On the south shore of Vathran stood the shield-hall of the king, named Irongaard by some. It was a great hall built with oak from the deck planks of warships, dark with age and hard as iron. Around the hall stood sixteen longhouses, their walls built of stone and their roofs green with the spring grass. A wall of earth surrounded the halls, and then a long white stone path led down to the blue waters of the fjord. To the south the gray mists of the sea coiled in the dusk, and in the north the mountains rose up and up into pillars of stone and ice. King Oeric did not care for any of it, not any longer.
Even as the days grew warmer, and the ice retreated from the waters, he remained within his hall, closed in his own chambers with the doors shut and the fires stoked high. He wandered from room to room, forgetting to dress himself, and he clutched his bared sword as though he saw enemies hiding around every corner.
Queen Ruana did what she could to attend him. She was his second wife, and he was much older than she. His first bride had given him two sons, both now dead, but Ruana herself had never been able to give him a child. She slept each night in the bed her predecessor had bled to death in, and sometimes she still thought she could catch the slaughterhouse smell.
Oeric was not yet old, but it was as though his mind was failing him. He did not speak often, and when he did he seemed to mumble to people who were not there. He carried his sword everywhere, even to sleep, and he touched the spears that lined the walls as though they might rouse and follow him like hounds. He did not dress himself, and she had to struggle to make certain he was attired. The servants were afraid to touch him, and so she had to command them and hope he did not decide to kill any of them.
Sometimes, usually at night, he became violently angry and stalked through the chambers, striking at the beams with the old ring-hilted blade of his father, leaving cuts in the hard wood. Ruana had to stop him then, lest he strike something important, or hurt himself. She would throw her braids back over her shoulder and wrestle him, holding down his sword arm until he quieted.
His thanes came with the warming of the year, and she knew the news from the north was bad. Thane Crune of Hadrad led an army of ninety ships in the hinterlands, and though he claimed he was hunting Hror the Outlaw, there was nothing to prevent him from coming south into the kingdom, and testing his strength against their own. There was already blood on the high heaths, and it seemed nothing but war could grow from the red soil.
Ruana put Oeric on his throne and draped him with his royal robes. She laid his great black wolfskin over his shoulders and put the crown of gold on his head. He held his sword naked in his lap, one hand gripping the hilt, one closed around the blade. His fingers were cut from the edge, and he left blood smeared on the ancient steel. Ruana sat beside him in her white gown, and she kept her hand on his arm. If they realized how bad he had become, there might be bloodshed. The thanes surely smelled weakness, but she had to try and keep them from baring their teeth.
They were the great men of the kingdom. Not all of them were gathered; only nine of them had come this day. Thane Ranne had become a force to reckon with after his defeat of the Kin-Killer, but he was defending his lands, and could not leave. These were men of the south, most of them tall and blond and pale-eyed. Some were young, but most of them were men of middle years with wives and sons. They dressed in rich clothes, wore golden arm-rings, and bore jewel-hilted swords, but they were not the hard men of the north. They were sea-traders who had inherited their riches, not bled for them.
Thane Ufre stood forward from among them, and she saw from the way they looked at him that he had been chosen to speak for them all, but they were not all pleased by it. Ufre was a big man, with wide shoulders and heavy hands. He stepped forward to stand before the king, and Ruana held her breath.
“My lord, the people are clamoring for you to call forth an army. Crune of Hadrad is ravaging the northern lands. He claims he is searching for Hror, but all he has done is pillage and burn. Thane Ranne sends word that he is beset at Afang, and he may have to abandon his hall if he is not reinforced. We must call up the levies and send forth a force able to match the enemy and drive them from our lands.” Ufre looked sidelong at her, and she knew he would not allow her to speak for Oeric.
Oeric did not speak, only shifted his grip on the sword, and she squeezed his arm, hoping he would rouse from his lethargy and answer, but he made no reply. He looked around the room, as if he did not see the men gathered here.
“The king is weary,” she said, raising her voice. “He knows of what you speak, and he will call for you if he requires your counsel.”
