Karrogh was a grown man meditating in the glade, but in his mind’s eye he was a scrawny boy again, aching to grow his muscles like the men in his tribe. His arms and legs were twigs, he was nine years old, and he hated how the others teased him for being the matriarch’s son.
Yet here was an opportunity to prove himself.
He stood unflinching in the face of the giant white wolf that had stalked into the camp and bitten the throats of his friends.
The beast had terrorized them for weeks. The men were out in the woods, hoping to lure it out on this moonless night, but here it was, right in their home. Karrogh and the other children had to guard the pack now.
“Careful, Karrogh,” his friend whispered.
“I can take it,” he said.
“I should call the others!”
“Let me try to kill it first.”
His voice was still childishly squeaky and sounded nothing like a warrior. The beast that had entered their campsite bared its fangs.
“Wolf!” The boy hissed. “You’re supposed to be our deity! Why have you been killing us?”
He received no answer. The enemy only dug its paws into the ground, arching its back.
Karrogh pointed his dagger at it. It was made of wood, but quite sharp.
“There are already so few of us, and we can’t leave this forest because the blight is everywhere. Please leave us in peace.”
But the wolf didn’t retreat. The young tribesman knew he’d probably get killed. What chance did a child have against a monster like that, even with eleven others waiting to attack?
“You’re not going to, right? I guessed as much, and anyway, I’m far too angry at you for killing our own so greedily. You should die.”
He stared hard at the wolf, waiting for it to move, or should he attack first? He only had experience in roughhousing and hunting rabbits.
He flinched and launched himself. The wolf snapped at his little arms as he dove past it, and their heads collided. Karrogh felt its warm fur graze his cheek. He saw the wolf’s humongous yellow eye and in that instant, he heard it speak inside his head.
“Help! They attacked my brother!”
Karrogh was a grown man meditating in the glade and he was shaken from his reverie by the voice of a small girl. At once he turned around, his sword at the ready. The child careened over a toppled pine tree. It was a girl from the village, out of her mind in panic.
“Please, he’s hurt!”
She opened her hands and showed a blood-soaked cloth. It was human blood, still damp.
“Who did this?” Karrogh asked.
“He went to get water and I don’t know who jumped him, but he’s really hurt! He’s in the hunting tent nearby.”
Karrogh didn’t waste any more time. He collected his belongings and ran to the tent—an outpost some leagues away from their camp.
When he entered, he was struck by the stench of mortal injury. The girl rushed forward to take her brother’s hand. He was lying on a cot, gravely injured.
“Please hold on, brother,” she cried.
Karrogh approached. “What happened?”
The young man, feverish, tried to face him. “Ambush... at the mountain pass. They just... toyed with me. Let me go. Warning... Challenge... So many legs, stepping on me, crack-crack...”
Then he perished.
Once the brother had died, the girl traded her panic for silent sobs, burying her head in his clothes.
Karrogh’s mind caught fire. Villains had occupied the mountain pass and humiliated and killed one of his men—while he’d been out meditating.
Once, their tribe had roamed the lands. When the blight was still young, there had been leafy forests everywhere and they’d never stayed in one place for long.
Then the miasma had washed over every acre of good land. Flooded groves were all that remained.
Karrogh’s mother had led them to this final unspoilt forest of pines, high up in a valley surrounded by rock. It was colder here and sparsely populated—but the blight was kept out. They’d been here for years. Their tents had been fortified, becoming yurts and cottages. Here they’d stay as long as their resources held out.
But none of this was on Karrogh’s mind at the moment. He strode into the village square with his fists clenched.
“I need the bravest fighters with me, now!” he barked.
The smallest children nearby gawked at him, because Karrogh wasn’t merely one of the strongest men in the tribe—as a boy he had slain a giant wolf and now wore the beast’s head as his shoulder armor. Its white fur was slung around his back and whoever spoke to Karrogh also had words with the wolf.
“What’s this racket?” a woman asked, sticking her head out of a tent.
“A summons!” her husband called out as he emerged, hastily gearing up for battle.
“Karrogh! I am with you,” a second said.
And a third: “What needs to be done?”
Soon there were half a dozen of them stepping out, men and women, preparing their hunting spears and bows.
“Brothers and sisters,” Karrogh announced. “One of our own was killed today, near the mountain pass spring. He was tortured and sent back to die in his sister’s arms.”
“Who was it?”
“This calls for revenge!”
“Yes,” he agreed. “We’ll launch a party at them immediately.”
“You will do no such thing.”
