An impressive meta-narrative fantasy in which a group of friends become trapped in the secondary world of their role-playing game – one that draws knowingly upon the legendarium of classic writers of the genre.
Die is an ongoing comic book series from British writer, Kieron Gillen, and French artist Stephanie Hans (along with lettering from Clayton Cowles; and design from Rian Hughes). It follows the (mis)adventures of a group of friends who, in 1991 had played a Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy table-top role-playing game invented by one of their group, Solomon. They get sucked into the Secondary World it depicts, in the form of their avatar-characters, each one assigned a symbolic die (d4: Dictator; d6: Fool; d8: Grief Knight; d10: Neo; d12: Godbinder; d20: Master). Two years later, they re-emerged traumatised, wounded, and missing a group member. The story picks up a generation later, when, as dysfunctional adults, the unexpected arrival of the magical d20, an icosahedronic call-to-adventure, catalyses them to return to the Fantasy world to free themselves of the various wounds that haunt them. Here they encounter a world ravaged by a seemingly endless war between humanoid races (humans; elves; hobbits) and a mechanoid Prussian army. Here the metanarrative layering (‘real’ people playing characters in a Fantasy world) takes on a literary level, as Gillen draws upon the legendarium of the Brontës juvenilia, (Angria; Gondal; Glass Town); and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. But all is perverted by the virus of its deranged demi-urge. Here, in an act of ironic instauration hobbits are cast as Tommies in a version of the First World War presided over by Tolkien himself (whose first-hand experience of the Somme and loss of two of his dearest fellowship influenced the creation of his epic). In the second volume, a gothed-up Charlotte Brontë makes an appearance as another demiurge haunting her own creation (and in one of the better sequences, the ‘backstory’ of the Brontës is related by her). In later issues other literary luminaries make appearances, such as H.G. Wells. This layering could easily become a post-modernist hall of mirrors. Endless intertextuality does not in itself make something work – indeed it can seem pretentious, overly showy (a magician drawing attention to his own tricks: ‘Look at me! Aren’t I clever!’) and can belie a lack of confidence in one’s own ideas. Fortunately, the main characters are well written – each with their exceptional skills and demons to face – and the dynamic between them convincing. This is a great ensemble piece. The dialogue is snappy. The artwork is stunning. I must admit I am less engaged with the plot. Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker brilliantly sets everything up – slickly introducing the characters, the backstory, and the inciting incident. It quickly plunges us into the glorious technicolour of the Fantasy world, where there are dragons, sexy elf queens (based on a sixth form crush of one of the characters), and a lot of action. The second volume ‘splits the party’, and the narrative traction is impaired, I felt, by a somewhat atomised plot. Characters go off and ‘do stuff’, but it is harder to relate or care. It still looks impressive, and if you are hooked by this stage, no doubt you will want more ‘fixes’ – and there are 3 collected volumes, and 14 issues to date to feed your habit. To take the metanarrative to the extreme, Gillen has created a RPG based on Die, so you can now play a person, playing a character… This is perhaps a bit mind-bending for some, but it shows Gillen’s creative verve. It certainly takes what could easily be a formulaic ‘hack-and-slay’ to a whole new level. Die is well-written and beautifully illustrated (and designed). The collected volumes come with some interesting essays and variant covers, adding to the value-for-money. This is a fine example of creative collaboration from a talented team.
The Windsmith universe is a storyworld I have been developing for nearly twenty years. The first story I wrote for it was in September 2002 – a chapter for a workshop on the MA in Creative Writing I had just started at Cardiff University, and that became the novel, The Long Woman (published by Awen in 2004). This was to become the first of The Windsmith Elegy – a 5 volume fantasy series, written over 10 years (2002-2012). In 2012 I co-created a multimedia show based upon the books, Song of the Windsmith, which I toured with James Hollingsworth and other guest artists. An hour long show, it featured storytelling, poetry, a soaring soundscape and several songs by James, digital puppetry, belly-dancing, and animation. This seemed like the culmination of the project, but then in 2019 an idea came to me to create an interactive novel based upon the Windsmith storyworld: Hyperion was born, and throughout 2020 I worked on it, drafting the 96,000 word story in html – a very new way of working for me, and a steep learning curve (but I like to push myself and I’m interested in emergent narrative forms and platforms). ‘Hyperion’ won me a contract with Fable Labs, a West Coast games company, and at the end of 2020 the pilot episodes (1-3) were beta-tested in their Interactive Fiction ‘book club’. I’ve now completed the first season (1-12) and I’m halfway the second. To help me visualise the characters I like to make sketches. I have a highly visual imagination, having trained in Fine Art. I sketched continually in my youth, and in middle age I’ve picked it up again, as I find it relaxing – a pleasant contrast to working on a computer and using language intensively all week. For the 2nd novel in the series, ‘Windsmith’ (2006) I did drawings of all the panels of the Gundestrup Cauldron – which features prominently in the story; I also designed a logo for the book tour undertaken that year (which made for a nifty t-shirt), and with all the artistic collaboration that has took place, art has been a key part of the Windsmith story. With that in mind, here are some sketches of various characters – intended mainly to help me visualise them, but also for fun.
Hi there, folks, this is Sitting Cloud here, your new DJ while Foghorn Fredricksson takes a long break. My husband says I should get out of the house more, so here I am! I’m still getting used to all these controls so bear with me – but these last few weeks have been a learning curve for all of us, haven’t they? Well, I’m pleased to announce the repairs on the Lighthouse are completed – the solar panels have been fitted – and to celebrate there is going to be a disaster relief benefit concert, raising funds and resources for all those affected by the recent crisis, at the Sports Hall, with no less than The Runestone Cowboys playing, featuring my son, Eddy Redcrow! It’s going to be this coming Saturday. Hope you can make it. To get you in the mood, here’s one of their numbers. Now, which damn button is it…?
