A WHISPER IN ASHES, by Charles Gramlich:
Down from the death-lands of snow
came a warrior with eyes
No one knew his origins.
None could foresee his end.
He had no name.
The barbarians called him Krieg.
I. The Black Tarn
The northern wind was quiet for once. The polished surface of the tarn shone like a black shield beneath the ringed moon. To water’s edge came Krieg, on silent boots with a battle-axe of ebon steel sheathed over his shoulder. He lay flat on the earth for a moment, drank his fill, then rose to ghost along the shoreline
A shadow jutting into the lake from the shore resolved itself into the fire-ruined wreck of a dragon ship. Krieg knew such tales. A hero fallen in battle had been laid atop a bier on his finest warship. The spoils of his greatest victories were piled around him. Perhaps his female went alive and willing at his side; perhaps she was chained at his feet. Soaked with pitch, the ship had been set adrift and aflame. It burned to the waterline. The remnant lodged itself here like a splinter in the flesh of the world.
Krieg studied the hulk, studied the bleak shore upon which it lay. Someone else had been here before him. Even in the dark his keen gaze identified naked footprints in the soft loam. They were small and slender, such as those made by a woman. There was only one line of prints, coming from the burned ship to the shore.
Intrigued, Krieg turned to follow them.
II: Scarlet Droplets
The tarn sat in a bowl cupped by mountains, and as Krieg climbed toward the rim of the bowl the snow on the ground thickened and the cold deepened. The ascent grew steeper. The footprints flitted onward before him. In time he followed them to a narrow pass squeezed between walls of bare granite. Blood dappled the snow there; Krieg’s eyes narrowed but he did not hesitate.
A few paces farther on the spatters of blood turned to gouts of gore. Amid a welter of torn up slush, Krieg found the slaughtered form of a white bear. Its belly was ripped wide, its intestines spilled on the ground like a miser’s hoard. Its head was missing.
Beyond the ruined bear, the line of narrow footsteps reformed as if from a void. A rain of scarlet droplets marred the snow beside them.
III: Fire Eyes
Crossing the high point of the pass, Krieg started downward into a valley where legions of pines stood like dark sentries beneath their dustings of snow. From within the valley rose smoke, and the smoke led him to a stockade of raw posts hammered into the earth. The footsteps he’d been following disappeared just outside the stockade gate into the turmoil caused by the passing feet of many humans and their animals.
Krieg stopped. The gate was shut and archer towers stood to either side of it where men with bows watched him. Other men walked the wall itself. One wore a helmet, and armor finer than the rest. He called down to Krieg.
“What do you seek here, stranger?”
Krieg considered. Then, “I would speak with your Jarl.”
“Jarl Tovar does not visit with just any stranger who begs audience.”
Krieg smiled, and the helmeted man did not seem comforted. “And what of the last stranger to arrive here?” Krieg asked. “Perhaps a day ago. Perhaps less.”
“None such have arrived for weeks now.”
“Truly,” Krieg said, primarily to himself. Then louder: “Not even a woman?”
“You speak as a fool,” the helmeted one said. “I told you none have come here.”
Krieg frowned. Finally, he called out: “Then let me be the first. I would take sup and a bed for the night. I have coin. Tell your Jarl I have come from the black tarn beyond the pass and would speak to him of a strange thing. If he will not see me, I will be on my way tomorrow.”
“Granted,” the man called down, though he seemed reluctant. “Fresh coin is always welcome. But draw no weapon while in our city.”
The gates opened and Krieg entered. The “city” encompassed no more than thirty longhouses and their outbuildings, and from one of those buildings Krieg sensed he was being watched by eyes other than those of the warriors on the wall. These eyes burned.
IV: Night Visitor
The “city” was called Tovaris, after its Jarl, and there were no public inns available. For a few copper coins, a woman with braids of blonde sold him a rich stew of rabbit and wild onions, and filled for him a large flagon of mead. She showed him to a hay loft where he could spread his blanket.
The summons he expected from the Jarl did not come, and when the early dark of the northlands fell he burrowed into the hay and found it kind. He laid his axe under his right hand; his left curled around a dagger. In moments he was asleep, for he had learned long ago not to pass up opportunities for food or rest.
The cold deepened but it was not the cold which brought Krieg to wakefulness toward mid-night. A smear of gray had formed in the air a few steps away from him. Scarlet flakes swirled within the gray, and tendrils of some darker material trailed from the shape like the ribbons of a tattered cloak.
