[Author's note:

This is a writing exercise. It isn't technically a NaNo, but the principle is similar: a high-speed, high-volume, unedited firehose of prose. I've challenged myself to Shut Up And Write -- to throw down whatever comes to mind without worrying whether it's any good. Consequently, some of it... well, isn't very good. The first chapter in particular is dripping with purpleness. It is still perfectly all right to leave crits! Just be aware that if your criticism is, 'It feels like a first draft,' my only thought will be, 'Well, duh.' :D

You will find a continuity note at the end of the most recent chapter, which I'll try to keep up to date, mentioning which things I've retconned or replotted as I wrote, since I won't let myself rewrite the earlier chapters until the whole thing's done.]

Chapter One

It was Fionn Aneirin of the White Spiral Company who caught him in the wood outside Delwy; one of the Princess Regent's personal guard. Before anyone else he would have passed easily as what he appeared: a Child of Iron on some lordling's errand, untouchable. But Fionn Aneirin had a talent for seeing through illusions. And a memory for names.

"Well. Morddrawn the Plain, called Eiddiarnan," the knight gloated from atop his snorting mount, sneering down at his bound captive, rattling off names as if they mattered. "Called Brantadhg, the Lover of Iron, called Iarnrhud of the Anvil, called, erroneously, Ynyr, after a virtue which you do not comprehend. Tarlach's hound, traitor to your own blood."

Standing at feigned ease between the soldiers who held him, Ynyr seethed, but deeply, without allowing it to touch his eyes. Eyes the color of poisonous iron, from which so many of those pointless names were taken. Ugly names except for one. The rebel general Tarlach had given him the name Ynyr, honor, and meant it; he had been Ynyr from that moment, for all it gave rhetorical ammunition to those who believed him a puppet pretender controlled by Tarlach's will. He gazed into the middle distance, half-veiled by filthy bronze-green hair he didn't bother to raise his bound hands to brush aside.

Not satisfied with this lack of response, Fionn Aneirin took a toe from a stirrup and nudged Ynyr with a booted heel. "Where's your master now, dog? Cut you loose, has he, to face Her Serenity's wrath? Where's your army of monsters?"

Ynyr said mildly, "I may tell the Dawn Council these things, if they torture me well enough. You're not much of a threat, Fionn. But do go on kicking me if you like, as it delays meeting my sister."

Fionn Aneirin leaned down and slapped him with the back of a mailed hand. The ornaments on the gauntlet tore bleeding seams across Ynyr's face.

"Her Serenity," the knight spat, "was too merciful with you thirty years ago." He was obviously stung by the reminder that his loathsome prisoner was close kin to his exalted lady.

Smiling down at the cords drowning his thin wrists, Ynyr watched a drop of golden blood spatter on his thumb, and didn't answer. It was time to start teaching himself silence. Otherwise the coming torment would drag all his secrets out of him, and Tarlach's secrets as well.

There was but one hope for him. If he could withstand the questioning, convince his sister and her lackeys that there were no secrets to be pried from him, they would next wish to get rid of him. But his royal blood made him immune from execution, and holding him prisoner would only goad Tarlach to greater ruthlessness in an effort to rescue him. Therefore they must exile him. The Princess would probably choose the harshest exile of all: the Winterlands, from which the holy slave caste were captured. Only those stout, round-eared, earth-colored people could manipulate the poisonous metal. That metal was so common in the world of their birth, it permeated the very air. Such an exile was essentially a death sentence designed to leave the Dawn Council's hands clean.

But Tarlach knew the secrets of iron, and had taught Ynyr some magics that might protect him. Might save him long enough to find a way back. And then... My sister need not live to regret what she's done to me. I'll be satisfied with a world empty of her.

* * *

A month's hard ride south of Delwy Cross, the Low River slunk through its marshy haunt. Slow and shallow and miles wide in places, it split and converged, now a torrent, now a lake, threaded with eye-shaped islands where the willow tribes built their stilt houses. At a place called the Maze, the river ran in seven channels between high-sloped bluffs, and there on the southern bank a castle rose from the hill. The castle was also called the Maze, both for the tunnels that ate the stone it stood on and for the enchantments that ringed it. An unwelcome visitor might follow its spire forever and never reach it.

