Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (5 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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The palace of ice was never dark.

Its ceiling was cathedral-high, and its walls were curved and

smooth to touch, and the floor was like the river in deepest winter.

(“I can’t keep hold,” he said, for his feet were numb—he’d walked

for days behind the sledge. His voice barked back at him until he

covered his ears.)

There was nothing in the throne room, not even a chair. When he

fell to his knees, nothing impeded him.

(Shadows slithered behind the walls; he saw men he knew, who

had been buried under the snow and the ice.)

The Snow Queen turned to him. She was dressed not as a sovereign,

but as a woman; her hair was soft as new snow, threaded with Lenten

roses, and when she knelt, it brushed the ground between them.

Her gown, under her cloak, was thin as a veil, and he felt that if

only the shard was pulled from his eye, he could see through it, but somehow it was only her face he saw, bright white, and sharp, and


“Now, my prince,” she said, in a voice like the wind through silver

bells, “are you happy?”

“No,” he said. (The word came back to him—no, no.)

When she smiled and reached for him, he realized he felt no cold

from her skin; he didn’t feel anything. The little white flowers in her hair were frozen through.

“Then walk out and be free,” she said.

He looked behind him—which way had they come?—but

everything reflected light, and there was no way out.

When he turned back, the Queen had vanished.

He was alone, and it was deepest winter everywhere, and when he

breathed too quickly the air made a mist as thin as a veil.

For half a summer, Gerda lived in the Sami camp, where the reindeer

spent the warm months eating and shoving at one another.

The robber-girl’s name was Meret, and she gave Gerda anything—a

• 41 •

• The Lenten Rose •

red tunic embroidered with all the colors of spring, a blue cap lined in fur, a thick sharp knife—except the book of poisons from her time with the Lady of Spring.

“None of the plants you need are here,” Gerda said. “What use is it

to you? Give it back.”

“If I do,” Meret said, “you’ll only go.”

Gerda said nothing.

(Underneath the love of poisons and the love of the open, there

was a promise she made long ago, under a bower of roses.)

At night, in the bed beside Meret, Gerda breathed Kay’s name to the

crows, and each morning they said, “We saw tracks in the snow, they

are his,” and she thanked them, and fed them suet.

But during the days she looked across the flat wide land, without

any curio shops or village squares, and she gathered plants to make

remedies, and when the reindeer were herded back at night she

saw Meret smiling under her red cap, two dogs running beside her,

waving upraised arms to guide them home.

At night they sat by the fire and mended reins side by side, and

there was singing, and sometimes the howl of a dog when it was

lonely; Meret always laughed and said, “They want for winter.”

She had a face like a white rose, thought Gerda, sometimes,

without knowing what she meant.

One night, the crows came back and said, “Gerda, we have seen him,

he is in the palace of ice.”

The robber-girl already had a blade to her throat, but when Gerda

said, “Meret,” she went still, and moved away the blade, and said,

“This way.”

Meret gave her a reindeer, and tied it to a sledge.

“I’m keeping your book as payment,” Meret said, looking at


“Good,” said Gerda. “Look out for the Lenten rose—the white

hellebore—it’s poison.”

• 42 •

• Genevieve Valentine •

“I know what poison is,” Meret said. The reins knotted under her


“Make him cry,” Meret said. “That’s the only way the shards will

wash away. Then he’ll be as he was.”

Gerda said nothing.

“I don’t care what you do,” said Meret. “It’s just my mother knows,

that’s all. She’s a Laplander woman.”

(The robber-girl was a Laplander woman, too; as grown as Gerda,

and she had sharp eyes, nimble fingers that tied any knot you asked

of her without ever looking.)

Gerda laced the red jacket tight against the cold, remembering, all

the way north to the cave of ice.

Mr. Vatanen’s curio shop does business enough that he can afford to

stay home, and have Gerda mind the shop.

But the people who come are still wary, and before they touch

something they always ask if it belonged to this family, or that one.

No one wants a thing from a family who has parted with it on ill

terms, or the cursed effects of a doomed soul who died badly.

Sometimes Gerda says, “I don’t know who it belonged to first,” and

the old man who was asking will look up at her with narrowed eyes,

saying, “It’s not good for a shopgirl to lie, she risks losing her place.”

She’ll say nothing; think about the book of poisons.

She freed the reindeer, tied the unstrung reins to a boulder, held one end down the slope of ice as it twisted downward, to the cave.

It was bright, even here, and scarred in patches, white and ridged

and curling in like the edges of the Lenten rose.

In the center was Kay, with a knife frozen in his hand. He had

tried to dig himself out through the ground; he sat in a nest of ice.

His shins were raw and bloody.

His face was all bone, and his eyes were pale and wide. He looked

like no one she knew.

(She was glad; she worried, if she remembered who he had been.)

• 43 •

• The Lenten Rose •

But she knelt in front of him, and said, “Kay, it’s Gerda. I’ve come to take you home.”

“I don’t know you,” he said, his eyes moving always just past her


She flinched, said, “You do, Kay. I’ve come to take you home. I

made you a promise.”

He looked her up and down. She shivered.

“I remember you tended the roses,” he said, like she was a servant

in a fairy tale.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, and I loved you there, once.”

“I—” he stopped, as if his breath had given out. “I’m waiting for

the Snow Queen. I love her. She wants me for her prince, and I’ll have my reward if I can only walk out and meet her.”

