Derek and Brandon Fiechter (YouTube composers) were gracious enough to allow me to borrow some of their music for the soundtrack for this story. I've listed them in order of listening, but it may be necessary to play around with the play times.
Jack Frost - Derek & Brandon Fiechter
Winter Ball Dance - Derek & Brandon Fiechter (This one is optional, depending on your reading speed)
Peppermint Castle - Derek & Brandon Fiechter (a happy coincidence, as I didn't know they had a song named that until after I wrote this and the song was uploaded in 2016.)
Snowflake Woods - Derek & Brandon Fiechter
Thanks guys, y'all are the best!
"I do not understand why they call it the Peppermint Palace. It's all alabaster white and powdery blue and grey-purple, it's more like twilight than peppermint."
"Just because humans cover the pristine whiteness of peppermint with the lurid hue of blood, does not make it the natural state," he replied with icy disdain.
She said nothing, simply turning and drifting up the frozen marble stairs, fingertips not quite touching the ornate banister as she ascended. There was no sound of movement behind her, and she knew her new husband did not follow.
At the landing, she turned and looked down, facing him. He looked back up at her, cold blue eyes disinterested. Summoning her courage, she spoke evenly. "When do we begin?"
"Immediately after your next monthly," he replied calmly. She nodded once, in acknowledgment and obedience, and turned away again to continue upstairs.
It did not hurt nearly as much as she'd been led to believe, nor was his touch nearly as icy as she'd feared. Indeed, she found herself rather detached from the whole experience, and not too discomfited, afterwards, to not take advantage of her sudden loosening of inhibitions.
"My lord?" she asked from where she lay in front of him.
"Hm?" he replied, laconic as always but seeming a little more relaxed himself. Perhaps having an onerous task out of the way had mellowed his mood; if so, she intended to take advantage to slake her burgeoning curiosity.
"If you are eternal, why must Jack Frost be born anew every year? Aren't you and his mother sad when he dies? Does he die, or melt, or what happens?"
He sighed long-sufferingly and deigned to answer her barrage of queries, starting with a caution. "Do not think to grow attached to Jack Frost, he is not a child as humans think of them. He is a sprite, wild and amoral, and will have no affection for you or I. He is born to serve a single purpose – to make the winter cold. He must be reborn each winter, because each Jack Frost is tied to his own winter. Winter answers to me, I make it anew each year, but he is bound to his own season. When the last snows melt, he fades away with them."
Absorbing the information to analyze later, she continued to take advantage of his serendipitous verbal generosity. "You clearly despise humans, but why? And why take one of what you hate, to wife, so often?"
His voice was slow, with an uncertain emotion to it – perhaps cynicism. "I do not hate humans. But I have lived a very long time, and seen both the best and the worst your kind has to offer. Most often, it's worst that is offered. And unfortunately, humans are the only creatures physiologically close enough to be able to bear my child. But the strain on a warm-blooded creature, of carrying a being made of and for frost and snow, takes a quick toll. It does not take long before the mother fades away."
She fell silent a moment at this sober revelation. When she spoke again her voice was hushed. "How long has the oldest lasted?"
He was equally solemn in his answer. "Ten years."
She lay in silent shocked thought for a moment. No wonder his demeanor was so cold – his nature not withstanding – the longest his wife had ever lived, during his thousands of years of life, was ten years. He could not afford to love, for such a short time, only to be heartbroken again and again. How sad, she thought, with a sudden rush of sympathy. She turned over to face him, her eyes tracing his straight stern jaw and pure white hair before rising to meet the frost-blue eyes. "How long do you give me?" she almost whispered.
His hand reached out to twirl a lock of golden-blonde hair around his forefinger, eyes fixed on it. "Five years, at most."
"That's a shame," she said lightly, staying still as he played with her hair. "I was aiming for the full ten."
He shook his head slightly. "No. You are too much like my cousin Persephone. There is too much spring and warmth in you."
"Cousin?" she queried. "I would think you her uncle, at least. Your power is much greater."
Dry as dust, he returned, "Is such curiosity a human trait or a female one?"
Her lips quirked and a glint of humor danced across her face. "Should you ask any human man, he would firmly swear to it being a female one, but there are a good few men too nosy for their own good."
