Thorn felt a crack on the back of his head that sent him sprawling forward onto the ground, two stones skittering away.
“What did I tell you about playing with fire,” his father growled.
Living with so much wood and dry grasses in their village, his concern was well-founded. Thorn rubbed the back of his head, noting where the rocks had come to rest, beneath the thick table where his mother prepared their meals and occupied herself with other food-related tasks. Thorn stood up, turning to look at his father. His father stepped in and leaned close.
“If I catch you playing with the fire-making stones again, I’ll be shoving them into an orifice of my choosing. Do you understand?”
Thorn nodded, mutely. He pulled his hand away from the back of his head because he did not want to show that it still hurt.
“Be off, with you!”
Thorn’s father raised his hand as if to strike and Thorn scampered out the door. A few hours later, when his father was occupied with other matters, Thorn returned to the kitchen, reached under the table and took the stones. He shoved them into his pocket and ran out. He ran out of the village and up the nearby hill. At the top was a large stone with a flat top and a very large, very old tree.
The hilltop was where all of the important ceremonies occurred. The ceremonies that celebrated the seasonal events such as the planting, the harvest and the transition of one season into the next. It was also the place where the villagers went to honor the events of the people like births, marriages and deaths. Even the occasional events when a villager needed to be recognized or punished occurred here.
Thorn sat under the broad canopy of leaves, leaned back against the smooth gray trunk and pulled out the stones. He was mesmerized by the sparks that flew out from the strike of one stone against the other. There was a sense of power that he could create fire just as his parents would in their hearth on the rare occasions when it had gone out. He was just like the adults that were constantly ordering him around and threatening him. He smirked to himself, wondering where his father would stick the stones if he could see this, now.
Thorn gave the stones a particularly fierce strike and a large spark flew, landing on a leaf. There it glowed brightly, growing, until it burned through the leaf, falling onto some dried grass. The spark dimmed and shrank, until the edge of a blade of grass also began to glow. The glow moved up the blade, catching the next blade. The original spark had gone out, but now the glowing blades of grass were beginning to grow. Thorn had watched in fascination, but now felt the edge of panic. He leaned over to the glowing blades of grass and blew to extinguish them. With that gust of air, a small flame shot out of the blades and danced across them, growing and spreading. Panic grew in Thorn’s belly and he blew harder which only fed the flames and spread them further.
He reached out and slapped the small fire with his hand. An ember stuck to his palm and he jerked his hand away with a vigorous shake. The ember drifted away and landed on more dry grass. Thorn did not notice because of the growing fire that he was stomping on. The errant ember smoldered for a moment and then it too burst into flame. By the time Thorn noticed the new fire it was beyond his ability to control. Panic turned to fear and Thorn began to bleat to himself, stomping and smearing with his feet, which only served to spread the embers.
By the time he ran away from the hilltop, the area from the flat stone to the tree was in covered flame and the fire was quickly spreading beyond. Thorn ran down the hill, away from the village because of the fear of his father’s wrath. It had been a particularly dry summer and the fields were dry. The villagers had only just begun to harvest the grains that would sustain them through the winter when a shout was heard and the alarm was raised. The fire spread quickly. At first they focused on extinguishing the fire, but soon their attention shifted to protecting their homes, giving up on their crops.
The fire burned hot and fast. Before the day was half past, all that was within eyesight was black and smoking. A few houses did not burn, but most did. As the villagers walked among the ruined homes, looking for survivors and anything that could be salvaged, Thorn returned to the hilltop. His face and hands were blackened, except for streaks running from his eyes where the tears had cleared a path. He did not know the severity of the punishment he would soon endure, but was sure that it would exceed anything he had experienced in his short life. He approached the flat stone and climbed up onto it. He looked on and saw that the spot where the tree once stood was now a large hole.
Curious, he hopped off of the stone and toward the hole. Because the sun was beginning to set, the angle of the light would not reach into the hole. He could not see into the hole and so he stepped closer to the edge, leaning forward to look in.
