In the hall named Irongard, Hror, the one-eyed king, brooded on his charred throne, and he gripped his sword and waited for the call to go forth once more, and draw blood. The summer age was drawing down into a long autumn that breathed deep with cold winds from the gray sea. The days were shorter and the nights were black, and there was restlessness in the hills, where fires burned as the lean-faced farmers reaped in their harvests.
Now the crops were in, and the game grew scarcer in the dying summer, the hills around the fortress blazed with unrest. Effigies of men were raised on the rocky bluffs and hung in circles of stone, and they blazed when the sun set, beacons against the dark. Hror saw the sign of the spear hacked into trees and etched in lime powder on grassy hillsides, and he knew the day was coming closer.
He had usurped the throne, and driven the outcast queen away into the dark. He had sailed over the sea and burned the throne-hall of King Arnan and had driven his armies into the hinterlands to skulk and starve. Half his vengeance was sated, but not all. He had slaked his ambition with blood, and yet it was not enough.
His warriors thronged the hall of Irongard, ready with spear and shield to march forth and kill at his command, and yet he kept them close, and he knew soon the winter would come down and they would be his bulwark, they would hold up the hall from within, as the true walls of his kingdom were made from swords and bone.
He had called on dark powers to gain his throne, to work his will, and they had availed him. Now would come an answering for that. The people knew his allegiance, they knew he did not reverence their god, and that was why the mark of the spear was carved on wood and stone and left for him to see; to remind him. The Speargod might wait for a while, but he would not wait forever. He would come to drive out the Undergods.
It was a last long day of warmth, when the air was heady with the smells of dying grass and the hills blazed with the colors of fading leaves. Armies marched in the afternoon, and riders came to warn him. Hror took up his mail and his shield and went forth at the head of his hearth-men. He wore his helm, a plate of iron welded over the blind side of his visor, and a crude eye etched upon it and inlaid with copper.
He took to his shaggy horse and watched as his army assembled. He knew what they were – these were not the honor-bound hearthmen of the old king. He had driven out all such men, or broken them. This was an army of killers. Men who lived by pillage and by feud, who had waged battles to the knife and lived to speak of it. Outlaws, murderers, ravagers and pirates had come to his call, seeking more of what they fed upon in his wake. They knew that when Hror marched there would be blood and rapine, gold and glory. They did not care for gods, nor for honor, only to sate the hunger in their own raw wounds.
Hror arrayed them on the heath before the hall, one wing anchored at the ancient stone wall, the other on the edge of the promontory that dropped away into the turbulent sea. There would be no battle of maneuver, no tactics or guile. There would be sword to sword until blood fed the bitter soil. He breathed out mist and imagined it was like smoke from the dread fire within him, fed by the power of those gods who walked outside the light.
Redval looked down toward Irongard, a low haze concealing the hall as anything but a shadow. He could see the army drawn up to oppose him, saw the shimmer of the light on their spears. He did not allow himself any illusions about what he faced. Hror’s men were fewer than his own, but they were hard men blooded, while many of his own soldiers were farmboys and fishermen. They had hate and anger to drive them, but they were not warriors.
He listened to the horns blowing from below, saw the blazes his men had set in the hills. This was no stealthy night attack, this was the kingdom rising up, and there would be no decision unless it was written in battle.
Enur rode closer to meet him, awkward on horseback. He was a big man and his feet could almost touch the ground as his steed made its way over the rocks. “How many do you see?”
“Hard to count, in this haze,” Redval said. He leaned on the pommel of his saddle. “A thousand perhaps, unless there have been more desertions.”
“Few enough of those, after men saw what he did to the last who tried to leave. Their bodies still feed the crows.” Enur was getting old, and the only reason he rode a horse was because his knees would not carry him all the way on foot.
“So he will have almost a thousand hard men,” Redval said. “We have perhaps twice as many.”
“Hoemen and fishermen,” Enur scoffed. “They barely know which end of the spear to use.”
Redval looked at Enur and smiled. Both of them had been hearthmen of the old king, and that was why they were here. That was why they led this army that was meant to take back their kingdom. They had no heir, no candidate for the throne. They carried no standard. All that drove them was a hatred for Hror, and the willingness to fight and die to see him undone.
“We can’t want any longer, my friend,” Redval said. “The harvests are in, and soon enough it will be winter. If this army is to march, it has to march now, before the snows.”
“Spearfather grant that we may live to see the snows,” Enur said.
“Let us go to war,” Redval said. “It shall be cruel enough without gods.”
