Seventeen-year-old Smitha's wealth, status, and beauty make her the envy of her town—until she rejects a strange man’s marriage proposal and disastrous consequences follow. Smitha becomes cursed, and frost begins to encompass everything she touches. Banished to the hills, hunted by villagers, and chilled to the very core of her soul, she finds companionship with Death, who longs to coax her into his isolated world. But Smitha's desire for life proves stronger than despair, and a newfound purpose gives her hope. Will regrets over the past and an unexpected desire for a man she cannot touch be enough to warm Smitha’s heart, or will Death forever still it?
Release date: September 22, 2015
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Print pages: 256
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Followed by Frost
Charlie N Holmberg
I have know cold.
I have known the cold that freezes to the bones, to the spirit itself. The cold that stills the heart and crystallizes the blood. The kind of cold that even fire fears, that can turn a woman to glass.
I have seen Death.
The cold lured him to me. I saw him near my home, his dark hair rippling over one shoulder like thick forest smoke as he stooped over the bed of the quarryman’s only son. I saw his amber eyes as he tilted the rim of his wide-brimmed hat to greet me. I saw him kneel in the snow before me with his arms wide and heard him whisper, “Come with me.”
I have known cold, the chills with which even the deepest winters cannot compare. I have lived it, breathed it, and lost by it. I have known cold, for it dwelled in the deepest hollows of my soul.
And the day I broke Mordan’s heart, it devoured me.
The first bite of honey taffy melted in my mouth. I savored its sweetness, spiced lightly with cinnamon imported from the Southlands beyond Zareed—strange, savage lands with strange people and stranger customs, but nothing in the Northlands could compare to their intense, exotic spices. Merchants only delivered the candies in the early spring, and their first shipment had arrived that morning. Together, Ashlen and I had bought nearly half a case. My satchel bulged with paper-wrapped taffies to the point where I had to switch the strap from shoulder to shoulder every quarter mile, the bag weighed on me so.
“My pa will be so angry if he finds out!” Ashlen laughed, covering her mouth to hide half-chewed taffy. Her plain, mouse-brown hair bobbed about her shoulders as she spoke. “I’m supposed to be saving for that writing desk.”
“This is a once-, maybe twice-a-year opportunity,” I insisted, resting my hand on the satchel. “We could hardly let it pass us by.” I didn’t tell her that I had more than enough in my allowance to cover her share. If Ashlen needed a writing desk, her father could put in more hours at the mill.
Ashlen unwrapped another candy. “I could die eating these.”
I poked her in the stomach. “And you would die fat, too!”
We laughed, and I hooked my arm through hers as we followed the dirt path ahead of us. It wound from the mercantile on the west edge of Euwan, past the mill and my father’s turnery, clear to Heaven’s Tear—the great crystal lake that hugged the town’s east side, and the only thing that put us on Iyoden’s map.
My world was so small then. Euwan was an ordinary town full of ordinary people, and I believed myself an oyster pearl among them. But I was about to spark a chain of events that would shatter the perfectly ordinary shell I lived in—events that would undoubtedly change my life, in its entirety, forever.
My father’s turnery came into view, the tar between its shingles glimmering in the afternoon sun. At two stories, it was the second largest building in Euwan, though still the most impressive, in my opinion. The sounds of saws and sandpaper echoed from beyond its door, left open to encourage a breeze. My father had been a wainwright for some twenty years, and his wagons were the sturdiest and most reliable that could be found anywhere within two days’ distance, and likely even farther. For a moment I considered saying hello, but spying my father’s single employee outside, I instantly thought better of it.
Mordan was bent over a barrel of water, washing sawdust from his face and hands. Unlike most, Mordan hadn’t been raised in Euwan—he had merely walked in during fall harvest, on foot, carrying a filthy cloth bag of his immediate necessities. His sudden appearance had been the talk of the town for weeks, making him something of an outcast. Much to my dismay, my father was a charitable sort, and he hadn’t hesitated to hire the newcomer. The community mostly accepted him after that.
Mordan, twenty-five years in age, was a slender man, though broad in the shoulders, with sandy hair that wavered somewhere between chestnut and wheat. He had a narrow, almost feminine face, with a long nose and pale blue eyes. I didn’t notice much about him beyond that. At that time I only noticed that he existed and that he was a problem. I quickly stepped to Ashlen’s other side, using her body as a shield.
“What?” she asked.
“Shh! Talk to me,” I said, quickening my pace. I kept my head down, letting my blond hair act as a curtain between myself and the turnery. It was natural for a man to take notice of his employer’s family, perhaps, but Mordan’s interests toward me had grown more ardent over the last year, to the point where I could hardly stand on the same side of town as him without some attempt at conversation on his part. Even my blatant regard for other boys in his presence—whether real or feigned—hadn’t discouraged him.
