An unseen log boomed against Wolfrun’s hull. In the last few days, Rhuan of the Grey Hall had taken to posting a lookout on the prow, to ward against just such events. This great, fat monstrosity of a river seemed at times to carry almost as much debris as it did water. Some of that flotsam weighed enough to punch a hole clean through the planking: mighty timbers, even whole trees; once, a clump of them that drifted on the current, riding upright on their raft of sodden earth and entangled roots. Their uppermost, trembling branches had reached almost as high as the masthead, and a lizard as long as a man’s arm perched amongst the boughs like the captain of that mad vessel. Such a sight would be unthinkable in Rhuan’s cold homeland, but these foul and foetid territories held much that ought to have been impossible.
An arrow clattered against the barrel next to Rhuan and fell beside him. Here was the reason why no watchman could now ride the wolf-headed prow, and why Rhuan himself hunched behind the gunwale of his longship: arrows too feeble to punch through anything but the thinnest hide, yet capable of killing a man if they so much as scratched exposed skin. The savages who loosed them set some dark, tarry matter about the points, and it gave any wounds they delivered a vile potency. Rhuan had already watched two of his men die agonizing, fevered deaths. One, whose hand had been transfixed by such an arrow, had lived long enough to see his arm turning black, stinking of rot, drawing attentive hosts of the flies that infested these jungles. They had cut it off and cast it overboard, and sealed the stump with fire, but still he had died. It was a cruel end. Crueler still for coming in exile, in a place so sodden, so bloated with water, that no funeral pyre could be built to ease his soul’s onward journey. A place beyond the reach of the Gods of their homeland. Beyond the reach, surely, of any god save a mad one.
Rhuan ventured a brief glance over the shields hung in protective rank along the side of the ship. There was, as ever, nothing to see save the wall of riotous vegetation. Trees and bushes of every ilk choked the bank of the river. They trailed their garlands of vines into the brown water, built turrets and parapets from their festoons of dark, glossy leaves. And hid, amidst their horrible vigor, the enemy Rhuan sought. Another arrow came arcing out toward Wolfrun, struck its shielded flank and fell back into the turbid river.
Rhuan glared at the small, brown-skinned man crouched close by: their guide, though since he spoke no tongue save his own his guidance amounted to little more than nodding and gesturing. His name, as best Rhuan had been able to determine, was something like Ahenotoc. At this moment, he appeared entirely untroubled by either Rhuan’s anger or the desultory volleys of arrows from which they sheltered. He smiled, his teeth bright. Rhuan growled in irritation.
“Faster!” he shouted down the length of the ship.
The oarsmen redoubled their efforts. They were bare-chested, every one, and their reddened, peeling backs shone with sweat as their muscles flexed. Not the beads or trickles of sweat that might adorn the brow of a farmer laboring in his field in a northern summer. No: So thick and sluggish was the air in this pestilential land, so oppressive the remorseless heat, that sweat came forth in torrents. Men wore it like a second skin.
Rhuan felt the ship respond to the increased beat of the oars. It surged on upstream, slicing through the opposing flow. Birds—as abundantly colored as the most garish of flowers—went squawking overhead. As their harsh voices faded, Rhuan realized that in their wake they left no sound save that of the grinding oars, and the gasping breaths of the men who worked them. No more arrows rattled against wood.
He straightened cautiously. Nothing. Just the faceless, formless jungle staring back at him. As before, the unseen savages had no desire for pursuit. They merely sought to kill those who happened to come within their reach. An idle kind of bloodlust drove them.
“What is he saying?” Rhuan muttered.
Garnok grimaced. “I am not sure, lord.”
The priest frowned as he tried to follow Ahenotoc’s fluid hand movements. “Possibly that we draw near to our destination?” he suggested doubtfully.
Ahenotoc grinned, pointing upriver, jabbing three fingers at Rhuan. Nodding with raised eyebrows. Rhuan leaned out over the gunwale and stared ahead. The broad river wound its bloated way into the distance, running between the endless green battlements of the jungle.
“I see nothing,” he muttered. “You are no longer of any use to me as a priest, Garnok. If you could make sense of this man’s . . . waving about, as you said you might, that would be at least some small compensation.”
“Not by my choice did we journey beyond the bounds of the known world,” said Garnok at once. “I spoke with the Gods on your behalf—brought forth favorable winds, and summoned birds to guide us—while we were still within earshot of their Stone Thrones. But there is no mortal voice could carry over such distances as we have traversed, and if there are other Gods who inhabit these noxious climes, I know not the language in which to beseech their aid, nor the rituals to foster their goodwill. None of us do.”
Rhuan made no reply to that. Though Garnok’s argumentative manner was troubling, he was far from the only one becoming restive. Every one of these men had willingly followed Rhuan into exile after his father’s execution, but he was not so foolish as to assume that their undoubted loyalty to him was the sole star by which they steered. Many had faced the same choice he had: exile or a hard death on the Blood Wheel. All had hoped that he would lead them to adventure, and glory, and plunder; discover for them fresh lands to raid, perhaps even rule.
