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art by Melissa Mead

Fields of Ice

Jay Caselberg is an Australian author based in Europe. His work has appeared in multiple venues around the world including such places as Polyphony, Interzone, and The Third Alternative as well as a number of novels. He has been translated into a number of languages. More can be found at jaycaselberg.com and he can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Marsius pulled his coat tight against the wind. The snow blew in flurries swirling about his face and his fur boots sank deep. The sharp, dirt-ice smell crept under his hood, edged and filthy like the season. He looked up at the sheer stone Academy walls, their tops lost in darkness. Somewhere above, the remaining college members were heading off to dinner, or the library, or bed, secure and warm. There was no point dwelling on it; the prison awaited. He pulled his coat around him more tightly and lowered his head into the icy wind.
It took him half an hour to trudge to the broad prison gates, battling through the narrow streets. The high buildings funneled the wind and whipped it around him. Twin torches sat on either side of the gate, guttering and flaring, sending the acrid scent of burning swirling about with the wind. He lifted a leather-gloved fist to bang on the iron-shod door. At his third attempt, someone heard; a small door recessed in the main portal swung inward and a head poked out. There was annoyance on the face it presented.
"I'm here for the children," said Marsius. "I'm Lector Filindal."
The guard gestured him impatiently through the door and into the central courtyard. Marsius looked around at the forbidding stone walls and the narrow cobbled space. Charming. The guard disappeared to a side room and reappeared a few moments later with a board. He checked through the roster, looked up at Marsius, then nodded.
"Right. This way, sir," said the guard. His breath fogged in the air. Marsius wished the guard had asked him inside to perform the checks instead of leaving him to stamp and huddle in the courtyard. There was clearly a small fire inside the guardroom. He supposed common courtesy would have been too much to ask. This was a prison, after all.
The guard led him across the courtyard and to a rickety wooden platform that stood against one wall. He gestured with an open hand, and Marsius frowned his lack of understanding.
"If you'll just climb aboard, Lector Filindal."
"Oh, I see." Marsius finally noticed the ropes leading up into the blackness. He readjusted his pack, climbed aboard and gripped the railing. The guard disappeared off to one side and started the winch. As the platform crept up the wall, Marsius looked up at the leaden darkness, hesitating to cast his glance downward. Heights had never been a strong point.
The platform creaked and strained beneath him. Even the ropes creaked, strung taught with his weight. He could just picture them giving way and his body being dashed upon the cobbled courtyard below. With each turn of the winch the platform crawled higher and his fear grew. Finally, with relief, Marsius saw an opening in the wall far above him.
Another guard met him at the entrance. A deep tunnel lit by torches trailed away ahead.
"Lector Filindal. Here for the children," said Marsius, throwing back his hood and fumbling with the front of his coat.
"Oh, lucky you," said the guard. "I'll show you where they are, and then we can see to your chambers. You in for the duration?"
Marsius nodded.
"Hmm," said the guard. He tilted his head to one side, stuck a finger in his ear and worked it around and around, then grimaced. "You're a bit young, aren't you?"
Marsius frowned. So what if he was young? He knew what he was doing.
"This way," the guard said, gesturing down the corridor when he'd finished inspecting the results of his ministrations. At least there was a hint of warmth inside. Marsius stripped off his gloves and tucked them under his arm as he followed along behind, feeling the gloom and the stone walls pressing down on him. The place smelled old, of dust, and old piles of rubbish left in forgotten corners.
He hadn't known what to expect of the children. Of course, he had seen likenesses rendered of the royal family, but he'd never paid them much attention. His mind was normally on other things. So, when the guard finally led him up a passageway and directed him inside the small cell, Marsius stopped in the doorway, to observe. The boy was the image of his father, but the girl...
The guard cleared his throat and Marsius shook himself.
"I'll come back for you in a while. Give you time to get acquainted," said the guard behind him.
