Part 3 of "The Halloween Event."
THE STORY SO FAR
On 30 October 2017, the island of Britain is mysteriously transported 951 years back in time, a phenomenon known as "The Halloween Event" .
With the help of Gunter Vonmurdahl, an immortal Nazi doctor, Duke William of Normandy destroys the overconfident British Army with an atomic bomb at the Second Battle of Hastings and declares himself King of England.
When the Normans turn their gaze north, the First Minister of Scotland rallies an army and marches south to meet them. At "The Battle of Hadrian's Wall" , both sides take tremendous losses; the outcome is uncertain.
In Ireland, the soothsayer known as the Blue Man foresees his own death at the hands of Prince Domnall of Leinster.
A ship cobbled together from the wreckage of a British Airways flight appears in Glasgow Harbor. An American woman named Colleen Grabowski rows to shore bearing a message to the people of Britain from the King on the Mountain, a god-like sovereign residing on Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Meanwhile, the Britain of 1066 has appeared back in 2017 – American business interests sense an opportunity.
Colleen Grabowski had always been a religious woman.
She prayed when the plane went down. She prayed when the clear, unpolluted waters of the Hudson River rose over her head – there wasn’t much else she could do. Her left foot was trapped beneath the seat in front of her, and she had never been able to open her eyes underwater. She prayed right until Air Marshal Jack Claiborne unbuckled her seatbelt and pulled her, gasping, up onto the riverbank. In a way, she had been praying for a man like Claiborne all her life.
The pilots were dead, drowned in the crash, and Claiborne selflessly took the burden of leadership onto himself. Not that anyone would challenge him. At six foot nine and more than three hundred pounds, he was a monster of a man – and he carried the plane’s sole firearm. In the America of the unarmed, the man with the gun is King.
For the first two months, they lived off fish from the river, the occasional wild deer, and corn they got in trade with the Indians of Manhattan Island. Then the weather turned; the river froze over, game became scarce, and the natives left the coast for their winter hunting grounds further inland.
They plucked all the berries on the island and dug pits in the snowdrifts in search of acorns. Soon they were eating roots and bark, then their own shoes and belts, boiled for stew. Grabowski lost more than a hundred pounds that winter.
Despite their hardship, the people of British Airways Flight 4521 all agreed that they should stay put. If anyone was to come looking for them, they reasoned, it would be there, in (what would be) New York. But when the children started to die, all hope of rescue perished with them. In their darkest hour, Claiborne announced that salvation had appeared to him in a dream: a new home, flowing with milk and honey, far to the north. To get there, he said, they needed energy. For energy, they needed food. So they did what they had to do.
Newly invigorated, they salvaged what parts of the plane they could find and built a proud vessel. A strong southerly wind carried them to the Lobster Coast, and they arrived at the base of Mount Katahdin just as the snow was melting – spring was eerily premature. The local Indians thought this was a bad omen, and warned Claiborne not to climb the sacred mountain, lest he wake the spirits that slept there. When they told him this, he smiled and said nothing, for that was exactly what he intended to do.
They climbed Katahdin on a damp, gray day. Many of them were defeated by the frigid wind, the biting rain, and the slippery, nigh-impassable rocks; but turning back never so much as crossed Grabowski’s mind. She knew that Fate was waiting for her up above the treeline, Fate in the form of Jack Claiborne.
Those who made it to the summit remained there for hours, huddled together for warmth. Only once they were soaked to the skins, their hands chalk-white and shaking with cold, did He deem it time for sunlight to return to the mountain. The rain stopped and the clouds parted. They beheld the beauty around them – the strong mountains, fertile valleys, the rivers jumping with fish. It was their new kingdom, the American Caanan.
Then His spirit entered Jack Claiborne. Before their very eyes, the skin of Claiborne’s back burst open, and wings, like those of a bat, sprang forth, so massive that they blocked out the sun. Claws split his toes apart, and avian talons extended out after them. The hairs of his legs ballooned into feathers. Antlers exploded out from his skull, and Grabowski could hear the bones breaking and rearranging within his head as the face elongated into a snout. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. When the transformation was complete, He stroked His titanic erect penis, big as the arm of a bodybuilder, and ejaculated into the open mouths of His kneeling acolytes.
Pamola, the King on the Mountain, had come.
The Battle of Hadrian’s Wall was a Phyrric victory for King William. Yes, the Scots had been driven back, and their leader, Lady Nicola, was dead – but she had taken the pride of William’s host with her. His best knights and most able veterans were gone, as was most of his ammunition.
Another woman had risen to power in the north: a young politician named Mhairi Black, who was a champion of the heresy the Nouvelle Anglais called democracy. She eschewed the warlike trappings of her predecessor, insisting on taking the bland title of “First Minister,” and promising a return to 21st century values and practices. Now the Scots seemed more determined than ever to resist the Normans.
Lying awake in his tent, William chastised himself for his foolishness. He knew that if his brother Odo had been at the Wall with him, things would have turned out differently. Bishop Odo went missing in London the night before the campaign began, and William sensed treachery. Not from his brother – Odo would never have abandoned him willingly – but from agents of his enemies. Whether they were across the battlefield or within his own camp, William was not yet certain.
To make matters worse, William had no way of contacting his secret weapon. V.M. had helped him take the Crown. He had fed William’s vanity, and convinced him to attack the Scots. The King wished he were here now as well, but not because he wanted help. His pride wouldn’t allow that. All he wanted were answers.
On the morning of 14 June 1067, King William ordered that Hadrian’s Wall at its junction with the A1 be covered in pitch and set aflame. A few hours later, the Norman army marched north, bound for Edinburgh, and behind them thick black columns of smoke curled skyward.
Sarah Kopp found Gordy Stout sitting in the grass in front of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, a postmodern eyesore of a building at the end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Gordy stood to greet her; she clicked her heels and saluted him.
“I almost didn’t recognize you,” Sarah said. “You look all grown up.” Truthfully, he looked aged beyond his years. The light in his eyes was dim, and there were light wrinkles on his forehead. He had a perpetual grimace on his face from the pain of the injury on his right hand, which was bandaged and hung in a sling above his heart.
“I thought you were dead,” Gordy said.
“I sort of wish I was,” she said. “The gas got Marge. But you should have seen her, Gordy. She fought like a woman possessed, right until the end.”
“Fucking hell. I’m so sorry.” He squeezed her shoulder. “The gas got Freefall too.”
Sarah blinked the tears away. “You look great. Very dashing.” They were both wearing dress uniforms – Gordy was sporting a worsted wool kilt. “You’re a big man now, eh?”
He shrugged. “They made me an officer because I’m the only plonker in Scotland who’s actually been to Katahdin.”
“So it’s true, then?” Sarah asked, lowering her voice. “About the King across the water?”
“Apparently so,” Gordy said. He looked at his watch. “The meeting’s about to start. Come with me.”
“I couldn’t possibly,” Sarah said.
“Yes you bloody could. First Minister Black asked for me personally. I’ll tell them we come as a team.”
Inside the Parliament Building, they relinquished their swords at the security checkpoint and mounted the stairs. The meeting was in a drab, corporate-looking conference room on the third floor. Minding the door was their commanding officer, Major Knox, and three Highlander guards.
Gordy and Sarah saluted the Major. “Godkiller and Kopp,” Knox said with a faint smile. “Welcome.”
“It’s good to see you, sir,” Gordy said.
“Go on, don’t keep the First Minister waiting,” Knox said, pushing open the door.
The room was choked with chatting soldiers and politicians, some sitting at a long conference table, most standing against the walls to observe. At the head of the table sat the young new First Minister, Mhairi Black, formerly the MP of Paisley and Renfrewshire South. Black was just twenty-three, younger than Gordy, but had mopped up the competition in the previous week’s emergency by-election. She was leaning over toward an older male MP, listening and nodding. Sarah felt a ping of sympathy for her – the 11th century was not a woman’s world.
Sarah wished Gordy luck, and he took his assigned seat two over from the First Minister. Sarah squeezed in with the plebs. For her it was standing room only.
First Minister Black stood. “Ladies and gentlemen! We’re about ready to greet our guest,” she said, commanding the room. “Most of you know each other, but allow me to make a few introductions.” She gestured to Gordy. “This is First Lieutenant Gordy Stout. Lieutenant, on behalf of the citizens of Scotland, I’d like to thank you for your service at the Battle of Hadrian’s Wall. You, and all our brave soldiers, spat tyranny in the face that day, and turned the tide of the war. We owe you our lives.”
“Hear, hear!” cried an MP, and the politicians drummed their hands upon the tabletop.
“Alba! Alba!” chanted Sarah and the soldiers.
“He’s English, try not to hold it against him,” Black said, and a few people chuckled. “I asked Lieutenant Stout here because before the Halloween Event, he was an accomplished hiker. He’s climbed Mount Katahdin, in actual fact.”
She turned to a man at the other end of the conference table. He was wearing a three-piece suit, but Sarah could tell immediately he was not from the 21st century. The dead giveaway was his long mustache, the fashion in Normandy. He was one of the shortest men at the meeting, had a pinched, angular face that betrayed no emotion. “And this,” Black said, “is Sir Baldwin FitzGilbert. After Hastings Two, he came to Scotland to advise First Minister Sturgeon. Now he advises me.”
There was a scattered, unenthusiastic round of applause. Sarah decided not to join in.
Major Knox entered the room and nodded to the First Minister.
“Bring her in,” Black said.
Colleen Grabowski waddled into the conference room, a big grin plastered on her face. “Oh hey! Look at all those kilts! Some people say they make guys look like sissies, but I think they’re sexy.” There was one empty chair – she plunked down into it. “Hi, everyone. I’m Colleen Grabowski.”
“Thank you for coming, Ms. Grabowski,” Black said. “I hear you have a message for us.”
Grabowski stared at the First Minister with her mouth hanging open. “I’m sorry, I just can’t understand that adorable accent of yours. Say again, please?”
Black blinked. “I was told you have a message for us.”
“Aw geez,” Grabowski said. “I still didn’t catch it. You gotta speak a lot more slowly.”
The shadow of a vein appeared on First Minister Black’s forehead. “A message. You have one. For us.”
