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Eyes of Ice Blue

Tales of Oasia

Photo by Noel Nichols on Unsplash

Two warring peoples of the isolated land of Oasia—sorcerers and citizens—struggle to unite to save their doomed kingdom. Eyes of Ice Blue, set two generations before events of True Alliance, tells the story of King Oren and Queen Thora during the last sorcerers' Resurgence.


I

Thora gasped, suddenly wide awake. The baby wailed. Flames crackled high in the hearth, casting a golden glow in the darkened bedchamber, but the shadows beyond held a strange, purple hue and the room was far too cold. Wrong, all wrong. Every part of her ached as if she were in a fever.

Too weak to roll to her side, she lifted a hand in the air. 

Meldi appeared above her clutching the bundled newborn. The new nurse was young, barely more than a girl. A deep crease set between her eyebrows.  "Your Greatness. You are awake."

“What has happened?” Thora asked. “Why is it so cold?” She tried to sit up but, a pain bloomed in her lower abdomen. She froze, wincing in pain, her head spinning.

“A storm, Your Greatness.” The nurse fetched a cushion from the chest and placed it behind Thora’s head. Swaddled in her arm, the baby continued to wail. “Lie still. Too much movement will cause the bleeding to return.”

Thora lay back, expecting the nurse to place the baby in her arms. Instead, she resumed pacing.

“Is he all right?” asked Thora. To follow the nurse across the room, she had to lift her head, and even this small movement caused her temple to throb and her vision to blur.

“Yes, Your Greatness, only hungry.” Meldi paused at the hearth, tossed two small logs into the roaring fire, and kept moving, bouncing the baby, patting his bottom.

Then give him to me so that I can feed him, stupid girl.

Oren had hired Meldi after Thora's beloved nurse Bernyse had left. “She is much closer to your age, my love,” he had explained, as if that mattered. Anger flared and brought with it another wave of pain. Her back, her head, the internal wreck of her body. 

She would take the baby in a moment. She needed only a moment to close her eyes. But as soon as she did so, Thora felt the pull of sleep. Why was she so depleted? After the birth of Berem, she had been energized, infused with a power. She had been out of bed and walking with the baby within the hour. Bernyse had been with her then.

With effort, Thora opened her eyes. “Bring me Geil.”

Meldi stopped pacing. “Yes.” She shook her head as if to clear it and hurried to the bedside. “Yes, of course.” She hovered over Thora, biting her lower lip, and lowered the wailing bundle into Thora's arms. Geil quieted at once and stared up at his mother with wide, dark eyes. His lips puckered, then parted and opened wide in a yawn. 

"Dear one," whispered Meldi, placing a trembling hand on the baby's back. Even Thora, in her weakened state, did not shake as did the hands of her young nurse.

“Meldi.” 

“Yes, Your Greatness?”

“What has happened? Tell me now.”

“Your Greatness…” Tears filled the nurse’s eyes.

Another child’s cry came from the corner. Thora saw the outline of a cradle set up at the hearth.

“Is that Berem?” Thora asked. “Why is he here?”

“I brought him in after breakfast,” said Meldi, her lips pressed in a tight white line.

“After breakfast? How long have I slept?”

“All morning, Your Greatness. It is almost twelfth-hour.”

“What? No.” Thora glanced around the shadowed room. Wrong. All wrong. Too dark. Too...purple. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“I am sorry, Your Greatness. You needed to rest, and I didn’t want to worry you.”

"Worry me over what?"

Meldi went to the windows and threw back the curtains. Outside, a purple-gray cloud loomed, expanding so quickly that Thora could discern its front edge reaching, advancing on the SIxto Castane, the spire of the city's Hall of Records barely visible. She hugged Geil to her chest.

“It appeared early this morning,” said Meldi. "Citizens have evacuated into the caves."

"My God. And we are left here?"

"The castle is secure, Your Greatness. The king's guards have not left."

"And my husband?"

The low wail of sirens began.

Meldi began to cry. “They’ve come.”

“Bring Berem to me.”

The nurse rushed to the cradle and lifted Berem, red-faced and crying, only ten months older than his brother. 

Geil rooted at Thora's breast. She opened her nightgown and winced as the baby latched to her. Thora felt weak, and she hated feeling weak. Perhaps she should not have tried to give birth so soon after her first child. But she had been eager to fulfill this part of her marriage, to produce heirs, and even Bernyse had advised that she use her youth to her advantage, bear the children and recover quickly while she could do so.

But Bernyse was not here now. She had fled the city with her family a season ago, along with hundreds of others when the rumors began. Bernyse has been brave in the uncertainty of illness, the terror of death, but she, like so many of the citizens, was too afraid of sorcerers to risk staying in the city. The Resurgence, nobles were calling it. A return of magic and fear.

Thora held out her free arm and Meldi fit Bereem into it. When the blankets lifted, the chill of the room hit Thora.

