Frost and Forfeits {A Christmas Short Story}

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The fearless Wren Thistlewaite called his trusty mount, a badger by the name of Alfric, to a stop. Wren’s pointed fairy ears heard the low, keening groans of a Ballybog from deep within the depths of the Fetid Fen. Alfric shifted nervously underneath the fairy prince.

“It’s all right, friend,” Wren said as he slid from Alfric’s saddle. The air was warm, but with the wave of his hand, flurries of snow danced from his fingertips and a long sword made of solid ice formed in his hand. “I won’t be long. When I’m done, there will be no Ballybog to terrorize the Ealdun goblin settlement.”

Alfric gave a sigh and shook his black and white striped head.

“Have a little more faith in me,” Wren said. He gave Alfric a pat on the snout then slipped away into the murky mist of Fetid Fen to meet his foe.

* * *

“I really wish you would reconsider Frank Dods,” Susie Green says.

Ivy Walsham avoids her sister’s gaze by keeping her eyes fixed on the dull, frost-covered countryside that bounces and pitches past the carriage window. Marrying Frank Dods is out of the question, but Ivy doesn’t want to sully the mood further with this tired argument. Especially not when Susie’s husband, Sir Gilbert Green, sits on the crimson velvet-covered bench directly across from them. He’s sandwiched between two bickering children and Ivy doesn’t want to further distress the poor man with all the reasons why she would be miserable if she married his dear friend, Mr. Dods.

“Frank is so keen on you,” Susie says.

“It would be a great match,” Gilbert ads. “He has an estate and a respectable income. You wouldn’t be married to someone tethered to their trade.”

Ivy’s stomach pitches and it’s not from carriage sickness. Their renewed attempts to wear her down means Mr. Dods will in all likelihood be a guest at the Smith’s Christmas festivities.

“Please,” Ivy says, turning to her sister. “Please don’t make me explain myself again.”

“I know,” Susie replies. “But you are still too young to be released into your own guardianship.”

“I am twenty years of age with a stable source of income and—”

“Twenty is too young to be out in polite society on your own. With your income and growing fame, you would leave yourself open to the opportunistic devices of less-reputable men without a husband to guide you and protect you.”

Hot anger floods Ivy’s veins. “As far as my happiness is concerned, that is the last reason I would ever consent to marry someone.”

Susie grabs her hand, which only heightens Ivy’s distress. “Sister, be sensible.”

“I am! I have enough income from The Tales of Wren Thistlewaite that my editor says I could afford my own place in London. The second volume is already hitting the shelves in time for Christmas and Mr. Parket has already bought the rights to publish the third.”

“Yes, but people may tire of reading Wren’s adventures. Just because you and your badger-riding fairies have captured the attention of the nation, doesn’t mean they will hold it forever.”

Ivy steals her hand back and folds her arms across her chest. The carriage turns up a street and the familiar hedgerows of the Smith’s estate pass the window. To Ivy, the manicured trees signal her impending doom. She wants to feel pity for her sister and her husband that they have been saddled with such a stubborn ward, but the task of settling her with a suitable husband is a trial of their making. The only reason they will not release her to her own care is owed to their misguided fears that she would bring the judgment of society down upon them for some imagined impropriety.

She had hoped to prove herself a sensible, responsible woman over the past year, but Susie had remained firm in her opinion that Ivy would not be allowed to strike out on her own without a husband while she was still of marrying age. “It’s simply not done,” was a familiar refrain.

“Is this about that Jack fellow?” Gilbert asks. “We haven’t seen him in months.”

Ivy’s heart gives a tremulous jump at the mention of Jack.

Susie seizes on this and turns violently in her seat. “Oh, Ivy. Please tell me you aren’t refusing to see sense because you’re still pining for a man who has disappeared from all society for the past nine months.”

“No!” Ivy insists, but a sad ache fills her gut as she remembers the wonderful weeks she’d had with Jack this time last year. “No, this isn’t about Jack.”

“Maybe I can talk with Mr. Parker and see what he says about Ivy’s prospects,” Gilbert says. “If her income from her little stories is as secure as she says…”

“It’s out of the question, Darling,” Susie says and that’s the end of that.

* * *

When Ivy entered the library, she found Jack standing at an open window. The cold air caught on her bare arms and sent a ripple of gooseflesh over her skin. It was cool, but there was a distinct earthy smell on the breeze. The ground was starting to thaw. Jack held his hand out and caught the little drips of an icicle in his pale, upturned palm.

“Jack?” Ivy asked.