The sports hall was packed, the atmosphere electric with excitement and relief as Eddy stepped onto the stage with his band. He picked up his guitar, and his bandmates attended to their own instruments – Deep Fried Fred on rhythm, Berserk Bjarki on bass, and Octopus Ollie on drums.
‘Hello Gimli!’ Eddy roared, as he strummed his guitar. ‘It’s good to see you all! We’re the Runestone Cowboys, and I don’t know about you, but we’re here to party!’
The crowd went wild as the band plunged into their first upbeat number. Hit the ground running, was Eddy’s motto. Three months into the clear-up and folk were ready to let their hair down. It had been ninety days of hard work, of grim discoveries, of burials and memorials. Slowly normality had returned. Power. Water. Food and fuel deliveries. The internet and phone signals. The streets had been cleared, the ploughed piles of dirty snow slowly melting away. It was strange, at first, to see asphalt again, sidewalks, lawns and fields – the colour slowly returning to the landscape like someone adjusting the balance on an old television.
The completion of the new solar-panelled lighthouse had been the symbol of renewal for the community – an affirmation that the sun would once more grow in strength, the light would return, and crops would grow again. The nuclear winter was over – all the reports confirmed it. The floods had been devastating, but at least the milder weather and greater daylight made the rescue and clear-up operations easier.
As satellite communications were restored a flood of emails, texts, and voice-mails filled up people’s message boxes. In the last week Eddy had received two unexpected but welcome messages: one was from Cruz, who was now leading the remaining members of the Wild Hunt. She had sent a photo of herself in front of the club on the battle-scarred million-dollar bike. The message simply said: ‘The Wild Hunt rides on! Patch for life, Red! Seeya on the road!’
The other was a video-message from Bog standing with a pint of Guiness outside Lowry’s: ‘Would you believe it, I made it back! Took a week to thaw out! My hands were like a pack of fecking fish fingers! I found your website. Looks shite, but the music sounds good! Come over the pond for a jar or three! You’ll like the craic here. It suits crazy halfbreed like us! Anyway, I see from your homecoming gig you made it back. That was one epic ride there, my friend! You’re a legend! Here’s to more wild times, but with better weather, hey?’
Eddy scanned the dancing crowd and saw his sister dancing proudly near the front with her friends. She waved and grinned. He smiled back and went into the lick of the next track – a smooth segue they had been practising for a while. They had a three song medley to warm up the crowd, and they weren’t going to pause for a break and a bit of banter until then. He was in full flow, loving the vibes, the admiring or envious looks, but more this time – the deep appreciation, the respect. He wasn’t just Eddy of the Runestone Cowboys, he was a local hero, and perhaps more, but no one except his community knew the whole story. He was cool with that – the last thing he wanted was news crews camped outside the family home, pestering his friends and family for sound-bites, tempting offers to appear on chat shows and more. After everything he had gone through more than anything he wanted to keep it real. A low profile. His old job. A cold one with his friends down the brewhouse now and then. Sure, he had fantastic memories to keep him going for the rest of his life. Those would never fade. The people he had met. The things he had seen. He had ridden with legends. Fought monsters. Journeyed between worlds. And had lived. That was enough for any man.
At least that’s what he told himself.
But he had tasted magic. And the world would never be the same again. Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw her. She haunted his dreams.
No mortal woman would ever live up to her, and how could they? He had sampled the nectar of the gods. He knew he should just be content – for being back in Gimli, for being alive. They had all lost much, but he still had the gift of life, so fragile, so precious. And once gone, irreplaceable.
Every day he reminded himself of that. He easily he could have failed, could not be here.
Where would he be, exactly, he wondered? Which world would his spirit go? Was it destined for a Dakota afterlife or an Icelandic one – or some snakehole between the two? He shook his head and laughed and the audience thought it was just the buzz of the performance. He had spent his life trying to square that one, and perhaps he never would. Death was merely a change of worlds, his grandfather had said. Perhaps there, in the great beyond, all such differences faded away… The Red and the White. The Black. The Yellow. The Rainbow Nations, becoming one again. Perhaps there, all his loved ones who had passed on waited for him…
Lost in the solo with the throb of the drums behind him, he slipped into a semi-trance state. The hall suddenly felt larger, the crowd vast – extending into shadowy catacombs where ranks of ancestors eavesdropped.
Eddy nearly fudged a chord as he was overwhelmed by the presence of his grandfathers – Gunnar and Running Bear stepped forward from the shadows, side-by-side. They parted as a blue light appeared between them.
The image vanished in a flash, and suddenly there in the audience … there she was, dancing.
She gyrated to the music. Wearing jeans, boots, a tight t-shirt, she just looked like another one of the crowd, out for a good time.
Eddy nearly fell off the stage. His bandmates made a joke, yanked him back, carried on playing.
She looked up at him, and her fierce blue eyes caught his.
