The Terror of the Wolfhide Warrior. Aug 17, 2019 22:08:42 GMT -5
Post by Char-Vell on Aug 17, 2019 22:08:42 GMT -5
IThe stag stumbled wearily through the chill, snow-swathed wood. He was once a majestic animal, a fine specimen of the great antlered beasts that wandered the forests of Pictland. But now his mighty head hung low, his emaciated body barely supported on trembling, spindly legs. Weakly he pushed his muzzle into the snow and gnawed at the scant grass and moss patching the stony earth. Finding little nourishment, the stag summoned its waning strength and raised his head, assuming a noble posture reminiscent of his former glory, and bellowed. He gazed upon the gray, skeletal forest, festooned with light snow. He was weak, weary, so very weary.
So it was he felt nothing when the spear, cast from outside his line of sight, transfixed his heart.
Famine and pestilence had spread their grim pinions over Pictland. A long harsh winter was followed by a short growing season, plagued by blight and hordes of insects. Now the early onset of yet another frigid winter blanketed all that lived in want and misery. The suffering was compounded by the invasion of Pictland by its traditional foes, invasive settlers from the kingdom of Aquilonia.
Aquilonia had long coveted the resources of Pictland and looked upon its denizens as subhuman. King Numedides of Aquilonia sent a legion of Aquilonian regulars, augmented by levies from Gunderland and the Bossonian Marches along with a company of mercenaries made up of sellswords from across the Hyborian world.
This force surged through the Westermarck and across the Black River, thrusting deep into pictish territory.
As it happened, General Leander, dismissing the Picts as rabble, overextended his forces horribly. Foundering and losing cohesion among the forests west of the Black River, the Aquilonian army was all but destroyed and Leander killed, his head taken to adorn the profane altars of the Picts. The invasion was thwarted and the chieftains proclaimed victory, but the double edged sword of war and famine had turned both Pictland and the Westermarck into a living hell of murder, deprivation and degradation.
Sigyn of the Aesir would have yelped with exultation when her spear felled the stag, but she had not the strength. She could only shamble from the thicket that concealed her. She approached her kill, tugging a copper bladed ax from the rawhide thong tied about her hips. She was little better off than the stag she felled. Normally cutting a robust and ample figure, deprivation had left her flesh stretched tightly over her corded muscles. She bore signs of ill-use. Yellowing bruises and scabby lacerations covered her body, and her long yellow mane was clotted with mud and dried blood.
She was not well outfitted for the climate, clad only in a rude breechclout of bear hide, and a length of filthy linen wound about her torso. Her feet where wrapped in furs secured with rawhide thongs, and a ragged, patchy fur cloak was thrown about her shoulders. But she was not troubled by the cold overmuch; hunger was her most dire affliction. One of General Leander’s outlandish foreign mercenaries, she had been taken captive after being rendered senseless by a sling stone. She and her fellow captives were handed over to Gar-Haggoth, a devil-worshipping Pictish shaman. All save Sigyn where butchered in an orgiastic offering to Gullah, the profane God-ape exalted by Gar-Haggoth. Such was to have been the Aesir’s fate as well, but Gar-Haggoth sought to gratify his baser desires with her first. The result was Sigyn maiming the painted troglodyte in such a way that not only chilled his ardor, but precluded his producing an heir to carry on his foul legacy.
For this offence, the witch-doctor ordained the green-eyed she-fiend be cast naked into a pit and starved until the next full moon, when she would be sacrificed to Gullah in a more elaborate and horrific fashion. But Sigyn proved craftier and more resilient than the Picts anticipated; for a fortnight she was sustained by the flesh and blood of the occasional vermin that found its way into her pit. All the while she feigned a profound lassitude, as though she were resigned to her fate.
