Behind today’s magical door we find a dystopian tale courtesy of Jacqueline Czel. Jacqueline termed it ‘tolkeinesque’, and I think that’s an apt description of a story that takes us to a fantastical dystopian world.
Keeper of the Flame
by Jacqueline Czel
She was a Keeper. Vale knew it. Something deep in his bones told him so. He also observed from across the spacious hall that she was very young. Being around thirty years of age she was by far one of the youngest keepers they’d ever had. According to the ancient legends, young keepers were far more powerful than most. It had been about six hundred years since the last Keeper blossomed before the age of seventy or eighty. It gave him and others much hope.
He scratched his red beard while he studied her as she moved among the growing crowd. Christmas was upon them and gathering together at the great hall was tradition. Clans from all over the northern lands they called Álfheimr trekked to Gimlé for the Yuletide festivities. They travelled at great risk. Bands of Dökkálfr, the dark ones from the south, had increased their raids on small villages and attacked all kinds of moving caravans. Making the journey to the hall was dangerous but most of them believed their traditions needed to be preserved at all costs.
Her long braided locks swept across her lush curves. She had shed her furs and her exposed bronze shoulders and arms glistened in the firelight. He watched her lean down to kiss the forehead of a small child who looked up at her with large blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires. It was a pure child and there weren’t many of them left. Vale wanted a child of his own. He knew it would be a well-loved halfling but unbound, fertile women were hard to come by.
Bands of humans passed over the ancient bridges that mysteriously appeared over a thousand years ago, as their dying planet became increasingly inhospitable for humans. Those who crossed over the crystal bridge hidden in the Aurora Borealis, were welcomed by the Ljósálfar in the place their ancients called, ‘still further above’ or third Earth, so long as these humans chose to leave all of their poisonous technologies behind. Other bridges opened to the southlands and humans from warmer regions merged with the Dökkálfr and other kinds of beings on the planet.
While the average ljósálfar could live to be over six hundred years, their chances of siring children were very slim. Inter-marriage with the humans brought more children into the fold but a long life without a family was still slow torture for many of them. It was believed that having a child was a gift that was only given to those possessing true faith in the eyes of God. Risking death in exchange for new life was the greatest gift a ljósálfarian woman could bestow upon her beloved mate.
Vale continued to stare at Kenna and wondered if she would willingly stare death in the face for him or any man. Her waist, the sway of her fine hips and curve her of thighs beneath her leathers, entranced him. A flood of desire filled him as well as a sense of guilt. It was considered sinful to lust but Vale couldn’t refrain. Even from afar, he thought her beautiful. She was worth wading through hellfire for.
He though she wouldn’t notice him anyway. His beard, incredible height and broad stature were sure signs that he was more human than elf. Vale also lived the life of a warrior. The scars on his cheeks and hands were evidence of many battles fought against the dark elves and ice giants. No beautiful, soft skinned woman would want such a hard man, an axe wielding killer who easily took life away from others.
Kenna knew many pairs of eyes were upon her in the hall because she was a new keeper, but one particular set burned a hole in her. They were very human, too. She felt his warmth, curiosity and desire. She had not actually gazed upon the man who had been staring at her, but knew what he was thinking. His longing, sadness and self-doubt warmed her heart. He had not seen her up close. He didn’t know she was a halfling too. Kenna understood the inferiority he felt in the face of pure blooded Ljósálfar. They were fair, lithe and graceful and possessed many unusual abilities. Even after centuries of intermarriage most halflings inherited very few of them.
Rather than turn around to look at him, Kenna scried him through the eyes of an old crone stitching a leather pouch on a bench nearby. He was rugged, a hot blooded warrior. She liked his beard and long reddish brown hair which fell in a thick braid down his back. She felt a pressing at her own mind and quit the third eye of the elderly woman. An older keeper sensed what she was doing. Keepers weren’t supposed to use their powers for personal gain.
As the sun set and stars illuminated the big northern sky, clans from afar kept arriving at Gimlé. While they settled into their quarters, the elders and keepers gathered at the far end of the hall to discuss the tree. There couldn’t be a true Yuletide celebration without an evergreen. In addition to cutting down a fir tree, boars needed to be culled from the forest for feasting. While many of their people worshipped the One True God, the Ljósálfar had a longstanding sacred oath with the ancient ash tree, Yssgdrill. It was forbidden to kill any of the trees in Álfheimr. A party must crossover the crystal bridge to retrieve the evergreen back on old Earth where the forests had regained their pristine glory.