Karrogh had already drawn his sword when the words reached them from behind. They were warm and authoritative—it was the unmistakable voice of Wodania, matriarch to the tribe. All made way for her as she joined them from her hut, which took up the center spot around the square. Her eyes were covered by embroidered cloth, but nothing in her movements betrayed that she was blind. It always seemed as if she sensed the world more accurately than those with the benefit of sight.
“Mother,” Karrogh started, but he was cut short.
“I’m your matriarch first, mother second, Karrogh. And you will abandon this ill-conceived plan to charge headlong into a danger you know nothing about.”
The others bowed their head in deference, whispering “matriarch” as she passed by. Wodania didn’t insist on such reverence, but was pleased they gave it to her freely.
“But such an attack is intolerable,” he argued. “We can’t let them get away with this.”
“And we won’t. But we will exercise caution, as I perhaps should’ve done when conceiving you.” Still her voice was kind, even when she lashed him. “We’ll first send scouts to learn what we’re dealing with.”
“They might’ve retreated by then, or changed locations.”
“Then that’s exactly what we’ll learn.”
Karrogh hated waiting. Nothing good ever came from sitting on one’s hands. If he hadn’t faced the wolf when he did, more people would’ve died.
“Matriarch, I protest!”
“That’s the end of it,” she said and turned around, knowing all would resume their duties.
Karrogh heard the wolf on his shoulder snicker. It gazed onwards with its dull eyes and its jaw hung slack, but still it poured words in the warrior’s ear.
“The boy that slew me had twice your guts.”
He ignored it, for dead wolves did not speak.
“You faced me head on, then, when you were still brave.”
And the punishment that awaited him afterwards had been nothing compared to the celebration given in his name. Karrogh, Wolfslayer. The memory was an ember of pride in his stomach that would warm him for the rest of his life. But tonight, he didn’t feel it.
“How many more need to die because she needs to be sure?”
He slammed his fist on the table, toppling a mug and a scatter of snares. As always, the wolf was right. He couldn’t afford to waste another day.
Immediately, Karrogh went out to make arrangements. Eight of them would gather in the dead of night; men and women he trusted and who were equally outraged. The night guard was a friend—he’d stay quiet as they slipped out of the encampment. Come morning, it’d be too late to stop them. Wodania would simply have to accept that this was going to be done.
The pass zigzagged between two sheer mountain faces—a crag leading to the world doused in blight. Karrogh and his pack had left the forest behind. The soles of their feet were no longer caressed by soft moss, but had to make due with rock. Despite not being far from the valley, the blight had crept up here as well.
It’s gotten worse, Karrogh thought. I hope the spring’s still fresh.
“I can’t see more than a few paces away,” Osmund said, aiming his bow into the fog.
“I know,” Karrogh replied. “Stay close. We’re nearing the source.”
“Just don’t waste your arrows on billy goats,” Kanja sneered.
“Shut your face.” Osmund wasn’t having it. “Or I’ll stick an arrow in that.”
“Oh, I know where you put those in the privacy of your hut.”
Karrogh spotted something shifting in the mist and ended the fight with a hand signal. At once all eight of them stopped walking.
Movement in the blight.
He willed his eyes to penetrate the sludge, but all remained grey. The corruption formed a pocket chamber around them, cutting them off from the world.
Havern was sweating. He was a good fighter, but the way his spear trembled betrayed his anxiety.
Something rushed past them. Karrogh swung around.
But he was sure he had felt it. Some strange gust of wind, and the sound of hooves.
Tagga-dun, tagga-dun, tagga-DUN...
Again the sound of galloping horses, and they all felt the displacement of the air. Tendrils of mist advanced at their feet.
“Don’t let them get to you,” Karrogh hissed.
It was intolerable, being toyed with in this way.
TAGGA-DUN TAGGA-DUN TAGGA-DUN...
Silhouettes in the blight, rank legs hurrying along, encircling them. Karrogh gave a swift set of formation signals and the eight warriors took position. The ones with spears crouched, defending the archers who stood behind, arrows nocked. The swordsmen made ready to dash forward.
Their pocket within the blight had turned into a maelstrom, the once tranquil mist now agitated into a swirl.
Karrogh had once faced a giant wolf—nothing could ever frighten him again.
And yet he felt his stomach plummet. Without warning the mist cleared and what had once been mere shadows in the miasma, now became a herd of thundering horse monsters with human torsos, armored all over. Their legs were spindly and their arms muscular. Helmets covered their horrible heads, though not their wide rictus smiles.
Without taking his eyes off the enemy, Karrogh rubbed his cheek against the white fur draped over his shoulder. Talk to me now. How do I face these creatures?
