Frost

by Stacy Wennstrom
It had been snowing for seven days and seven nights.  The castle was frosted, its towers transformed into soaring icicles.  On the grounds, peasants, young and old, shivering in worn garments of thin wool, were sent to clear the snow.  Wielding flimsy shovels, they silently chiseled paths so traveling lords or ladies would not have to place a leather clad foot in the snow, which was nearly a foot and a half deep.  There would be many travelers that day, as a royal wedding was about to take place.

Inside one of the castle's tall towers, Princess Juliana sat at her vanity, dreamily tangled within her own thoughts.  Around her were a dozen ladies who were there to prepare the princess to wed King Baldemar that afternoon.  The ladies chattered eagerly as a mute peasant woman tended a robust fire, taking no notice of the high spirited ladies.

Queen Isabelle burst into the chamber.

"Juliana!  What is the meaning of this?  An hour before the ceremony and you aren't even corseted yet?"

Princess Juliana looked at her mother in amazement, as Isabelle had made lateness into an art.  "Mama, I don't think they'll start the wedding without me."

The princess stood and moved to the window to look over the snow-glazed kingdom.  Everyone was so tiny below, like little dolls.  She knew that downstairs hundreds of nobles from both kingdoms were already assembled, and no doubt, both kings, her own father and her husband-to-be, were pacing, worried that something might go wrong.

She couldn't worry, though.  She had thought she would be frightened once the day actually arrived, but she could only feel excitement for a brand new life, a new kingdom, and a new husband.  And what a man he was.  She knew of no other man so handsome or so tall.  Baldemar didn't love her.   He was still in love with his late wife, but Juliana had no doubt she would win his love with time.

"Juliana!  Get away from that window.  What if someone sees you, the soon-to-be queen in your chemise?  What a disgrace that would be.  Countess Fortier was telling me that her daughter took four hours to get ready for her wedding, and she didn't regret a single moment as she looked like an angel."

Juliana sighed.  This explained everything.  The countess was her mother's dearest friend, but they were very competitive.  Queen Isabelle would die of shame before she would allow Juliana to look any less beautiful than the countess' daughter had been on her wedding day.  She submitted herself to being corseted. Her mother chattered eagerly as Juliana was dressed, an elaborate process which involved being mummified in various layers of skirts and ruffles before the antique white gown was finally pulled over her head.

Once the gown was on, Juliana moved towards the mirror, taking baby steps so she would not trip on any of her underskirts.  For the first time, she felt certain that she would awe even her sophisticated husband-to-be.  The dress shone and shimmered by the firelight, complementing the gold of her skin and hair.  She was all the colors of sun and sand, everything that Baldemar's cold northern kingdom was not.  Her cheeks were flushed and her green eyes were bright, nearly the color of grass.

"Come," the queen said.  "There is still much work to be done."

This work included arranging Juliana's gold hair into elaborate twists and curls and adding color to her already bright face.  The princess worried she might look silly rouged, but she knew better than to argue with her mother.

"Just one more thing," Isabelle said, pulling out a jewelry box.

"Is that..." Juliana began.

Slowly, it seemed to Juliana, her mother drew out the necklace that had been in the family for over two centuries.  Diamond by diamond, it emerged from the box, to dance and sparkle in the firelight.

"Mine?" Juliana asked.

"I am passing it down to you as my mother passed it down to me on my wedding day.  I trust that you will take excellent care of it."

Her mother fastened the necklace around Juliana's neck.  It was heavy and cold against her skin.  She shivered, energy crackling through her slim body.  Unable to help herself, she moved closer to the mirror.  The icy beauty of the necklace was perfect against the warmth of her skin and hair.

She was spared the embarrassment of overadmiring herself by the entrance of a lady and a couple of burly peasants into the chamber.

"Emmeline!" the princess said, recognizing the lady.  She longed to embrace the other girl, but she did not know if that was acceptable these days.

