The wind was a curse, and above the scream of it as it lashed over the mountain peaks, Hel-Toth heard the howling of the gods. They dwelled high on the razor peaks that bounded the southern edge of the world he knew, and that his people called their home. When the wind came, their voices could be heard, uplifted in terrible cries that kept back the dark beings that dwelled over the border of the earth, awaiting their time to come forth and devour all that lived.
It was a black winter day, when the sky hung low over the unbounded forests, and Hel-Toth made his way among the great boles of the trees. They were not like lesser trees, such as a man might cut down to build a sword-hall, or hack into wood for bone-fires. These were trees of the elder forest that stood upon the earth before the ages of the ice, and they were like the pillars of the sky. He carried his bow ever-ready to draw and bring down the great red deer that lived in these woods, but today he saw no sign, no spoor.
A storm was coming, and he tasted it on the air like bitter gall. When night fell the snows would fall, and none should dare to be out in the dark, lest they be carried away in the wind and buried so deeply they would never be found. Hel-Toth was young, but he had seen the terrible power of the storms of deep winter.
He smelled smoke, and he thought it was the fires of his village. All day he had ranged through the high forest, hunting, and now he drew near to home again. But the smoke smell was wrong, and he scented the bitter odor of seared flesh. Now he moved more quickly, and he watched carefully. It was winter; no Hrun would mount a sword-raid in winter. He did not know what could have happened. Perhaps there had been a fire in the hall, or in one of the animal pens.
His home stood close within the trees, just on the edge of the wood. He stepped from under the colossal branches and saw the mountains before him, their jagged edges heavy with winter snows. Before him was the glen where the sword-hall of his chief stood, surrounded by the smaller dwellings of families and thanes.
Now they were black. The sword-hall was broken and seared, the roof fallen in, smoke pouring forth, the spars standing out like ribs from the ruin. He saw two other houses in flames, and the snow was heavy with blood and ash. As he drew nearer, he saw bodies lying dead or wounded, heard the cries of the sorrowful casting their grieving songs to the gods.
Chief An-Thar lay before his hall, his women gathered close around him. He was wounded, blood still coming from his wounded legs. His eyes were glazed with pain, but they still held the grim spark of life he clung to.
Hel-Toth came and knelt beside him. “What has happened? What enemy has done this?”
An-Thar reached up with his heavy hand and grasped Hel-Toth’s tightly, with all his old strength. He was an old man, with gray hair and a broken horn. But for a last moment he held all his ancient strength. “Hel-Toth, last of my sons,” he said. “It is those from beyond the world. It is the dark ones who bring fire and death. The young men have fallen, and the women weep. The gods do not protect us. You must go. You must go to the mountain and seek the gods and find their favor once again. The children of the Hrun have lost their way, and the world is ending.”
A great pain convulsed his body, and then An-Thar lay still, breathing slow through bloodied lips, and Hel-Toth could see he would not live long. He got up and went through the ruins, seeing dead that he knew. He found his mother safe enough in her house, but his small brother was gravely hurt with an arrow in his side, and so he helped his mother draw it forth and looked at it. It was small, with black feathers, and he had never seen one so short and yet so deadly-seeming.
Hel-Toth was not a sword-brother, and so he took only his bow, and he draped himself in his heavy deerskin cloak, and he left the village and went into the snows. The night would bring a storm, but he could not wait now, hiding beside a fire while his kin lay dead and the outrage unanswered. Now he must do what had been given to him.
He was afraid, and he walked the paths cautiously, with his bow ready and an arrow to the string. He was yet no warrior, but he feared the dark ones would not respect that, and would slay him regardless. See how they had easily turned arrows upon his brother, who was so young. They did not fight as warriors, and so he could not trust them to behave as warriors.
It was not long before he found their trail, and he saw they made marks like men, but they were small, and their strides were not long. There was blood in the snow, and he knew some of them were wounded, or they bore away their dead. He felt a rush of heat in his arms when he saw it, because then he knew they could be slain.
He stalked them then, following along the trail, weaving ever southward. He saw more blood, and he smelled them – their sour, ugly smell, and he marked it. With a scent, he could follow them – he could hunt them. But what could a man do? He could not follow evil spirits over the edge of the earth.
There was motion ahead, through the darkening trees, and he held very still, watched until he saw it again. There was a creature there, too small and grotesque to be a man. It was swathed in furs, and it carried a round shield and an axe, and it paced in the trail as though it awaited someone. Hel-Toth crept closer, looked through the branches until he could see it clearly. It had a small face with pale eyes, and he saw it had pale hair as well. It had no horns, and it looked like a root turned up in spring, when the ice thawed and the rivers ran and there was no food for the children.
