WINTER SONG
Far to the north, there was a land always covered in snow. For many years, the king had only one child, a son. The king and queen tried many times to have another child, but all attempts failed. Accidents, stillborns, and unexpected miscarriages; through many misfortunes, Death snatched away their lives before they could leave the queen's womb. The young prince was the kingdom's only hope for the future, and that hope too was taken away from them. On the coldest winter night, Death's steady hand took hold of the child and led him away. The king and queen cremated the boy, cursing the chilly night air for stealing his breath. Heirless, the king prayed for a miracle. He prayed to god to no avail, then to every spirit he could name. None answered him. When the spirits would not do his bidding, he prayed to the sea and the land for a gift. The earth remained silent, as did the sea. Out of desperation, the king then prayed to the snow and begged for forgiveness. The following month, his wife's cycle didn't come. An offering of holly berries and wine was made to the snow at an altar of white candles. Frigid temperatures cut deep into their skin. The king shielded his wife as much as he could from the winter winds. He spoke to the falling snow all around them. "Oh, winter storm, please, grant us this one wish...please, give us a child that survives. In our anger, we cursed you for taking the last one. Please, let us keep this one, and we will be your servants." From the snowflakes and winter wind, a figure appeared before them. Her skin was ghostly pale, her hair as white as snow, and her eyes were an icy blue. In a long gown of white with a staff and crown of holly, she presented herself. "Mortal rulers, I may grant you your wish, but I have conditions of my own." The snow spirit said. "Every winter until the child's twentieth year, when the sun is the farthest from the earth, you must give me a wreath of holly, a song, and a drop of blood from each of you. When the child reaches the twentieth year, the child must marry someone whose voice sings to the same deep melody in perfect harmony. If the child is not wed to one with a matching voice before the child's twenty-first year, the child will die. If you try to marry the child to one whose voice does not match the child's soul, the child will fall into a deep despair and not wake until the correct person offers themselves and their voice. These are my conditions. Do you agree?" "And if we do not agree?" The queen asked. "Then that child will not receive my protection, and you will need to seek it from another. As it is now, without my gift, the child will only live to five and you will not have another." The snow spirit warned them. The king and queen shared a glance then agreed to the spirit's terms. No one else had answered their prayers. They were out of options. "I will see you next winter." The snow spirit said, then disappeared on the wind. The land grew a little warmer after their bargain, as if the spirit were giving them mercy for the child's health. For the first time in a hundred years, flowers bloomed in front of the castle in their brief spring. In time, the queen gave birth to a healthy little princess. Her hair was the shade of wood, her eyes the color of leaves, and her skin had a rosy glow to it. The king and queen dressed her in red and green, and for the spirit, they named her Holly. From a young age, Holly loved singing. She sang for anyone she could get to sit still long enough. Her voice made her very popular with the public and neighboring nobles alike. More than anyone in the kingdom, her voice gained her the devotion of a particular person, a young page serving the king, a boy named Astor. Whenever he could, he snuck away from his duties to sing with the princess. The boy's mischief about this became so well-known the king allowed the two of them to sing a duet during the yearly winter festival. As they grew older, they only became closer. When the page became a squire, he started courting her. He dedicated all his accomplishments with the knight he served to her, and every contest he won, he did for her honor. The two often spent late evenings alone together, singing in the cathedral or in the forest. When they were alone, she sometimes played her portative organ while singing, and he joined her beautiful voice with his breaths through the flute. He confessed his love to her when he was sixteen and she was fifteen. She returned his affections, gifting him a song to show her love for him. He gave her one in return. Their gifts were their little secrets. Only the birds and trees were allowed to hear the lyrics. Astor wished for more, but he dare not ask for even a kiss. He was to become her knight, not her husband. She could never be his, nor he hers. All of his love for her poured out into his songs, no matter who he performed them for. He didn't know it, but the princess was the same. She deeply wished to embrace him and hold onto him for all eternity. Unable to fulfill that desire, she let it flow through her voice and her words. Her body could not contain it for long. They kept to themselves in the forest for as long as they could. The king grew leery of this as they aged, but he allowed it. When the princess was nineteen and the squire was twenty, the king sent out word to all the neighboring kingdoms of a singing contest to be held on his daughter's twentieth birthday. He informed the kingdom of the conditions he had to uphold with the snow spirit, but did not tell any of her potential suitors why his daughter's husband needed to be the best singer in