First Monday Free Fiction: The Frozen Citadel

The Frozen Citadel by Richard Blakemore and Cora BuhlertWelcome to the January 2023 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.

January is – at least in theory – a cold and wintery month, so let’s have a cold and wintery story. This one is called The Frozen Citadel and is part of the Kurval sword and sorcery series.

So follow Kurval and Tsabo, as they brave the icy dangers of…

The Frozen Citadel

“Before he became King of Azakoria in the Year of the Forked Serpent, Kurval spent many a year wandering the lands of the Eastern continent, plying his trade as a sellsword. It was during this period of his life that fought the fearsome serpent Khalikidai and saved Kingdom of Simola from the enemies that live in the frozen where the sun never rises in winter and never sets in summer…”

From the Chronicles of Azakoria by Ragur, Count Falgune

I. Across the Icy Wastes

“Why…” Kurval wondered, as the frozen snow crackled under his boots and an icy wind blew daggers into his face, “…must civilisation always be so bloody cold?”

In the Year of the Twisted Rope, Kurval had left his homeland of Temirzhan behind and journeyed across the sea to seek his fortune in the more civilised lands of the East, half a fugitive and half chasing the glorious destiny that the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow had prophesied him, namely that one day he would be king in a land across the sea.

By now, he’d spent several years in the lands across the sea and still no royal destiny had manifested itself and no crown had landed at his feet and Kurval was beginning to suspect that it never would.

Still, he was here now and could never go home again, so he had to make the best of his life on the Eastern continent. And that meant making money the only way he knew how, by selling his sword and his brawn to whoever was willing to pay for his services.

Right now, King Ansio of Simola was willing to pay twenty pieces of gold to any man willing to take service at the Citadel of Harjula in the frozen north of the kingdom and defend Simola against its enemies from the ice. Of course, nobody seemed to know just what those enemies from the ice were, but twenty gold pieces was a good sum and so Kurval and his friend and fellow sellsword Tsabo had followed the call and embarked on the long and cold journey to Harjula.

They made a strange pair, these two swords for hire. They were both tall, muscular men, but that’s where the similarities ended.

Kurval had born on the steppes of Temirzhan across the great sea. His skin was bronze, his eyes grey like the cold hard steel of his sword. He was clad in a mail hauberk and padded leather trousers, woollen gloves and fur-lined boots, a fur-lined helmet and a thick vest of sheepskin. He wore his long black hair, now frosted with ice, tied back with a leather thong. Behind Kurval trotted his faithful black stallion Shadowmane, neighing in displeasure at the cold.

His companion Tsabo was a son of the Southern Isles with skin dark as ebony and a shaven head smooth like a polished ivory ball. He, too, was clad in leather and mail, topped with a plumed helmet and a cape of leopard fur. On his back, he carried a mighty battle axe.

The two men had met on one of the many battlefields on the Eastern continent, both outcasts, both bearing the mark of the slave whip on their backs and both considered barbarians by the people whose battles they fought. So they’d quickly become fast friends, travelling the land together in search of employment. And now that quest had brought them to the frozen north of Simola.

“I should’ve stayed in the Southern Isles,” Tsabo grumbled, his breath coming in freezing puffs, “At least it was warm there.”

“You couldn’t have stayed in the Southern Isles,” Kurval countered, his own breath forming clouds of white mist that swirled around him and obscured his vision, “After all, they were going to throw you into a pit of lions as punishment for your indiscretion with a virginal priestess of the goddess Tokoloho.”

“Wrong,” Tsabo roared above the whistling wind, “All wrong. It was a pit of leopards and that priestess was not a virgin.” Tsabo grinned, his teeth stark white in his dark face, “And she was worth every danger and banishment.”

“Still, you can’t go back,” Kurval pointed out, “Any more than I can.”

Kurval’s own exile was due to a far less bawdy episode than Tsabo’s adventure with the non-virginal priestess. He had defied the king he’d sworn to serve and refused the order to execute the condemned witch Aelisia. He’d fought the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow and then he’d managed to get the king he served killed at the hands of those selfsame Dark Gods.

In his homeland of Temirzhan, Kurval was a traitor and an outlaw, his very name accursed. Exile was all that was left to him. And like Tsabo, Kurval privately believed that saving Aelisia and ridding Temirzhan of its tyrannical king had been worth it. Even if it meant trudging through the ice and the snow to sell his services to some foreign king for twenty pieces of gold.

“If the map that soldier gave us at Fort Kusela is correct, we should have almost reached Harjula,” Tsabo remarked. He shielded his face against the wind and the snow and looked into the distance. “Do you see anything?”

