Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with Christina Ruth Johnson’s Winter princess from from her story The Stolen Heart, available now as part of the Frozen Fairy Tales anthology.
Frozen Fairy Tales
Winter is not coming. Winter is here. As unique and beautifully formed as a snowflake, each of these fifteen stories spins a brand new tale or offers a fresh take on an old favorite like Jack Frost, The Snow Queen, or The Frog King. From a drafty castle to a blustery Japanese village, from a snow-packed road to the cozy hearth of a farmhouse, from an empty coffee house in Buffalo, New York, to a cold night outside a university library, these stories fully explore the perils and possibilities of the snow, wind, ice, and bone-chilling cold that traditional fairy tale characters seldom encounter.
In the bleak midwinter, heed the irresistible call of fairy tales. Just open these pages, snuggle down, and wait for an icy blast of fantasy to carry you away. With all new stories of love, adventure, sorrow, and triumph by Tina Anton, Amanda Bergloff, Gavin Bradley, L.A. Christensen, Steven Grimm, Christina Ruth Johnson, Rowan Lindstrom, Alison McBain, Aimee Ogden, J. Patrick Pazdziora, Lissa Marie Redmond, Anna Salonen, Lissa Sloan, Charity Tahmaseb, and David Turnbull to help you dream through the cold days and nights of this most dreaded season.
The Magpie and the Pomegranate
As midwinter approached, the realm of Winter worried.
Their king had left the bounds of Winter for the first time in the memory of those whose memories were very, very long. He had left to woo a girl, a princess—which was only right, and probably the only reason he might be forgiven leaving—but she was not a princess of Winter, not a princess of ice or mountain or tundra. (One ancient king had even wed a princess of the snow-bear people, who rode the bears on chilling hunts across the arctic places of the world in pursuit of elk and caribou and giant seals.)
Another barbarian queen would have been acceptable compared to this princess. This princess held no place in the kingdom of Winter.
She was Summer. And Summer was anathema.
Or was it?
The story had spread, as stories do. She had tried to kill him. But. Then. She had saved him. And he had fallen in love.
For the life of their king, much could be forgiven, though not, perhaps, quite welcomed.
Had she bewitched him? they wondered. Winter and Summer together—how could such a marriage endure?
And it must endure, for their lives would be long.
If the marriage did not endure, if worse came to worst and it diminished into hatred, what might happen between the realms?
Already, their king had almost unbalanced the world through his grief, which was only set to rights (they grudgingly admitted) by the actions of the Summer princess.
Was the attempt at such a marriage worth it?
The sister of the king might have answered their questions if they had thought to ask. But they didn’t.
Besides, she had her own troubles.
Unlike most of her people, she had taken to living among the mortals of the world as if she were one of them, only visiting the Winter realm when needed or when missing her brother. Humans were fascinating and led much more exciting lives. And their inventions were marvelous.
In spite of this (or because of it) humans had a tendency to also make life rather difficult.
Her roommate of two years was currently obsessing around their apartment, frantically cleaning and decorating for Christmas. Her parents at the last minute had decided to visit for the holidays, and she was now a shrieking mess. (The tidying and the decorating weren’t causing the shrieking—the new, un-hideable tattoo rather was.) And the shrieking was loud.
This particular human girl knew who the Winter princess was, what she was. It had been a hard secret to keep, what with six magpies coming and going at all hours bringing back, from their daily raids, the kinds of objects that make humans start to ask questions about, for example, the potential existence of magic. It was also difficult to hide the fact that you never felt the cold when you lived somewhere it snowed half the year.
Her roommate never said a word. But she knew. And the magpie-girl knew that she knew, and it became a sort of game. The game pieces of choice were scarves, which her roommate kept giving to her. Every time she gave one, she would also give a look, as if daring the magpie-girl to admit she didn’t need it.
Fed up with secret keeping, and never having been one for tradition, the Winter princess finally broke down and told her human friend about the realms and her place in them. Her roommate just grinned a closed-lip, self-satisfied, cat-caught-the-mouse grin and began giving her novelty fairy mugs and calendars instead.