Meldi shivered, and Thora felt a wave affection for the girl. She was close to her age, only three years younger than Thora. How much had changed in her own life in past three years? She was a different person than the girl she had been three years ago. The nurse was young, perhaps inexperienced, but she had stayed by Thora’s side all night, never faltering, not even when Thora screamed at her, not even when the blood had kept flowing long after it should have stopped, and then Meldi had stayed awake with the newborn as Thora slept. She was terrified, but she had stayed. She had watched that storm come in and she had gathered Thora’s sons and kept them safe so her queen could rest until the last possible moment. She was terrified, but she was here.

“Come,” she told Meldi, patting the bed. “We will all fit.”

Meldi slid beneath the blankets on the other side of Berem, and the four of them huddled together for warmth. Berem burrowed beneath the blanket and pressed his face into Thora’s hip. From the open window, they watched the cloud advance. The spire disappeared. The crank sirens howled and Thora wondered if help would come, if the guards would hold their positions. Already, Thora could smell woodsmoke and damp earth, the scent of magic.

Meldi sobbed. “What will we do?” 

“Quiet,” said Thora. “Let me think.”

 

II

Each time the sorcerer laughed, Oren wrenched the extraction machine again. The laughter cut off abruptly. The man’s eyes rolled in agony, but still he gave no information. Never, voluntarily or under duress, had the sorcerer given the king or council any useful information. Why would he start now?

But Oren was desperate. The storm that had begun innocuously, like any other winter storm in the north, had turned magical overnight. With the dawn, there was no denying its menace, and over the morning, it had erased the royal city of Sixto Castane and forced the citizens to flee.

Fierce winds shot ice shards through the air like shattered glass. The towers at the outposts tumbled. Those who fled to the caves could see only a step ahead in the thick snowfall as the pushed and dug themselves paths through drifts that accumulated over their heads. And though the storm cloud had not yet reached the castle, snow covered the royal road and smoothed the sharp edges of the mountain's lower peaks. 

Disastrous of all, the forge at the mine had somehow extinguished.  Deep in the mountain, beneath miles of solid rock, the fires had been snuffed as easily as bedlamps. The kingdom’s stockpile of ecronious ore lay within that mountain, unguarded but for the nightshift miners and evacuated citizens, not one an equal adversary to sorcerers who had somehow broken their restraints and resumed the practice of magic.

When the messenger brought word that the forge had gone cold, Oren had descended to the dungeons in desperation, to force from his prisoner some idea for a defense against what would come with this storm. But the sorcerer only babbled nonsense and laughed. The keeper had not groomed the prisoner for months, nor fed him anything appealing, it seemed. Skeletal in frame, caked in gray flaking skin, the sorcerer grinned maniacally, showing yellow, rotting teeth. What little hair remaining on his scalp hung in long, white-gray strings. His beard was matted with black clumps of dried blood.

Head jerking from side to side, the sorcerer bucked against the restraints as the machine rumbled, extracting magic from him—or perhaps through him from the air, however the cursed spectacle worked. Oren had never understood, nor cared.

Immini imotent, imminu porteni, immini mahoor, mahoori,” the sorcerer ranted.

Let him incant until his tongue shriveled. The filth possessed little magic anymore, barely enough to cause the needles on the gauges to twitch. Oren considered removing his binding cuffs. The ecron metal had dulled over the years. They would be easy to remove. When Oren was an adolescent, he recalled how the keeper back then had removed the sorcerer Amran’s cuffs in his last days and thus had been able to pull through him a steady stream of earth magic, enough to split the mountain to access a new supply of ecronious ore.

Oren pulled back the lever, and the gears slowed to a stop. The sorcerer lay panting. A line of saliva dripped from the corner of his crusted mouth. With trembling lips, he opened and closed his mouth, clicking his cracked teeth, laughing and laughing, even as he babbled.

Immini imotent, imminu porteni, immini mahoor, mahoori...

“Curse your rotten core.” Oren thrust the lever forward, and the gears groaned.

The prisoner’s wild eyes rolled. He had gone insane years ago, but they keeper had not yet disposed of him. Oren should have given the order to put him out of his misery. He’d not given them anything useful in the many seasons of his captivity. But Oren feared they would not find a replacement. Somehow, even with the binding cuffs, the sorcerers had eluded capture.

And now it looked as though they were working magic again. 

Oren stopped the machined and waiting while it ground to a halt. “Now, you will tell me. How I do stop this storm?”

“...mahoor, mahoori, immini imotent, imminu porteni...

“Tell me or suffer!”

...immini mahoor, mahoori, immini imotent—”

Oren slammed his fist on the headboard next to the sorcerer's ear, and he cut off. The king leaned forward, enduring nausea at the prisoner's stench, and spoke in his ear. 

"Speak clearly,” Oren said between clenched teeth.

The sorcerer stopped laughing. Drawing a shaky breath, he managed to still his trembling lips. He turned and locked eyes with the king.

“I say no.”

