Midwinter Requiem, Part One

When I started with Tellest, it soon became something that I wanted other people to play in.  I’d go to people for advice, I’d create characters for people, and in some occasions, I’d even get some people to add their own creations to Tellest.  We’ve already got a few of them for the first phase of our big push, from Nace Phlaux and Aaron Canton, but this story marks the first time my wife has utilized her talent for our fantasy universe.

I won’t say too much but to express how proud I am of Rhianna.  She was very nervous to get these words out, and I think that once they did, it proved that she had the ability to share an interesting tale. Without further adieu, here is the first part of her story, Midwinter Requiem.

 

Midwinter Requiem
A Story by Rhianna DeAngelo
-Part One-

 

Flecks of silver snow drifted over the golden glow of the bonfire built between the three hunting brothers of the Coldwhistle Clan. The night air blew cold through the low valley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides.  The smell of ash and pine filled their nostrils as they sat, absently gazing into the flames.  Baldur, the youngest of the dwarven band, gulped greedily at the leather skin of ale his eldest brother handed him.

“Easy, lad,” said Einar with a mischievous smirk, barely visible under the black braids of his grey-streaked beard.  “Yer likely to put the fire out if you canna steady those shakin’ hands of yers.  An’ there’s no tragedy so terrible as wasted ale.”

The middle brother, Gudbrand, leered reproachfully at Einar through the disheveled raven hair that slightly obscured his vision.  “I don’t think it’s the cold that has him shakin’, brother.  The lad’s felled his first beast today.”  His dark green eyes met his youngest brother’s from across the fire.

“That tender heart of yours will harden when the hunger sets in.  You’ve done well, Baldur, for bein’ such a young whelp.”

Baldur wiped the ale from his auburn stubble and looked at the motionless face of the small white fox, bound tightly with ropes and pelts atop the pile of dead creatures stacked neatly in their oak sled.  The elder dwarves laid claim to the mound of stag, bore, and goat carcasses that would feed the clan for at least a fortnight in the Frostveil, while he contributed only one small beast.  The creature’s black eyes glowed red from the fire light, and Baldur looked away, ashamed.

“I’m not bothered, ye old codgers,” he said defensively, giving Einar a light punch in the arm.  “It’s… It’s only the cold.”

Gudbrand looked up from sharpening the stone tips of his arrows and gave Baldur a harsh look.  “Ye don’t know what cold is yet, laddy.”

Einar gave an incomprehensible grunt of agreement and swept away the light dusting of snow on the ground to reveal a few blades of green grass.  “This is as mild weather for hunting beyond the mountain I’ve seen in twenty years or so.  See?  The ponies can still feed themselves, and they’ll be nice and strong to pull our bounty back to the Frostveil.  A fine feast we’ll be havin’ when we bring this lot back.  Mmm, I can already smell the mutton!”  His eyes wrinkled into a happy squint beneath his bushy eyebrows.

Gudbrand shook a newly sharpened arrow tip at Einar and sighed deeply.  “You know, you’re the eldest.  You should be tellin’ the lad tales of the clan, not fillin’ his head with thoughts of food and the comforts of home.”

Einar’s eyes grew slightly sad, and he looked up at the soft glow of the moon through the billowing clouds, watching the snow dance lightly against the black night sky.  “Goddess willing ye both live as many winters as I, and you’ll find your thoughts always find a way back home.”

Eager for the distraction and emboldened by the ale, Baldur looked pleadingly at his eldest brother.  “Go on then; tell me a tale of the clan. One mother might have blessed herself at hearing.”

Einar bellowed a hearty laugh.  “Bless her memory, you might not have known the woman long, but she certainly kept you close to her teats while she had ye.”

The wind howled sharply as the three brothers fell silent, each lost in their own remembrance.

“All right, lad, I’ll tell you the tale… the tale of our first queen.”

Baldur arched an eyebrow.  “We had a queen?  I thought all the clans are ruled by kings.”

Einar nodded with an annoyed grunt.  “Aye, they are now, and for a reason.  But if you don’t shut yer mouth, you’ll never hear the truth of why we’re called the Coldwhistle Clan.”

 

*             *             *             *             *

The torchlight flicked through the corridors of the great hall, where the entire clan gathered around the deep hearth embedded within the stone ground.  Queen Ylva, seated upon the large oak throne, draped in furs and surrounded by antlers of a great number of beasts, looked up when she heard the knock at the door.  “Halvard,” she said gently, noticing her husband had his large hands wrapped tightly around the axe at his side.

