Iron waves pounded the shore as the fleet of the Spear Queen came to land once again. The hulls ground upon the stony beach as each warship carved a furrow with its ram and rested from the long sea journey. The ships were shield-lined and dragon-prowed and scarred by fire and battle, but they had come across the wide waters though death and the wrath of dark gods to bring battle at last upon Hror, the Usurper.
Ruana was first to spring down from the rail and splash into the cold surf. She felt the waves lash around her legs and she waded to land, setting foot upon the country of Hadrad as an invader, and a conqueror. She had been driven from her home, endured terror and privation and battle and now she came at last to mete justice upon the one who began it. It had been almost four years since Hror came ashore and began the war which had consumed the kingdoms; now at last she would put an end to it.
The warships flung out lines and drove in their iron anchors, braced up their hulls with oaken beams, and her army disembarked and gathered there on the long shore. Giants there were, the old race come down from the northlands to follow the spear, but most of her warriors were the people of Vathran. Men and women, graybeards and young men, mothers and maids. They had been driven into the edges of the world to survive hard winters, hunted by evil men and the powers that drove them, and now they were come in their strength, steel-clad and armed with sword and shield and spear.
Ruana climbed up from the fallow beach of rounded stones, up over the dunes fixed with scrub grass and scattered with dead flowers, and there on a hillock she planted her spear so that the sun shone through the scattering clouds and blazed like fire on the blade. She looked up, through the late-summer mist that hung upon the hillsides and the secret vales. There, upon the hillside, stood the great black scar that had been the hall of the king. Now it was nothing more than a ruin, marked by fire and by death. There was no throne here to take, and yet her enemy awaited somewhere near; she knew he would not flee from her. He would fight.
She saw a figure coming near, moving slowly over the narrow path that climbed up from the sea to the hills, and she waited, not certain whether it was enemy or no. Nearer, she saw it was a woman, tall and broad-armed and with shoulders like a bull. She moved as though crippled, leaning upon a broken branch and carrying no sword or axe. Her blonde hair was dirty, and her tattooed face was drawn with pain, yet her eyes were filled with fire.
“Who comes to harrow this land?” the woman said, and Ruana left her spear rooted in the earth and stepped close to meet her.
“I am Ruana, who was queen of Vathran, and then outlawed. Now I am called the Spear Queen, and I have slain gods and men to stand here. Who are you?” She was wary, for this woman was almost a giant herself.
“I am Valura, called the Axe-Bride, for I would have no lord save steel.” She came closer and bowed stiffly. Ruana saw there was old blood staining her mail and her cloak. Her skin was ashen, and she looked near to death. “I also have slain a god. Thurr the Corpse-eater will come no more, for I hewed him and blinded him and cast him into an abyss.” She looked around at the ships and the gathering men. “You have come to finish Hror, the Usurper.”
“I have. I have faced him twice before in battle, and the third time shall be the last.” She held out her hand. “I know the name of Valura. Come and join with me, for I have need of strong arms and bright hearts.”
Valura took another step and then stumbled and fell to the grass. Ruana went to her and bent down. Valura’s face was twisted with pain. “Forgive me, Queen, but my war is done. I contested with a god, and what battle could ever be greater than that? I came seeking the clean sea, and a place to die. I came seeking someone to hear my story and tell it, so I will not be forgotten.” She breathed deep. “I was wounded deeply by the giant, and it is the will of the Spear that I have lived this long.”
She held up her hand, and Ruana clasped it, feeling the terrible strength in those fingers. “Raise a cairn over me, so that the beasts do not eat my body. Tell the tale that I slew a god by my own hand. I hewed him with my axe until it broke, and then I set him afire and put out his eye with a cast of my spear.” She winced. “I was already wounded, and no one ever threw a spear as I did – the strength of my own body tore my wound deeper, and now I can no longer withstand it.”
Valura pulled Ruana down to her. “Hror is close. I saw signs of his men in the hills, heard their chanting and howling in the night. He waits in the forest, he waits for the dark, and then he will come for you.” She licked blood from her teeth. “Break him, cast him down. Cut his corruption out of the world.”
“All those things I will do,” Ruana said. “I swear it.”
“I beg you, give me an axe,” Valura said. “Let me bear it away with me. An axe for my hand.”
Ruana called for her men, and one of them brought a great axe and gave it into Valura’s hand. She gripped it tight and held it close against her chest, breathing harsh and slow, and then the light in her eyes blazed one more time before it faded, and then she lay still upon the ground.
