The First Girl Child – Amy Harmon

They shouldn’t have climbed for so long, but they’d been convinced that if they reached the top of Shinway, they would be able to look out over the sea, all the way to Eastlandia. They thought they might spot their father’s sails—the sails of all the warriors of Dolphys—returning from raids on distant shores. Their father always brought them something, even though it often wasn’t what either of them wanted. He gave Dagmar swords when he’d rather have scrolls. He brought Desdemona trinkets when she’d just as soon have a length of rope or a clever snare. Still, they watched for him, waited for him, and they’d climbed too high. “It’s going to storm, Des,” Dagmar worried. “The fog has settled on the water, and we won’t see Father even if he’s almost ashore.” Desdemona scowled and kept walking, scrambling up the rocky path like the goats they kept and should be returning to. If Father did come home, he would wonder at the empty cottage and the hungry animals, the cow that hadn’t been milked, and the wood that hadn’t been gathered. They’d left at dawn, and it was midday, though the thickening clouds and the gray light made it seem much later. They had played along the way, collecting treasures only to discard them for new finds. They’d stopped for berries and climbed a towering oak that had lured them in with low-hanging branches. Now it was growing late, and they’d been gone too long. “He isn’t coming home today,” Desdemona said, dismissive.

“Yesterday, old Hilde asked the sea, and it gave her five shells in a pile on the sand. She said it would be five more days until the warriors return.” Mistress Dunhilde was charged with their care when their father was away, though she was drowsy and doddering, and Dagmar felt ofttimes that he looked after her more than she looked after them. But Hilde was rarely wrong about such things. Dagmar stopped walking. “Then why did you insist on climbing to the peaks?” he asked, exasperated. “I was weary of the cottage,” Desdemona said, shrugging. She tossed him an impish grin and tugged at his hand. “We need to turn back, Desdemona,” Dagmar demanded. “A storm is coming and we’ll be caught on the cliffs.

” His younger sister was constantly getting them into trouble, and she never listened. “Don’t worry, Dag. I will protect you,” she reassured him, pulling her long blade from the leather sheath at her waist. She launched it with both hands at the unassuming pine tree directly in their path. “I got him!” she crowed, racing toward the tree, and Dagmar realized she hadn’t been aiming for the trunk at all. A gray rabbit, Desdemona’s blade jutting out of his back, bounded away and disappeared among the rocks at the base of the highest crag. The three cliffs of Shinway were stacked like enormous steps, one atop the other, and were as stony and flat as the hills around them were green and rolling. They afforded nothing but a spectacular view and a long climb, and the people of Dolphys rarely made the pilgrimage to the top. Time was too short and life too hard for unnecessary journeys. “Hurry, Dag,” Desdemona called over her shoulder, tucking her skirt into the belt at her waist to keep it out of her way as she gave chase.

She slipped once and caught herself on a jagged outcropping, but was up again immediately, clambering after her fat prey, who was bleeding but unbeaten. “He went in there,” Desdemona panted as Dagmar reached her side, pointing at a cavity tucked between the first two ledges. “And he has your blade,” Dagmar added, though he was certain the rabbit would be glad to be rid of it. The cave was not visible from the narrow path, and a curtain of ivy, spilling from one height to another, obscured the entrance. “Let me see your hands,” Dagmar ordered. Desdemona raised her palms, impatient. They were both abraded and bleeding from her fall. “The bleeding will stop,” she insisted. “They only sting a little. I’m going in.

I want my blade and that rabbit. He’ll make a fine stew and a pair of slippers.” Dagmar didn’t bother to protest. The cave would be black as pitch; she couldn’t go far. He studied the cliffs still rising above them and considered the distance they’d already come. Below him, to the left, lay the sea, though mist covered the water and the wind melded with the waves, muffling her sounds and her shores. But he knew she was there. Behind him, the valley of Dolphys stretched in stubborn splendor, the silver line of the river Mogda snaking through it, winding around huts and homes that, from this height, appeared no bigger than bits of broken shell among the sands. Hills, lumpy, misshapen pyramids in green, dappled the valley, separating one community from another. There were many such hills in Dolphys.

The people called them sleeping giants, though they appeared more like enormous, slumbering toads. “It’s dark in here,” Desdemona called from the mouth of the cave, and Dagmar lifted his face to the skies. Clouds as dark and ominous as his father’s temper swirled overhead, casting the world around him in the color of rain. He sighed and went in search of something to burn. It would be foolish to descend the mountain in a deluge, and the cave would be a good place to spend the next few hours, but they would need a fire. A felled pine, its branches broken and brittle, would provide fodder enough. He hacked a few limbs free with the hatchet he wore at his waist and dragged them up the narrow path toward the opening in the rock. He had to stoop to enter, Desdemona holding the vines aside so he could drag his kindling behind him, but once inside, he could fully straighten. He could not see beyond a few steps, but the space felt as vast and unexplored as the night sky. “We need light.

