Michael Christie’s intricately-constructed eco-novel dramatizes a multi-generational saga dominated by trees.
Michael Christie’s second novel is like a well-built house, with solid sections, precisely fitted together – so it is perhaps not surprising to discover the author, a former carpenter, lives in a house he built with his own hands. The structure of a novel is architectural, indeed cathedral-like in complexity (and to echo this, the grove at the heart of the novel – a priceless remnant of old growth redwood on a remote island off the coast of Vancouver – is referred to as the ‘Cathedral’). Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller suggested that they are three essential phases to the construction of a piece of writing: ‘a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.’ Certainly, we can see evidence of the latter two in this finely fashioned, and beautifully-woven novel. Adopting a technique of biomimicry, Greenwood is structured like the rings of a tree. The outer ring is the framing narrative set in an eco-apocalyptic 2038 in which a biocatastrophe known as the ‘Withering’ as decimated the tree population of the planet, resulting in toxic dust-storms, climate refugees, and a general breakdown of society, which only the super-rich can escape the consequences of. Elite eco-tourists visit some of the only remaining redwoods to have survived the catastrophe on the semi-fictional ‘Greenwood Island’, (loosely based on Galiano Island, off the coast of British Colombia, where the author lives with his family in his handmade wooden house). An over-qualified guide forced to suck up to the corporate dollar due to her crushing student debt, Jacinda (or ‘Jake’) Greenwood discovers she may be descended from the original owner of the island, the timber tycoon, Harris Greewood, just as the world around her is collapsing. Within this frame there are sections set in 2008, 1974, 1934, and 1908, which chart the unusual providence of Jacinda’s possible ancestor and the fate of her descendants (not so much a family tree, as a ‘forest’, as Jake eventually reflects – each independent, but connected to and supporting the other members of the ‘fictional’ construction of the family). Each of these sections is well-researched and well-dramatised, although the longest – set in the dust bowl of the post-crash Thirties – is the most impressive and comprehensively realised. This is really the heartwood of the novel, or perhaps that should be the xylem, the outer ring of a tree, just below the bark, where the nutrient-filled sap flows, drawing water and minerals up from the roots to feed the growth of the tree. The double-portrait of the ill-starred brothers – Harris and Everett – and their inner circle provides the ‘engine’ of the plot, and it is Hardyesque in its scope and fatalism. Outside of this, the sections seem, at times, a little wooden – solidly hewn, yes, but lacking in some vital spark. It is interesting but perhaps unfair to compare Christie’s substantial endeavour with Richard Power’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Overstory. Both display a profound knowledge of tree’s – with Christie as a worker of wood, perhaps having the edge. But Greenwood lacks the breathtaking scope and vision of Power’s novel, which transcends the mere mimetic in its daring shift into the non-anthropocentric. Whileas Christie’s prose always stays on the surface, the material – depicted in a solid, convincing way, without a doubt, but never transcending itself. Nevertheless, the plight of the characters, who suffer the vicissitudes of fate, is affecting at times. And there are moments of rare poetry, notably when a cyclone sucks ten thousand books out of a hobo library, up into the air, making a sound like ‘birds’. And the concentric structure of the novel shows a poetic touch to. At one point a dying man realises time ‘is not an arrow. Neither is it a road. It goes in no particular direction. It simply accumulates—in the body, in the world—like wood does. Layer upon layer. Light then dark. Each one dependent upon the last. Each year impossible without the one preceding it. Each triumph and each disaster written forever in its own structure.’ Christie seems to be implying that the fates of each of the characters is written into their nature. What that suggests in a wider sense of the human condition, and our problematic relationship with nature, it is hard to say. There is certainly a profound reverence for trees here, but also a pessimism about our collective fate, and treatment of the planet and each other. This is just realism, you may add – but where does it leave the reader? Greenwood is an ambitious ecological novel, but one that seems to lack a clear message. Perhaps Christie wishes for the reader to make of the generational tale of dysfunctional lives what they will. We are left staring at the wonder of the forest of interconnected lives who share this small, vulnerable ball of dirt we call home. If the novel ‘achieves’ anything it must this – the simple, but powerful, act of attention and appreciation.
I continue my brief account of my long association with environmental writing…
In 2014 I contributed a chapter to Storytelling for a Greener World (Hawthorn), a significant contribution to the growing ‘field’ of environmental education and the use of storytelling as a tool for raising awareness about environmental issues, increasing eco-literacy, encouraging positive action, and enhancing our perception and appreciation of the natural world.
Here’s the blurb:
The what, why and how of storytelling and storywork to promote environmental mindfulness and sustainable behaviour in adults and children. Written by 21 cutting-edge professionals in story-based learning and pro-environmental change. Shows how to apply this practice, indoors and outdoors, in organisations, NGOs, schools, colleges and communities. A treasury of over 40 stories, many creative activities and detailed descriptions of inspiring practice for both new and seasoned practitioners. Clearly explains how this practice works, why it is effective and how to adapt the ideas to the reader’s situation.
From 2013-2018 I focused on my research degree at the University of Leicester. My main project in this time was my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, which imagines a descendant of the Reverend Robert Kirk receiving a copy of his lost journal detailing his captivity in Elfhame – but I also wrote two other novels: my eco-science fiction novel Black Box (discussed in Writing the Earth part 2) and Thunder Road, a transapocalyptic mash-up of Viking and Biker culture, which was my most explicitly CliFi novel to date (serialised on this blog, starting with Meltdown).
Shortly after completing my doctorate I started to develop a project around the concept of the ‘ecoGothic’. I was asked to contribute a creative keynote to a symposium on Gothic Nature at the University of Roehampton. Here I met the publisher of the Tales of the Weird Library which the British Library is creating. I pitched him a recalibration of my intended book, and it was commissioned. Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales for stranger climes was due out in early November, but Covid-19 has delayed everything, so it’s out on 18th February, 2021.
Here’s the blurb:
Since Odysseus’ curious crew first unleashed the bag of winds gifted him by Aeolus, the God of Winds, literature has been awash with tales of bad or strange weather. From the flood myths of Babylon, the Mahabharata and the Bible, to twentieth-century psychological storms, this foray into troubled waters, heat waves, severe winters, hurricanes and hailstones, offers the perfect read on a rainy day — or night. Featuring a selection of some of the finest writers in the English language — Algernon Blackwood, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and more — this collection of weird tales will delight and disturb.
As well as editing this, this year I contributed a short story for a RSPB anthology – We Are A Many-Bodied Singing Thing – part of a project called ‘Back from the Brink’, raising awareness about Britain’s endangered species. My CliFi short is called ‘The Rememberers’.
Here’s the final blurb – I promise!
A new sci-fi and speculative anthology inspired by endangered species and the people saving them.
Writing has always helped us to imagine possibilities for ourselves and the world around us. We wanted to imagine a future for England’s most endangered plants and animals – to explore how human and more-than-human beings relate to each other, and ways that we can live together better.
To do this, we asked writers to take inspiration from two Back From The Brink conservation projects: the Willow Tit Project, who are protecting this little bird and its post-industrial habitats, and Ancients of the Future, who are working to protect 28 threatened species which live in ancient trees.
