Crune followed the light of the fire up into the hills, tasting the breaking of winter on the chill air. Now and then he heard the sound of ice splintering in the stream. The year had turned, and now blood would run with the rivers, and he intended to see that the blood was not his own.
The bonfire was laid in a hollow, hemmed in by briarthorn and a small ring of white stones dug up from the earth like teeth. He did not see the one who waited for him, and that made him nervous. He was alone, and any one of his enemies might choose to lie in wait to slay him. He put his hand to his sword and listened, seeking the small sounds of mail and leather.
There was no sound, only a shadow as the weirwoman stepped from the darkness and into the light of the fire. She wore a black shift that draped over her tall frame, and her hair was so black it seemed to melt into the darkness behind her. She was beautiful, with her fine white skin and her eyes such a pale blue they were almost colorless. There was something ghostly and unnatural about her, and signs of magic power were drawn on her bare arms.
“Welcome,” she said. “I have waited for you here in the hollow of the fire. I was not certain you would be brave enough to answer my call.”
“It was I who sent word to you,” he said. “The Thingvell is called with the thawing, and all the thanes are gathering to the shield-hall of King Arnan. There will be words about the blood price for Torgged, and that Hror son of Herun still walks free, unpunished.”
Crune came down into the hollow, feeling the heat from the fire against his face. His back felt cold, as if something fell pressed against him, looking over his shoulder. These hills were riddled with barrow-mounds and older tombs, and he knew more than enough tales of the wraiths that were said to lurk in this place. Grialle the Weirwoman was no less dangerous than any other phantom, but at least she was flesh and blood.
“You care nothing for Torgged,” she said. “Nor do you care for Hror. What do you seek here?”
“Opportunity,” Crune said. “There are those who see weakness in Arnan because he failed to punish Hror for his raid. He put a blood price on him, but none have claimed it, and many believe he should go to war with king Oeric over the insult.”
“So you seek a war,” she said, folding her long arms into the blackness of her robe. “A war to kill a king.”
He smiled. “Arnan is a weak king, and now he turns men against him with the whispers that he is a coward. He fears to face Oeric over spears. There will be men who come to the Thingvell with the desire to see him driven from the throne. But to unseat a king, there must be someone chosen to take his place. I would be that man.”
“So you come to me,” she said. “You would be the sower of discord, the gatherer of treachery and the hand that wields the knife.”
“I would,” he said, dragging his fingers through his red beard. “I ask of you a cursing, a working of your powers. I wish for a sign to be seen that Arnan is weak, and that the gods do not favor him. Show the gathered thanes that he is afraid, and I am not. I will take the moment, and I will seize the crown.”
“A crown for a wolf,” Grialle said. “I can give you what you wish, if you can pay the cost.”
“Name it,” he said. “Tell me what you wish.”
“You call for the power of the Undergods,” she said. “No Spear-Father will grant you your serpent desire. I will conjure dark powers for you, and they will need to be fed.” She smiled and beckoned. “Come, let us speak the names of the dark ones together.”
Winds blew hard from the sea as the ships gathered, and the procession of thanes came up the white road to the great shield-hall of Arnan, King of Hadrad. Some men came over land, but most of them followed the sea road and beached their gilded ships on the hard, stony shores. They came with their women and their eldest sons and their hearth-warriors, and each man set a spear in the earth beside the great barrow, and made oaths to the Speargod who was father to all men of war.
The great hall was vaster than any other in the kingdom, with a high, peaked roof and timbers larger than a man could reach around, hewn from the great trees cut down in the northern forests. The pillars were carved with the faces of dragons and wolves, and the great door was sheathed in hammered bronze that glowed in the soft light that descended through the spring mist.
Inside, the floors were polished until they gleamed like gold, and the roof-beams were black with the smoke of years. The firepits blazed and there was mutton and beef and venison roasting on spits. The smells of bread and beer and smoke were thick in the air, and men who had not seen one another for a year shouted and laughed and embraced, even as others glared and plotted and dreamed of death. This was the great gathering of the lords of the realm. Every thane, great or mean, came once each year when the ice began to melt, and they all gathered at the oaken table of the king.
At the high table, on a wooden throne set with gold and polished stones, sat the king himself. Arnan was almost forty, with heavy arms and a beard that was only beginning to turn white. He wore a dark robe and a crown of gold, but beneath the gilding was the iron crown of his ancestors. Crossed axes hung on the wall above his throne, and guardsmen broad as oxen stood watch to either side of him. Men looked on him, glancing quickly, and then away. All of them knew the murmurs that gathered here this year. This would be no easy, peaceful Thingvell.
