Wyrd Sneak Preview

Since many have expressed an interest, the entire first chapter of Wyrd. Shooting for July on this one.

Chapter 1

Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.

Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)

 

I looked into the eyes of the wolf. It sat some twenty-yards off from the make-shift pen they had put us in, a lattice of branches lashed together with bits of rope. I’ve always had keen eyesight, but no, no man can see a wolf’s eyes from such a distance. I only had the feeling. The weight of a connection. I’ve had this connection before, with wolves and serpents. I laughed, sitting there in the cold mud, waiting to die. My prayers had once again been answered. I was totally screwed.

Make no mistake, I am a bastard. Many men in my position have given themselves airs. I make no such vain-glorious claims. All I can say is that a presence has followed me all of my lives. I know what that presence is. It doesn’t make me great. It doesn’t make me better. In fact, it’s fucked me over more than anything else. That’s what he does.

The brown wolf laid down, resting its chin on its paws, staring at me. It wasn’t a big one, more sleek and lean. I knew it wasn’t an ordinary wolf. For one thing, it was alone. Wolves, like other successful predators, for example jackals, and men, travel in packs. This one’s pack may have been circling nearby, but I doubted it. No pack of wolves were crazy enough to fuck with armed humans on the outskirts of a town, fires blazing. Not even to pick off the ones tied up in a pen.

Some of my incarcerated fellows spotted my new friend and cried out. “Wolf! Wolf!”

A couple of the jailers came over, swaggering in their scale armor, swords slapping against their thighs. “Shut up!”

The man next to me with no right hand demonstrated his stupidity. “The wolf will eat us in the night!”

A third jailer appeared carrying a bucket of water, which he sloshed on the complainer, soaking him, and me, and the others around him. Say what you want about the medieval mind, these were clever people. They always found a way to make things more miserable. Nothing like freezing in the night, huddled up against a dozen filthy, reeking, diseased, fellow prisoners, clothes soaked with seawater. Our execution in the morning would seem a blessing. I settled back, resting up against the fattest one in the lot, and tried to fall asleep. If I slept, there was a good chance I would wake up in a bed in some hostel, deliciously warm and dry. I would tip-toe, barefoot, over to convenient nearby vending machines. They would sell me pissed-out tea or coffee. Another would provide a chunk of chemicals and fats, sweeter than any of these men have dreamed of. But when the rotund prick kneed me in the back, my intuition told me this was not to be, not now. I’ve learned to trust my intuition.

The jailer with the bucket, a big fellow, with a magnificent, braided, blond beard, set it down and picked up a rock at the same time. He whipped it at the wolf, and it bounced at least ten feet away from the creature. The wolf, being no idiot, jumped up and scampered off. The rock posed no threat, but it knew how egotistical men were. When a human wants to fuck with you, you had better give it a wide berth. It didn’t go far, however. Even in the dim light of evening I could see it lurking in the tall reeds that grew along this rocky shore. It bided its time, for whatever it planned on doing. No sleep, no return trip for me, I had better be ready when it did.

As I waited, I picked fleas from my trousers. They probably came from the sheepskin cloak I had stolen, which was taken from me when I was nabbed. I would give my left nut to get that cloak back now, fleas and all. It’s surprising what you can get used to, but I’ve never been squeamish. The cloak wasn’t the reason why they arrested me. No, not arrested, that’s giving it airs. When a half-dozen guys jumped me from behind, slammed my head into the wooden pier, and kicked the shit out of me before hauling me before the Jarl. They had caught me knocking holes in their ships. All for the sake of a girl. I’m such a putz.

Three years earlier, I had gone on a trading mission with Jarl Oddr. He was a rare gem, in any time period. A man who preferred to make a living by his wits rather than taking from others. We had sailed to Ireland, a shit-hole town called Inver, in County Donegal. The local lord there, a total piece of crap, had gotten himself nigger rich when a over a dozen whales, probably fin whales, had beached themselves on his doorstep. The subsequent sale of the blubber, meat, and other products attracted all the folks you would expect when a town comes into money: whores, monks, and vikings. Always a bad combination. By the time we got there all the good shit was gone. Jarl Oddr had plenty silver and pelts to trade, and all the locals wanted to give us for it was seals. We were up to our assholes in seals. Worse still, the Irish lord was up to his asshole in silver and furs, but still believed he deserved more. Just getting provisions for the return trip proved a major hassle. The monks had convinced half the people not to trade with pagans. The whores wanted us to stay, that’s how I met Mave, and the lord wanted a pound of silver for a cask of watered down ale. What is it about human nature that convinces people they’ll be special? That things will be different this time. They knew better. They knew you don’t fuck with the Northmen.

