The halls of the kings of Hadrad burned behind them, and Ranne led his men north along the coastland, seeking out holds and holts to put to the sword. Hror had taken his army back to the sea, to return them to their homes. In answer for his failure in the attack, Ranne was to remain and ravage along the coast, so that none would forget the displeasure of the new king.
He had a hundred men, most of them survivors of the hard winter locked in the bitter ice, some new men who had been left behind as punishment. They would not return with the rest of the victorious army, not feast and drink and be given gifts as heroes. Here they would hunt through the wilderness for stragglers and deserters, butcher stolen cattle, and burn the hovels of farmers and herdsmen. What plunder they took would be heaped before Hror’s throne in Irongard, and they would not keep the least part of it.
So it was a bitter hundred who marched along the stony shore, their ships following them by sea, carrying the supplies and the thin treasure they found. They gathered the heads of the slaughtered and stripped their flesh, seared them in fires until they split and lay black and hollow. They put them in baskets and counted them, for when each man had three skulls to his name they could turn their ships for home.
They marched spread out in a line, hunting through the fields and heaths, frightening game from thickets and gathering in sheep and goats. They combed through the countryside, seeking whatever there was to find. They took what they wanted and burned the rest. They were to blight this land so Hadrad would never dare rise against them.
Ranne marched with his men, scorning a pony. He felt aged and thin, as though he were scraped out from the inside. The winter had withered him, and when he slept it was fraught with dark dreams. He remembered nights listening to the howls of the undead, and seeing the horned prow of Marrow out in the frozen twilight. He did not trust the world any longer, now he knew that hungry things walked beyond the reach of the firelight.
He heard shouts, and turned to follow them. Some of his men had pressed into the forest and found a hidden farmstead, empty and abandoned. He watched while they looted what little remained, and then set torches to the thatch and let it burn. There were few people to be found now the word had spread. The farmers and shepherds had fled at news of their coming, and it was as though they walked in a land scoured bare of men.
“No one!” a man grunted, chopping his axe into a tree and ripping it loose, leaving a wound that oozed. “Not a skull for the pyre. We have less than fifty gathered, and we will all die before we can return home.”
Ranne did not dispute him; he was far too weary. He no longer cared if he ever returned home again. He had turned on his own king, fought for Hror to seek new glory, and now he was abandoned in a desolate land. His kingdom had defeated their enemies, and yet it brought him no satisfaction. He was like the thin man of the legends who sat at the feast-table and gazed upon the rich foods, but could neither eat nor drink.
He leaned on his spear, feeling his armor and his shield heavy on him, as though they weighed many times what they should. The last year had stolen his youth, and left him hollow. It was growing dark, and the blaze of the burning hovel illuminated the hollow with crimson light. It limned the trees and the flickering made it seem as if the shadows moved and twitched. Looking away, into the dusk, Ranne saw one of the trees had a curious shape, almost human, and when he looked again it was no longer there.
Again, he did not sleep. The night was no longer shelter from anything, and he lay in his tent and clutched the hilt of his sword and stared upward into the dark. It was spring, and there were insects singing in the forest, chittering in the undergrowth and the long grass. He heard the captured cows and sheep lowing and gabbling like old men, and even the low voices of the men who stood watch were like the mutterings of horrible secrets only half-heard.
The scream that came was sudden and savage, tearing through the dark, ascending up and up until it was choked off, and Ranne lay sweating and rigid for a moment before he came clawing out of his tent, sword naked in his hand. All around him men were staggering from their bedrolls, groping for their weapons. Another scream came and it was worse than the first one, echoing from the hollows of the forest, trailing off in ragged noises that were almost like words, but unformed.
Ranne knew his face was pale, and the fear that was his companion showed. He did not want the men to see it, and so he took up his helm and put it on, drawing it down to hide his face. The night was clear, the stars overhead like embers in the dark, the sea a silver path leading away into the distance. The forest was like a barrow-yard, the insects fallen into silence.
Unwillingly he led torch-bearing men into the edge of the trees, under the shadows. The house was still burning low, stinking of smoke and with a pit of embers glowing. The stink of blood was heavy in the dell, and the men moved cautiously, spears clutched ready.
