Greir was never one to wear or even appreciate jewelry, but the amulet the old merchant handed her looked fine enough to sell for a good sum in the next town—at least for enough to cover the discrepancy between the listed reward and what she received for capturing the vandals that had damaged many of the buildings in the village square.
"It really is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship," the merchant agreed, "but I think you'll find it much more useful than a handful of gold."
Greir dangled the amulet from its chain and narrowed her eyes. "So, it's essentially worthless?"
"Oh no, no! Quite the opposite, in fact. It's invaluable."
"How so? It's just a shiny rock."
The merchant shook his head and clicked his tongue, evidently disappointed in Greir's lack of geologic knowledge. "That's not just any rock; it's winterstone, harvested from deep in the mountains, polished to a glow, its powers activated by one of the best wizards in the area."
"Indeed! This amulet will protect its wearer from the cold. You'll not feel the bite of the winter winds, nor the burn of ice. Wear it, and you'll never worry about freezing again, guaranteed."
"That's a bold claim. And if it doesn't work?"
"Nonsense! It's one hundred percent effective. We've sold dozens—no, hundreds —of these amulets, and not one customer has returned to complain."
"Maybe they froze to death."
The color drained from the merchant's face, and Greir smirked. She let an uncomfortable silence grow between them, the amulet twirling at the end of the chain, then pulled her strike-a-light from her satchel with her other hand and slammed it down on the counter. The merchant jumped.
"I'll give it a try," she said. "I'll be back in the spring. If I survive winter with all ten fingers and all ten toes, I'll concede your claim. If not, well..." She tapped the strike-a-light. "You'd best hope you have the rest of my money by then."
The merchant swallowed hard. "Won't need it," he said with a strained smile. "That amulet's worth more than its weight in gold."
Greir slipped the amulet around her neck, collected her strike-a-light, and stalked out of the store and village without another word. She stopped about a mile down the road to check her map and looked up at the mountain range rising from the horizon, about a two-day trek from where she was. Though she'd never admit it to the merchant, or even to herself, if the amulet worked as described, it was the best stroke of luck she'd had in a while. Her next destination was the peak of one of those mountains, and the icy castle there, to revisit an acquaintance, of sorts, and reclaim something she'd left behind months before.
Holding the amulet in her palm, she saw streaks of blue deep within the stone shimmering and swirling in the sunlight. "You'd better do your job," she muttered, then tucked it inside her tunic, adjusted her rucksack, and began walking toward the mountains.
The amulet did its job, admirably, during the climb up the mountain. The winds that had lashed Greir's face during her first ascent were now comparable to mild spring breezes, and the snow around her ankles was more nuisance than misery. She'd strode straight through the town at the base of the mountain, ignoring the stares and whispers of recognition, and she couldn't help but smile when those whispers turned to incredulity as she set off on the trail without so much as wrapping her cloak around her body.
Perhaps they thought she'd become some kind of goddess, that her communion with the Snow Queen had conferred powers unto her. Let them think that; they might come to revere her as one. Which in turn—she chuckled—could become quite profitable.
She'd forgotten how imposing the Snow Queen's attendants were, and when a hulking, hairy creature answered the door, she tensed for a moment, and absently reached for her sword. She forced her hand to still and watched the creature frown down at her, blink twice, then break into a large grin.
"It's you," the creature boomed, taking her hand and shaking it roughly.
"Uh, yeah." Greir pulled her hand back and rubbed her shoulder. "I stopped by because I—"
"Oh, her majesty will be so pleased to see you!" The attendant took her by the other hand and led her into the castle as she stumbled to keep up with their long stride. "She talks of you often, and wonders where you are."
"Here and there. Really, I just came back for—"
"It is a bit early for her to resume her sleep, but I'm sure the two of you can find more to do in the meantime. She has so many questions, and wishes to know so much. Ah, here we are!" The attendant stopped abruptly in front of a massive door, then turned toward Greir and brushed stray snowflakes off her shoulders, straightened her tunic, and tried to force her face into a smile. Failing the last bit, they instead cleared their throat and pushed the door open. "M'lady, you have a visitor."
As she entered, Greir saw the Snow Queen rise from her throne and smooth the front of her loincloth. The queen looked up with a smile and threw her arms wide in a welcoming gesture.
"Hello," she said, "welcome to the castle of the—oh!" Recognition flashed in her eyes, and she stared at Greir, her mouth hanging open.
"Hey," Greir responded. "Long time, no see."
"I-indeed, it has been!" The queen recovered and ran down the steps from her throne to stand before Greir, examining her as if she were something straight out of a dream. "It's so good to see you! Though I'm afraid you're a bit early. Winter has only begun, and I must…" She dropped her gaze, a lilac tinge creeping into her cheeks.
