‘A Story For Everything’
“It’s explanation time, old man,” she demanded. She took a big bite of the meat, leaving strips dangling, and pointed the hock at the druid. “That’s the fifth earth tremor in an hour. It’s knocking holes out of the walls now. I know you have some old story for every little thing that happens.”
“There is a truth for everything,” he corrected in a low drone. “Beneath us slumbers Gudmund, the giant elder, son of Gunnr the Great Oak, and brother of Gymir, his bitter rival.” His fingers danced like punctuation in the firelight. “The brothers’ war grew so violent that nothing could live among the ruins of their hatred, so Gunnr sang a song to make them dream, then buried them deep underground, one in each hemisphere of the world. Gudmund was banished to the northern half, and Gymir was banished to the south…”
“Wait. Gymir was the father?”
“Gymir is the brother of Gudmund and the son of Gunnr,” groaned the old druid. “Pay attention.”
“Gunnr transformed herself into the Great Oak that spears through the world, its branches growing on either side, its roots holding her sons captive. Where their breath seeps through to the surface, there are life-giving wells from which can be drawn great power.”
“I will find one of those!” the berserker announced, her mouth full. “The west people wouldn’t hunt at our borders if we had ancient power-breath.”
“The nearest well is at the center of a temple, guarded by the enormous Fortress, so that humankind will not kill itself with the power therein.”
The berserker gnawed at the meat, her brain clicking through calculations. “I could scale a fortress,” she mumbled.
The old druid chuckled. “Do not wander away with your mind. You must learn this story well, for it is you who will tell it after I’ve gone.”
The berserker snapped up her eyes to the old druid. “Where do you think you’re going?”
There was a long silence, during which the berserker did not breathe, until it was apparent that the old druid had nodded off into sleep. The berserker poked him in the shoulder; the old druid snorted and resumed: “Gudmund the Elder stirs. His breath comes stronger through the well. The ice has melted, and it is this elder’s breath that shakes the earth. I must go to the other side of the world to see to the wells of Gymir the Elder.”
“You? You cannot wander to the other half of the world. You are eight hundred years old.”
The old druid croaked, his version of a laugh. “I am not quite so helpless as you think. Not all battles are won with steel.”
“If this Gudmund man is causing the quakes with his bad dreams, I shall put him permanently to sleep. I will go down the well and bury my axe in his eye. I will fish him up by the nostrils and punish him before the people, at the Thing.” The berserker rose, holding up one axe, her voice rising. “I am not afraid of any man who can be held captive by a silly tree!”
The old druid rose with a groan and creak of joints, then patted her back. “It is difficult to see clearly through a blood-soaked helmet. No, this battle is not yours, nor mine. This is a terror from which we must run. You will lead our people as far from the well as you can, and I will pass through the womb of the Great Oak. I will not be alone.”
“Then who will…”
The earth shook again, stronger than before, rolling logs away from the fire. The berserker muttered to herself as she kicked them back into place with one boot heel. When she turned back, the old druid had already shuffled out of the longhouse.
In the distance, the howls of wolves sounded through the frozen air.
‘The Destruction of the Temple’
Halcyon energy seeps out of an old well…
A dire wolf raced out of the temple’s fourth circle, tongue lolled out to one side, panting, exhausted terror in his eyes, his thick fur matted with dried blood. His back legs were caked up to the stifles in red loamy mud; he’d kicked free in time to get bit in the muzzle by something venomous. He skidded to a stop where mud met ice, into the forelegs of the alpha, his eyes down, unsure whether to be more frightened of what he’d run from or what he’d run into. The ground rumbled, the ice cracking outward in long lines. The alpha’s hackles rose, ears twitching at the sound of his pack howling, whining and yipping in pain. He could name every one of those sounds: son, daughter, mate, packmate, friend.
After the first quake, the alpha had inspected the inner circles of the ancient temple, his nails tapping on the ice, his breath fogging in the frozen air. A foreign scent bothered at his nose. The tremors intensified, the scent grew stronger and the pack’s restless whines and tail-chasing had to be contained with barked orders. Within hours, the ice in the first circle melted into pools of water that the ground drank up with greedy thirst. The second and third circles, once ice and brick, became mud. The scent choked every inhale, and the constant shaking set the wolves to howling.
Then, the vines appeared.
They were like nothing the wolves had seen. They whipped out from the mud, piercing blind in all directions. They wrapped around the temple pillars, crumbling them to gravel. The pack tore them apart, but within minutes the thick stems grew anew. The well itself, once richly decorated with sculpture and carvings, became nothing but a dark hole in the ground leaking putrid air. The inner sanctums turned to rubble.
