His roar struck me with almost as much force as his club, his putrid breath showering me with spittle and carrion. In a daze, I crawled away from the monster and as I saw his club raised to the sky, ready to deliver the killing blow, all I could do was stare, paralysed by fear. Suddenly a shadow danced across my face and one of Skjalf’s axes flew past me, embedding itself in the Brute’s skull. For a instant, we both held our breath, then the Beastman dropped dead into the snow like a falling tree. I forced my numb limbs to move. Three other Brutes lay dead in the blood-red snow. My companions were breathing heavily, but I saw no wounds. “What took you so long?” “Should I have split your skull as well, human? Next time, just play dead and stay out of the way!”
The Dwarf’s strong hand reached out and pulled me to my feet. Without a word, Joshua handed me my sword and the sorry remains of my shield. My shameful smile disappeared as we heard another fearsome roar. Our weapons raised, we looked about, expecting another onslaught, but no attacker was to be seen, only the stony faces of the sculptures staring back at us. The roar could still be heard, dull and seemingly coming from the rock itself. Skjalf tore his axe free and pointed to the rocky gate. “They’re coming through the gate! Stop them at the stairs, if they get out in the open, we won’t stand a chance!”
Driven by the Dwarf’s stern voice, we jumped up and rushed to the gate. It towered above us like a cliff, and I wondered how these beasts, who were without a doubt extremely strong, would ever be able to move such huge doors. Yet they began to shake, frost and dust raining down on us. With an unearthly grating sound, the first door opened enough to let out a stream of huge, horned creatures, at least two heads taller than Gunthar, but still almost human, carrying axes and clubs of wood and stone in their hands.
Two fell at once and tumbled down the stone stairs, struck by arrow and bolt. The others were upon us in an instant, Gunthar’s axe striking out and biting into flesh and bone. I ducked under the blow of one of the Horned One’s clubs and rammed my sword into his open flank. With a gurgling scream he pulled me down as he died, and we both struck the hard stone of the stairs so that once more I saw stars before my eyes. At that moment, the portal thundered again and began to open further, the huge doors scraping over the rock, pushing stone and snow aside.
For an instant, the battle stopped, as if dulled by the thundering of the doors. Faster and faster the doors opened and finally, we saw the great power that moved it. Never before had I seen a Giant, and so I lay paralysed with despair on the blood-stained stones. Taller than many a tower this beast loomed in the open gate, his massive arms swelling at the effort of pushing a weight than not even a hundred men could have moved an inch. Wild eyes glowed down at us from between a black beard and mane, and despite his barbaric appearance, it was clear how old and powerful this beast was.
While we humans were paralysed by this appearance and the word that it uttered in our language, the Dwarf stood fast. “Your deathsman, Lördir! Many years you have gone unpunished, now you will reap the wrath of the sons of Urgrim!” The Giant lowered his hateful gaze and fixed the Dwarf. The ancient enemies stared at each other for a heartbeat, then the Giant stormed out of the gate with a roar.
The very mountain seemed to tremble under his thundering steps and, thrown into the air by the shaking rock, I tumbled helplessly down the stairs. For an instant, the sky was black as the giant strode over me, crushing creatures and stone under him as he bore down on the Dwarf. Humans and beasts alike struggled to get out of the path of this moving tower of blind rage. Only Skjarf remained motionless. The Dwarf had removed his backpack and reached for the heavy axe strapped to his back. Just as the giant raised his fist to squash the Dwarf, Skjalf threw the axe. With all his might, he launched the weapon toward the giant, its twin blades glittering in the twilight like a deadly butterfly.
A surprised groan escaped the Giant’s throat. As if swatting an insect, his huge hand moved to his bloody forehead. Then he began to fall, for a seemingly endless instant seemed to teeter like a rotten tree before he started to tumble forwards. Skjalf turned and ran from the impending disaster, but the Giant’s hand reached out and closed around the fleeing Dwarf, crushing him as he thundered to the ground, dead.
For an instant, there was silence. The wind blew the huge cloud of snow that the Giant’s body had flung into the air to the east and with a quiet rustling, dust fell from the open gate. Then the growling and snarling around us became louder as the Beastmen shook off their numbness. We looked around and each of us saw the same thought in the others’ faces. Our journey was over, there was nothing for us in this place. No matter how much gold or how many treasures lay in the Dragon Prince’s grave, the price of retrieving them would be death. And so we took our weapons, grabbed our belongings and started to run.
Through the deep snow we half ran, half slid back toward the bridge. The beasts were close behind us, growling and roaring. They were able to move through the snow faster than we, and as we reached the bridge, they were almost upon us. Finally we started out across the narrow, rocky path that spanned the bottomless canyon as fast as our boots would carry us. The Brutes hesitated for an instant and as the first stepped out onto the bridge, Caele turned and dropped him with quick flash of her bow. With an arrow in his skull, the body of the Beastman fell silently into the darkness.
None of the others followed us and we reached the other side in safety. As my companions continued to run, I turned and looked back. They were climbing back up the white slope, back to the grave that they had made their home. As unwelcome guardians, they would secure the final resting place of the Dragon Slayer and the Master Builder until the winds of time had carried away the mountains themselves. Our tracks would soon fade and with them the memory of us and this day’s events. The beasts, however, will still be here. Northwind blew softly down the slopes and brought fresh snow.