"Don't worry, I'm not here for that."
"You're not?" The queen looked up abruptly, and Greir caught a hint of disappointment in her features.
"No, I'm here to reclaim something I believe I left behind when I was last here. A book. Leather-bound, pocket-sized."
"Oh, yes! Yes, I found it shortly after waking." The queen gestured to her attendant, who disappeared into a side room and returned shortly with the book. "It must have gotten tangled in the sheets. I hope it isn't terribly important."
"Not terribly, no. Just some useless musings." Greir took the book from the attendant with a nod.
It was Greir's turn to blush. She weighed the small journal in one hand and rubbed the back of her neck with the other. "My travels, mostly. Places I've been, people I've met, jobs I've taken."
"How fascinating! I don't suppose you'd care to share some of these recollections?"
"No." The queen made no attempt to hide her disappointment this time, and her expression—sad, forlorn, betrayed —cut through Greir like one of the icicles adorning the throne room. "They're really kind of boring," she added.
"Not to me. I've never left this castle. I can't. And the visitors I get from outside, well, they're not exactly interested in talking."
"I guess I could read you an entry or two, but don't say I didn't warn you." Greir began flipping through the journal for a story to tell, but the queen gestured for her to stop.
"Not here; it's far too formal," she said, motioning Greir toward the door from which the attendant had fetched the journal. "Let's sit in the parlor, where we can be comfortable. It will feel more like a real conversation in there."
The parlor was well-appointed, if just as icy as the rest of the castle, featuring two intricately-carved sofas piled high with furs, set around a low rectangular table. A large chandelier hung in the center of the room, mystical blue flames dancing on the tips of its candles, casting soft light but no heat. The queen sat down on a couch, drawing her legs up beside her and patting the furs for Greir to sit next to her.
"This is worlds better than that stuffy throne room, right?"
"Definitely. You really have a knack for decorating."
"There's not much to do up here, on most days, so I have ample time to plan my décor. To think about things, to daydream." The queen sighed. "So, what are you going to tell me about today?"
"Uh…" Greir skimmed through her journal for anything besides kill counts and records of rewards, hoping to find something relatively inoffensive among the few stories she'd collected. "Are you squeamish about violence?"
The queen tipped her head back and laughed. "Goodness, no! With the accidents men have had in my boudoir, I think I'm fairly inured to the messy inner workings of people."
Greir cracked a smile. "That bad, eh?"
"Oh, yes. Most of them leave with fewer parts than they arrived with. So, don't worry about my sensibilities; tell me whichever story you like!"
"Fine. Here goes." Greir took a deep breath and began reading. "Twentieth of Sixthmoon, I arrive in Belton, a town where no children have been born in generations. They're offering a reward of two thousand gold pieces for the return of a fertility relic…" She went on to describe the labyrinthine cavern she traversed for that relic, and the band of thieves who had stolen it decades earlier, now populous enough to be a town in their own right. She spared no detail of the bloody battle that followed, nor of the relic's immediate effect on the townsfolk once it was returned.
"When I was finally able to pry the mayor off of the barmaid, I collected my reward and took off," she finished, shuddering at the memory.
"Fascinating," the queen breathed, her eyes wide. "And how is the town faring now?"
"Pretty good, as far as I can tell. I passed through there last summer. More children than I could count."
"That's wonderful! You saved a dying town. You helped build families, legacies!"
"I answered a call and collected my money. The rest was on them."
"There's no need to be so modest." Before Greir could protest, the Snow Queen slid closer to her and peered intently at the journal. "What other things have you done? Do you often recover relics for people?"
"I do whatever jobs need doing at the moment. One town wanted me to find their legendary songbird. They didn't tell me the damn thing was a mimic! I finally found it deep in a forest and had to listen to it screech out everything it had heard while it was there, from other birds to travelers to what I think was someone getting mauled by a bear."
"Oh dear." The queen clapped a hand over her mouth, but Greir could see her shoulders shaking. "Did they at least reward you well?" she asked through her fingers.
"Enough to last me a couple months, which is more than what I got for chasing down a troupe of actors impersonating a noble family." Before she realized what was happening, Greir launched into that story, and another, and another, holding the Snow Queen in rapt attention, answering her questions with more anecdotes. She soon set aside her journal and began to regale the queen with stories of the past year, from a wily thief who eluded her grasp by means of an unconventional trap, to her exploits in a land where the populace was brainwashed to have fun at all times.
"Doesn't that defeat the purpose of fun?" the queen asked.
"Yeah. And if you're not into 'fun' to begin with, being around people like that is torture."
