Boru made his way uphill, using his spear to help him climb the steep slope through the thick grass. The sky was overcast and low, and when he looked around to the hills he saw the rocky peaks cutting through the clouds like stone knives. Ahead of him his guide climbed the last short way over the narrow pass, and behind him his ten thegns toiled to keep up, spears in hand and shields on their backs. They bore wounds without complaint, for each of them was as sworn to this path as he.
He crested the pass, and stood on the rocky earth and looked on the cursed valley. Just as the story spoke, there was the ancient tower, and the still black tarn beside it. The forest on the far side of the vale hemmed it all in and brooded dark and ancient. Only ravens called in this place, and soon there would be food for them in plenty.
His guide was a short man of the hills, with blonde hair and a dark face. He was younger than he looked, for the life of the hillmen made them old before their days. He gestured beyond. “There, the bloody tower, and the black tarn.” He smiled. “As I said. No one else but my clan knows the way, and no one will dare come here, save I and my brothers.”
“And you think I do not know you sent your brothers to find King Goros and guide him here?” Boru said. Before the man could move Boru lunged in with his iron spear and struck a terrible blow, cracking his breastbone apart and impaling him in blood.
He ripped his spearhead free and the hillman slumped to the earth. His eyes were wide and shocked, and he spat out blood. “You. . . you. . .”
“I. I have sworn a vengeance on King Goros, and I will have it, here in this place. I thank you for your aid, and your head.” He stabbed his blooded spear into the hard soil, and as his grim thegns came up behind him, Boru drew his bronze-hilted sword. He grasped the hillman by his hair and chopped off his head with one stroke, and then he held the trophy high.
“I give offering to the old gods! To Caraunos and Briga and Thumos and Wurd! I bring blood to their sacred lake, and I will bring more! I promise death for the gods of hill and stone, of wood and water!” His voice echoed from the hills, and he stood for a moment, as if he might hear an answer.
“Come,” he said at last. “We have work to do before dark, and then there will be battle.”
“Will the gods answer us?” one of his men asked.
“The gods answer those who feed them,” Boru said, letting blood drip from the head onto his sword blade. It ran down and into the dark green grass. “Let us make ready for the feast.”
They went down into the dread valley and then into the silent tower. It had been a fortress once, and the ruins of the walls lay scattered about the earthworks, but now all that remained was the tower, squat and ancient and indestructible. There was no gate, and only the old stone stair rose in a spiral up the inside of the wall to a narrow parapet above. This had been a great place of power in the dark days when men lived in fear and gave offerings to the hungry gods of the forests and dark places. Many times had feuds and battles stained this earth and stone with blood.
They cut dead trees with their iron axes, and used the branches to build a great fire before the only archway. They drove sharpened stakes into the earth on the path up toward the tower, and they lashed together barricades to block the gateway itself. They gathered stones and carried them up to the top of the tower, and piled them there. They sharpened their swords and their spears, drew on their mail and helms and stood like statues in the failing day.
Rain fell light as mist when Boru climbed the hill to the tallest place, and there he set the severed head upon a stake, and there he piled branches to make another fire. He kindled it with a torch and watched it grow, and when it raged he ripped up handfuls of wet bracken and threw them into the flames. Smoke boiled up against the pale evening sky, and it stood like a pillar into the last of the day, unmistakable, and fearless.
“Come!” Boru, son of kings, bellowed into the night. “Come and face my vengeance! Coward king who rots upon a throne of gold! I cast my scorn upon you! I challenge and hate you, even beyond death! Come!”
No answer came to him, and he went back down into the vale. He stood with his spear in his right hand and looked upon the waters of the tarn. So black and so still, he did not wonder that they had been so since the dawn of the age of men. It was said that so many dead kings lay beneath the water that the bottom was paved with gold and bones. He promised the spirits of the water that there would be room for yet more.
Reverent, he knelt down and washed the head of his spear in the water, and then he drew his sword and his dagger and bathed the blades in the water as thought it were venom. “Let my blood boil with rage,” he said. “Let my arms remember nothing but battle, and let my hands know nothing but war. Let there be no fear, nor hesitation, until the blood of a king anoints my blade.” He stood then, sheathed sword and iron dagger and took his ash spear in hand. The moon rose low on the edge of the hills, like a watchful eye.
They came in the dark of the night, down the narrow pass with torches and swords ready and bright. Boru waited there at the mark of the old wall, where now there was only tumbled stone and mounded earth grown with heavy grass. In his helm and mail he looked like a statue from the old times, spear in one hand, shield in the other. Torches driven into the earth flamed to either side, and lit the scene with fitful glow.
