Simon had trouble with words. Something pushed back when he spoke, like concrete hurdles in his mouth blocking the sentences that moved forward. Speaking was a trap, one that always tripped him up in front of other children in his mountain village. It was wiser to be silent. Being silent let him hear the words running smoothly in his mind, and turned the loud ridicule and embarrassment to soft whispers.
Life had turned primal before Simon's time; and on the mountains that stood like jagged bone torn through Earth's skin, survivors had found refuge from the plagues and wars raging below. In order to build a harmonious society in the sky, the people of his village took— as a matter of civic duty— clearly defined work roles. The carpenters and draughtsmen had built the Great Hall that stood at the heart of their fledgling community, and from there, rows of shanties to house growing families. The blacksmiths, farmers and mechanics provided the village with familiar pieces of a world some of them had once known. For Simon's father, the herding of goats in the mountain pastures became his civic duty. Simon was his apprentice, and through the biting cold, windswept mountainsides and treacherous climbs across sheer cliff faces, he was learning to tend the prized goats that fed the village.
Late fall was closing in and the gray clouds of winter loomed. Simon and his father had begun to drive the goats toward the mountain trail that would lead them to market. As they moved across the ridge-line down toward the open pastures accompanied by the soft murmuring of goats, Simon closed his eyes and breathed in deeply: He knew the thin, crisp air up here was unlike anywhere else left on Earth.
He opened his eyes and searched the horizon thinking, as he often did, of the world that lay below the mountains. Simon had learned of that world in old, weathered comic books his father had somehow salvaged—tales of heroes that fought evil in massive cityscapes Simon had never seen, through buildings that gleamed like great towers of glass. Simon was fascinated by the heroes and the world they protected, and he wondered how they had ever lost the battle below.
His father spoke very little about what had driven them to the mountains— only that it was something wicked. "The world below is black and filled with monsters," he would say; and so Simon only dreamed of worlds that were different than his own, where heroes still had fantastic adventures.
With a fine mist drifting in over the ridge, Simon's father urged the herd forward and told Simon to move ahead and keep the goats from veering too far off the path. The mist thickened and Simon searched for footing on the jagged rocks. He could hear the bleating of the goats and their bells clinking on their necks as they rummaged for blades of dying grass tucked between rocks.
Through the veil of gray and white, Simon glimpsed sharp black silhouettes. He watched them slice the mist with their powerful bodies as they moved down below the herd: Wolves. Simon struggled to load the word into his throat, battering against the blockade of his stammer, trying to shout it to his father.
The predators streaked across the plateau, cutting through the murky surface like sharks. A hulking Alpha led the charge. The goats panicked, and in the chaos the herd was divided. They darted over the ridge-line into the mist where the wolves circled, panting and snarling as they gave chase. The sound of a gunshot snapped through the air.
"Simon!" shouted his father. He ran toward him, gripping a small revolver. "Keep your eyes on them! Go!"
Simon turned and sprinted into the mist after the hunting party. He heard the dull clang of the bells, the growling of the wolves. Blinded by the white, Simon tripped on the jagged mountain face and tumbled to the ground, cutting and bruising his body on the jutting rocks. He heard his father's footsteps come up behind him.
"You okay?" he asked as he pulled Simon to his feet.
Simon fought back the pain. The words were stuck in his mouth like glue.
"Which way?" his father asked.
He pointed over the ridge-line.
"Bastards! Not now!" cursed his father, as he ran off.
Simon pulled himself together and joined the chase, clambering over the ridge and down the steep slope of the adjoining plateau. The mist parted and he found his father standing in the field heaving, struggling to hold the revolver steady. Simon saw the goats darting past a small wooden shack in the distance. The wolves trotted ominously behind, creating a perimeter of their own and closing in for the kill. Simon stepped forward to go after them, but felt his father's strong hands grip the tattered lining of his coat.
He looked at his father and pushed the word through. "W-why?"
His father stared at the shack and at the goats, vanishing into the white. "They're dead anyway." He stuffed the revolver into his worn satchel with contempt and turned to climb back to the ridge-line, leaving Simon behind.
"I-I watched. Like y-you said."
"I know you did. It was me. I should never have let us wander this far off the path." He waved Simon over with an arm open, inviting him close. Simon ran into it, clutching his father, and felt a reassuring arm fold over him. Together, they crested the ridge where the last of the meager herd stood like lost children in the mist, shivering and bleating.
Simon’s father hung his head.
"I-It's n-not enough, i-is it?" said Simon.
His father wiped the cold dribble from his nose. "Well," he said. "It's something."
Night fell on the mountain trail, and they settled into a deep ravine for cover. Simon's father set two fires, one at each end of the road— steep walls of granite that formed a barrier between the herd and the wolves. They huddled under animal skins and bright colored coats with logos of sports teams Simon had never known. He looked at his father, who was staring into the bristling firelight. Simon He pulled the words together and drew them out as clearlyas he could. "Wh-who lives out there?"
His father kept his eyes on the flames. "A dangerous man. We leave him alone."
Simon pushed ahead. "W-why do we l-leave him be?"
