“You are weakening, my king,” Gero’s plain, strong face said while servants fitted an old campaign uniform on to Oskar’s frail back. “And weakness will spread through the kingdom, as it has always done in the past. When the fire of the royal blood cannot match the savagery of our winter foes, we are vulnerable. You know this to be true.”
Oskar nodded, neck sore, uniform hanging off him like a funeral shroud. He spoke with a crumbling timbre. “I will go to the Winter Garden,” he said. “Prove I can endure the worst of Tartu’s misfortune. Or take my place among my family’s weakest branches.”
Gero bowed and stood back. Servants opened the door and the corridor was doused in mist. Oskar stepped into the frost as the door locked behind him with an icy hiss. Hard air bit through his worn winter uniform and into his royal blood as he faced the Winter Garden. He stepped into the glacial stillness, aching at the terrible splendour: a frozen patch of forest whose roots touched the iced heart of the underworld, unchanging in any season, and colder than a harlot’s tears. The pale blue trees before him were as still as the pillars of heaven. Above, the white mist of the air hid the glimmer of starlight. His soft leather boots crunched the diamond frost upon the ground. Ghostly breaths tore past his thin teeth, escaping into the air. The path between the trees was dark. It always was. There lay the eternal prison of his weakest kin.
He entered, lighting the one candle he was allowed for illumination but not warmth. Deeper darkness consumed him before the crystallized world sparkled like gems. Flickering, the candle burned against the cold like a child fighting an invisible and invincible foe.
Oskar’s boots sank into the footsteps of his forebears, a weak cadre of royals of intellect, of beauty, but weak. The candle no longer flickered. The wind died. But up ahead, burdens swayed from branches.
The lost souls of family. Their faces were frozen portraits of pain, suffering, and pathos. There was no serene relief, just grotesque and tortured finality. Oskar passed the swaying legs and heard the bitter wind whisper from tortured mouths.
“Lies have led us to the end of a rope.”
“Weak of body but strong in spirit.”
“Our minds were stronger than the limbs of a thousand blackguards.”
“We are prisoners of betrayal by the savages of our kith.”
Oskar glanced back. The door to the castle had already iced over. There was no return. The cold would claim him as it had the rest in this frozen garden of the damned.
A noose waited for him at the end of the trail, a relief from the burning pain of winter death. Wind howled and white squalls blinded and nearly consumed his candle. He covered the flame. And made a decision.
A royal decision. One rooted in sacrifice, of selflessness, of concern for others and not his hard throne. “The weak are not the damned,” he whispered, breath leaving him like a legion of ghosts. “Hanging here are artists, poets, and philosophers, strategists and alchemists, whose contribution was strangled by the fears of weakness that dominate a frosted kingdom. Though I may be damned, too, I will not allow there suffering to continue.” The winter bit deeper within his skull, and he knew freezing madness awaited if he did not act.
He climbed the knotted trunk of the tree, candle between his teeth waving like a dying star, until he was high in the icicle branches. He pricked his finger with a razor branch, and let his warm royal blood drop on the candle.
It burned twice as bright, and the flame burned the noose from its frozen perch.
He walked the precarious branches, weak body light as a snow flake, and dropped his blood upon candle’s flame, and a red star burned free the taut nooses of his kin. They fell to the ground, bodies cracking to dust as they hit the ground.
Oskar’s body slowed, but he fought the killing chill until the bodies were collected underneath the winter canopy. He sliced his wrist on the frozen cuff of his sleeve, and steam flew up as blood ran down.
“I may be chained here,” he said. “Damned by my own hand. But by grace, you should all be free.”
As the warm blood spread across the bodies of his fallen kin, steam rose. The ice froze his blood, the candle dropped, and winter sleep claimed him . . .
But not before the bonfire of freedom burst like roaring cannons through the roof of blue branches and the pale canopy of iced mist, a funeral pyre that rocked the foundations of the castle, melting the ice and snow to steam and water.
A red spring had come to the Winter Garden. The ghosts he had freed sang his name to the returning stars, as his own light went out, as the iced door to the castle cracked open, and the fire spread inside with the anger of phantoms now freed from their frozen chains. A purge, long frozen, resplendent and released.
Jason S. Ridler has published over thirty short stories in such magazines and anthologies as Brain Harvest, Not One of Us, Big Pulp, Crossed Genres, Chilling Tales, Tesseracts Thirteen, and more. His popular non-fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Dark Scribe, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. Visit him at his writing blog, Ridlerville, Facebook, and on twitter @JayRidler.