We walk towards the City, single-file through the hip-deep snow. The men at the front curse as they break the path, the frigid air carrying their voices back. We wear woolen hats low against the glare, frozen eyelashes pulling from skin each time we blink. The blowing snow is cold grit, working its way through cocoons of shirts and coats. Our feet, wrapped in rags and stuffed into mended boots, feel more like stone than flesh. It has been winter for many years now. None of us can remember what it feels like to be truly warm.
We pass the trenches that our predecessors, the Emperor’s prized Legion, lately occupied. They lived here for months, firing the catapults constantly, the archers picking off anyone foolish enough to look out over the city walls. But the new-fallen snow has smoothed away all signs of their long encampment, the row of graves curving across the fields reduced to a series of gentle ridges.
The city’s thick stone walls are encased in sheets of windblown snow, hiding the damage of the catapults. The east gate is a ruin, remnants of the battering ram and its housing mixed with the splintered wreckage of the iron-bound doors. As we pass under the shattered arch, the blinding glare of sun on snow changes to a dim half-twilight. We enter a warren of high walls and narrow alleyways, gripping our weapons—clubs, spears, the occasional rough sword fashioned from a plow blade.
No sound, no movement, save for the thump of snow sliding from windowsill and rooftop. No smell of cooking, no shouts, no one flees from our approach.
Just inside the gate sit the remains of a wagon, bits of wood and canvas strewn around a crater of shattered iron and scorched earth. A horse’s bones protrude from the ice, every scrap of flesh picked off the carcass. The snow in a wide circle all around is churned to thick brown slush, frozen into wild peaks.
One of the farm boys—Ameos—stares at the horse’s jutting ribcage, reaches out to touch the bones. He snaps off a piece of frost-covered rib, rolling it between his gloved fingers.
Our officers break us into groups—detachments, they call them—and we march up the narrow streets to begin the search, our feet fitting into the frozen footprints left by the sturdy boots of the Legion.
Two days earlier, they attacked the east gate as they had so many times before, but no bales of straw were lowered to soften the ram’s blow, no fire arrows shot into the housing. With the gate quickly breached, they poured in, all keen for their share of the plunder after months of hardship, eager to help themselves to whatever—and whomever—waited inside.
Not a living soul. No animals either, not so much as a stray cat.
They combed the streets, kicking in doors, searching cellars and attics. The City’s entire population had vanished, and everything of value—gold, jewelry, knives, even cooking pots—was gone with them. With no enemy to triumph over, the enraged soldiers made ready to fire the city but were hard-pressed to find anything left to burn.
Then something happened. Reports were vague, details sketchy. Around our campfires we listened to the rumors, twice- and thrice-told tales: explosions, injuries, deaths, more gruesome and strange with each telling. Now the Legion marches south, to another town some distance away. Of no military importance but prosperous, with no walls or battlements. An easy target for the Emperor’s darlings.
With the Legion safely away it now falls to us, the conscript army—farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, old men and boys, pressed into service at swordpoint—to solve the mystery of the City. We are to find the missing people, and especially one man: the Sorcerer, he who settled here after the last war.
He is the reason for this costly siege. Our Emperor has need of him.
We round a corner. Scrawled high on the wall of an alleyway is one of the marks we were warned of, a rune drawn in tar.
A group of officers cluster below the mark. One balances an inkpot, another copies the symbol onto parchment, a third notes its location on a map of the city. Near where they stand there is a patch of bloody ice splashed against the stones next to an odd-shaped bundle of rags, the buckles of a Legionnaire’s uniform winking out at us. We stare, and the officer with the map waves us away.
The narrow way winds on, the silence and emptiness unnatural. Before us is a street of shops, doors wrenched off their hinges, shutters broken and askew. The empty windows of the rooms above stare down like blank faces. We enter each doorway, kicking open the few not already broken to bits. The rampaging Legion has left ample evidence of their fury: smashed tables, piles of debris, floors thick with wreckage. Everything is limned with frost, refuse and shards of crockery sparkling in the shadows.
Fierst, the drunkard, darts in and out of ruined shops. He finished the last of his homebrew days ago and is frantic for drink. He heads into a wrecked tavern and we hear him throwing open cupboards, cursing as he goes. His desperation sets us laughing—
—cut short by his screams.
We rush to the tavern doorway, colliding with each other, stumbling through the wrecked front room to the kitchen. Fierst cowers in the corner, his rag-wrapped fingers crammed into his mouth. He has thrown open the huge baking oven. In the dim light from the street, the tangle of bones within is barely visible.
“No...oh no...,” Fierst stutters.
The people of this city ate their dead, of course they did. Locked behind these walls for months on end, what choice did they have? But the tiny skull grinning out at us still turns our stomachs.
Behind us, the officers fill the narrow doorway.
“Out,” the one with the map says. “All of you, out. You’re searching for people, not bones.”
Someone grabs Fierst and we stumble back into the street. The light is dimmer now, day fading fast. We turn towards the center of town, our officers behind us.
“They’re hidden,” one says.
“Yes, but where?”
