Four

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"You promised you would come when I called," the Winter King said, drawing me back into the present.

We were standing in a snowdrift, the wind whipping my hair about my face. Towering pines stood sentinel around us, brooding and ashen in the moonlight. Somehow, he had brought us back to the forest.

"I was bored, and you were such a sweet little thing. So helpless. I couldn't stand by and do nothing. I merely did as you asked." He reached forward and twined a lock of my hair about his fingers.

My legs swayed. "What happened to my parents?"

"I gave them back to you, of course. You already know this."

"Then where are they now?" My mouth was dry, and my heart was squeezing so painfully it was difficult to get the words out. I couldn't bring myself to ask if they were alive.

"I see you have decided to play stupid." Søren dropped his hand and took a step away from me, his cloak billowing about him.

"Please, what do you want from me?"

"We made a bargain, you and I. The time to collect has come. You agreed you would stay with me, forever."

The long-buried memory of that night was all I could see for a moment. I shook my head. However desperate I'd been, surely I couldn't have made such a binding promise as that.

"Why are you so reluctant? You were willing enough before." He moved towards me again, and traced a thumb lightly across my cheek.

But I grew chilled at the recollection. "I was only a child. I didn't understand what it meant. No, I couldn't have actually gone through with it. I couldn't have."

"You are no longer a child." His voice was a caress, barely audible. "Love me, Frida. Give in to me. I can grant all you desire." Something hard as diamond glinted in his eyes, and in spite of his coaxing tone, there was a desperate kind of tension in his stance.

With a sense of shame, I recalled the feelings he'd stirred in me earlier, as we'd travelled across the snow-drenched landscape together. I could not love him. He was cruel and pitiless as the ice that glittered all around us.

"Please, I want to see my parents." My hand was out, reaching for him. What would I need to do to get him to see reason?

"It is too late," he said, unexpectedly gentle now. "They are gone from the world. I am sorry."

"No, you gave them back. You said you'd give them back to me. You said!"

"And I have done so," he snapped. "I gave you everything you asked for, and more, yet you are still dissatisfied."

"No, I am grateful, but I want to see them, so much." Maybe it was the note of genuine concern I'd heard in his apology a moment ago that gave me courage to persist. "Please, let me go back."

"There is nothing to return to." As he turned away again, light snow began falling.

"But you said you'd give me anything I desire!" He had to be lying. He had to be. They weren't dead. They couldn't be dead.

Søren paused, his back still to me. Then he inclined his head slightly in my direction. "There are some things beyond even my power." He wasn't even trying to conceal his impatience now. "Come here, Frida." He faced me again, stern and implacable, every note in his voice a warning.

"But that is the only thing I desire..."

"Then stay out here until you've decided to stop behaving like a spoiled child." He turned on his heel, and in a few long strides, disappeared into the forest's white mists.

I swallowed, hard. He had actually left me out here alone. With no idea where I was or how to return to my own world, I simply stood there, staring at the spot where he had been only moments before.

The futility of my situation took hold of me at last, and I sank to my knees, the fine snow misting my upturned face and mingling with my tears. Clouds raced like black flames across the sky, searing the moon and obliterating the stars. I held out my hand, and the snowflakes I caught turned to ashes in my palm.

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