The stars hold stories, tales greater than human memory.
Look to the night sky. Heroes and monsters have their names and deeds writ large in sparks of light across the black dome, sagas to last through history and time. North and South, East and West, they have different names and tongues and tales, but they all wait in the heavens for those with eyes to see, ears to hear, minds open enough to discover their deeds. Greatness and tragedy, heroism and treachery, all may come from quiet beginnings with only the stars as witnesses.
The stars and perhaps the gods.
Thorvald spent winters wishing he'd been born farther south. Much farther south.
As the days dwindled and the warmth of the world seeped away, his mood worsened until the wheel reached its nadir. Bad enough to face the Vigil with nothing but a hearth fire and his prayers to keep him awake, Mother Night seemed to always bring a storm.
He wondered if a tiny bubble of warmth assailed by the full force of winter prayed harder, and cursed as each fresh gust rattled the walls. Grinding his teeth, Thorvald focused his faith in Sunna's return, and in lengthening days.
The longest night speaks to every living thing under moon or sun, each responding according to its nature to the deep rhythms at the bottom of the year. With the wind screaming and the snow trying to force its way through wild fur, the wolves must run.
To hunt, to live, to be, the wolves must run. Across fields, through forests, along hilltops and riverbanks and the shores of lakes and ponds, leaving great puffs of breath and smeared prints in the snow, the wolves must run. The depth of winter is no shelter for prey.
The wolves must run.
In that darkness between moments, lost in the long night, Thorvald hovered on the edge of sleep as he stared into the fire. His mind began to wander. How long until dawn finally arrived?
Somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled, its long, keening cry piercing the wind enough to widen Thorvald's eyes a little, pulling him back to the Vigil and his duty to the gods and the heavens. Deep in his heart, he truly believed that Sunna might not return at the end of the long night. A child's fear, for men knew better.
But men still prayed.
Far behind the wolves, other things ran. Huge furred horses ploughed through the snow with great bearded warriors on their backs. Other strong men ran at their sides, breathing great puffs of steam with the effort.
At the host's head, a grey-bearded man with one wild eye and one puckered socket hefted a spear nearly his own height and flung it into the dark with a strength far beyond human. It sliced through the air like an arrow, passing beyond sight in a heartbeat.
"Call us forth, my son." He breathed deep to reach above the wind. "Follow the spear!"
Thorvald jerked alert at the distant call of a horn. The deep note rode over the wind to shake his ears. Two more fell on its heels to crease his brow. Who would be abroad on Mother Night and in such a storm? Whether hunter or wanderer, they must be far from hearth and home.
Three more blasts, blown close together, pulled Thorvald from his stool by the fire, craning his neck to turn his ears. When the next three notes came, they seemed closer but still directionless.
But as the ninth call faded, something slammed into his cabin door.
The door wouldn't open wide enough for a good look outside. A full hand-span of bronze penetrated the solid wood, the weapon's shaft jamming against the doorframe to resist his strength. Thorvald marvelled at the force behind the cast and that no splinters had struck him by the fire.
Like an idiot, angry and impatient, he pulled on heavy furs, emptied his lungs, and squeezed out through the slim opening to stand in the wind and snow, seeking the man owing him a new door. Night and the failing storm obscured his view.
Only then did Thorvald remember the wolves.
One howl. Then two more.
The axe in his hand felt good, a comforting old friend, but would it be enough? Even one bite, clean of infection, might ruin the rest of his winter. Retreat would be best, let the pack pass him by, but the wolves sounded close, so close. The time to squeeze back through the door might cost him a leg.
Thorvald grabbed for the spear, intent on bending the bronze head enough to ease his passage back inside. He wrapped his hand around the haft and the weapon came free of the door at his touch.
A fire burst in the one-eyed man's belly and his knees clenched of their own accord. The great steed beneath him took the action as a demand for more speed. It leapt ahead of the Hunt, legs churning so hard and so fast an observer could not have witnessed only four.
One-Eye heard several horses behind him chuff, felt them surge forward, hoof beats muffled just a little less by the snow. A glimpse over his shoulder showed the horn rising again to his son's lips and three long notes shot through the storm's dregs.
Their quarry lay close now.
The spear weighed too little to be so long, a hand-span more than he stood tall, at least. Light, straight, and balanced so he might throw farther than he'd ever cast a weapon before. Moonlight fell on the spearhead as the clouds tore apart to free Mani. The snow stopped falling in the next moment, but Thorvald didn't notice, his eyes locked on the gleaming runes etched into the bronze.
His fist clenched around the shaft, fingers surely whitening under the fur gloves, as something stirred deep in his guts. Tracing each rune with his eyes, Thorvald began to tremble.
Running into the wind, the scent grew strong. Destiny swirled through the air on the heels of the storm and the pack would catch it if they could, catch it and tear the meat from its bones.
Distant through the trees, they saw flashes of the prey. A shadow caught between moon and glowing snow, the man stood almost motionless in the wind. He held a weapon in each hand, but the pack was a weapon. The pack was many weapons.
To hunt, to live, to be, the wolves must run.
But to survive and grow, the pack must kill.
The first growl told Thorvald he was a fool. The second made him a dead one. Blinded by the glorious thing he held, he'd forgotten the wolves again, and long enough to throw away survival.
They gathered in a loose almost-circle around him, huge and dark and hungry, hackles raised and eyes narrowed.
One step to the door. Another to get inside. Thorvald knew he couldn't move quickly enough to put wood between them. In the moment he tensed, they'd leap, so he held his ground.
He might die a fool, but other blood than his would stain the snow.
YOU ARE READING
Long retired from his days a-Viking, Thorvald now makes his life working the land. But as he offers prayers to the gods in the depths of Mother Night, he finds himself standing at the edge of a world wider than he ever believed he might see. In the...