© 2010 Mike Schulenberg
A mythic fantasy piece written in November 2010 and entered in the 11th Annual Short Short Story Competition hosted by Writer’s Digest.
“Spring has not come,” Harek said to the assembled warriors. “Winter should no longer be upon us, but the winds only grow colder and our village lies buried in snow. Who among us will go to the valley of Svala the Spring-Daughter and ask why we are cursed?”
Jorund edged closer to the fire pit, seeking warmth against the cold seeping through the oaken walls. A silence fell, broken only by the wind wailing outside, the groan of timber, the occasional cough of a man made sick by the prolonged winter. He understood why no one spoke. The gods punished those who ventured into the sacred places of the earth.
Places like the Valley of the Spring-Daughter.
“Skolgrim, you are the bravest of us,” Harek said. “Will you go?”
Skolgrim stood on the other side of the fire pit, arms folded across his chest, a dour look on his face. He shifted uneasily.
“I will not,” he said at last, his voice rumbling and deep like distant snow falling in the mountains.
A low muttering rose from the other warriors. Jorund did not join them, though he shared their disbelief. Who among them had courage enough for the journey, if not Skolgrim?
Harek waited until they fell silent. “You would remain here and deny us a warrior’s death?”
“You know as well as I the ways of the gods and their vengeance. You ask one of us to anger them further and bring ruin to his immortal spirit. Why do you not go?”
Harek pointed to the wall where a collection of shields, axes, and swords gleamed in the firelight. “Because I am too old to wield these weapons that now hang useless in my hall. I would die in the snow before reaching the Valley.” He shook his head and regarded the other men. “Surely there is one among us who will go?”
The warriors exchanged nervous glances.
Jorund ran his fingers along his forearm, feeling the roughness of his scars, sifting through fractured memories. Wolf jaws savaging his flesh. His fingers fumbling for his knife. Blood, bright against the snow, then stillness. The misty shores of the afterworld, yet the gods spared him the crossing. Proof that they honored courage.
Perhaps they would do so a second time.
He approached the platform where Harek waited. “I will go.”
Cheers thundered in the great hall. Each of the warriors came forward, clapping him on the shoulder or clasping forearms with him.
But not Skolgrim, still in his place by the fire pit, glowering.
* * *
Cursing the spirits of ice and snow, Jorund drew his cloak tighter about him. A bitter wind blew down from the mountains, howling among the trees of the lower slopes, battering him so that he had to lean into it to keep trudging forward. The snow stung his flesh and eyes. When he surveyed the horizon, he could no longer tell the difference between earth and sky, nor could he make out the banks of the frozen river that guided him east toward the Valley of the Spring-Daughter.
He stopped to reorient himself, dismayed that the storm had already devoured his trail, save for the last few footprints, and soon even these would be lost to the wind.
In the distance, something moved and flickered in the swirling waste.
Shielding his eyes with numb fingers, he squinted into the snow, trying to get a sense of what it might be and if it followed him. But when the cold began to bite too deep and he did not glimpse it again, he turned and pushed onward, weary of winter storms and the illusions they conjured.
* * *
Jorund sank to his knees beside the corpse of Svala the Spring-Daughter, the tears freezing on his cheeks. She lay twisted and half-buried in the snow, her golden hair caked with rubies of hardened blood, a sword thrust through her with its hilt pointed skyward. A layer of ice entombed her and encrusted the sword, bonding them together. The snow shrouded part of her face so that only one eye was visible, deep green in color, bulging in frozen terror.
“I…I tried to pull the blade out of her afterwards.” A familiar voice broke the silence, rumbling and heavy with remorse. “But the ice magic seized her and trapped my sword when she died. I could not wrest it from her. The hilt pulled the skin from my hand when I finally let go.”
Jorund whirled and faced him. “Why? Why would you do this?”
The other man avoided his gaze. “I only wanted to see the truth of the Spring-Daughter’s beauty. I did not mean her harm. But when I saw her, I…I went mad. I had to possess her. She ran, screaming, and I caught her. She struck me. I do not remember drawing my sword, but I remember what happened…what happened after.” His voice broke and he looked away.
“Do you know what you have done?” Jorund’s voice trembled. “Her mother is of the gods, and now they have cursed us all!” He pointed an accusing finger. “You…you must tell Harek. You must make this right.”
Skolgrim’s face darkened. “No. No one must know of this.” He drew his sword, the rasp of iron harsh in the cold, crisp air. “I will not allow my disgrace to become my family’s.”
“And I will not allow Svala to go unavenged.” Jorund ripped his own sword from its sheath. “Perhaps your death will mend what you have broken.”
