Men of the Ashen Morrow

Issue #218

The doe was near to dead before Sal got her knife up to its throat, but it still looked her in the eye as she drew the blade through its skin and severed its grasp on life. It took blood to call the end of summer; exactly how much blood was always the question. In her plain voice, in her human tongue, she sang:

A half a hundred legs has Hulokk

a half a thousand teeth has He.

A half a million men ate Hulokk

a half a billion moons is He.

The five hunters behind her breathed in deep, breathed in unison. They were close, their lips almost to her ears, and the wordless chant was heavy in the air. Four sets of lips belonged to men she cared not much for. The other belonged to Lelein, a woman who had breathed hard into her ear in other moments, passionate moments. The trees hung boughs high above the hunters, the moss of the ancient forest soft beneath their soft-heeled boots.

In and out, in and out, the six hunters took deep, violent gulps of air.

He would come. Not for the sacrifice—what’s a deer to the god of all rivers and roots and everything on the ground and beneath it—but for the hunters. Hulokk would come when summoned by His people. As like as not, He’d take someone with Him.

Sal didn’t want to die, and she assumed none of her companions did either. But Hulokk must freeze the earth to end the summer, and winter must come for the snows to settle onto the hills, and the snows must come to keep the creatures from the West at bay. Risk was necessary to life, always.

Deep breaths, violent breaths.

Ten summers prior, as a young woman, Sal had performed the ritual. Hulokk had come, she’d spoken with Him, and He’d departed with nothing more than the buck they’d slaughtered. It had been the first time in living memory that the summoners had convinced the god to spare them all. Sal was counting on that luck. She was counting on her own strength.

The doe’s blood melted and burned the earth. The smell of old rot poured into the forest. The ground collapsed, pulling the saplings and ferns down into the underworld, and Sal and her company stepped back.

A single segmented leg, infinitely thin and long, crept out from the hole. First one, then another. Then another, another, another. Slower than the setting of the summer sun, His fat, round worm body of flesh and stone rose into the air. His belly was awash with eyes.

He looked at Sal, and Sal borrowed the breath of the other hunters. She spoke, in the tongue of the gods:

“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”

“I will not.” Hulokk’s voice was a thousand voices, across and below the audible.

“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”

“I will not.” Ancient trees trembled and fell, and Sal felt her heart quiver in her chest from the physical force of the voice.

“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”

“I will.”

Four legs shot out and wrapped around Lelein, and she screamed, hoarse and angry.

“I ask you, Hulokk,” Sal started, but it took more magic than she could summon to keep her voice in the tongue of the gods. She finished her sentence meekly, in a human language. “To spare our lives.”

The god dragged Sal’s lover into the depths of the earth. At the last moment, the eldest among the hunters put a quarrel through Lelein’s throat, silencing her forever.

As the world grew silent, Sal collapsed at the edge of the of sinkhole and clawed at the dirt in lieu of weeping.

Hulokk froze the earth, and autumn came, then winter.

A lifetime later, Sal was gray-haired and tired, her skin aged by sun and time. No one had yet called for winter, and the summer had been five months too long already. Bright, monstrous creatures were stirring in the west, but Sal had done the work fifteen times herself; the burden of sacrifice should be shared by other collectives. She had other matters, simpler matters, to attend to.

The forest bison in front of her was near to dead, its breathing labored and slow, fluid likely having filled its lungs. It lay in a blade of sunlight that pierced the thick canopy above. Red and iron blood stained its gray and grizzled fur, and the cold steel of crossbow bolts stuck from its hide like thorns.

Sal approached.

“I can do this,” Reka said. She was the youngest of the six, her face still unlined. Too young to be hunting at all.

“Too dangerous,” Sal said. One hand held the seax, the other held the rest of the collective at bay. She met the dying beast’s eyes.

“Live free, die free,” she whispered. “Life is struggle, death is not.” She put all the magic in her body behind the words.

The massive eyes closed, and Sal drew her blade across the bison’s throat.

Her hunting collective spent a long afternoon butchering and salting meat. They packed it into six barrels, each with the name of a town or city stenciled in black across its oaken staves. One each was addressed for the four towns of Laria, two for the city Laros itself.

She heard the hooves a few miles off, well before her younger and less-attuned companions. But the noise didn’t seem to signal danger, so she said nothing.

Closer, birdsong cast music down from the trees, and the thick carpet of wildflowers sent up perfume almost strong enough to mask the scents of blood and marrow.

Sal sat on the cart, watching her companions work and the team of mules pick at the grass and flowers. It wasn’t fair, of course, how often she took sentry. The hunters were a collective of equals, and by rights she should be doing the same hard labor. But she’d lived seventy-times-twelve moons, and she’d spent the whole of the day on the move, tracking their prey. She deserved the rest. Her crossbow was loaded, its stock balanced on the rail of the cart as she kept watch. There was no rest except death.