The bodies hung from the tree above, two men who had wandered away from the camp, perhaps lured away. Now they hung impaled on broken branches, and not all of them remained. They had been torn apart, and bone gleamed in the firelight. Gutted, their bodies hung like wounds, and it was plain to see the marks of teeth upon what remained of their flesh.
Men uttered oaths and spat upon the earth. The stench of ruptured offal was powerful, and they cringed back from it. Ranne looked on the dead and felt bile sting the back of his mouth. He turned away and would not allow himself to vomit – he would not let them see it. He heard the name of Thurr uttered, and he did not speak against it. This was a mark of the Undergods, the fell powers that lived in the dark and devoured men.
“Leave them,” he said. The tree was too big to cut down, and there was no easy way to climb up to reach the savaged corpses. Better to simply leave them and put it out of their minds. The night around them was suddenly heavy with terrors, and he imagined yellow eyes watching them from the forest. “Leave them and let us be gone.”
Some of the men left, walking away toward the camp and the light of mortal fires. Some of them would not go. They dragged burning logs from the ruined house and piled them at the base of the tree, and then they heaped dry branches over them so they smoked and caught fire. Ranne watched them, and then he left them to it. The tree was huge and heavy with the blood of spring, and he did not think it would burn.
He gripped his sword in his hand as he made his way back out of the forest. The night wind was clean, coming in from the sea, and he smelled salt and fresh grass, saw the night above filled with diamond stars, and when he looked back he saw a massive shape in among the trees, lit from behind by the guttering fires. He thought he saw the glitter of eyes, and then it was gone.
The day after was gray and the sky was low and filled with the promise of rain. They marched onward under a leaden sky, and stumbled through gusts of wind that laid the grasses flat and braided them together. The men did not want to go into the forest and crowded together on the hills and hollows, staying away from the shadows beneath the trees.
They found little enough to prey on – a few cottages left abandoned, a few wandering animals. The men cursed and chopped at the wooden posts of barn and stockade with their axes and swords, wishing there were enemies to kill. They all knew of what had happened in the night, and they all watched the brooding, forested hills with fearful eyes.
Ranne knew he should rally the men, mock their fears, drive them onward with the promise of loot and rapine, but he felt only despair. Once he had been a man to use his words and rouse warriors, now he felt a coldness pressing on his heart. He wished for his witch-woman to tell his future, but feared what she might say. He knew there was horror in his future, and he knew he could not avoid it.
The land turned, and the sea cut off their line of march with a steep fjord that separated two headlands. The path turned inland, up into the dark hills, into the forest, and the men shouldered one another and balked. Ranne knew they wanted to take to the ships and cross over rather than march into the wilderness, but he knew once they were aboard, they would never come to land again.
They argued for it all the same, wanting to march down to the sandy shore and board the galleys, but now the wind was rising, and the sea was rough. It would be dangerous bringing the ships in past the rocks to beach them, and so Ranne turned them away from the sea and followed the line of the inlet, climbing higher through the white-chalk hillsides until they entered into the domain of the trees.
Without the sun it was like night beneath the branches, even at noon. They made their way through the undergrowth, hacking at brush and vine, until they reached the deep woods, and then there was almost nothing beneath the trees save silence. The earth was thick with rotted leaves and needles, festooned with death-white mushrooms and broken by rocks thrust up from below. A mist hung over it, a layer of ghostly white like smoke seeping from the soil itself.
The men marched close, crowding one another, cursing and jostling, trying to see everywhere at once. It was impossible to see very far in the dimness, through the fog. The trees made a labyrinth of black trunks and knotted roots, and they stumbled through it. Their voices were the only voices, their footfalls the only ones to be heard. They saw no sign of game or tracks of beasts, only the trees.
Ranne realized he could not hear the water, and he led to his left, going farther and farther, trying to find the edge of the fjord, but he did not find it. Perhaps they had already passed the end of it, and could turn back for the shore. He called to the men, and some of them came and followed him, but not enough of them.
He looked for them, calling for the others, but his voice drifted alone through the trees. He did not hear their voices, he saw no sign of where they had passed. There were a score of men with him out of nearly a hundred, and the rest of them seemed to have vanished into the woods. There was no sound, just a deep, oceanic silence, and no sign anywhere of the mark of man.
