THE ICE WARRIORS by Stephen Hernandez
 
Thoric dwelt for many years in the strange land of Ultima Thule with his consort the Pale Lady. He arrived there after the Viking raiding ship he was aboard was dragged into the roaring maelstrom known as Hvergelmir. He was the only survivor. Washed ashore on an inhospitable beach inhabited by giant crabs, he believed he was in the Land of the Gods—Valhalla. He was rescued by a stranger who ruled the crabs. He journeyed through the land overcoming many perils until he came to the Castle of the Pale Lady, only to find that it was she, in different guises, who had rescued him throughout. She led him to her castle to overcome a dragon and rescue her in turn. Time in the Castle of the Pale Lady had no meaning, and Thoric dwelt peacefully in seeming paradise. But all that was about to change....
 
It started innocuously enough: a message from the Pale Lady’s raven. An iceberg had appeared out of the maelstrom, and was heading towards the same beach where Thoric had landed. This in itself was not unusual; all sorts of things washed ashore out of the mouth of Hvergelmir. But this iceberg was different—it contained what looked like a ship, and from its description Thoric knew it to be a Viking ship.
 
The tamed giant crab, Thoric’s unusual steed that now lived in the Pale Lady’s castle, had been asleep a long while. It was its habit when it grew bored. And too many juicy whelks, snails and eels served it on silver platters had made it fat and sluggish—it made sleeping all the more pleasant. Thoric roused it by repeatedly kicking its thick carapace. Stalk eyes reluctantly protruded from its moss covered shell, looking at him reproachfully. It had been having a good dream of wandering by the seashore and catching fish in the rock pools. It blinked. Its master, came into focus. Thoric was preparing his saddle to ride it! Wide awake now, the crab clacked its pincers with joy. Affectionately, Thoric patted its huge, craggy, barnacled back.
 
He did not need to steer the crab. As always, the crab seemed to know the path Thoric wished to take. Thoric had made the Pale Lady a promise to remain within the safety of her castle’s walls until he was sure the frozen ship did not present a danger. Although he was not sure what sort of danger a frozen ship would pose, he felt uneasy.
 
Along the way he met up with his friends—the seven dwarves. He asked them to accompany him, which they did willingly. Sometimes even the steadfast dwarves grew bored of standing guard over their Sleeping Princess, but still they left two of their number—just in case.
 
The entourage arrived at the seashore without mishap. Both Thoric and the crab knew the lay of the land and managed to avoid any dangers. The giant crabs that inhabited the shore of the maelstrom recognised Thoric’s steed as their leader and clacked their enormous mandibles in greeting. They accompanied them along the deserted, windswept beach.
 
They were met by a strange sight: the iceberg had beached. It was an enormous misshapen thing. The ice was opaque, but transparent enough to make out its contents. It was a Viking warship and the remains of its frozen crew were still aboard. Thoric immediately recognised it as a Drekar—a fearsome dragon ship, designed and used only for raiding, plundering, and principally killing. Even so he was glad to see the longship. A ship from his world—Midgard. It proved his home did exist. Sometimes, alone with his thoughts, he wondered if it had all been a dream and Ultima Thule was the only reality. Now, he felt truly alive again.
 
The iceberg was grounded in the shallows. Close up it seemed as huge as a mountain. It had a strange inner glow like the green bioluminescence of the cavern fungus that the smaller crabs fed off, or some deep-sea creature seldom seen by the eyes of men. The cold waves washed and crashed around it to no effect. Even so it was melting. Gently weeping its pure frozen water into the briny ocean.
 
Thoric and his companions set up camp in one of the many caves along the beach. By some sort of mutual consent the crabs left Thoric and the dwarves alone in their vigil. The small group decided they would wait until the iceberg had melted properly, then burn the longship and its dead occupants—a proper Viking burial…
 
Thoric was dreaming a strange dream. He was in a world that was somehow familiar but on the other hand completely alien... he awoke to an even stranger reality. It was the alarmed clacking from his crab that alerted Thoric to the danger. He woke the dwarves, who were snoring loudly in their deep untroubled sleep, as if they did not have a care in the world. It was their Dwarvish way. There was not much that could keep a dwarf from his food or sleep. He had to kick them awake. They got up, grumbling in their guttural Dethek, rubbing sleep sand from their eyes. Thoric pointed to the seashore. Suddenly they were fully awake....
 