“Iron pursuers,” Lambrus gasped, nearly dropping his weapon. He was one of the older ones in the group. “I’ve seen them before, when we made our way to the valley. We barely managed to ward it off... and that was just one of them! There must be six here!” Suddenly he lost his nerve. “Stop it! Stop running circles around us!”
“Calm!” Karrogh barked. “Keep your nerves in check!”
Finally the pursuers halted. The clop of their three-pronged hooves died out and they all stared at the humans.
“Are you the beasts that attacked Timmas?”
No answer. Perhaps they weren’t capable of speech.
Timmas spoke of legs stepping on him, cracking his bones. These are undoubtedly the ones.
The monsters had enclosed them. When presented with a siege, breaking out by piercing a single point was the best option. Karrogh flashed the required hand signals and hoped his companions understood the plan. Yes, Kanja was already aiming her lance. A single iron pursuer stood in their way.
“Run it through,” he whispered at her. “The others follow. I’ll pretend to negotiate.”
Rising up, he barked at the creatures: “We demand that you leave our grounds! Retreat and we won’t—NOW!”
He hoped it was enough of a surprise to work. Wodania usually came up with the ruses.
Kanja thrust forward. Her weapon was faster than the eye could follow; within a blink the head was lodged in the pursuer’s flank. It howled in distress, bucking to get the blade out. Kanja tried holding on to it, but the movement swept her off her feet and she flew away.
No time to help her—the maneuver came first. They rushed forward in file. The monster stopped staggering and was instantly cut down by a plethora of blades. Others shot arrows to the sides to cover their retreat. Soon, they had broken through the blockade.
We’ve bought a small window to reposition.
“We’ll take them on one at a time, working both ways. Don’t get surrounded!”
It was a solid plan. They had discussed in advance how to split up or regroup under a host of combat situations. But it only took a single slip-up...
“Kanja!” Lambrus burst out.” She’s still in there!”
“Stay in formation!”
But the warrior had already retreated into the clearing. Their precious opportunity was gone. The others were now torn between attacking the iron pursuers and protecting their two exposed members.
Karrogh contemplated in horror how to salvage this. Then the dust was kicked up again, hooves thundering and blight swirling. The matriarch’s son heard a terribly cry that he recognized as Kanja’s—followed by Lambrus wailing.
Their morale collapsed. The grinning beasts galloped out of the mist and knocked one of them unconscious.
Osmund pivoted around, waving his bow every which way. “We have to run!”
“Belay that!” Karrogh stared intensely at the fog. “Regroup at once at Kanja’s position!”
“We’ll all die!”
Then Osmund shot his arrow randomly into the air and sped away. Karrogh fumed at his cowardice, but couldn’t spare a second’s thought for him. Their predicament was far too urgent.
TAGGA-DUN TAGGA-DUN TAGGA-DUN
The remaining fighters pressed their backs against each other and made ready to meet the iron pursuers.
Karrogh was a grown man lying in the dirt, holding onto a flutter of consciousness, and he was a scrawny boy, eye to eye with the wolf.
“Were you not more alive today than you’ve been since we first met?”
“No,” Boy-Karrogh said, his eyes straining to fight back the tears. “It was horrible. You’re horrible.”
The wolf grinned. “How different things were then. You children had jumped me all at once, all together. I thrashed and ripped several of your friends to shreds, but none surrendered and you least of all. You, Karrogh, had mocked me by howling like a wolf and dashed forward and suddenly your wooden dagger was in my eye.”
“And then you mounted me like a mule and tore your toy weapon from the socket and plunged it, over and over, into my neck.”
Karrogh remembered and once again his stomach warmed at the thought.
“All the children cried victory. Your village was saved from me. Now then, I ask you... How could you have allowed these pathetic horse creatures to get the better of you?”
Karrogh remembered and he hated it. The iron pursuers had made short work of them. It was a massacre.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Boy-Karrogh shouted. “Osmund ran away and then they forced us sideways where Kanja lay unconscious. Lambrus was alive, but he—!”
“He saw how hopeless it was,” the wolf nodded, his appetite monstrous, “and he fled too. Havern followed, leaving only the three of you standing.”
“I couldn’t help it!”
“The pursuers started picking you off one by one. You were nothing but a game to them. You gored a few of them with your blade, but in the end—”
“If only they’d stayed.” The boy stared into the darkness.
“In the end—”
“They defeated us without breaking a sweat.”
“But that wasn’t the worst of it, wasn’t it?” the wolf continued. “The wolves of the woodlands are a proud tribe. They’d rather die in combat than be so disgracefully ensnared...”
