On the Holy Hill
Author’s Note: This is a discarded chapter from a novel I’ve been working on the past few years. Hool’s story has changed somewhat, but this little scene is still worth a gander, I suppose. Not perfect, but not bad, either.
Snow. Not yet, but very soon. Brekhool could smell it in the air—a clean, fresh scent that burned her nostrils. She looked up at the sun—a cold metal plate shining through the gray autumn sky—it was early in the year for snow. A long winter was ahead.
“Hool.” Hapta growled. Brekhool laid her ears back against her broad skull as she looked over at her pack-sister’s whelp. Hapta was ten years old now—practically grown—but he was lean and his gray fur was thin around his back and shoulders. She hoped he would not survive this winter’s frost.
Hapta flared his nostrils and showed his teeth between black lips. “Momma waits on the hill, Hool. Jump.”
Hool closed her left paw into a fist and rolled her broad shoulders into a backhand slap that sent Hapta tumbling into the dirt. When he rolled to get up, she put her knee on his back and pinned him. Twisting his ear to her muzzle, she let her snarl rumble around his flat head for a moment before speaking. “You are not so big to show teeth, pup. Next time you try, I will skin you.”
Hapta went limp, but did not beg. Hool thought about making him, but he was right—everyone was waiting on the hill, and they had been waiting long enough.
Settling down on to all four limbs, Hool trotted off to the south across the vast grasslands of her home. Ahead, she could see the holy hill named Adoo—the highest point for a very long way. At its top stood the grotto of sacred trees where the whole of Hool’s pack was gathered around, watching her approach. In the crowd, she could pick out her eldest daughter, Groodan, and her second son, Hoodrad, but the pups were nowhere to be seen. Sniffing the breeze, she could catch the barest hint of their scent, and guessed they were near the center of the grotto—probably to get a better view. She reminded herself to scold Groodan for letting them slip away again. The girl-pup would be a terrible mother. Half her litter would end up griffon food for certain.
She stood and climbed on two legs up the slope of the hill. The pack, their eyes down and ears low, parted around her, some rattling bone charms and muttering to themselves. Hool could only catch pieces of their prayers, so it was difficult to say who was with her or against her.
It was cold at the top of the hill. She wished she could have brought a hide to wear, but Mogro the shaman had been very specific—no hides, no charms, no weapons. A shaman speaking from a holy hill was not to be denied, and so she came naked. As she suspected, she spied her youngest—Brana and Opa—sitting quietly at the front of the pack. Their ears perked up when she passed by and Brana opened his mouth to speak, but she stilled him with a hard glare and he sat down again—such a good pup, he was.
At the center of the grotto, in a ring of dirt and dry leaves, waited Broda. She had shaved parts of her black fur to the skin in the traditional patterns of a warrior, though the effect was not flattering—Broda was always too bony to look menacing. As Hool entered the ring, Broda showed her teeth and stomped on the ground. Hool did not meet her gaze, and instead looked at Mogro, who came to stand between them.
By comparison with Broda, Mogro was a giant. Though old and graying around the muzzle, he was broad as a stallion and stood head and shoulders above all the gnolls present, even Brekhool herself. He wore many necklaces of holy bones that clattered in the wind, and he leaned upon a great staff that bore the ears, fingers, and teeth of defeated foes on long rawhide strings. It was said that when Mogro grew angry, even the earth trembled.
What little noise there had been before Hool entered the ring at the center of the grotto was now gone. All eyes were on the shaman. For long moments only the rustle of the dead leaves in the wind and the faint clatter of Mogro’s holy bones disturbed the silence of the hill. Then, some of the younger pups began to grumble and whine at the delay, and their mothers snarled for them to be quiet. Behind her, Hool knew that Brana was fidgeting, but he made no sound. Such a good pup! She would make certain to hunt him a fine scatterlark for breakfast tomorrow.
“Do not listen for your children, Brekhool. You have other worries at this moment.” Mogro’s deep voice was like a thunderclap. Dead silence followed his words. Even the wind died.
Hool bowed her head. “Sorry, Wise Mogro.”
He held up a hand and then raised his staff. “Brekhool, daughter of Agmor, why do you come to Adoo?”
“I come to be First of my pack.”
Mogro shook the staff twice. “Your pack has its First, and it is Broda.”
Brekhool’s ears flattened against her head. “Then I will throw her down.”
Mogro shook the staff twice more, and turned to Broda. “What say you, Broda, First of your pack?”
Broda’s yellow eyes burned. “Let her come.”
“So be it.” Said Mogro, and he drove the staff into the earth.
Broda roared and leapt at Hool. Bearing her teeth, Hool threw her shoulder into her rival’s path, and knocked the lighter gnoll sprawling on the ground. Teeth bared, Hool pressed her advantage, leaping on Broda’s back and bringing her fists down on the back of her head. Flipping over, Broda and Hool grappled and rolled in the dirt.
Around them, the yips and barks of the pack cheered them on. Hool heard Opa singing, “Momma mighty, big and tall! Momma mighty make her fall! She is ugly, she is mean! Break her bottom, make her scream!”
Brekhool was far stronger than Broda, but Broda was very quick, and so the two wrestled for some time without either gaining the advantage. Finally, Hool managed to wrap her jaws around Broda’s forearm and bore down, breaking it. Broda yelped and punched Hool in the nose hard enough to make lights dance in her eyes. They broke apart, and circled one another around the ring.
Broda snarled, nursing her arm. “You will not win, Hool. The sky and the earth are singing for me.”
Brekhool wiped blood from her nose. “The sky and the earth sound a lot like my pups.”
