by Vanessa Fogg
Far to the north, the Snow Queen’s palace rose from a featureless plain: ramparts of snow half a hundred feet thick, gleaming domes of translucent ice, soaring towers and hidden tunnels that curved endlessly under the snow. Within, all was silent and still. The Queen sat on her throne, as white as her surroundings. Her face was lovely and bloodless, and her long hair the shimmer of moonlight on snow. Her raiment was cloud and frost crystals. Only her eyes were not white. They were black--as black as onyx stone.
The Snow Queen had a daughter who was neither still nor silent. Arra had black hair, black eyes, and cheeks flushed pink with life. She ran through the palace, laughing and shouting. She teased her mother’s great stalking snow cats, interrupted the winter sprites at their careful frost-craft, and rode a snow bear recklessly through the throne room and down the halls. Her off-key notes disrupted her mother’s winter songs; she melted ice-work with too-warm hands, and she carelessly let loose a net of snowy owls her mother had meant to train for spies. “How did I have you for a daughter!” her mother snapped in anger. Arra was abashed, but only for a moment. Her laughter warmed the air with its steam.
There were jagged mountains at the back of her mother’s castle, and to the west the ocean sang amid the grinding ice. Before the castle lay only the empty plain, stretching as far as Arra could see. Sometimes she took her favorite snow bear there, and she rode him as fast as he would carry her, swift as the owls and hawks soaring overhead. The wind whistled and whipped through her hair, and she laughed, and the wind tore away the sound. In all the world there were only wind and whiteness, and the blue sky curving overhead.
As she grew older she rode further and further. Her bear was growing larger, and so was she. When the days grew short, she glimpsed caribou herds passing south, thundering from the coast in a grey storm at the edge of sight. She loved her mother’s lands, but she craved something more. Color, perhaps. Trees. Grass. Warmth.
Her mother had warned her away from the coastal lands south of the plain, where the sea hunters and fishing folk roamed. But she had said nothing of the interior lands. Arra followed the caribou inland and south, to a place where the earth thawed and green things grew. She followed them to the dark forests. And then she rode further still, to a land where daylight lingered and rivers ran. She saw villages—houses built of wood and sometimes stone. There were fires in those houses. Fires like the orange flames of sunset, trapped small and tame and warm.
She saw children playing in front of those houses. Brown-skinned boys and girls with cheeks flushed pink like her own. Dark eyes and raven hair.
“Where have you been?” her mother asked when she returned, although of course her mother knew. The birds were the Queen’s spies, after all. And she had other ways of seeing. “The green lands are no place for you, child,” the Queen sighed. “No place for a daughter of Snow.”
In the spring, Arra visited those green lands again. The villagers knew her when she rode through. They grew quiet and stared, and some mothers nervously called their children inside. She came to recognize certain people. The old woman sitting alone in her garden at twilight. Twin girls in pigtails fetching water to their house. The solemn-eyed boy who stood still and watched whenever Arra rode by. One day she chanced upon a group of children in a forest clearing just outside of their town; they were throwing stones in a pattern on the ground. Arra was on foot, her snow bear walking beside her. The children looked up, frightened, at her approach. She thought they would scatter as they had done before. One little girl looked as though she were about to cry. But the solemn-eyed boy was there, and he met her gaze. He hesitated, and then stepped forward. “Can I touch him?” the boy asked, nodding to her bear. She nodded, and he did so. And then he handed her a smooth flat stone and gesturing to the game asked, “Would you like to play with us?”
The boy’s name was Revka, and he lived in a farmhouse with his parents and two brothers and two sisters. He had golden-brown skin the color of dark honey, and eyes just a shade darker than that. His black hair swung thick and straight past his chin. His laughter was soft, but his smile was bright.
Soon he and Arra were meeting regularly in the forest clearing, and her bear carried them both on his back. Revka showed her bushes with berries that were good to eat, meadows with purple flowers and white butterflies. He gave her names for the things she saw. Shy deer smaller than the caribou she knew. Pine, alder, birch. Iris, thistle, larkspur.
A raven cawed disapprovingly at her. A snow-white owl alighted on a nearby branch and fixed her with golden eyes.
Arra ignored her mother’s messengers. The taste of summer berries was in her mouth, the feel of wet grass under her feet. The breeze was kissed with sunlight. She reached for another berry from Revka’s hand, delighting in the fruit’s nubby texture and the burst of sweetness when she bit down. Revka laughed at her blackberry-stained face. Leaves rustled a song overhead. Winter was far away.
