1. Dreams, Shadows and Assassins
Thorgil awoke with a start, gasping and sweating on his bed of furs. His heart was pounding like a war drum in his ears as he tried to lie still on his bed. A recurring mare-dream haunted his sleep once more.
This evening's mare-dream was still fresh in his mind. Rolling onto his back, he closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to drift back to his days as a Jomsviking with Helgi Thoreson and Black Thorkil Torbensson. He remembered that time in his life when he was a Jomsviking, and they marched north into the lands of Finnmorken to the Snow Witch's fortress in Trolleboten.
In his mind, he relived the moment of entering Karelia's fortress and the sight that greeted him. Mad with loneliness, Karelia sewed the shriveling flesh of the children together to form a human tapestry of horror to adorn her walls.
As it has been for the last several years, Thorgil finds himself face-to-face with the Snow Witch, fighting for his life. Unlike the reality of what occurred thirteen years ago when he could muster the strength to draw his dagger from his belt and plunge it into the witch's breast, he now finds himself hapless and at the mercy of Karelia the Snow Witch.
This evening, the mare-dream was different. A new shade joined Karelia in the dream realm to torment him. To Thorgil's horror, the shade was that of Karelia's twin-sister, Hvit the White Queen of Nidafjoll. He had faced the White Queen in the very chamber room that he now slept in. Thorgil fought her demon slave who turned on her in the end, allowing him to defeat her. He had nailed her severed head to the main gate, displaying it for all who entered the fortress. He sent a clear message to all on the isle that the White Queen no longer ruled.
Thorgil’s nostrils flared as he picked up the rich scent of the Lotus blossom in his room, snapping him out of his thoughts. The high-pitched creak of a loose floorboard alerted him to someone approaching from the head of his bed.
A dark shape hovered over him with a dagger poised high over his chest. Spouting curses, he threw himself off the bed. His hand grasped a discarded wine pitcher, which he flung towards the dark shape. He smiled as the pitcher found its target and crashed into the would-be assassin's face with a thud.
The brutality of Thorgil’s attack surprised the assailant and took him aback. The man cursed his own carelessness and hurled a long string of obscenities at Thorgil as he staggered back several paces. He dipped his head down as he brought a hand to his face, only to pull it away covered with his blood.
“Curse you to the dark realms and may the worms eat you! I will enjoy cutting your black heart from your bloated body… you spawn from a pig-whore!”
Thorgil did not respond to the coarse threats, but took advantage of his assailant’s blunder and miscalculation. As quick as his legs could propel him, he moved towards his battleaxe, but his assailant quickly recovered and now blocked his path with a naked sword.
He moved toward Thorgil with the nimble grace of a cat. A finger length gash ran along his left brow. The blood ran dark down his face as it mingled with the black soot that covered his face.
“You will find that I am no sheep who will just lie down for the slaughter,” Thorgil growled. The smaller man did not reply, but instead flashed Thorgil a smile. He did not seem intimidated by Thorgil’s size as the Viking warrior rose to his full height.
The Brotherhood leader quickly realized that he was not facing a drug-addicted hired killer who spent his time in the Lotus dens, but a professional assassin hired by the den owners.
The sound of boots moving along the wooden floor caused Thorgil to turn his head. Two other dark shapes detached themselves from the shadows with blades in their hands.
“By Tyr and Fenrir,” Thorgil swore. “You three against me, I hope they paid you well. Killing me will be no easy task.” The two men did not reply. “If I must meet my death, I promise that one or two of you will dine with me in Hel’s hall.”
The assailant that Thorgil struck with the pitcher made the first move. He lunged at Thorgil with his sword in an attempt to disembowel the large warrior. Instead of retreating, Thorgil stepped into the attack, catching at his attacker’s sword arm by the wrist. With little effort, the large Viking began to crush and grind the man’s wrist bones.
Thorgil cut short the assassin’s pitiful cries by driving his massive fist into the man’s face. He instantly went limp in Thorgil’s grasp, as his face became a red ruin. Thorgil turned and threw the body into the path of the second assailant rushing in. The impact of the body took him off his feet, sending him stunned and befuddled to the floor.
The third assailant lunged at the large Viking, driving his blade into Thorgil’s unprotected side. Thorgil caught the sword’s hilt in his iron grip and ripped the blade from his attacker’s hand. Grasping him by the tunic, Thorgil drove his knee into the assailant’s stomach, driving out all the wind from his lungs. The assailant dropped to the floor like a stone, clutching his midsection as he painfully gasped for air.