"We made it to the mountains. What ever else made it up here, it's not one of us." His father kicked at the burning wood, stirring the flames. "He lives alone, and keeps the wickedness he gathered in the world below in that hut. A lot of people think if you go near it, you'll curse the village and everyone in it. So, we don't set foot on that ground, even if it means losing the herd."
"The world b-below. I-it was a bad p-place?"
"Not always." Simon’s father reached into his bag and pulled out a comic book. Its cover was faded and warped. The corners were bent and frayed and the pages inside had yellowed with age. "It's been a bad enough day," he said. "I don't think you've read this one."
Simon knew the cover. It was his favorite: The Raven. The Raven wasn't like the other heroes his father had shared with him. He had no powers; no magic to fend off evil. Webs didn't shoot from his wrists. He couldn't fly or bend steel. He could have been anyone. Simon liked that idea.
His father held Simon close as he read the book aloud to him, turning the pages slowly so Simon could examine the art and imagine himself on the page as hero to an entire city. Simon loved the way his father lowered his voice to a low growl whenever The Raven spoke. "H-how d-did he be The Raven?" Simon asked.
"Well, he worked very hard. He trained his body and his mind. And he had courage to do something others wouldn't."
"A dangerous man killed his family when he was just a boy. It made him very angry, and he wanted to stop bad men from hurting anyone ever again."
"Are th-the bad men b-below?"
"Yes, they are. But, they're down there hurting themselves. And one day, they'll all be gone. And we can go back."
"Is The Raven f-fighting them?"
"I think he might be."
By morning the fires had burned themselves out and they continued on their journey through an icy drizzle that coated the rocks in slick sheets. They followed the steep mountain trail until the path opened up onto the flat summit perch, from where they could see the village. Tin shanties and wooden huts were plotted together like small neighborhoods. In the center was the Great Hall surrounded by a tented market.
Simon followed his father from the rear of their pitiful herd. The village butcher made his way out of his tent and gaped at them as they moved wearily toward him. "Where the hell's the herd, Ben?" he asked.
"Wolves cut us in half. I lost the rest of them over the ridge-line."
The butcher looked at Simon, then at the handful of goats, and let out a great sigh. Simon could smell the man's awful breath. "Ben, this isn't enough, man."
"I know. I know it's not, but it's something."
"The hell we gonna do with five goats, Ben? I'm a go up there and get the Judge, and you know what he's gonna say."
Simon's father knew all too well. "He's gonna cut our rations."
"Damn right he's gonna cut your rations. We count on you. You don't pull through, you don't get your cut.”
As the butcher turned away, Simon's father stopped him and said, "You go get the Judge. You tell him I want to explain. I can't have my family lose their rations another winter."
The butcher pushed back. "Nothing to explain, Ben. Get them in the pen and get the hell out of here."
Simon and his father made their way home in silence, wandering through the rows of shanties as light snow drifted down from the blackened sky. Simon watched the steam from his breath envelop the swirling flakes. He wanted to speak, to tell his father that it was okay, but he could feel the words clogged in his mouth, and he had no strength to push them through.
Their squat home sat like a box in the housing row. The two of them ducked inside, out of the cold, and were met by the warm, dim light of candles and a meager fire in the tin hearth. Simon's mother greeted them wrapped in layers of coats. She hugged Simon tight and examined his limp. "Sit down," she said gently. "Let me see your feet." She worked his boots off carefully. His socks were worn and dirtied, and she peeled them off, revealing a patchwork of blisters and sores on his feet. She bathed them in water and clove oil, and Simon flinched at the sting, but said nothing.
His father poured a ladle of stew into a tin cup and sipped it with both hands. "He's a tough boy," he said. "He never complained once."
His mother didn't ask about the herd. She knew that if his father didn't boast about their haul, it was best not to ask at all. She smiled and patting Simon's wounded feet dry. "My brave men," she said.
That night, lying in his bunk, Simon listened to his parents’ hushed whispers. He heard his father retell what had happened to the herd, and what the butcher had said. There was worry in both their voices. It upset Simon, and he pulled the blue nylon hood over his head and squeezed the pillow tightly around his ears until all he could hear was his own breathing— his own internal world. He spoke clearly in his mind, reassuring himself that they would have enough rations and that everyone would be happy. In the morning, he awoke to a frigid dawn and found his father gone.
"He went to the Hall," his mother said. "He's going to speak to the Judge. Your father's strong, Simon. He'll strike a deal with him, and we'll be just fine." She looked down at his feet. "How do you feel?"
"O-Okay. Much b-better."
She smiled and gave Simon a wrapped bundle of dried herbs. "You remember the Andrews?"
"They gave us meat for the stew last night. It's important to thank the ones who do you right. Take this over to them, thank them, and come right home."
Simon didn't like to be alone in the village. With his mother and father, he could stand in silence and not worry about answering questions. When he walked alone, he was vulnerable— a wounded target that children spotted limping in the pack and preyed on. He delivered the herbs quietly, nodding at the couple as they spoke. But as he made his way back to his hut, a group of boys stopped him on the outskirts of the market.
"Go ahead,” said their redheaded leader. "Come on. Let's hear it. All you gotta do is ask and we'll get out of your way."
