Having not written any fiction for some time, this year I entered the NYC Midnight short fiction competition to kick myself into gear.
My prompts were: Fantasy, A picnic, a single mother.
As a result I produced “Uphill Battle”.
Enjoy, critique, ignore at will.
UPDATE: I received an Honourable Mention for this story, being one of the three stories in the heat to receive a commendation but not make it through to the next round. I’m pretty happy with that result, and am currently working with the feedback provided to produce a second draft (which is unbound by the competition’s word limit!)
In the face of overwhelming opposition, a warrior seeks justice from her gods.
Saanadi crested the final stone outcropping and stumbled into the clearing. The severed head of the fire wyrm fell from her hands as she collapsed to her knees in exhaustion, drawing long, ragged breaths.
‘I’ve made it!’ She barely dared to form the thought.
Painful sensation rushed back into the many bruises and cuts that covered her from head to toe. The burned flesh on the back of Saanadi’s head and shoulders screamed, a painful remembrance of the fire wyrm’s savagery.
Saanadi looked over to the beast’s head. It’s powerful jaws capable of biting the leg off a grown woman in a single bite.
“I beat you!” Saanadi yelled at the beast’s lifeless face, “I cut off your ugly fucking head and I BEAT YOU!” Her voice grew hoarse with the power of her scream as she dissolved into relieved sobs.
“Indeed you did. And very impressive it was, too.” The thin, nasal voice cut through her sobs like a stiletto.
Before she could think, Saanadi’s body leapt into the air, turning to face the direction of the voice and landing in a defensive crouch. But as her left hand reached for the hilt of her sword a wave of exhaustion and pain caused fingers to fumble. The sword jammed in its scabbard and the force of the arrested motion threatened to throw her off balance. A foot fumbled forward before she regained her stance and drew her blade.
Perched on a large rock on the edge of the plateau sat an impossible figure. A pointed beard and high cheeks defined a narrow face, with beady eyes sunk beneath bushy eyebrows that grew to points several inches away from the face. Ridged horns protruded from below its hairline, curving backwards before disappearing into a mass of black, oiled curls. Its body was unnaturally thin, but beneath a simple ground-length tunic were the unmistakable curves of breasts and womanly hips.
The figure raised from its crouch, revealing impossibly thin limbs that seemed to unfold from within the tunic.
Saanadi recalled the image of a spider she had once seen shedding its carapace.
“It’s not just me who thinks so,” it said. “They were all watching. Some of them even cheered when you took the beast’s head.”
“They who?” Saanadi’s blistered lips struggled to form the words.
“They who?” the figure asked, breaking into an impossibly wide grin. “Them!” Its head flicked skyward, looking briefly toward the clouds. “In fact, they were so impressed, they sent me here to offer you some small respite before you make your final ascension,” the figure’s hands disappeared inside the tunic, and emerged holding the neck of a full waterskin in one, and a large hunk of cheese wrapped in cloth in the other.
“So this really is…” Saanadi’s eyes flashed as she considered the strangers words, “Have I actually made it to the…”
“Yes,” the figure gave a little flourish with its hand and spoke in formal manner that bordered on mockery, ”this is the Serpent’s Basking Stone. Pinnacle of the Fell Mountain. Gateway to the Chambers of the Gods,” the figure nodded its head towards a clear patch of rocky earth, “Now sit. Eat. Rest.”
Saanadi stood frozen as she watched the figure’s stilted stride to the centre of the small clearing where it placed the offerings on the ground. She adjusted her grip on the leather-strapped hilt of her sword, watching carefully for any sign of deception.
“You said ‘they’,” Saanadi’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Are you not one of the Heinengar?”
“I am of them, but I’m not strictly one of them,” it sighed. The figure sat, crossing its long, thin legs beneath its torso. “I suppose it’s fair to say that I work for them, performing certain tasks, and in exchange I get to live among them and enjoy the fruits of divinity.”
Saanadi thought she saw the flicker of a tail moving beneath the tunic as it sat. “What sort of tasks?”
The figure looked Saanadi up and down for a moment, then popped the cork of the skin and took a long, slow drink from the spout. A small trickle of golden liquid escaped from its lips to run slowly down its chin and get lost in the tangle of its beard.
Saanadi’s stomach growled at the sight.
