Presenting... Part 1 of my story “Forbidden Snow”, my entry for the "Ultimate Winter Writing Challenge" hosted by Natalie and Anna! Thank you so much girls, for hosting this party!
Once long years ago, in a country farther still, was a land where winter never rested. Upon the borders of this land there lived an ice princess. Her name was Tiana.
The hut in which she lived stood under an ancient tree whose green leafy branches cast a shadow over the forest round about. Tiana often climbed this tree, looking like a fairy held in the carefully cupped hands of some green giant. It was here that she spent most of her days–her silvery hair floating in the strong winds that pulsed about her as she sat crouching in the topmost boughs, her pointed chin resting upon her hand and her large dark eyes pensively gazing over the land before her–the land from which she had been banished.
Tiana was sitting in her tree early one morning when with a puff, a slight wisp-like personage landed beside her. “Lady Tiana,” it said, “I am tired of floating about–a counterfeit shadow of a substance that never comes.”
Tiana looked down. “Oh Sophia, if only there was something I could do! But what is there within my power? We are banished and it would take more than our combined powers to lift the spell that lies across the land.”
“And what about that prince you were to marry? Prince Andre? Could not he lift the spell?”
“Perhaps it is he that cast it. And if he did he would be the very one that banished us. It is more than mere outlawry that keeps us out of that land. And Sophia, sprite of the snow though you are, you cannot bring the winter. It must come in its natural circle. And it is of the same nature with me. I can go into that land, but unless the spell–that is stronger than any mere proclamation of banishment–is broken than you and I are nothing.”
“Then you must find out the key to this enchantment and break it!” the fairy said, fluttering above Tiana in her excitement.
A light began to glimmer in Tiana’s eyes filling her pensive face with glimmering sparkles of shadowed light.
* * *
In the land where winter never reigned, minstrels had been outlawed. But one hot day a minstrel appeared. He was sighted by no one coming in on any of the roads leading from Anywhere Else though the people whispered that he must have come from Somewhere. However he came, still, there he was beyond all doubt: strolling up and down the roads and bypaths leading through the fields and woodlands, singing some few little ditties; saying little, but catching everything with his deep brown eyes.
Strange, the people said, that he should not have been stopped by the Counselors’ Guard. But after they said it they shrugged their shoulders and went about their work. They had enough troubles of their own to worry over. Meanwhile the minstrel continued walking about after his own business.
As he was sauntering down a hot, dusty road he came upon a little personage slumped beneath the shadow of a tree. “My dear fellow, you are a strange sight in this industrious country,” thought the minstrel. Speaking aloud he said, “Good day, my good fellow.”
At the sound of his voice the little figure shot upward, yanking his hat over his face. Promptly tripping over the long grey beard that hung down to his knees he fell flat on his face.
The minstrel’s laugh rang out along the road.
The little fellow leaped up from his knees squeaking in a husky voice, “Silence–you must be silent–or you will be permanently silenced in a way you will not like,” ratifying his words with grim and foreboding stabs in the minstrel’s direction with his pointed fingers.
“Do you oppose merriment that much, my friend?” the minstrel inquired, cocking an eyebrow.
“Not I–not I. It’s him,” stabbing his finger up the road, “he has outlawed enjoyments of any sort.”
The minstrel peered about to perceive who his companion meant and saw nothing and nobody but the sown fields and dusty roads in every direction.
“Aye, you won't see him here. He never comes out, but he can see everywhere and hear anything.”
“Who do you mean?” the minstrel said, lowering his voice.
“Who? Dear me, you must be a stranger in these parts. Humph…but you seem a goodly fellow so I shall tell you.” He shot out a hand. “But first let me introduce myself. I am Tomas.”
“And I am a humble minstrel at your service,” the other replied, bowing with a ceremonious flourish.
“Humph–you are? But I was going to speak of him,” Tomas muttered, settling himself once more in the shade beside the road, darting his eyes about as he did so. “He is the Counselor who rules this country–the uncle of the prince. And ugh, what a ruler he is,” the little man snorted. “Driving the people day after day: not once in the livelong day or week or month or year allowing them to rest. It’s all work, work, work. Oh yes, they eat! But never a bit of fun such as a party or a moonlight ramble in the woods. It’s always grind, grind, GRIND!” He was up and jumping on each word as he shrieked it.