“We do not come for the words of women,” Ufre said, harshly. He did not even look at her. “We are the king’s thanes, come to call for him to speak on matters of importance.”
Ruana restrained herself from anger, though her hand bore down harder on Oric’s arm. “And I tell you the king is weary. If you would have a war, go forth and spend your own gold and send your own ships.”
Oeric started to his feet, sudden and alive. He held his sword before him like a talisman. “The gods are angry! They cry out for blood!” The thanes drew back, startled, and it disgusted her to see how frightened some of them looked. These were poor excuses for men.
“My lord -” Ufre began.
“Blood!” Oeric cried out, and his eyes were wide and terrible to see. “I hear the voices that chant from the fires! I hear the howling of the Undergods that stalk in hill and harrow! I have seen the dark shapes that remain in hidden places since the coming of the Spear-Father! I see them in the waters, I see them in the sky. Even here, within my own hall!”
Ruana moved to catch him, to draw him back, but he was like a wakened wolf, all bared fangs and shining eyes. She almost caught his sleeve, but something made her hold back just before she touched him.
Instead it was Ufre who laid his hands on the king, trying to ease him, and Oeric moved like a striking adder and stabbed the sword of kings into Ufre’s shoulder. The other thanes yelled and leaped back as Ufre went down, blood starting from his wound and pouring over the blade. Oeric ripped the weapon free and raised it as though to strike again, but this time Ruana caught his arms, and she dragged him away. The point of the blade dripped blood in a trail across the floor.
“Get out!” Ruana shouted as the king’s hearthmen came running to force them back. “Get out and count yourselves lucky!” None of Oeric’s men would help her, and so she wrestled him back into their bedchamber herself. He fought to get past her, still spitting and hissing through his teeth, full of fury and maniacal energy. Once she forced him out of their sight he went as limp as a dead man, and she had to almost carry him to the bed and lay him on it. The fire was low, and there was not much light to see by. He looked up at her with haunted eyes, their gaze far away.
“I see them,” he muttered again and again. “I see them.” He gripped the sword in his hands, the blood already starting to clot and thicken. He would not relinquish it, and so she cleaned it as best she could with the hem of her dress, red against the white linen like a curse.
She slept a little, just before dark, and when she woke it was after nightfall, and the fire was almost dead. Ruana sat up in the dark and put her hand on her husband, felt him still breathing, and sighed. So long as he slept, she might relax her vigilance. The smell of blood was in their bed and she remembered what he had done, and she knew he was mad now, if he had not been before. Something had been gnawing at his mind, and now it was chewed through. It was not an illness that would pass.
The thanes would not accept this, nor allow her to rule through him. In quieter times, perhaps, but not with a foreign army at work upon the kingdom. War was in the wind, biting at men’s minds, and they would turn on Oeric, and then on each other. The shield-hall could become a heap of wolven corpses in a single day.
It was quiet, and she knew then that it should not be. There should be voices drifting up from the hall. The clatter of plates and knives, the sounds from kitchen and table. The shutters were open to the cooling night air, and she sought the sounds she knew she should hear. It was quiet.
Ruana slipped out of bed. If they were coming for Oeric, they would not leave her alive. She breathed faster, wondering what she should do. The fire was low, and it was so dark in here. Only the sword gleamed, there in the hands of the sleeping king.
She started at a sound like breaking wood, distant but clear. She heard sounds now, like many voices speaking too low to hear. She stood for a moment, uncertain, and then she remembered she was a queen.
Ruana opened the chest at the foot of the bed and drew out Oeric’s shirt of mail. It was large on her, and hung almost to her knees, but she put it on, comforted by the weight on her shoulders. She tied one of his belts around her waist and pulled the mail up a little so it hung over. The hanging weight would guard her better, she knew that.
