Cold Snap

Court: 2.10.03:
Note: Surprisingly, this fic has no spoilers. However, if you're an absolute stickler about any HINTS of plot that crops up later, STOP READING. NOW. Happy reading. This fic is about Ansem and is a late holiday gift to Sasha. Sorry about the wait!

Winter had come early to the castle of Hollow Bastion. The spires of the towers which studded the keep were transformed into a mountain range of whitecaps; snow had flooded the land hard, and it had buried all beneath a frozen curtain. The people swore merrily when they broke it with sledge and hammer. Kettles were set on the fires to steam water for the baths, and each morning, buckets had fresh skins of ice to coat them anew.

Ansem's gardens had failed. The groundskeeper had planted roses too late into the year for them to achieve full bloom and sink their roots in to preserve themselves from the cold, and now there were only withered clumps and curled leaves left, splintering branches that resembled the skeletons of babes bundled together to blacken in the sun.

The fact that this year had been colder than most had been remarked upon by many, and tailors who had the foresight to bargain with the furriers had reaped profits by the cartload. Protection against the weather had been a high and sudden priority for many wishing seasonal gifts. Ansem, with an intense disinterest in the state of his own health, had signed off garments dutifully as he sent them out to his own obligations, but requested none returned.

The people had ignored that. It was unsurprising. Now there were more jackets than he knew what to do with in his closets, and enough gloves to repopulate a small army of rabbits. Ansem had worn them set by set and thanked those who had contributed to their king, but never admitted that nothing served to erase the cold that had crawled into his bones with the start of the year and refused eviction. No fire had succeeded yet to warm him fully, no hearth came welcome to his eyes.

Save for one.

It was quiet in his study when he returned to it. The gardener had explained both the mistake and the minutes away until Ansem's toes had moved on past being cold into full-blown numbness. He had assured the man five times over that it had been no one's fault, that it had been the whim of nature that had spoiled the odds, yet stamping his feet seemed to provide little hint of his desire to return indoors. It was only the promise of another year's spring that had finally appeased the groundskeeper, who had returned to trustling his wheelbarrow up and down the snow, carefully pruning dead bushes as if to do so would revive them.

In the warmer seasons, Hollow Bastion overflowed with growth. To see it stripped so bare was disconcerting to its king's vision, but even he had marveled at the beauty of the thin winter sun through the rows of icicles. Frost drew faces upon the glass, and they smiled before they melted at noon.

The sights were even more impression the higher up one went along the pathways that led up to the upper spires of the castle. Hollow Bastion had been wrought to have as much view of the sunlight as possible, with numerous balcony walks and windows, and now as Ansem walked dutifully around each step, he was provided with the clearest view in the world to see the snow smothering his lands.

The shadows were already waiting for him in his study room.

Ansem ignored the shapes crawling in the edge of his vision as he shucked his boots off. When they took his silence for permission and began to crowd him, voices promising to reveal at last the truth about the darkness, Ansem pitched his shoes towards their direction with a fluid twist of one arm.

It didn't drive them away, but his heart felt better for a time.

Winter's premature arrival seemed fitting this year, even welcome for how soon it had swept in from the north. Its temperatures matched Ansem's thoughts as the man found himself becoming steadily more withdrawn. It took more energy than he thought possible to rise each morning and confront the same unfinished riddles, and the days had long flown into a tired mess of empty answers. The third time in a row he had woken from where he had fallen asleep on his books, he gave up and had blankets moved into the library.

The stones which formed the windowsill drew the heat from his fingers when he touched them. Pushing himself gingerly upon the wide ledge, Ansem leaned against the frame. The metal seared with its chill. It felt good, and then the sensation faded away into only faint prickles, and Ansem touched his forehead to the pane.

Darkness inched out from the mortar and lapped his thigh. He realized he was too tired to shoo it, and only turned his eyes to the view.

Voices were raised in song in one of the halls; he could hear the vibration of the singers' throats dimly through the glass, and unhooked the latch to push the panes open. Ice air dove into the haven of the study with glee. Ansem felt his body start to shiver, and ignored it. Below him the courtyards stretched out, and he felt the sudden urge to lean out the window, spread his arms, and let himself become dizzy enough to believe he was actually flying.

