RICK JOHNSON

THE BEAST OF BRYTHUNIA


by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
85717
RikJohnson@juno.com

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The winters had been hard, too hard of late. Game was scarce enough but now it was gone. The wolf didn’t have the sense of time to wonder if this winter was colder than the ones before, it knew only that it was harder and harder to find meat.

It remembered that it was easier before, when there was a pack. The pack would chase down the weak, the old, the infirm of the herds of deer and elk that once filled the forest for not even a full pack could catch and kill a healthy and mature Elk. So the pack killed the sick and thus, kept the herds strong. Without the pack, the diseased would infect the herds and every deer and elk would die. Without the pack to kill the weak, the entire herd would become weak. The pack needed the herds to eat, the herds needed the pack to keep them strong.

When a member of the pack grew old, the pack would care for him, bring him meat and even feed the old members as they did the pups. The Pack took care of its own. No wolf went hungry or died alone with the pack to care for them.

Then the humans arrived. They cut and burned the forest for their herds and farms. They killed the herds of deer and elk and drove the survivors away. Then, when hunger forced the pack to seek food among the herds of sheep that now decimated the fields, eating everything so nothing would grow, the humans hunted and killed the pack until there was just one left. One ageing and hungry wolf. Too slow to catch the rabbits or mice, angry with the humans who had killed his mate, his children, his herds that the pack kept strong and healthy by culling.

As he sought food among the flocks of the humans, the humans began to lock their meat away and it was harder and harder to find even a lone lamb to eat. The wolf preferred venison and even rabbit but was forced to hunt sheep and now even those were denied him.

Now he was hungry, angry, desperate.


I

Sonja walked through the woods, her chain armor in her pack, wearing heavy woolen pants and shirt, a heavy cloak and hood to keep the Brythunian wind from her bones. Her horse had gone lame in the pass, picking up a rock but unable to stop the downhill trek until, reaching level ground, the damage had been done. So, she sold the beast to someone who had no replacement and now she walked to the village or hamlet miles ahead. Hopefully there would be an inn with a warm fire, heady beer and a haunch of venison on a spit. Winter was coming and although it rarely snowed here, the mountains robbing the clouds of moisture, it did get so cold that one wished for snow to provide some insulation. The trees were sleeping, dead leaves crunched underneath her boots and even the hares were underground where it wasn’t as cold. You’d think that the Hyrkanian winds that swept the steppes and dumped so much snow on the Kezahkian mountains would be blocked by those same mountains. Instead, the winds from the Turanian Steppes were funneled through the passes to whip the eastern forests with storms that could knock a man down. Why anyone would live here was beyond her comprehension. But they did which was why Sonja was here.

Sonja moved briskly, trying to keep the cold from her feet and body and wishing she had some linen to wear under the wool which was beginning to itch. Plus it was beginning to stink of sheep which showed a poor washing before they wove the stuff. But considering the alternative was to freeze to death she endured the claustrophobic feeling of the heavy clothing.

Without warning, or maybe the eternal wind masked the sounds, the beast attacked. It was at her, dark and gray, on her as its weight crushed her to the ground, her left reaching for its throat, her right for her sword.

Damn! The sword wouldn’t release! The new steel throat she had added to prevent damage to her scabbard had shrunk in the cold and locked the blade in place.

The beast’s claws tearing at her jacket, her arm encumbered by cloak, the jaws snapping inches from her face, so close she could taste its saliva, she finally freed her dagger and struck, and struck again as the beast broke free and ran off.

Tearing her cloak free, ripping the ties, she rolled and stood, her backpack preventing a vault to her feet, dagger ready but the beast was gone, a trail of blood that quickly vanished into the darkness of the naked woods. Sonja tried to free her sword with her left hand, not daring the precious seconds it would take to change hands holding her dagger, but the blade was still tight. She had ordered the metal throat to be close to prevent the blade rattling in the sheath and thus give her position away and that insistence had near doomed her.

Sonja hated to leave an enemy alive. They had a nasty habit of reappearing at the most inopportune times like one friend of her father from the island beyond Khitai who was said to be the best swordsman ever, Musash was his name, never lost a duel or a fight. Until one opponent he had spared out of kindness had waited and returned to find Musash naked and unarmed in his bath. That was the ignoble end of the world’s greatest swordsman.

So Sonja dropped her pack and moved carefully to the woods. Fortunatly, the cold Winter winds had stripped the trees and bushes of their foliage so she could see some distance, though the setting sun made the shadows long. The blood trial was plain then faded away to vanish a few spans into the woods. It was as if the beast had healed instantly. If so, it would be difficult to kill.

