Chapter 1 to Malyn's Pre-Story 3637 words
Water trickled into a clay basin. Soft rustling movement followed, otherwise the silence of the dim-lit room remained undisturbed. Malyn lifted a pale arm and washed it from shoulder to wrist. She laid the arm down with gentle concentration then dipped the ceremonial sponge into the basin, squeezed the excess flower scented water back into the basin and washed the relaxed face with slow deliberation, taking special care around the closed eyes.
Malyn's ragged breath caught in a sigh and tears slid over her cheeks. Again, she dipped the sponge into the basin. As she lifted her mother's other limp arm, firm footsteps approached.
She looked up and met the sad brown eyes of a middle aged man. "I bring the clothing Viveka wore upon her return from the northern glaciers."
Feliks placed a delicate cloak upon a small table next to Malyn. The hood was lined with an iridescent material and edged with the fur of the glacier wolves. Elegant runes were woven inside the hood, creating a warding against the elements. Feliks placed a delicate spider silk blouse and traveling skirt next to the cloak.
"Viveka wore these upon her return from the lands beyond the northern glaciers. The Sidhelien worked their magic into these garments. These are her riches."
Feliks stroked the fur around the hood before turning and leaving Malyn to clothe her mother for the final sending ceremony.
For some moments Malyn simply stared at the rich garments. These were from her father's people. Her father had given these clothes to her mother so that she would be protected from the cold. Malyn's hand closed around a bloodstone pendant her mother had given to her after her coming of age ceremony. The pendant was an intricately carved lynx in mid-leap as if in play. The pendant had also come from her father.
With slow deliberation, Malyn picked up the blouse and held it with reverence.
She knew her mother had chosen to return to her village before the birth of her daughter, so that she, Malyn, would grow strong with the Vosian spirit.
She brought the fabric to her face and breathed in the smell of the garment before dressing her mother's clean body.
Her mother had always spoken sparingly about her time within the Sidhelein tree city where the man whose Sidhelien name translated into 'Lucky Spirit Wind in the Valley' had lived.
Malyn repeated the same deliberate routine with each of the garments. The clothing was musty from long storage, yet there was another odor Malyn had never smelled before. The garments carried a sweet scent of unknown flowers mingled with a green leafy odor similar to the dense wood south of her village.
Regret clenched her breast. Malyn would never learn anything more about her father's people. Any opportunity for such knowledge disappeared with her mother's death. Malyn swallowed her sudden anger. She told herself there was good reason why Viveka wouldn't speak about her time with the Sidhelein. Malyn closed her eyes and forced herself to breath deep calming breaths. She respected and loved her mother too much to allow her ill feelings to disrupt the sending ceremony.
After Malyn finished preparing Viveka for her journey, she stood and called her uncle into the room. Feliks and Malyn's male cousins carried her mother out to the ceremonial grounds and placed her upon intricately stacked logs. Malyn and the women of the clan Drud followed.
After each family member paid their respects to the body, Malyn received the fire brand from Feliks that would light her mother's pyre. She poked the flame into the brush tinder at the base of the logs and stared as the growing flames climbed through the dry timbers. Malyn stepped back from the intense heat as flames ,crackled and popped and licked at the shrouded woman in repose. Malyn watched as the foreign clothing and supplies for her long journey burned with her mother's body. She was caught in a terrible dream and she could not wake herself. Her tears streaked hot rivulets down her face. The heat of the pyre forced Malyn to step back to where her Uncle and cousins stood.
Malyn's gaze wandered away from the horror before her and she felt a numbing senselessness as she watched the blue skies of an unusually warm spring day darkened by the black billowing smoke of many funeral pyres. The spring fevers had taken many from the village.
A baritone voice broke through the sharp crackling of hungry flames. Malyn stared at the pyre as the flames consumed the rich and exotic clothing worn by her mother. Her Uncle's chanting reminded her she still had a ritual to perform. She tried to lift her leaden arms and stared at them. She frowned as she tried to remember why her arms were bleeding. She looked again at the flames. She had joined her life blood with that of her uncle and cousins so that her mother's spirit would gain their strength for her long journey through the nine gates.
With effort, her voice croaked as she tried to speak through a tight throat. As her determination built strength, so too her voice grew stronger as she joined Feliks in the ritual chant of farewell to guide Viveka's loved spirit safely across the veil.
