So, I have written a fairy tale. I had no concept or plan for this when I started. My friend just told me to tell a story, and so I did; this is what came out. I’ve never done anything like this before… I am pretty pleased with it, I must say, though I hope the end isn’t too heavy-handed. Without further ado….
The Winter King
By Jared Schmitz
Once upon a time, in a faraway land on the very edge of the North, where it was Christmastime all year ’round and the snows never melted, a little girl lived all alone with her two wolves. She had pure white skin and she had named her wolves Plicka and Laika. Her parents had died years ago on the ice flows, while out hunting seals. She still missed them, but she’d stopped being sad long ago; hunters died on the ice all the time. It was the way of things. The Summer Priests always said that this way would change when the Summer Nymphs returned and made the land warm, so that hunters would no longer have to go out on the ice and die. But they’d been saying this for as long as anyone could remember, and the girl didn’t believe them anymore.
She did, though, believe in something else.
What she believed in was this: the Winter King. She didn’t believe in him as a god, the way the Summer Priests believed in the Nymphs; she only believed that he existed. The Priests of Summer said that the Winter King was evil, but the girl didn’t agree with them, even though she knew it was naughty to feel that way. She’d lived in Winter her entire life. Winter was harsh, but it was not cruel, not to her; in fact it could be quite beautiful. So she thought that maybe, the Winter King might be friendly.
People told stories about him, terrible stories. They said he lived in a towering palace of ice crystals, polished like mirrors. You could see your face in it, reflected thousands and thousands of times until you looked like all the people in the world, and this vision could drive a man mad. The Winter King himself always wore red, nothing but red, which some people believed had been dyed that way by the blood of baby seals. He had a huge white beard that was always tangled. They also said he ate children for lunch and picked his teeth with their bones afterwards.
But the little girl didn’t believe those stories, or at least, she didn’t want to believe them. She had to know if they were true. You see, she’d always had a dream that her parents were not her real parents, that the Winter King was her true father–because if he was her father, than that meant she still had a parent, and she was not alone.
One day, she asked one of the Summer Priests where to find the Winter King’s palace. He only laughed. She went to another priest, and asked him the same question. He gave her a pitying look and told her that the Winter King was a child’s fantasy. But she wouldn’t give up. The little girl found a third priest, and asked him, “where is the Winter King’s castle?”
This priest, seeing how small and lonely she was, took pity on her. He told her how the Winter King’s castle could be found in the forest of Always-Frozen Trees, at the end of the Ice Road. You had to find a feather from a special black bird in order to enter the forest, and then, you would have to survive the ice bears that lived amongst the trees.
The little girl thought this sounded perfectly terrifying, but she had nothing else to live for, so she took Plicka and Laika and hitched them to a sled. She put on all her warmest clothes, and packed the last of her dried meat, and then she said goodbye to the townsfolk and the Summer Priests and set out for the Ice Road, which had been there for as long as anyone could remember. They said that, long ago, a wizard had melted it deep into the ice that never melted any other way, and that if you’d gone up to it just then, you’d have been able to see the grass. That was long ago, and the little girl didn’t even know what grass was. These days, the road was covered in ice. But it was shallower ice than anywhere else, and the road was very straight and even, and it went for miles and miles into the distance.
The little girl followed the Ice Road for days and days. She ate the last of her food and it still took her three more days to reach the forest. When Plicka and Laika finally saw it, they howled. The little girl had never heard them make quite that sound before. It was a strange sound that made her feel like nasty things were watching her. She shivered, and almost turned back. But she had to see if the Winter King was really her father.
The little girl hugged her dogs and set out to search for the black bird. The road ended at the edge of the forest, and she could find no way into the trees. So you see, she knew she had to find the bird in order to find the entrance. She searched high and low, and it took her two days. At last, she found the bird, sitting on a crag of rock, one of the few rocks tall enough to reach up above the ice.
By now the little girl was terribly hungry. When she saw the bird sitting there, looking so plump and full, its feathers all glossy, her stomach rumbled and her mouth watered. She knelt down by her wolves, and whispered in their ears: “please catch the bird for me.”
They licked her face and went, but before they could return, the black bird saw her. “Hello, little girl,” it croaked.
She didn’t want to speak to it, but she had to, because she didn’t like to be rude. “Hello, black bird,” she said.
The black bird smiled at her in the fashion of birds, which is hard to tell from any other expression. “Why come you this way?” it asked.
“Please, sir, I just want to enter the forest.”
“You know you must have a feather of mine to enter. I don’t give them to just anyone. You must pass a test.”
