He ran, and the wolves ran alongside him. He leapt, and they leapt, keeping pace with him… or him keeping pace with them. Panting, he threw himself over a toppled tree lying rotten in the path, clutching the fire axe in his hand. The spikes on his left shoulder glittered in the light of the stars, so much brighter here, where the cities held no sway.
His breath crystallized in his red and grey beard and plumed in the frigid anger of the air. He saw the occasional flash of green in the woods around him, heard the paws tattoo a beat on the ice-hardened ground, and kept running. At least I’m not the target. Yet.
Running, the zippers and chains of his black leather rustling and clinking against metal and hide, he felt the borrowed speed slowly leeching away from him, leaking into the icy air. The wolves began to take the lead. Having no time to do more than feel the cold biting into his chest with every breath, he lowered his head and forced his legs to move, ignoring the pain around the knees, climbing up his thighs and down his calves. Run, you stupid bastard. Run. The sound of his boots crushing frost and twigs beneath them, the roar of his own breathing in his lungs, the clawing of fatigue in his swinging arms, his fist clenched around the length of wood, the weight of the axe… he narrowed his eyes to slits, focusing on what was directly in front of him.
He came out of the woods without slowing. He didn’t see the wolves nor could hear their mocking stride. But he could see the trampled frozen grass where it lay, and took that as enough of a sign to hurdle over the rock wall and onto what appeared to be a battered old farm on the very edge of a tiny town. The grass was grazed down here, leaving no sign of the wolves. For a bare moment, he stopped short, his boots scraping the hard soil and tough grass. He scanned the place, looking from fading red barn to pale blue house, seeing a few tough cows out about their business of chewing, hearing the slight wheeze as he breathed. Where the hell did they go?
The magic gone, graced by Hermod no longer, he felt himself beginning to panic. His fear felt in the trembling of his limbs, the flittering of his eyes.
Then he heard it. A pounding of hooves, a massive body tearing holes in the earth with every stride. Turning his head to the left he saw it come over a rise in the earth, a great black beast with horns like boar spears.
Shit, we’re all out this year, aren’t we?
Knowing it was dangerous, he still took the second to admire the beast. No bull like this belonged in so ordinary a pen… this was the kind of bull that queens went on cattle raids for, the kind of bull that kings refused to sacrifice to the sea. Enormous, sleek despite its bulk, its hide like the velvet backdrop of night, it snorted and its breath formed clouds in the cold.
For a moment they stared at each other. The man without a name tossed back emerald and azure hair as the beast lowered its head, the light of the stars reflected off of those glossy deep brown horns. There was little sound save for wind in trees and the gentle lowing of far off cows. Their eyes locked, and held.
The beast moved first, muscles contracting underneath that night-dark skin, launching it forward. The nameless man slammed the blade of the axe into the hard ground, grunting as he went down on one knee before the beast. “Lion-headed god, tauroctanator, forced from the earth, come from the earth again. Come from the earth again. From the earth again!” He barely had time to get the last syllable out and roll to the side before pounding hooves would have crushed his head and spine into the ground, coming to his feet even as the beast wheeled around to charge again. Flying clods of frozen dirt ripped from the ground as the bull pounded the ground with its feet, swinging its massive head to angle those killing horns.
Even as it completed the arc, the nameless man shot forward, reaching forth to seize a horn with the left hand, and then amazingly bending the head back, bone and horn creaking under the surprising force of his grip. Twisting hard, the horn cracking down the middle as the inhuman torque of that grasping hand actually dragged the immense beast to its knees, a harsh glow, a mantle of stars settled itself into an orbit around green and blue hair. The axe in his hand flashed up and buried itself in the neck of the beast, smashing through bone and meat, spraying blood out into the air. The beast bellowed as the axe flashed again, and again, until its neck was nearly severed from its body, falling to earth with a loud groan and lying in a pool of glittering dark liquid that reflected the stars above. The man stepped back, his hands and forearms wet with it, and saw the plants begin to bloom in the blood, flowers and grain bursting forth from the earth. Where the blood had touched him, he could feel the throbbing, pulsing fury of life surging forth, and for a moment watched in wonder as the livid, angry scar on the back of his left hand smoothed out, puckered flesh melting into the gentle pattern of hair and skin that had been there five years before.
