They came down out of the hills, through the forest-shrouded dark, and they brought fire and death upon the valleys below. Black steel to rend flesh and spill blood upon the earth, fire to set house and village ablaze. They rode out of the forests in the dark, under the moon when the mists rose from the black soil and the nightbirds sang. And they vanished by dawn, back into the mysterious wilderness, leaving none behind but the dead.
We came after, from the hollow, following the river northward to the place where the smoke rose up. There were nine of us, all that would come from the villages and farms close by. Some of us had kin we feared for, while others answered the call of danger from some deep instinct. I was one. I was nineteen that year and yet unmarried. I was too big, they said, too tall and too wild to attract any man. I was restless in those days, and so when old Joran called for men to follow him to the place of killing I came. He did not refuse me, because there were so few others who answered, and because he knew I was the strongest.
We were not warriors, most of us. Joran was, though he was not young any more. It was he we followed and trusted. He led us through the forest paths along the river, unafraid. He had his old armor and his sword and shield, and he had a new spear as did I, made in haste from an old point and a new haft that was not quite straight. I wanted to walk beside him, but I did not quite dare.
We smelled the smoke when we came close to the first village, and that was the first time I smelled burnt human flesh and bone. The others were all afraid, as I was. I tried not to show it, but I wondered of they could see it. We came into the open, where the farmers had dug out their hard-cleared fields around the few houses, and we saw it was all gone. The wood and thatch houses were all burnt down to black stains, and on the ground I saw the butchered remains. The flesh was black and split, the heads and arms severed and ripped apart. The smell was overpowering, and I was not the only one who retched.
Joran went alone into the ruin and knelt on the ash-dusted earth. He looked around him, as if the very earth might tell him what he wished to know. I wanted to learn from him, so I followed and stood beside him as he studied the destruction. Beyond the fields the black shroud of the ancient forest lay upon the hills like a stain, and when he looked up to the hills, so did I. We all knew from childhood to fear the forest, that something terrible lived there, or had once. We all knew that we should not hunt or herd or wander too far into those wilds. But I did not know why, nor did the rest of the young ones.
Joran pointed to the ground, and I saw bare footprints on the ash in among the blood and the blackened wood. “It’s them,” he said. “They have come again.”
“It is bandits,” said an older man named Targo. “They robbed and burned the village.”
“No,” Joran said. “They killed, and then burned. No one escaped.” He stood and pointed west, to where another column of smoke rose up. “And there, another. There are not enough dead here for all those of the village. They took prisoners.” he stabbed his spear into the earth and spat to one side. “They took them away into the forest.”
“No,” Targo said. “No one comes from the forest.” He sounded afraid.
“They took them to the stone,” Joran said. “It has begun again.” He took his spear in his hand, shook the dirt from the iron head. “If we go, there is still a chance we may stop them before they reach it, we might save some of them and spare ourselves.”
“We may die!” Targo said.
“We may,” Joran said. “But I will go, who will go with me?”
I gripped my spear and thumped the haft against the blackened earth. “I will go.”
All of us went. Once I said I would follow him, no man dared to be seen as a coward. Who would refuse to go where a girl did not fear? They paled and spat and muttered oaths, but they all followed as Joran led us up the long slope of the ground away from the burnt village. We passed beyond the fields and then climbed the rocky slope toward the hills themselves. To my eye they seemed to brood, watching us, timeless and ancient. The forest on them was thick and black as soot, and I wondered what secrets hid there. I wanted to ask Joran, but it was a hard climb, and all our breath was needed for it.
Before we entered the forest, we came upon the trail. The dry, late-autumn grasses were beaten down by the passage of many feet, and blood stained the ground. The path led upward into the hills, and there was no more talk of bandits. All the men grew silent as stones, and everyone clutched their weapons. I was glad to have a spear, for it served as a walking stick as well as a comfort.
When we were almost to the trees Joran paused so we could rest, and he beckoned me closer. “Brona, if we are attacked stay on my left and guard me.” He tapped his temple. “I cannot see as well on this side anymore. I don’t want to be caught on my blind side.”
I nodded, burning with questions I hesitated to ask. “I will.”
