Blood of the Swan (an excerpt)

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There was blood on the snow. And not far away, an arrow and feathers. But Jorund knew it was not the blood of a human, for it was from his bow that the arrow had soared. It was his arrow, carefully whittled from a tree branch and feathered with gull's plumes that had pierced the flesh of the swan. And now, Jorund trudged through the winter forest in search of the wounded bird.

He knew to eat of swan's flesh was taboo, but he was hungry; and the bird had looked well-fed. Besides, there was no risk of being discovered with a wounded swan, for he was alone. Utterly alone.

But this hadn't been the case as recently as yestermorn. Four days ago, his best friend, Vali, and he had been sent into the snowy forest by their village chief to find a nature spirit. Though the likelihood of locating her before hunger, cold, or beast put an end to them was slim, he and Vali had shouldered their packs and hiked away from the family dwellings, animal pens, stone meeting hall, docks, and boats of the village of Egil.

Jorund clenched his jaw as he thought of the reason for their search. A wasting sickness was taking the lives of Egil's children. Smid, their village chief, wanted the services of a healer more skilled than the local woman who usually tended to wound-mending and midwifery. Rumors abounded that a nature spirit with limitless healing powers lived in the woods to the north of Egil. And so, he and Vali had been sent into the northern wilds with nine day's supply of food and a warning not to return until they found the healer.

They'd departed Egil without argument but also without blessings, for Smid forbid the worship of any god. Once clear of Egil, they'd knelt and sent a prayer up to the Sky Father for safety and success, since both of them had younger siblings suffering from the wasting sickness.

Luckily, both of them were young, strong, and good with a bow and arrow, and so the first two days had passed quickly. The sky had been clear, the air crisp, the path they'd chosen across the landscape easy to walk. Then, yesterday morning, Vali had taken a shortcut across a stretch of blue ice and fallen through into the river.

Jorund was sure he saw a dark figure near his friend in the water. He was certain it had been the Grim. Before Jorund could stretch a branch to him, Vali had been washed away from the hole in the ice. Jorund had run alongside the river, calling his friend's name. But without air, he knew a man drowned within minutes. Still, he'd walked downstream for the rest of the morning hoping to see Vali shivering on the riverbank. He'd found no one.

Jorund had retraced his steps, paused at the spot where his friend had slipped through the ice, and said a prayer to the Sky Father asking him to welcome Vali to the Summerlands. It wasn't until hours later that he'd realized Vali had taken most of their food with him to the bottom of the river.

But at least I have flint and blade, a leather sleeping bag, bow and arrows, and woolen blanket, thought Jorund as he followed the blood splatters in the snow. Though those things would do him little good if he didn't find food and shelter soon.

His grumbling stomach refocused his thoughts on the swan. It had been flying between the tree branches, sailing low, preparing to land when Jorund loosed his arrow. The cry the creature had made when wounded had been like nothing he'd heard before. It had sounded almost like a frightened child. He shivered. Jorund rarely pitied his prey, but the swan's cry had chilled the marrow of his bones...


The rest of "Blood of the Swan" (Writers of the Future Contest Honorable Mention story) can be read in Vonnie Winslow Crist's award-winning book, "The Greener Forest."

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