A race to unveil the secret of Laki, a volcano on the southern shores of Iceland, pits our heroesa sixteen-year-old Viking girl from the tenth century, a German geologist from World War II, and a former Secret Service agent protecting a female volcanologistagainst evil forces with a plan to cause an eruption using explosives, altering the global climate through the release and forcing the price of oil to skyrocket.
Everyone and everything on Laki is in danger, including the possibility of ever unraveling the mysteries of the place, as it faces burial beneath a carpet of lava flows. Caught underground by the fracturing physical breakup of Laki, everyone finds themselves ensnared by Laki itselfan unseen, implacable foe that seems everything but a benign presence. Every move they make appears to be guided and controlled by an intelligence that permeates the netherworld.
Only gradually, through all the conflict between the various factions, does everyone begin to realize that it is Laki itself that has always been in charge.
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Somewhere off the coast of Iceland
Runa was cold. She was cold and wet and hungry. She had been all of these for nearly three weeks, which was exactly how long they had been at sea.
She turned her back on the angry spray that stung her eyes every time their Viking longboat cratered into another deep North Atlantic trough.
"Fish!" Skari yelled at her, pointing to his mouth in case she hadn't heard over the crashing of the waves and the constant, blowing wind.
She paused in her endless attempts to bail water from the bottom of the boat, took a piece of dried fish from a wooden box, and tossed it to him. He caught it expertly and began to chew, never taking his hand off the tiller that was guiding them relentlessly westward.
Runa stared at the others in the boat. Ragni and Asa had been husband and wife for only three months, yet Runa suspected Asa was already pregnant. She huddled in her husband's arms, shivering. Anyone could read the concern in Ragni's eyes, the fear that the journey would be too much for a woman with child.
Agnarr, whose boat this was, sat in the bow. He was mostly responsible for their being here, though they had all, in their ways, needed to leave the homeland. Agnarr was twice Runa's age of sixteen, but even so, he was unmarried. He wasn't bad looking, she decided, but he had a reputation for being wild. He had fought in the raids in Scotland and been wounded three times. He still walked with a slight limp and had a scar that ran down the length of his right arm. But despite this, he was good-natured and smiled often.
He smiled now at Runa from his place near the bow. She gave a small grimace in return, but it was hard. She was so cold.
Last was Amma, Runa's grandmother. No one knew how old Amma was, least of all Amma herself. Few Vikings lived much past sixty. Theirs was a brutal life, one in which the slightest mishap or illness could spell the end. But the elderly woman was resilient and a bit mysterious to all of them. She deferred to the men in the group, but everyone relied on her vast reservoir of knowledge. Amma was their link to the gods. She knew the rituals and prayers that would guide their success.
Just six souls altogether. A desperately small contingent to begin a new life in the land of fire and ice, some nine hundred miles from their homeland, across the vast, storm-tossed and icy waters of the North Atlantic. They would need every ounce of their combined efforts if they were to have any hope of survival.
Runa stared at Skari again, chewing on his fish. She'd met him only the day they were to leave and had not liked him from the first. He was a brooding, stolid fellow, who spoke infrequently and then in an ordering tone that Runa found distasteful. She didn't like the way he looked at her. She was a woman and understood such looks.
She stared past Agnarr and blinked, brought both hands to her face, rubbed her eyes and looked again.
"Look," she said, then had to repeat herself to be heard over the waves. "Look!"
Everyone in the boat followed her pointing finger. For a moment, they saw nothing. The headland had disappeared behind the ever-present fog. But then they all saw it, a dark and fearsome landscape rising from the sea through wisps of fog that gave the appearance of something straight out of the Norse Hel.
"The land of fire and ice!" Skari cried aloud. "We made it!"
The boat crashed in over a sharp reef, and Runa heard the terrible sound of the hull being torn. A moment later they were all in the water. It felt like ice even though it was August. Cold fingers gripped Runa's arm, as Agnarr pulled her toward shore. Then they were on the pebbled beach, Ragni and Asa helping old Amma.
The men pulled the damaged boat above the high tide line and examined it briefly. It could be repaired, but there was no rush. They had made it to the land of fire and ice. No one had followed them, Runa was certain. There was bad blood behind them, a rent in the community that would never heal. This was how Vikings lived. Families split and moved apart, always searching for new lands. Now this small group would begin again, a new community. Three adult men, two young women, and Amma. Enough to start over.
The first days in the cold land were hard. Food was scarce. Runa searched for shellfish along the coast, but fish or seal was what they needed. Until the boat was fixed, that would not be possible.
They hauled the longboat ashore and turned it over to make a rudimentary shelter. Agnarr made several forages inland but found no wood suitable for repairing the boat. Their landfall had come in a place heavily covered with lava flows from an eruption just a decade earlier. As a result, only a few small bushes and shrubs covered the barren landscape.
Amma sat in the shelter, preparing what little food they had, some pitiful bits of dried fish left from their journey along with limpets, a few clams and seaweed, mixed to make a kind of soup.
