will, hacking negligently at the terrified peasants. Ragnar snarled wordlessly, his axe-blade dripping; he was truly in his element. The ruddy glare of fire added a surreal element to the scene as one of the thatch-roofed cottages caught alight. Whether the blaze had been started deliberately or by accident was irrelevant - it spread rapidly, leaping from roof to roof like a ravenous beast on the prowl. The crackling roar thrummed through Ragnar's blood, heating his battle-fury to the boil.
Fleeing women and children fell victim to the raiders. A party led by one Snorri Red-Hair came upon a group of them from behind. Blood flew and screaming rent the air, as terrible as in any slaughterhouse.
Klaus Kerzer had been one of the first villagers to go down, his precious old sword in his hand. Thanks to that weapon, one at least of the berserkers limped whey-faced from the fray, blood pumping from severed veins. But Klaus never heard the screams of his wife, never saw the swinging axe-stroke that half-beheaded her. He died where he had fallen, wondering at the last why this had happened to him now - and where young Helmut had been when he should have been mending the nets.
Presently the fighting ceased for want of a living target for the berserkers' frenzied blows. Ragnar One-Eye looked down on the field of battle from a giant's perspective, his soul floating huge above his body. Corpses lay scattered like trees after a storm, and the steady crackle and snap of burning homesteads was the only constant sound. That and the quiet moaning of the few of his soldiers who had been lax enough to fall victim to fishermen and peasants.
At his feet, a body twitched and opened its eyes. Ragnar looked down incuriously, and saw that it was a priest. In the darkness his cassock was blacker than night, sticky with blood oozing from a deep gash in his belly. The putrid smell told him that the sacerdote would not live long.
The man was trying to speak. Ragnar payed little attention. He was trying to warn him...
"The curse... " Father Wolfgang gasped. His guts were cold now, and he knew what that meant. "The evil of the headland. You'll release it, you fools!" The hulking barbarian showed no sign of interest, no indication that he understood. Wolfgang stopped trying. It was very cold, and in any case he wasn't sure that he should warn the raiders. A fate worse than death, perhaps, befitted them. Meanwhile, he could just relax a little. Shut his eyes. It would be all right; everything would...
Ragnar looked down. The priest was undoubtedly dying, if not dead already. A frown furrowed the Norseman's brows slightly. Had he tried to lay a curse on him with his dying breath? Angered by the thought, he stomped away towards the blazing village hall. Heretics! Spawn of daemons! Worshippers of evil! These weak Imperials. Clean them out!
It was necessary, of course. Since the winter when the fish had been pulled rotting from the sea, netloads of grisly putrescence blighted by dark magic. The divinations of the shamen, oneiromancy and chiromancy, had shown the source of the pollution to be this coastline. His town had starved out the winter, eating rats and drinking the blood of their horses to survive. Practitioners of evil lived hereabouts and must be wiped out. It was as simple as that.
Ragnar vacantly relieved himself against the charred remnants of what had once been the house of the Bissels, as inoffensive a family as could be conceived of. Then, feeling more himself, he looked round. Yes, it would do. Back at the beach they could camp for the night, bind such wounds as they had and prepare for the voyage home. He nodded gloomily.
Home. Helmut Kerzer in his new home. A study and a laboratory, and the library of a necromancer who had been vast in his power and great in his terrible majesty. A bedchamber - or a crypt - fit for a dead prince. A robing-room where the heavy robes of the mage hung in dusty rows. A dark exultation took hold of