Grabowski snapped her fingers. “Oh yeah, the message. Duh! Sooo, it’s from my master, Pamola, the King on the Mountain, the Living God. He told me to tell you that He has found a way to close the timewound.”
“The what?” Black asked.
“The timewound!” Grabowski said, as if the First Minister was dense for asking. “The tear in time and space that took us back to the olden days. My master, He knows about all this stuff, being a god and all. What I’m saying is that He’s figured out a way to bring us all home.”
The conference room exploded into a cacophony of high-pitched debating, gavel banging, and calls for order.
Sarah pondered the possibility. As a rule, she tried not to think about life before the Halloween Event. Everyone in her old life was dead, now that Marge was gone. Even so, she found herself combing through her memories. Morning tea. The commute to school. Her husband getting her riled up with kisses on her neck, knowing full well she still had twenty papers to grade before morning.
She thought of her sons. Paul, her youngest, had built a light board for a science project one rainy Sunday afternoon not long before the Halloween Event. It was a map of the U.K. with little LEDs marking major cities, and pushpins next to a list of city names. You took a metal pen and touched it to the pushpins, and the LED would light up.
Sarah’s head spun. She steadied herself against the wall and breathed deeply. Her stomach roiled and she thought she might vomit.
“Quiet!” Major Knox finally shouted, in his loudest battlefield voice, and at length the room settled down.
Grabowski was watching them all with a smile in her eyes, but not on her lips. “It’s true,” she said. “You could be surfing the web and eating Taco Bell by Labor Day. The only thing my master asks in return is one teensy-weensy little favor. Send some ships back to America with me. Pledge yourself to accept the King on the Mountain’s guidance … pledge yourself willingly. Then my master will say some words, do a little hocus pocus, and we’ll all go home together.”
Black took a moment to find the right words. “Forgive me for saying so, Ms. Grabowski, but all this talk of gods and timewounds makes you sound fucking mental.”
Grabowski closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “I’ll prove it to you.”
At that moment, the power went out.
Not just in the Parliament Building, but everywhere in Scotland.
At twilight on 22 June 1067, King William and his army arrived in Edinburgh to find its buildings dark and its streets empty – at least of the living. Bodies were everywhere, storefronts were smashed and looted, and a massive fire was burning somewhere downtown.
The Normans snaked through the city, headed for Edinburgh Castle. Very few of them spoke. The King sent for Nigel Farage, his highest-ranking English defector. William hated the man, but his insights about the enemy had proven useful in the past.
“Sire!” Farage cried as he cantered up Lothian Road toward the head of the army. “What is your command?”
“Keep quiet, for God’s sake,” William said in French, even before his interpreter had relayed a translation of Farage’s words.
Farage frowned. “Forgive me, sire, but the enemy is beaten. They have destroyed each other.”
“Have they?” William asked. “You seem very sure.”
“The people of the 21st century are weak, my lord,” Farage said. “They cannot live without electricity. Not even for a fortnight.”
They turned at Bread Street then took Spittal to Johnston Terrace. The fire they had seen earlier was just up the hill, at the Esplanade where the Edinburgh Military Tattoo was held. The bodies were more numerous when they came closer, and blood splattered the pavement. “My goodness. These are civilian corpses,” Farage said. “They must have risen in rebellion.”
They took a hard left onto the Royal Mile. Could it be so easy? William wondered. Even if the Scottish army still held the castle, or had fled north, the people were no longer with them. Without popular support they were no more than a ragged band of outlaws.
King William reined in his horse not far from the entrance to the Esplanade, and his army came to a halt behind him. He heard a groan and turned – a wounded Scottish soldier was writhing on the cobblestones nearby.
“Glean what you can from him,” the King said.
Farage dismounted and knelt before the wounded man. “What has happened here?” he asked.
The soldier’s trembling hand beckoned Farage closer, and his lips quivered.
Farage sighed impatiently. He leaned in and shouted in the soldier’s face, “Speak, you scum!”
“Alba bu grath,” the soldier said, and stabbed Farage in the throat. The ensuing spray of blood soaked the cobblestones – a darker red than the stage blood that had been thrown about the streets – and the former party leader of UKIP died with a wide-eyed look of utter bemusement on his face.
“ALBA!” a thousand voices shouted, and the corpses of Edinburgh rose from the dead, weapons in hand.
Generators hummed, and huge electric work lights on either side of the street popped on, blinding the Normans.
William drew his sword. “Ambush!” he screamed to his men. “Both sides, both sides!”
“Protect the King!” William’s bodyguard rushed forward and covered him with their shields as the night air filled with whizzing arrows.
A hand-axe thrown from a second-story window took the knight next to William full in the face, severing his nose and lips. Scots were all around them, hemming them in – not just men and women of fighting age, but the old as well, and children who could not have been older than thirteen.
William parried a Scot’s sword with his own and cut the attacker down with a swift thrust through the heart. Too close, he thought, flushed with the onset of panic. They are too close.
“My lord!” another of his knights shouted, turning his horse to close with the oncoming enemy. “We must make for the cas–” An arrow sprouted from the knight’s chest – the Scots pulled him from his horse and hacked him to pieces.
The castle. William pondered the roaring flame in the Esplanade, and the ancient walls beyond. The fire was meant to trap them, he realized. If he fled for the castle, he would be caught between a conflagration on one side and a horde of Scots on the other. It meant certain capture. No, he thought. I will not be paraded through the streets in chains. Far better to die, facing the enemy.
He turned around and beheld his beleaguered army. The Normans were fighting back to back – the Scots had surrounded them. The King patted his horse on the neck, and then dug his spurs deep enough into its flanks to draw blood. The destrier lunged forward and did what it was trained to do: trample, kick, and kill. William swung his sword down on every side, taking off heads and hands.
“God aid us!” cried a Norman. “Rally to the King!”
William’s blade lodged into a woman’s ribs and stuck fast, so he let it go and drew his firearm, an MP5 submachine gun. He unloaded pell-mell into the horde of Scots, slaughtering them, their bright gushing blood backlit by the big work lights – and at that moment the Norman knights cantered in to join the charge, sweeping their swords and hurling their spears into the melee.
The Scots ran for cover, and a chain rout spread down the line. The Norman infantry felt the enemy break and attacked, carving them up like pumpkins at harvest-time.
William was breathing hard, and his heart was pounding. “No prisoners!”
His army took up the cry as they chased the Scots into the pubs and souvenir shops of the Royal Mile. “No prisoners! No prisoners!”
The King sent up a quick prayer of thanks. He had led his troops into a trap, and snatched victory from the jaws of annihilation. It is a miracle, William thought. It was God’s will.
Fletching fluttered in the breeze above him. William looked up … just in time for an arrow to sink deep into the socket of his right eye.
“I got him!” a distant voice exclaimed. “I fucking got him!”
“Good evening,” Anderson Cooper said from the television set behind the bar. “There is breaking news from England that will dominate the program tonight. In an unprecedented move, King Harold Godwinson has sold the exclusive licensing rights to his country’s tourism to Disney for a reported twelve billion dollars. This means that Disney, and Disney alone, will be able to construct tourist amenities in England. The deal, which came following months of negotiation, is being called ‘a crushing blow’ to the European Union, which recently failed to come to a similar agreement with King Malcolm of Scotland …”
“Could you turn that off?” Dougie Drimmer asked. He was an angry, pudgy little man, and happened to be the sole patron at Harry’s Corner this humid July morning.
“You got it, boss,” the bartender said. He nodded to Dougie’s empty pint glass. “Want another one?”
“Yeah, thanks,” Dougie said.
The bartender hit the mute button on his remote, and Dougie basked in the ensuing silence. He was sick to death of hearing about England all the fucking time. He stopped hanging out with his friends from the restaurant when they wouldn’t stop yakking about it. He even threw away his smartphone because of the constant news alerts.
Dougie was still bitter about those shameless reporters who had showed up at his house on Halloween last year. Dougie didn’t answer the door at first – why would he? In New Orleans, nocturnal visitors on Halloween night were more likely to pop a cap in your ass than ask for candy. But when Dougie looked through his peephole and saw them filming a report – actually filming, for fuck's sake – he opened up and told them to fuck off.
They launched right into it. “Mr. Drimmer, we’re with WGNO. We’re going around looking for Americans who have lost friends and family in the, uh … the event.”
He had to hear it from them. Nobody should ever have to learn about the loss of a brother from a bloodsucking reporter. Dougie had fallen to his knees and wept. Who wouldn’t? And they filmed it all, the cocksuckers.
“Oh shit,” the bartender said. He was looking at the television. Fucking transfixed, like the rest of the sorry-ass human race. “Hey man, you mind if I turn the sound back on?”
“Yeah, I mind.”
“Just for a minute.” He was clutching the remote.
“You’re the one behind the bar, so it’s up to you,” Dougie said. “Just don’t expect a tip.”
The bartender made a face. “Be nice or leave.” He hit the mute button again and Anderson Cooper’s stupid gay voice filled the pub once again.
Dougie stood at once. “How much for the beers?”
Dougie fished a crumpled twenty out of his pocket. “Gimme eight back, please.”
The bartender scowled and did as he was told.
Cooper droned on. “… and he’s perhaps the most stalwart opponent to this deal with Disney. Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, welcome.”
A short, sallow medieval man in a miter appeared on the screen in a satellite feed. He began talking rapidly in Old English, and after a moment a translator’s voice spoke over him. “Hello, Andersen. Dark forces have conspired to bring about this unholy alliance. I fear that Satan works through this Bob Iger, lord of Disney.”
“Archbishop Stigand, let me stop you there,” Andersen Cooper said with a patronizing smile. “How familiar are you with 21st century business practices?”
“Cooper is a fool,” an accented voice said from down the bar. “A child could see that a conspiracy is afoot.”
Dougie turned. The speaker was a handsome middle-aged man, drinking a stein of beer a few stools away. Has he been there the entire time? Dougie thought. He could have sworn that the bar was empty just a moment ago.
“You actually believe that cocksucker?” Dougie asked, slurring his words. Standing up had made him realize just how drunk he really was.
“Make no mistake, this goes to the top. I should know. I gave them the idea,” the stranger said. “Soon, these wretched Americans, doomed by their own greed, will experience far more of the Middle Ages than they bargained for!”