Now, he knew, they began to doubt him. He had led them further than any of their people had ever gone. In half a year of relentless journeying, driven by angers and hungers he barely understood himself, he had surpassed the deeds of their greatest song-remembered heroes and outshone the most legendary of seafarers. Following the faintest of rumors—mere whispers of distant territories awash with gold—he had brought them to these unknown, undreamed of, shores. Where there was, as yet, little sign of gold. Fevers and sweat; sores and sunstroke. Swarms of blood-hungry insects, and a trackless wasteland of impenetrable jungle. Death, for some. But not gold. Not yet.
Ahenotoc gave an excited cry, and shook his outstretched hand.
Rhuan saw, as a long bend of the river slowly opened itself out ahead of them, a break in the monotonous, implacable jungle. A vast clearing spread back from the riverside. And there were, he could tell even at this distance, even as he blinked to clear the sweat that ran into his eyes, buildings there. His spirits soared at the sight. Perhaps now he could deliver to his followers the harvest their efforts deserved. Perhaps now he could claim for himself some of the riches and the glory he would need, if ever he was to return to the land of his birthplace and visit vengeance upon those who had slain his father and cast him out.
“All your strength!” he cried to the crew. “A few strokes more, and you can set aside those oars and take swords in your hands instead.”
A ragged cheer, blunted by the exhaustion of those who raised it, met his words. The air here was so lethargic and heavy that there was seldom even a breath of wind; when it did stir itself it came with torrential rain and lightning that shook the sky. Wolfrun’s sail had slumbered, useless, for days; there had been no respite for the oarsmen.
“A crowd gathers,” said Garnok.
There were indeed figures assembling along the riverside. They milled about, and though no sound carried down to the approaching ship, Rhuan thought he detected in their chaotic movement the signs of fear, perhaps even panic. All the better.
Those figures massed at the head of a shallow, shelving beach of sand. Several of the carved, hollowed-out logs these people used as boats were drawn up on it.
“Take us straight in,” Rhuan called to Panur the helmsman. “Run up onto that strand.”
Panur nodded firmly, his loose blond hair brushing at his shoulders. Rhuan stared out past the wolfish prow, counting. A hundred or more men and women were gathered there now, and he could see many others beyond them, running this way and that. He would have no more than thirty men at his back when he sprang ashore. It would be more than enough. Even as he watched, the crowd began to scatter. The people—most of them, at least—were slipping away into the surrounding forest.
Rhuan smiled. This was going to be even easier than he had imagined.
The first village they found, along the coast of this wild land, had been a disappointment: nothing more than a handful of rickety huts, clustered on the shore at one of the few points where the exuberant jungle did not overspill the land and merge itself with the sea in a forbidding tangle of looping stems and spines. They had driven the inhabitants off without difficulty, and torn most of the hovels apart in their determined search, but were rewarded with nothing of worth.
The second village, at the mouth of this very river, had appeared no more promising at first. Its inhabitants, though, had not fled. Perhaps forewarned, they abased themselves before Rhuan and his men, and produced gifts. Tribute, if such meager fare could be dignified with such a title. Wooden ornaments and seashells; bowls of strange-looking fruit and fishing spears tipped with bone. The people themselves offered no more promising an appearance. Most were all but naked, wearing the simplest and slightest of hide rags. Rhuan had felt a terrible, disappointed rage coming upon him then, but it had been stilled by a soft yellow glimmer amongst the polished wooden trinkets: a single, simple bead of gold.
Seeing his interest, the villagers had become excited. One—Ahenotoc—had come forward, and let fly an enthusiastic but incomprehensible stream of words. Again and again he had pointed first at the tiny ball of gold cupped in Rhuan’s palm, and then upriver. His meaning, his implied promise, had been clear.
As they surged toward the riverbank Rhuan reached for his patron God, Wen Iron-Arm. He did it out of habit. It had been many, many days since any such call had found an answer. There was but a trembling in his chest at the reaching; a tingling in the skin of his arms and down his spine. Not the burning fury and might that he could have called upon in his homeland. Here, his God could not hear him.
Some of his warriors were already on their feet, pulling on jerkins and mail shirts, settling shields upon their arms. Panur was shouting fierce encouragement to those who had not yet stowed their oars.
“Are we not the mightiest of races?” cried Rhuan, holding his sword and shield aloft.
The confirmatory roar was heartfelt.
“Are our blades not the sharpest, our Gods not the fiercest?”
Still louder, his men bellowed out their agreement.
“Then let us prove it now,” Rhuan shouted even as the keel ground into the sand and Wolfrun shivered to a halt.
He spun about and vaulted blindly over the gunwale, plummeting down into ankle-deep water. His knees buckled, but he drove himself upright and went pounding up the beach. He could hear the rest of them pouring after him, splashing ashore as he had done, rending the air with their wild war cries.
Rhuan ran into the clearing. The bare earth sent the sun’s noonday heat beating back at him. A dozen or more long timber huts—only a little less massive than the meet-halls of the glacier-clad north—were scattered about the clearing. And there was stonework: two low, step-sided mounds, like crude imitations of some rocky hill. Between them towered a tree that was not a tree. A single perfectly straight trunk thrust up from the earth, climbing to the height of eight or more men. It carried no limbs, though so great was its girth it must once have supported mighty boughs. Its surface bore a strange decoration. At its base, the image of a man had been cut into the wood, and a huge carved snake rose from him, spiraling up about the gigantic column.
