March 30, 2019

Fylkir dreamt of his first kiss. It was summer in northern Kámwech, moisture sitting thick in the air and pines sprouting green.  The forest swarmed with mosquitoes, and the boys in the woods scratched their bare legs red.

Pine needles stung Fylkir’s bare soles as he leapt from one rock to the other, banging his wooden sword against a heavy round shield. The other two boys hid behind their own shields, only their foreheads peeking out from beneath them when Fylkir struck his sword against them.

His brow was slick with sweat and his chest beamed with heat that tempted him to pull the tunic over his head. His friends had done so, but they didn’t have Fylkir’s wounds on their backs and chests. They didn’t have Fylkir’s father. They were lucky enough to have lost their fathers to the Norians.

The boys pushed Fylkir back. His heel caught on a root and he winced as he nearly stumbled backwards. Fylkir regained his balance, but the other boys’ swords hit hard against the weight of his shield. Fylkir’s knees gave out and he sank into a squat. His wobbling arms held the shield up to guard his head, bracing for the final impact that would force him taste dust and pick dry pine needles from his frizzy hair.

But it never came. Fylkir sat still, holding his breath for a moment before looking up.

Fylkir was the smallest boy in the village, probably the scrubbiest boy in the whole clan. The taller boys were always flexing. They were his friends one moment, but whenever girls showed up, they were beating him in the gut. And when Fylkir saw the boys wink at two girls strolling by, that was what he thought would happen.

But Heiladin was near, the celebration of the longest day of the summer—the night without darkness. Usually that meant Fylkir’s father would be busy with his chieftain duties, and Fylkir was left in peace to do what he wanted.

Because the lands had been meager and barren for so long, they seized every opportunity to celebrate life and pray the gods for fertility.

The Aruel clan had many traditions like that. For instance, in the winter, they brought a green branch inside on the darkest day of the year to celebrate life's triumph over death. 

Heiladin was the biggest event of the year. There was dancing all night long, and weeks before the celebrations, every man started searching for a young woman to bring a flower crown to on that evening. If a girl accepted the flower crown, their eternal union was official before the gods.

Fylkir wiped sweat from his neck. Suddenly one of the girls called out his childhood name. The name his dead mother had given him. “Asker!”

Fylkir froze. His face went blank. Had she really said his name, or was he imagining things? Slowly, he began rising from where he still squatted on the ground. He cleared his throat nervously, lifting his eyes to the girls’ faces.

One had light hair and a golden tan, but then there was Lidyah.

His crush of five years, she had the softest-looking black hair, and skin the color of darkened driftwood. Her eyes were-

He broke his gaze, afraid of staring. The tall boy beside him flexed his shoulders and crossed them over his chest, glowering at Fylkir.

When Lidyah waved at him, Fylkir finally dared a second look at her. He waved back. A sheepish grin grew on his lips.

The girls continued their walk, carrying heavy baskets in their arms, skirts flowing over their bare feet. They were so graceful, even though they were walking on pine needles and sharp rocks.

His gaze followed them until they were out of eyesight, but then a wooden sword knocked him down on the forest floor.

Days later, on a sunny summer night, drums pounding and his heart pounding the same, Fylkir found Lidyah on the meadow. The Heiladin songs had been sung, and a high, wooden pole erected at the middle of a grassy plain. The girls in the village decorated the pole with flowers and vines, tree branches and locks of their hair. Mead was passed around in the crackling of bonfires.

The soil beneath Fylkir’s bare feet was wet and soft, as the gods had blessed them with many rains. The houses were little more than brown shapes in the descending fog. 

Fylkir felt pure bliss in his helplessly infatuated heart when Lidyah danced to him. She danced around him, grabbed his elbow, and pulled him out on the meadow. His face flushed with heat, his breaths shallow. If she would have asked him something, he wasn’t sure if he could answer.

Smoke from the great bonfire rose in a grey tower against the sky, the smell sticking to their clothes, hair, lips.

He wasn’t startled when she kissed him.

It was over so fast he wondered if it had ever happened.

What if it was only the sweetness of the mead playing games with his head?

