Summer was the grave of light, and even though the days were warm, the sky lay heavy with iron clouds that walled away the sun. At night there remained a chill that bit and gnawed at flesh, and men hid themselves away from the dark and the things that walked there. It was the third year of the war, and the scars of armies and raiders lay across the land. Burned-out farm houses lay silent amid fallow fields and dead cattle, and even the birds in the trees sang softly, or not at all.
Balra walked the night outside his hall, pacing paths he could not see, only feel. It seemed his sight was dimmed save in the dark, and he leaned on his spear and limped with the pain of his old wound, the grievous cut given him by the man called Hror, his uncle who had become the scourge of two kingdoms.
The old king Arnan hung rotting from the roof-beams of the hall, and now Balra called himself the Wolf King and men bowed down to him. The Huntsman walked beyond the trees, and Balra felt the Undergod’s gaze on him, and he heard the howling of the pack beneath the hidden moon. By summer sun men should be tending the open fields and herding their flocks, but this year there was nothing. No man dared leave the sight of home to till the soil, and the wolves that came by night could not be stopped. This year would be a year of hunger, and of blood.
Balra walked to the high place, where the bluff looked down on the shore below his hall. There Hror had landed his ships three years past in the dead of winter and begun this war. Soon there must come a war between them. Oeric was gone, Arnan was gone. Warriors like Daganhurre and Haldr had sought to hold back the night, but it could not be done. The Undergods were alive, and they would devour the world itself. They ruled now, and nothing could prevent them. Now would be the spilling of blood for amusement, and for the taste of it.
He watched the cold sea roil and fold upon itself, the waves marching in toward the rocky shore and crashing into the teeth of the land, and then he saw something else move in the dark waters. Something coiled and thrashed, and then a human shape emerged from the water and walked onto the land as though following an unseen road. Balra felt the pain in his wounded leg lance like an opening boil, and he knew who had come ashore. He gripped his spear with bitter hands, and wolves inland howled for blood.
Hror came ashore cloaked in rage, his body cold and wracked with pain. His armor was encrusted with hungry sea-creatures and the blood from his wounded side ran black over his side. In his hand he bore a green sword dredged up from the grave of the sea, hung with black weeds and dripping brine. His single eye was afire with rage, and in his veins trembled the power that had been given to him, and sustained him.
He walked again the path he had followed once before. He came up from the shore and followed the foot-worn path to the headland, and there he saw another shape awaiting him. He knew him before he came close enough to see his pale, haunted face. His sister-son, the cause of this war, Balra, the son he had not sired and would not call his own. Pain roiled in him, and he seemed to feel each skein of his body as though it were made of fire. His wound would not close, nor would it cease bleeding. He believed his veins were empty now, and only the black waters of the deep sustained his life.
Balra came to meet him, walking like an old man, leaning on his spear as his wounded leg failed him. Hror reached up and dug at his empty eye-socket, remembering the night he lost it and began the bloodletting that had covered two kingdoms. He would spill yet more, before he was done.
“You are not welcome,” Balra said, his young face thin and hollow. “You came once before; this time you will not live to flee.”
“Your words are hollow,” Hror said, his voice thick, water spilling down his chin. “You stand as a lord, but your courage is feeble, and I do not fear you.”
He heard wolves howl in the forest, and then he saw something tall move among the trees atop the bluff. Something walked there, limping as on a crippled leg, antlers crowning its head like spears. Hror smelled the crude animal stink of it, and he could not say if that came from the Undergod, or from Balra himself.
“It seems you have found a new patron,” Hror said. “How like you to find a new lord to crawl before.”
“You do not see,” Balra said. “You come before me alone, stripped of crown and of thanes, wounded and pale-fleshed as the dead. Victory has brought you low, it seems.”
The sea crashed behind him, and Hror turned to glance down to the shore. In the stone-fanged shallows he saw the coils of Sceatha, endless and immense, moving like the waves themselves. It reared its vast head up from the dead water and breathed out a cloud of mist that stank of secrets and dead men. Hror showed his teeth in what might have been a smile – even he did not know for certain.
