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.’
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.
Remember everybody’s favourite rocker, Eddy Redcrow, lead singer and guitarist of good old Gimli boys, The Runestone Cowboys? He was on a vacation in Europe when the Icelandic volcano went up and has been missing ever since. Well, would you know it, he turned up in a snowdrift a couple of days ago – nearly dead with hypothermia, but I’m assured he is back home and thawing out. Some of ma’s broth will do the trick! We send him our best wishes for a speedy recovery, and hope to hear his rock’n’roll again soon.
Chapter 25: Home
A bed. He was lying in a soft bed. With clean-smelling sheets, a thick duvet, a heavy blanket or two thrown on top. That was the first thing he became aware of. His eyes were still shut; he couldn’t bear to open them … yet. His body ached all over and it was only in the snug pockets of sleep that he could find refuge. He burrowed into its hollows, trying to grab the tail of his last dream. Something about soaking in a geothermal pool with Fenja – his poor old bones absorbing the heat, slowly thawing out. Now and then Fenja would kiss him with her ice-cold lips, sending shivers up his spine. This would alternate with the bubbles of heat from the water. And he would swing between the two almost unbearable extremes – freezing and scolding. But then the sulphurous reek of the water was displaced by a waft of freshly brewing coffee. The muted sound of talking on a radio blending with voices in the room. Familiar voices.
He opened his eyes.
Mom! Dad! He’s awake!’ It was the voice of his sister, Siggy. She was holding his hand and weeping.
‘Sizzers…’ he croaked.
Wiping the tears away with the cuff of her thick sweater, she gave him a soft punch. ‘You’re late, you bastard!’
‘Don’t kill him, dear. Though he deserves it.’ His mother, Sitting Cloud, walked slowly into the room. Always a big woman, she seemed even rounder than usual. ‘Come here, you!’ She came up to him and buried his face in the mound of her belly. He breathed in the familiar smell – warm wool, baking. He felt the hot tears rise within him.
‘So you’re not dead then.’ It was the gruff voice of his father, Magnus.
Eddy pulled back and saw his father standing there, arm round his wife. Still, a mountain of a man, glacial eyes staring out from the crag of his face, he nevertheless looked shockingly older, frailer, than the last time Eddy had seen him. It had only been three months, but it looked like they had taken their toll.
Eddy tried to sit up, and winced.
‘Hey! Don’t move, idiot!’ Siggy punched him again.
‘Why, so I can be your punchbag?’ he grinned.
Her frown melted briefly and she folded her arms – her long dark hair was wild and it looked like she hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep, but it warmed his heart to see her, to see them all.
‘You’re one lucky son of a bitch, son.’ His father pulled out his pipe and started filling it, despite the glare from his wife. ‘Sheriff Rivet and her deputy found you in a snowdrift. If they hadn’t been riding by at that time, you would have been dead in a couple of hours. They lugged your frozen ass to the med-centre, where they kept you in overnight. We came and got you the next day and you’ve been asleep for the last couple of days. Lazy, as ever.’ He flicked his Zippo and drew the flame into the wodge of tobacco. The familiar reek wafted towards him.
‘Get that pipe out of here! You know better, husband!’
Magnus held up his hands in surrender. ‘We’ll jaw later, son.’ Pipe clenched in teeth, hands thrust in the pockets of his baggy jeans, he sauntered off.
His mother tested his brow. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Like I’ve done ten rounds with a grizzly.’
They all laughed at that, his sister on one side, his mother opposite. He felt held by their love.
‘I can’t believe I’m back!’ he said, wincing as he tried to move.
‘We thought …’ his mother stopped, choked with tears.
‘What happened to you, asshole! Last we heard you were chasing tail at some bikerfest!’ She went to punch him again, but her mother froze her with a stare.
‘Hey, sizzers, I’m the invalid here! You need to work on your bedside manner, sis!’
‘Siggy deserves an explanation, son. We all do.’
His sister gave him a furious glare.
He sighed. Where should he start? ‘It’s a long story…’ was all he could manage for now.
‘Well, we’re not going anywhere,’ said his mother. ‘This freak winter has set in. Gimli’s cut off! Things are bad, real bad.’
‘Where did you come from, bro? How did you get here? They found a bike with … Nazi shit all over it … A fricking bike!’
Eddy coughed violently, body wrenched forward as he gasped for breath, until he flopped back on the pillows. The chill was still inside him. He felt all wrung out.
‘We should let him rest. The story can wait.’
His sister gave him a sly pinch. ‘It’d better be a good one.’
Eddy looked out at the backyard, transformed, in the sharp morning light, into a miniature snowscape – familiar details rendered unfamiliar, grotesque, misshapen. This had been no ordinary snowfall. The drifts nearly reached the first floor. Magnus and Siggy had done their best to keep the front and back doors clear, but it was an endless task. The house was well-heated and the cupboards and freezer well-provisioned. They were used to serious winters, after all. But their little bubble of warmth felt vulnerable. Only Eddy seemed to know how vulnerable. His family talked of the weather, and President Koil being even more of an asshole than usual, but nothing else. Satellites were down and they only had the local radio to rely on news – which was restricted to the area around Lake Manitoba. Sure, there had been some weird shit on the internet before that went south, but that was nothing unusual. You can’t believe everything you see on there, as his father was fond to point out.
Eddy took a sip of his coffee and shuddered.
He still felt weak, but he was not going to die. The spark inside him was still alight. He thought of Fenja – her gift to him – and he sent a quiet prayer of gratitude out to her. If she hadn’t appeared when she had done … he would have been giant pizza.
Eddy shook his head as he thought of all he had seen and endured. How could he begin to describe what he had experienced? The sky was as lively as ever – great movements of clouds swept across it. While they sheltered in their little community, gods and monsters duked it out for the fate of humankind.
And he still had a part to play in it.
He had to find the runestone. The only person who would know would be his grandpa.
Running Bear was fussing about outside, packing away his kit. He had just returned from a hunting trip, but instead of coming in to meet him, the old man had prioritised his packdown, his kills – lugging the deer he had shot into the shed and butchering it while it was fresh. The blood trickled out onto the virgin snow, forming a crimson question mark. Eddy waved to him from the porch, huddled in a blanket, but Running Bear just plain ignored him, absorbed in his task, or doing his best to cold shoulder him.
His sister came out and huddled next to him.
‘Have I offended him in some way?’
‘Don’t mind him. You know what he’s like. He’s missed you as much as the rest of us, perhaps even more. But he doesn’t like to show it. Maybe he is mad too. He’s always mad about something these days. Fracking. Federal taxes. The league results. The latest tweet from that dick Koil or propaganda from Patriot News. Give him time.’
Eddy watched the old bear shamble about, lugging another box from the back of his snow-mobile, face hidden by his fur-trimmed hat and hood, goggles and scarf.
‘Come inside, before you catch your death! Mom’s made some brownies.’
When they went inside their mother told them to ‘go on through’ and she’ll bring them in. Eddy and Siggy walked through to the sitting room, where Magnus was watching his favourite DVD, Nashville Lives, which featured country and western artistes performing sentimental ballads. The air was thick with pipe smoke.
‘Hey, Dad, how’s it going?’ asked Eddy, speculatively, sitting down on the end of the sofa nearest to his father.
‘How’s it going, son?’ Magnus blew out a cloud. ‘Not good. Not good at all. We’ve got enough fuel to last another month, if this keeps up; and with an extra mouth to feed, food to last a fortnight. The roads are impassable. We can reach the nearest communities on snowmobile, but they’re all in the same boat. No supplies are getting through. We’re left to fend for ourselves, as usual. Rely upon our own resources. Just like the old days.’
‘Oh, come on, Dad! The government aren’t just gonna let us starve, surely?’
Magnus gave his daughter a look. ‘You wanna bet? We haven’t heard anything from the State Department since this started. I reckon they’re in the same boat as us. Everyone’s probably been sent home. Every man, woman or pencil-dick for themselves.’
‘Same old story,’ said Sitting Cloud, carrying in a tray of brownies. ‘Good job the womenfolk are around to help everyone but themselves. Here tuck in. They’re the last batch I can muster.’
Eddy and Siggy both reached for them at the same time, squabbling playfully.
‘Is there any fresh coffee in there?’ asked Magnus.
‘Get off your butt, beloved, and go and find out! I’m sitting down! Been on my feet all morning! As usual!’ Sitting Cloud flumped into the armchair opposite her husband.
