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Bjarki’s Saga

Another Chuck Wendig challenge: tell a story in ten chapters, and no more than 1000 words. This one comes to about 720. I think the brevity of the saga style lends itself rather well to the format.

Bjarki’s Saga


One

Bjarki was a Jarl amongst the Northmen, a proud and generous giver of gold and silver; many renowned warriors were in his hird, and the greatest skalds wrote poems of his prowess in battle and of the deeds of his ancestors.

Two
One summer, Bjarki wished to go raiding amongst the peoples across the sea, who were known to possess rich treasures. And so he went to his cousin Gunnlaug and entrusted him the care of his lands during his absence. And Bjarki and Gunnlaug broke bread, and swore oaths to seal their loyalty and friendship, and Bjarki was content.

Three
Then Bjarki took his longboats and his huscarls across the sea. But scarcely had the sails disappeared beneath the horizon before Gunnlaug, treacherous and greedy in spirit, broke his oaths and seized his kinsman’s manor and all his lands.

Four
Bjarki went amongst the people across the sea, and he raided and plundered all summer, and when his longship was filled with treasure, he went home. Suspecting nothing of his cousin’s treachery and longing for the comforts of home, he went to his manor. But there had Gunnlaug laid ambushes; the kinslayer’s sin was in his thoughts. Many of Bjarki’s warriors died that day, and his longboats were burned to ashes, and the Jarl himself, ignominiously, was forced to flee.

Five
Enraged, Bjarki went to the King to plead his case and demand justice. But the King was weak and indecisive, and he held his crown at the pleasure of the Jarls, amongst whom Gunnlaug was now the strongest. And so Bjarki’s claim was denied and he was unjustly exiled from the realm.

Six
Three winters and three summers then did Bjarki wander in the Northlands. And he did many great feats of arms and valour in that time; but always the thoughts of the injustice that had been done to him festered in his mind. And he made no friends in that time, although that would have served an exile well; a wrong having once been done against him, he had come to expect nothing better from any man.

Seven
At last came Bjarki to the lands of Frostinnheim, where the giants dwelled. And the witch-king of the giants held feasts for him, and spoke to him of dark secrets and made many promises that took root in his soul; and so, thirsting for vengeance and restitution, Bjarki renounced his honour, and he swore oaths and entered pacts with demon princes and devil lords and all manner of creatures that wish evil upon mankind.

Eight
Then Bjarki returned from exile, terrible to behold, with an army of trolls and mares and wraiths and many things that walk and fly and slither in the dark; and the royal host took the field against him, but no huscarl or liðsman in the realm could match arms against his foul forces. Struck down was then Gunnlaug the Oathbreaker, and struck down was the King who had denied him justice, and none was there on the blood-soaked field who dared oppose him.

Nine
Now Bjarki was crowned King. But evil had poisoned his soul and body; where once he had ruled as a wise and generous Jarl, he now reigned as a cruel and greedy King. And before long, the realm grew restless, and the people named him Ill-Ruler and Svárta-Jarl and rose up in rebellion against his foul laws. And though Bjarki went forth with great strength and cruelty against those who took arms against him, every part of the realm was filled with dissent; each Jarl did as he pleased and paid no heed to the wishes of the crown.

Ten
At last King Bjarki Ill-Ruler died, having seen only two score and seven summers in his life. But soon after his death, the Emperor of the South brought an army of many knights and archers to the Northlands, and ravaged as it was by many years of strife and torn by dissent, the realm could not withstand him. Thus was the kingdom of the North brought down and added to the lands of the Empire, and this was the end of the freedom of the Northmen. Let this then be the lesson of the life of Bjarki Jarl: That the King rules well that rules wisely and justly, keeping the peace in the realm and securing justice for his people; but treason, dishonour and injustice will bring even the strongest realm to fall.

———
(Image: Detail from “Håkon den Gode og bøndene ved blotet på Mære” by Peter Nicolai Arbo, public domain.)

A short story inspired by the satirical poem “Smeden og Bageren” by Johan Herman Wessel.

