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The Horrid Hominids Of Northumbria

Copyright 2018

Jon-Paul Smith

Smashwords Edition

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© Grandfailure |

ID 90237044

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Agnarr stood in the longboat gazing at the shoreline. They were deep in the wilderness, far from any Saxon outpost. He knew the landscape here, was familiar with it, familiar with the kingdom they called Northumbria. He had been here before, many times. Beyond the pines that stood sentry on the coastline, the land was lush, rich with soil that was ripe for farming. There would be livestock here, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens too. The thought of that meat charring on an open flame made his stomach rumble. How long had they been at sea now, living on salted meat and raw fish? Too long. There would be farms here, he knew, and farmers too, forced to fend for themselves this far out from any Saxon garrisons.

And there would be oats. And bread, even beer. The men would like that.

His stomach rumbled again. As did all of theirs.

The Saxon forces are growing thin these days, Ragnar thought, smiling through the gaps of his broken teeth. What teeth he had left, the ones he had not lost in battle, were sharpened like knives to a fine point.

“We should have left the boy behind,” Henrik said. “It brings disfavor with the gods. The boy grows hair just last summer and thinks that it makes him a man but he complained the entire way.”

Agnarr turned away from the coastline to look at Henrik, with his gold braided tail on a head of hair shaved closely at the sides, knowing that what he said was true. But what could he do about it now? It hadn't been his idea. The boy, Higdin, was staring sullenly back at him.

Agnarr had chosen to bring him along but that was a rarity. Agnarr had little choice about anything anymore. First he had lost his only son, then his wife and then his land. There was nothing for him back home anymore. This new land, the land of the Angles as they were sometimes called, was the only hope he had.

Mani had made a point to remind him of it. Mani, his chief, whose word was law.

“Return with the debt you owe me this time,” Mani had said. “Or do not return at all.”

“You know the situation as well as I,” Agnarr said. “What makes you think I haven't been thinking about it all this time?”

Henrik was tall even by the standards of Norsemen. How long had they known each other? Since they were children for sure but how many years had passed? Agnarr couldn't remember. He had long since stopped counting, concerning himself with the constant summer raids where the passage of time took on a new meaning, where each day was a struggle for survival.

These days Agnarr no longer measured his life in years but days instead.

He was growing weary of it all. What he longed for instead was the comfort of his own hearth and the comfort of his own woman but those things were denied him now.

Gone forever. Perhaps they would meet again in Valhalla but these days he doubted even that. These days the bleakness of the winter sky was like a mirror that reflected the image in his heart.

“Allow an old friend to piss and moan, eh?” Henrik said and they fell into the comfortable silence that they shared these days.

Henrik understood. It was Henrik, and only Henrik, who had stood beside him when the runes were cast, deciding his fate. He could never forget that. Henrik had not stood with Mani. He had cast his lot with Agnarr instead. Better to die with honor than on the warm bed of a thief.

Mani had always had his eye on Agnarr's land. The feud between Mani and Agnarr's father went way back before Agnarr had even been born.

Higdin was complaining again.

“Where are the women we were promised?” he said. “You said there were riches and women for everyone. I see nothing but trees and sand.”

“Be quiet, boy,” Henrik said. “You wouldn't know what to do with one anyone.”

“More than you, old man.”

Henrik spat over the longboat's edge, eyeing the water then looking to Agnarr.

“We should not have brought him.”

Agnarr considered it. True, he was a boy now. But he would be a man one day, if he was lucky, and they needed all the men they get.

Higdin was the youngest son of a dying blacksmith. It was clear why his father had sent him. It was clear he had no use for him anymore. It was obvious to everyone that his father despised him. Obvious to everyone but Higdin anyway.

The boy thought too highly of himself. But in battle they were all brothers, all equals, Agnarr thought, and the boy had yet to wet his blade. He had yet to learn his place.

He would get the opportunity soon, but Agnarr did not have high hopes for the outcome. He had seen it before. The Saxons might be weak but they were not defenseless. They did not always lose and Agnarr had watched many young men die, too confident in their abilities. The halls of Valhalla were full for a reason.

Agnarr scanned the shoreline and sighed. He didn't believe any of it anymore, not really. He was sick of putting his life to the blade while Mani grew fat in his longhall, sharing just enough to ensure the loyalty of his men while keeping the greater share for himself, always for himself, the most comely slaves, the shiniest golden treasure. Everything belonged to Mani. Even his father's land.

There were no gods. They were fools to believe such things, no less foolish then the Christians with their silly belief in their one true god.

He watched the trees move slowly to his right as their longboat moved parallel to the shore, heading south. He had no intentions of heading north. The people to the south were like lambs to the slaughter, far from any garrison outposts, but the people up north had no need for any such protection. They were warriors to the core, all of them, the men, the women, even the children. They were not unlike Agnarr's people that way, with their fierce warpaint and twisted tattoos. Agnarr had no desire to face them. He had faced them before and he feared them. Besides he considered them to be his brothers.

