The Windsmith universe is a storyworld I have been developing for nearly twenty years. The first story I wrote for it was in September 2002 – a chapter for a workshop on the MA in Creative Writing I had just started at Cardiff University, and that became the novel, The Long Woman (published by Awen in 2004). This was to become the first of The Windsmith Elegy – a 5 volume fantasy series, written over 10 years (2002-2012). In 2012 I co-created a multimedia show based upon the books, Song of the Windsmith, which I toured with James Hollingsworth and other guest artists. An hour long show, it featured storytelling, poetry, a soaring soundscape and several songs by James, digital puppetry, belly-dancing, and animation. This seemed like the culmination of the project, but then in 2019 an idea came to me to create an interactive novel based upon the Windsmith storyworld: Hyperion was born, and throughout 2020 I worked on it, drafting the 96,000 word story in html – a very new way of working for me, and a steep learning curve (but I like to push myself and I’m interested in emergent narrative forms and platforms). ‘Hyperion’ won me a contract with Fable Labs, a West Coast games company, and at the end of 2020 the pilot episodes (1-3) were beta-tested in their Interactive Fiction ‘book club’. I’ve now completed the first season (1-12) and I’m halfway the second. To help me visualise the characters I like to make sketches. I have a highly visual imagination, having trained in Fine Art. I sketched continually in my youth, and in middle age I’ve picked it up again, as I find it relaxing – a pleasant contrast to working on a computer and using language intensively all week. For the 2nd novel in the series, ‘Windsmith’ (2006) I did drawings of all the panels of the Gundestrup Cauldron – which features prominently in the story; I also designed a logo for the book tour undertaken that year (which made for a nifty t-shirt), and with all the artistic collaboration that has took place, art has been a key part of the Windsmith story. With that in mind, here are some sketches of various characters – intended mainly to help me visualise them, but also for fun.
Artwork copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020
The Windsmith Elegy is available from http://www.awenpublications.co.uk
Hyperion will be available from Tales Writer (available as an app on iphones; Android version coming soon): https://taleswriter.com/
Is it me or am I the only one who finds it hard to separate Sci-Fi from soundtrack? It is almost impossible to think of the opening credits of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope without the adrenalin-surge of John Williams’ classic theme-tune blasted out to the backstory disappearing to its vanishing point (or Darth Vader and his stormtroopers without the Imperial march); the shock and awe of the apocalyptic opening of Blade Runner without the vertiginous electronica of Vangelis; and the opening of Kubrick/Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have the same sturm-und-drang impact with Richard Strauss’s ‘sunrise’ from Also sprach Zarathustra.
Growing up a Sci-Fi addict (thanks to Lucas’ gateway drug that made me watch anything with Special FX in however risible, and it often was) I received my ‘hit’ often via the opening credits and theme tune of classic TV shows such as Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Thunderbirds, Dr Who, Blake’s Seven, Star Trek, and The Prisoner.
And as an adult connoisseur of big screen Fantastika, I often find myself enthralled as much by the soaring soundtracks as much as the visuals – as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix, Sunshine, Interstellar, Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049 to name but a few.
So it is no surprise to discover that during the writing of my novels I often have an ‘unofficial soundtrack’ running in the back of my mind. Perhaps this is why I need to write in silence, as I need to be able to tune into this internal symphony – the mood and movement that underscores the scene or chapter I am writing. Sometimes actual music is cited in the prose. In my science fiction thriller, Black Box, the protagonist listens to Chinese death metal while out on the ice, conducting one of his endless routine maintenance circuits of the vast ice-shelf he is tasked to transport to the ends of the galaxy. Back in his tugship, out of his suit, Lake relaxes to Hendrix while shooting up an artificial opiate he has managed to synthesise. Other settings required different tracks, evoking a different ambience – very few of these are explicit, but they nuanced my depiction of each, through diction, description, and pacing – the micro-choices that create tone.
If, in some fortunate future, my novel gets turned into a movie – which since it was first conceived as one, would be a satisfying full circle – then I hope the director will choose one of the fine composers out there (Hans Zimmer, for instance!) to score it rather than opt for the populist ‘mix-tape’ approach, which worked for The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy — initially, a refreshingly iconoclastic contra-tonal device, but one that’s become something of a cliché, a lazy form of film-making (like the cheesy pop song montage sequence of the 80s it emulates) that does a disservice to the craft of the film composer, the under-rated geniuses of modern cinema, for it is they who translate the music of the spheres into reality.
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/
Writing and RPGs
As a young man back in the spiked, crimped velveteen 80s I spent many an happy hour enjoying sessions of role-playing games (now suddenly fashionable). These undoubtedly nurtured my writerly imagination for it is through them I caught the bug for storytelling and creating detailed scenarios. The three systems that enthralled me the most were the classic version of Dungeon & Dragons, Call of Cthulu (based upon the works of HP Lovecraft) and Traveller – through them I experienced the immersive delights of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. It is the latter that is particularly on my radar at the moment, for my SF novel, Black Box, is ready for launch (being published through the crowdfunding platform, Unbound). Although the novel has been consciously informed by a lifetime of reading and watching SF, by Climate Change, and by research into space exploration and artificial intelligence at the University of Leicester where I’m currently completing my PhD, looking back I realise that those lively sessions with fellow schoolmates (in particular Garrie Fletcher, who has gone onto to become a wordsmith too) really nurtured the ‘SF brain’ part of me. With its stylish series of black manuals, and hard edge, Traveller was always the coolest of the RPGs, the Fonz of the whole Happy Days bunch. Each session, usually held around ‘Budgie’s house’, another schoolmate from Mereway, felt like being inside an episode of one of our favourite TV shows – Blake’s 7, Dr Who, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica (this was pre-Firefly days and that show in particular captures the maverick freebooting attitude of the game – a motley crew taking on some dodgy mission for a fistful of credits, normally running the gauntlet of the Imperium, space pirates and hostiles). The main benefit of these games was, of course, the social angle – lifesaving for a bunch of awkward nerds (speaking personally): the sessions were some of the most enjoyable spent as a teenager – hearty laughter, shared creativity, and heart-pumping excitement. But in hindsight, as someone who has made writing the heart of their career, I see other spinoffs that have a direct benefit to novelists: immersiveness (far more visceral than any virtual reality); multilinearity (complex branching narratives effected by one’s choices); storytelling (how to engage and sustain an audience, create narrative traction, suspense and tension); characterisation (designing vivid characters, improvising dialogue); the importance of setting (almost a character in its own right – certainly spaceships can be); and fictionality (the giddy freedom of making stuff up, spinning a yarn, and weaving worlds out of thin air). These have all become of primary importance in my novel-writing. Of course novels seem, on the surface, less multi-cursory and multi-player – they are a direct interface between author and reader (although they can be shared by millions) – but in the composition of them, the malleability of the plot, the behaviour of the characters, and the volatility of the structure, makes it feel like being in a ‘session’ as DM, player-characters, and non-player characters – a schizophrenic’s paradise. Aspects of your personality talk back at you: shock, astound and devastate – and you risk coming across as a complete loon, bursting out laughing or crying out in frustration at a screen. Anything can happen in the white void of the blank page. The lonely long-haul of writing a novel may lack the sociability of a RPG (except in the camaraderie with fellow writers and, if you’re lucky, readers), but in compensation one has complete creative control (eventually, if the wild beast of the book can be tamed sufficiently). It can bring out the emperor-god-being in you, the tyrannical deity that plucky characters loved to frustrate. As with the best DMs, who run a game ‘dice-light’, biasing the flow of storytelling over a punctilious compliance with the rules, the best writers always allow their characters to have a lucky break now and then, and to steal the show over a mechanical fulfilment of plot. And writers weaned on RPGs will always remember who the narrative is ultimately for – not the ‘god behind the screen’ but the reader-participant.
Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 30 April
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/
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?
‘Today is a good day to die.’
Little, Big Man
Chapter 29: Showdown
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.
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020
We are the Weavers and we weave the thread,
measuring the span of the quick, the dead.
Urd on her spindle, Verdandi, her rule,
And Skuld with the scissors to cut them all.
Chapter 27: The Lighthouse
The small group made their way through the freezing mist – the only sound, the breathing of Eddy and Siggy’s exertion, carrying the makeshift stretcher, and the occasional grunt of pain from their charge. The doctor walked on in front, stopping frequently to orientate himself in the defamiliarised streets – lit by sparse pools of sodium, the shadows between more of a presence than an absence. Flanking them, the two patches, irons poised, scanning the white silence for any hostile signals.
Eddy grunted with the effort, still weak from his epic ride. ‘How far is this med-centre again?’
‘It’s two, three blocks, tops,’ replied his sister, her speech manifesting as a cloud. ‘Keep you’re end up!’
‘That is, if ole Doc Halliday here can remember the way…’
The old physician had paused once again at a crossroads – the stop-light blinking its idiot signals to the snow-bound main street. A side-wind hit them, sending up flurries from the drifts.
‘Jeezus, come on doc, we’re freezing our butts off out here!’ said one of the patches, who was clutching his side.
‘Gonna fuckin’ bleed to death too!’ groaned the figure on the stretcher.
‘Gimme a moment. It all looks so strange like this…’
‘What? and you haven’t seen Gimli under snow before! How long have you lived here?’ complained the other.
‘Hey guys! Give him some space!’ said Siggy. ‘But do hurry up before my arms drop off!’
A trash can was knocked over, bottles spilling onto each other. Everyone froze. The patches raised their weapons in the same direction.
‘It’s gotta be a fox or something…’ said Eddy, teeth chattering.
‘Shhh!’ hissed his sister.
Out of the mist came a figure, walking in a haphazard way.
The old woman, dressed in a thick bath robe and once fluffy slippers, had restless, darting eyes and long, unruly hair. Her skin was like Egyptian parchment.
The doctor stepped forward. ‘Ah, Mrs Clutterbuck! You gave us all a fright! What are you doing out in this infernal weather? You’re not really dressed for it, are you?’
The patches relaxed, one cursing, the other spitting into the snow.
‘I heard horses…’ She scanned the blank printout of the mist. ‘Is there a parade today? I do love parades.’
‘Not today, Mrs Clutterbuck. Now, come along with us. You’ll catch your death like that. Let’s get you to the med-centre.’
‘Catch your death … the med-centre,’ she muttered, about turning and walking confidently off.
‘Come on!’ said the doctor. ‘She knows the way, even in her sleep!’
‘Great! Now it’s the mad leading the blind!’ whispered Eddy.
Siggy shushed him, but smiled.
The group followed the woman as she walked down the street.
‘Hey, I recognise where we are now!’ puffed Siggy. ‘This is Highway 9. Look! That’s the Husky over there!’
On their right the gas station emerged, a couple of station wagons drifted over in the forecourt.
‘I can’t feel my arms anymore!’ moaned Eddy.
‘You big baby! Look at this guy. He’ll die if we don’t get him to the Health Centre!’
‘Hey! If I die, your dead, you hear! Dead fucking meat!’
Eddy looked down at the wounded gang member, tattooed face in profile.
‘Weren’t these guys just about to shoot the sheriff and take over the town?’
‘That’s by the by, now,’ said Siggy. ‘They’re part of our community, and they helped defend it. We owe them.’
Eddy thought of his old high school friend, Junkie Jon, as everyone called him. Got into the hard stuff. Hell, everyone tried everything back then – but Jon … he didn’t know when to stop. He’d never forget finding him in the shack, passed out. He thought he was dead. It had been close. But Eddy had managed to call an ambulance just in time. Jon’s life had been on the skids since dropping out of school. Eddy had tried to keep in touch, but it was hard. He was moving on, trying to make something of himself – admittedly not much – but he held down a job, even if it was in the local garage, and he had his band. Jon … all he had was Madame Heroin. The odd bit of folklore came back to him then, from a friend who had travelled to Thailand. They believed tobacco originated from the breasts of an old woman who died, and from her grave grew the plant where her nipples used to be. And from between her legs grew opium. It was the ultimate death trip.
He hoped he was okay.
Eddy was ripped back from his morbid reverie by his sister abruptly stopped, making him nearly drop the stretcher.
‘What gives, sis?’
Eddy strained to hear. Just the stifling silence of the mist. Their breathing. But then he felt it through his feet. Horses!
‘The raiders! They’re coming this way!’ whispered Siggy. ‘We need to get off this road! Mrs Clutterbuck! Mrs Clutterbuck!’
The old lady carried on shuffling along the avenue, oblivious.
‘There’s nothing we can do. Come on!’ Eddy insisted, dragging his sister away.
Reaching the junction of Centre Street, they swung left, and hurried down the sidewalk, hugging the walls close.
‘That doorway!’ the doctor pointed to the covered entrance to a store.
They just made cover when the riders appeared – dark silhouettes with cloaks and crossbows.
‘Who the fuck are they? The Nazgul?’ Eddy breathed.
The riders galloped straight past, heading south.
For a heartbeat they thought they had got away with it; but then the thunder of hooves stopped, and resumed, getting closer again.
‘Fuck!’ whispered Siggy.
The riders appeared at the junction, and turned their snorting steeds towards them. They wore what looked like black skull masks beneath hoods. The eyes and mouths of the horses glowed with fire.
‘Run!’ screamed Siggy.
The patches covered their flight, firing at the approaching riders, who appeared and disappeared in the mist.
Eddy didn’t see what became of them, just heard their screams.
They struggled on, but with the man on the stretcher it was pointless. It would only be a matter of seconds before the riders caught them up. The cars strewn across the road broke their gallop and bought them some time, but not much. Their pursuers took to the sidewalk. There must have been a dozen of them. One took aim, and a crossbow bolt whizzed by Eddy’s head, shattering a shop window.
‘Go! Leave me!’ muttered the wounded man.
‘We can’t!’ cried the doctor, gasping for breath.
‘I owe these bastards. I’ve got some bullets left.’
Eddy nodded, and Siggy reluctantly lowered the stretcher.
They ran on, helping the doctor, who was beside himself with fear. Behind, they heard the gunshots. A horse whinnied; then, a scream.
They made it past Fifth Avenue, Fourth, before the riders appeared again.
