Dorrin and his companion Vess, a siren, walked along the roadside, surveying the worn faces around them. Dorrin rubbed his bald head, the gold rings piercing his ears glinted in the morning sun. His tall frame, lean and toned, was a contrast to those around him. He rested one hand on the hilt of his long sword even though knew these villagers were of no threat.
The spirits of these people were broken, their heads hung low. They were but shadows, lost and afraid. Dorrin smelled the fear on them like ale on a drunkard stretched across a tavern floor.
In the village center a group of men repaired a well, the only source of water. A small temple was missing its roof. Dead cattle fell where they’d been grazing; some had bites taken out of them. More groups of villagers dragged away the dead cattle---cows, goats, and sheep---while rounding up the live ones into makeshift corrals.
Dorrin noticed an enormous stone table in front of the temple, tipped onto its side. A pile of fruit and vegetables were on the ground in front of the table along with a half a dozen dead chickens. A young boy with ragged clothing and a dirty face walked towards Dorrin and Vess with one of the chickens in his arms, tears dampened his face as he mumbled something to the dead bird.
“Lad?” Dorrin stopped the boy as Vess kneeled beside him, maternal instincts rippled through her. “What has happened to your village?”
“Our God was angry at us again,” he answered between sniffles.
“What God is this?” Vess asked.
“The God of the Mountaintop.” The boy pointed at the cloud-capped peak looming over them.
“This is Mount Marrow,” Vess said. “No God lives on this mountain.”
“Ours does,” the boy continued. “When our offering isn’t right he breaks things and sometimes takes people and animals with him. We make all kinds of different offerings and he never likes any of them. This time father took Nona my pet chicken, killed her and put her on the offering table. God of the mountaintop was angry anyway and now my only friend is gone.”
“Sebastian,” a weary peasant woman called. “Leave the strangers alone.”
“Yes mother.” Sebastian ran to his mother’s waiting arms.
Dorrin turned approached the woman as Vess got to her feet. He bowed his head slowly. “You have a fine son. Noble and honest.”
“Thank you,” she said without a smile or particular interest in the tall, muscular man.
“We are travelers,” Dorrin continued. “Our journey takes us through many a mighty mountain range. At the base of Mount Marrow we find your village has been attacked, nearly destroyed. Your son tells a tale of an angry mountain God.”
“Please, forget our village and our burden or a horrid fate will befall you both.”
“We have seen many burdens but yours is quite strange and unjust.”
“He is an implacable God, fierce and angry. We have not yet understood his desires. We fail and deserve our fate. Each month on the night of the full moon we make an offering to the God. Each time we are wrong in pleasing him he goes into a fury and punishes us. For the next month we will seek a new offering. Perhaps a virgin.” She eyed Vess.
“No one deserves this fate,” Vess interjected. “How long has this been happening?”
“It began eight months ago. It was the first time he visited us, by the light of the full moon he came down from the mountain and showed himself to us…demanding offerings. He said he would keep returning until we showed proper homage.”
“Something is amiss here.” Vess turned to Dorrin.
“Agreed,” he said. “We will speak to your God and discover why he is displeased.”
“No!” A gruff male voice called.
Dorrin and Vess turned to find a crowd of men around them, holding bits and pieces of their village, faces worn and gaunt.
“It would be death to seek out the God of the mountaintop,” the red-haired man stepped in front of Sebastian and his mother. “No one dares set foot on that summit. Our God is all knowing…all seeing. He will discover your treachery and kill you. He is as tall as the great trees in the forest down below. He sees in front and behind at once. Not even an army could challenge him.”
“We have faced death many times my friend,” Dorrin said with a smile. “And we are both still here to tell the tales. All we want is to speak with him. Surely, any God would welcome that of us mere mortals.”
“I am unsure…our faith led us to this mountain many years ago. My ancestors have always worshiped at the foot of this Mountain. Their stories tell us of a great one that will come out of the mountain to guide us.”
“Your God is not guiding you,” Dorrin said. “He is destroying you. No God destroys his followers.”
“He is right!” A voice called from the crowd. Other voices began to follow. The small village gathered around the strangers, a hint of hope suddenly in their eyes.
