“For you sins, you shall be exiled to the Frostlands,” the white-cloaked figure looming over Chrysalis said. His voice was not angry, it was not enthusiastic. He was calm, disappointed. The white man had convened with the crimson-cloaked figures at this side. They had returned to their semi-circle pedestal above the trial floor after a mere five minutes. Five minutes decided her fate, and it was the worst possible punishment. As the Crimson Court declared their verdict, sharp gasps and murmurs flooded the dark room behind her. Her empty stomach roiled and threatened to heave the little it contained. She wanted to fall in fear, but she held strong. Clenching her fists, stamping down nausea, she stared steadfastly at the figures above her.
That night played over in her head now just as it had every day and night since she found herself in the impossible predicament. Panic, fear, cold. Darkness shrouded her then as it did now. She was innocent, but no one believed her, and likely, no one ever would. No matter how hard she worked, no matter how far she’d risen, she would never be one of them.
The two figures on the ends of the semi-circle moved to her sides. She knew why. Her exile began immediately. Despite the head-to-toe robes, the oversized hoods, and the masks of animal skulls, she knew exactly who gripped her arms in a vice. It was overkill, but she knew they enjoyed it. Each figure stood nearly a foot taller than her and outweighed her tiny stature by tens of pounds. But she was a criminal now of the worst kind.
As they lead her out of the chamber, past the entire audience, she eyed her best friend on the edge. Pale blonde hair, golden jewelry, and gleaming green eyes cut through the dark. The girl stood in the back, fidgeting. Marigold would not meet Chrys’ gaze. One word from the girl could have put an end to all of this, but she wouldn’t dare speak on her behalf. She and Chrys weren’t supposed to be friends, weren’t supposed to mingle. At that moment, a deep and unending emptiness flowed through every vein in Chrys, but a bubbling rage accompanied it. She thought Mari was the exception, the one who would accept her and always be there for her. Mari could never receive the punishment Chrys now faced. But she remained silent. A tinge of guilt flashed over her face, but only for a second before returning to the icy gaze of superiority her kind were taught from a young age.
Before she even fully registered what was happening, Chrys stood outside the gates to The Golden City, never able to return. Before her, the Frostlands spread in unending bleakness. Everything she’d ever been taught to fear hid out there. The frozen lakes held monsters of terrifying proportions and the willowy trees hid horrors of cunning brutality. And here stood its newest, weakest inhabitant, with nothing but the thin, oversized potato sack of a prison uniform she’d worn the past three days.
Exile was a feel-good word the Crimson Court used so they didn’t have to live with what they doomed prisoners to. It suggested a chance. But there was no chance here. She wouldn’t last the night. To anyone who received the punishment, exile meant death. Contemplating her options, Chrys paced along the city wall. If death was inevitable, she could just give up right here. Lay down in the snow and wait. Perhaps her frozen body would force the court and the citizens to acknowledge the truth of their verdict. Unlikely. She knew they would probably just hide her body as if she had never existed. Like they did with all their problems. Her only other option lay with the unknown. Quickly she decided they didn’t deserve the satisfaction of seeing her beg, dying at their feet. Her nervous steps came to a halt and she looked out over the glistening wildlands in front of her. Chill air stung her lungs, her fists balled tightly, and her feet stepped forward, not with confidence, but with defiance. Stubborn to the end, she thought.
She’d been avoiding the foreboding forest as long as possible, but as the tundra she traversed turned into a mountain, she had no other choice. Her steps began to waver. She held her face to the sun, letting it warm her one last time. The sun was her last comfort, the last reminder of The Golden City, where it shined eternally, bright and warm. She didn’t want to leave its embrace, but it was no longer a luxury she could enjoy, no longer her protector. Her new life, short though it may be, was cold and dark. A wild gust of wind whipped around her, flowing off the mountain as if leading her into the forest.
The edge of darkness called to her. I could lay down right here. It’s cold, the hunters will surely come out soon. This is the end. Her tight muscles ached as she shivered continually. Her arms wrapped around her but provided no comfort, no warmth. She stared into the dark depths of the forest. The strange trees, peculiar foliage, and foreign sounds called to her, beckoning her into their claws and stomachs. Her head piqued to the side. Or I could find out. She recalled all the cautionary tales her parents and teachers had filled her head with. By all accounts, the Frostlands were filled with death and pain. But no one had ventured outside The Golden City in generations. No one knew first-hand what mysteries the outside world held. I might not be able to retell my tales, but at least I’ll know the truth. I’m dying anyway, why not?
Chrys took a small step forward, then another and another. Her stride grew more confident as she left the sun behind and wound through the forest. She moved slowly, partially from her bones and muscles slowly freezing and partially because every single thing her eyes viewed were new ad exciting. Strange black barked trees wound around each other and the ground felt spongy. Curiosity compelled her forward, but as the sun set, the forest cast her in complete darkness. She felt the weight of her future upon her. She thought the cold would take her, but reflective eyes shot out of every bush, spindly limbs longer than her entire body hid behind every tree.
Chrys began, once again, to waver. Her head darted from side to side, top to bottom, constantly fearing what might pop out. Though every movement cost her a great deal of energy. Her muscles seized up and shivered uncontrollably. A sharp cry cut through the silence, echoing above her. She startled and tripped to her knees. A fuzzy bush sat to her left. Its thick buds and leaves looked plush and inviting, but Chrys thought about what tiny terror could be hiding inside. Or perhaps the bush itself might be some sort of death-dealing monster. It looked so warm and soft though. I’ll just lay down here, take a short break. Uneven footsteps walked through the night all around her, heavy and unnerving. Wings flapped above and creatures chittered in the trees. When the most unearthly growl rumbled from somewhere not too far away, sickening and unnatural, Chrys made her choice. Staying low to the ground, she crawled as carefully and quietly as she could under the bush.
Partially covered and hidden from the cold, Chrys resolved to sleep. It was far from safe. Her stomach rumbled, and her quaking bones rustled the branches, but she simply could not go on. She stared up through the black forest and caught no glimmer of the rumored silver stars and moon, supposedly the only beauty to be found in the Frostlands. Her breathing shallowed, and she no longer felt the biting sting of the cold. That’s not good. Her eyelids drooped then shot open repeatedly, fighting between desperate exhausting and her primal need to stay safe from predators. Sleep was winning. Something stepping lightly headed for her. It made no effort to mask its footfalls, but there was little she could do. As her eyes began to close for the final time, she swore the darkest dark she’d ever seen grew even darker.
She awoke to a grey haze, no longer in the forest and covered in blankets. Above her stood the creature of her childhood nightmares, everything she’d been taught to fear. The Lord of the Frostlands stared down at her, his eyes strangely gentle. She panicked as the figure, pale as snow, a crown of ice jutting from his head, dressed in black, knelt beside her. He whispered, “Everything you’ve been told is a lie.”
And she believed him.