“I’ll take your test.”
For the little girl knew that her wolves were coming, and they would kill the bird before she had a chance to fail at any test. She congratulated herself on her own cleverness.
The black bird ruffled up his feathers and settled deeper into his nest. In his most impressive voice, he said, “What is a chest without hinges, door, or lid, and yet golden treasure inside is hid?”
Unfortunately the little girl had always been terrible at riddles, and she could not puzzle it out. But before she could give up, Plicka and Laika came; they sprang upon the bird in a fury, and it died in a burst of black feathers and red blood. She took all the feathers she could find and roasted the bird that very night. She wanted to go to the forest right then, and wave her feathers about and enter, but she was very tired, and so she said to herself, “I’ll just take a short rest.” And the little girl laid her head upon Plicka’s side and slept fast the whole night.
When the little girl awoke, she was quite surprised to find herself in a different place from where she’d gone to sleep, and her poor wolves both missing. She thought she was in a dungeon, but it was a dungeon made of ice. The walls glittered like crystals, and she could almost see through them, as if they were made of glass. It was very cold. The little girl thought she’d never been so cold before.
“Please, is there anyone here?” she called. For she had no idea where this prison might be.
For many hours, so long the girl thought she might freeze to death, she waited for someone to answer. And then, at last, the icy walls parted, and a man came into the prison; she knew at once that he must be the Winter King. He looked just like the stories said he would, with the biggest beard she’d ever seen and a blood-red coat. He looked at her, and she could see the wisdom in his ancient eyes. He made her feel quite small and unimportant.
“Do you know why you are here?” he asked.
The little girl did not know.
“You have murdered my servant. Your wolves I have set free, because they knew no better; but you had been told only to take a feather from my bird, and had not been given permission to make a meal of it. What say you to defend yourself?”
Now the little girl was very frightened. “Please, sir, I was only hungry,” she said.
“You should not have given into your hunger; did you not realize that, if you had but answered the bird’s riddle, you would soon have feasted at my table?”
“I didn’t know! I promise I’ll never be greedy again!”
The Winter King saw that she meant it, and took pity on her, so he freed her from the prison of ice and reunited her with her two wolves. Plicka and Laika licked her face most joyfully, and all three of them were very happy. Then the little girl decided to ask the Winter King the question she had come to ask, and she went to his hall, which was very high and surrounded by pillars of black ice. The Winter King sat upon a tall throne that glowed with an inner light, and at each arm hunched a mighty snow-leopard. The Winter King held court with ice nymphs and snow fairies, and with the great white bears and the seals and whales and wolves. Not a single human was to be seen anywhere, except for the little girl.
She approached the Winter King’s throne, clasping her hands politely in front of her stomach as she had been taught, and asked him: “please, sir, are the stories true? Do you really eat children? And are you my father?”
He stared at her, for no one had ever asked him such a question in all of his days.
“I’ve been known to eat some strange things,” he said at last, his voice all low and rumbly.
“Not that I can remember.”
The little girl sighed in relief. She had been very frightened, but now she felt much less so; she thought she might actually return home alive.
“Then are you really my father?” she asked.
The Winter King looked on her with pity, for he saw how lonely she was, with only wolves for company. However, he would not lie. Winter is a very honest season, even if it is unpredictable.
“I am not,” he said.
The little girl thought she might cry.
“I did not like to take your parents,” the Winter King continued. “But it had to be done. It is the way of things for people to die. But I see that you are greatly troubled. For being brave and coming here when no one believed in you, I shall be a father to you, and you shall be allowed to spend three days each year in my palace; only, if you had not let your greed rule you and eaten the black bird, you could stay here all year ‘round.”
For the Winter King’s heart had been moved by pity, but he still could not wholly reward the girl.
“That is fair,” the little girl said, though she wished dearly to be the Winter King’s daughter all the time, and not just for three days a year. “It is exactly what I deserve.” She hung her head, and she wished she could go back and change what she had done.
Now the Winter King saw that she had a contrite heart, and he knew that she wished she had not killed the bird, and so he said: “Little girl, I perceive that you are sorry for your crime. Because you have not been prideful, I will grant you as much of your wish as I am able. You shall live with me half the time, and the rest of the time you shall remain in your village.”
For, though the Winter King had now wholly forgiven the little girl, a life had still been taken, and he therefore could not grant her as much as she wanted.
But even this made the girl happy as happy could be. She climbed up on the Winter King’s lap, and hugged him, and she lived ever after content with the Winter King and her two wolves.