The bartender did not acknowledge the stranger – nor even seem to notice his presence.
“Whatever you say, pal,” Dougie said, and began to walk away. “You have a good one.”
“Your brother was a great soldier,” the stranger said.
“The fuck you say?”
“Eric, your brother, was a great soldier.”
“My brother sold insurance in Nashville.” And hiked his precious fucking trails.
The stranger smiled. “Before, yes. But he went on to take up arms to protect his people. He suffered much, lost an arm, and then he perished in battle at Hadrian’s Wall. The gas got him. But fear not. I have brought him back.”
Dougie was hallucinating. It was the only explanation for what was happening. He felt numb all over; it was like this guy had injected a full dose of Novocain right into his jugular. “You what?”
“I need you to go to Maine,” the stranger said, “to Baxter Peak on a mountain called Katahdin. Your brother is there. He shall have a task for you.”
“I’ll book my ticket today,” Dougie heard himself say. Doubts flashed across his mind, but the wonderful, overwhelming numbness pushed them away just as quickly. Going to Maine seemed like a marvelous idea. “What does he want me to do?”
“Save the King’s life,” the stranger said.
King William woke and saw white, shimmering light. Was it Heaven? He felt no pain.
A face was leering down at him. Odo? Is that you, brother?
William could hear a curious, repetitive birdsong – beep … beep … beep … beep – and then muffled voices which, he realized with dawning horror, were speaking in Nouvelle Anglais. He tried to move, but couldn’t quite manage it. He felt sluggish, almost drunk.
“Remain calm,” the face above him said in French. “You have been gravely wounded, but unfortunately you will live.”
William blinked, clearing the vision of his one remaining eye. He was lying down on a gurney in a large white room, filled with electric light. He could hear the faint whirring of a generator. A needle was in his arm, and the birdsong was emanating from a boxy medical machine. The man at his bedside was Norman by his look, and wore a surcoat bearing a chequy blue and gold shield.
“I know those arms,” William said in a rasping croak. His throat felt like cracked earth. “You are the traitor Baldwin FitzGilbert.”
The man smacked the bandages over William’s missing eye, and the King of England howled in pain. “Address me properly. I am Sir Baldwin, you piss-spawned tanner’s son.”
William tried to breathe. The blow had turned his head into a ball of agony. He’s waited a long time to call me that, I’d wager, William thought.
Sir Baldwin leaned back in his chair and picked at his fingernails. “The Scots are quite keen to get a great ransom out of you. I urged them to kill you, of course. We both know you’re far too dangerous to be left alive.”
“For you, perhaps,” William said, finding his voice. “One day, years from now perhaps, someone will come to you in the dead of night, and cut your throat. But first you shall see your line extinguished. Your wife and daughters –"
Baldwin hit him on the face again, harder this time. William gave out a high-pitched yelp, and tears sprung from his one intact eye. “Make all the threats you like,” Baldwin said. “I will be long gone before you can carry them out. I am going to America in a fortnight’s time. I am likely never to return.”
“The country across the sea?” William had heard of this mythical land. It was destined to become a mighty empire, the greatest the world had ever seen, but in these times it was a vast empty wilderness populated by savage heathens, much like Wales.
“The very same. I’ll send you a –" Sir Baldwin switched to Nouvelle Anglais, and said a word William did not recognize, “postcard.”
Then the traitor Baldwin FitzGilbert departed, and William I, the Conqueror, the Bastard, King of England and Duke of Normandy, was alone.
Sir Gordy Stout received his knighthood in a modest ceremony at Holyrood on 3 July 1067, and two weeks later he was aboard the HMS Raider, an Archer class patrol vessel, heading west through the Celtic Sea, bound for the coast of Maine.
The Raider’s sister ship, the HMS Tracker, followed close behind, laden with weapons and provisions. Over the starboard bow, about two nautical miles ahead, Gordy could just make out the broad sail of the American ship made from British Airways Flight 4521.
Seven knights and dames, handpicked by First Minister Black, were aboard the Raider. All were veterans of Hadrian’s Wall. Apart from Gordy, Sarah, and Baldwin, there was Sir Jeff Samso, who had killed countless Normans in the melee on the A1 northbound; Dame Alison Barclay, a doomsday prepper before the Halloween Event, who had supplied the expedition with her cache of illegal shotguns; Dame Susie Harrison, a young former assistant professor at the University of St. Andrew’s and an expert in pre-Columbian North America; and Sir Fraz Abidi, deadly with a bow, and famous for shooting William the Conqueror in the eye at Edinburgh.
The Knights of the Conference Table, Sarah called them, and the nickname stuck. The knights were under orders to find the King on the Mountain, and assess whether He really did have the power to bring Britain back to the 21st century. If so, they were to make a deal with Him.
Easier said than done, Gordy had thought. If he recalled his mythology correctly, bargains with gods often ended badly for mortals. Besides, hadn’t Grabowski said that her master required a “willing pledge?” Of what? he often wondered. Loyalty? Obedience?
“We should have chopped Grabowski’s head off as soon as she took out the electricity,” said Baldwin. He was leaning against the Raider’s gunwale wolfing down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “This quest will mean our deaths.”
“Bright and cheery as always, Sir Baldwin,” Gordy said. He didn’t trust Grabowski either, but she promised that the power outage would win them the battle, and it had. There was no way the Normans would have marched straight into their trap at Edinburgh if the lights were still on.
There was no question in anyone’s mind that this Pamola, the King on the Mountain, had worked a miracle through the strange, red-clad American. When teams of electricians had arrived at power stations across the country to get the lights working again, they found nothing broken. High-voltage circuit breakers all over Scotland had simply been switched off simultaneously. Such a feat would be technically possible in a large-scale cyber attack – but of course, the Internet had been down since the Halloween Event.
Gordy kept thinking about what Freefall had told him the night they met in York: If we all put our heads together, that William will be a rug on the floor by Christmas. Edinburgh proved the old cowboy right. They had finally stopped playing by medieval rules, and now the Conqueror was a prisoner, his army was destroyed, and his sons were bankrupting the Norman nobility to pay for his ransom.
What if their good fortune continued? Perhaps the King on the Mountain was benevolent, if a bit grandiose, and really did intend to take them home.
Gordy expressed as much to Baldwin, who laughed humorlessly. “Don’t get your hopes up. Do you remember what Grabowski told us about that bad winter in New York? She said they lived off of roots and bark, and she lost eighty kilograms. Does she look like a woman who’s lost that much weight to you?”
“The woods of Maine are teeming with wild animals. They probably ate well once spring came round,” Gordy said, but even as he spoke, he knew with a dark certainty that the Norman was right.
Baldwin rolled his eyes. “Think, Sir Gordy, think! You New English can barely hunt down a loaf of bread in a corner shop. You are soft … but you are also clever. That is your greatest asset. And there is only one species of game that can be convinced into putting itself on the spit.”
The expedition to America sighted the coast of Labrador in the last week of August 1067. The skippers of the Raider and the Tracker proposed putting ashore for a few days, but Grabowski vetoed the idea. She told them over the ship’s radio that the local Innu tribe was unfriendly, and would slaughter them as soon as they set foot on the beach. “They’re probably watching us right now,” she added, “lurking in the trees.”
So the three ships turned south, and a few days later they came across a Nordic knorr, or merchant longship, bound for the north. Her terrified crew attempted to tack right and escape into the open sea, but the Tracker was far faster, and quickly intercepted them. Gordy had some trouble communicating with the longship’s crew at first, as they spoke an extremely peculiar dialect of Old Norse, but using a combination of Old English and modern Icelandic he was able to make himself more or less understood.
Gordy spoke with the Norse captain for some time, and grew more confident with his language. Old Norse was not so distantly related to modern English and German, though Gordy found it difficult to keep up with the odd inflections, compound words, and nautical idioms peppered through the sea dog’s speech.
He gathered that the captain and his crew were Greenlanders making a semi-annual voyage to Labrador (which they called “Markland”) for timber. This year they had been forced to cut their trip short after experiencing unusually fierce resistance from people they called the Skrælingjar – Native Americans, Gordy assumed. The Greenlanders’ two most experienced warriors had been killed in the skirmishes. “Do not let the Skraelings capture you alive. They are skilled in torture, and those they take are slow in dying,” the Norse captain said, clutching the whalebone cross that hung from his neck.
“Thank you for the warning,” Gordy said. “We go south, past the gulf, to the inland mountains.”
“We call that country Vinland. It is sunny and bountiful, but it is also wild. You are foolish to venture there,” the captain said.
“I think you are right, but we must go,” Gordy said.
“Then you would do well to stop at Leifsbudir, the way-place for ships bound for Vinland. It is not too far from here. Tell Thorgeir that Vifil wishes him well.”
They sighted Leifsbudir only a day later on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. It was a tiny Norse settlement, no more than a cluster of turf houses on a bleak, inhospitable North Atlantic landscape, but it looked like heaven to the beleaguered travelers. Again the Scottish captains asked to put ashore, and again Grabowski refused.
“We haven’t set foot on dry land in nearly a month,” the skipper of the Raider told her over the radio. “We’re going. Over.”
There was silence for a moment. “A day and a night, that’s it. If you’re not hauling anchor by tomorrow at daybreak, I’m leaving without you. Over and out,” she said.
The entire populace of the Norse village turned out to follow the alien visitors from their steel-hulled ships into the cramped longhouse of the village chieftain, a red-nosed, balding Viking named Thorgeir Snorrisson. “I wish I had better wine to offer you,” he told Gordy. “Leifsbudir has seen better days. The Skraelings refuse to trade with us, and our grapes are old and sour.”
Gordy shooed away a young boy who was attempting to untie his shoelaces. “We haven’t seen any Skraelings since we came to these shores.”
“They are like deer. They only appear when they want to be seen.” Thorgeir wiped a dribble of wine from his beard and clasped Gordy’s shoulder. “You should stay here a while.”
“Thank you,” Gordy said, “but we must leave in the morning.”
