The child was blue and cold to the touch, the ice frosted against his skin like gloss, an irrevocable sight that held no warmth of life. It was dreadful. It was as if he had been alive just yesterday, preserved in his flawless youth. Leah dragged him across the floor, frantic and wishing that—that a part of her hadn't discovered the boy's body at all.
The shepherd set himself aside, too bewildered to be of any help. "Oh, gods," Leah quivered, patting through the boy's navy robe, snapping off the gold threads that had once been embroideries than mere victims of the deathly cold. At once, her fingers went at loosening the white cravat around his neck; but what for? What for? Wasn't he dead? The thought set her whole body shaking. "Help me," she burst, turning her head to the shepherd. "Help me!"
Cautiously, the shepherd stepped forward, kneeling to behold the boy. The fright in his eyes seemed to die away as he touched the boy's forehead. "He is dead. For a long time."
"He is not!" Some part of her had shouted, despite the reality of it all. "Can't you find anything that can be of use?"
The shepherd slunk back through the thin path and came back with a leather-bound flask of water. Leah sighed disappointedly, coupled with frustration by how frozen the cravat was wound around the small neck. Tugging at it wouldn't do, nor would trying to rip it apart; it had been as solid as stone. She looked around her and at the body. The buttons! Grasping at both sides of the collar, she crunched on her teeth and pulled opposite ways. The buttons popped into the air and went flaying to the sides. It was enough opportunity to let her get underneath the cravat; she scratched at it fearsomely until her nail was frothing with ice; through a short blistering pain, she managed to clutch a hold of one of the ends where it tied to a complete.
"Do you have a knife?" she asked, and the shepherd felt around his pockets and handed over a razor. At once, she went away at cutting through the lead of the end, wishing on stupid luck that the cravat would give, one layer at a time, like rope. As this was happening, the rational part of her argued, Why in the world are you ruining a perfect specimen? Yet the more she watched the boy's face, despite the deathly blue, something assured her that he was alive. Somehow. In such a way that, if she were not imagining it, behind his closed eyes he was trying to desperately peer through for a glimpse of the world.
It took some while, but the cravat gave way. It split into fragments like a fallen brick. But it was only a momentary relief; something else had been wound around the boy's neck—some sort of metal, with glittering black stones, and words written all throughout it. It wasn't a language she or the shepherd knew of. Though, what was obvious was that this device of sorts was tight enough to cause a dip on his neck; and if it wasn't the cold that was killing him, it was this.
The boy was, without a doubt now, turning bluer than he initially had been. It was unexplainable—but even the shepherd took notice of this, inching forward from his distance with a parted mouth that jittered out a white, shaking breath.
Leah put a hand onto the metal device; it spat back dull sparks, hissing errantly, and she yanked her hand away before it caught her fingers. "What am I supposed to do?" she inquired to no one, darting glances throughout the mocking wayward reflections against the juts of ice in the cave. She bit back on her weeping and squinted hard at the floor.
The flask of water rested beside her. Without a thought more, she winded out the clasp and held the flask over the boy's neck, pouring it all out. It was all instinct, and it would have been a foolish, unmerited instinct if not for reaction that came from it. Once the water met the sheen of the metal, the black of it diluted away, a dazzling shade of sapphire revealing through it like blooms of watercolor. The shepherd had backed far into the wall behind him, with a cry of muffled fear. Leah looked to where he was pointing. The boy's hand was twitching.
Leah stared, dumbfounded, understanding a bit of the fear that overtook the shepherd. It was as if all her instinct was suddenly null. The rational part of her was screaming like mad as the color of life began to return to the boy's complexion; his skin ebbed into a deep peach color, and his cheeks were left with two blushes from the bite of the cold. The color of his hair had turned from an insipid, brittle straw into lustrous, golden strands. She found herself frantically scooting away as the boy's neck crooked to the side, his wincing eyes batting languorously struck by the painful chill of their surroundings.
A white cloud puffed out as the boy took his first breath. He remained lying, dazed with half-lidded hazel eyes slinking around the cave for a look. "Yatzniu," he croaked, half way turning into an unexpected cough.
"Who is he?" the shepherd muttered, still smeared against the wall.
The boy groaned to the voice, and now that he was evidently aware of their presence, Leah tried her best to be the braver of the two. "Uh—Hello," she said, stumbling to get on her knees. Slowly, she ambled towards him again until she was about a foot away with not an ounce of daring left in her will. "A-are you all right now?"
"Viliuyahr ce yeull." The boy's voice was breathless and almost like a squeak now.
Still not a clue of what he was saying. The shepherd shook his head at her—the boy didn't look a bit like any Benitan she met. "I'm going to—help you up, okay?" Leah leaned forward to make an experimental pat at his brown boot. "Sit tight now."
