by Colin Rowe
(Adult Language Used)
Makk felt a tickle on his belly and looked down to see a frustrated mosquito tangled in his coarse body hair. He wondered if the little bastard had realized that he was in over his head and was now trying to break free, or if he was determined to press on, undeterred, digging its way through the hair to get the tasty blood underneath. It was hard to tell, but made no matter. Makk was going to squish it either way.
It was early autumn and the trees had mostly turned. Fiery red maples dominated this stretch of the mountain, though there was a bit of orange and lots of brown, pointy-leafed oaks. The firs and pines, of course, stayed dark green. Their boughs were heavy with the detritus of their deciduous neighbors.
Makk traveled light. In his leather backpack were three waterskins, a blanket, a whetstone, a fruit and nut loaf, a large chunk of smoked jerky, and a box of whale blubber he had bought from a Jotnar. The jerky was wrapped in a linen shirt Makk had taken to carrying with him so that he might appear “decent” in the company of Easterners.
Makk preferred to wear only a kilt and boots whenever possible, as he wore now. He had a natural shirt: wavy body hair that covered him nearly from head to toe, the same dark brown color as his beard. It kept him warm in the winter, but was a nuisance in the summer. That was a reasonable trade-off, in his mind. A man in the heat could usually find shade or water to cool himself off, but protection from the cold was always hardest to find when it was needed most.
His spear was his only weapon, but it was a good one. Eight feet long of yew, with a point at both ends. The top was quality dwarven steel, blackened with pine tar so as not to reflect light. On the butt end he had used shrunken rawhide to lash on the sharpend point of a deer antler.
Makk was worrying about where he would spend the coming winter, as all his usual homes had been destroyed. It was, to say the least, an unlucky summer.
His first visit had been to the north cabin, which he built beyond the tree line, bordering the tundra. He discovered it had been torn down. Delark, he presumed, or I’Odu. The long timbers of the cabin could make good sleds, and of course everyone needed firewood. It was always a risk that those wandering humans would find it and steal it, but it was such a remote and hidden location that it had stood for years unmolested.
He resolved to rebuild it, but not this year. Winter was too close and he had too little time. The next home he visited lay in the rocky crags of the South Orez Mountains, but that dwelling had been crushed by a rockslide. It wasn’t his best home, but it was his oldest and the loss was emotionally devastating.
At least I wasn’t home when it happened. Perhaps the gods wanted me to be away, to survive. And perhaps that was a sheepshit justification the first time and you need to stop telling it to yourself.
It was now Makk’s third semi-permanent dwelling that he spied from across the forested valley. He had camped in this spot without a fire and watched it all night before he dared approach on foot. He saw no fire, no smoke – no apparent squatters. Traveling as he did, it was not uncommon for Makk to come back to one lodge or another after months away and find that strangers had moved in, and why shouldn’t they?
Makk had done as much himself in dozens of found locations across the continent. Shelter could mean the difference between life and death, so why should a good one ever go to waste? Makk didn’t fault these strangers for moving into his homes, or even eating his stores (if they could find them), but he did insist that they vacate the premises whenever he arrived. It was, after all, his house. Occasionally the squatters would feel differently and there would be an altercation. Occasionally the new occupant was a wild animal instead of a person. One cannot politely reason with a sabercat.
The cave he watched from across the valley was truly a luxurious accommodation. Deep inside the rock there was an underground spring with clear sweet water, as convenient as could be. Two cracks in the roof let in shafts of sunlight during certain parts of the day or would let out smoke when there was a fire, but were small enough and so situated that they didn’t drip onto anything important if it rained. The floor was mostly smooth stone with a few useful pockets in the walls. Makk had tried to cultivate rare medicinal lichen in there last year, and he was eager to see if it had grown. Confident he could trade it in the cities in the spring.