The Maze seemed to grow from the ground, an impossibly regular outcropping of blue-gray stone without seam or mortar. It was star-shaped, the nine angles of its walls each punctuated by a prism-shaped tower, each capped by a blue-tiled roof pointed like a stiletto. Within this nine-pointed wall soared the bizarre driftwood shape of the keep. More like a growth of poured stone built up over millennia in a deep cavern than like a made thing, the keep had not one straight line in it, but twisted and rippled like a frozen waterfall. The windows that pierced its flanks were of all shapes and sizes, spattered without pattern as if there were no proper rooms or floors inside, but rather the random tunnellings of insects. On this cold, gray day, all the windows of the lowest bulge blazed; the keep's common inhabitants had lit a fire in every hearth, light against the darkness of their lord's mood. Above a certain point, though, no lights burned.

High in the central spire, in a chamber vaulted like a cavern, General Tarlach paced in the dark. What light fell through the windows was adequate only to show the ghost of a gleam in his pale hair, to give a bluish tint to his colorless skin, to catch the faintest flash of silver at his wrist when he turned at the end of the chamber to walk its length again.

Tarlach was as unlike his peers as his driftwood castle was unlike their filligree palaces. His silvery hair was cut straight across his shoulders, far too short for the elaborate braids and coils demanded by fashion. His clothing barely proclaimed him an officer: varnished leather boots; straight trousers and band-collared jacket of dark blue wool, nothing but a bit of silver braid to distinguish it from the uniforms his elite soldiers wore. His only jewelry was a blue topaz suspended by silver wire from one ear, carved with the heron crest of his house.

As he passed each window, there was a certain point where the light hit his eyes sideways, igniting them with the same watery blue, giving him the appearance of a seer or a blind cat. Those who could meet his gaze were rare.

At the time of day when the clouds seemed lower but twilight hadn't yet begun, there came a rhythmic rattling at the windows, like a sentient wind. Tarlach lifted his chin slightly and the nearest window blew inward on hidden hinges. Something drifted in, some clot of cobweb or knot of smoke; while the general, with the same minimal gesture, willed the window closed, the smoke split and thickened into two columns. With an effect like dye stirred into water, two small forms appeared, bowing. They were twin girl-children, but only the way the Maze was a fortress. Their blue-gray hair spun like spiderweb around triangular white faces, in which blue rosebud lips parted in needle-toothed smiles. With fingers like icicles they plucked up skirts of tattered blue-white lace for an insectile unison curtsey. Tarlach sank to one knee, to match their height, and held out his hands.

"My dearest servants, I am glad to see you safe." They came to him, and he stroked their floating hair. Their long, crystalline eyes drank his face with adoration, to which he returned a sorrowful smile. "My sweet An, my pretty Eng, what news?"

At this the creatures backed away, their adoration soured by memory. Said Eng, in a voice like the twinkling aftermath of an ice storm, "My lord is sad."

"With good reason, my lord is sad," echoed An.

"He has sacrificed."

"Ynyr is exiled."

Tarlach rose slowly to his feet. "Is it so, my little ones? Tell me anything but this."

"My lord is too wise to be decieved in this way."

"My lord is not compassionate, but he is wise."

"Let me be a fool this once. Fool me. Darlings, spin me a tale, tell me he escaped, tell me she was merciful to her own baby brother, tell me she slew him and he died with my name on his lips." The silence stretched; they would not lie to him. Tarlach sighed at his own weakness. At last, in a different tone, he said simply, "Tell me."

"My lord wishes to torture himself."

"Tortured with a tale of torture."

"My lord wishes to sharpen his remorse."

"He is not compassionate, not even with himself."

"Do you defy me?" Tarlach snapped. "Tell me!"

"Nor is he patient," said Eng to her sister.

"We are not angry," said An. She caught her sister's dress, and together they grasped their master's hands. "He was captured by Fionn Aneirin of the White Spiral."

"He was taken before the Dawn Council."

"He was beaten and pierced with spears."

"He did not cry out."

"The blood ran from his mouth."

Tarlach took his hands back from them and pressed his fists against his eyes until he saw colors. "Did he --?"

"He did not."

"He told nothing worth knowing."

"The Lords Irdrhan and Dubhgall and the Lady Medbh left the proceedings in disgust."

"Ynyr was cast into the water."

