The winds blew hard on the headland, and the men gathered in the lee of the beached longships and huddled against the cold. Ranne went to the top of the hill, following the ancient path to the stone circle. Here his men waited for him, the six champions of his Shield Hall, and the seventh figure, robed in black, and hidden.
The men all bowed to him. He was their Thane, and they followed him to war and back. Today he had to make a choice, and it would echo across the seas and the islands like the sound of battle drums. He looked at them, one face to the next. All of them iron men with spears and swords ready, their shields part of the power that held up his hall. He would need them.
“Today the sea-watchers came flying from the south on their ponies, and they tell me they have seen black sails on the move, coming north. They saw the red banner of King Arnan, and so we know who they are. They are the ships of Daganhurre, the Kin-Killer, come seeking Hror Son of Herun. They come to seek the blood price for Torgged.” Ranne looked at them all, and at the hidden one. No one spoke. He took his long spear and drove the spike into the hard ground, knotted his calloused fingers on the iron-hard wood of the shaft.
“I heard that our king would allow Arnan to send killers after Hror, and though many spoke against it, he has given way to his cowardice. Men from Hadrad will come to our lands to kill one of our own blood.” He looked out to sea, watching the white-tipped waves march across the gray expanse. “Hror is an outlaw. A bastard son and a killer. I have thought of killing him myself.” He looked north. His lands were on the edge of the civilized part of Vathran. North from here there was only hard land and cold sea. Hror had his lair in those bitter places, and he sometimes came to raid and steal in the night.
“I have blood against Hror, so do many of you,” he said. “But I will not let some reaver who sails for blood gold come to our lands and kill him for pay.” He twisted his spear in the ground, hearing the grinding of it against the soil. “What say you?”
The men looked to one another, and one after the next, they nodded. They would follow him. He looked at the hooded form that waited, and he nodded. “Read the bones,” he said.
The figure bent down, black-robed and hidden, and he saw only white hair trailing from beneath the cowl, and then he saw the hands white and aged. One hand gripped a fistful of bloody bones, fresh ripped from some animal, and he watched as the shape cast them on the dead grass in the center of the stone ring and then bent down to read them.
“If you face the Kin-Killer on the sea, you will fall, and your ships will burn, and your hall will go into ruin,” the bitter, sharp voice said. Ranne could only see the movements of the old woman’s head, and it was said to be death to see her face.
“Is there a way for me to prevail?” he said. “I ask the gods to speak.”
“You must face him on land,” the augur said. “If you fight the Kin-Killer with your feet upon stone, then you will kill him, and you will achieve what you seek. That is the word of the gods.” She caught up the bloody bones and scattered them outside the circle. “The bones have spoken, they will say no more.”
“They have said enough,” Ranne said. “If I cannot meet them at sea, I will lure them to shore at a place of my choosing.” He looked at his men. “Get to your ships, gather your men. Keen axes and set shields to the gunwales. We must row hard to reach the place I seek before nightfall.” He pulled his spear from the earth and gripped it in both hard hands. “We will spill their blood on the Black Island, and may the Speargod guard our steps in that unhallowed place.”
Four ships cut their way north through the gathering dusk. The wind came hard from the north, spitting cold spindrift into men’s faces, and the warriors ground their teeth against the cold as they bent their backs to the oars, rowing into the teeth of the night. They voyaged under black sails, on a quest for gold to be paid for with dead men. They followed the sea road and muttered charms against the Undergods as they hoped the weather did not grow savage.
At the prow of the lead ship was Daganhurre, who men named the Kin-Killer. He had fought a blood feud with his own brothers so vicious it had left no member of his family still living, no hall unburnt. Now he lived the life of a wolf, roving and hunting and killing. He fought feuds for gold, and he was good at his trade. It was said a hundred men had tried to kill him, but he was not a man easy to kill. He stood a head taller than the tallest man aboard, with shoulders and body wide and heavy as a horse’s. He bore a black shield and a great sword, a long axe in his right hand. His helm was black inlaid with brass that shone in the waning light.
The contrary wind was slowing them, and he knew they would have to put ashore soon, wait out the long night, and then go on in the morning. He ground his teeth in anger, but he let no man see it. He carried himself always before his men as an implacable force. He was a giant, undefeatable, insurmountable, unmovable. He held onto the dragon prow as they forged through the rough waves. The sea ahead of them was turning dark.
He knew fishermen and seal hunters in these waters raised camps, and they set bonfires on the shores to light other’s way to safe anchorage. The wind had pushed them farther to the east than he wanted, and there were no islands here he knew. The island ahead of them was dark, low against the gray sea. As he looked, he saw a fire bloom in the gathering night like an opening eye, and he smiled. “There,” he said to his helmsman, pointing with the blade of his long-handled axe. “Put us ashore for the night. There.”
