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The Last and First

Chapter 1 - Pilgrims Vale

By Grantt EnnisPublished 2 years ago 15 min read
Winter in Mill Valley, Christopher Markisz

“There weren’t always dragons in the valley,” was how he’d usually start, and everyone in the longhouse would settle down to listen to a story. That was the signal. Then Symes would rattle his way through an old tale, often about how the old tribes used to live in the vale or about the long diaspora to the scrublands. Sometimes, once in a while, he’d tell a story about the dragons.

“The winds would howl in from the Sentinels, fierce and bitter like a winter blizzard. It would pull down old trees and pluck you straight up into the sky. You’d hear it shrieking its fury. We’d huddle in the larger, sturdier buildings and listen to it batter the walls, then creep out to devastation when it had passed on. Old Indraugnir, first of the dragons, settled himself on the eastern slopes where the winds were strongest, so we moved to the west of the valley.

“Then the lands began to tremble. Rockslides barrelled down from the mountainsides and the very ground beneath your feet would open up, like a great big mouth and swallow you whole. As the earth moved, you’d hear Gorbash growl, rocks grinding like teeth as he bucked and twisted to shift the people from his back. Folk fell screaming into chasms or crushed beneath falling boulders. So we moved to the south of the valley.

“Oh, but the forests of the south valley were beautiful. Rich with deer and boar and soft loamy grasses. The tribes were happy there, for a time. Then came Idrasyl, the scourge of the south. Rains lashed and distant thunder rumbled to herald his coming. The stormlord would vent his rage upon the tribe with savage tempests. Floods would sweep away huts while lightning would sear a man’s flesh from his bones. So we fled the valley and went into the scrublands to escape the dragons once and for all.”

Crouched in the rafters, eyes stinging from the smoke from the hearth, Susa would listen to the story and the winter winds through the thatch above her head and imagine the dragons flying south to find them. As a child it was terrifying and strangely exciting. As she grew up with the stories it felt like she grew up with the dragons.

“That’s why we can never return to Pilgrim’s Vale,” Symes would finish, “The land belongs to the dragons now and forever.”

Now, as Susa stood looking out over the valley, it felt right to remember the stories in the longhouse. They’d brought her here with their promise of adventure and forbidden lands. That, and the desire to see just how much truth there was to old Symes stories. Of course dragons weren’t real. No one she’d ever spoken to had ever seen a real dragon. They were just myths and stories. A fierce wind or an angry storm that the old ancestors couldn’t understand.

Susa wanted to know the real reason why folk weren’t allowed in the valley. It had been tainted land since before anyone but old Symes could remember, sealed away behind the savage climb of the Sentinel mountains. It was the only easy route between the southern fiefdoms and the northern empire, at least over land, and it had been closed generations ago. Why?

It was these questions that pushed her to climb the face of Old Father, the tallest of the Sentinels. That mystery forced her past every awkward handhold and treacherous ledge, muscles cramping with the effort. Her shoulders burned and her arms and legs had little strength left in them. It had taken an entire day just to reach a pass that edged round the mountain to the valley’s side, but it was already worth it.

Pilgrims Vale stretched out ahead of her, snaking between the looming Sentinels. What she could see was deeply forested, swathed in thick, rich canopy that stood eerily still beneath ponderous grey clouds. Fog shrouded the rest, settling around the peaks of the mountains and covering the northern valley like a blanket. In the distance she could see the trailing vapours of the clouds dragged earthwards by the rain and she made a note to unwrap her oilskin to protect against it.

But there were no dragons. Just green lands untouched by man for generations. Still, she felt nervous. “Fear and excitement are often the same thing,” her Da would say when they were on a hunt. “Best to overcome both and get the task done.”

The route down into the valley seemed gentler than the climb up. Though a sensible side of her suggested setting camp for the night on the plateau, the excitement at simply seeing the valley made her certain she could reach the woodlands before it got too dark. Pulling her oilskin from her pack, she threw it across her shoulders and over her head and began the descent. Excitement wins this time, she thought with a smile.

It was a much easier path down into the valley and she made excellent time. There were no savage crags to navigate, just a straightforward hike through some challenging terrain. Susa was grateful. She doubted her arms or shoulders could take anymore climbing.