As the daylight hours shortened, the commands came more insistently. Winter is nearly here, the wind whispered, a new coldness in its breath. Come home. The raven circled overhead and then flew to her shoulder. She shook it impatiently away.
Her bear paced restlessly about the clearing. He did not like these green lands, for all the fat, easy prey they offered. He longed to swim and hunt in a frozen sea, and to run with her over the open plains. He snuffled and nudged her insistently with his nose. Let us go, his dark eyes said.
At last the restlessness infected her as well. Night fell fast now, burning in reds and golds. Revka was busy helping his family bring in the harvest. She met him in the forest clearing to say good-bye. He held a cloth-wrapped bundle in his hands. He was unsmiling, and for a moment she felt as though she stood before the solemn stranger he had once been—not the smiling, easy friend he had become. He held the bundle out to her. “Here,” he said, his voice rough. “Some bread. Mother baked it just now. For the long ride back.”
She felt the heat as she took the wrapped loaf from him, and the cloth parted to reveal the dark rye crust. The rising scent stirred a sudden sharp hunger. It was the first warm food she had ever held. The first food wholly stirred, shaped, and cooked by human hands.
At home, all was as it had been before. Snowflakes swirled outside her bedroom window, and the wind sang over the open plain. Her mother’s snow cats were haughtier than ever, but they would sometimes deign to have their heads rubbed or chins scratched, and then their purring would thrum through the halls. In the long winter night, the lights of the northern sky bloomed overhead, shifting sheets and ribbons of cold green fire. Arra danced under those shifting lights, raced to the sea with her bear, and tracked a snow cat into the mountains, up slow-moving rivers of ice. She stood with her mother and helped sing the winter snow into the green lands. She tried to leave the frost-sprites alone to their work. Her mother kissed her with cold lips, and sometimes brushed out Arra’s hair with a silver brush.
Lying in her cold bedroom tower, Arra thought of a boy with golden skin. She dreamed of sun and berries, and she remembered the taste of hot bread in her mouth.
When snow in the green lands melted, she returned to Revka’s village. “You come with the spring,” he said in delight. “You’re the Spring Maid now.” Other children took up the name. She threw stones with them, skipped with them in scratched patterns on the ground, and sang their human songs. Her bear waited mournfully for her in the forest. Aside from Revka, the children were afraid of him, and so Arra bade her bear keep away when she wished to play with them.
She watched curiously as families worked together in the fields and shops and farms, and went about their dozens of routine chores. In the evening Revka’s mother stood in her doorway, calling for stray sons and daughters. She was round and soft, and her brown hair escaped from her bun in light wisps. Revka’s father was tall and sharp-featured like his sons. He had a black beard, and when Revka’s youngest sister came running he liked to catch her and toss her in the air until she squealed.
Arra never entered any of the houses. She only watched from afar.
One day Revka’s youngest sister came to her where she stood waiting for Revka. “I brought this for you,” the little girl said shyly, and slipped Arra something soft and round. “We spent the afternoon making them. Honey cakes. Mother said it was alright to share.”
Arra bit into the cake. Inside, it was studded with currants and drenched through with honey. It crumbled on her tongue, rich and so sweet that it was almost painful.
“You are not one of them,” Arra’s mother reminded her during the winter, as she brushed out Arra’s long hair. “Visit and amuse yourself if you please, but do not forget. They are mortal and you are not. Do not go into their houses. Do not eat of their food.” The silver brush caught on a snag, and Arra cried out. “You are not one of them.”
The Spring Maid returned to the south again that year, and again the year after. She came even before the first leaf buds had unfurled, before the first pale shoots poked their way up from the melting snow. “You again!” Revka’s father said upon seeing her. “You bring the spring earlier each year, I think. Soon there will be no winter at all.” His voice was teasing, but as he watched her go to his son his eyes narrowed with concern.
Arra did not see it. She ran to Revka.
Summer was awash with light. The sun scarcely left the sky. It was so warm that even humans splashed in the cold rivers and lakes. Arra lay with Revka on a river bank, under the willow trees. “I will have my own house next spring,” he told her, his fingers entwined with hers. “I am almost a man grown. Father promised me my own plot of land.” One of Revka’s brothers had married the year before and left to live in his new wife’s village. His share of land could go to Revka now; the house he had started building would be finished by Revka.
“You could stay with me,” Revka murmured. “You don’t have to go back.” His hand tightened.
She did not look at him. The willow branches overhead stirred in a sudden breeze, and she felt unseen eyes upon her. I cannot stay, she thought. She wanted nothing more.
Come home, the winter wind hissed, and ravens followed her and cawed the words as well. Come home now.
