George Stewart’s 1949 novel, Earth Abides, is singular in both senses – it is the only science fiction the University of California Professor of English ever wrote, and also a remarkably prescient and deeply moving epic. Set in the aftermath of a virus that decimates the global population – the Great Disaster that derails the human project catastrophically (at least in terms of what we think of as ‘civilisation’) – the opening chapters depict an eerily quiet and depopulated land that could easily be one in lockdown. Yet as the protagonist, Isherwood Williams, (or ‘Ish’ as he becomes known) makes his solitary way back from the wilderness where he had been undertaking field research, it soon becomes apparent that a devastating plague has swept the land, leaving fly-ridden corpses in lonely gas stations, mummified ones in the desert, and rendering the former population clusters of cities as no-go zones. And the near mass extinction event of humankind allows for a rewilding of America, in a similar way to how Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies imagined a ‘wild England’ in his post-apocalyptic novel of 1885, After London. Yet, unlike in Jefferies, where the first half of the novel is a detailed natural history survey sans character or plot, in Stewart’s narrative, Ish is our viewpoint character who has agency. We experience this biological apocalypse through his thoughts and senses – an academic, he reflects upon what he beholds stoically. Used to his own company and absorbed by his own preoccupations, he is able to cope with a depeopled California, until finally jarred out of his solipsism by first a dog, and then by chance encounters with the diseased, deranged, or decadent few who have also survived. He embarks upon a bleak road trip to the East Coast, only to be unimpressed by the remnants he encounters. Returning to the West Coast and his former childhood home, he settles down to a quiet life, until … well, I’ll leave that for you to discover. What is refreshing about Stewart’s post-apocalypse is the anthropological approach he takes in charting the vicissitudes of the remaining survivors. He takes the long view of history, and prophesies a circularity to it … the survivors subsist upon what they can scavenge, but eventually the shelves empty or are overrun by the swarms of ants, rats, and feral canines, and the scattered tribes regress into a future primitive state. The novel shows its age in some places – most notably in its problematic descriptions of people of colour, the handicapped, and of women. And yet Stewart nearly redeems himself by lauding the main female (and mixed race) character – who is shown to have greater strength and stamina than the men. She is rather put on a pedestal and is frequently referred to as the ‘mother of nations’ – and so this idealised feminine is just as problematic in its own way. Stewart also is far off the mark in his disavowal of climate studies as being of any relevance to future life on Earth: ‘Climatic change was not a practical problem.’ Yet for a novel written in the late 1940s, we can hardly blame the author for that blindspot, and in many ways Stewart’s sole foray into the speculative is a seminal work of Climate Fiction, and in that sense it is far ahead of the curve. It rightly won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951. So, despite its weaknesses of representation, the novel has many strengths – not just the breadth of its vision, but in its non-anthropocentric shifts, and its proto-ecological tone. It foregrounds the importance of environment, and exhorts (of the earth): ‘There is nothing else by which men live’. Stewart emphasises the Earth will survive us, and is indifferent to our plight. He destabilises our imagined position as the pinnacle of creation; he also challenges the vanity of ambition, the empty intellectualism of academe (whenever it ceases to have practical purpose), and the myth of progress. All that matters, he seems to infer, is our immediate community of connections, the family (or ‘Tribe’ in its extended form), our inner resilience, adaptability, and capability. Simple skills of survival become more important than the vainglorious dreams of betterment and posterity. And yet although this heartbreakingly charts the end of the Enlightenment Project and western civilisation’s brief moment in the sun, this is ultimately a humanist and humanitarian novel, and there is deep poetry and compassion here – in the poetic, pseudo-Biblical epigraphs; and in the loving record of marriage and friendship. A haunting vision of a plague-stricken America, there is nevertheless a quiet beauty here that lingers long after the book has been put down.
I continue my brief account of my long association with environmental writing…
In 2014 I contributed a chapter to Storytelling for a Greener World (Hawthorn), a significant contribution to the growing ‘field’ of environmental education and the use of storytelling as a tool for raising awareness about environmental issues, increasing eco-literacy, encouraging positive action, and enhancing our perception and appreciation of the natural world.
Here’s the blurb:
The what, why and how of storytelling and storywork to promote environmental mindfulness and sustainable behaviour in adults and children. Written by 21 cutting-edge professionals in story-based learning and pro-environmental change. Shows how to apply this practice, indoors and outdoors, in organisations, NGOs, schools, colleges and communities. A treasury of over 40 stories, many creative activities and detailed descriptions of inspiring practice for both new and seasoned practitioners. Clearly explains how this practice works, why it is effective and how to adapt the ideas to the reader’s situation.
From 2013-2018 I focused on my research degree at the University of Leicester. My main project in this time was my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, which imagines a descendant of the Reverend Robert Kirk receiving a copy of his lost journal detailing his captivity in Elfhame – but I also wrote two other novels: my eco-science fiction novel Black Box (discussed in Writing the Earth part 2) and Thunder Road, a transapocalyptic mash-up of Viking and Biker culture, which was my most explicitly CliFi novel to date (serialised on this blog, starting with Meltdown).
Shortly after completing my doctorate I started to develop a project around the concept of the ‘ecoGothic’. I was asked to contribute a creative keynote to a symposium on Gothic Nature at the University of Roehampton. Here I met the publisher of the Tales of the Weird Library which the British Library is creating. I pitched him a recalibration of my intended book, and it was commissioned. Heavy Weather: tempestuous tales for stranger climes was due out in early November, but Covid-19 has delayed everything, so it’s out on 18th February, 2021.
Here’s the blurb:
Since Odysseus’ curious crew first unleashed the bag of winds gifted him by Aeolus, the God of Winds, literature has been awash with tales of bad or strange weather. From the flood myths of Babylon, the Mahabharata and the Bible, to twentieth-century psychological storms, this foray into troubled waters, heat waves, severe winters, hurricanes and hailstones, offers the perfect read on a rainy day — or night. Featuring a selection of some of the finest writers in the English language — Algernon Blackwood, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and more — this collection of weird tales will delight and disturb.
As well as editing this, this year I contributed a short story for a RSPB anthology – We Are A Many-Bodied Singing Thing – part of a project called ‘Back from the Brink’, raising awareness about Britain’s endangered species. My CliFi short is called ‘The Rememberers’.
Here’s the final blurb – I promise!
A new sci-fi and speculative anthology inspired by endangered species and the people saving them.
Writing has always helped us to imagine possibilities for ourselves and the world around us. We wanted to imagine a future for England’s most endangered plants and animals – to explore how human and more-than-human beings relate to each other, and ways that we can live together better.
To do this, we asked writers to take inspiration from two Back From The Brink conservation projects: the Willow Tit Project, who are protecting this little bird and its post-industrial habitats, and Ancients of the Future, who are working to protect 28 threatened species which live in ancient trees.