Eddy felt a stitch starting to develop. Siggy was faster, and helped the doctor. He wished he had a gun, something!
They pushed on past Third, but by Second the riders had caught them up; were upon them. Crossbow bolts whistled by their ears. One struck the doctor in the leg and he howled in pain, toppled over, taking Siggy with him.
Eddy crumpled by her side, shielding her protectively with his body.
The riders formed a half-circle around them, their steeds snorting fire. Taking their time, they reloaded their crossbows, then, as one they raised their weapons.
The scene around them took on a surreal vividness. Here they were, right on the main drag: first avenue. A sign read ‘Welcome to Gimli: your place in the sun’. A signpost pointed to the ‘historic’ Harbour Masters Building and Lighthouse, and the Lake Winnipeg Visitor Centre beyond. Had he come all this way, endure so much, on to die here, on this crummy Centre Street?
‘Fenja…’ was his last thought.
Then there was the deafening report of a rifle and a rider went down, blasted off the back of his horse, which reared up, panicked the others. The formation broke, and another rider went down.
It took a moment for Eddy to work out what was going on.
‘I know the sound of that rifle!’ shouted Siggy. ‘The lighthouse, now!’
Lifting up the doctor, they frogmarched him towards the Harbour Masters Office, where the tell-tale flash of a rifle could be glimpsed from the lighthouse.
They scrambled inside and collapsed.
A man in a winter hunting gear appeared at the foot of the stairs wielding a rifle. He made his way to the door and checked the street, before closing it, and pushing a chair against it.
‘Think we’re safe for now. I’ve given ’em something to think about.’ The man pulled back his hood and yanked off the balaclava from his face.
‘Grandfather! I knew it was you!’ Siggy leapt up and gave the old man a hug.
‘Ow! Steady now, you’ll break me in two!’ he chuckled, wincing in pain.
‘Are you hurt?’
‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ Running Bear pushed her away. ‘Quit your fussing. Worst than the wife, Great Mystery protect her.’
‘Here, let me have a look.’ The doctor got shakily to his feet. He looked done in, thought Eddy. Still in shock.
Nevertheless, his professional concern took over. ‘Take off your jacket; open your shirt. Sit down, don’t move.’
‘One sec there, doc. Here, can you use this thing?’ Running Bear offered Eddy the rifle.
Eddy was surprised. His grandfather had barely spoken to him since he’d got back. ‘You used to take me hunting, remember?’
‘Oh? I’d forgotten! Thought you weren’t interested in that stuff anymore! Just motorbikes, guitars and girls.’
‘Well, they have their appeal…’ Eddy smiled, but took the rifle with a nod.
‘Keep your eyes peeled. From the tower. Best spot.’ The old man finally settled and let himself be poked and tested.
Siggy nodded. ‘He’ll be fine with me. Do what he says!’
Eddy knew better than protest. He made his way up the lighthouse and sat in the eye, keeping watch down the street. He found a blanket and a pair of binoculars, plus a spare round of ammo.
Dropping down wearily, he settled in for the vigil. There wasn’t anything moving out there. He could just make out the Chinese, and the Art Club, the flats with the Robin beneath, and the quayside parking. Adrenalin alone kept him alert. That was a close call!
Eddy had nearly nodded off, when his grandfather appeared at the top of the stairs, carrying a flask of coffee. ‘You’re not sleeping on the job, are you?’
‘What? No, gramps. I’ve been awake the whole time.’
‘Move over, give me that. Here, this’ll help.’
Running Bear exchanged the gun for the flask. He checked the barrel and the sights, and scanned the street.
‘I thought you were meant to be resting?’ Eddy smiled, filling the cup. ‘Do you want any?’
‘No thanks. Can’t sleep. Doc patched me up, said I had a broken rib. I had to climb over a fence when I first ran into the raiders. Landed badly. Ain’t as nimble as I used to be!’
‘Grandpa, you’re amazing! You have saved practically the whole of Gimli from the raiders, single-handedly! You’re a hero!’
Running Bear snorted at that. Watched the street.
‘She’s resting. Tough one, that grand-daughter of mine. You could do with some of her grit, boy.’
Eddy sipped his coffee, smirking.
His grandfather turned. ‘I can hear you smiling. What’s so funny?’
‘Oh, just thinking about how I’ve fought with armed biker gangs, giants, a monstrous serpent, and I rode across the Atlantic ocean… I guess that doesn’t count as grit?’
Running Bear gave him a hard look. ‘Grit is about being reliable when the chips are down, about digging in and making it count. Not going off, having fairy tale adventures!’ He coughed, and winced.
‘Take it easy, gramps. I guess you set the bar high when it comes to grit.’
The old man stared out at the misty vista. ‘It’s a hard, hard world out there. You need to be tough to survive, boy.’
‘I’m doing my best.’
‘You need to do better. You need to be the strong one, when I’m gone. Someone has to look after the family. ‘ Another coughing fit.
Eddy took a long sip of coffee. This was a prospect he wasn’t anticipating.
‘Gramps, we need to get to the health centre, get supplies, head back to the sports hall with the doc. People may need us.’
‘We ain’t going nowhere till sun up. The raiders … I’ve got a feeling they’re nocturnal. We’ve got a good three hours till first light. Drink up that coffee. And tell me about your trip. It’s going to be a long night…’
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020
A Message from our President
President Koil has broadcast this recent message from his crisis command centre: ‘Citizens of the Free World – this is your president speaking. These are unusual times and they call for unusual measures. If you have seen giants walk the Earth do not be alarmed. My Frost Giant friends, the highest level of special, are helping with the security of our great nation. Keeping our country safe. The threat of Icesis has been met with ultimate force – the rebels are holding out in their stronghold of Reykjavik, but rest assured they will soon be neutralised. The USS Naglfar is at this moment engaged in hostilities. Some bleating liberals have complained about civilian casualties. All I say to that is: collateral damage. What price is freedom, people? We must hold to our resolve. The enemies of truth, justice and the American way are out there, plotting to over-run our country in the midst of this environmental crisis, made worse by the woolly policies of my predecessor. We should have been investing in our natural reserves of energy instead of squandering hard-earned tax-payers money on ‘wind’ and ‘wave’ and ‘solar’ power – what use is any of that now? We need coal, we need oil, and we need geothermal power, which Iceland has in bucket-loads by the way. They can’t keep it all to themselves. This unprecedented global crisis calls for unprecedented measures. Keep warm. Stay safe. Pray for your President. Good night.’
UPDATE: Ice Force units have already been deployed in the field in Iceland from the USS Naglfar, moored off shore. Units have been despatched to deal with the Icesis insurgents holed up in the capital, who have been accused of using the ‘human shield’ of Reykjavik population to hide behind.
Chapter 21: The Bone Road
Eddy looked out over the endless ice of the frozen ocean. Here he goes again… He must be a glutton for punishment! But he had two good reasons now to go, to undertake this suicidal endeavour: to return to his people; to find the runestone. When he was given the quest by One Eye Eddy had been torn at first. The whole point of going home was to stay there to protect his family, his community. But now he was going to have to turnaround and come right back – provided this mysterious stone could be found, if it even existed. Yet the Elders seemed convinced that somehow it would be pivotal in the great battle to come – and if it brought about the end of the terrible war of the gods currently devastating Earth then he would be saving his loved ones, perhaps more effectively than anything he could do, a rock musician, in Gimli. What use was an electric guitar against a frost giant?