Why hadn’t they killed them? The iron pursuers, after running circles around them, hadn’t even attempted to finish them off. No—one of them had been caught with a net, Kanja, still out cold, had been picked up, and the only other remaining warrior dragged off.
That had left Karrogh.
But rather than meeting a heroic death, the grinning pursuers had kicked his sword away and run around him until, dizzied, he’d lost his footing.
Now comes the trampling, Karrogh had thought. Crack-crack, and there goes the Wolfslayer.
But the hooves had only kicked him unconscious and when he had come to, the mountain pass had been empty. He’d been left alive to carry the shame of defeat. Three traitors, four captives and one reckless fool of a leader.
He heard the wolf chattering in delight.
“Why do you torture me?” Karrogh asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? Consider this my long overdue revenge.”
The journey back was arduous. Karrogh’s body was bruised all over. He stumbled his way back to the forest—ignoring the blisters hurting his feet. Not even the scent of pine could refresh him.
With every step, his heart sank. Home was getting nearer and so was the moment he’d have to explain what happened.
When he entered the encampment, he felt fifty sets of eyes glancing behind his back. They all knew. He traversed the square to his mother’s hut. She wasn’t waiting for him outside, no, this was a matter of such severity that he’d have to step in for an audience, like any stranger.
Karrogh went in.
Wodania sat in her favorite chair, puzzled by some apparatus; an ancient Aetheri trinket used to determine distance. Being in the privacy of her own home, she wasn’t wearing her eye coverings. She fingered the device and held it near her face, and Karrogh saw the crystalline sparks in her eyes—her mother-of-pearl pupils portals that sucked you into a kaleidoscope of miniature suns.
Wodania had been a young girl when the sun had shattered, the tribespeople whispered, she had looked at the sun right at the moment it had burst and pieces of it had flown into her eyes.
“Matriarch.” Karrogh was mortified.
“Tell me how you failed.”
Her words were daggers that plunged into his heart. She hadn’t even looked up.
The warrior shifted, wanting to sit after his exhausting trek, but Wodania never offered him a seat. He told her everything, doing his utmost to keep his passion in check.
The matriarch remained silent throughout the tale, and from all outward appearance it seemed as if she wasn’t even listening.
“So,” she concluded, “the threat hasn’t been removed, we’ve lost seven of our kin—eight, lest we forget poor Timmas—and to top it off you undermined my authority yet again?”
“That is poor form, Karrogh.”
She put the gadget down and looked his way. Despite knowing that she couldn’t actually see him, it was the most unnerving thing. He expected the usual scolding, but she surprised him by sighing deeply.
“This has gone beyond our capacity to deal with. We’ll have to reach out to salvage this mess. The iron pursuers came from beyond the mountain range, so it’s safe to assume that’s where our people are held hostage.”
“Then I urge you, matriarch, to have us take up our nomadic life once more and relocate.”
She shook her head. “I will not lead our tribe into such danger.”
“Then let me go on my own! I swear I’ll return with Kanja and the others, or I’ll not return at all!”
“Stop being so utterly brainless,” she said. “No, Karrogh, I’m taking this out of your hands. We will both go, and I’m keeping you on a short leash.”
The two of them against a herd of iron pursuers, and whatever else might lurk in the Blood Ridge mountains? Those were some stiff odds.
“We’ll take the battle to them together,” he exclaimed, happy to commit himself to a plan.
“Oh, now you’re just living in a fantasy world!” Wodania sighed dramatically. “You would barge in there, on their home turf where they have the complete advantage, while you’re in stitches and I can’t see?”
“But mother, you—”
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the refuge on Cinder Peak? They hope to become a bulwark in the fight against the blight. That’s where we’re heading.”
Karrogh nearly exploded. “We’re soliciting the help of people outside the tribe?”
“No, dear boy, I am soliciting their help. You will be there solely as my personal aide.”
He swallowed his pride and thought, I deserve that. I should be happy mother has a plan, even if we’ll surround ourselves with looters and adventurers.
The refuge on Cinder Peak... Would this become his next base of operations? He already felt homesick.
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Wodania said wistfully. “I hear the elder who runs it is quite pigheaded.”
Karrogh simply couldn’t resist. “Then he should suit you, matriarch.”
“Don’t be glib, son.”
And with that, she dismissed him. Karrogh left the hut, feeling a hundred sets of eyes on him now. He went to his own tent and began to prepare. While he was gathering provisions for the expedition, he suddenly perked up at a sound. It was a wolf howling—or laughing?—on the edge of his hearing.