The resulting anthology is tender, fierce, wondering, sad, and ultimately hopeful. We hear the voices of the animals and plants, see a thousand years into the future through the growth of moss, and experience several metamorphoses.
And most recently I’ve been working on a collection of poetry and artwork – the result of my deep mapping of my local universe here on the Wiltshire Downs during lockdown. I have already given a couple of talks about this – in Bardfest, and Storytown Corsham. It is due out on 20th December (advance orders being taken).
No doubt my environmental writing projects will continue. Watch this space!
In the meantime, check out the fantasic pilot episodes of Black Box from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – part of their excellent CliFi season:
I continue my account of my long association with environmental writing…
So moving into the 2010s (what do we call that decade – the Tweenies?), I moved home – from Bath to Stroud (not a great distance physically – 30 miles – but drastically different in terms of ethos and aesthetic). Here, in 2011 I published Soul of the Earth: an anthology of eco-spiritual poetry. It was edited by the late poet Jay Ramsay, although I came up with the title, designed the cover, and co-ordinated its production and launch (at a great group author showcase in Waterstones, Bath). It was one of the titles I am proudest of during my stint as director of Awen Publications (which I founded in 2003, and ran until 2013). We were able to negotiate an endorsement from the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and includes a fantastic cohort of contemporary poets.
In 2013 I handed over Awen to the capable husband-and-wife term of Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis, to concentrate upon my PhD at the University of Leicester. While there I collaborated in some interdisciplinary writing commissions, and had some inspiring conversations with colleagues engaged in cutting-edge research into Artificial Intelligence and Space Research – this, alongside my ongoing concerns about the environment, fed into the mix that led to me writing Black Box, a science fiction/CliFi novel that asks ‘What will survive of us?’ On a whim I entered it into a national science fiction novel manuscript competition run by Literature Works (a Plymouth-based literature development agency), ‘One Giant Write’, and it won. I got serious attention from Marcus Gipps, the commissioning editor for Gollancz. After a couple of aborted launches, it has now achieved lift-off thanks to Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – a brilliant podcast with a strong track record of producing excellent CliFi audio dramas. I adapted 3 pilot episodes, which have been produced by the talented sound engineer/wizard, Chris Gregory, and they are being premiered 27th November, 4th December, and 11th December. I wrote a draft of Black Box in a croft on the coast of Wester Ross (see my blog ‘The SciFi Croft’), and in it I stared hard into the abyss of our possible species extinction and chose to saw there a gleam of light – because in my doctoral research into Fantasy I forged an ethical aesthetics of the genre. Tired and disturbed by the cultural dominance of Grimdark, a particularly nihilistic and Neoliberal view of the world, I devised Goldendark, which acknowledges the challenges we face (re: Climate Chaos; geopolitical turmoil; the rise of the Alt-Right), but takes creative responsibility and offers a gleam of hope in what stories we chooses to tell and share. Black Box is my first intentional Goldendark novel and I am glad it is finally seeing the light of day.
Climate Fiction, popularly abbreviated as ‘cli-fi’ is literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Traditionally such works would have been categorised as Speculative Fiction, but in a world of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, where many institutions, authorities, and governments have declared a Climate Emergency, cli-fi appears to chart the state of the modern, not near future, world.
My connection to creative writing that explores environmental issues started with my very first poetry, penned in the first year of the 90s – so I have a 30 year connection to the subject, long before Cli-Fi became a trendy tag. Much of my early poetry was inspired by the landscape and an ecological sensibility (and still is). This was performed at open mics and appeared in my home-made chapbooks throughout that decade. By the end of the 90s I had become the Bard of Bath, and had started to get my work into print.
In the early Noughties after working towards an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University, I started to teach creative writing in earnest. I applied for a small grant, which enabled me to run a series of workshops on ‘Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre, during the spring and early summer of 2003. This resulted in Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, which I put together with my students. It raised funds for the local Friends of the Earth group, and I got a piece in the Bath Chronicle, with me appearing next to Terry Coulson, the much-loved and missed chair (he died a year later). To publish the anthology I created Awen Publications, a small press, which I ran for ten years. It specialised in writing with an ‘ecobardic’ sensibility, an ethos outlined first by the storytelling group I was in (Fire Springs) and then adopted by the press. An Ecobardic Manifesto: a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis came out in 2004, and as a co-author, can be included as my second substantial environmentally-themed publication.
And for my third in this survey of my personal Cli-Fi list I would now turn to Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden (Heart of Albion Press, 2008). Imaginary, otherwordly and lost islands frequently feature in literature. This study considered these mythic isles in the context of climate change and Earth itself as a threatened ‘island’. I think of this as my ‘Climate Change’ book, as in it I looked hard at the (then still) emerging facts about humankind’s decimating impact on the Earth’s biodiversity, and regulatory systems. Concerns about this stem back decades, indeed centuries (Victorian polymath John Ruskin first noted the impact of pollution on air quality and cloud formation). I certainly became concerned about it from the late 80s, when the Ozone layer and the effect of CFCs upon it first appeared in the media, alongside campaigns to Save the Whale and the Amazon rainforest. That famous footage of the hole in the Ozone layer above the Arctic chilled me to the core, and prompted me to join many eco-protest marches. When awareness grew of the potential for sea levels to be effected by global warming I started to think about islands and the many legends of lost ones. I started to research it in earnest and visited as many as I could – writing a draft of the book on Bardsey Island, off the Llyn Peninsula. With the publication of Lost Island, I felt I had truly nailed my colours to the mast. I was green, through and through!
I continue my potted history of personal Cli-Fi in the next blog…
My prize-winning science fiction/cli-fi novel, Black Box, has been adapted into an exciting audio drama by podcast wizards, Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. The pilot episodes (1-3) are being launched 27 November, 4 December, and 11 December, 2020. FFI: https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730
If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?
Things may seem pretty bleak out there at the moment – geopolitical unrest, climate chaos, displaced populations – and threats are real not only to the peace and security of our families and communities but to the very existence of humankind as the dominant species upon this planet. It all feels like The Eighties: the sequel. It was back then, living in the shadow of the Cold War as a teenager, that I first started to get seriously interested in science fiction as a way of speculating about the future. Alternative versions of now. For SF holds a dark mirror up to the present day. It has done this since its inception, in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, published 200 years ago, but haunting us still about the perils of playing god, of science running amok. In the 30s Aldous Huxley explored the spectre of genetic engineering, or eugenics as it was known back then; in the 40s George Orwell contemplated a Fascist future which feels eerily prescient; and in the 80s Margaret Atwood depicted a dystopian state that has struck a chord with many. And that is just a few.
I humbly join the conversation – not to compare my efforts with the giants I stand upon the shoulders of, but because it is hard not to speculate about where humankind is going; whether we’ll last the decade, let alone the century. It is hard not to be pessimistic, but one thing I am sure about – the limitless power of the human imagination – and that gives me hope. While we have the freedom to imagine and express other futures, other ways of being in the world, there is always hope.
