The Winter King

It has been two years since we first wrote Ice Bound for the anthology, Sojourn 2, but that short story was the beginning of our writing career. It showed us that we could do this. That if we dedicated our time, made a routine, disciplined ourselves, we could actually make this happen.

After regaining the rights back a year ago, we went through it again and added more detail, then republished it by itself under our decided pen name – Tiffany Roberts. We’ve grown as writers since then, but we’ll always have a a soft spot for Anna and Neledrim.

The question we’ve been asked on a few occasions: Do we plan to write a full length novel featuring Anna and Neledrim? The answer is no. We have no plans to do so.  However, we decided to write a short story to allow you a glimpse into their lives together through another’s eyes. Some of our newsletters subscribers had the pleasure of reading early, and we hope they enjoyed The Winter King, just as we hope those reading now will enjoy it.


THE WINTER KING

Aldric ran his gloved hand down the neck of his horse, Netty. She shifted, nudging his shoulder with her nose. He was lingering; the others were already inside where there was warmth and food. Netty was brushed down, fed and watered, and still Aldric remained in the stables, angry at his own regret. He inhaled deeply. The smell of manure and damp straw filled his nose.

“I made the right choice,” he said, looking into Netty’s brown eyes. With one last affectionate pat, Aldric left the stables.

Frigid wind and snow slammed into him the moment he stepped outside. It stung his face and burned his lungs. He trudged through the knee-high snow toward the inn, arms wrapped tight around his chest and eyes slitted. The building was three stories high, looming ominous and dark with its shutters closed against the storm.

He grasped the latch and struggled against the gale and mounting snow to pull the door open. Wind howled around him, white flakes swirling madly as cold air and warm air collided. The storm forced the door closed again with a slam. It whistled through the cracks and crevices, still audible in the relative silence of the room. Dozens of patrons — men, women, and even a few children, some with the look of hard travel — stared at him briefly before returning to their meals and quiet conversations.

Aldric removed his cloak, shook the snow from it, and folded it over his arm. He stomped more snow from his boots and brushed the ice from his short beard. Warmth slowly worked into him, fingers throbbing with pain as the chill fled and they regained feeling.

Spotting his companions from the caravan, Aldric worked his way through the crowded room and to the long table that dominated its center. He wedged himself into an open place on the bench beside Gevin, one of the grizzled caravan guards. The tradesman Valgan sat on the opposite side of the table.

“Damn fine luck we found this place when we did!” Gevin said, sliding a steaming tankard of mulled ale to Aldric. “Lucky we even made it through the passes. Bet you regret not turning your little mare around, eh?”

Aldric clenched his jaw; each moment as they crossed the mountains had been a struggle, his hands itching to tug on the reins and wheel Netty around, back toward home. Back toward Rhoslyn. Aldric nodded his thanks and sipped the drink. After the chill of the blizzard, the ale was scalding, but he welcomed the heat. Anything to take his mind off her.

“Not normal for there to be this much snow so early in the season,” said Valgan. “We should’ve had another fortnight of clear weather, at least.”

“What do we do now?” Aldric asked. He’d done work as a woodcutter and a carpenter for most of his life, before joining the caravan a few weeks before. This was all new to him.

“Wait it out,” Valgan replied. “Won’t do us any good to press on in this weather. Enjoy the walls, roof, and drink while we can.”

“Rooms are all filled, but the innkeeper says we’re welcome to find a place on the floor once things quiet down,” Gevin added. He took a long swig from his mug and wiped ale from his moustache. “A rung or two up the ladder from rocks and dirt, isn’t it?”

“One or two.” Aldric let his eyes wander around the quiet space. The fire, though it was at least ten paces away, burned noisily in the wide hearth, its crackling carrying through the room, and the wind was louder than most of the hushed conversations amongst the patrons.

A woman’s laughter caught his attention. Aldric’s heart stopped, frozen by the flicker of recognition. The light, high sound was so like Rhoslyn’s that he expected to see her when he leaned forward and looked down the table.

The woman was a stranger. Her dark eyes sparkled and bouncing brown curls framed her face as she spoke with the man beside her. She lifted her hand and brushed it over the man’s face; he was pale-skinned, with black hair hanging about his shoulders. She was nothing like Rhoslyn. But the laugh had been enough to send Aldric back for a moment, to make him doubt.

Why can’t I push her from my mind? Weeks of travel and still the memory of Rhoslyn lingers as strong as ever.

He scowled. The woman glanced at him and tilted her head, her smile fading. Her partner turned to stare at Aldric with startlingly clear blue eyes. The man’s gaze was heavy, piercing, unsettling.

