Cythraul – awake! An idea for a new fantasy series
I’m noodling about with some ideas for a new, long-running self-published fantasy series. It would only available as an ebook, with instalments – episodes – of about 60,000 words coming out each month. I’ve written this beginning, and I’d really like to know what you, my loyal readers, think of it
The woman screamed; a high note rising in pitch but fading, ending in an almost inaudible birdlike shriek. She crouched on a mound of seal furs, hunched over her swollen belly, her eyes tightly closed, her face flushed, legs straddled, the sweat slick on her brow. She gripped the hand of her husband, who knelt behind her, his weight propped reassuringly against her back, and squeezed hard, grinding his knuckles agonizingly against their neighbours. They had been thus, locked in the struggle to bring forth new life, for many hours now, but time had no meaning here. To the man it seemed an eternally anxious present; to the woman a red swamp of near-bursting fullness.
Outside the cabin the snow fell, thick as goose down. Inside, a fire blazed on the stone hearth, the only illumination apart from a stone lamp of whale oil in the far corner of the low room. The air was hot, smoky and reeked of human wastes, old sweat and a fishy tang from the damp nets.
“They will be here soon,” the man mumbled into her damp hair. “The wise woman must be here soon. It must be some hours since I sent word.” Then louder: “Breathe hard, my dear one, blow away the hurt. It will soon be very over.” He shifted his position, to ease the cramping of his back and thighs, and reached up to mop at the running sweat on her cheeks and neck with a scrap of wool.
The woman heard him through her pain-haze, opened her mouth and began to pant like a hound after a long chase. Huh. Huh. Huh. The man reached his free hand between her legs and felt the moist opening between the wisps of hair. He knew little of these womanly matters, having no sisters, no family at all, now that his mother and father were dead, but to his questing fingers the opening seemed far too small to permit the passage of the baby. The woman broke off her panting to scream again, an animal wail that rang out like a war cry in that foetid space.
The wooden door of the cabin banged open, admitting a gust of fresh snowy air, a blast of shocking cold and a huge figure, bundled in furs.
The man looked up in alarm, his features slowly relaxing in recognition. Above the furs was broad flat face, a wedge of nose and two lamp-bright eyes. And there were other snow-decked figures crowding into the doorway behind the first intruder.
The lead figure stood in silence for a dozen heartbeats, staring down almost hungrily at the man and his wife huddled in their birthing pain. It was a woman of middle years with long, lank, iron-grey hair and a vast shapeless bosom. But she was as tall as a man, and with something manly about the set of her wide shoulders, thick limbs and the grim line of her mouth. She carried a long black wooden staff with a shining obsidian disc at its head. The husband could just make out a small red circle, like a ring of blood stamped into the centre of the disc. A strange headdress fashioned from a pair of thick curling ram’s horns set into a steel skull-cap added to the impression of her towering bulk. She leaned the staff carefully against the nearest wall, untied the leather thong that kept the headdress in place and set it gently at the staff’s foot; then she shed the cloak of furs, tossing it on to a pile of fishing nets in the corner of the cabin, to reveal a black woollen gown that covered her huge body to the ankles. Turning to the folk behind her, she growled: “Get some water heating – now – I want it hot and hot, and shut that accursed door.”
They were men, five of them, and all warriors by their looks, wrapped in fur and leather with long swords at their waists. The pale skin of their faces was marked with black ink in intricate patterns, swirls and shapes, lines and dots, giving them a savage, almost demonic air. To the husband’s surprise they rushed meekly to obey the woman’s commands, tumbling over each other in their eagerness to find an iron pot, fill it with snow and set it on the hook that hung by a chain above the hearth-fire.
In the commotion, the big woman knelt down beside the husband and his panting wife. “You carry a precious cargo, my dear,” she said looking into the woman’s blotched and sweaty face. “But do not fear, I am here now, and it will be my task to lead you thorough this present pain and all the way to the other side.”
The husband and the wise woman between them laid the mother-to-be back on the furs, spread her knees and both peered between them.
“My lady,” said the man, “what can I do to aid you . . .”