Juliana and Emmeline had once been like sisters.  Emmeline's family home was less than a mile away from the seaside castle where Juliana had grown up.  As children, the girls had united in their goal to escape the servants who were instructed to keep an eye on them.  They had spent their stolen time roaming forbidden woods, wading in the ocean, and collecting seashells and daisies.  As they grew into young women, they lost interest in exploring and spent their days talking about handsome men in whispers and exchanging secrets.  Their days of friendship came to a close when they both came to the attention of the wife-seeking King Baldemar.  Juliana had not seen Emmeline since the day Baldemar chose her.

Emmeline smiled at her, and in that moment, Juliana knew that everything was all right.  She ran to her friend and embraced her.

"Child!" her mother said.  "You'll ruin your dress."

The princess was beyond caring about wrinkles or even torn hems.  Her happiness was now complete.  "Oh, Mama.  It's just a dress."

Emmeline laughed. "It is not just a dress.  You are exquisite, Julie.  What a lovely queen you'll make."

"It will be awfully lonely without you here.  Every summer I spend in this cold kingdom, I'll be thinking of you, collecting shells by the sea."

Emmeline smiled smugly.  "What makes you think I won't be here?  Perhaps I have found a husband of my own in this cold kingdom, as you call it."

"Truly?  You'll be here?"

"Truly.  Now, I have a wedding gift for you.  I know I should have waited until after the ceremony, but this doesn't belong on a gift table."

And so Emmeline turned Juliana's attention to the mirror the two peasants had carried in.  Exquisite.  Juliana had no idea which kingdom it came from, but the worksmanship was glorious.  The mirror's frame was of gold, twisted and knotted into swans, nymphs, and fauns.  She reached out to touch the frame, running her index finger over a butterfly so intricately detailed, it seemed as though it ought to be capable of flying away.

"Emmeline!  I've never seen such a mirror.  What kind of artist created this frame?"

"No one knows.  It has been in my family longer than anyone can remember.  I wanted you to look into it and see how beautiful you are today and how you glow with love and happiness.  It is my wish that every time you look into it, you will remember the happiness of this day, and it will always keep you warm."

"Emmeline," she said, then stopped, unsure of what to say.  The last four months, Juliana had assumed that Emmeline had been avoiding her out of jealousy, and she found that she was ashamed of herself and her assumptions. "I don't deserve this.  Your kindness is overwhelming.  I don't know what to say."

Emmeline laughed.  "Say thank you, you silly girl."

*

Lucia was as unlucky a mirror as ever was created.  In her four thousand years as a mirror, she'd had seven hundred goblets thrown at her, she'd been kicked two hundred and twelve times, and once, she had been thrown from the window of a tall tower.  She was quite fed up with it, but being a mirror, there was very little she could do about it.  All she could do was sit around and brood, which was nothing out of the ordinary, as it is a well known fact that female mirrors are, by nature, moody.

Even as abused as Lucia was, this was not the reason for her unluckiness.  No, she was unlucky because while she only reflected what was in front her, she saw everything, an all-knowing, though hardly all-powerful, mirror.

She'd been crafted by an Elf lord.  The world was new then, smelling of earth, flowers, and greenery.  The primal energy that was Magick ran thickly through the rivers and trees, and the Elves were the ruling race.  They controlled Magick, making certain it was used for good.  Then one day, an ambitious Elf lord grew tired of the limitations and codes of the Elfin way.   Through promises of great power and grandeur, he was able to convince one third of the Elves to follow him in his rebellion.  Lord Alvarr was not successful, and he and his followers were banished from the Elfin Council.

Lord Alvarr, who failed to be humbled by his defeat, realized he needed a weapon.  On a midsummer night, the Elf lord cast his most powerful spell. Under the sultry stars, beside the river of deceit, he muttered dark incantations and offered up the blood of a Faery of pure heart.  The dark gods heard his prayers, accepted his offering, and were pleased.

And this was how Lucia came to be empowered with the knowledge of truth.

*

It was cold in Annemarie's stone cottage.  The winter, though it had barely begun, was harsh, and she already considered it normal to be able to see her own breath as she did the housework.  She told herself that if she was hired as a maid in Baldemar's castle, it would be warm there.  The castle always seemed to glow against the dark winter sky, as it was undoubtedly full of burning candles and large fireplaces.