The rowers bent their backs, and the ships cut through the hard waves until good sand beaches grated under their keels, and men leaped over the gunwales to set anchors. Daganhurre went ashore with his spear in hand, and he walked up the shelf of the stony beach until he reached the bonfire that blazed in the dark. He expected to find fishermen or whalers encamped, instead he found only a lonely fire, and a broken spear driven into the ground before it, the haft lashed together to make a curse upon whoever saw it, and he knew they had been lured here.
“Tell the men to make a solid camp, and we will sleep with our backs to one another and steel ready to hand,” he said. “We have been gathered here for blood.”
Ranne led his men up and over the ridgeline until they could look down on the shore. The invaders had made a fortified camp on the cold beach between the ships. They drove stakes in the earth and made a wall of iron points, and even here they could see the men were close by their fires, with shield and spear still ready to hand. They had seen the curse, and they knew they did not sleep on a safe shore, but they did not know how unsafe it was.
His own men were nervous, clutching their weapons close, helms drawn down over wide eyes. They knew the legends of this island. They knew not to follow any light they saw, not to wonder at laughter in the dark. It was said that men who camped on this island never woke from sleep. Legend said their bodies were always found drowned and headless, torn apart by the monsters that lived in the black waters beneath the basalt shore.
Ranne’s three ships lay at anchor on the far side of the island, and he had with him fifty men, all of them blooded and dangerous. Daganhurre seemed to have a like number, but they did not know what form the attack would take. His men feared the Kin-Killer, but Ranne scoffed at this. Daganhurre was not a man to take lightly, but he was not invulnerable. He would bleed and die like any man.
They marched down from the headland, headed for the dark shore. He tried to keep them quiet, to prevent muttering and cursing as they made their way through the darkness. The rattle of shields and spears and mail could not be entirely prevented, but he hoped it would be lost in the wind. Even if it was not, he had hopes for an unseen ally in the black waves; it was the reason he had chosen this island. They made their way down into the last furrow of the earth before it rose up into the sea wall, and there they waited. It was too early now; they must wait for the small hours of the night, the cold hours, when men died.
Daganhurre sensed it before he heard it. He slept in his mail with his shield against his side and his hand on his spear. He leaned back against the hull of his warship, and he woke sudden, his eyes opening behind the face of his helm, and then he heard the wrenching sound of torn wood, and men began to scream.
Warriors leaped up, and first they faced the land, expecting an attack from the dark island, but then they heard the scream again, and they knew men were dying where they slept on the rower’s benches aboard the ships. Daganhurre sprang to the gunwale and hauled himself aboard, but the lantern had been extinguished, and all he saw was darkness. He heard the rushing of the sea, and he smelled blood. He drew out his long-handled axe and bellowed for light.
More men swarmed aboard, bearing blazing brands from the fire. The flames whipped in the night wind, but there was enough light to see the ship’s hold filling with water, two headless corpses floating in the wash of the sea as it flooded through the hole torn in the hull. There was no sign of what had done the damage, but men cursed and muttered spells against evil when they saw it.
Even as Daganhurre drew breath to call for more men, he heard shouting from the dark, and he turned back toward the shore and saw the glitter of firelight on iron and polished leather. He heard war-screams as a mass of warriors rushed the line of his camp, and he felt his blood rush hot in his veins at the call of battle. There was no time, now, to seek an enemy in the dark sea; now there was a foe of flesh and bone to meet.
The men leaped down from the crippled ship, and as one the warriors rushed for the line of stakes that marked the defensive position. The mass of attackers came on, and spears began to sing through the air. Men huddled under their shields, shouting, screaming. A few went down with wounds, and others hurled their own spears into the teeth of their new enemies. Blood stained the rocky shore, and then the line of onrushing men struck the wall of sharp points.
Axes and swords flashed as men chopped down the hard ashwood stakes and forced their way through the barrier. Spears rushed in from either side, and the night filled with the din of battle. Spear points glanced from shield and helm, punched into mail and wedged there against the links. Men were struck by hurled spears and axes, and some men were forced by their own charge onto the hard wooden stakes and impaled, blood and entrails spilling onto the hungry earth.
The invaders hacked through the wall of stakes, and then it was hand to hand, steel against steel on the cold shore, and blood spilled in the campfires and filled the night with the stench of slaughter.
Ranne howled for his men to press on, and they forced their way through the line and were in among the ships. Men crashed into the bonfires and trampled the burning wood and there was smoke suddenly everywhere. It became impossible to see what was happening, and men clung tight to the men beside them so they would not become lost in the chaos of battle.
