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Excerpt for Viking Tomorrow by
& , available in its entirety at Smashwords

 

 

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© 2017–2019 Jeremy Robinson. All rights reserved.

 

Cover design by Jeremy Robinson ©2017

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and should not be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information e-mail all inquiries to:

jrobinsonauthor@gmail.com.

 

Visit Jeremy Robinson on the World Wide Web at:

www.bewareofmonsters.com.

 

Visit Kane Gilmour on the World Wide Web at:

www.kanegilmour.com


 

 

VIKING TOMORROW

By Jeremy Robinson

& Kane Gilmour

 

Description:

 

The world is barely holding on. A century after a series of apocalyptic events, humanity is struggling to survive. In the frigid north of Scandinavia, people have returned to farming, fishing, and fighting amongst themselves, living as their ancient Viking ancestors once did. But their days in the world are numbered.

 

The last tattered remnants of humankind have become barren. No new live births have occurred in over a decade. When the remaining population dies, the human race will end.

 

When a call goes out to the greatest fighters in the North, men capable of surviving a long journey and crushing any obstacle in their path, a young female berserker named Val takes up the challenge. With her eyes hidden behind red-lens goggles, she violently proves her worth, seizes control of a small band of fellow berserkers, and heads south to claim her prize: the first glimmer of hope for a tomorrow.

 

Traveling deep into the wastes of Europe, surrounded by dangerous landscapes and the mutated creatures that populate them, they find themselves pursued by enemies determined to stop them at all costs. Attacked from without and betrayed from within, Val fights for the future, and if she fails, humanity fails along with her.

 

Jeremy Robinson and Kane Gilmour imagine a world that has survived multiple apocalyptic events, mixing the savagery of the History Channel’s Vikings with the frenetic chase scenes of Mad Max, resulting in a high-octane battle raging across Europe with the fate of humanity at stake.



 

 

VIKING TOMORROW

 

Jeremy Robinson

and Kane Gilmour

Older e-reader? Click here.

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Epilogue

Epilogue II

 

A Note from Kane

About the Authors

Also by Jeremy Robinson

Also by Kane Gilmour



 

 

Kane dedicates Viking Tomorrow to:

 

Michelle, the bravest, strongest woman I know,

whose love has seen me through the wars,

and whose side I will be at until we reach Valhalla, and after.



 

 

Prologue

 

The girl saw her pale face reflected in the creature’s slick eyes. She smiled at the sight, and then giggled. The harbor seal, a foot longer than the girl was tall, grunted and huffed with appreciation, then it nuzzled closer to her, as it had done all week when they met by the hole in the ice.

The young girl’s mother, a broad, powerful woman, sat nearby on a log. She was repairing a shirt with a needle and thread, as the girl played with the seals. At only six years old, the girl could swim nearly as well as the creatures that emerged from the hole each afternoon to laze in the scant Arctic sun. Her mother wasn’t worried about her.

There were usually three or four seals, and the girl loved to play with them. She had begged her mother to create a fur hood she could wear, so she would better resemble the sleek-skinned animals. It had taken some time, but eventually her mother had presented her with a smooth, brown, full-body garment. She rarely took it off now. It was skin tight, and kept the girl’s long blonde hair out of her face, but it wasn’t the warmest article of clothing she owned. Still, she would happily shiver if it meant playing with her friends.

Unlike many other creatures the girl had seen, these seals were unaffected by sickness or deformities. Her parents explained that most of the animals had been changed by the wars and disasters of the old times. The girl didn’t know much about those times, but as long as the seals had only one head each and no scary fangs or claws, she was fine with them.

The most daring seal—the girl had named him Jostein—hooted with pleasure that his new human friend was once again on the ice. While the others would come close and scamper around her, Jostein was the only seal that would touch her or allow himself to be touched.

“Mama,” the girl said, “can I swim with Jostein?”

“Wait,” her mother said, the woman’s voice unusually terse and devoid of humor.

The girl turned to see her mother’s face was drawn. She was squinting back at the shore.

The girl whipped her head around toward their home, a small two-bedroom wooden hut on the shore of the frozen bay. Her father was chopping timber with a wood-handled ax, as two men arrived on vehicles the girl had never seen before. The machines were longer than a man, with skis on the front end and treads at the rear. The sound of the vehicles buzzed out across the iced-over sea, reaching her ears only after the men had arrived at her family’s log pile.

“Wait,” her mother hissed in a whisper.

A sudden dread filled the girl. She did not know what the problem was—most of the visitors they had, though infrequent, were welcomed heartily. She determined to stay still and alert, until her mother told her otherwise. At her side, Jostein lifted his head and peered toward the house. The girl knew his limited surface eyesight was not up to the task, but his keen hearing and sense of smell had detected the vehicles’ arrival before she had.

The two strangers dismounted their mechanical steeds and pulled long swords from their belts. The men moved with purpose toward her father, who was now brandishing his woodcutting ax like a weapon.

“Into the water,” her mother urged her. “Get in and go under with your friends. Stay under as long as you can, and then stay under longer.” The woman started running toward the shore, her mending dropped on the snow-crusted ice.

The girl turned her head toward the two-foot-wide hole cut into the surface, its black water already disturbed by the harbor seals, who had detected trouble and slid into the hole, nose first, with hardly a ripple. The only sound was their bellies scraping across the ice. Jostein waited for her, looking back and barking softly.

She turned toward the home just once more. The two men swung their blades at her father. An arc of brilliant crimson shot up and over their heads.

