© 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.