Leaving the rapidly expanding patch of explosive spring, he ran towards the barn. Delayed by the bull, for all he knew the wolves had found whoever they were hunting. Too many damn things at once. Always the way… longest night, victory of the day, and every jumped up hobgoblin in creation clamoring for a piece. It has to be the barn. There was no door on the side of the building he was rushing towards, surrounded by the whirling halo of stars and the fury of the bullslayer. His lips under his formerly red and grey beard (rapidly turning a more and more fiery hue of red and gold, the grey stripped from it even as it grew on his face, reaching down his chest like kudzu) curled upwards as he threw his shoulder against wood.
The wall splintered and flew apart as he came through into the barn. The wolves, huge black creatures with eyes like saucers, horrible in their tousled savagery and streaked with the blood of a donkey and a mare they had torn apart with their teeth, were leaping and snapping at a trap door leading upwards, two metal doors with a pull chain that to him seemed a likely place for a hayloft. They turned as shards of wood hurled past their heads to regard him with flickering, sickly green eyes, huge and glowing. Six of them in all, bigger than mastiffs, so dark they seemed to eat light with their black oily fur.
Their tongues lolled out, like flashes of twisted fire, green and awful. Facing them, he brought the bloodstained axe up in front of him just as the closest one leapt, bounding the twenty feet between them with one spring. It came down too fast for him to swing, forcing him to use the axe to fend those massive jaws off as they clashed closed a few inches from his face, hot and blood-reeking breath flowing over him. Hearing rather than seeing the rest rushing to overwhelm him under their teeth and bulk, he spun, throwing the dark wolf away and into three of its siblings. As they scattered for the moment, he managed to get the axe up again in time to bring it crashing down on the head of another, a gout of blood and flecks of brain spraying down onto the dirt floor where the ravaged remains of the mare were scattered. The nameless man found himself grateful for the cold, which meant there were no flies. Another furry body hurled itself at him, and he drove his fingers around its throat with that same furious strength that had nearly shattered the bull’s neck, crushing the windpipe even as the halo of stars around him flared, whirling in their own private constellations. Unable to yelp, the black wolf was lifted into the air and brought down into the bodies of its pack while the axe in the right hand flashed, crashing into a black furred chest and caving in a sternum, dropping it in mid-leap. Used as a flail, the undulating body of the wolf held by the throat snapped, its spine broken, as its hindquarters smashed a packmate into the wall.
Six became three.
Tossing the broken body aside, the nameless man brought both hands to grasp the axe handle, the bloody head to the side of his own. Growling, he regarded the remaining wolves, black shapes of wolf that hunted with another’s will. They growled in return, gathering in a mass at the end of the barn near the door. Snarling, the axe-man stepped forward, hoping to terrify them into leaving. Instead, they rushed forward again, this time as one, no one wolf leading. Recognizing the change, and knowing he couldn’t avoid all three at once, he surrendered to the inevitable and dropped the axe into a swing that gathered power from the twist of his hips. The middle wolf took the axe in the belly as it leapt at him, as the one on the right ripped its fangs across the man’s ribcage tearing bloody holes right through his leather jacket, and the one on the left sunk fangs into his shoulder, bearing him down to the ground. Letting go of the axe, he hissed in pain and drove both of his thumbs into its eyes as they fell, bursting them.
The wolf lost its hold, blinded and in agony, trying to get away even as the blood streamed from the bite in the shoulder, and two massive hands reached up with thumbs streaked with blood and grabbed hold of the neck. Roaring in pain, his nose flaring, he twisted the neck and felt the satisfying crunch of bone before kicking it away, trying to get to his feet before its packmate managed to bear down on him. Rolling away, he managed to turn the spiked shoulder of his jacket in time for the last wolf’s charge, slamming his shoulder up into the underside of its jaw as he drove himself upward, wrapping his arms around the bulk of the wolf and driving it to the earth. Claws blunted by long running still scored across his belly, ripping black cloth and tearing furrows in flesh. Finally, a bloody hand found the creature’s throat and dug fingers that seemed surprisingly talon-like, his long hair flaring like a mane now, his features strangely blunted and angular, his beard and skin tawny-red… and with a snarl, the wolf’s throat was ripped out, windpipe and arteries and veins thrown across the barn.
