The ships came with the break of winter’s grasp, and they covered the sea with darkness. The black sails of the fleet of King Hror loomed through fog and sea-spray, and all who saw it fled from the promise of death. The watchers who guarded the sea paths scattered from his coming. They lit their warning fires and then they fled into the hills or rowed hard for home in their slender ships. War had come upon the southlands, and it came with summer’s burning.
The days grew longer and they reached the place where ships lay dead in the shallows, and their burnt prows rose up to the gray sky. There was a fire on the headland, and there was planted the banner of Ranne, the thane who first declared for the usurper. He had set forth to raid in later winter, and none had heard of what became of him. Boats went ashore to gather whatever remained.
Ranne and a hundred of his men were brought across the water, and the red-bearded thane was gray-faced and thin. His face was dark with smoke from winter fires when they brought him before Hror, son of Herun, who men already named the Red King.
Hror stood and came to the thane, gripped his shoulders in greeting and looked at him. Already the once outlaw bore himself more like a king. He wore a red cloak and a wolfskin mantle, and the patch over his empty left eye socket glittered with a ruby grasped in golden hooks. “We heard nothing,” he said. “Come, tell me what has happened.”
Ranne nodded and followed, took a horn with grateful hands and drank deep from it. “We came south to attack the king’s hall, but they were warned of our coming,” he said. “We reaved along the shore and burned houses and ships, but they were gathered to oppose us, and we could not strike as deeply as we wished.” His hands shook as he drank from the cup of honey wine.
“We turned north, to find shelter before the ice closed off the sea. We did not escape, and were locked in the ice. We settled into camp for the winter, and then . . . and then . . .”
Ranne fell silent, and Hror gestured for his guards and courtiers to fall away. He leaned close to the trembling thane. This had been a man of strength and of will, and now he shook like an old man, and looked like one. “What happened? Speak?”
“The dark gods are real,” Ranne said in a shaking voice. “I never believed in them, not really. I heard the stories of how the Speargod drove them away to hide in the earth, and I thought that if they had ever walked, they were dead now.” He took another long drink, the mead running down his dirty beard. “It came for us. It was the Cold Lady, whose name I will not speak. She sent her dead men by night. They crawled aboard our ships and butchered men while they lay asleep. We escaped to the shore, the ships burning behind us, and we lived in fear.”
He shuddered. “She sent them again and again. We saw the horn-prowed ship in the darkness, and more and more of my men were taken. There was little food, and we feared to go near the ice to hunt or to fish.” He looked at Hror. “Beware, for she is close yet. She will come for more of us.”
“I have come with an army, Ranne,” Hror said. “I have come to take my vengeance upon King Arnan, and I will take it.” He touched the talisman he wore, the silvered skull of a dagger-toothed fish. “No dark gods will prevent me.”
Even in his blindness, King Arnan heard the warnings that came to his hall as the ice loosed its hold on the sea and the days grew brighter. He heard men gathering spears and praying for courage, and he knew that war was coming soon. On his throne, wrapped in the darkness of his curse, he could not see the fires lit in his bloodstained hall, could not see the fear in men’s eyes, but he heard their voices, and he knew what followed.
Haldr was at his side. His old guard, now the marshal of his kingdom. Arnan had never been a great warrior king, but this was a time of war, and so he relied upon his most faithful vassal. The man who had tried to defend him from Crune’s curse, and who had driven the treacherous thane from his hall with a trail of blood behind him. Haldr was his thane now, the foremost among those who still clove to him. Some in the hills and far to the north had repudiated their oaths, withdrawn to their own lands, and gathered their own men close to wait out the war.
And war was coming. Arnan reached out his hand and caught at Haldr’s arm. “What news, my faithful thane? What has been told?”
“Hror is coming,” Haldr said. “The watchers on the seas have come fleeing to us. They say he is coming with a hundred ships, and it may be that many. He may have five thousand men with him, or more. I have called in all the hearth men, all those who have made oaths to fight, and we will gather them as swiftly as we can. I hope to meet him at sea, and not wait for him to come to land, but there may not be time.” He gripped the king’s hand. “I will defend the hall to my last moment. I will not let the usurper plant his foot in this place while I live.”
“I know you will fight,” Arnan said. “I have no doubt of that. Already you have killed and bled for my throne. Would that I might defend it myself.” He touched his face, fingertips brushing his sightless eyes. “And what of the cause of this? What of Balra, Torgged’s son? Will he stand and fight with us?”