The extraordinary nature of the last few weeks has been trumped by the latest turn of events. President Koil, after his recent shocking announcement that he was in fact the Norse trickster god, Loki, has gone AWOL. He was last seen in Iceland, personally overseeing the heavy-handed response against the so-called “insurgents”, nicknamed Icesis. The president’s elite Ice Force have received widespread criticism, outside of government propaganda broadcasts, for their draconian methods and resulting civilian casualty and fatality rate. Some have argued that they are real terrorists, albeit government-sanctioned ones. Yet all this has now turned on its head, with Koil/Loki going missing, and reports coming in from all over the world, via the short wave radio network, of the loathed Jötun disappearing and the winter finally breaking. The Sons of Muspel – the demonic raiders that have attacked isolated communities across the land – are no longer seen. Would it be offering false hope to say it seems the end has finally ended? Perhaps our climate apocalypse is abating? With the President of the United States missing, and Vice-President Becker still receiving psychiatric treatment, a temporary emergency government has been put in place comprising representatives of the Senate. These are early days, but it is hoped that if the extreme weather continues to abate, then aid will be able to reach the most in need communities. Look to your neighbours. Make contact beyond your neighbourhood. Reach out and help your fellow citizen. Together we can emerge from this Armageddon stronger and more resilient.
Chapter 32: Law Rock
‘Hold on tight!’ Eddy smiled, as he gunned the snowmobile. The Wild Hunt were on the move and the sound was deafening, even before the barrage started.
Under the cover of Rig’s shieldwall the entourage punched through the siege as Ice Force let rip. The ordnance exploded against the glittering membrane created by the threshold guardian in slow flowers of flame – each impact sending muffled sonic shockwaves along its surface, and making Rig grip the trike he stood on the back of harder, jaw locked in utmost concentration. Tear led from the front, smashing his way through the enemy on his war horse bike. He had grown in power to. Each attack, injury and death seemed to make him stronger. From the mask of blood covering his face, his eyes and teeth shone out with a fierce radiance. ‘Is that all you’ve got? Come on you bastards! Put your backs into it! Fight like men! Die like men!’ he roared, brandishing the dagger strapped to his stump.
One Eye rode close behind with his brothers, Will and Way – a broiling cloud of thunder and lightning.
Fenja, with Eddy, rode near the rear with the rest of the patches. His companion had summoned frost-giants to guard the populace hiding in the church, just in case of any reprisals. She watched to check her sentinels were still in place as they turned the corner and made their way down the avenue, heading northeast.
They had broken free.
A new day had risen and it felt good to be on the move again. Eddy carried the runestone and felt weighed down with the responsibility of it. He thought of his loved ones back in Gimli, and wondered how they fared? The raiders had been defeated for now, but how long before others turned up? How long before the emergency supplies ran out? How many people were suffering across the planet right now as a result of this endless winter, this deadly Age of Monsters? Koil’s rein must end. They had to make it to Thingvollr and make an end of it, once and for all.
As they rode north east out of the capital, past the ruins delineated by the freshly falling snow, the attach choppers came in low behind them – sending up a curtain of snow and rubble against the shieldwall with the first volley as they swept past. Eddy counted four of them as they arced and prepared to go in for another run. This time they lined up, side-by-side, hovering over the ringroad out of the city. They fired missiles towards them, which exploded against the front of their defences.
‘What are they doing? They know they can’t break the shieldwall!’ called out Eddy.
‘Maybe they know Rig can only sustain it for so long…’ shouted Fenja over the roar of the engines. ‘Keep the bike steady…’ She suddenly stood up on the back of the snowmobile and, balancing, raised up her arms.
Crying out in effort, she raked the air in front of the entourage. The air split open in glowing blue fissures, which widened and joined. With a thrust of her arms, Fenja pushed the portal straight into the path of the choppers, which were engulfed. Closing her fists, she yanked back and the portal sealed just as the Wild Hunt reached the place where the choppers had been, a severed tail crashing down to the side of the road.
The bikers cheered, and Eddy’s heart soared. That’s his girl! But Fenja collapsed with a groan behind him, nearly falling off the snowmobile.
‘Keep … going …’ She passed out. Blue veins lined her icy skin like marble veins.
He wanted to stop, to help her … but they had to get to Thingvollr.
Ice Force was in pursuit behind them and Rig’s shieldwall was growing thin, and spluttering out in places.
Thingvollr National Park was as epic as Eddy expected – here the Mid-Atlantic Ridge could be visibly seen above water: two continental plates pulling apart, creating a dramatic series of lakes and gorges. It was as though it had been designed for the sole purpose of this day – the backdrop of the final battle for the fate of the world.
Everything had led to this point.
‘Time to party,’ called out Cruz, gunning her engines.
Suddenly the vista split open making the Wild Hunt skid to a halt in a wave of snow and ice. From the lightning bolt crack stepped a trim figure in sharply-tailored suit, a man with perfectly-coiffured red hair and brilliant teeth. He adjusted his diamond-studded cuffs, and sniffed the air. The face was neither old nor young, but clean-cut, unnaturally healthy looking, with cool eyes glittering with intelligence: it was a face familiar to billions from countless broadcasts and news items.
‘It’s Koil!’ Eddy gasped.
He seemed slight, vulnerable even, as he stood facing the Wild Hunt – greatly reduced in number but still nearly a hundred bikers, led by powerful, larger-than-life figures. One Eye, Will, Way, Tear, Rig, and the other remaining committee members lined up before him, engines growling.
‘Loki!’ One Eye sneered. ‘I wondered when you was going to show your ugly face!’
‘A pleasure to see you too, old man! Are you ready to die?’
‘Why? When I have only just started enjoying life again? Here I am, with my friends, riding out across an epic landscape. Whileas, there you stand. Alone, dressed like some executive. Do you know how ridiculous you look?’