The hardest part was staying out of her own head. She’d spent years thinking about the valley and what lay within, wondering what actually chased everyone out and into the scrublands. Was it natural disaster? Perhaps they were driven out by other settlers? Maybe it was just the old stupid stories of their ancestors? What if it was just some northern noble who wanted the land for himself? Susa had to know.

She thought of her family. They thought she was heading south to Toboken, off to experience the sights and sounds of a market town and find her fortune amongst the other hunters. Instead she’d wandered far enough to put her father off her trail, then doubled back and headed north of their village towards the valley. Her Da would understand, even if he thought it irresponsible, but her mother wouldn’t. The woman would skip straight past quiet disapproval and scathing commentary and immediately into forthright refusal and threats. Just like when Susa announced she was going to become a hunter.

“Women aren’t hunters,” her mother had declared, actually giving Susa her full attention rather than speaking over her shoulder. “That’s mens work. Do you want to spend days in the cold and rain chasing deer?”

Susa did, as a matter of fact. Raising children, sewing and cooking, all these things seemed like a prison. Trapped in and around the same homestead for the rest of her life was infinitely more terrifying than Symes stories of dragons.

“You’re too much like your father,” Susa’s mother would say. The woman was right. It had scandalised them when her Da took her on as an apprentice. He’d insisted she got to learn all the same things the other hunters did, like how to survive in the wilderness, how to use a bow, and how to fight, if necessary.

Her mother never approved. Neither did most of the village. Things got worse as she got older, too. When they hit adolescence and she got hips and breasts while the boys got stronger and bigger. “It’s not fair,” she’d complain.

“Life isn’t fair,” said her Da. “But if you can accept that you can learn to overcome it.”

So she did. The boys got stronger, but she got faster and smarter. While they were still sleeping, she woke early and ran and climbed and swam in the lake. She never backed down from a fight and learnt how to use the other boys strength against them. Every black eye and thunderous bruise she brought home just proved her worth.

It did nothing to help her fit in. The other lads didn’t like that she could sometimes beat them. They she was better than most of them at tracking and hunting. As they begin to find other girls in the village to start lives with, Susa found only scorn at being a girl doing a man’s job. Unlike the others, she was never approached to hunt for the community. No one ever asked her to track a missing lamb or ward off wolves. No one ever gave her a message to take to another village or bought the skins she brought back from a hunt. Even her mother chided her when she brought home a fresh kill.

“Your father brings home enough. We don’t need you risking your neck. When will you settle down and leave this childish fantasy?”

There was nothing fantastic about it. The village had no place for her, so she decided to go and find it in the wider world. Where better to start than the forbidden valley? After all, her father always said to do the worst work first and get the scary part out of the way.

Despite all that, she felt guilty for lying to her mother. The woman was stuck in her ways, but she loved her children fiercely. There was also a vague sense of worry at having left the safety of the village. A small doubt that had crept in behind the excitement of leaving. One that she’d been able to ignore while she was fighting against the crags of Old Father and gazing on Pilgrims Vale. Now, with thoughts of home and how far away she was from it, the doubt began to swell into something she couldn’t help but notice.

Would she ever see her home again? Maybe not. Maybe she’d head north out of the valley to explore the empire. Maybe she’d explore the valley for the rest of her days. It was a strange feeling. Excitement at the adventure and fear of the unknown. “Fear and excitement are the same thing.” It was too late now. She was almost at the edge of the valley, the rocky scree giving way to bushes and scrub. The smell of fresh, wet earth was starting to reach her, the rich aroma of the woodlands. There was softer birdsong here, not the screech of mountain hawks looking for prey. It wouldn’t be long before she truly set foot in the valley.

Still no dragons, either.

There was no hard line between the mountainside and the valley. The rocky slopes gradually became dotted with bush and scrawny, wind swept tree, which in turn became small copses and gravelly earth. It was only when the trees thickened and the ground beneath her feet became soft loam did Susa actually stop to savour the moment.

She was the first person to set foot in the valley for generations. Maybe hundreds of years. There was no stopping the smile that spread across her face. Even the thin rain which had started as she came down the mountainside didn’t dampen her spirits.

