The storm-crowned ships rode the tormented sea, their brazen prows splitting the waves like axe-heads. Lightning lashed and beat against the water, shattering the ice that everywhere churned upon the surface. The storm clouds loomed high overhead, and the wind tore and screamed at the spars as the oarsmen struggled to drag the powerful craft against the heaving waters. There were three great ships, one greater than the rest, the center of it piled high like a tower with flame-lit windows.
Drune, the master of the ships, looked through the ports to the wracked sea and smiled. On such a night would his vengeance at last be accomplished. He had bled and hungered and suffered for this last, terrible day, and he would not be cheated of his fury.
Behind him, his ship-thanes gathered at the table, all of them hard men scaled and armored and with swords and daggers of steel belted at their sides. They were sailors, used to dangerous voyages and terrible seas, but even they looked hesitant to be at sea on a night like this. They gripped sword-hilts and axe-hafts and muttered prayers to the monstrous gods of the deep, pleasing and hoping to be spared.
There was a deep howling from belowdecks, and all of the men tensed and looked from one to the other, and Drune smiled. His power was his lack of fear. Revenge drove him, and so he had no fear of death. He stalked to the long table and leaned on it, the lantern-light reeling as the ship pitched down into a long wave-trough and then heaved upwards. They all felt the shudder as the prow split another wave, and Drune laughed.
“We are close, my friends. The very gods call down a curse from the skies to hide our approach, and the shield-men and the watchers will not see us before we set foot upon the shore.” The bones of the ship groaned, and over all else was the steady sound of the oarmaster’s drum, like the beating of the ship’s very heart. Below decks the slaves strained at the long oars, pulling to drive the ship through the storm. In weather like this, they would drive some of them to death, but the lives of a few slaves meant nothing to him.
“When we land, we will deploy at once, we will give them no time to meet us. We will kill those who stand in our way, and then we will drag the women and the children from their long-houses and butcher them in the snow, and then, when every last one of them is dead, then we will set a fire they will see across the ocean.” He drew his long dagger and carved a deep mark in the tabletop alongside a hundred others. He had been counting moons for a very long time.
The men shifted uncomfortably. “Warfather, we lost three ships in the crossing,” Thur looked side to side, seeing if any of the others intended to support him. “We have only a hundred men to lead in the attack, we will be matched, or even outnumbered.”
Drune slammed his dagger down into Thur’s hand, pinning it to the table. The men went rigid, and Thur turned white, clenching his jaw to keep from crying out. “That is your left hand,” Drun said with his voice low and cold. “Not your sword hand. That one I still need. Anyone who questions my purpose will be sent belowdecks.” There was another howl from the deeps of the ship, and then a distant hammering sound, as if something enormous were trying to batter through the oaken hull. Drune showed his teeth and wrenched his blade free, blood dripping from the point.
“That is my final judgment. There will be a bloodletting today, and none shall stay it.” He smiled. “And if they are many, that will mean more to slaughter, and I have brought a special weapon to use upon them, should we need it. You fear it, but I do not.” He turned away, bloody dagger in his hand. “Death shall steer my war-ships, and vengeance give me blood to drink.”
Althan fought his way through the storm to the stony shore, and there he huddle in the lee of the watchstone and squinted through the howling wind and driving snow. The sea itself was filled with ice, the waves gray and slushy with frozen stones like gravel rattling and tossing on the shore; the big waves left a sheet of white ice upon the shore like hail. The storm was howling ashore like a giant striding in from the frozen sea, and flickers of lightning blazed in the northern sky.
Anyone else would have foregone the watch this night. He knew the younger men were contemptuous of the need to watch the shore, but Althan was old enough to remember when the killer Drune was driven away, seven years ago this very night. He felt the ache of watchfulness in his bones, as he always did this time of year, ever since that night. And so when the younger men scorned to take a watch in a storm that clawed at the land like a beast, he did not mock them; he only took his shield and his old sword and made his way out, no matter what came.
Even the shelter of the stone could not protect him entirely, and it was not long before his hood was rimmed with frost and ice was caked on his beard and in his hair. He held his shield before him to block out the worst of the storm, even though he knew he could not hold it up for long. He was almost fifty, far too old to be out on a night like this one. Perhaps he was a fool.
Then he saw the black masts illuminated in the flare of lightning, saw the ships crawling closer to shore, and he hunched forward, peered harder to try and see through the driving snow. Perhaps he was not a fool. Lightning blazed again and he saw them plain: three black ships riding through the frozen sea, storm-fire alight on mast and spar, oars threshing the cold waters. The rams told them as war-galleys, and he knew no warships came through this storm for any good purpose.