“Let them at least try, my husband,” Sebastian’s mother placed her hands on the red-haired man’s shoulders. “We can be no worse off than we are now.”
“You may be right, Lillia.” He turned to Dorrin and Vess. “I am Tormas.”
“I am Dorrin and my companion is Vess. Fear not, we will find out why your God is so angered.”
“Bless you,” Tormas said with a half-smile. He bowed his head.
Dorrin looked around at the crowd and like an ocean wave watched relief wash over their faces. Even Sebastian smiled as if for the first time in his young life.
Vess took Dorrin’s hand and led him out of the crowd and to the slopes of the mountain. “One day your good deeds are going to get us killed.”
“Well, today is not that day. I thought you enjoyed a good mystery…gets your blood flowing?”
“We have no idea what dangers wait up there for us.”
“And there’s the mystery part. Vess, these people are being tormented. They need someone’s help.”
“Why does it always have to be us? So be it. Onward, do-gooder.”
Dorrin let out a belly laugh so hard he nearly split his britches. He turned to the villagers, unsheathed his sword, brought it to his chest and saluted.
Some of them clapped. Some of them wept. All eyes were on him.
“Show off,” Vess whispered.
The pair turned to the mountain and began their ascent.
The path that Dorrin and Vess took up the mountain was steep and covered with gravel. Boulders the shape of Troll teeth lined the edges. The higher they climbed the thinner and colder the air became. The sun rose high and reached its peak signaling that it was midday. They hoped to reach the top before dark, the way would be much more treacherous after nightfall.
The path soon twisted around the mountain in switchbacks. Vess looked briefly over the edge and averted her eyes. She swallowed air.
“Afraid of the height?” Dorrin laughed. “You? A siren most men would run screaming from?”
“We all have our limitations,” she shot him a sly gaze as the sun glimmered in her emerald eyes. “Now don’t we Dorrin?”
“Of course my lady. Just keep looking to the skies. Never mind the way down, it will come soon enough.”
As the path rose and fell, the pair discovered a flowing mountain spring nestled among a patch of flat ground and stopped to rest. Dorrin pulled a pouch from his leather belt and emptied it onto a rock. Vess joined him in some bread and fruit. They drank from the spring, enjoying the icy water. The water reminded Dorrin of the first time he saw Vess.
Dorrin had stowed away upon a brigand ship. After days and nights of sleeping, he was stirred by a violent storm that battered the ship in the dead of night.
It wasn’t the storm that roused his interest. Rising above the crashing thunder and howling winds he heard desperate screams and as hard as he tried, he could not turn his back on them.
Risking the wrath of the wretched seaborne thieves’, Dorrin stormed to the deck and witnessed a crowd of enraged men taunting a woman tied to a pole. Her raven locks danced in the wet winds, and her violet-hued skin radiated in the flashing lightning that ignited the horizon.
The men around her, brutish and savage, brandishing blades and sickles, gagged her and yelled: “Skin her alive! She is the enemy of men, a demoness! Skin her now!”
Deformed and scarred faces leered, toothless mouths drooled with delight, eyes burned with insanity as the crowd whipped into a frenzy and advanced on the helpless maiden.
“I do not believe the lady has stood trial,” Dorrin interrupted and before the brigands could react he leapt over them with acrobatic skill. Coming down behind them, Dorrin swept his sword under their feet and sent them on their backs.
A sudden wave of confusion seized the men and while they writhed, Dorrin cut the ropes from the woman and slung her over is shoulder. He climbed straight up the pole in the pounding rain and howling wind.
The woman thrashed and kicked her feet until Dorrin tore the gag from her mouth. She looked at him in shock before finding her voice again. “Are you mad?”
“Some have told me I am.”
“You are quite outnumbered. Why would you risk your life for me? I am a siren. All of your kind fear and hate me even though I have never used my songs against any man.”
“Twenty against one is not a fair fight.”
“Does twenty against two make it better?”
“You are quite a prize, I see. Would you rather I let them skin you?”