Oeric still slept, his breath slow and shallow. Delicately, with careful hands, she took the sword from him. The steel was smeared with old blood, and she wished she had a moment to shine it. She heard voices again, closer, and now she could tell they were pitched low. Someone was coming, and she would not hide from them. With the sword of kings in her grip she threw open the door and went down the corridor, stepped out into the glow of the fire before the empty throne.
There were men here, and they drew back when they saw her. The hall was dark, the hearths burning low, and two of Oeric’s guards lay on the boards, blood still running from cut throats. Behind them was a wall of men in mail with helms drawn down low. Ruana saw the glitter of bared steel and of eyes hungry for battle, and she knew what was coming.
Two of the men in the front were thanes, and then she saw Ufre in his armor and his gold-gilt helm, and she felt anger boil up inside her like hot poison. That such men as this would betray their king and come like vultures to feast. She held up the sword and barred their way, alone. “Go back,” she said. “Go back or I will see you all dead.”
“Stand aside,” Ufre said. He walked with his left arm stiff from the pain of his wound. “It is done. Hror comes to take this place and be king. You will stand aside or be cut down.”
He gestured and two of his men came forward. They held their swords low and bore no shields, held their hands out to seize her, and she let her rage come in and boil her inside. She lunged at one of them, and when he lifted his sword to prevent her she stabbed low and felt the point of the sword pierce his leg beneath the edge of his mail. He screamed and went down, and the other man caught her arm and dragged her aside.
Ruana put her hand under the face of his helm and dug her fingers at his eyes, and he swore an oath and loosed his grip. She tore free and put both hands to the hilt of her sword and smote him on the helm, sent him staggering back. Before he could recover his balance she drove her foot into his knee and heard it break. She stepped back as he crumpled to the floor, howling, and she held up her sword with the point blooded.
“If you would push me aside, Ufre of the wide shield, then come and do it yourself. Fight me or I will name you the coward you are, knowing you feared to fight a woman.” She flicked the blade at him and blood spattered the floor.
He looked angry, but a quick glance to the men told him he could not simply brush her words aside. They did not like him, and his hold on them was weak. She saw she had him trapped by his own ambition.
Ufre drew his sword and shrugged off his heavy fur mantle. He bore no shield, came forward with his wounded side turned away from her. She did not place too much trust in that, knowing he might be less slowed by the wound than he seemed. The men stepped back, dragging the two wounded out of the way. They made a space here before the oaken throne, and their shadows stood high on the walls and moved with the flickering of the fire.
Ruana held her sword in both hands, pretending less strength than she possessed. As a girl she had herded cattle and fought wolves. She was stronger than any of them might guess. Ufre was head and shoulders taller than she, and broad, but he was wounded, and he would not wish to kill her if he could avoid it. He wore finely worked mail under his tunic, and she knew it would turn a sword-stroke, even if it was not as strong as her own.
He feinted to her left, and she saw his gambit, that she would move to his right and he could catch her with his left arm. Instead she stepped in and struck down at his unprotected head, forced him to parry clean, and the blow rang like a bell. He tried to push her back and she sidestepped, struck down at his leg, and he jumped back out of her reach, tried to strike her head with the flat of his blade, but she was too quick for him.
He moved in, trying to force her back against the crowd where she might yet be seized from behind. She struck a flurry of blows at him and forced him to give ground. She was aware of the dark hall like a still tarn behind the crowd. If it was true that Hror was coming, he might arrive at any moment. Even if she defeated Ufre, they would not let her escape, and they would not leave Oeric alive. Once she was a prisoner, anything could happen.
Ufre struck at her and she slipped around a beam, hoping his blade would bite and catch in the wood, but he only struck off a chip. He backed up, not allowing her to use the pillar as protection. She sidled to her right, and saw him weigh the chances of a rush upon her. Now her back was to the crowd and he might either disarm her or simply force her back into the arms of his men.
He took a step forward and she attacked just then, before he had fully committed. She struck a ferocious blow and he parried clumsily, backed away and tried to sidestep. She struck on that side and forced him back again, and now he backed into the throne and stumbled against it. He lost his footing, tried to catch himself with his wounded arm and cried out in pain.