Kurval also shielded his eyes and peered at the horizon. “No. But with this blasted snow, it’s impossible to see further than a spear’s throw anyway.”

“At Fort Kusela, they said that Harjula is a day’s walk across the ice. But the sun is already low and there’s still no sign of the citadel.”

“We’ll have to reach it soon or we’ll freeze to death out here,” Kurval said darkly, leaning into the icy wind.

“So let’s trudge onwards then,” Tsabo said, “After all, it’s too late to turn back.”

II. The Walls of Harjula

The wan northern sun was steadily sinking, casting the frozen land in a fiery hue and promising a deadly night on the ice, when Kurval’s keen eyes at last did spot something on the horizon.

At first, it looked like a massive wall of ice rising from the frozen wasteland. But as Kurval and Tsabo came closer, they noticed a giant gate flanked by lanterns that glowed an eerie red through the swirling snow. Arrow slits were set into that massive wall, which was topped by crenelations. So this had to be the Citadel of Harjula then.

“Wow, this place is huge,” Tsabo whistled, his normally booming voice barely audible over the icy wind, “I wonder what that wall is supposed to keep out.”

“Or keep in,” Kurval said darkly.

The fortress was built on a natural hill. A series of iced over steps, flanked by rocks jutting randomly out of the ice, led up to the massive gate.

At the bottom of the steps, Kurval and Tsabo halted.

“We’d best hail them,” Kurval said, “Lest we get an arrow in the chest for our troubles.”

Tsabo nodded and cupped his hands to his mouth.

“Ahoy, you there guarding the citadel,” he cried, his booming voice echoing across the icy wasteland, “We’re two mercenaries, come to take service, so open up the gate and let us in.”

They waited, but the gate did not open and the citadel remained silent. Only the lanterns next to the gate flickered red in the gloom like twin drops of blood.

Kurval and Tsabo exchanged a glance. “Mayhaps they have not heard you,” Kurval said.

He raised his voice. “Hola, you there at the citadel. We’re two mercenaries, come to join you in your duty and strengthen your numbers. We’re also really bloody cold, so let us in.”

They waited, but once again the gate did not open, the citadel remained silent.

Kurval and Tsabo exchanged another glance.

“What’s wrong with them?” Kurval grumbled, “Surely, they must have heard or seen us, unless they’re asleep at their posts.”

“Or dead,” Tsabo said darkly, “They may have been overrun by enemies and slaughtered.”

“Then why is there no evidence of any fighting? If they’d been attacked and overrun, surely there would be damage to the walls and bodies and arrows lying around. But there’s nothing. Nothing except those dead silent walls.”

Tsabo had no answer to that. “What exactly are those enemies that the citadel is protecting the kingdom from anyway?” he asked instead, “At Fort Kusela, they only vaguely spoke of creatures that live in the ice. But are those creatures even human?”

It was an interesting question. For come to think of it, the commander of Fort Kusela had been remarkably vague about what awaited them at Harjula. Only that there was always a need for skilled fighters at the citadel to defend the newly expanded borders of the kingdom of Harjula against its enemies that lurked far up in the frozen north, where the sun never sets in summer and never rises in winter. But just what those enemies might be, the commander either didn’t know or wouldn’t say.

“There’s no evidence of an attack by non-human creatures either,” Kurval pointed out, “In fact, there’s no evidence for any kind of battle at all.”

“Maybe a plague wiped them all out,” Tsabo pointed out, “Or black magic.”

“It’s possible,” Kurval replied, “Anything’s possible at this point.”

Tsabo looked up at the citadel with its forbidding walls. “So what do we do now?” he wanted to know.

“Move in closer and see if we can find a way in,” Kurval said.

“And what if there is a plague? Or black magic or something else?”

Kurval shrugged. “Well, it’s not as if we have much of a choice,” he said, “Either we find a way into that citadel or we freeze to death out here.”

III. The Silent Watcher

Cautiously, Kurval and Tsabo ascended the steps that led up to the citadel, half expecting to be cut down by arrows. However, nothing happened. The walls of the citadel stood dead and silent in the fading light.

The sun had sunk beneath the horizon by now. Night was falling fast and the temperatures were falling along with it. Where it had merely been unpleasantly cold before, the frost now became dangerous even to the two hardened mercenaries.

They were closer to the citadel now, close enough that the massive grey walls blocked out the darkening sky, casting the stairs into even deeper shadows. The gloom was relieved only by the two lanterns that flanked the main gate, flickering in a warm red like the pulsing of a beating heart, as if in defiance of the cold white land all around.

