In the lands of the cold north, night went on forever, across the deep snow-cloaked vales and the thick forests of evergreen under the starlight. When the moon was gone, there was a light in the far northern mountains, a glow beyond the ridgeline, and on some nights a scintillant fire rose up from the unseen places and spread across the hungry sky in trails of light.
Druan hunted alone in the dark. Deep in winter there was no day, and a man must hunt whenever he could. It was deeply cold, and he wished to be back home, within the warm sod walls covered in boughs, lit by roaring fires and heavy with the smell of smoke and meat. The snow was deep here, and he walked in the footsteps he had made yesterday to make his path easier until he reached the eaves of the forest. He was wrapped in heavy furs, only the upper part of his face uncovered, and the bow in his hands was his only weapon besides an iron hatchet on his belt.
He was a tall boy, even if he was yet young. He had long limbs and a rangy strength, with the endurance born of a harsh world. He could walk all night, could run long hours without tiring and with little food, even in the bottomless cold. In his quiver were ten arrows with hammered iron points, and they were as precious to him as gold.
Under the trees the snow was less, and he could move more easily. It was dark, but his eyes soon adjusted, and he moved as surely as any night predator. He looked in the smooth expanses of the fresh snowfall for the footprints of game. He saw rabbits, but he would not hunt them unless he was unable to find what he really sought. It was deer he was after, and he imagined the smiles on the faces of his mother and his sisters when he returned with a heavy kill. Meat and hide and sinew and bones would all be of use.
He veered to the west, where he knew he would not encounter any others. The other hunters from his hollow did not come this way. In the next valley there had been another village, just a few years gone, but then in a night they all vanished, and nothing was found but blood and charred remains. The older men whispered to each other and would not name what they feared.
Druan knew that there were stories of things that came out of the north, in the deepest winter nights. The darkest legends said that far to the north, beyond where the land ever thawed, there was a great wall made of ice, and that there were monsters embedded in that ice. When there were hot summers, some of the ice might melt away, just enough. He was not sure he believed those stories, but he did not exactly disbelieve them either.
It was so quiet, and it seemed he heard every sound in the world. The distant crack of falling ice, the occasional crumple of snow when it slid off a branch. There was no wind, only the slightest breath. He stopped in place and held very still, looking for motion. There was a smell of blood on the thin air, and he stopped to breathe it. Deer blood, and it was close by.
He moved slowly, placing each foot with care, an arrow set to his bowstring. If there was a wounded deer it could be dangerous. There might be another hunter close, or there might be a bear or a wolf. He had heard no wolves, seen no spoor. A bear would be the most dangerous. It might come to the village and dig for buried supplies, tear open the houses, kill livestock. He doubted he could kill a bear with his bow and ten arrows, but he also imagined the respect he would win if he could.
The smell of blood grew stronger, and he moved even more carefully. There, under the trees, in an open place on the white snow, he saw the deer. At first there was only a black stain on the white, a scattering of blood turned black in the night, and then he came closer and he saw the corpse was ripped apart. The head was twisted around, the throat torn open, and the body so savaged that ribs jutted out like fangs. Blood was trampled and churned into the snow, and Druan held very still, listening. It turned his stomach to see what had been done. Only a bear could have done such damage to a deer this size.
He circled the clearing, looking for tracks. He found the marks of the deer, far apart and moving quickly, and close to them he found the footprints of men. They were tangled together, the trail of at least three men, maybe five. He looked up, following the trail of them into the trees, back to where they came from. The trail led back into the cursed valley. The place of death.
The hairs on his neck stirred as he realized what it meant. He moved quietly around the clearing, seeking the trail that left the carcass so he would see where these strange men had gone, and he found it. Blood-marked footprints led deeper into the forest, towards his home and all the other villages. Druan looked at the savaged deer and felt cold in his guts.
He followed the trail moving as carefully as he could and as fast as he dared to. It was not a hard trail to follow, churned and gouged into the snow. Twice he found rabbits that had been seized and ripped open, their guts strewn on the snow. He did not know what kinds of men would bring down deer and rabbits with no signs of arrow or spear. The animals looked like they had been torn apart with hands and teeth.
The forest here was rocky, and the broken ground was hard to read. He lost the trail, but he kept going toward the forest edge down the hillside. He would find it there, where the snow deepened. In the open, he might sight his quarry, see what they were. Druan gripped his bow more tightly, the arrow wedged between his fingers to keep it in place.
He stopped on a high stone and caught his breath. It was so quiet; the men he sought could be anywhere, yet he heard no sounds. He looked down between the trees, saw nothing but unbroken snow. He looked up at the blazing ghost fires in the sky overhead. And then he looked behind him and saw the shape there among the trees.
