“Once we begin, this story cannot be untold. Do you understand?”
The child nodded and the man, a man who looked ancient in that child’s fresh eyes, buried in lines and creases that made it look as though he smiled permanently, called for another mug of ale.
“I was not much older than you when my father left for the hunt and never returned. Words were seldom spoken between us, and even more so once my mother passed. He was intent on finding The Great White Bear. We would have feasted for many moons, but the Gods did not want it to be so.” The man’s voice grumbled and spat, and then he cleared the phlegm from his throat.
“A fortnight passed and I knew my father was not coming back. Our home was growing darker, colder, as if a shadow had clutched it. Flame could not abate it. I knew I had to go. I knew I had to hunt, and then perhaps, the shadow would leave. Perhaps.
“On the eve of what is now known as Christ’s Day, I departed. Nightfall would come swift and unforgiving, and I was slow then, uncertain—”
“Scared?” The child’s eyes gleaned with fear and excitement of their own. Not such a tale had been told to him, not by his father, his mother, his teacher.
The man’s eyes sharpened like silver daggers.
“Of course. But I could not let that fear cloud me. I trudged through the mountains of snow, bow-readied, waiting too eagerly for prey. My home was long gone and never would I return to it again. I should have known then, as I passed under the massive pines and furs, that I would find no elk, no boar, no bear, not even a rabbit. Because the birds did not sing that day. Not a life was to be found.
“But I continued, hungry and stubborn, unable to listen to the danger that I drew near with every step. The snow hardened beneath my feet, crystalizing. The cold nipped at my heart, numbed my bones. The short winter’s day ended unceremoniously and night fell smooth and quick, like the swift thrust of a blade into a soft gut.
“Darkness overwhelmed me, for the stars were clouded. I thought then, how foolish I was, to believe I could do what my father told me I was not ready for. I thought I might starve or freeze and that no one would find me until Spring’s Thaw. I thought that I might cry. That is when I saw it.”
Candlelight’s shadow licked the man’s face, making it seem like it stretched upward on and on. The child was quiet, breath caught.
“The Sacred Tree.”
The child had never heard of this. The man’s eyes filled with wonder, distant, as he recalled the image in his mind.
“It was put there, in a clearing, encircled by twelve torches, put there by gods we have forgotten, gods we were never taught to pray to, gods with wisdom beyond our comprehension. The tree appeared white. Bare. As if it had been stripped of all its bark, towering over me like a frost giant. Its limbs were great and full. I could not see what it truly was until I came closer.
“That was when I felt my blood curdle. Because the tree was no tree of our land. It was made of the fallen. The butchered. Its trunk formed by men’s torsos, its limbs made of arms and hands, preserved by the cold, and at the top, a head—my father’s head.”
The child’s breath had begun to shake, and his soft brow pinched. He felt sweat between his balled hands. The man’s eyes stared vicious blue at him.
“I sank to my knees as my father’s mouth began to speak. ‘Strike me down! Strike me down, boy!’ But there was something darker in his voice, something I did not recognize. It made me coil. I did not want to, frozen in my own mind, paralyzed by confusion and pain and fear.
“But he kept chanting and chanting. ‘Strike me down! Strike me down!’ and an axe appeared in my hands, made of Blackwolf pine, engravings of a language I did not understand etched into its handle. My father became louder and louder, wailing until I rose to my feet and charged at the tree, crying out in only brutal, primitive sounds, swinging that axe as hard as I could at the tree’s base—a thick man’s naked torso.
“The axe head bit into his ribs and my father cried out joyously. I continued, blood splattering my cheeks, my mouth, my forehead. I kept hacking and hacking with every breath in my lungs until the wicked thing fell.”
The man drew quiet—and it startled the child. His eyes were slits, face sagging with fell memory.
“What happened to the tree?” The child asked.
The man croaked a foul laugh.
“Nothing.” He shook his head. “It died. Just like every other fallen tree left to rot.”
“And your father?”
“He died too. Though, I suppose he was dead long before that, wasn’t he?”
The man gulped down his remaining ale, rising to his feet to take leave. The child snatched his hand.
“How did you make it out?”
The man smiled blankly at him.
“I guess the gods were watching me.”
And as the man turned to go, the child saw, etched into the skin of his bare back, a tree that looked like death. The child gasped and the man disappeared into the crowded tavern.Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in