The dream is peaceful and comforting. She is a child again in the serene forests of Icewind land.
Little Vala loves her father.
She knows he is the wisest man in the whole world. He is also the chieftain of the great Icewind tribe. Some day Vala will become the chieftain herself. But before that happens, it will be a long time. So long it doesn’t even feel real. She doesn’t want to think about it. Much more important things are going on.
She is hunting with him.
This is the first time she got to bring her own bow. Finally she is skilled enough. He has promised her that today she can take the shot.
She couldn’t be more excited. She is going to become a real warrior today.
Warm wind gently rustles the leaves of the large alder trees. It is calm in the shady canopy. Brilliant blaze of the summer sun can’t reach them. Thick bushes hide them from everyone and everything. It is as if they weren’t there at all.
Now it is happening. Vala feels her heart pounding like a thousand hammering blacksmiths. Blood rushes into her head and her senses sharpen. Upwind, near a small pond of crystalline spring water something stirs the foliage only so slightly. Yet she knows exactly what it is and where it moves.
A small deer emerges from the underbrush. Its ears twitch as it eyes timidly around. Nothing is there to be seen. Relaxing, it walks to the spring. It starts to drink with its little, pink tongue. Vala’s father gently puts his huge hand on her shoulder. No words need to be said. She knows what to do.
The animal’s eyes dart wildly as it hears a quiet thunk behind it. Then the arrow pierces its flank. Crying out feebly it tries to run. One step and its feet give away. Now it squirms on the ground, kicking the dry leaves in terror, unable to move.
“Well done, my daughter,” he says. Vala’s face lights up. The words from her father fill her with joy. She has never felt this proud. He loves his father more than anything else in the world.
“Now go and finish it”, he offers his knife to the girl. “Don’t let it suffer.”
She grabs the sharp blade eagerly. She knows this is their way, yet deep inside she is troubled . Not for having to kill. That is only natural and that is her responsibility. No, it’s something else. She is surprised how thrilled she is now, how anxious to go. She felt such pleasure when the arrow hit. Not for succeeding, but for killing. Am I supposed to feel like this?
Swiftly and quietly she runs across the glade. She can see movement in the tall grass. A pained moan ahead fills her with an ecstatic rush and washes away all trace of guilt.
Raising her knife she lunges forward. She knows where to strike. Landing upon the limp form she sinks her knife a deep into the soft flesh.
A cry of pain.
It isn’t one of an animal. Startled, Vala looks down.
She is not a child anymore. These are the hands of a grown woman. They are cowered in the blood.
The creature under her looks up. Not the deer. She sees a man’s face, frail and riddled with wrinkles.
A wave of terror rushes over her.
His voice is wheezing and full of pain. “I only… wanted peace… between the tribes…” His words trail off. Then he coughs up blood.
I know this man.
Fear gives way to something much darker. Hatred sparks within her.
With loathing in her voice, she cries back: “You gave me no choice!” She grabs the head of the dying man with both of her strong hands and violently shakes it, “You would have doomed us all!”
There is sadness in the old man’s voice, when he finally answers. “I… I always loved you most. I forgive you… daughter.” His eyes close as his voice fades into nothingness.
This is the first time madness comes to her and it is all of the times. The knife in her hand feels good. So full of power. Screaming at the top of her lungs she thrusts her bloody blade into the lifeless body again and again, “I! WILL! NOT! FORGIVE! YOU! FATHER!”
Vala loves the darkness within her.
It is calm and quiet. There is only the sound of wind in the trees and the dripping of blood from her skin to the grass. Slowly the fury in her mind dies away.
She raises her face toward the bright sky. Sunshafts now beam through the canopy and bathe her in their glorious light. She can feel her composure returning. She can think again.
With that, comes a revelation.
“This is not how it happened.”
She looks back down. The creature she sits upon does not resemble a man anymore. There is only a formless mass of torn flesh and shattered bone. Soon there is nothing at all.
“This is not… real…?”
Then the dream ends.
Vala woke to thunderous booming of drums.
The barrage made her whole body tremble. Vicious as it was, her first thought was a hopeful one: “Good, the festival is still going on. I must have dozed off. Time to get back to the party.”
But the drums were not out there. They were in her head.
When the pain came, it came as a throbbing avalanche of suffering. It crushed her brain with such force the battle-hardened warrioress couldn’t help but to cry out. Then it went on and spread through her body into each limb and every tiniest extreme until she couldn’t even scream. It had been a long time since she had experienced something quite this awful. As waves of nausea crashed over her, she thought to herself, I’m never going to drink again.
Vala chose to lie motionless for a while. Slowly the booming settled and her pain subsided. Carefully she opened her eyes. She had regained enough of her senses to expect the next insult. This was the part when sharp sunlight would pierce her eyes and restore the suffering to all its former glory. Except… It was still dark.
