The smell of sugar and cinnamon drifted from the kitchen as the fire crackled against the winter cold. Gerda stopped sewing the miniature bonnet and adjusted the honey-gold braid on top of her head. By the hearth, ten-year-old Kay Janssen sat piecing together the puzzle he had gotten for Christmas. The two had often been mistaken for twins or cousins. Being the same age made it more confusing. The firelight shone against his white-blond hair, and his shockingly blue eyes squinted as he examined the puzzle. His tongue stuck out just a little. Gerda smirked. He never knew he was doing it.
Laughter carried from the enormous oak table as the two sets of parents began another hand of cards. Kay’s mother gave her husband a playful smack on the shoulder. He must have made another pun-laden joke. Gerda’s mother was bent over and her father’s eyes were watery. It must have been a good one.
Gerda’s gaze wandered to the portraits above the mantelpiece. One was of her grandfather, Herr Bram De Vries, the famous Dutch carpenter. The other was of his sweet wife, Lotte. Gerda couldn’t remember them. But she saw their likeness in her father’s eyes as he winked at her across the room.
Just in front of the fireplace, Gerda’s other grandmother, Oma Eline, sat in a rocking chair, knitting and humming. Between the snow falling, the fire crackling, and the happiness radiating from the room, the night was just about perfect. Gerda sighed. These are the nights I love best.
The wind howled fiercely, making the little town house creak and groan. Gerda set aside her sewing basket and wandered over to the window. Tonight, there were no carriages with ladies in corsets and bustles or gents in top hats and tails. Even the man who lit the streetlamps was already home and out of the cold.
“Kay, come look. It’s snowing again.” Gerda pressed her nose against the frosted glass. The flakes pinged against the window. A large one struck right in front of her eyes. She flinched. “Why are they so loud?”
Oma Eline laid down her needles, her faded brown eyes studying the window. “Because those are not snowflakes.”
“Is it sleeting again?” Kay smushed his face against the window. Fog quickly covered it.
“Kay.” Gerda pulled him back. “Now we can’t see anything.” She cleaned the window with her sleeve. “Do I have to think of everything?”
Rolling his eyes, Kay leaned against the windowsill. “I thought you liked thinking of everything.”
“It isn’t sleet, either,” Oma Eline said.
Kay studied the white flecks fluttering from the sky. “It looks like sleet to me.”
“It does to most people. That is how they hide when they’re scouting for their queen. Those snow bees are very clever.”
Gerda wrinkled her delicate nose. “What are snow bees, Oma?”
A smile crept across Oma Eline’s wrinkled face. “Come here, children,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “I have a story for you.”
Gerda and Kay exchanged grins. A story was just what this night needed. They raced each other to the old woman’s chair and flopped on the floor. “I hope it’s an adventure story,” said Kay.
“I suppose it depends on what you consider adventure,” replied Oma Eline. “You don’t like magic and sprites and evil schemes, do you?”
Gerda leaned forward. “It won’t be a scary story, will it?”
“Oh, don’t be such a baby, Gerdsie.” Kay bounced on his knees. “Tell us the story.” Oma Eline gave him a look. “Please?”
Nodding, Oma Eline continued knitting. “Once upon a time, when magic was still strong and enchantments were common, there was a young sprite named Nevril. He was small and not very strong, but he was the nastiest person you might ever meet. He was known far and wide for his ‘playfulness’–which is what he called the pranks he played on everyone.”
“Aw,” said Kay. “A prank never hurt anybody.”
“It does when it sends someone to the doctor. And that’s just the sort of prank this sprite tended to play. Nevril spent all his time making fun of people and embarrassing them. You see, he wanted to feel that he was the best sprite there was, and the easiest way to do that was to make everyone else look bad.
“Now one day, Nevril was walking through the woods when he saw a crowd of sprites standing around this big tree laughing at something. Nevril liked to make people laugh, so he thought he’d go see what it was so he could use it in one of his pranks. But when he saw the tree, he was furious. This one big sprite–a sprite he had played an awful lot of tricks on–had carved a hideous monster into the tree and put Nevril’s name under it.”
“Serves him right for playing all those nasty tricks,” said Kay.
Gerda tilted her head and glowered at him. He winked back.
“Of course, the other sprites were having a lot of fun laughing at Nevril’s expense. So, he began to plot his revenge, not just on the sprite who had made the picture, but on all of them. They had made Nevril look like a monster, so Nevril would do the same to them. He tried many different things, but nothing was mean enough for him. One day, he had a new idea. He spent the whole next year working on it. He went to foreign lands and returned with strange parcels and jars. He would stay in his little underground home for days on end, only coming out to travel more.”