Koil’s eyes flashed fire. ‘Do you, old man? You and your pathetic cronies, stuck in a perpetual mid-life crisis? Why can’t you accept that your time is over? You had your day? People want new gods now – they worship their boxes; they watch watered down fairy tales rather than experience true magic. They lead lives of sheep – do they not deserve to be slaughtered? Offerings. Isn’t that what we always wanted? Our followers, feeding us with their energy, their attention, their prayers, rituals and propitiations? Every temple made us stronger. Now I rule in the greatest temple the world has ever known – the centre of power. But the time for disguises is over. I rule this world now. There are so few of you. A pathetic bunch of ageing bikers. How are you going to stop me?’
One Eye chuckled. ‘Talk, talk, talk. You always loved the sound of your own voice, didn’t you, Loki? But the time for words is over. We both know how this is going to end. You know the prophecy as well as I. We have our roles to play – that is all. You have spoken your lines. Now it is time to act.’
‘Now it is time to die, old man!’ Koil raised his arms and pushed the crackling fissure wider. From out of it poured a demonic horde – snarling dire wolves; wart-barnacled trolls wielding ripped up tree-trunks, roots tangled with rocks; writhing worms like rivers in spate.
‘Fight, Wild Hunt! Fight! We must get the Runestone to Law Rock!’ bellowed One Eye. ‘Ride! Redcrow, ride!’ he commanded.
The scene before him turned into something out of a blockbuster movie computer game – that was the only way his brain could comprehend it. Gods and monsters duked it out on the crack in the world. Amid the chaos Eddy wove his snow-mobile along the edge of the gorge. How was he even going to read the runestone? He may have Icelandic heritage, but that didn’t mean the geometric markings made any sense to him. The remaining patches provided a personal bodyguard for him, but they were no match for the supernatural forces assailing them. It was only a matter of time – minutes, seconds – before something got to him and it would be all over.
But for now, Eddy still had gods on his side – the Aesir of legend! This may be their final stand but they would go down fighting!
And Eddy felt the cry of the blood within him. He was Dakota! He was Icelandic! Grandfathers, be with me, he prayed, as he plunged the snowmobile down the steep path into the gorge.
Then home the goats to the hall were driven, They wrenched at the halters, swift were they to run; The mountains burst, earth burned with fire, And Othin’s son sought Jötunheim.
The Lay of Thrym
Chapter 30: Jötunheim
The world turned inside out. Eddy felt like a rubber glove pulled off the hand, his soul now on the outside. The encroaching darkness and violent chaos of the streets of Gimli was replaced a stern, silent world of intense light, which made him shield his eyes at first. It was an icy landscape, but turned up to eleven, he thought. The very ice beneath them seemed to glow with its own effulgence, reminding Eddy of the ultra-violet lights in the bars he’d played in. But here the neon was replaced with stalactites and stalagmites of fierce intensity – the fangs of a leviathan into whose mouth they were devoured. Cliffs of black glass, waterfalls of frozen prisms, rose upwards vertiginously, disappearing into the pulsing brainscape of the clouds, flickering with synaptic lightning. They rode along a precipitous path hewn from the side of a gorge that dropped into miles of mist below. Sometimes it was little more than a cornice or arête, sculpted by the glacial wind that howled down the chasm. An ice-bridge took them over to the other side, where the path hugged the cliffs like a snake. Blood pounded in Eddy’s ears, blending with the sound of a horn. Each fresh vista seemed to shout out in glory.
Eddy stopped the snow-mobile. He got off and retched; gulped down the icy air. Hand against the smooth obsidian cliff. The trembling finally eased.
‘What is this place?’ called out Eddy to his passenger.
‘Home!’ Fenja shouted with joy, holding out her bare arms, relishing the freezing air on her face. ‘Jötunheim, the realm of my father. We use the snake-hole to take a shortcut across the nine worlds.’
‘How do you know how to navigate it? Do you have a map?’
‘In my head,’ Fenja smiled. ‘My mother explored many of them – she had a wanderlust that did not let her go, even after she had me. Wrapped snug next to her body I would travel with her. I was weaned on her wanderings as much as her milk.’ Her gaze glistened as she scanned the distance.
‘What happened to her?’
Fenja’s mouth tightened. ‘One day she walked into a snake-hole and never came back… I like to think she’s still out there somewhere; that one day I will find her again. I thought I picked up her trail in Pompeii, but it was a dead-end – until I met you… I am sure she would not have left me on purpose. She is trying to get home, I’m convinced of it.’
Eddy slumped onto the snow-mobile, stroked the handlebars. Tears welled as he noticed the little bumps, scratches and quirks on the chassis.
Fenja slipped her arm into his. ‘What is it?’
‘My grandfather …’
She nodded. Closed her eyes. Smiled. ‘There are many afterlives … Some intersect. We merely change worlds…’
Eddy’s eyes widened. ‘How…?’
Fenja traced the two-dimensional chandelier of a frozen cobweb. ‘Our webs are connected now. I feel the filaments stretching … across time and space. Your grandfather is travelling the way of ghosts. His spirit is strong. But, I sense he does not want to journey to the Isles of the Blessed yet. He is worried about you, about the family. He watches over you with eyes of the eagle.’
Eddy brushed the tears from his face. ‘Thank you.’
‘We’d better get going. Time is different here, but in your world, the Wild Hunt is running out of it.’