"Viveka Katalina Drud, daughter, sister, aunt and mother we send you home. Rejoice you are returned. Rejoice you are returned.
"Viveka Katalina Drud, daughter, sister, aunt and mother the flesh cage that held you is no more. Rejoice you are returned. Rejoice you are returned.
"Take our strength and travel without fear. Your road unfolds before you. Rejoice you are returned. Rejoice you are returned."
Malyn managed to recite the ritual chant through her clenched throat. She swayed as she watched the thick billowing smoke rise to the heavens. Her eyes blurred with a fresh flood of tears. Somehow, she managed to throw the flaming torch onto the fire of her mother's pyre.
Soon after, she heard the chorus of familiar voices around her as her cousins joined and continued the chant. She didn't care that all the family she knew surrounded her. Malyn's gaze rose as she followed the image of her mother as it formed in the billowing smoke. The form moved with her mother's grace and disappeared through a swirling vortex of light. Malyn stood transfixed as the portal closed. Viveka had passed through the first door. Malyn gasped as a painful emptiness gripped her chest, she no longer felt her mother's presence around her. Where there had always been a familiar touch was now a void. Simultaneously, flames burned away the cloth shroud and for a moment Malyn looked upon Viveka's slack face. She watched the flesh blister, blacken and eventually crack. She jerked in surprise when the head of the corpse exploded. Grief rushed from her breast. Malyn rocked her head back, closed her fists, spread her arms in supplication to the God's and screamed the anguish and rage within her soul.
The days that passed after the ashes of the pyre cooled, seemed to hang within a timless bubble. Daily routine became unthinking ritual. Every nuance of living was felt as an agony of numbed isolation. Senses weren't dulled as much as they were buffered through a thick wall of painful numbness.
On the fourth day after her mother's sending, Malyn took up her bow, hatchet, and knife and left the village to hunt the late winter deer. She welcomed the frozen nights with no fire to warm her spirit or brighten her place in the world. She sat wrapped in a single wool blanket and dozed only after exhaustion overtook her. She dreamed fitful images she didn't understand and jerked awake with the sensation of falling. For six days, Malyn wandered the wilderness acting out the facade of tracking game, until one afternoon she flushed a large buck from his tangled scrub bed.
The adrenalin of surprise instantaneously coursed through Malyn. The spell of grief was broken as she froze and watched the antler-less buck leap frog over bush and log to escape to safety. Acting purely from reflex, Malyn knelt and inspected the fresh track. She inspected the bed and felt the warmth of the matted leaves with her hand. The scent of urine filled her nostrils as she lifted wet leaves and rubbed them over her pant legs and boots. The wind was at her back as she tracked the buck. She altered her gate from slow to slower as she crept along the brushy trail. Her movements matched the rustling of the wind, her ears followed the snapping of twigs as the deer circled to her left. She froze and listened, turning her ears toward the faint sounds. The buck moved in slow halting steps about a hundred yards from her. Malyn hoped he'd lost her scent and caught only that of his own urine.
She stood behind a bush and watched as the buck walked toward her. He sniffed the air, his ears turned forward then backward to pick up any sound that might come from the right or left or behind him.
A soft breeze rustled over skeleton fingers of leafless trees and Malyn used this slight sound to mask the raising of her bow so she could sight along a nocked arrow. The buck stepped forward. He wasn't looking at her but rather, off to her left. Malyn realized he was returning to his bed. The buck was sixty yards from her and angling closer.
Malyn opened her mouth to quiet her breathing. The buck walked toward her until he was only forty yards distant. He stopped and tested the air for scent and sound.
Malyn's fingers tightened back on the string and she waited until the buck moved toward her once more. His own passage through the winter dry brush masked the soft creak of laminated rose wood bending as Malyn drew the arrow nock back and anchored the knuckle of her thumb behind her jaw below her ear.
