Who Walks With Death
‘Soth!’ Jormungard cursed, gazing upon the scene in abject horror.
Even for one of his years and experience, the sight that greeted his unblinking eyes sickened him to the core.
To die as soldiers upon a battlefield – men who had met their ends with honour in mortal combat, their souls shriven, ready to be claimed by the raven’s feast – that was what every warrior of Farrhold hoped for. Either that, or to die in a drinking binge such as was spoken of in the ancient sagas of the Farrmen.
But women and children, ripped to shreds, viscera strewn about the farmstead like Solstice garlands? No man of Farrhold wanted to see that – none but the depraved, cannibalistic cults of Namarr – and never was that more true than in the case of Jormungard of the House of Vanyr. The massacre of innocents was something he had hoped never to set eyes upon again.
‘Soth?’ his companion challenged him.
Jorm looked to the other man. Thorkill was squatting on his haunches, casting an experienced eye over the scene, hoping to pry its secrets from what the tracks and other bloodied signs told him.
‘This wasn’t the work of the worm god, although he will eat his fill this night. A beast did this.’
‘You were always handy with a sword, young master,’ the older man laughed coarsely, ‘and you know your way around a bow, but you don’t have a tracker’s eye do you? You never did.’
Jormungard grunted. ‘That’s what I keep you around for.’
He had been a man these past five winters and yet still the grizzled veteran spoke to him sometimes as if he were a mere stripling. And he certainly wasn’t that. He hadn’t been that for a long time, not since he had sworn vengeance against the slave-servants of the death god for the slaughter of his family. It was such slaughter that he had never wished to see again, and yet here he was…
‘You see this, here,’ Thorkill said, pointing with a hand thick with rings at a blood-filled impression in the ground, ‘and here?’
Jormungard forced himself to cast a critical gaze over the scene of the massacre once more, trying to see beyond the blood and gore, and faces forever frozen in shock and fear in its aftermath. He could see the prints, now that Thorkill was pointing them out. Whatever had made them was large, larger than a bear, and, more disconcertingly, the footprints looked to be closer to those of a man than anything else.
‘What do you think it was?’
Thorkill breathed in through his teeth. ‘Of that I’m not sure.’
‘A troll,’ Jorm wondered aloud, ‘leaving its mountain fastness in search of food in these bitter months?’
‘Maybe.’ Thorkill sounded unconvinced.
‘You’re sure this wasn’t the work of… raiders?’
‘Such savagery? I very much doubt…’ Thorkill broke off, seeing the look in the younger man’s eyes. ‘You think Namarrans did this?’
‘I have only seen savagery such as this once before,’ Jorm pointed out, the memory of his family’s massacre overlaid upon this one in his mind’s eye, crystal clear in every minute detail.
‘No, this was the work of an animal. See these wounds? They were not made by a keen-edged blade. They were made by an animal’s claws.’
Silence descended between them again as they examined the disembowelled bodies of the farmer and his family. An axe lay by the farmer’s side, as did the purple-grey ropes of his spilled intestines. Whether the blood on the axe’s blade was that of the farmstead’s attacker or the farmer himself, it was impossible to tell.
The silence was broken by a cry, bestial and savage – a sound like death and rage and hunger – that rang out around the bowl of the valley. As one, the two men looked to the misted slopes above and then at each other.
Jormungard and Thorkill exchanged glances. Thorkill held Jorm’s gaze with a steely look, as much as to say, ‘Told you so.’
The echoes of the cry faded but it was still several moments more before either of them spoke again, or Jorm’s sword hand strayed from the hilt of his scabbarded blade.
They stood in respectful silence, as the flames caught hold, and watched as the sun sank beyond the far horizon. By the time they were done, night had fallen. And so, warmed by the bone-fire, the two men rolled out their bed-rolls and settled down to sleep beyond the ruins of the farmstead.
It was not until they were readying themselves for the off, with the return of the sun the next morning, that Jormungard saw the brooch, trampled into the blood-sodden earth, sunlight flashing from its polished surface.
‘No!’ He stooped to pull the object from the abattoir mud. ‘I know this brooch.’
‘Whose is it?’ Thorkill asked, hefting his pack onto his back and settling its weight across his shoulders.
‘You know him too,’ Jorm said, passing his companion the bronze leaf. ‘It belongs to Sven of Skarrsgard.’
‘Sven of Skarrsgard? That drunken reprobate, who joined us in cleansing the Morrow Mounds of the half-dead that had made it their nest?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘The Morrow Mounds where we chanced upon that talisman wrought of star metal? The talisman that Sven insisted on keeping for himself?’