Eddy stamped his feet, slapped his shoulders, trying to warm up a little. He checked the trailer again before remounting his bike. He cast one last look southeast, where the boom and flash of the battle made him shudder for his comrades. Yet it was the best cover he was going to get – now was the time to fly. The day had begun and he had a long way to go. He pulled on his helmet, and pressed the ignition, rolling the bike down onto the ice with great care.
Canada, here I come! He prayed that Fenja’s hamingja would save his skinny red ass and get him home safe. He really was in the lap of the gods now.
The frozen surface of the sea vibrated disconcertingly with each shell blast from the bay, or was it the thunder and lightning ripping the sky apart? Eddy, grunting at the effort to keep his bike upright, hoped the Wild Hunt was giving as good as they got. They were not many to stand against the full might of Koil’s Ice Force, but they had gods on their side, even ones that were not as strong as they used to be. If only the rest of the world knew … many more would honour the Aesir and their might would increase. But their time had passed and this was the end of things. The best they all could hope for was to end it well.
Finally, the thunderous vibrations subsided and Eddy was left with just the sound of his bike and his breathing. He murmured a song to himself – one of Eddie Vedder’s, his musical hero. It really felt like he was going into the wild this time. But he was not completely alone – he had his upbringing and traditions to draw upon. Growing up in Manitoba, where the temperatures could drop to minus forty centigrade in the winter, he was not unfamiliar with extreme cold, and was probably better able to cope with it then most. Then he had skills taught to him by his beloved Dakotan grandfather – ice-fishing, by making a hole in the ice; hunting deer; building a shelter; starting a fire, even in the wet, with birch bark; navigating without a compass … essential survival skills, which he now realised were incredibly useful and precious. He breathed a heartfelt thank you to his grandfather, who suddenly felt very close. He could hear him now, Running Bear, telling him his wild stories on their trips into the backcountry about Ictinike the Liar, Rabbit Boy, giants and ogres, White Buffalo Woman, the Thunderer … The old man always took a while to open up. It normally took a few hours of trekking. He had never been a great teller, but in his gruff, matter-of-fact way, enthralled his grandson all the same. Eddy smiled, realising that perhaps the White and the Red Roads weren’t that dissimilar after all.
He made good time in the morning, covering a hundred bleak miles. He pulled over at an iceberg, frozen into the ice-locked sea, and in its shelter, he poured himself some coffee and had a snack.
So far, so good.
Iceland was no longer in sight. The horizon was dead flat in every direction. Eddy thought of Gunnar, his other grandfather of Icelandic descent, who had died when he was a teenager. Unlike Running Bear, Gunnar was a natural storyteller who couldn’t open his mouth without spinning a yarn. He remembered the outlandish stories he told about the Norse gods, stories from the ‘old sagas’, as he called them. He always swore he knew someone who was descended from the gods and heroes mentioned, ‘back in the old country’. The story that had thrilled the young Eddy most was old Gunnar’s account of the Viking discovery of America. He recalled it now, as it gained fresh relevance…
‘Once there was a hapless sailor called Biarne Herjulfson who set sail from Iceland to Greenland, a hard country where some of our people had settled. Biarne had little knowledge of the winds or waters he navigated and was soon lost in fog thicker than your grandmother’s broth. Nevertheless, he pushed onwards and managed to miss Greenland entirely, which was very impressive, as it’s larger than your grandmother’s behind (but don’t tell her I said so). Finally, after many weary days of blind sailing, the fog cleared and the sailors found themselves off the coast of a fair land – hills green with pine, not mountains pointy with ice as he had expected. They did not make landfall, but sailed on to another. The sailors, desperate for firm land beneath their feet, said they should make landfall, but Biarne refused and they continued. After five more days at sea, they finally made it to Greenland and were relieved to see the huts of their own people on the coast.
‘The story does not end there, oh no. Pour your grandfather another vodka – don’t tell you’re your grandmother – and he’ll tell you more. So. When Biarne visited the court of Eric, Earl of Norway, he related his strange journey over the feast, as the mead flowed, poured by the comeliest of maidens. Ah, where was I? Yes! This account was finally heard by the son of Eric the Red, Leif Ericcson, who had colonised Greenland. Leif paid Biarne for his ship and with a crew of thirty five men (including a German named Tyrker) he set sail in search of the mysterious land found by Biarne. His skills as a sailor were far better and Leif had soon discovered the first land Biarne had encountered. It was a barren place, which he called ‘Hellu-land’, the ‘Land of the Flat Stones’ upon landing. They set sail southwards and came to a low-lying wooded country, which, as his foot touched the shore, he called ‘Mark-land’, or the ‘Land of Trees’. They put out to sea again and finally came to a strait lying between an island and a promontory. Here they made landfall and raised huts. The land was fairer in aspect and climate than Greenland – a loving bride as opposed to a reluctant one. Leif split the party in two – he led one, the German led another. Tyrker went missing, but they found him eventually, excited at the discovery of vines laden with grapes, just like his homeland. Loading the ship with the fruit and with fresh timber, they set sail in the spring away from the country Leif called ‘Vin-land’, the ‘Land of wine.’ Leif Ericsson returned to Greenland with news of his discoveries and it was recorded in the annals. Five hundred years before Christopher Columbus Leif Ericsson had discovered Canada and America: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England.’
Eddy smiled at the memory – his Icelandic grandfather getting livelier as the story progressed. His tolerance of alcohol was legendary and he drank the stuff like water. Yet it had killed him in the end. His stories lived on in Eddy’s memory, and he thanked Gunnar for them. They would keep him going, along with his Dakota grandfather’s skills, over the coming days.
Eddy ploughed on, praying his bike wouldn’t let him down. He did not fancy his chances for surviving long out on the ice, hundreds of miles from land, even with the skills and stories of his grandfathers. Remembering the kiss of Fenja warmed his though – boy, he needed her hamingja now! So many things could go wrong with the bike, with him – after all, he was just as likely to break down as the machinery under him. He had maintenance supplies for both on his trailer – food, coffee, vodka, cooking gear, toolkit, spare fuel, spare clothing, a tent, and an all-season sleeping bag. The crater community had been most generous. Perhaps they had just been relieved to see them go, to have the Wild Hunt draw the wrath of Koil away from them.
Eddy thought about the President. Loki! It felt right, by the crazy bullshit he kept coming out with, the increasingly ‘mad dog’ way he had been acting since getting into power. If one man had been responsible for bringing down this shit-storm on Earth, it was Koil. He must not win. Eddy would do all he could to stop him, for what it was worth!
The president must be shaking in his boots!
The following days passed in a blur of vibration, stillness, snatched sleep, caffeine, and prayers. Eddy rode a hard sixteen hours a day, averaging around five hundred miles. He made decent progress, but he could feel the toll the extreme conditions were taking on his body and on his bike. And his mind. Eddy was haunted by the possible fate of his family, his friends, and of his comrades back in Iceland. The winds howling across the ice at night sounded like their voices.
