Snow fell in massive clumps, alighting on the rooftops of homes with soft thuds. It was the worst fall Lessa had seen in her lifetime. She stared solemnly out of the wooden shutters, staring, mouth agape, at the crystalline flakes that floated upon the wind. She wished she could be like that; she wished she could be free. Her nose was red from the cold - their small fire did little in the battle against winter. For a second she fancied that she saw someone out there, but then shook herself. She was being absurd. Who was fool-minded enough to leave the safety and protection of their homes in this weather? She smiled as her imagination took over. Maybe the figure was a knight, gone riding and caught in the snowstorm, too gallant to request shelter. Or maybe, whispered the darker, mysterious part of her, maybe it's one of the Winter Gods.
But what would either be doing here?
She laughed and shook her head at her own folly.
The snow had ceased for the moment, leaving everything blanketed in a layer of fluffy white. But the snow's looks were deceiving - step outside without sufficient gear to play with that seemingly innocent substance and you would freeze to death in minutes. Already Lessa could see children bundled in such large amounts of clothing that the looked like little balls struggling admirably to hurl snow-balls at each other, laughing when someone got hit or fell over due to the sheer weight of clothing. Again she saw that shadowy figure just out of sight. "Lessa?" her mother called to her from the kitchen. "Could you come and get your sewing from the workbench please?"
"Yes mama." She retrieved her delicate handiwork, silently appraising it. Lessa was a charming, softly-spoken girl who obeyed without question. Some saw her as a cowed woman good for nothing but breeding and cooking, but her mother knew otherwise. Lessa would do as she was asked quietly and without an impertinent reply, but it was foolishness to cross her. She could be as crotchety and irritable as her Grandmam if she chose to be. Fall's End was lucky she preferred being nondescript rather than noticed. Lessa saw a mistake in her cross-stitch. She sighed patiently and unpicked, redoing the stitch again, determined to get it right. Thoughts elsewhere, she continued the pattern of twigs and rowan berries. Sewing was a fine pastime, especially in a town as quiet and out of the way as Fall's End.
Charitable, the woman next door, smiled as Lehno, Lessa's mother opened the door, surprised to see her standing there with a basket of mince pies and steaming pork sausages. She exclaimed her delight and welcomed their kindly neighbour in. Charitable was a generous, openhearted woman - and the towns busy-body, making it her business to know everyone else's business. She smiled at Lessa, who returned the smile a little suspiciously; Charitable had never really acknowledged her before. The older woman fluttered her hands nervously, like a bride-to-be meeting her betrothed for the first time. "The girls down at the bakery are saying that there's a visitor and that he is staying at the inn," she blustered, barely drawing breath, acting very much like an over-eager young girl come home to find a handsome youth supping with her parents. Lessa didn't like women who preyed on younger men. For the first time in a while she opened her mouth and said something rude.
"Better pray he's blind, Charitable, elsewise he won't look at you twice." She covered her mouth with her hands and quickly returned to patching a worn dress. Her mother stared at her in shock. Charitable merely sniffed in disdain.
"Mistress Charitable, I am so very sorry for Lessa's ill spoken words."
The robust woman who sat opposite Lehno shook her hand, as if to wave away her apology. "Nay, tis quite true, I am not what I used to be." She sighed, looking forlorn. Lessa didn't buy the act. "But I hear you don't have a man Lessa. He's quite the catch. Dressed in black, hair as white as milk and eyes as dark as sloe with such a fair complexion." She fanned herself breathlessly. "And so strong looking too." Lessa frowned, disgusted by the thoughts that were surely running through Mistress Charitable's head at that moment.
"I don't want a man," the girl muttered darkly, accidentally pricking her fingertip with the needle. She sucked on it quickly and decided to wear a thimble after all. Scrounging through her sewing kit she found one and slid it on, happier now that there was less of a chance of bleeding on her best dress.
"Oh!" exclaimed Charitable, leaning forward eagerly. "I didn't realise you were -˝ Lessa sent a black look her way that made the nosy woman swallow the rest of her words. "Of course not. Sorry." Somehow Lessa doubted that her 'findings' would stay within these walls, or that her 'sorry', was an actual apology. She shrugged. Maybe it would keep the men off her back until they found out that the rumours were false.
