Hallo, my succulent little morsels. I’ve previously posted bits from The Shill and the Purblind, which is the first in my fantasy series. My goal with this story is to present mental health issues in the context of a fantasy novel. Because of that, I’ve decided to take it from a 3rd person narrative to 1st. So, here are the first two revamped chapters (as drafts).
Chapter 1—Einar the Ungelīc
I sit back on my haunches, elbows resting on my knees, and take in the view. The top of the scorched-black hill offers a good vantage point into valley of the dead. Heat rises in soft waves from open bodies, turning the cold air foggy. Even the rain takes on a red glint as it crosses the warm front.
“And for what was this done?” I ask.
“Blood feud,” the androgynous wind hisses behind me. “Wergild unpaid.”
I stand and stretch. “What has this to do with me?”
The air pressure changes sharply, and I shiver.
“There are others,” says the wind.
The air in front of me moves, mini-cyclones distorting the scene to show something new. The ice country. Ísigstān castle. Two figures.
“The king,” the wind whispers. “And the slave.”
Reluctantly, I watch the scene playing out before me. The old, haggard king, with white skin and whiter hair and coal-black eyes, so insecure he wears his crown in his own bedchamber. He squirms and thrashes atop a young, painfully thin woman. She stares out with dead eyes at nothing. Her muscles and joints all locked with the attempt not to move, not to push the elderly king away. Her silver-white hair spreads around her head like a fan, the ends dipped in black. A scar runs along her face from cheek to cheek, right across the bridge of her nose.
I touch the ragged edge of one long ear, not even noticing the motion until the wind laughs from behind me. The bedroom scene fades as the valley of the dead reappears. I drop my hand to my side and cock my head. “Let the feud end here,” I say, motioning to the valley below.
“It will not,” hisses the wind. “It cannot.”
“Then find another. This is beneath me.”
More laughter at this. Laughter that starts at one shoulder and blows around to the other. I feel the wind become solid enough to touch my face with threatening fingers. Then nothing.
“Nothing is beneath you. Go to the slave. Take her to the eard-stapa wiga.”
I look over sharply, trying to pin the voice with my gaze. Useless movement. The wandering warrior. “You’d have me run in circles. For what? Kill them both and be done with this.”
“No!” the wind picks up to a whistling scream with the word, then abruptly dies. The new quiet left in its place is unnerving. “The slave must kill the king. After, can the slave be killed.”
The muscles in my mid-back stiffen. I breath deep, commanding my body to relax. “Send another,” I say through clenched jaw. My lips peel back from my teeth, the upper right corner pushed into a snarl.
The wind screams, howls. It spins down the hill, picking up the dead and throwing them aside. I watch this tantrum. In the end I will do as I was bid. Without reason. I am never given a reason. But defiance is irresistible. Even considering the punishment to follow. So, I watch and smile and enjoy the whirlwind of corpses.
I will go to the slave.
I will take her to the eard-stapa wiga.
And once she kills the king, I will wash my hands of her.
Chapter 2—Idun Verdandi
My mother was a slave. The recitation comes as a form of habit more than conscious thought. My mother tried to hide me. She cared. She cared. She cared. My mother tried to steal me away. 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. My nails bite into my palms. He is soon dead.
There is one truth I have known from the beginning: In the cold of Ísigstān, the only way to truly keep warm is 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, I am nearly always warm.
I hug my knees to my chest and lean back against the ice-flecked stone wall of the chamber as the other slave girls sleep. I will not sleep. Not if I can help it. I fight the exhaustion washing over me.
To sleep is to give in to the night fevers.
I recite the story again, my warmest story. I brush my hair toward the front of my face to give myself some semblance of privacy from the sleeping slaves. I blink hard to squeeze out the welling tears. Don’t let them catch you if they wake. Don’t let them catch you.
I watch the silver-white strands that hang in front of my eyes. Dull, stringy. From shoulder to waist the hair is in worse shape. The black dye, a slave marker, dries the hair. Turns it brittle. The more valuable slaves—those more usable, treated like pets, treated like whores, and pranced around in front of nobility—can keep half the natural growth. It is no comfort.
Still, that mark of ownership is much less humiliating and much less permanent than the other—the brand inflicted on slaves in early childhood. The brand that runs from one cheek to the other, curving over the nasal bridge in a down-turned crescent.
Many of the slave children die from the brand. I was not granted such mercy.
I touch the smooth, raised skin of the brand before my hand falls heavily away. Tiredness eats at me. Sleep will soon take me no matter how hard I fight. Another choice made for me.
I grab the piece of cloth I ripped from my bedding and place it in my mouth. I let a corner piece of the cloth stay pressed between my lips so that, once I awake, I can yank out the rag before I choke. For nearly a month, I have slept this way. If my night screams ever wake the hēahcyning again, I’ll pay with my flesh.
Was I not already paying that price?
