Far Off Unhappy Things
Chapter 9: Reinhild
By Renko Doremi Rodenburg
Click to listen in audiobook format, edited and mixed by Sdivi Hall
Far to the north, the influence of Autumn waned. It was colder there, colder still than on the heath where Hyacinth lived. The area was rocky, mountainous, and the sunlight seemed dimmer here, making it gloomier than ever under the perpetually overcast sky.
Reinhild had never traveled this far north. Her backpack was light, most supplies having been used up. If she did not run into civilization soon she would have to turn back. Perhaps there was nothing this far north, the hardy humans living here only a legend. Or perhaps they lived further still, out of her and everyone else’s reach.
Walking completely alone in the deserted, rocky wasteland at least gave her time to think- Mostly about Hyacinth.
She desperately wanted to be Hyacinth’s champion. Her lady-knight. If she wasn’t, well, then she wasn’t anything. Worse still, Hyacinth would still have to fight the duels, so she would have to contend with someone else being her champion. Much rather she’d die fighting for Hyacinth.
Here it became difficult to follow the coastline. The land was sloped upwards, here where the true mountains started. Luson was built on an ancient, now eroded mountain, but beyond that the Lands Lost were mostly flat save for some hills, making it a strange experience.
In the distance they loomed, gray peaks with tips of white. The coastline turned into cliffs and she had no recourse but to follow easier paths, taking her away from the water.
Before long, a path.
A road, even. It started as a path slightly worn out by people regularly trampling over the same dirt and rocks, but eventually it turned into a fully fledged road, running upwards into the mountains.
And then, a signpost. Long worn into nothingness, none of the three signs were legible anymore. But at least it was proof of civilization. The path seemingly diverged into two possible directions here, although it too was long faded and hard to follow.
Reinhild shook her head, put her hand on Helmatöt’s hilt and closed her eyes for a second.
Left, she took the path to the left.
It swerved around rocks, and steeply uphill. At times she was climbing more than walking, and almost gave up- when the smell of smoke stung in her nostrils. It was light, distant, and only a barbarian, more animal than woman would’ve picked up on it.
And perhaps her senses had become sharper still, with everything Hyacinth had done to her.
She climbed up some rubble and found the path continuing. Here, it was well-trodden, with several smaller paths running in every direction.
A large wooden effigy stood before her, a doll vaguely resembling an oddly-proportioned human made of straw and driftwood. Three human skulls were impaled on spikes before it. Pangs of hunger shot through her, and a sharp ache settled into her heart. That death and slaughter induced such a reaction now was worrying. She’d always been violent, but in the past it had served a goal. It had been dispassionate. Now she longed to spill blood for the sake of it.
It wasn’t something she could give in to. In the tower, with Edgar, she had made the right decision and ran away.
She turned around, and started to walk back.
“Little girl-thing is going where,” a deep, baritone voice boomed.
Startled, Reinhild turned around, drawing Helmatöt.
A good distance behind the effigy, stood a large, misshapen man. His skin was leathery and gray, almost as gray as the rocky landscape around them. The only piece of clothing he was wearing was a rough, dark loincloth.
But his most striking feature was his face. Instead of two smaller eyes he had only a single, giant eye in the middle of his head, and no nose to speak off. For a second, Reinhild worried if there was enough space left for a brain in his head, with an eye that big.
“I’m leaving, I see your warning, and I’m leaving,” she said while slowly backing away.
“It’s a warning for girl-things,” the misshapen man said. “Girl-things who come here are killed.”
“See,” Reinhild said. “That’s why I’m leaving.”
“No,” the man said. “Girl-thing is going nowhere. Me is going to kill her, finally eat good again.”
“I have a sword,” Reinhild warned him while waving Helmatöt around.
“My arms are thick and the girl-thing is frail and small,” The man said as he started laughing. It was a childish laugh, distorted by his deep voice. Then he started moving towards her, with sure steps.
His gait was almost completely silent. A creature used to sneaking up on people. Now that she thought about it, his skin was almost like a camouflage as well. He had nary any smell, aside from faint wisps of smoke.
As he got closer, she realized why. He had thoroughly scrubbed himself with charcoal and ash, which seemed to be partially responsible for the state of his skin as well.
“If you come another step closer, I will kill you,” she assured the man.
“Me isn’t scared of you,” he said as he kept on walking.
Reinhild waited until he was close. Very close. She was on guard for swipes, punches, and grabs, but all the man did was lumber on until he stood right in front of her, his hot and stale breath bearing down on her.
“I thought you were going to kill Me?”
“I’m practiced in counter and riposte,” she said looking up, into its massive eye. He was two full heads taller than her. Considering his massive, trunk-like limbs and imposing stature she guessed he weighed about six hundred pounds. If he grabbed hold of her, it would be over.
That was what he tried. He tried to grapple onto her with both arms at once, and Reinhild immediately stepped forwards, ducking underneath his arms and shoulders and swinging her blade upwards.
She ended up behind him, as he staggered forwards and howled in pain.
Still, it was a shallow cut. She looked at Helmatöt in confusion. It hadn’t ever struggled to cut through flesh before. No, it wasn’t her beloved shortsword. The lumbering man-beast his flesh was unnaturally tough.