“I could hate you for it, that whole immortal youth thing,” she admitted once, “But I’m going to be magnanimous and not.” They’d been inseparable ever since.
. . . until the shrieking.
“They would have seen the tattoo eventually anyway.”
“Yes, but I would have prepared them! Gently! Over time! Not immediately after and at Christmas!”
The magpie-girl smirked to herself. She was rather looking forward to the tattoo-explosion, as she thought of it (though not at her friend’s expense). Shocking people was just so entertaining. But until the loved-but-dreaded parents arrived, she was keeping away, mainly for aural health reasons (magpies had nothing on this girl), which meant staying in one of the Winter residences.
She’d let the magpies choose which one, and of course they’d brought her here.
“I hate shopping,” she groused, staring at the vibrant midwinter market before her. She stood on a second-story balcony overlooking an enormous courtyard below. The perfectly circular courtyard, open to the sky and all the beautiful precipitations of Winter, was inscribed inside the massive rectangle of stone and mortar of the residence itself. The magpie-girl would have called it a lovely example of a Renaissance palace, if the more traditional of the Winterfolk wouldn’t have sneered condescendingly at the comment. As much as they looked down on humanity, they did seem to copy them a lot. And then disingenuously claim coincidence.
Granted, this place were nowhere near Italy. And the windowpanes were made of ice, not glass. (Which made someone who lived life among humans wonder exactly why there was anything in the windows at all.)
“At least in this part of Winter, people appreciate bright things,” she observed drily to her birds. “Why my brother chose that drab piece of rock for his palace, I’ll never understand.” A feathered weight with claws collapsed more than landed on her shoulder, but she didn’t flinch.
In the cauldron of the courtyard below, it seemed as if all the colors ever seen or conceived had been poured in and stirred about in a riot of energy and purpose: advertising, denying, considering, smelling, eyeing, tasting, bartering, giggling, dancing, laughing, smiling, crying, screaming, trying, buying. The softly falling snow blurred them all together.
“Alright, Boyo,” she said with resignation. “Let’s go find some shine.” The bird on her shoulder nipped at her ear.
“Ow! Get off, you lummox.” She jounced her shoulder, and he took flight with a mocking screech. “Sorrow, Joy, Girly, Silver, Glint, you go keep him out of trouble and don’t start any yourselves.” She watched them flap up and over the railing before gliding down to disappear into the mad rush of color. She followed the slower way.
Then she was alone in a crowd of people all in a rush to buy and leave or stay and try as many things as possible before nightfall. The Winter girl was the buy-and-leave sort at heart, but her birds were definitely the stay-and-try. Magpies. But they were hers, and she was theirs; and she might as well buy her roommate a gift while she was here. She might find her brother a Midwinter gift as well—he may have grown just a little tired of the items from the human realm she’d been forcing on him in holidays past. She’d determined that this year’s gift would make up for the many years of too-modern-too-human music, laughably unsuitable clothing (which was always more a gift for herself anyway, to see her stiff and proper brother wearing such things), and that ridiculous collection of kitschy snow globes the magpies had found. Apparently not everyone shared her sense of humor when it came to that particular gift.
She preened back her platinum curls, tucking them behind her ears, gritted her teeth, and waded into the fray. At least she was little and quick. She’d be gone before any big boots found painful places to tread.
Except an unexpected realization made her come to a quick stop in the middle of the pathway, causing immediate consternation behind her. The curses and complaints she could ignore—she lived with magpies—but the realization she couldn’t escape.
There was a new member of her family now.
Or, if not officially, she was as good as family by this point. The magpie-girl suddenly commiserated with her roommate’s panicked stressing.
A gift for the Summer princess! The magpie-girl was now, as the future sister-in-law, obligated to find one. And it had to be perfect. She groaned and wished she hadn’t sent the magpies off. They always found the most unique things.
A boot landed on her foot. She yelled and spun her winds around a little, knocking the offender into a stall full of leather goods.
“You’re welcome,” she muttered. “It could’ve been glass.” Cursing, she hopped off to the side to nurse her wounded pride and survey the scene before venturing out again.
An hour later, the magpie-girl was sweaty, exhausted, cross-eyed with bright colors, and unable to focus on even the most interesting wares. None of which were interesting enough.
