- Karen Frost
We are One Month Away!
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
I can't believe we're only one month away from the release of "Conspiracy of the Dark"! So in honor of the occasion, I'm giving a sneak peek of chapter one:
"The Northmen have breached the wall! Oh gods, they’re coming. They’re coming."
--Last words of Jeldrek Broadsword, Captain of the King’s Guard
"Everything in this world has a price. At some time, in some way, the debt must be paid: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. There is nothing free in this world."
--Raelan Bloodmoon, War Mage
Stories, when told by a skillful storyteller, are perfect circles: they begin, they end, the lights go out, the curtains close, the puppets slump lifelessly. But the lives of real people aren’t neat parables in which the lesson is learned, the villain slain, the hero triumphant. They have no defined shape. They are messy. In real life, no one knows how the story will end. Only the gods know, and they’re not telling.
Everyone has a story: the circle of their life beginning with their birth and ending with their death. My story begins in a small, remote village called Thamir, located on the furthest northwestern border of the kingdom of Ilirya. It is hard to live somewhere and not take on the characteristics of that place. Thamir was frozen, isolated, and fierce. It had to fight every day against the cold threatening to swallow it whole. Like a weed growing tenaciously on the side of a cliff, it defied nature’s attempts to smother it and if it didn’t thrive, at least it didn’t die. But then, that’s how life is; it refuses to give up even when the odds seem hopelessly against it.
Thamir was one of hundreds of small villages that lined the kingdom’s northern border, each a small island unto itself with little contact with the rest of the outside world. This string of villages was called the Ice Crown. Life in the Ice Crown was brutal. Even on the warmest summer night, the temperature could drop low enough to freeze water. In winter, death stalked the living relentlessly, killing remorselessly through cold or starvation. Because of how we lived and the people into which our environment made us, my father, Jax, used to say, “There are two types of people in this world: those from the Ice Crown, and everyone else.”
To my father, a city was an anthill: people swarming over and around each other, fighting for food and space. Therefore, the gift he gave his children was life, the knowledge of how to survive in the Ice Crown and to thereby live on their own terms. He taught me how to set traps, fashion a bow, skin a hare in a matter of seconds, track a deer through the forest, and read the sky for weather. He passed this knowledge as part of an unbroken line from my first ancestors who had arrived, cold and hungry, to the Ice Crown, to me. It was my birthright.
Thamir had no significance to the rest of the kingdom but for its location. It was the first in a string of lookout posts that would alert the rest of Ilirya if our northern neighbors, the Northmen, invaded. The one war we’d fought with Northmen, a hundred years before, had left bitter memories. Although it had been mercifully short, many Ice Crown villages had been snuffed out like candles before the King’s Army had arrived to stop the invaders. No Northman had been seen since the day they had been pushed back across the border, but the danger of another surprise invasion always loomed, and Thamir was the key to Ilirya’s defense.
Twice a year, the military garrison near Thamir rotated, and the soldiers passing through Thamir brought us news of the outside world. They were like the first handful of water after you’ve thirsted for hours. When you live so far from all other villages, any contact you have with other humans is a precious gift. The soldiers were one of the few links that kept us tethered to the rest of the kingdom and reminded us that we did not live alone in the world, surrounded by only snow and trees as neighbors.
The stories the soldiers brought were how I learned about the rest of Ilirya. I learned about farming from soldiers whose families farmed wheat and corn. I learned about deserts and oceans and mountains from soldiers who had seen them with their own eyes. I learned about hundreds of animals I’d never seen and never would. For me, a child full of fantasy and imagination, there could have been no greater gift than tales of this other, dream-like world. I inhabited the soldiers’ stories, expanded upon them, made new worlds with them and then destroyed them. Sometimes I was a lady in waiting to the Queen, sometimes a knight’s page looking across the battlefield at the enemy. I hunted with golden eagles in the southern mountains and fished for shimmering blue fish longer than I was tall in the great ocean at the kingdom’s farthest eastern edge.
But even children know that dreams are not real. Although I loved the soldiers’ stories, their fanciful worlds were not for me. After all, my future was inevitably rooted in Thamir’s soil: I would become a trapper like the women in my family before me. I would live with my parents until the day I married and moved into a house of my own. This was how it had always been for the women of my village and how it would surely be for me as well. It was so simple it required no thought, no emotion. Why dream about a future that cannot be? My brothers Kem and Kyan and I were born children of the Ice Crown, and we would die children of the Ice Crown. Or at least, I thought so.
