Nireth bit hungrily into the roasted meat. She cared not what animal it was; all she knew was that she was hungry, and she had been given food.
“So,” she asked through a wad of chewed-up food, “let me get this straight. You’re a missionary? And there’s some kind of church on this island?”
The young man she had encountered outside the cave made a face. “Not so much of a missionary; disciple, more like it. And I’m not a follower of Christ, or the God of the Book.”
“Oh,” Nireth nodded. “Then—”
“I worship the spirits of the earth,” the man explained. “They give life to plants, which give life to us. Then, when we are burned after we die, we release our life to the earth again.”
“Oh!” Nireth exclaimed. “We burn people, too—but that’s to send them to the afterlife.”
The man nodded and watched Nireth devouring her meal. After a moment, he spoke. “I didn’t bring you here to talk about religion,” he said slowly. “I felt something—an aura—radiating from the cave, a dark one. I’ve not seen the likes for hundreds of years.”
“Hundreds of years!” Nireth exclaimed, her jaw dropping.
The man shook his head slightly, as if the matter was not relevant. “I wanted to know what happened in that cave. Can you tell me?”
Nireth stared at him blankly.
“Please tell me you haven’t forgotten,” the man looked pained. “That means they—he—it—whatever the aura was caused by—have gotten into your mind. Once they get in, they can get in whenever—”
“What did you mean, ‘hundreds of years’?” Nireth asked. The man realized that he wasn’t going to have much luck pursuing the answers he wanted if he didn’t answer her questions first.
“My gods bestow long life upon those who do their bidding,” he explained quickly. “So, about the cave—”
“Do you have to wear those robes?” Nireth asked.
The man stopped, his mouth open. It took a second for him to recover and say, “What?”
“Those robes,” Nireth gestured to the hooded grey cloak the man was wearing. It was like a small ship sail, only much heavier and much uglier—not to mention the sloppy craftsmanship that had gone into making it. It covered almost every part of the man’s body, save his heads, hands, and bare feet, and seemed very hot and uncomfortable.
The man glanced at his garb, obviously a bit annoyed with his companion’s tangents. “We believe that cloth made without technological interference brings us closer to our Gods.”
“Wait, looms count as technology?” Nireth asked. Before the man could answer, she continued, “We have looms where I’m from—I actually know how to use one, I’m just not very good with the yarn blending and such. My sister Hildegarde was much more inclined to do the housework tasks. But they’re very old looms—I’ve seen some of the newer ones from the east, brought over by some of our raiding parties, that they use to make fine cloth—they’re so intricate, we usually just toss them out because we can’t figure out how to use them! But, anyway, we could make cloth much better than that, and—”
“Enough, please!” the man sighed and held up his hand. Nireth stopped and blushed.
“Sorry,” she said meekly. “I get excited.”
“It’s alright,” the man said with a smile. “I was asking you about what happened in the cave.”
Nireth bit her lip. “I’m actually not quite sure what happened. I got locked in—this stone rolled over the entryway—so I decided to explore—”
“Hold on,” the man said, “why were you dabbling about in the cave, anyway?”
“This is going to sound very foolish,” Nireth admitted, “but there was this wind coming down the beach, it carried a kind of otherworldly-scream on it. And I had just seen the cave open up, so I was pretty curious—” Nireth saw the wide-eyed look on the man’s face and realized she had a captive audience. “It was the strangest thing! I was just humming this verse of a song I heard—”
“A song you heard?” the man asked. “You said that I was the first person you saw on this island!”
“When did I say that—oh, that’s right, after you scared me halfway to death outside of that cave,” Nireth said, more to herself than to him. “And, yes, that is true.”
“Then how could you hear singing?” the man had leaned forward, “you must have the ears of a wolf!” Had Nireth been more familiar with communication, she would have picked up on the skeptical tone in his voice.
