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In the Shadow of Everwös

By Ken McCoy All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Fantasy

A Savage Tale of Ahlgrim Thale - First Hellrazor

The many days that have passed between that time and now I cannot say, but time has not clouded my reason or recollection.  Like a deep fever-dream, unshakable even after wakening, the struggle unfolds for me now in the telling, and my blood chills and my nostrils fill with rancor of that hell-swept evening.  But in the recollection I am saved anew, for I have lived to tell the tale, and many a mariner greater than I have not been accorded such fortune.

Our long ships, the Iceqaard, the Windblade, and the Sea Wulf, their oaken-timbers anointed with the blood and sweat of our ancestors, each bore threescore fool-hardy sea devils into the winds of the Icevale and the mercies of Hler.

We set sail out of Thule, into the icy-black waters of the North Sea, thereby to challenge the great Agarthan Ocean.  Our purpose?  Men—Men of Asgard—need not have a purpose, other than to smell the salt on the waves and feel the wind on our faces.  Fortune finds us, fools or not.  Hler chose to favor us with subdued seas, at least at the onset.  With the wind in our faces, we took to oar:  The going is harder in the summer with the wind from the west, but the sea is most calm, and we of the North are strong of back.  Moreover, it is considered ill fortune to begin a journey under sail.

The Sea Wulf was our flagship, where I stood as helmsman, under the leadership of Hargut Rul and navigation of Vingoff the Seer.

Vingoff took it as a sign of promise for the coming adventures, that the sea was so accommodating to our presence by day and the stars reckoned so brightly by night.  Spirits ran high on board each ship.  Soon, we would steer our course southerly along the Wild Coast of Gondorrah’s western shores.  Then, on the third day, the wind changed and with it our fortunes.  The northwind gales rushed down upon us and, that morning  a raven, black as pitch, blew head long into our sails.  It fell to the deck.  Dead. 

By moonrise that evening, we were struggling to keep on course, even though the wind filled our sails, were being pushed towards the horrid coastal shoals.  Days of rowing into the wind had exhausted the crews and it was with grim desperation then, we attempted to outride the gathering storm.  As the weather’s brew worsened, we had to lower sail, lest the masts snap from the strain.

The blackened seas churned froth and the salt spray cut at each man, as our vessels were tossed up and plunged down in the violent maelstrom all about us.  The wind cut the eyes and the salt burned the flesh and the gales drowned souls and hearts of every man.  Most would spew their guts in such a storm, but not the valiant crew of the Sea Wulf, nor the other in our armada—nor any man of Asgard!  For we are hardy and strong stock.  We welcome the opportunity to cheat or meet Hell.
Man lashed himself to man and to our ships, each moored to the other in the line to keep the convoy together.  It became impossible to tell the difference ‘twixt night and day, as the sky ran a darkened twin of the violent sea below, save for the flashes of lightening that made plain the hell all around us, as Donner and Hler played their games.
The time that passed cannot be reckoned, save that a day expired with every blink of the eye, and each tortured pull of the oar, an eon.  Every able-bodied hand took a spell on those decks and pulled those beams, until sinews burned as hot as coals and the lungs shrieked to callous winds.  Yet no man yielded to the fury about us and no hands were lost.

Vingoff lamented our misfortune in vicious vitriol to Hler, who, whether through warrant or whim, took no heed and instead loosed upon us the scourge of the deep—the great white devil.

Hargut was the first to   spy it, gliding like a blazing specter beneath the black abyss beneath our hull.  Massive, the very length and more of any of our ships and nearly as wide at its middle.  It circled the doomed convoy.

Before the alarm could be raised, the beast was upon the Windblade.  A mouth of knives burst from the waves and tore the ship in two at middeck. In a single lunge, half a dozen men disappeared into the white beast’s savage maul.  The Windblade capsized as the great fish ripped about the deck.  The sea became a blood-soaked foam of peril, as the monster slashed about with chasm-like jaws.  The men aboard began to frantically attack their bonds that mere moments before had been their salvation against the storm, now certain death ‘neath the crashing tide.  I’ll never tie myself down again—let the wind and wave have me!

