The caravan headed north was finally far from Maksow. Far enough from the gigantic cloud of smoke that had swallowed the entire city. We are safe, Halin thought, gazing through the closed window of her coach at the clear sky, and then she contemplated her two children sitting opposite her. For now.
“Are we going to stay in the Frozen Forest forever, Mother?” Zercov, the youngest of her three sons, stretched in his seat next to her. The six-year-old boy must be longing for his comfortable bed. Should she tell him that his room and the palace itself were now reduced to ashes?
“We will just stay for a while.” She brushed his blond hair with her hand. “Until the demons are gone.”
“Father said that nothing makes the demons go away.” Demitry, the middle child, chose this moment to share his wisdom with his clueless brother.
“We will find a way.” Halin glared at Demitry. “The enlightened clerics of Karun’s Cave surely know a way.”
“Clerics don’t make silver arrows, Mother,” Pavel, her eleven-year-old son remarked. “Mages do.”
There was nothing wrong about her elder son’s statement. But had the silver arrows done the Murasens any good against the cursed immortals? According to her spies in Mankola and Murase, every city and castle in these two kingdoms had been wiped off the face of the earth. The same way that had happened to Maksow. “We will find a way,” she said. “The Lord of Sky and Earth won’t let those evil creatures defeat us.”
“Master Ramnov says that the Lord of Sky and Earth is the one who sent those demons in the first place,” said Demitry, “because of our sins.”
What sort of a cleric would say that to a child? she thought. At such dark times, you should give those children hope. “You misunderstood Master Ramnov,” she lied. “The Lord is testing our faith with those demons. As long as we don’t stop praying to Him, we shall prevail in the end.”
“May He grants the Bermanians the strength to defeat the other Cursed Army,” said Pavel. “Father says that Bermania is more prepared to face the demons than Murase.”
Praying for their ancient enemies; a week ago, Halin would have scolded her son for that. Today there was one undeniable fact; the Bermanian bastards were Gorania’s only hope to end this nightmare. Only the Lord knew how had their battle against the Cursed had ended. The last news she had heard from Bermania was the fall of the fortress of Karun to her troops. Since the evacuation of the Rusakian capital, she hadn’t been able to send or receive any messages to or from any part of the world.
“Why aren’t we as prepared as Bermania?” Pavel asked, a tone of rebuke in his voice. “Why aren’t we prepared at all?”
Halin and her husband owed their children an explanation for this havoc. An explanation for a decision she had made seventeen years ago. “I didn’t trust the Bermanians’ intentions behind the Inabol Treaty,” she admitted. “I doubted they were using the Last Day as an excuse to keep the Karun fortress in their hands.” Besides, our realm earned so much coin from selling red mercury to the kingdoms hosting the mages.
Demitry rubbed his head. “I thought Karun’s Cave is in the Frozen Forest.”
“The cave and the fortress were built by the same person,” Halin explained. “That’s why they share the same name despite the two hundred miles between them.” By sunset, they would have arrived in Durberg, which was one day far from the Frozen Forest. Plenty of time to tell her children about Karun the Pious, Goran’s son and the last Emperor of Gorania, the man who had chosen the Frozen Forest to be the clerics’ safe haven.
It was afternoon when the royal caravan halted for a brief rest. Her husband King Nestor came to the coach to inform her that he didn’t recommend stopping at Durberg, and she approved of the idea. Passing by the city without entering it would save them a few hours. And a few hours could be all they needed to stay ahead of the Cursed Army. At this very moment, nobody had a clue where the immortals’ horde was headed to.
After they put on their fur coats, Halin allowed her children to stretch their legs in the open air. “No running or messing around,” she warned before she followed them outside the coach. Five seconds later, Zercov disobeyed her order as he sprinted on the snowy terrain. “Zercov! What did I just say?” Biting his lower lip, her youngest child gave her one of his innocent apologetic looks. When she pretended she was looking the other way, she caught him throwing a snowball at Demitry. Let them release their tension, she told herself. Her children had been through a lot in their last two days.
