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Cold wind swirled around me as I ran down the path that led through the Frost’s deep and silent woods with a week’s worth of quota yarn in the bundle slung over my back. My breath came in quick, burning gasps, and the stitch in my side ached. My feet found the path even though it was covered in new snow, leaving a lonely tread of footprints in the snow behind me, a trail of crumbs to follow home. But though I knew the way, my heart drummed hard beneath the clasp of my cloak.
It had stormed the night before, and Frost was wrapped in a cloudy mist of snow and ice. The whole world seemed to be holding its breath in the wet, muffled silence made by the fresh snow. The misty white seemed to make everything larger and more ominous. I could see no more than three feet before me, even with the milky sunlight that lit the world from above.
Around me, branches laden with ice appeared as if blinking into existence from the mist that enveloped them. Spots of blue glowed here and there where the Frost’s peculiar snow blossoms, flowers that grew and flowered despite the freezing cold, bloomed just beneath their fresh covering of snow. The trees stood sentinel, piles of ice coating their bases, making them look like hooded figures to my anxious eyes. Somewhere in the deepest reaches of the forest, the monstrous creatures we called Watchers were waiting. I imagined them rising from the fog at every turn, and my skin prickled with every crack of a branch and shower of snow from overladen trees.
Every day in the Frost was a struggle to survive, but today I felt particularly hopeless. My siblings and I were three orphans trying to run our farm and maintain our weekly required quota of yarn that we delivered to the village in exchange for food and supplies to keep us alive. Our little family—what was left of it—barely scraped by as it was. We had barely enough flour left in the kitchen for another day, because my young sister was growing like a sapling in spring and there was never enough to feed her. But I dared not let the village elders know, or they might take Ivy away to stay with another family. Now, the storm last night had knocked a tree onto the fence at the back of the barn.
We were lucky it hadn’t hit the barn itself, I supposed. Or the house. Still, I didn’t know how I was going to fix it.
Finally, I reached the hill above the village. The mist had burned away here, and I felt like a swimmer breaking the surface of an icy lake. I leaned against a tree to gather a lungful of air before I continued on. Hopeless or not, I would keep going. What else was there to do?
Crusty snow crunched beneath my feet as I entered Iceliss. Frost patterns clouded the windows of the shops, and snow piled high at the edges of the streets and along the ridges of the roofs. Voices and footsteps echoed weirdly. A strange energy hung in the air.
I scanned the crowds for any sign of my best friend, Ann, and her bright red hood that made her stand out from the rest of the pale-cloaked villagers like a robin amid swirling snowflakes.
What I saw instead made me stop in the street so suddenly that a miller with his load of flour collided with me. He muttered an apology, followed by a scant “Much light to ya, Weaver,” which I barely heard.
Garlands of snow blossoms were strung across every doorway and window. Quilted squares decorated with the flower were draped across the curtains along with streamers of blue, silver, and white ribbons. Bouquets of candles huddled in every window, ready to be lit as soon as the light faded. The streets were strung with lanterns, also ready to be lit as soon as the command was given. Every lantern was painted with pictures of snow blossoms and decorated with ribbons that dangled down into the streets. The villagers crossed beneath them, backs bowed beneath their loads, most impervious to the beauty that hung above them. A few children stopped and stared upward, their eyelashes and open mouths catching snowflakes that drifted from the cloudy sky.
Today was the Darkest Day, the shortest day of the entire year and the end of our calendar. Tonight, we would bundle ourselves in our houses with extra snow blossoms and as many candles and lanterns as we could light to ward off the dark, because with the dark came the monsters. The snow blossoms were strung and sprinkled everywhere, because for reasons unknown to us, they repelled the creatures that prowled our frozen forests at night. We would crowd around our fires with food and drink, tell stories into the wee hours of the morning, and exchange gifts at midnight. Hope was like a candle, and we would burn it in anticipation that the new year would be brighter than the last.
How could I have forgotten?
Truly, the date had fled my mind. My parents’ deaths six months ago had meant that all the work of the farm—all the responsibilities—fell upon me with the weight of too much snow upon a straggling pine.
I had no special foods to bring home, no gifts for my siblings. My sister especially loved the Darkest Day celebrations, and with our parents gone, she would be even more desperate to make the night as bright as possible.
I tried to think as I waited in the quota line with my yarn. I had a few extra skeins in my pocket that I’d brought to trade for turnips to feed the livestock. Could I spare them to buy a few sweets instead?
After I’d turned in my quota, I headed for the market. It was crowded with jostling villagers. Extra stalls were selling candles and lanterns. I pushed my way through the confusion to the baker’s stall, where Lori Baker was selling pies and small jars of fresh maple syrup to pour over snow. My heart twisted to see the jars, because my father had always bought each of us one as a treat. The memory flooded over me, threatening tears, but I didn’t cry. I couldn’t afford the luxury of tears, not anymore.
I locked gazes with Lori, who looked warm and well-fed. Beside her, I must look like a cold and feral cat. The winter had not been kind to what was left of my family.
She eyed me as if expecting me to grab one of the pies and run.