But it was still summer, the grain ripening in the field, the fruit loaded with sweetness. Was Revka’s family inventing new chores to keep him busy during the day? She scarcely seemed to see him now. The village girls invited her to picnic and pick berries with them; other boys approached her. She wandered the meadows and woods—sometimes with her snow bear, sometimes alone. Her bear had taken to straying from her of late, spending weeks in the northlands before returning.
Come home now.
Revka met with her when he could. Autumn lay golden upon the land; the birch trees flared. Pumpkins swelled on the vine; nuts ripened and fell; the birds of the green lands readied themselves for flights to lands yet further south. In the evenings some of the village girls now wore shawls or cloaks when they ventured out. But Revka still wore the light clothes of summer, and the cold had never bothered Arra.
“Let me show you something,” Revka said.
He showed her the house he had been working on, the house that was once his brother’s and now his. The roof and walls were set; the floor was polished wood; a fire burned on the stone hearth. “Come in,” he said, and Arra did.
“Stay with me,” Revka told her. “A shared supper, a shared bed, and a shared meal at morn...” It was all that was needed to seal a marriage among Revka’s people. And indeed, there was a table laid out with food: two cups of ale, plates of brown bread and white cheese; fruit and honey cakes; and a savory meat stew simmered on the hearth.
“My mother.” Arra shook her head. “And your own people...”
“Once it has been done, none can gainsay us,” the boy said fiercely. His eyes softened then, liquid amber in the firelight. He touched her cheek lightly. “Arra. Will you not be mine, then, and I yours? For always?”
His eyes were wide and vulnerable and waiting. She saw the firelight glinting in his hair, washing across the sharp planes of his face. She felt her heart thrumming in her chest. All objections fell away. She stepped into his embrace, and gave her answer without words.
She woke in darkness.
The fire had burned low; across the room she saw the remains of their meal in the dying light--the glint of a tin cup, the polish of a wooden bowl. All else was cloaked in shadow.
She felt Revka’s warmth beside her, felt the rhythm of his breath. Sheepskin blankets and furs of rabbit and fox covered their bodies, yet Arra felt a sliver of ice in her heart. Soundlessly she slipped from the bed and pulled on her clothes. Barefooted, she went to the door.
Outside, the world was encased in ice.
She closed the door behind her and stood staring. A full moon shone high, and its light ran glistening over the frozen surfaces of the world. Autumn trees were caught in winter’s grasp: each branch, each twig, each fading leaf sheathed separately in ice. Every blade of grass turned to crystal. The world had been dipped in a hard glaze, and then set on white fire. When she turned her head the light flashed and changed, new surfaces coming into view while others fell into shadow. The cold deepened even as she stood there.
“No,” she said aloud. The word froze in the air. The harvest, she thought. Revka’s family and the other farmers had not gotten all their crops in, she knew. And her heart tightened as she realized not only what had happened, but what would happen. What would continue to happen if she did not return at once to the Snow Queen’s halls. Cold could not hurt her, but it could hurt those she loved.
A silvery shape moved toward her from behind a frozen pine. Her snow bear glowed in the moonlight, ice crystals in his fur. When he reached her, she threw her arms about his neck and hugged him. “I am a woman wed,” she whispered. But even as she spoke, she remembered that she and Revka had not shared a morning meal. Now we never will. Tears filled her eyes. “I suppose you are come to take me home,” she sighed.
But at that moment she heard a beating of wings and felt a rush of wind. Yet another shape appeared in the night, a whiteness and a darkness both, a great shadow flashing silver and white in the sky. Arra watched it descend. It was the largest of her mother’s snowy owls, the captain of the Queen’s birds, and Arra knew that this was who the Snow Queen had sent to fetch her wayward daughter home.
Snow’s daughter did not leave her tower room. Alone, she stared through a pane of ice at the plain far below. From time to time one of the serving sprites entered and tried to dress her or comb her hair, to speak with her or serve her a tray of cold food. Arra ignored them all. Her snow bear was nowhere to be found. Was he still making his way up from the green lands? Had he abandoned her altogether?
Her mother had been waiting in the great courtyard when Arra and the owl landed. The Queen stood tall and beautiful and terrible, robed in a fall of pure snow. Arra saw the anger in her mother’s eyes, and something else as well. It might have been fear.
But before Arra could say a word-- before she could cry or scream or fall to her knees and beg—her mother turned in a swirl of robes and left her. Arra had not seen her since.
She knelt on the hard bench below her window and touched the pane with her hand. The ice was too thick to melt; only thin, new-crafted ice-work thawed beneath her hands. She rested her forehead against the ice and closed her eyes. She did not know how Revka was. She did not know what he might have done after she left. She did not know if winter had stayed in his village, or if it had gone and then come again.