"I think it would be best if you left now Charitable," said Lehno, sensing her daughter's growing angst. "Perhaps we will be at the inn for dinner tonight. We might even run into your charming stranger whilst we're over there." Lessa scowled. Normally she was friendly with her mother's friends. She liked being friendly and kind to people. Lots of the townsfolk called her 'that sweet girl of Lehno's'. She liked being called that, but some people just made her mad. They didn't even have to do anything to her; just their presence was enough to set her teeth on edge.
"Do you want to go to the inn Mama?" she asked, putting away her sewing. The rip had been a small one on the sleeve. Rather than ruin it by patching the rip up, Lessa had cut the sleeves about an inch and rehemmed them, adding a small amount of lace that her mother had made for her fourteenth birthday. Until yesterday she had forgotten about it when she opened her sewing kit looking for her crimping shears. At seventeen years of age, she was expected to have at least a spouse, if not children, and many young men had held off for a year or two before mustering the courage to ask her if they would join them for a drink or a meal. She had refused them all. It didn't grant her any pleasure in doing so, she just found them boring, uninteresting.
"I wouldn't mind. I haven't had any of Heran's apple cider in a while. It would be nice to have my meal cooked for me for once." Lessa nodded. She and her mother both cooked part of the meal each, but it was still nice when you didn't have to cook anything at all.
"I suppose I wouldn't mind a warm meal and a hot drink," she admitted in that quiet way of hers. "I should get dressed into something nicer though." Her mother smiled, knowing Charitable's talk of the strange man had peaked her interest.
Lessa had put on her cotton dress that she had repaired earlier. The sleeves were now elbow length, and the lace, though scratchy, looked nice on it she decided. She was busy piling her auburn hair this way and that, trying to choose between up or down. Down it accentuated her long face and large eyes, swept back from her face it brought out her finely chiselled nose and sharp cheekbones. She decided on up. Down she looked like a doe eyed faun, ripe for the hunt. She shuddered at the thought, even though she knew it was improbable. Improbable, her mind told her traitorously, but not impossible. What's stopping - Shut UP! She ordered herself, scowling. She had been scowling a lot lately she noticed. She swept the distasteful expression aside and smiled wanly. Her face snapped back into a neutral frown. Smiles didn't suit her. They were too big, too 'look at me' for her dowdy and quiet persona. Lehno was wearing an old quilted emerald dress that she had made from scraps of old cotton squares. Her greying hair was plaited neatly down her back. She looked ten years younger.
Lessa smiled and took her mother's hand and they made their way through the ankle deep snow to Heran's inn.
Heran and his wife Tianna owned and ran the Little Way Inn. They had owned it for over thirty years, and planned on owning it for another thirty. Both were in their late fifties, kind folk, but not too kind that they would give a drunk a free room. Lessa rarely dressed herself up, even on Kinsfolk Day. She found it too taxing, being noticed by more than two people. Tianna greeted them and showed mother and daughter to a table near a window. Lessa noticed a fair haired man glaring into his mug of ale. He looked up when he felt her gaze and smiled at her. She met his gaze, but did not smile back, looking like a stern schoolteacher when her charges misbehaved. Lehno had wandered over to Esmelda and Piter's table, leaving Lessa alone with the dark eyed stranger and a window for company.
She rested her chin on her palm and thanked Heran when he placed the plate of food she had ordered in front of her. He winked at her in a grandfatherly fashion and attended to his other customers. When she looked up again, the dark eyed man had gone. She heaved a heavy sigh of relief, and then jumped as someone pulled a chair up next to her, its legs scraping noisily along the hard stone floor. She looked. It was the dark eyed man. From beneath lowered lashes she studied him, his long white hair, whiter than the snow outside; the way he held himself, regally, like he was a king; and the way his eyes seemed to flash from black to a bright sapphire blue and then back to black again.
"Your eyes are strange," she said in a monosyllabic voice. The stranger gave a short bark of laughter. She grimaced. "And you laugh like a jackal."
This time he grinned. "You have the manners of a pumpkin and the beauty of a queen. Not a very… admirable mixture." Lessa fought the urge to tell him to shove his admirably up his ass and then refrained herself. He must have seen the look in her eyes for he said in placating tones while holding up his pale hands "Easy girl."