They tried to march north, but it was impossible to tell direction here in the trees. They could not see even the feeble sun above the low clouds. The world was all gray and filled with mist. They tried following the moss on the trees, but it led them in circles. The light was dying, and soon it would be dark. Rann looked to the forest floor, trying to see if they were crossing their own path, but there were no marks in the leaves. It was as though they traversed an ancient landscape that had existed before the advent of mankind. A pristine world of nothing but silence, and hunger.
When it was too dark to see they gathered wood and tried to make camp. The wood was wet and in the heavy mist it took a long time to kindle a fire. They all huddled in the dark around the feeble glow and stole glances behind them at the emptiness where anything might lie in wait. The wind rose and blew through the treetops, and in the night it sounded like the sea overhead, rushing and crashing against itself. It seemed that the world was turned inside-out, and that any moment the crush of the cold water would fall upon them and wash them away.
It was not long after dark when the screaming began. They all tensed and clutched their weapons close when they heard the shrieks. They sounded far away, carried on the wind through the columns of the trees, but they went on a very long time. It sounded like men being slaughtered, tortured into death one after another. They heard voices begging and gibbering as agony and horror broke their wills, and Ranne was not the only one who covered his ears and tried to blot it out.
When the screaming ended, they all lay there in the darkness, huddled around the weak fire, listening, and they did not even know they were listening. They lay in silence and strained for the slightest sound. They heard the wind, and the rushing of the trees high above, and then in the night they heard the heavy tread of unseen feet.
Like the approach of a giant, they heard footfalls that snapped branches and crushed the unseen soil. The men shouted and drew in back to back, thrusting spears and swords outward to ward off the unknown. Something immense walked in the night, snapping off limbs high overhead, and they heard the deep breathing it made.
Ranne stood with his back to the fire, almost over it so the thin warmth burned his back. He looked out into the night, hands cold where they gripped the hilt of his sword, and he saw nothing. The men shifted and cursed and trembled, but there was nothing to see, nothing to strike at. Only Ranne thought to look up, high into the dark between the tree, and there he saw something that might have been the shadow of an oak, save that it moved, and he saw there the demon gleam of cold eyes.
He held still, trembling, breathing in the smoke, and then the eyes turned away and they all heard the awful tread receding into the night once again, slow, ponderous steps, and more than one man made a sign against evil, hoping the Speargod might preserve them from the terrible powers of the night.
The storm came in the cold hollow before dawn, and in moments they were enveloped in it, rain pouring down between the high trees, wind slashing and breaking the branches. It doused their feeble fire and drove them from their shelter, soaked to the skin and battered by limbs torn from the trees and hurtled down from above.
They blundered through the dark, howling and afraid, lightning flashing white and revealing their faces to one another, bloodless and terrified. Men slipped and fell, mired in the mud and the wet leaves deep as pits that pulled them down.
Ranne saw the first one taken, saw the man simply ripped off his feet and carried up into the dark, and then he heard the hideous crushing sound and hot blood came down mixed with the torrents of rain. He looked up and saw again the glow of eyes, and he knew they were stalked through the dark by a devouring giant whose name he would not dare to utter, even now.
He fled, slipping and falling, clawing to his feet, running again. Behind him men cried out as they were lost, blinded, and in flashes of lightning he saw them caught up and dragged into the dark to be eaten, heard their screams as they were torn apart and their blood fell upon the soil and painted it crimson in the storm. He fled until he heard nothing, saw nothing, and at last he fell exhausted on the earth, gasping, wet to the bone, clawing at the mud as though he could drag himself away from that which followed him.
Morning light was cold and bled of all color, and Ranne found himself alone in the desolate forest. He staggered to his feet, painted with the earth and dried blood, and he dredged his sword up from the ground beside him and stood silent in the circle of the trees. There was no sign of any other human form, no mark of foot nor even a corpse to be found, and he leaned against the bole of a tree and gasped for breath, knowing he had been left alive for some dark purpose. He knew there was no mercy to be found in this place.
He did not know what way to go, until he heard what sounded like waves upon a shore, and then he followed it. He found broken limbs from the trees, left scattered by the storm, and pools of rain gathered where the earth was hollow. He slaked his thirst in these, tasting the soil and the leaves, as though he drank the blood of the forest itself.
