The Frost Witch and the Lady of Thorns loved each other. But the Lady looked too long into the light, until her skin was scorched and her eyes blinded with soot. In rage and pain she fled south, into the depths of the darkest waters to soothe her burns. There she forgot the use of her hands, the sight of her face and the sound of her name. They sank into the void and she sank with them, to be a beast among beasts.
The Frost Witch wept the streams to flooding, grieving for her love. She left her icy domains to look for the Lady, but though the Frost Witch traveled far and wide she could not find her anywhere.
Every winter the snow follows her to the southern valleys on her search, and every spring the rivers rise with her tears as she returns to her frozen fells alone.
She is a little, brittle thing, the human with the frosty hair.
Twig-arms and stick-legs, shriveled flesh with all the fat sucked out. A crooked spine and sunken shoulders, veins winding wormlike under spotted skin. Her nails are chipped and her teeth are few, her eggshell-thin skull a near provocation. She is too small to walk so boldly, too close to fading for her eyes to be that bright a green, alarming in your colorless world.
You coil the mass of your body around you, and all your brooding sisters whisper agitation into your mind .
The grass is lightly dusted with powder snow. She leaves a trail of footprints where she goes. Her feet are light but each step makes you quake, your tendrils tremble with the tremors from her stride. You see her face distorted by ripples overhead, peering from behind round shards of glass, framed with steel. Her toes touch the borders of your watery lair, bare in the cold.
Your cave runs deep into the ground and its waters are salty and black. Steep, jagged mountains stand to guard your den, thick and tangled brushwoods wield their needles in your name, but she slipped through without a tear in her skirts. She is too small to meet the round eye of your nesting well so calmly, too fragile not to flinch before its bottomless depth. No one has thread upon your lands in all remembered time. She is an intruder and she has no right.
All your festering sisters whisper death into your mind, and you break into the air with a scream.
“Oh,” she says. “There you are.”
She folds her legs and sits down, hair pooling behind her. You crash against the surface, send a tower of foam to drown her. She does not blink.
“You sure know how to keep the girls running after you. Such a tease.”
You rage and roar, set the waters boiling.
“Do you recognize me? Do you remember your name?”
You writhe and wail, whip the waters stormy.
“Don’t worry. It will come back to you, I am sure.”
She smiles then, and it is a frightful sight. Too tender and too soft, stretching the wrinkles out of her lips but deepening those on her cheeks. You wonder, confused, why it gets your heart clenching.
“Now I think I am going to have a sleep, if you don’t mind. It was a long way to come here.”
She lies in the snow with an arm below her head, her crumpled eyelids covering the green.
Breathing slow and even she has soon drifted off, not caring about the abyss only inches to her side. Her presence grows and glows, sneaks into your shielded world without a tear in its composure.
All your nightmare sisters whisper in your mind, but fear whispers louder and you flee.
She sleeps through noon and nightfall, until the first few rays of morning drip their gold into the ice. Waking with a yawn, she spends the hours kneeling. You watch her warily, hiding in a crevice in the rock.
Her hands are hard at work, pouring magic into numb soil, a shining disturbance. Her mouth is moving. Words are coming out, drifting down into the dark. When they reach you where you burrow they have dissolved to fragments. You snatch them up, one by one, chew the scattered syllables to shreds, trying to extract a meaning.
You whisper with your sisters while time trots by. She remains, persistently, contours outlined by the light.
You circle the shores, curl your length along the cavern walls and make swiveling wave-tongues. The human went up early – you never sleep at all. Together you held vigil for the dying night.
“You were always hopeless when it came to allnighters,” she says.
With each circuit you ascended further. Now your back is stroked by the wind. Your sisters worry, far beneath, but your fear is flaking off, curiosity coaxing you from hiding.
“You and your books. Sometimes I would almost get jealous of them getting so much of your attention.” She chuckles, saliva-thick and hoarse.
Before her is a patch of naked soil, cleared from snow and bristly weeds. She lays her hands upon it, pressing down her palms. The bones are seen so clearly, dressed in loose, ill-fitting skin. Every joint is knobby and every crease carved deep, but though worn they are still steady, stubborn through decay.
They pull at your interest, the cartilage and tendons familiar, somehow. You look at how they spread and flex, gingerly but surely. You don’t cease swimming but you slow to study their construction.
Perhaps she feels you watching, because she pulls back to show her work.
“This is going to be a gift for you,” she says. “A surprise, so I won’t say more than that. But I really think you will like it!”
