herag

Working through the writing of my novel "The Are of Gods"

Waves crashing against a hollow shore. A raven caws in the distant, cold wind which sweeps across the surface of the black sea, sending a barrage of icy droplets over the fleeting warmth in Jattel's body. Jagged rocks claw against the bottom of his skiff as he cracks open his eyes for the first time, in what seems like weeks, to see a grey light stretching across the sky. Thud and scrape jar him to consciousness. The chafing of salty skin under damp, sticky clothes let him know that he was alive. Were those hooves clattering on the stones? He pushes himself upright, an acrid steam releasing from his huddled figure.

Peering over the edge of his skiff, he sees the shoreline, a stony, cold hope. Similarly, a frozen heart leaps as he fumbles forward toward the bow. Hunger and thirst tightened his throat as he lurches forward awkwardly, disregarding the dark figure sitting tall on a small horse. Hunger and thirst ached deep within his gut and his limbs burn, though the frost had settled deep.

Blood blossoms at his knuckles as he gripped the edge of the skiff, waiting for the tide to pull him closer to the grey salvation that lays just a short span away. The dark figure on horseback stands still, unaffected by the cold gusts that toss the skiff this way and that. The figure watches. He is the watcher on the hill, the character out of stories that warns against trespass. Jattel sees no horseman, nor the foreboding figure that stands in his path, just the dry land and the promise of safety. The skiff lurches forward on a wave and Jattel's ears adjust. Waves crashing. Waves pulling. Waves against the stony shoreline.

When the shore comes within reach, Jattel lets hope fill him, a warm and eternal sunshine. It was a futile hope. To be stuck on dry land does not fill his belly with food or water, but dry land he could navigate and in that there was hope. He still disregards the dark figure on the hill who hadn't moved. The skiff lurches again, but this time the scraping against stones turns to the splitting of lumber, the cracking of timbers, the sensation of slush filling boots.

Jattel rolls into the icy water. His knees dragged across sharp stones, his head strikes a large, immovable boulder. He rolls up onto the shore and crawls, smaller pebbles freezing to his palms and knees. And there, just out of the reach of the tide, he collapses. It wasn't until he settled down to die that the horseman moves. He did not heel his horse into action, nor dismount to run to Jattel's aid. He raises a curled ram's horn to his lips and let out a single bellowing note that splits the air and rattles the stones on the shore.

The vibrato washed over Jattel's body, his ears felt like they were stuffed with wool and the sound of waves crashing against the shore faded. His vision slowly ebbed and darkness rolled in. His mind was awash upon the distant shores where dreams play out.

Warmth hovered out of mind, out of reach. The air around Jattel's blind existence was a fire that couldn't reach him. He floated on the waves of air, the bellowing horn blast confumed him. He was of a single mind, warmth. His gut ached, but was filled with the music of the unknown land. He had crawl up out of the sea, like a creature from the depths to walk upon the land and had been struck down by the song that pulses through the stones and frozen earth that was this land.

Voices. Strange voices echo through his mind. They sing to him of peace and strife. The voices speak to him of the constant struggle against that which would kill them, that which would strike their heel and leave them to rot. The voices sing of the struggle against the greatest of powers in the land, fate. They say the words and Jattel's mind understands them, though the words make no sense. He is lifted from the fiery waters of his mind and is settled into the snow, warm snow that covers him like fur. The fiery snow fills his soul and he opens his mouth to scream in pain, but nothing happens. He has no voice here in this land of dreams.

In the distance there stands a tall figure. He wears a ragged cloak and a long staff in his left hand. He turns and one eye burns with the fires beneath the earth. With his right hand, he reaches out across the vast leagues between them and grabs hold of Jattel by the throat.

“Listen.”

The word reaches across the world of dreams and cuts into Jattel's mind.

“Listen, Traveller. You are he who comes. You fate belongs to me. Listen.”

Jattel opens his mouth to speak, but the gnarled and crooked hand grasping his throat tightens.

“Don't talk. Listen. You will know my people and they will guide you.”

The hand around his neck tighten more and Jattel began to struggle. The iron grip held him still, though his arms and legs flailed of their own accord.

