Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Frost’s Boy

I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in their secret places, a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you so that you will know that this tale is true, just as it happened and just as it was told to, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth.

The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have. The story I tell you now happened right near to us, in a place no more than a walk away, although where exactly I cannot say, for the village where it happened is many years lost to frost and forest and no one alive today quite knows exactly where it stood.

Once upon a time, in that place right near to us, there lived a man and a woman, together as man and wife, though, like most peasants, no one had married them nor given them any word. It was simply that their love for each other was stronger even than their poverty. Not that there are wealthy men in these lands—how could there be wealthy men where winter sleeps an inch below the earth?—but this man and this woman had so few stores that it was only their love for each other that kept them warm through the long dark. And so, of course, the woman became pregnant.

As poor as they were, her pregnancy was merely a cause for more sorrow. How could they possibly keep a child, when they could scarcely keep themselves?

Still, somehow, they managed to scrape by three seasons, and the man was strong and the woman was stronger, and she birthed to him a son, healthy and so beautiful that to look upon him was to love him, and in that moment in both their hearts they knew that they could not give him up for dead. But the heart’s will and the world’s will are often apart, and as time wore on a year, it was plain that they could not keep the boy. So, in the dark of the night one year after their son was born, the man awoke in the middle of the night and, slipping away from his sleeping wife, he took their only child, that beautiful boy one year old, and stole him out into the forest to do what had to be done.

He had intended to smash his son’s head with a rock, to spare him the pain of the cold, but, as he laid the sleeping child down in the nook of a tree, he looked on his beautiful face and could not bring himself to do it. Instead, he kissed his son one last time, held him for a little too long, and left him to die in the hollow of an old tree. He cried as he walked back to his wife, and I am told that his tears froze on the ground where they fell. If you were foolish enough to brave the woods tonight, you might see them still.

I do not know what became of that man, or his wife, or the love between them. Perhaps their circumstances bettered, and they had many more children, although surely none as beautiful as their first. Perhaps they starved to death that very winter. Perhaps that unspoken murder sat between, festering at their love until it turned to hatred, and they never spoke again until they died. I do not know. Every story tells it differently, so how am I to know the truth?

• • • •

It is better to speak of what I do know of, for I do know what happened to that child as he lay there in the cold and the dark in the hollow of an old tree in the depths of the forest and the winter. It’s like this: As he lay there in the snow, sleeping slowly, two ravens came and perched above him.

“Ah,” said the first, “another child has been left to die in the dark! See how his eyes are innocent—think how soothing they will be. And his skin is soft—think how luscious it will be. Truly he will make a feast for us! Let’s not wait until he’s hard and frozen and dead. Damn our oaths to scavenging, let us eat him alive!”

But the second raven merely shook her head. “You can start if you like, my husband,” she said, “but look at the child! See how beautiful he is! I cannot bear to harm such beauty. I will not stop you from eating him yourself, but I must look away, or my heart will surely break.”

“No, you are right,” said the first raven after some consideration, “I cannot bear to harm him, either. Let us go and seek some less perfect carrion, then, wife, for if we do not eat in this long night then surely we shall die.”

And, with that, the ravens flew off.

Time passed, as it always does, and the night grew deeper and darker as the young boy slept where his father had abandoned him. In time, two wolves padded up through the snow and stood on either side of the child’s hollow.

“Ah,” said the first, “another child has been left to die in the dark. See how his cheeks beam so brightly—think of how succulent they will be. See how his heart beats so softly—we will each take one half of it and savor its purity. Truly he will make a feast for us! Let’s not wait another moment but leap on him and tear him limb from limb, spilling man’s red blood across the snow.”

But the second wolf sadly shook her head. “You can start if you like, my husband,” she said, “but look at the child! See how beautiful he is! I cannot bear to harm such beauty. I will not stop you from your dinner, but I must run away, for if I even hear a single cry from those lips, my heart will surely break.”

“No, you are right,” said the first wolf after some consideration, “I cannot bear to harm him, either. Let us go and seek some less perfect prey, then, wife, for if we do not eat in this long night then surely we shall die.”

