Breath

Morning cloud rolls down the mountain, clammy cold to the skin, and the trees loom out of it at random intervals like teeth. His breath frosts the air as he climbs, snow and dirt crunching under his boots. On his back, the great sword is a familiar weight.

The village is far below him now, its black-scarred timber gates firmly closed. They were open when he left, the elder standing bowed in the road, the villagers clustered behind him.

“You won’t succeed,” the elder told him. “You are a criminal, not a hero. You cannot save us: at best, you have another few thousand breaths before the death you deserve.” The compulsion is hot in his stomach, a roiling, irresistible knot. He could snap the old man with one hand and the village’s strongest man with the other – he’s already done the latter, which is why he’s here – but it would achieve nothing. The stick-like ancient is clearly a perfectly competent wizard.

He knows how these things end: his breath rasping in his chest, his muscles numb and slow, his armour scorched and the blood sheeting from his wounds. He can’t tell whether he will be finally helpless before the great claws piercing his ribs or the savage heat of that ultimate exhalation of poisonous flame. It doesn’t matter.

He sets his teeth in a fierce grin, and quickens his pace.

9 thoughts on “Breath”

  1. Aah – “Breath”, as in “Dragon…”. Nice slice-of-life-in-Fantasy-Land view of a _geas_ from the wrong end of the spell, there. I liked how the true nature of the ‘adventure’ slowly unfolds, and the flashback nature of para 3. Also *really* liked the imagery of the _geas_ as a literally visceral physical presence.

    Was the use of “teeth”, as an image at the start and then a reality at the end, deliberate?

    1. “Teeth” in the beginning was absolutely deliberate. Foreshadowing, it is my candy-coated high-quality-chocolate crack-addict doom. I’m glad you like the geas: it intruded itself abruptly and without warning into that paragraph, and the whole thing suddenly went “click”.

      I think he probably gets eaten, but I don’t think he minds. What I liked in this, as it emerged from the situation, was the village’s desperate pragmatism and the warrior’s moment essentially on a suspended breath.

  2. I thought this was a lovely bit of fantasy writing. The imagery is beautiful and, as with your previous piece, feels superbly crafted so that each image or word is exactly where and what it should be.

    The only criticism that I have is that I didn’t get the geas bit, but others have so I suspect it was just me being dense. Perhaps because, as you say, he doesn’t mind it, in fact seems to embrace his probable fate, I thought he had chosen to do this, because he is a criminal to the village and had killed their hero, and could at least do what he was good at. So, I read the compulsion as coming from within him, so at least he could end his life well or save one or two people he cares for. Perhaps I have read or seen too many reformed anti-heros doing the right thing recently 😉

    1. I’m actually quite pleased that you didn’t get the geas. The point wasn’t the geas, it popped itself into the story more or less spontaneously – it’s almost incidental to the warrior’s basic acceptance of his fate. I don’t think he’s being heroic, I think he’s simply accepting that them’s the breaks if you’re going to make a living with violence. Also, he really likes violence ;>.

      It’s interesting, though; there are whole tracts of his motivation and backstory which are perfectly clear to me, writing this, but I don’t think I’ve got them into the story to the extent I think I have. For example: he’s a travelling mercenary, this isn’t his village. He killed the village blacksmith casually in a bar brawl, which is nothing new in his lifestyle but is unexpectedly a much bigger deal to the village; the wizard was a nasty surprise. The village is at the point of desperation with the dragon attacks; they don’t expect the warrior to kill the damned thing, but at least he has a shot and there’s justice being done either way. I may have to do a rewrite to get this stuff in, if it’s being read more ambiguously than I expected. It may also not be doable in 250 words, although I can have a damned good try.

  3. This is beautifully written – the imagery, the pace, the fierce character of the warrior all come across. The picture is painted.

    Reading your comments above, I did not get all the things that you had in the back of your mind (the geas, the crime) (I did get that the village was under threat from the charred gates), but I don’t think it matters – the backstory needs to be there but does not need to be clear to the observer who pops into the tale at this very little moment in time.

    I see this as a perfectly intense little window into a tiny fragment of a classic fantasy. I did wish that the story was less familiar, that there was something new in it, but the way it was presented made it interesting anyway.

    I did not like the phrase “clearly a perfectly competent wizard” – too many adverbs maybe, and it did not fit in with the language of the rest.

    Thank you, I enjoyed this!

  4. I’m very much challenged by fantasy clichés, and inspired to try and do the Ursula Le Guin thing of doing them very well and as intelligently as possible, so I’m glad you recognised that and found my take on it interesting. Also happy that you think the backstory wasn’t necessary. The micro-narrative moment is very challenging in terms of trying to cram in enough story for it all to make sense. I possibly need to rewrite this as an 8000-word short story ;>.

    Now that you point it out, “clearly a perfectly competent wizard” is lame and horrible, and the slightly sarky tone really, as you say, doesn’t fit. Also, adverbs may well be my besetting sin.

    Thank you for your comments, appreciated!

  5. Beautifully crafted, Doc.
    On the mean streets of Croydon, we’d have said something like “You got mad skillz. Yo.”
    The breath rasping set near the end is especially great.

    I’m afraid I have to add my token to the “perfectly competent” pile, but it’s a minor niggle. The scope of the setting that you’ve painted with so few words is amazing.

  6. Really loved reading this – fun and interesting. I love the idea of the violent man resigned to his fate. I don’t really agree with describing any of this as ‘fantasy cliché’ – the lead characterisation takes one away from that and the dragon and the wizard are barely outlined.

    The Wizard’s speech is a bit cumbersome and breaks the rhythm a lot for me – the Wizard falls between being the stern judge unhappily sentencing someone to death and the cruel wizard enjoying the nasty fate his power can inflict on our protagonist – I would prefer to know more or less about him.

    I got the gees idea on first reading but was thrown by the ‘perfectly competent wizard’ sentence not only by it’s structure but also because at first I understood him to not attack the Wizard because he was *afraid* of a competence wizard. Only on my second reading I understood that he was currently *unable* to attack the wizard because of the gees.

  7. This is about a warrior who has just left (or been thrown out) of a village after killing their strongest person. He appears to be off on a quest that he finds suicidal: killing a dragon that is presumably threatening the village.

    I like to think that he does this because killing is what he knows, and he wants to make recompense for “snapping” the villager. I have little reason to think this other than wanting to :)

    What I liked most was how we’re shown the warrior’s acceptance, even enjoyment, of the situation he’s found himself in. Very neat!

    What stuck out for me was this:

    > and the village’s strongest man with the other – he’s already done
    > the latter, which is why he’s here – but it would achieve nothing.
    This sentence broke my reading a bit, making me think about the strong man who the warrior was mentally threatening to snap, even though he has already done so; wondering just how the warrior was thinking about this threw me off a bit.

    Reading through the comments I see people mentioning a geas: I also didn’t notice it.

    I enjoyed this. Feels like a well painted character portrait.

    Thanks for sharing!

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