Use my hatchet to clear some of the vines, and try not to cut off your toes,” he ordered. Desdemona was a skilled huntress, but she was clumsy in the way of the overconfident and easily distracted. She obeyed him with an obligatory grumble, shearing the vines by the handful, allowing the tepid light to peer into the cave. It didn’t take Dagmar long to coax a flame, though the crack of Thor’s hammer and the resulting torrent now lashing the cliffs threatened a longer stay than his fire would last. Desdemona crouched nearby, tying several twigs together with the stringy vines she’d cut, fashioning herself a torch. She made one for Dagmar as well but was too impatient to wait for him and went off to hunt the rabbit on her own. Dagmar continued to tend the blaze, noting that the smoke from the branches did not gather but rose, whisked away into heights and places he could not see. There was an opening somewhere above him, he was certain, but he abandoned his musings when Desdemona called to him, her voice odd and distant like she too had risen with the smoke. He couldn’t see her, but a ruddy glow smeared a section of the dark, and he walked toward it, the torch she’d crafted for him in his hand. Tunnels veered off the main section, man-size doorways that burrowed to places he would never explore, and Dagmar kept his back to the fire he had built as his eyes clung to the glimmer of light ahead.

Desdemona had gone much farther than he would have ever gone alone, and he bit back sharp words when he finally reached her. Framed by the arched opening of a separate cavity, Desdemona stood facing the wall, her torch lifted to illuminate something on the rock. As he neared, she turned slowly, lighting one section of wall at a time. The shadows breathed around her, expanding and disappearing as she moved, and Dagmar noted the dimensions of the space. It was more a chamber than a cave, the rock encircling them like the dome of the temple he’d seen only once. “What are they?” Desdemona asked as he stopped just inside the entrance. He copied her motion, raising his weak torch to see for himself. He made three slow rotations around the perimeter before he answered her, his voice hushed, his heart loud. The chamber was filled with figures—hundreds of them—chiseled into the rock. Circles and obelisks, eyes and angles, a language of pictures and drawings Dagmar couldn’t decipher but recognized all the same.

“They are . runes,” Dagmar whispered, the fine hairs on his neck and arms rising in reverence. “I thought the only runes were in the Temple of Saylok. I thought they were guarded by the keepers,” Desdemona whispered. There was no fear in her face, and her voice echoed the thrill in Dagmar’s own heart. He was wise enough to be afraid, afraid enough for both of them. But he was not afraid enough to leave. Thunder rumbled, hammering against the mountain above them. The reverberations made the cavity hum. “What do you think they all mean? Are they stories?” Desdemona asked.

“Some of them. Look, you will recognize these,” he said, pointing to the figures nearest the entrance. It was as if the runes began with them. “It is a tale of the gods,” she said, pleased with herself. “There is Father Saylok,” Desdemona pointed out. “And Adyar the eagle, Berne the bear, Dolphys the wolf, Ebba the boar, Joran the horse, and Leok the lion.” The chiseled renderings were remarkably detailed. The god, Saylok, son of Odin and father of their land, stood in the center of a six-pointed star, his animal children equidistant from him, each one occupying a section of the star. Dagmar touched the uppermost point and moved to the right, saying the name of the clan— Adyar, Berne, Dolphys, Ebba, Joran, and Leok—as his fingers fluttered over each one. “This is how our land must look from the sky.

” Desdemona, emboldened by his action, reached out a hand and pressed her palm to the rune directly in front of her, her eyes lit with curiosity in the jittery shadows. “This rune has wings, Dagmar,” she marveled, the lines hugging her fingers as she traced them. The rumble of distant thunder changed, rising in pitch until the drone became a thousand whispers. A fluttering swelled in the cave, like the wind outside was fleeing the rain. Desdemona snatched her hand from the figure, but it was too late. From somewhere above them, a legion of wings descended, swirling around the chamber, striking the walls, clawing for space, tangling themselves in Desdemona’s hair and tugging at Dagmar’s clothes. Their torches were knocked free as they swatted wildly at the writhing bodies and papery wings. Muffled screams erupted from their throats as they buried their faces against each other, hiding from the swarm. As quickly as they’d arrived, the bats found the opening in the chamber and rushed to depart, the swish and hiss of their flight echoing even after they were gone. For a moment the children huddled together, hands moving over their limbs and loose clothing, checking for blind trespassers.

The torches burned on, two small fires on the cavern floor, and Dagmar stooped to retrieve them, relieved that he and his sister wouldn’t be left to find their way out in the dark. He shivered violently and shook out his clothes once more, but Desdemona had already moved on, torch in hand, her fear as fleeting as the bats. “That rune had wings, but this one has a flame. Mayhaps it is a fire rune,” she mused. “No!” Dagmar yelled, and the sound split and jangled off the walls in a chorus of denial, but the carving Desdemona caressed whooshed into flame, the lines of the symbol glowing like hot coals. Dagmar cursed, dropping his torch again. He shrugged out of his cloak so he could smother the fire licking the wall. “Are you mad? You can’t touch the runes,” he bellowed, beating the flames. His cloak would be singed. It already stunk of bats.

