Saturday, 5 September 2020

The Calling


     The long, flat drone of a horn ricocheted across the frozen, rock-studded landscape. Even in the throes of sleep, there wasn't a doubt in Katriga's heart that it was for her.
    She was out of bed in an instant, startling the little red dragon that had been curled up at the foot, and ran out through the door before he could even peep in surprise. Nothing but the gods themselves could have stopped her as she darted through the house. She didn't pause to snatch a breakfast, nor even call 'good morning' to her family - and the idea of actually waiting for them was as far from her mind as the fresh coat of paint on the front door.
    But they would come. They had to. The Calling was the most important day of her life.
    Somehow, despite being no bigger than a week-old kitten, Mogar managed to catch up before she was half way across the village, and the tiny little dragon took his place on her shoulder as she ran for its boundaries and out to the frosted valleys beyond.
    The Calling. Yesterday, Kat had turned eighteen and experienced the Kúkhulænn in all its painful glory, besting every challenge her clan presented - even if the challengers had all been the better part of drunk. But she had to admit - to herself, never out loud - that she was still a little sore from those duels that morning. She'd been in no fit state to stretch when it was finished, and even now she felt nauseous. She didn't believe for a moment that it could all have been nerves. Whatever trial awaited her out here, she knew she wasn't going to pass it with flying colours...
    But the night had been worth it, and today would be even better. Once she'd answered her ancestors' call, the world would open up before her, and she would finally be able to travel!
    Kat couldn't suppress the grin on her face as she tugged at the straps of her new plated fists, and her boots pounded harder over the ground.
    A chill wind chased her across the jagged valleys, just as it harried the rushing rivers and bent the creaking pines. And ahead at last, where the rough-hewn ground finally levelled out, guarded by ancient standing stones and shaded by bowing trees, stood a single, perfect, grassy mound.
    Only with the barrow firmly in sight did Kat finally slow down. Winded and dizzy, her excitement carried her ahead of it all. She barely noticed the crowd gathering a short way behind her; there was only the dense, heavy weight of a dozen presences ahead.
    Her breath caught in her throat when she understood what she was feeling, and her blood-red eyes flicked across the barrow in a fever, searching for...well, she wasn't really sure what for. A clue, she supposed. Because she'd arrived at the source of the horn blast, which itself had long since faded; she'd answered the call. But nothing at all was happening.
    She blinked and looked down at her feet. Perhaps she was too far. She took a few steps and stopped again.
    Nothing.
    A knot tightened in her brow. Was she supposed to wait? Or maybe say something? But what? And what if she said it too loud and angered the spirits? Maybe she was still too far - maybe she was supposed to knock? But knock on what?
    Maybe that was the clue. Perhaps she should go in.
    She gasped at a sudden hand on her shoulder before she could take a step, and Mogar snapped and puffed his own fiery little warning. But her head snapped not towards spirit or draugr, but the clan shaman - though he was a startling sight, himself, painted as he was by tradition. But the look he gave her stifled any other sound her anxiety could shape, and he suggested, in his usual muted gestures, that she calm down, and breathe.
    So she did just that, albeit with tremendous effort; closing her eyes, she smothered the fire in her heart at least until her hands stopped shaking, and came at last to notice something else laced into the air.
    Chanting. Voices. Not those of anyone she knew, and yet she knew them better and more deeply than her own mothers'.
    Then drums joined them, a slow, reiterating pattern that grew stronger with every cycle, shaking their way deeper into her bones until her heart beat in time with them.

     The crowd gasped, and Mogar peeped in startlement as he plummeted to the ground where Katriga had been standing just a moment ago.

