Book One: The Witchling of Alsira
From the Journals of the Dread Lord
III - Wake Up, Stendrals
III - Wake Up, Stendrals
I was given a hard shove to my ribs by some bony protrusion next to me. My eyes continued to swim with distorted visions while shifting between the horror around me and another strange world filled with dim colors. The bloody ocean of gape-mouthed living corpses with their piercing and accusing empty sockets began to slowly fade away. The battering wings and ear-piercing screeching of the frenzied carrion birds as they loomed over me gave way to a soft and familiar whisper to my left. This soft voice jarred me away from the reality I was in and sent me spinning wildly into a new one.
"Jykal." The voice called softly, almost gingerly, to me.
"Jykal." The voice bade me further with an increased sense of urgency.
"Jykal." The feminine voice whispered in a higher and pitched tone, becoming raspy and almost filled with anger.
I soon felt a rush of wind and hard impact to my ribs again which set my eyes to open. The world I had been transported to was one of darkness, with a scant bit of orange light peeking through from behind some sort of confines around me. The feeling of furs and sheets, soaked and matted with sweat cloyed at my body. As soon as I started to get my bearings, realizing I was laying down, another hard impact came from an elbow and into my shoulder.
"You're snoring, again. You arse!"
The very last details of my nightmare drifted away from me and were carried off within the gossamer veils of Sethos, the faceless god of dreams. I began to pull my leaden arms out from under my body. The feeling of numb cold within them gave rise quickly to searing pin-pricks and incessant tingles. I groped with almost useless limbs at the bed around me, trying to lift myself up.
When I finally got into a sitting position, I opened my eyes once again to look to my left. In between milky eyes, coated with the sand-like leavings that Sethos deposited in those he took away into his realm during the night hours, I managed to behold a darkened form laying beside me.
I rubbed at my eyes, trying to dislodge the distortions in my vision. Slowly my sight came back to me. There, beside me, I beheld the woman I had promised myself to in my youth. We were bonded in a promissory sort of relationship known in my culture as a Brodenkynd. We were still young, not even having passed our rites of adulthood, yet. But, we had always been inseparable.
She continued to lay there, her face lifted up from one of her pillows. Her body was covered in furs and sheets, slightly contorted so that she could look me straight in the face. Her eyes were puffy and half-open. A sour look marred her otherwise youthful and beautiful face.
Despite myself having to draw these details from ancient memories more than millennia-old, I can still remember every last detail of her face, as youthful as it was. Her radiant green eyes that caught every bit of light like emeralds. Her long, tousled, and wavy brown hair with streaks of white-blonde cutting through. Her high cheekbones with just a slight bit of baby-like roundness that softened the sharp edges of her chin and jaw. The three triangular freckles on her left cheek, and the way her face would dimple near the corners of her mouth when she smiled. I remember the entire image of her in my mind, from her enchanted head to her often sand-covered toes.
Here she was, in this long-ago moment that I find myself within once more, continuing to stare at me with those emerald-green eyes. She looked over her softly curving nose, and her sharp chin to hold me in her vision. Her body was still half-turned away from me. I could still feel the love in her eyes despite the scowl on her tired face.
I realized I had previously been heaped up in a ball of my own limbs at the end of the bed. My authroc-down pillow had managed to fall to the floor. My arms had been strangled around me and my legs were bent at severe angles. The earlier nudge to my ribs was from her bony elbow which she continued to hold between us. I looked away from her for a moment to the rest of the room we were in.
In the darkness, around us, I could hear the soft murmurs and rumbling snores of the other children we lived with. They were members of our child community, known in those times as broden. Each of them were in their own beds, surrounded in their own furs, dreaming their own dreams.
With the prickles in my arms abating and their use gradually returning from their previously limp state, I lifted my hands to my face to rub the very last bits of sand from my eyes. I could feel my vision awaken with flashes of greens and oranges in maddening patterns. I opened my eyes and looked at the girl beside me while drawing in a deep breath to talk to her. I ended up surrendering to a loud and deep yawn. I tried once more and was finally successful in drawing in enough breath to speak through a raspy and dry throat.
"Zynna." I started and had to give a hard swallow. "The nightmares. I think they're back." I stretched out my arms and began to move my way upwards to her. I rested my hand on her side.
"I don't care. Keep them to yourself." She viciously began to fluff up one of her pillows under her head. She gave a groan while rolling herself over, turning her back fully towards me. "Nightmares means you're sleeping. That's more than I'm getting."
