The shadowed forests of northern Germania teem with cults beholden to sinister powers, some disguised as more benevolent gods. In a pivotal meeting, two of these woods’ most dangerous groups pave the way for an alliance that will threaten not only the tribes of Germania but even Rome itself.
Gerbern strode through the outer camps like a hunting wolf, his keen eyes taking in the state of the warbands in the aftermath of the most recent raid. There had been a few deaths, but not many, and spirits were high, roused by the seizure of fresh spoils. The injured were being tended to, though those judged too maimed would be given a swift end by a walkyr’s blade—offered to Wodan, and his living shadow.
They had conducted the raid in part to secure more weapons and food, but also to test the mettle of their greenest warriors, both the young unproven who had reached maturity, as well as a batch of warriors recently seized from neighboring tribes. Enslaved thralls were scattered among the campfires, looking half-starved and scared. They had reason to fear the seasoned warriors near them, those bearing the mark of Herjan.
These men and women had been taken in previous raids, as was tradition. Many would be put to work at simple and unpleasant tasks, but the most able-bodied and courageous could volunteer to earn a different fate. These thralls were kept lean and hungry, starved until they became desperate.
At the outset of battle each was handed an old pitted knife, a short spear, or a worn axe better employed for shaving kindling. The lucky few might find a half-splintered shield, or take blood-spattered hides from the fallen to secure some degree of protection. It was fated they would suffer. A difficult crucible, many would fail.
Gerbern and others of his standing, together with the vigilant walkyr, had lingered back in the raid to observe their struggles, judging them alongside the young.
As he neared the campfire he sought, the slender shape of a walkyr emerged from the shadows to greet him. He nodded respectfully at her, as a peer, for they each served the same master in different ways. A spear was strapped to her back and her face bore bands of black dye at both her eyes and mouth. Rib bones dangled from the waist of her robe, rattling against one another.
“Helya,” he greeted her. “How did they do?” He inclined his head toward the ragged band around the nearest fire.
She spoke in a hoarse whisper that did not carry far, requiring him to lean toward her. “One did well. The old man with the torn ear. He killed two, injured another. Watches out for his own.”
Gerbern nodded thanks at this assessment and stepped closer, into the light of the fire. Those gathered around it were shivering and hungry, none bearing Herjan’s mark. They pulled away at the sight of him, at his tattooed face, the gleaming bands of bronze along his arms, the inscribed blade at his waist and painted round shield on his back. He was Einherjar, those who walked with Herjan and spoke in his hall. Even the newest of them had learned what this meant.
He scanned their faces, seeing a few who were willing to look him in the eye, one being the oldest of them, who matched Helya’s description. He was wide of frame and still had some bulk to him, no doubt a veteran of his tribe, before they had been crushed, their homes burned. Gerbern could easily imagine him with an axe and shield, screaming defiantly until a haft smashed into the side of his head, knocking him cold. When he’d woken, stripped and shackled, he’d have regretted not dying alongside others of his kin who had perished that day. Now he’d decided to look after his closest surviving kin.
Those who volunteered to fight like this were inherently treacherous, Gerbern knew. Their lives had been shattered by their captors, and they thirsted for revenge. The devotion required of them would not happen overnight. It began with anger and fear, which sometimes became defiance or scheming subservience. Those with true mettle bided their time with feigned obedience, waiting for their chance to either flee or strike back. Breaking them could be tricky.
“You, Half-ear,” he said aloud, staring him down. “Come to me.”
Half-ear glanced at the others there at the fire, giving a reassuring smile to a couple of the youngest, then stood and approached as bid. He was clearly resigned to whatever his fate might be, should Gerbern decide to strike him down.
“I am told you fought ably,” Gerbern said, clapping him on the shoulder. Half-ear winced and seemed startled at this familiarity. “You’ll eat well tonight.”
“I did as asked… Einherjar.” He hesitated before using the term, as if it tasted bad in his mouth. But an eager light had come to his eyes at the mention of extra food. It had been days since he’d eaten more than scraps.
“And the others, how did they fare?” Gerbern used his chin to indicate the others still sitting and cowering by the fire behind him.
“They all did well,” Half-ear insisted. “They’re brave, if young. You’ll not find anyone here lacking.” His voice quavered a bit as he said that last.
Gerbern grunted and then turned to another man there, who was sitting on a fallen trunk a few feet back. “Boda, a word.” He beckoned to this one, who glanced at the others, who stared balefully at him, then stood as bid.