Trudging through the snow, Halin approached her husband, who was just done talking to Mevidev, the Captain of the Royal Guard. “Warmer than usual, don’t you think?” Nestor said, his hands in the pockets of his coat.
“All we thought was a myth had turned out to be true.” The wind was never stagnant in this part of the world, even in summer. Unless a miracle from the Lord happened, the Demonic Hell was inevitable.
“I sent riders to scout the territory behind us,” Nestor told her, and she nodded. The two hundred soldiers escorting the royal family would not stand a chance against the cursed horde.
Gazing at the road ahead of them, Halin said, “I expected a more crowded road.”
Nestor narrowed his eyes. “You think the news hadn’t reached Durberg yet?”
“I think Durberg had been evacuated already. We will need to haste in our march before Karun’s Cave is full.”
“This is the fastest we can move with all we carry.” Nestor swept an arm towards the train of supplies behind the coach, which wouldn’t suffice everybody in this caravan if they hid in that frozen cave for good. Seriously, they all should join Pavel in his prayers for the Bermanians.
Halin and her children were back to the coach when Nestor announced that the rest was over. The heavily armored knights flanked the coach as the caravan resumed its march past the desolate city of Durberg.
After a while of silence in the coach, Halin heard the snoring of her youngest child, who had dozed off by her side. Demitry had fallen asleep too. And that was when Pavel stared at her. “I know you said what you said because you didn’t want to scare them.”
Halin shot her elder son an inquisitive look. “What did I say?”
“Your belief that the Lord of Sky and Earth will help us beat the Cursed Army; I know it’s a lie.” Pavel leaned forward, a firm expression on his face.
“I never lie to you, Pavel.”
“You just did,” he blurted. “Deep inside, you are quite certain it’s just a matter of time before we are all doomed. Even if we outrun the demons and make it to Karun’s Cave in the Frozen Forest, we will eventually die there of starvation after we finish all the food we have.”
Halin was about to rebuke her son for his impudence. But she changed her mind at the last second. “Is that what you want me to tell you and your brothers?” she asked calmly. “That you are all dead no matter what?”
“I…I…” Pavel stammered, averting his eyes. “I’m scared, Mother. I was just hoping you would prove me wrong.”
Halin wished she had something convincing to say. A plan of any sort. Sadly enough, the only plan she had in mind involved locking herself and her family up in some cave until death. We are escaping from a swift death by the demons’ sharp blades to a much slower one by the cold blades of hunger.
“I wasn’t lying when I asked you to have faith in the Lord’s will.” Leaning forward toward him, Halin held her son’s shoulder. As he insisted to look down, she lifted his chin up to make his eyes meet hers. “Because truly, I don’t know any other way to survive this if He doesn’t help us.”
“We must earn His help first, Master Ramnov says.”
Halin let go of his chin and leaned back in her seat. “Seems that you and your brothers spend too much time with our High Cleric these days.”
“Is there a problem in that?” Pavel asked warily. “We were just seeking answers.”
“And you found any?” Halin was curious to hear her son. Until last week, the Last Day was not a topic they would casually discuss. Because we are not Bermanians. We are not superstitious enough to fret over such a myth.
Halin listened to Pavel’s questions, and actually, she had answers to a few of them, especially the one concerning the event she had attended herself. The Inabol Treaty.
Seventeen years had passed, and still she remembered the rage she had felt. The rage that had never stopped since the war between the three kingdoms. Bermania and Rusakia had started it, and then Skandivia had joined. The war had ended, but peace had never come. She had never felt peace since the Skandivians abducted her and her father-in-law to use them as leverage in their negotiations with Nestor.
Halin didn’t think she would ever tell her sons about her abduction—it wasn’t quite the experience she might love to talk about—but there was one rule she should teach them: In war, everything is allowed. And that was why she had helped the Bermanian rebels more than once. She would do whatever it took to bring the fortress of Karun back to its rightful owners. Shame the demons had chosen these glorious days in particular to end the existence of the entire human race.