They were the Picts. Even the Romans had feared them if the tales that Agnarr heard were true, a story that never failed to bring a smile to his face. The Romans had even built a wall to keep them back. But now, with the Saxon forces diminished, the Picts were swooping in to take what Agnarr's people left behind, subjecting the Northumbrians to an ancient claim.

But there was more to fear up north then just the Picts. There were also the wudewas, the men who were not men, although their numbers were small. Agnarr had never witnessed their savagery first hand but he had heard the tales. The wudewas, according to lore, were impossibly strong and their teeth were like knives. And they never took prisoners, preferring to eat them instead. Agnarr had learned never to venture too far north, deep into the icy fjords where the land was high. The Picts, who were indigenous to that region, said that the wudewas preferred to live there where the air was cold and they rarely ventured south. Only the need for food would drive them there but they never stayed.

But if the stories of the Picts were true then the wudewas were increasing in number which would go a long way to explain the Pictish migration south into the crumbling kingdom of Northumbria.

What was left of it anyway. How many farms had they burned? Agnarr had lost count, but he wouldn't be burning them anymore. He had made up his mind. He was here to stay. Rumor had it that the King of Northumbria was dead, that he had died without leaving an heir. The entire region had descended into chaos with various warlords laying claim to a throne that wouldn't amount to much anyway if Agnarr had his way. He and his men had no intention of leaving this time and there were more men on the way, fleeing the selfish dictates of the earls and seeking to make a new life for themselves at the Saxon's expense.

Woman, hearth and home. Soon Agnarr would have them all. Here, far from the Saxon strongholds, where they would meet no resistance. Here with his brothers and there would be more joining him soon. He would find a new wife here, or at the very least a Saxon slave or two to wet his desire. He had no doubt of it.

There were more men like Agnarr, men who grew weary of the warlords in their halls, men who wanted land of their own, new opportunities, men who wanted to rule their own halls. They would join forces together. They would raise new banners for new jarls here in this land that the Saxons sometimes called Angland.

Here, far north of the remote Saxon garrisons and far south of the Picts, with their weirding magics, magics that had cast fear into even the likes of Eric the Tall who'd had the good sense to leave them alone.


They had not sailed long along the shoreline when Agnarr found what he was looking for. It was just as he remembered it although he had not seen it for over a year – a slight opening in the pines marked by a sheer overhang of rock. He shifted the sails turning the longboat towards it. The wind was good today and it was a good thing. The men were tired of rowing. They would need their strength anyway.

If he remembered correctly there was a farm not far away from the overhang. They had passed through it last year but they had not bothered the people there. The raid had been successful and they'd already had more than they could carry home. But he'd remembered it anyway and reminded himself to come back to this place next spring. The land was fertile there. He wanted to stay.

If he'd known then what was waiting for him back home he never would have left.

The water by the overhang was deep enough to drop anchor and there was a patch of sandy beach beside it that ended uphill in thick overgrowth. The farm, Agnarr remembered, was not far beyond it, with its tiny house and thatched roof and the stable not far behind it. After they dropped anchor Agnarr and his warriors, all thirty of them, jumped in the water, wading to the shore, with their round wooden shields on their backs.

When they reached the overgrowth they unsheathed their swords and axes, hacking their way through the leaves and branches. It was slow going though. The work was sweaty and hard in their helmets and mail shirts. Higdin was complaining again.

“I could've done this at home and saved myself the journey,” he said.

This time Henrik, at his wit's end with the boy's incessant whining, slapped Higdin on the back of the head with the flat of his blade from behind, knocking the boy forward. Higdin landed on his hands and knees with his face in the brush.

“Shut up, boy,” Higdin said. “I mean it this time.”

The boy stood up, dusting himself off, his face a bright red, clearly humiliated.

“You will pay for that, old man.”

Henrik snorted.

“Best watch your back then,” he said. “There may be Saxons about.”

The boys eyes went wide, the color draining from his face, but he didn't say another word. He may have been impetuous, and stupid, but he knew what the word Saxon entailed.

He is a Norseman after all, Agnarr thought, watching with amusement. He may be green but he will wet his blade before the sun goes down. Among other things.

They pressed on through the brush. By noon they broke through to the farmland on the other side.

The ground here was untended. The grass reached up to their knees. It was not as Agnarr remembered it. Last spring there had been barley growing here. Now it was just grass. It appeared to have been abandoned. Studying the ground he saw signs of ash in the dirt. It looked to him as if the field had been burned down for some reason. Now the grass had grown to fill the void.

Strange, Agnarr thought. But not really. Anything could happen this far out. Perhaps the tenants had died.

Or been driven out. He had to consider the possibility. But if that were the case then there could be only one explanation. The Picts had moved south again.

The men behind him were talking about it.

“It looks as if the Picts have staked their claim again,” Henrik said. “If so then we will have to move further west.”

“Perhaps,” Agnarr said. “But if that's the case then where are they?”

“Perhaps they are still at war. There may be Saxons here after all.”

Agnarr considered the possibility.

“Well, boy,” Agnarr said, looking at Higdin with his long red curls, this boy who had not quite reached his full height but would within the year. “You may wet your blade with Saxon blood after all.”

