Image Flash #34
Super windy and warm today so I tossed in some opposite weather; cold and still. Seems to have worked well with the image!
The sea was a gray, still slab as Jarn sailed across it. The breeze carried an icy chill despite being too weak to raise a wave. He pulled his cloak tight and nuzzled his chin into the fabric. His opalescent sails were fine, almost lighter than air, and they managed to catch just enough of the feeble zephyr to move him along, albeit slowly.
The speed didn’t bother him. Neither did the cold. Odds were, considering where he was going, he’d long for the cold soon enough.
The cloudy half light of approaching twilight filled the sky as his destination finally came into view; a tall, crooked, pinnacle of an island stabbing up from the horizon. Even from here, he could see the orange glow on the shoreline and the black smoke rising. The fires were well lit. Eliara had been right to summon him. He hoped that he was right in coming alone.
As the bank drew closer the source of the light, and plumes, became clear. Three enormous metal funnels rose up from the rocky earth, each as tall as a castle tower. Flames licked from their mouths as they belched noxious fumes from their throats. The landscape, aside from the fiery monoliths, was rocky and barren stone, wrapped in winters shroud.
Eliara was standing in the snow, waiting for him, swaddled in her own white cloak.
As soon as he was close enough, he threw anchor out onto the land and pulled the boat in as near as he could. The tied off the rope and jumped out onto the rocks. Eliara didn’t move to join him, so he went out to meet her.
When he got within earshot she spoke and her tone was not welcoming. “What are you playing at, Jarl?”
“I was thinking we’d try something different this time.” He called back.
She scowled as he stopped before her. “It would seem we’re obligated to since you’ve already made the decision by not bringing a sacrifice.”
He met her anger with a smile. “It would seem.”
He passed her and headed for the closest of the vents. She followed.
“I’ve half a mind to force you back onto the boat.” She said.
“You could try.”
“I could do it.”
He considered. “Yes, you probably could. What does the other half of your mind think?”
“That whatever comes next is on you and I should let the consequences land where deserved. My conscience is clear.”
He stopped by the pillar and extended his hands toward the metal, warming them and enjoying the heat that radiated from it.
“You mean it’s almost clear.”
“It’s clear.” She affirmed.
He turned to face her. “Really? You’re okay with giving this beast an innocent woman every decade or so? For what? Centuries now? That’s what makes for a clear conscience these days?”
Her irritation at his suggestion was evident. “Do not twist my meaning. You know the alternative is far worse.”
“Well, that assumes certain alternatives now, doesn’t it? I’ve come to think there might be other options.”
At this she outright laughed. “Please don’t tell me you’ve gotten it into your fool head to try and kill it.”
Jarl shook his head. “Oh, nothing so simple.”
“Then what? Tell me of your brilliant ideas.”
Jarl sighed. This was the part he knew wouldn’t go over so well. There was no way to make his plan sound better. To do so, he’d have to have an actual plan and not just an idea. He didn’t.
“Do you remember, all those years ago, when the beast was loose upon the world? When we tried every way to kill it and failed. When all of our kin died but us in the endeavor? When we finally set upon seeking terms with the dragon and it agreed. We built it this place, set this signal, and then became the keepers of the contract?”
“It has been bothering me, for a very long time now, but I think there is something we forgot to do.”
Eliara narrowed her eyes. “Humanity has thrived since the containment of the dragon. For a pittance of life we’ve ensured the safety of generations. What is it you think we did not accomplish?”
“We never took the time to ask it why it wanted what it asked for. Hell, we never even negotiated. We saw the price was so low and did as it asked.”
She nodded. “Yes, exactly! Of course. Only a fool would not have snatched peace at such a bargain.”
“Then I guess I’m a fool.” He craned his neck and looked up at the metal towers, simmering fire, above him. “Call me what you may, but over so many years, even such a small price has begun to wear on me. The older I get, the more I see value in each of them, of their capacity to set things in motion generations after they’re gone. I wonder, sometimes, about the very first woman we gave it. About the children she would have had, and their children, and so on. It’s not just one girl every decade. It’s all the potential within them, and beyond. It is tens of thousands. And I think it knows this.”
Jarl stepped away from the column and stared directly at Eliara. “I can’t do it anymore. It ends. Now.” He said.
She considered his words. “I still don’t understand what you’re planning on doing.”
“I’m going down there to talk to it. I’m going to try and understand it. To renegotiate a new deal that doesn’t involve sacrifice. If I have to, I’ll fight it.”
She cringed at his last words. “You can’t kill it.”
“I know. But we’ve lived a long time. We’re not without magic of our own now. I don’t think it can kill us either.”
She turned from him, looking out at the flat expanse of sea. Night had fallen far enough that the sky and the water blurred into single dark gray palate. Gulls cawed as they headed in for their nests for the evening.
“I’ve felt the burden too, but see no other course. What you suggest, the consequences could be terrible. You’re sure about this?”
Jarl walked up and put his hands on her shoulders, looking out at the waters with her.
“I am. The only thing I’m not sure about is if I’ll be doing it alone or if I’ll have my sister at my side.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “It would seem I’m obligated, wouldn’t it?”
He smiled. “It would seem.”
She took his hand. He was glad for it.
They left the beach and descended into the earth.