Hetan sits astride his horse. Herds of durkhan span the horizon, many small knots of the animals, knots that will form into a massive migration as cooler seasons arrive.
He is the tallest of his tribe, his horse the tallest of its tribe. Three heads or so above all the others, he is the eyes of the hunt. When they approach the durkhan, he spots the vulnerable, the young, the outliers. His word is law to the others. To disobey is death, if not by a foaming durkhan, then later, by the tribe.
They are riding upwind, a leisurely approach to the herds, designed to spook as few animals as possible. Each has a bone knife and a hunting spear. The older among the hunt wear hard leather overcoats, made to deflect a durkhan tusk or a wayward spear.
Hetan alone wears a metal sword. A gift. It will not be useful in the hunt, at least not often, but he never rides without it. He has named it Caution, for many reasons, but mainly because a great weapon deserves a sublime name.
They move slowly, deliberately through the tall plain grasses, the horses picking their way around scrub brush. This is the calm that comes before.
There is something odd about this calm, though, something unnatural. The herds should be sensing something, should be massing together to protect the young. Instead the herds are simply grazing, heads down, tails flicking back and forth.
Then Hetan sees it. A man, perhaps. Walking in the midst of the durkhan. Simply walking.
Hetan holds up a hand and the hunt stops. “I see,” he says, his voice low, “something.”
“Something?” one of his hunters repeats.
“A man by appearance,” Hetan says. “Walking through the herds.”
“Then no man by nature,” says Yemid, one of the oldest among them. “The herds would panic.”
Hetan nods. “Yet…” his voice trails off. “I know this man, whatever he is.”
“I do not know. But I will ride to meet him.”
“You are our eyes,” Yemid says. He will not tell Hetan what to do, but he will remind him of his place.
“Nevertheless,” Hetan says.
He breaks from the hunt and rides, alone, toward the figure, towards the herds. He is as naked as a hunter can be, stripped of his companions, vulnerable on the plain. Hetan can see the man now, dark-skinned, tall, and dressed in chain mail. Of all the useless things to be wearing on the plains. Chain mail. Hetan snorts involuntarily. Foolish. But the herds do not hear him. The man, however does.
“I was clothed in these when I died,” he says. And though he is still far away, his words are clear, as if he is riding right beside Hetan. “It amuses me to wear them, sometimes.”
“You have the Tongue,” Hetan says.
“Yes, and the Ears, as it turns out,” says the man. “And you have the Eyes.”
“It was a gift.”
“Yes,” the man says, standing still, facing the rider, still some distance away. “I gave it to you.”
“Then you are…”
“Again. Yes. Demeg Amalen, as your fathers might say. Tip of the Spear. Or Chaelder, in the language of the Frelish. The Helm. And quite a few more, some even I dare not speak.”
Hetan is approaching the man, and realises what he already knew. This is not a man. Not of any kind he has ever met. This is a god. For his tribe, for his nation, this is the god. Amelen, the Spear. God of war.
He dismounts, drops the reins. Kneels at the feet of his god. Who kicks him in the head.
“That’s not really needed,” Amalen says. “Stand up. I have a message.”
Hetan rubs his head. No blood. Good. But still, undignified.
“I’m not much for all the pleasantries of godhood,” Amalen says. “I’ve come to tell you something.”
“To tell me something?” Hetan knows this will be considered a great honor, but with a sore head and a distinct sense of his lack of dignity, he is more annoyed than anything.
“Yes. These herds. Get away from them as quickly as possible.”
Hetan shakes his head. “The tribe must eat.”
Amalen rolls his eyes. “Stubborn. Great. Eat something else. Something small, something that won’t be noticed, something very, very far away from here.”
“And why must we starve?” Hetan asks, indignant now. “What great sin have we done that we are cast out of our lands?”
“Listen to me, barbarian. You have spilled much blood in my name, supposedly for me, and I’m here to answer the prayers you have yet to pray. The prayers that you assuredly will pray if you stay in this place. That herd you are going to prey on? It is no herd. It has never been. Every year this herd disappears, did you ever notice that? Did you follow its tracks to see them diminish until they were nothing but a pair of human footprint?”