I had no reason to complain. As usual, I was on the side of the whores, and was in no hurry to cram my ass back aboard ship and be tossed around the North Atlantic like a cork. Three girls, two sisters, and Maeve, had rented one of the indigenous stone cottages, and were doing nicely for themselves collecting viking silver. Seeing the writing on the wall, I settled in, taking up residence with the whores, though I stuck to Maeve, for the most part. She cooked for me, and paid one of the sister’s daughters to do my laundry. We spent the gray, rainy, Irish days in bed, fucking and drinking. She broke down all my defenses. In the hours in between, when lovers whisper secrets, I told her about the future. I told her about hot running water, about cities with towers of glass, about planes flying people all around the Earth. I even tried to explain things like computers and the internet. She ate it all up. She loved it. She believed it.

If my patron has taught me anything, it’s that nothing good lasts. Oddr got into an argument with the Irish lord over some rotten food the Irishman had sold him, and in a fit of uncharacteristic anger, cut the man down where he stood. His bodyguards jumped Oddr, and managed to take the massive Jarl in a six-to-one fight, with some loses. My crew mates went berserk, literally. Fed up with the entire affair, they spent the good part of the afternoon killing and looting, got drunk, fell asleep, and got up to do some more. I watched from the doorway of Maeve’s cottage as they hacked down any man over the age of fifteen, raped anyone pretty, and took anything they thought they could fit on the boat. As they came by Maeve’s hut with greedy looks in their eyes, I stared them down, and they slunk off to find easier pickings.

By the afternoon of the next day, the jig was up. The king of the county, or whatever the fuck the Irish called him, was on his way. He would not spare me for my lack of participation. As I often do, I picked over what my brethren left behind for small treasures. I came up with some spices, and surprise, blue fins weren’t the only thing washing up on that beach. A softball sized lump of ambergris ended up in my sack as well. It took some doing to find a trader who understood its value, but it was worth hauling it around for three years. In fact, I managed to dump it right before I got nabbed.

Funny story, I was getting drunk off the silver from that ambergris when I heard the guys across from me talking about where they were sailing to in the morning. Inver was a lucky little town. The monks had stayed, built a monastery, collected reliquary of jewels and gold, enough at least to be talked about in viking drinking halls. My anger brewed as they bragged between horns of mead, boasting how many Christians they would kill and women they would rape. My eyes turned to slits as I watched those toothless, hairy fuckers describe their oh-so-manly exploits.

Why do I keep doing this? Nothing gets me in trouble more than trying to impose modern morality on these people. Fuck, I get ostracized just for acting according to what we consider decent human behavior.

So I stumbled out onto the docks, after liberating a hammer and spike from the local blacksmith, and proceeded to punch holes in their boats. Every time I swung the hammer, I imagined it smashing into the face of one of those fuckers as they tried to rape Maeve. I’m such a hero.

That’s when they got me.

You could say the Loki helps those who helps themselves. That would be a lie. No matter how much he seems to be helping you, he’s really helping himself. Believe it. In any case, I knew my divine patron wouldn’t make it easy. So when the guards let their guard down, I chewed at the ropes that bound my hands. The other prisoners gave me wild-eyed looks, as if I could be getting us in worse than we already were. I guess they could torture us more before they killed us.

Between mouthfuls of rough fibers that threatened to pull my teeth out, I whispered to them. “If that wolf comes back, don’t scream. Don’t make a noise. I might be able to get us out of this.”

Rightfully, they looked at me as if I’d gone crazy, but not all of them. These people still held great stock in miracles. They knew how these things worked.

Still, they needed more convincing. “In the morning they will kill us all anyway. Slit our throats and hang us from a tree. The wolf will give you a death just as clean. And it can’t kill all of us.”

This gave me the response I needed. The prisoners started sizing each other up, determining who would be fast enough, who looked weak enough to push into the jaws of the wolf. Remember, you don’t have to outrun the wolf, just the other guys he’s chasing.

The gibbous moon lifted high, reflecting off the water. The blanket of a million stars covered us overhead. It still fills me with awe, after the years I’ve spent in this age. Even though I’ve traveled the hinterlands of Nunavut, British Columbia, the Yukon, it’s still different, still better. The stars in the modern age look old, tired, rimmed in a patina of pollution, no matter where you go. In 926 AD, at least I think it was 926, hard to get exact dates from anyone, they still have magic.

There would be plenty of light, and I could hear the roars of laughter coming from the drinking hall, meaning they were deep in their cups again. They had only left one behind to watch us, enough to raise the alarm. Modern people see wolves in a mythic proportions, as massive predators. Wolves are smaller than a lot of dogs, smaller than a viking warrior for sure. I could think of no way the wolf would take out the guard without making too much noise, but I knew if my patron had a plan, it would probably work. There would be more to it than meets the eye.