* * *
When I was eleven, a stranger arrived in Thamir. He came bundled head to toe in the pelts of dozens of white snow hares, with only his pale blue eyes visible, his blond eyelashes covered with ice and snow. He was traveling on the longest day of winter, when the temperature was low enough to freeze tears torn loose by the wind against your cheek and the sun shone for only a few hours before it was swallowed up by the darkness. He arrived silent as a shadow, slipping into the village by the light of the half-moon as the women and children sat around the communal fire talking and keeping warm.
“Oh!” Ma Ren squeaked in surprise when she caught sight of him. The women all looked at him, curious. A quiet murmur went up around the fire, muffled by the rules of politeness. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a stranger come. Perhaps it hadn’t happened at all in my lifetime.
“I’m sorry to have startled you,” the man apologized in a low voice. “I was passing through not a quarter mile away and saw the light of your fire. I’ve been traveling all day and my feet are half frozen from the cold. Will you permit me to rest a minute by your fire?”
“Oh yes, do sit down and warm yourself,” my aunt, Ofrin, said, shifting to make room on the thick log that served as a bench before the fire for him. “It’s a cold night.”
“Yes, it is.”
The man sat down and held his booted feet toward the fire. In less than a minute, a thin plume of steam smoked off them as the snow evaporated. He took his gloves off and rubbed his hands together to warm them.
“What in the world are you doing traveling this time of year?” Megin scolded him, rocking her child to keep him asleep. “The cold can kill a man.”
“That it can,” the stranger agreed in a slow drawl, “but I’m from Hargesa, and I’ve spent my whole life in the Ice Crown. The cold doesn’t scare me. It’s too late to continue on tonight anyway; is there any spare place here in this village to lay down my bedroll?”
“I have room,” Ma Ren offered.
The stranger nodded with a grateful smile. He lifted his pack and followed her back to her house, leaving his gloves by the fire. A few minutes later, the two returned. The man shook the snow from his clothes before sitting again. It fell heavy and wet to the ground. Snow was matted to his thin yellow hair at the edges of where the hood of his coat had been. It glistened in the firelight and began to melt, running down his cheeks and into his short beard, untrimmed and thin as his hair.
The village children gathered around the fire like forest animals: alert and curious to the newcomer but ready to bolt at any moment. They peeked out from behind their mothers’ knees or from around corners, their hungry eyes devouring him, longing to know from where he’d traveled and why. Their mothers had the same questions. Who would possibly come to Thamir and to what end?
There were few men in the village that night. Most had taken advantage of the moonlight and clear sky to hunt even though the night was bitingly cold. Only the older men of the village had stayed behind. One of these was the hermit, Firdas. Firdas was an oddity in Thamir. He wasn’t a hunter like all the other men. Instead, he lived by building things that he traded: nets for birds, ingenious cages for ermines, stoats, and other rodents, and even small toys for children. He also could repair any broken trap. Many trappers and hunters could make simple traps for themselves, but they were nowhere near the quality of what Firdas could make, and so many found it easier to simply barter with him. In return, Firdas gained the meat he did not kill himself.
Firdas was one of the oldest men in the village. Although he kept his hair and beard closely cropped, what grew was salt and pepper tending to white, and when he walked, he leaned heavily on his staff and limped haltingly on the right side. He was so thin he looked starving, and his hands were badly gnarled by arthritis. Firdas lived an austere and lonely life, keeping to himself in the small hut he built a mile away from the village and only visiting when he needed something from the villagers, such as rope for nets or more iron for the traps. Now he stood slightly beyond the light of the fire, watching the children inch closer to the stranger.
“I’m Panwel,” the stranger said by way of introduction, “and this must be Thamir, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Are you a trapper?” Cyan, a young girl of seven, asked shyly, fingering the white fur on the stranger Panwel’s coat longingly. None of us had ever seen anything so fine, white hares being all but unheard of near Thamir. She had crept up in Panwel’s shadow, quiet as snow falling.
“I’d like to think I’m more than that.”
A broad smile broke out across Panwel’s face. He was handsome, but starting to age. Thin lines were forming across his forehead and at the corners of his mouth.