And, with that, the wolves padded off.

Time passed, as it does, and the night grew deeper and darker and colder. Slowly, the frost crept up from its resting place an inch beneath the earth, higher and higher until it covered the roots of the trees, until it covered the edges of the bark, until it crept into the depths of the child’s body, chilling him, slowing him, turning his flesh first blue then hard. But, just as the frost was about to claim him entirely, the boy stirred in his sleep and spoke. “Dada . . .” he said, his first word, and the words were so innocent and perfect that even the frost took pause.

“Well,” said Frost to itself, “well.” It was not used to feelings, and it did not know what to make of them. “It seems I cannot bring myself to kill this boy. See how beautiful he is! No, it is decided. I cannot kill him.”

And, with that, Frost made its way off to do its other duties in the long night. But, unused to thoughts, it kept pondering the boy. “What if, in my absence, some other beast or peril were to beset the boy and kill him? What if my long-fingered mother were to find him? Then, surely, all would be lost, that beauty would be broken, just as if I killed him myself. No, there must be some other way.”

And Frost thought and thought to itself, thought as it froze through the ponds, thought as it drove through the ramshackle homes and killed those unprepared, thought as it snapped bowls and troughs that had been left in the open. And, in time, it returned to the boy and hung itself around him, staring at his sleeping beauty. “Nothing for it,” thought Frost to itself, and shook the boy’s shoulder gently until he woke.

“Boy,” said Frost, speaking in the oldest manner, so that even as a child one year old he could understand, “you cannot go back home. Your father and your mother have abandoned you to die by my hand.

“And do not think that I would not have done it, boy. I am cold and cruel and have killed a million children left to my devices. It is simply that each winter is longer, each cold more pressing, and each year my work grows greater. I will need a boy to prentice my profession, for soon there will be altogether too much work for me alone. So, boy, what say you? Come and be my apprentice, or stay and die by the thousand perils of the forest.”

Even though he was half-asleep and dreaming, the child smiled, and Frost took that as good as a yes, and carried the boy off to his home an inch beneath the earth.

• • • •

Years passed, and though Frost’s talents were not given to raising children, it brought up the boy as best it could, and taught him the trade just like he’d been Frost’s own. Each year, the boy grew up more beautiful, but each year, his heart grew colder, for he knew no warm love from no mother and no father. The only thing he loved was Frost, and the love of Frost does nothing to warm a human heart. Each winter, he helped his adopted father with the work, freezing ponds, breaking branches, waking up the storms that roll from the north to rain down their hail crack-crack against the roofs. And each winter the boy’s heart grew colder, until it was as cold as ice, then colder still.

For Frost to have a cold heart, for winter to have cold depths, for the dark to be cold as it lurks behind the sun, that is neither kind nor wicked. But Frost’s Boy, he was not like the frost, or the winter, or the dark. He was a man, or at least was a boy, and as a boy his cold heart was wicked to the core, wickeder than any man’s has ever been, almost as wicked as his long-fingered grandmother’s.

It was because his heart was wicked that his favorite work of all the winter was freezing the hearts of pretty girls. At first, he did it just as his father did, catching them unawares in the early dark, or when their parents had left a chink in their wall against frost’s siege. He would sneak in at night, kiss them right on the lips, and watch as the chills took them and their skin turned cold and hard. How he loved to watch them die by his cold! But he would not stay to hear the shrieks and cries of their mothers, as they discovered their cold, dead daughters, for there was much work to do in the winter, and he could not linger long, even for work he loved.

But, as time passed and he came to understand that he was beautiful, he began to freeze girls’ hearts with other methods. He would chase after a girl, show her his beauty, hear her confessions of love before he kissed her, froze her heart with his chill, and left her dead where she stood. He would break her heart, and freeze her tears to her face with his breath, touch her breast and freeze her heart with his fingers. He loved to freeze those pretty girls so much that he would venture out in the summer, snuck away from Frost’s rest beneath the earth, and catch them in the woods where they went to gather berries and medicines, or even as they played with each other right outside their house.