“It is late in the season. Winter here, with us. You will have everything you need, and it would enhance your reputation greatly. When you return to your country, you can say, ‘I raised my shield with the son of Snorri.’ My father is a famous and noble man, known to everyone in the northern half of the world. He was born in Vinland, and dedicated his life to preaching the gospel in Iceland,” Thorgeir said.
Gordy changed the subject. “Vifil – who sends a greeting – told us that there are troubles to the south.”
“In more ways than one,” Thorgeir said, and burped, and Gordy realized that his host was quite drunk. “We are infertile. All the men of Leifsbudir.”
“When did this start?”
“The spring. Some say the devil lives here in Vinland. Others, it shames me to say, believe it is Odin’s revenge on our Christian generation. They turn back to the old ways … but I see God’s hand in our meeting, my lord.” His voice trembled, full of disquiet.
Gordy looked around the longhouse. Thorgeir’s serving women were topping off drinking horns left and right, and the knights and sailors of the Raider and the Tracker were having a marvelous time. Baldwin was raucously pissed, pawing at every Norsewoman who passed by his bench. Sarah was letting some of the village girls pick at the buttons and insignias of her uniform. Fraz, predictably, was bragging to the boys about mutilating the King of England. The fact that his audience didn’t understand a word of English did not seem to bother him.
The feast was full to bursting of women and children. Where are all the men? Gordy had to squint into the darkest corner of the hall to see them – sitting quietly together, each drinking alone, segregated by sex like some secondary school dance.
Shit, Gordy thought.
“Ah! Here is Gudrid, my most fertile daughter,” Thorgeir said, pulling a thin teenage girl toward them. “She is more beautiful than all women, and has the power to understand the language of birds.”
“That is certainly an interesting skill,” Gordy said.
“Gudrid,” Thorgeir said, “greet Lord Gordy properly.”
“Well met, Lord Gordy,” Gudrid said. She fell to her knees and bowed.
Gordy looked her over. Perhaps “more beautiful than all women” was an exaggeration, but she was certainly very pretty, and had only a few pockmarks on her face. It has been a long time, he thought, and then caught himself. No, this is wrong, it’s definitely wrong.
Thorgeir leaned in. “Do not mind her braid. She intends to divorce her husband very soon. They no longer share a bed, so there is no shame in it for him.”
Gordy stood. “Lovely to meet you, Gudrid. Thorgeir, I fear I have eaten too much of your excellent cod, and now I must defecate. I shall defecate quite violently, I expect.”
The outhouse was a drafty board and batten structure a short walk from the longhouse, a walk made miserable by the blistering sea wind that chilled Gordy to the bone. He opened the door. The latrine was no more than a plank hanging over a trench packed with frozen urine and frosty feces.
Gordy sat and gulped down beer in the dark. After a few minutes he heard footsteps, and then Sarah’s voice. “Gordy? You all right in there, mate?”
He pushed open the door. “Thorgeir wants me to shag his daughter.”
“I noticed that. He’s pushing some poor girl on Sir Baldwin, too,” Sarah said, shuddering. “He gives me the creeps.”
“Thorgeir or Sir Baldwin?”
“Both,” she said. “You going to hide in the loo all night?”
“Maybe,” Gordy said.
“Come back to the party. It’s cold as a witch’s tit out here.”
“What should I do? I don’t want to offend Thorgeir.”
“Bloody hell, Gordy. Are you asking my permission to fuck this girl?”
“No!” Kind of. “I just thought … as a woman, you’re –“
“’As a woman,’” Sarah said in a mocking high-pitched tone, surprising him. He had never seen this side of her. “You’re a real cock, did you know that?”
“I won’t do it, then,” Gordy said.
“For fuck’s sake, I’m not judging you. You’re a grown man, you’ve killed people, and I’m not your mum or your auntie or whatever you want me to be. I just wish you’d make your own fucking decisions, Gordy. Figure out who you bloody want to be.” She slammed the outhouse door shut and walked away muttering.
Gordy drained his cup, threw his cloak over his head, and walked back to the warmth of the longhouse. Inside, Gudrid was waiting for him.
He let her kiss him. “Your nose is cold,” she said.
She led him by the hand past the main hall, through a narrow passageway, and into the stofa, a smaller room at the end of the house where the women baked and embroidered during the day. Now it was dark and empty save for a few snoring drunks and another couple snogging wetly in the dark.
“I need to know how old you are, Gudrid,” Gordy said.
“This will be my sixteenth winter,” she said.
Sixteen’s not so bad, Gordy told himself. Medieval people tended to look older than they were – perhaps she was the exception to the rule. Or she’s lying.
He pulled away from her. “I cannot do this,” he said. “You are very beautiful, but in my country, this would be a terrible crime. I am sorry.”
“We are not in your country. If you do not lay with me, my father will take it as an insult. He will kill you and your entire crew. They are all drunk, so it would be easy,” Gudrid said in a nonchalant tone.
“Then let’s not do it, and say we did.”
“A bird told me this: if I do not conceive, then Thorgeir will kill me.” Gudrid threw a fur blanket down upon a mead bench and gestured to it with an open palm. “Be calm and lay down. You will enjoy it.”
Gordy lay on his back. She pulled off his jacket and squinted at his trousers. “Where are the laces?” she asked.
“Oh,” Gordy said, unzipping his fly, “it goes down like this.” His heart was hammering and his penis was throbbing. Together, they pulled off his pants and underwear.
She hiked up her skirt and straddled him. Gordy gave out a high, girlish moan. She was sopping wet. “You must give me a child,” she said. “If you don’t, we will need to commit a terrible crime twice.”
“I’m curious,” Gordy said. “How is it that you learned the language of birds?”
“I ate the heart of a dragon,” Gudrid said, and gasped as he slid inside her.
The Blue Man returned to his cottage after dark, hungry and shivering. The temperature had dropped ten degrees or more since late afternoon, and he had not dressed for cold. Autumn was coming – he reckoned it must be late August by now, perhaps even September.
His herbs had been hard to come by. He picked a fair amount of fennel and a little feverfew, but found his willow tree stripped of leaves. These days, white willow tea was about the only potion strong enough to ease his aching scars. There was one precious painkiller he still had available to him, however: a single cigarette, the last in the pack the Blue Man’s last visitor had given him in payment for his wisdom. He started a fire and warmed his hands, then flipped open the crinkled pack of Camels.
The cigarette was gone.
The pleasure centers in his brain pounded in outrage at being so denied. The last cigarette – in all of Ireland, as far as the Blue Man knew – was just gone.
Well, it didn’t walk out the bloody door, he thought, and was rifling through his meager possessions when he smelled the rich, cloying, unmistakable aroma of burning tobacco behind him. He turned.
“Looking for this?” Dr. Vonmurdahl asked, exhaling smoke with an exaggerated sigh of pleasure. He was dressed in a ‘40s-era three-piece suit and sitting with his legs crossed near the fire. The Blue Man knew him from his visions, but this was a meeting he had not foreseen.
“Give that to me,” the Blue Man said. He had spoken Gaelic for so long that modern English felt strange on his tongue.
“You 21st century Negroes are so entitled,” Vonmurdahl said. “You should earn this cigarette, like your ancestors did their freedom.”
“I’m second generation Nigerian. My family were never slaves,” the Blue Man said. “And fuck you.”
“Calm yourself, Mr. Obaje. I have more cigarettes for you. Parliaments, your favorite.” He produced two cartons and laid them on the Blue Man’s table. “Enough to last you to the end of your days … which is in about six weeks.” Vonmurdahl threw his head back and laughed heartily. “I wish to employ your services.”
The Blue Man tried to peer into Vonmurdahl’s mind, but all he sensed there was a shifting, undulating blackness, like a writhing pit of snakes. “I don’t know what you are,” he said, “but you were human, once. You can’t escape your fate any more than I can.”
“There is no destiny without time, and I am beyond time,” Vonmurdahl said. “It is not of myself that I would ask.”
“Of whom, then?” the Blue Man asked.
“Two men,” Vonmurdahl said. “Each on either side of the rift. Both are on quests to the same place, but not in the same time. The first is a young knight of Scotland named Gordy Stout. The second is a thrall of mine, a wretched drunk from New Orleans, Douglas Drimmer. They have never met, but are connected by love … love for Drimmer’s brother Eric, who called himself ‘Freefall,’ and sacrificed himself at Hadrian’s Wall to save Stout’s life.
“Drimmer seeks to close the timewound. Stout will attempt to keep it open. Only one will succeed; the other must die. Which will it be?”
“You’ve foreseen my death. Why can’t you foresee this?” the Blue Man asked.
“Your powers are greater than mine, though I am loath to admit it,” Vonmurdahl said.
In his mind’s eye, the Blue Man saw a dying man floating in a yellow-green sea. He’s on Katahdin, Gordy.
“Give us a fag,” the Blue Man said, eyeing the Parliaments. “I can’t think straight when I’m gasping.”
Vonmurdahl tisked. “Prophecy first, fags later.”
“I need more to go on, then. What are you after, Vonmurdahl?”
“I’m a man of simple pleasures,” the Nazi said, flicking the butt of the Camel into the fireplace. “Chaos. Mayhem. The downfall of civilization.”
“That can’t be it. You’ve been pulling strings from the beginning. Why?”
“Because it’s so much fun!” Vonmurdahl’s eyes glimmered in the firelight.
“Bollocks. You serve the King on the Mountain, don’t you?”
“That moronic moose?” The Nazi seemed genuinely offended. “Heavens, no. I’m done with gods and Führers. They’re arrogant, that’s their problem. They underestimate the competition and end up shorter by a head. Always a disappointment.”
“So you’ve orchestrated the deaths of millions of people … for a laugh?”
“Ya,” Vonmurdahl said. “Now get on with it. Tell me what shall be. I cannot stay long.”
The Blue Man took a breath, concentrated, and looked forward into the future. He sensed a young woman with bright eyes and smelly armpits. I’m summiting today! She was giddy with excitement.
So was a pudgy older man who was leering at her. They were perched on a rocky ledge overlooking a dark wooded wilderness. Wow! You walked all the way from Georgia?
“Drimmer will find his sacrifice,” the Blue Man said.
“Good, good! Blood is the currency of the gods, after all.” Vonmurdahl leaned forward. “What of Stout? Can you see him?”
