A gust of wind bit through Beni’s furs. The brilliant fire caused shadows to dance behind him, but the warmth did little to ease his shivering. The air became chilled from the freshly fallen snow as it whistled between the dozens of kids huddled around the fire awaiting the tale.
Beni was lucky. It was a rare event for one to be alive during one of the Feast of the Elders, let alone to be a child. To hear from one of the greatest storytellers of an age, Olring, spin the yarn of the dark time before the Elders came to rescue them was a great honor.
“Fire!” Shouted an old man, the oldest man that Beni had ever seen, who stepped out from the shadows with his arms raised above his head.
The wind caused the fire to dance as if celebrating his arrival. Beni’s heart shuddered at his approach. He had never seen the man before, but he had heard tales of him since he knew they would attend the feast. Olring had lived to see two feasts. He was one of the few that survived long enough to do so.
“Fire spread across the land like this very wind.” Olring waved back and forth as if he were the wind, and the flickering flames flashed across his wrinkled face. “It was a dark time. A time when the long shadow of the great scourge raced through the sky. When his enormous wings created hurricanes with every beat and his breath caused villages to turn into ash.”
He paused, then approached the fire and the children and spoke in a whispered tone. The children leaned forward, trying to make out what he was about to say. Beni did the same. And the lot of them jumped back at his outburst.
“Even the children! Oh, the children burst into flames! Some as young as you.” He pointed to a little boy that had to be three years younger than Beni’s seven years.
Beni chuckled at the boy who jumped, as he was quick to forget how he jumped when Olring had made his outburst. The old man halted his story and took a long swig from a pouch that rested at his waist.
Olring grinned with some clear fluid dripping between his teeth. His smile became deranged and evil. It went from a smile into a snarl and he roared as he opened his mouth. The entire area brightened as the flames shot into the sky. Olring cackled as the fire rose into the depth of the night and seemingly into eternity.
“Nargunarg!” Olring shouted into the sky. “The great evil. The calamity. The plague of fire. And to some, the end. For that is what it seemed, my children. The end of the world was upon us. Our crops. Our towns. Our people. All turned to ash before the cataclysm that was the beast.”
Beni couldn’t take his eyes off of him. He moved as he spoke, as if it were a dance. Every word was both heard, seen, and felt. Beni’s heart raced. He was uncertain if it was excitement or anger that such a beast would destroy his world.
“The dragon, Nargunarg, terrorized our people. Those he did not burn, he enslaved. And those he enslaved, suffered. With our towns aflame and our people dead, we sacrificed our children to appease him. If a town had no children to sacrifice, the dragon would burn it to ashes. Anyone who tried to fight, died. And oh, how many tried to fight. For we people of Vulkinor are mighty!”
A roar went up among the men that had surrounded the fire. Beni had not noticed the men gather, but they too listened to the tale. The roar continued for some time as the men hooted and hollered about their glory. Men from all clans pounded swords and axes against their shields together as one people. The kids surrounding him took up the cry and even Beni shouted. It was exhilarating. He was so excited that tears formed in his eyes. His heart thumped louder than a drum in his chest. His blood boiled at the thought of the great dragon causing his people to suffer.
He found his father amongst the men with ease. He was a giant man, one of the largest he had ever seen, even here, amongst dozens of giant men. Ersal Esaar, chieftain of the Esaar clan. His father saw he sought him, smiled, and nodded his approval. Beni’s heart raced with excitement that his father would acknowledge him here. Next to his father stood his brother, Ostir. This was a big day for him. The Feast of the Elders was more than a feast, it was a challenge from the Gods, a dangerous challenge, and Ostir was about to take part in it. The thought of it scared Beni to death.
“The calamity that was Nargunarg continued for a lifetime. And then another. Babies born under his savagery died as old men. Their children carried on in fear.” Olring looked sad and distraught as he sulked his head low and limped around the fire.
“Until…” Olring began again and let the word hang in the air.
“Valkir came!” A small voice shouted from Beni’s left.
Olring’s eyes shot up to the sky with jubilation. “May all of us praise his name!”
“Oh, great lord and savior Valkir, we beseech you for our strength and glory!” The entire crowd, even the youngest, took up the chant.
