Crossing the Syrn

Here’s a story I wrote for our story group, it’s based in a world I created for a novel, but the short story takes place about 800 years before the events of the book. The genre for the month was ‘Legend’, so I really wanted to write a legend from one of my fantasy worlds, and this is what jumped out at me. Enjoy!

It’s true, that we became heroes. We achieved what many thought was impossible, and in the end, we founded an empire. But the stories never mention the terrible details of our journey. If they do, they glorify the loss of our comrades as if their deaths make what we achieved that much more valuable.

But I can tell you the real story, and I will hold nothing back. In these latter days of my life, I can write the truth on paper without fear. For what can they do to me now, that memories, nightmares, and old age have not already done?

The story begins with a man named Thryvar Alderson, who is both much greater and much less than what the stories make him out to be. It is true that he possessed great strength, but it was a strength of boundless energy and iron will, rather than of muscle and force. He was capable of tremendous loyalty, touching compassion, and hideous cruelty.

It was this man who divided the Thyrn who split our people in two, and made me leave my homeland behind. It was terror that drove us, but it was Thryvar who led us, to safety, but also to death.

We S’myrr have always been a proud people, are known for our fierceness and ability to survive in the most extreme circumstances. But even we have enemies, and even we can be afraid. In those days, the terror came from the east, and I cannot make my pen describe those monstrous things, even after so many years. This story is not about them, anyway; it is enough to say that they threatened the very existence of our people, and that Thryvar was the one who found a way to save us.

An emergency council was held in early spring, with representatives of all thirteen tribes present. Each tribe leader spoke to the Thyrn, telling the council what they thought we should do. Some said we must ride out to meet our enemy, others that we should fortify and make a last, desperate stand. Still others said we should try and treat with our foes, to save what we could of our people.

Only one man told the Thyrn that we should run, and that was Thryvar. Had it been any other man that suggested it, the notion would have been rejected outright. For the S’myrr to run from any enemy, even one so terrible as this, was unthinkable. But Thryvar was known for his courage and valour, and so though his statement shocked the Thyrn, they listened.

The debate went on for four days, and all the while our enemy crept closer and closer, killing as they came. Thryvar was furious at the council; he raged and shouted at them, and spent the whole four days in a terrible fury. He understood pride — few had more of that than Thryvar did. But he could not fathom letting that pride destroy his people, and this he tried to make the council understand.

In the end, he managed to convince some of the tribal leaders, but not all. Seven members of the Thyrn agreed with Thryvar, and six viciously opposed him. No amount of discussion or yelling could sway either side, and so the difficult decision was reached: we would split our people, with seven tribes following Thryvar west, and six staying to face our enemy.

We were ready to leave within the month. We S’myrr do not build cities, we do not own many possessions. We took our weapons, and our medicines, and as much food and shelter as we could carry, but that was it. And so we set out, five hundred of us, to the border of our lands, the great River Syrn.

The Syrn is a wild river. You can approach it in the dead of winter, in the warm summer months, and still it rages on, unchanging, unrelenting, unforgiving. Few S’myrr have ventured onto the Syrn; none have crossed it. Yet here we were, hundreds strong, men, women and children, attempting to do what no one man had yet done.

We set up camp, and Thryvar set our men to building the rafts that we would trust our lives to. It was there, beside the roaring river, that the first seeds of doubt began to sprout. More than one of the tribe leaders approached Thryvar, asking if they should not turn back. Thryvar responded simply, saying ‘Behind us lies only death. We go across the river.’

‘The river will kill us!’ One leader replied. ‘We should turn back, and stand with our brothers.’

Here Thryvar’s dark, cruel side peeked through his calm exterior. ‘I cannot let you return. We will need all the people we can get on the other side.’ The conversation ended there, but the doubt did not. Each day we spent beside the Syrn more and more of our people questioned the wisdom of attempting a crossing.

Two weeks after our arrival at the banks of the river, the rafts were ready. We loaded supplies and people onto the first raft, our people holding the crude craft steady while those on top quivered in fear. Shardak, one of the tribal leaders, approached us, and declared: ‘I am sorry, Thryvar, but this is utter foolishness. I cannot lead my people on such a doomed venture. We are heading back.’