the lands. When she received the news, the princess cried in her room for hours. Astor comforted her. He held her, knowing he shouldn't. He couldn't stop himself when he watched her cry. More than hold, he wanted to kiss her. He forced that desire down and hid it away. She could never be his. He shouldn't make it worse for her when the time came to part ways. For several months, the princess refused to sing for anyone. Astor was knighted shortly after his twenty-first birthday by the princess. On that day, she sang one song, one meant for him alone. She returned to silence after that. Her twentieth birthday approached, and noblemen from near and far came to participate in the contest. The king was confident that he would know the right voice when he heard it, and thus all men in his own kingdom were forbidden from entering the contest. He had heard the voice of all the great singers within his own kingdom. There was no time to waste on having them compete, he reasoned. The contest lasted a full week. In the end, the king chose a prince named Ariel from a land to the southeast. The prince was a very talented and arrogant young man. He boasted before performing that none would outclass him in talent, and the king agreed when he finished. Pleased with his victory, he approached his bride-to-be and kissed her for the crowd. The king was pleased and the crowd cheered. Holly squirmed in his arms and Astor looked away. Their wedding was announced for the following morning. When the celebrating ending, Holly approached her father and mother. "I won't marry him. He's not the one for me. Please, you can't make me!" "There is no man who sings better than Prince Ariel. He must be the one." The king said. Anger rose in him at his daughter's words. He expected she might complain, but it angered him nonetheless. All of this was done to protect her life. Another part of him expected the princess to be overjoyed at all of her father's hard work. Holly persisted. She said, "But Father, I don't want to marry him. Astor has always sung with me. Why can't I marry him?" This was the first time she had openly suggested any affection for the man. Her cheeks burned. "Holly, Astor is a great singer, but he is not the best. The spirit told us to find the best voice for yours. Prince Ariel is perfect." The king said. He turned away from her. "I am sorry, Holly, but it must be this way. You can continue to love Astor as you always have, in a way appropriate for a knight and a princess." Her mother said to comfort her. She gave her a halfhearted smile and patted her on the back. Holly pulled away from her mother. She held back tears. "If I marry that prince, I'll never see Astor again. He lives four kingdoms away from here!" "Holly, it must be this way. If we don't do this, and do it now, you'll fall into a sleep you can never wake from. That's what the spirit told us. There is no other choice." The king turned back around. He raised his voice at her. "I'd rather sleep and dream than wake, trapped in a nightmare!" Holly yelled at him. "All princesses must marry the man their father chooses for them. You are being spoiled." He countered her words with ease. Her shoulders sunk and her heart ached to hear her father say those words. He didn't notice. "We are doing this to save your life. Go, and think about all we have done for you and how ungrateful you have become." "Yes, father." Holly's voice was barely above a whisper. She faced the ground and left the room without another word. The king sighed. "She'll come around. The pain will fade in time, and she won't complain anymore. You'll see." The queen said. Holly cried in her room. There was no getting out of it. She didn't like Ariel, nor any of the men that came. Astor was the only one she wanted. She didn't understand her father's reasoning. No one's voice captured her the way Astor's did. Her knight came to her late in the night. He embraced her in dim candlelight. "I don't want to let go." "Please, don't." She clung to him tightly. Their eyes met in a deep gaze, then their lips. She led him over to the bed. "He can't decide everything for me." She said. "No, he can't." Astor looked over at the wedding dress in the corner of the room. He pinned a note on the underside of her wedding dress. The note read, "whoever reads this is a thief". That night, the knight and the princess obeyed none of the king's words. In the darkness, the unity of their soft breaths was masked by the wind and snow. Before dawn, the knight slipped away to keep up appearances. This would be his last performance for the king, he swore. Astor had no intentions of ever doing anything for the king again. That's what he told himself, but he was still a knight. The wedding ceremony began early in the morning. Holly was dressed in a beautiful red dress. Red berries decorated her hair. The usual warmth in her cheeks was gone, replaced with a deathly pale complexion. She moved like a spectre to her fiancé. None matched the still quietness about her except the snow falling all around them. The prince smiled at her. She looked away with empty eyes. The priest stood between the arranged couple; the king and queen watched from behind the priest, facing the large crowd; and the knight watched from the bottom of the steps, clutching his chest as his heart broke in two. To contain all the harsh words he wished to throw at the princess's parents, he bit down on his lip so hard he bled. The bitter taste lingered in his mouth. He found it an apt one to savor for the display before him. The priest began. "Tonight, we are here to join together the families of this