Friday, April 24, 2009

The Third Knot

Please forgive any obvious typos; though the idea had a lot of time to percolate, I only cranked the text out in one evening to make the contest. Inspired by this Friday Challenge.

Update April 27, 2009: Ran a quick copy edit, but left other desired improvements alone since this entry has already been judged. Turns out we have a winner!

Hours had passed since the sun had finally ceased its attempts to penetrate the thick gloom of the woods, languishing slowly in the west until admitting defeat altogether and plunging the forest into utter darkness. Despite lack of vision, Arne Icehawk trudged along the forest path, one had gripping the haft of his battle-axe, the other poking at the ground with a make-shift staff so as to avoid turning an ankle on a tree root. The barbarian warrior had decided to travel through the night; he refused to stop until he had put the witch’s domain far behind him.

The moon rose and seemed to succeed where its brother had failed. Thin, silver threads pierced the fabric of the canopy and illuminated the pale dirt of the forest path with a white glow, though the forest to either side remained buried in shadow. Icehawk was glad for this lucky omen of the gods’ favor, but his mood failed to lighten along with the path, because by this time Arne was certain that he was being followed.

His pursuer was skilled at avoiding detection, quite possibly as good as the barbarian himself. Icehawk had not been named after the bear nor the lynx; his warrior name was that of the raptor, who surveyed its quarry from afar. Icehawk’s familiarity with tracking a foe had heightened his awareness of the pitfalls that could indicate a shadow.

He had first noticed the owls. The cantankerous fowl would hoot with irritation as Arne walked by, then again after he had walked on for a several minutes. He began listening carefully to the chirping of the night insects, noting any identifiable calls. They silenced themselves as he passed by, then resumed their song immediately. But when he would get one hundred yards further, that patch would quiet again. At turns in the path he attempted to glance casually over his shoulder, but he couldn’t be sure whether he saw a shadow duck behind a bush or step under a tree, or if his paranoia was creating movement in his mind.

He angrily wondered where Jarl had gone. He had whistled for his pet when he had reached the edge of the forest, but no sign of the eagle could be seen. He felt half-blind without his Eyes in the Sky. Not only could Jarl have been sent to confirm his suspicions, the bird probably would have alerted him of the shadowy tail long before Arne himself had become aware of it.

Finally, a bend in the road gave the warrior the opportunity he needed. After turning through the bend, Arne waited several moments and then peered around the side of a tree up the path from which he had come. He saw nothing on the softly illumined path. Just when he had decided that perhaps his unease was nothing more than a lingering aftereffect of his meeting with the Seer, a cloaked figure emerged from the darkness at the side of the path, perhaps sixty yards away, and began walking slowly down the path towards him. His heart thumping loudly in his ears from a sudden burst of adrenaline, Icehawk crept carefully back around the corner and then jogged down the path to gain some distance from his pursuer. Up ahead, the way turned once more, offering him the perfect opportunity to slip behind his tail. He found an inconspicuous spot and crouched, waiting to get a good view of the cloaked figure as he passed him on the path.

The seconds passed by like hours. Icehawk knew that the person tracking him was moving cautiously, hoping to keep enough distance between them to avoid detection. More than likely he had reached the turn in the path by now and was circumspectly peeking ahead to make certain Arne was not too close. He would see nothing but an empty path and assume that Arne had already rounded the bend.

As if on cue, a shadow blossomed from the tree at the bend and coalesced into the form of his cloaked pursuer. The figure progressed slowly and carefully down the path. Unfortunately because of the cloak’s heavily drawn hood and billowy wrap, Arne ascertained nothing of the person as he passed. The barbarian warrior shifted not an ounce of his weight, turning only his eyes to follow the cloaked shadow until it had cautiously traversed beyond the second turn. Then he moved carefully after it, now the hunter instead of the hunted.

Suddenly a shout rang out ahead, and he heard the scuffling of feet moving rapidly on the path. Icehawk used the cover noise to quickly race ahead so he could find out what was going on. Around the bend he saw his cloaked pursuer set upon by two highwaymen. They were dragging the struggling figure, cloak and all, off into the woods. For a moment Arne smiled grimly at the justice that one threat to his travel should fall prey to another, but his amusement suddenly ended when one of the robber’s hands snatched away the hood of the cloak, revealing the soft curves of a woman’s jaw and a river of flaxen hair turned hoary-white in the pale moonbeams. She cried out once and then was gone.

Had he been named after the boar, Icehawk might have bellowed out a mighty warcry and charged straight down into the path toward the place where they had disappeared into the forest. Instead, the warrior readied his axe and cautiously entered woods immediately on his right to avoid any bandit lookouts and maintain the element of surprise. The woman’s thrashing against the robbers as they dragged her through the undergrowth guided him as clearly as any map. He crept quickly and quietly to intercept.