“You are a big girl, and strong,” he said. “Hold the spear in both hands, and aim for the gut.” He patted his belly, hand slapping on the mail he wore. I wondered if the extra weight tired him. “Stab hard, then pull back at once, else they may climb the haft and trap it. If they are close, stab and then turn, from here.” He showed me, bracing his own spear against his hip. “It will throw them off their feet.”
I nodded again, proud that he spoke to me as an equal, that he did not think I was less for being a woman. I looked ahead to the dark trees. They seemed so much taller as we drew near them. “You think we will be attacked?”
“If they watch from the trees, they have seen us coming.” He rubbed at his beard. “I think they will wait for us.”
“Who are they?” I said, fearing the answer, fearing no answer.
“The people of the black stone,” he said, his voice aged and fearful. “The servants of the monolith.”
They attacked us as we entered the forest, just as the shadows of the trees closed overhead and the sky disappeared. We climbed a rocky defile lined with fallen leaves and jagged rocks, and they leaped from hiding and sprang down upon is. I saw pale faces and black eyes, the shine of the light on axes and swords. Battle-screams tore the air, and two of our number turned and fled at the sound.
I did not flee. I turned and braced up my spear in both hands as a man with a long black beard hurtled down the embankment upon me, an axe in his hands and his eyes like blank stones. He howled, teeth bared and white and long, and I caught him in the guts with my spearpoint and plunged it in. Blood shot out, spraying over me, and then he was impaled and I could not get my weapon free. I shoved sideways and he tumbled away from me, axe falling from his hands. I bent and caught it up just as the whole world seemed to fracture into chaos.
There were screams and the sound of so many blows all falling at once – on armor and steel and flesh. A man fell on me with shield and sword in his hands, and he struck at me and I put the axe in his way and caught the blow, only for the force of it to dash the back of it against my forehead.
I stumbled back and fell among the rocks, and he leaped in to finish me, but then Joran was there and he smashed his shield into the man, using all his weight, and flung him back. It was enough for me to get up. My blood ran into my face and I blinked it away, and then I was angry.
Another man stumbled into me, raving and flourishing a bloodied sword, and I set both hands on the axe and chopped down with all my strength. The axe-blade sheared off his ear and then bit deep into his shoulder with a sickening sound. The black steel chopped through the bones and when I jerked it out of the wound blood sprayed out in a torrent. I shoved the man aside and then the other swordsman was on me again. I smote my axe upon his shield with so much force it was split in half and my blade cut into his arm. He lost his footing in the rocks and fell, and I leaped on him with a cry.
He tried to bring his sword up but I stepped on his arm and felt the bones snap, and then I split his face open with the axe, and then hit him again, and again. Blood flowed out and covered the rocks, splattered my face and I tasted it and spat it back out. I staggered back from him, and then it was quiet, and I wiped blood from my eyes and looked around.
In moments the gully had been transformed into a place of butchery. Two of our men had fled and I did not see them, three more were dead, one of them gagging his last and clutching at the spear through his body. The bodies of three of the invaders lay twisted in among them. I stood over two with blooded axe, and Joran had accounted for three. His spear was missing and he stood breathing hard with his sword in hand. It had all been so fast.
I sat down hard on a stone, and we all breathed and blinked, shocked by it. All my life I had dreamed of battle, and now this was it. The smell of dead men was quick and foul, and the other two men – Targo and a farmboy named Ath – both bent and vomited. I felt dizzy, but I did not purge myself, and I was proud of that.
Joran cleaned his sword with hands that shook. He sheathed it, and then took up his spear. It was embedded in a dead man, and he had to rip it free. The corpse wheezed when he stepped on it. I saw all the raiders were of a similar look, with very white skin and blank eyes, like polished black stones. Their eyes were bruised-looking as well, shadowed. They looked like corpses, though their blood was plentiful, and hot. It steamed in the cool air.
“It’s them,” Targo said. “Curse all the gods, it’s them.”
“What are they?” I said. I looked at Ath, and he did not know either. I could see that in his face. I looked at Joran. “You know what they are.”
He climbed a way up the defile, away from the smell, and then sat down on a rock. He began to scoop up handfuls of dirt and used them to clean the blood from his spear-haft. I followed him, the others behind me, and I took a rag from my belt and tried to clean off my face. Joran looked very old then, with blood in his gray hair.
