Horn of the Kraken by Stephen B. Pearl


An historical, Norse, Viking saga, fantasy action-adventure novel, swords and sorcery, gaming novel.


Rated PG14 - adult.


Published by Fate of the Norns, Pendelhaven in trade paper back and e-book.


ISBN-13: 978-0986763373.


15 chapters, 237 pages, ~80,300 words.


Location: historical northern Europe, England, Sweden, Finland and the Orkney Islands.


Available from Fate of the Norns, Pendelhaven.
Amazon on line booksellers, and the Kindle Amazon store
Barnes and Noble
Indigo and Chapters on line, Canada
and can be ordered from your local book seller.


Horn of the Kraken book cover - historical Viking novel

Description


     During the sword age of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, a group of heroes must steal the horn of the kraken from Hakon, the bastard pretender to the throne of Norveig, who is using it to force kraken to sink the ships of Jarl Eric Bloodaxe, in a bid to win the war between them.


     Can a Karl's son, who would rather be a skald, lead a Seith witch, who is plagued by ghosts, a near giant Galdr, with the power of the Runes at his disposal, a Maiden of Ratatosky, mischief woman, who may be more trouble than she's worth, and a Ulfhednar, wolf warrior, who is a traditional foe of him and his gods, into a battle to save their way of life and the freedom to choose the gods you call your own.



Book Cover

     The sun and moon have been devoured by the cosmic wolves Skoll and Hati. Fimbulwinter has enveloped the world in cold and darkness. Men prey on each other in order to survive. Amid the chaos, in the struggle for the throne, comes a war between brothers.


     Hakon, illegitimate heir to the throne of Norveig, has obtained a horn that can summon a terror from the depths of the ocean. This monstrosity has been sinking the vessels of his half-brother, Jarl Erik Bloodaxe. Erik sends a company of untried heroes to infiltrate Hakon's stronghold, and steal the horn.


     As with all things political there are other agendas. Fjorn, the leader of the team, is Erik's half-brother who could challenge Erik for the throne. Erik's wife Gunnhild is a powerful sorceress with her own ambitions- could her goals derail the heroes?


     In life, sometimes a Jarl wins, and other times a Jarl wins.



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Horn of the Kraken Chapter 1

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Chapter 1
A Gathering Storm


     There was a war horn's cry, like Heimdall sounding the Gjallarhorn on the last day. Eternal night shrouded the ice covered slope down to the harbour where the dragon-prowed, raiding boats ground onto the frosty shore to disgorge their cargo of hungry, desperate men in patched and broken mail and leather.


     The warriors of Orkney massed behind a palisade of logs and stone overlooking the harbour. Their armour was less - ragged than that of the men below, and while all were thin, the Orkney men were not as starved as their foes.


     Urd floated above the impending battle. Scattered flakes of snow passed through her translucent form as she looked on dispassionately. The bitter cold did not even cause her breath to mist, despite the fact she wore only a light dress and summer cloak. Her golden hair was pulled into braids, which revealed delicate ears and the Norn's countenance was that of a lovely maid. Her skin was unflawed.


     A wolf's howl, so fierce that it sent a shudder through even the most stalwart heart, split the air.


     The war horn on the battlements sounded again. This time, it was met by an answering roar of voices raised as one. The raiders charged. Flights of arrows darkened the sky, falling on the attackers, but men with nothing to lose thought little of death, and thus the survivors came on across the ice field, with its litter of tree stumps, as their comrades fell, with only the vague promise of Hakon's White God's heaven for comfort.


     The gate on the palisade was thrown open and the warriors loyal to Erik Bloodaxe charged onto the ice.


#

     It was an Axe Age, a Sword Age, where shields were cloven.


     Brother fought brother, with no quarter or mercy.


#

     The armies met. Sword and axe were bloodied, shields rent and the ice grew dark under a river of red.


     Fjorn faced his foe, a hulking man who seemed to tower into the dark sky. The invader swung his axe. Fjorn leapt aside while bringing his sword across his enemy's stomach. The mail turned the strike. The invader caught Fjorn's blade and, with an experienced twist, sent it flying through the air. Fjorn scrambled for the dagger on his belt as he stepped away then tripped over a tree stump, falling backward onto the ice. Howling the invader swung from the side hooking Fjorn's shield and tearing it from his grasp. Smiling through broken, rotted teeth, the larger man raised his axe for the final blow.


     "Do you wish to live?" The voice was like music.


     Fjorn glanced around everything seemed frozen in time. Above the Rainbow Bridge, those shimmering bands of light that graced the northern sky, was still. Unbelieving Fjorn blinked. Lord Odin's warrior women, Gunn and Rota, their long tresses flowing behind them, mounted on magnificent steeds carried men from the field towards the still lights above.


     "Do you wish to live? I will ask but three times."


     Fjorn shifted his gaze to see a beautiful, young woman dressed for summer. She floated to his side. If he looked hard, he could see the stilled battle through her. "Am I dead?"


     "That has yet to be known. I have need of a servitor who bears the blood of Frey. You will serve as well as any. Will you pledge your service to me and live, or go to Hel an untried boy with no sword in your hand? Do you wish to live?"


