Friday, July 25, 2008

Fiction

There is a discussion going around about D&D and fantasy fiction, that the two don't seem to encourage one another. I don't write much fantasy fiction myself; I'm not driven by it, I don't read it and generally the attempts I've made have not been well liked.

Nevertheless, for reasons having to do with nothing else, in the process of cleaning out old, old files, I've found this story, which is about ten years old. I cleaned it up a little, as I'm a better writer now...and I figure, what the hell, I'll post it. Don't feel at all compelled to read it. This is as close to fantasy fiction as I've ever gotten.


White Sea

Warning came when the sun broke horizon’s rim, due south. Midwinter’s day lasted an hour, no more. The word was given. Gnolls would approach after the sun set—they had chosen a new moon for their raid.
In the starlight the Belomorsk villagers could see them come on, single line after single line, approaching over the ice.

The White Sea was frozen solid. The defenders stacked their snowshoes, drew their weapons, and waited. The brutal north wind frosted their beards and their hair’s ends. This was their home. They knew the wind and were not afraid of it.

The youngest had never fought gnolls before. They saw, with terror, the giant, shuffling monsters approach, seven-feet tall, with goat heads and horns like rotted teeth, yellow and gnarled with age. They wore bearskins tied with strips of reindeer leather, and hardened pieces of hide stitched together over their huge forms for armor. Tree branches, as thick as a man’s two fists held together served as weapons, the knots sharpened and dipped in pine resin.

The men wore heavy padding, leather boots waterproofed with whale blubber. They carried swords that had been forged by men in the south. The blades were new to them, lately purchased. The villagers held them resolutely, believing that hard metal would cut through that which wood could not penetrate. For months they had trained, readying themselves, each trusting the man from Novgorod who waited with them.

He was a stranger who did not know their ways. He had gained their trust. Gregor Dmitrovich was tall as a gnoll himself. He was unconcerned with the wind or the approaching battle. His sword did not waver. The others looked at him and stood fast.

The forces met equally. It was told afterwards, however, that the gnolls hesitated. On the ice and in the darkness, the lines split and scattered. All fought in every direction. The work was hot and steady. The enemy fought coldly, thoughtless of themselves. Men fell, their heads crushed. Gnoll could be told apart from man by shape alone, less and less by that as the white flooring grew black with blood. Villagers hacked at the limbs of the invader gnolls, broke their bodies and ran them through. They proved metal’s worth against leather.

The gnolls did not give, even when it was known the men would kill them all. The beasts fought stupidly, clubbing men long dead—then screaming as a man’s blade cut their shins, bringing them down, a villager ready to strike off their head. They fought without order. Again and again they were drawn singly from the combat by only children, throwing stones and fleeing, leading them to crevices where women waited with knives. The gnolls would stop and feast on what human meat they’d gained, forsaking their comrades who died without flanking guards. By such means the host was slaughtered.

Half the men of Belomorsk were dead or dying. They lay scattered over the ice amid the gnoll dead. The blowing snow covered the bodies as fathers searched for their sons, brothers for their sisters. Sledges were brought up and the wounded covered in fur blankets to be hurried to shelter. The dead were collected to be carried home at a slower pace.

The sun turned around the clock, ever below of the horizon, and Gregor Dmitrovich could not be found. Search parties went out. Every direction was hidden by hummocks of ice, pushed up by the sea beneath, still churning under winter’s grip. Amid the cracks and crevices of these hummocks, the villagers sought Dmitrovich. They found a blood trail and followed it, telling of the Novgorod’s way, marked by the corpse of many a gnoll.

The deepest night approaching, their cold limbs defeated the men of Belomorsk, driving them to surrender the search until the narrow light would improve. They returned home, dried their clothes, ate, embraced their families and gathered provisions.

Gregor Dmitrovich did live. Four dead enemy lay within a body length of himself. The final chase had ended when they had cornered him. He had taken them, but they had also killed him. The ribs of his one side were smashed and broken. The bone of his hip was cracked. A blow to his skull had blinded him in one eye. His blood froze against his cheek, a hardened, icy lump in his beard.

He pushed himself with one leg and found he could not rise. He lay in the snow, no longer white, only pale blue in the darkness. Frost grew over his limbs. Soon he would be dead if he was not found. Gregor knew he would not be found. Too many turns had been taken in the chase.

How long he waited to die, he did not know.

He felt warmth on his eyelid and opened it. The snow near his face grew brighter. Not from the sun on the horizon, but from a light that glistened within the crystals themselves. The frozen sea glowed. He had never seen its like.