Crune moved through the crowd like a wolf, sniffing after the trail he wanted. He spoke to men he knew, and those he had never met but knew they were discontented. He clasped hands with war-hungry men from the northern marches, and with the hard clansmen of the Sword islands, touchy of their honor and jealous of their lands. Vathran was across the sea to the north and west, and the islanders always bore the brunt of any border strife. He would need them.
He heard when Balra arrived by the tumult of voices and the hush that followed. He saw the young man move in among the thanes with his bodyguards close to him. He walked with a stout cane and a limp from the wound Hror dealt him, and that wound itself was like a silent rebuke to the throne.
Crune moved to intercept him and speak to him before he was presented to the king. Balra was the flashpoint around which this brooding storm gathered. He was a young man, new to his rank, and he would hunger for revenge. But he would be unsure of himself, and the tale was told that Hror was his kindred, so no one knew where his heart lay.
He placed himself in Balra’s path and met him, held out his hand and clasped the young man’s forearm. He was a tall, straight-backed youth with bright eyes and a pale face. He had an uncertain look to him, as if he sought to read men’s faces and know what was in their hearts.
“We all know of your misfortune, Thane Balra. I am Thane Crune, and I stand with you in demanding justice for your father.” He gambled that the boy would agree, was glad to see a small smile and feel the firm grip of the boy’s hand. “Not many men of your years can claim to have fought Hror son of Herun and driven him off.”
“I was fortunate,” Balra said, ducking his head slightly. “I did what I thought was right in the gaze of the Speargod.”
“Indeed,” Crune said. “But many men have no doubt said the same and died for their courage. You live, and you cut out his eye. An auspicious beginning for the life of a warrior.”
The boy looked somewhat abashed, and Crune hid his smile. This would be easier than he had believed. He stepped closer and led Balra to the side. “It is shameful that the king has not taken action to see that your father’s death is answered. I am not the only one who believes it to be so.”
“The king sent word to King Oeric, and Oeric allowed the blood price to be pursued in his lands,” Balra said. “He promised he would not interfere.”
“And yet,” Crune said. He looked up and saw a mixed group of other thanes standing near, listening but not intruding. Some of them he had the measure of, but not others. It was time to be bold. “And yet only the Kin-Killer takes on the task, and he is ambushed on the way and driven back. No other has dared to go in search of Hror. Oeric may swear that Thane Ranne acted on his own, but I don’t believe it.” He clasped the young man’s shoulder. “Do you?”
The boy looked at him, glanced at the other men standing close, and then he shook his head slightly. There were murmurs of agreement all around them. Crune saw heads nodding, saw anger on their faces. He lifted his voice a little, playing to the crowd. “Oh yes, Oeric generously allows men to go and hunt for the renegade he says he repudiates, but when a man seeks to gain that satisfaction he is ambushed by one of Oeric’s own thanes. Is that justice?”
More grumblings of assent, and Balra looked around him, seeming to be suddenly nervous. “I should seek that vengeance myself,” he said. “I only await until my wound is healed.”
“And so you should,” Crune said. “But not with a single shield-hall’s worth of hearth men and whatever ships you can muster. You should seek after Hror at the head of an army. There are many thanes here who would support you, who would pledge ships and spears to the undertaking. I would do so myself. I command eight ships, and can bring four hundred men with armor and axe and sword. All of us, together, could bring forth an army that no one would dare ambush.”
He hoped to hear more sounds of agreement, and he looked around, saw men nodding, heard their voices raised in assent. Just at a glance he thought there were perhaps six more thanes who seemed eager. That many lords could gather a few thousand warriors – a genuine army. With a force like that he could scour the shores of Vathran.
“An army,” he said, louder. “We should not suffer petty outlaws to come to our shores and kill our kindred.” Voices called out in answer, and men shook their fists. “And when we demand blood for blood, as the Spear-Father spoke, must we be satisfied with meekly begging permission from a perfidious foreign king?”
The refusal did not come from one throat, but from many, a rumble that rose up all around. “Shall we go on our knees and plead to be allowed to avenge? No! I say no!” Crune bent down and hammered his fist on the table, and a dozen men pounded their fists in answer.
