The wind from the north was hard, and it pushed her back as she struggled through the gale. Tiny needles of ice, carried in the air, scourged at her face as she made her way across the bitter snow to the edge of the sea, and she looked northward across the black waters armored in ice. The sky was low, and seemed to clutch at the earth, as if seeking to crush it.
She looked back the way she had come, over the snowbound hills and the frozen rocks. She knew they were still behind her, and she did not think the coming night would stop them. Here she stood, at the far northern edge of Vathran, far from the reaches of any hold or lord, and yet still they would not give up their pursuit. The men set upon her path by Hror the usurper knew they could not return, save with her head.
Beneath her furs she wore a coat of mail that was too large for her, and at her side hung the sword that had slain Oeric, king of Vathran. She had cut off his head and stolen it away so Hror would not have it. Now it was her only companion in this forsaken land, far north of where any living men made their home. Here the sword was her lover as the king had never been. She had been Ruana, the Queen of this land, and now she had run out of places to flee.
She looked across the dark shore, seeing the slow-rolling waves heavy with ice, and the great white pieces that floated everywhere. The dark rocks made the land’s edge jagged and fierce-looking, and they provided places where she might hide, but not for long. If she tried to bed down without shelter here she would become a thing of ice and never wake again.
Desperate, she turned and made her way east along the shore. That way the land rose up into a knot of hills, and there she thought she might find shelter. A last look southward and she saw the moving shadows of men, and she knew her pursuers were close. She was so weary that part of her wished to lie down and let them come, or at least to stand and meet them, to die in the hot blood of battle. But she did not quite dare, for if they took her alive back to Hror she knew what manner of end she could expect.
She forced her way onward, seeing only barren slopes of blackened stone and drifts of snow. The rocks close to the shore glistened with ice, and she saw no place where she might hide, nothing to give her concealment. She did not even have breath to spare for cursing as she stumbled and fought her way toward the higher ground, and she almost fell into the concealed boat.
It was not large, covered over with a sheet of rotting canvas, and she caught herself against the gunwale and stood staring for a moment. The black canvas was sheathed in a layer of ice, and there were holes eaten in it. It had been here for some time, forgotten. She gripped the tattered cloth and tore it away, saw a pair of oars and a bundle wrapped in a decaying blanket sheltered in the bottom. It was the boat of some fisherman who had never returned for it, and now it lay here, given into her hands.
She turned to look behind her and almost screamed aloud as she faced a blackened skeleton. The man lay slumped against the rocks, his bones dark and covered in ice, his furs disintegrating. In blackened hands he clutched a heavy spear, the bronze head green with age. He wore the remains of a necklace of yellowed fangs, and she knew him then for a seal hunter. He had beached his ship, and then he had fallen down and died, perhaps wounded, or aged, or sick, or freezing. There was no way to be certain how many seasons he had lain thus, unknown.
Ruana reached out and gripped the spear-haft, pulled on it, and the bones of the dead man’s fingers snapped apart and the weapon came free in her hands. Sea-hunters favored bronze for their weapons, because they did not rust in the salt air. The brazen point was broad and keen, wide-bladed to make deadly wounds in seal or whale.
Thunder rumbled in the clouds above, and she looked up, saw a momentary thinning in the clouds, a finger of light that swept across the desolate sea, as if beckoning her. Northward from this barren shore lay only dark seas, but some said there lay the land of Uthshem, where the Speargod himself had gone in his golden ship when he left the world of men. Now she stood upon the shore of the sea, and fortune gave into her hands a boat, and a spear. She could not turn aside.
She put the spear into the boat, then took hold of the gunwales and dragged the craft over the icy stones to the water. She did not see any cracks in the hull; she had to hope it was still seaworthy. She pulled it into the heavy sea, the ice-laden waves dragging at her legs, until she could climb inside, grip one of the oars, and push for deeper water. She set her face to the wind, and rowed away from the dark land.
It was bitter work pushing her way out into the frozen sea. There were huge floes of ice, bigger than her boat, that she had to row around. The water was like a maze, dark traceries of water in between the floating islands of ice. A mist came down, low and cold, and it made it hard for Ruana to know what way she was facing. It was too easy for her to lose her way in among the trails of black sea, twisting and turning until she did not know which was she was facing.
She grew tired, her arms aching from rowing, her back aflame with pain. The waves were slow, heaving beneath her as if something vast moved in the dark waters. She had to keep moving or risk being crushed by the ice. Now that she was in this churning landscape there was no way out, only to keep struggling onward.