“What was he making?” asked Kay.
The old woman leaned forward, a sparkle in her eyes as she let the pause hang for effect. “A mirror,” she whispered.
Kay scoffed. “What did he think he could do with a stupid old mirror?”
Gerda rolled her eyes. “When one is listening to a story, one should be quiet and courteous, Kay.”
“Can you let me ask a question?”
“If you two would rather argue than hear the rest . . .” Oma Eline raised an eyebrow at them.
Gerda sighed. “Sorry, Kay.”
Nodding, her grandmother continued. “Now, you must understand, this was no ordinary mirror. Nevril had taken oil from the genies of the far East and mixed it with fairy dust from the oldest forests of Europe and mermaid’s tears from the ports of the Mediterranean. All are very hard to find. He had melded them into a single bar of magic and had it ground into powder in the troll forges of the Dark Mountains. Then, he had stolen enchanted ice from the palace of the Snow Queen herself, and he mixed it with the powder.” She paused. “They have a name for the concoction he made. They call it snow dust. A terribly powerful and mysterious substance. Nevril glazed the mirror with it, never guessing he had made the most dangerous weapon in the world for the sake of a prank.”
“What did the snow dust do to the mirror?” Kay asked.
“At first when Nevril peered into the mirror, he only saw his reflection. Except he looked stronger and handsomer. He wondered if perhaps he had made a mistake with it. So, he set it up outside the house of one of his very few friends. The mirror took that sprite’s image and twisted it up and made him look so ugly that, once he saw himself, he couldn’t sleep for a week. You see, the mirror took what was wicked and twisted inside of the sprite and showed it on the outside. It mimicked his flaws in the reflection.”
Kay nudged Gerda’s shoulder. “Imagine pulling that prank on the school master.”
Ignoring him, Gerda slid closer to her grandmother. “What happened then?”
“The next day, Nevril set up the mirror to surprise the sprite who had made the picture of him. When that sprite saw it, he nearly fainted from shock. Nevril laughed for hours about that one. But he didn’t want to stop there. He used the mirror to scare sprite after sprite, until every sprite in the country had seen a side of themselves they didn’t know they had. Every time, Nevril laughed and made fun. And he felt very good about himself, especially whenever he looked into the mirror and saw how good he looked compared to his fellow sprites.”
Kay cocked his head to one side. “Why didn’t the mirror show his faults?”
“Because he had made it. He was its master. The magic had to indulge his whims. Over time, though, Nevril got bored scaring sprites. He wanted to do something more interesting, more daring. So, he took his mirror and the sprites who still followed him and set off to travel the world. He used the mirror to frighten trolls, fairies, and mortals: peasants, warriors, kings even. Every time he used the mirror, he felt he was stronger, cleverer, more important. Even though he really wasn’t.
“One day, he realized that he had tricked every important person in the world. He became frustrated. What good was the mirror if it couldn’t bring him sport anymore? Then, he looked up into the sky. If there was one thing he now hated more than anything, it was the idea that anyone was perfect except for him. Even the hosts of Heaven.”
“That day, Nevril and his loyal followers hoisted the mirror on their shoulders and started climbing the tallest mountain they could find. They pointed the mirror directly at Heaven, for they intended to show God himself what a fool He was in their mirror.”
“But they couldn’t do that.” Gerda leaned closer. “Could they, Oma?”
“The closer they got to Heaven, the brighter the mirror shone and the heavier it became. The air grew cold. Their skin covered in frost. The glass started gleaming with a strange light. It burned their shoulders. Suddenly, they heard a laugh like thunder. Heaven opened for a split second. And the pure, perfect glory that shone on the mirror made it shatter into a million tiny pieces.”
“Hurray!” shouted Kay. “I’ll bet that was the end of that wicked sprite, wasn’t it?”
“Burnt to a crisp in a heartbeat.” Oma Eline glanced back and forth between the two friends. “But the splinters–the mirror bits covered in that powerful snow dust–they were carried off by the wind. And to this day, they find their way into people’s eyes. It distorts their vision and makes them see only the ugliness and foolishness in others. They say if a splinter pierces your heart, it will freeze you from the inside out unless you melt it with the purity of love and the innocence of faith.”
Kay straightened his shoulders. “Guess it’s a good thing it’s only a story, right, Gerdsie?”
“But Oma,” said Gerda, “I don’t understand. What does all of this have to do with the snow bees?”
“Yes. You forgot to tell us about them.”
“Ah, yes, the snow bees. You see, children, the Snow Queen never forgave that sprite for stealing her precious enchanted ice. And she never stopped looking for him. But he was always too clever to be caught. When the mirror exploded, she saw her chance to get her hands on something even more powerful than her enchanted ice.”