It took some convincing to get the shepherd to come forward and help carry the boy. By then, the boy had already fallen into a slumber, still reddened by the cold, and breathing—this made things a little easier to handle. Together, the shepherd and Leah carried the boy through the narrow path and back to the Luquate. The beasts horned them with their noses, assessing the new smell of a child. They slumped him between the Luquate for warmth and the creatures readily accepted him as one of their own, tender at touch and mulling from time to time with their white beards.
When the boy awoke again, it was Leah who had fallen into nap after having lost track of the time. The boy grasped at her shoulder to pull himself up, jabbering in his strange language again and startling her tremendously. Still slightly disoriented, he wobbled in his place for a moment, slinking his hands over his sleeves and robe tails in annoyance. He looked at Leah and grinned, touching his bare neck.
"Rehzi yuellqua, mehl nyzhe," he said cheerfully.
"I—don't understand," said Leah, standing up against the huddle of Luquate.
The boy pursed his rosy lips in thought. "Tzieh, tzieh." He reached for her head with his small arms, finding it nigh impossible, and so Leah bent forward a little so his annoyance would settle. Placing his tiny palms against her temples, he closed his eyes; they stood in place for quite a while, Leah glancing around her as she wondered at what was going on.
At last the boy let go. Leah blinked at him, feeling some droplets of water running down her temples. "What did you do?" Leah asked, forgetting that he spoke nothing of English. She touched her forehead gingerly in curious inspection.
The boy smiled and flicked at her nose. "Translation of sorts," he replied, to the astonishment of Leah and the shepherd who returned from his short scavenging throughout the cave. The boy didn't seem to care very much for their surprise; he stepped away, scanning around the ice and crystals, the ceiling which had been so marvelously colored and—solid. "How do we get out of here?" He grimaced "I don't want to spend another second in this place."
"I—er. How did you do that?" asked Leah, with questions of her own.
The boy snapped a finger at her, annoyed more than ever. "Just get me out, won't you? We can talk later."
It was becoming apparent that whoever this boy was was not from—for lack of better words—the land above. The regality of his robe knocked against Leah's memory like the pecking of a bird, and all the strange happenings to do with him was nothing she could have imagined. Nothing of the sort where an archaeologist figured it might exist—but completely unreasonable, unproven (until now, quite obviously) shmuck. The things you found in… fairy tales.
Leah turned her abrupt eyes to the child. "Is it possible that you're the frozen prince?"
The boy peered up at her. "I'm not frozen anymore, am I?"
The Luquate blundered past the narrow pathway where the crystal walls reflected against them. Leah twitched alongside the ivory hooves of the beasts as they dragged against the floor like droves of portable heaters. The shepherd of the Luquate led in front. There wasn't much initiative to speak, given how tiresome the whole ideal had been. The boy made no vocation to speak either, and any question Leah tried to ask was answered with a wearisome shrug or a vacant nod. By the way the boy carried himself, often peering down at his feet where his boots swept against the rubble, nothing could rival the yearning to be entirely apart from the cave. He often fiddled with his sleeves, muttering to himself and looking as if he wanted to cry. But whenever it seemed as if tears were about spill out, he would look up, find Leah watching him, and stomp on forward trying to look unfazed.
The shepherd found it to be rather inuring; a man of innate faith, he only wished to continue his devotion to the Benitan ancestry. Anything else was out of those bounds, such as aiding a young woman in trivial mysteries concerning a young child and a supposed "prince" was just about his limits.
One of the hairless beasts nuzzled against the boy, and he touched the tip of their nose and grinned. "Stop," he called out.
Leah and the shepherd turned around to watch the child touch the crystal walls. The boy sifted his eyes up, tilting his chin quite high as he leered at the ceiling. His fingertips examined the walls again. With a soft kick of his heel, he sent the Luquate farther back, away from him.
"We can get out through here," he said at last. "If you have a ladder and something hard enough to break the ceiling."
The shepherd, bothered that another was able to convince the herd, crinkled his brow. "No," he said. "There are only two ways to come in and to go out."
"I guess I found a third." The child shrugged. Taking the tail of a Luquate, he dragged the beastly creature to where he stood and spun his eyes to Leah. "Help me up, please."
The young woman twitched her neck to glance at the shepherd; not a word came from his lips. Leah scooted between the Luquate and the boy; she held onto the beast as the tried to hoist himself up. He jostled for a proper balance, raising his arms to try and reach the ceiling. Leah couldn't keep from laughing; he was such a short child.
A maddening blush flurried to his face. "You give it a try then!" he shouted, climbing down.