In the pack at the bottom of the boat she found a bone-handled knife, and some dried berries and frozen blubber, and these she ate without hesitating, warming the blubber in her mouth before chewing. It was tough, and made her jaw ache, but she knew it would sustain her. Over the last year she had learned how to survive, and the lessons had been bitter.
She saw something dark ahead, jutting upward from the sea, unmoving, and she wondered what it was. It offered at least a respite from this grinding ice, and so she struggled toward it. At first she thought it was a rock, but then she saw it was not only that. Black, jagged rocks thrust up from the water, and upon them was impaled the shattered shell of a longship, the dragon-headed prow upthrust and coated in ice.
The great waves heaved her toward the rocks, and she realized her danger too late as she felt the scraping and then a black point ripped through the hull of her boat. The freezing water poured in, and she grabbed up the spear and stood up in the bow of the ship, held on as the waves slewed it around and trapped it against another shearing edge. She chose her moment, and then leaped clear as an island of ice slid down the wave face and crushed her little boat into shards.
She landed hard on a smooth ice floe, rammed the spearpoint in and held on while it tottered side to side under her weight. The waves pushed her towards the rocks and she waited, gathered herself, and leaped again. The icy rocks were slick and she almost fell into the sea, but she used the spear and dragged herself up, clawed for the rail of the ruined ship, and then pulled herself aboard.
There was no shelter here from wind or frozen sea spray. The tilted deck was slippery and she had to crouch down and hang onto the gunwale or she might have slid down and vanished into the freezing waters. Now she was trapped, and she closed her eyes, wondering if she had been a fool, if she should just let go, fall into the sea and be gone. Her mail would drag her down, and they would never find her. She would become a legend.
She looked out over the ice, seeking some sign of where she was, but the mist was too heavy, the sky too dark. She was in the midst of a tormented sea of grinding ice, and she did not know which way might lead to land. Her boat was gone, and she was alone. She made her way to the midships of the galley, hanging onto the shields ranked there and welded in place by the frozen sea spray. Behind the ship, the waters seemed calmer, the ice lying in great islands that moved and ground against one another, but close enough that she thought she might make her way across.
She heard a call, and then another, and she turned back, looked over the rail toward the place where her boat had died, and she saw another ship there. A longer, leaner, darker craft that sculled through the ice, and she saw six men aboard it, pulling hard on their oars. She saw their dark helms and ice-rimed fur mantles. They had followed her, though ice and wind and deadly seas, the hunters of Hror had not been turned aside.
Ruana cursed, and then she leaned on the spear and closed her eyes for a moment, and she called out in her mind to the Speargod to preserve her. She was not certain she believed in any gods, but she knew the valor pleased the Speargod. In her heart she swore she would show these men the iron of her courage.
She drove the spear into the deck beneath her feet again and again, fracturing the ice, making a clear place where she could almost stand upright. She heard their ship grinding in the ice and against the rocks, and then they began to climb up the slippery rocks, using axes and daggers to hold on. She saw their faces blank beneath their helms, eyes glazed and mouths running with blood. They did not even look like men.
The first one reached the gunwale and began to crawl over the side. Ruana rammed the spear into the deck and drew the sword of the king. She gave a great cry of battle and hacked at the warrior with both hands, cutting through his neck and into the bones of his shoulder. Blood ran out in a horrific tide and steamed on the ice. It ran down over the frozen wood and left no trace behind it. The man gagged and fell back, loose and boneless. They died like men, at least.
They swarmed the rail and she chopped at them, cutting through hands and sending two more of them pitching back before the other three reached the deck. They came at her with swords and axes, and she fell back, reeling on the pitched boards, trying not to slip. One of them came close and she dropped low and cut at his knee, sheared through the meat and bone. He fell and slid helplessly down to fall through the broken boards and into the sea below.
Another one struck her in the middle and she grunted as the edge of his blade knocked the breath from her. She staggered back against the far rail and her legs slid from under her, so the axe blow aimed for her head missed and splintered wood instead of bone. She stabbed in under the man’s mail and plunged her dead husband’s sword into his body, ripped it free in a rush of blood.
The last man fell on her and they fought, struggling to bring their weapons to bear, trying to keep from sliding off into the sea. She hacked at him and the sword bit into the deck and stuck fast. He reared back and raised his axe, and in desperation she snatched the whalebone-handled knife from her belt and stabbed him deep under the arm.
He gasped and twisted, tried to cut at her, but she caught his hands and held them back so he could not swing. She stabbed again, and again, and then he was bearing down on top of her, using both hands to press the edge of his axe toward her throat. She held him back with desperate strength, pulled the knife free and dug at the front of his helm. The blade scraped across the ice-rimed steel, and then it slipped in and sank into his eye.