In Black Box, I wanted to look into the abyss, but I also wanted to offer a glimmer of light. I offer not another bleak dystopian vision of the future, nor a wildly optimistic utopia, but what Atwood terms an ‘Ustopia’ – for one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.
Of course it can be argued that novels, like poems, don’t really ‘change anything’, but they can offer an aesthetic, intellectual, emotional or moral counter-balance to the prevailing discourse of the times, an articulation of inarticulated or silenced voices, sobering thought experiments that project possible outcomes based upon current trends (often by taking things to their logical conclusion), or the healthiest form of escapism from the mad prison of the world (as Le Guin and Tolkien have pointed out). Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular facilitate this – by encouraging us to imagine what is beyond, what makes us human, and what is home, we can find a renewal of meaning and deepened appreciation for the fragile miracle of existence.
Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/
The extraordinary nature of the last few weeks has been trumped by the latest turn of events. President Koil, after his recent shocking announcement that he was in fact the Norse trickster god, Loki, has gone AWOL. He was last seen in Iceland, personally overseeing the heavy-handed response against the so-called “insurgents”, nicknamed Icesis. The president’s elite Ice Force have received widespread criticism, outside of government propaganda broadcasts, for their draconian methods and resulting civilian casualty and fatality rate. Some have argued that they are real terrorists, albeit government-sanctioned ones. Yet all this has now turned on its head, with Koil/Loki going missing, and reports coming in from all over the world, via the short wave radio network, of the loathed Jötun disappearing and the winter finally breaking. The Sons of Muspel – the demonic raiders that have attacked isolated communities across the land – are no longer seen. Would it be offering false hope to say it seems the end has finally ended? Perhaps our climate apocalypse is abating? With the President of the United States missing, and Vice-President Becker still receiving psychiatric treatment, a temporary emergency government has been put in place comprising representatives of the Senate. These are early days, but it is hoped that if the extreme weather continues to abate, then aid will be able to reach the most in need communities. Look to your neighbours. Make contact beyond your neighbourhood. Reach out and help your fellow citizen. Together we can emerge from this Armageddon stronger and more resilient.
Chapter 32: Law Rock
‘Hold on tight!’ Eddy smiled, as he gunned the snowmobile. The Wild Hunt were on the move and the sound was deafening, even before the barrage started.
Under the cover of Rig’s shieldwall the entourage punched through the siege as Ice Force let rip. The ordnance exploded against the glittering membrane created by the threshold guardian in slow flowers of flame – each impact sending muffled sonic shockwaves along its surface, and making Rig grip the trike he stood on the back of harder, jaw locked in utmost concentration. Tear led from the front, smashing his way through the enemy on his war horse bike. He had grown in power to. Each attack, injury and death seemed to make him stronger. From the mask of blood covering his face, his eyes and teeth shone out with a fierce radiance. ‘Is that all you’ve got? Come on you bastards! Put your backs into it! Fight like men! Die like men!’ he roared, brandishing the dagger strapped to his stump.
One Eye rode close behind with his brothers, Will and Way – a broiling cloud of thunder and lightning.
Fenja, with Eddy, rode near the rear with the rest of the patches. His companion had summoned frost-giants to guard the populace hiding in the church, just in case of any reprisals. She watched to check her sentinels were still in place as they turned the corner and made their way down the avenue, heading northeast.
They had broken free.
A new day had risen and it felt good to be on the move again. Eddy carried the runestone and felt weighed down with the responsibility of it. He thought of his loved ones back in Gimli, and wondered how they fared? The raiders had been defeated for now, but how long before others turned up? How long before the emergency supplies ran out? How many people were suffering across the planet right now as a result of this endless winter, this deadly Age of Monsters? Koil’s rein must end. They had to make it to Thingvollr and make an end of it, once and for all.
As they rode north east out of the capital, past the ruins delineated by the freshly falling snow, the attach choppers came in low behind them – sending up a curtain of snow and rubble against the shieldwall with the first volley as they swept past. Eddy counted four of them as they arced and prepared to go in for another run. This time they lined up, side-by-side, hovering over the ringroad out of the city. They fired missiles towards them, which exploded against the front of their defences.
‘What are they doing? They know they can’t break the shieldwall!’ called out Eddy.
‘Maybe they know Rig can only sustain it for so long…’ shouted Fenja over the roar of the engines. ‘Keep the bike steady…’ She suddenly stood up on the back of the snowmobile and, balancing, raised up her arms.
Crying out in effort, she raked the air in front of the entourage. The air split open in glowing blue fissures, which widened and joined. With a thrust of her arms, Fenja pushed the portal straight into the path of the choppers, which were engulfed. Closing her fists, she yanked back and the portal sealed just as the Wild Hunt reached the place where the choppers had been, a severed tail crashing down to the side of the road.
The bikers cheered, and Eddy’s heart soared. That’s his girl! But Fenja collapsed with a groan behind him, nearly falling off the snowmobile.
‘Keep … going …’ She passed out. Blue veins lined her icy skin like marble veins.
He wanted to stop, to help her … but they had to get to Thingvollr.
Ice Force was in pursuit behind them and Rig’s shieldwall was growing thin, and spluttering out in places.
Thingvollr National Park was as epic as Eddy expected – here the Mid-Atlantic Ridge could be visibly seen above water: two continental plates pulling apart, creating a dramatic series of lakes and gorges. It was as though it had been designed for the sole purpose of this day – the backdrop of the final battle for the fate of the world.
Everything had led to this point.
‘Time to party,’ called out Cruz, gunning her engines.
Suddenly the vista split open making the Wild Hunt skid to a halt in a wave of snow and ice. From the lightning bolt crack stepped a trim figure in sharply-tailored suit, a man with perfectly-coiffured red hair and brilliant teeth. He adjusted his diamond-studded cuffs, and sniffed the air. The face was neither old nor young, but clean-cut, unnaturally healthy looking, with cool eyes glittering with intelligence: it was a face familiar to billions from countless broadcasts and news items.
‘It’s Koil!’ Eddy gasped.
He seemed slight, vulnerable even, as he stood facing the Wild Hunt – greatly reduced in number but still nearly a hundred bikers, led by powerful, larger-than-life figures. One Eye, Will, Way, Tear, Rig, and the other remaining committee members lined up before him, engines growling.
‘Loki!’ One Eye sneered. ‘I wondered when you was going to show your ugly face!’
‘A pleasure to see you too, old man! Are you ready to die?’
‘Why? When I have only just started enjoying life again? Here I am, with my friends, riding out across an epic landscape. Whileas, there you stand. Alone, dressed like some executive. Do you know how ridiculous you look?’
Koil’s eyes flashed fire. ‘Do you, old man? You and your pathetic cronies, stuck in a perpetual mid-life crisis? Why can’t you accept that your time is over? You had your day? People want new gods now – they worship their boxes; they watch watered down fairy tales rather than experience true magic. They lead lives of sheep – do they not deserve to be slaughtered? Offerings. Isn’t that what we always wanted? Our followers, feeding us with their energy, their attention, their prayers, rituals and propitiations? Every temple made us stronger. Now I rule in the greatest temple the world has ever known – the centre of power. But the time for disguises is over. I rule this world now. There are so few of you. A pathetic bunch of ageing bikers. How are you going to stop me?’