She felt sorry for his embarrassment. Giving a quick pat to the child's brown hair, Leah lifted a leg over the Luquate. The creature bellowed its beastly groan and shook slightly—though it terribly misplaced her footing, and she waddled against the two narrow walls beside her for balance. The child laughed in merriment as an act of revenge. The shepherd tousled past the other Luquate and came to the aid of Leah; he held out his worn hands, scarred and calloused, in case she was to fall.
Leah peered down—she was reminded at how dreadful her height was compared to the other girls of her age. With a lanky, pale body that often times made her seem sickly, she always figured that she fitted better with trees than with people.
"I need something to break the ceiling." Leah leaned her hands against one of the walls.
The shepherd turned round and leaned across the waves of Luquate; he lifted a leather pouch away from them and fished inside. He took out a rectangular metal scrap, fashioned for use as a handle-less shovel. Holding it out to Leah, he spoke in the Benitan language, certainly explaining the object. She smiled sorrily to him and pretend to have understood anyhow.
She bumped her head against the ceiling as she straightened her back, and winced at the ice particles that swept across her eyelashes. She whacked the metal scrap against the ice a few times. Only a faint crackle could be heard, but not the slightest dent had been made. Trying again, Leah struck another time, then another, and another. With both hands, and a full force of her arms, she wrenched her body upward, wailing with vigor, and slammed the metal scrap (and unfortunately the top of her head) against the ceiling.
Her eyes shut tightly as a pain sniveled through her temples; broken ice fell atop her head and crumbled away. Light slowly came to dance against her eyelids, and the swift cold air of the Atlantic swept against her cheeks. immediately reddening them. The Luquate beneath her groaned at the snow that fell onto them, shivering it all off, with Leah too. She fell back, banging her elbows against the walls and imprisoning her right ankle between a leather strap around the Luquate's belly.
The shepherd immediately took her shoulders, pulling her up as the boy unclasped the strap from her leg. The shepherd placed the young woman against the floor. "I get the ladder," he said in his usual broken English, darting away through the sea of Luquate, and both Leah and the boy wished he would have done so sooner.
When the shepherd returned with the ladder, the boy quickly climbed through the ceiling, unminding of goodbyes. Leah was quite the opposite. "Thank you for everything you've done," she said to him. "Is there really no way you can come with us?"
The shepherd shook his head. "My family is here. Right mountain leads back home."
So with a solemn farewell, Leah took great heed to remember the face of the man, eager to tell her grandfather about the reality of the Benitan tale, before she hoisted herself up. The Benitans were sure to be pleased that weren't mere tall tales.
The boy was pacing along the thick snow, jovially, laughing and singing and kicking white all around. Leah quivered, having forgotten how freezing it was in the Atlantic; the boy didn't seem the least bit bothered by the piercing air. She couldn't make sense of it; his robe looked too thin to provide any warmth beyond a cold spring day, and he was so tiny. How the wind didn't blow straight through him was strange! In his merry prancing, he winded around to Leah and kicked a heap full of snow toward her.
"You're not cold?" she asked, jumping away from the snow.
The boy dashed towards her. "No! Not at all. This is nothing compared to that prison!" He jumped at her, his arms wrapping round her waist.
She patted down his brown hair. "Let's hurry back to the village before the sun goes down," she said. She stared at her hands—she had forgotten her gloves in the cave somewhere, and now they were turning into a numbing red.
"I don't care about a village," he retorted. "I want to go home. And I'm going home. You're coming with me, of course."
"Are you really the frozen prince?" She paused and watched his nod. "I would have imagined him much older—much—"
"Older and handsome like in those fairytales? Well, no. I'm haven't even been anointed as the next heir yet because I was put into that stupid prison."
"You mean the pillar?" Leah shivered at the thought of the other pillars scattered around the Atlantic. "Who put you there? I would very much like to know."
The boy's grimace grew wider, and his eyebrows arched so far down, it nearly shadowed his eyes. "My brother. And I'm not a 'you'. I'm Prince Tilbert of Ieyuid."
That was worse! Leah gaped at him and quickly shut her mouth again when the air spiced in her throat. Fairy tales, the ones often told anyway, didn't have things like familial quarreling and murderous intentions. This sounded more like something she would read off of her history books. What other childish stories had some bit of warped truth to them? The idea was somehow frightening.
"Why would your brother do such a thing, Tilbert?" she asked as he took her hand and began dragging her through the snow.
The child glowered across the land. "He wants my crown."