Rhuan slowed, his gaze following the coiling ascent of that snake. Only a flicker of movement glimpsed from the corner of his eye saved him as a flimsy arrow came skimming in at his chest. He jerked his shield up to send the shaft tumbling away, and veered toward its source. Close to a dozen men awaited him, and he rushed gladly into their midst.
They were not dressed as Ahenotoc’s impoverished people had been, these dark-skinned warriors. Shells of hardened hide encased their chests, skirts of plated horn or shell hung from their hips. They held spears, and great clubs set with blades of bone.
Rhuan flung himself at them, howling wordless fury, spittle and sweat spraying indistinguishably from his lips. He saw their fear of him in their eyes. His shield shook at a blow from one of those cudgels; a thrusting spear grazed harmlessly along his flank. He permitted them nothing more than that.
A low, stooping slash and he cut the legs from under one man. A jab with his shield and he broke another’s nose, split his cheek with its iron boss. One long, stretching lunge and the point of his sword cracked through feeble hide armor and sunk into the belly beneath.
Others were at his side, axes rising and falling, blades sweeping back and forth. Their opponents soon fled, sprinting for the safety of the mute jungle that crowded in around the clearing. All danger did not depart with them, though.
The man next to Rhuan—Olf, with whom he had hunted and fished as a child—gave a startled yelp and looked down at the thin arrow that had found its way through a gap between tunic and belt. He pulled it from his flesh and looked in blank gloom at the thick, foul concoction that crusted its tip. He held it out to Rhuan, who grimaced in sympathy.
“Get back to the ship,” he said quietly, and went in search of more battles.
He found them, amongst the huts and the halls, and visited slaughter upon all those who would oppose him, fired now with a cold rage at the ugly death he so clearly saw lying in wait for Olf. Blood ran into the dusty earth, and vanished there, as if sucked deeper by hungry spirits. Sweat crawled over Rhuan’s skin and soaked his shirt. Soon enough, there was no one left to fight. Those who were not dead had vanished into the green ocean of trees.
Two of Rhuan’s men had fallen. One lay on his back almost in the centre of the clearing. The side of his head had been battered in by one of those ferocious, toothed clubs. Flies were already darting about the wound. Rhuan watched the other die. The man was sitting against the wall of a longhouse. His neck was run through by a thin spear. Blood and saliva bubbled in his mouth as he faltered.
“Search, then,” Rhuan muttered darkly to the survivors who gathered about him. “Find what we came for.”
The place yielded its secrets reluctantly, but yield them it did. From hollow wooden tubes stacked beside hammocks spilled granules of raw, unworked gold. From about the necks of a few dead men came golden pendants. Hanging from the struts of the roofs were strange, bloated idols with golden eyes. It could not be accounted profuse riches, but it was something.
Rhuan looked for Ahenotoc. If anyone would know what else might wait to be found, it would be the man who had brought them here in the first place.
“Where is he?” he demanded of Garnok.
The priest nodded up toward one of the strange stone-built platforms in the heart of the village. Rhuan lifted his eyes, and saw Ahenotoc crouched there, at the very summit. He shouted, but the villager did not seem to hear him.
Rhuan climbed the crude stone steps, feeling the sweat tracing a score of different paths down his back. The sun’s assault grew yet more brutal as he ascended. He had never dreamed the sky could harbor such a ferocious fire. The stench warned him of what he would find before he reached the top. He knew this compound of odors all too well: opened bowels; dried blood; exposed flesh.
Ahenotoc bent over the corpse of a young man dressed just as he was, with skin of just the same hue. The dead man was split open, from throat to groin. His ribs had been broken back to make of his chest an upturned, splayed hand of bony fingers. His entrails had been unwound and draped over his shoulders and thighs.
Rhuan grimaced and clamped a hand over his mouth and nose. Ahenotoc rocked slowly back and forth. It looked like mourning. There were more bodies—three of them—arrayed atop this stone hillock, blackening and rotting in the heat, attended by murmuring clouds of flies. All of them appeared to be of Ahenotoc’s people. All had been treated in the same cruel fashion.
Rhuan understood at once, and cursed himself for under-estimating the small, almost delicate, man.
“We are your vengeance, then?” he growled. “It was not gold at all that you brought us here for.”
Shouts from down below distracted him. He saw warriors pointing toward the fringes of the jungle. There were shapes moving there, in the gloomy shade; half-hidden, and difficult to distinguish, but clearly human. And clearly multitudinous. The edge of the forest teemed with people, more of them with every passing heartbeat. Scores, hundreds perhaps. Skulking there, mustering their courage. Readying themselves. Ahenotoc was, perhaps, not the only one he had misjudged.
“Enough,” he snapped, and roughly pulled Ahenotoc to his feet. He pushed the man before him down the crude stairway. He strode back toward the river, shouting as he went.
“To Wolfrun! All of you, leave what you can’t carry. Our time’s done!”
Panur knew his business well. He already had Wolfrun back from the beach, rocking in the shallows a dozen paces offshore, with knotted ropes hung over the side. The men went splashing out and swarmed back aboard with all the ease of seasoned raiders.
