Summer bloomed across dead lands, and the greening of the grass hid away burn scars and the places where bones lay fallow on the earth. Untouched fields gave forth wildflowers and flooded with weeds, and the rains came soft and turned the forests to gold. Sun cut through the low clouds and fell on burned halls and broken barns, over the fields where cattle roamed and grazed, untroubled by man.
Valura came to the place where the king’s hall had stood, and she leaned on her long-handled axe and looked at the shattered roof and blackened beams. The tall grass was thicker where the slain had fallen, and she walked among unhallowed graves as she passed down the slope where Haldr had fought his last battle. This was a land with no king, and no lords. Now beasts ran wild over the paths and broken walls, and dark things walked the forests in the night.
She was leaner, now, than she had been. Two years she had lived as a beast herself, sleeping in the snow, hunting and fishing with her hands, living from fire to fire. She had not been here when Hror came to extinguish the king’s hall, and now she came at last, a final moment as a penance of kinds for what she had not done.
It was easy to mark the path of the battle, to see where the flowers rose higher over the dead, a road in colors that led down the slope and to the very door of the hall. The great oaken doors lay on the ground, blackened and battered, scaled like the flesh of a dragon from the heat. She saw the remains of the ancient carving on the wood, the black sear where the inlaid gold had melted and charred into the earth.
She went up the three ancient stone steps and looked on the remains. The once-golden boards curled and black from the flames, the pillars standing up like grave markers, holding up the vanished roof that lay in pieces all around her. If there were dead within, she saw no remnant of them. The fire had been too intense.
Valura knew better than to walk on the scarred boards where exposed nails waited to tear flesh. She looked, and then she left that place and walked toward the forest. At the edge of the trees she crouched down and looked at the marks on the earth. They might have been the prints of enormous feet. Here, something had stood in the shadow of the trees and watched the fire burn. All winter she had listened to stories told around huddled fires, and she knew the shadow that moved in the high hills. She had come to kill it.
She planted her spear in the earth and laid down her shield, knelt on the cursed ground. She took a handful of the soil where the thing had stood and rubbed it between her hands, sniffed and breathed it, tasted it. Those times she had come to small farms of hidden steadings, the people had whispered of it. One of the Old Gods, the Undergods. Thurr, the Devourer, the All-Hungry, the Cannibal God. The giant that walked in the sea and at the rim of the world.
She marked her forehead with the sign of the spear, and then she took up her shield and stood up, ripped her spear from the earth. This war had passed her by too much, and now it was drawing to an end she saw it had not been a war of men against men, but men against the dark powers that still coveted the world. What finer thing could there be than to slay a god? What better thing?
With the spear tip she carved the sigh of the Speargod into a tree, and then she left the sun and went into the shadows beneath the forest. She followed the tracks of a hungry god with steel in hand and death in her heart.
She smelled it when she began to draw close. The smell of death drifted through the forest, clinging like mist to the ground underfoot. She saw skulls caught in the branches overhead, and she heard the buzzing of corpse flies in the summer warmth. There was little sun here beneath the eaves of the trees, only the constant scent of the dripping sap, the soft sounds of the needles underfoot, and now the smell of the unburied dead.
There were no marks of animals to be seen here, and she heard no bird, nor the songs of crickets, only the white gleam of bone in the afternoon light and the sawing sound of flies to lead her to the place. She knew she would find it, knew there would be a place of sacrifice marked by a stone, and by death, and she found it.
A clearing made of a ring of towering trees, and when she stepped in among them it seemed that the forest beyond became little more than shadows that led deeper into the dark, a forest of night in the brightness of day. The boughs cut away the light above her, and from the slimed bark hung the rotting remnants of the slain. She saw skulls being stripped of flesh by decay, ribcages streaked with black, guts hanging like foul fruit. All of it moved and crawled with the covering of feasting flies, and the smell was enough to make her gag in her throat.