Out of the muddy earth peeks a tiny speck of green. A little leaf, a tender seedling, as hesitant as spring. Nothing has sprouted in your lands in all remembered time, but you know the taste and feel of it all the same. It would be silken to the touch and it would bow under your weight and it would rise when you withdrew and keep on growing. How odd it is that you know this when it is strange and new, peculiar. You want to reach and test your knowledge, but not one bit of you would fit the task, too massive and too flaccid.
The human frowns with fuzzy brows.
“Can you hear me? Do you understand what I am saying?”
You have no time to listen. You twist your trembly tendrils, twine them hard and tight, rub off the slime sticking to them and squeeze the stiffening shapes until it they meld and reform. You swim and swim around and round, away from wind and sun. All your horror sisters whisper welcomes where you go, but you shake them off impatiently.
The memory of fingers rattles in your mind.
It is snowing and the human is kicking a tree.
She hits the trunk with dull thuds, muffled by the snow drowning the landscape. Flimsy fog comes from her nose and her skirts are in disorder. She balls her fists and stomps and shouts, her movements stiff and jerky.
You hook your new-forged limbs to the cliff, heave yourself up to see over the edge until they ache and cramp.
The human fights her wooden foe until her flailing arms fly out to far and causes a low branch to dump its glitter-white burden on her head. She promptly topples over with an indignant squeal. After that she lies still for many, many breaths. It concerns you – if she stays over there then who is to care for the seedling? It has grown a proper stem, sprouting leaves of substance, but it is still so young and frail. This chill could bite its neck clean off.
At last she stirs, but does not rise. You find her quite confounding. She pushes herself from her back to her stomach, from her stomach to her back. Packing the snow under her in a line as wide as she is tall, she land-swims horizontally back to your cave. As she nears you dart away on reflex, but stay above the surface.
“That was silly,” she says, once her sleeves droop on stone. “Snow is for playing, not throwing tantrums.”
She is panting. Every time her chest expands something inside it wheezes.
“Also today is a non-walking day, I just decided. Roll or bust!”
It seems as though she hurts, despite her cheery voice. Her face is scrunchier than yesterday. A feeling you name pity bubbles up between your lungs. You slither close, the closest yet, lift your self-made fingers to pick at pebbles up on land.
“This is just a lot different than I thought it would be. And a lot harder,” she says. “It made me sort of angry for a bit, I guess. Better to be angry than sad, though, I have-”
She falters mid-word. Her eyes are on the hands you crafted.
“Would you look at that.” she says. She smiles now. “Would you look at that !”
You want that smile. You want to taste it, gulp it up, savor and digest it. This hunger has you restless, tense, and no other prey could sate you.
Slowly, very slowly, the human extends her arm. Gently, she takes your hand in hers.
Her touch is warm. It sends spark into your mind, ignites it.
And you are back in the grip of the fire. And you flame like a torch in the night. And the pain is the jaws of a monster. And your belly is bursting from the heat. And the world goes black and you are burning alone, burning your body to ash.
You tear yourself away from the human with a shriek, scramble in desperation from the vision.
“I’m sorry!” she yells. “No, come back. Please!”
You hurry from her calls, dive into the soothing void. All your thousand sisters wrap you in their cool embrace, lead you safe into oblivion and resting.
You dive deep and deeper, but her pleading still rings in your ears.
You lick your not-wounds until morning is long past and dusk is creeping up from behind the mountain tops, and all your terror sisters whisper retribution into your mind.
You listen to each one of them, but in the end you still go swimming up.
“I really am sorry,” the human says when she sees you. “I got a little too eager there.”
The seedling is a proper plant, with foliage in the making. Its heart shaped leaves are growing big and there are velvet flower buds. Beside it stands an odd new shape. A hollow pyramid of globes made of hard-packed snow.
“This is a making up present!”
She points to what she made and waves you landward.
“We used to build all kinds of stuff before so I thought I would make a snow lantern, but then I remembered I didn’t bring a candle.” She gets a little flushed. “That is probably for the best, though.”
You inspect your bounty, find it satisfactory. For a moment you consider devouring it, to investigate properly, but you discard the idea. Your hands are good enough for that, having proven effective feelers, if yet a little clumsy.
“I would have picked a star to light it with. But I can’t reach so high anymore.”
The human sighs and lies down on her back. The sky is clear, littered with stars, of which you give no notion. She is not smiling. That feels wrong. You worry she forgot how to.
“The universe used to be at my beck and call and that was great, but you know what? I don’t really miss it. It is all the other things I miss.”