“It’s less hearing it,” Nireth searched for the proper way to explain how she heard voices, “more like knowing it. The words just came into my head, along with a tune. It’s kind of like imagining something, except you know it’s not coming from your mind.” Wincing, she glanced at the man, afraid she had confused him. Instead, to her relief (and partially to her bewilderment) he appeared to understand perfectly.
“So you were humming the song,” the man said, then stopped suddenly. “Can you still hear it?”
Nireth toned out the sounds of the birds and the wind rustling through the treetops and listened. The chanting of the oceans, trees, and earth were still there, but she couldn’t hear any kind of song or whisper, like she could before.
“No, actually,” she said slowly. “I can’t! How odd!”
The man bit his lip, his brow creased with concentration. “So what happened after you hummed the song?”
“It was very strange!” Nireth began theatrically. “This gaping hole just opened up in the cliff face—and that’s when the creepy wind started. So I ran into the cave, thinking I would find shelter—I know it was rather thick of me, but I did it anyway—and instead I got stuck inside of it. I figured there was nothing else for me to do than to work my way along and see if I could find another way out.
“Then I started hearing another song—but it was a different voice singing it, a stronger voice. The first chant I heard was kind of soft and whispery, like someone very old was singing it. Anyway, I followed this voice through a tunnel and ended up getting attacked by a flesh-eating worm,” Nireth finished. “Then I climbed out, and you found me.”
“Is that all?” the man asked. “How did you defeat the worm?”
Nireth thought of the smooth, glowing stone that she had found. It was now nestled safe in a secret, hemmed-in pocket in her dress (her mother had not approved of pockets; she said they were a way to clutter their quarters more easily, thus the secrecy). For some reason, she felt like the stone was something meant only for her.
“You must have scared it away,” she remarked, “perhaps he heard you outside? All I know is that he was about to bite my head off, and—” Nireth stopped short. “Do you think it was the worm?”
“Excuse me?” asked the man, who had obviously been deep in thought.
“Do you think it was the worm that was singing the second song I heard?” Nireth inquired. “I think the song was meant to lure me into his cave, so he could eat me. And maybe it was the worm’s dark aura you saw!—or felt, or sensed, I’m not sure how auras work.”
The man laughed. “No, the caveworms have been here for as long as I can remember. They’ve never given an aura off that strong.” He paused. “It would be really helpful if you could remember the song you sang,” he said, finally. “It would help me to determine if it was those words that awoke the power I felt, the power that scared you into that cave.”
“You think the screaming wind and the power that opened the cliff side were the same thing?” Nireth asked. “And the cause of the dark aura you felt, too?”
“It would make sense—a power awakening after hundreds of years because of an incantation, long forgotten. Until there comes along an incredibly observant girl like you,” the man smiled, then became lost in thought again. “Why is it that you can hear these things, anyway?”
Nireth shrugged. “I believe that everything is alive, in some way; I think that most people don’t take the time to listen to what things have to say. Their voices are loud and clear, if you’re listening.”
“Ah!” the man exclaimed. “I never thought of it that way! We always believed that the earth had to be summoned before we could speak to her.”
Nireth blushed, uncomfortable with the foreign nature of her companion’s religion. She didn’t want to say anything sacrilegious or offensive. “Well, I’m not hearing gods or anything, just the stories of life forces.”
“Still, it is a very interesting concept,” the man observed, “and especially interesting because you thought of it at such a young age. Usually, it takes many years—perhaps even many centuries—to achieve that level of wisdom.”
“Oh, thanks,” Nireth said abashedly. “It’s really not that big of a deal. I just had a lot of time to think as I worked at my chores back home.” Nireth sighed.
“Speaking of chores,” the man dusted off his hands, getting to his feet, “my house could stand some cleaning. I’ll let you stay there for free if you help me keep it nice.”
“Really?” Nireth asked eagerly. She hadn’t even thought about where she would sleep, or what she would eat. “Oh, thank you so much, sir! I must warn you, I’m not the most meticulous type.”
