There was a time not long ago, when man believed.
When morals were held in hand alongside faith, and people were content to surrender to powers beyond their mortal capability, for a divine favor.
And life is always harsh.
The people of the village of Onslo knew it well.
Stuck like a limpet on a sea rock, the village rooted against a steep slope, close to the highest peaks of Mount Vunio.
On its feet, the thick cloud blanket kept the village away from an old, forgotten world beneath. The Cloud Gods were not remembered fondly, or hatefully there. In such a place their names were nothing more than a distant memory.
Someone else's tale.
But for the people of Onslo, the giants carried a relentless winter on their backs. And spring, was something that had to be earned, by blood and sweat and sacrifice.
They believed that bird eyes hanged high on the branches of a pine tree revealed hunting prey, and that the backbones of dead animals should be buried in the snow, so they can return when the time comes. Piles of small stones and red ribbons guarded the passage to the forest, keeping the winter spirits away. Everyone wore blue markings across the face, to communicate with each other, while the heat of a breath was too vital to be wasted on mere speech.
They believed in what they did. A path towards survival which held no room for churches or for priests. Of them, they had no need.
They carried their lives with a ritualistic devotion to the simple and the mundane, filled with respect and fear of something both sacred and unhallowed:
The old stone well in the middle of the village.
A large rock was covering its mouth and a thick layer of snow concealed it from sight. No villager looked or walked around the well, nobody mentioned it in their discussions. Instead, they lowered their heads, but not out of ignorance.
It was because they knew that underneath the snow and the rocks, through the hollow caves and below the mountain's feet, the well led to the ever-burning fires of the underworld.
Inside the lair of the beast.
And it wasn't yet time to release its habitant.
They were bound to a cruel punishment, for a sin nobody remembered committing, even though their memories went way back and all of them counted dozens of winters upon their snow-white hair.
For there were no young people in Onslo.
None, except an infant boy, the baker's son who hadn't yet seen his first season. Aloof of his people's fate, he clung to his mother's wrinkled chest, whose tears while giving birth had since frozen on her cheeks.
It was a miracle they had said.
A gift from the Gods.
With renewed hope the villagers of Onslo counted the days. The bad ones; with the snowstorms and the slashing winds, and the worse; when the winter-wolves wouldn't leave without a bloody offering. Time was passing and gratitude was paid for every moment of serenity they had put behind their backs.
Until, one day, a small bird flew over to the village and sat upon the frozen well. Its feathers were like the cloudless sky, pure and radiant, and inside its beak carried a pine cone.
The villagers noticed the bird and hurried to lock themselves inside their houses, bolting behind them windows and doors.
The time had come.
The bird dropped the pine cone and flew away. Its flapping wings seemed to take away all sound, as it disappeared inside the forest.
Silence loomed above the village like a thick cloud of tar, muffling every bit of sound with its suffocating presence. Men and animals alike, frozen into statues of flesh, exchanged only scared glances, in mute anticipation.
So when the earth started to shake, even in the slightest shiver, everyone was able to tell.
The beast was on its way.
With a thunderous blast the rock which covered the well was smashed into a thousand marbles. And from inside came the beast, with coat dark as night and eyes red as hate. It was the Black Goat. The Devil's offering.
The snow melted under the Black Goat's cloven hooves, revealing a soil rotten and sick. Gurgling sounds came out of its bloated belly and a hissing breath out of its watery mouth.
A savage and malevolent creature it was. It would mindlessly tear apart anyone foolish enough to cross its path, but would not feast on mere humans. Their meat was tainted and their blood smelled of fear, while the beast craved for more exalted flavors. With wide steps, it crossed the village, cleaving behind it a trail of decay.
It entered the forest and put its dripping snout down to the ground, to find food to fill its empty stomach. With prying moves it followed the meal's smell through ice and snow. It was one of dirt and mold, but made the beast shiver with insatiable hunger. The scent, led it to the entrance of the deep forest. A dense wall of rocks stretched above and away, and in the middle two frozen trees formed an arch bearing ancient carvings. They reflected the snow's glare, glittering with an eerie light.
The beast though, wouldn't bring itself to pass through the arch.
It stopped, and not out of fear. For the beast knew no fear. Nor out of intellect, for it could not discern the forest's watchful traps. Animal instinct alone, controlled its every move.
Its nose was wildly sniffing the ground and in maniacal rage, the beast started to dig the snow.
Soon after, its feral instincts paid off with a great sight.
The Swine God was sleeping underneath.
The beast had never eaten before and the unfamiliar feel of starvation was demanding to be quenched. So, it woke the Swine God from his slumber, opened wide its hungry mouth, and before he could react, swallowed him whole.
Invigorated, the beast gave out a loud cry of hysterical pleasure, as the feeling of satiation ran through its body.
But it did not stop there to rest or to sleep.
After having gained strength from its meal, it passed through the arch. Slowly fading away, like being absorbed by its menacing form, the carvings were unable to harm it anymore.
Inside the deep forest the beast pressed on, and did not stop, until it came across the frozen lake.
In the middle, lying on a rock, the Elk God was dreaming of greenless meadows. The moat of fragile ice surrounding her, stretched to the shore like a crystalline water lily.