I thought I had escaped unseen when he called out my name, his chin still dripping with water: “Smitha!”
My stomach soured. I pretended not to hear and jerked Ashlen forward when she started to turn her head, but Mordan persisted in his calls. Begrudgingly I slowed my walk and glanced back at him, but I didn’t offer a smile.
He wiped himself with a towel, which he tucked into the back pocket of his slacks, and jogged toward us.
“I’m surprised to see you out so late,” he said, nodding to Ashlen. “I thought school ended at the fifteenth hour.”
“Yes, but lessons cease at age sixteen,” I said. Only a dunce wouldn’t know that. “I finished last year. I only go now to pursue my personal endeavors and to tutor Ashlen.” My personal endeavors included theatre and the study of language, the latter of which I found fascinating, especially older tongues. I planned to use my knowledge to become a playwright, translating ancient tales and peculiar Southlander fables into performances that would charm the most elite of audiences. My tutoring of Ashlen was more a chance for chatter and games than actual studying, but so long as she pulled passing grades, none would be the wiser.
“Of course.” Mordan nodded with a smile. “You’re at that age now.”
There was a glint in his eye that made me recoil. That age? I struggled to mask my reaction. Surely he didn’t mean engagement. As far as Mordan was concerned, I would never be that age.
Glancing nervously to Ashlen, Mordan continued, “I’ve been meaning to talk—”
“In fact,” I blurted out, “Ashlen is being tested on geography tomorrow morning, and I promised I’d help her study before dinner. Her family eats especially early, so if you’ll excuse us . . .”
Ashlen had a dumbfounded look on her face, but I tugged her along before she could question me in front of him. “Good evening to you,” I called. Mordan quickly returned the sentiment, and he may have even waved, but I didn’t look back over my shoulder until the next bend in the road hid the turnery from sight.
“You’re loony!” Ashlen exclaimed, pulling her arm free from mine. A grin spread on her face before her mouth formed a large O. “Goodness, Smitha, don’t tell me Mordan is still at it.”
“Absurd, isn’t it?” I rolled my eyes and switched my candy-laden bag to my other shoulder. “He has to be the most stubborn man I’ve ever met.”
“Maybe you should give him a chance, if he’s trying so hard.”
“Absolutely not. He’s too ridiculous.”
She merely shrugged. “People can change for those they care about.”
“Ha!” I snorted. “People don’t change; they are what they are. Did you know he actually pressed the first blooms of spring and left them on my doorstep? He would have given them to me in person, but I didn’t answer the door when I saw it was him. No one else was home.”
“How do you know they were the first blooms?”
“Because he told me. In a poem. And Ashlen, the man is as slow as he looks. It was the most wretched thing I’ve ever read in my life, and that includes Mrs. Thornes’s lecture notes on the water cycle!”
“Oh, Smitha,” she said, touching her lips. “How harsh. He seems nice enough.”
“But not so nice to look at,” I quipped before glancing at the sun. “I’d best head home before Mother throws a fit. I’ll see you tomorrow. Don’t eat all your candies tonight; I won’t share mine!”
Ashlen stuck out her tongue at me and trotted off the road into the wild grass. Her home lay over the hill, and that was the fastest way to reach it.
She grinned back at me as she went and waved a hand, her fingers fluttering the words Don’t get fat over her shoulder. The signs were part of the handtalk I had invented at fourteen, when I first learned of a silent language that had once been spoken in the Aluna Islands in the far north, beyond the lands where wizards were said to dwell. That would not be the last time Ashlen spoke to me in our secret signs, but it would be the last time she looked at me with any semblance of a smile.
My family lived in a modest home, though large by Euwan standards. My little sister, Marrine, and I had our own bedrooms. After bidding Ashlen farewell, I retired to my room and stashed my share of the honey taffies in the back of my bottom dresser drawer, where I hoped Marrine wouldn’t find them if she came snooping, which she often did. My sister begged for punishment, and I had a variety of penalties waiting for her if she crossed me.
A small oval mirror sat atop my dresser, and I studied myself in it, appreciating the rosiness my walk had put in my cheeks. I retrieved my boar-bristle hairbrush and ran it through my waist-long hair several times from root to tip. I knew I was pretty, with a heart-shaped face free of blemishes, a small nose, and big green eyes. The doctor himself had told me they were big, and I had learned batting them just so often helped persuade the boys—and often grown men—in town to see things my way.
At seventy-six of one hundred strokes I heard my mother’s voice in the hallway.
“Smitha! Could you fetch some firewood?”
I groaned in my throat. I wasn’t the one who had dwindled the supply, and the last thing I wanted to do was dirty my dress gathering firewood. I cringe to remember my behavior then, but it is part of the story, and so I will tell it honestly.
Hearing Mother’s steps, I set down my brush and crouched against the side of my dresser. The door opened. I held my breath. Mother sighed before closing it and retreating.
