Under a dark sky, upon the field of the dead, the Mor Clan marched to battle, and I went with them. It was cold on that day, the wind from the northern mountains like a blade. We wore heavy furs and huddled our faces into our hoods as we made our way among the graves made of piled mammoth bones. It was spring, and the grass was greening, red flowers everywhere, but the air was still bitter cold, and the sun lay low upon the southern horizon, a dim glow like an ember behind the clouds.
I was seventeen, and honored that day to walk in the company of our greatest warrior, Karg. I stood in awe; I walked in his shadow trembling in every limb. Karg was terrible and vast, a head taller than the tallest of us, and broad as a tree about the middle. His shoulders were draped with the skin of a sword tiger, and his helm was bronze turned to deep green by the years, set with the tusks of a great boar. I carried his spear with reverent hands, and another bore his shield as long as a tall man. At his side hung the long bronze-bladed sword of legend.
We marched against the Gul Clan, who had come down upon our village in the dead of night while a hard snow fell and the wind howled. They killed six of our men and carried off more than twenty women and children. They stole food and beasts and drove them away into the dark. Many of the warriors had been away on a hunt, and when we returned we found blood and sorrow. Now we marched with rage, for vengeance.
Ahead of us was the pass through the rocks that led into the Valley of the Gul. We did not come this way, and I had never seen the ancient graves – the mounds of earth covered over with the ribs and tusks of mammoths. It was said no one knew who lay buried within them. Some said it was a graveyard of giants, of creatures that lived on the earth before men, when ice covered the land and all was winter, before the birth of the sun.
We heard a sound, a rumbling upon the earth, a shaking I felt under my feet. I was afraid. Karg called for his shield and spear, and we gave them over. I was amazed that he could wield his heavy spear with one hand. I myself had only my small shield of hide and my own spear, which seemed very slight compared to his. I had no sword, only a dagger of bronze to use at last resort.
There were twenty of us, all the warriors who remained in our clan, and we waited there among the hills of bone, hearing the sound come closer. A shadow gathered at the pass, and then the men of the Gul came through, and I was amazed and afraid. They rode upon horses, as I had never seen any man do. They had bound the horses’ heads with ropes and upon their backs they rushed on us, and before they came within reach their spears began to fly.
They threw light spears with heavy stone heads, and I hid behind a stone, for my small shield was no use against them. I saw their spears strike the earth and gouge chips from the bone mounds. Some of my friends and clansmen fell pierced and bleeding. Some threw their spears in answer, but the Gul warriors moved swiftly, and were not easy marks.
Only Karg did not cower or shrink away. He held up his vast wood shield and their spears stuck into it but did not pass through. He shook his great spear at them and cursed them and called on them to fight him.
They rode upon us then, and I leaped to meet one as he charged on me with his stone-headed club. He smashed a blow down upon my shield and I cried out, for the blow hurt me through the thick hide. His beast snorted and snapped at me, and I leaped back from it. I stabbed up with my spear but I could not reach him before he rode past me and then another one rode to attack me. This time I did not try to guard myself, only leaped to the other side of the horse, so he could not reach me, and I stabbed up with my spear as fiercely as I could.
The spearhead plunged into him and blood poured out and down the haft. My blow unseated him and he fell, ripping the spear loose and leaving it red in my hand. I expected his steed to attack me, but it only rose away, making terrible sounds and shaking its head.
All around me was battle. I heard screams and shouts and moans of pain. I heard blows fall upon flesh, and when I looked I saw many of my clansmen down upon the grass, wounded or dead. I saw many of them fleeing, casting aside their weapons as they ran, and I saw the Gul ride some of them down. I saw my uncle’s son die this way, as a Gul struck his head with his club and smashed it open, and I saw his blood spatter upon the ancient bones.
I heard the roaring of Karg, and I looked and saw him in battle like a thing from legends. He had killed three of them already with blows of his spear, and the bronze was black with gore. I saw them ride at him and strike, but their war-clubs and axes could not batter through his shield.
At last one of them, in desperation, charged full upon him and drove his beast into Karg even as the great spear pierced the horse’s breast and slew it in a river of blood. Karg was driven down under the weight as it fell, and the Gul leaped from their mounts and battered at him where he fell.