The queen stood and looked down at her in admiration, and regret. She beckoned. “Come. Bear her up, and raise a cairn there, upon the headland for her body. Here is one I shall regret never stood as my own, but she slew a god, and we shall honor her.” She looked up to the hills. “Work with speed, for when night comes, we shall have battle.”
Hror waited for the light to die. He held his last court here beneath a black oak, upon a throne of roots and scorched bone, and he shied away from the sun that filtered through the skeletal branches. His skin had become white as wax, and his armor was grown over with jagged sea-life that squirmed and bit and would not die. His armor had become his body, and he felt the wound still in him, the bloody place where the Spear Queen had marked him, and he knew it would not heal until she was dead.
Here were gathered the last of the men who followed him. Killers and hunger-dogs culled from a dozen lands, outlaws and world-rim walkers. Kinslayers and outcasts, killers of women and of children. There were men who had eaten the flesh of other men, men who worshipped fire or blood as though it were a lover, men who did not sleep, but only screamed when they tried to close their eyes and rest.
A ragged army, but one that hungered to kill, and he would give them that. He saw the fires of the enemy encampment bloom as the sun was devoured by the sea. He saw a great pyre blaze on the headland, and he knew that Ruana had come. He cursed himself, now, for failing to kill her years ago. He had never dreamed she would survive, much less arise in might and come against him. It was the chaos of war that made things possible, that lifted men from what they had been and made them great. It was the promise of the world. That a man could carve a new fate with the steel in his hands.
Hror felt the void where once a voice had whispered, and he knew. He knew that Sceatha the Great Worm was dead, cast down into the dark, never to arise again. He felt the power that drove the Spear Queen forward and made her weapon shine and burn. If there were dark powers, then there must also be powers of fire and light, and now she was on a crusade to cast down the dark.
Yet there was a voice, now. A different one, and it did not speak to him; it only muttered, and crooned. He felt a promise in it, in the strength that still fed his body, even with his great master slain. The blood of the Undergod still flowed in him, still guarded his skin from blade and arrow. He understood that some things have power even in death, and he understood that there was yet a path for him. How were the Undergods born? That question pursued him. Giants of the ancient ages before man rose and learned to impose his will. Sea-beasts that lurked in the deeps and hungered for flesh.
Some of the Undergods had been these things, indeed. Had been things other than human. But some did not seem so. Some, like the Hunter and the Cold Lady, stood and walked as if they had been born something else, as if they had once been mortal, even as he had been. Even as he was not now, not entire. Now he was becoming something else. An embodiment of hunger and wrath and hate that lurked in the dark. He could be born into another life, an endless life, and immortal life.
The sun darkened, drowned beyond the edge of the world, and Hror stood from his dead throne. Where he touched the earth it died, and he left black prints upon the grasses that bloomed in the waning summer warmth. There was no heat within him or near him, only the cold of a drowned man. Only death lay close beside him.
He took his great sea-blade up and held it high, setting ghostly blue fire to dance on the edge, and the men saw him and they drew their own axes and swords and they brandished them high, and they gave a howl of battle-lust that echoed in the black forest. They screamed for war and the freedom to slay, and he would slake it. He set forth, and they gathered in his wake like a wave, following the cold fire of his sword down from the hills, to the fire that called for death.
They came down from the hills like a tide of madness, and Ruana stood with her warriors and awaited them. She was dressed in her war-gear, with her bronze-banded helm and her salt-scored mail. On her left arm was the great shield and in her right hand she held the spear that blazed like the summer sun. She stood upon the hill crest that rose beside the scorched hall, where another battle had been fought against Hror, and lost.
Behind her waited her army. Giants in their scaled armor with their tall helms that hid their faces, shields like a wall and their great, broad swords and long-hafted axes. The men and women of Vathran were there as well, shields rim to rim, spears bright in the glow of the fires. Bonefires blazed and lit the dark, and non brighter than the great fire upon the headland beside the stone cairn of Valura, the Axe-Bride. The giants had raised a ring of stones to mark her grave, and the shadows of the menhirs stretched forth like an open hand to ward off the dark.
Ruana saw them come like a shadow out of the ageless forest, the gleam of blue witchfire on every spear and sword-blade, the light of driven men in the eyes that gleamed behind their helms. Here were those still mad enough to follow Hror, goaded onward by hatred or hunger or the ache for killing and death. Their howls were like an endless scream of agony, and it shook the very air.