Rhuan was the last of them. He watched as Ahenotoc clambered nimbly up and out of sight, then turned, knee-deep in the river’s cooling waters, and looked back at the gigantic, unsettling pillar of carved wood that dominated the clearing. He could see people moving about it once again. Too late, he thought. Only by moments, but too late to claim any more of us. He allowed himself a moment of satisfaction, watching that scene, listening to the clatter of oars being readied, and to the sound of gentle waves slapping against Wolfrun’s hull. Then he reached for a rope and hauled himself up.
Olf was laid out on the boards, groaning as the poison wormed its way into the depths of his body. Rhuan averted his eyes, for fear of the weakening grief the sight might bring him.
Long, hard sweeps of the oars carried them out and across the current. The weight of the river’s endless waters was with them now, and it turned the prow quickly downstream. Rhuan stood at Panur’s side as the helmsman set himself to the task of holding a straight course.
“To the sea,” Rhuan murmured. The sea, where they belonged. Where the air might have some life to it, and the world would widen itself beyond the constricting banks of this loathsome waterway.
He looked back, and saw a great crowd already drawn up along the edge of the clearing, watching them depart. He held his sword high, to give those observers something to remember him by. They would tell tales, no doubt, in years to come, of the pale—
He frowned in puzzlement as a figure came out from amongst the faceless throng: a man, clad in a long gown or cloak, wearing an absurd, eruptive headdress of vibrantly colored feathers. A youth followed this newcomer down to the water’s edge and lay at his feet. The feathered man raised a knife, as if in answer to Rhuan’s own gesture. Or mockery of it, perhaps.
“Garnok,” Rhuan called, without looking away from the strange scene.
The figures were dwindling into the distance as the ship rushed on down the river, but still Rhuan could see the sun’s fire glint for a moment along the black blade of the knife. And then it plunged down into the chest of the youth, and the priest—for surely that must be what he was—sawed vigorously at the flesh and bones of his victim. Who did not struggle, Rhuan saw; who did not cry out at his own horrific destruction.
“What is it?” Garnok asked.
“A sacrifice?” Rhuan said, pointing with his sword.
Garnok grunted. “Too late for them to beg their gods for aid.”
The executioner stood erect once more, and now he held aloft not his knife but some smaller object. Gore trailed down his arm. Dark stains covered his gown.
“He cut the heart from one of his own,” Rhuan murmured in surprise. “Such savagery.”
“We’ll be out of sight soon,” Garnok said. “Put them from your mind. They cannot reach us now.”
“You hope. I fear there is more to these people than we imagined.”
The feather-headed priest flicked out his arm and cast his bloody prize into the river. They were too far off for Rhuan to see the splash of its disappearance into the brown water. He saw clearly enough what followed upon it, though, even at this distance: a foaming and boiling, spreading suddenly over the river’s surface, writhing out from the bank toward the very centre of the channel; a buckling of the water, drawing itself up into white-flecked humps; liquid convulsions spreading not in any natural pattern, but in a long, curving and re-curving line that wound its way downstream. As if reaching out for the ship.
Then they were around a bend and could see nothing more. Wolfrun was alone with the huge, silt-laden river, and with the disorderly armies of trees that jostled all along the banks. There was no sound save the rhythmic working of the oars, and Olf’s pained curses through clenched teeth. No sensation but the familiar movement of his ship beneath Rhuan’s feet, and the smothering weight of the sun’s heat on his scalp, his back. He sheathed his sword.
“Keep to the centre of the channel,” he told Panur, and turned reluctantly to confront Olf’s fate.
Instead, it was Ahenotoc that caught his eye. The little man knelt at the very edge of the deck, leaning over the shields, staring fixedly back up the line of their wake. Fixedly, and fearfully. Rhuan followed Ahenotoc’s gaze, but saw nothing save the track of fading eddies left by the oars, the separating, sinking waves that marked their progress.
“He knows something we do not,” he muttered to Garnok.
But the priest did not reply. He frowned, wincing. He shook his head once, sharply. Drops of sweat fell from the matted strands of his hair.
“Something is coming,” he whispered.
And come it did. A great, bulbous bow wave rounded the bend in the river behind them. Some mighty hidden force piled up the water as it powered through it, and then spilled it back into a churning maelstrom that encompassed the entire breadth of the channel. Flocks of birds burst from the riverside canopy, climbing in raucous, gaudy panic and speeding away over the roof of the forest.
Rhuan watched in mounting horror as the river rose behind them. The wave thickened and swelled as it drew near, building itself up into a wall of dark water that rushed toward their stern. Rhuan could hear it now, could hear the seething deep in the body of the river, the rumble of its immense disturbance.
He opened his mouth to cry out a warning, but the alarm went unuttered. Quite suddenly, the river calmed. Its waters slumped back, and that great threatening wave became dying ripples.
“It’s gone,” he said in bewilderment.
“No,” hissed Garnok, his voice a taut cord of strain. “Only deeper.”
A boom, shaking the bones of the ship. A splintering chorus of shattering oars. A violent lurching sideways of the deck, as the entire vessel was flung across the current. Spray and fragments of wood stung Rhuan’s face. He staggered, and had to seize Panur’s arm to steady himself. Startled cries filled the air. A loose barrel went tumbling across Rhuan’s field of vision. He saw it strike Garnok and send him reeling. Ahenotoc reached out a single, futile arm to try to save the priest, but too late. Garnok pitched silently over the stern.
