White as Frost: A Dark Elf Fairytale
I didn't want to come live in the castle beside the Darkwood, and I especially didn't want to become enemies with my stepsister Neeve. But how could I help it? She has magic, while I'm an ordinary girl. She's the heir to the throne, while I'm an annoying afterthought since my mother married the king. And Neeve has the ability to master her emotions while I'm a red-haired disaster.
She also has Thorne, the handsome guardian of the forest, who tutors her in the powers that are her heritage. Even though I know he could never be mine, I can't keep my heart from dreaming of the impossible.
But everything changes, the day I uncover the secrets the castle has been hiding...
A fantasy fairy-tale weaving elements of Snow White & Rose Red with romance, magic, and dangerous secrets that will destroy a kingdom.
Release date: May 4, 2021
Publisher: Fiddlehead Press
Print pages: 366
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White as Frost: A Dark Elf Fairytale
~ PART ONE ~
When I was thirteen years old, I came to live in the castle beside the Darkwood.
“What a lucky girl you are,” my mother said as the velvet-lined coach jolted down the road. “Not everyone gets to live in a castle and call themselves a princess.”
I wanted neither of those things, and considered myself most unlucky to be torn away from my friends in the bright city of Parnese. They were the closest thing I had to family.
Except for Mama—but I knew better than to expect warmth and sympathy from her. She had always been my mother, of course, yet she’d never seemed terribly interested in fulfilling that role. Despite hazy memories of her affection when I was younger, it had taken me a long while to realize that most other mothers behaved very differently toward their children.
Because there’s something wrong with you.
I slammed the door shut on that insidious voice. For as long as I could remember, it had whispered in my ear—part of me, and yet separate. It encouraged me to disobey, it confirmed my deepest fears, and sometimes it seemed the truest thing in my world.
Most of the time I could ignore it, shove it back into the deepest part of my mind and pretend there was not a wicked little voice living inside me, pushing me to say and do reckless things. The journey made it harder, without my books and companions to divert me. But I did not want to disappoint Mama when I was presented to her new husband. With a sigh, I twined my fingers together.
The inexpertly sewn seam on my left glove caught against my skirts, and I glanced down at it with a grimace. All my left-handed gloves had to be modified to fit my disfigured pinky finger, which was missing the top two joints from a long-ago accident.
We hadn’t the money to hire a seamstress, and so I adapted my gloves myself. Most of the time the clumsy work didn’t bother me overmuch, but now, on the way to meet a king, I felt suddenly self-conscious about my flaw.
Stubby pinky or no, there was little I could do about my maimed finger. I pulled my gaze from my imperfect hand and stared out the window. I hoped we would arrive soon.
The encroaching branches of the evergreens lining the narrow road made the air thick and shadowed, the trees a dark wall unbroken except for the high-banked road cutting through. Every time I looked at the forest, the branches seemed to be moving—beckoning to me with their restless limbs.
“Stop squinting at the scenery, Rosaline, and pay attention,” Mama said, for the hundredth time. “When we arrive at Castle Raine, make sure to stand up straight and greet your new father properly.”
“I won’t call him Papa,” I said stubbornly.
I’d never had a father, and had no interest in acquiring one at this late stage. And even if I did, there was no use in it. If Mama did not love me enough, what hope was there that some strange king would be any different?
“Why must you be so difficult?” Mama brought a perfectly manicured hand up to her cheek and let out a sigh. “Very well. You may call him Lord Raine.”
I gave her a grudging nod. Growing up on the outskirts of the court in Parnese, I understood that protocol must be followed. Even though Mama was the old queen’s distant cousin, she was only allowed to address the dowager as “Your Highness,” which I thought rather stuffy. Then again, the rules of the adult world often seemed foolish to me.
The closer we came to the castle, the more Mama chattered on, her voice full of nervous faux-cheer.
“You must be kind to his daughter, as well. You’re of an age, so I expect you to become fast friends. Despite the tales…” She trailed off, but now my attention was caught.
