We rode north into grim forbidden lands under an iron sky, behind us the smoke of conquest, before us the wilderness of our enemies’ last bastion. It was the great and bitter day after the breaking of the Black Gate, when the Hrunar – the bitterest scourge of man – were at last broken and defeated. It was the end of an age, and I rode with a dozen companions to put a final end to it. I was Umor, war-chief of my clan, and the blood of the Argath ran in my veins - the sons of the war-frenzy. On that day I might have been king of my people, but I chose revenge over a throne.
Behind us rose the smoke of the burning fortress, that old and terrible stronghold of the giants torn down at last. The sky was heavy with clouds in the deep winter, and a thousand ravens flew overhead awaiting the feast as thousands of the slain lay upon the glutted snows. At the end, when we broke the gate itself and flooded into the fortress, each giant found himself beset by a dozen armored slayers with red swords and a hunger for slaughter. Then our king Bal faced the Hrunar champion Hel-Toth in single combat, and all stood and stared as they clashed upon the bloodied stone.
At the end, my king fell crushed and slain, and the Hrunar bore their champion from the field, wounded nigh to death. I knew if he lived, they would come again, and the victory this day would mean nothing, so, battle-weary and blooded, I gathered my best companions and rode north, away from the battle, following the trail of the escaping giant thanes and their fallen war-lord. On battered horses, in our rent and dented armor, with swords already notched from killing, we rode into the eternal forests, where the Hrunar dwelled in secret places, and the wilderness belonged to Karaunos, The Howling God.
No man had set foot in these lands; they were a place of terrors and legend. The trees towered high above us, bigger than any we had seen. They cut away the sky so we rode into an eternal twilight, and we bore no torches to light our way, for they would herald our coming. We did not know what kinds of beasts lurked in these forests, what guards might await us to try and stop our quest.
I was wounded on that war-trail, as were most of us. Armor might prevent the cutting of flesh by giant swords or axes, but nothing could prevent the battering inflicted by the Hrunar in battle. At the gate three men fell for every one of them we dragged down. I knew how few of us there were, I knew it was likely none of us would return. But I would die or be sure that Hel-Toth was dead, to bring back his black sword and his horned helm, with his accursed head still inside.
We rode single file, watchful, swords and spears ready laid across our saddle-bows. The horses did not like this country, and they sniffed and snorted and tossed their heads. They were already weary, but I swore I would ride them to death before I turned back. I would walk if I had to. The trail was easy to follow, for the giants were not light of step, and they left a wide swath in the snow, dappled with dark blood, and as night fell we found one fallen out in the drift of a snow bank, dead.
I took it as a good sign, for it meant they drove hard, not deigning to stop for a wounded comrade. It meant they would not bother with tricks to try and throw off pursuit, if they even conceived of us daring to follow. We could not know if they even suspected our presence.
They answered that in the deep hours of night. Under the trees, with winter low in the sky, we had no light, and were forced to light torches to see our path, and by the glow of the flames we saw them when they came for us. Four of them burst from the dark of the trees, massive and terrible as things out of the darkest tales.
To see a Hrun in battle is to be tested to the limit of courage. They stood half again the height of a man, and in armor and horned helm they were faceless and massive. Their first charge left three of us dead, as their great battle-swords and long-handled axes split armor and flesh and bone. One man lived only because the blow meant for him swept the head from his horse and loosed a torrent of blood that blinded the giant.
Before it could recover I spurred to the attack, my war-horse eager to come to blows. My long spear was like a bolt of lighting in my hands as I smote it upon the giant’s helm and shattered one of the curving horns even as the blade of my lance snapped off from the force. The giant staggered, and I clawed for my sword-hilt even as I swung my shield around from my back.
All around me men screamed war cries and hurled themselves into battle against their ancestral foes. They hacked at the giants with axe and sword and spear, chopped at them like trees. I saw my half-brother cleave into a giant’s leg and fell him, only to receive a blow upon his breastplate from a great axe in return. The stroke sheared through steel and split his heart in half, hurled him aside like a child’s toy.
I screamed in wrath, feeling the power of the Argath in my veins, making me stronger. I set spurs to my horse and lunged at the fallen Hrun, my heavy sword on high. Before it could rise I swept the blade down in a terrible arc that clove into his shoulder, crumpling armor and almost severing his head. Blood spurted into the air, and my remaining men gave a cry of savage joy to see such a stroke.