Her heart seized as a sword struck her father again. Her mother was still running for the shore, screaming.

The girl turned back to the hole and, like the seals, slid in head first.

The shock of the cold water was like being slammed in the chest with a log. There was hardly enough light to see, but she spotted the dark shadows of seals swimming around her. The cold permeated her thin seal-skin hood. Her muscles felt tight and unfamiliar as she tried to swim while blocking the vision of her father’s blood from her mind’s eye.

She turned upward toward the deep hole. The ice was over a foot thick. As she looked up at the circle of blue sky beyond it, Jostein slipped into the hole from above, blocking out the light with his bulk. He plunged into the water, and immediately glided to the girl, winding his body around her like a snake. She knew he was smart enough to understand the danger. He was being protective.

The blackness around her did not scare the girl at all, but the terror of seeing the men attacking her father, and the fear of what they might do to her mother, filled her small mind. She had no fears for herself. She did not think the men would come out to the ice for her, and she was wearing her seal costume anyway. If they had even looked out across the ice and seen her mother, they most likely would have thought the girl was one of the seals.

She treaded in place under the water, her head just feet beneath the hole in the ice. If the men came and looked into the water, they would see black and the reflection of the porcelain blue sky above them. Nothing more. But she would be able to see them.

If they came soon.

 

 

Her mother had told her to stay under as long as she could, but she was running out of air now. It had been over three minutes. She could usually hold her breath for three to four minutes, but the last part always hurt her chest. When her circular view of the sky started to dim at the edges, she would have to emerge. For now, she waited, her arms tired and flapping slowly to keep her from sinking.

Jostein swam around her still, nuzzling her gently. She could tell he was worried. The other seals had already fled. He stopped in front of her, looking her in the eyes. He looks sad, she thought. Then he turned and swam away.

Her lungs burned.

She was alone.

The brutal cold constricted her muscles, and she knew she didn’t have long before a vicious cramp would set in.

She had to have air.

The girl moved up slowly, and tilted her head backward, so her lips and nose would be the first—and only—things that surfaced. As soon as she felt the frigid air on her mouth, she exhaled the last air in her chest and gulped in several fresh lungfuls. Her face was still a foot lower than the surface of the ice, hidden from the view of anyone on shore.

But her curiosity and fear got the better of her. She reached up, grabbed the smooth edge of the ice, and pulled herself up.

She wished she hadn’t. Her young eyes took in the sight instantly, and she dropped back down into the icy water.

The men were leaving on their strange vehicles. The house was on fire. Her father’s body was strewn on the ice in a spreading lake of blood. And her mother was tied over the back of one of the vehicles, like a sack of grain. Her long blonde hair was dirty and covered in blood, as it dragged on the ground.

The girl was young. She did not understand what the men wanted her mother for, but she understood that the woman would be dead soon, if she wasn’t already.

The girl was alone now.

She waited in the water, her head out and breathing the brittle air in sharp short bursts, her nose smelling the smoke from her burning home. She counted in her head, focusing on the numbers’ rhythm, trying to block out the fear and the terror, the images of blood and fire.

When she had been in the water an extra four minutes, she finally grabbed the lip of the ice and hauled herself out. The water was cold, but the frigid air chilled her worse. She flopped up out of the hole onto the ice, and lay on her back, her eyes tightly squinched shut against the cold air on her face. Her whole body shivered, and her teeth chattered. Her seal hood had come loose from her head, and her sopping wet blonde hair now framed her face. She knew she needed to get up soon, or it would freeze to the ice.

I am only six, she thought. How can I survive? What can I do?

She knew she needed warmth. Her head lolled to the left and she saw the flames where her house had been were already dying down, the spot instead choked with a thick, billowing, black smoke column that climbed into the sky and spread over the sea.

Where can I find warmth?

She also knew she would need food. And shelter. With the house gone, all three of those things were gone.

I will die here.

She closed her eyes again. Then she heard a noise that made all of the terror of the afternoon pale in comparison to the sensation that flooded through her now.

It was a loud, deep grunt. And it was close.

Summoning a reserve of energy she didn’t know she had, the girl sat up, flipped and rolled into a crouch, one hand steadying herself on the ice, while the other spread out for balance.

A polar bear. And close.

Very close.

No doubt drawn by the scent of smoke.

The creature was no more than a few feet away, its head lowered toward the ice, its eyes locked onto hers. Its white fur had matted, yellow patches. In a few places, the fur was missing entirely, revealing black crusted skin.

The beast was huge, probably longer than her house had been wide—nine or ten feet. It had an extra hind leg, dangling out of its left flank, as if the limb contained no bones. Indeed, as she looked closer, she saw that the meaty appendage did not reach all the way to the ice, but hung limp and floppy. The other two hind legs were normal sized and powerful, although the leg supporting the unwanted twin had a knee that looked like it bent sideways. The front legs rested on the ice, the creature’s thick, black claws longer than the girl’s hands plus half the length of her forearms. The dark claws glistened as they lay on the ice. She noted that the creature’s rear claws had sunken into the ice, which would give it traction when it lunged for her.

She stayed perfectly still, watching the creature as it watched her. The beast’s odor was heavy and thick, and there was something under it, like the scent of spoiled food. She knew the bear saw her as a seal of some kind, because of her outfit, but she wasn’t acting like a seal. That was probably the only reason the bear had not attacked and eaten her yet.