He found them on top of her. One held down her arms as the other crouched aside her waist, checking her cloak and pockets for valuables. She tossed her head and struggled feebly, as if resigned to her fate. The one gripping her wrists gave out a raspy laugh. “She’s got some fight in ‘er. I’s bet she can fetch twice the price o’ th’usual in Estermark.”

“She’d better,” the other growled back. “She don’t seem ta be carryin’ nothin’ else worth nothin’.”

“Well,” cackled the first, “then ya might as well sample th’goods so as we can price her, eh?”

The crouching robber grinned at his companion. He began to speak, and then the blade of Icehawk’s axe tore into his open mouth. At the same time the barbarian let loose his blood-curdling cry, the cry of a bird of prey having caught its unsuspecting quarry. In one motion, Icehawk loosed the bit of his double-bladed axe from the robber’s gullet by planting a foot on the man’s chest and kicking the body away, using the momentum to swing back and catch the other highwayman—still sputtering and staring in surprise at the carnage wreaked upon his cohort—with a blow across the temple. Both bandits collapsed to the ground, dead.

The woman tore herself away from the robber and scampered quickly out from beneath Icehawk, her cloak coming completely free on account of Arne’s foot being on top of the hem. She stopped a few paces away under a shaft of moonlight, then turned and stood to face him. She was clothed a linen wrap bleached white as sea salt, her startlingly pale skin and snowy hair equally bereft of hue. Beneath the moonbeam as she was, she reflected a nearly otherworldly air, shimmering brightly against the black forest background. Her appealing countenance regarded Icehawk calmly. It was at this time he realized that she had never shown any fear on her face or in her colorless eyes.

“Are… are you a ghost?” Arne asked.

“A wayward spirit avoiding final-rest?” she asked, cocking her head to one side. She extended an arm. “Touch me and see that I am not.”

Icehawk fingered the grip of his axe nervously. “If you be a ghost, it doesn’t seem wise to touch you. Perhaps your touch would kill me.”

She pointed at the man who had been holding her wrists. “He touched me.”

“He is dead.”

“Aye,” she nodded, “but it was you who killed him.”

“Fair enough,” replied Icehawk. He stepped forward and gingerly gripped the woman’s arm. It felt solid enough, but surprisingly cool. The thought of a spring breeze came unbidden to his mind. “Who are you then, if you are not a wraith?”

She considered his question for a moment before replying. “You may call me Dìsira.”

“Dìsira. Fine. But that doesn’t answer who you are or why you were attempting to follow me through the forest. What do you want with me?”

“You are Arne Icehawk, feeder of the war-gull and sleeper under the naked-sky, having just come from seeing the bone-thrower, that who calls herself Skulvolva.”

Skulvolva the Seer, the Prophetess, the Mad Spinner of Fate. Indeed, he had sought the Seer’s augury, as he had done twice before, but after her nonsensical telling he had cursed himself for a fool. Begging for foresight from that hag, Icehawk the Barbarian felt reduced a mere dog to whom the Seer tossed enigmatical bones of portent in order to cease his yapping. Aye, Icehawk the Cur, tossed scraps of augury from Skulvolva’s table of divination. Even now he could see the woman in his mind’s eye as her fingers stirred the dove’s innards and she said—

Dìsira interrupted his thoughts. “She is no wand-carrier of Skuld, by true name I call her Skynvasa. She weaves threads that the Norns have lain out for themselves, and in arrogance she sits at her wyrd-loom to direct the paths of men.”

“She seems harmless enough to me,” Icehawk lied, very ill at ease with this talk of wyrd-looms and the Norns. “She collects boxes of rotting kittens and feeds offerings given her to the live ones. You should have heard the silly omen that she gave me: Slay the princess, rescue the dragon, and—’ ”

“ ‘—seize your destiny,’ ” Dìsira completed for him, nodding. “I will help you fulfill these words.”

Icehawk was glad for the darkness that hid his gaping mouth. “You’ll what? You didn’t sound so approving of Skulvolva’s trade a moment ago, and now you’re going to help me chase after her nonsensical prophecy?”

Dìsira put two fingers to her lips and let out a piercing whistle. An eagle screeched in reply and swooped down to alight on her extended arm. Icehawk stared at Jarl in consternation, then stammered at the woman, “Wh-what? How did you…?”

