Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Dragon in Winter

*This piece, like Gateway, is less a complete story and more a summary/excerpt of larger stories that I'm working on. It's primarily an exercise, but I think it's developed enough to share and be read and criticized.

A day that was ending unusually had begun unusually, in retrospect. Áfastr had never been hunting with a woman, but for some reason - probably the knee-shaking nervousness that comes with courting someone for the first time - he invited Kolfrosta with him. The intention was to hunt for food, as his family's meat stores were getting low, but when Kolfrosta agreed to accompany him, Áfastr modified what was to have been a deer hunt into a hunt for wolves. What better way to show his masculinity to a hopeful bride than to hunt another of Nature's hunters, after all? There was an attempt at protest by his brother, Afvaldr, but as Áfastr is the elder sibling, the protest was a moot point.

Despite being the elder, Áfastr is still young, and his decision to include the pale-skinned, raven-haired beauty - for Kolfrosta certainly reflected her name - caused him to worry needlessly for the entire hunt. While some of that worry was responsibly directed at Kolfrosta and his brother's safety, much of it was concerned with embarrassing himself somehow. The last thing he wanted was to appear foolish in front of this object of desire, especially with a witness present. That the witness was related by blood ensured that any indiscretion would remain a topic of conversation for ages to come, should one have occurred.

As fate willed it, Áfastr's concerns proved themselves fruitless and, in a sort of twisted benevolence, practically guaranteed those concerns be forever forgotten. For the three would-be hunters had found no wolves. Nor had they found deer, for that matter. What they found instead, however, had a much larger implication regarding their immediate futures. Eating through winter, it seemed, suddenly became of less importance.

***

The rest of the villagers - the ones who could fit in the village's relatively small main hall - eye Áfastr and his brother with disdain. Not only is their tale practically unbelievable, there is the issue concerning their ancestry. Áfastr and Afvaldr were, as the stories go, not of a Northmen bloodline, but of a people once found far to the south. Legends referred to those people as Hellenes and many of the old stories are rife with encounters, friendly and otherwise, with them. Áfastr smiles a bit, finding it odd that the matter of his ancestry had never come up before, not even from Kolfrosta's father - who already knew of Áfastr's family history - when Áfastr had approached him for permission to court his daughter. But now that he and his brother were witnesses to what some villagers interpret as the prophetic harbinger, those same villagers look for reasons to blame Áfastr and Afvaldr for the harbinger's arrival. Áfastr cracks another smile, this time wondering what the villagers would be doing were they attempting to solve the problem, rather than lay the blame.

Afvaldr leans into his brother's ear and whispers, "But it was Kolfrosta who saw it first."

Turning to Afvaldr, Áfastr responds, "Mouth shut." Though the taint of love and lust is what is ultimately preventing Áfastr from publicly revealing this fact, he is also wise enough to know that Kolfrosta is from one of the oldest recorded bloodlines in the region and she would not be blamed regardless. She may have, were the brothers of a local heraldry, but they were not, and Áfastr rarely allows himself to engage in futile confrontations. His father had taught him that before he died.

Though both of the brothers are on display in front of the villagers, only Afvaldr appears nervous. He is only 19 - five years younger than Áfastr - and has had a more sheltered upbringing. Already suffering from being a younger sibling, Afvaldr had to endure a mother's over-protectiveness after his father was killed. Áfastr is sublimely aware of his brother's unease and maintains his presence of calm primarily to support what little calm Afvaldr has left. One of the results of their mother's over-protection is that Afvaldr has never gotten into any serious trouble, and despite the fact that he is merely a witness, this incident would be recorded as Afvaldr's first altercation. Were it not for its seriousness, Áfastr would be attempting to help his brother to laugh it off, but until the Council arrives, Áfastr has no idea if they are even facing capital punishment.

Áfastr takes a moment to scan the villagers, taking in the budding hatred for the two brothers that was all but absent a few hours ago. He wonders, for a moment, if reporting what they saw had been a wise decision and concludes that it had been. Not doing so could potentially result in everyone present, as well as everyone not present, being killed. Even if Áfastr and his brother are executed for being "harbingers," the alternative would be the same, and Áfastr would rather die knowing that Kolfrosta would be alive without him, instead of being dead with him. As he has this thought, he spies Kolfrosta in the audience. There is an instant of sprouting fear as he theorizes that she, too, might hate him, but a recognizable interest in her eyes immediately suggests otherwise. Almost in reflex, he winks. He is too far to see, but the wink elicits a blush. He does see Kolfrosta quickly hide a return smile behind her hood.