On day five Eddy’s way was abruptly stopped by a massive crack in the ice, a lightning bolt in negative, stretching as far as the eye could see. He parked up and got stiffly off the bike, pulling off his helmet. Shielding his eyes against the glare, he stared down into the waters churning away beneath the broken ice – the furious sea, straining to break free of its icy fetters.
Eddy kicked a block of ice, roaring in frustration. It went skidding over the frozen surface like a puck. Sighing, he got back on the bike, and, after a moment’s hesitation rode northwards along the fissure. His heart was racing wildly. He hoped that somewhere the gap would be small enough for him to cross. Every mile out of his way added time to his already long journey. Time he couldn’t afford to waste. His supplies, his gas, would only last so long.
He rode on for a desperate couple of hours until finally he saw something that made his heart leap. At a point where the fissure narrowed there was an ice bridge, formed by large fragments which had splintered off and refrozen, wedging themselves against one another. It looked hazardous, to say the least, but it was the only chance he had.
He took the bike on a wide arc, giving himself sufficient distance to build up enough speed – and revved the engine.
Muttering a prayer to the gods of the Northmen and the Dakota, he gunned the bike forward.
Just before he hit the edge of the bridge, a giant figure burst from the ice-flo. It was a female, going by her barnacled dugs. Seaweed hair hung down in long, dripping tresses over skin the colour of a walrus. From her wide mouth protruded two huge tusks. Eyes as black as a seals looked curiously at him as she thrashed in the water, a bather coming up for air. By instinct alone, he was able to swing the bike in an averting skid just in time – the bike coming to a stop inches from the freezing waters. The counter-swing of the trailer threatened to pull him in but he punched the release cable at the last second.
‘No!’ he cried.
Eddy watch in dismay, as the precious trailer skimmed onto the waters, coming to a stop in front of the giantess, who caught it in her hand.
‘Ahh, offerings… Poor Modgud does not get many in this age!’ the giantess complained, her voice like grinding icebergs.
Eddy killed the engine and, trembling, got off the bike. He pulled off his helmet, letting his long dark hair fly.
‘What a racket you make! Modgud has not heard such, even when the grey armies of the dead in their ship of nail-clippings passed this way. They were silent, compared to you, but they cut through the ocean’s skin with their big iron ships…’
Eddy’s mind whirled – did the giantess talk of phantoms, or of Koil’s Navy, on its way to Iceland?
Tilting her misshapen head, Modgud blinked. Looked closer. ‘But you do not have their pallor… You have too much colour in you. Red blood … What business have you – crossing the Bone Road?’
Eddy had to think quickly. ‘I wish to visit my ancestors. I … miss them.’
‘Miss them, mmm. Family is everything, is it not?’ The giantess seemed lost in wistful thoughts for a while. Eddy did not want to move, in case she took it the wrong way. One swipe of those arms and he would be mince-meat. ‘Since you have been nice to Modgud, and brought her presents, she will let you pass. Come, cross the pretty bridge she has built. Modgud will not let you fall.’
Eddy bowed – unsure what else to do – and quickly got back on his bike. He felt sick at leaving his supplies, but he had little choice. He turned the bike about and directed it towards the fragile bridge, which the giantess held up.
Heart in mouth, he crossed within feet of her, smelling the rotten fish breath of on her mouth. Pulling the bridge apart, she clacked her tusks and dragged the trailer under the water.
Eddy pressed on.
He prayed he had enough petrol to reach home. As for his own sustenance – he would just have to live off thin air. At least he had not ended up as Modgud’s supper.
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020
If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?
Rebel Insurgents Met with Shock and Awe
StormEye command has reported insurgent activity upon the frozen Atlantic. Rebel groups are attempting to cross to America. They seem to be heading towards Iceland, but the Commander-in-Chief has said ‘These bad people are hoping to use Iceland as a staging post for an invasion of our great nation in a time of crisis, and they must be stopped. But fear not citizens! I have sent a Hel-jet strike force to deal with them.’ Satellite footage shows the rebels, hiding out in an ice-locked trawler. A direct hit appears to neutralise the insurgents. If other footage exists, it has not been released yet. The identity of their rebel insurgents is not clear. Could it be an Islamic terrorist cell? For now, they are being nicknamed ‘Ice-Is’. White House spokeswoman Sheryl Bragg, said: ‘With the Atlantic frozen in the unprecedented wintry conditions, believed by many scientists to have been caused by the volcanic eruptions in Iceland and elsewhere, there is a real threat of waves of climate refugees risking the crossing. The east coast has been put on the highest alert. We cannot allow these illegals to enter our country. Every nation on Earth must look after their own and deal with this natural crisis the best way they can. Nobody is boarding our ark.’
Chapter 18: Ice and Fire
Still dazed from the death of his brother-in-arms, by the time Eddy reached the fallen Enforcer, it was already too late. One Eye knelt in the ice by his daughterson, head bowed, holding her mighty hand. His two ravens sat upon his shoulders, observing all. Around him the Elders and, in a second circle, the patches. The serpent’s venom had seared through her leather armour, burning into her skin. The giant frame, that had survived so many battles, endured so much, convulsed.
‘Allfather!’ she gasped, breathing hoarsely. ‘The serpent … is it … dead?’
‘Yes,’ wept One Eye. ‘You saved us all.’
The Hammer shuddered and sighed, then her massive form went limp in her father’s arms.
Hugin and Munin took off, cronking harshly in the still air – inky black wings brushing Eddy’s face as they flew past.
One Eye lifted his head up to the dark lid of cloud, his one good eye searching it for meaning. With a voice hoarse with grief he uttered these words:
‘Oh, sky crack!
Drain the moon of milk,
Venus of her hot blood –
there will be no more kindness,
no more evil love.
The sun has snuffed out,
and with it all warmth,
all joy. Darkness will rule,
night shall be my day.
Place my heart on a spike –
I have no need of it.
Let the crows feed
on its useless meat.’
The gathered let their leaders words fade, as they stood, heads bowed.
Finally, the President stirred. A clear tear ran down one cheek, a bloody trickle down the other. ‘Go to my halls and await me there, daughterson. Take your seat among the greatest. Your name will be remembered forever.’
One Eye slowly got to his feet, a little unsteadily.
Will and Way went to help him; then others, but Tear stopped them with a scowl.
‘This … is a cruel harvest,’ spoke the leader, his voice ragged, supported by his brothers. ‘Our enemy sends hellfire from the sky, monsters from the deep – but we have defeated them. With courage, with strength … but at great cost. Our mightiest champion has fallen, but we … must continue. We must finish this journey and face our enemy on the field of battle, when all accounts will be settled.’
Gaunt, but determined, the blood-stained, frost-encrusted warriors looked to their chief. Eddy understood then how great leaders can kindle greatness in their followers. One Eye, in his grief and dignity, inspired his admiration more than he had ever done. In showing his suffering he showed true strength.
Tear stepped forward to issue commands: ‘Cover the bodies of our fallen – and let us take them to Iceland to receive proper burial. But be quick – we cannot linger here. Every moment upon the ice makes us vulnerable to attack. Onwards!’
