Culpug the Cavelord
and the Ice Reavers
by Michael Panush
part 1 of 2
Virskin Frostblood was as pale as a raging blizzard and twice as heartless. His milky white skin and pure white hair made the bone handles of his twin curved swords seem nearly coal black, and contrasted sharply with the red runes and war paint that bedecked his face and bare chest. He sat high on the back of a monstrous cave bear, a fanged and clawed beast with a pelt almost as white as Frostblood’s skin, and covered with similar red spirals and marks.
The bear’s heavy feet pounded on the snowcapped path, tossing up dirt and ice. The beast rode at the head of three-score other fearsome cave bears, each mounted with a warrior as loyal to Virskin Frostblood as they were devoted to the ending of lives. They pounded down the mountain path, following Frostblood with eyes wide and hungry for slaughter.
“Halt!” Virskin cried, raising a hand and bringing his cave bear to a standstill. Virskin’s cold eyes narrowed as he looked down the twisting mountain path and saw that it fanned out into the entrance of the mountain.
Smaller huts, now topped with snow, ringed the trail, and the Mountain Clan went about their daily business. Children played, some at war and some at more fanciful games, looked on by loving parents. Hunters and their wives tanned and prepared hides for trading while other couples worked on producing or repairing weapons.
It was a tranquil scene, but Virskin saw only fire for the huts, blades for the warm bodies below, and clouds of carrion birds filling the grey sky.
“This is the place,” Virskin shouted, not even bothering to look at his men. “This is the place where he dwells. We will ride there and find him, and then there will be no stopping the Ice Reavers!”
“But Virskin,” a squat Ice Reaver in a tall fur hat asked, “shouldn’t we just level the place and let our bears feast on their women and children while we slaughter all else?”
Virskin looked once more at the Mounain Clan. “Not yet,” he muttered. “This shall be a saga carved in ice and drawn in blood. Petty slaughter is for another day.” And with that he urged his bear into the center of the village, his men close behind.
The villagers stared. They had no doubt as to who these men were. The Ice Reavers, they were called. Spawn of the one of the northernmost Mountain Clans, they were wild men of the high slopes, who lived for slaughter and nothing else.
Perhaps it was the plunder they took that made their contstant raids worthwhile, but more likely it was the bloody lure of battle that attracted them to conflict. Mounted on their fearsome snow-white bear mounts, bloodstained axe and burning torch always in hand, the Ice Reavers went southwards, raiding all in their path.
They despoiled the fertile lands of the Valley Tribes, left piles of corpses rotting in the blazing sun of the Desert Kindred’s home, and fed the gigantic insects and carrion lizards of the teeming jungles with their slain enemies.
Each Ice Reaver had the pale skin and nearly white hair of their tribe, and was armed with their distinctive weapons, crude yet brutally serviceable. Curved sabers, wide-bladed spears, axes with serrated edges glittered in the cold mountain sun as the Ice Reavers pounded to the middle of the village.
Of all the Ice Reavers, no chieftain was more widely feared than Virskin Frostblood. One of his long curved blades was named Head-Taker, and the second was known as Gut-Ripper, and they had more than lived up to their bloody names. In every battle, Virskin Frostblood was first into the fray. Until his last opponent’s head had had been severed from their shoulders in a bloody spurt, Frostblood fought with such a maniacal ferocity that one could be forgiven for thinking that ice flowed in his veins.
Many believed he was not human but some strange fiend born of an avalanche and raised in a snowstorm. Mercy was a concept he had never explored, as evidenced by the skull piles left by his raiding bands. As was the way of the Ice Reavers, he won his rank by bloodshed and kept it the same way. None dared challenge him, and they hearkened to his command like loyal hounds.
The Ice Reavers rode into the center of the Mountain Clan’s village, and there they stopped. The children ceased their merry games, the parents their work. All eyes fell on Virskin. They had heard tell of his legend, and they knew well the fate that would befall them if Virskin Frostblood so ordered it.
“Culpug, called Cavelord!” Virskin shouted. “I have business with you! Show yourself!”
Culpug the Cavelord emerged from the mouth of the cavern. He stood tall even for a Mountain Man, dressed in comfortable homespun trousers and shirt with a good fur cloak on his shoulder. He had thick curly hair and an unkempt beard. Though no weapons graced his form, it was clear that he had the muscles necessary to wield them. A raven-haired woman with an infant cradled to her breast, and a small curly-haired boy stood next to Culpug.