She laughed despite the seething crowd beneath them. Arrows and tridents whistled by their heads as their attention was drawn back to the situation at hand. “Do you have---” Strong winds ripped at them, threatening to toss them into the black sea. “An escape plan?”
“No…but I’m working on it.”
“Let me help.” She opened her ruby lips and began to sing. A song pierced the storm and reached into the night. Moments later a Roc burst out of the ebon clouds and scooped the two of them up. To the fury of the brigands they vanished into the night sky.
High in the mist and wind, they lifted above the storm in the claws of the Roc where the skies were calm. The siren leaned over and kissed Dorrin on the lips. Her lips tasted sweet and tickled his own.
“I am called Vess,” she said.
“And I am called enchanted. You are unlike anyone I have ever encountered.”
“Or will again, I’m sure.”
She was right. Dorrin had yet to meet a woman quite like Vess and from that night on they were inseparable. He wouldn’t have it any other way. She set his blood afire and energized his spirit and every time they touched, it was magic.
“You’re staring again,” Vess said as she bent to the spring and drew more water to her lips by hand.
“Forgive me. I never tire of soaking in your beauty.”
“You have a one track mind my sweet man.” Vess walked to Dorrin and climbed into his lap. They kissed and gooseflesh rippled across the small of his back. Her kisses never failed to inspire a new reaction in him. As he closed his eyes to enjoy her touch, a crackle of falling rock caught his attention.
“Vess, I think we…”
Before he could finish his thought a massive wolf lunged down upon them. Its fur was the color of charcoal, its yellow eyes were inflamed, and its claws were as long and sharp as daggers. It crashed into the pair, collapsing them to the ground. With a snarl it swatted at Vess but the siren managed to roll out the way, tumbling against some boulders.
Dorrin reached for his sword but the wolf was quick and on top of him in seconds. It pinned the swordsman down and lashed across his chest and shoulders. Scarlet streamed the air as the beast’s jaws widened and drool pooled into Dorrin’s face.
“A song would be nice right now!” Dorrin managed to holler above the wolf’s barks.
Vess shook her head and got to her feet. She parted her lips and began to sing; a melodic sound filled the air.
“It’s not a male!” Vess suddenly realized and grabbed the nearest stone from the ground.
“Blast!” Dorrin called while using his bare hands to hold the beast’s jaws inches away from his face. The weight of the creature threatened to crush his ribcage, the pain splintered through Dorrin, he gasped for air and through blurred vision saw Vess behind the wolf, her arms above her head.
The beast was smart as well as strong. It kicked with its rear legs and hit Vess in the solar plexus. The rock plummeted from her hands and she soared backwards. The wolf turned and seethed, preparing to lunge on her.
It crouched to jump when Dorrin sat up, grabbed hold of Vess’s lost rock and swung hard.
A great shriek escaped the dark wolf and it fell onto its side. A gush of blood poured from its head. Dorrin rushed to his feet and retrieved his sword and without delay plunged it deep into the animal’s chest. It howled with a baleful echo and went still.
Dorrin turned to see Vess recovering, wiping the dirt from her face and leather bodice. “Are you alright?”
“Never better.” Her eyes widened. “You’re hurt.”
“A flesh wound,” he mused wiping his bloodied hands on his sleeveless vest.
“Yes and I’m a descendant from royalty. Remain still.” She placed her hands gently on his bleeding wounds and sang softly. The bleeding stopped and the scratches all but faded from his skin. “There, they’ll be gone by nightfall.”
“You’re too good to me.” He put his hand on her shoulder, his palm was blistered from wielding his sword; his skin was dry and cracked.
“Not so. Your good deeds know no bounds. You save strangers, you relieve villages of their plights, stop injustice and protect the weak. My fate was sealed until you happened by chance to be aboard that ship. Why are you so driven? When so many choose to turn their backs…”
“That is why. Because so many turn their backs. Once I was weak, I was defenseless. When I was but a boy not much older than the one we met in that village, a tribe of flesh-eaters caught me alone in the forest of my homeland. They beat me, broke my leg and were about to devour me when a champion rode them down. He slew them all and took their heads. He mended my leg and brought me home. I never knew who he was, this fair-haired man upon a black stallion, and I was never able to thank him but this is my way of doing just that. I carry on his work because someone must. This world needs it.”