St. George and the Dragon. Luke and Vader. Sir Gordy and Pamola – it is an old story.
“No,” the Blue Man lied. “His future is clouded.”
“It cannot be,” Vonmurdahl said, incredulous. “That is not how destiny works! There is no future, no past … only an evolving present. Time is an illusion. Every child knows that.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” the Blue Man said.
Vonmurdahl stood, kicking his chair out from under him. “Deceiver! You know how it will end!”
“I’ll take my payment now,” the Blue Man said.
“Insolent freak!” Vonmurdahl cried, wagging his finger, and fell into German in his fury. “Ich werde dir die bede–”
A board in the wall of the cottage split open with a loud zzrap, and a crimson bolt of light tore past Vonmurdahl’s head, missing him by centimeters.
“Scheisse,” Vonmurdahl swore, then he disappeared into thin air; there one frame and gone the next, like a primitive special effect in a silent film.
A disheveled, bearded young man threw open the entry flap. He wore big glasses, a Hawaiian shirt, and oversized blue jeans, and he carried a huge, hulking, futuristic rifle – it looked like something out of Aliens. He poked around the cottage, eyes darting, breathing hard.
“He got away,” the Blue Man said.
“He always does,” the young man said, and he vanished too.
The Blue Man sat in silence for a while. His sanity was a delicate snow globe slipping from his grasp, falling in slow motion, just moments away from shattering on the cold, hard ground. He felt a strange detachment to the image. Why bother preventing the onset of madness? The ruiri was coming, and Death rode with him.
He tapped out a Parliament and lit up.
Dougie Drimmer landed at Logan International Airport in Boston early in the morning of 11 July 2018, rented a Toyota Corolla from Hertz, and five hours later was doing eighty-five up I-95 North near Portland, Maine.
He took Exit 48 toward Larrabee Road and turned into a Dunkin Donuts. After a good stretch and a satisfying piss, he ordered a large coffee and took it to the sidebar to add two creams, two sugars, and three shots of Jameson from his own flask. Yes, Dougie would be driving drunk, but the true rarity was Dougie driving sober.
He turned back on 95, sipping at his Irish drink. North of Bangor, the highway narrowed and the greenery thickened. He lost phone service. And when he turned off Exit 144, he saw the plateau of Mount Katahdin for the first time – towering to the west, fringed with afternoon sunlight.
The Raider and the Tracker followed BA 4521 southwest down the Lobster Coast, then north through a maze of islands and into a wide placid bay that soon narrowed into a river. After two long days, and some thirty kilometers of cautious upriver travel, Grabowski beached her vessel and urged the Scots to do the same. “It gets too narrow after this,” she said over the radio. “We walk the rest of the way.”
They camped on the beach that night, and in the morning the seven Knights of the Conference Table followed Grabowski and her Indians onto a narrow footpath through the wilderness. The sailors stayed behind to guard the ships. Gordy had a disquieting feeling he would never see them again – time proved the instinct right. When he returned to this place the following spring, he would find their skeletons scattered over the riverbank, pin-cushioned by Indian arrows.
The knights were curious to interact with their native guides, but as ever, Grabowski forbid it. “These guys get a little whiff of the common cold, it’ll wipe out their whole hemisphere,” she said. Despite this, Gordy noticed that the Indians often got water downstream from the Scots when they camped in the evenings.
Days turned into to weeks. The foliage turned from green to yellow and orange, a dazzling array of autumnal colors. The terrain got steeper and rockier. The wilderness was endless. What Indian villages they passed through were curiously abandoned.
Mosquitoes were a constant annoyance, especially at night, and every morning Gordy got up covered in little red bites, each itching like mad.
One September night about a month into their trek, Gordy was laying awake swatting insects when he spotted a pair of blinking lights moving across the sky. He woke Sarah. “It looks like an airplane,” he remarked to her.
“Can’t be,” Sarah said, yawning. “Must be a flying saucer.”
Gordy blinked. “Never pegged you for a UFO nut.”
She rolled over in her sleeping bag. “I’m not, but planes won’t be invented for another nine centuries.”
“Yeah, but –“
“I am trying to sleep,” Sarah said. Moments later she was snoring.
“Psst, Gordy.” It was Dame Alison. Gordy could just barely perceive the outline of her brown curls in the darkness of the wood. “It is a plane.”
“How is that possible?” Gordy asked.
Alison only shrugged. From overhead came the unmistakable gusty roar of a jet engine.
A week later, the party was hacking their way through dense undergrowth in a pouring rain when they stumbled upon another anomaly. It was a paved country road – or at least, part of one. The road, complete with the quintessential American double yellow lines, ended abruptly about a hundred meters in either direction.
“Are we home?” Dame Susie asked, awestruck. She fell to her knees and pressed her tanned face against the asphalt. “Are we back?”
“Nah,” Grabowski said with all the wonder of a mechanic diagnosing a gasket failure. “The timewound knows its about to close, so the space between spaces is thinning out. It’s kinda like my dad … see, he had a bum leg that always cramped up when rain was coming.”
“Is it a mirage?” Gordy asked.
“No, it’s real, it’s just that time doesn’t have much meaning anymore, not for us,” Grabowski said.
“And that means … what exactly?” Gordy said.
Grabowski ignored him and tapped Susie on the shoulder. “Better get up, honey. If a road can appear here, an eighteen-wheeler might, too. Come on, guys. We’re almost there.” She called to her Indians in Abenaki, and the long walk continued.
As they mounted the summit of the next hill, Gordy turned back for one last look at the anomaly – but the modern road had vanished, and in its place was a tangle of 11th century vines.
Dougie drove the Corolla down Route 157 toward Millinocket, Maine in the near-total darkness of rural night.
The classic rock station he’d been listening to for an hour cut out to static, so he glanced down to adjust the volume. He looked up just in time for his headlights to catch a soaking wet, tanned young lady in fatigues lying in the middle of the road. She had a dazed look on her face, and was pressing her ear to the ground.
He swerved madly, cursing. Momentum sent him careening off the road. There was a deep ditch in the grass next to the shoulder, and butt-clenching fear gripped Dougie as the car headed inexorably into a nosedive. The seatbelt caught him, but the airbag inflated a moment too late and his neck jerked painfully forward at the crunching, bone-jarring moment of impact.
“Goddammit,” Dougie groaned. Popping the seatbelt, he kicked open the driver’s side door and stumbled out.
The lady was gone. Of course she was. Didn’t want to stick around and face the music of her crazy, hippie-bitch ways. “Fucking crazy bitch,” he grumbled. “Fucking bitch.”
The car was totaled – smoke was rising from beneath the crumpled hood. That was just the luck of Douglas Drimmer.
Dougie stretched and spat, then he limped toward the mountain.
The Knights of the Conference Table reached the base of Mount Katahdin on 9 October 1067.
The Americans of BA 4521 gave them a hero’s welcome, and lead the party to the village they had spent the better part of a year constructing. The first thing Gordy noticed were two gigantic arches made of curved tree trunks, forming the letter “M.”
“That’s our Mickey D’s,” Grabowski explained. “We hunt moose and deer for the meat, and make the bread out of acorn flour.” In some fire pits nearby, Indians were cooking patties of meat on makeshift grills of flat rock. The smell made Gordy salivate.
Further into the village, the Americans showed them their JC Penney, racks of animal skin clothes in a large booth facing the village’s high street. “Need some new duds?” an American called from behind the counter. “Warm fur coats for just three little Indians.”
“Little Indians?” Gordy asked.
“That’s the money we use.” Grabowski rubbed her horn-rimmed glasses clean on the hem of her dress. “Let me show you where you’ll be staying.”
She led them to a spacious wigwam at the edge of a clearing. The interior was warm and cozy. Flames were crackling in the central fire pit, keeping the mosquitoes away, and seven McDonald’s burgers freshly wrapped in fern leaves had been left for them on a knee-high wooden table.
“Here it is, your home away from home! Get some sleep. You meet God tomorrow!” With that, Grabowski departed, closing the entry flap behind her.
Baldwin, who had kept a hand on his sword during the entire tour, watched her waddle away through a hole in the bark wall. “This village is the strangest place I’ve been all year.”
“That’s saying something,” Sir Jeff Samso said, unwrapping a burger.
“Don’t eat that,” Sir Baldwin said.
“Why not? I’m fucking famished,” Jeff said, taking a big bite.
Gordy suddenly remembered his conversation with Baldwin on the Raider.
Little Indians, he thought. Oh Jesus.
“It’s human,” Gordy said in a small voice. “They kill the Indians and eat them.”
Baldwin put a finger to his lips. “They’re listening,” he mouthed.
Disgust rolled over Jeff in a wave. His face turned green. He quietly regurgitated the chewed up burger then washed his mouth out with a swig of water from his canteen.
The knights hunkered closer together and lowered their voices to a whisper. “What do we do?” asked Jeff. “We have to eat.”
“We hunt and forage, just like we’ve been doing,” Fraz said.
“There’s no time,” Gordy said. “We’re climbing the mountain tomorrow. We’ll have to kill Pamola on an empty stomach.”
“Kill Him?” Alison asked with wide eyes. “Sir Gordy, our orders were to assess His intentions. If it all goes south, then maybe … but we haven’t even met the man.”
“I don’t need to meet Him,” Gordy said. “I know what He intends.”
“Ridiculous,” Susie said, voice rising. “We’re talking about murdering the one person who can bring us home!” The other six desperately shushed her into silence.
“Sir Gordy is right. He will enslave us all the moment we pledge ourselves to Him,” Baldwin said. “And when He closes the timewound and brings us into the future, He’ll enslave your world too. I believe in destiny. Ours was not to come here and treat with the King on the Mountain. We are knights, not diplomats.”
Sarah sighed. Years later, Gordy would remember that sigh as the precise moment she realized that she would die on the mountain.
“We never should have come here,” she said.
“The King on the Mountain is vulgar and conceited,” Vonmurdahl was saying, “but He amuses me. He entered that universe through the timewound, and He’s impatient to slam the door shut behind Him. There are worse monsters out there in the space between spaces, entities of ageless power that could squash Pamola like an insect. He fears this possibility. More coffee, doctor?”