“Like what?” Cyan’s mother, Nyere, asked from across the fire.
“A storyteller. A dreamer. A lion among men.”
And he was. With his expressions and his dancing hands painting pictures before him, he started to spin a web about his life in Hargesa that drew us like flies into a spider’s nest. We listed with rapt attention, our bodies leaning toward him, hungrily drinking up the story from another Ice Crown village. Panwel was well into a yarn about hunting a great white bear when, unexpectedly, Firdas limped forward to stand in front of him. Firdas’ eyes were narrowed into tight slits as he glared at the stranger. He growled, “You are a liar.”
“Alright, so maybe the bear wasn’t as white as I said,” Panwel replied with a wink and laugh to Cyan.
Firdas said flatly, “Beneath that mindless drawl you think is Ice Crowner, your accent is from King’s City, and you are dressed as neither a trader nor a hunter. If you have been to Hargesa at all, it was as a stranger. I’d bet my life on it.”
“I didn’t say I was a trader or a hunter, did I?” Panwel asked, waggling his long, graceful finger. He said the words not to Firdas, but to his audience of women and children. He seemed to be acting for us, inviting us to participate with him in a joke for which grumpy Firdas was the punchline. We laughed with him, happy to play along.
“What are you doing so far west in the Ice Crown?” Firdas demanded. “There’s nothing here but trees and snow. Nothing someone from King’s City would want.”
Panwel sucked on his front teeth and gazed back coolly at the hermit, his head cocked at a slight angle.
"You speak as though you know about King’s City. That’s odd for someone Ice Crown bred. Do I know you?”
Firdas turned away sharply, the corners of his mouth tugging into a frown. He pulled the hood of his cloak up over his head.
“Really? You look familiar. Perhaps we’ve met. Have you spent time at Windhall, perhaps, or Graymere?”
Firdas said nothing. Panwel sighed, looking skyward as if the situation was hopeless.
“I’m just a traveler, friend. Just one more traveler far from home. Nothing more, nothing less. Come, sit. Standing doesn’t suit those twigs upon which you stand. They look as though they’ll snap in two at any moment.”
“Only someone who doesn’t want to be seen would wear all white in the Ice Crown. There are too many hunters who would mistake you for prey.”
“Firdas!” Ma Ren scolded. “This man, Panwel, is our guest. It’s inhospitable to insult him and interrogate him as you do. Surely he’s tired from traveling and wants nothing more than to rest.”
“Better to know his intentions than be surprised by them.”
Panwel looked at Firdas hard. I noticed that the corners of his eyes were tight and tense. It reminded me of two stags facing off during rutting season, but I couldn’t understand why. Why didn’t Firdas like Panwel when they’d never met? The women must have felt it, too, because they shifted uneasily in their seats. Panwel touched his soft white furs lovingly.
“I made these myself. It might be silly, but I have a certain attachment to them. Even if it . . .well, I shall say a prayer to the gods that I don’t share the fate of the hares that made this coat.”
“A stranger in white appears in Ilirya’s western-most border town on the darkest day of the year. There can be only one interpretation: you’re going into the North and you don’t want to risk the garrison here seeing you. Is that it?”
Firdas’s words were like a key turning in a lock. Panwel stiffened instantly, his smile freezing in place. His face was now sharp, his eyes bright with suspicion. He said slowly in a tight, controlled voice, “There’s no reason to cross into the North. The war’s been over for a hundred years. You ask many odd questions, friend. Who are you?”
“Merely a poor old man living out his final days in the Ice Crown in peace. Nothing more, nothing less . . . friend. But I will tell you one thing: I have lived long enough to know to trust my eyes over the lying words of men.”
As he spoke, Firdas reached out the tip of his staff until it was touching Panwel’s neck, then ran it along his collar. Panwel did not resist, but glared defiantly at Firdas. The tip of Firdas’s staff caught the loop of a gold chain and lifted it free of Panwel’s clothing. Attached to the chain was a golden medallion the size of a child’s fist.
“The medallion of a King’s Mage,” Firdas announced without any evident surprise. “Just a traveler from Hargesa, eh? You know there are no mages in the Ice Crown.”
Panwel snarled and batted Firdas’ wood staff away, stuffing the gold medallion back into his shirt clumsily. Yet he said nothing and only glowered.