"He was put out of the Summerlands forever."

"Ynyr is exiled."

"Ynyr is exiled."

His voice too deep and rough, he demanded: "Where?"

"The lands of ice and fire."

"The lands of filth and glory."

Tarlach supplied the answer they would only hint at: "The Winterlands." He took a long breath and let it out slowly, lowered his hands and raised his head. He had shown enough emotion before his servants. They must be able to tell the others that he sorrowed, but an excess of grief would be seen as weakness. "My dear witnesses, you have done well. Leave me now. I would be alone."

Eng turned to her sister with her hands pressed together in a gesture that had meaning to them alone. "My lord will weep now."

"We also will weep," said An, and in a flutter of cobwebs they slipped beneath the sill of the door and were gone.

Tarlach reined in his regret long enough to seal the room, so that he could be neither disturbed nor spied upon by his creatures. Then he let the sisters' report fall on his shoulders like a mountain. "My brave one," he whispered. "My prince. My lord. By Three, how dare that viper call anyone traitor, least of all you?"

The little iron-magic he'd taught Ynyr might suffice to keep the young prince alive in exile for a few weeks, a few months; it would not be enough to open any of the ways back. It would only prolong his suffering.

For an hour, Tarlach indulged himself in weeping and in fantasies of rushing to the rescue. The task wasn't impossible. He knew how to open certain doors. He knew enough of the ways of the Winterlands to survive and travel there. While his seeking spells would be useless among so much iron, there were other ways to find people, particularly someone as strange as Ynyr would seem to the inhabitants of the place.

But it would mean postponing the attack he planned to make at Eriander, upon which hung the success of his campaign against the southern marches. Even now his armies gathered in Ynyr's name. He could imagine Ynyr's face if Tarlach brought him back to a world where the rebellion was destroyed and the Regent's power was unassailable. Furious, betrayed. There were other lords who could take the throne, but no one else could command Tarlach's monstrous troops. Ynyr would suicide in shame. Even a slow demise in the Winterlands was better than that.

The General allowed himself that one hour of bitter tears. Then he dried his eyes.

No longer young enough to lose himself in grief, Tarlach saw the days stretching out in front of him, darkening one after the other until the time when he would have to accept that Ynyr was dead. And then... then he would go on, as he had always gone on. Making war, as was his talent. Without Ynyr as a figurehead, the rebellion would falter, but he would find a way to push it forward, and eventually he would stand in the Nacreous Garden with the Princess Regent kneeling at his feet. He didn't dwell yet on thoughts of what he'd do to her in revenge. He would save those musings to give him strength once this storm of pointless hope subsided.

* * *

James was picking at the loose ends of guitar strings sticking out of the pegs to keep from punching somebody. When he finally had a go at talking, his voice came out growly, but at least he wasn't yelling. "Run that by me again," he said. "Jared's an asshole, so I'm out of the band? How does that work again?"

Randy picked orange nail polish off her thumb with her teeth. She looked pretty uncomfortable. Good. Stu, on the other hand, was as mellow as always. He talked like they were working up a set list, not booting their guitarist on no notice whatsoever. "No," he said, "it's not like, you know, go away we hate you, it's just, you know, your style, and you always want to do covers --"

"Oh, bullshit!" James shouted. Randy flinched. "You're the one who doesn't like my lyrics, so if all we can play is Jared's dumb screamy-goth self-pity rants, yeah, covers are better. If you'd let me --"

"That's just it, though." Randy sounded sincere, which was enough to shut James up. "We like Jared's lyrics. I mean, yeah, he can be kind of difficult, but he's good. You're good too, but drummers are a zillion times harder to find than guitarists. And this is Stu and Jared's house. We boot Jared, where are we going to practice? And I know you kind of wanted to hook up with that experimental thing Joe wants to do --"

"That's just a side project!"

"But look at it," Randy said. "We just can't go on with you and Jared sniping at each other. It's like this dysfunctional routine, like Monday through Wednesday you two are too busy climbing on each other to practice, and Thursday through Sunday you're broken up and you hate the world. We can't run a band like that. So one of you has to go, I'm sorry to put it like that but we just can't take it any more. Jared's too hard to replace, and you have this other thing going on. So you're it. I'm sorry."