Some of the answers Pavel had heard from Ramnov were interesting to her. They were helping her pass the time in the coach, to say the least. “Karun was not just an emperor. He was a knight, a poet, and a scholar,” her son began. “Compiling the history of Gorania was one of his priorities, and he gave the task to the most trustworthy men in the world; the High Clerics.
“Karun wanted to ensure that nobody would ever be able to alter the history of Gorania, which was mainly about his father’s countless battles to unite the Goranian kingdoms. He asked the High Clerics to choose a place out of anybody’s reach, where the original version of their compiled work would be kept safe, and a cave in the Frozen Forest was their suggestion. It was told that Emperor Karun had overseen the construction works himself until they were done. Aware that his enemies, the Koyans, would always remain a threat, Karun built his cave to be a shelter, not only for every rare original book and scroll, but also for the people of these lands. To be Gorania’s last shield.”
“Wasn’t he worried that the people seeking refuge there might starve?” Halin teased her son. She wasn’t fully aware of every detail concerning Karun’s Cave, but she presumed it was equipped for such a situation in some way.
“That was centuries ago, Mother,” Pavel pointed out, the right side of his mouth quirking upward. “He had much fewer mouths to worry about at that time.”
Demitry and Zercov joined the conversation when they woke up. Her children didn’t stop showing off their knowledge until night fell. After another hour of chattering, she looked through the closed window on her left. The tall dark frames on the horizon belonged to the towers of Sabirev, the northernmost fort of Rusakia and the nearest populated settlement to the Frozen Forest. What are we doing here? Why didn’t we head straight from Durberg to our destination?
Halin urged her children to stay put when the caravan halted. Putting on her coat, she stepped out of the coach and strode toward her husband, who had already dismounted. “We are wasting time here.”
“Only a few minutes for the horses to replenish their strengths,” Nestor justified. “Don’t worry, Hal. Except for sporadic travelers on the road, we have nobody on our tail for fifteen miles.”
“We shouldn’t be here, Nestor,” Halin snapped, sweeping an arm toward the distant dark frame of the castle. “We should be off the road—the peasants do that, I hear, and it makes sense. Anybody right in the head would take the shortest way to his destination.”
Nestor gestured to her to calm down, glancing at the men around him. Yes, he was her husband, but he was also their king. And the king had to be shown some respect. In public, to say the least.
“I’m following Ramnov’s lead.” Nestor lowered his voice. “He said nothing about going off the road.”
Everybody listened to the clerics in these dark times. “What if Ramnov is a fool? Would you still follow his lead?”
Nestor puffed, obviously not enjoying the conversation. “Yes. Because that fool is the only one among us who did go to Karun’s Cave. Now please, pull yourself together and let me handle this.” He pointed to the coach behind her. “For sake of the boys in here.”
Pull herself together? She was forced to abandon her devastated home, a horde of cursed immortals was pursuing her and her terrified children, and yet her husband and his men were not showing any sense of urgency in their escape. How should she exactly feel about that?
For the sake of the boys. She had ruled this kingdom with him side by side. Representing Rusakia in Inabol Treaty, forging the alliance with the Skandivians, the plot with the Bermanian rebels to recapture the fortress of Karun; all of that was her doing, and today he had the audacity to ask her to take care of the boys. “You worry about your sons?” She curled her nose. “You go and stay by their side in the coach. I will see to our march to the cave.”
Halin stalked past her husband, but he followed her. “Halin! What on earth are you doing?”
“What you are supposed to be doing, Your Majesty.” She neither stopped nor looked back at him. “Taking this caravan to safety.”
Halin found Nestor’s armored horse and swung herself up into the saddle, ignoring all the stares at her. “Where is our captain?” she wondered in a loud voice deliberately. “He must urge the men to move their arses!”
“That’s enough, Halin.” Nestor clenched his jaws as he gripped the reins of his horse. “You need to stop this farce.”
But Halin had no intention to stop. “If you can’t decide on your own, then someone else should,” she said, her eyes fixed on the captain hurrying to her.
“You were looking for me, Your Majesties?” Mevidev look from his king to his queen and back.
