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Exceptional Achievement

The Broken Mirror

On the day she was born, a witch cursed Hilda with compassion, but that isn't why she embarks on a dangerous journey to rescue her brother from the wicked Snow Queen. It's why she keeps getting distracted.

 

Prologue

 “Hello!”

The cheery voice made her wince and wincing made her groan. Her whole body ached with the kind of bone deep chill that sunk fingers into the soul and gripped it in an icy vice. How long had she been sitting there? It must have been hours and hours; her last match had long since burned out. She held the blackened stump in stiff fingers wrapped in gray rags that did little to ward off the cold.

Winter came earlier again this year, stamping the world with murals of frost that kissed windows and killed trees. She’d hoped to sell her matches early, depending on the chill to bring her desperate customers, but of course, no one came. Who would buy matches from a dirty street urchin when Sier Naddël sold boxes of them in his shop?

And now, driven by the cold to seek their fleeting warmth, her matches were gone. All that remained were scattered stumps of charcoal she couldn’t even return to the Room Lender in exchange for something better to sell; something that might earn her a night by the hearth and maybe some warm soup instead of last night’s frozen gruel. Tears pricked at her eyes, melting the frost on her lashes. The thought of warm food made her stomach ache.

Two ungloved hands reached out and wrapped around her rag-covered fingers. She gasped as warmth blossomed in her fingertips and rushed through her palms, up her arms, and into her chest to warm her at the core. Heat filled her to the brim; raising the hair on her arms as blood rushed to pink the skin. Even her nose and ears, which had long gone numb, now tingled with delicious warmth.

She stared at those hands, smaller than hers and the shade of warm honey cream she often watched patrons at the tea shop pour over their little golden-brown cakes, before tracing up the coat-clad arms and over narrow shoulders to a round, cherubic face with a wide, chapped-lip grin.

“Hello,” the girl said again, wisps of honey blonde curls escaping from beneath her faded bonnet. “My name is Hildegard du Bré; Hilda for short. What’s yours?”

She tried to speak, but the words lodged in her throat like a lump of smoldering coal. Not that it mattered. What would she say? But Hilda watched her so intently, so kindly, that she had to say something; even if it was the embarrassing truth.

“I don’t…have one.” She looked away, both grateful and mortified by the heat flooding her thawing face. “Most just call me Girl…”

“Oh,” Hilda said. “Well, that’s no good.” She pursed her little lips in thought, her brown eyes pinched with concentration. “Then what about Érwyn? It means white, just like your skin!”

Hilda turned over her rag wrapped hand to poke at the thin strip of pale flesh visible between the edge of her rags and the cuff of her ratty tunic. “See? It’s so pretty; like the porcelain plates in Sier Naddël’s shop window!”

“You’re giving me a name?” she asked, wide eyed.

Hilda’s happiness diminished. “Is that not okay?” She chewed her lip, uncertain. “I just thought everyone should have a name.”

She shook her head. “It’s pretty. I really like it.”

The uncertainty melted from Hilda’s childishly round face like snow sliding from a petal in spring. The girl bloomed happiness, and she—Érwyn—clasped Hilda’s warming hands.

I have a name.

“Thank-you,” Érwyn said, tears rimming her eyes. She’d never known a person could cry for being too happy. “Thank-you.”

Hilda smiled. “You’re welcome, Érwyn. Oh!” She stood suddenly, her hands patting down the pockets of her pretty red coat that hung much too large on her pixie frame. She came free with a pair of gloves in one hand and a tarnished silver pocket watch in the other.

“I was afraid of that.” Hilda’s brow furrowed as she checked the time. “Sieg will scold me if I’m not on my corner after work.” She shoved the watch back into her pocket and held out the gloves. “Here. These will be much better than those old rags.”

Érwyn—she had a name!—stared at the offering, uncomprehending. Hilda wiggled the gloves—worn, beige kid leather with fur trim that were obviously made for someone much older than Hilda—with expectant eyes. Érwyn stared, and Hilda laughed. She took Érwyn’s hand and placed the gloves in her palm.

“For you,” she said. “So you don’t get so cold. In fact…” She looked Érwyn up and down before shaking her head. “That coat won’t do either.” She reached for the buttons on her handsome red coat.

“Oh, please.” Érwyn’s heart jumped in her chest. “Please don’t. These gloves are more than enough.”

“Nonsense!” Hilda shrugged off the heavy wool. “You were using matches to stay warm, and look, they’re all gone. If I leave you like this, you’ll freeze.”

“But what about you?” Érwyn protested, pushing the coat away. She wanted to stand, knowing she was taller than the girl, but her legs trembled at the mere thought. When was the last time she ate? Two days ago? Three?

“I have another one at home.” She waved a scolding finger at Érwyn. “It’s rude to refuse a gift, Érwyn. Especially from a friend. You’ll make me feel bad.”

“I…” Érwyn trailed off, staring at the inviting warmth of the bright red coat with a mixture of need and guilt. She knew she shouldn’t take it. Despite the coat’s expensive quality, it was obviously well worn, nearly unravelling at the seams. But she was so, so cold; especially now that the unexplained warmth was leaking from her fingertips and toes. She looked up at Hilda, uncertain.

“You promise you have another one?”

Hilda placed a hand to her heart and nodded. “I promise.”

Reaching out with shaking hands, Érwyn took the coat. Her heart swelled in her chest, reaching for her beautiful, little savior with gratitude and love. Érwyn only had one Blessing, but she doubted anyone with a thousand Blessings could feel the depth and breadth of Devotion that Érwyn now held for Hildegard du Bré.