Sharing Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator because it’s beautiful and perfect. It’s what we all want, yes?
But here we are, some seventy years later, dealing with many of the same problems. I won’t get into why or what they are, because most reading this probably already know or have their own ideas about them, and I don’t think it’s my place to tell you what to think or how to perceive the various injustices of the world.
But the fact remains: the world is not how we want it to be. Regardless of political affiliation. From the most traditional and conservative to the most progressive and liberal, no one is satisfied. I see it every day on social media. I hear it every day on the bus, on the street, on the faces of those I see, in their voices whispering or shouting out.
No one likes what we have, so what do we do?
Before I continue, this is not going to be a solution for everyone. It’s just one way of doing things.
There are activists and there are whistleblowers and journalists. These people put their lives on the line to try to make the world better. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, John Kiriakou, Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond, and so many others. Many of us wish we could be like that. That we could devote our lives to the causes we believe in, even if it has serious consequences for us and our families.
Even if we wanted to be like these people, many of us simply can’t. The reasons are various and multitudinous. We don’t have the economic freedom to give up our jobs, or we fear giving up our jobs due to economic pressure. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the knowledge, insight, or ability to do the kinds of things these other people have done. We fear for our own life or the lives of our loved ones. The list goes on and on, but the point is that so many of us can’t be out there protesting and changing the world through our own actions.
And that’s okay.
Protesting is important. Campaigning and canvassing is important. Fundraising matters. Throwing events in the community and spreading knowledge matter.
We need these people who can disseminate and spread ideas. Who can march on Washington. Who can occupy public spaces. Who can get in the streets and shut it down. Who can teach children and adults. Who can rebuild, heal, and reach out.
But so many of us just can’t do that. It could be from political ambivalence or it could be from some of the reasons I outline above. Whatever the case, we just can’t.
There are other ways to influence the world in ways that you believe are important.
Funding organisations, peoples, and projects you believe in are a few big ways, and they’re the ways that I choose to make the world move in a way that I think is correct. You may disagree with my ideals, beliefs, ideological stances, and that’s fine! If you feel I’m doing something damaging to the world and people, start a dialogue. Or, if you don’t want to do such a thing, fund organisations, peoples, and projects that you believe in, which may work in opposition to the ones I choose to support.
Now, I don’t make a lot of money. I’m lucky enough today to be making about double what I made last year, but I still make well below the median income in the US. Last year I was well below the poverty line and I feel fortunate to have climbed out. And while I gave money to many organisations last year, I’m also lucky enough to give to more, now.
I’m going to list out the organisations and causes that I currently give to.
I do this mostly to show that you can do a lot with not that much money. While I’ll never be able to do things that the Koch brothers or Bill Gates can do with their money, I can at least help in my limited capacity. And if millions of people can give a few dollars to causes they believe, that can generate a huge amount of funding. Funding that allows activists, journalists, artists, and organisations to do what they need to do.
- International Wolf Center – A wolf sanctuary and educational resource based in northern MN
- The Current – A MN based publicly funded radio station
- Democracy Now! – A listener funded news organisation
- Chelsea Manning Support Network – An organisation trying to free Chelsea Manning while also covering her legal fees
- Wikileaks – A not for profit news organisation
- Planned Parenthood – A women’s health care provider, educator, and wellness organisation
- Syrian Refugee Fund – There are a lot of organisations working to provide aid. I actually gave to this through Kickstarter organised funding drive and a Google fund matching drive.
- Freedom of the Press Foundation – A non-profit organisation that defends public-interest journalism
- ACLU – The nation’s largest guardian of civil liberties
- Sierra Club Northstar Chapter – The local chapter of the Sierra Club, a conservation and environmental organisation
- Baltimore Community Fund – A community organisation working in response to the tragedy there earlier this year
There are, of course, thousands of organisations you could support. As you can see, most of the causes I support are related to the environment, civil liberties, human rights, and freedom of the press. If these are things you want to support, there are so many organisations you can fund. The ones above are the ones I choose to give to, but there are so many others that you could choose.
In addition to the above, which are largely political in nature, I also give to a variety of Kickstarter and Indiegogo and Patreon campaigns. I’m not positive how many I’ve funded or attempted to fund, but they generally have to do with videogames, boardgames, or publishing projects.
Why I include these in this is because art can make the world better. So can games. I believe very strongly that allowing talented people to create awesome things makes the world better. When you put prosocial or positive or just awesome things into the world, the world becomes better.
That’s how I feel anyrate.
Some of the other organisations I’ve given to or subscribed to:
- Broken River Books – Gave to both of their Kickstarter campaigns and currently subscribe
- The Cupboard – Subscribed for three years. No longer subscribe.
- The Paris Review – Subscribed for four years. No longer subscribe.
- Dzanc Books – Subscribed for about four years. No longer subscribe
- Black Ocean – I’ve subscribed for the previous three years, but haven’t this year. Still might.
- Mudluscious Press – Closed a few years ago, so I no longer subscribe
- Two Dollar Radio – Gave to their filmmaking campaign
- Lightspeed Magazine
- Clarkesworld Magazine
- The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Strange Horizons
- Asimov’s – May or may not continue
- Analog – May or may not continue
- Greying Ghost
- Serial Box – Tremontaine
This is the small way I try to shape the world in a way that I think is beneficial.
It’s clearly not the only way and it may not even be the best way, but I simply don’t have the time or economic freedom to get out and protest or be an activist. What I can do is throw some money to people who I think are working to make the world a better place.
Other ways are to buy local. Support your local grocer, brewery, restaurants, stores. Improve the area around you and your life will just become better. Whether you give support through activity or money, do something to make life better.
And then there are all the small and nearly invisible ways to improve the world. Be kind. Be generous. Be thoughtful. Listen. Give help where you can, even if it’s just helping someone up. Every little positive actions will improve your life and the lives of those around you.
So be good. Be better.
But mostly, just be kind.
If you have alternative ways to improve the world, I’d love to hear them.
I like this story a lot. It’s kind of simple and insular but it deals with complex emotions, I think, in a way that feels real to me. I think this gives us a lot of who Guo really is and who she has been. Dealing with children is something wholly different than wandering the world in search of gods.
Tonight in the Temple of Forgotten gods
They followed a stream through the forest and came to a wide beach that spread before them and then a large lake. As they stepped out from the shadow of the forest, the breeze came easy and rolled over their skin. The air lighter and slippery, no longer sticking in their lungs or against their skin. The children wore the same dirty clothes they were buried in and Guo wore the cloak she always wore over loose grey clothes.
Heinrich and Franny jaws hung open as they stared at the water.
Guo stretched her arms and told them to go.
The children ran without taking another glance at the trees or Guo. They threw off their clothes as they ran and entered the water naked. Playing and washing at the same time, the brother and sister splashed and held their noses when they submerged. The waves were gentle, more ripple than anything else.
Guo shielded her eyes from the suns and looked around. The light reflected bright off the glasslike water, blinding her attempts to see the edges of the lake. She turned to the right and left and saw a temple protruding from the trees to the right.
She walked towards it, Heinrich and Franny’s shouts and laughter filling her skull.