“What tales?” This was the first I’d heard that anything in our new life might be out of the ordinary. Despite myself, my interest was piqued.
From the moment Mama had announced that she’d wed the King of Raine and we would be following him across the Outer Strait to dwell with him in his castle, I’d resolved to enjoy no part of it.
The sea crossing had not been so bad, though, especially when a trio of dolphins leaped and played in the sailing ship’s wake. Unlike Mama, I was not confined to the cabin by seasickness. I explored the ship, managing not to fall overboard or become tangled in the ropes scattered about the deck.
On the second day, the coast of Raine appeared, black against the horizon. I hung on the rails and watched, unwillingly eager for a first glimpse of my new home.
What I saw did not look promising. We were headed for a tiny harbor flanked by stark cliffs streaked with white. Lonely seabirds cried and wheeled in the gray, misty air. The only spot of color was a yellow coach awaiting our arrival. After debarking from the ship, we were whisked into the vehicle so quickly I only caught a glimpse of the surroundings: stone buildings, wet thatch, and dour-faced people garbed in homespun cloth.
The Kingdom of Raine was altogether unpromising—except for this new bit of information Mama had just let slip. Was there a child as wayward as myself living in the castle? I leaned forward on the plush seat and asked again.
“What tales of his daughter, Mama? Please tell me.”
My mother bit her lip, a shadow of worry crossing her face. “Promise me you won’t be afraid of her. The two of you are to be sisters, after all.”
Behind my stubborn resolve to dislike Raine and everyone in it, I could not help a glimmer of hope that the king’s daughter and I would become friends. If I must leave my companions behind, perhaps a new one waited for me in Raine. And I had no fear that Mama would come to love that other girl better than me. My mother always loved herself best of all.
“What’s so bad about the princess?” I asked. “Does she set things on fire, or misbehave, or torment the servants?”
“There are stories.” Mama looked out the window, as if she did not want to see my face as she spoke. “Some say an ancient, terrible magic lurks in her eyes.”
Magic. The one thing in the world that could transform an ordinary girl into someone special. Someone worthy of being loved. I shivered, my left pinky throbbing slightly. The trees leaned over the road, listening.
“What magic?” I asked softly. “Is there actual, true sorcery in Raine?”
The question stretched out, a thin silver strand looping around and around me until I felt encased in its web. Then it began to squeeze, and I gasped as the air left my lungs.
“Mama!” I cried, though it came out more as a wheeze. “I can’t breathe.”
Her eyes wide with alarm, my mother shrieked at the driver to stop the coach. Dizzily, I slid off the seat and crumpled to the floor. From this vantage point, my cheek resting on the rough carpet, I absently noticed its pattern: an interlocking design of green and black ferns.
“Help her,” Mama commanded when the coachman opened the door. “My daughter has fainted.”
I wanted to argue that this was far more than a simple faint, but I couldn’t find the breath to form words.
“Yes, mistress,” the man said. “We must bring her outside, where there’s more air.”
He hoisted me up like a sack of onions and deposited me on the embankment beside the road. Which was also carpeted with ferns, though these ones danced faintly in the breeze.
It occurred to me, in a distant, drowning way, that I was dying. I was sorry that I’d never see my friends again. And I was sorry that I would never meet the mysterious girl who lived in Castle Raine.
My eyelids fluttered shut.
Between one heartbeat and the next, there was a great roaring and rustle of leaves. I managed to open my eyes in time to see a huge, hairy beast leap over me. Its muzzle was flecked with spittle, and its long claws dug into the earth right beside my head. Dirt sprayed, stinging my cheek and landing on my lips.
The bear—for that was what the huge animal was—turned its head and regarded me from its dark, amber-flecked eye. The musky smell of earth and blood whispered in the air. My heart thundered, either with its last beating, or its first.
The soft fur of the creature’s underbelly brushed my outstretched arm. Strangely unafraid, I waited for it to open its jaws and devour me. I was dimly aware of my mother wailing in terror, of the coachman’s shouts.