Ufre dropped at the foot of the throne and Ruana rushed in, kicked his sword out of the way, and then brought her blade down and split his skull apart, the point sticking in the wooden back as blood sprayed across it. She put her foot on his chest and wrenched her sword free, left him there pouring out red. The crowd murmured and came closer, and she saw men lift their swords.
She pointed her bloody blade at them, the smell of spilled brains foul in the still air. “So I will treat every man who spits on his oath to the king! Who will try me next?”
They all heard the sound as the doors of the hall were forced open, and she saw a mass of armed men come into the hall, and one dark and fell at their head. She knew it was Hror, though she had not seen him since the night he was cast out. Her time was done.
Voices were raised, war-shouts that echoed from the rafters above, and for a moment all eyes were turned away from her. Ruana bared her teeth and ran to the door that led back to her bedchamber and her mad husband. She took the guttering oil lantern from its hook and hurled it to the floor before the throne, and fire splashed in a sudden blaze. Men leaped back and shouted as fire engulfed the throne and Ufre’s bleeding corpse.
Ruana slammed the door and ran for her chambers. The fire was low, and so after the flare of the burning oil it was like midnight in the room. She saw Oeric sitting up, knotting his hands together. He looked at her with eyes that gleamed like coins. “My sword,” he moaned. “They are coming. I must have my sword!” He was weeping, and she had never seen him look so old.
They would kill him, she knew that. Hror would drag him forth and cut off his head and put it on a spear. He would shout his mad revenge and call down curses. She could not save Oeric from it, could not take him away, nor protect him.
She went to his side and caught his hands, kissed them though they were cold as winter meat. “My sword,” he moaned, pulling at her. “My sword.”
“Here it is,” she said, and she put it under his beard and dragged it swift over his throat, cutting deep with the ancient steel. Blood poured out and he fell back, gagging and choking, but in a moment he was still, his white hands shivering like tree limbs in the wind.
There were voices outside her door and she had no time. Her eyes burned as she drew back the blade and cut off Oeric’s head. The bed was soaked in red, and she took him by the hair and lifted him away from his body. Let Hror have his victory, but he would not have his revenge, nor his trophy.
The door burst open and men flooded in. Ruana held up the head of the king and they gasped and fell back, swearing and calling on the gods. She laughed and spat in their faces. “You will have neither crown, nor throne!” She hooked the bedside lantern with her sword and slung it into the fire, and the splashing oil burst outward in a cloud of flame. In that moment of distraction she turned and rushed to the window, smashed through the shutters, and leaped outward and into the night.
It was cold at dawn, and she made her slow way along the windy heath to where the cliffs rose up above the sea. A storm was coming, and Ruana smelled the lightning. To the south the sky was growing dark, and she almost laughed at that, for darkness was spreading here on the land as well. She carried the sword of the kings in one hand, and the head of her murdered husband in the other.
Above the waves she stood and looked down to where the sea churned in among the rocks like teeth. She drove the sword point-first into the earth and took Oeric’s head in both hands. “I am sorry,” she said to his sallow, slack face. “I could do no more than rob your enemies of your death.” She kissed him once, on the cold flesh of his brow. She had not loved him, but a queen has duty she must bow to, and do the best she may.
Then she drew back her arm and hurled him out to sea, watching his head fall down, down, to be lost among the sea-spray and the crashing waves. She could not see where he fell at last, but he was gone. She bowed her head for a moment and offered up a prayer to the Speargod, hoping that Oeric would be received at the table of his fathers. Perhaps he had not been a good king, but he had been better than many who claimed a crown.
Ruana drew the sword from the earth and rubbed the dirt from the blade with the sleeve of her gown. Soon there would be rain, and she would have to seek shelter. Then she must go her way in a kingdom that was no longer her own. She would not be caught, and would not give way. She would survive, and fight, and perhaps she would find a way to work justice with her own two hands. She sheathed the ancient sword, and turned away from the sea, and walked north into the drawing dark.