One Eye chuckled. ‘Talk, talk, talk. You always loved the sound of your own voice, didn’t you, Loki? But the time for words is over. We both know how this is going to end. You know the prophecy as well as I. We have our roles to play – that is all. You have spoken your lines. Now it is time to act.’
‘Now it is time to die, old man!’ Koil raised his arms and pushed the crackling fissure wider. From out of it poured a demonic horde – snarling dire wolves; wart-barnacled trolls wielding ripped up tree-trunks, roots tangled with rocks; writhing worms like rivers in spate.
‘Fight, Wild Hunt! Fight! We must get the Runestone to Law Rock!’ bellowed One Eye. ‘Ride! Redcrow, ride!’ he commanded.
The scene before him turned into something out of a blockbuster movie computer game – that was the only way his brain could comprehend it. Gods and monsters duked it out on the crack in the world. Amid the chaos Eddy wove his snow-mobile along the edge of the gorge. How was he even going to read the runestone? He may have Icelandic heritage, but that didn’t mean the geometric markings made any sense to him. The remaining patches provided a personal bodyguard for him, but they were no match for the supernatural forces assailing them. It was only a matter of time – minutes, seconds – before something got to him and it would be all over.
But for now, Eddy still had gods on his side – the Aesir of legend! This may be their final stand but they would go down fighting!
And Eddy felt the cry of the blood within him. He was Dakota! He was Icelandic! Grandfathers, be with me, he prayed, as he plunged the snowmobile down the steep path into the gorge.
With an increasing number of visitors drawn by the stunning scenery, lively nightlife, friendly locals, and fascinating history, Iceland really has become the coolest place on the planet and one of the hottest tourist destinations.
Iceland: Only Planet travel guide
Chapter 31: The Church
Eddy and Fenja emerged from the snake-hole on to a rubble-strewn street in Reykjavik. It was night and the light of a near-full moon shone through the cloud like a skull through water. The capital was nearly unrecognisable – the smouldering wrecks of cars and buses were blown on their sides, buildings were gaping ruins with jagged, blackened walls licked by flames. Massive craters smashed up sections of the street, making any kind of progress torturous. Flurries of snow, whipped up by biting wind, settled on tangled piles of corpses.
Eddy killed the engine and they scanned the dismal scene. A cold fist in his stomach: ‘Are we too late?’
Fenja’s eyes flamed in the dark. ‘No. Listen.’
Eddy took off his helmet and strained to sift the sounds carried on the wind – a fire raging somewhere, the fall of rubble, the eerie humanless silence. There. A gunshot. Another. The tell-tale roar of a bike.
‘The Wild Hunt.’
‘Go!’ Fenja commanded; Eddy already revving the engine.
They made their way to the sounds of the skirmish. In a sidestreet they came across three Wild Hunt bikers cornered by a white-clad Ice Force unit, faces hidden behind all-terrain deathmasks and Gogglestm . Their bumpstock attack rifles were making short work of them. Two already lay on the ground in a bloody heap, bikes crumpled against the wall.
Eddy could feel Fenja tense behind him, her hands closing in fists. She told him to pull over. He swung the snowmobile to a stop.
‘Hey, boys,’ she called out, leaping from the ride cat-like onto the blood-smeared snow.
As a dozen laser-sights turned to fix upon her, she slit the air before her open with a raking of her fingers. The walls of the street reverberated with the volley of fire, swallowed by the portal.
Silence suddenly fell, as the firing ceased, signalled by a curt gesture of the Ice Force officer.
‘Shot your load too soon, boys?’ Fenja stood there, and stretched luxuriously, yawning.
Out of the portal slits reached massive arms, which snatched the screaming men and dragged them back into the blue glow, rifles ejaculating a spray of bullets, or dropping crumpled to the ground. Only the officer remained, fending off the gigantic assailants with shock-grenades and blasts of his rifle, until two arms reached out and tore him apart, tossing the separated torso against the walls with a bloody smack and a smear of offal.
The portals closed with a sound like an inbreath.
The bikers looked at Fenja with terror, until they realised who she was. One of them was Cruz – leathers covered in dust and ash, snow and blood. She pulled up next to them on the battered superbike and gazed in wonder.
‘Fenja? And is that you, Red?’
‘We were out looking for supplies when they ambushed us. They’ve got patrols combing the city so stay sharp. Come! We need to get to church!’
Eddy followed Cruz and the other two bikers along the narrow street, which emerged onto a wider avenue, luminous in the moonlight. It felt open and exposed, but they had no choice – it led direct towards the ‘church’, as Cruz called it. At the end of the avenue could be glimpsed a massive pale cathedral, its featured rendered in moonlight. Before it, a square dominated by a statue. The whole area was surrounded by Ice Force operatives, who had lined up their heavy artillery at the famous landmark.
‘Why aren’t they attacking?’ asked Eddy.
‘Look!’ shouted Fenja, over the roar of the bikes.
Eddy could see a rainbow-like effect pass in front of the church. It was as though the whole square was sheathed in its own Aurora Borealis.
‘Rig’s work, no doubt.’ Fenja observed. ‘It looks like his power has grown!’
As they approached, they drew the attention of the look-outs. Heavy guns clanked and turned on them.
‘We’re going to get blown to pieces!’ cried Eddy.
‘Stay close!’ called back Cruz, who accelerated straight towards the enemy line.
The shellfire started to explode ahead and to the side of them. Test shots. Any second and they would be in the bullseye.
The bulbous prismatic membrane extended like an octopus shooting out a tentacle, and they rode into its protective sheath just as the shelling reached them. The ordnance exploded around them – angry burning eyes raging impotently against Rig’s shieldwall.
And they were in.
The entourage skidded to a halt at the foot of a bronze statue of a Viking. Eddy looked up and a wave of déjà vu hit him.
‘It’s Leif Eriksson,’ called Fenja.
They saw Rig standing on the plinth of the statue. He stood rigid with effort, arms stretched out. Beads of sweat trickled down his face. He nodded briefly at them.
They walked towards the cathedral, designed like volcanic columns or organ piping.
One-handed Tear, besmirched with battle, scanned the surrounding forces from the entrance. When he saw Eddy and Fenja he gave them a curt nod. ‘So you made it back, Redcrow.’
Eddy got off the snow-mobile, and gave Cruz a hug. ‘Yes.’
‘I hope, for your own sake, you brought the Runestone.’
‘Eddy is a man of his word. Let us speak to One Eye.’ Fenja demanded.
Tear sneered, but stepped to one side.
The interior of Hallgrimskirkja was high-roofed and austere. It had the pungent atmosphere of a temporary camp. Huddled within it was the Wild Hunt and a selection of the population, settled on and between the pews in small groups.
At the far end, facing the altar, sat One Eye and his two closest warriors, the brothers Will and Way, who watched them approach, rifles held loosely before them. The leader gazed up at the figure on the cross.