The journey through the realm of the frost-giants was a dreamlike experience. They rode over ice-formations that resembled giant sculpted figures. It was often hard to tell whether the profiles were optical illusions or actual slumbering Jötun. To pass the time, Fenja described the origins of her homeworld: ‘At the beginning of all things there was a giant of giants formed from the abyss, Ymir. He was Grandfather Hrim-Thurs, the first ice-giant. He awoke starving and, groping about, found a giant cow Audhumla, formed like himself from the steam and frost. He was nourished by The Nourisher, from her four streams of milk. As she licked an ice-block for salt, the head of a god emerged, Buri. Feeling sated, Ymir slept, and from the sweat of his armpits – don’t laugh! – a son and daughter were born, and from his feet, a six-headed giant, Thrudgelmir, who begat Bergelmir – the father of all my father’s kin. These frost-giants were the natural enemy of Buri and his sons. The war waged for an aeon until Borr, son of Buri, married a giantess, who bore him three sons, Odin, Vili and Ve. You may have heard of them! They joined their father in fighting the frost-giants, and together they managed to slay Ymir, from whose vast body Midgard was formed. From his wounds gushed so much blood it created a deluge which destroyed all of his race except Bergelmir. Escaping in a boat with his wife – just like a proto-Noah and his wife – they finally found sanctuary in a remote, bleak place. Here they made their home, calling it, you’ve guessed it, Jötunheim. They set to breeding a new race of frost-giants, who grew up with an antipathy to the gods. It continues to this day, but … my father married a human – as once his ancestor had wedded a god – and he dotes on me, his daughter. Midgard was formed from the sacred bones of Ymir, after all. We are connected more than you think. And so, after much work, I finally managed to persuade Thrym, my father, to help save Earth rather than destroy it … Love really is the only thing that saves us.’
Eddy wanted to hug her there and then, but now was not the time.
They rode over bridges of ice so transparent it was as though they rode over solid air. Far down below Eddy glimpsed flower-starred meadows irrigated by tumbling cataracts, the turrets of noble dwellings surrounded by thick forests, lakes of shimmering beauty, and wildlife of magnificent grandeur – everything on a larger scale.
They finally paused for refreshment at a glittering spring, which gurgled from the cliff-hugging roots of a vast yew tree, the branches of which formed pathways across the chasm. Sitting in the bend of one of these, they held one another, and admired the view.
‘The popular idea of Jötunheim being gloomy is mainly thanks to the propaganda of the gods and those ne’er-do-well storytellers. They make us out to be oafish barbarians, easily fooled by the cheap tricks of the wily Aesir. Hah! Well, now you know the truth behind all those tales of the “cross-dressing” Thunder God! The gods aren’t what they seem, and neither are my people. Like most creatures of the nine worlds, they want to be able to live and thrive in peace.’
Fenja turned to him, a strange light in her eyes. ‘They want to be able to raise their offspring.’
It was hard to tell if it was the enervating spring water, or Fenja’s words that made him shiver with delight, but before he could pursue that thought, she grabbed his hand.
‘Come! The Wild Hunt! One more ride and we should make it there.’
‘Back to Reykjavik?’
‘No. The battle has moved inland, to the Plain of Vigrid.’
‘The crack in the world, where the final reckoning will transpire.’
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) 2020
If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?
Eddy and his grandfather rode their snow-mobiles back along the tracks they had made towards Gimli. The geometric skyline of the settlement emerged from the white landscape, like paper shapes cut out of the sky. The light, what little of it there was, drained rapidly from the coastline as the Earth rolled inevitably into the dark. The eastern side of the lake was already overwhelmed by the penumbra. Like a wave of dark rain, it swept towards the western shore.
‘We’re losing light!’ hollered Running Bear. ‘Step on the gas!’
The grandfather revved ahead, leaping over the ramp of a snow-drift with a grunt.
They raced down towards the outskirts of the rural municipality, but instead of turning off for the Redcrow homestead, the grandfather led them straight to the recreation hall. The journey to the shack and back, the talking … it had taken longer than they’d thought. The precious light had slipped away.
They turned down the main avenue. Only a couple of blocks and they’ll be there.
A murder of crows lifted from the rooftops, making Eddy turn his head just as something hissed past.
Another missile hit the side of the snow-mobile, bouncing off.
‘Ambush!’ cried his grandfather, steering his ride in an erratic pattern.
Eddy checked his mirrors and saw the night-cloaked riders emerge from the gathering shadows, the eyes, nostrils and mouths of their steeds burning hungry fire.
Eddy copied his Running Bear’s crazy dance – just like in the powwow. He’d once seen his grandfather light as a kicking foal, lifting up his legs to the thunder of the drums. Now Death held the beater and made them both dance.
The runestone was heavy on Eddy’s back, slipped into a knapsack. He prayed it would not get struck by a stray bolt. It was too precious to lose. So much was riding on it.
Suddenly, he heard his grandfather cry out and slump onto his controls. The bike swerved and ditched in a snow-drift.
Eddy raced to him. Three crossbow bolts stuck out of his back like porcupine quills. The old man coughed blood. ‘Go! Leave me!’
‘Never!’ roared Eddy. He lifted his grandfather onto his bike as the hooves of the horses pounded closer, bolts hissing into the drift.
The deadweight of his grandfather slumped forward onto him, Eddy hit the revs and the snow-mobile blasted away just as the riders reached them. The snow churned up in their faces provided him with temporary cover.
Accelerating down the avenue, he knew he had lost the precious gap between them and it was only a matter of time before a bolt found his own back.
Up ahead was the turning for the recreation centre and, for a second he thought about drawing the raiders away, but he knew that would be a suicide mission, and he had to get his grandfather to the doctor.
He swung the bike right, and gunned it towards the hall, the raiders hot on his tail. ‘Hold on grandfather! I’m gonna get you some help!’
Bolts hissed closer and closer, clanging against the chassis. As one reloaded another fired in a single swift movement.
Suddenly the report of a firearm bounced off the walls of the surrounding buildings and one of the raiders fell as his horse toppled beneath him.