• • • •

Once, he found a girl gathering firewood, deeper in the woods than she should have been. He snuck up behind her and breathed his cold breath on her neck, and though she thought it was just the wind from the earth she turned to look and caught his gorgeous eyes. When she looked at him, and saw how beautiful he truly was—how graceful, how manly, and how cold—she gasped, dropped her firewood, and very nearly fainted.

“Do you think I am beautiful?” he asked her, a glint in his eye for he already knew the answer.

The girl, terrified and fascinated and overwhelmed, could not even speak. She simply held her hands to her breast and nodded, staring deep into his eyes. He smiled, and for all the world was twice as beautiful as he had been before. He took a step in towards her, and almost touched her.

“And do you love me?” he asked, with the same cold smile.

Her eyes widened, and tears began to form at the edge of eyes. She still did not speak, but shook her head.

He jumped back, shocked and confused. “What?!” he demanded. “Am I not the most beautiful boy that you have ever seen? How could you not love me?”

The young girl looked down, away from his eyes, and finally found her voice. “It is not that you are not beautiful,” she said, “for truly you are gorgeous, and I would have you for my lover if it were not that I know you. My gran told me about you. You are Frost’s Boy, who comes for pretty girls to freeze their hearts, and to love you is, in that same instant, to die by your cold kiss.” And, with that, she ran as swiftly as she could back towards her father’s house, which was snug and proof against the cold.

But, fast as she could run, the boy had learned his speed from Frost and wind. He caught up with her with ease and took her hand in his.

“It isn’t like that!” he lied as he looked into her eyes. “I love you! I loved you from the moment I first saw you.” And, with that, she was lost. He leaned towards his, kissed her right on the lips, and she froze plain dead.

• • • •

Another time he came across a girl in a clearing, gathering the last flowers of summer for the festivals, and came up behind her and breathed his cold breath across her neck. She jumped, looked around, saw his face, and fell in love.

“Do you think that I am beautiful?” he asked her, a glint in his eye for he already knew the answer.

The girl smiled, and threw her bundles of flowers up into the air. As petals rained down around them, she said “Yes, you are more beautiful than any of my flowers.”

He smiled, and for all the world was twice as beautiful as he had been before. He took a step in towards her, and almost touched her.

“And do you love me?” he asked, with the same cold smile.

“Yes,” she said true, “yes, I loved you from before I saw you.”

He smiled wider, and stepped in to kiss her, but she held out her arms and kept him at bay. “I do not want you to think,” she said, “that I am taken in by your ruse. I know who you are.”

He took her hands in his, and asked, “If you know who I am, why do you not flee from the sight of me, for your know that my kiss will freeze your heart.”

The girl smiled a mysterious smile. “Yes, you’re Frost’s Boy, and it’s just as my gran told it to me. But I know the rest of your story, and how you have come to be so cold. How you have grown without the warmth of a single loving human heart. I do not fear you.”

The boy was startled, but did not lose his grip on her hands. “And why is that?”

“Because I love you,” the girl declared, “I love you more than any girl has ever loved any boy ever in the world! I loved you since I first heard your sad story, and with my warm love I will melt your icy heart, ’til your heart is warm and beats from its own emotion.”

“Can you save me from Frost?” asked the boy, and truly grinned from hope. He let go her hands, and embraced her, and she embraced him. For hours, they stood like that, but though her love of him was warm and hot, and greater love than any girl has ever had for any boy, the cold in his heart was older than her, older than her grandmother who told her of him, older than the village where she lived, and her love was not endless and thick and hard like the winter that sleeps beneath the earth, and in time her skin hardened, and her heart froze, and she died just like that. He left her in that field, no warmer than he had been before, and laughed with the chill wind at her foolishness.

• • • •

Yet another time, though, he came across a girl out on a frozen pond, fishing with hook and line for a little food. He blew across the ice behind her, scattering shards, and breathed right across her neck. She turned around, gasped, and nearly dropped her line as she saw his brilliant clear eyes.

“Hello,” she said quickly, “I didn’t hear you coming.”

