MY MOTHER WAS A BARBARIAN
My mother cut all of her hair off with a shard of broken bone so that it would not tangle when she roamed the highlands. She carried an axe that glinted in the sunshine like the holy symbol of a furious god. I didn’t understand, back then, that she was a raging deity in her own right — crouching over fires and telling stories to our people that could illuminate the nights like the stars on high mountain midnights.
She owned those highlands, those wildlands. I was born out of a gaping gash in her skull and the howling fjords themselves — covered in blood and sweat. My mother didn’t need a man to scale mountains and ford rivers and scrape the fat off skins with her teeth, so she bore a child without one too, though I still don’t know how. Perhaps my father was a trader, or even a deity — or perhaps I truly did come out of her skull. It matters little.
Here, where the land is wild like everywhere was at the dawn of the world, I follow the paths that our ancestors made for us. My mother was a barbarian, so I am a barbarian.
I will have allies because my mother had allies. Once, when I was barely taller than her knee, she told me that the secret to staying alive is making sure that when the raging bears are chasing you, you have an ally at your side or an enemy to outrun.
“Never underestimate being light of foot, Chimola,” my mother would say. “Don’t carry so many useless belongings that you cannot charge when you need to charge and run when you need to run.”
Elzaren can’t charge. Chains fasten shimmering silver plates to his broad shoulders, leaving him less man and more statue. He seems capable with sword and shield, but every evening he sheds these weapons to eat his rations with pitiful utensils that look strangely cultured in his warrior hands. He shrugs off all of his armor each night before he sleeps, only to don it again the next morning. He babbles endlessly in his sleep of his lover, who he misses beyond all scope of understanding. I accept Elzaren mostly because I can outrun him — but I also like him because I like his voice when he sings prayerful hymns to his beloved gods. He thinks he worships when no one can hear him, but the children of frozen fjords always hear — because they always listen.
We are not a duo, but a trio. Our third, Suka, can’t hear Elzaren’s prayers over the furious winds, yet can read the stars for directions like a master cartographer. Suka is far more mysterious than Elzaren, with ragged mismatched cloth eternally wrapped around their slight form that seems to swirl and conceal everything but the being’s black eyes. Their voice sounds like gravel underfoot from the riverbeds of the melted lands, garbled whispers through layers of wool and linen. Elzaren says that Suka at the center must be a small man, because such a slight woman could never survive on the tops of mountains with only thin fabrics covering her fragile body. But I know better. My mother suckled me on these cliffs — fully woman, fully vulnerable, nearly invincible. Neither Elzaren nor I have asked Suka about their nature, though, mostly for fear of losing their aid. For it is the bursts of flame that emerge from their hands that keep us alive at night and melt frozen streams so that we can drink by day. We would be fools to risk losing those flames.
“We are under the great circlet,” Suka says tonight, tracing a pattern of stars above us. “That is good omen from your gods, right Elzaren?”
Elzaren’s knuckles are bluer than his eyes, clutching his precious spoon — brittle from the cold. But when he leans back and examines the stars, his eyes shine as though he is not suffering. “Back home, the priests used to call it circulus autem salutis — the circle of health. It used to appear in our skies in the same month as the barley harvest.”
“The barley harvest?” Suka’s dark and unkempt eyebrows lower in concern. “Does not that happen in the ninth month?”
“Aye,” Elzaren nods. “What of it?”
“Your homeland — Bynta, yes? Is it not just below these cliffs?”
“It would take many days of long travel, but yes.”
“If it truly is the ninth month,” Suka groans and shudders, “we are on the threshold of deep winter. The air will soon become unbearable from cold.”
I have never found a winter I could not bear, but I know these two are not barbarians. “Perhaps,” I concede, “we should start traveling through the night. Your maps speak for themselves; we are getting closer and closer to the Golden Gorge. If only we can make it there and get Xantho her gold, then we could shortcut this entire route and descend far enough down towards the lowlands that I won’t wake up to find you both frozen solid. We can be back to Bynta before the new year.”
“I hate being a mercenary,” Suka grunts, and Elzaren cringes. I do not believe he thinks of himself as a mercenary, but instead as a vessel on a holy mission for his homeland and his gods.