The minstrel’s mouth twisted. “Well, my little friend, you must need refreshment after such exercise. If my eyes do not belie me, there is an inn some little way down the road. What say we go and have some morsel to eat? I must hear more of this counselor, but it would easier said over food.”
They reached the inn and the minstrel ducking his head and the little man hopping over the lintel they entered the dark building. Excepting their host the inn was empty of any others besides themselves and they installed themselves in a corner and were served cool drinks.
“Why do you think the Counselor and the Prince are forever spying and grinding upon you?” the minstrel asked. “ Bring to mind how the Counselor at least brought about this blessing of eternal summer so you will never know the cold. Surely you must see that he has your welfare at his heart.”
“A fellow would think you are one of their paid toadies by the way you argue for them. Blessing you say? Curse I have called it before and curse I shall call it. Aye, an eternal summer in which we can work as his slaves: hewing and chopping and generally making a mess of his lands–for they are all his lands now.”
“But he is not the ruler. There is the Prince. What of him?” the minstrel interrupted, his dark eyes gleaming beneath the shadow of his cap.
“Oh–the Prince–thank you for reminding me, I had nigh forgot him. Ruler? Son of the late prince he may be, but he is no royal king. He may think he is the true king, sitting up there in state in his palace on the hill, but not so.”
The minstrel turned his head to face Tomas, a glint of something near anger sparking in his eye. “If you were not such a little man you would rue the moment you said that, my friend.”
A footstep sounded upon the floor and looking up they saw a slender girl against the sunlight drifting in through the doorway. Most of her hair was hidden by a dark hood, but a few wisps were escaping and straying about her face.
The gnome was so silent that the minstrel turned toward him. He was sitting frozen in his chair and down his craggy face came a trickle of a tear as his lips whispered, “She has returned.” Then somersaulting off his seat he sprang forward, swept off his hat and fell on one knee before her.
“Tomas, my faithful little friend! I am so glad to see you,” she said, kneeling beside him, “but wait, there is someone with you.”
“Aye, but he is a friend, my lady–a minstrel. You must meet him.”
Preceded by Tomas she came forward to where the minstrel now stood up to meet her. Her head came but up to the tall minstrel’s shoulder and she had to look upwards to meet his eyes. Their eyes were wary as they met each other, but the minstrel was obviously soon impressed by what he saw in the girl’s pensive dark eyes, though Tiana’s expression was one of reserve as she looked into his face where merriment and earnest thought were combined in keen brown features. It was but a moment that they stood so, each taking the measure of the other, then the minstrel turned merrily to the gnome.
“May I have the honor of being introduced to your friend?” The serious earnestness was gone, hidden by the ripple of laughter that ran across his face.
Tiana’s hand swept forward to stop him, but before she could do so the little fellow had pronounced her name. It seemed to hang in the air and she waited tensely to see if the minstrel would catch and recognize it.
Perhaps a knowing twinkle may have snapped through his eye, but perhaps not–for he bowed saying, “A name fit for a lady–even a queen. Perhaps you will allow me to call you, My Lady Tiana?” His eyebrow flicked.
“No queen am I, sir minstrel. To be a queen you must have a country to rule and of course one must be of royal blood. And I have not even a country to which I may say I belong.”
“And what if you had that country, My Lady Tiana? Then perhaps you might be queen.”
A smile flickered on his face then he sobered. “But you are as much a landless wanderer as myself. No impertinence to the honorable profession of wandering, but you do not look like one of those who has traveled throughout many lands.”
“All persons do not look like what they are.” she said, a smile fluttering about her lips.
“I can see that you also are looking for the secrets of this land,” he said, leaning slightly forward and his words deliberate as he looked keenly at her.
Her cheek whitened and she involuntary gripped the edge of her chair, her knuckles turning white. “Do not all men try to discover that which is hidden and baffles them?”
