As the campfire whipped about amidst the violet dusk wind, Gudrun’s eyes stared through the whirl of falling snow at the fiercest man in his service. With his cloak of pelts and sprawling bronze beard, Torunn looked like a frost-covered grizzly. The flames reminded Gudrun of the fire he had seen in the warrior’s eyes the night Torunn lost his family.
“Are your hunters going to smoke-out the demons from that damned cave so I can shed their blood, or are they going to make me suffer you until the end days?” The giant man bellowed as Gudrun’s stare caught his eye.
Ignoring the mockery, Gudrun kept his gaze. “I understand you bear no love for our gods after what happened to your family. But my hunting gods, and those of my people, can still punish us all the same. We can rid our village of the threat these beasts pose, but monster or not, I urge you to remember that you’ll forsake us all if you slay their young.”
Torunn spat. “You can offer that to your gods. They’ll get over it. We’re slaying demons, not children. Your gods and these monsters have stolen my family from me, but I still have my axe. I’ll make you no promises except blood will be paid with blood before the sun has set.” Torunn eyed his great-axe, embedded in a nearby pine.
“Don’t be hasty, Torunn,” Gudrun said, rubbing his grey beard. “We have only rumors of these beasts. I want to confirm these sightings first, because for all we know, these demons may be no more than–” Before he could finish speaking, Torunn’s shout filled the air.
“You’re a damned fool, Gudrun. It’s these demons that killed my wife and boy!” The man roared, starting to rise from his place by the fire. Gudrun slowly felt for the knife at his side.
After a moment, Torunn turned away, his heaving chest slowing. “I’m the only warrior you have amongst these sheep herders and squirrel hunters. Bore me with this again and it won’t just be these demons that I’ll be slaying.”
Gudrun thought to curse him but bit his tongue. He needed Torunn’s ’s fighting skills in case the beasts turned out to be as monstrous as they were rumored to be. The man dwarfed even Gudrun, and he knew that cooler heads would have to prevail if they were to succeed.
The old lord’s eyes returned to the fire. Torunn had never come to terms with his wife and child abandoning him, and over time it had driven him mad. But the man needed something to blame other than himself. After a time Gudrun and the people of his village could do little to change his mind, and resigned to go along with the man’s delusions, for his value as a warrior could not lightly be cast aside. A madman believes what he must to bury his grief.
The bitter cold was beginning to cut through Gudrun’s fur cloak as he inched closer to the small campfire, rubbing hide-covered hands for warmth. Torunn suddenly leapt up, peering east through the pine grove that concealed them.
“Looks like your peasants finally managed to do something right.”
Gudrun stood, struggling to see through the whirling blizzard to the mountainside not fifty yards ahead. The sheer rock wall was riddled with cave entrances like a massive stone beehive. One of Gudrun’s hunters could barely be seen at the mouth of a cave entrance atop the ridge. Smoke was beginning to billow from the cave entrances. Through the thick mist, black forms emerged. The biggest among them was no larger than a man. The misshapen, black-furred beasts limped on two legs onto the field like lamed animals. Gudrun signed in relief. Clearly the rumors of their ferocity had been just that.
Without warning, Torunn reached for his axe and bolted for the clearing, crashing through the snow-covered pine forest like a boar.
“Torrun, heed my words!” he yelled, but all that remained was the man’s trail in the snow. Gudrun kicked out the fire and grabbed his bow. He muttered a desperate plea for forgiveness to the gods for what he feared the damned fool was about to do.
As Gudrun emerged from the pine grove, he could barely see a thing through the rising snowstorm and dim light of evening. The whipping haze of snow ahead was riddled with dark shapes retreating toward the woods. Gudrun could just make out Torunn’s massive silhouette catch the first of the beasts, his mighty axe nearly severing it in half. In the distance, a group of three smaller creatures were being lead away from the fray. They would find the northern valley wall hidden in the blizzard’s shroud, barring their escape. Soon they would have nowhere to run.
As Gudrun dashed to catch up, he saw Torunn cutting down more of the fleeing beasts, the approaching north slopes a backdrop to his frenzy. But Gudrun’s confusion only grew at the sight of the supposed demons; they shambled away desperately and made no attempts to defend themselves against Torunn. Gudrun eyed the trail of the fallen as he hurried past, but the bloodied piles of fur revealed nothing about these strange beasts. After Torunn’s carnage, they simply looked like butchered deer after a hunt.
When Gudrun finally reached the valley wall, only three young beasts remained alive, struggling desperately to climb the cliff face to safety. Torunn stood not ten yards from them in a whirl of wind, snow, and ice. His axe was poised to strike.
“These are no demons, Torunn, just frightened animals. Leave them!” Gudrun pleaded.
A sense of hope fell over him as he saw the man’s axe slowly begin to lower. As Gudrun carefully started for Torrun, an odd shape caught his out. At his feet lay a corpse. Covered in ulcers and lesions, amongst the bloodied furs, he could see a pale hand. A human hand.
Gudrun looked back towards Torunn and his captives in shock, but now the look in Torunn’s eyes had changed. His eyes yet again burning with rage.
“Only blood can pay for blood,” Torunn roared.
The giant rushed forward, weapon raised.
But it was too late. In one fell swoop Torunn’s axe struck them down, their small bodies collapsing in the snow.
A sudden silence fell over the valley as the life left the victims at Torunn’s feet. The wind seemed to die with them. “Where are your gods now, old man?” Torunn laughed as he faced Gudrun triumphantly.
The last light of dusk vanished into an unnatural darkness. A rumbling high in the heavens began. The flash of light that filled Gudrun’s vision was the most beautiful, and the last, thing he ever saw.
© 2018 petercorkey.com All Rights Reserved