Kenna watched as Baron Harald smoked his wooden pipe and blew curls of clove into the air. He was the reigning elder this year. The Baron studied the elders and keepers sitting before him long and hard. One elder, as well as one keeper would have to make the journey with the warriors that would be selected. Kenna’s eyes connected with his. His icy blue gaze beneath a thick, white brow tried to penetrate hers. She knew he could not. He blinked and shook his head. Kenna knew her dark eyes disturbed him as did her new powers. Halflings with elfin powers were rare. Halfling keepers were rarer still. She could easily cloak her still unknown abilities and Baron Harald didn’t particularly like or trust powerful women.
“Egill, he cried out in a raspy voice a moment later, bring the runes!”
A covey of thirteen would make the journey this year. The ancient stones sung the names. Egill, the blind caster, interpreted their song. Kenna’s was among them. A four hundred year full blooded ljósálfar elder named Meryl was sung too. Vale was the last warrior chosen by the stones. When his name was called, Kenna’s skin began to tingle. Something was not right. There was more to this journey than the fetching of the yuletide tree from the forest into which they were going to venture. A second message from the stones lingered in the air.
Kenna felt it but runes were not her gift. She could not hear their song or read the meaning of the etched markings laid out before her. She did however notice the nods of some of the much older elders and keepers. They knew something she didn’t. As they chatted quietly amongst themselves in the ancient elfish tongue they often spoke when discussing important clan matters so as not to disturb others, Kenna followed Meryl’s lead and excused herself. She had not yet studied the archaic tongue so she could not follow the conversation.
The uneasy feeling she had, stayed with her as she settled onto her sleeping furs in her quarters. She wondered what role Vale had in the unseen event that would surely unfold on their journey. She fought her wild thoughts and forced herself to sleep because the party was leaving at first light. Long before Kenna awoke the next morning the warriors had already saddled their horses, tied supplies to their mounts and hitched the sled to a team of wolf dogs that would pull the tree back to Gimle.
On hearing the din outside in the courtyard, a sleepy Kenna righted herself, pulled on her leathers and furs, laced her boots tightly around her calves and ran out of the hall to join them. She pushed her honey colored braids out of her face and quickly counted the number of horses. There were thirteen members of their party and only a dozen saddled horses. Before Kenna could protest at not having her own steed, a pair of strong hands lifted her off the ground. Vale planted her in front of him on the saddle. He slung his arm around her waist, picked up the reigns and kicked at his white dun which broke into a slow trot.
“Why don’t I get my own horse?” Kenna fumed.
She resented being treated like a child. She was a keeper, albeit a new one, but surely she was far more powerful than warriors with axes, swords and arrows.
“Because you’d be a burden if you did, he said in a smooth, deep voice. It was the first time he’d actually spoken to her. “You’re no horsewoman. The Dökkálfr and wild wolves would snatch you away in no time, little one.”
Kenna bucked against him and squirmed so she could jump off but was stilled when Vale tightened his arm around her waist. The words ‘do not’ crossed her mind at the same time. She turned her head towards Meryl who rode past them his own dappled steed. He looked regal in all white furs over which his long, white mane of hair cascaded.
“Don’t waste your time fighting, girl. He’ll over power you every time. He is a man who can easily protect or kill. That is all he knows. It is his duty to protect you on this journey. Let him.”
The full blooded Ljósálfar knew Kenna could read minds and therefore receive any messages he’d send to hers. He had a number of his own abilities, which he kept, like any wise elder, in reserve until they were absolutely needed. Meryl was being kind by explaining the way of the warrior to her.
Kenna was a child of the fields and had been kept away from the war being waged between the Ljósálfar and Dökkálfr by the old woman, Siggy, who found and raised her. Tales of battles reached their small cottage but she had never encountered any warriors until her powers exerted themselves. Soon after that, a couple of keepers showed up unannounced at the small croft. A handful of warriors escorted her and the other keepers back to the sorcerer’s hall in Andarsfjord.
She settled as best she could against Vale and let him guide his dun out onto the open trail leading to the Northern Lights. She kept her eyes focused on the warriors in front of them, Leo and Gilt, as they rode out. As the morning wore on, she shuttered her mind as she had been taught by older keepers so she wasn’t constantly assaulted by Vale’s thoughts. Most of the images in his mind involved him burying his thick cock inside her as he held her beneath him on a bed of furs by the crackling fire in his cottage. She had encountered Ljósálfar males who had entertained such thoughts about her before but his lust was unyielding.
Kenna reasoned by early evening that having her rear settled on the same mount in front of him for hours on end was fueling his incredibly vivid imagination. At every attempt she made to pull herself slightly forward on the steed, to put space between them, he swiftly drew her back.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully until they reached the borealis which floated between the worlds. The iridescent colors and shimmering flux awed Kenna who had never seen such wonder. Meryl had been there many times. He was one of the few elves who frequently ventured regularly back and forth between the worlds. Kenna and the others let him lead them across the glassy bridge.