Beneath the heavy clouds of a sunless sky, the two warriors circled and slashed at each other like wolves with iron fangs. Jorund stepped to one side, his sword arcing toward his enemy. Skolgrim sprang backward as the blade swept past, missing him, pulling his attacker off-balance. Jorund’s foot slipped on a patch of ice and he landed on his back. Rolling sideways, he scrambled to his feet and tried to bring his sword up before his enemy reached him.
Skolgrim’s blade sliced through his belly.
Falling to one knee, Jorund clutched at the wound with his free hand. Blood gushed between his fingers and his strength began to abandon him. Darkness swirled around the edges of his vision.
Skolgrim stood over him, raising his weapon for the final thrust, his expression one of grief. Uncertainty.
The point of his sword wavered.
Jorund tried to get to his feet, but his limbs would not obey him. His gaze fell upon Svala, lying still, frozen, dead.
Red rage blasted the darkness from his vision, gathered what remained of his strength, lifted his sword from the snow, drove it through Skolgrim’s ribs.
His eyes widening, Skolgrim took a faltering step backward and collapsed, twitching until he lay still.
Jorund left his sword sheathed in Skolgrim’s flesh. He crawled toward Svala, bleeding, the coldness of death creeping into his limbs. If he built a pyre for her, he might bring peace to her restless spirit—perhaps even moving the gods to lift their curse from the world of men—and the flames would warm him for a while. But he could not even summon the strength to stand, much less to gather wood from the valley.
So he knelt before her, head bowed, eyes closed, mourning her, mourning his people, until a warm wind blew strands of hair across his face.
A warm wind?
He opened his eyes. Svala had vanished, leaving no trace of her passing. The sword that killed her stood with its point buried in the earth, marking the place where she had died. A patch of grass surrounded it, green and bending in the wind, sprinkled with wildflowers about to bloom. Above him, shafts of golden sunlight streamed through the breaking clouds, sweeping slowly across the valley.
He lay down in the grass, smiling, until the mists of the afterworld embraced him and he bled no more.
Mike, this is really good! Have you written more? I really like your writing style!
Thanks very much, Laird…I really appreciate the compliments 😀
I currently don’t have anything else ready for people to read. I have a first draft of another short story set in the same world as “The Valley of the Spring-Daughter,” and some solid ideas for another story to go with them.
I have a finished first draft of a novel and that’s what I mostly work on. I’m taking taking through a course that teaches a particular process for revising a novel, since I’ve never done one before. It’s a lot of work and going slower than I would like, but I’m excited about what I could end up with.
What is the class? Is it online?
I like it so far. It’s a very meticulous and thorough approach and is proving to be rather work intensive for me because my book is actually fairly long. But I’m learning a lot of good stuff and feel like this course will help make my first book one that’s worth people’s time.
that looks comprehensive. I might have to check it out (after I finish this draft!)
It’s extremely comprehensive. Just trying to work through everything is probably teaching me more about writing a book than I realize.
The author is currently in the middle of transitioning her courses so that they’ll be available as ebooks or something, instead of the format they’re currently in. She loves helping writers, but she wants to get back into writing pretty much full time, so she’s gradually adjusting her materials into a format that will allow her to do that.
I’m not actually sure what that means down the line for new students, since I’ve been around for a while. As long as the actual course materials are still available, and there’s still a forum where students can hang out and ask questions, it should still be good.
With this course, Holly isn’t teaching the one true way of revising a book. She lays out the entire process that she uses to revise a book. I’m learning to revise a novel for the very first time. I like having a detailed process laid out that I know works for at least somebody, and then diverging from there if it feels natural to do so.
I definitely think a “system” would be helpful. Hopefully, I will be editing soonish. Rather than laterish.
I think a “system” is very helpful, particularly if one has never revised a novel before. It’s still early for me, but Holly’s system breaks the process into three main stages.
First there’s a huge assessment stage where you go through your book, think about what you wanted, analyze what you ended up with, and decide where you want it to go. I’m still on this stage and have a boatload of notes, and tons of ideas for cool fixes I might want to do.
The second stage appears to be where you make a lot of decisions to formulate a plan for implementing the revision.
The third stage seems to be where you put your plan into action.
This is my first book, and this course has been a lot of work and real slow going. But apparently after getting a couple of books under one’s belt, the process condenses into a much shorter time frame. I wonder if part of that might be because after doing a couple of revisions, you subconsciously learn a lot of stuff that helps your first drafts end up with more of the elements they need?
I would have to imagine that first drafts of second and third books are much better than first drafts of first books. I would hope, anyway. I’m going to check out her course. It sounds great.
Definitely let me know if you do. We could be revision buddies or something.
I definitely will! You are a bit ahead of me, though. I am only halfway done with draft 1!
Great story. Too bad they forced such a short entry. can’t wait to see something longer.
Hi, Jenn…thanks for dropping by!
Yeah, that was so hard squeezing a story into such a tiny space. I can’t wait to be finished with something longer 😉
Very good Oz… loved it. Keep writing, even if its slow coming, it will be worth it.