His tall, slender frame turned to her and he wiped his palm on the leg of his pants. “Ivy.” He said her name with a longing that threatened to break her heart.

“What has gotten into you? Has something happened?” She asked.

The sounds of laughter and music slipped into the quiet library as the dinner party carried on without them.  He ran a hand through the curls of his thick black hair. “I have to go soon.”

Ivy shivered at both his words and the cold that seeped through the open window in icy tendrils. “Go? Why?” She ran her gloved hands over her arms to chase away the cold.

Jack noticed and pulled the window closed. “It’s my time.”

Ivy went numb as she realized what he was saying. “What does that mean? Why are you going? Where are you going?” Her voice was hardened with anger; she didn’t like it when he was evasive.

When they’d met, she’d written it off as a coquettish flirtation that he held back vital little details about himself. There had always been a twinkle in his ice-blue eyes when he’d offered her little bits of who he was. If it had been a ploy to get her attention, it had worked. But months after their meeting, he was still as much a mystery to her, and the rest of society for that matter, but society had come up with quite a few rumors about the handsome Jack Ashmore — each more unplausible than the next.

Ivy had tested them all on Jack for his endless amusement. He wasn’t a lost Russian Prince, the son of a Venetian courtesan, or a French spy. But now that the twinkle was gone, Ivy was done playing games. She needed answers.

“Jack, are you in trouble?”

He shook his head and a dark curl fell on his forehead. “No.”

Ivy crossed to him and took his hand in hers. It was cold, but the sensation of his rough hands on her silk gloves warmed something in her fingertips. “Then please. Give me something. Anything.

Jack dipped his forehead to rest against Ivy’s. “I can’t tell you who I am. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

Ivy tipped her head up to look into his eyes. “Why? Don’t you trust me?”

“I do, but I want you to understand and you have to understand in order to come with me.”

His hands were cool when they settled on the sides of her face. “You want me to come with you?” she asked.

“I do. More than anything in the world. But…”

“What?”

“I can’t exactly promise life with me with me would be easy, but there would be adventure and beauty and…” he went quiet.

Ivy drew back so she could see Jack’s face. “And?”

Jack didn’t answer. He leaned forward and touched his soft pink lips to the curve of Ivy’s cheek. She took in a shuddering sigh and her nose filled with the warm smell of him. Cinnamon. Cloves. Nutmeg. Her eyes fluttered closed.

“You need to figure out my name to open that door.” Jack’s whisper brushed against Ivy’s ear, but when she opened her eyes, the man was gone.

* * *

For Ivy, the endless stream of Christmas merriment has seemed like something out of a nightmare. The forced jollity. Meaningless small-talk with Gilbert’s cousins. The only bright spot is her editor, Ezra Parker, and his wife, Lilian, who have traveled to London to spend the holiday with Lilian’s family. For Christmas dinner, Ivy is pleased to find herself seated beside Lilian with Ezra seated across the table. Frank Dods is seated directly across from Ivy, but her view of him is blessedly obstructed by an overbearing centerpiece of evergreen branches and poinsettias that makes conversation impossible without leaning into one’s neighbor.

Mr. Dods tries, nonetheless, to keep Ivy’s attention with reports of his afternoon hunting, but he is soon too distracted with his plate of Christmas goose, mince pies, and sweet potato pudding to try to impress her with his sporting pursuits.

Ivy takes a sip of brandy rum punch when she feels Lilian’s hand on her arm.

“Ezra says I’m not allowed to ask about the third installment of Wren’s adventures, but I have to ask you, how do you come up with such fantastic stories? I was reading the first book to our girls before bed, but even I couldn’t put it down,” Lilian says. “I had to know if Wren would escape the Ballybog of Fetid Fen.”

Ivy looks to Ezra who gives her an apologetic smile. “I can concur,” Ezra says. “She stayed up till three finishing the story after the girls fell asleep.”

“I’ve always made up little tales to entertain my sister Susie when we were children,” Ivy replies. “I’d written a few novels for Mr. Parker, but none of them received the kind of response as Wren has received. To answer your question. Wren Thistlewaite came to me in a dream last spring. It was so vivid that when I woke I knew I had to write it down.”

Lilian looks at her with admiration. “Absolutely fascinating.”

Ivy laughs, unsure if there really is anything fascinating about sitting at her desk to scribble out children’s stories every day.

“So Wren’s adventures just pop into your head?” Lilian asks.

“I suppose you could say that. When I sit down to write, Wren’s life just flows from my pen.”

“The girls love the illustrations.”

“Thank you,” Ivy says.

“Those are your work too?”