‘The very same. He saved my skin more than once that day, do you remember? And yours. He must have been here too.’
‘And judging by the way the brooch was trodden into the ground, he was either here before the attack commenced or he was here during it,’ Thorkill mused. ‘But I doubt he was here after.’
Jormungard’s expression was one of concern. ‘A man does not easily lose such a fine cloak clasp such as this.’
‘But it is something he might lose in the heat of battle.’
‘So he was here and faced the beast himself?’ Jorm’s complexion paled. ‘His body was not among the dead.’
‘Then there is hope for your friend yet,’ Thorkill said, ‘although he clearly did not slay the beast here either.’
‘No,’ the younger man agreed, ‘but who’s to say he did not wound it, or that he is not running it to ground even now. Or that he has already done away with it!’
At that moment the same animal bellow they had heard the night before boomed out across the valley. Mist still clung to the slopes rising above them like marsh-gas over the Daromarr Fens.
‘The beast still lives,’ Thorkill hissed. ‘Of your friend, I wouldn’t like to say.’
‘Then we must hurry,’ Jorm said, his tone brokering no challenge.
Fog lay thick upon the peaks of the craggy hills as if it were a living, breathing thing that had claimed these lands as its domain.
But something else had claimed these marcher lands as its territory these last three months. The Doom of Farrenfell. The creature the superstitious folk of these ancient lands had named ‘Who Walks With Death’, Nam’karill in the old tongue. The bestial thing Jormungard and Thorkill hunted even now.
The tribal Marcher Kings might claim that these lands fell within the bounds of Farrhold, but out here, in the foothills of the Dragomyr Mountains, the truth of the matter was that in reality no man could claim dominion over so bleak and isolated a place as this.
These lands belonged to the Wyld, and the Wyld had hunted in the hills and valleys long before the Kings of Dromgarr and Farrenfell had braved these uplands in search of gold and precious timber.
The Wyld had been here before the Men of Farrhold and it was here now, in the form of its avatar, the beast, and it would dwell here long after Farrhold had joined the honour roll of lost empires.
‘We’re close.’ Thorkill stopped, sniffing the cold, damp, air. Jormungard inhaled deeply and caught the whiff of animal musk, of heaving flanks, gore-clogged fangs and malevolent intent.
‘I know this place,’ Jorm said, his voice barely a whisper.
The shadow-shapes of menhirs solidified to become a cluster of standing stones, as a gust of wind dragged the clinging mist from the looming cromlechs.
‘Yes,’ Thorkill agreed, breathing in through his teeth again. ‘I know these stones too’ – he gazed up at the lofty megaliths – ‘although I do not think we have been here before.’
The rising wind continued to clear the vapour from the top of the crag, exposing the scree-slopes and hummocks and dew-dappled moss-covered earth beyond.
‘No, we have not been here before,’ Jorm said, his words quickening with apprehensive excitement, ‘but we have seen this place, from afar.’
‘After the cleansing of the Morrow Mounds,’ Thorkill said darkly. ‘I was so preoccupied with following the tracks through the mist I had no sense of the place we were in.’
‘Until now,’ Thorkill agreed.
Later, Jormungard would seem to remember that the mists darkened at that moment, as if the shadow of Namarr’s hand had fallen across the ancient stones. What there was could be no doubt about was that the shriek of carrion birds made him start, and even the steely Thorkill look round in surprise. Only it wasn’t hill rocs, or even carrion crows that were suddenly assaulting their position upon the peak.
The figures came at them out of the persistent mist, between the stones, their ragged, feathered robes streaming out behind them, making them look like a murder of crows, screeching their avian war-cry.
Jormungard went for his sword. Thorkill’s blade was already loosed from its sheath and ready in his hand.
They were confronted by a host of pallid faces, pinched with cold, dark veins throbbing beneath waxy skin, teeth sharpened to needle-sharp points. And the owners of those horrid faces clutched claw daggers in their bony hands.
Jormungard tensed as his mentor dropped into a fighter’s stance, legs braced, knees bent, ready to meet the cultists’ charge.
Namarrans, thought Jormungard, and his blood ran cold. He had been right all along. But knowing that didn’t make him feel any better. All it did was to bring back the memory of that day, the one he had fought so hard to suppress; the scene that had greeted him upon returning home from hunting with Thorkill, his father’s bondsman; the blood-splashed cobbles, the straw wet with gore, the courtyard gutters blocked with viscera.