“He has refused, my king,” Haldr said. “He has gone to his own hall, and gathers his men to him. Some say that if this hall is taken, that they will call him king. I say that will not occur.” He stood. “I swear it on my steel.”
The dark ships clove through the white-tipped waves and came against the stony shore. The long craft beached in the shallows and cast out ropes, and then wave upon wave of men leaped into the surf and waded to land. A host gathered there as the sun rose higher, vanishing behind the smoke-gray clouds. The wind was cold for spring, and many men looked uneasily at the shadowed hills and thought that dark gods might indeed stalk the world’s rim, awaiting the slaughter.
Hror had gathered in a great army, more than four thousand men, and they assembled there in the high grass and looked south to where the hills rose up in a bulwark. Beyond that crest lay the hall of King Arnan, and there Hror sought to reach the consummation of his vengeance. They came to land here, on the long shore, so the ships could all lie side by side and the whole force debark as quickly as possible.
He knew their passage through the hills would be contested, and so he sent out men to scout the way, to find where Arnan’s army was and how many he had managed to gather so quickly. Hror’s strategy had been to come as swift as a summer storm, to give as little warning as possible. He had barely paused to burn out the sea-watchers on his course, and now he was before the great hall when no more than five days warning could have passed. Arnan would be caught unaware, and would have to fight this battle with whatever men were to hand.
He had heard of the king’s blindness, and it amused him. That the men who saw so little truth was now rendered blind was an irony far too perfect. He wondered who would take the place of Thane Crune, wounded in the battle of the heath in the autumn last year. Word had come that he had been driven out, his left hand cut off as he fled.
Hror stood on the stony, pale shore, the waves lapping around his boots. He must give unto the worm if he was to be favored, and he would not be found wanting for lack of proper sacrifice. He called to his men and they brought him a cringing, begging prisoner taken from one of the sad, thin settlements on the cold islands. It did not matter who he sacrificed, and he would spill far more famous blood before the day was finished. This was only a promise of more.
He drew his knife, and the prisoner struggled and begged as the thanes held him by the arms. Hror took the skinny wretch by the hair and dragged the knife across his throat, let his blood spill out to pour into the cold waves. The thanes looked unsettled, for no man gave blood sacrifice to the Speargod – this was the way of the Old Gods, and they well knew it.
“A promise of blood, for blood to come,” he intoned, and he touched the red-stained knife to the bone amulet he wore about his neck. “For blood to come.”
Haldr waited for them in the pass between the rocky peaks of the hills. Here the path narrowed and the slopes turned jagged and sheer with broken white rock. He formed his best men into a wall of shields, the biggest of them in the center forming a wedge packed tight. The men in front bore axes and swords for close fighting, while the men behind them carried their spears ready to stab in over them. At the back were men with bundles of slender, long-bladed spears for casting.
Haldr himself was at the fore, heavy with new mail and a helm that drew down over his face and covered all but his eyes. He felt the burns of his old armor on his skin, and the pain fired him with wrath. He carried a bright-edged sword and stood ready to kill, and if need be, to die.
He heard them coming up the pass, the rumble of many, many booted feet upon the earth. Hror had come with almost five thousand men, and Haldr could only meet him with half as many. He had gathered in every able man he could find, pulling in every farm boy and stout-shouldered girl who could carry a shield and heft a spear. In the king’s hall there was no shortage of arms or armor, and never had so many unblooded warriors marched with such fine war-gear.
Hror’s army came in sight, a dark stain upon the earth. He saw the shields of the front rank and saw each was splashed with blood, marked by a red hand as though from a sacrifice of blood. At the front were the biggest, fiercest warriors, and they came in a wedge, a man at the tip with shields strapped to each arm to make him a living ram.
He heard them now, the guttural snarl of their voices raised in a cadence as they increased their speed, shields clamoring together as the whole force rushed up the hill. Pallid sun glinted on spearpoints and the crests of a thousand helms, and then Haldr bellowed for his men to hold fast.
The spearmen at the rear began to hurl their shafts, and a flight of dagger points arced over and slammed down among the onrushing invaders. Men fell wounded or dying, spears punched into shields and armor, but the tide rolled on, the man at the tip of the wedge running as he was all but carried forward, almost off his feet. A great shout rose up all around, a rushing as the lines drew closer, and then smashed together at last.