He killed and killed with his spear until the iron blade was bent and notched, and then the press became too great and he threw it down and drew his sword. The battle was a screaming mass, men pressed shield to shield, striking and hammering with whatever they had. Ranne and his two guards pushed at the enemy, shouting in time as they pushed them back. A man went down and Ranne stopped to put his foot on him and stab down through his neck. The smell of blood was already overpowering.
A giant seemed to loom out of the dark, and a terrible axe blow struck down one of Ranne’s guards, shearing through his mail and cleaving down to his breastbone. Ranne jumped back as blood painted his face, and then he saw the black-helmed form there in the fitful light, and he knew it could only be Daganhurre, the Kin-Killer.
He stood taller than any man Ranne had ever seen, and his armor made him seem even larger. His shoulders were draped in a black wolfskin, and his blackened helm was inlaid with brass that gleamed like gold. He held a long shield as tall as a lesser man, and his wielded a long-handled axe in one hand, the blade dripping red.
Daganhurre came on him like a storm, and Ranne just barely held off the furious strokes of that great axe. Two blows struck his shield and cracked like thunder, cutting through the iron rim and staggering him. He reeled back, fighting for room to move. If he was trapped at close quarters with this giant he would be ground into bone meal.
Someone struck at him from the side and Ranne evaded and then cut low and hacked off the man’s leg. He left him bleeding on the ground and never took his eyes from the firelit war-titan who came after him with measured tread.
He dodged around the side of the beached longship, backing away beneath the ropes that bound the anchors, and Daganhurre came after him, circling to his left to get away from the heavy ropes that would impede his movements. Ranne saw him misstep on the wet rocks, saw the giant stagger, and he rushed in.
He crashed into that enormous shield with all his weight and almost bounced off, but he hooked his own shield behind it and pulled, turned back and struck hard at the opening he’d made. His sword smote hard on Daganhurre’s shoulder and the giant went to one knee. He swung his axe, and Ranne caught the blow on his shield. The blade bit into the wood and Daganhurre pulled him forward, off-balance.
Ranne struck at that arrogant helm and was glad to see his blow scar the polished brass. He drew back for another stroke and this time it clashed against the iron-hard haft of the axe, and the two of them strained there, eye to eye. Daganhurre was the stronger, but on one knee he was weakened, and Ranne braced his feet hard against the ground.
He heard a rushing, and then coldness as water ran over one of his feet, and he looked down to where the night tide sent the sea coursing over his boot. He remembered the voice of the augur, warning him of death over bloody bones, and he felt the cold of the sea rush up over his skin.
Daganhurre heaved and threw him down, and he felt the water rush underneath him. Ranne flung his shield up to hide his face, and the giant struck it with his axe and split it apart, leaving the broken pieces hanging from his arm. The axe rose again, and then something black heaved itself up from the water.
Ranne saw something huge erupt from the waves, and the scant starlight glinted on scales and the slime-dripping weeds that hung from the inhuman form. Long arms reached out with hooked claws, and one of them caught Daganhurre’s shield and ripped it away as though it were made from parchment. He saw eyes that glowed like green glass, and he smelled the terrible deep-sea reek of the thing.
Daganhurre knew then what accursed island they had been lured to, and he felt a grudging admiration for the courage it had taken to carry out such a plan. The sea thing rose up, towering over him, and he hewed at it with his axe, using both hands and all his power. The steel edge bit into the scaled flesh, bringing black blood, but not weaving so deep a wound as it might have. The sea-beast was hard as seasoned oak.
It reached for him with those gleaming claws and he struck it again. This time the stroke of his full strength was too much, and while he left a gash on the bull neck of the monster, the haft of his axe snapped through and left him holding the broken piece of it. He flung the broken wood in its face and drew his sword, the steel shining in the light of the scattered fire.
The thing clawed at him, and the hooked talons caught his mail shirt and tore it through, ripping the dark links as though they were cloth. He smote the creature on the head with a great two-handed blow, and though he creased the scaled flesh and let blood, he did not slay it.
It seized him in its black claws, and then there was a moment of terror when he was certain he was about to be rent into pieces. He could not strike with his long blade and so he let it fall, returned grapple for grapple, and strove against the thing with all his power. He was an immense man, and his arms were strong as oak beams, but the thing from the sea was stronger than any mortal man. He felt his bones begin to give, the breath crushing out of him, and he gave vent to a terrible, grating snarl as he put one hand on the slimy throat and tried to squeeze the breath from it.