“The snow dust!” Kay exclaimed.
Oma Eline nodded. “She took all the enchanted ice she had left and turned it into tiny warriors–winged like bees, with stingers that would quickly freeze anything they stung.”
Gerda examined the window. The sleet was still pinging against the glass. Just like bees. She bit her lip. Why couldn’t Oma have told a happy-ever-after story?
“The Snow Queen sent her bees around the world to find the infected people so she could take the splinters. She took the pieces from them and melted the pieces back into snow dust.”
“Can’t she just take the splinters herself?” asked Kay.
“Sometimes she can. But unlike her little bees, the Snow Queen cannot stay away from her palace of ice for long. In the cold of winter, she wanders the streets, pressing her cold face against the glass and leaving a sprinkling of enchanted ice behind.”
“Like early in the morning?” Kay’s eyes were gleaming. “When the frost is in those pretty little patterns all over?”
Gerda scrunched her face. “But how could she take the splinters from them?”
“Some say she lures people with her sweet words and beautiful face to come back to her palace where they give her the splinters. Others say she sneaks into houses at night and steals people while they sleep.”
Chills sprang up along Gerda’s arms. She huddled closer to Kay.
“Hah!” Kay snorted. “Let her try freezing my friends. I’d put her on the stove and see how fast she’d melt.”
Oma Eline chuckled. “And that is why you are our brave Kay.”
Kay’s mother walked up, hands on her hips. “And it’s time for brave Kay to go home.” Her stern air commanded the children’s attention. “Time for bed, young man. Say goodnight to Gerda and her grandmother, and let’s get home.”
Kay’s shoulders drooped. “Aw. Just one more story?”
“I’m afraid it’s time for Gerda to go to bed, too,” Gerda’s mother called from the dining room.
Kay kissed Oma Eline’s cheek. As he turned to Gerda, he smirked. “We should play that story some time.”
What was Kay’s fascination with scary stories? Don’t ask him. He’d never understand why I’m scared of it. “Are you going to come back tomorrow?” Gerda asked.
“Of course I will,” said Kay.
“After school,” his mother added.
He smiled sweetly at her. “Yes, Mother.”
“Goodnight,” Gerda said.
Kay wrapped his arms around Gerda and squeezed her until she couldn’t breathe. “Night, Gerdsie. See you tomorrow.” Letting go, he opened the front door for his parents and leaped over the steps with a holler.
Gerda shook her head with a smile. What would I do without Kay? She kissed Oma Eline’s cheek. As she pulled back, her brow was wrinkled. “It isn’t true, is it? About the Snow Queen and the mirror and the bees?”
Oma Eline chuckled. “You have nothing to worry about. Those splinters could never distort someone as sweet and innocent as you.”
“But magic isn’t real, right? At least, not real magic. Not like the kind in the story.”
“Well, there’s still a little enchantment left. Like how I taught you to speak blackbird. Most people would call that magic. As for ‘real’ magic, it’s not to be found in most places. Not in this age of printing presses and locomotives. But there are places in this world where real magic still lingers as strong as ever. Up north beyond the river . . .” She winked. “There’s no telling what you might find in those parts.”
That wasn’t the answer Gerda wanted. But it would have to do. With a quick hug, Gerda hurried up the stairs and began her race against the cold. She tossed her day clothes on the floor, pulled on her nightgown, and clambered into bed. She had the covers up to her neck before the chill had time to give her goosebumps.
As she snuggled under the quilt, an ache crept into her heart. This was the part of every day she hated. When the door closed, and she was completely alone. The empty side of the bed stared back up at her as if trying to tell her just how sad her life was now that Sanne was gone. It was worst on the colder nights when she still expected to feel her sister’s warmth.
Her sister’s face flickered through her mind, round and smiling, eyes filled with joy and tenderness. The five years between them had never phased Sanne. She had taken Gerda everywhere with her. They were inseparable. That was before the sickness. A second image quickly replaced the first. Face too thin. Eyes heavy and listless. Lips so dry and cracked it hurt to see them. Gerda hadn’t been in the room when Sanne had passed. But she couldn’t get the sound of her mother crying out of her mind. It echoed through the room when things got too quiet.
Turning over violently, Gerda blinked away the tears and gazed out the window. How could it still hurt so much five years later? It wasn’t like Gerda wasn’t trying. Kay had been her constant companion since, to the point that they barely went a day without seeing each other. But it wasn’t the same. With Sanne, she had felt safe. With Kay, she felt like she was constantly having to help him and correct him. And though she tried hard to make him happy, he didn’t put out half the effort to be as good a friend to her. Still, no one made her laugh like he did. And he does try. Sometimes.
