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The King of Cold Mountain

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Some stories start with “once upon a time in a faraway land.”

In this story, the time that was once upponed was March in the year 1712, and the faraway land was the Smokey Mountains of what would someday become Tennessee.

The cold winter in the Smokies was starting to turn to a balmy spring that year, but someone wasn’t happy with the change. In Jack Frost’s opinion, the green that was emerging through the melting snow didn’t look nearly as nice as it could look if it were white and frosted over. Also in Jack Frost’s opinion, the only thing more fun than frost and snow was covering green, growing things with frost and snow all over again. And so the frost spirit laughed as he flew over the forest, swinging his staff to spread his frost over the trees, his laughter resounding through the mountains.

Occasionally, he touched down to jump from branch to branch for the sheer challenge of it. The world was all so new, and very, very exciting - so exciting that Jack found he was only sad very rarely, like when he tried to talk to someone and they didn’t answer back. Being sad was boring, and he could always find so much to do that was not boring instead.

His cloak billowed in the breeze as he landed in a clearing, where a brook bubbled nearby.  He touched his staff to the water, watching with great interest as the ice spread over the surface. Delighted chuckles bubbled from his mouth at the sight of it. Even now, the things he could do with his staff were novel and he wished he could take credit for his work when others saw it.

Out of nowhere, an unfamiliar wooden object flew through the air and shattered the ice. The crash was so forceful that the object remained lodged in the riverbed as the current carried shards of ice away around it. Jack, through his surprise, inspected the thing, a sort of angled wooden crescent. It looked like a human-made object, but he hadn’t seen any of the humans in this part of the country using them.

He reached out to grab the thing for a closer look, but a sudden movement on the ridge overhead and an unfamiliarly accented shout caught his attention.

“Back off it! I see what you’ve been doing here.”

An animal jumped from the ridge to the riverside and rose up on its hind-legs. It was a rabbit, but enormous, far larger than rabbits naturally grew. Jack, new to the world, knew even this. He also knew that rabbits typically didn’t talk.

Another thing he knew was that, typically, no one talked to him.

“You can see me?” he said, immediately excited. He flew over to the giant rabbit, hovering close to get a good look at him. 

The rabbit, grey and white and marked with black shapes like leaves unfolding, leaned back from Jack’s inspection, frown deepening at the invasion to his personal space. “Of course I can. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?”

He reached into a leather satchel and pulled something from it - a flower from a little further south, still set as in glass with a solid frost.

“What exactly do you call this?”

Jack stared at the flower and then back up at the rabbit’s face. “Improved?”

Jack had never seen a rabbit snarl - or loom - until now. “I call it a bad idea.” The rabbit put the flower back in his bag and pulled out his other boomerang. “Whoever you are, you don’t belong here anymore. Easter’s next week and I better not see so much as a snowflake below the northern colonies, or I will personally escort you to the southern hemisphere myself. You got that?”

“I’m Jack Frost,” the boy said in response to the ‘whoever you are,’ leaning on his staff, amused by the rabbit’s pique. “Why can’t I stay here?” He hopped up and landed on a frost-covered tree branch, gesturing to the icy designs scrawled on the bark. “Everything looks better this way. The green isn’t anywhere near as good.”

The rabbit’s eyes narrowed, his voice dropping into tones of deep anger. “Are you this new, or are you trying to start a fight with me?”

Jack flipped upside down on the branch and hung from his knees, tired of staying still. “How new is new?” After all, for all he knew it was only yesterday that the hare had come out of a...a  whatever it was that rabbits came out of that was like coming out of a pond.

“Ever heard of spring before?” The rabbit crossed his arms, his eyes narrowed at Jack’s antics.

“Mmm,” Jack’s eyes looked upwards as he tried to remember, only since he was upside down, that meant he looked downwards. “No?”

But then he hadn’t actually heard people say most of what he knew; he just already knew it all. Spring was a thingum, he knew. He was aware it was a concept. Until he overheard enough people talking about things he knew of to get context, he had a lot more trouble understanding the immaterial.

