This is the one, people. This is the story from which this collection draws its name. It's the longest of the stories, and certainly the most sprawling. It begins with the titular character, Athan the barbarian warlord, being summoned to the tent of the tribal shaman, Thune, to hear of his vision and prophecy. With his last breath, the old man gasps out a prophecy that leaves Athan with a choice. He may stay at home and live the rest of his days raiding amongst the barbarian tribes, or he may undergo a quest that will end the world as the tribes know it, but one which will result in the rebirth of man and Athan's progeny ruling down through centuries.
Of course Athan takes the quest, brings down the barrier protecting the tribe's ancient enemies, the Ullin, from the warlike barbarians, meets a princess and sires the child that changes the world.
In many ways, this work shares similar themes with The Challenger's Garland. You have cultures that have atrophied and grown stale, and the only way to reinvigorate them is through fresh blood. You have two kingdoms that mirror each other - one dark and one light, or one decidedly masculine and one decidedly feminine, and it is only through a union of the two that growth can occur.
On the other hand, this is a traditional quest story. The hero must visit a sea witch and resist her powers, both subtle and unsubtle, to break through the barrier. He faces down the ghosts of the past - literally - who provide him with important exposition, and who he defeats not by strength of arms, but by sheer honesty and compassion. He escapes imprisonment and scales the exterior of a tall tower to reach a princess.
Once there, he again finds that strength of arms will not avail him, and he is forced to seduce the princess. By fathering her child, he breaks the spell that holds the world in stasis, and he returns to a tribe that is also changed by the experience. Interestingly, the need for fresh blood to renew a dying world is paralleled in that blood has to be spilled, and a new bloodline established. The tale begins with the death of Athune and ends with the birth of Athan's child. There's a theme of death and rebirth running through this story that helps keep it grounded in a serious mood.
The denouement is quick to read, but covers the millennia that follow. In just two paragraphs we learn how Athan's little adventure causes the barrier between his land and the other to fall, and how it lead to the return of the gods to the lands.
He ends by teasing that the stories hinted at in the denouement are for another time. Let's all hope another time comes sooner rather than later.