“Yes,” Ezra says. “She’s multitalented this one.”

Lilian looks seriously impressed. “Well, I could read of Wren’s adventures all day.”

Ivy smiles and her heart races at the thought of picking up her pen and starting to write. “So could I.”

After dinner, someone recommends a game of blind man’s bluff and Ivy has had just enough hot brandy and rum punch to join in on the scheme. The entire party moves to the parlor where chairs and sofas and tables are pushed back against the walls so the players won’t risk injuring themselves.

“And what rules will we play by?” Gilbert asks.

Mr. Dods steps forward, a smirk beneath his dandy little mustache. “The proper way to play is for whoever is ‘it’ to correctly guess who they’ve caught in order to exchange places. If they guess wrong, the person is released.”

“That’s how I’ve played,” Susie says. “And you can feel the person’s face to try to figure out who you’ve caught.”

Ezra Parker stands and loosens his necktie to be used as a blindfold. “It’s been a while since I’ve played, but I have a suggestion to make this more interesting. I say if the person guesses who they’ve caught wrong, they may pay a forfeit in exchange for another guess.”

“What kind of forfeit?” Mr. Dods asks.

“The captured’s choice, of course,” Ezra says. “You either complete the forfeit or release them.”

“An excellent idea,” Lilian chimes in. “So who goes first?”

Mr. Dods turns to Ivy. “Miss Walsham? Would you like to do the honors?”

Ivy looks around the room and when no one else comes to her rescue she turns to Ezra and accepts her fate. “Well if there are no other volunteers…”

“Don’t worry.” Ezra slips the blindfold over her eyes. “I’ll keep Mr. Dods away from you if I can,” he whispers.

“Thank you,” Ivy replies, her voice hushed.

With her vision fully obscured, Ezra leads her to the center of the room — at least that is what she hopes. He spins her around and the other players count each rotation. Dizzy, Ezra releases her on the count of three and Ivy stumbles forward. She’s careful not to step on the hem of her favorite blush pink, satin dress. There are several screams of delight as Ivy sticks out her hands to find her first victim.

“Over here!” Someone shouts from behind her that sounds an awful lot like Mr. Dods so Ivy continues forward. From behind her blindfold, she can’t see anything but she can hear soft giggles, the brush of skirts against chair legs, and the shuffle of feet along the floor.

She screams when her hand brushes an arm but she can’t catch her prey. “So close!” she curses.

“Over here, Miss Walsham,” she hears. It’s a deep, musical voice that hits her square in the chest with its familiarity. She knows that voice but it sounds too far away.

“Miss Walsham!” Ivy is sure it’s the voice of Lilian, but she continues after the man’s voice. She hesitates to wonder if she’s close to running into a wall, but her hands don’t find anything in her path.

“Who is that?” she hazards to ask, but there isn’t a reply. She strains to hear anyone moving around, but the room has gone suspiciously silent. “Is anyone here? This had better not be a trick,” she calls out to the empty darkness.

Just as Ivy is about to tear the blindfold from her eyes, an icy breeze sweeps through the room. Is there a window open? On the verge of panic, Ivy moves to remove the cloth from her eyes, but a cold hand grabs her by the wrist. “That’s cheating,” the deep voice says.

Ivy’s heart thunders in her ears, but the touch of the hand brings her back to the game. “Aha!” she cries as she grabs the figure by the shirt. Or is it a coat? The rough fabric feels like wool under her fingers. “I’ve got you now!”

“Yes,” the voice replies. There’s a smile in his words even if Ivy can’t see it. “Now you only have to guess my name.”

Ivy removes her gloves and feels for the man’s face, but when her fingers find a strong, stubbled jaw she loses her courage.

“Go on,” the man says. “Who am I?”

Ignoring the thudding of her heart, Ivy traces fingers over the man’s face. Her fingers trace a long, straight nose and her thumbs travel over prominent cheekbones. A face comes to mind, but she almost doesn’t want to believe it. Her finger accidentally brushes the softness of the lip and her captive smiles. Under her hands, she can feel the lines that form with that smile. “Jack!” she exclaims and tries to remove her blindfold, but he catches her hands again.

“Not so fast,” he says. “That’s what everyone calls me here, but that’s not my real name.”

“What?” Ivy cries. “Jack, not this again.”

“The gatekeeper is watching,” he says. “You need to guess my name but I believe you need to pay a forfeit before you get another guess.”

“Where is everyone?”
“I took us somewhere private.”

Ivy scoffs and places her hands on her hips. “Fine then. What is my forfeit? It’s your choice.”

