The man beneath the crows cage stared at the brand smoldering upon my shoulder, burning a hole through my overdress. His cloak was thick with dust. He didn't look like a barbarian. One must be careful.
"This the road to Birchy?" His voice rolled like tundra wind over berry brambles.
My mouth moved like a foreign thing, like the flames embedded in my brand. I told him it was, introduced myself, and offered to accompany him. My weak arm, and good one now that the dominant had been branded, shook. Could I not control myself?
"Lord Ooffin's falcons," he swore, his voice no longer sweet. "Lilya, my apologies. I didn't mean to use the warbler's song. My name is Yonas." He made the king's sigil with his fingers.
I prostrated myself, bowing my head. The king's storyteller mustn't see our fear. Once my heart quelled, I stood. "What brings you north?" I blushed, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Fear, the ur-men, and desecration."
"Does the king send his knights?" Only they could fight the barbarians.
"No." Yonas didn't meet my eyes. "Your arm, the ur-men do that?"
I nodded. He placed a palm against the burns, his fingers cool, whisking away the barbarian's heat.
In the village square, we found Valborn, graybeard and chief elder. I told my news. Fear spread amongst the villagers, a crowd gathered.
Yonas waved his arm. "Build the flames of Valpurgis."
Night fell as we brought armloads of birch to burn in the central square. We sat on the cobblestones. Yonas told stories of the barbarians and Lord Ooffin's knights. The valiant battles. He told stories of villagers working together, fighting off the barbarians.
I shivered. The images he showed us in the sky above the bonfire were impossible. We couldn't defeat the barbarians.
His stories continued, variations on a theme. He told of the snowflake rolling down a cliff and melting on a barbarian's nose. We fail because we allow the barbarians to confront us one at a time. But if we acted together, like a cliff of ice, we could conquer the barbarians. He ended his tale with a flourish, an avalanche falling from the sky, dousing the bonfire.
The bonfire's ashes twinkled. Valborn offered space at his house for Yonas and myself. Yonas slept in the bed of Valborn's youngest son, who joined me on the great room's floor.
The stomping of barbarian wardrums woke us. Yonas called us to stand against the barbarians. I'd lost my husband and firstborn to the barbarians. I had nothing else to lose. Only Valborn and three other graybeards joined us outside the city.
More than a score of the barbarians faced us, their axes gleaming in the torchlight. Already turf houses burned. Our rakes and staffs felt thin.
A bear-skinned man's eyes glittered gold. "You challenge us?" He cast his hand throwing burning brands. One landed on my other shoulder.
Yonas used his sweet voice, but it turned rancid as it flowed over their ranks. The barbarians boiled, a roiling, seething mass. An axe bit into a greybeard, blood spurted.
Yonas called for us to flee. Birch branches slapped my face. I still smelled the barbarian's oily stench. But, they'd stopped chasing us. Black smoke filtered into the forest.
"The youngsters don't listen," said Yonas. He placed a hand on my burning brand. His eyes were sad. "I need an apprentice."
"Me?" I only knew how to farm.
"You will do."
"I can't." The smoke must be confusing him.
"It is a hard life, a demanding life, but the forge will mentor you."
"Can you not do this yourself?" I asked.
"One listens to one's peers, I am not, but you are. You have no responsibilities, you are perfect."
The barbarians had burned my farm. Branded me. I owed my husband, my dead child. I bowed my head. "Show me."
Yonas led me deep into the forests, following no paths, climbing into the craggy ridges, crossing the treeline. We donned bearskins and climbed Mt. Eya's slopes. Behind us, smoke dotted the landscape where villages smoldered. I slipped on the ice, sliding down the glacier towards a crevice of blue ice.
I screamed, twisting, turning, wedging my hands into the cliff. I slowed myself, but didn't stop. A stone precipice pierced the snow, wind shearing it sharp. I reached for it, the rock sliced into my hand. Blood stained the snow.
The white feathers of an ice-owl flew past, diving below me. I crashed into something, feeling feathers against me, coming to a stop at the ice crevice's ledge. My body entwined with Yonas.
"Where did you come from?"
"Stories have much power," said Yonas. His voice shook, he'd aged, his hair as white as the snow.
We continued. As we neared the peak, the ice melted and we climbed black rock as we neared the crater's rim. Lava boiled beneath us. I raised an eyebrow. "The story forge?"
"How can I learn?"
"Stay." Sadness overwhelmed him. He dove into the lava and his body became a burning spector like the magic of his tellings above the bonfire. It flowed in a stream, his essence falling like a waterfall into me. His voice joining with mine in a chorus that sounded like wind skipping across a lake.
I had much to do.