In front of the cave’s entrance was a of tall cluster of aspens. Makk had trimmed the other trees surrounding them for the express purpose of making his aspens easier to spot from a distance. They were taller, and their yellow leaves were anomalous in the foliage of the area, which made them a good marker. Once there, though, the entrance to the cave was closed up with rocks and disguised with dirt and foliage. All night long he had watched it and neither seen nor heard any sign of a squatter, but now that the sun was rising he could see that he should have just gotten some sleep instead. Something large was moving towards his cave. Something more than three times as tall as Makk, and carrying a weapon.
“Balls,” muttered Makk.
The ability of the woodkin to move through the forest with stealth never stopped amazing Makk. They had dappled skin of grey, brown, black, and forest green. They wore clothing made of bark, leaves, and pine needles. With their thin lanky body structures, it was easy for them to blend in perfectly with the northern forests they called home. Of course, any idiot can hide while standing still. Woodkin were fifteen feet tall on average – the giants that other giants called “giants” – but still managed to trek through dense foliage and intertwined branches without alerting even the songbirds. They moved with a grace and fluidity that made pumas look like bison.
Now, one of them was in the valley – right in a field of vision where Makk had been staring for hours, and yet Makk had only just noticed him. The woodkin carried a spear that brushed the tops of the pines with its huge flint head. He had tree bark strips arranged in a crude toga, with irregular needle-covered branches that hung below the arms and at his side, obscuring the shape of his body.
Being a dwarf, and four feet ten inches tall, Makk’s sole advantage when moving across the forest floor was that only the low branches obstructed him. His disadvantages were many. He was heavy, thickly muscled, and wide-bodied. He had short stocky legs. His hair and beard often tangled in the brush. He was not from a race, nor a family, nor a profession known for their swiftness of foot. His ability to travel both quickly and quietly over varied terrain was not some talent that had come easily to him. It was a skill he had worked at every day of his life. Makk applied that skill now, hurrying forward to intercept the woodkin. He left his knapsack behind, but took his spear.
He never could have caught up to the woodkin if it weren’t going slowly, trying to be undetected. It put its feet down just barely, testing for weaknesses or noisy objects before resting its full weight on the next forward step. Makk loved to watch woodkin move. He had learned most of his own tricks from them. Now, though, he was not bothering. He wanted to get this one’s attention.
“You there!” Makk yelled. “Stop!”
The woodkin stopped, then turned. He looked down, but Makk could barely even see the giant’s eyes. All that he could clearly see was the bushy brown beard with entwined pine needles. He also saw the spear closer. Its shaft was as thick as Makk’s arm, and had been left rough-hewn so as to blend better.
“Hello little one,” came the deep voice of the giant. When he turned his spear over and held it point-down, the whipping wind blew Makk’s beard back.
“Are you going to that hole there?” said Makk, then “Cave, I meant cave.” He hadn’t spoken woodkin in half a year and was rusty.
“What if I am?” answered the giant.
“That is my home,” said Makk. “You can’t live there.” The giant’s laugh frightened the birds from the trees.
“If I wanted to live in that cave, little one, you really think you could stop me?” He laughed some more. “I suppose you own the bear too?”
Makk was taken aback.
“Is she your wife?” continued the giant. “You’re hairy enough to be her husband. Do you sleep with that bear? Because I’m going to kill it. I’m going to kill your bear wife.”
“What kind of bear?” asked Makk. There were several species of bear in these mountains, ranging from black bears, who were mostly harmless and about the size of a pony, all the way up to the . . . .
“Cave bear,” said the giant. “What kind did you think? She is living in a cave.”
“Many bears live in caves,” said Makk.
“And this one is in your cave,” said the giant, “and with all your talking and running she will have heard us. Probably smelled you too. You stink. She will be wary in there now.”
“What is your name, giant?” asked Makk.
“Gurolagal,” he answered, “of the Qualangyam Clan.” Makk had never heard of that clan.
“I’ve heard of your clan,” said Makk, “you are a great and respected people. I have a…” Makk couldn’t recall the woodkin word for ‘proposition’.
“I have a trade for you,” said Makk.
“For gold or steel?”
“No, no I meant . . . a pairing.”