Eddy mounted his bike and sat there, drooped forward for a moment, until someone brought him a horn of mead.
Eddy felt numb inside, but robotically accepted it as it was passed around. It filled him with warm fire, though did not ease the dull aching in his heart.
With the help of Bog and Cruz they lashed the body of Blitzen to the back of his bike, and made ready to go. ‘Sorry about your pal…’ said the Irishman, for once his humour failing him. Cruz placed a kiss upon the German’s brow and muttered something in her own tongue.
One by one the bikes pulled away, leaving behind the dark wound in the ice, the gelid waters already scabbing over.
‘Will you look at that!’ cried Bog.
They turned to see that the serpent’s blood had been used to spell, in ten foot high letters gouged into the ice: L O K I
Mercifully soon after, they made it to the jagged flanks of Rathlin Island. Here the weary bikers made brief landfall, taking shelter in one of the coves from the incessant wind. Driftwood was scavenged, and with Sol’s magic touch, a good fire was soon going. As the riders thawed, food and drink was passed around and things seemed a little bit more bearable. The mood was still subdued. Nobody wanted to be seen making merry after their losses. But … they had made it this far.
The Hammer’s body was laid on a fur-covered rock. Her father sat next to her, drinking horn after horn. His brothers stood strong behind him.
The flames crackled as the driftwood thawed out, spitting and shifting in the pyre.
Suddenly Tear stepped forward. ‘It is true that The Hammer and myself didn’t exactly see eye to eye…’
The attention of the circle fixed on the Sergeant-at-Arms.
‘…But she was more woman than you could handle, and more man than the lot of you!’ He raising his flagon. ‘The Hammer!’
The Wild Hunt raised their drinks, and, finally, so did One Eye. ‘The Hammer!’
Others stepped forward to make tribute, sharing their memories, and the atmosphere eased a little. The drink started to flow and tongues loosened.
Bog collared Eddy as he was going for a refill. ‘Well, Red. What can I say? It’s been a gas. Attacked by jet-fighters and monstrous sea-serpents and all that. But I’ll be off in the morning. Sorry to break the fellowship with Gandalf and his merry hobbits, but my road lies south – and boy am I looking forward to some actual fekking road. It’s a short hop to Derry, and then down the coast to Sligo and onto mighty Connemara – land of my fathers, although which one is my biological da, me ma, Saint Bridget watch over her, still won’t say.’
‘I’m sad to see you go. I’ll even miss your awful singing. But thanks … for everything.’ Eddy clinked bottles with him
‘Stay shiny side up, Red. If we all survive this … let’s meet up and have a few cold ones, hey? Just ask for Bog in Lowry’s Bar, Clifden, Connemara. Everyone there knows me.’
Bog split off from the main pack as they set off at first light. He had guided them round the coast of Northern Ireland, and his work was done. The bikers honked their horns in salute, and he waved back as he headed towards Derry Bay.
Then they grimly pushed on. The vast expanse of the frozen Atlantic stretching before them.
‘Right, Blitzen, my friend, next stop, Iceland,’ muttered Eddy.
Stopping every hour for ten minutes to warm up they made slow but steady progress. They were hyperalert for further attacks but no more came. The hours and the miles passed by in weary succession. After twelve hours they had done three hundred and sixty miles, refuelling twice. Nearly halfway there. Everyone was dog-tired, but it was too cold to rest on the ice. The only option was to keep moving.
They rode through the night, their way lit by the eerie effulgence of the aurora borealis. Whenever the freezing temperatures got too much Eddy rode close to Sol, who radiated warmth and light. This was just enough to stop him getting hypothermia, but it was still a punishing ride, his hands like blocks of ice, his face numb. He couldn’t go on much further, and nor could his bike. The needle was dangerously low. He’d flipped it to reserve some time ago, and was pretty much running on fumes. The bike felt underpowered, and started to act erratically.
‘I’ll catch you up!’ he shouted out.
He waved to the pack, and pulled over. Kicking down the stand – the ice so solid it didn’t sink in – he killed the engine.
‘How you doing there, Blitzen, old buddy? Enjoying Valhalla I hope. Hope the mead and the maidens are flowing.’
Paying his respects to the frozen bundle lashed to the back, he released the bungees holding the can of gas to the pannier-frame, and did his best to refuel without spilling any in the biting wind, which drove across the ice-field from the north.
Eddy took his helmet off, letting the blast of icy air shake the grogginess from him.
Away from the light and roar of the bikes temporarily, the vast emptiness overwhelmed him. For once the skies were clear and the star-field was immense. It felt like he could simply let go of Earth’s spinning ball and fall forever.
The aurora pulsed in wavering bands of blue, green and gold – and he watched, soothed by its strange dance, which made all the struggling for survival, the fighting for resources, the jockeying for prestige, the endless power games, seem so … petty. He could feel the crackle of energy on his skin. The ancestors. He heard their esoteric whispering.
He pictured his own people looking up at the same sky, and a deep pang of longing swept over him. At that moment he felt so lonely and wanted more than anything to be back with them.
Yet – he was getting closer. There was still an unimaginable distance to cross, but … one step at a time. Reach Iceland, rest, then prep for the next stage. Eddy had always been a ‘one day at a time’ kind of guy. Best not to over-complicate things by getting all worked up by what wasn’t present. Each day brought its own shit to deal with.
The can was empty. He gave it a good shake, and got a last trickle out of it, but that was it. He’d given himself about fifty more miles, tops. There was at least two hundred to go. But he’d worry about that when it happened. There was jackshit he could do about it. If he was destined to deepfreeze out here, so be it. Least he’d have nothing to worry about then. The hurting would stop.
Suddenly, the aurora seemed to coalesce into a figure – a tall, lean, woman – who swam through the sea of stars, reaching out her arms to him. Her features formed for a moment and he gasped.
Arms raised, he tried to touch her – but it was futile.
But her eyes glinted and she breathed out a vaporous cloud towards him, enveloping him in its milky opalescence.
‘Share in my hamingja, Eddy Redcrow. May it sustain you in your difficult journey… We are one mind, one heart.’
Eddy filled with cold fire. He had a flash of the frozen sea from above, stretching around the curvature of the Earth; and then a sudden leap of scale, as Earth became one of nine worlds connected by a vast tree. He felt part of everything – the roots, the sap, the bark, each leaf, each life. A serpent gnawing the roots, the eagle in its highest branches, the squirrel scampering between the two. Every world. Every realm. Every monarch and monster. Every nobody and somebody.
A half-breed rocker and a frost giant’s daughter – separated by an imaginable gulf.
It was almost too much, his mind threatened to snap. But Fenja’s voice came back to him, soothing him, singing him back into his body. ‘One mind, one heart…’
The vision faded, but he was filled with fire.
Lyrics started to form in his head around a melody: ‘Woman with stars on your skin, touch me with your fire, kindle me within …Touch me with your fire, your love is no sin.’
Humming, he lashed the can back on – you never know – and gave Blitzen a friendly tap, then got back on the bike, his limbs complaining like a stubborn mule. He gunned the engine – that was warmed up, at least – and did his best to catch up with the others before their tail-lights vanished altogether.
