Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
STELLA STARFLAKE PEARL SAT down on her favorite ice bench in the backyard and sighed. Her recent expedition with her friends Beanie, Shay, and Ethan had been extensively covered in all the papers and expedition journals—not just because the four junior explorers had been the first to reach the coldest part of the Icelands, and not only because Stella was the first girl to ever be admitted to the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, but also because it turned out that Stella was actually an ice princess.
She looked over at the witch puppet she’d brought back with her from the Icelands. When she’d discovered it was a magical thing that could move around all by itself, she’d been delighted, but her adoptive father, Felix, had insisted on taking the puppet away and shutting it up in the top room of the East Wing.
From her position on the bench, Stella could now just make out the pointed outline of the witch’s hat as the puppet walked up and down the windowsill of the turreted bedroom. Every now and then the witch would stop and rap her wooden knuckles on the glass. The sound carried clearly to Stella through the frozen air, making her shiver.
“She won’t be locked up forever,” Felix had promised. “But we can’t be too careful. This puppet is an exact likeness of Jezzybella. Not only did she kill
your parents, but she tried her best to kill you, too. I’ve heard of witches making images of themselves and then being able to see through their eyes. If that’s what this puppet is, then we can’t have it anywhere near you.”
Stella knew that what Felix said was perfectly sensible, and yet deep in her gut she couldn’t help feeling that he was wrong about the puppet. Yes, it was a toy version of the witch who had killed the snow queen and king, but Stella had felt compulsively drawn to it back at the ice castle, and she still did somehow now.
The small, sad sound of the puppet rapping her tiny knuckles against the glass carried through the air once again, and she had to force herself not to run up to the turret to let her out. Felix had sent for a puppet expert from Coldgate, and until he arrived she would leave the witch where she was.
Stella smoothed out the powder-blue skirts of her dress and ran a finger lightly over the sparkly silver crowns stitched into the fabric. Her magical tiara had been put on display with other curiosities at the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, and word of the junior explorers’ adventures had traveled fast. In the two weeks since she’d been back, gifts had poured in from people Stella had never even met. There had been dresses, lace gloves, beautiful boxes of pink jellies dusted with powdered sugar, tiny unicorn dolls, and more besides.
At first Stella had been delighted. Everyone likes getting presents, after all, and people send rather nice ones to ice princesses. But they send not-so-nice things too. Letters saying that ice princesses did not belong in civilized society, that they ought to stay out in the wilds of the Icelands, nursing their frozen hearts and casting their evil spells. Felix had taken those letters and tossed them straight onto the fire, telling her to pay them no heed and that everything would die down soon enough, but Stella still felt a cold little stone of worry about it, right in the pit of her stomach.
She was distracted from her concerns when her pet polar bear, Gruff, came lumbering over to her across the snowy lawn. Felix had rescued Gruff from the snow just like he had rescued Stella, and the great white bear had been her best friend for as long as she could remember. Visitors to the house were often startled by his enormous size—especially when he stood up on his back legs, which he did whenever he really wanted to show off and look fantastically handsome. He stood more than ten feet tall, towering over even the tallest man. He’d done this the first time he’d ever met Aunt Agatha—Felix’s overbearing, bossy sister—who had let out the most terrible shriek and then fainted dead away in a cloud of petticoats and perfume. Stella had thought the screaming and fainting was terribly rude, especially as Felix had made Gruff look very handsome with a fetching bow tie he’d had specially made for the occasion.
Gruff shoved his black nose into the pockets of Stella’s cloak in search of his favorite fish biscuits. She gave him a gentle shove and told him to sit. He flumped down obediently in the snow, and Stella rewarded him by tossing him a treat. The bear crunched it up happily, spraying crumbs everywhere, then licked Stella’s cheek before lumbering off toward the lake. Felix had told Stella once that polar bears were very fast runners and could reach top speeds of twenty-five miles an hour, but Stella had never seen Gruff move any faster than a sedate lumber. This may have been because Gruff had been born with a twisted paw, but then again, perhaps he was just a big old lazy bear (which is what Stella really thought).
She stood up from the bench. There was no point moping around worrying. Felix always said that if you were feeling a bit anxious or upset, the best solution was to jump straight into doing something useful and/or fun. Preferably fun, of course, because fun things were much more effective at cheering up a person than a useful thing could ever be.
Stella glanced over to where Felix stood on the terrace, examining the glass fairy globe the fairies had given him the day before. Fairies were terribly fond of Felix, so it made sense that his explorer’s specialty should be fairyology. There were several fairies flitting about him now—Stella could see the sparkle of their wings from across the yard.
Felix looked up and gave Stella a wave. She waved back and then settled herself down in the snow to make a snow bear. She would have much preferred to make a snow unicorn, but they were a lot more difficult and she had never managed to get one quite right. She put her gloved hand down, ready to scoop up her first snowball, when a crackle of blue sparks leapt from her fingertips.