He answered her summons, quickly stepping away from his seat near the fire, where he and his hunters enjoyed the spoils of their latest prize. Halvard was the antithesis of his wife in every way.  His long raven hair and deep brown eyes contrasted with her light auburn curls and icy blue orbs.  Ylva’s eyes, they said, were unlike any dwarf that had ever lived to that time and perhaps one reason the elders chose her as queen—as if they were a gift from the celestial gods themselves.

“Halvard, my love, open the door.”

The urgent rapping resounded through the halls again, and that time, the dwarves fell silent, as they were not used to unexpected arrivals in their sanctuary, carved deep into the Frostveil Mountain.  Halvard whispered softly to his wife so her ears alone could hear his protest.

“We’ve never had a knock in the dead of winter that meant good news.  I say we keep them locked.  Even if they mean us no harm, we canna feed a spare belly with the winter this harsh.”

Ylva’s kindness was known to all her people and even to the neighboring dwarves along the foothills.  They said her smile could convince the sun to rise at midnight and her singing could silence a thunderstorm.  But the fire in her blue eyes could shake the bones of even the most seasoned warrior, and her husband was no stranger to her fierce gaze.  “Friend or foe, I won’t have ye dooming whoever’s out there to die of cold because you can’t be bothered to eat one less haunch of yer precious mutton.  Now open the door.”

Ylva’s eyes betrayed her, showing worry through her mask of resolve.  Both knowing he dared not disobey an order from his queen, he nodded in agreement and walked to the entrance with four of his guardsmen at his side, as it took that many dwarves to open the huge double doors that rose to meet the vaulted ceiling.  Gripping his axe tightly, he gave the command and stood in the middle of the two sets of men, whose arms struggled to fight the wind blowing through the crevice.  The shadow of a hooded figure rose through the halls as the stranger stumbled towards Halvard, who grabbed the hilt of axe and braced himself to receive the impact of the impending attack.  Instead, the stranger collapsed in his arms.

Gently pulling the tattered brown hood aside, the clan mumbled as the frail frame of an old pale woman was revealed. She was too thin and lanky to be a dwarf, but her long white hair and grey-hued skin looked less than human.

“Get her to the fire, and bring some furs!” Halvard commanded.  They carried her to the hearth and lay her on a bed of hides near the pit.  Murmurs resounded through the halls, and the dwarves whispered amongst themselves the puzzling question of how such a weak woman could have made the journey up the mountain.  It appeared she arrived with only the thin brown garb covering her otherwise naked body.  The bones were visible through her sallow, wrinkled skin. The weather alone should have killed her, but walking up the hundred ice-slicked stairs to enter their halls was nearly impossible without a sturdy mount.  Dwarves crowding to get a look at the stranger parted as Ylva made her way through the onlookers, holding her own serving of supper to offer to the woman.  Halvard pushed through the dwarves to stand by her side.

“Can you hear me?” Ylva said gently, kneeling next to the woman and placing a hand gently on her shoulder.

As if startled by a great thunder clap, the old woman bolted up and stared at Ylva, who gasped when she saw the woman had one blue eye similar to her own and one blind eye, clouded white and locked, perpetually looking upwards.  The woman inhaled deeply with a pitiful wheeze.

“I’ve heard your call through the night, in my dreams, and I’ve quivered and shivered to hear it aloud,” the woman said quickly, tilting her head side to side like a confused puppy.  Never taking her eye off Ylva’s, she sniffed the air and lunged at the bread and meat with her gnarled fingers.  The few teeth in her mouth were clearly sharp as she shredded through the tender steak.

Regaining her composure, Ylva leaned away from the woman and straightened her posture.   “Have we met before?”

The woman laughed heartily, spraying bits of meat into the fire.  “I have seen your apparition on the wind, and we’ve danced in the light of the moon while I slept.  But never have you seen me until this night the goddess decrees, and she has shed her light so you may shed your skin.”

Halvard stepped between the woman and his wife, breaking the hypnotic hold she seemed to have forged.  “Enough nonsense, ye old hag.  You’re clearly mad as a crow in a cage.  Eat your fill and back outside with ye.”

She dropped to her hands and knees and leaned around Halvard to look once more at Ylva in wonder, as if seeing her for the first time. Her voice took on a gentle, childlike tone.

“You have shown me kindness in the darkness of this night, and for your hospitality, you shall receive three gifts.  The first is a prophecy forged in fire, the second a warning sealed in ice, and the third a sacrifice cleansed in blood.”  The woman, still on all fours, sunk low to the fire pit and blew hard at the embers. The red flecks flew into the air and billowed up towards the great rounded dome of the ceiling. The torchlight dimmed and a collective gasp was heard as the embers cast unnatural shadows on the stone walls, resembling a harsh blizzard.  The shadows of stags and boars fighting the winds could be seen in the dark theater the witch cast on the walls.