Boda was shaggy-headed and light-haired, his eyes a bit haunted. He was also a thrall, but not as lean or desperate as the others. Gerbern had placed him with the group deliberately, a tactic he had done many times before. Boda had earned his trust and was given certain liberties, so long as he kept an eye on the newer thralls.
“What say you, Boda?” Gerbern asked. “Is Half-ear speaking true?”
“I’m afraid not,” Boda gave Half-ear an apologetic smile, shrugging as if to suggest it was out of his hands. Boda waved to the ones who had been sitting closest to the older warrior. “Those three stayed back and hid.”
Half-ear paled, his mouth open, wincing as Gerbern turned back to him. He said in a pleading voice, “They’re young. I can teach them.”
Gerbern nodded. “And you will. But they do not have much time.” He pulled Half-ear closer and pressed a slender knife into his hand. “In this camp there are only those who fight for Herjan. All others are meat and gristle. By dawn, you will select one of those three and butcher him as you would a deer. When I come to collect meat for the larder, if you fail to do as asked, I will kill all of you in his place. Is that understood? The walkyr are watching.” He turned from the man, not acknowledging the horror on Half-ear’s face, waving for Boda to follow as he strode to the next fire.
Having completed his survey of the thralls, Gerbern returned to the center where his own warriors feasted, joining them. Boda remained at his side and filled his mug when needed, then gratefully accepted his own portion of roasting flesh. He had been forced to endure the same privation as the others while pretending to be one of them, and was clearly famished.
Gerbern enjoyed Boda’s company, for he had a quick wit and a pragmatic temperament, and performed his duties well. He had not accepted his lot as a thrall, and dreamed of freedom, but he had seen first-hand the price of betrayal and knew better than to hatch schemes. His only chance of becoming a freeman was to be welcomed into the band as a warrior on his own merits, which was Gerbern’s call. And before that could happen, Gerbern required of him something Boda had struggled to achieve.
“How many times must I do this?” Boda asked as the night wore on and the revelries died down. Many of the other warriors had lain down to sleep. Gerbern had given him leave to speak freely at times like this. “I dislike pretending.”
“As many as I ask,” he replied. Then after a pause, “But maybe not so many more. I may have to find someone more pathetic looking to take your place.”
Boda nodded, his angular face wary for any hidden threat in those words. He sipped from his own drink then said, “I am ready to fight at your side, Einherjar. Let me join you. I will carry your shield and take any blow meant for you.”
Gerbern gave him a direct look, weighing his features. He seemed sincere, though no doubt motivated by desperation. He said, “You still do not believe.”
Boda frowned and after another pause said, “If I fight for you, does that matter? I have to ask, and forgive me for it, but do you truly think he is Wodan? He is a great chieftain, to be sure. Blessed by the gods, that much is plain. But still a man…” his voice trailed off, likely fearing he had gone too far.
It was not an unfamiliar discussion, though they had never confronted it so directly. Gerbern felt no anger. He said, “My grandfather served Herjan. And his grandfather as well. He has not aged a day. You have not seen what I have seen of the things he can do. His eyes see into the world of the dead. Spirits whisper to him.”
The thrall frowned and said, “He is truly terrifying. But the Allfather…”
Gerbern held up a hand. “No one is more devoted to Wodan than he. And he refuses to take that name as his own. He prays to the Allfather and accepts that he is but a shadow of the god, a sliver of his bones wrapped in blood and flesh. But make no mistake, he is not just a man. Someday you will understand.”
Boda knew better than to speak more of it, but Gerbern could see the doubt in his eyes. It was this that kept him a thrall.
The next morning they picked up their camp and marched to return to the main hall, carrying their spoils with them, those they had captured chained and following miserably behind. Some of what they brought was food stores, including everything they could seize from the village they had burned, also several captured goats, oxen, and pigs. And they brought fresh meat that would soon be smoked and salted, including cuts butchered from the recently slain. Such flesh was special, having sacred properties, used in rites to honor the brooding gods. This was Herjan’s way.
It was rumors of this practice that had spread among the surrounding tribes and added to the terror with which they viewed Herjan’s growing horde. It was a severe taboo to them, but not among those who had been raised in the northernmost villages such as Gerbern, who saw all men who were not his battle brothers as another sort of cattle. He had been pleased that Half-ear had done as bid, offering up one of his kin to save the rest. These were the sorts of sacrifices the gods demanded.