It stood between two of the black oak trunks, so still he did not realize, at first, what it was. Then he saw it was a human shape robed in black. The face was very white, and the skull was hairless, but the mouth and below seemed to be black, so it was almost like the face of a skull floating in midair. He saw blank white eyes, and then it lifted an arm and pointed at him.
Druan’s heart sped and he took hold of the string, lifted the bow and drew, but as he did the shadow faded away between the trees, and other forms burst into motion all around him. Naked, pale men with white eyes burst up from the snow and earth where they had lain, hidden. Their jaws yawned wide, showing blackened teeth, and long nails clawed at the stone as they came for him.
He shot the first one before it took ten steps, the shaft piercing its neck in a splash of black blood. For an instant he thought it would prove immortal, but then the thing faltered and fell to the snow. They could die.
He snatched out another arrow, fitted it, and shot a second one in the belly, but then the other three were too close, and he had to leap back to avoid falling beneath their clutching hands. He landed hard in the snow and slid down the slope, fetched hard against a rock half-hidden in a drift. He cried out, then came up, another arrow in his hands. He set it to the string as the creatures bounded after him, hissing, coming on all fours like animals.
His next arrow took one through the mouth, bursting out the back, splattering black ichor. One of them landed badly and tumbled down the hillside. The last one was almost on him before he set another arrow, aimed, and loosed. It was so close it did not have great force, but it still pierced the thing’s chest and it fell, clawing at the shaft. It rolled over and almost fell against him. Druan twisted aside and put his foot against its skull, crushed it against the hidden rock until the bone cracked and the creature lay still.
He couldn’t see the other one, looked up the slope and there was the robed one again, and it seemed to him this was a hunt, and here stood the huntmaster. He grabbed for an arrow and found he had only one left – the others had fallen into the snow. He cursed and drew his bow, sighting down the arrow at the still figure. Even as he prepared to shoot, he saw it lift a black horn to its lips and blow a long note that echoed over the snow-cloaked hills.
The call was answered, and again. Druan heard three, then four more of the horn calls, and he realized this was not the only hunt loose in the forest tonight. There were more, and now they were coming for him. He glanced down the hillside, and just there he saw the wink of the watch-lamp that always burned on the high post before the long-house of his village, and he knew that just beneath it hung the ancient bronze bell they rang in warning of danger.
He was not even certain his bow could reach the distance. But with a last look at the fell huntsman, Druan turned and aimed for that spark of fire in the night. He drew his arrow to his ear, held trembling for a moment, and then loosed.
The arrow vanished into the dark, and he threw down his bow and grabbed his hatchet from his belt. He stared up at the huntsman, and then the last hound fell on him from the side, hissing and snapping at his face. Even as they went down in the snow, he heard the loud, clear sound of the bell as his arrow found its mark.
The thing was strong, stronger than he, but Druan was fueled by the fire of desperation. It clawed at him with long nails that rent his furs, but he put his forearm under its chin and forced back the jaws filled with broken black teeth. It tried to crush him down into the snow, but he threw it back, and when it came for him again he split its head open with his iron axe.
He looked up at the huntsman on the slope above him, held up his dripping axe in challenge. But the motionless figure did not approach, instead turning to vanish back into the forest. Druan grabbed his bow from the snow at his feet, gave the dead creature one last look, and then he turned and raced down the slope, faltering and sliding through the deep snow. He hurried to his home, and prayed to Ajahe he would not be too late.
By the time he reached his village, his breath was fire, and he could barely stand. He fell inside the waist-high earthwork, there only to keep the snows from piling up, and fell against the wall of an earthen house, gasping. Hands were on him quickly, standing him up. He saw the men of the hollow had come into the night with their spears and axes, and he was glad of it. “Raiders,” he managed to wheeze out. “Dark men from the valley.” He felt there was no way he could tell them all he had seen, make them believe what was coming any better than he did.
Just as a babble of questions rose around him, there came the calling of dark horns once again, and all questions ceased. The men ran to gather everyone who could be gathered, and Druan was left to catch his breath. Each exhalation bloomed into mist in the cold, clear air, and the cold burned inside him like fire.
Men rushed to and fro, handing out spears and bows. Someone pressed a fistful of arrows into Druan’s hand, and he looked up to find he was face to face with Bagan, the headman of the hollow. He was older, with gray in his beard and a long scar on the left side of his face. He walked with a limp now, but his hands were strong as oak. “What did you see?”
“Men like beasts,” Druan said. “On all fours, with black teeth and white eyes. And there is a hunt master. Robed and silent, but he carries a horn. Their trail came from the valley. The dark valley.”
Bagan looked grim. “Can they die?”
“Yes,” Druan said. “I slew several of them. Their blood is black, but they die.”