“Until very recently I was the keeper of one ancient fire wyrm,” the figure’s knowing look flicked to the beast’s severed head, then back to catch Saanadi’s eye. “I imagine that soon I’ll be sent on a journey to the Ormen range to steal a fire wyrm egg, and then I’ll have to learn how to raise a hatchling monster that breathes fire and feeds on charred flesh.”
It gave Saanadi a pointed look before taking another swig from the skin.
“And on this occasion, I am tasked with greeting a mortal warrior who fought her way up the side of a mountain in pursuit of the gods, and offering her some mead and cheese while the gods figure out how to greet her,” it used the skin to gesture to the bundle sitting unceremoniously on the ground. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone has ever overcome the Serpent of the Basking Stone before.”
“You’re Ormur,” Saanadi said, “servant of the gods.”
The figure’s eyes widened as it drew a sharp breath.
“That’s right,” said Ormur, the too-wide smile returning to its face, “though I consider myself more an of emissary, representing their interests beyond the bounds of their sacred halls. The gods seldom travel to the mortal realm, these days.”
At this, Saanadi sat, placing her sword within arm’s reach, and picked up the bundle Ormur had offered. The cheese was soft, but with a hard rind, and when it was cracked, the soft yellow centre released a burst of creamy and nutty aromas. After days without food or water, she could have feasted on the smell alone.
Breaking off a small chunk, she placed it on her tongue and closed her mouth, chewing cautiously while watching Ormur’s reaction closely. But as her palate filled with a sensation of softness and warmth, any fears of poison quickly disappeared. Saanadi broke the cheese in half and bit deeply into the soft centre.
“It’s divine, isn’t it?” Ormur grinned at its own joke. “Here, try this,” its impossibly thin arm extended across the space between them to place the skin before her.
Saanadi took the skin, removing the stopper with a swift flick of her thumb on the way to her mouth. Her cravings for water were so strong that she gulped down several mouthfuls before she bothered to taste it. It was unlike anything she’d had before. It was mead, but it flowed like harvest wine, light and cool on her tongue.
Saanadi could feel the warmth of the liquor fill her stomach and spread throughout her body. The warmth brought with it a sense of lightness, as though she was floating slowly out of her own skin. Then, a feeling of tension released as she realised that the constant pulsing pain she had been pushing to the back of her mind was rapidly dissipating.
She looked down at her forearm where a fell hound’s fangs had left their mark. The wound was slowly flaking away, evaporating like steam from her skin.
Her hand darted to the back of her head where the wyrm’s breath had burned away her warrior’s braids, leaving only blackened flesh. Saanadi’s fingers found unblemished, pain-free skin. Surprised, she looked at Ormur.
Its eye twitched, as if about to wink, but otherwise sat unmoved as Saanadi explored her body, feeling the places where serious wounds gaped only moments ago.
“So,” Ormur interjected, breaking the silence, “do I get to know who you are?”
“Saanadi”, she said.
“Just Saanadi? I thought your people had endless honorifics after their name. Doesn’t each great victory get added to your name as some grand title?”
Saanadi took a bite of the cheese and chewed slowly for a moment. Memories of taunts and humiliations hurled at her from the huts of her village drifted to the surface. A wave of anger pushed the memories away and she sat upright in the resting warrior pose. Years of training and muscle memory allowed her to relax into the pose and calm the rapid beating of her heart.
After a long moment Saanadi looked from the ground to lock eyes with Ormur. “Just Saanadi,” she said in a tone that dared the creature to ask again.
Ormur tilted its head, quizzically.
“You must know that you are the first mortal in… the gods know how many centuries to overcome the Trail of One Thousand Deaths to scale the Fell Mountain,” Ormur watched the expressions of Saanadi’s face closely. “Why did you do it? For what reason would you risk your life to face the gods directly?”
Saanadi stared, debating with herself whether to share her story with the creature.
“I was wronged,” Saanadi said, finally. “I was wronged, and I plan to petition the gods for justice.”
Ormur burst out laughing. Even in the thin air of the mountain peak the laugh filled the space. Saanadi bristled, the toned muscles of her forearm rippling as her sword hand clenched and released above the hilt of her weapon.
“You fought your way through the forest of whispers!” Ormur spoke loudly through his laughter. “You’ve climbed the icy peaks! You took the head of my fire wyrm! What justice could you possibly seek that you’re not able to take for yourself at the tip of your sword?” It watched as the woman clenched her jaw tightly.