At last she was extracted from the pit and taken to the Gar-Haggoth’s hut to be prepared for sacrifice. He sent away the braves who brought her, for the eldritch rites he would perform on the flaxen-haired witch were not to be observed by the uninitiated. She lay as though insensate as the witch-doctor began painting esoteric symbols on her body, symbols sacred to Gullah, Xultha, and The Goat of a Thousand Young. When the shaman moved to a position were he was at the most disadvantaged, the Aesir sprang to life, grappling the witch-doctor and tearing out his throat with her teeth ere he could raise an alarm. Hastily outfitting herself with what she found in the shamans hut, she crept stealthily out of the village and fled into the wilderness. Since then, she had trudged ever eastward, avoiding Pictish war-parties and subsisting on melted snow and the few rats and squirrels she could catch.
Squatting beside the stag’s carcass, she sliced open the abdomen with the copper axe blade. Thrusting her hands into the steaming entrails, she obtained the stag’s liver. Dropping the axe, she drew the organ to her lips and tore into it with relish. Though she was ravenous, she ate slowly and deliberately, careful not to gorge in her weakened condition. So engrossed in her feast she was, she failed to see the wolf until it was nearly upon her.
It was one of the great dire wolves that haunted the earth of old, standing as high as a man’s shoulder. Like all that dwelt in Pictland, the wolf was starving. This one was gaunt and its gray fur was dull and lifeless. Its teeth were bared but its snarl was silent. It closed in, any fear it may have felt of the Aesir was overshadowed by its hunger.
Sigyn silently cursed herself. Her spear was still wedged between the stags ribs, and her axe lay among its entrails. She would be forced to face the beast bare-handed. This would not have been as uneven a contest as it might seem, Sigyn was not one of the frail, mincing doxies so often produce by the more civilized regions. She was of that savage breed spawned in the frozen, polar wastes of Nordheim, where the men were less removed from apedom, and grew strong contending with one another, with the great beasts that to them were both predator and prey.
But now her strength was at its lowest ebb. Consuming part of the elk liver revived her, but in her current state she felt she could not best the wolf. If she could distract it long enough to secure the axe or spear, there would be a chance. Hefting the remaining portion of the stag’s liver she tossed it toward the wolf so that it landed near him, but to his right, he would have to turn from her to eat it. The wolf snarled, eyeing the succulent liver. He was wary, but his hunger was great. Keeping his eyes on Sigyn, he slunk toward the liver. He sniffed at it briefly, and then fell to devouring it.
Sigyn snatched up her ax and tensed to leap upon the wolf, to embrace that primordial struggle for survival that all that lives must one day engage. But some whim caused her to check herself. Instead, she quickly hacked off one of the stag’s forelimbs and threw it to the wolf. The massive canine glanced at her for a moment, then drug the limb to it with a sweep of its great paw.
Sigyn watched the wolf eat or a few heartbeats, then resumed her own animalistic feast.
She did not recall falling asleep, or awakening. She simply snapped into full awareness, sitting with her back against the trunk of a great oak. Before her was the carcass of the stag, reduced to a skeleton. Beside it was a bundle composed of its hide, containing a small amount of its remaining meat and organs. Sigyn did not recall making this bundle, but she knew she must have.
There was a layer of new snow over the bones, as well as the fur cloak that blanketed her. She judged a full day must have passed since she took the stag.
She was warm. A great furry mass pressed close beside her provided a source of heat. She cursed silently as fear knotted her stomach. She crawled away from the beast, seizing her spear from where it lay propped against the oak. She crouched, ready to thrust the spear into the wolf, but it did not move. It lay near the tree, unmoving, but eyeing her from squinted eyes.
Rising, the Aesir crept over to the red stained bundle and picked it up. The great wolf rose, stretched, and spread its massive fanged jaws in a yawn. It then squatted on its haunches, regarding Sigyn in silence. Sigyn backed away until she was beyond the distance she thought the wolf could leap, and then turned into the wood. She glanced behind her. Among the trees, at a discreet distance, the great wolf kept pace.
“To what end?” She wondered. It could have easily devoured her while she slumbered. Had she entered into some sort of bestial pact by sharing her kill? Sigyn had heard tales of a time when men and beasts lived as brothers and worshipped one god, and that some beasts remembered. Could this wolf be such a beast?
She shrugged off these thoughts. It mattered not; She had much more ground to cover.