Preamble (again): Some part of me enjoyed the embarrassment of revisiting old things. So I’m posting another one of the self-contained stories while Gaiman’s book rings in my soul and makes sharing these old, imperfect children seem harmless, almost fun. I like this one because none of the men get names, they are instead defined by the pelts that they wear and in my young writer’s mind I thought I was heinously clever.
P.S. – This one is half the length of the last one, which still spits in the face of the tired and true ‘500 words’ more peak readership, but this place has always been more about me than anything.
The winter came early, the northern frost killing all but a small fraction of the crops. They saved what they could; with the livestock they could have survived until the spring, if not well. But it brought more than simple ice. It carried desperate raiders on its tongue, They came to fill the void the bitter cold had left in all of them. Where as they had something, the raiders had nothing, and it showed. Their desperation bred madness. They came to pillage, seiged its walls, screaming chants and blessings as the bodies piled against its walls as fire, muck, and worse rained down on them, for five days not one in the village slept, every moment spent quelling fires. For three days the village nursed in the base of a mountain held. On the fourth day they found a path through the mountain. Most of the village perished, so many of the woman and children burned alive, trapped with modest crop in the barn, torched by the murderers and thieves in disgust by the paltry reward to their efforts. Others were carried off in the chaos to justify their efforts to enter the village. Those who remained were left only to wonder why.
The next five days brought no relief. They had sent the speaker to find the All-Father. The speaker was the one that the great one himself had selected to be the conduit between him and the people. The All-father the only one who could save them.
Two stand huddled next to the mountain, dressed in animal pelts, a weapon at their sides. The snow poured like rain and stuck like sorrow. They wait for the return of the speaker, no one wishes to be out here, they have to, there is nothing left but to await the grace of their protector. The one who ruled this place and so many others.
The two of them were nearly half of the population capable of wielding a blade and standing by their own power. For how much longer was a question none of them dared contemplate. They had seen the speaker off days ago. The intention was to wait until he returned, but night overwhelmed them, and they returned to what remained of the village to sleep, returning when the first shred of the sun emerged from the sky. Ice tore at them like daggers, weakening their faith, body, and mind.
“He’s not coming back.” says one of the men, wearing an old buck pelt.
“He is the chosen. He will come back to us. He was always there for us, he will be here now.” The other man assures him, two wolf pelts sown together to cover his massive frame.
“Oh? And four days ago? Where was he then? As your daughter took a spear to the heart, as my wife screamed for her life inside of a fire?” Old Buck hissed, his lips cracked bloody from the chill.
“We grew inconsiderate of his power. Dependant on him. We were not prepared to defend ourselves. We got what we deserved.” Two Wolf explained.
“You say your daughter’s death was a lesson?”
“It was. And if you don’t mind your tongue he will take your sons as well.”
Old Buck raised his axe. “Do not put that curse on me, you goat.”
An a hand grabbed Old Buck’s shoulder, lightly pulling him back. “Loss runs deep today, do not make it deeper.”
Old Buck turned to find the rest of the healthy now among them. Two men. The one holding his shoulder was dressed in the fur of a beast of nightmares, from a land in the deep south. The whisper of the cold had hidden their approach. Beastmare’s hand was bitten blue from the trek to the foot of the mountain, still his grip was strong.
“Ásvaldr passed just this morning.”
Old Buck spat. “Where is the speaker?! I will smash his bones to dust.”
“The speaker searches for all of us.” scolded Beastmare, gripping Old Buck by the elbow to keep him from raising his axe.
“Besides,” added the man dressed in a massive bear’s skin. “He died protecting his loved ones. Were I able to give my life to save theirs,” he paused. “There would be no hesitation.”
Old Buck’s arm relaxed, his eyes softened as the weight of the last few days hit him completely for the first time. “I hold no ill-will against you.” he sighed to Two-Wolf.
“I put no curse on you. I tell you only that the great one is great because that is what he is. He sees what cannot be seen, does what we ourselves cannot. We have all personally seen his power.”
“I do not doubt their power. I question their absence.” Old Buck placed his axe back in his belt.
“We cannot question him. He is beyond understanding. We just know that he seeks to strengthen us.”
Beastmare shook his head. “The price is steep.”
Old Buck’s face contorted as if he tasted something vile. “What do you know of sacrifice? You, a man of textiles and livestock. You took no wife, bore no children. Who are you to speak of such things?”
“I had a brother. His wife and kin were my own. Their deaths weigh heavy on my shoulders, same as you and yours.”
“Their bodies are not even ash yet and you mock them with your insincerity!” Old Buck snarled. “If you cared for anything as much as yourself you would have been at the gates.”
“And my call when I saw they came from the mountain? Would those who did have made it to the temple, and lived to see this day.”
“Sacrifice grows us. This has unified us,” said Two-Wolf.
“We were the first, the gods found us here. The first to bear witness to their power. Why forsake us now, after all of that?”
“He did not forsake us, we are strengthened by his tests.” added Two-Wolf his rhetoric sounding increasingly detached.
