Princess Gisela was everything I had dreamed of as a little boy playing at the feet of my father's throne.
To say she was beautiful was to do both her and the word an injustice. Her most striking feature was her hair, proud black waves that cascaded from her high forehead to the floor behind her. Her bones were strong and graceful; her skin milky and almost as finely blue as her bright eyes. Her highly tinted lips curved in irresistible invitation.
She was vivacious, flirtatious and, just occasionally, a bit imperious. In short, she was perfect, a princess straight from the stories my tutor used to read to me. And she had promised to be mine.
Her father, however, had made no promises to me. He bluntly recognized his only daughter's worth. He didn't hesitate to tell me she was far too good for the youngest prince of a tiny country, even a bordering land that offered important trading alliances.
I'd done what I could to prove my worth. I'd won the challenges he set for me. I had vanquished my rivals in combat both symbolic and physical. I had earned Gisela's affection and kept it. Still, he had one more task for me to accomplish before he would surrender her to me.
King Roland wanted me to find the Sword of Ice and bring it back to him. The tales said that the country that possessed the sword would enjoy a perfect protection. They also said that none who sought it ever returned.
Still, if it was the price of marrying Gisela, I had to go.
When I left a little past midsummer, only a few of King Roland's court stood by to see me off. Gisela clung briefly to my hand as I sat astride my dappled gray gelding. Her bold blue eyes flashed, entreating me to come back--with the sword, of course. I smiled at her in reassurance, wishing we didn't have to say our goodbyes in front of the others, and rode out the castle gates.
You don’t need the details of the dangers I encountered along the way. Their names were legend long before I passed through them, and I can't claim to have untangled their snares.
Everywhere I went, I encountered strangely helpful men, some younger than me, some grayed and lined, living as close to these hazards as human needs permitted. One and all, they had the look of the palace-reared, although they now led simple lives. Some raised crops or animals, while others ran inns.
I owe my survival to these men. I never approached peril on the road without being hailed, warned, and told what I needed to do to survive.
I assumed these men were princes who had failed in their own quests for the sword and itched to know why they stayed instead of returning to their parents’ courts and their old lives. Still, there was a quiet pain in their faces, something more than a recognition of disappointment, that made me hesitant to pry further. Indulging my curiosity seemed a poor repayment for their help.
Before the leaves had left the trees, I stood at the base of the path that led through the mountains to the palace of the sword. Without hesitation, I had left my horse behind me when the last of the humble princes had told me the path was not fit for hooves.
Having come this far so easily, there were only two things that worried me about my task. All the men I'd met along the way had mentioned the Curse of Ice. Yet, while each of them had been quite specific in their descriptions of their own adopted hazard, they would only say of the curse that it was the last challenge and thus far unbeatable.
My second concern felt like a small thing, but it disturbed me all out of proportion to its relevance to my task. I had often caught a glimpse of a woman on the farms and at the hostelries where I'd received such helpful advice.
Her task changed from place to place: feeding hens, sweeping a courtyard, carrying milk or ale, but very little else about her varied. She was always blond and slight, with pale eyes and a sweet face. She never paid much attention to me, or to anyone but the failed hero.
It wasn’t really one woman, of course. There were differences in age and height and smaller details, but the similarities were pronounced enough to give me the vague feeling of being followed throughout my travels.
The track I climbed was narrow and uneven. There were frequent steep drops to one side or another. I had be alert for debris underfoot and prepared always to brace myself against the shifting winds. I was tempted once or twice to keep going after reaching my appointed shelter with daylight still to burn, but the advice I had received had served me too well up to this point.
The mountains were beautiful and treacherous. Occasionally I wished for the leisure to appreciate the vistas I passed through. Still, my task was yet ahead of me.
As my trek stretched on, adding to the weeks I had been gone, a third doubt began to grow. While I had never questioned Gisela’s devotion before, I knew well her tolerance for boredom. She needed to be entertained and admired. She had chosen me in part because I'd provided her with good company. That was difficult to do from my mountainside. I wished I'd sent her a last letter before tackling the climb.