“They came in my father’s time, before I was born. Down from the hills by night. They killed many, and took the rest. We learned they killed women and children and the old – any who were not suitable warriors. They took only the fittest. They came by night, and never moved by day unless they were under the shelter of the forest.” He looked up at the canopy above us. “They do not come forth by day, into the light.”
He cleaned blood from his spearpoint. “Some men followed, to see if they could find where they came from, who they were. Only one man returned. He told the story, and soon they saw it was true. They took their prisoners high in the hills, to a place where a great black stone rises up on the edge of a precipice, and there the power of the stone enslaves them, and makes them into what you see.” He gestured down at the dead below us. “They are consumed, and made into madmen who live to hunt and to kill and ravage.”
I looked down at the bodies, the smell still creeping after us, and I turned away. Did some of them look familiar? I could not say.
“It is why we have to find the prisoners, and free them. If we do not, they will come back, and we will not know them any longer. They will be enslaved by that dark power.” He thrust his spear into the ground four or five times, twisting it so the soil cleaned the iron. “Three winters it took, the last time. Three winters of killing and dying before the last of them was destroyed, and they came no more. If we do not strike, they will grow stronger.”
“We can’t stop them,” Targo said. “We are just four, and they will be many. We have to go back and warn the other villages, gather more men.”
“Go back then,” Joran said. “I will go on alone, if I must. I will find them before they reach the stone, and free the prisoners. If I do not, then tomorrow we will see them again.” He stood up.
“I will go with you,” I said.
He nodded. “Good. Go down and take weapons from the dead, and a shield, if there is an unbroken one. Then follow quickly.” He looked up to the fading light. “Soon it will be dark.”
I took a sword from the dead, and a long black shield. I wore the sword on my belt and took up my spear again. It was stained with blood and I had to clean it as best I could. Targo did not want to come with us, and he spent a good amount of time convincing Ath to go with him, so by the time Joran and I went on, they both turned back and headed for their homes, promising us they would warn the people. I thought they were cowards, but I said nothing.
I followed Joran up into the hills, and now I was alert for anything, watching every shadow and behind every tree. The forest grew thicker, and the undergrowth more tangled, and it became more and more difficult to go on. I was sure we would be ambushed at every turn, but we saw and heard nothing. Even though it was just after mid-day, the trees blotted out the sky, and it was as if dusk covered the whole earth.
I looked for signs of others passing before us, but I saw nothing. I did not know how to read the trails, and I trusted that Joran did. I had much I wanted to ask him, but I needed all my breath for climbing, and so did he. I was much younger, so I did not tire as quickly, and before long I was beside him, helping him up the steep slopes.
We came to a place where giant stones grown green with moss leaned and slumped against one another, making a kind of arch, and Joran grunted and gestured ahead. “Be cautious here.” I gripped my shield and my spear and followed him through, and we came out into a ravine that curved away out of sight ahead. The air was damp, and a small stream flowed down and through it. The rocks were covered in green, and in among them I saw many shapes of weapons or of skeletons. Skulls lay heaped to one side, and the hilts of swords thrust up from the moss and weeds.
“What is this place?” I said. I saw that many of the fallen weapons were on the same black steel as the sword I carried. “Is this where they came from?”
“No,” Joran said. “This is where they ended. I never thought I would see this.” He sat down on a heavy stone. “My father told me. They trapped the last of the raiders here, and slaughtered them. He would not say how many men died. He only said it was the end.”
“Where did they come from?” I asked. “This.” I touched the black sword that hung at my side. “This is not like ordinary steel.”
“No,” he said. “I have always thought another race must have lived here, in these hills, in another age. A clan who worshiped the stone, and forged that dark metal. This forest is filled with old ruins, if you seek for them. Signs of things raised by the hand of man in another age. Perhaps they raised the stone, or perhaps it was already here. Something older than man. I believe that.” He sighed. “We cannot go much further.”
I looked up to the trees as wind sighed through them. “Are we close to it?”