The bear’s face came closer to mine, and closer, until its wet nose touched my cheek. I was too amazed to be scared—or maybe my mind was already numb, falling into the shadows. Then the bear gathered itself. As quickly as it had appeared, it leaped away, back into the dark forest.
For a long moment, everything was utterly still. Even the branches stopped their ceaseless gesturing.
The world ticked into motion once more. I drew in a deep, ragged breath, inhaling the rank smell of the bear still hanging in the air. The air burned my lungs, which had nearly forgotten how to breathe. With the back of one shaky hand, I wiped the trace of dampness from my cheek. Above me, the trees seemed to whisper among themselves.
“Heavens.” Mama sank down into the crushed bracken at my side, her face pale beneath her powder. “How very dreadful. First you faint, and then that creature nearly mauls you. I am thankful beyond words that he was frightened off.”
She drew a violet-scented fan from her reticule and began to wave it, alternating between wafting air at my face and her own. The vigorousness of her movement was the only outward sign of her agitation. The last trace of bear was overwhelmed with the cloying smell of violets. So quickly was our sudden adventure erased.
As usual, my own perception of events was quite different from my mother’s. In retrospect, it seemed clear that the bear had broken the strange spell intent on suffocating me.
How or why it had known to do such a thing was a mystery—but I was quickly coming to suspect that Raine was full of such mysteries.
The bear, I was quite certain, had saved my life. I was not comfortable owing such a debt to a wild creature of the woods, as it did not seem like a thing I could ever repay. But perhaps such things didn’t matter to bears. Even magical ones.
“We’d best keep moving,” the coachman said, casting a nervous look at the shadows beneath the trees.
“Of course.” Mama waited for him to offer his hand, then took it and stepped daintily up into the coach.
I stood and brushed crushed ferns from my skirt, then climbed awkwardly into the vehicle. My breath still came a bit short as I settled onto the seat.
Right before the door closed, I leaned forward, searching the forest for a large, dark shape. Nothing moved in the maze of evergreens, but I could not dispel the sensation that I was being watched.
Had I truly almost died? Already the sharp, panicked memory was receding, blunting, until it seemed that perhaps I’d only grown short of breath, after all. My left hand ached.
I was still trying to sort out what had happened an hour later, when the coach wheels clattered over cobblestones. The shadow of an iron-spiked portcullis fell over the road. We drove beneath it, past thick stone walls reaching high to either side, and at last arrived in the courtyard entry of Castle Raine.
The coach came to a halt before Castle Raine’s front steps, which were flanked by ivy-covered stone walls beneath the pewter sky. My skirt was still marked with green smears from the crushed ferns, and I hoped the king wouldn’t notice. Mama had said nothing for the remainder of the journey, only worried at her handkerchief and spent the time glancing between me and the endless forest outside.
As soon as the coachman opened the door, I jumped from my seat and down from the coach, which was overfull of my mother’s fretful, unsaid words.
Feet planted on the blue-gray cobblestones, I took a deep breath. The air smelled of horses and damp and wood smoke. My gaze went to the man and girl waiting at the top of the dozen hewn stone steps leading to an impressive arched entryway. The two of them seemed to tower above me, the castle rising steeply at their backs as if to say keep out.
The man—the king, judging by the gold circlet on his brow and his cloak of rich blue velvet—gave me a quick nod. His stern eyes were set in a face that seemed chiseled from stone, and I was glad his attention didn’t linger on me. After that brief glance, he focused on the door of the coach, where Mama had yet to emerge.
His daughter, however, looked right at me, her stare so dark and intense I felt it down to the soles of my feet.
We were too far away for me to determine if strange magic lurked in her eyes, but even without that knowledge, I had to admit she was a trifle alarming. Not just in the fierceness of her gaze, but in her entire demeanor. Her skin held a strange pallor, so white it looked as though she’d used a whole tin of rice powder on her cheeks—but her paleness was natural, not artificial.
In contrast, her lips were shockingly red, a deep scarlet as though smeared with fresh blood. For a moment I wondered if she’d been eating pomegranate seeds. But no, this color, too, was a natural part of her.