As the Windblade descended it pulled the Icegaard and Sea Wulf towards each other.  The two ships so close as to be dashed to splinters in the fray.

I, having been rowing, cut myself free of the tethers that bound me to the planks, and rushed to the bow of the Sea Wulf.  In the icy blackness I could see the devil fish disappear in the depths.  The survivors of the wreckage were shouting for aid, and in that sea who could fault them?  I could feel the Sea Wulf tip downward and the figurehead creaked and groaned, as the weight of the Windblade’s aft pulled against the moorings.  With every ounce of effort in my straining thews, I drove my axe into that line and severed it, releasing our ship from its anchor of doom.

I grasped a line from the deck and cast it into the pitch, towards a struggling comrade.  I began to pull him to the ship, when I was pulled from the deck in the flash of a bolt.  I plunged deep into the swell, as the speed of the circumstance caught me with a vise-like grip on the rope.  The burning cold water brought me to my senses, and I let go of the rope.  Was the man I had seen still caught in the tethers?

A flash again from above told me now—he’d been eaten alive!  The great maul loomed before me, spread wide enough to swallow six men whole and more; the rope caught in its rows of razors.  In a heartbeat it swept over me like an avalanche, pushing me past its teeth, before those terrible jaws could clamp shut.  The thing was clearly more suited to prey of larger size, but none with greater tenacity than I.  For in me, Ahlgrim Thale, the fish had met its match in ferocity.

Freeing my axes, I drove them deep into the thing’s tongue, the picks holding me inches from the vicious entrance to its gullet and the hidden horrors that surely lay beyond in the beasts dark and bloody belly.  The gurgled and drowning cries of my mates echoed up from down within and my effort was redoubled.

The thing tossed and turned and rolled, trying to expel its deadly morsel to no avail.  Though my lungs sheared for lack of breath, I clung to the hafts of my weapons, driving the picks deeper and deeper into the flesh of the fish, the gushing rivulets of its own blood driving its insatiable appetite into mindless fury.

Then, the monster dropped its jaws impossibly wide, an expansive hole that could devour the world, expelling splinters of timbers and gore of dismembered men, some still with life left enough to scream in the madness:  a vomiting exodus rushed over me as the great white devil purged its catch in an effort to wash me free.  The horrific jetsam of the beast served its purpose, spitting me out onto the deck of the Sea Wulf.  In its fury, the beast had severed its own stomach and left it on my ship.  This great predator, unmatched in the Seven Seas, now tasted something none of its kind had ever known—pain.  Now, it wanted revenge.

Making a pass on the starboard side of the Sea Wulf, it snapped the tips off oars as it dragged its open maw across them, breaking twigs as it sailed at lightening speed.  As it turned to come back, its mouth and lifeless black eyes bore down on my ship.  I gave the order for the oars to be raised mid-stroke.  The great beast drove itself heedlessly towards the ship and straight into the jagged shafts of the broken beams in each sailor’s hands.

The thing ran itself through, but death came not quickly.  The fish rolled violently, thrashing in a mute dance of dying rage.  I gave the order to release the oars and the great fish sank beneath the waves, a crimson trail mixing in the wrath of the old god’s playground.

But the victory was not long in the lasting, as the storm-sea rose anew, seemingly rejuvenated by its fresh feast of the monstrous white devil, and both Sea Wulf and Icegaard were separated and shattered in the swells of the rising squall along the Wild Coast.

--The Chronicle of Ahlgrim Thale, God-King of Gondorrah

Ahlgrim Thale found himself a shipwrecked sailor, washed ashore on the Wild Coast, lost in the woods of Avernioch.  Months earlier, the Canaanite mercenary abandoned his northern home of Thule with forty other souls seeking to plunder the wealth of the untamed coastline along the Agarthan Sea.  Now folly was his fortune, cast about the craggy shoals of the westernmost edge of Gondorrah.

Thale scavenged what he could from the flotsam along shoreline.  Finding no kin surviving, he tread southward along the strand as far as he could, before the need for fresh water drove him into the tree line skirting the lonely beachhead. 

