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Great waves crashed over the sides of the longboat and sent frigid sheets of foam sluicing across the deck, that drenched the men who fought to keep her afloat. The storm had come up suddenly, nearly without warning, thick blue-black thunderheads moving in swiftly from over the horizon, pushing wild waves in front of them.
Bjorn stood at the helm, and squinted into the rain that pelted his skin with icy needles, as if the heat in his glare alone could pierce the gloom of the storm. Behind him, sixty-four men bent their backs to the oars, their voices raised not in prayer but in curses against the fickleness of luck, against their enemies, against the gods themselves for seeing fit to cast them headfirst into the maelstrom. Thunder boomed and the wind shrieked, the bellows of the storm drowning out the cries of the men.
The wind whipped the waves ever higher, and rocked the Dragonslayer from side to side like a fragile leaf caught in the whitewaters of the Sjoa River. The great watery hands of the sea lifted the boat up high, then dropped it to crash back with bone-jarring impacts. Jagged lightning breached the sky grown as black as night, Odin's spears slicing through the darkness only long enough to illuminate the angry waves for a heartbeat.
How, Bjorn thought as a particularly violent crash brought him to his knees, has it come to this? By what curse of which god have I been branded outlaw? I flee from my homeland like the devil's hounds are at my heels!
Bjorn knew, of course, that there was something snapping at his heels, or rather someone--someone from whom the devil himself might very well run and hide.
He would havespat had he not known that the wind would only whip his spittle back into his face. The answer to his silently asked question came in the form of a name.
Jorund Blood-axe. Jorund the Vanquisher. Jorund the Mealy-Balled Horse-fucker, Bjorn thought, and bared his teeth to the gale.
Bjorn had been two years a-Viking, sailing his longboat from shore to shore, amassing wealth beyond imagining for the glory and coffers of his father, Erik Fairhair, Jarl of Lagarvík. Gold, silver, bronze, exotic spices, and bolts of brilliantly colored cloth had filled the hull of the longboat and the treasure boxes that served as seating for the men at the oars.
So proud he'd been as he'd docked the Dragonslayer within sight of the familiar daub-and-wattle longhouses of Lagarvík. Both his heart and chest had swelled with the warmth of homecoming as he stepped from the deck to the dock, pausing a moment to get his land legs. Long strides brought him across the dock to the outskirts of the village. Eager to speak with his father, Bjorn had stepped up his pace but when he reached his father's keep, he soon realized that nothing was as he remembered it to be.
At the base of the hillock upon which the keep had been built, lay a freshly turned grave.
Erik Fairhair was dead, struck down by Jorund the Vanquisher in a war that had lasted less than a month. Under siege, with most of her fiercest warriors at sea with Bjorn, Lagarvík had fallen quickly and Bjorn's father with her.
Not even accorded the honor of being sent to Valhalla aboard his longboat, and denied the ritual of the funeral pyre, Erik Fairhair had been stuck in the ground like a turnip by Jorund's Saxon-bastard priests. Only a small stone carved with runes marked that he had ever lived.
"Bjorn Eriksson!" Jorund roared from the back of his monstrous black stallion, nearly hidden by the shadow of Erik Fairhair's keep. "Face your death with honor, and I will make your journey to Asgard swift and painless!"
Bjorn, last of his bloodline and rightful heir to the title of Jarl, had decided he would rather face a thousand slow, painful deaths at the hands of a noble warrior than one swift one at the hands of a usurper like Jorund the Pig-fucker. Raising his sword, Skullsplitter, high over his head, he'd roared as much in answer to Jorund's call.
That hadn't sat well with either Jorund or his men, especially the Pig-fucker part.
The battle that followed had been bloody and bitterly fought. Bjorn and his men, already weakened by their long sea voyage, had been beaten back toward the shore where the Dragonslayer was moored.
The fight had followed them onto the waves, but Jorund the Ass-licker's longboat, the Bear's Claw, was hard-pressed to keep pace with the swift Dragonslayer. Although he couldn't overtake Bjorn, he wouldn't concede the chase either, continuing to trail them along the shore of Norge.
Now the fierce storm that had blown up added another dimension to Bjorn's troubles. He couldn't beach, because Jorund the Worm-begotten would beach alongside him. Bjorn's men were weary, most injured from the fighting in Lagarvík. He feared they couldn't hold against another onslaught without rest. But neither could Dragonslayer hold long against the raging storm. Frustrated, Bjorn leaned into the wind as if to steer Dragonslayer safely through the tempest by the sheer force of his will.
Each breath Bjorn took resulted in a mouthful of icy rain and brine. His long, pale blond hair was whipped into thick, matted knots; his jerkin, woolen tunic, and close-fitting leggings soaked through. Water had seeped into his knee-high leather boots, and numbed his feet. His body felt as frozen and brittle as rotted ice along a river's edge at the end of winter, ready to splinter and be swept away by the frigid waves.
A wave hit the side of the longboat, nearly overturning her. The rush of water swept Bjorn forward; only his arms reflexively wrapping around the figurehead kept him from being swept into the water.
"By Odin's balls! Either drown us or leave us be, but end this madness!" he bellowed to the sky as he clung to the carved dragon's head that graced the bow of the longboat.
The gods must have deemed his prayer worthy of an answer because in the next heartbeat a great, towering wall of icy black-green water slammed into the longboat, and upended it, tossing every soul aboard into the frigid sea.