Krieg did not rage to his feet but remained still and kept his breathing easy. Only the tightening of his hands on his weapons revealed his readiness to move. The “gray” drifted toward him, but just as he prepared to spring up and strike, it paused. A rustling sounded in the straw. Then Krieg was alone again. He rose, moved toward where he’d heard the rustling.
Some brutish shape had been left behind by his visitor. Krieg bent closer, made out the grisly head of a snow bear. He thought it likely to be the head of the beast he’d found slaughtered in the pass above the black tarn. Blood had coagulated around the mauled neck like a circlet of rubies. The eyes had been replaced with winking coals from which smoke still curled.
Krieg knew he’d been warned. He didn’t allow it to disturb the rest of his night.
V: Steel and Lace
At dawn, Krieg awoke refreshed and climbed from his loft to find a man approaching.
“The Jarl will consider your request now,” the man said, and Krieg nodded and accompanied him to the largest of the village’s longhouses. At the threshold the guards demanded his axe and daggers. He gazed at them until their demand turned to a request, then handed over his weapons and entered.
A long table of scarred wood ran through the center of the building’s main hall, and just beyond sat Jarl Tovar in a chair of carved oak so old it was nearly black. At his feet lay a massive hound, also black, except for yellow eyes that recalled its wolfish ancestry. To the Jarl’s left and right stood twin blond warriors wearing helmets and breastplates of steel. They stretched nearly seven feet in height and held warhammers at the ready. Krieg understood the threat.
At a smaller table behind the Jarl’s chair sat a woman with mother-of pearl eyes above a veil of ivory lace the same color as her silk gown. Her hair tumbled silver-gray to her shoulders, and though it might hold the hue of the aged, it held the luster of youth. She watched Krieg, and he was less sure of this threat.
“You wished to speak to me?” Tovar asked.
“To you, and you alone,” Krieg said.
Tovar smiled. He was younger than Krieg had expected, no more than thirty years. His hair and beard were blond, his irises blue as the agates of Norambia. His muscles corded beneath his sleeveless jerkin and he did not appear to be afraid of the black-eyed warrior before him.
“I am not a particularly wise man,” Tovar said. “But I am not so much a fool as to allow a warrior of unknown talents easy access to my throat.”
“Then bring your guards,” Krieg said, gesturing toward the two blond giants with their hammers.
Tovar nodded as if he were considering, then glanced over his shoulder toward the woman in ivory.
“And my spaewife,” he added, turning back to his visitor.
“I would prefer only the guards,” Krieg replied.
Tovar laughed. “You fear a woman more than warriors?”
“When it is warranted,” Krieg agreed.
Tovar nodded again. “Perhaps you are wise enough to speak with after all.”
He stood up, gestured to his guards, and strode toward a corner of the longhouse hidden behind curtains of hide and fur. The hound rose as well, trailing its master, and after went the blond warriors. Krieg glanced toward the spaewife; her eyes were as expressionless as coins. He turned and followed the Jarl.
They passed through the curtains and into Tovar’s bed chamber. The walls were bare and the fireplace cold. The bed was sturdy but not ornate. A table made of linked shields resting on a framework of oak was large enough to seat eight or more. Tovar sat, and the hound curled once more at his feet. The guards stood between Krieg and their Jarl.
“Speak,” Tovar said.
“In the black tarn beyond the pass I found a funeral ship,” Krieg said.
“That seems unlikely. There is no ingress from the sea into that tarn, and no villages nestle along its shore. Where would such a ship have come from?”
“Perhaps from hell,” Krieg said, shrugging. “I know only that the ship had burned itself out but that a survivor came ashore from the ashes. I followed the footprints and they were those of a woman. She came here.”
Tovar drew a long breath as he leaned back in his chair.
“Falk, Ivar,” he said, and the guards glanced toward him. “Leave.”
The two did not even attempt a protest and Krieg’s respect for Tovar rose. The men left, and now only the hound stood between Krieg and the Jarl. The black-eyed warrior did not discount the power of the beast.
“A few days ago I would have laughed you from my presence,” Tovar said.
“But not today,” Krieg added.
“Yaris. My witch woman. Though she looks younger than I, she advised my father. Now she advises me. Three days ago, in a trance, she spoke of blood and water mixed with ashes. Two nights ago a guard on the wall disappeared and has not returned. Last night a mother found blood in the water she intended for her child. The worst of it is that Yaris is afraid. Not of any woman, but of a thing.”
“Yaris also spoke of you,” Tovar added then.