Giving up, for even her considerable skills at woodcraft would be useless in the dark and dangerous with an almost unkillable foe in its own territory, she returned to the path, draped her cloak about her shoulders and carrying her pack in her left hand to more easily drop, continued on, naked dagger at the ready.


II

The wolf hid, licking the wound the human had given him. The cut wasn’t deep and would heal soon enough for it had ceased to bleed quickly, the wolf’s matted winter fur acting as bandage. It didn’t know that had the human’s hand been free, the wolf would be now dead so it couldn’t be grateful that Sonja’s hand had become wrapped in her cloak which slowed and diverted her thrusts. It only knew that it was hurt and hungry and soon would be forced to hunt again.


III

Hours later, exhausted by the hike, her left arm numb from carrying a heavy pack made for a back, she entered the town and found what passed for a tavern. It was small, merely a farmhouse with cheap tables on the dirt floor and a couple ladders leading to the rafters where the family slept. But for a few coppers she could have a mug of bad beer, whatever bird the husband had captured and the wife cooked and a place to spread her cloak and blanket on the floor. One of the farmers, too drunk to realize who she was jesting with, elbowed Sonja and remarked, “For a few more pennies, old Marthan will toss in his daughter,” then he laughed until he felt his head forced with considerable force, into the table top.

Sonja removed her left hand from his matted hair, dared him to respond through his broken teeth and remarked casually as she sipped her beer, “I guess my arm isn’t as recovered as I thought. Normally I’d have broken your neck.” He almost spat blood then swallowed and moved off leaving Sonja to her mood, which started out bad and was quickly getting worse.

She sulked, thinking about her attacker. She KNEW that she had stabbed it a number of times. She felt her arm slow and jerk with every blow and saw the blood on her dagger and the ground. But the beast continued to fight then left without reason. And the blood trail faded away quickly as if the beast had healed within seconds. A wolf that survives deadly attacks and heals immediately. This is obviously not a normal wolf. Some preternatural creature such as a demon in wolf-form or a werewolf perhaps?

A man rushed into the tavern screaming, “It’s back! The beast has killed again!”

Sonja looked up then around. The occupants of the tavern first started at the exclamation, then they returned to their ale, pretending that they heard nothing. The intruder went to one, shook him and begged, “Will you not go with me to hunt the beast?”

“Away! I have a family to feed and I’ll not do that from inside the beast’s belly!” the older farmer shook the intruder off. The intruder went to a number of people, some shook him off, others refused with the same declaration. But in each face Sonja saw fear.

She drank again, thinking that these Brythunians breed hunters and fighters. They fight the Hyperborean sorcerer-kings from the north and the Hill-folk from the east and sell their sons as mercenaries for foreign armies. Something that could make these fold afraid must be a terror indeed. She stood, motioned for a couple jacks of ale and sat next to the intruder who was crying in his arms.

Shoving one jack to him, she asked, “Tell me of this beast.”

He looked up, not wiping his nose which Sonja pretended to not notice and then gulped his ale in a single draught, motioning for more. “Stranger? Of course for I know you not and although we Brythunians breed warrior-women as we breed sheep, none are as short as are you red-hair,” he added quickly, “no offense. That dried blood on your coat shows you are a mighty killer and I’d not wish to be your next.”

Sonja looked down, the blood on her coat was from the beast, the wolf, not herself. She had checked carefully and found no scratch of claw or tooth upon her skin. She had been lucky. “Continue,” she insisted.

“When my father came to this land, the woods were filled with deer and elk. Hunting was easy and venison graced even the poorest home all three meals. Then the wolves came in and killed the herds. Within a generation, the herds were gone and we ate mutton and what rabbits we could catch. We hunted the maurading wolf packs into extinction, killing them with trap and poison and arrow until the spirits of the dead wolves entered one to make the beast. A wolf of such size and ferocity and intelligence that no one could catch it. A beast so powerful that arrows bounced from its hide and the fires of the lower hells shone from its eyes.

“The beast sought our destruction and began to kill our herds until we were forced to lock them within strong walls over the night. Then it turned to man!” the man clutched at Sonja who pulled away in disgust. Strong their fathers may have been but this group is a cowardly lot. Perhaps sending all their strongest men and women to war weakened the race? Sonja came from a people who herded horses despite her father’s decision to farm and she knew that if they sold al of the best stallions and mares, only the inferior would be left to breed and thus weaken the herd. Doubtless this had happened here.

He continued, broken, “The beast haunted the woods and killed and consumed all who traveled at night. Then, weeks ago, it stalked the day and took our children. Poor Melnos, not even a full-man, the beast killed as he collected wood for his family firepit. And just now, the beast took Jenris as he fished in the stream for his dinner. We are undone.” The man broke down again.