But he had seen his mother drink enough mead in his short life to know that he wanted nothing to do with it. He would not cast a glance at the special Heiladin mead full of berries floating on the surface. Therefore it had to be real.

He looked away, blinking. Flowers in the swamp around them formed fractured constellations underneath the blanket of mist. Lilies and tulips stippled the fields and children were prancing about, dancing to the rhythm of ancient Aruel melodies. This was the celebration of life, and for the first time he was fully enthralled by it. Life.

And joy.

Fylkir’s fingers brushed against the nape of her neck. A faint smile touched Lidyah’s plump lips. He smiled back, wondering if he was a fool and she was only pretending to like him back to make fun of him later. What if the other boys were all there, waiting for her to break his heart and blow the shreds into the gentle summer wind?

But it was real, because the next day, she did it again.

In time, they began holding hands, until they were rarely seen not holding each other. Inseparable. Lidyah was his only hope, his only life, until one day he left her behind.

A dark blanket of mist fell over the village, enwrapping the wooden homes in gloomy shadows and turning firelight into blurred, yellow shapes.

The world was a dark, hopeless place. There was only pain, agonized screams, and scars that never faded away. The pain may have grown duller, but it went nowhere. It still hurt just as much now as it had then. He was a stupid boy. He was a stupid man.

He’d left his love, and for what?

Lidyah emerged from the darkness. A black mist uncoiled around her beautiful body. She was older now, but she’d always been the most pretty girl in the clan, and she’d only grown more beautiful. How could she ever have questioned it? So pure, so sweet, so innocent. Her smile was-

She screamed at him. She clawed at her face, crying. Her sobs echoed through Fylkir’s heavy skull, penetrating every old memory that he had kept hidden and secure. She tore at her hair and fell on her knees, her frail form trembling with tears spilled for him. Because of him. She had no one.

They were both alone, and for what?

Fylkir cried with her. He did not know what to do. How to help her. There was so much pain in her eyes. He couldn’t stop crying.

Lidyah stood up in the darkness. She did not wipe her tears. Her dark cheeks glittered as moonlight fell on her. Snowflakes twirled around her. The black hair turned red, flowing in the wind like a torch in the night.

Shade folded over him, the shadow of her bending closer. He grabbed her shoulder, afraid that his hand would go straight through her body. But it didn’t.

She hushed him, holding a hand over his mouth. Her small, soft hand. Full of warmth and love.

There was a pounding in his veins. He loved her.

Fylkir tried standing up, but his movement set the wounds in his ribcage on fire. More blood gushed out despite his efforts to stop the bleeding.“Oh, shush,” she said.

“Lidyah?” he asked.

“Be quiet or they’re going to kill you,” she snapped. Her voice was different.

Fylkir shook his head, feeling drowsy. White shapes were crawling across his blurry vision. “They can’t kill me, I’m one of them. I’m a soldier, I told you I would be.”

Her hand clamped down on his mouth again. She tried opening his jacket, but Fylkir’s body was too crumpled for that. The girl tried to pull him up into a sitting position, but she wasn’t strong enough. “Help me out a little,” she whispered.

“Lidyah…” he moaned. Stabbing, throbbing pain erupted in his stomach. It was difficult to form whole thoughts, and forming whole lines of speech were even worse. His words were slurred and heavy on his tongue. “I need to…”

She looked him straight in the eye. Her eyes blazed with green and red, like embers in a forest. Warm and cold at the same time. Those weren’t Liddy’s eyes.

He blinked twice. Three times.

“Stop that, I’m trying to save your life. You’re freezing to death.”

He shook his head slowly, gazing into the distance behind her, putting the pieces together. His arm raised from the ground. It took hard work, and his muscles strained, but he managed to touch the girl’s hair. The Burning Girl. With snowflakes in her hair, out on the street in the middle of the night, trying to save his life?

“Save me?” His brows furrowed. Another twinge of pain got him drawing a sharp breath through his teeth. 

He could kill her now and die out in the blizzard himself, or he could wait for the robbers to catch her and then kill him. Either way, Fylkir was dead.

It was no longer about finding something to live for. Now he had to make the decision about what to die for. And despite having put much thought into the question earlier in his life, he still found himself fearing the outcome. Fearing death.