The resulting anthology is tender, fierce, wondering, sad, and ultimately hopeful. We hear the voices of the animals and plants, see a thousand years into the future through the growth of moss, and experience several metamorphoses.
And most recently I’ve been working on a collection of poetry and artwork – the result of my deep mapping of my local universe here on the Wiltshire Downs during lockdown. I have already given a couple of talks about this – in Bardfest, and Storytown Corsham. It is due out on 20th December (advance orders being taken).
No doubt my environmental writing projects will continue. Watch this space!
In the meantime, check out the fantasic pilot episodes of Black Box from Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – part of their excellent CliFi season:
I continue my account of my long association with environmental writing…
So moving into the 2010s (what do we call that decade – the Tweenies?), I moved home – from Bath to Stroud (not a great distance physically – 30 miles – but drastically different in terms of ethos and aesthetic). Here, in 2011 I published Soul of the Earth: an anthology of eco-spiritual poetry. It was edited by the late poet Jay Ramsay, although I came up with the title, designed the cover, and co-ordinated its production and launch (at a great group author showcase in Waterstones, Bath). It was one of the titles I am proudest of during my stint as director of Awen Publications (which I founded in 2003, and ran until 2013). We were able to negotiate an endorsement from the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and includes a fantastic cohort of contemporary poets.
In 2013 I handed over Awen to the capable husband-and-wife term of Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis, to concentrate upon my PhD at the University of Leicester. While there I collaborated in some interdisciplinary writing commissions, and had some inspiring conversations with colleagues engaged in cutting-edge research into Artificial Intelligence and Space Research – this, alongside my ongoing concerns about the environment, fed into the mix that led to me writing Black Box, a science fiction/CliFi novel that asks ‘What will survive of us?’ On a whim I entered it into a national science fiction novel manuscript competition run by Literature Works (a Plymouth-based literature development agency), ‘One Giant Write’, and it won. I got serious attention from Marcus Gipps, the commissioning editor for Gollancz. After a couple of aborted launches, it has now achieved lift-off thanks to Alternative Stories and Fake Realities – a brilliant podcast with a strong track record of producing excellent CliFi audio dramas. I adapted 3 pilot episodes, which have been produced by the talented sound engineer/wizard, Chris Gregory, and they are being premiered 27th November, 4th December, and 11th December. I wrote a draft of Black Box in a croft on the coast of Wester Ross (see my blog ‘The SciFi Croft’), and in it I stared hard into the abyss of our possible species extinction and chose to saw there a gleam of light – because in my doctoral research into Fantasy I forged an ethical aesthetics of the genre. Tired and disturbed by the cultural dominance of Grimdark, a particularly nihilistic and Neoliberal view of the world, I devised Goldendark, which acknowledges the challenges we face (re: Climate Chaos; geopolitical turmoil; the rise of the Alt-Right), but takes creative responsibility and offers a gleam of hope in what stories we chooses to tell and share. Black Box is my first intentional Goldendark novel and I am glad it is finally seeing the light of day.
Climate Fiction, popularly abbreviated as ‘cli-fi’ is literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Traditionally such works would have been categorised as Speculative Fiction, but in a world of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, where many institutions, authorities, and governments have declared a Climate Emergency, cli-fi appears to chart the state of the modern, not near future, world.
My connection to creative writing that explores environmental issues started with my very first poetry, penned in the first year of the 90s – so I have a 30 year connection to the subject, long before Cli-Fi became a trendy tag. Much of my early poetry was inspired by the landscape and an ecological sensibility (and still is). This was performed at open mics and appeared in my home-made chapbooks throughout that decade. By the end of the 90s I had become the Bard of Bath, and had started to get my work into print.
In the early Noughties after working towards an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University, I started to teach creative writing in earnest. I applied for a small grant, which enabled me to run a series of workshops on ‘Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre, during the spring and early summer of 2003. This resulted in Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, which I put together with my students. It raised funds for the local Friends of the Earth group, and I got a piece in the Bath Chronicle, with me appearing next to Terry Coulson, the much-loved and missed chair (he died a year later). To publish the anthology I created Awen Publications, a small press, which I ran for ten years. It specialised in writing with an ‘ecobardic’ sensibility, an ethos outlined first by the storytelling group I was in (Fire Springs) and then adopted by the press. An Ecobardic Manifesto: a vision for the arts in a time of environmental crisis came out in 2004, and as a co-author, can be included as my second substantial environmentally-themed publication.
And for my third in this survey of my personal Cli-Fi list I would now turn to Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden (Heart of Albion Press, 2008). Imaginary, otherwordly and lost islands frequently feature in literature. This study considered these mythic isles in the context of climate change and Earth itself as a threatened ‘island’. I think of this as my ‘Climate Change’ book, as in it I looked hard at the (then still) emerging facts about humankind’s decimating impact on the Earth’s biodiversity, and regulatory systems. Concerns about this stem back decades, indeed centuries (Victorian polymath John Ruskin first noted the impact of pollution on air quality and cloud formation). I certainly became concerned about it from the late 80s, when the Ozone layer and the effect of CFCs upon it first appeared in the media, alongside campaigns to Save the Whale and the Amazon rainforest. That famous footage of the hole in the Ozone layer above the Arctic chilled me to the core, and prompted me to join many eco-protest marches. When awareness grew of the potential for sea levels to be effected by global warming I started to think about islands and the many legends of lost ones. I started to research it in earnest and visited as many as I could – writing a draft of the book on Bardsey Island, off the Llyn Peninsula. With the publication of Lost Island, I felt I had truly nailed my colours to the mast. I was green, through and through!
I continue my potted history of personal Cli-Fi in the next blog…
My prize-winning science fiction/cli-fi novel, Black Box, has been adapted into an exciting audio drama by podcast wizards, Alternative Stories and Fake Realities. The pilot episodes (1-3) are being launched 27 November, 4 December, and 11 December, 2020. FFI: https://www.buzzsprout.com/411730
If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?
Things may seem pretty bleak out there at the moment – geopolitical unrest, climate chaos, displaced populations – and threats are real not only to the peace and security of our families and communities but to the very existence of humankind as the dominant species upon this planet. It all feels like The Eighties: the sequel. It was back then, living in the shadow of the Cold War as a teenager, that I first started to get seriously interested in science fiction as a way of speculating about the future. Alternative versions of now. For SF holds a dark mirror up to the present day. It has done this since its inception, in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, published 200 years ago, but haunting us still about the perils of playing god, of science running amok. In the 30s Aldous Huxley explored the spectre of genetic engineering, or eugenics as it was known back then; in the 40s George Orwell contemplated a Fascist future which feels eerily prescient; and in the 80s Margaret Atwood depicted a dystopian state that has struck a chord with many. And that is just a few.
