When she grew old, Queen Ruana dreamed of the north. Around her she had caused a great hall to be raised up over the scorched bones of the old. The beams were hewn from the black oaks of the forest and the roof overhead was raised high, so that when the fires blazed the smoke lay in the air like storm clouds high above the heads of the feasters. Around the hall she had forged a kingdom with the strokes of her great spear. Giants guarded her throne, and her word was the law as far as a man could sail for a week in any direction. From the jagged coastlines of the southland to the deep forest in the eastern hills to the stormy seas in the west, Ruana was Queen, and she reigned for fifty years and some believed she would reign forever.
She knew she would not. Her hair had changed to an iron gray, and when she wore it in coiled braids it looked like pattern-forged steel. She still wore her heavy wolfskin cloak over the bright mail and the polished brazen bosses, but the mail was new. Her old armor, many times rent and torn, hung above her throne beside her splintered shield. She had earned those marks in battle against gods, and she bore them on her body as well.
Always close by her right hand was the spear that made her more than mortal. The straight haft darkened by time, the bronze blade transformed gold by power and by myth. Some whispered it must be a false spear, for nothing of bronze could shine so, and nothing gold could cut or pierce and yet take no mark. It was her sword and her scepter, and she had worn a place in the floor beside her throne where she was accustomed to set the spike as she held it and passed her judgments.
The war, that dark war that had almost sundered the lands of men apart, was now so far in the past that few lived who had seen it, save as children. Those who still bore the marks were gray and long-bearded, and they told the tales of that time with a darkness in their faces. War was still war, and men still shed one another’s blood, but that war had been unlike any other. That had been a war driven by dark powers, and now those powers were gone.
All save one, for Ruana herself more and more wondered at the source of her power, at the springs of her strength that still flowed. When she grasped the spear she felt a might in her, as though she might in truth live forever, and she began to doubt that the power that walked within her was any different from the dark ones she had cast down. She had begun to feel, with time, that all such energies must emanate from a single source, and that she, herself, might become a blight upon the world.
For now she was old, and she dreamed of the northlands, whence came her giants and where the Speargod had once vanished, to await another time of need. She brooded upon that now, when she woke in the dark to the simmering coals of her fire and the close, cold dreams of the ice-rimed seas. The Speargod had taken his power and his victory and then abandoned them to walk away into the uttermost north, and he was never seen again. Now she wondered why.
He was old, in those days, his beard grown white and long, his flesh drawing away from his muscles and his bones, until he seemed a man of sinew and cord. He had been a giant, in his youth, but his youth was past him. All who had come against him lay fallow in earthen graves. All save the gods themselves. The Undergods.
With the fire in his hand he had driven them away, the light that blazed from his spear. Sceatha, Marrow, Thurr, and the other, lesser gods. He had defeated their powers, and then by the light of his spear and the power ascendant within him, he had forbidden them to return to the light. He bade them crawl down into the earth, to hide themselves beneath the sea, and to remain so. He had made a promise to them, that if they dared to break his command, he would return and strike them down, and he would not be merciful again.
But he had not been merciful this time. He had been weak. Now he brooded on his throne, a fading titan, robed in gray furs and iron armor, always beside him the spear that was his companion and his law. Now he felt the weaknesses of age, and the lure of new life. A dark, new life.
Ruana sent for Umun, her wise man, and she saw that he was grown older as well, though the giants of the Azora could bear more weight of time upon their shoulders than men. His beard reached to his knees, and his hands were as gnarled and as hard as wood. He bowed to her, and she held out her hand and clasped his, feeling comfort in his presence.
He looked at her, into her eyes, and then he nodded. “You have begun to understand,” he said.
She was surprised, but also not surprised. “I have begun to wonder,” she said.
“And that is how understanding begins,” he said. “In the asking of questions.”
“Your kind did not always dwell in the north,” she said.
“No, not the utterest north. We lived in the black forests to the northeast. There we lived as monsters and killers, coming forth by night to devour men. We were a base and evil people.” He closed his eyes. “Thurr was one of our blood. One who would not give way when the Speargod came.”
“He forged you into something new,” she said.
“Yes, he saw our strength, and he gave it a purpose. He called upon us to live as greater beings, and he taught us to forge and to sew and to write, and so we became the Azora, and we are ever loyal to his memory.” Umun inclined his head. “And so we have followed you.”
“Because I have his power,” she said. “Because It came to light a flame in me, and you saw it.”
“Yes,” he said. “We had been waiting for it. For you.”