Magnus moaned, and got to his feet, shuffling off to the kitchen.
Sitting Cloud quickly reached for the remote and turned down the music, giving them a wink.
A contented silence descended, as the siblings tucked in.
‘Mmm, Mom. You’re brownies are the best. Boy, have I missed them! I can’t let my sister eat them all, otherwise she’ll turn into a fat squaw that nobody would want to marry!’
‘You!’ Siggy whacked him with her spare hand. ‘And nobody would want to marry you, jerk off! Dumped by your girlfriend in Italy! Well, that was a surprise! What number is that now? I’ve lost count! By the way, your exes send their love … not! What a loser!’
Eddy finished his brownie, licking the crumbs from his fingers. ‘Well, as it happens, this “loser” has a new girlfriend now! Sounds like you found her…’
Siggy and Sitting Cloud exchanged looks. ‘Okay, cat-who-got-the-cream. Do tell.’
‘She’s Nordic. Her name is Fenja Bergrisar. I picked her up while riding back across Europe. She was heading to a biker gathering in the Isle of Man – a small island in the centre of the British Isles. She was the reason I didn’t get on that flight. I just had to find her again.’
‘She must be quite something…’ said his mother.
‘She is. Like … nothing on Earth.’
Siggy frowned. ‘A brainless bimbo, to end up with a dead-end like you!’
‘Hey! take that back! She is not a “brainless bimbo”! She helped me get home.’
‘How did she do that, son?’ Magnus stood in the doorway, mug of steaming coffee in his hand.
They all looked at Eddy, curious, expectant.
‘She … pulled some strings.’
‘I can smell bullshit,’ said Magnus, sitting back down. ‘Hey, who turned my music down?’
‘Fen is … well connected. She really saved my ass, out there.’
‘Out there?’ asked Siggy.
He gestured widely. ‘On the ice. I rode home. Across the ocean.’
‘You what?’ Siggy shook her head in disbelief. ‘Oh boy, you’ve really lost it this time, baby brother!’
‘It’s true. The Lake is frozen, right? You can see that with your own eyes. Wondered why no ships have got through? The whole fucking ocean is frozen! I rode from Britain to Iceland to here…’
They all started speaking at once, but a cough from the doorway made them stop. Grandfather Running Bear stood there, slightly steaming as his damp clothing started to dry out.
‘It is true, what he says. I have seen the ocean. It is frozen. The Earth is frozen.’
‘Grandfather!’ Eddy went to get to his feet, to hug him, but the old man brushed past him and sat by the window.
Siggy placed a consoling hand on Eddy’s knee, and went to her grandfather with the tray of brownies. The old man nodded and ate it in silence. They waited for him to finish.
‘My grandson has ridden the White Road…’
‘But Grandfather! It was the Red Road that saved me. All that you taught me. It helped me stay alive on the ice.’
The old man brushed the crumbs from his plaid shirt. ‘You turned your back on the Red Road a long time ago, grandson. You play in that joke band, the “Runestone Cowboys”. You hang out with bikers. You date a Nordic girl.’
Eddy hit the sofa with his fist. ‘I have travelled thousands of miles, enduring all kinds of dangers, to make it back here, grandfather! Because I care for you all! I was worried about you all. I wanted to be back with my people, more than anything in the world!’ He shook with anger.
Sitting Cloud shuffled over to him and held her son to her breast.
‘Actually, if you really did all those things … that’s pretty impressive, brother! Even for you.’
‘The Dakota in you is strong, grandson, I do not doubt that. It is you who has denied it all these years, with your drink and drugs, your bikes and rock music. All along I have invited you to walk the good Red Road with me. All along you have chosen to walk the other way. I can only hold the gate open for so long. Your grandfather will not be here forever. Who will pass on the traditions then? Who will remember the old ways?’ Tears streamed from his eyes.
Siggy got to her feet and hugged Running Bear.
Magnus looked at them all. ‘What is this? An episode of Jerry Springer? And what is wrong with the “White Road”, anyway? What about my ancestors, my traditions? Isn’t anyone interested in those?’
The rest of them ignored him.
‘I’m actually glad to hear my son has been showing interest in the Nordic side of things. I would like to meet this Fenja. She sounds like a nice girl.’
‘Oh, shut up!’ Siggy, Sitting Cloud and Running Bear cried as one; but Eddy caught his eye and saw Magnus wink back at him.
Reports are coming in of an escalation of aggression off the coast of Iceland. Icesis insurgents have been accused of bringing down three more ‘Hel’ fighter jets sent to intercept them, bringing the total of downed jets to 4, and the loss of personnel to 8. Their families have been informed. This tragic development has thrown gas on the fears that they have in their possession a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Satellites have been tracking the insurgents as they crossed the frozen Atlantic. Ice Force commander, General Surt, commented: ‘These insurgents are clearly making their way to Iceland, which we must now assume is providing refuge for members of so-called “Icesis”. From there we expect them to make an attack upon American soil within days, deploying their WMD. We must act and act fast. I have ordered for air, sea and land forces to deliver some shock and awe to the land of ice and fire.’
In other news the extreme wintry conditions continue to persist across the globe. ‘So much for global warming!!!’ tweeted the President earlier today. ‘It’s Xmas every day now! We’ve brought Peace on Earth! I’m going down in history as President who stopped all wars!’
Chapter 20: Blood and Ink
‘So,’ One Eye drummed his fingers on a storage barrel, ‘you want to leave our happy tribe, do you?’ His eye fixed upon Eddy with its raptor glare – a gaze mirrored by the two ravens on his shoulders, who preened themselves, wiping their feathers with their beaks like a barber stropping his razor. Now and then they looked up and offered a dismissive ‘cronk’.
He stood before the Elders in the barn, which they had temporarily claimed as their own.
Eddy felt their sceptical gaze burning into him, suddenly feeling very small and foolish.
‘Yes,’ he muttered.
‘Speak up!’ commanded Tear with a derisive snarl.
Eddy held his head up. ‘Yes! I want to return to my home. To my people.’
‘This is your home now! These are your people!’ fumed Tear.
Everyone was on edge after the loss of The Hammer – the Elders seemed … brittle.
One Eye feigned puzzlement. ‘Aren’t we good enough for you?’
‘You are. The Wild Hunt means everything to me…’
‘And yet you leave us on the eve of our greatest battle!’ thundered Tear, holding out his hands in disbelief, appealing to the patches watching on.
This prompted growls of contempt from the onlookers.
‘You are my club – I will always honour that; but family …’
‘Come first,’ spoke One Eye, as though stating a cold fact.
‘The club comes first!’ roared Tear, to passionate shouts of agreement from the members.
Eddy tried to hold his nerve. ‘My family, my blood-tribe. They are under threat. I need to be there for them. Do what I can to protect them.’
‘It seems like a reasonable request to me,’ finally commented Rig.
Tear turned on his fellow Elder: ‘But if we let everyone do that – where will we be? A club with no members. We have lost too many already! We need all our remaining strength for the first ahead!’
Rig again: ‘Red has served the club honourably in our recent ordeal. He has lost two buddies. Hasn’t he earned some leave?’
Tear roared with laughter? ‘Leave? This is fucking Ragnarok, Road Captain. The final battle is upon us. There is no leave. Just victory or annihilation!’
One Eye lent forward, his eye glinting. ‘There are always many pathways through the nine worlds. To think there is only one is to live a two-dimensional life. Man must forge his fate from his will and what runes the gods have cast for him and his blood. The path is never written until it is ridden. Let Holder come forward and see where we are blind…’
The blind Elder was summoned to the front. Since the loss of his brother his hair had turned pure white. The seer lifted up his shades and once more ran his hands over Eddy, who tried not to flinch as the cold hands brushed against his face. ‘There is a stone … covered in runes. It belongs to his blood-kin. He must retrieve it, and bring it back here. This will be pivotal in the final battle. Beyond I see only destruction and darkness unless … he brings back the runestone.’
Holder pulled his hands away, breathing heavily.
Eddy trembled all over. Runestone? His band were called Runestone Cowboys, but that had only been a poor pun. Nothing had been meant by it…
One Eye finally spoke: ‘Holder has seen into the dark – gazed where we cannot. Eddy Redcrow has a quest before him. He is given permission to return to his family, but he must find this runestone and bring it back to us with the swiftness of Sleipnir – otherwise he and his kin will never find rest.’ He turned his glare to Eddy. ‘Mark my words: we will hunt them until the end of time.’