Around her the oak and ash trees stretched for hundreds of feet, their canopy masking the grey skies, the rain coming down in great drips from leaf and branch. Fern and brambles choked the ground with no old trails left behind by years of human movement. It would have seemed impenetrable to anyone else. To Susa it meant potential. Untouched land to savour and explore. She paused for a moment to send a silent thought of thanks to her Da and breathed in the rich smells of the woodland.

There was something there. A thick and musty scent amongst the thin freshness. Peering silently through the breaks between trees, Susa saw only bracken. She moved quietly through the undergrowth that stretched out before her, eyes scanning the loam and the thornier bushes. Then she found it. A tangle of short fair hair caught on the spikes of a bramble. The hair was thick and hollow and kinked when she bent it. Deer. She sniffed it again to make sure and grinned, then searched the ground for more signs.

The loam made it difficult, but not impossible. Eventually she found some indented tracks in the lighter areas around the bases of the trees, where deer had been feeding from the new ash growth. The branches here were short and stubby, but bristling with new growth where deer would regularly eat what had come before. This was a trail they used regularly.

You could tell everything from tracks once you found them. These were quite fresh, the edges still crisp despite the rain. There were two sizes of tracks, some the size of her fist and others smaller - a mother and her young. The pointed toes of the tracks she found lead her northwards, further into the valley. Once she’d found the rhythm, it was easy to spot the other tracks and even imagine the deer walking them.

Caught up in the thrill of the hunt, she followed them. They moved through a slim trail where she found ripped and torn fern that they’d eaten on their way through. The bird calls were soft and regular, but she kept low to the ground, easily hidden by the undergrowth. Too often as a young hunter had she accidentally startled her quarry by startling nearby birds. Pressing on, she quietly thanked the rain as it began to fall harder. It would mask her footsteps and her scent.

The light was beginning to dim when she found the them. There were two does and several young, the stag not yet visible. They grazed along the undergrowth around a hillside clearing, oblivious to Susa watching them. Now that she’d found her quarry, Susa relaxed, settling back onto her haunches and simply watching them for a while. There was no need to bring one down. What would she do with an entire deer carcass anyway?

There was a sense of relief and safety in finding the deer. Not only were they a possible food source, but their presence in the valley meant that fresh water was within a days hike. It pushed out some of her concern at leaving the village. If she had food and water then she could survive, at least through the warmer months. Once again she found herself grateful for all the things her father had taught her. It meant that she didn’t need to rely on anyone else to survive. He’d given her the gift of freedom.

The rain began falling harder and she quietly left the deer and worked her way deeper into the woodlands. The trees were gnarled and bristling with unchecked growth, great twisting things utterly unlike the narrow, tidy trees around her village. Eventually she found what she was looking for, an old fallen tree, its trunk levelled above the ground at a shallow angle. There she set about erecting a shelter, tying her canvas into an awning and laying her oilskin over the wet ground. Then she set snares in the undergrowth and set about creating a small fire, before sitting before it and eating some of the dried meat and bread that she’d packed that morning.

It made her think of the longhouse. It was the largest building in the village. A thatched roof with a chimney and rush covered floor, a great hearth at the centre. Everyone in the village gathered there in the evenings to share stories and trade. During the winter everyone lived there, sharing warmth and the last of the mead and cider. Susa hated those stuffy winters crammed in with everyone. All the village folk with their judgement and no one to truly speak to tended to drive her mad. She’d always put herself forward for any of the tasks or jobs that took her outside, but she was hardly ever chosen. They always chose the stronger men for the tough jobs.

It was both liberating and worrying to think that she might never stay in the longhouse again. As she sat before her small fire, chewing goat jerky and listening to the rain hammer on the canvas above, she wondered, not for the first time, if she’d made the right decision. In one day she’d seen and experienced so many amazing things, but she also found herself already missing her family and worrying about whether or not she’d ever see the village again.

As if to mirror her inner turmoil, a roll of thunder rumbled in the distance. Susa grinned and waited, counting quietly when she noticed the next flash of lightning. The corresponding thunder came from miles away.

