My Face Knows Winter
by Micah McGurk
My nostrils stung as old snow crunched beneath my feet. We’d been stalking red deer for hours and Sander’s patience had vanished. He towered over us all and had sandy blonde hair with a consuming brown beard that gave his face a champion’s shape as his yellow eyes pierced the forrest for prey. We trudged through white drifts, weapons ready, until I sensed something and gently put a hand on Sander’s ax and we all stopped so I could sniff and listen.
We're close, I said.
Not a pack for hours.
They're coming back and the snow will be gone soon.
Green fields call, Angus. They call like a mother.
Forty day’s time and the fields will be green with onions.
I swear on your father’s head… I want beef, Sander said through a primal sneer.
Make peace with onions, Sander. Most of us would die trying to get to where you want to go.
You can stay here and die if you like.
I shushed him as a pack of red deer trotted through the trees ahead of us.
Can you bag one?
Those are females. There’s bound to be…
A booming roar echoed through the forrest. We held still, our eyes darting around. Another roar echoed closer; we steadied our footing. Sander motioned for me to lead and gripped Molly, his ax, and rolled his shoulders. I approached the snowy hilltop, legs heavy and bursts of steam shooting from my lungs as branches snapped nearby. My ears burned and hummed, scrambling to locate the stag. I closed my eyes and put my hands deep into the snow. I could feel the hooves plunk down, cutting powder to the ground. It wasn’t far away. And then nothing. Had I been mistaken? Maybe there was no stag at all?
But the beast emerged, an accidental ambush! It spooked when its eyes met mine and leapt onto its hind legs. I felt my body go warm and limp. Frost burst from its nostrils as it roared over me and all I could see was hooves, black, churning hooves. I fell back like a board, the stag’s bristling muscles writhing closer. Two arrows plunged into its white chest and an agonizing moan filled the forrest as it collapsed onto my legs. Convulsing through its death, a swordsman plunged his weapon into it, only angering it and causing it to kick and buck harder. Molly swung through the red's neck and there was silence.
The inside is outside, Sander said.
The outside is inside, we answered.
I laid still, trapped by the dead red, as Sander stood over me and leaned in close and faced me upside down.
Fear kills a man before he’s dead. We almost missed ten dinners 'cause of you.
Our village was simple. Stone huts and buildings dotted a large clearing in the woods. A small mountain’s cliff face protected our backs and we had a large berm surrounding us flush to the forrest. The villagers cheered as we and Sander approached with the kill.
Leaches, Sander said and handed me a mallet.
The traps are waiting, Angus. No stag for you.
Dejected, I broke off from the party as they were greeted as heroes. Our fairest gatherer covertly handed me some roots and I instantly felt better.
Praise you, I said and she smiled and got back to work as the stag was dropped down by the fire.
I do not do this for excitement. I do it for all of you, Sander said with raspy pomp and reveled as villagers drowned him with praise. Feast your eyes on your next ten meals!, he boasted.
I walked down a line of traps smacking the mallet in my hand. I enjoyed the bitter roots in my mouth to spite the world. Trap after trap sat up at the ready, empty save for a bit of food to lure a creature. One was closed, so I squatted and lifted the lid. A bunny sniffed up at me, chomping. I raised the mallet, but knew it was for show and sat and watched the bunny eat.
I entered our main hall which was filled with villagers and hunters and warriors joyfully feasting. Sander gulped ale from a skull as Dubly, a middle-aged man with wispy comb-overs, debated him.
Their riches alone, Dubly said.
They brag, but I don't feel they have what they'd like us to feel they have. No. We get their land, their hunting grounds, their fishing, Sander said as I handed him back his mallet.
No meat for the fearful?
Traps were empty, I said.
I eyed a box down.
Must've gotten out.
Pity for you then.
You want us to make war with Armoy for their food? Dubly asked.
You should want the same, Dubly. I can only guess about you... Sander poked his mid section.
Hey! Dubly protested.
But, I'm hungry every day. The cold won't let go and with fewer and fewer deer in the woods?
It’s a lot of energy to gain food is all, Dubly countered.
Oh, we wouldn't stop there. We'd keep going till we hit the mainland.
We have the men for that? Armoy’s building a tower and a ring fort I’m told.
Sander scoffed and took another gulp from his skull.
The cold will die soon and our hills will be full of flowers and food, I said.