Rhuan rushed to the gunwale and leaned out, searching the murky, roiling waters. He glimpsed Garnok’s head and shoulder as he rolled, and sank, and bobbed to the surface once more.
“Turn us about!” Rhuan shouted, but it was hopeless. A swift glance down the vessel’s flank revealed only the stumps of oars. Their blades had been sheared away, leaving only blunt and split stubs that flailed impotently at the water. Already, his proud ship was turning, drifting broadside to the river’s flow.
He looked back in time to see Garnok taken. A huge fat, blunt head, wider than Rhuan was tall, rose to the surface, engulfed the torpid form of the priest and bore it down into oblivion. Like the fist-tipped arm of some titanic riverine giant, a sleek and darkly gleaming body, all dull browns and greens, flowed after that head, a body that seemed to be a single mass of muscle cloaked in mottled scales. Its girth matched that of the whales Rhuan’s people hunted in the summer. A gargantuan monstrosity, this. Impossible. The waters closed, and hid the beast from him.
“Serpent!” Rhuan cried as he whirled away. “Make for the shore.”
But he could see Panur’s helplessness writ clear upon the helmsman’s face. He hauled mightily at his steerboard without effect. The ship wallowed and rolled. Rhuan could feel its struggle, its wounds, through his feet and in the shape of its faltering. The hull was breached, somewhere; the planking split. He could feel, with every long-honed instinct, the weight of the water slowly gathering in its shallow belly.
The men who had lost their oars were getting to their feet, reaching for swords, axes, shields. None had seen what Rhuan had, he guessed. They did not know what they faced, and how overmatched their weaponry was likely to prove.
The ship shook. The mast trembled, describing a widening circle. A rasping, grating groan ran through every timber as something massive scraped itself under the keel. Rhuan heard the first stirring of fear in the voices of his brave warriors as they looked this way and that. Some were trying to move oars across to replace those destroyed, but it was too late.
The river shrugged, and Wolfrun rose. Men sprawled and slipped. The stern bucked, throwing Rhuan to his knees. The mast creaked. Then the ship slapped back down and muddy waves broke over its sides. Rhuan struggled to his feet, water sloshing about his boots and soaking his leggings.
And suddenly the giant, malignant head rose upon the tower of its neck, the river falling away from its scaled body. It rose between Rhuan and the sun, and it cast its shadow upon him and it felt chill and heavy, as if he had fallen into the shade of some ice-bound mountain. He saw a spear lance up and rebound impotently from the glistening scales. And still the serpent reared higher and higher from the water, no end to it. A tongue, fat and forked, writhed out from its lipless mouth. The beast lifted its head until it over-topped Wolfrun’s mast, and it stared down upon the ship and its scrambling, shouting crew with eyes like worn red jewels. Then all its weight came crashing down.
Rhuan was thrown into the air, and he tumbled through a cacophony. The cracking of failing timbers. The howls of men, colored by rage or terror or pain. The river twisting and tearing itself into a storm of foam. As he fell, he caught glimpses of the world: the green mass of the jungle; the brown river strewn with broken wood, and a body floating face down; the serpent’s huge flank rippling as it tightened itself about Wolfrun.
He hit the water, and went under. There, in the roaring, crushing darkness, the sounds were deeper, and they rang in his breastbone and his skull. He could hear his ship dying, and its death throes were like the slow rumble of snow down a mountainside. The river took him in its irresistible grasp and swept him along. Invisible objects battered against his legs: rocks or men or debris, he could not tell. He blinked, and felt the grit of the river searing his eyes. There was, though, a hint of pale light, distant and frail but real.
Rhuan hauled himself to the surface, and found himself facing the riverside, staring at a jumble of rocks and dead wood overhung by a chaos of vegetation. He turned in the water, and bore witness to Wolfrun’s end. The serpent had thrown its vast coils around the ship’s midriff, once, twice, thrice. From that immense embrace, there could be no escape. As Rhuan watched, drifting numbly away downstream, Wolfrun’s back broke with a hollow crash, and her prow and stern folded up toward one another. The mast was smashed against the serpent’s back and snapped like so much kindling. Men spilled from the shattered vessel, plunging into the river.
Even as its body sank slowly down, taking the carcass of the ship to its dark grave, the monster’s head scythed back and forth over the river’s surface. It bludgeoned men and crushed them in its jaws and dragged them under. Flailing figures dotted the river across its whole turbulent width. Many of them could not swim, Rhuan knew. Many others had been wearing mail, or had gold about their necks and stuffed inside their shirts, and would live only if they could free themselves of it. Some were in the very middle of the channel, where the mindless grip of its current was most ferocious; they went racing away beneath the sun’s impassive, brutal glare, arms clawing at the air, cries fading quickly. The river took its share of the serpent’s bounty.