He stared, feeling fear and rage coil up inside him as the ships forged in from the deeps until they scraped ashore on the shallow beach, grinding ice beneath their hulls. He heard the shouts above the howling wind and black forms moved on the decks. It was only when he saw the first waves of armed men plunged from the gunwales into the knee-deep water that he came awake to his danger.
Althan turned and hurried away from the shore, keeping low among the rocks. Even if they saw him, they would not easily follow him in this wind and darkness, but he hurried all the same, winding in among the giant rocks until he reached the matted-down grass of the hills and the white path that led up away from the shore to the inland glens. The storm followed him as he ran for his home, knowing death followed behind.
He ran into the village and began to pound his sword hilt on the doors to the longhouses. “Raiders! Ships in the long shore! Raiders from the sea!” He heard few words in answer, and he redoubled his efforts to rouse the people, battering the heavy planks until a door opened and he hurried inside. The longhouses were buried chest-deep in the stony earth, the rooftops covered with grass to hold them in place. Inside they were arched with beams salvaged from ships in the old days, and a long fire-pit roared warmth against the howling night.
He staggered inside, shaking ice from his beard and his hair. On the long benches the men sat at their meals, drinking and talking while the storm raged. He saw children huddled down near the walls in their sleeping furs, the women sitting watch over them, sewing and talking before bed. Now he was suddenly the focus of all attention.
Halver caught his shoulder and helped him to a bench. “Easy, old man, what is it? What are you doing out in a storm like this one?”
Althan sat down hard on the bench, surprised by how exhausted he already was, just from the journey. A cup was pressed into his hand and he drank deep, paused to gasp, then drank again. His face was cold and stiff, and it hurt when it began to thaw.
“Raiders,” he gasped. “On the beach. Three ships, warriors coming ashore.” He looked past Halver to his father, gray-bearded Thun. “I think it is Drune, come back for his revenge.”
He saw Thun pale in the firelight, but Halver scoffed. “Drune has been gone seven years,” he said. “He is not coming back.”
“Seven years seems long when you are young,” Thun said. “To a grown man seven years passes swiftly.”
“And no matter who it is,” Althan said. “A hundred men are coming ashore with swords and axes this moment. We have to prepare. We have to make ready to fight.”
Halver looked at his father, and the old man nodded. Halver sighed and clapped a hand on Althan’s shoulder. “Very well, old man. We will call up the men, and we will see who comes to trouble us.”
They went from house to house, calling out the young men with their shields and helms and swords. The four longhouses were built in a square, with a wooden wall around them and a ditch on the outside. The wall was not so well maintained as it might have been, the ditch not freshly dug, but the men went to their posts and hunkered down against the wind and the blinding snow. Two men took ponies and rode out along the road to scout, and Althan himself took a place on the wall, standing on the step built for it, looking into the dark.
“I always thought Drune would return,” Thun said, close beside him. “I have feared it for many years. You, like me, remember that today is the same day we drove him out.”
“Yes,” Althan said. “It is why I stood the watch. I felt it coming. The young men do not remember him, but we do.”
He heard hoofbeats and then one of the riders emerged from the dark, rode through the gate between the raring torches. He was wild-eyed and pale. “Men on the road! Many Men. They. . . they killed Ulfan, and I only just escaped. They are coming!”
Thun nodded and gave the command to close the gate. The boys muscled the heavy portal closed and set the bar in place to hold it. Every man now watched the road down into the dark, and soon they saw lights, the glow of torches, many torches. They heard voices raised in a chant as the invaders came up the hill, spread out to either side of the road, flowing over the earth like a black stain. Lightning flashed and showed them oncoming, dark helms faceless and spearpoints gleaming with witchfire.
Althan counted fifty of them, then a hundred. He knew there were only forty or fifty men inside the walls, as many were still in the up country with their herds. There was no time to call on them, nor time for them to return. He saw the men inside the walls count and grow grim. Now the women were about as well, setting heated braziers for hot iron to sear wounds. Maidens carried spears to the wall, ready for throwing upon the enemy. Archery would be little use in this wind.
The invaders did not pause, did not take time to array themselves. They gathered in a great crescent facing the wall, and then with a shout of war they charged, coming in a wave jagged with spears and the gleam of swords. They hurled ladders and ropes against the walls, and they rushed upward into the very teeth of the storm.
In a moment the howl of the wind was joined by the clamor of battle as sword met shield and axe struck against spear. The attackers hurled javelins over the walls and then tried to force their way over in their wake, only to be met by answering javelins that smote down from above with terrible force. Armored and burning with blood-hunger, the invaders shrugged off sword blows and then hacked and smote at the defenders as they clawed to the top of the wall.
