The start of a brand-new epic fantasy trilogy from the David Gemmell Award-shortlisted author of Age of Iron
Finnbogi Is in Love
Two weeks before everyone died and the world changed for ever, Finnbogi the Boggy was fantasising about Thyri Treelegs.
He was picking his way between water-stripped logs with a tree stump on one shoulder, heading home along the shore of Olaf’s Fresh Sea. No doubt, he reasoned, Thyri would fall in love with him the moment he presented her with the wonderful artwork he was going to carve from the tree stump. But what would he make? Maybe a racoon. But how would you go about . . .
His planning was interrupted by a wasp the size of a chipmunk launching from the shingle and making a beeline for his face.
The young Hardworker yelped, ducked, dropped the stump and spun to face his foe. Man and insect circled each other crabwise. The hefty wasp bobbed impossibly in the air. Finnbogi fumbled his sax from its sheath. He flailed with the short sword, but the wasp danced clear of every inept swipe, floating closer and louder. Finnbogi threw his blade aside and squatted, flapping his hands above his head. Through his terror he realised that this manoeuvre was exactly the same as his rabbit-in-a-tornado impression that could make his young adoptive siblings giggle so much they fell over. Then he noticed he could no longer hear the wasp.
He stood. The great lake of Olaf’s Fresh Sea glimmered calmly and expansively to the east. To the west a stand of trees whispered like gossips who’d witnessed his cowardice in the face of an insect. Behind them, great clouds floated indifferently above lands he’d never seen. The beast itself – surely “wasp” was insufficient a word for such a creature – was flying southwards like a hurled wooden toy that had forgotten to land, along the beach towards Hardwork.
He watched until he could see it no longer, then followed.
Finnbogi had overheard Thyri Treelegs say she’d be training in the woods to the north of Hardwork that morning, so he’d donned his best blue tunic and stripy trousers and headed there in order to accidentally bump into her. All he’d found was the tree stump that he would carve into something wonderful for her, and, of course, the sort of wasp that Tor would have battled in a saga. He’d never seen its like before, and guessed it had been blown north by the warm winds from the south which were the latest and most pleasant phenomenon in the recent extraordinary weather.
If any of the others – Wulf the Fat, Garth Anvilchin or, worst of all, Thyri herself – had seen him throw away his sax and cower like Loakie before Oaden’s wrath, they’d have mocked him mercilessly.
Maybe, he thought, he could tell Thyri that he’d killed the wasp? But she’d never believe how big it had been. What he needed to do was kill an animal known for its size and violence . . . That was it! That’s how he’d win her love! He would break the Scraylings’ confinement, venture west and track down one of the ferocious dagger-tooth cats that the Scraylings banged on about. It would be like Tor and Loakie’s quest into the land of the giants, except that Finnbogi would be brawny Tor and brainy Loakie all rolled into one unstoppable hero.
The Scraylings were basically their captors, not that any Hardworker apart from Finnbogi would ever admit that.
Olaf the Worldfinder and the Hardworkers’ other ancestors had arrived from the old world five generations before at the beginning of winter. Within a week the lake had frozen and the unrelenting snow was drifted higher than a longboat’s mast. The Hardworkers had been unable to find food, walk anywhere or sail on the frozen lake, so they’d dug into the snow drifts and waited to die.
The local tribe of Scraylings, the Goachica, had come to their rescue, but only on two big conditions. One, that the Hardworkers learn to speak the universal Scrayling tongue and forsake their own language, and, two, that no Hardworker, nor their descendants, would ever stray further than ten miles in any direction from their landing spot.
It had been meant as a temporary fix, but some Scrayling god had decreed that Goachica continue to venerate and feed the Hardworkers, and the Hardworkers were happy to avoid foraging and farming and devote their days to sport, fighting practice, fishing, dancing, art or whatever else took their fancy.
Five generations later, still the Goachica gave them everything they needed, and still no Hardworker strayed more than ten miles from Olaf’s landing spot. Why would they? Ten miles up and down the coast and inland from Olaf’s Fresh Sea gave them more than enough space to do whatever they wanted to do. Few ever went more than a mile from the town.
But Finnbogi was a hero and an adventurer, and he was going to travel. If he were to break the confinement and track down a dagger-tooth cat . . . He’d be the first Hardworker to see one, let alone kill one, so if he dragged the monster home and made Thyri a necklace from its oversized fangs surely she’d see that he was the man for her? Actually, she’d prefer a knife to a necklace. And it would be easier to make.
A few minutes later Finnbogi started to feel as though he was being followed. He slowed and turned. There was nothing on the beach, but there was a dark cloud far to the north. For an alarming moment he thought there was another great storm on the way – there’d been a few groundshakers recently that had washed away the fishing nets and had people talking about Ragnarok ending the world – but then realised the cloud was a flock of crowd pigeons. One of the insanely huge flocks had flown over Hardwork before, millions upon millions of birds that had taken days to pass and left everything coated with pigeon shit. Finnbogi quickened his pace – he did not want to return to Hardwork covered in bird crap – and resumed his musings on Thyri.
He climbed over a bark-stripped log obstructing a narrow, sandy headland and heard voices and laughter ahead. Finnbogi knew who it was before he trudged up the rise in the beach and saw them. It was the gang of friends a few years older than he was.
Wulf the Fat ran into the sea, naked, waving his arms and yelling, and dived with a mighty splash. Sassa Lipchewer smiled at her husband’s antics and Bodil Gooseface screeched. Bjarni Chickenhead laughed. Garth Anvilchin splashed Bodil and she screeched all the more.