He was raised to celebrate life, and he’d failed. And now he would die without honor, in a dark alley? The gods must’ve been smirking. All his life he’d felt like they had despised him, and now they finally got their way.

Fylkir would die.

“Stop wallowing. Come on now,” the girl hissed through her teeth as she tried again to lift him up. Her attempt was a short one. She was a weak, fragile girl.

“You can’t save me,” he said. “I’m going to die.”

“No, you won’t.” She looked him square in the eyes. “You won’t.”

She didn’t believe in her own words. Her voice was thick with it. Doubt, fear, pain.

Wincing, Fylkir drew his legs closer to his body. His abdomen throbbed. Two stab wounds, he thought. Shaking his head, he huffed a bitter laugh.

The girl knelt beside him in the snow. Fylkir squeezed his eyes shut. His hands felt for the knife in his bootleg. The left one it was. The edge poked his fingers.

Now he’d only have to get it out of the boot and thrust the sharp thing into the soft thing.

“You should know my name,” the girl said.

Fylkir opened his eyes. His hand stopped moving. The girl’s eyes were on his boot. Fylkir held back a curse. Or rather, a long string of curses.

“Alright,” he said, pain lacing his voice. He begged the gods for some mercy. This girl could burn Noriannd to the ground, and every surrounding kingdom would turn to ashes with it.

His family. Lidyah.

Fylkir bit into his cheek.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked.

“Well,” Fylkir grunted, impatiently. “I don’t even know your name.”

The girl ignored his remark, and continued. “I’m the grandchild of Ryiah, the Aruel Queen of the North realms. The Aruel Queen who banished darkness and saved the world from famine and deadly beasts.”

Fylkir wondered if this was part of the hallucination. He felt for the knife and pressed his finger down on it, hard. But the girl pushed his hand away and took the knife to herself before the blade could draw blood.

“Well, that’s not how I planned for this to go,” Fylkir said, looking with half-open eyes at the knife pointed at him, inches from his face.

He tried to shrug, but it was too painful. He tried taking a deep breath, but that was also too painful.

“Kill me, then,” he sighed.

“I’m not killing you,” she said, and the knife hovered a few inches backwards, away from his face. “Because I need your help.”

“I’m dying, so there’s no point.”

“If you were bleeding internally, you’d already be dead.”

Fylkir panted quietly, pushing his arms on the ground to hoist himself higher. He gave up. “See? Dead man.”

“You’re Kaumian, and I need to get to Kámwech.”

“I’m not Kaumian,” he said.

The girl’s face went blank. All hope gone. Good, now she could leave him to die alone. To be forgotten in a city of thieves and buried under thick snow. He imagined the day when the sun would finally emerge through the ashen fog, and some poor old woman would find his stinking, bloated corpse in the melting snow.

“I’m like you,” Fylkir said. “But if I were you I wouldn’t take much pride in what you are. You’re a misfit here.”

The girl pushed the knife against Fylkir’s face again. This time the metal touched his skin lightly. It didn’t even feel cold.

“You don’t have much time left. You can help me cross the border to Kámwech or die. I don’t care who you are.”

“Too late.”

The girl gave a frustrated sigh, dropped the knife down and took her mittens off. She tucked them in her cloak’s large pocket, not wasting time to shake the snow out of them. Her hand picked up the knife.

One hand on the hilt, she laid the other one flat on the edge. Snowflakes fell around them. They fell on Fylkir’s face, and on the girl’s face. But when they fell on the girls’ hands, or on the knife, they sizzled and vaporized instantly.

The girl held the knife up and dug in her pocket for something. A mitten. Before Fylkir could protest, she shoved it into his mouth.

She bent forward, pressing down on his chest. Her breath warmed his face as she spoke, “Don’t scream, or I’ll make it hurt more.”

The girl tried all she could to sound scary. But she was a cute little girl. Her voice was weak and her eyes too big to have seen any real pain or danger in her life. Fylkir instantly regretted each one of those thoughts when she pressed the hot metal into his wounds.
He believed her, and he did everything in his power to not scream.

Previous: 16. The Man in the Ashes       Next: 18. The Wolf's Lair (coming Wednesday)

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