Valura woke to the screams of the ravens, and she knew her fever was broken. She felt hollow and flayed, as though her skin had been stripped and burned in a fire. She stirred in the darkness belowdecks, and the sound of waves and the birds haunted her. She did not know how long she had been abed.
She shoved the furs off and sat up, fighting past a wave of weakness. Hunger chewed at her belly and she scooped up a bowl of cold stew from beside her bunk and swilled it down. The lack of motion beneath her feet told her the ship was ashore, so the army had arrived, and she had likely been left behind with the coal-chewers and the camp women. It made her want to spit. At last a war fit for her axe and she was left behind with a gods-cursed fever.
The axe she dreamed of lay close at hand, leaning against the inner wall of the hull, and she caught it up and stumbled forward, reeling from beam to beam until she could push through the leather curtain and climb up into the daylight. The smell of salt and smoke was as familiar to her as the feel of armor and shield, but the ravens circling overhead were disquieting.
Wind whipped her pale hair back from her brow, and she felt the cold bite her skin through the sweat-stained shift she wore. She felt weakness and drove it back with hatred. It was cold today, and the wind was coming down from the hills and sweeping across the stony shore. The sky was low and gray, seeming like a stone roof close enough to touch.
The ninety ships of the invasion force lay around her. Some, like her own ship, were drawn up on the shore, hulls propped with beams to keep them level on their keels. Many more ships lay at anchor behind, rolling in the swells. There was not room for all of them on this lonely strand. Ashore, the ground was covered with tents and cookfires and heaps of supply. This had been built as a camp for the army to use before venturing out into the hard lands in search of Hror the killer, and as a redoubt to fall back on if need be.
She took her wolfskin from the hook on the mast and shrugged it over her shoulders. Barefoot, she went to the gunwale and jumped over, dropped hard to the pebbled beach. One of her hearthmen came hurrying to meet her, looking worried. He was Serl, and she thought he fancied himself her lover someday, if he could prove himself. He was a big, heavy man with a long beard and a rolling way of walking.
“My Thane,” he said. “You should not be out of your bed – you have been very sick.”
“I will say what I should and should not do. How many days?” She went to a nearby fire where a sheep was roasting, and she hacked off a piece of bloody flesh with her axe. She pulled it sizzling from the coals with her hand and tore into it with her teeth. She was ravenous.
“Four days since the army marched forth,” he said. “Your fever raged, and -”
“Piss on my fever,” she said. She spat a piece of bone into the fire. “Any word of the army? Any battles?” She thought of Thane Crune and his sly, narrow face. She didn’t like him; she was here for blood gold and glory won in battle, not for his ambitions. If she were fortunate, he would be dead already.
“No word,” he said. “None.”
She looked up and stabbed her axe at the circling ravens. “How long have they been about?’
Serl looked puzzled. “Since last night, I think. Better than the gulls screaming all day.”
“Gulls don’t eat dead men,” she said. “Gather any warriors left in the camp and stand them to arms.” She looked out past the sharp stakes driven into the ground to make a defensive position around the beached ships. She would need hundreds of men to guard it. The army had been more than six thousand, and she wondered how many were left.
“To arms?” Serl looked outward to the misty hills.
“The ravens are awaiting a feast,” Valura said, stripping the last of the sheep with her teeth and throwing away the ragged bone. “That means it’s coming.”
She went belowdecks on her ship and donned her mail shirt, strapped on her belt with her dagger and sword, and she drew her helm down over her dirty hair. She felt passing waves of weakness and dizziness that made the deck seem to tilt beneath her as though they were still at sea, but she shrugged it off. Blood was coming, and she would not miss the spilling of it this time. She wondered if the army had been entirely defeated, and then she pictured the forces of Hror coming for them to burn the ships, and her heart leaped with eagerness in her chest. A thousand to one, those were odds to make her smile.
Back on the deck, she took a shield from the rail and climbed up to where the figurehead roared silent wrath into the distance. She stood as tall as she could and she looked inland. The mist lay low on the green hills, coiling in hollows where nests of hardy trees clung to the shallow soil. She looked hard, her eyes narrow, and she saw shadows moving in the gray.