“I am not a lady,” the big woman said sharply. “I am . . .” she stopped. “Men in these parts call me the Soothsayer – for I do not lie.”
“I beg your pardon . . . Soothsayer. But what may I do to make the birth easier?”
The wise woman stared at the haggard younger man kneeling beside her. Even in the dim light of the cabin, he noticed that one of her eyes was parti-coloured, split in a jagged tear down the middle, one side light blue, the other brown. The other was plain blue but both blazed with a savage intensity that forced him to look away.
“What you can do is take yourself out of here. She is in my hands now. Take my guards with you. If you have ale, bread or meat, give it to them. If not, no matter. But leave us in peace, leave it to the women to bring this precious life into the world.”
The six men stood in the empty cow byre, a dozen yards away from the cabin, in a loose ring and chewed stale hunks of rye bread and dried, salted fish in silence. Outside the doorless opening of the byre, the snow-filled wind howled through the darkness, but the husband could hear the sounds of his wife wailing even above that din. He wordlessly passed a half-empty skin of ale to the nearest of the Soothsayer’s men, apparently their leader – a gnarled fellow in a leather jerkin named Kevel, scarred by war about the hands and neck, his cheeks tattooed to give him the impression of a pair of curling boar’s tusks rising out of his grey beard either side of his mouth.
Kevel had a sword at his waist and a short-handled axe stuffed in his broad leather belt. The husband did not have the strength, nor any desire, to speak with these strange warriors – they served the wise woman, that was plain, and that was enough for him. Anyway, they seemed unwilling to talk to him. He gave them food and they ate and drank, standing quietly in a circle in the light of a horn-lantern.
The woman’s shrieks gathered volume, and acquired a bumping rhythm, and over them the husband could hear the deeper, harsher cries of the Soothsayer, exhorting her in her labours, though he could not clearly make out the words. The screaming reached its climax – one prolonged hellish bellow from his wife.
Then silence. A long, long silence – broken only the wailing of the cruel wind. The men looked at each other. One of the guards, a man whose face was weirdly tattooed with the round markings of a leopard, shrugged. “It is done,” he said.
The husband was already striding towards the entrance of the byre. “Hold fast, man!” said Kevel. “Stop there, I say.” The husband turned at the doorway, frowning impatiently at the grey-bearded leader and his four warriors.
Kevel’s arm was already drawn back. It came forward in one swift, smooth line, and the axe flashed dully as it spun through the air and smacked into the forehead of the man, the wedge-shaped blade thudding into bone, splitting his skull as neatly as a nut.
The Soothsayer held the still, bloody form of the baby in her long hands. She scraped the filth and mucus from his mouth, pressed her own lips to the infant’s and blew a stream of air into its lungs. Nothing. She massaged its tiny, blood-streaked chest, a few hard turns of her long fingers, then blew air once more into its slack mouth. At her feet on the bed of seal furs, the woman’s body lay lifeless. Her loose loins in a black, drying puddle of her own fluids, her eyes half-open and staring upwards.
The Soothsayer dangled the baby by one leg, and struck it hard on his wrinkled red buttocks with an open palm. The child swayed in her grasp, silent. The Soothsayer smacked it again, harder this time. A tiny gasp. The breath of life. The huge woman held the child up to her face and looked at its wizened countenance. The baby’s eyes cracked open a fraction, the merest glint of blue. It began to bawl lustily.
Kevel poked his head around the Soothsayer’s shoulder. He stared impassively at the child as if he had never seen one before.
“Will it live?” he said.
“Of course not,” said the Soothsayer.
“I mean, will it live long enough . . .”
“It will serve,” said the Soothsayer. Then, briskly: “Come, we must hurry, the hour draws near. Gather firewood and food. Ale, if they have it. A blanket or two. Hand me my cloak. We must go now.”
Six laden figures trudged through the snow, heading north, ever northwards. The tall woman led the way, Kevel, with the babe stuffed in his fur-wrapped bosom, and the four warriors following on behind. The head of the Soothsayer’s staff was a ball of dark red fire that cast long shadows over the snow. Her rams’ horns headdress seeming even more monstrous as twin curling shapes on the white blanket to their left.
