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Friday 5 June 2020

Hlífrún Sneak Peek - Chapter 1

Hlífrún, Chapter 1

     A gentle, viridian breath rustled through the world. Weighted by the rich scent of loam and moss, the air pirouetted under the cool tug of the breeze, while the fresh edge of rain cast a welcome division in the long-unbroken midsummer heat. There was promise in that, of life and abundance, and enthusiasm hung like a restless fog stirred up by every other breath.
    The air was not silent. The air was never silent. Here, there was always some sound of comfort or company, overlapping and interlocking with another into an unrecitable harmony. It was a melody without rhythm, composed of the rustle of dark, summer-kissed leaves, the warble, chirp and trill of birds, the squeak, croak and howl of beasts and the babble of rolling streams. It was a symphony filled with secrets, while the voices of the trees themselves whispered 'welcome, Queen,' into the winds.
    She opened her dark eyes and watched the colours of eternal twilight shift through the forest around her, glittering in the fidget of leaves aglow with the sparse leak of sunlight. A pair of woodlarks looped and flitted briefly into view in a dazzling display of iridescent gold, and a beetle tumbled from a tree, landing with a soft thud on the damp moss below.
    Then all fell still once again.
    Hlífrún's grey lips curved into an insuppressible smile.
Here was serenity. This was a place of ancient souls; a place where time slowed and wandered, the smallest measure that of the passing sun, the longest that of the turning seasons. There was nothing to rush for here, no urgency, no fret. There was only life. All was as it had always been.
    Her gaze dropped back to the ground. Her heart sullenly followed as she locked onto the tidy mat of winding roots that stretched forwards for some feet, young, bare and smooth; ash and rowan woven together in a mutual charge to bridge the abyss that rent the otherwise pristine forest.
    Though she begged them not to, her eyes followed the line of that gaping wound yet again, searching despite the hole in her heart for a clue of the scale of destruction. Mercifully, the trees spared her that torment. She could already feel the rend all too deeply, as though her own body had been torn. And she supposed it had been, in a way. The spirit of this and every forest was equally her own.
    The leaves above fluttered with the heavy shudder of her heart. She drew herself back in with a sigh.
    She knelt gracefully in the damp soil, rain water swelling around her knees and trickling through the grooves of her grey, bark-like skin, and slipped a rough, slender hand down through the dirt. The earth bowed aside willingly.
    As she closed her eyes and released a slow, focused breath, a fine, off-white sheath began to form around the exposed roots. It crept out across them slowly, spreading like a tangled, fibrous web, sealing where they overlapped and wove together, where they knotted, where they released. Then a second mass responded on the far side of the rift, bleeding through the sheared soil. But it was slower. Sluggish, as though the last drops of its life force were ebbing away, sacrificed for this final growth.
    The approaching web ambled closer, creeping further and faster along the roots as though it recognised its kind, and when it burrowed at last into the severed soil, seized and anchored by the woody spears, the second, struggling mass bloomed.
    In that instant, the forest changed.
    All around, the pockets of grass and wildflowers that had found sun enough to grow stood taller and brighter, their scents intensified, and the branches of the surrounding trees reached higher toward the morning sun. Bark darkened around their trunks, roots thickened and flexed, and the soil that nourished them all swelled and sweetened with vitality.
    Pride flared through Hlífrún's blood. She drank in the rejoice of the forest, the tinkling songs of the flowers, the young, twitching voices of grasses, and the rumbling creaks of the ancient trees as each declared their gratitude. Even the air seemed to lift and hum.
    The change was glorious.
    Her eyes flicked towards another patch of rustling, quivering grass and watched a mole poke its head out from the soil. She beamed gleefully as it squinted towards her, and returned its relieved snuffle with a wriggle of her own nose before it bumbled lazily back into the earth.
    This rift was the last of them, at least for the moment. The mykodendrit had been repaired at the most vital locations - its fungal network would heal, and her influence across the continent's forests would repair with it. She could already feel her primordial link to the Vaen Steppes strengthening far in the north.
    She stayed there for a while, relishing the summer breeze as it teased her thick, dark mane through her twiggy crown, and bathed in the sounds of her queendom.
    Until another concern edged its way to the front of her mind.
    She didn't muddy the air with her sigh. She rose instead, lifted her chin, and walked on through the forest to address it.
    Midsummer's Day was almost upon them. It was an important day, a crucial one for life, the most vibrant of the year - but it was also a day that was in sore need of vigilance. Humans always built their fires in a preposterous celebration of the sun, and every single one of them seemed to think that they could control the most destructive force of nature. In her thousands of years, she'd never once seen a shred of evidence that suggested they were learning from their mistakes, even as whole villages burned down from a single stray flicker, never mind the forests.
    But, the wilds were not helpless to them, especially not with her at their lead. She and its denizens had developed a steady system over the centuries, and while a number of parties needed reminding of their role at almost every such occasion, it remained fairly reliable.
    Fairly. Unfortunately, humans couldn't always be so easily predicted.
    A tangle of juniper parted on her approach, and she stepped through with a distracted thanks.
    Her woody fingers were already curling into fists as the most recent of human offences blazed its way to the front of her mind: the blackened, skeletal trees, reaching from the scorched earth like gnarled claws pleading for help; the dead silence that weighted the stifling air more heavily than the heat itself; the woven willow faces of kvistdjur, her loyal forest wardens, charred and crumbling where they lay, unrecognisable, dead, dry and bare of leaves.
    She caught herself and loosened her fists, ignoring the sap that oozed from the fresh wounds on her palms.