In rage I rushed upon them, and I impaled one from behind with all my weight, the red point jumping from his chest. I beat them back with my shield, and then I drew my bronze dagger and stabbed one of them high on the chest. He fell and my dagger blade wedged in his bones and the blade broke off, leaving me with only the hilt.
But then Karg was up again, and he drew the great bronze sword and he struck about him and slew another one, and sent one crawling away with his arm all but severed. I felt a burning inside me, like rage or a lust I had never felt. I caught up the axe of a fallen Gul as a weapon. It was made from sharp black stone, and it was heavy, but I swung it fiercely. I struck one and he staggered away, and then I saw they were fleeing.
Those remaining ran to their horses and mounted them, and they rode away. I looked and saw there were six dead before us, and as I looked the one with the wounded arm turned his face to the grass and died as his blood poured out. I looked back among the grave-mounds and I saw eight or nine of my clansmen dead upon the grass, and I saw the Gul had taken many of their heads as trophies. Hot rage and grief choked my throat, for here were half the warriors of my clan fallen in a moment. When next the Gul came we would all fall before them.
I turned back to Karg, glad to have fought beside him, knowing he would command us and help us survive, but then he sagged on his feet, and he fell to his knees. I stared as the great shield slipped from his grasp, and he tried to lean upon his sword, but his hand slipped on blood and he fell to the earth.
I went to him, and I saw then the broken haft of a throwing spear jutted from his neck. He had been given a fatal wound, and yet fought on. Now I saw he was red with blood that flowed from the death-wound, and from behind his helm, his eyes were desperate and filled with pain and wrath.
“Great Karg,” I said, but he spat and clawed for his sword. I gave it to him and he gripped the blade, pressed the hilt into my hands.
“No,” he gasped, blood coming from his lips. “You are Karg now. Take my sword, take my helm. Avenge!” He hissed his words through bloody teeth, and then the light went from his eyes, and he fell back upon the grass, and the greatest warrior of us all was dead.
I stood alone in the place of the dead. My clansmen were dead, or had run away, and Karg lay at my feet. He said that I was Karg, but I did not understand what he meant to tell me. I was not a great warrior like him. I was not a giant. I held his sword in my hands and I needed both of them. I was not his equal. I desired only to turn and go back to my village.
But then I remembered the others taken away by the Gul. The women and the food they had stolen. My women – and my sisters – would be slaves, while the children were raised as Gul, and I could not return home and leave them. Perhaps I would rather die than live in shame. I wondered if that was what made a warrior. I looked down at the men I had killed. One before me with my dagger broken in his breast, the other near to me where he fell from his horse. Riding on beasts did not make them invincible, but it made them strong.
I followed the trail, the marks of the horses easy to see on the earth. I knew it would be a long path to follow them, and so when I found one of their horses I hesitated. It seemed a magic I could not master. But if the Gul – who did not even work bronze – could master the animals, so could I. I came close to the horse and it shied away from me, but the rocks hemmed it in, and I caught the leather thongs that trailed from its head. I sheathed the sword of Karg in my belt, and I climbed onto the beast as it sidled and snorted and tried to get away from me.
I had to try twice, but I held onto the mane and the ropes and climbed onto the wide back. When it moved I almost slipped off, but if I tightened my legs and held on with them as well, I did not fall. I tried to find a way to urge it forward, and found that by digging in my heels I could make it move. A light snow began to fall as I rode on the trail of my enemies.
The day was gray, like stone, and in the dim light I could see far and clear. I followed the trail left by hooves until it crested a rise and I looked down on the valley of the Gul. I had not seen it, and it was not as I expected. I saw it was a vale blocked at one end by cliffs and jagged hills with no way through, and they had walled it off with a wall made of felled trees. They cut them and lashed them together and set them in the earth so they stood upright. There was a gate set in it, blocked by more logs and guarded, and so I knew there was no way for one man to force his way in, nor to steal in unseen.
