A-Viking A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic by Kiernan Kelly Chapter One Great waves crashed over the sides of the longboat and sent frigid sheets of foam sluicing across the deck, that drenched the men who fought to keep her afloat. The storm had come up suddenly, nearly without warning, thick blue-black thunderheads moving in swiftly from over the horizon, pushing wild waves in front of them. A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 1 .
Bjorn stood at the helm, and squinted into the rain that pelted his skin with icy needles, as if the heat in his glare alone could pierce the gloom of the storm. Behind him, sixty-four men bent their backs to the oars, their voices raised not in prayer but in curses against the fickleness of luck, against their enemies, against the gods themselves for seeing fit to cast them headfirst into the maelstrom. Thunder boomed and the wind shrieked, the bellows of the storm drowning out the cries of the men. The wind whipped the waves ever higher, and rocked the Dragonslayer from side to side like a fragile leaf caught in the whitewaters of the Sjoa River. The great watery hands of the sea lifted the boat up high, then dropped it to crash back with bone-jarring impacts. Jagged lightning breached the sky grown as black as night, Odin’s spears slicing through the darkness only long enough to illuminate the angry waves for a heartbeat. How, Bjorn thought as a particularly violent crash brought him to his knees, has it come to this? By what curse of which god have I been branded outlaw? I flee from my homeland like the devil’s hounds are at my heels! Bjorn knew, of course, that there was something snapping at his heels, or rather someone -- someone from whom the devil himself might very well run and hide. He would have spat had he not known that the wind would only whip his spittle back into his face. The answer to his silently asked question came in the form of a name. Jorund Blood-axe. Jorund the Vanquisher. Jorund the Mealy-Balled Horse-fucker, Bjorn thought, and bared his teeth to the gale. Bjorn had been two years a-Viking, sailing his longboat from shore to shore, amassing wealth beyond imagining for the glory and coffers of his father, Erik Fairhair, Jarl of Lagarvík. Gold, silver, bronze, exotic spices, and bolts of brilliantly colored cloth had filled the hull of the longboat and the treasure boxes that served as seating for the men at the oars. So proud he’d been as he’d docked the Dragonslayer within sight of the familiar daub-and- wattle longhouses of Lagarvík. Both his heart and chest had swelled with the warmth of homecoming as he stepped from the deck to the dock, pausing a moment to get his land legs. Long strides brought him across the dock to the outskirts of the village. Eager to speak with his father, Bjorn had stepped up his pace but when he reached his father’s keep, he soon realized that nothing was as he remembered it to be. At the base of the hillock upon which the keep had been built, lay a freshly turned grave. Erik Fairhair was dead, struck down by Jorund the Vanquisher in a war that had lasted less than a month. Under siege, with most of her fiercest warriors at sea with Bjorn, Lagarvík had fallen quickly and Bjorn’s father with her. A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 2 .
Not even accorded the honor of being sent to Valhalla aboard his longboat, and denied the ritual of the funeral pyre, Erik Fairhair had been stuck in the ground like a turnip by Jorund’s Saxon- bastard priests. Only a small stone carved with runes marked that he had ever lived. “Bjorn Eriksson!” Jorund roared from the back of his monstrous black stallion, nearly hidden by the shadow of Erik Fairhair’s keep. “Face your death with honor, and I will make your journey to Asgard swift and painless!” Bjorn, last of his bloodline and rightful heir to the title of Jarl, had decided he would rather face a thousand slow, painful deaths at the hands of a noble warrior than one swift one at the hands of a usurper like Jorund the Pig-fucker. Raising his sword, Skullsplitter, high over his head, he’d roared as much in answer to Jorund’s call. That hadn’t sat well with either Jorund or his men, especially the Pig-fucker part. The battle that followed had been bloody and bitterly fought. Bjorn and his men, already weakened by their long sea voyage, had been beaten back toward the shore where the Dragonslayer was moored. The fight had followed them onto the waves, but Jorund the Ass-licker’s longboat, the Bear’s Claw, was hard-pressed to keep pace with the swift Dragonslayer. Although he couldn’t overtake Bjorn, he wouldn’t concede the chase either, continuing to trail them along the shore of Norge. Now the fierce storm that had blown up added another dimension to Bjorn’s troubles. He couldn’t beach, because Jorund the Worm-begotten would beach alongside him. Bjorn’s men were weary, most injured from the fighting in Lagarvík. He feared they couldn’t hold against another onslaught without rest. But neither could Dragonslayer hold long against the raging storm. Frustrated, Bjorn leaned into the wind as if to steer Dragonslayer safely through the tempest by the sheer force of his will. Each breath Bjorn took resulted in a mouthful of icy rain and brine. His long, pale blond hair was whipped into thick, matted knots; his jerkin, woolen tunic, and close-fitting leggings soaked through. Water had seeped into his knee-high leather boots, and numbed his feet. His body felt as frozen and brittle as rotted ice along a river’s edge at the end of winter, ready to splinter and be swept away by the frigid waves. A wave hit the side of the longboat, nearly overturning her. The rush of water swept Bjorn forward; only his arms reflexively wrapping around the figurehead kept him from being swept into the water. “By Odin’s balls! Either drown us or leave us be, but end this madness!” he bellowed to the sky as he clung to the carved dragon’s head that graced the bow of the longboat. A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 3 .
