My short story “Deep in the Land of Ice and Snow” originally appeared in the collection The Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure by Rogue Blades Entertainment. Enjoy.
The wolves were too many. Belgad knew that as he soon as he spotted the beasts. There were nearly a score of them, and if that were not bad enough, the creatures were huge, each nearly the size of a riding pony. What was worse, the wolves were quiet and had managed to surround him without his spying them sooner.
No, this was no ordinary pack. They had appeared from nowhere, and they had no qualms about scaling the side of a mountain for their human prey.
Belgad forced himself to climb higher, the bitter cold winds whipping at his long yellow hair. His fingers, the tips protruding from rags he had used to swaddle them, gripped the edge of another boulder and lifted him with the help of solid placement from his fur-lined boots.
On top of the boulder, Belgad found a flat spot and sat there, letting the cold air fill his tired lungs. His body needed rest after days of hiking dense forests and climbing steep hills, but he would not close his eyes; the wolves were drawing nearer, below and above. It would only be a matter of time before they would pounce.
After what felt like hours to the big man wrapped in furs, one of the wolves, the largest, began to creep its way along a narrow path toward him.
Belgad watched the animal with anticipation, knowing soon he would be in battle.
Eventually the wolf was below Belgad, just out of reach of the man’s legs hanging off the side of his stone seat.
“Will you eat me today, wolf?” the large man said to the animal.
The wolf’s only reply was uplifted ears and a tilted head.
“I think not,” Belgad said, drawing in his legs and pushing off them so he was standing on the boulder.
The wolf blinked, and that was when Belgad took notice of its eyes. The animal had eyes the shade of morning blue ice.
“I think not,” Belgad repeated. With hands numb from stinging frost, he reached behind his head and pulled forth two swords. Gripped in his right hand was the long, heavy blade that had been handed down to him from his father; resting in Belgad’s left hand was the shorter, wider sword taken from a Truscan mercenary during Belgad’s first raid as a boy.
A low growl from behind made Belgad turn his head to the side. “Tricky beasts,” he said as he spotted another wolf above him choosing its steps cautiously in the rocky terrain.
Suddenly the wolf below sprang up, its claws digging into the side of the boulder and pulling itself to a firmer standing.
The movement was so swift Belgad had no time for a full swing with a sword. Instead he punched out with his shorter weapon’s hilt, smashing the blue-eyed wolf across the snout and sending it sprawling back the way it came with a gash of blood across its muzzle.
The wolf above took that moment to launch itself, landing on the barbarian’s back and sinking in its claws.
Belgad screamed out and raised his swords high above his head. The wolf on his back clawed at the man’s fur coat, trying to get a firmer grip.
The barbarian slashed over his head in a downward stab at his back and the wolf there. The short sword caught the monster in its jaws and sliced its mouth to give the thing a wider grin. The wolf howled in pain as Belgad shook and twisted to one side, sending the injured animal plummeting to its wounded companion below.
Not taking time to notice the pain of his wounds, Belgad glanced around to see the rest of the wolves were moving in through the trees below. He dared a glance over his shoulder and found no more of the beasts above, only a ridge a good distance away.
Without another look at his closing foes, and without sheathing his swords, Belgad darted up the steep incline to the ridge. This part of the world was foreign to him, and he knew not what lay on the other side of the mountain, but he could not make a stand in the open. He needed a cave or a steep valley, some place where his foes would have to come at him one at a time.
The wolves followed.
His lungs running out of air and his legs cramping, halfway to the ridge Belgad lost his footing, his boots sliding out from beneath him on gravel covered with frost. He would have fallen and tumbled back down the mountainside if he had not dropped one of the swords, the shorter blade, and grabbed hold of a gnarly branch sticking up from frozen ground.
Hanging there on the side of the mountain, his feet out over a lip of stone in open air, he heard the wolves howl. They were near, much nearer than Belgad would have thought.
His only hope was the mountain ridge. It was the only path open to him not layered with the monsters.
Belgad yanked on the frozen root and pulled himself near to standing again. Another howl, closer than before, had him glance down the mountain.
The wolves were coming. The bitter north winds shook the gray hair on their backs like a summer storm blowing across fields of grain. The nearest was only a dozen yards below the big man.
Belgad sheathed his heavy sword in its scabbard on his back and pushed himself forward, more climbing than running now. His numb fingers dug into frozen dirt and lifted him another few feet. He kept clawing away and kicking with his feet, not daring to look back.
On his hands and knees, Belgad pulled himself the last little distance to the top of the mountain. Once there, he paused to catch his breath, staring down at his frozen hands and the gray stone beneath them. He almost wished the wolves would hurry and catch him. He had had enough, but first he would look over the edge.
