Monday, March 5, 2018

The Cry From the Barrow

It was a cold day on the high heaths when armies clashed and the gods turned their faces away. The green land lay in waves, like a frozen sea studded with iron-gray stones beneath a low sky. Clouds covered the sun, and the wind smelled of the rotted weeds cast up from the sea. Hunwal smelled blood and death close to hand, and when the mist parted he saw the slain scattered upon the hillside.

He bore no shield, for he was no hearth man. He carried a stolen spear and a leather sack for the loot he had come for. Like a scavenger bird he followed in the wake of battle, but for him the lure was gold, ripe and soft as rotted flesh. Distant, he heard the sound of the battle. The clatter of spears and the sounds of swords shattering shields moved north of him, unseen in the fog. Hror the Usurper and Crune the Sly clashed there in the storm of steel, and he wanted no part of it.

The scattered dead were fresh, and blood still flowed, the wounded still moaned. He could see the fighting had been fierce, with men heaped almost atop one another, and they had not been looted, save for an arm-ring or a gold-hilted sword snatched up as the armies moved on. The ravens were just beginning to gather and roost on the fallen, crying out their chants for the dead, calling up the worms from beneath.

Hunwal began to search the dead, turning them with boot and spear, taking rings and amulets, cutting bright cloak-pins from blood-soaked cloth. Some of them moaned when he moved them, not yet done, and twice he had to stab them with his spear to be certain they were still before he took what there was to take. He tossed the gold in his bag, shaking it and glad of the heavy sound of the treasure as it rang together. The ravens screamed curses at him when he chased them away, but he paid them no attention. He had long been cursed by man and beast, and none had yet managed to harm him.

He turned a man over and saw he was wounded in the guts, red hands clenched over the red. The warrior gasped, opened eyes shot through with red veins like fractures. One red-stained hand gripped his leg, and he saw the reddened teeth of the man’s death-grin. “Water!” the dying man hissed, spitting through his clenched jaw. “Give me water!”

“I’ll give you nothing!” Hunwal snarled. He held the man down with his foot and raised his spear with both hands. He brought it down hard and drove it through the warrior’s mouth, bringing a fresh gout of red. He bore down until he felt it crush through the skull and bite into the soil beneath, and the red hand loosed its grip on his leg.

Hunwal caught his breath and then saw the gold amulet of the Speargod there on the man’s neck. He bent down and caught it from the spilling blood, pulled so the chain snapped, and he held it up. It was heavy, perhaps made of solid gold, not plated steel. He smiled. “May the Speargod greet you.”

He looked up and saw a shadow in the gathering mist, and for a moment he felt a cold grasp in his belly, for the shadow seemed greater than any mortal man. Then he saw a warrior emerge from the fog, bloodied and with notches in his shield and his sword-blade. His helm was gilded, and beneath it his face was hidden. He held up his sword and pointed at Hunwal.

“Thief!” he bellowed. “Skull-gatherer, flesh-eater! I will take your head and give it in offering to the Spear Father, that he may know what is given to those who profane courage!”

Hunwal left his spear when he had driven it, caught up another that had fallen to the ground among the dead. He watched, fearful, as the warrior approached him. He had hoped this was only a wounded man risen from the earth and who might fall once again. But he saw no wounds on this man, only blood splashed on sword and shield, staining his mail. This was a killer who knew his work, and Hunwal had no intention to contest with him.

The warrior came closer, and Hunwal drew back his arm and cast his spear. It was a good throw, but the man brought up his shield and dashed it aside, so that it left only a small mark upon the battered face. Faceless and unrelenting, the man came for him, and Hunwal turned and fled into the mist.


The ground was broken and rocky, and the mist was heavy, so Hunwal was sure he could lose his pursuer. He ran downhill, and then turned and went back up the slope, dodging around boulders. He reached the top and leaned against a stone taller than he was and caught his breath. It was quiet, and he heard his own heartbeat loud as battle drums. He looked down the hill, squinting through the fog. He saw the shadow, and then the warrior emerged from the gray, coming towards him, not running, not slow.

