This is the second in the Winter King series. In order to actually understand this story, it's best to first read Winter Touch.
He stared, in shock. Despite his best efforts, every so often one would come along to whom he'd grow attached, who he would come to love. One such had died two hundred years previously – a long time by human standards, but no time to him. And now he was looking at a girl who could have been her sister. They had to be related.
She smiled at him, tilting her head. Normally his brides were terrified and sad, but this young lady didn't seem perturbed by his focused attention. "Are we going to go, or are you just going to stand there staring?" she asked merrily. Oh yes, definitely related.
"You look just like her," he breathed.
Her eyebrow quirked. "You remember her?"
"I remember all my wives," he replied soberly, and she quieted, startled and a little abashed. He turned away, walking back towards his carriage, and without waiting to be told to follow she fell into step right behind him.
• • •
"It's beautiful," she breathed, staring out the window at the Peppermint Palace as they approached. Her new husband looked around at her in mild surprise. Usually his brides were too absorbed in their misery to appreciate the icy grandeur of their new home, but this one all but had her nose pressed to the glass.
"I'm glad you like it," he replied coolly.
"Can I ask you a question?" she asked, sitting back in the carriage, and he sighed.
"You are just like her," he said in resignation, gesturing for her to continue.
She smiled, amused and rueful. "She was inquisitive too," she stated, before continuing her question. "Why do you tend to choose girls so young?"
"A couple of different reasons," he answered detachedly. "Early in womanhood are the prime childbearing years, and so lengthen the Winter Maidens' chances of living, and the younger the girl the less likely she is to be caught up already in romantic entanglements."
"How considerate of you," his new wife exclaimed, tilting her head slightly as she studied him. He blinked at her before answering slowly.
"That is not a description often applied to me, and never so soon," he remarked.
"It is true, though, if you're trying to not split up couples," she persisted, almost admiringly. He looked at her uncertainly, she was embracing her fate far too easily.
"Are you not perturbed at being chosen as the Winter Maiden?" he finally inquired.
"Not really," she responded carelessly. "There was nothing for me back in the village, and I've always loved the winter."
"Oh," he murmured, taken aback. Normally even the Maidens who liked the winter did not enjoy being ripped from their home and family for a short bleak existence alone amongst the Elementals, for the purpose of bearing Jack Frost anew each year. It was very, very rare for one of the Maidens to embrace her new life, rarer still for a Maiden so obviously full of life and not filled with darkness to be so eager. Even her ancestor had been miserable, those first few years. Eventually she had grown to love him and the Winter, as a few did… as had his last wife…
His eyes went distant as he stared out the window at the rapidly approaching Palace. His new bride watched him quietly, knowingly. After a moment she broke the silence with a soft "Do you ever fall in love?"
"I try not to," was the detached reply.
"But sometimes you don't succeed," was the non-question. "You loved your last wife… didn't you." After a moment he gave a slow short nod, remembering her jet-black hair – silver, there at the end – her gracious dignified manner, her quiet thoughtful mien, the surprising depths of her love and devotion. A lump formed in his throat, as the Winter King he did not have the luxury of time to grieve.
A light touch on his arm drew him out of his gloomy ponderings, his new wife looking up at him with sympathetic soft eyes. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No," he replied stiltedly. "But I appreciate your consideration," he added, even managing to be sincere.
Stupid, stupid of him, he very rarely let himself get snarled in sentiment, but his longing for his recently-deceased wife, following nearly on the heels of a sprite of a curious blonde to whom he'd let himself grow attached, must have influenced his choice of companion for the next few years. His was a lonely existence; it would do no one any good for him to attempt to change that, but every semi-millennia or so he could no longer resist the temptation to try, before the heartbreak drove him back into frozen isolation. As his eyes took in his new bride – sunny hair, eyes the color of a summer sky – he knew that he was rapidly heading for that same tomb of emotional ice that he erected for himself, very rapidly indeed. It would hurt to lose this one, too. He sighed again.