Her long hair, the deep black of a raven’s wing, was pulled back from her face. In addition to her strange coloring, she had high cheekbones and slightly tilted eyes. I could not tell if she was pretty, or hideous, or merely the strangest girl I had ever seen.
“Tobin!” my mother cried as she stepped out of the coach.
Lifting her skirts, she rushed up the steps in a froth of lace and lavender silk. I followed, far less gracefully.
“Welcome, my dear,” the king said.
He opened his arms and let Mama throw herself into his embrace. I glanced to one side. It was uncomfortable to see my mother being affectionate with a man. She kissed him upon the lips, then drew back, turning to the girl at the king’s side.
“And this is your daughter, Neeve?” Mama asked.
“Yes,” the king said.
“What a pretty thing you are,” my mother said, her voice ringing false to my ears. “I am so delighted to join your family. I’ve brought you a sister. Come, Rose.” She beckoned me to join her at the top of the stairs.
“I don’t want a pretend mother. Or a false sister.” The girl’s voice was cold as ice, and I hesitated, one foot on the top flagstone.
This princess seemed free to voice the kinds of thoughts I’d always worked hard to keep to myself. I didn’t know if I admired or hated her for it.
“Neeve.” Her father’s voice was cold. “We have spoken of this.”
Resentment flashed across her face, but she bowed her head, as if in agreement. I could see the gleam of her eyes, though, and there was nothing dutiful in their expression.
“This is Rosaline,” my mother said, hauling me up to stand before her.
“Lord Raine.” I gave him my best court curtsey, only wobbling a tiny bit. “Miss Neeve.”
I curtseyed to her, too, but she seemed to take no notice, and certainly didn’t return the favor. Either we would become friends, or the bitterest of enemies.
I hoped it would be the former, and resolved to do what I could to win this strange princess over. Life trapped in this dreary castle was going to be hard enough as it was.
Lord Raine gave me a tight smile, then held his arm out to my mother. “Come. Your rooms are ready. I’ll have the servants bring your things and help you settle in.”
“That would be lovely. Let me tell you about our journey…” My mother launched into a stream of inconsequential chatter, and Neeve and I fell into step behind them.
The great iron-bound doors of the castle swung open, like a beast parting its jaws, and I couldn’t help but shiver as we passed over the threshold. It was no warmer inside the stone walls than it had been outside in the mist-laden air. Our footsteps echoed through the great hall.
Empty fireplaces stood on either side of the long room, and the walls were draped with dark tapestries full of figures clashing in scenes I couldn’t quite make out. Neeve walked like a shadow beside me. In the dimness of the room, her dark cloak and hair made it seem as though her face was floating in midair, a disembodied specter of a girl.
“We’ll need more candles in here,” my mother said. “Is it always so chilly in the summer?”
“I do not spend much time in the great hall,” Lord Raine replied. “But you may do as you see fit. You are now the lady of the castle.”
Neeve let out an annoyed huff, and I slanted a quick, sideways glance at her. Two spots of color stood on her cheeks, as bright as if they’d been painted there. I found this evidence of emotion reassuring. She was, indeed, made of flesh and blood and not a ghost girl.
Not that I’d really thought so, although according to Mama my imagination was ever my downfall. It seemed our mysterious new home would give me ample opportunity to exercise it. There are secrets here, the voice inside me whispered. You must discover everything you can.
Lord Raine led us up a wide, curving staircase. The treads were worn in the middle with shallow depressions, and I wondered how many pairs of feet had trodden up and down over the centuries. I had not thought the castle would be so old. In truth, I had not really thought about the castle at all, and Mama had been no help.
Two months ago, she’d swept into the airy parlor of our apartments in Parnese and announced that she’d just married a king. Despite my abundance of questions, she would say little about him, or the country we would be going to, or even her reasons for marrying him.
“Darling, isn’t it wonderful?” she’d said. “Now go and think about what gowns you want to bring with you. I’m told the weather in Raine is cooler than here, so plan accordingly.”