As she watched, the beast pulled one front paw backward slightly, the tips of the claws driving into the ice for additional purchase.

It was going to strike out.

She stood there shivering, and eyed the bear’s thick fur. She looked at the beast’s bulk, all sinew and muscles, and at the sheer size of the thing. As big as a house.

Warmth.

Food.

Shelter.

She slid her free hand back to the bone-handled knife on her hip.

The bear roared and lunged forward, but to its surprise, the girl also roared, and pulled out her own claw, running just as fast for the beast and leaping.

 

 

1

 

Ulrik stood in the wooden longboat’s bow, staring at the decomposing metal remains of the once-tall, proud buildings in the distance. The structures had housed dozens of people, but now they were little more than canted skeletal reminders of an age gone by, populated by birds and creeping vines, and no longer by man. As his men paddled the ship into the crowded harbor, he lowered his eyes and saw several boats similar to his, and many groups of men armed with axes and shields, wearing leather and furs.

All had heard the same call from the ruined city of Stavanger that Ulrik had heard: there was an imminent threat to all the peoples of the North, and the greatest fighters were needed for an urgent task. Ulrik was well known throughout the region surrounding the river town of Drammen. The people there had selected him to take the perilous journey around the coast to Stavanger, to find out what needed to be done.

The letter had said to arrive by the solstice, or it would be too late.

Ulrik and his men had nearly not arrived at all, thanks to a pitched battle with a vicious band of marauders near the rocky islets of Kristiansand. He’d lost two men on the journey, and now he was ready for some answers. Whatever this threat was, he was eager to sink his ax into its skull.

Looking around the bustling harbor as the boat glided toward a rickety wooden pier, Ulrik recognized several fighters of repute. One was a man named Trond, who was roughly the size of an elk. His flowing golden beard was braided and stained with dyes. He carried a double-sided broad ax. Ulrik had heard stories of Trond cleaving men in two with a single sweep of that gigantic blade.

He also saw men whose names he couldn’t recall, but with whom he knew he’d shared a battlefield in the past. There were many he did not know—neither from experience nor from tales told around tall glasses of frothy beer. He realized they must have come from much farther than he had, and he wondered how far out the message had been sent. Was the Jarl of Stavanger recruiting Swedes? Finns? The crazed, mutated warriors of Rus?

As he stepped off the boat and strode down the pier, he overheard conversations around him, and all were asking the same unanswered questions about what this great peril might be. Ulrik knew better than to ask. No one here had the answers. Only the Jarl would know, and he wasn’t out on the docks to greet the arriving fighters. There would be a feast first, and then, when most of the men around him were falling-down drunk, the Jarl would explain. Ulrik knew better than to get excited about it now, on the docks. But unlike the others, he wasn’t about to wait until after sunset for his answers.

He strode down the wooden walkway until he was on the beach, and his boots kicked water-washed pebbles. Those who knew him or had heard of him stepped out of his way. While everyone else was milling around, he looked like a man with a purpose. A few did not know him—not even by reputation—and two of them made the mistake of staying in his way. The first was a skinny man in tight brown leather. Ulrik walked straight into the man, bowling him over, and sending the stranger onto his ass in the wet sand. Ulrik kept walking, despite the complaints and curses hurled at his back. The second man, further up the beach, stayed in Ulrik’s path intentionally, a hand out to slow or stop him.

Ulrik met the man’s gaze and saw no threat in it. “Move or be moved,” he called to the man.

“Ulrik the Fearless, well met. I do not plan to try to stop you,” the man said. He had short, greasy blond hair, slicked back on his head, and an unkempt beard that covered a weak chin. Still, Ulrik noted the man’s corded, muscular arms and his broad chest. At his side he wore a long, straight sword. His arms and legs were covered in a scarred, brown leather armor, and across his chest was a dented metal plate decorated with a painted red hammer—the claw-ended kind of hammer used to pound in nails. “I merely want to join you in seeking answers. My name is Morten.”

“Morten the Hammer?” Ulrik asked, recognizing the symbol and the name. He’d heard tales of the man from Hammerfest, a nearly empty city of frozen ruins up in Lapland. Tales Ulrik didn’t like. Stories of the men Morten had brutalized and the women he’d had his way with. Most of the stories involved the Laplander outwitting his foes, instead of overpowering them. Often through trickery or betrayal. Many of them were undoubtedly bluster and legend, but there was probably some truth in them.

“You are heading to see the Jarl now?” Morten asked.

“I lost men on this voyage,” was all Ulrik said, and he took a step further toward the Jarl’s longhall.

Morten again thrust his hand out, this time toward Ulrik’s chest. It was enough, after a lengthy voyage, losing two friends and missing even more meals.

Ulrik, a few inches taller than Morten, and broader, with fists like frozen slabs of reindeer, stepped closer to the Laplander, whose hand made contact with Ulrik’s chestplate. Another step forced the man’s loosely extended arm back and bent it at the elbow. Then Ulrik slammed his forehead into the bridge of Morten’s nose. Blood splattered both men in the face, splashing into their eyes.

Morten staggered backward from the blow, but his hand was already moving to a black-handled knife on his belt.

Ulrik spun and cocked his arm. He came around in a full circle, his pointed elbow mashing into Morten’s ear, and knocking the man sideways to the ground.

Someone screamed out a blood-curdling battle cry from behind him, and Ulrik heard the tell-tale scuffle of leather boots on the pebbled ground.

