Once upon a time there was a village that nestled in the far north. Backed by tall mountains to the south it looked across a wide, white plain where reindeer roamed. By day the people who lived there would farm the land, fish in mountain lakes and hunt. By night they would gather together for warmth, carve antlers and sew pelts and watch the northern lights dance in the dark sky. Nobles in the great southern castles would describe life there as ‘idyllic’ or ‘bucolic’ but they didn’t know the strain that hard work put on the bones, nor the dangers from snapping ice and sudden storms. The residents loved their village, in spite of the danger and the hard work that every day brought. They were explorers and, for the good of all the world, heroes.
For the name of the village meant First Warning.
Every few years there arose in the north an Ice Queen. No one knew where they came from but the stories told of the signs. A giant castle of ice would rise, past where the fields of snow met the walls of glaciers, underneath the pole star. The winters would get colder and colder, the nights darker as the years went on until eventually a winter would come with ceaseless snow that would cover the world. Before this a hero would have to set out from First Warning, travel north and kill the Ice Queen. Otherwise all the world would be smothered in an eternal winter.
The signs of this rise were fickle. The elders of the village were tasked with watching for them, as they would be able to best judge when winters were getting harder and when a rise was imminent. But memory is based on perception and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason behind the rises and so sometimes a rise wouldn’t be noticed until it was almost too late.
Which is when our story starts.
The endless night had already started when the elders came for Adlartok. The sun had gone down three nights ago and had not risen. Although the signs before now had been ignored that did not mean that the village had not been prepared. Every generation a hero was chosen and trained and Adlartok was that hero. Tall he stood, and broad, with dark hair and noble bearing. He was the best hunter in the village, brought back the best fish from the hidden lakes and could live out on the ice for weeks at a time. The three elders knocked at his door and were let in by his sister, Uki. In the sitting room they met with Adlartok.
The elders told what he already knew, that the time had come, and what he did not. They gave him a knife from the far south, traded for at great expense. He looked it, the hilt iron, the sheath smooth leather. “I already have a knife,” he told them.
“That is not any weapon,” he was told in return. “It has summer trapped in it.” And indeed, when he unsheathed the blade the air in the room became stiflingly hot, the bronze leaf blade gleaming in the light from the oil lamps. “That is the weapon that will kill the Ice Queen.”
He sheathed the dagger and nodded to the elders. “I’ll set out tomorrow,” he told them. And so they left, talking of how brave Adlartok was, how they’d made the right decision.
It was only Uki, who saw the fear within him.
That night, when he got out his rucksack and started packing, she was right beside him, tall and dark like his shadow. “I’m coming with you,” she told him.
“This is my duty,” he replied, tucking the summer dagger deep into his pack. “It is dangerous.”
“All the more reason for me to come with you,” Uki replied. “I’m your older sister. I helped raise you, I taught you what you know.”
Adlartok laughed. “I’m not a child any more. This is for me to do and me alone.”
His sister looked at him for a moment then silently put away her rucksack. “So be it,” she said.
So the next day they embraced and then he set off alone.
The snow plains stretched out before him and he walked in silence, hunched up in his furs, his big body cutting a path through the packed whiteness. The wind howled around him, sneaking past his hood to run fingers down his cheeks to sink into his bones. Eventually, when he thought that night had come and when he could go on no longer, he made camp, lighting a fire from the small amount of wood he carried.
The next day was the same, and the next, and the next, each blending into each other and he walked across the featureless plain. There was nothing to see, not trees, not the occasional herds of reindeer that he had hunted here before. Just the dark, just the snow that filled in his tracks and fought against him, pushing him gently back as he pushed forward. Every day was just like the last and nothing was different.
Until one day it was.