“Hello,” he said in return, and then, “do you think I’m beautiful?”

“Of course I do,” said the girl as she pulled in her line, though she did not look at him as she spoke. “It’s clearly plain to see that you’re the most beautiful boy that has ever walked this earth.”

He stepped in towards her and helped her wind the line. “Then do you love me?”

“Of course I do,” she said, still looking away from him. “How could I not love a boy as beautiful as you?” But as he leaned in to kiss her, she ducked away.

“No,” she said as she held him away, “not yet.”

“But why?” he said. “If you love me, why won’t you let me kiss you?”

“Well,” she said, as she stood and began to walk back across the ice, “surely as you are so beautiful, and surely you are, and surely as I do love you, and surely I do, you are surely the boy I’ve heard tell of, Frost’s Boy, whose kiss is frozen death.”

“I won’t deny,” he said, “but surely you know it’s foolish to resist me.”

“Just so!” replied the girl. “If I were to run, or try to turn away, then like the first girl you’d catch me and I’d love you just the same as if I’d never run at all. It is no good for me to run away.”

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just like that. But still you put me off. Surely it will come to nothing in the end.”

“It’s true,” she said, “and I know that, though I love you with all my heart, it will not be enough to make up for your impenetrable cold, and like the second girl I will die frozen in your arms.”

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just like that. But still you put me off. Surely it will come to nothing in the end. What can you hope to do?”

“Well,” said the girl, “in truth I cannot hope to live, nor do I hope to live, for once I have seen your face I know that I can have no happiness to but kiss you, and to love you, and to have you as my own. I know I will die frozen in your arms, and as far as I am concerned, the sooner it comes the better.”

“Then why do you still put me off?” he asked, circling around her and trying to catch her eye.

“It’s that I am a good girl,” she said, looking away, “raised honest and pure. I will not so much as kiss a boy without my father’s word, and so I’ll take you back to meet him, and once he has given his word, then you can kiss me, and I will die glad to have had you for that one moment as my own.”

The boy laughed and laughed, but still he followed her to her father’s little cottage on the edge of the lake. The girl told Frost’s Boy to wait outside, then went inside and told her father that a boy had come to eat supper with them and to ask her hand in marriage.

Her father was overjoyed because, truth be told, his daughter was not particularly pretty. That is, pretty to be sure, but their house by the lake was far away from the village square, and she wasn’t pretty enough that her fame had reached the other families to bring court for her.

He went to tell his wife and share his joy with her. “Wife,” he said, “our daughter has come with the most wonderful news. Finally a boy has come to marry our daughter. Is it not excellent?”

“No, husband,” said his wife, who was cleverer than her husband by three times or more, “for that is no ordinary boy outside, but Frost’s Boy, who freezes the hearts of girls everywhere, and he has not come to marry our daughter, but to kill her.”

Her husband blanched. “Well, I must drive him away with such strength that he never returns.”

His wife, who was more clever than her husband by three times or more, shook her head sadly. “No, my husband, it is too late for that. It is plain to see that our girl is already in love with him. See how she stares out the window and sighs at him, her eyes wide with affection, her cheeks flushed with desire, even when she knows that he will be the death of her! No, now is not a time for force, but for wits. We must do exactly as I say, or our daughter will be lost forever.”

“Wife,” said the husband, “you have always been cleverer that me by three times or more. So if you have a plan, and I’m sure you do, you need only tell me my own part of it, and I shall do it the very best I can, because I love our daughter more even than myself, and if there is a way yet to save her I will stop at nothing until it is.”

“Go on, and tell our daughter that she should come to the hearth and cook her wedding feast. Then go outside and find work to occupy the hands of our would-be son-in-law. Have him chop wood for the fire, have him draw water from the deep-well, have him do what you would have him do, but do not ask him inside, even for a moment’s rest, until every last bit of the meal is prepared.”

“I will do as you ask as best I can, my clever wife,” her husband said, and with a kiss on her cheek he went off to see Frost’s Boy. He was trembling with fear and doubt, but his love of his daughter and his faith in his wife gave him courage, so he went out into the cold.