I fight to keep my eyes open. The wind kicks up outside. I feel the gusts come in through the small, high-set window. The window will close over with ice soon. Again I take stock of my warmest story.
I feel myself begin to drift. The skin on my arms starts to burn, handprint shapes glowing along my biceps.
Every night, this is how it begins.
Sweat breaks from every pore. My skin is too cold, but inside … Inside I am on fire. Around the rag come whimpers that I can’t suppress. My chest burns and every muscle in my body is wound so tight I think I might burst. I shoot up from the straw-stuffed mattress. I scream. The rag muffles it. I try to close my eyes, but I can’t. It is here. I feel it. My stomach turns, trying to empty itself of something that’s not there. I can sense a tall, dark shape close. I do not know what it is or what it wants. I have to move. My stomach clenches painfully. I have to move.
I leave the bed, nonsense syllables spilling around the rag, and clumsily put distance between myself and the shape.
I have to get out. I have to get away.
I stumble my way to the door, feet dragging. My heart is beating too fast, too hard, and the pain of it radiates through tightened muscles.
Not here. It should be here.
The door is gone.
I walk along the wall, trying to feel through frozen-numb fingertips. Beads of sweat run in lines down my neck. I am too hot, too cold.
I need to get out.
There is no door.
I circle the room, each time getting closer to the shape, each sweep showing me a little more. The shape is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Humanoid with large white eyes and red running under its skin. What is it waiting for?
I can promise you … A voice. Its voice. It whispers around me, through me. Sleep.
The word is a command I sense more than understand. The tension in my muscles evaporates so quickly that I find myself on the floor before I realize it.
Then there is nothing.
Pain spikes like lightning through my shoulder, jolting me awake. I cough, gagging as I pull the rag from my mouth. I am … on the floor. The edge of the door slams against my shoulder again, and this time I cry out and scramble backward on my hands and feet, the cold, rough stone scratching against my palms and calloused feet.
Why am I on the floor?
“What are you doing down there, stupid girl?” Grettna, the keeper. Her head pokes around the door. Her words are at odds with the warm tone of her voice.
“I … I am not sure,” I answer. I look around and see that all the girls are starting to rise from slumber. One by one, they all looked at me.
“Come on then,” Grettna says, holding her hand out to me. I take it and let her lift me to my feet. “The rest of you, sod off.”
The air comes to life with the rustling of scratchy wool blankets, and the girls quickly shuffle out of bed and file out of the room, heading next door to the wash stall. The last girl hesitates. Vera, short and thick of frame, if not of actual meat, looks down at me. Her silvery eyebrows slope together, concern flashing in her black eyes before her short, black hair sweeps over them. I nod, but Vera hesitates still.
“Get yourself gone now, girl,” Grettna says.
“I am fine, Vera. Go on,” I say, and it is a good lie. A slave must learn to be a good liar to survive here. Vera finally nods and leaves me and Grettna alone.
Grettna sets down the basket of clean blankets and sits down, her legs out to the side of her. Her hair is wrapped up on top of her head, bound by rope and mostly covered by a towel. A few black tendrils poke through. She takes my hand, dragging me back down to the floor. I go readily, not trusting my legs to hold me any longer.
“It’s happened again, hasn’t it?” Grettna asks softly, gently, her whole demeanor changed now that none are here to see. She does not wait for an answer. “What did you see?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I try to remember, shake my head. The night escapes me. I remember feeling the burning on my arms, but nothing after. “I … I don’t remember anything.”
Forgetting might be a blessing.
“Is there not something that can be done?” I ask. “There must be something the Red Folk can do.”
Grettna cups her hands around mine and squeezes. She smiles sadly, pitifully.
“Slaves aren’t to bother the Red Folk, ye ken. We’re just not worth it, love,” Grettna says.
“I am exhausted, ealdmóder,” I say, taking my hands from hers. “What good is a slave who cannot work? And what happens if I wake the hēahcyning again? How long do I have to live if I can’t control myself?” I hold up the cloth, still damp with spittle. “This will not work forever.”
“I kennit well, girl” she says grabbing my arm and squeezing. “Don’t think for a second I haven’t thought about yer fate. ‘Course I have.” She drops my arm and runs her hand across her brow. “No, the Red Folk will be of no use to you. But someone else might.”
“Truth, ealdmóder?” I ask. I try to keep my voice level.
“Aye, girl, truth. Another slave, though he wasn’t born to it.”
“How can he help if he is only a slave?”
“He was an apprentice to the Red Folk before …” she said, waving a hand around the room. Before his fall. “If we can get the two of ye some time and some privacy, then maybe he can help.”
I look down at my hands as my fingers work the skin around my nails to open small wounds that sting. Grettna takes my hands in hers again, stilling my agitated movements.
“Don’t you lose hope yet, love. We’ll find a way.”
“Yes, ealdmóder,” I say, extracting my hands so I can embrace her. “We will find a way.”