Oren grasped the lever again with both hands, and his prisoner recoiled, whimpering, again overcome with bodily tremors. His screams echoed on the close stones.  

“Death will fly by day," he screeched. "I see him. Death, I call to you!”

“Oh, you will not die,” shouted Oren, “not by my hand. I promise you that.”

“I say no!”

Oren wrenched the machine again and the prisoner wailed.

Immini imotent, imminu porteni..." his head wrenched back and forth. Eyes wide, he screamed, "The queen bleeds!” 

Oren stopped the machine. “What do you know about the queen?”

The sorcerer panted. His eyes rolled.

A bead of sweat slid down the sorcerer’s temple. He spoke to the stone ceiling. “The young one. Do you know him?”

Oren clenched his fist on the lever. "What do you mean? Speak clearly."

"You do know him. The young one."

A sound slithered down the corridor: the wail of the crank sirens. Even in the dungeon, they could be heard when cranked at full capacity. 

The sorcerer laughed. “Young sorcerers grow up. Young kings grow old.”

Oren reached for the lever.

“I say no!” shrieked the sorcerer.

“Your Greatness!” A guard appeared at the door. “It has happened. Sorcerers spotted on the road. They are coming fast up the mountain.”

Laughter and spit burst from the prisoner’s mouth. He choked on it but kept laughing. 

The guard turned and ran back down the dungeon corridor, and Oren followed, laughter echoing behind him. The guard ran fast, and by the time Oren exited the dungeon and ascended the spiral stairs out of the depths, the guard was already at the top. He nodded once to Oren, then shoved his weight against the door.

Pure whiteness billowed in from outside. Snow and thick, white mist filled the courtyard. The guard hesitated. Oren, gripping the hilt of his sword, plunged into the void.

He could see nothing. But he had spent a lifetime in the castle. From boyhood, he had run the castle grounds and the road to Sixto Castane. He could find his way to the city blinded. He pushed his way out into the swirling snow.

Ice crystals formed in his beard within seconds. His eyes stung and watered. His thoughts turned to Thora, and he turned his face upward to the tower. But he could not see her window, could not even see the castle above him. He could do nothing for her now, anyway. Only trust that her guards were in their places. 

Oren pulled his ermine collar up over his nose. Crossing the courtyard, he shouted to the guard to follow, but looking back, he could no longer see him. At the castle gate, he turned onto the royal road, which seemed deserted. He could hear nothing but the wind, see nothing but swirling white snow. From memory and instinct, he followed the road down the mountain into the city.

Despite the ermine, he could no longer feel the tip of his nose. His cape and furs felt as thin as parchment. His lungs burned from inhaling ice crystals. By the time he reached the city, the sirens had stopped. The operators either frozen or fled. He had no way of knowing if help would come. 

And yet, still he moved forward.

How many years had passed since he ran the length of the royal road, down the mountain from the castle and into the city square, each morning for training?

The young one. Do you know him?

How many years had passed since he had lifted his sword for purpose rather than practice?

Young sorcerers grow up. Young kings grow old.

At the city gates, the snow had drifted waist-deep. Oren’s knees ached as he trudged through it. For the first time, Oren felt the physical disadvantage of his age. 

How many years had passed?

And yet, still he moved forward.

He reached the city square as the clocktower struck twelfth-hour. At the same moment, the storm stopped. The swirling snow froze in the air, as if time had halted. The temperature plunged to a coldness no fire could touch. 

King Oren stood at the center fountain, its water frozen and pure white. He tried to step forward and found that he could not move.

He, too, was frozen.

Every part of the city, from the mountains to the forest, was unmoving and cold as the dead. Those who had survived the storm did not dare to stir from their hiding places in the caves or the castle. Outside, no person moved.

Except the sorcerer.

He appeared from the mist and walked slowly around the fountain—a man in a black, flowing cape. To Oren’s horror, the sorcerer’s wrists were exposed, free of binding cuffs. He had pale, ghostly skin. His white hair was cropped short, and he wore a circlet of gold around his head. Oren had never before seen a crowned sorcerer.

When he reached Oren, he stopped. His eyes were of pale gold. Both men stood frozen. The only movement was the sorcerer's cape that blew in a wind King Oren could not feel. 

 

III

The Queen’s Vault had been a gift from Oren on their wedding day. “A place where magic cannot reach you,” he told her when he had brought her there on their wedding night. Thora had been wearing her nightgown, her hair brushed out, waiting to be taken to his bed but instead taken to a vault.

It had been Oren’s foremost concern, to keep her from magic.

The vault was known to only a few people, and Meldi, for one, still believed it was protected from magic. “We’ll be safe here,” she said to Thora as they crossed the threshold. “No magic can penetrate these walls.”

Thora had not the heart to refute her. The vault was nearest place to hide them, only steps from the queen’s rooms, through a secret door behind a tapestry in the upper hall.

Perhaps Meldi and the boys would be safe there.

