Extract / Preview: Path of Gods by Snorri Kristjansson

CB - JF - Jul - Path of Gods

Prologue

The clouds parted, and just for a moment, the winter sun shone down on the smooth snow. What might have been tracks were now no more than ridges on a blue-white surface. A depression suggested that there might be a cave in the hillside, but it had long since been snowed in. The hills, solid and silent, looked down on houses that had once stood in defiance of nature; havens of warmth and safety in the unforgiving land.
Now they were just empty.
A strong gust rolled down into the valley, lifting white flakes from the ground and up, up, into whirling clouds of crisp, sparkling specks.
They settled on roofs already covered in sheets of ice. They danced around black, barren  branches.

*
They covered frozen purple and grey fingers of dead men strewn about between the houses with arms stuck out at odd angles. Severed limbs draped in tendrils of black, frozen blood poked out of drifts. Where there were faces, they were carved in frost and horror.

The silence was broken by a sharp, painful creak as the door to the longhouse inched open, screaming on bent hinges.

A tall man stepped out onto the front step. His grey robes swirled about him, but he did not look touched by the cold. A wide-brimmed hat hung down to cover his right eye, but the left one gleamed as he took in the surroundings. Under a scraggly white beard, dried and cracked skin moved as his stony face broke into a smile.

‘So that’s how you want it to be,’ he said to the wind.

High up in the sky to the south, two black dots appeared, growing bigger by the moment, spreading their wings and swooping down towards the man on the steps. Cawing loudly, the ravens landed with smooth grace at the man’s feet. He looked at them and raised an eyebrow. The big birds hopped towards him then flapped their wings and rose until they had settled, one on each shoulder. Behind him, the door creaked again as two big dogs padded out of the longhouse.

‘Then that’s how it is,’ the old man said, and started walking, following six pairs of footprints, heading to the South.

 

SOUTH SWEDEN

DECEMBER, AD 996

 

For a moment everything stood still, etched in grey on black: dark forms looming in the shadows, hovering on the edge between moonlight and darkness. At the head of the half-visible army Sven and Sigurd Aegisson stood over the deer carcase, looking at the two travellers. The chieftain and his right-hand man looked leaner, somehow, and older, but more  alive.

Frozen halfway through drawing his sword, Ulfar could do nothing but stare. As his brain caught up, he started recognising other faces from Stenvik. He could see at least fifty of them, and there were obviously more in the shadows. Sven, front and centre, turned to Sigurd. ‘See? I told you the boy would turn out well. That’s the best impression of an idiot I’ve seen in a long time.’

Sigurd spared him a faint smile, then, nodding to Audun, he walked towards the fire and sat down. Behind him, the silent warriors started moving with purpose. A handful, still eerily quiet, drifted back into the forest. Sven directed two men towards the deer. Knives flashed, and the scent of blood soon drifted towards the fire.

Easing as gracefully as he could out of his fighting stance, Ulfar finally managed, ‘What – what news of Stenvik?’ Sliding his blade back into the scabbard, he sat down by the   fire.

‘King Olav took the town as his own,’ Sven said as he sat down too. ‘He spared our lives, no thanks to Harald, but he demanded that we bend the knee to him and the White Christ. The boys were all smart enough to nod and smile.’

‘He couldn’t let us walk around because he thought we’d stir up trouble,’ Sigurd said.

‘Which, to be fair, was correct,’ Sven added.

‘And he didn’t have the stomach for the work. So he kept us locked up,’ Sigurd said.

‘And great fun it was, too,’ Sven said. ‘If I get the choice next time and the other option is a cage with a wolf, I’m taking the wolf.’ He gestured to another silent, bearded man who stepped into the circle, added some more kindling and blew gently until he was rewarded with a small but sturdy flame. As he moved away the flame disappeared for a moment, then the glow returned and quickly doubled in size, growing even more as warriors continued bringing firewood from the forest.

‘Then why are you here?’ Audun said.

‘Valgard poisoned us,’ Sigurd  said.