A self-righteous rage was building in him, and he knew if he cut it loose he'd be sleeping in jail tonight. So he turned his back without another word and set his butter-yellow Strat lovingly in its case. Jared's basement, which he had played in so often he no longer noticed it, suddenly reappeared in all its claustrophobic squalor. The one bare bulb seemed to cast shadows instead of light. The tangle of cables, the clutter of amps, no longer looked like the tools of a working band. They looked like something broken, a dismembered robot.

When he latched the guitar case, he was confronted by their band's sticker on top of the layered stickers that covered the case. Cheaply printed on red adhesive paper at the all-night copy place. Five Mile Stagger. He'd named the band, back when it had just been him and Jared in the first manic energy of infatuation. He'd printed the stickers, too. Maybe, he thought bitterly, he ought to make them change the name. But that would be a damn small thing to do, since he knew he'd sure as hell never name another band Five Mile Stagger with all the memories that name would be dragging around. Better to cut himself all the way loose. He rooted in his jacket for his buck knife, flipped it open.

"Whoa," said Stu uncertainly. What did he think James was going to do, ritually disembowel himself into the anvil case? When he merely slid the edge under the corner of the sticker, Stu breathed a sigh of relief. Stu was a flake.

James peeled the sticker off, taking his time, not harming any of the glossy stickers beneath it. He put the knife away and hefted the case. Randy was pretending to tear down, fiddling with a mic stand, but Stu was watching James with a stoned, doglike smile. James pressed the sticker carefully across the front of Stu's shirt. This time his voice came out calm, even cool. "Take 'History of Firearms' off the set list; it's mine," he said, and with that for a goodbye he went upstairs and out into the winter night.

On the front steps he encountered Jared's back. Sometimes he thought he knew Jared's back better than his face. When it crossed his mind to walk past without speaking, he knew he was numb. Instead, he went down the steps and squatted on his heels, crossing his arms on the guitar case, looking up at Jared's blankness. Jared stared back, waiting, with this sort of why-are-you-still-here look. So terribly pretty, pouting behind a veil of hair as soft and glossy as if it hadn't been bleached within an inch of oblivion and streaked crimson and orange with chemical dyes. But pretty could only get you through so much. Romance only compensated for a certain amount of shit.

James took his time lighting a cigarette before he spoke, to appear calm, to give himself time to feel the echoes of the end of Stagger rippling through him like a sound. Because he knew he would never be able to look at Jared again without seeing that sticker coming off his guitar case. "You got another guitarist in mind yet?"

Jared looked annoyed. "I don't want to make a scene, James."

That'll be a first, he thought, but didn't say it. "I'm not making a scene. I'm thinking about the band. I feel kind of bad about leaving like this, but Joe was really hot on this experimental thing, and I really want to get in on that."

That got some color into his face, if only for a moment. Confused him. James could practically hear him thinking -- but I dumped you -- before settling on neutrality. "Well, I guess I'll see you around. You know, if we get Ch -- another guitarist in time to do the party at --"

"Charlene?" James gave a laugh that said, That girl knows three whole chords and two of them are the same one on different frets. "Well, it's your band now." He stood, turned, then turned back as if in afterthought. "Oh, and Jared?"

"What?" Jared snapped.

"Lose my number."

All the way down the sidewalk, he felt Jared's eyes on his back. He didn't care much. Later he'd care too much, but for now it felt good to believe he'd dumped him for good.

He took a left at the end of the block, and once he was out of sight of Stu and Jared's house he set the guitar case down for a good long shiver. The February night was bitter, and now that the warmth of anger was fading, he was freezing his ass off. He rubbed his hands together until he could feel them again. He turned up the collar of his leather jacket. The plastic frames of his glasses were burning cold on his face. His ears were already numb.

"So long, then," he muttered. Picked up his case and started walking again.

Three blocks later, he started crying, and that made him so mad he kicked a plastic recycling bin halfway across the street. He almost turned right around and went back there to kick the crap out of everybody; stood around battling himself while his feet went numb; when he won the fight with his temper, he resumed trudging toward home, but the crying got worse.

When he realized that a lumpen shadow in the next alley was a person, he was too ashamed of his tear-streaked face to look more closely; he turned his head away and hurried past. He ignored the first "Wait!" called after him.

But the second was cracked and desperate, and that stopped him.