Ahead, the sheriff was providing covering fire.
Eddy skidded onto the forecourt. ‘He needs help!’
Rivet nodded to a couple of the men as she kept blasting. ‘Get him inside!’
They lifted him from the snowmobile, but the old man protested.
‘Leave me be…’ Running Bear made a weak gesture, shooed them away. Back against the wall, he slumped. Blood trickled from his mouth.
‘No! The doctor…’
‘It’s too late, Eddy. But don’t worry… Death is merely a change of worlds.’ Running Bear smiled, and then was seized with pain. ‘Stay on the Red Road, grandson. Save Gimli, save the wo…’
‘Grandfather!’ Eddy screamed, grabbing Running Bear as he toppled forward.
His world turned to black ice; shattered into a million pieces.
Rivet cried out, staggering back, clutching her arm – a crossbow bolt skewering it. Gritting her teeth, she aimed and fired back. But it was hopeless.
The Raiders swept by in a hail of bolts. At least seven of them survived and they had all night.
The wound made Rivet weaker. ‘Eddy, get inside. Lock the door…’
He shook his head. Took up his grandfather’s rifle and stood by her side. ‘Not a chance, sheriff. I’m gonna take some of those fuckers down with me.’
Together, they stood side-by-side and fired at the encroaching enemy.
The raiders circled, their cloaks enlarging their silhouette against the snow and making it harder to strike a vital organ.
‘They’re mocking us…’ said Rivet, wincing and holding her arm to her side.
Both of them were wounded in different ways. Eddy could not believe that his grandfather had been taken. The anger kept him going, but inside, he was turning to stone.
Gunshots snapped them both back. Gunfire coming from the surrounding buildings. The raiders reacted swiftly, returning fire into the darkness.
‘Must be BZ and his gang,’ Rivet spat through gritted teeth. ‘They’ve come back.’
For a moment, Eddy’s heart leapt. Back-up!
The door to the hall opened and Siggy came running out. ‘Grandfather!’ Magnus lingered on the threshold. ‘Siggy! Come back here! It’s not safe!’
Eddy turned to her. ‘He … didn’t make it.’ His words were like pebbles in his mouth. ‘I’m sorry …’
His sister cradled the limp body of their grandfather, shaking with grief.
‘Come, let’s carry him inside…’ Magnus gently helped her up, and together they lifted the body with some effort.
Magnus looked at Eddy. ‘Do you best.’
They carried the body inside and closed the door.
Out of the darkness came screams. The gunfire fell silent. Shapes moved in the shadows.
‘What the hell?’ breathed Eddy.
Six of the raiders remained and now there seemed to be something else out there, prowling on all fours.
One of the creatures savaged a gang member, who blasted away at it.
Then the screaming stopped, and a savage howl split the night, joined by a feral chorus carrying across the rooftops.
Eddy and Rivet gave each other a look – the whites of their eyes standing out in the gloom.
Suddenly the horses of the raiders whickered, turning nervously. Something was coming down the avenue. They could feel it approach – the vibration of each slow step.
‘What next? A buffalo stampede?’ spat Rivet.
Around the corner, stark against the snow, came a giant figure, snapping off a stop light as its massive bulk brushed past.
‘Oh no…’ said Eddy.
‘What the …?’ whispered Rivet.
The first frost giant was joined by two more. They towered over the rooftops, the phone lines and lamp-posts.
Eddy recognised the three giants from the ice.
‘Oh fuck…’ His hands shook as he tried to take aim with the rifle. Then he noticed the woman walking in front, dressed in a strange tunic, arms bare, spiky blonde hair like a flame.
The Jötun towered before the raiders. For a moment they stood – a strange mythic encounter on the streets of Gimli. The leader of the raiders trotted forward, crossbow raised. He spoke some harsh, piercing language – they sounded like nails scraped over broken glass.
The first of the giants suddenly raised its massive foot and brought it down on the raider.
The other raiders retaliated – sending a hail of bolts at the assailant, who brushed them off like midge bites. The other two Jötun waded in.
While the raiders and the giants were engaged Fenja ran forward. ‘Eddy! Quickly! You must come with me! I’ve negotiated a truce with my kind – but who knows how long it will last. Do you have the runestone?’
Eddy stepped forward. ‘Tell my family I love them!’
‘Where are you going?’ Rivet called.
‘To end this. Where it began!’ he shouted back.
‘Eddy! The snow-mobile!’ Fenja commanded.
He leapt on and fired it up.
‘Any chance of a ride?’ Fenja smiled.
They rode between the legs of the giants as the battle raged around them.
Fenja reached out a hand and scratched the air with a long fingernail.
Ahead, a slit in the dark street appeared – a tear in reality. It made Eddy’s head hurt to look at it. Beyond glowed a cold blue light.
‘Go! Now! Before it seals!’ Fenja called, and Eddy rode the snowmobile into the closing portal.
From the Rock of Law sing me loud Undo the doom of Ragnarok. Gods may fall and Midgard may freeze, but life shall stir across the seas.
Chapter 28: The Runestone
The thin light of the dawn lime-washed the rooftops of Gimli. The day was overcast – the same iron grey cover of cloud – but it was day. Eddy rubbed his eyes and yawned. It had been a long night. He must have fallen asleep – his body was wrapped up in the blanket, stiff from lying on the floor. He tried to move and got cramp.
‘Got your beauty sleep?’
His grandfather lent by the window, bins trained on the street below, rifle propped up next to him.
‘Yowch!’ Eddy moved his leg and regretted it. Cramp! He tried to rub some life back into it. ‘When did I fall asleep?’
‘A couple of hours ago. Good job I didn’t. Guess you would claim it was your crossing. Still wiped out from it…’ The old man reached down and tossed him the flask. ‘Not surprised. Here. There’s still a swig left.’
Eddy smiled. Perhaps the old man was thawing out a little. He had spent a good hour relating his adventures. Running Bear had been sceptical and full of questions and sarcastic remarks, but eventually got caught up in the narrative. Hearing how his grandson had endured the long ride, he even sounded mildly impressed by the end. Something in him had shifted over night. He looked at Eddy properly for the first time, as the daylight flooded the lighthouse.
‘Perhaps you’re not such a waste of space after all.’
Eddy gulped down the dregs of the coffee with a grimace. It had gone cold.
‘Come on. We need to get that doc to the health centre. You were on a mission, remember!’
Running Bear took his rifle and headed down the staircase.
Eddy struggled to his feet and followed.
‘Well, well. Up with the larks. I don’t think I’ve ever known you to get up this early!’ marvelled his sister, who was up and about, pulling on her coat. ‘Unless you had been on an all-nighter and were staggering in I normally don’t see you until midday.’
‘Good morning to you, sis!’
‘How’s doc?’ asked Running Bear.
‘I’ll live,’ groaned the doctor, stretching as he pulled himself up out of the chair. ‘But what about you? How’s that rib?’
‘As tender as a Comodo special, but I’m walking.’
‘We’ll get you some painkillers at the centre.’
Running Bear tried the door, leaking light into the reception.
‘Do you think it’s safe, grandfather?’ asked Siggy.
‘Safer than night-time. This is our best shot. Are you coming?’
‘I bet they’ll have some kind of breakfast going, back at the hall…’ mused Eddy, dreamily.
‘You’ve talked me into it!’ laughed Siggy. ‘An army marches on its stomach! Lead on, granf!’
They made their way through the lifeless, snow-bound streets. The compacted snow, frozen over night, had been churned up by hooves, and was stained with what looked like oil.
‘Least we know they can bleed,’ said Eddy.
‘Doesn’t look like any blood I know,’ observed the doctor, kneeling down to inspect it. He touched a bit with his gloved finger and it stuck and stretched like tar.
‘What are we going to do about this fella?’ called Running Bear, standing over the mauled body of the man on the stretcher.
‘Cover him over with snow for now. We’ll have to come back. Our immediate priority is to the living,’ said the doctor, breathing a cloud.
Running Bear started kicking snow over the body. Eddy helped and Siggy cast about for a marker. She returned with a broom handle from the smashed in store. They stuck it in the ground and stood in silence for a moment.
‘Come on. Got to keep moving!’
Running Bear led them up to the Fifth Avenue. They covered the bodies of the other two patches, marking them with a roadwork sign, then turned left, heading to the Health Centre.
It was eerie, walking along the usually busy avenue – the only sound, crunching snow and their breathing. A lone bird cried out over head and they all froze.
‘Albatross. Had to be.’ Running Bear grunted, carrying on. Every now and then he held his side, but his pace was relentless.
‘Hey, look!’ Siggy knelt down and picked up a slipper.
‘Mrs Clutterbuck…’ observed the doctor remotely, subdued with the shock of it all.
‘Looks like they got her too…’ said Eddy.
They scanned the street but could see no body.
They made it to the health centre and the doctor fumbled with his keys. The doors were half-frozen shut and they had to force them open.
Inside the temperature was almost normal. They opened up their jackets. Siggy gave the doctor a hand, loading up a trolley. Eddy became interested in the vending machine. He tried a coin but nothing happened.
‘Damn!’ he kicked the front of it and made the candy bars rattle on their hooks.
‘Here.’ Running Bear produced his hunting knife and slid it down the side of the machine. With a yank he jimmied it open. ‘Load up. I’m sure the folks back at the hall will appreciate the extra supplies.’
Eddy found a laundry bag. Emptied out the sheets and filled it full of the snacks and bottles.
Siggy and the Doc returned with the trolley. The doctor carried his case too. ‘We’ve got all the essentials. Hey, have you been stealing candy, young man?’
‘Got a sweet tooth, doc.’
The doctor grumbled, but led them out of the building, locking it behind him.
With Siggy pushing the trolley carefully over the uneven frozen snow and Eddy lugging the sack they made their way to the hall.
Running Bear walked briefly with Eddy. ‘Once we’ve delivered this lot, there’s a place I want to take you.’
The reaction when they made it back to the sports hall was mixed. It clearly had not been an easy night and tempers were frayed. The initial relief at their return – laden down with supplies – was somewhat muted when folk realised not all of them had made it.
‘Where are my bloods?’ demanded BZ.
‘I’m sorry. We couldn’t save them. The raiders…’ said the doctor.
‘They went down guns blazing, Wendigo,’ offered Eddy.
BZ lifted him up by his lapels. ‘What the fuck? You were meant to be saving my man. The others were just riding shotgun. How do I know you didn’t just kill them yourself?’ he fumed in Eddy’s face.
A safety catch being flipped made him flick his eyes – his head prevented from turning from the rifle barrel placed against it. ‘Let go of my grandson.’
BZ dropped Eddy, back away, hands up. ‘Easy, grandpa.’
‘Your men died bravely. The raiders ran them down on the junction of Five and Central. They headed to the sea – which was lucky for them. I was holed up in the Lighthouse. Saw ’em coming. Was able to pick off a couple and scare the rest away. Your bloods bought them time. If not for them you wouldn’t have the doc here, with his meds and know-how.’