Henrik smirked.

“Or they with yours,” Henrik said and all the fighting men had a rowdy laugh at the boy's expense. But something in the boy's expression had changed. It was subtle but it did not fail to catch Agnarr's eye. He had seen it before in many a fighting man.

Yes, Agnarr thought. There is hope for him yet. He will be a man soon enough if he lives to see another spring.

They pressed through the field in the knee high grass. Something here didn't feel right but it was a feeling Agnarr couldn't place. There was something wrong about the trees on the farmland's edge. Whenever he glanced left or right he couldn't shake the feeling that someone – or something – was looking back. Agnarr's instincts were well honed. He put great faith in them. He understood the need for vigilance in this strange new land.

“Something is wrong here,” Henrik said as if reading his mind.

“I feel it too,” Agnarr said.

That was the thought in Agnarr's mind when they came upon what was left of the house. It had never been large to begin with, the farmer's family had been small, but what was left was nothing more than an empty shell. The stable behind it was gone completely. Whoever had been here had burned the entire farmstead to the ground.

Agnarr looked to his men.

“We will move further west into the forest,” he said. “And at dusk we will make camp. But keep your wits about you. These trees have eyes.”


By the time they made camp they had moved more than a mile or so into the forest. They finally broke their march when they reached a canopy in the seemingly never ending blanket of trees. But here they could see the stars as they huddled close to the fire they had made. It was an uneasy rest ahead of them though. The men would take turns at watch but for now they were circled around the fire discussing the turn of events in this new land as they understood them. No mead was shared this night. Their mood was somber as the stars overhead pressed down.

Eventually the conversation turned to the subject of the wudewas as it was bound to. Henrik was the only one among them to have seen one. He shared his experience to a captive audience and no one spoke as he told his tale. All eyes were on him as the night's chill broke through the campfire's warmth, the fire casting weird shadows on their faces, their mouths set grimly.

Henrik had done battle with the wudewas once and he was the only one to have survived. His cheeks burned with shame as he recounted the events.

The battle had taken place five springs before when Henrik and his men had ventured too far north. At the time he had not known the dangers, had not been able to heed the warnings of the Picts who had long ago learned better.

The attack came at night when they had made camp while most of the men were sleeping. The wudewas always attacked at night, Henrik explained. Ambush was the only military tactic they knew, but they used it to devastating effect. The wudewas always attacked when the odds were in their favor. They never attacked at any other time or in any other way.

Henrik awoke to the sound of screaming. It was the two men who had been keeping watch. He still remembered the sight he awoke to. Both men, strong men at that and brave warriors, were on the ground bleeding. Their sword arms had been ripped free of their bodies. Henrik could still remember seeing the arms. They had been flung to the fringes of battle, tossed aside like refuse. One was at the base of a tree still twitching. Another was caught in the limbs of a tree. He could see its blood trailing down the bark of the tree's trunk in the moonlight, shiny and black.

Meanwhile the men continued to scream as the lifeblood poured out of them, kicking their legs, their eyes rolled up in their sockets.

The other men were standing now, reaching for their swords and axes. But they never had time. The strange men who were not men were upon them with a ferocity that Henrik had never before witnessed and he was, as everyone present knew, no stranger to battle.

Henrik did not fear death but that day he feared the wudewas. That was how he told it.

The men didn't stand a chance. They never even had a chance to wield their swords and axes. The strange men came, ripping and tearing, with such speed that before Henrik had realized what was happening all of his brothers were all dead or dying.

And that was when he laid eyes on them. He had never seen such savage aspects. Their faces were so alien, and so hard, that surely even the dwarves and the frost giants would count them as ungainly. But he said that it was hard to put in words. Such ghastliness was beyond his ability to explain.

And that was when he saw one of them put a dying warrior's entire hand in its mouth, biting it completely off with teeth that were unnaturally large and impossibly strong. Then he saw the massive wudewas spit it to the ground like a wad of poorly chewed bread.

But Henrik, being the fearless warrior that he was, did not back down. He was ready to die that day if need be. He was ready to join his fallen brothers in Valhalla. If songs were ever sung about that battle they would tell the world of his bravery, not his cowardice, but of course he knew that day that no songs would be sung because there would be no one left to sing them. He knew that he was about to die.

Henrik drew his sword and ran towards the one who had spit out the hand, hoping to catch it unawares. But as he did so he felt something strike him hard from behind, on the head, and after that all was dark for Henrik and he fell into a deep, black sleep.

And when he awoke the sun was shining on his face. He did not know why he had been spared. Perhaps they had simply forgotten about him, maybe, because everyone else was gone. There was nothing left behind to show that they had been there at all. But Henrik never knew for sure what happened that night because he had been knocked unconscious and he had the sore and aching head to prove it.

But he never knew. All he knew for sure was that he hated the wudewas to this day and that one day he would have his revenge. He had sworn it on the oath ring of his jarl, invoking the name of Odin himself as he did so.

