Saturday, December 13, 2014

Spitting at the Sun -- part 2

I'm posting a story which originally appeared in a shared-world anthology titled Hunt the Winterlands, devised by my good friend Alex Ness.  The anthology's setting is a world of Dark Fantasy where the land lies under a curse of eternal winter due to a mysterious event long ago.

My story is set about the time that event happened.  Our narrator is the Loremaster of a tribe of Orcs.  His job is to teach the young of the tribe the story of Urg-Dar, Father of Orcs, who refused to bow down to the gods and was cursed by the Sun; and to perform the daily ritual re-enacting Urg-Dar's defiance.  He is the repository of his tribe's collective wisdom going back for generations.  But everything he knows is about to change...

Spitting at the Sun

(c) 2011 by Kurt Wilcken

(part 2)

            It happened one night in early autumn.  As I cast the bones to augury the night’s hunt, one of the hunters cave a cry and pointed to the heavens.  “A star is falling!”

            I meant to rebuke him and explain, as my father had told me, that the stars are the Children of the Night Sky suckling at her myriad teats and that occasionally one will pull away causing the milk to spurt out -- I have seen such things in the sky, and indeed they do look like a star is falling to the superstitious -- but when I looked up myself I saw that he was right.  I saw a light, much larger than a star and brighter, plunging towards the heavens leaving a shining trail, as straight as the edge of a knife.  It struck the horizon far in the east and a glow of fire lit the rim of the world.

            The sun rose late that morning and glowed a dim, sullen red behind a shadow of cloud.  I spoke the words of the ritual, proudly defying the sun; but in my heart I felt a tremble of fear.  Why, I wondered.  The sun had risen to a red sky before; more times than I could count; and as Loremaster, I knew how to interpret such signs.  But I did not know how to interpret this.  The bones had augured no calamity.  The only ill omen I could see was the grim, calculating look in Borklan’s eyes.

            That afternoon Borklan came before the Council.  He had grown into a strong-armed warrior in the years since the time I had cuffed the lore of the tribe into his skull, and the younger hunters admired him for his skill and his courage.  “Something great and wonderful has happened today,” he said.  “A piece of the sky has fallen to the earth!  We must send a party to seek it out!”

            “Such talk is foolish,” I argued.  “What we saw is strange, I do not deny, but it can have nothing to do with us.  Let the sky keep to the sky’s own business.”

            “How will we know if we do not look for it?  This is undoubtedly a sign of some great occurrence.  Who can tell what mysteries lie where the sky-piece fell?”  He struck the ground with the butt of his spear to support his argument.  Many of the younger folk of the tribe murmured in agreement.

            “You are merely speaking great words to make yourself seem more important.  I say again, it has nothing to do with us.”

            The Council argued back and forth, but the tribe’s chieftain, Gurthang, decided the matter.  “The Autumn Hunt is almost upon us.  I cannot spare a scouting party to go off fetching pieces of moonbeam.”  The elders of the Council chuckled, but I saw another reason behind Gurthang’s ruling:  He too saw Borklan’s ambition and sought to check it.

            Borklan crossed his arms and scowled.  “So be it.  Then if you women are too cowardly to seek the piece of the fallen sky, then I will go myself!”  And with that, he strode proudly from the Council chambers.

            He left that sunset, carrying a spear, a knife and a bundle of rations, and headed eastward in the direction of the Daggar Mountains.  He did not return the next day, nor the day after that. 

            Weeks passed and the nights lengthened as autumn passed into winter.  The tribe rejoiced with the waning of the year, because the longer nights meant more hours to hunt and the men of the human-lands remained behind their village walls waiting for springtime.  But this year the frost came sooner.  Clouds shrouded the sky nearly every night and when the wind blew from the east it carried the bitter grit of dust.  So dense lay the clouds on the eastern sky that some mornings I could not even see the Sun until it had risen well over the horizon.