They came as though materializing from nothing, scattered groups of men moving together, hurrying toward the shore, and she knew then that this was no conquering army; these were the men she had come here with, and they did not move as an army, but as fugitives.
She looked down and saw a knot of men there with Serl, and they looked confused and nervous. She swore aloud to the gods at the kinds of fools who must have been left behind. “Ware!” she called, and she pointed to the hills with her axe. “They come.”
Valura took a rope and swung down to the ground, and then she shook off the way her head spun and jogged to the line of stakes and wooden barriers that made what passed for defense. She saw it had not been done very well and she spat on it as she slipped through. Confidence had made for poor planning.
Men were coming down the long slope to the sea, some of them staggering, many of them helping others to walk. They followed no one, and drifted like leaves on an unseen wind. Some of them were in groups that carried others upon shields braced with spear-shafts, men too wounded to carry themselves. Valura chewed her tongue at the sight. A man too wounded to walk should be left to fend for himself. She thought them foolish to slow themselves for the sake of men would would likely die.
When the first of them came in reach she called out to them. “Ho there! What news of the battle?”
Faces looked up at her, pale and streaked with mud and gore. She saw the sallow, shocked eyes of exhausted men, and knew there was nothing they could tell her that she could not divine from their faces. Defeat and fear were written in ever limb and motion.
“Disaster!” a man called out to her. “They are close behind us! We must flee this place!” He seemed to shake off his weariness and rushed to the line of stakes, leaned upon one as he gasped. “The battle was a slaughter, and we left many hundreds dead on the field. We must be gone before they catch us!”
He would have yammered more, but she struck him hard with the flat of her axe. “What of Crune? Where is he?”
The man seemed to return to himself from the country of fear. “I know nothing of him. They said he was wounded and fell in the battle, but I have not seen him.” He made to push past her and she met him with her shoulder, knocked him down.
“Enough of your bleating, get a spear and stand,” she growled.
“Don’t speak madness,” he snarled, getting to his feet. She saw his wound seemed slight enough now. “We will get on our ships and get away from this shore! The battle is lost, and we will all die!”
He seemed ready to keep going, so she put the point of her axe blade up under his chin and quieted him. “Aye, a great many men will die if there is no defense here when they reach the shore. If men fling themselves into ships and cast off as soon as they have enough men to row, many upon many will die or be left behind. I won’t allow that to happen.” Valura leaned in close and saw him sweating, licking his lips as he stared at her.
“Now I won’t have a mad rush to the ships, and I won’t have no one to man the barricades.” She leaned in until she was breathing in his face. “Now get out there and find men coming in who can still fight, and separate them out. Wounded to the rear and aboard ships, walking wounded and able men to arms and then back to this line.” She dug the axe into his neck. “And if you don’t, then I’ll decorate one of these spikes with your cowardly head and find someone who will.”
Now she saw he knew her, and knew the stories of Valura the Axe-Bride, and he knew she would kill him in the twitch of the heart if he pushed her. He swallowed, the apple in his neck digging against the blade, and then he nodded, very slightly.
“Good,” she said. “I want a pile of spears right here!” she bellowed pointing at her feet, drawing attention from all around. “Here we will make a wall and stand on it!”
They came straggling in through the day, sometimes more, sometimes less, and Valura gathered them in and sorted them ruthlessly. Any man who could stand and hold a spear she armed put in the line, any man too wounded to fight when to a ship, and those who were beyond help she slew and had taken to a funeral ship. There would be no time or reason to preserve lives that were already unraveling. Some tried to stop her and she killed those as well, and by the time the sun began to set she had a half-dozen heads on spikes near where she stood.
Six men hastened up, bearing a seventh on a shield, and she saw Crune’s thin, pale face with his red beard trimmed far too carefully. She had never thought much of him, and she thought less now. He had a bandaged arm, and held his side as though it pained him, but she saw no wound that would force other men to bear him away.
“Are they close behind you?” she asked, giving no honors, and she saw he was not so weak that it did not anger him.
“The fog is too heavy,” one of the bearers said. “But we know they are near. There are few left behind us.”