“You have your patron, and I have mine,” he said. “If we contend, we will see which one is the greater.” Hror dragged the heavy sword through the soil and marked a line between them. “There will be one king only. One. Bow to me, and you will be spared.”
“I will feast on your dead flesh,” Balra said, breathing fast. “I will cast you back into the sea.”
“Let it be war, then,” Hror said. “Let it be war.”
Balra gathered his warriors from where they huddled beside the fires. They slept by day and hunted in the dark, and now he roused them to go forth into the low twilight armed and clad in iron mail. They tore raw bites from the corpses of butchered sheep and chewed until the blood ran down their beards. They heard the howls of the wolves in the black forest and they howled in answer. They marched forth from the bleak hall and down toward the sea, where a single shape awaited them.
Hror stood at the place where the waves divided land from sea, and he leaned upon his decaying sword and watched his enemies come forth to meet him. Swords beat against shields, spears rattled like bones, and howls rose from the men like the voices of human wolves. He showed them his teeth and stood alone to meet them, and then a coldness cut through the summer dusk.
A chill wind blew inward from the sea, and the waves surged and lashed against the land. Ice distilled from the air and drifted down, growing like fractured glass on steel blades and polished helms. Balra’s men hesitated, and they looked to sea and saw a haze lying low over the wave-tops. Within the mist something stirred, and they saw the shadow of a black ship, the arching prow hung with jagged horns.
Hror lifted his sword and laughed at them. “Come! Come and die! Men of Balra, you are hungry for blood, and I will give it to you! Come and taste your own lives on my sword!”
“Usurper!” Balra spat. “Coward and killer! This day will finish you!”
Hror spat black venom on the sands. “Then finish it!”
Balra gave a great cry and his warriors rushed down the hillside toward the lone figure that awaited them. They gave cry with their swords and axes uplifted, bellowing through their bloody teeth. They charged down upon the shore. A great shape coiled in the water, and then the sea gave up her dead.
Shapes moved in the shallows, and then rose from the rushing waves. Dead men, pale and cold and crawling with unclean sea life, rose from the water and shambled onto the land. They clutched swords rusted into jagged shards, spears with hafts black with mold. Empty eyes stared out from beneath corroded helms, and their mouths yawned voicelessly as they marched to the commands of their unliving queen. Marrow, the White Maiden, watched from her ship, her face veiled with cerement to hide her all-hungering visage.
Sceatha the worm roiled in the black waters, his power setting green fire blazing upon the fallen swords and spears of the drowned. The children of his sister, the Cold Lady, marched to his purpose, and now he would have the war he desired.
The howling men of Balra rushed upon the strand, and the dead met the living in a threshing, seething line of fury. Steel and iron rang together, and the flesh of the dead and the drowned was riven and torn. The waters at the edge of the sea turned red with spilled blood and were heaped with the slain and the severed, groping limbs of the dead.
Hror towered through the battle, his great sword in both hands. It was long as the blade of a giant, and with all his unnatural strength he brought it down in great sweeps that clove through mail and flesh and bone. Every stroke brought a groan of agony from him, as the wound in his side twisted and clawed at him, like the blade of that blazing spear were still embedded in his body.
He broke the line of the attack with his own strength, scything down men to either side, leaving a tide of the slain in the shallows, and he trod on them as he forced his way inland. He saw Balra above the fray, watching from the hillside, and he howled his fury and his pain as he hacked through to reach him. The mortal men could not stop him; no matter how they hammered against his armor, their swords turned from his flesh, and they fell before his blade as grain before the reaper.
He climbed the hillside, and he felt his might ebbing as he left the sea behind. The sea was where Sceatha’s power resided, and while it touched him, it filled him with strength and life, drowned the pain in his will to conquer, but when he left it, he weakened, and he snarled in rage as he felt it.
Balra hung back, allowing his warriors to close on Hror and try to drive him back. He cut down two with great strokes of his blade, and scattered the others as he bellowed terror into their hearts. Balra stood alone, and Hror saw the fear in his eyes and hated it. This cowardly boy’s life was a stain upon the world, and he would wipe it away.