It was just verging on twilight when they returned, greeted by the rest of the tribe with enthusiasm. Revels would continue in the great hall at the village center. It was an active and lively place, encircled and protected by the dense forest. The village had been growing to accommodate those brought to join the tribe, both those who converted willingly from fear of reprisals, and others taken thrall in battle. There was a perpetual sound of hammering and sawing as materials were gathered to expand and refine the hovels in which villagers of various castes dwelled. Like other Einherjar, Gerbern had his own lodging near the great hall and could spend time there whenever he wished.
He was eager to see Herjan directly and report on their raid, but discovered on his return that some manner of activity was already taking place at the great hall. Speaking to others dwelling in its periphery he learned that visitors had just arrived and been welcomed at the hearth. Emissaries come to bargain with Herjan.
Not wanting to be viewed as ignorant before his own subordinates, Gerbern set aside most of his gear in his home with his wife, who greeted him with polite but not especially warm formality, as was her habit. Then he dispatched Boda to check on what had transpired during their absence.
“Envoys of the Cult of Mormo,” Boda said on his return. “It appears they seek some boon. No one I spoke to knows anything more.”
“Mormo! Here?” Gerbern was startled enough to show his surprise. “Come with me, we had better be there for this.”
They hurried to the great wooden hall at the center of the village, Herjan’s seat of power. Gerbern’s mind was troubled but he gathered his wits as they passed through the outer doors, watched by armed warriors who he knew well. He was congratulated by those he passed for his success, and his answers were only slightly distracted. He felt perturbed the celebration of their return was being overshadowed by whatever was taking place with these unexpected visitors.
The Cult of Mormo was an enigmatic group that shared the forest with them, usually keeping to itself and as much feared as Herjan’s band, though for different reasons. They worshiped a powerful but dire goddess, one who was not appreciated by Herjan’s walkyr. They had clashed with the followers of Mormo before, discovering among them formidable beasts that could shatter shields and tear out throats with little effort. By and large they had each steered clear of the other, careful to avoid intruding on known territories. Gerbern bore scars attesting to clashes with them first-hand. He vividly remembered facing down a strange goatlike creature with horizontal pupils that brayed at him before hacking with a jagged blade. Afterward the fight had taken on a dreamlike quality in his mind, though he was certain it had been real.
The hall was relatively crowded with the more privileged individuals high in Herjan’s favor, a number of them fellow Einherjar and their immediate families and retinues. Gerbern pushed his way through, nodding to those with whom he was on good terms, until he reached a cleared area near the center, adjacent to the long feasting table. At its foot was a raised area with Herjan’s own smaller table and the sizable carved chair that served as his throne. A number of fiery braziers and the large hearth provided ample illumination.
He saw the walkyr Helya standing near the long table, likely also recently arrived, and he joined her, nodding greeting. They shared a look and he caught the tightness of her lips and the intensity of her expression and guessed she too was wary of their visitors. Serving as priests and spiritual guides to Herjan’s tribe, the walkyr had every reason to be suspicious of Mormo’s cultists.
Herjan was seated at his throne, and even in this posture he looked enormous, dwarfing those nearest, including several older Einherjar and the thralls tending to his own needs. He was decked in the fine furs and cloth that might be expected of a great chieftain, adorned with gold rings and bracelets.
His left eye was covered by a black patch sewn with silver thread, and the edges of this patch glowed as if from some inner pale blue light beneath. On the occasions Gerbern spoke to Herjan directly face to face, it was difficult to avoid staring at this inexplicable glow, particularly when the light was dim. He had never seen him without the patch and wondered what lay beneath. Herjan’s thick hair was mostly raven black though also shot through with silver, and he seemed a man of seasoned years, perhaps just old enough that his sons might also have sons. This belied his true age, as none who lived in these lands could recall a time he had not been here, either ruling from his hall in isolation, or marching forth to conduct bloody raids on his neighbors and rivals.
His typical weapons were not in evidence, perhaps to reassure his unusual visitors, though the effect was rather to make him appear entirely unconcerned for his own safety. Herjan had accumulated an impressive hoard of treasures and an arsenal of favored weapons, though in honor of the god to whom he was inextricably bound, he preferred the spear. Gerbern had seen Herjan thrust its silvered blade through two armored men at once.
The visitors were seated at the foot of Herjan’s own table, and they appeared small and fragile. There were three of them, all draped in layers of black cloth, relatively unadorned compared to either their host or his nearest warriors. They wore hooded cloaks but had pulled them back to bare their heads, two women and a man, from what Gerbern could discern.