Her voice is old and weak, with a creak like damp wood. It suits you well, so used to whispers. She knits her words together into ribbons and you chew them all to threadbare strips, slurping up their meaning.
“I miss my garden, even though I could never grow a pumpkin. The smell of your library, I miss that, too. And I miss our pets so much, and all our dolls. We thought we played with them for too long, but now I know we should have kept playing longer.” She swallows thickly. “And our friends. Oh, I miss our friends the most.”
The human’s face is draped with shadows and sprinkled with ice crystals. You want that face.
“They are all in the stars now,” she says. “Both our brothers. And our sylph and maid and mage, too. Even the Sea Witch is gone. I never thought she would go before me.”
You want to touch it, break its code, scrape out the hidden meaning stored under the bone. Repair her smile and then reflect it back, making tangible what you can only vaguely sense.
“It’s not fair. It’s not fair at all!”
Her eyes are thawing, meltwater running down her temples. It is the most curious thing.
In the morning her face is dry. You thought of that face through the night.
“Well, back to work!” she says, and once again she is smiling.
You break through the crust of thin ice that coagulated overnight, patterned with trapped bubbles and rime. The human does the growing thing in silent concentration, sculpting branch after branch until the bush stands far taller than her. You study her face for a while, take her in. Then you get to the task of your own.
The structure of a face is simple but the details are many and hard. It is crucial to get them just perfect – although what perfect is you are not sure. You make a nose and a chin and a forehead, you make brows and a mouth and two ears. You leave out the human’s two dimples, and don’t bother with wrinkles. Your nose should be broader, you know this, and your chin should not be that long. You make your cheeks rounder, you adjust and refine, until when your fingers touch it they follow old and often travelled paths.
When you are done you find the human watching you.
“Look at you,” she says. “Beautiful as ever.”
She seems skinnier than before, hollowed out andpale, but the plant at her side vibrates with the life she gave it. Amidst the greenery hangs flowers, a hundred tiny blossoms gathered in bundles as large as your fists. Light and lovely purple, their scent is heavy and sweet. You know this scent so well.
“You loved lilacs, we both did. So I grew some for you, to go with your dress. Purple was so pretty on you. When they bloomed I brought you a whole bouquet, but you took them and stuck them in my hair, instead,” she says. “Like this.”
The human plucks the flowers and braids them into her hair.
“Then you kissed me. It was our first.”
You want to smile. You want to make one for her and claim hers for your own. To keep and nurse and treasure, for all your time to come.
“You shouldn’t have gone for revenge alone. We should have done it together,” she says. “But it’s all right. We are together now, right? You just-“
She leans forward, urgent, and the hurt that surges to her face gets your heart clenching.
“You have to remember your name.”
She is standing on her knees, arms clutched over her chest. You smile at her although your muscles protest and surely one should show less fang than this, but she smiles back in reverie and you are ripe with joy. On trembling legs she tries scooting forward, but her leverage is unsteady, she wobbles and falls. With panic clawing in your mind you hurry to catch her, and only after do you fathom what you did.
You do not burn. She is not hot, just warm enough, and she fits perfectly in your arms. You wrap yourself around her like it is a habit, hold her carefully on the safe side of the precipice.
“Magic makes me very tired nowadays,” she says as she sits back down with your assistance. “I think I am going to sleep now, if you don’t mind.”
You stay until her breathing has slowed and she drifts off. Then you descend, to where the darkness tastes of ash and blood and bile. The water is a slurry of fear, doubt and regret, but you press on and on and there you find it.
All your beastly sisters scream their hatred into your mind, but your name is on your tongue and you remember.
Dawn comes bleak and pallid, shrouded in pale sheets of cloud.
You swim towards the light above and frenzy makes you fast. You carry your name like a pearl in your mouth, round and smooth, with a milky shine.
She rests unmoving beneath a blanket of snow and beads of ice glisten on her cheeks. Looking at the morning sullenly unfolding on the sky, her gaze is mute and glassy.
You go to her, you say your name, you speak it loud and clear. It reverberates through your colorless world, dances through the brushwoods and swings over the mountain tops.
She does not stir.
You lay your crafted hands on hers, searching for her warmth. You set your mended eyes on hers, searching for her smile. You put your newfound lips to hers, searching for her breath.
She is a little, brittle thing, with flowers wilting in her frosty hair.
It is said that lilacs first grew in the gardens of the Frost Witch. She plants them on her journeys, so that their sweet fragrance will remind her Lady of the love that waits for her still.
“Come home,” they say, white and purple, lilacs for a lady lost.