Meldi carried Berem on one hip and with her other arm, helped Thora into the vault. Where was Oren? Most likely at that moment riding out into the storm, and she longed to ride beside him. Pain ripped through her abdomen. She stifled a moan.

“Oh, Your Greatness,” gasped Meldi.

Thora saw the blood pooling on the floor between her slippered feet. "Get me to the couch.”

Inside the vault was a small but comfortable room with a table and chairs by a hearth, a full bed, and bookshelves covering the windowless walls. Meldi helped Thora lie down with the baby, who was still nursing.

“My sword,” said Thora.

“But you are weak…”

“Bring it to me.”

Meldi did not argue further. She left the vault and returned quickly. Thora felt better with the sword by her side. She had not held it in many days.

Kneeling at the hearth, Meldi began to build a fire. Thora could hear her the nurse muttering softly, sighing, perhaps singing, and realized she was praying. Thora recognized the words and the cadences of the chapel prayers from her childhood. When Meldi finished, she sat on the bed next to Thora. Thora took her hand, and the girl squeezed it.

“What do you think is happening?” Meldi asked. “What will they do?”

“The forge,” said Thora. “They will extinguish it.”

“How do you know that?”

“Logic. The ore is mined there, processed into ecron.”

Meldi's eyes widened. “The binding cuffs…”

Thora nodded. “If we cannot forge the binding cuffs, we cannot control the sorcerers.” 

A slow but sure anger burned in Thora’s chest. Anger at the king for not listening to her warnings. Of course the sorcerers would go for the forge. Rumors had persisted for seasons. Too many seasons. As threats passed and peace persisted, citizens grew complacent.

Clearly, their aim was to destroy the means of binding magic, she had reminded Oren more than once. Pride had kept him from listening, a misguided and dangerous satisfaction at reigning over the longest era of peace between citizens and sorcerers. 

And perhaps jealousy.

Her abdomen twisted into a wrenching cramp. The wrong kind of pain—sharp, twisted. Not the ebb and flow of childbirth pain. That was unbearable, but necessary, even natural. This pain was wrong, stabbing, unpredictable.

She’d heard that female sorcerers felt no pain when they gave birth. What might her life had been like with magic?

“It’s getting colder,” whispered Meldi. Her breath left a vapor in the air. She gasped. “Your Greatness, the door.”

At the hinges, ice frost appeared and spread like crawling vines across the panels. 

“But...but magic cannot breach these walls!” Meldi cried.

“That was true once,” said Thora. “But not now.”

Meldi did not answer. Her breath vapor hung in the air, a cluster of ice crystals. The nurse was frozen. Her eyes could not move, but Thora saw the terror in them nonetheless. Tucked in the maid’s elbow, Bereem was awake, wide-eyed, and also unmoving.

Thora reached for him but found she, too, was frozen. She could feel the cold hilt of the sword in her hand but not its weight. Beneath her wrap, the baby’s mouth was still latched to her breast, but no longer suckling.

 

VI

Finally, the crowned sorcerer walked past Oren and through the city square, his cape the only moving thing. Oren did not recognize him. In the last few years, he had seen many sorcerers, recognizable by their cuffs. They seemed to be everywhere, even in Sixto Castane, even though the Peace Mandate required all sorcerers exiled to their villages in the south. 

The mist cleared, and Oren saw individual crystals of snow frozen in the air. Beyond, he noticed with surprise that some citizens remained in the city, frozen. A woman knelt down, arms wrapped around a child. A man stood in the doorway of the bakery, one arm holding a fresh loaf, the other thrown over his face. He recognized two of his council members standing only a city block away, and with them, the guard that had followed him from the castle. 

He hated magic. Could not abide its existence. What justness is there in a world where some men hold the power of God? And what God would allow such a creation? Such unfairness was an abomination. How were men supposed to survive with such inequality?

Oren's father had explained it clearly on his son's first visit to the dungeon. Oren was still young, didn't understand. The prisoner upset him. But, said his father, their first royal duty was to protect the citizens. Keeping a sorcerer prisoner was the only defense the citizens had against the potential for terror the sorcerers held over them. 

This is the truth of magic, Son. Abuse of power. Manipulation. We control them, or we surrender to them. 

The sorcerer continued to walk at his leisure around the city square. He inspected the frozen council members, then he went to the center of the square, leaned back, and looked up at the spire. He seemed to be waiting. And a few moments later, two more figures appeared from the evaporating mist. Both caped, one was a giant of a man, two heads taller than any person Oren had ever seen. He wore a leather tunic laced tightly beneath his cape and his head was bald and uncovered, exposed to the elements. 

The other was him. The young one.

The prisoner had been right. Young sorcerers grow up. Rage boiled within him so hot that Oren thought it might crack his frozen skin. Neither of the men wore cuffs. How had they removed them?

As they approached the square, the crowned sorcerer turned to them. 

“The forge is down the Abbot Road. I will go." He turned to the bald man. "Soren, the dungeons. Find Cristo." Then he turned to the young one. "Marek," he said, “the queen.”

