Part 2 – The Leave Taking
Most people think that the realms of man end at the feet of the northern mountains. Most people are wrong. Beyond them lies the real north. The deep north. It is a land that is visited by few and truly known by even fewer. It is a harsh and desolate place of endless snow; a place of ancient, gnarled forests that have existed since before the dawn of men and will persist long after he is gone; a place where the gods chose not to make people from mud or clay, but to make them from freshly hewn rock and the polished ice from the bellies of titanic glaciers. It is a hard place inhabited by an even harder people.
Night draws in, and with it the promise of the unfathomable cold shifting into the realms of the unearthly. A lone figure trudges through a sea of towering pines, treating the knee deep snow much as you or I would treat long grass. They are swaddled and hooded in bulky furs coloured shades of white and grey by a heavy dusting of frost and clinging snow. Over their shoulder they carry the still warm carcass of a deer. This lone hunter is making their way home to the promise of a warm bed. The hunter’s name is Jala. She does not know it yet, but her life is about to change.
She saw Hartwig long before he saw her. He was standing sentry at the edge of the clearing where the tribe’s tents had been pitched. From a distance he looked vigilant; tall and proud; a spear gripped in both hands and its butt firmly planted in the icy ground; experience told Jala that he was likely having a sly nap. When she was about ten feet from the clearing Hartwig stirred from his fitful half-sleep.
“Elder Linna said she wanted to speak with you when you got back.” Said Hartwig.
“About what?” asked Jala
“Didn’t say. I wouldn’t keep her waiting though”
Jala just nodded and made her way towards the ring of tents. At the centre of the camp a fire burns low. It is a small and diminutive thing providing neither a great amount of light nor heat. It burns there more because the camp’s inhabitants believe that there should always be a fire at the centre of the camp, even if it serves no real purpose once the cooking is done. It lacks the strength to push away the chill of the night and its light serves only to accentuate the gathering darkness.
At the side of the fire waited a figure, legs crossed and starring into the weak, flickering tongues of flame.
“Elder” said Jala respectfully, as she dumped the deer carcass to the ground.
Linna raised her wrinkled and weather beaten face, the tousled mounds of her greyed hair rippled in the breeze like waves on a lake made of old tin.
“Ah, Jala there you are. Sit, sit…” said Elder Linna, her voice quiet and distant.
Jala sat her self on the opposite side of the fire to Linna and pulled down her hood, sending her blonde hair tumbling across her shoulders. She tried to meet the Elder’s eyes but they seemed to be looking right through her, unfocused and just as distant as her voice had been. Just two bottomless pools of vibrant, shinning green, neither placid nor fierce, but some terrifying middle ground between the two. It was safe to say that Elder Linna was “Elsewhere.”
The pair sat in silence for a while. Jala waiting and the Elder thinking, her totem staff gripped tightly in her old and ruined sword hand. The silence was broken by the slow and glacial blink of Linna’s eyes. They snapped back from whatever immeasurably distant places they had been gazing at. Once again Linna raised her head to Jala, but this time the eyes were very much here, quick, piercing and bright.
“You must leave the tribe” said Elder Linna.
“What?” replied Jala, the words of the Elder did not sink in, they seemed unreal, impossible and at best, a cruel joke.
“I said you must leave.”
Jala didn’t say anything, not at first. She let the little world around this fire fill with silence, a silence rich with anger. Jala let the Elder’s words burn inside her.
“Why? Jala asked eventually. “Why must I leave? Have I not hunted well and provided for our people?”
Elder Linna nodded.
“When the berserkers of the Upyom came down out of the white wastes did I not defend us? Did I not make them pay for their attack in blood?” Jala continued.
Elder Linna nodded again
“I slew the ice serpent that killed my mother. I tracked in across the tundra for months, following it back to its lair hidden deep within the heart of the glacial fields. I brought it vengeance and freed our people from its fear. I took its fangs and carry them with me even now. No other has ever managed such a thing. There is no one else in the tribe, nay, the whole of the northlands who has even half my skill in battle!” Jala was breathing heavily, the air before her steamed with her angry words.
Elder Linna considered these words. She leaned towards Jala, the firelight deepening every shadow on her lined face. Linna loomed, Jala often forgot just how big the Elder truly was, even despite her age.
“And that Jala, is exactly why you must leave.” Replied Linna.
“You are without peer. There is no doubt in my mind that you are the finest warrior in generations. Now answer me this: Do you want to spend the rest of your life scraping out an existence in the frozen forests on the roof of the world?”
Jala did not answer
“Such talent and might is wasted here. There are no more challenges left for you. You have outgrown us, if you stay we will just weigh you down and hold you back. You must head south and into the realms of the other-men. It is there that your destiny awaits. You will not find your true purpose up here in the frozen wastes of the north, killing deer and scaring away bears.” Then Linna sighed.
“But most importantly of all I will not let you make the same mistake I made. I was kept here by duty and honour and its rewards have been hollow and few. I am old, I am missing half of my good hand and I have not been warm in decades. I know you always thought that, when the time came, you would succeed me as Elder, but you were meant for more than this. So much more.”
“Oh…” replied Jala “If you have no objections I will leave at first light.” Jala stood up “I should pack my things.” She made to leave the side of the fire.
“Jala.” Interrupted Elder Linna. Jala turned back towards the Elder.
“I will miss you. Do your people proud.”
As she had said she would, Jala left the camp at first light. There was not much for her to take with her: a bow and a few arrows; a motley collection of knives and daggers; an axe; a handful of trinkets, good-look charms and cherished gifts. She set off alone, without bidding a single solitary farewell to any of the people she knew.
The journey south was long and not without its hardships. Jala passed through icy forests, she forded frozen rivers and marched across windswept plains of snow. Weeks of hard travelling brought her into the mountains with their knife edge peaks, perilous ravines and brutal winds. But Jala conquered the mountains just as she had conquered the lands that had come before them.
The mountains gave way to rolling foothills, the snow gave way to grass and Jala put away the heaviest of her furs. Eventually even the foothills lay behind her and a whole unknown world lay at her feet.
She continued ever southward until the field through which she was trekking was bisected by a road, leaving her with a choice. To the west lay a cluster of buildings, a settlement of some sort; to the east lay dense woodland.
Voting closed at noon BST on the 28th of April.