"Very well," said Marsius over his shoulder, then turned and stepped inside. The door locked behind him with a loud clunk.
The two children watched as he stood there, returning his gaze. The boy was dark, with the same prominent nose and thick brow of his father. The girl--Antalya was her name, he thought--was as pale as the ice fields. Liquid blue eyes watched him impassively.
"Prince Sten, Princess Antalya--" He rolled the sound of her name over his tongue. "--I am Lector Filindal. I have been assigned to you for the duration of your internment, or until...."
"Until they kill us," said the Prince.
"I don't think that's--"
The Prince waved his hand. "They did it to our father," he said. "Why not us? Why should we be any different? The mark of his blood is within us."
The boy showed all the dispassionate curtness his father had been known for. The girl sat where she was saying nothing, simply watching. Marsius could feel her eyes upon him, even though he now faced the boy.
"I just don't believe that's likely, Prince Sten."
"Well, no matter what you say, we're here, and you have a job to perform. So, let us make use of the time," said the boy. He spoke as a man much older, clearly used to authority. Marsius wondered whether it was the child's upbringing that shaped his speech, or whether it was something else, something within. It could not be good for a child.
"No matter what the circumstance," said Marsius, turning to address the girl next, "I am here to do the best for you in the time we have... however long that may be."
The Princess looked at him. Slowly her gaze traveled down to his toes and back up to his face. She looked away. Marsius swallowed.
"The guard will be back soon. I suggest we hold the start of our lessons until the morrow, as I need to become acquainted with my quarters and settle in before preparing. Perhaps as soon as we have broken our fastů"
"Yes," said the boy. "That is acceptable to us, Filindal." He turned away and faced the wall, his hands clasped behind his back. Marsius ignored the discourtesy shown by the omission of his title. It may have been deliberate. It may have just been the trappings of familiar power. Marsius waited in silence, watching them until the guard called from behind the door. It was clear he had been dismissed, for there was no sign from either of the children that he even existed.
The key turned in the lock, and with as much dignity as he could muster, Marsius retreated.
"I'm Corum," said the guard as he escorted him down the corridor.
"Well, I am called Marsius."
"Aye, much better than Lector Filindal. We'll be seeing quite a bit of each other. What do you make of them, the royal brats? Strange birds, aren't they?"
"The boy... well the boy was much as I expected. But the girl..."
"Gives me the shivers, she does," said Corum. "But what would you expect from the Tyrant's daughter?"
"I know not, Corum. I know not."
Marsius sat up, looked around the room and grimaced. It had a high ceiling, a fireplace and the thick stone walls were dressed with shelves in which to keep his things. The narrow cot was firm. It was not so different from the Academy, really, but he couldn't help knowing it was enfolded within a prison, high above the ground. He supposed he would get used to it in time. He had slept well enough, considering. He rose from the cot and reached for his pack.
He scattered the contents across the cot and started searching through his books. Where to start? Magic was a funny thing. He wished he had the power within himself to use it, but all he could do was teach. A person either had the talent or they didn't and he had not been so blessed. He had enough within him to perform simple conjuration, and to practice adequately with the greater arts, but to show true power....
He had to be careful with the children. There was nothing to gauge how much latency they possessed. Their father, the Tyrant, had certainly had strength. It had taken four High Practitioners to subdue him, and even then, it was a struggle. If the blood ran true, then they were likely to have more than a full share. If such power was released into the world again, then he hesitated to thinků
He could show them spells of Divination and Making first, he supposed. They could do little harm there. After that, the field was open, as long as he avoided Compulsion and Concealment. He must show them nothing that would aid any escape. Even part-trained, they were too dangerous to let loose into the world. The Tyrant's brats running free with power was not a pretty thought.