Thorkill met the leader’s charge with a rising block. The man shrieked as his bear-claw dagger scraped across the cold steel of the huntsman’s blade. He shrieked again as Thorkill swung his sword free and, two-handed, brought it round, the blade meeting the man’s wildly flapping cloak and scraping against his ribs, its keen edge dulled by the coarse fabric within which it had become tangled.
The Namarran shrieked again, although with rage rather than pain, or so it seemed to the dumbstruck Jormungard. And then it was the cultist’s turn to swing wildly at Thorkill as another of his number closed from the right.
With an impassioned cry of ‘For Soth!’ Jormungard ran to meet the Namarrans’ attack, his sword raised high, ready to be brought down in a sweeping slash at an exposed neck or unprotected belly.
A cultist met his furious, wild-eyed stare, with a crazed, bloodshot gimlet gaze of his own, red-rimmed eyes sunken in the grey-ringed orbits of a skull-like visage. The cultist opened his black-lipped mouth wide and screamed in Jorm’s face.
Jormungard had faced goblins and even an ogre in battle, but he couldn’t help being unnerved by the cultist’s inhuman shrieks. Channelling the blood-chilling fear he felt, as he stared into the face of one who had already given himself to death in mind, if not in body, Jorm struck with his blade. But the Namarran was ready for him.
The madman raised his left hand, and the knife clasped within it. Jorm felt his arm jar as the blades met. He felt the power in the rangy man’s taut muscles as the cultist trapped his sword between the bear-claw blade and the hilt of the dagger, twisting Jorm’s arm round and down, even as he brought the second dagger, ready in his right hand, down in a stabbing motion towards Jormungard’s own unguarded neck.
Moving just as quickly as the cultist, Jorm brought up his left hand up from his hip to meet this second attack, unsheathing his own steel-edged dagger in one fluid action as he did so.
He caught the descending bear-claw in the prongs that flared from the base of the blade where it slotted into the hilt. Having halted the dagger’s descent, he brought his now freed sword up once more. The muscles in his arm tensed and he grunted as he sliced the keen edge of the sword across his attacker’s belly, feeling it meet resistance as the death-worshipper doubled up and fell backwards, his raven-shriek now nothing more than a gurgling death-rattle.
Jorm kicked the dying Namarran away, turning his attention back to Thorkill. His companion had despatched his attacker too and was already engaged in combat with another of the cultists.
They had only been fighting for – what? – a few minutes? And yet Jorm could already feel the acid burn of effort in his arms. Sweat was running from his scalp and into his eyes, forcing him to take a hand from the hilt of his sword to wipe the saltwater away and clear his vision. But his own body was doing its part now too, the blood quickening in his veins, restoring strength to his straining muscles, the natural instinct for survival strong within him.
They were still outnumbered, and worst of all the cultists had managed to cut them off from each other, as well as having them surrounded. Tactics and combat strategy seemed to count for little among the Namarrans, but a savage berserker approach to battle more than made up for what they lacked in terms of strategic thinking. All that mattered to them was the here and now, the brutal melee of the moment, another opportunity to feed their deathless master more souls. And if that proved to be their own, so be it.
The most dangerous opponent was one who had become heedless of his own fate.
Shrieking like carrion birds at the raven’s feast, the cultists renewed their attack. They swept down upon the companions, as if on night-black pinions, raven-wing amulets and finger-bone necklaces flapping and rattling about their necks.
The bestial bellow cut through the banshee screams of the Namarrans, the lingering mist, and the grunts of effort made by the beleaguered friends.
The beast came at them from out of the fog, wisps of vapour clinging to its massive frame, its fur as black as a moonless midnight and stinking of death, all muscle and rage and murderous intent.
Twice as tall as a man, and as broad across the shoulders as it was tall, it the apparition put Jormungard in mind of one of the great apes he had heard tell of in far-fetched mariner’s tales of the strange creatures that dwelt in the sweltering jungles of the south.
Slabs of muscle moved beneath the monster’s pitted hide, and its arms were corded ropes of black meat that spoke of devastating strength. It was as if the night had taken on corporeal form, shadow given solidity, the bowel-watering terror of every man’s nightmare made flesh.
The Namarrans scattered as the monster hauled its bulk between a pair of tilted standing stones, their crow-cries transforming into shrieks of fear. It seemed that, much as the crow-cultists were keen to send the souls of others to meet the lord of death, they were not so keen on meeting their god in person after all.