The rider was almost upon them before her companions noticed, but neither humans nor horses had been much of a threat to anyone in the valley for an endless succession of moons.

“Sal Everett and company?” the rider asked, his face obscured under a thick black beard, the style in the city.

“We’re the Men of the Ashen Morrow, thank you,” Sal corrected.

Not one of the Men were men, but Sal preferred tradition to semantic accuracy and the collective’s name had gone unchanged for ninety times twelve moons.

“Sal Everett, I presume,” the rider continued,  addressing Sal directly and ignoring the frown that grew on her face.

“I’m Sal,” she said.

“I’ve come directly from the great assembly,” he said. “The summer is in its fifth moon and no one has come forward to summon its end. I’ve been empowered to ask you, on behalf of the whole of Laria, to do this. Summon the god Hulokk.”

Sal spat, off to the side. “The reason’s no one’s come forward is because everyone’s hoping we’ll do it.”

“Will you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Someone else’s turn.”

The man considered her words for a moment while birdsong filled the silence.

“You know why people ask this of you,” he said at last. His eyes darted from her to her companions, all of whom we armed, all of whom he’d prefer not to anger. “There’s no one more capable.”

“Summer after summer, we’ve done it. Summer after summer I’ve lost friends and...” She let her anger keep tears at bay. “No one else will ever get better at speaking with gods if no one else will risk it.

“Go back your great assembly,” she said, “and tell them Sal Everett is an old woman who’s lost too much already. Tell them they can send me students, if they wish, but no commands.”

The man looked at her without sympathy. “All my life I’d heard stories of Sal Everett, and here you are a coward.”

“Fuck off,” Sal said. The rider didn’t take her meaning clearly enough, so she fired a bolt into the bough above his head. A branch broke, and it fell with a crack, startling the horse.

The rider spun around and took off at a canter.

The birds were silent; the hunters were silent. The mules went on grazing.

Sal climbed down off the cart, started rooting through the duff for her crossbow bolt. She found it, still intact, and for a moment she remembered the bolt that had pierced Lelein—a broadhead, for hunting. A mercy.

Sal’s life had been too full of all the wrong sorts of mercy.

Their summer lodge was a sprawling stone house built in a liminal space between prairie and wood. The eaves hung low over the windows to fight off the summer sun, and the windows themselves were simple cloth screen. Nearby, Sal and the rest of the collective crouched in a circle under the shade of an ancient oak. By the looks on her companions’ faces, no one was happy.

“You don’t get to decide that,” Hels said. She’d born two children; both were off with their father in the city. Silver and ash were creeping into her hair, and she was the next-oldest after Sal.

“We’ve done the work the last ten summers,” Sal said. “It should rotate. The risk should be spread out across collectives.”

“We’ve done the work because we’re the best,” Reka said. Her voice was low, her shoulders broad, and she was as proud of her power as she was of her youth—as though either were things she’d chosen. Every time Sal looked at her, she saw Lelein. Reka could have have been Lelein’s granddaughter, had Lelein lived to bear children.

“All the more reason we should leave it to someone else,” Sal said. “The best should step aside, not end up indispensable. It’s healthier for everybody.”

More importantly, it was healthier for those five she saw as her children. She couldn’t bear to lose another. Not to her own weakness.

“I’m not saying your decision is wrong,” Hels said. “I’m saying it isn’t your decision to make.”

I’m saying the decision is wrong,” Reka said. Blood went to her cheeks and her fists clenched and released.

“Do you want to die?” Sal asked. “Do you? Because that’s what happens when you summon a god and ask it a favor. Someone dies.”

“Last summer—” Reka started.

“Last summer nothing,” Sal interrupted. “Last summer we got lucky. The summer before that, we got lucky. Three summers ago? Five? Eight? Hunters died. I’ve summoned Hulokk fifteen times and I’ve lost nine friends to the effort.” Eight friends and a lover.

The other collectives, she knew, had much worse tallies. For all their efforts, no other summoners had ever held strength in their voices long enough to demand Hulokk spare their lives. Every time anyone but Sal called the god, He took one in the six down with Him. When Sal did it, sometimes she failed and sometimes she managed.

“I’m tired of this shit. I’m tired of watching you all die.”

I’m tired of surviving your deaths, she didn’t need to say.

“I’m sorry,” Sal said. “I shouldn’t have spoken for us all so simply. I’m not in charge. But I refuse to participate, and we are six, and the ritual takes six. One ‘no’ is enough.”