Audun and Ulfar exchanged glances, then looked at Sven. The old man’s eyes told them all they needed to know.

‘How—?’ Audun asked. By the other fire in the clearing, some- thing sizzled and soon the smell of roast meat filled Ulfar’s nostrils.

‘He brought us our food. We ate it. Laced with shadowroot – well masked, too. I did taste it, but too late. The next we knew, we were being dug up.’

Audun shivered and looked over his shoulder. ‘Who dug you up?’

‘A traveller,’ Sigurd said, and Ulfar mouthed the words as they came out of the old chieftain’s mouth: ‘Tall, grey hair, beard. Big hat.’ He had to stop as he was handed a dagger with a chunk of roast deer on the point. Sven continued, ‘He said he’d been passing through when he heard these two men talk about getting rid of some bodies. I’m not clear on the details, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he saved our  lives.’

‘I bet he did,’ Ulfar muttered. He glanced at Audun, who looked similarly  suspicious.  ‘Then what?’

‘We had some debts to pay,’ Sigurd said. Suddenly the silence in the glade deepened. ‘So we did. Then we left to find Forkbeard, and now we’re here.’

‘Forkbeard?’ Audun said.  ‘Why?’

‘Because Olav has gone north,’ Sven said. ‘He’s in Trondheim now. If he digs in up there he’ll double his army in no time and then we’re stuck with him. Hakon was happy to sit on his peasants up north, but I doubt that the kinglet will be as pleasant. We need to convince Sweyn Forkbeard that he’ll be better off facing King Olav now, before he goes out west again to collect. If he doesn’t, he’ll be defending the shores of Denmark from cross-bearing Norse madmen in two years, maybe less.’

‘So all roads lead north, then,’ Ulfar said as another man handed him a chunk of roasted meat.

‘They always do, son,’ Sven said. ‘They always   do.’

 

Morning brought thick grey skies and a bitter wind. Sigurd’s men kept talking to a minimum; they were up and ready at daybreak. ‘Here, take this,’ Sven said as Ulfar and Audun clambered to their feet. In the old man’s outstretched hand were thick-spun woollen trousers and tunics. ‘You look like the runts of a litter of runts.’

Looking at Audun and himself, Ulfar had to concede the point. Travelling had taken a lot out of the both of them; their clothes were torn and bloody, and they both looked years older than they had only four short months   ago.

‘Thank you,’ he said.

‘It’s not for your benefit,’ Sven said. ‘You’re harder to fatten up if you’re cold, and we need something to throw at Forkbeard if he’s hungry.’

‘And your bony old arse won’t do,’ Ulfar replied as he struggled into  the  new clothes.

‘My bony old arse will do more than yours does,’ Sven batted back. ‘I’ve got a hundred hard bastards behind me. You’ve just got a  mopey blacksmith.’

Ulfar smiled. ‘That’s about right. But don’t worry – you’ll pick up more men soon and then we’ll be even. I’d say about seventy more sounds fair.’

Sven chortled and grinned at Audun, who shrugged.

Soon enough they were dressed and ready, and Ulfar asked, ‘Where are you looking for  Forkbeard?’

‘I reckon we’ll do what we’ve been doing: find the nearest burned-out farm and track him from there,’  Sven  said.  There was nothing more to say, so they headed off, threading their way through the tall birch trees.

The grey sky turned from wool to milk to dirty ice but the sun kept resolutely out of sight. When they cleared the forest they saw fields dusted with white stretching far into the distance, rising and rolling gently away from them. A single-track dirt road cut across the landscape like a  scar.

The sun was straight above them when Ulfar spoke. ‘I don’t like this quiet.’

‘It was fine until you ruined it,’  Audun   said.

‘Where there’s roads there’s people, but we haven’t seen a single soul all morning,’ Ulfar muttered. ‘We might as well be alone in the world.’

‘Don’t worry, son. Trouble will find us,’ Sven said from the front of the line. ‘It usually does.’ They walked on in silence as the clouds above thickened into a dark grey mass. ‘Any time now,’ the old rogue muttered darkly, and sure enough, the first flakes of snow soon fluttered down from above. ‘Bloody snow,’ he added. ‘Just like you, Ulfar: pretty but useless.’