Always annoyingly vague, Mama had outdone herself this time. Though perhaps she’d known little more than I about the kingdom we were about to call home. After several evasions, I’d stopped questioning aloud, though the need for answers still gnawed at me.
Now that we were here, perhaps I’d finally learn why. My mother was impulsive and self-serving, but marrying a king and whisking us off to the far corner of the map was a bit extreme, even for her.
Lord Raine led us down a chilly hallway. Oil sconces lining the walls cast flickering shadows, and my heart beat fast, half with fear, half with excitement. I snuck another glance at Neeve pacing beside me, but her pale face was unreadable. The notion that we might be friends shriveled a little more, but I was determined to try.
“Here are your rooms, Arabelle,” the king said, halting before a wooden door carved with stags. “I hope you find them comfortable.”
“Of course I will.” Mama opened the door.
I peered around her to see a small parlor with a fire crackling on the hearth. The bedroom lay beyond, a huge four-poster bed hung with tapestries visible through the half-open door. A hulking wardrobe on the far wall was framed by windows that looked out upon gray skies and dark evergreens.
I wondered if there was anything but trees in the whole kingdom.
The king turned to his daughter.
“Take Rosaline to the east wing,” he said.
“I’m not to be near Mama?” I asked, suddenly bereft.
I’d not fully considered what it meant, now that my mother was married. I was no longer a priority in her life—not that she’d ever treated me as much of one, leaving me mostly to my own devices. But still, my rooms had always adjoined hers, and I was not yet so grown that I welcomed her absence. She had ever been there for me, in her own distant way.
This, though, I had not foreseen.
“Now, now.” Mama patted my shoulder. “It’s time for you to be more independent, Rose. Follow Neeve, and I’ll see you at dinner.”
More independent? I scowled at my mother. More abandoned, it felt like.
Seeing my face, Mama relented slightly. She bent and laid a perfumed kiss on my cheek. “I’ll come and visit your rooms this evening, shall I? You can show me everything.”
I gave her a short nod, then turned on my heel and trudged to where Neeve was waiting. Without a word, she led me around the corner. We traversed two more long corridors before she finally halted in front of a door carved with twining roses.
“Here,” she said, then turned away.
“Wait.” I caught her sleeve, not wanting to be alone. “Are your rooms nearby?”
Her dark gaze met mine, the nearby sconce pricking twin flames in her eyes.
“Two doors down,” she finally said, grudging me the information.
I let go of her and she stepped out of reach, still regarding me.
“Why don’t you come in?” I turned the wrought-iron handle.
“I’ve seen them,” she said, her voice cool. “I’m acquainted with every room in the castle.”
“Then you could be my guide.” I gave her a tentative smile, which was not returned. “At least show me a few things. Is there a water closet nearby, a bathing room? What do I need to know?”
She let out a wintry sigh. “Very well.”
I felt like I’d won a small victory. Befriending Neeve seemed a daunting task—and a worthy enough one to quiet my wicked voice. Besides, I hadn’t seen any other alternative to utter loneliness. But perhaps the castle servants had children—provided my new status allowed me to make their acquaintance.
I’d always had playmates and confidantes, met while running about in the park or splashing in the lazy bend of the river. It was a simple thing for me to make friends, and I loved my companions dearly, especially laughing Paulette and clever Marco. We’d wept bitter tears when we parted, and I promised to return as soon as I came of age and could direct my own future.
Run away, my little voice had suggested. Stay in Parnese and let your mother go to Raine without you.
Had I been few years older, I might have done that very thing—but she was still my family, and I’d seen what had happened to orphans on the street. It was not a good life.
With Neeve at my shoulder, I pushed the door open to see my new accommodations.
Like my mother’s rooms, my suite consisted of a sitting area and a bedroom beyond. A coal fire smoldered in the hearth in the front room, which also held two chairs, a small table, a writing desk, and an empty set of shelves, presumably waiting for me to put my things upon them.