“Lia Weaver,” she acknowledged with a nod. “Much light to you.”
“Much light to you,” I said, and pulled the skeins from my pocket. “I need two jars of syrup.”
Lori shook her head. Her mouth curved with disdain. “Not for that.”
“This is two skeins of quality yarn!”
“My father told me to charge good prices,” she said. “Syrup is worth more than that paltry bit of thread.”
I forced back the angry retort that rose to my lips. “What can I buy with them, then?”
“We have no need of yarn,” she said. “My father wants meat and fish and beer, he told me. Furs, maybe, if it’s fox or rabbit. No yarn.”
Rabbit fur. I could check the traps I set in the Frost. Hope struggled in my chest. I pocketed the yarn and turned away without a word as the next person stepped forward to haggle.
I almost collided with Adam Brewer.
He caught me before I slammed into him, and his hands were warm against my arms. I wrenched away, my eyes wrenching away from his burning dark gaze. I was ashamed that he had witnessed my rejection at the hands of Lori Baker. Him, Adam Brewer, whom I did not trust.
“Much light to you,” I heard him say, but I was already hurrying away.
I needed to get back to the Frost while the light was still strong. If I found something in the traps, and skinned it…
I turned, snapping out of my thoughts to see my best friend Ann rushing toward me. Her curly blonde hair blew into her eyes, and she brushed it away, smiling in a way she rarely did anymore. She caught my hand when she reached me, and she hugged me hard. She’d been holding on more tightly these days, as if she feared that each time we parted, it would be the last.
“I didn’t see you at the quota yard,” she said breathlessly. “I was looking everywhere.”
“I was at the market,” I said. “Looking for syrup for Ivy and Jonn.”
I didn’t tell her I’d forgotten the date, or that I hadn’t prepared. I didn’t tell her about Lori’s rudeness. Ann had enough of her own sorrows. I was just happy to see her smiling.
“Here,” she said, pressing the handle of a basket into my hand. “A present for Dark Day. No—don’t open it now.”
“Ann, I have nothing for you.” Again, I was dismayed at my failure.
“You have arms to embrace me,” she said, and so I hugged her fiercely. And somehow, that was enough.
I braved the fog of the forest, my pulse pounding and my ears straining for sounds of danger as I crept furtively through the milky white, feeling blind. Once, something crashed away from me noisily, and I froze in terror, but when all was quiet, I continued on and found deer tracks.
Nothing waited for me in the traps I’d set. One was broken, with small clawed feet leading away into the snow.
I turned a full circle in the snow, feeling empty as the traps had been. I could go back to the village and try to barter for something to give my siblings. Perhaps a few ribbons for Ivy, or a book for Jonn. But the sunlight was beginning to lessen. It was the shortest day of the year, after all. Not enough time to get to the village and back to the farm safely, not if I wanted to also feed the animals and do the rest of the chores.
With a sinking heart, I turned for home, forging through the misty white of the forest, brushing through the thorny branches of a bush.
I paused, and then knelt to brush away snow from the branches. The snow make a soft sound as it slid away from the bush, revealing a shock of bright red frostberries.
Ivy loved the bittersweet taste of them, I remembered, and I rarely had time to go looking for them. So I filled my pockets with as many as I could pick before my fingers began to go numb through my mittens, and then I turned for home, sweeping the forest with my gaze as I walked. This time, I wasn’t looking for signs of monsters, but for the treasures of the forest hidden beneath the snow.
I picked handfuls of snow blossoms and filled my empty quota bag with green branches from the forest pines. When I reached the farm, I could barely hold the weight of the bag and Ann’s basket. I dragged the things to the barn with me, fed the animals, and then approached the house. Darkness had already begun to tinge the sky blue. The air had taken on a bite that chilled me to my marrow. I paused at the door, below our wreath of dried snow blossoms, and knocked the snow from my boots before stepping inside.
I didn’t even have time to speak before my sister ambushed me. “You’re home,” she squealed. “Happy Dark Day, Lia!”
I set down the bag and Ann’s basket, aware of how misleading the pine branches must be. She probably thought I’d come loaded with presents. “Ivy,” I said. “I’m so sorry, but I didn’t remember—”
“Shhh.” She grabbed my hand. “Come to the fire. Your skin is like ice.”
She dragged me toward the chairs we kept close to the hearth and pushed me into the largest one. “Sit.”
“Where’s Jonn?” I asked, looking around the room. “Is he having an episode?”
Fear twisted me up at the thought. My twin brother had seizures in addition to lacking the ability to walk without assistance. He often had to lie down during the day with a cold washcloth over his eyes.
“Jonn,” Ivy called out, and then she jumped up and disappeared into my parents’ bedroom. When they reappeared, Jonn leaning heavily on Ivy’s shoulder, they were both smiling.
“Surprise!” Ivy shouted.
Jonn carried a bundle of cloth under one arm, and around his neck he’d draped strands of snow blossoms strung together with bits of yarn and ribbon. He sat down heavily in the chair beside mine and tossed the garlands into my lap.
“We made decorations,” Ivy announced, hovering at my side. “Just like Ma always did. Look, look. They’re a little sad-looking, because we didn’t have enough snow blossoms. But I think they are nice.”