Agnarr considered Higdin's story. He had heard it before, many times. It had been shared more than once over many a snapping fire. He had often wondered if the Pictish legends were true but Henrik was a man that he trusted with his life itself. If there were falsehoods to be found in the world they would not be found from the lips of the great warrior that Agnarr knew as his only trusted friend. He knew that much. He knew that Higdin believed the story that he told.

The stories of the wudewas were found in the Pictish legends, legends that went way back, for generations even, back to the shadowy mist veiled origins of the Picts themselves. They were not unlike the stories of Agnarr's people. The Picts and the Norse men had that much in common. The wudewas, according to Pictish histories, were here long before the Age Of Men. They were almost as old as the gods themselves, but they were not made by the gods, who made everything, and even the gods shunned them. No one knew where they came from. They resembled men but they were not men. Their numbers had always been small, but they did well for themselves, fishing and hunting the game of the northern fjords, until the Picts arrived. As the Picts grew in number, they competed with the Picts for fish and foul, until eventually the wudewas retreated high in the mountains and deep in the forests, returning only at night, on rare occasions, to abduct the children of men, taking them to a fate that was completely unknown although certainly horrid. Some said that the wudewas raised them as one of their own but most didn't believe it. Most were of the belief that the children were eaten.

That was a conviction that Agnarr shared. He had never seen one of their encampments, though they were said to exist, but he had Henrik's testimony to bear witness to their savagery in battle, and if Henrik was to believed it was a thing that could never be forgotten. Henrik had never seen men fight with such ferocity as those strange forgotten people and his people, the Vikings as the Saxons sometimes called them, were said by many to be the fiercest fighters that the world had ever known.


As Henrik shared his story with the men over the crackling campire the boy Higdin scoffed.

“You have exaggerated the battle to hide your cowardice, old man,” Higdin said. “Tell us what really happened.”

Henrik had had enough. He stood up then and hit the boy again, hard this time, with the butt of his sword. The boy was shaken, but he did not fall, and this time he stood up, drawing his sword.

“No, boy, it is true,” Agnarr said but it was too late. The boy was taken with bloodlust now. Agnarr knew the signs. He could see it in the boy's eyes. It would be a costly mistake though, Agnarr knew, but no one was raising a hand to help him. And why would they? These men had been forced to endure the long journey with him, suffering his complaints the entire way.

The boy came at Henrik, brute and clumsy. He could be a fair enough fighter in time if he survived, Agnarr thought. He had mastered the bow well enough. But all that was up to Henrik now and Agnar knew the look in his old friend's eyes, knew his style of fighting. He watched as Henrik tossed his sword, catching it with his right hand while reaching for the axe that hung at his hip.

Henrik was going to kill the boy. Agnarr could tell. Soon the boy would know what it was like to have an axe planted in his neck.

So be it, Agnarr thought. Maybe it was for the best. The boy had caused them nothing but trouble and, some said, ill fortune.

Henrik stepped to the right just as Higdin lunged, the boy jabbing with his sword now like a clumsy Saxon peasant. Henrik drew the axe as he stepped to the side. He pulled the axe to his shoulder, getting ready to put all of his strength into it, which was considerable.

He was about to kill the boy and he would have done it too if the sounds of a woman screaming, deep somewhere in the trees, hadn't stopped them both. Everyone stood up then and turned to the patch of trees on the horizon to their left, bringing their arms to bear.

Henrik looked at the boy and spat.

“Whoever she is,” Henrik said, “I hope you marry the bitch because she saved your life today.”

The woman's screams were followed by the sound of fighting men and the clash of arms. From across the field Agnarr heard the sound of steel on steel. Drawing sword and axe his men moved cautiously, making their way to the left so that they could approach the sound from behind. Then Agnarr heard a soldier barking orders. They were Saxons. He recognized the tongue. Then he heard another man screaming back in another language that was familiar to him as well.

Pictish. A group of armed Saxons and Picts were squaring off in the forest to their right. It was most likely an ambush but there was no way to know at this point who was ambushing who.

It was then, as Agnarr and his men were coming at them from behind, that the men on both sides began to scream.

They pressed on, following the sounds, but it was apparent by then that the sounds they were hearing were the sounds of dying men. Mixed with another sound, an animal sound, a sound that Agnarr had never heard before.

“It is them,” Henrik whispered, at his side. “It is the wudewas.”

And Agnarr felt the hairs on the back of his neck move.

The men looked to Agnarr. Everyone had stopped walking now. Agnarr signaled them all to stay. He needed time to think.

But they didn't have to wait long. The battle ended quickly after that and it wasn't long before they heard the animal intruders, with their strange animal sounds, shambling off into the forest far ahead of them. Agnarr signaled his men to stay again until the sounds of their retreat had diminished and he was sure they were gone.

Then they pressed on again.

The woman was lying on the ground, curled into a fetal ball, when they found her, where she had hidden herself behind a tree. The scene around her was carnage. Whoever had done this had not seen her or perhaps they had been frightened away by the sound of Agnarr's men but that was doubtful. They had moved with stealth.

