My sister-in-law called me one evening. It surprised me. I don't get many phone calls these days, and Gina and I were always more the e-mail types. She sounded nervous and chatty, so I let her just babble around to whatever was on her mind.
"...but they're letting him play varsity anyway, which is really good for a sophomore."
"Yeah, that is good," I said. "And how's Dana?"
Gina took a deep breath. "Well, Revelry lives at her dorm."
It took me a minute to hear the capital letter. "Old Bacchus? That's not so bad for a college. Pretty typical Her grades aren't suffering, are they?"
"No, but --" Another deep breath. "She doesn't recognize him."
"Doesn't recognize him?" I sat down hard in one of my kitchen chairs. "That's impossible. We know she has the Sight, and Bacchus isn't subtle. If she could sniff out Deceit, she can surely recognize him. She'd have to be blind, or sick, or --"
"Snowblinded," said Gina.
"Oh, shit," I whispered. After a desperate silent moment, I said, "Okay. I'll be right out on the first plane I can get. I knew her dad's death was bad for her, but I had no idea -- well. You understand. I'll call you with the details."
The Chief understood why I had to go, as I knew she would. My partner was a little less swift on the uptake. "I don't know what you mean, snowblinded."
"The Snow Queen's got her," I said. "She's gotten her for something. You know, 'Snow Queen, Ice Queen, worst bitch you've ever seen'?"
"The Snow Queen was a character," said Wayne stubbornly. "Hans Christian Andersen made her up."
I laughed roughly at him. "Come on, Andersen was a Dane. You think he knew nothing about snow and ice? Where are you from?"
"San Diego," he mumbled.
"Yeah, okay, California boy, listen to me here. I know ice and snow, and the Snow Queen is real. And she's got my niece. I'm going to go get her back."
"Well, then, I'm going with you."
"You may need back-up."
"From you? What do you know about snow?"
"The Snow Queen will be weak until it starts snowing, but maybe she's got allies."
I laughed again. "Until it starts snowing? It's November 6, Wayne. It's already started snowing in Minnesota."
"I'm going with you," he said.
So he did, and while I wasn't entirely pleased with the situation, I wasn't entirely displeased, either. Wayne had spotted Observation at MacArthur Station, and he'd held up his end of the protection spell so that I could get the builder spirits to stop fighting the earthquake gods over Point Reyes. He was not entirely useless. Even if he didn't know that it pretty much always snows by November 6.
The trouble started before we ever hit the ground. We were somewhere over South Dakota when the turbulence kicked in. Someone I knew was howling in the darkness outside. The pilot flashed on the fasten seatbelts sign, and I nudged Wayne, who was sleeping in the window seat next to me. "She knows we're coming," I said.
"Maybe it's just a storm."
I snorted. "She recognizes me. And she knows Dana. She knows why I'm coming."
"Well, what do we do?"
I sighed. "Get out the spices."
Most of the magic we do depends on things you can find around the house. I like spices, myself. Some people use a lot of string and thread, some people use seeds. Whatever works. It's easy for me to use spices as a focus for different types of magic, and it seems to work for Wayne, too.
So we needed to ward the plane. I got out paprika and allspice, which are my favorite spice bases to work spells with. Added some garlic -- traditional protection spells -- and my own personal Simon and Garfunkel mix: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. There's all kinds of good stuff in that, but the key was that it spelled safety and home to me. The plane was about to smell like a potpie, but that couldn't be helped. Wayne had his own garlic and allspice, rosemary and sage.
"Don't let them give you any trouble, okay?" I told him. He nodded. I was not entirely convinced. I got up and started for the back of the plane. Wayne stretched out his long limbs for a second, then headed for first class. They were going to love him there.
The stewardess intercepted me while I was chanting and sprinkling. "Ma'am! Excuse me, ma'am! The captain has turned on the fasten seatbelts sign!"
"He can turn on whatever he wants. I have work to do."
"Not in the back of this plane you don't! You must take your seat."
"You will be sorry if I do."
Poor girl. She drew herself up to her full height, maybe four or five inches shorter than me. "It is a federal offense to interfere with the flight attendant as she carries out her duties or to disregard lighted signs from the captain."
I steered her back into the galley and made a flame appear in the palm of my hand. She gasped. Her mouth worked up and down, but no noise came out.
"Look, I know you're trying to do your job," I said. "But I'm trying to do my job, too. See this?"
