The Hall of Ice glistened before them. An ancient forest of frozen trees, a column hall made of nature's hand. Legend went that at every year's end, in the dark night between the death of one and the birth of another, Queen Winter and her court danced among the black and white behemoths.
Ulin guided his horse in between the trunks, listening to the breeze whistling through frozen branches. Beside him rode Riedlund, wrapped in layers of cloth and fur, looking up at the display. The sound of their escort was muffled and distant.
"Amazing. All these years spent up here, yet I've never visited this place."
"I don't imagine anyone ever took you, your highness" said Ulin, looking at her flushed and lively face.
A puff of steam escaped her mouth as she laughed shortly. "I remember, in my youth, when I would escape from my duties, back home near Erdgaard. I did not need an escort then."
"You were not our queen then, my lady."
"True." There was a wistful tone to her voice. "Very true."
Ulin fidgeted with his reins in the awkward silence, and the horse danced to the side. "Woah, girl." He cleared his throat, feeling a pleasant rush when Riedlund turned her attention to him. "You grew up in Erdgaard?"
"Yes," she said, her face lighting up. "I used to have picnics on the edge of the Black Forest. I used to imagine I was a bandit, and run around with a stick in place of a sword--" She suddenly stopped, realising her facade had broken. "I was a foolish child."
"Not at all," Ulin hurried to say. "I used to do the same, though 'twas in Gerdvik. My home."
"You were a boy, general; boys are meant to play with swords. Gerdvik, you said?" She looked at him again. "You're more of a southerner than I, and a sailor to boot."
He laughed bashfully, looking ahead. "I've only been on a boat twice in my life. Frankly I prefer horses."
She smiled softly and looked ahead as well.
They rode in a pleasant silence till a stony structure appeared between the trunks of ice, half-buried in snow.
"The daïs of Lady Frost," offered Ulin as explanation, setting his horse into a short trot. "This is where her throne is placed."
She kept up with him, looking up curiously. "Amazing... Was this carved or--?"
"No, my lady. God has created all these things you see here, and left them to enchant." He dismounted and held her horse, offering a hand. She clambered down and he handed the reins to an escort guard. "Come, my lady."
She followed him half-way around the stone mound where oversized steps lead upwards. She laughed in delight. "He even makes sure we can ascend!"
Ulin laughed with her and climbed onto the first step, offering her a hand. "God is gracious," he said, the laugh still in his voice.
She accepted and was pulled up, and accepted once more for the second and third step. "Thank you, general."
"You're quite welcome, my lady," he said, easily jumping up the last step to the top and helping her up. He lead her to the edge and when the voices of their escort hit them, he was surprised to find that he hadn't even noticed them fade. "Now; look at this."
The icy tomb of the ancient forest rose glistening around them, the sun playing in gigantic icicles, creating a magnificent shower of light around the crippled treetops. Up here the sound of the wind whistling through the branches was intermingled with the soft chimes of icicles tapping against each other.
"No wonder fairies dance here. It was created for them, and not for us to intrude," breathed Riedlund, her eyes wide at the magnificence.
"I'm sure they don't mind our looking, my lady," said Ulin, smiling.
"All these years, and I've never seen this place before," said Riedlund quietly, echoing her previous words.
Ulin could not stop a chuckle. "I suppose no one ever took you, your highness."
Riedlund laughed shortly. "Why should they?" She turned her warm brown eyes on him. "Why did you?"
His laugh died in his throat and he clenched his hands, looking away. "I..." He cleared his throat, absently making sure the escort was not slacking. "Frostgaard is a dull place. I merely suspected you would wish to escape for a short while, and since you are my queen, what a subject would I be if I did not help?"
"That is kind of you, general." Her voice was once again guarded and distant, and she looked down at the escort with him.
"I... live to serve, my lady." He frowned. "I live to serve my lady." He winced and looked up, running a hand over his beard. "My lady."
She laughed in genuine delight, and he smiled in relief as she looked back at him. "You sound confused at yourself, General Kandoson."
He smiled widely. "I tend to do that on a regular basis. My mind is a surprising mess." He swallowed and looked away, plunging. "And please, my lady, call me Ulin."
She paused, looking at him askance. "Perhaps a tad too familiar?"
He nodded, clenching his hands again. "Of course; forgive me."
He jumped when slender fingers brushed over the back of his tense hand, and he quickly turned his hand and grabbed hold, looking down at her suddenly closer face.