"Please." Hard to tell if the voice was male or female, but it was young and clear. Definitely not some old wino looking for a handout. "Please. Please help."

James ducked his chin to his chest and pulled the neck of his t-shirt up to wipe his eyes. Resettling his glasses, he turned and took the three steps back to the alley. "What's the problem?"

"The problem?" A hysterical giggle. The figure uncurled from its shadow, tried to step forward but stumbled and fell to one knee.

James sucked in a sharp breath and stepped back.

"I'm dying. It's a problem for me, at least." With another fractured laugh, the creature struggled to its feet and stood displaying its weirdness to the world.

Not human. Not human. James was paralyzed, staring. Humanoid, certainly; roughly his height, with the right sort of limbs in the right sort of arrangement. But not remotely human. Slim and androgynous, but somehow viscerally frightening nonetheless. That brassy green hair could be dye, but if the faint greenish tint to its skin was makeup, then how could it be blotchy with the cold? Tilted eyes huge and dark, staring, mad, alien. Pointed ears, pale with the beginnings of frostbite. There were scratches and scars and scabs all over its face and neck, its olive-colored lips were chapped and cracked -- James could see from the first look that it wasn't a fake. Which left the question of what the hell it was.

The creature was dressed in gauzy, complicated, richly embroidered, totally weather-inappropriate robes. Laters of gossamer silk and sashes, like a Chinese emperor. Its metallic-olive hair was braided in dozens of tiny plaits looped up with jewel-crusted pins; the hairdo looked sort of lopsided, and one of the pins was bent. When the thing took a step closer, there was a crackling sound, and its clothing moved stiffly: wet and frozen.

"Take me to your hearth. I'll reward you richly. All my wealth is yours, and my magic also, but you must help me."

James made a few attempts to swallow the dryness out of his mouth. Eventually he croaked, "What are you?"

"Have you forgotten us, then? I'll tell you everything, anything you want to know, only take me somewhere warm!"

"Jesus," James muttered. For another few seconds, he told himself this couldn't be happening, and then gave up. For charity or curiosity or just plain lack of better options, he had to help.

He shrugged off his jacket and offered it to the creature, but the thing recoiled from it.

"Iron --!" it choked. Eyes longing after the warmth of it, hands half-reaching and half-flinching.

"Iron?" Zippers and snaps. It can't touch iron. He stripped off his flannel shirt and long-sleeved t-shirt, and put his jacket back on over his bare chest. In the few seconds he'd had it off, the lining had gone icy.

The -- elf, just let sanity take a backseat and call it an elf -- struggled out of the sleeves of its ice-stiff robe, letting the top part hang around its waist. No breasts, so might as well call it 'he' until further notice. It... he... had some difficulty getting the shirts on; unfamiliar with the type of clothing, apparently, as well as stiff from cold.

"Come on," James said when that was finished. "It's not far."

The elf followed him for a few steps, then lurched to a stop.

"Come on. It's like 20 below out here. What are you stopping for?"

The elf pointed to the sidewalk in front of his feet. Beneath the dirty snow was a rusty steel plate, presumably covering a channel where a drain had been cut through.

"So step over it," James commanded, exasperated. "I'd piggyback you, but apparently you can't touch my jacket."

With one more mad scrap of laughter, the elf stretched a leg comically far over the plate. James realized the elf was barefoot, just as he completed the step and gasped in sudden agony, falling forward.

James dropped his guitar case and jumped to catch him. Arms at full stretch to keep from bumping him with any zippers, he steadied the elf, who was teetering on one foot, clutching the other, teeth clenched in agony. Dark eyes saucer-wide, he watched James's jacket as if the zippers were snakes that might swarm off the leather and bite him. Slowly, he took his hand away from his foot to look at it.

A line across the tops of his toes was seared white and shiny, as if the plate he'd stubbed his foot on had been at absolute zero.

"Maybe you shoulda gone around," James suggested.

The elf's eyes climbed slowly from James's jacket to his face, and gradually he began to grin, sanity dawning to drown the madness. "Maybe I should have," he said at last.

"If it hurts, at least you know your toes aren't frozen. Let's go already. Watch out for manhole covers."

"What are those like? They sound ominous."

At a loss for how to explain, James just shook his head and led on.