Hror came through the darkness, a cold blue titan wreathed in flame, his single eye and empty blaze of light, and the dark sword in his hands jagged as a hungering sawblade. Wherever he trod the earth blackened and died, and she felt the force in him wash over her like a freezing wave. She had though to find him diminished after the death of his master, but instead she found him greater than he had been, aflame with a dark new life.
Ruana beat her spear-haft against her shield-rim, and in answer her army pounded out answering rhythms. They shouted and bellowed and held their steel to the sky, and then, on the darkened ridgeline, they met the enemy in a death grip. The sound of battle joined was like a great gnashing of teeth as lines of spears clashes, as shields were rent and splintered, and swords and axes clove flesh and iron and bone.
She carried her spear into the dark wave like a flame, and she plunged it through mail and saw the dead men burn with it, breathing out fire as their eyes blazed. She killed and killed, and she battered them back with her shield and then struck them as they tried to stand. The bodies of the slain seared and then began to burn, and they made a smoldering bulwark around her, a strongpoint for her men to rally to. They held their line, hacking and cutting down the enemy, meeting their wild charges and hurling them back until the hillside was thick with the fallen.
Then Hror came through the madness of war, his sword sweeping left and right, cutting down his own men to make a path through them, and his sea-blade dripped with blood as he killed. He blazed with a ghostly fire, and she felt the cold that emanated from him. She thrust her spear forth against the flood-tide of his darkness, and then they met in battle once again.
They clashed at the very crest of the battle, borne up on the wave of fighting men, of swords and shields and cries of blood and hate. She drove against him with her shoulder braced behind her shield, and felt the terrible impact as they crashed together. He hewed at her, and his sword bit into the rim of her shield and rang on her helm. When he wrenched it free, she battered it aside and then lunged in with her spear poised, felt it skitter from his dark armor.
He struck back, again and again, and they fought in a whirl of red and blue fire, the light from her spear like molten iron. He cut pieces from her shield with his great blade until the stout wood split apart, and then she threw aside the pieces and faced him with spear in both hands, watchful and deadly, seeking an opening. He was taller than she, and stronger, but he was hampered by his heavy stride and by the blind spot where she had put out his eye.
She hunted him, circling, and when he struck too hard she evaded the blow and moved onto his blind side. He turned after her, but before he could counter she drove in with all her power and felt the keen blade bite deep. She plunged the burning spear in where she had wounded him before, and he howled with fury. Even as she tore her weapon free he smote her upon the helm and dashed her to the ground.
Her warriors surged in around her, and she staggered to her feet amidst the tumult of the battle. The sound of it was tremendous, a hammering and screaming wall of madness, and then Hror’s light was gone, and his men broke apart in his wake. Ruana felt the pressure suddenly fracture, and then the dark army was streaming back toward the forest, leaving hundreds slain upon the summer grass. Ruana looked for the corpse of the usurper, but saw only a stain of black blood upon the earth, and a trail that led away through the heaps of the dead and the dying.
“Wait here for me,” she said, setting foot upon his path. “I will make an end of him.”
They did not give way easily, for they wished to go as well, but she would not take more of them into death. Only she could destroy Hror, or be destroyed. All others would be powerless before him. She would ask no one else to pay that price. It was hers.
She went into the dark, the flame of the spear in her hand, and she followed the trail of dead and the marks of the black blood upon the soil. She followed the usurper into the forest, hunting for the end.
The bloody path was not hard to follow, and she saw more dead left behind, lying still and blood-soaked on the thirsty earth. At first she thought they were wounded fallen out along the way, but then she saw them with their throats slashed and their entrails spilling out, impaled upon broken tree limbs or wedged among the branches. They bore looks of horror upon their dead faces, and she knew them then for what they were. Sacrifices.
Yet there was no god remaining for Hror to give offer unto, no dark power that remained to drink blood and feast on men’s souls. There was only the usurper himself, and then she scented it in the dark air of the night. She understood how the undergods had come to be, and how they might come again. Some had been creatures born of an age before humanity, driven to feed on mortal blood and grow strong. Ultimately some men became so empowered, and they too left behind the tethers of life. Unhindered by death, Hror was making sacrifice to himself, and pouring out blood and despair to feed his own hunger. He was seeking the path rod by the Huntsman and the White Maiden. He was becoming a god.
