another year in stories: one

As I intended, here’s the first story of the year! I’ll try to publish these on here every Wednesday. I also have the intention of keeping these all about the same character. They’re also set in the same world as Twilight of the Wolves. Since I’ve been so heartbroken about that world that I’ve spent my whole life inventing, I’m hoping this little project will help me remember how fun it is to live in another world.

A bit plotless and maybe only really serves to introduce a character, but that’s not such a bad thing.

Also, I’m doing poetry every day, which can be found at this site: http://edwardjrathke.tumblr.com/

Anyrate, meet Guo.

Asleep Beneath the Lake and Falling Snow

The door swung open as a figure rushed inside and quickly slammed it closed.

That you, Guo?

Guo stamps her feet in the entryway, rubbing feeling into her arms and softly beating her thighs with fists, Aye, it’s me. Pour me something warm, yeah?

The wind howled against the walls, the rain battering against the windows and roof.

Guo sat at the bar, sighing heavily, her eyes closed.

The bartender sets a steaming glass in front of her with a smile, Drink that.

Guo raised her head and pulled back her hood, her white hair matted and tangled against her head, What’s it?

The bartender slaps the bar, Don’t trust me?

Never, she downed the glass. Her face twisted and she coughed, slapping the bar, Now that—she coughed again, wiping tears from her eyes—that’s a howling drink.

The bartender threw back his head and laughed, poured her another and she slammed it down again, a grimace rising and falling away.

Auntie, Guo turns her black eyes on him, Got to admit something before we go farther.

He turns and breathes loud out his nose leaning on the bar in front of her, Broke?

She smiles, Trade?

You know I got rent to pay? Taxes rising too, and the storms raging everywhere. Slows down travel, slows down business, keeps people locked in their huts. You and the fat auntie sleeping over there are the only customers in today.

I can tell you about what this place was before the Scar or the mountains of Shén Yǎn.

He waved her away, Fairytales, stories, songs, and guesses don’t pay. Suppose you need a room tonight too, aye?

Guo leaned back, drumming the fingers of her left hand on the bar, If I can bring back four people—she raised the fingers on her  left hand—to come back here and drink, we square for the night?

Seven.

Guo smiled wide, flashing her canines, You’re a good man, Amiir.

He waved her away and leaned back into his bar, watching her leave. When the door opened it swung shut again, slamming loud, waking up the sleeping woman with a start. Guo turned to the bar and laughed.

If I don’t come back, she said, it’s because the wind dragged me up to the moons.

She pulled open the door, stepped out, and it slammed behind her.

Amiir walked to the woman now sleeping again and nudged her, Auntie, wake up. Time for you to settle up and see about your man.

The woman opened her eyes and sucked in drool, What’s the time?

Don’t know. Probably near sunsdown, if suns could be seen. Storm’s still raging.

The woman smacked her lips, How about another drink? Some ale.

Pay for what you’ve had and I’ll get you another.

She sat up in her seat, a pained expression clawing over her face, Oh, you’re a cruel man. Cruel and terrible!

Aye, aye. The very face of the Mother herself.

She pulled her lips tight and narrowed her eyes, Not wise to make jokes about Her. Her hands and eyes may be listening even here, casting Death in this very bar. This dank, dirty, dark hole of a place.

Come on, or I’ll send my boy to get your man.

Her eyebrows popped up and she reached into her pocket, pulls out a jar of honey and a sack of hops. Putting them in his hand she said, How about that ale?

He smiled, Aye, auntie. Aye.

The new ale in front of the old woman, she coughed into her hands and drank a third of it in one go, sighing heavily, a smile dripping over her face. Oh, that’s good, Amiir. How’d you brew this?

Trade secret, afraid. Why you holing up in my dank, dirty, dark bar, aye?

Oh, she raised the glass to her lips, Don’t take that personal like. You know I love it here.

Just escaping the storm?

Always, my boy. Always. Who was the cripple?

If you knew, you wouldn’t call her such.

What d’you call her?

Her name, and that’s a privileged thing with her kind.

Islanders, she spat. Magicians and necromancers.

Amiir folded his arms, Recommend you not say such things when she returns.

One handed and squint-eyed, the old woman laughed, No, boy, I don’t fear such as her.

Amiir scowled, Drink your drink, auntie.

Some time later the door swung open again, the night howling through, sputtering rain, and several people rushed through at once.

Aye, auntie, I told you I’d return, Guo called over the assembled.

Amiir laughed out his nose, What ya’ll want?

Mead, if you have it, Guo said, I promised a good story, and stories are better when the drink is stronger. She threw back her head and laughed, her hood falling.

Amiir poured out ten pints as Guo began her story. The old woman wobbled in her seat, scowling, sneaking glances at Guo and the people crowded round her.

Have any here heard of the kingdom of Suomi? I take your faces to mean no. It’s far to the north. So far north that it’s the edge of the world, and if you step over you start heading south again. I’ll let you think on that a bit. The people there are enormous and pale, like the Rocans far to the west. The Sami, as they’re known, speak in a tongue that few outside their tribes know. It’s ancient and long and rambling. Not like your fine tongue, made for commerce and community!