"Annemarie, can I add one more log to the fire?  I can't finish the mending if I can't feel my own fingers."

Annemarie gave her sister a glance.  Liesel's hands did seem pale and cold as she hemmed their grandfather's shirts, but if Annemarie went to work in the castle, Liesel would have to take over the care of the family, and she would have to learn to sacrifice temporary comforts.

"Not until it is time to make the stew.  You know we have no more money for wood."

"When Grandfather gets back, we'll have money."

"I can't believe you let him go, Liesel.  Shoveling snow around the castle!  He isn't strong.  I wish I'd been home."

"I know he isn't strong, but what choice was there?"

Annemarie saw Liesel's eyes stray to their three-year-old sister and five-year-old brother who were both napping under a tattered old quilt.  She knew that Liesel was remembering that Gerdie and Anton had not had milk in a month, that they'd had nothing but potatoes and carrots for a week.

"If I get that job in the castle, no one will go hungry.  Things will be like they were before Papa died.  I'll be able to send you money every week, but you'll have to be wise with it.  Don't buy too much meat; don't use too much wood."

Liesel sighed.  "I know, Annemarie.  I'm sixteen, not a baby.  I'll be able to handle things here."

"Then start by adjusting to the cold."

There was a knock at the cottage door.  Annemarie left the root vegetables she was chopping for the stew.

Her neighbor Erik was there, holding up her grandfather, who was ghastly pale.

"I'm sorry, Annemarie.   He collapsed."

*

Over the next few weeks, Queen Juliana grew accustomed to being called, "Your Majesty," having tall, muscled guards follow her in the corridors, and having titled ladies accept her opinions as fact, no matter how ridiculous the utterance.  She found, much to her surprise, that she was no longer delighted with the royal jewels that now belonged to her, and her extravagant ball gowns were growing commonplace due to the fact that her husband insisted on throwing a series of elaborate balls to celebrate the royal wedding.

What Juliana did not grow accustomed to was the indifference of her husband.  She discovered, much to her surprise, that she would not be sharing a bedchamber with her husband, and she rarely saw him except at dinner.  Baldemar's widowed aunt, who was often Juliana's companion and mentor, warned her not to expect too much too soon.

"His heart was broken with the passing of his late wife.  It will be a long time before he even desires to be loved by another," she warned in her ever patient voice.

It was cold here.  Even Juliana, who rarely left the castle with its welcoming fires and inviting candlelight, knew this.  She didn't even need to look outside to know that she lived in an eternal winter.  Here, the winds were the whispers of dark spirits.  Here, long dead Faeries and Elves seemed to lurk behind trees, beneath rocks, and in fields, ghostly observant.  The queen found that even when she was seated before her fireplace, there was a chill that would not go away.  She was tired of drafty ballrooms, dark hours, and cold beds.  She felt as though she would be willing to barter her own soul for a bit of warmth.

She also did not grow accustomed to the small shadow that haunted her in the hallways.  It was not that she disliked Clara, Baldemar's only child; she was actually charmed by the beautiful child, but for all Clara's fascination with Juliana, she remained mute in her presence.  Three weeks into the marriage, Juliana still had no idea what her stepdaughter's voice sounded like.

One afternoon after tea, Juliana was heading to the ballroom when she heard the familiar tip-ti-tip of her stepdaughter's lightly heeled shoes.

"Clara?  Are you coming with me to look at the flowers for the ball?  The servants will be busy, making everything look like a Faeryland."  She turned to find her stepdaughter scampering behind the nearest velvet drapery.  All Juliana could see between the folds of heavy violet was a single black eye.

"Do you like Faeries, Clara?   Once upon a time, they used to dance in the woods and alongside rivers, their wings shimmering like pearls."

Clara seemed to be inching her way out of the draperies.  Juliana could now see her rounded cheek with its delicate white and rose skin and a lock of ebony hair.

"Come with me.  You don't have to talk if you don't want to, but I would be grateful for your company."