“I will live to see another sunrise unlike you. When you meet Lady Hel, look her in the eyes and say the Bloodaxe sends her his compliments.”
Thorgil took hold of the sword, and in one, fluent motion brought the blade down in a deadly arc on his attacker’s neck. The blade cut cleanly through the muscle and bone, spraying blood in all directions. The severed head hit the floor with a thud and rolled a short distance away.
From the corner of his eye, Thorgil caught the glimpse of a dark shape making its way across the chamber. Without hesitation, he threw the sword at the fleeing man, but the sword flew wide of its mark. He made his escape through a secret compartment door well hidden behind the wall curtains.
With curses spewing from his lips, Thorgil quickly moved to recover his axe and rushed to the wall where he had seen the assassin disappear. Pushing the wall decorations aside, Thorgil found the hidden trigger that opened the panel door leading to a secret passage.
The door swung inward to reveal a dimly lit corridor. The light came from torches in decorative holders hanging along the wall. Thorgil recalled General Vlastimir’s words to him about how the White Queen would travel unseen through the fortress city and lower Vehkajo.
He was certain that someone who had been in the White Queen’s inner-circle, possibly a new love-interest that took the place of the Hiisi prince after his death, was aiding the assassins. The White Queen would never have taken one of the lotus den owners as a lover and have entrusted him with her secrets. She only engaged with those who could advance her status.
The echoing sound of beating feet on the corridor’s hard surface was a welcoming sound to Thorgil.
“There is no place for you to hide. I will hunt you down,” Thorgil shouted after the fleeing intruder.
Naked to the waist with just a breechcloth covering his loins, Thorgil adjusted his grip on his axe and gave chase down the corridor. The thought of alerting Arto and Bodvar had crossed his mind, but he feared he would lose the assassin. He wanted this man alive for questioning since the other two were dead. Thorgil had questions that he wanted answered. He needed to know who was behind the assassination attempt on his life.
Spouting vile curses and threats, Thorgil did his best to close the distance between himself and his fleeing assailant. At a bend in the passage corridor, he checked his headlong rush expecting an ambush attack. The passageway turned sharply to the right and opened into a large round chamber. At each end were a set of rough-hewn stairs that led to an upper and lower level.
Thorgil cautiously entered the chamber, looking for any signs of the assailant. A quick scan around the room reassured him that he was alone. Walking to the stairways, he examined the floor for signs of the assailant’s passage in the thick dust. From the corner of his eye, he caught a slight movement on the flight of stairs. A glint of metal was Thorgil’s only warning as a dagger flew in his direction. He twisted his upper body away from the flight of the blade, but was too slow in reacting as the dagger left a finger-length wound on his upper arm.
“I will cut you into small pieces and feed you to the wolves,” Thorgil roared. The wound burned like hot coals. The edge of the flesh was already turning a bright red and beginning to swell. With horror, Thorgil recalled the tales of assassins who coated their blades with poison, which could kill with just a scratch.
With a roar of anger and frustration, Thorgil bolted up the stairs, skipping steps as he went. The stairs led up to the upper level of a viewing tower. The distance between the two was closing rapidly; Thorgil was just yards behind him when the assailant disappeared through a door. The large Viking did not check his headlong flight, but instead increased his pace as he lowered his shoulder to ram the door with his full weight. Like an enraged bull, he crashed through the old door, sending it reeling from its rusted hinges.
“You have nowhere to go, but through me,” Thorgil said to the assassin who stood with his sword pointed at the ready. “I want some answers from you. For starts, you will tell me your name.”
“Gladly, it is Jaroslaw of Vaspurakan,” he replied. “I am the one who will kill you Bloodaxe.”
“Not this day or any day,” Thorgil snarled.
“The look of that cut tells me a different story,” Jaroslaw pointed out. “The poison is already in your body.”
“You tainted your blade with poison? You are a motherless cur. Fenrir eat you,” Thorgil cursed. Glancing down at the wound, he knew that Jaroslaw spoke the truth. The cut was already a bright red.
“The poison is an extract from the gray lotus blossom and the jujube flower. Madness will overtake you in time.” Jaroslaw moved across the room, keeping his distance from Thorgil. “You could try to save yourself. Your healers may be able to give you proper treatment in time, or you may just take your own life to end the torment.”
“Who hired you?” Thorgil could feel the poison taking hold. His whole body was on fire, and his breathing labored as he tried to fill his lungs. He was seriously thinking of seeking help before it was too late, but that would mean letting Jaroslaw live. Thorgil shook his head from side to side to clear his head and vision. “Tell me the name of the man who hired you to kill me.”
