A young skald sits at the edge of the fire. She holds, tentatively, her mother’s drum. Her fingers run around its edges: carefully,she warms the drum’s leather, which is brittle in the winter’s chill, with her own spit and sweat.
She thinks back on the stories her mother told her. As they huddled indoors, bracing against the deep winter snows, her mother taught the skald tales from centuries past. “Years and years ago,” her mother would murmur, “but still existing in the footsteps not yet tread.”
The skald, pulling her furs tightly around her broad shoulders, tries not to think back on the empty cave and the body. She tries not to think on the best thing to do with the remains of someone she loves. Loved. Loves.
And so, wrapping her fingers around the drum’s side, she begins to hum to herself. What can one do for a body that one cannot do for a spirit? And the spirit of her mother is in the old songs and stories.
The skald begins to intone, in a rich, slow chant, the song her mother sang. It does not rhyme, as some of the children’s poems do, but instead sprawls slowly in its own brutal lyricism.
Here begins the song her mother sang.
On the frigid plains of our lands
On the fresh snow walked by the spirits
I was hunting.
I was hunting over the ice fields, looking for the skinny hare and wild Ptarmigan.
I was hunting for my daughter and for my mother’s spirit.
As I was walking, the frozen earth creaking beneath my feet, I heard a screech.
The sounds of a hungry animal, bellowing starvation as it breaks bones.
When I heard this sound, the evil that sleeps in all Beasts’ hearts swelled in my own.
The sound of feasting in famine.
The fox within me yelped and snarled.
The sound called to her even more deeply than it muttered to me.
Over these snows.
Over these icy fields of rock and waste.
Away from the huts and fires of my kin.
I bounded and howled.
I ran with the fleet lightness of the fox within me.
I barked with the gamboling pleasure of the free animal.
I ran until I reached the river.
The river along whose banks I had scattered the ashes of my father and my mother’s mother.
I stared into the waters of the river, and saw that they ran treacherously red.
Red with the blood of a Beast, and the call to violence that hunts the fox within me.
My hairs bristled, and I hummed a song of my mother’s sister.
Reflected in the water, I saw it.
White feathers, and silvery, daggerlike beak.
Eyes too intelligent for most birds.
It called. A warning.
It sang. A welcome.
I looked to the banks of the river,
and saw that the White Crow of my mother’s mother’s stories was rooting around in the dirt.
Rooting around like the boar.
Rooting around like the dogs.
Rooting around like the corpse-eating animals.
“Beast of Famine!” I hissed, suddenly scared. “Eater of Ashes!”
For it was, the White Crow.
Blooded of the Prince of Beasts.
Bird that digs through the scattered dust of those no longer living.
Scavenger that devours the ashes.
Carrion beast that gorges itself on the spirits of those best left to the world of spirits.
It answered, inviting the fox within me to frenzy and feast.
The fox within me growled.
I would not fatten myself on the long dead fire of my own kin.
The fox within me shrieked.
“Run!” It barked. “Run!”
And I ran, though this beast wanted nothing of my living form.
It wanted only to capture the animal within.
I ran over snow.
Back to the huts and fires.
Blood running from the soles of my feet.
Blood running from the contours of my heels.
Blood leading through the snow fields, back to the place where we the living kept watch over the ashes of the dead.
I called to my kin, both those living and those dead.
“Khorosi!” I cried, “Light fires! Sing the songs of the living! Tell the tales of life! Do not let the White Crow feast on the ashes of those dead! Do not let it know that this is a place where the spirits are welcomed!”
And so we sang all day and all night.
To the crystal cold of winter, we spoke of life and birth.
We hid and protected the spirits, and told them, if only for a day and night, to pretend that they were not so dead.
And the White Crow flew over our encampment.
But it did not land.
I collapsed with exhaustion.
A secret laugh bubbled up with inside me.
And for years to come, on those longest and coldest of nights, we sang the songs of the living.
We sang then, and we sing now, so that the White Crow does not steal from us the power of our dead.
And even though I would not die a good death, I sang this story for my children’s children.
And even though I knew one of the Beasts would claim me, I taught them this tale.
And even though, in my dreams, I had seen the crimson red of evil water, I spoke these words.
For if my children’s children sing this song…
The White Crow will not land at the Red Fox’s Grave.
Here ends the song her mother sang.*
The skald finishes the song, and, slowly, begins to cry. Without her mother, what use is a song to keep out the darkest of nights?
She finishes the last beats of her mother’s song, and, into the center of the drum, whispers the closing taught to her by her mother’s mother.
“I sing these words to you, so that they may return to me on the lips of another.”
She will survive the night.
Meister Lyriker Benedikt sleeps lightly, her head folded over sheaves of unfinished reports. In her cloistered office, she dreams. The office is tidily stacked with books, tonics, and appointments; it hints only lightly of the deep and reaching dreams of the Meister Lyriker.
Kyrzenwold has been, until recently, unseasonably warm. The Meister Lyriker thought, at one point, that there wouldn’t be any snow for the festivities. For this reason, she today left the window open. On this same day, however, winter has finally arrived, and a sudden gust of snowy wind wakes her.
She sits upright immediately. She can’t tell if she has had a dream or a nightmare. In it, however, she heard songs of Old Khoros, sung by an orphaned skald and ruddy fox. In it, she saw the figure of the White Crow, its beak gritty with ash and dust.
A knock comes from the doorway. With Meister Lyriker Benedikt’s curt welcome, a young Lyriker shuffles in.
“Meister Lyriker,” he says shyly, “Meister Vogel Edselhardt reports that a strange creature has been sighted in the Woods.”
She narrows her eyes, and straightens the cuffs of her blouse. “Don’t tell me,” she replies with a bit too much acidity, “a giant crow of singular melanistic quality.”
“Um,” the Lyriker stammers, “a rather large white crow, Meister.”
She exhales sharply.
From outside the window, a chorus of unfamiliar crows hollers and shrieks. Their voices, raging and hungry, confirm that the Blooded of the Wyrlok have returned to the Woods.
*Out of Game Note: The poem presented above is influenced by the epic poetry style of several different historical and contemporary circumpolar Indigenous groups.