“What, like you and Mrs. Bear?” Gurolagal hooted so loud it hurt Makk’s ears. “You want to be my Kukkonukke?” Then, there was more laughter. Laughter all around. Makk saw black calloused feet and scarred brown-grey shins stepping casually out of the forest. I can’t believe I missed them. This whole time.
Two came from directly behind, another from each side. I must have run right past them. One was standing right next to Gurolagal.
Makk didn’t know the word ‘Kukkonukke’, but he could infer its meaning from Gurolagal’s rapacious air-sucking. There were six woodkin around him now and they were all laughing hysterically. They each carried spears similar to Gurolagal’s, but were as different in their dress as the trees of the forest. Some had clearly endeavored to mimic a specific species, like the one whose leggings and vest were made all of birch bark, with his arms and head covered in birch branches. Another was maple from head to toe, with shin and forearm coverings held on by nothing but sticky sap. Others took a multi-species approach. One had a breastplate of thick oak bark, leather pants covered in drooping pine needles, and a headdress of sycamore leaves. One had a poison ivy vine curling up his entire left leg and a kilt of oak branches.
“Work together,” Makk finally said when they had calmed down. “I do not speak woodkin for summer and spring. Forgive my mistakes.”
“Work together to what end?” asked Gurolagal.
“To kill the cave bear,” said Makk. “I will help you to kill it, then you can take the whole bear carcass and I can have my cave back. Everyone benefits.” Gurolagal huffed.
“I don’t need your help, little one.”
“I disagree,” said Makk, “any job that requires six men could benefit from seven.” Gurolagal got angry. Makk still couldn’t see his face very well, but the shifting of his knees and the short lift of his spear signaled that, just for a moment, the giant had considered stabbing him for that comment.
“It’s not going to take all six of us to kill the cave bear,” said Gurolagal. “I’m doing it on my own.” He took a breath, and continued more calmly.
“I have a trade for you now, dwarf. Give me your spear and all your coin monies and I will kill the bear for you by myself.”
“Why do you want coin?” asked Makk. “I have never known woodkin to trade with Easterners.”
“Then it’s worthless and you can give it to me for free,” said Gurolagal. “Either way, give it to me. And your steel spear, and all the food you left up on the mountain where you camped and didn’t think anyone saw you. Then I will kill this bear for you.”
“But you’re going to kill it anyway,” said Makk. “Why not work together?”
“I don’t need your help,” said Gurolagal, “but you need mine. Pay me to kill the bear.”
“I could kill that bear alone,” said Makk, fixing his posture, as if that made any difference to men as tall as trees. They laughed at him again. All of them.
“You cannot,” said sap-legs.
“I can and I have,” lied Makk. “This is not the first time I’ve had to kick an intruder out of my house. I’ve killed three cave bears.” They laughed again.
Makk had killed exactly three bears in his life: one black, one brown, one grizzly . . . never a cave bear. He tangled with a polar bear once and wounded it enough to make it run away, but hadn’t killed it. Cave bears were no comparison. On their hind legs they stood as tall as the woodkin, but were thrice as heavy and had teeth and claws. They were known to hunt wooly rhinos. It was autumn, so the bears would be extra hungry and packing on weight for hibernation.
“Don’t pay me then,” said Gurolagal. “Go and kill this one. After you die, I will kill the bear and take your things anyway.”
“Could I use his spear to pop a boil on my ass cheek?” asked the birch-wearer. The others laughed.
Makk walked forward. He walked past the shins of Gurolagal, past the downward spearpoint as big as his own head. He walked up the side of the mountain toward his cave.
“Where are you going?” asked Gurolagal with disbelief. Makk didn’t answer. He walked on and the woodkin watched him go.
“This will be good,” said the birch-wearer. They followed behind him, no longer making any attempt to conceal themselves. They strolled while Makk tried to keep a swift pace. He felt them watching him, judging every move. It took a long time to get up the mountain. When his foot slipped in dirt or a rock tumbled out beneath him, he heard them laughing at him. He didn’t look back. He tried not to appear out of breath, but his heart was racing and the climbing was hard.