“She said that perhaps you could aid us. And . . . ”
“If we live through the next few days I will tell you,” Tovar said.
VI: Hunter and Hunted
“Foolishness!” Tovar shouted, louder than perhaps was necessary. “You waste my time with fairy stories.”
Krieg did not respond as he pushed through the furs surrounding the Jarl’s bed chamber and into the main part of the longhouse. Tovar followed, held up his hand as guards moved to confront the black-eyed warrior.
“Do not accost him,” Tovar said to the approaching men. “Return him his weapons but make sure he leaves our walls. We have no need of his superstitions here.”
The crowd parted like waves to either side as Krieg moved through them like the prow of a dragon ship. His weapons were returned and he strode from the building and down the trodden path to the stockade’s gate. The gate shut behind him with a clatter but he did not look back.
He moved up the mountain toward the pass he had so recently come down, but travelled only a few hundred paces before the somber pines closed around him and he was lost to the sight of the guards on the walls of Tovaris. He found a place to camp where two fallen trees had snared a thick shield of ice and snow behind them. There, he built a fistful of fire and melted snow in a wooden bowl he took from his pack. Dried meat added to the water cooked into a broth which he drank for his breakfast.
After, he set snares amid the pines and then gathered firewood for the night ahead. He used a length of dead tree limb as a shovel to pile up snow around his encampment so that on three sides he had shelter. Or perhaps a defense.
His weapons were sharp but he sharpened them again, and later took two birds from his snares and cleaned and ate them smoking from his fire. As soon as evening’s shadows began to flow around him, he lay down in his blanket as if to sleep. Then he waited for a death he could not name to come seeking.
VII: The Benighted Dark
With no warning snarl of threat, the first wolf came through the opening of the snow shelter and leaped at Krieg’s throat from across the smoldering fire. Had the man been sleeping, the beast might have had him. But Krieg was ready beneath his blanket, his hands solidly gripping the haft of his double-bitted axe. With a twist of his body, he snapped the weapon upward in a killing blow, and such was his strength and the sharpness of the black steel that the wolf’s neck sheared through.
Blood sprayed the snow walls of his shelter, sizzled in the embers of the fire. A second and third wolf followed the first, but Krieg was rising to his feet. He drove the steel-reinforced haft of the axe crossways into the mouth of one beast, smashing away teeth and tearing loose the jaw, then brought the heavy blades around to hack away half the head of his remaining attacker.
From amid the pines outside, the shouts of men and the howls of beasts arose, and he heard the twang of bows and the hiss of arrows. He crushed the skull of the wounded wolf with a heel and leaped out into the snow. Fire bowls flared to sudden life, revealing struggling shadows. A man screamed only a dozen feet away as a lambent-eyed wolf savaged him. Krieg’s hand flashed to his hip, came up with a dagger that he hurled into the attacking beast’s side. The wolf leaped back, crouched, snarling, and two war-bladed arrows tore its life away.
The howling died. Men ran from the woods. One bent to check on his wounded fellow. Others milled about, as if unsure whether the threat was over or from where the next attack might come.
“Krieg!” called a voice.
“Here,” Krieg answered.
Tovar strode over to him. “I saw nothing of the thing. Did it come for you as we had hoped? Did you kill it?”
Krieg shook his head. “It sent the wolves. It didn’t come itself. Somehow it learned of our plan to trap it.”
“Impossible! No one who knew would tell.” Tovar gestured around. “These men did not even know until we were outside the gates. They could not have whispered it to friend or lover.”
“What of Yaris?” Krieg asked.
“Certainly, I told her. In case she should foresee something of import. Gods, man, she cannot be the thing we seek. I have known her since I was a child.”
Krieg jutted his chin toward the wolf carcass lying nearly at his feet. “Then how do you explain these beasts. And not the one we sought? We offered it my death. As one who might pose it a threat. And that offer was spurned.”
“I cannot answer,” Tovar said, his voice gruff with anger.
From where the stockade lay, a dazzle of sudden lightning leaped into the black sky. Thunder rolled on its heels like a thousand copper bells being crushed. The people of Tovaris began to scream.
VIII: Ashes and Embers
They ran — Krieg and Tovar and Tovar’s men. They tore through the pines and into the clearing around the stockade. Orange flames climbed the sky from something burning inside the walls.
Tovar shouted at the gate and it was flung back. One guard met them, clearly frightened.
“What has happened?” demanded Tovar.