     Fjorn gazed at the beautiful spirit. "I do."


     Ready yourself for a voyage. You shall be summoned." Drifting upwards, Urd noted where the mail on the man attacking Fjorn had been broken and patched with leather thong. Floating above the battle she paused by an arrow frozen in its flight and released a breath, little more than a sigh. The arrow quivered shifting less than a hair's breadth to the side.


     Fjorn watched the beautiful spirit float away. Time restarted. The invader roared holding his axe over his head, then a look of shock filled his face and he toppled. Pushing with all his might Fjorn crawled out from under his attacker's corpse and looked down to see a feathered shaft protruding through a hole in the man's mail shirt.


     Shaking his head, Fjorn collected his sword and shield and rejoined the defence.


#

     Sigurlina trudged through the dark and cold, a heavy burden of wood on her back and a cargo more precious than gold in her hands. The forest around her was dead. Trees towered; stark skeletons against the vermilion light that tainted the horizon from Muspelheim's flames. She could barely see her own tracks in the snow in front of her.


     "You're going the wrong way. Let me in and I'll show you," spoke a voice in her ear that she tried to ignore.


     "Don't listen to him. He doesn't want to help you. Why don't you stop and rest, dear. I could keep you warm; if you'd let me enter you," spoke a woman's voice.


     "Be silent, shades. I am not fool enough to listen to you."


     "Over here, a fat buck ready for the taking. I was a hunter, I could get him for you," called yet another voice.


     Sigurlina stepped into a clearing before a snow-covered mound. A spot of light spilled out staining the snow with dancing red waves.


     "She will die soon, and then she won't be able to protect you. You'll let us in, and then you can wander the darkness," snarled the female voice.


     Sigurlina trudged to the opening in the mound and stooped to enter. Inside, the chamber widened into a long passage defined by large, stone slabs roughly-chiselled flat. Side chambers were sealed off with walls of smaller stones. A fire burnt in the middle of a clear space at the front of the passage with a tripod over the flames. Wood was piled at the back of the passage. A mound of poorly-tanned hides filled the space between the fire and the wood.


     The transparent form of a muscular man in his middle years, dressed in mail and girthed with a sword, stood by the mound of hides.


     "I am sorry, by little cat, but no. I welcome you here because you are my granddaughter. I held you on my knee when you were in swaddling, and now you are close to death. Sigurlina is too far both in kinship and in her time of mortal life for me to extend my courtesy. This is a house for the dead. The living do not belong here."


     "I'm standing right here, great, great grandfather,." said Sigurlina.


     "So you are, distant daughter of my line,." replied the shade.


     Ignoring the spirit, Sigurlina held up the two trout in her hand and moved beside the pile of hides. "I was able to break a hole in the ice and retrieve my line."


     "That is wonderful, dear." A hand, that was age spotted skin stretched tight over bone, emerged from the hides and stroked Sigurlina's cheek.


     Sigurlina closed her eyes and smiled.


     A wolf's howl pierced the eternal night and even the dead warrior trembled in fear.


     "Gram howls, Gram howls. The Sword Age is begun." A crazy-haired, old woman, in dirty clothing, flew through the rocks baring a side chamber.


     "We are all Seithkona here. We all know the Hel hound's call." The aged figure from the hides spoke in a frail voice.


     The crazy-haired shade dove towards Sigurlina. The girl's body jerked and her features sneered. "Then we all know there is no hope. The Sword age will give way to the Wolf age and none will be spared," spoke the shade's voice through Sigurlina's lips.


     "Silence, Katla, and get out of my descendant! I will not see my mortal line end while Odin still stands, and I yet rule in this house," snapped the warrior shade.


     Sigurlina collapsed to hands and knees while the shade of Katla manifested beside her.


     "Useless, weak thing! No control. If you had the courage to follow Laufey, she'd teach you control, and then no spirit could treat you thus."


     "Be silent, Katla. You're just jealous because I chose Freya. She's at least able to keep her man," snapped Sigurlina's grandmother, then she fell into a fit of coughing.


     Sigurlina roused herself and moved to comfort the old woman who waved her away.


     "Prepare the fish, and be sure to make offering to our hosts," instructed the aged voice from the piled hides.


     The task of preparing the fish steadied Sigurlina's nerves. Spirits crowded about the flames jabbering at her. Many she could invite in or push away, but not the powerful ones. Her grandmother had saved her dozens of times from spirits that entered and wouldn't leave, and Sigurlina was afraid of what would happen without the old woman. She made sure to put the bones and fish heads in the fire to carry them to the otherworld. This stilled the shades for a moment while they all vied for their share of the offering, like hungry wolves tearing at a kill.


     When the food was ready she scooped it into their wooden bowl and moved to her grandmother's side.


     Milky eyes opened on a withered face. "You eat it, dear. I do not need it."


     "Grandmother."


     An aged hand rose silencing the protest. "This will be my last night in mortal flesh."


     "I--." Sigurlina felt her throat close on her words.


     The aged face smiled gently. "I should have passed when the Axe age began, would have, but after the bastard Hakon slaughtered your mother someone had to teach you the way of Seith magic."