I humbly join the conversation – not to compare my efforts with the giants I stand upon the shoulders of, but because it is hard not to speculate about where humankind is going; whether we’ll last the decade, let alone the century. It is hard not to be pessimistic, but one thing I am sure about – the limitless power of the human imagination – and that gives me hope. While we have the freedom to imagine and express other futures, other ways of being in the world, there is always hope.
In Black Box, I wanted to look into the abyss, but I also wanted to offer a glimmer of light. I offer not another bleak dystopian vision of the future, nor a wildly optimistic utopia, but what Atwood terms an ‘Ustopia’ – for one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.
Of course it can be argued that novels, like poems, don’t really ‘change anything’, but they can offer an aesthetic, intellectual, emotional or moral counter-balance to the prevailing discourse of the times, an articulation of inarticulated or silenced voices, sobering thought experiments that project possible outcomes based upon current trends (often by taking things to their logical conclusion), or the healthiest form of escapism from the mad prison of the world (as Le Guin and Tolkien have pointed out). Science Fiction and Fantasy in particular facilitate this – by encouraging us to imagine what is beyond, what makes us human, and what is home, we can find a renewal of meaning and deepened appreciation for the fragile miracle of existence.
Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/
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.
With an increasing number of visitors drawn by the stunning scenery, lively nightlife, friendly locals, and fascinating history, Iceland really has become the coolest place on the planet and one of the hottest tourist destinations.
Iceland: Only Planet travel guide
Chapter 31: The Church
Eddy and Fenja emerged from the snake-hole on to a rubble-strewn street in Reykjavik. It was night and the light of a near-full moon shone through the cloud like a skull through water. The capital was nearly unrecognisable – the smouldering wrecks of cars and buses were blown on their sides, buildings were gaping ruins with jagged, blackened walls licked by flames. Massive craters smashed up sections of the street, making any kind of progress torturous. Flurries of snow, whipped up by biting wind, settled on tangled piles of corpses.
Eddy killed the engine and they scanned the dismal scene. A cold fist in his stomach: ‘Are we too late?’
Fenja’s eyes flamed in the dark. ‘No. Listen.’
Eddy took off his helmet and strained to sift the sounds carried on the wind – a fire raging somewhere, the fall of rubble, the eerie humanless silence. There. A gunshot. Another. The tell-tale roar of a bike.
‘The Wild Hunt.’
‘Go!’ Fenja commanded; Eddy already revving the engine.
They made their way to the sounds of the skirmish. In a sidestreet they came across three Wild Hunt bikers cornered by a white-clad Ice Force unit, faces hidden behind all-terrain deathmasks and Gogglestm . Their bumpstock attack rifles were making short work of them. Two already lay on the ground in a bloody heap, bikes crumpled against the wall.
Eddy could feel Fenja tense behind him, her hands closing in fists. She told him to pull over. He swung the snowmobile to a stop.
‘Hey, boys,’ she called out, leaping from the ride cat-like onto the blood-smeared snow.
As a dozen laser-sights turned to fix upon her, she slit the air before her open with a raking of her fingers. The walls of the street reverberated with the volley of fire, swallowed by the portal.
Silence suddenly fell, as the firing ceased, signalled by a curt gesture of the Ice Force officer.
‘Shot your load too soon, boys?’ Fenja stood there, and stretched luxuriously, yawning.
Out of the portal slits reached massive arms, which snatched the screaming men and dragged them back into the blue glow, rifles ejaculating a spray of bullets, or dropping crumpled to the ground. Only the officer remained, fending off the gigantic assailants with shock-grenades and blasts of his rifle, until two arms reached out and tore him apart, tossing the separated torso against the walls with a bloody smack and a smear of offal.
The portals closed with a sound like an inbreath.
The bikers looked at Fenja with terror, until they realised who she was. One of them was Cruz – leathers covered in dust and ash, snow and blood. She pulled up next to them on the battered superbike and gazed in wonder.
‘Fenja? And is that you, Red?’
‘We were out looking for supplies when they ambushed us. They’ve got patrols combing the city so stay sharp. Come! We need to get to church!’
Eddy followed Cruz and the other two bikers along the narrow street, which emerged onto a wider avenue, luminous in the moonlight. It felt open and exposed, but they had no choice – it led direct towards the ‘church’, as Cruz called it. At the end of the avenue could be glimpsed a massive pale cathedral, its featured rendered in moonlight. Before it, a square dominated by a statue. The whole area was surrounded by Ice Force operatives, who had lined up their heavy artillery at the famous landmark.
‘Why aren’t they attacking?’ asked Eddy.
‘Look!’ shouted Fenja, over the roar of the bikes.
Eddy could see a rainbow-like effect pass in front of the church. It was as though the whole square was sheathed in its own Aurora Borealis.
‘Rig’s work, no doubt.’ Fenja observed. ‘It looks like his power has grown!’
As they approached, they drew the attention of the look-outs. Heavy guns clanked and turned on them.
‘We’re going to get blown to pieces!’ cried Eddy.
‘Stay close!’ called back Cruz, who accelerated straight towards the enemy line.
The shellfire started to explode ahead and to the side of them. Test shots. Any second and they would be in the bullseye.
The bulbous prismatic membrane extended like an octopus shooting out a tentacle, and they rode into its protective sheath just as the shelling reached them. The ordnance exploded around them – angry burning eyes raging impotently against Rig’s shieldwall.
And they were in.
The entourage skidded to a halt at the foot of a bronze statue of a Viking. Eddy looked up and a wave of déjà vu hit him.
‘It’s Leif Eriksson,’ called Fenja.
They saw Rig standing on the plinth of the statue. He stood rigid with effort, arms stretched out. Beads of sweat trickled down his face. He nodded briefly at them.
They walked towards the cathedral, designed like volcanic columns or organ piping.
One-handed Tear, besmirched with battle, scanned the surrounding forces from the entrance. When he saw Eddy and Fenja he gave them a curt nod. ‘So you made it back, Redcrow.’
Eddy got off the snow-mobile, and gave Cruz a hug. ‘Yes.’
‘I hope, for your own sake, you brought the Runestone.’
‘Eddy is a man of his word. Let us speak to One Eye.’ Fenja demanded.
Tear sneered, but stepped to one side.
The interior of Hallgrimskirkja was high-roofed and austere. It had the pungent atmosphere of a temporary camp. Huddled within it was the Wild Hunt and a selection of the population, settled on and between the pews in small groups.
At the far end, facing the altar, sat One Eye and his two closest warriors, the brothers Will and Way, who watched them approach, rifles held loosely before them. The leader gazed up at the figure on the cross.
‘A man sacrifices himself for his people, hanging on a wooden cross … The end of the world is foretold in the sacred book. A new world will arise …’
Finally, One Eye noticed them. He seemed distant to Eddy, his tone fatalistic. ‘You have returned, Eddy Redcrow…’
‘Yes, I have …’
‘How was your journey?’ Still, he did not turn to meet his eye.
