The first storm of spring broke across the northlands, and the rain poured down across the hillsides and swelled the streams. The ice broke and sheared away and was washed from brooks and rivers, and lightning raged across the hillsides and scourged the stones that stood in circles, leaving seared marks like runes. The wind lashed the dead grass and the evergreen trees, and it blew across the moors with a voice like howling.
Deep in the dark of his hall, Hror woke from his deathless sleep and clawed to his feet, hand reaching for his cursed sword. The voice of the wind was like speech, like a voice from some hidden mouth, and it was not the dark whisper he had come to know, it was something else. A golden war-cry from beyond the edge of the world. He stood pale in the darkness, feeling the cold inside him that was always there now, at the heart of him. He closed his eyes and he saw a light as from far away, a golden-bladed spear that glowed like fire.
Thunder smashed and echoed against the walls of the hall men named Irongard. It was like a tomb, now, where men lay still through the cold nights, and they kindled no fires and ate nothing but raw flesh. Hror was a cold king, and his hearth lay dark and lifeless. His men like hounds scoured the land for those who still stood to oppose him. They burned spear-halls and slaughtered any who tried to stop them. Once fed upon his blood, they knew nothing but a hunger for killing.
Now the king went among them, and his voice was like breaking ice as he called them from their rest. He struck his sword upon the bare tables and called like a raven. He beat a cadence on wood and stone, and he called those who followed him to wake. An enemy was coming, and he did not need any secret whisper of dark knowledge to tell him. He felt it in his blood, coming nearer. In his mind the hills were alive with fire, and he heard the tread of armies in the dark.
They came from the north, down from where they drew their ships to the sunless shore. They crossed the barren heaths and the ice-marked stones. When they camped, they camped on the peaks of wide hills, and each time they did, they ripped up great stones and set them in the earth in rings to mark their passage.
They were giants, towering head and shoulders above other men. In the splendor of their war-gear they were terrible to see. They bore polished helms crested with boar and bull, armor dark with years gleaming as they moved. Their shields were wide as the doors of a spear-hall, and their spears were as long as roof-poles. They bore axes that could fell great trees, and their swords flashed with fire, as though it were forged into them. They sang as they marched, in a tongue no man understood, and at their head rode their queen.
Ruana rode a stag so immense the reach of its antlers was greater than three men could span with their arms. She wore a golden breastplate and a coat of shimmering scales. On her head she wore a helm that masked her face save for her silvered eyes, and in her hands she held the spear she had borne away with her, and which now shone like the sun, tempered in the blood of a dark god.
She watched as the Azora raised a ring of stones, digging them from beneath the soil and standing them upright. It seemed they had been here before, and indeed, when she looked to the wise man Umun, he nodded.
“There was a circle here before, but the stones have been torn down.” He leaned on his spear. “The work of the Undergods.”
“The work of men,” she said. She used the Azora word for humans, as she was learning their speech.
“Men fall easily into the spell of the Undergods,” Umun said. “It is why the Spearfather sealed them away. It was fear of him that kept them from entering the world, but now they believe he will not return.” He looked at her. “They are wrong in this. He went into the north, to where the sky-fires burn. Long ago he went and never came back. But we knew his power would return. His will.”
“My will,” she said. She still did not quite believe it.
“You bear the spear,” he said simply. “You are the sign we awaited. Now we go forth to war again. Now the Azora march.”
“There will be men who have turned away from the Undergods,” she said. “Those who fight against Hror. I will welcome them.”
“Humans are weak,” Umun said. “You should not trust them.”
“I am human,” she said. “I have returned to save all who can be saved. I am their queen by right as well as by this spear.” She planted the haft hard against the cold earth and her steed shifted, snorted as he tossed his great antlers. She touched his hard shoulder, feeling the power in the beast. Part of her was afraid of the strange, primitive animal, something that was all but legend to her.
“What good to cast down the Undergods but not raise up the men who are their victims? What good to fight for those who we do not honor, or welcome? I am come as a liberator, not a conqueror. I stand in opposition to the dark ones, and I will see them undone. And when they are done, what then? Do I leave the world as it would be then? Leaderless? Filled with decapitated kingdoms and empty thrones? No. I come to drive out the dark, and to bring light in place of it.” She lifted the spear and the faint light that sifted through the low clouds glowed on the tip like a rising sun.
Umun bowed to her then. “That is why you are a queen,” he said. “We are only warriors, but you will shape this land.”