Thale moved deep into the woods.  His raven mane, braided into a single rope, ran between his sinewy shoulders.  Two smaller tassels separated his beard.  A leather jerkin stretched across his powerful chest, exposing the mighty thews of his arms.

In one hand he clutched a hunting bow, while the other pushed away the thicket before him.  A double-edged war-axe hung over his shoulder.  A quiver of three meager arrows hung at his hip.  He considered himself lucky to have retained or recovered what he could in the wreckage.

The dense canopy overhead stole the sun.  The wood was lush and overgrown and all about the forest floor sprouted a verdant sheen.  The air clung with rich blends of humus, nectar, and dew.  For all its beauty, the atmosphere was hindering to the Canaanite, more used to the crag-encrusted plateaus of his homeland.

When the cries struck his ears, Thale’s blood brewed. He bounded towards the calls of distress.

Thale discarded the bow.  His axe found its way into his vise-like grip.

He found six men cloaked in green-gray cowls; they carried a woman bound like an animal on a spit.  She could not have been much of a burden, Ahlgrim Thale thought; the girl was but a wisp.

Armed with polished yew staffs ornately fashioned with wrought metal and smooth stones, the two leading the pack seemed to will the wood away from their path.

Thale halted their parade.

“Six on one, and a girl no less,” Ahlgrim Thale growled, “Should have bound her mouth.”

The hooded men stopped.  A bent septuagenarian amongst the younger woodsmen peered from behind a green hood, a thin liver-brown smile creased a cragged face.

“The witch bit through the bridle,” the aged voice was oily and warm.  “She’s a poacher caught in sacred glens.  There’s no concern for you here, northerner.”

“Aye, but there is, woodsman.  It would seem I am as guilty as she,” Thale held up a stringer of three hares.

“Keep your catch, boy, and be gone!  This witch hunts far more dangerous game,” the old man’s manner abruptly changed, intoned with a chill that set Thale’s hair on edge and his temper aflame.

“Old man, what I hunt now, you would take without giving fair chase,” Ahlgrim Thale braced, hefting the axe in both hands.

The leader took up his staff and stood back.  The two men at the feet of the girl dropped the pallet; iron swords appeared from beneath their cloaks.

The old leader spoke softly, “Kill him, and be quick about it.”

Thale did not hesitate.

He stepped forward and locked blades with the leader’s guard; two armed woodsmen moved on either side of the mercenary.

The guardsman recoiled from the blow of Thale’s axe, and he fell across the man flanking Thale, impaled on his comrade’s weapon.

The Canaanite broke the blade of the man to his right; the axe split steel and skull with a ringing crack.

Thale caught a guardsman’s swing by the wrist.  Dislodging his axe from the splintered skull, this new assailant’s fingers disappeared on the backswing.  The woodsman howled, his drowning agony cut short by a stroke through his throat.

Splattered in their kinsmen’s gore, the remaining woodsmen discarded the pallet and fled.

Thale stopped the woman from falling flat-faced inches from the mire of the forest floor.

“Fool, to your fate!,” the Avern leader warned, his withered features now revealed fully from beneath his lowered cowl.  Upon his wrinkled brow festered a strange sign, either burned or tattooed, Thale could not discern, in a sickly yellow.  The old man’s eyes glared:  a helpless milky-violet orb saw nothing; a green eye of crystal clarity seared Ahlgrim Thale in its gaze.

Thale’s left hand withdrew a dagger, but the old man turned and was already disappearing into the darkwood, raising again his hood as he withdrew.

Thale lifted the girl to his eye level.  She was a red-haired waif, with wide lips and viridian, fearless eyes.  Her face was streaked with woads in what Thale reckoned were runic forms of some import, devotions to gods he neither knew nor heeded. 

Her body was wrapped tightly in fur-lined, boiled leather.  She was pleasing to look at, Thale thought, but guessed she was a lion when crossed.

Thale pressed his lips against hers.  The kiss was returned, followed by a vicious bite.  Thale jammed a finger against the bloody rent in his lip.

“Payment of services rendered,” Thale laughed.