     Sigurlina felt her thoughts drawn back. She had been but twelve when Hakon's crusaders came to their village calling for all to bend knee to their White God. They had accepted hospitality, but in the dead of night, they betrayed their hosts. Half the men were dead, throats slit in their sleep, before the alarm was raised. The crusaders, swords dripping blood, herded the men into the town's common. The crusaders were so arrogant. They thought nothing of the woman. With a cry the shield maids fell upon the invaders armed and ready. The town's men escaped in the confusion and ran to armour themselves as their wives, mothers and daughters held the foe at bay.


     Sigurlina hung her head as she remembered seeing her own mother, a Seithkona of great power, standing in their doorway warping the spirits to bring the invaders down. Then, a feathered shaft struck her and she fell. Her father, now armed, had rushed to his wife's side, and held her as she breathed her last.


     "Run, flee." It was the first time Sigurlina had heard a spirit's voice. She looked up and saw her mother floating before her, but she could see the hut's wall through her.


     "Mother, teach her." The spirit smiled at Sigurlina. "My little Seithkona."


     "I will," agreed her grandmother, and then her mother was gone.


     "We must get to the docks," snapped her father as he picked up his beloved and lay her on their bed. He kissed her a final time. Taking a brand from the fire, he thrust it into the straw mattress.


     "A fitting pyre," said grandmother.


     "They won't despoil her in death," her father grunted.


      They raced from cover to cover, her father striking down the enemies they couldn't avoid, while her grandmother cast shroud spells, turning the crusader's eyes away from them.


     At the dock her father joined the warriors who held back the crusaders while the village folk boarded the ships. Blood flowed and Sigurlina watched from her ship as Valkyries carried the fallen away.


     She heard her father's voice commanding, "Cast off. Cast off." Crying she tried to run to him, but aged hands with an iron grip held her back. Three crusaders rushed her father who held the dock. He parried a blow and his notched sword broke. The crusaders bore her father down. The last thing she saw of him was his transparent form mounting a Valkyrie's horse. After that, it had been an arduous journey to Finnmark, the land of her grandmother, where the only shelter or generosity they could find was with the dead.


     Sigurlina shook all over. "You can't die. I can't control the spirits. I'm not strong enough. I still need to learn."


     "You must listen." Her grandmother's voice bared no objection.


     Sigurlina nodded.


     The old woman seemed to sink into the hides and her voice was a whisper. "When I am gone, you alone can avenge our family. Hakon must not be permitted to slaughter and force his ways on our people. Swear to me that you will avenge us."


     "I swear." Sigurlina's voice was tear chocked.


     "Good. When I am gone, you must make a pyre. Burn my body and keep the flames going for three days. Use the motion of the stars to keep your time. When that is done, sift the ashes and you will find all you need."


     Sigurlina hugged the old woman then released her and devoured the fish. For the first time in days the gnawing in her belly stilled. Exhausted, she slept by the fire.


     "Sigurlina. Wake up, dear."


     Sigurlina opened her eyes and stared at her mother. Only it wasn't her mother. The eyes were different. They were blue and her mother's had been green and the jaw was more square.


     "Grandmother?"


     "Always so vain, Freya lover," snarled Katla's shade.


     "Be quiet, you old bat," replied the grandmother's shade. She turned to Sigurlina. "Remember."


     Sigurlina sat up and shivered. The fire had burnt down to coals. She moved to add more wood.


     "Let it die," commanded the shade of the warrior.


     "Great, great, grandfather, Jarl Ingvarr..." Sigurlina looked into the shade's hollow eyes and pale, corpse-like face then fell silent.


     "This is a house for the dead. You are not welcome here."


     "Or you could let me take your form and stay," breathed Katla's voice.


     "Leave," commanded Ingvarr.


     "I'll gather my things and set the pyre then--."


     "I SAID LEAVE!" bellowed Ingvarr and dust fell from the ceiling.


     Sigurlina faced her ancestor and her heart quailed, then her eyes fell to the still pile of hides on the floor and something hard gripped her. "No."


     "NO? THIS IS MY HOUSE. I RULE HERE," bellowed Ingvarr. More dust fell.


     "I am Seithkona, shade. I will take what is mine, and do what I have promised before I depart. This may be your house, but I am Seithkona!"


     Ingvarr backed away his features taking on the appearance of the vital man he'd been in life. He smiled and nodded. "Very well, daughter of my line."


     Sigurlina swallowed in a dry mouth. Never before had a powerful spirit showed her deference. Taking an armload of wood from her store, she built up the fire before starting the arduous process of building the pyre in the clearing before the barrow. Hours later, she pulled away the layers of hides from around her grandmother's body. The shades had been oddly silent as she worked. When her grandmother's corpse was revealed, it was a wizened, desiccated shell. Nothing of the vital force that had played such a role in her life remained.


     Sigurlina picked up the corpse, bore it outside, and laid it on the piled wood. The shades from the barrow appeared forming a ring.


     "No one should do this alone," explained Ingvarr, who stood beside her.


     She nodded then went back to the barrow, piling her meagre possessions outside the entrance. She used a stick to push flaming coals from her fire into the empty cauldron and carried them out to the set wood.