“Listen, that is your first lesson. Know the runes and they will guide you.”

As the final word left the old man's mouth, his grip loosened and fiery shapes filled the air. Jattel knew these were the runes the old man spoke of and he saw them. Sixteen were their number. Sixteen runes that combined to make more complex shapes, but sixteen originals. Each one flew at him and burned into his mind, a searing poker in his mind, imprinted upon him. Sixteen runes burned into him, emblazoning themselves on his chest in a circle. At the center was a complex rune made up of six simple runes and he knew its name. It was rueska, or first man. He didn't know why, but he knew that it was spoken true by the old man.

As the burning in his chest began to dull, icy shot through his body, a cold wrapped itself around him and filled his nostrils. Light cut across his vision and the sound of horse's hooves filled his mind. His chest felt raw as he came out of the dream. The horse stopped and a large figure shifted weight on the horse's back. He was laying on his belly across the horse's hindquarters.

Jattel let his eyes creep open as the large figure dismounted and saw that it was the large man that he had first encounter upon arrival in this strange land.

“Thuclod. Yebjath hethag yn fage.”

The large man spoke with a smile. His form was menacing, but his smile was kind and welcoming. Jattel slid down from the horse and stood there, not sure what the smile meant, though the words the man spoke touched upon some lost memory he could feel just beyond his own reckoning. They were familiar like an old song of childhood.

Jattel nodded. Not sure what he was agreeing to, but the cold had already begun to freeze his joints. He figured it was better to go with the large beast of a man than it was to freeze outside.

The door to the mound-house creaked open as they approached.

“Hwethu skuraryg?”

The voice belonged to a woman who stood almost at tall as his captor. She wore her fiery-red hair down to her waist and had the fairest skin Jattel had ever seen. Her eyes were a dark emerald and sharp. She had a playful look about her, though her voice was calm and passive.

“Ygevolath, yeskur echthu et ruthavonga. Vofo kak yn vofa lid.”

She responded to him in a kindly manner. Though Jattel didn't understand them, he could tell that they were familiar, perhaps partners. She was still talking in that musical tone as she stepped back away from the door and ushered them both into the house.

Jattel stepped through the open door and was met with a blast of heat that cut through his thin coat and trousers. His boots had worn through at the toes and he could feel the heat through the floorboards of the small home. And it was a small home, relatively speaking. The front door opened right into the central room. An ax leaned against the jamb and his hand brushed its smooth handle. They walked into the room on a heavy, wool, intricately woven rug and snow fell from his coat to melt immediately, leaving dark spots on the rug. The man and woman both chattered in their lyrical tongue while Jattel stared around the room. It opened from the end of the rug into a larger circular room with a blazing fire at its center.

The fire was en-caged with an elaborate mesh of iron wire. The wire curved and cut, almost randomly in patterns that suggested artwork rather than utility. There were three large logs sitting to the side of the fire and a poker that was laying to the side of those logs. Around the fire was another rug that was woven in a circular design and just as intricately so as the entry rug. The floorboard looked to be solid ash, and so were the walls, those they were stained lighter than the flooring. Small, though this house seemed, it seemed to be constructed of only the finest of materials.

“Thufa lid?”

The woman's voice was kind and Jattel heard the universal turning up in her words that told him she asked a question. He was at a loss because he didn't speak their language, but he answered tentatively.

“I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't understand.”

Both man and woman frowned. She turned her head slightly, in confusion, then looked at the man and began speak quickly again. There was urgency in her voice, but not anger or fear.

“You are called what?”

She mouthed the words with a heavy accent, but Jattel was taken back that she knew his language. This was a land unknown to most of the world that he had grown up in and he had never heard of anyone who spoke as these people do.

“I am Jattel of Svartyr. And you?”

A smile spread across her face and she looked at the hulk of a man beside her and said something short to him. He continued to frown and Jattel could only guess that her short words were some sort of accusation.

“I am Thielathugra, but my husband calls me Thiela.”

Then she looked at the man with a stern eye and he sighed.

“Hello, Jattel. I am this woman's husband and they call me Gym.”