Sonja leaned back, giving room between his tears and her clothing, drank deeply and decided. She rarely thought about things like this, allowing impulse to guide her hand. Standing she raised her jack of ale and cried out, “I am Red Sonja of Hyrkania! Fetch me a spear with a cross-guard and a decent bow and horse and I shall rid you of this thing that haunts your village.” She drank deep and waited.

Some eyes had hope, others despair. None questioned her ability for Brythunians bred women for war and they had seen how easily she dissuaded a man who sought her favor. He’d be sipping soup for weeks until his teeth healed. One man stood, “I have a spear from the Border Wars! By morning I’ll have a cross-bar added!” Another added, “You can borrow my hunting bow, a fine oaken stave that has taken many an elk.” And soon, caught up in the lust for adventure, their father’s blood crying out, laughter and cheers filled the tavern.

Sonja had drunk too much the night before and awoke with a hangover. But as she ate her breakfast, she saw the bow and a quiver of heavy arrows on a table, brought the night before. The spear and horse she would look for as soon as she finished her tea made from willow-bark to ease her pounding head.

First she sought the blacksmith, already awake and working so handing her sheathed sword to the Smith, she ordered, “The throat is too tight. Open it up a bit and then add a collar of leather inside to absorb rattle and waterproof the inside.”

He nodded, looked it over and mentioned, “That spear you requested is ready. Over there, against the wall.” She looked at the weapon, eighteen feet of ash shaft topped by a heavy blade with newly added cross-bar. She hefted the weapon and struggled to hold the point level. “This was made to stop a charge of Nemedian Horse-Knights without breaking. Shorten and lighten the shaft to six feet while I seek that horse that was promised me.”

The horse was more a plow than a war-horse but would do. It would save her strength and put height above the beast when they met. Even the saddle was decent so she rode the horse back to the Smith by a winding path to get used to the mare’s ways and well before noon, had searched the nearby tree-line then returned for her sword and spear which were now ready. “Good job,” she commented on the sheath. She collar had been filed larger and a thin piece of leather glued inside and over the top to allow for a smooth and silent draw. Even the spear was perfect. “Now, find someone to show me where that last killing took place.


IV

The wolf was asleep. The night before it had tracked a man to the stream well within the Pack’s territory and knelt under a tree, watching. The man was blind, deaf and noseless for it had no idea that a predator was within feet of it, though his loud singing and the smell of beer could have something to do with this. Then the man pulled a fish from the water and added it to a string. Fish! The wolf salivated and rushed to snatch the catch from the clumsy man.

But the man, stinking of fear, swatted at the wolf with his rod, the whipping action causing pain and anger. The man screamed for help. Had he remained quiet, he would be safe as the wolf stole his catch but he panicked and fought and that triggered the wolf’s instincts so he attacked! The fight was not long for the man had no weapons or strength and the scent of urine filled the air as the wolf tore the man’s throat. Then when the struggles ended, the wolf licked the blood from his jaws, the wolf hated the taste of man-flesh and ate it only when forced, and finally taking the string of fish in his jaws, ran into the woods to enjoy a decent meal.


V

By the time Sonja reached the stream where Jenris had been killed, she had collected, unintentionally, a company of men and women. It seemed that the blood of their fathers still ran in these veins, it only had to be awakened. She looked over the men and women, six of the former, three of the latter, all armed. All carried axes more suited for felling trees than a werewolf but she knew that these were not to be laughed at for she had seen a company of Brythunian farmers, just as these, stand and hold a line for hours, stopping charge after charge of heavy foot even as their own numbers fell. A Brythunian man or woman with an axe was easily the equal to many well-trained soldiers n the Western Lands. Four carried swords, three bows and three spears. If they could track, she would use the Brythunians to surround and hold the beast at bay as she killed it. It was a good plan and one she knew would work for none of these nine would break under pressure. That is why Brythinia was still free despite the Hyperboreans to the north and the Nemedians to the west, both of which wished the Brythunian grasslands, farmland and forests.

The man from the night before, Petrorik by name, showed Sonja the place. “See, here Jenris sat, fishing. Here is his rod, still broken by the monster’s teeth. Here you see where it stalked him, dulling his senses with its foul magic. Here it attacked and they rolled until it tore the throat from poor Jenris, drained his blood and left across the stream.”

The spoor was clear, there was no effort to hide so Sonja called out, “We follow the trail but beware, the beast is strong and near immune to weapons. You spear-men, to the fore behind me but be ready to rush past to hold the beast off. Archers, I don’t think your arrows will kill it but they may slow the monster long enough for us to chop it like firewood. A spear-thrust may not kill a monster but it will hold it long enough to hack its legs and head off and we can burn it to death before it regrows.”