The milky moon hung low over the western hills, lighting the last scraps of snow that capped them. The night air was sticky and thick, though the worst of the day’s heat was fading, and Sal walked alone in the prairie. Her knees hurt, like they’d hurt for hundreds of moons.

It was Lelein who had taught Sal to love the prairie, to love the bright wash of wildflowers and the tide-like brush of wind against the tips of the grass. So many moons had come and gone and so many memories had blossomed and faded. But Lelein remained. She who was not forgotten was not yet dead.

In the distance, a buck lifted his great crowned head, a silhouette against the sky. A breeze swept across the land, bringing the smell of dead grass—the world needed the rains of autumn. What cruelty it was that only the magic and sacrifice of humans could cut the heat of the warming world.

In the distance, she heard the kitchen door shut and Hels making her way across the field. Sal knew her footsteps and soon smelled her heady scent. Most moonlit nights, she would have loved the younger woman’s company for a walk across the land.

“You’re not going to talk me into it,” Sal said, quietly, while they were still far apart. Hels had enough magic of her own to make out the words at distance.

Hels came to her, took Sal by the arm. A few more deer walked out from the tree line and joined the buck in the field.

Hels pointed them out. “Why don’t we keep animals for meat?” she asked.

“You’re not going to convince me.”

“We keep plants for grain and fruit, but we don’t keep animals for meat. Two hundred summers ago, when the seasons were regular and the snow never melted in the hills, we kept animals. More than just horses and mules and dogs. We kept bison and deer, hogs and fowl. Why don’t we keep them anymore?”

Sal ignored the question.

“Because the terror and hell—or the brute banality—of a life lived caged bleeds into the meat. We eat it, and it gets into us; it ruins us. Drains our magic. Living free is important; dying free is important.”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at,” Sal said.

“Are you afraid of dying?”

“No.”

“Neither are we,” Hels said. “We live free. We’ll die free. You need to let us do that.”

“Someone else should do it.”

“Are you that stubborn?”

Clouds drifted in front of the moon, and much of the field turned to shadow. Only the lanterns by the lodge still cast light.

“Yes,” Sal said.

Hels dropped Sal’s arm. “You’re greedy,” she said, walking away. “We all lose people.”

Sal stood alone in the field, feeling the absence of her friend’s touch. Hels was right about one thing. Being open to death was the cost of living free.

The moon broke free of the clouds, and she saw the deer in the field. Traditionally, it took six casters to sacrifice an animal and call Hulokk. But Sal was the strongest magician in the valley. Maybe she could do it alone, even if just one final time.

The buck stared at her with angry eyes, but Sal’s words had crawled into its mind and stilled its dying body. Dragging the beast from field to forest, she made slow progress. The bolt’s fletching caught on the low branches of the edge forest, and the buck caterwauled into the night.

It was a perverse thing to do, to cause an animal to suffer like that.

It needed doing.

She’d been late to the life of a hunter. Struck by wanderlust at twenty times twelve moons, she’d left her work as a cobbler in the city and been accepted on probationary terms to the Men of the Ashen Morrow—one of the hundreds of hunter collectives. Most of her new fellows were the children of hunters and farmers. But she was alive with magic, and magic flows unevenly through space and time; its practitioners do well to wander.  Despite her upbringing, she’d become a hunter.

She dragged the animal by horns for hours. Her muscles were in agony, but she dared not stop for rest. She pushed on—exhaustion was an old friend. The buck was screaming in pain, but she hadn’t the strength to lift it across her back.

By the time she reached the heart of the forest, near enough Hulokk’s domain, she heard the rest of her collective searching the woods. Their footsteps were too soft, too careful to be any but those of hunters. Sal had to hurry. She spied a tangled thicket and made her way for the refuge of its densest depths. Low pines burst forth from brambles, failing to reach the sky. Ahead of the dawn, morning fog rose and lonely birds sang.

The buck had suffered, but it hadn’t died. Sal laid it down heavily in the dirt, then paced around it, ducking under branches, pulling her wool trousers free from thorns. She circled it six times widdershins, then she stopped.

Her companions were closer. They’d found her trail. If they found her, they’d try to help her. If they found her, she’d lose another friend.

She got her knife up to the animal’s throat, and it stared into the depths of her as she drew the blade through its skin. In her plain voice, ragged with exhaustion, she sang:

A half a hundred legs has Hulokk

a half a thousand teeth has He.

A half a million men ate Hulokk

a half a billion moons is He.

The song was older than the city, as old as the woods. She sang it in the language of the first of her people to settle the land.

The melody faded to nothing, and Sal breathed in quick, violent breaths. Staccato, ritual breathing.

The blood ran fast from the creature’s neck; it ran hot into the earth, burning soil and stone as it mingled with the magic of Sal’s breath.