The_Hanging_Tree_by_AugustStudios

 

Rendering Life For Life

Once upon a time, there was a traveller who was on his way to the capital. As it happened, he was about to pass through a small village, when on its outskirts, he witnessed a most gruesome sight: A man had been hanged in an old oak tree. The corpse had obviously been left there to hang for some time, and the crows and the buzzards had made a good feast out of it.

Shaken, but also morbidly curious, the traveller continued into the village and soon came past an old man sitting outside his house, smoking his pipe and enjoying the good weather.

“Good day to you, sir,” the traveller greeted him. “Tell me, who is that man hanging in the tree back there?”

“Oh, that’s our former baker, Jamesson,” the old man replied. “Aye, ‘tis a sad story, it is. He was condemned at the Magistrate’s only last week.” He shook his head.

“Must have been a serious crime,” the traveller said. “A murder, perhaps?”

“Exactly, “ the old man said. “You know the story: A bit too much to drink in the pub, a brief argument, and then POW!, a blow to the head an’ there’s another man won’t see the next sunrise. Very sad. And the baker was such a pleasant man, too.”

“Well, he can’t have been all that pleasant if he killed someone,” the traveller objected.

“Oh, no, you misunderstand. It wasn’t the baker what killed him,” the old man said. “That was our smith, Hendricks.”

“What!?” the traveller exclaimed, appalled. “Why did you hang the baker, then, if the smith committed the murder?!”

“Well,” the old man sighed, “you see, here’s the problem: We had to punish somebody for it, of course, but we only had the one smith in the village, and we couldn’t do without him… but fortunately, we had two bakers!”

———
(Photo by AugustStudios, licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 license)

Melody, a Prologue

A little thing wot I wrote about a girl with a tough life and a gun.


 

Melody, A Prologue

A young girl looks down the barrel of a gun at the bad man standing over Mother’s bloody body lying on the ground. Even her short life among the bad men has taught her that Mother won’t get up again, that a whole world can change with a moment of anger. She blinks away her tears, instinct tells her there’s no time for that now; there won’t be for a long time to come.

The bad man turns to her and laughs and reaches out to take the gun from her. He doesn’t think she’ll use it; turns out he’s wrong. She clenches the handle tighter in both hands to keep it level and pulls back on the trigger like she’s seen the bad men do so many times. The gun jumps in her hands with a loud CRAK and there’s a shower of blood and brains and screams and shouts and confusion. So she runs. Into the tunnels where she knows the bad men are always afraid to go.

Weeks pass, perhaps months, who knows? She’s made her home in the old tunnels, always on the move through the darkness and the stinking, shallow water, a deadly game of hide and seek with the bad men who try to find her and bring her back.

She has learned that to be unseen is to possess power.  The power to reach out at will and take a man’s life and disappear again in the darkness. She becomes one with the darkness, she claims this domain as her own. Here the bad men, the hunters, become the hunted ones. They were always afraid of the tunnels, so they come down in groups, loud and blustering to hide their fear from themselves and each other. They are easy to find and easy to trick and easy to kill, and when they die, their bodies are little treasure troves of food and ammo. So she survives, prospers, even.

There are other things down here, of course there are, hungry things. She hears them all the time, occasionally she sees a fleeting shape, a brief movement in the shadows, a dim light briefly reflected in far too many eyes. But they leave her alone; perhaps they have come to think of her as one of their own. Or perhaps they just know that her presence here and the deadly game she plays means more and easy food for them, each dead body of her enemies a sacrifice to the things that share her domain.

At last, she emerges from the tunnels into the ancient ruins of a once-great city, now a skilled hunter of men. The tunnels have taught her well, but they have exacted a heavy price. She has seen things, done things that no little girl should ever see or do. But of course she’s no little girl anymore, those times are long gone already, the tunnels and the bad men – slavers, she now knows to call them – and the gun took all that away from her.

