Sample of Unpublished Fantasy Novel
The following is a passage from my yet unpublished novel.
It began with a breath and with a knife. Outside the caves the pines yielded to the wind and creaked under the weight of snow. A heard of reindeer picked their way across the frozen ground near the banks of the lake, routing through the frost for any sign of new growth. A patchwork of floating ice covered the calm surface of the water and the winds from the south whispered with the promise of spring. From it’s high vantage an eagle twitched a white tail and began circling down. It was early in the year and despite the cold and the despite the darkness, saplings were pushing through the snow and the hidden creatures were stirring. Life was returning to the mountain.
Scrabbling at the iron hard earth a vole pushed free of its hidden den and made a dash for a fallen tree. Tiny steps drumming across the snow. The glassy unblinking eye followed the tiny body, pitch black against the stark white ground and some primal reflex loosened a talon. The eagle moved closer building speed as it dropped below the tree line, the brilliant early morning sun flashing light and dark between the close packed pines. With barely a sound one life continued and the other ended.
The fur wrapped figure at the cave mouth bowed its head and turned into the dark. He was carful not to touch the stone with its rough edges jutting out like the broken teeth and to be mindful of the hanging tendrils of paper thin minerals suspend from the low ceiling. The floor was glass smooth in places where feet had walked in and out for countless centuries but the craggy walls stood as a reminder that those feet only passed at the whim of the mountain. The slightest shift, the rolling of a pebble and the fortress of the Jotnar would be crushed under the inexorable weight of the towering slopes above. For countless generations Skjeggedal had been the home of all giants. Even when the men had brought their cutting roads and wooden homes the secret caverns beneath the mountain had sheltered Haakon and his people and though they ranged far, crossing the oceans and walking beneath the open skies of the east, no giant would ever think of any other place as home. Children born a thousand miles from the sacred land knew the forest tracks, the moods of the lake and the movement of the stars above the peak. Some old giants had died with this knowledge never having set foot upon the land itself and yet they could call no other place home.
Shrugging his heavy load to a more comfortable position Haakon pressed on, feeling the familiar incline of the cave floor as he moved further underground. He did not know what it was that drew him back to this place but just like the animals, something bone deep compelled him home. Slowly, step by step he moved until the darkness of the cave was complete and his staring eyes could see nothing at all. If he turned he knew that the cave mouth would be a small circle of light obscured by boulders which had been invisible as he entered but that once passed seemed to close in to confuse any unwitting traveller. He sensed the slight softness underfoot and smiled to himself. The smooth rock had given way to course sand and as he knelt the surface yielded and cradled his travel weary frame. The trench of sand reached from one wall of the cave to the other and had he a light, Haakon knew the sand would stretch on for another twenty feet right up to the false gates covered in their shadow paintings. In the inky blackness however, he was completely blind and kneeling in the sand he focused instead on the song.
Every tiny child knew it but if asked they would not know when or how they had learnt it. Stone music was like learning to walk or hunt it was just something that happened and in the darkness of Skjeggedal’s gate Haakon sang. There were no words, or at least no words that Haakon or for that matter any giant, man or beast would recognise. It was the sound of stone on stone, of shifting earth and dripping water, it put any listener in mind of deep places and old knowledge and once it had begun it seemed as though it had always been. Haakon bowed his head and steadied himself. His fingers buried themselves in the sand and he could feel the tiny grains pushing up into the cracks of his skin and under his nails. The journey had been a long one and the song was soothing. He knew it so well that he sung unthinkingly his body grateful to be resting after a long journey and his voice sounding in spite of himself.
A flash of memory jolted him as he recalled old Asgrid and how he gleefully told the children that the sands of Skjeggedal’s gate could swallowing up attackers who dared to come to the mountain, along with any disobedient children who went were they should not. As a boy Haakon and the other children had dared each other to jump on the sand at the gates and to dig down as far as they could in order to find the secret passages that would drag them down to a grizzly end. Every time however, after two or three handfuls they would each laugh and quickly kick in sand to fill the tiny holes, insisting that though of course they were not scared it was silly to indulge such a childish game.
