Bjorn Guthbrandr – a one-time reiver turned priest of Esu; a humble Hand of the Great General, the Allfather of Men – has been caught up in a quest that began in the distant past. Travelling to his homeland in the mountains of far-off Jarla to consult with his superiors and seek out the trail of an artifact of ancient evil, he finds himself burdened with a most unusual companion: Salimankerias, a dragon of the sea. Together they must leave the south behind and make their way to the frozen northlands in the depths of winter, searching for the holy city of Kofalls, where they hope to find Bjorn’s superiors in faith, and the answers that they seek. They find much more than that; not only answers, but danger, disaster and death – and proof that the ancient evil that they feared has indeed awoken, more potent and dreadful than any they had expected to find. The holy city, Bjorn’s homeland, and even the world itself are at stake as the two ill-matched comrades strive to overcome the differences that divide them, and work together to defeat the dread powers that hope to enslave Bjorn’s people, and entomb the northlands in a shroud of eternal ice and darkness.
“The Sea-Dragon” is the first book of the Bjornssaga – three tales that concern the deeds of Bjorn Guthbrandr, Fist of the Allfather, in the months after his departure from the company of the Brotherhood of the Wyrm. Those earlier tales will be told in a forthcoming eponymous trilogy. While the Bjornssaga thus begins in medias res, each of its books, including this one, stands on its own, recounting a single, self-contained episode in the overall saga. The second book, “The Azure Wind”, and the third, “Shadow of Midnight”, will appear in the near future.
Excerpt from Chapter I, The Sea Dragon:
Nisse, the mate, was on the forecastle when Bjorn arrived, peering over the railing and expostulating to himself. Most of the phrases, the priest noted, were in the sailors’ pidgin, a convoluted compote of the elven speech, various northern dialects and the travelling tongue, with a liberal seasoning of profanity drawn from nearly all of the races of Erutrei. Bjorn listened patiently for a moment, one hand on the railing just abaft the bowsprit, the other on the hammer tucked into his belt, and gave his eyes time to adjust to the crepuscular gloom.
A moment later, he found himself blinking furiously. What he had taken for the loom of land off the starboard bow was nothing of the sort. Nisse was cursing at the sight of an isbjerg – a vast, floating mountain of solid ice, the largest that Bjorn had ever seen. Its sudden appearance was nearly enough to make Bjorn emulate the mate. Instead, he put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “The word you’re looking for,” he said quietly, “is ‘titanic’.”
Nisse raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar term. “If you say so, Fist.”
“I say so.” He smiled narrowly. “I hear it from Halflings a lot. It’s what they call me.” He cleared his throat. “And I’m not a ‘Fist’. Don’t call me that.”
“Can’t very call you –, now, can I?” the man grumbled, giving vent to an epithet that Bjorn had only heard once in his life, shortly before the beginning of a tavern-clearing brawl.
The priest grinned. “Not if you want to see the Lantern rise. Call me ‘Bjorn’. Or Ái, if you must.”
Ái was a term from the old Yonarri dialect, the forerunner to the speech of the Jarlin northmen. It meant ‘great-grandfather’, or more loosely ‘ancestor’, and was a common nick-name for members of the Allfather’s clergy.
Nisse snorted. “Bjorn it is, then, seeing’s how I’m older’n you by a boat-length.”
“A boat-length at least,” Bjorn laughed. He nodded toward the quarterdeck, where the ship’s captain, a weathered, serious-looking fellow that had introduced himself to Bjorn as ‘Mjod’, stood behind the binnacle, talking in low tones with the quartermasters at the wheel. The man was staring in grim silence at the enormous iceberg blocking their path, a speaking-trumpet clenched in one fist. Though the breeze was light, he had shortened sail at nightfall, a standard precaution, and the carrackoe was running under single-reefed topsails at the fore and mainmasts. As Bjorn watched, the man ordered the drummer to beat the crew to stations. The tambour thudded, and half a hundred souls boiled up from below. Nisse, after a cursory salute, vanished into the throng. Bjorn followed, heading for the stern, keeping a weather eye out and stepping lively to avoid getting in the way of the crew.
Men ran up the ratlines, shimming out along the main and foretopmast yards. In a twinkling, the main topsail was furled and two more reefs had been taken in the fore topsail. The helm was put over, and the ship hove to.
Bjorn nodded his approval; that sort of efficiency didn’t come easily, and it justified his original estimate of Himminhrapnr as a well-managed vessel. He still didn’t know much about her captain, apart from learning his true name, which was Miǫðvitnir – another term from the old Yonarri tongue, one that meant ‘Mead-Wolf’, and suggested that fellow had managed to acquire a reputation as champion stein-hoister. He’d also learned that Mjod’s glassy stare was due at least in part to the fact that he’d had his right eye stabbed out with a broken bit of timber during a gentleman’s disagreement in Helgrindr some years earlier.