“You never told me that story.”
“I didn’t think you’d be interested.”
“It’s more than interesting. It’s captivating. You have a creed not many would adhere to. You are a rare man.”
“So I am told. The wolf means we are close.” He changed the subject. “It is connected to this would be God. I can feel it in my blood. We must get to the bottom of this and end it soon.”
Dorrin began up the mountain again as Vess trailed behind. She could not take her eyes off him. “If the wolf’s death is discovered many will suffer. There’s no time to waste. Let’s keep moving.”
They increased their climb and pushed onward without further rest.
A thunderous rumble rocked the mountain. Dorrin and Vess looked up and saw the peak shake. Suddenly a roar pealed through the air as rocks of every shape and size rolled down the mountainside.
The avalanche came down at full force. The vibration nearly sent the two of them off their feet. Dorrin acted swiftly and took Vess into his arms. He leapt into the air with her in tow. A second roar followed by dwindling laughter rose above the rockslide, catching Dorrin’s attention.
Dorrin flipped through the air and sailed over the army of rocks that crashed by, but the biggest of them were still to come. He held Vess tight in his left arm and drew his long sword with his right. His legs snapped together and straightened as he aimed for the edge of the cliff.
The pair went right over the edge of the trail while the tumbling boulders passed by. They fell into a gnarled tree with ancient branches and Dorrin used his sword to catch onto a limb and brace them from falling. Rock dust clouded the air and, dirt sprinkled their bodies like volcanic ash. A thick pasty taste hung in Dorrin’s mouth. Vess sneezed. Even the sound of that was music to Dorrin’s ears.
“We must be getting close,” Vess said.
“It seems so. The God must not be in the mood for guests today. How inhospitable of him. Did you hear the roars and laughter?”
“Not with all that rumbling. Your senses must be above most others, my love.”
“Indeed. Sometimes I find they are when they need them to be. By the laughter he thinks we’ve been destroyed. We’ll just have to drop in unannounced.”
“I’m sure that will go over well.”
Dorrin hauled both of them up and they crawled over the dirt and scattered rocks that nearly buried the trail up. They dusted themselves off and continued.
The last bit of the trail curved at an angle and snaked through a cluster of jagged rocks. From their vantage point, they could see the peaks of the lower mountains around them. The rest of the mountain range stretched before them, shrouded in mist. Dorrin soaked in the fantastic view before climbing over the jagged rocks. Vess followed behind him slowly, watching her every step.
They hopped down onto the last bit of exposed land where the trees has stopped growing. Dorrin turned back and took Vess’s hand, helping her over the treacherous cluster with its blood-stained surface…blood…
Dorrin took a step back to study the blood and something popped under his feet. He and Vess looked down at the same time and saw a sea of bones littering the ground around them.
As far as the eye could see human and animal bones covered the ground. Ribcages, femurs, jaws, skulls all strewn in disregard, some bearing bite marks, others still with bits of flesh attached to them.
“By the Gods,” Vess murmured.
“This is not any God. It has the hunger of a God but not the soul of one. His true intentions reveal themselves. Careful where you step, bone may be a sharp as any sword.”
A growl wafted from just over the horizon.
“We have stepped into a lair,” Vess said, her hands trembled. “This entire mountain is one big lair.”
“Fear not. Feeding time is over.”
“Or it has just begun,” she said with a whisper.
Dorrin drew his sword and crept slowly on the tips of his toes trying not to attract attention to himself. Vess followed his every move, his every twitch. She mimicked him with great effort to keep her presence hidden.
Something stirred at the top of the mountain, on the other side of the peak where the mount sloped and a great boulder blocked the sun. Shadowy movement. Something massive…huge.
Dorrin’s grip tightened, despite the cold sweat soaking his head and chest, he climbed the last incline of Mount Marrow. He was as quiet as the dead, guarding his arrival as he came to set eyes on it. Vess joined his side and her mouth gaped. She said nothing but two voices filled the air around them.