Belgad raised his shaggy head and peered out from between the layers of golden hair that cascaded around his face. The view did nothing to improve his mood. Immediately in front of him was a drop he guessed to be three hundred feet, then a narrow beach of gray stones and chunks of ice. Beyond, stretched out before him as far as he could see to the horizon, was a flat, dead, cold ocean. No waves roiled, nor sea birds floated. There was nothing.
Glancing back over his shoulder, Belgad saw the wolves were wary in their climb. He had hurt two of them, and the others appeared in no hurry to feel the bite of his sword. Slowly, with stiff joints, Belgad rolled over and withdrew his remaining sword. He sat there staring at the wolves working their way toward him. He was tired, true, but the lust of battle was beginning to boil in his blood again. He was sure he would die that day, but he had not traveled so far from home to die without putting up a fight. Let the wolves come, he told himself.
The wolves did come, but it took them nearly an hour, a few of them working near to their prey, then backing away once they drew his dark gaze. Eventually the blue-eyed wolf, the leader of the pack, and two of its lieutenants had the barbarian surrounded, the leader in front of the man and the others on either side. They stood their ground a dozen feet away from Belgad, their gray paws digging into what little soil remained on top of the mountain.
“Come on, then,” Belgad whispered to the pack’s chief.
The ears of the wolf with blue eyes pricked up as if catching the soft words.
“Finish this!” Belgad roared.
The two wolves on the man’s sides backed away with their tails between their legs, but the leader growled in the back of its throat.
“Bah!” Belgad said, pushing himself off the ground to stand straddle-legged atop the ridge. He waved his sword at the wolves. “If all you are going to do is stand there, I might as –”
The lead wolf cut him off. The creature charged, lunging the last dozen feet in one bound to reach the yelling man. Belgad brought up his sword, slicing into the animal’s side but doing no real damage. The wolf slammed into the man, sending them both reeling backward.
Belgad barely managed to stay on his feet, the animal clawing away madly at his chest as it tried to pull him down. The barbarian brought back his sword for a mighty stab, but another wolf smashed into him, causing all three to plummet backward.
The cold air rushed past Belgad’s face as he fell, bringing tears to his eyes. The last thing he remembered was the pain of one of the wolves tearing through his fur coat and into the flesh of his chest. Then darkness.
Belgad woke to a dull orange glow shifting before his eyes. He lay unmoving, not knowing where he was and not wanting to alert anyone he was awake. Keeping his breathing shallow, he stared ahead at the light dancing before him. After long seconds, he noticed the sound of crackling flames at his back and realized he was staring at a stone wall only inches from his face. The glow was that of a fire behind him.
“No need for deception, son of Thunder,” an ancient, cracked voice said. “I know you wake.”
Feeling straw beneath his naked body and realizing he must be on some sort of cot, Belgad rolled over to face the speaker. The barbarian found himself on the floor of a small cave. Sitting on a rock on the other side of the fire was an old man, stringy gray hairs hanging from a balding head; the old man wore rough robes of wool, faded patches portraying an eagle, a hammer and a bear sown into the arms.
Belgad blinked, but did not move.
“You are wondering where you are and who I am,” the old man said. “To answer the first question, you are in my home, and you have rested here for four days. To answer the second question, I am the one you have been seeking.”
Belgad’s eyes grew wide as he shifted his body to sit on the dry hay with his legs crossed in front of him. “You are the skein weaver?”
The old man nodded. “You have been sent by your father,” he said, pointing toward the pile of Belgad’s clothes to one side of the room, the barbarian’s heavy sword resting on top. “I recognize the weapon from days long past. You are of Clan Thunder.”
“My father is ill,” Belgad said. “He had not long to live when I set out.”
“I am no healer,” the skein weaver said, “though I did manage to tend to your wounds.”
“That is not why my father sent me,” Belgad said. “He told me you could unravel the skein of my life, telling me what awaits me in days to come. He said it was my final obstacle to becoming chieftain.”
“That is true,” the old man said. “I have told the unseen for many a man, including your father. It is tradition among the Dartague chiefs. They come to me as boys, and I prepare them for manhood.”
Belgad crawled to his furs and rummaged through them, finally lifting a small leather pouch. “I have your offering,” he said, withdrawing a small, white piece of bone.
“The knuckle bone of a warrior you have slain in combat,” the old man said.
“Yes.” Belgad held out the item.
“I need no such thing.”
Belgad looked bewildered. “But my father –”
“That was a different time, and there was a different cost,” the weaver said. “Your price shall be much higher, Belgad of Clan Thunder, for your future is far greater.”