Can we be through that for nature's sake? Sander blurted.
We're Mag Orcs, Mag Orcs one and all, I reminded him.
Mag Orcs, yes, Sander vowed. He leaned into me and whispered: You know your father would have us leave.
Would he? What else would my father do? Please tell me.
You speak of him in such a way, Sander said and stood, his shadow covering me in darkness. He looked across the hall to my father’s totem. A thick wooden post with a bust of a bearded man's face at the top. How dare you bring Mag Orc himself into discussion of our survival? He went to the totem and admired it. He almost touched it, but drew his hand back.
The outside is inside, someone said.
The inside is outside, we answered.
Father would stay, find his own food, and make peace with Armoy, I said.
Before battle, your father’d shave his head and cover himself in stag's blood. Most terror. One fight I watched him kill twenty men. Two had me dead if it weren't for him.
He swung an Ulfberht tall as a man, one of the hunters said matter of factly.
Every word true, Sander said. The outside is inside.
The inside is outside, the room prayed.
My mother taught me the truth.
Her words, boy, Sander growled.
He was a good man. A thoughtful, reasonable man.
He reasoned with his sword the great Ulfberht Bani and Bani alone.
Have us slowly die, Sander countered.
Or quickly die on a glory march.
Maybe the likes of you would die. One bad thing Mag Orc did was sire you… a gentle child running through the grass. No warrior. I think your mother had a jump with a poet, Sander said.
A few chuckles sprang out as a villager ran in.
What? We’re feasting, Sander answered.
There’s a torch.
We have many torches, I said.
In the woods.
Sander scanned the horizon as his men emptied out of the dining hall behind him. A torch in the distance swayed a bit, but didn’t appear to be moving fast.
Fetch Molly, Sander said and two villagers rushed off. Party! At arms! When I give the signal, sound the battle horn. Villagers scrambled, his ax dragged out to him. Sander easily picked it up and ground his hands into the handle. If any of you see sweet Molly in the hands of another, run, for I am dead, he said and lovingly kissed the frozen blade.
We approached a dying horse at the edge of the berm. It’s rider sat in the snow against it and held on to the torch. He wore a faded green and red battle suit.
Their colors, Sander whispered.
The man seemed to be asleep, but he’d heard Sander and raised his head to look at us.
So glad you're here, he said and laughed gently into a cough.
Where are the others? I asked.
I am… he answered.
Surely not, I said and went to him.
Destroyed… save me and Maisy.
Liar! Sander belted and waved his torch for the battle horn.
He's bleeding, I noted out loud as the battle horn blew and the bagpipes wailed.
Giants, the man sputtered.
This is an ambush! Sander’s eyes flicked through the forrest.
Giants? Here? I asked.
With all due respect, sir, those are fire tales, I said.
They like our blood.
I watched him laugh and noticed he was sitting in a pool of blood that trailed all the way down the path. I followed it for a few steps.
Armoy tricks, Sander gasped.
I studied the blood with my torch and looked back to Sander.
He studied my face in the torchlight and looked down at the blood. He moved Molly to his left hand and unsheathed his sword at the man.
No! I said and ran to stop him. Things we need to know!
He must die, Sander asserted.
It's a trick, I tell you, Sander said and he kicked the man, who gave out half a moan.
Where are your men?
The man could only finish his moan and try to stay upright.
What do the giants look like? I asked.
He won’t give the truth either way...
You’ve led them here, you could at least describe them.
He smiled and met my eyes with his. Ten feet, some of them... some... forty.
Where are your men!?” Sander yelled.
White. So white... weird eyes. All males. No women, the man said and then spat a bit of blood.
Weapons? I asked.
Long blades. Thin. Only attack while sun shines.
No more bedtime stories. I'm gonna stab him, Sander said, but I held him back.
One day's walk behind me. They'll feed... the man faded off into a stupor.
What's he mean? I asked.
Off his stump, or... it's a trick, Sander easily walked through my grasp.
The man’s practically a corpse, Sander.
Well, this corpse requires more pain, Sander said and plunged his sword clear through the man and into Maisy who gave out a whispery whinny. The man’s face cracked a wince, awakened once more for a final wave of agony before fading blank with death.
As we made our way home, I could still see Maisy and the man burn.
We stock the parapet. Use the Ancient’s Cliff if we have to, I posited.
What’re we defending? Dead farmland, sparse hunting grounds? We leave at sun up.