"I don't admire" she said, laying heavy emphasis on the word, "being treated like a horse sir."
"You can call me Thane, oh noble lady of cheekiness."
"For a stranger you're very outspoken." Lessa muttered, fuming. Great, she thought, two people who make me mad in the course of three hours. She sighed. "Forgive me Freeman Thane," she said politely, "But I have had a rough day you see."
Thane chuckled and took a swig of his ale. Leaning forward he pinned those unusual eyes on hers, holding her in place. "Next time you see a figure in the snow, see if you can notice what they're wearing. You might surprise yourself."
"How did you -." She began to say, but he was gone. She mumbled a 'goodbye' to thin air and angrily shoved a piece of potato into her ravenous mouth.
Lehno was braiding her daughter's hair as she sewed. "You say you don't like sewing Lessa, yet I catch you at it every waking minute."
Lessa smiled. "The last time I complained about having to sew was when I was eleven and you wanted me to fix an old dress that I thought was ugly." Her mother finished the braid and Lessa pulled it one shoulder, plucking at a few loose strands of hair.
"I saw you talking to the stranger last night." Her mother smiled.
"Thane," she corrected her mother absently. She remembered his strange eyes, flickering from black to blue. Lessa had seen odd eyes before; up until she had met Thane the oddest pair she had come across were set in the weathered face of an old hermit. They had been a peculiar blue grey and sparked like they housed lightning. The man claimed to have the ability to see the future, and the young girls of course flocked to him and asked who their lover would be. He had given them vague answers, but when Lessa asked what fate lay in store for her, his eyes flashed white hot and he said that 'Snowfall would return to Blackhearth Keep.' Lessa, who was fifteen at the time, shook her head, puzzled by his answer. Snow fell the heaviest around the Keep, and that was why no one dared go there. No amount of riches would change the minds of treasure hunters and farmers alike. The place was said to be cursed, haunted by the ghosts of two brothers and their mad father who had killed them. Some said the Winter Gods resided there now, others that demons had taken over the once mighty Keep. Whatever the truth, it was long lost, and lay only as a grain of salt in a fable now.
"Odd name," remarked Lehno, bringing her daughter abruptly from her reverie.
"What do you mean?"
Her mother sighed. "I used to tell you this story when you were a child. I'm surprised you don't remember it, you always used to love hearing about the Winter Gods. Your favourite part was when Thane Snowfall, brother of wicked Jack Frost, held his twin over the side of Blackhearth Keep, a dagger made of ice pressed to his throat. 'Cross me again, brother dear,' he told him, 'and I will fling you from the very precipice on which you now lie. I will end you just like you ended our father, may the mighty Blizzard keep his soul cold.'" As her mother spoke the words, Lessa could hear Thane say them, could feel the icy wind whip through her hair.
"What were the brothers like?" she asked her mother in hushed tones.
"Thane was as cold and deadly as the snow he commanded, but also as soft. Jack, on the other hand was merciless and cruel." Her mother's eyes become clouded as she remembered something from a long time ago.
"Would that I could meet them." Lessa murmured dreamily.
"You know," her mother said, "There is an old village legend that one day Snowfall will return to Blackhearth Keep, called there by the cries of his woman, held hostage by his evil brother." She sighed. "It's but a legend though. I used to imagine I was Thane's lover, trapped in the icy fortress by Frost." Lessa smiled at the thought of her mother looking out of the window and daydreaming. It was hard to believe that Lehno would partake in something so unproductive.
"Do you remember when the Seer passed through mama, and you told him that nothing but the Iceguard Lake lay on the other side of the town?" her mother nodded. "He told me that Snowfall would return to Blackhearth Keep. I thought he meant actual snow, like the kind that falls from the sky, but no I wonder. His eyes reminded me of lightning."
"Could it be Old Man Blizzard?" she heard her mother murmur under her breath, "Could the Winter Gods really be returning?"