The constant snows began two weeks before I reached the palace. By the time I arrived, I was heartily grateful for the directions, the furs and the pack food that had seemed sickeningly rich on flat ground. More than once in my journey, I had sheltered with leathery human remains, evidence of how other quests after the sword had ended.
Finally, amid the falling snow, I reached the palace gates. They were tall iron slabs set into a forbidding stone wall that looked to have risen up out of the mountain itself. I tugged on a ring set into one of the doors. Touching it nearly froze my hand solid, but the door didn’t budge. With the wind picking up, I pounded on the doors.
I waited a couple of minutes, longer than I liked to stand still in the weather that was brewing. I was about to knock again when a panel I had overlooked opened in the right-hand door.
“Stand away from the gates.” With the wind, I couldn’t be sure, but the voice sounded young.
I wasn’t going to be turned away that easily. I thought resolutely of Gisela's hair and lips. The cold path I knew led back down the mountain helped as well. “I’ve come seeking the Sword of Ice.”
“Of course you have.” Heavy noises came from behind the door, and I heard a grunt of exertion. “That’s the only reason anyone ever comes this way. But when I unbar the gates, the wind may catch the doors. I'd think being brained before you reach the palace would be a silly end to a quest, but the choice is yours.”
I stepped back quickly. The winds weren’t quite strong enough yet to make the doors a danger, but they opened as soon as they were free. I helped wrestle them closed again. They were hung beautifully and moved at a touch, but the wind's touch was almost as strong as ours.
I could see from the skirts she wore that a woman had greeted me, but her face was covered against the cold. I guessed she was a servant of the palace. Instead of speaking over the wind, she plucked at my sleeve to indicate I should follow her.
As far as I could see through the snow, the palace that held the Sword of Ice was made of the same stone as the wall that surrounded it. I couldn’t tell whether it was similarly imposing, but I assumed it was.
The room I was led to was certainly impressive enough. Large fireplaces stood on either end of a long hall. Despite the climate, the ceilings were over three times my height, disappearing into shadows above us. The stone walls were bare of any hangings.
At either end of the hall, in front of the fireplaces, were low padded benches and cushioned chairs, covered in sumptuous fabrics and dyes. The colors were cool but rich. They invited guests to gather in comradeship in the warm parts of the room.
Still, when I had dropped my packs where the servant indicated and shaken the snow from my traveling furs, it was the large chunk of ice in the middle of the room that drew my attention.
The top of the ice was shaped into peaks and valleys, looking like the mountains I had just traversed. It was free of imperfection, clear as the mountain streams I had crossed, and in the center was a plain metal sword.
This could only be the Sword of Ice, although it looked a little small to be a thing of legend. The hilt and blade were both free of decoration. It was a good, solid sword. I could easily imagine swinging it in battle, as though the protection it offered were practical instead of magical. It seemed a prosaic thing with which to secure my future with Gisela. I reached one hand out to touch it.
Then I was rubbing my wrist where a strong hand had slapped it out of the way. "Don't be a fool. If you touch that now, you'll stick till thaw."
I was cold and tired and frustrated at receiving a lecture instead of the target of my quest. I turned, meaning to warn the servant that it was wise to keep a civil tongue in her head when talking to royalty.
I received two distinct shocks in almost as many seconds.
The young woman in front of me was almost certainly not a servant. I didn't know what she was. She wore good wool with little decoration, cut well, but I hardly noticed her clothes.
Her face had all my attention. It was formed from the same clear ice that encased the sword. Skin and hair, eyes and bone were all transparent. I could see the wall through her head, which was why it took me a moment to take in the second striking thing about her.
I had seen her before. She had no coloration to her features, of course, but otherwise, that face had recently become as familiar to me as my sisters'. It was the face I had seen so disturbingly repeated through my trip. Aside from being made of ice, she could have been the wife of any of the helpful princes I had met.
"Have you been following me?" I blushed immediately after saying it. It was silly, but I wasn't at my best just then. I was thankful when she smiled.
"I think I was here first. I unlatched the door after all." She put one finger to the side of her chin, her hands the same ice as the rest of her. "But that is original. Usually people just tell me I'm made of ice."
