Pushing through the funnel of freezing wind, Theodore kept low to the hillock and crept closer to his target. The Countess was focused, her head bowed to aim thunder bolts, gales, and the steady crawl of frost across the battlefield. In the distance, Theodore could hear knights shouting as their feet were locked in ice. Creatures shrieked and roared as they went on the assault. He tried not to look back. If he could just sneak up on the unicorn, he could end this war before it truly started.
Toe to heel. Crouching along the slope of the hill, biting his jaw shut to keep his teeth from chattering, he advanced slow and silent with his iron sword ready. Its magic charge had faded, but it could still be used to kill if he could just move to the crest of the snowcapped hill.
He needed to be the bigger monster. He remembered the thrill of hunting the Tall Man. The rush of cutting down Ella. How powerful he felt leading the knights to stop Bassoon. He prayed to the devil inside him for strength, for that wicked hunger to help him now and then never again. Standing, he raised the sword and took aim at Beira’s neck.
Theodore hesitated. In his mind, he saw his father’s blood covered face looking down on him in the depths of Crookhole Mine. He remembered how terrified he felt in that moment, how sick, how horrified he was that his father was a monster. His hand shook, rattling the loose blade of his sword in its hilt. The wind died. Heart stopping, Theodore swung the sword down as hard as he could.
It was too late. Beira’s ears flicked. She leapt out of the way. Her spell burst into a flurry of fat, fluffy snowflakes that danced around them both.
“Well,” she said, trotting just out of reach. “Here’s something I had not foreseen.” She pointed her horn at him.
Theodore took plow stance to protect himself. “Surrender, Beira! We have you outnumbered! Reinforcements are coming! You can’t win this!”
“Good,” she said.
He kept his guard up. “Your allies are going to die if you don’t stand down!”
She stabbed at him, a feint he saw through. He lunged, but she was ready to dodge. The unicorn was toying with him.
“Do you think I’m stupid enough to think I could storm the doorstep of the King’s city with a handful of angry misfits?” She let out haughty laugh. “This is a sacrifice for our future.”
Theodore watched, looking for a window to attack. “What are you talking about?” She was too cautious. He needed to bait her.
“You met the Titled,” she said. “A gaggle of old shrews too frightened and too stubborn to do anything. We have lived under your thumb for a millennium. That ends today.”
He shifted to the fool stance. “There are other ways than starting a hopeless war.”
“No.” Her horn pulsed white. “There is no choice. I will tip the scales with blood. Your people will not bear this insult. They will march on the Circle. They will spill more blood. And then the fey will rise up. They will see what I see, and bring an end to this farce of peace.”
Theodore couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Beira intended from the beginning to let her soldiers die. Her whole plan was to provoke a conflict to drive the kingdom apart. Theodore was so horrified he let his guard slip.
A beam of cold fired from the tip of her horn in a scream of light. Ice bit Theodore’s skin, climbing up his legs and arm and sealing them in place before he could react. He struggled, trying to free his sword hand as Beira moved closer with a hungry smile.
“You’re a monster!” Theodore shouted, fighting to move, hating himself for every mistake that led to this moment.
Beira scraped Theodore’s cheek with the tip of her horn and let a trickle of blood run free. “A devil,” she said. “That’s the sort of hero this kingdom needs.”
A roar of teeth and claws exploded in front of Theodore’s face. Beira tumbled across the hilltop. A tiger rushed after her as she scrambled back onto her feet. It lunged with its claws, carving red streaks out of the unicorn’s flank. Beira shot a burst of wind from her horn with enough force to knock the tiger into the air. With a pop, the tiger transformed into a gryphon: wings spread and talons sharp.
It was her. Tearing out from nowhere, she’d found him. Theodore thought he’d lost her, that those last heart wrenched moments with her would be all he had, that after all the pain he’d put her through his friend was gone, but she was here again when he needed her most and the sight of her undid the barbed knot coiled around his heart and sent it soaring.
“STAY AWAY FROM HIM!!” Oboe screamed as she swooped, ripping at the unicorn’s mane.
Beira reared back and bucked with her hind legs, knocking Oboe out of the air and crashing over the side of the hill.
“Oboe!!” Theodore said.
She came scrambling back over the hillside, a charging black bear. Beira lunged into Oboe’s attack, stabbing her in the shoulder. The horn sank deep. Oboe screamed, and Theodore saw his friend shrink back into her normal body.
“I owe you so much,” Beira said, panting. Blood gushed from Oboe’s wound and spattered across the unicorn’s face. “It’s a shame I have to kill you.”
Theodore tried to move, but he could not feel his arm through the numb of the ice. Beira’s horn lit up, and Oboe’s howls of pain grew louder. Theodore felt his anger and fear rise like thick black clouds in the sky of his mind. His frozen sword hand tightened around the hilt of his blade, and he fought with all his strength to move. He opened himself, felt the rage crackling inside, and the ice split and buckled like chains around the throat of a rabid dog.
Beira pulled her horn loose from Oboe’s shoulder and whipped her head toward Theodore. He kicked himself free and staggered toward Beira, sword raised.
Oboe grabbed at the Beira’s face the moment she was distracted, punching and clawing with wild fists. The Countess pulled back to get away, but Oboe stayed right on top of her. She took hold of the unicorn, lifted her over her head, and slammed her onto the ground so hard the snow scattered.
Beira let out a hideous, snarling gasp. She thrashed, rolling onto her hooves and rising on shaking legs. “I-impressive,” She said, battered and bruised, but laughing. “But it’s too late.”
Beira galloped away before either could get a hold of her. She raised her horn. A ball of light arched up into the sky with a whistle and burst in a flash of color and noise.
In distance, something shifted in the battle at North Manor. Theodore saw the creatures fall back, retreating as the knights gave chase.
“My work here is done,” Beira said. “Goodbye.”
“You aren’t going anywhere,” Theodore said, charging, ready to rip her apart.
Beira smiled, and then vanished. She was there one moment, and then gone.
“What?!” Oboe said.
Theodore stumbled to a halt. His eyes darted, then widened when he saw it. “Foot prints!” He shouted. A trail of hoof prints appeared in the snow, racing down the slope of the hill. They gave chase.
“Auugh!!” Oboe lurched, grabbing at her shoulder and falling to her knees.
Theodore stopped. Blood was streaking down Oboe’s chest and staining her fur.
“Damn it,” Oboe said. She huffed great lungfuls of breath and forced herself back on her feet.
“You’re hurt!” He said.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “As long as you’re okay.”
It did matter. He cut the hem of his under-shirt and tossed away his sword, then used the scrap of cloth to blot her wound and stop the flow of blood. In the distance, the unicorn was escaping. He needed to go after Beira. He needed to kill her, but the murder in his heart evaporated as his friend struggled to move.
“You need medical attention.”
“I’m fine! Let go of me! I’ll stop her!”
“I don’t understand,” he said, not letting go. “What are you doing here?”
She gave him a tired smile. “Pip told me about the attack. I couldn’t just leave you to deal with it by yourself.”
Theodore wondered if he should be grateful Pip told her more than he asked. “Oboe, you told me you were done fighting. You shouldn’t have come back.”
She put her hand over his, both pushing against the blood-soaked rag. “No. I had to.” She said, their eyes locked together. “I don’t care anymore what I have to do. I don’t care how much it hurts. If I can help then I will. This place is my home and won’t let anyone tear it apart.”
Theodore stared at her. Sensation came prickling back into his sword arm, itching and burning. Her words ran through his mind, and something clicked inside him.