Read by Allie Croker
Once upon a time, in a far-away desert kingdom, there lived a prince, the darling of his people: strong and tall, with skin golden as the shifting sands, and eyes black as the desert night. On his twenty-first birthday a magnificent feast was arranged, and chieftains and merchants and artists came many miles to honour their young lord.
The occasion was magnificent and the guests giddy with wonders, but as the prince entered the dining hall he gasped again. A beautiful woman stood before him, quite naked, quite still. She was the loveliest thing he had ever seen, and the strangest; for her smooth, slender body was glistening and transparent, as though made of the clearest glass.
“What is she?” he wondered aloud.
“A sculpture in ice for your pleasure, my lord,” said a deep, foreign voice. The prince turned, and saw a muscular, light-haired man, dressed in rough furs despite the desert heat.
“Ice?” said the prince. “What is that?”
“Allow me to explain, sir. My land is so far North that in winter, water freezes, becoming solid as stone, so a man may carve figures out of it.”
“Extraordinary,” murmured the prince, glancing again at the white, shining woman.
“She is truly my masterpiece,” sighed the Northern sculptor. “A shame she will not last.”
“What! What do you mean?”
“Ice must thaw, my lord, and return to the water it once was. See, at her heart, there is a tiny flaw? It is the icicle from which she was formed. Water ran over it, and froze, creating a great crystal, and from that I carved her. She will have melted away by tomorrow.”
The prince touched his finger to the ice-maiden’s face; it came away bearing a cold drop of water, like a single tear.
“What a pity,” he said softly.
The prince ate and drank, but tasted nothing; not the peacock's eggs nor the spiced sea-flowers, nor the lion’s-tongue soup, and the heady wines had no effect on him. He longed only for the feast to finish so he could be alone with the beautiful statue, to admire her in solitude. So life-like was she, that several times during the banquet he glanced at her and started, for the way the candle-light played upon her gleaming body, he almost thought that she moved and breathed.
At last the revellers rose and left to begin the dancing. When the doors had closed behind them, the prince breathed a trembling sigh, and stepped towards the ice-maiden, his arms outstretched. His hands prickled as he clasped them about her narrow waist. He ran his fingers along the smooth curve of her arms and down the frosted waves of her long, silver hair.
“What a shame you are not a real woman,” he whispered aloud, “for I should make you mine.”
And he kissed the shimmering hardness of her frozen lips, tasting ice-water on his tongue. Withdrawing, he gazed at her one last time, then turned away.
“Do not go,” said a soft voice, like the chiming of tiny crystals.
The prince whipped around in astonishment. The ice-maiden stood motionless. But then her frozen eyelids opened and she blinked, once, and stared at him with eyes blue as glaciers. Her cold lips parted, revealing crystalline teeth, and she spoke again.
“Do not leave me, now you have awoken me!”
“What witchery is this?” gasped the prince, amazed and a little afraid.
“No witchery,” said the ice-maiden, “only what you wished for. Your kiss has given me life, and I am yours.”
Beneath the palace lay the wine-cellars, an echoing complex of caves which were always cool and still, even in the height of summer, and it was there, to a secret chamber of which only he had the key, that the prince took the ice-maiden. There he kept her to preserve her frozen beauty; there his visited her to feel the cold delight of her limbs against his, and taste the icy meltwater of her mouth. Her accommodation was simple and bare, for women of ice need neither food nor fire to live; love alone is enough for them – and so the ice-maiden believed herself quite happy.
One night, the prince entered her chamber dressed in satin and cloth-of-gold, seeming strange and offhand.
“My love, what is the matter?” she asked. “Have you something on your mind?”
He smiled distractedly. “My father died yesterday, so I was crowned today, and must send for my bride tomorrow.”
“Your bride?” she said, in a voice as soft as settling snow.
“Yes, my fiancée, the princess of the Plains,” he said. “We have been betrothed since we were born. Have I not spoken of her before? She visits often: you must have seen her.”
“I have been down here since I awoke,” said the ice-maiden quietly. “I see nobody but you.” And her eyes in the candlelight sparkled like wet diamonds.
“Of course,” said the prince hastily. “I forgot. Well, the wedding will be very magnificent, I'm sure, but rather a bore. You wouldn't want to see it anyway.”
“I should like to see her,” she said.