The ground gave way and he fell with the crumbling earth. He shrieked and fell, but his shriek was cut short when he landed on a soft, leathery slope. It gave slightly under his weight and he rolled down the slope, tumbling to the earth.
“Mmmmm. What’ssssss thisssss?” A voice behind him hissed.
Thorn scrambled to his hands and knees and turned around. When he saw the giant face moving toward him, he shrieked and scrambled backward. It looked like a lizard, but was the size of the long house where the families gathered in the winter months. The mound that he had slid down began to writhe and shiver. Thorn struggled to his feet and shuffled backwards in the other direction. The mound grew and spread and opened up until finally, Thorn realized that it was a wing. The walls that were only barely visible in the dim light began to undulate and pulse with slow rhythmic movements . At that moment, Thorn realized that the body of this dragon looped around him and it began to move in the way of someone who had just woken up and needed to stretch and roll.
“Youuuu have freeeeed meeee.” A low rumble followed the statement, it sounded like a cross between a cat’s purr and distant thunder.
In a very scared and quiet voice, Thorn asked, “Why are you down here?”
“Many, many years agoooo,” The dragons voice was whispery and soft. “The Old Ones did not appreciate death as I do. The said that if I continued to kill all the people, there would be none left. Well, I thought that sounded lovely, so I continued to kill all the people. Eventually, they tricked me to this spot and placed a large tree atop of me. The roots of this tree became the cage that trapped me here and put an enchanted rock to top to hold it all in placcccceee.”
The dragon stood up and arched its spine. It rolled its long neck from side to side, undulating its head in looping circles. With its feet still within the hole, it lifted its wings and spread them to their full length, outside of the hole, groaning and shivering in pleasure for surely it had been many centuries since it had the freedom to fully stretch. Carefully, the dragon stepped out of the hole. Once out, its neck snaked around and lowered its head into the hole
“I owe you a debt. You freeeed meee. So, I won’t kill you. Your welcome.”
The dragon began to lift its head out of the hole. Thorn’s shivering stopped and his mind changed directions.
“You mean that you are mine?” Thorn smiled to himself, his father will go purple with jealousy.
“You stupid little boyyyyy,” the dragon hissed. “You cannot own a dragon! ”But, every time you see a setting sun, you will remember meeeee.”
Thorn was blown against the side of the hole from the gust of the massive wings. And then the dragon was gone, beyond the edge of the hole.
Thorn scrambled up a long, sloping pile of rock and debris. When he climbed out of the hole, panting and sweaty, he turned toward the village. The sun was slipping below the horizon. The orange in the sky provided enough light to see the dragon circle the village once, take two big flaps of its leathery wings upwards and it hovered in the air for a moment before diving toward the village. Flame shot out of its mouth as it skimmed rooftops. Within moments, the remaining houses were on fire and the dragon dropped to the earth, crawling among the wreckage. Its long neck flicked its blunt head this way and that, grabbing survivors. Some it swallowed whole and others it shook into limp and bloody pieces. There was no place to hide, the only standing structures were on fire and everything else was charred flat, to the earth. By the time the sky went dark, the sport was over as there was no one left to eat or kill. Without a glance backward, the dragon spread its wings, lifted itself away from the earth and traveled toward the setting sun as if it intended to catch and eat it as well.
As he finishes telling the story, he looks into the wide eyes of his son.
“That is why we do not play with fire. Do you understand?”
Karl slowly nods. Fear glowing on his face.
“Good boy. Now, run along. We leave in a few hours and you must be ready for your first trip to market.”
As Karl wanders out of the house and into the cold air and crusty mud of the village center, he silently vows to never play with fire for he could not even imagine bringing such a fate onto his family and village. As he contemplates the horror that poor Thorn suffered, Karl goes hot with anxiety all over again. He is oblivious to the other members of the village who are standing around, grumbling among themselves and frequently glancing west. They are very concerned about the upcoming trip. They have never traveled to market this late in the season. While the trip is important, if a storm hits before they return, the consequences would be catastrophic for everyone; for the men who would surely perish on the journey and for the village, losing the supplies and the lives of so many men. The leaves have long since fallen and few days are warm enough to melt the ice on the barrels of drinking water. Any day now, the first storm will come, leaving them snowbound in the valley until the spring melt.