“The village should be destroyed. It is useless,” the voice bellowed. “I grow tired of it.”
“No, it gives us gifts. It gives us food. I am enjoying the game. I am their God.”
“Stupid! You are not their God. There is no God on this mountain.”
The sounds of slurping and chewing cut between the arguing voices but immediately returned to bickering. Fighting, disagreeing, nasty disposition, and always hungry, these were the tell-tale signs of a creature thought long extinct. Dorrin pulled back and whispered to Vess. “It’s a Darg.”
“You mean a…”
“Yes, a two-headed giant. I didn’t think any were left. Most of them killed themselves. Their heads have two separate minds. This leads to terrible arguments. They never agree on anything. Their tempers were legendary leading them to slay themselves or fight each other instead of their foe in the middle of battle. This one is starting to get testy. The two heads want different things from the village already.”
“So this kind of giant is extremely rare?”
“Nowadays yes. It must have stumbled upon the village after taking refuge on the mountaintop. They cooked up this God scheme to frighten the villagers and get free food rather than hunt or battle for it and risk getting killed because of a disagreement. The two heads decided to work together for a change. Looks like that’s about change.”
“Clever for a great oaf,” Vess said as a roar broke the air.
“Intruders!” The two heads called as the great beast dropped the half devoured human torso from its grip and took up a spiked club the size of a tree trunk. “Crush them!”
The two-headed giant’s twelve-foot body, seemingly a cross between a humanoid and an ogre, was covered in animal skins. Great tusks protruded from beneath black lips. Tufts of coarse hair sprouted down its crooked spine and covered the knuckles of its massive hands.
The Darg crawled to its clawed feet and stormed towards the two humans in its midst. “I see a woman!” The right head called.
“I see a man!” the left one said.
“Kill and eat them both will we.” They said in unison.
“It’s not polite to impersonate a God,” Dorrin called, taking a defiant stance and raising his sword. “As you said there is no God on this mountain. So it’s time you left the village and its people in peace.”
“It is no business of yours!” The right head screamed. “You should not have climbed my mountain, you will be the village’s next offering!”
Two sets of black eyes glared, two snout-like noses sniffed the air, and two mouths drooled with hunger. It raised the spiked club with both hands and swung hard.
Dorrin and Vess scattered just as the club smashed, unearthing stones and crust. The aftershock sent both of them to the ground.
“Eat the woman first,” the right head said.
“No, the man has more meat,” the left replied.
With no further argument the Darg turned to Dorrin and lunged, swinging its club wildly. Dorrin scrambled across the ground, lifted his sword but the giant smashed it out of his hand.
Dorrin dragged himself out of the way of the next blow and rolled flat on his stomach. “Vess!” he called desperately.
Vess stood and lifted her arms, a breeze rippled through her hair. She sang a song into the wind and the mountain echoed with sweet tones.
The right head stopped and turned to look at Vess, it smiled with entranced glee. Spittle escaped its lips. The right arm it controlled loosened its grip on the club but the left…
The left head ignored the song and grew enraged. “Do not listen!” It growled at the right. “It is a trick… a trick!” Its other half was fully enchanted and oblivious. “I will do it myself!” The left head roared and with its left arm took the club and spun around to face Vess.
“Only half Vess!” Dorrin yelled. “Only half is under your spell. Run, it’s still dangerous, run!” The Darg swung the club up then down and stomped its left foot. The ground quaked and Vess tripped off her feet and fell to the ground and went silent. Her song died.
“Vess!” Dorrin yelled and the Darg turned back to him, the heads worked together again. The giant grabbed hold of Dorrin’s leg with its free right hand and whipped him through the air.
Dorrin landed on his back hard, pain wracked his body and he gritted his teeth. For a moment darkness eclipsed his vision. A ringing resounded in his ears. He inhaled and opened his eyes. In the sky above he saw shadow vultures circling, black winged scavengers waiting for him and Vess to die. Vess? He turned to see her lying next to him, she was groaning but alive.