Sensing the perils underneath the lake's crackling surface, the beast made rounds around it to find safe footing towards the sleeping God. But the ice would always break and the beast's legs began to ache from the biting cold waters.
So the beast decided to try a different path.
It moved away from the lake, back to where the treeline was. Then, it lowered its head, hit the ground and ran. With furious galloping it reached the shore and leaped across the lake.
Like a catapult stone, the beast tossed itself through the air and with its heavy hooves landed on top of the Elk God's head. The repulsive sound of bone cracking echoed through the forest, as brains and eyes poured out of her shattered skull. The beast pulled out her magnificent horns and wore them like a savage king's crown on its head.
Dead God blood was pouring inside the lake, and as it spread, the lake became solid. Like a red, flat rock it would remain, untouched by time and seasons, to remind of innocence lost.
The forest waved like a white hay field, as the cold winds bent the tree tops, and the beast headed for its next prey.
The Bear God lied in realms of torpor, hidden in a cave. Smelling the ill-bearing stench of his enemy, he rose up to defend himself. He was brave and fierce, but the beast had readied itself for this encounter and flaunted its horns. It dodged the sharp claws of the Bear God and stopped his deadly fangs. With an unstoppable charge, it impaled him against the roof of the cave, and the mighty bear's guts spilled all over the beast's black pelt. In sacrilegious brutality, the beast wore the Bear God's internals around its neck and painted its face with his blood.
It had now the courage to face its final enemy.
Living at the highest peak of mount Vunio, inside the eldest willow tree, crowned with ivy vines and holding a pine cone staff, the king was waiting for his promised offering.
When the Black Goat reached the ancient willow and witnessed the colossal wooden pillar of hollows and gnarls its bark formed, it hesitated for a moment. The towering branches concealed the sky, replacing it with a globe of evergreen leaves, and their light dressed the roots in emerald colors.
The ancient bark, was then ripped in half and from its infinite circles, He-who-comes-out-of-the-tree appeared.
The goat-legged King and the bringer of delirium. He-of-the-grapes and killer of goats.
His transcendent skin glowed with a velvet glaze as he stood bare, in all his phallic glory, before the beast.
Both were bound by an ancient pact, to take part in this primeval choreography, and only one was destined to come out unchanged.
So, the beast and the king hit their hooves against the blessed soil and charged each other.
Many times were the beast's horns blocked by the king's wooden staff and such as many did they pierce his fragile flesh. The air became heavy with the acidic smell of vinegar coming out of the king's wounds. Intoxicated from the odors and delirious from the battle, they kept fighting in a glorious dance, as their minds met inside the trance.
The realms of the king were infested with poisonous vines and spider webs and shadows. There, he was hiding between grapevines and moonlight, moving around like thin air to trick the beast. Every time it almost put its horns inside the king, his image would vanish and he would emerge in a different place.
Restlessly, the beast dashed and failed and cried in frenzy, for many desperate hours, but in the end it got tired. In a broken pace it stumbled. It slipped on a puddle of wine and fell.
The king saw the beast down and broke his illusion. He raised his pine cone staff and brought it down against the beast's belly. It cut wide and deep, and from inside the open stomach the Swine God's half eaten carcass poured out.
The beast was helpless on the ground, unable to fight back and the king took its head in his hands and broke both of its antlers.
The Black Goat cried in painful agony.
It twitched and moaned as he did.
He pulled the bear's guts around its neck. He pulled them firmly, until it breathed no more.
The beast was dead, and around its corpse, the king gathered his followers. Like him, they were half goat and half man. They came out of the tree playing on pan flutes and singing in enchanting voices. And as they did, the king took a knife and started to skin the beast. He sliced and pulled the black pelt off its body, from waist to head.
Wearing the Black Goat's pelt around his shoulders, the king begun to sing. His voice sounded like a thousand ringing bells and streams pouring into waterfalls. Colorful like a peacock and powerful like a mountain. He chanted in the All-Mother language, of ashes and dust, of curses and of sacrifice. A price paid, for nothing given.
He stopped above the beast and with a word which came out of his lips like the faintest breath, asked it to rise.
And the beast came back to life. It opened its newborn eyes and witnessed its divine transformation. Its bottom half was still hoofed and furry, but his upper half was now human, only for the two small horns protruding from its forehead.
It joined the merry company, and before their king, all started to dance, drunk from his sweet wine. In spirals and in circles, in couples and in chaotic combs, they communicated with their bodies, lost inside nature's primal ways. They danced until the morning. They danced the dance of rebirth.
When the first light of dawn came, it spread throughout the forest like a green flame, melting the ice and heating the land. The birds were the first ones to awake and in cheerful chirping they hurried to announce:
Winter was no more.
Back in the village of Onslo, the rooftops of the houses were dripping with melting snow clanging against the metal pipes. The people, they all knew that winter was over, but none of them tried to go out. They kept inside their houses, unmoving.
Still, waiting for one last thing.
A sound of a door unlocking, followed by unwilling steps against the muddy soil, broke the silence. The baker's wife came out of her house, holding her little boy in her frail arms.
She headed for the open well, singing with a broken voice:
My dearest child I leave you now
your pure soul I forsake
and let the devil take it
for one more spring