Simon felt sick to his stomach as he tried to fight the words free. His mouth chattered and an embarrassing set of noises came out instead. The boys snickered and Simon shut his mouth.
"Shit, kid. Thought you'd learn how to talk up there. I mean, damn, you lost them goats and all, figured your daddy would have beaten the words outta you." His posse laughed. "I heard about you and him losing all them goats, bringing back just a bunch a scrawny sacks of shit. How the hell we gonna eat?"
Simon's tongue swelled. The redhead continued his abuse. "I'll tell you how. We're gonna eat yours. My dad says you can all go off and die and it'll do us all a favor. Put more food on our plate. So, go on and do it already."
Simon's mouth hung open but not a single word came out. Instead he turned and walked past the boys and through the market, wiping the tears flooding his eyes. As he made his way back to his hut, he heard the faint cry of a wolf echoing off the rocks in the distance. He looked up toward the mountain, veiled in mist. He pursed his lips, wiped his eyes one last time, and ran to the mountain trail. He ran until his legs burned and his feet grew raw in his tight boots. He thought of his father, and the market, the butcher and what the boy had said in the village, and pressed on, letting out a cry of rage as he climbed.
At the ridge-line, he scanned the adjoining plateau and spotted the old, dilapidated shack in the distance. He climbed carefully down through the thick shroud of mist and made his way across the frost-coated mountain grass, stumbling upon the gnarled carcass of a goat— but there were no sign of the others.
The shack was close. It was made of wood, and looked warped and shoddy in the open pasture. Simon stepped softly through the grass to a side wall and peered in through a grime-coated window that must once have belonged to some other home. Inside he saw a small room stacked with junk from the old world— junk he couldn't recognize, but suspected had no use to anyone in the mountains.
He wiped a streak across the filthy window to get a clearer view, and saw a body lying under thick blankets. It wasn’t moving. Simon watched it for a few moments, and when it didn't stir, he decided that whomever his father had warned him about had been dead for some time.
He peered in for a few more moments, staring at the odd relics inside, when he heard the familiar jangle of a goat’s bell. The sounds of their bleating sifted through the mist and Simon turned from and moved quickly in their direction. He soon came upon the scattered remnants of the herd. Some had been eaten and their numbers had thinned. The ones that remained seemed pleased to see him and gathered willingly at his side.
A wolf's howl ripped through their reunion. The Alpha stood on the ridge-line poised to strike, the fur on his broad back bristling like quills. The rest of the pack assembled behind him like loyal soldiers. The Alpha stretched his neck forward, glowering at Simon, and charged down at him, his heavy paws striking hard on the rock. Several goats panicked and darted off. The rest stayed near, oblivious of the oncoming doom. Simon knew there was no way to outrun the pack. He reached down and picked up a large, jagged rock, ready to defend the last of the herd.
The wolves circled, snarling and gnashing their yellowed teeth in a frenzy. Simon held the rock high, waiting to bring it down on the first wolf to strike, but something plowed into his side and knocked him to the ground. He spun around, scrambling to defend himself. The Alpha loomed over him, hulking and powerful, with a wide sneer.
Simon heard a shout, and a frail figure came stumbling across the rocky plateau through the white veil of mist. "He's just a boy!" the man shouted. "Have you forgotten?"
The wolves lowered their heads, their ears dropping into submission. They tucked their tails between their legs and trotted off, leaving Simon and his goats behind. The mysterious man collapsed, and Simon froze for a moment, fearful of him and of the wolves that could be lurking, waiting to strike again. He rushed to gather his goats— seven of them— and herded them back toward the ridge-line, clapping his hands to spur them on. As he pushed forward, he kept an eye on the motionless figure. The mist gave way and Simon could see that it was an elderly man. He cautiously approached him and saw the gentle rise and fall of his back. He was alive. Simon readied his words and pushed them through, keeping his distance as he spoke. "Y-you o-o-k-kay?"
There was no response.
The man lay perfectly still. Simon looked at the goats and checked the old man to make sure nothing was in his hands. He knelt beside him and poked him gently. The old man was rigid and cold.
"C-can y-you hear m-me?"
The man rolled over, his eyes slowly drawing open. Simon had never seen anyone so old. The wrinkles on his face were like a web of canyons, and his white and grey hair and beard had grown long and gnarled.
"You were looking through my window," he said.
"What did you see?"
Simon worked up his courage and wrestled the words out of his mouth. "S-stuff. J-junk."
The old man looked at him and nodded. "I see. Please, help me. It's cold on the ground, and I don't believe I have the strength to make it back inside alone."
Simon helped the man to his feet. He was light and fragile, like a delicate bird, and even through his layers of coats, Simon could feel his bones. They staggered back to the shack, the goats trailing behind and nibbling on the dying grass as they went. Inside the tiny dwelling, Simon had a better glimpse of the junk. He couldn't imagine what most of it was, but he was nevertheless mesmerized by every single object— drawn in by the unfamiliar history of each one. "Set me down over there,” wheezed the old man. Simon lowered him onto a makeshift bed of animal skins and old boxes. The two stared at each other until eventually the man said, "Boy like you shouldn't be up here alone. The summit's a dangerous place."