Jormungard’s heart raced. Namarrans pelted pell-mell towards him, offering only a desultory defence against his half-hearted attacks, both sides preoccupied by the appearance of the beast within the stone circle.
‘Commit!’ Thorkill yelled as he gutted a fleeing crow-man, drawing the keenly-honed edge of his blade across the belly of his fleeing foe.
Commit, Jorm thought. But to what? ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ he muttered breathlessly to himself. But which one was his enemy? The beast they had been hunting or the necrophiliac cannibals whose kind had slaughtered and violated his family, and who now threatened to take his own life in the name of the foul god of oblivion?
Jormungard quickly surveyed the killing ground bounded by the ancient stones and made a tactical decision. Even if he took the beast to be on their side, and considered its presence akin to having another three men fighting for him, the Namarrans still outnumbered them three to one.
Hefting his sword in both hands, feeling the muscles of his arms sing now with the thrill of the fight, Jormungard chose his target and charged.
The Namarran’s flesh was grey as ground ground-up bone meal, and hairless. The only colour anywhere upon his body was in the envenomed veins rising proud of its his neck –visible as the tracery of a spider’s web upon its his head – in the red-rimmed whites of its his eyes, and the livid purple scar Jorm could see describing a jagged path from the cultist’s shoulder, across the man’s torso, down to his left hip.
The man’s robe hung loosely open at the front, tied at the waist by a cord of glossy black hair – the man’s own hair, if the stories Jorm had heard about the cult were true. The scar could have been an old injury – there was something about the parchment-cracked skin of the man’s Namarran’s face that could have placed him at thirty, or forty, or even fifty – or it could have been a ritual scarring, the legacy of another of the cannibal cult’s vile practices.
Bellowing a wordless war cry, Jormungard swung his blade. Fast and strong, the cultist matched the blow with a sabre cat-fang dagger.
The man pulled himself in close, bringing Jorm face to face with his enemy. Jorm could see every detail of the unholy wretch’s face, from the black veins pulsing at his neck, to the stabbing tip of his tongue thrusting between teeth filed to pike-like points.
Glancing past his opponent, for a moment Jorm’s gaze met the berserker-crazed stare of the beast. The brute’s chest and shoulders heaved, the breath escaping its misshapen mouth in great snorting gusts. But in that instant it seemed to Jormungard that they shared a flash of understanding, both man and beast together. Or was it more than that?
Jormungard brought his knee up hard. The Namarran doubled up, his grip on the knife weakening. It was a simple matter then for Jorm to finish the cultist with the dagger still gripped in his left hand.
Another came at him then, a crow-black cultist with a livid ritual brand-mark burned onto the left side of his face. In his bony hand he carried a club studded with sabre cat teeth – teeth not unlike those that filled the malformed jaws of Jorm’s bestial ally.
Jormungard’s blood was ablaze now and no longer frosted by fear. He blocked the cultist’s wild swipe and caught the man’s crotch with a sharp kick. As the man collapsed, Jorm brought his knee up sharply into the other’s face, with bone-crunching force.
Another crow-cultist crumpled under the ministrations of Thorkill’s blade, the cannibal’s body suddenly as limp as a marionette whose strings had been snipped.
Unleashing a blood-crazed roar, the beast tore a man in half, casting the bloody tatters of his carcass aside, stinking offal spilling across the churned mud as it did so.
With shrieking crow-men ranged all about him, Jormungard lost himself in battle, living only from one sword-stroke to the next parrying defence.
And then, abruptly, there were no more Namarrans left to fight; no more cannibals to kill. They had all been sent to meet the master they had so revered and feared in what had passed for their squalid little lives.
The three allies – Jormungard, Thorkill, and the beast – stood where they had fought, panting for breath, staring dumbly at one another as realisation dawned; not one of the crazed cultists had escaped them. Whatever the Namarrans’ intention in luring the hunters here, it had failed – unless their plan had been to commit suicide by inviting slaughter at the hands of others.
But now Jorm’s gaze lingered upon the hulking beast. It stood, with shoulders hunched, resting its weight on its fists, its massive barrel chest heaving, steam rising from its sweaty flanks.
The beast looked at him, and Jorm could not resist its furious gaze.
What he saw there chilled him to the core. He felt the same sense of kindredness that he had felt before when he first laid eyes upon the creature.
Was it that he saw something of himself in the beast, a darker, untamed side to himself that was slowly emerging as he continued to pursue his quest for vengeance? Or was it something else?