She nodded. I made the flame turn blue and then green, and then get up and do a little circular dance in front of her face. She gulped.
"This is what we call magic. And someone outside is using it to try to crash the plane. Do you understand?"
"I'm going to use it inside to try to keep the plane from crashing. Do you understand?"
She nodded again.
"So are you going to let me sprinkle spices around the back here and skip and sing songs if I have to?"
"Good. You can thank me when we land safely."
The Snow Queen didn't want us there. We had to keep chanting and sprinkling spices in the galley and the first class coat closet for the entire landing, while the flight attendants watched us with wide, rolling eyes.
The plane came down as smooth as silk. The poor stewardess thanked me for flying and helped me with my carry-on. That's some aplomb right there. I appreciated it.
Gina was waiting for us at the baggage claim with my nephew, Kevin, who had grown from his mother's 5'4" to somewhere taller than Wayne in about eight months. They both hugged me and shook hands with Wayne. We warded the car together at the four corners before we started driving on the winter roads. I was glad to see Kevin was learning. I still hadn't gotten used to the way the house was without my brother Pete. It felt empty still, even though Kevin had managed to cover most available surfaces with homework, snack food wrappers, CDs, and magical practice items.
We'd been on a late flight, but it was clear that Gina and Kevin both wanted to talk before we all turned in. We settled in the living room with a bowl of popcorn.
"So how long has this thing been going on with Dana?" I asked.
Gina sighed. "I'm not sure, but at least since fall break. She just didn't seem to see any of Kevin's practice things, and if we started talking about magic, it was as if she couldn't hear us."
"And you knew she wasn't faking it?"
"Oh yeah," said Kevin immediately. "Dana's not that good an actress. Besides that, I practically screamed a spell in front of her face. It was a harmless explosion. She didn't even flinch."
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. "Sounds like a pretty thorough job. Has to be the Snow Queen."
"I don't know of anyone else who could manage it," said Gina. "And I've looked into it."
"Yeah, we've done all the research we can," said Kevin.
I looked from one of them to the other, and then at Wayne. "Well, I think I can handle the Snow Queen one more time."
Kevin's eyes were wide. "You've dealt with her before?"
"Not quite like this," I said. "But yeah. I've been in similar situations when I was in college. We don't see a lot of her out in California, though."
Kevin nodded enthusiastically and started asking questions about my glamorous life in California, so I tried to debunk that theory for awhile. Finally, Gina said, "School night, Kev."
"I know, I know." He gave me a quick, rough hug. "Night, Aunt Toni."
"G'night, Kev. Sleep well."
We waited until he was upstairs before I asked, "How's he doing with all this?"
"Okay," said Gina. "He's like his father -- always has to do something."
Wayne grinned. "We don't know anybody else like that."
"Yeah, yeah," I said. "When did he find out about how Pete died?"
"About a month after. Dana and I decided to tell him."
I nodded. Wayne spoke as gently as I'd ever heard him: "How did your brother die?"
"Deceit was after him," I said. "Dana tried to warn him, but he was under a spell. He couldn't listen to her, physically couldn't. And then she was the one who found him as he was dying. It was the first time she ever used her powers."
"My daughter is a very strong young lady," said Gina. She picked at the popcorn. "She handled her father's death very well. I don't know what happened here. I really don't."
"We almost never do," I said. "Well. We can head down there in the morning, if you want."
"Dana has a morning class, but her afternoon class was cancelled. She'll be expecting you to get her and bring her home for the weekend."
"You know your way there, or do we need to get a map?" Wayne asked me.
I chuckled, and Gina said, "She ought to know the way. It's her alma mater."
"Did you run into the Snow Queen there?"
I stopped laughing, and Gina looked away. "Once or twice," I said quietly.
Wayne looked like he wanted to ask, but when he opened his mouth, it was to ask where the towels were kept, and the moment was gone.
In the morning, we dropped Kevin off at school and drove down to the college. It was about an hour's drive. I knew the way by heart, but I kept noticing things that had changed -- a gas station had added a Burger King expansion. An ice cream parlor had closed. They had taken down the sign that pointed the way to the world's only two-story outhouse. The crude Green Man on the vegetable ad needed repainting, but his power remained. He still ruled the valleys, and everyone knew it.
But the Green Man slept.
"I don't think I've ever seen this much snow in my life," said Wayne.
I snorted. "Not bloody likely, in San Diego."