The annoying woman was hounding him again, offering to brew him a cup of her 'special homemade tea.' The way she said it made Thane shudder, his eyes flashing a furious white blue. Finally he just got up and walked away, thinking about the girl who had caught him so off guard the night before. He avoided smiling at the serving girls - his brother might think he had taken and interest and spirit them away. Thane had no desire to risk his neck for an ordinary human; a God's consort had to be strong of mind and body, like Lessa Tarrismith. His cousins the Summer Goddesses would have found a partner by now, already with new vessels to turn to in case an accident befell their heavenly bodies. He needed that insurance, and at the same time needed to prevent Frost from doing the same. The woman from earlier, Charitable, he remembered, was making suggestive movements directed at him from across the room. Maddened and disgusted the white haired God left the inn, following the signs to Shopkeeper's Way. The Tarrismith's had a thread store and tailors there. If he was lucky, he would catch Lessa alone.
Lehno had retired to her room for the night, and Lessa was on the verge of doing the same when a gentle rap came at the door of the shop. She stuck her head around the door and saw the silhouette of a tall man outside the door. For a single, girlish moment her heart leapt. Father had returned! And then Thane's voice came from outside. "Is anyone awake?" He spoke quietly, but his voice wore authority like a cloak. Lessa cleared her dry throat.
"I am, although I was about to retire for the night."
"Should I come back in the morn?" inquired the visitor.
"Nay, come in or you'll freeze. Fall's End's winters are not usually kind." She opened the door to allow Thane entrance. At close to seven feet of height - A giant! Thought Lessa - he had to duck in order to do so. She longed terribly to ask him if he really WAS Snowfall, but if he was he would deny it, and if he wasn't then he would simply think her wits were addled. "I can offer tea, but not anything more sustainable I'm afraid."
Thane waved the offer off with a large fair hand. Self-conscious in her nightgown, Lessa picked up her latest thread work and showed it to him. "This," she pointed out a symbol sewn in dark green cotton, "is for long life, and these," she pointed out three small stars in red silk that sat to the left, right and top of the green symbol, "are for protection against illness. And this one," she pointed to a blue circle with a cross through it that contained them all, "Is for luck."
"A blessing for a child. I didn't know you were Talented."
Lessa squirmed. "I'm not. A Weaver," she named one of the classes of Talented, a Weaver was one who worked with blessings, someone who wove life's threads to give a newborn a better life, "taught them to mama, and she taught them to me. A friend is giving birth in a few weeks' time so I decided to sew this onto a blanket for her baby." She had begun to talk about sewing. It was the only thing she knew more about than anything else. Thane, to his credit, listened to her every word, and even asked about different styles of stitching. He froze, however, when she showed him a tapestry she had begun. It was a pattern of snowflakes and frost, battling each other while a blizzard blew over in the background.
"This is… unusual," he commented. Lessa turned to see what he was looking at, and remembered her manners in time from snatching it from his grasp. He handled it delicately, like it was a poisonous reptile.
"It's the Winter Gods. Snowfall and Frost are battling, while Blizzard dies from grief. There's going to be a festival soon, to tell them we haven't forgotten them. I thought I may as well share something there." In reality, she had begun it that day in the hopes that if Thane showed up to the festival, she would be able to gauge his reaction. From the look on his face, he seemed almost frightened, wary of her.
"Would you mind if I bought it from you when the festival is over? It's a remarkable tapestry. The threads almost look alive."
Lessa chuckled. "They're meant to. I used spider's silk. Are you interested in the Winter Gods?"
"You could say that." He rose. "I am sorry for having intruded upon your hospitality so late, miss. Perhaps I might walk with you to your house?"
Lessa laughed and pointed through the open door. "It's only there. You wouldn't have to go far." She peaked outside. "It's howling a gale out there. Are you sure you wouldn't rather stay here for the night? We have a spare bed at the back of the shop."
"I'll be fine. The snow is my element."
Thane walked from the house and the blizzard engulfed him in its wintry embrace.
How could she have known? He thought. She is but a child in my eyes, and yet that tapestry… he shivered, not from cold but from fear as he saw the threads shimmer and move in his mind's eye. Lessa had no magic, he could see that, but she knew threads, and, it seemed, how to get under his skin. "I'll be a happy man if I never have to see that wall hanging again," he said aloud. Snowfall had no desire to be reminded of how he and Frost had caused their father's death. And yet he had foolishly asked to buy it from her. She knew who he was, and it worried him. What worried him more was her subtle way of showing it - if the tapestry had an impact on him, and it had, then her suspicions were correct. If not, then she had no reason to finish it. She was a clever girl. A clever girl indeed.