Simon nodded. "M-my goats. W-we l-lost our goats."
The old man wiped his dripping nose with the back of a boney hand. "Wolves won't give the rest back, I'm afraid." He looked Simon up and down. "So, best be on your way. Take what's left of them and get out of here before those hounds come back to eat. They're always hungry, and they only listen to me for so long when it comes to food." Simon looked around the shack once more, quickly scanning the mysterious relics. The old man spoke again, testing him. "Best be on your way,” he said, almost as if it were a question.
Simon left the shack and rounded up the remaining goats. He herded them toward the mountain trail, looking back as he went, until the shack disappeared from view. He made it to the village as night fell. The fires burning around the Great Hall meant the market was still open. He herded the goats to the butcher, who was cleaning his tent and warming himself by a fire in an oil drum. He looked up when he heard the clinking of tin bells, and saw Simon approaching with his sorry band of goats behind him. He studied the meager pickings with a discerning eye. "There's only seven,” he said. "Can't do much with seven."
Simon held strong and silent, glaring at the butcher. The man's eyes darted back and forth between Simon and the goats, uncomfortable under the kid's disquieting stare.
"Damn it. Okay, you're right. Seven goats are better than five. But I was expecting at least twenty this year."
Not a sound from Simon.
"Yeah, I know I'll take 'em, I'm not an idiot. But I'm not budging on the rations. Your dad screwed up. Deal's a deal, got it?"
Simon again held firm and silent. The butcher stammered awkwardly.
"O-okay, fine. Shit. I'll tell the Judge, okay?" The butcher grabbed a burlap bag of rations and tossed it over to Simon. "There you go. But I'm not happy with how this went down. Tell your father that. And while you're at it, tell me how the hell you got them goats back."
When Simon returned home, he handed the bag of rations to his anxious parents. "What are these? Where have you been? You know better than this," his father said.
"You could have died! You could have died up there and we would never have found you!" his mother shouted.
"Th-the g-goats," said Simon.
"The goats? Where did you find them, Simon?" asked his father sharply.
He struggled to explain. "I w-went over the r-ridge-line. Past the sh-shack."
"The shack. I told you…" His father restrained himself. "I told you not to go there."
"I-it's not cursed. L-look what i-it g-gave us." Simon held up the bag of rations.
His father laughed softly to himself. "A damn miracle."
Simon could not sleep. The shack held clues to a world he had never known. He tried to piece together the meaning of the relics he had seen scattered about. He needed to know their story. He needed the old man to tell him.
The Winter Feast was upon the village, a great celebration marking another year of survival in the mountains. The villagers gathered in the Great Hall, and the families sat at long tables laid out with a bounty of delicious food— so decadent compared to their meager rations. The hall was filled with the aroma of roasted meats and vegetables. Goat was the main course, seasoned with spices and herbs, and Simon couldn't help but smile to see his family's successful labors put on display. The meal was finer than anything he had ever tasted. With his belly full, his mind drifted back to the summit. He wondered if the man was still alive.
As the meal ended, music chimed through the hall and the real festivities began. The adults sang loud songs and danced, and the children were called for games, ones that didn’t interest Simon— for they required him to speak to the other children, and nothing was more painful.
"You should go, Simon," urged his mother. "They're just games. You don't have to talk if you don't want to."
Simon knew that wasn't true. Someone would eventually ask him a question that would require more than just a nod for an answer, and then the teasing would begin. He had other, more adventurous, plans for the evening.
"You know what I think?" said his mother.
"I think you might regret missing out on all that fun. You don't get to play much during the year. Who knows, you might even make a friend."
Simon gave his best fake smile. "O-okay," he said, and wandered off through the crowd, looking back just on time to see his father spinning her around and laughing as he swept her onto the dance floor. They'd be busy for the night, having fun in a safe place, never having to think of where Simon was. The perfect cover. Simon weaved his way through the dancing crowd to a table of food. He grabbed a few pieces of goat meat, a handful of vegetables and some bread, and stuffed the wad of food under his shirt before slipping out of the hall. He raced back to their shanty, grabbed a backpack and stuffed it with the food, which had melded into an unrecognizable glob. He put on his heaviest coat, changed his boots and headed to the ridge-line.
The night sky was clear and the pale moonlight lit the path up the frigid mountain. As he ascended, Simon saw the shack on the plateau and, to his relief, no wolves circling the perimeter. He made his way to the small dwelling in the dark and peeked through a dirt-smudged window. The old man was bundled stiffly in the same place Simon had left him. He walked into the hut without knocking, and shook the old man gently. He was cold to the touch, even for someone who lived in the mountains. Another jab from Simon, harder this time, and the man snapped awake, gasping like a drowning victim rescued from sea.
"Didn't you leave?" the man asked, confused.
Simon nodded and pulled out the doughy wad of food, trying to work the words free. "M-my m-mom says to th-thank people. When th-they do y-you right. Y-you looked h-hungry."
The old man looked at the ball of smooshed food suspiciously, and then at Simon. "Very kind. Your name?"
"Trouble with words, huh?"