‘Try not to move!’ complained Black*Star, the club’s tattooist.
‘Is what I say. He’s a coward. Runs from a fight,’ called Cruz over her shoulder, as she walked away, flicking her hand dismissively.
Black*Star was filling in the runic design on Red’s rev-hand – Inguz, the double-helix style diamonds that apparently symbolised masculine power. Members were getting them done in honour of those lost in a bind-rune combined with Isa, in memory of the crossing. Eddy had been fast-tracked to the front of the queue, as time was of the essence. His bike was being prepared for the long ride by Rig. He had briefed Eddy as best he could. ‘I reckon it’s around two thousand and eight hundred miles from here to Gimli, Manitoba – as the crow flies anyhow. Nearly three times as long as what we’ve just done. That’s an ass-achingly long way. But it can be done, in theory, at least. The Iron Dog race – the longest snowbike race in the world – is two thou’, and the fastest recorded time was thirty five hours. Add another fifteen on for the eight hundred extra, and you’re looking at around fifty hours, at that kind of speed. That doesn’t factor in fatigue, accidents, and attacks. You’re gonna be on your own out there. No back up. No Elders to fight off the Bogeyman. We can only hope that all their firepower is focused on us – that you’ll be under their radar. And the crazy thing us, even if you make it there – you’re gonna have to make it back, doing it all over again. I reckon your chances are slim at best. And if you do make it back, we could all be mincemeat anyway. So don’t be offended if I don’t see ‘seeya soon!’ But I have a duty here, so good ole’ uncle Rig is gonna fit you up with a snowbike trailer kitted out with all the gas and supplies you’ll need to make the trip. Then it’s up to you and the will of the gods.’
‘There you go! Next!’ Black*Star finished the design and Eddy was free to rub his sore hand, wondering what his family would make of it.
If he ever made it back to Gimli he would put up with their disapproval any day to just see them again. When it came to family, Eddy realised, he would do anything, no question.
He passed Cruz on the way out, who scowled at him: ‘Blood thicker than ink, hey?’
‘I’m gonna miss you, too,’ Eddy quipped. ‘Stay alive, huh?’
Arms folded, she turned her head away.
Eddy finished packing his bike, stopping at the throb of pain from his right hand. It wasn’t the only thing that was hurting. The way Cruz and his fellow patches reacted to him made him sore, but … he had to get home. Deep down, he knew that was the right thing to do. That was all that mattered. Still, it was a sad note to part on, considering he may never see any of them again. The air bit like an axe and he shuddered. It was going to be one long, chilly ride, to say the least. He may well end up just frozen stiff out there, like the fishermen. Not an enticing prospect. Suddenly, he felt bathed in warmth. He looked up and was momentarily dazzled. It was Sol. She smiled at him and held out her hand. ‘Here, take this, Eddy Leif Redcrow. I think you’re going to need it.’
Eddy looked down at the object in Sol’s naked hand. He picked it up and he nearly dropped it. ‘It’s hot! What is it?’
‘A sunstone. It will guide you home, and thaw your fingers. Keep it safe. Light on your path, Wild Hunter.’
The first the community knew of the arrival of the enemy was a distant booming.
‘What’s that?’ someone cried out. ‘Sounded like it came from Reykjavik…’
Panic started to spread amongst the Icelanders, until One Eye got their attention with a flash of lightning and a rumble of thunder that split directly overhead, drowning out the distant booming. The Icelanders froze in terror as he appeared from the steam. ‘The enemy has arrived. Make ready to defend yourselves. Keep this settlement safe. We shall ride forth to meet them on the coast. Wild Hunt, muster!’
The bikers mounted their rides, all battle-ready. The time of resting and feasting was over. The Heathens had joined them on their own bikes, bolstering their numbers a little.
Goðmundur nodded to One Eye, who led his pack out of the crater along the narrow pass.
Eddy rode with them, for now, though his trailer made him slower, so he tagged along at the back. Cruz gave him a curt nod and then accelerated on ahead.
They hit the coast road just as silvery light of dawn broke over the island – cold and sharp as a sword. The Wild Hunt headed southwest, towards the capital, which was lit up with flashes … Heavy bombardment, realised Eddy, a sick feeling in his guts. Shock and awe, delivered by the massive aircraft carrier, moored off the coast – its dark hulk lit up by the burning eye of Surtsey.
How many were slaughtered with each artillery strike? brooded Eddy.
As they approached the turn off for the capital, One Eye gave him a salute before leading the pack towards the harbour.
Rig indicated the direction westwards and Eddy acknowledged him, before peeling off from the cortege and striking out by himself.
The Road Captain called after him: ‘‘Find that stone!’
He felt awful, leaving his comrades to face the onslaught alone, but what could he do? The homing instinct was like a chain ferry in his guts.
Eddy made his way westwards, as the firestorm over Reykjavik increased. A raven tracked him from above, then, with a cronk, finally turned back.
As he followed the curve of the coastal road, Eddy heard the rumble of thunder and saw lightning split the sky.
Calling anyone who can hear… This is Radio Free Reykjavik, broadcasting on shortwave in the hope a few dedicated radio hams out there will pick us up, and get in touch. The capital has been hit bad by the severe weather, but small, self-sufficient communities are fairing better. Our’s – about four hundred good souls – is based within an extinct volcanic crater with geothermal power keeping us going. We’re aware that our imagined sanctuary may well be our tomb. The recent devastating eruption here in Iceland of the evil sorceress, Katla, which has taken a terrible toll on our island, was only the start… Since then we’ve been experiencing a nuclear winter, and an escalating series of geostorms. The scientific consensus seems to be that these are an inevitable manifestation of Climate Change – which the massive eruption has just accelerated beyond the dreaded, long predicted, tipping point. The Earth’s eco-system is in an unprecedented state of disruption. Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes are devastating coastal regions around the world. Contact has been lost with London, New York, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro. There are wild accounts on the radio waves of giants walking the land, creatures attacking isolated communities… There is a lot of fear and panic out there. We can only survive by working together. Stay close to your loved ones. Help the vulnerable. Check your area for those who may be struggling. If you are in the Icelandic area, get in touch. We have limited resources, but we may be able to help one another. United we stand. Do not believe the propaganda about terrorist cells using our country as a base or stepping stone to America. We are just ordinary people, trying to survive. The only true terrorists still in operation are the ones in control of the remaining channels. They have used the pretext of the global emergency to seize total power. The takeover has begun, but while we live and breathe we will continue to resist. Stay safe. Pray for the world. This is humanity’s darkest hour, but we can rekindle hope. Do not let the light in your heart go out. Þetta reddast. We are repeating this broadcast every hour.
Chapter 19: The Crater
With the ravens leading the way, the Wild Hunt rode up onto the black shingle of the beach, their first solid land for over nine hundred miles. Pulling up beneath the dark, muscular cliffs, they got off their bikes, stretched, stamped their feet and rubbed their hands. One fell to the ground and went to kiss a glassy black tongue of rock, pulling back quickly: ‘It’s hot!’
Tear knelt and tested it with his palm, holding it there while gritting his teeth. ‘Fresh lava. From a recent eruption.’ He stood up, and cast his flint-and-steel eyes over the grotesque bulbous formations of the headland – like something half-formed, half-melted. ‘This is … new land. Iceland’s been extended.’
‘Mind yourselves! This place is cooking!’ called Rig.
After the freezing crossing, the geothermal warmth of the newly-forged landscape was most welcome, and the bikers huddled by the bulbous outcrops, letting the heat thaw out their numb limbs.
Eddy estimated they were down to a couple of hundred. Over the last week they had lost half their number – but then it had been one Hell of a week. Who knows how many have died in this great winter, he wondered? Millions, probably. It was hard times for planet Earth, that was for sure.
But for now, all that mattered was – they had made it.
One Eye slowly dismounted from his Sleipnir, taking it all in. ‘Full circle…’ he murmured. On the back of his bike his daughterson was lashed, covered with furs. The president tenderly stroked this, briefly, then turned to the group. ‘Thank Freya for our safe passage,’ he spoke, his voice bouncing off the glassy surface of the rocks. ‘We have lost many of our brothers and sisters and more … but we have survived. We shall live on to continue the fight.’
Their leader survived the ragged band – frost-bitten, dog-tired, bikes battered, hauling their dead. ‘First we must rest. Let us find shelter and sustenance. These Icelanders are a hardy breed, and I have a feeling they would have fared better than most.’