“Our great Elder and savior Valkir appeared from the west. Through the Bristles he marched. The razor sharp needles of the bristle pines tore at his flesh, causing his holy blood to seep into the earth. Such holy blood touching such defiled ground awoke the mighty giant of the Bristles, Gorgul!”
A hush came over the crowd at the mention of the giant’s name. Gorgul was a name invoked at night to make Beni go to sleep. Gorgul was a name invoked to scare kids to not explore the woods at night. Something about the name in the here and now made it feel more real and far more terrifying.
“His skin, as black as the night that surrounds us. His eyes, red and wreathed in fire. Gorgul’s black tusks jutted from his mouth and oozed their poison.” Olring ceased his tale to stomp around the fire with his fingers as tusks. The children laughed at the oddity of it. “His black foot stepped before our Great Lord. And in a booming voice he spoke…”
“Yo. Ho. Puny man. I will tear your bones out of your body while you are still alive.” Olring made his voice deep, and guttural, and terrifying.
“Our great lord then spoke for the first time to the giant.” Olring’s voice changed again. He sounded confident and powerful.
“Oh, great giant of the land. I do not wish to battle you today. A foe makes my people suffer beyond your realm.”
“I know of the dragon, puny being.” Olring’s voice changed back to the tusked monster. “You shall never reach your people, for I shall take your boneless flesh and spread it onto the bread I bake from your bones.”
Beni’s chest hurt as he realized he hadn’t taken a breath for some time. The idea of a creature insulting their savior was unheard of. Beni had heard no one speak so ill of their lord before, even in jest. Even the mightiest of men would beg for Valkir’s forgiveness if they took his name in vain. To witness Olring talk so openly about a creature threatening him was sacrilegious.
“Our great lord was unperturbed.” Olring continued. “Our great lord strode forward. Gorgul roared. Gorgul cursed. Gorgul once again threatened our lord. Still, our lord persisted forward. Gorgul raised his mighty leg high into the heavens. The clouds parted, and a gale came upon the land. The winds rained razor sharp needles onto our lord’s flesh. But he was unshaken. Gorgul’s massive foot smashed down onto the earth!”
Olring clapped his hands so loud that Beni jumped a foot in the air. Only the crackling fire filled the silence as the listeners awaited what was to come next.
“Our great lord struck forward with his mighty hand and shattered the giant’s toe. Gorgul yelped and grabbed his foot, hopping up and down. The pain-filled dance quaked the earth and thrust the mountains to the south up into the sky.” Olring grabbed his foot and leaped into the air to mimic the giant’s dance. The children laughed until he raised his hands to quiet them. “Gorgul would not accept defeat so easily. And from the Bristles he yanked his mighty black axe, Thromgril, hewn from the bowels of Astarath, and launched a deadly blow at our lord.”
A stick materialized in Olring’s hand as he made a wide arcing strike towards the fire. It struck the pyre, sending sparks dancing into the night sky. It was a simple sight that all of them had seen a million times in their life, but something about this evening made every spark seem magical. It was as if they were truly seeing the axe Thromgril striking toward their God.
“Once again, our lord strode unbothered by the assault. Thromgril blotted the sun from the sky. Thromgril caused the ground to shake. Thromgril forced mountains to spit fire hundreds of leagues from Vulkinor. But, Thromgril missed. Our Lord stepped aside with ease from the clumsy attack. Valkir, our lord, pulled his mighty axe and struck down onto the arm of the monstrous Gorgul. Gorgul screamed in pain as his arm sailed into the sky and disappeared over the horizon. Only the sound of shattered ice revealed the truth of its whereabouts, for it traveled to the icebound sea to the west, shattering the frigid waters and formed the Ice Broken Bay. Steam rose from the ice as Gorgul’s fiery flesh melted into the frosty bay. The steam turned to rain. And the rain poured down upon the lands of Vulkinor.”
Olring took a breath as he eyed his captive audience. Beni found himself unable to look away. He had heard the stories of their god. He had grown up on his legends but never had he heard it in such detail. Even the adults, many of which themselves had never attended a Feast of the Elders, looked on with an unbreaking steadfast stare. A man with a long beard and two axes draped across his back reached over to hand Olring a leather pouch. Olring grinned at the man and took a long draft before tossing it aside. He approached the fire in a low crouch.