He ducked low, just as a man soared over him. The man had tried to tackle Ulrik, and as his form sprawled to the ground several feet behind Morten’s body, Ulrik recognized him as the first man he had hit. Another damned Laplander. These two have no honor.

Morten stirred on the ground, and since he was down there anyway, Ulrik hammered a fist into the man’s face. The blow knocked Morten down and out of the fight, and made a worse mess of the man’s already bloodied nose.

Before Ulrik could scramble forward to go after the man who had attempted to attack him from behind, he was bumped from the side by yet another man, this one a huge moving wall of flesh and furs—only his legs and arms were bare. Ulrik lost his balance and toppled over onto the ground. The wall of flesh was mighty Trond, who now picked up the Laplander who had attacked from behind like a coward. Trond hefted the smaller man’s body and threw him up the beach as Ulrik watched, stunned at the ox’s strength. Arms and legs flailed until the small man smashed to earth right where the sand and pebbles met long patches of scrub grass.

Ulrik staggered to his feet and turned his eyes back to Morten. The greasy man was awake and clambering to his feet, spitting a thick phlegmy wad of blood to the ground, while pulling his longsword from its brown scabbard.

Ulrik pulled the long handled ax from its leather loop on his belt, and yanked his cracked wooden shield off his back, gripping the curled, well-worn, leather arm straps with his left hand.

Morten’s blue eyes faltered for a second, glancing back at the bustling harbor.

It was in that split second that Ulrik processed the sounds around him. Men were yelling and screaming. Some were shouting oaths, and others were promising death.

Knowing it was foolish to take his eyes off his opponent for even a second, Ulrik still did it. He let his eyes dart back to the harbor.

In the span of a few seconds, the marshy beach had erupted into a full scale battle. Turning back to Morten as the man stalked forward, Ulrik slammed the head of his ax against the metal dome on the center of his battered shield. It made a deep, satisfying clang.

“Come find death, Laplander,” Ulrik said, smiling and exposing blood-stained teeth.

 

 

2

 

Ax versus sword. Metal versus wood and bone. All washed in sprays of blood and spittle. If not for all the screaming, Ulrik would have thought the assembled Northmen were enjoying themselves. Battle rang all around him, but he kept his focus on the Laplander.

Morten lunged with the sword point first, keeping his distance. Ulrik easily parried the strike with the head of his ax. Despite not liking the stories he had heard about the Laplander, he knew better than to trust in only stories when it came to the character of a man, and it seemed Morten’s heart wasn’t really in the attack. Ulrik had no desire to actually hurt the man, but if the fight went on for long, he would have no problems with further embarrassing him.

Morten’s eyes darted to the other battles around the beach, while Ulrik had seen all he needed to. He would keep his gaze fixed on his opponent, now that the weapons had been drawn.

Morten thrust out half-heartedly again, and Ulrik was about to parry, when the Laplander’s eyes darted again, and he yelled, “Look out!”

Not sure whether it was a ploy on the part of the man who was renowned to be a backstabber, Ulrik dove left instead of down, keeping his eyes on Morten and bringing his ax up at the same time, in case the man pressed the attack. Instead, Morten directed his attention at a new opponent. His sword flashed up just in time to stop a thin man swinging two axes down where Ulrik had been, just seconds before.

Ulrik rolled in the sand and came up in a stance at the side of Morten, just as another man came rushing in, shield first, like a human battering ram. With short dark hair and pure murder in his ice chip eyes, Ulrik categorized this man as the larger threat. Plus, the man’s shield was coming straight for Ulrik’s midsection. He steeled himself for the hit, but it still lifted him off the ground. The man kept running, and Ulrik lifted his ax handle high, then struck the maniacal runner on the top of his head.

The man dropped like a stone, and Ulrik landed on his feet, several yards further up the beach. He was about to rush back into the fray when he spotted Morten and the slim man Trond had thrown fighting side by side now, against three other men. At first the two Laplanders seemed outnumbered, but as Ulrik watched, he realized the two knew each other, and they fought side by side or back to back, as if they were born to it. The smaller man fought with twin hand axes, while Morten had pulled out a knife to go with his sword.

They are talented, Ulrik observed.

Closer to the harbor, Trond was barreling through men like an unstoppable storm, but as Ulrik watched, he noticed the giant man was only attacking the most aggressive and bloodthirsty of the combatants. Often with non-lethal head-butts or punches. At first look, Trond appeared out of control, but on closer inspection Ulrik saw he was picking his targets.

Then something unfortunate happened that changed the tide of the battle.

A man with a short sword took a serious swing at Trond’s head, missing the larger man’s neck, but cleaving off his beard with the deadly swing.

Oh, you stupid stack of testicles, Ulrik thought.

And then Trond, a man of strength unbridled and with a composure to be appreciated, went berserk.

He rushed the smaller man, swatting his sword aside before grabbing the man’s skull between two massive hands and simply crushing it into a pulpy mess. Then Trond ran for the next nearest man and crushed him with a blood-drenched, meaty fist, before kicking at another and biting at a third.

As Trond lost touch with reality, all around him men detected that the brawl had become a serious killing field, and they either upped their efforts or backed off and away to the fringes of the fight—or like Trond, they lost their minds, falling into snarling, thrashing berserker rages.

Ulrik, too, could fall into a desperate, swinging rage, pummeling his enemies into oblivion. But he was nowhere near that angry today, and he saw no reason to fight these men at all. They had all come together for a common cause. He needed some way to calm the melee, but he saw no way to do it without risking his life.

