Chapter 1: Olafson Rock
Year 4989, OTT
Once the burg had been a beacon of wealth and might. It was perched atop the rugged dark rocks that made up the Olafson Rock. Tattered and torn scraps of fabric flapped from rusty poles as sad reminders of long gone glories. At one time these rags had been bright flags with black wolf heads upon vibrant Olafson red.
The mighty walls of this ancient Nilfeheim Burg had been a bulwark and shield for many generations of Olafson Vikings. Not the Clans of the East, not the thundering storms of the Spring year, not the horned monstrosities of the Nogoll invasion had managed to breach these walls. But now stone and Duro-Crete were crumbling, rust and decay was everywhere.
This was the last year of Shortsummer and soon Longnight would once again descend upon Nilfeheim.
Volund Olafson stood with crossed arms on the parapet above the main gate and gazed towards the south.
Volund was, like all Olafsons, a big and strong man, but his massive hands hefted neither harpoon nor axe or sword lately.
They had been reduced to casting nets from the deck of an Elhir boat, as the Olafson clan had sold its last boat during last Longnight because his clan needed money to heat the burg or it would freeze to death.
The winds were already cold again and tugged at the Fangsnapper cape the big man was wearing as his slate-gray eyes scanned slowly across the horizon of the endless Nilfeheim Oceans.
It had not always been that way. The Olafson clan was an Old Clan with a clean and uninterrupted line all the way back to the time when the first colonists from Earth landed on this planet.
Alrik Olafson was among the first, so Family Lore knew, to step onto the surface of this world in 2160.
Alrik was born in Denmark on Earth. His family, along with 12,000 others of similar origin, had been part of the Viking Movement that left their old planet to colonize this cold and harsh world.
It was Alrik’s grandsons who had stepped ashore right here on this island, claiming it for the Olafsons. With the riches obtained pirating other Earth colonies, this mighty burg was built.
Even after Nilfeheim joined the Union and the space pirate days of the Neo Vikings from Nilfeheim ended, the Olafsons remained an important clan.
They stayed influential until the last clan wars almost 400 years ago. The Olafsons always had been known to be an especially wild and violent clan, even on a world full of skull-bashing Neo Vikings; they picked even more fights than others and formed alliances at the spur of the moment, but sadly for them, not always with the winning sides.
The last clan wars caused the Olafsons to lose their Nubhir farms and the Fangsnapper herds near Isen because of tribute payments to the victorious alliance.
The clan never really recovered from that; it took many decades for them to slowly regain some wealth and influence, but then Byrnjolf Olafson, Volund’s grandfather, just had to pick a fight with the Trolle clan.
Of all clans at that time, it was the richest and most powerful. That loss cost the Olafson clan three hunting subs and two fishing vessels.
Oh yes, the Olafsons always fought like warrior gods and were famous for their fighting skills, but the Trolle clan had many allies. Fighting the Trolles had reduced their once sizable clan fleet to two fishing boats that were barely able to sustain them with food and left nothing for other essentials.
During the last Longnight and seven years of ice and snow, the Olafsons lost one boat to an accident and then had to sell the last one to survive. All they had left were the traditional tanneries in the undercrofts of the west wing.
Volund feared that his firstborn son, Isegrim, would be the last Olafson Clan Chief, lording over a starving clan that had to hire its men and warriors to other clans and would simply fade away into oblivion.
The future held a bleak end for the once so proud and strong Olafson clan indeed.
Six months ago, however, everything changed.
Volund had been in Halstaad Fjord, the biggest town on Nilfeheim, nursing a tankard of ale in the old Bredeberg Tavern; seeking to drown his sorrows when a fight broke out—nothing unusual on Nilfeheim, of course—but this fight went from brawling with bare fists to drawn swords and axes.
He didn’t remember exactly what the argument was about, but he fought back-to-back with another man and together they cleared the room.
After the fight, he and the other man clasped underarms and declared friendship. The other Viking was Erik Gustav Ragnarsson, the Clan Chief of perhaps the richest clan of all Nilfeheim, surpassing even the Trolle clan if the rumors were true.
Erik Gustav was already a member of the Circle of Elders and had been elected to be Nilfeheim’s Representative to the Assembly at the distant planet of Pluribus Unum.
It was Erik Gustav Volund was expecting, and just then he spotted a small black dot at the horizon that was getting bigger fast.
A sleek off-world skimmer, a luxurious Volvo F70, swooped down and landed on the concrete pad before the main gate.
Neo Vikings did not like off-world technology, but skimmers, Arti Grav fliers and Zero-Point powered boats were simply essential on a world without continents and only a few tiny islands for dry land.