There were bodies everywhere, both Saxons and Picts. They had been locked in battle when the wudewas had disturbed them. Several of the men, and the beasts had made no distinction based on allegiance to any king, had their arms ripped from their bodies. Agnarr could see the severed arms slung everywhere around the forest grove they found themselves in, some of them still twitching, the fingers quivering as if the hands were still trying to clench themselves into futile fists, the fight having not quite left them yet.

The woman stared at them wide eyed as they approached. She was Pictish, Agnarr observed. He knew it at once. He recognized the circular tattoos on her cheeks and the paleness of her ice blue eyes. He recognized the language that she was babbling in now even though he didn't understand it.

And what were the Saxon soldiers doing here in the first place? Perhaps it was an attempt to deter the encroaching Pictish settlements. It made sense in a way. It certainly explained the burned down farmhouse. The land here was a war zone with the Picts on one side and the Saxons on the other. But what was driving the Picts south so quickly? Just last spring the land here had been a peaceful Saxon settlement. And now... this.

But the more Agnarr thought about it the more he realized that the twitching, severed arms were all the answer he needed.

Because the wudewas were coming.

One of his men came forward then, Rugga, to offer his assistance. Rugga was tall, very tall, even by Norse standards, with a long blonde main of hair that fell past his shoulders, and he had spent many summers trading with the Pictish populations of the northern kingdoms. Some of the gold he had stolen from the monasteries to the south had made its way north this way, which the Picts had used in turn to fortify their position as they made their way south and Rugga in return had mastered much of the native tongue that the Pictish peoples spoke.

Rugga sheathed his sword as he helped the woman to her feet and listened to her tale. Her eyes were wide with fear but her robes had survived the battle without so much as a tear.

Rugga listened to her tale carefully before he finally spoke.

“She says that she is a druid,” Rugga said. “She says that she had a dispute with her master whose name she refuses to mention.”

Then Rugga paused, listening intently to everything the woman said.


Rugga continued.

“She says that the wudewas are driving her people south. She says that her master is sending them through the gate. She says that they have always been here, for centuries now, but this year their numbers have grown tenfold. She says that they were ambushed by Saxons here when the wudewas attacked.”

“How many?” Agnarr asked.

Rugga translated the question, waiting for the woman's response.

“She says that she does not know,” Rugga said. “She says that they are coming from the fjords to the north through what her people call the Stargate.”

“Ask her more about this Stargate,” Agnarr said.

Rugga spoke again to the woman in the rough consonants of her people.

“She says that she has seen it. She says that when one gazes into it one can see the stars as they were aligned long ago. She says that it is a gate to the past. She says that the gate only opens once every ten thousand years but that even though time has passed on this side on the other side it has not.”

“And who built this gate?” Agnarr asked.

“She says that it was built by the gods. She says that we must journey north and destroy the wudewas while there is still time. She says that they will conquer the island soon and when that happens the world will not be safe for anyone and that all of our old grievances will be like leaves in the wind. Norse, Pict, Saxon, all of these words will be meaningless like tears in rain and none of our songs will ever be sung again.”

Agnarr looked at the woman, saw the raw terror in her eyes. They seemed to plead with him but Agnarr remembered the fierceness with which the wudewas were said to fight. He thought about their cunning and the strangeness to mercy that they brought to battle. It would take many men to defeat them, more than the thirty he could muster at the moment.

“Ask her how many there are,” Agnarr said.

Rugga turned to the woman again. She blinked at Rugga's words before she responded.

“Their numbers are unknown for sure she says. But there must be at least two thousand now where before they were numbered in the scores, barely enough to sustain themselves. For ages they have been nothing more than a mystery, with no one ever seeing them at all, but now it would seem they have returned and they do not fear us anymore.”

That at least did not surprise Agnarr. They did not seem to be as smart as men, if their weapons were any indication, but their strength in numbers would more than make up for that deficiency. Agnarr considered the problem. It would be at least another day before the remaining ships arrived. When they did his forces would number in the hundreds, all able bodied men and women, shield maidens, all ready to fight if that's what it took to stake their claim in this new land.

But this? This would strike fear even in the hearts of his berserkers, men who feared nothing, not even death itself, men who feared only the gods themselves who they served fanatically in the stupor of the mushrooms.

“Tell the woman we will camp here for the night,” Agnarr said. “We will wait for the reinforcements that will be coming soon. Surely the wudewas will not strike the same place twice.”

So they camped there, trying once again to put away the fears of the forest shadows by the crackling flames. There had been no need to build a new fire. The Saxons, in their ambush, had seen no need to stamp it out, nor did they have time, and such considerations were beyond the ken of those strange new men that the Picts called wudewas.

But Agnarr had been wrong. The men who were not men did indeed attack once more.

The attack came just as Agnarr had fallen asleep, after trying for a long time, just laying there with his eyes closed. But just when he had fallen into a fitful slumber that was when the wudewas attacked again as if they had known somehow.

Of course they had known. This was what they did. It was the one strategy of combat that they had made an art of, honing it to perfection over the years. Of course Agnarr had left two men on watch, but those men were tired, and it wouldn't have made a difference anyway.

The men who were not men attacked with brutal efficiency. Only this time they took prisoners. Agnarr didn't know for sure why, but he had his suspicions, and the more he thought about it the more it filled his gut with a slow, icy terror.

