First Winter

Rated K, no warnings. Duck begins to learn how to survive her first winter.

Silver- white and the blue of night; the brilliant moon shining on new snow and black water. The storm had passed that evening, finally. It had snowed part of last night and all day today, off and on, a fine, light, fluffy snow. All that was left was wind: stiff breezes picking up clouds of crystals, dropping them when they died, then blowing them flat with powerful gusts. Lazy wind, Fakir had quoted once, amused; too lazy to go around you, it goes through you instead.

Someone had let dogs out. To be fair, thought Duck, they'd probably been kept in all last night and today until the storm was over. Still, there they were, bounding around the banks, happy and playful in snow up to their knees. Thank goodness they weren't retrievers. They stopped at the lake's edge. But they knew she was there, hiding in the reeds where the shallow water was still and the wind didn't ripple across the cold water.

It had been a long, tiresome night and day, and it looked as if it would be another long, chilly night. Flying wasn't a good idea in this wind, not with her wing that had once been broken; as for the snow, she simply wasn't made to plow through it the way the dogs were. She should have accepted Fakir's invitation at noontime to stay inside at Charon's, she supposed; but the dry, smoky air in the house by the forge could be as uncomfortable for her as the cold air, and as for the ammonia in the stable... no matter how clean it was kept normally, sometimes the cart just couldn't get through. Mucking-out had been irregular in the last few weeks.

But this night was already the coldest she'd ever known. Even the dry hearthside would be more comfortable, certainly the kitchen or Fakir's room would be better. She tucked her bill under her wing, still keeping one eye the dogs.

There was a dance program at the Academy tonight. Fakir would have spent the afternoon in class and the evening performing; snow would not deter the students or parents from the town from coming, so it hadn't been cancelled. It wasn't that much snow for a human to walk in, and the wind would break against the town wall.

The dogs were still there. Her feet didn't feel particularly cold; they never seemed to. Nor was her underside particularly uncomfortable from being in the water. When she could climb onto dry land, she would simply shake off the water and feel nothing. She liked her winter plumage. She knew Fakir envied her for it, Fakir who attracted odd looks for being under- dressed in shirtsleeves when passers-by were in their heavy overcoats. Tonight, though, there was the unfamiliar sensation of cold pressing in upon her from all sides. Fakir had told her it would be too cold. Worst night of the season, perhaps, and the freeze might last for days.

She'd never experienced winter before. She wasn't even a year old. Until tonight it hadn't been bad. It had been fun. There was a steep place on the bank where she had slipped on the icy, crusty snow left from a few weeks ago, and she had slid down into the water; then she'd flapped back up, and slid back down, again and again, and Fakir had laughed harder than she had ever heard him when he had seen her....

He had wondered if this lake ever froze over thickly enough for skating. He'd never tried skating, although Charon had a few old pairs of skates in the shop. So far, though, there had been nothing but a little rime about the shore in places, little collars of ice around the reed- stalks and the willow roots. There were drifting clumps of frozen slush from the day's snow now, though.

The dogs were still there, nosing around, and she was upwind. Stalemate. She could paddle out to open water, perhaps, but as long as she didn't move they might not be tempted to try for her. The open surface was exposed to this hard, fickle wind, and to the dogs' sight and hearing.

She wasn't certain when she dozed off, but it was the cold that woke her, not the dogs. They were gone. The howling she heard was the wind blasting over and through her imperfect sanctuary. She'd be more comfortable out of the water, now, maybe in the complicated labyrinth of roots under the willow where she usually nested. The snow was always lighter there.

She paddled, and did not move.

How long was I asleep? she wondered. Ice held her fast. Had it been growing all evening, spreading out from each mass of drowned snow, reaching from the frozen bank, as she had been listening for those dogs?

There was a clear channel, just out of reach a few feet away, off to one side. She paddled harder. No result. Could she fly out? Her wings were free. She could raise them. She extended them, cautiously, as far as she dared, but they were being fouled by the reeds. She couldn't flap, and the wind was at the wrong angle to lift her anyway.

That was when she began to realize that she was in trouble. She could survive the night, she was sure. The wild ducks and geese that stopped here talked about this. The sun would come up, and it would melt the ice enough to break out. She would be hungry and cold, but alive.

But they also talked about others, ones who were frozen in as the ice turned to slush beneath them, then needles, then entirely solid. Unable to move or eat, they lost warmth and energy, and shortly their will; unable to preen, their coats would no longer protect them from cold air or water. When the ice grew that thick, though, there was little chance of freezing or starving to death, for then it would hold firm under the paws and feet of their enemies....