“A storm comes to cover the land and bury the living.  You must hasten, tonight, and journey beyond the mountain to hunt your game, for in three days time these walls shall entomb you and the sun shall shine on your frozen graves.  You will be lost to history, an echo in a valley, a shadow on the wall at dawn.”

The woman shrieked like a wounded animal as Halvard grabbed a handful of her thin white hair and held the sharp end of his axe to her neck.  “I’ll not have ye curse my clan with yer foul sorcery!  I ought ta throw ye into the fire and rid the air of your evil stench.”

Ylva grabbed the hilt of her husband’s axe and shoved him roughly away from the cowering woman, who cried painful sobs and cradled her head in her hands.  “You dare threaten our guest with murder, husband, for telling us what we already know?”

Halvard sighed deeply, still adopting a stance ready for attack.  “My queen, the woman has a dark presence; I feel it in me bones.  She needs to be cast into the flames or back into the cold, but I won’t be sharing the same roof as this witch.”

“You need not.  Gather your lads; you begin your hunt tonight.  Leave now, and gather what game you can before the next dawn.”

Halvard looked aghast.  “Never thought I’d see the day our queen took commands from a mad woman.”

“I am not taking commands.  I am giving them.”  Ylva’s booming voice shook the halls, and all the clan fell silent. She bit her lip slightly, as she often did to quell her own temper, and gently placed her hand on her husband’s arm.

“This woman told us nothing we did not already suspect.  As you said, we could barely feed the clan as it is.  Whether she is right or wrong about the storm, you need to bulk up our winter stores, and quickly.  I would rather be cautious and heed her warning than be known as the queen that murdered a frail old woman for some distasteful use of shadow puppetry.”

With a silent bow, he backed away, flanked by his hunting party to prepare for the journey.  Ylva had wounded his pride, but she knew her husband to act on instinct rather than considering the greater good.  The old woman crouched by her leg and placed a thin hand on her velvety sleeve.

“He sees your heart as you see his,” she said in a sing-song voice.

Ylva gave the woman a stern look.  “I have saved your life twice since you entered my halls.  I pray you don’t disappoint me.”

The woman sucked in a deep breath and smiled widely.  “Pray and pray you must, for she shall hear.  The moon above always listens.  She hears you sing, and she hears you weep.  She hears our truth; she sees our lies.  She curses us and blesses us and tells us when to die.”

“Enough.  Eat your fill, and rest for the night.”

Ylva left the woman, who occupied herself by the fire, gnawing at the bones from her dinner.  The queen stood at the entrance of the great wood corridor where the hunters would pass with their tacked up ponies.  In a few moments she heard the clamber of hooves echoing up the corridor.  When Halvard rode up with his chestnut steed, she grabbed the horse’s reins and veered the beast off to the side, forcing Halvard along.  He dismounted when he saw the worry in her bright blue eyes.  His wide arms encircled her so tightly she could feel the bowstring slung around his shoulder dig into the exposed flesh by her neck.  She returned his embrace just as faithfully.

“Come home to me, you great stubborn fool.”

He harrumphed.  “I’m the stubborn one, ye say?  I say yer head’s made of rock so hard the mountains are jealous, but by the gods, it’s why I love ye.”

She smiled and gave him a deep kiss on the lips.

He placed his calloused hand gently on the side of her head and traced her jawline down to rest right above her heart.  “I’ll always find my way to you, Ylva.  You need not worry about that.  But promise me you’ll stay clear of that woman while I’m gone, or I’ll be laying awake at night in worry.  An’ we both know how I need me beauty sleep.”

She stood on her toes to place a kiss on his forehead, where they stayed in a moment with a silent farewell.

The band of brothers rode out into the night, and she saw the moonlight illuminate the wildly dancing snowfall.  The dwarves at her sides moved to close the doors, but she stayed them with a delicate hand gesture.  She stood in the doorway and sang a low and ancient song of her people, to bless their journey and ensure their safe trip home.

 

Through valleys deep and roads long

I pray my love ride hard and strong

Spirits inside, hear my voice guide

My clan home where they belong

 

When she completed her song, she nodded to the men to close the doors, but as she did, the frail woman ran out into the night, carting stolen furs in tow.  Ylva shook her head, astonished at the crazed actions of the strange woman.

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Michael DeAngelo

Michael DeAngelo

Michael is the creator of the Tellest brand of fantasy novels and stories. He is actively seeking to expand the world of Tellest to be accessible to everyone.
Michael DeAngelo

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