He had jumped when he had noticed her tapestry. She was surprised it had been so simple. Perhaps he was not as intelligent as she had thought. No, she chided herself, he was simply caught unawares. She debated whether or not to confront him, her almond eyes narrowing with confusion and deep thought. Still, the most likely answer she would receive was a denial. Lessa rose and joined her mother in the shop, her hair slung over one shoulder. Her mind wandered back to Thane's unannounced visit. He was in her mind, and refused to leave it. She was connected to him in a way she didn't understand. With every intake of breath her mind breathed out the word Thane. Lehno had been watching her daughter with interest, smiling a secretive smile at the twinkle in Lessa's eye and the skip in her step. "Have good dreams, did we?" the older asked, interrupting the girl's thoughts. Lessa looked up at her mother in surprise.
"Just thinking," she replied. Lehno snorted in amusement.
"That Thane's been hanging around outside the shop for nearly an hour. Tell me this new you," she winked, "hasn't got anything to do with that young man."
"It doesn't. I'm just in a good mood. And I didn't notice." It was the truth - she hadn't. She had been too intent on thinking about him, not paying attention to her surroundings. When had she become so engrossed with him, that she stopped being aware of what was happening in the village? He'd worked his icy magic on her, and she was caught in his thrall, like a helpless insect trapped in the spider's web. Only she wasn't helpless, and Thane wasn't a spider; he was a God.
Again she wondered, 'what is a Winter God doing here?'
With a basket on one arm and her hair bundled on her head, Lessa made her way to the Winter Remembrance. Mercifully the snow was only ankle deep, unlike last year when it had reached her knees. Cheeks rosy with cold, the young woman carried her woven wool blankets and silk tapestries to the open circle in the middle of the village where the festival has held each year. This year the sounds and smells of people cooking spicy soups and flatbreads overpowered the stalls holding necessary items: cloth, blankets, boots; as well as the gaudy arrangements of silk wall-hangings, cotton tablecloths and lace snowflakes. There was even a carved likeness of Old Man Blizzard. Lehno was already at their stall, dishing out soup to young children who eagerly held out bowls, grinning as the woman ladled the steaming creamy soup into them. Lessa kept the apple crumble near the fire so it would remain warm until the time came to eat it, and began to unpack her wares. She set the tapestry for Thane to one side - if he didn't claim it someone else would. She greeted everyone who came to their stall, thanking them when they bought something, and feeding them when they did not. Two people had already made a more than decent offer for her spider silk tapestry. If Thane did not pay for it by the end of the night then she would seek them both out and let them decide between them who would own it.
The clouds parted and stars winked down on the humans who tarried down below. Lanterns were lit and songs were sung. When her mother began to pack their things away, Lessa decided it was time to find the man, Hector, he was called. He had offered her the most for the arras of the Winter Gods. He had been selling boots, she recalled, on the other side of the square. "Maybe I'll purchase a pair," she said aloud to the quiet night. Most people were already gone, but some remained, telling tales and drinking the burning spirits that was Falls End's speciality. She had tried it - once - and detested the stuff. It made her hack and cough and her throat burn. Hector was up ahead, she could make out his distinctive form, and she waved. He raised a pudgy hand in reply.
"Your man didn't come good on his offer then?" he asked in his smooth voice. Lessa shook her head.
"I didn't think he would, the tapestry seemed to frighten him." She held it out to him, wrapped in soft linen to preserve the delicate stitching. "You offered the most, it's yours." Hector chortled with delight and handed her the coins he had promised, as well as a pair of fine leather boots inlaid with warm sheep's wool. 'As extra thanks,' he told her. Lessa thanked him profusely, delighted with the gift. She waved him and his tiny wife off, and made her way back to her mother.
Thane was lounging leisurely beside her stand, a mug of steaming cider in both hands. "I see you didn't wait for me to collect," he said, but he didn't sound mad.
