Valhalla rising, p.2

Valhalla Rising, page 2

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  Because they did not linger in one place, the Skraelings did not consider them a threat and caused no trouble. The explorers were fascinated and amused by the differences in the Skraeling tribes. Some stood proudly and possessed noble bearing, but others looked little better than filthy animals.

  Many months later, they came to a halt when they saw the peaks of enormous mountains rising in the distance. In awe of the great land that seemed to go on forever, they decided it was time to turn back and reach the colony before the first snows of winter. But when the weary travelers finally reached the settlement in midsummer expecting a joyous welcome, they found only devastation and tragedy. The entire colony had been burned to the ground and all that was left of their comrades, wives and children were scattered bones. What terrible friction had caused the Skraelings to go on a rampage and slaughter the Vikings? What had caused the break of peaceful relations? There were no answers from the dead.

  Magnus and the enraged and grieving surviving Norseman discovered that the opening to the tunnel leading down to the cavern where the ships were stored had been covered over with rocks and brush by the late inhabitants and hidden from the Skraelings. Somehow the settlers had managed to hide the treasures and sacred relics Sigvatson had plundered in his younger days, along with their most cherished personal possessions, concealing them in the ships during the Skraelings' attack.

  The anguished warriors might have turned their backs on the carnage and sailed away, but it was not in their genes. They lusted for revenge, knowing it would most likely end in death. But to a Viking, dying while fighting an enemy was a spiritual and glorious death. And then there was the terrible possibility that their wives and daughters might have been carried away as slaves by the Skraelings.

  Wild with grief and rage, they collected the remains of their friends and families and carried them down the tunnel to the cavern, where they placed them in the ships. It was part of their traditional ceremony to send the dead to a glorious hereafter in Valhalla. They identified the mutilated remains of Bjarne Sigvatson and laid him in his ship, wrapping him in a cloak and surrounding his body with the remains of his two children and his treasures from life and buckets of food for the journey. They longed to place his wife, Freydis, beside him, but her body could not be found, nor were there any livestock left to sacrifice. All had been taken by the Skraelings.

  Traditionally, the ships and their dead would have been buried, but that was not possible. They feared that the Skraelings would dig up and plunder the dead. So the saddened warriors hammered and chiseled at a huge rock above the grotto's entrance until it dropped in a massive spill along with tons of smaller boulders, effectively sealing off the cavern from the surface of the river. The rock jammed together in a chute several feet below the waterline, leaving a large unseen opening underwater.

  The ceremony completed, the Norsemen prepared themselves for battle.

  Honor and courage were qualities they held sacred. They were in a state of euphoria, knowing they would soon see battle. Deep within their souls, they had longed for combat, the clash of arms, the smell of blood. It was part of their culture, and they had grown up and were trained by their fathers to be warriors, expert in the art of killing. They sharpened their long swords and battle-axes that were forged from fine steel by German craftsmen-treasured objects, highly prized and worshiped. Both sword and axe were given names as if they lived and breathed.

  They donned their magnificent chain-mail shirts to protect their upper bodies and their simple conical helmets, some with nosepieces but none with horns. They took up their shields made of wood painted in bright colors, a large metal rivet in the front attached to arm straps in the rear. All carried spears with extremely long, sharp points. Some wielded broad double-edged swords three feet in length, while others preferred the big battle-ax.

  When ready, Magnus Sigvatson led his force of a hundred Vikings toward the large village of the Skraelings, three miles distant from the horrible massacre. The village was actually more of a primitive city containing hundreds of huts housing nearly two thousand Skraelings. There was no attempt at guile or stealth. The Vikings stormed out of the trees, howling like mad dogs, and rushed through the short stake fence that surrounded the village, built more to keep animals out than attacking humans.

  The smashing onset wrought great havoc among the Skraelings, who stood stunned and were cut down like cattle. Nearly two hundred were slaughtered by the ferocious savagery of the unexpected assault before they could grasp what was happening. Quickly, in groups of five and ten men, they began to fight back. Though they were familiar with the spear and had formed crude stone axes, their favorite weapon of war was the bow and arrow, and soon a hail of arrows filled the sky. The women joined in the chaos, throwing a shower of stones that did little but dent the Vikings' helmets and shields.

  Magnus charged ahead of his warriors, fighting two-handed with spear in one hand, gigantic battle-ax in the other, both drenched and dripping crimson. He was what the Vikings called a beserkr, a word that would pass down the centuries as berserk-a seemingly crazed man intent on striking terror in the minds of his enemies. He shrieked like a maniac as he hurled himself at the Skraelings, felling many with his flailing axe.

  The brutal ferocity overawed the Skraelings. Those who tried to fight the Norsemen hand-to-hand were beaten off with terrible casualties. Though they were decimated, however, their numbers never diminished. Runners scattered to nearby villages and soon returned with reinforcements, and the Skraelings fell back to regroup as their losses were replaced.