She caught a glimpse of a magpie out of the corner of her eye and turned toward it, sighing in grateful exasperation.
“Where have you b—”
It wasn’t one of her magpies. In fact, it wasn’t alive at all, just the most extraordinary glass statuette she’d ever seen. No. Ice statuette.
How did the artist manage to add the color? She drew closer, slightly wary of the glistening form, which was a little too lifelike for comfort. The black and white and green and blue and violet pigments permeated deep into the ice.
“How?” she whispered, entranced. And there—deep inside the black at the center of the statue—there was something else . . .
She looked up at the voice. It belonged to a middle aged man with graying temples and a kind smile.
“There are layers of colored glass inside the ice, a bit like those Russian nesting dolls, with ice in between each layer and in a thin layer on the surface.”
“You know Russian nesting dolls?” The magpie-girl asked, surprised.
“Mortals make beautiful things.” He winked, as if acknowledging a shared secret.
The magpie-girl usually had a clever tongue when it came to bargaining—the number one rule of which was never show just how much you want something. But it felt wrong to pretend less-than-true interest in something so magnificent. It was no gift for a Summer soon-to-be-queen, or for a roommate or a brother, but for a magpie-whirlwind-Winter-princess, it was more than perfect.
A squawk sounded by her ear, the only warning as Glint almost collided into the side of her head before making herself at home on the girl’s shoulder. The magpie-girl looked down to find the rest of her birds pecking at the chill flagstone floor around her feet. Sorrow flew up and landed next to the statue, as if inspecting an interloper. He walked around it in a wide circle with precisely placed footsteps and head cocked sideways.
Their presence gave the magpie-girl the bartering verve she’d been missing. She grinned, ready to ask the price and make a deal. As she opened her mouth, a gnarled but strong hand tightly grasped her upper arm.
“One doesn’t barter for such things, my dear.”
The gnarled hand was attached to an old woman covered in layers and layers of the finest silks—but only in hues of gray. She tugged and, still caught be her surprise, the magpie-girl followed. The woman led her surprisingly quickly through the fray. People jostled the Winter princess but never seemed to touch the woman. They arrived at a market stall that was swathed in all kinds of fabrics in the same shades of gray as the woman’s clothing. Instead of standing out against the brilliance of the surrounding panoply, it was subsumed by it, almost fading in plain sight.
Curious now, the magpie-girl ducked through the curtains and found herself inside a small room full of bundled cloth and baskets of loose thread. In the dim light, she couldn’t tell if they were gray by nature or just gray by lack of light.
A low wooden table sat in the center of the crammed space, surrounded by a collection of pillows in abstract patterns of black and white. The woman settled down with the ease of familiarity and began pouring two cups of steaming tea. The magpie-girl—and her birds—hesitatingly joined her.
She took a sip out of the lovely glass teacup. “Mm. Persian?”
The woman’s lips twitched up. “A bit blasphemous of me, I know, but I do enjoy the cardamom.”
But she didn’t answer, apparently fully engrossed in her drink. The Winter princess drank hers as well and waited.
She wasn’t the most patient person in the world. She set her cup down with a clank.
“What did you mean back there, that I can’t barter for that statue?”
“Statue?” the woman scoffed, putting down her empty glass as well. “I wasn’t speaking of the statue.”
The woman lurched forward like a striking cobra and grabbed the magpie-girl’s hands in her own.
“Let me read.”
“Something like that.” She inspected both palms with utter concentration, nose almost brushing the girl’s skin. Her eyebrows lifted. “Left it is,” she muttered.
She strained to her feet and ambled over to one of the dark niches created by stacked rolls of cloth. Coming back to the table, she set down a roughly cut cube of ice, large enough to need both of her hands.
More gently than before, she picked up the magpie-girl’s left hand and placed it palm down on top of the ice. The princess didn’t protest—she’d seen this type of reading performed before. When the skin of her hand was good and cold, a pleasant tingly feeling to someone from Winter, the woman took it again, palm face up. She reached in one of her gray pockets and pulled out a handful of snow. The flakes sprinkled down from her fingers in a tiny flurry, a microcosm of the tumbling snow out in the courtyard. They stuck to the girl’s frozen skin in delicate patterns.