‘You say that, but at least I can— No, you’re right. You forgot annoying, though,’ Ulfar said.

‘Sven,’ Sigurd said. The tone of his voice made the men around him snap to attention immediately.

Two hundred yards ahead of them a fox had wandered out of a thicket and was standing stock-still, sniffing at the air. It ignored the group of men and stared around; it looked almost as if it was listening to a silent tune.

The eagle struck almost too fast for the eye to see. The fox yelped and fought, but it was no use. Powerful wings beat about its head, a strong beak tore at its ears, finger-thick talons dug into its back and clamped down on its spine. The eagle strained, and slowly the fox’s paws lifted off the ground. A screech tore the air as another eagle approached and also latched on to the terrified  fox.

The Stenvik raiders watched, stunned, blood dripping onto the snow from above as the two huge birds flew away, tearing at the screeching  animal  caught  between them.

‘Get moving! Now!’ Sigurd shouted, and behind him the group of hardened warriors snapped to and trudged on. Around them, Ulfar could hear snatches of muttered conversation.

‘—never seen anything like that—’

‘—eagles hunting a fox? And two of them?’

‘—the stars ain’t right, I’m telling you—’

The talk died down as they walked, but Ulfar couldn’t help but notice that every one of the old warriors kept their guard up.

*

 

A while after midday they came to a farm. Fields stretched out in every direction but tucked in a copse of trees in the distance stood a building.

‘Go for it?’ Sven  said.

Sigurd shrugged. ‘Might as well. See about news.’ A half-smile played on his lips as he glanced at Ulfar. ‘We’ll send in our local man.’

‘Told you he’d be useful,’ Sven said gleefully.

Ulfar rolled his eyes and started preparing to explain why he was showing up at someone’s doorstep with a hundred hardened Northmen at his back. When they’d halved the distance, Sigurd motioned for a halt. ‘We’ll stop here, I think,’ he said.

‘Right. In you go, son,’ Sven said. Around him, the men put down their bags and set about finding a place to rest comfortably, dusting the snow off the ground where possible. ‘Take the ox with you if you want. Try  to look friendly, though.’

Ulfar unhooked his sword-belt and looked at Audun, who moved to his side without a word. They put the Northmen at their backs and walked down a worn road of sorts that was covered lightly with  fresh snow.

It looked good from afar, but up close the farm was very quiet indeed. The barren branches of the trees cast long shadows and the fading light did nothing to make the surroundings more   pleasant.

‘Not much going on, is there?’ Ulfar said. ‘No,’  Audun replied.

They looked around for evidence of battle but nothing was broken. The farm gate was open, but didn’t look like it had been moved for some time. The yard was empty, the stables to their left looked shadowy and lifeless and the barn door was slightly ajar. The house itself looked in reasonably good repair, but there was no flicker of flame anywhere to tell of life or warmth.

 

‘Hello?’ Ulfar shouted in a way that he hoped would communi- cate an absolute lack of intent to kill anyone. No one answered. He tried again, but again his voice echoed off the walls. He was about to move when Audun’s heavy hand landed on his forearm and  held  him back.

‘Wait and watch, Thormodsson,’ he mumbled. The hairs on Ulfar’s neck rose.

Something moved in the farmhouse. Sounds of scuffling, some- thing toppling over and a muted curse drifted out into the yard. A shape appeared in the doorway.

‘Strangers,’ it said in a thick voice. ‘Greetings.’

‘Greetings!’ Ulfar replied. ‘We come in peace, and would like to—’

‘No, you don’t,’ a voice said from inside the cabin. The shape in the shadowy doorway was joined by another.

Wrong-footed, Ulfar stumbled on his words. ‘What do you mean? We wish you no harm.’