“We’ll find them,” says the youngest, a young man of perhaps twenty-one, his cloak new and well-made. “They’ve bolted down some hole, like the vermin they are.”
“All of them?” This from the one with the map.
“It’s that cursed Sorcerer’s doing,” says the one carrying the inkpot.
We slow our pace imperceptibly, hanging back to eavesdrop. We want to know more about this man who dared to refuse the Emperor. There are rumors he sold his soul to dark spirits for his skill, that he has the power to turn base lead to precious metals, even raise the dead. And if all of that is not true, his refusal to obey the Emperor’s command makes him legend enough to us.
“Remember what he did to that town, up in the mountains?” says the officer with the map. “What a mess.”
“Wherever these people are, they must be starving by now.” The one with the inkpot holds it close to his chest, to keep it from freezing.
“Hey you!” cries the young one, noticing us. He packs a handful of snow and lets it fly at our backs. “Find me a girl! I’ve got something she can eat!” He grabs at his crotch, laughing.
The officers bray like donkeys and we join in, dutifully. The bits of Ameos’ face we can still see through his ragged scarf turn bright pink.
On we go through winding streets, down narrow staircases into cellars, up into the flats above the shops. Overturning beds and tables, pulling plates and clothes from cupboards, we search while our stomachs rumble. The provision wagons are more than a day behind us, lumbering over snowbound roads. Our breakfast, eaten in haste well before light, was a single bowl of thin gruel apiece. In every room there is a desperate rummage for anything edible, but the shelves are as bare of food as the city is of people. Once in a while a bone—boiled clean, cracked open for its marrow—surfaces in the rubbish. Nothing more.
On the floor of a shop a ruined book lies open. Pictograms run across the pages like insects marching in columns, some of the characters resembling the rune from the wall. Finally, up a steep staircase we see a shadow, a glimpse of movement behind an attic door. Sierkel, one of the southern boys, charges up the stairs. He kicks in the door, screaming “Up! Up, you swine!” and we swarm after him, weapons raised, hearts pounding.
A woman’s gown hangs near an open window, swinging in the draft. On the bed, a worn blanket pulled tight over the straw mattress holds the tantalizing shape—unmistakably female—of its last occupant.
We laugh, all of us for the first time in days, the grinding fear we wear around our guts gone for just a moment. We jab at the gown with spears and swords, shouting and jeering, tearing the fabric into strips. We grab handfuls of the musty straw, throwing it into the air, flinging it at each other like children. In the flurry of laughter and noise, a few of us notice the mark drawn in black tar along the floor near the window.
Ameos does not. Laughing, hurling straw, he steps on it.
A roar like thunder in that tiny room, and then—not an explosion—an implosion, so cold it burns us, leaving patterns of frost on our clothes. One moment Ameos is laughing; the next, bits of his clothes and flesh fall to the ground in a cloud of straw and ice. For a moment, silence. Then screaming we run down the stairs, directly into the cluster of officers.
One of them rushes up to the attic while the others pull us out to the street, babbling in their excitement. Was it a symbol? Was it on the floor or across the ceiling? How many dead? How did he die? Did he speak?
We answer as best we can, struggling not to vomit, not to lose the precious food still in our bellies. The young one extends a flask and with a desperate cry Fierst grabs for it, drinking greedily. The officers argue, hands waving, shouting, pushing. In their excitement, they forget us as we huddle by the door still panting in terror. The cold, kept at bay by our movement, creeps back into our bones, numbing us slowly.
The sun is setting. Shadows gather around us.
The officer with the inkpot raises his hand and puts a finger to his lips. Several streets away a bell is tolling; the signal to converge.
They yell at us; we run, towards the sound of the bell—how strange it feels to run, rather than our usual clumsy attempts at marching—relieved to put space between ourselves and that cursed room and its pile of blood and straw.
We reach the square at center of the city, form up into columns with the rest. The place where Ameos should stand is taken by another boy. We are fewer now. Those that remain are spattered with blood and frost. We are each issued a piece of hardtack and a strip of dried meat, tough and stringy. We gnaw off pieces and hold them in our mouths, savoring the salty brine as the meat slowly dissolves. Our stomachs, woken by this pitiful offering, growl in protest.
Our officers, now part of the larger group, compare their map with those of the others. They point at us, then at the parchments.
Night falls, moonrise begins. The square feels smaller, the moonlight shadows more ominous. We shift on our feet, whisper to one another to distract from the sensation of being watched. Across the square is a church. The massive doors are torn from their hinges; drifts of snow and ice spill in across the stone floor. We gaze in longingly, wondering if there are wooden benches inside, an altar, prayer books. We build bonfires in our minds from holy relics.
Finally we are ordered to march two abreast through the dark streets, to a dismal and neglected alley in the east sector. We move slowly. The officers scream at us to pick up the pace, but we are beyond caring. The drip of melting snow slows in the deepening cold, like a dying heartbeat.
At the end of the alley more officers wait. The cursed symbols cover the walls here, dozens of them in confusing tangles. Puddles of blood—not yet frozen, too wide to step across—cover the cobblestones. We are directed to the weather-beaten door of a squat, mean little house at the end of the alley. The officers herd us through like cattle, shout for us to be careful, to keep alert.