“Were you to ever start speaking a word of sense I would be willing to listen to you. When has He ever taken blood from his protected?”
“The Speaker has been gone a long time. I say if we are so desperate for answers we find him ourselves.”
“Look no further,” came a voice from above them. “I return.”
The man descended the last of the mountainscape and stopped beside the others. He was a disheveled mess of a man, nothing like the man who had risen up the mountain days ago. He was shaken, his face was strange, near unrecognizable from before. His robes caked in filth and weighted by dampness turned to ice.
“Speaker, you return,” Beastmare smiled, placing his arm around him. The Speaker dodged his embrace, looking back towards the remains of the town.
“There is a reason the chosen do not come back here. Such is the glory of the hall of the gods. That no man will ever go wanting for mead or fire. The valleys are rife with creatures your minds would fray if I were to ever begin to describe them to you.”
“You spoke to Him, what did he say? What help does he offer?” asked Two-Wolf.
“Such foolish questions! Can you not feel it?” The speaker hissed. “The emptiness left by his exit. It is what brought the snow from the north. He is gone. He closed every known path we have to him.” There was something menacing in the way the man spoke, his lips moved with intense deliberation, every syllable having to usurp something crippling reaction.
“What do you mean ‘gone’?” asked Old Buck.
“The leader, He came through seeds, large as He himself. They glowed with the brightness and warmth of summer. They would take a man places unlike anything I have ever seen. Now they are no more. He has closed every known path to him.” the speaker whimpered, tears freezing in his eyes. “I did everything he asked. He promised me, his last words to me…” his meek voice over powered by the storm.
“What? What were the last words He said to you?” barked Old Buck.
The Speaker murmured through frozen tears, “He told me of a war, to unify the world. He spoke of dvergr, álfar, jötunn, vanir.” The Speaker swallowed hard. “He said he would take the best of us, unify the worlds. That I should go, prepare myself for the journey. We were to leave the night of the attack.”
“What of us?” asked Two-Wolf, his voice flat.
“He said nothing.”
Two-Wolf’s eyes closed, despondent.
Old Buck bellowed, “You would let him leave us?!”
If the Speaker heard the outburst he made no motion to indicate it. He stood in a 10 mile gaze. “I was his voice, to the people. He promised me.”
“Clearly he no longer wished to speak.” Beastmare sneered.
“Aye, his actions spoke plenty.” Old Buck added scornfully.
A depthless rage tore through Two-Wolf, burying a shortblade into the Speaker’s chest in a single flawless motion. The Speaker dropped into the snow, his body buckling in shock instantly. Nothing moved, for a moment it was as if the winter had rooted them to the ground. The Speaker spasmed wispily, a small amount of blood seizing his lips.
“Grab his arms,” ordered Two-Wolf, “we will paint the walls with this man’s blood.”
No one moved. A dead man in front of them would have been nothing, but this was no mere man. This was the one the gods themselves had chosen to speak through. This was unthinkable, this was heresy.
“Were you not listening? He has delivered us to this.”
Old Buck shook his head. “The cold has stunted your mind, when the village hears that you-”
Two-Wolf roared, “You will speak nothing of this to anyone. We are alone, but the rest do not need to know this. Spare them the humiliation we have had to uncover. We keep his words and carry on. Deliver our people to something better, build them into something better. There are lands in every direction, all of them more promising than this dead ground. If we tell them anything, a word of what has transpired, their souls will be broken, our lines will end this winter. ”
They all watched as blood continued to pour further and further down the Speaker’s increasingly damp chest. His eyes looked to the sky, grasping for nothing, his lips moving in some ritual none of them could place. He was the keeper of traditions, for over a century he had walked among them, never aging, always arriving from the mountain with demands and sermons from the All-Father, only once in any of their lives had He showed Himself among them.
Old Buck was the first to answer, “How will we get them to follow without the Father’s blessing?”
“Oh, we will keep him. His name is power, across these lands his name brings with it fear and obedience. We need that, but now he speaks through us.”
“What would you have us do now?” asked Beastmare.
“We hold our sacrifice according to custom.” started Two-Wolf.
“What? Why would we bother-”
“Because it suits them to have this cowards blood mark the last place we worshipped them as gods.” Two-Wolf interrupted Old Buck. “After that, we move. The gods have fled, there is nothing here for us. We will do as we must. The raiders headed south, we will head west. They brought the cold with them, we will pass through it.”
“What will we tell those who ask about the Speaker?”
“We tell them the cold took him, just as it will take any one who should murmur a word of this to anyone.”
They both nodded.
“Good.” Two-Wolf grabbed the Speaker’s arms, the motion sending a torrent of blood onto the pure white earth. He beckoned to Old Buck, “Now, quickly, grab his legs.” He looked at Beastmare, “Go, tell them that we must make our leave quickly. Do not tell them anything until I get back, there is still much left to be planned.”
Beastmare grunted in acknowledgment and began his way to the temple, Old Buck and Two Wolf ascended the mountain, leaving a trail of tiny red specks across the ground. The snow fill heavy and hard, submerging the frothy red death in angelic calm, forgotten.