True to the carvings on the door, the rooms inside were decorated with a rose theme. Someone had no doubt thought it amusing to put me in this suite, but I didn’t mind—especially as the flower motif wasn’t overly fussy. Indeed, I doubted anything in Castle Raine could be frivolous. The weight of the stones would smother anything too gaudy, and the cool, musty air would do the rest.
“This is pleasant,” I said, filling the silence. It was plain that Neeve wasn’t going to say much of anything. “I like the green carpet, especially. Let’s go see the bedroom.”
I pushed open the connecting door, glad to find several large windows along the far wall. The lack of light in the corridors made me uncomfortable.
A four-poster bed, smaller than the one in Mama’s rooms, dominated one side of the bedroom. Dusky pink curtains were drawn back, revealing snowy linens and a duvet covered with a pattern of embroidered leaves. At the foot of the bed stood a large wooden chest, and to the side was a table holding a washbasin and pitcher. Across the room, a wardrobe took up most of the far wall. The mirror in the door gave back a wavery reflection of two girls—one pale-faced and inky-haired with a red slash of a mouth, the other with sun-bronzed skin and kinky red-gold hair whose lips seemed the palest rose in comparison.
“We’re the same height,” I observed, pleased at the notion.
Neeve’s eye’s narrowed. “We have nothing in common. Don’t make the mistake of thinking so, etrannach.”
“Don’t call me names.” I swung about to face her, hands fisted on my hips. “Take it back, whatever you said.”
She blinked at me, a flash of surprise crossing her face. Likely she was unused to being challenged—but I refused to simply stand there and let her call me something filthy.
“It only means foreigner.” Her tone was less sharp, and I guessed it was as close to an apology as I would get.
“Still.” I unclenched my hands and smoothed my skirts. “I’m to live here now.”
“Yes.” She did not sound glad of the fact.
Her gaze went to my left hand, and I belatedly realized I’d just revealed my flaw.
“What’s wrong with your finger?” she asked. Yet another demonstration that she wasn’t overly concerned with politeness.
In a way, her candor was refreshing. If she didn’t want to pretend to ignore my too-short finger, then I wouldn’t have to try to conceal it. I stripped off my gloves and held out my left hand for her inspection.
“I’m missing parts of it.” I wiggled my pinky at her.
She looked at the stub, her expression as still as glass. “Were you born that way?”
“No. When I was seven, there was an accident.”
I pressed my lips together. “I don’t remember, and Mama won’t talk about it. But it doesn’t matter. I can still use my hand without any problems.”
The arrival of two servants carrying my trunks interrupted our conversation. As I directed them to set the luggage beside the wardrobe, Neeve took the opportunity to sidle to the door.
“I’ll show you to the dining room when it’s time for dinner,” she said.
Without waiting for a reply, she was gone. I tried not to let her abrupt departure bother me.
“Sorche will be up soon to help you unpack,” one of the servants said.
“I don’t know who that is,” I said forlornly.
The man straightened and gave me a look of rough sympathy. “She’s to be your maid. Don’t fret, youngling. She’s a kind girl, if a bit untried.”
I’d never had a maid. Even if this one wasn’t very skilled, at least she would be someone to talk to.
“Thank you.” I nodded at the servant.
With a quick bow, he and the other man left. They gently shut the door behind them, and I was alone. How I yearned for my friends. Instead I was stuck in a set of rooms far away from Mama, my only prospect for a companion a strange, sharp-edged girl who didn’t seem to like me at all.
With a heavy heart, I went to the window and perched on the window seat, cushioned in green velvet. At least I had a view of the sky and forest. I leaned my forehead against the cool glass and sighed. My breath made a mist, blurring the scene outside.
Something moved in the deep shadows, and I sat up, scrubbing the glass clear with my sleeve. Had that been the outline of an animal skulking through the woods, or a cloaked figure?
Heart thumping in my chest, I scanned the evergreens and ferny underbrush. Small white flowers starred the mosses, and I noticed that the forest stopped several yards from the castle walls, as if something invisible kept it at bay.
For several long minutes I stared at the Darkwood, but nothing else stirred except the restless wind in the branches.
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