BY MATTHEW T. ACHESON
(Originally Published by Spinetinglers, December 2012 Contest, 2nd Place)
Perched high atop the Aldaröks, he watched the writhing maelstrom that covered the slopes of the mountains in steaming carnage. The air was all smoke, bellowing warhorns, and the shrieking of men, and horses, and darker things. It was a holocaust that brought a rumbling hunger deep inside him that could not be sated; for the Reaver was born to end lives.
At the height of the battle, a delicate figure embraced him from behind and he felt the damp caress of her lips on his neck. “Back to the void with you, my love,” she whispered.
The Reaver turned to find five of his greatest lieutenants unmasked, leering at him with black, hate-filled eyes and twisted faces. Their wickedly sharp blades slashed and stung him like a swarm of bees. He ended one of the betrayers with his bare hands, and the Drinker – loyal and pale and fierce as ever – brought another to ruin. But the blades of the three wounded him until he felt his immortality draining away like wine from a cask with a thousand holes.
The Reaver’s stomach heaved as he plummeted screaming off the edge of the mountain. Varne woke to the screeching of rusted hinges.
“Who’s there?” he croaked. His voice was hoarse, and the air tasted musty and fetid in his throat. He felt weak, and cold, so damnably cold. The bedchamber was damp, and only a faint glow of light spilled through the open door.
“It’s only me, your servant Rejnak, my lord.”
The raspy voice was familiar, but elusive, like a half-forgotten memory. How long had it been since that voice, or any other, had filled his ears?
A hunchbacked man wearing a tattered cloak and drab peasant clothes underneath shambled into the room. Wisps of grey hair sprouted wildly from the sides of his head, and his skin was so pallid that he looked as though he had never seen the sun. “I heard screaming, and came at once.” Varne pressed his palms into his temple and caressed the nightmare out of his mind.
“You’ve come back to us at last, my lord,” Rejnak said. “I’ll assemble the faithful at once.” Varne winced. He felt small and alone, and the notion of putting on the other mask made him shrink further into himself. “No, make a fire first,” he grumbled.
“As you wish, my lord.”
He lay shivering in bed, while Rejnak fussed over a pile of logs and kindling in the crude hearth near the center of the room. He drew a wolfskin blanket over himself, and felt its harsh and itchy embrace on his naked flesh. Once the blanket had been soft and luxurious, but now the leather was cracked, and the fur had turned brittle. Has it been so long?
The wizened old man fed wood into the hearth until the fire was hot and crackling. The smell of smoke brought back memories of roasted potatoes, lake trout fried in butter, and red meat eaten right off the bone. Rejnak seemed to sense his hunger. “I could prepare a haunch of deer for supper tonight, if it pleases my lord,” he said.
Varne rose from his bed of straw and furs. He reeled dizzily and took a few shuffling steps forward to steady himself. The rough stone floor felt cool on his feet. Varne pulled on a pair of wool breeches, and a thin cotton shirt that hung loosely across his broad chest.
“Aye, venison would please me,” he said, “but wine would please me more.”
Rejnak turned away from the hearth and pointed with a log. “There is a flagon on the table there, my lord.” He seized the flagon with both hands and drank greedily. The wine trickling down his throat warmed his belly, and he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. There, I’m beginning to feel myself again.
Varne’s eyes turned to the far wall of his bedchamber, which was painted with a mural that depicted a great host of men slaughtering each other in the depths of a dim cavern. In the midst of the carnage, a massive figure wearing a horned helm and blood-smeared mail stood on a dais with his battle axe thrust in the air. Corpses were piled at his feet, and a monstrous black tunnel yawned behind him.
The images stirred him, and now fully awake, he noticed that the air felt different. It was alive, thrumming with a hair-raising power, and tasted acrid like smoke; as if the whole world was ready to catch fire. He sensed the Others out there, whispering, scheming, and gathering strength to them like the dead draw crows. There would be no more cycles of gorging and rest; the Great Turning – his last and only chance of ever returning home – had finally come.
A cold shiver ran up his arms and neck, and his heart beat faster in his chest. It’s too soon. I’m not strong enough. I must be whole again!
Varne acknowledged a pile of bones in the corner, and his thoughts turned to the artist who had given birth to the hideous work of art on the wall. She had opened her mind to him, and seen the visions of what was to come. The experience left her damned, twitching, broken. He closed his eyes and remembered curly locks of auburn fire that fell across freckled cheeks, the curve of her waist, firm tits, and kisses that tasted of blackberries. His manhood pressed against his breeches, and he took another long pull from the flagon of wine.
“I will not be right again until I have fucked something.”