“The lights are still on, so someone must be home,” Tsabo said, his normally booming voice dropping to a whisper.

“Those are behemoth oil lamps,” Kurval replied, his own voice dropping to a whisper as well, almost as if he were reluctant to draw attention to himself, “They can burn for days without refuelling.”

“But someone must have lit and refuelled them, so someone must have been home and alive not too long ago,” Tsabo remarked.

They both looked up at the arrow slits set into the massive wall high above their heads, but no light was visible there. They remained black and dead, like the eyeholes of a skull.

At last they were standing in front of the massive arched gate, a gate more than twice as tall as either of them. Tsabo experimentally knocked his fist against the gate. Promptly, a hollow clang echoed across the frozen wasteland.

“Amazing,” Tsabo exclaimed, “The gate seems to be made from solid steel. And what foundry can even cast such a thing?”

“More importantly, how do we get in?” Kurval said, while examining the gate, “Cause if we don’t find shelter soon, we’ll freeze to death out here.”

Tsabo banged his massive fist against the gate again. And this time, it swung open with a mournful wail, revealing a darkened entranceway.

“Now that’s not ominous at all,” Tsabo remarked.

“Still better than freezing,” Kurval grunted.

As one, the two mercenaries drew their weapons and ventured into the citadel.

Beyond the wall, the gate opened onto a snow-covered courtyard. The courtyard was deserted and the snow hadn’t been cleared away in days. Yet the oil lanterns still flickered, so they had been refuelled at some point.

Kurval motioned to Tsabo to cover him and looked up at the massive wall. Staircases led up to a firing ledge that ran along the arrow slits they’d seen from the outside and then further up to the crenelated top of the wall. But neither the arrow slits nor the top of the wall were manned.

“Where is everybody?” Kurval wondered, “A citadel this size should have three hundred men, maybe more. Yet the walls and the gates are not manned. None of this makes any sense.”

“Maybe they really are all dead,” Tsabo remarked.

“But if they’re all dead, overrun by enemies or fallen to some plague, then why are there no bodies?” Kurval pointed out.

“Well, if there are answers, we’ll find them at the keep,” Tsabo said, “That’s probably where they keep the food and the wine, too. Cause I’m damned hungry.”

Tsabo wasn’t the only one who was hungry. Kurval’s faithful stallion Shadowmane neighed in protest, so Kurval left him at a trough full of snow damp hay.

He patted the stallion’s black mane. “Sorry, old friend. I’ll get you something better, once we’ve been inside.”

“Won’t he wander off?” Tsabo asked.

Kurval shook his head. “If he does, he’ll come back. He always does.”

Weapons drawn, the two men ventured onwards, up the steps that led towards the keep, their way lit by the eerily flickering lanterns.

Halfway to the keep, Kurval abruptly spun around, sword raised high above his head.

“What is it?” Tsabo asked, raising his axe.

“Nothing. I just thought I spotted a movement behind us from the corner of my eye. Must’ve been a trick of the light.”

No wonder, too. The flickering lanterns and the swirling snowflakes in combination caused all sorts of strange light effects, much like the magical lanterns of the showmen plying their trade at the markets in more temperate climes.

“Might be,” Tsabo said, “But I have this bristling feeling at the back of my neck that someone or something is watching us.”

“Me, too,” Kurval admitted, “So let’s get to the keep. We’re too exposed out here.”

The gate of the keep was made from solid steel as well, flanked by two massive columns. A statue was standing beside one of those columns, silently keeping watch.

But as Kurval and Tsabo approached, they realised that the statue was no statue at all. It was a man, a soldier armed with a sword and a halberd, wearing a Simolan harness and a plumed helmet. He was completely encased in ice, an expression of nameless horror frozen on his face.

“Is he dead?” Tsabo wanted to know.

Kurval reached out to touch the figure. “I don’t know. But he is frozen solid.”

The two mercenaries exchanged a glance.

“What the hell happened here?”

With a mocking groan, the gate swung open, beckoning them to enter.

IV. The Hall of the Frozen

The inside of the keep was dark. The torches had long gone out, though embers were still glowing red in a few scattered braziers and a lone oil lantern was still flickering, casting grotesque shadows and monstrous silhouettes onto the walls.

Kurval and Tsabo each grabbed a torch and used the failing flame of lantern to light it. The torches flared to life, finally casting some light upon the darkened keep.