The gods must have deemed his prayer worthy of an answer because in the next heartbeat a great, towering wall of icy black-green water slammed into the longboat, and upended it, tossing every soul aboard into the frigid sea. *** Chase would be the first to admit that he lived up to his name. He was always in motion, always hustling, always running after something or for someone. Slow was not in Chase’s vocabulary. He had two speeds – fast, and get-the-hell-out-of-my-way. As a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, his entire world revolved around split- second decisions and actions. From the opening bell to closing, he was a whirlwind of motion, buying and selling for clients at warp speed. His high metabolism was perfect for his line of work. Tall and lanky, his long limbs were in constant motion – even in his sleep some part of him was always moving. He twisted and turned so much that it was inevitable he woke with his sheets twisted around his body like a straitjacket. Chase didn’t own a sofa. Instead, his living room was filled with exercise equipment. A rowing machine and a treadmill, a stationary bike, and a bench press all faced the television set. On the rare occasion that Chase had company, his guests were forced to stroke, walk, pedal, lift, or sit on the floor. His last date had remarked that sitting next to Chase was like sitting with Thumper from Bambi. Chase’s mother had referred to his constantly bouncing legs as “nervous energy”. Chase’s doctor called it “hyperactivity”. Chase’s date had called it “extremely annoying”. The good news was that Chase was in peak physical condition. Not bulky, his muscles were lean, but strong. Unfortunately, his blood pressure was also constantly moving - up. The demands of his job and his inability to stand still for longer than it took to take a piss were affecting Chase’s health. “Slow down,” the doctor told him during his last exam. “Take a vacation. Relax. Learn how to enjoy doing nothing, or you’re going to end up in an early grave without a damn thing to look forward to but an eternity of lying still.” He’d reinforced his diagnosis by adding a blood pressure medication to Chase’s daily regimen of vitamin supplements. He’d tried. He’d really had put forth his best effort to heed the doctor’s advice to slow down and relax. Chase had taken a beachfront motel room on a stretch of the Florida shore that was virtually uninhabited at this time of year. No tourists. No college kids on Spring Break. No conventioneers. No cell phone. No laptop. There was only Chase, the beach, and an interminable two weeks of solitude stretching before him. A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 4 .
Chase made it nearly twenty-four hours before he began pacing the motel room from one end to the other like a caged panther. Which brought Chase to where he was at the moment – jogging barefoot over the wet, hard- packed sand at the edge of the ocean, foamy seawater splashing around his ankles. The night before brought with it a torrential storm. Howling wind kicked up wild waves that crashed over the beach, and reached far beyond the normal tide line. Rain pelted Chase’s motel room window in a loud staccato, fat drops hitting the window glass as if fired from a machine gun. Lighting flashed in such rapid succession that it reminded Chase of strobe lights on a dance club floor. There had been no mention of the coming storm during the evening’s weather report. It blew up out of nowhere, it seemed, and the squall had done little to relax Chase. He spent the better part of the night pacing and counting lightning flashes, trapped in his hotel by the ferocity of the thunderstorm. The sun was just beginning to breach the horizon, a pale rose glimmer glinting off the ocean in the far distance. Overhead, the wind scudded clouds across the sky and broke up the last of the thunderheads. Clad in cargo shorts and a loose white T-shirt, Chase walked out onto the beach fully intending to take a slow, relaxing stroll along the water’s edge. His good intentions lasted all of five minutes before he broke out into a jog, burning off some of the energy that had been accumulating in his system during the previous night’s forced confinement. The beach was deserted, littered with debris washed ashore during the storm. Driftwood, sanded smooth and gray by the water, lay like old bones against the dun sand. Seashells were sprinkled liberally along Chase’s path, clam and mussels mostly, but a few conchs as well. Hermit crabs scuttled about, burying themselves to keep out of reach of the gulls that swooped low over the dunes. Chase ran about a half mile when he spotted something in the distance. Too large to be driftwood, too small to be a beached whale, it was lying on the sand barely out of reach of the lapping waves. As he drew closer, his heart began to thud in his chest. It was a man. Covered in grit, his oddly primitive clothing plastered to his body, the man lay facedown in the sand, unmoving. Chase toed him gently in the ribs, then jumped back, worried that the body would explode on contact. When it remained whole, if sodden, Chase squatted and felt for a pulse. He found one, but it was weak, barely registering under his fingers. The man’s chest was still. He wasn’t breathing. A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 5 .