The tramp of heavy boots and then he saw them in the firelight, a rank of armored men. These were the thegns of a king, and their armor was bright and their helms burnished like treasures from a golden hall. Their spear-points glinted in the fire, like the teeth of a dragon.
Boru beat his spear-haft upon his shield. “I call for King Goros! I call for a blooding! You have spilled the blood of my family, now answer me for it!”
The marchers drew to a stop, and he saw more behind them. Thirty men, at least. The line parted and a taller man stepped through. In his blackened armor Goros stood head-taller than the rest, and his breastplate shone like gold. “I do not answer to a lawless man, outcast by a dead clan and hunted like a dog.”
“I challenge you, black-helm!” Boru shouted, shaking with his rage. “Come and fight me, man against man, spear against spear until our shields break and blood runs from our wounds! Let us please the old gods with our sacrifice in this place!”
The king’s thegns looked around uneasily. They knew this place, and they did not want to be here, not at night, not for blood. Goros saw them waver and snarled. “I do not answer to you, outlaw! You do not speak the laws to a king! You have mocked me enough, and flaunted my justice enough! I have come to kill you like a wild beast, and like a wild beast I shall bear your head back to my feasthall!” He drew his sword shining in the light of the flames. “Kill him! Bring me his head and I shall give to you its weight in gold!”
At the mention of gold the spear-thegns rushed forward, for here was something they understood, and they charged. Boru lifted his own spear and roared, and they came together in battle. Spears clashed and rang on helms and shields. Boru was a warrior out of old tales, and he smote down on his enemies alone, held them back and pierced two of them before his spear-haft splintered, and he drew his iron sword.
Then his own thegns came rushing to his side, and the battle flamed in the dark. Men screamed war and death-cries as they fought, and men feel bleeding to the hungry earth. Sword in his hand Boru hewed at his enemies, and his strength was such that his blows sheared through mail and flesh. They sought to rush upon him but he met them with battering blows of his shield and drove them back. He took small wounds on his shoulder and dents upon his helm, but he would not give way.
Four men had fallen before him when the black-helmed king cursed the gods and took a spear in his hand. He drew back his arm, sighted down the haft, and then hurled it with all his power. The cast was hard and true and it splintered Boru’s shield with a terrible force and then pierced the mail of his side, drawing blood.
Boru fell back and his men rushed to protect him, hacking and smiting upon the thegns that rushed in around him, seeking the gold-weight they had been promised. Boru’s thegns caught him up and dragged him back from the battle. Two of them were slain, and the rest all wounded as they fell back to the old tower. The sharpened stakes narrowed the path, and only a few men could pursue them at a time. They made a hedge of spears and forced their foes back, and then they pushed in through the gateway and dragged their wooden barricades into place to block it.
Now the king’s men hammered uselessly at the old stone walls, and hurled themselves against the barricade, but the thegns inside thrust their spears through the gaps, and forced them away. One man raced up the narrow stair, and from above he began to throw rocks down on the attackers until they retreated, cursing and spitting in anger.
“Send Boru forth and let me take his head,” Goros called out. “I will let the rest of you live, there is no need for you men to die for him.”
Boru struggled from the grip of his warriors, shaking off their hands. He gave no heed to the wound in his side. “Better you should give yourself to me!” he shouted back. “These men all have sisters or wives or fathers buried in the earth by your command. Their oaths against you are your own doing! Sooner would they cast themselves from the walls than give way to you! You have wounded me like a coward! You fear to fight me, and you promise gold to bring your men to fight for you! You are no fit king! I spit on you!”
Goros cursed and snarled and hacked branches from trees in his anger. “Take torches and burn them out,” he commanded. “I want them all dead!”
His thegns took torches and great leafy branches and began to hurl them against the sides of the tower. From high the stone-thrower hurled missiles back down on them, but he could not prevent them. Some of the branches caught, and smoke began to boil up into the night sky. They threw more and more, and the men inside the tower began to cough and spit. With spears they pushed the burning wood away from their barricade, but they could not stand it very long, breathing in the thick smoke.
Boru would not let his men hold him back, and he threw them aside with new strength. He caught up a new shield and gripped his sword in his hand, and he charged into the smoke and the flames. His shield-stroke scattered the barricades and he burst through into the open night, lit by the fires, and he howled his war-scream. The first two thegns who faced him turned and fled, and he smashed one down with the rim of his shield and crushed in his helm, spilling new blood upon the ground.