“What does the King want in the North? No, that’s not right. You wouldn’t have to skulk in the shadows past the garrison if the King had sent you. The King doesn’t know, does he? You are acting outside of his authority. Does the Captain of the King’s Regiment know? What are you up to?”
Firdas waited for an answer with narrowed eyes, but Panwel refused to speak. At last, Firdas threw up his hands.
“Always one conspiracy or another. One day, King’s City will collapse upon itself with the weight of all the scheming that goes on in it. Well, I’m sure you’re no better or worse than the rest of them, gods help us. Just leave Thamir out of it. We don’t need war here, too.”
He turned abruptly and slowly limped away from the fire in the direction of his house. The momentum of the evening had shifted to something much more somber and uneasy, but none of the villagers knew what it meant. The words exchanged between Firdas and Panwel might as well have been in another tongue, for all the listeners could understand. Although the two men were clearly at odds, no one could say exactly what either had suggested or intimated.
As soon as Firdas was out of view of the fire, however, Panwel regained his audience. He grinned his biggest smile and pantomimed letting out a huge breath of air.
“Phew,” he said, wiping his brow. “Such an inquisition as I have ever had. Your village is guarded by a true wolfhound. I’ll take care not to cross him.”
Dyar, who was only five, crawled forward and poked Panwel on the knee. He whispered in a voice small as a mouse, “Are you really a mage?”
Panwel looked down at him and smiled dazzlingly.
“I am, dear boy. Have you ever met a mage before?”
Dyar shook his head, his black hair whipping into his eyes. He had his thumb in his mouth and was sucking it nervously. Panwel put his hand on the boy’s head in a fatherly gesture. He asked warmly, “Would you like to see what magic looks like?”
Dyar nodded, his eyes round as saucers. The exchange broke the last of the tension that Firdas had created. A crescendo of excited murmurs rippled through the assembled villagers like the sighing of wind through pine trees. According to Thamir’s collective memory, no mage had ever passed through the village. Since no villager had ever had an affinity for magic either, seeing a mage now in the flesh was like seeing the ocean: something we had heard about but that no villager had seen in person. Firdas and his strange, angry, senseless words were forgotten in an instant.
Panwel reached into the dark brown leather satchel at his side and pulled out a bronze coin large enough that if he wrapped his index finger around it, the tip of his finger would barely overlap his thumb. The light of the fire danced red and gold along the coin’s sides, inviting us to look. Panwel leaned forward at the waist and showed the coin to the small children clustered around him. Having shown it to them, he straightened so that the women around the fire could see him as well, and then held the coin out in front of him. His fingers flexed open, and he moved his hand slowly back, away from the coin. The coin floated in the air where he had left it, as though held by invisible fingers.
Panwel twirled his index finger in a tight circle, and the coin began to spin in place with the same speed. While the mage worked his magic, his hands glowed with a yellow light so pale and translucent it was almost invisible. Had the night not been so dark, the magic would have been impossible to see at all. It spread out from him like the gentle flame of a dim candle and traced a thin thread to the coin. The crowd of children whistled their approval and clapped wildly. Panwel snapped his fingers and the coin burst into bright yellow flames before disappearing completely. The children’s mouths fell open and they gaped at where the coin had been. Panwel winked at them and clapped his hands once. Immediately, small red flowers fell from the dark night sky all around the fire.
Children and adults alike put out their hands in awe and caught the flowers, which collected in their cupped hands like tiny piles of snow. When I brought the flowers to my nose, they smelled as though they had recently been plucked. I had never seen flowers so red. I guessed they must have been a type of flower found wherever the mage was from, whether that was Hargesa or, as Firdas had claimed, not.
Panwel performed trick after trick for his audience, such as creating animals out of snow that he made walk around and dance. I watched his every move like a hawk watches a mouse in the snow, barely able to breathe. His magic was like an impossible, limitless dream. I remembered the words of two rough, grizzled soldiers sitting at that same fire discussing magic the summer before.
“The thing about magic is . . . you never know what you’ll get,” said the first. “Can you imagine only having an affinity for laundry?”
“Aye, but imagine if you had an affinity for metal! You’d never want for work,” said the other.