“Good.” He turned and walked away, bellowed for men to light the fires. At places around the low wall were set piles of brush, and now they were kindled with oil and pitch, blazing up to illuminate the square and the edges of the night beyond. Men gathered at the wall with bows ready, and Druan joined them. His exhaustion was passing, replaced by a pulsing terror and a fierce desire to protect his people.
He looked out into the dark, trying to slow his breathing. He quickly put his flint-headed arrows into his quiver and nocked one to the string, ready. He barely felt the cold. He watched, straining to see beyond the circle of firelight like a single glow in the depths of winter.
It was their eyes he saw first, reflecting the firelight. They glinted in the night, and he heard shouts so he knew he was not the only one who saw them. He waited, knowing they would come closer, but some men loosed, afraid, shooting blind. “Hold those arrows!” Bagan called. “Hold until you see them!”
They came, a sudden wave of racing, bent forms clawing through the snow, eyes pale and mouths agape. Druan heard oaths, and more than one man fell back from the wall and cried out in terror. There were only a score of fighting men in the hollow, and every man must stand to or they would all be killed. He saw women close behind the wall, spears gripped in their hands to help defend their homes.
Closer, and then he knew he could hit them. They came straight in, jabbering and hissing, and he shot one, then another. They went down in the snow, thrashing and kicking, and then others loosed as well. A wave of arrows swept out and cut down some of the things, then more. Druan was a hunter, and his aim was deadly, but not all the men were as keen-eyed, or as steady.
He brought down three before they were at the wall, and then he threw down his bow and snatched out his axe. The first of the things came over the wall and he hacked off its arm, then kicked it in the head when it fell at his feet. One of the girls lunged in and stabbed it with a spear, and then his mother was there and she caught the next one that leaped for him in the chest with her spear, shoving it back. It thrashed to get loose; and he chopped into its neck, snapping bones with the hard iron edge.
All around him came the sounds of battle: screams and shouts, the crunch of iron on flesh and bone, oaths and cries of pain. Druan leaped back to the wall and another thing crawled over it, clutching at him. He swung his axe, but it caught his arm and together they went down into the snow. He fought it, trying to tear his arm loose so he could strike, but it was strong, teeth snapping at his face.
In desperation he rolled over and then thrust the creature into the bonfire, and it screamed as it sizzled and the flesh shriveled from jutting bones. He tore free of it and struck furiously with his axe, smashing it skull. The pale flesh burned like dry hides, and Druan caught up a burning brand from the fire and swung it in his free hand. He met them at the wall and slashed the night with fire, and they fell back from it like fearful wolves.
“Fire!” Druan shouted, breathing out clouds like smoke. “Use the fire!”
Even as the things fell back, he looked past the wall and into the darkness, and there he saw arrayed a host of warriors. Each of them stood dark with a pale face, wrapped in furs and bearing spears and axes. And he saw the hunt master coming through the snow, his hollow eyes black in his skull-white face. He lifted one white hand, the palm black as night, and with a gesture he sent a wave of wind and snow slashing toward the wall.
Druan ducked down, dragging his mother down beside him, as the lash of winter roared over them, and with a single breath it extinguished the bonfires and left them in darkness. He felt frost form on his face and saw his breath turn to ice in the air before him, and then it was suddenly dark, and there was a silence as men stood in shock.
The warriors of the night began to beat their weapons against their shields, a slow hammering that grew faster, and then Druan was on his feet, hands groping for his bow. He still had arrows, and he drew one to his eye as the line of armed men rushed forward with an unearthly howl.
More men ran, screaming away from the wall, seeking false security in flight. Druan loosed, saw his arrow embed in a shield and cursed. He had to place his shots more carefully. His next shaft pierced a throat cleanly, and the warrior went down. But there were too many of them, and they were too close.
“Back!” he shouted. “Fall back!” He moved away from the wall, drawing and shooting as fast as he could. His mother was beside him, spear held ready in hands that gripped white on the haft. He looked at her as he set his last arrow to the string, and then the enemy charge struck home.
They burst through the earthen wall like the stroke of an axe-blade, and then they fell on the defenders like demons. One came for him, screaming, and Druan put an arrow through its head and sent it kicking to the snows. He could not find his hatchet, so he ran for the body and took the war axe from the dead hand. It was heavy, with a long handle and a wide blade, and it felt deadly in his hands.
Another of the things came for him, white eyes in a shadowed face, and he saw plain it was a man. It walked on two legs, not four, and it wore scaled leather armor and carried a shield bossed with hammered bronze. It slashed at him with a dark sword, and he evaded the rabid slash and struck back, his axe biting deep into the elderwood of the shield. He wrenched and the shield split apart, and then the sword slashed for him again and he felt it cut through his furs and score along his side, drawing blood that scalded him like boiled water.