Hror gathered his men in the brittle light of the cursed sun, gleaming lost through the heavy clouds that blanketed the land. The grasses lay dead, the fields fallow and scattered with bones. The rotting bodies of those who had resisted the king were impaled on spears and planted in the fields, but nothing sprouted from the earth where their blood stained it.
The dark armies swarmed in the shadows, men in ragged cloaks and decaying furs drawn over armor turning black with rust and mold. Pale-faced warriors staggered like walking sleepers, gathered in their places with black spears and shields crawling with maggots and dagger-sharp barnacles. Many of them blinked and hissed, as though they breathed waking air for the first time in months. As if they did not remember how they came to be here, nor how they became what they found themselves to be.
Hungry, they gnashed their yellowing teeth, and they dug corpses from the soil and ate the mortified flesh. Cold, they needed no fires, wished for no warmth. They were an army of cold men, of warriors who had tasted the blood of Hror, the chosen of the dark sea, and they hungered now for something they could never find. A craving they could not fulfill.
Hror himself mounted a horse as black and sunken as a thing from the grave, with jutting bones and eyes filmed gray as though it were blind. No living horse would bear him, no living animal would come close to him. He lifted his spear and called forth in a howl unending, and the army answered him. Some of them had slumbered in the snow, hidden in caves and hollows, and now they rose and came to him, gathering in a terrible horde made by the hunger for blood, and for death.
He led them north and they followed, a column of destruction over the earth. They flowed over the valleys, past the hollows of burnt-out farms, gnawing at the remains of the dead in the destroyed spearhalls, feasting on slaughtered cattle in the dead fields. Like a plague they marched northward, and the earth shuddered beneath their feet.
Ruana came down from the high hill with her spear in hand. She chose a place to stand and planted it in the earth so the blade stood upright and gleamed in the feeble sun. The Azora waited upon the hilltop, within the ring of stones. She had commanded them to wait.
She watched the ragged crowd of people approach her, saw the uncertainty in their eyes and waited for their courage to bring them closer. These had the look of warriors, though their arms and armor were battered and dirty. They had the look of men who had slept on the earth for weeks or longer. They were dirty and unshaven and hungry, but their eyes were still bright, and their swords were still sharp.
At the head of them was a woman with dark hair and keen blue eyes. She wore mail that did not fit her well, and bore a sword with a gilded hilt. She showed no outward fear as she approached, and when she stood before Ruana, she bowed.
“I doubted it was truly you, my lady. But I remember you. We met before, in happier times, when you reigned as queen.” The woman stood straight again. “I am Ufra, Thane of Vanur.”
“I remember you as well,” Ruana said. “And your husband, Spearfather be with him.”
“Yes,” Ufra said. She gestured behind her. “I have gathered all I could through the winter. We were driven from my hall, but we have survived. I heard news of your coming, and I did not believe it.” She fought tears, closed her eyes for a long moment. “We have been alone, driven out of our homes, hiding in the forests and sleeping on the ground. Hror’s men hunt us, and many nights we dare not make fires for warmth, lest they see them.”
“I have come,” Ruana said. “I come with the bright spear, and the Azora march with me. The giants of old, sons and daughters of the Speargod himself. They have come to cleanse the power of the Undergods from these lands. And I will strike down upon the usurper with vengeance.”
Ufra drew herself up. “We have come to march and die with you. If you fight Hror, we will fight with you. I have a thousand men and women fit to wield sword and axe and spear. Let us come with you, and we will fight. We have all sworn to die before we flee. I will place my oath upon myself, for all of them.”
“This is our land,” Ruana said. “This land does not belong to the giants, nor to the Undergods. March with me under no oath, march because you have fury and hunger for vengeance, and for justice. The Undergods have grown bold, and they have come from the shadows to feed on us again, as they did once long ago. I will smite them with fire and with steel, and I will destroy those who have been glad to be their slaves. I will teach the Undergods to fear us again.” She held out her hand. “Join me.”
They clasped their hands together, and a great shout went up from the gathered men. They held their swords and axes to the sky, and the giants on the hill answered them. They battered their spear-hafts against their shields and made a noise like thunder.
Lightning walked in the hills as they two armies drew closer together. The giants watched from the high places and marked the shadow upon the earth, and they blew their great horns to signal that the enemy was drawing closer. The valley below was deep and shaded, with forests growing on the hillsides and a stream flowing through the rocks. Giants and men marched together down to the edge of the water, and there they waited for the scourge of their enemy.
