In the long deep of winter before the breaking thaw, Enred fought his way through the blinding snow, and dark things pursued him unseen, stalking his footsteps. He waded through drifts as deep as his waist, breathing cold burning breaths from the exertion, but he would not stop. His hands and feet were like pieces of cold wood, and if he had to draw his sword now he knew his fingers would not close on the bronze hilt. Ice frosted his bread and round his mouth, and he trembled with fatigue, but he would not stop.
The night was almost perfectly dark, and so the wink of fire he saw as he crested the hill was bright as a star. He squinted against the wind, trying to see the source of the light, but it was gone. Just the sight of it gave him a lift of hope, that he might find a shelter here in the bitter lowlands. That he might find a place to hide from those who pursued him.
It seemed he felt them, pressing close upon his trail, smelling his blood like beasts. He knew they were men, but also less than men, and he had almost been one of them. The servants of the usurper Hror lived for blood and for death, and he knew they would rend his flesh with their teeth if they brought him down. Spears like black ice were close to him in the night, and he knew he could not outrun them very much longer. The cold sapped his strength, and hunger made his limbs tremble.
He reeled down the slope to the bottom, caught himself against rocks cold as sea ice, and he forced himself up, frightened by how little feeling his had in his hands. Already he felt dazed and sleepy, and he knew that was the cold beginning to kill him, to drag him down into a sleep from which he would never wake. He fought across the low valley floor, stumbling over rocks and hidden hollows, knowing that if he fell, he might never rise.
The sounds of howling drifted on the wind, and he looked back though he knew he should not. The night was mercilessly black, and so he could not even see the hillside he had stumbled down, but he saw glitters of light in the blackness, and they came two by two and he knew them for eyes. Once eyes of men, now eyes of dark powers, things of evil and not mortal flesh.
Desperate, he hurled himself through the knee-deep snow, forcing his way through, falling and clawing his way back up, hands and feet numb and unresponding, yet still burning with pain. There was a slope and he fought his way up, breathing out clouds of mist like the smoke of burning bones. He saw the glimmer of fire again, and his heart staggered in his chest as he turned and made his way towards it. The thought of finding other men in this darkness, no matter who they might be, was all he could hope for.
He fell against the half-buried fence of riven beams, and he clawed his way over it. He saw the fire now, a brazier beside a door, the flame whipping in the night wind, all but extinguished by the snow. By the tortured light he saw the beams of a great hall before him, the wide doors heavy with carvings now encrusted with driven snow. With a final burst of strength he reeled to the doors and fell against them, and with his burning, agonized hands, he pounded against the unyielding wood.
“Open! Open the doors!” He turned and looked into the night, and he saw eyes reflected in the glow of the fire, heard wood splinter as unseen hands tore through the wooden fence. “Open in the name of the Speargod!”
He heard thumping, and then the heavy sound of a bar being drawn aside. He stared as the shadows came out of the night, and he saw the dark gleam of firelight on black iron spears. Enred clawed for his sword, forced his unfeeling hands around the hilt and drew it, the ice on the sheath cracking as he broke it free. He heard the hissing of the hunters as they drew closer, and he could almost feel their cold breath.
The door opened behind him and he fell inwards, crashed to the wooden floor and into a blast of almost unimaginable warmth that shocked the breath from him. He saw shapes around him but could not see features or faces, only legs and arms. He saw the gleam of steel and hoped they were not about to kill him. He dug his elbows into the floor and crawled away from the door. “Close it! Close them out!”
Black spears lanced in from the dark and he heard cries of pain. A spearpoint struck fast in the floor beside his leg and he recoiled, and then he saw the white-faced phantom reaching for him, one hand closing cold on his ankle.
A bright sword flashed down and cut off the grasping hand at the elbow, and the scream from without was like nothing human. Enred cried out as he saw the dark ones push forward, trying to force their way in, and then a crush of men pushed past him, some of them stepping on him as they forced the doors closed with sheer weight. There was a clash of steel and the smell of blood as it fell on the polished floor, and then the doors slammed together and the men braced themselves against it while others lifted the bar and dropped it into place.