“Many hands make light work,” the man replied, “and, besides, I don’t need meticulous; I just need someone to get the layer of leaves off of my floor. I fear they’ll start decomposing, which is meant to happen over open earth, not on a foundation.”
Nireth nodded, she was becoming more familiar with the man’s strange faith.
“So, these cave worms,” Nireth brought up the subject as they began the trek back to the man’s home. “Do they stick to the caves? Or do they sometimes go out into the sea?”
“They mostly stay in the caves,” the man said, “but sometimes they’ll burst out of the ground and eat people.”
Nireth scanned his face for any sign of a joking sparkle, but there was none. “You’re dead serious?”
“Absolutely,” the man confirmed, “cave worms are bad news. I’m glad you were able to escape from that one; they’re smart and deadly, and ruthless as well.”
“Oops,” Nireth sighed. “I’ll be sure to steer clear of them from now on.”
“Don’t worry,” the man smiled, “if you stick with me, you’ll be fine. I’m not planning on trying to make acquaintances with any cave worms in the near future.”
Nireth released a heavy breath. “Well, that’s a relief!” Suddenly, she hit her forehead with her palm, “Please excuse me, sir,” she said nervously, “but I completely forgot to ever get your name.”
The man stared at Nireth for a second, as if he hadn’t heard her, then replied, “My name is Iref, and please don’t call me sir.”
“Oh, sorry… Iref?” Nireth replied.
“Yes,” Iref nodded once to acknowledge Nireth’s success.
Nireth inhaled sharply, stopping in her tracks. “Is that–?”
“Yes,” Iref said, almost blushing, “that’s my house.”
It was a small, stone building. Crudely made, the structure was a simple rectangular prism. What made it so spectacular was the fact that it buried itself in a hill, and apparently penetrated the very heart, for a tall look-out tower rose from the center of the hill, with no visible door in or out in sight. Vines covered the grey walls, giving it a homey feel. They almost looked as if they were trying to reclaim the building blocks, like the cycle of life that Iref spoke of so much, by pulling the building into the green, green grass. Around the house was a clearing, but the forest began two to three yards away from the base of the hill. It was just the right time of year, too; the delicate pink, purple, and pastel-gold blossoms dusted the ground at her feet, and filled the air Nireth breathed with the sweet scent of sap. The light colors shone out like beacons in the night against the dark green foliage all around them.
“This is beautiful!” Nireth exclaimed. “I wish I lived here. And you have all this room to yourself?”
“Yes,” Iref said, “but don’t go thinking I have the good life. It can be so lonely out here, and it gets very forlorn in the wintertime. The sky is always overcast then, and the trees no longer keep their trees. And in the summer it can get dreadfully hot!”
“Better than where I used to live,” Nireth grinned. “It was cold year-round, and overcast more often than not, no matter the year.”
“Well, enough about the weather,” Iref abruptly changed the subject, casting his eyes skyward. “Dusk is falling, and it’s best to be out of the forests by dark.”
“What for?” Nireth asked.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” he compromised. “Your curiosity never ceases to amaze me.”
When they entered Iref’s house, Nireth found it was much larger than she had expected it to be. There were at least three bedrooms, each extravagantly furnished. She finally picked one at the very bottom of the lookout tower. There was a trapdoor that swung open above her bed, and she figured that if there was ever a night where she found herself unable to sleep she could climb into the lookout tower and try to catch a glimpse of some goings-on in the trees.
But for now, Nireth was exhausted. As she lay on the hay mattress, much softer and thicker than her usual mat back home, she could feel the pitching and rocking of the sea. Before she knew it, her mind had been escorted into the sleeping world of dreams.
(Sorry it took me so long to get around to writing this! ^^”)
I couldn’t quite decide whether or not to disobey mother’s orders or not.
My mother, Tofa, is a very nice woman. She’s petite, and not very muscular like the other women of Valkea, yet she can still fight with a sword or shoot a bow accurately. She’s nice, kind, and only stern when she has to be.