"Um, yes. So I see." Her calm helped ease my embarrassment, even as it fed the flame of my curiosity. "Would it be too trite to ask who you are?"
"Well, I suppose we would have to come to that question some time." It was hard to read the expressions on a transparent face, but I thought her smile faded a little. "The simplest answer is that I'm the guardian of the sword."
"Are you...," I realized in time that asking whether she was real might be impolite, "...human?"
"My father thought so, but I think my nurse had doubts from time to time." The smile was definitely wider now.
I returned it. Strange as she was to look at, she was very easy to talk to. "How did you end up here?"
"Ah, now that's a long story." She shook her head. Her hair was in a coronet braid, but a few strands hung free. In a most un-icy fashion, they swayed gently. "I think it's time to talk about you. Obviously, you're here for the sword. Prince, farmer, or swineherd?"
"Curse, princess, or sworn oath?"
I cleared my throat. "Princess." I suddenly realized how many men had come before me in search of the sword. I'd met some who had failed and seen more who had died. "You said you were the guardian of the sword. What do you do?"
"You mean, how will I stop you from taking the sword? "She put her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders. "Do you doubt I could?"
I'd been trained in swordwork from the time I was five, but she was a woman of ice. Despite the warmth of the room, she showed no signs of melting. "I don't know."
She threw her head back and laughed. It reminded me of my youngest sister's laugh, hearty and unforced. "Good answer.
"I told you it isn't safe for you to touch this now." She patted the block of ice encasing the sword. "That is the extent of my duties to the sword. The ice protects it. I keep people from making silly mistakes about the ice."
I considered asking about the Curse of Ice, but looking at her, I thought it might be too personal a question for our short acquaintance. "It isn't safe to touch it now. When will it be safe?"
She ran one finger over the ice and cocked her head. "When the thaw comes."
"I have to wait for spring?" Visions of Gisela stewing in her father's castle for the winter assailed me. I hoped that her new maid was unusually entertaining. Otherwise, there were plenty of young men who would be happy to do their best.
"I think..." She held up her hand. "Listen."
I was glad of the large fireplaces. Despite the thick walls, I could hear the wind raging outside. "I'd be here until spring anyway, wouldn't I?"
She shrugged. "There's always the possibility of a very mild winter, but I haven't seen one yet."
I didn't ask her how long she'd been here. There'd be plenty of time for conversation. I held out my hand. "My name is Conradin, although my friends and family call me Con. It's a pleasure to meet you."
She avoided my hand and dropped into a light and graceful curtsey that would make my older sisters envious. "Likewise, Conradin. My name is Ludovica. Let me show you to your rooms."
I discovered quickly that Ludovica and I were alone in the palace. I tended the fire in my room and my own night pot, but she saw to everything else.
Meals appeared at regular intervals--porridge and sausages in the mornings, simple dishes for nooning, and formal dinners. She served fresh fruit and vegetables, but as magic, fresh food in the dead of winter seemed feeble compared to the woman who served it.
We ate in the dining hall to begin with. It was nearly as big as the room I'd first seen, which turned out to be the main hall of the palace. Filling the dining hall was a table three times the size of any I'd seen, even at Gisela's father's court. Conversation would have been difficult across the width of the table, but Ludovica set places for us at opposite ends of its long length.
It was only in the evenings after dinner, when we came together in the main hall, that I had opportunity to talk to Ludovica. She spoke well and wittily, without flirtation. Her education had obviously been excellent, although she was out of touch with the affairs of the world.
"Conradin, tell me what goes on beyond the palace gates," she demanded one night near midwinter. We didn't keep close track of the calendar. She was leaning on the edge of a chair, her chin in her hands. "Have there been any great battles of late?"
I considered. "Harald of Terrant and Sophia of Dambes have spent the last three years warring in the hills between them over which of them owns the sheep pastured there. Sophia was close to winning when I left, but I don't know whether there are any sheep left. Actually, I'm not sure the land will still support sheep after the fighting."
Ludovica snorted and frowned. I was getting better at reading her expressions, although firelight playing over and through ice was still distracting.