“Would it be safe to walk through the night?” Elzaren frowns. For a trained warrior with a divine purpose, he seems awfully nervous about what lurks in the darkness.
“I will keep my axe drawn,” I reply. “Suka is right. We are reaching a point where we have no choice.”
Elzaren chuckles — deep and strange and cynical. “We aren’t all as tall and strong as the mountains, Chimola. Not all are made to survive icicles in our veins and the midnight raids of cliff-dwelling spirits. We will die.”
He ends this statement with a matter-of-fact sigh — crossing his arms and slumping against a cliffside that does little to shelter us from the spiteful nature of these lands.
Suka shrugs. “Suit yourself, Elzaren. I thought you longed to be home, but if you’d rather spend your remaining nights shivering on cliffs and in caves than by your lover’s side, that is your choice.”
Elzaren’s cheeks grow blood red with shame and frostburn in the deepening cold. He fumbles through his pack beside him — bulky with rations and bedrolls and the woolen socks that he wears at night. Finally, he pulls a small locket out, wrapped carefully inside blankets and bandages to protect the delicate silver. He opens it gingerly and stares at the picture inside with a sense of fragile wistfulness in his eyes — a fragile wistfulness that leads good men to die.
“I’m sure she is very beautiful,” I say, though he has never shown me the picture inside. Another mystery between us — like Suka. “You will return to her very soon — I can feel it.”
He does not reply, but tonight we will walk through the darkness. Suka is nestled comfortably on my shoulder — thin fingers tracing ancient patterns in the sky, shouting directions over the screeching wind. Every once in a while, the howling winds take a different tone, something akin to a child crying. Elzaren looks around intently when he hears the mysterious child weeping through the mountain’s trickery. The true Byntan storybook hero traveling with his two peculiar companions— searching for the gold, the glory, and the child to rescue.
I have said before that this land is as wild now as it was at the dawn of the world. By day, one can see a thousand mountains and tundras and frozen glacial seas — all whiter than the wool of a blemishless lamb. If snow is not whipping through the cliffs and fjords, one can see beyond the frozen lands — all the way to emerald green highlands and even to the wild deserts that Suka once hinted offhandedly to being home. The view is mesmerizing, but rarely enjoyed during this season. Snow falls like stones, piling up on Elzaren’s pauldrons and freezing in Suka’s eyebrows.
“Your hair is so tangled,” they say as they pull chunks of snow out of my thick black curls, darker than the starless sky. “Do you ever even wash it?”
“Do you even have hair to wash?” I grumble.
I suspect that Suka is grinning under the many layers of cloth. “My people don’t have hair on their heads, only eyebrows. And you don’t really need to wash those.”
Elzaren gawks at Suka. Even under his thick hood, his blonde halo shines in the pale arctic moonlight. He is the youngest of us, I believe, for though we havjjjje traveled many days and nights with neither razor nor clean knife, he is beardless. The skin of his cheeks and neck is instead always a guilty red, as though he is in a perpetual state of embarrassment for his youth We walk on in silence.
We journey on under the assumption that the Golden Gorge exists. There is a myth regarding the natural phenomenon in the folklore of each of our cultures — in every culture, I believe, of a river frozen into white glass with cliffs rising bravely on either side of it. These cliffs, allegedly full of veins of purest gold, give the gorge its name — its legend.
When the stars we navigate by are lost to growing storm clouds, Suka resorts to a primitive compass hanging around their neck. Sometimes, when the wind and ice rage against us, Suka lose their temper and send an arc of furious fire into whatever direction we’re walking.
I think Elzaren prays for these moments of temper. He inhales the pure heat of Suka's magic like new life into his failing lungs. To me, it feels like we are walking through our own funeral pyre.
“If my calculations are correct, we should be to Veld Peak and the gorge by tomorrow’s sundown,” Suka says suddenly.
“Veld Peak?” Elzaren’s eyes darken. “When I heard the tales as a child, the gorge was always in Ester Mountain?”
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” Suka retorts, “but the Byntans don’t know hell about anything outside of their borders — certainly not directions.”