     "May Freya watch over you. Goodbye, grandmother." Tipping the cauldron, she dropped the coals onto the dry wood. The flame took and roared up. She stood, surrounded by the dead, in service to the dead, for a long time.


     The first sleep passed in fitful dreams of the sea. She stood on a raiding ship, the wind whipping her cloak back from her body. A man, maybe a year or two older than her, stood beside her. He was handsome with dark-blond hair, grey eyes and a muscular, broad-shouldered form. She took his hand and watched as the sea rose up in a towering wall of water. She awoke to an odd feeling, finding herself standing beside her body that writhed on the ground as two shades tried to occupy it.


     "Get out, by Freya, get out." She dove back into her physical form, which displaced the spirits.


     "Laufey would teach you so they wouldn't dare try that." Katla whispered in Sigurlina's ear.


     "Be silent, hag," muttered Sigurlina.


     "Make me. But I think you have larger problems." The mad-looking spectre gestured to the edge of the clearing where the dimming fire revealed yellow eyes staring at the mortal. After building up the fire, Sigurlina moved to where the stone that had sealed the barrow sat to one side of the entrance. It had been nearly three years, the entire Axe age, since her grandmother had called on the spirits to pull it aside. Sigurlina placed her hands on the stone and focused as her grandmother had taught her.


     "You won't do it. You are too weak," taunted Katla.


     Sigurlina ignored the shade and called the spirits. For a moment nothing happened, then the stone rocked. She pushed harder and it rolled. Moments later the barrow was closed.


     "Sleep well ancestors until Heimdall sounds his horn." Moving back to the fire, she watched the flames.


     The second night she dreamt of crusaders. All around her, flame reflected off their helms as ships burned and docks crumbled into ash. Tentacles writhed up from the water, striking anyone who drew near them. A sword drove towards her. She jerked awake to see her form using a long stick to pull apart the coals of the fire.


     "Stop!" she cried and dove into her body. It felt like falling flat onto water. She had to push to dislodge the spirit. When she was safely inside herself she built up the flames. The shaggy, gray forms that prowled the clearing's edge retreated.


     "You're lucky it wasn't me," spoke Katla.


     "I thought you were in your barrow."


     "That would be boring if I couldn't get out. Why struggle? The wolf will howl, The Aesir will die, and Surt will burn it all."


     "Then I will die a child of the Aesir. There are worse things than Surt's fire. They killed my mother and my father. If such as they take the nine realms, I would beg for Surt's flames."


     "I will take your vengeance for you. Let me in and I will make them suffer in your name."


     For a moment, Sigurlina felt tempted. An end to the struggle, but then she took a deep breath and steeled herself. "Go. I command thee, return to your barrow."


     "Look who's getting above herself, little girl. Pushed a rock and now you think you're a Seithkona. In my day..."


     Sigurlina ignored the shade, but others clustered nigh each demanding or cajoling.


     "Bring me vengeance." / "Where is my child?" / "Join us." / "Give us an offering."


     Before her grandmother had commanded the spirits to silence; now, they threatened to overwhelm Sigurlina. Still she fed the flames and eventually sleep took her.


     "Do you wish to live?" The voice was soft.


     Sigurlina opened her eyes. A pair of wolves hung in mid-air to either side of her, as if pouncing for her throat. She leapt to her feet and moved away.


     "You shouldn't meddle," snapped Katla.


     "Norns do not meddle, old shade. We are the spirit of what must be, will be, and, when we are lucky, may be. Be silent, I am not speaking to you." Urd turned her full attention to Sigurlina. "I will only ask thrice. Do you wish to live?"


     Sigurlina pinched herself. "What do I have to do?"


     "Get thee to the town of Ekenas on the coast; a ship will meet you there. You will know it when you see it. I will say this much. My goals and your vengeance are aligned. More will be revealed in time. I ask a final time. Do you wish to live?"


     "Yes."


     The wolves continued their leap, but without their target to still their momentum, they slammed into each other. Sigurlina took a heavy piece of fire wood and slammed it into the closest wolf, driving it into the fire. The wolf leapt clear, its mangy coat smouldering, and bolted towards the woods. The remaining wolf, a starving, stunted thing, snarled at her.


     Sigurlina focused her will and commanded, "Drive him into the fire."


     "That wasn't anything. In my day..."


     Sigurlina ignored Katla as she gutted the wolf. Spiting the heart she cooked it over the diminishing flames as she started another fire away from the pyre to dress the rest of the meat.


     When the pyre was reduced to ash and warm coals, Sigurlina sifted through the remains.


     "You shouldn't do that. It's disrespectful. You are a very evil girl." Katla harangued Sigurlina, who kept sifting through the coals. Other shades appeared until there was a clamour of voices. Sigurlina ignored them. Her hand came across something hard and round about the size of the end of her thumb. She pulled it out. It was a purple stone.


     "You should put that back." There was panic in Katla's voice.


     Sigurlina kept searching, finding another stone, then a third.


     "Put them back. Put them back, they aren't for you," howled the shades that had clustered nigh.


     Sigurlina held the stones. They hummed with a power that mingled with, and seemed to complement, her own.