At the head of the gangway, he caught the captain’s eye and waited for a nod of permission. At sea, everyone observed the niceties of protocol, he reflected sourly; even priests. Stepping behind the wheel, he remarked, “Big.”
Mjod had proven himself so taciturn that Bjorn had considered asking him whether he’d taken a vow of silence. The priest was, therefore, a little surprised when the man replied. “Big, aye,” he murmured, nodding without taking his eyes off of the isbjerg. Bjorn noticed that the sky was beginning to lighten; there was a deep, violet gleam in the west, to landward, and even so little illumination was sufficient to make the sea-surface and the ice mountain glow. The ship was still a mile or so short of the vast, looming mountain; but as the Lantern slowly rose above the horizon, the towering, jagged shards caught its rays like a diamond, scattering them about like droplets of frozen fire. Everything took on a soft, pearlescent sheen – even the thick blanket of low cloud above them, and the deep, blue-green waters that lapped gently at the hull.
It was at that moment that Bjorn noticed that the wind had fallen away to nothing; the air was utterly still. And it was cold, too; bitterly cold. The crew’s breath steamed hotly, and he could see wisps of vapour rising from their clothing. “Wind’s dropped,” he said, realizing only after he’d spoken patently inane the observation was.
“Dropped, aye,” muttered Mjod. “Been dropping since mid-night. Then those started showing up.”
He pointed first to port and then to starboard, and Bjorn noticed, to his immense consternation, that in addition to the colossal ice mountain before them, the ship seemed to be surrounded by a veritable flotilla of smaller isbjergr. Some were closer than the monster, some further; but there were dozens of them. In the half-light of dawn, even at a mile’s distance and more, Bjorn could see that they were hemmed in.
“This isn’t natural,” Bjorn murmured. Unconsciously, his hands were clenching on Torsvarad’s iron-bound hawthorn haft.
“No, that it is not,” Mjod concurred softly. Keeping his eyes on the big berg ahead, he half-turned to Nisse, and whispered, “Get aloft with the glass. See if you can’t find a way through them, aye?”
“Aye,” the mate muttered, clearly dubious. He slung ship’s glass in its leather carrying case across his back, and went up the mizzen ratlines hand over hand.
Mjod turned to Bjorn. “What think you, Fist?” he asked harshly. “Is this the hand of darkness?”
Bjorn clenched his teeth; rather than make an issue of the inappropriate moniker, he merely shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he replied.
“You’ve not brought some ill aboard my ship, aye?”
“Not that I know of, no,” Bjorn shrugged. That wasn’t precisely true, of course, but he didn’t think that an open deck aboard a becalmed ship surrounded by ice a hundred leagues from land was the best place to try to explain the mysteries and legends that had sent him into the north.
“Can you not looky-see it, then?” the man asked, staring fixedly at the massive bjerg ahead.
“If you mean, can I divine the source of this stay, then no, I cannot. Not at so great a distance.”
“Your Big Man holds ye in little esteem,” Mjod remarked sourly.
“The Allfather lends us his divine grace when we merit it,” Bjorn said evenly, his knuckles cracking on the hammer’s haft. “And sometimes, not even then.” He shot the captain a narrow glance. “You follow a different faith, I take it?”
Mjod put a hand to his breast; obviously, he wore some talisman or other beneath his tunic. “Vara, for mercy ashore,” he replied, “and Thanos, for mercy at sea.” He spat over the side. “Meet gods for a sailing man.”
“Most sailing men find time to beg the indulgence of the master of storm and skyfire, too,” Bjorn prodded gently. He placed Torsvarad’s iron head on the deck and leaned the haft against the railing.
“I’ll happily pray to the Big Man, heya,” the captain chuckled morosely, “if only he’d swear to keep his storms and skyfire away from me and my ship.” He tapped a gloved finger on the railing. “So you’ve no idea what this is, aye?”
The priest spread his hands.
The captain glowered, although Bjorn could see that his ire was directed mostly at their predicament rather than at him. “Well, then,” he said at last, “perhaps you and Nisse ought to take a boat over and have a little look at…”
“Perhaps not,” Bjorn interrupted, pointing. He squinted into the azure gleaming of the iceberg. Noting the brightening sky, he quenched the light-ball that he had placed atop his head. Darkness fell over the foredeck, and the sea ahead became much brighter.
Mjod stared ahead, then started as he saw what the priest was indicating. Cursing foully, he shouted “Crossbows!”
“Softly,” Bjorn counseled, “softly. Let’s wait and see what this is.”
Beyond the prow, halfway to the massive ice mountain, a small floe no larger than a couple of tavern tables was gliding towards their ship at roughly the speed of a cantering horse. To Bjorn’s astonishment, there was a man atop it. He stood still, his arms crossed and his eyes fixed on Himminhrapnr.
