My name is Winter. My eyes are ice and my smile a cold wind.

I'm sixteen years old. I've been on my own since I was seven, when my parents and younger sister died. I take care of myself. I survive.

My hair is short; as black as a long, bleak winter's night when no stars shine in the sky. My eyes are the color things turn when they freeze. I'm short for my age, but slight. And I'm strong. I'm tough. I'm fierce.

But I'm also human.

It was near the end of summer, the time of year when the days are just starting to get shorter and the trees are considering shedding their leaves. The sun was setting over the hills far away. I hurried home, my stomach as empty as my pockets – as it usually was – and wondering if I could perhaps steal an apple or a loaf of bread at the market. But no, I had done that yesterday, and they were sure to be more watchful today. I always left three days between thieveries. One day for them to let paranoia eat away at them, another day for them to be a little more watchful than was normal, and the last for them to be fully certain that the thief, whoever it was, wasn't coming back. By 'them,' of course, I mean the shopkeepers. By the fourth day, it was usually alright to steal something else. The shopkeepers weren't very bright.

It didn't matter though. There was no food, and I was too tired to go begging someone for a coin or two. I would have to go hungry for the night.

This was no rare occurrence for me. I lived on the streets, earning what I could and stealing the rest, hardly ever having enough food to keep me from going hungry. Every now and then some kindly person would see the poor girl on the street and give her a basket of food or a dragoneye to buy a proper meal. But people usually didn't notice me. I was just another of the many homeless in Tenwick's streets, scraping by with barely enough to survive. I stayed away from all the others though. I had had enough run-ins with them to know that they were not to be trusted.

I was exhausted by the time I got home. I worked as a messenger in the city, because I was fast. People paid me to carry their letters, or simply their words passed on to me to pass on to someone else. Today had been a busy day, undoubtedly because it was the young prince's birthday. I made a face at the ceiling as I flopped down on my bed. Royals.

It wasn't a real bed, actually, nor was it a real ceiling. My home was the attic of a small abandoned building. The roof was no more than a few boards that I had nailed into place to keep out the rain, and my bed was just a pile of cast off blankets that I had found in various places, some of which I preferred not to think too much about as I lay down. Besides that, the only other thing in the attic was a small wooden box that held my personal belongings. So basically, it was just an empty box.

Okay, not true. As of last month, it now held two wax candles, a pile of parchment, a small nub of a pencil, and a book. I was trying to teach myself how to read and write. So far, my successes had been pretty limited. As in, nonexistent.

I tried not to get too discouraged. One day, I told myself, I would figure it out, and the scribbles on the messages I delivered every day would make sense. Hopefully.

My stomach grumbled unhappily. Again, not uncommon. I could practically speak stomach-ese by then. I'm sure my stomach and I could have quite a conversation.

To keep my mind off my hunger, I pulled my knife from its hidden sheath in my belt and began twirling it. I always kept my knife close by because, well, when you're a teenage girl with no home, no family, and no money and you live by yourself in a city as infamous for trouble as Tenwick, you have to be careful. I had learned this the hard way, and still had the scar on my face to prove it.

Okay, my life isn't easy. I've had to struggle and scratch for every little thing that I own, and I've had to do it by myself. No parents to smile at me and encourage me and help me up when I fall. No siblings to bicker with or friends to laugh with. Just me. But that's made me strong. I don't depend on other people, and I can take care of myself. I've built myself armor, thicker than any that the knights at the castle wear, and nothing can pierce it. I'm cold, like winter.

And sometimes, it sucks.

I hurled my knife at the ceiling as hard as I could to vent my frustration. It thudded into the wood, and I heard an ominous crack. I jumped to my feet just as the board cracked and fell down in two pieces where I had just been lying.

"It better not rain tonight," I muttered, looking up at the large gap in the roof, through which I could see the star-strewn sky. I was too tired to go down to the street to scrounge for nails and something to use as a hammer, so I shoved the pieces of the board aside and curled up on my bed again. Exhausted, I was asleep within minutes.

Of course, it had to rain that night.

A drop of rain hitting my face was what woke me up. I sat bolt upright, wiping the water from my forehead and staring at the clouds gathering in the sky overhead. "You've gotta be joking," I moaned. There was no time to fix the roof, so I dragged my bed into a corner that actually had a roof. I turned the box with my belongings upside down so its contents were protected. Then I wrapped myself in blankets and got ready to wait the long night out.

Dawn came at last, dispelling the rainclouds and making the whole world sparkle. It was the kind of morning that poets and artists love to try to replicate. I yawned, completely ignoring the view right outside my home, and shrugged into my cape that marked me as a messenger, dark green like evergreen trees. I tucked my short black hair into the matching green cap, put my knife back in its sheath, and pulled on my worn leather boots, hoping they would last another day. Then I jumped down into the dirty, garbage strewn alleyway next to my house.

Almost as soon as I stepped out onto the bustling street, someone hailed me. "Messenger!" he shouted, and I trotted over. It was a shopkeeper, the one who sold fish, with a balding head of black hair and a trim little beard. He handed me a folded up piece of paper. "Take this to Number 34, Serenity Street as fast as possible."

I nodded. "That will be five tins, please."

Heaving a sigh, he reached behind the counter of his shop and pulled out five copper tins, which he handed to me. I tucked them into the small coin pouch on my belt, next to my knife, and took off. Ten tins equaled a silver half-dragon, and two half-dragons were a golden dragoneye, which was enough to buy a good sized meal in these parts.

