Their voices drifted up through the night air, harsh like a pack of dogs. Yvette stepped over to the glittering arch and rested her hand on the cool stone. She took comfort from its solidity whilst she surveyed the battlements.
She counted sixteen of them, each with a lantern that flickered haphazardly. The rest had fled the storm or succumbed to its power but these men fought on, determined to batter their way to the tower, against the blizzard, against her wishes. They still brought forth her husband’s banner. In the starlight the crowned fist had blended into the fabric of the standard, so it appeared more like a moth’s wing than the royal flag.
Booted feet slipped clumsily on the icy stone and the knights often fell. Each curse was accompanied by a soft puff of air, which Yvette found quite beautiful. She much preferred to attend to the tiny clouds than the foul words that birthed them.
One of the knights paused for breath, a crooked silhouette of ugliness hunched over the wall. His fellows called him on, their shouts hoarse and ragged next to the majestic song of the wind. The knight tried to straighten but could not. Curious, Yvette leaned out further, whilst the snowflakes tickled her nose playfully.
With a roar the knight stood but the triumph was only transitory. His fingers remained stuck to the wall, a neat row of sausages. With a girlish shriek, the man staggered and tumbled from the battlements. The other knights turned away in horror.
“That’s enough now, my love.” Yvette admonished. Leaving the window, she walked lightly to the empty throne and waited for her self-proclaimed rescuers to arrive.
Within the hour they had smashed through the ice curtain that covered the entrance, shattering its spidery lines, and poured clanking into the throne room. Yvette knew them all by sight. Her three brother’s in law, a selection of the royal guard’s finest and their squire’s. They squinted in the darkness, edging closer until the lantern’s light spilled over her furred cloak.
“Your majesty!” exclaimed Bartholomew, eldest of the brothers. He forced his stiff joints to bow. “Thank the grove we found you alive. When the storm hit we feared the worst.”
Yvette’s feet swung playfully, her young legs unable to reach the floor when sat on the grand chair. “You did not need to come all this way, just for me.”
“With respect, we did not come solely for you.” Bartholomew replied curtly, cheeks pale beneath his beard. “Where is the king?”
She sighed. “You had best come with me gentleman.”
Like lambs they followed her, not comprehending. The thin carpet of snow kissed her bare toes as she led them to the royal bedchamber. “He’s in there.”
They filed past her, crunching footsteps stopped abruptly by the sight of their monarch. Yvette waited for the shock to pass. She traced words on the sparkling walls with a teasing finger, while inside the room, men verbalised their outrage.
“How did this happen?” They asked, one after another, overlapping like a poorly trained choir.
Yvette returned to their side, taking in her husband once more. He stood exactly as he had when they’d last spoken, one hand on his belt buckle, the other reaching out. His hungry hands were as blue now as his eyes and he remained eerily still, the only one besides Yvette herself not shaking with the cold.
“You could say he brought it on himself.”
They stared at her, dumbstruck.
She sighed again. “Perhaps I am being a little obscure. It would be more honest to say that I made this happen.”
“You?” said the middle brother, Wilfred, as his moustache quivered with rage, “You did this to our brother the king?”
Bartholomew held up a hand. The others stopped and gave him their attention. “Is he dead?”
“He is.” She confirmed. “The storm killed him.”
The brothers exchanged a cunning look. Yvette could see something secret had passed invisibly between them.
“Then as eldest, I claim myself as King.”
“Long live King Bartholomew!” cried the men although she saw Wilfred lacked the passion of his fellows.
“And what of her?” asked Gregor, the youngest brother. “It appears the marriage was not consummated.”
The triumvirate eyed her lustily and then fell to quiet debate. Yvette backed away a pace as the brother’s debated her worth; each offered the other compensations until an agreement was reached. That Bartholomew would win was never in doubt, it was just a question of how much he would pay to have her.
“Then it is with great pleasure that I claim Yvette of the Riverways as my new queen.” He stepped towards her and grabbed her upper arm. Snow blew angrily between the flapping curtains.
She stared up at his hairy face, disgusted by his rough hands and fat neck. The bristles on his beard cracked as Bartholomew leered down at her. “Unhand me at once!” She demanded.
“It seems this one needs breaking in!” He pulled her close and attempted a rough kiss as the men cheered loutishly. However his advance halted early. Some three inches from her lips, Bartholomew gagged as frost formed a handprint across his throat. The big man wobbled backward, his hands flailed impotently. Before their eyes the frost fingers encircled his neck and continued to spread. They curled over his jawline, leaving whitened cheeks in their wake as they sought out his eyes. Moments later, he was as still as her husband.
Wilfred was the first to recover. “Yvette is a witch! We must put her to the torch!”