The snow was flurrying softer now, gleaming in the light of the moon. A shadow stretched across the window. The window grew foggy. Gerda inched closer to the wall. Was that a face peering in her window? Silly, it’s just the trees outside. I think. The shadows tightened into eyes, a nose, a pair of pointy ears. Just like the sprite. Wonderful. Now I’ll probably be up all night scared out of my skin. The frost crackled. Gerda rolled into a tight ball and pulled the covers over her head. It was going to be a long night.
Kay blew out and watch his breath crystalize in the morning air. He shivered, pushing the toes of his shoes into the inch of snow clinging to the window box. The alley below was only two feet wide. He was on the second story, though. Glancing across at the window box of Gerda’s room, he smirked. Heights had never bothered him, but she always made a big fuss when he jumped across.
A crackle of frost startled him. The smirk vanished. It was even harder to forget last night’s dream out here with all the ice and snow. That face. . .It had been so beautiful, as if sculpted out of ice with eyes of purest silver and a smile that made them sparkle. But when he had stared through the window into those eyes, every part of him had wanted to run and hide. He had sat beside the window, paralyzed, as she touched the glass. Frost had spread from her fingers like a disease reaching through the glass. Trying to freeze his heart.
Kay blinked away the image and concentrated on the window box across the alley. He had to get out of his room. All the quiet made it too easy for that woman to show up in his head again. He needed something to distract him. And he could get back without anyone knowing he had gone. Brilliant.
He tested the stability of the snowy ledge. Sticky rather than slippery. Perfect for a launch. He leaned back, fingers gripping the window frame. “One . . .Two . . .” A grin lit up his crystal-blue eyes. “Three!”
He catapulted off the ledge, across the gap, and into the window box. His fingers grasped at the icy window frame. He fought to keep his footing. As he gripped the frame tighter, he scanned the drop below. What a rush! He eased his weight to one side and tapped on the windowpane.
He couldn’t see through the frost, but he could hear Gerda gasp and scurry across the room. When she threw open the window, he tipped an imaginary cap to her. “Good morning.” He dropped onto the floor beside her.
Gerda glanced at the bedroom door. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I forgot to fill the wood box again, so Mother sent me upstairs till dinner.”
“You’re disobeying her?” Gerda closed the window, her round eyes bulging.
Sticking his hands in his pockets, Kay went to examine the collection of dolls on the floor. “I got bored.”
Gerda crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow.
Just like her to be a little killjoy. “Oh, come on, Gerda,” Kay said. “It’ll be an hour at least before anyone comes to check on me. And to be fair, my mother didn’t tell me not to leave my room. She told me to stay upstairs.” He swept his arms across the room. “This is still upstairs. So, princes and princesses? Or pirates and soldiers?”
Gerda’s mouth twitched. Shaking her head, she broke into a smile. “Princes and princesses it is.”
Kay pumped his fists. “Yes!”
“Sh! Do you want to get caught? If you’re going to be a refugee, you’re going to do it right.”
“Just because you didn’t tell me to do it doesn’t mean it’s ‘wrong.’”
Gerda raised her chin as she knelt by the dollhouse. “I could go get my mother for you if you’d like.”
Huffing, Kay sat beside her. “Fine. Your way is right. My way is wrong. Can we just play now?”
“As you wish.” Gerda scooted to make room for him in front of the dollhouse.
Kay narrowed his eyes, his lips pressed tight. Why was she like that? She couldn’t just play. She had to be Little Miss Mother Hen. Oh well. Everybody’s got their quirks, I guess. Still better than sitting alone in my room. Kay picked up the prince doll. “What’s this?”
“Mother sewed him a new suit of armor. She used gray cloth so it would look more like chainmail. What do you think?”
Kay examined it closely. “Not too bad. Maybe this way he won’t be burned alive when the dragon attacks.”
“Why do you have to kill everybody?” Gerda stood the princess next to the prince. “For once, I’d like to play a story where nobody dies.”
“Oh, come on, Gerdsie. I let you make them kiss every time. Let me make it exciting. Even Oma Eline killed off a few people in her story last night.”
Gerda lowered her head. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Frowning, Kay picked at the prince’s new outfit. “You don’t think there was anything real about that story, do you?”
Gerda snapped up her head. “Why do you say that?”
Should he tell her? Nonsense. How can I tell someone as skittish as Gerda that I saw a face in the window? Clouds covered the sky, darkening the room. Drat it! Even here, he couldn’t get away from that stupid nightmare. He scratched an imaginary itch on his neck. “You’re right. Let’s talk about something else.”