Broda charged in again. Hool evaded her jaws and kicked her in the knee. As she went down, Hool was on top of her, raining blows on her face and neck. She heard Brana and Opa cheering as she smashed Broda’s head into the ground over and over.
Sitting on Broda’s chest, Hool roared in her face. “You killed Agmor so you could be First!”
Broda twisted and tried to scramble away, but Hool grabbed her ears and wrenched her back into the hold, still roaring. “You killed him with poison, like a dirty human!”
“No!” Broda yelped, weakly trying to ward off the blows.
Rage thrilled through Hool’s body, and she smashed her rival’s head against the ground so hard that one of Broda’s teeth came loose. “You will say it! You will say you poisoned my Dadda, or I swear I will take your throat, and wear your skin as a coat!”
Broda made another escape attempt, but did not get far. Hool sat on her chest, her golden eyes blazing with anger. This was it! This was her moment of triumph! A whole year she had waited for this moment, waited for the murderess to be at her mercy. No more being called a liar. No more ugly whispers behind her back, no more vicious rumors being spread by Broda and her brood. It all ended here and now.
“Say it!” Brekhool roared, striking Broda again. One of her rival’s eyes was swollen shut, and blood was pouring from her nose and mouth.
Broda coughed and barked a single word, “Wind!”
At that moment, a great gust blew through the grotto and hit Hool with such force that she was thrown across the ring and against the trunk of a tree. Her breath rushed past her lips, and she fell to the ground, dazed and gasping. Her thoughts screamed, “No! Get up!”
It was too late. Hool rolled to her feet just in time to catch Broda’s charge in the chest. Her head hit the tree trunk with a crack, and the world spun. She heard the pack howling, but whether it was from joy or shock, she couldn’t tell. The next thing she felt was Broda’s teeth at her throat.
She had lost.
“Enough!” Mogro took his staff from the ground. “The challenge is ended.”
Broda released Hool’s throat and limped to Mogro’s side. “Thank the wind and earth.”
“She is a liar, Wise Mogro!” Hool had pulled herself up by the tree and was still dizzy.
Broda growled. “You are not First, pup! You are defeated!”
“You nasty, dirty human-pet! You used magic, that was human magic that threw me!” Hool looked around at the pack. Their eyes were downcast. “Listen to me—the wind does not pick gnolls up and hurl them against trees. Don’t be stupid!”
Only Mogro looked at her. “The wind does what the wind wills, Brekhool. All the stories tell this. Did not Broda call out to the wind for aid?”
Hool snorted. “The wind does not obey Broda.”
Mogro nodded his head. “It did just now. You must accept it.”
“I will not. It isn’t possible.” How could it be? Broda? A wind-master? No. Never—she cheated. She had to have cheated. This couldn’t be happening.
“You will submit to me, Hool.” Broda said, showing her bloody and uneven teeth.
Hool looked to the rest of the pack. “Are all of you blind? Can’t you see what happened? It isn’t possible! She is a liar! I have seen her with the humans—she makes deals, she trades with them, she goes to their cities. How can you follow her?” Her voice cracked, and she realized she was close to howling. She closed her mouth and took a deep breath. “Mogro, please.”
Mogro shook his head. “The battle is finished, and you are the loser. You must obey Broda.”
“She will never obey me.” Broda snorted. “She thinks that just because she was Agmor’s favorite pup, she is special.”
“Do not speak his name, Broda. I will kill you for it.”
Broda looked to the pack. “You see? Even when beaten she threatens me! This is against the laws of the pack. Brekhool is dangerous, and a threat to us all.”
The pack kept its eyes lowered to their First, but there were a few snorts and yips of assent. Hool looked at Brana and Opa; their eyes were not dropped. They glared at Broda, and showed their teeth. Broda saw them, and growled. “Look at her pups—even the littlest ones defy me!”
Hapta was the first to speak, “What should we do, Momma?”
Broda turned slowly to Hool, her battered face leering. “Brekhool, daughter of Agmor, you are not our pack any longer.”
Gasps and barks of shock all around. Brekhool herself blinked. “Wh…what?!”
“You heard me, Hool. You are not of our pack. Go away and never come back.”
“No.” Hool looked to Mogro, “She can’t do that!”
Mogro heaved a great sigh that caused his jowls to flutter, and shook his staff three times. “It is so. Broda, the First of her pack, has banished Brekhool. She is never to return.”
“No! My puppies!” Brekhool yelped.
Mogro’s black eyes were stern, impassive. “You must go. Your puppies remain with their pack, as it should be.”
Terror made a knot in Hool’s stomach. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. “But…where? Where can I go? There is nowhere else!”
One by one, the pack turned their backs. An older gnoll picked up Opa and Brana and turned them around as well, even as Brana’s soft voice asked, “But why? Why does Momma have to go?”
Broda, snickering, turned her back as well, leaving only Mogro. Hool threw herself to his feet. “No, I won’t go! I won’t leave!”
Mogro kicked her back. “You must go.” Then he turned away.
Hool remained at the top of the holy hill named Adoo for many hours, howling at her pack to look at her, but none did. Brana and Opa had to be carried off, so that they could not speak to her. Finally, weeping, she slowly made her way through the crowd and down the hill again. Every step was heavy, and with every foot she drew away from her family, her home, her people, she felt an unbearable anguish build in the depths of her body. It was as though she were slowly tearing off an arm, so great was the desire to turn back, to stop the pain growing greater and greater. When she finally turned to look, the pack had moved on and the hill was empty, but for one.
Brana sat at the edge of the grove, his fluffy mane of gold fur waving in the wind. The little gnoll, no more than two years old, raised his head and howled.
It was the last time Brekhool heard his voice.