By the time Makk reached the aspens, Gurolagal had grown tired of waiting for him and walked ahead. He leaned against the aspens with his legs crossed at the ankle when Makk came panting up. He looked at the entrance to his cave. It was open. Wide open. Not a single one of the covering stones remained in its original place. It had taken Makk weeks to move all those stones and a day to stack them. At the time, he had had a mule to help him. The cave bear inside had likely spent no more than a few minutes dismantling them to gain access to the cave.
“All tuckered out, little one?” said Gurolagal. “Take a breather before you fight the bear. We’ll wait.”
“My name,” said Makk, in forceful breaths, “is Makk Toriz, son of Pyth Toriz, of Grazgdar Mountain.”
“Well, dwarf,” mocked Gurolagal, “son of dwarf, of the big hole full of dwarves in dwarfland, can you see this high? Look where I’m pointing.”
Gurolagal lifted his long skinny arm and tapped on one of the aspen trees. Makk had to crane his neck and take a few steps back to see that high. Just above Gurolagal’s fingertips were four deep gashes in the wood.
“This tree will die soon,” said Gurolagal. “The cuts are too deep. She was just marking her territory when she did this, and she killed a tree. What do you think she’ll do to you?”
Pride is a deadly disease. Makk heard his father’s words in his head and considered taking Gurolagal’s offer. He could always make a new spear. He could earn more money. He could find other food. Then again, he could also find other shelter. This cave was not worth his life.
“I agree,” said Makk. The woodkin were quiet.
“Agree to what?” said Gurolagal.
“All my coin, and my spear,” answered Makk. “After you kill the bear.”
“Before,” said Gurolagal, “and exactly how many coins do you have?” Makk had hoped he wouldn’t ask that question.
“I don’t remember exactly,” he answered. “They’re back in my satchel.” Gurolagal sneered.
“Go back and get it. I will wait.”
Makk’s throat felt tight.
“There is no coin,” said Makk, ashamed. “I have none.”
“That’s unfortunate,” said Gurolagal. “Your spear may be steel, but it’s not enough to buy the killing of a cave bear.”
“I spent the coin on food,” said Makk. “You can have that. There’s a loaf of dried fruit and nuts, some delicious smoked jerky, and blubber. Have you ever had whale blubber?”
“I don’t like it,” said Gurolagal. Makk sat down on a rock, exasperated. He breathed, and thought.
“Well you were going to kill it anyway,” said Makk. “So I will wait. Go ahead.”
“Go ahead and kill it. I don’t have to pay you, unless you’re so petty that you’re willing to walk away from here empty-handed, just to spite me.”
“I will kill the bear,” said Gurolagal, and maybe I’ll kill you too. Think you could stop me? I’ll have your slimy food and your cave and my bear and I will make my daughter a pair of booties from your skin.”
“Calm down,” said the giant with the oaken breastplate. “Do not kill this dwarf.”
“Maybe you, sir,” Makk said to the oak-wearer, “would accept the trade instead? Take my spear and food. If you’re all here for the same purpose, what’s the difference after all?”
“I’m not here to kill the bear,” replied the oak-wearer.
“I’m killing the bear myself,” growled Gurolagal. “You deal with me.”
“Then all these people,” said Makk, gesturing to the other giants, “why are they here? Just to watch?”
“Yes,” said Gurolagal, “and they will help carry the meat.” Makk stood up on his rock. He hoisted his spear and pointed accusatorially at Gurolagal.
“Then you must be here for L’hozu!” Gurolagal stiffened.
“That’s why you’re killing it alone,” continued Makk. “What was your crime? Murder? Rape? It must have been pretty bad to have to kill a cave bear.”
“You shut your mouth!” yelled Gurolagal, and thrust his spear down at the dwarf. Makk ran into the cave. Behind him, an aspen trunk shattered like a crack of thunder as Gurolagal’s spearhead hit it. Makk didn’t look back. He was inside.