• • •
"It's beautiful!" Her eyes sparkled like sun on snow as she stared around the imposing entrance hall of the castle, her lips parted slightly. "It's…"
"Beautiful?" the Winter King suggested dryly, and she threw him a playfully reproachful glance.
"Don't make fun," she pouted mildly, before wandering away from him across the slick delicate floor. "I've never been anywhere, seen anything so magnificent." She stopped in the middle of the hall, flinging her arms out and tilting her head back, turning in a slow circle and taking in the soaring vaulted ceiling, the filigree chandelier, the graceful curving staircase ascending along the wall to the aristocratic balcony. Her husband watched her, as intent on studying his new bride as she was on studying her new home. His eyes took in every detail of her face, her figure, her hair, her mien, even as she absorbed the minutiae of the Palace's grand hall.
"I'm glad you like it," he finally said, surprising himself. Drat humans and their occasionally surprising ways, she was drawing him out far too quickly. The sunny half-smile she tossed his way before wandering over to peek into the dining hall made his chest twitch discomfitingly. He was, he reflected glumly, really letting himself in for it this time.
• • •
She took to her new life like ice to a still pond. Unlike her predecessors, she was never still; never staying in one place, but constantly flitting about like a snow flurry. The stoic servants regarded her with bemusement, the Winter King with a sort of fond exasperation. (He could only imagine what the Jacks Frost were going to be like. He almost pitied the humans for the next several years.)
He had been incorrect in his assessment at their original encounter, he concluded grumpily, peering into yet another empty room before moving on in his search. She was nothing like her generally cheerful but overall staid and ladylike ancestor. This one was a waif, a sprite, a nymph, airheaded and twittery – he caught himself before he could get caught up in what she merrily termed "a brood."
"Oh hi!" A voice behind him startled him and he whirled, surprised that a human, no matter how unusual, had managed to get the drop on him. Her eyes sparkled impishly at him, betraying that she knew exactly what she had done and it had been intentional. "Were you looking for something?" she asked innocently, trying to suppress the glee attempting to bubble out into her voice and expression.
He just stood a minute, forgetting his previous thoughts as he stared at her. It took him a moment to gather himself and find his voice again. "How are you feeling?" he asked, his eyes dropping to her stomach.
She gave him a curious look, subconsciously placing a hand on her swollen abdomen. "I feel fine. Should I not?"
"I was just… checking," he replied awkwardly. "Oftentimes pregnancy makes the Winter Maiden feel… unusual."
"Pretty sure any pregnancy makes any woman feel unusual," she replied, strolling past him to lean against the windowsill, staring out. She turned her head to give him a thoughtful, almost accusing look. "You did say I had free run of the castle, you know."
"And you do," he agreed, moving to join her and stare out upon his realm. "It's just… uncommon for a Maiden to take it so liberally."
"Are you displeased?" she asked archly, not giving an inch, and he felt a tiny smile tug at his mouth.
"Only when I have need of you and cannot find you," he replied easily.
She turned slightly to face him, leaning against the icy glass. "And do you have need of me?" she probed, eyes sharp and shrewd.
He felt himself sober, holding her gaze. "I greatly enjoy your company," he replied softly, somberly, reaching out to a stray lock of her hair and tucking it behind her ear.
She was having none of it, nonchalantly ignoring the romantic gesture. "But that's not a need," she pursued single-mindedly.
He rolled his eyes, a gesture he'd picked up a couple of wives ago. "So it is not," he forbore, not in the mood to argue further over something so pointless. She gave him a searching glance before shrugging and dropping the subject, turning to look out the window again. He found himself wondering if all pregnant women were ornery, and if so, he very greatly admired the patience of the human men forced to put up with them for a whole nine months.