He rushed on him, and Balra lifted his spear and met him there at the summit of the hill. Hror struck and struck at him, but the boy king fended him off with the long-bladed spear, tried to catch him on the point and drive him back. Hror felt the blood running from his wound and he snarled through the pain, fought on with grim tenacity, but his strength was failing.
Balra sensed his weakness and pressed him, spear lashing like a striking serpent, and the blows rang on Hror’s armor and staggered him. He heard howling and looked upward, and there he saw the gathering of the hunger wolves, eyes glowing as they watched him, and beyond loomed the black shadow of the Huntsman. The warriors had broken at the shore and were coming behind him, and Marrow’s sons would not follow away from the sea.
Hror had to give way, or he would be trapped. He cursed and struck once more at his enemy, and the heavy blade cut deep into the soil of the hill and split it, and Hror felt it crumble beneath him. With a sound like roaring the hillside broke away and slid downward to the sea, and Hror rode it down, bellowing his wrath. The rushing earth buried the men closing in behind him, and then he was dragged under and swept downward and into the sea in a spray of water and stone.
Balra stood at the top of the broken hill, breathing quick, watching to see if his uncle would return, but there was only the slithering of Sceatha in the shallows, and he jeered and brandished his spear. The ship of Marrow withdrew into the mist, and he laughed aloud. The wolves howled behind him and he knew he was protected. The powers of the sea could not defeat him here. He was the Wolf King, and he would reign unchallenged.
Night fell, and Balra sat within the dark hall and ate raw flesh. Nothing else satisfied his hunger now, only the taste of blood and death. The fired were banked low, only simmering coals, and the men huddled around them like sleeping wolves. The dark howled for them and he smiled, though it was a cold feeling on his face. He found he thought of nothing else but death now. He took no pleasure in fine food or sweet mead, felt no lust for women or for anything but killing.
The doors to the hall were always open now, letting the night air breathe around them. He liked the smells of animals and the scent of blood carried from the forest where the Huntsman walked. Balra’s wounded leg pained him and he winced, touched the scar that had never fully healed. The wind turned colder, and he heard a rushing sound, like the voice of multitudes.
Slowly he stood from the throne and took up his spear. The wind pushed against him and fluttered the flames in the oil lamps. He listened, hearing a great sound that became a deep rumble, shaking beneath his feet.
“Rise you fools!” he shouted, running for the doors of the hall. “Rise and seize your arms!” He passed the men as they pulled themselves from sleep, and he stood in the open doorway of the hall and looked down, to the shore, where the moonlight silvered all.
The sea was gone, drawn away from the beach, leaving the rocks naked and fish struggling and gasping in the mud. He saw the outlines of sunken, rotted ships buried in the silt, the bones of the dead and the bodies of the newly-slain lying side by side in the muck of weeds and shells. The earth trembled beneath him, and the wind blew harder, and he looked beyond the shore, and he saw there the waters gathered like the walls of a fortress.
For a moment he could not understand what he was seeing, and then the sea rushed for the land and fell on the shore like a collapsing wall, and he felt the shudder of the impact through the ground beneath his feet. The rocky strand was obliterated, and the frothing waters crushed the trees and the stones and cast them aside as if they were weightless. The sea climbed the hillside, and then it washed over the edge and poured toward the hall.
Balra staggered back as water lashed around his ankles. It flowed into the hall itself, and he heard the men shouting and the hissing of the fires as they were quenched. He saw a coiling, monstrous shape in the dark, a single eye open and staring at him, and then the stench of sea-rot came like a blow, and the sons of the White Maiden rose from the black deeps and came for them all.
He howled and met them with his spear, striking and striking again, rending their rotten bodies with the strong iron. He cut them down, piercing throats and severing limbs, and then his men were there with him, howling like the wolves in the hills as they cut and hacked with their swords. Before the doors of the hall they met the assault and cut down the unliving while the black sea washed around their legs, rising higher and higher.
A wave struck against the front of the hall, heavy with trees and rocks, and like a great hand it smashed the timbers and crushed the men. Balra was tossed backward, rolled in the cold wave, and then he fought to his feet before the throne, his spear gleaming with witchfire in the utter dark. He saw the glowing eye of the sea-worm himself, and then the wasted form of Hror dragged himself from the water and waded to meet him, encrusted sword heavy in his hand.