Hey, Justin…thanks for the compliment and the encouragement. I’m definitely going to keep at it 🙂
Very impressive! Beautiful writing with a nice balance of description, action and dialogue. Even in this short piece you created an atmosphere of mystery and magic.
By gosh, I think you’re onto something here! 🙂
Thanks very much, Kirsten. I appreciate the compliments 🙂
Wow. The descriptions really set the reader in the story. You are a talented writer, Mike. I look forward to seeing more, hopefully in the near future.
Thanks, Sara…I really appreciate that 🙂
Really nicely written 1500 word story. You know you could expand it and put it on Smashwords for $.99. I understand they are good sellers (short stories and novellas) and I’m sure yours would be. You could expand the upfront story-to get the reader invested in the clan and more about Svala and the curse–it’s something I would pay 99c to read.
Thank you very much for the wonderful comment. I actually do have some plans to expand it into a longer story and possibly including it as part of a small collection of related stories, although it’s more of a side-project while I work on my novel.
Is http://coraramosdotorg.wordpress.com/ the location of your blog? I’m trying to subscribed to it via RSS feed, but am getting a loading error.
No, I can’t figure out why that keeps popping up. I don’t have an active blog on WordPress. I think you already signed onto my blog, but in case you need clarification it is: http://coraramos-cora.blogspot.com/
Thanks! I actually found it yesteray–I think in one of the docs in the WANA112 Facebook group. I’m subscribed to the RSS feed 🙂
Mike I thoroughly enjoyed your story and agree with the earlier comments- I would gladly buy something longer. Even with this short piece you’ve managed to evoke so much atmosphere and hinted at depths of character which must be explored. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for reading and for the nice comment. It means a lot and I appreciate everyone who has dropped by to visit me here 🙂
I really enjoyed your story Mike. The echo from Norse lands of long ago is something which really appeals to me. It carries with it the promise of rugged lands, ice and snow, crafted swords which have names and personalities, strange and vengeful gods – it sends shivers down my spine 🙂
The clarity of your prose gives clear pictures in my mind, and the colour you paint in here and there I found exquisite. It was like looking at a painting whilst reading a story. I could feel the wind and the cold, the smell of snow was with me. It comes close to poetry in places.
It was as if I was there, and could believe it happened. That’s magical – when I feel that an author is writing down what really happened 🙂
Thanks for sharing your work Mike. I’d certainly like to read more.
Wow, Prue…thanks for all that. What wonderful compliments 🙂
Yeah, there’s something about Norse imagery that really speaks to me too. And after seeing some of Norway, I think I understand where some of that stuff comes from. It’s pretty easy to get in touch with feelings of ancient wonder when sitting alone in quiet mountain places there, even if there’s a Burger King close by nowadays 😉
I loved this! Very Nordic – it reminded me of the Norwegian folk tales I read when I was a teenager. I would love to read a longer version, as well. Poor Jorund – I kept wanting him to be saved for bringing justice for Svala, but it is a beautiful death scene you wrote.
Thanks very much for the kind words, Lara 🙂
Yeah, I used to love reading Norse myths when I was a teenager. I always thought they were fascinating with a lot of compelling imagery.
And I suppose it was sad what happened to Jorund, but he did a noble thing and saved everyone, so that’s a good thing 🙂
It’s a cool world you’ve created, and the story was nicely told. Thanks for putting it out there where we could see it.
Thanks very much for taking the time to read it and to comment. I really appreciate it 🙂
I liked the twist (wasn’t expecting it at all, but you set it up well so when I got to it, it was like, “oh, of course!”). Thanks for sharing!
I’m glad you liked it. Thanks very much for the compliment 🙂
Great short, Mike. I’m a huge fan of dark writing. And you’ve done a brilliant job of world-building with your use of visuals and emotions. I agree with commenter, Prue. You’ve got clarity and poetry in your prose. From one author to another, well done! I’ll be looking for more from you. 😉
Hi Jenn…thanks very much for dropping by and leaving such a nice comment. I’m looking forward to reading one of your books and checking out your work when I finally finish what I’m currently reading 🙂
Whomever reads this should do so aloud. I read it to my younger son and it has a great flow, and rythm going. I wish someone would read it to me! Great job!
Wow, thanks very much for the wonderful compliment 🙂
okay, my son had just one complaint (he’s seven), where are the pictures?!?! we’ll be reading this again tonight before bed, looking forward to it!
I’d love to have the skills of an artist so I can illustrate my own fiction. But maybe one of these days I can find a couple of appropriate images on the net and borrow them for my story, with proper credit, of course 🙂
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I love this, Mike. I can’t wait to read more of your work. 🙂
Thanks very much, Rhonda 🙂 I wish my current stuff would come together as easily as that one did, but I’m still plugging away at it.