‘A man sacrifices himself for his people, hanging on a wooden cross … The end of the world is foretold in the sacred book. A new world will arise …’
Finally, One Eye noticed them. He seemed distant to Eddy, his tone fatalistic. ‘You have returned, Eddy Redcrow…’
‘Yes, I have …’
‘How was your journey?’ Still, he did not turn to meet his eye.
‘Long and hard. If not for Fen…’
‘Good, good. Journeys should be long and hard, otherwise, what is the point of them?’
Fenja grew impatient. ‘Snap out of it, you old fart! You have world to save!’
‘Ah, Bergrisar. I have missed you. But what world do you speak of? Midgard? This is not our world. We do not belong here. You, Jötunheim. Myself, I long to return to Asgard. There are many warriors there, waiting to feast with me.’
Fenja protested: ‘But what of the billions of lives on this world? Many of whom believe in you…’
‘Not so many these days, alas. There are people on that “Facebook” who have more followers than me.’
‘But still, you owe those who do. You cannot let Loki win!’ implored Fenja.
One Eye finally turned to them. ‘Nobody will win Ragnarok. Besides, what do you care, Frost-giant’s daughter?’
Fenja took Eddy’s hand. ‘I care for this man. He has shown me that humans have spirit. Some have great courage; great strength. But more than anything, they can teach us about love. Even you, One Eye, once felt it. Remember? Somewhere in your heart, there is a spark. We have all lost, all suffered. Do not let the lives of the fallen be in vain.’
One Eye got up and suddenly seemed to tower over them both. His brows furrowed and his gaze was terrible to behold – lightning coalesced in his eyes and the very building seemed to shake. ‘You are right, Fenja Bergrisar. You have found love at the end of the world. Perhaps that alone makes it worth saving…’ His gaze softened a little; his grim visage broke into a half-smile. His one eye glittered. ‘I suspect you two have a part to play in the story after the story… Now, where’s this stone?’
Eddy presented it to him.
One Eye scrutinised it, hands pouring over it. ‘Ah, good… Yes. Well done, Eddy Redcrow. My faith in you has been repaid. You are a true warrior of the Red and the White, and your part in this is not over. This runestone must be read out at Law Rock, Thingvollr. There we will make an end of it…’ He handed the tablet back. ‘Keep it safe.’ He called out to his gang members. ‘Let us draw the enemy fire away from these people. The Wild Hunt shall ride out one last time!’
Then home the goats to the hall were driven, They wrenched at the halters, swift were they to run; The mountains burst, earth burned with fire, And Othin’s son sought Jötunheim.
The Lay of Thrym
Chapter 30: Jötunheim
The world turned inside out. Eddy felt like a rubber glove pulled off the hand, his soul now on the outside. The encroaching darkness and violent chaos of the streets of Gimli was replaced a stern, silent world of intense light, which made him shield his eyes at first. It was an icy landscape, but turned up to eleven, he thought. The very ice beneath them seemed to glow with its own effulgence, reminding Eddy of the ultra-violet lights in the bars he’d played in. But here the neon was replaced with stalactites and stalagmites of fierce intensity – the fangs of a leviathan into whose mouth they were devoured. Cliffs of black glass, waterfalls of frozen prisms, rose upwards vertiginously, disappearing into the pulsing brainscape of the clouds, flickering with synaptic lightning. They rode along a precipitous path hewn from the side of a gorge that dropped into miles of mist below. Sometimes it was little more than a cornice or arête, sculpted by the glacial wind that howled down the chasm. An ice-bridge took them over to the other side, where the path hugged the cliffs like a snake. Blood pounded in Eddy’s ears, blending with the sound of a horn. Each fresh vista seemed to shout out in glory.
Eddy stopped the snow-mobile. He got off and retched; gulped down the icy air. Hand against the smooth obsidian cliff. The trembling finally eased.
‘What is this place?’ called out Eddy to his passenger.
‘Home!’ Fenja shouted with joy, holding out her bare arms, relishing the freezing air on her face. ‘Jötunheim, the realm of my father. We use the snake-hole to take a shortcut across the nine worlds.’
‘How do you know how to navigate it? Do you have a map?’
‘In my head,’ Fenja smiled. ‘My mother explored many of them – she had a wanderlust that did not let her go, even after she had me. Wrapped snug next to her body I would travel with her. I was weaned on her wanderings as much as her milk.’ Her gaze glistened as she scanned the distance.
‘What happened to her?’
Fenja’s mouth tightened. ‘One day she walked into a snake-hole and never came back… I like to think she’s still out there somewhere; that one day I will find her again. I thought I picked up her trail in Pompeii, but it was a dead-end – until I met you… I am sure she would not have left me on purpose. She is trying to get home, I’m convinced of it.’
Eddy slumped onto the snow-mobile, stroked the handlebars. Tears welled as he noticed the little bumps, scratches and quirks on the chassis.
Fenja slipped her arm into his. ‘What is it?’
‘My grandfather …’
She nodded. Closed her eyes. Smiled. ‘There are many afterlives … Some intersect. We merely change worlds…’
Eddy’s eyes widened. ‘How…?’
Fenja traced the two-dimensional chandelier of a frozen cobweb. ‘Our webs are connected now. I feel the filaments stretching … across time and space. Your grandfather is travelling the way of ghosts. His spirit is strong. But, I sense he does not want to journey to the Isles of the Blessed yet. He is worried about you, about the family. He watches over you with eyes of the eagle.’
Eddy brushed the tears from his face. ‘Thank you.’
‘We’d better get going. Time is different here, but in your world, the Wild Hunt is running out of it.’
The journey through the realm of the frost-giants was a dreamlike experience. They rode over ice-formations that resembled giant sculpted figures. It was often hard to tell whether the profiles were optical illusions or actual slumbering Jötun. To pass the time, Fenja described the origins of her homeworld: ‘At the beginning of all things there was a giant of giants formed from the abyss, Ymir. He was Grandfather Hrim-Thurs, the first ice-giant. He awoke starving and, groping about, found a giant cow Audhumla, formed like himself from the steam and frost. He was nourished by The Nourisher, from her four streams of milk. As she licked an ice-block for salt, the head of a god emerged, Buri. Feeling sated, Ymir slept, and from the sweat of his armpits – don’t laugh! – a son and daughter were born, and from his feet, a six-headed giant, Thrudgelmir, who begat Bergelmir – the father of all my father’s kin. These frost-giants were the natural enemy of Buri and his sons. The war waged for an aeon until Borr, son of Buri, married a giantess, who bore him three sons, Odin, Vili and Ve. You may have heard of them! They joined their father in fighting the frost-giants, and together they managed to slay Ymir, from whose vast body Midgard was formed. From his wounds gushed so much blood it created a deluge which destroyed all of his race except Bergelmir. Escaping in a boat with his wife – just like a proto-Noah and his wife – they finally found sanctuary in a remote, bleak place. Here they made their home, calling it, you’ve guessed it, Jötunheim. They set to breeding a new race of frost-giants, who grew up with an antipathy to the gods. It continues to this day, but … my father married a human – as once his ancestor had wedded a god – and he dotes on me, his daughter. Midgard was formed from the sacred bones of Ymir, after all. We are connected more than you think. And so, after much work, I finally managed to persuade Thrym, my father, to help save Earth rather than destroy it … Love really is the only thing that saves us.’