Hror watched them come, a stain upon the land. They did not move like an army, they moved like a hungry swarm. He saw the multitude of spears and the gleam of knives, and he saw how many they were. It would not avail them. He had half as many men, but they were each worth five of field-sweepings like these. A few outcast hearthmen with an army of plowmen and poachers did not frighten him.
He rode his black horse to the place where the land dropped away, and he looked down to the cold, churning sea. He sought a sign among the rocks and trailing weeds, a mark of the worm that was his patron, and he saw nothing. He turned away, disquieted, unsure. Always before he had felt the presence of the worm-god, the one who gave him what he wished, who whispered to him what to do and what would come. Now he listened and heard nothing, no hint of that dark voice that had guided him for almost two years.
He looked away to the horizon, where the roiling waters vanished in the low-hanging haze. There, among the standing rocks, he sought a shadow. He looked for a motion that could not be named a whale or a drifting log. The day was still, the seabirds whirling over the edge of the sea, the waves coiling and heaving into the shallows. He looked down and saw what looked like a corpse rolling in the surf, and he turned away.
He heard the clatter of the oncoming enemy beating their spears against one another. He heard their uplifted shouts as they tried to summon enough courage for the fight. He looked up and saw the carrion crows gathering. He called for the lines to ready, and his men drew closer together, layering their shields like scales, making a wall to hold back the ragged charge. The men in front thrust out their spears and braced them, a hedge of black points.
The attack come closer, the mob solidifying, still shouting and clattering, and then Hror saw strange motion, as if they passed something heavy man to man. The lines drew up straighter, spreading out, and he saw that the men in the front were carrying heavy stones, some of them as large as shields. They staggered under the weight, but they came onward.
“Brace and hold!” he bellowed, and he heard his men echo it all up and down the line. The men at the rear drew their swords and readied axes, and there was the long, breathless moment before the armies came together. The space between them narrowed, and then vanished.
Just before the lines crashed, the men in the attacking wave braced themselves and hurled the heavy stones they bore against the wall of shields. The sound of them all was like a fall of hammers, and they had the desired effect. Before Hror’s men could realize what was happening, the weights battered their shields aside, broke the formations and drove them back. A great shout went up, and the armies met.
Redval watched as the attack smashed into the wall of shields. He saw the ripple as the stone barrage knocked the barrier apart, and then his front line was among the enemy, striking with heavy clubs and stabbing with short knives. He knew they could not break the line, but they could do damage, weaken the formation, and sow uncertainty. He saw Hror there behind the lines, riding back and forth on his black pony. He was the heart, and if he was ripped out, then this war would end.
He readied himself, gathering around him the twenty other riders he had been able to muster. It was not easy finding men who could ride into battle, even harder to find enough horses for them. These were not war-ponies, and he knew they would not charge into the fray unless a way was cleared for them. They had to make a path.
His front line had turned Hror’s shield wall into a writhing chaos of battle as his desperate men hacked and battered at armored warriors. He saw his brave men cut down with axes and swords, chopped apart with brutal efficiency. The men coming behind them shoved in with spears – some of them no more than sharpened hafts – less intended to kill or wound than to force the enemy back and keep them from reforming the wall. Behind them the rest of the men hurled stones in high arcs to bring them raining down.
He watched, trying to judge his moment, trying not to count the men who died while he waited for an opening he could not be sure would come. He listened to the cries and screams of battle, the battering of swords and spears against shields and against flesh. He heard the cleaving of bone and the wails of the fallen, and then he saw enough of a weakness, and he could bear to wait no longer.
Redval gave a bellow and brandished his sword over his head, and his men shouted in answer. He set his heels to his horse and led them in a charge from the right flank. The ponies galloped over the thick grass and into the battle. The noise and chaos frightened them, and he felt his steed twist, trying to find a way to escape. He held tight to the reins and forced it in, and he heard it scream.
The wedge of ragged horsemen plunged through the gap in the line and split the shield-wall apart. Redval struck down with his sword, feeling his blade ring against helms, bite through mail and spill blood on the steel. He felt blows hammer at his shield and he braced against them. His horse reared, panicked, and he had to hang on with all the strength he could summon as it kicked and flailed around it. He drove through the battle line, and then he was face to face with the usurper himself.
Hror seemed to loom in the saddle, cloaked in his black wolfskin and his pallid face hidden behind his one-eyed helm. Redval howled a war cry and spurred to meet him, and brought his sword crashing down upon the edge of the king’s uplifted shield. His pony screamed and shied away as they fought sword to sword, blows ringing.