Marek nodded, but his eyes were on Oren, and when the group separated, he brushed Oren's shoulder in passing, and smiled.

 

V

Thora heard footsteps. She could not turn her head or even move her eyes to see who entered the vault, but as the steps neared, she could tell it was a man by his wool trousers and the cut of his jackboots.

By the swirl of the cape, she could tell he was a sorcerer.

He circled the vault, maddeningly at the edge of her view, stopping and starting as if to familiarize himself with the space. Thora thought she heard a book slide from the shelf, the whisk of pages being flipped. The steps resumed, and a shadow crossed her face. He had walked between her and the fire. She could smell him now. Earth and woodsmoke.

Then he crossed her vision and knelt in front of Meldi. Hanging almost to his waist, his hair was golden-blonde at the ends, but bled of all color at the roots, snowy white. His clothes were all black: boots, trousers, cape. He reached out with a gloved hand and ran a finger along Meldi’s cheekbone, then patted Berem’s fuzz-covered head. When he turned, when the cape fell from his shoulder, she saw around his neck the chain, the pendant with the red jewel.

Her heart pounded in her chest. Constricted by frozen lungs, she struggled to breathe. The sorcerer turned slowly, still crouched by Meldi, to face her. She remembered every feature: his high cheekbones, his slightly crooked nose, his eyes of ice blue.

“Look at us,” he said. The corner of his mouth turned up. “Swords and blood and babies. We’ve both grown up.”

He removed his glove and with his bare fingertips, brushed her cheek. It felt like a breath. 

Thora felt warmth surge back into her body, through every vein. Her throat opened. She could move. She gulped air, her chest heaving, glaring at the intruder.

“Your hair is turning white,” she said.

“Do you like it?”

“No.”

He smiled and sat next to her on the bed. “Maybe if it were gray.”

"You are still angry, then.” She met his eyes, forcing herself not to look down at her newborn, still frozen, in her arms. 

“Merely pointing out your preferences.”

Anger that once would have surged into Thora's blood with thrilling energy now only drained her, left her weary. Everything in the past was exactly where it should be. Haunting, but harmless, like a ghost. How exhausting to resurrect it.

“He is not so old,” she sighed. 

“Only compared to a child bride.”

“I chose him willingly.” Thora looked away. “I wanted to be queen.”

“Queen of the Citizens. First Defender against Magic. And yet, you invited me into this room once.”

“Once.”

He touched her cheek with his bare hand again, turned her toward him. “Once was all it took.” 

“I regret it.”

“And yet, if you had not, the magic would have held. I would not have been able to cross this threshold.”

"Your cuffs are gone." She pulled away from him. “How?" 

He reached for her sword. She could not have stopped him, and so she did not try. She held Geil close to her, put a gentle hand on Berem's head.  

“The sorcerer king. He has a way."

"The sorcerer king?"

He slid the sword across his lap, stroking the blade. “I thought perhaps at one time...a girl I loved would have freed me from my bonds. But she refused.”

She itched to hold her sword, but she would not release Geil. Where were the guards? Had he killed them? Or had they run away, long ago? If she kept him talking, if she stalled long enough, help might still come. Oren might still be out there.  

“Why are you here?” she asked. 

He stroked the sword. “You know why.”

“And you volunteered for the task?”

“Of course. Who better?” 

“Why kill me? Why not leave me frozen, all of us?”

“He will need servants. The citizens will be set free. But you and the king..."

The sorcerer stopped stroking the sword and held up his bare hand to his face, fingers splayed. Slowly, he clenched it into a fist. Then he dropped it, hard, striking it against the sword. "He will need to eliminate the current rulers, of course.”

“And once he does, what will he do? What does your sorcerer king want?”

 Marek shrugged. “Boil the oceans away for salt. Resurrect the dead, call back the flying beasts, seek out the First. Or maybe sit on a throne and drink alderwine. He wants what every enslaved person wants, the freedom to do exactly as he wishes.”

“Don’t you care what happens to your homeland?”

“No, seeing as I am about to leave it forever.”

“Leave?”

“I’ll have to, Thora." His eyes dropped to the sword, and he slid his hand down the blade. It glowed purple, then dimmed and returned to its natural cast. He met her eyes. "Do you really believe I could kill you?”

He lifted the sword.

“It cannot conjure or create magic. No soulless object can. But it will hold and recast the spell I have placed on it. For as long as you have need of it.” He offered her the hilt. “It will give you an equal footing, that is all. A chance.”

Shifting Geil into one arm, she took the sword. “That is all I deserve.”

He cradled her face with his hand and she felt warmth flood her entire body. His thumb rested on her bottom lip.

“Stay,” she said. “Help me defeat him, and stay.”

He shook his head. “He is not my only enemy.”

“Where will you go?”

His eyes locked with hers. “You could come with me.”

“I could. But I won’t.”

He nodded. Then he stood, slipped his hand back into its glove, and left her.