Never looking back, with nothing but her gun in her hand and Mother’s dead, bloody body in her dreams, Melody sets out through the ruined city, across the dusty plains, into a world that is broken and torn and burnt to ashes – out to do do bad things to bad people. For if all the bad people can be made to go away, forever, maybe she will finally find the security and comfort she has never known?

—–

(Illustration is copyright © by the amazing Jonas De Ro (seriously, go visit his site right now). All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit usage.)

Alissa

Time for the weekly Wendig challenge, this week a story written about the excellent picture below, taken by Mr Wendig himself. This one went rather experimental for effect – not sure if it works, so as usual, let me know.

 

Alissa

I met Alissa at an old crooked tree deep in the forest on the hillside where she sat on the trunk swinging her legs and smiling down to me and I had never seen her before but I loved her the moment I saw her I wanted her as I have never wanted anything in my life and I told the tiny little voice at the back of my head that was trying to tell me something was terribly horribly wrong who is she what is she doing out here would you just think about this to shut up and mind its own business

The fog was lying heavy on the ground among the trees just as it always does on the cold mornings when the wind comes down from the mountains and the air was thick with the tangy smell of freshly cut wood pulp and sap from a tree stump nearby she was beautiful with long red silken hair and sparkling green eyes and skin like brilliant swan feathers and she was so not like any of the girls from the village but strange and mysterious like a leannán sí out of the mists of foreign myths like the antediluvian daughters of Cain like the húli jīng that captured the heart of King Zhou and brought a kingdom to fall

Hi she said and I said hi what’s your name I asked Alissa she replied oh God that smile and I sat down in the moss beside the tree and we talked for what seemed like forever about dreams and the mystic names of trees and the flight of the birds and hidden things no one else would understand until the night came can I see you again I asked and she said sure and she smiled that impish little smile that drove me wild and then she jumped down from the trunk ran through the carpet of soft thick moss and was gone among the trees like an long-forgotten apparition or a figment of a half-remembered dream at first light of dawn

I returned to the crooked tree the next day and thank God she was there again and we talked and the next day again and the day after that until one day there was nothing more to say so she jumped down from her tree just as she did every day only this time she did not run away but came to me I kissed her she tasted like pine trees and clear forest lakes and like fresh blackberries and the crisp air in the early spring morning just after it has rained I kissed her again and again my heart raced and soared while all the while the little voice at the back of my head screamed and clamoured and it was all to no avail for I loved her wanted her

I held her in my arms and pressed her close tightly to me as if I would never let her go her body was warm against mine I touched her she touched me her touch was as fleeting as the soft morning breeze among the hills I took her there beneath the crooked tree and afterwards we lay together in the soft moss meanwhile dark clouds had drawn together above us there was a taste of rain on the wind and the thunder rolled in the distance we should go I said

Not yet she said and all of a sudden her voice wasn’t very playful anymore but rather harsh and commanding and as the rain came down in streams all around and the thunder crashed above my skin started itching no it was worse than an itch it was a thousand tiny little tendrils that pierced my skin in a thousand places like little prickly thorns working their way into my flesh and bones I wanted to scream out in pain but I couldn’t I just couldn’t move a muscle

As I looked she twisted and shifted until her so perfect smooth skin had become rough and brown like the pitted bark on an ancient oak tree and her silken red hair were like a thousand leaves and branches only her eyes were unchanged except when she stared deep into mine I saw only the deep remorseless hatred there a hatred which thirsted thirsted thirsted for my blood

Do you see that she asked and pointed to a stump nearby she was my sister she was tall and fair and the strongest among us until someone from your village cut her down so we wept our bitter tears for her and then we swore revenge she whispered to me and lightly kissed my cheek so from your blood a new sister shall grow to keep us safe and hunger for more blood and by her your village shall never know peace again for from now on there shall be war between your people and ours

And Alissa lay down next to me and embraced me tightly and the thorny branches that were growing though my body burst out through my chest my blood flowed out oh God the pain was unbearable and watered the ground around me and as my vision faded the blood-and-rain-soaked moss grew to cover me and Alissa and then there was only pain and then at last mercifully nothing.

