The noontide sun gleamed off Hrothgar the Northman's rippling thews, and his shaggy mane of golden hair shone. The cheap tunic he wore could not conceal the hard, rangy lines of his frame as he stood astride the path through the narrow pass he had made his own.
Voices reached his ears; ears that, although attuned to the clash and clangor of battle, had never been deafened by the clatter and bustle of what men called civilization and so remained alert to the slightest threat: the padded footfall of the wolf, or the quiet hiss of a blade drawn from its sheath. But these were careless voices, chattering and laughing, heedless of the peril that loomed before them in the barbarian's mighty person. His grip tightened upon the hilts of the sword which he held before him, its point resting upon the stony earth; and his nostrils flared in fierce anticipation.
Up the slope before him they came: Two youths walking side by side. The one was tall and well-built, ruddy-haired and vigorous, and presented to the eye a strong aspect. Before any man other than he who now regarded him, he would seem a force to be reckoned with. The other was short, slender, and fair; and although quick of movement and bright of eye was obviously of small account. He was forced to trot to keep the pace set by his larger companion. The twain were but lightly armed and unarmored.
They interrupted their chatter to eye him curiously from time to time as they approached, but neither slackened their pace nor sought to avoid him. When they drew so near the whites of their eyes could be discerned, the barbarian spoke. "Halt, strangers!" he roared. "You are bidden to stand and deliver at the word of I, Hrothgar the Northman!"
The pair advanced a few paces further before stopping. The smaller one, his black hair braided into a queue that fell to his thighs, shifted his outlandish-looking sword from back to hip, but otherwise seemed more amused than affrighted. "That's 'me, Hrothgar.'"
"That should be 'me, Hrothgar' not 'I, Hrothgar. See, 'I' is the nominative case, but with the preposition you want the accusative there, so―"
"I am not here to bandy words!" Hrothgar bellowed. "I am here to receive my due from those who travel here, I who am master of this pass!"
The larger one laughed aloud, then remarked to his companion, "We've seen this bit before, haven't we?" Addressing the barbarian he said, "I used to be in this line of work myself, and I have to tell you this isn't the best place for it. There are lots of passes over these hills. Someone wants to avoid you, he won't have to go more than a couple of miles out of his way."
"Nevertheless," declared Hrothgar resolutely, "this place have I chosen. Long have I believed that one day I would descend from my bleak homeland to the fat countries of the south, there to tread their jeweled thrones under my sandaled feet. Here I make my beginning!"
"Jeweled thrones?" The larger asked of the smaller, "Does your dad have a jeweled throne?"
"That cheap bastard? If he did, he'd have sold the jewels off it years ago. I don't think anyone wastes jewels on thrones though. Not even the Emperor's throne is jeweled. Sometimes they have gold leaf, but―"
"You weak southerners," the barbarian growled threateningly. "Think not that your endless talk will spare your purses, or failing that your hides."
"That's not very nice," said the smaller. "I'm not a southerner."
"Kit, this is stupid," said the larger. "Let's kick his ass and get going."
The one called "Kit" regarded Hrothgar with an appraising eye, from his bull-like neck and powerful shoulders down to his rugged feet. "All right. I'll start."
He stepped forth, his naked sword suddenly in his hand. The cheerful aspect disappeared from his countenance, and his sneer was palpably insolent. "You'll get nothing from us, you filthy coward!" he cried.
With an enraged roar, the barbarian raised his great sword and charged. The clash of their blades echoed among the green hills like thunder, and there erupted a shower of sparks so violent that it could be seen even under the mid-day sun. Kit sheathed his sword at the completion of his stroke, but a large metal shard sailed into the air to land some distance up the path.
Hrothgar's eyes bulged with shock as he stared at the minuscule fragment of the heavy blade that still protruded from the hilts. No jagged edge spoke of tortured and shattered metal; it had been sheared clean through. "Deathbringer!" he cried in anguish.
To his further dismay, both youths burst out laughing. "How dare you!" he hissed through clenched teeth.
"Oh, come on!" declared Kit, having resumed his careless manner. "It's a totally pointless name. Bringing death is what a sword is for. They all do that. If you have to be dramatic about the thing, show some style at least. Like 'Widowmaker.'"
"Or 'Skullcleaver,'" chimed in the other.
"Nice one, Tam. Very poetic."
"Enough!" Hrothgar's pale blue eyes burned with an icy rage, and he cast aside the remnant of his weapon. "I'll rend you to pieces!"
He lunged at Kit, his fingers curled like the claws of a great gray wolf of the North, ready to seize and tear. But Kit was somehow not there to be seized and torn. Hrothgar felt naught but a light tug at his wrist and touch at his flank before he found himself badly overbalanced. He pitched forward and landed sprawling, face-down, and tasting dust. Trembling with rage, the veins on his corded neck and square forehead throbbing nigh to bursting, he raised himself to his feet and spun, ready to spring.
"Your turn, Tam."
"It wouldn't be very instructive for me, but you could use the practice. We hardly ever run into any legitimate targets bigger than you, but I beat up guys bigger than me all the time."
"That's 'cause everyone's bigger than you."
Kit thrust forth his tongue by way of reply. "I've disarmed him, so you won't even have to kill him. But if you don't want to..." With lustful mien he looked Hrothgar over once more, his glance lingering especially upon the steel-thewed loins. "I wouldn't mind getting my hands on those great big muscles of his..." He trailed off languidly.
Bile rose in the barbarian's craw, his disgust almost overpowering his rage. This could not be borne! Red blossomed behind his eyes as he tensed to attack.
Tam rolled his eyes. "Have it your way." He strode casually forward, arms at his sides, hands spread. "Come on, meatbag. Bring it."
All the fury of the barbarian's warrior ancestry coursed through his fevered brain. Inarticulate, beyond words in this ultimate provocation, he pounced. Even as his knotted, horned fists connected again and again, his animal-like senses screamed of dire threat. Heeding them, he paused. His enemy still stood before him completely unaffected by the fearsome blows he had been dealt. Above his crazed smile, green eyes shone with a strange light.
The early afternoon sun beat down upon the mangled mass that was Hrothgar. His tattered, abused tunic exposed a great, mountainous chest, now slack with blossoming bruises that ran deep into the flesh. The golden mane was snarled, matted with blood and dirt. Despite the unnatural arrangement of his massive limbs he did not move them, for every strand of muscle in his towering frame had been pounded into an agonized immobility. The two travelers' voices drifted to his mashed ears as they went on their way.
"That was great, Tam. See what happens when you own that fire? It'll never take you over now, and you can do exactly what you want with it."
"Yeah, I think I can trust it now. I tell you though, it's the weirdest sensation."
"You'll get used to it. But don't forget about defense. You might not feel it, and it's not easy to hurt you when you're like that, but you're not invulnerable. I think you might even wake up with a bruise or two in the morning."
"I'll try to remember that. Say, Kit... you didn't really want him, did you?"
"Nah. Too lumpy. And did you see that hair? It made him look like a clown..." With that their voices became too distant for the barbarian's exhausted mind and senses to distinguish words.
Maybe, thought Hrothgar as he lay recovering, the weak southerners he'd heard tell of were just a little bit further south.