He heard indrawn breaths, and the crowd behind him thinned. He knew who it was before he turned, and he smiled for a half a heartbeat before he straightened. When he turned to face King Arnan, he held his features in a mask of grave anger. “My lord,” he said, stiffly, refusing to bow. He knew that in coming down from his throne Arnan had committed a serious mistake, one that he did not intend to allow.
“Thane Crune,” Arnan said in a formal tone. “It seems perhaps you have something to say before this Thingvell is called to moot?”
Crune felt the world turn upon him, as though he were the axis of the summer tree. “I will say it before the moot, I will say it loud so all may hear.” He raised his voice louder, and the hush spread around him as more men saw him face to face with the king. “This Thingvell is a sham, a place for men to stand and give homage to you and bow and scrape, when all of us know what is the real heart of the matter.”
Arnan scowled, his brows drawing together. Crune saw his glance shift side to side, and saw him realize he had misstepped. He had placed himself face to face, rather than sitting atop the authority of the throne. Here only his two bodyguards separated him from the other lords, and he was diminished.
“You would do well to speak with more deference,” Arnan said. He coiled his fingers in his belt, as if he wished to grip his sword and did not quite dare. “I am your king, Crune.”
“Indeed, my king,” Crune said in a softer tone. The crowd was listening intently, and he did not have to shout to be heard. “Indeed, you are my king, and deference you know very well, as you have gone far to bow and scrape to the treacherous king of Vathran.” He stepped closer and the bodyguards tensed. “They let that brigand Hror raid and kill on our lands, and you do nothing. They ambush those who seek the proper blood price, and again you meekly keep silent.”
Arnan drew himself up, taller than Crune and making use of it. “The death of Thane Torgged is not your feud to pursue.”
“No, it is his son’s.” Crune took Balra by the arm and pulled the almost hapless youth into the circle with him. “He has come here to seek answer for the insults he has borne, and to call for redress! Will you give it?”
Arnan glanced side to side, caught, and Crune felt the mood of the crowd shifting, becoming angrier. It was time for his stroke, and he had to hope the weirwoman was equal to her task. The moment was keen, and he felt it almost ripe, so very close.
He stepped back and pointed at the king. “By the gods who shelter us, I cry that you are false! Whether you are coward or bribed with blood gold, you refuse to seek the vengeance we require! You are the king, and it is your charge to protect the lands of your Thanes. If you will not, then the gods themselves may curse and blind you!”
The fire beside them suddenly reared up, blazing bright and green as though it were fed with poison, and Crune averted his gaze. He heard shouts and screams, and then the king cried out, and when Crune turned to face him he saw the man staggering in the grip of his guards, clutching at his face.
“What have you done?” one of the guards shouted. He stepped closer to Crune, drawing his long blade. “You foul trickster, you have bewitched him!”
Crune leaped back and drew his own sword. “Not I! I spoke the truth! It is the gods who have accursed him!” The crowd gave back, and he looked around himself. He had not counted upon this. He waited for voices to shout down the challenger, but none did. Their blood was up, and they wanted a fight.
The bodyguard pointed his blade at Crune. “Then we shall fight, and the gods shall decide the truth of it.”
The king wailed and sank to the floor, covering his eyes. Crune could see his face was burned, and a greenish smoke drifted from the fire. He looked to the crowd and saw he could not evade this, and he nodded. “Very well, let the gods decide.”
There was a roar at that, and men pounded their fists on the tabletops. Some of them seized the benches and long tables and drew them back so there was more room for the fight. The guard took off his helm and held it to the crowd before he tossed it on the floor. He wore mail and heavy leather braces, while Crune wore no proper armor.
“Tell me your name,” Crune said as he tried to think of a way out of this. He was not ready to face a hardened killer in mortal combat. “I would know who champions the king.”
“I am Haldr,” the man said. He had the dark hair of an uplander, and hard black eyes. He was no boy, and Crune did not like the way he moved, with assurance and no fear at all. His sword was long and wide, but he handled it easily. Crune touched the dagger sheathed at the back of his belt, and knew it would not pierce good iron mail.
“Then let us try at arms, Haldr,” Crune said. “I say the king is cursed by the gods for his cowardice. If I win, we go to war.”
“And if you fail, then he is cursed by dark powers, and it is you who are false.” Halder worked his shoulders to loosen the armor and saluted with his long blade. “Now guard your life. Let us see if your sword is as quick as your tongue.”
“Come, and find that it is,” Crune said, his heart beating the cadence of battle drums, and he muttered a call upon the Undergods as he went to meet his opponent, pacing carefully on the golden floor of the hall. He had given himself over to dark powers, let them sustain him now.