“Enough of this, boy!” Hror bellowed, water running from his lips. “An end to it all! All!” He heaved up his blade and struck, and then he struck again. Balra met sword with spear, and sparks and fire blazed in the darkness of the flooded hall. The lesser doors broke beneath the power of the waves, and the sea heaved as Sceatha battered down the other walls. Beams snapped and fell around them as they fought there in the surging black tide, and Balra cried out in his terror.
“Huntsman! Huntsman, I call you, save me! I have worshiped you! Save me!” He fended off his uncle, falling back, feeling undead hands grope for him beneath the water. The sea had risen to his waist, and he felt it pulling at him, trying to take him off his feet.
He heard howling, and then a pillar of fire erupted in the forest. He saw there the towering shape of the Huntsman with his spear ablaze, and the wolves gathered around him bellowed with their eyes like fire. Balra looked and saw the sea had not risen further up the slope, and he knew if he could reach the land, he would live.
Balra fought his way through the flood, struggling as he tripped over unseen obstacles, drowned men and drowned trees. The water seethed around him, and he fell. He thrashed to his feet again and then stumbled against something that did not yield. He clawed at it, and then he saw it was the throne itself, half-submerged and slick with weeds and blood.
Hror came for him, and he turned at bay as the waters began to recede. He felt a lift of hope, realizing that the powers of the sea could not trespass upon the land forever. They grew weaker with every moment, draining back to the hollow bed of the waves.
He struck a terrible blow with his spear and saw witchfire blaze and spark when it met Hror’s drowned sword. They strained together, face to face, and he looked into Hror’s single eye, seeing nothing human there, nothing akin to him. This was his mother’s brother, and he seemed now like a monster, pale-fleshed and one-eyed and with his teeth bared in the green glow of the flames.
“I will be king,” Hror snarled, never slowing as he drew back his sword and smote against Balra’s mail with terrible strength. “I will be king!” The stroke was like the blow of a hammer, and it rent his armor and sent him stumbling back. He braced himself against his throne and struck back again and again, looking for the opening he needed to flee.
Hror struck one more time, and Balra’s spear shivered into pieces with a flare of sparks. He cried out and fell against the throne, flung up his hands to ward off the end, but there was no escape for him. The sea sword came down, cleaving through his fingers, and then it chopped into his neck where it met his shoulder, and blood gouted forth. In the fell light of the corpsefire, it looked black as rot.
Balra clung to the throne, feeling the wood dig against his skin, feeling splinters sink into his mutilated fingers, but he would not let go. Blood rushed over him, and his sight dimmed. He saw Hror lift his sword again, and he choked on a mouthful of blood. “My mother curses you from beyond death,” he croaked, and then the sword came down and beheaded him, and he was no more.
Hror wrenched the sword from the wood of the throne, the waters washing around him as they receded from the hall, flowed back toward the sea below. He looked up to where the Huntsman loomed in the dark, spear a flaming brand, and he lifted his sword and screamed out his fury and his challenge. Sceatha coiled behind him, and the dead marched to the commands of Marrow, the Cold Lady. He waited for the coming of the wolves, waited for the contest of god against god.
The Huntsman stared down at them with blazing eyes, and then the fire of his spear went out in a moment, and he turned away. His gaze vanished, and Hror heard the heavy tread of his feet as he strode away into the hills, abandoning the field, refusing the battle.
He cursed, feeling cold down inside, save for the clawing pain of the wound that would not heal. He touched himself there and felt the flesh becoming scaled as it grew over the injury, but it did not stop the blood. It would make a scar over the hollow, but it would not truly close. He seethed with anger that had no end, feeling blood and salt water pour from his mouth like the slaver of a beast. He had his throne now, and men would gather for the power he promised, for the strength of the old gods.
He looked down as the water ebbed away, and he saw Balra’s severed head rolling at his feet. The son of his sister, for whom he had been exiled. The last thread of her that remained. Slow, trembling in his hands and in his mouth, he bent down and touched the bloodless face, and he gave a long groan of grief, stealthy and undimmed, like a deeper wound.