Gerda reached into the dollhouse. “Mother also made me this.” She pulled out a soft sewn rose. Its cotton petals were thin but perfectly shaped, and green threads were wrapped tightly around a stick to make a strong stem.
“That’s pretty,” Kay said.
“And Oma taught me a new song to go with it. Do you want to hear it?”
Gerda sat up straight, clutching the cloth rose to her heart.
“The rose in the valley is blooming so sweet,
And angels descend there, the children to greet.”
“Wait, I know this song.” Kay cleared his throat and joined her.
“Warriors so gentle were never seen.
Tonight, let them sleep while the angels sing.”
“You have a nice voice, Kay.”
Kay smirked and made his voice sound old. “See here, my lady, you had best do the singing and I’ll do the saving.”
Giggling, Gerda went to get her princess a change of clothes.
Kay adjusted the prince’s suit of armor. He really should go back soon. His mother would not be happy if she found out he had escaped again. A gust of wind shook the room. Kay stole a glance at the window. “What on earth?” Even through the frost, he could tell the sky was unusually dark. He walked over to the window and opened it. Black clouds streaked with turquoise covered half the sky, and they were rushing to cover the rest of it. The wind whipped at Kay’s hair as he stared.
“Is it going to storm again?” called Gerda.
Kay couldn’t answer. The sight held him captive. The wind was getting stronger. Smaller clouds twisted out from under the great dark canopy. Carried by the wind, they reached out like fingers toward the town.
Something moaned in the distance, low and deep. Gerda peered at the window but kept her distance. “Is that the wind?”
Kay’s pulse quickened. The wind rippled into the room and hit Kay right in the chest. He toppled backward. “Whoa!” He pushed against the invisible force to peer into the sky. The fingers were getting closer. One was heading right for Gerda’s room.
“Kay.” Gerda’s voice wavered. “Close the window.”
She was right. He should close the window. But there was something about that cloud. He couldn’t tear his eyes away. The cloud opened as it stretched toward him, revealing a swirling cluster of white specks.
A high-pitched wail echoed through the town. It got higher and higher until it was an ear-piercing shriek. Gerda covered her ears. “Close it! Now!”
With a roar, the cloud poured through the window and filled the room. Snowflakes lashed Kay’s face. He covered it with his hands. The snow stung them like tiny needles. He yelped and cradled them at his waist.
As he rubbed them, a second cloud hit harder than the first. Blades of ice struck his face, tearing into his eyes. He screeched and rubbed at them furiously. “It burns!” A chunk hit his chest and pierced all the way through the bones. He clawed at it, but it only sunk in deeper. “Get it out!”
Gerda grabbed a blanket and threw it over Kay. He fell to the ground, writhing in pain. The ice burned into the tender flesh of his eyes and chest. He heard Gerda slam the window closed. The wind howled outside, then suddenly died down again. Silence filled the room.
Numbness spread over Kay’s body like water, making him go limp. In seconds, he couldn’t feel anything–not his limbs, not his face, not even his own heartbeat.
Gerda ripped off the blanket. “Kay?”
He tried moving. Nothing happened. Am I dead?
“Wake up.” Gerda shook his shoulder and gasped. “You’re ice cold.”
Kay’s heart thumped once. His eyes sprang open. Slowly, they fluttered closed again.
“Are you all right?”
Warmth rose from Kay’s chest. His fingers and toes tingled. He forced his eyes open again. Everything was blurry, even Gerda’s face. He breathed in sharply. Had he not been breathing before? The tingling in his hands and feet was gone, but his eyes were sore and itching, and his chest still burned. He touched his sternum. Nothing was sticking out. He touched his eyes. Instantly, his fingers recoiled. His skin really was ice cold. “That must have been some wind.”
“You’re not hurt.” Gerda wrapped her arms around him and squeezed.
Strands of hair brushed Kay’s eyes. Pain shot through his head. He shoved her away and sat bolt upright. “What is your problem?” He blinked hard. “Ah! Stupid snow.” When he looked up again, he grimaced. What had happened? Gerda’s eyes were bulging and bloodshot. All her teeth were hanging out of her mouth yellow and crooked. And her ghostly complexion was streaked with nasty, sticky tear stains. “What is wrong with your face?”
The corners of her mouth lowered, making her face droopy and lopsided. “I beg your pardon?”
He scooted away from her. “Ugh! Crying makes you ugly.”
Gerda choked. “Kay Janssen!”
Shaking his head, Kay rubbed his chest. The burning had subsided, leaving a strange itch. “Never mind. Let’s just play before I have to run back and face the old battle ax.”
“Kay.” Gerda’s forehead wrinkled up like a prune. “How dare you call your mother that.”