“Prince Rusa the Dragon of Rshtuniq,” Jaroslaw answered. “He wanted to send you a message. Vehkajo belongs to him.”
“Rusa, I have heard of that name.” Thorgil found it difficult to form his words as he replied to Jaroslaw. “Rusa is no prince. He’s a drug lord who deals in the trade of the lotus.”
“You do not look well,” Jaroslaw said sarcastically. He removed a pouch from his belt and held it out toward Thorgil. “You may want to know. This pouch contains the poultice made from the wormwood and monkswood. All you need is a little to save you from a long painful death.”
Thorgil lunged forward, but was too slow. He stumbled, dropping to his knees with a groan.
“You still have some fight left in you. Good, let’s play a game,” Jaroslaw said. He walked across the room to a far wall. “Now listen closely. I will place this pouch on this top shelf. All you have to do to save yourself is to fight your way through me.” He placed the pouch on the upper shelf and then turned facing Thorgil, who was just glaring at him.
“I will kill you,” Thorgil said in a low menacing tone. He fought with every ounce of his strength and willpower to keep his composure.
“You may try,” Jaroslaw replied as he walked to stand next to the large warrior. “Why don’t we start our game now?”
Jaroslaw swung his sword and struck Thorgil with the flat of his blade. The whack of the blade resonated loudly in the room. Pain shot downward from his shoulder to his fingers. With a groan, Thorgil got his feet under him and prepared for the assassin's next attack.
“Your spirit is strong. You are the first to shake-off the poison,” Jaroslaw said. He easily disarmed Thorgil, by striking his hand with the flat of his blade. Thorgil released his axe as his hand went nerve-dead. “Your large bulk has made the poison no more effective than rancid meat in one’s belly. No worries, I will enjoy killing you myself.”
Thorgil sensed that Jaroslaw was becoming bolder, thinking the poison had weakened him. He dropped to the floor on all fours, feigning defeat as he held his head low between his shoulders to expose his backside for the assassin’s blade.
Thorgil did not have long to wait for Jaroslaw to seize on what he thought was a victory. With a broad smile, the assassin moved in on the Viking with his blade held high.
Thorgil had no intent of surrendering his life to the assassin like a sheep waiting for the slaughter. As Jaroslaw came within arm’s reach, he propelled himself upward, catching Jaroslaw’s arm and throat in his iron grasp. With a sharp twist, Thorgil snapped the assassin’s arm at the elbow.
He lifted the assassin off the floor by his neck, driving him back across the room to the far wall. With his hand wrapped about his neck, Thorgil cut short his cries of pain by threatening to crush his throat.
“Did the lotus den masters have a part in this,” Thorgil asked. His face was only mere inches from the assassin’s face. “Just nod your head if they had a hand in this.”
Jaroslaw stopped his squirming and nodded his head in answer to Thorgil’s question.
“Good, so they all conspired to have me killed?”
Again, Jaroslaw nodded his head.
“Good, now I am done with you.” Thorgil said as he dragged the assassin toward a window opening.
“No Thorgil, I can be valuable to you. I can give you information about the lotus den owners and about Rusa.”
“Talk man as if your life depends on it. If I like what I hear, then I will release you and let you walk out of this tower on your own.”
Jaroslaw told Thorgil about the den masters and of their hidden rooms. The assassin was more than happy to answer all of Thorgil’s questions, thinking that he was going to earn his freedom.
Satisfied with what the assassin had told him, Thorgil released his grip on the smaller man.
“I gave you my word, now you may leave on your own from this tower,” Thorgil said.
Overcome with relief, Jaroslaw thanked the Viking warrior, but when he went to step past him, Thorgil halted him, by barring his path with a big arm.
“I said you could leave, but I did not say how you were to leave. Your only choice is the window,” Thorgil said in a menacing tone.
“Are you mad,” Jaroslaw asked. He glanced from the window to Thorgil.
“I am mad in the head,” Thorgil quickly replied. He reached into Jaroslaw’s belt and removed his dagger, and held it up for inspection. A sticky substance covered the blade’s edge. He glared at Jaroslaw with a scowl on his face as he sniffed the weapon. “Let’s see how you handle the poison.” Thorgil plunged the blade into Jaroslaw’s shoulder. The assassin cried out and reeled with a look of shock and pain on his face. “What have you told me? You can save yourself. All you got to do is fight your way past me to get to the poison’s antidote.”
Excerpted from "Thorgil Bloodaxe, Shadow of Death" by Ralph E. Laitres. Copyright © 0 by Ralph E. Laitres. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.