In fact it was the last thing he thought about before he felt something hard strike him on the back of the head and his whole world went dark.

When he awoke the sun was on his face and his arms and legs were bound. The men of the woods, one of them anyway, one of the ones who had come, as the Pictish woman said, through the stargate, was carrying him, slumped over its shoulders. Agnarr could smell it, could smell its unwashed body, as Agnarr watched the ground beneath him pass, strangely far away, moving very fast, and he could hear it breathing, a rough pant like that of a dog. Its skin was covered with a fine red fur and its feet were huge, ending in nails that were like talons, sometimes leaving prints in the mud below.

When the wudewas realized that he was awake, it grunted, throwing him to the ground. He hit the muddy forest floor hard and it knocked the breath out of him. Then he saw the creature raise its arm and at that moment he caught of glimpse of its features for the very first time.

Its face was hideous although clearly man like.

And those teeth! They were like the fangs of a wolf.

Then the creature struck him on the back of the head again and once again everything went dark.

He came to twice more as they journeyed north and each time it ended the same way. When he finally came to again, for the final time, he was greeted with a low, throbbing pain in his skull that would not go away.

But he was pretty sure where he was now. The sun was high in the sky and, judging by the passing terrain, he knew for sure that they had made their way far, far north into what the Picts sometimes referred to as the Highlands.

They had arrived now at the village of the wudewas, or what passed for one anyway.

As the beast carried him with his arms and legs still bound Agnarr observed the village of the wudewas around him. The structures in which they housed themselves were crude and temporary. There was a fire pit at the village center, with a fire blazing, but nothing here seemed permanent. Everything about it felt temporary, as if the wudewas were ready to disembark on a moment's notice, as if they spent the entirety of their existence moving from place to place, never really calling one place home for long. Around the fire pit, strung on crude ropes made of skin, or entrails maybe, were the gutted carcasses, skinned and bled out, with the meat showing, of people like Agnarr, people who had not escaped the clutches of the wudewas alive.


But looking at the faces of the women and children that inhabited the village Agnarr came to a shocking realization: the wudewas were not monsters. They were not supernatural creatures at all. They were in fact people just like Agnarr, just people of a wholly different variety. Their weapons were crude, made of sharpened stone, not much more than sticks really, and the clothes they wore were nothing more than fur skins, but there was a cunning, an intelligence, in their eyes that blazed and Agnarr had to concede the fact that even though their ways were primitive, and their physical forms fundamentally different in strange ways, they were still people nonetheless.

People strong enough to overwhelm Agnarr and his men, despite the inferiority of their weapons. In truth they had not really needed them at all.

To defeat them would require a cunning they did not possess and pondering this Agnarr came up with a plan.

Because out of the corner of his eye, hidden behind a tree, he could see the boy, Higdin, who had somehow managed to escape capture. He had proven to be more clever, and more resourceful, then Agnarr had at first thought possible.

And the witch was hiding there with him. He could see from here the round circles of her facial tattoos, brown and blue on her pale white skin.

He realized now that bringing the boy had been the best idea he'd ever had despite his misgivings at the time.

And, better yet, the boy was wielding a bow and arrow. He'd always been good with it. Agnarr remembered that much.

Spying ahead he found even more good news. Henrik was slung over the shoulder of the wudewas ahead.

Agnarr caught Henrik's eye, as Henrik looked his way, giving the Viking warrior the slightest of nods.

The nod was returned.

Agnarr glanced at the boy. Higdin had seen the exchange, giving Agnarr a slight nod of his own as he notched an arrow, drawing the string back to his shoulder.

Soon they would be fighting for their lives the way they always did. Like brothers whose only fear was losing all hope of Valhalla in the first place and little – nay, nothing – else.

Agnarr had to wonder why he was still alive – surely he would be a liability that way and they hadn't even bothered to disarm him – when it dawned on him. Another glance at the village confirmed his suspicions. These people were woefully ignorant. They did not even know how to salt their meat. It was a skill they had yet to acquire. As he listened to the guttural sounds and dog like barks that passed for language among them he understood.

Even if they overran the entire island, murdering everyone in their path, they would slowly die out anyway. Their numbers would shrink again, as they had done before the opening of the stargate, due to a deficiency that was native to their kind. They could not survive in this world, not in large numbers anyway. They simply were not designed for it. Their inability to store food for long periods of time, and their inability to work iron, virtually guaranteed that.

From here he could see the stargate that they had built their small village around and Agnarr mused on its origins, its true nature.

Who had built this thing, really?

It was a stone circle set in the earth, very tall and very wide, with runes facing outward running along its edges, but they were not runes that he recognized. If it had been built by the gods then they were not gods that he knew, if they were gods at all. Agnarr wasn't sure he believed in gods anymore. But someone had made this thing, not men though, he was sure of it. This was beyond the ability of men. The air inside of it shimmered the way the air might shimmer on a hot summer's day, but this was not heat effect, he was certain, and he could see through it to the other side. If what the witch had said was true then he was gazing into the past, at an age long gone from the world when people, all people, even the wudewas, were still new and everything around them was being witnessed for the first time.

