Aron had given up hope, unsure if he could hold the axe steady for another second, when a roar shivered the air. The monsters turned in bleating surprise as a storm of rumbling steel fury burst through them. Staggering backward, Aron lifted his axe and pulled his arm more tightly around the girl, praying that this new demon might perhaps bring a quicker death.

Then the goatmen in front of him fell apart, dropped into spurting pieces, and Aron saw this latest threat. His breath escaped him.

It was a man. A giant of a man who towered over even these hulking things. A man who stood dripping in hot blood that steamed in the cold morning air. He wore a bearskin cloak across mountainous shoulders, and his legs were girded with piecemeal armor of mismatched plate and mail. Heavy oxhide boots. Chest bare and scarred. Thick hands, knotted and rough, were wound around the haft of a terrible weapon that matched his size. It was easily three times the length of Aron's axe, forged of angry black metal and notched along both sides of its uneven blade. It was a coarse and brutal tool of death, held aloft as though it were part of the man's own arm.

This could only be a barbarian. Aron had heard tales of barbarians even in his remote village on the eastern foothills. Tales of gigantic savages who guarded the sacred mountain and ate those who chose to trespass. But never had he imagined the truth: that such incredible strength could exist in a living, breathing mortal. Such feral quickness and power bent to the will of a man.

The khazra who had been stripping the corpses down the road now dropped their scraps and made shrill calls, pillars of vapor lifting from between yellow goat teeth. More khazra appeared on the side of the path; those who had chased the fleeing refugees into the brush had returned at the sound. Aron counted seven, eight beasts in total, their courage building as they bleated in response, eyeing their lone target. Heads lowered, they gathered into a brutish cluster and charged.

The barbarian took a breath through his teeth, shifting the massive blade so he could extend a hand to Aron.

"Your axe."

Aron hastily handed it to the man. It seemed such a frail thing in that meaty paw. Raising it to his eyes, the barbarian nodded approvingly.

"Sturdy. Not meant for sticks."

The goatmen began to gain speed, their hooves hammering sharp beats on the stone. This barbarian wished to discuss a wood axe while death bore down on them? What kind of madman was this?

"Yes... I mean, no, no—it belonged to my father," stammered Aron. "He was a militiaman with the—"

In one fluid movement, the barbarian lifted his arm and then hurled the axe forward. Aron watched as it spun end over end, a steel blur that smashed through the skull of the nearest khazra and buried itself in the chest of the one behind him. The first creature tumbled ahead, the grim mess above his shoulders spouting dark blood, while the second tripped into him and was still. The remaining monsters slowed, spreading to encircle their target as they drew close.

Aron scrambled toward the fallen body of a creature who had attacked him earlier, hoping to grab his spear and perhaps help this barbarian make a valiant stand before they were overwhelmed. The large man snarled and kicked him in the hip, knocking him over. Aron rolled to protect the child, looking back in fear.

"Stay down."

Aron ducked low and kept his arm tight around his charge. She had stopped crying, which worried him, but perhaps it would be better if she had fainted. The goatmen had surrounded them, and foam ran from the beasts' craggy mouths. They were furious, and Aron knew from recent, horrific experience that they would take apart their prey with carnal zeal. The barbarian pulled his blade in close, arms bent, and Aron could see his muscles bunch with latent force.

The goatmen's patience broke, and they attacked with mewling cries. Aron glanced up and saw the barbarian close his eyes, and—by the Burning Hells!—he smiled. Then the big man leaned back, and the smile twisted into a sneer as he spun in a black arc toward the coming fiends. Aron cringed as the heavy weapon hummed over his head in a wash of cold air. The monsters had been deceived by their foe's inhuman reach, and the nearest four were caught within the fatal moaning crescent. It didn't cut—it smote through the beasts without pause, severing spines, shattering bones, tearing flesh, and splattering a crimson spray over Aron, filling his ears, nose, mouth, and eyes with hot, salty red. The woodcutter rubbed blood from his face, coughing. Where four goatmen had been, eight limp, quivering shapes were now spread over the road. The barbarian was down on one knee, breathing hard, his arms bent around to the side where the blade had lodged deep into a block of the paving shale. The two remaining khazra, cleverer than their brethren, had waited for the barbarian to commit himself so, and they crowed as they drove toward his blind back.

Aron tried to shout, tried to warn the man of their advance, but he choked on curdling blood. The barbarian crouched low and then surged upward, hefting his sword and the massive stone in which it was embedded out of the ground, swinging around in a curve and smashing into the oncoming beasts. The rock hewed through their meaty forms like a hammer through lard, mashing them flat and cracking asunder with a mighty boom. Wet shards the size of fists whistled past Aron's shoulders.

And then... it was done. Silent. The barbarian stood triumphant in the mountain air, a chiseled god of blood and death and rage. Aron had never seen anything so terrifying, and he feared what the arrival of this imposing figure could mean. He watched as the man turned and shouldered his weapon to walk a short distance down the road. Was he leaving? No. He bent down to pull Aron's axe from the gore-soaked chest it had rent, and then he returned. He extended the haft and nodded.

"The path will be safe for you now. Khazra do not come twice against a stronger foe. Word travels quickly amongst these scavengers."

Aron reached out to take the axe and stopped. The bundle in his arm was still. Still and growing cold. Only then did he notice the dark, wet mark where a spear had passed his defenses.

Aron dropped his head.

"No... no, no."

Weeping, he held her tight and stumbled to his knees. The barbarian watched and thought he understood.

"I saw how you protected her, woodsman. You could have done no more to save your child." He spat, nodding toward the refugees quietly returning to the road. "You did a father's duty."

"No," said Aron, his voice breaking. "She is not mine. I tried to carry her to safety when the goatmen attacked, when her parents were killed. She is not my daughter."



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