Trees and plants grew from the roof of the temple and vines wrapped round its walls. Two pillars stood at the entrance covered in green and past them only darkness yawning. Plants cracked open the steps leading to the entrance and grew over it. Grass and dirt and moss and roots break the stone apart. Whales and leviathans etched into the pillars and walls battled the dirt and growth, giving up clarity to nature.
Guo pulled out the boneflute and played, giving shape to the air surrounding her. She pulled off her hood and entered. The stone floor cracked apart and misshapen. Moving slow in the darkness, she waited till her eyes adjusted to the scattered light from the falling suns. She turned to the roof where roots dangled, where dew dripped. Deeper into the temple she found a hole filled with dirt. Rubbing her hand in the soil, the moisture caused the dirt to stick to her fingers. She closed her eyes and breathed in the musty air.
Heinrich and Franny ran in and out of the water and Guo scrubbed at their clothes.
Go collect some wood for a fire tonight, Guo said. We’re going to stay in that temple over there for the night. We can make a fire.
Their eyes opened wide and Franny said, What gods belong to that temple?
Guo laughed, Gods don’t belong to temples. Nothing belongs to a temple. It’s only a building, and this one is long empty. Hurry now, the sooner you get wood, the sooner I can tell you everything you want to ask me.
The children ran into the woods, laughing and playing still.
The fire burned and they sat in a circle round it. The flames ate away the darkness of the temple as the horizon rolled towards the suns. Heinrich and Franny sat wrapped in Guo’s cloak while their clothes dried beside the fire. Guo roasted two rabbits over the fire.
Granny, Franny’s voice lilted, Why don’t we ever make fires in the forest?
The trees don’t like them.
Franny nodded but Heinrich frowned and said, That’s stupid.
Guo turned to him, The trees are the eldest children of this world. Older than most of the gods. The wolf gods consider this forest their birthplace and the womb of all life on Saol. Their memory spreads in all directions and they see the pattern weaving from the spindle of the child goddess’ dreams.
Then why doesn’t the forest fight back when we cut them down?
Guo uncrossed her legs and stretched them wide, leaning into each one individually. Then she leaned back on her elbows and raised her face to the ceiling, The endless things of this world fight differently than humans do. Their violence is of a different kind. Mostly they’re perplexed by human behaviour and don’t know how to adapt to it. Humans have existed so briefly and we live barely long enough for the trees to know who and what we are. We’ve become an annoyance to them but they don’t see us as a threat yet, though they should. Though the forest has dealt with gods and demons for thousands of years, all of those have longer sight than humans. Because humans live so briefly, so brightly, they’re more volatile and dangerous than even the most capricious gods. The trees don’t understand this.
Franny nodded and Heinrich snorted at her, telling her that she did not know. Franny disagreed and they pushed back and forth.
Guo smiled and turned over the rabbits, They’ll be done soon. What do you really want to ask me?
Heinrich let go of Franny and slumped into his crossed legs. Franny pulled the cloak tighter around herself and said, Why do you look like us?
That’s what I thought you’d ask, Guo smiled. If Heinrich had asked, the question would be different. He wants to know where we’re going, yeah?
Heinrich’s voice cracked, We’ve left Drache.
Guo nodded, I’ll answer both now, since the answers are linked. I come from far to the east. So far to the east that the land has a different name and different color. We call ourselves Xuè and our land is called Xīnzàng. Our name means blood and our land means heart. The heart needs the blood to flow and the blood needs the heart to give us direction. So it is there. We come from a more ancient people. A people now splintered and a kingdom swallowed by the power of gods held in hands ignorant and unworthy. We call the place where we once lived the Scar. Some day I will tell you about what happened in that ancient place but not tonight. People fled there, though. They sailed away in all directions. My people stopped on an island and became islanders. Others travelled farther. They travelled all the way to this continent. The Garasu. They came and settled here. They built a kingdom of glass and power to fend off the dragons to the south and the wolves all around. Your people and mine are the same, though separated by hundreds of years and half a world of space. I’m taking you there. To meet others like you. I don’t know why you were in the Land of the Dragonlords but I believe you were adopted by your family there. Do you know what that means?
Heinrich said No but Franny only stared.
It means the mother who gave birth to you gave you away. You were brought to the mother and father you knew and they raised you. They chose to be your parents. That is a powerful thing. A beautiful and rare thing. They treated you as family and family you became. You will always be their son and daughter, even after all of us die and the wolf gods play with our bones. But for now, I bring you to the land you were probably born to.
Mommy wasn’t my mommy? Franny’s voice came as a whimper.
Guo raised her index finger, Your mother became your mother as you became her daughter. She did not have to love you. She chose to. Every day. Every minute. She loved you more than any woman could ever love a child.
Heinrich stood, I don’t want to go to this new land.
Guo blinked, her expression becoming hard and then softening, her eyebrows bending upward in sorrow, I cannot keep you. I cannot raise you.
His fists clenched, his voice came strained and he kept his eyes on his feet, You have to.
Guo took the rabbits off the fire and ripped off their legs, handing two to each of the children. She warned them that they were still hot.
They ate. The light of the suns disappeared and Guo put more wood on the fire.
This temple, Guo said, belonged to ancient gods we no longer know. The people native to this continent worshipped the water. I don’t quite know who they were or why they worshipped water here. I believe it was thousands and thousands of years ago. I think the people far to the north who call themselves Sami are the natives to this place. Your ancestors, the Garasu and the Drache, probably drove them away and so they ran north.
What gods are worshipped here?
Guo smiled and her eyes wandered over the cracked walls barely visible past the flames dancing reach, I have no idea. We’ll likely never know. There are images of the gods or the creatures that were once worshipped here, but I’ve never seen them. They may have all died or ran away or simply faded out.
Gods can’t die, Heinrich’s voice was hard.
All things can die. Some things just don’t do it often. Yes, the gods can die but most are killed or choose to give life up.
Guo fingered the rabbit bones, I’ve known many gods but I don’t think I understand any of them. They live too long. They live so long that they forget more than we’ll ever know or experience. They don’t remember their births or their origins. They remember so little about the things I want to know. For them, Time doesn’t march on but sort of meanders and slips by. Centuries disappear while they nap and daydream. Many have lived so long that they don’t seem to understand life any longer. It’s like they’re stuck in a dream. Guo smiled, her sharp canines peaking between her lips.
Why did it happen? The voice was quiet and soft, the pitch high.
Guo raised her face to them. They sat across from her with eyes underwater, their lips shipwrecking. She opened her mouth to speak.
They watched her stare openmouthed at them and then lowered their eyes, wiping their noses and sniffling.
Guo motioned for them to come close to her and they crawled around the fire, still naked.
Guo dropped the bones of the rabbits into the dirt. She mixed them up and then pulled out the straight ones and collected them on her lap. She tossed the rest into the fire, except for the skulls and pelvises, which she pushed to the side. With her finger she drew a star with eight points. She connected the points in a circle.
Heinrich to her left and Franny to her right, she caught the eye of both of them and they kept their eyes on her left hand.
Guo scooped up the bones in her hand and held them loosely, shaking them back and forth. With a smile, she tossed them onto the star.
There, she said and pointed. What do you see?
