by F. Charles Murdock
The woman’s face, usually stern but rosy with what her late husband had called “elegant blood,” had grown gray and gaunt above the worn glove that clamped her throat. Her vision swam, sharpening and falling away in tandem with the desperate pulse of her weakened heart. Or perhaps it was the man’s heartbeat that pinched her vision, felt in her strained neck through the dry-cracked glove, radiating from the palm of that cruel hand. Either way it sounded like war drums in her head, each viper-strike beat warping the lip of Cōm-Labi beneath her and the vacuity beyond.
She felt as empty as yon darkness, all sensation bled from her dangling body by the powerful grip seizing her neck, that living noose in this timeless gallows where the unworthy were sometimes fed to the hungry Under, to the insatiable belly of Frosthell, called Hunerhime since the first mote of dust upon the world was kicked skyward by man’s curious feet.
That evil hand and its savage magicks was an impossible fulcrum now upon which was perched the woman’s life. And yet she was unafraid for, like her body, her mind had been siphoned of all feelings by the work of another evil hand… not her son’s as the cowards who’d come to call themselves “the Council of Free Men” claim, no. She couldn’t in all her being believe Beard was the assassin of her husband, his father, their king. No, not he, the unjustly rebuked, the exiled. Not he who was banished by the folly of his fellow countrymen made illogical by the death of their master despite all the king’s teachings of driving such uncouth anger from a warrior’s heart.
How quickly some of his disciples had shadowed their hearts, even before he was set upon the pyre. Even before the body of his too slain advisor, Brog the Unknown, was seemingly lost in the bustle of tragedy. So quickly had they passed their vehement, vitriolic judgment upon Beard, citing law and ritual and tradition to shield them. He, the dishonored, thrown forevermore from the bosom of his homeland called Thorgithe, kingdom of the blood of Kgortel, he who united the many warring tribes of the Northlands and slayed Turin at the Black Wall.
And so this lady bided alone, robbed of husband and son and, finally, her country when the dark armies advanced from the Eastwood, those damned trees and beasts spawned of purest hell. She stayed and fought while others fled, many of them members of the Council of Free Men, those who severed blood-ties with their barbaric brethren forever, may they rot even in the darkness beneath Hunerhime for just as long. She, Ala’a, a name from the steppe peoples meaning “divine huntress,” daughter of Xzia, daughter of Maga the Swordbearer, disposed queen of Thorgithe, stood her ground when the world came crashing down at her feet, bow ever nocked with deadly arrows tipped with adder spit, her flaying knife bloodied by the quick deaths of countless beasts of ruin. She had stood, not for herself nor even her husband-king, but for the belief that Beard would return to the Northlands and avenge the havoc that had been ushered by the poisoned winds of the Great Winter. Even with the last few draughts of air in this life, Ala’a believed her son would come to save his country from the darkness that had swept the land like a mad plague.
Beard will come, she told herself as the cruel hand dug deeper into her throat. Then she heard the voice beyond that black glove and knew many truths at once, some of the past and present, yes, but even some that unshrouded the dark dawn that was the future in this unknowable age.
“Do you believe in prophecy, widow-queen?” came the voice beneath the gray hood. A stiff wind blew just then, tearing sheets of ice and dirty snow across the face of Cōm-Labi, forcing that loose cowl to ripple, blotting the dim face beneath with the scant light of Sol that managed to pierce the drab cloud cover that seemed never to depart this now cursed land just as the shadows seemed never to leave the skeletal face of the queen’s captor, he with the cruel hand.
“Omens? Promises?” the harsh voice continued unabated by the stark blast of wind.
The woman said nothing – couldn’t, for no air passed from lung to lips. She offered an answer nonetheless, launching from those blue lips a stream of hot spit that landed and steamed on the shoulder of her captor, staining it like a spatter of thin blood.
After a curious, somewhat bemused look at the remnants of the lady’s answer, the man spoke once more, his thin lips kinked into an impish smile.