Amidst the slaughter, in a last great foamy gurgle, the carved wolf’s head of the prow was the last of the ship to disappear. It slipped slowly, almost solemnly out of sight, and Wolfrun was gone. Rhuan rolled grimly onto his front and swam for the shore. He had given up wearing his mail vest just two days ago: it was too burdensome to bear in this heat, and it had been rubbing sores into his shoulders. Still, the river wanted him. It pulled at him, and his sword was heavy at his hip. He might have succumbed, had not a long branch suddenly been extended and pushed into his hand. Gasping, Rhuan allowed himself to be dragged out onto the rocks, and looked blearily up into Ahenotoc’s narrow, thoughtful eyes.
Ahenotoc led him into a gloomy, frightful world; from the light and heat of the river to a suffocating and dank domain. The trees pressed so close together, in such profusion of form and size, that all beneath them was shadow and they had smothered the ground with their decaying leaves. The air was so burdened with moisture that it felt heavy in Rhuan’s lungs.
The awful sounds coming from the river faded slowly behind them. Rhuan felt a dull shame at his impotence in the face of such destruction, and a part of him would gladly have thrown himself back into those churning waters, to die with his men and with his ship. But Ahenotoc pulled him insistently along with little tugs at his sleeve and nagging mutters. An urgency possessed the man that Rhuan did not entirely understand.
No forest in his own lands could have prepared him for the overpowering abundance of this jungle. The tallest of the trees soared out of sight, merging themselves into the endless, many-layered roof of leaves. Vines and creepers and ferns dripped and tumbled from the trunks and branches. Great curving fronds tore at him with hooks as he stumbled along. And the noise: a throbbing, whining drone of sound came from every direction at once; innumerable insect voices blended into the single monotonous song of the forest itself. He felt a soft impact on his shoulder, and found a huge beetle clinging to him, its carapace spined and twisted like something a delirious child might shape from a memory of fever. He hissed in alarm and knocked it away.
Never had Rhuan known any place so remorselessly hostile and unsuited to human life. He could see no trail. He blundered into patches of vicious thorn, slipped on mossy rocks, started away from fleeting movements glimpsed and then gone before they could be given meaning. None of this troubled Ahenotoc, who drifted easily and silently through the madness, bare-footed and near naked, yet unscathed by any of the countless insults the jungle offered.
They climbed a long and shallow slope. Rhuan heard some animal crashing away through the treetops over their heads; he peered uneasily upwards, but saw nothing save a shower of tumbling leaves. His legs grew heavy. His thighs and knees ached. He grew angry—at Ahenotoc, at fate, at the intractable jungle and its utter indifference to his desires and ambitions—and slumped heavily down on the sloping root of a huge tree.
Ahenotoc, a little way ahead, turned and shook his head.
“I cannot walk forever,” Rhuan said. “My ship, my men—all gone. Leave me to mourn them. Leave me to my sorrows.”
He fell silent, staring with furrowed brow at the forest floor around his boots. It had come alive. Dozens—scores—of tiny black worms looped their way over the fallen leaves, closing from every direction upon his feet. He rose hurriedly and took a few steps sideways, not knowing what new horror this was and not wanting to know.
“A man cannot even rest for a moment in this forsaken wilderness,” he muttered.
Ahenotoc beckoned him onward. He looked worried.
“Leave me be,” Rhuan snapped, “lest I decide to avenge myself upon you for what your cunning has wrought.”
He found his bitter rage difficult to sustain, though. Ahenotoc had, after all, hauled him from the maw of the hungry river. And Rhuan knew he must bear his own heavy share of the blame for what had happened. His will had been what carried Wolfrun halfway across the world, to lands that would best have been left unknown. His promises of gold had sustained his men, and goaded them into this doomed adventure. His pride had left him fatally unwary of meddling in the contests of people whose wiles, and whose gods, so exceeded his expectations.
Ahenotoc cupped a hand to his ear and leaned back the way they had come. Rhuan frowned at this exaggerated mime.
Ahenotoc repeated the gesture, leaning still more steeply downhill, spreading the fingers of his hand at his ear.
Rhuan listened, and soon enough he heard it too. A sound of vast violence, rendered indistinct by distance but retaining its horrible threat. Trees crashing, shaking, grinding against one another. The earth groaning as its fabric was twisted and torn. Stone and soil and timber all protesting at once, as they were reshaped, brushed aside, crushed.
“It is not done?” Rhuan said in disbelief. He looked at Ahenotoc, wide-eyed. “I thought it a beast of the river, a beast of the water.”
But no, he realised. Of course not. It was a God not of the river, but of the jungle, whole and entire. Here, where water, sky, earth, all the elements were so cruelly transformed and intermingled, such a monster would acknowledge no boundaries. There would be no frontiers it would not cross.
“It comes for us, then?” Rhuan asked.
Ahenotoc beckoned him onward.
Darkness fell like the descent of nightmare. The jungle became a hallucinatory welter of veering moonshadows, unexplained sounds, unseen logs and vines and holes. Rhuan’s skin became a muddle of lacerations and bruises. He struggled on, following Ahenotoc’s soft guiding whistles, only because always at his back, always drawing incrementally nearer, grew the mounting thunder of the serpent’s catastrophic passage.