Homelands, I swear, it's a loss, Angus.
Our fathers died here.
Sander stopped, so we all did. He turned his back on us and blew cold steam for a while in thought. Finally, he turned and faced us.
I'm sorry, Angus. I've known your feelings for some time and it’s dawned on me. You're right. He's right, men. We stay. We stay and we fight, Sander said and patted my shoulder as villagers came to meet us.
I blew the battle horn right on your signal, sir, Gunvor, a big boned girl, said proudly. A scrawny young man named Asmund, who played the pipes, stopped to catch his breath.
Yes, sir, she did.
Sander leaned into me and said: They can't know. Not till morning.
We have to…
They won't sleep. We need them rested for battle.
I nodded in agreement as Sander broke away to herd the villagers back inside.
What was out there, one asked him.
Only a dying wanderer. We kindly helped him pass on to other lands and took his horse pack as payment for services. He won't be needing all this bacon where he's going anyway.
The villagers cheered and followed Sander inside.
Sander led celebrating villagers into the main hall and in my excitement, I stopped to thank my father’s totem. He stared back at me stoically, a twist of dark wood.
The outside is inside, the inside is outside, I said to myself. We stay. We fight.
My undying efforts to provide for my people, Sander sneered through a grin as he passed out bacon and trinkets from the saddle bag.
As villagers pounced on the goodies, and the hall was filled with laughter and chit chat, Sander gathered his warriors and I watched them slink through the hall toward his chambers and felt proud they were already planning our defense.
The village slept in moonlit white and grey with sparkling crystals on the snow banks as the funeral pyre burned out on the edge of the forrest. Only embers lived on softly in the mist around the man’s beloved Maisy. I awoke to the sound of horses. Was I dreaming? Had the giants already arrived? Maybe the dead man was lying when he said they only attacked while the sun was up. I got outside and spotted Sander on a full wagon pulled by every horse we owned, so I chased it.
Go back, Angus, Sander yelled.
This is your death knell, not ours.
Weak! Like you, Sander rasped.
I caught up to the wagon, but Sander easily pushed me back.
This is murder, I said.
Sander turned his back to me, so I grabbed at a crate to gain footing. He turned and knocked me and the crate off the wagon and I crashed into the snow. I gathered myself and squinted at them through the whiteness. The fair young maiden who’d snuck me roots stared back at me from a perch, tied to the wagon rails.
Awoken villagers watched, astonished behind me as the wagon trailed off into the white woods.
The sun drowned behind hazy clouds as I sat on the crate of food outside the main hall and addressed who’d been left behind, women, children and old men.
Sander has deserted us. He took our strongest hunters and warriors. Our medicine. Our skulls. Our ale. And all of our food save for this one crate, I said.
The villagers broke into a cacophony and I put my hands up for people to be quiet. Some did, but I had to speak above the rest.
There's more bad news. That rider was no drifter. He was from Armoy and he was bleeding badly. He was dying already, but he gave us a terrible message before he passed. Armoy is no more. It was obliterated by giants.
The villagers’ terror and confusion turned to laughter.
Fire tales, a villager shouted.
He may have been mad. He was close to death. Maybe he was seeing or hearing things, who is to know? I said.
Do you believe him, a villager asked.
There was truth in his voice. But more so, I could sense his satisfaction in... leading them here.
Leading them!? Dubly asked.
They aren't real, another villager spoke up.
Tricks. Their tricks, Dubly added.
All of our giants have gone, a villager said.
We're probably safe. But we need food and we need it fast, I said.
We'll starve before you could do anything, Dubly quipped. I say we go to Fergus Rock and regroup with Sander.
Did you not hear me? Sander has abandoned us. And if we were to run, we’d at least need a week’s worth of food. And what of medicine and drink and shelter, Dubly?
Dubly shrugged and mumbled to himself and went inside as if he’d forgotten something.
I looked around. It was a thin and hungry group.
All gatherers head west. Work double time for roots. Anything you can find. I'll form a hunting party and get a stag or maybe two.
As villagers began to move, Dubly reemerged from the hall with a bag filled with his belongings.
I’m going to Fergus Rock.
A few villagers moved toward Dubly.
I'm hungry, a villager belly ached.
I'd rather not fall into one of their tricks, another villager said.
Or get killed by a giant, another said.
They're not real, Dubly corrected.