Snow in such quantities was rare enough that it turned his people young again. Far below, a squire was floundering swathes behind him like the frozen crests of waves as he chased after one of his friends, who had had the luck to fashion a rudimentary pair of snowshoes and was falling down more often than he was succeeding in prancing. Two soldiers were engaged in clearing a path along the center of the main courtyard, forced to resort to pitchforks and spades to break the glistening mass down to size.

But all Ansem could see was how that pristine whiteness would become stained later when the foot traffic would stamp mud into the paths. Even the snow was dirty. No substance was capable of remaining as pure as it began.

The knock that came shook him from his thoughts.

"I've brought your tea," a voice sung out as its owner swung into the room. Legs rustled as they moved; stone was a fine material for a castle save for the fact that it refused to retain heat when snow was on the ground. The maids of the castle had decided as one to layer their floor-length woolen skirts and then reinforce them with knitted slacks. Their appearance might not have been as refined as other servitors, but they were warm, and that was all they knew that Ansem cared about.

"My Lord, really!" Politeness shed like water, the woman set the tray upon his desk and moved directly for the windowlatch. The scent of the kitchens was upon her, steam and meat mixing with the must of the books. "You'll catch your death like that." She began to reach around him, but Ansem stopped her with a hand.

"I'll be fine. I don't feel it," he lied. He did not have the confidence to look her in the eye, and dropped his gaze before he knew to stop it. "Thank you for the tea. You are dismissed."

She did not move, and surprise gave him the strength to look up again.

"The seven day feast, your Majesty." Her voice was a firm reprimand even in formality. She was younger than he, barely close to adulthood, but did not show it as she bullied her king down. "It's almost halfway over, and you haven't attended even once."

The prospect of wearing a smile seemed a task more monumental than charting an ocean without stars. Ansem tried to anyway. "My ministers can fill in for me."

"My Lord, I'm afraid people have begun to worry." It was more than duty motivating the girl now. Knowledge that the man's continued absence would only have her sent back, perhaps, or that the gossip in the castle would increase--was Ansem ill, or was he pining for one he could not be with this season? And then they would descend on him like well-meaning ravens, pulling him away from his research and insisting that he socialize more, relax more often, not worry himself with puzzles that could not be solved.

He tried to think of her name, and could not. Curious. Once he had could have recalled the identity of every inhabitant of the castle, their families beside.

He was forgetting so much these days.

In the corners of the room, he could hear the whispers of the shadows. They had not stopped since last week when he had finally learned how to differ their forms from the simple absence of light, know when a form of life was gathering in the air and when it was only a shape cast by one's hand placed before a candle. He found that he was listening to them with one ear. They were speaking of true warmth and real satisfaction, and Ansem chose to block them out once more.

"Tell them I'll be down soon."

That answer satisfied her, but she still resisted departure until Ansem closed the window himself, slid down from the sill and began to head for his desk. The tea had grown tepid quickly in its cup and he swallowed half of it down with a toss of his head, uncaring of the dusty aftertaste of the herbs when they were anything less than steaming.

It was several flights descending to the main hall where the guests had been assembled. The noise of the crowd filtered up to him in a steady crash of sound with each step he walked down, and twice he got distracted and realized he had begun to wander off into other rooms before he could catch himself. It was only because of the pair of guards stationed at the double doors to the main hall that the man finally oriented himself in the right direction. They bowed to Ansem as he approached. It struck him as strange that they would, and then the dull peace of the sleepwalker overtook him once more, the portal opening inwards to allow him entrance to dinner.

As he stepped into the lights of the great hearths, his face was bathed with the cries of his people, and the fire beat blisters in the air in time with the pumping of their hands. A word was roared again and again on dozens of throats. They were smiling eagerly, faces turned up towards him, and the torrent of sound was like a flood on his ears. Ansem's eyes slid over each anonymous set of features. Instead, his gaze was drawn to the ebon forms crawling underneath the trestle tables, in and out like worms from an unearthed skull.

A hand nudged him out of his fascination, and he turned to stare at the helmeted face of one of the men who had opened the door to this nightmare of flesh and shadow raving in the firelight.

"Are you all right, my Lord?"

Ansem finally realized then that it was his name the strangers in the hall were calling out.

He couldn't bring himself to remember how they knew him.