The man without a name lay panting atop its twitching corpse for longer than he wanted. Getting to his feet with a quivering set into his limbs, he felt the last remaining vitality of the slain bull’s blood healing his wounded shoulder and rent side, but the wounds still burned with pain, and the mask of the lion god was fading fast. Staggering over, he wrenched the axe from the guts of the wolf and flicked the handle to clear as much of the blood away as he could, features twisted up at the smell. Sighing, he looked up at the chain dangling from the trap door, knowing he could just reach it.
I could just go home. I mean, shit, I’ve more or less done my bit, right? He stopped. He didn’t know if it would satisfy anyone else, but he knew it didn’t satisfy him. He remembered vividly the wailing in his mind the first time he’d crossed the line. No one had come to help him. And he’d always bitterly resented it, and he always would. His slick fingers managed to catch the very end of the chain.
“Listen, whoever’s up there… I’m not one of the wolves, okay? Don’t stab me in the face with a pitchfork or whatever you might have managed to find up there. I’m coming up.” Looping fingers through the links, he pulled the chain down and the trap doors split open, ladders swinging down from each door. Seeing no one, he sighed and forced himself to climb up, half expecting to take a shovel to the back of his head.
In the dark, only barely lit by the band of red that could be just made out through the wooden slots across the window above the large double doors leading out into empty space, his eyes took a moment to make out two bodies huddled together in the corner of the nearly empty hayloft. Seeing them, he waited for a moment, looking at the curves of one form and the angularity of the other. Skinny man, pregnant woman. Great.
The man stared at him for a while, desperate fear warring with desperate fear in the inky blackness covering most of his face. The woman clutched to him, panting, and it didn’t take much in the way of intelligence to realize that she was fully in the process of labor. The man without a name had to resist the urge to cradle his face in a bloodstained hand.
“Please tell me your name isn’t Joseph.”
“Doug. Doug Mefram. What the fuck did those things want? They chased our truck until we broke down here! My wife’s…”
“Yeah, I can see that, Doug. Okay, can she move? How far along is she?” Not that I know squat about childbirth. Sound authoritative, that’s the key here. Sound like you know what you’re doing. “There’s a house not too far from here, maybe she’d be more comfortable there.”
“Miriam? You okay, honey? Can you move?”
“If there’s a fucking bed and some goddamn painkillers at the end of the walk, I’ll damn well move!” He couldn’t see her face, but the nameless man had to admit he liked her attitude. Laying the axe down at the edge of the doorway up, he made his way over to them. Seeing how small the both of them were (Barely out of their teens, he thought with wonder) he heard himself speak before he knew he was going to.
“I can carry you.”
Her eyes flickered over his rather spectacularly ravaged appearance… hair wild, beard long and matted, bloodstains all over him… and then a bolt of pain decided it, and she nodded weakly. He stooped to lift her, careful to not smack his head on the beams of the loft (a lesson he’d learned through many, many impacts to the skull) and made his way back to the door, gesturing to the axe with his elbow as he went past it and gratified that Doug picked up on it. As he carefully made his way down the ladder, he got his first look at Miriam even as she got her first look at the chaos below, and hissed in combined pain and revulsion. She was unusually pale, with long black hair currently sweated back and large brown eyes, and she looked like a high school student in the slowly dawning red light creeping over the trees. Doug, for his part, was gaunt, lean, dark hair and skin like someone who saw a lot of time outside. His eyes were huge at the sight of the wolf bodies, and looked from them to the man holding his wife with extreme apprehension.
“You… did all this?”
