Poetry – Winter Keen

Poetry – Winter Keen

It’s Prompt Night 2017, this time on the theme of winter (again).

My prompt was from Virginia Woolf: “Melancholy were the sounds on a winter’s night.”

Kind of creepy, but I’m not afraid of her. Ahem.

Here’s the poem, intended as a cautionary tale for children whose moralising parents don’t mind traumatising them:

—–

 

They pick their way among the slaughtered dead,

Those ragged folk on that field of red.

Fourteen they number, though once there were more,

The rest lost to hunger, murder, or war.

They moan in despair, a keen in the night,

Their souls as black as the winter is white.

 

The dead need no riches, scavengers say,

So these men adopted the magpie’s way.

Once they’d sought silver, or boots, or lost blades,

But greed and self-hatred shrunk them to shades.

All too often, they would bloody their knives,

Stealing rings, gold teeth, from those yet alive.

 

From there, the magpie easily turns crow,

Carving meat from those they find in the snow.

The gods condemned them, and cursed them to live,

Though branded for sins too vile to forgive.

They now have no kin, no loved ones, no home,

Cursed to unlife, so forever they roam.

 

Don’t pity the ghouls; they pay for their sins,

The names of their crimes carved into their skins.

But consider: they were once decent men,

Who sinned once, then twice, and then yet again.

When you hear the ghoul’s winter keening,

Yes, flee, but just remember its meaning.

 

—–

The header image is The Ghoul King, by Dmitry Burmak, from Frostgrave: The Thaw of the Lich Lord.

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Cold Iron

   This is a thing I started writing this evening, almost by accident. I’ve not written a conventional medieval fantasy story for a while, and I’ve been assembling a bunch of dwarf miniatures today, so this happened. I’ve no idea if Cold Iron is going to be a full-length novel or a short story or something in between, or where the overall story is going, or when I’m actually going to write more of it, but here are some words:

 

   ‘Accursed Streloc,’ grunted the barbarian who headed up the band of riders. ‘Or is it Streloc the Accursed? How come no one’s killed you these thirty years?’

‘Because I murdered every fucker who tried,’ the dwarf in question replied.

‘Is that them up there?’ The barbarian pointed his spear at the heads and skulls hanging from the iron cross of the dwarf warband’s otherwise bare standard pole.

Streloc nodded. ‘You looking to join ‘em?’ He casually slipped his hand through the leather loop on the haft of his axe. He hadn’t killed anyone for a while. He wondered if he’d gone rusty.

The fur-clad human scoffed. ‘It’s all bollocks. They’re blaming you for the sort of stuff the gods used to do, not ugly little dwarves. You never ended the world.’

‘No,’ Streloc lied, ‘I didn’t.’ He was getting a hankering to end the barbarian’s little slice of it though. Streloc’s Cold Iron Brotherhood had just been crossing this pointless little grassland, from the safety of one set of hills to the other. They had no issue with the human tribe that eked out a living here, grazing mangy goats on the poisoned ground. The Cold Iron may have been trespassing, but they hadn’t been doing any harm. No robbing, no reaving, not this month; they’d taken a wyvern nest on the new moon and had enough meat preserved in ice to keep them going for some time. The gob slaves had rustled up some hefty omelettes too, but eggs didn’t last as long so they’d been finished off in the first week. ‘Look, human,’ Streloc snapped, ‘what are you after?’

‘Just curious,’ the horseman replied.

‘You brought two dozen of your friends because we piqued your curiosity?’ Streloc’s own band outnumbered them three to one, but the barbarians were on horseback and half of Streloc’s lot were goblins. Gobs were worth a fraction of a dwarf, and Streloc wasn’t good enough with numbers to work out the odds when that was taken into account, but figured they were still in his favour.

‘We’re a curious people.’

‘You’re a people that stink of goat shit.’

Streloc wanted to fight now, just to get the conversation over with, but the barbarian just chuckled. ‘Yeah, well, that’d be all the goat shit, wouldn’t it?’ The other horsemen, all as shabby and ugly as their chief, laughed along.

There was a sort of self-loathing in the laughter that Streloc recognised. He’d heard it a lot in the three decades since the Eruption. These days, everyone hated being alive, were jealous of the dead, and yet so few ever found the guts to just finish themselves off, or they still held just enough faith in the dead gods that it stayed their hands.

Streloc had nearly opened up his own throat more than once, had pressed the cold iron of his axe-blade against the gnarled, grey skin of his windpipe. One time, he’d drawn blood, just a few beads of red on the dark metal, before changing his mind. Every time, he’d decided it wasn’t, yet, his time. Something would kill him eventually. One day, his luck, that of the unluckiest dwarf in the world, would run out.

The barbarian extended an open hand. ‘Accursed Streloc the Accursed, my name’s Vakan. Come share our campfire, and our food if you’re hungry. I hope you like goat. We’ve got fermented milk too; you dwarves like drinking.’

Streloc cracked a rare smile. ‘That’s not goat as well, is it?’

‘Ha, no.’ Vakan patted his horse’s neck. ‘We don’t just ride these fuckers, you know.’

From his shorter-than-human perspective, Streloc had already noticed the barbarians all rode mares. ‘Kumis?’ he said. ‘I like kumis.’

‘You’ve had it before?’

‘In other valleys.’

‘They don’t make it like we do,’ Vakan bragged. ‘Mareskin bags of milk, hung by the door, and when anyone goes in or out your hut, they give it a punch to keep it churning. After a day or two, less if you’ve got lots of friends, you’ve got a bag of kumis.’

Exactly the same way everyone else makes it, Streloc thought, but said: ‘Fascinating.’

The dwarves and goblins began to walk alongside the riders to the tribe’s village. After a few blessed moments of silence, Vakan laughed again, which was apparently his way of signalling that it was time for another conversation. ‘And tonight, you’ll have to tell me why everyone thinks you killed the world.’

Streloc shrugged and gritted his teeth. ‘Yeah. Maybe.’

 

The world hadn’t ended. Not really. Not yet. But it was dying, all the same. The gods had died the moment Streloc’s miners had set off the Eruption. There’d been a saying amongst the dwarves: Use a quiet pick, else you wake something up. From time to time, that had proved true. Dragons, demons, even the fucking goblins, had all come to the surface because dwarves had dug where they shouldn’t. It never stopped them though. Dwarves dug, like humans grew old or elves wrote shit poetry. You just had to occasionally switch your pick for a proper axe and kill something before you could get back to work.

Nowadays, dwarves had another saying: Fuck Streloc.

The Cold Iron Brotherhood pitched their tents at the edge of the barbarian village. To Streloc’s surprise, most of the buildings were timber and wattle, the whitewashed daub darkened and flaking, but still a sign of civilisation. An old watermill sat beside the near-dried trickle of a stream that ran through the middle of the settlement. Even if the river had still flowed, there’d be nothing for the mill to grind. Crops didn’t grow on this plain any more.

There was a church in the village, though to which god, Streloc couldn’t tell. All that remained in the alcove above the door was the broken stump of a vandalised statue and the expensive stained glass windows were just bright shards at the edges of otherwise empty spaces. Whoever he or she had been, folk had taken their god’s death badly.