Lito they say it was never winter; the sun shone the whole year round and snow was but a distant nightmare. Inma, on the other hand, was a land of forests and ice, broken only by the occasional mountain. The worst thing? Faeries.
The path veered to the left up ahead, dipping down a shallow valley before it snaked up a mountain. The valley held the best game, Milo had found, and it was the opposite side of the village to the faerie groves. Even then, he’d turned his clothes inside out, and kept a hunk of bread tucked in his pocket. Better safe than dead.
A pair of blackbirds darted from a branch with a burst of song. Cold daylight washed its way through charcoal-black trees, their needles covered in snow, and the occasional brown fern clung to the ground. The air was thick with silence. Milo slid down a shallow ditch and he was in the valley. His breaths clouded.
A twig snapped. Milo slipped the bow from his back and notched an arrow. He crept forward. Please be a deer. Please be a deer!
Milo froze. Deer did not speak. He edged forwards and—there, between the trees: a hooded figure stood, cursing and stamping its foot. Male, if the voice was anything to go by.
“Hello?” Milo approached with caution, his arrow still notched, and the figure’s head shot up. Silver hair, pale skin and eyes the colour of meltwater. Milo’s stomach plummeted.
“Oh!” Milo raised his bow and scrambled backwards, nearly tripping over his own heel. His heart raced. Panic bubbled up his throat. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t… I mean…”
“Hello.” The faerie beamed. “It’s a fine day, isn’t it?”
Milo hesitated. “Yes?”
Damnit! Was he supposed to reply to faeries? He couldn’t remember. Don’t be rude, he knew that much. Don’t insult them. Don’t let them comb your hair, and whatever you do, do not give them your name.
The faerie nodded. “It’s very… cold.” He grunted.
Milo frowned. Now that he thought about it, the faerie was very close to the tree behind him. Oddly close. His posture was unnaturally straight and his bare feet almost hovered off the ground, spires of hoarfrost crystallising around them. The faerie’s cloak gleamed a startling white, braided with threads of pure silver, and flowers of frost curled along its seams. The faerie moved his arm and his cloak parted. Milo gaped.
The faerie wasn’t wearing much underneath, only a strip of cloth that fell somewhere halfway between trousers and a skirt. The rest of his skin was as pale as his face, perhaps even paler, and taut muscles shifted underneath.
A stake of solid metal struck through his stomach, pinning him straight to the tree.
“Um…” Milo gulped. “You have a—”
“I know. It’s iron,” the faerie interrupted, smiling just a little too widely. He pulled against the stake and hissed in pain, water rather than blood pooling between his fingers. “If you would be so kind as to remove it, I would greatly appreciate the help.”
Milo’s stomach twisted. Iron was poisonous to faeries, or was it repulsive? He couldn’t remember the difference, but the faerie was clearly in a lot of pain.
Milo reached out, then drew his hand back. “Are you sure I should…?”
“Yes,” the faerie snapped. “Please.”
Drawing in a deep breath, Milo gripped the stake. The metal was cold against his skin, almost painfully so, and he bit his lip to stop himself from thinking about what he was doing. Someone had staked this faerie to a tree for a reason; what would happen when the faerie was free?
“Just do it quickly,” the faerie hissed.
A shudder ran down Milo’s spine and the hairs on the back of his neck jumped up.
Well, here went nothing. It wasn’t as if Milo had a family to miss him. He planted his feet squarely apart and yanked with all his strength. The stake slipped then gave a little, water pouring from the wound. Milo adjusted his grip and pulled again, and with a lurch the stake came free.
The faerie yelped in pain. “Fuck!”
Milo stumbled backwards and dropped the stake. Water gushed from the hole in the faerie’s stomach, splattering onto the snow, and what Milo could see of his insides were a cursed fusion of flesh and ice.
“Three days.” The faerie rolled his shoulders and threw his head back, a mad grin on his face. “I was stuck to that tree for three fucking days, can you believe it? Holy shit, it hurt.”
Milo could only watch in horrified fascination as the stomach hole knitted itself back together, the flesh growing in frosty sinews. He blinked and there was no trace of the hole at all, just smooth, alabaster skin.
“Thanks, man,” the faerie said. “I owe you one.”
Now that he was free, the faerie shook his hood off. His silver hair fell short of pointed ears, studded earrings in each one, and his cheekbones cut high across his face. Wickedly sharp incisors hid inside his mouth.
The sight distracted Milo enough that his mouth moved without him realising: “Why were you stuck to that tree?”
The faerie scowled. Milo flinched.
“Well…” The faerie scratched the back of his head. “The faerie queen has this pool where she bathes, all full of petals and shit, and I thought it’d be a fun prank to freeze it over. You know, she’d have a laugh, then dance on it or something.”
So it was true faeries could control the elements. Milo wasn’t sure whether to be afraid or in awe. “And?”
“I didn’t realise she was in the pool when I froze it.”
Milo blinked. The faerie’s expression didn’t change, and with growing incredulity Milo realised he was completely serious.
“You’re not very smart, are you?” Milo said.
The faerie chuckled. “That’s fair.”