A giant lunged at me and I raised my shield, took the terrible buffet of a war club and went crashing from the saddle to the bloodied snow. I rolled to my feet, shaking off the daze of the blow as the giant loomed over me. His shield was like a wall, but even as he moved to overwhelm me, my men lunged from the sides and cut at him, their swords ringing on his armor. He turned and I had an opening. My sword came down, earning another notch as it smashed against his breastplate and rove through to snap his ribs.
He fell, and I leaped upon him, put my foot on his helmet. All I could see were his eyes, staring in terrible, primal fury, then I stabbed down into his neck and blood poured out and stained the snow. I ripped my sword free and looked around in the sudden quiet. The Hrunar lay dead, butchered in the dark, and some of my men lay with them. Now we were only six.
We cut the heads from the fallen Hrun, and hung them from tree limbs by their long braids. Our own men we laid in a heap and piled with brush, and then we set them afire. The smoke boiled up, and the fire clawed to the unseen sky above us. They knew we were upon their trail; there was no need to hide now. Let them see, let them know we were coming.
The poor rearguard heartened us. Only four left behind to stop us meant they were few, and could spare no more than that. We pressed on through the cold hours of the night, hearing the trees move above us in the wind, a constant rustle as of some great thing breathing. I saw then why some men told of the forest as a living thing, a giant asleep in the night of the world. We bore our torches among the huge trunks, each one as big around as a tower, each one older than the memory of our own race.
I first heard, then, in the deep cold of morning before the light, the howl of Karaunos. It could be nothing else, in this accursed land. The stories told that the Hrunar god was no unseen force upon a distant mountain who cast down lightning to scourge the unfaithful. No, their god was said to be flesh and blood, as real as any man. It walked among the ancient trees as it had for untold ages, left tracks upon the earth where it trod, and in the darkest hours of night it howled. The men who stood the watch on the border walls spoke of it.
I heard it then. The terrible, deep-throated bellow of something primordial and savage. It was no wolf, not the cry of a forest lion or a bull or the bell of a stag. It was like the voice of a mountain, and it thrummed inside us, echoing through the trees. Each of us looked up, as though we would see there some hoary giant out of ancient days. I imagined a Hrun as tall as a castle tower, bearded and white-eyed, its braid twined with bones and antlers.
Three times it howled, and we knew it moved, the sound growing farther from us each time. That was the most fearful thing about the sound – it moved, and so we knew it was no trick of the night, not wind or a river roaring in the dark. It was real. Something walked in those forest hills, and it cried out wordless defiance to the night.
We looked at one another, pale in the light of our torches. I believe I almost lost them then. They would have fled back to the gate if I had not been there. They saw in my face that I would ride on alone if they abandoned me, and that shamed them. They took harder grip on sword and axe-haft, and they followed. For myself, I would not be turned aside. I would make certain that Hel-Toth was dead as the stones, or I would die in the seeking.
The trail was easy to follow, churned through the snow and painted with blood, and as day began to break we rode faster. Our one advantage was the speed of horse that allowed us to follow at their heels, and now with the sun rising we would surely overtake them. I rode at the head of my five remaining men, my eyes keened for trap of ambush. I knew they would stand and fight, and I watched for signs, ready for them to turn at bay.
We climbed up a long, rock-strewn slope and emerged from the trees as dawn turned the sky from black to deadly gray. Snow fell all around us, covering the hillside as it rose up and up to a wide, open pinnacle. The trail led us there, and to the circle of massive stones where our enemies waited. I gripped my sword and spurred my horse to a last climb, knowing it would not last much longer. All of us were on our last threads of strength, all wounded and battered, and yet we would not cease.
Smoke boiled up from a fire on the hilltop, in among the menhirs, and on that barren, snow-covered hillside the last of our enemies came down and met us sword-to-sword in a last embrace of death. There were six of them, as there were of us, and they came down on us like a storm. Huge and armored, wielding their great two-handed swords and their axes as long as a man is tall, they towered in their heavy mail and wolf-hide mantles, the horns on their helms making them seem even less human. They were a sight to stir the blood to terror, and lift the hands to war.
I howled my battle cry of man against the shadowy legions of night and monstrous enemies, and I rode to meet them. And then there was a last, terrible convulsion of war upon the earth. The stroke of a great blade split the skull of my steed and sent him to the ground in a gush of red. I fell hard upon the rocks and flung up my shield as another blow fell, and it rove through the elder planks and split it from my arm, leaving me with only shards hanging from the straps.