“What do you care anyway? Just because you’re too afraid to say what you’re thinking doesn’t mean I can’t be honest.”
He picked up the prince doll, scrunching his nose. The wooden body was rotting, and its hair was falling out. The new uniform was slapped together crooked. “Why am I even playing with these? All your toys are stupid.” He brushed his arms across the floor, scattering the dolls and furniture.
Kay picked up the sewn rose. It was so fake he couldn’t help laughing. “Why do you like this? It’s all crooked and cankered. It doesn’t even look like a real rose.”
“I love it because my mother made it for me.” Gerda was breathing quickly, and her voice was painfully high. “Please put it down.”
Kay smirked. “If you insist.” He held it up, studying it. Quick as a wink, he ripped the petals out and tore the stem to threads.
“What are you doing?” Gerda screeched. She scurried around gathering the pieces in her little apron.
“Don’t be such a baby.” Kay ran to the window and opened it. A single flake caught his attention frozen against the frosted frame. Five spokes protruded from a perfect circle of ice. Tiny loops connected them all, sparkling in the bright sun. “These are much more interesting than some dumb flower.” He picked it up on his finger. Instantly, it melted and dripped off onto the window. Growling, Kay squeezed his fist. “Why do they have to melt? The only pretty thing in this whole room and I can’t even hold it.”
He turned. Gerda was crying and clinging to her dolls. Why did he like Gerda again? As if her constant nagging wasn’t bad enough. Now she was too hideous to look at. What had that snow done to her? He put his fists up to his eyes and pretended to cry. She cried louder. Shaking his head at her, Kay hopped into the window box. “I’m going back home. At least there I won’t be bothered with your little baby noises.” He leaped across the gap and slid into his room.
The church tower bell chimed nine in the morning. All down the streets of the little town, girls and boys burst out of their homes, sleds in hand, ready for a Saturday of fun. But Gerda’s teary eyes were too focused on the picture book in her hands to notice. It had been two weeks since that blustery morning, and she hadn’t been able to think about anything else. She turned a page, barely seeing what was on it. Then she sighed and looked up toward the town square.
The older boys were hiding behind the frozen fountain at its center. As a cart rattled around the corner, a skinny thirteen-year-old with a worn green sled threw a rope and latched himself to the cart. In two seconds, he was flying along behind it. The boys cheered and dove back behind the fountain to wait again.
Gerda stared, eyes glazed. What she wouldn’t give to see Kay playing good pranks again. Not like the ones last night. He had hobbled like the neighbor, slurred his speech like his grandfather, and pretended to nervously play with a well-curled mustache just like the mayor. The adults had thought his imitations clever.
When he wasn’t busy with that, he’d spend hours staring at the snow and frost on the windows. He’d go on and on about how perfect and beautiful they were. When no one else was watching, he’d make baby sounds at her and pretend to cry. A tear trickled down her face. She brushed it away, her head drooping. I wish he had never come to visit.
A cardinal perched itself on the step beside her. “I don’t know what else to do,” she told it. “I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried being kind. I’ve tried scolding him.”
The bird whistled, cocking its head to one side.
She sniffed and tried to smile. “I’m sorry. I only know how to speak blackbird.”
The door one house down opened, and Kay bounded out, sled in hand.
Gerda focused on her book. “You’d better go,” she whispered to the bird. “The way Kay has been acting, he’ll probably throw rocks at you.”
The bird whistled one last time and fluttered out of sight.
Kay crunched through the snow to where Gerda sat. She turned a page. He bent over until his lips were touching her ears. “I’m allowed to go sledding today!”
Gerda flinched and covered her ears.
Chuckling, Kay turned to go. “What have you got there?”
Ignore him. He’ll give up at some point. Gerda turned another page.
Squinting at her, Kay ripped the page out of the book.
“No!” Gerda shut the book and took the page back.
Kay smirked. “You can’t have any fun, can you? Such a little baby.”
Gerda jumped to her feet, clutching the book to her heart. “I suppose I should have fun like you–laughing at everyone’s faults and saying mean, spiteful things behind their backs. And tearing up their most special picture books.” Her anger faded as she stared into his cold, haughty eyes. The real Kay had to be in there somewhere. “You used to love this book, Kay. Don’t you remember? We would sit and hear Oma tell us stories about Africa and Asia and the high seas. And then we would look up the animals and talk about which ones we wanted as pets, and–”
Kay yawned. “Did you bore your sister like this? It’s no wonder she got sick. Who wouldn’t?”
Gerda’s mouth hung open. She stared at the boy in front of her. “You are not Kay. And if you will not apologize, then I will not be your friend anymore.”