—–

(Photo is copyright © 2007 by Chuck Wendig. All rights reserved (except I hope it’s okay to put it here since he asked us to write about it and all)).

The Tower of Babel

For a Wendig flash fiction challenge. I have been reading a lot of Borges recently, which might have influenced this piece somewhat. As always, let me know what you think, whether good or bad.

 

 

The Tower of Babel

 

4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” 8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

– Genesis 11:4-9

I have renounced my name out of grief and shame. You may call me Nimrod, for it was I who oversaw the second fall of humanity from its pinnacle of pride and greatness.

By the time humanity had left the cradle of Earth and reached out to touch the stars, we had also grown prideful and confident in our own ability, and old lessons of humility were buried and forgotten. And thus, we set about constructing a monument to our own accomplishments: A space station, kilometres in length, that would be the centrepiece of human presence in space, tying together the thousandfold dispersed worlds, colonies and outposts.

In an act of what in hindsight seems like inexcusable hubris, we named it The Tower of Babel, for it was meant to undo the ancient dispersal of the peoples and confusion of tongues and bring humanity together as one again; a single people which – so we were convinced – would fulfill humanity’s ancient destiny to conquer the heavens and make ourselves the undisputed masters of nature.

After decades of work, effort and investments that claimed the resources of a thousand worlds, the Tower was completed, orbiting a planetless star at the centre of human space. It was a constructed wonder of ingenuity and technology, a centre of trade, culture and politics.

The Ultracosmologist sect of Plautijnius 6 came there to negotiate mining rights with the executives of SempaCorp. The peace treaty between the Empire of Achenar and the Hierocrats of Tau Orionis was signed here, and the declaration of war by the Harvesters of the icy moons of Delta Draconis on the anarcho-collectivist states in 18 Scorpionis issued. It was on the Tower that the neo-Druidic Church of Nebulas’ Salvation declared the excommunication of the Thirteenth Prophet, and it was here that the polyartist Li Wenming exhibited his first thirteen-dimensional holo-painting, which shattered all conventions of art and culture forever. For a while, the advances of humanity seemed unstoppable.

But it was not to last, as we soon discovered. The orbit of the station became unstable and started to decay, each revolution inching it closer and closer to the star. Engineers and scientists searched in vain for causes. Had the mass of the star increased? Had we underestimated the resistance of the local interplanetary matter? Or had we discovered some previously unknown natural law which could cause gravity itself to change?

No one knew the answers, and no one had solutions. The stationkeeping engines were insufficient to counteract the unknown forces that acted on the Tower. And moving it further away only increased the pull of the star, further exacerbating the problem. Out of the hundreds of proposed solutions, nothing was able to halt the inexorable migration towards annihilation.

In the end, it was decided to abandon the station. As the both first and last Administrator-General of the Tower of Babel, I was the last to leave. I spent my last hour on the Tower wandering through the halls and corridors that had resounded day and night with the voices of millions of beings speaking a thousand languages. I visited the grand markets on the sixty-first deck, where resources, goods and services worth enough to ransom a thousand kings ten times over had been bought and sold every single day. And finally, my walkabout ended in the hangars to find my shuttle, a tiny mosquito in the now empty cavernous halls where once gigantic starships from every corner of known space had docked to load and unload cargo of every imaginable description.

As I boarded the shuttle, the overworked engines on the Tower were deactivated, and the thrummings of the power plants which had provided a dissonant accompaniment to it all put down their instruments for the final time. The whole station had fallen quiet as an empty mausoleum where not even the dead remain to sigh a quiet, mournful choir, the terrible silence ringing in my ears as the final impression of my doomed masterpiece.

With the engines turned off, the station dropped towards the star like a rock, within hours grazing the corona and entering the last minutes of its life. From a command bridge that was not my own, on a starship on which I had no position or authority, I who had commanded the greatest creation in known space, witnessed the final moments of the second Tower of Babel – of my life’s work.