“Why?” asked the prince, warily.
“Because she must be very beautiful to take you from me.”
He laughed. “Oh, this is politics merely: the union of two great kingdoms! She is lovely, to be sure, and indeed I love her, for I have known her since childhood, but it is a matter of duty too.” He leaned forward and took her cold hands in his warm ones. “Besides, she won’t take me from you! I shall visit you as often as ever, and everything will be just as it was.”
“So I am to be your … mistress?” she said, and the icicle of her heart cracked a little.
The prince looked puzzled. “Why, what else could you be? You are exquisite, certainly, but you are a woman of ice. I need a real, live wife, warm and fruitful, to give me heirs. You can never do that.”
She cupped her frozen palms about his face. The prince shivered.
“Who knows what could happen? The kiss of desire made me live: could not the kiss of true love make me a true woman, such as you could marry?”
Her snow-white lips parted, and a question trembled in her ice-blue eyes.
“It cannot be,” said the prince, in a harsh voice that brooked no argument. “Besides, it is all arranged. Do not grieve, my dear. She shall be my queen of flesh and blood above, and you shall be my ice-queen below.”
And he stood, and brushed the pale frost of her tears from his velvet cloak, and left her alone in the darkness.
And so it was: for what choice had the ice-maiden, if the prince would not give her life by giving her love? She must stay as she was, a living soul in a body of ice, hiding away in a cold underground chamber from the fatal heat above, burning with pain and melting a little every time her lover embraced her.
At night, now, after he was gone, tears dropped from her eyes like glittering hail, and though she tried to gather them up, they scattered and melted. She was weeping herself away, and she felt herself shrinking, just as a sliver of ice held in the mouth will eventually melt to nothing.
Almost a year passed, and one day the prince arrived, clad this time not in velvets and satins, but in chainmail and armour, and wearing an expression of terrible solemnity.
The ice-maiden started up in alarm. “Where are you going, dressed for battle? Oh, do not leave me! I could not bear it!”
He touched her face gently with a mailed fist.
“I must go, my dear. The Western chieftains are becoming restless, and their rebellion needs crushing. I will not lose all that my father gained.”
He held out the key of her chamber.
“Here,” he said. “Lock the door behind me, and let no-one but me in, however loud they knock. I shall return.”
And he lifted his visor, and pressed his warm, living mouth to her frozen one, his lips burning hers.
For a month the ice-maiden stayed in her cavern, tortured by dreams of the prince dying on the battlefield, weeping blood from many wounds. She wondered how his queen was bearing his absence, and thought fiercely that if she had been a flesh-and-blood woman, she should have insisted on accompanying her husband, even to the field of death.
She tried not to think too often of the queen, for it made the icicle of her heart shiver and crack, but what else had she to do, alone and friendless? She wished sometimes that her rival would die in some terrible accident, and the prince return to find his wife dead. Then, she thought, he would come to her and kiss her on the mouth with the kiss of true love, and she would feel life burn like a fever in her icy veins, and would become his queen of flesh-and-blood at last.
One night she heard the cellarmen outside her door for the first time ever.
“The doctor asked for the strongest stimulants we have,” said one, “This is where we keep the Southern Tiger-Spirit.”
“D'you think she'll live?” asked another, rougher and deeper.
“If this stuff doesn't save the queen,” said the first voice adamantly, “nothing can.”
And their footsteps echoed away.
The ice-maiden's eyes widened in the darkness. So her dreadful, secret wish had come true! Her rival was gravely ill, her life despaired of! She felt guilty and elated, and could not sleep for thinking of the sick woman, lying in bed helpless, perhaps gazing her last upon the world. She yearned to look at last into the eyes of her rival and see who it was her prince had loved since childhood; had loved beyond even her.
She unlocked the heavy door of her chamber. All was silent as she crept up to the palace above. The midnight corridors were cool, and so the ice-maiden melted only a little as she emerged into a world of pink-and-gold marble, silver mirrors and gauze curtains stirring like ghosts in the night breeze. She followed the sounds of lamentation to the chamber where the sick woman lay, watching from the shadows behind a pillar, still as the statue she had once been
A white-bearded man emerged, shaking his head sadly.
“The fire-spirit has had no effect,” he said. “All we can do now is let nature take its course. If her fever does not break tonight, she will be dead by morning.”