Today was a special occasion, not only would Erik Gustav drink and feast with him but he also was bringing his only daughter along.
Erik Gustav was the heir and leader to the mighty Ragnarsson clan; but his only son died in a Tyranno Fin hunting accident only a year ago.
Erik Gustav had lost his wife to a disease before she could bear him another son which meant the Ragnarsson clan had no male heir.
Here on Nilfeheim, a clan without male heir meant the end of the clan. Only a male would allowed to inherit and carry on the Ragnarsson name.
Volund barked a loud command down to the gate and two of his men raised the steel portcullis.
The hydrogen-powered plant that ran the electric motor had been broken for almost 200 years now, so instead of using electric power, the gate had to be raised by turning hand cranks.
It was an old tradition and a symbolic gesture to open the gates for an honored guest. This is why he had lowered the rusty portcullis this morning in the first place.
While the creaking sound of metal sliding over metal indicated that his men labored to get the heavy obstruction up, so their guests could enter, he hurried down the narrow stairs, almost stumbling over a broken step. He cursed the sorry state of his own castle and then placed himself in a dignified stance behind the now open gate arch.
Volund grabbed the Olafson warrior Oddløg’s shoulder as he came from the crank alcove, sweating from the task of raising the heavy gate. “Quick, see that Isegrim is in his finest! Where is he? Does he not know what is at stake? Oh Oddløg, make haste!”
Oddløg was a stout warrior, not afraid to speak his mind. The scars over his body and face and the missing left eye were visible testimony of the many fights he had fought. “Aye, my Liege, I shall make haste and if I have to I will drag him up from the tanneries.”
Volund raised his hand in the proper warrior’s hail and bellowed against the ever-blowing wind. “Hail, Erik Gustav of the Ragnarsson clan. Come and enter so we may clasp arms and raise tankards in friendship.”
Erik Gustav, who stood before the gate, was a grand sight indeed. This scion of the Ragnarsson clan was a tall man and had dark blonde hair, interlaced with the first silver of age, worn in thick braids as it was tradition. He was dressed in fine black leather, the silver falcon of his clan upon his chest. His gauntleted right fist rested on Mjördaren, the legendary broad sword of the Ragnarsson clan. Erik Gustav was known far and wide as one of the finest swordsmen, if not the finest, of all Nilfeheim.
Nineteen men he had challenged and all nineteen had died.
The visitor wore knee high boots and a billowing fur lined cape. Besides his daughter, he was accompanied by high-ranking warriors of his clan. By the Gods! That daughter of his was a beauty, Volund could tell despite the cloak and veil she wore.
Now that the official invitation had been spoken, Erik Gustav came with a purposeful stride and approached Volund.
The Olafson chief turned his head and saw Oddløg running to the main building. There was no sight of Isegrim. He had given strict orders to his oldest son to be at his side at this oh-so-important meeting.
Volund was silently cursing his oldest son.
Oh aye, he knew why the son of the clan chief, his own flesh and blood, was drawn to the stinking bowels of the Olafson tannery like a Flicker fish to the lantern of a fisherman. Yet he had closed his ears to the rumors and prayed to Odin that it wasn’t true, rumors that his own first born son was bedding a Nubhir hide scrubber’s daughter who worked in the clan’s tanneries.
Volund clenched his fists. As soon as this utterly important business was done, he swore to Odin, to descend into the crofts and tannery and put that wench to the sword and then beat sense into his oldest son.
Oh, why could Isegrim not be like Hogun, his second born?
Big, mighty Hogun, as honorable as he was strong. But Hogun was no longer here; he was gone, driven from his home by a now regretful father and the cursed laws and customs that made the first born alone heir to it all.
Only now could he admit to himself that it was he who had made the choice. He was the clan chief, after all, and could have declared anyone the heir.
Erik Gustav has reached him. They clasped underarms and Volund said, “Welcome to the home of the Olafsons. Aye, it has seen better days, noble visitor, but there is naught a dwelling old Norse call home upon our cold world that has seen more glory days. No other flag has ever been raised on our rock and oh so many have tried.”
The clan chief of the Ragnarssons nodded. “Aye, many tales and much heroic lore is told about this rock. Legendary is the wrath and fighting skills of thy clan indeed, but what enemies and battle could not, the gnawing tooth of decay seems to accomplish.”
“It is a source of shame noble visitor, yet this specter of decay that has descended upon my burg can not be defeated with sword and axe, but with the content of a well-filled purse.”
“So let us to business then. Let us put forth our offspring, for I have need for a heir and you are in need of... much else it seems.”