Chase dropped to his knees, grabbed the man’s broad shoulders, and heaved him up onto his side, before pounding hard with the heel of his hand between the man’s shoulder blades. He was rewarded when the man sputtered and coughed, then sprayed the beach with a mouthful of seawater. Chase eased him onto to his back when his coughing quieted and he’d taken a couple of deeper breaths. Pale blue eyes the color of Arctic ice blinked open, the confusion in them swiftly giving way to anger. A hand shot up, and thick fingers twisted in the fabric of Chase’s shirt, then pulled him down until the tips of their noses nearly touched. “Der hvor er jeg? Der hvor er meg mannskap?” the man snarled, his upper lip curling over his teeth. A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 6 .
Chapter Two “Whoa!” the man cried, and pried his shirt free from Bjorn’s hand. “Let go of me! You’re going to be okay. No need to damage the goods.” “Britisk?” Bjorn muttered. His brows knitted in pain as he tried to sit up. Having spent several years a-Viking in and around the Isle of Man, Bjorn had had the opportunity to learn the language of Britannia. But it had been a while since he’d last spoken it, and what he remembered seemed only vaguely similar to what had rolled off this man’s tongue. It sounded as if he were accusing Bjorn of sacking his possessions. How could Bjorn sack anything when he could barely move? He flopped back onto the sand, exhausted. “No, my name is Chase. I don’t know anyone named Britisk. Look, I don’t have my cell phone with me, so I’m going to run back to the motel to call an ambulance, okay?” No doubt, Bjorn’s brain had been muddled by the amount of seawater that filled his ears. It sounded as if the man had called himself Chase, which was an odd name, even for a Britisk. Although he did say that he was going to run somewhere, which was in keeping with his odd moniker. What disturbed Bjorn was that he’d also mentioned a cell. Bjorn couldn’t allow himself to be taken prisoner – he had to find the rest of his men. “No! I will go nowhere without my men!” Bjorn cried, shaking his head. “I ask you again - my men, where are they? Have you seen them?” “No, I haven’t seen anybody but you. What happened? Did your boat sink in the storm last night?” Storm? “Ja! The storm,” Bjorn said, wearily closing his eyes. The storm. Now he remembered what had happened. The sea had taken Dragonslayer, and his men with her. Had he alone survived? Suddenly panicked, his hand slid to his waist. Ah, thank Odin! Skullsplitter was still at his side, tucked securely into its sheath. The waves could have stripped Bjorn as bare as the day he’d been born, but he would not have felt naked as long as his sword was still with him. Some of the tension he’d felt drained away with the familiar weight of his weapon in his hand. “You really need an ambulance,” Chase said, sitting back on his heels. Bjorn cracked open his eyes again, although the light from the rising sun burned. “Amble where? Heed me, boy. I am not so weak that I will easily be taken prisoner!” “Oh, shit… Did you steal the boat or something? Is that why you’re afraid of being locked up?” “The Dragonslayer was no spoils of war. She was mine. Or rather, she belonged to my father, the Jarl, and was my responsibility, as were the men aboard her.” A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 7 .
“How many men were with you? I’m sorry to tell you this, but I don’t see anyone else. Maybe they were rescued at sea,” Chase said. His eyes looked troubled to Bjorn, as if he didn’t really believe what he’d said. Sadly, neither did Bjorn. “Nei. There would be no one to save them.” “I’m sorry.” “Why? You did not call up the storm, did you?” Bjorn’s eyes narrowed. Perhaps this Chase was a magician, a sorcerer of Jorund the Shit-eater. “Of course not. You don’t need to take an attitude with me. I’m just trying to help.” He seemed sincere, and Bjorn supposed that had Chase been a magician, he could have already spelled Bjorn into a toad if he’d been so inclined. “Am I still on the shores of Norge, or did we sail as far as Sverige?” Bjorn asked, impatiently. He had no time for this nonsense, not if he was to find his way back to Lagarvík and seek revenge on the man who was truly responsible for his men’s deaths – Jorund the Ball-licker. “Huh?” Surely this man was addled. Bjorn spoke again, slowly, as he would have spoken to Hans the Simple, the man in Lagarvík who had sustained one too many blows to the head in battle. “Where. Am. I?” “Florida.” “I am aware that I am on the floor. It is a consequence of lying down.” Bjorn sat up, and felt every muscle in his body scream in protest. Was it not enough for the gods’ amusement to merely drown me? Did they also feel it necessary to beat me black and blue with Thor’s hammer while they were at it? “Now, I ask again. Think carefully and tell me where I am.” “I just did. You’re on the beach just south of Fort Lauderdale.” “There is no stronghold named Lauderdale in Norge.” “Where the hell is Norge?” “Bah, simpleton,” Bjorn muttered under his breath. Gathering his legs under him, he tried to stand. His legs felt like the tentacles of the giant jellyfish that washed ashore each summer - boneless and weak. He was surprised when Chase insinuated his shoulder under Bjorn’s arm, helping him stand. A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 8 .