Aldric dropped his attention to the mug before him and took another drink. It was going to be a long night; he didn’t need to get into a fight with a stranger and complicate things further. Having Rhoslyn fresh on his mind was torment enough.

One of the barmaids came with a bowl of mutton stew and a chunk of dark bread. Aldric ate and listened to his companions jest, pushing all thoughts of women from his mind. He’d made the right choice. After his wife betrayed him it would have been foolish to get involved with Rhoslyn. To welcome that sort of hurt again.

“If it pleases all of you,” came a voice from down the table, rich and melodious, “I’ve a fitting story to tell on a cold night such as this.”

The patrons looked to the dark-haired man at the end of the table. The woman was watching him, too, that soft smile upon her lips once more, as he rose from his seat and swept his strange eyes over the crowd.

There were a few grunts of assent; the weather was too frigid for much enthusiasm, it seemed.

“To most, winter is a bleak time. Its icy winds bring numbing cold, misery, and sometimes death.” The man glanced to his woman. There was deep sadness in her eyes, but her lips remained upturned in a soft smile. He caressed her cheek. “But there’s also beauty, if one takes the time to look around. There’s love to be found when least expected.”

The man stepped away from her, walking leisurely down one side of the long table, behind the packed bench. Toward Aldric.

“Some of you may be familiar with tales of the Winter King. That these bitter storms are his doing, his punishment for a world of warmth and happiness that is always just outside his grasp.”

“Children’s stories,” someone said, and a ripple of laughter spread through the crowd. Aldric grinned.

The storyteller passed behind him, close enough for his sleeve to brush Aldric’s back, sending a chill along his spine.

“All stories have some bit of truth to them,” the storyteller replied evenly.

“So what, then? Going to tell us the wind is this king’s breath and the snow the flakes from his hair?”

Now the storyteller laughed, continuing along his path, entering Aldric’s periphery vision. “No,” he said. “No, though I may well find a way to work that into the tale in the next tavern. This is a story that was old when the world was still young, but I like to think it was based on something that happened, somewhere, very long ago.

“The Winter Kingdom was nestled on the far side of the northernmost mountains, in a place so cold that they say the snowflakes themselves have trouble falling. They hang in the air and sparkle like diamonds, frozen in place. The King of Winter held court in his palace on the highest peak, looking out over the glittering white reaches of his kingdom, where mortal men dared not tread.”

The storyteller came around the far end of the table and leapt atop it. Plates and cutlery rattled and ale splashed. More folk laughed as the storyteller lightly walked back toward his seat, nimbly stepping around everything laid atop the table.

“Many long years he watched that barren landscape, that vast nothingness, and wondered what it was he truly ruled. When he turned to his court to find an answer, to find meaning, he discovered his courtiers whispering and scheming, plotting against one another. Some against the king himself. There was no warmth in his land; it was a place that would betray those who let their guard down, a place that would crush the weak without mercy. And he knew that his people were the same.”

Aldric watched the storyteller raptly. Was it the power of the man’s words or the fury of the storm that laced the air with a chill despite the roaring fire and tightly-packed bodies? Part of Aldric wondered if it was result of the Winter King’s displeasure for the story being told.

“So the king hardened his heart, allowing the icy grasp of his kingdom to claim it. He built a new palace, far from his court, and there he locked himself away.  He allowed only his most trusted advisor entry, and spent his days at his scrying pool, using magic to look out into a world he could never enter. The king watched the lands to the south, where the earth was fertile and yielded great bounties, where life flourished and joy was a reality. And, seeing those things, more ice crept over his heart, until there was nothing left.

“But one day, the king stepped out of his scrying chamber. He walked through the deserted halls of his palace to a vast window that looked upon the frozen steppes far below.” The storyteller came to the end of the table, just in front of the woman. “And he saw a woman out in the snow, golden against the blinding white, pulsing with light and life. The king went to her immediately, furious that someone should be bold enough to mock him with such vibrancy in his land of cold and death.

“He found her huddled on the ground, snow accumulating upon her shivering body like dirt filling in a grave, and he kneeled beside her.” The storyteller knelt atop the table, eyes falling on the curly-haired woman. “Before his eyes, her color was fading, but her beauty was still clear. She was unlike anything he’d ever seen. So out of place in the land of eternal winter. The king gathered her in his arms,” the woman accepted the storyteller’s extended hand and climbed atop the table beside him, “and brought her to his palace.