I heard a small sound, and my horse suddenly tossed his head and reared back, and I was cast to the ground even as a Gul warrior leaped upon me from the rocks. He drove his spear into the earth beside my head and I grasped it, tried to wrest it from him. He was stronger than I, and put his foot on me and wrenched free of my grasp. I drove my foot into him and sent him over on his back, and then I rolled to my feet and pulled the sword of Karg from my belt.
The Gul thrust at me and I knocked his spear aside, and again. The sword was heavy, but that meant I could not move it quickly enough to attack him without being stabbed. I ran for the rocks and found another Gul in my path with his stone axe raised high. I lifted my sword and his blow shivered upon the bronze blade. I dashed it aside and struck him with all my power, and the sword split open his head. Blood poured out like a rushing stream, black in the gray light. He fell back and I saw his brains spill out of his broken head and splash on the stone.
The one behind me thrust again with his spear and the stone head snagged in my goatskin robe but did not pierce through quickly enough to wound me. I felt the scratch of the tip as I turned and brought the sword down and cracked his spear in half. He roared and threw the broken haft in my face, showing his sharpened teeth. I ducked back and he grabbed up the fallen axe of his companion.
He came for me and we fought, bronze and wood and stone clashing together. I saw more Gul at the gates of their fortress, and I knew soon more would come. I hewed desperately at this one man, and the head of his axe shattered against the bronze blade of my sword. I flinched back from the flying pieces and he smashed me in the head with the haft, knocking me down to my knees.
The Gul sprang upon me and I blindly held up the sword. He caught it and tried to tear it from my hands, but I seized his hair and dragged him down, until his savage face was only a breath from mine, and then I slowly dragged the edge of the sword across his throat until the flesh opened and his blood pumped out. I tasted it in my mouth.
I threw him away from me, his body twitching and clawing at the earth, fingers digging in his ruined neck. Bloody I spat, and I saw riders coming. I shouted defiance at them, and then I ran and caught the horse again. It screamed and fought me, but I mounted again, and I rode away.
The riders did not pursue me. I reached again the valley of the dead and they did not follow. I saw the carrion birds scatter from the bodies, and I found some of my clansmen returned, now gathering the slain to burn them properly. When I saw them, I was angry and I was not sure why. I rode closer and they flung themselves upon the ground. I must have been terrible to see, bloodied and bearing the sword of Karg, upon a beast as one of the Gul.
They saw who I was, and they cowered before me. “Do not slay us, demon of the battlefield! We gather the dead!”
“Do not speak!” I shouted at them, and my voice sounded rough and large, as though I had grown not in body, but within. I had mastered a horse, I had slain a hand of men this day – I would not suffer them in their cowardice. “I am Karg!” I said. “I have mastered this animal, and I return from battle. I have slain many Gul, and I will slay more.” I wanted to beat them and hurt them, because they had fled when I did not, but I held myself back. “Gather the slain, and take them home, and burn them as is right. Call on the gods, for they shall deliver you this night.”
I turned away then. I got down from my horse and went among the dead. I took up three throwing spears of the Gul that I found. I took a new shield and hung it on my shoulder. Then I went to where Karg lay dead and I took his tusked helm and placed it on my own head. It was large upon me, but not so large as I had thought. I looked at him in death, and his face was smaller and less fearsome than I remembered.
I took his bloody sword tiger mantle and I wore it on my own shoulders. I took up the fallen bear hides of other warriors and I took a knife from one. Then I took the horse and mounted it again, and I left that place and rode north. I did not take the path back to my village. I could not return to that place until my enemies were destroyed. I was Karg, and if I could not break the wooden wall of the Gul and strike them down, then I must take in my hand a weapon that could strike harder than any mortal sword or axe.
I rode until it was almost dark, and then I reached the place I sought. I crossed the snow-dusted grasslands until the sun was only an ember on the horizon, and then I came to the place where the soil was churned and littered with great stones. I came down from the horse and took my things from him, and I took the harness from his head and set him free. I would not need him again.
I sat down in the coming darkness and took my knife, and with it I cut strips from the extra bear hides and braided them together, one strand and then another, again and again until I made a long knotted rope of the tough leather. I strapped the throwing spears to the shield, and slung the shield on my back, and then I went hunting. With the coil of rope in my hands I made my way through the stony landscape. I smelled them, and I knew they were near, but no man had ever tried to do what I meant to do.