Finally, the Queen sent for her.
This time Arra let herself be tended and dressed. White furs were laid upon her, over a new dress of white caribou skin. The sprite tsked as she ran a comb through Arra’s tangled hair. One of her mother’s cats was waiting outside the door, and escorted Arra silently to the throne room.
Her mother looked beautiful, as always.
“Revka,” Arra said at once, in a rush. “How is he? Do you know?”
The Queen’s face was smooth and impassive as a plain of snow. “Revka is fine,” she said calmly. “All is well. And I have forgiven my daughter her folly.”
Anger burned in Arra then. “Folly--” she choked.
Her mother cut her off. “Folly, yes. You don’t know what you were doing, Arra. You don’t know what it means to live with humans. And to marry one, to try to be human--”
And the girl spoke the truth she had only begun to grasp. “I am human.”
Her mother’s eyes met hers coldly. “Only half.”
Silence. Outside the wind might have howled, but the palace’s thick snow walls absorbed all sound. Finally the girl broke the stillness.
The Queen made a dismissive gesture. “A hunter and fisher from the coastal lands. No kin to the villagers you like so well. He was sweet, but I could not stay with him, no more than he could stay with me.”
“But I could stay.” The girl spoke uncertainly
The Snow Queen said nothing. Her black eyes were without expression.
Arra said it again. “I could stay.” This time her voice held more assurance, and a note of growing wonder. “I could be with Revka, and become wholly human.”
“You don’t know what it would mean.”
“You do not.” The Queen’s voice was sharp. “What do you know of mortality? What do you know of aging and death? Have you looked at the old people of Revka’s village? Seen the future that would be yours? The widows and grandmothers with their shriveled bodies and wasted beauty, their halting steps and shaking hands? What do you know of illness and grief? Have you passed by the graveyard where mothers bury new babes, and are sometimes buried alongside?”
Arra flushed. “There is more than that,” she murmured. Her voice was low.
“Love?” The Snow Queen was scornful. “Mortal love that flickers, and wanes, and dies.”
“At least let me see him,” the girl pleaded. “You can give me that. Let me see how he is, what he is doing, if he’s well...”
“He is well.”
“Let me see!”
A bird circled overhead in the high arches of the room. One of the Queen’s smaller owls, snow-white but with the dark breast markings of a young female. It whistled and clicked as it flew. The Queen stiffened in anger, but Arra’s face paled as she listened, until she was nearly as pale as the Queen.
“Yes,” the Queen said icily. “He comes.” The young owl finished its tale, and soared off down the length of the room.
Tears were running hot down Arra’s cheeks. “You knew,” she said to her mother.
She saw in her mind what the owl had spoken of, nearly as clearly as if she were looking into her mother’s polished scrying ice: a boy swathed in furs, making his way northward through winter storms on the back of a great snow bear.
“You won’t hurt him?” Arra wept. “You’ll stop the storms, the wind?” He has my bear to keep him safe. But humans are so fragile after all...
“I cannot let him come.”
“But you won’t hurt him?” she insisted. “He has done no wrong.” She swallowed. “Will you—will you let me go to him? If only for a moment?”
“Only to say goodbye?”
Her mother’s voice was without pity. “No.”
Silence again, save for the sound of a girl weeping.
After a time, Arra lifted a tear-stained face. Defiance shone in her black eyes. “I love him,” she said. “And I am still part human. You cannot change that, whatever you may do.”
“No,” the Queen agreed. “But I can keep you safe here forever. As for Revka...” Her voice grew soft. “Would you still wish to be human, without Revka?”
The words were coldness itself, spreading like a frozen mist through Arra’s heart.
The Queen studied her daughter. “Even if you had married him, how well do you think it would have gone? How well do you think it would go, if I were to allow you to leave with him now?” Her voice became almost gentle. “You wish to be his wife, Arra, but what kind of wife would you make? You would have to work, and what do you know of human work? You, who knows nothing of sewing or weaving, of cooking or tending home and field, or of any of the things he would expect a wife to know. You who have spent your life running free as you pleased, along sea and plain, through woods and fields. Would you give up that freedom to cook and clean for a farmer’s son? You would be no more than any common village girl, and even less. Now he loves you because you are like no one he knows--magical and otherworldly. But how long will he love you, do you think, when you are of no more than mortal beauty?”
Arra clenched her hands. But the defiance had died in her face. Doubt took its place, amid despair.