At this, the assembled servants set up such a weeping and caterwauling that the doctor scolded them for disturbing their mistress, chasing the whole mourning crowd away from her door.
The ice-maiden, quiet and motionless in her dark corner, wondered at the affectionate devotion shown by the servants. She had always imagined her rival as an imperious, regal figure, distant and remote, a little like the prince in his black moods. Perhaps the queen was not so forbidding and magnificent as she had dreamed? No matter: her curiosity would be satisfied soon.
Softly, with no more sound than water dropping onto stone, she crossed the hall and slipped through the door.
The queen’s chamber was fearfully hot and stuffy; windows had been opened, but the sultry midsummer air and the heat from the feverish body in the bed made the ice-maiden recoil. She conquered her fear, however, and approached to gaze upon the sleeping face of the woman her prince loved.
She must have been beautiful once, but her loveliness had been ravaged by the consuming sickness. Her young cheeks, once, perhaps, soft and plump, were sunken and hectic, flushed fiery-red by the blazing fever. Her pale gold hair was dark with wild sweat, and her hands, bone-thin and wasted, clutched deliriously at the silken bedclothes.
“Why,” thought the ice-maiden, “she's only a girl!” And cold pity shivered the icicle at her heart. She stroked the queen's brow, and as the icy fingers touched her skin, the girl’s green eyes flew open, staring sightless and wild. The woman of ice leaned over to look into those eyes, and as she did so, a drop of ice-water fell from her cheek and landed on the mouth of the dying girl.
“Ah!” mumbled the queen, licking her cracked lips avidly, “O, it's so refreshing! Please doctor, more water!”
The ice-maiden shrank back. The heat rose from the queen's body in fierce waves; she was burning up like paper.
“Doctor,” whispered the queen, in a voice as dry as the desert sands, “do not let me die before I see my husband again. That is all I ask. And o, just a drop more of that sweet cold water.”
The ice-maiden stared at the thin child in the bed, the green eyes roving the shadows of the bedchamber, wide and blind. She cannot even see me, she thought in wonder. Perhaps I am not real after all, for only the prince saw me move; only his touch made me live.
She thought of the prince fighting on a Western hillside; of him returning, wounded and triumphant, to find his bride dead. She thought of the tears that would rain from his night-black eyes, down his golden cheeks, and she was surprised to find that there were tears running freely down her own frozen face; not icy, hard little hailstones, but real tears, warm and sweet. She was melting in the heat of the sick-room; she must leave the dying queen for her cold cellar chamber at once, or die herself. But she could not. For the prince loved the queen, and her death would kill him as surely as a spear or axe.
And the ice-maiden realised that it did not matter that her heart was of ice; for it could break and melt like any heart of flesh-and-blood. And nor did it matter whether or not the prince loved her, or had ever loved her; only that she had loved him.
She put her hand on the queen’s hot brow, though it scorched her to touch, and heard her sigh. Then she laid a finger across the pale, feverish lips, and watched her frozen flesh melt into the dying girl’s parched, thirsty mouth.
When the doctor entered the chamber the next morning he wondered if, perhaps, there had been a rain-storm in the night, for he was astonished to find the queen alive and sleeping peacefully, her cheeks pale and her brow cool, in a bed which was entirely drenched with icy water.
“Some miracle has wrought this!” he thought, and, gazing closer, he saw with a peculiar start of curiosity that between her parted lips lay an icicle, slender as a chip of diamond, which, even as he stared at it, melted away.
The Icicle by C.T.Kingston was read by Allie Croker at the Liars' League Fire & Ice event at The Wheatsheaf in London on Tuesday 8 December 2009.
C. T. Kingston has done a bit of writing and a bit of acting, and doesn't know which is more fun. She has appeared in a lot of productions on the London fringe and on various flash fiction websites, and is currently writing a play. Her story Something Exotic was read at Liars' League in August.
Allie Croker’s theatre credits include the acclaimed Days of Wine and Roses, comedy musical Around the World in 80 Days, one-woman show Jordan (all Theatre by the Lake) and Dorian Gray (Leicester Square Theatre). She is currently appearing in Aladdin for Lanternfish Theatre. As a voiceover artist she has recorded many online training manuals and most recently recorded a book for the RNIB.