Thryvar did not even turn his head. ‘I told you before, I cannot allow that.’ His voice was quiet, and next to the thundering Syrn it was barely a whisper. But all who were near heard his soft comment, heard the scarcely veiled menace in Thryvar’s voice.

Shardak heard it, and ignored it. ‘We are heading back.’ He repeated. He did not get the chance to turn away. Thryvar moved, and then Shardak was on the ground, a spreading stain on his shirtfront. Thryvar turned to the gathered S’myrr, and now pitched his voice so all could hear.

‘We cannot go back!’ He cried. ‘Behind us is death. The way forward is dangerous, but it is our hope. We will cross this river, and we will survive. I will accept nothing else!’

And that was the end of it. There were no more arguments, no more hesitation. They followed him because they feared him, but also because they were in awe of him. There was no contesting that unbendable will.

The crossing was awful. The raft pitched and swayed in the river rapids, and we clung to the ropes as best we could while our men took turns paddling desperately to keep the raft on course. We were soaked within minutes, and more than once I reached out in desperation as someone was jostled overboard to be sucked into the endlessly churning waters of the Syrn. I still see their faces, still remember their names: Lavi, who wove the best cloth of anyone I knew; Valnur, who could match Thryvar stride for stride on a long hunt; and Fren, who had taught me to heal. And through it all, Thryvar stood at the centre of the raft, peering forward across the waves, looking for the land we knew had to be on the other side.

The land was there, and after an eternity we reached it, our raft considerably lighter than when we had set out. We crawled off the raft, sodden and shaken, grateful to feel solid land under our fingers. Up and down the shoreline we could see rafts, marks of where the others had landed. Thryvar stepped off the raft, calm and collected, unperturbed by the rough crossing. He led us upriver, in search of the others who had made it.

We found them huddled around a fire, trying to dry themselves and their goods before the chill of nightfall swept over us. I stared at the group; there were too few — far too few. Our raft had been the last to set out, yet in front of us were barely two hundred S’myrr, all that remained of the nearly five hundred that had set out. Thryvar walked among them, talking to each person, reassuring them, congratulating them for their valour.

He had us pitch camp with the driest tents we had, doled out what rations still remained, and sent men to back the river to fish. Two men Thryvar sent into the surrounding woods, to find a tree from which to carve a memorial for the people we had lost. I found him at it later, his head bowed, tears rolling softly through his rough beard. The monument still stands today, though it has been replaced with stone, to better withstand the ravages of time.

So we accomplished what no other S’myrr had done, and we did it because Thryvar willed it to be so. We had lost much, but we rejoiced, now that our trials were over. How foolish we were. We had but a few months to prepare for the coming cold. Winter comes early so far north.

We planted what seeds we had, and built ramshackle shelters from the trees. The river gave us fish, and the forest gave us wild boar, rabbits, and deer. Those summer months were full of work, and full of hope. They gave us time to prepare, and gave us time to heal.

Winter was worse than we could have imagined. We had known terrible winters in our homeland, but the ones on this side of the river were far worse. And the soils here were different; the seeds we planted grew into stunted, deformed pants that produced little food. We subsisted on smoked meat and fish, and what little fresh game we could find. All through the winter we shivered, and starved, and prayed for an early spring. When the first snows began to melt, only a hundred and fifty of us remained.

All through that long, dark winter, despair threatened us as much as hunger and cold. But Thryvar was always there, always encouraging, buoying us up with the strength of his spirit. There was no talk of dissension now; there was no place for deserters to go. And so we survived, and once again spring brought us food, life, and hope.

The details of those first few years I will not record here; the tale of how we learned to work the soil, of the city we began to build, are all recorded in Bathar’s Chronicles. For that portion of our history, at least, the Chronicles are accurate.

Thryvar kept the tradition of the Thyrn, having elected leaders form a council that made all major decisions for our people. But there was a very important difference between the new Thyrn and the one back home: here, Thryvar ruled above the council, as the sole leader of our people.

No one contested him, for he had led us through the raging wild of the river, and through the dark despair of fierce winters. It was only later, when we encountered a new people, the Amuri, that Thryvar’s ambition and cruelty became truly apparent.

I will tell that tale too, but for now I grow weary, and must rest my pen. But I can assure you I will write only the truth, as I knew it; and I think I can say I know it better than any, for I stood beside Thyvar. I admired him, I loved him, I bore his sons. And more than anything, I feared him.

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