The Witcher meets Vikings in this new Norse-inspired fantasy series from acclaimed British author John Gwynne, which will thrill his existing fans as well as being the perfect starting point for new readers.
The year 297 of Friðaröld, The Age of Peace
“Death is a part of life,” Orka whispered into her son’s ear.
Even though Breca’s arm was drawn back, the ash-spear gripped tight in his small, white-knuckled fist and the spearhead aimed at the reindeer in front of them, she could see the hesitation in his eyes, in the set of his jaw.
He is too gentle for this world of pain, Orka thought. She opened her mouth to scold him, but a hand touched her arm, a huge hand where Breca’s was small, rough-skinned where Breca’s was smooth.
“Wait,” Thorkel breathed through his braided beard, a cold-misting of breath. He stood to her left, solid and huge as a boulder.
Muscles bunched in Orka’s jaw, hard words already in her throat.
Hard words are needed for this hard world.
But she held her tongue.
Spring sunlight dappled the ground through soft-swaying branches, reflecting brightly from patches of rimed snow, winter’s last hoar-frost kiss on this high mountain woodland. A dozen reindeer stood grazing in a glade, a thick-antlered bull watching over the herd of cows and calves as they chewed and scratched moss and lichen from trunks and boulders.
A shift in Breca’s eyes, an indrawn breath that he held, followed by a burst of explosive movement; his hips twisting, his arm moving. The spear left his fist: a hiss as sharp iron sliced through air. A flush of pride in Orka’s chest. It was well thrown. As soon as the spear had left Breca’s grip she knew it would hit its mark.
In the same heartbeat that Breca loosed his spear, the reindeer he had chosen looked up from the trunk it had been scraping lichen from. Its ears twitched and it leaped forwards, the herd around it breaking into motion, bounding and swerving around trees. Breca’s spear slammed into the trunk, the shaft quivering. A moment later there was a crashing from the east, the sound of branches cracking, and a form burst from the undergrowth, huge, slate-furred and long-clawed, exploding into the glade. The reindeer fled in all directions as the beast loped among them, oblivious to all around it. Blood pulsed from a swarm of wounds across its body, long teeth slick, its red tongue lolling, and then it was gone, disappearing into the forest gloom.
“What . . . was that?” Breca hissed, looking up at his mother and father, wide eyes shifting from Orka to Thorkel.
“A fell-wolf,” Thorkel grunted as he broke into motion, the stealth of the hunt forgotten. He pushed through undergrowth into the glade, a thick-shafted spear in one fist, branches snapping, Orka and Breca following. Thorkel dropped to one knee, tugged a glove off with his teeth and touched his fingertips to droplets of the wolf’s blood, brushing them across the tip of his tongue. He spat, rose and followed the trail of wolf-blood to the edge of the glade, then stood there peering into the murk.
Breca walked up to his spear, the blade half-sunk into a pine tree, and tried to pull it free. His body strained, but the spear didn’t move. He looked up at Orka, grey-green eyes in a pale, muddied face, a straight nose and strong jaw framed with crow-black hair, so much like his father, and the opposite of her. Apart from his eyes. He had Orka’s eyes.
“I missed,” he said, his shoulders slumping.
Orka gripped the shaft in her gloved hand and tugged the spear free.
“Yes,” she said as she handed Breca his spear, half-an-arm shorter than hers and Thorkel’s.
“It was not your fault,” Thorkel said from the glade’s edge. He was still staring into the gloom, a thick braid of black, grey-streaked hair poking from beneath his woollen nålbinding cap, his nose twitching. “The fell-wolf startled them.”
“Why didn’t it kill any of those reindeer?” Breca asked as he took his short spear back from Orka.
Thorkel lifted his hand, showing bloodied fingertips. “It was wounded, not thinking about its supper.”
“What did that to a fell-wolf?” Breca asked.
Orka strode to the opposite end of the glade, her spear ready as she regarded the dark hole in the undergrowth from where the wolf had emerged. She paused, cocked her head. A faint sound, drifting through the woodland like mist.
Breca joined her. He gripped his spear with both hands and pointed into the darkness.
“Thorkel,” Orka grunted, twisting to look over her shoulder at her husband. He was still staring after the wounded wolf. With a last, lingering look and shake of his fur-draped shoulders he turned and strode towards her.
More screams, faint and distant.
Orka shared a look with Thorkel.
“Asgrim’s steading lies that way,” she said.
“Harek,” Breca said, referring to Asgrim’s son. Breca had played with him on the beach at Fellur, on the occasions when Orka and Thorkel had visited the village to trade for provisions.
Another scream, faint and ethereal through the trees.
“Best we take a look,” Thorkel muttered.
“Heya,” Orka grunted her agreement.