The sounds of the waves grew stronger, and he saw light ahead, free of the forest shadow, and so he hurried, stumbling on his sore limbs, until he bust out into the gray light of a shrouded day, and found himself on a high cliff overlooking the fjord, the waves clashing their teeth below him. He looked down into the water as it churned in among the rocks, and he saw there the shattered remains of his ships, sails and spars and the corpses of men scattered there in the sea spray, and despair dug into him like a poisoned wound.
He looked down, and it was too far to leap and expect to survive, too sheer to climb. He looked seaward, seeking only a glimpse of the open waves to show there was some world beyond this devouring wilderness, and he saw nothing but the wall of mist that lay across the inlet. In that mist a titan shadow walked, wading out to the sea, and destruction trailed in its wake.
Ranne heard a footfall behind him, at the edge of the forest, and he turned to see a hulking form, taller than any ordinary man, dressed in armor black with old blood and growing green with moss. It bore a long, heavy sword marked by blood and rust, and the face was almost familiar, almost someone he knew, and then he did know.
“Daganhurre,” he said, feeling revulsion war with fear down in the pit of him. This man had been a titan of the battlefield, and now he looked as though he had been buried alive. His flesh was pale, and his eyes sunken and red-rimmed. He licked his teeth, and Ranne saw they were sharp, as if filed down and made into a mouth of knives.
“I remember you,” Daganhurre said. “You seem somewhat less than you were then.”
“As do you,” Ranne said.
“You tempted dark powers to defeat me and slay my men,” the giant said. “Now I have done the same. I came to shore and my men were taken, my ship destroyed. Only I remain to walk the world’s rim, alone.” He showed his teeth. “I am hungry. I am always so hungry.”
“I spared you, Kin-Killer,” Ranne said, holding his sword out in both hands, trying to still the tremble in his arms. “I turned away from the dark.”
Daganhurre made a sound that might have been a bitter laugh. “I did not.”
He lifted his notched and dreadful sword, and he rushed forward with it raised to kill. Ranne howled and sidestepped the downward stroke, heard it ring on the stones as he slashed in answer and tried to slip past the giant. He was caught between the dark of the forest and the long fall to the jagged waves, and locked in battle with a demon.
They fought in a fierce circle, blades ringing and dragging sparks as they ground against one another. Daganhurre had a terrible strength and his blows drove Ranne back almost to the brink. It was all he could do to evade the sweeps of that immense blade. His mail would not stop the stroke of that sword, and so he had to meet them edge to edge, until both of their weapons were notched and his arms seemed to ring with the impacts.
He hewed at Daganhurre’s side, rent his armor, and saw dark blood spill over his blade. Ranne was already gasping for breath, his arms on fire, while the giant did not even seem to breathe. He saw those sharp teeth bared as the massive sword came for him again. Their steel clashed and Ranne staggered, and he knew he could not win. He knew he would fail, and fall, and then he would feel his flesh devoured by what the Kin-Killer had become.
“Hungry,” Daganhurre moaned, chewing on his ragged tongue until blood flowed from his mouth. “Always hungry.” He rushed on Ranne with a furious rain of blows, and drove him back, parrying again and again until his hands were numb, and then Daganhurre’s sword snapped in half and the broken blade flew over the edge and plummeted downward to the sea.
They both staggered, off-balance, and then Daganhurre reversed his blade and Ranne felt it rip into his side, shearing through the mail, sending blood gushing into the air to fall upon the starveling earth. He reeled with the sudden, ripping agony, and found he was almost on the edge of the cliff, looking down. Daganhurre loomed over him, broken sword raised bloody and sharp to strike.
He lunged in, catching Daganhurre’s sword-arm, and then he drove his own blade in with all his weight, plunging it through the giant’s chest, feeling it pierce armor and bone and flesh. Black blood poured from the wound, over the sword and over his hand. He twisted the blade and brought forth another torrent, and Daganhurre roared.
Together they stumbled back, and Daganhurre freed his sword-hand and hacked down, crushing armor, shattering Ranne’s arm and shoulder. He felt the rusted steel bite into him, and then the cliffside gave way beneath his feet. Rocks broke loose and they tumbled down, striking the cliff, bounding away, spattering blood. They were locked together, Ranne using one desperate arm to hold back the dagger teeth as they fell. The hungry sea howled below them.