Hunwal cursed and ran up the slope away from him, over the ridge and then down the hill again. The tall grass left a trail behind him as his passing swept away the dew, and he cursed. He was leaving sign behind him with every step. He looked to his right, and there the ground grew rockier. He turned that way, climbing over the scattered stones, tripping on the weeds, until he saw shadows in the mist ahead of him.

For a moment he thought they were men, and that he had been trapped, but then he saw they were shapes cut from stone. They had the form of men, but they had been worn and carved by ages of rain into mockeries. There were two, and they flanked the entrance to the hollow beyond. Hunwal felt a moment of fear, knowing these desolate lands were scattered with the burial grounds of lost ages. He had grown up hearing tales of ghosts and haunts in places like this. He heard a clatter of stones from behind him and he cursed again under his breath. He drew the long knife from his belt and entered the ancient gateway.

The mist was growing heavier, and he could no longer smell the sea. He saw mounds of earth emerging from the gloom, plated with stones and marked by doorways sealed and overgrown by vine and thorn. Standing stones leaned like dead trees here and there, covered in heavy green moss. There was a scent in the air that made him recoil, and yet he pressed on.

He heard the warrior following behind him, rocks turning and clattering. He almost thought he heard breathing. The fog was now so dense he could not see more than a spear’s length ahead of him. He knew this must be a small lich-yard, a place for the tombs of the ancients, and yet with his sight denied it was easy to imagine it endless and deathly all around him, a world of graves, filled with hatred for a grave robber.

He passed a mound flanked by black menhirs and he ducked behind them, keeping low and breathing soft. He wanted to gasp, but he did not dare to. He clutched his knife and his bag of plunder, and he listened with desperate attention.

Now he was still, the sound of his breath seemed loud as a bellows, and his own heartbeat was a pulse he could see as it distorted his vision. He tried to hold as still as he could, his hand sweating on the hilt of his dagger. If he had a moment to strike, he would not be such as fool as to try. He was not a warrior, and his small blade was not enough to pierce mail. He only wanted to see his hunter go past, and then he could wait and slink back the way he had come. Escape was all he wished for.

Close beside him was the sealed doorway of the tomb. Black stone laid in the hollow and covered with earth and creeping moss. He saw lines of little mushrooms growing from the graveyard soil, forming circles and paths no taller than a fingertip. The great black menhirs hid the doorway in deep shadow, and when he first saw movement there, he thought it was a trick of his eye – a swirl of mist coiling in the dark like an insubstantial serpent.

It was cold, and he wondered how long before night came. He breathed out and it turned to frost before his face. He felt a chill through the black stone, and he pushed away from it, crouched there in the dark, tensed and aware. Hunwal was a man aware of every flicker of danger, and now he felt it all around him.

Something moved again, and he saw mist seeping from beneath the door of the barrow, gathering in a heavy pool that seethed as though it were boiling. Fingers of the fog coiled up, reaching upward, coiling around the standing stones. The motion was swift and certain, like hands feeling blind in darkness, and Hunwal’s body went rigid when he saw it. This was no place for men of breath and blood.

He crept back away from the stones, keeping close to the side of the barrow, though he did not want to touch it. He felt a coldness sweeping out from it, like the heat from a fire, but frigid. Mist gathered on the flanks of the mound and flowed down, and he stepped away as it washed around his feet.

There was the sound of a step, only that much warning, and he turned and leaped aside as a sword flashed down and rang on the stones that covered the barrow. A spark flamed at the blow, and it seemed bright as a star in the dying light of this evil place.

Hunwal’s foot caught on a stone and he fell. When he struck the ground he did not stop; he rolled and rolled and then came up, scrambling. Now he saw the warrior coming for him, sword uplifted. His eyes hidden beneath his helm glimmered like cold flames. He seemed as much a part of this dead place as any of the tombs, and seemed almost to be a guardian stone brought to life.

“Corpse-robber, blood-coward,” the warrior intoned, his voice low and murderous. “Worse than a raven or a scavenging dog. You strip the honored dead of their blood gold. You fear battle, and you flee from death.” He held up his sword. “I will cut off your head and cast it into a fire. I will hang your body from a tree so all may know that some gold comes too dear.”