I knew the city of Tenwick like the back of my hand. Better, even. I didn't spend my days memorizing my hand. I knew all the shortcuts and alleyways, knew which areas to avoid, knew all the street names. After all, I earned my living by running through them every day.

After delivering the letter to Serenity Street, someone else called to me, and so spent my morning running all over the city. Using the money I had earned, I bought a small loaf of bread and a bit of ham to put on it. I took my lunch up to the nearest rooftop and ate quickly. The faster I got back to my job, the more money I made, and the more money I made, the less likely it was I would go hungry.

I delivered letters all day, until the sky started to darken and people started to disappear off the streets for fear of muggers. I bought a few apples for my dinner and started to head back to my home.

I decided to take the fast way back, which wasn't always the safest, but it cut down my route by a full five minutes. Unfortunately, I wasn't really paying attention to where I was going, and found myself staring at a dark blank wall at the end of a dark alleyway. A dead end. I sighed and started to turn around to go back.

"Not so fast, missy," I heard a voice say, and five burly men materialized from the shadows, cutting off my escape. I froze, recognizing them instantly. They were some of the men that worked with Grender, the head honcho in the whole mugging industry in this fine city. I avoided them as much as I could, but they had a way of cornering people in dark alleyways, stealing their money and beating them to a pulp. And here I was, cornered in a dark alleyway, with a pouch of money hanging from my belt. How ironic.

"Evening, gentlemen," I said amiably, careful not to show my fear. They lived off the fear of others, and I wasn't going to give them the satisfaction.

The man in front smiled; an ugly, broken-toothed smile that came out as more of a grimace. "'Ello, darlin'. No need to be afeared of ole Den."

I laughed derisively. "Oh, I'm not afraid. Except maybe that you'll try to breathe on me. I'm sure the stench of your breath could knock anyone right over."

The man called Den's smile disappeared. "Jus' give us that money and those lovely apples and we won' hurt ya."

I drew my knife from its sheath. "In your dreams, ugly," I snarled.

Immediately, five knives appeared in five hands. I calculated my odds. Five on one, all with knives, perhaps fairly skilled with them. And they were all much bigger than me. I prided myself with being a pretty capable knife fighter, but against them, I practically stood no chance. I could make a break for it, but they were spread across the narrow alleyway, and I would probably be caught before I could take two steps. I'm doomed, I thought.

The five started advancing toward me, and I backed away until I was pressed up against the end of the alley. I swiped my knife back and forth threateningly. "Stay back," I warned. "I'll hurt you if I have to."

The men only laughed and kept coming. One of the smaller ones darted forward and, before I could do anything, grabbed my left arm and knocked the knife right out of my hand. My heart sank. I'm double doomed.

Seconds later, I was pinned up against the wall, glaring daggers at Den as he cut the money pouch from my belt. Then he took the apples from my hand and tossed them to another of his men. He leered in my face. "Methinks y'need to be taught a little lesson."

He raised his knife to my face and traced my cheek with its tip, not hard enough to draw blood. "What a pretty face," he growled. "Pity I have to ruin it like this."

I gathered saliva in my mouth and spit in his eyes.

Den roared in anger and stumbled away, wiping at his eyes blindly. He glowered at me. "Ye'll pay for that, ye little brat!" He raised his knife to my face again and I closed my eyes.

"Hey!" a voice from the end of the alleyway shouted. "Step away from the lady!"

Den's cohorts spun around, letting me fall on my hands and knees to the ground. I lifted my head.

Someone was standing at the end of alleyway. He was tall enough to be a full grown man, but something about him suggested that he was still a teenager. A hood covered his face. And he was carrying a sword.

Gasps and murmurs rose from the men. No one carried swords except the knights at the castle. Was this a knight?

Den reacted fast. He grabbed me and hauled me to my feet, holding the knife to my throat. "Take one step forward, stranger, and she's dog meat."

The person hesitated. "You don't want to do that, sir," he said warningly. I decided that he couldn't be older than eighteen. A boy, coming to save me. I almost laughed.

Den gave a sharp bark of laughter. "I ain' no sir, boy. And if ye know what's best for ye, ye'll walk away quiet-like and let us go about our business."

The boy didn't back off one step. "I said, let her go."

Den growled and pressed the knife harder against my throat. I gulped, feeling the cold, sharp prickle of the blade on my skin. I had to do something, or we would either be stuck here forever or Den would kill me. I took a few deep breathes to calm my pounding heart. Then I drew up my elbow and slammed it into Den's gut.

His breath whooshed out and he let go of me, giving me enough of a chance to jump away, toward the boy with the sword. I landed next to him, and he bent down. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"Look out!" I screeched, as one of the men came barreling toward us, knife in hand. I scrambled away as the boy took care of him. Then, before I knew it, Den was standing over me, fury on his face.

"I'll take care of you, little brat!" he snarled, bringing his knife down toward my chest. I rolled away, but the blade found skin.

I think I screamed, but the pain was so real and white-hot that nothing seemed to matter anymore. With my last remaining strength, I kicked Den away and pulled the knife from my shoulder. The world went fuzzy and red and weird, and my brain seemed to shut off. I was vaguely aware of the boy bending over me, saying, "Are you okay? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," I groaned, and then I fainted.