“Yes, I think we are. My father said this place was not far from the stone. He was the only man to ever look on it and return with his mind still his own. And he saw it from afar. He said it called to him, and some nights when the winds howled he woke from ill dreams with a cry on his lips. Perhaps it never ceased to call to him. He said it was a terrible thing, but would say no more than that.” Joran looked up to the sky. “We should turn back.”
“Turn back?” I was confused, and afraid, and disappointed, there was a bitter taste in my mouth.
“It is too late,” he said. “We have not caught up to them, and we will not. We cannot reach them before dark, and the two of us cannot save their prisoners. We should go.”
I heard a rattle of stones, and sticks breaking as under footfalls, and I turned to face up the hill, my spear ready. Joran stood up. “You must go now. Run.”
I looked up and saw the forms of men darken the ridge above. Too many of them. Joran readied his spear and shield. “Run!”
I ran. I hated myself for it, but I ran back down the ravine as the sound of war-screams rent the air. My spear was too heavy and I let it fall clattering to the stones. I splashed in the stream and nearly fell. I heard the sounds of battle behind me, the clash of sword and spear and bone. I heard Joran bellow his battle cry and it was like the sound of a beast. I was afraid of him then, even as I knew I left him to die.
I raced under the arch at the opening of the cut and they fell upon me there, four of them. I saw a shadow and just had time to lift my shield and catch the sword-blow. It bit a piece from the rim and I staggered. I almost fell on the rough footing, and had I fallen, they would have killed me.
But I caught myself, and then I felt anger inside me again, and my shame was there as well, and I drew my stolen sword with the fire in me to burn it away. Another one leaped down on me and I deflected his spear-stroke with my shield and then I smote him so murderously on the shoulder that my sword bit through his flesh and cleaved through to his heart. Black blood spurted into the air, and I screamed my own wrath.
Two of them closed on me with axes and then it was a flurry of strokes and counters. My sword rang and my shield was battered and I had no time to think, only fight. I struck back with all my power, grunting and snarling, and one of them fell back with a severed arm. Blood painted the green stone, and I met the other one in another terrible exchange of blows. For a moment I forgot the fourth man, and so he almost took me from behind, but I caught the motion in the corner of my eye and turned at the last moment.
On instinct I smashed the edge of my shield against his face and blood splattered out of him. I felt his bones crush under the blow. The other one almost cleft my skull with his axe but I ducked back and then rushed in, smashed my shield into him so hard it broke in two. We went down to the rocky ground together. I rolled off him and then lunged, driving my sword downward into his eye. He caught the wide black blade and tried to hold it back, but I shoved it through his grip until it cut his fingers off and my blade plunged through his skull with a crunching sound.
I left my sword embedded in bone, staggered up and flung away my broken shield. I grabbed up an axe and then laid about me with unreasoning fury, chopping the fallen into pieces until they were hacked apart and motionless, and I stood over them covered in blood, my breath like a bellows.
All was quiet, and I looked up the ravine but saw nothing. Axe in hand I ran back to where I left Joran, sick inside. I knew I would find his dead body, and it made my anger rise even higher. I felt such shame that I left him. A moment of fear and it burned me like scalding water. I gripped the axe in both my hands, ready to kill and die.
I came to the place, and the rocks were painted with blood. I saw there were six of the raiders butchered on the ground, cut to pieces, but there was no sign of Joran. I looked and I found his broken shield, his spear thrust through a dead man, and under another body I found his sword, painted with blood and notched from battle, but still straight and light in my hands. I tore cloth from the dead and cleaned the steel, looked at it and then upward into the hills. They had taken him, I knew that. They were taking him to the stone, and there they would make him one of them. I would see him again, but he would not be himself, he would have been burned away by that dark power.
I looked back down the hill, toward my home, and then I took Joran’s sword in a strong grip and climbed after him. I would not turn back.
There was a trail of blood, and I followed it through the growing darkness. When the sun passed behind the hills, it cast a sudden shadow over everything, and I felt cold. I huddled in my cloak as I climbed, wishing I could make a fire, but I knew I would not dare stop in the hills, not now. I started at every small sound, sure I was about to be attacked. I gripped Joran’s sword and held it ready, waiting for the sound of war cries, but none came.