  In the first hour, the avengers had worked their deadly way through the village, searching for any sign of their women, but none could be found. Only bits and pieces of cloth from their dresses, worn as adornment by the Skraeling women, were ferreted out. Beyond wrath there is rage, and beyond rage is hysteria. In a frenzy the Vikings assumed that their women had been cannibalized, and their fury turned to ice-cold madness. They did not know that the five women who had survived the slaughter at the settlement had not been harmed but passed on to chiefs of other villages as tribute. Instead, their ferocity mushroomed and the earth inside the Skraeling village became soaked in blood. But still the Skraeling replacements kept coming, and eventually the tide began to turn.

  Overwhelmingly outnumbered and severely weakened from wounds and exhaustion, the Vikings were whittled down until only ten were still left standing around Magnus Sigvatson. The Skraelings no longer made frontal assaults against the deadly swords and axes. They no longer feared the Norsemen's spears that had been either thrown or shattered. A growing army, now outnumbering the dwindling Vikings by fifty to one, stood out of range and shot great flights of arrows into the small cluster of survivors who crouched under their shields as the arrows struck and protruded like quills from a porcupine. Still the Vikings fought on, attacking, ever attacking.

  Then the Skraelings rose up as one, and with reckless abandon smashed against the Viking shields. The great tide engulfed the small band of Norsemen and swirled around the warriors making their final stand. The few who were left stood back to back and fought to the brutal end, enduring an avalanche of vicious blows by hatchets made of stone, until they could endure no more.

  Their last thoughts were of their lost loved ones and the glorious death that was waiting. To a man they perished, sword and axe in hand. Magnus Sigvatson was the last to fall, his death the most tragic. He died as the last hope for colonizing North America for the next five hundred years. And he left a legacy that would dearly cost those who would eventually follow. Before the sun fell, all one hundred of the brave Norsemen found death, along with more than a thousand Skraeling men, women and children they had slaughtered. In a most horrible manner, the Skraelings had come to recognize that the white-skinned strangers from across the sea were a marauding threat that could only be stopped by savage force.

  A pall of shock spread over the Skraeling nations. No blood battle between tribes had ever matched the pure ghastly d
eath toll, nor the horrible wounds and mutilation. The great battle was only an ancient prelude to the horrendous wars that were yet to come.

  To the Vikings living in Iceland and Norway, the fate of Bjarne Sigvatson's colony became a mystery. No one was left alive to tell their story, and no other immigrant-explorers followed in their path across the truculent seas. The colonists became a forgotten footnote in the sagas passed down through the ages.

  MONSTER

  FROM THE DEEP

  FEBRUARY 2, 1894

  THE CARIBBEAN SEA

  No one on board the old wooden-hulled warship Kearsarge could have foreseen the catastrophe that was about to strike. Displaying the flag and protecting United States' interests in the West Indies, she was on a voyage from Haiti to Nicaragua when her lookouts spotted a strange shape in the water a mile off the starboard bow. Visibility under clear skies stretched to the surrounding horizons and the sea was calm, the swells rising no more than two feet from trough to crest. The black-humped back of a strange species of sea monster could clearly be seen with the naked eye.

  "What do you make of it?" Captain Leigh Hunt asked his first officer, Lieutenant James Ellis, as he stared through a pair of brass binoculars.

  Ellis squinted through a telescope, braced against the railing to keep it steady, at the object in the distance. "My first guess is that it's a whale, but I've never seen one move so steadily through the water without showing its tail or diving beneath the surface. Also, there's a strange mound protruding forward of its center."

  "It must be some type of rare sea serpent," said Hunt.

  "No beast I'm aware of," murmured Ellis in awe.

  "I can't believe it's a man-made vessel."

  Hunt was a thin man with graying hair. His leathery face and deep-set brown eyes were those of a man who spent many long hours in the sun and wind. He clutched a pipe between his lips that was very seldom lit. Hunt was a navy professional with a quarter century of oceangoing experience and a fine record of efficient conduct behind him. He had been given command of the most famous ship in the navy as an honor before his retirement. Too young to have served in the Civil War, Hunt graduated from the naval academy in 1869 and served on eight different warships, rising through the ranks until he was offered command of the Kearsarge.

  The venerable ship had earned her fame after an epic sea battle thirty years earlier in which she'd battered and sunk the infamous Confederate raider, Alabama, off Cherbourg, France. Though evenly matched, Kearsarge had reduced Alabama to a foundering wreck in less than an hour after the start of the battle. Her captain and crew were feted as heroes by a grateful Union after their return to home port.

  In later years she had served on cruises around the world. With a length of 198 feet, a beam of 33 feet and a fifteen-foot draft, her two engines and one screw could propel her through the water at eleven knots. Her guns had been replaced ten years after the war with a newer battery consisting of two eleven-inch smoothbores, four nine-inch smoothbores and two twenty-pound rifled barrels. She carried a crew of 160 men. Ancient though she was, she still packed a powerful punch.

  Ellis put down the telescope and turned to Hunt. "Shall we investigate, sir?"

  Hunt nodded. "Order a ten-degree turn to starboard. Request Chief Engineer Gribble to increase our speed to Full, turn out the crew for gun station two and double the lookouts. I don't want to lose sight of that monster, whatever it is."