The land was forbidding. Steep volcanoes rose from the ocean, smoking ominously. Heavy fogs ran in from the sea, blanketing the slopes, so that they were never quite afforded an open view. There was something hostile, almost brooding to the landscape. They felt closed in and longed for the sweeping fiords of their homeland.
Runa worked with Amma, shelling limpets for their meager pot. It was overcast and dark, the mountains only dimly visible through periodic waves of pelting rain. When they could see it, the ocean foamed with whitecaps.
Amma was covered in furs, for her old body could not produce enough warmth, even in summer. She said, "Skari told me he wants you for his wife."
Runa's heart went cold. "I do not like him," she said. "I like Agnarr."
"Has he asked you?" Amma threw a handful of seaweed into their cooking pot.
Runa could only shake her head.
"There are only two breeding women here for three adult men," Amma said. "Asa is spoken for. That leaves you. You cannot make both men content. You need to choose."
"I don't want to be married ... at least not right away," Runa said. "I don't want to have a baby."
"Now is baby-making time," said Amma. "So it will be born in the spring." She stood up with effort and moved out from beneath the boat. The conversation was over.
Skari returned with an armload of firewood. He dropped it in front of the boat and stared at Runa. "I will make good babies," he said, his eyes heavy with desire. He reached one hand down and fondled her breast. "And so will you," he said.
Runa retreated farther beneath the boat but then looked up as a shadow crossed her face. Agnarr.
He shoved Skari aside roughly and said, "Runa will be my wife."
The two men stood facing each other for long moments, their fists clenched. But Skari knew Agnarr was experienced in battle and very strong. He dared not confront him outright. With a snarl, he turned and walked away.
The weather turned even colder. Snow spotted the slopes, reminding them all that the frigid northern winter would soon be upon them and they had no shelter or dried fish put away for the long, dark months.
Runa and Asa spent their days trying to catch fish with a bit of line and their few iron hooks. The fish were plentiful enough but nearly impossible to catch.
"We would do better with a net," said Asa, but there was nothing with which to make one.
Agnarr went away overnight on a long forage. He eventually found a place with sizeable trees and brought back wood to repair the longboat. The patch would be temporary and not something they'd want to put to sea with. But for fishing along the coast, it would do.
Agnarr and Skari worked together out of necessity. But their dislike for each other simmered beneath the surface. Fortunately, the need to prepare for winter took everyone's complete effort. If they were unprepared for the cold when it came, then whoever got Runa would not matter. They would all die.
Firewood collection was another urgent task. Every free moment went into gathering dead wood and driftwood along the shore. The pile grew slowly next to the longboat. They would need a great deal of wood to keep warm through the winter, and finding it once the snows came would be next to impossible. Amma, unable to fish, took this task upon herself and gathered more than anyone, moving at her slow, arthritic pace across the low hills.
Then the first hard storm hit with gale-force winds and a blizzard that dropped a blanket of snow. The sky hung low and forbidding for many days, temperatures falling into the single digits. They watched as their pitiful pile of firewood slowly diminished. In addition, the fish they had gathered began to rot, for there had not been enough warmth from the sun to dry it properly.
But then there came a reprieve in the weather. The snow melted away and they redoubled their efforts to increase their supplies. Runa, Asa, and Amma roamed the highlands gathering fuel, while Skari, Ragni, and Agnarr, with the longboat repaired, went fishing every day. Slowly, their provisions increased, but still the inability to dry fish was a problem. If winter came fast and stayed cold, they could freeze the fish. But drying was preferable.
One day, Runa went foraging high on the side of the volcano. What wood there was came from stunted trees and brush that grew ever smaller as she moved higher. Still, it was a clear day and she enjoyed a rare view of their new land.
As she neared the rim of the volcano, she saw steam coming from an opening in the ground. This was very curious, and she approached the opening. Suddenly, something seemed to push her forward, propelling her toward the strange mist rising from the hole. Try as she might, she couldn't resist the force. She was not in control of her own movements. Her heart pounded. Had she somehow angered the gods? Were they about to punish her? She wished Amma were here to tell her what to do.
The opening was like a small cave and as she slumped beside it, the unseen hand went away. She knew she should be terrified, but instead, a sense of peace settled over her. Tentatively, she reached one hand into the steam. How warm it was! She uncovered her legs and let the warmth soak into her body. Suddenly, despite the warmth, goose bumps rose on her legs and a shiver coursed across her shoulders and down her back, as if something had passed through her entire body.
Then, out of nowhere, a thought came into her head. She inched her body down into the hole, the warmth enveloping her. She found breathing the steam to be strangely invigorating. The hole descended about ten feet, then widened, and Runa found herself in a space the size of a small room. Enough light came in from the entrance to allow her to see her surroundings.
Another tunnel led lower at the far end of the space, and she could feel even more heat coming from there. She hadn't been so warm since they left the Norseland. Why couldn't this be their home for the winter? If the heat continued, they would need firewood for cooking only.