“An explosion!” the man cried. “I think at the spaewife’s hut. Then fire everywhere. The others went to see. Since then, screams. I –”
Tovar did not wait to hear the rest but ran in the direction of the fire. Krieg and the others followed. They found the Jarl’s longhouse burning fiercely, and another building’s roof aflame nearby. Men and women and children beat at the flames. Tovar ordered those who had accompanied him into the forest to join that fight, but then turned himself and rushed toward where Yaris’s hut stood. Krieg followed.
The spaewife’s small house lay destroyed, but though some of its planks smoldered, it had been no fire that ruined it. It was as if some titan had burst it from within, sending the shards flying in all directions.
Tovar pushed into the rubble, frantically searching for his witch woman.
“Any sign?” Krieg asked.
“No,” Tovar snarled. “Could you have been right about her?”
Krieg said nothing.
A high pitched scream punctured the darkness and both Krieg and Tovar spun toward the sound. This time, Tovar followed Krieg as the dark-eyed warrior raced in that direction. In an alley between two longhouses they found the body of a man. It recalled for Krieg the killing of the white bear above the tarn. Here, too, the head was missing. This time he could see no blood trail to follow.
“Whatever it is we seek,” Krieg said. “It is on the loose in your village.”
Cursing, Tovar drew his sword with a rasp from its sheath. “I will slay this monster or die,” he snarled.
“We hunt as two,” Krieg said. “Trap it between us. Remember, it is a thing of fire. Use no flame against it.”
Tovar made no response but stepped over the cooling body before him and moved down the alley. Krieg went to the right, around the longhouse on the other side. He came upon a circular opening between buildings. A well stood there, lit by the lurid fires that still ate greedily at the bones of the village. Upon the wall of stones surrounding the well sat three grisly offerings: a man’s head, a woman’s, and a child’s.
With scarce a pause, the warrior strode to the well and bent to look within. In almost the same instant, he spun back around, drawing his axe from over his shoulder. Out of the shadows from behind him came flowing some mist-like thing bearing the shape of a woman burned to ashes and embers. The face was a hole darker than black.
Most warriors would have wasted a moment on fear; Krieg swung his axe. The heavy blade hacked into the swirling mass and tore through. The mist roiled madly and to Krieg’s ears came a thin shriek like the wind howling over pack ice. The thing hesitated an instant and Krieg struck again. Once more his weapon cleaved a gash through the shape. Again came the shriek, but this time the monster pressed forward.
Tendrils of the thing’s mass solidified around the haft of Krieg’s axe, tried to tear it from his grasp. The warrior and the monster struggled for possession of the weapon but neither could move the other.
The creature’s empty face began to grow texture, began to sprout a muzzle that glinted black with teeth. The mouth struck at Krieg and he narrowly jerked his head aside. A tendril of gray tissue whipped from behind the thing to encircle the man’s legs and lock them together. The monstrous muzzle split wide, sprouted a scabrous tongue that wove in the air before him like the head of a snake.
Krieg let go of his axe with one hand, grabbed a dark dagger from his belt and slashed across at the tongue as it began to form the shape of a spear blade. The dagger cut through, sent a sliver of flesh hurtling away. Krieg reversed the weapon in his hand, slashed downward to sever the tendril binding his legs.
The thing reared back in apparent agony, and Krieg thrust the dagger savagely into the side of its newly formed jaw. Steel caught on something that grated like bone. Whatever the creature was at its core, Krieg realized, when it took on form it became that form — and became vulnerable.
Falling back from the source of its agony, the creature suddenly turned and darted away, losing coherence as it moved, becoming once more a mist full of ash and coals. It took Krieg’s dagger with it.
“Here!” Krieg shouted, hoping Tovar would hear. He ran after the monster, but it was swift as a river rushing toward a falls. He lost it amid a maze of sheds built to house chattel and store harvests.
Hunting through those outbuildings, Krieg found only slaughtered goats and cows. A sound of footsteps brought his head around. At the opening to the shed where he searched stood Tovar. With him ran his black hound. The hound bared its canines and let a low growl rumble from deep within its chest. The man held a drawn sword in his right fist and the urge to kill lived in his gaze.
“I found Yaris,” Tovar said, in a voice cold and hard. “The hound led me to her.”
“And?” Krieg inquired.
Tovar opened his left hand, showed a black dagger lying across the palm. “She was not decapitated like the others. She’d been killed with this. I’m sure you recognize one of your own knives.”
A twisted smile curved Krieg’s lips.
Tovar snarled, dropped the dagger and came charging.