If we were less cold, less hungry, if weariness didn’t weigh down our bones and our souls, perhaps we could rebel against their cowardice, against being tossed into danger like wheat into a gristmill while the blood of our comrades congeals on the street. Still, what else can we do? This, after all, is why we are chosen for the job. It is our one strength; we are expendable.
We move single-file across the doorstep, our weapons heavy in our clumsy hands. This house is tiny, just a hovel. How can we all possibly fit inside?
The answer comes almost at once. Just inside the door, a stairway narrow and steep, leading down. We pass only a little way along before the light from the torches fades behind us, along with the shouts of the officers. We hang on to one another, each man keeping the one before him upright. Moving slowly, blindly, our numb feet feel for the edge of each worn stone step.
At first there is the stink of earth and mold, but the further we descend, the stronger the sharp smell of tar increases. As our shoulders brush the narrow, curving walls we think of the strange marks and falter, but the press of those behind forces us on. Finally we reach the bottom, stumbling forward into an open space, blinking in sudden, unexpected light.
The room is vast; it must run the length of the alley above us. The ceiling sits low enough around the edges that must we stoop in the doorway; then it curves up to a high arch at the center. Crude tables and benches set against the walls are covered with hundreds of flickering candles, strange blue flames giving light but no heat, sending weird shadows darting along the curving walls.
Rope-strung cots stand in rows, as in a barracks. Blinking in the strange blue light, it takes a moment for us to realize they are occupied.
The women lie on their backs, arms at their sides. Their eyes are open but sightless, staring up at now-familiar symbols inscribed along the arching beams. Their breath, slow and measured, sends plumes of mist through layers of what looks like spider’s silk enveloping their naked bodies.
We step closer, walk up and down the rows, reaching out to run tentative fingers across an arm, along a length of thigh. The webs melt away, our touch leaving trails along their skin. In the flickering light, the women move, as if finally sensing our presence. They open their mouths in soundless moans, hold out their arms to us. Every man feels the heat rising within him; every one of us hears their call.
Come to me.
We drop our weapons and pull at our clothes, shedding layers of rags and tattered shirts. Our bodies, like theirs, are blue in the strange candlelight, our skin dimpled from the cold. The women make no sound as we tear at their soft coverings, grip their flesh and climb atop them. But their bodies arch up, pulling us close. Though we are the ravishers, it is we who surrender to their embrace, to cold ecstasy.
They pull us down, each of us, into enchantment so deep we cannot see its end. They lead us to the gates of another city, a bright twin of this one, warm and full of life. The walls here are whole and unmarked, the gates unbroken. Summer sunlight beats down, the sky a pure and rapturous blue.
The people are here, all of them, filling the shops and alleys. This place has never known endless winter, the ravages of siege, the choices made by desperate starving people.
Behind every corner, always just out of our sight, we feel his presence, his power in every stone and timber. He is the author of this place. He has rescued the people of the city, the living and the dead, brought them to this haven of his own making.
We cannot smell the trays of bread pulled from a bakery oven, nor hear the happy laughter of a woman as she calls down to her husband from an attic window. A group of children chase a barking dog along an alleyway, passing through us. We are only ghosts here, in this place of happiness and warmth so achingly like our own faraway homes.
Then, like frost when sunlight hits it, the glamour melts away.
We are back in our city, in the room with the women. All around there are shouts, cries of horror as each man sees what he has lain with.
They are little more than skeletons, collections of jutting bones held together by ruined skin. Their heads are shaved, their skulls showing through the scalp. Their eyes are gone, sockets filled with thick black fluid. The last tattered wisps of their cocoons melt away, revealing the terrible wounds between their desiccated breasts. Each carries one of the Sorcerer’s marks, carved deep, baring their hearts, dead and still.
They scream. An endless, deafening keen of pain, sorrow, rage. Their bodies fall to pieces as we wrench ourselves away, jaws and hands and legs breaking into bits. But still they scream. The sound sweeps through us like a frigid wind, seeping into our flesh, gripping our bones.
Finally, the screaming ends. We stand, trembling, grateful for the sudden quiet. We look around the room at one another, numb, confused.
It begins with our feet. Icy patterns drawing themselves along our skin, tattooing the runes across our legs, up our hips to our chests, backs, arms. Finally, mercifully, it reaches our heads. Each of us straightens as he feels the mark drawing itself across his brow. We are conscripted once again.
A phantom wind tears through the room, blowing the candles out, plunging us into darkness. For a long while we do not move.
Finally we bend and retrieve our weapons. We turn towards the door, no panic or disorder now, moving in perfect step. Back we go, up the steep and winding stairs.
Our officers are waiting.
We have much to show them.
After that? Well. It is a long march back to the capital, to the Emperor’s palace. The snow lies deep and unforgiving all along the way. But we are soldiers, used to hardship and deprivation. And now we no longer hunger or thirst. We no longer suffer exhaustion, pain, despair. Most of all we no longer fear the cold.
We are the cold.