TWILIGHT OF THE GODS: Chapter One

Greetings, Gentle Readers!  Over the course of the next four months — through January, 2020 — I’ll be presenting a new chapter from my forthcoming novel, TWILIGHT OF THE GODS.  This is the “sequel” of sorts to 2017’s A GATHERING OF RAVENS — the second in a trilogy of stand-alone novels that are linked by the main character, the savage and profane Grimnir.

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Though never explicitly called such (due to reasons of etymology), Grimnir is an Orc.  He is cast in the Tolkien mold, though filtered through the lens of Norse and Anglo-Saxon myth; while he is not inherently evil, he is inherently a bastard: “Like Conan with a hangover and a toothache,” as one Goodreads review stated.  Thus, he is self-centered, out for himself, and a solid enemy of the “new” religion called Christianity.

He’s also functionally immortal, immune to disease and poison, doesn’t need much sleep (a few hours every ten days or so), and is plagued by an extreme form of hemochromatosis, giving him black blood that will coagulate into an iron-like sludge unless he keeps active and in a heightened sense of rage.  This makes him pissed off about nearly everything . . .

Here’s the jacket copy for TWILIGHT OF THE GODS:

A Gathering of Ravens was called “satisfying…complex…and a pleasure to read” (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Now, Scott Oden continues the saga of Grimnir in this new epic Viking fantasy novel, Twilight of the Gods.

In A Gathering of Ravens, he fought for vengeance. Now, Grimnir is back to fight for his survival.

It is the year of Our Lord 1218 and in the land of the Raven-Geats, the Old Ways reach deep. And while the Geats pay a tax to the King in the name of the White Christ, their hearts and souls belong to the gods of Ásgarðr. But no man can serve two masters.

Pledging to burn this Norse heresy from the land, famed crusader Konráðr the White leads a host against the Raven-Geats, using torch and sword to bring forth the light of the new religion. But the land of the Raven-Geats has an ancient protector: Grimnir, the last in a long line of monsters left to plague Miðgarðr. And he will stand between the Raven-Geats and their destruction.

Aided by an army of berserkers led by their pale queen, Grimnir sparks off an epic struggle—not only against the crusaders, but against the very Gods. For there is something buried beneath the land of the Raven-Geats that Odin wants, something best left undisturbed. Something the blood of the slain, Christian and pagan, will surely awaken.

Twilight of the Gods cover

And here, without further ado, is Chapter One of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS for your reading pleasure:

1

 

 

The Vale of Guðbrandr, central Norway

Late autumn in the Year of Our Lord 1217

 

Corpses sprawled atop a low hill, beneath a sky the color of old slate. They lay in their tattered war gear: mail riven, shields broken, and helmets split asunder by ferocious blows. There were scores of them, arranged not in the perfect windrows borne of clashing shield-walls, where the dead fall like grain beneath a thresher-man’s blade, but rather in heaps and moundsas though the Tangled God himself, cunning Loki, had decided to reshape the land with the bodies of slain Northmen. Their blood mingled with other vital fluids, turning the early snow underfoot to a scarlet slurry.

A cold north wind moaned through the evergreen spruces ringing the hill. It rattled the shafts of spears that grew from bodies of the slain like corpse-flowers, their blades rooted in bellies and spines; it snapped the fabric of cast-off pennons. Some displayed a wolf’s head against a white field. Others, more numerous, bore a stark black cross. The wind faded; utter silence returned.

Amid this desolation, there came a single flicker of movement. A chestnut-haired giant clad in a ragged corselet thrust himself to his feet, notched sword clenched tight in his bloody fist. His breath steamed as he panted from the exertion of battle. Blood and spittle dripped from his beard; he turned his gore-blasted face to the heavens. Unsteady on his feet, he staggered from the tangle of corpses marking the crucible of the fight and searched above for even the smallest sign of God’s favor for this victorya rent in the clouds, a finger of light from the celestial realm, something. But he saw only a limitless expanse of deep gray, as solid as arctic ice. Tears welled in his eyes; he raised his sword hilt-first to the sky.

“C-Christ!” he said, voice cracking. Then, louder: “Christ!”

“He can’t hear you,” someone behind him purred in answer.

The man whirled.

From the same welter of the dead, a woman arose. A one-handed daughter of Odin whose left wrist ended in an iron fist made to hold a shield. Blood clotted like rubies in the links of her mail hauberkhacked and ragged now that this spear-shattering had run its course.

“Úlfrún Hakonardottir,” the man said, lips peeling back in a snarl of hate.

The woman, Úlfrún, leaned heavily on the long oak haft of an axe. With her good hand, she drew off the ruin of her helmet, its crown ruptured along the seams where it took the blow that should have killed her. Úlfrún tossed it aside. Sodden hair the color of wood ash uncoiled and fell around her shoulders. “Heimdul Oath-breaker,” she growled.

“Woman, you have more lives than a cat! I saw old Guthrum deal you a mortal wound.”