“He watched her as she slept, tentatively touching her strangely warm skin.” Guiding the woman over the clutter on the table, the storyteller moved behind her and wrapped an arm about her waist, pulling her back against his chest. His free hand trailed over her skin, from wrist to shoulder and back down again. Her cheeks flushed. The storyteller smiled and moved his fingertips to her cheek. “The king was awed by her, and he knew what she was. No less than a Princess of the Summer Court.

“She awoke, in a strange, cold place, under the gaze of a king with icy eyes, and was frightened. She demanded to be returned to the Summerlands, but the king would not listen. He had spent countless years longing to experience the warmth of the sun, longing to feel the heated breeze on his skin, and he would not relinquish his only chance at it. He locked her away in his palace.” The storyteller caged the woman with both arms, leaning his head down so his mouth was near her ear.

“The princess struggled to adapt to her situation, but the king was cold-hearted and unsympathetic. She was so far from her home, from her people, and the palace was empty. Where was the joy and life she was used to? So she swallowed her pride and begged him to send her back. The king scowled and left her alone in her chamber. In her prison.”

Releasing his hold on the woman, the storyteller stalked to the center of the table, an exaggerated scowl on his face. “He’d grown so cold that not even her radiance could thaw his heart—” The storyteller’s piercing gaze roamed the crowd. Aldric shifted uncomfortably in his seat as the storyteller’s eyes lingered on him. Sweat had gathered beneath Aldric’s clothing, but a chill flitted over his exposed skin. “—or so he thought.

“The princess, desperate and defiant, fled the palace and flew into the snow-locked tundra.”

The woman turned and leapt from the table, holding her skirts in one hand. “But the king could not let her go.”

With startling speed, the storyteller closed the distance between them and caught her by the arm before she’d managed even a few steps. “Something in him had begun to soften toward her, and he chased her into the cold, afraid that her warmth would be forever extinguished. When he caught her, she was nearly dead from exposure.”

He lifted the woman back up onto the table and she fell against him, supported only by the storyteller’s arms. “The king brought her back to his palace again, but this time he did not lock her away. Though the heat was uncomfortable to him, he found wood for a fire and lit it. He gathered blankets and cloaks and tapestries to keep her warm, and, slowly, she regained her health.”

The woman turned in the storyteller’s arms, and they looked into one another’s eyes like there was no one else present. “When she woke again, she gazed at him differently than she had before. They spoke at length, filling the empty palace with the warmth of their conversation and her laughter, and the king felt the ice around his heart cracking.”

Aldric absently pressed his hand to his chest. His imagination didn’t conjure an ethereal Princess of Summer. It granted him a startlingly clear image of Rhoslyn, with her blond hair pulled back out of her face and her blue eyes shining. The way she looked at him had warmed his heart and filled him with fear and longing.

Smoothing back the curls from the woman’s face, the storyteller hung his head. “But still the princess yearned for her home. The king could not bear to send her back, but he led her to his scrying chamber, that she might use the pool to see the lands and people she missed.

“The princess could scarce contain her excitement as she used the scrying pool to gaze across the countless miles to her home, but what she saw was not what she expected. She had been promised to another man in the Summer Court before the Winter King found her, and through the waters of the pool she watched her betrothed conspiring with her own sister and learned that he was the one who’d betrayed her.”

Aldric turned his head away, staring into his now cold ale. His hand tightened into a fist as he recalled the hurt and anger of his own wife’s betrayal. How she’d laughed in his face when he discovered her infidelity. He felt like he’d lost everything…but Rhoslyn was there, consoling him, supporting him, sometimes bringing him meals when he’d forget to eat. A constant presence in his otherwise shattered life. Taking a deep breath, Aldric lifted his gaze back to the storyteller.

“She returned to her room with sadness in her heart and lay upon the bed, listening to the icy winds howling outside.” The storm seemed to intensify in response. The building creaked and groaned, battered by a strengthened gale. “Despite her pain, her heart remained intact, for she had given it to the king. She’d seen past his cold exterior to the man within, a man who longed for warmth and kindness. For love.”

Like Rhoslyn saw into me.

The storyteller and the woman came closer together, their lips near enough to kiss. The room was silent save for the muted wailing of the storm; even though the storyteller whispered, his voice carried clearly. “The king knew the truth of it in his own heart, though he did not know what to do with it. Despite all his years, he’d never experienced such emotion, and it consumed him with its purity.

“But the king’s advisor had learned of her presence, and he told the king that to keep the princess would mean war between winter and summer. Still, the king knew he could not return her. He could not endure the solitude that would claim him in her absence, and she was not safe in the Summerlands.”

