Far Off Unhappy Webnovel

Fionna of the Stars

Chapter 19: Fionna of the Stars

By Renko Doremi Rodenburg

Fionna sat in the windowsill of the abandoned abbey. It was a strange place, one overcome with a powerful, almost palpable feeling of melancholy. If she looked ahead, over the courtyard and the crumbled part of the building across from her, she saw where the black forests began. The ominous black clouds above the forests slowly spilled out from their dark domain, dissolving into ordinary gray clouds when they touched Autumn’s domain.

If she looked down, she saw Aster train Irene in the courtyard. When they had arrived, they’d found a heap of bloody rags and metal, and grisly chunks of rotten meat and bones with nasty bitemarks. Whatever Hyacinth was keeping around as her champion, it had utterly destroyed Fleur’s champion.

No wonder Aster wanted to cheat.

Irene had not been receptive to taking Fionna’s place as their champion at first. Kayleigh had been a sort of adopted mother to her, and she’d originally tried to drown herself after Kayleigh had been defeated. But Aster’s will was tremendous- they could not be dissuaded, deterred or deprived of what they wanted. Irene had eventually buckled under their charms, and now followed the two of them around like an obedient pet.

Below in the courtyard, Aster chastised Irene for treating Spíne Gael wrong.

“If you do not treat it right, it will bite you. You will be dead within a minute. It is a living being, you have to treat it with respect. You have to touch it the way you would a woman.”

“And what way is that,” Irene said. Her voice had grown perpetually hoarse, filled with a deep resignation.

“See,” Aster said as they held one hand ever so slightly above the wooden longspear. “The little hairs, the thorns, they raise up to meet me. If I grab hold of it as if it were a mere object, they would pierce my skin and I would die.”

Fionna doubted that was true. Once, huntsmen of Autumn had ambushed them, mistaking Aster for a mere nymph or dryad because of their sharp, pointed ears. Their ears like knives.

Aster had been in one of their haughty, arrogant moods and had refused to engage the huntsmen. They’d turned them into a pincushion, arrows sticking out of them in every direction. Aster had laughed, turned around and walked away while they kept shooting arrows into their back. Their laughter had grown ever more insidious, ever more chastising, as the huntsmen started to falter. Soon their hands were shaking, their arms weak, and their arrows started to miss. Aster had looked around, with the stern gaze of a disappointed parent carved into their face. One of the huntsmen had killed himself in shame, the others had ran.

They were a God. A true God. Not like the cruel giant with the antlers growing out of his head, not even like the winged goddess of the deserts in the south. Where Aster went, the wind turned to ease their travels. Plants turned their stems and faces about to catch some of the radiant light that they seemed to cast out in all directions. In the Forest of Forever Fall, dryads came bearing gifts, and bowed before them.

The Lands Lost belonged to Aster, and it was only a matter of time before they would sit on the throne of the Deer God.

And Fionna would sit besides them, as their queen. It had hurt a little, when Aster had told her of their intention to have Irene replace her as their champion. She had accepted though. For her God, she would bear any burden.

Then they had picked her up, and kissed her on the mouth. “It is after all, beneath the future queen of the Lands Lost to dirty her hands like that,” they had whispered. Their voice, ever so slightly crackling with electric light, had assured her that it would indeed be so.

Beneath them, in the courtyard, Irene had finally managed to pick up Spíne Gael without hurting herself. Fionna felt a little naked, separated from the weapon- but it was not hers to begin with. Aster had won it, in a land unfathomably far away, across the infinite seas, where water turned into chaos. It was theirs to do with as they pleased.

They were so close now. Only Hyacinth and Clementine remained undefeated. Only Hyacinth and Clementine stood between Aster and Eden. At times it frustrated Fionna. They spoke so little of their plans, of their machinations and of the importance of all these things. But they were more than eager to tell her other things, about the world, about alchemy and the spiritual importance of small things, and through these things she slowly began to understand the bigger picture. She did not doubt that this was Aster’s intention to begin with, to slowly teach her to ‘understand’, and not just ‘know’ things.