One of the women was very thin and looked quite old and wizened, her head cowled and her lower face covered by a lacy mask. Her arms were bare and there was something wrong with her skin, being mottled and discolored, as if she had been burned or suffered some similar affliction. The other was younger but still mature and heavier of frame, and her neck seemed unnaturally long. Gerbern thought he saw a glimpse of sharpened teeth when she ate, though her hands obscured her mouth. Both women wore adornments on their brows that resembled diadems of thorny vines lacquered a dark red that looked like dried blood. The male was of an uncertain age, being bald and his face nearly hairless, his skin so pale it was almost corpselike. His eyes were peculiar, and his pale skin had a mottled pattern which made it seem his veins were blackened. A similar web could be seen on the surface of his delicate hands resting atop the table.
They appeared to be amid extended greetings and polite formalities, the language of which felt strange in this hall. Herjan ordinarily had little patience for such conversation, but he seemed in an indulgent mood. He had demanded food and drink be placed before the visitors, and they were thanking him and accepting his generosity, though they did not seem to have much of an appetite.
An older and senior walkyr stepped up to Herjan and whispered in his ear. This was Jyrvel, who was rarely far from the chieftain and god-king. He nodded and to Gerbern’s surprise looked in the Einherjar’s direction, then raised his drinking vessel in salute. “It seems our raid was a success!” His voice boomed across the hall, prompting all other nearby discussion to silence. “Let us honor our brothers who return to us!”
A mug was pushed into Gerbern’s hands and voices were raised in congratulations as he was toasted. He thanked them in return, then raised his mug to Herjan and bowed his head deeply. He said, “My Lord, it was a simple matter, easily done. All we seized we offer in your name, and for the glory of Wodan.”
They did not linger on the raid, to Gerbern’s relief, as he did not wish to be the object of Herjan’s scrutiny. That was a dangerous position to occupy for long.
Though he and those around him engaged in some few scraps of halting conversation, all attention was fixed on Herjan’s table. And the hall had quieted such that Gerbern was able to hear them, though with some effort.
The male of the trio, named Ulidor, appeared to be their spokesman. The way in which he carefully chose his words and frequently glanced at his companions gave the impression the older matron at least was his superior. Perhaps he answered to both women. This was in keeping with what Gerbern knew of the Cult of Mormo, where women were often its priests and leaders.
After a whispered discussion with the matron which Gerbern could not hear, Ulidor stood and addressed Herjan more formally. He said, “We have traveled here to offer praises, long overdue. Our people hold you in the highest regard, great Herjan. We have not always existed peaceably side by side, a fact we have come to regret. There was a time we thought our differences were too great to be bridged. But with each passing day it has become clearer that our paths are aligned. Though our teachings differ, our goals can be shared, as can our enemies. We have come to believe that no one other than you can bring about the future we seek. So we humbly ask you to consider allowing us to facilitate your rise. Together we can accomplish what separately we could not.”
It was a lengthy bit of flattery, which Gerbern heard with an instinctive revulsion. Indeed, there was a tenor in Ulidor’s voice that set his teeth on edge. It almost felt as though there was a whispering of other words below those he spoke loudly. Looking at Herjan, the chieftain’s face was neutral and stoic. He seemed lost in thought.
It was Jyrvel who spoke first, standing by Herjan’s throne and staring with naked hostility at the visitors. She said, “Your words do not ring of truth. Our beliefs are far from the same. As past bloodshed has proven. You do not accept our chieftain’s divine blood, or respect our gods. And we do not accept your goddess. How can there be accord between us?” She faced Herjan and seemed to be speaking more to him than Ulidor.
Herjan simply frowned, but remained silent.
The older matron whispered to Ulidor, who Ulidor inclined his head and said, in a quieter voice, “A misunderstanding. A grave one. We do not require you to honor our goddess, for she is impossible to offend by such as we. We are too small.”
Jyrvel did not seem satisfied by this. “Why does your superior not speak for herself? And why does she cover her face here, in this hall? It is an insult.”
Ulidor glanced at the older priestess then said, “The High Matron does not speak your tongue well, so I speak for her. As for her face—”
He hesitated, but then the matron of her own accord lifted her hood and removed her mask. Like her arms, the skin of her face seemed scarred and disfigured, and her eyes stared straight ahead and seemed blank, as if she were blind. It seemed an adequate answer for the covering, and Jyrvel seemed satisfied.
Ulidor said, “By our beliefs Mormo is joined to and in harmony with the gods you revere. She exists within Frigga, and is bound to Freya, Fulla, Nerthus, Baduhenna, and Syn. She is an ally of your Wodan.”