He sighed and rather wryly acquiesced. "For one thing, we do not belong to the same… group. And no, our power is comparable, mine is not stronger. But she is the Spring Princess because she is directly subordinate to a stronger entity that has jurisdiction directly over her area of expertise – her mother, Demeter. Whereas I am the Winter King because I have no directly supervising entity and am therefore more or less free to do as I see fit."
"Ah," she replied, thinking this over.
"Anymore questions?" he asked rather sarcastically.
"Actually yes." She paused at his deep sigh, but he gestured her to continue. "Ah – obviously you have the ability to choose women who are, uh, able to bear your son. But have you ever chosen… incorrectly?"
"Once or twice," he admitted without obvious discomfiture. "Those were the unseasonably warm winters. Good for the humans, the animals and plants that need rest, not so much."
"Mm," she agreed, and artlessly segued back into a previous subject. "What did you mean I have too much spring and warmth in me?"
"I do not like when the village chooses golden blondes or redheads to be the Winter Maiden," he said in an apparent non-sequitur. "The maidens of Spring and Autumn – the fiery ones, the sunny ones – they do not do well in the domain of Winter. I far prefer the dark haired ones or the white-blondes."
"But sun may coexist with winter. It need not be dark," she murmured. "When I was seven, I was caught in an avalanche. I was cold and scared and confused, and it rained in the night and the snow around me turned to ice. I thought I was going to die, until the next morning when the sun shone down and lit up my little ice cave. It melted the ice above me enough that I was able to get my hat out above the snow and the search party found me."
His eyes widened. "It was you," he breathed, startled.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked in confusion, not only at his words but that he actually showed a reaction anything other than exasperation.
"Thirteen years ago, Jack returned home to his mother and I one day, saying he'd accidentally caught a human girl in his avalanche. He told us that he'd stayed beside her through the night, directing the cold air away from her to keep her alive. It was you."
She stared back, eyes equally wide. "Yes. Yes it was," she replied rather numbly, before smiling. "Well then. Perhaps I have more tolerance for the winter than you think." Her smile turned teasing. "And I may reach ten years after all."
He raised a sardonic eyebrow at her. "I will make a deal with you, Maiden. If you reach seven years, then I will do as I have never done before and will let you go free."
She blinked at him, speechless.
He turned, seeing his bride standing on the landing. "Yes, Maiden?"
"I… have a request," she said tentatively.
He sighed, forestalling her further speech. "I cannot allow you to contact your family-"
She nodded quickly. "I am aware. When the Winter Maiden leaves, we – they – never hear from her again; besides, I have no family. No, it is just…" she quirked a quick smile, "they call me the Winter Maiden, but I am still only human, and I am… rather cold."
"When you become pregnant, you may be grateful for the chill of the palace, for Jack Frost will leech all cool from you."
"I believe you. But I am not pregnant yet," she pleaded.
"Fire does not burn here," he mused. "Any flames shed light but no heat, for it is an icy fire. However, perhaps I could acquire you some furs."
She dipped her head. "Thank you, my lord."
He favored her with a cool courteous smile. "You are welcome."
She was, indeed, always hot while pregnant, a rather surreal concept in the eternally cold Peppermint Palace. But she found the Winter King to be a considerate, if rather aloof, spouse, and found herself wanting for nothing but companionship. The pregnancy was short, she knew, but it felt like forever.
She sat beside one of the crystal windows, staring out up at the stars. It was a pastime she had grown ever fonder of, recently. There was not actually much to do in the beautiful but austere palace, and the servants – rarely as they were seen – were always deferential but as cool and uninterested as their master. She was lonely, she admitted, heartachingly, heartbreakingly lonely, and the exacerbated emotions of pregnancy were not helping. She did not even have the cold comfort (cold comfort… ha. Her sense of humor was suffering too) of sewing baby blankets and little baby clothes, for she was not pregnant with a baby in the conventional sense. Like an animal, Jack Frost would be born ready to run and play and make mischief. She would not even get to hold and cuddle her child.
She closed her eyes, tears of self-pity and loneliness seeping down her cheeks. So engrossed in her misery was she that she did not notice the Winter King, standing right outside the half-open door watching her.
The birth was almost alarmingly easy. Oddly numb, with a child – a being – seeking their own way out, it was startlingly fast, with little of the usual travail. Jack barely waited long enough to meet his parents and receive his staff before darting outside. She lay, half-propped up, staring blankly at the door and feeling entirely empty – mentally, emotionally.