Marsius sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He stared blankly at the wall. That it should come to this. For so long, he had spoken out against the Tyrant and his ways. Others had been more complacent, and Marsius had quickly become unpopular because of his outspokenness. Some had said it was the enthusiasm of youth, but others were not so forgiving. Here, now, he had the means to prevent the rise of the Tyrant's children, to educate them in the ways of real humanity. At least he could do that much. His natural urge was to have them done away with, but how could he even think it? He was pedagogue, not executioner.
He chose a book at random and headed down the corridor. The children were sitting, waiting for him, when he arrived.
"Good morning, Prince Sten, Princess Antalya," he said from the door. "I trust you slept well."
"Well enough, Lector," said the boy. "What's your name again?"
"Lector Filindal," said Marsius.
"Marsius," said the girl at exactly the same moment.
Marsius looked at her and frowned. She quickly looked away. She must have overheard him tell the guard as they walked up the corridor. That must have been it.
"Yes, well," said Marsius and cleared his throat. "We have work to do. I have brought a text with me to start the first of our lessons. Have either of you had any training to this point?"
"Oh, some," said Sten. "But not very interesting. The Lector assigned to us was old and he wasn't very enthusiastic. We touched on Making but all he ever cared about was theory. We never got to do anything."
Marsius cast his mind back and tried to remember who had been assigned to the Tyrant's household, but it wouldn't come.
"So, you should be familiar with the principles of the elements," he said.
"Yes, yes," said Sten. "We've heard all that a thousand times before. Are you going to show us anything interesting?"
The boy's attitude was beginning to grate. Marsius felt a premonition of dread as he left the doorway and walked into the room to take his place at the table set aside for the lessons. The boy had all the makings of a dictator, his attitude, the tone, but perhaps there was something yet he could do. Marsius motioned the children to join him and they took up places opposite. He placed the text gently on the table and rested one hand on top.
"Here I have one of the texts dealing with craft, and yes, I hope I'm going to show you something interesting. In these pages, there are rituals that can lead you to mastery of certain spells. But you must be prepared to devote your energy to your studies, or mastery will elude you. To start with, I will have to test your knowledge of theory, before we have any hope of progressing."
The boy groaned. The princess looked at him blankly.
"Yes, I know," said Marsius. "But without those principles, the spells will be beyond your reach, regardless of how much power or talent you might have. Did the Lector assigned to you test you at all?"
"Some," said Sten. "But he never told us anything. He kept it all to himself. He just did more tests."
Marsius nodded. "All right then. We can avoid the theory for a while in that case. Instead, I want to go through some exercises and see how much talent you possess."
Marsius opened the text to the section on Making and looked up the flame spell. The boy was smiling when he looked up again. The girl was still watching without expression.
"Now, Prince Sten, if you would repeat these words after me. At the same time, concentrate and form the picture of a small burning flame in the palm of your hand. Hold your hand out like so, and concentrate on the place where you would have it appear. This may take a few times to get right. Don't be upset if nothing happens at first."
The Prince did as he was told without complaint. As Marsius had expected, it took a few attempts to get it right. On about the fourth try, a small bluish guttering flame appeared on Sten's hand, then immediately winked out of existence. The boy chuckled his delight, then became serious.
"Again, another," he said.
"No, not just yet, Prince Sten," said Marsius. "I want to see how your sister performs." The boy glanced at his sister and bit his lip. "Well, Princess Antalya, would you join me," said Marsius.
The girl looked at him and shook her head. Marsius frowned.
"And why not? I'm here to teach you. Do you not want to be taught?"
She looked at him for a long time before answering. "I don't want to," she said.
Marsius returned her gaze then turned back to the boy. If that was the way she wanted it, what could he do? He couldn't teach someone against their will, child or not. Nor could he teach anyone without the talent. Perhaps she was ashamed of showing it. Or, she might just be shy. Either way, he would have days and weeks to draw her out. Being a girl child, and showing such reticence, she could hardly be expected to perform. Marsius flicked to another exercise and proceeded with the boy.