An “affinity,” we had long ago been told, was a person’s particular magical specialty. Some mages could work fire, others water, others wind and so on. I didn’t know Panwel’s affinity, but I had a suspicion: illusion. The red flowers disappeared moments after filling our hands, and the snow creatures blew away with the wind. If Firdas was right, I realized, and Panwel was going into the North, this affinity might be the only thing that would keep him safe. If he wanted to, he could become invisible. He could look like a tree or a deer. The Northmen wouldn’t be able to find him.
Right before he finished Panwel looked at me, reached into his heavy fur coat, and pulled out a flower no longer than his finger. The green stem was long and graceful, the flower delicate and white as snow. He gently passed it to me. This was no illusion. The peals were soft beneath my fingertips.
"The Nix Flos," he murmured softly, for my ears alone. "The snow flower. It belongs to the Ice Crown, like you. Keep it. It will bring you luck."
I clutched the flower tightly to my breast in trembling fingers, too awed to even thank him for the gift. Panwel gave a half-bow to his audience, then made a show of yawning and stretching and retreated back into Ma Ren’s house to get a few hours' sleep before rising with the dawn to disappear among the trees. If he crossed the border and returned we never knew— because he never came to Thamir again. I kept the white flower ever after and thought of him often over the next few months. Wherever he had gone, and whatever he had done, I hoped that he was safe.
* * *
Panwel’s magic was like the first whisper of spring after a long, cold winter: a promise of lightness and hope. As I lay restless on the floor that night, my mind raced, trying to remember everything that we had been told over the years about magic. The ability to work magic was rare, and magic was often capricious and hard to control. Nor did everyone who had magic become a mage. Being a mage required both enough magic and the training to use it properly. To become a certified mage, one had to attend one of the two mage universities in King's City: Windhall University or Graymere College. Gaining admission into either of them was both difficult and expensive. The schools counted on the fact that certified mages could expect to make good wages in a provincial capital after graduation and so demanded high tuition.
Mages were classified based on their power and ability. The best and most powerful mages might eventually become Great Mages, who sat at the apex of the mage hierarchy. From their ranks were drawn the King's Mages, who were hand selected by the King to serve in the King’s Regiment, an elite fighting unit comprised of Great Mages and fierce non-mage soldiers. In the entire kingdom, there were at most thirty King’s Mages. The whole of the Ice Crown was unlikely to ever see another King’s Mage for a hundred years at least. I had truly experienced a miracle.
The next day, while the village children were still abuzz with retelling each other the tricks Panwel had performed, I told my brothers that I wanted to be a mage. I didn’t have to be a Great Mage, any mage type would do .My face was flushed with hope and excitement. I loved my life in Thamir and wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but the idea of magic was thrilling. It was addictive. I wanted more.
“Brave heart,” Kem said sympathetically, patting me on the head. “Thamir’s never had a mage.”
“But we could!”
“Two hundred years is a long time,” Kyan said. “What’s wrong with being a trapper? Not good enough for you anymore?”
“No, it’s not that,” I protested.
“Don’t go getting your heart set on it,” Kem warned solemnly. “You’ll only end up breaking it. Ice Crowners aren’t meant to do magic. Too much ice in our veins, maybe. It freezes the magic.”
I spent the next few weeks screwing up my face in a pained expression of concentration, trying to summon magic. I would sneak up behind my mother, Wren, and wiggle my fingers at her, willing her to turn into a rabbit. I tried to change the color of our lanky wolfhound Wolf's fur from gray to brown, but he only cocked his head at me and watched with his light brown eyes, his fur still gray. I tried calling clouds and melting snow, but nothing happened. There probably was a deep and abiding lesson to be learned from my experience about how determination and desire aren’t always enough to overcome obstacles, but I was too young to learn it. I believed if I wanted something badly enough, I could have it.
The only thing that saved me from a deep and lasting bitterness about my lack of magical ability was that being a child, my passions shifted quickly. A month later, my dreams of being a mage had dimmed and were supplanted by my joy at my new bow and the long knife my father gifted me for my twelfth birthday. I thought no more of the impossible future I couldn’t have, and instead focused on the present I did have. Indeed, I might have abandoned entirely my childish dreams of becoming a mage, even if I still saw Panwel making red flowers rain from the sky in my dreams, but fate relishes the unexpected. On my fifteenth birthday, I discovered I had magic.