It's best to stay. Sander is half a day's journey ahead of us. With our horses. We'll never catch him. And if we could, then what? Hope that he won't abandon us again? I asked.
We can't be led by the likes of you, Dubly asserted.
We'll climb the Ancient’s Cliff if we have to, I said and blinked away the thought.
You've never had the courage to get ten steps up that cliff, Dubly said.
I will if we have to.
I don't believe you.
More villagers turned and followed Dubly.
Anyone for the hunt? I asked.
Me!, a voice rang out of the fringe as Nash ran to me. He was a boy, but he was sturdy with Sander’s quick eyes. He was one of many children Sander had left behind.
It’s nice to finally have a willing soul, but I need men, young Nash.
I am a man! Nash said bitterly.
I like your attitude, I said and a villager nodded at me. He was ready.
Can you shoot a bow?
If I had one, the villager said and I almost gasped.
Who here can make a bow? I asked the crowd.
One hand finally went up and I went to him and handed him a small, crude ax.
Take the first tree west. We need firewood as well. You'll get the best cut of meat, I assured him.
Are they real? Nash asked.
I don’t know, I said The hunt will be dangerous, Nash.
I’m not afraid.
I’ll teach you how to track once everything is back to normal.
Tracking my ass, I’m a killer.
I couldn’t help but smile to keep from laughing.
Gatherers brought baskets of roots as we searched for weapons. We picked through every storage bin and hut to gather anything resembling one. I asked for volunteers to be lookouts and not a soul came forward.
Double rations next week, I added not knowing if we’d have rations to double. We would know soon. The dead man said giants were a day’s walk behind him. It had been the better half of a day.
I tried to locate the sun again. I felt the Ancient’s ghaoth, the cold wind that sheers off our cliff, blow snow crystals through my beard. I thought about how it had streamed off Ancient’s Cliff long before Mag Orc was born and how it would blow for eons after my death. The ghaoth faded and died and I felt my feet relax in the snow. For once that day, the air was calm and quiet. I stayed in its silence for many moments. A hope grew in me. It would be dark soon. Maybe there were no giants. Maybe that man was mad. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw some snowy branches tremble ever so slightly. The dust of new and old snow alike fell to the ground. I waited for a steady ghaoth that never came and I began to trudge toward the woods involuntarily. I wondered if that was what courage felt like. To walk toward danger. To seek it out. Then I thought I might be hallucinating. Three giants emerged from the trees. One guided the other two, their hands on each other's shoulders, staggered single file. They had to be twelve feet tall and their skin was a white-white that clashed with their black hair. They stared at me, but I did not feel detected. And as I noticed their lite armor and weapons that were long, thin blades, I felt my right leg get warm. As the alarmed sounds of my fellow villagers sprang up around me I looked down to see that I had thoroughly pissed myself. The lead giant sniffed at the air in my direction and grunted and pulled the other two along toward us.
I looked back and spotted Nash staring at them too, but he had no sign of pissing himself.
Find as many elders as you can and get them to the parapet, I ordered.
They’re real, he said.
I looked back at the giants as they trod confidently through the snow in long strides. I turned and found Gunvor who had the strongest lungs of the Mag Orcs.
Battle horn! I shouted at her, but she blinked and turned tail through screams and chaos.
Asmund, the pipes player was there with his scraggly beard. His jaw slacked out.
Asmund! I yelled. Pipes, man!
They’ll boil us, they will, he said.
The words went to my bones and chilled me. I had no one. I was no one. I was soon to be food. I watched most of the villagers run screaming. They kicked up clouds of snow and some resorted to climbing trees.
Nash emerged from the main hall with the only working bow we had. It was almost twice his size. I had expected to talk him out of trying to shoot it, but he gave it to me and I pretended to know that that was his intension. He handed me one of two arrows that we had made that morning. As I readied the bow, I watched the giants lope closer and closer and sniff the air.
Stop! Stop right there, or we'll be forced to fire upon you, Nash exclaimed.
But the giants sped up as if Nash’s voice had helped them locate their prey.