Though their accents were heavy, they spoke fluently. Jattel was at a loss, but Thiela didn't let him sit in silence long.

“You are welcome here, Jattel. My home is your home. Are you hungry? I have dinner. But you look cold. You must bath first. You are my guest, but even my guests will not dirty my home.”

She smiled a warm smile. Jattel then realized how he must smell after being at sea for so long, and as he thawed out on their rug, he dripped sea water.

Another, smaller voice sounded from behind Jattel.

“Ygo ete, vyndr?”

“Speak in his tongue, Hrothr; don't be rude!”

Gym's voice was gruff, hard, but the frown painted on his face was soft. He was a kind man, Jattel could see, even when he is being firm. The voice belonged to a boy who could not have been much younger than Jattel himself, perhaps a boy of 20 or so.

“Okay, father. But who is he? Why are we speaking in such a crude tongue?”

Gym turned to Jattel.

“Excuse my son, he is not well mannered.” then back to Hrothr, “Come now, show our guest the bathhouse. He smells like you after you've been mucking out the shed. Go on now.”

Hrothr rolled his eyes and said something in their language that Jattel didn't quite catch and began walking through the house.

“Go on, Jattel, follow him. He will show you where to clean and get ready for dinner.”

Thiela's voice was kind and motherly, a stark contrast to the gruffness of her husband's.

Jattel hurried through the house, barely taking in all of the intricate woodwork. His joints seemed to have frozen as he stood there near the fire and they felt like they were cracking as he hurried after Hrothr. A blast of cold wind struck Jattel in the face as Hrothr led him out a back door.

They approached a shed around the side of the house. Steam or smoke billowed out of the top of the shed through a small vent. Hrothr pulled open the door to the shed. It was dark inside until he lit a candle. It was odd how easily he lit the candle with a small wooden stick with a black tip. When he struck the stick against the wall of the shed, it flared up into a small, blue flame. Jattel had never seen anything so... magical. How odd it was. Jattel had never used anything but flint and steel to start fires.

The light cast by the candle illuminated an open room. There was a long bench that wrapped around three of the walls of the shed. The floorboards were spaced out so that you could almost see through them and steam rose up through the gaps of the flooring.

“Where does the steam come from?”

Hrothr smirked.

“Do you not have the Fjadytha Springs in Svartyr? With a name like that, I would assume its people know of the springs.”

“A name like what?”

“Svartyr, of course! That is an old Vytha dialect. My da' would know better, but it sounds a little like svetr, which means darkness. I would imagine the name of your forest must come from our language. I don't think any words really resemble it in the language you speak, and I know it resembles none of the words in the Docouveran tongue. They sound like they are slurring all of their syllables together when they talk....”

He stopped and looked at Jattel, inquiringly.

“I don't know. No one ever talks about the history of Svartyr.”

Hrothr shrugged.

“Well, either way. The hot springs under the earth are everywhere. You'll see entire towns built around the springs. But you need to take advantage of this and clean up. You look like you haven't bathed in months. Mother doesn't put up with dirt. She'll likely have me scrubbing that rug you and da' dirtied until sunrise. Anyway, I'll go get you some clean clothes. There are towels under the benches.”

Hrothr smiled, then turned and left Jattel to it.

Jattel began to strip off his tattered shirt when he felt a stabbing pain on his right shoulder blade. His shirt stuck to his back where blood had dried. His trousers weren't much different. They also stuck to his legs as he peeled them away. He was covered in blood. Then he took a seat on the bench at the far wall and breathed in the sharp scent of lemon. It was a steamy scent. Steam rose up beneath the boards and swirled in front of him, the smell of lemons filling his nostrils with every breath. It was pleasant and the steam formed sweat all over his body almost as soon as he had taken a seat. There was a long, wooden tool sitting on the bench beside him. It looked like a tool to help scrap the grime away, and Jattel picked it up and bagan doing just that. A months worth of blood and sea salt, all broken up and forming a sort of slime on his skin by the steam, easily washed away with a single swipe of the wooden scraper.