• • •
The first Jack was every bit as mischievous as he'd feared, but to his dismay, the sprite's mother joined in his activities with joy, an outcome the King had not foreseen. In retrospect, he wondered if there had been signs, but it didn't help now. He was beleaguered, beset by troublemakers, and he found himself in the unique position of being pranked. He wasn't sure he liked it – no, scratch that, he was very sure he didn't like it, at all. This was the first time, over the many centuries, that the Winter Maiden had joined in her offspring's hijinks. (He had not realized he'd gravitated towards certain personality types until he broke the streak.)
"Stuffy," he muttered indignantly. "I am not stuffy. I am dignified, as befits my position." A passing servant gave him the briefest flash of an odd look and he frowned, striding on. "They're wreaking havoc on the whole household," he muttered in dismay. His equilibrium had never been so unbalanced, and the servants would never have dreamed of showing the slightest disrespect. The Maiden and Jack had everyone on edge.
"Lighten up," Jack Frost had tossed at his father that very morning. "What good does it do anybody for you to be so stuffy?" His insolence delivered, the imp had run off, leaving the Winter King uncharacteristically speechless. When the monarch had turned to his wife, she had given him an unreadable smile before prudently withdrawing, leaving him agape. Now, he felt the need to retreat to his rarely-used but overwhelmingly majestic throne room. Perhaps a stint in the calm magnificence of the seat of his power would restore his icy tranquility.
After an hour of meditating on the imposing beauty of the massive hall, the King did not feel any more tranquil. Calmer, perhaps, but only in the way thin ice was calm – the slightest pressure could cause him to crack again. Maybe, he thought darkly, he was going about this the wrong way. Maybe what was needed, was to teach his wife and son a lesson.
The Maiden and Jack tromped back through the woods towards the Palace, after a long day of her teaching him the odd but fun human custom of 'sledding.' Jack loved his mother's stories of the human world, they were so much more fun than watching humans themselves. It was all the fun and humor of being human distilled down into the best parts, without the hard work and drudgery. He was delighted that she was willing to spend so much time with him, and could hardly wait to plan tomorrow with her over dinner.
So engaged were they in their conversation, that neither woman nor spirit noticed the burning-eyed King standing mostly hidden behind a tree and observing their progress with a dark satisfaction. Nor did either notice the missile until too late, when both were washed with snow. The Maiden looked up with a gasp, her shocked blue eyes meeting her husband's smug ones. He stood with two more giant snowballs at the ready, and as soon as both his targets looked at him, let them fly. Jack, with his nimble reflexes, avoided his, but the lady barely had time to gasp before disappearing behind a cloud of white.
"You – did – not," she drawled in disbelief, wiping the snow from her face. He merely smirked at her by way of reply, already generating another mini-blizzard in each palm, one cautious eye on the nearby Jack Frost. "That does it," she declared, and promptly burrowed into a nearby drift for cover while she made her own ammunition.
"The perks of being the Winter King," he murmured to himself, twitching one finger. Her shelter instantly collapsed on top of her, and he grinned at the startled yelp even as he raised a hand and stopped cold the line of frost Jack had just shot at him. "It's pretty much impossible to beat me in a snowball fight."
He had to admit, three hours later, that the two made a scarily good team, though. It hadn't taken the Maiden long to pinpoint a large holly bush as the best fort, the glossy sharp leaves keeping him at bay as she bellyed underneath. While neither her manually-formed snowballs nor Jack's powers could touch him if he was paying attention, they were very good at flanking him in pincer movements, and she had an impressive grasp of strategy and tactics. He had never known any Jack to follow orders before, either, yet another complication.
"Most impressive," he praised from his seat on her back where she lay face first in the snow, Jack contained in a pretzel grip with the Staff of Frost Power several feet away. "Rarely before have I been so well contested." A muffled sound below him had him craning his head towards his wife. "What was that? I didn't quite catch it."
The Maiden twisted slightly beneath his weight to lift her head partway. "Can I get up now?" she repeated breathlessly.
"Do you concede?" he asked, his smugness intensifying.
"Never!" Jack declared from his impossible position.