Slowly, Hel-Toth drew back his bow, bending it carefully so the wood did not creak in the cold air. He drew back, and back, until he sighted down the arrow and waited for the thing to pause in its pacing. When it stilled, he loosed, and the sound of the arrow slapping through the branches made it look up, as if it expected to see an enemy.
The arrow struck it hard in the chest, and Hel-Toth saw the point glance from armor hidden beneath the furs. The stroke knocked the creature down, and he cursed and leaped from his hiding place, racing to reach it before it could rise. It came up screaming, clawing for its axe, pale eyes wide and awful to look on.
Hel-Toth flung himself on the thing, crushing it down with his weight. He pinned its arm down, keeping it from raising the axe, and he drew his long skinning knife. The blade was too thin to be good for a fighting edge, but it was deadly sharp. The thing screamed at him and he plunged the blade down into its neck, cut across and let black blood out to steam in the snow.
He caught his breath, stood up and looked down at the thing. It seemed small for the force that inhabited it, every line fraught with the coiled strength of an unnatural being. The axe was small, almost like a toy, but it was dark with blood. He wiped the blood it shed from his clothes as best he could, wondering if it were poison as legends said. He retrieved his bow from the snow, found his arrow, but the iron head was bent from the impact. He cut the iron away and put it in his pouch, slid the shaft back in the quiver fletchings first so he would not use it by accident. The iron could be reshaped, and a good arrow shaft was not to be wasted.
He heard a sound, like a wheeze, and he turned, hand on his knife again. He followed it, around the great bole of a tree, and he found there another one of the dark men, this one wounded near to death. Its leg was mangled, and there was blood in the snow around it. It leaned against the tree, breathing slow and loud, and Hel-Toth knew a death-sound when he heard it.
It saw him, and it spoke in an evil-sounding language, as though it pronounced curses upon him, and then it turned away, lay face down in the snow, and died. It had been too wounded to go on, so it stayed behind, and the other one stayed with it. Strange, almost as though it were Hrun. He looked down at the thing, and then he bent and cut the head off with his knife, to be certain it was slain. He hung it from the branch of the tree by the long, yellow hair, and he left it behind. A warning, or a marker.
He followed the trail as darkness fell, and the winds rose, and he felt the cold begin to eat away at him like teeth. He would not stop. He was high in the hills now, and climbing upward to where the gods awaited. There, on a hilltop ringed with sacred stones, waited the gods to watch over and guard the Hrun. He knew he would not return from that holy place, for it was forbidden to set foot upon it unless chosen by the gods themselves. Yet he would go, he would call upon the gods and ask for their protection, and if it turned their power to help his people, then his own life was a small matter.
The wind rose, and the snow drew down thick and heavy, collecting in his furs and in his thin beard. Ice formed on his horns, and he huddled down in his cloak and kept on his path, placing one foot grimly ahead of the other, up the narrow, rocky path, up into the crags and broken stone that guarded the place of the gods.
He did not hear their voices. Always, when the winds rose, the gods cried out in the storms so that enemies would be driven away from the lands of the Hrun, from the high hills and the deep forests. They were silent, and Hel-Toth felt dread in his heart as he made his way up to the top. He gripped his bow in his hands, afraid as he had never been, and he came at last to the place where the gods dwelled.
It was a wide, flat hilltop, ringed with standing stones, and at the center he saw a fire where there should be no fire. He saw tents pitched against the sacred menhirs, and he saw that the tallest stones, marked by ancient carving and pierced in many places, had been uprooted and thrown down. He trembled, seeing the desecration worked upon this place, and then he smelled the ugly stench of the dark creatures encamped here, and he was overcome by a terrible rage.
His hand shook where it gripped his bow, and he cast it aside. Death by arrow was too clean for these things. He would go in among them, and tear them limb from wretched limb, and then the gods might look on, and see, and give him the vengeance that his heart cried out for.
Hel-Toth took his long knife in his hand, and he crept through the howling dark. They had left no watchman, no guard, for who would stalk them in a storm such as this? He passed the circle of stones and touched them, seeking to feel the power of the ancient megalith, the will of the gods.
He came to the first tent and slashed it open with his knife, burst inside on a deathly howl of wind and ice. The dark men were rising from sleep, confused and afraid, and he fell on them and stabbed and slashed like a mad beast. One caught at his arm and Hel-Toth grasped the small arm and put his foot on the body; he pulled and ripped the limb free, hurled it into the night. His war-scream was not words, but only a bellow of wrath.