They were in a great hall, the ceiling beams lost in gloom. Once, this had been a comfortable place. Furs covered the flagstone floor, while banners and shields decorated the walls and galleries. Braziers were set up at regular intervals and at the far end of the hall, there was a large fireplace carved from solid black granite flecked with silver sparkles.

Tsabo grabbed some firewood from a stack, threw it into a brazier and lit it with his torch. The flames licked on the wood, casting a hellish light upon a terrifying scene.

For many figures stood scattered around the great hall, either alone or in small groups. At first, Kurval hoped they were statues, but upon closer examination they turned out to be humans encased in solid blocks of ice.

Most of the frozen were soldiers of various ranks. Many of them had their weapons drawn, ready for combat. They faced the gate, as if ready to defend it, poised for an attack that nonetheless overcame them before they had the chance to strike.

There were a few women and children, too, clad in the traditional embroidered fur and felt garb of Simola’s frozen north. They huddled in the corners or hid underneath tables, expressions of pure terror frozen on their lifeless faces.

“They did not freeze to death,” Kurval said, his voice echoing through the empty hall, “If they had, they wouldn’t be standing upright.”

“Besides, they have plenty of firewood,” Tsabo remarked, casting some of it into another brazier to provide light and warmth, “But it’s no plague either, cause I’ve never seen a plague that does this.”

Kurval examined a frozen warrior in the harness of a mercenary captain. His sword was raised, as if he was about to strike at someone or something. His mouth was open, emitting a silent scream. Whatever had struck this man, he’d barely had a heartbeat’s time of warning, if that.

“Sorcery,” Kurval grunted, “Black magic. I can’t imagine anything else that could do such a thing.”

“So what do we do now?” Tsabo asked, his dark eyes darting warily through the silent hall, “Cause by the Seven Eyes of Reotlotla, there’s no way that I’m spending the night in here with a regiment of frozen men and hell knows what did this to them. I’d rather take my chances out on the ice.”

Kurval nodded. “I agree. Let’s grab provisions and firewood and some of those furs and build a rough shelter against the outer wall. A good fire should keep us from freezing to death and once the morning dawns, we’ll return to Fort Kusela to bring word of what happened here.”

The two men were about to split up to seek what they needed to survive a night outside the walls, when Tsabo suddenly stiffened.

“Something’s moving in here,” he whispered, his great battle axe raised.

Kurval nodded and raised his sword. “I hear it, too. A hissing, slithering sound.”

With instincts born from dozens of battles, the two mercenaries stood back to back, weapons raised, poised for whatever attack might come.

V. The Fangs of the Serpent

Kurval saw it first. A strange, slithering movement, almost too quick for the eye to follow. Scales, shimmering silver in the flickering light. Abruptly, a nightmarish head came towards him, with a forked tongue, fangs the size of daggers and inhuman eyes blazing like twin sapphires.

The creature hissed at him and its breath was like the icy north wind. Kurval jumped aside and only his quick reflexes saved him from the monstrous fangs.

“Fuck,” he exclaimed and stabbed at the mighty head. But the creature was too swift for him and darted out of range, before his sword could pierce its throat.

Tsabo wheeled around and began hacking at the slithering body. But it was to no avail, for even his battle axe could not pierce those frosty scales. And so he only succeeded in annoying the creature, which promptly whirled around, its fanged jaw shooting towards Tsabo.

Tsabo was fast and so he managed to dodge the serpent’s first strike and the second as well. But then his luck ran out. He tripped over a piece of firewood, stumbled and dropped his axe, which fell blade first into a brazier.

“Here,” Kurval roared to distract the thing from his friend, “Come here, you ugly monster!”

But it was too late. The sapphire eyes of the serpent fixated on its victim. The mighty head darted forwards, the dagger-sharp fangs struck.

Tsabo screamed, but his scream was abruptly cut short, when his body was encased in a block of solid ice at the very spot where he’d fallen.

Kurval let out a cry of pure fury and began stabbing and hacking at the serpent like a berserker. But once more, it was to no avail, for the creature’s scaled hide was too tough to pierce.

The monstrous head darted towards him, but Kurval narrowly avoid its strike, ducking behind an overturned table.

The more rational part of his mind told him to make a run for it and get the hell out of the citadel. Even if death awaited him out on the ice, it couldn’t be worse than this nightmare creature he was facing.

But the part of his mind that was flooded with battle rage was stronger. Whatever this thing was, it had frozen Tsabo and every other living person in this citadel. And for that, Kurval would kill it or die trying.

However, the serpent was fast. The ice was its element, the cold was not affecting it and it did not tire. Kurval, on the other hand, was getting slower, his muscles stiff from the cold. Sooner or later, the blasted thing would get lucky and Kurval would be reduced to yet another block of ice.