"Good heart, though. You'll get the hang of it." He took the food and tried a cautious bite. "Your papa happy to see his goats?" Simon smiled, and the old man looked at him with an air of mystery. "Don't you want to know my name?" he asked.
"I," he declared in a portentous tone, "am the Guard of the North." He waited for a look of awe, or at least recognition, to register on Simon’s face, but when the boy said nothing, he looked down at his meal despondently and said, "So this is what passes for food these days?" He chewed painfully and added, "Thanks,” with his mouth full. He finished the last bite and observed Simon gazing in wonder at the piles of junk stacked in the hut. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and sucked the bits of food from his teeth. "You came for a story, didn't you?"
The old man waved his hand in a sweeping gesture at the objects in the room. "Pick something. I'll tell you one."
Simon looked around and pointed to a shelf on the far wall that held brightly colored figures and statuettes. "W-where did you f-find all th-these?"
"They are my prizes. Trophies from battle."
Simon looked at the old man, his eyes studying his withered limbs. He certainly didn't look like a soldier. "A w-warrior?" Simon tested.
"Oh, yes,” said the old man with a smile, a light igniting in his eyes. "That’s why you're here, isn't it? To hear the tales of the Cursed Guard of the North?"
Simon had no idea. He'd never heard of such a thing, but the old man spoke with such self-assurance, he couldn't help but nod.
The man leaned forward, vigor returning to every limb. He rubbed his hands together. "What shall it be, then, hmm? Which trophy?" He gazed at his relics, as if offering them to Simon.
The boy walked to the shelf and spotted a toy— a green lizard creature. It was standing on its hind legs and had silvery scales running down its back. "I've n-never even seen a d-dinosaur before."
The old man darkened. "Oh," he said, in an ominous tone. "But that's no dinosaur. When the old world was burned, and I held off the hordes for the great escape, many dangerous beasts flooded the land. That one is the Great Dragon of the White Cave— a ravenous monster who would eat the children first when he attacked the refugees fleeing to the mountains."
Simon looked suspiciously at the toy in his hands. "B-but it's s-so little."
The old man straightened. "After I killed the great wizard, I used his wand to seal the dragon inside that plastic prison."
Simon held the toy closer, his eyes growing wide.
The old man smiled. "Sometimes, late at night, I can still hear him breathing."
Simon quickly put it back on the shelf and stepped back. He moved on to an object on the floor with laces and straps dangling from it.
"Put it on over your head,” said the old man.
Simon pulled it over his head and the strange armor rested on his shoulders. He looked up at the old man and raised his eyebrows in expectation, waiting for the story.
"Armor of the Giants,” the man said proudly. "All Giant Guards follow their leader, and will not surrender unless he alone is defeated. These hulking barbarians surrounded me on all sides. Their leader barreled toward me, and with my great Axe of Doom, I chopped him down!" The old man laughed with delight. "His army ran away like squealing pigs!"
Simon smiled. He pulled the plastic armor off and lay it back down on the floor. He looked at the old man. "Y-you said c-cursed."
"I did,” said the old man, flatly.
"M-my dad says the whole earth i-is."
The man smiled. "He'd be right. Dangerous world off this mountain. Nothing worth fighting for down there anymore."
"You s-said you w-were cursed,” stammered Simon.
The man didn't answer. He looked around the room. "What else?" he asked.
Simon rummaged through the room until he found a large orange orb. A face had been carved into it, with a jagged mouth and sharp eyes painted black: A jack-o-lantern. He held it up to the old man, raising his eyebrows to invite an answer.
"The Wraith of Samhain. A nasty demon that terrorized villages every month of October. I took his head as a trophy."
Simon looked at the odd head and inspected it closely. There was a hole at the top of it. He'd never seen anything like it before. He smelled it, and then placed it back in its proper place in the pile. He was still thinking of the word "cursed". "W-what m-made you that way?" he asked.
The old man pointed to something on the shelf, the horn of some animal, hollowed out with a fitting on the point. Strange etchings were marked along it, and a leather strap was tethered at each end. "That is my curse," said the old man.
Simon reached for it.
"No,” the man warned. "That one you cannot touch." He struggled to get to his feet and shuffled toward Simon. "You don't want to call them here."
Simon licked his lips and the old man could tell he was hungry to hear more. "The world was burning and warriors— the Guards of the North— rose up from the chaos to defend the innocent from evil; but a band of these brave warriors was deceived by a twisted sorceress, and she changed them into wicked beasts that obeyed her every command. She turned them loose on the very lives they were sworn to protect, and they devoured them in a wash of blood. In the end, the sorceress was defeated, but her curse never lifted. The monsters were entrusted to my care. They were dangerous and uncontrollable. I led them to the mountains, to keep them hidden from wicked hands that wished to wield them." The old man wobbled on his frail legs and Simon steadied him. The man put his arm around the boy and said, "The horn is the only thing they obey. It binds them to me, the last remaining relic of their time as men. It is the one thing they trust in this world, and only the most noble of warriors may guard it."
"W-where are th-they? Th-the monsters?"
"Close," the old man answered. They hobbled over to the meager bed. "I'm tired now," he said. "And you've been gone from home. They'll be worried."
Simon helped pull the blankets over him.
