Madainn's Lore: A Grave Cold Excerpt
The weather is glacial.
The wind, laced with frost, blows galleons of gray, storm-swollen clouds across the sky.
They hang low and heavy like a headsman’s axe over the army that stands before her now, her men’s armor a reflection of the stormy sky, silver and gray and pewter and lead, all at once, all mixed together. Their weapons bristle angrily, cold quills of death, and the ranks of men that cover the coastal ground seem endless.
They are waiting for her to say or do something, but she doesn’t know what. Looking down, she sees feet that are not her own, booted for war, and feels the wind stir the long, wiry whiskers that frame a broad face as her thick, calloused hand scratches the scruff.
A heavy braid rests on her back.
"Seems I am not myself," she mutters in her dream.
Gulls wheel and call, swirling accents of white against the sky of slate and the sea of steel.
Sensing something behind her, she turns.
Strange men with spears and short curved swords and wavy bladed knives and exotic dress in tan, red, black and brown, the colors of earth, stand behind her, sand to their sea.
Tan skinned, and bare-chested despite the frosty wind, they stand resolute as stone, grim in their own way. Their long raven hair hangs straight down, fans across their shoulders like cowls, unmoving in the whipping wind.
The enemy, standing, soon to fall before Alquinian vengeance, is brave and resolute.
Fully turning her back to her men, her own armor heavy and cold on her shoulders, even through the leather she wears under it, she feels the Madainn grow warm in her hand, and the letters smolder to an ember red, gathering light and heat, then glowing bright on the blade with all the colors of a rampant sun.
Raising Maidann high, the letters are ablaze for all to see, a battle roar shatters the silence to rubble. In the next few moments, sea rushes to sand; sand shifts and rolls to meet sea. Battle cries and clashing weapons drown out the world, and a blood tide washes over all.
And all the lore of the sword’s past floods into Rani who-is-not. In her mind’s eye she sees it all through V’karian senses, smells the old, oiled leather, the tang of old armor, human sweat, waste and blood. The clang of steel on steel sets her head ringing with echoes. She hears the dying screams of horses and soldiers, feels the deep cold of a forest night; now the relentless heat of a desert day.
She becomes male and female, oak-brown as Mwalé, her plaited hair long and black, laced with lapis stones; she stands in tropical heat, looking out at the ocean, Madainn’s pommel sits sentinel in her steady hand.
The slavers would take no Nyeusi today.
Now, pale as Ardia, with blond hair worn mid length to cover her ears, it forms a warm cap under her fur lined hood as she runs across an icy white wasteland, Madainn in its strapped scabbard bouncing on her back, a blue-eyed black wolf loping at her side. The message she carries is important, and the moon must not see her in the dark, but the slaughtering of the coven has delayed her, and now the sun clings like a rind of red fingernail to the horizon, as their familiars gather to hunt her down.
The sword grows warm against her back: they were faster than she’d hoped.
In a series of small and random encounters with a malevolent hermit, a crazed soldier, woods bandits, and a feral child, Madainn whirls, and limbs, hands and heads leap away from their owners, spiraling in graceful arcs trailing scarlet streamers, spinning as they fall, to plop gracelessly on the sanguine soil.
Her hand is now femininely slender.
As she practices a new killing stroke with her king’s gift, a sword named Madainn, its victim, a man of ill temper and presumptuous hands, proved the new teaching true, as he blubbers and dies.
The court applauds the well executed move, glad to see him dead, until she claims his lands and wealth her own, and knows there will be more killing.
Now a hand massive as a blacksmith’s, corded and crosshatched with veins, dotted with pits and burns, covers Madainn’s jeweled pommel like a child’s ball, lifts the blade to fend off the savage, desperate blow of a woman with a child strapped to her back; now in a smooth hand, as if she’d spent her life in society, Madainn’s blade spins a duelist’s back to her, and she takes the advantage and pierces his kidney.A hand now blistered, the fingers permanently curled, blood seeping out through the cracked skin, expertly working the whetstone from decades of practice, the scars on the back of the hand seem like an ancient map of war, spotted and wrinkled with age and enemy blood soaked in too deep to wash away.
Madainn seems to grow heavier every day. The eyes of a young girl with short black hair and large, lavender eyes watch the old man from the doorway, and death whispers his name.
Weakly, he beckons from his throne, though there is no one to witness.He can barely hold the sword across his palms as the girl walks, reluctant, toward him; in her black velvet dress she seems to drift like a cloud of ashes. Her shadow crosses the rays of the setting sun dappling the room, and his eyes grow heavy with the onslaught of death as she takes the sword from him. One final time he touches the blade and places it, and she pushes it through his heart.
A strange surge of heat rushes through him as the letters begin to glow, and he slips away.
The girl falls to her knees, clasping his knees, emptying her tears to match her new queendom, sobbing, and the sword, blood draped around its blade like a lady’s favor, clangs on the marble, ringing out one lone, sonorous, sorrowful note, the only song of mourning her father would receive, and never hear.
Strange languages roll off Rani’s tongue, words she’s never spoken, from places she’s never been, “Madainn” the only common word among them.
Rain plasters her red, unruly hair to her skull, until, sticking Madainn in the ground, she finally ties it back with a piece of leather.
The enemy charges down the mountainside in a tsunami of steel as lightning and thunder wage their own heavenly war; retrieving Madainn, the handle grows warm, and her own mouth fills with a slaying song, tasting the rain as she lifts it to strike.
If she is to die in this valley, she will do it with Madainn in her savage fist.