To his side, Morten and his ally had knocked out their foes, the three men on the ground—two of them bleeding from several small and inconsequential stab wounds. The two victors were watching the out-of-control fight that was threatening to leave many dead or injured.

“Odin’s beard,” Morten’s friend said. “Look at that.” He pointed past the fracas to the pier, where a woman had just shoved a man off the wooden walkway and into the water. “Do you know who that is, Morten?”

Morten made no reply as the two fell silent, watching the woman.

She had long blonde hair and wore goggles with red lenses on her face. Under the thick goggles was a spread of makeup resembling a Raven’s outstretched wings, only the ink was red—or else it was blood. Either was possible. She wore black leather with additional studded armored pads on one leg and the opposing shoulder. A long-handled ax hung by her side, and she marched confidently off the pier, and right into the thickest part of the fighting.

The woman jabbed upward with her left elbow as a man approached her. She had to leap slightly off her feet for the elbow to connect with the man’s jaw, but the strike was so lightning fast, that the much smaller woman managed to snap the man’s head backward. Before he even started to fall, she had landed back on the soles of her black boots and spun. Her high kick connected with another man’s ear, sending him off to the side and into three other brawlers, knocking them all off balance, as they crumpled into the wet sand.

The woman took two more steps before a man with an ax and a beard that flowed to his waist rushed her. She sidestepped his lunge, turning and delivering the bottom of her fist to the back of the man’s neck with such force and speed that Ulrik could see the man’s neck bend downward as his head snapped back toward his own shoulder blades.

Broken, he thought.

The woman continued forward. When the fighting wasn’t close enough to reach her, she did not pursue it. Ulrik realized she wasn’t entering the fray—she was merely passing through it. And if anyone got in her way, she was putting them down. Brutally.

Morten gave voice to Ulrik’s thoughts. “She is a very calm fighter.”

Then a man with a beard in long braids with silver metal cones at the tips punched the woman in the side of the head, his fist slipping past her defenses. She staggered slightly to the side, and quicker than Ulrik could see, she drew a knife and slashed upward as she fell away from the man. As her arm swooped away from the man’s head, a thin line of blood from the man’s slit throat trailed the dark metal in her hand. And the woman, recovering her stance, launched herself into the fight, her own berserker rage consuming her as she began to drop larger fighters all around her.

Ulrik watched in awe, thinking the woman would take down every man foolish enough to confront her whirling, striking form, until Trond, still lost in his own bloodlust, headed straight for her.

 

 

3

 

It is a wonder we have made it this far, Halvard thought.

He stood with Jarl Gregers on the second story of one of the few skeletal buildings in town to remain roughly vertical. Most of the others had toppled, crumbled or at least fallen over to a forty-five degree angle, decades before he had been born. And at fifty-two, he was an old man by humanity’s current standards. Old enough to be glad he wasn’t down below in the melee.

From his perch, a hundred yards farther inland than where the bulk of the fighting was taking place, he thanked the gods he was too old to fight, and beseeched them to let his plan succeed. Despite his earlier dark thought, he knew the human race had redeeming qualities and was worth saving.

Halvard turned to the Jarl, a man of sixty, with a paunch belly earned from far too many years of drinking, after his own fighting years were done. The man had clawed and scrabbled his way to the top of the region’s toughest men—often over their cracked skulls.

The Jarl leered at the fight, clearly missing the old days. A few inches shorter than Halvard, the man knew little of science or the history of the world, as Halvard did, but he appreciated a good fight.

“Now this is more like it,” the Jarl said.

Halvard rolled his eyes skyward and thought, Odin, I may have been too hasty with that ‘redeeming qualities’ thought.

“Look at them, Halvard. Bloody good fighters, all of them.”

As the Jarl leaned against the rusted railing to get a better look at the scrambling fight below them, Halvard saw a large man from Oslo called Trond throw a smaller man to the beach. A closer look revealed the thrown man to be a Laplander named Oskar.

That would mean... Halvard scanned the fight, and there at the edge of it he saw Morten the Hammer. Another Laplander. They were cousins. Where the one went, the other was always close by. Morten’s opponent darted left as a man attacked from behind. Halvard recognized Ulrik the Fearless, and he was glad the man had made the journey. Travel by sea was always perilous.

“Who is that?” the Jarl asked.

Halvard followed the man’s pointed finger to the dock, and saw the other fighter he had hoped for the most.

“That is Val, Jarl Gregers. The woman fighter from Åland, I told you about.”

As they watched, Val dispatched all threats with liquid efficiency.

“Freya’s tits, the woman is good. I would have her for my own.”

Jarl Gregers had been a renowned womanizer in his youth, but both men knew he rarely made headway with the ladies these days. Besides, his wife Agatha would neuter him if she thought he was cheating on her.

“Perhaps, Jarl, it would be best to keep her on the mission, and consider wooing her should they return?” Halvard suggested. The Jarl was a dullard, but an easily swayed dullard.

“Yes, you are correct, good Halvard. What would we do without your science and good counsel?”

Probably starve, Halvard thought. He was the only man in a hundred miles who had been trained by his father in the ways of the old sciences—languages, reading, maths, agriculture, engineering, biology and genetics. The sciences handed down from father to son, generation after generation, after most of the world’s knowledge had been lost. A few still knew the old ways, and Halvard had done his part to train replacements for himself. Still, most of the Northmen were not interested in the lost arts and ways. Learning how to forge better blades or grow stronger crops? Yes, these were things they were happy to learn. But anything to do with the history of the world or the sciences that were mostly confined to books outside of Halvard’s laboratory? They would rather drink themselves into a stupor and beat each other bloody.