The battle had become a tangle of chaos and blood, men flailing at each other, stumbling in the red-stained grass, and Redval knew it could not last. He did not have very much time, and in that time he must strike down the dark king.
He hurled himself into the combat with all his strength, raining strokes upon his enemy’s helm and his shield. They fought in a circle, both horses biting and shrieking, struggling to get away. Hror’s blows bit through the rawhide rim of his own shield and chopped into the wood, and Redval used that, tried to twist the sword from his hand before he could free it. They fought together, and as their horses lunged they fell against one another, grappling and pulling.
Redval lost his seat, but he resolved he would not fall, and he let his shield drop and hooked his arm around Hror’s neck, dragged him down as his pony ran away and left him hanging by main strength. So close, Hror could not bring his blade to bear, and hammered at Redval’s helm with the pommel of his sword, bronze ringing on the dented steel.
Unable to move, Redval did the only thing he could think of and brought up his knee hard into the belly of Hror’s horse. It plunged and shook, and then he hit it again and it reared, throwing Hror from the saddle, and pitching them both to the hard ground.
Redval tried to hold on, but they were wrenched apart by the fall, and he rolled over and struggled to his feet. Hror came up with sword and shield ready, and he rushed upon him. Redval felt the steel boss crash against him and send him staggering, turned and parried the sword-stroke that followed. Sparks shot from between their blades as they ground against one another, and then Hror turned his shoulder and rammed his shield-rim against Redval’s helm and he reeled away.
“You think you can kill me?” Hror snarled. “You come with your army of farmers to unseat the king? I will leave your head for the crows!”
Redval did not answer, knowing it was only arrogance, or a ploy to distract him. Instead he braced himself, and when Hror moved he struck to the left so his opponent had to use his shield, and that left him open on the right. Redval caught the edge of Hror’s shield and wrenched it away, cast it upon the ground, and then they faced one another sword to sword.
They were close to the edge now, the heaving of the sea below louder than the sounds of war. Hror attacked furiously, and their blades rang together. Redval set his feet carefully on the jumbled rocks along the edge of the bluff, wary of a misstep. Their swords met with a sound like anvils, and the carrion birds screamed overhead for them to finish and leave their meat upon the earth.
It was Hror who stumbled, his foot turning on a loose stone, and he reeled for balance. Redval lunged in and struck savagely with both hands on the hilt of his sword, and the blade sheared through the links of his mail and brought dark blood from his side. Hror struck back clumsily and Revdal kicked out, sent his sword spinning away. It flashed in the weak sun as it tumbled over the edge and fell downward to the sea.
Hror fell, clutching his wounded side, and Redvall readied himself for a death stroke. He heard voices raised and looked behind him. Six of Hror’s black-helmed warriors were rushing for him. “The king!” they cried, brandishing bloody swords. “The king!”
Desperate, Redvall struck, and Hror lunged from the ground and caught his blade, and they strained there, strength against strength. The warriors ran closer, swords ready, and he swore he would not let them strike him down. He shoved against Hror, trying to free his sword, but he could not, and so instead he twisted and pulled him, dragged him to the edge, and he saw Hror’s single eye widen behind his helm.
“Down with me!” Redvall snarled. “Down into death!”
Hror pulled at him, trying to hold back long enough for his men to reach them, but Redvall heaved with all his remaining strength and hurled them both off the edge. They struck the rocky slope and the impact broke them apart. They fell together toward the sea below, churning and heaving in among the dagger rocks, and Redvall laughed.
Hror saw the madman smash down upon the rocks, and he had a moment of pleasure as he saw the blood and knew his enemy was dead, and then the sea engulfed him, and he plunged down into cold darkness. The water clutched him like many hands, and he fought against the coiling currents and could not escape. His armor weighed him down, and he was dashed against the rocks and pulled into darkness. He tried to hold his breath, to catch hold of something to stop his fall, but he could not. His wound ached and his blood poured out into the water, and then he was pulled down deeper and deeper, and he could no longer resist the ache in his chest.
His body cried out for air, and he denied it as long as he could, but then his endurance ended, and he screamed without sound as his final breath rushed out, and then he breathed in agony. Cold water coursed into him like a thousand knives inside his chest, and he gagged, breathed again, twisting in the dark currents, and he knew he was drowning.
Something moved in the water near him, something huge and dark and swift, and he felt caught in a great vortex, pulled along in the unseen wake, and even as his awareness faded he was pulled from darkness into light, and then cast up from the water and dashed upon a hard stone shore.