His men came rushing in his wake, stirred to the rim of death by his sudden fury, and they howled as well. With spears and axes they cut down the enemy, and the night filled with the clash of iron on iron and the splinter of shields. Boru smote one warrior with his sword and the blow snapped the cheek-plate from his helm and cut through his jaw, severing his tongue and sending it to flop on the ground like a worm. Another thegn rushed on him and he barely evaded the spear-thrust, trapped it against his side with his shield and then hewed the man, forcing him to abandon his weapon.
He trod the haft underfoot as the warrior drew his sword and rushed in upon him, and they clashed there in the heaving smoke. Swords gouged at the shield-rims, and the oak planks cracked as they crashed together. Boru locked his shield on the other, pulled it aside, and then hacked at the exposed arm, splintering the mail and cutting to the bone. Blood gushed over his blade and the man fell to his knees. Boru cut against the side of his neck and chopped through, blood jetting upward from the wound.
He sought his enemy, howling, blood-faced and wounded, tight with the pain of it, and he saw Goros backing away from him, letting his thegns come and face the enemy instead, and his rage broke all bonds. He rushed roaring for the king with such violence that the men between them fell back in terror, and he charged fully upon his hated foe. Goros backed away until he stood upon a stone spur beside the black tarn, and he turned at last to fight.
Even as Boru leaped for him Goros rained blows down from his high ground, and they chipped and splintered Boru’s shield, rang on his helm and made him stagger. He slashed at the king’s legs but Goros leaped back, evading him, backing along the lakeshore in the smoke, watchful and cautious. Boru pursued him, a tyrant of rage, and they met in a sudden clash of sword and shield, iron sparking against iron.
Goros gave back, striking carefully and with measured strength, while Boru fought with fury clenched in his teeth. He took a wound on his thigh, and then on his arm, and then Goros smote him a blow on the helm that bent the face in and made him reel, off-balance. The king pounced on him and Boru swung back and struck such a blow that it echoed off the hills. The king’s shield split in two and he cried out, fell back with his arm bleeding. Red dripped down into the water as he waded back, knee-deep.
Boru breathed hard, his chest on fire, blood running down from his nose. He tasted it. “I curse you to dark gods, coward,” he snarled. I will feed your body to the tarn, and there shall be no body for men to bear away and place in a hallowed grave. You are a king of gold, not iron, and only iron makes men.”
Goros drew a dagger with his wounded left hand, and he pointed with it. Boru glanced quickly and saw at least six men arrayed behind him, spears blooded and ready. The sounds of battle had faded, and the smoke hid the bloody field. “Your men followed you to death, and now you will join them. My men will strike you down, and we will take back your head to hang from the walls of my keep. Gold buys more glory than iron, it would seem.”
Boru bared his bloody teeth. “Come then, fight and die for your dog king. We will see how many of you live to boast of this night. Come!”
There was a sudden wave, an upheaval in the water that slapped across his legs and made him stagger. Goros almost fell, but then Boru saw something through the smoke, looming against the iron night sky, the crescent moon high and silver above. Something sinuous rose up from the waters of the black tarn, and then there came a hiss like a thousand corpses boiling.
The men on the shore screamed and fled, and Goros turned and saw the serpentine behemoth rearing above them. He turned to flee to shore and Boru smashed his shield against the burnished helm and sent him falling back into the water, and then he leaped back as night-filled jaws rimmed with gleaming teeth swept down and closed on the fallen king, crushing armor and flesh and bone alike. There was a moment when Goros shrieked in agony and despair, and then the jaws snapped closed and ripped him away into the dark, and Boru ran from the black waters, wounded and bleeding and laughing as he fled.
He staggered into the smoke, lost his way, and fell among the dead and wounded. He heard the waters heave and crash against the land, and he got up and ran again, almost impaling himself on a wooden stake. He followed the path to the door of the tower and flung himself inside, found he was with two of his thegns, wounded and wide-eyed.
They hid there, silent and gasping while they heard the monstrous thing move outside the tower. They heard more screams, and the crunch of a massive body moving among the dead. The very ground shook beneath them, and a few stones came loose and fell from the tower itself. Boru heard it breathing, out there in the night, as it crawled over the rocks and the corpses, and then the great sound of the waters as it returned to the tarn. And he laughed then, low and under his breath, and he held up his bloody sword to the moon that silvered down inside the ancient ruin.
He gave thanks, then, to the old gods, and to their beast, sent upward through ageless waters, to work his vengeance. He said their ancient names, and then he lay silent against the stone wall, feeling his wounds, waiting for the dawn to come again.