I sprang up and stabbed up under the Hrun’s breastplate, brought blood coursing down my sword. He smashed his hilt against my helm and staggered me. I fell, rolled and got to my feet, slipping on the snow, the blood under me. The giant came for me again and I felt the golden power of the Argath in my arms as I met his stroke, the power of the steel ringing shook me like the note of a bell. I struck back and cut through his mail, wounded his arm, and when his guard dropped I cut him ferociously on the neck, splitting the straps of his helm.
He toppled in a freshet of red, and his body rolled down the hillside. I turned and saw my men half dead, only two of them still fighting, and yet only three of the Hrunar remained on their feet. Even as I rushed to join my warriors in their last stand, the terrible sound of the horn bellowed over the hill.
I turned and looked up, saw on the edge of the stone circle a vast horn the size of a man, or larger. Propped up on a great stone cradle, a bent and hunched Hrun blew into it and sent forth a terrible sound, like the howl of the primordial god in the night. The note shook in my skull and set pain pounding inside my veins.
I rushed up the hill, but the Hrunar were in my path, and I was like a man possessed, the power of my berserker ancestors making me roar like a lion as I attacked with all the strength in my arms. I evaded the downward smash of a great axe and when I struck back my blow crashed upon his helm, bursting the brazen faceplate and sending him to his knees as blood poured from inside. I drove my sword through him, ripped it loose and stabbed in again. The giant fell, and I let him tumble past me, slide down the hill in the bloodied snow.
I turned and saw the last Hrun on his knees, clutching the spear that transfixed his throat, and then my man ripped it loose and his companion struck off the giant head and let it fall. I remained, as did two of my men, one of them clutching a wounded side, and his pale face told me he would not live long.
Another blast ripped from the great horn and I turned again to the hill. I ran up the slope, my men following behind as best they could. My bloodied sword trailed red behind me as I leaped into the circle and confronted the old Hrun at the horn. He did not stop, did not give way. I saw his face, gnarled and coiled as a root, his braids as long as his body, draped over his shoulders. His beard reached his feet, knotted with bones.
He did not stop blowing that terrible horn, even as I lifted my sword to strike him down. And then he fell silent before my blade could kill, and I heard that dreadful howl come from the forest below, and I knew with horror what place this was. This was a shrine of Karaunos, and here was where they enacted their bloody rites in honor of their bestial god. Here was the place where they called him from the forest.
The old Hrun laughed at me then, and I struck off his head with a sweep of my battle-blade. I cursed him and spat on his twitching corpse. My men reached my side, exhausted and blooded and afraid, and we all looked down the slope to where the colossal trees stood like a wall out of first ages. And among those titan trunks, something walked.
The great trees shrugged and surged like a tide, and then the great form of the unseen emerged into the thin light. It went on four legs, not two, and it had the look of something like a bull, only vaster by far. It towered high among the trees, shaggy and ponderous, its hair twined with dead vines and blackened branches. Great tusks rose from its stained mouth, and two massive horns thrust forward from the skull and curved upward in a sweep like crescent moons. Each tusk was longer than a man, and the horns were like the prows of great warships, black and gleaming.
I stared at it as it emerged into light. This was no simple monster, this was a relic out of howling ages, an atavism of primitive nature from before the dawn of men. It was a mountain of flesh, its footfalls shaking the earth as it climbed towards us, seeming to grow larger with every step. It threw back its hairy head and opened wide its jaws, and it howled forth its dominion over this ancient, primal landscape. This was Karaunos, the god of the Hrunar in flesh.
We could not fight it, not a thing like that. It might be hunted as whales are hunted, by many men with spears and iron courage, knowing they would die. We were only three, weary and weakened. I knew we could not escape. Our horses fled like scattering blackbirds at the coming of the beast, and we were too weak to run on foot. The smell of blood was in the air, and that drew it; it would not turn aside.
All that remained was to see if my task was accomplished. They had brought Hel-Toth to this place with desperate haste. Was it to revive him, or to ensure his ghost was taken to that dark land they believed awaited the brave? I turned from the monster god, even as one of my two companions lay back against the stone and breathed his last, overcome by his wound.