"I'd very much like for you to visit again,” the old man said, as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Simon walked the long mountain path back to his village, dreaming of the stories the old man had told. He arrived just before dawn, hoping his mother was making something hot to eat. He wandered into the village, still imagining the old man fighting giants and dragons. He watched the clouds drifting across the summits, and the world glowed orange and purple as the sun rose beyond the horizon.
A sound drifted up from below that caught Simon's attention. It was a faint, buzzing, mechanical noise, and soon a second one joined it, rising and falling across the rocky mountain chain. The watchtower bell started to ring, and Simon heard men shouting. The people in the market retreated, shutters and doors were locked, and the village fell silent. The only sound was that of the motors, distant and weak.
Simon could see two men on rusted dirt bikes edging their way up the mountain trail that led from the cursed depths below. They crested to the false plateau and stopped on the mountain perch, gazing up like two war birds staring at wounded prey. Their faces were covered with hoods that had been painted with grisly white markings and goggles that turned their eyes into empty, silver portals. They sat on their bikes studying the village, their motors idling. Guards from the watchtower had climbed down to the mouth of the mountain trail to greet them. They held their rifles high to show strength to the unwanted visitors, but the sight of the guns didn't scare the men. They revved their engines, taunting the guards.
One of the guards fired a shot into the air, but the riders stood defiant, scanning the village from under their hoods. The guard aimed his rifle directly at the men and his shot rang out, shattering a rock between the two riders and scattering shards of it into the bikes. The two riders looked at each other casually, revved their engines, turned and sped down the steep mountain trail to the unknown world below.
The guards hurried past Simon and he heard the word "scout,” whispered between them. A bell from the Great Hall rang out, and the villagers emerged from their shanties and began gathering inside it. Simon saw his mother and father shuffling nervously along with the others towards it, and he rushed to them.
"My God, Simon!" cried his mother.
Simon waited to be scolded by his father, but it never came. Instead he pulled Simon close, relieved to see him. But relief quickly turned to fear in the Great Hall. Seated in the back with his family, Simon watched as some of the adults shouted to the presiding Judge that the cursed ones were surely gathering below, while others shouted that they had guns, and were willing to fight to the death for the safety and prosperity of the village.
When the shouting died down, the Judge declared, "We will lock down the village. Women and children shall return to their homes. All able-bodied men will report to the front lines with their firearms."
It happened so fast. Simon's father stood, hugged his mother and knelt to Simon. "There's no more leaving your mother, you hear me? No running out on her. You protect her, now, just like in the books." Then, he was swept away with the rest of the village men before Simon could wrestle the words free.
He felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder and looked up at her, pleading. "I-I wanted to t-tell h-him I-"
"He knows," she said softly.
They walked out of the Hall and back to their shanty, alongside other families without their fathers or husbands.
Night fell quickly on the mountain, and a dreadful silence lay itself down across the village. Simon sat outside their shanty, listening for the sounds of the motors. He looked at the sky and tracked a billowing cloud as it cut under the moon, lit up by cold, blue light. A wolf's howl drifted down and Simon looked up to the ridge-line. He thought of the old man and wondered if he knew what was happening.
Village men started to run to the main gate. Some were shouting, and there was fear and urgency in their voices. Simon raced toward them, ignoring his mother's cry to stay put. He fought through the mass of men and climbed a stack of rubber tires at the defensive wall. He stared down at the world below and saw, scattered in the darkness, hundreds of torches flickering like serpents’ tongues. A low, guttural growl seemed to erupt from them, and Simon heard the revving of engines, the clanging of iron, and loud, demonic chanting that shook the mountain granite. Then, fire came hurling toward them.
Orbs of molten red exploded onto the village, spitting flames into the shanties and tents and igniting a storm of fire. A blaze of projectiles surged down and Simon crawled desperately between a gap in the tire wall to escape them. The earth shook and machines plowed through the flimsy gate as shrieking, hooded marauders overwhelmed the men at the front lines.
Chaos spread as the horde hacked their way through the men, separating limbs from bodies. The raiders broke through and headed for the shanties, and the screams of women and children became a violent chorus.
A dirt-caked hand ensnared Simon’s ankle and he was yanked from the tire wall and thrown to the ground. The hooded raider swung his axe down and Simon rolled to escape its strike. Someone tackled the raider to the ground. It was Simon's father. He struck the raider in the neck with his blade. "Run, Simon!" he shouted. "Run away!"
Simon scrambled to his feet and ducked away from the chaos swarming all around him. He looked back just on time to see his father engulfed by the horde, his body falling and disappearing under their feet. Simon looked away and staggered toward the safety of the ridge-line.
He climbed through the night, the terrible sounds of slaughter echoing up to the peaks and chasing after him as he escaped. By dawn, the screaming had faded, and Simon had pulled his exhausted body to the top of the ridge-line and collapsed onto the rocky outcrop, unable to take another step.
He felt the muffled breath of an animal along his neck, the wet spray of its exhale. The breathing was warm and damp, wild and heaving. Simon pushed himself up, and the Alpha’s stare pierced through him, its eyes black orbs. The great wolf did not move as it watched the boy; but its eyes softened, as if it recognized something within him. Then it turned and joined the rest of the pack waiting on the other side of the ridge. Simon crawled after them, down to the plateau, to the old man’s door.