‘Long and hard. If not for Fen…’
‘Good, good. Journeys should be long and hard, otherwise, what is the point of them?’
Fenja grew impatient. ‘Snap out of it, you old fart! You have world to save!’
‘Ah, Bergrisar. I have missed you. But what world do you speak of? Midgard? This is not our world. We do not belong here. You, Jötunheim. Myself, I long to return to Asgard. There are many warriors there, waiting to feast with me.’
Fenja protested: ‘But what of the billions of lives on this world? Many of whom believe in you…’
‘Not so many these days, alas. There are people on that “Facebook” who have more followers than me.’
‘But still, you owe those who do. You cannot let Loki win!’ implored Fenja.
One Eye finally turned to them. ‘Nobody will win Ragnarok. Besides, what do you care, Frost-giant’s daughter?’
Fenja took Eddy’s hand. ‘I care for this man. He has shown me that humans have spirit. Some have great courage; great strength. But more than anything, they can teach us about love. Even you, One Eye, once felt it. Remember? Somewhere in your heart, there is a spark. We have all lost, all suffered. Do not let the lives of the fallen be in vain.’
One Eye got up and suddenly seemed to tower over them both. His brows furrowed and his gaze was terrible to behold – lightning coalesced in his eyes and the very building seemed to shake. ‘You are right, Fenja Bergrisar. You have found love at the end of the world. Perhaps that alone makes it worth saving…’ His gaze softened a little; his grim visage broke into a half-smile. His one eye glittered. ‘I suspect you two have a part to play in the story after the story… Now, where’s this stone?’
Eddy presented it to him.
One Eye scrutinised it, hands pouring over it. ‘Ah, good… Yes. Well done, Eddy Redcrow. My faith in you has been repaid. You are a true warrior of the Red and the White, and your part in this is not over. This runestone must be read out at Law Rock, Thingvollr. There we will make an end of it…’ He handed the tablet back. ‘Keep it safe.’ He called out to his gang members. ‘Let us draw the enemy fire away from these people. The Wild Hunt shall ride out one last time!’
President Koil has broadcast this recent message from his crisis command centre: ‘Citizens of the Free World – this is your president speaking. These are unusual times and they call for unusual measures. If you have seen giants walk the Earth do not be alarmed. My Frost Giant friends, the highest level of special, are helping with the security of our great nation. Keeping our country safe. The threat of Icesis has been met with ultimate force – the rebels are holding out in their stronghold of Reykjavik, but rest assured they will soon be neutralised. The USS Naglfar is at this moment engaged in hostilities. Some bleating liberals have complained about civilian casualties. All I say to that is: collateral damage. What price is freedom, people? We must hold to our resolve. The enemies of truth, justice and the American way are out there, plotting to over-run our country in the midst of this environmental crisis, made worse by the woolly policies of my predecessor. We should have been investing in our natural reserves of energy instead of squandering hard-earned tax-payers money on ‘wind’ and ‘wave’ and ‘solar’ power – what use is any of that now? We need coal, we need oil, and we need geothermal power, which Iceland has in bucket-loads by the way. They can’t keep it all to themselves. This unprecedented global crisis calls for unprecedented measures. Keep warm. Stay safe. Pray for your President. Good night.’
UPDATE: Ice Force units have already been deployed in the field in Iceland from the USS Naglfar, moored off shore. Units have been despatched to deal with the Icesis insurgents holed up in the capital, who have been accused of using the ‘human shield’ of Reykjavik population to hide behind.
Chapter 21: The Bone Road
Eddy looked out over the endless ice of the frozen ocean. Here he goes again… He must be a glutton for punishment! But he had two good reasons now to go, to undertake this suicidal endeavour: to return to his people; to find the runestone. When he was given the quest by One Eye Eddy had been torn at first. The whole point of going home was to stay there to protect his family, his community. But now he was going to have to turnaround and come right back – provided this mysterious stone could be found, if it even existed. Yet the Elders seemed convinced that somehow it would be pivotal in the great battle to come – and if it brought about the end of the terrible war of the gods currently devastating Earth then he would be saving his loved ones, perhaps more effectively than anything he could do, a rock musician, in Gimli. What use was an electric guitar against a frost giant?
Eddy stamped his feet, slapped his shoulders, trying to warm up a little. He checked the trailer again before remounting his bike. He cast one last look southeast, where the boom and flash of the battle made him shudder for his comrades. Yet it was the best cover he was going to get – now was the time to fly. The day had begun and he had a long way to go. He pulled on his helmet, and pressed the ignition, rolling the bike down onto the ice with great care.
Canada, here Icome! He prayed that Fenja’s hamingja would save his skinny red ass and get him home safe. He really was in the lap of the gods now.
The frozen surface of the sea vibrated disconcertingly with each shell blast from the bay, or was it the thunder and lightning ripping the sky apart? Eddy, grunting at the effort to keep his bike upright, hoped the Wild Hunt was giving as good as they got. They were not many to stand against the full might of Koil’s Ice Force, but they had gods on their side, even ones that were not as strong as they used to be. If only the rest of the world knew … many more would honour the Aesir and their might would increase. But their time had passed and this was the end of things. The best they all could hope for was to end it well.
Finally, the thunderous vibrations subsided and Eddy was left with just the sound of his bike and his breathing. He murmured a song to himself – one of Eddie Vedder’s, his musical hero. It really felt like he was going into the wild this time. But he was not completely alone – he had his upbringing and traditions to draw upon. Growing up in Manitoba, where the temperatures could drop to minus forty centigrade in the winter, he was not unfamiliar with extreme cold, and was probably better able to cope with it then most. Then he had skills taught to him by his beloved Dakotan grandfather – ice-fishing, by making a hole in the ice; hunting deer; building a shelter; starting a fire, even in the wet, with birch bark; navigating without a compass … essential survival skills, which he now realised were incredibly useful and precious. He breathed a heartfelt thank you to his grandfather, who suddenly felt very close. He could hear him now, Running Bear, telling him his wild stories on their trips into the backcountry about Ictinike the Liar, Rabbit Boy, giants and ogres, White Buffalo Woman, the Thunderer … The old man always took a while to open up. It normally took a few hours of trekking. He had never been a great teller, but in his gruff, matter-of-fact way, enthralled his grandson all the same. Eddy smiled, realising that perhaps the White and the Red Roads weren’t that dissimilar after all.
He made good time in the morning, covering a hundred bleak miles. He pulled over at an iceberg, frozen into the ice-locked sea, and in its shelter, he poured himself some coffee and had a snack.
So far, so good.