“Yes, thank you, doctor,” Vonmurdahl said from across the table.
Vonmurdahl called the waitress over. He truly cherished these little chats with his younger self, and tried to fit them into his busy schedule as much as possible. Today, they were in a charming outdoor café on the Dircksenstrasse in downtown Berlin. The year was 1924, and the younger Vonmurdahl was celebrating his graduation from medical school.
The waitress came to their table, her head cocked in expectation. “Two more coffees, young lady,” the elder Vonmurdahl said.
She grinned. “I’m sure you hear this all the time, but I must say … your family resemblance is striking.”
“Good German genes,” the younger Vonmurdahl said.
She had gone off to refill their cups when a feminine cackle rang out from across the street. Both Vonmurdahls wrinkled their noses as a brazenly homosexual couple passed the café, giggling and flirting.
“Fear not,” the elder Vonmurdahl said. “The Reichstag will be far less tolerant of these degenerates when the Führer comes to power.”
“Thank God. And our research?”
“On living specimens? It shall be revolutionary.” The elder Vonmurdahl leaned in. “One can only glean so much from a cadaver. In about fifteen years, there shall be no shortage of expendable subjects.”
The younger Vonmurdahl nodded in approval then said, “But please, continue with your story. You were speaking of the King on the Mountain.”
“Indeed,” the elder said, “It was one of my most audacious little schemes. The great irony is that I couldn’t be there to see it to fruition. The hoemaker caught up with me, again.”
“An absurd little man who has made a habit of hunting me. You’ll meet him in America, thirty years from now. Enjoy those years of freedom. Now, I admit that I conspired to have him impregnated by an inter-dimensional hive mind, but at this point his response is simply disproportionate! He had me in his power once, but he spared my life, and now seeks to rectify his mistake. The hoemaker is a constant annoyance to me, an itch I cannot scratch.”
The waitress returned with a fresh pot of Jacobs Kronoug. The younger Vonmurdahl thanked her with a lingering amorous glance.
Ah, to be young again, the elder Vonmurdahl thought.
The younger stirred cream into his coffee. “This hoemaker sounds like a troublesome fellow. I will be sure to avoid any conspiracies involving inter-dimensional pregnancies in future.”
“The late forties and early fifties will be a … difficult time. You may not be able to avoid it,” the elder said. Should I tell him? No, some things are better left unsaid. “But again, I digress. The King on the Mountain has long believed that the promise of bringing the British back to the 21st century would be more than enough to secure their allegiance. He could not be more wrong. They would rather languish in medieval misery than give their world over to Him.
“He is like a vampire. He cannot go where He is not invited. He requires a willing pledge. Gods need worship and adoration to survive. They subsist upon it. I foresaw that His dream of conquest would die in its crib without my help. So before I made good my escape from the hoemaker, I played a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card on Pamola’s behalf.”
“A what?” the younger Vonmurdahl asked.
“It is an Americanism, deriving from a delightful parlor game. The card I played is named Douglas Drimmer. It was all too easy to plant my seed in his mind.
“In my travels, I acquired certain ancient texts – books of spells, in fact – containing incantations, which, when performed correctly, can alter the nature of time. These texts originated in universes that are unknown even to me. Only one ritual is powerful enough to close a timewound of this nature … and like any good rite, it cannot be accomplished without blood sacrifice. It is called the Hom Dai.
“I have bestowed knowledge of the Hom Dai on Drimmer’s subconscious, which does most of his thinking anyway. He will climb the mountain. He will find his sacrifice, perform the incantation, and at the moment he buries his flashing blade, the timewound will close, and the two Britains will return to their proper places. All Pamola need do is offer some light encouragement. Drimmer will usher Him through the door then close it from the other side. That is the key. I cannot believe I did not think of it sooner!”
“But you said the timewound only affected Great Britain,” the younger said, stroking his chin. “How could Pamola go through the door when there’s a whole ocean between He and it?”
“Geography, like all things, is an illusion, my very young friend,” the elder said with a twinkle in his eye. “Katahdin is more than just a mountain, and time travel – especially where blood magic is concerned – is not an exact science.”
Dougie walked through the night, animated by restless determination. Eric was depending on him. Sometimes Dougie thought he could hear his brother’s voice, beckoning him to Baxter Peak, urging him onward.
He couldn’t afford to stop and rest, despite hallucinating from lack of sleep. Once, while stumbling through Millinocket, he saw the town around him transform into virgin forest, then revert back to normal in the blink of an eye.
At ten in the morning, he reached the boundary of Baxter State Park, paid admission at the ranger station – his last fifteen bucks – and made his bleary-eyed way to Katahdin Stream Campground. Mosquitoes and black flies were all over him, but he didn’t mind. Go ahead, he thought. Devour the old Dougie.
He found an unattended pack near a trailside privy and swiped it. With a pack on his back, his disheveled appearance, reeking body odor, and limping gait were perfectly ordinary – just another Appalachian Trail hiker.
The pack was monstrous and weighed a ton, but Dougie pressed on. Eric had always bugged him to go on dumb hikes like this, ever since they were boys in Tennessee. If only you could see me now, bud.
I do see you Dougie, he heard Eric reply. Come up the mountain and you can see me too.
The campground was full of tents, but empty of people – the hikers would have left for the summit early that morning, and by now it was well into the afternoon. Dougie decided to curl up in the woods outside of camp to catch a few winks. Yes, sleep would be good – he could barely keep his eyes open. Then tomorrow, before dawn, he would finally climb the goddamn mountain, and find his
Dougie lay in his bed of leaves and undergrowth, waiting for sleep. As he rolled over onto his side, something sharp poked his thigh.
Tied to the pack he had stolen was a six-inch serrated knife.
Before they left the wigwam, the Knights of the Conference Table took stock of their weaponry. Fraz had his bow and two quivers of arrows. Jeff and Baldwin carried their longswords, freshly whetted. Gordy bore his old gladius that had served him well at Hadrian’s Wall. And Alison provided two loaded shotguns each for herself, Susie, and Sarah.
The knights set off from the village under cover of darkness, and by sunrise they were a mile up the mountain. The crimson light of dawn mingled with the autumn leaves of the canopy above, giving the forest a haunting orange glow. Occasionally Gordy thought he saw the white blazes that marked the Appalachian Trail painted onto trees – it could have been a trick of the light, but he knew it was the thinning of the space between spaces.
No one spoke, but no words were needed. Gordy knew that his five modern friends were grappling with the previous day’s revelation: they would never see the 21st century again. Even Baldwin felt the heaviness in the air between them and kept silent.
All hope of returning home was gone. But haven’t I known that for months? Home died with his parents in a hail of machine gun fire. It died when he became a murderer. He had killed people – actual human beings, not NPCs in some freakish video game. It died when he got a teenage Viking girl up the duff. It didn’t matter if he had done those things for good reasons, or because he felt like there was no other choice. He had done them, and they were a part of him. Now, Gordy realized with mounting horror, he was as much a creature of the 11th century as Baldwin or King William. There was no going back.
I’m sorry, Freefall. I tried, I really did.
The steady slope inclined into a steep scramble, and before long they were above the treeline, peering up at a maze of boulders.
Sarah broke the silence. “That’s the trail?”
Gordy nodded. “They call it the Gateway.”
Dougie clutched the precipitous rocks of the Gateway. Some ancient mountaineer had drilled thick steel spikes into the boulders to use as handholds, but they weren’t much help. The rock was slippery, and the handholds were scarce. He wasn’t even up that high (according to the guidebook in his stolen pack, he still had about three thousand vertical feet left to go), but his head was light with vertigo. If he fell, he wouldn’t die, but a broken leg would be the best-case scenario.
He heard rapid footfalls behind him, accompanied by some grunts of effort. Then came a female voice. “Need some help?”
“Nope,” Dougie said. “I’m all good.”
A young woman of college age leapt up the rocks, reaching him in a matter of seconds. She was dirty blonde, bright-eyed, and very pretty. Her calves were as big as logs and covered in mud, and she smelled only marginally better than a dumpster fire.
The girl shimmied past and was suddenly above him on the next ledge. “C’mon, give me your hand,” she said, reaching out.
He took it, and she yanked him with surprising strength up onto the ledge. Dougie looked up, and his heart sank. He was under the impression that he was almost clear of the Gateway, but the near-vertical climb continued as far as he could see.
“Just out here for the day?” the college girl asked.
Dougie nodded. “You a thru-hiker?”
She beamed. “Yep. I’m summiting today!”
“Wow!” Butterflies were in Dougie’s stomach. He had a peculiar feeling of deja vu. It was as if they were old friends, merely pretending to meet for the first time. “You came all the way from Georgia?”
“Uh-huh. I’m Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
“You’re … what?”
“My trail name,” Mary Had A Little Lamb explained. “It’s like a nickname, but –“
“Yeah, I know,” Dougie said. “My brother thru-hiked in the nineties. They called him Freefall. He fell out of his hammock his first night out.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “That’s awesome. I got mine because that song was stuck in my head all through Georgia. My tramily … uh, trail family … they caught me whistling it to myself every day for eighty miles.” Her smile faded. “None of them made it. Most dropped out by Pennsylvania. Boxcar got all the way to New Hampshire with me, and then he got a text from his wife. She wanted a divorce. Imagine that! Divorcing someone over text.”
She is alone and unprotected, Eric’s voice whispered. It must be her.
“Could I summit with you? I might slow you down, but I’d be honored to be there for your big moment. Get your picture with the sign and everything,” Dougie said.
Mary Had A Little Lamb’s smile returned, wider than ever. “I’d like that.”
The climb was harder than Gordy remembered. The wind was gusting and frigid and bit deep. The knights lost their way more than once going up – but just as it seemed that they had lost the trail completely, a ghostly white blaze would appear to guide their way.
Navigating the Gateway took the better part of the morning, and in ascending, the knights passed into the clouds. They only stopped to rest once they mounted the Tablelands, the main plateau of Katahdin.
“How much further?” Jeff shouted over the wind. He tried to light a cigarette, but an updraft snatched it from his mouth.
“A thousand more feet, I think,” Gordy shouted back.
Sarah was peering into the fog. “Where is He?”
“I haven’t the foggiest,” Gordy said with a weak smile.