"You can drive to the mountains to go skiing," he said. "We did a couple of times, when I was a kid."
I rolled my eyes.
The college was like the drive, but more so: all the same, all different. There were whole building complexes I'd never seen before, and a few old favorites missing, but Dana lived in a building that had crouched at the bottom of the hill for sixty years. I pulled into the rare visitor parking.
"Did you live here?" Wayne asked.
"No, up there." I pointed up the hill.
He squinted. "I'm sorry, where?"
"There's just some trees there now. They tore it down five years ago. It was a great old place. Huge window-seats in the stairways."
"I liked it."
"This was a good place for you to be, then?"
He looked at me closely. "When you weren't tangling with the Snow Queen."
"Pretty much, yeah."
There were always kids coming in and out, so it didn't take us long to get into the building. There was a familiar face sitting on the steps playing a guitar rather badly. I nodded at Revelry as we passed. He was a jolly-looking, half-stoned, ageless kid in jeans and a soiled T-shirt. (The T-shirt read, "Your favorite band sucks.") He had prematurely balding red hair and a curly little red beard. His eyes were a trifle mad, but he knew me well enough. "How's it hangin', Toni?"
"I've been worse," I said. "I've been better."
"This doesn't seem like your kind of party."
"I've got kin here," I said. He narrowed his eyes. "The snowblinded one."
"Oh, her. Dana. Yeah. Nice kid. Kind of straight-laced, though."
I swatted at him. "You say that to all the visiting aunties."
"Damn right I do. But she's all right. I hope you get things straightened out for her."
"So do I," I said. Wayne cleared his throat. "Oh. This is my partner, Wayne. Wayne, meet Revelry."
"I'm going by Dale these days," said Revelry.
"Bacchus, Dale, it's all the same," I said. "You're still your charming old self."
"It's good to meet you," said Wayne.
Revelry grinned. "Oh, we've met before. You were still wet behind the ears then, though, so I don't expect you to remember. Hell -- you might not have remembered anyway!"
Wayne blushed, and Revelry laughed. "Good to see you, Toni," he said. "Take care, you hear?"
"You, too," I said. But really there was nothing that could happen to him except maybe a bad trip or a hangover. I wished him few of those. It's hard for me to feel anything but vague goodwill or vague annoyance towards Revelry. "Hey, is this the right way to her room? This place is like a beehive."
"Yeah, you're doing fine," he said. "Take the stairs at the end of the hall. Two and a half flights up."
We kept walking. "He seemed like a normal guy," said Wayne.
I snorted. "Of course he did. And he'll still seem like a pretty normal guy after his fifth bottle of whiskey. That's just what he's like."
We climbed the stairs. I recognized Dana's room immediately -- who else would have a photo of Marge Piercy hanging on her door? Who else would know where to find a photo of Marge Piercy? I checked the class schedule and motioned for Wayne to sit down on the sofa in the shared lounge. "She won't be done with class until 10:00," I said. I flopped in one of the chairs and started double-checking the stuff in my bag: chili oil, pepper flakes, cayenne powder, cumin, matches, a Zippo, and a few flame-red scarves augmented the usual compliment of spell components.
Wayne watched with interest. "Looks like you've done this a few times before."
"Yep," I said.
"What was your problem with her in college?"
I looked around to make sure there was nobody around to hear. "What she did to Dana is pretty common. She does it a lot."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yeah, it's no fun for anybody."
We sat in silence for maybe fifteen minutes before Dana got home. "Aunt Toni!" She dropped her backpack and hugged me. "Who's this?"
"This is my partner, Wayne."
Wayne got up to shake Dana's hand. "Pleased to meet you."
She looked at him appraisingly. "Likewise."
"No, no," I said. Jesus, he's just a skinny kid with lanky, floppy brown hair. Not my type. "Not that kind of partner. He's my partner on the force."
"Oh, okay. Well, it's still nice to meet you. I'm just about ready to go. Give me one more minute."
"No problem," I said.
She unlocked her door and kicked her backpack inside. As she shoved underwear and socks in it, she chattered to me about her morning history class. "Okay," she said, stuffing a sweater down, "all set."
"I thought we could take a walk around campus first," I said. "Show Wayne the place. And then we'll grab some lunch and head out."
"It's, like, 10 below out there."
"We'll make it a quick walk. He's from San Diego -- he's never seen winter before."