“It would end badly,” the Queen said. “As human things often do.” She paused. “I will send him away without harming him, Arra. Let him go back and live his life, and find a more fitting wife. ”
At that, something sparked in the girl’s eyes. “He chose me for his wife.”
“A poor choice. Let him go, and I swear I will not hurt him.”
The girl lowered her head, defeated.
But even as she turned to stumble from her mother’s throne room, she saw the young owl return. It flew toward her, whistling. Something was clenched in its left claw. As it flashed past, the bird dropped that something into Arra’s startled hands.
A heel of brown bread, frozen hard.
Arra stared. As she stared, she felt something dissolving within her, something hard and cold breaking apart, running liquid and free. Her breath came in gasps. She heard a roaring in her ears.
She looked up into her mother’s eyes.
“Bread for a wedding?” The Queen’s words were toneless. But the beginnings of grief lay on her face.
Arra nodded, and understood.
She understood as she had not when she shared a supper with Revka. As she had not understood all the times that she’d met him with him and longed to stay: their early years together, spent laughing and talking and playing, running and hiding and seeking one another out among tree and glade. The later years, when they met in hidden places and held one another close, exploring a new hunger together. She had not understood when she entered the house Revka built. She had not understood, not truly, when she raised her cup of ale and pledged herself to him--nor even when she shared her body afterward.
“You will never come back,” her mother warned. “You will never again ride free and fearless through winter storms. You will become fragile and weak, like all humans. The gates to this castle will be shut, and you will never again sing winter’s songs.”
Arra closed her eyes.
Her mother’s voice changed, turned pleading. “Arra, think of what I said before. You cannot know what will happen. You cannot presume upon happiness with him. You would give up your life—all you have now—for a few brief years with him? You don’t even know how long those years might be.”
I cannot know, Arra’s thoughts echoed. Neither can he. And she thought of the light in Revka’s golden-brown eyes, of the smile that flashed sudden and brilliant across his face. She thought of his touch, and remembered his warmth.
“I’m sorry,” she told her mother. She raised the bread to her lips.
Frozen crumbs flaked and thawed in her mouth. But even before the first taste, she had changed.
The Snow Queen hid her face. Arra turned and walked from the throne room, the remainder of her wedding breakfast held in one hand. A white owl accompanied her. She walked down the ice corridors, across the courtyard, and up to the great ice-wrought gates. Revka and her bear were already there on the other side, waiting.
Thus it was that in the dead of winter, Revka brought back to his village his red-cheeked bride. And she was neither Snow Maid nor Spring Maid, but merely a pretty human girl, slender and dark-haired. It was a hard journey. The winter storms had ceased, but her bear moved more slowly with two, and the cold was bitter. The girl’s lips and skin chapped and cracked. Her hands and feet turned white and numb. When Revka rubbed feeling back into them in the shelter of a snow cave, she cried out with pain.
But they made it back to the village, and to their new house. Spring came with warmth and light. Before the year was out, a new baby came as well. A baby boy with night-black hair and eyes, and skin the color of honey.
And then more children, one every few years. The little house was filled with bodies. There was always work to do, crops to tend, children to clean and feed. Arra’s hands grew red and callused. Revka was out all day in the fields. But in the winter he stayed inside, mending tools by the fire. He held his children and tossed them in the air. Arra sometimes sang tunes she remembered from her childhood. Tunes that had once been of winter, of cold beauty and a savage, heartless freedom. But now those songs were stripped of power, and were only simple lullabies to sooth a restless babe.
Wash and cook and plant and gather; mend and sew and reap. A whirl of mortal days—light flashing, leaves falling. Children growing underfoot like weeds in the fields. Were there times that the ardor dimmed in Revka’s golden-brown eyes? Did he look at his human wife as he’d once looked at Snow’s princess? Arra remembered words her mother had spoken. At dark moments, doubt gnawed at her heart.
Some years the winter winds blew harsh and unforgiving, as the Snow Queen vented her fury at what the green lands had taken. And some years the winters were mild and brief, as the Queen’s heart softened in memory of her daughter. Arra listened, but she no longer understood the language of the wind, or of the birds.
Her snow bear had stayed with them for a time after he’d first brought them back. But then, restless as ever, he returned to the northlands, and came back only occasionally. It had been years since she’d last seen him.
One spring there was news that an old snow bear had been sighted in the woods. She went out to meet him, her youngest child carried in a sling on her chest. She wanted to show him the baby, a red-cheeked daughter with black eyes. But the bear hesitated when he saw them. Arra called out his name. He shook his head and backed away, growling, and Arra realized that he no longer recognized her.