Stephen Hill: The Sword is Nothing

While the land of Old Cuthald’un had but one language, there were many dialects that betrayed minor differences. One could attain a basic understand of each culture by contrasting their different meanings of the phrase:
Al kchuck mena sens alek starabanna galim aggrio
In the western isles, it translated simply and practically as “The winter wind yields but few rewards for the desperate man.”
To the east, it was a widely feared war cry. It was a proclamation of brute strength, stating that “Only the mighty can withstand the northern furies.”
The peaceful Southern swamp farmers educated their children with the same phrase. It taught them that “Wise families save half their bread for darker days”.
Over the centuries, the northern meaning of the phrase has been lost. However, it is believed to have some deep spiritual meaning as it is traditionally spoken by holy men during the burial rites.

Huddled near a small campfire on the ridge of the Devil Back Mountains is a hunter of eastern descent. His hand rests on a violent looking bastard sword and he is surrounded by a blizzard of lazy snowflakes. The blade’s point is buried deep in the snow, icicles having already formed along the ridge. The cold steel has been nicked many times, but it is well kept and lovingly sharpened. The wind screams in the hunter’s one remaining ear as the night chill cuts through his clothes. The air stabs painfully in his lungs, but his breath is steady. Beneath his cloak, he fingers a small copper coin. It feels warm in his hand.

He was thinking to himself, wondering what sort of monster might have killed that goat…

The freezing temperatures on Devil Back had preserved the unfortunate creature. Only the eyes had decayed away, over who knows how many days or weeks. Both of its horns had been snapped off, but there were no teeth or claw marks on the torso. Instead, its legs were mangled, as though it had fallen from a great height. But, as the hunter looked about him, there was nothing here to drop from. No overhang or ledges. It was curious…

He found himself thinking of swamp Basilisks. Slower than typical lizards, they could belch a poisonous gas that caused paralysis in its victims. However, despite being bigger than most dogs, their bulging eyes were considerably larger than their small stomachs.
And of course, they weren’t strong enough to drag large animals far. A lot of farmers in the south woke to find their cattle dead, but mostly intact. However, their flesh would be intoxicated and unfit for eating. Basilisks couldn’t survive the cold northern winds however. Maybe…

A sudden gust of wind threatened to put out the hunter’s campfire. He huddled closer and tried to kindle it as best he could. His mind strayed momentarily to warm fires and tankards brimming with Redwater whiskey.

…Maybe it had been a flying Mantrap. The hunter was familiar with these, having slain quite a few in the eastern mountains. The walking, insect-like varieties were large, stealthy hunters. They liked to hide in foliage with only their agape mouths showing. When unsuspecting victims would walk by, they charged as fast as their many legs could carry them, pounced and devoured their prey. The speed at which could crunch through bones was nightmarish. The flying Mantraps were smaller but louder, and considerably more aggressive. They had an extra set of teeth, used for tearing instead of chewing. The hunter remembered, scratching the remnants of his ear, he remembered how sharp they could be. They attacked in pairs, screeching and grabbing at prey with their talons. Once lifted high enough, they would drop them like stones in an ocean. They were sadistic creatures, but also hunters like him. They did not leave food to waste.

Still scratching at his mangled ear, the hunter stared at the goat searchingly. He had attempted to cut some meat from it for the fire, but the flesh was frozen solid. And though he was sure a Basilisk hadn’t poisoned it, he wasn’t eager for goat-meat until he knew how it had been killed.  He searched his memory for beasts native to the North, his hand returning inside his cloak to finger the coin. When he had been asked to slay the “Hillyss Monsarium”, the ‘Beast of the Mountain’ or ‘Monster of the Mountain’, he’d expected a Garriswulf. Larger than the Greywulf, Garriswulves were taller than horses and faster still. He’d heard stories of Garriswulves being ridden into battle centuries ago. It didn’t seem likely to him. He’d encountered one or two on his hunts. Evil creatures…
They could be outsmarted with the proper tools and a well-placed trap. He briefly recollected listening to a Garriswulf’s alternating snarl and whine as he stood atop a pit that he himself had lined with sharpened stakes. He pulled his travelling cloak tighter, appreciating their thick pelts in hindsight.

There would be none of that here, he thought to himself, glancing up and down Devil Back mountain ridge. Here, it would just be him, his sword and his reflexes. He wished it would find him soon… Whatever this creature was, he would be able to see it coming. Up here, there was nothing at all to see except the flurries of snow against the dark blue sky and the mountain itself. Whatever “Hillys Monsarium” was, it would die by his sword.

He flitted the coin between his fingers one last time before putting it in his pouch and rising from the fire. He would let it burn in the hopes it might attract the beast’s attention. He had nearly cleared the Devil Back and could see the Shoulder of Heaven rising before him in the distance. It would be a difficult climb, especially now that the wind was picking up. He stared at the high rise with a cautious dread.

A large snowflake landed below his eye and, after a moment’s pause, he reached up to crush it with his fingertip.

*

Biography

Stephen Hill is a writer living in Dublin. He writes and edits articles online for web-site Bone-idle, contributes to underground zine The Runt and occasionally writes a barbed comment on the Twitter. He aims to get published someday, with his own line of Young Adult horror novellas (a la  Goosebumps)

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