‘I know that,’ the second man said as he came out into the yard to meet them. He was Ulfar’s height and Audun’s width, but he looked oddly grey, like he’d been ill for some time. The first man followed him out into the yard: younger, maybe in his teens, sandy-haired and friendly, but with the same big frame and square features. The men were clad in farmer’s clothes and unarmed, but they were a little . . . faded, somehow. ‘But you do not come in peace.’

Beside him Audun tensed, but Ulfar smiled his best and tried to relax. ‘I am afraid I do not follow, my friend.’

The big farmer’s eyes lit up. ‘This is not a time of peace. This is a time of  war.’

Familiar territory. Ulfar smiled a rueful smile and shook his head. ‘I know. Forkbeard is running wild around these parts, I hear.’

Confusion flitted across their faces.  ‘Forkbeard?’

‘Forkbeard. Danish King. Sweyn Forkbeard. Has a . . . big beard . . .’

‘. . . which he braids in a fork,’ Audun added.

The big farmer smiled. ‘Oh, him.’ Beside him, the boy laughed. Caught up, Audun and Ulfar both laughed with them. ‘He doesn’t matter,’  the big man said,  dismissively.

‘. . . oh? I mean, I agree, Forkbeard is not as important as he thinks he is—’

‘You’re not wrong there!’ the youth chimed in, and the big farmer ruffled his hair like a father would.

‘—but as far as we know he’s been running around the country- side here, burning and killing,’ Ulfar added. This was not going the way he had  expected.

The big farmer shrugged. ‘Way of the world. It all fits.’ ‘All  fits,’ the youth  repeated.

‘How?’ Audun said, his face screwed up in concentration. ‘It’s the Rising,’ the youth said. His father    nodded.

‘What is the Rising?’ Ulfar   said.

The big man looked at him as if Ulfar had asked him to explain water. ‘What is the Rising? Did you hear that, boy?’

‘I did!’ the boy  said.

‘The Rising!’ the big man said, face lit up in fervour, ‘the Rising is when – when he has . . . risen!’

‘And  who is he?’ Ulfar  asked.

‘The – the—’ He blinked and winced, as if to shake off a bad headache. ‘He is – um – he has risen! He has  risen!

‘All right, he has risen. I understand,’ Ulfar said, glancing at the gate.

‘I don’t think you do, traveller,’ the youth said. ‘I think you are one of his enemies, and I think you’ll do great harm.’

Audun rolled his  shoulders.

 

‘We’re not your enemies,’ Ulfar said hurriedly. ‘We   understand.

We’ll just go now.’

‘You can still help him,’ the big farmer said. ‘You want to help, don’t you?’

Audun gestured for Ulfar to be calm. ‘No,’ he said quietly. ‘No, we don’t.’

The big farmer homed in on the blacksmith, his eyes ablaze, like someone hearing a familiar song. ‘You,’ he said. ‘There is something inside you . . . that he wants.’

‘Come and get it then,’ Audun said.

Without warning the big farmer went for Audun, growling, thick arms outstretched, aiming to catch him in a crunching bear-hug.

A moment later, Ulfar’s reflexes sent him spinning away from a vicious hook thrown by the youth, but three steps back was not enough; the boy was upon him, raining blows with glee. ‘He rises!’ he shrieked.

‘Who is “he”?’ Ulfar shouted back, blocking and retreating. He could just glimpse Audun and the big farmer locked in a wrestler’s hold,  neither  giving  an inch.

‘He is the cold in the North! He is death in winter! He is the life- blood of the Viking! The path to Valhalla!’ the youth spat, kicking, gouging and clawing.

‘Where in the North?’ Ulfar shouted, landing a blow of his own, but the youth didn’t appear to feel it.

‘He rises!’ the youth screamed, pointing to the heavens.

‘So that’s all you know. Fine,’ Ulfar said. He stepped into the boy’s reach, swung his elbow as hard as he could and felt the nose give way. Blood welled out and as the boy fell to the ground, writhing in pain, Ulfar stepped over him and walked towards Audun, who was standing over the body of the big   farmer.

‘Is he dead?’ Ulfar  asked.

‘No,’ Audun said. ‘Knocked him out.’