Valura ground her teeth, and she thought hard on just having Crune’s head to add to her collection, but the six men with him were all unwounded and willing to bear him, so they would fight for him. She had no good cause save for simple contempt. So instead she spat on the ground. “Get the wounded to ships and start getting us away from this place. I will hold the beaches.” She looked up and down the strand, saw she had almost a thousand men here ready to fight. She could hold any army long enough for the rest to get away. “Have your retreat, I will cover it.”
Crune said nothing to her, he only looked away and his men bore him through the line of stakes and past the barricades, and then he was gone. She wanted to send a curse after him, but she decided to save it for those who came to face her steel. The inland hills were growing dark, and she strained to see through the mist.
“Stand ready!” she roared, and men jumped in alarm at her fierce war-cry. She reached for one of the heads and rubbed her thumb in the blackening blood. With quick strokes she drew the wedge-shaped sign of the Speargod on her brow. “Let no man flee who has not killed! Let no man give way from where he stands! Let no man die unless I give him leave!” She drew her helm down over her face again, and she spat on the stony earth. She felt a thunder beneath her feet, and a shadow darkened the lowering fog.
The army came out of the fog like a black wave. They did not carry bright banners or loose war-songs, they only marched with steady, unhurried tread. They had already tasted battle and victory, so they bore blooded swords and spears, shields notched and helms dented. Some of them had blood splashed on their mail, and it might have been their own, or it might not have been. Valura saw them coming on like a wave edged with steel, and she held up her axe and roared for the men to stand.
Already ships laden with wounded were pushing off into the curling waves. The beach that had to be held was not so large as it had been, and she was glad to see her men drawn up close behind the wall of stakes, helms drawn down and weapons to hand. They made a hedge of iron spears and shields lapping like the scales of a dragon. If they could hold against the first rush, they could hold as long as they had to.
Horns bellowed, and she felt the tread of the oncoming foe beneath her feet. She felt the warriors around her waver, saw some of them step back, uncertain. They were outnumbered, and many of them had tasted defeat once before. Fear ran like a stench through the ranks, and she felt them begin to falter.
Valura cursed and beat her axe against her shield-rim. Before anyone could try to stop her she burst from the lines and ran out into the open space between the armies. It was like a dry river channel, hemmed in and closing, and she planted her feet there and brandished her axe to the sky. “Is there any man with the courage to fight me? Is there a man among you with blood still in his veins?’
The oncoming wave of men did not slow, and yet every man watching held his breath to see if she would be answered. The horns sounded again, and now a knot of five men broke from the lines and rushed towards her, running fast to stay ahead of their fellows. Spears jutted out from them like fangs and their shields clashed together as they charged her.
Valura laughed and leaped to meet them. A spear splintered on her shield and then she hacked through another one with her axe. Then she was among them. They battered at her with their shields and hacked with their swords, but she was like a bolt of lightning forged into iron and blood. She dashed them back and her deadly axe whirled in a terrible arc that clove a man to the breastbone, shearing through his mail and splattering blood in a torrent.
She wrenched her weapon free and met a rush of swords that notched and chopped at her shield. A surge of her shoulder dashed a man off his feet, and then she brought the rim of her shield down upon his neck and snapped it like a rotten branch. Swords ripped at her and she parried with the stout oaken haft of her axe, ground her teeth as the blades hacked at her armor. A blow rang against her helm and she staggered, but she would not go down.
With hideous strength she split a shield in half with a single stroke, cleaving off the arm that held it, and then she whirled and sent her axe crashing against another man’s helm. Blood rushed out from beneath the iron and he fell back. The last man leaped on her, tried to drag her down as the line of the enemy came closer, meaning to hold her until the rest of the army could tear her apart.
She lifted him, strong as a bear, and hurled him to the ground. A blow from the edge of her shield burst the straps of his helm and knocked it from his head, and then her axe descended and sheared through his neck and sent his head tumbling across the ground.
Blood coursed around her boots like the wash of a dark red sea, and then she heard a great shout go up from her men as they saw her victorious. They surged in among the stakes and screamed for war, and then there was no more time, and the lines crashed together like the waves of legend that swallowed up the land of the gods.
Valura was caught in the tide as the spears clashed and the shields crushed together and ground men like meat. The enemy hurled themselves upon the defensive line and men were impaled on the stakes, trapped against the barricades and trod on by their comrades who tried to push over them. Spears plunged and stabbed in the chaos, piercing mail and flesh and bone, until the earth ran with blood.