It didn't take more than few groggy moments for me to realize the source of Zynna's sourness. Part of it had come from the very nightmare I had just endured in my sleeping state. I felt that I had been surrounded in the warm and moist gore of a dead world. To be honest, the current climate in the room we were in wasn't much better. Due to the heat of the burning suns whose light slipped in from the nearby cloth-covered doorway and a few holes in the roof, the warmth of the accumulated bodies of the other children around us, and the humidity holding heavy in the air, I knew exactly.
Zynna always hated the heat, hated any form of humidity, and when she was uncomfortable it was almost impossible for her to sleep. Her body ran hot, as did my own. In the heat of this day, one of the longest of the year if my memory serves, she couldn't sleep at all. I believe, given the heat, it was the day of Lover's Rest. That would make sense, as the humidity in the air would most likely be from the melting ice running down from the nearby Athimyr Glaciers and holding in thick blankets of fog around the land I once called home.
To knock me out of my contemplation, she gave me a light tap on the shin with her foot, one of which had come clear of her furs. She was taking her exhaustion out on me because she knew me well enough to know that I loved her despite her moods. I bit my lower lip and held her against me, covering her back with my chest. I could feel her shift and push against me for a moment.
If only she knew, fully and with exacting detail, of the repeated tortures I endured in my non-waking state. She knew well that I had frequent and often portentous nightmares, but she often avoided talking about them with me. She told me many times she didn't want to hear about my dreams, that she would worry if she knew what visions danced in my head while I was with Sethos in his celestial realm of Ginnithol, all while she was awake. Despite her wishes I wanted to share them with her, so she would understand my concerns.
Every night that I slept, it often felt, I was trapped in a new vista of madness and pain. This wasn't typical sleep that I was in, it was more like a never-ending series of spiritual tortures from the gods themselves. A realm that held such beauty and wonders for others was twisted for me into a reminder of all the pain and horror that existed in this slowly dying world that I lived in.
I wanted to speak out to her, but I dared not press the issue. Zynna had told me before when the nightmares crept up the last time and I still remembered her words. Most of all, she was tired right now and when she got as such, she was always in the foulest of moods. Even when she wasn't tired she was often as stubborn as a herdsmoll and could be as biting as most courtiers that plied their barbed tongues in the far-off courts of the Alwhedein Empire. I loved her despite her flaws, and in most ways because of them. I know she endured her fair share of my own.
Breaking out of my romantic fixations for a moment, I noticed the heavy cloth covering the entrance to our room had lifted open with a force that set the small bits of metal, bone, and wood tied to the bottom of it into a cacophony of sounds. We had been taught to collect small and noisy baubles to stitch into the fabric of our doorway. Such items served as alarms to alert us to any animals or interlopers that made their way into our encampment or our shelters.
I sat up immediately, ready to react to any danger that presented itself. The others in the room around us began to roll around, groaning with exasperation and annoyance at the disruption. At the doorway, hunched in silhouette against the intense sunlight beating in from outside was a form that crept forward into the room with slow and ponderous steps. A hand held the tanned hide and stitched cloth of the entrance, folded and pushed, out of this shadow being’s way. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the shift of light and dark, but soon the details emerged from the shadow before me.
It was Old Annesen, our broden-mother, and care-giver. The woman whose charge it was to teach us the ways of our tribe and keep us alive long enough to learn it faithfully. The leathery and freckled skin of her face was contorted into a large grin that revealed more gaps than teeth. Over her shoulders slung a long, brown, and green hood. This being made of stitched linens that followed her sharp shoulders down and then breaking into two long, deep sleeves over her sun-burnt arms. Around her hood and trailing to each of her shoulders were leather pauldrons covered in crimson-dyed wolf's fur. This fur was the mark of her station as broden-mother for our community as well as her experience being a healer and seeress of our tribe. Most members of our tribe were known for their grey and black wolf's fur, a sign of the vhulkovyr warrior caste, that made up most of our tribe.
Around her waist — trailing to the mud, ice, and sand-strewn ground — was a set of leather dresses that further set her apart in fashion. Given that she was a revered member of our community, with a very important position, she was able to wear a dress freely. Many considered the old traditional dresses of high station members of our tribe to be impractical and antiquated. Old Annesen felt otherwise and enjoyed rebelling against such traditions whenever she could.