You see, I travel. That’s how I make my way. I travel and pass knowledge from place to place, investigating legends and magic and gods. I heard whispers of a boy who brought the snow. A boy who couldn’t die from the cold but turned the world cold around him. They even said he was the reason it was cold at all up there!

Auntie! My man here is running low on drink, and we need their lips wet if they’re to listen well. Anyway, I’ve been wandering the mountains up there for months. They call them Jumala Kulmahammas, or the Fangs of God. A brutal and evocative name, but they’re not as treacherous as people there believe. You should hear the stories they tell of gods and demons roaming the mountains.

I tell you, I know better, since I’ve seen many a god with my own eyes, even touched some with my hand—she raised the left one and wriggled her fingers—but in the dark, the wind howling, much like it does tonight, and snow blinding your sight…well, you lose track of yourself and it’s easy to think that the impossible is happening everywhere. And these people are surrounded by mountains. Mountains dark and overpowering and always covered in snow.

What’s snow?

Guo blinked, Ah, right. She leaned back and laughed, took a long drink from the mead, You’ve likely never seen snow this far south. Snow is like rain but it doesn’t flow as water. It sticks to the ground like sand. If enough snow falls, it stacks higher and higher. When the suns warm up the snow enough, it turns into rain. It’s just not cold enough here or this rain falling could be snow.

But, anycase, I finally made it to the mountain village where the boy’s said to live. It’s a wolfish place, if you get me. You can feel the steps of ancient gods as if they’re right beside you. Even hearing their mournful howls in the still air, shaking your insides, rattling your bones.

I begin asking around but most will have nothing to do with me. They don’t send me away, but ignore me as if I’m not even there. It’s something about my looks, I think—she stood and made a face, her canines out and her eyes wild—but that’s no reason to stop trying. After a few hours of drinking and sitting around, a young boy approached me at the pub. You should have seen him, so covered in furs he could barely wriggle his limbs and I could barely see his face.

He said, Uncle—can you believe?—Not a boy you looking for but a girl.

I asked the boy what he meant but he only turned away and walked, so I followed.

Auntie, too many near empty glasses here, and bring out the real strong stuff. My man here wants to feel it in his chest!

Ah, that’s better. Raise your glass for the barkeep, yeah? Don’t forget to tip him and his boy neither. His poor woman had to watch over his every move, but he lost her long ago. Our drinking is the only true pleasure that yet remains for him.

So it goes.

I followed the boy to a hole in the snow beyond the village. The boy stops and tells me to go down.

So I’m standing there, colder than I’ve ever been, the air full of knives, and the sky so bright from stars and the fragmented moon that it’s almost daylight, and this boy packed in animal skin is telling me to dive into the dark world to meet a potential god.

But what can you do? I dove in.

Not sure how far I climbed down but it was farther than I wanted it to be. The air close all round me, the world sort of putting extra pressure in my skull, the stench of blood thick in the tunnel, and it’s simply not easy climbing down into the frozen world.

And there she was. A little girl dressed in a light robe. Barefooted, her skin so white it appeared like bone, and her eyes so wide I could’ve fallen inside.

So I ask her if all the snow is because of her, and you know what she tells me?

She says only one thing: I was asleep at the bottom of the lake beneath the fallen snow.

And then she turns away from me like I’m not there. She’s eating a prepared meal of vegetables and roots that the boy must be bringing her. I ask her if the boy’s her brother but she doesn’t seem to hear me.

I watched her for about an hour in the freezing underground. I touched her finally, and she was cold, like the sea at midnight, like the dead, but I heard no Deathwalkers. This girl was alive but her blood stopped beating.

I asked her to follow me outside and without looking at me or speaking, she climbed up the tunnel. I followed.

At the surface again, the snow began to fall, but not everywhere. It followed her. It followed her as if tied to her.

You believe these foreign lies? The old woman’s voice slurred and bellowed in the bar.

All turned to her and she stumbled out of her seat and approached Guo, Blah blah blah, she prattles on bout foreign lands and magic and monsters. The old woman spat and said, These island monkeys with their slits for eyes wouldn’t know a god from my arse!

Amiir stomped towards her, All right, Auntie. You’re done here. Go home to your man.

The woman laughed, My man’s been dead for years, so it seems. Can’t do nothing but lie around and sleep.

Guo’s voice came soft, Auntie, I see Death riding you. The wolves paw at the night waiting for you to drown in the ale here. You’ll not see your grandchildren again.

The old woman swung a hand wildly at Guo but was grabbed by two of the men who listened to the story. They restrained her and carried her out of the bar.

Guo yawned and stretched, Suppose that’s the most exciting reaction I’ll get tonight, yeah?

The listeners laughed and begged her to continue.

She waved a hand, Aye, aye, but first, let’s all have some of our man’s hot liquor. He gave me some earlier and it’ll make you feel like a fox.

Guo winked at Amiir who smiled and he prepared the warm liquor.

After their mouths were wet and hot from the drink, Guo leaned into Amiir, Call us square?

He slapped her on the back, You keep bringing them in like this, and you can stay as long as you like.

I’ll hold you to that, she said as she walked back to the table.

All right, where was I?

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