This statement caused some muttering and tension among many in the hall, especially the walkyr. Jyrvel scowled, and Gerbern saw Helya’s fingers clench on her knife. It certainly smacked of blasphemy. But Herjan did not seem troubled. He held up a hand to quiet the rest.
Ulidor said, “We do not require you to embrace our beliefs. It was a mistake of ours to speak doubts in regard to the true nature of Lord Herjan. We have learned our folly. All of our efforts examining the loom of fate and the weft of destiny suggests Herjan is the rightful ruler of all the tribes that honor Wodan, whose blood flows in his very veins. He is to be revered, honored, and obeyed.”
This was as strong a statement as any outsider had ever made in regard to Herjan’s standing, and it caused a ripple of shocked silence. Herjan no longer seemed distracted, his good eye fixed on Ulidor with intensity, a certain hunger evident in his features. It was a look that often presaged violence, and Gerbern swallowed uneasily, feeling a familiar fear of his master.
The younger priestess raised her slightly shrill voice. “We offer more than words.”
Ulidor nodded and said, “Yes! We bring gifts. Offerings we hope will be worthy of your standing, representing both our sincerity and the nature of our assistance.”
This must have been accompanied by some signal to compatriots nearer the entrance, as there was a sudden burst of activity and the doors were slung open. A pair of large covered crates or cages were dragged into the hall by black-robed figures, clearly lesser members or minions of the Cult of Mormo. There was the sound of something large scuttling below the tarps draped over the cages, and those hauling them into place staggered against the shifting weight before getting them in position before Herjan’s throne. The nearest warriors and those gathered at that end of the great table pulled away to give them room.
The younger priestess stood and asked Herjan, “Might I have some drops of your blood?”
“I think not—” Jyrvel protested.
Herjan interrupted her with a wave of his hand. He said to the walkyr, “Slice my palm. Go on, it’s fine.” He extended an open hand in her direction.
The walkyr seemed aghast but moved to obey, drawing her slender blade and making a careful cut, her own hand trembling. Gerbern had seen her cut many throats without the least hesitation.
Herjan took an emptied goblet and allowed some of his blood to drip within, and then passed it to a thrall, who delivered it in turn to the older priestess of Mormo.
She took it and held it reverently as she went to the first cage, mumbling all the while words that sounded like gibberish to Gerbern. He glanced at Boda, but the thrall shook his head, clearly not comprehending either.
The matron dipped her finger into the goblet then reached under the tarp, still murmuring strange words, her face taut with focus. Whatever was within shifted again and they heard a strange sound, like a low growl. But she withdrew her hand intact and then repeated this process with the other cage. Again there was a guttural animalistic noise.
Then she stepped back to the table and gestured to those who had dragged the cages into place. They quickly pulled back the tarps to reveal what was within. This provoked a low gasp from the onlookers and prompted several who were nearest to step back in alarm.
Within each cage was a bestial creature, four limbed but only superficially resembling a massive hound. A strange blue pus dripped from them, collecting on the floor of their cages. They stood and glowered around them, making a noise in their throats that sounded like grinding stones. Their bodies shifted to the eye in ways that felt unnatural and made them difficult and almost painful to look upon. There was an unnatural metallic sheen to their hides, and along the ridges of their heads and the length of their spines jutted sharp spine-like plates. Something akin to scales could be seen along their toughened hides, but resembling rock, or metal, or both at once. The same was true of the jutting surfaces on their heads in the shape of ears, and their vicious looking teeth, when they opened their maws.
Even as the others had moved away, Herjan leaned forward, intrigued. One hand was raised to touch the edge of the patch covering his left eye, as if it itched.
Ulidor said, “These Teufel hounds are brought from the realm beyond, where the gods dwell. They are not of this world, but know and serve you, Lord. Some call them Hounds of Hel, but these two are special. They are your Freki and Geri. They will fight at your side.”
The creatures sniffed the air, then stepped forward, their bodies seeming to shimmer and ripple like the surface of a pond as they walked through the bars of their cages. Several people shouted in alarm, and Gerbern realized he was among them, his hand on the hilt of the gift blade he wore, already beginning to draw it. In a jolt of fear he felt certain these creatures had been sent to attack their lord, all else a mummer’s farce to bring them here. He stepped forward, pushing others out of the way, but was too many steps from the high table to interpose himself.