“Hmm,” Jack muses. “I suppose a kiss is fair.”

Ivy’s face heats with a violent blush. “A kiss!”

“If you want another guess, you need to kiss me.”

Ivy’s stomach knots as she considers the offer. “Come here,” she says, reaching blindly for his face. She finds him and pulls him to her. His hands grip the curve of her waist and his lips brush hers. Ivy knows she should pull away now, but instead she kisses him again. And again and again, until the kisses blend into one.  Her lips part and he kisses her deeper as she breathes in the spicy cinnamon and nutmeg smell of him. His lips are soft and every stroke of them on Ivy’s mouth tightens the aching knot in her stomach.

Ivy’s hands travel from Jack’s face and into his hair, but she finally breaks the kiss when she feels something strange. “Have I earned my second guess?”

“I believe so,” Jack says, breathless.

The answer feels so close — like it’s on the tip of her tongue. “I know this,” she says as she brings her hands back to Jack’s face.

“You know this,” he confirms.

Ivy returns her hands to the thick waves of Jack’s hair when she remembers what had stopped their kiss. There was something strange about his ears — something different. Ivy tests her memory and runs fingers over Jack’s ears. They’ve changed shape. Elongated.

Another face comes to mine. One that smiled up at her from countless watercolor illustrations.

“It can’t be.”

Jack doesn’t reply but Ivy can hear him chuckle.

She feels his ears again and everything makes sense. “You’re Wren Thistlewaite,” she says. “But how?”

Soft hands draw the blindfold from her eyes, and there he is. Wren in a blue, woolen coat embroidered with a shimmering silver thread. The coat is cut in a strange fashion so it buckles at his right shoulder. The Frost Prince of the Court under the Rowan Tree stands before her, but Jack is still there underneath it all. He smiles at her and his blue eyes twinkle with an unearthly charm. She probably wouldn’t have admitted to using her memories of him to inspire the character Wren Thistlewaite, but it was more than that. “The stories I wrote…”

He smiles coyly. “I slipped them into your dreams.”

Ivy’s mind races as she thinks back to all the moments she spent scratching out Wren’s adventures before they slipped away. “So it’s all true.”

Wren nods. “All true. Now you know why I can’t stay in the mortal realm after the spring thaw?”

Ivy places her hand on his chest. “I think I understand, but does that mean I will only ever see you in the winter?”

“No.” Wren clutches her hand to his chest. “The gatekeeper is waiting to let you through. You can’t enter without passing a test but you’ve passed. You only needed to see me for who I was and believe in the world of the Fair Folk. That is, well, you can come with me into Faerie if you’d like, but it’s up to you. You’ve written my stories. You’ve lived it in your dreams. My world is full of creatures far more dangerous than what you’ll find here in your realm.”

“Would I be able to come back and see my family?”

Wren’s brow furrows. “Of course you would. I’d make sure you could come and go as you pleased”

“I —”

“I’ll go so you have time to think,” Wren says. He approaches a door across the room and stops. “I’ll be right through here. When you’re ready — if you’re ready.” He smiles then ducks through the door.

Ivy stands in the empty room half stunned and half panicked. She isn’t sure which part of the Smith’s he’d taken her to or how they’d left the parlor without causing alarm. From somewhere in the house she can hear her name called from far away. Ivy turns back to the door and finds tendrils of frost crawling from the seams. She knows what is waiting for her back in the parlor: Mr. Dods and a sister who is determined to marry her off before the end of the season.

She doesn’t know what sort of adventure awaits her on the other side, but she knows what kind of magical and mischievous world Wren lives in. Ivy crosses to the door and brushes a soft dusting of frost from the brass doorknob and turns it. The door opens a crack and an icy wind pushes it open the rest of the way.

Instead of another interior room, the door leads to a strange forest. The trees are taller than anything Ivy has ever seen and every surface is covered in a fuzzy layer of frost that makes the world sparkle.

Ivy closes the door behind her when she spots a figure in the clearing ahead of her.

Wren stands with his back to her. In front of him is a saddled badger as large as a horse. “Is that Alfric?” she asks as excitement flutters high in her chest.

Wren whirls around and lets out a gasp at the sight of her. “I didn’t want to hope—” he says on the verge of tears.

“You should have.” Ivy closes the distance between them at a run, then flings her arms around Wren’s neck.

He presses a kiss to her lips and Ivy’s pulse thunders in her ears. “I hope you like it here,” Wren whispers against her neck.

Ivy shivers. “I think I will, but first I need to find a coat.”

Wren laughs. “That can be arranged.”