That grim tumult came to dominate Rhuan’s senses and his thoughts. He imagined it to be the baying of an army of hounds, upon the trail of a stag. He heard, in the rending apart of the jungle, his own inevitable doom closing upon him. He could envisage the cloud of debris through which the huge serpent writhed in its pursuit; a formless, sharp fog of tumbling leaves, splinters, shredded bark.
He blundered clumsily into Ahenotoc’s back, and was wrenched from his bleak reverie. The villager set a hand on his shoulder and gently but firmly turned him about. And Rhuan found himself looking down upon a scene of strange, silvery beauty.
A giant of the forest, a tree so mighty it beggared the imagination, had fallen, toppling back down the slope. It had come to rest some way short of the ground, caught precariously on the lower boughs of the one tree sturdy enough to withstand its fall; but still it had torn open a huge rent in the canopy. Through this window, Rhuan now gazed out. At a sky strewn with such a thick dusting of stars it seemed to glow. At a moon so full and bright it painted the rolling, unbounded sea of the treetops with a silver sheen. At an immensity of space, and of life, that he would not have guessed the world contained.
And at the serpent’s track, a wound scored across that immensity. It looked as if some giant’s—or god’s—hand had reached down from above and gouged a fingernail across the surface of the world, cutting a weaving path through the jungle. It might have been the curving channel of a dark river, working its way toward them—but for the advancing head of that river, before which the trees rocked and quaked and broke.
Rhuan felt Ahenotoc’s touch on his arm. The villager, absurdly, stood smiling in the moonlight. He pointed at the sword sheathed on Rhuan’s belt.
“What? You want this?” Rhuan shook his head.
Ahenotoc pointed again. Rhuan laughed.
“You can’t part a man from his sword just by the asking, not even if—” The words suddenly felt foolish on his lips. He bit them back. He was, he thought with all the cold clarity of the defeated, a dead man without Ahenotoc’s aid, without his guidance. Lost, and alone, in a place he did not understand; hunted by a monstrosity his mind could barely grasp. The clamor of the behemoth’s approach was there, at his back, coming closer.
Reluctantly, Rhuan freed his sword and extended its hilt toward Ahenotoc.
In an instant, the little man sprang onto the fallen tree and danced his light-footed way up its angled bole. Rhuan’s beloved blade flashed, catching the fire of the moonlight. All confidence and lithe agility, Ahenotoc swung around outstretched branches and shrugged off the attentions of the tangled creepers that had been dragged down in the tree’s death throes. Rhuan craned his neck back to keep him in sight.
“We’ve no time for this,” he said. He could hear the serpent, drawing ever nearer; could hear the havoc of its ominous movement.
Ahenotoc flailed inexpertly at a long, straight spar projecting from the side of trunk. Rhuan winced at the sound of his sword’s keen edge being so abused. He bore it for a moment or two, but then could suffer it no longer. Even as he drew breath to protest, the branch gave way. Ahenotoc examined it appraisingly and then dropped it down to Rhuan.
It was old, hard wood, long ago stripped of its bark; longer than Rhuan was tall, just thin enough for him to encompass with his hand. Ahenotoc had broken it off in such a way as to leave a crude but sharp point. Rhuan regarded it sceptically. Ahenotoc gave a low whistle to draw Rhuan’s attention upward once more, then made enthusiastic stabbing motions and pointed at his own neck, behind the hinge of his jaw.
Before Rhuan could respond, the villager was off again, clambering still further up the ramp of the toppled tree. Rhuan lost sight of him, and found him again only when he came to a halt, perched amongst the interlocking branches that had arrested the great tree’s fall, and held it suspended. Ahenotoc leaned and twisted this way and that, examining the knot of timber with evident care and suspicion. Shortly, he began to cut. The sword sent chips of wood tumbling down toward Rhuan. He soon understood Ahenotoc’s intent. He found himself less alarmed by it than he should have been. It stank of madness, but madness seemed the most fitting of odors on this night, in this place.
Rhuan of the Grey Hall waited patiently for the beast to come to him. The jungle sang its droning song all around. He watched the tiny blood-hungry worms making their hunch-backed way toward him across the moon-lit leaf litter. Most, he flicked away before they could fasten themselves to his flesh. One or two escaped his attentions until they had taken hold on his hand or neck; those, he crushed between finger and thumb, making a smear from their soft bodies and the blood they had sucked from him.
The storm drew near: a brittle, rising thunder of destruction. He reached with his heart for Wen Iron-Arm, but there was, of course, no answer. He had no God of his own to set against that which approached. In truth, he was not certain it would have made any difference, even if his body had been flooded with borrowed divine might. He doubted now, as he never had before, whether his Gods were truly the fiercest of them all. This wild land he had discovered bred deities in its own image, and there was surely no place fiercer than this.
The jungle before him shook. The host of shadows shifted and coalesced. The trees shivered, from their mighty roots to the highest tips of their vaulting crowns. The insects fell silent. The serpent’s blunt boulder of a head pushed its way out from the gloom. Rhuan could smell it: mud and water and weed and earth. Its split tongue curled and trembled. Its lidless red eyes glinted with motes of the moon’s light.
Rhuan stood before it, spread his arms wide, and roared his challenge. He shook his makeshift spear in defiance. It came at him, a vast eruptive writhing that battered trees aside and ground rocks beneath it; a surging of darkness as if the whole jungle had come to furious life. He ran.