Now that she was alone with her daughter, the clever woman took her daughter into her arms. “Now, my daughter,” she said, “we must cook your wedding feast together, and quickly, for I fear your father will not earn us as much time as we would like. As we cook, you must do everything exactly as I say, or else surely you shall be dead by your love’s cold kiss.” The girl nodded, crying a little, for although she coveted her love more than her life, it was not that she had no care for her life at all.

“No tears,” said her mother, wiping them away, “no tears while we are cooking. Every part of the meal we make, we must think only of the love between us, your love for your father, our love for this home we have made in these dark cold lands where winter sleeps an inch beneath the earth.”

As they cooked, and cook they did, the girl’s father met his daughter’s love outside the house. He was still standing there, beautiful as ever, a thin and impatient smile on his face, still laughing to himself at this girl’s strange and novel foolishness.

“Well,” said the girl’s father, his voice quavering a bit in fear at the strange birth before him, “you seem like enough.” He stood at arm’s length from the boy, afraid to touch him.

“You know who I am.” said the boy. “And you know that I will be the death of your daughter as soon as our lips touch. You know that nothing in this world will keep her from me, now that she has seen my eyes. Why do you persist in foolishness and prolong your grief?”

On hearing the boy’s words, the man grew angry, and reared back his fist to hit him. But, before he struck, he remembered his wife’s words, and that no strength would save their daughter, and so he stayed his hand, shrugged his shoulders, and said the rest of the words he’d lined up in his head. “Well, before the dinner gets made, there’s some work to be done, and if you could help me with the work, it’ll go that much faster.”

When he heard that, the boy laughed like the wind in the darkness, stretched long across the narrow trees, and if you heard it even now it would chill you to the bone. “Well then,” he said to the man, “let’s go and see what work you’ve set for me to do.” Then he stepped aside, to follow the man where he might take him.

The man, still shaking a bit, though whether from the cold or from fear or from anger he could not be certain, led the boy behind their little house, to where the wood had been piled high under the back eaves. “Well,” said the man, “the first thing we must do is split wood for the cooking fires. If tonight is to be your wedding feast we must burn the fires high, for we must eat until we can eat no more.” With that, he lifted up an axe and, handing it to the boy, said “Let’s see how you handle yourself with this axe.”

The boy smiled his thin smile and did not take the axe. “What need do I have of the tools of man? I am the son of Frost, himself the son of Winter out of Bone. I need no axe to split a tree or two.” And, with that, he walked up to where the wood was piled, laid his hand on it, and with a great crack the wood blew itself apart into shards and splinters and boards. The man leapt at the sound, and covered his ears and cursed his deafness while the boy laughed and laughed and laughed until he did not stop.

When the man finally took his hands from his ears, the boy turned to him and spoke. “Well, old man,” he said, although in truth the man was not very old at all, and the boy much older, “do you have any other tasks left for me? I am eager for my wedding night.”

“Well,” said the man as he recovered his hearing and his wits, “well,” and could not think of what to say. But then he remembered what his wife had said, that he must keep this boy busy until the wedding feast was made. “Well done, my son-to-be, but there is more work to be done. Next, we must draw water from the deep well, water to toast your happiness, for we are poor folk without a coin for wine.”

The boy laughed, and smiled his smile, and followed the man to the well.

The man led the boy to his deep well, a well so deep that even at summer’s noon you could not see the bottom of it, that ran with the sound of an underground river and gave water even in the dead of winter. He handed the boy the bucket and rope and said, “Best to start soon, for the drawing will take a while—the well is deep and its water heavy.”

The boy simply smiled and did not take the bucket. “What need do I have of the tools of man? I am the son of Frost, and in my father’s house beneath the earth my playmates were the waters and the worms. I have no need of a bucket to draw a draught of water.” And, with that, he walked up to the well and called into it softly, with the sweet words of his childhood, speaking in the oldest manner that his father used with him, and all of a sudden a great rushing sound came up from the well, and a fountain of water came up from it, and the boy was bathed in cold, clean water from the earth. The man leapt at the sight, and cowered away from the water and swore aloud while the boy played with the water, and laughed and laughed and laughed until he did not stop.