Above him, the icicles that hung long and low from the ceiling began to quiver. He ran forward, whirling the lantern over his head. Three of the knights moved up in support of the now eldest prince, their steel screeched as they pulled it free of cold stiffened scabbards. As if in answer the icy lances rained eagerly upon the men below. Each was nailed by skull or by thigh to the floor, their blood frozen before it had time to spurt. Wilfred’s lantern clattered to the floor and went out.
“Argh!” screamed Gregor, the unexpected heir apparent. Needing no further clarification, the knights fled, chased out of the chamber by a swirl of waspish ice fragments.
Yvette fell back on the bed, relieved it was over. Her contemplation was brief however, disturbed by the sound of chattering teeth. Puzzled, she sat up. As her eyes adjusted to the dark once more she noticed that one of the men had remained behind, knelt silently by the door.
“Who is that?” she asked.
“C-Connel, your majesty.”
It had a familiar ring to it. Yvette ran through all of the names she had been forced to learn since her arrival at the palace. He was no nobleman; that was evident. He sounded young, one of the new knights perhaps? Then it came to her. “Ah, the smith’s son. You presented me with my circlet did you not?”
He nodded. She would probably have missed the gesture had it not punctuated his still rattling jaw. A memory of their meeting returned: young features had hidden behind an impressive beard. He did not possess the tallest frame but was solid and well-muscled. She remembered liking his arms.
“You’re braver than your elders, boy.” In years he was around her age but Yvette was a woman now. “I’ll reward you with a story, if you like.” She’d decided she wanted to tell somebody and took his silence for enthusiasm. “When they told me I was to be King Galvor’s third wife, I cried. For three days I cried without stopping. It didn’t make any difference. In the end they said that if I didn’t stop they’d all be punished and their blood would be on my hands. I stopped crying then, until my wedding day that is. King Galvor was just like the tales said, only with fouler breath. The bards sang that mine were tears of joy but that was just a palatable way to disguise the truth.
“My father gave the oaths on my behalf and then they carried me up to this room and barred the doors. While Galvor and his brothers drank and feasted, I sat at the window ledge, sobbing and trying to work up the courage to throw myself off.
“Then my love came. His touch was so gentle I didn’t notice at first. My crying had drawn him in. Imagine that, the Lord of Winter making the time for a puffy faced girl.” Her voice filled with passion. “They say he is a monster but they could not be more wrong! He made diamonds of my tears, see them sparkling in the moonlight? He sang to me, to me! Can you believe it? He sang for hours and for as long as I could hear his voice I didn’t feel afraid.
“When Galvor finally arrived he was drunk. He wanted to bed me but I refused and the vile man laughed. That’s right. He laughed because it made him happy. He told me that he had heard I was spirited and relished the chance to win my affection. I replied I would never be his and had already given myself to another. There was no laughter after that. I think he was going to kill me but it never got that far, for Lord Winter intervened. He saved me and now I am his, willingly, totally his. Oh I cannot begin to describe it!” She gave an impromptu twirl before returning her attention to the quivering figure, still on his knees.
“Well Connel, it is time for you to go.” Yvette frowned. The young squire stayed where he was. “Only death awaits you here, so go.”
“Then you might as well kill me, your majesty.”
“You would rather die than leave?”
“It’s a poor man’s choice. Where would I go? There is nowhere to go. I’m dead anyway so I might as well stay here.”
“What do you mean? The kingdom is wide open now. There are lots of opportunities for a young man.”
“The king is dead and the land is buried under the ice.”
She paused. “How far does the snow stretch?”
“All the way to the sea and beyond… The birds have flown away but the rest of us are not so lucky. We haven’t the wood chopped or the food stored. The snows have come too early for that. We’d hoped to save the king and restore the land but all is lost now.” He hung his head, defeated.
Yvette’s hands flew to her face. It was one thing for the king and his odious brothers to die but quite another for all of the people. She thought of her sisters at home and her father. Something had to be done.
She walked over to the icy form of her ex-husband and prized the crown from his head. The frost gave easily to her wishes. “Here,” she said, placing it onto Connel’s brow, “it’s yours now.”
He jerked up in surprise. “What?”
“You’re right. The land does need a king and I choose you. It needs a queen too but I doubt you’ll have much trouble finding one of those.” She smiled and squeezed his bicep impulsively. He shivered. “My love and I will travel north across the sea, allowing the land to thrive. On condition that you make us welcome here three months of the year, so that I may visit my sisters.”
Connel’s head bobbed; his eyes wide as the reality dawned. “But what of Gregor? He’ll go to war with me.”
A cold wind swept the room, and a large snowflake settled comfortably on Yvette’s cheek. She giggled. “Oh don’t worry about him. He’s a coward and he’ll father no children to bring revenge on yours.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Her grin was wicked. “Frostbite.”