Eggs frozen for untold millennia bubbled up from the mud and broke open, spilling out long-toothed reptiles. The wolves went to battle, ears flat, snarling, leaping in fast and retreating in the way of the hunt until the blood of their prey dribbled out in thick clots that fed the carnivorous mud. But the creatures could not be contained – and the surviving reptile hatchlings grew larger than the wolves. Everything birthed in the fertile mud was bloodthirsty and more dangerous than anything the wolves had hunted before. The mud itself was an enemy, drinking the wolves into itself, forcing them farther and farther back from the well.
They might have fought back the horde if not for the insects. Clouds of bloodsucking mosquitoes and hives of venomous wasps burst upward. Crimson ants burrowed into the wolves’ fur and chomped into their belles. The pack snapped their teeth into the stinging swarms to no avail, bit into their own itchy hindquarters, limped on poisoned limbs.
The guarding of the Halcyon Well had been the alpha’s vocation since the temple had been built, from materials found nowhere near the frozen tundra, by a people whose lineage had died out before their story could be told. It was unthinkable to abandon it. Yet without a pack, an alpha commands nothing.
“Get the others out,” he snarled at the beaten-down wolf, who turned without protest and ran again into the doom. The alpha turned snout to the moon.
“Old friend,” he growled into the empty air, “I have need of you.”
Then, Fortress let loose a wild howl that carried for miles.
‘The Great Oak’
The passageway through the world opens…
“My pack has pulled your old bones on the sled through snowdrift these many days,” grumbled Fortress. “Why have you not yet opened the door in the tree? Have you forgotten how?”
“Patience, old dog. She is perplexing and must be appeased.”
“It has been far too many seasons since you appeased any woman,” growled Fortress.
The druid’s face wrinkled into a smile. “There is a saying among the people. The maiden requires a strong gaze, but the mother, a hungry stomach.” He dug through the snow at the base of the tree, producing a handful of green acorns. He rapped the shells off with his staff, then gnawed at the bitter nut meat. “Let us see what nourishment the Mother has for us,” he said, feeding one also to Fortress.
They waited in silence, side by side. Although he expected it, the ensuing stomach cramps bent the druid double. he leaned against the tree trunk, his head swimming. His vision blurred. The world darkened and peeled away. Fortress, too, fought the sick that threatened to overtake him. Sensation drained from him like water drops from an icicle until his spirit floated above, watching.
“Why has a child come so far from his home?”
The voice came from the tree. The druid looked for the Mother’s face and found it far above him, her stern eyes looking down.
“I have come to beg passage to the other side of the world, Mother,” he said, and his voice was high and breaking. He looked absurd in his ceremonial furs, which had grown to tent him. His beard vanished. Even the stag horns on his headdress shortened until they were the nubs of a fawn. Where the formidable druid had stood, Fortress saw a boy.
Branches stretched out from the trunk to touch the boy’s face. “It has been so long since I held a son,” crooned the voice within the tree. “Your companions may pass, but you will stay with me.”
“No!” Fortress tried to lunge forward but felt as if he were moving through mud.
The boy held out his arms to embrace the dire wolf, burying his face in Fortress’ furry neck, petting his nose and ears. “Go on, old dog. This is the only way.” Then, his body collapsed into the embrace of the branches.
A wolf whined, then another. Fortress backed away from his old friend. “Call out to the spirit of our fallen packmate,” he commanded, then craned his neck to the moon and let loose a mournful howl. The others followed, one after another wolf song ringing out as the Mother hugged the druid, wrapping her branches round and around him until he was pinned against the trunk.
The pack watched as the face of the Mother turned into a wide hollow. A thick, humid scent leaked from it, steaming the freezing air. Fortress moved closer, tentative, sniffing. Inside, a wooden staircase spiraled down into the dark.
‘Rona vs. Skvader’
She had never disobeyed a direct order from the druid before. His kind had civilized the tundra generations before Rona’s people arrived. They kept the secrets of mathematics and letters and stars. If the old druid had told Rona to jump to the sun, she’d have died leaping. But this, she could not abide.
She was crouched down, checking the freshness of the tracks, when the horned skvader attacked.
The white-furred monsters flew up from the snowdrifts, at least a score of them, wings spread, horns spiraling up between long ears, eye level with Rona’s knee.
