The commander of the winter’s army had a special way of converting new recruits, even those who’d been “recruited” while kicking and punching from the inside of a deerskin sack until they were darted with oleander bloodstop to halt the blasphemous screams for freedom. What Whiled did with all his new acquisitions was simple: he let them out of captivity and into a pleasant tearoom lined with lemon-cardamom wallpaper and set with a table for two or four acquaintances. Here comes the rub: the prisoner was left unsure whether he or she was really in this charming room, or whether all goodness was an illusion.
Two worlds encroached upon Belind at once, so it seemed the sure walls of a slush-drowned night were closing in at the same time that the smile of his godmother beckoned him from the mushroom table, a sunbeam sickened by the icy spray that twisted the corners of her mouth into mockery before the scene reached his eyes. The clouds like eels around his ankles betrayed their true purpose: to make the sunlight merge with the ice, to turn his brain to stone. He had read reports about this, speculation mostly, but he had prepared his mind, and he told himself: Breathe in. Breathe out. Fight it.
But even a powerful Rider can’t stand up forever against the heaviness of two converging poles. As Belind’s toes melted into the soft mint carpet that might just as easily have been a splintering ice sheet, and as he struggled to hear the sweet voice of his sister in the cackle of a hungry wind rattling through skeletal branches, and as the smell of honeyed tea and the smile on his godmother’s face sent a sunbeam into his throat where it withered into a cold, certain phlegm – as these two worlds pressed ever closer, it became clear to Belind that he could only relieve the immense pain of his brain’s twofold expansion by choosing one half to hold onto.
He really wanted to hear what his sister was saying to him with that ruddy smile she bore, and he really wanted to warm his fingers around a mug of honeyed tea, and he really wanted the lemon wallpaper to truly be wrapped all the way around him. But instead, to end the agony, Belind let go his eye’s grip on what he had once been sure was reality. Now he was not sure of anything, and he hardly felt the pang in the back of his rib cage as the yellow room shrank away and hit the bottom of some faraway trash chute.
Now the pain was gone. He stood in the center of an endless gray winter, a blue watercolor sky wanting to embalm and smother him between the swaths of blizzard and creaks of undead trees stabbing into a night that knew no bright counterpart inside this grim Forever. And he felt nothing, and he didn’t care.
Only Lord Whiled had any sense left in him, and he cared a great deal. He choked down a sobbing laugh and took another sip of his black powder ale. Then, with a wave of his hand and a crank of the machinery that made excess slaves disappear, Whiled, too, was finished caring.
Image credits in order of appearance:
By zenobia_joy (flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Chenspec (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Samuel W. Smith (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
By Bureau of Land Management [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons