George Stewart’s 1949 novel, Earth Abides, is singular in both senses – it is the only science fiction the University of California Professor of English ever wrote, and also a remarkably prescient and deeply moving epic. Set in the aftermath of a virus that decimates the global population – the Great Disaster that derails the human project catastrophically (at least in terms of what we think of as ‘civilisation’) – the opening chapters depict an eerily quiet and depopulated land that could easily be one in lockdown. Yet as the protagonist, Isherwood Williams, (or ‘Ish’ as he becomes known) makes his solitary way back from the wilderness where he had been undertaking field research, it soon becomes apparent that a devastating plague has swept the land, leaving fly-ridden corpses in lonely gas stations, mummified ones in the desert, and rendering the former population clusters of cities as no-go zones. And the near mass extinction event of humankind allows for a rewilding of America, in a similar way to how Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies imagined a ‘wild England’ in his post-apocalyptic novel of 1885, After London. Yet, unlike in Jefferies, where the first half of the novel is a detailed natural history survey sans character or plot, in Stewart’s narrative, Ish is our viewpoint character who has agency. We experience this biological apocalypse through his thoughts and senses – an academic, he reflects upon what he beholds stoically. Used to his own company and absorbed by his own preoccupations, he is able to cope with a depeopled California, until finally jarred out of his solipsism by first a dog, and then by chance encounters with the diseased, deranged, or decadent few who have also survived. He embarks upon a bleak road trip to the East Coast, only to be unimpressed by the remnants he encounters. Returning to the West Coast and his former childhood home, he settles down to a quiet life, until … well, I’ll leave that for you to discover. What is refreshing about Stewart’s post-apocalypse is the anthropological approach he takes in charting the vicissitudes of the remaining survivors. He takes the long view of history, and prophesies a circularity to it … the survivors subsist upon what they can scavenge, but eventually the shelves empty or are overrun by the swarms of ants, rats, and feral canines, and the scattered tribes regress into a future primitive state. The novel shows its age in some places – most notably in its problematic descriptions of people of colour, the handicapped, and of women. And yet Stewart nearly redeems himself by lauding the main female (and mixed race) character – who is shown to have greater strength and stamina than the men. She is rather put on a pedestal and is frequently referred to as the ‘mother of nations’ – and so this idealised feminine is just as problematic in its own way. Stewart also is far off the mark in his disavowal of climate studies as being of any relevance to future life on Earth: ‘Climatic change was not a practical problem.’ Yet for a novel written in the late 1940s, we can hardly blame the author for that blindspot, and in many ways Stewart’s sole foray into the speculative is a seminal work of Climate Fiction, and in that sense it is far ahead of the curve. It rightly won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. So, despite its weaknesses of representation, the novel has many strengths – not just the breadth of its vision, but in its non-anthropocentric shifts, and its proto-ecological tone. It foregrounds the importance of environment, and exhorts (of the earth): ‘There is nothing else by which men live’. Stewart emphasises the Earth will survive us, and is indifferent to our plight. He destabilises our imagined position as the pinnacle of creation; he also challenges the vanity of ambition, the empty intellectualism of academe (whenever it ceases to have practical purpose), and the myth of progress. All that matters, he seems to infer, is our immediate community of connections, the family (or ‘Tribe’ in its extended form), our inner resilience, adaptability, and capability. Simple skills of survival become more important than the vainglorious dreams of betterment and posterity. And yet although this heartbreakingly charts the end of the Enlightenment Project and western civilisation’s brief moment in the sun, this is ultimately a humanist and humanitarian novel, and there is deep poetry and compassion here – in the poetic, pseudo-Biblical epigraphs; and in the loving record of marriage and friendship. A haunting vision of a plague-stricken America, there is nevertheless a quiet beauty here that lingers long after the book has been put down.
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!’
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.’
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…’
Announcement on Gimli XYZ (broadcast every 15 minutes)
There will be an emergency public meeting today in the Sports Centre at 11am, where all concerns will be addressed. Attendance is highly recommended. Hot drinks and essential supplies will be available.
Chapter 26: The Meeting
The sports hall was ‘rammed to the gunnels’ as Eddy heard an old fisherman comment, muttering to his equally salty looking mate, both shaking the snow from their sou’westers.
‘Must be half of Gimli here!’ observed Magnus, pushing his way in.
Eddy, Siggy, and Sitting Cloud followed in his wake. The running joke in the family was ‘Dad’s a good icebreaker’, which the old man always took as a compliment.
Magnus waved to some folks they couldn’t see, and waved them over. In one corner of the hall, at the far end of the seats, there was an enclave of their father’s drinking cronies – a grab-bag of New Icelanders, First Nation and Métis, all north of fifty and proudly sporting bellies like walruses. Some sported the whiskers too, beneath their baseball caps and beanies. Everywhere the snow melted from hats and coats and boots and formed little puddles on the wooden floor.
Magnus squeezed in with his buddies, but Eddy and Siggy had to stand. The atmosphere was one of anxious excitement. Neighbours exchanged stories animatedly about snow-drifts, power-outs, dwindling supplies, mishaps, and strange sights.
‘This freak winter has been the most exciting thing to happen to Gimli since, well, the Ice Age,’ observed Siggy, rolling her eyes, then yawning. ‘Anyhow, how’s Scott of the Antarctic doing?’
Eddy shrugged. ‘Still feel like I’ve done ten rounds with the Polar Pounder.’
‘It’s going to take a while to get back to your usual lazy self. All that exertion has caused an allergic reaction.’
Before Eddy could get his sister back, there were ‘shushes’ as the Mayor tapped the mike.
They both looked at him with contempt. Sonny Thornson smoothed down his ridiculous wig, which looked like a bird nesting on his head. He wore an open necked shirt under his orange quilted jacket, trying his best to look like a ‘regular Joe’ who didn’t get chauffeured around. His shoes didn’t even have snow on them.
‘Good morning, citizens of Gimli! Thank you for coming down to our makeshift civic hall. Sorry we couldn’t put the heating on. Save costs, save oil, save the planet, y’know. Ha ha.’ The groans made him shift uneasily, clear his throat. ‘Guess that’s why we’re all here! Unusual times, my friends, unusual times. But … the true grit of Gimli shines through! We’ve endured bad winters before, and we can get through this one together! Community spirit and all that. We realise some of you are struggling out there, so I figured let’s get everyone together and we can join the dots. Find out how your neighbours are doing, especially the elderly and infirm. If they need a hand. Some groceries or some wood splitting. Those who can help those who can’t. It’s as simple as that.’
‘Figured you needed some help, then Sonny? Is that it?’ someone heckled, and folk laughed.
‘Ha, ha. Well, it’s true I’m not the most practical men. But we all have skills.’
‘What’s your’s? Bullshitting?’
Thornson’s smile dropped and he leant over to his aide, whispered something. Then the smile returned. ‘Anyhow, there’s a board over the coffee. Post its and pens. Two lists – ‘Needs’ and ‘Offers’. Write up what you’re in need of, or what you can offer your fellow citizens. Teamwork, folks. Meantime, the mike is here for any who have something to say – but play nice! First up though, I’d like to welcome up Sheriff Rivet.’
There was a mild ripple of applause – so half-hearted it was hard to tell if it was for the Mayor’s underwhelming performance or a polite gesture to the next speaker.
Ava Rivet nodded curtly to the mayor and took the mike. She was a strong-nosed, long-boned kind of woman, with grey eyes that never missed a trick. She scanned the crowd professionally. Tapped the mike. ‘Okay, citizens. Listen up. I’m not going to sprinkle hundreds and thousands on it. We’ve got a serious situation here.’ She gave the audience a sober look. Everyone knew Rivet, some personally. Eddy had even spotted her at bars in town, before she got hitched. She had enjoyed karaoke, and could fix a mean cocktail. But since walking the aisle with Sten, and having a couple of kids, she had settled down some. Had worked her way up from community police officer, working the reservations. As a Métis, she had been able to negotiate some of the complexities of tribal politics better than most. Eddy had respect for her, even though he had found himself in the back of her wagon a few too many times. Normally, she had driven him home, gave him a good ticking off, and told him to straighten up. She liked the Runestones too much to throw him in jail for more than a night. It was this sense of fairness and common sense that had won her over most of the population of Gimli, although there were inevitable enemies too. Thornson and his cronies had never warmed to her. Too decent, Eddy thought. And then there was the bad bunch in the corner, B.Z. or ‘Wendigo’, as he tagged himself these days, and his bloods – the ones everyone gave a wide berth too. Surprised to see them here, he pondered, but maybe they scented a weakening herd. What better way to identify the weak ones? Simply read the ‘needs’ list; or even the ‘offers’. It must be like a sweet-shop for them. He shuddered, returned his attention to Rivet, who seemed to be the only one talking sense around here.
‘You’re probably aware of most of what I’m going to tell you, but just so everyone is tuned into the same channel here. All roads are blocked, and even the snowploughs are snowed in. So, the trucks … they ain’t getting through. The same for surrounding settlements, so snow-mobiles aren’t going to help you much unless you’re good at hunting. The stores are running low, so stockpile and ration your supplies carefully. We lost contact with the State office several days ago, and all internet and satellite-based comms are down. All we have is the shortwave radio – and the network of radio hams sharing whatever they know. It sounds pretty grim out there. I think we have to assume we’ve got to rely upon ourselves here. But we’re Manitobans. I know we can do that. Keep your family close. Stay safe. Look out for each other. Check in on your neighbours. We’ll keep this hall open as a central meeting point, info-hub, and as an emergency shelter. Donations of sleeping bags, mats, camp-beds, tins of food, bottled water, blankets, and so on, most welcome. We’ve requisitioned back up supplies, but please spare what you can.’ She gave Thornson a look. ‘Thank you.’
Rivet stepped away from the mike. A muted silence lingered in the wake of her announcement, as folk digested what she had said. It was one thing, fearing the worst, but another thing knowing it.
‘Cool! It’s like one of those survival movies!’
‘Don’t be an idiot, Eddy. This is serious stuff. Folk are going to suffer!’ Siggy as ever, was the sensible one.
‘Maybe I can offer a song?’ he said, lamely.
‘I think they’re going to need more than a singalong to get through this.’
Somebody had taken the mike and they looked up. They both groaned. ‘Oh no! Old Snorey’s got the mike!’
It was Snorri, a spry New Icelander in his late seventies. An old friend of their late grandfather, they had grown up, hearing his stories – sagas that seemed to go on for days. He was a long-distance runner, but seemed to forget his audience didn’t share his stamina.
‘My friends, I am sorry to also be the bearer of bad news. I am no Ratatosk. Old Snorri speaks the truth. This really does seem like Ragnarok…’
Groans and moans from the crowd.
‘But Ragnarok,’ he stubbornly continued, ‘is the twilight of the Gods! Not us. Old Snorri, he still gets out and about. I see folk, see their strength. Us Gimlungar are tough old cookies.’ This got a few cheers. ‘This winter … it’s hard, I know. Real hard.’ He looked around, his eyes moist as he surveyed the drawn faces. ‘But maybe it is also a tabula rasa, a blank slate. A chance for the world to stop, take stock. Try it a different way, maybe. We are forging a new myth everyd—’
‘Get off!’ someone shouted. A half cup of coffee was thrown.
‘Step into your legend!’ he shouted defiantly.
‘Change the record, old man!’ heckled another.
‘Rise to your greatness! Giants may walk the land … but we can be the true giants! I believe in you, Gimlungar!’
Cheers drowned out the heckles, but Rivet coaxed Snorri away.
She banged on the mike until there was silence. ‘Hey! Everyone gets a chance to speak! That’s the deal! Any more of that and you’re spending the night in a concrete cell!’
The crowd settled down.
Snorri sat back down, getting a few pats on the back and words of appreciation.
Next up, came a group of middle-aged women in shawls and scarves.
‘Oh no. Now it’s the weavers!’ Eddy groaned, but Siggy nudged him.
‘Sshhh! Let the sisters speak. Talk more sense than most idiot men!’
The women were a mixture of New Icelander, First Nation and Métis. There was about a dozen of them, ranging in age from fourteen to eighty. Ostensibly a weaving circle, they always freaked Eddy out a bit. He joked they were probably a coven of witches, but his sister told him they just shared ‘women’s stuff’ and he was just threatened by that, being a knuckle-headed male.
‘We see how things are unravelling,’ spoke one, silver haired in black.
‘Though things were pretty threadbare to begin with!’ added another, in purple.
‘That president has certainly lost the thread!’ quipped a third, in pink, which got a laugh.
‘In these unstrung times,’ continued the first, ‘it is more important than ever to stick together. The ties of the community will be tested. They are strong here, but the weakest may snap. We must be prepared to pick up the slack. Stitch things back together.’
‘We see the pattern – the warp and weft of things. Danger is coming. Mark our words!’
‘More loonies!’ shouted someone.
‘Mother Earth is weeping!’ cried a young member of their circle. ‘Her bones are frozen, her skin cracked. The fracking made her bleed. They tear out her hair; pluck her children from her breast…’
The weavers started to keen, making the atmosphere in the room even icier.
‘Her very life-blood – the ocean – is solid ice! When will Man learn to mend his ways? To honour the Mother? To—’
Before anyone could stop him, the gang leader, BZ, grabbed the mike, his bloods pushing back the women. ‘Enough of this apocalypse shit. We know what’s going down. It’s every man for himself, people. Only the strong will survive. We’ve got the firepower to defend our turf.’ BZ pulled back his jacket to reveal the iron stuffed in his pants. ‘No fuckers gonna starve on my watch, while they pay me respect.’
‘Yeah!’ hollered his bloods.
‘Wendigo will look after you!’ he boasted, pulling out his gun and pointing it to the ceiling.
‘Wendigo! Wendigo!’ chanted the gang.
‘Drop that weapon, now!’ shouted Rivet, her pistol pointing at the leader.
‘Hey, cool, bitch! I’m just talking, as is my right! Everyone gets a turn, yeah?’ BZ smiled, revealing gold teeth.
‘I’m going to count to three and if that gun isn’t on the floor you will be,’ spoke Rivet slowly, calmly.
The bloods all pulled their weapons on her.
A couple of Rivet’s officers levelled up to them with their own standard issue firearms. It was three against fifteen.
‘She is outnumbered! They’ll gun her down in cold blood!’ whispered Siggy, grabbing Eddy as she trembled.
Eddy wished some of the Wild Hunt were here to teach those punks the meaning of respect.
The crowd tensed, watching the standoff.
‘One … two …’
Suddenly, everyone’s attention was distracted by a figure staggering in, covered in blood. Screams reverberated around the hall, as he fell limply to the ground – his back with a crossbow bolt sticking out of it.
‘What the hell…?’ said Eddy.
Rivet lifted up her weapon, and backed away from BZ. She made her way over the man. Leaned in close to hear him splutter something with his dying breath.
She pointed to her deputies. ‘Lock those doors, now!’ she bellowed.
‘Hey, Rivet – what gives?’ asked BZ.
The sheriff stood up, checked her weapon. ‘There is some kind of gang of raiders out there. We need to defend our people. That means you and your gang. Now, are you with us, or against us?’
The citizens watched for his reaction.
Feeling their eyes burn into him, BZ cricked his neck. ‘If there’s fighting involved…’ he raised his arms, ‘I’m your man. Bloods!’ He whistled and his gang members stepped forward. ‘Remember this people – Wendigo saved your asses.’
Rivet signalled to her deputies. ‘You two – stay here. We need some firepower on the inside, just in case. If you don’t hear my voice, don’t let anybody in, you hear? No one!’
She joined BZ and his gang and, guns pointing forward, walked into blizzard raging outside.
Emil and Wichiwa slammed the door behind them, and locked it, pushing chairs under the handles.
‘Stay calm people. Just keep away from the doors and windows,’ commanded Wichiwa, who was short but had a big voice on her.