I smiled to myself and picked up my hairbrush to finish my one hundred strokes. After taking a moment to admire my reflection, I braided my hair loosely over my shoulder, savored one more honey taffy, and quietly stepped into the hall.
My mother didn’t notice me until I reached our kitchen, large given that we were a family of only four. My mother, still in good years, spooned drippings over the large breasts of a pheasant in the oven. It was from her that I got my blond hair, though I hoped my hips wouldn’t grow so wide. Across the room, a pot boiled on the hearth. Someone else had fetched the firewood, I noticed.
Straightening, Mother wiped her forehead and glanced at me. “I called for you.”
“Oh,” I said, fingering my braid, “I was at the latrine. Sorry.”
Mother rolled her eyes and turned to a bowl of cornbread batter on the counter. “Well, you’re here now, so would you wash and butter that pan for me?” She jerked her head toward a square pan resting beside the washbasin.
Frowning, and knowing I didn’t have an excuse, I dragged my feet to the icebox for the butter.
After the cornbread baked, the pheasant browned, and I had grudgingly mashed the potatoes from the cook pot, I stepped out of the kitchen to cool off. I had not yet reached my room when I heard the front door open and my father exclaim, “Smells good! Room for one more?”
“Always.” I could hear my mother’s smile. “It’s good to see you, Mordan. How was work?”
Cursing to myself, I hurried down the hall, almost crashing into Marrine. With her plain brown hair pulled into a messy ponytail, her narrow-set eyes, and a cleft to her chin, I was obviously the better-looking sister, so much so that a stranger would never guess that Marrine and I were related.
“Where are you going?” she asked. “Is Pa home?”
“Shh!” I hissed at her, but rather than explain, I ducked into my room and shut the door. I rushed to my window and opened the pane, wincing at how boldly it creaked. Ashlen would be more than happy to have me for dinner, and with an extra mouth in the kitchen, surely my parents wouldn’t miss me.
This was not the first time Mordan had come to eat, of course, but I had a bad feeling about it. He was getting bolder in his attentions. Besides, the best way to tell a man he had less chance with you than a fair hog was to ignore him so completely that even he forgot he existed.
Balling my skirt between my legs, I lifted myself over the sill and dropped a few feet to the ground below. I had only made it halfway across the yard when I heard my name called out from behind me. Mordan’s voice raked over my bones like the teeth of a dull plow.
He walked toward me, waving a hand. Why had he stepped outside now? Perhaps he needed to use the latrine, or he might have spied me in my escape. Regardless, I had been caught, and no amount of talking would see me to Ashlen’s house now without sure embarrassment.
I released my hair. “Oh, Mordan, I didn’t notice you.”
He stopped about four paces ahead of me. “Your father graciously invited me over to dinner.”
“Is it time already?”
He nodded, then suddenly became bashful, staring at the ground and slouching in the shoulders. “I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you, but I haven’t gotten the chance.”
My belly clenched. “Oh?”
“But . . .” He hesitated, scanning the yard. “Not here. And I’ve got a delivery in about an hour . . . Smitha, would you mind meeting me? The dock, around sunset?”
His eyes finally found mine, hopeful as a child’s.
At that moment I truly appreciated my study of theatre, for I know I masked my horror perfectly. For Mordan to want to speak to me alone—and at so intimate a spot!—could only mean one thing: his interest in me had come to a head, and no amount of feigned ignorance would dissuade him.
Mordan wanted to marry me. I almost retched on his shoes at the prospect.
“All right,” I lied, and a mixture of relief and warmth spread over his delicate features.
Before he could say more, I touched his arm and added, “We’d best hurry, or dinner will be served cold!”
I walked past him, but he caught up quickly, staying by my side until we sat at the table, where I had the forethought to wedge Marrine between us. I remained silent as my father told our family, in great detail, of the work he had done that day. While not one for exaggeration, my father always told every last corner of a story, explaining even mundane things so accurately that I often felt I wore his eyes. Tonight, however, halfway through his tale of broken spokes, he interrupted himself for gossip—something for which he rarely spared a moment’s thought.
“Magler said there’s a fire up north, near Trent,” he said, carefully wiping gravy from his lips before it could drizzle into his thick, brown beard. “Already burned through two silos and a horse run.”
“A fire?” asked Mother. “It’s too early in the year for that. Did they have a dry winter?”
“Rumor says it was the craft.”
That interested me. “Wizards? Really?”
“Chard, Smitha, I’ll not take that talk in here,” Mother said.
Let me take a moment to say that wizards were unseen in these parts, and supposedly rare even in the Unclaimed Lands far north, where they trained in magics beyond even my imagination, and none of them for good. A traveling bard once whispered that they have an academy there, though to this day I’m not sure where. I certainly never thought I’d one day search for it myself.
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