“Well, at least you know if a Byntan is a man or a woman when you meet them,” Elzaren snaps in return. “You wouldn’t know much about that, eh?”
Suka stares at Elzaren for a long time, and I begin to wonder if the being can channel their fiery magic through their eyes to slowly burn Elzaren into ash left on the side of a mountain, mixed with the snow, just like the dead winter grasses in the lowlands below.
“I tell you nothing because I do not trust you,” they whisper after a long stretch of silence. “What have you told me of yourself? That you’re in love with a piece of jewelry? That you dislike me? That you fear darkness? We’re mercenaries with the same goal, not friends. I don’t know what you’d like me to disclose.”
Elzaren nearly chokes on his own cold spit. “You belittle me. I would tell you everything — I don’t care. I don’t have secrets! I was born in Bynta, the land that you mock, in the first month of the lunar year. I serve the mighty gods of Bynta and the high king and queen of Bynta, may their reign never end! I met my love when I was ten — her name is Beatrice, you demon of fire and hate! I am only here to serve my country — I accepted this quest to prove myself to Lady Xantho so that she will appoint me to serve in the royal guard protecting the palace. See? I’m not afraid to reveal the man I am! I dislike you because you’re rude to me and dishonor my people! Since I was a child, I have feared the dark! Tell me now — what secret is there that I will not tell you of myself? Furthermore, what has Chimola told you of herself? Why do you always come after me and not her?”
Suka grinds their teeth in defeat. “What then of you, Chimola?”
I blink placidly, suddenly feeling the weight of a body on my back — and a thousand years of she-barbarians and their legends carved into my soul. Unlike Elzaren and Suka, I am not cold here. The lucky bearskin fastened over my shoulders and my head warms my brown skin — thick and scarred from a thousand mercenary journeys just like this one.
“I am Chimola. I was born out of my mother’s forehead in a snowstorm not unlike this one. My mother raised me to sleep in the snow, as she did, until a direbear sent her to our final home in the sky when I was a youth. Though I was but a wolf pup, I hunted this direbear for many years — a giant creature with fur smooth like an ebony sea who was missing its’ left eye. By the time I found its’ cave, I was no longer a youth. I took the beast’s right eye — its whole head, for that matter. I bested him and took his skin to honor my mother. That’s what I wear for protection from the storm when I wander the same cliffs and mountains that she did. My mother’s honor warms my bones. My mother was a barbarian, so I am a barbarian.”
No one dares utter a word until we stop briefly for the night meal.
We serve under the lovely hand of Lady Xantho, who hired us covertly as mercenaries to harvest a satchel of the mythical gold. I have never met her, only her henchmen, but the rumors say that she is more beautiful than a thousand stars — the crown jewel of Byntan aristocracy. She’s shrewd too, they say. None of us know why she wants the gold because no one dared ask her, because she is beautiful, I suppose.
According to Suka, we are a single night away from where the legendary gorge will be. They have meticulously gathered the most reliable of myths and maps and theories to pinpoint the exact location of the mystery. I don’t particularly know where we are, but I never know the names of the mountains, only the unique sound that the wind makes when it swirls around each of them.
Here, there is no sky, only great sheets of ice and snow flying at us. Elzaren’s cheeks have shifted from red to a violet, so every time we stop for a brief break, Suka insists on clutching the weakening man’s face and chest — frozen to his breastplate and dark, like his now-sunken cheeks. Elzaren chews on his lips uncomfortably as Suka touches him, slowly returning his skin temporarily to its usual fair pigment. He may be undone by the hero complex that sinks into every aspect of his life. He shrinks away from the intimate touch of an unknown pagan from a faraway land — he shuns pleasure for piety, he left everything that he loves to prove that he is worthy to serve in some silly faraway palace.
Suka either doesn’t notice his uneasiness, or simply doesn’t care. They search his arms and back for frostbite — pointing out where the harsh chains and plates of his pauldrons have begun to blister his broad shoulders.
“You should really leave some of your armor here.” Suka motions at a snowy cave near us. “Rather than keep you warm and safe, it is worsening your frostbite — opening your skin more deeply than an enemy’s attacks.”
