The wolves were coming.
The old man stared across the snowfield that bordered the dark forest to the south. Few men entered the trees, the tales told when they were still milk-drinkers frozen in their minds. But those who escaped the grasp of old stories spoke of how the wolves were growing desperate.
Just as he predicted, from the flight of the crows and the heavy moon. But nobody listened to him. Not to El Loco, the crazy one.
A flurry of ice crystals swarmed down from the rock walls to either side of him, and he pulled the fleece tighter around his shoulders. He didn’t shiver—such old bones had no more need for warmth—although he gave thanks for the sheep that had providing for his people.
He might have argued for the little one to have the fleece, but she was swaddled already. His remaining son had seen to that.
Cold air rushed into his lungs, and he fought the urge to cough. He would never see another winter like this, thank the fatherless gods. They could take this accursed body and free him from the constant pains.
But he would not go quietly. There was still life in his grey skin yet. He would make the wolves pay for what they had taken from him.
El Loco. Maybe they were right.
He looked to the base of the rock walls, where the snow was disturbed, and where the cords emerged, snaking to the box by his feet.
El Loco had been born from fire, a young man who ran at his enemies with the screams of the motherless gods, a warrior who had stolen their flames to use against them.
But fire was a cruel beast. Even when his wounds had healed, he could no longer feel the caress when his bejoined ran her fingers down the side of his face. She adored his mark of strength, and in those moments he truly believed he deserved one such as her.
She had provided two healthy sons, and then the Severer had seen fit to take her in a winter much like this one.
Two sons, yet only one remained.
Smoke rose over the tree-line, and he understood. The other villages, the godless ones, had burnt anything the wolves left, in a desperate act of purification. El Loco would have savoured the smell of the smoke, inhaling the demise of his enemies. But now, the wind blew from a different place, and such destruction did not quench his thirst.
As he watched, the beasts emerged from the trees, black shapes hunched low in the snow, carving slow tracks as they crept towards the rock. He counted ten.
He had bested that many before, when the spirits had guided his blade and the demons had possessed his body. He had torn their jaws open and pierced their rotten hearts. He had fought hard, smeared in lupine blood and protected by the amulet of fangs around his neck.
Yet that was not enough to recompense what they had taken from him. More must perish before he could face the gods as one vengeance-free.
More appeared from the tree-line, as he knew they would. Too many to count now, although he didn’t have the gift of numbers. He had no gifts beyond his refusal to die, beyond his stubborn existence.
They started calling him the tough one, El Machote, when his son’s bejoined produced an angel, and he was able to hold her in arms that were still strong. They said it was a gift, to see his own generations like this. They said the fire had sealed his skin against the demons of age. They talked of his crazy mind, and of how the Severer was afraid to enter it.
He nodded and smiled, and he held his son’s daughter, so frail and perfect.
And now she was with all the others, making for the retreat. The snow had not yet blocked the path, so there was still an opportunity to escape the wolves’ hunger.
He wondered if his absence had been noticed yet. He imagined his son praying to the fatherless gods that El Machote’s passing would be swift, and offering thanks that his own father had lightened the villager’s load.
His son would not be agreeable to the old man’s intent. But what did the young know?
Once more, he eyed the Incendios , with their demons waiting to unleash hell. He tapped the box with his foot, knowing that timing would be critical.
It would not stop all of them. Only a few would fit into the gully. And he would have to allow some to come closer, so that as many as possible were crushed by the falling rock.
But he could slow them enough to give his people the time they needed.
El Machote drew the sword from the sheath by his side. The leather hilt had been fine once, when he was still El Loco, but now it was as cracked and as scarred as his own skin. He found comfort in such doggedness.
A cloud covered the sky, grey with more snow. The old man felt the gaze of the Severer, preparing to finally take him.
He called to the gods, as if they gave a damn about anything but their own pleasures. He beseeched them to watch over his kin, and he asked them to give him the vengeance he deserved after so many years.
The wolves were coming. But he would fight them with the fire he had stolen when he was crazy. He would fight them with the experience held within his scarred body and old bones. He would fight them with the heartbreak of a man who had buried his own son.
He would fight until there was no more fight left in him.
And he would die for the love of his little angel.
They Need To Learn
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