When the waters finally subsided, leaving the boy clean and dry, he turned to the man and spoke. “Well, old man,” he said, although in truth the man was not very old at all, and the boy much older, “do you have any other tasks left for me? I am eager for my wedding night.”

The man stood there for a moment, agape at the spelling that he had just witnessed. When he recovered his wits, he tried to recall what his wife, who was cleverer than him by three times or more, had told him to do next. But, try as he might, he could not recall it, for in truth she had not said anything more to him. Clever as she was, how could she have anticipated the prodigy of Frost’s Boy?

The man hemmed and hawed and stilled and stalled until the boy grew impatient, and his lenient smile turn colder and darker until it was not a smile at all. Finally, he lost his patience entirely. “Out with it, old man!” he shouted. “Or else I shall be back at your house before you breathe again and claim your daughter as my own by force and by guile.”

Finally, though more out of desperation than cleverness, the man hit upon another task. “Well done, my son-to-be,” he said, “but there is more work to be done before the feast. Next, we must slaughter one of the pigs, for we must have fresh meat for a wedding feast, for the wedding of our only daughter is not a time to spare a single thing, and we must eat until we can eat no more.” And, with that, the man led the boy to where they kept their hogs and, pressing a knife into his hand, said, “Take care with the knife, for I’ve just sharpened it the other day.”

The boy scoffed, and threw the knife into the earth. “What need have I of the tools of man? I have labored long winters beside the coldest winds, comrades with the night, and done the work of the gripping hunger in this tall dark and in all that work, the killing is the work that I love the best. I have killed ten thousand in my time, and in my time to come I shall kill ten thousand more. Why should I need a knife to kill a simple pig?” And, with that, he walked over to where the hogs huddled together in the straw and, laying his hand upon the largest one, froze it dead.

When the pig was cold and dead, he turned back to the man and spoke. “Well, old man,” he said, although in truth the man was not very old at all, “do you have any other tasks left for me? I am eager for my wedding night.” He grinned, for he knew the man would not set another task before him.

But now the man laughed, a single great guffaw from deep in his chest. He smiled right back at the boy and took up the knife from floor and pressed it into the puzzled boy’s cold hand. “The slaughter that men do,” he explained, “is much more than simply killing. After the killing comes the butchery, and I’d imagine that you’ve made it ten times harder on yourself with whatever strange works you’ve done to that poor hog. For it’ll be cold and frozen guts that you’ll be cleaning.”

Now the boy knew he had been tricked, and his eyes flashed with anger. He almost killed the man where he stood, killed him dead with a glance and walked out into the snow never to speak another human word again. But, then his mind thought of the girl that waited for him in the house, the pretty girl that he could kill, and he knew that if he lost this chance, if even one girl was the better of his beauty, it would haunt him for the rest of time. So instead he set to the cold and dirty work of cleaning the pig.

• • • •

When Frost’s Boy was done with his long work, he was covered in blood and the bloody guts of the pig he had frozen and drenched in the strange sweat of his own labor. For while none would say his father’s work was easy, such world’s work is done just as it is done, as we breathe or as we cry, effortless and smooth without toil nor tire. The work of man, though, is the work of purpose, and such work of doing what’s easiest undone was strange to him. So when he was done rooting out the dead pig’s guts, he collapsed from the exhaustion. And when the boy finally stood once more, the man offered out his hand and spoke to him for the first time without fear.

“Well, boy, I’ll say it was the worst butchering that I’d ever seen, but that wouldn’t do it rightmost, so we’d best just leave it all unspoken. But it seems you’ve got some spirit in your frosty little heart, for when I handed you a knife the second time I’d aswear you would have stalked into the long night and never spoke a human word again. You’ve done it, for better or for ill, and I’ll say a second time tonight I see you’re like enough, and this second time you’ll have the meaning of it, too.”