Belgad let the knuckle bone fall from his fingers. “I do not understand.”
“Of course you do not,” the old man said with bitterness. “There are few today who understand the old ways. The world has moved on, the southern fools worshiping their new god, this Ashal.”
“My people have remained true,” Belgad offered.
“As true as you can,” the old man said. “In days past you would not have had to ride across wood and snow to me. I would have been ensconced in one of the great chiefs’ mead halls, servants at my calling.”
“My folk are no worshipers of Ashal.”
“Your folk stood by as the Eastern church gained in power,” the old man said, “as the last of the weavers and the skalds were driven into the wilds.”
Belgad crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “You’ve told me of the past,” he said, “but I’m here to find out the future. Either tell me, or let me be on my way. I have been gone long, and my father has probably passed to the halls of our ancestors. My people will need their new leader.”
The old man cackled. “You are a feisty one,” he said, digging in the pockets of his gray robes. “I have already seen the future of the one called Belgad. I know why you seek my council.”
The old man withdrew a clawed hand from a pocket and held up a small, gray ball of clay.
“What is that?” Belgad asked.
“It is a weapon,” the old man said with a squinting eye. “I brought it from far Hipon a hundred years ago, when I was still young and traveling the world.”
“It looks like a stone.”
“It is much more than that,” the old man said. “It is my deliverance, and it will be your tool.”
“Tool? Tool for what?”
“To kill a witch,” the old man said. “That is what I want for your offering. You must kill a witch for me, then I will tell you your future.”
Other than the mountain range to the north and a line of dead trees to the south, there was nothing to see but snow and the occasional glimpse of cold stone ground. Belgad grimaced as he lifted one foot ahead of the other and continued to trudge across vast tundra.
The skein weaver had told him the Ice Witch’s hut of tree limbs, woven together by magic, rested on this tundra. Belgad had seen no sign of the place.
Tromping along, the barbarian wondered at the small clay ball he had stuffed into a purse on his belt. The weaver had said it was a magic weapon of fire that could destroy the witch. The old man had gone on to explain that Belgad would have only one chance to use the weapon, and then he must toss it directly at the witch. After that, Belgad would have only his sword.
A bump on the horizon caught Belgad’s eye. He glanced up to see a small hill far away in the flat of the tundra. He turned slightly to the north.
After walking for what felt another hour, the barbarian was close enough to see the hill was the hut of branches, a door of ragged cloth hanging over the entrance. The yellow of fire glowed around the edges of the curtain, and a line of black smoke swirled its way through a hole in the roof.
“At least the witch is home,” Belgad muttered as he fished out the clay ball and drew his sword from its leather sheath.
The Dartague took another step and stopped.
On either side of the hut appeared two of the giant wolves, the four animals slinking their way out from behind the witch’s home.
Belgad stood his ground and watched the creatures make their way to the hut’s entrance where they sat on their haunches, their flat gray eyes glaring at the big man.
“Come out, witch,” the barbarian hollered, “or hide behind your pets. It is the same to me. Today you die.”
Nothing happened. The animals sat and watched him while a chilled breeze played with his hair.
“Have it your way, witch,” Belgad said, and began to march forward.
Growls from the wolves brought him to a quick halt. The beasts had not moved, but the hair on their backs was raised like pikes in formation.
The curtain over the door was thrust aside, and there stood a woman nearly as tall as Belgad, with skin a pale azure like a summer sky. Her slender arms and legs stretched from beneath her gown of black and gold as if she felt not the frigid air; entertwined with the black of her long hair was a coronet of gold thread mingled with holly. Her ears were long and sharp. The beauty of her face was only marred by a dull scarlet gash across her forehead. Her eyes were the blue of a storm, edged with coal and familiar to the northern man.
“I know you,” Belgad said.
The woman nodded. “Yes, Belgad Thunderclan, we have met. It was you gave me this scar.”
“You were the wolf.”
The woman nodded again.
“You should have died when you went over the cliff with me,” the barbarian said.
“My lieutenant suffered a quick death,” the witch said, “but I became a hawk, drifting away on the wind.”
Belgad rolled the clay ball in his hand and his courage grew.
“Did the wizard tell you why he wanted me dead?” the witch asked.
Belgad thought it best to remain silent.
“It’s because I stole his magic,” the woman said. “I sucked it out of him like a night hag stealing the breath of a baby. He didn’t even know until he woke.”
“You lie,” Belgad said.
“No, Dartague, I speak the truth,” the woman said. “You came to the skein weaver to have your future handed to you like a suckling pig served on a gold platter to a king. How would I know? How would I have known your name?”
“You have your own magic,” Belgad said. “The old man knew who I was. He knew to expect me.”