As Halvard watched the fight, he realized that the fighters—all of them men except for Val—were starting to take the battle seriously. If they didn’t put a stop to the brawl soon, Halvard would have very few left from which to choose for the mission.

“Jarl,” he said, “perhaps now would be the time to end the fight? Before the best fighters are wounded, or before Val loses her...charms?”

The Jarl nodded and fumbled the large ivory horn from his belt. But before the horn could be sounded, Halvard’s heart shot into his throat. Deep in the twists, lunges and evasions of her fight with three men, Val was oblivious to the massive Oslo man, Trond, rushing at her from one side.

Halvard looked up and saw why, just before Val did herself. The blonde woman pivoted, just in time to see an absolute mountain of a man—a full head taller than Trond—rushing at her. If she hadn’t turned, he would have smashed into her from behind, and she never would have known what killed her. Now at least she would see it, but there was no time for Val to dodge the man. She did the only thing she could, and dropped down into a crouch, her arms above her head to protect her skull from the impact.

But it never came.

Instead, Trond leapt through the air, clearing her head, and just before the mountainous man would have run over the slim blonde woman like a force of nature, Trond dipped his head and the top of his flying skull rammed into the bigger man’s stomach like a tree trunk. Both of the big men went tumbling to the sand behind Val, as she quickly stood, her legs apart and ready for another attack.

The Jarl’s horn sounded into multiple bursts in the air, and most of the combatants stopped instantly. A few still traded blows, but they quickly quieted down. Trond stood, said something to the larger brute on the ground, and started to walk back toward Val. For her part, the woman sheathed her ax and resumed her initial course, walking toward the longhall and the neighboring ten-story building where Halvard watched.

The large man—Halvard thought his name was Vebjørn—stood and angrily chased after Val. The Jarl, seeing that the mountainous man had not lost the fight in him, huffed hard on his horn three more times. But Vebjørn still rushed for the small woman. Trond, who was walking beside her, turned his head, and saw that the man was rushing in like a frantic polar bear.

Turning fully, Trond pulled a longsword off his belt, lowering the tip to spear the oncoming maniac. Val turned as well, seeing Vebjørn’s frantic rush.

The Jarl let loose a stronger, longer blast from the ox horn. At two feet long and set with silver filigree, the horn was a beauty, and when the old man filled up his portly lungs, he could let loose an epic blast of sound from the thing.

This time, the last combatant stopped. Just feet from the tip of Trond’s longsword.

Halvard could see the men exchange angry words, and then Trond turned and began walking toward the tower, looking over his shoulder periodically at Vebjørn. But the larger man had lost interest and was calmly walking toward the Jarl’s tower with all the others. As he got closer, Halvard saw that it was indeed Vebjørn, a man known as the ‘Bear of the North.’ The name fit. For the last few decades they had been seeing the occasional white or brown bear that topped fifteen feet, and Vebjørn was at least eight. Halvard didn’t know why the man was so upset, but he was glad Trond and the Jarl’s horn had stopped him.

He could probably kill everyone here, Halvard thought.

In a few moments most of the newly arrived warriors had clustered below the second story balcony where Halvard and the Jarl stood waiting.

Halvard was not surprised Morten the Hammer was the first to demand an explanation.

“We are here now, and we are hungry and thirsty. Jarl Gregers, why have you brought us here to Stavanger?”

Halvard could tell that the Jarl bristled at the ostentatious stranger. Either that or the man disliked Laplanders—or he had personal knowledge of this one.

“We are facing a grave time, but I will let good Halvard explain to you all. Many of you know of him, from when he traveled to your villages to teach your people new things.” A low rumble of agreement filled the crowded courtyard below. Halvard had traveled most of the country about twenty years previously, assessing the population of what had been called Norway before he had been born. Along the way he had made many friends. “I expect that you will lend him your attention, as you would lend it to me. Halvard speaks of important matters.”

The Jarl turned to look at him, and nodded. Then he walked away, back toward the ladder that would take him down to the ground level and the feast awaiting them all in the longhall. The Jarl might believe in Halvard, and he had used his authority to bring all these men of war to the town, but he clearly had no desire to listen to the grave news once again. Remembering the Jarl’s wife, Halvard understood why.

“Gentlemen—and lady—we are facing a threat unlike anything we have known in many, many years,” Halvard began, his voice already growing hoarse from using the utmost volume he could manage, to address the crowd.

“What kind of threat, Halvard?” Morten asked.

“Human extinction.”

 

 

4

 

Val reached for a large mug of beer from the long oak table in the stone meeting room. There was nothing other than beer to drink, and although she knew better than to drink enough of it to become drunk, for now it would slake her thirst.

Eleven men from different regions of the country, including Trond, who had rushed to her rescue in the battle, stood with her. She had thanked him with a nod, and it had been all that was necessary. She knew his type: quiet and courteous…when not crushing an enemy’s skull. There were far too few men like him. Most were like Vebjørn, the mountainous thug that had tried to attack her from behind. He stood in a corner, drinking by himself, already alienated from the others by his inability to rein it in when the Jarl had blown his horn.