Eddy took one last look at the ice. His mind reeled at the vista. They had ridden halfway across the Atlantic!
They had suffered much, lost much … The Hammer, Blitzen, others … Had it been worth it? As he got back on his bike, and turned the ignition, he hoped so.
As they took the coast-road – just about discernible amid the deep snow drifts – they discovered that many of the parts of the interior had been devastated by lava flows. Whole towns had been overrun by the obsidian waves of cooling lava, expiring in the white oblivion of the frozen sea.
The tops of houses, comms towers and pylons, church steeples and fishing vessels masts protruded at random angles from the igneous glacier. It chilled Eddy to think of how many islanders were entombed within also.
The Wild Hunt had to scramble over these protruding flow forms where they blocked the coastal road – tricky riding over icy fissures, which scuppered more than one biker. They were all exhausted, which did not help.
‘We must find shelter soon! We need to rest!’ shouted Rig.
‘Where are you leading us, One Eye?’ harangued Tear, impatiently.
The leader pointed to the smouldering crater on the horizon. ‘There.’
Wearily the company rode on towards the dark mass of the crater. The landscape appeared an icy wildness, with little sign of shelter, of life. It felt to Eddy as though they were the ones who had died, who crossed the lands of the dead. Perhaps the whole world had.
The torrent of recent lava had transmogrified the landscape into a gallery of grotesque pyromorphs – their black silohouettes standing out against the surrounding snowscape. They snagged the corner of Eddy’s eye, making him do double-takes, as they looked uncannily like figures, frozen mid-action. A snap of the fingers, and allacazam, they would all come to life: attacked by a legion of magma-zombies, he chuckled nervously. It was hard to shake off the feeling they were being watched as they passed through the silent valley.
A cry from the front broke his reverie.
The excitement was caused by the columns of sulphurous steam – rising from the pools amid the rocky landscape, the first they had seen completely free of ice and snow. A great fountain of steaming water erupted from a bubbling pool, spraying them with a hot mist, even from a distance.
‘Geysers!’ Eddy shouted. ‘Cool!’
The bikers pulled up, and started to strip off. There was laughter and sighs, as weary bodies slipped into the deliciously warm water away from the hotter pools. Eddy gratefully joined them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a hot bath or shower; the last time he had felt properly warm. Sol had saved them on that icy road, but there had been always part of him that was numb, that was damp, that was chilled to the bone. Now, his aching limbs thanked him as they thawed out. ‘Aaaaahhhhh…’
Lost in bliss, Eddy lay back and looked up at the swirling steam, thinking of Fenja – in his mind’s eye, she was dancing in the veils of vapour. How he missed her! He longed for her touch. What was the point in surviving in a world without love, he pondered? The thought was lost in the sheer, animal pleasure of the hot water easing out the knots in his tired muscles.
The atmosphere suddenly, dramatically shifted. Figures in ski-masks or balaclavas, wearing a combination of arctic survival gear, thick patterned sweaters, quilted jackets, overalls, and wielding a random selection of hunting rifles, appeared out of the mist – and had them quickly surrounded.
The Elders were naked in the pool like the rest of the Wild Hunt. In their extreme fatigue, no one had thought to post guards. Weapons lay within reach, but One Eye held up his brawny, tattooed arms.
One of the gunmen barked something at One Eye in a harsh, guttural tongue that sounded like a glacier gouging out a rocky landscape.
One Eye responded fluently, gesturing to the rest of them. Through his body language, Eddy guessed their leader was trying to explain their presence, their current state. Whoever these people were, they clearly were in better shape than they. No obvious transport was discernible, so they must be dwelling nearby.
The gunman who seemed to be in charge, lifted up his mask, to reveal a middle-aged man with a thin weathered face, a blond goatee with streaks of silver, and fiercely alert eyes. His companions did not lower their guns – fingers trembling over the triggers.
Eddy realised they were more afraid of them, these strangers from over the ice.
‘You’re offlanders, that’s plain to see. How did you get here? What do you want?’ Their leader barraged them with questions now in strangely-accented English.
One Eye, to his credit, was a smooth-talker. ‘We’ve come to end this war, and it looks like you need some help, Radio Free Reykyavik.’
The leader raised an eyebrow.
‘My ravens hear everything on the airwaves. And tell me all. I recognise your voice.’
Wrong-footed, but curious, the leader jabbed his gun. ‘Go on…’
‘Loki and his deadly crew seek the destruction of humankind – he’d make Midgard his world, if he could. The trickster has summoned all the dark forces in his power to bring about humankind’s destruction – Fenrir the wolf, Jormungandr the Serpent, Thrym and the Frost Giants, and Hel herself.’
‘These are old stories you talk of, the Eddas. We tell them on long nights to pass the time.’
One Eye rose from the steaming water, and the Elders did the same – naked, but radiating power. They stepped up onto the rock, unafraid of the weapons pointing at them, towering over the gunmen – who nervously thrust their barrels at them.
‘They are not just stories,’ smiled One Eye, lightning in his eye. ‘And Loki rules this world, make no mistake. While we slumbered, forgetting our glory, he did not. He worked his magic, shapechanging, deceiving, using his silver-tongue to rise in power. The ultimate politician. He dominates this world now with his dark allies.’
The Icelander’s eyes widened.
‘Yes, you know him… President Koil.’
‘Are you saying … the US president is the … Trickster God?’
‘Sounds about right,’ said one of the figures, and the others laughed, easing the tension a little.
One Eye dried himself down and started to put on his clothes. ‘He sends his death-ship to destroy this last pocket of resistance, and my Wild Hunt,’ he gestured to the bikers, ‘are all that stand between you and your extinction. Are you going to help us, or stand in our way?’
The Icelanders led them, once they were dressed, to their settlement, hidden deep in the mountains. They rode their bikes dead slow through an old lava tunnel that opened out into what looked like an old volcanic crater. Steam vents issued from cracks in the rocks, creating a micro-climate that was a welcome relief after the shock of the cold getting out of the pools. The warm glow in Eddy’s limbs would only last so long, but now there was the prospect of proper shelter. There was a whole village of cabins within the crater – modern, robust designs with tall roofs and heavy eaves to protect from avalanches. On the porches, men, women and children looked warily at these new arrivals. The bikers parked in the central circle around a flagpole where a storm-battered Icelandic flag fluttered. There were polytunnels heated geothermically, brimming with vegetables, a shower block and laundry, bakery and brewery, smokery and a small hall. Eddy was impressed. If anyone was going to survive this Great Winter, it was these people.
The leader, who introduced himself as Guðmundur, showed them the empty cabins where they could stay. ‘We were expecting more, but not everybody made it,’ was all he said to the bikers. ‘Tonight, after dinner, let us meet in the hall. There is much to discuss.’
Before they could all rest they had burials to take care of.
Rig gathered the riders. Standing next to him were the heathens, dressed for a trek.
‘The faithful here know a place they think would be right for our dead…’ He pointed up to the rim of the crater. ‘They’re going to guide us there.’
Biers were quickly improvised and the bodies of the fallen who had not been lost in the ice were strapped to them, and then carried by teams of two (or four, in The Hammer’s case) up the steep, narrow path which zigzagged up the inside of the crater. The ground was friable and they had to tread carefully.
Eventually, after a good hour of effort, they stood on the lip of the volcanic crater, which plummeted dizzingly below. The buildings of the community looked like models.
Around them columns of steam steadily rose from fissures.
‘Is this entirely safe?’ asked Eddy, feeling the need to address the elephant in the room.
Sol turned to him, beaming a smile. ‘This god sleeps – behold his dreams.’
Eddy gazed into the broiling clouds. Whatever this particular god was dreaming, it was as confusingly obscure as his own – except for when Fenja came to him, but they felt less like dreams, than visions.
The bikes lined up along the rim. The bodies lay by the precipice.
One Eye finally spoke. ‘We will raise two mounds here. One for The Hammer, to represent all the Elders we lost – Honer, Niggard… The other mound will be for the patches.’
With Rig and Tear overseeing the construction of the two mounds, the group set to work. It was biting, high up, exposed to the glacial winds, but the slog of carrying stones soon warmed them up. Slowly, the two mounds grew – ‘Hammer’s Hump’, as the bikers started to refer to it, double in size to the ‘Patches Pimple’. The gallows humour helped them cope with the grimness of the task.
Finally it was done. Exhausted, they stood in a silent arc before them both.
The leader looked even grimmer than usual. The summoning of the lightning had clearly taken it out of him. Since then he had drawn into himself, saving what power he had left for the battle to come. His voice was strained and was hard to catch above the icy wind that swept over the edge and down the conical slope.
‘We consign the bodies of our friends, our comrades, and my daughterson … to the gods. They died noble deaths. May they be welcomed into Valhalla.’
The Wild Hunt, silent in their grief, descended.
The wake would have to wait. Much to their dismay, the crater community was a ‘dry’ one. And so the bikers sat down to break bread – grateful for a hot meal, at least.
Conversation was subdued. Except for the Heathens, the community looked on the bikers with suspicion; and the bikers for once were in low spirits: the crossing, and their losses, had killed the usual feisty camaraderie. Everyone felt the chill of mortality all too closely.
Afterwards, Eddy helped clear up his table. The whole operation was done with impressive efficiency – the community working together like a well-made clock. Everyone was responsible for washing up their own plate, cutlery and one item of cookware. Everything was replaced back in the cupboards. Table surfaces were wiped, floors swept, coffee served with wedges of brownie, and after a sweet song from a group of the youngsters, who had been learning in their class that day, the meeting got under way. Goðmundur and the other elders of the community – a stern-faced looking bunch – sat at the end of the hall. One Eye and the Wild Hunt sat a little awkwardly in the centre, as the rest watched on. The hubbub died down as Goðmundur got to his feet. He waited until there was complete silence. ‘We are here to discuss the arrival of our new guests,’ spoke Goðmundur, his voice soft, calm, but authoritative. ‘Let all speak who wishes to, but first let us here from our guests.’
One Eye stood up and put on his most agreeable manner. ‘First of all, we’d like to thank you for the lovely meal you have kindly offered us. Compliments to the chefs.’ He raised his mug. ‘And to the soft beds, which will be most welcome. We have come very far and have endured much. It is not just the climate which is hostile to life at the moment. There are many dark forces threatening to destroy humankind. I suspect you must have seen evidence of them here too. Monsters walk the earth and, despite our rough appearances, we are not some of them. We are here to help save you.’
‘Save us, or bring our doom?’ shouted a white-haired woman with a thin-face. ‘I have lived long, and that is because I know trouble when I see it. Your ‘Wild Hunt’ reek of the Devil!’ She sat down to murmurs of consent, but also the odd groan of familiar contempt.
An older man with a full beard got to his feet next. ‘We do not mean disrespect, but we are a God-fearing people here–‘
‘Speak for yourself!’ shouted a younger man with a shaven head, wearing a hoodie bearing an Anarchist ‘A’.
The older man raised his hands placatingly. ‘Most of us are. But we tolerate other faiths, or the lack of them, within reason.’
‘Within reason!’ gasped a dark haired woman. ‘How gracious of you! The Goddess is honoured here too … and the Old Gods.’
A small contingent of the community in the corner banged their fists of the tables. Eddy noticed their hairstyles were similar to the bikers – long, with shaven sides, plaits, prominent jewellery – and some sported suspicious tattoos.
One Eye smiled at this, nodding to them.
The older man took a breath and continued. ‘We are a broad church, as you can see, but … there are families here with small children, daughters. Our precious flock we have kept safe from the worst ravages of these End-times, but how safe will they be when we invite wolves into our pasture?’
Many of the community sounded their approval at this. The old man sat down, satisfied. Others argued with him.
One Eye watched them all with his eye glinting like an eagle’s. He waited for them all to stop, then he spoke again, his voice low. ‘There are worse monsters than wolves out there now, believe me. Who will protect you from them?’
‘Our prayers will protect us from them!’ cried out the white-haired woman, holding her hands up. Others nodded, and bowed their heads, hands clasped.
‘I am not dismissing the power of prayer by any means,’ spoke One Eye, ‘but often the situation requires something more … full bloodied.’
‘He means heathen sacrifice!’ gasped someone, blood draining from their face.
‘I’m not averse to offerings,’ interjected One Eye, and the Wild Hunt laughed, ‘but I am talking about direct action. Fire-power.’
One of the Heathens got to his feet. ‘We have warriors here, sir. Ready to fight. Fire with fire.’
One Eye acknowledged the hotspur. ‘I’m glad to hear it, and I am sure you would be able to stand your own against raiders, but Jötun? Jet fighters? They were raining hellfire down upon us, out there!’
‘So he admits it!’ called out another. ‘He brings danger to our doorstep! The sooner they leave the better!’ The atmosphere in the room became tainted with panic.
‘Believe in us, and we can protect you!’ decried One Eye.
‘Look at them!’ shouted another. ‘They cannot even protect themselves!’ Many voices were raised then.
Wearily One Eye sat back down.
Goðmundur finally stood up, and waved for quiet. ‘Our community is open to all good souls, but the truth is, there are so many of you, and your presence puts a strain on our limited resources. Everyone must contribute. We are simple folk –farmers, fishermen, craftspeople, used to making a living from the land, the sea, from our livestock, our own hands. Forgive me sir, but your people do not look like the … sort who would be happy to settle down and … do your share of the chores.’
Eddy blew out his cheeks. Catching the eyes of Cruz, he indicated the door and she nodded, clearly desperate to get away too. As the debating continued, they slipped out into the fresh air.
‘Jeez, that was a drag!’ Eddy joined Cruz by the flag-pole, where she had lit up.
He cadged a roll-up from her, and cradled its warmth.
The circle of bikes looked out of place, surrounded by the eco-houses.
‘Aya! We no’ belong here. We must go. Vamoose!’
Eddy took a long draw, savouring the warm smoke in his throat. ‘I doubt there are many places as set up as this place, but you can see their point. We draw bad luck to us like some kind of shit magnet. This Koil is out to get us. These are good people. We should leave them in peace.’
‘But don’t you see – there will be no peace, until he … and his kind … are defeated!’ Cruz bristled. ‘The Wild Hunt is the only chance humanity has!’
‘An outlaw biker gang – saviours of planet Earth? Seems unlikely doesn’t it?’
‘But we have the Elders! You’ve seen what they can do, Red! The mother of all battles is about to take place, and you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight!’
Eddy blew smoke up into the sky, letting it mingle with the dissipating columns from the steam vents.
‘The thing is, I’m not sure I belong here either. With the Wild Hunt, I mean. It’s been one helluva ride, but … when the chips are down you stick with your own kind, yeah?’
Cruz turned on him, scowling. ‘What do you mean, Red?’
‘I’ve … got to get back to my tribe. My family. They need me. Who is protecting them?’
‘We’re your family now! Blood has been spilled. We’ve fought side-by-side. Road the frost bridge! Lost Dash! Blitzen! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?’
Eddy nodded. ‘Of course. I will never forget. And if the gods are willing, I shall return to you. But I have to do this.’
Cruz stubbed her fag out with the heel of her boot. ‘Then you had better ask One Eye. Rather you than me!’ And she walked off.
Eddy finished his smoke, pondering Cruz’s reaction. She was so angry with him! Perhaps it was for reasons beyond loyalty to the club… Who knows? He chuckled to himself. Hell hath no fury! But he’d rather face that than the wrath of One Eye, any day.
Time to face the music, Eddy. He must ask permission – but what if it was denied? He would have to go anyway, but would they let him? He had taken the vow, he wore the colours. To them, his first priority should always be to the club.
He picked at the raw skin on the back of his poor frost-bitten hand. He turned it over and saw the white scar of the burn on the palm and smiled, before closing it into a fist. Blood is thicker than water. He had honoured the white in him. Now it was time to honour the red.
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
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.
‘There’s some freaky stuff happening out there at the moment, right? It’s like God has dropped acid and the world is having a bad trip. But you know what? I think it’s a good thing. There’s too many of us fuckers. Let’s cut the wheat from the chaff. Less mouths to feed. I’m all for climate chaos. Bring it on! It’s like when school closes because of the bad weather. Everyone gets to have fun. Sledding. Snowball fights. No fucking school run. Let the kids play, that’s what I say! Ring up if you agree or disagree on the Spleen-line now.’
Chapter 16: Moss-Eater
Ava Rivet entered the shabby reception of the Gimli rural municipality police station, took a look at the ten things that needed attending too – from signage and security, to the state of the house plants – and filed them under ‘to do’, that is – when she had twenty seven hours in the day. That morning she’d already fed her horse, her husband and her kids (insisting sleepy, grumpy Aron ate something; preparing Juniper’s oatmeal just so), made their lunches and got them all dressed, before managing to eat some granola and prepare a flask of soup for herself. Leaving Aron with strict instructions about a delivery she was expecting (even though she knew he’d probably go back to bed and forget about it) she had dropped Juniper off at the Elementary, and negotiated the school run traffic and roadworks on fifth avenue, before finally pulling into the police station forecourt.
‘Morning, chief,’ called desk sergeant Wilming, a slab of a man who could have been carved from the same wood as the counter.
‘Anything?’ asked Rivet, inspecting the report he handed her.
‘Quiet night,’ Wilming yawned. ‘A couple of drunks in the tank, sleeping it off. A false alarm from our favourite loopy pensioner, Mrs Moon, who heard “strange noises in her yard”. Insisted we sent an officer over. Can play you the call if you like. Sounded like cats going at it. Said we send someone over in the morning if there was any damage.’
Dumping her bag in her office, Ava poured herself a cup of joe from the filter machine. Looked at the stack of admin in her intray. The photo of her husband and kids on vacation in Florida. Her pride and joy palomino, next to it. ‘Good old Mrs Moon. We can rely on her for some entertainment.’ She turned on her computer, and nonchalantly leafed through the papers on her desk while it booted up.
A knock on her door made her look up. Wilming stood there, like an Easter Island giant squeezed awkwardly into a human space. He held a printout.
‘Oh, there was one report came in this morning. Farmer over at Blackrocks. Savaged livestock.’ He handed her the details.
‘Right, I’ll swing by once I’ve cleared some of the drift here.’ She sat down and took another sip. ‘Cheers, Wil. Clare’ll be in in a mo. Go home, get some beauty sleep. You need it.’
Ava drove onto the Blackrocks farm – one of the most isolated small-holdings in the area, at the butt-end of a bumpy, windy track, which made her grateful for a light breakfast. Dominated by Black Rock, a bare knuckle of crag thrusting out of the pines, the farm – a main house, out-buildings, a barn, and several vehicles in states of dilapidation – was not a wealthy one. Old man Franklin, who lived there, was a loner type. Lord knows how he made a living out here, let alone kept sane. Some thought he didn’t really manage the latter. But Ava, when she bumped into him at the store, buying his supplies had figured as simply the quiet type, one of the old school backwoodsmen who seemed to be a dying breed these days. One of those who found contentment, alone in nature. She could relate to that, in the increasingly rare instances when she could get out on Ghost and head for the trails. The solitude she savoured then only made her love her family more. The huskies in their pen went crazy as she killed the engine and stepped out of the patrol car. They growled and snarled at her, yanking the chains taut as piano wire as she walked by them to the porch.
‘Don’t mind them. They’re spooked, is all.’
Ava turned to see Franklin there, in his coveralls and baseball cap, thick checkered shirt telling of the chill in the air. The old man had weathered many a winter and looked it – face cracked and ruddy as a redwood – but even he could feel it. The Icelandic volcano had brought winter early to Manitoba – the sky an iron grey pall, which only let through a thin gruel of light.
‘Morning, sir. Came by as soon as I could.
”Preciate it, Sheriff. Best to see it while it’s fresh. Recky we’re gonna get some dustin’ pretty soon. This way.’
The old farmer led Rivet around to the back fields, a sweep of pasture cleared from the mountainside by sheer hard work.
The whole flock of sheep were savaged, their mutilated corpses strewn across the threadbare grass.
‘Breaks my heart twainwise to see it. Reared some of these gals by hand mysel’. After this … I just don’t know.’
Ava knelt by one and used a stick to lift up the twisted limbs. ‘What you think did it? Wolverines?’
Franklin shrugged, spat in to the mud. ‘The bad weather might’ve driven down a pack of wolves. But this isn’t their style. The sheep are hardly touched. They weren’t killed for food. Just for the hell of it.’
He shook his head. ‘Look at the lacerations around the throat. Whatever did this had a serious rack of claws or fangs.’
Ava stood up, scratched the back of her neck. ‘Beats me. Such waste…’ They both stared at it, hoping it would start to make some sense.
The wind-turbine creaked in the icy breeze.
‘I’ll take some shots. Send them to the specialist. See what they make of them. Do you need help with the clear up?’
Franklin shook his head.
Ava didn’t like the look of resignation in his eyes. She started to take photos on her phone. ‘We’ll send someone over in a couple of days. See how you’re getting on. By then we may have some answers.’
‘There ain’t no sense to things, Sheriff. Shit just happens, and keeps on happenin’. That cussed Rock stares down at I, don’t give a damn. Put everything I’ve got into this place. When I first came here it was scrubland nobody wanted. When I bought it folks laughed. Thought I was pissing in the wind.’ The dead field filled his vision. ‘Maybe they were right.’ He turned to her. ‘Don’t tell your dreams to the mountain, sheriff.’
Ava brooded on Franklin’s words as she drove back down the track. It was hard living by the lakes, for sure. It took a certain kind of bloody-mindedness to survive, a mania, even, to thrive. To get to where she was, a Métis in an area with strong First Nations and Icelandic communities, she’d had to make all kinds of sacrifices. But she was as stubborn as her beloved Ghost. Once she set her mind to something that was that. She’d chew at her bit until it was through.
Reaching the two-lane blacktop, she drummed her fingers on the wheel, and, on a hunch, decided to head over to Mrs Moon’s place.
The house was at the end of a thin chain of properties that backed onto the fields. At one time it would have been a very desirable house in a ‘picturesque location’, but the current resident, renowned for her eccentricity, had filled the yard with kitsch Christian iconography – inflatable Virgin Marys, neon Jesuses, garish crucifixes and Bible quotes blinking on and off like road signs, a full-sized fibre glass nativity scene, and a scale model of Noah’s Ark, balanced on a garden rockery Mount Ararat. Mrs Moon stood on the doorstep, awaiting Ava’s arrival. She wore a sou’wester, white cardigan, a prim blouse with a buttoned-up lace collar, waders, and oven gloves.
‘Good Morning, Mrs Moon.’
‘Sheriff Rivet. Just in time.’
‘Just in time, why?’
Mrs Moon looked up in the broiling sky. ‘The end is near. Plain as day. The Good Lord is sending his rag-mop to wipe clean the filthy world. About time too! Your feet.’
After scraping her boots, Ava was shown through to the rear of the house. Newspaper lined the floor. ‘Have you had a flood recently?’
‘No, silly piggy! But it’s coming. I am ready for Him.’ A light filled her eyes.
Ava felt a bit awkward, standing in the passageway. ‘So, you report a disturbance in the night?’
‘Oh, yes. The Devil, he moves amongst us.’
‘What exactly did you hear?’
Mrs Moon’s face contorted with loathing. ‘It was the voice of the Lord of Flies himself, whispering his poison in the night. At first I thought it was the local cats, going at it, and I had my night-bucket ready to throw over them. But when I opened the window the most foul odour assailed my senses. The stench of pure evil. Saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over, I cast my night-soil into the shadows. There was a hullabaloo and the thing took off faster than a cat on a griddle.’
Ava took out her notebook, while giving Mrs Moon a sceptical look. ‘And what time was this…?’
‘The witching hour, of course.’
‘Any sign of disturbance out there?’
‘Come and see for yourself.’
Ava was shown through to the yard. The Stations of the Cross that had been recreated there were smashed to smithereens.
‘Satan’s hoof-prints are all over this.’
Ava gave the damage an appraising look. ‘Someone’s had a party out here, for sure. Have you got any neighbours who you don’t get on with, Mrs Moon?’
‘All of them. Oh, they all hate me. Think me crazy. But I think they’re crazy. I’m prepared for the Deluge! They’re not! They wallow in sin and risk their souls to eternal damnation, taking drugs, fornicating, watching that poison and filth…’
‘Right. But, no problems lately?’
‘This isn’t their handiwork, Sheriff! The Devil is coming for them. Mark my words…’
‘Okay. I’ll see if we can spare someone to come over and help clear this up, Mrs Moon. We’ll look into it. Thank you.’
‘Beware, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse approach!’
‘I’ll bear that in mind. Take care, Mrs Moon.’