“Here, take it and leave me,” Hunwal said. He threw his bag of treasure on the ground between them. It ate at him to abandon it, but the cold creeping behind him was frightful enough to push him to leave it, if it would buy him a moment to flee. “I will say prayers for the dead. I will cease my ways.” He lied easily, as he always had.

“Say prayers for yourself, scavenger,” the warrior hissed and came for him, the sword’s edge hungry in the dim light.

It flashed and Hunwal fell back, hoping he did not stumble and fall again. He circled left, trying to gain enough room to bolt past his pursuer. If he could get away from this place he would run and not stop until he had to swim instead. He held his dagger close, though he had little hope of using it. It was a feeble talisman against the man who sought his blood, or the unseen power that sought something worse.

The hunter came through the mist, and ghostly light seemed to play on the blade of his sword. “You cannot escape me. I will strike you down.”

“Come and do it then!” Hunwal spat, gathering himself for a final rush and the play of steel. He was no fighter, but he would not go down before he tried to shed his enemy’s blood. He gripped his blade ready and kept his gaze on the warrior’s beard. If he could grasp it, he could cut up under the helm and slash his throat.

A step apart, and a terrible sound of impact seemed to split the fog, like the fall of the stroke of a battle ram upon an iron door. They both stopped, and Hunwal saw his pursuer give back a step. It was the first sign that his foe was even human. Another hideous, crushing sound echoed through the vale, and they both turned and looked to the door of the barrow. Mist lay like a pool before the slab, and as they looked a third blow fell upon it from within and the black stone split from heel to crown.

A pale light shone through the fracture, and then a bleak mist gushed through like a swelling flood. Hunwal stepped back, his heart pounding like a smith’s hammer in his breast. He heard a sound, like something of cold iron scraping across the stone within, and then the door was shattered from within, and a cold light poured out.

They both fell back, and Hunwal saw the light was moving. Something came forth from the barrow, and then he saw it wore the shape of a man, though not of any living man. It was taller than he by head and shoulders, draped in mail that glowed with a soft witchfire gleam and with trailing, rotted cerements of burial. It wore a helm of ancient and arcane design, with a high crest that was like a crown, and beneath that was darkness instead of a face, save for two eyes that flamed like stars.

In the two hands held before it, it raised a long-bladed sword that glowed with a cold blue light, the shimmering steel etched with forgotten runes and sigils. The hilt was broken, and the leather of the hilt was rotted away and hung in tatters, but the blade was straight and bright and deadly to see.

Hunwal shrank back, his breath turning to ice in the air before him. His hunter gave back another step, and he held up his own sword. “By the doors of the Speargod’s hall. I will not be slain by an unclean thing from the grave. Fall back, wraith!”

Had he not been suffused with his own terror, Hunwal would have laughed at that. Now he knew the man who followed him was simply a pious fool, driven by a faith in unseen gods. Hunwal trusted in no gods, he knew better than that.

His pursuer had his back to him, facing instead the undead wight that stalked closer. Hunwal could strike him now, reach around and cut his throat and then flee. But he saw plainly that the madman intended to fight the apparition, and though he backed away, he could not take his eyes from such a confrontation.

The revenant came forward inexorably, unseen feet treading silent on the soil beneath the shroud of the mist. It raised the glowing sword over its head and struck with silent malice. The warrior shrugged his shield in the path of the blow and the ghostly steel split it apart and sent the pieces scattering. The warrior fell back with a cry, shaking ice from his arm. The wraith struck again and he slipped away from the attack. The cold in the air was biting, and Hunwal could almost feel the teeth.

The warrior leaped in quickly, and his stroke was fierce. The steel rang on the cold mail and struck sparks. The wight returned blow for blow and the swords clashed together. The warrior cried out and fell, dropping his sword into the fog. His hands were hooked into claws, steam rising from them, and Hunwal saw they were coated in cracking ice.

The spectre seized him with one cold hand and flung him to the ground. Hunwal knew the contest would only last another moment, and he bent and snatched his bag of gold from the misty earth. The phantom turned to look at him with cold glimmering eyes, and he felt it dismiss him, as though he were nothing. It lifted the cold sword for the killing blow.