Under the canvas awning stretched out from the fallen trunk, Susa watched as the rain tumbled from above. Here she was safe, fed, and relatively dry. Gathering her wool blanket from her pack, she threw it across her shoulders and slid closer to the fire. Once there she sat with the small flame between her legs and threw the blanket over her head, making a tiny tent over herself and the flames. It didn’t take long for it to warm up within, casting out the evening chill. An old hunters trick. He Da had shown her how to do it in the snow with nothing but a candle and a wool blanket. It always amazed her how warm it became in the little private tent.

The lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled, closer than before. The tumbling roll lingered as it echoed between the slopes of the valley. The storm was heading towards her. Let it come. Susa was warm and comfortable. Despite the rain and the isolation, she was here, in the forbidden valley, where no one had come for generations! Susa stormwalker they’d call her. Lightning legged! Her travels would take her across the breadth of the world and beyond!

The night lit up again and this time it cracked overhead. Susa jumped at the storm getting so close, but laughed at herself. “Excitement and fear are the same thing!” she said, her voice quiet against the rain. This was real adventure. No wonder the ancestors told stories of dragons and monsters when they had storms like this raging overhead and no longhouse to hide within!

Still, she was safe and dry. The storm was moving so fast that it would pass her by before she knew it, and she wanted to savour this as her first one since leaving the village. It must have been her destiny! There was another flash of light and another crackling boom. Again she jumped at the suddenness of it, but her joy overcame any fear she might have had before.

Then she heard the growl. It was low and guttural, echoing behind and within the rumbling echo of the thunder. Like a stone trough dragged along rocky ground. So deep she could feel it in her gut. The laughter died in her throat and she strained her ears to listen for it, chiding herself for hearing things when there was probably nothing. Hoping that she’d made it up.

For a long while the rain pattered against the canvas and the loamy ground. The only other sounds the dim crackle of the embers at her feet and her own strained breathing. It must have been her imagination. Thinking of the longhouse reminded her of Symes stories. She smiled again at her own childishness.

Lightning flashed again and this time it roared. There was no stroke of thunder, just a primal howl that scraped at her spine and rattled her bones. It was short and furious, but the echo of it lasted long into the night. It was like the blast of a horn but somehow alive and angry.

It couldn’t be. It had to be her own mind playing tricks on her. She sat stone still beneath her wool blanket, ears straining to hear something, anything, other than the driving rain.

The light flashed again. There was another ferocious roar, one that lingered, moving overhead as if at great speed. It was ancient and painful and most definitely alive. Susa swallowed a scream.

Then the night erupted in fire.

It wasn’t the white-blue incandescence of lightning, but rather the dirty orange of flames. In a panic, Susa threw off the wool blanket to see what was happening, then shrank back in horror.

Across the clearing a pillar of fire rose into the sky. It lit up the night, casting flaring motes as it roared into being. Suddenly the forest was illuminated in the glow of the flames, the dancing light rippling across trunks and undergrowth and canopy. Susa’s heart skipped a beat.

Then she was running. Camp abandoned, she ran into the woodland, directly away from the inferno. Her feet pounded the loam, wet branches slapping against her, yet she ran without thought, instinct driving her away from the primordial fear. There was no thought, no consideration; only the instinctual need to survive.

Behind her the flame died out as fast as it had flared, casting her back into pitch black darkness. Blindly she ran, her heart in her throat, then screaming as another lightning flash seared the sky and another fearsome howl rent the night. Something huge passed above, sending a cascade of water from the canopy above down onto her. Then she slipped and tumbled, falling into an unseen ditch. Brambles clawed at her as slid downward, the loam giving way to mud and damp water. Then she hit the bottom with a cold splash and gasped at the ice chill of it. She rolled over and came up in a crouch, nestled deep within the bracken of the ditch.

In the cold wet night, Susa prayed that nothing found her.


About the Creator

Grantt Ennis

A UK writer looking to leave a lasting legacy. I write stories about out of the ordinary things and our reactions to them. I one day hope to ride a tyrannosaurus rex.

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Comments (1)

  • Alistair Crow2 years ago

    Really enjoyed this. Susa felt like a very real compelling protagonist. My own longing to discover the mysteries of the valley mirrored hers. The world and its environs beautifully described put me right there with her.

Grantt EnnisWritten by Grantt Ennis

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