The trail was difficult to follow and they did so only because the fish line had broken branches and dragged as the wolf carried its meal away. Petrorik whispered, for even he knew the value of a silent hunt, “The trail is too easy. The monster wishes us to follow. I suspect a trap.”

“I too,” Sonja added, “but remain alert and silent for it may be hunting us.” The rest suddenly became nervous and looked around.

Sonja was walking her horse then tied it to a tree. The monster may kill the horse but if it became nervous from the scent, it would warn the beast that Sonja was there. So now on foot, she continued on, her followers around in a line.

She stopped and they followed, seeing her upraised fist. She then pointed to some fur on a bush, too easily left by such a wise creature. She knew she was walking into a trap but had no wish to sacrifice they who followed her. Too many generals saw the common folk as just fodder to be sent to die while the Nobles sat behind, drinking wine in the shade during a battle. Sonja was not one of them.

She carefully reached out and felt the fur, removing a glove to do so. Coarse, not the soft under-fur of Winter but the outer fur that deflected her dagger. She looked ahead, seeking places where the beast could hide and then advanced carefully, her spear at the ready, her sword loose in its newly adjusted scabbard. Not even a mouse would have heard the group move through the woods but such silence forced them to move slow.

After an eternity, they saw the den, hidden and known only by the bones scattered about. Without words, Sonja motioned for a spearman and archer to move to the rear, another set to the right and left and the rest to remain with her. She would face the beast head-on, risking her own life as was her way. But she had chosen well her path for the wind was howling through the trees, masking what little sounds they made and blowing their scent away. Pulling Petrorik close she whispered, “I will approach the den but beware! The monster may be behind us, waiting for us to turn away.”

Petrorik nodded, then whispered the message to the man behind and two turned to face the rear, relying on the rest to protect them from the den as they protected the group from the rear.

Then Sonja advanced, her spear at the ready.


VI

The wolf was asleep, its stomach full of fish, full for the first time in weeks. And so it dozed, dreaming canine dreams of chasing rabbits and mating with its fellows. Dreams of the past.

Snapping awake, it listened then smelled man! Carefully it moved to the den entrance and saw men approach. Trapped, the wolf looked around and seeing a break in the line, it burst free and ran for all its worth, seeking that break in the line to get free before the men closed in with their weapons.

It almost made the break when a man stood from behind a bush, a spear before it. Not able to stop or even turn, the wolf was impailed upon the spear, snapping at the cause of its pain, the force of its passage forcing the holder back. Then pain, more pain as arrow after arrow struck its sides. Then before it could fall, the man holding the spear dropped the shaft, drew a sword and …..


VII

The group returned to town in triumph, the body of the werewolf burning behind, the head of the beast stuck on a spear for all to see. They cheered and joked and in the tavern, the head on a spike for all to see, called out to each other,

“Did you see how the beast knew Sonja was waiting for it? How it flung itself at her knowing she was the leader?”

“Aye! Even as it was impailed, it sought to claw its way down the shaft to her. Good thing she was smart enough to have those boar-stops added.”

“The thing fought right to the end. I must have put a dozen arrows into it and still it fought back, snapping the shafts.”

“A strong monster was that one! I’m surprised any of us lived to tell the tale.”

“I thought it was waiting outside, it must have left that fur to split our force. Then when we turned to look elsewhere, it struck!”

“It took all four of us to hold it with our spears. Even then, a dozen and more arrows in the beast, it still sought out throats. Then Sonja rushed in, heedless of risk, to behead the thing.”

“Aye, a brave woman that red-hair! The thing was at my throat when she killed it. Cheers for Red Sonja! Killer of the Beast of Brythunia!”

Cheers rang out. Even through her ale Sonja remembered that it was easier than they made it out. Too easy. Maybe she killed an ordinary wolf and not a monster? But maybe the rush of battle just made it seem easier. Often would she finish a fight and see bodies that she didn’t remember killing so … no! She killed a monster. Gigantic! Terrible in its ferocity. Another drink and she laughed. By the time the story reached the next village, they would be bragging about a pack of Hyperborean werewolves that they stopped. During a long Winter, people needed stories to tell and this one would keep them occupied all winter with the telling and retelling as the story grew.

Sonja looked at the head on the wall then though about that plow horse they had given her. Then she decided that a good pack of food and she’d be off in the morning to finish her assignment in this frigid country. Then she could move south to warmer climes and get rid of this woolen outfit that was now infested with fleas.

END



To contact me or to request topics to be covered, send to RikJohnson@juno.com
by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
85717


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