She could smell him, the crawling dragon smell of his blood. Her spear hungered for more, and she dug the angry, hot blade into the earth and smelled the copper stink as it seared away his black ichor. She followed him through the trees, losing her way, knowing nothing but the reek of blood and the light of the spear. She passed more and more bodies, bones hung in the tree branches, and then she came at last to the edge of the world.
Here was the brink of a great estuary, the stony cliff plunging down and down, and there were scattered the last of Hror’s followers, ripped and gutted upon the rocks, their blood flowing down the cliffside to the heaving waters below. The moon was a splinter in the sky above, and she could see nothing, but she would not let him go.
Fearless, yet with her heart thundering, she hurled herself out into the dark, hearing the night tide thundering against the cliffs in the gulf below. She cut down through the air, her spearpoint a falling star, and then she plunged once more into the cold waters and fought to the surface. There was a sound like the very earth breathing, and she saw a great opening, a cave mouth in the cliff wall, awash with the blood-salt waters of the sea. She turned and struck toward it, fighting through the waters until she felt gravel beneath her feet, and then she waded into blackness.
The cavern yawned like a fanged mouth, and she followed it in, deeper and deeper, until all that remained was the blaze of her spear to guide her through the dark coils of the earth. She waded from the waters and then stood upon wet stone within a hidden vault, and she saw the witchfire glow of the usurper, and she knew that was what men would call him, should she fail.
He waited for her, grown massive and hulking, now fed on the blood of the dead. His mouth was black with gore, and his single eye glowed like a cold star. He rose from a heap of skulls turned to stone by long, dripping aeons, and he heaved up his clawed sword, and he breathed forth a cloud of mist. She felt the coldness from him, saw the water turn to ice where he touched it, and she saw what he would become. A thing skulking in the earth, cold and hungry. An eater of flesh, like the White Maiden. A devourer of kings, an enemy of light and law. A thing that crept from the dark to gather worshipers and sow chaos.
There were no words between them, no calls for mercy or surrender. She came against him, and he loomed in the dark like a giant, faceless save for his black-dripping mouth and his single eye. He struck at her with his sword, shattering the stone when she danced aside, and then she rushed in and scored his hand with her burning spear, drawing black blood and smoke from his flesh. He roared and slashed at her again, the edge sparking against her helm and ripping it from her head. She felt blood running down her face, all but blinding her, as she ducked aside and lanced his knee, bringing him crashing down.
He tried to raise his sword but she brought her foot down upon it, and the ancient, rusted steel snapped in half. All she could see of him was the flame of his eye, and with a stroke of her spear she put it out. His scream of pain shook the cavern, and stone daggers broke loose and fell from above, shattering like glass. Ruana shook the blood from her eyes and plunged in, and her spear-haft bent like the stave of a bow as she drove it through his wounded side for a third time, and this time it pierced mail and bone and rooted in his heart.
Hror heaved up, clutching at her, seeming to diminish, to fall in on himself. He gasped out a great flood of black ichor, cold as the sea, and she saw his face a final time, shocked and terrified and pale. As though the man he had once been was awakened within his tormented body and recoiled from what he had become. She felt the stroke of his heart shudder through the haft of her spear, and then it was still, and he fell back and away from her.
His body sprawled upon the pile of petrified skulls, and his cold blood flowed like a stream into the water. She ripped her spear free and smoke rose from the wound, glowed in his flesh like hot iron. She took the edge of his helm and drew it off his head, cast it aside. With his own black blood she made the mark of the spear upon his brow, and then she saw his flesh begin to smolder, and burn.
Weary beyond ages, Ruana left him there. She bore the spear with her back into the water, and swam out through the blackness once again. She followed the fire upwards, until she broke free and climbed gasping from the deeps. The night was alive with wind, and clouds raced across the dagger moon. She smelled a storm coming, and that was good. A storm would wash away the blood and the stink, the stains of war and death. Grass would grow, crops would return, and there would be life again.
She wished to vanish, now. To simply go away into the hills, to leave only a legend behind, and to become, in time, a god herself. One spoken of, but never seen. But she could not do that yet. There was too much left to be done.
Ruana climbed the steep cliff, clawing at the white stone, until she reached the edge once more. She followed the waters back to the sea, and as dawn broke she stood upon a hilltop and looked upon her armies encamped there, awaiting her. She saw the ships drawn up to shore, the fires burning and smoking as the sky turned light. Away across the seas a thunder called, and she held up her burning spear to the sky so that all might see. Lightning scarred the sky above, and voices came to her from below as they saw her, and lifted up a shout that carried into the dawn.