From the corner of his eye, he spotted a red glow. The brazier, into which Tsabo’s battle axe had fallen. The heat of the fire had caused the blade to glow red hot.

Fire. That was it. Cold steel could not defeat the ice serpent, but maybe fire could.

Surreptitiously, Kurval moved closer to the brazier, taunting the serpent and manoeuvring it into position. Once he was next to the brazier, he grabbed the axe, burning his hand on the handle in the process. He raised the axe and brought it down onto the serpent, cleaving the monster in two.

The serpent hissed and twitched and Kurval had to jump backward, dropping the axe, to avoid its death throes. But then at last, the creature was dead, its body crumbling harmlessly into snow and melting away.

All around the great hall, moans and cries could be heard. Puddles formed on the floor, as the ice melted and the frozen victims of the serpent came back to life.

Confused soldiers raised their weapons, looking for an enemy to strike. A woman screamed and clutched a child to her chest. The sentry who’d guarded the door came dashing in, crying, “Alarm! We’re under attack,” unaware that his warning came much too late.

None of the soldiers challenged Kurval, as he pushed his way through the milling crowd, until he found Tsabo lying dazed on the floor. Kurval held out his hand and hauled his friend to his feet.

“Thanks, old friend,” Tsabo said, once he got his second wind back, “That thing got me good. If not for you, I’d have spent eternity as an icicle.”

“And if not for your axe, I’d have joined you,” Kurval replied.

The two men embraced.

VI. Harjula Unfrozen

Sometime later, after they’d rested and eaten, Kurval’s burnt hand had been bandaged and faithful Shadowmane had finally been given some fresh hay, Kurval and Tsabo were ushered into the private quarters of Colonel Venamo, Commander of the Citadel of Harjula.

The Colonel was seated behind a desk of plain wood. His skin was pale, like all the people of Simola. His tawny hair was shot with silver, his eyes were a piercing blue.

Venamo set down his stylus and looked up, as the two mercenaries entered.

“I understand that we have the two of you to thank for our release,” he said without much preamble, “And I don’t even know who you are.”

“I’m Kurval of Temirzhan.”

“And I’m Tsabo of Moratuva.”

“We’re mercenaries, come to take service at the citadel.”

“Good men are always welcome,” Venamo said, “Even more so, if they did us as a great a service as you two did. But do sit down.” He gestured at two wooden chairs.

Kurval and Tsabo exchanged a glance and sat.

Venamo, meanwhile, pulled a wicker-wrapped glass bottle from a shelf. “This is a rare fine brandy, a gift from my predecessor, when I took this post,” he said, “I’ve never touched it and kept it for a special occasion.”

He uncorked the bottle and distributed its contents between three tin cups.

“But I guess being saved from the icy embrace of the serpent Khalikidai counts as a special occasion.”

Venamo raised his cup.

“Is that the creature’s name?” Kurval asked and took a sip. The brandy was fine and mellow, like a pool of liquid fire that warmed his frozen innards.

Venamo nodded. “Aye. It used to hunt out on the ice, occasionally attacking our patrols, but the walls kept it out.”

“So how did it get into the citadel then?” Tsabo wanted to know.

Venamo’s face darkened. “Sorcery. The serpent Khalikidai is no natural beast. It was conjured up from the ice by the sorcerer Sibelius, who lives even further north, in the perpetual darkness that the rays of the sun never touch. He is old and powerful and no friend of Simola, but so far he’s left us alone…”

Venamo took a gulp of brandy, a harsh gleam in his eyes.

“…until King Ansio, may he sleep well in his soft bed in his warm palace, decided to expand our borders northwards, into the frozen wastes that are the realm of Sibelius and the creatures that serve him. Sibelius did not take this well. And as the northernmost outpost of Simola, we are the ones who bear the brunt of his wrath.”

Venamo drained his cup in a single draft.

“The serpent Khalikidai is one of Sibelius’ creatures and the most fearsome of them all, but as long as it remained outside the walls of Harjula, it could not harm us. But then Sibelius sent another of his creatures, an ice nymph in the form of a beautiful woman, to bewitch our sentries into opening the gates. This is how the serpent got inside and could take us out one by one.”

Venamo fixed his ice-blue eyes on Kurval and Tsabo.

“But tell me, how were you able to kill the fiend? Cause steel cannot harm it. We found that out the hard way.”

Kurval shrugged and downed the brandy in a single gulp.

“Simple. Fire can melt even the toughest ice monster.”

The End

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

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