The day was unusually bright and the ice was fully melted. But it was not the now clear revelation of the Viking ship that that was holding them all in awe. The once frozen Vikings were twitching and shaking themselves—they were alive! The dwarves muttered amongst themselves: it was dark magick. The ship must have been cursed with some strange enchantment like their Sleeping Beauty.
 
Thoric was not interested in the dwarves’ superstitions. He had seen something even more terrible within the now fully revealed Drekar than its unearthly, reanimated crew. He could not help but shudder at the sight. It filled Thoric with a remote dread he thought long dead. It was not the fearsome giant of a captain, the huge red-bearded warriors, or savage shield-maidens, but something shackled in chains to the mast. It wore only a filthy, ragged loincloth. Something... not quite human. Something... betwixt a man and a beast. Something... that struck chill fear into his heart, like a dagger of ice from whose frozen embrace it was emerging. Something even worse than a Viking warrior... the sum of all men’s fears: it was a Berzerker.
 
The Pale Lady’s raven, who had accompanied them the whole trip, flapped its wings as if it too shared Thoric’s alarm. It flew back to its owner’s castle. Thoric rapped on his crab steed’s iron-like shell. It was a means of communication they had developed between each other over the years. The crab lurched off sideways in its habitually awkward form of ambulation, to summon its fellows and give them the relayed orders. After years of knowing the crab, Thoric would normally have observed this with some amusement, as he knew his friend was trying to look dignified, given its now exalted position as the steed/bodyguard of the Pale Lady’s prince, but today there was no place for merriment.
 
The dwarfs wanted to know if they should accompany Thoric to greet his countrymen. Thoric told them that for the moment they should remain in hiding and see what the Norsemen did. The dwarfs, who were eager to meet the strangers, could not understand Thoric’s hesitation. Then Thoric told them about Berzerkers....
 
He had never seen one in the flesh but he had no need to be told that the ragged half-human, half animal thing was one of the legendary killers. A demon in human form that even the most ferocious Viking raider feared. The legends of their terrible deeds were passed from father to son and were used by mothers to scare their children into obedience. ‘If you are naughty, a Berzerker will come for you... he’ll rip out your heart and eat your liver’.
 
The one they called Doc (on account he could read) said, ‘But the thing has no weapons.’
 
‘Aye,’ said Grumps (on account of his belligerent temper), ‘he’ll be no match for mar axe.’ He stroked the razor edged with something akin to fondness—as if caressing a woman. An unnatural and unlikely event in itself as dwarf women are as rough (and bearded) as their menfolk, and made Grumps temperament seem mild in comparison.
 
Thoric said, almost to himself, ‘What need does a Berzerker have of weapons when it is a weapon itself...’
 
The once frozen warriors were fully animated now. There were only fifteen of them—half a crew. They were all enthusiastically banging their axes or swords against their shields so hard that they made enough noise for several crews on the deserted beach. They did not seem at all bemused by the foreign shore or their miraculous reanimation. Thoric knew the prelude to a raid when he saw one.
 
He ordered his crab to summon his comrades and send a group of the largest of them down to the shore. He was sure that the sight of them would deflate any ideas of fighting that the Vikings might have, enable him to talk to them, and welcome them peacefully to Ultima Thule. It was a dangerous enough place without bloodthirsty Vikings roaming the country. Instead of being horrified at the sight of the giant crabs swarming from the dark caves, clacking their huge claws, the Vikings gave a joyous yell and charged full-on at them. The carnage was terrible. But it was not the newly thawed raiders who were slaughtered. It was the crabs. The Viking warriors leapt onto the backs of the creatures and somehow managed to hack through the thick carapaces. Shards of chitin flew through the air and the giant crustaceans’ soft flesh was revealed. They hacked off claws as if they were mere twigs and pulled out the crabs’ eyes by the stalks as if they were uprooting weeds. Even when the crabs managed to snip off a limb, the warriors took no notice; fighting without a leg or arm seemed to mean nothing to them. One of the Vikings even managed to kill a crab by battering it to death with one of his own legs that the crab had sliced off. In the end all that remained of the giant crabs were bits of shells, stalk eyes, flesh and gore spread over the beach.
 
Thoric’s steed gazed at the scene, its eye stalks at their fullest extension and clacked and clicked its mandibles in alarm. Worse was to come... the Vikings fell upon the dead and dying crabs, gorging themselves on the raw flesh, noisily sucking the giant claws and pulling lumps of meat from the carapaces. Crab juice and crab meat ran down their faces and mixed with their beards. They sang songs to Odin and Thor, of war and triumph, all the while. Then, as was the Viking way, once they had feasted they set up camp.
 
Thoric ordered the remaining crabs to flee the recently desecrated beach with them. They had to put some distance between them and the Vikings whilst he decided what to do. They put a day’s march between them and the raiders. The Dwarf known as Shy, on account of his bashfulness, was left to keep watch on the Vikings and report on their movements.
 
Thoric sat alone in his tent to think. He had faced many dangers in his time in Ultima Thule, but they had been dangers to himself. Now the whole land he had grown to love and care for was in danger, and to him had fallen the unenviable task of saving it. He would need all his wits. When it came to using his wits he always fell back on the memory of his father. His father had been a farmer, and once a great warrior of some renown. Songs were often sung of him in the Great Hall. They were songs that told not so much of his great valour but of his great cunning. Perhaps that was why he had survived so many raids. Thoric liked to think of him as a kind of Ragnar Lothbrok—his boyhood hero. Ragnar ‘Shaggy Breeches’, as he was more commonly known, was by far, to his way of boyish thinking, the greatest Viking that ever lived. He remembered only too well the day he mentioned this to his father. He was speechless with surprise when his father let out a great bellow of laughter—he seldom laughed after Thoric’s mother’s death. He was even more surprised to learn that his father had actually met Ragnar. Thoric’s admiration for his father increased tenfold, if that were possible.
 
‘Do you know why he was called ‘Shaggy Breeches?’ his father asked.
 
Thoric had always been told in reverent tones that it was because Ragnar had been a humble farmer—just like his father. He repeated the stock answer. His father merely chuckled.
 
‘I will tell you about great Ragnar Lothbrok’s trousers.’
 
Which he proceeded to do with great relish...
 
According to his father Ragnar always wore loose, baggy, brown trousers not because of his farmers’ roots but to disguise the fact that since childhood he had always suffered from incessant chronic diarrhoea. From a distance it was not so noticeable, because of the trousers, but up close the smell was unmistakable.
 
In one stroke his father had destroyed all Thoric’s notions of a hero.
 
He tried to summon his father’s spirit in his head. What would he do in this situation? The answer came to him in a flash of insight. The key was the Vikings themselves. These were clearly no ordinary raiders. To have survived the maelstrom was one thing but to have massacred the hitherto indestructible giant crabs with such ease was another. They needed to find out their secret and in order to do that they needed to capture one of them—easier said than done. They would have to separate one of them from the closely knit group.
 
It was rare that a Viking would venture alone into unknown territory. They always travelled in pairs or more, even if it was just to forage. But here would be some scouts amongst them and they would need to isolate one of these. He put his plan to the dwarves who readily agreed. they had no knowledge of Vikings, apart from Thoric, and as far as they were concerned he would know best on how to deal with them. All of them except Grumps agreed. Grumps, with a face as red as if it had recently been sandpapered, was still polishing his axe, wanted to fight them head on, but Thoric pointed out to him that was just the way the Vikings were used to fighting. Great warrior, though he was, he would be no match for all of them. The flattery temporarily eased Grumps’ bloodlust, and he went back to murmuring his misgivings to his beloved axe.
 