I followed the smell, and soon I began to see the great heaps of dung, and see the gouges on the rocks and in the stony earth, and then I heard their breathing. It was dark, but as I moved the sky began to clear, and so the light of the stars and of the growing moon shone down. I saw them there in their herd under the night; the mammoths where they slept.
The beasts did not lie down upon the ground to sleep; they stood, and at the edge of the herd stood the great old lord of them all, the largest and the strongest. He stood there to guard his females and his calves. His fur was black as the night between the stars, and his tusks were immense, twice as long as any man. They rested upon the earth before him, and his scarred trunk, thick as a tree, rested between them, curled on one side, moving as he breathed.
He would catch my scent soon, and then he would wake, and my life would be in great danger. We hunted the mammoth, sometimes. We burned the grass and drove them until one of the calves fell behind, or an old one could not keep the pace, and then we dragged them down with ropes and slew them with spears. They knew our scent of old, and if this grandfather caught me, he would kill me. I had been told of how a mammoth in rage would trample a man to death, or catch him up with its trunk and hurl him against the rocks or the ground, or fling him into the air. Sometimes they would step on a man to pin him, and then rip off his arms and his legs.
I gathered the rope in my hands, and I knew I had one chance to do what I wished, and if I missed or if I fell, I would be slain in moments. Here, in their own territory, the old mammoth would have no mercy upon me.
He stirred, and I saw he scented me, and would wake, and my will almost failed me then, and I nearly turned and fled. Instead I gathered myself and ran towards the sleeping giant. He stirred, and his trunk coiled and twisted. I flung the rope and looped it around his tusks, and then I held the ends tightly as I jumped and set my feet on his rising forehead.
The giant bellowed, and the sound of it seemed to shake the earth. I almost fell, but then he tossed his head and threw me across his neck. I turned and seated myself on his beck, behind his head, and I pulled the rope tight. It was not beneath his trunk, because then he would bite through it. It was caught hard under his tusks, but over the top of his trunk, where he could not reach it, and his fury was terrible. He whirled and stomped, shaking the earth, and his roars awakened his herd and they began to thunder and cry out as well. He twisted and slapped at me with his trunk, but he could not reach me, and he could not get a grip on the rope so long as I kept it tight against him, sunk deep in his fur. He shook all over, trying to dislodge me, and then he began to run.
I held on, and I could not help but howl to the stars with the power of it, the feeling of his insensate wrath beneath me. I was so high above the earth I felt I was hardly moving, though the beast I rode was swifter than any horse. The herd gathered behind and followed a little way, but they fell back in confusion, and alone we rode on into the night.
I had to hold on, keep the rope taut enough that he could not grasp it with his trunk and tear it free. He shouldered against massive boulders, crushing them aside with terrible strength, but he could not scrape me loose. I found that if I pulled on one end of the rope, he pulled against it, and so I could cause him to turn. He slowed his charge, but he did not stop moving, and so by pulling on the rope I turned him southward. I rode a mountain of fury into the dark.
It was the longest night I have ever endured. I was exhausted. I had marched to war, I had fought and killed, and then ridden further to kill again. All through the night I clung to the back of the ancient mammoth, and I could not relax my vigilance or he would wrench me loose and destroy me. I had to hold fast to him through the hours of night as I steered him across the open plains, splashing across the shallow streams and through the tall grasses. We traveled under the stars, and the night fell silent at our passage. I struggled to remain awake, and it was a harder fight than that against the Gul.
The beast slowed beneath me, but he never stopped, as if he believed he could outlast me, and perhaps he could have, had I not already chosen the place where I led him. As if in a dream I led him through the valley of the tombs, and he paused there and ran his trunk over the bones of his ancestors, as if he knew them. When he moved on, it was not easy for me to induce him to turn, and he growled and thundered beneath me, again pawing at the rope with his trunk but unable to grasp it. I urged him onward until we were through the narrow pass, and then there was but one way for him to go.
The ground sloped downward, and he gathered speed. The sun was just beginning to come up in the far south, and by the glow I saw the land around us covered with frost, dusted with a light snow that turned to mist as the sun touched it. We rode down through layers of fog, the mammoth striding faster until the earth shook under his feet, and then the haze parted and I saw again the wooden walls of the Gul village, and the warriors gathering behind it, drawn by the sound of the footfalls of the beast.