She was in no mood for levity. “Gordy,” she said, “I’m frightened.”
The words were scarcely out of her mouth when the deafening pop of a gunshot reverberated up the mountain, and a bright red blossom of blood erupted from Jeff Samso’s face.
“Did you hear that?” Dougie asked. They were resting in the sunshine of the Tablelands, refilling their water bottles from Thoreau Spring.
Mary Had A Little Lamb shook her head as she squeezed the spring water through her Sawyer filter. “Hear what?”
“Sounded like a pistol shot.”
“Well it’s hunting season, right?” She unscrewed the filter and recapped her bottles. “Ready to get going?”
“Another minute,” said Dougie. He was exhausted.
“No rush,” Mary Had A Little Lamb said with a chuckle. “I’ll take a few more pictures.”
“Beautiful view,” Dougie said, and meant it.
Alison unslung one of her shotguns and unloaded it down the Gateway. The barrel roared again and again, buckshot slicing through the fog, while the other knights darted for cover amongst the boulders.
“Alison!” Gordy yelled from hiding. “Save your ammo!“
Another shot from the Gateway, and Alison bent double, clutching her side. “Fuck!” she screamed, and the curse echoed across the Tablelands.
Fraz nocked an arrow into his bow, breathing hard. “Get down, Ally, come on!”
The next two shots took Alison squarely in the chest. She was dead before she hit the ground. Gordy heard the horrible twin snaps of her kneecaps breaking as they slammed the rocks – then the top half of her body fell forward, landing at a grotesque angle on the mountainside.
“God is great,” Fraz said, whimpering. “God is great.”
“Come out come out wherever you aaarrre!” Grabowski sang from down the mountain.
“Cunt!” Sarah called, hurriedly loading a shotgun.
They could hear the red woman’s labored panting as she plodded up the ridge. “We coulda gone home, you little limey shits! All ya had to do was acknowledge my master as the one true God. But no, you just couldn’t.”
“Fraz,” Gordy whispered, jerking his head toward the elephantine cultist coming to murder them. Fraz nodded and peeked over their rocky cover.
“You smarmy faggots have resented us ever since we kicked your ass in 1776. I shoulda known you’d turn Judas.”
She was getting closer. Gordy could hear the jostling of small stones in her enormous wake. Fraz drew his bowstring back.
“You’re not fit to meet the master. To even think of harming him is a sin punishable by slow death!”
Her head appeared above the ledge. Her lipstick was smudged, her dress torn to ribbons, and her eyes burned behind the red horn-rimmed glasses with the rage of a maniac. She reminded Gordy of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Fraz took half a breath and held it.
Grabowski waved a pistol above her head. “Your friends got off easy!” She fired a shot into Jeff’s twitching corpse. “Just wait til you see what I’ve got in store for y–“
Fraz loosed. The arrow pierced Grabowski’s windpipe. She exhaled, her words literally caught in her throat.
The wound was bloodless at first – but then blood burst forth gushing and darkened the tattered red dress. Grabowski wobbled in place for a few seconds then crumpled down all at once, landing spread-eagled just inches away from poor dead Jeff.
Another head appeared over the ledge, then another, and another. Dozens of Pamola’s American acolytes, hooting war cries, jumped over the three dead bodies and barreled toward them. Their faces painted in Abenaki death masks, and they were armed with hatchets and stone-tipped spears.
“Run,” Baldwin said, and the five surviving knights turned tail and fled up the mountain.
Deadly projectiles whistled all about them. Susie screamed – a red-feathered spear had run her through. Sarah spun around, her shotgun spitting lead, and leapt to her aid. The acolytes were gaining.
Gordy stopped in his tracks. “Sarah, don’t!”
“Leave them!” Baldwin grabbed his arm and hoisted him up the rocks. He struggled, but the Norman was strong as a bull and refused to relinquish his grip.
The acolytes overwhelmed and surrounded Susie and Sarah. All Gordy could see of his friends’ deaths were the blades of stone hatchets rising and falling, rising and falling.
He would hear Sarah’s screams in his nightmares for the rest of his life.
The summit was close. Dougie could just about make out the outline of the famous sign – “KATAHDIN, NORTHERN TERMINUS OF THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL” – that marked Baxter Peak.
Mary Had A Little Lamb was over the moon. “There it is! I can’t believe it!”
Dougie’s legs felt like Jell-O. “Yeah … it’s … it’s amazing,” he said between wheezes.
“Mind if I run ahead?” asked Mary Had A Little Lamb. “I’ll wait for you at the top.”
“Sure … thing, hun,” he said, and managed a pained smile.
“Thanks. See you in a bit!” She dashed up the trail, hopping over rocks with near inhuman grace.
Hurry up, you fat bastard, Eric told him. There are two more hikers behind you. They’re nearly past the Gateway. Catch up!
“I’m … trying,” Dougie said.
Dougie shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare and squinted at the summit. “Are you up there, Eric?”
Yeah, I’m there. Keep going. Get ready.
“Okay,” Dougie said. He took in a big gulp of air. His heart was hammering. “Okay.”
The wind finally got the better of the clouds that had shrouded Mount Katahdin all day. The fog lifted in a matter of seconds, eerily fast, and the three surviving knights took stock of their surroundings. The frantic flight from the acolytes, Gordy realized, had taken them all the way to the summit.
Then Baldwin gasped in stunned horror. When Gordy followed his gaze, the contents of his bowels liquefied, and would have dropped to freedom had not his sphincter clenched tight at the same instant.
The knights beheld a massive black rock castle: the Seat of Pamola.
Built not far from Baxter Peak, on a dangerous trail known as the Knife’s Edge, the Seat was a squat tower crowned by huge jagged stones. It looked like the nest of some gigantic bird – which, in a way, it was.
“Bloody hell,” Fraz exclaimed, “look at them!”
It was the acolytes – still behind them, but no longer interested in pursuit. They had slowed to a walk, muttering prayers, palms up, eyes turned upward and fixed fervently on the sinister sable Seat of their god.
“He’s here,” Baldwin said. He drew his sword.
“Are the guns gone?” Fraz asked in a high, fraught voice. “Haven’t we got a gun?”
A shrill, earsplitting roar resounded over Mount Katahdin.
Then came the flapping of enormous wings.
Mary Had A Little Lamb handed Dougie her smartphone, and he snapped a photo of her kneeling on the Katahdin sign, clutching her trekking poles with arms outstretched and wearing a triumphant grin.
“Was that a good one?” she asked.
“Come take a look,” Dougie said, and quietly loosed the big knife from its sheath on his pack.
She jumped down from the sign and approached him. He moved to hand the phone back to her.
It’s time. Eric’s voice was deeper and more rasping than Dougie remembered.
Mary Had A Little Lamb must have seen the murder in Dougie’s eyes, or perhaps caught a glint of his naked blade. She hesitated, and wariness flashed across her face.
Do it now!
She was inches away when Dougie dropped the phone – screen smashing on the rocks – and gripped her wrist. She tried to scream but he shoved her hard, knocking the wind out of her.
Yes, good! Prepare her.
He yanked her down over the Katahdin sign. She may have climbed mountains every day for six months, but her upper body strength was pitiful, so she sprawled, helpless against him, her muscular legs pumping the air.
Here is the task I have for you, my brother. Repeat after me …
Dougie did as instructed. From his mouth issued forth a language from no known universe, words that the human tongue cannot form without the aid of a powerful god. Even as Dougie spoke, he felt his vocal cords shrivel to ash within his throat.
His sacrifice’s hair turned white as soon as she heard the horrible, unfathomable speech; her sanity dashed to pieces like a ship on rocks in a hurricane.
The sun darkened in the sky. A swirl of dark clouds encircled Baxter Peak, crackling with purple lightning, as Dougie Drimmer raised the sacrificial blade and prepared to bring it slashing down.
The King on the Mountain dove at them with incredible speed. Before the knights had time to react, He snatched Fraz up by the head with His talons and carried him, squealing, high into the air.
The force of His passage, more powerful than that of a sub-surface tube train, kicked up a wind that bowled Gordy and Baldwin over onto their backs – a wind that reeked of semen, smoke, and shit.
They scurried under the largest boulders, cowering in abject dread as Pamola flew away from the mountain and casually tossed Fraz fifteen hundred vertical meters down to his death.
“Notre Pere, qui es aux cieux,” Baldwin prayed, trembling harder than an epileptic. “Que ton nom soit sanctifie.”
Pamola circled around for another pass, screeching His strident wail.
“Baldwin, mate,” said Gordy. “When He comes back I’m going to run like blazes your way. Keep hidden. When He swoops low to get me, stab the bastard.”
Baldwin was not listening. He had just caught sight of something very peculiar, and now he rose to get a closer look.
Pamola’s great antlered head jerked toward the Norman. His lips curled back into a frothing snarl, and He came for him.
“Baldwin!” Gordy hissed from his hiding place. “Stay low!”
Baldwin saw – though Gordy could not – a wooden A-frame signpost, and atop it a silver-haired young woman wearing the strange fabrics of the Nouvelle Anglais. A man stood over her, speaking rapidly. In his hand was a long dirk. His eyes were fully black, black as the deepest pits of hell.
It was vitally important that Baldwin kill this fellow. He did not know why, but his quest had transcended lucidity a long time ago.
With a mighty shout, he tossed his sword overhand at the black-eyed man; a heartbeat later, Pamola took Sir Baldwin into His jaws.
A cruciform sword poofed into existence, hurtled in the air, and lodged blade-first into Dougie’s torso.
At first Dougie did not register what had happened, only felt an intense constricting pressure on his sternum. Looking down at the blade sticking into him, seeing the blood gurgling from the mortal wound … it was like waking up from a dream. He dropped the knife.
WAY TO GO, DOUGIE! YOU FUCKED IT ALL UP! The voice was no longer anything like Eric’s. It was a screeching, scratching banshee’s wail.
Whatever, man, Dougie thought, keeled over, and bled to death.
The Hom Dai was incomplete. The timewound remained open.
Pamola tore Baldwin’s head clean off, swallowed it whole, and bit into the soft exposed meat of the stump, shaking his prey from side to side with the ferocity of a shark.