The boy had thought that he would have been too tired for anger, but at the man’s words he found it welling up inside of him like blood from fresh cut. He spat into the man’s hand and it crackled in air and struck bruising like a stone. “You ignorant fool!” he screamed at the man. “You ignorant moribund fool! Don’t you see what’s in front of your eyes? Don’t you hear what’s spoken to your ears? I have come not to glorify your hold, but to destroy it! When I have your daughter as my bride, I will not love her, I will not hold her, and there will be no posterity for your line. My first kiss is death for her, death for you, death for your house. I am not your hopeful fluttering suitor; I am the son of Frost, and I have done the work of winter for longer than the memory of man. Do not give me your welcomes but guard your house against my frozen heart that brings nothing but its ruin!”

With that, the man stopped laughing. He lifted up the knife from the place the tired boy had dropped it, and began to clean it. “We’d best be back soon,” he said at last, without looking up. “Your wedding will be waiting.”

• • • •

While the men had done their work outdoors, the girl and her mother were hard at cooking the wedding feast. When boy and man crossed the door, they found the table piled high with all manner of foods: soup from salmon and red cabbage, stew with dumplings from beets and carrots and onions and old beef, hot breads in all ten types, pies and puddings and stuffings and smells like the boy had never known before in his cold and quiet home an inch beneath the earth. The heat of the hearth and the sense of the smells and the empty hole of his just-passed anger crashed against his frozen heart, and he stumbled a bit as he stepped to the table.

When the girl saw her love stumble she leapt to his side to hold him, but her mother held her back. “Remember what I told you,” she said to the girl, although in all the times I’ve heard this story they’ve never spoken plainly what that was, “and you must do it just so or your love will only last a night.” And, though the girl was eager for even the slightest touch of her love’s cold skin, she was a good girl, raised honest and pure, and so she heeded what her mother had told her, and instead of any touch she pulled out a chair, and asked him to sit at the head of the table, closest to the hearth and furthest from the door.

Her mother, meanwhile, greeted her husband, and took from him the frozen pork. As soon as she touched the icy meat, she knew at once what had happened, and she smiled at her husband and praised his heart. “Truly,” she said, “I would not have even thought of it myself.” He smiled at this, for he knew that his wife was cleverer than him by three times or more, but she went on with barely a pause. “But now is not the time for praises, for we must cook this meat before these courses are finished, or our pretty daughter will yet be lost to us all.”

With her love so seated in the place of honor, the girl wanted nothing more than to ignore her mother’s warnings, stop her work, and stare at that beautiful boy’s face and kiss him until they both should die. But she clung to her obedience, and got from the hearth a boiling pot of soup, made with salmon, red cabbage, and other clever means known to her mother for such circumstances. She served up the soup in a bowl of old wood, so hot that it still churned as she laid it before him, and gave to him a new copper spoon. “Here is the first of our wedding feast,” she told him, “made by my own art so you might know my skills, made by my own hands so you might know my love, and both so as you might welcome me as wife. Eat it up now, and tell me what suffices.”

The soup smelled of love and red fish in the winter and the fire that raged behind him, but as the boy dipped his spoon to it and brought it succulent to his lips it began to change. For hot as the still boiling soup was, the cold of Frost’s love was colder, and by the time he had lifted to the spoon to his mouth the soup had cracked and crackled and frozen solid. Still, he chewed it deliberately, and the girl heard the slow crunch as his teeth ground the ice into snow. “It is not the flavor that I mind,” he said after a time, “but it is cooked a bit tough.” Nevertheless, he finished the bowl that she had set before him, taking bite after bite all frozen by his cold and tired heart.

No sooner had he finished the bowl than she served up on a cracked clay plate the first five hot breads—made with meats and what spring vegetables remain. “Here is the second of our wedding feast,” she told him, “made by my own art so you might know my skills, made by my own hands so you might know my love, and both so as you might welcome me as wife. Eat it up now, and tell me what suffices.”