He struck back furiously, bursting the bronze helm, crushing it under the sweep of the axe blade, and then more of the enemy came and everything was chaos. He could no longer measure and judge his blows, only strike around him with all the strength he had. The world became a mass of blood and iron and screams.
Fire blossomed in the night, and he saw children rushing from inside the houses, hurling oil and throwing shovels of hot coals upon the enemy. Like the bestial ones, the invaders burned easily, and they ran screaming as the flames devoured them.
Druan struck hard and cleft a warrior to the chest, leaving him behind in a black ruin, and then he was free for a moment, and he saw the hunt master there. Like a ghost from a midnight fable he stood apart, his face a white curse as he raised his arms. The path was clear, and Druan rushed at him.
The huntsman did not see him until he was close and fell back as Druan brought the axe down in a terrible, shearing blow. He meant to chop the phantom in half, but instead his weapon ripped across the huntsman’s chest, drawing black blood. The apparition screamed and drew a short blade that glittered in the darkness, and Druan had to spring back to evade the deadly stroke. He saw mist falling from the sword, and knew its touch would draw more than blood.
The hunt master rushed him, and they fought in a terrible flurry of blows, spinning across the square. Druan evaded slash after slash of that deadly knife while he hacked furiously at his enemy. They battled across the snow-covered earth until they were beneath the alarm bell that hung from the pole. The huntsman did not see it, and Druan drove him back until he stumbled against it and lost his footing.
In that moment of distraction he kicked the deadly blade from its hand and then brought his axe down to cleave through shoulder-bone and ribs to the very heart of the thing. Black blood gushed out, and the creature shrieked a hideous, high sound. Druan dragged the axe free in a splatter of black gore and the scrape of iron on bone, and then he struck off the wailing head, the axe blade biting deep into the pole after it severed the neck.
It was quiet, sudden and fearful, and he wrenched his weapon free and turned, saw his home was littered with the bodies of the slain, both men and fiends. For a moment he was not certain who had won, and then he saw his people moving on the battlefield, and he realized they had driven off the invaders. Then he saw how many dead lay in the snow and he wondered at the cost.
He searched for his mother in the chaos. There were so many dead, and he turned over each one, and knew each one. The enemy lay among the slain, hacked and torn and as inhuman in death as in life. Those touched by fire had burned to black, shrunken skeletons, charred and seared. The ground was littered with their fallen weapons and broken shields.
His mother lay in the snow, face-down in the cold earth. He turned her with his hands and she gasped and moved, and he saw she lived. Her arm was dark with blood and he gathered her up, carried her to their house and laid her beside the fire. Others came and helped him bind her wound. She had a cut on her head, and he tried to stanch her bleeding. He knew he was wounded, but he could not even feel his hurts. Everything seemed very far away, as though it was someone else here beside the bloody hearth.
There was no dawn, here in the year’s long night, and so there was no safety for them to yearn toward, even if it were a false one. In the dark they gathered the wounded and dressed their hurts as best they could. The dead lay mortal and lost upon the frozen earth, and they knew there could be no grave dug for them. They gathered what they could carry, loaded down the long-haired cattle like pack mules, and they beheaded each and every fallen foe and hurled them out over the wall into the dark.
Bagan was wounded, and he had to be carried on a litter. It was he who gave the orders to pack and prepare for the long walk south, but his strength left him, and more and more they looked to Druan to lead them. He did not understand it, but he did not turn away. His own wound under his furs was slight, and he did not speak of it.
They could not remain, for if the enemy returned in strength there were only perhaps a dozen men fit to fight, and all of them bore wounds. The woman and small children could not be protected, not against another assault such as this. They laid their dead within the longhouse, and then Druan himself took a lit brand and lit the sod roof. It smoked and smoldered, and he was not certain it would burn, but then the flames blazed up, and he stepped back, watched to be sure it would not die out, and then he gave the order to burn the rest.
Men lit the other houses with tears in their eyes, destroying homes they had wrested from the earth with their own hands, which had sheltered their families from winter and from rain. But they would leave nothing behind for the enemy to take from them, nothing to keep and hold as their own.
The moon was rising again when they left the hollow and made their way south, toward the nearest settlement where many of them had kindred. Druan guarded the rear of the slow-moving column, with his bow and his new broad axe taken from the enemy. When they reached the pass, he looked to the north, the sky-fires still flickering above, lighting the snow-covered earth in flares of green and blue and deadly crimson. There on the high hills he saw a figure watching them go, dark and faceless, crowned with antlers, and as he looked the thing lifted a horn to its mouth and blew a long, terrible note, following them through the dark.