I heard them cry out in terror, and then the mammoth saw them and I felt his body shudder with fury. Here, at last, was a target for his rage. He lifted his great head and roared, and it was a sound that shook my bones and rattled my teeth in my skull. Without urging, he charged down upon the Gul, and no force in the world could have prevented him.
A few of the Gul threw spears at us as we drew close to the gate, but I knew there was no chance they would penetrate the thick fur and thicker hide to do harm. One struck just above the left tusk where the flesh was exposed and drew a few drops of blood, but all this did was increase his rage beyond all bounds.
He struck the wooden wall and though I feared the stout logs might resist him, they shattered under his charge as if made of grass. His tusks ripped through and then his body forced the breach wider, and he thundered into the village. The shock of the impact almost flung me from his back, but I held on. The Gul ran everywhere, screaming, and he began to slaughter them. I saw him pluck a warrior up with his trunk and hurl him so far away I did not see where he landed. Those too slow to escape him were crushed underfoot and left as bloody pulp on the earth.
Spears flew, and I ducked low to evade them. I knew the old mammoth had forgotten me now, so I let loose of the rope and slung the shield around from my back. I held it in my left hand while I pulled the spears free and chose targets. I saw a warrior throw a spear at me and it stuck hard in my shield. I aimed at him and threw in answer. My cast caught his arm and he reeled back, fled inside a clay-walled hut, and then the mammoth demolished it, crushing it beneath his feet.
He slashed his tusks side to side, and any man caught in the sweep was ripped off his feet and torn in half, scattered among his brethren. The mammoth slashed and tore and crushed until his tusks dripped with blood. He battered down house after house, rooted out those who cowered within and flung them in all directions. He reared up high and came down on their heavy wood and clay huts and destroyed them.
Their horses panicked and would not attack. They battered down the gate of their paddock and fled in a great stampede, and those Gul who tried to flee before them were trampled. The mammoth’s terrible roaring pursued them like the sounds of a storm.
There were caves up in the cliffside, and some of the Gul tried to climb up rope ladders to escape, but the mammoth caught them and pulled them down, snapped the braided leather and threw it away. His rearing and shaking cast me loose from my seat, and I fell from his back to the bloody earth.
When I rose a Gul warrior rushed upon me, red-painted and screaming, axe raised high. I met his attack on my shield and drew the sword of Karg. He struck again and again in a frenzy, and then I pushed him back and hacked off his arm with a blow of my sword. He fell upon the earth, writhing and howling, and I put my foot on his face and stabbed my sword through his chest. I heard and felt his bones snap under my blow, and then he was silent.
All was silent. The village lay crushed and burning, sullen fires crawling over the ruins. Dead bodies lay on all sides, and I heard a low, rhythmic rushing, like blood in my veins. I felt hot wind on my back and turned to face the red-eyed stare of the great old mammoth. His tusks rose to either side of me, red and dripping with gore, and his trunk snaked out and seized my shield. I let it go and he crushed it and let the shards fall on the earth.
I faced him, and he slowly turned his head so that his bloody tusk almost touched me, and one of his eyes looked right into my own. I stood silent and motionless as his trunk came up and sniffed at me, breathing on my face. I did not dare to move, and though I was afraid, I was so exhausted I did not even tremble – as though I were beyond caring for my own life.
At last he rose up over me, and his shadow blotted out the thin light of morning. He lifted his trunk and bellowed long and loud, almost deafening me, and then he turned and strode away, his every step shaking the earth beneath my feet.
I stood for a long time, and then I fell to my knees, bracing the sword upon the ground to lean on, else I would have fallen. I heard voices, and then more, and when I looked up I saw people of my clan climbing down ropes from the caves above. My sisters, and other faces I knew. I smiled and closed my eyes as they came and gathered around me. I had done what I swore to do, I had saved my people. They saw what I had done, and already they told the story to one another, amazed. I would be Karg, I would be a chief among my clan, and all my life men and women beside winter fires would tell the tale of the beast.