My siblings’ garlands were sparse and clumsy compared to the ones my mother made, but they were absolutely beautiful to me. I touched a snow blossom petal with my fingertips as a mixture of emotions flooded me—sadness, followed by a sweet nostalgia.
“And this is for you,” Jonn added. He handed me the bundle. “We worked on it in secret this past month.”
“Open it!” Ivy said eagerly. Then, impatient, she leaned over me to do it herself. “It’s a new dress.”
“How in the world did you make this in a month?” I unfurled the dress, astonished and overwhelmed.
“Well, Ma was making it before…” Jonn didn’t finish that thought. “I found it in her things. Ivy and I finished it secretly.”
My eyes prickled, and my nose stung. I looked at them both, then the dress. I didn’t know what to say. Jonn, so strong despite his impairments. Ivy, the one I was always hounding to do her work.
“I love you both,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry I have brought nothing.”
Ivy leaped up and ran to where I’d left my things. She seemed infused with energy today. “You brought a basket. And a bag full of snow blossoms and pine branches. Look how big and beautiful these blossoms are! Were you in the deep Frost today?”
“I was checking the traps,” I admitted. “Hoping to find something to trade.”
Ivy picked up the basket from Ann. “What’s this?” she asked, and lifted the cover.
I stood and handed my new clothes and the garlands to Jonn. “Ann gave it to me.”
It was probably an embroidered pillow. Ann embroidered as her particular skill; everyone in Iceliss had a skill.
“It’s a feast,” Ivy said.
I hurried to her side and looked over her shoulder into the basket. Nestled inside was a loaf of bread, two yams, a tiny pie, and a slab of cooked ham wrapped in parchment paper. A feast indeed. Ann must have smuggled this out of her father’s house. My heart swelled with gratitude for my dear friend.
“And I forgot—I brought frostberries,” I said. “I found them in the forest.”
Ivy hugged me tight.
“Let’s eat,” Jonn said. “And then we can decorate and tell riddles by the fire until the new year begins.”
Neither Ivy nor Jonn made it to midnight before falling asleep beside the fire, their stomachs full of Ann’s delicious food. We’d laughed and talked and told each other favorite memories of previous Dark Days, when Ma and Da were still with us. Ivy had cried a little too, which was not out of character for her. Jonn told us riddles. We’d eaten the berries with our fingers and licked the juice from the tips.
Now I sat alone, stoking the fire back to brilliance, listening for the sound of Watchers outside as I always did out of habit. The garlands hung over the windows, the fragrant pine branches adorned the mantel, and Ivy had sprinkled the rest of the snow blossoms around the front door in a heap of glistening blue. The air smelled like flowers and pine. The fire crackled, throwing bright light over the sleeping faces of my siblings.
All was quiet.
Then, something scraped against the side of the house.
I stiffened, straining to listen as my eyes flew to the window and the shutters that were bolted over the glass against the cold and the dark. The fire snapped and popped behind me, and the wind hummed a mournful note, and all else was silent. But I didn’t relax, I didn’t sit back. I waited, and held my breath, and terror drummed its cold fingers across my skin.
Was it a Watcher?
We were on the very edge of civilization. Our farm had its back to the cold, fathomless Frost. Sometimes we saw the massive tracks left by the monsters in the night, or heard their eerie screams.
I listened hard for anything—a growl, a hiss, a snarl—but the night outside was devoid of any sounds.
Finally, I slept.
Morning light woke me, streaming through the cracks in the shutters with blinding intensity. We’d slept late after our night of laughter and reminiscence. We’d all slept by the hearth on blankets, and I stretched my sore muscles as I sat up and brushed hair from my eyes. The garlands of snow blossoms were withered and strange in the light of day. The fire had died down to glowing coals.
It was a new year. The Darkest Day was behind us, and the monsters had not come.
I rose, washed myself with the icy water in my bedroom’s basin, and put on my new dress and old cloak. Chores still needed to be tended to, new year or not. I opened the door to step into the yard.
There, on the stoop amid the piles of snow blossoms, sat a pale blue lantern decorated with painted flowers and a festoon of ribbons. Next to it, nestled in the snow, were three jars.
I bent down and picked one up. I peered inside, and my heart stuttered a little at the sight of the frozen maple syrup inside.
There was no note, no name, but I had a suspicion of who had left the gifts. I didn’t know what to think of such a gesture, and so instead I turned and called to my brother and sister, waking them.
The chores could wait another half hour. The worries, the scraping to get by, the wondering about what the future held for us—all of it could wait for just a little while yet, because Jonn, Ivy, and I were going to make the traditional new year’s candy that we’d made every year with our Da—warm maple syrup poured over the fresh powdered snow.
When I stepped into the yard to find a snowbank suitable for the syrup candy, I spotted the fence that had been destroyed in the storm.
It was fixed.
We were not without friends, even though we didn’t always know who they might be. We could do this. We could struggle through together. Jonn, Ivy, and me.
And as I looked down at the jar of syrup in my hand, I felt hopeful.