Enred fell back, gasping, unable to believe how warm it was. His sword fell from numb fingers, and he felt the ice crusted on his face melting and running across his parched mouth. “Help,” he moaned. “Help me.” He turned over and tried to stand, but his arms would not hold him up. He fell back, and other hands turned him onto his back. The last thing he saw was a woman’s face, and then he knew nothing else.
He woke to warmth and the sound of fire, and his hands and his feet burned with a low pain. He groaned and turned away from the light of the flames, eyes closed against the glow. He held up his hands and saw they were wrapped in wet rags. He groaned again and would have bitten at the cloths, but then someone was there, hands pushing his arms down.
“Don’t,” she said. “The cold has bitten deep into your flesh. They must be warmed slowly, or they will rot.” She pushed him back into the pallet. He squinted at the bright light – or it seemed bright to him. She was older than he, but not very much. She had dark hair messily braided back from her face, and she had bright blue eyes.
“What hall is this?” he groaned, trying to find a way to lie that did not bring pain. “Where am I?”
“This is the hall of Thane Vanur,” she said. She looked away. “He died in battle in the north, two years ago. I am . . . I was his wife, Ufra.” She stroked the hair back from his face. “You must rest. You have been feverish.”
“It’s not safe here,” he groaned, trying to sit up. “They are coming for me, and they will not allow me to escape them.”
“The men outside,” she said. “Who are they?”
“They were hearthmen of Hror, the. . . the usurper,” he said. “Now I cannot say what they are.”
She made a bitter face. “My husband rode north with Hror to battle, and he never returned. I was given no word, no blood-price, and his body was left on the battlefield, somewhere in the dark.” She began to soak the rags wrapping his hands in cold water, and he hissed in pain. “You will find no love for Hror in this place.”
“Then you may not wish to save my life,” he said, almost laughing. “I was one of his hearthmen as well, only I rebelled, and fled from him.”
She looked at him coolly. “Why did you leave?”
He almost laughed again. “You do not know. You hate Hror for what he has done, but he is worse than you can imagine. He was always a dark man, a killer, but we followed him because we were desperate men, and he led us to victories and pillage, and then to the throne hall.” He winced and closed his eyes. “Now he has become possessed by a dark power, and you may scoff but I saw him return from drowning in the sea. I saw him enter the hall pale and cold and blank-eyed and I have seen him make his men into fiends by giving them his blood to drink.”
He craned his neck, looking around the hall, seeing he was near the fire laid in the long pit, the tables and benches gathered around for warmth, but there were not many men inside. He counted a dozen warriors, perhaps a few more. “They take it and become like him. They are cold, so they no longer feel the bite of winter or the drag of weariness. They seem blind, but they can follow the scent of blood. They hunt and kill without mercy or rest. They are here for me, and they will not stop until they kill me.”
“We have kept besiegers out of this hall before,” she said. “We will not let them in. They may linger in the dark and freeze, and in spring we will burn their bodies.”
“They do not freeze, they do not die,” he said. “They are slaves to the Undergods, and they are not easy to stop. You must chop them apart, and even that will not put an end to them.” He grasped for her arm. “You must beware!”
“Rest,” she said, pushing him back down. “You will fight no one today. Recover your strength.” She looked at him. “Tell me your name.”
“Enred,” he said, as fatigue dragged him down into the dark. “Enred.”
He woke in near darkness, and he heard the pounding blows against the wooden doors. He sat up, shaking off dreams that clung to him like black tar, and struggled out of the blankets. His hands and feet still ached, but he could feel them well enough. He stripped the cloths from his hands and looked around, took his sheathed sword from where it lay on the floor and drew the blade into the dark, firelight shining on the steel.
He heard grumbles and questions from others awoken by the pounding, but he did not wait. He staggered across the hearth-lit hall to the great doors that stood sentinel against the night. The wood was dark, black with smoke at the top, and deeply carved with the histories of the hall itself, marching figures of war and courage etched in the unfeeling oak. Even as he reached the doors, Ufra was there was well. She wore a long white gown that all but glowed in the darkness, and she bore a jewel-hilted sword in her hand as fearlessly as any man.