“What sort of woman would you like, my lord?” Rejnak asked. Varne took up a rusting battle axe that leaned against the wall. The smooth handle felt familiar in his hands, but now it was all soft and rotten. “I care only that they are many, and fair, and screaming in my bed within the week.”
“I will have one brought to you tonight, my lord.”
“We ambushed an armed band a few days ago in the Skaerling Pass,” Rejnak said. “Two, no, three nights ago I should think. Tallest Nordsmen I’ve ever seen; I swear they must’ve had old Drôld blood in them. They were led by a noblewoman, and we took her alive knowing your taste for the night-haired ones, my lord.”
“You have done well, Rejnak.” Varne trembled with excitement, his mind already relishing the many delights of having a new bed warmer. He took another swig of wine, and his eyes narrowed. “Men as far north as the Skaerlings?”
“The Nords live closer now.” Rejnak shifted uncomfortably. “They have…forgotten you, my lord.”
“Forgotten me?” Varne eyed the bones again, and the ancient weapon in his hands. Has it truly been so long?
“Forgive me for saying so, my lord,” Rejnak said. “But that’s not the worst of it. There are fewer of us now than ever. The Drinker left, saying you’d never wake – after what happened with the Gosford whelp – and many went over to the Others.”
“Turned against me?” A fire woke inside him, and all the anger and hate in the world flushed across his neck and cheeks. His corded muscles bulged; the shaft of the axe splintered in his hands, and the iron head clanged against the stone floor. There was a sudden lance of pain in his side, so intense that it left him lightheaded and weak. He pressed his hand against the wound, and it came away hot and sticky.
Rejnak’s pale, hideous features wrinkled up in astonishment. “It is the old wound, my lord. It has never healed.” Freezing, searing spider legs crawled over him and his head swam. Varne set the flagon of wine down on the table roughly, and staggered back into his bed. Memories of her betrayal made his throat ache, and for the first time in all his long years, he felt utterly empty, vulnerable, and alone. He clamped his jaws together to stem the warm tears that slid down his haggard cheeks.
Rejnak reached down and put a calloused hand on his arm. “Are you all right?”
“Bring the woman,” Varne said through gritted teeth.
“As you wish, my lord.” Rejnak bowed and shuffled into the corridor. A long silence fell, and as the flames lowered, shadows danced eerily across the walls. There was a faint odor of rotting flesh, but whether it had come from Rejnak or the pile of bones in the corner, Varne could not tell. The puncture wound in his abdomen throbbed painfully. He covered himself with the wolfskin blanket, and lay there shivering and feverish.
I would butcher the world before they forget me again.
The door squealed like a whore, and the scent of perfume filled the room. A tall woman with fair skin and dark hair swept into his bedchamber. Her eyes lingered over him, and her full lips curled into a smile. “You did not tell me your lord was such a beautiful man.”
Her lithe form glided across his bedchamber, the brown cloth of her dress clinging to her curves like summer. She sat on the edge of the bed, and gently traced his powerful chest with her fingernails.
“My lord is more than a man,” Rejnak said stiffly. Her linen skirts and maroon corset rustled as she eased herself onto him. “Of that I have no doubt,” she said, sprinkling his broad chest with kisses and gentle bites.
“Leave us.” Varne’s face flushed with excitement.
“My lord.” Rejnak bowed, and the door shut behind him.
“Perhaps my lord has a thirst for a bit of sweet wine before his feast?” She smiled, and bit her lip playfully.
“Everything I thirst after is right here in this bed.” He took her by the waist and pressed her into him. The wound in his side ached terribly; he fed the pain to the monster, and set aside the more pleasant dishes for the man. The woman laughed and loosed herself from his grasp with a strength and grace that was surprising. She padded over to the table, poured herself a mug of wine from the flagon, and brought the cup to her lips with a groan of approval. ”I would never have imagined finding such an excellent vintage in a damp cavern that reeks of fungus and old men.”
Her confidence and lack of fear were strangely enticing. “Do you know who I am?”
She set her wine cup down, and mounted him again silently. “There are some who say you are Varne Ulfer himself, reborn,” she whispered. Her dark eyes melted through him, and Varne found himself exposed, disarmed, trembling. He felt her gentle, tingling kisses moving up his neck. He closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. “And what do you say, beautiful lady?”
Her damp tongue pressed against his ear. “Once I might have called you a god amongst demons,” she whispered, “but all I see now is a scared boy shivering beneath a mountain.” Varne felt the furnace inside him come alive. He clutched her face with one hand and squeezed. “I would know your name, wench, before I rip out your tongue.”
She drew herself up stiffly, and he saw that her eyes were black, carnal, threatening. Varne’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you?” Her hand reached into the folds of her dress. “How long has it been since you’ve had me, my sweet butcher?”