The children stared, their brows furrowed. Heinrich leaned close and Franny imitated him. She squatted and put her face close to the bones, then straightened and said, A storm.
Guo turned to Henirich, And you?
He cleared his throat and wiped his wet eyes, I don’t know.
Guo touched his leg softly, What do you see?
His lip quivered and tears rolled down his cheek, I don’t know.
Franny began to cry and Guo stood, placing her palm on Heinrich’s cheek.
What is it, child?
Heinrich stood, naked, the sweat beading on his forehead, his arms limp at his side, his body wracked in silent sobs.
What is it?
Franny walked past Guo and threw her arms around her brother. He did the same. Franny pushed her face into his chest and he lowered his head to rest on top of hers.
Guo stood, her hand reached towards them. She brought it back to her side and turned to the bones on the star in the dirt.
Scattered over the image, none of the bones bisected any of the lines she drew in the dirt. She picked them up and tossed them in the fire and then brushed out the star.
The children cried standing beside her in the broken temple for forgotten gods as night thickened and the fire cackled.
Another week, another story. This one about foxes and watching gods behave as gods do.
A Fox Wedding
A tambourine and a handdrum in the distance danced between the trees.
Guo stopped and the children stopped beside her. The dense canopy turned the forest into a halflit tapestry of greens and yellows and blues. Fecund and fragrant, the air thickens as the tambourine and drumming come nearer.
It came slowly paced. The hand drummed slow with time dragging in between each strike and the tambourine chimes every third drumbeat.
What is it, Granny? Franny whispered and grabbed Guo’s hand.
Guo smiled at the children and spoke Sprache with a thick accent, We’re going to see something few humans ever get to see. How does that sound?
Heinrich fought his smile but Franny’s burst over her face.
We need to be still and we need to be quiet. Can you do that for me?
Franny clamped both hands over her mouth and nodded. Heinrich nodded too.
Follow me, Guo said as she moved slowly toward the drumbeat. Creeping between trees and over underbrush, she turned to the children and pointed to her feet. They watched as she took a step, landing on the ball of her foot and then rolled the rest of her foot to the ground from the outside in. She did this twice more and then carried on forward.
Heinrich and Franny imitated the step with Heinrich proving successful and Franny struggling to get her feet to behave.
She whispered loudly after them, I can’t do it. Heinrich! Granny!
Heinrich turned to her, his face flushed, and made a loud shooshing noise.
Guo put her hand on his shoulder and his bowels dropped as the tambourine struck. Guo moved quickly and silently past him to Franny. She came to Franny who had tears in her eyes, turned around, and squatted. Looking back, she tapped her shoulders and motioned forward. Franny smiled and threw her arms round Guo’s neck and Guo carried her towards the drumbeat, the tambourine. She kept pace with Heinrich who crept slowly, his heartbeat racing as he held his breath.
The drumming sounded closer and the tambourine chimed in their chests and eyes. The air thickened and vibrated. Guo put her hand to the viscous texture of the air and then pushed through. Heinrich saw nothing but Franny leaned away from the barrier as she moved through it, holding her breath as if submerging. The forest grew dim and then dark, as if night fell and they stopped perpendicular to a narrow pathway leading east through the forest.
Franny released her breath and when she inhaled again it came as a fire that did not burn but rushed through her lungs and veins to every corner of her body. The tacky air clung to her skin and danced over it. Every breath made by Guo and Heinrich rippled through the air and the tug and push of the disturbance touched her skin. She watched her own breathing disturb the air, distorting her view of the forest. She waved her hand and saw the trailing wake it made.
Guo gently grabbed her wrist, her eyes pointed westward.
Blood rushed to Franny’s head and her heart skipped a beat when Guo stopped her playing in the air, but it evaporated when she turned to where Guo and Heinrich stared.
Balls of light came through the darkness. They came slow, keeping tempo with the drumming. They bounced twice and then moved slightly forward. The darkness held off their vision but the balls of light shined like far off stars or the moons at their faintest. The light gradually grew and the drumming and tambourine came louder. With it came a thick fecund mist. One beat with each bounce of the lights. On the third beat the lights moved forward and the tambourine clanged.
The darkness receded as they came closer. Two figures in kimonos appeared from the mist as if from nowhere. Each held a small drum in one hand and a drumstick in the other. Their steps were a dance, their movements measured and deliberate but fluid. They moved like water through mountains. Behind them came two more holding poles with lanterns attached to the top. Rows and rows of lantern carriers took shape in the mist.
The drummers were woman with long reddish hair and skin pale as the moons, their smiles too large for their heads. They passed the three watchers without turning. Franny and Heinrich held their breath as they passed and Guo held onto Franny’s balled fist, releasing waves of comfort and warmth through her. Franny studied the dancing women and their drumming. Her heart beat with the drum and the very air moved with their dance. She noticed their tails. Each had seven bushy tails that were red as their hair with a white tip.
The lantern carriers were men who danced to the beat as well, but their dance was up and down with no movement side to side. All smiled with mouthfuls of sharp teeth. They all had tails but their tails varied in number. Some with two and others with three or four or five.
Then came the tambourine and another duo of drummers. The tambourine was carried by the most beautiful woman Heinrich had ever seen. Her skin glowed like the fragmented moon at midnight. It pulsed in his eyes and chest. Her hair and eyes were silver. Her smile ran through him, reaching deep between his legs, changing his biology prematurely, filling him with newly discovered sensations.
Guo saw the change in the air, the heat rising from him, and she reached her handless arm towards him, gripping his neck with what did not exist. This cooled him and he wiped the sweat from his brow as she passed, her nine tails weaving through the air, making trails of motion.
All at once, he saw the air as a liquid rippling with their movements and because of them. His skin flooded with sensations and heat. His chest and stomach tightened but the cool touch of Guo kept him stable, kept his body focused, kept him from spilling in all directions, chasing every new sensation.
The lights grew and spread with the mist and the air bubbled around the group that followed. Foxes came dancing and prancing through the clearing, creating a circle around two foxes. The foxes were taller than Heinrich and when they pranced the air screamed, bursting in light. Their tails varied in number and their fur came in different colors but the force and power surging through the clearing was like a riptide.
Guo held the children close to her. Her smile so large tears streamed down her face. The children’s hearts beat so hard and so fast that she held them tighter, closer, pushing her own life into them, teaching them how to hold themselves together. Their heads against her chest, the beat of Guo’s heart wrote itself into theirs and taught their hearts how to dance.
The two foxes at the center did not dance but walked slowly within the writhing circle of dancing foxes as they made their way eastward. Both foxes had three tails.
The mist receded and the light fell as a final tambourine carrier came into view. He stood tall with the same coloring as the female tambourine player. He did not dance or smile but followed with eyes closed. His ears were those of a fox and his nine tails swayed back and forth. He stopped before the three watchers and opened his eyes. He glanced to Guo who stopped smiling. A wave of cold struck the three of them, vibrating through their bodies, filling them with a shaming heat, their mouths and lungs full of bitterness. Sweat covered the three of them and Guo stood. The children quaked, huddled beside her legs.
She stood and faced the man who did not turn to her but only looked from the side of his eye. Guo raised her right arm and with it the hand that was not there.