Around her chest and stomach was yet another deviation from the warrior-oriented armors that most of our tribe wore. She absolutely refused to wear chest armor in any form, or coverings at all for that matter. She had told those of the children who inquired over the years that this choice was one of practicality given her station as broden-mother. Old Annesen always preferred to have a bare chest, open to the elements save for a few scarves she tied around herself during the winter months. She was proud in this as it displayed her abilities as a care-giver and surrogate mother to the tribe. She was often called upon to be a wet-nurse for the younglings. At this particular moment in time, she was demonstrating her ability while clutching a tired and naked infant to her bosom as she entered fully into our sleeping quarters.
My gaze fell away from the form of Old Annesen as she walked into the room and instead fell absently to the infant she held to her. That child, for all the world, seemed content with its lot. It remained there, curled up, supported, and well-fed. The infant's eyes were closed and its wrinkled, pudgy face showed the peace that came from blissfully ignorant sleep. Despite this, it continued to suckle away with all the instinctual fervor of a typically healthy and perpetually hungry babe. I began to wonder for a moment while wistful sleep pulled once more at my consciousness if I ever was so content at that tender age.
"Wake up! Wake up! You lazy, little stendrals!" Old Annesen's usually kind and melodic sort of voice had taken on a sadistic and shrill sort of quality this morning. She enjoyed waking us up in the mornings and I'm quite sure she was thoroughly delighted to end our heat-disturbed slumber on this day, most of all.
She enjoyed calling us her little stendrals as some mocking sort of affectation. Stendrals being a type of bird that nested nearby our lands and within the reeds on the salty coast of the Frothing Blood Sea. The reason she chose such a term for us, is that these particular birds were very well known for their laziness, stupidity, and ease of being caught by hunters. Our current skaell-father — Brimden — who worked alongside Old Annesen to raise us, had told us many techniques for catching these birds. They were known for their lack of physical exercise, for their plumpness, and for their succulent flavor. Brimden always enjoyed reminding us when he taught us how to catch them, that he often couldn't tell the children apart from the fowl. I soon began to realize, as my stomach started to groan, that I could do with some stendral meat right at this moment.
"It's the day of Lover's Rest. The time that Dhaulm and Trallt traverse the sky in unison. The longest day of the year!" She continued to stand in the middle of the room pivoting side to side on her feet while rocking the infant she held at her chest. "Get up! Both the burning gods are in the sky and it's time for you to rise up to meet them."
"If it's the day of Lover's Rest..." A muffled male voice called out from far off in the shadowed corner of the room, nearby the doorway. "Then for the love of all the gods, old and new, and in the light of Tolesh's brilliant fuck..." The voice was followed by some shuffling of furs and slight creak of a bed. "...Let us bloody-well rest, you old hag!"
Old Annesen leaned forward, peering through the wane light and gathered shadow before her. She wavered to and fro for a moment while looking for the source of the voice. "I hear you, Heskir. Now, where are you?" She propped the baby in the crook of her arm, balancing it with all the care that a Haakuenthi peasant might show a basket of freshly sheared wool. She was graceful and quick, but not given to the consideration that many would expect one to show a new life.
She leaned forward, padding with her free hand at the furs and pillows heaped up at her feet. "Ah, ha! I feel that scrawny leg, Heskir." Her voice trailed off with a tone of mirth in it. She got back up to her full height once again, hunched as it was with age. Old Annesen gave a hard kick that was eagerly met with a large gasp of air from a mound of furs at her feet. She had found Heskir — it seemed — right in the gut. "Get up, my little stendrals. Get up now. Lest I teach each and every one of you the same painful lesson that Heskir here won't soon forget!"
With a turn of her heels and a quick wave of her arm, she was gone once more. The cloth door-cover jostling slightly and the inside of the room returning to a slightly disturbed darkness. I reached forward into the mess of old furs and sheets to grab my tunic. Once I had slipped that over my head I returned to hunting for my leather riding leggings. At this time, I could hear the same rustling from beside me. It was Zynna clamoring to get her tunic on and find her own leggings.
I was pulled back to her as she leaned into my ear while searching with her hands at the foot of the bed. Her voice softly whispered in my ear while her breath sent tingles on my neck. "You're a herdsmoll's arse, Jykal. A snoring, annoying, clogged up..." She trailed off for a moment and then turned her whispered voice into a yell while slapping me on the shoulder. "...Herdsmoll's arse!"
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