“I see,” said the man, his voice as firm as his grip. “Given the circumstances, I’m inclined to let such churlishness slide.” Then both his voice and his smile dropped. “This time.”
Ala’a took her widened eyes from the rippling hood, her body succumbing to the shivers of panic that come with asphyxiation. In her daze, she watched her tightly bound hair bob in the wind, a thread of sane black among the unknown darkness lurking in the pit below.
I will die this day, she muttered in her depths of her mind. I will be thrust into Hunerhime’s frozen heart without a compass to the proper Great Beyond.
The cloaked man laughed.
“So you will,” he said. “You will be guided by my deft hand to the very depths of darkness. Your broken body will rest beside the cowards that came before you and beneath those who will surely follow.”
Ala’a did not look up, only heard these grave words, her body slipping away from itself, the darkness gathering both within and below.
“It seems I’ll have to answer the posed question myself then,” he said through another dark smile. “I need not have faith in prophecy for I am prophecy incarnate, made real by fate and destiny.
“I have come as the Dark One to fulfill my purpose as the harbinger of chaos upon the land so that all might be righted, the delicate equilibrium between all that is and all that cannot be preserved by my hand alone. I destroy to create, you see. I am he who comes to break the cycle.”
The gloved hand lifted the dying woman higher, its hold never wavering.
“As for promises,” he snickered, “well, I made a promise to your dear, sweet Beardling and I intend to keep it for he has failed to return to these lands after our palaver. I am true in both threat and promise. And do you know the promise of which I speak, widow-queen, hm?”
No answer, no air.
“To kill you like the disgusting animal you are,” he said, the hint of a titter upturning his words. “And so I must for my word is bond and duty calls, as they say.”
With this, the man produced a small knife from the many folds of his robe, its sharp blade a fang of silver flashing in the blunted Solight of this winterscape. He brought the knife to Ala’a’s torso, just below her narrow ribcage, pressed it into the tanned leather tunic she wore atop her battle dress, meaning to do good on his promise to kill her field-fashion, spilling her vitals into the abyss below, most of all that accursed womb that had brought forth Beard Weirheowdth, the wolf-raised, he alone who could stand against plans and prophecy.
The lady was nearly gone by then, so close to the threshold between life and the Great Beyond, that acceptance of death had already alleviated the panic that had overtaken her like a fever. Even so, her eyes widened when the Dark One threw his head back, whipping away his shroud to reveal that scarred, shadowed face of his. And the fears and suspicions that had overcome Ala’a since she had been stolen from the deep catacombs beneath her kingdom by this savage man were confirmed and all hope left her breath-starved body.
Brog! her mind screamed. *He lives, his death false! He who once saved my beloved Bergrin on the fields of death… He… He who murdered my husband-king! He who set into motion the exile of my only son! He lives but to bring terror upon the land he once swore to protect with his life’s blood!
Then may my curse be upon his head, imparted in the name of Wuthwiergen the She-wolf, queen of the elder winds, imparted by* my life’s blood!
“Gods save the queen,” the Dark One shrieked through his rictus. He pulled his blade back, making his savage calculations, wanting only to dissect the lady rather than skewer her. But just before he thrust that assassin’s blade into the flesh below heart and breast, a shrill bark split the gale blowing across the depthless valley below.
The Dark One turned to the jaws that had produced that furious bark, his mind ensnared by it for but a moment, one lasting just long enough for Ala’a to muster what little strength and courage remained inside her. She swung a wild punch at the turned face of her captor, the blow powerful enough to set him back a step, one quick enough to free her from that cruel hand.
So she fell, the fulcrum between her life and death broken by her own hand. Yet this satisfied her for the death was her own no matter where her soul was to finish. And in this way she plummeted into the great abyss, laughing though the darkness was quick to envelop her and draw her ever on into the cold pit of Cōm-Labi.
Now it was the Dark One who barked, the rage he kept locked inside his iron heart overtaking him, marring his face with crimson anger.