Hunwal turned away, and then he hesitated. He looked back at the fallen warrior, crippled hands raised to ward off death. He had followed Hunwal to slay him, and every instinct screamed at him to flee and leave the fool to his death. He would leave this place and never return. And yet, he could not simply leave a man to be slain by such as this.

He turned back. It would be death to touch that thing, or come too close. Instead, he whirled the leather bag around twice and then hurled it. Heavy with stolen gold, it smashed against the spectre’s helm and staggered it.

Cursing under his breath, Hunwal grabbed up a heavy stone from the earth and threw it. It rang on the undead armor and struck sparks. He ran in, closer, and threw his dagger, only to see it glance off the ghostly mail without making the slightest mark. It fell covered in ice and snapped apart.

Hunwal grabbed the warrior by the collar of his mail shirt and dragged him back. His breath was turning to frost before his face, and it was so cold in his chest it burned like live coals. The man was heavy, but Hunwal was strong enough to pull him. “Get up,” he hissed. “Get up!”

The man could not seem to rise, only shivered with agony, or perhaps just fear. The wraith rose up again, seemingly taller than before, and it held the cold sword before it like an executioner striding to the block. Hunwal could not get the man away, but he could not make his hand turn loose of him. “Get up! Get up!”

The sword came down, and Hunwal fell back as the elder steel bit through mail and flesh and bone. The warrior gave a last shriek, and then he was silenced. The cold was savage, and Hunwal scrambled back, clawing at the stony ground with his hands, dragging himself back as the wight wrenched ancient sword free in a gush of blood that steamed and froze as it dripped down the blade.

His scraping fingers closed on something cold and sharp, and he groped along it until he found a hilt. He staggered up, holding the sword of the slain man in his hand. The blade was covered in ice, and the hilt was so cold it all but burned his hand. He glanced quickly side to side, seeking a way to escape. The mist was closing in, so cold and so close he could not see anything beyond arm’s reach. Only the glow of the undead shone through as it came closer, the light like some hungry, deep-sea thing rising up from the blackness.

There was no face, only the helm and the shadows within it. He knew if he tried to parry the stroke of that fell blade he would suffer the same fate as the dead man. But even if he saw no throat, this thing had once been a man. Perhaps it had the same weaknesses as a mortal warrior, or near enough.

It struck at him, the blue blade sweeping down, and he ducked aside, feeling the cold pass close to him, searing his skin. Quick as a hungry dog, he lunged in, and he drove the sword in beneath the cold glowing eyes.

Cold stung his hands and he jerked them back, leaving the sword embedded in shadow, and the wraith screamed a hideous cry that shook the stones and drove the mist back like the lash of a storm. The thing reeled back, flailing its sword blindly, mist pouring out of it like insubstantial blood, and Hunwal saw his chance.

He seized the dead man by his collar again and dragged him away, back through the roiling fog, away from the furious howls of the wounded spectre. He seemed to weigh more than if he had been made of gold, but Hunwal would not let him go. He dragged him over the broken stones, through the cold and the dark, haunted by the screams of the dead.


Morning was bitter, and found Hunwal sitting on a hillside next to a dead man. He had no gold, and no weapons. He was hungry and cold and his hands still shook from the terror of the thing he had faced. But he lived.

He took the helm from the dead man and looked at his face, already pale and slack with death. The wound had rent him from shoulder to breastbone, and only his bloodstained mail held him together at all. Hunwal looked at him and felt a strange mix of anger and kinship. “Fool,” he said quietly. “I sought gold, and I have none. You sought my death and found your own. You were a brave man, but not a wise one.” He sighed. The day promised to be gray and cold, and he smelled rain.

He lay the dead man in a furrow in the earth, and he piled stones over him. It was not much of a cairn, but it would have to do. He almost took the helm, but at the last he set it at the head of the grave and left it there. He looked back the way he had come, and there darkness still brooded between the hills. He would not go back that way again.

Then he looked north. By now the battle would be over, and there would be more corpses to plunder. But now the thought left a poor taste in his mouth. Whether Hror had won or lost, he would need men to replenish his ranks. He would have swords and spears in plenty, and no one would ask too many questions. Hunwal stood and brushed dirt from his reddened hands. Perhaps today was a good day to become something besides a scavenger.

No comments:

Post a Comment