     A sudden harsh, salty tinge wrinkled her nose, and her eyes opened to a raging twilight sea.
    Kat swore and staggered backwards from the precipice, stumbling until she crashed to her rear, her heart hammering in her ears over the roar of the wind. It took a long, stunned moment before she dared to crawl forwards and peer over the edge to the swirling white crests below. Her heart lurched even higher into her throat.
    She stole a look behind her despite the certainty that the edge would creep closer if she took her eyes off it. The peninsula was probably no bigger than the hall of the jarl, her mother, but it was uneven, and half of it sloped enough to send her tumbling into the sea. Vertigo made her equally certain that she was already falling.
    Her fingers dug into the hard earth until, slowly, she pushed herself up. With a deep breath, she grounded her feet and looked around. A fjord opened a ways back behind her, and the mouth of the river opened up to the sea, with other rocky, tree-topped towers scattered in between. The sky above it was purple, streaked with long wisps of cloud, and the sea below stole a great deal of its colour for itself. But it was nowhere she knew. And, she suspected, nowhen.
    "What..." She had no idea what her own question would have become. This wasn't what she'd expected. Anything could happen when one was Called, it was true - but she'd expected to fight, not be abducted...
    It wasn't until a voice sent a tremor through the ground that she realised she stood alone.
    "Katriga Ormslíkir."
    She managed not to slip as she spun around to find it. "Yes?" She could see no one at all. "Where--"
    "You seek to travel," the voice boomed on. It sounded like an accusation. "To leave your ancestral home. Your roots. Your people. What do you expect to find out there that should be worth leaving your family?"
    Dizziness forced her to stop spinning, but she was given no chance to answer.
    "You have reached your eighteenth year. You have answered our Call. And now, you will be challenged."
    She wasn't sure if she should feel relieved at that or not, but at least something was happening now. 'Show respect, don't argue, and succeed.' That was the best advice she'd been given the night before, among plenty of worse, and some she couldn't think for a moment would ever have been applicable. But as simple as even those words were, it was the best she had, and she would heed them to the letter.
    Kat straightened and placed her fist over her heart. "I'm ready."
    In that moment, all colour bleached from the world as a fog closed in. It consumed the sea, the fjord and the very precipice in a heartbeat. She fought against taking a single step backwards in case the edge had moved after all, but the cloud thickened quickly, pressing in, smothering, seeping into her very lungs.
    And then, as alarm began to creep up her spine, she saw a shadow moving through the veil. Then another. And another. Five of them circled around her, vanishing and reappearing in the depths of the fog, until one of them broke from its path and lurched its way towards her.
    Here was her fight.
    Her fist tightened. She had no weapon but her plated knuckles - but that was just fine.
    Before the shape could fully coalesce, she drew back her arm and loosed a rapid hook. The shadow shrieked, its voice distant and muffled, and staggered backwards leaving a trail of grey in its wake. Had she hit it? She hadn't felt her fist strike anything...
    She was given no time to think on it before a second closed in.
    "You can punch me," the same ghostly voice rumbled through the ground, "kick me...and cut me...but always...without blood or weapon...will I march back upon you."
    She could barely spare a moment to curse, let alone comprehend the threat, and continued to lash out as, one by one, the shadows attacked, retreated with a hiss, and lurched their way forwards yet again.
    "What...am I?"
    'Riddles?!' But her immediate answer remained firmly behind her teeth. It wouldn't agree with showing respect. She continued instead to fight them off, growling against their unearthly snarls, channelling her frustration into her strikes. But for every one she repelled, another fell right back upon her. And every blow yielded nothing but that same grey wisp.
    Doubt quickly set in. Her fists had never failed her before - but she'd never fought things like this before, either. She couldn't even be sure that any blow was actually landing or if they weren't dodging backwards at just the last moment, trying to wear her down before setting upon her in earnest. And if she was hitting them, and those shrieks were shrieks of pain, it didn't seem to be doing a damned thing to stop them.
    And the fog helped nothing, disorienting her as each shadow vanished and reappeared after every attempt. How many were there? Really? She'd counted five at first, but was that just a trick? Were there more? Less? Or were there others waiting just out of sight, and each strike she made defeated one entirely, only for it to be replaced by another from uncountable ranks?
    Kat's boot slipped on the frosted ground and a startled curse barked from her lips. She grounded her feet again and stopped herself from spinning. But the assault continued from all sides.
    They were tireless, unstoppable; always they closed back in. And as for what they were, how was she supposed to know?! And how was she supposed to defeat something that didn't bleed?! It was as if they were made of the fog itself!
    The thought struck her so hard that the momentum of her punch overtook her.
    Perhaps they were made of fog. And how was fog overpowered?
    'It isn't...'
    Her teeth clenched as her fist passed through another misty figure. It was a chance. But if there was no substance for her fist to hit...maybe they had no substance to hit her with, either...