Once the command is given to leave, they move quickly, tasting the threat of snow in the air.
Even though they travel only a short distance, over the mountain pass, to Karl the town is an exotic, new world. He does not have time to truly understand its breadth and majesty, for they arrive at dusk and at first light the next day, they purchase what is needed. As soon as they had what they came for, they begin their return journey. They leave as swiftly as they arrived and Karl struggles to keep up with the men and pack animals.
Karl is at the back of the line with his father, climbing up the steep mountain path when the first flakes began to fall. Wordlessly, everyone’s pace quickens. Karl is being pulled by his father who was using the giantsbane as a walking stick. They never pass through the mountains without giantsbane and in a group this large there are 4 of them, carried by various men along the line. Everyone knows that a frost giant can attack at the first sign of distraction or weakness and the only defense they have is the long staff with the mass of tar and minerals, wrapped in oily rags at one end. There is no guarantee that a frost giant can be defeated, but just as garlic will ward off the vampire, it is said that the lit torch of giantsbane, will ward off a frost giant.
The snow flurry thickens into a storm and soon became a full mountain gale. The men hunch under their furs, and lean into the blowing wind, grimly focusing on bringing the supplies and themselves home. The situation feels hopeless, but the men push on, for what other choice do they have?
Karl feels it before he hears it. The low rumble seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. The men ahead stop moving and move the few steps to lean against the mountain side. Each, that are tasked with the giantsbane shift so that they have access to the head of the staff. They pull out their fire stones and begin striking. The men without a staff, move towards one that da and also pull out their stones to assist in the lighting. Karl’s father lets go of his hand, moves closer to the group and does as the others were, attempting to light the staff in preparation for the inevitable attack. The snow and wind ensure that fire is elusive. Karl watches, frozen in terror, barely able to make out the men closest to him and those further up the line are lost in the white chaos of swirling flakes.
In moments, the sound that he has been warned about since he was a small child begins. Far above them, the rumble grows into a roar, like the mountain itself is crashing down upon them. He cannot hear anything above the roar, but he can see a few of the closer men gesticulating upwards as the others become more intent and more frantic in their attempts to light the giantsbane staffs.
Suddenly, the movement of the snow shifts. Instead of random and chaotic swirling, it is all rushing downward, over them and down the mountain. The short, stocky horses carrying the supplies begin kicking and pulling in their attempt to get away. Mixed in with the white rush of snow is boulders the size of houses and full-grown trees. One by one, the few men that he could see are plucked off of the trail to disappear into the snow and debris rolling down the mountain. The avalanche gradually rolls closer to Karl, picking off the men as it comes until, finally, it pulls Karl’s father into the maelstrom. None of them are able to light their staffs before they are swallowed by the avalanche.
Karl goes numb, assuming that he is next, when amidst the chaos of snow there appears some semblance of order. A few boulders joined together in the shape of a foot by some inexplicable force, crash into the path and continued downward. Just beyond the veil of snow there seems to be a huge shape passing by. Thick trunks of trees, followed by boulders and again trees, but with purpose instead of the rough and tumble of loose objects tumbling and falling. Then another collection of smaller boulders in the rough shape of a hand crash into the path and in seeming contradiction to the laws of nature stopped. A larger mass of boulders, almost spherical, dropped from above and stopped in the air, hovering over the path. Two gaps open up the mass of boulders where one would expect eyes to be and then a crack appears near the bottom and the face begins to speak.
With a voice like the rumble of an avalanche and the grinding of rocks, the words are barely discernible in the din, “Do something, boy.”
He does nothing, just stands there frozen, staring into the face of the frost giant.
A giantsbane staff comes spinning out of the snow and falls at his feet.
Again, he is challenged, “Go on, boy. Light it.”