He found him just where he had left him, and shouted to him, calling him by his former name, “Guard of the North!” When the man didn't stir, Simon jabbed him with his fists. The man's eyes snapped open.
Simon tried to order his words, wrestling them from his throat. "The w-world b-below. Th-the cursed ones."
The old man struggled to sit up as Simon caught his breath. A look of concern flashed across his old face. "What of them?"
Simon struggled to speak, but the horror of the attack trapped his words even deeper. His jaw locked and a twisted mess of unintelligible sounds came out. He gave up on forming words and pulled the old man to his feet, dragging him outside into the purple and orange glow of dawn. He led him over the ridge-line and pushed him forward to the precipice that jutted from the jagged summit, to see the choking black smoke rising from below. Clouds of ash mushroomed up into the sky, mixing with tufts of white clouds and creating a gray haze that marred the serene mountainside. The old man stood in silence and studied the rolling waves of smoke rising from below and swirling into the air all around them.
"I know this enemy,” said the old man, as if to himself. A smile began to etch thinly across his weathered face. His eyes twinkled with sly anticipation. He turned to Simon. "What have you come to ask me for?" he asked, and there was eagerness in his tone.
Simon pushed the words through. "F-for you. The C-cursed Guard of the North. To fight them."
The old man's smile stretched even wider. Pride seemed to ignite his hollowed body. "Well then, I shall not disappoint."
Simon helped him back to his dilapidated shack, and the old man prepared himself for battle. Over the patchwork of scars that marred his withered body, he donned his armor of plastic and leather, and retrieved an axe from under his bedding. The wooden handle was smoothed over from use and the cast iron head was rusted and chipped like fractured bone. He held it up and admired it with a glint of nostalgia flickering in his eyes. "I may have lost a step or two," he said, "but she's as sharp as ever." He reached for the hunting horn and draped it over his neck, and the two made their way out of the hut and limped to the mountain trail, toward the scorched village below.
Its ruins smoldered on the cold mountainside and hooded marauders could be seen dragging bodies into large piles to be burned. As their churning machines lugged supplies up to their conquered land, they looted whatever shanties were left standing.
At the foot of the Great Hall sat a small band of raiders dining and drinking to their victory, and at their head sat a brutish, bearded man who wore a bear's head as his crown— the Bear King. He bellowed and laughed loudly as his men shared tales of bloodshed and conquest, and toasted with moonshine and roasted goat looted from the village. A woman's scream halted the Bear King’s jolly recounting of a particular act of violence. He threw down a hunk of goat meat and rose to his feet. Nearby, he saw a woman pinned to the ground by a raider fighting to have his way, and scoffed at the scene in disgust. "Bring that disobedient dog here,” he ordered his men.
They dragged the raider off the woman and threw him at their leader’s feet. The Bear King raised a blood-soaked club and used it to cave the man’s skull in, his head becoming a gory mess. The Bear King wiped blood spatter from his massive chest and grizzled beard, and let out a thunderous roar: "Hear me, my soldiers!" he shouted, and the camp silenced all at once. "The women are ours to do with as we wish. But not until our work here is through. Any man who satisfies himself with a woman of this village before my consent, I'll stick his head on a pike."
The Bear King's men hustled back to their missions, and the King himself sat down to devour the last of the charred goat. As he chewed the gamey meat, marauders dragged an elderly man and a young boy towards him. The Bear King was not pleased at the sight of them. "You see me eating. You see me enjoying myself, and you bother me with what? A bag of bones and some bratty child?" he growled.
His men stood in silence, not knowing how to answer.
"Do we have to go over the difference between important and unimportant again?" asked the Bear King. "I believe I explained it to you last time."
One raider straightened and mustered the courage to answer him. "We found them walking down a narrow pass."
The Bear King threw his meat down, stood and bellowed, "There are narrow passes all over this damn place!"
"This one leads to the summit. Could be an escape route," said the raider.
The Bear King was intrigued. "Well, that is important." He wiped his greasy mouth and pulled the old man to his feet. "Look at me, old man. I've been in battle my entire life. One giant war. I can sniff out an ambush like a fart in the wind. How many men do you have waiting for me up there?"
The old man wheezed in response, still catching his breath from the long trek down. The Bear King turned to Simon. "This man, boy, is he your kin?"
Simon stared at the Bear King with hate burning in his eyes. The words in his mind were sharp. He jabbed them out. "I-I-I've brought th-the Cursed G-Guard of the North. To k-kill you."
The Bear King snorted and let out a roar of laughter. He grabbed the old man by his jacket collar and held him up to the raiders, displaying him like a disobedient child. "Well, of course you have! This pile of bones is, indeed, the feared Cursed Guard of the North!"
The marauders erupted into laughter, but the old man turned his head, grinned at the Bear King with a mouth full of rotted teeth, and said, "I am.”
The King wiped snot running from his nose into his thick black beard, and chuckled to himself. "Guard of the North. Slayer of dragons and giants, they say."
"I am," replied the old man.