Slowly, Culpug looked up at Virskin Frostblood. His lips curled back. “You ride into my village with blade drawn and wish me to welcome you? Lor preserve us, you are a foolish one.”
The Ice Reavers bristled at the insult. They stared at Virskin, expecting a swift beheading from the long-bladed spear, or perhaps a gruesome wound that would give the upstart Mountain Clansman an agonizing death. But Culpug’s insult went unchallenged. Virskin Frostblood leapt from the saddle of his cave bear and stood before Culpug
“I will to speak with you, Culpug. Send your brats and your women away and we will talk as men.” Virskin touched the bone handle of one of his blades. “You must know who I am, and I know who you are. You would be wise to follow my commands.”
“What do you know of me?” Culpug asked. “As for my family, they are more important to me than anything! Speak your piece, Reaver, but show them the respect that they deserve.”
Virskin extended a small nod. “O Culpug, called Cavelord, I have heard much about your glories. I have heard of how on a journey through the decadent Valley, you single-handedly destroyed the empire of Ju’ak the Grainlord. My Reavers had raided Ju’ak before, but it you wiped that fat cretin from the earth with nothing but your own weapons!
“You were the one who battled the Atlanteans, who destroyed their drones and defeated their flying God-Leader in single combat! And in a recent excursion to Irem, the cursed desert city, you laid waste to the Cult of the Vulture and reduced the Church of the One True God to rubble!” Virskin bowed low to Culpug. “I am a devotee of destruction, and you have done more than I!”
Culpug stared at the white-skinned warrior before him. “In those times, I killed to protect the ones I love. And I had much help.” Culpug looked up and motioned for his friends to join him. “Slicktar Speartoss, sharpest eyes on the mountain. And Ulk the Unwashed, whose strength is matched only by his smell. They stood with me, as did many other warriors.”
At their mention, Slicktar and Ulk stepped forward. Slicktar was a thin man with blonde hair down his shoulders, a quiver of javelins on his back and a belt jangling with throwing knives. Ulk the Unwashed was a burly man with a rank red moustache and tangled hair, wielding an immense ivory-bladed axe. He snarled at Virskin and gripped his weapon.
“I think you picked the wrong Clan to raid, Ice Worm!” Ulk the Unwashed growled, waving his axe. “Maybe I should spill some red on that white hide of yours!”
Virskin did not rise to the insult. “True, you have had help,” he agreed. “But I know you have the soul of a true warrior in you. Because I was at Snowtop Hill.”
Culpug shivered as if a cold wind ran through his frame. He stared hard at Virskin Frostblood.
“Snowtop Hill?” Culpug’s wife asked, touching her husband’s shoulder. “What was that?”
“A battle, in one of the countless wars between the Mountain Clans and the Valley Tribes. As nameless as it was pointless.”
“Aye, Culpug.” Virskin grinned. “The Ice Reavers sent men to respect the Mountain and defend her in battle, but we soon learned more profitable victories could be made in raiding. I was but a youth, untested in battle, and Snowtop Hill was where and when I first shed blood.”
“And a loathsome time that must have been.” Culpug shook his head. “It was butchery.”
“I remember.” Virskin stared up into the grey sky. “The Valley Tribe turned their bountiful harvest into coin, and their coin into legion upon legion of Desert Kindred mercenaries. Their barbed shafts filled the sky and poured down on us like a jungle rain before even the longest spear could reach the enemy’s shields. Our hundreds became dozens.”
Culpug looked away from Virskin and clasped his hands, his eyes glowing with memory.
“But when the Valley Tribes charged,” continued Virskin, “their ornate armor shimmering, their lizard pets shrieking and roaring for flesh, Culpug the Cavelord stood tall. His skin was pierced with arrows, his comrades dead around him, but his own spear ready for the taking of lives.”
Virskin sighed in delight. “I was but a sniveling youth, hiding under the bodies of other Ice Reavers. But when then I saw Culpug slay a reptilian monster with his thrown spear and draw his twin sickle knives, I took heart. We fought on. Many shields were splintered and beasts and men died, but at the end, the day was ours.” Virskin turned to Culpug and bowed. “Because of Culpug the Cavelord.”