Jattel sat for what felt like hours in the steam, forgetting about the harsh winter outside, and a new sense of life seemed to fill him. The grime of the sea was wiped away and he was beginning to feel human again. His senses, which had previously been dulled by the crushing exhaustion of being at sea and fighting against the frozen spray of the wintering ocean. Sleep, at sea, was more arduous than being awake.

As his senses returned, a gnawing pain grew in his stomach. So much so that he began to feel sick. How long had it been since he had eaten even a scrap of bread? Three? Perhaps four days? He doubled over, closing his eyes and holding his stomach. Suddenly a weakness came over him and his muscled turned to jelly. He fell forward onto the slats of the floor in pain and felt the hot steam swirling around him. The pain gripped him like a knife cutting through his intestines and he lay there for what felt like hours. Eventually, though, the pain began to recede, but he remained motionless, not wanting to induce another spasm. He lay there and let the moments pass until finally he dared to move again, slowly and on guard for another wave of pain, but the pain didn't come, just an emptiness in his gut.

He stood and lifted the seat of the bench he had been sitting on and there were linens folded neatly inside. He let a smile creep onto his lips. The pleasure of seeing such a simple, beautiful thing as clean, white linens washed over him in a wave. He felt out of place here, but was willing to take full advantage of his hosts in their kindness. It was the first time he had seen clean cloth in years. He felt almost guilty as he wrapped one of the heavy linens around him. It clung to his body and he felt for a moment like a king with such niceties. The smell of lemons filled his nostrils again. Not only was the steam scented, but the towels seemed bathed in this lemony scent.

By the door exiting the little out-building was a stool. On it lay fresh clothes, neatly folded, and on a peg by the door hung a heavy wool cloak that had not been there before. Jattel hurriedly helped himself to the clothes, tugging them on. The fabric was a heavy wool that wicked away the steam and sweat that had already begun to form again on his skin after he had removed the towel. There was also a belt, which he strapped around his waist to keep his new trousers secure. The quality of his new garb was such that Jattel had never felt before. It was like a breath of fresh air after wearing the same scraps of cloth as he had for years. Under the stood there was also a slightly worn pair of boots, which he was happy to see pulled on snug, but not too snug.

The aching in his gut intensified and he worried that it would result in another bout of spasms. So he quickly threw the cloak around his shoulders and rushed out into the frozen air.

He was surprised to find that his new cloak kept all of his warmth close to him, and he didn't have to rush quite as much to get back inside with the family that had rescued him. He still walked quickly, hoping to beg for a scrap of bread from their table. They had been so generous already, but begging was not beneath Jattel at this point.

When he entered through the kitchen door, once again, a blast of heat hit him like a wall of bricks. It was a dry heat, unlike that of the steam room. He pulled his cloak from around his shoulders before he started to sweat again. It was odd to worry about sweating in the midst of the coldest winter he had ever felt.

“Jattel! Good boy. Come now, you must fill that empty belly. My husband here is loathe to wait another minute to eat, though his belly is already too full.”

She chuckled and patted her husband's belly, smiling with her sharp, blue eyes.

“Oh come now, woman. Let's eat. I am hungrier than the wolves this year!”

They were both smiling and Jattel could feel himself smiling along with them. Hrothr came bounding into the room a minute later.

“Fobürbrek umger?”

“Da, ygevang.”

Gym sat down by the fire in the great stone hearth in the main room of the house and it was then that Jattel noticed plates and utensils laid out around the fire. Four sets of cutlery and he didn't hesitate to take a seat between Gym and Hrothr, who were already reaching for the steaming bowls of meat and tubers sitting on stones by the fire. Jattel sat patiently, though his stomach protested loudly and threatened more waves of painful spasms.

“Come Jattel of Svartyr. Don't hesitate. My husband and son will eat everything here if you let them.”

She held out her hand and Jattel gave her his large, pewter plate. She swatted away her husband's hands from the meat bowls and dipped a healthy serving of meat onto his plate, then tore a large chunk of black bread from a large loaf, then filled the remaining space on his plate with tubers and carrots before handing his plate back to him.