The mist was lifting from about the stones more quickly now, as if somehow the Namarrans’ own dark nature had perpetuated its continuance somehow before. A spear of sunlight pierced the dissipating haze, bathing the ancient stone circle in its golden radiance, and in that moment something flashed silver, grabbing Jorm’s attention. It was something at the beast’s throat.
The beast winced in the light and put up a shaggy-haired arm to shield its small, dark eyes from the sun. Jormungard sensed Thorkill tense, ready to fight again if a change in circumstance called upon him to do so. Jorm didn’t move a muscle, his eyes transfixed.
At first he wondered if it was a collar of some kind. Or was it a chain? The longer he peered at it, the more it looked like a chain.
Entranced, unwittingly Jormungard took an unwitting step forward. The beast gave a grunting bark and shied away, taking its weight off its knuckles and rising to its full height, snapping Jorm out of his trance-like reverie.
Jorm froze. The chain had cut into the creature’s flesh, giving rise to a raw, and clearly still suppurating, wound. And strung upon its gore-encrusted links, half buried in the meat of the monster’s neck, was a disc of dark metal. A talisman.
He met the monster’s gaze once more. There was something there, behind its unblinking eyes. Something akin to human intelligence.
‘Sven?’ Jormungard gasped. Unable to help himself, he took another stumbling step forward.
The beast started, its black lips curling back to exposed blunted tusks, a guttural growl escaping its constricted throat.
Jorm tensed, his grip on his own bloodied blade tightening. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Thorkill take a step forward too.
The beast suddenly rounded on them. For a moment Jormungard thought they were going to have to put an end to the creature there and then.
Giving voice to another angry bark, the hulking beast turned and bounded from the circle of stones, loping away on all fours, chasing the departing mists from whence it had first appeared. Jormungard and Thorkill watched it go.
At long last, when all that remained of the beast’s passing were twisting currents in the hazing fog, Jorm turned to his companion, a look of utter disbelief on his face.
‘Did you see?’
Thorkill’s eyes narrowed. ‘See what?’
‘The chain! The talisman! The beast is… was…’ Jorm faltered, struggling to find the words, a part of him unable to believe the truth he was attempting to utter.
‘Sven of Skarrsgard?’
‘Once, maybe, but not anymore.’ Thorkill’s words were like an icy dagger to the gut. ‘The corrupting power of the talisman has changed him. Now he is Nam’karill, ‘Who Walks With Death’.’
Jorm looked from his mentor back to the enveloping mountain mists. If Sven was the beast, and it had been the dark power of Namarr that had changed him so horribly, reshaping his physical form, then had it been mere coincidence that meant caused the beast had to arrive when it did, when they needed its brute strength and savagery the most? Or had Sven purposely led them to this place, at this time?
Had Sven witnessed the massacre of the farmer and his family at the hands of the Namarrans? The injuries Thorkill had taken to have been caused by an animal’s claws could equally have been caused by the cultists’ bear-claw knives and sabre-fang weapons. Had the slaughter of those innocents in truth been the handiwork of the death-worshippers, as Jormungard had first suspected?
Clearly enough of the man the monster had once been remained for the Sven-Become-Beast to understand that it could not break the Namarrans’ power over it without the assistance of others, but also knowing that once that power was diminished, it might too have its revenge.
But Jormungard knew he could not leave things like this between them. Sven had become a creature born of corruption, altered by the death-dealing power of Namarr. He would never be human again, and the longer he remained an animal, the more like an animal he would become, losing whatever semblance of humanity currently remained within his magic-warped mind. It could only be a matter of time before the beast killed again, and next time Jorm could not be sure it would only be death-worshipping cultists that fell victim to its untamed wrath and savage hunger.
No, he could not let his former friend go on like this. He owed him that much.
A mournful howl cut through the chill air and an icy breezy shifted the inconstant mists again. And there, atop a rocky tor on an escarpment above the standing stones, the beast crouched, its misshapen head thrown back, howling its challenge to the skies.
The Sven-Beast was waiting for them.
Jormungard, with the assistance of his mentor Thorkill, would meet that challenge, so he now swore. And when the time came, they would not be found wanting.
For to die in battle, meeting his end with honour and his soul shriven, that was what Sven Skarrsgard would have wished for. That was what every warrior of Farrhold wished for.
‘He who hunts his enemies with revenge in his heart walks with death. And he who walks with death shall never find peace.’
– old Farrmen saying