Ruana sat on the back of her primordial stag, spear in her hands, waiting for the battle she had sought, and she felt a fear down inside her. When the dark worm had come for her on the ice she had fought it without time to wonder or to be afraid. She had been desperate, with nothing more to lose save her own life, and so she had fought with all her fury, saving nothing. Now she led an army of men and legends. Now they called her the Spear Queen, and the giants spoke as though she would become like a god. Now she had time to contemplate what she faced.
Now she knew the power of the Undergods was no myth or tale spun to frighten the simpleminded. She knew their power was real. Loosed upon the world, she could see the destruction they had wrought, and could imagine what would come if they were not stopped. She felt the weight of the consequences of this battle upon her shoulders, and it made her somber. How could she hope to contend with the will of such things? How could she kill that which did not die?
The wind blew cold from the southern heaths, and she saw the shadow of her enemies stain the world as they emerged from the forest and marched onto the mist-haunted moor. She heard the terrible susurration of their cold breath, saw it darken the air like smoke breathed from the cracks in the earth. They looked like dead men, pale and slow and silent. There was the sound of their footfalls, but not a word or a cry from any throat.
A shape broke through the lines and rode out into the front, and she saw it was Hror, helmed and dark and with his spear uplifted. His horse was gaunt and starved as a dead thing, and its eyes were pale and glazed. It bared long teeth and dripped slaver upon the dead grass.
“Who dares?” he cried, riding ahead of his dark army. “Who is this that dares to come against me? I am Hror! I am king and I fear no man! Come and test your steel against my power, and I will devour your heart!”
Ruana looked on him and felt a twisting revulsion in her gut. It was not hatred as one feels for a man, but the feeling of bone-deep loathing incurred by something unclean. In that moment she no longer feared him, she wished only to wipe him from the earth. To destroy him so utterly that it would be as if he had never been. She set heels to her steed and it gave a deep-voiced bray and surged forward. She felt the attention of two great armies as she rode to meet him, spear in her hand light as a shard of fire.
She rode close and she saw his pale eyes beneath his helm, staring and milky as the eyes of a blind man. Her stag caught the scent of the death horse and snorted, tossed its great antlers and stomped upon the earth, tearing the sward. Ruana gripped the reins and held her spear before her like a brand, something to ward back the dark.
“I dare,” she said. “I remember you, Hror, son of Herun. You have become something much worse than a usurper.”
“I know your voice,” he said. “Who are you?”
She reached up and pushed her helm back so he could see her face. She was much changed from whom she had been, and her own eyes were silvered over by the touch of the blood of the worm. Yet he knew her when he saw her, and she read the rage in his eyes.
“Ruana. I sent men to slay you, and I should have wondered why they did not return. You robbed me of Oeric’s death, and of his head.” He lifted his spear. “I will take yours in recompense.”
“Take it, if you can,” she said. Her own spear caught the weak sun and blazed back stronger still, and she saw him shy from the light. “This very spear drank the blood of your master, and when next I meet the worm Sceatha, I shall finish his life. Your god could not slay me, I do not think you can.”
In answer he roared and his death steed reared, slashing the air with dagger hooves, and wind came down and flattened the grasses around them. She saw a fell gleam in his eyes and raised her spear. They rushed together, and their spears met in a clash that scattered sparks across the ground. His dark army surged forward, and she heard the Azora blow their horns to call for war.
She met him in the deep breath before the armies clashed, and his spear came for her like black ice. Ruana lifted her shield and felt the blow go through her as the black point glanced off. She turned and struck with her own spear, the point gleaming, and he dashed it aside. They circled, each of them seeking an opening, each of their steeds tossing their heads and digging at the earth with their hooves.
The dark army flowed towards her, black steel glinting on sword blade and burnished helm, and behind her the giants came like a tide. Ruana felt the thunder of their charge, and then the armies met like the crashing of the sea. Steel ripped through armor and bone and flesh, and screams rose all around as axes split helms and shields were splintered. In a moment the vale was cloaked in the clamor of war, and the echoes of it shook the hillsides.
He charged against her and her steed reared up, and they met shield to shield, the impact like the sound of cracking stone. He was larger than she was, and possessed of a terrible strength, but she was filled with a boiling, burning hatred for him, and so she strained powerfully against him. His deathly horse screamed and snapped at her, and she snarled and struck with her spear and saw the blade cut across the side of the shriveled, skull-like head. Black blood poured out and smoke rose from the wound, and the thing screamed again.