He ripped the tent down and threw it aside, and then the dark creatures were coming for him. They came from the other tents like insects from nests; they bore axes and swords of darkened steel, and he saw their pale eyes in the night, reflected in the glow of the bonfire. He seized a burning branch from the flames and battered at them, smashing them back, setting the tents ablaze. They surrounded him, hunters around a mighty beast.
Shouting their evil words, they leaped in at him, striking with swords and with axes, and he fought them with great sweeps of his knife. Called from sleep, they did not wear armor, and his blows ripped them open and spilled their blood on the snow. They cut him with a dozen small wounds, and he smashed at them with his flaming club. He destroyed six of them, but there were a dozen more, and he already felt the pain of his wounds slowing him.
The cold was terrible, the wind rising higher and higher, driving shards of ice against his face like needles. He flourished the burning brand before him, making arcs of fire in the night air. The fire and the burning tent made a pillar of fire. He felt the heat baking on his face.
The dark ones closed in around him, their pale eyes murderous, and he knew he could not overcome all of them. He was too weary and outnumbered. It did not seem to matter how many of them he slew, for it only drove them to greater anger. They barked to one another as they came for him, steel uplifted and ready.
Knowing he was doomed, Hel-Toth raised his voice and howled. He gave forth a bellow as great as he could make. The gods could no longer speak, and so he spoke for them. He screamed, hoping it would work as their howls always had, to ward back evil from the world. And the gods answered.
Something in the storm-tormented night answered him. He heard a bellow, deep as a mountain gorge, shaking the air and the stone beneath his feet. He heard something move in the darkness, and he saw the faces of his enemies become afraid as they backed away, looking into the storm, seeking the source of that unearthly howl.
It came out of the night, towering and fearsome. Hel-Toth saw white fur, and then a massive leg like the trunk of a tree. Then a head like a mountainside loomed from the darkness, set with horns and tusks dark as old blood. He lifted his arms and howled in answer. The gods heard him, and one of them woke from sleep to preserve him against the powers of evil. Karaunos – oldest and most primordial of the gods – walked the earth again.
The beast rushed down upon them, and Hel-Toth laughed as he saw the great horns rip through his enemies, the massive tusks tear them up from the earth and hurl them into the night. The monstrous onslaught flung him aside as well, and he crashed into tent and destroyed it, felt the earth shake beneath him as the living god rampaged in the storm, rending the earth and howling to the black, unseen stars above.
It was silent, save for the keening wind, and Hel-Toth rose and stood shivering in the dark storm. The fire was scattered, and the flames whipped up into a blaze that revealed Karaunos standing over him, breathing out great clouds of frost. He saw the vast yellow eyes and heard the breath like a forge-bellows. He staggered closer to the mighty apparition and fell to his knees. He laid his blooded dagger and scorched club in the snow and bowed his face to the earth.
He waited, trembling, for a sign, and then he felt the hot breath of the god upon him. He wondered if he would be destroyed for his failure, but then the breath drew away, leaving him feeling warmed in the deathly cold. He looked up, into the face of the ancient one, and he saw there his future written. He saw that he was called to go forth and carry the will of this, now his only god, and to war with the people of the dark lands.
The beast drew away, vanishing into the grinding storm, and Hel-Toth stood alone. Around him was destruction, for the tusks of Karaunos had torn the earth as well as flesh. The dead creatures lay everywhere, ripped and crushed, darkening the earth with their blood. He trod upon them as he walked the ancient circle of stones. Many of the stones had been overturned by the fury of the god, and Hel-Toth knelt and touched them, feeling the powers of the other gods enter into him.
The ancient tumuli were unearthed and destroyed, and there were bones laid there in the earth. He did not know if they were those sacred to the old gods, or perhaps the gods themselves. He touched them, the skulls and the crumbling fingers, and he felt the presences of those long forgotten. They had been interred with treasures, many now long decayed. He took up a heavy helm set with the tusks of slain beasts, and he drew it over his face, becoming something other. He found a great shield of hammered bronze turning green with years, and in a final opened grave, he found a sword, long-bladed and dark, the steel twined with spirals like silver caught from the sky.
The cold did not trouble him now, and he stood among the dead, and he lifted up his new war-sword and howled in homage to the one who raised him up. He would go down from the hills to where his people dwelled, and he would call them from their sword-halls and their families. He would call them to war, and he would lead them against their enemies in the name of Karaunos, the Howling God. Hel-Toth would be their war-leader, for the powers of the old gods was inside him. He was no longer one, but Many.