Lessa shrugged. "I waited for most of the night. If it was that important you would have come sooner. I can't hold wares forever you know." Her hands went to her hips in an imitation of her mother when she scolded someone.
Thane smiled. "Of course not." He said in a placating tone. "It doesn't really matter. I just wanted to catch you before you returned home." Lessa raised one delicate brow, but said nothing.
"The mighty Thane wished to see the lowly seamstress, when he has a number of wealthier women at his beck and call."
He grinned. "They can't quite make me cringe as you do."
"That ought to be a good thing," she pointed out. "Women who speak out are thought too wilful. I have the advantage of being both quiet and intelligent. I scorn women who simper, or cry when a nail breaks."
"I like wilful. I need a woman who can hold her own in a verbal match. Not to mention one who is capable of being diplomatic."
Lessa shook her head in an exaggerated form of sorrow. "Flattery will get you nowhere, least of all where you want to go." She told him. He looked affronted.
"It saddens me that that is all you think I want," he said, clutching at his chest in mock pain.
"You must be grieved indeed."
His expression changed from joking to sober, and he grasped her hand in his, lifting it to his lips and brushing them across her knuckles. She blushed and wrenched her hand away, leaving him looking after her with an expression that almost resembled hurt.
"Grieved indeed." He agreed.
"Ahh!" Molly drew in a large breath and released it. "First clear day in months! Oh look it's Thane!" she waved, bouncing up and down, making her bosom heave. Lessa grabbed her friend's arm and pushed it down, not wanting to draw attention to herself.
"What?" asked Molly indignantly. She was eighteen, and Lessa's closest friend. Her and her family lived on a farm outside of the village, and had been snowed in for more than a month. Today was the first day they had made it into Falls End. "He's so handsome…" she cooed. Lessa sighed. "Oh my Gods!" screeched the older girl. "He's coming over!" she fussed with her hair. "Do I look ok?"
"You look fine Molly." Lessa crossed her arms, indecently wondering how many village girls her friend had bedded. She had already told him no, even though he had not even hinted at it. "Winter Gods help me," she muttered. She hadn't expected a dog to come careening around the corner, slip on the ice and crash into her, and certainly wouldn't have counted that as 'help'. Lessa was sent sprawling, whacking her face on the hard cobblestones. "Lessa!" screamed Molly. Thane saw and ran over, barely slipping on the treacherous ground. He lifted her up.
"Are you ok?" he asked urgently, his long gentle finger probing her skull for soft areas. He softly wiped blood from her nose and held her against his chest. "Can you go get Lehno and a herbwife?" he asked Molly, who just stood there, staring at him. He repeated his words, and when no actions were forthcoming from the stunned girl he picked up Lessa and sprinted to her mother's shop. Molly was still standing there, dumbfounded.
"Lessa! Oh... My darling daughter what happened to you?" Lehno opened the door to their house, helping Thane to set her down on her bed. She was woozy, but conscious.
"A dog crashed into her and she slipped on the ice," he explained.
"Thank gods you were with her,"
"Actually I only heard her friend scream. I'll probably have to go and collect her now as well. She seemed to be in shock." Lessa struggled to sit up, and her mother lightly pushed her back down.
"Molly's fine Thane." She muttered. "Mama can see to her."
"I am NOT leaving you alone in a room with a strange man!" said Lehno aghast. "People will gossip!"
"People already gossip, Mama," Lessa said softly.
"I'll fetch the herbwife Mistress Tarrismith."
As Thane left, Lehno murmured in his direction as he passed her, "Harm my daughter Snowfall, and I will see to it that you join your brother in the glacier."
Thane froze for a fraction of a second and then said, equally quiet, "I would never dream of it."
"I know who he is Mama," said Lessa, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Then I take it you know how dangerous he is? And the legend?" Lehno carefully tucked a wisp of her daughter's hair behind her ear. Lessa's pupils were dilated, and her voice was quiet. She complained of dizziness.
"No," she admitted. "I DO know that Moll's probably flirting with him at this very moment." Her mother chuckled.
"I doubt he will even notice. When a God spends time with a woman, he barely sees others. He'll protect you with his life Lessa."
"But what if it does cost him his life?"