As the party in the hall died away with the fading embers of the fire, he returned, taking up his post. He had come a little closer this time. I saw him first, sitting on his haunches, staring at the guard. Out captor stirred, intrigued by the creature’s curiosity. He locked eyes with the wolf, and slowly but surely, the guard’s eyes drooped, blinked a few times, and went out. Fuck, if he was just gonna use magic, why not whisk me away on a wind when they came to grab me? I seems my suffering is all part of the fun for him.

I nudges my sleeping neighbors, and glared them into silence. After working the rest of my bonds free, I helped them untie their’s. No an act of mercy, the same thing works for guards as well as wolves. I only needed to outrun the slowest ones.

I wasted as much time as I could rubbing warmth back into my stiff joints. The others made a break for the fence, shuffling like a pack of Romero zombies. Just as I lowered myself over the side of the pen, I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. The fucking asshole who cried wolf before had stolen the guard’s dagger. The pull at his belt woke him just enough to scream before it came down on his throat.

The murdering asshole ran for it, arms flailing, not even bothering to steal the guy’s sword. The others scattered like high school kids during a keg party raid. Bellows came from the hall, and the night watchman in a rickety tree-stand blew his horn. I knew I had a minute before the watchman could climb down and the guys in the hall could grab their weapons. Not being the wasteful type, I latched onto the one thing the guard had, two things really, that I thought would make the difference—his boots. Not in the mood for unlacing, I jammed my barefoot into the corpse’s crotch, grabbed both heel and toe, and yanked as hard as I could. He didn’t seem to mind. The second one refused to give after three tugs, and I had to stop and untie down to the first few holes. As I did, three stumbled out of the hall and craned their heads around, confused by the target rich environment.

When the second one popped off I stumbled to the ground. The wolf, now standing right by my head, gave me a, “hurry the fuck up dumb ass,” look. Just for that, I stopped to grab the sword too before limping off after him.

Somehow, every medieval town manages to find Dead-Eye Dick to be their night watchman. The arrows came flying, bouncing off the rocks next to me as we bee-lined it to the tree line. I think he was aiming at the wolf at first, somehow sensing he was the greatest threat. My new companion was well out of range before I was, however, so he switched to my ass, and scored.

It lanced my back-cheek and I yowled, falling to my knees, but only for a second before I scrambled back to my feet. The pain turned numb by the power of adrenaline, but I could still feel it bouncing around behind me, the shaft sticking out of my ass.

A sense of relief came over me when I made the tree line. After zig-zagging between a few of the trees, I stopped to put the boots on. I wiped my feet of the embedded rocks and splinters, smearing them with blood. Not entirely a bad thing, it added lubrication as I struggled with the soft leather high-boots a couple sizes too small. The squeezing foot protection mad me feel even more secure, but reason dictated I put at least a few hundred yards between me and my pursuers. The screams of the other prisoners, undoubtedly being hacked down unarmed, added imputes to my flight.

I didn’t stop again until the pain in my ass became unbearable. Each time my left foot hit the ground the arrow sent jolts strong enough to make me gasp and limp. Leaning against a tree, I reached around and felt the thin wooden shaft, wiggling it just a bit to try and asses the damage. That made me scream. I had pulled out arrows before, so I wasn’t terrified, but anxious. It only sank in a couple inches, straight, not at an angle. As long as the arrowhead wasn’t barbed, I’d be okay. I prayed to the goddess Eir, medic of the Valkyries, gritted my teeth, and yanked. That brought out a mighty “fuck” that echoed for miles I was sure, and I sank to me knees, sobbing.

As I cried like a little girl, my companion, who I had almost forgotten about, couldn’t see in the darkness, nudged my sore behind and licked. The old wives’ tale says dog’s mouths are cleaner than ours, and I decided this applied to wolves as well. I don’t know if it was more magic or just a natural reaction, but it did soothe my pain to a dull ache.

“Yeah, lick my ass,” I said.

The wolf growled. That settled that. It was indeed a representative of my divine patron. The barb was directed at him after all, but I decided not to push it, considering his current emissary had such large teeth.

First-aid complete, the wolf trotted off a few more feet ahead, and gave another low grumble. The message, break time’s over asshole, let’s go. He continued on, and I followed the best I could through the deepening darkness of the pine forest. The wolf kindly showed me the path of least resistance by stopping every few minutes and flashing me it’s glowing yellow eyes. I fell over nary a branch, rock, or ravine.

No telling how much time had passed. Another of the love/hate things about my viking life, no clocks, no watches, no fucking cell phones. For me, only a gentle reminder that another life awaits. As my tortured feet plodded along, I felt warmth spread over me, the touch of soft, fine, modern fabric, the slickness of sheets, the achingly merciful cushion of pillows under my head, the sound of soft breathing in my ear. As often happens, when the time is drawing near, the other world bled into the one in which I walked. My patron wasn’t all bad.

I curled into a ball on my side, gingerly to prevent aggravating my wound. The wolf pressed up next to me, back to back, sharing his heat. In minutes, I crossed over.

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