Light bled in through the entrance and he could hear the giants outside. It sounded like they were in physical confrontation with each other, but Makk still didn’t turn around. His eyes were focused ahead, adjusting to the dark. Dwarf eyes saw well in the dark, and as his vision got clearer Makk saw the old familiar cave. The ceiling was over twenty feet high once past the shorter entrance. It was carved out by thousands of years of dripping water from that tiny spring in the back. The enormous room echoed with the roar of a cave bear. There was no time for nostalgia.
Around the corner, he heard the sound of giant footpads on rock. The air was hotter back there, and smelled of wet fur. On the ground was the cracked femur of a moose and many other, smaller bones. When the bear approached, she eclipsed the space in front of him.
She was blonde with blue eyes. Huge muscles rolled beneath her hide. He stabbed at her face when she roared again and cut her nostril. She swung at the spear and knocked it from his hands effortlessly. The shaft snapped in half when it struck the rocks. She bit at him and he ducked out of the way, her hot breath in his ear and slobber falling on his back. She clubbed him with her right paw and knocked the air from his lungs. He tumbled backwards, only regaining his breath the same instant his head smacked against the flat side of a rock. The left side of his torso felt hot and wet. He rolled and scrambled to his knees. Breathing hurt. He grasped his left side and felt meat. Hot, stinging meat. The bear roared and the sound deafened Makk.
He saw the halves of his broken spear and propelled himself across the floor of the cave with a single strong push – a horizontal leap that tore his side and made him scream. He grasped one half of the spear when he landed and the bear raked a claw downward, catching his right leg and slicing it open at the calf. She reared up. Blood sprayed from her nose when she snorted.
Makk screamed himself to one knee and threw half of his spear at the bear. The motion further opened the gash in his side and it spilled flesh. His vision went black and his hearing went white. He inhaled. He crawled backwards, clutching the other half of his spear. His vision became clear again and he saw the bear bleeding from the neck. It charged him. He turned his broken spear half and thrust the antler point at the oncoming mouth of the bear. It struck true, but he could not stop the oncoming juggernaut. He fell to his back and the bear stood, screaming and choking. Hot blood sprayed at him from the neck wound. Some of it landed in his mouth and he coughed it out. The bear coughed too; coughed blood out onto the pale, quivering dwarf laying prostrate on the ground beneath her. It stung Makk’s eyes. He tried to wipe them, but his hands were bloody too.
The bear backed away, and fell. Makk was in a pond of thick hot blood. He rolled to his belly and groaned. Three labored breaths. He lifted himself to his knees with his eyes closed. He prayed the bear was dead. He could not fight any longer. He waited for a spine-crushing blow to come from behind. He waited for the bite that would rip out his intestines. They never came. He breathed, and prayed, and listened, and the bear did not move.
Outside, Gurolagal and the other woodkin remained. Makk didn’t want to face them. He wanted to stay in the cave until his body stopped hurting, but he knew it would never stop hurting. He crawled first, then stood. He steadied himself on the side of the cave wall. He was close enough to see them out the front now. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the sunlight again, and there they were, calm as ducks, looking into the cave and waiting. He hoped it was still too dark where he stood for them to see him struggling.
Makk was drenched in the blood of the cave bear when he finally walked back out. He took his steps slowly, like a toddler just learning to walk. He felt the blood become cooler when the breeze outside hit it.
“You should have taken the trade,” said Makk. The woodkin were speechless. Makk stopped walking forward when he found two good spots to plant his feet.
“You should have taken the trade!” he yelled this time. “Now you’ve got nothing. I killed your damn bear and I got my damn cave and I’m keeping everything. You can burn you piece of shit.”
“You can’t walk,” said Gurolagal, lifting his spear.
“No,” said the woodkin with the oaken breastplate. He lifted his own spear, pointed it at Gurolagal, and the others followed suit. Gurolagal was surrounded.
“This can’t be the end of my trial!” he roared. “I could have killed that bear. I’ll kill another one.”
“Maybe . . . .” said oaken one.