"Lessa, I have reason to believe that your 'seer' was Old Man Blizzard. There's a reason he told you that Snowfall would return to Blackhearth Keep. You wouldn't know of it, but there's an old tale around here about Snowfall and Frost." She took a deep breath and began to explain. As she spoke, Lessa could see every event unfold, as if she had been there. Not for the first time she wondered if her mother had some of the Word magic. She lost herself in the story.
"Thane and Jack were brothers, and lived with their father in Blackhearth keep. Long before people realised that the three of them were Gods, the village folk regarded them highly, with equal measures of respect and fear. Eventually the two brothers had a disagreement over a woman. Blizzard grew terribly sad and refused to talk to either of them until they had sorted their differences out. A great snowstorm obscured the Keep and the village people crossed themselves and locked their doors, keeping their fires lit. Thane's woman, a pretty girl from the village, known as Linta," her mother smiled. "Yes, your great-great-grandmother. Anyway," she returned to the story. "Linta tried to interfere. She was friends with Frost, but he was jealous of her love for Thane. He held her over the balcony, a sickle of ice pressed to her throat. She wasn't scared, and merely told him she loved Thane and no matter what Frost could say or do would change that. Thane had been barricaded in the Keep's dungeons so that he could not interfere. He ran onto the porch just as Frost sent Linta's body tumbling over the edge. The younger brother was horrified at what he had done and blamed Thane for it. But Thane was in a cold rage, and held his brother over the side by his feet. 'I should end you now, just as you ended our Father and the woman we both loved. I should make you feel pain. I should make you die!' his words, it was said, carried across the valley, filled with a cold hatred. And it is said that the next time Thane takes a woman Frost will be there, and force her to be his, destroying his brother."
"What has this got to do with me?" asked Lessa, sitting up, her concussion and painful head forgotten.
"I think you're the woman who brings Snowfall back to Blackhearth Keep, the same as Old Man Blizzard."
At the very least it gave her something to ponder.
Frost stood in the middle of the square, his icy blue eyes boring into his older brother's sapphire blue-black ones. "You have a woman." He accused.
"I hardly see how that is of a concern to you," snarled Snowfall. "I will not see her dead like before." Frost laughed. It was a harsh sound.
"At least the woman had a child before I threw her to her death, even if the girl was not of either of our seed!" It was meant to provoke his brother, and it worked. Snowfall roared and charged at his brother, his eyes flashing with uncontained fury. His brother dodged and smiled, but the fear was evident on his cold face.
"She looks like her, doesn't she? Brings back… memories!" he ran, icicles forming on the tips of his fingers as he sliced at Snowfall. Blood, thick and red, welled up from the deep scratches on his chest. They burned from the cold. "This one is MINE brother! MINE!" he threw himself at the ground, and melted into the frozen water that dwelled there.
Snowfall knew where he was headed. He ran for the seamstresses' home.
"Out of my way woman!" Lessa yelled, not loudly, but loud enough, as a man with ice blonde hair and frozen blue eyes flung her mother aside. "It's the girl I want." He grabbed her by the throat, and she gripped his wrists as he lifted her out of her bed. "He loves you, but he can't have you!" the man's voice was that of a madman, hysterical, but there was a hint of sly cunning in his crazed eyes.
"Let me go!" choked Lessa, drawing silver blood where her nails dug into his skin. "I have done nothing to you!"
"SILENCE!" roared Frost, backhanding her. "YOU WILL SPEAK WHEN SPOKEN TO BITCH!"
"You're crazy!" she cried, coughing. Her hair had tumbled down out of its pins. Tears stung her eyes at the sight of Lehno lying broken on the floor. Her eyes were open and staring, shocked, they seemed. "No," she said in disgust. "You're a monster. What kind of man strikes down an innocent woman?"
"I am no man. I AM A GOD!" his snarl was so feral, so heinously deranged that Lessa shivered in fear. The sound of a door slamming against its hinges made her look up. Her eyes brightened. "Thane!" she whispered.
"Let her go brother." He had changed; his once normal clothing was a wild black suit of armour, his gauntlets gave off the tangy smell of cold. A heavy cloak fell from his shoulders, raven feathers falling from its lengths to litter the floor. A black crest, made from plates of warped iron, crowned his brow. He was no longer Thane, the stranger who had won her heart. This man was Snowfall, a deadly cold Winter God, whose one goal at this very moment was to wreak vengeance upon his brother.