BZ cricked his neck. ‘Where are their bodies…?’ he asked, voice low.
‘In the snow, on Central. We marked them. As good as any deep freeze, for now.’
‘What about foxes and shit?’
‘Nothing’s moving out there, son,’ said the doctor. ‘But if you want to take a burial party out, be my guest.’
‘Just be back before nightfall,’ added Running Bear. ‘Those raiders will be back, and we need all the firepower we can muster.’
BZ spat on the floor. ‘Me and my crew will run by the clubhouse. We’ll be back before dark.’ He nodded to his remaining men.
They watched them go, and the tension in the hall eased a little.
‘Thank you, grandfather.’
The old man shrugged. ‘Get some breakfast in you. It’s a long walk ahead.’
As Eddy followed his grandfather away from the hall, he couldn’t help but smile, thinking back to his sister’s comment as he queued up for the scratch breakfast. ‘So you and grandpa – broken the ice at last?’ she asked, as she loaded up her tray with the random selection.
Eddy shrugged. ‘Looks like it. Nothing like life and death situations to make you re-evaluate your priorities. Perhaps he’s realised life’s too short and I’m not such a waster after all.’
‘I must admit, even I’m a little bit impressed with you lately – but don’t let it go to your head. You’ve got a long way to go to get to grandfather’s level.’
‘Hell, I’m not even going to try! That man is a legend! See how he dealt with the raiders! Clint Eastwood, eat your heart out!’
`Eat up!’ Running Bear growled. ‘We need to get the snowbikes.’
‘Where we going?’
The old man nodded inland. ‘To my shack.’
Eddy had known about his grandfather’s hunting hut for a long while but hadn’t been invited to it since he was a boy. He had fond memories of going there on long trips out into the back-country – fishing, birding. Learning skills. Running Bear had so much knowledge but no one to pass it onto. He’d given his daughter a healthy grounding in wilderness skills, which had manifested in her lifetime study of herbal lore; but Eddy sensed he’d always wanted a son to share the hunting trips with. When Eddy discovered booze, weed, girls and rock’n’roll he lost interest, and his grandfather’s respect.
Only now, fourteen years later, was he finally joining his grandfather again.
He had strayed from the Red Road a long time… Nothing can bring back those lost years, he reflected. There is only now. What we choose to do. How we act.
He resolved: time to make it count.
They made their way back to the house, and together forced open the garage doors. The two snow-mobiles took some warming up, but they were soon on their way.
The cabin was set back discreetly in its own little cove – overlooking the lake, but high enough above the shoreline not to be pestered by the midges. Hidden by pine trees, it would be almost impossible to spot from the water, or from the surrounding open country, until you were almost on top of it. When they pulled into the clearing in front of it, they discovered it half buried under snow, and spent a good hour clearing a way to the door, clearing the chimney stack and windows, before even opening the front door.
The cabin was dark inside, and chilly. But with a pot of coffee on the brew and the log-burner crackly away, it soon cheered up.
Eddy sat down in the rickety old chair opposite his grandfather’s rocking chair with a sigh. It had been too long. The smell of place alone was enough to stir memories – herbs drying from the rafters, a cured ham, gun oil, damp clothes drying out, boots stuffed with newspaper and tubs of bait, mingled with the smell of the coffee.
Running Bear rummaged about the seemingly random piles of kit, digging his way to a set of drawers buried beneath.
He pulled these to one side, and jimmied up a floorboard. With a groan of effort and pain he extricated something from underneath wrapped in an oilcloth.
‘Damn rib!’ Out of breath, he placed it between them on the rug before the fire, poured them both a tin mug of Joe. Handing one to his grandson, he finally sat down.
For a while he sat watching the flames in the log burner, sipping his coffee.
Eddy knew better than to poke, so he just sat and waited.
The old man loaded up a couple more logs, and shut the door of the burner. ‘There was this explorer … a French Canadian fella named, let’s get this right: Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye. In the seventeen thirties he was out busy exploring west of the Great Lakes when he discovered an old stone carved with runes. He brought it back with him, but it was, ahem, mysteriously lost before it was transcribed. For centuries scholars have been speculating about it. Was it real? A hoax? The consequence of a marsh fever? An infection to the brain?’ He took a sip of coffee. ‘Hmm. Let them think what they want. I know different. It was ‘found’ by my ancestors – who took exception to this Frenchie taking what wasn’t his – kept it in their tribe for generations, passing it down from father to son, mother to daughter, until eventually old Running Bear here received it. And now, grandson, it’s time to pass it to you – a descendant of my line, but also of the New Icelanders. Eddy Leif Redcrow, the so-called Vérendrye Runestone belongs to you now. Time for it to fulfil its destiny.’
Running Bear nodded to the oilcloth.
Eddy put down his mug, and nervously lifted back the flaps, to reveal the stone, its runic inscription catching the firelight. Looking closer he could make out strange drawings to, which he traced lightly with his index finger.
‘Do you know what it all means, grandfather?’
‘That’s for your friends to figure out. But see that warrior with the hammer fighting the serpent? Another battling with a wolf, losing a hand? The boat made of bones? I suspect it has something to do with what’s happening at the moment.’
Eddy’s eyes glistened. ‘Thank you, grandfather…’ He climbed over to him and gave the old man a hug.
‘Enough! We need to start back soon before we lose the light. I’ll just sort out my hunting kit – some of it may come in handy. We’ll head off in one hour, tops. Keep it safe, grandson. I’ve got a feeling it’s got an important role to play. It has travelled a long way through time and now its hour is fast approaching.’
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.