The Ragnarsson chief half turned. “I present to you my daughter Ilva Ragnarsson, my last child and the pride of my heart. I hereby declare that she is of sound health and has not seen a man. Nor has any man laid eyes upon her since her twelfth birthday.”
The veil she wore did little, however, to hide the incredible beauty of the girl. Volund had rarely seen a more graceful figure and a more regal curtsey as she performed the traditional moves of greeting.
The Ragnarsson chief looked past Volund. “Have you not summoned thy son? Have you decided against the solution we found during our last council?”
“Nay noble friend and honored guest. No Olafson has ever broken a word given. My son is on his way. He must have forgotten the time while doing his chores. Come then, Erik Gustav, join me in the High Hall. Meager our resources might be, but none shall say we neglect to be hosts. Come then and join me at our tables. You traveled far and spent much time beyond the heavens. Wondrous as your journey might have been, what compares to honest Viking food and mead?”
Erik Gustav followed Volund, waved his entourage of daughter and warriors to follow, then put his arm on Volund’s shoulder. “You too should travel, just once, to see Pluribus and the wonders of our Union; but aye, a repast of Norse making is what I desire.”
Just as the one-eyed warrior suspected, Oddløg did find Isegrim in the arms of the Nubhir hide scrubber’s daughter.
His heavy hand fell on Isegrim’s shoulder as his head was buried between the ample breasts of the blonde, who shamelessly grinned a triumphant and almost evil smile at him.
“On your feet! The fate of the clan rests upon thy shoulders. A suitable bride has been brought into these crumbling walls. A creature of high birth indeed; her dowry alone would enable us to purchase twenty new boats. I was tasked to bring you before our lord, and by Odin I will. You can walk or be dragged!”
Isegrim was a big, young warrior, but he also was a coward and feared Oddløg and the punishment his father would find. He untangled himself of the woman and got out of bed.
She cooed, “Go, my love, go and secure riches so we may live as your position demands.”
Oddløg half drew his sword, “Silence, you wench! After the pact is made the old man will descend into these crofts and cleanse the filth you represent. Your father, your family, and most of all you are doomed after he hears from me what I have seen! I will be behind him to stomp out any filth he might miss.”
The Nubhir hide scrubber’s daughter’s name was Gretel and only now did she pull the cover over her exposed breasts, and her eyes sparkled. “Isegrim you won’t let them harm me?”
Isegrim was now halfway dressed. “I’ll help him burn you on the stake or feed you to the crabs if it lessens his anger at me. I found joy in this bed, but I shall find joy in other beds. You are but a woman after all.”
Oddløg grabbed Isegrim’s boots and pushed the first born son of Volund past the door frame and placed his own boot quite forcefully in Isegrim’s behind.
“Make haste, your Sire has summoned you.”
Erik Gustav sat at the old wooden table in the High Hall across from Volund, his right hand holding a tankard and his left moving over the surface of the massive table. “Wooden furniture on a world without trees, the Olafson Burg still holds treasures and its name is spoken with respect all over this world of ours.”
Volund raised his tankard. “Olafson ale is one of these treasures, not that we can make as much of it as we used to. The grain comes from beyond Nilfeheim and so does the hops. ” He took a deep draught.
Erik Gustav did the same, gave the rest in his tankard a thoughtful gaze, burped from the deepest region of his barrel chest, and slammed his flat hand on the table; beneath his veneer of sophistication, the lord of the Ragnarsson clan was still a Norseman.
“Countless are the repasts and delicacies available to me while I represent our insignificant world at the breathtaking Assembly of the Union, yet having a full-bodied ale at the right temperature, served in a Tyranno tooth tankard to warm your very innards, and then hailed and praised by a belch worthy of Thor are not to be had.”
Volund leaned forward. “What news of the Union then? I do remember the excursion to Pluribus from when I was in Union School.”
Erik Gustav wiped his beard. “I am representing our world for seven years now. Do you know how many times I was called to press an issue, to convey news?” The Ragnarsson man held up his fist. “Not a single time. Volund of the Olafsons, while we Neo Vikings squabbled over fishing grounds, the Union went to war and almost defeated the Kermac.”
Volund remembered the word and knew Kermac meant something opposed to the Union, but that was about all he remembered. “What victory is ‘almost’? Either you win or you lose. Have we lost?”
“What began almost eighty standard years ago with the Kermac attacking Green Hell, ended just recently with a second signing of the Freespace Treaty and reinstating the Armistice of the Big Four.
The Galactic Council lost significant territory and influence in that war--a situation that should not be entirely alien to the Olafsons.
The Kermac and their Thralls were beaten and agreed to all cease fire conditions.”
“I do not claim to understand such things, but why stop there?”