The man wailed, twisting, trying to push the edge of the axe downward, but she twisted the knife and shoved it in deeper, and she felt him convulse, his legs going stiff, and then he went slack and she shoved him off, let him roll off her and slide down, over the edge of the broken deck, and into the encompassing sea.
Ruana began to slide as well, and she rolled over and stabbed her knife into the deck, held on while she gasped for breath. She heard wood splintering and knew their ship was being battered to pieces by the ice. It made no difference, she could not have rowed a boat that large by herself. Now her pursuers were dead, but she was still trapped here in the ice.
Slowly, she dragged herself to her feet. Toward the stern of the ship the ice was heavier on the sea, lying almost like a path, and she thought she might make her way. Perhaps nothing lay that way, but it would be better than just remaining here.
She left the knife, ripped her sword from the deck and found it covered in frozen blood. All she could do was thrust it into her belt and wrench the spear loose from the boards. With it as a walking cane she made her way along the splintered rail, over the hole where the sea churned below, and then she slipped over the side and lowered herself carefully to the treacherous ice.
The floes were bigger, closer together, so she could make her way from one to the next if she was careful. The spear helped her to balance, and the green spearblade driven into the ice gave her purchase. Under the lowering mist she made her way, the light beginning to fail. Night was coming, and when it did she would be trapped out here.
Her breath froze on her lips as she struggled across the deadly ice, it seared in her lungs like fire. She was hungry and exhausted, her limbs burning, and yet she would not give way. She looked at the black waters between the ice islands and swore if she felt the end coming she would fling herself in. Her armor would drag her down and she would vanish, never to be found, never to die.
Then the water heaved under her like a wave, but it was not a wave. It was the motion of something big under the ice, something close to her. She drove the spear in hard and held on, waited for it to come again, and it did, lifting her up, making the ice grind against itself like the sounds of teeth in the lowering dark.
She thought it was a whale, and she hoped it was not one of the white-eyed hunters who sometimes knocked men into the water and devoured them. She firmed her grip on her spear, remembering to aim at the broad back behind the head, where the great veins fed the massive heart. It was unlikely she could kill it, but she might drive it away.
Something threshed the water behind her and she turned, breathing hard. The light was fleeing, and she could not see very far away. Everything was turning to mist and darkness, and in that darkness something stirred and rose from the water. She saw the shadow of a long neck, and then luminous eyes opened in the night. She heard an exhalation like a bellows, and she smelled sea-rot like dead men dredged up from the deeps.
It spoke to her in a voice that was all cold death, yet with a hint of music like chiming steel. “Ruana, once a queen, now nothing. How far you have come.”
She felt her blood turn cold, for she knew now what had come for her. “I know you,” she said. “I have seen your likeness carved on walls, trampled beneath the feet of the Speargod. I name you Sceatha, Worm of Darkness. You who gnaw at the roots of the earth.”
She heard a long, sizzling hiss, and then the water beneath her moved again. She looked at the lantern eyes and wondered how much of the unseen worm lay under the sea. Her breath frosted before her, and she felt the tremble in her limbs. Here was one of the oldest and most feared of the Undergods. The whisperer in darkness, the speaker of poison.
“You speak unkind words, un-queen,” it said. “You are at the ends of the world, alone, and trapped.” Something scraped against the underside of the ice, and she gripped the spear-haft so savagely her fingers turned white.
“I could remake you, if you called upon me,” the thing crooned to her. “I can speak dark wisdom in your ears. I can tell you the secrets of your enemies. I can give you back your kingdom. I can give you vengeance.” The shadowy head came closer, the eyes glowing green like witch-fire. “Only I.”
“Why speak to me?” Ruana said. She rocked the spear back and forth in the ice, loosening the blade. “Why come to me? I have nothing to give you. Nothing you would wish.”
“You are queen,” it said. The great head loomed over her, and scuttling crabs, pale as ice, fell from it and crawled away, seeking the black waters. “That has power. You defied Hror. I have raised him up, but it might amuse me to destroy him now, to raise you and send you against him. I would gather warriors to you, and you could set the heaths aflame with rebellion and death. You could slake the hollows and hills with blood. Follow me, and I shall give you all of this. Revenge.” The thing bent closer, and she saw the demon jaws thick with sword-long teeth, the scaled flesh encrusted with dead barnacles.