Taking the woman’s hand, the storyteller walked alongside her, back toward the table’s center. “The Summer King sent his emissaries to retrieve the princess and demand apology from the Winter King for her abduction. Her betrothed was among them. The wind roared around the palace, strengthened by the Winter King’s fury. The princess herself refused to return with the emissaries. To their shock, she declared her betrothal to the Winter King.

“Her betrayer made his own anger known. He would not be spurned in such a fashion, would not tolerate so immense a transgression of all that was proper and traditional. When the princess responded by detailing his treachery, the betrayer paled. The Summer King would not forgive a plot against his daughter’s life. As the emissaries gathered around him, meaning to take him back to the Summerlands to formally face the charges laid out, he attacked.”

The storyteller moved quickly, cutlery clattering as he stepped before the curly woman and sheltered her with his body. “The Winter King placed himself in the betrayer’s path. The dagger — a shard of sunlight forged into a blade — pierced his breast.” Clutching his chest, he fell to a knee and bowed his head.

“The dagger dealt a fatal blow. The betrayer knew he could not escape punishment for what he’d done to the princess, but the honor of being the one to kill the Winter King would belong to his family for eternity. The princess dropped to her knees beside the king.” The woman did so, cupping the storyteller’s face and tilting it toward hers.”

The silence in the room was tense, expectant, and many of the patrons leaned forward with anxious expressions. Aldric’s heart pounded.

“She helped the Winter King stand. The dagger should have killed him, but the blade was deflected by the last bit of ice around his heart. He tugged the dagger free and let it fall. The princess had become his sunlight, his joy, and he would not have it taken away.

“With a single touch — no more than the brush of a fingertip against skin, a whisper of movement — the king placed a terrible curse upon the betrayer. The princess watched as her former betrothed froze from within, his skin paling, ice crystals gathering over his stiffening flesh. He leveled his gaze on her, hatred in his eyes, and shattered. Countless flecks of ice-dust glimmered in the air and flitted away on a sudden wind, swept out to be lost on the icy plains beyond the palace.”

The storyteller took the woman in his arms again and locked eyes with her, clasping her hands. “The king took the princess to the Winter Court and made her his queen, forging a new peace with the Summerlands. On the day they married, the snows on the tundra thawed for the first time in their existence. Grass and flowers sprouted all over, blanketing the land in amber, green, white, and violet. Ever since — because the king dared to feel — the frozen northern reaches have known, however briefly, a taste of summer every year.”

The crowd pounded on the tables, clanking plates and spoons in their show of appreciation.

“Damn if I’m not moved by a good love story,” Valgan said, wiping moisture from his eyes.

The storyteller stepped down and assisted the woman off the table. Holding hands, the two dipped into a bow and walked toward the stairs.

Gevin slammed down his tankard and chuckled. “Quite a tale, eh? Course he has a bed of his own and a woman to warm it while we’re just reminded how lonely we are.” He patted Aldric’s back. “Best rest up when there’s space free. We got a long journey ahead.”

Why had Aldric been so determined to be alone when Rhoslyn stood beside him for so long, helping him through his dark moods? He’d focused so heavily on his misery that he’d overlooked what was in front of him. There was always the risk of pain, yes, but he was already inflicting pain upon them both by refusing to move on, by running away from the mere thought of feeling something.

Aldric glanced at Gevin. “I’m heading back.”

Gevin’s forehead creased as his brows rose. “Back?”

“Home. I’m going home.”

“Caravan master isn’t going to pay you if you turn back now, lad,” Valgan said.

“I have something far more valuable waiting for me there.” Aldric smiled. His mind went back to his village, back to Rhoslyn’s bright blue eyes and kind face.

*****

Anna glanced at Neledrim over her shoulder as they walked up the stairs. “Is it true?” she asked.

“Much of it, yes.”

Anna smiled and reached back, lacing her fingers with his. “How much?”

“The woman was not the daughter of a king, though she was part of the royal house.” They moved down the hall and entered their room. Neledrim pulled Anna into his arms, kicking the door shut behind him. She wrapped her arms around his neck. “People understand ‘princess’ more readily than the complex noble hierarchy of the Fae. I embellished the tale somewhat, and omitted most of the politics. But my brother did find his first true happiness in his summer bride.”

Anna’s eyes widened. “The Winter King is your brother?”

He grinned, eyes sparkling like sunlight on a snowy field. “Do you prefer me as a Prince of the Winter Court, or a wandering storyteller with scarce a coin to my name?”

She framed his face with her hands and kissed his lips. “I simply prefer Neledrim.”

Copyright 2016 by Tiffany Roberts

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