Their breath misted about them in clouds as they worked their way through the pinewoods, the ground thick and soft with needles. It was spring, signs of new life in the world below, but winter still clung to these wooded hills like a hunched old warrior refusing to let go of his past. They walked in file, Orka leading, her eyes constantly shifting between the wolf-carved path they were
and the deep shadows around them. Old, ice-crusted snow crunched underfoot as trees opened up and they stepped on to a ridge, steep cliffs falling away sharply to the west, ragged strips of cloud drifting across the open sky below them. Orka glanced down and saw reed-thin columns of hearth fire smoke rising from Fellur, far below. The fishing village sat nestled on the eastern edge of a deep, blue-black fjord, the calm waters shimmering in the pale sun. Gulls swirled and called.
“Orka,” Thorkel said and she stopped, turned.
Thorkel was unstoppering a leather water bottle and handing it to Breca, who despite the chill was flushed and sweating.
“His legs aren’t as long as yours,” Thorkel smiled through his beard, the scar from cheek to jaw giving his mouth a twist.
Orka looked back up the trail they were following and listened. She had heard no more screams for a while now, so she nodded to Thorkel and reached for her own water bottle.
They sat on a boulder for a few moments, looking out over the land of green and blue, like gods upon the crest of the world. To the south the fjord beyond Fellur spilled into the sea, a ragged coastline curling west and then south, ribbed and scarred with deep fjords and inlets. Iron-grey clouds bunched over the sea, glowing with the threat of snow. Far to the north a green-sloped, snow-topped mountain range coiled across the land, filling the horizon from east to west. Here and there a towering cliff face gleamed, the old-bone roots of the mountain from this distance just a flash of grey.
“Tell me of the serpent Snaka again,” Breca said as they all stared at the mountains.
Orka said nothing, eyes fixed on the undulating peaks.
“If I were to tell that saga-tale, little one, your nose and fingers would freeze, and when you stood to walk away your toes would snap like ice,” Thorkel said.
Breca looked at him with his grey-green eyes.
“Ach, you know I cannot say no to that look,” Thorkel huffed, breath misting. “All right, then, the short telling.” He tugged off the nålbinding cap on his head and scratched his scalp. “All that
you can see before you is Vigrið, the Battle-Plain. The land of shattered realms. Each steppe of land between the sea and those mountains, and a hundred leagues beyond them: that is where the gods fought, and died, and Snaka was the father of them all; some say the greatest of them.”
“Certainly the biggest,” Breca said, voice and eyes round and earnest.
“Am I telling this tale, or you?” Thorkel said, a dark eyebrow rising.
“You, Father,” Breca said, dipping his head.
Thorkel grunted. “Snaka was of course the biggest. He was the oldest, the father of the gods; Eldest, they called him, and he had grown monstrous huge, which you would, too, if you had eaten your fill each day since the world was born. But his children were not to be sniffed at, either. Eagle, Bear, Wolf, Dragon, a host of others. Kin fought kin, and Snaka was slain by his children, and he fell. In his death the world was shattered, whole realms crushed, heaved into the air, the seas rushing in. Those mountains are all that is left of him, his bones now covered with the earth that he ruptured.”
Breca whistled through his teeth and shook his head. “It must have been a sight to see.”
“Heya, lad, it must have been. When gods go to war, it is no small thing. The world was broken in their ruin.”
“Heya,” Orka agreed. “And in Snaka’s fall the vaesen pit was opened, and all those creatures of tooth and claw and power that dwelled in the world below were released into our land of sky and sea.” From their vantage point the world looked pure and unspoiled, a beautiful, untamed tapestry spread across the landscape in gold and green and blue.
But Orka knew the truth was a blood-soaked saga.
She looked to her right and saw on the ground the droplets of blood from the injured wolf. In her mind she saw those droplets spreading, growing into pools, more blood spraying, ghostly bodies falling, hacked and broken, voices screaming . . .
This is a world of blood. Of tooth and claw and sharp iron. Of short lives and painful deaths.
A hand on her shoulder, Thorkel reaching over Breca’s head to touch her. A sharp-drawn breath. She blinked and blew out a long, ragged sigh, pushing the images away.
“It was a good throw,” Thorkel said, tapping Breca’s spear with his water bottle, though his eyes were still on Orka.
“I missed, though,” Breca muttered.
“I missed the first throw on my first hunt, too,” Thorkel said. “And I was eleven summers, where you are only ten. And your throw was better than mine. The wolf robbed you. Eh, Orka?” He ruffled Breca’s hair with a big hand.
“It was well cast,” Orka said, eyeing the clouds to the west, closer now. A west wind was blowing them, and she could taste snow on that wind, a sharp cold that crackled like frost in her chest. Stoppering her water bottle, she stood and walked away.
“Tell me more of Snaka,” Breca called after her.
Orka paused. “Are you so quick to forget your friend Harek?” she said with a frown.
Breca dropped his eyes, downcast, then stood and followed her.
Orka led them on, back into the pinewoods where sound was eerily muted, the world shrinking around them, shadows shifting, and they climbed higher into the hills. As they rose the world turned grey around them, clouds veiling the sun, and a cold wind hissed through the branches.