The wind had fallen away, the snow has ceased and high above them the aurora borealis flickered and shuddered, strands of pink and purple, rippling and dancing, wave upon waves of pale eldritch colours. They marched onwards, north and north. Not a man spoke, neither did they slacken their pace. Their breath steamed in the frigid air, plumes of white, the beards of the men soon glinting with sharp crystals of frost. On they marched through a flat white wilderness, their boots crunching through the thick crust of snow almost up to their knees. It was an empty landscape save for the five men and one tall woman, led ever onward by the ball of red light.
They marched for half the night, never pausing, never speaking, on and on in single file through the white wilderness. The baby made no sound at all, and Kevel feared that it must have died against his skin from cold or lack of a mother’s milk.
At last they began to climb, a low slope that began to rise to a long crest a hundred foot high, a lofty horizon that seemed to mark the end of the world. Up and up, the men panting heavily now with exertion, labouring in the soft snow, until they reached the top. And there the tall woman stopped and planted her staff deep in the snow like a flag staff, like the symbol of possession.
Kevel looked around him, north, east, west; there was nothing to be seen from the ridge, no feature, not a hut or house, not a tree or a hill. The spine of the ridge stretched away to the west, a series of knobbled humps, but to the east it stopped abruptly in a long oblong boulder, with a cliff falling away beneath that end to the plain below. To the south, the chain of their footmarks, punched into the snow, stretched away into the limitless darkness, and even though he knew that a mere dozen miles way there were the habitations of men, warm hearths with crackling fires, women making soup, children playing with their dolls, with a part of his mind he could not truly believe it. He and his companions were alone in the vast, cold emptiness of the north. And no other living creatures truly existed.
The Soothsayer was busy; with her bare hands she was scraping the packed snow from the oblong boulder, burrowing through the white crust like a terrier. In a hundred heartbeats she had uncovered a patch of bare black rock. He summoned Kevel and his men to help and soon they had cleared a space in the snow the size of a child’s cot, walled on all sides by packed ice. Kevel saw that the rock’s surface was unnaturally smooth, with a curious dimple or shallow indent in the centre of the cleared space about the size of a soup bowl. The rock itself seemed to shine in the light of the staff’s fire.
“Give me the child,” said the Soothsayer.
Kevel pulled the baby out of his woollen robe, and as the cold air hit its wrinkled naked body the infant gave a weak cough of protest. Just for an instant, Kevel hesitated. He felt the fragile life wriggle in his hands and fought the urge to wrap this tiny creature safely, warmly in his strong arms. The moment passed and he shoved the thing into the Soothsayer’s hands.
“Make the circle now,” she said, and the five men shuffled around her in the snow, around the cleared space on the black rock. They linked their arms and stood, awkwardly, watching the Soothsayer as she held the baby in one outstretched hand over the centre of the rock. She pulled a long obsidian knife from her robe, flourished it next to the whimpering child and said in a loud, clear voice: “Hear us, O mighty Cythraul! Hear our words!”
All together, the men standing in the circle growled: “Hear us, hear us!”
“Accept this sacrifice,” intoned the Soothsayer, “accept this new life; return to the lands of men, O mighty Cythraul, come to us. A life for a life!”
As all the men chanted: “A life for a life, a life for a life,” the Soothsayer drew the obsidian blade across the neck of the baby in one slow deliberate movement. The child’s eyes opened fully for the first time, and blood welled thick from the gaping wound below his tiny chin, and splashed on to the cleared space below, swiftly puddling in the shallow depression in the black rock.
“Cythraul – awake!” shouted the Soothsayer. All the men in the circle took up the cry: “Cythraul – awake! Cythraul – awake!”
The Soothsayer laid the body of the child next to the depression, the blood still pulsing, and she began to cut into the flesh of his small thigh, high up by the groin, flensing the meat from the bone.