"Yes," the girl contradicted wheezily. "I'm cold and tired and hungry and it is just not worth it."
The King cocked an eye at his offspring, who pouted and crossed his arms but said nothing. The Winter King released his hold on the sprite before rising and assisting his wife to her feet. "Let's go get you warmed up and fed," he suggested pleasantly, offering her his arm.
She glanced up at him as she took it, sporting a small smile and a rebellious gleam in her eyes. "I'm going to get you back," she murmured as they started back towards the castle.
"I will be on the lookout," he murmured back, pleased with himself.
(He did not expect her "revenge" to take the form of her jumping on his back that night on his way to bed, leading to an impromptu wrestling match that left them both breathless and giggling, but he didn't exactly mind, either.)
• • •
Generally, time had no meaning for the Winter King, beyond taking a new wife every few years. But after the birth of the fifteenth Jack Frost, he couldn't help but notice that beyond her golden-blonde hair turning platinum, his bride seemed unchanged from the day he took her. He could only think that this was a result, not of her resilience against the Winter, but embrace of it. She had gone from being a summer bird, flitting about, to a snowflake dancing in the wind.
He felt his heart warm as she stood on tiptoes to nudge a spray of holly and mistletoe into the perfect position. Every Midwinter, she decorated the castle with joyous abandon, festooning the halls and chambers with every wintry greenery she could find, bright holly berries and pale yellow mistletoe adding splashes and dots of color amongst the green, while stately pinecones brought a slight suggestion of autumn inside. Evergreen boughs, fir and pine and cedar, swept across doorways and reposed in windowsills, frozen white candles perched in beds of fragrant needles casting pools of flickering blue light. The feast would be sumptuous, it always was, she took as much delight in designing the menu as in the decorating.
She wasn't social, he puzzled. She never asked for more company than her husband and her son. She… liked beauty, and details, and holidays provided the opportunity for both. It didn't matter that she couldn't show off her skills, as long as she could put them to use. Unwilling to interfere in what gave her joy, he stood back and observed until – inevitably -
"Love?" She turned a bright pleading smile on him. "I can't reach."
- she asked for his help putting something up. Smiling, he stepped forward and took the ribbon, tacking it up, while she turned her beaming face up towards him. Leaning down, he stole a kiss, perfectly happy.
• • •
He rode back as quickly as he could, he hated leaving at this time – so soon to when she would be giving birth to the next Jack, but the Council had been called and as a senior member, his attendance was required. He hoped she'd managed to hang on a few days, that he would be there with her as he had been for the previous nineteen. This pregnancy had been a little harder, she had been a little quieter, a little less prone to running around, and he wanted to be there if the birth was more difficult than usual. He could only hope he wasn't too late.
He stopped short upon seeing Jack Frost sitting upon the bottom step of the palace entry stairs, pushing idly at the snow piled there with the Staff. He had never seen the winter sprite so disconsolate. Jack looked up at his approach, demeanor solemn. "I'm sorry, sire," he said softly. "She tried to hang on for you."
The King felt his face fall, an unaccustomed tremor gripping him. Was this feeling what humans called "going cold"? Not answering the spirit, he rushed past and inside, dignity forgotten. He mounted the steps to their room faster than he ever had in his life, pushing the door open swiftly but silently.
The room and bed were empty, frosting ornamenting the window panes, a faint smell of peppermint lingering. There was no sign of his bride, except the slightly rumpled bed. Just like that, she was gone. It was the first time he had missed the death of one of his wives, and it was the wife he had possibly held most dear.
For a moment, he teetered, an abyss plunging away beneath his feet as his heart screamed in agony, weeping tears of blood. An endless eternity he stood, two choices before him – plunge into the abyss, or his duty. Pulling himself together, his face hardened as his heart frosted over, an impenetrable wall of ice rapidly forming around his emotions to protect him from this pain for several centuries more. The Winter King did not have time to grieve. The Winter must go on.