Vale found himself enchanted not only by the handiwork of the God but the awe on Kenna’s face. He tightened his hold on her as his steed took them across the bridge. He noted the childlike wonder on her pretty face as she tilted her chin upwards to look at the moving colors. At one point she extended her arm and hand to touch it but he pulled it back without hesitation. Although he worshipped the one God, there was always the danger that some other deity or sky dragon might snatch her out if his arms.
At that moment she turned her face up at him. Vale blinked. Her eyes weren’t the ice, elvish blue he expected. They were large, almond shaped and almost black – human eyes. He gazed into her limitless pools and felt a stab in his chest. Vale noticed how the colors danced over her dark eyes and along her soft, curved cheek. She smiled innocently at him. She was far lovelier than he ever imagined. He set his jaw and looked away. It wasn’t wise for warriors to show their emotions.
Two more days passed and on the third a large blue spruce was found and cut down by the men. Later that night, Kenna studied Vale from across the fire pit while enjoying the scent of the tree. He hadn’t pay her much attention on the journey and even scowled at her on occasion. He still thought about undressing her in his mind and taking her on his furs, though. His thoughts were often more intense. She was still curious to know what the runes sung. Kenna was attracted to him but also annoyed by his incessant thoughts. She was more than a play thing and a pathetic charge on the back of his horse.
“Will you stop!” Kenna finally snapped in front of the other warriors and Meryl, who took to sharpening their blades. “I can read your mind, you foolish man.”
Vale turned his face toward hers, steeled his jaw and glared. He inhaled deeply, and exhaled a wave of anger. He had no idea Kenna possessed powers to that extent. Vale inwardly railed at having his private thoughts read by the very woman he’d been fantasizing about for days. His desire for her was undeniable. He normally didn’t spend hours pining over women but he had never been so drawn to one particular woman before.
“Don’t you think that’s a bad habit and bad manners?” He chided.
Before Kenna replied Meryl raised a hand to silence them. All ears perked up and the wolf dogs began to growl. They were not alone.
Vale quietly shifted his position and pulled his halberd from its sling. It was the second time in minutes he was caught off guard and it angered him further. He swore to himself he would make Kenna pay someday for being such a distraction. She deserved to be placed over his knee and given a good spanking. On the other side of the fire he noticed her jaw dropped. She picked up his thought. He suddenly realized he was going to have fun with his little mind reader.
“Enough!” Commanded Meryl while reprimanding their minds with his own. “Your lover’s dance is going get us killed.”
The other warriors had risen to defensive positions. Their axes were drawn. Leo and Gilt readied their bows. They would loose arrows into the darkness if they had to. Meryl, who stood closest to the fire, concealed an ancient Ljósálfar sword under his white cloak.
“Use your dust, girl,” he ordered. “Put that fire out now!”
Kenna reach into the small leather pouch slung her shoulder and quickly withdrew a small green bottle. She stepped closer to the fire. While doing so an incoming arrow flew through the air and narrowly missed her body. She took another brave step and unplugged the vessel.
“Quick, we’re open targets!” Meryl seethed.
She shook the dust in the bottle over the flames. All of the embers magically died before the powder hit the pit. They were now standing under the big, moonless sky. Starlight and their senses were their only guides.
Enemy arrows continued to slice the air. Meryl told the bowmen to loosen their own. They let out a round and heard a few cries as their arrows struck targets hidden in the darkness. They hit a couple of the Dökkálfr attempting to ambush them. As one of the warriors from the enemy party fell, Kenna crept into his mind with her own seizing his last thoughts.
“Help me, Luri,” cried the dark elf as his eyes closed forever. Kenna wondered who Luri was and passed the thought on to Meryl.
“Show yourself, Luri!” The elder commanded.
“Give us the girl, Meryl,” replied a menacing voice. “Then you can go back to hauling your rotten wood.”
Kenna blinked. She tried to press into the mind of that voice but met a sealed door instead. It was a well-protected mind. She instinctively knew Luri was quite sinister.
“Nice try lovely,” was followed by an arrogant laugh.
Vale snarled and the wolf dogs growled. They were dealing with a dark magician. It put him and his men at a disadvantage. He adored Kenna but at the moment wished they had a more seasoned keeper with them. She would be no match for Luri. The dark elf’s ruthless reputation preceded him and the fact that he came in person for her meant the Dökkálfr wanted her badly. Vale realized that Kenna’s powers were unsurpassed. He swore to himself he wouldn’t let Luri get his hands on her.
Kenna caught Vale’s thought and recalled the dire feeling the runes left her with.
“Get over here, little one!” He seethed.