The smell of roasted pork and vegetables filled his head with a dizziness that made him sway just a little. He decided it would be best to start with the bread. He took a bite from the large hunk of bread and the sweetness of it sent shivers down his spine. A warmth filled his belly and he couldn't stop himself from tearing into the bread like a wild beast.

“I may have misjudged my hunger, wife, it looks like our guest is hungrier than the winter wolves. Slow down now, Jattel of Svartyr. You'll be sick.”

Jattel tried to slow down, but the impulse to chew and swallow is a hard thing to stop when you are starving. He did eventually get his impulses under control and tried a bite of the dripping meat. The grease, the sweet joy that radiated through his mouth sent his head spinning again and he found himself swallowing before he had chewed the meat. Eventually, he was able to control himself again and he sat there taking more measure bites. Hrothr was laughing and gym smiling. Theila has a motherly concern about her, though she too was smiling.

“I'd say our guest should like something sweet to drink with all of that food. Hrothr, fetch the mead. It will do the boy some good after his travels.”

“Gym.” Theila looked disapprovingly at her husband. “Perhaps that should wait until he has recovered. Look at him, he's starving.”

Gym let out a guffaw and his smile only broadened.

“All the more reason to fill him with such a sweet nectar, my wife! It will help him sleep tonight, anyway!”

Hrothr came back carrying a heavy, clay pot with a cork in the top and handed it to his father. Gym proceeded to pour out a golden liquid into pewter cups, handing one to Hrothr, one to his wife, and finally one to Jattel. The aroma that hit Jattel was sweet, but also a little sour. He took a tentative sip of the liquid and fire rushed down his throat and filled his belly. It was so sweet that his tongue felt like it was about to burst and instantly dizziness hit him. His eyelids felt heavy and his smile came easier. His second drink was deeper, so deep in fact that he drained his cup. When he looked down at his plate, there was a piece of bread left, but before he could reach out to take it, he felt darkness closing in and sleep rushed in like a tide rising.

“Jattel!” the whisper came harsh and cold from the lips of the old man. “You sleep now in comfort, but soon comes day that you sleep under the hedge, soon comes the day that you fear for your next meal. Prepare yourself, Traveler. Soon comes the day.”

The cuts burned into Jattel's chest flared up and the heat was excruciating. He sat up in a cold sweat and the burning almost immediately subsided. The words of the old man still rattled in his mind. He pulled away his new shirt to see that the scar had reddened, but was fading once again to the look of an old, worn scar. The first man. rueska. Sleeping under hedges. It wasn't as if Jattel was unaccustomed to that lifestyle. He had been sleeping under hedges more often than he liked over the past few years, but something in the old man's voice impressed upon Jattel with a terrible dread. Gym and his family couldn't know about this or they would surely kick him out of their care, so he laced up his shirt and swung his legs over the edge of the feather-filled mattress.

His boots sat there beside his bed, so he tugged them on and then saw a basin of steaming water on a small table on the opposite side of the room. It was an odd feeling to have such small comforts. He quickly washed his fash in the water and pushed back his mass of hair on his head. It would be good to have a set of shears to cut the cumbersome hair away. Perhaps his hosts... no. Jattel couldn't ask Gym and his family for more than they had already given him. It was more than anyone had given him in his entire life. He wouldn't start taking more than his due now.

After he was finished washing up, he went out of his room into a dimly lit hallway and heard sounds of Hrothr and his mother chattering away in their own tongue, and he followed the sounds of their voices until he happened upon the familiar kitchen. A yawn suddenly crept up on him as he walked into the room and he stretched out his tired muscles, still aching from the hard three days he spent at sea.

“Jattel! Good morning! Would you like something to eat?”

“Ma', look at him. He's still half asleep. Don't assault our guest so early with food.”

Hrothr's voice was playful and both were smiling broadly at each other.

“He needs his strength, Hrothr. And you know better than anyone about eating, just like your father!” she turned her smile to Jattel and said, “Here, Jattel of Svartyr. Sit. I will fetch you some bread and cream.”