To add evidence to the argument, Suka starts to poke at Elzaren’s legs, causing him to wince painfully. They pull up his linen trousers to reveal bloody wounds on his calves and thighs beneath the edges of his armor and greaves.
“Damn it,” he groans.
“Do you even look at your own body?” Suka grasps his boot forcefully, revealing a violet colored foot. “We cannot have you dying, Elzaren. You must leave your armor here.”
I ready myself for his sharp reply, but strangely instead, Elzaren starts to cry. Softly at first, but he is quickly howling like the winter winds — like the mythic lost child. Suka furiously wipes the tears from his face before they freeze.
“I —I can’t.” Elzaren’s voice is breathy and weak. “My armor was blessed at the temple before I left. To leave it here would be to dishonor my gods.”
Suka’s bulbous black eyes remarkably seem to grow full of pity. “I’m sorry, Elzaren. You can continue to wear it if you must. I am only trying to protect you from injuring yourself further. We can bandage your arms and legs — that will help with the wounds.”
The big man’s cheeks are already fading back into darkness. Suka reaches up carefully to touch his face again, but he waves them off.
“Thank you, but I’d really rather not be touched anymore.” He pauses to think for a moment. “I feel like I’m going to die.”
“No you’re not.” I turn to meet his eyes. “You're going to make it to the Golden Gorge with us, then we will all descend to where it’s no longer snowing. When you return to Bynta, you’ll be a hero and receive your commission. Beatrice will be so proud of you, won’t she?”
Elzaren sniffles, wiping his delicate nose with shaking fingers. Though he is but a young footsoldier, he musters the grace and dignity of a royal knight, even as he weeps. “You’re right. I miss her so much.”
When we return to the frozen wilderness trek, I notice that Elzaren is limping. He pulls his right leg behind him, leaving a heavy line in the snow. This night has become a rare occasion where the skies are perfectly clear — an expanse of black sea harboring countless shimmering vessels. The moon illuminates our faces — leaving Elzaren pure white and Suka dull gray. I can only assume that I am milky brown, but I have not seen my own reflection in an unusually long time. My mother shunned mirrors, considering them some sort of bad omen. She never fretted over the knots in her hair or the mountain goat meat lodged between her teeth, so neither do I.
Though the previous night was pure and hauntingly beautiful, the morning is scarred with a familiar biting wind and freezing slurry. Suka wraps their face up in cloth until I can barely even see their eyes. They continue to sit on my shoulder, touching my eyelashes every once in a while so that they don’t freeze shut. Elzaren’s limp has worsened, now nearly incapacitated by the frigid weather around us. Even I am growing cold — a feeling I have known only a few times in my life.
“I don’t understand!” Suka’s eyes are wild and terrified. “By all of my calculations, we should be standing in the entrance to the Golden Gorge.”
“Perhaps we simply can’t see the entrance because of the horrible weather.” Though Elzaren’s voice is steady and precise, he is visibly shaking. His lips are bluer than the melted oceans of the southern lands. “We could stop and wait for it to pass.”
“But it won’t pass,” Suka retorts. “I could not bring mysef to tell you last night- the constellations of winter are here. The air will only grow more cold and the skies will only grow angrier from here on out.”
There is only a rumble of thunder in reply — so near and so loud that I cover my ears with my hands and crouch. Elzaren’s armor shakes. He’s lost so much weight that it’s far too big for him now — whether blessed by the gods or not. But when I look up and into his eyes, he doesn’t appear afraid. He keeps his head high, like a prophet charged with supernatural duty even while he shakes and deteriorates in this vicious storm of ice and wind.
We walk for many hours, though I can now scarcely determine the black clouds of the day from the night sky. Suka keeps a fire alive — waving flames out of their hands so that they fly around us in a blazing red-orange spectacle. Anywhere but the frozen tundra, this fire would burn us all alive. But today, we are eternally grateful.
“We must’ve taken a wrong turn.” Suka shakes their head, eyes glued to an intricate map in their lap.