That sinister laugh followed. Kenna turned towards Vale but she inwardly knew his axe was useless now. Luri wasn’t going to physically fight. Unpracticed Kenna pushed at her palms with her mind. She was a keeper of the flame and had seen what the more seasoned keepers could do. She felt a brief burning on the inside of her palms before cobalt blue flames swirled inside them.
“You Northerners are all fire and air,” Luri laughed.
Kenna inhaled deeply. She knew she was different, the dark ones did too. They wouldn’t have followed them to old Earth without reason. Kenna needed more information. She quickly realized that although Luri was a seasoned magician who knew how to shutter his mind, those with him weren’t so skilled or wise. She deciphered his second’s thoughts quite easily.
Long ago the Ljósálfar were given the command of fire and air while the dark elves were granted power over earth and water. Luri and his men believed she might possess the power of all the elements.
She thought about it for half a second. Was it possible? Why did they believe this? She pushed the thoughts away when an incoming arrow hit Vale. She heard him swear. She reached for him in the darkness and in doing so fell and sliced her hand on a jagged rock protruding up from the ground. The blue light in her palm went out as blood oozed from the cut.
Vale had pulled the arrow out his shoulder and flung it to the ground. He reached for Kenna and pulled her against his chest. She heedlessly pressed her bloody palm to his fresh wound. Vale growled as she touched him. Kenna felt all of his love and desire for her flow into her. She felt all of his remorse from his hard life and his desires for peace and a family. She saw herself and the world through his eyes as a burning sensation flooded her body. They were being bound by blood.
Kenna understood the smiles of the elders now. They had been fated and her warrior wasn’t just a life mate. He was also a key. Kenna understood. She called forth fire and cauterized the wound on his shoulder. Vale grimaced then gave her a knowing look before they heard Leo cry. They both turned to see a large, whirling dervish of blackness towering above them. Without thinking, Kenna stood up, raised her palms, focused her powers and stilled the sand. The particles were suspended in midair.
Others gasped as the older magician’s handiwork bent to her will.
“The full gift!” Meryl whispered.
The others gasped. None of them had ever seen a keeper who possessed the power of the four elements before.
Kenna muttered words that came to her mind and transformed the sand into snowy powder and let it fall to the ground. She then let a flood of new sensations wash over her. The feeling she had carried for many months of being an untrained keeper were gone. She knew her powers. Their secrets filled her.
Vale stood up next to her but partially guarded her figure out of habit. Kenna placed her hand in his. He looked down at her in awe. Because of their bond, Vale knew what she was pondering. He told her with his mind what he would do.
He shouted to Meryl and the other Ljósálfar warriors. The elder cast a safe guard around them before Kenna chanted a few words in the ancient elvish tongue, waved her free hand and called the power of air. The fastest way to end the fray was to take it instead of stirring it. She drew it from the Dökkálfr half a lea away. The sounds of gasping and rasping echoed in the darkness. The dark elves where suffocating as she called for the breath in their bodies.
“Retreat!” Cried Luri.
His distraught mind leaked his thoughts for the first time.
He had cast a quick safeguard for himself, his second and another dark elf standing close by but he knew it wouldn’t hold for long. He knew his other men were dying behind him. He turned and fled with his two remaining warriors into the Scandinavian forest, abandoning the rest of their entourage.
Kenna felt wobbly after destroying the Dökkálfr. She had never willfully sought to hurt or kill anyone before. She leaned against Vale as she regained her composure. He put his arm around her and stroked her hair.
“You have all four powers, little one.” He said in deep voice. “What do you think this means?”
“For starters, she replied, “We can bring the tree home in peace.”
Four days later, the massive tree was hauled up with ropes, steadied and tethered. Afterwards the young and old decorated it with wooden stars, pinecones, white feathers, and hundreds of small candles. After the Yule tree was finished, Kenna stepped back from it and lifted her palms. As the keeper who selected the tree, she had to light it this year.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. Every candle wick flared to life illuminating the great hall. Light flickered off the crystalline stones and granite containing bits of mica giving the walls a golden glow. The feasting tables were lined with tall candles which roared to life as did the lamps in the wrought iron sconces lining the walls. The warm light, a happy mood and scent of fresh pine filled Gimle. People reveled in the magic of the moment. Musicians perched in the corner of the room began to play Christmas reels which added to the festive air.
Kenna felt a familiar pair of eyes on her and turned around. As her smiling mate stepped closer to her, the ground began to rumble. Vale’s thoughts of stripping her naked and consummating their bond on his furs were interrupted by the shaking walls. He cupped Kenna’s chin and tilted it upwards. He stared into her dark eyes.
“I will bed you after we deal with those ice giants out there.”