“We must move now, Captain.” Halin was the first to answer. “Order the men to head north.”
“You are not giving any orders before we consult Master Ramnov first,” Nestor instructed the Captain of the Royal Guard.
Mevidev took his time to read the situation before saying anything. “I already discussed with him all the possible routes to the cave, Your Majesties,” he said, making sure he gave each of Nestor and Halin the same amount of attention. “The road we are currently on is our only option.”
“Whom do you answer to, Captain? Your Queen or the High Cleric?” Halin asked firmly.
“My job is to protect the King and Queen of Rusakia, Your Majesty.” Mevidev didn’t flinch. “Even if that implies disobeying them sometimes.”
Nestor must be surely glad to hear that. “You say we are incompetent sometimes?” Halin asked, peering at Mevidev.
“I would never say that, Your Majesty.” Mevidev shook his head. “But since you never went to the Frozen Forest before, you might not be aware of the thin ice off the road.” He exchanged a quick look with Nestor, as if making sure he had his king’s approval. “That’s why I strongly advise against your order, Your Majesty.”
Thin ice? Was that true? Or had the Captain of the Royal Guard just made that up to save his master? “Of course, I wouldn’t put my family in danger if I knew about that thin ice.” Halin looked Mevidev in the eye as she continued, “Which I assume it doesn’t cover the whole area off the road, yes?”
Nestor glanced at his silent captain in plain anticipation. Seems that your savior has run out of ideas, Nestor, she almost said to her husband.
“We can’t take such a risk, Your Majesty,” Mevidev finally spoke, nodding pointedly to the knights and the carts behind her. “Especially with a caravan this big.”
“It is decided, Halin. We stick to Sabirev road.” Nestor dared to open his mouth. “Now, can we stop wasting more time, please?”
Maybe she should acquiesce in Nestor’s decision. Though she didn’t feel good about it for any specific reason, she had to face it; she was the one who didn’t make sense right now. “Let’s pray we don’t regret this moment,” she curtly said as she dismounted, leaving the armored horse to its owner.
The royal caravan moved again, and in two hours, they reached Sabirev, the castle that had saved Rusakia in the long past against the Mankol invasion. The Rusakian army had retreated to their last post in the north, luring the Mankols to a freezing battleground only the Icemen could tolerate. The invaders found themselves facing both the Sabirev troops and Rusakia’s mighty frost. The result was the most humiliating defeat for the Mankols in their history.
Every Rusakian knew this tale. But Halin, who had spent her childhood as the daughter of the lord of this very castle, had heard it a thousand times. Maybe she could find something inspiring in that historical victory.
Having no idea how the beds in Karun’s Cave looked like—if there were any in the first place—Halin should do what the rest were doing: enjoying their last night in a comfortable bed. But a voice in her head kept her awake. The voice of her late father narrating the decisive battle against the Mankols. If you don’t talk to anybody, your mind will, a healer had once told her. Perhaps she should find someone to bother with her sleep-depriving thoughts. And right at the moment, she had one person in mind.
The residents of Sabirev were in their bedchambers when she headed to the gates and ascended the stone steps of the walls. “Bring me Ramnov,” she ordered one of the guards. “Wake him if you must.”
Leaning on the parapets, she inhaled the coldest air in Rusakia. The air that would sicken any Goranian from those southern realms but not the children of these lands. The Icemen; a name the Bermanians used to mock the Rusakians. But Halin and her people were proud to bear it.
In her imagination, Halin was watching the battle against the Mankols outside the castle when the guard returned with Master Ramnov. The bald, gray-bearded man looked uneasy as he bowed to his queen. “How can I be of help, Your Majesty?”
“I was thinking, Master Ramnov,” Halin began, gazing at the snowy field, which was, in her head, flooded with the Mankols’ blood. “If it’s true that the demons cannot survive the weather of the Frozen Forest; why don’t we assume that the frost here might weaken them, making them vulnerable to our blades?”
The old man sighed. “I wish it worked like that, Your Majesty, but fighting the Cursed here could be more dangerous than anywhere else.”