IX: In Battle Lies Truth
The fires that still burned in Tovaris set the Jarl’s greatsword aglitter as he leaped toward Krieg. Krieg’s axe refracted only blackness as he brought his weapon up to block. Steel sang on steel. The sword rebounded.
Tovar spun, bringing his blade around like a scythe to reap Krieg down. The dark-eyed warrior twisted aside, tried to hook Tovar’s leg with the haft of his axe to trip him. The Jarl was too quick.
The weapons clashed again. Again the sword rebounded. The Jarl tried to circle Krieg, hoping to open him to an attack from the hound crouched waiting and snarling by the shed door. Krieg did not allow the strategy, and in the confines of the building Tovar could not force it.
Now, Tovar began to use his blade to thrust rather than slash. The axe should have been slower than the sword, and perhaps it would have been in the hands of anyone but Krieg. Once, twice, again, the Jarl drove in for the kill and was forced back. Then Tovar saw an opening. He launched a thrust, and as Krieg went into a crouch to block that blow the Jarl converted his attack into a shoulder-high slash.
The blade came slicing down, but Krieg was not as out of position as he seemed. He snapped the haft of his axe up just enough to deflect the sword over his head, then powered forward and up from his crouch, slamming his shoulder into the Jarl’s midsection and rising to flip the lighter man over his back.
The Jarl crashed into a hayrick that shattered into splinters, and in the same instant Krieg lunged toward the black hound, which had finally seen its chance and leaped to the attack. The beast’s eyes flamed yellow; its mouth was a raw, red wound of savagery. Krieg was faster.
The half-moon blades of the dark axe thrust the muzzle of the hound aside, and Krieg freed one hand to scoop up the dagger Tovar had dropped. The hound twisted like a lion to lunge at Krieg again, and the warrior brought the dagger down with enough force to drive the blade through the thing’s skull and into the frozen soil beneath.
A half-lost howl rasped from the beast’s mouth; its paws scrabbled at the dirt. And Krieg came to his feet and swung his axe in an arc that ended with a spray of black ichor and the hound’s head rolling free.
“No!” shouted Tovar, as he rose from where he had fallen. He still held his sword and made to rush against Krieg, then froze as the dead hound erupted with sudden flames that seared away fur and flesh to reveal first the shape of a burned woman, and then a writhing mass of ashes shot through with scarlet streamers.
Krieg lowered his axe, stood watching the Jarl, who watched what he had thought to be his dog melt away like mist into the earth.
Tovar looked up at Krieg. “My hound?”
“Likely killed when this thing replaced it. The same night the first guard disappeared, I warrant.”
“How did you know?”
“Only the hound was present when we spoke of trapping the monster in the woods. Too, you said it led you to Yaris, who had my knife in her. Moments before, I stabbed the creature with that blade and watched it carry the weapon off.”
Tovar’s shoulders slumped. “I tried to kill you,” he said.
“I am unharmed.”
“And the monster is dead. By the Gods, what was it?”
Krieg made no reply.
Tovar straightened, sheathed his sword. “I must aid my people against the fires that still burn,” he said.
Krieg sheathed his axe. “I shall as well.”
The two went side by side from that place.
X: Leave Taking
They stood at the gate of Tovaris, Krieg and the Jarl.
“Do you wish to know what else Yaris said about you, Krieg?” Tovar asked. “After she told me you might be able to aid us?”
Krieg gazed for a moment at the Jarl. “It matters not,” he said. Then he turned and strode from the town.
Tovar shook his head, smiling, then shouted after the black-eyed warrior. “She said you could aid us because you were far more to be feared than the creature we hunted. She spoke the truth.”
Krieg gave no indication he had heard.
Charles Allen Gramlich is the author of the Talera series of fantasy novels and the thriller, Cold in the Light. His short stories have been collected primarily in three anthologies, Bitter Steel, (Fantasy), Midnight in Rosary (Vampires/Werewolves), and In the Language of Scorpions (Horror). He is also the author of Write With Fire, a book on writing and publishing. Charles’s latest work is Under the Ember Star, a science fiction novel written in the tradition of writers such as C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett. Charles has self published a few items for Kindle and Nook, including a western collection entitled Killing Trail, a collection of Noir/Horror stories called Harmland, and a humorous autobiography called Days of Beer. His well-reviewed fantasy tale, Harvest of War, and a collection of flash fictions called Micro Weird are only on Kindle at present. Most of Charles’s works are available in print and ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Wildside Press. Charles lives with his wife, an award winning photographer, in Louisiana. He is on facebook as Charles Gramlich.