     "Silence," she commanded. The shades fell silent. "Return to your graves and barrows until I have need of you." She spoke the words as her grandmother had taught her. All but a single shade departed. Sigurlina stared into a face, which looked like her mother's.


     "Grandmother, did you do that?"


     "No, dear. You did. All the stones do is help you focus what is inside you. You'd need them not if I'd had more time to train you in life, but this will do until you catch up to yourself."


     "You're staying."


     "I'll drop by. It's time for you to have adventures of your own. And dear."


     "Yes?"


     "You should turn that wolf meat you're drying before it burns."


     Sigurlina looked at the drying meat. When she turned back her grandmother was gone.


     Sitting by her fire she ate the wolf heart, and then packed the rest of the barely dried meat. Later she shouldered her pack and choosing a long, straight, hawthorn staff started for the coast.


#

     "Where in the nine realms are we? You told me we weren't near land," snarled a tall, burly man wrapped in dirty furs and a thick, woollen cloak. Despite his height, he was still a head shorter than the man beside him.


     Audun stared out past the dragon prow of the ship watching for icebergs in the eternal night of Fimbulwinter. "I swear by Aegir, we're not."


     "Then what are those lights? We're supposed to be in the middle of nowhere, so unless polar bears have started building fires; there has to be land nearby. If we run aground, Jarl Erik will feed us to the crabs with his own hands. Now, you're supposed to be a map maker, so you tell me the course I need to set."


     Audun sighed. "Oski, the closest land should be Norveig, and it's half a day's hard sailing away. Maybe the seas have changed."


     "Right." Oski rolled his eyes. "More of your Ragnarok gibberish. Check your maps. I've heard tell about places where boiling rock wells up and makes new land. Way things are nowadays, I'll not cry false to that. Go, I'll keep the ice watch."


     "These are dark times." Audun moved amidships to his trunk. Men lay on the deck by the oar stations, huddled in blankets looking more like poorly-stowed cargo than people in the dim light cast by the torches on the gunwale. The oars had been shipped and the square sail held taught in a following breeze. The center of the deck was crowded with crates. Audun opened the chest containing his maps and extracted one of the shaved sheepskins. Unrolling it revealed a detailed drawing of the Norveig coast labelled in his clean, runic script.


     The wind carried the sound of a horn, but it was muted with an odd quality. A minute later Oski appeared.


     "Sorry about not trusting your map, Audun. Lights must be on another ship. They should have sounded sooner. Some captains just don't keep their eyes open. I'll be glad to make harbour on Shetland. Markland is too far to sail for salt cod and dried roots by anybodies count."


     Audun nodded and rolled up his map. The ship pitched as if running aground.


     "Freya's tits! What did we hit?" Oski raced forward but before he got three paces a crewman towards the rear of the ship screamed in terror.


     "It's" Audun stared at a huge, sinuous tentacle with cup-shaped bits lining one side that waved up from the side of the ship and swept the deck. The tentacle slammed into a crew man and wrapped around his waist before pulling him into the water.


     "A kraken!" bellowed a voice from the ship's bow followed by a scream. Audun turned in time to see another tentacle pull one of his shipmates into the sea.


     "This can't be. Kraken never hunt in pairs." Audun stood frozen with shock.


     The tentacles had returned and were now joined by a third set amidships.


     "Fight now, think later," bellowed Oski.


     Audun drew his battle axe and raced to land a flurry of blows on a tentacle that had grabbed another crewman. The tentacle was driven back. There was a cry from the tiller and the helm's man vanished into the icy waves. The ship keeled hard over and water poured onto the deck. Audun was knocked off his feet. There was a resounding crack and the ship tipped up. Ropes snapped and cargo slid across the deck slamming into the crew, sending more of them into the frigid waters.


     Two kraken, which were each the size of a war horse, pulled their squid-like bodies onto the deck. A third remained in the water making a horrible, discordant, chirping sound.


     Audun felt his mind bubble with rage. He struggled to rise from the broken rope and smashed cargo boxes that entangled him. His crewmates fell on the kraken, seemingly with no thought to their own survival, and were thrown one by one into the sea or onto the frozen shore of the iceberg the beasts had driven them onto.


     The strange horn sounded again. The kraken shuddered then fell back into the water dragging whatever hapless sailors they had gripped with them.


     Audun felt his mind clear and worked his way free of the ropes and debris. Standing, he looked around. The ship was perched on an iceberg; over half of the vessel was out of the water. The sail was sodden and already beginning to freeze in the frigid air. On the water another ship drew up to the stern of his vessel. The new ship tied off to their stern and men armed in chain with cap helms leapt aboard. Audun felt hope stir until the newcomers reached a seaman lying on the deck. They beheaded the seaman without even placing a weapon in his hand.


     Audun scanned the deck for his battle axe but couldn't see it. Before he could do more he found himself surrounded by five crusaders with blades drawn.


     "Northman. Treasure where?" The smallest of the men spoke with a foreign accent so thick Audun could barely understand the words. The man had a scar that marked the length of his jaw.


     "You're standing on it."


     "You kiss!" the crusader held up the White God's cross.


     Audun readied himself for death. "No."


     The blow came from behind and Audun awoke tied hand and foot on the ice with a pain in his head.