“Very good,” Aster said down below in the courtyard. “But don’t clench your fists around it like that. Let the Spíne Gael do what it wants to do. It’s been in more fights than you. Treat it as a friend, not a tool.”

Irene whimpered a response that Fionna could not make out from this distance.

Jealousy notwithstanding, there was something adorable about Aster training the young huntress to act as champion. She thought back to her own first meeting with Aster. She had been an oracle, a spirit-whisperer who listened to the voices carried by the desert wind. A good position at the court of the Sun God, Princess Summer. But she had always known the princess wasn’t a true god. Princess Summer was a husk trapped in perpetual decline, forever losing her doomed war against Prince Autumn, who in turn was no real god either.

Aster had looked her in the eyes in the gardens of the Palace of Summer, and gestured for her to follow them. “You have potential,” they had said, and with but a gesture of their hand they had made the clouds break. She had been the only person in recorded history to have borne witness to the sun. The real sun.

“How?” She had said, awe-struck and breathless.

“Faith,” they had answered. “Faith that I truly, without doubt, deserve to have the clouds part and the sun shine on my face if I desire it so.”

“Teach me,” she had demanded.

“To have faith in yourself?”

“To have faith in you,” she had answered without thinking. She still felt awkward when she thought back on it, her blustering demeanor ill befitting an oracle of the Summer Court, stumbling about like a girl in love for the first time.

People didn’t understand love, Fionna thought. She’d thought she had been in love before. But emotions for other people paled in comparison to the emotions Aster inspired. They were more real somehow than the emotions the rest of the bleak Lands Lost inspired.

And where Princess Summer had demanded blind obedience or to risk fiery death on a pyre- and where Prince Autumn made a habit of eating people who disagreed with him- Aster treated her as an equal. They dragged her through city streets, pointing at things that fancied their interest, and asked her what they should have for dinner. Deferred to her completely in those rare moments where she knew more of a given subject than they did.

God was real, and she was their beloved wife.

In the distance, ever-obscured by clouds, the sun was setting. The Lands took on a darker shade, and shadows lengthened. The cold breeze became colder still, and the whispers of the long dead became audible to Fionna.

Beneath her, in the courtyard, Aster and Irene were calling training quits for today. They headed inside, and so did Fionna. The windows of the building were long gone- if it had ever had any- so it was about to get really cold. Best to head downstairs, to the kitchen, where a fire burned to keep her warm. And where she could dissuade Aster from trying to cook, before they ruined dinner again.

As she wandered the halls of the ancient abbey, she wondered who had lived here in ages past. Perhaps she’d spend some time trying to get the spirits of this place to speak to her later at night, when the others went to sleep.

Downstairs, on the ground floor, it was warmer already. Aster had lit the fireplace in what seemed to have been a common room in ages past, and when she walked into the kitchen, they were busy lighting both a stove and an open fire together with Irene.

“Starlight,” Fionna greeted Aster. Her beloved Starlight. “Hey Irene,” she added. “Is training going well?”

The girl only grunted a reply. She wasn’t very talkative.

“Have you already bled our meal?” Fionna asked.

“Hm? No,” Aster replied. “I made a mess of it last time.”

“Alright,” Fionna said while looking for a sufficiently large bucket or tub. When she found one, she handed it to Irene. “Take this to the courtyard. I’ll go get our guest. You’re a huntress, right? Have you ever bled prey before?”

“I have,” Irene said, hoarse and solemn.

“Good, you can help me then.” Fionna rifled through the cooking tools until she found a suitable knife, and handed that to Irene as well. She then went to the storeroom next to the kitchen, where they had put the barbarian woman they had captured and tied up on the way here.

They had set traps in the forest that had in all honesty been intended to capture a dryad or a nymph- but instead a young and inexperienced barbarian had walked into their snare.

She was awake, and tried to speak through her gag when Fionna entered the storeroom. They had tied her up well, so she was incapable of struggling. She was light and Fionna was strong, so she wasn’t hard to pick up and swing over her shoulder to carry her into the courtyard.