Much to Juliana's surprise, Clara emerged from her hiding spot and approached her.  Her stepdaughter held out a small white hand. Juliana took it, and they walked down the corridor, hand-in-hand.

Once in the ballroom, Juliana explained to her stepdaughter all of the preparations going on for that night's ball.  She showed her the peasant women, with handkerchiefs pulled over their heads and knotted under their chins, busy at work, polishing pure gold candelabras.  The men too were at work, cleaning the white marble floors and dusting the chandeliers.  Higher ranking servants created flower arrangements so large, it seemed that there were bushes bursting into bloom all over the ballroom.

Clara listened intently to all the queen had to say but she did not say a word.  She let go of Juliana's hand to lightly touch a flower arrangement.

"My little Snow White!" boomed a male voice.  "Are you here to see the decorations for the ball?"

Baldemar picked up his child and swung her around.  Her pink skirts spun like flower petals.  Clara squealed with delight, surprising Juliana, who had never heard a sound come from her.

After the king was done spinning his daughter, he held her in his arms.  With a pang in her stomach, Juliana noted what a lovely pair they were.  Clara, like her dead mother, was all ivory and ebony.  Baldemar, also black haired, had deep blue eyes and tawny skin.  They were all colors rich and lovely.  They belonged to this land of deep green forests and lakes the color of ice.  Next to them, Juliana felt like a sun bleached, faded yellow thing.  Her stepdaughter was made for rubies and crimson roses; Juliana was made for plainer things like seashells and wildflowers.

Why had she come so far north?  Baldemar probably wouldn't have looked at her twice if he had first met her here instead of in her own native kingdom.  She looked better seaside.

"Juliana," Baldemar said.  "I didn't realize you were here as well."

This came as no surprise to Juliana.  Baldemar often seemed to forget that she, too, lived in the castle.  He had not come to her bedchamber in nearly a week.

"Yes, Clara and I came to supervise the flower arrangements."

"Ah, yes?  They are quite charming."

"Yes, quite.  It should be a lovely ball."

"It should be a successful ball.  King Alderon and Queen Lizveta will be in attendance.  Be sure to give Lizveta your undivided attention.  We cannot afford to neglect them until the border disputes are resolved for good."

"Of course.  I am happy to be of service."

They stood in an awkward silence for a moment, and Juliana began to feel as if she were interrupting a father-daughter moment.

"Well, I must go," she said.  "I need to get ready for the ball."

*

When Lucia had been created, humans were an inferior race, living in the shadow of the powerful Elves and Faeries, dwelling in dirty huts and worshipping deities in forests deep.   Now the Elfin race had died out, and men had become a populous race who built cities and vast cathedrals and scoffed at the very idea of Elves and Faeries. For centuries, Lucia had been in human hands, residing in castles and vast country manors.

Oftentimes, the humans who called themselves her owners never discovered her powers.  Belief in Magick had long since dwindled and often the few that still believed that the Olden Ways existed distrusted them, believing them to be evil.  In spite of this, Lucia had seen that even those opposed to Magick were willing to use it, if the advantage was as plain as day.

This new woman, this Queen Juliana, had not discovered her Secrets thus far.  Still, Lucia knew that it would not be long before she did.  The queen was clever, and she was lonely.  It would not be long until she came to ruin.

*

Juliana closed the door behind her quietly as one might expect of a well-bred queen.  Then knowing herself to be alone, she kicked a pink silk upholstered ottoman.

"Ow!"

She hadn't been angry when she'd left the ballroom.  Saddened, yes, but not angry.  Somehow, with every step she took towards her bedchamber, she grew more resentful of her husband.  Everything around her, the walls, the marble floors, the tapestries, the draperies, it all belonged to her husband.  This would always be his castle, his home.  It would never be hers.   She would always be the foreigner, the eternal houseguest.