“Because a new Species intervened on behalf of the Kermac. They are called the Blue and are distant relatives. The Blue are highly advanced and control much space in the Andromeda Galaxy. They...”
Erik Gustav stopped. It was clear he had lost Volund’s interest in the matter. He smiled sadly. “Exactly. This is why there are no calls; we do not care. My heart is still Norse and I understand; yet my eyes have seen wonders and powers that are more frightening than an angry Tyranno Fin while you share the water with it. I know how fragile and defenseless we really are.
For this reason I cannot step down. For this reason I must remain exiled from the world I love.”
Volund was not sure he understood what the other was speaking about, but he was pleased as she saw his son Isegrim decked out in finest warrior garb. Oh aye, Isegrim Olafson was a dashing sight, full of strength and vigor, with raven black hair and glittering blue eyes.
Volund saw the bosom of the veiled Ragnarsson daughter rise in greater frequency as her beautiful eyes took stock.
Volund paid attention to Erik Gustav’s lament once more.
His noble guest waved at his daughter. “I amassed great wealth; both on this world and so much more beyond. I was blessed by a strong son and this lovely daughter. My son has died, and so has my wife and love. No other woman shall ever be by my side or share my chambers, so was the oath I made the day Hilda died. Hence no son of my blood will again be born.”
He sighed as he looked at his daughter. “Only here on Nilfeheim is this a problem. My beloved and beautiful daughter cannot inherit—neither my wealth nor my name—but she can bear a son of her own. In this future son I place my hope.”
Volund said, “My son is full of strength and he carries a name as old as Ragnarsson, but the words must be spoken.”
“Aye indeed. What are we, if not shaped by our traditions and our honor? Volund Olafson, Lord Mighty of the Olafson Clan, honored of old, your son may court my daughter for the purpose of marriage.”
Isegrim sat in his finest at the table and stared at the veiled woman. Her hair, caught by a ray of sunlight, gleamed like gold. Her eyes were large and green. He could not keep his eyes off her. Gretel was forgotten. This princess, this creature of finest Nilfeheim stock would be his bride after the required time of courting. His father had just clasped arms with Erik Gustav Ragnarsson.
Both of them were pleased and more ale and beer was brought.
The old Ragnarsson still held Volund’s arm. “Our clans are soon to be one, the day I can no longer raise my arm will be the day the Ragnarsson banner and shields will be placed in the Cave of Forgotten Clans, but strong Olafson blood will mingle with mine in the offspring these two will have.”
Volund’s eyes glowed. “Aye, a grandson of this bond, wise and cunning as the Ragnarssons and strong as the Olafsons. When he becomes clan chief, who knows… the throne of Gustavson could be his. Uniting the clans of the West and East under one banner.” Volund raised his tankard. “His name shall be Eric to honor thy name. Eric Olafson!”
Erik, still holding the other’s arm, agreed. “So I will be.”
Neither man was sober anymore and both basked in the future glory of a yet unborn heir and spun the tales of conquest they all loved so much.
Erik Ragnarsson pounded his fist onto the table’s surface and made tankards dance. “It is not proper that the father of my daughter’s husband lives like this. It behooves the Olafson clan to be once more first among the clans of old. Ragnarsson Rock is big and well maintained; it will serve our future grandson as a fitting cradle. Come ye, Volund, move to my burg. Be its steward and master, let your son Isegrim be master and steward once our arms are weak and until he who combines our blood is born and has passed the Ancient Rite of Passage. This burg can then be properly renovated for future use.”
“I can not deny the attraction of thy offer, but how can a burg have two masters?”
Erik Gustavson taking another deep draught of the strong ale. “I am more often than not away from Nilfeheim. By Odin’s sacred spear I pledge everything I own, everything that is Ragnarsson, both on this world and everything beyond, shall be Eric Olafson’s, he the yet unborn fruit of our children’s union; but until that day he comes into his own, the Ragnarsson Burg shall know one master only, you, as its steward.”
Erik Gustavson left Olafson Burg three days later, taking his daughter and warriors along.
Volund waited until the flier was a mere dot at the horizon; then he turned to his son who was standing behind him on the courtyard and smashed his fist with all his might square in the face of Isegrim, only to follow up with a hail of blows and kicks. He yelled, “Oddløg, my hand’s getting tired. Bring me the whip.”
Isegrim was a strong man already, but Volund was a true brute. Isegrim did try to land a few blows for himself, but the old man caught his arm and executed a painful lock, almost breaking his arm.
Isegrim was on his knees as Oddløg brought a broad leather whip made of braided and twisted Fangsnapper leather.