The rabbit heaved a sigh that was slightly less aggravated, and muttered to himself, “He is that new.”

He removed the flower from his bag again. The ice had started to melt and the petals were drooping a little.

“Look, I’ll give you a fair go. There is a cycle to everything in the world and right here, right now, that cycle is winter into spring. You belong in the southern hemisphere, and this -” he waved the now sodden flower under Jack’s nose “ - belongs here, where it should have been allowed to grow in peace.”

Jack considered the words, taking in everything the rabbit had said about the cycle of things. It sounded all rigid and structured and methodical and...

“Boring. I think I’m just going to ignore it.” Jack re-iced the flower with a touch and flipped himself back upright, laughing just out of the rabbit’s reach.

The rabbit said, “Think again,” and tapped one of his feet on the icy ground.

The tree beneath Jack exploded into bloom. The branch supporting him sprouted twigs that became new branches, which wound a cage around Jack. Before he could even begin to ice through them, vines twining through the leafing, flowering branches pulled his staff from his grip.  Suddenly he was falling, and falling, even though he had only been a few feet off the ground when the tree reached up to trap him. The cage of branches was open enough to let in light, but the only light they let in was dim, as if it was shining from a great distance. The smell around him was damp and earthy, and there was no wind at all - yet he was flying along, pulled by some other unfamiliar force, tumbling through a great stretch of distance until sunlight suddenly pierced his cage, which rolled to a stop on thick grass.

The branches fell apart, leaving Jack sprawled in the sticks in an unfamiliar field. There were huge mountains rising in the distance in one direction, and in the other, trees covered with leaves that weren’t green, but red and orange, and overwhelmingly, yellow.

The rabbit was standing nearby, arms crossed, frown unfriendly. He kicked Jack’s staff towards him with one foot.

“Where are we?”

“Aotearoa,” said the rabbit. “In the Southern Hemisphere. Where March means a nip in the air, not new growth.”

The south wind, strangely altered with a chill that made it friendly and familiar, rustled the leaves of the poplars. The rabbit’s tone took on a hint of softness as he said, “There’s a time for everything, and everything in its time. Here, it’s time for winter to come again. That’s the way of the world, and it’s right.”

He paused for a moment, looking distantly over the poplars, before glaring at Jack again. “So get to it, Frost. You’ve got a whole autumn to put to an end - and don’t even think about trying to prevent spring here either, or we’ll have more than words.”

Jack wanted to fly straight back to the mountains in the north to keep turning the green back to white, just to be a pain in the rabbit’s fluffy tail. Laughing at someone who could hear was new, and fun – no one had ever paid him any attention before, even if it was irritated attention. 

But the yellow trees in the distance looked fun, too. When he’d been born in the pond, everything had been icy and the leaves had been gone from the trees. He was still so new, he hadn’t seen a tree with leaves on it that still needed his help to fall. He picked up his staff, waving it in the air, and watched as frost spread over the yellow leaves. They snapped from their branches and danced away in the wind. Jack watched their twirling trail with building excitement and took to the air. He let out a loud whoop as the friendly southern wind picked him and hundreds of leaves up in one go. Before it could carry him off, he turned back to the rabbit.

“Hey, bunny rabbit,” he said, his voice very serious, as if he was about to tell the rabbit something important or thank him for showing him this new place.

“What?” the rabbit’s body language said he was still unmoved by Jack’s levity - but maybe there was a shade less hostility in his tone.

In one deft movement, Jack whipped the snowball he’d sneakily formed behind his back into the rabbit’s face, then flew away. His laughter filtered back to the rabbit on a wind that was rapidly cooling.

Bunnymund sputtered, knocked for a loop by the snowball and by having been off his guard to get hit by anyone at all. With a shiver and a sigh that was close to a growl at the cold wind ruffling his fur, he tapped his foot on the ground and dropped back into the still-warm Earth.

It was not the only time the two would meet, but it was a good preview of the meetings to come.