“That? A child’s blow,” Úlfrún said. “Your Guthrum thought to spare me, and he died for it.”

“Then he sits in a place of glory by Christ’s right hand, alongside the saints and martyrs.”

She gave a bark of laughter like the sharp grate of stones. “Does that lie bring you comfort, Oath-breaker?”

“I stand, having girded about my loins the belt of truth,” Heimdul said. He cracked the bones in his neck and rolled the tension from his shoulders, then struck the flat of his sword against the heel of his hobnailed boot, knocking the rime of bloody ice loose from its edge. “And having donned the breastplate of justice.”

Úlfrún hefted her axe, its bearded blade forged from Spanish steel; hard iron straps crisscrossed the haft. “Let those be the rags you and all your dogs wear, who sit outside the doors of Valhöll and beg for scraps off the Allfather’s board! You turned your back on him! Tore down his altars, burned the sacred groves, and for what? So your wretched king might have his crown blessed by some cross-kissing fool in Rome? No, Heimdul Oath-breaker, you will know truth soon enough!”

“Heathen bitch! There is only one Father of All, and he’s not the one-eyed fairy tale we tell children! Odin? I spit on your Odin! I piss on your Odin! I am a son of God, sworn to the White Christ!” Quicker than his brutish frame belied, Heimdul struck. He swept his jagged-edged blade up in a vicious backhand blow.

Úlfrún did not flinch. She did not shy away from the whistling blade that sought to end her life. Instead, she stepped in and caught it on the knuckles of her iron fist. The sword sparked, rebounded; the clangor of impact reverberated. Far to the north, from among the cloud-wreathed peaks, came the echo of thunder as if in answer. Úlfrún tilted her head back, listening to something only she could hear; she bared her teeth in a fierce smile that did nothing to soften the hard planes of her face. “I told you,” she said, lowering her gaze to meet his. Her blue eyes gleamed with a fey and terrible light. “Your Nailed God can’t hear you.”

And Úlfrún HakonardottirÚlfrún of the Iron Handcame on like a tempest. She fought like the she-Wolf that was her namesake, her guile and finesse tempering the savage spirit woven by Fate into the skein of her life. And like the she-Wolf, the strength in her lean muscles and corded sinews was no less than that of any man. The blade of her axe flashed in autumn’s pale light, and she rained blow after furious blow down upon the guard of her enemy. A rush of breath, a ringing crash, and the rasp and slither of steel on iron were the only sounds as she batted aside Heimdul’s clumsy riposte and very nearly took off his head. A hasty backward leap was all that saved him.

Úlfrún gave him a moment’s respitelong enough to feel the cold hands of the Norns as they gathered together the loose strands of his life, their shears poised. He stood in the shadow of his own doom and could not see it. It was writ plain in the deep notches scoring his sword, in the sweat that burned his eyes, and in the tremble of his limbs. So close was he to the brink that he lacked even the breath to call upon his Nailed God. Úlfrún took all this in with a single glance . . . and laughed.

That sound, the stinging rebuke of a woman, struck Heimdul as no physical blow could. It bit through mail and leather and bored into his skin. It slipped past muscle and bone; as it lanced the naked heart of his fragile manhood, Úlfrún saw Heimdul wince. In that moment she reckoned he had thought for neither the love of his White Christ nor for divine salvation. Could he even recall the admonitions of his so-called Lord to turn the other cheek or to love one’s enemies? No. Úlfrún watched as the Northman’s face suffused with rage. No amount of forgiveness would suffice. Only blood would mend this hurt. Her blood. He bared his teeth in a savage grin. Whitened knuckles cracked as he grasped his sword hilt in both hands. Then, with an incoherent cry, Heimdul charged.

Úlfrún met him halfway. She did not seek to test her strength against his, for he was like an enraged bull stung to madness. Rather, she sidestepped, dancing away from a blow that would surely have split her from crown to crotch had it connected; she pivoted on the balls of her feet as Heimdul lumbered past. Before he could turn, before he could recover, Úlfrún’s axe flashed in a tight arc; it connected high, near the base of his skull. Bone crunched. Blood spurted. And Heimdul’s cry turned to a rasping gurgle. His sword dropped from hands gone slack and nerveless.

Úlfrún loosed her grip on the haft of the axe.

But even with her blade lodged deep in his spine the stricken Northman continued on, dragging his feet a handful of steps through the churned and blood-spattered snow. He tottered, half-turned, and finally crumpled to the ground like a child’s marionette, its strings clipped.

Silence returned.

The dull echo of thunder rolled down from the north.

Úlfrún exhaled, then, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She staggered over to Heimdul’s body and grasped the butt of her axe with her good hand. Úlfrún worked it back and forth; then, placing one foot on the back of the slain man’s head, she wrenched the blade free.