In the end, even the dignity of an appropriate burial was denied me. The demise of the Tower was celebrated by no fanfares, no fireworks, no mighty explosions to light up the skies of future distant worlds and tell their inhabitants: This was humanity’s greatest moment. As a final insult, the Tower was gone in a second, the final impact barely visible on its surface of the star, never leaving behind the slightest mark of its existence in the vast, uncaring silence of space. I turned away my face and wept.

With the Tower of Babel gone, humanity once more learned humility, but we lost our ambition in the bargain. Nothing approaching the grandeur of the Tower was ever attempted again, and humanity stagnated. We had reached too far and were struck down from our lofty heights, whether by a jealous god or by a nature that would not be tamed.

And so, I have become as like a second Nimrod, for I am convinced that it was my hubris that brought judgement upon humanity. I first proposed the construction of the Tower; I suggested the name; and I wasted no efforts to become its first Administrator-General, thus to enter my name in the annals of history with indelible ink. This last I have accomplished, and for that reason I have renounced my name forever. Behold the works of humanity, ye mighty, and despair.

If you had asked me back when I started this blog, I would not have guessed that it would turn halfway into a poetry blog, but there you go. A little meditation inspired by a great weekend in Barcelona.

 

In the Carrer del Bisbe

I sit and watch
in the Carrer del Bisbe,
people and the world pass me by,
familiar strangers
in an intricate passacaglia;
lovers, parents, tourists,
walking heaps of cameras, maps,
bags and guidebooks,
hurrying on to places beyond the next corner
some new thing to see,
some new thing to do,
some new thing to fill their lives.

Street musicians accompany the dance,
Tarrega and Bach in a sonorous stereo,
and Santa Eulalia’s bells join in and
                                           echo
off the grey stone walls all around,
counting out the hours that pass,
and a warm breeze wanders through
the street from Sant Jaume to Catedral
unnoticed by all but me and
the leaves of the platane trees.

As I sit and watch
in the Carrer del Bisbe,
people and the world pass me by,
everchanging,
the only constants
the cathedral bells counting the hours,
the warm breeze from Sant Jaume,
and the thoughts of
you.

———
(Photo by Llull, licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Three Sonnets II

For my Lady.

 

IV

Absence makes the loving heart grow fonder,
the lofty Roman poet would proclaim;
but for me, it only rends my heart asunder
amidst a fiery storm of thunder and flame.
Yet despite the countless miles that us divide,
as like an endless sea of burning fire,
I will ask the gods who reign above to guide
my heart to seek and to your love aspire.
Then know, my love, that though we are apart,
you hold the power to speak the word that dashes
all my hopes, or that which heals my heart,
arising like a phoenix from the ashes.
    With you I prosper, growing day by day,
    but in your absence I will waste away.

 

V

Your smile a thousand broken hearts could mend,
a spark of light more bright than eyes might see;
as though to you the sun her radiance lent,
and to Earth has sent, her envoy here to be.
And like your august lady liege, the sun,
your warmth and brightness lighten up my world,
and send my spirit, eagle-like, anon
soaring to the skies, its wings unfurled.
But Fate herself a cruél foe has proved,
conspir’d to keep us separate, apart.
Still by my pleas her will remains unmoved,
and thus my heart yet bleeds, by fortune scarred.
    A single word from you or just a smile
    would suffice my wounded heart to reconcile.

 

VI

Prometheus, when still the Earth was young,
ascended, boldly, without fear of vengeance
and punishment divine, his courage strong,
to the Olympic heights, the gods to challenge.
That secret, fire, which the gods had kept,
he stole, and for his crime was disciplined:
By Zeus on Kaukasos he was bound, and wept,
thus suffered he who against the gods had sinned.
Likewise, my love, unbound shall I ascend
the lofty pinnacle of your regard,
and there, Prometheus-like, I do intend
to claim an ember from your fiery heart.
    More kindly than majestic Zeus assess,
    my love, my bid your favour to possess.

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