‘I see Heaven in your eyes, the Devil in your smile,
night is set aflame with your lovin’, fire-child…’
Just as Eddy reached the pack, the familiar rumble of bikes on the ice was deepened by another layer of thunder. At first it was hard to place – it echoed around the sky ominously.
Rig signalled for the bikes to stop and they circled around, forming a defensive cluster. Eyes were drawn to the west, where out of the star-field, two, three detached themselves, and started to draw closer.
‘Incoming!’ shouted Tear. Everyone braced themselves. They were sitting ducks.
One Eye parked his bike and climbed off, slowly walking forward – as though to his doom. He seemed, to Eddy’s eyes, to have grown in stature.
‘Enough! They trespass in my realm. Defile the Bright Dancers. Let them taste my wrath!’ He raised his hands to the sky, and storm clouds broiled out of the darkness.
The jet fighters roared closer – sonic booms splitting the night apart. They would strike at any minute.
But One Eye roared louder, his voice becoming thunder that shook the ice, threatened to shatter the world apart. Lightning forks flashed and they were momentarily blinded by the flashes of the explosions.
Out of the sky careered three burning fuselages, which plunged into the ice – snuffed out like candles.
His two ravens circled the wreckage before returning to him, landing on his shoulders.
One Eye let himself calm down before turning back to them. No one could meet his furious gaze. There was an immense power about him that was terrifying. The patches bowed to him, as he got back on his bike and rode off.
The endless cycle of ride, rest, ride, rest, blurred into one. Time was becoming as chancy as the ice they crossed – impossible to get a fix upon. Was it day or night, Eddy wondered? With the constant lid of cloud and the dull glow of the endless ice it was hard to tell. The only certainty was – it was getting colder, if that was possible. The bikes were stopping to make funny noises, and act erratically. Rig did his best – checking the bikes at every pitstop. The rest breaks intended to be every couple of hours now were every hour – as the conditions got icier and the fatigue took its toll. Every new mile on the saddle became agony. But on they must go.
Eddy’s bike spluttered out. He checked the fuel gauge – frozen solid. The reserve switch had been flipped some time ago. There was no denying it. He was out of gas. ‘Damn!’ He hit the tank, and slowed to a stop.
So much for Fenja’s hamingja, he thought!
But ahead of him the Wild Hunt had stopped too.
They had come to a small fleet of frozen trawlers. He got off his bike and stiffly walked closer – his heart beating faster. As Eddy approached the shout went up. ‘They’re Icelandic!’
He mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ to his lover.
A quick search revealed plenty of fuel. The patches worked in chains to refuel the bikes, supervised by Rig. Others fashioned a scratch meal from what could be scavenged – a pungent fish-broth, uninvitingly slimy but surprisingly restorative. Eddy welcomed its warmth, slurping it down between mouthfuls of oatcakes. Feeling the chill start to lift from his bones, he noticed the nimbus in the east. Perhaps they would make it through the night after all.
Refuelled and restored, they set off. As the thin light of the day drew back the pawl of shadow they were greeted with a welcome sight. In the distance they could see the dark smudges of mountains.
‘Land ahoy!’ someone cried out, half in jest. The news rippled through the pack, and the response was delirious relief, spurring them on to make landfall. Iceland – where it all began, and where it would all end.
Eddy sent a prayer of thanks to his beloved and sang to the dawn: ‘One mind, one heart.’
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020
A Message from the President
President Koil, after recently convening his emergency security council, Asgard, made an announcement from StormEye. He said, ‘These are real tricky times, but rest assured, citizens of the free world, we have the situation under control. My special friends are ensuring the status quo within our borders. Remain in your homes. If you have stockpiled resources and are able to help your fellow citizens send out a signal by any means you can, and helping hand will soon be on its way. Defend your property, as is your God given right, but do not resist the Jötun patrols. These are bad nasty fellas and I wouldn’t wanna pick a fight with ’em. The Navy and Coast Guard are protecting our overseas assets and coastlines with the assistance of my boys in white, Ice Force; Hel-jets guard our airspace; and Star*Wolf defence systems, our assets in orbit. This great country will not only survive this time of difficulty, it will arise stronger from the ashes, while our enemies will all fall. America will be the last man standing, ready to instigate humanitarian aid to our allies and a new world order when the storms have passed.’
Chapter 17: The Serpent
‘I wish I was in Carrick-Fergus,
only for nights in Ballygran
I would swim over the deepest ocean
the deepest ocean to be by your side…’
Riding side-by-side with Eddy, Bog’s tuneless singing pierced even the sound of the Wild Hunt as the pack of bikers crossed the ice-field. It would have made him smile, if his face wasn’t frozen.
‘But the sea is wide; I cannot swim over;
Neither have I wings to fly
I wish I could find me a handy boatman
to ferry me over to my love and I…’
‘It’s going to be a long journey with your singing!’ shouted Eddy over the growl of the engines struggling over the uneven surface of the ice.
‘Ah, yous just jealous of my fine Fenian voice! Besides, we’ve got to keep our spirits up, haven’t we now? Carrick Fergus, here we come! I can almost smell the soda bread and Irish stew from here’ And Bog continued…
‘These childhood places bring sad reflection
of happy days spent so long ago
my childhood friends and my own relations
have all passed on like the melting snow.
O the night was dark and the sky uneasy
the mighty ocean was tossed and wild …’
Bog’s warbling became one with the drone of the bikes on the ice. The white void stretched away into infinity – featureless, monotonous and deadly. Might as well be riding through the Land of the Dead, brooded Eddy. The continual vibration of the bike was the only reminder that he was, in fact, painfully alive. His hands were numb, his feet were numb, even his head felt numb. Only the constant jarring as the bike struggled over the ice churned up by the two-wheeled phalanx making its way with grim determination north by north west towards … what? Nobody seemed sure exactly. Some dust-up at the end of the world. The Wild Hunt was compelled by some instinct. Was this what it was like, being a migrating bird, Eddy whimsied, starting to feel the wrong side of sane.
His own homing instincts were kicking in, and he was determined to somehow make it back to Manitoba. Iceland provided a convenient stepping stone, so for now he was happy to toe the line. He’d made his vow and was one of the pack now – and at present, the only thing keeping them all alive was … each other. Safety in numbers, for sure.
Ahead, he glimpsed the Elders, leading the way. With The Hammer on his side, Eddy certainly felt safer. She had taken down a jetfighter! If she could perform such a feat, then who knows what the other gods were capable of? One Eye had seemed subdued after the initial sturm-und-drang of his awakening. He seemed always preoccupied. Something was gnawing away at him, that was sure. The attack of the fighter jet had cast a shadow over the group, and not just from the loss of comrades. Having survived the Devil’s Hogs and the Jötun, suddenly they were on the radar of a bigger enemy.
As if surviving wasn’t hard enough in these interminable wintry conditions. It was as though they had been forgotten by the sun. Well … not quite. Eddy thought of Sol, the golden one. She rode pillion in the middle of the pack, with Cruz on the million-dollar bike, and even just a sight of her glowing presence from a distance warmed his heart.
And then there was Fenja. As Bog sang of his own ‘sweet Bridget Macy’ Eddy’s thoughts turned to his very own true love.