Like her own, she thought for a second. She shook the thoughts out of her head, and stepped forward while going for a thrust right as the man turned around and came charging for her, furious.
She stabbed him in the stomach, and immediately retreated back out of the range of his arms again.
The stab wound, too, was not deep. The monster’s flesh was so stiff her blade barely penetrated it. Still, he howled in pain and covered the stab with one of his arms.
“Girl-thing is going to pay for that, Me will break your ugly sword on the rocks. Take you home for children to play with.”
Bloodlust slowly curdled in her stomach. She shook her head and took a few steps backwards. Still, what was the harm? It was an inhuman monster. It was a cannibal and probably a rapist, too. It didn’t strike her as the type that ate mostly pumpkin and onions, at the very least.
But she couldn’t give in to unnatural lust for blood and death. This time it was a monster, but with Edgar and the bandits they had been humans. What if she gave in, again and again and one day she would slaughter a tavern because someone had looked at her wrong?
“I’m no girl-thing, I’m a barbarian from the forests of Luson. Leave me alone or I’m going for your eye next.”
“Stupid girl-thing, the gods gave Me this eye. It is harder than steel.”
That made sense. The creature wouldn’t survive long with such an obvious weak spot.
“Just leave me alone, go eat someone else,” she yelled. That was a mistake, as the second she gave in to an emotional response her senses sharpened, her muscles tensed up and she began salivating.
“Slaves back at clan are skinny and weak, bad for eating. Only good for making bread out of their bones.”
She had dodged this before. She wasn’t going to let comments about slavery set her off like a tripwire. The tattoos on her left arm started to glow. Tattoos, cracks in her skin, fissures in the shapes of runes through which fire leaked. Her heartbeat increased, and the world around her changed. Colours became deeper, and she became aware of details she wouldn’t have picked up on before.
It all became so intense, so unbelievably loud. She could barely bear it. Almost too late, she realized what was happening, and started to push back.
At the same time, the man rushed for her like a bull. She screamed, howled and cried as she took her blade in both hands and started to hack away at him.
The first blow set him stumbling back and took a chunk out of his left arm that he held up to block with.
The second blow hacked down into his arm down to the bone,
and the third cleaved straight through it.
The man screamed and dropped onto the ground, kicking his massive feet around like a child throwing a tantrum as gallons of blood poured from the wound. It was dark, and stank- a far cry from beautiful Hyacinth’s pale, almost pink blood.
It didn’t turn her on at all.
It didn’t take long for the man’s crying to weaken, his moves to become more erratic, more spasms than a fit of anger. She walked up to him, and as she raised her trusted sword above her head the man cried “No, girl-thing, Me is sorry, no, please, no,”
Weakness. The weak were devoured. The weak died. Prey. Meat. Weakness.
She hacked away at him, until long after he stopped moving. When finally she retained some of her senses, her heartbeat still beating faster than she had ever thought possible, she picked up on the smell.
They did have a smell. They hid it with soot and ash, but now that she had smelled their blood, their mortality, she could find them. They weren’t far. There were more. More of the perverse abominations, the weaklings. More prey for her to hunt.
With a herculean force of will she kept herself upright, kept herself from falling on four limbs and crawling forwards. Helmatöt in hand she advanced, in the direction the man had come from.
It was easy finding their lair. The road eventually led to a network of caves, with many more of the effigies-as-warnings in front of it. Large shafts had been dug in the ceiling, probably for light or to siphon off smoke.
Two of them stood near the entrance, caught by surprise as she charged in. With wild abandon she hacked into them, again frustrated by the resilience of their flesh. It drove her to try harder.
Her heartbeat kept accelerating, streams of fire now wildly spilling from the runes on her arm. As she opened her mouth, a thunderous roar came out instead of her own voice. A challenge for all those in the caverns to come and fight her.
“Fight me,” she roared into the dark.
They had built an entire town down here, she realized in a brief moment of lucidity. Houses, pens for cattle, pens for slaves.
What was her fucking problem, she thought a bit later, her leg caught in the intestine of a dead, giant cyclopean woman. With effort, she pulled free, ripping the intestine in half.
The slaves were cowering at the back of their pen. Their fear was not weakness. It was awe- She smiled, turning back to go after stragglers.
A warm feeling surrounded her, a blanket. A wet, soggy blanket. Flesh, she realized. She was surrounded by piles of wet, dead flesh and broken bones.
Slowly, she started to slow down. A deep feeling of content had come over her. With a smile on her face she attempted to walk towards a light- an exit to the caverns- but her right leg refused. Confused, she looked down and realized it was broken. A massive arrow was sticking out of her back, and she wondered how it got there. Still- she was happy. Full. Satiated. Done. Sighing contently, she fell face-down and passed out.
She dreamt. Dreamt of pushing men down on beds, and ripping their throats out with her bare teeth. Dreamt of Hyacinth, of living with her at her little hovel on the Heath. Of keeping each other warm and no longer being scared of sleeping. Dreamt of chasing Fleur through the streets of Luson, dreamt of a strange, small red furry creature following her everywhere she went.