There was the terrible roar of battle as shield met shield and steel rang like brazen bells. The tip of the invader’s wedge struck like the blow of an axe, and the man at the front was all but catapulted forward through the lines, battering a way through by sheer strength. Haldr bent his knees and braced as the enemy crushed against the front line, and then the song of war rose up as axes and swords began to reap their harvest.
Men hammered at one another, beating upon helm and shield rim and dark armor. Haldr split a shield and then, with his sword wedged deep, he dragged it down so the man behind him could strike in with his spear and drive his steel through the enemy’s throat. Blood gushed and Haldr kicked the body loose, wrenched his blade free as spearpoints drove against him.
The lines ground together, spears turning red, men going down in the press, trod upon by enemy and ally both as the two armies ground and thrashed together. Axes and swords rent armor and shield, and men were battered upon their helms until blood ran from their noses and mouths and they went down, senseless.
Warriors killed and killed, fought until their arms were afire and their blades were notched, and dark with blood. Spear-hafts split and snapped apart, and men cast the broken pieces away and drew their swords with a scream of war-hunger. The lines crashed together, drew back with men gasping and crumpling from wounds, and then they howled and rushed together again.
Haldr’s men were fighting downhill, and all they had to do was hold their place, but they were outnumbered heavily, and the constant pressure and the rain of spears from both sides cut down men in the midst of their allies. Hror’s largest and strongest men were in the vanguard, and they fought like demons, their breath like smoke in the cold air.
Haldr faced a wall of hulking fighting men, and he battered against them, using blows of his shield to drive them back, and when he had room he struck at their legs and cut through flesh and bone, brought them crashing to the bloodied earth. They might be as the sons of giants, but their flesh was weak as any, and their blood was still red. He cut down three of them and left them for the spearmen to finish. The battle was a confusion of blood and steel, and through it he sought Hror, wondering if the usurper was brave enough to show himself.
Another titan rose before him, eyes mad with the light of berserk rage, and his axe hammered upon Haldr’s shield, cracking the heavy planks of elderwood. He struck back with a furious blow that rang on the giant’s helm and staggered him. He drove in and rammed his shield-rim into the man’s knee and heard it shatter. The warrior fell and Haldr struck down on the helm again, and again, his blade skipping off the steel to chop into the shoulder below. Sheared mail links scattered as he clove the man to the shoulder-bone, and ripped his blade free in a spray of red.
He saw an iron-clad shape through the terror of battle, and one half the visor on the helm was plated over, covering the eye, and so he knew it was the half-blinded usurper himself. Haldr started to force his way through to reach Hror, but the ground seemed to writhe beneath his feet. He saw Hror standing with a spear gripped in his hands, and a greenish fire seemed to play around the etched iron point. The sky roiled as though it were alive, and he felt a cold wind blow against him.
He looked down, and there he saw the earth was convulsed with a mass of vile, pallid worms. They crawled over the dead and the wounded, and he saw them bore through the flesh and feast. They crawled over his boots, gnawed at the leather, and he cursed and drew back. The armies broke apart, men kicking and striking at the sea of hideous flesh-eaters.
Haldr bellowed for his men to get back. He saw another formation of Hror’s men forming to come for them, and his own wounded were being devoured by worms conjured from the poisoned earth. He had heard it whispered that the usurper was aided by dark powers, and now he knew it was truth, and he knew he could not prevail against such evil strength. He had lost too many men, and he could not stop the enemy. A wall of spears and fury came for them, and he howled for his men to fall back. They could not deny Hror his victory; they could only deny him the spoils.
Hror saw the smoke rising in the gray sky, and he clenched his fists and cursed as he drove his men onward. They marched down from the hills, watching for ambush or a rearguard action, and instead they saw only the king’s hall afire, smoke boiling up in a black cloud that buried the light.
He had thought to fight a last battle here, to drive his enemy back to the great hall, and then to set it alight as the steps lay drenched in blood. He gripped his spear and cursed all the skies and the earth and every man or woman ever born. He had chosen this spear to mount King Arnan’s head upon, to look into his eyes as his head was sliced off and his body fed to the worms. He would carry the head back with him, and all would know his revenge was complete.
Now the hall burned, and he was not fool enough to believe the king was within. No. No, Arnan and his army had fled, so they had lost the hall, but the king lived and would simply raise his standard somewhere else, gather more men to him, and fight again.