Leah wasn't necessarily sure where the once frozen prince was shoveling to; no sooner had he mentioned the city from which he came from, he had begun mumbling to in his own foreign language, marking the snow with his tiny footsteps. She wasn't at all sure how Tilbert was shifting between languages, allowing her to understand him—and he her—when he wanted and at other times shutting her out completely. When that happened, much of what he said to himself came off like gibberish, fast-paced and a bunt load of vowels that went on like a rhythmic poem—if it weren't for the temperamental scowling. There was one thing Leah was certain of, however; whether or not Tilbert really was a prince, she wasn't going to take the chance of getting lost among the white barren lands of the Atlantic. She tried, subtly at first, to persuade the child to come with her to the Benitan village; but he refused thrice-fold the times, jaunting his wavy bangs away from his eyes and glaring at her until she stopped. The child would just not listen.
Tilbert continued his path, Leah wobbling behind him; he eagerly stopped at times, pointing at the snow-laden hills and counting them to himself. He talked to her little, because he was so preoccupied in finding the way back to his city—but where that city was must have been miles off somewhere, Leah thought to herself. They would be dead by the time they found it, fairy-tale or not. If the boy had been a young man, Leah might have consented to his parting ways. But he was a child—and she couldn't bear the idea of leaving such a small thing to fend for himself.
But in truth, even if Leah decided to go separate ways, Tilbert would not have let her. He said, quite often as they strolled along the white lands, that she needed to go to the city with him, to greet both his mother and gain recognition for saving him. And of course, a rather more selfish reason—to exploit his brother who had taken his place as the next heir to the crown. No one would believe him, Tilbert emphasized, since he was only a child; they needed someone who looked like an adult to tell them—only then will they certainly realize that not everything that spills out of a child's mouth is a lie or fairy-tale.
"How will I find my way back to the village afterwards?" asked Leah, concerned. "I don't know the Atlantic well enough to find my way."
Tilbert made a noise. "The Atlantic is a lot more solid than I remember! Anyway, I promise you'll get a safe passage back to your village. We have ways of doing that."
By the time they had begun trudging up a hill, the sun blazed down, taunting the fear that panged against her chest. Each of her feet sunk into the snow, needing such an energy to pluck them out and climb again. The effort was becoming unbearable as the process was repeated all through the length of the hill—and really, it was such a high hill. Tilbert, on the other hand, sailed through the snow like a bird skimming water. Leah cried out in anguish, kneeling on the snow and completely defeated.
"Get up here!" Tilbert yelled to her, hopping to the very top of the hill. "Hurry!"
Leah sighed, lunging herself forward. She stomped up, higher and higher, leaning forward in fear that she would fall and tumble down, until at last she reached the boy's side. Her chest expanded and collapsed in haste as she leaned her elbow against his shoulder.
Tilbert smiled rather grandly. "Alright. Let's start wiping."
Leah widened her eyes and her jaw pried open. "What?"
"I said," the boy repeated. "Let's start wiping! We can't find the Compass Stone if we don't get rid of all this snow!"
The Atlantic wind gusted past Leah's face, and she winced at the frost that seemed to grow within her skin. Her head felt like a squabbled watermelon. "I—don't understand. What stone?"
"The Compass Stone," his voice grew higher so that he could be overheard from the wind's bicker, "is on the floor somewhere! It's a round platform—made of stone, obviously. We don't have all day. I want to go home as soon as possible!"
The boy stood, waiting with pride. She realized that he wanted her to wipe the snow away. Sighing again, Leah knelt down, and again, the Atlantic wind pounded against her temples and screamed into her ears. Journeys weren't all too fun, she thought, at least not the one she was on. Her gloveless hands grew numb against the snow, the color of madder red. Sweeping and sweeping, she wished the wind would help her in pelting it all away and prayed that something would reveal underneath.
Wherever the platform was, Tilbert was certainly not helping; he paced around the small top of the hill, staring at the ground with observant eyes. He squatted at times, tired from standing—but really, the most tired was poor Leah, who felt like the five minutes that had passed were really long-winded hours.
"Here!" Leah shouted, lifting her arms away from her prize. "It's here!"
Tilbert ran to her. The platform was a large circle, with another round ring engraved within the stone. Triangles marked the borders, meeting at every end, and lines separated the gems that were delved within the triangles. The gems themselves were transparent, with strange symbols carved in the middle of the platform. The boy gave a few laughs of joy, stepping in the middle of it and bidding Leah to join him. Leah wobbled to her feet; her sleeves were speckled with snow, defeating any warmth her thick jacket provided. Shivering profusely, the cold all around her burned like a bad rash from the sun; her bones jittered as she limped towards Tilbert and stood beside him on the stone platform.
"Are you ready?" Tilbert asked. Leah nodded fiercely—the Atlantic was scrawling across her skin. The prince touched her shoulder and laid his gaze across the land before them. "Mikquelva."