A slow, wheezing breath as long as the centuries rattled free of his lungs. “Ravanna…”
His pale, dark haired mistress smiled and brought her playful lips to his ear. He felt her warm breath on his neck and shuddered. “Back to the void with you, my love,” she whispered in his ear for the second time in eternity.
Ravanna’s hand sprung out of her dress, and a bright, silvery line arced across his vision and plunged into his chest. A bone cold knife slipped between the flesh of his ribs, and he felt himself seeping out onto the bed in hot, thick spurts. A searing cold spread through every part of him and out to the very edge of his soul. There were only a hundred blades in the world that could put an end to his days – this one was called Shard. Inside of him, the Reaver stirred, and its roar shook the hollow mountain.
Ravanna struggled to rip the blade free, but it was lodged in his ribs and her hand slipped off the blood-soaked handle of the ancient dagger. Hoarse cries of alarm rang out in the corridor, and light spilled into the room behind her. She leapt out of the bed, just a black streak out of the corner of his eye, and he heard a hoarse shrieking that he recognized as Rejnak’s.
Varne wrapped both hands around Shard’s bloody hilt and pulled the Vallisian Silver dagger free of his ribs. A fiery lance of pain shot through him, riding his arteries like a scorpion’s venom. He howled and thrashed, tearing the planks of his headboard to kindling.
He rolled off the bed just as, with a sick cracking of the neck, Ravanna felled the last of his henchmen, which had sped into his bedchamber after the commotion. Varne took her by the throat and threw her back against the cave wall with one hand, bringing his face close to hers. He gritted his teeth and ignored the searing torment from the weeping hole in his chest.
“Did you really think you could finish me where five could not, fetchling?” he snarled, tightening his grip around her throat.
Ravanna’s face contorted and she let out a soft moan of pleasure. She brushed the back of her soft fingers across his cheek, and ran the tips through his hair. “I could never resist your fire,” she said. She arched away from the wall, her hips buckling, and wrapped her legs around his waist. Her eyes were warm, inviting, eager. “Kill me if you must, but take me first.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, lightheaded, and his mind drifted back through the centuries to a red pavilion where the two of them lay covered in soft blankets, wrapped in each other, breathless and shaking. As before, the pleasure was a mask for treachery.
Varne sensed his lover lash out with her mind, and there was a low whistling of sharp steel as the broken remains of his axe flew across the room and struck him from behind, opening a painful gash in his shoulder blade. The impact brought a shudder of pain from the hole that Shard had left in his chest, but when it passed he could feel the wound in his shoulder already stitching itself back together.
Anger rose up in the Reaver like bile, and he pressed his face close to hers. “I could end you now, my sweet Ravanna.” She struggled, and bit, and lashed out with her claws but the Reaver’s grip could not be broken. He tasted her fear – hot, palpable, wild. “Instead I’ll send you back with a message.”
He brought Shard down with a powerful stroke and severed the delicate hand from her wrist. Ravanna’s screams were a black fury, a whirling tempest, a devil’s nightmare. He cast her down, and she slithered out into the corridor, hissing like a snake.
“Tell the Others that the Reaver stirs,” he shouted in a deep baritone as she fled. “Tell them that I have not forgotten, and all will be settled!”
Bright stars burst in his vision, and a black ink blotted out the world. The Reaver fell back onto his bed, clutching the gash in his chest as it pumped his life out onto the wolfskin. He took Shard’s blade in his strong hands, and the muscles in his forearms bulged until the ancient Vallisian Silver weapon gasped – like a crystal shattering – and he pressed its broken shaft against the hole in his chest. The skin around the wound crackled and popped as a white flame erupted from the broken shards of metal, and sent a warm, tingling feeling through him. His chest wound closed slowly, and the pain subsided everywhere except the old puncture in his side. Varne lay in his bed, feeling breathless, and dizzy, and almost whole again for the first time in a thousand years.
He rolled his head to the side and looked down at his old friend’s broken corpse. “Rejnak, you must go and find the Drinker,” he said groggily. “I need him now, more than ever. Bring him back to me, Rejnak, bring him back…” The Reaver looked to the far wall of his bedchamber, coughing. His eyes lingered on the mural of a horned figure in crimson mail, standing on a dais with his battle axe thrust in the air and death strewn about him.
“Tell him that we must make them remember, so the Gosfords send another son to unmake me. I must have it, Rejnak…the sword that did this.” Varne lifted his blood-stained shirt and exposed the old puncture wound in his side.
A breeze cooled his face for a moment, and then he was alone in his bed, sweating, shivering, and consumed by a single thought: The world will know pain, and fear, and of the Red Reaver again – one last time.