With immense effort he lifted his head and threw an arm over his body, turning himself on his back. He was not alone.

Bathed in the snowlight was a woman, as tall as any man in Belomorsk. Her boots were fashioned of the newest white sealskin and showed no sign of wear. Strands of silver, weaved into cords, had been wrapped around her ankles and shins. Her thighs were bare, and over them hung a mail of fine workmanship, the rings so tiny that Dmitrovich could not make them out. A deerskin belt tightened the mail to her hips. In the belt’s loop hung an axe, whose massive adamant blade reflected the blue of the snow in beams. The axe handle was carved of whalebone and set with amber stones. The axe was carved with runes that Dmitrovich, from the south, did not recognize.

Her upper body and forearms were wrapped in fur and sealskin, tight to her body for easy movement, but the skin, pure white, of her upper arms and shoulders had no covering at all. A necklace of wolf and bear’s teeth hung around her neck. And over all, like a cascade, fell her blonde, flaxen hair, like wheat from a rich harvest. On her head was a silver helmet, the like and beauty of which Dmitrovich had never have imagined. The metal was encrusted with gemstones. An ivory horn rose above each ear.

Most startling of all was her eyes, which showed no pain from the slashing wind, nor the brutal cold that would crack iron. Her face was gentle, speaking of warmer places or of the spring when flowers bloomed. It was the face of a mother, a beauty forgotten since he was a small boy, when mothers were important. He stared at her in wonder. She did not speak, though he had held her eyes for a long, long time. He finally found his tongue. “Who are you?” he asked.

She seemed to ready herself. She lifted the axe from its place.

At once Dmitrovich understood. Where before he’d had no strength, the realization that death was at hand brought him to lift his sword. Very nearly he did not turn aside the axe’s first blow. It fell past him and into the ice, cleaving it open.

Wild-eyed, he rolled away and miraculously found his feet. His side twisted him with pain. The cut on his face broke open and his throat felt wet with fresh blood. He knew only his terror. The woman slipped to the side and circled him, seeking the side of his blinded eye. She shifted her axe from hand-to-hand, unconscious of its weight. Dmitrovich knew it would take him two hands to lift it.

Her rush came. He met the axe with the sword, near its handle. He felt the woman’s strength. She turned her axe, nearly tearing his sword from his hands, striking him across the shoulder with the axe handle, throwing him across the frozen scape. He stumbled over blocks of ice, and tumbled, sliding, still holding his weapon. A puff of snow covered his face and he couldn’t see.

Gregor heard her come on, quickly, giving him no time to think nor rest. He swung his sword and was amazed when it struck metal. He leapt away to avoid being cut in two. He swept the snow from his face and cleared his vision, then hastily parried her attack.

Blood splattered about him and over the snow, yet in him a fury grew. It was a fury he’d never known. Her axe and his sword came together squarely and her weapon was turned aside. Gregor did not wait for her to swing again. He struck at her. She drew back, eyes calm, certain of victory. Her gaze did not make him falter. His sword seemed driven of its own spirit. He was berserk. He rained blows on her, each falling on her axe, never touching her, but always on the attack, pushing her back and back between the icy blades and drifts.

And then, as though it were a thing unthought of by the gods, the axe came loose from her hands. It fell away and he could not see where.

She did not move. Her eyes, unchanged, held his. Her chest did not rise and fall, nor give any sign that she had fought. She did not sweat. Gregor was covered in sweat and was wet with blood. He held his sword raised over his shoulder, for the final blow that would kill her.

“GREGOR!” he heard call. The sound stole his attention. He turned, staggering as if with fever. He saw men of Belomorsk, in furs and dragging a sledge. They stopped apart from him and the woman.
She sighed, a beautiful sound, and he looked at her. Her hand lifted, fearless of his sword, still held ready. Her fingers were quite real. He did not think they would be. She touched the side of his face, where he was blind. Then he was not blind.

His sword fell to the ice.

“Live, Gregor Dmitrovich,” the woman said. The sky and world turned blue-white, and she was gone.

He did not move, even as the townsmen clambered forward towards him. Their faces were bright, their eyes blazing. They did not believe what they had seen.

“A Valkyrie!” said the oldest one. “A Valkyrie came for you, and you live!” The villager’s voice told all. Even witnessed it could not be truth, the voice said.

Dmitrovich turned. He felt no pain, no injury. He felt nothing. He collapsed into their arms, felt himself loaded onto their sledge.

“I want to go home,” he said.

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