She haunted his dreams. He only had to close his eyes, to be taken back to her mountainous realm of ice and snow.
‘Ten minutes! No more!’ roared Rig. There was a sigh of relief and groans as bikes slowed and came to a stop. Weary bikers climbed off their saddles and stretched numbed limbs.
‘A pitstop! Thank fuck!’ said Bog. He pulled out a hipflask from his flying jacket. ‘Want a nip?’
Eddy shook his head, and slumped down by his engine, absorbing its warmth through his leathers. He only closed his eyes for a second…
Fenja stood in a vast crystalline chamber, hewn from the heart of a mountain, arguing with her father – a sepulchral figure who sat upon a huge obsidian throne. Frost-giant elders petitioned her to see sense. To remember where she came from, where her loyalties laid. That was her tribe, Eddy distantly wondered? Then he realised: she was like him – a half-breed, but one who was the offspring of a Jötun and human. The gods could change form – move amongst us. It would seem once her father had done. Flashes of the king’s former life appeared in the crystal facets – moments frozen in time, summoned by Fenja to make her case. A beautiful woman, plucked from the wreckage of a plane crash on a mountainside. Hearing her cries to the old gods, he had saved her, and she had saved him – melting his tundra heart, for a while at least. But he was not just any frost giant, but Thrym, King of his people. He had a realm to rule, and grew cold again, distant – even when the human presented the infant girl born of their union. As the child had grown, the mother had faded. It had been more than a mortal frame could bear, bringing such a being into the world. Fenja visited her tomb where she remained, perfectly preserved in ice. Her tears melted away a lock of hair, which she now offered to Thrym, hoping it would melt his heart – for it was his will that had encased the world in a perpetual winter, and his which could release it again. Glacial, the monarch pondered the lock of golden hair as he sat upon his mountain throne…
And Eddy was jolted awake. Bog kicked him again.
‘Get up, yous lazy fuck. Time to be on our merry way!’
Eddy groaned as he got up.
‘Nice catnap? Don’t worry, we’ll soon be reaching the coast of the fair green isle. I will be able to guide you round to Derry, then I’ll be bidding you and your pals a fond farewell.’
The bikers set off.
After roughly another hour the dark line of the coast could be seen.
‘That way lies Belfast,’ pointed Bog, ‘but I suspect it’ll be easier going on the ice. And besides, orange doesn’t flatter me. If we keep going another hour I reckon we’d make Rathlin Island – a good place for a proper rest. We’ll be passing some spectacular coastline. Game of Thrones and all that shite. I’m your local guide! Good job yous brought me along!’
And so they pushed on.
Finally, the dark mass of Rathlin Island appeared in the distance and, encouraged, they forced themselves forward.
‘Once we reach Rathlin, it’s only about another fifty to Derry. Then its sayonara from golden-tonsils here.’
And beyond that, brooded Eddy, there would be another eight or nine hundred miles to go to Iceland. They were averaging thirty miles an hour, so that was still thirty hours of riding to go, he estimated. He groaned, his body hating him.
Why couldn’t he have got that flight home! Yet that choice-point at Aberdeen belonged to a world that did not exist anymore. A nuclear winter, frost giants, frozen oceans… Weird was the new normal.
‘Hey, Red, how’s it going there?’
It was Blitzen, grinning at him wolfishly as he rode parallel.
‘Riding through a desert on a horse with no name, huh?’
‘Something like that,’ Eddy grimaced.
They both steered around a buttress of ice.
‘To be honest, I’m loving this!’ called out his friend. ‘How often do you get to ride across the Atlantic! Charley and Ewan eat your heart out!’
Eddy shook his head, laughing. Petrolheads! Same all over the world. Always up for something insane.
Just then the ice beneath them shook, nearly knocking them off their bikes.
‘What the Hell was that?’ cried out Blitzen.
The boom faded to be replaced by another and the ice beneath them groaned as though something was trying to break through.
Eddy looked down. Something large and dark was moving beneath them!
‘Don’t tell me they’ve sent in a sub!’ Blitzen murmured.
‘Wild Hunt! Be on your guard!’ bellowed Tear.
Just then the ice split apart, sending deadly shards flying – one narrowly missing Eddy. Next to him, he heard a cry of pain. Before he could check, all Hell had broken loose, literally it seemed.
‘Mary, Mungo and Midge – would you look at that!’ cried Bog.
Eddy blinked and looked again.
A giant sea serpent had risen up out of the fissure in the ice, and was seizing a biker in its massive jaw. It was like something from a fantasy movie and Eddy’s brain tried to rationalise it as such, imagining the CGI involved, the teams of computer animateurs. But it was for real, all the sailors’ nightmares of the deep come true.
Here Be Dragons.
‘Get out of its range!’ hollered Rig, riding towards it, weapon raised.
The other Elders were also on the offensive, circling it with their bikes.
‘I don’t need any persuading, fella!’ shouted Bog, accelerating out of harm’s way with Eddy. ‘Don’t fancy a date-night in Davy Jones’ locker with hot-lips here!’
It was too late for half a dozen of the rank and file, but now the serpent was too busy dealing with the attention of The Hammer, Tear and the others.
The Hammer leapt onto its head and began pounding it with her fists. Tear went for its long throat, tore at it with his hunting knife – trying to find a weak spot in its thick hide. This inspired the others to courage, and they tackled it from the edge of the ice with their guns and knives, although it was hard to get a clear shot, and bullets seemed to bounce off of it.
‘Save your ammo!’ called out Rig.
The Hammer had pulled open its jaws and stood between them, straining to rip them asunder. Its forked tongue wrapped around her torso, and foul bile covered her from head to foot. ‘Gaarggh! You really need to sort out that bad breath problem!’ she roared.
One Eye roared close on his snarling bike, trying to draw it away from the fallen. As he gunned the engines and fire leapt from the exhaust, the serpent shrivelled back, hissing.
‘Fire!’ One Eye called out. ‘Burn the serpent back into the abyss!’
‘Allow me.’ Sol stepped forward, casting off her cloak. She raised her hands before the serpent, and between them manifested a burning fireball, which she cast into the serpent’s mouth. It convulsed, and The Hammer and Tear were thrown from it, back onto the ice.
The monster thrashed about manically, trying to vomit up the fire in its belly, but it was too late. Sol’s gift consumed it from within – making its scales glow like a stained glass window. It shrieked in pain – an ear-splitting sound that made Eddy keel over.
Then it stopped and the smouldering serpent slid back into the boiling waters – leaving behind a Rorschach of blood smeared across the ice..
The Wild Hunt stood gasping, overwhelmed by the deathly silence in its absence.
Eddy rode to Blitzen – who had been impaled by a shard of ice. He quickly dismounted and knelt by his friend’s side.
Blitzen tried to speak, but could only manage to cough up blood. His dagger lay dropped on the ice. Briefly his eyes flicked to it, and Eddy picked it up and placed it in his friend’s hand.
Blitzen shuddered and went limp.
Eddy bowed his head for a minute in respect, but he was disturbed from his mourning by cries of anguish. He looked up to see The Hammer, dripping bile, stagger from the gap in the ice, then fall to the ground.
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020