“Several leagues from the other end of the tree-city lies the border of Svamperreik, whose treaty-maiden seeks marriage with Szuth, Emperor of the Lower Kingdoms. As a maiden-price she has captured a young sky-serpent, whose swisher of the wound-sea she intends to give to Szuth. The resulting alliance between Svamperreik and the Lower Empire, as well as the power Szuth will derive from the heart of the sky-serpent, would position the Emperor within a hand’s breath of ruling the Upper Kingdoms. You have vowed to kill Szuth, and so you shall achieve your destiny.”

Icehawk fought to quell the rage that bubbled up from deep within at the mention of the name of Emperor of the Lower Kingdoms. “In fulfilling these words I will have an opportunity to face Szuth?”

“No. But in failing at these tasks you will never gain that opportunity. I have come to help you slay the treaty-maiden and save the sky-serpent. During this time I will be your sky-eyes.” She paused and let Jarl fly. Icehawk whistled for him to return, but the eagle disappeared into the night sky. “In exchange for my help you must agree to seize your wyrd-threads.” Her summary finished, Dìsira walked forward and picked up her inky-black cloak from the ground. Arne took a step backwards, more in confusion than out of politeness.

“Seize my destiny?” he exclaimed. “How am I supposed to do that if I will not have the opportunity to battle with Szuth?”

Wrapping her cloak about her, Dìsira began walking back toward the forest path. She paused for a moment, turning her head backwards to direct her answer at the barbarian before moving on to disappear from his night vision. “You will kill Skynvasa.”

Arne Icehawk, Warrior of the North, stared in shock before hastening after her.

Several hours later they were traveling silently side by side down the forest path, the barbarian in his tanned leathers dusky brown as the stones on the path and the woman in her cowl sable as the night sky above. There was yet no lightening in the east, but Icehawk heard the tell-tale sounds of the changing of the guard between the nocturnal and diurnal creatures of the forest as well as the occasional songs of birds too anxious to wait for the light of day. As they had walked along, Arne had had time to turn Dìsira’s words over in his mind.

He cleared his throat to broach the silence, then announced. “I have a question.”

“Then ask it,” Dìsira calmly replied, not missing a step in her stride.

“You want Sku—”

“Skynvasa,” interrupted Dìsira. “She is Skynvasa, a bone-thrower, not the other.”

“Right. Sorry. You want Skynvasa killed because she blasphemes the Norns with her divinations.”

“You speak rightly.”

“And you are going to help me kill the daughter of the king of Svamperreik and rescue a dragon, so that I can return to Skynvasa and kill her.”

“That is also correct.”

“Then if you have the power to help me kill the daughter of the king of Svamperreik, why don’t you kill Skynvasa yourself and be done with it?”

“How can one murder a soothsayer without her knowing of it in advance? I cannot kill Skynvasa because the moment I should decide so she will know of her fate. Then she will seat herself before her wyrd-loom and weave a new direction for her wyrd-string.”

“Then how shall I kill Skynvasa?”

At the question, the woman threw out an arm and stopped Arne with her hand to his chest. “Do not decide,” she warned, “or else you shall be known.” After a pause for significance, she resumed her pace.

“I mean more along the lines of why you think I can do it.”

“You are of a people with a brutish unpredictability to their nature. As a hat-wearer of your people you are dangerous and cunning. To a Seer, meeting with you is like tracking a woods-cow by ear on a windy day. All of her visions include the possibility that you might kill her. This is why Skynvasa meets with you as she does.”

“No weapons, as rule,” grunted Icehawk.

“Yes,” spoke Dìsira, and her hood dipped lower in what Arne assumed was a nod. “But that is not my meaning. She performs augury for you in order to wind your wyrd-thread about her spindle.”

“Loki’s beard, what does that mean?”

“Twice now you have acted in accordance with her prophecies. Two knots has she in your thread. A third knot and then it shall be sealed, your life entwined. She loosens your thread, you fly into battle and are victorious; she tightens your thread and your body seizes, helpless before your enemies.”

Arne felt a warm hollow in his chest. Fear was a rare feeling for Icehawk the Barbarian. “If that’s true, then I have no wish to fulfill her words and grant her such power over me. I just won’t kill the princess nor save the dragon.”

“But you must. Otherwise she will see you amiss in her bone-throws and know the danger you represent. However, if you complete her prophecy she will have a third knot in sight. She will not expect aught to go wrong at the sealing ceremony.”

“The sealing ceremony? Is that why she wanted me to bring her a pig when I was ready—rather, when she was ready—to ‘seize my destiny’? ”

“Yes. With the augury of the pig the knots shall be as a noose about your neck.”

“Then how am I going to stop her?”

“Fear not. The ceremony is also your chance to truly seize your destiny.”