When her fit of panic passed, she found that she had damaged a few wing feathers. Her feet were moving sluggishly through water that was growing thicker by the moment. She was breathing heavily, and even that was difficult because she was still held tight.

It was that which nearly broke her, being unable to breathe deeply enough even to cry. She had to blink and shake her head; the tears were freezing on her face, and making her eyes uncomfortable. On top of everything she didn't need her eyes to freeze shut.

The slush was thicker under her feet.

There must be something she could do! Legs, wings. Wings, useless. Legs? Keep moving, Duck. Don't let the water freeze under me. What else? Of course!

Carefully, she tried to work her bill between her body and the ice, pressing it into her feathers. Then she wiggled it.

Ouch. No, that wasn't working, was it? It would have to be a very last resort. The ice was getting thicker. How could she live at all if she broke her bill?

Was the water lighter under her feet? Perhaps. She probably couldn't agitate the water enough to melt the ice, but she must try. She paced herself, picking a piece of music. Waltz of the Flowers. That calmed her. How long could she keep this up?

As long as I can, she told herself. When day comes there will be dogs but they'll be on leashes. Maybe Fakir will come before classes. He'll call me a moron and I won't even want to bite him for it. He'll be right. I should have been looking out for other things as well as loose dogs.

She couldn't paddle forever. Was it even midnight yet? But there was water under her again, not slush. She could sense the ice just beyond the reach of her feet, waiting for her to give in, to stop moving.

She wanted very badly to sleep. Was this how people froze to death? she wondered. There had been times that she had wanted to quit: quit ballet, quit school, quit being Princess Tutu, quit being human, quit being a duck. Never had she wanted to quit being, not really. But this... the ice sapped everything from her, leaving only a desire for sleep. Did it happen this way, when a person gave in to the promise of rest? Did life itself come to mean less than that bit of comfort?

The longer a person resisted, the more likely it was to happen, whether they willed it or not.

Was this what Rue had tried to make happen, in the belly of the Raven, when she had tried to dance herself into a final exhaustion?

Duck had never understood how anyone could give in so completely to such feelings, until Drosselmeyer had tried to get Fakir to write her death here. He had called this place the Lake of Despair. But that had been different; then, she had had a purpose. Something would have been accomplished by her death. This, right now, was useless, and stupid, and a lot of other words Fakir would think of.

She jerked back to awareness, realizing that she had stopped paddling for a moment and had actually dropped off to sleep again. It was difficult to persuade her feet to move, to break up the slush under her body once more. Could she move anything else yet?


She thought of something. The joints of her wings pushed down on the surface, as straight as she could hold them. She wriggled and jerked, kicking as hard as she could, flinging herself from side to side, moving every muscle she had.

She subsided, panting. As soon as she had her breath back, she tried her bill again, more gently.

A single chip broke away.

She looked at it.

Then she tried just her lower bill. Could she scrape, instead of break? It was awkward, but a little ice melted in her mouth. She remembered to paddle.

She could only reach in front of herself and a little to the sides, but that would have to do. She had no sense of time and no way to see any progress, only the taste of ice-melt on her tongue.

As she worked, she saw something she had missed. The ice had been nearly perfect when she had first awoken. Now there was a crack between her and the nearest reed, one that had been in the way of her wing.

This time, instead of thrashing so wildly, she bent her efforts toward the crack.

It was misleading. It didn't give way. She never remembered quite how it happened, but suddenly one of her feet was behind her on the surface, and the wing on that side gave way, slipping away from her body. Her other leg came up under her and found ice to push against, and she half- rolled, half- slid a few inches. She scrambled away, sliding, whether toward the bank or the open water didn't matter, she was free....

Her wing didn't quite work right, but she could flap up onto the bank. The wing hurt, but not like it had when it had been broken by the ravens. Places stung on her body where down had pulled out; she'd have to be very careful about going in the water for a while. There were chunks of ice frozen to her coat, and her legs were scraped.

But she was alive, and free of the ice. The wind was still roaring above her, but she had landed on a place where the ground was blown almost clear. Until they were almost upon her, she nearly missed the boot- steps.

He always knows, she thought. Whether he had just come to check on her, or had written out her thoughts before he went to bed, or had even written her out of her mess, she didn't know and didn't care; it would wait for later. This time she would just go home.

Author's Notes: I do not know how this would really play out, but I know it happens. I remember hearing of a flock of swans trapped at the lake near my grandparents' once. I have no idea what a real duck would do or feel though; this is all conjecture.

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