  "Aye, sir." Ellis, a tall balding man with an expansive, neatly trimmed beard, carried out his orders and soon the time-honored ship began to increase her speed, the waves splitting her bow with sheets of foam as she swung against the wind. A plume of heavy black smoke poured from her funnel along with a spray of sparks.

  The decks of the old warhorse trembled with anticipation as she took up the chase.

  Soon the Kearsarge began to close with the strange object that neither increased nor decreased its speed. A gun crew assembled, rammed a power charge and a projectile down the barrel of a twenty-pound rifled gun and stood back. The gunnery officer stared up at Hunt, who stood next to the helmsman.

  "Number two gun loaded and ready to fire, sir."

  "Put a shot fifty yards ahead of the monster's nose, Mr. Merry-man," Hunt shouted through his megaphone.

  Merryman simply acknowledged with a wave of one hand and nodded at the man standing next to the gun with the lanyard in his hand and another man who was aiming the elevation screw on the breech.

  "You heard the captain. Lay your shot fifty yards ahead of the beast."

  The adjustment was made, the lanyard was pulled, the big gun roared and leaped back against the thick stay rope running through the eye ring on its butt. It was a near-perfect shot, and the shell splashed directly in front of the giant hump that effortlessly slipped through the water. Animal or machine, it ignored the intrusion and maintained its speed and course without the slightest deviation.

  "It doesn't appear impressed with our gunnery," Ellis said with a slight grin.

  Hunt peered through his glasses. "I judge her speed at ten knots against our twelve."

  "We should be alongside in another ten minutes."

  "When we've closed to three hundred yards, fire another shot. This time, lay it within thirty yards."

  All hands except the engine-room crew were lining the rails now, gazing at the monster that was closer to the bow of the ship with every passing minute. There was only a ripple on the surface, but white froth could be seen swirling in its wake below. Then the mound on its back flashed and glinted.

  "If I didn't know better," said Hunt, "I'd say the sun is reflecting off some kind of window or port."

  "No sea monster has glass built into it," Ellis muttered.

  The gun crew reloaded and fired another shot that struck with a great splash between fifteen and twenty yards forward of the monster. Still no reaction. It continued as if the Kearsarge was little more than a passing annoyance. It was near enough now that Captain Hunt and his crew could make out a triangular housing atop the monster, with large round quartz ports.

  "She's a man-built vessel," gasped Hunt in amazement.

  "I can't believe it's possible," Ellis said vaguely. "Who could have built such an incredible contraption?"

  "If not the United States, it has to be of British or German origin."

  "Who can say? She flies no flag."

  As they watched, the strange object slowly slid beneath the waves until it vanished from view. The Kearsarge passed directly over the spot where it sank, but the crew could detect no sign of it in the depths.

  "She's gone, Captain," one of the seamen called to Hunt.

  "Keep a sharp eye out for it," Hunt shouted back. "Some of you men take to the rigging for a better view."

  "What do we do if she reappears?" asked Ellis.

  "If she won't heave to and identify herself, we'll pour a broadside into her."

  The hours passed and sunset came, as the Kearsarge cruised in ever-widening circles in a fading hope of finding the monster again. Captain Hunt was about to break off the pursuit when a lookout in the rigging shouted down to the deck.

  "Monster off the port beam about a thousand yards, heading our way."

  The officers and crew rushed to the port railing and stared out over the water. There was still enough light to see it clearly. It appeared to be coming directly toward the Kearsarge at a very rapid rate of speed.

  During the search, the gun crews had stood patiently, their great muzzle-loaders primed and ready to fire. The gunners on the port side quickly ran out their guns and sighted on the approaching apparition. "Allow for her speed and aim at that projection aft of her bow," Merryman instructed them.

  Adjustments were made and the gun muzzles depressed as the monster loomed in the sights. Then Hunt yelled, "Fire!"

  Six of the Kearsarge's eight guns roared, their explosive blasts shattering the air as fire and smoke spouted from their muzzles. Staring through his binoculars, Hunt could see the shells from the two
big eleven-inch pivot guns smash the water on each side of the baffling thing. The nine-inch smoothbores added to the geysers erupting around the target. Then he saw the shell from the twenty-pounder rifled gun strike the monster's back, bounce into the air and ricochet across the water like a skipping stone.

  "She's armored," he said, stunned. "Our shot glanced off her hull without making a dent."

  Unfazed, their nemesis aimed its bow unerringly amidships of the Kearsarge's hull, increasing its speed and gathering momentum for the blow.

  The gun crews frantically reloaded, but by the time they were ready for another broadside, the thing was too close and they could not depress their muzzles low enough to strike it. The detachment of Marines aboard the ship began firing their rifles at the assailant. Several of the officers stood on the railing, grasping the rigging with one hand while firing their revolvers with the other. A typhoon of bullets merely glanced off the armored hull.

  Hunt and his crew stared in disbelief at the nightmare that was about to ram the ship. Transfixed by the long cigar-shaped vessel, he gripped the railing to brace himself for the inescapable collision.

 
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