“In the winter months we eat from the salted stores or set traps,” Hetan says. “There is no need to follow the herd. It would be a senseless slaughter.”
“And he knows that. Oh yes, he’s willing to sacrifice a bit of himself, those young or deformed, anything you can catch. He know you won’t kill all of him, he know you are almost alone among the people of the world who won’t kill all of him, and so he comes here. Do you know why? He comes here to hide. From us. He hides from the gods!”
Hetan is confused. “He? Who is he?”
“One of the first heroes, Hetan. One of the Great Ones. A power so immense he might even seek to dethrone the gods. He is a man, but he is also the durkhan. Many lifetimes ago he found a way in, he found a way to meld himself to the herds, to become so many animals at will. The ritual… ah, that ritual scoured this plain clean. Did you know this delightful meadow was a range of mountains? He moved the mountains. Do you understand now?”
“We have been devouring the flesh of a man?” Hetan steps back, horrified.
“The flesh of man, the flesh of a beast, is it so different? No matter. We have found him now. We have found him and we are going to chain him to the heart of the mountain that still beats under this plain. And when we do that, we may indeed find a range of mountain here again.”
“I begin to understand, then,” Hetan says. “You seek to warn us.”
“You will probably die,” the god replies. “You will probably all die in this chaining. But it must be done. He must be… put down.”
“Because he challenges you?” Hetan says, beginning to think the gods are as selfish as their legends tell. “You fear the durkhan?”
“Because he challenges everything. He has been melded, his soul has been joined to the soul of an animal for many thousands of years. How sane do you think he might be? Every year his flesh bursts forth into a thousand, a hundred thousand durkhan. Incredible, mindless pain. Did he know how much agony he would see, century after century? If so, can you imagine how desperate a creature he must have been? To forge such a profane ritual. Insanity. Or if not, can you imagine how desperate he is to escape? His power grows with each year. The herds grow. Even I can feel it now, and I am not among the most… receptive of the gods. And where do you think he’ll go to escape his torment? Not to the halls of the dead, no, anywhere but there. He’ll go up. And you know what’s directly above him? Me.”
Ah, Hetan thinks. “This is about position. You chain him to the earth so that you may rest on your ass in whatever realm you call home while my people leave their lands, perhaps to die?”
“You have no idea!” Amelen roars. “No idea what will happen if a beast ascends the throne of war! Everything will be lost. Everything. He… it will lay waste to the dreams of every man. He will not lose his torment, no, not at all.” The god lifts up his chain mail, revealing a gash across his torso. It oozes blood and fluids. It looks… raw. “I have lived with the pain of this wound for every single one of what passes for days in my realm. Every single one. It’s a wonder I’m sane. Perhaps,” he says, “I’m not.”
There is a moment of silence. Hetan does not know what to say to this.
“There is no time left for choices, barbarian. No more time to take stock and make decisions. The gods are as one. We will chain them all. Every single Great One. All the champions. All the heroes. All the swords. We will chain them as far down as we can push their miserable, undying corpses, and we’ll throw away the key.”
“And then you’ll turn away,” Hetan says. It has been revealed. He knows the ending to this story. The great warleader conquers every foe and goes home to die. But gods do not die. Or perhaps they do, but first they turn away.
Amalen’s eyes widen. “You have discovered the plot, then,” he says. “Yes. We will turn away. You will be better without us. No blessings, but no curses. You will, I think, become your own gods of war. Congratulations. None of you prayed for this. But you are given it anyways. It is done. Now, leave. I will protect you on your way back to your tribe.”
With that, Demeg Amalen, the Tip of the Spear, is gone. Not so much as a rustle in his wake.
The herds still haven’t sniffed Hetan out. They can’t hear his footsteps, he realises. They don’t know what is about to happen. To them.
He looks at one grazing, picking at choice bits of green. Its tusks can tear a man open, leave him empty and dying on the plain. He looks into the durkhan’s eyes, but can’t see anything. The dull eyes of a beast.
Before long, he is riding away. Back to the tribe, to convince them to leave the plains that had once been mountains. To convince them that they would be mountains again. To convince them, and perhaps to die.