Deep in the woods on the north side of the village, past the densest trees, was a glade, and in the center of that glade was a lake of crystalline water surrounded by the rarest flora any villager had ever seen.
In the summer months, the children from the village scurried amidst the trees like sprites and squandered their days swimming in the cool depths of the lake. The water in that lake was especially refreshing. It trickled down from the cavernous mountain above, the one that not a soul dared to climb out of fear of the beast that lurked within it.
Fewer children braved the long trek to the glade in the winter. Those who did in hopes the lake might be frozen enough to skate upon knew not to touch the crimson flowers whose blooms poked through the snow and ice. Frost Flowers, they were called, and though lovely to look upon and even sweeter-smelling than gingersnaps, they were lethal. Even the briefest contact, a mere graze of one’s fingers upon the vivid petals, would curse the reckless fool with Frozen Sickness.
The oldest and wisest of the villagers said it was the Frost Fury, a malevolent witch and mistress of the Frost Flowers who cursed those who dared to touch her blossoms. Regardless of its origins, Frozen Sickness froze the blood of those afflicted, freezing every vein until the heart itself turned to ice and beat no more.
There was but one cure for Frozen Sickness. Some would argue death was a fate more favorable than what awaited those brave enough to seek such a cure.
Like most men of one-and-twenty years, Rainor knew to steer clear of the Frost Flowers. His young sister Wilhelmina, however, was a sickly child and never once had she been able to walk the distance from the village to the lake during the winter. Her joints were rheumy, and the frigid temperatures caused her to stiffen with pain so severe she could seldom climb the stairs, let alone muck through the snow to peer upon the lake she would never be able to skate atop.
Rainor loved his sister dearly and there was not a thing he wouldn’t do to put a smile upon her face. That included carrying her the distance to the lake atop his broad back and shoulders made strong from lifting heavy bags of flour in the family bakery. Early one winter’s morning, before the sun appeared over the horizon, Rainor hefted her frail form and did just that.
They reached the glade just as the sun said hello to the day and turned the sky the color of the Forget-me-nots that grew outside the candy shop in the spring. It was Wilhelmina who drew the comparison. She chattered on about how the sky looked like one large flower, the sun like the bright, yolky center nestled between the petals. Rainor smiled and carefully lifted her off his back and set her atop the stump of a felled tree near the shore of the frozen lake.
Her powder-blue eyes roved sleepily about the clearing and she proclaimed, “Rainor, it’s so lovely here. I think I might like to stay a while, if that’s alright.”
Rainor could deny her nothing and said, “Of course. We’ll stay as long as you’d like; until after dark if it pleases you.”
He was wrapped around her finger: no doubt about it.
She laughed because she knew it, and Rainor couldn’t help but grin right back as he reached into the deep front pocket of his heavy winter coat. He procured two day-old rolls of bread, and after handing Wilhelmina hers, he settled down against the base of a sturdy tree with gnarled, upturned roots.
Watching his sister marvel over the novelty and beauty of her surroundings was entertainment enough for Rainor. He spent the morning watching Wilhelmina first do nothing more than gaze widely from her perch, her mouth gaping in wonder like a little fish. Then, she tentatively explored in a small radius around the tree stump. Eventually, she plopped right down into the snow to build an army of snowmen, each nary a foot in height.
After a time spent watching his sister, Rainor’s early awakening and hike through the woods caught up with him and his eyelids grew heavy with fatigue. His blonde lashes beat a whisper against the crest of his cheeks until he succumbed to a nap against the tree.
Perhaps it was the sudden silence, the absence of Wilhelmina’s giggling laughter, or simply a brotherly intuition, but something caused Rainor to startle awake some time later. He blinked his eyes against the bright, mid-day sun and sought his sister out in the clearing. He saw her neither near her legion of snowmen, nor near the stump she first had rested upon. Instead, his eyes alighted on her slight form kneeling along the edge of the frozen lake.
Rainor stretched and stood before crossing the clearing toward her. He smiled at the sharp spike of laughter that flew from her grinning mouth.
“Look, Rainor!” she laughed. “I’ve never seen a flower poke through the frost, have you?”
The smile slipped from Rainor’s face as his eyes focused upon the red flower, a single bloom standing out in stark opposition to the snowy landscape like a drop of blood upon the fairest skin.
Rainor felt his blood drain from his face and shouted, “Wilhelmina, don’t!”
But it was too late.
Her tiny fingers grazed the delicate, deadly petals. Still, Rainor flung himself at her and knocked her fingers away.
He sobbed and gathered her against him, holding her to his chest.
“Rainor, I’m cold.” Wilhelmina’s teeth chattered as she shivered violently in his arms.
He buried his face in her soft, blonde hair, so she wouldn’t see the tears streaming down his face. He wanted to remain the ever-stoic brother and so he gathered himself and said, “You mustn’t touch those flowers, Wilhelmina. Never again, do you understand?”
He said it as if warning her could undo the damage already done. She nodded and burrowed deeper into his chest to soak up some of his warmth.