At the center of the ring was a stone carpeted by moss and heaped around with skulls and lesser bones. Blood had painted it almost black, and a giant figure sprawled upon the cruel altar. A head taller than any other man, clothed in black armor overgrown with knife-edged barnacles and clawed by rust, the shape clutched a rusted, bent sword in two hands and screamed to the sky with a fleshless mouth.
She looked on the ruin and knew its name. Daganhurre he had been in life, the giant, the Kin-Killer, the mercenary. She had seen him before when life was his kingdom, and now that he was dead he stirred beneath his cloak of moss.
Valura planted her spear in the loamy earth and drew her heavy axe from her belt and held it ready. She watched as the corpse of the kinslayer pulled free of moss and vine and stood before her, face black with decay, eyes sunken hollows of witchfire. His jaw opened and his voice was like the stirring of wind in the autumn.
“You should not come here,” he said, his mouth never moving. “This is not the world of men.” He lifted his jagged, decayed sword. “This is a place for the dark, and those enslaved to them.” He took a staggering step towards her. “I gave myself to it, and look at what I have become.” Spectral light gleamed in his hollow eyes. “Look what has been made of me.”
“I remember you, Daganhurre,” she said. “Killer for gold. The rot was in you then, and now it has taken you.”
“Release me,” he moaned, and he came for her with his steel reaching. She fell back and did not try to brace his terrible, sweeping blow upon her shield. In life Daganhurre had wielded almost more than mortal strength; she did not doubt it was greater now. He struck at her again and again, tireless and slow, lurching upon blackened feet that stumbled among the rocks and roots.
She moved to his left and he turned to follow, lunged at her again in his dragging, slow way. She seemed to present her shield as a target, but at the last moment she slipped aside and then smote him a hideous blow on his shoulder, ripping through the rusted mail and rotting leather. Her axe bit through his shoulder bone and almost severed his left arm.
The stroke almost drove him off his feet, and she smashed into him with her shield, knocking him back against the altar stone. He struck at her, and his ragged blade bit into her shield rim, grinding like the teeth of a wolf. She put her foot on his arm and forced it back, pinned him there, and then she hewed at him with overhead strokes that rang the steel blade like a bell. She cut off his other arm, and then smashed his chest beneath his encrusted armor. His witchfire eyes blazed at her. “What if I cannot die? What if you cannot destroy me? I am hungry.” His severed hands clawed at the earth, crawling toward her like spiders. “So hungry.”
With a cry of disgust Valura struck her shield rim across his helm and dashed it from his head. She saw the dark hair clinging to his scalp, the skin falling away from the blackened bone. His mouth yawned wide, and she struck down with all her fury and shattered flesh and bone into pieces.
Her steel had notched the stone beneath him, and as she drew it back she wondered if his corpse would still writhe and seek, but it slumped and lay as still as any other dead flesh, and she was glad for that. No man deserved a torment like that. She heard something from far away. A cry like some beast of legend roused from long slumber, and she lifted her axe and screamed back at it. A challenge, a voice of defiance.
The sound did not come again, and so Valura cleaned her axe on the moss and slung it on her belt. She took up her spear again, and she used the good iron point to carve the arrow-point mark of the Spearfather on each tree, and then on the deep moss of the altar stone itself. She thought she felt a lessening of the gloom that wrapped the place, though she could not be sure.
She left the dead and the unburied behind her and strode off into the forest again, moving up the slope to go deeper into the hills. It was afternoon, and dark would be gathering soon. She did not doubt she would be tested once the sun was gone, and she welcomed it.
She followed the hills, through hollows and over ridges, and the sun began to set. She was far out in the wilderness, and she knew she was watched. She could feel it. The rushing of water came to her ears, and she crested a rise to look down on a great valley. Across from where she stood a great cascade of water roared down the hillside through the jagged channel it had carved. The fall of water vanished into the deeps, buried in darkness and shroud of mist that rose from below. Dead trees clung to the steep-sided hills, twisted and black, and she saw bones hanging in the clawed branches.