It twisted and sank long teeth into the neck of her antlered steed, and the stag bellowed and twisted, slashing with its massive antlers, and the dagger points slashed through the sunken flesh and then pierced through it. The death beast shrieked and twisted, but her stag wrenched with terrible power and tore the hideous head from the skeletal body, and it crashed upon the earth in ruin.
Hror plunged to the ground and fought free of the twitching, bleeding corpse. Ruana turned her beast and rode him down, golden spear reaching for him. She saw his eyes, and then he lifted his shield and her blow smote upon the iron boss and split it apart, the planks smashing to splinters.
He staggered back as she turned to try and come at him again, but his own spear lashed out and struck her on the helm and she reeled in the saddle. Her stag slashed at the dark warriors that closed in, and the tumult threw her from her seat and cast her onto the stony ground.
She rolled and came to her feet as the battle thrashed and thundered around her. Warriors came for her and she stepped into the stream, the cold water flowing around her legs, already running with blood. She threw her shield aside and set both hands to her spear. The light of it blazed and they shied back from her, and she impaled one through the chest, ripped the blade free and then caught the second one in the neck, left it bleeding and twisting on the ground.
Then Hror came again, and his black spear crashed against her own. They fought in the shallow water, striking and deflecting, their spear-hafts rattling together, the iron blade of his weapon sparking against the golden bronze of her blazing spear. He tried to force her back, but she would not give way. He shoved at her and she slipped around the blow, brought her spear down on his haft and split it apart.
He had a moment to scream in fury, dragging his sword from its sheath, and then she reversed her grip and stabbed him in the side. The blade hissed like white iron as it quenched in his blood, and he shrieked as smoke boiled up from his flesh.
His warriors surged around him as he fell, and she was forced back until she set her foot on the far bank and would not go another step backward. A shadow covered her and she saw Umun there in mail and helm, his shield wide as a door, walling the enemy away from her flank. He struck with his great axe and cleaved men apart when they came in his reach. Ruana snarled and firmed her grip on her spear, and she struck into the mass of warriors and killed and killed again. The blade flamed brighter with every blow, until the light of it made the warriors shy away.
She heard horns again, and then the army of desperate men rushed upon Hror’s army from the side, taking it by surprise. Furious from their long winter as fugitives, they let nothing stop them. She saw their swords and axes flame bright in the storm of the battle, and she heard the terrible sound of steel on mail and helm, like hammers in the underworld deeps.
Ruana forced her way across the stream, striking and killing, a tide of giants at her side, and then the sun cut through the dying clouds and flamed on the tip of her spear, and the light was suddenly blinding, even for her. She closed her eyes, and she heard the enemy cry out, and when she looked again, they were fleeing, the dark army breaking apart and scattering away, leaving a harvest of dead upon the field like the mark of a flood-tide.
She planted the haft of her spear against the ground and leaned on it, breathing hard, feeling the air cold as water burning in her chest. She looked at the dead and saw they had slaughtered hundreds, and the long swords and axes of the Azora had wrought horrible destruction upon the bodies of the dead. Her stag came to her, shaking blood from its antlers, and it bent its great head to nuzzle at her, blowing steam from its mouth.
“Find Hror,” she commanded. “Find his body.”
The giants and men searched the battlefield, turning over each pallid corpse to seek the face of the usurper, but they did not find him. Carrion birds gathered in the skies, and Ruana called for them to build a great pyre. They must hold rites for the slain, and they would destroy the bodies of the enemy. She vowed no unclean flesh would feed the scavengers of the battlefield. She looked south into the forest. Hror was wounded, and his army was broken. She would follow him to the hall of Irongard, and there he would die at last.
Hror staggered through the forest as the night came, and he felt pain tearing at him inside, his wound eating away at him like venom. The golden spear had struck deep, and the pain was driving him mad. He had lost his spear and his sword, and now he reeled alone through the forest, seeking the sound of the sea.
He found it crashing and clawing at the foot of the cliffs, so close and yet beyond reach. He gripped his wounded side and looked down, knowing he had survived such a fall once, but he did not know if he could survive again. The power inside him, that had made him so strong, seemed to be broken. He touched his face and felt his flesh was cold, and the world seemed to be growing dark around him, as though his eyes were failing.
He clung to the edge of the cliff, gasping for breath and feeling as if he were already drowning, and then he saw something heave in the dark waters below. Coils lashed the waves, and he saw the glow of eyes that had beheld all the deep places. He steeled himself, and then tumbled forward and fell. The cliff rushed past him, the stones struck and broke his bones, split his flesh, and the last thing he saw was the fanged jaws of the worm opening up to welcome him.