It grew darker still, and then I could scarcely see to walk, and I wondered if I could go on. But then I heard the sounds, and I knew I was close to what I sought, and my heart beat faster within me. I heard a low sound, steady, repeating, like wind, or waves. Then I knew it for voices raised in a chant, and felt afraid.
I climbed until I crested a rise, and I found myself looking across a shallow vale to where the hillside rose up almost sheer, a great dark cliff studded with ancient stones jagged as knives, and halfway up there was a ledge, only it was huge, and upon it grew a sort of heath covered in blackened grass and stunted growths, and at the center reared the stone.
As soon as I saw it, I felt my breath catch like a hook in my chest. It looked like the shadow of a man, or a beast. It was hard to make out details, for it was black and reflected almost no light. Around the base of it gathered a multitude – at least a hundred men – and their torchlight did almost nothing to illuminate the great monolith. They chanted, circling it in a slow shuffle, stomping their feet and shouting wordless invocations. The sight of it made my blood cold.
I looked then at the dark monolith and felt the jaws of it close on my mind, pulling at me. It had a mind, a will of its own. It wanted me to come, and embrace it. I felt the power inside it, held over from long ages, the dim epoch when it was raised into the sky to watch over the deep valleys and the shadowed woodlands.
I looked down then, and I saw a line of prisoners bound neck to neck by ancient chains, led past towering bone-fires toward the stone, and my resolve knotted inside me like a fist. I turned away from that dark power, and swore to destroy it. I looked down at all of them, the slaves of the monolith, and I felt despair, because how could I stop them alone? There were too many to kill. Even our original number would have been hopelessly outnumbered. I did not even see how I could slip down and free Joran and some of the others. The fires were bright, and the stone. . . the stone knew I was close. It could feel my presence.
I stood for a moment, feeling the night wind rise, and I looked up at the hillside that reared behind the stone, dark and heavy with exposed stone and mortal points, and I saw then how I might undo what the monolith had done, and I smiled.
The night closed in as I climbed. It was not easy to follow the rim of the valley around in the dark, climbing among the rocks and the trees. I climbed over the remnants of ancient walls, and other pieces of black stone worked by human hands, and so I began to think that Joran was right, that indeed some ancient race had dwelled here, and this had been the center of their power. But I could not imagine the monolith as something made by human hands. I felt its presence in my mind, I felt its power, and I could not long look away from it. It was like a scar upon the world, that my gaze felt compelled to return to. I felt that is had always been here, perhaps buried under the earth until human hands unveiled it.
I drew closer to the stone, and the ground rose, becoming rougher. The slope grew steeper, and I had to thrust Joran’s sword into my belt and climb with both hands. The rock was hard and cold and jagged, and before long my hands were cut and bleeding. I was hungry as I had never been in my life, and afraid, and very far from home. But I would not turn away.
The chanting rose to a crescendo below me, and then I heard the screaming begin. I looked down and saw the whole vale of the stone there beneath me, lit by fires and now, also, by a grim radiance that crawled like mist over the monolith itself. The slaves chanted and shook their swords and spears at the sky, and I saw that one by one they forced the captives forward, and pressed their hands against the black stone, and then they screamed.
I saw them, one after another. Forced to touch that unclean monument, they shrieked, twisting and contorting as if they were on fire, and I saw their struggles weaken, and then they slumped to the earth, and they lay for the time it takes to draw three breaths, and then they rose, pale and hollow, and they raised their hands and joined the chanting. And then the next one was brought. I heard more screams and turned away. I was glad I was too high to see if one of them was Joran. I did not want to watch him while his soul was ripped away. I did not want to know it was his voice I heard.
I climbed, higher up the rock face that loomed behind the stone. It was hard going, but not so hard as it looked. The stone was cut by many ledges and passages, and even caves that led into the rock. The ghastly phosphor gleam that rose from the monolith flickered all around me, in among the rocks, and I saw that here were sealed tunnels, and others that had burst open from within, and I saw there an entire crypt that had broken and tumbled open, and that skeletons lay crushed in the rocks. I saw they were decked as kings in their forgotten tombs. They lay in their black steel finery, clutching their swords and spears and axes against the afterlife that was denied them. They lay like tyrants, interred ready to rise and go to war.