Franny and Heinrich watched the waves of disgust seethe round the man. The mist thickened round him. They saw Guo’s own waves of blue and mountain flowers and the shining nothing glimmering at the end of her raised arm.
The man snorted and closed his eyes. He walked after the rest of the procession and the mist rose behind him, covering his trails.
Guo stood there for a long time with the children on the ground. The mist disappeared with the lights and the darkness was absolute. The air fissured and then released and Heinrich and Franny inhaled as if seeking reprieve from drowning. Gasping and sputtering, their limbs light and full of air. The halflight of the forest returned along with the many smells and sounds that came with it, all the living creatures once again singing and screaming.
After hours of walking in silence, they made camp without a fire.
Franny cleared her throat but her words came whispered, What did we see?
Guo smiled and rubbed her nose, A fox wedding. I doubt you’ll ever see another one, even if you live twice as long as me.
Heinrich wiped tears that sprouted on his cheeks, What happened?
Guo looked down then fumbled in her cloak for the boneflute. Pulling it out she said, I saw that man’s wedding long ago. That man was a fox. They were all foxes. Not your average fox wandering the forest eating mice and rabbits. Those were gods. Many gods couldn’t care less about humans and so most of them didn’t realise we were there. Other gods don’t appreciate being spied upon.
Franny frowned and rubbed her eyes and yawned, I’m sleepy, Granny.
Guo smiled and played the boneflute.
The song wrapped round Franny and she drifted quickly to sleep.
Heinrich lay awake even after Guo stopped playing and her breath slowed and evened. He stared into the darkness of the forest, visions of the women dancing across his night.
Back on track! Another story for this week, since I missed last weak due to the kidney stone, which happens to still be inside me, unfortunately.
Anyrate, this is about an earthquake and we meet some new characters, which will probably change the shape of the future narratives a great deal.
I find myself always writing about children and orphans.
The Land Will Swallow Me
There was a rumbling from the deep beneath our feet and the bones of our home. Mother grabbed us and pulled us beneath the table. She said the gods must be waking, that Dragons may be fighting.
She held us and though Franny shook like leaves in wind, we were still. Mother’s heart raced but her breath came like waves. Constant. Cool. Relaxing.
The ground kept shaking. The pots and pans rattled to the ground and screams ripped through the grinding of the world, Erde, the great Dragon whose scales made the land and wings made the air. She reminded us this as the land of our home split and ruptured. Our house collapsed in on us and we were buried.
Then there was only blackness and when I woke only blackness and wetness. The stench of urine and blood and dirt. The binding sensation, as if Erde herself held me in her endless womb.
For a long time there was silence and stillness. My arms still wrapped round my sister but I could not feel her and didn’t know if she lived. I felt nothing for a long time.
There was only the blackness. Time disappeared. Light became as a memory, faint and hollow and evaporating.
My body stretched beyond itself. Constricted and perhaps broken, but there was no pain, and in the long darkness I drifted away from the hole.
Singing. So close yet sounding so far away, as if from the belly of a mountain. A singing like I had never heard. Not in Sprache or any language I knew, but it reverberated inside me. Though my body wept, I was far away and could not hear it screaming. The Ocean breeze struck my face with the taste of salt and eternity.
I saw a child with hair so black it sucked in the night and past her a water that stretched forever. Sand between my toes and her face pulling me forward, towards the water. She sand without words and her eyes radiated a violet light, like the suns when embraced in the Twilight Days. Reaching her hand towards me, I walked towards her.
The closer I came, the louder the song grew, the stronger I became. Every bit of my body filled by this child’s music.
And then there was a new sound.
Screaming and flesh battered. My body retreated back to itself. The utter blackness of my captivity and the shore with the girl battled one another and my eyes saw them doubled, intertwined. The ground moved around me and my body filled with sensation. Burning and brokenness and a heart beat, but not mine. I wrapped my arms tighter around Franny and her fingers dug into my skin.
Words came from above and the song coming so clear was smashed away. Words in a language I didn’t know or recognise.
And then light and the pressure on my skull lessened. The light was small, only a point in the blackness but it grew as the ground fell away.
I opened my mouth to scream but coughs forced their way through and I vomited dirt and rocks.
My voice followed as if made of dust and the scream I wanted came like a whisper, My sister.
A face appeared above me. The face of a woman but her skin was pale like ours. She was not Drachen but she was here. An expression of surprise and her forehead knit and she spoke words I didn’t understand. The ground kept shifting and the blackness crowded the edges of my vision. I was slipping in and out but every time I returned to the woman’s face the pressure on my body was less.
She spoke Sprache with a heavy accent, You’re okay, child. You’re okay.
She reached with an arm to grab me but I said again, My sister.
She blinked and worked to clear more of the ground. I struggled with her, shifting my shoulders and hips as best I could to move the dirt and our collapsed home from us. As I moved I found the pain searing through me. The left side of my head burning where my ear once was. Together we wrestled the destruction and the woman pulled Franny and me out of the rubble.
Franny’s breathing was shallow and thin but her body was whole. The woman pulled out a jug and poured water onto a cloth. This she did with only one hand, using the crook of her right arm to manipulate the jug. I gaped at her lack of a hand wondering how she could be so adept. I looked at my own hands and imagined losing one. Then put a hand to my lost ear and prayed for the pain to stop. She put the cloth in Franny’s mouth and Franny sucked moisture from it. Then the woman handed me the jug. My arms, so heavy, could barely hold it but I drank desperately, not knowing my thirst. When I had my fill, I returned it to the woman and looked around.
Where once our village stood was a chaotic field of jutting spikes made from rock. The ground undulated as if it were the ocean and not the field I had been born to. The farms were gone. The land was unrecognisable. Shadows of men wandered the land, stopping here and there where they dragged the dead from the broken homes and village.
Deathwalkers, the woman said.
I nodded and then my heart screamed. I pulled at the rubble of our home screaming Mother mother mother.
I dug until I found her. The skirt she wore, now covered in mud and blood. I bit back the sobs while the tears fell and I pushed and pulled the rubble away until I found the black skin of her hand and then her head, for she did not have a face. Where it once smiled was only a cracked brick covered in the matter of her skull and brain and eyes and mouth. Her black curls like a halo round that brick. I held her lifeless hand.
And then there were hands on my shoulder. I turned, expecting to see Franny or the woman who saved us but there was only a shadow.
The Deathwalker moved me away from Mother but I held her hand as the singing came. The same song I heard while trapped beneath the wreckage. I stared at the Deathwalker and felt the Ocean waves and the violet light of the child. The Deathwalker revealed bony hands from its robe and held the ruined skull of my Mother. It lifted it from the ground and the brick fell away and I vomited at the sight of the inside of Mother’s skull. A pink viscous mess that leaked out.
I saw it for only a moment but the image lives in me still. It haunts me.
And then the Deathwalker held nothing and where my Mother’s body once lay was only dust and dirt and ash. The smell of cinders and smoke.
The Deathwalker turned to me and I stared into the vast empty blackness beneath its hood, and then it was gone.
I opened my eyes, having no recollection of closing them, and the woman who saved us sat beside a fire. In the fire was a black pot and the scent of food overwhelmed me.
I rolled over and cried into the dirt until it was mud. Until Franny’s tiny arms wrapped around my waist and pulled me closer to her. I pushed off her hand and rolled over.