“Kevel, your axe,” the Soothsayer demanded. It was handed over and the Soothsayer smashed the blade into the thigh bone, splitting it lengthways. With the tip of her black knife, she scooped the pale-pink meaty marrow from the long line in the centre of the cracked bone, put it to her lips and swallowed the flesh down eagerly. Then she attacked the other pudgy leg, stripping the meat away, cracking the bone beneath with the axe and scooping the marrow paste on to the tip of her blade and feeding it in tiny gobbets to the circle of men, one by one. When all had tasted the essence of the sacrifice, the woman dipped the forefinger of her right hand into the pool of blood in the centre of the black rock and leaning over to Kevel, she drew a circle in blood on his forehead. She did the same with every man there, and finally drew a larger circle on her own brow.
They all raised their hands high in the air.
The Soothsayer said: “Mighty Cythraul, with this sacrifice of new blood we affirm our everlasting loyalty to you. Return to the lands of men once more to succour your faithful servants and stamp your enemies into the dust. For your glory and ours, come Cythraul, come!”
“Come Cythraul, come!” chanted the men. “Come, Cythraul, come!”
The Soothsayer lowered her arms, her broad face was lit by a girlish smile. “There,” she said, “it is done. All that remains is to set the fire – and wait.”
Kevel lowered his arms. He looked at the black rock, at the tiny dismembered corpse and the pathetic puddle of blood that even now was beginning to freeze. He looked around him at the empty white wilderness. Nothing stirred except his men, who were hurrying forward now and dropping kindling and split logs in a pile on the rock, covering the doll-like body and mess of spilled life. Had it all been in vain?
The Soothsayer was standing on the ridge line, facing north, blazing staff in one hand, the rams’ horns seeming to stretch up to the heavens. To Kevel’s eye, she seemed to be contemplating the wild northern lights with satisfaction. The colours had changed, darker hues now, blood reds and purples and browns, and their rippling dance seemed forced and jerky, with a wrongness that was almost painful to the eye. She turned her head to glance at the mound of firewood on the oblong stone, ignited it with a click of her fingers, then returned to watching the angry aurora.
The men huddled in their furs and blankets around the fire-rock. Some dozed, some snored, but Kevel watched the hypnotic blaze, his mind too full for sleep.
The stars moved serenely though their paths, the temperature dropped, an icy wind sprang up, and the fire burned low, and lower on the black rock. Kevel kept his watch while his men breathed noisily around him. The Soothsayer remained standing on the ridge watching the north; she seemed not to feel cold, nor boredom, nor doubt.
At last, Kevel rose from his furs to replenish the fire. He was just bending to grasp a bundle of faggots, when he felt the ground shake beneath his feet.
A tremble, nothing more. And Kevel almost thought that he had imagined it.
He looked up at the Soothsayer, still high on the ridge line, and she was looking down at him a look of wild triumph on her face. “He is coming!” she said.
Kevel looked beyond her, along the line of the ridge. The hill itself now seemed to be quaking, shivering, scabs of snow were falling from the boulders that made up the ridge and revealing glimpses of rich, shiny black beneath. The air grew warmer, he felt his numb cheeks begin to glow. A vast deep humming noise, like a gigantic swarm of bees, seemed to be vibrating his lungs, his belly, the very skin on his body. He was seized with a terror the like of which he had never felt before.
A movement caught his eye. He saw, far away, at the very end of the rise, the very ground flicked sideways and back, like the tail of a huge lizard half-buried and lashing itself out of the snow. Now, a black mist was rising from beneath his feet, seeping up through the white crust, thickening, growing, filling the whole of the air all around him in a choking miasma that smelled of things long dead. The humming noise increased, swelling into a vast all-encompassing roar. A bank of snow at the side of the oblong rock slid away suddenly to reveal a huge, ancient eye, sea-green at the edges, with one long, black vertical pupil and a round iris as red as baby’s blood.
That’s all I’ve got to show you so far but please do let me know what you think. Is it too gory? Too horrible? If you like it, tell me, too. I need the encouragement. And if you want to read something else I’ve recently written, I have a new Robin Hood novel available now from Amazon.