The deer stood tense and broadside to Malyn and tested the air, again. He looked at the bush where a deadly missle waited release. Malyn looked into his alert muddy eyes and waited. He stood twenty yards from her. The breeze was in her face. Her fingers ached holding the string at full draw. The muscles of her shoulder began to complain. The buck could not see her. She blinked and the buck looked away from her. Her fingers relaxed and the arrow launched. The buck jumped at the sound of sinew and wood snapping back into a relaxed state. Malyn saw the feathers of her arrow embedded behind the right leg as the deer ran ten yards away from the direction of his sudden pain. She remained still as the buck walked a dozen steps before his front legs buckled and he gasped for air. His tongue lolled to the side as he panted trying to inflate blood filled lungs. Malyn lowered her spent bow and waited to the count of a hundred. The deer didn't move as she took a cautious step forward.
Malyn didn't go directly to where the deer lay, but rather she inspected the spot where the buck had been when her arrow found him. The blood trail was bright red and foamy. As she suspected, she'd made a clean lung shot and had probably damaged the liver.
It wasn't until she knelt beside the buck when mixed elation and regret gripped her chest. Tears filled her eyes and she snuffled sadness through her nose. Malyn placed her hand on the warm neck, closed her eyes letting the tears fall upon the deer. "Life takes life to live. You give away your life so that you will become part of my life. Together we shall live." She took her knife and began the cut to release the entrails. Malyn reached up into the chest cavity and cut loose the heart, lungs and liver. She would break her fast this night and eat meat.
The deer hung from a high branch of a tall leafless tree. Malyn sat upon a boulder by a small bright fire and turned a spit with a piece of neck meat browning. There was no joy in the hunt. There was no joy in the smell of the cooking bounty of the animal. Malyn followed the ritual of survival with innate absent-mindedness. Juices dripped onto hot coals and hissed in her ears. She smelled the burned blood and saw again her mother's flesh blacken and crack upon a pyre.
Malyn shifted on the rock, let go of the spit and straightened up to look up into a star filled sky. She sighed and watched the vapor of her breath cloud outward and hang until it dissipated. The sound of a small creek swollen over it's banks by the spring thaws competed with the breeze wisping through the tree tops, a breeze that did not reach the ground level. The smell of wet mouldering leaves from last autumn and the smoke from the fire mingled to remind Malyn that life is continued through the rituals of death. She stood and fresh tears wet her cheeks. She turned her back to the fire, the swollen creek, and the tree where the deer hung.
She faced the southwest horizon and found the constellation of the Three Towers where the gods of winter watch over the Northlands. "What do you want?" Her voiced issued forth in a raspy whisper. "You've taken too much and I don't know what you want." She clenched her hands at her sides as she screamed her question. "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" A great sob broke from her before she could take in a shivering breath and clench the flood that threatened to pour past her throat.
Malyn took in deep, ragged breaths through her nose and waited until the echoes of her scream faded from her head. She stood listening for the gods to answer her. The rustling wind, rushing water, crackling fire and her struggled breath were the only sounds breaking the night solitude. Malyn turned and sat on the boulder facing the fire. She leaned over and removed the cooked meat from the spit. She took ker knife and sliced off a bite she gripped in her front teeth, sat back, and chewed the gift of death so that she may resume living. The taste of the fresh cooked meat satisfied and tormented her. Her tears flowed with renewed vigor. Malyn sighed and swallowed the first food she'd eaten in six days. Her stomach clenched. She gagged and fought to keep the chewed flesh down. She sipped watered-wine from her flask. After several painful moments Malyn was ready to cut another bite from the cooked meat. The second bite was accepted by her stomach much easier. She sipped more from her flask. After swallowing the third bite she emptied the last drops from her flask. Malyn grunted. She would return to the village tomorrow and give the deer to her cousins to bolster the family larder.
She'd killed a large buck. Her uncle would be happy for the fresh meat. Maybe, he wouldn't be too cross with her for being gone so long. Again, Malyn sighed. Weariness gripped her. She unfolded her blanket and slid next to the boulder facing the fire with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. she leaned her head back against the hard stone and closed her eyes. The world swayed a few moments before sleep took her. Her last conscious thought was that she'd drank too much for the small amount she'd eaten.
"Go to the inn where the sleeping oak waits."
She heard the voice of a woman as the woman spoke from some position behind her, but when she turned to face her, Malyn saw, instead, a seaport and houses built both of timbers and stone. Malyn knew this place, yet at the same time, she also knew she'd never been to such a place before in her life. She walked toward the town feeling as if she belonged. Did the woman wait for her at the inn? The air was too warm for the furred buckskin jacket, and heavy boots she wore.