“But where does that power come from?” she said. “From what does it arise?”
“Ahhh,” he said. “That is the first question, indeed.”
He remembered when he first felt the power. When the storm came and covered the lands, and he wandered in the white haze, blinded and alone. The wind was biting and cold, and he gripped his fur around himself and hunted for shelter, seeking a way to survive. The world was aflame with war, and armies marched over field and pasture, and blood stained the land beneath their feet. New gods walked the world, and men lived in fear and worship of them.
He was only a boy then. A towering young man, full of strength of limb but not of spirit, and when the battle ended and his fellows lay slain, he fled into the wilderness, and into the cold storm. He wandered, lost, feeling warmth seep away from him.
It was a fire he saw, at last. Light blazed through the driving ice, and he no longer cared what fire it was, only that it offered shelter from death. He fought towards it, wading through the deep snow, hearing voices howling in the wind and knowing them for spirits in this night where wolves walked like men, and men fed like wolves.
He found a hollow sheltered from the wind, and there burned a fire made of heaped wood cast up from the sea, white and washed like bleached bone. He found warriors gathered around it as before an altar, hands outstretched, reaching for the flames, and every one of them dead and frozen like iron. He saw the white frost in their eyes and the sunken black flesh and knew they had been dead a very long time, and he did not know how that could be.
Howling came again, and when he looked into the dark forest he saw the lights of eyes among the trees. Feral yellow gleamed where it reflected the fire, and he saw shadows move with hunger. He stepped back into the circle of light from the flames, and he felt the heat against his back, giving him strength.
One of the dead warriors held a spear clutched in his frozen hands, and he took the cold haft in his grip and wrenched it free. He put the bronze spearhead into the fire, and when he drew it forth, it shone.
Ruana went into the forest to breathe the free air, and she stood with her spear in hands and looked out into the hills while the night drew down. She remembered another winter, when she had fled into the wilderness, hunted and alone, under a sentence of death. She had slain her husband, the king, so that the usurper could not take his life. She had taken his head and his sword both, and nothing else.
She remembered that season of fear. Hiding in hollows by night, afraid to make a fire, shivering with the cold. When she came to a hall she dared not go within, she only huddled against the walls outside, feeling the warmth that seeped through the wood. She had hunted birds with stones she hurled with her hands, and eaten their flesh raw and bloody. She had fished beneath the ice in streams, chopping through with the sword of kings and then grasping the sleepy fish with her cold hands.
She could not say, now, what had sustained her. When she flung the king’s head into the sea, she almost chose to follow him. To cast herself down into the waves and drown, be taken away, apart from privation and pain. It would have been the easier path, and Ruana had never been one to choose the harder way. But something had driven her on, something had made her decide to live, and then to avenge.
Now, as the daylight faded, she thought on the Speargod. She thought she understood, now, what he had been. Someone like her, someone touched by a power that reached through from some other part of the earth. He had become a hero, and then a god. But a man cannot be a god on earth, and remain a god. If he lives among men, their adulation and their need will come to weigh on him, as they did upon a king, only heavier. How many kings remained good men, once they were crowned? The hunger for crown and throne had driven more than one man to unhallowed deeds. The power of a god was more, and more dangerous. A king has dominion over men’s lives. A god has power over men’s souls, and that is too much power for anyone to wield.
She looked at the blazing spear in her hand and understood, then, what she could become, and what the old Speargod could have become, had he remained. Instead of becoming what he despised, he took himself away from the places of men, and became legend, rather than tyrant. And as he had done, so must she do as well.
Ruana called for her guards, and they gathered and followed her back into the hall. Now she knew why she dreamed of the far northern lands, of the frozen seas and the skies that flamed with colored fire. That was where her heart was called now, because that was where she must go. She must leave the world of men behind, before the temptations of power twisted and changed her, she must go while she was still herself. Her legend she would leave behind, and for men that would have to be enough.
When he was growing old, he slew a man. The power of the spear drew some ambitious men like beasts drawn to flame. They wanted to kill him, and take it. Many of them, most of them, saw the fire in his eyes and in his hand, and lost their courage. He saw the light die in their eyes, and they turned and fled from him, and no blood was shed.
But one of them was of harsher make than that, and he drew his bright sword and did battle. The bright spear pierced his mail and his breast, and clove his heart asunder. The fire reaved through his body, and it smoked in his eyes and from the tips of his fingers, smoke coiled from his mouth as though his spirit were escaping, and then he fell shriveled and destroyed.
