"Winter Rose" by Nora Roberts Copyright (c) 2001 by Nora Roberts CHAPTER ONEThe world was white. And bitter, bitter cold. Exhausted, he drooped in the saddle, unable to do more than trust his horse to continue to trudge forward. Always forward. He knew that to stop, even for moments, in this cruel and keening wind would mean death. The pain in his side was a freezing burn, and the only thing that kept him from sliding into oblivion. He was lost in that white globe, blinded by the endless miles of it that covered hill and tree and sky, trapped in the frigid hell of vicious snow gone to icy shards in the whip of the gale. Though even the slow, monotonous movements of his horse brought him agony, he did not yield. At first the cold had been a relief from the scorching yellow sun. It had, he thought, cooled the fever the wound had sent raging through him. The unblemished stretch of white had numbed his mind so that he'd no longer seen the blood staining the battleground. Or smelled the stench of death. For a time, when the strength had drained out of him along with his blood, he'd thought he heard voices in the rising wind. Voices that had murmured his name, had whispered another. Delirium, he'd told himself. For he didn't believe the air could speak. He'd lost track of how long he'd been traveling. Hours, days, weeks. His first hope had been to come across a cottage, a village where he could rest and have his wound treated. Now he simply wanted to find a decent place to die. Perhaps he was dead already and hell was endless winter. He no longer hungered, though the last time he'd eaten had been before the battle. The battle, he thought dimly, where he'd emerged victorious and unscathed. It had been foolish, carelessly foolish, of him to ride for home alone. The trio of enemy soldiers had, he was sure, been trying to reach their own homes when they met him on that path in the forest. His first instinct was to let them go. The battle had been won and the invasion crushed. But war and death were still in their eyes, and when they charged him his sword was in his hand. They would never see home now. Nor, he feared, would he. As his mount plodded onward, he fought to remain conscious. And now he was in another forest, he thought dully as he struggled to focus. Though how he had come to it, how he had gotten lost when he knew his kingdom as intimately as a man knew a lover's face, was a mystery to him. He had never traveled here before. The trees looked dead to him, brittle and gray. He heard no bird, no brook, just the steady swish of his horse's hooves in the snow. Surely this was the land of the dead, or the dying. When he saw the deer, it took several moments to register. It was the first living thing he'd seen since the flakes had begun to fall, and it watched him without fear. Why not? he mused with a weak laugh. He hadn't the strength to notch an arrow. When the stag bounded away, Kylar of Mrydon, prince and warrior, slumped over the neck of his horse. When he came to again, the forest was at his back, and he faced a white, white sea. Or so it seemed. Just as it seemed, in the center of that sea, a silver island glittered. Through his hazy vision, he made out turrets and towers. On the topmost a flag flew in the wild wind. A red rose blooming full against a field of white. He prayed for strength. Surely where there was a flag flying there were people. There was warmth. He would have given half a kingdom to spend the last hour of his life by a fire's light and heat. But his vision began to go dark at the edges and his head swam. Through the waves of fatigue and weakness he thought he saw the rose, red as blood, moving over that white sea toward him. Gritting his teeth, he urged his horse forward. If he couldn't have the fire, he wanted the sweet scent of the rose before he died. HeRoberts, Nora is the author of 'Once upon a Rose' with ISBN 9780515131666 and ISBN 0515131660.