‘Hm,’ Ulfar said. ‘So what do you make of this?’

‘I don’t know,’ Audun said. ‘I honestly don’t know.’

‘There’s more and more that we don’t know, my friend,’ Ulfar said. He turned to look at the two men on the ground. ‘But with what I’ve seen recently, I am pretty certain,’ he said, ‘that if we leave them like this they will not have a good life.’ He looked around until his eyes fastened on a wrist-thick wooden bar resting up against a  wall.

 

‘What did they say?’ Sven asked as Audun and Ulfar returned to Sigurd’s camp. ‘We heard some  screaming.’

‘They weren’t best pleased to see us,’ Ulfar said. ‘Two men, both absolutely mad. Thought we were Forkbeard’s men and attacked us on sight.’

‘Shame,’ Sven said. ‘So they didn’t even point you in the right direction?’

‘No,’ Audun said. ‘I don’t think they knew much.’

‘Well,’ Sven said, ‘worth a try. Do you think they’ll follow?’

Ulfar pushed aside the image of legs spasming as the wooden bar smashed the farmers’ skulls and ended their lives. It had felt uncomfortably like an act of kindness. ‘No, they won’t,’ he said.

Sven turned to the seated men. ‘Right. Come on, you old grannies! Up we get.’ The men protested as they rose, but within moments they were ready to move. The snow continued to fall around them as they marched on, following the   road.

‘You ran with Forkbeard’s men,’ Sigurd said to Audun. ‘What do you know?’

‘Not much,’ Audun said. ‘He’s apparently eight foot tall, three arms and so  on.’

‘How is he set up?’ Sven  said.

‘Groups of twelve or so roam around, sacking and burning everything they can find,’ Ulfar chimed in.

‘See? Told you,’ Sven said, a glint in his eye. ‘What?’ Ulfar said.

‘Oh, nothing,’ Sven said. ‘Nothing at all. I’ve just been thinking, that’s all.’ There was a spring in the old man’s step as he bounded to Sigurd’s side. ‘Just thinking,’ he said, to no one in particular.

Behind them, an unnaturally large black fox slunk away from the farm and into the shadow of the nearby trees.

 

Feeling every one of his advanced years twice over, Thormund huddled further into his furs and wished, not for the first time, that he could go back to the simple joys of risking his life stealing horses. Since he’d been rounded up by Forkbeard’s army and grouped with the mad Norseman, his life had gone from bad to worse. After the berserker got injured and half his men disappeared in the middle of the night, his war-band had been down to himself, Mouthpiece and six others. They’d met another of Forkbeard’s groups, headed up by a big Eastman bastard called Oskarl; the mercenary, a full head taller than Thormund, had assumed command immediately. He walked with a limp, but the cane he used was as thick as a forearm and splattered with reddish-brown stains of many hues near the end. Thormund knew better than to question the authority of such men.

So now there were twenty of them, and they were all cold, wet and hungry. ‘Fuck this,’ he muttered. ‘All of it, twice, with a pine cone.’ He wasn’t in charge any more, though, so that was probably a  good thing.

They’d made a camp of sorts when the sun set. Oskarl, optimistically, had sent out a couple of men to hunt, and against all odds they’d come back with a brace of pheasants. There wasn’t enough for everyone, of course, and the biggest fighters got to the meat first, but Thormund had got his long, bony fingers on two carcases and he shared them with Mouthpiece as they huddled on the far edge of the fire, behind Oskarl’s men.

‘War is not as heroic as I thought,’ Mouthpiece mumbled. His jaw had mostly healed now, but it had set a little off and  the young man now looked like his mouth was stuck in a sceptical scowl.

‘Most things aren’t,’ Thormund replied. ‘They really aren’t.’

They sat in  silence  for  a  while,  listening  to  the conversation of the men around the campfire, until a deep, rasping voice cut through the night.

‘Good evening!’

Oskarl was up in a flash, moving remarkably quickly for a man of his size. ‘Who’s there?’ he shouted. He peered into the darkness, half-blinded by the firelight.