“Wolfbitch!” he roared, his snarl matching that of Wuthweirgen, patron goddess of Thorgithe, she that now stood before the fury-flustered man. Eye bore into eye that moment, anger spilling out of them, tainting the inexplicable calm that hung about the vast lip of the chasm after the lady had dropped away into the shadows. And a heavy silence, a void filled by neither roaring fury or laughing death, came upon them, weighted with the mutual hatred they knew of one another, a curse from tongue and fang alike.
“You made me break a promise…” the Dark One spat. Again his blade caught a spark of Solight as he brought its edge across the image of the wolf. She had advanced since he first spied her; she was now well within two dozen paces of the man’s cruel but empty hand, a hand that still felt the phantom pull of the woman’s weight.
“Your promises mean naught to me,” Wuthweirgen retorted, the wintry mane of her neck rising with each sharp word.
“And what of prophecy?” came his reply.
“Of course,” she growled. “Words to which I am bound… as I’m sure you know.”
“As am I.”
“You have yours and I mine,” the wolf continued, “but I won’t stand idle while you wreak havoc on those who bide prayer in me, especially not the queen of those people.”
“Then you will be fulfilling your own prophecy, dear Mother?” the Dark One asked shrewdly. “The repayment of the indulgences given to you by the bloodline of Kgortel, that which you promised on the day of your mancub’s Malthorith – the comfort, the drink, and the burial.”
“I know the words I’ve spoken!” the wolf barked. “…and am bound to them as well.”
“Good,” the Dark One whispered.
“But know that their coming is also the coming of your demise.”
The man in the gray robe offered a ghastly smile then, a dull cackle rising in his throat. “You really plan to fulfill prophecy, even knowing what it will mean?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I will abide by the foretold, most of all the impartation of my own maw.”
“You’re a fool,” the Dark One said, still laughing.
The man raised his hands skyward, one with the knife, the other in a fist. He chanted then, some lost tongue not even the she-wolf recognized, but instantly loathed. At once, a dark flash split the day, enshrouding the man’s head in a halo of roiling shadows. And when this darkness fell away, a new weapon glimmered in the blunted light of midday.
The Dark One brandished the weapon at the wolf, both hands gripping its long metal pole, the point of its wide wedge of a head jutting toward the bared fangs before it. The she-wolf narrowed her proud eyes at the weapon, her pupils dilating against the blue sparks that shot wildly from its point. Then that point opened like a grappling hook and the heart of the weapon was revealed, a buzzing node of electricity that spat wide arcs of lightning at her. She felt her fur rise, her still-bared teeth thrumming, her nostrils filled with the stench of burning air.
“Behold the Sparkspear, bitch of the winds,” the Dark One crooned, “a weapon brought from the Outer World, a world I’m sure you miss very much.”
“I have no memory of such place,” she replied.
“Memory…” he said, amused. “How poignant of you.” This elicited another cackle that made the she-wolf bare her teeth once more.
“Enough!” she roared.
The man cackled over the bright blue sparks of his terrible weapon, his face a shifting skeletal lightshow as the sparks danced before his eyes. The she-wolf growled, her patience a thread that had begun to burn away.
“Temper, temper,” the Dark One crooned. “I was merely showing you that my power reaches far beyond…”
His sardonic words were severed by a screech behind him and the sound of snapping jaws manifesting from the blast of icy wind that had suddenly swept the barren pit. The Dark One turned in time to see the blur of gnashing teeth coming at him, cinching onto his right shoulder. Then piercing eyes appeared, those of Ierremod, child of winter and last son of Wuthweirgen.
The Dark One screeched in surprise and sudden pain, whipping his body around to meet the wolf. At the same time, Wuthweirgen leapt at his back as quickly as a gale. But quicker still was the man robed in darkness and by enacting his preternatural speed did the Dark One gain advantage once more.