“Father, have mercy. I deserved the beating but let up in your rage. I have seen the beauty and I gladly obey.”
“You are despicable. No warrior, no matter the reason, pleads for mercy, and no soul disobeys me on this rock. Not the Lowmen, not the Warriors, and not even you, my son.”
Volund, however, dropped the whip and drew his sword instead. “Before we leave this rock and move to Ragnarsson Burg, I will cleanse this, our ancestors’ home, from all filth.”
He stomped with heavy steps down into the quarters of the Lowmen.
He killed them all, and his sword and arm were covered with blood as he hacked down another maid and yelled, “I will kill you all! Where is she?”
Volund raged like a demon, the old, cursed Olafson rage, that had been known by friend and foe alike.
Ancient lore and the legends of old spoke of Norse warriors who fought in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury while wearing the pelt of a wolf.
Old Olafson clan legends claimed this rage had always been with the men of the clan, and this was the reason the wolf became the banner symbol of the clan. Once the rage took hold, they showed no mercy and knew no temperance. Volund killed them all—men, women, children and the old—but he could not find the source of his rage.
Gretel had hidden herself in a near-empty barrel of urine, the disgusting, reeking liquid collected from humans and Nubhir alike, to be used in a very old process of tanning skins into leather. Now, wet and stinking, she stalked between the dismembered bodies of the Lowmen, the slave-like class of people who had few rights, who were poor and existed in this society to serve and obey.
Her family, her own father, two of her younger sisters, her uncles and everyone she knew had been hacked to death in a scene of grisly gore.
Using her voluptuous body to seduce the son of the clan lord seemed such a good idea just so recently—a way to escape this filth and the abhorrent conditions that existed in the bowels of this burg. Now she understood the warning from her mother, telling her to stay away from the clan lords and high ones.
She knew of the stories that came from beyond the sky. But to her and all the other Lowmen of Nilfeheim, they had been nothing more than faery tales.
She knelt next to the lifeless body of her mother, only recognizable by her smudgy dress. Nilfeheim broad swords were terrible weapons.
It was always cold down here, the stench of hides, rotten meat, and the disgusting substances used to make leather now mingled with the terrible odor of fresh blood.
Some clans treated their Lowmen well and she heard some even paid them a little.
But Lowmen were not allowed to go to Union School by decree of the Elders and were kept by the clans like property.
What now? Even Elga, who cooked for the Lowmen, was dead.
She could not stay here. Eventually new Lowmen would be hired. There were always plenty in the outskirts of Halstaad Fjord, even poorer and hungrier than the rest, eager to do anything for a warm place and food during Longnight.
Gretel had watched the high visitors after Isegrim had rushed away.
There was a small window with an egress well from where it was possible to watch most of the courtyard without being seen, and she watched the other clan chief and his daughter.
She had a truly regal appearance, wore a fine velvet dress, and had clean blonde hair that shone like gold.
It was easy to look like that if you had nothing to do all day but play the harp, do needle work, and decide what sweetmeat to eat.
She wanted to be like that: desired, rich, and free.
However, now her family and everything she knew was gone, and if she were seen, she too would join their fate.
To escape from an island was not easy, perhaps one of the reasons the Lowmen had never revolted. It was forbidden to congregate, to plan, or to gather in enough numbers to overthrow the harsh and brutal clan masters.
But she swore to herself to find a way to get her revenge.
She kept herself hidden till the wee hours of the morning, when the ale and meat had felled those hulking monsters, and she gathered as much clothing as she could find.
There was a little motorboat tied in the sub pen, a natural grotto that had been enlarged and fortified with Durocrete on the north side of the rock and directly under the burg. Just like the gate above, this entrance could be closed with a steel portcullis, and like the ones above it needed electric power to be raised and lowered.
No one ever lowered this several ton barrier. All the muscle on Olafson rock could not raise it.
Gretel knew about the other son of Volund, and the tale that even Hogun Olafson could not turn the big wheel to raise the gate.
The Lowmen had little in the form of entertainment, so they often sat in circles and told stories. The second born had always been described as gentle, fair, and treating Lowmen equally and fair. Gretel did not believe these stories.
Eventually she managed to get the boat started, and guided it through the gate and out of the mouth of the grotto into the open sea.
She could not hope to make it all the way to Bifrost, the largest island where Halstaad Fjord, the biggest town, was located.
She heard them say the island was a good 1500 kilometers to the south.
Gretel would never find it in a small open boat without navigation equipment that she would not know how to use anyway, but she hoped to make it to Bendixen Rock, the traditional home of a clan that was an old enemy of the Olafson’s.On a clear day, Bendixen Rock could be seen from the ramparts, far on the horizon to the west.