The wind is never gone long in West Texas. Thirty minutes later, Nathan stood beneath a cloud-hung sky in scrubby dirt that might have once been a yard with that wind tugging at his clothes and hair. Kai was beside him; he doubted she could see at all, for even his vision had trouble picking out details in the darkness.
The chameleon – Dell – had followed, and sat on her haunches on Kai's other side, sniffing the air, unafraid. But she was a night creature, wasn't she? Like him.
His mind was sharp with disbelief. Could his long exile be about to end? Not yet, he told himself, which was true, since the Huntsman was unlikely to bring his sister along.
Yet it felt false. Memories crowded him hard, jostling out the nebulous images of what-might-be. He thought of a name, a scent, a face that had once been the dearest in all the worlds to him. The hand that had stroked his head, the voice that had praised him for a good kill.
The Huntsman. After all these years, he would see the Huntsman again... but other faces, other scents and names crowded into his head, too. People long dead, those he'd known and liked, some few he'd loved.
And beside him, Kai. Kai.
"Is there anything I should know?" she asked nervously. "I mean, assuming your spell works and he and I understand each other, do I bow, or wait for him to greet me, or shake his hand, or what?"
"Ordinary courtesy will do. The Huntsman has little patience with ceremony. He..." Nathan's voice broke. Emotions welled up too strong, too fast, pulling him in too many directions. "He doesn't... aieee," he moaned, as the grief of the long-ago sundering rose up as fresh as newly shed blood.
He scarcely noticed when he started weeping, but he felt it clearly when she moved behind him, wrapped her arms around him, and held on. And it was as if at last, at last, someone held him through that first, terrible grief, when he'd nearly gone mad with despair. At last something closed. It could close now, and the raw place inside could begin to heal.
His sobbing died, and he found the stillness inside he'd touched a few times before. Twice, when he stayed with the monks in Tibet. Once when he stood on the edge of suicide and decided not to step off... a sensible decision, he'd often thought since, for a hellhound was not easy to kill, and he'd have had the devil of a time making sure of himself.
The cold, arid wind was quickly drying his cheeks. He turned and touched his lips to Kai's forehead. "Love," he said, "is very strange."
And then he faced the night again, and spoke the Huntsman's Name.
Kai heard wind, only wind, yet she saw Nathan's lips move. She knew he'd spoken, but something in her mind refused to hear what he said. But the wind kept rising – blowing harder now, whistling scornfully through her jacket, the cold biting deep.
No. Not just wind. She heard... howling.
They came on the darkness, black shapes racing across the black of the sky. Like the darkest of storm clouds they seemed to build, to mount taller rather than draw nearer. Fear, atavistic and complete, numbed her limbs and dried her mouth.
Not Dell's. The chameleon-cat howled back, a wail of fear and defiance. Kai reached for the cat with her hand and her mind, soothing her.
Nathan took her other hand, bent, and whispered, "He likes to make an entrance."
Terror and laughter tangled in her throat, and the choked sound she made was built of both. She held tight to Nathan's hand.
Part of her saw the man come striding down from the sky, his boots as sure on the air as if it were forest floor. Part of her saw him just suddenly here – only ten feet away, standing in the ordinary dirt beside a mesquite bush. Him and his hounds. They were black, and many, and varied – some greyhound-lean, some mastiff-strong, all of them tall. And silent. After that howling, they were silent now, and unmoving.
And she hardly noticed them, for she was staring at him.
She couldn't have said if he was young or old, tall or short, only that the shape of him was perfectly right. He wore a vest over a hairy chest and rough-sewn trousers tucked into hide boots, with a quiver of arrows slung over his shoulder and a sword at his hip. His skin was brown as a nut, his beard the color of maple leaves after they've faded from flame – still autumn, not winter, but no longer burning. That beard, like his hair, curled madly, with bits of dried grass caught in the tangles.
And his colors – ! Rich and warm and earthy, but with hints of leaf green, the violet of a twilight sky, and arctic white. The thoughts woven through those colors were smooth and somehow complete.
"Nadrellian." His voice was rich as freshly pressed cider, pure as a bell, and it caught on some strong emotion. "Ah, Nadrellian." And he held out his arms.
Nathan took one step, then another, and the Huntsman sprang forward to meet him, and the two men embraced – the Huntsman laughing, then seizing Nathan's face in his two hands and planting a smacking kiss on each cheek. The hounds crowded around them, tails wagging, wanting to greet and be greeted.
After a moment the Huntsman released Nathan, a grin splitting his beard. "Hoy, so this is odd, is it not? To grab you and be grabbed back! What, you won't lick my face now you have hands? Ah, but I've missed you, boy."
Kai heard him. In her mind, she heard and understood him. But her ears heard different sounds, not what her mind reported. She shook her head as if she could shake free of the disconnect that way.
Nathan's laugh rang clear. He rested one hand on the head of a hound who stood hip-high to him. Another hound butted him in the leg, wanting attention. He glanced down fondly. "Ardadamar, where are your manners? And you, sir, claiming you missed me. You've scarcely thought of me."
"No, but I did... well." He scratched his ear. "Several times, yes, I did. Is my grief less for being inconstant, eh? I missed you. But why did you call me? You don't need me to come home."
"I've a favor to ask." As the Huntsman's face darkened he added, "And stories for payment. Four hundred years' worth."
"Stories. Well." He fingered his beard, then his gaze shifted. He saw Kai and the beast at her side. He nodded. "Ah. So you called me for this, but it's no favor. How could you think so? Queens' law, boy, and you were wise not to take this hunt on yourself." He reached into thin air – and withdrew a bow.