You are on the Mag Orc homestead. Turn, or you will be cut down! Nash yelled. As the giants sped up into a sprint, I felt my knees begin to buckle and I almost fell backward, but caught myself and took a better stance. A kill stance. And I tightened my bow. A voice to my right caught everyone’s attention. A villager waved his arms to distract the giants and it worked. The giants had stopped and changed direction. And when he saw them coming for him he ran back toward the woods. Nash patted me on the leg and I nodded as I aimed for the lead giant and let the arrow fly. It hit his right shoulder and stuck. He gave out a small shriek and they stopped again. He looked down at the arrow and then casually looked to the others. They reached for the arrow and touched it clumsily. They looked our way, but turned back to the woods. We had won. We cheered as the giants walked away into the trees.
We shouldn’t have, but we celebrated that night. We emptied our crate of food and enjoyed every bite without a hint of guilt or anxiety. I forgot I’d pissed myself and made merry.
How could Armoy have been flattened by the likes of those pitiful giants? I said. Some laughed, but most were concentrated on eating. I went to my father’s totem and voiced the chant. The outside is inside.
The inside is outside, the rest said as I watched warm firelight dance on my father’s face.
The next morning we found a distant tree was ablaze. I took a small party out to survey the scene. We passed the dead man, now a snowy pile. You could still see the black soot below, but it would soon be buried in white like everything else. We made our way to the tree and it burned steadily, eerily glowing. We doused it with snow and the flames died, but they came back bright as before.
Scouts, I said. The smoke will direct them here. They know our numbers.
We rushed home and began work on decoys and traps. I had explained our situation to everyone, but many did not believe me. Particularly Asmund, the pipes player.
I’m telling you, Asmund, that wasn’t the great hoard that destroyed Armoy. They were scouts. And they’ll be back, I said.
We need to eat, Angus, Asmund answered. What are we to eat tonight?
Remember the fear you felt yesterday? When you were too afraid to play your pipes? When has that ever happened before? I asked.
I wasn’t afraid, he said and walked away.
You’re not Sander you know, Gunvor blurted. She gave me a terrible look and left as well.
I know what you’re trying to do. But they don’t believe in you, Nash said. I nodded and pretended to be strong. Cracking sounds in the forrest caused us all to pause and look. We were surrounded by frozen trees so it wasn’t odd for a tree to crack, but this was different. The cracking came from all directions at once.
What do we do, Angus? Nash asked.
I tried to speak, but could not. I saw a head and shoulders up in the trees. A giant at least twenty feet tall stopped and scanned the area. He sniffed and looked our way.
We stay and we fight, I said to Nash. Archers! I yelled. All three of our archers emerged with their bows. And all three had white hair if any at all. Battle horn! I yelled. Pipes!
Blow your own, Asmund said and went to escape with a few others including Gunvor.
More giants arrived at the edge of the woods. They were much taller than the scouts and they wore more armor. They must’ve been their warriors. Most of them had long nets.
They mean to catch us like mice, I said to Nash who shrugged. I watched the fleeing villagers stop in their tracks. A line of giants stood in their way. They had us surrounded.
I had to squint to see it, but I knew the giants couldn’t have crafted a copy of Molly, Sander’s ax. It had to have been Molly herself. These giants had come from the north and I hoped Nash wouldn’t see.
The sun will be down soon. Let’s hope the dead man was right, I said.
They’ll get us tomorrow, Nash countered.
We watched the giants set up camp in plain sight. Beasts of burden, equipment, weapons and humans in cages. They tore down a swathe of trees and moved a towering wooden edifice down the path, vibrating the ground. Snow rattled and settled all around us and then we saw him. He had to be sixty feet if he was one. And he slowly sat on the wooden edifice. His throne.
Minutes passed. An hour. Some of the villagers taunted them. The sun went down and I called a meeting in the main hall. Few came to hear me out, so I began to shout my ideas at the door instead.
They don’t attack until the sun is up.
That’s according to the dead man, Asmund said.
They aren’t going to attack tonight, I said. And we’ll freeze out here.
Once I got us all into the main hall, I laid out my plan with my father’s bust looming behind me. After a lot of squabbling, many of the villagers finally gave in and helped me. We got the women and children into the parapet, except for Nash, of course. We slept in shifts with lookouts and then manned our stations, weapons ready, an hour before sunrise. And the sun rose. And most of us were ready to die there, though some were hiding and one, I think, killed himself. We hadn’t checked his chambers yet.
But no attack ever came. The giants watched from the edges of the woods. Only the sound of a cracked branch or the muffled scream of a human being being eaten would echo and die in the snow from time to time.
They know we’ll soon be starving, I said to Nash.