The priest found his fists clenching again. The fellow was elegantly, even richly, clad – booted, cloaked and bejeweled, the whole topped off with a broad-brimmed hat sporting some sort of unfamiliar plumage. Bjorn found himself chuckling, more in astonishment than amusement; the man was dressed for riding in the company of noble damsels on a summer’s day in Vejborg – not for balancing an ice-floe on a winter’s eve in the Northeast Reach.
The whole effect was slightly ludicrous…until Bjorn noticed that, unlike the crew, and for that matter unlike himself, the man’s breath did not steam in the gelid night air. Either he was as cold as the breathless breeze surrounding them – or he wasn’t breathing at all.
As the sailors raced for the arms lockers, Mjod raised the speaking trumpet. Throughout the bustle, Bjorn kept his eyes fixed on the slowly approaching ice floe, and its oddly out-of-place passenger. The man didn’t move at all; he stood stock-still, arms crossed, gazing straight ahead at the ship lying becalmed in the ice-riddled sea. As the range shortened, Bjorn could make out additional details. The man’s raiment was richer than he’d first imagined; an elaborately embroidered tunic with a fur-trimmed over-mantle, thick breeches, and high-topped boots of some unfamiliar leather, the whole crafted in a range of sea-colours, from emerald to azure to pale blue.
Water lapped at the man’s booted feet; the floe upon which he stood was nearly awash, and Bjorn could see that it was moving fast enough to leave a rippling wake.
Then he noticed the man’s hair. In the distance and the gloom, he’d first thought it black; but now, closer, and with more light in the sky, he could see that it was nearly the same colour as the fellow’s cloak, an odd, burnished blue-green. Stranger still were his eyes, which were a brighter, almost luminous variant version of the same deep, sea-blue shade. Some sort of Elf? the priest wondered. He couldn’t see any ears; they were hidden by the fellow’s thick, shaggy mane. Besides, he looked to be as tall and robust as Bjorn himself – much to tall to be one of the sons of Hara the Wise.
An overdressed enigma, the priest mused. Well, I’ll find out who he is soon enough.
As he followed the visitor with his eyes, a hand of sailors lined the rail, their arbalests loaded, cocked and leveled. Bjorn raised his voice to reach them all. “Keep your fingers steady, please,” he said calmly. “Would you shoot an unarmed man from ambush?”
“I would,” Mjod muttered half to himself. But aloud, he underscored Bjorn’s words. “Stand fast, lads. The man who looses without my word’ll swing, aye.”
The grisly threat made Bjorn shudder, but it had its intended effect. The jabbering crew calmed down, watching the approaching oddity with trepidation in their faces.
They waited. Minutes passed, and the tiny ice-floe finally drew near enough for speech. Bjorn was running through prayers and invocations in his mind when the peculiar raft halted a dozen paces from the ship’s bow. When its passenger spoke, he started.
“Hail, the ship! May I come up?” The man’s voice was high-pitched and clear – a pleasant, warbling tenor that carried with it a peculiar undertone; an hollow, vibrant timbre that, to Bjorn’s ears, seemed oddly familiar.
“Aboard,” Nisse grumped. “Come aboard.”
Maritime nomenclature was the last thing on the priest’s mind at the moment. When Mjod shot him a questioning glance, he took a deep breath. Grasping the hammer-haft in one hand, he raised the other, he whispered a homily to the Allfather, gathered his will, and focused the totality of his attention and thought on the stranger standing before and below them.
A faint ringing of horns echoed in his ears, heard only by him; and a rainbow spray of lights danced before his eyes, and his alone. As always, the power exalted him; touching even the merest threads of the Allfather’s might made him feel capable of lifting mountains into the sky.
There was a long pause as he listened for discordant notes, watched carefully for glints of ebon, incarnadine and viridian among the showering of glimmering sparks. Nothing. He released the strands of divine grace and let them and the spell slip away into the aether, returning to himself and to the middling inevitability of the world visible.
Swallowing hard to clear the thickness from his throat, he turned to Mjod and whispered “He’s not evil.”
“You’re certain of that?”
Bjorn rolled his eyes. “It’s magic. Nothing is certain. He could be an elder demon in disguise, with enough power to conceal himself from the Algódi themselves, and we wouldn’t know it until he started biting off heads.”
“A rare balm to the soul you are, Fist,” Mjod scowled. “Well, demon or no, we’re going nowhere ‘till he releases us.” Raising the speaking trumpet to his lips, he hailed back. “Come aboard starboard side!” He turned and trotted to the companionway, and thumped down the stairs to the main-deck.