"I was thinking of something more heroic." She shifted in her chair. "What about monsters? Has anyone awakened any dragons lately?"
She looked so eager for excitement, I was sorry to disappoint her. "It's been so long since anyone has seen a dragon that many people believe they are only creatures of myth."
She sat up. "No gryphons or basilisks either?"
I shook my head.
"But you believe in them, don't you, Conradin?"
I felt sorry for this young woman, who must lead a very dull life alone here. I realized that even the novelty of being made of ice would have to pall in time. Still, it was hard to believe in something I had never seen. "I don't know."
"You've said that before." She leaned back in her chair and looked at me skeptically.
Conversation lagged for a time. I felt that I had disappointed her, and it wasn't a comfortable feeling. I might have worried over the consequences of disappointing Gisela, but I wasn't sure I would have felt the fault so personally. I told myself it was because Gisela had half a court to cheer her, while Ludovica had only me.
Her voice shook me from my reverie. There was something in it I hadn't heard before, a tension that made me wary. "Conradin, what part do women play in the world these days? Does Sophia fight her own battles, or does she rely on her men to fight them for her?"
I knew I was on untested ground. "I don't believe that Sophia was ever taught to wield a sword,"--no women were in my experience, certainly no royal women--"so I doubt she risks herself in battle. Her people would miss her if she were to be killed or injured. From everything I hear, she is a fine ruler."
Ludovica's voice was demanding. "But Harald rides to battle?"
I laughed long and hard. I only stopped when I saw Ludovica's face. "Harald must weigh upwards of three hundred pounds and has been known to hire manicurists away from his nobles. I don't believe he's been on a horse since he was a boy."
It was Ludovica's turn to laugh. The tension drained from the conversation. "Fair enough. Still, I suppose that fighting is still generally considered a man's skill."
I nodded. "I don't know many women who would want to learn the sword."
She tilted her head. "Do you know any?"
I discovered I did. "My youngest sister maybe, Adela. She's never said as much, but she always wanted to know what I learned in my lessons." I thought about it, surprised. "She might even be good at it. She learned to dance far more quickly than I did, and she has good reflexes."
Ludovica smiled. "I'd like to meet Adela. I think I'd like her."
"We all do, even Mother, who despairs of finding her a 'proper' husband when she's of age." I hesitated. I was still a bit in awe of the creature in front of me, although she'd never been anything but friendly. "And I think she'd like you. You remind me a little of her."
That earned me the biggest smile I'd ever seen on Ludovica. "I think I like you too."
It was shortly after that conversation that I persuaded Ludovica that we could take our meals in the main hall. There was a smaller table in one corner that, while it wouldn't support all the trappings of a formal dinner, did allow us to talk over our meal.
By that time, I had thoroughly explored the palace. It was as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside, if not exactly designed for comfort. All the rooms were sized for small giants. There were books here and there, but it wasn't in my nature to sit still for long. Aside from the architecture, there wasn't much to occupy my days but dreaming about Gisela--and worrying. Meals and a pleasant companion were a welcome respite.
It took longer to get Ludovica to let me help with her tasks around the palace. The fires came first. I insisted. Watching her reach her icy hand into the flames made me wince. I could never get over the conviction that she would melt away before my eyes.
So I chopped and hauled wood and kept the palace warm. There was sweeping to do and scullery work. Ludovica had to teach me, but it was nice to have active work to keep me busy.
Sharing the chores of keeping the palace running gave us more time to talk. Remembering Ludovica's hunger for the world outside, I exerted myself to be entertaining, putting to use skills I'd learned courting Gisela. Ludovica easily held up her end of the conversation. She'd read the books I'd scorned, and her discussion of the odd and amusing things she'd found in them made me wonder what I'd missed by not reading more.
I hadn't forgotten about the sword or my reward for winning it, but the first signs of spring on the mountain didn't make me as happy as they would have in the fall. I knew there had to be more to gaining the sword than waiting. I hadn't forgotten about the curse.