She froze. There before her was a perfect, sparkling snow unicorn. It was no more than four inches tall, but Stella could see each individual strand of hair in its flowing mane, the twists in its white horn, and even a collection of fine, feathered eyelashes. The unicorn’s beautiful snow eyes gazed directly at Stella, as if it could really see her—as if it was waiting for her to say something.
Stella gazed around in confusion. Had someone else come into the backyard and made the unicorn? But there was nobody around except for Felix, and even he couldn’t make snow animals as detailed and perfect as that. And surely it hadn’t been there just moments ago. One minute she had wished for a unicorn made of snow, and the next, sparks had shot from her fingers and one had appeared. Almost like magic. But Stella couldn’t do ice magic. Not without her tiara. And that was miles away in a cabinet inside the Polar Bear Explorers’ Club. …
Slowly, she reached out a hand toward the unicorn. As her fingertips got closer, she could have sworn that one of its ears twitched, just slightly—
The sound of breaking glass made her jump, and she snatched back her hand.
“Stella!” Felix shouted, and she was alarmed by the sound of panic in his voice.
She turned to look over her shoulder and saw that he had dropped the glass fairy globe, which lay in sparkling fragments at his feet. Stella clapped both hands to her mouth in dismay. Fairy globes were one in a million, and Felix wasn’t likely to come across one ever again. What could possibly have caused him to drop something so precious?
“Stella, above you!” Felix shouted at the exact same moment that a monstrous dark shadow fell over her.
She looked up, and a cry of fear lodged itself in her throat. A gigantic vulture loomed over her like something out of a nightmare, its twenty-foot wingspan flapping out icy ripples of frozen air. It had bedraggled, dirty gray feathers, a long, stringy neck, and a completely bald head. Stella saw the sharp, hooked beak, the curled claws, and the cold gleam in its predator’s eyes. If she had had her tiara she could have frozen the vulture, but without it she had no choice but to turn and run, her fur-topped boots kicking up great clumps of snow behind her.
The house seemed so far away. She was never going to make it. Behind her, the vulture let out a terrible squawk, which seemed to pierce the air. The next moment the giant bird swooped in so close that Stella could smell its damp, dirty feathers and the putrid scent of rotting flesh on its breath as it gave that screeching squawk once again, so loud that it seemed to slice right through Stella’s eardrums.
She gasped as she felt the vulture’s talons clamp down on her shoulders. Her boots were coming up off the ground, and she realized that the bird had caught her and was going to fly away and there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop it—
But then Felix crashed into her, and her cloak ripped free of the vulture’s claws as he dragged her to the ground. Stella found herself pressed facedown in the snow, pinned there by Felix’s weight as he shielded her from the vulture, which immediately tried to throw him aside. There was the sound of fabric tearing, and Felix’s breath caught sharply in his throat.
Stella tried to push him off, because she didn’t want his protection if it meant he was going to get hurt instead, but Felix was too strong and kept her tucked firmly underneath him as the vulture screamed into the air. The thought flashed through Stella’s mind, clear as crystal, that the vulture was going to kill them both. There was no way they could fight it off, and there was no one around for miles. Even if one of the servants saw the attack from a window, Felix kept no weapons in the house, so there would be absolutely nothing they could do to help.
Suddenly she became aware of the ground trembling beneath her and looked up to see Gruff racing across the snow, faster than she had ever seen him move before, his huge paws kicking up tall fountains of beautiful, glittering ice. The great bear thundered up to them, putting his massive body between the humans and the vulture. His black lips pulled back in a ferocious snarl, and he let out such a deafening bellow of a roar that Stella felt it in the very ground beneath her.
She had never realized quite how many teeth Gruff had, or how cruelly sharp they were, and she had never seen him roaring and snarling in fury in such a terrifying way. The vulture squawked in alarm and drew back a little. Gruff stood up on his hind legs, towering at his full ten-foot height. He swiped at the vulture with his huge paws, landing a solid blow that sent the giant bird reeling farther into the sky.
Felix gripped Stella’s arm, and she found herself being dragged to her feet. Then he scooped her up in his arms and sprinted back toward the house. Over his shoulder Stella saw that Gruff had thumped back down to all fours, but he was still roaring over and over again at the vulture, which had flown higher and was circling warily above.
Felix threw open the door to the library with one hand and set Stella down in the doorway. Worried for her polar bear, she tried to see past Felix, but he was already turning back to the door.
“Gruff!” he shouted. “Come on.”
The polar bear turned and lolloped across the snow toward them. The vulture had flown so high now that Stella could no longer see it. The moment Gruff padded through the doorway, Felix slammed the door closed and drew across the bolts.