‘Relax, son,’ another voice said. ‘Don’t worry. Just two old men here, looking for some warmth.’ Two greybeards stepped into the very edge of the firelight, on Oskarl’s side, and Thormund’s heart stopped for a  moment.

Mouthpiece was almost on his feet when the old horse thief caught the hem of his shirt and pulled him down. ‘No,’ he hissed, as quietly as he could.

‘Why?’ Mouthpiece said, but Thormund just shook his head. ‘Are you the leader?’ the first man   asked.

‘Who’s asking?’ Oskarl said, taking a short step back.

‘I am Sigurd Aegisson,’ the old man said. ‘I am seeking Fork-beard, and you’re going to help me.’

‘Fuck you, old man,’ Oskarl said, smirking. ‘Are you going to make me?’

‘No,’ the old man said, ‘but they are.’

Almost too late, Thormund noticed movement right by him and looked up – into a familiar face: the Norse berserker, standing quietly beside a tall young man. The light from the fire danced on their faces. Very subtly, the Norseman motioned, palm flat to the ground: stay down, stay quiet. Thormund looked around. The campfire was surrounded by silent, still figures with a variety of unpleasant-looking weapons at the  ready.

Oskarl turned to face the two old men. ‘What do you want?’

‘These are now my men. So are you. Understood?’ the man who called  himself  Sigurd said.

The Eastman moved  incredibly  fast, whipping  up  his  cane and swinging it at the old man’s head. In a blur, the handle of a great-axe was up to meet  it.

‘That’s enough, son,’ the other greybeard said. A bony  hand was holding Oskarl’s belt and a dagger was pointing straight at his groin. The shorter man with the beard was standing really close to the Eastman. Looking up into his face, he said, ‘You’re a big lad, right enough, but you’ve left your weak side open and I’ve floored bigger. If I even cough now, you’re either dead or singing real pretty.’

The big Eastman looked down. ‘Had to try,’ he said in his heavily accented Norse. ‘You understand.’

‘I do,’ the bushy-bearded man said.

Audun knelt down. ‘That’s Sven,’ he whispered, ‘from my hometown. Sigurd’s the chieftain.’

‘I thought I’d seen them before,’ Thormund said. ‘This day just gets better and better.’

‘Stay down,’ Oskarl barked at his  men.  ‘Sigurd’s  in  charge now. Any problems?’ None of the men seemed inclined to disagree. Across the fire, Thormund watched the old chieftain quietly  giving  orders,  then  the  fighters parted for him and the man with the bushy beard as they moved through them and sat down. Behind him, the standing men went to work dispensing the  cooked  meat.

‘So I’m guessing this is the Swede, then?’ Thormund said, pointing at Ulfar.

‘It is,’ Audun said.

The tall man sat down next to them. ‘Ulfar,’ he said by way of greeting.

‘I’m Thormund, and this is—’

Mouthpiece went to speak but Sven’s voice, loud and strong, rang out across the fire: ‘Now listen up, boys. Sigurd and I are searching for Forkbeard. When we’ve found him and told him what we need to, he’ll want to move north for some serious fighting. There will be blood, and it won’t get any warmer, but there will be food to eat and things to steal. I’m an old man with a failing memory and bad eyesight’ – Oskarl smirked next to him – ‘and I’ve not done a head-count yet. I figure I will, though, in the next little while. If you’re here when I do, you stay. Understood?’

Two of Thormund’s party left the circle without words and dis- appeared into the shadows. Another two of Oskarl’s men walked off in a different direction. No one paid them any mind and no one else moved.

‘Right. So: sixteen, from the looks of it. Well met, boys. As I said, my name is Sven and this is Sigurd Aegisson. We’re from a town called Stenvik. Have any of you heard of it? No? Well, let me tell you a story.’

The Swede sat down next to them. ‘We’ll do introductions later,’ he said to Mouthpiece. ‘Old Sven knows how to spin a tale.’

Dots of light shone in the sky above them and Thormund wondered whether his life could get any worse.

*

 

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