The trap was set. Shy reported that two scouts were approaching the swampland. It was full of poisonous serpents that the dwarves were skilled at avoiding. Dopey, so named because of his constant slack-jawed expression was a key part of Thoric’s plan. Dopey had apparently fell out of a tree when his was young. It was this misadventure many believed that was the cause of his idiocy. That, and climbing a tree. Dwarves did NOT climb trees. They just didn’t have the bodies for it. They had bodies made for digging and burrowing. You might just as well have asked a dwarf to fly as climb a tree. They much preferred being underground than above it... apart from Dopey. His permanently bewildered countenance was misleading. Thoric considered him the sharpest of the dwarves, and that included Doc. One of Dopey’s ‘gifts’ that did not go unnoticed was his extraordinary ability to imitate voices....
 
The two grizzled Vikings plodded slowly and cautiously through the swamp. They had already spotted several huge serpents sliding easily through the mud. Some of them had bellies the size of a strong man’s thighs and were as long as a tree. The serpents could quite easily swallow a man whole, and the Vikings for the first time since their arrival showed caution. The deeper they penetrated into the swamp the thicker the vapours rising from the mud became. Inevitably the two warriors became separated. This was where Dopey came in. He and Shy had been following the two huge grizzled men since they entered the swamp. It had been easy work. The Vikings seemed oblivious to the fact that they might be being followed, or more chillingly—they simply didn’t care. Dopey had learned the two men’s names and some of their vocabulary by just listening to their conversation. Once the men were separated it was easy to lead them in different directions by imitating their voices. The Viking they had picked to draw into the trap was led farther and farther away from his companion by Dopey pretending to be his friend calling out to him in the distance.
 
The trap was actually a real trap—an animal trap. A cruel device. It was simply a hole in the ground disguised with thin twigs and moss. At the bottom were viciously sharp stakes. Thoric thought it unnecessarily cruel but necessary. In order to give mediation a chance, he proposed to stand in front of the hole and only move aside if the Viking proved overly aggressive....
 
There was no negotiation. The warrior just charged at him. It was difficult getting the Viking’s body off the stakes. Not least because he was still alive.
 
The body came away in pieces. Each individual piece was still pulsing faintly with life, and the man’s head never stopped a never-ending stream of profanities. Thoric did not bother to translate his words. They were too foul. It was not the only strange thing about the body that should have been a corpse. The skin had a greenish tinge, and still appeared to be frozen. There was no blood—just red ice. It was only when they built a small fire to cook a brace of coneys that the Viking went quiet. The Viking’s disembodied head stared at the flames in stupefaction, as if he had never seen such a thing before. Doc experimentally brought one of the burning branches closer to the head’s face. The look of stupefaction turned to one of terror, and then came a torrent of supplication from the previously aggressively vociferous Viking.
 
The dwarves asked Thoric to tell them what he was saying. Torn between pity and remorse he reluctantly told them—he had already guessed the consequences. ‘He is begging us to kill him. The warmth from the fire has reminded him of being alive.’
 
‘An’ ‘ow are we to do that?’ asked Grumps, suddenly interested. ‘Ow you kill somefin’ tharts already dead?
 
Thoric looked sad.
 
‘He wants us to burn him. Well... all the bits of him, anyway.’
 
‘No problem there then,’ Grumps said, piling more wood on the fire.
 
Grumps threw one of the man’s feet experimentally onto the flames. The Viking let out a shrill scream of anguish. Thoric and the dwarves, apart from Grumps, blocked their ears. Even the crabs showed visible signs of distress. Clacking their claws and clicking their mandibles they withdrew their eye-stalks into their sockets. Grumps had an entirely different reaction...
 
‘Arl fix his noise,’ he said. He proceeded, much to the others’ horror, to sew up the Viking’s lips.
 
When it was all finished, only Grumps seemed satisfied with the grizzly work.
 
‘Now we know how to destroy them,’ he said to Thoric.
 
‘Really? And what do you propose—we invite them all to a barbeque?’
 
Grumps went off in a huff.
 