            Strangers began to cross our territory.  First we noted an increase in game, which brought much food for the tribe.  Then the occasional band of Goblins would venture into our lands, always coming from the east.  Our warriors killed what they could and drove the rest away, for the Goblins are thieves and make poor neighbors.  One day, shortly before Midwinter, a group of humans passed through, traveling quickly with their possessions in carts.  These we slew also, sparing only one or two for questioning.  As Loremaster, I have learned some of the human tongues, but the language of these was strange to me.  I could make out but few words:  “ashes”, “darkness”, “death.”  They were evidently fleeing something which they feared even more than they feared us.  Gurthang and I decided that there must be some great war to the east which all these people were fleeing.

            I nearly missed Midwinter’s Day.  Although I kept careful reckoning of the passage of the suns, I had difficulty tracking the seasons of the gloom-encumbered sky.  Again I began to worry.  The days were growing longer, yet still the land lay in the cloak of winter, as if the world had forgotten about spring.

            Although spring never arrived, Borklan did.

            He came striding across the snow, just before dawn, using his spear as a staff and wearing a sword at his side like those forged by the humans.  “I have returned!” he shouted.  “Hear me, my people!  Everyone come and listen!”

            Gurthang confronted him, his brow knotted like a club.  “So you have returned.  And do you think the Council has time for traveler’s tales?  I am Chief and I call the Council.”

            “I call not the Council, but the whole tribe!  Old and young!  Warriors and females!  All must hear what I have to say!”

            “So, young braggart,” I said, standing by the Chief, “You went off seeking a piece of the fallen sky.  Did you find it?”

            Borklan met my mockery with  a blade-thin smile.  “I found more.  I found our destiny.”  Then he turned to the people of the tribe who had begun to gather around him.  “Let me tell you!  For many weeks I traveled when I left our tribe, until I came to the Daggar Mountains.  High into the mountains I climbed until I came to a pass and on the other side I saw a wide hollow, miles and miles across, as if a giant’s club had smote the earth.  And in that hollow I saw nothing but ash and destruction.  The trees had been knocked over like sticks, and the rivers choked with dust.  I saw villages of men that had been flattened as one might kick over an anthill. And I saw the bodies of men and beasts picked to the bones.

            “I continued on across the devastation until I came to the center of the circle, where the very stone of the earth was shattered and I found a deep pit that had been filled in by rock and debris.  I could feel that within that pit lay a Power, a Power greater than any one that Orc or Human, Elf, Dwarf or Goblin had ever before seen.  And the Power took me, and I fell into a deep sleep and entered the spirit lands.”

            The tribe gathered around Borklan, enraptured by his story.  I found myself bound by the spell of his tale too.  I had intended to mock him as a liar, but I could not.  I recognized truth in his words and it frightened me.

            “I know not how long I traveled in the realm of spirits, but when I awoke, I understood many things.  A new Power has come to Earth, greater than the Sun, greater than the Sky.  With one blow he has overthrown the old Powers.  A new age has come.  Hitherto was the age of the Sun and the dominion of Men, but the Sun has been defeated!  No longer do we need to fear it!  No longer do we need to cower underground until sunset!  A new god has arrived!  He sleeps now, but his power goes out into the land.  This is the Age of the Sleeping God!  This is the Age of the Orc!”

            At this blasphemy, the spell broke and I found my tongue.  “We are Orcs!  We serve no gods!”

            “Hah!  Pathetic old man!  You pretend to challenge the Sun with your daily mutterings when really you fear him and use the fear of others to cling to your position in the tribe.  Well, hear my challenge!”

            With that, Borklan turned to the east, and I realized that as he had spoken the Sun had indeed risen above the horizon, red and sullen.  Borklan raised his sword high over his head and shouted.  “Hear me, O Sun!  You are defeated!  You are powerless!  Your reign is over!  A greater god has crushed you and scattered the children of men before him.  In this sign we will triumph!  We shall seize the human-lands and we will not stop until all the earth is ours!  The Day of the Orc is now!”

            We all cringed, waiting for him to fall, burnt by the rays of the Sun, but yet he stood.  One by one, the people of the tribe realized that  the Sun was not burning them as it used to.  So weakened was the Sun by the dense clouds that covered him, that his face could no longer harm us.

            The youths of the tribe started up a low chant:  “Borklan!  Borklan!”  Other voices joined it.  The Chief looked to me uneasily; he saw his rule slipping from him and expected me to put  a stop to it.  Borklan also looked to me, daring me to try.


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