     "They're all awake now, captain," spoke a man with a Wessex accent.


     A muscular man stepped into view. "This is your lucky day. You can join with King Hakon the Good and the White God and be saved. Just tell us where you left the treasure. We know that brother killer, Erik Bloodaxe, has been squirreling it away. Tell us where the treasure is. We'll bring our priest and he'll do you proper. Then, we'll all go back to Wessex.


     "Freeze in Niflheim," spat Oski. A crusader walked up sword in hand and thrust down. Audun heard his friend scream, there was a gurgling sound, then nothing.


     "It's his own fault, he made us do that. Now where is the gold?"


     The enemy captain gestured to a dark-haired man of maybe twenty who lay bound on the ice. A crusader raised his blade.


     The dark haired prisoner sobbed. "Please. I don't know where they put it, but he's the map maker." Gesturing towards Audun with his chin.


     "A map maker." The captain smiled and moved to Audun, pulling his head up by his hair. "Will you accept the White God's mercy? Where is the treasure?"


     "You're standing on it," Audun glared into the captain's eyes.


     "Kill the rest. We only need this one."


     There was the sound of a throat being cleared and the captain turned to look at the crusader with the scar on his jaw. He had removed his helm, revealing black hair and a swarthy completion. "We Priest bless, redemption."


     The captain rolled his eyes. "If you say so, shepherd." He turned to the bound men. "You can join the White God or join the fish, but do it quickly."


     A black robed man stepped into Audun's field of view. He went to the man who'd pointed out the map maker, spoke some words, dipped his thumb into a silver cup, and rubbed it over the seaman's forehead. Two crusaders hoisted the seaman up and marched him away. The black-robed man moved to the next seaman. One sailor tried to bite the White God's godi and a crusader slit the sailor's throat. Of the six crewmen who'd survived the attack, three boarded the enemy vessel.


     The black robed godi knelt by Audun. "This is all unnecessary, give up your heathen ways. Join the one, true, only and right way."


     "May you freeze in Niflheim!" Audun braced for the killing blow.


     The crusader with the scar said something in a foreign tongue and Audun found himself hoisted up and held so that he was looking at the enemy captain.


     "So you won't join us. No matter. Where is the treasure? You must know. Why else bring a map maker than to record where it was hidden."


     "I told you, you're standing on it."


     The blow sent Audun to lie on the ice.


     "Think we're fools. We've looked. Only thing you've aboard is food. You'll answer my questions." The captain grinned evilly then spoke to the crusaders in the foreign tongue. "Is unus est quoque fervens caput capitis. Frigus is quod ligamen is sursum in vinco."


     Two crusaders tore Audun's tunic from his body. The shock of cold stole his breath as the crusaders slit the ropes on his legs than shifted the ties on his wrists so that they were bound tight over his head.


     "Join us. Hakon the Good can be most generous to his friends, if they accept the right path," tempted the black robed godi.


     Audun spat in the godi's face.


     "Right. We'll see what a night or two in the rough will do to your heathen tongue. String him up," ordered the enemy captain.


     The two crusaders dragged Audun to the mast of his stranded vessel. Looping a rope through the bindings on his wrists they suspended him an arm's length above the deck.


#

     I know myself hanging on the wind cold tree.


#

     "I'll leave the priest and some men to keep you company. If you come to your senses, call them. The priest is an obliging type. He'll invite anyone into the fold. God's warriors, well, they'd be wanting the gold to send back to the church. They do so enjoy their indulgences. I'd think long and hard about where that treasure is, map maker. I'll be back in three days to pick up my men. If you aren't frozen by then, we'll talk again." The enemy captain took a step. The one he'd called shepherd grabbed his arm stopping him.


     The shepherd spoke in a babble of sound. "Nos non licentia meus men hic glacio."


     "We know the way it's drifting and in this murk if they set a fire we'll spot it from six hours away. I won't waste your men, but we have other ships to sink with your horn and we don't want them kraken attacking the iceberg until we know where they hid the treasure, now do we?" The enemy captain continued towards his ship with the shepherd falling reluctantly into step beside him.


     When the ship cast off, the three crusaders left behind built a fire in the iced ship's cooking brazier using wood from the shipping crates and feasted on the salt fish and other foods that had been the cargo. As the evening wore on they found the mead kegs. Soon one was breached. The black robed priest held up his hands in admonishment. Audun watched as the crusaders passed over several silver skatt. The priest nodded and sat by the fire as the other men drank.


     The cold bit into Audun. The fire looked so inviting, but it was too far away to comfort him. He closed his eyes and tried to think. Time became a blur until two crusaders lurched up along the deck both leaning on spears and laughing. Audun ignored them until a spear slammed into the mast behind him. Another spear followed grazing his side.


#

     Wounded by the spear, consecrated to Odin.


     I consecrated to myself.


#

     The black robed priest appeared and shouted at the crusaders in their foreign tongue. The two men laughed and lurched back towards the fire.


     "They didn't mean to hit you. It was like the game of braids. You see, we are not so different."


     Audun turned his head away and the White God's godi left.