There were no hidden traps or magic snares around the gates. Centuries before the sand had kept attackers from gaining purchase for battering rams and when smoothed flat the surface would reveal any sneaking intruders trying to enter the mountain unseen. On occasions when water flooded in from the rain the sand stopped puddles forming and kept the ground safe to walk on in caparison to the slippery stone further up. It was practical and it was true. Haakon knew this in the same way that he knew his heart beat and yet even all these years later he could never truly shake Asgrid’s stories from his mind. The stone song which announce his return to the gates some how made the old stories real. In the dark, in the home of the Jotnar all old legends still held power.
A thin blue green light appeared to the side of him. To Haakon it appeared as bright as the midday sun but the moon water lantern in the watchers hand would barely be called a light if it were to be used in any other place. Its sickly light was constant but dim, and only really fit for allowing a bearer to guess at the shadows ahead of them. The light radiated from the tiny plants suspended in the sloshing moon water which was in turn held in translucent bowl of quartz. It fell across the watchers face and amongst the playing shadows teeth flashed in a grin.
“Fair met. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you Haakon.”
“Five winters and your still as fat as you ever were Siv. I swear you could sleep for a season and still have stores for a family.” Haakon rose slowly his joints cracking as he did so. Siv squinted at him by the light of his ghostly lantern.
“And you are still as fragile as a baby bird and uglier than a seals arse.” Siv stood a full head taller than Haakon and his girth was vast. Around his waist two belts had been fixed together to make a single band to encircled him and his tunic was straining at the seams beneath his large powerful arms. Very deliberately he placed his lantern on a shelf of rock beside him and advanced like a storm cloud. He spread his arms and lifted Haakon bodily off the floor.
“It’s fine to see you! I knew that you must be close. Always late but never missed eh?”
His old friend sounded strange and there was something in Siv’s tight embrace that was beyond a simple welcome.
“Whats the matter?” Siv released a bear like grip.
“You don’t know?”Haakon looked blank. Retreating with an awkward step Siv picked up the lantern from its resting place, the glowing algae swirling in it’s jar threw dim shadows across his face, which Haakon now saw was strangely pale. “Not here. Come inside” Siv lifted Haakons travelling bundle easily and gestured to the opening in the rock he had come through. The hidden door could only be pushed open from within and behind it a tunnel stretched down and to the right, illuminated each side by the glow of moon water which moved sluggishly in channels cut into the rock.
The two giants stepped inside and made their way down, pausing only to pull the door closed behind them. Another sharp corner moved them behind the gates and in silence they entered the vault. The space was vast; a single room the size of a cathedral encircled and lit by a canal of moon water, the blue green algae following complex tributaries and aqueducts that traced patterns of ghostly light throughout. It gave the impression of some monstrous circulatory system that networked across the walls and floor. At one end a waterfall fed the steady flow falling in an inky blackness which became erie light as soon as the water calmed. Amongst the network of channels tables and chairs were arranged, cooking fires burned and along the edges of the room single stands of timber sheeting marked out sleeping spaces many of which were currently occupied by their snoring occupants.
In one corner of the solar a talon of minerals reached down towards its twin rising from the floor below. The huge stalagmite had been broken and the top now formed a flat alter at least fifty feet across. On the platform was a fragment of dull granite as rough as if it had been blasted from the earth, a round stone big enough to be a throne and a large ragged bed. The bed seemed to have been hastily built, consisting of piles of rags and pillows framed by young trees which had been felled and lashed together very crudely. Most of them still retained their bark and one willow sapling still appeared to be sprouting.
Nestled amongst the blankets, propped up against a folded pile of linen was Falki.
The old leader of the Jotnar seemed skeletal amongst the piles of furs and pillows. His sunken eyes rimmed with puss coloured yellow grey skin, translucent in places and giving the old giant a ghost like appearance. His bed robes were simple linen but around his waist he wore a thick belt of leather with a golden design etched into it. In Haakons eyes Falki had always been ancient, but in the same way as a glacier or a mountain. He had been old when Haakon had been born and he had remained the same steadfast figure right up until Haakon had bid farewell to Skjeggedal only five winters previously. His large scared arms and waist length beard had hidden the old giants gentle nature. His brutal looking hands had more often been engaged in fashioning beads and toys than in holding an axe and though his demeanour was often stern and withdrawn, it was well understood that the old leader never allowed his genial moods to betray his outer dignity. Lying now in the gloom of the vault amongst soiled sheets and the stench of decay it was hard to believe that the old giant was the same leader Haakon had always known.