The warrior cut the girl free.  She stepped away, rubbing the rutted flesh around her wrists.  She was tall and thin, but muscled.

“Does the poacher have a name?”

“Felwyn.  Mac Rhayne,” the girl’s voice was strong and clear.

“So, Felwyn Mac Rahyne, what game do you seek that raises such ire?”

The girl gave Thale a hard look.

 “The Everwös,” she whispered.  “The black heart of Arawn.”

Thale’s brow furrowed.

Sidhe,” she said again, even softer than before, as if her voice would conjure calamity.  “Nephilim.  I’m a soul reaver.”

Thale laughed dryly.

Felwyn snapped back.  “You think three lay dead here because they wanted to stop me from taking hares?”

“Why men are moved to take a life ...,” the sell-sword grunted, “is no concern to me, girl.  Gruel is gold to an empty gut.

“What are you after, then?”

Felwyn dropped to her knees and dug her hands into the earth. As she did, she spoke quietly.

“These creatures, they come from the underworld.  They lurk in the shadow’s edge along the forest.  They draw children to them with promises of food and warmth,” a wind as cold as Strobilus’ peak passed through Ahlgrim Thale, though the underbrush did not stir.

“In hell-spawned haunts, they feast upon those they’ve lured into the wood’s dark heart.  Clan Mac Rhayne hunts these demons.  The others?  They would barter with them.”

Felwyn lowered her head, exhausted.

“I will set us a fire, girl.  You need to eat.”

Thale tossed a wine flask to Felwyn and walked off into the woods.  When he returned, Thale discovered Felwyn had already skinned the hares and had them on a spit over a smoldering hearth of stone. 

“It will take time for the fire to catch,” Felwyn smiled slightly.  “But there are other was to stay warm.”

Thale, captive to Felwyn’s eyes, abandoned reason and the two blazed together furiously, until darkness and other hungers overtook them. 

“Thale,” Felwyn whispered, her face flashing skull-like in the licks of flame, “you are a man.  Not like those weeping curs ruled by fear.  Hunt with me.  Together we can build an army.”

“You have strange ambitions, girl,” Thale laughed.  “And you share them too readily.  What do you know of me?”

“I know of ways to bend the world to our favor, to reap reward from the ground and grave.  Earth is the deathbed from which all life rises.  The army I can raise, but I need you.  To command it.”

 “I will hunt with you, woman,” he said at last, and the two entwined until exhaustion overtook them both.

At dawn, Felwyn led Thale deeper into the darkwood.  Into the Forest of Arawn.

“Here, Ahlgrim!” Felwyn called.  “Here is where we hunt!”

Felwyn found a flat stone as big a man.  She scoured the face of the rock clean, then sent Thale into the bracken to collect an odd assortment of ingredients:  berries and newts, leeches and toadstools, spider silk and snakes, honey and feathers.

When he returned, Thale found Felwyn inscribing incomprehensible forms on the stone’s surface, etching them with a flint.  She took the objects Thale gathered and mixed them in a divot lined with mistletoe and rabbit entrails.  Precisely measured where her arrangements and movements.  A incomprehensibly controlled ritual that dumbfounded the warrior Thale and made his head throb.

The witch then told Thale where he would find sap as black as night and thick as blood. 

“Go.  Coat your blade,” Felwyn hissed, and, confused but compliant, the barbarian wandered off.

Hours later, Thale returned. 

Felwyn had finished her inscription, a winding spiral of cuneiforms alien to Thale’s eyes.  She sat now entranced in the center of the stone, chanting in a language unknown to Thale, her voice growing more hoarse with each refrain.

Thale tired of this prancing in the woods, and he ached for Felwyn’s attentions, but she had grown cold.  Thale took it upon himself to start a fire, when the edges of the forest began to encroach darkly upon each guttural croak of Felwyn’s voice. 

Still, Felwyn sat on the stone uncaring or unaware of all around her.

Thale slept fitfully through the night and as if in a fever-dream, awakening now and then to see Felwyn on the stone, sometimes mumbling, sometimes shrieking, sometimes quiet as the grave, and he would turn away and wish for the dawn.