“I was wronged by the gods,” Saanadi spoke quietly, but with a fierce intensity that belied the deep well of grief threatening to break through her controlled demeanour. “One of them, at least. I’ve come to petition the gods that I may face the one who wronged me.”
Ormur’s face lit up, its eyes wide with excitement at the possibilities hidden within the woman’s tale. It leapt to its feet in a crouch, hands pressed against the ground as it leaned forward eagerly.
At the sudden gesture, Saanadi’s training took over and her hand grabbed the hilt of her sword as she kicked away from the ground to roll backwards. Her feet found purchase at the edge of the clearing as she came to rest in a low stance with her sword raised.
It was the first time in days Saanadi had felt all of her muscles moving without pain or tightness.
“Sorry!” Ormur blurted out, raising both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Please, how were you wronged? And how do you know it was a god?”
Several breaths passed before anyone spoke again.
“I was… taken, “she said, “against my will. Someone came to me in the form of my husband and we made love through the night. But I knew it couldn’t be my husband. He had marched with the Kahn’s army last spring and there had been no mention of their return. I knew it couldn’t be him, yet somehow…”
“So because of that you assume it was a god who lay with you?” Ormur interrupted as its eyes widened in bemusement. “And if they did, what of it? You say you knew it couldn’t be your husband but didn’t stop?”
“My body was not my own!” Saanadi’s outburst echoed off the rocks around the clearing. “I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t stop it. It’s like my mind couldn’t control my body to tell him to stop!”
“That doesn’t mean it was a god!” Ormur protested. “Had you been drinking? I saw how quickly you quaffed the mead without care for its potency…”
“I was not drunk!” Sanadi’s face turned red with fury
Ormur’s excitement lessened as it took in the anger on Saanadi’s face.
“And for this one thing you would risk your life? Could you have not just put it out of mind and gone on your way?” Ormur’s voice suggested genuine concern.
“I was left with child,” Saanadi clenched her teeth against rising tears. “My people knew that my husband was half a world away. They named me ‘the weak’, and stripped me of all position and authority when my belly started to show.”
Ormur’s incredulity showed plainly on its face. “And what of your husband? Did he believe your tale?”
“He died in battle,” tears began to run down Saanadi’s face. “A messenger came with news of the Kahn’s defeat and the death of his army. My people said I was cursed, that my treachery had brought disaster to our doors. They sent me from the village. I survived the last weeks of my pregnancy by scavenging and trapping small game. I couldn’t even hunt!”
The passion of her words was quickly whipped away by the mountain winds.
“But if you’re right, then you have lain with a god! Are you not blessed? Are you not the mother of a child of the Heinengar? Surely that does you great honour!”
“Have you ever heard of a mortal child of the gods? It’s not a blessing, it’s a curse! Our flesh cannot house the energy of the divine. My baby was born deformed. It had to fight for every breath, and could not even feed at my breast! For days I had to watch my baby waste away until it died in my arms,” Saanadi shouted her anguish into the wind, giving voice to the pain that had, until now, remained buried, fuelling her anger. “One of them did this to me. And I am here that I might have justice.”
Ormur stood, seemingly taken aback by the display of rage and pain. “Have you ever stopped to consider what you may have done to draw the attention of the gods?” it asked, gently.
“No!” Saanadi cried “It was not my doing!”
“That you have survived to reach this place shows that you are a woman of extraordinary strength and skill,” Ormur gestured to her sword. “Perhaps it was that strength that caught the attention of the gods. You may have suffered, yes, but such is the burden of the extraordinary…”
Saanadi’s blade flashed through the air, and Ormur fell silent.
Slowly, the horned head of the divine servant fell from its neck to land heavily on the ground. The knees of its long, thin legs began to bend, and the body collapsed in a writhing, gangly heap.
The warrior woman flicked her blade to shed the strange black ichor that clung to it, stepping forward to spit on the lifeless, still-surprised face that stared up at her from the ground.
‘Serpent of the basking stone, indeed,’ Saanadi thought.
Wiping away tears and mucus with the back of her forearm, Saanadi’s face was again a mask of grim determination. She adjusted her grip on the sword, and began looking for the gateway that legend said would take her to face the gods.