Magnus, and some of the others, started to gather folk together into huddles – for mutual reassurance as much as anything. The more able-bodied stood in the perimeter of the circles of lesser-abled men, women, children and elderly. Eddy was one of them, standing guard by his mother and her friends. Nobody is getting near my family, he snarled inside. He just wished he had a weapon on him.
Eddy looked at disgust at the mayor cowering amid a group of women.
The crowd visibly flinched when gun shots split through the night, flashes lighting up the windows. Fortunately, these were high up. Out of reach.
‘Guess we’ll find out in a minute,’ observed Magnus, thumbing a wadge of tobacco into his pipe.
The gunfire abruptly stopped, filling the hall with the sound of breathing overlaying the outer sound of the blizzard buffeting against the roof and doors.
A bang on the main doors made everyone jump.
‘It’s Rivet. Let us in.’
The two deputies hesitated.
‘Get on with it, boneheads! We’re dying out here!’
Emil and Wichiwa kicked away the chairs, and stood back, weapons raised.
The doors were barged open and Rivet came in, carrying one of the wounded gang members. BZ, slick in blood, brought up the rear with seven others, two limping.
‘The doors! Tables! And the doc!’
Rivet laid her load onto one of the tables quickly pulled over. The gang member – a young Dakotan – was in a bad way, clutching a gut wound. While he was seen to by the elderly doctor who came forward, Rivet addressed the crowd.
‘We’ve seen them off for now.’ She slumped onto a chair. Somebody handed her a hipflask. ‘They seemed to be riding horses and firing crossbows, for crying out loud!’ She took a sip, and then offered it to BZ.
The gang leader had a bloodied towel around his neck, with which he had wiped the worst from his face. He seemed unhurt. He nodded and accepted. ‘They took down six of my bloods! But we got ‘em back! Kicked their butt, and sent ‘em running for now, the medieval muvvafukkas.’ His hand shook as he took a swig.
‘Not just us,’ added Rivet, accepting it back. ‘Someone out there with a hunting rifle drew them away.’ She raised the hipflask in toast. ‘Whoever they are, we thank you!’
‘Who are they?’ demanded the mayor, trying to assume authority again.
Everyone ignored him, focused on tending to the wounded.
‘Who is attacking us? Why?’ he asked, to no one in particular.
Snorri paced about, twitching at every blast of the blizzard rattling the doors. ‘The Sons of Muspel, as the Edda predicts.’
Angry citizens harangued him, ‘Quit you’re fool-talk, old man!’
‘Whoever they are,’ interjected Rivet, ‘they are going to be back and we need to be ready for them.’
‘Here, we’re sitting ducks!’ raged BZ. ‘We need to take the fight to them!’
‘In this weather?’ scoffed Rivet. ‘With what exactly?’
‘We know this land better than any outsider. We have the advantage. If I can get to our clubhouse … we could sort them out, no sweat.’
Rivet rolled her firing shoulder. ‘Safety in numbers. As soon as we split up, we’re vulnerable. They’ll pick us off, one by one.’
‘I’m not talking about everyone going, like it’s some kind of fucking Pumpkin Ride, Rivet! Just my bloods. It’ll draw them away.’
The sheriff shook her head. ‘We need you guys here. You’re the only defence we have against those things. Stay. BZ, these people need you.’
‘Hear that boys, I’m a fucking hero! Maybe folk will start to give me and my crew the respect we is due!’ His gang cheered. ‘Okay, sheriff. We’ll play it your way, for now.’
Rivet nodded to him.
‘We need to get the wounded to the med centre,’ spoke the doctor. ‘If they’re going to survive the night. And we will need medical supplies, by the looks of things.’
‘I’m not sure…’ said Rivet.
‘I’ll go with them,’ spoke Eddy, surprising at himself.
‘Me too,’ said Siggy.
‘But you have no protection!’ said Rivet.
‘I think I know who is out there, and if anyone will have our back, he will,’ said Eddy.
Siggy smiled. They both knew.
‘Okay,’ Rivet agreed. ‘Make a stretcher for this fella. Take the other two walking wounded with you. They have their own guns. We can’t spare anymore. Good luck, and hurry back!’
Eddy looked to his mother and father, who held each other close. ‘I promise,’ he said.