Long ago, a dark god had come to hide away from the power of the Speargod, and this was the hole it crawled into. Here it hid and slumbered and gnawed at the root of the world, until it woke again, and came forth again. She knew it was close to her. The Hungry Giant. The Ravenous One. Here in the immensity of the hills and the endless forests it could go unseen, but she would draw it out. It did not fear her, and it should.
She planted her spear in the stony earth and laid her shield down beside it, and then she took her axe and began to gather wood. She clawed dried branches from the knee-deep grass and hacked them apart, piled them into a bonfire that stood as tall as she did by the time the sun touched the western hills. She took flint and struck sparks from her axe blade and kindled the flames, and so when the sun crawled down behind the ancient hills, the fire blazed up, roaring into a pillar that lit the night with red and gold and glowed upon the steel of her axe and the iron point of her spear. She took shield and spear in hand and held them up to the dark sky, and she bellowed a challenge across the unseen deeps.
Valura heard it coming. The rustling of the wind became the steady, crushing tread of something huge walking among the trees. She heard branches groan and break as they were pushed aside. She could not see beyond the circle of the fire, could not say how close it was, but there was only one way for it to come for her. She put her back to the drop into the dark, and she waited for the dark, hungry god.
There was breathing, huge and heavy and vast, and it seemed the earth and all the world around her had vanished and drawn away. She stood on the rocky peak with the fire beside her, and she could see nothing beyond the ring of light. There was no rush of the waterfall, no stars above her. There was only the stalking tread of an unseen giant, and the night.
She saw its eyes above her, looming like the stars themselves. They burned blue-green, like the witchfires in Daganhurre’s tormented skull. She smelled an unearthed stench of overturned graves, and she heard the rattle of bones. The mountain itself seemed to move before her. She saw massive legs gnarled with roots and hung with skulls. She saw flesh grown over with moss and veined with creepers, stained with blood and decay.
A hand came for her, fingers like the heads of a monster, black claws long as a ship’s prow reaching from three fingers and thumb, while the fourth finger was nothing but a stump. It came down hard in a crushing blow, and she braced her spear against the earth with the point upward and poised. She did not believe a spear would break beneath an enemy of its father. Not tonight.
The iron point ripped into the palm and blood coursed down, and the hand impaled itself and scattered the fire across the grassy hilltop. Then it reared back and the bellow of rage shook the mountainsides. Valura was pulled off her feet and twisted, tore the spear free and landed hard on the smoldering grass. The flames caught the dry scrub and the bushes, and they began to burn.
The light blossomed, and she saw it then, whole in the dark. The hulking shape of Thurr, the Flesh-Eater. It loomed above her, and she saw the fang-lined mouth as it screamed in pain. She laughed and swept her shield through the remnants of the fire and scattered the blazing branches down the hillside, igniting the long grasses. “You cannot hide from me!” she shouted. “You cannot hide from the spear!”
It swung out its unwounded hand and smashed the hilltop, and she ducked behind her smoking shield as the earth and stones were shattered apart. A boulder tumbled against her and splintered her shield and dashed the spear from her hand, and she rolled and rolled as she tumbled down the burning slope. She coughed and spat out soil, flung a stone off her legs and staggered up.
The fire was spreading too quickly to stop, and she saw the thing standing illuminated as in a gigantic hearth, flames coiling up below it. She saw the skulls trapped screaming in its knotted flesh, saw the long beard hung with the rotting dead. It howled and she smelled its hideous breath. She showed her teeth to the dark and drew out her long-handled axe. The fire might well consume the dark one, if she could prevent it from escaping.
She ran across the broken ground, leaping over the trails of fire, until she stood in the shadow of the Hunger God, beside one trunk-like leg. She drew back her arms and screamed for all the strength she had ever wielded, and then she chopped into the vast ankle, severing the stretched wooden ligament with a sound like a splitting tree.