With a deft swing of his strange weapon, the man struck loose the young wolf while blasting his mother with a streak of blue lightning, both wolves launched away from him by the brutality he had carried from the Outer World. Wuthweirgen skittered backward, landing hard on her side, her head down, her muzzle singed and smoking by the plasmatic discharge. At the same time, Ierremod was knocked into Cōm-Labi , his eyes rolling, his teeth chomping apart the foul strip he’d torn from the man’s robes. The pup thrust his claws at the inner lip of the pit, managing to grasp it before plummeting into the churning shadows below.
All the young wolf could see in that dire moment was the stale gray of the overcast sky and the silhouette of the man above him, he with the weapon and terrible heart. Ierremod tried to gain his footing, reaching up with straining paws, back legs kicking, teeth and eyes set with wanting. Then the tittering began and the wolf knew there would be no quarter given, that the man lacked mercy as well as honor. And with that final thought, the pup prepared himself for the darkness, knowing that he would meet the shadows soon, a tiny, disparaging prophecy in the clarity of those last few moments.
“Valiant effort, cur,” the Dark One said between his titters. “And so shall you be rewarded with a reunion. Say hello to Ceolas for me, won’t you?”
The man raised his weapon, its blunted end pointed at the wolf’s skull.
“Oh,” the man continued, “and do save a place for mommy for she’ll be with you soon.”
With that, the Dark One brought the savage weapon down upon Ierremod’s face, its blunted end bashing the wolf once, twice, thrice along his powerful jaws. Still the wolf held on, though the pain was excruciating, his muzzle full of hot blood and guttural whine. Then the weapon came down one last time, its end gouging out Ierremod’s left eye, spilling it upon his cheek like rotted milk. The pup let go, his jaws snapping, his whine erupting to a snarl that seemed to hang in the air, even when the darkness had devoured him, a second living meal for the endless belly of that ancient pit.
The Dark One turned back to Wuthweirgen, walking to her, dragging the Sparkspear behind him. He pointed its buzzing head at her once more, kicking the she-wolf in the side, the deep thump of his boots on her ribcage satisfying to him. Wuthweirgen climbed to her feet, the bitter taste of revenge filling her mouth just as the stench of her own burnt flesh filled her nose. She stared past the humming electricity, into the hateful man’s gray eyes and barked once in defiance.
“I could kill you, wolfbitch,” the man whispered. “You know this well, I warrant.”
The wolf said nothing.
“But I won’t,” the Dark One continued. “I will let you live to fulfill your little prophecies for, as you’ve said, you have yours and I mine.”
Her contemptuous silence continued.
“Besides,” he said, withdrawing his weapon and turning from her, “it’ll be far more fun this way.”
His cackles filled the wide face of Cōm-Labi then and when the she-wolf could take no more, leaping at him with both nail and fang, he shrouded himself in a flash of darkness and was no more. Wuthweirgen landed at the edge of the depthless pit, digging her claws into the stone lip so her momentum wouldn’t send her into the darkness where her son had been sent by an evil hand. Her old heart filled with sorrow then and she knew that prophecy was the only way now, that Beard would have to return and that she would have to help her mancub the only way she knew.
So the she-wolf sat at the threshold to nothingness for a moment, her head cocked as she listened for her poor Ierremod, knowing that he was too far gone but hoping to hear his warm voice one last time. And in the anger and pain that was conjured by this desire, she craned her proud head to the heavens and howled a eulogy for her lost sons, the two slain and the exiled.
So she howled her song, one as old as time, and her voice was lifted upon the winds, filling the whole Northlands with her plight. And beyond where the Motherwolf offered her eulogistic howls, the kingdom of Thorgithe began to burn. And on yonder lip of Cōm-Labi, near the peak of Monduath, a sword awakened with a silent song all its own, a calling of legend and destiny. It, too, was part of the grand vaticination and knew well its time had almost come, that its patience would be rewarded.
That its hunger would soon be sated by a hand both good and cruel.