     Audun felt the cold wind bite him. His body shook and his teeth chattered. The enemies down the deck huddled close to the fire, eating and drinking. He focused eyes, nearly frosted shut, on the blue-black tattoos that covered his arms. Runes ran the length of his forearms and several lines of them bound his chest. He focused on them, thinking of new combinations, contemplating their meanings until sleep took him.


     Time became meaningless pain. Each day the priest would ask where the gold was and demand he forsake the Aesir. Each day he would reply with silence.


     Audun hung on the mast, his mind lost between sleep and waking, his body half frozen, hunger gnawing at his belly. A wolf's howl, more terrifying than anything he'd ever heard, split the night.


     "Garm howls. Garm howls," he muttered, half delirious, but no one heard.


#

     They offered me neither bread nor wine. So, I bent down in search.


#

     "Do you wish to live?" The voice was comforting.


     Audun forced his head up. It was almost more than he could do. His breath caught in his throat. In the distance the fire was frozen in place as were his tormentors. Around him the air felt warm and there was a scent like apple blossom. Urd stared at him. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He knew he should look away, but the Norn was simply too beautiful. He knew that if his days ended at that moment he would be content so long as she was his final vision.


     She smiled as if guessing his thoughts. "Do you wish to live? I can ask but thrice."


     "May I serve you?" His voice was its normal timber, not the ice harsh rasp of the last few days.


     Urd looked pleased. "That is the purpose, and you must live to do so. Thus I ask a final time, do you wish to live."


     "Yes."


     "You will be called and know the calling." Urd drifted to the back of the mast and lightly brushed her hand against it. A piece of ice dribbled away revealing a shard of a broken sword blade left during a battle years before.


     The fire flickered on the deck. Audun mustered his last strength and felt along the mast. There was something sharp. He began working the bonds on his wrists against it.


     All the crusaders were passed out, deep into their cups, when Audun's bindings snapped. It seemed like he fell forever. As he fell, mist clouded his vision and burning runes filled the air. He grasped for them, drawing them to himself. The tattoos on his arms and chest glowed.


#

     I recognized the Runes; wailing I grasped them.


     Until I sank down from the tree.


#

     Audun measured his length on the deck.


     Fingers trembling he traced the runes tattooed on his arm.


     The runic power came alive, the world glowed and his skin tingled. All thoughts of cold were banished as the archetypal forces flowed through him. Slowly he stood. The frost bite on his fingers was gone. Cautiously he wiped the frost from his eye lashes. His foes still slept.


     He crept towards the fire. All the weapons, except those of the crusaders', had been stolen by the other ship's crew. Again, he traced the runes on his arm, this time choosing a new pattern, shaping the forces of the world tree itself into a long, slender blade of glowing, blue energy. Audun leapt and the first crusader died on the ground, the Rune blade through his heart. The second fell; his head separated from his neck as he scrambled to stand. The third died; the rune blade through his eye. Audun, spattered in blood, with blood still geysering from the decapitated copse behind him, faced the godi.


     The godi froze for a second, then leapt off the deck to the iceberg and ran.


     Audun huddled by the fire, letting its warmth penetrate his body before turning to the crusaders' corpses. Taking their cloaks, he wrapped himself against the cold. One crusader carried his battle axe.


     "It isn't stealing if it belongs to me. As for the cloaks, I hope you will forgive me, but my clothes seem to be missing."


     After warming himself by the fire, while devouring half a salt hearing and two tankards of mead, Audun searched the ship, finding his sea chest with his replacement clothing. Turning to the corpses he wondered at them. They had all been brown skinned with brown eyes, like the Picts, but taller. Shrugging it off, he called over the deck.


     "Godi, I know not your ways, but I will swear by Mjolnir to give you safe passage if you have Angel of Death duties to perform for your White God."


     There was no reply. Sighing, he shook his head. "I don't think they like pyres, and I may need the wood later." Grabbing the first corpse he dragged it from the broken ship. Minutes later, the three bodies were laid in a row on the iceberg with a sword secured in each of their hands using the ties from their boots. The decapitated head was set carefully in its proper place.


     Reverently, Audun pulled off the corpses' boots. Using a dagger, he trimmed their toenails to the quick before putting the boots back on.


     "No reason to hasten Naglfar's completion." Standing Audun looked over the bodies then spoke. "Lord Odin, they are not yours, but I know not their words. Please show them the way to where they may best serve." Audun bowed his head then went back to the fire and slept.


     He awoke to a snuffling sound and opened his eyes. A huge, white bear stood at the edge of the fire's light. The bear's nostrils flared and it rose to its hind legs and roared.


     Audun's fingers tightened on the haft of his axe, although, he knew it would do him little good.


     "I'm not going to hurt you. Would you like some fish?" he asked. Slowly, he moved to the barrel of salt cod by the fire and pulled out half a fish. With a heave, he threw it to the bear. The bear dropped to all fours, sniffed the fish, licked it, took a tentative bite, and then released a grumbling growl. Two fluffy cubs appeared out of the darkness and began tearing into the fish.


     The mother bear looked at Audun.


     Audun pulled another fish from the barrel and tossed it to the mother who devoured it. Minutes later another barrel of fish was opened and the mother and cubs basked in the warmth of Audun's fire as they nibbled contentedly at the last of their meal.