Keef the Berserker stood further out in Olaf’s Fresh Sea, his wet, waist-length blond hair and beard covering his torso like a sleeveless shirt. He swung his long axe, Arse Splitter, from side to side above the waves, blocking imaginary blows and felling imaginary foes.
Finnbogi twisted his face into a friendly smile in case they caught him looking. Up ahead their clothes and weapons were laid out on the shingle. Bodil and Sassa’s neatly embroidered dresses were hanging on poles. Both garments would have been Sassa Lipchewer creations; she spent painstaking hours sewing, knitting and weaving the most stylish clothes in Hardwork. She’d made the blue tunic and stripy trousers that Finnbogi was wearing, for example, and very nice they were too.
The four men’s clothes, tossed with manly abandon on the shingle, were leathers, plus Garth Anvilchin’s oiled chainmail. Garth’s metal shirt weighed as much as a fat child, yet Garth wore it all day, every day. He said that it would rust if the rings didn’t move against each other regularly so he had to wear it, and also he wanted to be totally comfortable when he was in battle.
In battle! Ha! The Hird’s only battles were play fights with each other. The likelihood of them seeing real action was about the same as Finnbogi travelling west and taking on a dagger-tooth cat. He knew the real reason Garth wore the mail shirt all the time. It was because he was a prick.
Despite the pointlessness of it, many of the hundred or so Hardworkers spent much time learning to fight with the weapons brought over from the old world. All four of the bathing men were in the Hird, the elite fighting group comprising Hardwork’s ten best fighters.
Finnbogi had expected to be asked to join the Hird last summer when someone had become too old and left, but Jarl Brodir had chosen Thyri Treelegs. That had smarted somewhat, given that she was a girl and only sixteen at the time – two years younger than him. It was true that she had been making weapons, practising moves and generally training to be a warrior every waking hour since she was about two, so she probably wouldn’t be a terrible Hird member. And he supposed it was good to see a woman included.
All Hardwork’s children learnt the reasons that Olaf the Worldfinder and Hardwork’s other founders had left the east, sailed a salty sea more vast than anyone of Finnbogi’s generation could supposedly imagine, then travelled up rivers and across great lakes to establish the settlement of Hardwork. Unfair treatment of women was one of those reasons. So it was good that they were finally putting a woman in the Hird, but it was a shame that it had robbed Finnbogi of what he felt was his rightful place. Not that he wanted to be in the stupid Hird anyway, leaping about and waving weapons around all day. He had better things to do.
Out to sea, Wulf the Fat dived under – he could stay down for an age – and Garth Anvilchin caught sight of Finnbogi on the beach. “Hey, Boggy!” he shouted, “Don’t even think about touching our weapons or I’ll get one of the girls to beat you up!”
Finnbogi felt himself flush and he looked down at the weapons – Garth’s over-elaborately inlaid hand axes the Biter Twins, Bjarni’s beautiful sword Lion Slayer, Wulf’s thuggish hammer Thunderbolt and Sassa’s bow which wasn’t an old world weapon so it didn’t have a name.
“And nice outfit!” yelled Garth. “How lovely that you dress up when you go wanking in the woods. You have to treat your hand well when it’s your only sexual partner, don’t you, you curly-haired cocksucker?”
Finnbogi tried to think of a clever comeback based on the idea that if he sucked cocks then he clearly had more sexual partners than just his hand, but he didn’t want to accept and develop the him-sucking-cocks theme.
“Fuck off then, Boggy, you’re spoiling the view,” Garth added before any pithy reply came to Finnbogi, curse him to Hel. Garth might be stupid but he had all the smart lines.
“Leave him alone,” said Sassa Lipchewer. Finnbogi reddened further. Sassa was lovely.
“Yes, Garth,” Bodil piped up. “Come for a wash, Finnbogi!”
“Yes, Boggy boy! Clean yourself off after all that wanking!” Garth laughed.
Wulf surfaced and smiled warmly at Finnbogi, the sun glinting off his huge round shoulders. “Come on in, Finn!” he called. Finally, somebody was calling him by the name he liked.
“Come in, Finn!” Bodil called. “Come in, Finn! Come in, Finn!” she chanted.
Sassa beckoned and smiled, which made Finnbogi gibber a little.
Behind them, Keef, who hadn’t acknowledged Finnbogi’s presence, continued to split the arses of imaginary enemies with his axe Arse Splitter.
“I can’t swim now, I’ve got to . . . um . . .” Finnbogi nodded at the stump on his shoulder.
“Sure thing, man, do what you’ve got to do, see you later!” Wulf leapt like a salmon and disappeared underwater.
“Bye, Finn!” shouted Bodil. Sassa and Bjarni waved. Garth, towering out of the water, muscular chest shining, smiled and looked Finnbogi up and down as if he knew all about the wasp, why he was wearing his best clothes and what he had planned for the stump.
“I don’t know why you give that guy any time . . .” he heard Garth say as he walked away.
He didn’t know why the others gave any time to Garth Anvilchin. He was such a dick. They were okay, the rest of them. Wulf the Fat had never said a mean word to anyone. Bjarni Chickenhead was friendly and happy, Sassa Lipchewer was lovely. And Bodil Gooseface . . . Bodil was Bodil, called Gooseface not because she looked like a goose, but because Finnbogi had once announced that she had the same facial expressions as a clever goose, which she did, and the name had stuck. Finnbogi felt a bit bad about that, but it wasn’t his fault that he was so incisively observant.
He walked on, composing cutting replies to Garth’s cock-sucking comments. The best two were “Why don’t you swim out to sea and keep on swimming?” and “Spoiling the view am I? You’re the only person here with a good view because you’re not in it!”
He wished he’d thought of them at the time.