She hacked her way through, battering with her axe and her shield, blows raining all over her, cutting and rending her mail, wounding her in a dozen places. She left a path of dead behind her and then, as the lines drew back and men gasped for breath, she forced her way back through to her own men.
There was the lull, then, and she shook the broken shards of her shield from her arm and set both hands to the notched haft of her axe. Her fingers were numb from striking, and she was half-drunk with weakness and wounds, but she would not give way. The line was heaped with dead and dying, and she bellowed for the men to pull the wounded back. The line was withdrawing as more and more men went to their ships, and she saw more than half the fleet was already out to sea.
Now was the time of the greatest danger. Now they had to pull back from the beach and get to their longships without being cut down and slaughtered. She howled for the men to get to their ships, and then the line broke apart, and the warriors ran for their lives.
It took a moment for the enemy to realize they were pulling away, and she saw then that they had no one in command, no one to urge them onward. Some came forward, probing, climbing over the fallen, and she rushed up the hill of the dead and dying and hewed at them, sending three men back with their mail and flesh rent through. Her arms screamed with weariness, and she felt as drunk as though she had downed a barrel of honey-wine. Spears flew close past her as she staggered, and she laughed in defiance of death.
She heard the scraping of the hulls on the stony shore, and the shouts of the steersmen as they called the cadence for the oars. She glanced back and saw her own ship close, and she saw the deck move as it began to pull away, and then she ran.
Like the breaking of a spell the enemy surged forward, climbing over the dead, chopping down the barricades and the stakes. The camp was abandoned, scattered with broken spear hafts and splintered shields, smoldering fires abandoned beside collapsed tents. She ran for her ship, feeling as though the ground ahead of her was stretching away, a distance she would never cross.
She reached the rail and leaped for it, pulled herself up without aid as every other man was bending his back to row them away from shore. A hail of thrown spears thudded into the deck and the hull, and then the enemy was all around them, hacking at the oars as they waded in the water waist-deep, some of them threw torches, and they bounced across the decks and seared the hardened wood.
Fires bloomed in the gathering darkness, and she saw along the shore that several ships had been fired, and they blazed up in the low fog, flames racing along their decks as men leaped into the sea. There they grappled with their enemies and fought with hopeless desperation, killing and bleeding until they sank and died.
Men climbed the sides of her ship and she was there, chopping off hands and fingers, crushing helms until they were free, and she leaned into the heaving deck as the ravens screamed above and the oars caught the water. She ripped a spear from the deck and hurled it back at her enemies, and then she fell against the rail and caught her breath. Her arms ached as though every bone in them was broken, and her chest was a smith’s forge.
The ship shuddered, and she felt the deck pitch beneath her as though it had struck something. It recoiled again, and she felt them slow, as though something in the water had caught them, and was dragging them back. It could be a grapple or simply a rope made fast about the keep, and she had to see.
She dragged herself to the stern, staggered past the steersman where he beat the drum, and she looked down over the back of the ship. The night was descending everywhere, and the fog coiled about the wavetops like the breath of demons. She saw no rope, but something thrashed in the water, and then a light glimmered, and another. Eyes looked up at her from below, the eyes of some sea-beast that sank teeth into the hull and sought to drag them back to shore, or to pull them under.
Shock lent strength to her failing body, and she knew her axe could not reach the distance. She chopped the battered edge into the rail and left it there. A spear was embedded in the deck and she wrenched it loose. One of her helm-straps was broken and she tore her helmet off and flung it aside. She thrust the spear up to the unseen sky. “Spear-Father! Sky-Father! Touch this iron! Let it strike down the unhallowed!”
She bent out over the rail as the sea below heaved up, and she saw the terrible, doom-serpent shape as it reached up for her. She drew back her arm, every muscle and skein tight as a stretched bowstring, and then she hurled the iron straight and true.
It smote upon the dark shape and one of the great lantern eyes was gutted out. There was a hiss and a bellow of stinking cold breath, and then the beast vanished beneath the waves, leaving behind only the churning waters and the sound of it roaring down beneath, in the hollow deeps where accursed gods hid their faces from the light of the sun.