Bjorn stayed near the bowsprit and kept his eye on the stranger. The floe began moving again, still with no visible source of propulsion, and passed out of his sight under the railings. As it hauled alongside, he followed it.
Nisse had chased the curious crewmen back to their labours, saving only the half-dozen bowmen encircling the entry port as the stranger came aboard. The man clambered easily up the wooden ladder, aided by the ship’s pronounced tumble-home. He stood on the deck in his finery, glancing curiously around, adjusting his hat and its outrageous plume without a hint of self-consciousness. He picked Mjod out by eye and sketched a bow. “You are the captain, I presume?” he said, politely enough to Bjorn’s mind.
“Aye. And you are?”
“You may call me Saliman,” the man replied, looking around the ship. He waved at the bowmen. “Those aren’t necessary. I merely have some questions for you.”
“You’ll answer mine first, aye, and before I dismiss my men,” Mjod answered evenly. “Was it you that halted my ship?”
“Not I,” Saliman replied with a pleasant smile. “My brother. He will release you once I have ascertained your intentions and your destination.”
Nisse leaned over to Bjorn. “Talks like a right gent, don’t he?”
The priest nodded without expression.
“My destination is Valborg,” Mjod told the newcomer through gritted teeth. “And my intention, to arrive quickly and without any trouble.”
“So you say,” the stranger answered. “And yet there is something about your vessel that makes my brother uneasy.” He continued glancing around at the sails and rigging, the deck and the curious seamen, and then fixed Mjod with his penetrating azure gaze. “I am about to cast a working of magic. No one will be harmed. Your men may continue to watch me, even aim their weapons at me if you like. But – and please do not take this amiss – I would be annoyed if my casting were to be interrupted by a flurry of crossbow arrows.”
“Quarrels,” Nisse muttered to no one in particular. “They’re called quarrels.”
Mjod sucked air between his teeth. He glanced at Bjorn, who was leaning against the mainmast bits, watching the newcomer carefully. “Can you descry his intent, Fist?”
Bjorn straightened up, leaving Torsvarad propped against a coiled cable. The stranger watched his approach with interest. “I’ll keep an eye out,” the priest replied, taking up station at the captain’s side, “but I can’t promise anything. I don’t have a good history where sorcerers are concerned.”
He tugged the war hammer from his belt and held it in both hands. The stranger, a few paces away, was watching his movements closely. “Don’t make me nervous, friend,” Bjorn warned. The man smiled – and Bjorn started. The fellow’s teeth were the same peculiar blue-green shade as his hair.
The newcomer raised his hands to show empty palms, then began a complex series of arcane movements. After a few fluid passes, Bjorn began to relax. He had seen Lyra make the similar patterns in the air on any number of occasions. After a moment, though, he began to frown.
Mjod noticed. “What is it?” the captain asked sotto voce.
“I don’t know,” Bjorn replied, puzzled. “The gestures…they’re nonsense.”
They waited. The azure-eyed man finished his gesticulations, put his hands on his hips like a mountebank, and smiled. Bjorn cocked an eyebrow. “Are you done, then?”
“Find what you sought?”
The priest sighed. “And that is…?”
“You,” Saliman said clearly. Though the smile was still there, it no longer touched the man’s eyes. Indeed, there was a serious look behind the sunny grin – serious, and not altogether friendly.
Bjorn pursed his lips and nodded. “Of course it’s me.”
Mjod shot his countryman a nervous glance. “What’s you, Fist?” He looked as though he wanted to take a step away; but as that would have brought him closer to their peculiar visitor, he simply fidgeted in place.
Bjorn turned back to stare at the sorcerer, or whatever he was. “Let me guess,” he deadpanned. “You think I’m evil?”
“Not I, but my brother,” the stranger replied, eyeing Bjorn carefully. The priest decided not to make any sudden movements. “He is more accomplished than I in the intricacies of the Art Magic. He sense evil approaching, and was confident enough in his judgment to ask me to come to you. My counsel was that we sink you as a matter of principle” – both Nisse and Mjod blinked at that, and even Bjorn swallowed heavily –“but he is also more deliberate than I am. He decided upon caution and investigation. I am glad to have learned the truth; that it is not this ship or its crew that are the source of the ill that he sensed, but just this one man.”
He half-bowed to Mjod. “It would have been regrettable to have slain you all on his account.”
Nisse and Mjod, and for that matter all of the crewmen in earshot, turned to stare at Bjorn. Two of the crossbowmen even turned their weapons toward him.
The priest ground his teeth. “We need to speak in private,” he said, addressing the captain, the mate, and Saliman under his breath.
“I am at your disposal,” the sorcerer bowed.
Without taking his eyes off of Bjorn, Mjod nodded towards the afterdeck. “Wardroom,” he said.
Before following the others down the gangway, he took a short, heavy sword from one of his men. When Bjorn saw that, he sighed again.