“Follow them into the hills!” he roared, thrusting his spear up to the gray sky, green fire crawling over the graven iron. “Hunt them down! Kill them all!”
Furious at being robbed of their plunder, the men forged onward, blooded swords and axes held ready. They passed beneath the towering column of smoke; they followed the path trod into the earth, the trail marked with blood. They hungered for blood, to sate themselves and glut their steel with killing. They yearned for a feast.
Haldr stood in the hills and watched them come, as he had thought perhaps they would. Hror was a man of fevered lust for vengeance, and he was driven by the dark powers of the earth. He would not be kept back easily; he would not give up the hunt.
Here was a place where a few men might make a stand. The wounded and the children and those women who did not fight pushed through the narrow defile, but Haldr waited here with three hundred men – just enough to bar the way. He had prepared this in case it was needed, and now he was glad. Courage alone would not defeat the slave of the Undergods – there must be guile as well. Haldr had already slain one minion of the old powers, and now he found he had no fear of them. They were creatures of the dark, things that lurked beyond the light of the fires of men. But they were mortal, in their way – they could die.
With his sword he cut his arm, and with his own blood he painted the sign of the Speargod on his shield. He marked his brow with the dark blood and then took up his helm and seated it again, laced the straps on tightly. He took up his spear and held it high, and when he gave his battle cry, the men answered it. They were the best he had remaining, but he would not spend them lightly.
They waited, watching the forest below, awaiting the dark tide of their enemy, and they saw them come. Hror himself went before them, his spear alight with witchfire that led the way like a torch through the shadows. The sky was lowering, and it promised cold rain before nightfall. Haldr watched the invaders come for them, bearing torches whose light glimmered on spear and helm and shield-boss. They crawled upward like a scaled serpent made from dark iron. Hror’s eldritch spear glowed like a disembodied eye.
They came up the path, between the steep slopes thick with embedded white stones and tangled roots. Haldr measured them with his gaze, and then, when Hror came in reach, he lifted his spear and gave a great shout. He drew back his arm and hurled his weapon at the one-eyed usurper, and the blade struck true into the dark king’s shield and split it apart, knocking him back.
The enemy surged forward, and Haldr and his men met them there in the claw-marked pass. They rushed down with spears raised and forced the invaders back. They struck and struck until their spears were red and the earth became slick with blood. Haldr hacked and slew with his notched war-sword, shearing mail and flesh, sending the enemy tumbling back down among their brethren.
The enemy gathered their force and surged forward again, too many to be stopped, and Haldr drew his men back in a savage, bitter retreat, killing for every step. His own men fell, cut down or impaled, left behind wounded and dying with nothing to be done to save them. His helm was battered and dented, and his shield was hacked almost to pieces. They were almost to the top of the pass, and it was time to spring their trap.
Haldr bellowed for his men, and then came the sounds of axes chopping furiously above them. The enemy hesitated, uncertain, looking up at the sides of the defile, suddenly aware of how closely packed they were. Axe blows fell, and then came the smell of rich, heavy oil.
On each side of the narrow path, two great trees began to sway. They had been all but cut through by desperate men, and now they finished their task. The branches were already soaked in oil by boys who had climbed up into the trees and poured it everywhere before they escaped up into the hills. Now slowly, majestically, the two trees tilted, and then came the great cracking sounds as they snapped apart and came hurtling down.
The first one fell across the defile, and for a moment Haldr did not think it would fall in. He held his breath as it struck the earth so hard he felt it through his feet, and then it bounced and rolled over and fell upon the enemy like a battering ram.
Dozens of the invaders bore torches, and they could do nothing to extinguish them in time. The flames caught, and then the tree became a blaze of fire. Men screamed, pinned down, crushed, and then suddenly afire. The other tree fell in on them as well, smashing the warriors like ants, and then there was white smoke followed by the sudden glow as the branches caught.
It happened so quickly, and Haldr and his men stumbled back as the flames spread faster than he would have believed. The pass below was a mass of screams and boiling smoke, and he smelled the sickly, roasted odor of burning men. The smoke forced them back, and they looked on as the entire defile became an inferno. The way was blocked, and those heavy trees would burn for a very long time. The enemy would have to find another way, and they would not be able to catch them before dark. He gathered the men he still had, and with pain from new wounds and old haunting his steps, he led them away. The smell of burning followed them into the hills, into the dark.