 
 
The Pale Lady walked down and down a never-ending staircase. It was a long time since she had visited the castle’s dungeons.
 
She took a large key from around her neck and opened the thick iron door. Inside there was only darkness. With a wave of her hand there was light. In one corner, piled on a bed of hay, there was an enormous black egg. The last remaining dragon’s egg....
 
 
 
The Pale Lady’s raven arrived back at their temporary camp with a message that a troop of μούδιασμα City’s finest soldiers were on their way. The Numb City’s inhabitants owed a great favour to Thoric and they had not forgotten. It meant they would have to delay the Vikings until their arrival.
 
Doc handed Thoric a small leather purse. ‘Inside, there may be what you are looking for.’ He strolled off, whistling some long forgotten Dwarvish tune, something about whistle while you work. It was catching, and Thoric found himself whistling it as he opened the pouch. It contained a nut wrapped in some dry leaves. Without even thinking what he was doing, he popped it into his mouth and swallowed. At first nothing seemed to be happening and he put it down to one of Doc’s ever increasing eccentricities. Then he noticed the rain. It was gradually slowing until he could perceive one drop at a time as it crashed to earth. He watched a dew drop fall from a leaf—silent. Then the thunderous impact as it met the ground and splintered into a thousand dazzling shards. And then all was black....
 
 
 
He was standing above a rabbit hole. He watched the little white furry tail disappearing down the burrow. With a hunter’s instincts, he reached out to grab it. And then he found himself falling...falling.... But this was no ordinary sensation of falling. It was more like floating downwards, as if he were a leaf separated from a tree and caught on a gentle breeze. Strange objects floated around him, some going down, some going up. Finally he stopped and found himself seated behind a long bench. Facing him in a much larger chair was a tall, stern looking man dressed in strange clothes. He spoke, his voice booming from every angle. Thoric knew he was in the presence of a great wizard. Perhaps he was in the very halls of Hel itself.
 
‘I am Jeremy Paxman, and this is University Challenge.’ Without even attempting to shout, his voice radiated power, and somehow Thoric understood the language.
 
Thoric looked around him. Emaciated young men with long bedraggled hair coupled with an unhealthy pallor sat beside him. Their pale and rash covered skin spoke of days long deprived of sunlight and healthy food and drink. Clearly they were prisoners dragged from some foul dungeon. Thoric was in no doubt the Paxman meant to torture them.
 
He did not know how he managed to understand the strange Paxman language but he could, and so, seemingly, could the other prisoners—it must all be part of Hel. Even his bizarre questions aimed at the poor, clearly demented captives were not normal questions; they were beyond any human comprehension except the tortured souls themselves.
 
They wilted under his gaze and visibly trembled when they attempted to answer. Then the Paxman turned his terrible gaze onto Thoric.
 
‘And your bonus questions are on Norse Mythology.’
 
Thoric felt something unspontaneous arise within him as if he were on the verge of vomiting: He KNEW this!
 
The first question fired at him from under the thunderous eyebrows was, ‘What was the real reason that Ragnar Lothbrok was known as “Shaggy Breeches”?’
 
He found himself telling the Paxman, and the audience who were hidden in the darkness of Hel, the embarrassing details of his hero’s impediment.
 
The Paxman congratulated him on being right and the hidden audience of Hel cheered. The Paxman eyed him once again with his malevolent gaze and gave him another question.
 
‘What drug was believed to be administered to the Berzerkers to make them so wild in battle?’
 
Thoric thought he knew the answer to this question also because his father had told him. They were fed a cocktail of drugs, with the main ingredient being betel nut wrapped in its leaf, probably the same drug the Doc had given him. He was right once again and was told he had been awarded points. These no doubt would be the points of arrows that would be fired into his body.
 
He was told he had to answer one last question. He had to identify a piece of music. Thoric was not sure what music really meant. His ears were suddenly bombarded by the most terrible cacophony. Men wailed, strange instruments screeched, and drums thumped in complicated synchronicity—truly the sound of his impending execution. Thoric could take no more—the merciful darkness of oblivion overcame him....
 