Fionna felt her squirm, struggle and heard her trying to vocalize things through her gag. It was a wonder she was conscious, really, but Fionna wouldn’t complain- it would make bleeding her that much easier.

Irene was waiting outside with the metal tub, holding a torch for light.

Fionna brought their unfortunate victim down and held her with her throat above the tub. The woman’s eyes went wide, and she started wildly jerking her head around. To keep her from moving too much, Fionna put her knee down on the woman’s back and grabbed her by her hair. It was short- most women of the barbarian tribes had a habit of keeping their hair short- and somewhere between brown and red.

“You know how to cut her?” Fionna asked Irene.

“I am a huntress,” Irene answered.

In a way it was a waste, Fionna thought. The woman was still young, and had few scars. She probably had not imagined her story to be cut short like this. That this was all that there was, a short, difficult life in the forests of the Lands Lost and then death away from her tribe. But then again, she had already collected armor pieces- which meant that she had already killed and skinned civilized folk, a rite of passage for the barbarian tribes. She was an adult with a death count, and had no doubt partaken in the exact same thing that was about to happen to her.

And death was a kind fate for her kind- the boyish looks and unusual hair and eye colours found among the women of the forest-folk made them prized possessions in the slave harems of many of the well-off citizens in Luson. Better to die a natural death then, than to waste away from drug abuse and vernal disease while the plaything of some merchant lord or noble, Fionna thought.

Irene kneeled next to her, and brought her knife about.

The woman jerked around in panic, and spittle dripped out of her mouth. With her mouth blocked and hyperventilating, a trickle of blood ran down her nose.

“Calm,” Fionna bade the woman. “You could’ve led an easy life enjoying the protections of the citizenry in Luson or the riverlands, but your kind insists on living like wild beasts or monsters that prey on passerby. Be glad, then, that your end be part of the natural cycle of life you worship.”

Irene pierced and cut the woman’s throat while Fionna held her still. It was vital to cut the carotid artery without piercing her trachea- or else her blood would fill up her lungs and she could die from asphyxiation before being bled properly. The heart needed to stay beating until most of her blood was out of her body, or else the meat would be spoiled.

With skill and experience, Irene cut her just so.

Tears streamed down the woman’s face as blood gushed from the incision in her throat.

“Your flesh will feed a god, you know,” Fionna said as the colour slowly drained from the woman’s face. “Through them your flesh will live forever, in a way.”

It took quite a while before the steady flow of blood calmed. Fionna and Irene lifted their victim up to easy bloodflow, and about four to four and a half liters of blood collected in the metal tub. To not be wasteful, they’d mix it with flour and cook it into black pudding later.

With her now pale and limp and thoroughly dead, Fionna carried the barbarian back inside. Irene followed with the tub of blood.

She hoisted her on top of a stone slab in the kitchen, and undid the ropes binding her.

“Oh,” Aster said, watching from a chair next to the large firepit. “Well done, she’s barely damaged.”

“Irene is skilled with a knife,” Fionna said.

“It is no different from bleeding a nymph,” Irene whispered. “But it was my first time doing a person.”

Aster laughed. “Nymphs are people too, you know. Want to know some hidden truths of the world?”

Irene gave Aster a questioning look. Her face was locked into a perpetual, pained grimace, but some sparkle of curiosity did show in her eyes. Fionna started to remove the barbarian her armor and clothes while waiting for whatever hidden wisdom Aster would decide to grace them with.

“Nymphs, and dryads, and even vampires are the offspring of my kin,” Aster said. “You can tell because of the pointed ears,” they explained while pointing at their own ears. “It has been quite some time since any of us actually procreated with a mortal, but the result of such unions are the elfin kin that you huntsmen hunt. They are fertile though, so their races can replace their own number.”

“Why,” Irene asked, “do we hunt the offspring of gods?”

“Autumn culls their population to keep our influence in check,” Aster said. “They would outlive humans, would slowly build their numbers and grow their armies- and in their hidden homes they worship the old gods. Autumn fears us still, you know.”