Thale awoke suddenly, gasping for breath.  Above him hovered a creature, pale skinned in the aspect of a women, but much smaller.  A flurry of motion beat the air behind the she-thing, the thrum of invisible wings.
The creature considered the savage-giant with a giggle. 

“Swing!” Felwyn’s voice barked, breaking Thale’s trance, “Swing, savage!  Cut it down!”

With no thought, Thale lashed out with his axe, striking the she-thing in the arm.  It screamed at the open fissure, a rent that flowed smoky tendrils fouling the air and choking Thale's lungs.

Felwyn leaped from the rock, thrusting the pixie down to the forest floor.  The faerie’s face now a gaping orifice of brute fury, an unearthly cry vomited from its lips.  The thing’s hands became bone hooks, and tore rents on Felwyn’s back, but the wood-witch’s ferocity rose to match, and she dragged the creature to the runic rock.

As soon as the Sidhe touched the stone, it fell dead.

Felwyn squatted over her kill, heaving heavily, gulping in air.

The forest was still.  Felwyn leaned in close to the she-thing on the rock, as if listening for dying whispers.

The flight of an arrow ripped the air and Felwyn shrieked.

Thale raised his axe to find its head had decayed to a frail lattice of rotten metal and brittle wood, and, before he could retaliate, his world went black with searing pain.

Ahlgrim Thale awoke in a cage of leather-bound boughs and weighted stones.  His head throbbed from a blow.  His arms were yoked to a timber.  Heavy stones dangled on leather straps from his wrists and ankles.  Movement was a chore.
Though they were incarcerated separately, Thale shared a cage wall with Felwyn, who sat curled in a corner.  She looked up and laughed at her lover, then cried.  Her shoulder bore a bandage where an arrow had stung her.
Thale could not coax from her the meaning in what he had witnessed.  He chose not to press the Avern-witch too hard.  He had other concerns far more grave.  The bonds holding the cage were well-crafted, and, after several attempts, Thale abandoned the notion of freeing himself through brute strength.
Others imprisoned with the two of them remained silent, refusing to even make eye contact.
“So, girl, what will your hooded woodsmen make of us?”
“A feast, Northerner.  We will be fed to the gods to avenge the spirit we took, or so they will hope.”
“Tethys’ eyes!  Woman, you have the gall to call me ‘savage’!”

“Fool, we are all savages.  Only some have learnt their craft from the unseen that walk amongst us.”

The girl rose, pushing two or three out of her way, to reach through the common wall between Ahlgrim Thale and herself.

“Come,” she barked, “Plant a seed that may be a salvation against the blackness that awaits us!”

Thale took Felwyn through the cage wall, unable to resist her or ignore her demand.

Hours passed in the chill of the night, and a soft song flowed from Felwyn’s full lips.  The moon lay low on the horizon, a bloody, harvest moon.

At the witching hour, cloaked men appeared.  The prisoners’ heads were covered, so that none could see, and they were led away.

When their marched ended, they stood silently for an eternity.  Thale was held secure, but was aware of Felwyn’s struggles close by.

The hood was stripped from Thale’s face.  His eyes dimmed in confused horror.  Before him, bathed in flickering torch light under an angry red moon, stood a deadwood colossus towering over a grove.  The thing stood as tall as the highest trees on the edge of a clearing.  The cut timbers were tied together, fashioning small cells in the thing’s legs, chest, and arms.  Peering between the slats were the faces of the doomed previously imprisoned with Thale and Felwyn.

A tall man draped in a yellow cloak appeared before Thale, his eyes were steely gray and set hard upon the Canaanite warrior.

“You are an outlander,” the yellow-hood spoke.  “As is our custom, you will be taken to the edge of the Arawn, to be freed to the Wilderland, to your peril or prosperity.”

The man motioned with his hand; an orange-bright brand was brought forth, tri-curled into a curious symbol the mercenary thought he recognized, but from whether a nightmare or waking horror, he could not recall.

With one swift motion, the brand plunged deep into Thale’s forehead, scorching a mark into his skin through to his skull.  For his part, Thale only tensed, promising through clenched teeth to shatter the man who held the brand at the first opportunity.