He ran through several more with Prince Sten, taking up the rest of the morning, and more still in the afternoon. Each showed the boy to have a moderate amount of talent, but nothing superior, nothing out of the ordinary. He certainly had none of his father's. If this was the limit, and the girl was lacking, then he really needn't have worried about the morality of what he was doing.
The boy seemed pleased with himself, so at least that much was progress, but Marsius felt relieved when he finally heard the clank of keys outside the door. He could see himself condemned to day after dreary day tutoring a boy of moderate talent and a girl who may yet have none.
Marsius stood, bowed his head to the Prince and the Princess in turn, and then walked to the door, his book tucked under his arm.
"Until the morrow," he said to them and quickly stepped out into the corridor.
"Well," said Corum as they walked down the passage together. "How did you get on?"
"Not badly," said Marsius. "I appear to be making headway with the boy, but the girl... I don't know."
"Aye, I said she was a strange one, didn't I?"
"That you did, Corum. That you did. If only there was some way of reaching her, of getting inside her head so I could find out what's there."
"Not that I'd know anything about teaching, mind," said Corum. "But they've been here nigh on two months now. The boy's all right once you get through those airs and graces, but the girl, she barely says a word."
"Hmm," said Marsius.
"This is where I leave you," said Corum. "If you feel like something to do later, wander down and we can share a mug or two."
"Why, thank you," said Marsius. "But I fear I'll be working this night. I have to put together a detailed training regime for the children and think on ways I might break through that wall."
"Aye, well, it's your choice. The offer is there."
"And I thank you for it, Corum. I thank you."
Marsius watched as the guard made his way down an adjoining corridor, his keys jangling with each step. He stood thinking about the Princess for several moments before pursing his lips and turning for his own chambers. Perhaps he should have accepted the guard's offer after all. Corum seemed like a nice enough sort. He shook his head and wandered down to his room.
He closed the door and pulled out his books, then arrayed them neatly on the desk. Trying to ignore the wind shrieking outside the tower walls, he pulled the first book from the stack and started reading through the spells. Spell after spell he scanned, seeking the ones he could use and those he could not. He reached the end of the first volume, laid it to one side and pulled down the next.
When he had at last decided a rough course for the following days, he leaned back, entwined his fingers behind his neck and stared up at the ceiling. If he only had enough power himself, he could use Compulsion to draw the girl to him and test her. He wouldn't be completely content until he knew how much of the Tyrant ran through her veins. There was too much at stake. Unlikely though it was, if she did have some latent talent, it was better that he knew.
Right at the moment, Corum's invitation was sorely tempting. Marsius sighed, scratched his neck and reached for the third volume in his series. He turned to the chapter that dealt with Compulsion.
Once again, he was seated across the table from the boy. For three weeks now, he had been trying to reach the girl and test her, but at every turn, she had refused him. He had tried Compulsion, but his power had not been strong enough. Each night he searched for more esoteric spells, seeking something to break through that barrier. Whatever the cause, she sat wordlessly, watching and listening, seeming to pierce him with her gaze on the rare occasions that she looked at him. Marsius had almost given up hope--almost.
The lessons with the boy had been progressing as well as could be expected. Marsius saw himself as a good teacher, but there was only so much one could do. He had been trying to sprinkle the lessons with talk of moral responsibility and the concepts of right and wrong. He tried to instill in the boy a sense of obligation and duty, but the ideas seemed completely beyond the boy's capacity. All he wanted to do was play with the power. It was like a game. For that much, Marsius was grateful. He was starting to believe that the boy would never have the strength of mind to do any real damage. Still, at least some acknowledgement of the drift of morality would have given him some better comfort.
"Prince Sten, will you concentrate please?" he said, as the boy once more got involved in his weaving. They were working on the Makings of Air, the last of the primary spells, and the boy kept getting carried away with his patterns. "It is as important to know when to limit your power as it is to know how to use it."
"I don't understand," said the boy.