When she woke up, she had no idea how long she’d slept. She was feverish, and could barely move. A deep, throbbing pain had settled in her limbs. Confused, she struggled against some restraint until she realized it was a blanket. She was in a bed, in a simple wooden room. Aside from the bed she was in, there was only a large dresser and a simple wooden chair. Light fell into the room through a small, glass window behind the bed. All the pieces of her armor were on or around the chair. Next to it lay Helmatöt, completely covered in thick, black coagulated bloodstains. Whoever brought her here had noble intentions- or else they would have disarmed her.
Or perhaps they were afraid.
After struggling around a few more minutes, she realized her right leg had been spalked and almost half her body had been shrinkwrapped in tight white bandages. There was barely any blood on them, so either her injuries were light or the bandages had been regularly replaced. Worst was her left arm- her sword arm. It had been burned into charcoal, yet was somehow still animate. The runes Hyacinth had carved into it glowed with a rosy light. She had no idea this could happen if she drank too deeply, too greedily of the dark power Hyacinth had placed inside of her.
She hadn’t warned her, and somehow, that brought her comfort. Either Hyacinth trusted her, assumed she wouldn’t need to look after her like some stray child, or this was part of some grander scheme or plan she had for her. Either possibility made her feel warm, loved.
A couple of hours passed, which she wasted laying on her back calmly breathing and being at peace for the first time in years.
What had she done that she felt this good, this relieved, she wondered.
She jolted awake from her half-sleep and instinctively tried to grab her shortsword- to no avail- as the wooden door to the room creaked open. A young girl dressed in all white entered, with pale hair and light eyes, bordering between blue and gray. She yelped, and immediately left the room again. “The demoness, she is awake,” she heard her yell in the hallway just outside.
It took almost thirty minutes for someone else to come into the room after the girl left. This time, it was a grown woman. Green, tight-fitting shirt and dress held together with leather straps, a dark leather corset and two knives strapped to her sides. Short, brown hair and pale eyes that seemed to blaze with some inner light.
Without speaking, she threw some of Reinhild’s equipment off the chair, and sat down on it.
“So,” the stranger spoke. “You’re awake.”
“I am,” Reinhild replied.
“They say you’re a demoness in town. A legend from down south. The Red Fox.”
Red Fox. Some townspeople around the blasted heath had called her that- but there was no way that could’ve spread this far north.
“Where’d you get that name from?” she asked.
“Who knows where children get rumors from,” the stranger replied. “From the old north wind, perhaps.”
Reinhild stayed quiet.
“Do you have a name, red-haired demoness?”
“Reinhild. Bearer of Helmatöt.”
“Ah, that’s the sword you had on you? It stinks of death, a deeply evil weapon.” There was no emotion, no disdain in the stranger’s voice. Only a cold and analytical statement of perceived facts.
“What is your name?” Reinhild asked the woman in return.
“Guinevere,” she said. There was some hidden weight to her name- and Reinhild felt the hairs on her back stand upright.
“A pretty name. I’ve never heard it before,” Reinhild said.
“It’s not from around here,” the woman said while staring into empty space, as if reminiscing about some painful memory. She shook her head, and looked Reinhild straight in the eyes. There was something about Guinevere’s eyes- pale, like the other girl Reinhild had seen, but somehow brighter. As if they were gemstones, holding on to some remnant of old power.
“You murdered thirty four Kyklopes,” Guinevere said.
The memories came roaring back, as deep and dark as the ocean breaking through man’s futile attempt to stop it with a dam. She had killed thirty four of the monsters. Slaughtering her way through men, women and children with nary a thing they could do about it. They had hit her with clubs, hacked at her with axes and shot her with arrows- and now they were dead, and she was here. Wherever here was.
“I did,” she said softly.
“You were clad in shadow and fire, I heard. A demoness from the depths of Hel to exact horrible vengeance on their tribe.”
Reinhild wasn’t sure how to reply.
“Who told you?” She asked.
“Their prisoners whose hearts didn’t stop outright from fear as you rampaged through their buried village escaped here, and told me. Now you tell me: is that true? Are you a demoness send to punish the Kyklopes for their transgressions?”
“I don’t know,” Reinhild whispered.
“I see. Regardless, we are grateful. As long as you need to rest to heal, we will provide you with food and shelter. But the day you can walk again- I want you to leave.”
Reinhild nodded. “I understand.”
“It’s nothing personal. But you should understand we’re frightened. Scared. Harboring a calamity, some cataclysm of nature in our midsts.”
Reinhild nodded ‘yes’ again.
“Rest well. I will send a servant with food and drink. Any preferences?”
Meat, Reinhild her subconsciousness screamed. Wine and meat. Fire and blood.
“Whatever you have laying around. Oh, and no alcohol please. Just water will suffice.”
Guinevere nodded, a wry smile on her face. “I’ll see to it.”
She got up from her chair, and was about to leave when Reinhild asked her one final question.
“Who are you, Guinevere?”
The woman shook her head, her smile vanishing again.
“Nobody, a girl whose story ended long ago.”
With that she left the room.