    That day was almost half a century behind her, but the responsibility, the failure, remained as if it had been yesterday. She'd fought even harder since to ensure it didn't happen again, but the fear that humans would inevitably find some other way to blindly destroy her domain seemed to dig its roots even deeper into her heart with every passing year.
    And so, that morning, her preparations began anew, first with a few polite visits to reinforce the weakest links in her chain of defence - and the näcken and the Arkhamas were perhaps the least reliable of all.
    In fairness, the näcken weren't deliberately difficult - they didn't fall under her rule, so they couldn't be expected to hear her call to arms through the roots. But her sister, the Mother of Currents, didn't deal as directly with the creatures of her domain as Hlífrún did, and for that reason, the Mother of Roots wasn't above bypassing her and eliciting the river sprites' help herself. They would provide it readily enough - as long as they stood to gain, too. Which, of course, they did: by redirecting the flow of their rivers to put out stray fires or stop them from spreading in the first place, their water would pick up fresh nutrients, and that would benefit everyone.
    No, the näcken were not deliberately difficult.
    The Arkhamas, however, were.
    The short, almost child-like creatures were numerous, loud and impulsive, and seemed to refuse all authority. But their unique ability to communicate silently across vast distances was just as crucial to damage control as the näcken's rivers. And besides, she'd long since found a clever little way to deal with the unruly things.
    Hlífrún, stepped from the damp soil and into a birch tree, melding into the bark as though it wasn't there at all.
    When she stepped back out, the birch and surrounding forest had become an alderwood, the nearby sound of birdsong had been replaced by cackles, whoops and the sound of clambering feet, and what peace had draped the trees was now an indignant protest. But, whatever the Arkhamas were doing, it was only a minor offence. The older trees got, the more easily offended they became.
    She brushed her hand soothingly over the bark as she stepped down to the root-laced soil, and felt their collective disgruntlement fade. Then she started straight towards the racket.
    They soon fell into sight: seven of them, their pale skin smeared deliberately with mud, clad in either animal hides or human clothes stolen from washing lines, playing, eating, whittling while one was chasing a weasel. It was a harmless game - if the weasel didn't want to play, it would've been quick to let them know.
    It took some time for them to notice her - she'd stepped fully into their glade, in fact, before the weasel felt her presence, and even once it had scurried away from its would-be captor and up onto the tree beside her to nuzzle at her cheek, the rest of them still took a few moments longer to work out why. The trees were looming disapprovingly by that point.
    "Yer Majesty!" The weasel-chaser cried, grinning as he finally dashed forwards to greet her. The rest remained stubbornly where they were, on rocks, in the branches, and an eighth poked her head out of a hollow tree trunk. "'Appy Midsummer-Or-There-Abouts! What'n can we do for ya?"
    "Happy Midsummer," she smiled despite herself, stroking the weasel's head. As bold and troublesome as Arkhamas were, she couldn't help her affection. Their presence alone always lightened her mood.
    A single root rose from the ground and twisted itself into a stool, which she sat upon gratefully, her cow-like tail swaying happily behind her. "It's exactly that which I've come to talk to you about."
    Every one of them narrowed their oversized eyes with shared suspicion. A few wandered over her naked body. She smiled sweetly and ignored it. "I have a job for you all."
    "Again?" One of them groaned.
    "Yep, and it's very important."
    The first boy, one with sticks and bones tied into his matted hair, folded his arms and looked down his snubby nose at her. He had to tilt his head a fair way back to do it. "You said that last year."
    "And this year," she smiled brightly, "it's even more important. The humans will be lighting their Midsummer fires in a matter of days--"
    "Why do they do that?"
    "Now of all nows, an' all!"
    "Yer, it's hot enough, ain't it?"
    "--And I need you all to keep your big and wonderful eyes open," she continued over the gaggle.
    The bone-haired boy watched her for a moment. They all did, each sharing their thoughts in silence. Then came the whistle of air being sucked in through chipped teeth. "Sounds like a big respons'bility, Yer Majesty. What with the magic an' all - I mean, there's already a lot we gotta watch out for, ya know..."
    "I certainly do," she beamed, "which is why it's such a very big responsibility, and why I need your help so very much this year. I need you to keep watch for bonfires stacked too close to forests and move them away, I need you to stop anyone from lighting anything too close, and I need you to raise the alarm if anyone does."
    "Like I said," the boy smiled not quite as sweetly, "big responsibility, and a fat lotta work, to boot. Per'aps we'd all be better off if'n you just asked your vakeys to do it."
    The other Arkhamas began nodding and agreeing - audibly.
    She rested her chin in her barkish hand and pretended to ponder the suggestion for a while. Her dark eyebrows drew slowly together. Then her round lips pursed in doubt. "I'm not so sure the vakehn are capable of this kind of job. I mean, it takes a certain kind of strength and determination to face humans, wouldn't you say? I mean, if they could do it, I would've asked them already. After all, I know how dreadfully busy you all are..."
    Their eyes narrowed again.
    "No," she sighed, "I'm afraid only Arkhamas can do it."
    The bone-haired boy grunted. "Well, that's a shame then, ain't it? 'Cause we're just tooooo busy. Like you said yerself, 'Majesty."
    She sighed and rose to her feet. A flicker of victory passed over the Arkhamas's faces until they noticed that she, too, was smiling. "Thank you," she beamed.
    The forest children blinked at her as the root stool unravelled and returned to the ground. "What?"
    "I appreciate your help, Gaz," she sang, turning her tree-hollow back towards them and stepping away into the trees. "I really don't know what I'd do without you!"
    "H-hey, wait, what--"
    "You'd better spread the word right away and move out to the borders, or you might miss something!"
    "Bu-bu-but," Gaz reached out after her as the others scrambled to their feet in confusion, "we didn't agree to nothin'!"
    "Thank you, my dearests! I appreciate your co-operation, so very much!" Then she stepped into a tree and vanished - though she remained in there just long enough to hear the defeated groan waft out through the glade.