The landscape in front of him changed, sprouted a dark hill that grew and grew until he reached it. Above him loomed the ice walls of the glaciers. He stood looking at them for a while then made camp for the night. He knew he’d need all his strength come the morning. After eating by the fire he finally looked back the way he’d come. The trail he’d made was almost filled in and he could see the lights of his home village, far across the plain. And closer, like a falling star, he thought he could see a small ember of a fire. But snow started falling and blew a flurry across his face and when it was gone so had the ember. He stared after it for a time then turned round and crawled into his tent.
He started early the next morning. The elders had spoken to him of this and he knew that he was finally close. Once he was at the top of the glaciers he’d be able to see the palace of ice. It was just a few hours walk away. Once he was at the top of the glaciers.
Out of his bag he pulled a pouch of iron spikes. Around a wrist he hung a small hammer. Into the ice walls he pounded first one spike then another, then a third above them. Testing to make sure they took his weight he stepped up onto them, grabbed the third and pulled himself close to the wall. It sucked at him, pulling away his heat but he ignored that and brought out another spike, pushing it into the ice and then hitting with the hammer. It proved sturdy and like this he slowly made his way up the wall.
It wasn’t smooth, this ice, but craggy and pitted. It reminded Adlartok of the mountains of home, the ridges and hollows that allowed purchase for hands. It took him hours but slowly he managed to make his way up. At last he raised his head and saw the sky above him, the top of the glacier closer than he could have imagined.
The end was in sight. He laughed, glad that he was almost there.
Then the ice crumbled beneath his last spike and Adlartok fell.
The snow itself was soft but the ice it shallowly covered was hard and it broke the hero when he hit it. Big fluffy flakes landed on him, soft as kisses on his cheeks. The world grew dark and the snow grew warm. And Adlartok died.
Either an hour or an eternity later, it didn’t matter which, Uki came and stood over him. The snow was still falling thick and she had to dig with her gloved hands, tears freezing on her face, until she could uncover him. She held him, one last time, and wailed in harmony with the wind. Then she took his pack from him and set up camp for the night.
By the time she awoke he was once again buried. Not able to look at the spot where her brother lay she walked over to the walls of ice and began her own climb.
The spikes her brother had hammered in still held strong and she scaled the walls with ease. She came to the spot where the ice had splintered and stopped a moment. Then she took the next spike from her bag and drove it in.
Eventually she made it to the top and the wind died around her. Before her was a frozen sea, waves and solid ridges of ice curling over themselves. There was a light in the distance, green, purple and blue, like the northern light caught in a spike upon the ice. She felt hatred and anger and the magic dagger that she’d taken from her dead brother heating her within and she started marching determinedly forward.
The uneven ice caught at her feet and she tripped and stumbled but her anger pushed her onward. The spire grew larger, sprouted wings and extensions until at last the castle of ice stood before her. Its bones were stone, shining white marble that shone out from places where the ice hadn’t yet grown over it. The doors were of purple ice, strong and imposing, with big flat steps leading up to them.
Her hand reached within her furs and gripped the summer dagger that nestled within. Then she started climbing the steps. The large doors barred her way but they opened easily at her touch, swinging wide and showing the grand entrance of the palace. A wide sweeping staircase stood before her, the bannisters ice and the treads stone. With blade in hand she stalked up them. The wind that tore around her had a cry now, a human sound and she followed the wailing.
And there in the throne room she found her. Not on the throne itself, a smirk as cold as the wind cutting across her face, but in the shadow of it, curled up in a small ball. A child, a girl, long white hair and big blue eyes the clear shade of ice from which tears slide down porcelain cheeks. She looked up at Uki, gave a sob echoed by the wind outside and threw herself at her, burying herself in her killer’s arms. Uki found herself holding the small warm body tight, the hair pressed against her cheek. She looked over the child’s shoulder, at the knife she still clutched tight in her fist and felt her heart freeze, the anger draining out of it. She knew she couldn’t do it.
The crying slowly faded and with it the cold. The girl looked up at Uki and smiled and with that smile a wave of heat ran through the castle.
“Who are you?” Uki asked the small girl in her arms, murmuring it into her hair. “Where did you come from?”