Black blood gushed out and she hurled herself away as the giant twisted and then came crashing to one knee, the impact enough to jolt her off her feet. Fire crawled around it, and she heard it roar again. It reached down with its clawed hands and scythed at the ground, clawing up the earth and flinging it aside as it tried to find her.
One hand came in reach and she howled and smote it, severing one immense finger cleanly so it dropped bleeding to the earth. She ducked as the howl came again and she ran, keeping behind the fires as she circled behind it, struggling not to fall and roll down the slope as more soil and stones cascaded past her. She hid within the giant’s own shadow and came behind it as it struggled to rise.
She saw the muscles of its unwounded leg strain to lift it, and she lunged in and struck another terrible blow, screaming the fury of she who men named Axe-Bride. More blood poured out as she cut the strings and left the dark god crippled, and then it struck at her with a mutilated hand.
It only grazed her, but the black talon ripped her mail open and lifted her, hurled her down the slope and sent her crashing down, dazed and shaking. Her axe was gone, the broken haft in her grip, and she could feel blood running down her skin beneath her rent mail. She rolled over and spat out earth and blood, told herself she was not yet done, even as she wondered if her guts were already spilling out. She heard the thing roar again, and she turned to look.
It towered over her, limned against the sky by the rising flames. She saw the eyes blazing like swamp-fires, and the great arms bunched as it dug its claws into the earth and pushed itself up, staggering on its hobbled legs. Valura clawed backward through the clumps of earth and tumbled stones, groaning with pain as she hunted for something to strike with, something to kill with. Her shield was broken, her axe was gone. She had nothing left to fight with.
The giant tore at the earth and flung it down the slope toward her, a hail of stones and broken soil. She ducked and grunted as she was pummeled and slid farther down the hillside. Her hand closed on something and she pulled it forth, felt the weight and the balance, and when she held it up, her spear gleamed in the light of the flames.
Thurr bellowed, and she saw the flames crawling over it, coiling along the roots and vines embedded in his hide, consuming the skulls and bones so they cracked and split apart. Fire clawed at the skin of the Cannibal God and she heard him roar in agony and wrath, his fanged maw open and black. His eyes flamed like cursed stars, and his claws furrowed the earth.
Valura forced herself to her feet, gasping with the pain of her wounds. She felt the blood running down her back and side, dripping down her legs, her blood. She gathered herself and held her spear to the sky. Beyond the fire and the unclean god, the stars shone down like jewels. “The Speargod curses you!” she howled, “and I cast you down!”
She drew back her arm, clenched her teeth, and hurled the spear with all her strength, feeling her wound tear deeper as she twisted and threw. The iron point glinted with the firelight like a spark in the night as it flew straight and terrible. She fell as she watched it, refusing to take her eyes from it even as pain made her cry out. No hero in a tale had ever flung a spear so far. She saw it fall and strike, and she saw one of the foxfire eyes of the Undergod go out.
It howled and clutched at its face with both maimed hands, clawing through its own flesh with its black talons. It staggered back, wounded legs folding under it. It crashed through the fire and she saw flames covering it, blackening the moss-covered skin. It shook its head and roared again, and then it pitched backward and began to fall.
The shattered hilltop crumbled beneath it, and it fell back into the abyss. It screamed and clutched at the earth, digging huge furrows as it slid backward. Valura had a last moment to see the single, blazing eye suffused with terror and with pain, and then it slid into the dark and fell, howling. She heard the shattering roar fade away, as though Thurr the Corpse-Eater was falling far below the earth, away from the light and the sun and the clean blaze of the stars, until it was gone.
She lay upon the earth, gasping for breath, shaking in the aftermath of the battle. Part of her could not believe she still lived, and another part of her was not certain she would much longer. Slowly, so slowly, she rolled over onto her back so she could look up at the endless stars. The wind blew, and it smelled clean. If she closed her eyes the earth seemed to spin beneath her, and she felt she looked down rather than up, and that she might fall upward into the night, into the jewel-marked firmament, and never return.