 
 
Thoric awoke to find the preoccupied face of Doc looking down at him. ‘I think you have been suffering a nightmare.’
 
Thoric nodded, ‘I have been to Hel and back,’ he said.
 
Doc nodded, ‘I too have visited that terrible place. Every person who partakes of the secret medicine experiences a different version of that unhappy world... some, it is said to make wise, others merely mad. I trust it has made you wiser.’
 
‘I think so, and now I think I know how to delay these ice warriors. But it depends if you have more of your special medicine.’
 
Doc said he did but he did not advise Thoric to take anymore. Thoric explained it was his belief that the Vikings had not released the Berzerker because they did not have any of the nuts left or they had been washed overboard. It would have been common practice for his compatriots to release the Berzerker first before they themselves landed. The fact that they had him still chained to the masthead, and that he appeared to be sleeping would seem to confirm this.
 
Thoric wanted to know if there was a way that the Doc could somehow poison the nuts and immobilize the Berzerker and any other Vikings that ate them. It would give them time to wait for reinforcements from the Numb City. They had fine archers amongst them and it was Thoric’s plan to use the black ooze, which was unusually inflammable and floated in puddles on the swamp land, to bathe the arrowheads, ignite them, and use them against the warriors. They would also burn the longship. If anything was likely to deter the Vikings from further attack, it was the sight of their beloved vessel and home being destroyed.
 
The Vikings were suspicious when only one of their scouts returned. Their leader took half his warriors to search for him. They came across as strange shrine and there is nothing Vikings liked more than stealing from shrines. They recognised Dwarvish carved ornaments and goblets, but it was the offerings placed on a dish before the unknown god that interested them most. Betel nuts wrapped in leaves.
 
They went back to their camp to celebrate and awaken their Berzerker.
 
Thoric and the dwarves watched on in disappointment as the Vikings celebrated by sacrificing to the god Odin a goat they had captured, but left the nuts untouched. Then came the moment Thoric had been waiting for. They unleashed the Berzerker and fed him some of the nuts. These had been heavily soaked in one of Doc’s concoctions and they would have killed any normal man, but a Berzerker was not a normal man. They looked on in horror as the Berzerker started to sniff the ground on all fours, like a dog picking up a scent. It bared its teeth, except it no longer resembled either a man or a dog. It looked like a wolf—a ravenous wolf. It had picked up their scent and now death was surely upon them.
 
The ice warriors followed behind the Berzerker. Thoric felt he would rather die like a man than a cowering wretch, so he and the others stood along a ridge above the beach accompanied by the remaining crabs and awaited their fate.
 
The Berzerker made a horrible grimace which could perhaps have been interpreted as a grin on a human. The ice warriors cheered and smashed their axes against their shields, a prelude to their charge and the carnage to come.
 
Then they all suddenly stopped. Including the Berzerker. They were all gazing with stupefaction at something in the distance. Thoric realised that whatever it was, it was behind them. He turned around cautiously.
 
He did not know if his heart should leap with joy or he should fall on his knees in worship. There was the Pale Lady on her majestic horse accompanied by an escort of the Numb City’s soldiers. But it was what was behind her that held everyone in awe...
 
The Pale Lady held a thin leash as if she were walking a small dog. Except this was no dog—it was a dragon. Its nostrils were already smoking. The Pale Lady languidly let go of the leash as if she had mistakenly dropped it. The dragon took to the air as if it was born for it. Which of course it was. What happened next took less than seconds. All that was left of the ice warriors, including the Berzerker, were puddles of steaming water. Then, the dragon obediently returned to the Pale Lady’s side.
 
The entourage turned their beck on the beach. Thoric took one last look at the cinders that remained of the longship. Whatever links he had with his home were gone. He followed as obediently as the others behind the Pale Lady back into Ultima Thule.
 
THE END

You can read more of Thoric’s adventures in Ultima Thule in Rogue Planet Press anthologies Hammer of the Gods: Viking Sagas of Sword and Sorcery and Hammer of the Gods II: Ragnarok

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