"Shan't!" said Frost defiantly, like a five year old refusing to hand over the candy he had stolen.
"Let. Her. Go." Snowfall's words fell like a deathblow, each with the heavy finality of the pealing of a mournful bell.
"I won't. If you want her, you know where I'll be. Let us finish this. When the first bolt hits the tower find me at the Pinnacle. Or else Lessa," he crooned her name and ran his lips along her jaw, "Lessa will take a little tumble. And we wouldn't want that now would we, brother?" He cackled, sounding as cold as the harsh frost he commanded. "Say goodbye sweetheart, I don't think you'll see your Snowfall again."
Snowfall stood before the uncaring confines of the Black Gates that led into the depths of Blackhearth Keep, the place in which he and his brother had come of age in, under the watchful eye of his father. "I will avenge you. And I will save you Lessa. I promise." He strode in, his sapphire eyes blazing with rage. He unsheathed his blade, and the Iceward sang at the prospect of the blood it was soon to shed. The sentinels knew him and let him pass, their ancient and weary heads bowed in respect.
Snowfall knew where to walk, where his feet inevitably took him. Memories swamped him, memories of when things had been happy. He wondered when his brother had stopped looking up at him and had delved deeper into the madness tha threatened the minds of the Godborn. He wondered when he had stopped looking out for his little brother. Absently he recalled the forging of the Iceward and the Frostsickle. Frost had demanded that his blade be quenched in human blood. Snowfall had taken his to the great river of ice, the glacier from whence his father came. His booted foot thudded on the first step of the flight of stairs that would take him to the Pinnacle. With a single breath he drew his courage, and wrapped it around him like he did his cloak. His feet found the next step and the next, and in that unending rhythm he made his way towards where this madness had begun, and where it would end.
Frost had forced her into a white shift, making her pretty. "You are my bait my dear. Tradition dictates that you be just as beautiful as your old granny. This was the dress my brother made for her, from ice and snow." He ran his thumb over her bottom lip. "So lovely, so fragile," he mused. "So easy to - BREAK." Lessa gasped as he snapped the bones of her little finger. She closed her eyes. If she was going to die, then she did not want to see the face of her murderer. She felt something hard press against her lower back as she was pushed into the railing that lined the Pinnacle. Frost laughed as he held her over the edge by her ankles. She screamed as she tipped further back. "That's right. SCREAM! SCREAM FOR HIM!"
"No need Frost. I can hear her just fine."
Frost smiled sweetly at his brother and let go.
But a cold hand grasped his wrist. "If I'm going down, I'm taking you with me you bastard," snarled Lessa. Snowfall stood, mouth agape, unable to do anything but stare. His brother's expression went from one of triumph to one of fear as he plummeted over the side.
Free from the curse of stillness, Snowfall ran to the side and clutched at the railing. "NOOO!!!!" he bellowed, and the mountains echoed his cry back to him.
And he heard the sickening thud of a body being dashed to pieces against the stones far, far below.
"Brother…" gasped Frost, staring up at Snowfall with eyes full of fear.
"I'll end it," promised Snowfall, and he plunged the Iceward into his brother's black heart. He strode to Lessa's side and took her hand in his.
"Thane." She murmured, struggling to move her lips to get the words out. He pressed a finger to her lips.
"Sshh..." he told her. "I'm sorry." His breath caught in his throat and he hiccupped.
"Don't be. He was crazy."
Snowfall laughed, but it was a painful sound, devoid of amusement.
"Hold me," she wept, and Snowfall clutched her broken body to his.
"It'll be ok Lessa. It won't hurt soon."
"I know," she said. "I know." Her eyes glazed over, and her body became still. Snowfall wept freely and held her to him, screaming his grief to the cruel heavens above.
A granite cross marked Lessa's headstone. Snowfall, free from his brother, but still trapped within himself stared desolately at her grave. With a soundless yell he plunged the Iceward into the soil beside the grave of his love and departed with these words:
"May only he who can protect her take this sword from its sheath. Only the worthy will wield the Iceward."