Iceland was no longer in sight. The horizon was dead flat in every direction. Eddy thought of Gunnar, his other grandfather of Icelandic descent, who had died when he was a teenager. Unlike Running Bear, Gunnar was a natural storyteller who couldn’t open his mouth without spinning a yarn. He remembered the outlandish stories he told about the Norse gods, stories from the ‘old sagas’, as he called them. He always swore he knew someone who was descended from the gods and heroes mentioned, ‘back in the old country’. The story that had thrilled the young Eddy most was old Gunnar’s account of the Viking discovery of America. He recalled it now, as it gained fresh relevance…
‘Once there was a hapless sailor called Biarne Herjulfson who set sail from Iceland to Greenland, a hard country where some of our people had settled. Biarne had little knowledge of the winds or waters he navigated and was soon lost in fog thicker than your grandmother’s broth. Nevertheless, he pushed onwards and managed to miss Greenland entirely, which was very impressive, as it’s larger than your grandmother’s behind (but don’t tell her I said so). Finally, after many weary days of blind sailing, the fog cleared and the sailors found themselves off the coast of a fair land – hills green with pine, not mountains pointy with ice as he had expected. They did not make landfall, but sailed on to another. The sailors, desperate for firm land beneath their feet, said they should make landfall, but Biarne refused and they continued. After five more days at sea, they finally made it to Greenland and were relieved to see the huts of their own people on the coast.
‘The story does not end there, oh no. Pour your grandfather another vodka – don’t tell you’re your grandmother – and he’ll tell you more. So. When Biarne visited the court of Eric, Earl of Norway, he related his strange journey over the feast, as the mead flowed, poured by the comeliest of maidens. Ah, where was I? Yes! This account was finally heard by the son of Eric the Red, Leif Ericcson, who had colonised Greenland. Leif paid Biarne for his ship and with a crew of thirty five men (including a German named Tyrker) he set sail in search of the mysterious land found by Biarne. His skills as a sailor were far better and Leif had soon discovered the first land Biarne had encountered. It was a barren place, which he called ‘Hellu-land’, the ‘Land of the Flat Stones’ upon landing. They set sail southwards and came to a low-lying wooded country, which, as his foot touched the shore, he called ‘Mark-land’, or the ‘Land of Trees’. They put out to sea again and finally came to a strait lying between an island and a promontory. Here they made landfall and raised huts. The land was fairer in aspect and climate than Greenland – a loving bride as opposed to a reluctant one. Leif split the party in two – he led one, the German led another. Tyrker went missing, but they found him eventually, excited at the discovery of vines laden with grapes, just like his homeland. Loading the ship with the fruit and with fresh timber, they set sail in the spring away from the country Leif called ‘Vin-land’, the ‘Land of wine.’ Leif Ericsson returned to Greenland with news of his discoveries and it was recorded in the annals. Five hundred years before Christopher Columbus Leif Ericsson had discovered Canada and America: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England.’
Eddy smiled at the memory – his Icelandic grandfather getting livelier as the story progressed. His tolerance of alcohol was legendary and he drank the stuff like water. Yet it had killed him in the end. His stories lived on in Eddy’s memory, and he thanked Gunnar for them. They would keep him going, along with his Dakota grandfather’s skills, over the coming days.
Eddy ploughed on, praying his bike wouldn’t let him down. He did not fancy his chances for surviving long out on the ice, hundreds of miles from land, even with the skills and stories of his grandfathers. Remembering the kiss of Fenja warmed his though – boy, he needed her hamingja now! So many things could go wrong with the bike, with him – after all, he was just as likely to break down as the machinery under him. He had maintenance supplies for both on his trailer – food, coffee, vodka, cooking gear, toolkit, spare fuel, spare clothing, a tent, and an all-season sleeping bag. The crater community had been most generous. Perhaps they had just been relieved to see them go, to have the Wild Hunt draw the wrath of Koil away from them.
Eddy thought about the President. Loki! It felt right, by the crazy bullshit he kept coming out with, the increasingly ‘mad dog’ way he had been acting since getting into power. If one man had been responsible for bringing down this shit-storm on Earth, it was Koil. He must not win. Eddy would do all he could to stop him, for what it was worth!
The president must be shaking in his boots!
The following days passed in a blur of vibration, stillness, snatched sleep, caffeine, and prayers. Eddy rode a hard sixteen hours a day, averaging around five hundred miles. He made decent progress, but he could feel the toll the extreme conditions were taking on his body and on his bike. And his mind. Eddy was haunted by the possible fate of his family, his friends, and of his comrades back in Iceland. The winds howling across the ice at night sounded like their voices.
On day five Eddy’s way was abruptly stopped by a massive crack in the ice, a lightning bolt in negative, stretching as far as the eye could see. He parked up and got stiffly off the bike, pulling off his helmet. Shielding his eyes against the glare, he stared down into the waters churning away beneath the broken ice – the furious sea, straining to break free of its icy fetters.
Eddy kicked a block of ice, roaring in frustration. It went skidding over the frozen surface like a puck. Sighing, he got back on the bike, and, after a moment’s hesitation rode northwards along the fissure. His heart was racing wildly. He hoped that somewhere the gap would be small enough for him to cross. Every mile out of his way added time to his already long journey. Time he couldn’t afford to waste. His supplies, his gas, would only last so long.
He rode on for a desperate couple of hours until finally he saw something that made his heart leap. At a point where the fissure narrowed there was an ice bridge, formed by large fragments which had splintered off and refrozen, wedging themselves against one another. It looked hazardous, to say the least, but it was the only chance he had.
He took the bike on a wide arc, giving himself sufficient distance to build up enough speed – and revved the engine.
Muttering a prayer to the gods of the Northmen and the Dakota, he gunned the bike forward.
Just before he hit the edge of the bridge, a giant figure burst from the ice-flo. It was a female, going by her barnacled dugs. Seaweed hair hung down in long, dripping tresses over skin the colour of a walrus. From her wide mouth protruded two huge tusks. Eyes as black as a seals looked curiously at him as she thrashed in the water, a bather coming up for air. By instinct alone, he was able to swing the bike in an averting skid just in time – the bike coming to a stop inches from the freezing waters. The counter-swing of the trailer threatened to pull him in but he punched the release cable at the last second.
‘No!’ he cried.
Eddy watch in dismay, as the precious trailer skimmed onto the waters, coming to a stop in front of the giantess, who caught it in her hand.
‘Ahh, offerings… Poor Modgud does not get many in this age!’ the giantess complained, her voice like grinding icebergs.
Eddy killed the engine and, trembling, got off the bike. He pulled off his helmet, letting his long dark hair fly.
‘What a racket you make! Modgud has not heard such, even when the grey armies of the dead in their ship of nail-clippings passed this way. They were silent, compared to you, but they cut through the ocean’s skin with their big iron ships…’
Eddy’s mind whirled – did the giantess talk of phantoms, or of Koil’s Navy, on its way to Iceland?
Tilting her misshapen head, Modgud blinked. Looked closer. ‘But you do not have their pallor… You have too much colour in you. Red blood … What business have you – crossing the Bone Road?’
Eddy had to think quickly. ‘I wish to visit my ancestors. I … miss them.’