Cool arms encircled her, a the scent of fir trees surrounding her. She turned her head into her lord's chest and let the emotional ice built up in her chest melt into a torrent of tears. A gentle hand rose and fell, smoothing her hair as she mourned all she would never have.
After three years, she considered it a triumph on her part that the King had (metaphorically) warmed up to her. She had even learned to enjoy the company of the Jacks Frost, amused at their hijinks and interested in their stories. Last winter, the King had casually informed her that each Jack was much like his mother in personality, and that he himself had rarely seen so kindly-disposed Jacks. She had considered that a personal triumph, too.
It was, she mused, nearing time for Jack to come home, he'd been roaming for two days already. That was certainly not a maternal trait, it was hard to imagine herself happily wandering around for the fun of it. Laughing at her own mental image – it had gotten easier, with time, to retain her good nature – she descended the stairs carefully, holding tightly to the banister to keep from slipping. The servants powdered the staircase often, but ice had a tendency to become slippy again quickly.
She was only a few steps from the bottom when she froze, staring wide-eyed at the swathes of bright color that had appeared all along the vast hall. She had missed color when first arriving in Winter's domain, but had come to love the muted pastels of a winter twilight. Now the bright reds and dark forest greens and glittering golds looked garish against the quietly regal background to which she'd grown accustomed. Her eyes drifted down to the grinning – grinning! – King below, and his shocking lapel sprig of holly.
"Happy Midwinter, my dear," he said, the glee at surprising her suffusing his voice.
"Midwinter's Day already?" she asked blankly, mouth on autopilot as her brain caught up. "I thought you hated red."
"For you, it's worth it." He gestured upwards, and she looked up obediently, barely taking in the sight of the glossy green leaves and pale yellow berries before a soft warm mouth covered hers. Breathing a happy sigh, she relaxed into the kiss and let time stand still before he broke away.
Her eyes twinkled up at him. "Mistletoe? How very… human traditional of you."
"Hush," he scolded playfully, holding a finger to her lips before tugging her hand. "Come into the dining room, aren't you hungry?"
She stopped short, giving him a suspicious stare. He grinned wickedly, tugging her hand again and she allowed herself to be led forward. Subtly smirking servants silently opened the doors for them, and her eye was drawn immediately to the center of the table. There, majestically holding court amidst the usual sugarplums, frosted fruits, and other assorted snowy delicacies, stood a fantastically large pudding of creamy white laced with lurid red, from which came the unmistakable smell of peppermint.
She gave her widely grinning king a glance askance. "My sense of humor is rubbing off on you," she observed dryly.
He only grinned more widely and gestured to the spread. "Just for you, my lady."
"My lady." His voice was so soft it was barely audible, his hand gently combing her now platinum-blonde hair.
"Hm?" Her hum was equally quiet; tired. It had gotten harder each year to give birth to Jack, easier each year to accept it as he received his staff and ran right outside.
"I made you a promise, when you first came here. If you survived seven years, you were free to go."
She smiled slightly, turned her head, nuzzled his face. "I don't want to leave. I want to stay here with you."
His hand paused momentarily, started combing her hair again. "You'll die."
She sighed softly, oddly unperturbed. "I'd rather die here, with you, than live alone out there." He said no more, and she knew he accepted her decision.
The birth was not hard, per se, but when it was over she was left totally drained. She said nothing as Jack Frost received his staff and ran outside. Her vision was fading into a monochrome gray as the King turned back toward her. Dimly, she saw his face soften and sadden as he saw her, and with a massive effort gave a faint smile.
"This is it, isn't it," she murmured as he sat beside her and began softly stroking her hair.
"Yes," he sighed, eyes fixed on a point somewhere beside the door – or far beyond.
She closed her eyes, too tired to keep them open. "I'm happy with my decision," she murmured, barely audible. He said nothing more, the sheets rustling slightly as he shifted to be closer to her. She turned her head slightly towards him, sighing once before her breathing became too light to hear.
He waited until her chest stopped moving at all, shifted his hand away from her head. He had seen many many fadings before, of all sorts – a simple vanishing, sometimes faint shaded particles dispersing, occasionally a disappearing beam of light, rarely sparkles. He watched, her last moment, as her body transformed into a puff of snowy-blue powder before dissipating into the air.
Happy winter, everyone!