A blizzard wind blues her fingers as she frantically works Madainn’s blade, skinning two wolves she’s killed, to warm her before she freezes to death in the whiteout, a long way from home, which she will not reach before the deadly winter night falls,.
With one raw, steaming skin across her shoulders, she slices a fleshy chunk from one carcass, and bites into it, snapping the stringy flesh in her teeth, blood warming her cheeks and tongue, her throat, warming her free hand in the other’s carcass, but she can feel the blood already congealing as hoarfrost collects on the fur.
She would use the sword’s heat to burn the corpse for warmth , but around her, just inside the ring of pines, as the first evening star makes a silver pinpoint on the cobalt sky, deep, rolling growls come from the pack before she sees their eyes.
A bright relentless sun strews yellow diamonds across the waves, making it hard to see. The wind is high, and the ocean undulates under its caress. The deck of a great ship with wide, full sails sways under her sunburned, callused feet as she sticks Madainn through a boarding marauder’s chest, flinging him back overboard, fluent words she knows to be curses flooding her mouth, her body and face pierced with jewels and marked with strange, compelling patterns of colorful inks.
Now, by the light of the rising moon, her arms are weary with the weight of blood soaked Madainn, the air rife and rank with the smell of soldiers’ guts; there is bitter-tasting, gelid, canary yellow bile in her throat that makes her retch and spit; sweat stings her eyes, and calico bits of enemy flesh spot her own.
Rubbing a bloody forearm across her face, she colors her eyelids with wet scarlet.
She sees a new, massive enemy charge, hears the soldiers’ curses, their oaths to cut her to a bloody stump, to use her until their semen pours from her ears; they roundly curse her lineage, her gods, and her country.
And the ancient sword called Madainn sings and feeds the carrion eaters for another day.
And through all of those people she’d become, Madainn never leaves her hand as her arm droops, unable to hold the sword aloft; blood makes its handle so slick that the leather thong strapping it to her wrist the only thing that holds it fast to her.
The carnage is numbing in size and ferocity.
The heat of raging fires around her sear the hair on her arms, her nostrils flare for oxygen, her bloodshot eyes water and burn from the smoke, the horses of the enemy blow hot air on her when they pass. The smoke blinds them as well, else she’d be dead.
Fire claims all, and the scents of cooking horseflesh and man twirl like waltzing ballroom lovers through the roiling smoke.
A will not her own keeps her knees from buckling, keeps her moving, and not tumble to the ground; to be prone in war is to dig your grave with your own hands.
She hurriedly bundles her long, frizzled red-brown hair with a Nyeusian sapphire clip, as enemy soldiers close in, forming a circle about her.
She lifts the sword, and big biceps swell.
Her skin is light with a yellow cast, and she can feel her long, thin, black braids slide across her neck and shoulders.
The charging soldiers tower above her, and her mind calms: she is a large, wide rock in a torrent river.
She knows this one, and names him: Lyr-Tan, the last to hold Madainn.
His strength and power course like lightning through her blood.
She spins and spins again, the sword a blur.
Bodies fly backward.
Limbs cover the ground
Her back against the wall, time slows.
When they charge, it seems as if they are slogging through mud.
She only remembers the last one falling, his head at her feet, eyes wide in amazed sorrow.
She is so very tired: tired of fighting, of killing, of seeing bellies and throats opened, of the kicking feet and swollen purple faces, the wet warbling gurgles of the hanged, of the black clouds of crow and raven and vulture, trailed by black streamers of flies.Tired of seeing the raped, battered, exposed bodies of dead women, legs open, thighs bruised and bleeding, violated womanhood on display for all to see, some with weapons still inside them, deep red blood congealing; faces and breasts, if not mutilated, covered in dried semen, of grim trophies of ears and teeth, heads and eyes, phalluses and scrotums, strung around the necks, arms and waists of mad-eyed creatures no longer human.
All the war cries in all the world blend into one long deafening roar, and the whistling slice of the sword through air echoes across an endless sky.
This was war, and the bards who wrote and sang ballads with long stanzas about mighty, bloody battles, of great deeds of valor, of heroes and villains, nobles and knaves, did not sing of the pointless vivisection of men, and the wretched lot of violated women, the stripping away of sacred childhood, the wiping out of the knowledge of the old.
There was no glory in this.
Rani woke, thrashing in the covers, breaking free. She was soaked through, filled with a horror so great she couldn’t scream, bone tired though she’d been asleep.
She couldn’t stop shaking; panicked, she looked around the room.
Moonlight shone softly through the curtains, and her candles had burned down some hours before. Nadiya had been in to check on her, because a cup and water jug was on the nightstand.
The trembling subsided as she became fully awake.
She sloughed off the rest of the covers, and sat on the side of the bed; the reality of what she’d dreamed came back to her, the horror of what the coming war would mean.
The moonbeams rested on her neck and back like a mother’s touch, but there was no warmth to them. Putting her face in her hands, violent sobs racked her as large tears leaked through her fingers to splatter on her knees.
There was a face for every one of them: the little village girl from Yirja, lost forever, for dear, foolish King Damin, for Poppa and Momma, and the bedtime hugs that would never be again, for Arkad and Sierus and Nadiya, lost lovers and friends and brothers, Zephal and Iroica, destined to be together and alone, and Ciaria, the sister she never had.
Her right hand felt scarred, and she put it down to look.
The word Derbháil was etched across it, seared with dried blood.
Her breath shuddered as she looked up at the high, indifferent heavens.
She knew now, with certainty, that she would be the source of all sorrows in the final battle with Tu’aka.
With Madainn in her hand.
©Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
April 9th, 2013
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