Eddy wanted to hug her there and then, but now was not the time.
They rode over bridges of ice so transparent it was as though they rode over solid air. Far down below Eddy glimpsed flower-starred meadows irrigated by tumbling cataracts, the turrets of noble dwellings surrounded by thick forests, lakes of shimmering beauty, and wildlife of magnificent grandeur – everything on a larger scale.
They finally paused for refreshment at a glittering spring, which gurgled from the cliff-hugging roots of a vast yew tree, the branches of which formed pathways across the chasm. Sitting in the bend of one of these, they held one another, and admired the view.
‘The popular idea of Jötunheim being gloomy is mainly thanks to the propaganda of the gods and those ne’er-do-well storytellers. They make us out to be oafish barbarians, easily fooled by the cheap tricks of the wily Aesir. Hah! Well, now you know the truth behind all those tales of the “cross-dressing” Thunder God! The gods aren’t what they seem, and neither are my people. Like most creatures of the nine worlds, they want to be able to live and thrive in peace.’
Fenja turned to him, a strange light in her eyes. ‘They want to be able to raise their offspring.’
It was hard to tell if it was the enervating spring water, or Fenja’s words that made him shiver with delight, but before he could pursue that thought, she grabbed his hand.
‘Come! The Wild Hunt! One more ride and we should make it there.’
‘Back to Reykjavik?’
‘No. The battle has moved inland, to the Plain of Vigrid.’
‘The crack in the world, where the final reckoning will transpire.’
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) 2020
If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?
Eddy and his grandfather rode their snow-mobiles back along the tracks they had made towards Gimli. The geometric skyline of the settlement emerged from the white landscape, like paper shapes cut out of the sky. The light, what little of it there was, drained rapidly from the coastline as the Earth rolled inevitably into the dark. The eastern side of the lake was already overwhelmed by the penumbra. Like a wave of dark rain, it swept towards the western shore.
‘We’re losing light!’ hollered Running Bear. ‘Step on the gas!’
The grandfather revved ahead, leaping over the ramp of a snow-drift with a grunt.
They raced down towards the outskirts of the rural municipality, but instead of turning off for the Redcrow homestead, the grandfather led them straight to the recreation hall. The journey to the shack and back, the talking … it had taken longer than they’d thought. The precious light had slipped away.
They turned down the main avenue. Only a couple of blocks and they’ll be there.
A murder of crows lifted from the rooftops, making Eddy turn his head just as something hissed past.
Another missile hit the side of the snow-mobile, bouncing off.
‘Ambush!’ cried his grandfather, steering his ride in an erratic pattern.
Eddy checked his mirrors and saw the night-cloaked riders emerge from the gathering shadows, the eyes, nostrils and mouths of their steeds burning hungry fire.
Eddy copied his Running Bear’s crazy dance – just like in the powwow. He’d once seen his grandfather light as a kicking foal, lifting up his legs to the thunder of the drums. Now Death held the beater and made them both dance.
The runestone was heavy on Eddy’s back, slipped into a knapsack. He prayed it would not get struck by a stray bolt. It was too precious to lose. So much was riding on it.
Suddenly, he heard his grandfather cry out and slump onto his controls. The bike swerved and ditched in a snow-drift.
Eddy raced to him. Three crossbow bolts stuck out of his back like porcupine quills. The old man coughed blood. ‘Go! Leave me!’
‘Never!’ roared Eddy. He lifted his grandfather onto his bike as the hooves of the horses pounded closer, bolts hissing into the drift.
The deadweight of his grandfather slumped forward onto him, Eddy hit the revs and the snow-mobile blasted away just as the riders reached them. The snow churned up in their faces provided him with temporary cover.
Accelerating down the avenue, he knew he had lost the precious gap between them and it was only a matter of time before a bolt found his own back.
Up ahead was the turning for the recreation centre and, for a second he thought about drawing the raiders away, but he knew that would be a suicide mission, and he had to get his grandfather to the doctor.
He swung the bike right, and gunned it towards the hall, the raiders hot on his tail. ‘Hold on grandfather! I’m gonna get you some help!’
Bolts hissed closer and closer, clanging against the chassis. As one reloaded another fired in a single swift movement.
Suddenly the report of a firearm bounced off the walls of the surrounding buildings and one of the raiders fell as his horse toppled beneath him.
Ahead, the sheriff was providing covering fire.
Eddy skidded onto the forecourt. ‘He needs help!’
Rivet nodded to a couple of the men as she kept blasting. ‘Get him inside!’
They lifted him from the snowmobile, but the old man protested.
‘Leave me be…’ Running Bear made a weak gesture, shooed them away. Back against the wall, he slumped. Blood trickled from his mouth.
‘No! The doctor…’
‘It’s too late, Eddy. But don’t worry… Death is merely a change of worlds.’ Running Bear smiled, and then was seized with pain. ‘Stay on the Red Road, grandson. Save Gimli, save the wo…’
‘Grandfather!’ Eddy screamed, grabbing Running Bear as he toppled forward.
His world turned to black ice; shattered into a million pieces.
Rivet cried out, staggering back, clutching her arm – a crossbow bolt skewering it. Gritting her teeth, she aimed and fired back. But it was hopeless.
The Raiders swept by in a hail of bolts. At least seven of them survived and they had all night.
The wound made Rivet weaker. ‘Eddy, get inside. Lock the door…’
He shook his head. Took up his grandfather’s rifle and stood by her side. ‘Not a chance, sheriff. I’m gonna take some of those fuckers down with me.’
Together, they stood side-by-side and fired at the encroaching enemy.
The raiders circled, their cloaks enlarging their silhouette against the snow and making it harder to strike a vital organ.
‘They’re mocking us…’ said Rivet, wincing and holding her arm to her side.
Both of them were wounded in different ways. Eddy could not believe that his grandfather had been taken. The anger kept him going, but inside, he was turning to stone.
Gunshots snapped them both back. Gunfire coming from the surrounding buildings. The raiders reacted swiftly, returning fire into the darkness.
‘Must be BZ and his gang,’ Rivet spat through gritted teeth. ‘They’ve come back.’
For a moment, Eddy’s heart leapt. Back-up!
The door to the hall opened and Siggy came running out. ‘Grandfather!’ Magnus lingered on the threshold. ‘Siggy! Come back here! It’s not safe!’
Eddy turned to her. ‘He … didn’t make it.’ His words were like pebbles in his mouth. ‘I’m sorry …’
His sister cradled the limp body of their grandfather, shaking with grief.
‘Come, let’s carry him inside…’ Magnus gently helped her up, and together they lifted the body with some effort.
Magnus looked at Eddy. ‘Do you best.’
They carried the body inside and closed the door.
Out of the darkness came screams. The gunfire fell silent. Shapes moved in the shadows.
