Culpug the Cavelord and the Ice Reavers

Michael Panush

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 contrasting 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 ride into the center of the Mountain Clan's village, and there he 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 in 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, 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 me!"

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 one 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."

"You didn't count on Culpug's greatest strength!"Ulk the Unwashed shouted as he ran to Culpug's side, his great ivory axe already swinging. "His choice in friends!" He swung at Turvold's neck, and sent the Ice Reaver's head flying from its shoulders. Spurting blood, it landed at Virskin Frostblood's feet.

Virskin stared at the severed head. "Hmmm," he said, pursing his lips. "Perhaps you do have something of the warrior who stood unbowed at Snowtop Hill, though family life has softened you." He offered a hand to help Culpug to his feet, but the Cavelord, covered in Turvold's gore, refused.

"Now will you leave us in peace?" Culpug demanded. "Surely, there are more glorious deeds for you to do than bother an old man, his boy, his babe, and his wife?"

"I think not." Virskin stared at the Mountain Clan village with a wolf's eyes. He raised his voice, so that all could hear him. "Heed my words, Culpug called Cavelord! There is a field not far from your village, a canyon now full of ice. My warriors and I will meet you there tonight at moonrise, and I will fight and kill you." He ignored Culpug's snarl. "If you do not chose to come, we will ride into your village and slaughter your people until the last squalling infant falls silent." He turned away from Culpug, his heels kicking up snow. "See you there."

After the last white bear had trundled out of the village, Culpug sat on the ground and stared at the snowy mountains. The villagers sent their children inside and gathered their weapons. Everyone waited on Culpug's words. The Cavelord's wife, dark haired Mayna, quickly sent their son, nervous Urven, inside with the baby. She sat next to her husband. They watched as Ulk dragged the bodies away from the village, where mountain scavengers would make short work of them.

Mayna did not speak for some time. "Culpug," she finally said. "I have never asked you about the violence that you do. I heard Urven speak of the battles you fought during your trip through the valley, and your trip to Irem, and I know that Ulk and Slicktar do not boast falsely of your bravery in combat." She placed her hand on his shoulder. "And that is because I know you are much more than just a murderous brute. I love you, Culpug, and I know you never fight when there are other ways."

Culpug looked at Mayna with shining eyes. "Thank you, my love. Tonight, when I battle the wicked Frostblood, I will know that I go to my grave a valiant and just man."

"But you shall win!" Mayna cried. "You can defeat Virskin, I know you can."

"But by Lor, he will not let me." Culpug frowned. "No. Virskin Frostblood, for all of his glory-seeking, is a coward. He will meet me with his men, and at a nod of his head, I will be filled with arrows and spears, and then he will cut me down." He stroked his beard. "But if I do not go, then the whole village will die. For Urven, and our daughter, and for you, I would gladly give my life."

"Lor's Beard, Culpug! You speak as if a death for you or death for the Mountain Clan are the only two options!" Culpug looked up to see Ulk the Unwashed, his axe on his shoulder, standing in front of him.

Slicktar Speartoss was at Ulk's side, a spear in his hand. "We stand with you, Culpug. All the fighting men of the Clan will be at your side."

"I won't have you throw your lives away because of me!" Culpug protested.

"Who said anything about throwing our lives away?" Ulk chuckled. "You're not the only one in the Clan who can swing an axe or toss a spear. We'll fight and I'll look forward to taking a few heads off of those smug Ice Reavers!"

"But if Virskin sees an army instead of just one man, he'll order his Reavers to destroy our village," Culpug said, deep in thought. "So we'll need to fool him…"

"Can be done, can be done!" said Ulk the Unwashed, patting Culpug on the shoulder. "If there's one thing old lily-skinned Frostblood is, he's stupid as an inbred goat baby! Want to know how I know that?" He elbowed Slicktar and grinned ruefully.

Slicktar sighed. "How do you know that?"

"Well, he picked a fight with us, didn't he?!"

As the full moon began to glow over the snowy mountains, Virskin Frostblood and the Ice Reavers moved to the appointed location. They were a little late, but Virskin didn't mind. If Culpug the Cavelord had to wait a little before being butchered, it was of no concern.

The Ice Reavers directed their massive bear mounts onto the snow-filled canyon. The snow was packed loosely into the canyon, providing uneasy footing in some places, but allowing for a wide open field that would be a perfect place for single combat. The cave bears treaded out into the snow, standing in neat formation. Virskin sat high on the back of his bear, his wide-bladed lance held high. He looked out onto the snow and smiled.

Culpug the Cavelord stood before him, alone in the snowy field. Culpug held his spear in one hand, and a pair of curved sickle blades rested in his belt. His feet were in the wide fighting stance, the right foot next to a brown branch that peeked out through the snow.

"Cavelord!" Virskin cried, walking his bear away from his assembled warriors. "I half expected you not to come!"

"I came, Frostblood," Culpug shouted back. "Now, let us earn our places in the sagas."

Virskin smiled wolfishly. "Indeed. Though, alas for you. They will sing that will know that Culpug the Cavelord was killed in a fair fight." He kicked the bear's side, and the great beast ran for Culpug with a roar rumbling out of its throat.

Culpug showed the smallest of smiles before he tapped the branch near his foot with his spear butt. The branch moved through the snow and pushed itself out. It was not a branch at all, but a trunk -- a trunk belonging to a mighty mammoth. As the mammoth reared out of the snow where it had burrowed and hid, Culpug grabbed onto its furry side and clambered onto the mammoth's back. He pointed his spear at the surprised Virskin, shouting a prayer to Lor as his mammoth charged.