I’ll fight them first, he stated.
That’s what they want us to do. They aren’t going to attack, I shouted.
I waved my arms at the giants and laughed. They watched me and began to grunt to each other softly and sniff the air.
See? I said.
We have no food, Gunvor said.
That’s the point. We are going to have to either tunnel our way out of here or try to break their ranks and run, I said. It was no surprise to me that no one wanted to do anything. Nash was right. He had just enough of his father in him to know. I wasn’t Sander and I definitely wasn’t my father. So the sun finally went down and we all waited to die.
I found Nash staring at the stars. I looked up and smiled.
You know what that’s called? I asked.
The sky, Nash said.
That’s the Pleiades. A traveling merchant told us when I was young. If you look closely enough, on a clear night, you can see all seven sisters, I said.
Seven? I see nine, Nash said. I counted them out loud and could only count six.
You’re blind, Nash said and he counted all nine out loud.
Hmm. I could see better when I was your age, I guess, I said.
This will be the last night I see them, Nash said.
Don’t say such things, I said. Nash, do you think the giants don’t attack at night because they can’t see very well?
Makes sense, but how can we know for sure? he said.
Nash studied the giants and a glint of light caught his eye. One giant was removing branches from a nearby tree with an ax. We both watched for a while and then the moonlight caught the ax again and glinted in the night. It was Molly. Nash grabbed my cudgel and sprang through the snow toward the beasts.
I ran after him, but he was lighter in the snow and full of rage. He attacked the twenty foot giant swinging the cudgel onto its toe. The giants moved away and sniffed the air and grunted to each other, clutching together in fear of Nash’s war cry. I watched helplessly as their warrior swung Molly, missing Nash by inches. Nash hit his other foot and then his shin. The great beast howled, shaking the snow from the trees. I got to Nash and grabbed him, but he swung once more and smashed the giant’s foot. A flash of light blinded me and Nash screamed out. Molly’s blade had cut his arm clean off. We had to leave it and the cudgel there in the bloody snow.
The villagers watched as I brought Nash into the main hall and laid him down. I wrapped his wound with my leathers and instantly began to shiver.
Did I get him? Nash asked me. He was turning white. I removed a shard of Molly from his shoulder and the blood darkened my hands. I couldn’t stop it.
You got him. Good man, Nash. Good man, I said and I watched his face slowly turn away from me. He was gone and I realized I was crying and that there were villagers around me watching. Someone put a hand on my shoulder.
Go, I said. All of you.
Some left right away. But some stayed. One began the chant.
The outside is inside…
Stop! I said. The boy is dead.
They left me there. Alone with Sander’s dead son. Killed by his own ax. I put my head in my hands and sobbed. I took the shard from Molly and felt it. It was black with Nash’s blood, but it was still so sharp. I cut away at my hair until it was mostly gone. I shaved the rest completely to the skin with the shard. It was so cold and in different ways. My skin was bare and then I felt warmer as streaks of my blood trickled down my face. I felt my bald head for the first time and welcomed the frigid air above my ears. I sat down and all I could see was the fire and my father’s totem across from it. I regarded Nash’s body for a moment and went to the totem and faced him.
The outside is inside, the inside is outside, I chanted. Why am I not like you? I asked and then I reached out to touch his face, but hesitated. You were not to touch the great Mag Orc. But I did. The wood was warm and as hard as stone. I caressed it. I felt a change in the wood. I felt the entirety of the totem, sweeping and knocking.
The outside is inside, the inside is outside.
I couldn’t stop saying it. I was going mad. I wrapped on his forehead. Solid wood. I knocked further down and it was slightly hollow. I stopped and thought. I moved a few things out of the way and lifted the totem out into the open.
Forgive me, I said and I threw it down onto the stone floor splitting it into pieces. At first my stomach twisted because of what I had just destroyed, but I saw something that was only legend in my life. My father’s Ulfberht. I picked it up and hoisted it and laughed. I studied it and looked for the name Bani, or Death, as Sander always said. But I couldn’t find Bani. I found Kuernbut. The Great Kuernbut. The Millstone-breaker. I looked over to Nash and laughed triumphantly and noticed many villagers watching in on me with shocked and disturbed faces. I met them all with a defiant smile. They could tell my mind was gone and they made a path for me as I strode out into the snow shirtless and hairless, with the black blood of a child on my face and my father’s sword.