Falki was a grandfather to all the Jotnar of Skjeggedal and his great age had made him a force of nature among them all. Jotnar had long lives but Falki had stood with The King himself over two thousand years ago. Now, all Haakon could see in the bed in front of him was an old giant withered and broken. The obvious stains on the sheets showed that the elder had lost control of his bowls and bladder, the stench was overpowering and as he approach, Haakon tried desperately not to let the disgust play across his face. It was important to honour the old and demonstrate the respect owed to such a leader but the site of Falki was too much and Haakon quickly turned to the grave faced Siv.
“Whats the matter with him?” Siv’s face remained solemn and with a set brow he chewed his lower lip as if unwilling to speak.
“He’s old Haakon. Just old. I thought you knew. We put out the call at the end of the Autumn and you are the last one to return. I’m amazed he’s lasted but he says there must be a moot before…” Siv trailed off and glanced over at the old giant who lay still, the intricate wooden beads braided into his beard quietly clicking as his chest rose and fell. Guilt struck, Haakon felt as though his stomach were filled with hot led; Falki was awake, eyes half closed but listening like a bat to the pairs hushed tones.
“Don’t be ashamed Haakon. If I could see myself, doubtless I would turn away as well.” His body may well have been shrunken but Falki’s voice was unchanged. The familiar rumble was deep, clear and slow as if each word was carefully weighed before it was spoken.
“I’m sorry” said Haakon “Had I known I would have travelled faster.” The old giant smiled
“You came when you needed to. That is what is important. You are the last to arrive but you will be among the first to hear what must be done. Wake the hall.” Siv and Haakon looked at each other in puzzlement but obediently Siv strode to the edge of the platform where the great round stone was placed and picking up a gnarled twisted staff which rested against it. He raised the staff above his head bringing it smartly down on the surface of the stone making a loud crack which reechoed around the vault and seemed to increase in volume as it bounced from wall to wall. The sleepers on their mats, agitated by the noise rose as if in fright while Jotnar who had been working in the lower levels appeared from side passages and stairways.
They came forward to the altar in small groups congregating at the foot of the steps as if wary to get too close. Every face in the crowd was upturned and Haakon, despite the mood in the hall, could not help smiling slightly as he recognised them. Most were unchanged though he spied new pairing torcs around the arms of some and new marks upon the skin of others denoting deeds of all kinds. It was evident that though he had been gone the past five winters, life in Skjeggedal had continued a pace. Despite himself he scanned the crowd for a specific face but this was not the time. With more arriving every second the vault was soon filled with hundreds of Jotnar. Haakon remained silent, amazed as the steady flow filled the hall and the shuffling crowd of over seven hundred giants arranged itself to hear the proclamation. It was all too clear that this was expected and that each knew what the striking of the stone meant. They moved as if rehearsed, moving through motions which were as natural as breathing and arranging themselves without fuss into ragged ranks with the youngest forming a wall in front and the oldest and largest encircling the rear.
The hush in the vault resinated throughout the assembled onlookers and with great effort and the assistance of Siv and Haakon, Falki raised himself to a sitting position. His emaciated state meant he could barely be seen over the frame of his bed but to those who saw him they would, in years to come, describe the old giant as sitting as strong as any king, his filthy sheets falling about him like a regal cloak and his voice transforming his lank hair and crooked frame into the very image of nobility. Slumped like a rag doll the old giant addressed the crowd.
“You all know me. I am the the serving squire, the first and last servant preserved by the dying breaths of the great magics. I saw the recession of the old powers when I stood with The King long ago. I watched the decline of the great beasts of the frozen north. Known now only to the oldest of you here today. I was young when the final dragon died and I fought in the last great battle. I have shouldered gladly the privileged responsibility of leading the Jotnar and I hope that I have served you well.” Every neck craned for a better view and the assembled throng seemed to be holding a shared breath. The slightest cough or shuffling of feet rang like a bell throughout the cavern. Each of the Jotnar knew the old giant’s stories but now each felt like they were hearing them for the first time. With a hacking cough Falki continued
“I took a vow long ago and now it is time to fulfil my promise. I do not know what the future holds for us but I know I will not be there to lead you.” Haakon felt his breath catch and internally he scolded himself.
“Where is Njord?” Falki gestured weakly to Siv to bring him a bowl of water. The sound of the old giant slurping at the drink and letting out a rattling cough was pitiful. Not a single voice was heard and Falki continued to wretch and splutter, forcing the water down his throat as if each mouthful were poisoned. Finally he quietened and managed to compose himself, scanning the crowd intently.