Ranne heaved himself up from the surf, and he felt the flailing of his heart in his breast. He had crossed the threshold from land to sea, and it had weakened him. It was as he had been told, and yet he had not seen the danger. Now he stood on the stony beach and the waves rushed around his legs, and he knew he could not destroy Daganhurre now. His own recklessness had seen that undone.
He watched as the sea monster lifted the giant warrior off his feet, claws tearing metal and flesh, and he smelled the awful low-tide stench of the thing. He glanced back and saw the edge of the sea was alive with men. His attack had driven the invaders back upon the water’s edge, and there the black fiends of the deep were reaping a harvest, pulling wounded men down to drink their blood and drown them in the waves. He saw heads and headless bodies rolling in the surf, and he felt his throat thick with a kind of loathing. It was an unclean thing that he had done, and he could not now prevent it.
But he would not have it said that Daganhurre fell to treachery and black powers of the Undergods. Ranne had set forth to slay him, and so he would, or none would claim the honor today. He gripped his sword in both hands and rushed in upon the towering sea-beast. He had seen Daganhurre hew at it to little effect, so he did not try to cut. He braced his sword against his side like a spear, and with all his weight he drove the point into the scaled hide of the monster.
The pattern-forged steel punched through the scales and he drew it back in a rush of black blood. The thing roared and threw Daganhurre down upon the earth. It turned with hideous speed and clubbed Ranne to the ground, and he scrambled up, losing hold of his sword, choking on the waves that splashed in his face. Talons snagged on his leg and pulled him back. He turned over, groping for a weapon, for anything to fight with. The green eyes glared down at him, and he saw the head seem to split open as the jaws yawned on a mass of phosphor-lit fangs.
It was Daganhurre who saved him. He saw the giant drag himself forward and stab his long knife through the tendon at the back of the monster’s foot, and the thing screamed and went down as its leg collapsed under it. There was a moment of hideous flailing and shrieking, and then the thing was dragging itself over him, back into the sea. He struggled away from it, fearful of being caught and dragged into the water. He found his sword under his hand and took it up, struggled to his feet.
Daganhurre stood up slowly, long knife in his hand smeared with the greenish-black ichor. His mail was rent and his helm slimed with sea-weeds, but even wounded his eyes glinted bright as hillside bonfires. He pointed with his knife. “If you think you will find me weak-kneed and feeble now, you will be taught a bloody lesson.”
Ranne looked down the shore. One of Daganhurre’s ships was wallowing in the water, sinking at the stern. The shore was littered with dead men, and a breath had come between the waves of the battle. Warriors stood still on the bloody ground, gasping for air and leaning hard on blooded weapons. The fog of their breath was like smoke, as though they burned within. The waves came in slow and cold, and he wondered if the sea-beasts were still there awaiting more blood.
Ranne held up his sword, and then tipped it back and rested it on his shoulder. “If I would fight you, I would have it be clean. I lured you here to feed your men to those that haunt the shoals, but now I regret it.” Water washed around his legs. “Take your men, and I will take mine, and let us both go back to where we came from. If we cross steel again, it will be another day.”
“I came for the blood price for Hror,” Daganhurre said. “I shall not put that aside.”
“Do not,” Ranne said. “But if you come this way under the command of a foreign king again, then there will be killing again.”
Daganhurre nodded. “May it be, then.”
Ranne crossed the shore, watching his giant enemy lest he be attacked unawares. When he stepped out of the wash of the sea he thought perhaps to rush upon him and make and end of it. He could see from the way Daganhurre stood that he was sore wounded. Yet he decided to stay his hand. He strode inland and called for his men. Let death wait for another day.
Daganhurre watched as they drew away, dragging their dead and wounded behind them. The beach was thick with the slain, and the tide washed with blood as it swept across his feet. One of his ships was useless, but he had lost enough men that it would not be needed. He spat out blood and swallowed the bitter taste of defeat. He would avenge this.
He could barely move, feeling broken bones moving inside him with every step. He refused every hand as he climbed back aboard his longship. They found his sword upon the strand, and he gripped it tightly, leaned on it as an old man leans upon a stick. He tasted his own blood, but he would not surrender a moment to weakness.
“Let there be a pyre for the dead,” he commanded, and then he watched through the cold hours of night as the slain were heaped and set aflame. The wounded were lifted to the ships, and they left the pyre blazing on the shore as the men went to their benches and set hands to the oars. It would be dawn soon, and they would not remain on this accursed island any longer.
As the ships drew back from the beach, he saw motion in the shallow waters, and the misshapen forms of things not quite human rose up and watched them leave, green eyes glimmering in the half-light. Daganhurre glared at them as they receded, one by one sinking below, out of sight, until the last one slid beneath the water, and was gone.