Dragging her worn down boots through the June snow, Gwen was aware of a nagging sense of foreboding tugging at her from the back of her mind. It was a feeling of fright, of wariness, and as she walked briskly through the frost coated London streets, she made sure to pay an extra mind to her surroundings. It was common, on her errands, to feel as if anything might go wrong. But this was different. This was a fear she couldn’t quite place, a fear of a thing or a place or a person she didn’t yet know existed.
She clenched her right hand into a fist, the note crinkling within it.
Darling, it is of utmost importance that you deliver this package to Sir Dracy today. He'll be expecting you at five. Do not be late. Oh, and do treat yourself! I'm rather fond of Mildridge's Pies. You must try the raspberry cheesecake. - Uncle Ariel
P.S. Happy birthday!
P.P.S. You'll find Sir Dracy at 89 Guild Street, London.
The last thing Gwen had wanted to do when she woke up that morning was take a trip to London. For most teenage girls, perhaps, a birthday trip to London was a dream, but Gwen had always preferred the company of a warm chocolate cake to traveling. She sighed. Though her uncle was kind, he was far from understanding. Big or small, birthday or not, an errand was an errand, and Gwen had to complete it just the same.
When she was younger, Gwen had asked him why he couldn't complete the tasks himself, and every time, he turned to her with a smile on his face and said, "Because, my dear, you are the summer light." He never offered any other explanation, and eventually Gwen had learned to stop wasting her time asking questions she would never get the answers to.
Turning the corner onto Guild's Street, Gwen searched for house number 89. As with most of Ariel's clients, the townhouses here were massive, frivolous things that towered over Gwen's five foot three frame. Sir Dracy, Gwen suspected, had probably offered Ariel a substantial sum for whatever he had bought. Gwen hoped so, because that would at least explain the urgent call on her birthday, of all days.
Finding house 89, Gwen glided over the porch steps and knocked on the white door. Immediately, a man in his 50's appeared, his eyes roaming over her with a nasty scowl. Spotting the package in her hands, he relaxed.
"You're late," he said, as he turned into the house and disappeared. Gwen checked her watch; it was 4:58. She said nothing. When he did not return, she assumed he wanted her to follow him in. Pushing the door wider, she stepped inside.
The foyer by itself could have housed an entire family. Gwen looked around the house, admiring the beauty of its expanse, the wide sprawling staircase, the luxury velvet couches, the two marble lion statues that glanced at her from the doorway—everything she'd always wanted and never had. Ariel favored a life of simplicity. "When you know you'll always win," he'd say, "you no longer enjoy playing the game." Gwen never understood what that had to do with buying a few clothes now and then, but, like most other things, she didn't question it.
"Where are you, girl?" Sir Dracy said from somewhere within the house. Gwen was about to respond when he appeared through a pair of double doors with a thick envelope in his hand. "Ah, there you are." He handed her the envelope, and she felt the weight of it in her hand. "That should be everything."
"Ok," Gwen said, as she handed him the package.
He cocked his head at her. "Do you not count, Winter Child?"
Gwen cringed at the name. "I trust you, sir. Most people usually follow through on their deals with Ariel. They know what happens if they don't." Her voice was light and sweet, but carried a tone of warning, one she had learned to adopt over the years. Part of Ariel's deals included ensuring her safety, and though anyone had yet to touch her, she always feared the men she would meet during late nights in dark alleys.
"Fair enough," he said, taking the package from her hands. Without waiting, he opened it and smiled. "Perfect." He reached into the box, and suddenly, his face morphed, slightly rejuvenated, healthy, and—impossibly—a bit tan. Although Gwen never knew what she delivered—another one of the questions Ariel refused to answer—she had seen what it could do, and it never failed to amaze her.
"That's all," he said. "Feel free to see yourself out." Taking the package, he strode up the stairs quicker than Gwen thought was possible. Pocketing the envelope in her backpack, Gwen stepped back out into the frigid, endless winter.
