The raid was going as planned. He could hear screaming ahead, counterpoint to the unceasing drum. The shapes of his tribe wavered in the firelight, swift and deadly. The ogre tugged at his matted beard, the feel of fingerbones woven into the rough hair made him grin. Every one of them a symbol of his strength. He let loose a wordless roar and rushed forward, smoke closing around him, the aroma of burned meat sweet in his nostrils. The nearest wagon lay on its side, plunder scattered across the frostbitten ground. The wood was scorched, smoldering but not alight. Bundles of fabric, bound leathers, and casks of dye; nothing to interest him. The ogre slammed his club against the wagon, lashing out to hear the satisfying crunch of wood as it splintered beneath the blow. The joy of simple destruction. Beside the cart, a bundle shifted, a sharp intake of breath drawing his attention. What was this here? Child? Woman? Frightened man?
Suppressing an urge to laugh, he leaned forward, nudging it with the end of his club. Like a hare from the brush, a child shot out the other side, pale limbs flashing in firelight as it ran. He could smell fear, and his mouth watered. With violence close at hand, the drumming behind his eyes grew louder, faster. He could feel the hag's brew in his veins, churning with excitement. The ogre gave chase, letting his desire build. Thoughts of sweet child meat, the snapping of bones between his teeth, how he would suck the marrow and drink the blood. The little pale bag of meat and bones ran ahead, darting between burning carts and piles of debris, deftly avoiding knots of conflict. It was easy to track the bouncing, gold curls atop its head. They shone like a beacon, a promise. Oh how he looked forward to picking bits of them from his teeth later as he chewed the skin and fat.
No longer able to hold himself back, the ogre picked up speed, bounding forward with long steps. He would eat soon. The child seemed to sense its doom and turned to face him, pink mouth open in a wordless scream of terror and defiance, almost too sweet for the ogre to bear. Shunning his warclub, he reached forward with a gore spattered hand, so intent on his meal he did not see the slight man to the side, rushing in at the cry of this bleating sheep. The narrow blade slid into his skin, splitting it open. The ogre had a moment to glance at his own muscle and sinew before blood welled up from the wound. It would be a scar to mark the day, he thought, grinning widely. He turned quickly, club preceding his gaze in a wild swing.
The man ducked, light on his feet, darting forward to thrust at the ogre again. The blade scraped harmlessly against the stitched leather chest guard, catching on a rusted stud. The ogre kicked out at him, calloused feet hard as any boot. Again he dodged, jerking his weapon back with a grunt. This could be interesting; at least this one lasted more than one swing. The man didn't wait for him to attack again, launching a swift flurry of tiny, biting lunges, impossible for him to avoid. Most didn't make it through his armor; the few that did, he barely felt. Bloodlust and magic boiled in his veins, and no mere man with a steel sword could stand against him. The ogre struck again, and this time the man did not move fast enough. The club caught his ribs with an audible crack, and he fell, crumpled to the ground. The ogre laughed, raising his club for a final blow. It was almost a pity the fight was over, he thought, drumbeat roaring between his ears. His weapon sang as it fell through the air, but met only cold ground as the man launched himself at the ogre's legs. His blade bit deep. Even with the hag's potion, he felt a jolt of pain wash over him and took a wobbling step back. The leg, so strong only a moment ago, now trembled at his weight. The ache only sharpened his appetite.
"I am Egral Bonesplitter and I will be your death," he growled. The little man said nothing, lips pressed together tightly, no odor of fear about him. The ogre felt savage joy knowing this opponent was worthy of him. He swung his club in a high arc, knowing the blow was likely to miss. It thudded heavily into the ground, and seeing an opening, the man struck at him again. The sword slashed open his ribs, sending warm blood cascading down his side. Egral laughed as the little warrior closed on him, letting go the club to grab his arm and wrench it back. The bone popped, shoulder sitting at a grotesque angle as the man slipped past him. Still, he made no sound. He changed his grip on the sword, letting the now useless arm dangle at his side. This would make a proud tale to tell at the tribal fires, thought the ogre. It was only facing a powerful enemy that one gained strength. The hag would want his brain, but Egral decided he would devour the heart and liver himself, and take a bone to add to his collection.
Around them the fires crackled, and the air sang with the groans of the dying. The little blond child must have had great faith in this saviour; she stood only a little ways away, watching with wide eyes. This pleased Egral immensely. It would not escape him, a sweet to follow the meat of this man. The ogre left his club on the ground, wanting to feel the crunch of bones and splitting flesh barehanded. He lunged for the man; the human tried to move away, but he was slow, disoriented. The ogre's weight slamming into him sent the sword skidding across the ground. Egral gripped the squirming man, finally rewarded with an alarmed cry. The sound made him smile as he slammed a clenched fist into his gut.
The ogre joined his voice to the man's, matching cries of pain with growls of pleasure. Each fall of his fist sank deeper into the human's belly as the ribs cracked and his organs pulped. The sound reminded Egral of the hag's cold kisses, the way her lips set against the chest of each warrior as she put her mark upon them. Wet and messy, smelling of offal and innards. The dagger sliding into his ribs came as a surprise, jarring him from his sticky gratification. He slung an arm out to bat away the assailant, and the little human child was thrown to the ground, still clutching the bloody knife. The sight of it enraged him, that such a small pest could injure a warrior ... it was not possible.
Egral tried to stand but his leg slid out from under him. "No!" he roared, voice distant to his own ears, breath coming harder now. The child stood, knife pointing at him. "Try me," he gasped, "For I am your death!" Fear wafted from the little morsel, but it did not move. He pulled himself toward it, ready to twist the head from its shoulders. The motion sent a spasm through his chest and he coughed, blood and potion welling from his lips. This was not possible! He, Egral Bonesplitter, could not be defeated! The hag had promised him, promised all of them ... her power and their strength ...
His vision wavered, reality washed away by memories. He sat near the fire surrounded by foul smoke listening to Segine. "You will be my warriors, my guards. Your life and your death will be mine," she had said. Egral, never one for words just grunted in agreement. What did it matter to him? The tribe would live as it always had and she would make them stronger. She only asked a little tribute, a tithe for her potions and finger waving. Segine gave them their first draught from her cauldron that night, and set her lips above their heart. "Mine," she had grinned, teeth black as tar. Then the hag sat and spread her legs, settling the drum between them. Softly she started to play, like rain on leaves, then louder and louder, charging horses, crashing thunder, an avalanche of mountains shivering the air. Since that night, the drums never stopped.
Now they were pounding and pounding so loud the world shook. Egral looked up, dazed. The hag stood over him, her hair lying atop the folds of her neck, skin darkened with soot and dirt. Beetles clung to her greasy locks and in her bosom, a serpent's lair. Her eyes were flat and dark as she gazed at him and the ogre was no longer sure if this was past or present. The child, gripping the knife, the hag, the crushed flesh of the warrior; it bled together. She held out a cup dripping with gore, her hands stained red. Egral took it. It felt so heavy; he strained to hold it up, and bring it to his lips. "I am death . . ." the words came hard. The hag just smiled at him. He drank and the liquid scorched his mouth, burned his throat and set fire to his belly. The ogre could not catch his breath. The fire was crushing him. He fell back, thudding onto the ground, the drums spastic and fevered. Hag and child became one, leaning over him, leering grin and laughing eyes. "You are dead," she whispered. He tried to reach out, to fight back but the flames held him to the earth. And then the drumming stopped.