And in that moment, he felt the power warm him, felt the fire that burned inside the man kindle in the currents of his blood and make him stronger. The tide of his age and frailty drew back a little, and he felt the pull for more. That was the secret of the power, the hidden face of the bright fire. It consumed, and in consuming, it would give him new life, and new strength.
He saw what he could become. There in his king’s hall he brooded on it, knowing then that this was the fate of one who wielded such a power. It would tempt him as he grew older, and weaker. It would dream in the light of the fire, offering him a respite from old age and from pain, and a shield against death. The power would make him immortal, if he was willing to kill to take it. And then he understood what he must do, lest he become what he had fought.
Ruana knew she could not simply slip away. Her departure must be a part of her legend, and so she called on her men to raise the mast of her warship, and she took only volunteers to the oar benches. It was the edge of winter, and the sea ice would be growing heavy, but she would not delay. There was no shortage of those who would accompany her, who would brave the dark and the grinding ice to sail with the Spear Queen, and she was glad of it. Her legend must sustain them now, like a fire kindled and left to burn through the night.
Many of the giants joined her, for they knew they would be returning to their homeland, but others remained behind, and she saw they would thread their bloodlines into the hearts of men, and make for a great race to arise in a future age. That could be for good or for ill, it was not for her to decide, or demand it.
The men and the oarsmen gathered and lined the path that led down from the hall to where her great ship was anchored, and she walked beside them, and they all bowed, one by one, and each one who bent his head, she touched upon the shoulder with the point of her spear, and she left a fire in them no eye could see, nor any cold extinguish.
She climbed to the deck of her ship, looking on the stout oaken deck planks and the tall stepped masts, and she watched as the oars were shipped and the great sail unfurled. The sign of the spear blazed upon the white cloth, stitched with thread of gold and gleaming even in the winter light. It caught the wind, and as the oarmaster beat the cadence, they left the lands of men, and sailed away into the dark sea. They sailed for the utter and legendary north.
He went alone, taking no one, and he seemed to have vanished into the darkness itself. He walked the lonely roads, he traveled through the endless black forests and the jagged hills. He crossed the wilderlands, and when he came to the black sea, he camped upon the cold shore and hewed for himself a simple boat to carry him across the waters.
He saw no one, and not even the howls of the wolves came close. He felt, in the dark nights, the presence of that other world, hidden within and beneath. The places where the Undergods slumbered, and would return someday. He knew they would return, for he had not possessed the will to slay them, and now he knew why. So long as he remained, they could return, but if he did not await them, there would be no one to stop them when they slithered forth from the dark once more.
So he carved himself a boat, and he struck out over the heaving seas of winter. He fought through towering waves and jagged ice; he fought cold and hunger and weariness, and always the blazing spear he held before him lit his way in the dark, and guided him like a star toward his destination. Toward the land that lay under an almost perpetual night, where the sky burned with fire and the cold was endless. There he would lay down his burdens and sleep. There he would await the coming age.
It was a deep evening when they came to the other shore, and Ruana looked upon it as she had once, many years gone. It was a dark land, not buried under snow, but a land of black hills and jagged stone. Deep green forests that clung to the land like fur, and beyond it all mountains reared high against the star-jeweled sky, white-tipped and absolute.
Ruana stood upon the prow of her ship and looked upon this place, and then she turned and looked on all those gathered on the deck. “Here I leave you. Remain, or return home, as you wish. But build your long halls upon this shore, and seek no further to the north. Do not look for me, for I will not be found. Only when I am needed, in another age, may I come again. You will not live to see it.”
She saw tears in some of their eyes, and she knew some would remain here, as the giants had lived for an age before her. But most would go back to their warmer lands, to their hearths and their families, and they would tell the tale. That was what would preserve them against the dark. They would tell the story, and her legend would follow them like a fire.
She said no more, only climbed down from the ship and waded to the stony shore, and then she left them, using her spear as a walking stick, the light glowing through the mist as she left the sea and the ship behind and climbed up into the dark lands of the last forest that girdled the mountain realm. She knew the way to follow, it seemed to be burned into her mind.
The day died, and night came with a sky afire with many colors. Ruana did not feel the cold, nor did she tire. She walked the paths of the deep forest where no man had ever walked, save one. She climbed among the ancient roots and the jagged stones, seeing no mark of any human hand. Here was a land that had been untouched since the ancient and primordial dawn-age of the earth, and it breathed and slumbered like a great beast.