‘Miss them, mmm. Family is everything, is it not?’ The giantess seemed lost in wistful thoughts for a while. Eddy did not want to move, in case she took it the wrong way. One swipe of those arms and he would be mince-meat. ‘Since you have been nice to Modgud, and brought her presents, she will let you pass. Come, cross the pretty bridge she has built. Modgud will not let you fall.’
Eddy bowed – unsure what else to do – and quickly got back on his bike. He felt sick at leaving his supplies, but he had little choice. He turned the bike about and directed it towards the fragile bridge, which the giantess held up.
Heart in mouth, he crossed within feet of her, smelling the rotten fish breath of on her mouth. Pulling the bridge apart, she clacked her tusks and dragged the trailer under the water.
Eddy pressed on.
He prayed he had enough petrol to reach home. As for his own sustenance – he would just have to live off thin air. At least he had not ended up as Modgud’s supper.
Extract from Thunder Road by Kevan Manwaring
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020
If you like what you read why not buy me a coffee?
Calling anyone who can hear… This is Radio Free Reykjavik, broadcasting on shortwave in the hope a few dedicated radio hams out there will pick us up, and get in touch. The capital has been hit bad by the severe weather, but small, self-sufficient communities are fairing better. Our’s – about four hundred good souls – is based within an extinct volcanic crater with geothermal power keeping us going. We’re aware that our imagined sanctuary may well be our tomb. The recent devastating eruption here in Iceland of the evil sorceress, Katla, which has taken a terrible toll on our island, was only the start… Since then we’ve been experiencing a nuclear winter, and an escalating series of geostorms. The scientific consensus seems to be that these are an inevitable manifestation of Climate Change – which the massive eruption has just accelerated beyond the dreaded, long predicted, tipping point. The Earth’s eco-system is in an unprecedented state of disruption. Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes are devastating coastal regions around the world. Contact has been lost with London, New York, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro. There are wild accounts on the radio waves of giants walking the land, creatures attacking isolated communities… There is a lot of fear and panic out there. We can only survive by working together. Stay close to your loved ones. Help the vulnerable. Check your area for those who may be struggling. If you are in the Icelandic area, get in touch. We have limited resources, but we may be able to help one another. United we stand. Do not believe the propaganda about terrorist cells using our country as a base or stepping stone to America. We are just ordinary people, trying to survive. The only true terrorists still in operation are the ones in control of the remaining channels. They have used the pretext of the global emergency to seize total power. The takeover has begun, but while we live and breathe we will continue to resist. Stay safe. Pray for the world. This is humanity’s darkest hour, but we can rekindle hope. Do not let the light in your heart go out. Þetta reddast. We are repeating this broadcast every hour.
Chapter 19: The Crater
With the ravens leading the way, the Wild Hunt rode up onto the black shingle of the beach, their first solid land for over nine hundred miles. Pulling up beneath the dark, muscular cliffs, they got off their bikes, stretched, stamped their feet and rubbed their hands. One fell to the ground and went to kiss a glassy black tongue of rock, pulling back quickly: ‘It’s hot!’
Tear knelt and tested it with his palm, holding it there while gritting his teeth. ‘Fresh lava. From a recent eruption.’ He stood up, and cast his flint-and-steel eyes over the grotesque bulbous formations of the headland – like something half-formed, half-melted. ‘This is … new land. Iceland’s been extended.’
‘Mind yourselves! This place is cooking!’ called Rig.
After the freezing crossing, the geothermal warmth of the newly-forged landscape was most welcome, and the bikers huddled by the bulbous outcrops, letting the heat thaw out their numb limbs.
Eddy estimated they were down to a couple of hundred. Over the last week they had lost half their number – but then it had been one Hell of a week. Who knows how many have died in this great winter, he wondered? Millions, probably. It was hard times for planet Earth, that was for sure.
But for now, all that mattered was – they had made it.
One Eye slowly dismounted from his Sleipnir, taking it all in. ‘Full circle…’ he murmured. On the back of his bike his daughterson was lashed, covered with furs. The president tenderly stroked this, briefly, then turned to the group. ‘Thank Freya for our safe passage,’ he spoke, his voice bouncing off the glassy surface of the rocks. ‘We have lost many of our brothers and sisters and more … but we have survived. We shall live on to continue the fight.’
Their leader survived the ragged band – frost-bitten, dog-tired, bikes battered, hauling their dead. ‘First we must rest. Let us find shelter and sustenance. These Icelanders are a hardy breed, and I have a feeling they would have fared better than most.’
Eddy took one last look at the ice. His mind reeled at the vista. They had ridden halfway across the Atlantic!
They had suffered much, lost much … The Hammer, Blitzen, others … Had it been worth it? As he got back on his bike, and turned the ignition, he hoped so.
As they took the coast-road – just about discernible amid the deep snow drifts – they discovered that many of the parts of the interior had been devastated by lava flows. Whole towns had been overrun by the obsidian waves of cooling lava, expiring in the white oblivion of the frozen sea.
The tops of houses, comms towers and pylons, church steeples and fishing vessels masts protruded at random angles from the igneous glacier. It chilled Eddy to think of how many islanders were entombed within also.
The Wild Hunt had to scramble over these protruding flow forms where they blocked the coastal road – tricky riding over icy fissures, which scuppered more than one biker. They were all exhausted, which did not help.
‘We must find shelter soon! We need to rest!’ shouted Rig.
‘Where are you leading us, One Eye?’ harangued Tear, impatiently.
The leader pointed to the smouldering crater on the horizon. ‘There.’
Wearily the company rode on towards the dark mass of the crater. The landscape appeared an icy wildness, with little sign of shelter, of life. It felt to Eddy as though they were the ones who had died, who crossed the lands of the dead. Perhaps the whole world had.
The torrent of recent lava had transmogrified the landscape into a gallery of grotesque pyromorphs – their black silohouettes standing out against the surrounding snowscape. They snagged the corner of Eddy’s eye, making him do double-takes, as they looked uncannily like figures, frozen mid-action. A snap of the fingers, and allacazam, they would all come to life: attacked by a legion of magma-zombies, he chuckled nervously. It was hard to shake off the feeling they were being watched as they passed through the silent valley.
A cry from the front broke his reverie.
The excitement was caused by the columns of sulphurous steam – rising from the pools amid the rocky landscape, the first they had seen completely free of ice and snow. A great fountain of steaming water erupted from a bubbling pool, spraying them with a hot mist, even from a distance.
‘Geysers!’ Eddy shouted. ‘Cool!’