 

VI

She had to get to the forge. This man who called himself the sorcerer king would be there, she was sure of it. Thora stood, still holding the frozen baby in her arms. His puckered lips had fallen from her breast, his eyes closed in contentment. She placed him as securely as she could on Meldi's arm crossed over her stomach. The nurse’s eyes shone like two glass jewels. 

“He won’t squirm," she told her. "He is wrapped securely. But if I succeed, if the magic is broken and you’re able to move, catch him quickly before he slips.” She kissed the girl’s forehead, Geil’s nose, then Berem’s cheek, and left them. 

Thora did not take the time to change from her bloody gown. She did not take time to search for a powder to take for the pain. She had not time for such indulgences. The last sun and moon turning had been filled with constant pain. She would just have to endure some more.

She was forced, however, to take the time to wrap herself in furs and lace her boots. From the window in her bedchamber, she saw that the storm had stopped, the snow frozen in the air, but the temperature was even colder than before. She would not make it far outside in only her nightgown and wrap.

After changing, she braced herself against the wall and limped down the corridor and stairs into the great hall, making her way across by using her sword as an awkward walking stick between pillars and statues. Her legs were so weak, she could barely lift the weight of her boots.

At the archway to the foyer, light spilled into the hall from the open front doors. Two men stood in silhouette against the white background of the frozen storm. Ice particles hung still in the air, sparkling. One men, perhaps the largest man she had ever seen, stepped forward. His bald head gleamed, the skin tight over his bulging skull. Every muscle strained against his clothing. She saw that he wore no cuffs. Thora readied her sword.

The other man was his complete opposite, emaciated and dirty. His hair hung in limp strings about his skeletal face, and his skin was gray and flaking. He leaned on the bald man, and he still wore binding cuffs about his wrists, the ecronius ore dull and scratched. 

“Look at you,” said the bald man. “The queen I’ve heard so much about.”

The moment the bald man lifted his hand, Thora tried to duck behind the post, but she did not succeed. The spell hit her. Thora cried out and fell. Her sword fell clanging to the stone floor.

Not a heart-stopping spell. A cutting spell. Blood covered the skirt of her overcoat.

She dragged herself toward her sword.

The bald sorcerer pushed the skeletal man to the ground and stalked toward Thora.

“Do you think he loved you? Because he let you go? If he loved you, he would have killed you quickly, instead of setting you free to meet a much more painful death.”

As she touched the hilt of the sword, she felt a vibration. Magic? Would it work as Marek said it would? 

The bald sorcerer spread his fingers again. Thora rolled to her side, lifted the sword. What was she supposed to do? Point it at him? Was there an incantation? Marek had once recited incantations to her, long ago, beneath the tree in their secret meeting place. She closed her eyes, remembering. The vibration in the sword intensified.

She didn’t have to do anything. The magic knew what to do. 

 The magic was invisible of course, but Thora felt the heat of it, caught a whiff of its scent, eucalyptus and mint, earth and woodsmoke. The bald sorcerer gasped, clutched his heart, and wide-eyed, fell to the ground.

The other sorcerer was still lying on the ground, trembling, too weak to stand. Thora was barely doing any better, but she managed pushed herself up. Her hand slipped in the puddle of blood beneath her. Still, using the sword as a crutch again, she managed to stand. The sorcerer on the ground opened his palms. His head shook back and forth, his mouth gaping. 

He is terrified of me.

“Who are you?” she asked him. 

“The queen bleeds,” he whispered. 

“What happened? Where is the king? Have you destroyed the forge?”

He laughed. Tears filled his eyes as he laughed in great choking convulsions until Thora realized he was now sobbing. This sorcerer, whatever had happened to him, was not part of the attack on the city and the castle. He could barely form a sentence. But why was he here?

Groaning, she knelt beside him and placed a hand beneath his elbow. “You are coming with me.”

He pulled away from her, falling onto his back. His eyes bulged with terror. “I say no.”

“Please, I need your help.” 

Thora took both of his trembling hands. When she lifted her sword, he cried out and tried to pull away, but she was stronger. "Shhh," she comforted him as she slid the tip of the blade beneath the cuffs. They were loose on his bony wrists. When she felt the vibration again, she knew it would work. She tugged lightly, and the cuff fell from his wrist with a clang on the stone floor.

She repeated the procedure on the remaining cuff, and the man stared at his shaking hands in disbelief.

“Do you know Malek?” she asked him. 

He shook his head.

“He is one of you. He is a sorcerer, and he is my friend. Do you understand? He enchanted my sword so that I could protect myself.  It holds his magic, and I will use it. So we have a truce right now, you and me. You will not hurt me, and I will not hurt you.”

He could not—or would not—look at her. He was still on his back, shaking his head, staring at the pink, raw skin on his now bare wrists.

“My name is Thora, and I am not going to hurt you. What is your name?”

His wild eyes met and held hers for a moment. “Cristo," he said.