Another blow smote against the door and they both drew back. Enred heard oaths behind him as another blow made the great doors shudder on their immense bronze hinges. He leaned in and braced his shoulder and his weight against the left-hand door. “Who comes to this hall?” he cried, knowing the answer.
“We come seeking you, faithless man, thief of steel and gold!” The voice was like nothing human, a guttering sound like a dagger raking through dead coals in a fireplace. “You know who we are! You know who commands us! Come forth and be slain! You know we will not go back to our master with empty hands!”
“Your master is darkness!” he shouted back. “The Undergods have made you a mockery of men! I will not be slain by the likes of you!”
A cry went up like the wailing of the accursed, and more terrible blows fell upon the door, shaking it as though it were battered by wild animals. Enred felt them through the wood, and wondered if even the strength of the Undergods could avail against the heavy oaken barrier. The bar shook and creaked, but held.
More of the warriors of the hall were gathering now, drawing on their helms, readying shields and swords and axes. He counted few enough of them, and a coldness gripped him within. There would not be enough men to stand against those who came to kill them. He saw Ufra braced against the other door, sword in her hands, and he met her steady gaze. “I am sorry I brought this upon you.”
“I will not wish a man dead so I might live without courage,” she said. More blows hammered upon the door, the sound of axe edges biting into the wood, gouging flinders of it away, defacing the carving upon the portal. He wondered if they would try to fire the hall. The ancient oak beams were well-seasoned and would not burn easily, but they would do it rather than return without his head.
Hissing came from beyond the doors, and then the pounding ceased and he felt alarm in his throat like the taste of blood. “They will seek other ways in,” he said. “What will they find?”
Ufra cursed. “The storeroom!” She left the doors and ran for the back of the hall, and he stumbled after her. The other men stood uncertain, and she shouted orders for them to watch the doors, even as she caught two men and dragged them in her wake.
They passed a side door, but Enred saw it was heavily barred, two heavy planks wedged in place to hold it fast. They would not easily get through that, and it would make enough noise to warn if they tried. Ufra thrust through a leather curtain and into the back corridors of the hall. It was close back here, and not as well lit. He followed the fitful glare of a single lamp until she led them through another curtain and into a long, low-roofed room against the very back of the hall.
The sides were heaped with casks of drink and dried meat, firewood stacked along the length on the back wall, save for a single door that looked old and ill-made. It was not barred, and Ufra shoved him towards it. “Bar that. You two come and help me roll barrels against it!”
Enred went to the door and caught up the beam he found leaning against the wall. It was heavy, and his aching hand fumbled on the wood, and then a ferocious blow smashed against the door and forced it in. He staggered back as two dark shapes rushed in, heralded by a blast of snow and cold wind.
Dark swords glittered in the dimness, and he threw the beam against the first one and then followed with his sword raised. Steel clashed in the dark, striking sparks. A shield battered against him and flung him back, and only the fact that he fell saved him from the sword-stroke that bit deep into the wall where his head had been.
He hacked viciously at the man’s leg and felt the steel bite, saw dark blood gush out, and the warrior fell on him, the iron of his mail biting like fire with the cold. He heard shouts and the crash of steel against steel, but before him was the blind-eyed face of the warrior, and they grappled there on the dark floor. Unable to use his sword, Enred dropped it and groped at the man’s belt, seeking the hilt of a dagger.
The man brought up the blade of his sword and pressed it down against Enred’s throat, and he caught the cold steel and wrenched it aside even as he felt a dagger under his hand and drew it out. The warrior heaved up and tried to wrench his sword free, but then Enred had the dagger in his hand and he stabbed up under the dark beard and into the white throat beneath.
The dark warrior gurgled and fell back, and Enred went over on top of him, tore the dagger free and then stabbed again, and again, left the blade embedded in one blank eye. He shoved the man’s legs aside and staggered up, feeling for his sword just as he saw Ufra shove the door closed in the face of more dark shapes and hold it against the sudden battering as they tried to force it open. The room stank of blood, and both the intruders were dead on the floor beside the other two hearthmen.