A horn blows outside in the distance, signaling the remainder of the Council's arrival. Áfastr inhales deeply, clearing his thoughts and preparing his defense, and he pats his brother on the hand. Without realizing it, he tells his brother that they will be all right.

***

"And you're certain this is what you saw?" asks the old woman, Líknvé, as she holds up an artist's sketch of what the brothers had described.

Áfastr nods and the old woman glares at him. He returns the glare, noticing a strange emotion creeping into her eyes. Áfastr has, since almost infancy, had a reputation for being extremely empathic. Is she afraid? She turns her gaze to Afvaldr, prompting Áfastr to interrupt. "It's what he saw, as well."

The old woman hackles. "You would be better served to show proper respect, foreign-born. This is your hearing, not mine."

"I was born here, Líknvé. My great-great grandfather is reputed to be foreign-born. Not me."

She hackles again and writes something down on a scroll. She approaches the Village Elder, what some might refer to as a King, and hands him the scroll. "I am done here, Hólmlaugr. I should go."

Hólmlaugr nods and the woman leaves the stage. Áfastr finds it curious that the Elder essentially just allowed an old hag to give him an order, but given the stories surrounding Líknvé, Áfastr reasons that he shouldn't be surprised.

"What do we do with them?" Hólmlaugr yells towards the shadows that Líknvé disappeared into as he realizes that no decision regarding the brothers has been made.

"Let them go," comes the response from seemingly nowhere. "This is not their fault."

The villagers, who until now simply watched the proceedings in silence, suddenly erupt in despair and anger, upset that they have no one to blame. "Then whose fault is it?" someone asks above the din and growing chaos.

"The weather's," says a voice that sounds like Líknvé's as it fades into echoes.

Her answer causes Áfastr to flinch in confusion.

***

She is known as many things, Líknvé is. Seer, prophet, medicine woman, and even prostitute. The truth is that she has been all of these, but the one thing she has been for nearly her entire life is an animalist. Animals have always intrigued her. Their behaviors, their anatomies, what makes them tick and, in some cases, what makes them taste so good. As an educated woman - an extreme rarity in her culture - she is often viewed with suspicion and experience had informed her that maintaining the seedy reputation of the professions she is known for has its advantages. But, studying the animal kingdom is and always will be her primary love.

As she enters her hovel in the foothills northeast of the main village, she heads immediately to her library. Impressive by any measure - nearly 5,000 volumes of scientific lore - she has spent her lifetime traveling abroad and collecting anything in print. She has even traveled to the southlands, the Hellenic world, of which Áfastr and Afvaldr's family is purported to originally be from. It is for this reason that she is afraid, for she has seen the flying lizards with her own eyes and has witnessed their destructive capabilities. She has no idea if Áfastr and Afvaldr's family is from there, though she has noticed their resemblance to peoples of that area, but she does know that if their family did indeed migrate north and assimilate with the Northmen, it was precisely because of those flying creatures and the death that they wrought to their habitats.

Why she is afraid has nothing to do with prophecy - she, for one, thinks that prophecies are nothing more than the result of uneducated men trying to control other uneducated men - and has everything to do with physiology. Lizards, she knows, do not fare well in cold climates such as the one her people live in and, as a rule, avoid the tundra.

That the brothers and Kolfrosta - she picked up on the fact that Kolfrosta was present at the scene very quickly... something to do with the young woman's guilty eyes - had seen a dragon in the dead of winter, and here, means that something is wrong. The careful balance of the world is being tipped, but from what?

Líknvé pulls some biology books off of one of the library's bookshelves and wraps them in a blanket. There is a trip to be taken, for more information needs gathering. And Líknvé trusts no one save Líknvé to acquire and interpret that information. Evil is afoot, and as she did once a long time ago, she intends to chase it.

***

8 comments:

  1. nice...i like this jeff...so will you be sharing more of it as you continue?

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  2. I like how you kept us in suspense with the dragons. And the characters are well drawn, I feel I know them and now I want to know more.

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  3. This is well written, and I hope you'll share more, too.

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  4. I like to know how to pronounce names when I read a story so I made up how I think they would sound to me.

    Excellent story.

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  5. Great writing, and quite epic in scope, eh? How big is this novel?

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  6. I've been away too long, here. Most enjoyable read sir :) Happy TT!

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  7. I liked this, but I question whether people "flinch in confusion". Oh, and I think you need a comma in the 4th section, paragraph one after "suspicion". I would be interested in seeing more of this.

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