Karl stares at the weapon at his feet. A pouch floats out of the storm and lands beside the staff. Karl falls to his knees and with shaking hands, pours out the stones. Clumsily, he takes the stones and mimics the movements he has seen the men making. Nothing happens. He tries again and again, The next time, he smashes a rock into his thumb and squeals as he drops the stones. He begins sobbing.
For a moment, the swirling snow clears and he sees the men and the horses, huddled on the path, panicked and screaming, snow envelopes them again. It could have been the sound of boulders crashing into each other, or it could have been the sound of the frost giant laughing. The rocky head before him devolves into a chaotic rolling of boulders, and continues moving on down the mountain.
The avalanche passes, but the storm continues on through the night. Karl huddles, alone, against the rocky ledge, pulls his furs up and over him, attempting to keep the cold out, but the wind keeps pulling the fur aside and sliding its icy hands over him. By morning, he is barely conscious. He stumbles on the path moving through the thick swirls of flakes in the air and forces his way through the heavy blanket of snow on the ground. Fear of walking off of the path that he cannot see under the snow keeps him hugging the mountainside. The going is slow because of exhaustion, thirst, lack of feeling in his feet and the unfamiliarity with the route. Many times, he finds himself standing on unsteady legs, mind in a fog as he sways towards the cliff edge. Each time, his mind snaps back and in a panic, he continues towards his village. As the sun is beginning to drop behind the mountains to the west, he stumbles into the clearing and he meets the watchers at the mouth of the valley, those waiting anxiously for the party to return. Overjoyed to see him, even in his near-death state, the celebration quickly turns to sadness as the magnitude of the loss with so many gone and the much needed supplies as well is realized.
Karl survived, but not entirely. All of his fingers on one hand must be removed as well as three partial fingers on the other. Most of his toes are cut off when the purple turns to black. He learns to make do, but he walks with the stiff hobble that is common in the far north. Without his toes, balance is difficult and without use of his hands he serves as a reminder that the gods are not kind.
They do not look on us with the generous benevolence of grandparents but push us to make us stronger. When we falter, they will be there to knock us to the ground. And if we do not get up, the crows will pick our bones clean. But, if we do rise up, then our ancestors will look on with pride. And we will carry their strength with us when we march onto the field of battle and we will crush all those who stand before us. And, someday, we will feast with our ancestors in the great hall and then, we too will look down to see how our children and our children’s children will honor our memory.
Hakan drops his head into his hands and he rocks his head from side to side.
“I am worse off than before. What am I to do with this?”
The man seated across from him who just finished relating the stories, shrugs and takes a drink from his mug.
Hakan continues, “if I do nothing, my son may attempt to learn on his own and the consequences could be catastrophic. If I try to keep the knowledge from him, he may not have the tools when he needs them. But, he is still a boy. If I give him the information before he is ready, it could be just as bad. Your stories do not help.”
The man seated across from Hakan puts down his mug and uses his sleeve to wipe the liquid from his beard.
“It does not matter what you do, The gods and fates will decide what sort of man your boy will become. All you can do is prepare him for the ordeals he will face. It is not for you to decide whether or not he will join his ancestors in the great hall, that is up to him. He will decide how to manage what the gods put before him. Now, quit your whining and teach him what it is to be a man.”
With a sigh, Hakan lifts his head and looks across at the man who is rhythmically drumming the stumps of one hand on the table. His eyes harden.
“Yes, I put him on the path and he will decide how far to walk.”
With that, Hakan lifts his mug to his lips and takes a long drink.
“And, if you need any advice on satisfying that lovely wife of yours, I have a few hours next week where I could show you some techniques that I learned while protecting caravans on the silk road.”
Hakan smirks as if in amusement and grits his teeth, refraining from responding as he wished. All of the older generation brag of having spent time in the orient, in the pay of some sultan or warlord. Most of them have never even seen the ocean, let alone the sands of the East. This man is a respected elder of the village and takes advantage of his status to leer at the young women and taunt the men. There is nothing Hakan can do, so he takes the advice he has been given and silently curses the man who gave it.
The man in front of him stands and uses the table for support as he turns. He walks away with a stiff hobble that is common in the far north.