The blanket slid from Malyn's shoulders.
She carried her possessions distributed about her. She'd traveled far and everything she owned she had upon her person. As she walked, she noted the people, nearly a head shorter than her, turned to stare at her. She too looked at them and noted they held Sidhelein blood within their veins. She stopped before a slender man with elongated ears and tilted her head. "I seek the woman who speaks to me."
The man stepped away from her and shook his head. He turned away from her and she knew it would be counter productive to follow him. As she approached the villagers she noted their garb. They wore cloth trousers and blouses and simple dresses of the common folk. There were no rich noblemen along the docks.
"I need to go to the inn."
The people stepped away from her like a ripple cut in a pool. A few of the people pointed toward the town along the road she traveled. Malyn sighed and walked on the stone road.
Malyn stood before a massive oak tree whose trunk bent at a right angle from it's roots and grew parallel to the ground for nearly six feet. The crown of leafy branches were the only part of the tree that pointed upward toward the sky.
"Yes, you have found the sleeping oak. You must not be late. Leave soon to find this place."
Malyn opened her eyes. The night had turned into a dank grey before dawn. The fire no longer radiated light or warmth and she shivered against the cold boulder at her back. She swiveled her head and looked around regaining her bearings. The deer, the creek and cold meat on the spit over a cold fire-pit reassured her that she was still at the edge of the forest in the hills not far from her village.
Malyn forced stiff legs to stand her up and she staggered a step before gaining her full balance. Malyn took her knife and dug out the inner fibrous bark from the place in the tree where she'd cut the night before. When she'd collected a handfull, she rubbed the shredded strands between her hands to create a loose fiberous wad. Malyn knelt down by the fire pit and, with a stick, stirred the coals to expose hot embers. She placed the bark fibers on the hot spots then blew with soft puffs to heat the embers enough to ignite the material. Within several minutes, Malyn had a fire ready for larger branches that would dry and eventually burn hot enough to cook her breakfast.
While she waited for her cooking fire to burn down, Malyn lowered the deer from the tree. With her hand ax and knife she skinned, partially boned and quartered the meat. She wrapped the quarters together within the skin and tied it tight to carry over her shoulders. She squatted by the fire and ate in silence. Malyn filled her stomach with a hot meal then doused the fire by filling her empty flask many times and dumping the high creek water over the coals until steam no longer rose from the pit and charcoal floated in a small pool bordered by stones. The high waters of the spring runoff would be tainted with sickness so she didn't refill the flask after she emptied it the last time.
The sun filtered through gray clouds about a hand's width above the eastern horizon by the time Malyn had shouldered the deer meat and gathered up all her belongings. She turned and faced toward the southwest. She shouted at the sky.
"Last night, I asked what you wanted and you tell me I must go find the inn where the oak sleeps. This oak is in a land that does not exist. There is no land where Sidhelein live. I have Sidhelien in my blood but this place have many such as I. In all my life I have never seen another such as I. I have never heard about others even from the elders who speak of things that exist in the world. It is known that the Sidhelein are no more in the world. Sidhelein are taken by shadow. You tell me to go where I cannot go. I will never ask what you want again. Ho!" Malyn moved her hand, palm downward, in a forceful sweeping motion away from her chest to indicate the end of her speech.
Malyn walked throughout the day and returned to her village and Uncle's home by mid-afternoon. She chewed on the cold, cooked meat left over from the night before as she walked. She had no reason to sleep another night under the eyes of the Gods, so there was no reason to stop and eat a hot lunch.
Malyn pushed up the door latch and entered the empty wood and sod house. The smell of earth, sweat, smoke, and bread caressed her. She was home, yet for all the familiar welcome, she felt numbed. Malyn placed the bundled meat in the meat pit and returned to the main room. The house was completely empty, unusual for this time of day. Her cousins, Theyda and Dasha, should be preparing the evening meal for the family.
Malyn sighed, put her hunting gear away, ladled up a cool drink of water, then left to walk to the village square where she imagined a meeting of the elders must be convened. She steeled herself for what she imagined would be a long and fatiguing afternoon. She was half the distance to the center square when she came upon a sight she'd only seen four times in her life. Her stomach flip flopped with sudden excitement. A Brecht caravan had set up in the town center and the whole village population was gathered in carnival and trade.