It’s not that I hate her or anything, but it was my only chance. Mother had warned me that tonight was the Winter solstice and the spirits would awaken for winter, but I’m scientific, for the love of Odin! I don’t need all that superstitious mumbo jumbo.
Despite Mother’s orders to stay inside, it was a chance too good to pass up. Quickly, I made up my mind, and tried to ignore the sirens blaring in my mind. This is not a good idea!
I strung on my boots, wincing as my toes touched the cold, rough leather. Grabbing a sheepskin, I hurried out before I realized I had forgotten my lucky wolf bone necklace– Finna had told me that the spirits avoided wolves. I had promised to wear it, as to ease her worries. As I tiptoed silently (at least as silently as the heavy boots would allow) past the window, I couldn’t help but notice the flakes falling from the pitch black sky, and tried not to think how that could delay our plan.
“Herdis?” hissed a voice I knew too well.
My cousin. I tried not to sound unhappy to see her as I answered. “Yes?” Did she really have to be visiting tonight?
“What’re you–?” she paused as her face lit up angrily, as she noticed my boots that were only for the outdoors. “You’re going, you’re going, aren’t you? Don’t you dare–”
I brushed past her impatiently, but she grabbed me by the cape.
“Tofa warned you!”
“She let me go, but just until the wolves howl,” I fibbed quickly. I nearly smacked myself for such a lame response.
But there’s lots of things I like about Katla, and one: she’s pretty gullible.
“Okay…” she said, hesitantly. “But be back by the hour or I’ll tell your mother!”
I felt the grip on my cape relax, and stuck my tongue out at her as she walked away.
“Pain in the rumpe,” I muttered, grabbing my necklace and fleeing.
I met Finna at the knotted old willow tree, as we had promised each other. Snow gathered at the tops, but the ice had not formed and it was still climbable. In all honesty, I wasn’t that sure whether or not that was good or bad.
“Well?” Finna asked. “What’s the word?”
“Ummm,” I said. “Are you sure this is exactly a good idea?” I paused, waiting for her to quickly agree so I could march right on home.
Finna laughed, her fearless one, and right away I knew she had made up her mind to stick through it.
I can sort of tell what she is thinking through her multiple laughs– and this one…this one wasn’t good.
“Oh, come ON, Herdis!” she rolled her eyes. “I promise I won’t get you killed. Do I really seem that tapelig?”
I sighed. “No, you don’t. It’s just, well, you see-my mother–”
Finna gave me a doubtful look, “Oh, O.K., that’s a new one. I can’t remember one time when you’ve put science aside to be your mother’s little girl,” she said in a sing-song voice. She dropped the sass and spoke to me in earnest, “I really think you’ll like this, Herdis. I’ve never seen anything like it before–it would be great to add to your scientific journal!”
I nodded hastily, my curiosity getting the better of me. I didn’t care much for blindly following instructions in the middle of the night (especially with mother’s potential punishment hanging over my head), but what Finna was promising sounded too good to miss out on.
“I guess that mean’s you’ve decided to work with me on this one. Come on, I’ll show you what it is.” She motioned for me to follow her, and climbed up the tree.
I could feel my feet dragging, slowly, and very hesitantly. It didn’t feel right. Why was I so terrified? I had jumped into the sea 50 feet below off a dragon before! Surely, this wouldn’t be so hard.
This wouldn’t be so hard, mimicked that annoying voice in my head.
“Psst! Keep up!” Finna hissed. “You’re slowing down the mission. Listen, we’re very close, so you’ve got to be quiet. I can’t explain anything more to you after this, because they might hear us. It’s important that I tell you now: no matter how much you want to squeal or cuddle these guys–don’t. They’re the exact opposite of what they look like, so watch yourself.”
I stared after Finna. What, exactly was she going to show me? I had never heard of a dragon that fit Finna’s description.
I stuck my nose in the air, pretending like I knew perfectly what I was doing. Not that I didn’t– it was simply that I didn’t know why I was doing it.
