Monday, November 24, 2014

Avinder of the Companions (Short Fiction, Fantasy)

Avinder would have died, blood spilling into the snow alongside those of his brethren, slain by bandits on a nameless mountain pass, had it not been for the Companions. They seemed to arise from the flurry and mist like legends summoned and bound, made flesh by will and pain. The bandits were dispatched, the slush turning muddied and pink with their offal, the fires in their eyes gone dim. Avinder, whole but shaken, wrapped in scant furs and without purpose, watched them turn to walk away, paying him no more mind than the corpses he knelt among. He might have stayed and might have died had not one glance unlocked his knees and lifted his body. Without words he followed the Companions into the coming dark.

The travel was hard and Avinder was most unsuited for it. His stiff legs burnt, shards of fire dug into his flesh. But still he carried onward, following in their paces. It was true he had nowhere to go, but he could have broken away, made good time a man alone, moving down the mountain side. But who was he to complain of agony and pain, walking next to Gwyndal Skullsplittter, whom it was known had carried the barrow ill Aliis Maidenheart in his arms across the Edern Frost, not even stopping to sleep? Who brought her to the root of the Orn Glen? So he followed, and spoke nothing.

The first fight almost killed him. He had wanted to run, to hide in the brush and send his missives to the Earth Mother deep, but how could he be so craven standing next to Yorglyff Giantsblood, the mountain of a man with the heart of untempered iron, unbreakable? Yorglyff sent his hammer into the soft bodies of the slavers, and Avinder spied a man trying to send a blade into his ribs. Avinder, a stolen sword in hand, diverted the blow but nearly lost his eye. Al'Asharad, the moor, finished what Avinder could not with his slick curved blades, so foreign in this land of ice and frost, that seemed to sing of far off lands of dune and blazing sun. It was Al'Asharad who tended the wound, speaking in harsh chanting tongue and using strange herbs and incense. But the scar still split Avinder's face, over one eye and down one cheek, and he knew his skill at blades was worthless in this company.

But if Avinder could not aid the Companions, what use was he to them at all, why follow day after day in the tracks of their boots? He remembered the forest hunt of his youth, halfway between dream and waking, trailing the ghost white stag with the blood red velvet and sap red eyes through the Arroelms. He remembered the clean shot piercing it's heart, it's red spilling outward onto it's white. He took a hunting bow, and in the next battle put himself away from the flashing metal and put an arrow into the side of a swordsman. It didn't kill him, but it freed Gwyndal to rebuff the enemy's attack. Avinder, in this, could at least earn his way. He had no other choice, he knew.

And each arrow that sought flesh was born of need. The cost of failure urged his hand, missing could easily kill them all. He wasn't like these people, the Companions; he couldn't speak the magic words like the Twins who wove their spells into complex rhythms no other mage could ever master, unable to ever live so in time with another's footsteps, hands bound tight like maiden's weaving. He could not make great arcing circles with a hammer the size of a man, sowing men like wheat at harvest, crushing waves of men before his thunderous wake. He could not open his dream eye and see into the night's silky void, calling to things existing in places neither here nor there to do his bidding. He couldn't ride an elk down a collapsing mountain while matching blades with wild men, afire with the light of rising sun on steel. But sometimes he could stick an arrow where it was needed, and that had to be enough.

Avinder watched them move like gods around him, never keeping pace, humored like some small pet they had picked up at market. He held vigil as Al'Asharad conversed with the Spirit of Baldurisk, he was able to retrieve Gwyndal's sword in the heat of the Battle of Twains, he was able to eat with them by their fire and hear their stories, carry their secret sorrows. Some nights, amid the frost and stinging wind, he lay between the Twins, wrapped with their sorcerous heat, and was sure he could hear their hearts beating in tandem. Some nights he thought he almost saw the desert Djin that haunted Al'Asharad, the great black cloud with ember eyes and endless maw that kept him from his home and people. He saw things he never thought were possible, and sometimes he put an arrow where it needed to be. And that was enough. The cost of missing was too great, and his hand had to be true. He couldn't fail the Companions. Each battle he imagined the flesh of the men as the soft white fur of the stag, praying to Earth Mother that his aim was true and he'd find their heart. That the red that spilled into the white snow was collecting into the beating core of the Earth Mother, returning to the spirit stag's breast. After each skirmish he fashioned new arrows, thanking the Earth Mother for his life and the lives of those who'd brought him here as he made each arrow true, and knew tomorrow he'd again have to shoot them just as true or spill his own blood to the Arroelms instead of those he hoped to kill.

It was only when he brought down six men in the moment between breaths that they started using the name Avinder Heartpiercer. When he'd had to make that long shot across the gully to keep Ornica the Grey from being brought under they called him Avinder of the True Sight and looked up at him with the faces of children, speaking in whispers of how he had killed a demon to take its eye and use it as his own, how the red fingers of the white gloves he wore were stained with the fresh blood of the men he felled. But he knew the truth of it, that he was an ordinary man of ordinary kin, raised by woodsmen, and only did what he did because of the need, because there hadn't been a choice. He could only hope to not fail them, the Companions, Gwyndal of the blade and Yorglyff the mountain walker, Al'Asharad the dancer, Tiell and Tyr the soul bonded. But Avinder wasn't like them; he was only a man who did what he must.