It was only when she was making her way from Guild Street to Mildridge's that she noticed the footsteps. They were almost untraceable, and anyone with a different upbringing than Gwen's probably would have brushed it away. Over the prints of her boots leading towards Guild Street, another pair of feet had tried to obscure their own path. Gwen gulped and looked around, but saw nobody. She wanted to call Ariel, but refrained, knowing it would send him into a panic. She wouldn't worry him over a simple theory.
Gwen continued on her way to Mildridge's, but the further she tracked her footprints back, the more she was certain she was being followed. Yet, the streets were empty, with most people choosing to stay inside rather than brace the cold. The only people who ever ventured into the frigid outdoors were Winter Children like her. They had been born during the Dark Days, the period since the last summer 17 years ago, and they had never known anything but winter. Unlike their predecessors, most Winter Children quickly accustomed to the cold—claiming they barely felt it—and thus were usually the ones sent by their parents to grab the groceries or pick up the younger ones from school.
Unfortunately, the Winter Children had earned a bad rep. The jealousy over their quick transition to wintertime would have been enough to earn the ire of the elders, but some Winter Children had taken their advantages too far. They would gang up, abusing their tolerance of the cold, to vandalize public areas or destroy the property of those who had angered them. They would often steal and run outside, knowing the elders wouldn't be able to catch them. These Winter Children, the ones Gwen knew but refused to acknowledge, acted like savages, and in return, the elders treated them as such. Though Gwen had not an evil bone in her body, that is what they considered her—a savage.
Paranoid about her stalker and hoping it wasn't a cop who assumed she was up to no good, Gwen decided to hail a cab. Ariel would chide her for unnecessary spending later on, but Gwen was past caring. All she wanted was a piece of warm, raspberry cheesecake and a quick ticket to her portal back in Georgia.
When a cab finally stopped, the driver narrowed his eyes at her. "ID," he said. Gwen opened her backpack, pulling out her wallet, and handed him her ID . He shook his head in disgust. "Winter Child." He pointed to a sign on the window.
NORMAL FARES: 3 POUNDS PER KM / WINTER CHILD FARES: 5 POUNDS PER KM
Knowing it was no use arguing, Gwen got in the car. "King's Road, please," she said.
The man turned back to her. "No funny business, girl. I have the police on speed dial." Without saying anything else, he turned around and sped off towards King's Road.
Mildridge's Pies was a quaint little café in the middle of the bustling market. Her waitress looked to be about a year younger than her, and possibly the peppiest person Gwen had ever seen.
"Hello, Miss,“ she said, jumping up and down on the balls of her feet. "Welcome to Mildridge's, where pie is served fresh, warm, and tasty! My name is Kate. What can I get for you today?" Then, stopping herself as if she'd made a mistake, "Would you like to hear our specials?"
"No, just a slice of raspberry cheesecake, please,” Gwen said.
"Of course, coming right up!"
As Kate was about to turn away, Gwen stopped her. "Actually, can you make that two? One to go, please." Kate nodded and walked away. Gwen hoped that a piece of Ariel’s favorite cake would sweeten up the news that she'd taken a cab.
With the smell of the pies wafting into her nose and making her mouth water, Gwen forgot all about the person following her. It was only when the bell atop the café's door jingled that she remembered, because there, staring at her like he'd known her her whole life, was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.
He walked towards her with an easy, powerful gait that screamed danger. Gwen held her breath, hazel eyes going wide as she took in the full sight of his figure, and told herself to calm down. She wondered if this was the person who had been following her, but his pointed gaze left nothing to the imagination. He bent over the front of her table, and Gwen breathed in a strange, almost familiar scent of trees.
"Orla," he said, looking at her as if he couldn't believe his eyes.
Confused, Gwen shook her head. "No," she said. "No, I'm Gwen." She covered her mouth, realizing that giving a stranger—a stalker—her name probably wasn’t the soundest idea.
His blue eyes did a double take. "You... are alive." The way he said it, it was almost a question.
"I would surely hope so," Gwen said.
For a second, he seemed overjoyed, and then, out of nowhere, he snarled, enraged. "I have to go," he seethed, and stormed out of the café.
"Oh," Kate said, appearing with Gwen's pie, "was that your boyfriend?"
Gwen shook her head. "I have no idea who that was." But I'm going to find out, Gwen thought as she paid for the pies and headed out the door.