That left two of us to race back among the stones as the footfalls of doom grew closer, shaking the earth beneath our feet. The beast god howled again, and this close it was a sound that crashed upon my mind and made me reel. It rang in the steel of helm and sword like a bell-note, and I answered it with my own scream.
And there, at the center of the great circle, we found Hel-Toth laid in state. His horned helm still covered his face, his great dark sword lay on his breast, his hands clasped over it. He still wore his bloody armor, pierced and rent by the sword-strokes of King Bel. The stone he lay stretched upon was draped with furs and stolen velvets, and he stained them where he lay.
I did not hesitate then, for I felt the coming of the Howling God in the convulsions of the earth beneath me. I lifted my notched war-sword high in both hands and smote down with one final blow, severing Hel-Toth’s head from his body. My sword clove through the cords of his neck, struck the iron-hard stone beneath, and broke in two with a flash of sparks like lightning. His head rolled and fell from the stone bier, and when there was no gush of blood nor motion I knew that he was dead already, and that all my quest - all the dead - had been in vain.
Then Karaunos was upon us, looming high in the snowy sky above the stones. My last companion shouted his war cry and leaped to meet the beast as it swept down with those terrible horns and shattered three of the standing stones. I saw my warrior vanish into the cloud of dust and broken rock, and then he was hurled aside in two pieces, torn in half by that hideous assault.
Then I let the golden blood of the Argath come over me in a wave of fury. The bestial power that made my ancestors unmatched in war came to me in a burst of the battle-wrath and I felt my body swell and tremble. My teeth clenched so tightly they groaned and I felt every skein and muscle sing, drawn tight and infused with the rage of the ancients. Karaunos towered over me, blocking the light, a mountain of armored flesh and terrible purpose, come to devour and to destroy. I flung away my broken sword and caught up the great black sword of Hel-Toth from where it lay in his dead grasp.
It was a huge blade, made for a giant to wield in both hands, but it came light into my hands as the rage overwhelmed me. It was black like a shard of night, shot through with trails of silver like threads in a dark sky and etched with runes that no man knew the meaning of. I gripped the chain-bound hilt in my hands and heaved it up over my head with a war-scream, bellowing my defiance into the very teeth of the beast-god.
Its massive head drove down toward me, and the horns gouged the earth, ripping furrows in the stony soil. The tusks came down and overturned the great stone bier even as I leaped to my death and struck one great blow with the black sword of a dead champion. For a moment I saw one great eye, as long as a man and red like the pits of fire that wait at the bottom of the world. It looked at me then, just as the sword struck it like a black splinter, and then I was blinded by a torrent of ichor and blood.
I felt myself strike the earth, my eyes shocked open with the blow, and I looked up through broken menhirs and swirling snow for one last sight of the god that towered over me. It shook those mighty horns, tusks slashing the air, and I saw blood pouring from the ruin of one great eye. It howled again, a terrible bellow of rage echoing over the forest-haunted hills as it had for untold aeons, and then I fell senseless, and knew nothing more.
I woke cold and stiff with pain. The snow had fallen across the hill, and the jagged outlines of broken stones and broken men were softened and veiled. I dragged myself up from where I fell and looked around me, knowing I was alone, and almost wishing that I had followed my men into death. I had sacrificed twelve warrior’s lives to be certain Hel-Toth would not come again, and I judged that a worthy price. But I wished then that mine might be among them.
Yet I was not, and now it fell to me to take word back to the lands of men. I took the black sword, still stained with blood, as my trophy. In among the shattered shrine there was no telling where the severed head of my foe had fallen, and I was too weak to search for it. I had to drag myself down the hill, among the trees, and then hope to find one of the scattered horses so that it might bear me southward, out of this place. I staggered among the fallen stones, leaning on the great sword, weak and shaking. Always, after the rage, I was so weak, and I feared I would not endure the journey.
And I heard it again, out in the trackless forest. I heard the baleful bellow of the Howling God, echoing out through misted vales and snow-covered hillsides. A cry from outside of time, carried down through unnumbered ages. The ancient thing that the giants worshiped walked there still, and might for aeons more. Only now it was marked by the hand of man, and would remember. That would be my immortality.
Dragging a dread sword, limping and shivering, I climbed down from that unhallowed place alone, and began my long journey homeward. The day lengthened into night, and the snows came down all around, and the only sound that followed me was that endless, furious howl.