“Then come along, if you love her. Let me take you to her. Just

stand up with me.”

“No,” he said, and tears were already spil ing, large gasps that sounded like something breaking. “No, I don’t want to go. I can’t go back.”

“I know,” she said, after five full breaths, in and out. “But winter comes any minute, and then it will never be light here again. We have to run.”

“I can’t run,” he said, fresh tears running over tears that had already frozen. “I’ve tried, my feet are too heavy.”

“I’ve cut you free.”

He was calmer, now. He wiped his eyes.

He blinked twice, hard, said, “Something is gone.”

“I know,” she said, after too long; held out a hand.

(She understands him, sometimes, more than he thinks.

He might think he’s a coward for ever being there, for wanting to

die there rather than go on.

But she hadn’t known there would be a boat, when she jumped

from the bridge; just that her feet were too heavy to carry her, and she was burning all over from grief.

She wanted the water. The rest was accident.)

• 44 •

• Genevieve Valentine •


It isn’t that he wanted to go to the winter palace and belong to the Snow Queen.

(She was beautiful, beautiful as she had been the first time she

came to his window, and if she’d only loved him he’d have left the

shards in his heart, stayed clever and cruel until he rotted around


He was frightened of her, and of the place she led him to. When

she was gone, he screamed at the ice, and dreamed of her, and lost all sense of cold, and decided that to die wasn’t such a sacrifice. Maybe, long after this, the Queen would cut the shard from his heart, place it on her tongue until it bled white.

It isn’t that he wanted to stay in the palace.

It’s just that he had no hopes of coming home. You forget what you

have no hope of.

He recognized Gerda as soon as he saw her.

(She was in a bright jacket; he remembered, all at once, a trellis of red roses.)

He pretended not to, as long he could.

Once, she was quiet for five full breaths, and he waited to see what it meant.

He’d hoped she would leave him behind.

She didn’t let go of his hand, all the long trip home.

(They walked along the reindeer trails for days, Gerda looking at

every profile for Meret. Gerda never saw her, but at the village,

Meret’s mother, the Laplander woman, had two ponies waiting.)

As they went south, it turned slowly back to summer.

Kay said little, and whenever she took his hand he looked down,

as if surprised her skin was warm.

His eyes had lost their color, in the winter palace; now they were

pale as glacier ice, and he hardly brought them up to look around the plains where the reindeer had crossed it, to mark the turning season.

• 45 •

• The Lenten Rose •

The silence grew, and grew, and soon they were under the shadow

of the trees, and it was too late.

For those five breaths, deep in the cave with Kay pleading not to go, she had closed her eyes, thought about the plants that make a poison.

The night they reached home, after Kay was sleeping, Gerda crawled

out the garret window to cut the roses out at the root.

But though the vines that wrapped the terrace were the same, the

red roses were gone.

They had bled all their color. They were white as hellebore, now;

white as a palace of ice.

He never asked her what she had done. Maybe he had forgotten

the roses. It was just as well.

Red makes you remember things.

When he looks out the kitchen window in the mornings he seems a

decade older, but even with a face made of edges, his profile is kinder than it was.

(The Laplander woman had promised; as he wept, the shards of

mirror had washed away.)

Gerda had thought his heart would close again, and be whole,

but that was her own foolishness. Some things leave hollows behind

them no plant in the world will heal, the center burned black.

They let it be.

This is home, and autumn is already going; nothing can be done

about it now.

Gerda never saw the Snow Queen. When she reached him, Kay had

been a long time alone in the cave of ice.

(She had hoped; she had wanted to see the Queen. It would be

worse if he had only dreamed her.)

She’d had to take her sturdy Lapland knife and smash the ice that

had wrapped his ankles, before she could even speak to him, before

• 46 •

• Genevieve Valentine •

she could ask him to stand, before she could take his hand and lead

him home.

He doesn’t remember it, she thinks. She doesn’t know. It would

mean asking him.

What’s one more lie, in a gardenful?

They had passed the greenhouse garden, too, as they came home—

bursting in its late-summer dress of bright golds and purples and


The Lady of Spring had been working behind the glass, up to her

elbows in dirt, picking flowers for a poison.

She was happy. She never raised her eyes from the ground.

Gerda took her hands off the pony’s bridle, clenched them in her

lap as if around a little book, until they were well clear.

Kay looked at her, said nothing.

Soon the river turned, and she saw the bridge, and the wisps of

smoke from the town, and soon, soon, soon, they were home.

He waits on the main road, off the square.

(He met her at the shop, once; too many mirrors.)

When she appears he leans in and kisses her, lips cold as winter

brushing her cheek.

They walk, a little apart, over the bridge.

He looks at the faces the frost makes in the trees; she looks at the bend in the river, like an outstretched arm reaching north.

Ahead of them is the little house; white roses; the rest of a year.


Genevieve Valentine
’s first novel,
, won the 2012

Crawford Award and was a Nebula nominee. Her second novel is

forthcoming from Atria/Simon & Schuster. Her short fiction has

appeared in
Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Journal of Mythic

, the anthologies
Federations, After, Teeth
, and more. Valentine’s

• 47 •

• The Lenten Rose •

nonfiction has appeared at
The AV Club, Strange Horizons
, and
Weird Tales
, and she’s a co-author of pop-culture book
Geek Wisdom
(Quirk). Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on genevievevalentine.com.


• 48 •

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
10.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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