When he awoke, everything hurt. He choked on the dryness of his throat. When he opened his eyes, it was dark outside, but there was a fire and he could see the moon. He smelled smoke and cold pine.
“Go back to sleep,” said a familiar voice.
“Water,” wheezed Makk, and moments later some came pouring into his mouth. His eyes closed and opened again. It was one of his own waterskins above his mouth, held by enormous auburn fingers.
“Don’t try to move,” said the voice. It was sap-legs. Makk was looking up at the giant, propped on something soft and watching water dribble into his mouth. Sometimes it missed and splashed across his face, but that felt good too. He swallowed, and swallowed again.
“What happened?” he asked, when the water stopped.
“You killed a bear,” said sap-legs. “Don’t you remember?”
“What . . . who are you?”
“Oughald,” said sap-legs.
“Oughald,” Makk wheezed when he tried to pronounce it. “Where am I?”
“Home,” said Oughald. “Your bear is dead. Your cave is safe, and we have left you all of your belongings. I cleaned and sewed your wounds. You will live if you don’t move too much.” The blood that covered Makk’s body was all dry and caked now. It crackled when he turned his neck to examine the damage. It was hard to tell with so much old blood still surrounding the gashes, but Makk was pretty sure it was the worst stitch job he’d ever seen; large hands and a large needle working quickly on slippery flesh.
“Where are the rest?” said Makk.
“Gone. Back to the village. They will not bother you. Try to rest.”
“I’ll die here” said Makk, “I need to wash. The wolves will smell the blood on me.” Oughald laughed.
“There is a lake of blood in that cave. You will never wash it all away. Wolves fear fire and I will protect you if they come.”
“Because I have been ordered to. The Chief decided you should be saved.”
“Tell him I said thank you.”
“Tell him yourself when he comes. He wants to meet the Red Bear.”
“He wasn’t here before?”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“This is not the first time you’ve woken up,” said Oughald, chuckling. “We’ve had this same conversation twice already.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Go to sleep. You will be better in time.”
“Where is the bear?”
“She’s dead. I told you. Look.” Oughald pointed to the stand of aspens. Stretched between two of them was the enormous hide of a yellow-haired cave bear. It was nailed to the trees at the paws and stretched with vine rope. It had been scraped clean and was tanning.
“When did I do that?” asked Makk.
“You didn’t,” said Oughald. “I did. I’ve also been cooking the bear for you. You ate some already. You don’t remember?” He laughed and sighed. Makk was so confused.
“Why did you save me?”
“You fought well,” said Oughald, “it seemed cruel to just let you die like that. Also, Hoetsakan said it would be murder.”
“The judge. You’re lucky. He likes you.” Makk looked up at the sky. He tried to recognize the constellations, but they were blurry. There was a cloud of gnats swarming about his face.
“What happened to Gur . . . the one . . . what’s his name”
“Gurolagal” said Oughald. “He was taken back to the village. I don’t know how the L’hozu will end. He might die.”
“If he doesn’t,” said Makk, “he’ll come and kill me.”
“I don’t think so,” said Oughald. “You’re famous now, and if the Red Bear is murdered we will all know exactly who to blame for it.”
“What’s the Red Bear?”
“You are,” said Oughald. “You came walking out of that cave, hairy and covered in blood, fierce and angry. You looked like a red bear.”
Makk fell asleep again. When he awoke in the morning, Oughald patiently repeated the conversation once more, but that was the last time. Makk felt like walking. His side still hurt but he had been sitting or laying in the same position for so long that any change felt good, at least to certain parts of his body. Bending his joints and standing on his legs felt like breaking out of a hard clay casing. Things cracked, impediments fell away, and after a brief walk about the campsite he felt fluid again.
Colin Rowe’s books can be found on Authonomy.com and BookCountry.com. Be sure to look for “Guy & Racket,” his current serial about a boy who lives as a captive among orcs. Colin has also been published in The Eunoia Review, The Boston Literary Magazine, Pure Slush, Beyond Imagination Literary Magazine, and The Santa Fe Literary Review. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and tweets under the handle @lowericon.