Her lip quivered and her black eyes were full of tears.
She said my name and I pulled her close to me.
The night was cool and the fire warm. The woman brought us each a bowl of stew with a smile. She made it look easy though she balanced one of them on her arm until she handed it to me.
You are very brave, she said to us with her thick accent.
Franny’s voice was high and her consonants were rounded by youth, Auntie, why do you look like us?
She put her bowl down and studied the two of us, Did your mother and father look like us?
We shook our heads.
Her eyebrows lowered and she cleared her throat before picking her bowl up once again. She said, There are many in the world who look like us. Where I’m from, everyone looks this way.
Franny inhaled quickly, Auntie, where are you from?
She was only two years old then, and I was only five. For our whole lives, short as they were, we had never seen another face with our shape or color. Our parents were the dark shades of black all Drachen shared. Their hair grew in tight curls while Franny and mine fell straight. Our skin was pale but our eyes were just as black.
The woman turned to the moons and sighed, I come from far away. I was passing through when I heard the bones of Saol shift.
Her gaze fell upon me, Saol is the word for the world in the language of the gods.
My face scrunched up and the woman smiled.
Eat up, she said.
What’s your name, Auntie?
The woman put down the bowl and reached her hand towards me, Guo.
I held her hand. Her skin was rough and thick. This is Franziska. I’m Heinrich.
She smiled, Those are very fine names.
So many questions bubbled inside me and the darkness weighed heavily. What would we do now? Where would we go? What are the Deathwalkers? Is everyone dead? My chest tight and my throat sore, I ate the stew.
Franny watched me with her big black eyes and did as I did.
After we ate, we thanked Guo.
My voice crept weak from my lips, Is everyone…
Guo lowered her head, Yes. Only you two survived.
My body became so tight as if the night constricted me. I heard the screams of everyone I had known and Mother’s ruined face rose and then washed over the landscape. The song from before returned and I sank into blackness. Franny’s voice came from so far away. Muffled and indistinct. The same word repeated again and again.
For a long time I drifted as if without a body. There was only blackness and blankness. And then a deep grey. A grey shimmering between shades of black. From the grey came figures of light and shade.
When I opened my eyes we were walking over a landscape I didn’t know. The suns were high in the sky and the air was thin.
Franny sat on the woman’s shoulders and the woman was singing in front of me as they walked. It was a strange song in a language I didn’t know. The words were like water—slippery and formless.
I followed her and in time I would understand the language she spoke and she would show me worlds beyond Drache. She would show us the place of our birth, the place of hers, and a thousand more.
A week late, but this is the next Guo story. I’ll be posting another one tomorrow so we’re all caught up.
This one is a bit morbid and gruesome, so be warned. It’s an important one, I think, in understanding certain things about the world.
And I suppose a lot of these stories is mostly just fleshing out the world I’ve created. They’re quiet and still stories, but that’s what I like. I think eventually I’ll rewrite many of these stories and stitch them together into a real narrative, but I like how different they are right now.
I hope you dig this one.
We Met at the Cherry Blossom Tree
Leaves crunch beneath her feet and the shadow swings back and forth over the dead grey grass. The suns rest high in the cloudless sky pouring purples, blues, and reds into the atmosphere. The wind came softly, plucking desperate leaves from where they hanged in the tree, past the feet of the man.
He hanged naked upside down and in the hanging he swayed back and forth as the wind gently pushed at his skeletal body. His shadow danced over the ground and in opposite directions as the suns cast in different directions.
She stopped for a moment and stared at his swaying body, the tree, the suns, the yawning sky purpling. His body was still and though he hanged from his left ankle, he kept both legs together as if he stood. His right arm crossed over his left and his left hand before his face, he bit into the flesh of his index finger and tore it away from the bone, then let it hang as blood streamed from it.
The blood fell, pushed carelessly by the wind.
She approached, the leaves that once fell from the tree crunched beneath her feet, and she crouched in front of him but he only stared at his skin hanging, the blood flowing. He unwrapped his arms and used his right hand to pull the skin away from the bones of the left. He pulled until the skin split and tore down to his elbow, then let it hang as the blood drained from him.
His skin paled and he swallowed, his eyes moving rapidly over the bones and muscle beneath the skin as he wriggled his fingers.
She said, They say you’ve been hanging for eight days.
His body stilled as he bit the skin hanging from his elbow and tore it away, then let it fall to the dead grass and leaves below like a bag swollen by tar.
She wiped her face and said, Your mother begged me to come see you. She even paid me. Few people know what I do and fewer are willing to pay for it.
He bit into another finger and began tearing the skin away.
She nodded and swallowed, They think you’re a monster. Your friends and family. They think some god has come and turned you inside out. It can take a lot of time for these kinds of stories to reach me. People in villages like yours blame everything on the gods so it can be hard to take them seriously.
Pulling at the flesh until his entire left hand was skinless, he stared at his body beneath his skin.
I must admit, this is unusual. It’s rare that a human just gain this kind of ability, but it’s not unheard of. Sometimes we mortals stumble into doorways and places we have no business being in. Rarer is that the Deathwalkers avoid you and this place. Their stench should be everywhere here.
She raised her handless arm between them and smiled and closed her eyes, then let it drop.
The gods rarely do more than take and when they give it’s rarely fortunate for those given these gifts. You’re lost though. I can see it and hear it in you. The echoes of gods and powers not meant for us. There’s no reason for you to be able to do this. Probably you got caught in some spillage of some godlike being.
She rolled back and sat as he tore the skin away more, releasing his arm from flesh.
You may not survive, she opened her eyes. Coming back may kill you. Even if I can call you back alive, your brain may be shattered or it may become untethered and drift endlessly beyond you and this reality. You’ll probably always see the world beyond humanity. It will shimmer and expand. It will run through your senses like wildfire. You’ll see blazing lights that no one else will ever see or understand. You’ll hear the echoes of all the many places gods have lived and died. You may even be tempted to find your ancestors or lost loves now dead and gone to the shore of eternity. If you find yourself in the glow of the child goddess, run the other way. She will call you and she will release you from this reality. A cloud of dust.
She watched for a long time. He tore his skin apart and pulled it from his sinew and bone. So much blood fell and pooled and congealed. The scent of ruin and copper. It was as if he climbed out of his own skin and when he was fleshless, she stared up at the darkening sky. The suns now nearing the horizons, clouds wisping over the yawning canopy, she closed her eyes for a moment and sighed.
Skinless, he hanged and blood rained from him. A loose bag of blackness on the grass stained redblack by his blood. His black eyes stared past her through the smearing of his own blood.
I hope you regenerate by morning, she said. If not, I may need to kill you before bringing you back to this side. Your mother said you’ve died many times. It’s a sickness and a common one to those touched by godstuff. Do you know of the Arcanes? Perhaps you’ve never seen one way out here at the edge of the continent. They’re a Soarean tradition that’s spread beyond those legendary borders. They’ve even crossed oceans. They’re the lovers of the gods we call Angels.
It changes them, she said. It makes them see more. It makes them hear and feel more. They see the threads that make up this plane of existence. They tug at those threads and manipulate the world around us. It’s godly work and few can do it. Fewer can do it well. I’m of the opinion that none should do it at all. But that’s their religion. Their belief.