The rune blinked out as the fire was doused, and Dagmar stepped back, panting, waiting for the next calamity. “Why can’t I touch them? You did,” Desdemona muttered, but she stooped to pick up his torch, chastened. And Dagmar realized he had. He had touched the walls first. He had traced the star of Saylok and nothing had happened. “Mayhaps . some of them are simply stories,” he offered, feeling strangely empty. “Then touch the fire rune,” Desdemona challenged. “My torch has gone out.” He hesitated, knowing he was a fool and Desdemona was a tormentor.

But he couldn’t resist. He expected heat and felt only the cold kiss of stone, the furrows tickling the tips of his fingers. He pressed harder, willing the rune to light, wanting the power his sister had so easily wielded. Suddenly—desperately—he wanted to call wings and fire, even if it meant the bats carried him away and the cave burst into flame. But the rune denied him. “Mayhaps I have rune blood,” Desdemona marveled, oblivious to his disappointment. “Like the keepers.” “Rune blood and no bloody sense,” Dagmar said, smiling at her to take away the sting of his words, smiling to take away the sting in his chest. He had always dreamed of being a Keeper of Saylok. He froze, an idea dawning.

“There is . blood . on your fingers,” he said. “You traced the runes in blood. Hilde says the keepers use blood to power the runes.” Desdemona held her fingers to the light. Blood stained the tips and lined the crevices. “I do have rune blood,” she marveled, gleeful. Dagmar used the blade of his hatchet to nick his finger, wincing a little at the pinch. Blood welled, black in the poor light, and without allowing himself to fear, he traced a rune that enclosed an eye, wiping his blood in the furrows that formed lid, lash, and pupil.

The rune seemed harmless enough, no wings or flames, no swords or headless men like some of the others. Then he waited, hopeful and horrified at what he might see . or what he might not see. Then darkness swallowed him whole and his mind was not his own. Pictures formed and fell away, and distance narrowed as he rose above the cliffs. He was flying at dizzying speeds, soaring over the trees back to the cottage in Dolphys where he lived with his sister and his father, where he tended goats and fed pigs and read whatever he could scavenge, even if it was the scribblings of his own hand. He continued past his home, flashing over hills and vales, over forests and streams until he stood on the temple mount of Saylok, blood on his hands, eyes lifted to the rafters of the sanctum. He wore a keeper’s robe—deep purple—and his head was cold. He touched it with wet fingers and felt the bare skin of his scalp. The temple melted into a grove, giant trunks and heavy branches covering the sky and burrowing into the ground he knelt upon.

He held a woman in his arms. She looked like his memories of his mother, but he’d been four when she died—so small—and he’d never held her this way. She had always held him. Her body was warm, but her eyes were cold, and he cried, great gulping sobs that tore at his chest and his throat. “Dagmar, can you hear me?” his mother asked, but her gaze stayed fixed and her mouth did not move. “Dagmar!” she cried, and Dagmar gasped, pulling long, deep breaths into his starving lungs. He breathed so deeply, the woman slipped from his arms, and he catapulted back across the distance, the landscape moving so quickly that the colors became a blur of greens and blues, light and dark, and he found himself back in the cave, lying on his back, his arms and legs flung wide, blood in his nostrils and a pulse behind his eyes. Desdemona knelt beside him, holding his torch, and he realized it was her voice that had called to him. “You scared me,” Desdemona whispered, wiping at her cheeks. She was crying.

He was crying too. He sat up gingerly, and his stomach roiled. “You fell to the ground like you were dead,” she wailed. He touched the knot forming on the back of his head beneath his braid. He had hair again. “I want to go home, Dagmar. I want to be a warrior, not a keeper,” Desdemona said, helping him stand. Her torch had gone out, but his had life enough to guide them from the chamber of runes back to his fire at the entrance of the cave. He felt disembodied—his feet moving, though he couldn’t feel them, his hand in Desdemona’s, though he felt nothing but stone. Stone, heavy and cold and dark.

Stone all around him, stone beneath him, stone within him. “The rain has stopped,” Desdemona said as they exited the cave, but he would have kept walking even if the downpour continued. It was a while before he could speak, before his limbs warmed and his body felt like his own. Desdemona was silent beside him, as though she sensed his disorientation and grappled with her own. But when they finally staggered to the base of Shinway, he turned to her, his voice urgent yet hushed, afraid that even the trees would overhear. “Promise me you will never go to the cave again,” he begged his sister. “And promise me you will never tell anyone it is there.” “I promise,” she said, but he saw her impatience and her fatigue. The experience in the cave had already faded for her, a bad dream easily pushed aside. She tugged at him, eager for the cottage, for supper, for rest.

But he would never forget. “Desdemona,” he moaned. “Listen to me.” “I’m listening, Dagmar,” she reassured him, and met his gaze. “That cave is full of things not meant to be found,” he whispered, and his voice quavered in fear. Desdemona nodded, her blue eyes wide, and for the first time, Dagmar noticed how much she resembled their mother.

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