Ava left the Moon property and decided to work her way along the lane, checking in on the neighbours, just in case they had witnessed anything. Whatever it was had really gone to town. She walked around the side of the yard and came to the large hole in the fence. Something had smashed through it like it was balsa wood. The trail through the undergrowth was as plain as day. The tracks were unfamiliar to Ava. Not wolverine, wolf or bear. Almost humanoid, but with long thin feet and distinct claws. She took a couple of photos, laying her pencil by the side for scale. The prints were at least a foot long. And sunk deep in the mud. Whatever it was at least two hundred and fifty pounds. Maybe more. She radioed in her position to the station; then she followed the trail.
The destruction led through the yards of several properties. She met anxious home-owners clearing up the mess, patching up the fences, raking up broken detritus. In one garden there was spore, reeking to high heaven. She made a mental note to collect a sample on the way back, but didn’t fancy carrying it with her.
Finally, the houses thinned out and she reached a scrappy no-man’s land where a well-known user had his shack. It was a beaten-up old place that only someone off of their head on heroin would find amenable. Ava had known ‘Junkie Jon’, as he was known in town, since he had been a lad, when he had been part of the Runestone Cowboys entourage – one of Eddy’s pals. But whileas the Redcrow lad had kept on the right side of the law, more or less, except for a few high-jinks, the unfortunate Jon had slid down the slippery slope of drug abuse like it was a helter skelter. He had received help from the drop-in centre, but relapsed with pathological frequency. The cleaner he got, the more catastrophically he fell back. If he hadn’t been more harm to himself than anyone else, he wouldn’t have been tolerated for so long. But they only had so many resources, so much time, and there was always too much to do.
The trail ended at the shack. The place was in such a state it was hard to tell if the whirlwind had passed through here or not. The outside, patched up with bare MDF and old doors, was sprayed with anarchist symbols, pentagrams, dicks, needles, skulls, and a barely legible scrawl: The Road of Excess leads to … The Palace of Wisdom a Shit Heap.
Ava called out. ‘Hey, Jon? You in there? It’s Sheriff Rivet. Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. I’m just checking in. There’s been some local break-ins and damage.’
The loose corrugated roof rattled; a smashed window slammed back and forth, teased by a devil of wind.
‘Okay. I’m coming in.’
Ava unclipped her service pistol and slid it out. Holding it poised before her, she kicked open the door and swung inside.
It was the stench that hit her first. A combination of squalid living conditions, the iron tang of offal, and emptied bowels.
Covering her mouth and nose with her scarf, she ventured deep. At the far end, amid the junkie detritus, hanging upside down from a beam, ankle bone impaled on a rusty nail, was what remained of Jon. One leg had been gnawed down to a stump, from which jutted a thigh bone. Of his torso, only the vertebrae and ribs, raw red and tangled with gore, remained. As the corpse turned the other half of the face was revealed – ripped down to the skull.
Ava stepped back and tried not to gag.
What the Hell had done this?
Heart beating, she carefully checked the rest of the property, then called in.
Going back outside, Ava gulped down the icy air.
Round the back of the shack she saw the bloody trail led off into a dark wall of trees, restlessly shuffling themselves in the wind.
When Ava pulled into the station, she was concerned to see a number of pick-ups parked any which way in the carpark. She recognised a few – local farmers, forestry workers and property maintenance guys, ordinary folks, scraping by.
She was still shaken up by what she had seen. Corpses no longer bothered her – but this one was different. It hadn’t just been mutilated; it looked gnawed. There had been a couple of nasty bear attacks in her time, and she’d seen all the grim photos in the training – the stuff they didn’t show in that Grizzly Man film. But a half-eaten human being, for real … not something Ava had come across before – fortunately. A strong coffee would help. Normally one of Wilming’s donut would too, but the thought of anything at the moment was out of the question.
As soon as she walked in the door, she was assailed by anxious citizens, demanding her to act. ‘There’s something bad out there, Sheriff, what are you going to do about it? … We need to form a possé, hunt the critter out … Rivet! I have a livelihood to earn! … I’ve got kids who play out in the bush! It’s not safe! … What are you doing to protect us?’
A couple of officers were doing their best to pacify the anxious citizens.
She pushed her way to the counter, where Clare was firefighting. When she saw Ava, the receptionist rolled her eyes at the commotion.
‘When did this shit-storm break?’
Clare, a well-preserved middle-aged mother of two with Queen Crimson shellaced nails, wore large, cherry-red rimmed glasses and a vanilla gillet over a mustard-yellow sweater. ‘Mrs Moon called in to the radio station. Old Foghorn got hold of it and has been whipping up the panic.’
Ava hit the counter with her fist, ‘That fucker Fredricksson !’
GIMLI XYZ’s notorious shockjock was the bad odour of Ava’s day that didn’t go away. He loved nothing better than stirring up the shit. If there wasn’t a problem, he would make one. Parking. Recycling schemes. Taxes. Fishing restrictions. Incursions on liberty, in his eyes. The interfering state. Preventing good, honest Gimlungar just getting on with the business of living, or enjoying their hard-won leisure. Now he was turning a problem into a crisis. Freaking out half the town – turning them into scared, trigger-happy citizens. The last thing she needed.
Taking a deep breath, she banged her fist on the counter until the hubbub died down. She stood on the staircase, looking across the anxious faces. ‘Okay! Listen up everybody. I’ve been to check the damaged properties. It ain’t nice for the folks concerned, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s certainly ain’t whatever hogwash Foghorn has been coming out with. We’re looking at possibly a rogue grizzly…’
Sounds of alarm drowned her out until she waved for calm.
‘But we’re onto this okay! A professional hunter will be despatched. Return to your homes. Secure your properties. Be vigilant and report anything unusual, but there is no need to be alarmed. This stuff happens round here. We deal with it. We get on with life. So, quit your girly whining and scram! I’ve got a job to do!’
Reluctantly the crowd started to disperse, but in the car lot she saw some of the men converse. She knew the sort. Hunter types. They would load up with rifles and head into the bush. All she needed, a bunch of trigger-happy preppers, blasting away at anything that moved out there. But she couldn’t stop them. Didn’t have the manpower. All she could hope for is that they headed up the wrong creek. But she had to track the thing down and deal with it before it found another victim. Next time it might not go for the weakest of the pack.
Sitting down with a sigh in her office, her gaze flicked to the photos of her kids. The answer machine was flashing its light at her: 27 messages. On an impulse, she punched through to Clare. ‘Hold the calls for a moment.’ She speed-dialled home. Drummed the desk. ‘C’mon, c’mon…’ Finally, it was picked up. Fumbling. A yawn. ‘Hey, Aron. Thank goodness. Are you okay there?’
‘Whatsupp, Mom? Checking in on me?’
‘Yes, I am. Just wanted to make sure you were safe, that’s all.’
‘I was working on my assignment; your delivery hasn’t been yet…’
‘Sure, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Can you just do me a favour? Check all the doors and windows. Keep ’em locked. And your phone charged. Any noises out back, call me straight away, y’hear?’
‘Mom, what gives? You turned Winona on me? What’s with this paranoid shit?’
‘Hey, language! Do you hear me!’
A sigh. ‘Sure. Doors. Windows. Cell.’
‘Thanks. I’ll get us pizza tonight – your favourite. I love you. Bye.’
She breathed out. Then thought of her daughter. Maybe she could take her out of school early today? No. That would set a bad example. Cause panic. She had to remain calm. The strong one. And she had to deal with it. The buck stopped with her. She called her husband. Got an earful when he finally picked up. ‘I know. I know. But it’s important. Can you do me a big favour and pick up Juniper this afternoon? It’s all hitting the fan here. You may have heard. But nothing to worry about. Except … I know. The children. Aron’s fine. But get her home safe. I’ll get back when I can. Love you, hon.’
For the next couple of hours she sorted out the body. Returned to the scene with forensics and the clean-up squad. Fortunately, nobody had discovered the grisly remains except for a couple of wolverines. The area was sealed off. Somebody bagged the scat. Inevitably the gawkers came, but she had her deputies Emil and Wichiwa ensure nobody crossed the line. She sat in her patrol car, and finished off the essential paperwork. Her comms set crackled to life. She listened to the message with gritted teeth.
‘Roger. Over and out… Damn!’ she hit the dashboard.
Ava looked at herself in the rearview.
‘You can do this. You can do this.’
She got the rifle from the trunk, cartridges, a pair of bins, and a flask of soup.
Her deputies looked at her with incredulity. ‘Sheriff…?’ said Wichiwa.
‘State can’t send a hunter until tomorrow. I’m going to take a look while the trail is still fresh. I’ll call in every hour. If I miss one, then send for back up. Don’t let anyone follow me. Hold the fort.’