“Pretty one,” Dorrin said, reaching for her. “We got to get up. It’s not going to stop. I can’t find my sword and…”
The Darg was upon them. It took hold of both and tossed them through the air. They landed back in the bone yard behind them. Dorrin tasted blood in his mouth. Something hot burned through him. A bone pierced his left shoulder, the agony bit through him but he fought back the screams. His chest pounded and his stomach churned.
“No,” Vess cried. Tears dampened her face as she crawled to Dorrin’s side. She was heavily bruised but unhurt. “Hellfire on him. You are badly hurt.” Her hand hovered above the bone, its point razor sharp.
“No, do not fool with it. It will rip your delicate fingers. These bones are…by the Gods. It’s right here Vess.”
“What is… are you mad?”
“Some have called me so. Our weapons are right here. Hand me a as many shattered ribs as you can then act dead.”
The Darg laughed and laughed like thunder. It bellowed and stomped its feet, rejoicing. “Onto the kill! Fresh meat for supper.” It barreled its way over the top of the peak and down the trail of bones. It spotted Dorrin writhing on the ground. It sniffed the air and looked around. “The woman is dead.” It noticed Vess’s prone body between it and Dorrin.
“Come,” Dorrin called. “Finish it! You will not have your meal so easy. You will not be a God so recklessly. You will not torment the mountain village anymore. Take me as I took your wolf!”
“You!” It wailed. “You killed our pet!” With that the Darg grew enraged and thrashed the air with spite. It raced toward Dorrin, club in hand. As it reached Vess’s body, she sprang across its feet with all of her weight and tripped it.
The Darg came towering down as if in slow motion. Dorrin sprung into action and lifted all the sharpest rib bones he could hold. The giant fell upon him, covering him with his massive girth.
Screams filled the air, the loudest Dorrin and Vess had ever heard. The huge body convulsed madly. The great belly expanded once and went still. With all of his strength, Dorrin shoved the body aside and crawled from beneath it.
He got to his feet and looked down on the Darg, its chest and stomach were embedded with bones, plunged deep into its heart. Dorrin bowed his head to the creature before slowly locating his sword.
Returning to the body, he swung his blade, claiming both heads as his prize, something Vess had always seen him do, a contrast to his benevolent nature, but now, by his childhood story she understood clearly what it meant.
“Come,” he said to Vess. “We need to get down the mountain and free the village of its curse.”
The villagers gathered in the center, their faces masks of anticipation. Dorrin and Vess stood before them and Dorrin threw the pair of giant heads to the ground at their feet. A collective gasp hurried through the crowd.
“It is no God!” Dorrin called. “It is mortal just like all of you. A mortal creature terrorizing the weak and helpless because it could, because it was hungry, and because it wanted a game. You are free now.”
Tormas and his wife Lilia came out of the crowd. Sebastian, with a new pet in his arms, joined their side. “Thank you,” Tormas said, his eyes bright, instilled with new life and his smile as wide the road. He shook Dorrin’s hand. “We owe you our lives. We owe you our bounty, our very souls.”
“You owe us a place to sleep.” Dorrin smiled.
“Anything,” Tormas said. “We have a room for you and your companion any day for the rest of your lives.”
Sebastian threw himself around Dorrin’s leg and hugged him tightly. He rubbed the boy’s head and looked up at Vess. “And you wonder why I do this.”
In the night the village rested peacefully for the first time in months. A hush came over the mountains and all that could be heard was a soft singing, barely a whisper in the wind.
Vess ran her fingers gently over Dorrin’s shoulder wound and finished the last of her song. His strength slowly returned and his mind rested. “One day your good deeds are going to get us killed,” she said.
“Well today was not that day.” He grinned and pulled her to him with a kiss.
© March, 2013 John Grover
John Grover has been published both online and print in such markets as Flesh and Blood Magazine, Morpheus Tales, The Willows, Wrong World, Silver Blade, Best New Zombie Tales by Books of the Dead Press, the Northern Haunts anthology by Shroud Publishing, and the Epitaphs anthology by The New England Horror Writers. He is a member of the New England Horror Writers Association and the author of several collections and chapbooks, more info on these works can be found on www.shadowtales.com.