    With a deep breath, Kat lowered her arm and loosened her fingers. The shadowy figures slowed to a prowl and watched her through the cloud. The deep voice came again: "What...am I?"
    "The fog."
    The creatures slunk back into the grey. Then, slowly, the haze began to lift.
    Katriga released an unsteady puff while the voice reverberated again, quite without a note of congratulation: "Not everything can be fought. Not everything should be fought. Some things will only drain your energy and leave you exposed when a true danger arises. Learn to observe and reason, and trust that some things will pass on their own."
    But, as the last of the fog evaporated, an earth-rending roar shook the pinnacle and seared fresh alarm into her heart. And towering flames swarmed all around her.
    She spun around, shielding herself against the heat of the crackling flame, and found herself staring into the seething ruby eyes of a dragon. Its great maw cracked open, and another roar bellowed free.
    Instinct alone burst a matching roar from Katriga's own throat. Her boots grounded, she stared the great creature down, and it rightly shrank away. But before she could attempt to approach it, another roar gusted against her back, and the ground blazed in another wreath of fire.
    She staggered away, cursing colourfully, and watched between barred arms as the second dragon ignored her entirely, snapping its maw at the first and swiping at its answering bellow. And she found, despite all rationality, something almost familiar in that first colossal beast while it stood its ground just as stubbornly as she had - familiar enough that she felt a sudden surge of rage when the attacker's talons raked across its face.
    "I am as small...and as light...as a feather." She heard the voice perfectly clearly even over the fury and flames. "But the strongest man...cannot hold me for long."
    Her fists tightened again, though she had no clue what she could possibly do, and dove forwards to try to help the smaller dragon.
    "What...am I?"
    Even in the scuffle to avoid the teeth and talons of both beasts, her mind had just room enough for a thought. But it couldn't possibly be Mogar, could it?
    "Wrong," the voice boomed, and the dragons continued their fight while she scurried about between them, thrusting her fists against the attacker's scales. "You are thinking...about yourself..."
    'Thinking about myself? While trying to defend this massive thing?!' And then another thought tumbled in. 'Not everything can or should be fought...' So she should do nothing?
    Another roar rent the air, and the burning ground shook with an advancing step. The smaller dragon inched backwards, and for a moment she caught the briefest flash of fear in its eyes. A dragon rarely showed such a thing.
    She couldn't do nothing.
    So Katriga threw another punch into the attacker's hide with another draconic roar of her own, then another, and another, until she noticed her footing begin to slip. The ground was thawing. A snatched glance behind her revealed the crumble of the edge - and another to the side that the attacker was losing ground far more rapidly than its victim. If it kept breathing fire so furiously, it was going to make itself fall off.
    When the smaller dragon roared its hatred and retreated another step backwards, Kat moved in. She ran around the larger dragon, punching against its impenetrable hide, making a nuisance of herself more than anything, if the thing had even noticed her. But she ran and struck anyway, doing all she could to draw its attention. A sharp flare of heat across her back suggested it was working.
    Flames followed her in spurts and bouts, and the ground beneath her feet continued to soften, crumbling stone continued to fall, until, at last, the beast's great wings unfurled and it took to the sky with a frustrated howl of defeat.
    "What," the voice came again, "am I?"
    She stole a moment to breathe as she watched it go, then turned back towards the smaller dragon and held her hand out towards its burned muzzle. She smiled as it pressed back against her palm. "Fire," she replied, and with a rumble of approval, the dragon pulled back, spread his wings, and lifted off with a single powerful beat.
    "Some weapons are double-edged," the voice intoned as the surrounding flames began to thin, and the pinnacle ceased its collapse and began instead to rebuild. "Learn when to press on them, and when to hold back, or you risk undermining your own efforts and carrying yourself to defeat."
    She watched the dragon vanish among the thickening clouds above, smiling after it even while she considered the words. It was only when a chill prickled at her cheeks that she looked back to her surroundings and found, once again, that the fjord, the sea and the edge of her cliff had vanished in another thick fog.
    'No,' she thought, 'not fog...' It was too white, too cold. Then something small and wet struck her cheek. She lifted her fingers to it, then saw another land on the back of her gauntlet and spread from a small white speck to a single, crystal drop. Snow.
    Kat looked up and around herself while more flakes brushed her cheeks, and watched the cloud grow denser. Little grey discs drifted through the air for as far as she could see, growing gradually larger the higher she looked. The chill, too, began to bite, and she pulled her clothes tighter before squinting at a grey shape in the distance.
    'Again?' A growl slipped through her numb lips, but she prepared for the assault anyway, gritting her teeth against the cold, and fought her mind to focus. Slowly and steadily, the shape drew nearer. And, unlike the last, clearer. Something that looked like enormous antlers rose from the top of its head, and the pad and click of feet through the snow numbered four. 'Caribou?'
    She inched backwards as a face formed clearer through the cloud. Caribou didn't have tusks. Nor, she noticed as it continued its approach, claws. Her fists tightened, but movement to the left drew her eye as another beast appeared. Then another.