“Good. Cristo, we are both having some trouble standing at the moment, so we will stand together. We’re going to the forge.”

He shook his head, lifted his trembling hands. He still lay on his back. “No magic.”

“We are not going to fight. I am going to return you to your sorcerer king. We are going to make peace.”

His hands fell to his sides, and he closed his eyes. Thora knelt over him, exhausted.

"Cristo."

He did not move.

"Listen to me. We are both—" She cut off, thinking of Berem tucked against her hip, Geil warm against her breast. She could make it back up the stairs, she knew. She had just enough energy to crawl back to the vault and curl up next to their frozen bodies.

She sat back on her heels, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. Only a moment. 

She leaned forward, resting her forehead on his shoulder, and whispered, "We are both going to die. But perhaps, before we go, we can save others."

She had no idea how she would stand, let alone walk down the royal road and into the mountain to the forge, all the while dragging this emaciated, mad sorcerer along. But neither could she leave him. If she faced this sorcerer king alone, he would kill her the moment he saw her. If she had this sorcerer with her, she had a chance that his king would listen. 

Finally, he stirred. She sat back as he opened his eyes. He took her hand in his, and it was warm and steady.

“I say yes.”

 

VII

Thora found a frozen branch in the front courtyard fallen from the black pine. She brushed its remaining needles to the snow and gave it to Cristo for a walking stick. Slowly, painfully, leaning on each other and leaving a trail of blood, they walked the courtyard path through the gate to the royal road that led down the mountain.

Briefly, Thora held hope of driving a mechanized carriage through the city and to the mountain pass, but the first carriage they approached was full of frozen people, their terrified eyes shining, and the gears of the carriage were full of blue ice.

They encountered many such eerie tableaus on their trek. A child turned, his back hunched against a non-existent wind, his face twisted in fear against his mother's skirts. A dog hung in mid-air, jaw open and teeth bared to the empty sky and whatever threat had once presented there.

She and the broken sorcerer were the only two moving beings in a frozen world. 

Was all of Oasia frozen, or only the city? She pictured her childhood home in Rivering, her parents, her three younger sisters frozen around the scrubbed-pine table in the kitchen, each girl open-mouthed in silent argument.

She laughed and sobbed at the same time. Her companion said nothing.

At the city square, she spotted the emerald green coat of the king. He stood beneath the fountain, sword drawn, frozen in time. She gasped and dragged Cristo toward Oren, but something was wrong. The weakened sorcerer was trembling more violently than ever.

"What is it?"

His cracked lips trembled. "Young kings grow old."

She reached for his bare hand and squeezed it. It was still warm. He calmed slightly. 

“I need you to wake him.”

Cristo convulsed and began to shake his head back and forth, wide-eyed. A soft muttering escaped his lips. "Immini imotent, imminu porteni..."

“Please, I beg you. The sword magic will not work for this, and we need him. We cannot make it to the forge alone.” She nodded toward the mountain pass. “He will help us."

“...immini mahoor, mahoori...” 

“He will do it," Thora said, squeezing his hand, "if I ask him to.”

She released the sorcerer's hand, and for a moment it hung there abandoned. He stared at it. Then he reached out to the king and pressed his palm flat against Oren's forehead as if he would push him backward.

Nothing happened. 

And then suddenly, everything happened. The king gasped for air and stumbled back, waving his sword. Cristo recoiled. Thora was nearly knocked to the ground, but Cristo held her.

Oren saw them. He saw the sorcerer wrap his bony arms around the queen. The king bellowed and charged.

“No!” Thora shouted, but the sorcerer had already turned away. She felt the vibrations from him as he released a spell.

Oren easily dodged it, but Thora felt more magic surging through the sorcerer’s body. Oren was turned now, couldn’t see, couldn't dodge a second spell. Crying out, she swung her sword to displace Cristo, only to swing him off mark, but the magic of the sword pushed its way out. The blade reached the sorcerer's throat. Blood spurted from the gash as he splayed his fingers at her. His spell released, and Thora felt it hit her chest like a thrown brick.

Cristo's spell was weak, but so was she. 

They fell together, she and the sorcerer, their blood seeping into the snow. His wide eyes found hers. He reached for her with a trembling hand, and she took it. 

Oren appeared above her, his face twisted in misery. “Thora,” he whispered. “My queen, I am sorry.”

“Take my sword,” she croaked.

He seemed not to hear. “I am sorry,” he repeated. “I am sorry...sorry.”

She gathered what remained of her strength and spoke louder, “Oren. My sword. Take it.”

She held it up to him. He clutched the hilt and held it up to his face, pointed at the sky. 

“It has magic. It can protect you. Save…” She meant to say save the people, citizens and sorcerers. Save all of them. We cannot go on fighting each other. They are stronger than us. Accept it and learn to live together. Somehow. 

But Oren interrupted. “He gave this to you, didn't he?”