“Only because he had foreseen your coming years ago,” the witch said. “He knew of you before I took his magic. He knew of you before you were born.”
Belgad didn’t know if she was telling the truth, but he decided it did not matter. He had been told to kill her, and he would. If the skein weaver could not do as he had promised, Belgad would seek a refund in his own fashion.
The barbarian darted forward and slung out a hand, flinging the clay ball.
The witch shrieked as the orb sailed through the air at her.
The wolves dove forward, charging at Belgad.
The first of the animals slammed into the northerner as the ball smacked into the witch, cracking on impact and spewing flame. The fire exploded around the woman as if she were made of tinder, eating away at her silky gown and melting the flesh of her arms and legs.
Belgad had no time to notice. That first wolf had knocked him back, but he managed to remain on his feet. He stabbed out with his sword, plunging the weapon to the hilt in the animal’s side. The wolf fell away howling and spewing blood.
The other wolves were more cautious, forming a tight circle around their prey, looking for an opportune moment to spring to the attack.
Belgad allowed his eyes to wander to the burning witch. The fire had already eaten her down to bone, leaving a blackened skeleton standing in her place. The curtain too was burning, and the flames were working their way through the twigs that made up the hut.
A second wolf pounced. Belgad was ready. He dropped to one knee and slashed over his head with the sword, nearly cutting the giant beast in half. The animal landed in the snow next to its dead brother. With another slash of his heavy blade, Belgad put the animal out of its misery.
Seeing their mistress dead and two of their pack in pieces, the last two wolves turned from the battle and trotted away, glancing over their shoulders to see if the northern man would follow.
Belgad did not follow. He stood his ground, feet apart and balanced with his sword held before him in both hands, his look daring the animals to attack.
The wolves moved on.
A land of ice and snow stretched behind Belgad as he climbed the last stone steps to the entrance of the skein weaver’s cave in the side of a mountain. He knocked aside the curtain of deerskin that blocked the cold breeze, and tramped his way inside the tunnel, knocking white powder from his boots with each heavy step.
Belgad found the old man still sitting on a rock, huddled next to his small fire.
The barbarian tossed the black, burnt skull of the Ice Witch at the old man’s feet.
“I knew the moment she died,” the skein weaver said, staring at the death head.
“Your magic has returned,” Belgad said.
The weaver gave the younger man a dark look. “What would you know of it?”
“She told me before I burned her,” Belgad said. “She told me she had stolen your powers.”
The old man grumbled, but said nothing.
“Why would you have had cause to learn of me before now?” Belgad asked.
The old man’s eyes darted about the small cave as if seeking an answer.
“What are you not telling me?” Belgad asked.
“I unraveled the skein of your father’s life long ago,” the weaver said. “That is when I learned of you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you had lost your powers to the witch?”
The weaver said nothing, averting his eyes.
“There’s something about my future you are not telling me,” Belgad said.
“I haven’t told you anything,” the weaver spat. “I have yet to unravel your life’s skein. If you want me to do so, then remain quiet while a draw upon visions of your future.”
Belgad shook his head. “No.”
“I don’t want you to unravel the skein of my life,” the barbarian said. “My future is my own.”
“You are speaking against tradition!”
“Who’s tradition?” Belgad said. “Mine? I make my own tradition. As for my father and my people, you were right that we no longer follow the old ways. We don’t even know the names of the old gods. If the old gods want to be worshiped again, then they need a better speaker than you, an old man who lives in the hinterlands because no one will put up with his foolishness.”
“You mock the gods,” the old man said.
“I don’t worship them,” Belgad said. “Let them worship me.”
“Your shamans will not tolerate this,” the old man said. “You are breaking tradition. It is customary for the chiefs to have their skein’s told before they take their seat in the mead halls.”
“My clan’s shamans will believe what I tell them,” Belgad said. “Besides, what good have your talents brought my people. We still trudge away at life. We still fight off our enemies. We still die. Knowing one’s future will not help us today. I can rule without your aid.”
The old man stared into the crackling flames before him without saying another word.
With one last look at the weaver, Belgad turned and strutted out of the cave, leaving the curtain hanging open behind him.
After some little while, the weaver moved to the entrance of his cave. He reached to pull the curtain closed, but before he could he spied Belgad far off in the distance, traveling one heavy step at a time through the barren snowy land.
Staring at the back of the barbarian, the old man grinned. “And that is why, Belgad of Clan Thunder, you shall be the most powerful Dartague chieftain since the birth of the world.”
Ty Johnston is vice president of the Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit organization focused upon bringing heroic literature to all readers. A former newspaper editor, he is the author of several fantasy trilogies and individual novels.