She sighed and turned to where he stared. She stood, still staring into the air where he stared.
Turning back she shook her head, Don’t go to that light. It’s madness. Stay here until dawn. If your skin’s not back by then, I’ll kill you so you can be born again, whole.
He blinked as the wind came stronger. Rising and pushing at the two of them. The wind ripped the leaves from the tree until it stood naked and his body hovered above her head, pushed in the direction he stared. He reached a hand forward and Guo pulled out the boneflute.
She played a melody, low and slow, her fingers moving with precision, her eyes clenched tight. Her legs bent and her feet planted, she braced herself against the wind and the unseen light sucking at reality.
The notes plucked out of the air and thrown down before they reached him hanging, she blew harder. The notes reached for him but were sucked away, battered down, and she blew harder and harder, the ground beneath her feet giving way. The limbs of the tree creaked and cracked as she inhaled deep and blew into the boneflute as hard as she could.
A single piercing note rocketed through the hurricane and his body, causing it to spin. She kept playing, louder and faster, the notes launching through him, spinning him faster and faster. The blood from his body spraying in all directions but sucked up by the tear in reality where a new sun shown.
The limb snapped and she jumped up, grabbing the rope hanging from his ankle, dropping the boneflute now being played by the wind. They fell to the ground, still pulled toward the tear. Planting her feet and elbow, she shouted a single word into the air as loud as she could. It came as a lightning snap and the tear closed as if clamped shut.
Sweating, her breath ragged, and her limbs weak, she pushed herself to her feet and stared down at the skinless man.
Her eyebrows bent upward and her eyes filled with tears, You look like a child.
In one motion she pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the neck. Her blade cracked through his bones and tore through his muscle and tears fell from her face. One foot on his skull, she used the leverage to pull the blade back out of him and walked towards where the tear was and searched the ground.
After a time, she found the boneflute. The darkness of night wrapped round her as a sharp inhale came from the boy’s body followed by coughing and vomiting.
Or at least romantic love.
I wrote those a few months apart and they’re most obviously about love and Death, living and loving and dying.
So if you’re looking for a present this Valentine’s Day or just want to read something about love that I wrote, you can get them.
File this under shameless self promotion, but these really are about love, and they’re for you.
But it’s interesting to me, these novels. I wrote them about love and out of love but I had never really had love. Or at least not how I feel it now. Back then I was looking desperately for it. I was wandering the globe hoping to stumble into it and slowly giving up on ever finding it.
Little did I know that I’d accidentally meet the person I’m about to marry about a year after I wrote these novels.
Here’s some music for you.
Almost didn’t make this in today, which would’ve set a bad habit. But the fifth story of the year is here! With about ten minutes to spare.
Drink till I Forget, till I won’t Regret
Guo entered and waved to Amiir behind the bar.
Amiir nodded in her direction and poured her ale, How’s the great white north?
She shrugged as she skipped across the bar to sit down, Not good. A dragon came and the Sami are running south and east.
A caustic laugh like a grunt came from the hairless man at the end of the bar, The Sami are all gone, ravaged by the Rocan who stole their names. I’ve seen their bones and held the faces of their broken lives in my own hands as I danced through shadows and time.
Guo sipped from her ale and stared at the man. Pale skin with sunken eyes, hairless and drowning in a greyblack robe fraying at every seam. His head hung low, bobbing over his fist clutching a shot glass of brown liquor.
Amiir said, Don’t mind him. He’s been hanging round for weeks. Only seems to drink.
The Sami still live and those who were once Rocan have bred into the Sami and taken the name upon themselves, she said. Being Sami is more about the land and the place than anything else.
Tell that to the dead and forsaken Sami, he said.
There are no one people who are Sami. The north is Sami and the Sami are the north. Those who choose to live there become Sami, whether they know it or not. Whether they want to or not.
The man downed his drink and slammed it on the bar, Another! He turned to Guo while squinting, Cenuries have wilted since the true Sami lived in the north. But I’ll take your point, he nodded. The true Sami have evolved and rolled along with spacetime. They take in all the strange humans that wander north and melt into the snow.
Guo drank more ale and Amiir leaned back, shrugging with his eyebrows. The man’s head hung limp over his new drink.
The suns came hesitantly through the windows smeared with dust and grime. The bar remained dim always, the blues and reds of daylight suffocating against the filth of the bar. Dust drifted as a haze through the bar, clinging to every surface, invading and colonizing every crack and seam.
You need to clean this place up, Amiir.
He laughed, It’s the real charm of this place. People don’t come for the food or the drink. It’s the dust they’re after.
The hairless man’s voice came as grinding glass, Don’t play jokes about the dust, aye?
Guo frowned, What do you know about dust?
Amiir’s hand came down hard on the bar causing Guo to flinch but the hairless man paid no attention. Amiir’s voice rose, If you’re going to talk crazy, head back to bed.
Guo put her hand on Amiir’s and repeated her question.
Dust dust dust, his voice sliced through the thick air, I have seen it all and wandered through its haloes. I still hear it and feel it in my rotting bones. Centuries of collecting only to finally escape. She was the ray of a golden sun. I was addicted to Her light. She is the Light. I fell without falling. This one—I—gave up on the Goddess.
You’re not the first drunk Deathwalker I’ve met.
Amiir’s eyes bulged in his skull and his jaw hung open as words refused to enter his mouth.
Guo leaned back and drank the rest of her ale. Got any wine?
Amiir gulped still eyeing the Deathwalker, What kind you want?
What you got?
His eyes dragged back to her reluctantly and he searched through his cupboards. As he named varieties Guo stared at the Deathwalker. His eyes barely open, his body weaving to a melody that did not reach past his own ears, his head still hanging drunk over an empty glass.
Plum sounds fine, Auntie.
Amiir hands opened the bottle and handed it to her. Taking it, she stood and approached the Deathwalker.
She put the bottle in front of him and placed a hand on his shoulder, which recoiled at her touch but she held on.
What’s your name? The one you’ve taken since leaving Mother.
A scowl contorted his face and he grabbed the bottle of wine with both hands and drank deep from it. Putting it back down he nodded at her as his voice slushed out of him in coarse rivers, I’ve taken no name. I’ve taken nothing. I want nothing. I want only to be free and to somehow be made whole.
She lifted the bottle to her lips and sipped. Sighing, she said, This is great stuff, Auntie. I’m sorry you’ll have to waste it on us.
Amiir exhaled loud, You got money?
Guo’s expression remained flat as she nodded, There is no wholeness for you. Even in Death you will find only nothingness. There will be no shore for you. There will be no song. For you there will only be the memory of the first time you died and the echoes of the Goddess forever rattling in your skull.
He spit, What would you know? Your kind don’t even hear her song. You don’t belong to Mother.
I’ve thought about that before. I think about it often. Why are my people the only ones not touched by the gods? Why do the Deathwalkers never approach our shores? They come to the places we’ve conquered and take the natives to Her shore. Why not us? What is it about us that She refuses?