He sprinted beneath the huge mass of the half-fallen tree, and turned beyond it. The monster was there, on his heels, its jaws gaping as it thrust itself through the opening in his wake. He saw curved teeth like scythes; he saw scales the size of shields. He smelled its corrupt breath, all rot and doom. He met its implacable animal gaze. He heard, above the crash of the serpent’s advance, a flurry of blows overhead: Ahenotoc, hacking away at the last tenuous attachments by which he had left the great dead tree supported.
Rhuan threw himself aside as those jaws reached for him. The great snake gathered itself for another blow, and in doing so it jarred its broad back against the slanting tree trunk. With a last harsh crack of sword against wood, a branch gave way, and the world convulsed around Rhuan. A deafening groan, as of a glacier rumbling its way over rocks; a tremor rocking the earth upon which he lay; a blasted exhalation from that vile serpentine gullet.
He scrambled to his feet to find the giant beast pinned to the ground. The tree had fallen square across its neck and punched the jagged stumps of branches through even its armored hide. But this god had might yet flowing through its huge form. Rhuan saw its body rising in a huge arch, hunching up against the star-flecked sky, climbing higher and higher. It strained against the trap that had closed about it, and the forest shuddered. Some of the boughs that impaled it broke. The gigantic tree trunk itself shifted, began to turn.
Ahenotoc dropped from above. He fell recklessly, carelessly, and hit the back of the serpent’s head with a dull thud. It spasmed at the impact, and smashed him aside like a bull flicking away some irritant fly. But he left the sword planted behind its skull.
Rhuan darted in, seeking the place he had been told to seek: the underside of the jaw, in behind the bone. The serpent twisted itself toward him, its scales scraping over one another, the dark patterns of its hide shifting and warping, its body a bending wall, closing on him, overshadowing him. When he thrust with his crude spear, it glanced off the plated mass. Still the beast remained pinned, and hampered. It bent its head away from him, shaping its body for another titanic effort against its restraints, and as its neck curved, its scales splayed a fraction. Rhuan stabbed into the sliver of a gap that opened before him, and drove the spear in as deep and hard as his weary muscles would allow.
The great head snapped back toward him and knocked him from his feet. The spear came free as he fell back, and after it spewed a flood of steaming ichor. The noisome fluid splashed around him, and across his scrambling legs. It pulsed out in viscous strands, thickening as it came, congealing upon the forest floor in a dark, spreading slick.
Such convulsions shook the serpent then that it carved gullies into the earth, and drove up the leaf litter into great drifts and piles. It threw the fallen tree from its back. Its huge undulating form thrashed at the very canopy of the jungle. Debris rained down around Rhuan and he curled into a ball, hands clasped over his head. The ground beneath him bucked and hammered at him, ringing like the most dolorous of bells as the dying giant beat against it.
In time, there was a gentler rain of soft leaves, and stillness. Rhuan lay for a moment, listening to the rattle of his own heart, and then unfolded himself. He rose on unsteady legs, scraping dirt and dust and gore from his chest and knees. The stench of the serpent’s blood was sickening, almost choking.
It had opened a still wider clearing about itself in its struggles, and lay now, along its whole unmoving length, in moonlight. Rhuan looked upon it in awe. Four longships, five perhaps, could have been laid alongside it without matching it. Its eye, quite lightless, like an ochre stone, was twice the size of his fist.
Ahenotoc suddenly appeared atop the immense corpse. He grinned—a flash of white in the dark—though Rhuan saw that one arm hung limp and a bloody welt marred his flank. Ahenotoc hauled at the sword still lodged where he had driven it, and when at last he managed to drag it free, he dropped it down to Rhuan with an exclamation of what sounded like simple joy.
Rhuan took the sword up and looked ruefully at its notched and battered blade.
Ahenotoc thumped to the ground beside him, less graceful now, less sure of his balance. But still smiling. He patted Rhuan on the arm and said something brief and mirthful, nodding into the distance. Rhuan shrugged his incomprehension. The villager laughed again, and walked away. Without looking back, he extended his good arm and beckoned Rhuan after him as he sank into the gloom of the jungle.
Rhuan reached out once more, extended a final forlorn invitation to his god Wen of the frost-gilded north, to share in this moment of triumph; to look out through Rhuan’s merely human eyes and mark the glory of victory and of death once more evaded. Nothing. Nothing, save perhaps the faintest hint of winter’s metallic scent, and the fleeting prickle of an icy chill across his face.
But those sensations were memory, not presence. Rhuan was exiled from far more than just his home and hearth. There was no god here save the great, dead serpentine monstrosity laid out across the slope. And its ruin had been wrought not by divine might, but by entirely mortal wit and courage. Those were the powers to which Rhuan must give his humble adherence now. Whether they resided within in him or elsewhere.
He sighed and sheathed his sword. He gave a last, lingering look at the fallen behemoth, then followed after Ahenotoc. Already, he could already hear the villager’s light, fluting whistles calling him into the deep forest.
“Lead on, then,” Rhuan said. “Lead on. Show me the way.”
© 2009 by Brian Ruckley.
Originally published in Rage of the Behemoth,
edited by Jason M. Waltz.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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