The bikers pulled up, and started to strip off. There was laughter and sighs, as weary bodies slipped into the deliciously warm water away from the hotter pools. Eddy gratefully joined them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a hot bath or shower; the last time he had felt properly warm. Sol had saved them on that icy road, but there had been always part of him that was numb, that was damp, that was chilled to the bone. Now, his aching limbs thanked him as they thawed out. ‘Aaaaahhhhh…’
Lost in bliss, Eddy lay back and looked up at the swirling steam, thinking of Fenja – in his mind’s eye, she was dancing in the veils of vapour. How he missed her! He longed for her touch. What was the point in surviving in a world without love, he pondered? The thought was lost in the sheer, animal pleasure of the hot water easing out the knots in his tired muscles.
The atmosphere suddenly, dramatically shifted. Figures in ski-masks or balaclavas, wearing a combination of arctic survival gear, thick patterned sweaters, quilted jackets, overalls, and wielding a random selection of hunting rifles, appeared out of the mist – and had them quickly surrounded.
The Elders were naked in the pool like the rest of the Wild Hunt. In their extreme fatigue, no one had thought to post guards. Weapons lay within reach, but One Eye held up his brawny, tattooed arms.
One of the gunmen barked something at One Eye in a harsh, guttural tongue that sounded like a glacier gouging out a rocky landscape.
One Eye responded fluently, gesturing to the rest of them. Through his body language, Eddy guessed their leader was trying to explain their presence, their current state. Whoever these people were, they clearly were in better shape than they. No obvious transport was discernible, so they must be dwelling nearby.
The gunman who seemed to be in charge, lifted up his mask, to reveal a middle-aged man with a thin weathered face, a blond goatee with streaks of silver, and fiercely alert eyes. His companions did not lower their guns – fingers trembling over the triggers.
Eddy realised they were more afraid of them, these strangers from over the ice.
‘You’re offlanders, that’s plain to see. How did you get here? What do you want?’ Their leader barraged them with questions now in strangely-accented English.
One Eye, to his credit, was a smooth-talker. ‘We’ve come to end this war, and it looks like you need some help, Radio Free Reykyavik.’
The leader raised an eyebrow.
‘My ravens hear everything on the airwaves. And tell me all. I recognise your voice.’
Wrong-footed, but curious, the leader jabbed his gun. ‘Go on…’
‘Loki and his deadly crew seek the destruction of humankind – he’d make Midgard his world, if he could. The trickster has summoned all the dark forces in his power to bring about humankind’s destruction – Fenrir the wolf, Jormungandr the Serpent, Thrym and the Frost Giants, and Hel herself.’
‘These are old stories you talk of, the Eddas. We tell them on long nights to pass the time.’
One Eye rose from the steaming water, and the Elders did the same – naked, but radiating power. They stepped up onto the rock, unafraid of the weapons pointing at them, towering over the gunmen – who nervously thrust their barrels at them.
‘They are not just stories,’ smiled One Eye, lightning in his eye. ‘And Loki rules this world, make no mistake. While we slumbered, forgetting our glory, he did not. He worked his magic, shapechanging, deceiving, using his silver-tongue to rise in power. The ultimate politician. He dominates this world now with his dark allies.’
The Icelander’s eyes widened.
‘Yes, you know him… President Koil.’
‘Are you saying … the US president is the … Trickster God?’
‘Sounds about right,’ said one of the figures, and the others laughed, easing the tension a little.
One Eye dried himself down and started to put on his clothes. ‘He sends his death-ship to destroy this last pocket of resistance, and my Wild Hunt,’ he gestured to the bikers, ‘are all that stand between you and your extinction. Are you going to help us, or stand in our way?’
The Icelanders led them, once they were dressed, to their settlement, hidden deep in the mountains. They rode their bikes dead slow through an old lava tunnel that opened out into what looked like an old volcanic crater. Steam vents issued from cracks in the rocks, creating a micro-climate that was a welcome relief after the shock of the cold getting out of the pools. The warm glow in Eddy’s limbs would only last so long, but now there was the prospect of proper shelter. There was a whole village of cabins within the crater – modern, robust designs with tall roofs and heavy eaves to protect from avalanches. On the porches, men, women and children looked warily at these new arrivals. The bikers parked in the central circle around a flagpole where a storm-battered Icelandic flag fluttered. There were polytunnels heated geothermically, brimming with vegetables, a shower block and laundry, bakery and brewery, smokery and a small hall. Eddy was impressed. If anyone was going to survive this Great Winter, it was these people.
The leader, who introduced himself as Guðmundur, showed them the empty cabins where they could stay. ‘We were expecting more, but not everybody made it,’ was all he said to the bikers. ‘Tonight, after dinner, let us meet in the hall. There is much to discuss.’
Before they could all rest they had burials to take care of.
Rig gathered the riders. Standing next to him were the heathens, dressed for a trek.
‘The faithful here know a place they think would be right for our dead…’ He pointed up to the rim of the crater. ‘They’re going to guide us there.’
Biers were quickly improvised and the bodies of the fallen who had not been lost in the ice were strapped to them, and then carried by teams of two (or four, in The Hammer’s case) up the steep, narrow path which zigzagged up the inside of the crater. The ground was friable and they had to tread carefully.
Eventually, after a good hour of effort, they stood on the lip of the volcanic crater, which plummeted dizzingly below. The buildings of the community looked like models.
Around them columns of steam steadily rose from fissures.
‘Is this entirely safe?’ asked Eddy, feeling the need to address the elephant in the room.
Sol turned to him, beaming a smile. ‘This god sleeps – behold his dreams.’
Eddy gazed into the broiling clouds. Whatever this particular god was dreaming, it was as confusingly obscure as his own – except for when Fenja came to him, but they felt less like dreams, than visions.
The bikes lined up along the rim. The bodies lay by the precipice.
One Eye finally spoke. ‘We will raise two mounds here. One for The Hammer, to represent all the Elders we lost – Honer, Niggard… The other mound will be for the patches.’
With Rig and Tear overseeing the construction of the two mounds, the group set to work. It was biting, high up, exposed to the glacial winds, but the slog of carrying stones soon warmed them up. Slowly, the two mounds grew – ‘Hammer’s Hump’, as the bikers started to refer to it, double in size to the ‘Patches Pimple’. The gallows humour helped them cope with the grimness of the task.
Finally it was done. Exhausted, they stood in a silent arc before them both.
The leader looked even grimmer than usual. The summoning of the lightning had clearly taken it out of him. Since then he had drawn into himself, saving what power he had left for the battle to come. His voice was strained and was hard to catch above the icy wind that swept over the edge and down the conical slope.
‘We consign the bodies of our friends, our comrades, and my daughterson … to the gods. They died noble deaths. May they be welcomed into Valhalla.’
The Wild Hunt, silent in their grief, descended.
The wake would have to wait. Much to their dismay, the crater community was a ‘dry’ one. And so the bikers sat down to break bread – grateful for a hot meal, at least.
Conversation was subdued. Except for the Heathens, the community looked on the bikers with suspicion; and the bikers for once were in low spirits: the crossing, and their losses, had killed the usual feisty camaraderie. Everyone felt the chill of mortality all too closely.