Gripping the tree as hard as I could, I quickly scaled it, making sure I didn’t look too frightened. Finna was a tough viking, exactly the opposite of me. She was nice, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t ridicule me for being a weakling.
“Okay…” I said boldly. “And now?”
“Now,” she whispered excitedly, “we just have to find them.”
“Find them?” I asked, feeling incredibly foolish.
Finna rolled her eyes at me. “Oh, come on, you didn’t think that they’d just be sitting out in the open, did you? All dragons have to have some sort of camoflauge to survive–that or huge claws–” Finna moved her hands like a dragon raking its claws down a tree–“and these little guys look as innocent as can be.”
“Right,” I said slowly. I was beginning to think that Finna was making all this up–that she was about to shove me jokingly (although that jokingly would probably be made a bit more serious by the fact that I was balanced precariously in a tree) and say, ‘Made you look!’ Or something along those lines. “So how do we find them?”
Finna shrugged, “That’s easy. You just have to look at the tree very closely,” Finna demonstrated, her nose nearly touching the bark. After a moment, she looked back at me. “Well?” she asked. “You DO want to see them, right? After all, you’re the one who knows everything about dragons–you should be interested in finding a new species!”
“I guess,” I replied, still suspicious of her motives. She was kind to me, but I wouldn’t put it past her to rig some sort of trap to make me look like a fool.
Ignoring the lingering doubt at the back of my mind, I squinted and scanned the tree’s bark. “I don’t see anythi–”
“Shh!” Finna looked at me sharply, putting a long finger to her lips. “Now we need to be absolutely silent.”
I heaved a sigh, but protested no more. We sat in the tree (in the cold) for what felt like hours. Although, after all was said and done, I could tell by the position of the moon and stars in the sky that it couldn’t have been anything but mere minutes.
“What are we looking for?” I dared to ask.
“A sparkle,” she said, her voice barely audible.
As I contemplated why a sparkle would be relevant to spotting this strange creature, something caught my eye. It was just barely in my perepheral vision, which made my eyes water. It was like getting a raindrop on the bit of cheek that lies right below your eye–the sunlight catches it and awakens your senses to its presence by messing with your perspective.
I shifted my face a tiny bit, trying not to make any sudden moves, and adjusted my focus. In a few seconds, a tiny prick of light grabbed my attention again. I stared at the place it had come from. Finna had told me to watch for a sparkle, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do after that. I figured that benign observation would probably be the best route to take, saying as I was dealing with a being unfamiliar to me.
Without fail, it came again. I recognized something about it this time–but what was it?
Suddenly, I knew. It was the light of the moon catching the eye of a teeny, tiny dragon! I squinted, but still I could barely make out the features of the little creature’s body and head.
Finna was right to warn me. It was–well, I’m not quite sure how else to describe it except for ‘adorable’.
Its head was disproportionately large to its body, and its eyes disproportionately large to its head. Its body was small and compact, with gossamer wings that blended in perfectly with the tree bark. The specimen I was staring at yawned its mouth, revealing a mouth the color of the dark storm clouds that often veiled the sky over Valkea, and fluttered its wings, revealing that the undersides were iridescent, like the mother-of-pearl shells the raiders often brought with them after going Viking.
I saw a pale streak out of the corner of my eye and started. I quickly looked up and saw Finna waving her hand. She mouthed something, but the moon cast shadows across her face that obscured her lips.
I knitted my brow and mouthed back, ‘What?’
Finna adjusted her perch, directing the moon’s light cleanly across her face–save the shadows her nose cast, which smudged across her face like dirt. Her mouth formed the words, ‘Did you find one?’
I nodded softly, making sure my head was the only thing moving so I wouldn’t startle my discovery.
Finna grinned and tilted her head at me, as if expecting an answer to a question. I knew this move well–she used it when she wished to know someone’s opinion about something–usually their opinion about something she had discovered, done, or given to them. I nodded, and returned her grin with a smile.