He took the bottle from her and drank from it, then handed it back. His voice lost the harshness and came softly cruel, For centuries I’ve wondered why She took me and my manhood. Why she takes all of our manhoods. Why she exists at all and why she needs us. She who dreams all realities. She who opened the Grey and the Shade and the Light and the Dark. She who is all things and is in all things and all things spring from your womb, yet she demands everything from us, the unfortunate, the maimed. Your people are lucky to not have her or the Deathwalkers upon your shores.
They’re not in the north either, Guo sipped from the bottle. The Sami don’t know Her. When they die, they don’t turn to dust. Truthfully, I don’t know what happens to them when they die. They insist on burning the corpses. The old stories say that those unburnt rise again as demons. The Sami and their land are full of such echoes. But they have different gods. My people alone seem to be ignored and scorned by the gods. Even the Roca have their god. The north is crawling with gods so old they’ve forgotten themselves. No, it’s we alone who are deemed unfit for divinity. Even the Angels don’t touch our lands. There are no wolves howling there, no dragons spewing fire.
Let me tell you something, child of daylight. The man pointed at her with his slurring hand, You people are among the lucky. The gods are all cruel. I gave up on them long ago.
Tears poured down his face but his expression remained stoic.
Guo put her hand on his right shoulder and held it through the recoil. She pulled him in and embraced his skeletal frame as he broke down into sobs. His body collapsed in tears and she held him up, stroking his scalp.
Amiir watched as she held him. She whispered to the Deathwalker but Amiir heard only a low murmur.
Together they finished the bottle of wine and Guo carried the man upstairs, his body impossibly small, as if releasing the tears caused his body to empty of mass and energy.
Amiir cleaned the pint glass and the shot glass.
The sound of their footsteps creaked against every plank of wood. The creaking of footsteps stopped only to be replaced by the creaking of a door and then silence after the door closed.
Dust drifted lazily through the air and the suns fell past the horizons and the creaking began again. The light footsteps came down the stairs and Guo emerged from the shadows.
He’s asleep, she said as she plopped down on a stool and rested her elbows on the bar. Her chin in the palm of her hand, she watched Amiir count inventory.
How you going to pay for the wine and the night?
Guo tsked, You’re a heartless man, my dear friend.
He turned to see her smile, Does he really belong to the child goddess?
Once upon a time. It’s uncommon, but not as uncommon as you might think. Something changes in the few who leave. They give up the othersides of reality and choose to live on this side with the rest of us.
Is he human then?
Guo wiped at her eyes, His heart is still that of a man, though he will never be.
Amiir stuck out his lower lip, So there’s a dragon in the north?
Guo’s eyes widened, Things are becoming very interesting in the world, my friend.
Where will you go now that the north’s off limits?
Her smile spread wide and she waved her index finger, Didn’t you listen to what I told the Deathwalker? My people have no gods. We fear no gods. The Sami are the same. They alone will fight the gods and expect to win. We live in interesting time, sweet Amiir.
How will I get all the money you owe me if you get yourself eaten by a dragon?
They laughed together and Amiir poured two pints of mead.
I know a lot of people hate this film, but that’s some really fantastic music right there.
That’s what I’ll be thinking about for the rest of the day.
This story is about a dragon and a ruler. This will likely be a story that continues throughout the year. Like a specific storyline. A recurring one.
Warning & Exile
The Kreivi is very busy so for now you will wait until you’re summoned.
Guo leaned back with a yawn and stretched her arms over her head. She turned to the guard, Will you fetch me a glass of water?
The guard snorted, her knuckles white over the staff of the halberd.
She leaned against the stone wall and studied the large wooden doors before her. Every move she made creaked against the wooden planks beneath her feet and the howling of the wind cut through the air beyond the walls.
Tell me something, Guo scratched at her handless wrist.
The guard’s expression hardened, her jaw set.
Have you ever seen what a dragon does to stone? What a dragon does to people? How spacetime itself tears and distorts around them?
The guard’s eyes unfocused and she stared past Guo and time traipsed round as Saol rolled over away from the suns.
Guo closed her eyes, the echoes of the place filling her skull. The voices of centuries wailed from beneath and around her, and then a sundering as a grey roiled and rippled across the air.
The door creaked open and a man hunched by age dressed as a fool hobbled through, his beard nearing his belt, The Kreivi’ll see you but you’re not to speak till spoken to. Come.
Guo followed the fool into the court. The room was large and conical, with the highest point five meters above. Two hearths warmed the hall, their chimneys reaching up and through the pointed ceiling. At the far end sat the Kreivi. Young but bald, he lounged in his wooden chair, legs crossed. Behind him stood a stuffed troll whose arms held up the ceiling. As Guo approached, she passed many men with stern faces, their armor made of bones, and the Kreivi began clapping. He continued clapping as they approached.
The fool walked to the Kreivi and stooped beside him gesturing towards Guo and spoke through the clapping, Taikuri has arrived from the far eastern islands. She is a wanderer and scholar and warlock respected and loved far and wide by the Sami.
Honored Kreivi, Guo stood with her arms crossed as the Kreivi still clapped, Thank you for welcoming me into your hall.
Beloved Taikuri, he slowed his clapping, What brings you to my realm?
She smiled, A dragon approaches, Kreivi.
For a moment silence and then the Kreivi laughed and clapped lazily once more. His laughter bouncing through the room, filling it as if with many voices, and the longer he laughed the more those present joined in.
Guo waited, her eyes closed, her left hand absently rubbing at the stub of her right arm.
The Kreivi wiped his eyes, faint laughter still spilling from him, We live among gods and angels and demons and giants and trolls. We live among a thousand types of legends, but a dragon isn’t one. I’ve seen too much to discount their existence, sweet Taikuri, but such a creature has never been to our northern lands. So, sweet Taikuri, why would a dragon come to our cold, barren land?
It’s not for mortals to know why dragons do what they do. It’s only for us to stay out of their way. Which is why I’ve come to you, Kreivi. You and your people must leave this place. Your northern lands are no longer safe. Soon the ice will flow and the houses will burn and a great dragon will become king of the ash left behind.
The Kreivi stared long at Guo, clenching and unclenching his jaw. He leaned over to the fool and said, Ukko, what do you know of dragons?
The fool shrugged then dived forward into a roll and sprang to his feet before Guo. On tip toes, he brought his face level with hers and studied her blackeyes from centimeters away.
Dropping back to his heels and looking over his shoulder back to the Kreivi, Lord, much has been said about dragons throughout time and across Saol. They are the eldest and wisest but they speak only to the Drache, the Dragonlords of the far south. It’s said few dragons ever lived and fewer remain in the world.
The Kreivi raised a hand, Dragons are fire made flesh. They’re the daughters of the suns themselves. What could bring them to our cold world?
Guo shrugged and a murmur went through the hall.
Is that all? You come to the home of my forefathers and tell me to abandon everything, and your only reaction is to shrug? I could have you drawn, quartered, and eaten right here and now. The Kreivi smiled as he spoke and uncrossed his legs as he leaned forward.
Guo shrugged again, Kreivi, this ancient land of the Sami will belong to the dragon, just as it once belonged to the original Sami, now gone from this world.
The Kreivi stood, We are Sami.