"Clearly, Prince Sten," he said, barely disguising his impatience. "Let me put it another way. What if, sometime when you have progressed to the more advanced Makings, you are performing a vast web of Air? Now, what if when you've started the weaving, you did not know how to stop it? What then? You could crush the room and the tower and everyone within it, including yourself. You must know when to stop."
"Oh, I see," he said. He frowned, screwed up his face, and brought the spell back under control.
"Yes, that's it," said Marsius. "It's just as important to control yourself as it is to control the spell. You must know when it is right to stop."
He glanced at the girl, and saw she was looking thoughtful. A slight frown creased her brow. She always looked so serious, lost in her own thoughts. Marsius shook his head and turned back to the boy.
"Sten, I've heard enough," said the Princess. "You can stop now." Her brother turned to her and frowned.
"But Antalya, I'm enjoying this," he said.
"No, Sten," she said. "As Marsius has just told you, we must know when it is right to stop. You must know when you have done enough."
Prince Sten bit off his reply and nodded his head.
Marsius frowned. These were the first words she had spoken in days. Why was her brother deferring to her?
"Prince Sten, you must concentrate. We have to continue with your lessons."
The Prince shook his head, and turned back to his sister. Marsius frowned and stood. The boy had never refused to cooperate before. He glanced over at the girl.
Princess Antalya's pale face and liquid eyes turned to him. Slowly she spoke.
"No, the time for these games is past, Filindal. You will sit and be quiet."
Marsius felt himself dropping back, his limbs gone slack. Suddenly, he was seated against the stone floor, his head resting against the wall. He could feel the cold through the back of his head.
"And you will not move," she said. He could feel the power in her voice. She was compelling him!
She got up from the table, walked across to him and held out her hand. Without even a blink, a brightly glowing flame appeared above her palm. It sparked with light and power. She waved her hand and it disappeared. She hadn't even uttered a word of invocation. Her brother moved around the table to join her. They stood there side by side, looking down at him. Marsius realized then that he had been right after all. There had been little to fear from the boy. Very little. How wrong he had been. He felt the cold growing inside, deep in his gut.
He lay back against the wall, trying to rise, but his body refused to obey. He looked up at her small face staring down at him, and the chill of her gaze washed through him.
What had he done?
"You could not have known, Marsius," she said. "As you sat here trying to teach us your petty spells, I walked through your mind. I followed you as you left us each night and watched you in your room. I saw the words you read and the rituals you kept from us. I saw everything there was to see. Although you tried so hard, you gave me everything I needed." She smiled. "And for that, I thank you. We, both of us, thank you."
Marsius tried to move his fingers, but they wouldn't respond. He tried to say something, but his mouth wouldn't work. He was stuck, and by the time the spell wore off it would be too late.
"Yes, much too late," she said. "You were right, Lector Filindal. Perhaps it would have been better to have the both of us done away with."
She turned and took her brother's hand.
"Come, Sten," she said. "We have to go now. We must find a place where we can stay until we're ready. It won't be long now."
The boy nodded, chewing at his lower lip as he glanced down at Marsius.
Marsius watched them leave hand in hand. He was powerless to move, powerless to utter a word, powerless to stop them leaving. And then, they were gone.
He knew with chill certainty that a new Tyrant had been born, but so much stronger than the last. If she had plundered his knowledge, then he was to blame. But, if, as she had said, she had wandered freely through his mind, then she might have seen other things. She might have seen the horrors caused by her father, the death and the suffering, the truth of what was right.
She might have seen.
He heard the icy wind buffeting the walls outside, swirling against the prison's sides.
She might have seen...
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 11th, 2011

Author Comments

The major driver for this tale was that of a reluctant participant caught in a moral dilemma. I wanted the frozen landscape to echo the chill of the child's personality and the deeper chill of realization when it finally comes to him. Power can be a frightening thing, especially in the hands of a child.

- Jay Caselberg
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