The 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 the Isle of Inesh. 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 it’s 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 Inesh. 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 Inesh by a it’s traditional foes, men from the neighboring island kingdom of Alga. Alga had long coveted the resources of Inesh and looked upon its denizens as subhuman. Though punished by the same famine that afflicted Inesh, King Karrick of Alga mustered up an army composed of his knights and peasant conscripts, augmented by mercenaries from the mainland. To wit, a company of bronze armoured spearmen from Hatti and an irregular force made up of barbarians from various far-flung locales.
After a treacherous landing on Inesh’s rocky coast the Algan force surged inland, and was met by a ragged force hastily assembled by the loose federation of chieftains who called themselves the High Kings of Inesh. Their army was composed of landowning lords, peasant levies and wild swarms of the swarthy, bandy-legged forest tribesmen collectively labeled Greenmen, convinced to fight for the High Kings with honied promises of land, prestige and spoils of war.
As it happened, Prince Hakkir, general of the invaders, dismissing the Inesh as rabble,overextended himself horribly. The Algan army was all but destroyed and the prince killed. The invasion was thwarted and the High Kings proclaimed victory, but the double edged sword of war and famine had turned the Isle of Inesh 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 from the rawhide thong tied about her hips. She was little better off than the stag she just felled. Normally cutting a robust and ample figure, deprivation had left her flesh stretch 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 breasts. 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. As one of Prince Hakkirs outlandish barbarian auxiliaries, she had been taken captive after being rendered senseless by a sling stone. She and her fellow captives were handed over to the enigmatic Greenmen. All save Sigyn where butchered in a orgiastic offering to Gullah, the profane God-ape worshipped by the Greenmen. Such was to have been the Aesir’s fate as well, but the chieftain of the Greenmen 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 ardour, but precluded his producing an heir to his chieftainship.
For this offence, the painted, beplumed witch-doctor ordained the 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 Greenmen 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 witch-doctors hut to be prepared for sacrifice. He sent away the warriors who brought her, for the eldritch rites he would perform on the barbarian 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. Hastilly 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 northward, subsisting on melted snow and the few rats and squirrels she could catch.
Squatting beside the stags carcass, she sliced open the the abdomen with the copper axe blade. Trusting 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 Inesh, the wolf was starving. This one was gaunt and its gray fur was dull and lifeless. It’s teeth were bared but it’s 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, and with the alien, primordial things that dwelt beyond the Cliffs at the End of the World.
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, 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 it’s 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, then turned into the wood. She resumed her course northward, where the wilderness would give way to small farms and villages, then to the coast, where a boat could be hired to return her to the mainland. 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 ground to cover.
Last Edit: Apr 9, 2019 9:17:15 GMT -5 by Char-Vell