“That wretched day belonged to no one!” Culpug shouted. “Mountains crumble! Are you still the naïve whelp that cowered at Snowtop Hill! I take no pleasure in killing, and by Lor himself that is the way it should be! There is nothing joyful in slaughter! When I do kill, it is because I have no choice, or my anger, the bane of my nature, has taken control of me!”
The Cavelord stepped forward and faced Virskin, standing a head shorter than the great Ice Reaver. “Tell me now, why have you come?”
Virskin Frostblood grinned. “The sagas tell of your deeds, Culpug, whether you want them to or not. I was considering asking you to join me and my Reavers, but now I think you would not accept.”
“True,” Culpug muttered.
“No, I can think of a better final entry for Culpug the Cavelord in the great sagas.” Virskin’s grin seemed to grow several inches. “The mightiest warrior of the mountains, the mightiest in the world, slain in glorious combat by Virskin Frostblood.”
Culpug’s wife and son gasped. Culpug’s boy stepped in front of his father, and his wife grabbed his shoulder. Culpug spoke softly to them, and they stepped away. He stood in front Virskin Frostblood. “Why would I agree to your ridiculous challenge?”
“I have ways.” Virskin drew one of his curved swords so that it caught the sunlight. “Turvold Bloodaxe! Dismount with your men!”
At Virskin’s words, a burly Ice Reaver leapt off of his cave bear. His wide shoulders, long unkempt hair and beard, and massive muscles bore testament to his awesome strength. He carried a large double-edged war axe in his hand. Five other Ice Reavers, each armed and lusting for a fight, stood with him.
“What are your orders, my lord?” Turvold Bloodaxe asked, his voice sounding like grinding metal.
“You and your warband, kill his boy and his baby. Do what you will with his woman.” Virskin stepped backwards as his Ice Reavers moved forward. “Well, Cavelord. Let’s see if you’ve still got it in you.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Turvold said darkly. “She is pretty.”He and his men stepped forward. He towered over Culpug, and he reached his hand back to draw his axe. “We’ll keep her alive, for a while.”
Culpug sank to his knees and then leapt up, slamming his head into Turvold’s chest and doubling over the muscled Ice Reaver. Driving his knee into Turvold’s face, Culpug splintered teeth and bone, before another sword-wielding Ice warrior swung his blade at Culpug.
The Cavelord ducked the blow and then grabbed the Reaver’s sword arm and held fast. Gritting his teeth, Culpug pushed the Reaver’s sword arm backwards, forcing the serrated blade into his gaping mouth, until his own blade had been driven straight through his head. The body collapsed to the snowy ground.
Virskin Frostblood raised an eyebrow at the bloody corpse. Turvold and his warband were frozen in place. “Go on,” Virskin commanded.
“Culpug!” bellowed Slicktar Speartoss, hefting a sturdy wooden pike. He hurled the weapon towards the Cavelord, and Culpug grabbed the handle. The Cavelord held his spear at the ready, and then rammed it through the chest of an incoming Ice Reaver, slaying the man instantly. A bearded warrior with a spiked mace came at Culpug from behind, but Culpug swung his spear round, the dying Ice Reaver still impaled on it, and slammed the dying man into his living comrade.
“Mountains crumble!” Culpug cried, using his foot to free his spear, dispatched the club-wielding Ice Reaver with a single thrust to the throat. “How many must I slay?”
“You will slay no more,” Turvold Bloodaxe shouted, coming to his feet and holding his axe high. He gestured to two survivors of his warband. “Together! Finish him!”
One of the Ice Reavers hurled a spear while the other charged, twin tomahawks swishing through the air as he advanced. Culpug leapt away from the flying spear and threw his own weapon, wedging it in the Ice Reaver’s chest and dealing him his death-wound.
The final survivor of Turvold Bloodaxe’s warband hurled one of his tomahawks, but Culpug grabbed the spinning axe by the handle and brought it down on the Ice Reaver’s skull. Culpug had little time to savor his victory before Turvold Bloodaxe was on him.
“Those were my men!” Turvold cried, swinging his great axe at Culpug’s exposed neck.
The nimble Mountain Man ducked the blow. “Now they belong to the vultures!” He was about to drive the tomahawk into Turvold’s exposed throat, but Virskin’s lieutenant struck Culpug with his axe handle, forcing the Cavelord to the ground. Turvold pushed his axe towards Culpug’s neck, forcing back the Mountain Clansman’s strong arms.
Virskin sighed. “Alas, Culpug. I expected better from you.”
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Panush