You want blood? I've got plenty of blood, I shouted into the woods. I turned and looked at my people and smiled. The outside is inside! I shouted.
The inside is outside, they muttered.
I ran through the deepest snow and reached the edge of the woods and went for the first giant I could find. The Kuernbut swung like no other sword I had ever felt and it severed a twenty foot giant’s leg clean off before me. They scattered. I felt like a monster and I laughed at them an taunted them. Their grunts and sniffs I mocked as they retreated into the woods. I felt the ground vibrate again. It was their king. I could see the top of his head in the distance as he got up from his throne. I grunted like they did and leaned up against a tree, my breath shooting out of me, darts of steam next to their torches. The bloodlust had quickly worn off and I felt the cold again on my bare skin. I was happy though. Would I rather die in my room alone of my teeth? I craved a warrior’s death. Even if it was suicide. I saw him get nearer. I knew they had a problem with their sight, but I figured their king would have no problem smelling and then stepping on me. No Ulfberht could stop a foot the size of our main hall. I was resigned to my fate and I grunted louder to try and draw him to me. I no longer had a reason to be. Trees fell in groups ahead of me and I felt my heart tear in my chest. I kept grunting, but then I heard something strange in the distance. It sounded like geese or ducks. I grunted again and I could hear the great beast’s sniffs and snuffs in the tree tops. The strange noise in the distance grew louder and my brain began to recognize it. It was the pipes. Asmund had caught his wind and they now wailed through the woods. The pipes sent chills through me and put tears in my eyes. The beast was almost upon me and I stopped grunting and I looked back toward my village and I listened to the pipes for the last time. But then I looked up and saw the Ancient’s Cliff in the moonlight.
I ran away from the beast as fast as I could, dodging trees and branches and stones. The beast was close and trees feel to my left and to my right. I could see the steps ahead of me. The battle horn blew close by. I couldn’t tell where. But the giant was one stride behind me. It was too late. I stopped to face him, to witness my death like a man. But the villagers swarmed his feet and he had to stop and stomp on them to fend them off. I turned and began climbing the stairs to the Ancient’s Cliff. The rocks were as slick as I had remembered from my failure as a youth. The screams of my brothers below kept me from dwelling on my danger and I focussed and got halfway up before I came to a break in the stairs. They were gone and I simply had to jump. I looked below and watched their king stomp and kill and I couldn’t bare the thought of not getting to the top, so I backed up jumped and caught the wet ledge and held on. I climbed up and got to the top and immediately I was gripped with the fear that the giant of all giants would forget me up there.
Retreat! Retreat! I screamed at the top of my lungs. And the pipes died and the battle horn grew quiet and I could hear my brothers running back toward the village. I began to grunt again. I heard a sniff. And then another. I grunted again and he grunted in my direction. This made me laugh and somehow I think he understood. He was upon me sooner than I thought. The beast’s head was almost level with where I stood and there was an almost overwhelming joy growing within me. He faced me. I felt my legs go again. The hubris I had built felt like it had vanished, but I somehow stood steady. I didn’t think I could really kill him. I sobbed a bit when I thought of it. His face peeked in and faced mine. He sniffed me and my beard shot up toward his giant nostrils. I though about taking a swing at him, but he was too far away. It looked as though he saw me. Then he took a swipe and crushed the ledge to my right. The slick rocks fell to the ground below. He sniffed again sending my beard up at him and he seemed to refocus on me somehow and took another swing. He destroyed the ledge to my left. I was done for. But all my anger came flaring back and I got close to him and I screamed in his face. He screamed back, his stinky breath forming a ghaoth around me that I leaned into. He took another swipe left and then right, missing me completely, but destroying the cliff around me enough so that I knew I would simply fall soon enough. As I felt the rocks beneath my feet begin to give, I raised The Kuernbut and screamed as it came down between the beast’s eyes, splitting its head open slightly. It gave out a final yelp of a grunt. The rocks gave way under my feet which soon were kicking in the cold air. The Ancient’s Cliff crumbled below me as the beast’s huge body took me with it, snapping trees. I somehow wrenched my sword out of his broken skull and and raised it triumphantly as we descended together.
The outside is inside!
About the Author
Micah McGurk studied screenwriting at UCLA and holds an MFA from Eastern Kentucky University. He works as a script doctor and ghost writer for a handful of directors and producers.