It took every bit of her willpower to climb back out of the hole. Not because it was difficult but because she felt an overwhelming desire to stay there, in the bosom of the earth. It was the strangest sensation, as though someone else's thoughts had invaded her own.
She rushed back to tell the others. Everyone climbed to the small opening in the ground and marveled at the warmth. For people who had been cold for months, it was intoxicating. Amma, especially, sighed with pleasure as the heat penetrated her withered flesh. They quickly moved their few belongings into the cave, and the men went to work lining the space with stones that would further reflect the heat back into the living area.
Laboriously, they moved their pile of firewood to the entrance to their new home and settled in. Runa felt serenity come over her. She felt utterly at peace here, enveloped in the warm earth. She couldn't explain why she felt this way, only that it was so.
Though there was still much work to do, no one wanted to leave the warm confines of their new home. They had to force themselves to go forth and look for food, and all the time they were gone, they yearned to be back again in the strangely exhilarating heart of the volcano.
There was more than enough room for six people. Ragni formed a partition by weaving branches together that allowed Asa a small bit of privacy. She was nearly six months pregnant now, but Ragni still insisted on the right of the marriage bed. The sound of their lovemaking just a few feet away made Agnarr, Skari, and Runa painfully aware of their own situation.
Finally, one day while it snowed heavily and they were all lounging in their heated home, Runa announced her decision.
"We need to make babies to increase the size of our community," she said firmly. "It would not be fair to either Skari or Agnarr for the only woman to be denied to them. I will take both for my husbands. I will sleep one night with Agnarr and the next with Skari. But this I will only do if both of you agree, so that there will be harmony among all of us."
Neither man was happy and there was much grumbling, but Runa realized, with some surprise, that she was in control. She owned the most valuable commodity in their world: her fertile, young body. Though Skari and Agnarr disliked one another, there was no question of them fighting, or killing each other. If they were to survive, they needed the collective talents of every member of their tiny group, even old Amma. This they understood intuitively.
So Runa took two husbands and very quickly, peace settled on the group as each man's needs were met. Indeed, everyone seemed to get along much better than before. Runa wondered at the harmony that had settled over their little clan. She had known nothing like it back home. Vikings were always a contentious, battle-ready group. She had been glad to leave that world behind. Here, everything felt different.
Though harmony reigned, the winter was wretched, cold and bleak, worse even than back in the old country. The frigid winds howled out of the Arctic, and during blizzards they had to push snow away from the entrance to their home. Food was scarce, except when the men occasionally managed to kill a seal in their boat. Without the unending source of heat, they would never have survived the terrible cold. But even on the most frigid nights when Runa snuggled close to Agnarr, they were toasty warm.
Amma seemed to thrive with the constant warmth applied to her aged bones. She took to sitting in the back of the cave where she could breathe in the warm, moist steam that emanated from below. Runa had never seen the old woman more content. Her strength returned. Her breathing cleared and she slept peacefully.
Indeed, with the arrival of spring, they all felt stronger. Asa delivered her baby at the end of February, a boy. They named him Haraldr. He was healthy and grew quickly.
Runa was happy that she hadn't yet become pregnant, though it was not for lack of trying by both her husbands. She felt she was becoming a strong young woman, and she explored their island by herself, going far afield, discovering many more underground caves that were warm from the earth's heat.
Once, she heard a strange rumbling sound. It was something she'd never experienced before. The land moved beneath her feet, and she fell to the ground, terrified. Then she had a vision. She saw a strange, heavily cloaked figure floating above the volcano's rim, beckoning to her. The figure had long tentacles where there should have been fingers. The tentacles snaked down the slope toward her. Runa closed her eyes tightly until the frightening image went away.
On one of her outings, she found clusters of mushrooms that stood out from the green mosses prevailing on the open slopes. The mushrooms seemed to thrive around the entrances to the underground caves.
She gathered some and brought them to Amma. "Do you think we could eat them?" she asked her grandmother.
The old woman was well acquainted with the flora of their former homeland, but she had never seen mushrooms like these.
"We will eat a little and see if it makes us sick," said Amma. She heated them in water over the fire. They gave off a strange odor that Runa didn't care for, but when they ate them, they found that they were quite tasty and didn't make them sick. Over time, they discovered that the mushrooms made a good addition to the thin soups, stews, and fish chowders that made up most of their diet, adding flavor to the largely plain fare.
They made one collective trip in their repaired longboat, traveling many miles along the coast, searching for others who might have come to this part of the land of fire and ice. They knew that others now made the trip from the old land, but they encountered no one. All of them felt a fierce longing to be back at their home in the earth, and there was much discontent within the group until they returned.
By the beginning of their second winter, many changes had taken place. Agnarr and Skari built an enclosure around the entrance to their underground home so they didn't have to fight to keep the winter snows out. The men went far offshore in their longboat and dried hundreds of pounds of fish for the winter. Working together and sharing a wife, Agnarr and Skari managed to coexist. Yet Skari remained unhappy and distant. He spent much of his time in a deep venthole, carving religious offerings to the gods.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Gods of Laki"
Copyright © 2015 Chris Angus.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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