“Narcissus had no problem with us slaying nymphs,” Irene said, stifling away a tear when mentioning Narcissus. “She has partaken in their flesh before.”

“We owe them nothing,” Aster said. “It’s not like the current generations of nymphs are her own children. They share some blood, the same way you share blood with the barbarian you bled today. There is no difference.”

“I see,” Irene whispered.

“If I slept with you,” Fionna asked. “Would I bear a dryad as a child?”

“Dryads are the offspring of Violet,” Aster said. “You would bear a winged child radiant as the sun- distant progenitors of your own people now extinct,” they explained. “But it would be a giant of strength not seen in the Lands since before the seasons fell, and the pregnancy might kill you, so I am loath to try.”

Fionna shook her head. “If it ever pleases you so, I will do whatever you ask of me, Starlight,” she said.

Aster smiled, and watched as she threw the barbarian’s clothes and armor on a pile in the corner of the kitchen.

“Next is the gruesome part,” Fionna said. “Irene, lend me a hand and get me another tub. We need to properly dispose of her intestines and stomach. Starlight, if you see it fit to do so, could you build a pyre in the courtyard so we can dispose of all we cannot use?”

“Of course,” Aster said as they got up from their chair at the fire. “Let me know if you need anything else, beautiful.”

They headed out, and Fionna waited for Irene to collect another tub, this time to dispose of the offal. When Irene had done so, she put the rapidly cooling barbarian on her side, and made a sideways cut into her abdomen, cutting upwards, careful to only pierce the skin and slightly into the abdominal cavity so as to not pierce her intestines or stomach. That would make half the corpse inedible, and unforgivable waste.

“She’s pretty,” Irene said as she watched Fionna work.

“Let us pray some of her vim passes on to us then,” Fionne said as she reached into the woman’s abdominal cavity and started pulling out intestines. Having made her cuts well, the intestines and stomach spilled out with ease, slick with fatty tissue and blood. She reached in and felt around for the woman’s esophagus, and cut it off, allowing her to entirely remove her stomach and intestines. Next was cutting out the womb, then putting her on her back again to start stripping her of flesh.

“No,” Fionna said as Irene was about to carry the tub with offal away. “I still need to remove her lungs, so wait a bit. Wash your hands and sort the cuts of flesh I give you on the other tables, so we can get to cooking when I’ve cleaned the carcass.”

A vast amount of the human body was perfectly edible, though preparation differed from piece to piece. The thighs and calves were tough, stringy and mostly muscle, but properly cut with fat still attached could be simmered on a low fire or boiled in stew. The same was true for upper biceps and triceps, but not for the lower arms, which were best roasted on an open fire bone and all. The mouse of the hand was the only edible part of the hands, and probably the most tender piece of meat in all of the human body. Quickly seared and served mostly rare it melted in the mouth- a delicacy. Erotic as it might seem to eat the breasts, they were mostly clear fat and inedible glands, and would dissolve into lard as soon as they were heated, so Fionna cut them apart to use as fat to cook other meat in. She carefully peeled off all the skin- it could be tanned into leather and was worth quite some money if in sizable, undamaged cuts.

Hip bones and femurs had to be sawed apart with bonesaw, gruesome and difficult work. The marrow-rich bones could be used in soup, though, which was nutritious and quite strong of flavour.

Some in the Lands Lost kept to vegetarianism, but only the affluent could really make it work. There simply weren’t many crops that grew outside the riverlands, leading to malnourishment and diseases from lack of vitamins. Some only ate the flesh of demi-human races, and angels were considered acceptable to eat by most of the civilized population, being barely sapient to begin with, yet they were rare enough to also only be truly affordable by the upper castes.

As she worked her grisly work, Fionna wondered if the woman’s spirit would manifest as another haunt in the abandoned abbey. It was unlikely- cannibalized individuals rarely left any spiritual residue behind. She theorized it was because their presence was digested, assimilated, by others partaking of their flesh.