Kay stared at her for a long moment. He blinked a few times. Gerda waited. Had she finally chosen the right words to break him?
“Good. That way I won’t have to put up with you bossing me around or watch your ugly face.”
That was it. Sobs choking her, Gerda spun around and ran inside and up to her room. She fell into bed, holding the picture book close. A loneliness she hadn’t felt in five years crept over her until she felt it would smother her completely. She wept, her shoulders shaking, not caring as the tears soaked the picture book. “Oh, Kay,” she sobbed. “What do I do?”
Kay winced. The pain was gone, but his eyes still itched. Stupid snow. Probably scratched the eyeball and now I’m going to be rubbing it for a month. Shaking his head, Kay sped toward the town square. The snow was crisp, and there were plenty of sleighs out today. Perfect.
One of the boys threw his rope and caught a passing sleigh. The sled slipped out from under him and he flew into a snowbank on the side of the road. The boys laughed as he dusted himself off and ran after his sled. Kay cocked his head. All his playfellows looked more straggly or pudgy than he remembered. Great. Now I’ll have to put up with more stupidity. He propped his sled in the snow and leaned on it.
“Come on, Kay!” shouted one of the boys.
“Yeah, come on,” said another. “It’s been crazy out here.”
Kay shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t see much action.”
“Don’t bother with him!” shouted a third boy, the oldest and biggest in the group. “Kay’s too little to play this game anyway.”
The boy’s cocky grin riled Kay. “You’re right, Kristoff. I’ve only caught twice as many sleighs as you this year.”
The other boys chuckled. Kristoff glared at Kay.
Sleigh bells jingled loudly down the street. Kay turned to see who it was. The sleigh whipped by so fast, he couldn’t see anything but a snowy blur. He blinked and stared as the sleigh raced down another street. Just like that, it was gone.
Seconds later, the same jingle resounded down the street again. Kay dove behind the fountain and hid with the other boys. As the sleigh approached, he could just make out the details. It was a long, curled sleigh and so white and sparkly it blended with the snow. It swung around the square, spraying snow all over the fountain. The boys laughed and dusted themselves.
“That’s the fastest sleigh I’ve ever seen,” said the first boy.
Another shook the snow from his hair. “Yeah. You’d have to be crazy to try catching that one.”
Kristoff leered at Kay. “You’re so eager to join the big boys,” he whispered. “Take that sleigh without falling, and I will personally hand over my collection of stone knives.”
Kay peered down his nose at the scrawny twisted face. The sleigh was coming back a third time. This might be his best chance to shut up this nuisance once and for all. He crouched with his sled at the ready. The sleigh was almost to him. “One . . .Two . . .” He took a deep breath. The sleigh swung around the corner. “Three!”
Kay threw the rope across the road and started jogging. The rope snagged and snapped tight. Kay jumped onto the sled and flopped down to his belly. With a whoosh, he flew off behind the sleigh. The sled bounced wildly. His fingers slipped for an instant. Snow grabbed his glove and ripped it off his hand. He gripped the rope tighter. Snow shot up from the sleigh’s runners. A chunk hit him in the face. He sputtered and shook it off. His heart was pounding in the most amazing way. Smirking, he leaned into the next curve. That’ll show stupid old Kristoff.
The sleigh dragged Kay down the street and toward the outskirts of town. Kay blinked against the wind, trying to catch a glimpse of the sleigh. Its edges were carved like the ridges of snowflakes. Reindeer pulled it, their racks frosted, puffing clouds of steam around them. The driver was hidden behind a pile of furs. A spoiled, wealthy brat, perhaps? Kay grinned. Even more fun.
Any second now, the driver would see Kay and decide to teach him a lesson. It’s time I got lost. Kay shifted his hands to untie the rope from his sled. As he did, the driver turned toward him. Kay paused, eyes on the driver. What ugliness was on the other side of all those furs? But he couldn’t see a face, only a fur cap and the high collar of an expensive white fur coat. The driver nodded at him and looked away again. Kay let go of the rope. Maybe not just yet.
They flew by the houses and shops and businesses in town. Soon, they passed the outskirts. The sleigh sped up, and Kay clung to the front of his sled. Now they were passing farms and mills. This really is far enough. Kay grabbed the rope again. Again, the driver looked back at him. This time, Kay could see a pair of silver eyes twinkling at him from behind the collar. Was he smiling? Kay let go of the rope again. What does this person want?
They burst out into open country. Kay’s fingers and cheeks were tingling. A person could lose limbs if they got too cold. But the cold was also numbing the itch in his eyes and chest. Shivers rippled down Kay’s spine. Curiosity was melting into fear. Who was this driver? And why wouldn’t he stop?