There was also an unacknowledged question deep in my heart as to whether what I'd gain when I left with the sword would equal what I'd leave behind me. I'd spent much of the winter thinking about what Gisela was doing to pass the time without me. The never-ending parties, balls, games and flirtations had been easy to imagine.
Ludovica, on the other hand, constantly surprised me. She'd asked one day to borrow my sword. It was big for her, but she had wielded it proficiently. If we'd had another sword, she would have served quite well as a sparring partner to keep my skills honed. We caught each other looking at the Sword of Ice and laughed, knowing we'd both had the same thought.
In our rambling conversations, we often spoke of the business of ruling countries. Her perspective on the subject wasn't always in line with my own, but once she explained her thoughts on something, I agreed with her at least as often as not. I found myself considering responsibilities that even my father hadn't impressed on me.
This was how I discovered she was a princess. I'd suspected it for some time, but she finally confirmed it. In one of our discussions, she'd said something about "my father," when she was obviously referring to a king. She hadn't noticed her slip, and I hadn't pointed it out.
She was still unwilling to talk about her past, changing the subject or quickly discovering something that needed to be done elsewhere in the palace whenever it came up. As I would rather talk with her about the color of the walls than lose her company, I didn't press her.
Then came the day that the snow was gone from all but the most shadowed corners of the palace yards. The ground was mostly firm again, and we took a walk together after nooning to enjoy the air. I can't say the walk was a success. I was preoccupied, thinking about Gisela, beautiful and shallow, and Ludovica, funny and wise--and cursed.
I don't know what Ludovica was thinking, but she was as quiet as I during the walk. When we went back indoors, we separated by silent consent. I wanted to think.
I spent my time in the main hall, staring at the block of ice. I'd forgotten it for days at a time over the winter. It didn't appear to be melting yet, but with spring having arrived outside, the appointed moment would have to arrive soon. I should be glad, impatient, but I only felt troubled. When it was time to build up the fire in the kitchen and help prepare dinner, I still hadn't found the answer to my question.
Dinner was silent enough that we could have eaten at the long table. But when it was done and cleared and we sat before the fire again, Ludovica took a deep breath. "Conradin, there's something I should have told you earlier."
The sensations in my middle made me wish I hadn't just eaten. I was wary, hopeful, elated, terrified. "What?"
Ludovica ignored the tremor in my voice, or maybe she didn't hear it. "It's about the Sword of Ice." Another deep breath. "It...the thaw...it doesn't happen just because it's spring."
My jaw dropped open, more at my own stupidity than at the revelation. Of course. If the ice simply melted every spring, there wouldn't be any sword left for me to take back to Gisela. That was, assuming I still wanted to.
With that, another thought occurred to me that should have long before. "What happens to you?" I gestured vaguely toward the block. "I mean, when that ice melts...?"
She shrugged. I couldn't read her expression. "The thaw is the thaw. All the ice melts together."
I was horrified. I reached out and touched the back of her hand where it gripped the arm of her chair. "I--I don't need the sword. I don't want it. Is there anything I can--"
I pulled my fingers back and blinked at them. Ludovica was looking too. She'd been warm to the touch, but my fingers were cooling now. They were wet.
I didn't know what to do. I stared at her with wide eyes. I'd seen her reach that hand into a fire, fire that had singed the hair off my knuckles, without damage. But a simple touch.... Had I done something wrong, or was it the thaw coming?
She jumped from the chair and fled the room. I wanted to follow her but thought I'd already done enough damage.
I went to look at the sword. As I watched the ice for any sign of melting, I knew I'd already made up my mind. Curse or no curse, even if I could never touch her again, it was Ludovica I wanted.
She was vital where Gisela was merely hungry. She'd taught me about the necessary traits for a good ruler and helped me find them in myself. She hadn't once complained about the life she was forced to lead, no matter how it must have grated against her gregarious nature. If Gisela had been in her place....
I winced at the image. In that brief moment my eyes were closed, I heard the sound I'd been dreading--a splash. A drop of water had splattered across the floor. As I stared at it, another fell.
I had to find Ludovica. She shouldn't be alone for this. And with so little time left, I wanted to spend it all with her.