Aster could manipulate the spirit as well as the soul of people. They had done so before- drawn out someone’s entire essence, and reshaped it into something new. She had asked them many, many times if they would do such a thing to her if she happened to die- she didn’t want to pass on as a shade, forever separated from her beloved Starlight. Rather she had that Aster would eat her flesh and reshape her soul into some tool to use or valuable to keep, then suffer eternal darkness in the hereafter.

In a way she was jealous of the barbarian woman before her, who no longer resembled a woman but rather a pile of ingredients, who would burn up in Starlight’s stomach and join with them in a manner Fionna never could. Not while alive, at the very least.

When she had cut the woman entirely apart, she had Irene dispose of everything they could not use together with Aster, and headed to the well to wash herself clean from blood and grime.

Then, together with Irene, she set about properly cooking. They seared steaks, and fried cuts of meat in fat together with onions and pumpkins they had bought some days before. Blood was cooked into black pudding, which kept well so that what they could not stomach to eat they could sell for good coin.

She put a large pan of soup on the firepit after sawing the woman’s femur, tibia and fibula into manageable parts- they could continuously add ingredients over many days, eating from this ‘perpetual stew’ for days to come.

It was midnight when they were done, exhausted from hours of gruesome work. She decked out the table in the dining hall, and sighed when she realized the amount of cleaning she would have to do in the morning. When still at the Summer Court she had servants to do such things for her, but then again, Starlight’s smile upon seeing the kitchen back in pristine condition would dissolve her weariness like blighted snow encroaching on the desert before the radiant heat of Princess Summer.

“Irene, go arrange the cutlery. I will go look for Aster,” she told the young huntress. Aster had vanished not long after making the pyre in the courtyard- and she found them a small distance from the abbey, drawing symbols with a stick they found into a patch of dead soil where nothing grew.

“Hey,” she said. “Dinner is ready.”

“Ah,” they said. “Thank you, Fionna.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m drawing the constellations.”

“The stars?” Fionna asked. She didn’t know a lot about stars- they were lights that appeared in the sea at night, and had apparently once hovered in the sky instead of the abyss below the ocean. Aster adored them- felt kinship with them- and excuded the same kind of light with their voice, from their eyes, radiated it from their skin when excited.

“Yes,” Aster said. “They form patterns, and these patterns form symbols. Once, you had magicians called astrologers who looked to the stars to divine the secret nature of all things, and manipulated the constellations to then change these natures.”

“I see,” Fionna said. “This was long ago, then. When men were larger. When Luson was built.”

“You remember it well,” Aster said. “Be glad, you are privy to secrets even Autumn does not know.”

Fionna smiled. She was blessed indeed.

“Can that still be done?” She asked. “That constellation magic?”

“No,” Aster said. “The stars are far away now and do not answer to mortals anymore.”

“Do they answer to you?”

“When I set out to look for them, they do,” Aster said. “One day I will count myself among their number.”

“What are stars?”

Aster was quiet for a while. “That’s no easy question to answer. I could spend years educating you in all the alchemical wisdom required to understand the concepts necessary to even begin to fathom ‘stars’. If you want something to meditate on, think of them as living things and fires at the same time, burning themselves as a source of almost infinite energy, creating the world around them simply by existing and casting their light into the darkness.”

“Flames that burn themselves,” Fionna said, thinking about it for a bit. “Like Ouroboros, the monster that eats itself, never satiating itself but not starving either.”

“Well remembered,” Aster said. “But do not mindlessly call one thing another thing. All things are the same, but not all words describe the same things.”

“I see,” Fionna replied. “I will think on that.”

“You will make a wise queen,” Aster said. “Let us go inside and see what wondrous meal my queen has prepared for me.”

Fionna reached out with her hand, and her beloved Starlight took it. She pulled them along, giggling like a small girl with delight. The coming days would be difficult, as the end of the old order was fast approaching, and she might very well die in the brutal conflict about to erupt all across the Lands Lost, but tonight she was a girl madly in love with the starlight god who had descended from the heavens for her and her alone.


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