Afterwards, Eddy helped clear up his table. The whole operation was done with impressive efficiency – the community working together like a well-made clock. Everyone was responsible for washing up their own plate, cutlery and one item of cookware. Everything was replaced back in the cupboards. Table surfaces were wiped, floors swept, coffee served with wedges of brownie, and after a sweet song from a group of the youngsters, who had been learning in their class that day, the meeting got under way. Goðmundur and the other elders of the community – a stern-faced looking bunch – sat at the end of the hall. One Eye and the Wild Hunt sat a little awkwardly in the centre, as the rest watched on. The hubbub died down as Goðmundur got to his feet. He waited until there was complete silence. ‘We are here to discuss the arrival of our new guests,’ spoke Goðmundur, his voice soft, calm, but authoritative. ‘Let all speak who wishes to, but first let us here from our guests.’
One Eye stood up and put on his most agreeable manner. ‘First of all, we’d like to thank you for the lovely meal you have kindly offered us. Compliments to the chefs.’ He raised his mug. ‘And to the soft beds, which will be most welcome. We have come very far and have endured much. It is not just the climate which is hostile to life at the moment. There are many dark forces threatening to destroy humankind. I suspect you must have seen evidence of them here too. Monsters walk the earth and, despite our rough appearances, we are not some of them. We are here to help save you.’
‘Save us, or bring our doom?’ shouted a white-haired woman with a thin-face. ‘I have lived long, and that is because I know trouble when I see it. Your ‘Wild Hunt’ reek of the Devil!’ She sat down to murmurs of consent, but also the odd groan of familiar contempt.
An older man with a full beard got to his feet next. ‘We do not mean disrespect, but we are a God-fearing people here–‘
‘Speak for yourself!’ shouted a younger man with a shaven head, wearing a hoodie bearing an Anarchist ‘A’.
The older man raised his hands placatingly. ‘Most of us are. But we tolerate other faiths, or the lack of them, within reason.’
‘Within reason!’ gasped a dark haired woman. ‘How gracious of you! The Goddess is honoured here too … and the Old Gods.’
A small contingent of the community in the corner banged their fists of the tables. Eddy noticed their hairstyles were similar to the bikers – long, with shaven sides, plaits, prominent jewellery – and some sported suspicious tattoos.
One Eye smiled at this, nodding to them.
The older man took a breath and continued. ‘We are a broad church, as you can see, but … there are families here with small children, daughters. Our precious flock we have kept safe from the worst ravages of these End-times, but how safe will they be when we invite wolves into our pasture?’
Many of the community sounded their approval at this. The old man sat down, satisfied. Others argued with him.
One Eye watched them all with his eye glinting like an eagle’s. He waited for them all to stop, then he spoke again, his voice low. ‘There are worse monsters than wolves out there now, believe me. Who will protect you from them?’
‘Our prayers will protect us from them!’ cried out the white-haired woman, holding her hands up. Others nodded, and bowed their heads, hands clasped.
‘I am not dismissing the power of prayer by any means,’ spoke One Eye, ‘but often the situation requires something more … full bloodied.’
‘He means heathen sacrifice!’ gasped someone, blood draining from their face.
‘I’m not averse to offerings,’ interjected One Eye, and the Wild Hunt laughed, ‘but I am talking about direct action. Fire-power.’
One of the Heathens got to his feet. ‘We have warriors here, sir. Ready to fight. Fire with fire.’
One Eye acknowledged the hotspur. ‘I’m glad to hear it, and I am sure you would be able to stand your own against raiders, but Jötun? Jet fighters? They were raining hellfire down upon us, out there!’
‘So he admits it!’ called out another. ‘He brings danger to our doorstep! The sooner they leave the better!’ The atmosphere in the room became tainted with panic.
‘Believe in us, and we can protect you!’ decried One Eye.
‘Look at them!’ shouted another. ‘They cannot even protect themselves!’ Many voices were raised then.
Wearily One Eye sat back down.
Goðmundur finally stood up, and waved for quiet. ‘Our community is open to all good souls, but the truth is, there are so many of you, and your presence puts a strain on our limited resources. Everyone must contribute. We are simple folk –farmers, fishermen, craftspeople, used to making a living from the land, the sea, from our livestock, our own hands. Forgive me sir, but your people do not look like the … sort who would be happy to settle down and … do your share of the chores.’
Eddy blew out his cheeks. Catching the eyes of Cruz, he indicated the door and she nodded, clearly desperate to get away too. As the debating continued, they slipped out into the fresh air.
‘Jeez, that was a drag!’ Eddy joined Cruz by the flag-pole, where she had lit up.
He cadged a roll-up from her, and cradled its warmth.
The circle of bikes looked out of place, surrounded by the eco-houses.
‘Aya! We no’ belong here. We must go. Vamoose!’
Eddy took a long draw, savouring the warm smoke in his throat. ‘I doubt there are many places as set up as this place, but you can see their point. We draw bad luck to us like some kind of shit magnet. This Koil is out to get us. These are good people. We should leave them in peace.’
‘But don’t you see – there will be no peace, until he … and his kind … are defeated!’ Cruz bristled. ‘The Wild Hunt is the only chance humanity has!’
‘An outlaw biker gang – saviours of planet Earth? Seems unlikely doesn’t it?’
‘But we have the Elders! You’ve seen what they can do, Red! The mother of all battles is about to take place, and you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight!’
Eddy blew smoke up into the sky, letting it mingle with the dissipating columns from the steam vents.
‘The thing is, I’m not sure I belong here either. With the Wild Hunt, I mean. It’s been one helluva ride, but … when the chips are down you stick with your own kind, yeah?’
Cruz turned on him, scowling. ‘What do you mean, Red?’
‘I’ve … got to get back to my tribe. My family. They need me. Who is protecting them?’
‘We’re your family now! Blood has been spilled. We’ve fought side-by-side. Road the frost bridge! Lost Dash! Blitzen! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?’
Eddy nodded. ‘Of course. I will never forget. And if the gods are willing, I shall return to you. But I have to do this.’
Cruz stubbed her fag out with the heel of her boot. ‘Then you had better ask One Eye. Rather you than me!’ And she walked off.
Eddy finished his smoke, pondering Cruz’s reaction. She was so angry with him! Perhaps it was for reasons beyond loyalty to the club… Who knows? He chuckled to himself. Hell hath no fury! But he’d rather face that than the wrath of One Eye, any day.
Time to face the music, Eddy. He must ask permission – but what if it was denied? He would have to go anyway, but would they let him? He had taken the vow, he wore the colours. To them, his first priority should always be to the club.
He picked at the raw skin on the back of his poor frost-bitten hand. He turned it over and saw the white scar of the burn on the palm and smiled, before closing it into a fist. Blood is thicker than water. He had honoured the white in him. Now it was time to honour the red.