Gradually, the sleigh slowed down again. Kay blinked. The itching was gone completely now. He waited for the driver to turn around and head back to town. The sleigh pulled to a stop in the middle of a hillside road. A mountain wall rose on the right while snow-covered slopes fell away to the left. There were trees everywhere, but no people.
Kay cringed. It was the first time he’d ever been caught. Maybe he’d get lucky and the driver wouldn’t be angry and give him a sound whipping. He raced to untie the rope, but his fingers were stiff and clumsy with cold. Oh, come on! The driver stepped off the sleigh. Kay fell backward breathing heavily. Here it comes. Then, he saw the driver’s eyes peeking out from under the hat and collar. He sat upright, then crawled to his feet. With one look, the fear was just gone and the curiosity was back.
The fur wraps sparkled like blankets of snow, and the edges of the collar were lined with miniature icicles that jingled as the driver walked. A woman’s voice, as smooth as ice, spoke from behind the collar. “We have traveled fast, little Kay. I hope you are not hurt.”
Kay watched, spellbound, as she pushed the collar down, revealing her face. For the first time in two weeks, he wasn’t disgusted with what he saw. Instead, he was entranced. Her complexion was smooth and white like a porcelain doll. Her nose was sharp and flawless. A dainty mouth with plump pink lips sat in perfect proportion to her long thin eyebrows. Soft cheekbones protruded just enough to give definition to her triangular face. And the most delicate little chin drew her thin jawline to a softened point.
And those eyes–the silver irises sparkled like snow in the moonlight, and the lashes were long and dark, delicately frosted at the tips. Her coat hung apart for an instant revealing frosted curls hanging all the way to her hips.
Kay gazed up at her. “Who are you?”
“I am many things,” she replied. “To your people, I am best known as the Snow Queen.”
Kay’s eyes glazed over as he continued to peer into hers. “You’re real?” he whispered.
“What do you want with me?”
She gazed into his eyes, her own sparkling merrily. “Do you fear me?”
Kay shook his head.
Long, slender fingers reached toward him, covered in icy jewels. “Come.”
Was she asking or ordering? Kay couldn’t tell. Eyes still locked on hers, he stumbled forward. His insides cringed with every step. But he couldn’t help it. She’s too perfect to be wicked.
He stepped into the sleigh, and she sat down beside him. Folds of velvety snow swallowed him. The cold seeped through his coat.
“Are you still cold, Kay?” She leaned down and kissed his forehead just above his right eye. A shock of cold jolted his brain, sending shivers down his whole body. For a split second, he was colder than he had been before. Then, the cold vanished. Numbness spread from his head down his neck, across the ride side of his chest and stomach, and down to the tips of his right fingers and toes.
He stared at his one bare hand. It was blue. “What did you do to me?”
“I was preparing you. To face the cold of the Ice Palace, your body must first be rid of its warmth.
Something in her voice softened his frown. It made him think of icicles dripping from the bare branches of trees, all of them perfect and beautiful. Even if nothing she said made sense. I wish Gerda could see this. Then she’d understand.
“Gerda . . .My sled.” He jumped to his feet. “I’m sorry. I . . .I must go.”
The Queen put a hand on his arm. “Do you want to see the most perfect and beautiful place in the world, Kay? A place far from those ugly creatures you once believed to be your friends?”
Kay looked over his shoulder. He couldn’t see his town. He couldn’t see anything but a hill rising behind him and a valley stretching before him.
Her sparkling fingers wrapped around his arm, pulling him gently back toward his seat. “Come with me, Kay. My palace is made of pure, perfect ice and filled with snow of the most breathtaking designs. You could spend your days discovering them. Your life would be a wintery dream.”
Kay thought of Gerda, her droopy face always sticky with those nasty tears. He thought of his family and his friends. Crooked. Stupid. Useless. The longer he gazed into the Queen’s eyes, the number his mind grew. Slowly, he sat back down. “All right. I’ll come with you.”
The woman smiled, her face scrunching until little wrinkles creased her white skin. They made Kay think of the frost on windows. “To my palace we shall go.” She leaned forward again and kissed just above his left eye.
The shock came, then the shudder, then the numbness, this time creeping down his left side. He relaxed into the snowy wraps. He could remember he was leaving something behind, but he couldn’t remember what or whom. He didn’t care. All he wanted was to spend forever gazing at this beautiful creature and living in her palace of ice.
She laughed, an echo of shimmering stars, and touched his chin. “Now, no more kisses, else I may kiss you to death.” She took the reins and slapped the reindeer. Off the beasts raced, snow shooting behind the sleigh. And inside sat Kay, a smile on his blue face.