Sir Gordy Stout brandished his gladius. Pamola had His back to him. He was preoccupied. This was his one chance – it would not come again.
The knight leapt up and broke into a run. The beast sensed danger and tensed. The wind was at Gordy’s back; when he jumped to strike, it bore him up a full meter into the air. His aim was true – the sharpened steel cut into the phalanges of Pamola’s left wing and sliced right the way down its great leathery membrane, severing the wing in a spectacular eruption of thick golden blood.
The King on the Mountain bellowed in pain and rage. He struck Gordy with the back of his gigantic hand, sending him flying backwards a full ten meters.
Air rushed past Gordy’s ears. Time slowed down.
A long lost memory drifted into Gordy’s mind. He was six. There he was, surging downhill on his brand new Ridgeback Scoot, not far from his parents’ house in Newcastle. He had not a care in the world until a pothole ambushed him, a great gaping Sarlacc pit on Linden Avenue. Gordy hit the brakes but it was too late – the front wheel stuck fast in the pothole, while the back wheel caterwauled up from the inertia. Gordy remembered watching the pavement rush up to meet him, knowing he would get hurt, hoping it wouldn’t be bad.
This time, it was bad.
Gordy’s thigh shattered on impact. He rolled once, then twice, twisting his left shoulder unnaturally, snapping it from its socket. He grasped for purchase and the rocks scraped the skin of his palms with wickedly painful bloody stripes. Finally he came to rest, banging his head and tearing his scalp on the sharp edge of a boulder. Only then did the agony hit him, so much pain he couldn’t scream, couldn’t move, could do nothing but lie there, tenderized and prone.
Pamola lumbered over to Gordy and seized him by the neck, shutting his trachea mid-breath, forcing his eyes bulging and his tongue lolling. The King on the Mountain lifted him effortlessly into the air and squeezed harder. The strength of His grip was unimaginable.
The edges of Gordy’s vision turned dark red. His boots pawed at the cold stone of the mountainside. His brain was thumping, blaring an alarm: must breathe must breathe must breathe, and his ears were ringing in a thrumming, nearly musical pitch – vibrating louder and louder and louder.
An unfamiliar voice drifted through his dying brain. Music in the sky. If you listened closely, you would hear it too.
Dad? Freefall? God, is that you?
No reply – except perhaps from Death, rapping its skeletal fingers on Gordy’s door. Death was numbing his pain, lulling him to sleep, and all he could feel now was a strange weight pulling on his right arm.
My sword, he realized. I’m still holding my sword!
Drawing on the last dregs of his adrenaline, Gordy lifted the gladius and buried it deep into the heart of the King on the Mountain. He pushed the pommel with all his strength and did not stop until the blade was wedged to the hilt.
Pamola gasped – a low, ragged, almost human noise – and teetered backwards. Man and god’s eyes met. A species of respect passed between them, an acceptance of one another’s role, a funny feeling that all this had happened before and would keep happening over and over again.
The Living God’s colossal body crashed down onto the summit with a thunderous boom, sending rocks skittering in all directions. Then He breathed his last.
Gordy fell on top of Him, twisting and turning the blade until he was certain that the mad god was well and truly dead. Then, soaked in golden blood, he plunged his arm into the mess of organs within Pamola’s ribcage and pulled out a healthy chunk of His huge, oozing heart.
It was tough and stringy, but Gordy ate it all.
Though demoralized by their crushing defeat at Edinburgh, the Normans fought on under the leadership of young Robert Curthose, King William’s eldest son and regent of England. Robert was not without allies – the Pope had excommunicated the Republic of Scotland, declaring it a nest of fornicators, unbelievers, and sodomites, and called upon all good Christians to do them harm. Adventurers and mercenaries from all over Europe swelled the size of Robert’s armies, and the two sides fought tooth and nail for three more years.
Then, in 1071, Robert was killed in a hunting accident. His teenage successor, William Rufus, reversed many of his older brother’s policies. To Rufus’s thinking, the war with Scotland was going nowhere, and local insurgences breaking out across England and Wales needed more immediate attention. Ignoring the protests of the clergy (a flagrant homosexual, William Rufus had little love for the church), he put his name to the Treaty of Carlisle a year later, ending the war.
Peace was not to last. The 1070s were characterized by outbursts of violence, empty promises, and uneasy truces. In the midst of one short, pointless border war in the summer of 1072, William the Conqueror, King of England, quietly died in captivity at the age of forty-four.
Before her assassination in 1075, First Minister Mhairi Black had secretly begun construction of an oil platform above Montrose Field, two hundred kilometers east of Aberdeen. By 1081, the platform was fully operational. Refineries abandoned since the Conquest were repaired and re-staffed, and the return of widespread petrol to Scotland proved the decisive factor in the next conflict.
Scottish armed forces were still a long way from the industrial might of a modern army, but now troops and munitions could be transported at astounding speed. What few aircraft remained un-vaporized at Hastings could be mobilized for reconnaissance and bombardment, and hope swelled in modern people all over Britain.
The Normans found themselves fighting a war on three fronts. In the north, the Scots scored victory after victory against them. In the west, the raiding forces of High King Domnall mac Murchada of Ireland, allied to the Nouvelle Anglais, were a constant thorn in their side. And within England’s own borders, civil unrest was boiling over into open rebellion.
Liverpool won their independence first, running the Normans out after a hard-fought street battle. Manchester followed, then York, Leeds, and a slew of other northern cities. William Rufus, now King William II, was torn to pieces by a mob of rebels in Birmingham. Norman power and influence waned by the day.
In September 1083 – seventeen years after the Halloween Event – a unified British Army liberated London. Robert I Bernay, last Norman King of England, was arrested, found guilty of treason, and beheaded on Tower Green.
By then, the voyage of the Raider and the Tracker was seen as the stuff of legend. The story of seven knights on a quest across the Atlantic to treat with a mad god and bring Britain home to the 21st century, never to return, was told around campfires and before bedtime to children all over Britain. For most of the public, it was flim flam, a fairy tale, no more – but the older generations knew better, especially in Scotland. North of Hadrian’s Wall, Sir Gordy was a household name, a chivalric ideal, and the mystery of his fate only fueled the fires of his mythos. Some said his ship went down before he even reached America. Others said he killed the King on the Mountain and took his crown, and now ruled an empire that stretched to California. The most popular theory, however, was that the seven heroes were still on their quest to reverse the Halloween Event, and one day they would return with a magical boon to make it so.
It was a rip-roaring tale, but it needed an ending.
It was not until 1088 that the reborn United Kingdom had stabilized enough to send large-scale expeditions abroad. The world of the 11th century was full to bursting of untapped resources waiting to be found and exploited.
To make matters urgent, another war was brewing. Newly elected Pope Urban II, a warlike fanatic, despised the sinful Britanniae Nova so much that he turned away from his dream of liberating the Holy Land from Islam, and gave the destruction of the British his entire malevolent attention.
So in April of that year, the Type 82 destroyer HMS Bristol sailed west from Portsmouth with a crew of three hundred souls. Her mission was to circumnavigate the world. She would gather seeds and beans in the Americas, spices in the South Pacific, cotton and opium in India, and precious metals in Africa. All along the route, the crew was to establish friendly relations with the peoples they encountered, whenever practicable – extreme precautions were in place to avoid exposing the rest of the world to European diseases.
HMS Bristol’s first stop was the windswept shores of eastern Canada. Her crew was surprised to discover a thriving Norse colony at L’Anse Aux Meadows on the tip of Newfoundland decades after the settlers were thought to have abandoned it.
The young chieftain of the village, one Erik Gordisson, was of particular interest. One of the Bristol’s interpreters, a Scottish academic, immediately recognized the import of the chieftain’s last name, and asked him who his father was.
Erik blinked at him. “You steel longship men must know the saga of Gordi God-Killer. He was one of your own,” he said.
“We do not know all of it,” the interpreter said.
So Erik told them. His story lasted long into the night. By the time he had finished, the fire had ebbed down to its embers and the first light of dawn brightened the smoke holes of his longhouse.
They broke their fast with trout and hearty mead, and when the sun was a little higher in the sky, Erik led them inland to a little wooded grove that was the site of his father’s grave. The God-Killer’s tomb was marked by an upright runestone, carved with pictograms depicting the dead man’s life and deeds.
“What do the runes say?” the interpreter asked.
“It says, ‘Erik and Bjarni raised this stone in memory of their famous father, Gordi God-Killer, bravest and cleverest of all men. He killed a thousand Franks, crossed the sea, and earned his name when he slew the God-King of Vinland. He was chieftain of Leifsbudir for twelve years before he died. God save his widow Gudrid and their two sons, whose stone this is. Evermore shall it stand.’”
After consulting at length with his crewmates, the interpreter turned once more to Erik. “May I ask how your father died?”
“God forgive him,” Erik said through a mask of tears. “He took his own life.”
After he killed the Blue Man, Domnall mac Murchada, crown prince of the kingdom of Leinster and keeper of the drinking horns of Cualann, wiped the blood from his sword and emerged from the thatched cottage. His guards stared down at him from their mounts, awaiting orders.
“Burn it,” Domnall said.
Torches were lit and thrown. The thatch roof crackled and shriveled. Green wood in the frame of the hut popped violently as it burned, shooting bright glowing sparks that were a stark contrast to the gathering darkness in the Great Wood.
As Domnall watched plumes of grey smoke unfurl up into the treetops, he was unmanned by deep, abiding melancholy. He looked into the faces of his loyal companions. They were like strangers to him. The power – aye, and the truth – of the Blue Man’s words were undeniable. Domnall knew now he had acted rashly, but the revelation was useless. He was imprisoned by truth. In denial, he had murdered his only cellmate.
So Domnall cocked his ear and listened. At length he heard them, just as the Blue Man said he would. They were dancing with the flames, singing with the birds, blowing with the wind. The thrum of their music was nowhere and everywhere.
And had he not heard this music many times before?
The prince of Leinster lifted himself into his saddle and rode for home at a trot, pondering his troubles. His guards and retainers followed.
They soon passed out of sight of the Blue Man’s cottage. The rumble of the horse’s hooves faded; the only sound was the dull roar of the fire in the gloom.