A chill wind gusted through the trees and Milo shivered. Snowflakes danced between the two of them, twirling and spiralling before settling back down.
“So, how can I repay you?” the faerie said.
Milo faltered. “What?”
“You set me free,” the faerie said. “Now I have to do something for you.”
Milo took a moment to process his words. “Anything?”
“Anything.” The faerie smirked.
Milo doubted the faerie had the magic to transport him all the way to Lito, and given his track record, he didn’t trust him to get passage on a ship. What else did Milo want? His mind was blank, his only thought the sudden realisation he didn’t have much in his life at all. Ever since his grandmother died, it had just been work and save money, work and save, in the hope that one day he would be able to escape winter.
“Do you…” Milo brushed one of his arrows. “Could you help me hunt?” He supposed that was something that needed doing. “I need to find a deer.”
The faerie shot him a thumbs up. “Leave it to me.”
“…every damn time they’re like, ‘have you painted the leaves yet?’, and I’m like, ‘no!’” The faerie stuffed his hands in his pockets and kicked a mound of snow. “Why should I paint the leaves each year when nature does it anyway? It’s so stupid.”
“Yeah,” Milo said.
The faerie snorted. “Don’t even get me started on window frost.”
He started, anyway. The faerie talked a lot, as if he’d never had someone who listened to him before. It was endearing in a melancholy kind of way, and only the smouldering irises and flashes of fangs kept Milo from relaxing completely. Talkative or not, this was still a faerie. Idiot or not, he could still kill Milo in a heartbeat, and his inside out clothes and the bread in his pocket seemed to have no effect whatsoever. He gritted his teeth. He should have kept the stake instead of leaving it on the ground.
“You said you’re looking for a deer, right?” the faerie said.
Milo nodded. “Yes.”
“That way.” The faerie pointed back across the path and towards the other side of the woods. “I can smell them.”
They lapsed into silence, Milo’s footsteps the only sound. The faerie stooped to grab a small bundle by the side of the path and Milo almost told him off before realising the offering was exactly for him. He swallowed. The faerie untied the bundle to reveal two small jugs of milk and honey, along with some thistles and a couple of coins.
“Nice.” The faerie tucked the thistles behind his ear and the two jugs disappeared beneath his cloak. He chucked the coins to Milo. “Here, catch.”
Milo scrambled to catch the coins. One dropped past his fingers and he fished it out of the snow. “They’re supposed to be for you,” he said. It felt wrong, a faerie giving a human part of his offering. Dishonest, somehow.
The faerie shrugged. “What use do I have for coins?”
He made a fair point. Milo’s shoulders sagged. “So all the money people leave for faeries…”
“Quiet.” The faerie’s arm shot in front of him and Milo jerked to a halt. His heart pounded in his chest.
“What is it?” Milo whispered.
The faerie crept forwards, hugging a tree, then grinned. “Deer.”
Once again, Milo took his bow from his back and notched an arrow. A massive stag stood in the forest before him, its fur an earthy brown against the snow and antlers crowning its head. Milo’s mouth parted. At last! He’d be able to feed himself and make money selling the meat, too.
He breathed in deeply and drew the bow.
A shot. Hit! Square in the heart.
Milo whooped as the stag collapsed and he rushed over. Hot blood trickled onto the snow and the stag’s eyes glazed over, dead. Okay, good. Now all he had to do was drag it back to town.
“That concludes our deal, then,” the faerie said. A shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds so that it gleamed off his hair, setting his silhouette on fire.
“Thank you.” Milo grinned. “It was nice meeting you, um…”
“Jack,” the faerie filled in.
Something washed between them, sharp as the edge of a blizzard. Milo tasted ice and stone, sunlight and water.
“Shit!” Jack yelled, his eyes wide. “Fuck no! Holy fucking shit!”
Milo blinked. “Did you just give me your—”
“It was an accident.” Jack towered over him, his cheeks flaming. “Forget you ever heard anything.”
Milo shrank back and his stomach flipped in alarm. “I… I didn’t…”
“This never happened,” Jack growled. “None of this ever happened.” He twirled his cloak and was gone in the blink of an eye, a flurry of snowflakes the only evidence he’d ever existed.
Milo was alone.
Fire crackled in the hearth and heat sank through Milo’s bones as he stirred the pot. Stew was a staple of his diet, both comforting and familiar, but meat stew was a delicacy, and he was determined to enjoy it. The rich scent of venison and parsley wafted through his hut and he breathed it in with a sigh. His mouth watered.
It was snowing outside. The night lay dark and he’d shuttered the windows, barring out the cold as much as he could. He’d got two silver from selling the venison, as well as the three coppers the faerie had given him. All things considered, it had been a good day, and he was a little further along his way to buying passage to Lito. No more snow, no more winters and no more faeries.
Except, everything he thought he’d known about faeries had been turned inside out. They were tricksome, capricious creatures, yes, but intelligent? Malicious? Milo still remembered that faerie’s lopsided grin and the way he’d gossiped for a solid half-hour as they’d trekked through the forest. Something twisted in his chest.
It was a decidedly regular name.