Dawn broke on the two travelers shortly after their conversation. Arne realized that the forest was not as thickly wooded here. By mid-morning they reached the borderlands of Svemperreik, with its rolling cave-pocked hills and tree-filled vales. The forest path opened up at the end of a long valley. Dìsira pointed out a castle with a tall tower at the other end, telling him that was where the princess was. Then she led him to a cave where they could rest for the day. Exhausted from traveling and not having slept the night before, he lay down on the cave floor and fell asleep before his better judgment even had time to question him about it. When he awoke, Dìsira had a fire going and offered him some stew. It was hearty and warmed him to the bone as he gulped it down. Outside it was already dusk. They put out the fire and begin traveling in the direction of the castle at the opposite end of the valley.

“So, what are we going to do when we get there?” Icehawk asked as the enormous size of the castle became apparent. “Do you have a plan, fylgja?”

Dìsira tilted her head. “I said you may call me Dìsira, not this ‘fylgja.’”

“Oh,” Icehawk shrugged. “That’s just a myth that my people have. A fylgja is a supernatural creature in the form of an animal that accompanies one on a journey in connection with their fate. Your pale skin and white hair seem rather otherworldly, and this journey definitely has something to do with my fate!”

“Yes,” replied the woman. “I have a plan. The treaty-maiden Asta is great with child.”

“She’s pregnant?” cried Arne. “And she expects to wed the Emperor of the Lower Kingdoms!”

“The sky-serpent’s heart as dowry is her second ploy. The child was her first. It is Szuth’s.”

Icehawk scowled and they walked a few moments in silence. “She’s bearing Szuth’s child. What does this mean for your plan?”

“Her loin-quakes have already begun. The word-bearer sent for the midwife has been thrown from his horse. A second will be set upon by bandits. I shall aid her in her birth to the child and grant you access to her chambers.”

“Dìsira the Midwife, hm? Where are her chambers?”

“At the top of that stone-tree,” she said, pointing a pale and delicate finger at the tower rising up in the middle of the castle.

By the time they reached the foot of the tower, the moon had risen. Icehawk hid in the shadows while Dìsira climbed the sheer face of the tower. He watched in awe as she vaulted and twisted her way upward. It reminded him of a Far East acrobat he had once seen in a circus. As she climbed further she became nothing more than a smudge on the surface of the tower. A while later the end of a weighted rope smacked down onto the empty cobble-stone street. Icehawk ran forward and began his own ascent.

When he reached the window, Dìsira was nowhere to be seen. He pulled up the rope and then cautiously entered a hallway through the open door. Voices could be heard from down the hall.

“—you perverted and worthless lummoxes out! Every single one of you!”

“We’ll be right outside your door, milady.”

“So you can hear me scream?” As if to accentuate her point, she cried out as a pang of labor hit. “You tell the Captain that I want this Tower cleared of men! Anyone who so much as looks higher than the first floor will be hanged by morning!”

“Y-yes, milady,” replied the voice of the guard to the sound of shuffling feet and bedroom items being thrown after them. Icehawk waited for several minutes and then crept down the hallway to where the voices had originated. There were no signs of the guards now. As agreed earlier, he waited to enter Princess Asta’s bedchambers until after he heard the cry of her newborn.

When he came into the room, Dìsira was holding the baby to her breast, her faintly pink eyes shining down on the bundle, while the mother lay covered in sweat and breathing heavily. As the otherworldly, wan woman began washing the baby and wrapping him in its swaddling clothes, she sang a song:

Each day as she swelled, she sang to you ‘Roald’
Thus desired transpired, ‘til mother’s wound-sea
Draws flowing and sewing ‘fore e’en one day old
Though you may live on, only ‘Aric’ you’ll be

Four less than a score with a scepter to hold
Yet never endeavors to fulfill mum’s plea
Stop famine, bring glory, then fall to the cold
A roald greater than Szuth, but ‘Aric’ you’ll be

Having finished her blessing, Dìsira placed the child in his mother’s arms. “Every mother deserves the joy of seeing the life she has carried,” she said, but Asta did not seem to hear it. Then Dìsira turned began walking toward the door beside which Icehawk was standing, dumbfounded. “Kill the mother, but let the child live,” she muttered as she passed out of the room.

A minute later Icehawk joined her in the hall, droplets of blood spattering onto the stone floor as they dripped from his axe. He closed the door behind him, but the child’s cries could still be heard. “Follow me to the next,” said Dìsira, then turned and hurried down the stairs.