"This is Reliable!" Culpug shouted, holding onto the mammoth. "You can see why I call him that!" The mammoth and cave bear clashed, tusk smashing bone and long claws raking the mammoth's flank. The two animals tumbled onto each other with roars and trumpets, while their riders engaged in their own death struggle. Culpug felt the blade of Virskin's spear slash through his homespun shirt and draw blood, just as his own spear warded off the blow and scratched Virskin's side. The two scrambled nimbly atop their mounts, swinging their pole arms as the bear and mammoth churned up snow in their own brutal combat. Finally, just as Virskin's cave bear dealt Reliable a cruel slash to the mammoth's soft underbelly, the pale skinned Ice Reaver stabbed his battle lance into Culpug's shoulder and the blade stuck.

"Hah!" Virskin cried. "I have you now!"

Culpug tore out the long-bladed spear from his shoulder and tossed it away. With eyes closed from pain, Culpug stabbed his spear into the cave bear's chest with all of his might. The monstrous white bear reared up. Reliable saw his chance. The mammoth slammed his tusks into the bear, knocking the beast over and sending Virskin Frostblood sprawling in the snow. Reliable raised his foot over the cavebear's head, and with a crunching of bone and one mournful cry from the great bear, Virskin's mount was no more.

"You cheated!" Virskin cried petulantly. "Kill him and his elephant!"

At Virskin's words, the Ice Reavers grabbed spears and notched bows, but before they could fire a single salvo against Culpug, the men of the Mountain Clan were on them. The Mountain Clansmen came from behind and the sides, striking from their hiding places in the rocks and trees. They hit the Ice Reavers with a withering barrage of arrows and javelins that tore into man and bear. Before the Reavers could assemble into battle formations, the Men of the Mountain charged.

Slicktar Speartoss hurled a javelin as he ran, skewering an Ice Reaver through the man's horned helmet. Slicktar's second spear sunk down the throat of a roaring cave bear, killing the beast in seconds. The other Mountain Clansmen proved themselves fine marksmen, but it was with the blade and fist that this battle was to be decided. Ulk the Unwashed faced down a ferocious bear, and as the beast and rider ran towards him, Ulk decapitated the bear with one stroke, and slew the Ice Reaver on top with a similar sweeping axe blow.

The Ice Reavers proved their reputation as merciless raiders, hacking away at the Mountain Clansmen and leaving many dead in the snow. The Ice Reavers were not used to fighting a defensive battle, and their pale hides felt the bites of many axes and spear points. Soon, they were fighting from behind the corpses of their cave bears and fellow Ice Reavers, struggling to their last gulping breaths against the tenacious Mountain Warriors.

Virskin stared at the destruction of his men, disbelief in his eyes. He turned to Culpug, and drew Head-Taker and Gut-Ripper. Culpug was bleeding from the shoulder and weak on his feet. Virskin Frostblood's long scimitars gave him more reach than Culpug's sickle blades. "This is Head-Taker!" Virskin shouted, waving his sword. "And this is Gut-Ripper! I will show you how they got their names!"

He sprang on Culpug, dealing the Mountain Warrior a good slash across the chest before Culpug drew both his sickle blades and parried. Culpug took a deep ragged breath and then the battle was joined. It was the epic combat Virskin had longed for ever since Snowtop Hill. His blood flowed hot through his body as he and Culpug hacked into each other, taking wounds almost as much as they blocked. They battled across the snow field, and Virskin hardly noticed that one of Culpug's sickle blades had stabbed through his arm, becoming wedged between bone and muscle. He stabbed at Culpug with his good arm, drawing blood and forcing the remaining sickle blade from Culpug's arms, before tearing the curved knife from his own flesh and tossed it away. Virskin dropped Gut-Ripper from his weakened grasp and slammed the handle of Head-Taker onto Culpug's skull. Before driving that blade into Culpug's leg, he grabbed the Cavelord's throat with both hands.

"Goodbye, Cavelord!" Virskin hissed as he strangled the life from Culpug. "The sagas will know I bested you!" He smiled as he Culpug struggled. "This is better than a quick death from a blade! More glory to my strength! More glory to my savagery!"

Culpug's eyes rolled back into his head. He forced his head up and rammed his skull into Virskin's face. He knocked back the Ice Reaver lord, and then came at him with his teeth barred. Culpug bit deeply into Virskin's throat, tearing through the jugular vein, spitting Virskin's hot blood into his face as the Ice Reaver coughed and sputtered. Culpug grabbed Head-Taker from the snow, and before his own wounds took him into the darkness, he used Virskin's weapon, which lived up to its name one last time.

Culpug awoke in his blanket strewn pallet, his family and friends gathered around him. He coughed until Mayna handed him a canteen, which he hastily drained before lying back and sighing. His cave was warm from a merry fire's glow, and though Ulk, Slicktar, and the other Mountain Clansmen bore some wounds, the gleam of victory was in their eyes.

"What happened?" Urven asked curiously, climbing onto the pallet to be embraced by his father. "How did you defeat the pale one?"

Culpug coughed and shook his head. Mayna understood the grim look in his eyes. "The sagas are full of the crash and roar of battle, and the endless savagery of the warriors that call the fields of war home. But when the combat is over, there is no glory to be taken from their terrible actions, and that is why Virskin fell. He should have known that even in the sagas, some things are best left unsaid," she told young Urven. "But our love for your father -- that is what matters more than a hundred victories."

And Culpug the Cavelord leaned back in his cot and was happy.

-The End-