Grunting with effort, she struck him again. And again. With each strike came the slaughterhouse sound of butcherythe popping of gristle and snapping of tendons, the soft squelch of bloody tissue parting beneath the edge of her axe, the rasp of splintered bone on steel as she drew it forth again; on the third blow, Heimdul’s head came free from his corpse.

Úlfrún stooped and caught it up by its mane of blood-matted hair. “Odin!” she roared, brandishing her foe’s severed head toward the northern horizon. “Odin! Look here! Look . . .”

She reeled, a sudden sick weariness robbing her of strength. The clouds overhead boiled and throbbed; the evergreen trees around her swayed like supple maidens, dancing to a tune none could hear. On the field where slayer met slayer, only the slain remained . . . and they, too, soughed and sighed before her blurring visiona sea of red and white, of flesh and blood and riven mail, whose steel-edged combers threatened to break above her.

“O-Odin!”

Úlfrún of the Iron Hand took a dozen steps before the sun’s pale light suddenly dimmed. She sank down onto the crust of snow, then toppled to the side with Heimdul’s hair yet caught in her fingers. She lay still, and like a soothing coverlet the darkness rolled over her.

How long she lay there, she could not say. Time had no meaning. A minute, a day, a year, a lifetimeall were one to her, but the world spun and the wind sighed and far away, she heard the murmur of thunder like the war drums of Ásgarðr. Inexorably, Úlfrún felt life creep back into her limbs. She flexed her frozen extremities, moving muscle and sinew despite innumerable agonizing pinpricks, willing her fingers to relinquish their hold on the dead man’s hair. Slowly, she rolled onto her back and opened her eyes. Night had fallen, and eerie green lights flickered through rips in the clouds.

With a start, she realized she was not alone.

Úlfrún bolted upright, her hand clawing for a weapon. A sudden sharp pain kindled in the stump of her wrist; though it had been years, the memory of the crippling blow that parted

her hand from her body was strong enough to wrench a gasp from between clenched teeth. She snarled through the pain.

An ominous presence stood near, scarce illuminated by the guttering emerald light seeping down from the heavens. It bore the shape of a man, though hunched and as twisted as the staff he leaned upon; the stranger was clad in a voluminous cloak with a slouch hat pulled low. A single malevolent eye gleamed from the utter darkness within.

Úlfrún bit back a curse. She knew him; she’d known him since childhood, since he’d picked her from the others and set her upon the path to greatness. She had called, and he had come. The Grey Wanderer; the Raven-God; Lord of the Gallows; the shield-worshipped kinsman of the Æsir. “I have harrowed the earth with their blood, Allfather,” she said. “The blood of these Christ-lovers and oath-breakers!”

A chuckle, low and cruel, escaped the stranger’s throat. “Niðings, they are. Wretched and depraved. The minions of the White Christ infest this Miðgarðr like vermin.” His voice was harsh and rasping. “But the hour of their doom draws near.

“When the years tally | nine times nine times nine,

again, and war-reek | wafts like dragon breath;

when Fimbulvetr | hides the pallid sun,

the monstrous Serpent | shall writhe in fury.”

Úlfrún rocked back on her haunches. “It is time?”

“It is long past time, child of Man,” the stranger said. “Gather the úlfhéðnar and the berserkir, the sons of the Wolf and the sons of the Bear, and make your way to the land of the Raven-Geats. The White Christ will send his own champion, and there you must join in battle against him. But be ready,” the stranger admonished. “Watch for the Wolf to devour the moon, and wait for the Serpent’s coils to shake the earth! Only then will what you seek be within your grasp!”

“Sárklungr,” Úlfrún replied in an awed whisper.

“Aye, the mighty Wound-Thorn! Forged in the dark fires of the Dwarf-realm, Niðavellir, and given to your kinsman Sigfroðr the Volsung to avenge the dragon-slaying of his people. It rests, even now, beneath Lake Vänern’s waves.

“From the depths a barrow | rises through the water,

the stone-girdled hall | of Aranæs, where dwells

Jörmungandr’s spawn, | the Malice Striker.

Its dread bones rattle | and heralds an end.

“Fetch the blade forth, Daughter of Strife! Drag it from the dragon’s lifeless skull and bring it against this champion of the White Christ! Tear him asunder! Peel the flesh from his spine and hack through his ribs! Haul the lungs from his riven corpse! And let his blood call down upon this Nailed God’s rabble the doom of Ásgarðr!”

“Let it make an end of them, once and for all,” Úlfrún said through gritted teeth as she clambered to her feet. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and ere its echo could fade the Grey Wanderer had disappeared. She was alone.

Úlfrún of the Iron Hand staggered over to where her axe lay propped on the rigid corpse of Heimdul Oath-breaker. “Soon,” she muttered, her breath steaming in the cold.“Soon, all this will be over.”

 

Check back next month for Chapter Two!  TWILIGHT OF THE GODS is due out at all fine booksellers on 18 February 2020.  Pre-order your copy today!

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4 Replies to “TWILIGHT OF THE GODS: Chapter One”

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