She grinned. "Winter we got. Some parts of us don't thaw between October and April."
I flinched a bit, but she didn't see it. We bundled up again and headed out. I turned towards the Arboretum, and Dana and Wayne followed me.
"They planted that row of trees while I was here," I said. "Without it, the wind was much, much worse."
Wayne shuddered. "I don't see how it could have been," he mumbled into the scarf Kevin had lent him.
I was tempted to make fun of him for being a Californian, but the truth was, it was a damn cold wind. It felt like little shards of glass being driven into my legs with every step. I was very glad I'd remembered to wear cotton tights under my jeans.
I kept an eye out for students. Very few of them were out on such a cold day, and nobody was in the Arboretum. I waited until we got past the first big snow mound from the Arboretum parking lot before I started to feel around in my bag. I nodded to Wayne, who dug in his backpack.
"What are you looking for?" asked Dana.
"You'll see," I said. I pulled out the cayenne and twisted the lid off, one glove held in my teeth so that I could have a hand free. It was pierced through and half-numb with cold immediately. Dana wrinkled her brow. I splashed some cayenne on the snow.
Wayne drew an octagon around it in the air with a match. Then he lit the Zippo and started making the snowflake patterns I'd taught him. I twisted off the cap of the chili oil jar and glanced at Dana to see how she was handling the sudden swerve in behavior.
Her face had gone totally blank.
It wasn't entirely surprising, when I thought about it Her snowblindness didn't allow her to see things that weren't supposed to be there, and none of this stuff was supposed to be there. I dribbled the chili oil on the snow, careful not to let any of it touch my fingers or my glove.
The Snow Queen appeared in a swirl of crystalline motes. She was pale, even for a Minnesotan. Her hair was long and dark, and her eyes were the deep blue of a frozen lake. When I had last seen her, she wore thigh high boots and a white fur coat. Her look had been updated to a fashionable white parka with a white wool beret to match. She was still stunning.
And, oh, was she pissed off.
"It's you again," she said to me.
"I thought you'd left for good." She didn't sound entirely displeased to see me again, which was a surprise.
"If you mess with my family, you can expect to deal with me."
"I'm sure your niece finds that charming."
Dana stood frozen, staring blankly off into the distance. Her eyes were glassy from tearing with the cold, but she didn't seem capable of dealing with anything around her. I couldn't let it take too much longer.
"Let's find out how charming she thinks it is," I said.
I held the chili oil jar under my nostrils. The Snow Queen looked at me as if I'd gone insane. Wayne stepped forward and did a temporary spell to paralyze her. It would only last for five minutes, but we knew that would be enough if anything would.
The scent of the chili oil got to me right away. I teared up. I helped the process along by thinking of my brother Pete and the way he died, of Gina struggling along without him, of Dana and her blindness. In the Hans Christian Andersen story, the little girl cries and melts the ice sliver in the little boy's heart. That's well and good, but it doesn't tell you how hard it is to cry when it's ten below zero. Your body knows it's a bad idea.
Nevertheless, I managed to muster enough tears to wet my bare fingers. I stuck them in the cumin jar and then dipped the lot in chili oil. They burned and froze at the same time. I drew a six-pointed mandala on Dana's forehead, still crying a bit. "Heart and head, melt and burn," I mumbled, over and over again. Wayne let the spell on the Snow Queen go and trailed red thread from his pocket in a circle around us.
Dana blinked and rubbed her forehead. She started to cry.
I had to look away from her for a minute. I fell to my knees, temporarily drained of energy, and thrust my fingers into the snow-bank to stop the burning. It was soon unnecessary. The snow fell heavily around us.
I could hear Dana sobbing. "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!" And rightly so, I thought.
But when I stood up and looked at her, she was saying it to me.
The Snow Queen smiled, a little sadly. "Did you think I did this to her?"
"I know you did this to her," I said, my voice wavering a little despite myself.
"She asked," she said. "She traded. It was her choice, her will."
Dana was still sobbing, quietly.
"She came to me in the Arboretum, walking through the first snow of the season. She told me she could bear it no further and she wanted quit of it. She traded me one summer afternoon, the like of which I will never have, can never."
"She could bear it no further?" I whispered.
Dana dropped her gaze to the snow. "I know you and Mom tried," she said. "Grandma tried. Everybody tried. But it all kept coming out the same. Dad died, and I couldn't save him."