The Captain had apparently complied completely with the late princess’s order to clear the tower of guards, because the two did not run into any trouble as they made their way down. Even the first floor was surprisingly vacant. They passed quickly through a large foyer to a staircase leading down into the dungeon. Icehawk made quick work of the guard at the base of the stair. Using the guard’s key, they let themselves into the dungeon.

Inside there were three soldiers and a remarkably fat jailer sitting about a table. At the sight of the wild-eyed barbarian and his pale escort they leapt up and began drawing their swords, but Icehawk was already upon them. The nearest guard failed to bring his sword up in time to block the warrior’s axe, which passed in an arc through the man’s arm, sending the sword clattering to the floor with the man’s hand still attached. As the guard tumbled backwards, screaming and spurting blood, Icehawk kicked over the table into the two men on the other side, allowing him to focus his attention on the isolated jailer still standing closest to him.

The enormous man bellowed as he swung his sword at Icehawk. The barbarian parried his enemy’s initial strike, then pushed off the second and sunk the point of his axe in the jailer’s corpulent stomach. Icehawk was in the process of wrenching his battle-axe back out of the jailer’s midsection in preparation for a killing blow when he was slammed into from the side by the table, still upended but now being pushed by the two guards in order to wedge him against the wall. Icehawk used his shoulder and the momentum of the table to roll over the moving barricade, landing low and swinging his weapon out to cut the legs out from one of the guards. As luck would have it, at this same moment the lower edge of the table clipped the body of the armless guard and suddenly righted itself, flipping the two guards who had been pushing it. The one whose feet had been severed did not get back up, and Icehawk sunk his axe deep into the pate of the other as he attempted to pull himself up from the table.

As he attempted to free his axe, Icehawk heard the bellow of the wounded jailer close behind him. Knowing he would not free it in time, the barbarian released his weapon and dodged to the side, barely escaping a killing blow from the fat man’s sword. The jailer pressed on the attack, swinging viciously for the now-unarmed warrior. Icehawk ducked and dodged as best as he could, until his back suddenly came against the hard stone surface of the dungeon wall. The jailer loomed before him, a sneer on his face as he drew back the sword for a fatal lunge. Then with a loud snap his head suddenly disappeared behind rows of jagged teeth. Icehawk blinked. Before him stood the enormous body but headless of the jailer. It slowly toppled backwards, revealing the serpentine body of a juvenile wyrm.

Dìsira stood among its coils; in fact, its tail wound up and around her legs, while its main segments circled behind with a claw gripping her left waist and then right shoulder, its body flowing forward over that shoulder and bunching up on the ground in front of her, ready to strike a second time. The forward half of the body seemed oddly proportioned; it reminded Icehawk of the shape of a locust’s thorax. The monster’s slitted eyes stared at him, and its tongue protruded to taste his scent. Dìsira murmured some strange-sounding sibilants and it lowered its head and turned it to one side, leaving a single green eye to watch the barbarian.

Icehawk suddenly realized that the reason the creature’s body was shaped like that was because its wings were folded about its torso. He stared blankly at Dìsira. “I thought the second part of the augury was ‘rescue the dragon.’ That’s not a dragon; it’s a wyvern!”

“Aye, a two-legged sky-snake. It also said ‘rescue the dragon,’ not ‘rescued by the dragon.' ” And then she smirked at him.

“Does that mean I have failed?”

“We’re not out of the castle yet.”

* * *

Three days and two pigs later (the wyvern ate the one), Arne Icehawk, Warrior of the North, once again stood before Skulvolva the Seer, the Prophetess, the Mad Spinner of Fate in the inner chambers of her temple. On a rope next to him hung frantic, squealing pig that he had brought with him. Skulvolva, chanting to herself in an unearthly tongue, spread about ashes and lit incense in preparation for the ceremony. Wind blew in through the windows and sent smoke and ash swirling even this far into the room. Icehawk wished that he didn’t have to stand so near to the pig’s ear-shattering squeals. Finally, the witch turned and widened her toothless smile toward the barbarian.

“Arne Icehawk, Warrior of the North, be ye ready to seize your destiny?”

Arne nodded, now quite worried that he had missed his chance to stop the ceremony and save his fate. Skulvolva padded over to a nearby altar and retrieved a stone-bladed ceremonial dagger. Holding it flat upon two palms, she approached Icehawk while chanting, her voice mixing with the panic of the hanging pig and the fury of the buffeting wind.

“Plunge it into the creature’s heart, Icehawk the Barbarian, and seize your destiny!” She bowed her head and extended the knife to the barbarian.

Icehawk gripped the pearl handle of the dagger. Outside the temple the wind howled and, inside, Arne Icehawk, Warrior of the North, seized his destiny.