In an opposite corner of the room stood a man she knew of but had never met, Ulrik the Fearless. At almost a head taller than her and twice as wide, he radiated calm. But under his surface, she could sense menace. She noted that while the others all grabbed beers from the table before Halvard had started to speak, Ulrik had refrained. She also noticed that he hadn’t bothered eyeing her up or even looking at the others in the room, after he had briefly greeted Halvard. Instead, he had taken up his position, in the opposite corner from the Bear of the North, and his eyes never left the larger man. He wasn’t staring. Val thought most of those gathered in the room wouldn’t even realize what Ulrik was doing, but she understood it. He had assessed the occupants of the room and deemed Vebjørn to be the biggest threat. Ulrik leaned against the wall, as if he were disinterested and relaxed, but Val saw that his fingers were never far from the handle of his ax.

Among the others in the room was a quiet man with long, braided blond hair and a bow and quiver. His clothes were patterned like the leaves of trees, dyed many different colors, so he might blend with the forest pines. He said little, but his eyes were alert. She had not heard his name. There were a few others she didn’t know, and then there was Morten the Hammer and his friend Oskar. The former had introduced himself to her, while his friend had simply looked at her chest brazenly.

“Let us begin,” Halvard said, clearing his throat. “I am old, and I get tired quickly, so I will tell the twelve of you, and ask that you pass this information on to the others.”

No one spoke, but many heads nodded assent.

“Do any of you know much of the Utslettelse—the Great Annihilation?”

Again, no one spoke.

“Very well. Over one hundred years ago, nearly sixty years before I was born, this world was a very different place. You see the remains all around you. Stavanger was once a city of perhaps one hundred and thirty thousand people. Now there are but three hundred—and it is one of the biggest towns in the North, as you are all well aware. It was an amazing world. Men traveled the skies in flying metal birds. They spoke to each other across great distances through machines small enough to fit in your hand, and weapons could be sent around the world—Midgard—to kill entire nations of people.” Halvard sighed at the loss of the world’s technologies.

“How do you know these things?” Val asked him.

He turned to her, a man weary with the knowledge of things others did not know. “I was taught many things by my father. He was a scholar before me, and he learned these things from his father. And from many books. I too, learned many things from the books I could find in my travels.”

“You can read the old languages?” Morten asked.

Halvard simply nodded. “I can. The world was a very different place, but wars and sickness, and earthquakes and all manner of death attacked the world for many years.”

“Ragnarok,” Oskar the Laplander whispered.

“Not quite Ragnarok, but I am sure it must have seemed so to those who lived through it. You know that at least some of the humans of the time lived through the great cataclysms, because all of us are here.” Halvard sat at a long wooden bench and drank from his mug of beer. “There were people of many kinds in those days, but our people, the people of the North, managed to withstand the sicknesses the best. That is why we all have the same colored blond hair and blue eyes. People with different colored hair had weaker constitutions and perished.”

He looked around the room, as the gathered men all looked at each other and at Val’s long blonde hair, swept back over her black leather jacket. She still wore her red-lensed goggles—she kept them on at all times—but none of the men were interested in looking at her eyes. They either looked at her body, as Vebjørn did, or they avoided her gaze as Morten the Hammer did. She didn’t care for his hubris, but she appreciated the intelligence behind his eyes.

“There was a time when men had different colored hair?” Morten asked.

“Oh, yes,” Halvard said. “Different facial features, eye color, and even the tone of their skin could go as dark as tree bark.”

Some of the gathered men grunted at this. They had heard such things around campfires as children. Whether they believed the tales, Val could not tell.

“So why are we all the same now?” Ulrik’s voice startled the gathered warriors, as if they had all forgotten he was in his corner.

Halvard turned to him, rubbing his fingers on the bridge of his nose. “It has to do with a science called genetics. Simply put, it is like the way your farmers create the strongest wheat by mixing different seeds. People have different things in them called genes. When mixed in certain ways, you get different results. The babies of two people with blonde hair and blue eyes will probably look the same. After many generations of not introducing any different looking people, most will look alike. But if you met a woman with hair the color of mud, and the two of you had a baby, the child might have yellow hair like you, or brown like the woman’s.”

“That sounds like magic,” Morten said. “Or some strange curse.”

“Believe me,” Halvard said, “I have read the old books. It was a very normal thing once. But for many decades, the only people in the North have looked like us.”

Val spoke up. “So why have you brought us? What is this emergency? What is this human extinction you spoke of?”

“Right,” the old man said. “There is a problem with the genes we all have. At first they were strong. They let our ancestors survive the Uttslettelse and prosper. But too many years of the same genes, without the introduction of anything new, have led to stagnation. Much the same way a strain of weak wheat will remain weak if not crossbred with hardier strains.”

Morten’s face darkened. “You are talking about the barren women.”

Halvard nodded slowly. “Yes. You have all noticed a lack of successful births in the last many years. It is a problem with the genes. They are, for lack of a better word, dying. I have checked with many people around the North, and I have sent messages by carrier birds to other men of science around the world. The problem is everywhere. All humans have been unable to bring new children into the world, as of the last fifteen years or so. If we cannot find new genetic material—new seeds, if you will—then the human race will die. But if we find the correct genes, even if they are as small as a grain of sand, I know other men of science who can make the necessary changes to the genes in a laboratory. We can save the entire human race. Man and woman can continue into the future. But without the help of science, there will be no more children. We will all die, and there will be no more generations to follow us.”

“Please tell me,” Vebjørn said before belching loudly, “it is the Ålands woman.”