"That sounds like it comes from personal experience. I take it you don't like fun?"
"Never have. I don't understand it."
"It's not that difficult to understand, if you don't overthink it. For instance, you sure seem to be enjoying yourself right now, telling all these stories."
Greir scowled. "That's different."
"How?" The queen leaned forward, eyes half closed, a challenge in her smile. Greir blinked at her and tried to still the tiny flutter in her chest. Those clear eyes, that charming grin, the insatiable curiosity—a heady combination that traveled straight to Greir's heart and set her blood aflame, a combination so rare that she couldn't remember ever feeling this way before. She stammered out a few syllables that amounted to no actual words, and the queen laughed.
"You can't answer, can you?" she said. "Because I'm right. Fun doesn't have to look the same for everyone; as long as you're enjoying yourself, you're having fun."
Greir looked away. "I pride myself on being above such frivolity."
"It's not frivolous, not at all! You've given me a rare treat, a glimpse of a world I can never hope to experience for myself. I've thoroughly enjoyed your stories, and your company." The queen looked down and smoothed a section of the fur she sat on. "I don't suppose you'd mind staying with me a bit longer, especially now that it's growing dark outside?"
"What?" Greir looked up through the high windows of the parlor to see the first of the evening stars twinkling against a deep purple sky. "How'd it get so late?"
"Well, as I've heard it said, time flies when you're having fun." Greir shot her a look that was only half-steeped in exasperation, and the queen giggled. "I'll have my attendants prepare the guest room. Oh, it's been so long since we've used it! I'm sure at least one of them still knows how to light the fireplace, and of course we'll gather all the furs we can for you…" The queen rose from the couch and began counting off tasks on her fingers. "We can't have you freezing overnight, now!"
"Oh, that won't be a problem." Greir pulled the amulet from beneath her tunic. It had kept her so comfortable, she'd forgotten that she was wearing it. The old merchant was right, it seemed; she wavered between annoyance at that fact and gratitude, but settled on the latter, for the moment, and held up the amulet for the queen to see. "This protects me from the cold. You didn't notice that I'm not bundled up, that I'm not even shivering?"
The queen furrowed her brow. "No, I didn't. I suppose I was simply so glad to see you, so glad to have such interesting company, that I never noticed."
"So, you mean I could've frozen to death right in front of you?"
"No, of course not! I'm sure I would've noticed that !"
Greir laughed. "I'd hope so. Anyway, I suppose I should be flattered by such an enthusiastic welcome. I'm usually met with a far different reception."
"I don't see why." The queen sank back onto the couch and took the amulet into her fingers, turning it over in the flickering blue light of the chandelier.
"I'm not the friendliest person. But I happen to be good at what I do. You see, I'm not the only adventurer out there—"
"How well does this protect against the cold?"
"Well enough that I don't need a cloak."
"What about freezing? As in, direct contact with something frozen?"
"It's supposed to cover that, too."
"In that case, could I—would it be okay—" The queen reached out tentatively. "May I touch you? May I hold your hand?"
Greir's features softened, and the fluttering in her chest became a steady thrum. She nodded and extended the small finger of her left hand. The queen wrapped her own fingers around it, and for a moment, neither of them dared to breathe. Greir closed her eyes and waited for the pain, for the inevitable loss of her finger, but when seconds passed and she felt no different, she opened her eyes to the Snow Queen lacing her fingers through her own, slowly, reverently, relishing the touch of flesh against flesh.
"You're so warm," she whispered. "So warm, and so real."
Greir was at a loss for any sarcastic response, and instead squeezed the queen's hand in reply. She started at the sensation of the queen's other hand on her arm, but soon relaxed into the feather-light touch that skimmed over her clothes and her skin, from her shoulder to her wrist, then back up to her neck, then her cheek. Cold fingers ghosted over her lips and she inhaled sharply, forcing herself not to open her mouth and take them in.
As much as the queen wasn't used to touching others, Greir wasn't used to being touched, and over the next several minutes, the parlor fell silent as they both explored the lines and curves of each other's faces and hands and arms, and the contrast between the fire and ice flowing through their veins. The queen's hands wandered around to Greir's back, tracing her muscles through her tunic, and she moved in close, her cold breath raising goosebumps on Greir's neck.
"Do you think it would be all right," she asked quietly, "if I kissed you?"
"Should be," Greir murmured, and had scarcely finished before the queen pressed her lips against hers. The queen's mouth was cold, but warmed quickly with Greir's own heat, and when Greir opened her mouth, the queen eagerly accepted the invitation. She pushed deeper into Greir with an exquisite little moan, which traveled straight to Greir's heart and peeled away every veneer she'd placed over it through the years—toughness, misanthropy, cynicism, stubborn solitude—and before Greir's mind had a chance to catch up with her body, her hands were roaming the queen's torso, fingertips digging into the cold flesh, pressing their bodies together in a desperate attempt to close the gaping need that arose inside of her.