But how was such a thing possible? Agnarr didn't know. It was the kind of thing that had never occurred to him before.

Agnarr met the boy's gaze again. The bow was drawn, waiting for Agnarr's command. Then Agnarr glanced at Henrik whose eyes were like fire now.

They were all ready. It was time.

Higdin paused for a moment and Agnarr knew what he was doing. He was picking his target. To Agnarr's surprise he chose the one ahead, the man of the woods who carried Henrik, with whom the boy had so recently feuded. In a way it wasn't so surprising though. In war you always knew who your brothers were and sometimes former enemies became friends, blood brothers even, for life.

There was no doubt in Agnarr's mind that recent events had changed the boy forever.

In other words he was a man now.

Higdin let loose the bowstring and the arrow flashed by so fast that Agnarr never even saw it. He did see, instead, what happened next. He saw the arrow strike the wudewas in the side of the head, lodging itself in the creature's skull. He saw the creature fall to its knees, dropping Henrik, whose arms and legs, like that of Agnarr's, were still bound. Then he saw Henrik struggling to his feet, a grim smile on his face.

Agnarr turned his head to look at the boy again. He felt the shoulder he rested on move as the creature shifted its weight. Then he saw the witch come from behind the tree, making strange motions with her hands.

She was making magic. Agnarr had heard tell of such things.

Then all at once five golden globes of light erupted from her fingertips, moving fast on the chill northern air. They struck the creature that held him and the creature went down to its knees, screaming, dropping Agnarr as it did so.

By the time Agnarr got to his feet again he realized that Henrik's arms and legs were free. He saw the boy coming towards him with his axe just as Henrik was drawing his sword and turning to face the horde of angry warrior-beasts at Agnarr's side. Agnarr could hear the strange hooping and hollering that the men who were not men were making as the boy hacked away at the bonds that held Agnarr's hands and feet with the sword that he was carrying. A moment later Agnarr was free and he turned to face the angry hordes with his brothers in arms, dropping his oath ring on the ground as he turned so that, if he died, any Norseman who passed this way would know that he had died here.

There must have been at least twenty of them, with more emerging from their fragile makeshift structures, but Agnarr knew how to fight them now. Without the advantage that ambush conferred they were really little more than animals on the field. Their fighting methods were crude, brutal yes, but crude nonetheless. He could defeat them; he was certain of it. He could show them what it meant to be a Viking, as they were sometimes called by the people they defeated.

They would know that too, soon.

Agnarr drew his weapons and prepared to face them, his sword in one hand and his axe in the other.


They must have sensed something different about him because they did not come all at once. They just stood there waiting, mentally unprepared for a fight of this nature, against this strange man who showed no fear.

Then one of them stepped forward, the tallest of them, swinging his arms and legs in front of him. Then he made his move.

But Agnarr was a seasoned warrior. He knew from long experience in the field how to keep his distance when necessary and study his opponent's strategies. So when the creature made its first attack Agnarr, stepping back beyond its reach, had a sudden epiphany.

The creature only had one move. It always grabbed for its opponent's arms. It was always the first thing it did. The wudewas may have been stronger then any man alive but their strength was only exceeded by their sheer stupidity when the odds were more evenly matched.

Three times the creature came at him and three times Agnarr moved just beyond its reach. And on the third try Agnarr buried his axe in the creature's neck. His axe went deep; his blade was true. The creature went to its knees, blood spurting through its fingers as it grabbed its throat, a look of hopeless confusion in its eyes. It was the dumb look of a beaten animal.

And that set the rest of them on fire. They pointed at their fallen hero, talking among themselves. Then they stopped talking, laying eyes on the four of them.

The witch said something then but Rugga was no longer there to translate. Then she started making strange motions with her hands again.

Agnarr looked to Henrik and the boy, motioning them to wait.

The witch completed her spell. A beam of light, blindingly bright, whiter than the northern snows of Agnarr's homeland, issued from the palm of her hand, striking the faces of the enemies, who were even now leaning in and preparing to rush. But it was no use for them now. The light had burned their eyes, blinding them. Instead of rushing they, all of them, put their hands to their eyes, yelping like kicked dogs.

With a war cry Henrik and Agnarr rushed the beasts, while the boy hung behind with his bow. Agnarr could see him pulling the bowstring back as he made his rush.

Agnarr and Henrik managed to take down five of them, with their axes, before the beasts came to their senses, recovering their vision. The boy managed to take down two more.

Agnarr looked to the stargate, a stone's throw away now. Then he looked to the others, nodding his assent. The beasts had fully recovered now and already they were on them, with fury in their eyes. Others were joining them too. Agnarr knew they could not win this.

So rather than face the lot of them, Higdin, Agnarr, the boy and the witch escaped the only way they knew how: through the gate, with the wudewas at their heels.

But the creatures did not follow.

The first thing Agnarr felt, stepping through the gate, was a cold blast of air on his face. It was icy here beyond the gate, far colder then he had expected. The ice was everywhere, and the sun was on it, stabbing his eyes, but the sun held no warmth in this new place.

