Out of all the things Eadlin had witnessed in her life, there had been nothing that could have prepared her for this. She had always known that there was magic in the world, but to think it might take such monstrous form was anathema. Magic was something of the Goddess, not this profane abomination Hreidar had turned into. Hreidar would never have tried to kill her, she had to believe that. This thing that attacked them was not him. It couldn’t be.
“Listen to me, brother!” Gunnar roared as he fended off the skull-clad creature best he could. “You have to snap out of it!”
Eadlin took several steps back and almost stumbled over a corpse. She had had little choice, Gunnar was pressed hard to keep up with Hreidar’s onslaught.
“You have gained much honour,” she called out to her battle-crazed champion. “There is no need to fight, the battle is won!”
Hreidar suddenly took a few dancing steps to the side, breaking away from Gunnar. The latter seized the moment to secure his footing and assumed a defensive stance.
“Honour,” Hreidar laughed in a voice that was not his own. “How appropriately human, hollow currency for those dealing in death.”
Red eyes aglow with the same taint as the runes on his body stared at her through the bear skull’s empty eye sockets. A prayer resonated in Eadlin’s mind, she instinctively sought the Goddess’s protection against the cold pull in the pit of her stomach. Fear was a panicked doe caught in the hunter’s noose that was her throat.
“Tell me,” Hreidar continued. “Will honour keep you from drowning in the river of blood flowing through your lands? Will honour silence the screams when you try to sleep at night?”
“The darkness in your heart is clouding your thoughts, brother,” Gunnar growled. “This is not you.”
Hreidar simply laughed and began to pace as if probing for an opening to attack.
“Eadlin,” Gunnar said with his voice lowered. “There is only one creature that laughs that way. Pull your troops back.”
“What kind of creature? What do you mean?”
“They are not equipped for dealing with a Troll,” Gunnar hissed. “Pull them back.”
“It seems we have been found out again,” Hreidar called out to them. “What will they do I wonder? Attack? Kill? It would be the Human thing to do.”
Again rumbling laugher like stone grinding against stone reverberated around them. Eadlin shuddered.
“No,” Gunnar proclaimed. “I will not kill the only brother I have left. But make no mistake, if you pursue as we retreat I will crush you.”
“Spoil sport,” Hrediar grumbled when suddenly a tremor coursed through the man.
He dropped his sword and grabbed the bear skull with both hands and thrashed about as if trying to pull it off. Stunned, Eadlin watched in bewilderment. Hreidar growled, roared, and howled. The glow of the runes intensified and she heard a loud crack as Hreidar tore the bear skull off.
The glow of the runes dissipated, and slowly his eyes returned to their normal mossy green. Silence fell between them, and the song of two hundred ravens rose to a crescendo as they descend to feast upon the dead and the dying. The Valkyries would soon come.