She followed a trail made by the tread of animals, and she climbed high above layers of mist, until snow began to fall, dusting her fur cloak and her steel-gray hair. She reached a small vale marked by upthrust white stones, like the ones the giants used to mark their paths, and at the far end was a cavern, the opening a black rift into the dark. This was what she had come to seek. The spear flamed like a star in her hand as she crossed the stony hollow and entered into the cave.
Here the walls were armored with ice that never thawed, and her breath came forth in a mist. The light blazed as though she had brought the sun beneath the earth, and she followed it until it led her to a vast black chamber, and upon a bier of stone lay a giant of a man, cold and sheathed in ice, and in his folded hands was a spear with a brazen blade, the metal black with years.
She held forth her own spear, and his frozen eyes opened, and he moved, stirring from a sleep of ages. She watched as the ice cracked from his body, and he stirred muscles that had not moved in centuries. He rose to tower over her, and his eyes flamed with azure fire.
“Long have I slumbered,” he said, and his voice was breaking stone. “Who are you that bears a light to my cave?” He looked at her, and she saw the light of the spear reflect in his eyes.
“Another,” he said. “The age came, and I did not awaken. Another was called.”
“I was. And I have destroyed the Undergods. I have burned their darkness from the world, and now all that remains is you, and I.”
“So you have learned,” he said. “That we are given this power, and we may use it to destroy, but also to live.” He held up his black spear. “I turned away from the destruction of the Undergods. I let them live, that I might live. For I saw that to destroy them would leave me to become like them. I would be doomed, eventually, to give way to the temptation of immortality. I thought to escape that here.” He breathed out a cloud of mist like smoke. “I was a fool.”
“You were,” she said. “You should have slain them then. Uncounted more lie dead now because you lacked the courage to destroy them. Now I have come to put an end to all of it.”
“You will not,” he said. “I was not ready when I was young. I am ready now. Long have I dreamed. I have seen the ages of the world in my visions, and I know the world needs a ruler. I will take the power I spurned before. I will be the god the race of men requires.”
Ruana held up her weapon, the fire in it bleeding like molten iron. “You will not.”
He lifted his black spear to match hers. “As it must be.”
There, in the dark of the frozen cave, the clashed, unseen. The Speargod was a giant, his muscles like iron, and his flesh seeming hard as stone beneath his flowing beard. Yet Ruana was not weak, and years had not robbed her of her strength. Their spears clashed together, striking sparks, and the light flared there in the dark.
She struck at him, her blade scoring his flesh, leaving red-hot scars that did not bleed. He was not so quick as she, but his skill was great, and he tore her mail again and again, the edge of the ancient spear sharp and deadly. They battled in the darkness, striking again and again, until the ice upon the walls began to crack and sing from the force of it. Ruana gave back from his terrible assault, and then she slipped to the side so his deadly stroke cut across her ribs and pierced the wall, and in the moment when it was fixed there she brought her blade down and shattered the haft of his spear.
He staggered back, and in that moment she struck him through and felt the blade bite deep. He groaned and clutched at the flame, his fingers turning black from the heat. He opened his mouth and breathed out fire, and she ripped the spear free and let him fall.
The fire ran through him, unmaking him, burning away his flesh and his skin, until there was only a blackened skeleton, smoking in the cold air. As she watched, it began to turn to ash, and the Speargod was dead.
Weary and wounded, Ruana lifted her spear and struck at the frozen walls of the cavern until the ice broke loose and fell all around her. Stones splintered and collapsed the entrance, burying her in the cold earth, from which she never wished to rise again. She was done. She went to the place where he had lain, and she stretched upon the cold stone, lying the spear upon her chest, folding her hands around it. It flamed there in the dark, slowly fading, until it was only a spark.
The seasons went on. Winter became spring, and then summer again. Men went on with their lives. They tilled fields, herded their beasts, hunted and fished and loved and died. Women bore children and spun thread and told stories. And when the winters came down hard they all huddled by the fire within their halls, and they told the story that became a legend, and then a myth. The Spear Queen who came from the north with an army of giants. Who drove out evil and slew the usurper. Who cast down the dark gods and made the world a place for life again.
They forgot where she had come from, forgot who she had been; they even forgot her name. But the sign of the spear they never forgot. They marked it upon walls and doors, on altars and standing stones. They gave reverence to the mark of the Spear Queen, and they said that there would come a time when she would be needed once again, and that on that day she would awaken and come down from the north. She would live again.