The chanting grew, and I saw the glow rise, and something ghostly moved from a fallen skull and coiled away through the air, and I understood it then. This race, long-dead, fallen into ruin and forgotten, their war-lords buried here above their black idol, waited ever for one to come. Once mortal eyes beheld the stone, they were drawn to it, and when they touched it, their essence was seared away and the ageless ghost of one of these long-fallen warriors took their place, their body. Thus the dead race awaited a new flesh to come and give them life again. It would go on, age after age, so long as the monolith endured.
Then I heard the rattle of stone below me, and I looked, and saw a line of warriors climbing in my wake, and fear knotted in my guts. I turned and climbed for the precipice above. I was close now. I dragged myself, exhausted and bleeding, over the rocks that thrust up like spearpoints.
I found a loose stone, long as my arm, and I pried it loose, cast it down at my pursuers It struck one, and he fell with a scream, plunging out of sight. I heard angry bellows from below, and the chanting faltered. I looked and saw the whole of the slaves coursing for the cliffside, beginning to climb it like angry ants. Now, at last, they woke to their danger. I turned away and climbed faster, until I reached the top.
Now I stood at the base of the great boulder I had seen from below. I set my back against it and drew Joran’s sword from my belt, and as the war-cries of my enemies rose from beneath me alongside the screams of the doomed, I stood at bay. A dozen warriors closed on me, howling, and I called upon every ancestor who ever raised a sword, and I fought as though I were twenty men.
The pinnacle was treacherous, and narrow, and when they came against me I struck at them with terrible, two-handed blows that sheared through flesh and bone and sent the pieces plunging over the edge. I cut them down and they fell against one another, dragged each other screaming over the precipice. I laughed at them then, and I think perhaps I saw a flicker of fear in their black eyes, or imagined that I did.
I cut down three, then five, while I took several wounds, and stood bleeding at bay there against the stone. They rushed me together and I killed two more. They seized me, dragged me down and tried to stab me, but I fought with them. Joran had called me the strongest, and I proved him right. I grabbed one by the neck and smashed his head against a rock, and then another stabbed down with his spear and I grabbed the haft and plunged the point into the crack where the great boulder was set in the cliff.
I kicked them away, sent more of them hurtling down into the darkness, and then I had a moment of freedom, the rest of them were coming, screaming up the cliff to reach me. I set both hands on the spear and wrenched at it. The black steel would not break, I knew that, and so I used all my strength, screaming as blood started from my wounds.
I wrenched at the spear, feeling the fell steel bend, and bend, until I was certain my arms would give way, and my bones snap. I waited to feel a sword pierce me. And then the great boulder shifted, and cracked free of the cliff, and the release of the strain flung me back, and I nearly fell alongside it. Instead I clung to the jagged rocks as I watched it fall.
It struck the cliff below me, shattering the rocks, smashing screaming warriors to pieces, and then a great part of the cliff collapsed and slid downward. It gathered more, and more. The tombs crumpled and the hillside fell in on itself, and as I clung to my perch I watched the entirety of the hillside plunge downward in a sudden roaring torrent. I howled my victory, but I could not even hear myself over the immensity of the sound. I saw the monolith standing there, glowing and pulsating and malevolent, and then the rockslide smashed into it like a wave of earth and crushed bone. I saw the monolith uprooted, and overturned, and then the whole valley was buried in dust and smoke, and there was silence again under the night.
I do not remember very much of my return. I stumbled through the hills, bleeding and shivering and starving. I remember when I emerged into the light as the sun came up. I remember crossing the empty fields as mist rose from the earth, and then I remember I fell as a crowd reached me. I heard voices, and questions, but I could not answer them.
I did my work that day, for the destroyers did not come again. The years passed, and I traveled away from my homeland. I wandered over many lands, and fought in wars and saw things no one from my homeland ever dreamed of. It was only when I grew aged that I returned to the lands of my youth, and found them softer and greener than I remembered, the sun warmer. The hills were no longer a place of terrors, and few even remembered the dark times.
Sometimes, in the night, I wake from dreams I cannot recall, and I stand and look up into the hills, to the black canopy of the ancient trees, and I wonder if it is still there, buried yet unsleeping. The monolith beneath the earth, awaiting another age, when men will uncover it, and find its power undimmed.