“I thought I told you to forget my name,” said a voice.
Milo jumped and spun wildly, twisting his torso to avoid knocking the stew into the fire. Jack stood in the middle of the hut, his arms folded and a look of profound irritation plastered across his face. The firelight cast red shadows off his hair and cloak, and now that they were inside Milo could catch something of his scent: pine and snowfall.
“W-what?” Milo stammered. “Why are you here?”
“You summoned me.” Jack pulled a face. “Why else would I be here?”
“I didn’t mean to summon you.”
“Well, you did.”
Jack dragged a chair out and sat with his feet propped on the table, his arms behind his head. Milo could clearly see his stomach, and he still remembered the hole that had been there only that morning.
A faerie was in Milo’s hut. The terror of the entire town—the bane of all who lived in Inma—was lounging at his dinner table. Jack couldn’t look more out of place if he’d tried, what with the roaring hearth, sagging rafters and wooden walls around him. Faeries haunted the woods and killed any humans who stumbled across them; everyone knew that. Or the faeries kidnapped humans? Or maybe seduced. Milo paused. Now that he thought about it, the stories weren’t exactly clear.
“For future reference,” Jack said, “don’t ever speak my name out loud again.”
“What if I meet someone else named Jack?”
“Call them something else.”
Jack’s stomach rumbled. He lowered his feet and sat upright, clearing his throat.
Milo hesitated. “Would you like some stew?”
“That’s not a…” Jack shook his head. “Fuck it, sure. You already own my name.”
Milo ladled the stew into two bowls and Jack wolfed it down, all but shovelling the food into his mouth. He hummed as he ate and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“This is good.”
“Thanks,” Milo said.
Jack licked the bowl clean. Milo vaguely remembered something about faeries and hospitality rules, but he supposed with Jack’s name, not much else mattered. His gut twisted. How was he going to get out of this mess?
“Is there a way to give you your name back?” Milo asked.
Jack shook his head. “Not unless you die.”
Milo’s heart sank. He didn’t mention the fact Jack could easily kill him, and when Jack didn’t bring it up the tension in Milo’s back muscles unknotted. He wasn’t in any imminent danger, at least.
“There must be another way,” Milo said.
“Well, I’m a winter spirit.” Jack yawned. “If you go somewhere without snow there’s a chance we’ll both be able to continue with our lives.”
Milo’s pulse raced. “Lito.”
“Lito?” Jack raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a continent across the ocean,” Milo said, leaning forward. “They say it’s never winter there.”
“Perfect.” Jack grinned. “We have a solution.”
“There’s one problem, though.” Milo sat back down and bit his lip. He tapped his foot. “I… don’t have enough money to buy passage on a ship.”
“Oh, that’s fine.” Jack waved his hand. “We’ve got plenty of money. All those offerings, remember?”
“But…” Milo faltered. It felt like cheating. That money, it didn’t belong to him, and he didn’t want to owe any debts. Jack was offering freely, though. This might be Milo’s only chance, before he got tied down to a life he couldn’t leave. He chewed his lip.
Wind rattled the windows and rafters. Sparks hopped from the hearth. Milo’s eyes settled on the cast-iron pot, dregs of stew stuck to its sides. It was the only thing his grandmother had left behind, and he could picture her on her deathbed, with wrinkled skin and wispy hair. ‘Don’t stay because of me,’ she’d always said. ‘Don’t stay because you have nowhere else to go.’
Jack met Milo’s eyes. “Do we have a deal?”
Milo locked his jaw. “Deal.”
To Milo’s surprise, Jack travelled with him all the way to Inma Harbour. Jack’s constant chatter was soothing, somehow, and over those two weeks Milo learned more about faeries than he’d ever wanted to. He learned about magic sheep and manic dances, about sacred groves and pranks that almost always went wrong. In turn, Milo talked about his grandmother. He talked about his childhood and the town, about how money and trading worked. Jack always listened with rapt attention, and by the time Inma Harbour’s castellated walls came into view, Milo had grown used to his presence.
The road widened as it left the forest and the sea stretched beyond, a sheet of blue so vast Milo had to rub his eyes to make sure it was really true. Posts lined the edge of the road and bells had been lashed to them, a warning to any non-human travellers. The bells rang as he and Jack approached, each pealing a different note, and Milo’s heart clenched.
“This is it.” Jack smiled.
“Yeah.” Milo didn’t know what else to say.
“Do you have the money?”
Milo tapped the pouch at his side, jingling with coins. “Yep.”
“Good.” Jack swallowed and his gaze caught on the ocean, something wistful in his eyes. The sunlight made his face glow. “Make a new life for yourself in Lito. You’ll enjoy it there.”
For a moment, Milo wondered. Perhaps it was something in Jack’s tone, or the way he looked across the sea, but Milo almost asked whether Jack wanted to come with him. He swallowed back the words on his tongue. Jack was ice and snow, frost and winter. There would be no place for him in Lito; that was the whole point.
“I guess this is goodbye,” Milo said. A breeze curled between them, and Jack smiled softly. His eyes glittered. “I guess it is.”