I rushed for the door--and almost collided with her in the doorway. She still looked solid. There was no water on her collar or her skirt where she held it up as she hurried. Maybe there was still a chance. Maybe--please.
"Ludovica, I'm sorry." I gasped out the words. "There has to be something I can do. Just tell me. I don't want the sword. I don't want Gisela. I just want you."
She laughed then, the last thing I expected her to do, and threw her arms around my neck. "That was what I hoped you'd say." Then she kissed me.
It was warm and cold and very, very wet. I don't remember much else about it now, despite the fact that I spent most of it trying to brand every last second into my memory.
Eventually, I heard the sword clang onto the floor behind me. Ludovica was still solid in my arms. I opened my eyes.
The ice was gone. In its place was a lovely young woman. She wasn't as breathtakingly beautiful as Gisela, but I didn't want her to be. It was so much more than enough that she was still there.
I knew her features already, or thought I did, but color made a world of difference to her. Her eyes, which had looked so serene, were black and merry. Her skin was brown and rosy. Now that I wasn't looking through her, I could tell that her mouth had a little quirk on one side that made it look as though she was always about to smile.
Her hair was a dark warm brown. It, like the rest of us both, was completely soaked.
"Like what you see?" She was smiling in earnest now.
"Like it? Ludovica, I--"
She put one hand to my lips. "Con, there is something we should get straight." She dropped it and kissed me again. "My friends call me Dovi."
I don't see that it's anyone's business what happened for the next several minutes. Eventually, we found ourselves drying in front of the fire. Dovi--I liked the name; it said things about her that Ludovica only hinted at--was finally satisfying my curiosity about the curse.
"Mother never in her life considered even touching a sword, but somehow, she understood how I felt about it. Father just wanted me married and off his hands.
"I'll never know how she did it, but she persuaded him to let me undertake a quest." She smiled again. I didn't think I'd ever tire of that smile. "It might have had something to do with the fact that I'd just scared off another bunch of suitors. In any case, I'd come all this way, past a haunted river, a dragon, three elves who thought they were funny, a couple of talking trees...well, you know."
I did. They were all still there, except the dragon. I was terrifyingly glad she didn't think I was too young for her.
"I expected to have to charm a magical guardian or solve an odd puzzle before I could get the charmed water I'd come for. Instead, I had to deal with a crotchety old wizard who was incensed that a 'girl' would come to him, expecting to take what a bunch of 'men' hadn't."
"I think he'd probably been turned down by a 'girl' and was just a little bitter." She smiled and leaned her head on my shoulder. "He pointed at me and muttered. I don't think all of it was spell casting. The next thing I knew, my sword was encased in a block of ice, the hut I'd been standing in was a monstrous palace, and I felt funny."
Then it struck me. "That's your sword?"
"Thought it was the 'Sword of Ice,' didn't you?" Dovi snuggled closer. "I think that was the wizard's joke. I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to be the Sword of Ice. He was so sure I was never going to melt. He really didn't know much about 'girls.'"
I spent some time then convincing her that I didn't think she was remotely icy.
She came home to my father's kingdom with me. The palace dwindled again to a stone hut as we stepped outside.
None of the failed princes recognized her when we passed though, but she knew them. The stories she told me about them made me understand why she'd never melted. They’d fallen in love with the romance of her situation, not with her. Looking at the substitutes they'd found for themselves, I knew they'd never even gotten to know her. I felt sorry for them. They seemed happy with their sweet-faced, sweet-tempered, ice-colored wives, but I had Dovi.
Dovi and Adela got along as well as I thought they would. The first sword lesson settled that.
And it may have been a wizard's invention to keep men coming to the palace, but the prophesy about the Sword of Ice making a kingdom invincible came true. Two years after my father died, Gisela's pretty husband decided to invade, to take by force what hadn't been awarded to her by marriage.
Adela and Dovi came across the first scouting party while out riding. They fought the surprised group of men to a standstill and took their leader hostage. It was the warning we needed not to be overrun. Between that and the speech Dovi gave the men before the first battle, it was the shortest war I've ever heard tell of.
That suited us just fine. We had plenty else to do. We were busy living happily ever after.