December 5, 2019

BREAKING THE ICE by Ariana Ferrante

The Winter Queen is lethal.
She is unforgiving.
She is my only hope...
They say the Winter Queen freezes men solid, right down to their bones. They say she arranges their sculptures in the courtyard of her palace. They say she rules over the squirrels and the bears, guards them as they sleep through the icy grip of winter, and will set them upon any suitor bold enough to seek her hand.

She is lethal. She is unforgiving. She is my only hope.

The hooves of my horse thunder the snow beneath me, the forest path before me never-ending. Far behind me, my suitor screams my name, voice audible even over the hooves and the howling wind and the hammering of my heart. I grip tighter around the reins, knuckles white like the snow that flies through the winter air.

“Annabeth!” my suitor snarls, but I do not respond. I cannot respond.

He is gaining on me. His horse is faster, stronger. I squint, eyes peeled for any signs of the caste. I saw it in the distance, peeking out over the forest before I entered, but now as my horse gallops through, I am not too certain.

“Annabeth!” he shouts again. “Don’t make me do this!”

I don’t turn back to see whatever he is talking about. I drive the heel of my boot further into my horse’s flank, the whinnying beast still fleeing as fast as it possibly can. I huff and puff in my fear, breath coming out in thick white clouds as he chases me.

My horse whinnies again, suddenly rearing up on its hind legs. I scream, clawing at the reins, but they slip from my grasp and I plummet to the snow-covered forest floor. My back slams against the earth and between the stars gathering in my vision I see it: the arrow lodged in my horse’s hindquarters.

The horse canters off the path without me, vanishing through the trees. I roll onto my stomach, eyes widening as I spot the advancing shape of my suitor in the distance. I scramble to my feet, sprinting in the direction I’d been running in the first place, heart running laps in my ribcage.

“Get back here!” he orders, and the hooves get louder, louder, louder still, until I am certain he is close enough to run me down.

The wind buffets my face, and I hear it whisper to me. I have seen you.

Something emerges from the forest, something big and hairy and full of claws and teeth. I scream, and my suitor’s horse whinnies, just as spooked, hooves scraping against the earth behind me.

It is a bear, big and lumbering, snout covered in scars. My breath catches in my throat as it approaches me, then pushes past. I turn around, watching in awe as the bear advances, the horse rearing just as mine had.

My suitor hangs on for a moment, but no longer. He is thrown to the ground, and I start running again. I do not question the bear’s appearance. I cannot afford to.

As I run, the road seems to narrow, and through the trees I see the base of the castle, opaque and crystalline. My lungs burn and weep for relief, relief I cannot give them, not yet. My feet storm against the snow, crunching the white beneath me into muddied flat prints.

“Annabeth!” I turn my head, eyes widening in horror. It is my suitor again, covered in what I can only assume to be the blood of the bear. He runs after me, sword drawn and extended.

“Help!” I shriek, voice bouncing off the frozen bark of the trees on either side of me, and I hear it.

I have seen you, the wind whispers again.

One, two, seven, a dozen, a dozen dozen squirrels leap down from the surrounding swath of trees, each scampering in a mass toward my pursuing suitor. He swipes at them, cutting down a few, but the rest overwhelm him and bring him to the ground.

I pass through the tree line and into the clearing. The castle stands dizzyingly high, spires of ice tearing through the hanging clouds. Statues of men stand around me, their faces frozen in fear, in anger, in disbelief.

“Winter Queen!” I weep to the air, pushing past the macabre sculptures and running to the door. “Winter Queen, please let me in!” I plead, throwing my fists against the massive entryway. I bang and bang and bang again, each unanswered slam of my hands against the wood twisting my stomach tighter and tighter.

The wind whispers to me, cold against my face. I have seen you, it says, voice smooth like ice. The doors shudder against my hands and creak open, swinging inward. I have seen your plight, and you may join me.

“Annabeth!”

“Oh gods-” I cry, whirling on my feet. My suitor appears at the edge of the forest, panting and bleeding from scratches all over his torn attire. His sword drips blood along the unbroken snow, staining it pink. With a furious snarl, he raises the blade above his head and charges.

I open my mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. Nothing needs to.

I have seen you.

My suitor staggers to a stop, face contorting in pain. The ice materializes around his shoes, rooting him in place. It clings to his legs, climbing up to his torso. He manages to curse only once before the ice covers his lips and then his entire head, even his sword left frozen in place.

I stumble back, falling into the open doors of the castle. I wrap my arms around myself, weeping in my terror.

A pair of hands settle over my shoulders, and I stiffen, not frozen, but startled. I look up, meeting the ice-blue eyes of the Winter Queen.

“Thank you,” I whisper, and she smiles, the warmest smile I have ever seen. I clamor to my feet, throwing my arms around her, the tears still rolling down my blush-covered cheeks. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Her arms wrap around my back and she deepens the embrace. She has seen me.

The doors swing shut.
Ariana Ferrante is a 21-year old college senior currently studying at the University of New Haven. Her main interests include reading and writing fantasy of all kinds, featuring heroes big and small getting into all sorts of trouble. She currently lives in Massachusetts, but travels often, both for college and leisure. You may find her on Twitter at @ariana_ferrante 

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
Follow her on Twitter @karenleestreet
and
Check out Karen's books
Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead
AND
Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru 

1 comment:

D. Avery said...

So much tension throughout this fast paced story! No means no, but he had to learn that the hard way. It was a very engaging opening with the repeated "they say" s.

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