Guo smiled, I don’t wish to argue history with you, Kreivi. Especially not the history of your people and the people whose name you’ve inherited. Honorable one, the dragon comes. None know why it comes or what it wants, but the dragon approaches.
Then we shall fight it, he shouted to much cheer. He beat his chest and dropped back into his chair, a smile dancing over his face.
Guo threw back her head and laughed.
Ukko leapt away from her caustic laughter as if attacked and scrambled back to the side of the Kreivi. The men watching stepped forward and the Kreivi’s skin rose.
Silence, he shouted.
Guo doubled over as if struck, her laughter clanging through the hall. She tried to speak through her laughter, I’m sorry, great one. It’s just—oh, by the very moons shattering in the sky. You cannot stop a dragon. No man can. No army can. To fight a dragon is to lay waste to your home and all the people who live here. As you say, fire made flesh, the daughters of the suns. But even that says too little.
Perhaps we should listen, my lord. The voice came from a greybearded bald man.
The Kreivi raised a palm toward the man, his voice came clear and flat, Taikuri, have you any experience with dragons?
Guo shook her head, No, Kreivi. I have not had that misfortune.
So you don’t know? the Kreivi said, his smile crawling over his face.
Great Kreivi, Only the Drache know and those they annihilated to build their kingdom in the south. Do you know where Garasun gets its name from? They are called the Kingdom of Glass. Their palace and much of their capital is built of glass created by the dragons during their ancient war. Before the war and the dragonglass, they had a different name. Tsurī. That was their ancient name. The Kingdom of Trees. Oh, if only you could have seen it. If only any of us could have seen it! The palace and all their homes made from the trees themselves. They lived directly in nature as a part of it. When the dragons came and burnt their lives away, they adapted quickly. They gave up nature and learnt to live through fire, to turn it into glass.
Why do you tell us this? What are you saying? Should we turn into water as the dragon melts the snow?
No, Kreivi, she said, You should run. We all should.
Another man, this one younger, full head of hair and shaven face, Lord, would it not be prudent to at least make a plan to evacuate, should the need arise?
The Kreivi stepped forward from his chair, You ran here to tell us to run?
Dear Kreivi, I only walked quickly.
He waved her words away, Where is the dragon, Taikuri? Where is it?
Can you hear it? It buckles the very air around us, rattling the bones of Saol. It nearly tears my skin from my bones. You cannot ignore its approach. Even to be near it is Death. A Death neverending.
The Kreivi smiled, You ask too much, Taikuri. We can no more leave this land than we can give up our own heads. If the dragon comes, we’ll fight it, even if all of us rot and die and burn to ash to ride the wind like snow.
Guo stared at the walls of her room at the inn as a knock came to her door. Turning to the candle at her side, she leaned in, her lips puckered as if ready to blow, but then she leaned back again.
More knocking came and the thick voice of a man, Taikuri, open the door. It’s unkind of you to leave me in the hall like a commoner.
Guo sighed and crossed the room in one step to open the door.
Tall and thin, his cheeks and eyes sunk deep into his skull, he said, Invite me in.
Guo yawned and waved him inside and he walked past her.
I’ll never understand the formality of nobility, she said. You demand to enter my private room but then wait to be let in.
He turned as she spoke, Quiet. You’ve done a foolish thing, shaming the Kreivi as you did today, and within his year of mourning. That’s not how things are to be done.
Guo dropped into the bed, The dragon comes, broken social laws or no.
And you’ve forced the young Kreivi into choosing pride! Don’t you see, Taikuri? You’re said to be caustic but kind, but you’ve brought ruin upon us all if what you say is true.
Not if he gets over his pride.
His eyebrows raised as his eyes drooped and his shoulders became loose as he slumped towards her, You antagonized him! His pride is all he has! He has a realm to run and all say he’s too young, not strong enough, not willing to do what’s necessary. His father was a great warrior with a severe hand and—
Guo yawned, Ja, ja. I’ve heard it all before.
He slammed his palm on the table, It’s only your title and stature that keep me from beating the sense into you, so please listen and understand, Taikuri. You have insulted him in front of all the nobles who serve him and who may someday usurp him. Word will spread now of this conversation. Half will say he should listen to you. Half will say he should have cut off your other hand and shoved it up your woman parts while relieving you of your sharp tongue. But the worst part is that all will agree that the young Kreivi handled this poorly.
What’s your name? Guo said.
Olafur, has no one told you that it’s rude to enter someone’s room without introducing yourself?
This is not the time for games and jokes, Taikuri. We need to fix this problem you’ve created.
Guo’s eyebrows became a question mark.
He sighed, You have ruined him before he ever had a chance to rule.
He can rule when his town is safe. He can rule you all in the southern mountains.
Olafur shook his head, Whether we leave by his decision or through mutiny, he will never rule again. His reputation will be broken and so his only recourse is to fight.
Sitting up, Guo shook her head, You people are strange. So very unlike the rest of the Sami I know.
He snorted, You spend too much time in the mountains.
Guo’s voice came soft and she stared into the blackness of the window, Perhaps you’ve all forgotten who you are since you began building with stone.
How do we fight a dragon?
She turned to him smiling but his expression was one of desolation, which shipwrecked her lips, There is no fighting them.
What of the dragonslayers?
She scowled, Those are rare, if ever there truly was one. Perhaps a Dragonlord of the south has killed a dragon, but such things would be more than legends. Even word would reach here of her deads.
Word has reached here. I hoped—I came here hoping you may know one, from your many travels.
She waved her hand through the air as if swatting insects then fumbled in her shirt pockets until she brought out the boneflute, which she played briefly.
The dragon is coming and we must leave. That’s really the only choice.
He sighed and looked down, Then we all fall.
A riptide through the air cutting down sound and atomic movement. Even the dust splintered and ceased as the soundless roar tore through the countryside, the vast empty white.
Guo pulled her hood down and her cloak tight.
Behind her, a dozen humans lifted themselves back to their feet and out of the snow which swirled once more about them.
She played the boneflute as they walked, often stopping to stomp down with her boots to remove the snow.
Trudging through the valley and up the slope of the otherside, she turned to see a long stream of humans leaving Kivi behind. A horn blew and the flags came down.
One of those closest to her approached. She was young, her body and hair hidden beneath furs and skins but her face was thin and long. Her voice shivered through the air, Taikuri, has the Kreivi given up?
Guo stopped playing the boneflute, I very much doubt it. The question becomes: can he rule in exile? and how will you, his people, respond to him saving your life? Already there are those surely calling him a coward while others call him a savior. There’s no winning for those who rule.
What about the Vapaaherras and the Ruhtina?
Guo smiled, If they stay, then all is lost. The dragon comes. You can feel it in your bones. Even the bones of the world shudder at its approach. It will lay waste to those who stand in its way or it will ignore them entirely. Who can say what a dragon will do? But it’s better to be far away, just in case.
Where will we go? the tears rose in the girl’s throat.
Guo patted her head, That’s for your Kreivi to decide.
And the shadow descended as the dragon pierced the horizon, its wings blotting out the sun as it rose. The sight of it knocked the Sami to the ground, clutching their ears and eyes, holding their breath. It flew overhead and past them until it reached the Kreivi’s stone hall, where it began circling.
All who saw began running as quietly as possible.