"Oh, Dana, sweetie! You were sixteen! Nobody expected you to be able to save your dad."
"I did," she said.
"But you were --"
"Only sixteen? Aunt Toni, come on. That never mattered when I did anything right."
Wayne spoke for the first time. I'd almost forgotten he was there. "Even if you'd been trained, you probably couldn't have saved your father. I couldn't have. I've worked with your aunt Toni for six months, and I'm not sure she could have done it alone. Maybe not even with my help. Dana. It's not your fault."
She looked at me. "I thought if I had been like you, I could have saved him. If I'd been strong and independent like you." I shook my head, but she kept talking. "I kept thinking of his face when he died. He was so shocked. I tried to tell him, but Deceit was a lot stronger than I was. And I didn't want that to be true. I didn't want to go through the rest of my life knowing that some horrible malicious thing could come and take my family and I would have to watch it and know what it was doing. So I went out looking for the Queen."
"They always find me, when they look," she said.
"I know they do," I said.
"You ran away from me, Toni. But you could find me even in your warm, wet city, if you tried."
"No," I said firmly. I had made my choices years ago. Habit made them strong.
I could not say the same for Dana. I saw her tears.
Wayne did not. "You look remarkably unconcerned for someone who's just been beaten," he said.
She smiled her cold smile. "Have I been beaten?"
"What do you say, Dana?" she continued. "You have so many summer afternoons. Will you give me another?"
"You were happier before, weren't you? Just a college student. You didn't have to carry charms in your backpack. Didn't have to see our faces around every corner. You didn't have to hide anything from anybody, because there was nothing to hide."
"Yes there was," I said.
"You could be honest with everyone," said the Snow Queen.
I wanted to say, everyone except yourself. But I didn't. Dana already knew it. She had been through it already. She knew what the Snow Queen was offering her. I held my breath.
"No," she said. "No, thank you. No." She turned to me. "But I won't be going home with you. In fact, I think you should leave just as fast as you can."
"But I --"
"I'll walk you back to your car." She turned back to the Snow Queen. "You know it was a good deal."
"But it's not enough. Some part of me always felt cold. Always."
"You get used to it," said the Snow Queen.
Dana shrugged. "I haven't gotten used to my dad being dead yet. Maybe I'm just slow at that kind of thing."
The Snow Queen said nothing, but the wind blew harder.
"Don't threaten me," said Dana softly. "Just don't."
The Snow Queen disappeared. The drifts of snow shifted to cover her footprints almost immediately. Dana led us out of the Arboretum and back towards the car. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as we walked.
"I'm really pissed at you, Aunt Toni," she said calmly.
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"I'm an adult now. I can make my own decisions."
"Which you did."
She inclined her head. "Which I did. But I don't want you interfering in the future."
"Sorry, kid. That's what family is for."
"I need some space from this family, all right?"
"Not really, no."
Wayne sputtered. "We flew all the way from California to save you from that bitch, and you -- you -- you ungrateful brat!"
"Stay out of this," I told him.
"No! She's being totally --"
"Reasonable," I finished. "I would be annoyed if she'd interfered with a deal I'd made, too. Even if it turned out okay."
Dana looked satisfied.
"Of course, I'll be back here in a heartbeat if she's hanging around you again."
Dana sighed. "I know. I guess I can't expect any different. You did the best you could, and -- thanks for that."
"You're welcome," I said. "And watch out for Revelry. He lives in your building."
She looked at me with dawning horror. "Dale?"
"Look, take care of yourself, okay? Stay warm. Keep bundled up. And if you need any help, if you want to come out for extra lessons over spring break or whatever --"
"Not soon," she said, "But maybe. We'll see."
I gave her a quick hug -- she was still mad at me, and we don't push these things -- and got into the car. Wayne shook his head. "If it wasn't for us, she'd still be --"
"Doing exactly what she wanted to do at the time," I said. "I wanted my niece back. That's all."
"No, it's not," he said.
I raised an eyebrow. We waited for the car to warm up.
"You couldn't stand to see the Snow Queen win."
"She almost did."
"What would you have done then?"
"Tried again. And again."
"Probably." The wind howled at the windows as we drove along, and I could feel most of the heat leaking out of the car. I wasn't used to it after all of those years in California, but it felt normal somehow.
I wondered if I wouldn't seek her out sometime after all. We had more in common than either of us might think.
This story originally appeared in Twin Cities Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, January 2003.