    When she stepped out again, the alderwoods had shifted to willows leaning silently along a river bank. She wended and wove her way among them, following the deep, flowing river below very carefully, stifling her trepidation. Water was a wonderful, life-giving thing, but unlike the earth, it was somewhat...insubstantial. It had a surface, technically, but there was no physical way to stand on it, and while it was true that her wild magic allowed her the ability to do just that, it still sent a chill through her bones. She greatly preferred solid ground - but she wouldn't find a näck that way.
    She continued to step carefully, and a musical sound of softly-bowed strings soon rose from further along the river. She smiled and moved a little faster towards it. The beautiful, alluring sound grew louder and sweeter, calling her closer and closer.
    Fortunately, she was immune to its magic.
    She stopped before the source of the melody and leaned forwards over the water, hanging on to the tree. It lowered her closer on her request.
    "You won't lure me in there, I'm afraid," she told her reflection, and waited as the music rose a little louder. She simply smiled and shook her head.
    Soon, another face half-rose from the water surface, breaking her reflection - that of a boy much like an Arkhamas, but with green, scaled skin, yellow eyes with the slitted pupils of a frog and long, algae-frond hair that drifted with the flow of the river. Those eyes looked back at her with some degree of irritation. She met them with an unbroken smile. "Now, young man: I need your help."

This excerpt is the entirety of chapter 1.

Read the whole story in Hlífrún.

Pre-order Kindle for release on June 20th.

Paperback will be available on release day.

Cover art by Frenone.


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