And there were wudewas everywhere, standing there, watching him, that same dull animal look in their eyes as the ones he had just escaped. But they did not attack. Instead they just stood there, eyeing him curiously, as if they had never seen his kind before and maybe they hadn't, as if they were seeing something like him for the very first time.

But that wasn't exactly true, was it? Because there was another one of his kind here, only it wasn't a Norseman this time and it wasn't a Saxon either.

No, it was a Pict. A Pictish druid, replete with oaken staff and ceremonial robes, seemingly unaffected by the cold. Agnarr had never seen his type before although he had certainly heard about them, but he knew what they were supposed to look like. He recognized the long, flowing ebony locks of hair and the strange inscriptions etched on his face in ritual circles.

“You are the first to step through the gate,” the druid said in a deep baritone voice. “Other than me of course. But do not be alarmed. The wudewas here will not harm you. Not on this side of the gate anyway.”

The witch behind Agnarr said something but the druid silenced her.

“Not now, woman,” he said.

Agnarr glanced back at the stargate. He could see through the haze that it offered, could see images shifting within the perimeter of its circular border. He saw the wudewas there. Then he saw strange beasts, unlike men in every way, with talons and scales and teeth. Then he saw the soldiers of Rome marching through the fields of Angleland. He saw mighty battles and fallen warriors and he saw Viking longboats stretching to the horizon, on the sea's edge, as far as the eye could see.

“You are gazing at time itself,” the druid said, watching him. “The images you see reveal the future of humanity, as well as its past.”

Agnarr turned back to the druid.

The druid waved his hand, motioning to the wudewas around him, who must have numbered in the hundreds.

“I came here to send them through, warrior. To stop people like you. Too long have your people afflicted the people of this land. The Picts are not your friends. We hate all of you, Norse and Saxon alike, and when these creatures have served their purpose this island will belong to us. These are my soldiers, north man, and they are men as men were before the gods were born, and when they are done we will finally be rid of you and all those like you.”

The Pictish witch said something again and the druid's expression grew dark.

“Silence, woman,” he said. “I will not tell you again.”

Then the druid smiled, looking at Agnarr.

“Would you like to know what she said?” the druid said, smirking now. “She called me outcast. She said that I could not speak for the Pictish king. Tell me, warrior, do you think it makes any difference? Will it make any difference to them? Now that they are beholden to me?”

Agnarr looked again to the stargate. The image had not changed this time. Still he saw the longboats stretching as far as the eye could see. Who knew what magics this strange Pict could wield? But it didn't matter anymore, not to him anyway.

He had had enough of this.

Because he knew now what he was seeing. The image in the stargate had not changed because it was the image of the very moment they had left. He saw the oath ring that he had dropped in the dirt only moments before. His reinforcements had arrived, somehow blown off course, arriving further north on a stretch of coastline within the stargate's purvey.

He looked to the woman and understood. He could see it in her eyes. He could see it in her strange smile. She had cast a weird magic of her own somehow. She had summoned a mighty wind and she had brought them here.

Of course she had. It was not beyond her.


Agnarr turned his gaze back to the druid, reaching for the hilt of his sword.

Yes, he had had enough.

It was time to end this.

He drew his sword, lunging forward, and drove the sword into the druid's belly. The sword met little resistance. The druid's belly was soft. Agnarr placed his hand on the druid's shoulder, looking the druid dead in the eye, as he drove the sword in as deep as it would go.

The horror in the druid's eyes was its own reward.

Then Agnarr yanked the sword free, its long blade dripping crimson in the hard winter sun, splattering the snow below.

And the druid fell to his knees, his mouth open, as if he were trying to speak, but the words failed him and he fell face first to the ground, dead.

The wudewas were at first too stunned to respond but that did not last long. Still it gave Agnarr all the time he needed. He looked at his companions, motioning to the stargate. He could tell by the look in their eyes that they understood completely.

And before the wudewas had time to respond they went through the gate again.

Back to the warmth of their present day.

They were back at the village and the wudewas, their wudewas, were still there, bewildered now, but it wasn't the arrival of Agnarr and his companions that bewildered them. It was something else.

They were all gazing at the sea.

Agnarr turned his gaze to see what they were seeing and it was just as he anticipated.

The longboats were there, very close now, almost to the shore, and Agnarr couldn't help but smile, seeing all those mighty warriors beating their axes on their shields.

The entire village, every wudewas that dwelt there, was standing at the shoreline with their backs to Agnarr and his new made friends. They were gazing at the longboats and they would never know what hit them.

Agnarr signaled everyone to wait.

Even now the warriors were disembarking, splashing through the waves, making their way to the shore. They knew what they were seeing. They had all heard the tales.

But they saw Agnarr and Henrik and Higdin at the backs of the beasts and they understood and they would not turn back now.

Agnarr smiled as he signaled for Henrik and the boy to attack. Maybe they would die today. Maybe they wouldn't. But it didn't matter. All that mattered now was the fearlessness with which they fought.

Valhalla, after all, awaited them and the war for Angland had begun.

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