Val snapped her head up to look at Halvard, a scowl crossing her face.

“Of course not, no. I need you to travel far from the North, to a place where a man of science I write letters to has discovered something.”

“What has he found?” Ulrik asked.

“Genetic material that might just be the last hope for humanity. But the journey is far, and as you all know, travel by sea to the south is too perilous. Too many pirates prowl the waters. You will need to travel by land. And you will need stealth as much as strength. I think nine would be a proper number.”

Many of the gathered men nodded. Nine was a lucky number.

Val stepped forward. “Where is this ‘genetic material’ that we need?”

Halvard stood up and looked at her. “I have maps to show the way, and special equipment that will see you through. But first you’ll need to choose your leader and your group for this journey.”

“It will be easier if I choose men from this very room,” Val said.

Morten stood from the bench. “What makes you think you will be leading this mission? You are a woman. Clearly you can fight. We’ve all heard stories about you, but you have nothing to recommend you as a leader.”

Val walked around the table and stood in front of Morten. The red lenses of her goggles were an inch from his bandaged nose when she stopped, her hand on the handle of her ax. “I will lead, and you will follow. Once you agree to follow, the others will as well.”

“Sorry, but no. You will need to fight for the position of leader.” His hand slid down toward the handle of his longsword. The other men in the room remained motionless, tense.

Val tilted her head slightly, but never took her eyes from Morten. “I will not fight you, Morten the Hammer. I will need to put your craftiness to work on this trip. I do not wish to damage you, before you are of use to me.”

Morten smiled and was about to say something. She spoke first. “I will not fight you, because you will be valuable to me.” Val raised her arm, and without looking, she pointed at the corner of the room. “But I will fight him.”

Everyone turned to face Vebjørn, the Bear of the North, a man who stood two heads taller than Val and outweighed her by a hundred pounds of lean muscle. A man who was grinning at her outstretched finger, which was pointed directly at him.

 

 

5

 

It was the next day, and the sky was leaden with heavy gray clouds, the humidity pressing down on the harbor and trapping the pungent smell of fish and the nearby latrines for the camped fighters.

Most were still hungover, despite the sun being high behind the sky’s thick clouds. The courtyard outside the Jarl’s longhall was filled with men, all eager, despite still feeling the effects of the previous night’s alcohol, to catch sight of the fight that would determine leadership of the mission. The small but deadly woman from the islands on the far side of the Swedish lakes versus the biggest human being most of them had ever seen.

Ulrik liked the woman, but he doubted she would be able to take on Vebjørn by herself. He doubted five men, twice her size, could do it.

The woman wore her dark pants from the previous day, but she had shed her armored leather jacket, wearing only a form-fitting black tank-top. She still wore the goggles, and her face was still painted with the red downward-pointing raven’s wing design, spreading down to her mouth. She strode to the center of the courtyard, which had become an arena with spectators encircling it, the Jarl and the science-man, Halvard, back on their balcony to watch.

Val stopped walking near the center of the courtyard, standing on the buckled and cracked concrete. At her side, still sheathed, was her long ax, and on her other hip was a knife and a hand ax.

Ulrik watched the crowd of men on the far side of the area part for Vebjørn. The man sauntered into the center like a Jarl or a King. After he kills her and leads the mission, if he returns alive, he probably will be a Jarl...or a King, Ulrik thought. The man was the size of a building, and his bare chest rippled with power. He wore just shorts and boots, and he held a long double-headed ax, like Trond’s. It was so big, Ulrik doubted the woman would have even been able to lift it.

This is going to be unpleasant.

He wondered if the Jarl would have some words for the crowd, but no one seemed in the mood—least of all the Bear of the North. The man had stopped a dozen feet from the thin blonde woman, but now he simply rushed her, bringing his massive ax behind him for an overhead vertical sweep that would plunge down straight in front of him, cleaving the woman in half.

To Val’s credit, she did not flee in terror. She stood still. Her hand did not even move for her long ax.

The crowd held their collective breath.

Vebjørn approached, and his ax started to come down. When he was within striking distance, Val suddenly moved—with explosive speed. She leapt to the left, twisting like a corkscrew. The long double ax missed her and the blade bit into a long soil-filled crack in the concrete.

The woman slid the wickedly shaped hand ax from her belt while spinning in the air, and she pinwheeled her legs, flipping her body around. Before her feet hit the ground, she swung hard and sank the pointed bottom edge of the ax head into the Bear’s shoulder meat. The blade chewed into the muscle and bone beneath it, then came to an abrupt jolting stop.

Val, still holding tightly to the handle of the small weapon, was left suspended, her boots dangling two feet off the ground. She didn’t stay motionless, though. With her other hand she pulled the black handle of the short knife on her belt, reversed it in her grip and then stabbed it into Vebjørn’s other shoulder. This time the giant howled in pain.

Val scrambled up the man’s back, frantic, grunting and tugging her blades out and sinking them back in, like a woman climbing a ladder. Vebjørn dropped the handle of his oversized weapon and reached with both arms over his shoulders, trying to grab the scrabbling woman who was repeatedly stabbing him. But his own massive biceps prevented his reach from being long enough.

Instead, he thrust his body backward, falling over and mashing the small woman into the ground. He drove the air out of her with the heft of his upper body’s weight.

The move drove her knife so deeply into his back that only an inch of the handle showed of a seven inch-long weapon. But as the Bear rolled to his side to get up, Ulrik could see the smaller hand ax had been knocked free.


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