The queen broke the kiss and let her lips trail over Greir's jaw and down her neck, her own hands busy tracing Greir's shoulder blades and spine, skimming the back of her neck and curling her fingers into Greir's hair. She leaned forward, guiding Greir back against the furs and sliding her thigh between Greir's own. Greir gasped at the sudden pressure between her legs, and when her hips began to move against it, as if of their own volition, she flung her head back with a groan.
"No," she grumbled, and the queen sat back to look at her. "We can't do this."
"You don't like it?"
Greir let out a dry laugh. "Oh no, I like it. Too much. But it's too early. You said so yourself, winter has only just started."
"That's true." The queen gnawed gently on the tip of her finger, thinking. Then, her eyes widened, and she raised her brows and looked up with a mischievous grin. "It is too early…for me. However, it's the perfect time for me to repay you for what you did for me, last spring."
"Thanks, but I already got my reward from the town."
"For bringing spring to them. And what was it, a sack full of coins?" The queen ran her hands down Greir's chest and stomach, then toyed with the hem of her tunic. "Let me give you something much better, as a personal token of appreciation."
Greir sat up and draped her arms around the queen's shoulders. "If you insist," she said, then kissed her as the queen's chilly fingers worked beneath her tunic and pulled it over her head.
The sound of quiet humming roused Greir from sleep, and she sat up, not on the couch in the parlor or in the guest room, but in the queen's own bed. At the opposite end of the room, the queen sat at a small vanity, adjusting her headdress. She caught a glimpse of Greir in the mirror and turned around with a brilliant smile.
"Good morning! You slept well, I hope?"
"Definitely." Greir yawned and stretched, aware of the way every muscle moved, more relaxed and satisfied than she'd felt in years, if ever.
"I'm glad. Thank you so much for letting me repay you."
"I dunno, it doesn't seem fair that I was the only one who got anything out of last night."
"Quite the contrary."
"You really don't see it, do you? What you've given me? The chance to touch you, to hold you, to watch you lost in bliss. The chance to hear you laugh."
"I did not laugh."
"Oh yes, you did!" The queen giggled. "On several occasions. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"Whatever." Greir located her clothes folded neatly on a chair and began dressing. "Just as long as you don't tell anyone. I have a reputation to keep."
"That's the beauty of it: I've no one to tell. You're free to be yourself here. I hope that will be an impetus for your return?"
"When I'm in the area, yeah. Oh…" Finished dressing, Greir slipped the amulet over her neck, shivering at the instant recognition of the cold, and tossed it to the queen. "…here, for when it's time. Just throw it on whichever fool comes by, and you'll be fine."
The queen stared at the amulet and shook her head. She rose from her vanity with a stern expression and strode toward Greir, and slipped the amulet back over her head. "You're the only fool I want."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Absolutely. When spring draws near, I'll send my attendants to find you."
"I have no idea where I'll be by then."
"I'll send them to search the world over." The queen reached down and grasped Greir's hands in her own. "Promise me you'll be back. Please?"
Greir sighed. Those soft hands, and the memory of their touch in her most intimate areas, brought a smile to her lips. "I'll be in the area, I promise. I won't make myself too hard to find."
The queen squealed and flung her arms around Greir. "Oh, thank you! I can hardly wait for springtime!"
"Whoa, let's not rush things, here! Wintertime has plenty of good-paying jobs for me. Monster hunts and manhunts and tracking down fickle fire spirits. And now that I'm immune to the cold, I should really clean up!" Greir paused. "But before I go, there's something I'd like to know."
"We talked most of the night, and we've each done the other once, but I don't think we've even introduced ourselves. What's your name?"
"Anything but that. Let's leave a little mystery for our next meeting, hm?" The queen winked.
"Must be something really embarrassing, then. I'd be happy to tell you mine."
"You don't have to. I already know you. You're my Snowbird."
"Snowbird?" It had a nice ring to it. Concise, vaguely mysterious, and a convenient alias for the person she became at the Snow Queen's touch. "I like it."
By the time they finished their farewells and Greir started down the mountain, the sun was high in the sky, its light reflecting off the snow. Greir squinted in the glare and worked her way down the path, willing the stupid grin on her face to disappear by the time she reached town, and feeling the amulet thump against her chest with every step, an external heartbeat to match the one within, both rhythms counting down the moments until spring, counting down the moments until the Snowbird would return.