Ruana lowered her head to hide her trembling, and she wondered if the thing could see into her mind, could read her thoughts as though they were words written on ancient skin. “Do you have such power?” she said, allowing her voice to shake, to sound weak. It was not hard to accomplish that. “Can you undo all that has been done?”
“I can undo as much as I wish,” the voice said, and she felt the cold breath of the worm as it bent closer to her. “I can make you strong. I can tell you how to overcome Hror. I can teach you his secrets.”
Ruana drew in a long breath, and then let it come back out, shivering in a cloud in the dark air. She looked up at the dreadful shadow that loomed so close over her, and she pulled the bronze spear free from the ice. She saw the saw-scaled flesh of the worm, and she bit down on her tongue until she tasted blood. “Can you undo death?” she said in a very low voice, and then she turned the spear in her grip and drove it upward and into the unclean throat of the Worm of the Dark.
The bronze-tipped spear, deep green with corrosion, bit through the scaled flesh, split the dead barnacles, and plunged in the length of the blade. Black blood poured from the wound, and the monstrous thing unleashed a hideous cry of wrath and agony. It pulled away from her, the blade ripping along the throat to make a terrible gash, and then she was blinded by the burning blood in her eyes, felt it on her hands and her face.
She would have fallen, but she drove the spear downward and fixed herself upon the ice. The sea heaved under her, and the floe was lifted and dashed against the next one and they both split apart. Ruana clawed the blood from her eyes and leaped to the next shard of ice, and the next. She was covered in pain as the blood of a god seeped through her furs and her armor, but she did not falter. Under a sky of darkness she fled across the shattered ice, and inhuman bellowing followed her.
She heard it coming, heard the waters roiling with the power of it, heard the hiss of its breath. Ice ground and splintered before it, and she felt the waters heave beneath her. She looked back once, and saw only the glow of the lantern eyes high above. Blood fell in the water around her and it hissed like boiling fat.
A coil of the worm smashed the floe of ice and she was suddenly plunged into the freezing water, breathless and stunned by the cold. The body of the monster rushed past her and she stabbed it again, held on as she was pulled through the darkness and then burst into the air once again, floundering and coughing. Her hands were going numb, and they felt like wood, locked on the haft of the spear.
Her mail dragged her down, and she gasped for breath, fought to stay up, and then her feet touched the bottom and she realized she was in shallow water. She heard surf not far away and she struggled toward it, pulling herself through the chest-deep waves, feeling her body going numb.
She fought through the ice-laden water until she staggered forth onto a stony, dark shore, and she heard the worm coming behind her. Breathless and cold, she turned and saw the shadow there, the lights of its eyes, and she stood and held up the spear in both unfeeling hands and screamed her defiance into the dark, and then the dark rushed in on her, and she was gone.
When she woke she was warm, and there was the glow of a fire. She blinked and saw walls of stone, and found that she lay on a bed made from driftwood and straw. A man sat beside the fire, and for a moment she was not certain of it, but then he turned to look at her, and she saw he was nearly a giant, and that this place was made for him, and that was why it appeared strange to her.
She moved and felt pain all over her body, winced. The man stood and came to her, bent down and smiled. He was bald and had blue marks tattooed on his face. His beard was gray, and his skin bore the weathering of a life lived in harsh elements. “You will live, I think,” he said, his words heavily accented. “Do you understand my speech?”
She blinked and nodded, realizing her mouth was dry as leather. “Yes. What is this place?”
“I am Umun, the seer,” he said. “This is my home. You are in Uthshem, the land of the Azora. We have waited a long time for you.”
“The Azora?” Ruana knew the legend. The giants at the edge of the world, the sons of the Speargod. “You exist?”
“Yes, and we have waited for one who would come and lead us back to war,” he said. “We have lived here a long time, seeking the sign of our forefather. And now you have come to us, bearing a bright spear.”
“A bright spear?” She looked and saw the hunting spear close by, leaning against the wall beside the fire. The spear-blade that she had plunged into the flesh of a dark god had been cleansed by the burning blood. No longer was the aged bronze green with years; instead it had been etched down to the bronze, and in the firelight it gleamed the sunfire color of gold.
“Rest, now,” Umun said. “Prophecy has waited a long time. It can wait a little longer.” He stood. “I will bring you food. It has been a long night, but the day is coming.”
He went back to the fire and Ruana lay there, feeling pain and weariness, but now something else. She had faced the Worm of Darkness, and she had shed his blood, and she lived. The Undergods were not immortal. She had been burned by the black blood, and now she had been cleansed as well. Now perhaps, beneath it, she was something new.