They closed there in the firelight in the bright hall, and there were no shields to guard their lives, only steel and skill. Crune closed carefully, and then gave back when Haldr came on him like a storm, striking blows that would have rent mail had they struck home. He had to counter that force with speed, and with cleverness. He watched his larger enemy, saw how swift he was, but his feet were not so sure when he circled as when he advanced.
Crune moved left, knowing it would put the fire at his back, and make his small motions harder to see. He knew he could not evade his enemy for too long, or it would look like cowardice, and he must not show any fear. He weighed his sword in his hand, readying himself. When Haldr rushed him he was gathered for the attack, and he feinted to the right, evaded the slashing sword, and shifted his own word to his left hand as he ducked past the larger man.
He turned and Haldr moved to evade his counter, but the sword was not in his right hand, and with his left he struck a furious blow against the iron mail, bursting links on Haldr’s arm and drawing blood. He danced back and a shout went up from the crowd at the first blooding. It was a slight wound, but it bought him breathing space.
Haldr seemed to take no notice of it as he returned to stalking, moving in closer with relentless steps. He gave no ground, showed no hesitation, and Crune envied him that. He wanted to spare a look at King Arnan blinded on the floor, but he dared not take his eyes from the near-giant who he faced. He had seen too many duels like this, and he knew the shape they took – circling and waiting, a few exchanges of blows, and then the opponents came together and blood flowed, and one man fell. Already he was breathing hard, not from the exertion, but simply from the enormous tension, the need to watch every motion his enemy made.
He saw Haldr gather himself and then rush on him with the sword slashing. Steel met steel and sparks flashed as Crune parried, the force of the blows ringing up his arm. He struck back with quick blows meant to force his opponent to keep back, but Haldr would not be slowed, came in close and tried to grapple him.
Crune drew the knife from behind his back and stabbed in low, under the edge of the mail, and Haldr stumbled as the blade wounded his thigh. Crune heard mutterings from the crowd as he dance back for space, and he knew the blow would be seen as perhaps a less than honorable stroke. To answer it he threw the bloodied dagger aside and set both hands on his sword. Haldr turned to come after him, and now his face was dark with anger.
The big man came rushing in, driving his sword down in great, sweeping blows. Crune evaded one, parried another, and then they crashed together and the weight of the bigger man force him back. His feet struck the stone edge of the firepit, and he had nowhere to retreat to.
Instead, he dropped his sword, grasped Haldr by the hauberk, and turned as he pulled, using the man’s size against him. He dragged both of them over into the fire, and he rolled on top, pinning the other man down under him. The heat was hideous, and flames crawled over them both. Crune felt flames burn his legs, and Haldr screamed as his back was burned. He let go of his sword to get better leverage to push out of the fire, and Crune caught the hilt and smashed the pommel into his opponent’s face, knocking him back.
He could have left him there, but he would seem vicious if he did. Crune caught the big man by his mail and dragged him out of the fire, rolled him onto the floor with his armor and clothes smoldering. Haldr moved slowly, dazed from the blow to his head, and Crune took up his dropped sword and used his foot to roll the big man over on his back. He put the point of his sword through the man’s beard and up against his neck, and then he looked at the crowd.
“The gods have decided the truth of it,” he said, panting for breath. He pointed at Arnan, who still lay on the floor, clutching his eyes. “The king is cursed, and my accusations have been proved upon him.” He took his sword away from Haldr, who lay looking at him with a dazed expression. “I will not kill a man for being loyal to his king. Loyalty is the strength of men. It binds us together against our enemies, and we must not forget it.”
He thrust his sword upward to the smoky beams overhead. “I will gather my hearth-men and my ships and sail to bring Hror son of Herun the justice he has earned for himself, and any Thanes of King Oeric who stand in my path will receive war as their payment!” Voices came in answer, men shaking their fists and shouting to match him. “Who will sail with me to war?”
The shout then was louder, and rose up to the roof above and seemed to shake the hall itself. Crune looked down at the blind king and kept his smile secret. It did not matter who was king in this moment, only who the men followed with their steel. He caught a glimpse of something dark through the crowd, and there for a moment he saw a black-robed shape and eyes so pale they seemed white. Crune turned away. Let the weirwoman haunt him; he would give her the blood she craved, so long as he gained the crown he coveted. Not yet, but soon. Very soon.