"Butcher of demons and witches."
"I am," replied the old man.
"Savior of the cataclysm."
The old man nodded with pride. "At your service."
The Bear King smiled almost heartily. "I was a boy when I heard that name. My mother told me stories at fireside as the world died around us. She tried to comfort me with that name as cannibals closed in. I watched her die, waiting for the Guard to save her. He never came. Just like Santa Claus never came to give me my presents."
The marauders cackled.
"Well, perhaps such a whore wasn't worth saving," said the old man.
The insult silenced the gathering and the Bear King staggered from the verbal blow. "You call my mother…a whore?"
"I do, indeed,” said the old man. "I am the Cursed Guard of the North, slayer of the Wicked and Cursed ones who live below. And now I've come to claim your head." He reared up his axe and swung for the Bear King's neck, but he was slow, weak— and the king side-stepped the attack. The old man stumbled forward, the weight of the axe pulling him off balance. He steadied himself and let out a soft chuckle. "Well, damn it," he said. "I guess I have grown old."
The Bear King's amusement had ended. With a hateful gaze, he leveled his shotgun and unloaded it into the gut of the old man, sending him clean off his feet and blowing a hole though his back. Blood spattered onto the jagged earth and the old man fell into a lifeless heap. The Bear King spat on his corpse and the marauders howled with laughter and cheers.
Next, the Bear King turned to Simon and grabbed him by his neck. "You see boy, don't ever let yourself be fooled by some fairytale. Your hero doesn't exist. Look at him lying there. Look. He's just a man. He bleeds, he dies, like all of you will die. You can't rely on legends,” he said, turning to his men. "You have to become one yourself!"
Simon looked at the lifeless body of the old man, his blood draining onto the gray slate of the mountain. Rage burned inside the boy. He wrestled himself free of the cackling Bear King and ran to the old man's side. He was cold to the touch and there was no rise and fall to his chest. The laughter and taunting grew louder. Simon's eyes darkened.
The old man let out a rasp. Hands trembling, he passed his horn to Simon. The boy’s eyes widened but the old man smiled. "Sound the call," he said. "They will answer."
Simon rose to his feet, gripping the horn. He raised it to his lips as the Bear King and his men laughed at him, and blew into it. An awful blast sounded off the mountain face, reaching up to the summit and stretching along the mountain chain sprawled out across the horizon.
The Bear King's face dropped. "What have you done, boy?" he snarled.
Simon lowered the horn and closed his eyes, listening. A terrible howl tore through the village, followed by many more— a symphony of wolves, growing louder and more hateful by the second. Simon opened his eyes and smiled.
A blur of black streaked through the village— a growling, gnashing, phantom mist. The raiders raised their weapons, but the wolves struck them down, rushing like a thunderous herd through the village and tearing the limbs from the wicked. The raiders fired their weapons, but their rounds passed through the legion of wolves, leaving no trace of blood, or marks or wounds on their powerful bodies.
The Bear King and the last of his men closed in tight, creating a ring of defense and preparing for their last stand, when the Alpha leapt forward. The hulking black wolf charged the warlord head on, throttling him to the ground as its kin dispatched the last of the marauders.
The Bear King struggled to free himself from the Alpha's powerful weight, but the wolf dribbled onto his face and snarled at him with a hateful glare. The Bear King roared as the Alpha took his throat in its jaw and thrashed violently until head separated from body and the king was no more.
The carnage ceased and the wolves assembled around Simon, prideful, with their heads held high. The Alpha circled Simon and sat at his side, and Simon gently placed his hand on its bulky head.
The old man spoke. "Well done."
Simon looked down at him in disbelief. The old man opened his cloak to reveal nothing but bloodstained, tattered clothing. The wound itself had healed and the man rubbed his hand over where it should have been. "I never die, Simon. Hell of a curse.”
Simon helped the old man to his feet, and he took the horn from the boy and slipped the strap over his head.
"H-How?" asked Simon.
"They were my men. I failed them, Simon. Now, I walk these mountains with them, their keeper for all time." He walked to the Bear King's crown and lifted it up like a prize. "Your trophy,” he said to Simon, offering him the bear helm. "It's time for you to have your own story to tell."
Simon took the rotted bear-head and ran his fingers through the coarse hair. "W-what do I-I say?" he asked.
"The truth,” the old man said with a smile. "You destroyed the wicked ones from below the mountain." He quietly limped toward the mountain trail, his wolf army following behind him. Simon watched them fade from sight as he stood in the ruins of the village.
Slowly, women and children emerged from their hiding places, sunlight warming their frigid bodies. They came toward Simon like ragged specters, their eyes pleading. His mother waded to the front of the gathering of survivors and gaped at her son in disbelief.
"You're alive," she rasped. She embraced him, sobbing and clutching him close. "My son, how?"
The survivors were staring at him the same way he had once stared at the old man. He knew what they wanted— what they longed for. It was the same thing he had wanted— what had driven him back to the ridge-line, to the lone hut perched below the summit. He had wanted to believe.
In his mind, he heard the words flowing into place, the sentences ordering themselves in his throat, the story of a hero taking shape. He took a breath, and then he spoke.