“I don’t know,” the girl replied. “I’ve always been here. I just know that I am alone.” She looked up at the older girl. “Please don’t go,” she said, tears beading in her eyes, as the temperature dropped again. “Don’t leave me all alone again.”
“I won’t,” Uki promised her, holding her tight.
They stayed like that for a while, a small pile of furs and companionship. Then it was interrupted by a growling in Uki’s stomach. The child’s eyes flew open.
Before Uki could answer the girl can concentrated and a bowl of ice appeared on the floor beside them. “Eat this,” the girl said, disentangling from Uki and picking it up. She looked down and saw that the bowl was filled with snow.
“I can’t eat this,” she tried to tell the child but faltered at the look on the smaller girl’s face. Giving up she scooped a small amount of the snow into her mouth but was surprised to find it warm and nourishing. The girl laughed to see the expression on her face, jumped up and pulled the older girl to her feet.
“Let’s go play,” she said.
They explored the castle and the girl showed Uki all of it, from the top of the huge tower where a balcony looked back on the glaciers and snow plains, to a large bedroom with a feather stuffed bed. There the day ended, with the two of them lying together under white covers, Uki’s arms wrapped tight around the ice queen.
“Can you stop it?” she whispered in the small child’s ear. “Can you stop the winter?”
“Maybe,” the girl replied. Then she fell asleep.
Maybe, Uki told herself as she held the child tight. Maybe tomorrow she’ll get it under control.
Every day they would explore the castle together, playing little games, growing closer together. Every day Uki would ask the girl to try and control her powers to stop the winter and every day the girl would try but fail.
Every night Uki would stand at the top of the tower, looking through the steady snowfall back to where her village sat backed by the mountains. Every night she would watch for the light from their doors and windows, for the smoke that came from their fires.
Until a night came when, no matter how hard she looked, there were no lights to see, and no smoke rising into the air. And then she knew that her village had been buried.
“You have to try,” she told the girl the next day.
“Try what?” The girl asked as she played on the stairs with small dolls made of snow.
“You’ve got to stop the winter. It’s too cold.”
“I don’t find it cold,” said the girl. “It’s just right for me.”
“But it’s not for other people.”
She looked up, suddenly concerned. “Is it too cold for you?”
“No,” said Uki for the inside of the ice castle was always warm to her these days. “But there are others out there who aren’t me.”
“I’ve never met them. Why should I care?”
Uki took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “Just try it, will you?”
“Ok, I’ll try. For you.”
The girl took a deep breath, closed her eyes and focused. The wind dropped to nothing and a sudden silence fell. For a moment Uki thought she could see the faint glow of a dawn though the windows.
Then the ice child’s eyes flew open and she burst out laughing, the wind echoing it with a flurry of snow.
Uki felt the sparks of anger stir within her again. Again she saw her brother, lying dead in the snow. Suddenly she was on her feet, yelling.
“People are getting hurt. People are dying! Do you want people to die? Because it’s your fault!”
The wind whipped fiercely against the ice panes. There was a rumble, a groaning, a shifting as the ice itself rose and bucked. The ice child rose into air that was suddenly glittering with frost. Uki felt her eye lashes freeze and she ran from the room, slipping on the ground. Behind her the queen hung suspended, cradled by her terrible power.
And then she collapsed, crying, onto the ground. Uki looked round the door, carefully approached and gathered the girl up into her arms.
“I can’t,” the ice child sobbed. “I keep trying but I don’t know how. I don’t want to hurt people but I can’t.”
“It’s ok,” Uki told her, pulling her tight against her. “Don’t cry. I’ll take care of it.”
That night she put her in the bed, with covers as white as snow. She told her of her brother, how she’d showed him the paths on their mountains that led to the lakes, how she’d taught him how to fish. She eased in beside her, held her close and sang the songs of her buried people until the ice child’s breath came deep and even. She cradled her, kissed her pale hair.
She slid in the knife.
And spring came again.