Blood filled her throat. He gripped her hand. How could she tell him all that she must tell him? What could she tell him that would keep him from killing every sorcerer he met? Continuing this war for another generation after generation? She couldn’t. She had no more time.

She tried to squeeze his hand but could no longer feel her limbs. Eyes of ice blue stared into hers, but she spoke past them to Oren. She must try. 

Choking on blood, she coughed. “I chose you,” she managed to say, and then closed her eyes to the white sky.

 

 

VIII

The forge was cold but not empty. Oren passed the men and women of the night shift, solid in mid-riot like statues, as he entered the great mine forge.

The sorcerer was in the hold. Piles of completed cuffs filled the crates stacked higher than his crown. He turned as Oren entered, the glow of the lamps at his back.

“Where did you get that sword? I can sense its magic.”

“It is the queen’s,” said Oren.

The sorcerer laughed. “Then I know exactly from where its magic has come.”

Oren advanced, and the sorcerer stepped forward, his wicked smile falling from his face. Oren froze. Holding the sword before him.

“Do you think I fear your stolen magic?” the sorcerer asked him. “Your pitiful shadow magic? It is nothing but a replica, a lesser imitation of the pure power of which a true sorcerer is capable.”

He lifted a palm, fingers curled, then released them and a wave of heat pierced Oren’s chest. The king fell back onto the stone floor but managed to hold on to the sword.

“I know the magic of that sword. I know the sorcerer who cast it. I know he betrayed me. You cannot harm me with such magic.”

Oren flipped to his stomach and dragged himself behind crates. He wedged himself into a dark space between the crates and the mountain wall behind him.

“How could your men betray you? I thought sorcerers could foretell the future.”

“A persistent myth. The lesser workings of the citizen mind prevent any prediction of their thoughtless acts. We possess such great power that it only seems as though we are all-knowing and prophetic.”

As the sorcerer spoke, Oren slid a cuff from the crate. The ore glowed with gold magic, even in the darkness. Despite his repulsion at its magic, Oren clung to it, awaiting his chance.

The sorcerer advanced slowly, knowing he had Oren trapped. Oren hid the hand gripping the cuff beneath his cape. The sorcerer appeared above him, looming over Oren who crouched in the shadows.

“I am come for you, King. Your death is assured. For you cannot defeat me, not even with a stolen sword.”

Oren jumped up, knocking the sorcerer off-balance, and before he could regain his footing, slapped the cuff on his wrist.

It was a ruse. Oren had no magic to bind the cuff, and the sorcerer knew it. Still, he recoiled by instinct, bellowing in rage and disgust.

And as the sorcerer pulled back in revolt, the king held fast and thrust the sword into his chest, through the soft spot between the ribs and into his heart.

“It works without magic, too,” he whispered as the sorcerer slumped forward against him. He pushed the man back into the crates, scattering cuffs across the floor.

The crowned sorcerer fell back among him, his eyes a dull brown, drained of the life and magic and hate that had fueled them.

Oren climbed the stairs to the lookout point on the mountainside. The mist was clearing, and he could see the castle now, the queen’s tower, and below the royal road and the gate into the city. He watched the storm dissipate, the dark clouds retreat. Snow was falling again, but in slow drifting flakes.

In the city streets, citizens were stirring, slowly stumbling about. A small group gathered around the fallen queen.

Past the guard’s station at the forest gate, Oren caught the movement of a lone figure on the road out of the city. He found a scope in the guard’s hold and raised it to his eye. Outside the wall, making a trail through the deep snow, was a figure in a cape. A man.

Him.

Oren could tell by long white and gold hair, the sorcerer’s cape, without furs. He walked slowly and had not attempted to disguise himself.

Oren lowered the scope.

Thora’s sword vibrated. Could its magic reach from here? Would it? Magic was a tricky thing, distinctive to each castor. Often sorcerers were impervious to magic of their own creation. Magic would not attack its source. But still… He did not understand magic fully. No one could. He could try, at least.

Oren slid the sword from its scabbard and pointing it at the figure in the distance. The vibration grew.

The young one. Do you know him?

He recalled his wedding night, leading Thora to the vault, the safe place he had made for her, sitting her on the bed and kneeling before her. She wore a white gown, and her hair, the beautiful red-gold of fire, fell over her shoulders and down her back. He held both of her hands in his, and as he explained the purpose of the vault, its protection from all forms of magic, she had pulled away.

“You do not trust me.”

“Of course I do, my love.”

“Then you do not trust him.”

In anger, he had shouted at her. “You are not to speak of him! You promised!”

Thora had stood then and walked the perimeter of the room, her white nightdress trailing behind. Stung by her words and ashamed at his anger, he had watched her silently, still kneeling, until she turned to him.

“Thank you, my love, for this gift.” She had knelt with him, taken his hands again. “I accept it in the spirit in which it is given.”

A cold wind crossed Oren’s face and stung his eyes. When he blinked, the man on the road disappeared. Oren slid the queen’s sword back in his scabbard and returned to the mountain.