The woman inspected the patterns and began to laugh.
“As I said!” she crowed loudly, causing the magpies clustered around their magpie-girl to mutter atonally in reply, a disgruntled chorus.
The Winter princess lifted a brow in a mute question.
“That you should not barter for something that is already yours.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The gift you were seeking has been found, and it is more than the midwinter token you had planned.”
“I had nothing planned. That was rather the problem.”
“It was planned for you. Which,” the old woman pursed her lips, “can also be problematic.”
The magpie-girl wasn’t laughing. “What exactly was planned for me?”
The woman, still holding her hand, drew her closer until their faces almost touched. The old woman’s eyes were a deep black and for one moment seemed older than the world.
“Why do you think it was a magpie?”
There was a jolt, and the Winter princess suddenly found herself standing in the midst of the rushing crowd, the old woman and her stall of gray curtains completely vanished. Her hair was mussed as if she had just traveled with her whirlwind. But she hadn’t. All six of her magpies were complaining loudly, feathers humorously askew.
But she still wasn’t laughing.
“Whoever that woman was, I’ll—“
An oblivious shopper bashed into her without apology. She caught herself and snarled them away. Not that she’d known how that sentence was going to end anyway.
Enough, she thought. She raked her gaze over the stands nearby. “Come on, my lovelies. I want that statue, and then we’re going somewhere else. Away from crazy shoppers and too much color and quack fortune-tellers.” She kept spinning, looking for the right shop. “There.” Halfway across the courtyard, she recognized the top of the statue vendor’s stall.
She stalked off, white curls bouncing behind her, a few black feathers stuck in them. Her birds followed, more or less, and at their own pace.
Halfway to her goal, she spotted a black silhouette spiraling down out of the sky above the courtyard, its outline blurred by the still-falling snow. She furrowed her brow, looked behind her, counted six, and turned back to the approaching bird. It was also a magpie. And it was carrying something. As if caught up in the script of a play, the Winter princess recognized her cue and lifted up her hands to catch the object as the swooping bird let it go from its claws.
It was a pomegranate.
The deliverer of the fruit dropped gracefully to the ground at her feet.
“Since when do magpies find pomegranates appealing?” Much less give them to a stranger. She looked down at the unfamiliar bird, which was looking back up at her in a similar questioning manner, head sideways.
“Shiny,” the bird croaked.
The magpie-girl started, almost dropping the fruit. “Well aren’t you full of surprises.” She frowned at the pomegranate. “And secrets.”
She knelt down on the cold flagstones, which were only kept from icing over in the flurrying snow by the constant tread of hundreds of feet. The owners of those feet still bustled by, oblivious. The girl scooted over a few inches, moving her fingers out of the way of the main path. She looked back at the bird.
“Since when do pomegranates shine?”
“Secret,” came another croak, but nothing more.
She huffed, her temper rising again. “Fine. Whatever.” She stood up and brushed off her knees. “It might not be shiny, but it is a fruit. And I’m hungry.”
She pulled a small knife out of her boot, split the pomegranate open, and indecorously began to scoop out the sweet arils with the knife’s tip, mindful of the sharp edge against her tongue. Ignoring the strange new bird, she started toward the stall once more, spitting out the hard inner seeds as she walked, intentionally not mindful of who might object.
A bird landed on her shoulder. The new bird.
“Don’t get too comfortable. I have six of you already.” The stall and its beautiful wares were now before her. “And I’m in the market for a seventh, albeit of ice and glass.”
But where was it?
“Ouch!” She spit out an offending seed, which had almost cracked a tooth, into her palm. But it wasn’t just a seed; the aril was still around it. It was hard, though—gemlike, almost faceted—catching the subtle light of the sun shifting through the snow. The white seed inside showed through at one end.
She barely noticed, attention riveted on something else. Rather, on the lack of something else.
“Did you sell it?” she asked the vendor breathlessly.
“What do you mean, did I sell it? Looks to me like you’re wearing it.”