Is it still night? She touched her hand to her face. It was covered with something slimy. There was a layer of thick paste on her face. What the hell…? Is this some kind of damn prank? Sitting up she angrily wiped her face with both hands. Now she could even smell something. With a whiff, smells and tastes came back to her. Ash, she thought, And… blood? Then she could finally see.
The landscape around the large woman was a surreal amalgamation of light and dark. There were structures around her, but something was wrong with them. They were not whole and they were all black. Even the ground was like pitch. The radiance of midday sun made black heaps of unidentifiable mass all around her bloom in a dreamlike manner. Still, she was certain she was now awake. There was the smell of smoke in the air. Of smoke and burnt flesh.
It took her half a minute to understand what she was looking at. When she finally did, she leaped to her feet with a ferocity unimaginable for someone, who had only hours earlier been beaten senseless and left to die in a fire. Then she screamed, like before, drowning the whole village in her tormented wail. Only this time it was not a cry of physical pain, but that of much deeper agony.
Several hours later the huge, muscular berserker woman was still wandering around her devastated home village. With blank, emotionless gaze she surveyed the carnage. After the initial shock had waned, the huntress had been walking around transfixed, as if not truly cognizant of the horrors around her.
She could see there were no other survivors. The victims seemed to have been either impaled by something that must have been finless, round spears or had had their skulls crushed in. What she saw was the result of a throughout massacre. Not even the children had been spared. Everything had been set on fire. No houses remained standing.
She took a glance at her own small shack. It had also been reduced to a pile of ash and charred splinters. What she found strange though, was that nothing had been ransacked. The remains of the festival food lay on the ground where the tables had been overturned, untouched. In the smoking skeletons of the log houses one could see an occasional glimmer of valuables, made of silver and even gold. As far as she could tell, nothing had been taken. Whoever had done this, had been intent on murdering the Icewind people and only that – nothing else.
The luxury of oblivion was no longer hers. Reality started to sink in. Someone had come and taken away everything she had had. Even though she did not have a family, all her friends and intimates now lay dead in the rubble. It was too much to comprehend, too much to accept. The pain and loss were fast becoming tangible and they were tearing her apart. Her head swam as she reeled backwards. She felt like she was falling deep, deep down.
In shadows the madness waited for her. It always did. That sweet, all-enveloping rapture of hate. She could sense it beckoning her. Oh, how she wanted to let it swallow her whole and take the pain away. Only pure, intoxicating rage would remain.
A sudden awareness snapped her back to reality. Something was amiss. She realized she couldn’t remember anything about what had happened!
They must have surprised us in the middle of the celebration, when everyone was already drunk. Where are the bodies of the enemies? Surely some of them must have died in the attack. They could have taken their dead when they left. Still, even if I was hit in the head, I should remember something. I always do.
She concentrated strenuously. By now she was certain she had forgotten something important. The thought was there, so close she could almost taste it. Still, no matter how hard she tried, it eluded her. Frustrated she started piling the half-burned bodies together with firewood. These people deserved more than to be left to rot unremembered.
When she was almost done, she glimpsed something on the ground, under a thin layer of black soot. It was the hilt of a large two-handed axe. She immediately recognized the familiar intertwined pattern on its blade. “Flake!” She grabbed the gargantuan weapon and swung it on his shoulder. A grim determination was growing in the depths of her mind.
The night had already fallen when she lit the pyre. A terrible sense of loss wrenched her gut as she remembered the bonfire they had had just the previous evening. Only a single day ago. Everyone had still been alive and they had celebrated the Midsummer. Their bonfire was never as tall as those in the larger Icewind villages to the north or at the main festival those damned Starpolers held, but she had liked theirs better than any other.
The irony was grotesque. Now everyone she had ever known, were the fire. Crackling and fuming against the silence of the night. The flames filled her vision. Among them she could see the limbs of the dead trash and twist. Burning on in the dark for ever and ever.
Then pieces in her mind fell together.
Starpole! That was what he had been trying to recall. In the middle of the celebration their shaman Uffi had faltered without warning and then started shouting. He had been terrified by some vision and cried the name of the tribe’s head shamaness Rika. Vala remembered having thought that she must be in trouble. They all knew she had been visiting the Starpole village this Midsummer. Had she been under attack? The rage within her ignited again.
Of course! It all becomes clear now. Those scum have always been against us. It was just a matter of time. They had planned it and struck us all when our guard was down!
The madness asked to be let in. This time she embraced it.
“You treacherous bitches!” she shouted standing up. “You thrice-cursed murdering cowards!” Raising Flake toward the spark-filled sky she screamed, “You will pay for this with blood! I will make you watch when I crush the bones of your loved ones and hack them apart. Before I am done, you will scream and you will beg me to kill you.”
Her eyes gleamed with insanity, hollow and horrible. Then the auburn-haired giant turned around. Her heavy leather and fur armor creaked as she started walking southwards with a pace driven with fury unlike Calaval had seen for a very long time.
The being that ran into the woods was not truly a human. Not anymore. As it went, the webbed engraving on the dual blades of its huge axe lit up with dancing flames.