He dropped his blade and grabbed up the heavy bar, rushed to join Efra and dropped the beam in place. The door still jumped and rattled as those out in the dark tried to hammer their way through. He was very close to Ufra, smelled her and saw the blood on her face. “Hold it shut,” she said, pressing her sword into his hand. He took it and nodded.
Truly, he was more worried they might simply hack the door to pieces, but the wood seemed sound, seasoned by many years until it was hard as iron. Yet still he braced it as Ufra went and got barrels of ale and rolled them across the floor. He helped her stand them up, forcing them against the door. Four, then six, and then they braced the whole of it with firewood.
They both fall and lay leaning against the barricade, breathing hard. The blows upon the outer door had ceased, and now a terrible quiet seemed to fall over the room. The dead lay unmoving, but the smell of blood was oppressive. No one from the outer room had come to help them, and he realized the hall could have fallen here, in darkness, and no one would have heard anything to alarm them.
Ufra retrieved her sword and cleaned blood from it. She looked at the dead invaders, and with her foot she turned one of them to look in his face. Even in the rictus of death, the unnatural pallor was plain to see, and the glassy blind stare of the eyes made the dead man seem like something washed up from below the sea.
“Are they men?” Ufra said, looking at the body in disgust.
“They were,” Enred said, getting to his feet. He hunted for his sword and retrieved it, took cloth from a dead man and cleaned the thickening blood from the steel. “Even Hror was a man, but he fell into the sea, and when he returned he was . . . he was not what he had been. He cut his veins and put his black blood into a goblet, and bade the men drink, and when they did, they became like these.”
“But you refused,” she said.
He put out his hand, and after a moment she took it and allowed him to pull her to her feet. “I refused. I may be a red-handed reaver and a killer, but I am not a thing. I will not give away my life to the rule of the Undergods.”
“I know nothing of gods,” she said. “But this is not a man in my eyes.” She kicked the corpse. “Come, they will be seeking another way.”
The night passed in grim anticipation. Enred seated himself beside the fire and cleaned and sharpened his blade. Others brought the dead men out of the storeroom and put them down below, in the room used for keeping fresh meats, so the smell of their decay would not poison the hall. It was a bare dozen warriors who gathered there beside the fire and tried to ready themselves. Enred saw many of them were graybeards, or boys without beards at all. It seemed when the lord of this place had gone to war, he had taken all the men of prime years with him.
He looked up as Ufra sat down close to him, and she laid a shirt of mail across his lap. “Take your armor, you will have need of it.”
He looked at her for a moment, and then he put his sword aside and took up his mail shirt, began to bunch it up so he might put it on. He saw that she wore armor as well, and the mail did not fit her as it should. “Did none of your husband’s warriors return after the battle?”
“No,” she said. “We heard nothing for a long time, until we at last had word that my husband was dead.” She drew out the gold-hilted sword and held it up. “This was his, and I am glad it was returned to me, but it cannot restore the greatness of this hall. Those few men of fighting age who remained have left us. They slipped away into the dark, went to join with Hror, or perhaps to fight him. None have returned.” She looked at him. “Were you at the battle in the north?”
“No,” he said. “I was sick with a fever when the men left.” He drew the mail over his head and shrugged his arms into it, let it settle across his shoulders. “I joined Hror when he returned. He needed loyal hearthmen. I sailed to Hadrad with him, and fought in the battle at Arnan’s hall. I began to . . . to question it. Hror still spoke of hunting the survivors down, of killing women and children, of burning fields so those who escaped would starve. I looked in his face and I saw a lust for killing that fed on itself, and would never be sated.” He shook his head. “I wanted to serve a king, not a butcher. There was no place for me to go, and so I remained, until . . .” He shuddered. “Until he returned from the sea.”
“And now he makes his men into less than men, and sends them forth to kill in his name.” She laid her sword across her thighs. “He will kill and kill until nothing is left.”