“I don’t think we did,” I reply. “This is Veld Peak. Look up — you can tell from the shape of the mountain peak.”
Suka squints through the swirling sleet. “It’s — the most sharp and perfect spire I’ve ever seen.”
Their musings are interrupted by Elzaren stumbling and falling in front of us. I watch him — armor and sword and shield and holiness collapsing from exhaustion, frostbite, malnutrition, the land itself. For a moment, he lies face down in the snow, and I wonder if we are all going to fall here. I wonder if I am going to dishonor my mother’s heroic legacy by dying in these highlands.
I have to carry Elzaren across my shoulders like the sacred bear pelt. His heartbeat is slow and strained, but it is still rhythmic and alive. I march to it in his honor.
Despite the violent storm, we find a small cave. Suka lights a tiny, suffering fire as I try to block the entrance to protect from the wind. I bury us alive, stacking boulders until the screaming winds outside are a quiet echo. When I turn back to Suka, they are pulling off Elzaren’s armor with quick and nervous fingers.
“The chainmail really tore his skin when he fell.” Suka points to his stomach, where blood gushes from an open, angry wound. I think he has fallen on the hilt of his sword.
“If we cannot stop the bleeding somehow, he’ll die,” I reply.
Suka closes their eyes for a moment before reopening them and starting to pull at the fabric around their face. They unravel their thick coverings until the cloth is completely removed and piled up like bandages in their lap. Their hands move with diligence, applying hard pressure to the wound with the soft cloth.
“Elzaren thought you were a man,” I say tentatively, bending down to sit beside her. “He always said that such a small woman could never survive in these frozen highlands.”
“Of course he did.” Suka, despite herself, chuckles. “He is so foolish. He never should’ve embarked on this foolish quest. Honestly Chimola, he should’ve stayed with his little village girl and been satisfied as a simple foot soldier.”
I pause for a moment to look at his waning body. “I thought you were a woman though, if that makes you feel any better.”
“I don’t know. I just felt it.”
Suka smiles at me — small, white teeth glistening in the firelight, before her expression changes. “What if the Golden Gorge doesn’t even exist? What if we’ve been on this whole journey for nothing? What if the mythic gold is really just a myth after all?”
The fabric that previously covered Suka’s delicate face is now deep red with Elzaren’s blood. “Whether the gorge and the gold exist or not, we begin our descent to Bynta at tomorrow’s dawn. I can make my peace with returning empty handed, but I cannot bury a... brother — especially one so young.”
Suka nods, eyes full of duty and resilience and pain. We sit in silence for many long hours, until Elzaren weakly stirs. He coughs up droplets of blood — raising a shaking hand to clutch Suka’s unmasked face and pull her towards him.
“Did we find the gold?” He whispers.
“No, but we are descending to Bynta at tomorrow’s dawn,” she replies.
At this, he leans back and closes his eyes. “I have failed.”
“We’ll find some gold at a trading post before we get to Bynta,” Suka mumbles. “No one will know the difference. You are a hero for this effort, and you can return to claim your reward.”
“Do all heroes almost die?”
Suka’s laughter echoes through the cave in reply. “Most heroes are already dead, Elzaren, and the stories of their greatness so inflated that they’re twice the stature they were in life. You’re at an advantage in merely being alive.”
Though Suka soon dozes beside me, Elzaren’s shaky breath keeps me awake and thinking. Since my mother was taken from me, I have chased her legend through the lands of icy peaks and frozen skies. She was the only barbarian, the only one of our people that I have ever known. Tonight, for the first time, I lie awake and wonder if I have crafted her into an empty myth like the gold we sought. I wonder if she wasn’t half the warrior I remember her as. I wonder if she was not a hero of these highlands.
But, like most heroes, my mother is dead. She cannot be found in tomes of history and lore. Yet her legacy is even more sacred — alive in her daughter, not in the tales spun at bars after long adventures but in the howling, lonely mountain winds. I pull the bearskin made bloody by my companion close around my shoulders. Someday, I hope that I too will leave to my daughter this legacy of the barbarian.
Until then, I close my eyes. Tomorrow, we venture on.
THE END/ THE BEGINNING