"What? No," Nathan said. "I'm asking you to return the chameleon to her home."
"Oh, the chameleon. Poor girl. No, she can't be sundered again. The hounds can deal with her, or you can. Better you," he decided. "You'll make it easy on her. But I'll take the binder, don't worry."
"Binder?" Nathan said. His voice came out strangled. He glanced at Kai, emotions skittering across his face and spiking in his colors so fast she couldn't track them – but they ended in horror.
He leaped – made one great, impossible leap, and he landed in front of her. He spun to face the Huntsman, a noise rising from his throat he couldn't have made, deep and inhuman, a growl rising straight from nightmare.
The chameleon sprang to her feet, answering his growl with hers.
Kai thought she might wet her pants. "Nathan?"
The Huntsman stilled and said in a voice too much like Nathan's growl, "You defy me?"
"Mine." Nathan crouched lower, hands out – a fighting posture. "She's Kai, and she's mine."
The Huntsman tilted his head, his eyes narrowing. "Or you are hers. She's a binder, boy. She's caught you."
"She's not. Not a true binder, though I... she thinks she's a telepath. I don't know what she is, but she's Kai. I can't let you kill her."
"You can't stop me." All the humor – the fey, Robin Goodfellow pleasantry – fell away, and Kai was looking at death. Beautiful, implacable death was coming for Nathan and for her. The hounds – so friendly a moment ago – spread wide, hackles lifting, heads lowering.
Nathan called out a name.
Kai heard icicles and silence, and silently the air split open in front of them. A woman, all in white, stepped out of that slit in reality. It closed up neatly behind her. She took a single step forward – and Nathan abandoned Kai to reach for his queen, and he held her as she held him, both of them speaking in a liquid roll of syllables that made no echoes of meaning in Kai's head.
Kai stood, stricken and staring. This wasn't the Queen of Winter. She was winter.
Her skin was white. Not Caucasian, but truly white – like snow or alabaster or opals, for there was a sheen to it, as if colors played beneath the surface. Her hair was blacker than the hellhounds' midnight fur and spiraled in shiny curls to her waist. Her long, oval face angled in ways no human face would, and her tilted eyes were silver just kissed by blue. Tears spangled those eyes, glistening like melting snow in the lashes and on the white cheeks, as she and Nathan embraced.
She had no colors.
Kai blinked. She focused harder, but still saw none of the colors every living creature possessed. No shapes, intricate or otherwise. No thoughts. No emotions. Nothing. "She's not there," Kai said stupidly.
The queen turned her head, her arm still around Nathan, to look directly at Kai. "Binder." Her voice wasn't bells or flutes or anything Kai had expected. No, it was husky and warm, the welcoming warmth of a fireplace on a winter's night. She spoke English now. Clear, unaccented English. "Did you think I would leave my thoughts dangling free for you to seize?"
"My queen." Nathan inhaled on a shudder and stepped back from her, closer to Kai. "She is not a binder."
Those tilted eyes swung toward him, and the queen spoke gently. "I see what you cannot."
"Yes. But it may be I see what you cannot, also."
Her eyebrows lifted. "Nadrellian." She cupped his face in both hands. Her fingers were long and thin and indescribably graceful. "My Nadrellian."
A shudder passed through him. He stared into her eyes, and for several moments neither of them spoke. Finally he said, "I cannot step aside. She is mine."
Kai didn't know if it was courage or ego or simple stupidity pushing her, but she couldn't keep still any longer. "She has a name and a voice, and I was raised to think it's rude to discuss people as if they weren't present when they are. Especially if you're talking about killing them."
The queen laughed. "So we are," she said agreeably. And a knife winged through the air, heading straight for Kai.
Nathan's hand slapped out, knocking it aside.
The queen glanced over her shoulder at the Huntsman. "Iss'athl," she said – two precisely inflected syllables that echoed in Kai's mind as something like "lively and clever idiot."
"She lacks respect."
"She's human." The queen moved around Nathan to study Kai, her gaze traveling up and down. "Mostly human."
The queen stretched out a hand to one side. The chameleon, who had been oddly still until that moment, inched forward to sniff those white fingers, then lick them. "I will discuss your fate with you, then, Kai Tallman Michalski. How did you bring Dell to you?"
"I..." Kai licked dry lips. Now that she had the chance to speak, it was hard to do so. Those eyes... "I didn't, exactly. I was sleeping, and she asked... I don't know how to say it because there weren't words, nothing like words. But she was so alone, and she hurt. I said yes, and just – I fit her in, or she came in."
"I told you," Nathan said. "Kai is not a binder. She sees thoughts, but doesn't – "
"Hush," the queen said absently. She tipped her head to one side. In that moment, curious and alert, she looked about twenty. "I would examine you. For that, I need your permission. You do not have a wide spectrum of choices, since if you refuse I must let my brother kill you. But still, you have this choice. I will not undertake such an invasion without your consent."
Kai's head buzzed with questions, a dizzying mass of questions. She couldn't speak them. Somehow the words wouldn't form, not while she stood beneath the gaze of this ancient power. "May I talk to Nathan?"
"Nai-thann." She made the syllables longer, more weighted, and turned her head to smile at him. "It was a good choice, that name. Are you Naithann now?"
"As much as I know what I am, yes."
"Very well." The queen nodded and stepped back. "You may speak with Naithann."