“There are still those who resist him, in the fields, in the villages and isolated halls. There are many who hate him, yet fear to rise against him. There was a revolt in the autumn, and when winter breaks there will be more.” Enred picked his sword up again. “He has fewer and fewer who follow him. He is not so strong as he seems. It is the power behind him that is to be feared. Powers beyond steel guard him and make him powerful.” He looked into the fire. “It is the darkness that I fear.”
Something drifted down from above, and he felt cold dust on his face. He brushed at it, heard the fire hiss, and then he looked up, and up, to where the smoke hole was hidden in the shadows at the apex of the roof, and he saw movement there.
He surged to his feet, knocking the bench over, crying a warning as dark shapes dropped from above. He heard shouts and screams, and then the dark men landed hard in the coals of the fire, scattering red embers across the floor. The fire lit them from below, and made them seem like evil things unearthed from the unseen deeps of the world.
Three of them, and then the heavy crash as the largest one fell amidst the fire. They screamed with their bloodless mouths as they rushed to attack with swords and axes, and the killing began in red darkness. He saw Ufra struggling to rise, off-balance, and he shoved her to the floor as one of the enemy rushed for her. The sweep of the axe missed her and bit deep into a table, and Enred struck back furiously, his blade ringing from a dark helm.
The hearthmen of the hall fought valiantly, even taken by surprise, but a half-dozen were cut down in moments, and then the rest began to panic and scream. Enred cursed and met the slash of a sword on his own blade, then shoved the cold thing back and struck down, hacking off the head on the edge of the hearth, sending the pallid skull rolling into the fire.
The axeman ripped his weapon free, but already Ufra was on her feet. She kicked the bench into the attackers legs and staggered him, then smote his head a terrible, two-handed stroke that burst the straps of his helm and sent it spinning away. Enred had a moment to see the white head, the hair thinning from it, leaving it pale and naked like a dead worm, and then her second blow split it in half.
He could not see what was happening. The fire was scattered, and it cast immense, malformed shadows on the walls. He heard a scream and saw blood gush through the air, black in the firelight. He rushed at the nearby shadow and drove his shoulder into it, knocked the man sprawling. He only had a moment to see the pale face and sightless eyes before he drove his sword down and through it, ripped it free in a black spray.
A shadow loomed over him, and he saw the last one, the tallest, towering a head above him. It lunged with long spear and black shield, and he ducked back, put one of the long tables in between them. It was a bad decision, as the width of the board allowed the dark iron spear to lash at him while he could not return the blows.
“Hror calls you back,” the thing intoned, no sound of breath as it struck at him again. “He will feed you his blood, you will serve him.”
Enred ducked another spear-stroke, and then he gripped the edge of the table and grunted with effort as he upended it. He heard the spear catch in the wood and he lunged in, driving against it, shoving the table into his enemy. The dark man growled and smashed the wood apart with blows of his shield, and when Enred struck through with his sword it glanced from blackened armor.
“Enough,” the dark man snarled, and raised his spear to kill. Enred could not get his sword up in time to stop it, and he cried out as the blow began to fall. In the corner of his eye he saw Ufra strike low, cutting through the back of the towering warrior’s knee, and his leg folded. Rather than impale Enred, he fell against him, the weight immense, but Enred braced him back with his left arm, and struck with his sword at the place where neck and shoulder joined.
Black blood gouted, and an inhuman cry shook the beams of the darkened hall. Enred clawed for the warrior’s face and caught his beard, held him while he struck again, and again, until he hacked through the pale neck, and the body dropped heavy to the floor, twitching as though a kind of fell life still struggled within it.
He threw the head aside and fell to the floor, gasping for breath. Ufra came and knelt beside him. “Are you wounded?”
“No,” he said. He let his sword fall and clasped his hands together, feeling the pain still burning in them from the cold. He felt weak and sick, and the stink of blood and burning flesh did nothing to help. “No, I am not wounded.”
“Get up then,” she said. “There are dead and wounded to see to.”
He nodded. “Very well.” He pulled himself up. Leaned against another table. “There will be more of them,” he said. “Hror will send them when these do not return.”
“Then we must be ready for them,” she said. She put out her hand, marked with blood, and after a long moment he reached out his own aching hand, and took it.