‘What the hell?’ breathed Eddy.
Six of the raiders remained and now there seemed to be something else out there, prowling on all fours.
One of the creatures savaged a gang member, who blasted away at it.
Then the screaming stopped, and a savage howl split the night, joined by a feral chorus carrying across the rooftops.
Eddy and Rivet gave each other a look – the whites of their eyes standing out in the gloom.
Suddenly the horses of the raiders whickered, turning nervously. Something was coming down the avenue. They could feel it approach – the vibration of each slow step.
‘What next? A buffalo stampede?’ spat Rivet.
Around the corner, stark against the snow, came a giant figure, snapping off a stop light as its massive bulk brushed past.
‘Oh no…’ said Eddy.
‘What the …?’ whispered Rivet.
The first frost giant was joined by two more. They towered over the rooftops, the phone lines and lamp-posts.
Eddy recognised the three giants from the ice.
‘Oh fuck…’ His hands shook as he tried to take aim with the rifle. Then he noticed the woman walking in front, dressed in a strange tunic, arms bare, spiky blonde hair like a flame.
The Jötun towered before the raiders. For a moment they stood – a strange mythic encounter on the streets of Gimli. The leader of the raiders trotted forward, crossbow raised. He spoke some harsh, piercing language – they sounded like nails scraped over broken glass.
The first of the giants suddenly raised its massive foot and brought it down on the raider.
The other raiders retaliated – sending a hail of bolts at the assailant, who brushed them off like midge bites. The other two Jötun waded in.
While the raiders and the giants were engaged Fenja ran forward. ‘Eddy! Quickly! You must come with me! I’ve negotiated a truce with my kind – but who knows how long it will last. Do you have the runestone?’
Eddy stepped forward. ‘Tell my family I love them!’
‘Where are you going?’ Rivet called.
‘To end this. Where it began!’ he shouted back.
‘Eddy! The snow-mobile!’ Fenja commanded.
He leapt on and fired it up.
‘Any chance of a ride?’ Fenja smiled.
They rode between the legs of the giants as the battle raged around them.
Fenja reached out a hand and scratched the air with a long fingernail.
Ahead, a slit in the dark street appeared – a tear in reality. It made Eddy’s head hurt to look at it. Beyond glowed a cold blue light.
‘Go! Now! Before it seals!’ Fenja called, and Eddy rode the snowmobile into the closing portal.
From the Rock of Law sing me loud Undo the doom of Ragnarok. Gods may fall and Midgard may freeze, but life shall stir across the seas.
Chapter 28: The Runestone
The thin light of the dawn lime-washed the rooftops of Gimli. The day was overcast – the same iron grey cover of cloud – but it was day. Eddy rubbed his eyes and yawned. It had been a long night. He must have fallen asleep – his body was wrapped up in the blanket, stiff from lying on the floor. He tried to move and got cramp.
‘Got your beauty sleep?’
His grandfather lent by the window, bins trained on the street below, rifle propped up next to him.
‘Yowch!’ Eddy moved his leg and regretted it. Cramp! He tried to rub some life back into it. ‘When did I fall asleep?’
‘A couple of hours ago. Good job I didn’t. Guess you would claim it was your crossing. Still wiped out from it…’ The old man reached down and tossed him the flask. ‘Not surprised. Here. There’s still a swig left.’
Eddy smiled. Perhaps the old man was thawing out a little. He had spent a good hour relating his adventures. Running Bear had been sceptical and full of questions and sarcastic remarks, but eventually got caught up in the narrative. Hearing how his grandson had endured the long ride, he even sounded mildly impressed by the end. Something in him had shifted over night. He looked at Eddy properly for the first time, as the daylight flooded the lighthouse.
‘Perhaps you’re not such a waste of space after all.’
Eddy gulped down the dregs of the coffee with a grimace. It had gone cold.
‘Come on. We need to get that doc to the health centre. You were on a mission, remember!’
Running Bear took his rifle and headed down the staircase.
Eddy struggled to his feet and followed.
‘Well, well. Up with the larks. I don’t think I’ve ever known you to get up this early!’ marvelled his sister, who was up and about, pulling on her coat. ‘Unless you had been on an all-nighter and were staggering in I normally don’t see you until midday.’
‘Good morning to you, sis!’
‘How’s doc?’ asked Running Bear.
‘I’ll live,’ groaned the doctor, stretching as he pulled himself up out of the chair. ‘But what about you? How’s that rib?’
‘As tender as a Comodo special, but I’m walking.’
‘We’ll get you some painkillers at the centre.’
Running Bear tried the door, leaking light into the reception.
‘Do you think it’s safe, grandfather?’ asked Siggy.
‘Safer than night-time. This is our best shot. Are you coming?’
‘I bet they’ll have some kind of breakfast going, back at the hall…’ mused Eddy, dreamily.
‘You’ve talked me into it!’ laughed Siggy. ‘An army marches on its stomach! Lead on, granf!’
They made their way through the lifeless, snow-bound streets. The compacted snow, frozen over night, had been churned up by hooves, and was stained with what looked like oil.
‘Least we know they can bleed,’ said Eddy.
‘Doesn’t look like any blood I know,’ observed the doctor, kneeling down to inspect it. He touched a bit with his gloved finger and it stuck and stretched like tar.
‘What are we going to do about this fella?’ called Running Bear, standing over the mauled body of the man on the stretcher.
‘Cover him over with snow for now. We’ll have to come back. Our immediate priority is to the living,’ said the doctor, breathing a cloud.
Running Bear started kicking snow over the body. Eddy helped and Siggy cast about for a marker. She returned with a broom handle from the smashed in store. They stuck it in the ground and stood in silence for a moment.
‘Come on. Got to keep moving!’
Running Bear led them up to the Fifth Avenue. They covered the bodies of the other two patches, marking them with a roadwork sign, then turned left, heading to the Health Centre.
It was eerie, walking along the usually busy avenue – the only sound, crunching snow and their breathing. A lone bird cried out over head and they all froze.
‘Albatross. Had to be.’ Running Bear grunted, carrying on. Every now and then he held his side, but his pace was relentless.
‘Hey, look!’ Siggy knelt down and picked up a slipper.
‘Mrs Clutterbuck…’ observed the doctor remotely, subdued with the shock of it all.
‘Looks like they got her too…’ said Eddy.
They scanned the street but could see no body.
They made it to the health centre and the doctor fumbled with his keys. The doors were half-frozen shut and they had to force them open.
Inside the temperature was almost normal. They opened up their jackets. Siggy gave the doctor a hand, loading up a trolley. Eddy became interested in the vending machine. He tried a coin but nothing happened.
‘Damn!’ he kicked the front of it and made the candy bars rattle on their hooks.
‘Here.’ Running Bear produced his hunting knife and slid it down the side of the machine. With a yank he jimmied it open. ‘Load up. I’m sure the folks back at the hall will appreciate the extra supplies.’
Eddy found a laundry bag. Emptied out the sheets and filled it full of the snacks and bottles.