“Where is Njord?” the question once again rang out across the silent crowd. Haakon twisted a leather thong which was around his wrist and followed Falki’s searching gaze. Each face was grim but set resolutely in place. It was evident that each had prepared themselves for the inevitable. They had gathered to pay their respects and with the initial pain subsided the crowd radiated a sense of gravitas, it was not grief but fear that held them attentive. The room was as full as Haakon had ever seen it. Families crammed together, friends forming small groups and those who only ever existed in the edges, lovers, warriors and craftsmen every strand of life under the one roof. It should be a joyous occasion but the pallid expressions displayed the collective feeling of dread. The passing of a leader like Falki was more than a sadness it was the shifting of the earth itself, a monstrous wave that meant an irreversible change in their world.
After a long pause the sound of footsteps began near the back of the room. The sound was rhythmical and constant and as the crowd parted to make way Haakon could see a figure approaching the dais. Njord was tall and fair haired with broad shoulders and a smooth face bereft of the usual scars and shaggy beard common to most Jotnar. His long hair was braided and he wore a simple leather jerkin which fitted him perfectly. His belt was ornate and strung about it was a collection of pouches and bags which bounced silently at his hip with each step. Haakon, like every other onlooker could not turn away from the site of Njord. He approached the dais with all the grace and ceremony of a bride walking toward her future husband. He mounted the steps and stood at the foot of the bed, nodded once to Falki and turned to face the crowd, his hands behind his back. Falki allowed a flash of pride the rise in his eyes
“I have named Njord as our envoy. Things are moving and we must do our duty. He will travel west and take the scabbard with him.” The crowd, as one erupted with noise. Voices shouted in protest while others wept openly. Haakon worried that many would surge forward and mob the dais but something held them back. It was as if guards encircled the small party raised above the crowd. No one would approach though sounds of fury and sadness clashed together, hands were wrung and couples embraced smothering each others tears. Falki rested his head against the pillows and steadied his breathing. Njord raised a hand for silence but none came. Siv turned to Haakon tears welling in his eyes.
In one deliberate movement Haakon ripped the staff from Siv’s hand and brought it down upon the flat stone. The resolute crack did not silence the crowd but the shock of it quietened them a little. The simple wooden staff felt like a spear in his hands and Haakon felt his temper flare as he took in the tearful faces. How could they be so insulting. Wailing like children at such a time. He could feel each muscle tighten as if he were about to spring forward and attack but he drove it back. He was unsure what was happening. He had returned home only minutes before and the commotion was too much to take in. He struck the stone with the staff again and as if hurling a challenge of battle demanded silence! Looking over at Siv, Haakon could see the tears welling in his eyes and he gripped the staff tighter. He wanted to lash out but at who and for what cause?
The crowd were quieter now. The occasional heavy sob could be heard, slightly muffled by a comforting embrace and those who had shouted were holding themselves in check after Haakon’s outburst. Njord moved closer and with a calm but firm grip placed one hand on Haakons and took the staff in the other. He did not hold Haakons eye long but as he moved the staff to his side Njord allowed himself the slightest of smiles
“It’s good to see you Haakon. I’m glad you made it in time. Please, this is not easy for anyone.” Turning to the crowd Njord raised his voice to address them.
“Calm yourselves! I wish to say something.” Despite his warriors bearing and powerful voice Njord sounded like a child calling for his mother. Falki had held the crowd spell bound and in comparison the voice of youth was a buzzing fly. Determined Njord tried again
“I am not your leader and neither do I want to be. I have not been chosen to lead but to follow. Falki has asked me to take up this task and I will not disappoint either you or him” The assembled giants were now stoney silent, Njord was loosing his composure and the awkward rehearsed words of his speech seemed to chill the room.
Falki came to his aid. “Njord is right. I have tasked him with a responsibility and I am certain that he will be up to great demand I have asked of him.” Falki pushed himself up with great effort and his tone was serious.