"All is forgiven," she told him levelly.
"My lady, I--"
"Riedlund," she interrupted him. "If you are Ulin, 'tis only fair that I must be Riedlund."
He nodded and looked down when a round of laughter reminded them of the escort's presence. He felt himself being pulled away from the edge, out of their sight. "Of course..." She brushed fine snow off of a rock with her free hand and sat. He sat beside her, on the flat surface of the mound, examining her hand.
"What is it?"
He did not look up - he rather did not dare - and continued his analysis on the hand. "I merely wonder at how detailed you are; and how I never noticed." The small creases on her fingers, the wrinkles starting to form on the back of her hand, the indent that could be seen if her wedding band was moved slightly.
She was silent for a moment, and Ulin feared he had gone too far. "We rarely notice, even with those closest to us," she finally said.
He looked up, licking his dry lips. "We have never before been close, my lady." He closed his eyes and growled at himself. "Riedlund."
"And what a shame that is, Ulin," she said, "for it has been years since I've heard anyone but myself say my name."
He looked into her eyes and saw the walls crumble. He brought her hand to his lips, and she turned it so he kissed the palm. Her fingers gently brushed over his cheek.
"What are we doing?" she asked him.
He released her hand, sliding his own up her arm, under the many coverings, and rose to his knees. At the last moment she turned her face, and his lips brushed her cheek. "I'm... not sure, my-- Riedlund."
She smiled slightly and turned her face back to look at him. "Still so confused?"
He nodded, swallowing dryly.
"Perhaps..." She hesitated, slipping a hand under her coverings to grab his own. "Perhaps we should be getting back to Frostgaard. One never knows when a blizzard might strike."
"Indeed," he said, noticing his voice was slightly shaky.
"Help me up." She held out her free hand, and he took it, pulling her up; pulling her close. She stopped herself from a disgraceful tumble into his arms by putting her hand flat on his chest. His arm wrapped lightly around her, supporting.
"What is this?" he asked, whispering, looking down at her.
"Something," she answered, "not to be continued in this holy place."
He nodded and they drew apart, making their way back down to the escort. He helped her onto her horse and rallied the men, mounting his own mare and setting off, back through the massive trees.
"This is a magnificent grave," said Riedlund, looking up at the clusters of shimmering icicles. "I wonder how old these trees are."
"Ancient, I believe, would not be too far off an estimate." He nodded to himself, looking at her almost hidden face. "And it is magnificent."
She looked back, wrapping her fur cloak tighter around her. "I should like to come here again."
"Then I should like to escort you again, my lady," he said.
"That would be wonderful, general," she answered, smiling distantly at him. He could not tell if it was genuine.
They rode out of the forest and, in the distant east, Frostgaard shimmered, a black splotch against the crisply blue sky, and to the north the flimsy mirages of Queen Frost's palace beckoned. The alluring white towers were ignored, and the small group made their way across the frozen wasteland to the ominous darkness of the fort.
The snow crunched under the horses' hooves, and for the first time Ulin heard it as snow and not as bone and ashes. He smiled slightly.
"Something amuses you, general?"
"No, not at all, my lady. Merely a sense of relief; it is so delightful out here. One could almost fly away."
Riedlund was silent for a few more moments. "Aye, perhaps one could."
He watched the life fade from her eyes and the smile from her lips, the closer they got to Frostgaard. "One could fly away, were it not for the cage...?"
For a short while she gave no indication of having heard, but then she smiled - coolly, guardedly - and looked at him. "Indeed. The bars are close together, but at least there is plenty of care."
"Care alone does not please a bird, my lady," said Ulin as they rode through the heavy gates of the fort, into the court yard. "They have wings, and they need to be used."
She nodded and let him help her off the horse, intertwining her fingers briefly with his. "We shall see how far you can help me spread mine, General Kandoson. Good day." And in an instant she was whisked away by her waiting maids, lost in a cloud of gossip and perfume.
Ulin looked forlornly after her, rubbing his fingers absently.
He looked to the stable boy, brows furrowing. "Yes, lad?"
"Are you all right, sir? Can I take you horse?"
"Oh... Oh, yes. Of course." He nodded curtly and handed the reins over, resolutely marching for the doorway inside. Around him, snow began falling, and the frozen waste surrounding Fort Frostgaard was soon lost in a silencing white cloud, leaving no proof that anyone had ventured outside at all.