Frost: Chapter One
Aradel lurked across the edge of the lake, her weapon held tightly in her fist as she glanced around. Her quarries stalked her closely, but she was careful to stay well hidden behind the snowdrifts. She couldn’t see them, but she knew they were there. The wind had been bad these last weeks and provided the perfect cover. Her bare feet made no sound on the snow; she loved the way it felt, and it muffled her movements.
The soft glow of the cloud-hidden sun made the ground shine even more brightly. Without the snow she imagined this place would look like a dead wasteland. The snow is what gave it life. Glancing hastily over the top of the snowdrift, she saw nothing. Glancing at the tree, she wondered if it was worth the risk. The only time it looked more beautiful was under the glow of the moon.
She scanned the area before her as she slipped around the edge of the bank, her pale blue gown and simple short cape not restricting her movement as she put her back against the tree. She peered out but saw no one watching her. Her dark blue eyes narrowed as she tried to see any movement in the pale snow. She saw something shift.
Focusing on it, she lifted her arm, holding her weapon out, primed and ready. She could see the top of his hat as she crept across the short clearing toward the lake. The rest would not be far from him, and if she struck him, they would flee. Aradel moved as quietly as she could, her anticipation growing as she rounded the corner.
Her inner child called out, “Ah-ha!”
Her excitement turned to confusion as she saw a lonely hat without its owner and she heard someone call, “Now!”
She shrieked as snowballs pelted her. She heard hearty laughter as she tried to cover her head. Focusing only on his deep laughter, she turned and threw her snowball wildly in that direction. There was a startled noise from Kirill’s direction as his laughter was cut off. Aradel looked up.
Snow fell off Kirill’s face as he blinked in surprise.
She pointed at him. “Ha!”
“Get her!” he yelled, and the children stampeded towards her.
She yelped and turned around, lifting her skirts as she went. Kirill laughed as the children hurried after her. She could hear their little feet crunching in the hard snow, though their little legs couldn’t keep up with her. When she reached the end of the lake, she turned to face them. Lifting her arms, she let her powers flow through her.
She raised a wave of snow, and the children screeched and fell over themselves. She let it swirl until an army of snow creatures stood up. They watched it, their little mouths dropping open in wonder. Miniature polar bears, no bigger than her palm, marched forward. The children tripped over themselves to get up, all yelling at the same time.
“My army will defeat you!” she cried as Kirill stepped onto the lake.
“Your snow is no match for my ice!” he called back, and ice bubbles formed around her little creatures.
Lifting her arms, the little polar bears took to the sky. The children gasped. Her snow bears danced, leaving little trails of snow behind them that rained down on the children. The children, awed at her creations, fell back to watch them overhead as they danced around like people. Everyone laughed as Aradel’s face spread into a grin.
Finally, they cried one by one, “Aradel wins!”
“There you see,” Aradel called, her face hurting from how much she was smiling, “they have named their victor.”
“You were their favorite anyway,” Kirill called, his voice attempting to mock a hurt ego. “I could never have won.”
She let her bears go; they dropped on top of the children, who howled with excitement. The children rolled around in the snow as she made her way around the ice bubbles. When she reached the children, they jumped to their feet and pulled at her clothes. She laughed, patting them as she made her way towards Kirill. He had his arms crossed and his nose up in the air.
“It was very clever with the hat,” she conceded. “You very nearly won this time.”
“Next time you won’t be so lucky!” he declared, still sounding aloof.
“Children, it is very nearly time to go back,” Aradel announced. Hearing their groans of dissatisfaction, she added, “But before we do, I believe Kirill needs a hug!”
His look of annoyance quickly turned to horror as he put an arm out and said, “Now wait a minute.”
They all abandoned her and streaked towards him. He took a startled step back as fourteen little bodies toppled him over. Snow fluffed up around them. Aradel had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. If she laughed, Kirill would never let her hear the end of it.
He slowly disentangled himself from them, though they fought him fiercely. Aradel waited until he was nearly out before she called, “Time to go!”
With sounds of protest they slowly got off him and joined her. Kirill stood and dusted the snow off his clothes, shooting her a look that said he didn’t appreciate her little trick. She kept the smile from her lips until she turned away from him, but as she led the children back toward the palace she grinned.
When they reached the edge of the lake, Aradel raised her head and looked down the road. It was made of stone for ease of travel, but a continual layer of ice under the stone held it level and in place. She put her arms out and stopped the children. A few peered around her skirts and looked in the same direction.
“What is it, Lady Aradel?” one girl asked.
“Kirill?” she called, having completely forgotten their fun.
“Yes Lady Aradel?” he mocked with a snide grin on his face. But then he followed her gaze.
“Who are they?” she asked, trying to tuck the children completely behind her.
“Outlanders,” he said, as the people drew closer. “Take the children back,” he commanded.
She ignored him, wondering why so many of them were coming this way. Kirill stepped out into the road, drawing their attention. They looked beaten and battered, exhausted to their very bones.
Aradel’s eyebrows rose in surprise. She turned towards the children. “Come along,” she said, hurrying them in a row down the road towards the palace. Thank the stars they weren’t far from the castle.
“What is your business here?” she heard Kirill ask behind her, his commander-of-the-guard voice kicking in.
Aradel looked over her shoulder at them. Kirill was blocking the strangers’ way. Her eyes scanned their faces. She gasped in shock and horror as her gaze fell on one. She turned and pushed past Kirill. The crowd parted for her, the people recognizing that her necklace marked her as a member of the elite, those few chosen as possible successors to Queen Vesna.
She reached the second layer of the crowd and stopped before an old woman. When the woman lifted her head, Aradel could barely manage to keep herself from gasping again at her face. Her entire cheek was covered in fractured skin. It looked like ice after someone stomped on it and cracked it.
Aradel reached out and touched the woman’s face, letting her powers fill the woman. The fractured skin mended, but it was likely that she would have that faded blue mark for the rest of her life. Once it got into the skin, nothing could make it vanish.
“What happened?” Aradel whispered, and the old woman’s eyes filled with tears.
“The spring,” she said, her voice heavy with emotion. “The spring came early.”
Aradel looked back at Kirill, who had come forward. He looked shocked. She glanced behind him at the children huddled together for comfort. The spring meant everyone had to go back behind The Wall, the magnificent, magical ice structure at the northern border of the Frost Nation. The Wall kept the warmth of the spring and summer out of their land and kept the frost people safe from danger of the heat. Beyond The Wall were the farmlands and it was harvest season. She could not understand why the Outlanders would abandon their fields so early.
Aradel turned back to the old woman. “Where is Lord Drykus?”
“Dead,” a man to her right said. “The heat was too great.”
“He died so we could come to tell the Queen,” another woman called out.
“An honorable man,” a young man added.
Aradel wrapped her fingers around the old woman’s hand and then turned to the crowd. She declared, “The Queen must be told.”