“Wearing—” She looked at her shoulder, where the new bird did seem preternaturally still, its damp feathers glinting ice-like in the pearly light. But it breathed. Could the vendor see that? She looked at the partially eaten fruit in her hand and remembered the something she thought she’d seen in the depth of the statue’s black glass.
“Oh,” she breathed. “I—I see.”
“It has nothing to do with seeing, child. And everything to do with knowing.” The old woman was at her elbow, as if she’d never disappeared. The magpie-girl’s irritation came back quickly.
“And what might that knowledge be?” she snapped.
And somehow they were back inside the old woman’s stall, seated on cushions around the low table, the teapot steaming. The woman was still speaking as if they had not moved. And the Winter princess still held the cut pomegranate in one hand, the gem-like aril in the other. The new bird—in her head she called him Secret—ruffled his feathers against her ear. Her other birds were perched once more on the cushions around her.
“A story about the king of a cold, unforgiving place, and the daughter of summertime, whom he desired beyond all else. He brought her to his kingdom and laid before her a choice. Which she made.” The old woman looked at her knowingly over the top of her teacup. “There was a pomegranate in this story as well.”
The magpie-girl felt her lips part in the shock of understanding. “That story? This is that story?”
“Of course it’s that story, child. Every story is just a thread in the larger, never-ending tapestry of the ever-spun world. Some particular threads, let us say, return to the fore of the weft more than once, or even twice. Trust me, for I know something of spinning.” She grinned.
The Winter princess eyed the baskets of thread and saw them with a new understanding as well.
“Yes, I imagine you do.”
“What else do you imagine?”
The magpie-girl looked down at her hands. “I imagine,” she said slowly, “I will find five more of these, shall we say, special seeds inside this pomegranate.”
“Hm. I imagine you just might.” The woman shifted to push herself to her feet. As she walked past the seated girl toward the curtained doorway, she saw how the young princess’s brow had furrowed. “What is it now?”
“It’s just . . .”
“Spit it out.”
The magpie-girl let out a small laugh. “But she—didn’t she eat them? In the story. I thought she ate them.” She thrust out her hands and what they held toward the woman. “The six seeds. If she ate them, how are they here?!”
The woman, halfway out the door, huffed. “Child, it’s not always the reality of a story that is true. There are six. Eaten, yes. Yet six are here. And now the choice is yours.” Then she was gone, the curtain falling to a close behind her.
“No,” the magpie-girl replied to her birds, all seven of them. “It’s actually not my choice at all. In the old story, it was the daughter of summertime’s choice, and that has not changed in the new one. And her choice has already been made.” A wide grin spread across the Winter princess’ face. “How about it, my beauties? What would you say to a visit to the Summer palace? We can’t let my brother have all the adventures in this family, now, can we? And I have a gift to deliver.”
Their squawking replies were indifferent at best, but she didn’t take it to heart. That was the way of magpies.
Six months later, at the wedding of the Winter king and the Summer princess, her brother wore a beaten silver circlet, and his bride wore a faceted gold one. Each crown had three small gems inlaid into the front, gifts from the Winter princess and her magpies.
The stones shone with the reddish-pink hue of pomegranate arils.
And the people of both realms, entranced by the symbols of a story they both revered, rejoiced.
Meet Christina Ruth Johnson!
Christina Ruth Johnson has her master’s degree in art history with a research focus on the Bronze and Iron Age Eastern Mediterranean. She studies medieval literature, folklore, and fairy tales on the side. Currently, Christina teaches art and art history at a school that, she swears, is just about as close to Hogwarts as a muggle school can get. Beyond teaching, which she loves, she has aspirations of becoming a novelist. Or an archaeologist. If best comes to best, she’ll get to write and dig and teach all at once.
Contact Info: GoodReads
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This is a lovely story and it certainly takes a twist off from the familiar.
Thank you, Lil!
You will notice that there is a weird ending to this tale–combine lack of sleep with prepping for final exams week, and one completely misses the fact that old story notes are still attached to the draft of a story one has just submitted for very public publication. So please, until it is fixed, imagine that the story ends with the line, “And the people of both realms, entranced by the symbols of a story they both revered, rejoiced.” Thank you! ~Christina
And it’s fixed. *grin*
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