For all their sinister appearance, the hounds leapt down from their cages and strode meekly to Herjan in postures suggesting subservience, not aggression. They hunkered to him and sniffed his extended hand, still dripping a trickle of blood. Then they curled up at his feet, wrapped around his throne. The one to the fore saw Gerbern advancing and raised its head, sniffing the air again and emitting another grinding growl.
“Careful,” said Jyrvel, who had stepped away from the approach of the creatures. She seemed ashamed of her own fear.
The Einherjar stopped, his blade only half drawn.
Herjan waved him away with a smile on his lips. He said, “They are no threat to me, brother.” He seemed pleased, and he patted a hand along the hide of the one just below his right hand, as he would a faithful dog.
Gerbern let his hilt go and breathed out a breath of relief, though his skin was crawling. He found it difficult to look at these otherworldly hounds too long and felt relieved when it seemed the shadows partially swallowed them, leaving them as obscure dark lumps in the hall’s darkness. It was as though the light from the nearby flickering flames did not reach them now that they were resting.
Herjan let loose a sudden laugh, a hearty but almost maddened sound. It quieted the others who had been talking among themselves, amazed at this strange sight. He then turned to his visitors and said, “You make worthy offerings. I am pleased.”
Ulidor smiled in return and said, “This is just the first of our gifts. We have more to give you. Far more. Should you agree to ally with us, tomorrow night we will summon for you a steed worthy of your blood.”
“You offer much,” Herjan agreed, “but what do you ask in return?”
“Only to join you in the battles ahead. And to listen to our advice, which will be freely offered. We will strengthen your warbands with our own numbers. And in return, we ask that you give to us some number of the slain, as well as a portion of those you take in thrall. For this, we will raise an army together to fight Rome.”
Herjan looked at them closely, one to the next, as if weighing their intent. Then he laughed again and nodded, speaking loudly, “Yes. It is agreed. Let us be joined as allies from now until our goals are met.”
The next evening at the darkest hour they gathered outside the great hall, at a cleared area where several carved wooden statues had been erected in homage to Herjan and his legend, and to Wodan, father of all. It was a sacred place but the walkyr had been overruled and it was loaned to the priests of Mormo. Herjan stood opposite them, with his own people fanning out behind him.
Gerbern was joined once again by Helya and Boda, though neither appeared happy to stand witness. Gerbern himself felt the night’s cold air shiver through him. The voices raised in prayer were strange and added to his unease, as did the way the torches dimmed and guttered with the rising wind. The stars in the skies above seemed to brighten.
A number of recent captives had been brought to the clearing, and now their throats were slit, one after the next. This was in some regards not dissimilar from a sacrifice to Wodan, but it was not the blades of the walkyr spilling their blood this time. The ceremony was led by those who revered Mormo, the Dark Mother and her Brood. The matron was at the fore, her voice raised highest, shrieking as if taken by some ecstatic trance. The bodies were piled before her into a grisly mound.
“That flesh will spoil,” whispered Helya beside him, voicing her own disquietude at this departure from their own sacred rites.
All then went quiet, including the priests of Mormo, as a dark shadow or smoke seemed to rise above the piled dead. Something shimmered there in hazy uncertainty, with bright points of light that seemed a reflection of the stars above. Then the corpses seemed to shuffle and twitch of their own accord. Gerbern felt bile rising in his throat at the sight of it, as the bodies of what had once been people seemed almost to melt and flow into one another, like melted wax.
Then, with an awkward shudder, something rose amid that pile, something new and hulking and strange. It was a wide and long abomination that lifted itself on eight thick limbs, each a column of shifting flesh. Its head was long and horselike, pieces of gleaming bone showing through torn flesh, its eyes pools of darkness. It gave a low shriek as it shook itself, standing to its full height, towering over those gathered. This time they were too terrified to even move.
Herjan walked up to the creature unafraid, his expression once again suggesting wonder rather than horror. He beckoned and several of his thralls brought his saddle, together with additional lengths of leather straps. At his bidding they secured this to the creature’s back, while it stood still, staring at its new master. Once the straps were tied fast, Herjan did not hesitate in pulling himself atop his saddle, adjusting himself and shifting as it swayed and turned, then released a greater shriek that split the night’s air.
Gerbern looked to Boda next to him, unable to find the proper words to acknowledge what they had just seen. And for the first time he saw something familiar in Boda’s eyes. His thrall was caught without his usual sarcastic wit, his endless questions. Gerbern asked him, “Now, do you believe?”
He did not need to hear an answer. All who were gathered in that moment to witness Herjan mount his impossible steed knew to the core of their being that they served a living god. All of them, including the priests of Mormo, prostrated before him.