“For centuries I have been preserved by grace. My task was to lead and to protect the treasures we guard until the time they were called upon. Now is that time. Old powers are rising and we need to meet them.This may be the start of a new age or of a great darkness but the Jotnar will do our duty and when The King returns he will have the scabbard by his side. I swore an oath long ago and I intend to fore fill it. To everyone one of you I ask that you be brave in the days to come. I leave no leader since in truth I have only ever been a steward. The King will rise and you will follow”
Falki slumped back on his pillows and weakly he gestured to Njord. Haakon and Siv stood rigidly each remembering the stories Falki had told to them as children. Every Jotnar knew what was about to happen and yet every soul in the room was struck by the same fear. It was the startled panic of the prey as it spies the shape of a wolf in the trees. The slow cold sensation of the moment of falling. Every eye was trained on Njord and in disbelief watched as he drew his iron dirk from his belt and rested the point on Falki’s chest. Haakon could see Njord’s tears steadily rolling down his cheeks and the peaceful calm expression of Falki. The old Jotnar placed a hand on Njord’s and with the tiniest of nods their eyes met. With a cry like an animal Njord forced his hand. He leant forward and thrust the dirk down into the old giants heart. As if stung he recoiled and fell back landing on his back and almost falling down the stairs to the dumbstruck crowd. Siv and Haakon raced to his side to lift him to his feet glad to step back from the bed so as to hold off looking for a few more precious seconds.
Njord continued to cry out as if wounded himself. His sobs rung out across the silent room as he was cradled between Haakon and Siv. Slowly, he regained a grip on his emotions and allowed Haakon to help him to his feet. He set his face and wiped his tears daring his gaze up and toward the bed. Falki was smiling. The old giant lay on his pillows the iron dirk sunk to the hilt in his chest. No blood could be seen and though the pain must have been excruciating Falki looked as though he were a child, awed by the site of his first sunset.
“The old powers are rising. The nature of the scabbard has returned. The King. Njord?” The champions face was grim but the redness of his eyes and the flush of his cheeks could not hide his emotions.
“Njord. I entrusted the task to you. Take the scabbard.” Njord did not move. Haakon looked from Njord to Falki and back again. The old Jotnar winced
“Take the scabbard.” Haakon grabbed Njords arm and shook him
“He’s in pain Njord. Please!” Njord stood unmoving as though he had been cursed. On the bed Falki could no longer hold the pain back and began to whimper, breathing heavily. Still no blood ran and Haakon imagined a heart beating. Every beat cut short by the iron dirk. The pain of sliced muscled and cracked bone. Of gritted teeth and open wounds. It was unbearable. Pushing the frozen Njord aside he ran to the bed took hold of the dirk and pulled it free. The iron came away slick with blood but the wound left in left breast was clean. Not a drop touched the sheets. Desperate Haakon scrabbled at the bed clothes, ripping them away and revealing the golden belt at Falki’s waist.
“Njord help me! Siv!”
As if shaken from a dream the pair gaped. “Help me!” Haakon’s command slammed into them and the pair reacted almost instinctively. They ran to Haakon’s side and with a a tug of buckles and the straining sound of leather the belt was lifted from Falki and the old giant screamed. Blood erupted from the hole in his chest and splashed across Haakon’s face. The old giant’s hands grabbed at thin air, his eyes bulged and the remaining tangle of sheets were thrown from his twitching legs. With a shudder and a whine, a final breath escaped Falki and he lay still. Blood dripping from his chin. Haakon looked over to Njord. The golden belt lay in the champion’s hands its intricate design of a roaring dragon clear to see. The mouth of the great beast opened into a simple hole in the leather and its claws surrounded the hilt of a great sword. Siv stumbled down the steps towards the crowd calling to them to make room.
Njord moved toward Haakon awkwardly, his eyes shining and his hands slick with blood. “Thank you”
Haakon wiped his face. He wanted to be sick but he had kept his calm so far and he would not break now. Njord raised a hand to Haakon’s shoulder
“Thank you.” They embraced and Njord continued holding on to Haakon like a drowning man. “Thank you.”
Over Njord’s shoulder Haakon could see the prone figure lying in the soiled bed. Its eyes closed and the sheets in disarray. There was no life and no pain. Falki was dead and the site of the body was numbing. He untangled himself from Njord and faced the crowd, suddenly aware of the chaotic noise coming from them. The strongest of warriors were weeping, mothers, children and crones were clinging to each other and the tumult of grief was almost deafening. Haakon was the only one who maintained a stoney and stoic silence. He, raised a hand a gestured for quiet. Steadying his breath he thought of Falki’s voice, he formed it in his mind and called on all his strength. Keeping his fist in the air he bellowed “The King will rise!” The response came back in force.
“The king will rise!”