“It can be dangerous to search for those things that are deliberately concealed. The Counselor brooks no interference in his plans. And when roused he can be...” his eyes darkened with the gravity of his words. He paused, then seeming to awake to the knowledge that his hearers were staring at him with startled faces he shook himself and a smile came to his face, “But who am I to know anything of his ways.”
“Why, sir, should you think that I would be in any way connected to the Counselor or his plots?”
Again that knowing twinkle passed through his eyes as he glanced down at her, “A mere premonition. Yet the secret of the Counselor holds sway over the land and its people, and is that which binds all of the secrets the land may have. So what else could you be searching for?” His face was grave as he looked at her, then suddenly casting off his pensive air he turned to the gnome who had been sitting silent throughout. “I would I could give you a song, but I have still a job to do before this eventide. Perhaps both I and the rightful ruling of this land will return. Both are as unlikely as the other. Till then, farewell my friend.”
Paying his coin to the landlord, he collected his harp and cloak and doffing his cap gave a flourishing bow. He had not given one word or look to Tiana, but as he reached the door he turned and said as if musing, “I once knew of a Lady Tiana. Rumors of her said that she was an elusive, quiet person yet not lacking in courage if need be. Elusive though that Tiana may be, I feel, my lady, that we shall yet meet again.” He said it in a playful fashion, but his eyes were keen and bright as they looked at her and Tiana could hardly summon her courage to stand indifferent under their well-reading gaze. Turning he was gone.
“Well he is a merry fellow to be sure. I wished he could have stopped with us longer, don't you, my lady?” Tomas inquired.
Tiana, hurriedly rising, went to the window where she stood until she had seen the minstrel disappear over a slight hill over which the road ran. “Tomas,” she said quickly, “we must not tarry in this place, I know not who that man may be, but he knows who I am and there was danger in his eye.”
“Danger, my lady? Oh, that glint you mean. That was cleverness. The two are easily mistaken for...”
“All dangerous men are clever...”
The gnome broke in nodding wisely, “Now there you are right, my lady, but I think…”
“I think we should go into the wood. Remember that little glade to the north of the brook? If I recollect correctly it is well concealed by lush green thickets. There we can discuss my next move and you can tell me everything I must know.”
“Indeed the glade is an excellent place. Well hidden the thickets have become–ever so much more so with this endless summer. They simply keep growing, growing, growing...”
“We must leave instantly, Tomas. Thank you, landlord,” she said, paying their bill to the landlord who had stood at a discreet distance throughout this conference.
In the sun, the dusty brown of the seemingly empty road was blinding as it lay stretching in both directions on the edge of the inn yard and the two companions squinted their eyes as they hurried across into the glad relief of the pensive shadow of the forest. Hardly had Tiana let out her breath in relief as they slid under the branches when the very shadows seemed to erupt into armor-clad men. Hardly having time for a struggle Tiana found herself caught and her hands pinned behind her by the fist of a burly man-at-arms.
“I see you have her. Perfect,” said a man who by his silver studded hauberk and gauntlets she knew instantly to be the captain.
“Captain–sir–are you sure we have the right one? I mean it would be dreadfully uncomfortable to have the wrong one again,” said one of the other men-at-arms.
The Captain, bestowing a very unpleasant look upon the speaker, said “Quite impossible. Do you see any other lasses running about the woods? To be sure not! for they are all at work in the fields as is their duty. And this girl is the very picture of the girl we were to arrest. Look at the silvery blond hair and black eyes, which were his exact description. I am most sorry to inconvenience so fair and noble a maid, but a soldier must obey his orders and the Counselor is not to be disobeyed.”
Tiana gave him a look of cool disdain, but, knowing that retort and struggle would be equally useless, held her head proudly and said not a word.
Binding her hands firmly behind her and setting her in the midst of their formation the men-at-arms started at a fast pace in the direction of the palace. Upon topping the hill over which Tiana had so recently seen the minstrel vanish, the descent of the road was so direct and steep into the valley lying below that the company seemed to float precariously on the edge ready to pitch into the valley. Perched upon a hill in the middle of the valley was the palace, looking dully gray and somehow shabby looking in the glare of the slanting afternoon sun, and appearing to spy over the town that lay not far off from its base.
To be continued...