Lightning illuminated everything in desperate flashes as the defenders struck back with all the strength they had. Althan found himself at the corner of the gate, both hands gripping his spear-haft as he struck down at the men who tried to climb the wall. The point struck sparks when it glanced from helms and armored corselets, and his arms ached as he struck a deadly blow, saw the blood splash black in the stormlight as the man fell back.
The wall was a fray of men who struck and battered and slew, dead and wounded dropping back into the ditch below or falling inside, bleeding in the snow. The attackers drew back, dragging their wounded, and then they came again. Althan threw spear after spear pressed into his hands by a slight girl of no more than ten whose name he could not remember. He threw until the enemy came clawing up the wall, and then he drew his sword and hefted his shield and met them at the crest.
He was not a young man any longer, but he knew how best to use his steel. He met the blows of axes and swords on his lindenwood shield and struck back with measured force, his sword cleaving mail and flesh. He sent three men tumbling back down in their own blood, and then the enemy drew back again, carrying off their wounded. Althan sank down behind the wall, gasping for breath, arms heavy and burning. The cold air felt like fire in his chest. He saw wounded and dead inside the walls, laid in the snow. He knew which ones still lived, because there were still people clustered over them, trying to bandage their wounds before dragging them inside. The dead simply lay unattended.
They had not lost so many, perhaps a dozen down inside, but that was still too many. The enemy outnumbered them, and they were warriors, not herdboys with swords. If they brought a ram, then they could batter down the gate and that would be the end. In this wind and snow, he hoped they could not set fire to the wall. It was treated to prevent it, but that did not make it impervious. He tried to catch his breath, hand holding tight to his sword-hilt.
Drune cursed in a red fury as his men fell back from the wall. “Are you warriors?” he shouted at them, brandishing his axe. “What kind of men do you call yourselves? This is a pen of sheep, and you cannot even take it!” Lightning flared and died, and he spat out the snow that blew hard into his face. Men huddled and shivered with no shelter from the wind and the cold, but Drune himself felt hot, as though he were a man of red iron.
He turned back to the dark shore, watching, listening through the bellow of the wind, and then he heard the low, steady chant of the rowers, now lashed to a different doom. A low howl came through the storm, and it was not the wind. The wounded and exhausted fighting men heard it coming and they drew away, making signs against evil. Slowly, the approaching shape emerged into view, lit by slashes of lightning and stormfire that burned on iron chains.
It was a great oaken box, bound in iron and reinforced to tremendous strength. Heavy as a war engine, it had to be dragged on rolling logs. The progress was slow, as forty slaves pulled on the heavy chains while twenty others placed the logs before it, followed them to the back and caught them as they emerged from behind. It moved slowly over the snow-covered road, and even as he looked a man was too slow as he grabbed for a log, slipped and was dragged under, screaming as he was crushed.
“Hurry!” Drune bellowed. There was an answering roar from inside the box, and he smiled even as the men shrank away. He had labored to capture the beast, even more to bring it here, but it was the siege machine he needed, and now it would be let loose.
When it came closer to the wall, the defenders rained spears down on the slaves and brought many of them down, naked and shivering in the bloody snow. They left the chains and moved behind the case, pushed at it while the whips of the slave masters scourged them. They dug their feet into the snow and the mud, pushed until they almost fell from exhaustion, and even then Drune gave them no mercy, only had them whipped harder until a dozen of them lay dead. With a final heave, they drove the immense cage against the gate, and the thing within howled for blood.
“Blood you shall have,” Drune said, and he sent his men forward, screaming and hurling spears as they attacked the wall in as many places as they could, stretching the defenders thin, even as four men rushed to the massive cage and pounded the iron pins from the door, unsealing it, their faces set with a desperate terror.
Althan heard the roaring, heard something huge hurl itself against the walls of the massive cage, and then wood splintered, and iron screamed. The gate shuddered and the wall shook, and out of a desperate instinct he threw himself down into the snow and struggled to his feet, yelling for everyone to run, to escape. It was too late to fight.
The gate shook, and he saw the dagger points of black talons punch through the heavy wood. He got to his feet and screamed for the people to fall back. The women heeded him first, and ran for the long houses. The men were slower, set to defend the walls, locked in mortal battle; they looked up at the sound of his call as if waking from sleep, confused and unsure.
The gate burst apart and he saw something huge claw through the wreckage, and he ran then. Men leaped down from the walls and ran in all directions as the scaled monstrosity ripped the gate apart and slithered into the fortress. Althan saw the shimmering scales of the sides, saw the powerful arms tipped with black claws, and he saw the head. The head was elongated, frilled and finned as any thing born in the deeps, but it had a face almost human, and that was the most horrible thing.
Legless, it crawled across the snow-covered earth, churning the fallen under its claws. It howled, and any man who came too close to it was ripped apart with a sweep of those talons. Warriors scattered, running for their long houses even as the enemy swarmed over the walls, and in the center the sea-beast screamed and dragged down anything that moved. Men shrieked as it pulled them under and tore them apart into bloody ruins.
