It’s a little exposition-dense. A kink I’ll work out over the drafts to come. For now, since it’s been so long and I know you need something to live on—talking to you Dave—enjoy this bit of fiction from The Shill and the Purblind.
My mother was a slave, Idun Verdandi recited. My mother tried to hide me. She cared. She cared. She cared. My mother tried to steal me. She cared. She cared. She tried. She died. She died because she cared. She cared. She cared. My father did not care. He died just the same. She tried. She tried. They died. No one deprives the hēahcyning of his property. The high king is all. He is all. He is death. He is soon dead.
Idun knew one truth: In the cold of Ísigstān, the only way to truly keep warm was through hate. Having been born a slave in Ísigstān kingdom, in the house of the Vetr Sun, living in the very same castle as the hēahcyning himself, Idun was always warm.
She hugged her knees to her chest and leaned her back against the ice-flecked stone wall of her chamber as the other slave girls slept. She would not sleep.
To sleep was to give in to the night fevers.
Idun recited the story of her parents again, her warmest story, until the cold left her. She raised a thin, pale hand and brushed her hair toward the front of her face, giving herself privacy from the sleepers. Don’t let them catch you if they wake. Don’t let them catch you. Don’t let them catch you crying.
She watched the silver-white strands that hung in front of her eyes, a genetic camouflage trait bred into Ísigstān natives over the course of a thousand years. Her very birthright. The hair from scalp to shoulder looked dull, stringy. The other foot and a half of her locks, from shoulder to waist was in worse shape. The black dye, a slave marker, dried her hair. Turned it brittle.
The more valuable slaves—those more usable, treated like pets, treated like whores, and pranced around in front of nobility—could keep half of the natural growth.
That mark of ownership was much less humiliating and much less permanent than the other. A brand that ran from one cheek to the other, curving over the nasal bridge in a turned down crescent.
Many of the slave children died from the brand.
Idun touched the rough, raised skin, before her hand fell heavily to her lap, cradled between her empty stomach and shaking knees. Tiredness ate at her. Sleep would soon take her. Another choice made for her.
She grabbed the piece of cloth she had ripped from her bedding and placed it in her mouth. She let a corner piece of the cloth stay pressed between her lips so that, once she awoke, she could yank out the rag before she choked. For nearly a month, she slept this way. If her night screams ever woke the hēahcyning again, she was told, she’d pay with her flesh.
Wasn’t she already paying that price? Yes, of course. She had been since the year the blood came on her.
Even as she lay there, she fought to keep her eyes open. The wind kicked up outside. Idun felt the gusts come in through the small, high-set window. The window would close over with ice, soon. For warmth, Idun reasoned, again taking stock of her warmest story. The one she used ever since she’d heard it.
My mother was a slave. My mother had tried to hide me. She cared. She cared. She cared. My mother tried to steal me. She cared. She cared. She tried. She died. She died because she cared. She cared. She cared. My father did not care. He died just the same. She tried. She tried. They died…. The high king is all. He is… He is… soon dead.
Idun curled in on herself. As she began to drift, she felt the skin of her arms start to burn, handprint shapes glowing along her biceps.
Every night, this is how it began.
Idun’s body was covered in sweat, her black eyes open, seeing nothing. Around the rag in her mouth came whimpers that might have been words. Her torso shot up from the straw-stuffed mattress. She screamed. The rag muffled it. She looked around the room. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a tall, dark shape. She got up from the bed, speaking nonsense around the rag, and clumsily put distance between herself and the shape.
When she got to the door, her heart was beating painfully. The door is gone. She walked along the wall, trying to feel through frozen-numb fingertips. She was cold throughout, though her skin was fever-hot. Beads of sweat ran in lines down her neck.
There is no door.
She circled the room, searching, each circle taking her closer to the shape. She saw, during the first circle, that the shape was wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Then, she saw it was humanoid. Then, that it had large white eyes. Then, it had red running under its skin.
I can promise you… A voice. Its voice. It whispered around her, through her.
Sleep. The word was a scream she sensed more than understood.
A sharp pain spiked through Idun’s shoulder, jolting her awake. She coughed, nearly gagging until she pulled the rag from her mouth. The edge of the door slammed against her shoulder again, and this time she cried out and scrambled backward on her hands and feet.
“What are you doing down there, stupid girl?” It was Grettna, the keeper, her head poking around the door.
“I don’t… I don’t know,” Idun answered. She looked around her and saw that all the girls were starting to rise from slumber. One by one, they all looked at her.
“Come on then,” Grettna said, holding her hand out to Idun. “The rest of you, sod off.”
The air came to life with the rustling of scratchy wool blankets and the girls quickly shuffled out of bed and filed out of the room and headed next door to the wash stall. The last girl hesitated. Vera, short and thick of frame, if not of actual meat, looked down at Idun. Her eyebrows drew together, concern flashing across her black eyes before her short, black hair swept over them. Idun nodded, but Vera hesitated still.
“Get yourself gone now, girl,” Grettna said.
“I’m fine, Vera. Go on,” Idun said, and it was a good lie. Vera finally nodded and left Idun and Grettna alone.
Grettna set down the basket of clean blankets and sat down, her legs out to the side of her. Her hair was wrapped up on top of her head, bound by rope and mostly covered by a towel. A few black tendrils poked through. She took Idun’s hand.
“It’s happened again, hasn’t it?” Grettna said softly, gently, a doting mother now that none were there to see.