“Yes. Let’s go.” Heading out the barn door, for a moment he was caught off guard by the brassy sky behind the pine trees, where the sun was clawing its way up the sky. Then he turned and headed to the light blue farmhouse, Miriam sweating and grunting in his arms, Doug clutching the axe in his hands. Striding across the gravel, he made his way to the front door and knocked hard, hoping against hope that someone was home. After waiting a long thirty seconds, he reached down and handed Miriam into Doug’s arms, and then dropped to his knees, searching under the mat, under flowerpots, and finally finding the key in a box underneath a large seashell. The door opened, swinging into a perfectly ordinary kitchen.
The sound of something, a great many of them, coming towards the house. Hooved somethings that were dragging something else behind them. This time, he did cradle his face in his hand. Stepping back down the stairs, he took the axe from an uncomprehending hand.
“Get inside. Call the police if the phone works, get a doctor out here. Don’t come out for anything, don’t open this door for me or anyone else who doesn’t have a badge and a doctor with them. Tell them everything you know, but don’t describe me.” Before Doug could speak, he was shoved along with Miriam into the house and the door pulled shut behind him. Holding the bloody axe, the nameless man stepped down onto the gravel road leading up to the house.
It came out of the woods, a large black sled vaguely like a chariot, pulled by immense black and red stags. The one in the lead had a mottled coat, with a red muzzle that almost seemed bloodstained, shining with reflected light from the approaching day. Twisting his head to look over his shoulder, the nameless man cursed the sun for taking its time to rise. The red antlers of the stags waved like spears in the air as they came on, easily pulling the sled across hard packed earth and frosted grass. Seated in the sled was a huge, grey-bearded man in animal skins and furs stained with blood, a festering hole where his left eye should be, a great spear in his right hand.
The sled came on, finally stopping ten yards away, the team snorting and tossing their antlers as they came to a halt. The red furred man stepped from the back, easily half as tall again as the man without a name, the spear in his hand just as large. He glowered, his massive eyebrows like clouds across his wide, hair-wreathed face.
“You killed my wolves.”
“Yep, I did. And that bull, too.” The great grey man in his red skins arched an eyebrow at that. “And what do I call you? Valdemar Atterdag? Dietrich von Bern? Herne? The King of Fairy? Elflord? What brings you and yours out this fine morning?”
“Not morning yet. I come for the woman. The woman and her babe.”
“No?” The huntsman seemed to grow even larger. “Who are you to deny? Men who displease me decorate trees with their entrails, their heads perched atop the branches to warn others. This is my night. I do as I please, and it pleases me to have the woman. You will die if you defy me.”
“I have the sun at my back. Natalis solis invicti, remember? I have the sun at my back and the blood of the bull on my hands, and the White Christ’s day dawns now. The day that made a mockery of you, toybringer, jolly fat man.” The nameless man smirked even as he felt ice running down his spine, locking his eyes on the wild grey one. “Your wolves are dead. The night is over. The child will be born, just like the child is born every year, and your time ended when you were banished to the northernmost poles to serve as a tale to amuse. You won’t have her, not this year, not any year. The sun is rising, and I am not going to let you have her.”
The great grey huntsman in his red stained furs clutched the spear in a massive fist gone white around the knuckles. The nameless man waited for the spear cast that seemed inevitable. Then he saw the sign of his own survival in a flash of light, as the bloody rays of sunlight reflected off of the shining muzzle of the lead stag, give it a glowing blood-red face for a moment. The huntsman lowered his head, and turned back to his chariot-sled, then turned that savage grey eye back to face him.
“I will find you next year.”
“Looking forward to it.” The sled turned an impossibly tight turn and headed back into the shelter of the dark woods. In the distance, the sound of sirens could be heard. The sky was now a light rose behind him, with rays of orichalicum gold and red thrown out to paint anything they touched a gleaming brazen color, burnishing the world. Everything was glory and fire. Looking down at his own ragged body, he exhaled, and then turned for the woods where the sun was coming back to life. It was a good day to feel the light on the face.
As he headed away, he thought he could hear the first cry of a child from inside the house. Despite his angry flesh, stinging with the exertions of the night, he smiled. Welcome home. Then he loped into the sunlit woods.
Copyright © 2006 by Matthew Rossi.