“Can you walk?” Chase asked, looking up at him. Several inches shorter than Bjorn, Chase was nonetheless stronger than he looked. He held up under Bjorn’s weight remarkably well, for one so scrawny. “Ja,” Bjorn answered. He shook Chase off, his pride not allowing him to accept help, especially that of a stranger, and a dull-witted Britisk at that. Swaying, he managed to keep upright, and even took a step before what he saw nearly caused him to collapse again. Never, in all of his travels, had Bjorn seen such magnificent buildings as those that lined the outlying edge of the sand for as far as he could see. The rays of the rising sun glinted off them as if they were made of some precious metal, like gold or silver. Enormous, just one alone could easily have housed every man, woman, and child in Lagarvík with plenty of room to spare for all the dogs, cattle, horses, and sheep. One thing was for certain. Bjorn was not in Norge. Nor Sverige, nor any part of Storbritannia he had ever visited. In fact, no people he knew of had ever built such glorious castles. They towered above the beach, their tops nearly reaching the clouds, or so it seemed to Bjorn. Chase’s shoulder wedging itself under Bjorn’s arm was all that kept him from falling to his knees as a dreadful idea hit him. Perhaps, Bjorn thought, he had not survived after all. Perhaps he was dead and these gleaming castles were the homes of the gods in Asgard. It made sense. Sadly, Bjorn had not died in battle as was a fitting death for a warrior, so it could not be Valhalla. “Am I… am I dead?” he finally asked, unable to tear his eyes from the buildings in the distance. “What? Of course not!” Chase said. “What makes you think that?” “Is that not Asgard?” “No, it’s the Marriott.” “If not Asgard, then who is lord of this castle?” Bjorn said, arching his neck to look up toward the top of the building. “It’s not a castle. It’s my hotel.” “You are jarl here? Where is your escort?” “Do I look like a lord to you? Of course not. I just told you that it’s my hotel.” Bjorn shook his head and grunted. “You are confusing me.” “I’m confusing you?” Chase laughed. “I’ve felt a little like Alice down the rabbit hole ever since you woke up. That, my friend, is my hotel. Now, come on. We can call an ambulance from my room.” A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 9 .
“You live here, though? In this palace?” “Yup. For the next week and a half she’s mine, all mine.” “Week? How long is that?” “Please tell me that you’re kidding! You can’t remember how long a week is? It’s seven days.” “Ah, a sennight. Why did you not say so in the first place? Why do you live here for only a sennight?” “Um, because I don’t live here. I’m only staying here. I live in New York. I’m renting a room here for two sennights… er, weeks.” “Did something happen to the old one?” “The old what?” “York.” “Okay… I’m thinking that maybe your boat didn’t sink. Maybe you drank a little too much – make that a lot too much - last night and fell overboard. C’mon, I’ve got coffee in the room. That ought to sober you up,” Chase said. He shook his head and urged Bjorn up over the dunes toward the bright lights of the spectacular longhouse. “What’s your name, anyway?” “I have many. Bjorn Eriksson. Bjorn the Traveler. Bjorn the Conqueror.” * Jorund sought shelter in the shadows of a wooden dock, building a small fire from scraps of driftwood he’d collected along the beach. Shaking with both cold and rage, he huddled near the tiny blaze, trying to warm himself. The Bear’s Claw had been gaining on Eriksson, slicing through the black waters of the sea when the storm had blown up. Suddenly, The Dragonslayer (pompous, arrogant name for a longboat captained by a whoreson whelp, as far as Jorund was concerned. Midge-slayer would have been more appropriate. Flea-slayer, perhaps), had disappeared into the gloom, hidden by the driving sheets of rain. Grunting, Jorund had to admit that Eriksson and his men had shown more spirit than he’d given them credit for having – they’d fought back bravely, refusing to yield even though they were outnumbered and far too weary to have the slightest hope of winning the battle. Indeed, they’d managed to stay alive long enough to reach their longboat and cast off, although that was partly the fault of Jorund’s men. A Torquere Press Single Shot Classic - 10 .