Siggy and the Doc returned with the trolley. The doctor carried his case too. ‘We’ve got all the essentials. Hey, have you been stealing candy, young man?’
‘Got a sweet tooth, doc.’
The doctor grumbled, but led them out of the building, locking it behind him.
With Siggy pushing the trolley carefully over the uneven frozen snow and Eddy lugging the sack they made their way to the hall.
Running Bear walked briefly with Eddy. ‘Once we’ve delivered this lot, there’s a place I want to take you.’
The reaction when they made it back to the sports hall was mixed. It clearly had not been an easy night and tempers were frayed. The initial relief at their return – laden down with supplies – was somewhat muted when folk realised not all of them had made it.
‘Where are my bloods?’ demanded BZ.
‘I’m sorry. We couldn’t save them. The raiders…’ said the doctor.
‘They went down guns blazing, Wendigo,’ offered Eddy.
BZ lifted him up by his lapels. ‘What the fuck? You were meant to be saving my man. The others were just riding shotgun. How do I know you didn’t just kill them yourself?’ he fumed in Eddy’s face.
A safety catch being flipped made him flick his eyes – his head prevented from turning from the rifle barrel placed against it. ‘Let go of my grandson.’
BZ dropped Eddy, back away, hands up. ‘Easy, grandpa.’
‘Your men died bravely. The raiders ran them down on the junction of Five and Central. They headed to the sea – which was lucky for them. I was holed up in the Lighthouse. Saw ’em coming. Was able to pick off a couple and scare the rest away. Your bloods bought them time. If not for them you wouldn’t have the doc here, with his meds and know-how.’
BZ cricked his neck. ‘Where are their bodies…?’ he asked, voice low.
‘In the snow, on Central. We marked them. As good as any deep freeze, for now.’
‘What about foxes and shit?’
‘Nothing’s moving out there, son,’ said the doctor. ‘But if you want to take a burial party out, be my guest.’
‘Just be back before nightfall,’ added Running Bear. ‘Those raiders will be back, and we need all the firepower we can muster.’
BZ spat on the floor. ‘Me and my crew will run by the clubhouse. We’ll be back before dark.’ He nodded to his remaining men.
They watched them go, and the tension in the hall eased a little.
‘Thank you, grandfather.’
The old man shrugged. ‘Get some breakfast in you. It’s a long walk ahead.’
As Eddy followed his grandfather away from the hall, he couldn’t help but smile, thinking back to his sister’s comment as he queued up for the scratch breakfast. ‘So you and grandpa – broken the ice at last?’ she asked, as she loaded up her tray with the random selection.
Eddy shrugged. ‘Looks like it. Nothing like life and death situations to make you re-evaluate your priorities. Perhaps he’s realised life’s too short and I’m not such a waster after all.’
‘I must admit, even I’m a little bit impressed with you lately – but don’t let it go to your head. You’ve got a long way to go to get to grandfather’s level.’
‘Hell, I’m not even going to try! That man is a legend! See how he dealt with the raiders! Clint Eastwood, eat your heart out!’
`Eat up!’ Running Bear growled. ‘We need to get the snowbikes.’
‘Where we going?’
The old man nodded inland. ‘To my shack.’
Eddy had known about his grandfather’s hunting hut for a long while but hadn’t been invited to it since he was a boy. He had fond memories of going there on long trips out into the back-country – fishing, birding. Learning skills. Running Bear had so much knowledge but no one to pass it onto. He’d given his daughter a healthy grounding in wilderness skills, which had manifested in her lifetime study of herbal lore; but Eddy sensed he’d always wanted a son to share the hunting trips with. When Eddy discovered booze, weed, girls and rock’n’roll he lost interest, and his grandfather’s respect.
Only now, fourteen years later, was he finally joining his grandfather again.
He had strayed from the Red Road a long time… Nothing can bring back those lost years, he reflected. There is only now. What we choose to do. How we act.
He resolved: time to make it count.
They made their way back to the house, and together forced open the garage doors. The two snow-mobiles took some warming up, but they were soon on their way.
The cabin was set back discreetly in its own little cove – overlooking the lake, but high enough above the shoreline not to be pestered by the midges. Hidden by pine trees, it would be almost impossible to spot from the water, or from the surrounding open country, until you were almost on top of it. When they pulled into the clearing in front of it, they discovered it half buried under snow, and spent a good hour clearing a way to the door, clearing the chimney stack and windows, before even opening the front door.
The cabin was dark inside, and chilly. But with a pot of coffee on the brew and the log-burner crackly away, it soon cheered up.
Eddy sat down in the rickety old chair opposite his grandfather’s rocking chair with a sigh. It had been too long. The smell of place alone was enough to stir memories – herbs drying from the rafters, a cured ham, gun oil, damp clothes drying out, boots stuffed with newspaper and tubs of bait, mingled with the smell of the coffee.
Running Bear rummaged about the seemingly random piles of kit, digging his way to a set of drawers buried beneath.
He pulled these to one side, and jimmied up a floorboard. With a groan of effort and pain he extricated something from underneath wrapped in an oilcloth.
‘Damn rib!’ Out of breath, he placed it between them on the rug before the fire, poured them both a tin mug of Joe. Handing one to his grandson, he finally sat down.
For a while he sat watching the flames in the log burner, sipping his coffee.
Eddy knew better than to poke, so he just sat and waited.
The old man loaded up a couple more logs, and shut the door of the burner. ‘There was this explorer … a French Canadian fella named, let’s get this right: Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye. In the seventeen thirties he was out busy exploring west of the Great Lakes when he discovered an old stone carved with runes. He brought it back with him, but it was, ahem, mysteriously lost before it was transcribed. For centuries scholars have been speculating about it. Was it real? A hoax? The consequence of a marsh fever? An infection to the brain?’ He took a sip of coffee. ‘Hmm. Let them think what they want. I know different. It was ‘found’ by my ancestors – who took exception to this Frenchie taking what wasn’t his – kept it in their tribe for generations, passing it down from father to son, mother to daughter, until eventually old Running Bear here received it. And now, grandson, it’s time to pass it to you – a descendant of my line, but also of the New Icelanders. Eddy Leif Redcrow, the so-called Vérendrye Runestone belongs to you now. Time for it to fulfil its destiny.’
Running Bear nodded to the oilcloth.
Eddy put down his mug, and nervously lifted back the flaps, to reveal the stone, its runic inscription catching the firelight. Looking closer he could make out strange drawings to, which he traced lightly with his index finger.
‘Do you know what it all means, grandfather?’
‘That’s for your friends to figure out. But see that warrior with the hammer fighting the serpent? Another battling with a wolf, losing a hand? The boat made of bones? I suspect it has something to do with what’s happening at the moment.’
Eddy’s eyes glistened. ‘Thank you, grandfather…’ He climbed over to him and gave the old man a hug.
‘Enough! We need to start back soon before we lose the light. I’ll just sort out my hunting kit – some of it may come in handy. We’ll head off in one hour, tops. Keep it safe, grandson. I’ve got a feeling it’s got an important role to play. It has travelled a long way through time and now its hour is fast approaching.’