     "What should I call you," Audun spoke to the bear that regarded him benignly.


     Lady White. Yes, I think Lady White suits you."


     The mother bear made a gruffing sound. The cubs began to wrestle on the deck tumbling back and forth.


     "And you can be Tumbler and Leaper," Audun spoke to the cubs.


     The mother bear put her head down and went to sleep.


     The stars had moved on in the sky when Audun saw the torches of a ship coming through the eternal night of Fimbulwinter. He huddled behind a crate and loosened the battle axe on his belt.


     Lady White rose from beside the fire, moved to the stern and released a tremendous roar.


     "God's teeth, it a polar bear," the voice came faint but clear over the waves.


     "Don't even bother docking. She'll have eaten the lot of them. Hakon's going to have my nuts for this." The enemy captain's voice was resolved as the ship moved away from the iceberg.


     Audun made it a point to remember that voice. Hakon and that captain owed him, and he would collect.


     Lady White roared again and returned to the fire's warmth. Audun built up the fire and opened another barrel of fish.


#

     "Dorrund, aren't you the naughty one?" Ragna ran her fingers across the broad, naked chest of one of the two men that stood in the smithy with her. The forge was banked and the cat-sized forge beast was curled up beside it. The beast's dragon-like form expanded and contracted as it breathed and its stubby wings trembled as it dreamed its fiery dreams. The smithy and the attached living area, was the warmest place Ragna had been in months.


     "You bring that out in a man," said Ginnarr, as he rolled out an extra blanket on the platform that flanked three sides of the living area of the shelter. The back of the platform was stacked with disused woman's gear, like a loom, with a half finished piece of cloth on it, and a querm, its round stones ready to turn grain into flower with a woman's touch.


     The two men were of a kind, both stocky and short by Norse standards, with huge arms. Sparks had left a pattern of tiny burns on their faces and chests. The most telling difference between them was that one was bald and the other had long, black hair pulled into a braid that fell down his back.


     Ragna continued to tease Dorrund. Taking the end of his braid and tracing it over the nipples on his massive pecs with one hand, while she undid the tie for his leggings with the other. The leggings dropped around his ankles.


     Ginnarr's powerful hands closed on Ragna's slender arms. He pulled her to him back first. Her slender, petite form conformed to his with the top of her head barely reaching his chin. Her large, brown eyes focused on a necklace lying on a cloth by the forge. She reached behind her and undid the tie for Ginnarr's leggings, dropping them around his ankles.


     "That's a girl. This will be fine." Ginnarr bent to nibble on her shoulder, as Dorrund moved to kiss her.


     Ragna licked her full lips and kissed the end of Dorrund's bulbous nose while pulling away from Ginnarr. She stepped back and picked up the necklace.


     "This is so beautiful."


     "It's our finest work, as promised," said Dorrund.


     "Well, I guess the only question I have is which one of you wants to put it to, I mean, on me first?" She struck a pose that thrust out her bosom and made her simple, blue dress shape to the body beneath.


     "First?" breathed one of the smiths.


     "I wouldn't want you to fight over it." Ragna's pixyish features pulled into a seductive pout.


     "I'll go first," said Dorrund.


     "Fasten this for me. The clasp is always so tight the first time." Ragna turned her back and held the necklace to her throat.


     Dorrund raced to fasten the necklace. His arms were just reaching around her when Ginnarr pulled him away.


     "By Dvalin, I'll go first. I smelted the gold," said Ginnarr.


     "I'll have her first. I pulled the cursed wire," Dorrund growled.


     "You're brothers, you shouldn't argue over me. You've shared so much. Living together, working together. It's like you have nothing all your own." Ragna spoke in a voice like poisoned honey.


     "You. You're always taking. I'll go bloody first," screamed Ginnarr.


     "Me taking? It wasn't me that stole the deed to the shop when Papa died."


     "I'm the eldest."


     "I'm the better smith."


     "You take that back."


     "By Sindri, you know it's true.


     "It isn't."


     "Is so!"


     "If you weren't my brother!"


     "Don't let that stop you!"


     Ragna had almost reached the door with the necklace when a wolf's howl split the air sending a bone chilling bolt down everyone's spine. They all froze. Then two sets of eyes turned to her.


     "Where do you think you're going?" the brothers demanded in unison.


     "Oh Svartalfheim!" Ragna barely dodged the brothers' first rush because they tripped over the leggings about their ankles. She danced away, but found herself trapped in the living area of the hut with the brothers between her and the door.


     The brothers hauled up their leggings each holding them up one handed.


     "Thought you could cheat us," snapped Dorrund.


     "She's a real Ratatosk," agreed Ginnarr.


     "Well come here little squirrel. We'll give you some nuts." Dorrund dove towards her.


     ..................



Review

     Horn of the Kraken tells a vivid, stirring adventure tale that gives the reader a wild ride, but it also features that most enjoyable of reading experiences: characters who leap off the page and seem real, with all of their humor and anger and cutting comments.   Great fun!   Recommended!


     Ed Greenwood,

     New York Times-bestselling creator of


     The Forgotten Realms®



Stephen B. Pearl's Amazon author page and to purchase Horn of the Kraken.