Rona cursed, dropped her pack, unleashed the axes from her belt with practiced thumb flicks. “Always skvader,” she groaned, eyes flicking from opponent to opponent as they circled her, shrill squeaking sounding from between their mean, nasty, pointed teeth. “…or bears…” The frenzy of battle built up a drumming beat within her ribs. Her left axe swung out, sliced a jagged opening in one of the demon hares’ throats. The beast fell with a bubbling sound in time for two more to jump up. “…or reindeer or stink oxen.” Her arms crossed. The axe blades clashed together and sparked as she let loose a barbaric yawp; the noise scattered the skvader, but they rounded back on their long thumpers, running horn first straight at her goodies. One sailed up to her jugular and lost its head for its trouble. Another dug its front claws into her belly; she whirled, spinning up snow, shook it loose and opened up a hole for the creature’s guts to spill out.
“Same beasts all the time,” she griped as the others came at her. “And the old man thinks he’s going to the other side of the world without me?” Front, back, side, she whirled, axes slashing, spinning, her vision washed red with her fury. The skvader jumped and flanked, shrieking out their madness; Rona shrugged off her cloak and her skin steamed in the freeze.
“He thinks I’ll run from danger!” she cried. “Hide with the children!” She carved the snow back with her rear foot, shifted her weight low, swung wide with her left axe, hooking up three hares by their horns on the blade. “I never run!” she roared, and jumped into the center of the herd, spinning, axes flying, flinging away hooked skvader, dropping dead hares one after another with soft foomph sounds into snowdrifts.
She whirled, hacking and slashing in wide arcs through the air, twisting too sharp at last so that she fell onto her butt in the midst of what had once been a herd of enraged skvader. Her breaths came fast and foggy; snow sizzled on her overheated skin. It took a good minute to realize the danger was over.
Groaning, she sheathed the axes and reviewed the damage. She’d taken a few scrapes. Some claw marks on her belly. New scars to join the old, and nothing needing stitches, so she drew on her cloak and pack and went about collecting bunny carcasses for the night’s dinner. Never a bad idea to bring a fresh, bloody present to a pack of wolves.
The tracks and spoor were fresh; she’d overtake the old druid within the hour.
‘North is Always Forward’
Rona follows Fortress into the Great Oak…
Rona sniffed the air, searched the empty sled, dug into the fresh tracks, then peered into the tangles of The Great Oak. Buried in the winding branches, she caught the old druid’s eye.
She startled and skidded backward. Without the vision of the poisoned acorns, the druid appeared old as he’d been, but his eyes and complexion were empty and mealy gray.
“Oh, no.” Realization smacked into her. “No, no.” She dropped her pack and drew out her axes, War Screech and Whistle. She chopped at a branch that held the druid’s throat fast, then another, splitting through branch after branch while her eyes welled up. “No!” But green shoots burst out and turned into new hard branches that wrapped the old druid up all the tighter. “Stupid tree!” she shouted, tears freezing into icicles on her cheeks.
Rona glared at the tree, wiped her nose on her cloak and huffed out a resolute breath. “Welp,” she said to no one, “north is always forward.” She hooked her axes back on her belt and stuck her head into a gaping hollow in the tree. The spiraling dark yawned up.
“Hallo?” she called, and her greeting echoed back. There was nothing left to do but climb inside.
Down and down and down she went into the enveloping black, slipping on moss and jutting roots, butt-bumping down. Down into the heat, so that she threw away her cloak. Down into the thin air that made her drowsy, though she napped only a nightmarish hour at a time, stairs jutting into her sides and knees, before continuing down and down and down, until, somehow, she found she was going up. As bad as down had been, up was worse. She sweated and grumbled and drank the last of her waterskin. Up and up and up, she counted the steps to keep her mind on something.
Just before she would have gone mad, she saw a thin light high above. With a last great effort, she climbed toward it. The light came from another hollow, and she tumbled out of it into the other half of the world.
The jungle air felt like drowning to breathe. The sunlight was orange instead of the white-gray she had always known; the trees burst with colorful leaves and flowers. She climbed a set of stone steps, axes at the ready, her tongue sticking to the dry roof of her mouth, past crumbling stone statues and ancient architecture no longer loved. Echoing from somewhere unseen, a merchant called out his wares. At the top of the stairs, the stone path widened into a courtyard. In the middle, a great crystal hung suspended in the air over a glowing well. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish; she was so stunned that she almost missed the wolf pack that surrounded the well.
The alpha was almost as tall on all fours as she on two. She gripped her axes, glaring, but the alpha’s hackles didn’t rise. “Ah, good,” growled the alpha. “The druid hoped you would follow.”
War Screech and Whistle dropped loose in her fingers. “And who are you?”
“I am Fortress,” he replied.
“You are the fortress?”
“And you are Rona the Berserker.”
“I am,” she said, and as if he had reminded her of herself, she squared her shoulders.
“Then come with me,” said Fortress. “There is fighting to be done.”
Pickles! (limited edition)
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