young lady and this young man..." Before he could continue, the princess cried out in pain. Frost appeared underneath her feet. It crept up her skin until all of her body glistened in the sunlight. She fell backward down the stairs. Astor caught her before she hit the ground. Underneath the red painted on her lips, he saw a hint of blue. Her breaths became shallow. He held her close. "Holly? Please, please stay with me." He wrapped her up in his cloak, but it wasn't enough to thaw the frost covering her body. Prince Ariel ran down the stairs to her. He attempted to pull the princess from Astor's arms. "Give her to me. She's my fiancée. I'll save her." Astor reluctantly let go. The king then took the princess from Ariel. He balked at Ariel's assertion. "You? It won't be you. You're the reason she's like this. You're not the one. Knights, go forth and call back all the other men who attended the contest. We must find a new man to marry my daughter." "You're the reason she's like this! You chose wrong." Astor yelled at the king for the first time in his life. The king slapped him across the face. "Passing breeze, do not cross me. If I didn't need every man I could find, I'd have you hung this very moment. Go and find a man to wake my daughter." Astor bit down on his lip again. The blood dripped down his face. A single drop stained the princess's sleeve. He turned away from the king and left to get his horse. The knight resigned himself to his duties. He found three of the men who entered the contest and brought them back to the kingdom. Each knight brought at least one man back, and others came, hearing the rumors of the sleeping princess. They all took turns singing to the princess, but none woke her. She dreamed quietly, lost to the chaos around her. Prince Ariel stayed around. He had more men shipped in from lands farther away. Astor didn't understand the man. The first time he met the princess was at the contest. There couldn't be any love between them. When they were alone, he asked the man. "Why do you keep helping us? You won't marry her, and I know you can't possibly love her." "I don't, but I am a noble man. It the duty of a noble prince to save the princess, even if her heart belongs to another. Perhaps, knight, you should work on your chivalry. You are quite lacking in that regard." The prince said to him. He smirked. "If not her, my deeds will gain me the attention of others with great power. This act works quite well for such things." Astor crossed his arms. "Chivalry? That never got me anywhere." The days turned to months, and soon the princess's twenty-first birthday was nearly at hand. Prince Ariel abandoned the princess around two months in, moving on to another kingdom seeking another woman's hand. The knights were exhausted, and most men that they could reach in that time had been tested. The king had grown so desperate he allowed peasants to sing to the princess. Nothing woke her. In the days before her birthday, the king kept himself locked away in his room. The singing stopped, the knights and travellers went home, and the winds outside the castle twisted around the stone walls, leaving no warmth within. Astor watched over her body in the cathedral the night before her birthday. She slept quietly in a coffin, barely breathing. He touched her cold skin, then held her hand. He recalled the warmth they shared the night before she fell into the deep sleep. Astor held her hand up against his cheek. He whispered to her, "My dear, may I sing to you one last time?" Astor stood across from her and held her portative organ. He played the keys as he sang out. His voice filled the moonlit cathedral. There were no words to his song. None could describe the sadness he wished to convey. He sang until his voice could handle no more. Then, as the silence slipped back in, he fell to his knees and cried. With light steps, she moved across the floor like a ghost. The frost melted away. Outside, the wind calmed. She knelt down and ran her cold fingers through the knight's hair. She sang for him a wordless song. The knight looked up. His tears warmed his face. He couldn't sing any longer, so he played the keys along to the rhythm she created. Together, the night's silence broke in the hour before dawn. Without the wind, her voice carried farther than Astor's, reaching the king's bedroom and through all the halls and rooms. One by one, people rose and went in search of the beautiful voice to prove to themselves they were not dreaming. The king and queen were the first to reach the cathedral. They found the princess and the knight performing to the empty seats. She sat beside him on the steps, her skin glowing with a rosy tint and her voice stronger than ever. It was as if nothing had happened at all. The king and queen couldn't believe it. There was no choice now. The king accepted what he had to do. Holly's single wish, her one demand she made before that morning, would be granted in spite of everything he did. The man he sought was never to be found by comparing nobles and peasants from afar. He was there right beside the princess, already there a year before his daughter was born, waiting for her. Little time remained before dawn. He wed them himself in the darkness. No more gifts were given to the snow, but the land remained as warm as it had become since the princess's birth. Every night, on the winter's darkest day, a song still sang out to the snow. A duet between the future king and queen, to an audience of trees and birds, filled the forest in the night, as it did on many dark nights.
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