“Our great lord strode forward again. The giant, his foot broken and his arm missing, continued his defiance. His black blood rained into the Bristles. That dark ichor would fester. From that festering blood would grow the dreaded creatures that lurk within its shadows to this day. Gorgul roared into the sky, flames shot forth from his tusked mouth, and he chomped down towards our lord.”
Olring made a wide arcing chomp with his hands over the fire. From Beni’s angle, it appeared as if the fires raged from between his makeshift teeth and jaws. Even though it was only a story, told by a man, something deep inside Beni shivered. It scared him, even though he knew his Lord would win in the end.
“Steam rose from the monster as the rains filled his nostrils and mouth. A thick, hot steam blanketed the land. When you young ones wake in the morning, you see a mist, that mist is the remnants of the fog that draped the lands from the Ice Broken Bay to the Sea of Xama. The ground shook from the giant’s stamping. The rains made the lands slick and muddy. And the steam from the giant’s doused flames hung thick and blinded our lord. The monster’s bite was true and his foul maw wrapped around Valkir. Gorgul gnashed back and forth and wrenched our lord’s axe from his hands. He was in his greatest peril. Only his hands pressed against the roof of the vile giant’s maw kept him from being devoured. And without his mighty axe Grandil,” A roar went up among the men as he mentioned their lord’s axe. “it was only a matter of time before he fell.”
Blood pooled on Beni’s lip where he had bitten it. His eyes were dry from staring into the fire for so long without blinking. The familiar metallic taste touched the tip of his tongue as he licked it away, and he blinked his eyes to wet them during the hiatus of the tale. Impatient, Beni wanted to know how his lord escaped this peril.
“As hard as it is to believe, our lord did tire. His arms ached from the pressure of the giant squeezing down with all the might of his jaw. He could feel his legs quake, and the wind left his body! He would die here and now and we the people of Vulkinor would suffer at the hands of these vile creatures for all eternity.” Olring said with his head hung low and his shoulders slunk down.
The fire seemed to dim at his words. A darkness hung over the great tribes of the Valkinir people. A dire sadness took the men. A fear shook the children. All broken by Olring’s next words.
“Alas!” Olring sprung up, shouting so loud that Beni’s ears rang. “Our lord did not despair. He did not quit. A break in the clouds that brought the endless rain opened up and shined the glorious moon into the maw of the beast. In that dim light, our lord’s axe shone embedded in the tongue of the vile Gorgul. He relaxed his aching arms, and released his shaking legs, and rolled through the mouth of the giant. Valkir snatched his axe from where it lay and dove deeper into the creature’s noxious throat and brought the axe down into its soft flesh. Grandil sliced through with ease and our lord burst forth from inside!” Olring slashed downward with his hands and then spread his arms wide as if he were Valkir emerging from within the creature. “He then spun in the air, making a wide arc with Grandil and cut through flesh, and muscle, and bone. The crack of Gorgul’s demise echoed to the corners of the world. The great terror that was Gorgul died as his massive head sailed through the sky, coming to rest deep in the Smoking Mountains to the south. One can still see the smoke from his mouth snake down the mountainside as a reminder of our lord’s devotion to us.”
Olring lowered his head to honor the Elder. Their Lord. Their God, Valkir.
“The giant’s headless body stumbled away and plummeted to the ground far from our lord. His body became the Hills of Valkir. Remember this: the next time you clamber upon those rolling hills you walk upon the bones of the wretched giant that tried to defeat our lord.”
“Our lord, exhausted, but unbeaten continued forward. He strode for another day and night before coming to another obstacle. Not a giant, but something equally fierce. The Bristles River stood before him. Not the calm river we know today, but raging, roaring rapids tearing through the land. And within it an ancient demon waiting to devour his next victim.”
Olring took a breath and did not continue the tale. Beni relaxed his muscles, which had been tensed for some time. He released his jaw again and released the rigidity from his arms. He wanted more!
The call for the first meal of the feast pulled all of their attention from Olring. Beni stood, disappointed. It was not food that he was ravenous for. But he would have to wait.
*** TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2 – THE RIVER ***