She sat a dark, sweet-smelling lump of bread in front of Jattel on a pewter plate, and a small bowl of cream next to it. The cream smelled of honey and the bread smelled of berries. His first bite was much larger than he intended and he realized how hungry he actually was. He scarfed down the bread, then lifted the bowl of cream to his lips and began to take a sip. Hrothr was eyeing him with one brow lifted.

“You are drinking the cream? That is odd. It is better that way traveler?”

Jattel almost choked on the cream when the boy pronounced the word traveler. He said it with the same accent on the 'a' that the old man in his dreams pronounced it. The runes in his chest felt a little warm at that thought, but so did Jattel's face. It was nothing.

“Traveler? Why do you call me that?”

Hrothr was taken aback and his face shifted from inquiry to confusion.

“Well, because that is what you are! You are a traveler and it is good to call a thing what it is, right?”

“Now, Hrothr, be kind. He doesn't know our ways.”

“Do they not call things what they are where you are from Jattel of Svartyr?”

Jattel hesitated.

“Of course, but normally we just call someone by their name. I'm sorry. It just, I am unaccustomed....”

“Oh now, look what you've done Hrothr. Apologize! He is our guest.”

Hrothr rolled his eyes with a smile. Then enunciated his words very specifically.

“I am sorry Jattel of Svartyr if I offended you. We will have to talk later. I want to know about where you're from, but for now, my da' needs me in the field. He likes to get the field ready, even before the ice has thawed.” Hrothr got up to leave, but as he was wrapping his cloak around his shoulders, he turned back to Jattel and said, “But just so you know, it is better if you dip the bread in the cream and eat it that way!” And he walked off with a broad smile on his face.

There was another piece of the sweet bread in front of him when Jattel looked back to his plate and Theila was smiling a motherly smile as she continued to wash the plates from the night before in a basin of steaming water.

“Thank you,” he started, “for the bed and the clothes. It has been too long since I have met the kindness of strangers. I thought surely that I was going to die when my skiff washed ashore, but your husband... thank you.”

Thiela stopped what she was doing and turned to Jattel with that same motherly smile.

“If he had not helped you, he would have had to face my wrath when he returned home. It is the way here that we help travelers.”

The scar flared up as Jattel flinched from the word. He was frowning and Theila's smile shifted to concern.

“Is something wrong Jattel?”

He looked up at her, surprised, then said, “No, no. I mean, yes. I don't know how to repay your kindness. Where I am from, there is no kindness as you have shown me.”

Her worry turned back into a smile again, something Jattel had grown unaccustomed to in the years passed.

“There is no need to repay. We give freely to you, Jattel. You will need to decide what it is that you are to do next, however. Why have you come to Vythafjora?”

Jattel thought for a moment before answering.

“I don't know. I wasn't exactly planning to come here at all. The ship that I was on sunk and I was able to find that skiff before the ship went down. This is Vytha... what is this land called again?”

She laughed before answering.

“Vythafjora. In truth that is just what we call it here. There are many different people in this land who call it something entirely different. There is even a city where people speak your language better than myself or Gym could ever hope to. It is a city to the North where much trade is done. But many throughout Vythafjora know your language well enough. I only learned it because my father was a trader before he passed. All of the merchants in Vythafjora know your language well so that they can haggle for the best prices. But my native tongue is Vytha, those in the North call is Vysha.” She laughed at herself before going on, “Oh but I babble on. Tell me, what kind of land is Svartyr? And how is it, with a name like that you know nothing of the Vythafjora lands?”

Jattel frowned.

“Svartyr? It was my home before... well, before the empire came. What do you mean with a name like that?”

She looked surprised.

“Well it is a word in Vytha, of course! It means dark or darkness. Is it a dark land?”

“Oh, no. Well yes, it is a place within the Svartyr Forest. So I suppose it could be called dark. But no, we don't have stories of Vythafjora. Before the empire came, we were just a small, quiet people. The stories we tell are from before there was an empire to the West or the Kingdoms of Docouver to the East. Our stories have no mention of another land. Especially one this far away. It took me three months to make it to the sea, then another two months of travel on the seas before my ship sunk. I was on that skiff for three days before your husband rescued me.”