She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror Emmeline had given her.  She wasn't radiant and lovely as she had been on her wedding day.  She was the vivid pink of feminine temper, her eyes a darker green than usual.   Even the mirror itself did not seem to be so lovely today.  For the first time, Juliana noted that swans and butterflies weren't all that graced the frame.  If one looked closely, one would find bumblebees and tiny golden gods making hideous faces.

I wanted you to look into it and see how beautiful you are today and how you glow with love and happiness.  It is my wish that every time you look into it, you will remember the happiness of this day, and it will always keep you warm.

No longer capable of believing in marital bliss, Juliana picked up a silver brush from her vanity and threw it at the mirror.  She felt a pang as she saw the lovely mirror crack.  What would she tell Emmeline who had recently married a duke and was frequently in the castle?  Disappointed in her king and in herself, Juliana curled up in her bed to cry.

Twenty minutes later, she no longer had any tears.  She also remembered she had a ball to get ready for.  She got up to splash some cold water on her face to reduce the swelling from tears.

Tomorrow she would have the glass in the mirror replaced and Emmeline need not know it was ever broken in the first place.  She would tell the workers that some servants had broken the glass when they moved the mirror while cleaning.  The damage, after all, was--the damage wasn't there.  Her mirror looked the same as it had when she got up that morning.  Could be possible that the loud noise of brush hitting mirror had convinced her it had cracked when it actually had not?  She thought she recalled a long lighting shaped crack streaking the glossy surface.

She was growing paranoid.  She needed to calm down.  She would order some tea, read her favorite poetry book, and then she would be calm enough to get ready for the ball and for Queen Lizveta.

*

It was Annemarie's first month working in the castle, and she was already being sent to the queen.  Her task was not great.  She was simply to deliver a fragrant tea to Her Majesty and then dust the chamber.  Still, Annemarie felt her knees grow weak.  What if she did something to displease the queen?  What if she spilled tea?  She did not even want to think what the consequences for that would be.

She knocked timidly.

"Enter."

She obeyed.  She tried not to gape at the lavish furnishings, all pink and gold like Queen Juliana herself.  It took her a while to locate the queen in the large chamber.  Finally, Annemarie spotted her curled up in a chair, a leather bound volume in her hand.

She curtsied and after placing the tray on a table near the queen, she poured a cup of steaming tea.

"Would Your Majesty care for cream or sugar?"

"No, thank you."  The young queen took her cup.

Although she was trying not to stare, Annemarie realized that the queen looked very different up close.  She had caught a glimpse of the newly married Juliana on her first day of work.  She'd found her to be golden and glowing.  Today, she seemed cooler, like a diamond in a golden setting.

"May I get you anything else?"

"No, thank you.  The tea is perfect."

Comforted that the queen was happy and she had not spilled anything, Annemarie turned her attention to the cleaning.  There was certainly plenty to do here, as there were dainty tables and bookshelves everywhere.  Clearly, the new queen enjoyed reading.  Where should she start?  Perhaps, she should begin with the vanity as the queen would later sit there to get ready for the ball and then she would move on to clean the large ornate mirror...

Annemarie gasped, causing Queen Juliana to look up in annoyance from her book of poetry.  The girl did not notice Her Majesty's displeasure, as all her attention was on the mirror.  It was Elfin, it was. None but the Olde People could have crafted such a mirror.  The delicate frame of gold indicated Elfin workmanship.  From a distance, it was lovely, but up close, Annemarie could see the gold was carved into hideous shapes: beetles, snakes, and horned creatures making horrible faces.

Cursed.  Annemarie's eyes, large, blue, and lovely, went to the queen.  Who meant to cause this young woman mischief as she began her reign?  It could only be here for jealousy or revenge.  Queen Juliana was reading again, and Annemarie was struck by her exquisite beauty.  Surely, she should warn her.  She opened her mouth.

And closed it as she thought of her grandfather, sent to shovel the snow around the castle on the queen's wedding day.  Having no shoes without holes, her grandfather had lost both his feet.  Frostbite, the healer had said, shrugging in the way of those who can do nothing to help.

She began to dust the Mirror.  Her Majesty would want it sparkling.
Stacy Wennstrom is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2005, Stacy Wennstrom