    By now the snow was thick, and visibility had dropped to mere feet, but the creatures kept coming. Something about their slow and steady pace unsettled her, and she boomed a great draconic roar towards the first to frighten it off. It flinched and hesitated, but the second was undeterred. The first soon resumed.
    She spun and roared again towards another, and it, too, faltered in fear. But the hesitation was shorter than the last. And more had since appeared.
    "As two...as five...as seven...as nine..."
    She spun and backed away as six antlered, fanged and clawed beasts slowly closed in around her.
    "Without a face...the voice shouts loudest... Without identity...the heart rings strongest."
    There were too many of them, and yet not one of them was attacking. A chill moved up her spine as confusion spun her around even faster. 'Why aren't they attacking?!'
    "What...am I?"
    'What are you, what are you...think, Kat, think!' She stamped her feet, in part to warn off the creatures, in part to warm her legs. But the cold was already seeping in. 'Fog, fire, snow. One, five, nine, loud voice - wind, snowflakes.'
    "Snow!" She shouted, making towards a break in the approaching wall of antlers.
    "Wrong."
    The wall closed before she could reach it. The creatures slowed further and clustered around her. Tusks drew close, and furry muzzles sniffed at her face. Mouths opened and chewed at her clothes. She stiffened, more than prepared to strike back, but still not one of them touched her beyond the warm gust of a snort through their noses.
    The knot in her brow tightened. They weren't attacking. They weren't attacking, because she wasn't a threat. Not while there were so many of them...
    Her gaze passed over those gathering further out. It was a whole herd of the things. Some were huddling together, looking at her but making no attempt to get close and investigate like the rest. And there were smaller ones, younger ones, bouncing around without a care. Because they knew they were safe...
    A tentative smile tried to tug at her lips, but doubt kept it at bay.
    "What...am I?"
    The young beasts bounced and bleated. Finally, her smile came through. "Family."
    The creatures didn't turn and leave. The snow didn't relent, the wind didn't fade. The chill continued to bite.
    Her frown grew deeper, until the deep voice rumbled again. "Community. ...But 'family' will suffice." On that cue, the animals moved on and continued their migration, paying her no more than a final, cursory sniff as they passed.
    "Accept and embrace the people around you. Strength comes from within, it is true, but together, that strength can move mountains and protect things far greater than yourself."
    The cloud and snow vanished, and Katriga found herself standing back on the pinnacle with the fjord behind her, the purple ocean crashing against its foot, and the sky touched again by only a few wisps of cloud. The air felt almost warm. She closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of comfort. Whether she was built for the cold or not, it didn't usually come on so suddenly.
    But she started in fright when she opened her eyes again and found a figure standing before her, one that flickered between a ghostly woman and the dried husk of a draugr. But she didn't raise her hand towards it. Instead, she bowed with her fist over her heart. When she rose, more spirits stood behind it.
    "Be sure of yourself, Katriga Ormslíkir," the ancestor said in the same booming voice, one that still seemed to originate from everywhere and nowhere. "Be sure of your choices, and do what needs to be done. Take strength in your hands and wield it. But don't shun the help of others - among your kind, or the world beyond. It will be a lonely, dangerous place if you confine your trust to your clan alone. And," the draugr's lips peeled back into a crooked smile, "Mogar doesn't count."
    "Mogar!" The thought struck her before she could even try to mull over her words. "What of him? The prophecy said--"
    "'Upon whence your kin is born of dragon's blood, so shall this creature bond with them'." The ancestor nodded sagely. "The prophecy said what was needed."
    Kat's face screwed up in dissatisfaction. "That's not really an answer."
    "And yet," the ancestor flickered back into a ghost and gave her another crooked smile, "it is the absolute truth. Patience, Katriga."
    She was about to protest when she felt something strange pass over her, and fought breath back into her stunned lungs. "What was that?"
    "A boon. Fortitude. Luck and awareness on your travels, wherever they might take you." The ancestor stepped forwards - it was one step, she was sure it was one step, and yet it covered the length of the seven or so strides between them, and her cold, dry hand was suddenly pressed over her heart. "Live well, Katriga."
    Then the world went black.

     A startled squeak turned immediately into excited little peeps as Mogar swept back up onto Katriga's shoulder, and she blinked back towards the barrow. Trees had replaced the sea, standing stones the ancestors, and the fjord, as she whipped around, with a crowd of people, her family beaming among them. Her youngest sister Ragna was the only one who hadn't yet turned eighteen, and she stared back at her from their side with a mixture of fright and blazing fascination.
    When her mothers, Skurta and Jarl Thorhalla, stepped forwards and embraced her, the rest of the crowd burst into cheers, and she felt the tension in her ribs finally ease.
    She'd done her clan proud.
    And now...now she could chase adventure...

 The following story was written for Brooke, who owns all the characters and their histories.
This story is not to be copied or reproduced without both mine and Brooke's permission.
Words copyright © Kim Wedlock



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