Halin found that totally confusing. “How is that possible?”
“Let me explain.” Ramnov seemed more relaxed. Summoning the High Cleric in the middle of the night at this place must have alarmed him. “The demons cannot survive the Goranian weather on their own, even that of Murase. That’s why they use our bodies as vehicles to protect themselves from the cold in Gorania. Once any of their hosts is at risk, the demon inside would use its power to revive its vehicle. And here is the rub, Your Majesty. As the demon uses its power, it gets stronger. And the stronger it gets, the more likely it can break free from its host and turn into its true demonic form. A form that no silver arrow or blade can kill.”
Halin gave herself a moment to grasp all the facts he had stated. “You just said demons couldn’t survive our weather on their own.”
“It won’t be our weather when the demons turn into their true forms.” He shook his head. “Those cursed creatures will keep using their powers until they turn Gorania into another Great Desert.”
The weather was already getting warmer, and yet, the demons hadn’t shown their true faces. “Still, you didn’t explain why it would be more dangerous to fight them here.”
Ramnov inhaled deeply. “You know how silver weapons kill demons? The Demonsbane embedded in blades and arrowheads freezes the blood of both the host and the demon instantly, leaving no chance for the latter to revive them both. On the other hand, our cold, the Rusakian cold, might kill normal people, but it does that gradually. That slow, continuous process of damaging the host’s body triggers the demon to use more power to keep its host alive. Now you are aware of the consequences of using more demonic power.”
Releasing the demons in their true form. “Blast!” she spat. “Our situation is really desperate.”
Someone was scurrying toward the wall. When she turned, she spotted her husband dashing across the courtyard. Right after he hurriedly ascended the stairs, he gaped at Ramnov, scanning him from head to toe. “You alright, Master?” Nestor asked dubiously before he peered at Halin. “I was told that Her Majesty had summoned you for some urgent business atop our bulwarks.”
His Majesty was plainly worried that his wife might push the High Cleric over the parapets. The idea was tempting, to be honest, but the old man might prove useful with his knowledge.
“Her Majesty had an idea that she wanted to discuss,” said Ramnov.
“An idea,” Nestor echoed, his voice dripping with disapproval. “Is that why you are up until this late hour?” he asked Halin.
“I didn’t ask you why you were still up either,” she countered, looking her husband in the eye.
Nestor puffed. “A scout from the north has returned. He says that thousands of travelers are blocking the only road to the Frozen Forest.”
More bad news to come. What took Halin’s attention was Ramnov’s nonchalant face. When she looked at him quizzically, the High Cleric said, “They are waiting for their turn to enter the forest, Your Majesty.”
Halin gritted her teeth. “What turn, Master Ramnov? Why don’t they just cross the damned forest?”
A nervous smile curved Ramnov’s face. “I know it might sound hard to imagine, Your Majesty. But you must see it for yourself to understand why only a few can enter the forest at a time.”
So, she was supposed to totally understand that she had to wait for her turn, after those thousands of people entered the forest first. I’ve heard enough. “You may go back to your bed, Master Ramnov,” she told the High Cleric. After he left, she turned to Nestor. “What are you going to do about that?”
Her husband let out a deep breath, his hands on his waist. “We have scouts returning tomorrow from the south. Let’s hear them to see how much time we have.”
“Neither I nor my children will wait for anybody to allow us to enter the Forest, you hear me?” she stated firmly. “You can wait for your turn if you want.”
Nestor furrowed his brow. “You are not fighting those people ahead of us, are you?”
“I will kill anybody putting my children in danger, Nestor.” It was not a hollow threat; Halin had the men to see to the task.
“Halin, we are not a bunch of outlaws.” Nestor said, obviously perplexed. “What kind of rulers will we be if we kill our own people?”
The world was about to end, and yet her oblivious husband was concerned about his petty kingship. “You still don’t get it? There is nothing for us to rule anymore. There is only us.” Halin gripped his arms, looking him in the eye. “Now tell me what you are, Nestor. One of us? Or a threat to my children that I must take care of?”