Orka used her spear for a staff as the ground steepened and she climbed slick stone that ascended like steps alongside a white-foaming stream. Ice-cold water splashed and seeped into her leg-bindings and boots. A strand of her blonde hair fell loose of her braid and she pushed it behind one ear. She slowed her pace, remembering Breca’s short legs, even though there was a tingling in her blood that set her muscles thrumming. Danger had always had that effect on her.
“Be ready,” Thorkel said behind her, and then Orka smelled it, too.
The iron tang of blood, the stench of voided bowels.
The ground levelled on to a plateaued ridge, trees felled and cleared. A large, grass-roofed cabin appeared, alongside a handful of outbuildings, all nestled into a cliff face. A stockade wall ringed the cabin and outbuildings, taller than Orka.
On the eastern side of the steading a track curled down the hills, eventually leading towards the village of Fellur and the fjord.
Orka took a few steps forwards, then stopped, spear levelled as Breca and Thorkel climbed on to the plateau.
The stockade’s wide gates were thrown open, a body upon the ground between them, limbs twisted, unnaturally still. One gate creaked on the wind. Orka heard Breca’s breath hiss through his lips.
Orka knew it was Asgrim, broad shouldered and with iron-grey hair. One hairy arm poked from the torn sleeve of his tunic.
A snowflake drifted down, a tingled kiss upon Orka’s cheek.
“Breca, stay behind me,” she said, padding forwards. Crows rose squawking from Asgrim’s corpse, complaining as they flapped away, settling among the treetops, one sitting upon a gatepost, watching them.
Snow began to fall, the wind swirling it around the plateau.
Orka looked down on Asgrim. He was clothed in wool and breeches, a good fur cloak, a dull ring of silver around one arm. His hair was grey, body lean, sinewed muscles showing through his torn tunic. One of his boots had fallen off. A shattered spear lay close to him, and a blooded hand-axe on the ground. There was a hole in his chest, his woollen tunic dark with crusted blood.
Orka kneeled, picked up the axe and placed it in Asgrim’s palm, wrapping the stiffening fingers around it.
“Travel the soul road with a blade in your fist,” she whispered.
Breca’s breath came in a ragged gasp behind her. It was the first person he had seen dead. Plenty of animals; he had helped in slaughtering many a meal for their supper, the gutting and skinning, the soaking of sinew for stitching and binding, the tanning of leather for the boots they wore, their belts and scabbards for their seaxes. But to see another man dead, his life torn from him, that was something else.
At least, for the first time.
And this was a man that Breca had known. He had seen life’s spark in him.
Orka gave her son a moment as he stood and stared wide-eyed at the corpse, a flutter in his chest, his breath quick.
The ground around Asgrim was churned, grass flattened. A scuffed boot print. A few paces away there was a pool of blood soaked into the grass. Tracks in the ground led away; it looked like someone had been dragged.
Asgrim put someone down, then.
“Was he the one screaming?” Breca asked, still staring at Asgrim’s corpse.
“No,” Orka said, looking at the wound in Asgrim’s chest. A stab to the heart: death would have come quickly. And a good thing, too, as his body had already been picked at by scavengers. His eyes and lips were red wounds where the crows had been at him. Orka put a hand to Asgrim’s face and lifted what was left of his lip to look inside his mouth. Gums and empty, blood-ragged sockets. She scowled.
“Where are his teeth?” Breca hissed.
“Tennúr have been at him,” Orka grunted. “They love a man’s teeth more than a squirrel loves nuts.” She looked around, searching the treeline and ridged cliff for any sign of the small, two-legged creatures. On their own, they could be a nuisance; in a pack, they could be deadly, with their sharp-boned fingers and razor teeth.
Thorkel stepped around Orka and padded into the enclosure, spear-point sweeping in a wide arc as he searched.
He stopped, stared up at the creaking gate.
Orka stepped over Asgrim into the steading and stopped beside Thorkel.
A body was nailed to the gate, arms wide, head lolling.
Idrun, wife to Asgrim.
She had not died so quickly as her husband.
Her belly had been opened, intestines spilling to a pile on the ground, twisted like vines around an old oak. Heat still rose from them, steaming as snow settled upon glistening coils. Her face was misshapen in a rictus of pain.
It was she who did the screaming.
“What did this?” Thorkel muttered.
“Vaesen?” Orka said.
Thorkel pointed to thick-carved runes on the gate, all sharp angles and straight lines. “A warding rune.”
Orka shook her head. Runes would hold back all but the most powerful of vaesen. She glanced back at Asgrim and the wound in his chest. Rarely did vaesen use weapons, nature already equipping them with the tools of death and slaughter. There were dark patches on the grass: congealed blood.
Blood on Asgrim’s axe. Others were wounded, but if they fell, they were carried from here.
“Did men do this?” Thorkel muttered.
Orka shrugged, a puff of misted breath as she thought on it.
“All is lies,” she murmured. “They call this the age of peace, because the ancient war is over and the gods are dead, but if this is peace . . .” She looked to the skies, clouds low and heavy, snow falling in sheets now, and back at the blood-soaked corpses. “This is the age of storm and murder . . . ”
“Where’s Harek?” Breca asked.