The breads smelled of home and butter and wheat left long in drying, yet even as the boy lifted them up to his lips, the fat on them curled and congealed at the chill of his blood. And as he bit into the hot breads, even the puff of steam held within them froze as ice around his lips, for hot as that steam was, the cold of Frost’s love was colder. Still, he chewed and swallowed each of the breads in turn, and the girl heard the crackle of the freezing steam within his mouth. “It is not the flavor that I mind,” he said after a time, “but it is cooked a bit dry.” Nevertheless, he finished the plate that she had set before him, each bread after bread all ruined by his cold and tired heart.

And so it went from one dish to another, and although there are those that tell the detail of every course I will not worry you with them. In truth, there is not much difference from one bit to the next and I find the whole accounting of no merit at all. So let us simply say that that she set dish after dish before him, exactly in the manner appointed by custom, and he ate and ate and ate all manner of new things that he had never had before, though each was ruined a different way by the cold within his blood, until at last the woman and her husband came out with great slices of the pork that they had roasted, that he had slaughtered by his own beautiful hand.

The mother put great cuts of the meat before him—all flesh and fat and neither bone nor gristle—and spoke as she did so, just as her daughter did and as custom demanded, for clever as she was she could find no better words to say. “Here is the last of your wedding feast,” she told him, “that pork was slaughtered out of this home’s stock, but by your foreign hand, and if you find it good, then it shall be the last of things and we will call all such matters settled, and ours yours, and yours ours, until nothing shall end it, for the rest of all our days. Eat it up now, and say if it suffices.”

The pork sizzled with fat and hot fire, and although he was by now quite stuffed, it was quick and eager that the boy lifted it to his mouth and bit it. The taste was heat and blood and death and all such other works of men in winter, his own labor and this home earth, the warm hearth dug against the cold, and the smooth flavor of fat, and he knew that by his own hand it was done and it was good. And the girl, who all along had had no scrap, no bite for her own (though she did not mind it for her lovesickness), watched as the hot fat ran down his face, not chilling nor cooling nor whitening, but running smooth and clear in its own heat. And she knew at once—for she was a good girl, raised honest and pure, and remembered her mother’s word just as it was spoken—and because she was a good girl she knew that the curse on the boy had been broken, that the ice around his heart had melted, and all at once she threw herself on him and embraced him and kissed him with all the strength that her longing would muster.

• • • •

Her love was true. When she kissed Frost’s Boy, in that first of many, his heart had already melted, and he was no longer Frost’s Boy at all. She did not freeze nor die at the touch of him, and instead they were just a boy and a girl and loved each other in simple ways accordingly. And though it was spring before they could be given a word for their marriage, from that night on they lived as husband and wife, ordinary except for their beauty and their honesty.

I am told, and it must be true, that they lived happily and together for that and all the rest of their days. I am told that he never raised a hand to her in anger or in fear; I am told that he never had a harsh word for her, and that she never gave him cause for harshness; I am told that he never took their son out into the great drifts of forest snow and shoved his face into it, over and over, laughing all the while, punishing him for not being as beautiful as his father, until the boy stopped shaking and turned blue; I am told that she never found their son holding the frozen body of their cat, even in the high heat of a summer long-day, looking at that animal he loved and crying and then looking up at her and smiling; that he never came back late in the winter’s long-night, not saying where he’d been, with his skin cold and his breathe icicles, and the neighbor’s daughter dead the next morning beneath the ice of the old pond; that he never froze the breath in her mouth even as she slept, just so he could watch and laugh as she struggled and choked and gasped for life; that he never got cold and angry, so angry that he woke her up in the morning with both of their children crying in front of her and asked her which one she loved more, because that’s the one he would kill for whatever slight he had imagined; that she never took her children, wrapped in their winter coats even in the summer, to flee in the middle of the short summer night; that the winds and the ravens never saw them, never told him where they were, never drew him to them, seething with an anger so cold it froze the air; that she never wrapped herself with her daughter in every blanket and shuddered her to life; that she never had to do it over and over, every time he was angry, every time one of them had drawn his notice, or his gaze.

I am told that none of those things ever happened, and it must be true because, after all, this is a story. How can stories end but with a “happily ever after”?

P H Lee

P H Lee. A close-up photograph of three white plum blossoms on a branch, with an out-of-focus brown-and-green background.

P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Magazine. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.