And she walked behind the shack, following the tracks into the trees.
It started to snow.
The trail was easy enough to follow through the pines even as the tracks began to disappear beneath the fresh fall – branches were snapped back, snow displaced, but more than anything there was the reek, lingering in the frozen air. It had a sickly sweet putrefying quality to it – the noisome burn of a compost heap, writhing in maggots – mixed disconcertingly with a heady musk, a powerful male tang like you got from a buck moose. The long, raking marks either side of the footprints worried Ava the most – were they its hands? Sometimes she came across them slashing the trunk of a tree grabbed in passing – brushwood shredded off like so many bristles to a razor.
The snow was falling in thick flakes now, flurries swirling before her, making it harder to see. She constantly scanned the ranks of trees, which climbed higher into the rough hills of the wild country – a vast wilderness that spread for hundreds of miles into the interior. Looking at her watch, Ava reckoned she had six hours of daylight, tops. No more than three hours in, then she’d have to turn back.
She stopped to do her coat up properly, glad of its fur-lined hood, and her Columbia Thermarator gloves – a present from her husband.
Perhaps the creature was nocturnal and had retreated to its lair. If she didn’t catch it now, by nightfall it would be on the prowl again. What it was, and what had driven it to the edge of Gimli, she couldn’t figure.
But somewhere up there, in one of the caves that riddled the hillside, it was sleeping off its feast. It had forsaken Franklin’s flock for Junkie Jon. Clearly had a taste for human flesh. She shuddered.
Bracing herself for the slog, she was about to set off when a twig snap made her level her rifle at the undergrowth.
Something was making its way through the trees to her, something large and dark.
Trying to steady the barrel, she held her ground. Waited. If the thing was flesh and blood then it could be killed.
But if it wasn’t…?
She didn’t get to find out, for emerging from the trees, holding up his hands, was elderly First Nations man, dressed in a thick lumberjack shirt, trapper hat, jeans, and carrying a light pack, rifle slung over his shoulder.
With a sigh of relief she recognised him. ‘Is that you, Running Bear?’
The old man shrugged. ‘Last time I looked.’
‘What you doing up here?’
‘Fancied a stroll. Nice weather for it.’
She laughed at this, and, taking off her glove, shook his hand.
‘Figured if I made enough noise, you wouldn’t shoot me. Looks like you’re ready to kill something with that thing.’
Ava lifted the barrel up skywards. ‘There’s something mean out here. It’s killed someone in town. You’re not safe.’
The old man looked at her with an amused twinkle in his eye. ‘I’ve been hunting in these hills since you were still in diapers, Ava Rivet. I’m on the same trail as you. Figured something needed to be done.’
She went to protest, but the old man looked more than competent. She’d heard of his prowess out in the bush. He was a bit of a local legend. A bit of back-up could come in handy. Finally, she nodded. ‘Okay then. What are we tracking here exactly?’
Running Bear looked up into the hills. ‘Something bad.’ And he set off.
Ava went to protest, but simply had to follow before she lost him in the white noise of the blizzard.
Running Bear set a relentless pace. Ava developed a stitch, keeping up with him. After a solid hour of climbing they reach a line of crags jutting out to form ledges beneath which could be found shelter. They rested up a while in one, first checking the shadows carefully. The tracks had been obliterated but the stench had got stronger. ‘We’re not far now, but must save our strength,’ said the old man, squatting down and getting out his pipe. He stuffed it with a thumb of tobacco and, striking a long, wax-covered, match on the rock, passed the flame over it. He held it up. ‘To all my relations,’ he uttered, before taking it into his mouth. ‘Ah.’ He breathed out the pungent smoke.
Ava gratefully sat down on a rock and pulled out her flask. She offered some to her guide – for now he surely was the expert – but he shook his head.
‘Smoke soup is the best.’
Pouring herself a cup, she cradled its welcome warmth. She scanned the white forest, not looking forward to the trek back.
‘You said it was something bad. What do you mean?’
The old man looked mournfully out at the blizzard. ‘There is a crack in the world. And it’s letting through bad things through. This … false winter. It’s all part of it. My bones know it.’
Ava took a sip. Frowned. ‘But what exactly are we up against here? Some intel here would really help.’
‘Nothing the rational mind could grasp…’
She waited, shifted uncomfortably in her thick coat, suddenly feeling hot.
He gave her a piercing look. ‘Do you believe in legends, Sheriff?’
‘Now is not the time for fairy tales, sir.’
‘That’s our problem. We shut the imagination out, and with it the world of the spirits, the ancestors. Cut off from our roots, is it no wonder the tree topples?’
Ava finished her soup and put the cup back on the flask. ‘You’re talking in riddles now. Give it to me straight, sir. We don’t have a lot of time.’
‘Wendigo,’ he hissed, the sound carrying into the back of the cave and echoing back in diminishing whispers.
‘You have the blood in you, Sheriff. You should know. Many of our people, up and down this land, have legends of it. I have heard many tales. But I have not come across one until this day.’
‘Wendigo? Come on, I thought that was just a boogerman to scare kids.’
‘Wind-walker, moss-eater, it appears when there is evil in men’s hearts, to draw them away. Madden them, with the call of the wild. Murder. Greed. The destruction of nature. It feeds on these. We have brought this doom upon ourselves. It is our judgement.’
‘So … you think it’s a good thing?’ She looked shocked, incredulous.
‘I have family. I want to protect them, just like you with your’s, sheriff.’ He got up. ‘Are you coming? If we don’t stop it now, it will kill again tonight. And it may be one of your kin it gets.’ Shouldering his pack and picking up his rifle, the old man headed out into the snow.
The reek led them down a steep-sided gulley, gouged out by a tumbling waterfall at the far end, which sent white-maned rapids thundering over the jumble of rocks. The going was slippery and they had to take it very carefully, to avoid not falling into the icy flow. Ava noted how their prey was very light on foot, despite its size. ‘Looks like it skipped over these like a fricking mountain goat,’ she observed, as she negotiated the next boulder.
The old man signalled for her to be silent.
Beyond the waterfall a dark opening could be discerned. Either side, Running Bear pointed out a narrow, slippery ledge leading to it. He pointed to one for himself, and Ava for the other.
Then he set off, descending to a shelf over which the water fan-tailed out. Scrambling over the drier rocks, he made his way to the other side of the waterfall.
Cursing silently to herself, Ava pulled her rifle off her shoulder and approached her side.
She thought of her kids, her husband, her horse, and hoped she would see them again. The waterfall thundered on her right, soaking her with spray. She made her way between its curtain and the rock to where the cave mouth gaped.
Running Bear was crouched there, rifle aimed into the dark.
The stench here was almost unbearable. Only the waterfalls constant cloud of vapour stopped her from gagging.
The darkness seemed to have a presence to it, as though she could reach out and touch it. She had to use all of her will to push through the invisible barrier that seemed to be before her. All her senses were screaming run. But she had to ignore them; she had to go the other way, further in, into the dark.
They could hear it now, its heavy breathing a rusty saw through bone.
Suddenly the sound stopped.
Even above the thunder of the waterfall Ava could hear the pounding of her heart.
Then, a low growling – like a volcano, building in power until the sound became movement, shaking the very walls of the cave.
The thing leapt towards them and all Ava saw was a flash of long, pale limbs; long white fingers with too many joints as though it had spiders for hands – nails like icicles, still red with the gore of its victim. It was all ribs and maw, a child’s nightmare sketch of hunger. Eyes like whirlpools peering out from a wrinkled, flaccid face – its skin like an ill-fitting suit, except for a grotesquely swollen belly.
They fired in unison, blasting away shot after shot into the dark – the flashes lighting up the monster as it twisted and convulsed, spurting hot pink blood.
Then finally, it stopped moving.
Just the sound of her heavy breathing in the dark. Even the waterfall was drowned out, as the blood roared around her body.
She was still alive.
‘Running Bear, are you…?’ she called into the dark.
There was the scratch of a match on rock, and a single, yellow bulb of flame lit up his stoic features. He passed the match over his pipe.
He took a long draw of the smoke.
‘A thing like that … never thought I’d see in all my days.’ He shook his head, lost in the wonder of it. ‘These are lean times, and then some.’ Finally, he noticed Ava standing there, trembling. ‘Sit. Catch your breath. You done well, Sheriff. You done well. Your kin are safe. Gimli is safe. For now.’
He looked at the limp form. ‘Who knows what the dark will throw at us next?’