“You are ignorant, outlander,” the man spoke again, pulling away the iron, cooled now that it had lent its mark.  “We do not expect visitors, unwelcome or otherwise, to understand the ways of the Everwös.

“But know this, bearing this sign,” the hooded man held the iron brand to Thale’s eyes, “marks you as a transgressor to our greatest of covenants.  If ever you tread across these borders again, you shall be cut down without pause.”

The man turned away from Thale, facing the wickerwork giant in the distance.  Drums began to beat a slowly growing rhythm and at each of the dozens of torch lights a voice began to sing out, hauntingly.

Over the din, Thale became aware of a single voice calling out above the others’.  It was Felwyn, trapped in the head of the wooden monster.

“Ahlgrim!” she cried, “I feel you growing in my belly!  A son!”

Thale could not tell if she sobbed for joy or fear, but her voice was lost as the chorus of cloaked Avernmen grew higher.

The yellow hood ordered four of his guard to bind Thale’s feet with stones, and he was dragged away from the clearing, into the darkened woods.  Though he struggled to no avail, he hampered their progress, so that he could make out the unfolding scene behind him.

The yellow hood put torch to the base of the wooden prison; the dead wood greedily accepted the flame, and the woods grew bright as day.  The pleading cries of the dying mixed with the choir on the edge of the clearing in a cacophony of dread despair.

Suddenly, the dirge stopped.  Thale cocked his head, unsure or unwilling to believe his ears.

A powerful wind swelled about the woods, snapping the tops of trees down upon the cloaked woodsmen, and the flames about the colossus billowed higher and higher.

The earth shook, trees uprooted, and giant stones vaulted forth from under the ground, tossing swaths of sod and clay into the air in a circle about the clearing.  Several cromlechs toppled, crushing dazed Avernmen who tarried too long in their awestruck horror.

Lightening struck the wicker giant, now an inferno.  From the clear sky a down pour of rain and hail fell.

The wicked laughter of the Avern-witch Felwyn Mac Rhayne filled the air.

“Stop!” Thale commanded and his captors yielded to the authority—and fear—in his voice.

The twisting and cracking of timber echoed amongst the trees.  Thale spied the yellow cloaks in the fire light scattering out from the center of the growing hellstrom, running away from the burning, lumbering colossus, fueled by the souls it now consumed. 

The behemoth pursued its victims beyond the grove-circle, snapping down trees and leaving behind a blazing path of destruction in its wake.  Over it all, the cackling of Felwyn filled the air, smothering the screams of the dying.

Thale’s captors fled, leaving the warrior to his fate.  A scorching wash of rain and fire rolled over the Canaanite that blistered his skin.  He was lifted on powerful winds, raking his burned body through the threshing branches of the evergreens and yews.

Thale landed in a stupor, but freed of his trammels.  Putting the unspeakable horror to his back, the mercenary staggered blindly into the forest, fear driving him onward.

Eventually, the clamor grew weaker in his ears.  He continued into the night, until his legs could carry him no further, and he collapsed. 

Thale awoke, bound by a soft cloth, soaked in a poultice of salve and herbs.  His head rested in the mud of the bank of a cool stream.  Water rushed past him as he lay submerged in the little creek bed.  The water was cool to his burned skin and for a great while he remained, unconcerned with how he arrived or who placed him there.
When the chill was more than he could stand, he rose.  He was stiff and every sinew protested his efforts vehemently.
To the east, the Wilderland plains stretched out before the Canaanite soldier-for-hire.  A handful of water cupped to his lips was the last thing Ahlgrim Thale would desire of the cursed Everwös.  Had he not craved so desperately to be rid of the vile darkwood, he may have noted the eyes marking his passage, one milky and blind, the other poisonously viridian, staring out from behind a dark cowl hidden amongst the moss-covered stones that framed the edge of Avernioch dominion.
The old man smiled sardonically, running fingers absently over the festering swirl upon his forehead, as he watched the raven-maned giant disappear into the high grass beyond the Arawn.
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