Friday, January 18, 2013

Chapter 3: The Secret

Previously: Chapter 1: The Watching Woods, Chapter 2: The Cleansing River

Khaman was enjoying the silence of the morning walk back to the village when heard it before he saw it. Technically, he didn't see it so much as he experienced it. The sound was overwhelming and it blurred his vision. His face went instantly numb, but  his body went into a defensive stance, even as he tried to regain his footing in the soft snow. With a gloved hand, he cleared his eyes of the wet snow, but more snowballs were headed his way and he braced himself.

Using his staff, he batted away the remaining white projectiles, although a couple still grazed his hair. Such deadly precision, he thought as he scanned the trees, trying to see his attacker. His staff obliterated one snowball, but a spray of wet snow hit him in the face, obscuring his vision again. His hands went up instinctively, trying to clear his eyes when he heard an ungodly howl.

Elder Khaman knew all the calls of the creatures of the wildwood, but he had never heard such a mournful wail. It was deep, yet shrill, and it was close, too close. He was reaching for his knife when the creature barreled into him, knocking him to the ground and his staff flew from his hand. The creature roared as its claws pummeled his chest. He put up a gloved hand to push the beast away, but the glove flew off and Khaman's bare hand connected with the bare face of the beast and he felt warm skin.

He rolled away, got his bearings, and finally saw Emilie as she crouched before him, teeth bared and tears streaming down her face. Her face was already turning red from the slap he had given her, blood flowing from her nose, but she didn't seem to notice. "What are you doing? Stop!" roared Khaman, reaching for his staff.

"TRAITOR!" she howled and launched herself at him. Khaman abandoned his staff and caught her outstretched hands, twisted around, and wrapped her in his arms. Emilie tried to bite him, but his winter hides were too tough, so she wrestled and fought his grip in vain.

"Calm yourself, calm yourself," whispered Khaman. "You do not understand, but I will explain." Emilie went limp in his arms, but now they both wept. The shaman relaxed his grip, but still held her close, cradling her as he did for his own children years ago.

"How can you expect me to understand," Emilie said, looking away from him, focusing on the staff that still lay in the snow. "I saw you feeding that Jotun, speaking to it as if it were a friend and not the monster that has killed so many of our tribe." Khaman could feel her tense up at the memory of it, but he only held her closer.

"I knew this day would come, when I would be discovered. It has been a difficult secret to maintain, but of all the people to learn of it, I am relieved it is you Emilie." With one hand, he gathered up some snow, packed it into a lemon-shaped ball, and dabbed her face, cleaning off the blood. "After watching you grow into the woman that you are today, I am confident that you of all people will understand."

With the stream gurgling in the background and a light snow falling all around them, he told her. He told her about how, months ago, he was traveling back to the village after one of his meditative retreats when a sudden storm flashed overheard. His ears were still ringing from the thunderclap when lightning struck the tree not 10 feet from where he stood, and then he blacked out.

When he regained consciousness, he could feel the weight of the tree on his chest. He struggled to get out from under it when he noticed a second tree falling very slowly towards him. All he could see were the tree branches and the sky behind them, but there was something odd about how the tree moved. When it settled on the ground, the leaved covered him, but the branches seemed to avoid his head, as if the tree was being ... careful how how it lay on the ground. That's when he noticed the foot.

It was a Frost Giant's foot, connected to a very large, very alive Jotun. He saw it turn on its heel to walk away from him, only to return in a few minutes with an expanse of brush, brambles, and bushes which were placed on top of trees. Khaman tried to cry out for help, but suddenly the sky was hidden from view and all he could see were two giant blue eyes. The Jotun stared at him intently, then softly shook his head before disappearing from view.

Khaman managed to place couple of thick branches under the tree that was upon him, easing the pressure on his chest, but held his breath when he felt the tremors. He could hear the boughs around him cracking and a guttural growling filled the air. Suddenly three Frost Giants walked into view. Because Khaman was so well hidden, the Jotun took no notice of him. They gestured and shoved each other when a fourth Jotun appeared. The four of them seemed to discussing something when one of the Jotun uprooted a tree and struck another Jotun across the head. There was a brief struggle, the Jotuns stood suddenly and barked, which Khaman realized was laughter, and strode off into the woods. The tremors from their strides soon faded away.

Khaman could not see what had happened to the Jotun who was struck, but after what seemed like hours, the bleeding Jotun reappeared and removed the brush, brambles, and trees, and then collapsed upon the ground. Now freed, his first thought was to run, but as he watched the blue blood pour down the Jotun's face, he could not will himself to move and his instincts kicked in.

Keeping an eye on the unconscious giant, he removed his pack and took out a blanket. He cautiously approached, but froze when the giant's eyes opened and watched him. He summoned up his courage and moved forward until he could place his hands on the giant's face. Soon, his blanket was soaked in Jotun's blood, but  the shaman used his healing herbs and called upon the Gods for blessing. He noticed that the Jotun's eyes were closed now, and although his breathing was labored, it was steady and he smiled when he realized the Jotun was asleep.

The smell of roasted meat shook the Jotun from his sleep. There was no sign of the human, but the  smell of fire and food was intoxicating. The Jotun struggled to his feet and followed the smell until he found the shaman seated by a fire near the river roasting a stag on the open flame. When Khaman saw the Jotun approach, he faced the giant, bowed, and backed up slowly. The Jotun fell upon the deer hungrily, consuming it in almost two bites, and spit out the bones. When his gaze fell upon Khaman, the old shaman bowed to the giant, who then returned his bow and then walked off into the woods.

"Since then, we've met once or twice a month  and formed an odd, but I believe, sincere friendship," Khaman chuckled, amazed that he even uttered these words.

"So it saved your life. The Jotun saved your life," Emilie muttered, bewildered. "How can that be? It is not possible."

"That's why I thought and I was there," he smiled. "Not only did he hide me, he fought to protect me from the other Jotuns. I have spent the past months trying to understand why, trying to understand him, trying to really understand them."

"Do you speak the language of the Frost Giants?" asked Emilie.

"Not very well," chuckled Khaman. "But by using symbols and gestures, we've both found a way to speak to each other. Even though it is challenging, we've both learn much from each other. There is much we misunderstand about each other."

Emilie crawled out of his embrace, stood up, and stretched. The snow was still falling, but the late afternoon sun pierced the clouds with sharp rays. "So now what do we do?" she asked, looking towards the village. "The people need to know what you know about the Jotuns. They need to know the truth."

"I don't know," frowned Khaman, retrieving his gloves and staff. "So much of our history, our mythology has centered around this idea that the Jotuns are crazed, evil creatures. This is not an idea that will be easily forgotten and if we approach it the wrong way, the people may turn on us. The violent history with the Jotuns runs deep."

Emilie knelt by the stream and plunged her hands in the icy water. She could feel the heartbeat of the land coursing through her skin, but this time it made her feel tiny and alone. Everything she thought she knew was thrown into question and a tiny seed of despair formed in the pit of her stomach. She pushed it aside and faced the shaman. "I know what it's like to be misunderstood and feared. We cannot ignore the truth because it's difficult to face. It's what you have always taught us."

"Truth, but there's another problem," said the shaman, planting his staff in the snow. "And now it has become your problem as well, Wolf Girl." Khaman placed both his hands on Emilie's shoulders and held her gaze. "You and I need to find a way to end this Jotun's life, and in turn, save our people."

Creative Commons License
This work by John David Hickey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Copyright© 2010 John David Hickey