I could have sat in that tree for a lifetime, just marveling at how small the creature was. And I had thought Terrible Terrors were little! It always amazed me, how creatures so small functioned. It was hard to think of them as anything more than scale models of other creatures; envisioning all the tiny bones, tiny muscles, and tiny organs working together was so overwhelming!
The howl of a wolf echoed through the empty, silent night–a cruel reminder that I was supposed to be at home by now. I slid gracelessly down from the tree branch, accidentally startling the small dragon. I watched regretfully as it flew away, but I made sure to preserve the image of its tiny body in flight so I could accurately depict it in my journal.
“What are you doing?” Finna asked, dropping fluidly from her seat in the tree.
“I have to go,” I replied steadfastly. I needed to get home! If Katla, my aunt, or my mother took note of my absence, I was surely done for. “I promised I’d go home when the wolves howled.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Finna’s reaction. She looked almost hurt. I quickly added, “This was truely an amazing find, Finna! Thank you so much for sharing it with me. You will have to tell me more about how and when to find them later. I just don’t have time now.”
The mischeivous spark returned to Finna’s smile. “All right,” she said, accepting my honest explanation. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Of course–if I don’t get locked away for staying out late,” I promised.
With that, I darted back to the family house, my winter cape billowing out behind me.
I crept through the door, slipping my boots out right outside. I had been caught enough to know that leaving snow-covered boots inside would create large puddles, an obvious clue indicating that I had been out of the house recently.
To my great fortune, I realized that the rest of the family had retired to their beds. I removed my winter cape and hung it on the peg by the door, where it had been hanging before my adventure. I rushed up to my room and, encouraged by the harsh cold of the winter air (for the fire had been long since put out), quickly sketched the tiny dragon I had seen clinging to the tree, listing as many attributes as I could remember in a hasty scrawl next to the picture before I flung myself into the pile of soft furs that composed my bed (it was only temporary–I always had to give up my room when relatives visited), and falling into a deep sleep.
It wasn’t long, however, before the dreams found me.
It was as if the “spirits” who were supposed to haunt the chilly night had begun to take residence in my own head.
I examined my suroundings this time– aware I was in a dream. There was a clearing, and then dozens of dark trees bending over me. I was standing in a lone forest. I could tell by the absence of the critters and animals, that it was winter. Bare-leaf. But the sunlight streaming in every spot I stepped felt as if it was Green-leaf, yet the leaves– they were all gone.
Despite the irregularity of the season, I felt a bit peaceful. This, this place was finally a place where I could think. Away from the clanging of the practicing warriors’ swords and shields, or from the rusty banging of stoves and pans.
But the serenity didn’t last long. I watched as Katla began running towards me, a scowl on her face. She looked angry, furious at whatever I had done this time. Yet her face soon morphed in to Tofa’s, then Aunt, her mouth forming words I knew too well. “HERDIS LEAFSLAYER!”
It wasn’t long before Aunt quickly grew a bit shorter and laughed heartily, her face now Finna.
I can’t admit I was happy to see her after how she had dragged me out last night, though she was a bit of an improvement from an angry Aunt.
She patted my back, and we went back to doing things we would normally do. Climb trees, throw stones. It all happened within what felt like 3 seconds before Finna was soon Aster, my dragon. Aster shied away from me, which was a bit surprising. I offered a hand, and Aster soon became the same odd dragon I had seen tonight. It flew away, its wings matching the same movement of Katla’s dragon when it flew.
Wolves began howling, their sharp cries cutting into my ears. I had heard enough of wolves, so with that, I pinched myself, prodded at my eyes, and punched my own stomach. I felt the familiarity of drifting from my dream, as if I was traveling through thousands of different worlds.
It wasn’t the best dream I had ever had, and I had thought that it certainly made no sense, but little did I know that it made the same amount of sense as one and one makes two.
That blasted Tanni.
2540 words! O: Haha, oops! Sorry. I got caught up in the dream.
I’d like to thank Nireth for helping me write nearly most of it! It was really fun writing with you and I hope to do it again soon sometime! THANKS A TON!