He choked on water, and felt his light fading away, only for a voice to speak his name and call him back from death. He vomited forth the water he had breathed in, spewing what seemed an andless sea upon the slimy black stone, and then he lay as weak as a newborn wolf, every breath agony so complete that death would have been welcome.
Hror crawled on a stone floor encrusted with salt and shells, white crabs scuttling across his shaking hands. He retched again and again, shivering with the cold that seemed to live inside him like a creeping fire. She struggled to take off his helm, and it rang like a bell when it struck the floor. His wolfskin was wet and heavy, and he shrugged it off.
The cavern was alive with crawling, luminescent worms that writhed in the corners and hung from the daggered roof. By the deathly light he saw a shadow coiling very near him, and he looked up and saw the eyes of the Worm of Darkness like lanterns of fire.
“How low you have fallen, Hror, son of Herun,” it said in the voice like corpses dragged across the sea floor. “I made you a king, and now you have been brought low by rebellious peasants.”
“I shed blood to become a king,” Hror spat. “I killed and betrayed for my power. I bled for it.” He jabbed a finger against the thick scar where his left eye had been. “Do not think I am your puppet.”
“So now you have the courage to fling venom in my face,” the worm said. He saw the gleam of the teeth in its jaws, and he smelled the terrible rot of its breath. This dark god that he had allied with, that smelled of a charnel pit.
“And yet you have saved my life, so yet you need me to work your will,” Hror said. “So long as it is also my will, then I will do it.”
Sceatha sighed out a long, rustling sound that might have been a laugh. “Alas no longer. It has amused me to see you disrupt and butcher the lands of men, but now something else comes, and I must have a deadlier weapon at my side. And you have no other choice, for that wound in your side is mortal.”
“Mortal?” Hror touched the place where his rent mail was dark with blood. He felt the pain, but it was distant, numbed by the cold of the sea. “You lie.”
“Only my will sustains you. If you refuse me, then you will die here, and no grave will mark your passing.” The worm coiled above him, dripping with cold water like ancient hatreds.
“What do you want of me?” Hror said, for he felt the coldness within him, and though he might argue, he believed.
“The hateful Speargod shall send his champion against me, and I must have a champion of my own. I will make you a power greater than any man. You will kill and kill and never be stopped.” The worm breathed like a sea storm gathering.
“And what is the price of that?” Hror said.
“There will be no other pleasure for you than in killing. No food will sate you, no woman will gratify you, no drink will dull your senses. You will be a hand of death, and nothing else.” The worm moved, and he saw the barnacles and crawling things that lived on its skin.
“Do it then, quickly, before I die,” Hror said, his voice bitter and cold.
The worm moved above him, uncoiling in the darkness, and then he saw upon its scaled side a great wound. Something had ripped the flesh of the great throat, and blood still ran from the jagged tear. “Where my blood touches you, you shall be invulnerable,” Sceatha rasped.
Slowly, feeling the pain and the cold, Hror stripped away his armor and his clothes until he stood naked in the midnight cavern. He closed his eyes and held out his arms, and he stood as the blood of the Whisperer dripped down upon him. It was cold as frost and it stung him, but he rubbed it over his skin as though he were bathing in sacred waters. It covered him, and it burned, and he fell to his knees and shuddered as he felt the burning sink into his flesh.
Night fell over the hall of Irongard, and the ground before it lay deep with the slain. Women moved over the field of battle, dragging the dead to the heap where they would be burned. Hror’s men had gathered their own dead, looted the bodies, and cast them into the sea. Now they fortified within the walls, already beginning to argue and fight with each other, already beginning to hunger for the stroke of sword or axe and the release of killing. Another attack would come, and they did not know if they could stop it. Already more than two hundred of them lay slain.
As voices rose in anger around the fire they heard screams from outside, and they rose with weapons ready to hand as the doors of the hall were thrust open. A dark figure stood there, and they all stood silent and watched as the shadow made its way through the darkened hall, and when it came near the fire they saw it was Hror, and drew away with gasps of fear.
He walked like a dead man, and his armor was rent by a great blow and crusted with blood. His cloak was dripping with the cold sea, and his face was pale as death. He went to the throne and turned, slammed his one-eyed helm down on the arm and looked over the gathered men. His one eye was white and clouded as though he were blind, but they knew he saw them.
“We will lay forth a feast for those who come against me,” he said. “A feast of death, laid with cold meat and cracked bones. I shall gorge myself on blood and slaughter, and will you follow?” His voice was hollow and dark, as though it echoed up from beneath the earth. As one the men raised their swords and axes and spears, and they shouted to the darkened roof-beams that they would follow him into death with red steel. Hror looked upon them, and he smiled.