Althan saw the power of it and knew they could not stop it. It was a beast of the sea driven to madness by the air, blood running from its gill slits as it labored for air. It would kill everyone it found, and those black claws would dig up the long houses. By the time it died they would be dead or helpless.
He felt like a madman as he beat his sword against his shield and shouted at it, called out the old names for the sea peoples, until it turned and faced him. There was a cold beauty about that face, and he knew many sailors had followed that false beauty down into the waves to death. He had heard their song himself once, out on the dark sea.
It came toward him, the crested fins on its head streaming like hair, and he ran for his long house, heard it scream as it followed him, and then he ducked through the low door and slammed it shut behind him. He heard the creature wail in fury, and then heavy blows began to rain on the door and the earth-packed walls of the house.
He looked and saw the wide-eyed faces of the women and children huddled behind him. Althan hoped he had made the right decision, but there was no time to ponder. “Out through the cellar,” he said. “Quick!” There was a root cellar at the back of each house, and a small trap door to the outside within it. As soon as they pried up the boards and began to crawl down under the floor he turned and went to the wall where the casks of oil were stored well away from the firepit. Swift blows with his sword-hilt broke open two of them and he heaved them up, splashed the oil on the beams over the door until it was dripping down. He broke a third one open and held it ready, breathing hard, feeling his age in his arms.
The wall shuddered and cracked as the sea-thing clawed and tore at it, and then he saw the claws dig through. The creature howled as it pushed through, forcing a path through the heavy wooden planks and packed earth. He saw the white face with the black needle teeth, and then he threw the oil into it, splashed over it and made it scream. It reached for him and he fell back, hit the floor beside the firepit. Desperate, he dug his gloved hand into the coals and hurled a handful of them into that half-human face.
Fire exploded across the floor and engulfed the sea devil. Althan’s arm caught fire and he slapped at it as he grabbed his sword and scrambled away. The monster roared and thrashed, tearing the end of the long house apart in its sudden agony. It flailed into the night, snow hissing in the fire even as the wind whipped it into an inferno.
Althan staggered out through the demolished house and plunged his burning hand into the snow, even as he watched the burning monster turn and fall upon the very men who loosed it. The invaders had been advancing cautiously in the wake of the sea demon, and they were unprepared for the fury it loosed on them as it rampaged in burning agony. It crashed into their ranks, clawing and crushing and howling, and they scattered before it in terror. It crushed and tore and howled until the snow was stained red, and it left a trail of death in it wake.
It burst through the wall, slithered out into the storm. Althan heard it crying for the sea as it crawled blindly into the night, and he felt pity for it, and a relief when it slumped down in the darkness and lay dead, still burning like a pyre.
The attackers had fled into the wind, but Althan heard one more voice still raised in fury. Sword in his hand, he followed the sound to the center of the fortress, between the four long houses, and there was Drune, standing over Thun’s body with red sword, his hand pressed to his wounded guts. He looked at Althan with red-rimmed eyes and blood on his beard.
“I have my revenge! I will have all of it!” He pointed his sword at Althan. “I will destroy what I could not rule!”
“Murder will not make you a chief,” Althan said, breathing hard. He was too old for this, far too old. “And fear will not make people obey.”
“It will, oh it will. I will kill any who resist, and then all those who remain will cower and bow. I will cut out their hearts. I will cut off their heads.” He wavered, his face pale, the blood on his mouth very red. “I will despoil what I cannot devour.”
Althan looked at this man he once knew, remembering the boy he had been, and he wished he did not recognize him. Wished the strain of poison in his mind was not there, that had always been. The hungering, overriding need to control everyone around him. To dominate, and if not, to destroy.
“I will give you what you demand,” Althan said, and then he lifted his sword and they fought, blade to blade. Sparks struck from the edges of their swords, and the stormfire bled from the steel. Althan was old and weary, but Drune was wounded, blood painting his side down his leg.
Althan struck Drune on his helm with enough force to drive him to his knees. The other man cried out and lifted his sword, but his wound slowed him, and weakened his arm. Althan knocked the blade aside, and then he struck again and his sword bit deep into Drune’s neck. Blood sprayed out, black and heavy, and Althan stepped back from it as steam rose from the wound in the cold. Drune tried to speak, but then he fell and lay in the snow, bleeding into the storm.
Althan sagged down, fell to his knees. He was cold, and tired, and felt long years in his bones. He might have lain in the snow until it buried him, but then he felt hands bear him up, carry him through the dark, and then inside to where a fire still burned, and there was warmth and shelter, and he was surrounded by the voices of his people.