The ground fell away, pulling the buck and the surrounding brambles down into the underworld. Sal shied back, still keeping complex rhythm with her lungs.

Hulokk arose, as he always had, tremendous and horrid and sheathed in dispassionate eyes.

Sal opened her mouth, and no voice came out. She couldn’t find the power to speak. Always before, she’d had the breath of her fellows to draw upon.

She had the sky, though, and all the world’s air. She focused her strength, in the core of her chest, and summoned the night’s wind to fill her lungs.

“I ask you, Hulokk...” she began in the old tongue, but the air fled her chest faster than she could fill it. Her voice failed.

Hulokk stared at her, impassive.

Sal determined to take strength from the earth. The dirt beneath her feet hardened to stone and gave her a conduit to the core of the earth’s magic.

“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end...” She collapsed to her knees, unable to finish. No other magic in the world was as strong as that of collective spirit.

“I’m sorry,” she said, in the common tongue.

Hulokk’s gaze swept over her, each eye moving together with its neighbors like grass blown by a winter wind.

“I’ve killed us all, haven’t I?”

He towered above her, impassive. He’d likely end her life, but without the ritual words he wouldn’t freeze the earth and it would be six moons at least before he’d appear when summoned. The snows would melt; the bright monsters would flood into the valley and kill her children.

“Oh vanity, I’ve killed us all.”

One long leg crept toward her, stroked her cheek. The thought of death was no comfort, just then, unlike it so often had been. She would die a failure, lain low by pride. Worse, she would die having brought death to so many who’d relied upon her. She had to survive, at least long enough for the Men to find her. At least long enough to complete the casting and beseech Hulokk for winter.

She felt down into her gut, pulled forth what power she had, and shouted. Birds scattered from trees, and the Men heard her. They were running, now.

A second segmented leg wrapped around her waist, trying to pull her toward the pit and its master. She flung out her arms and called branches to her, lashing herself in place with magic.

She was off the ground, her body stretched between the trees and the god. Maybe her arms would rip free from her shoulders, maybe her torso from her legs.

More insectoid limbs lashed out, ripping at the foliage that held her, and Sal drained every bit of her strength to call the nearby brambles to dig their thorns into her body and hold her in place.

Through it all, Hulokk made no noise. Sal struggled, but Hulokk was no more angry at her resistance than Sal could be at the bowstring when she reloaded her crossbow.

Reka was the first to reach her, war axe held at her side but still in her nightclothes. Hels and the others were shortly behind. When they saw Hulokk, half of the hunters fell into breathing shallow and long, half of them fell into breathing fast and deep.

Young Reka spoke, in the tongue of the gods. “I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”

“I will not.” The thousand voices of god tore through the thicket.

“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”

“I will not.”

“I ask you, Hulokk, to bring an end to summer.”

“I will.”

Sal released the vines and brambles that held her and dropped to the earth, near to unconsciousness, still cocooned in the long legs of the god. With the casting complete, the thought of her coming oblivion was warmer than the summer air.

But Hulokk let her go. Sal lay empty and exhausted upon the bloody soil. Her vision blurry from pain, she saw the thin legs embrace Reka.

“Take me,” Sal whispered. But she spoke the common tongue.

Every eye on His belly focused on Reka, and Reka screamed wordless as Hulokk dragged her down, after the deer, into the underworld, severing her grasp on life.

“She who is not forgotten is not yet dead,” Hels said. The five Men held hands in a circle and wept for themselves, for their own loss, while the light of dawn cast soft shadows from the elder trees of the funeral grove.

Sal wept for Reka and she wept for Lelein, and she wept for her own bruised and torn old body and the wounds of loss that would never heal. She wept for all she’d sacrificed, and all the more she would in the future.

Because next year, she would volunteer. Every year until she was unable, by age or by death, she would call an end to the summer and spare others the torment of survival.

While the Men cried, the storm clouds of autumn gathered above them. Winter would come.


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Margaret Killjoy is a gender-deviant author and editor currently based in the Appalachian mountains. Her most recent book is an anarchist utopia called A Country of Ghosts. Her next book, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, is forthcoming from Tor.com in 2017. She blogs at birdsbeforethestorm.net.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Leaves Upon Her Falling Light” by Gregory Norman Bossert
“Sightwolf” by Erin Hoffman

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Comments & Scrivenings
2 Comments on “Men of the Ashen Morrow”

2 Responses to “Men of the Ashen Morrow”

  1. Teresa says:

    A wonderful story.

  2. Evan Dicken says:

    Killjoy’s stories are always a delight, and this one doesn’t disappoint. I particularly enjoyed the almost effortless way Killjoy threads character beats with hints of a larger, terrifying mythology.

    Well done. Well done, indeed.

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