GREAT WAVES crashed over the sides of the longboat and sent frigid sheets of foam sluicing across the deck, drenching the men who fought to keep her afloat. The storm had come up suddenly, nearly without warning, its thick blue-black thunderheads moving in swiftly from over the horizon, pushing wild froth in front of them.
Bjorn stood at the helm and squinted, as if the heat in his glare alone could pierce the gloom of the storm, into the rain that pelted his skin with icy needles. Behind him, sixty-four men bent their backs to the oars, their voices raised not in prayer, but in curses against the fickleness of luck, against their enemies, against the gods themselves for seeing fit to cast them headfirst into the maelstrom. Thunder boomed and the wind shrieked, the bellows of the storm drowning out what cries the men might have made.
The wind whipped the water ever higher and rocked the Dragonslayer from side to side like a fragile leaf caught in the white waters of the Sjoa River. The great watery hands of the sea lifted the boat up high, then dropped it to crash back with bone-jarring impacts. Jagged lightning breached the sky grown as black as night, spears of the gods slicing through the gloom only long enough to illuminate the angry sea for a heartbeat.
How, Bjorn thought as a particularly violent crash brought him to his knees, has it come to this? By what curse of which god have I been branded outlaw? I flee from my homeland like the Fenrir’s hounds are at my heels!
He knew, of course, that there was something snapping at his heels—or rather, someone. Someone from whom the Fenrir himself might very well run and hide. Bjorn would have spat had he not known the wind would only whip it back into his face.
The answer to his silently asked question came in the form of a name.
Jorund Blood-Axe. Jorund the Vanquisher.
Jorund the Mealy-Balled Horse-Fucker, Bjorn thought, baring his teeth to the gale.
Bjorn had been two years a-Viking, sailing his longboat from shore to shore, amassing wealth beyond imagining for the glory and coffers of his father, Erik Fairhair, Jarl of Lagarvík. Gold, silver, bronze, exotic spices, and bolts of brilliantly colored cloth had filled the hull of the longboat and the treasure boxes that served as seating for the men at the oars.
He’d been so proud as he docked the Dragonslayer within sight of the familiar daub-and-wattle longhouses of Lagarvík. Both his heart and chest swelled with the warmth of homecoming as he stepped from the deck to the dock, then paused a moment to get his land legs. Long strides brought him to the outskirts of the village. Eager to speak with his father, Bjorn quickened his pace, but when he reached his father’s keep, he realized nothing was as he remembered it to be.
At the base of the hillock upon which the keep had been built lay a freshly turned grave.
Erik Fairhair was dead, struck down by Jorund the Vanquisher in a battle that had lasted less than a month. Under siege, with most of her fiercest warriors at sea with Bjorn, Lagarvík fell quickly, and Bjorn’s father with her.
Not even accorded the honor of being sent to Valhalla aboard his longboat, and denied the ritual of the funeral pyre, Erik Fairhair had been stuck in the ground like a turnip by Jorund’s Saxon-bastard priests. Only a small stone, carved with runes, marked that he had ever lived.
“Bjorn Eriksson!” Jorund had roared from the back of his monstrous black stallion, nearly hidden by the shadow of Erik Fairhair’s keep. “Face your death with honor, and I will make your journey to Valhalla swift and painless!”
Bjorn, last of his bloodline and rightful heir to the title of Jarl, decided he would rather face a thousand slow, painful deaths at the hands of a noble warrior than one swift one at the hands of a usurper like Jorund the Pig-Fucker. Raising his sword, Skullsplitter, high over his head, he’d roared as much in answer to Jorund’s call.
That hadn’t sat well with either Jorund or his men, especially the pig-fucker part.
The battle that followed had been bloody and bitterly fought. Bjorn and his men, already weakened by their long sea voyage, were beaten back toward the dock where the Dragonslayer was moored.
The fight had followed them onto the waves, but Jorund the Ass-Licker’s longboat, The Bear’s Claw, was hard-pressed to keep pace with the swift Dragonslayer. Although he couldn’t overtake Bjorn, he wouldn’t concede the chase either, continuing to trail them along the shore of Norge.
Now the fierce storm that had blown up added another dimension to Bjorn’s troubles. He couldn’t beach because Jorund the Worm-Begotten would beach alongside him. Bjorn’s men were weary, most injured from the fighting in Lagarvík. He feared they couldn’t hold against another onslaught without rest. But neither could Dragonslayer hold long against the raging storm.
Frustrated, Bjorn leaned into the wind as if to steer Dragonslayer safely through the tempest by the sheer force of his will. Each breath he took resulted in a mouthful of icy rain and brine. His long, pale blond hair was whipped into thick, matted knots; his jerkin, woolen tunic, and close-fitting leggings were soaked through. Water had seeped into his knee-high leather boots and numbed his feet. His body felt as frozen and as brittle as rotten ice along a river’s edge at the end of winter, ready to splinter and be swept away by the frigid waves.
A wave hit the side of the longboat, nearly overturning her into the raging sea. The rush of water swept Bjorn forward; only his arms reflexively wrapping around the figurehead kept him from being tossed into the churning sea.
“By Odin’s balls! Either drown us or leave us be, but end this madness!” he bellowed to the sky as he clung to the carved dragon’s head that graced the bow.
The gods must have deemed his prayer worthy of an answer because in the next heartbeat, a great, towering wall of icy black-green water slammed into the longboat and upended it, tossing every soul aboard into the frigid sea.
CHASE WOULD be the first to admit he lived up to his name. He was always in motion, always hustling, always running after something or for someone. “Slow” was not in Chase’s vocabulary. He had two speeds—fast and get-the-hell-out-of-my-way.
As a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, his entire world revolved around split-second decisions and actions. From opening to closing bell, he was a whirlwind of motion, buying and selling for clients at warp speed.
His high metabolism was perfect for his line of work. Tall and lanky, his long limbs were in constant motion—even in his sleep, some part of him was always moving. He twisted and turned so much that it was inevitable he woke with his sheets wrapped around his body like a straitjacket.
Chase didn’t own a sofa. Instead, his living room was filled with exercise equipment. A rowing machine and a treadmill, a stationary bike, and a bench press all faced the television set. On the rare occasion he had company, his guests were forced to stroke, walk, pedal, lift, or sit on the floor.
His last date had remarked that sitting next to Chase was like sitting with Thumper from Bambi. Chase’s mother referred to his constantly bouncing legs as “nervous energy.” Chase’s doctor called it “hyperactivity.” Chase’s date called it “extremely annoying.”
The good news was that Chase was in peak physical condition. Not bulky, his muscles were lean but strong. His body was a perpetual motion machine, and the effect on his anatomy was a sleek, athletic build.
Unfortunately, his blood pressure was also constantly moving—up. The demands of his job and his inability to stand still for longer than it took to take a piss were affecting Chase’s health.
“Slow down,” the doctor had told him during his last exam. “Take a vacation. Relax. Learn how to enjoy doing nothing, or you’re going to end up in an early grave without a damn thing to look forward to but an eternity of lying still.” He’d reinforced his diagnosis by adding a blood pressure medication to Chase’s daily regimen of vitamin supplements.
Chase had tried. He’d really put forth his best effort to heed the doctor’s advice. He had taken a beachfront hotel room on a stretch of the Florida shore that was virtually uninhabited at this time of year. No tourists. No college kids on Spring Break. No conventioneers. No cell phone. No laptop. Only Chase, the beach, and an interminable two weeks of solitude stretching before him.
He had made it nearly twenty-four hours before he began pacing the hotel room from one end to the other like a caged panther. Which brought Chase to where he was at the moment—jogging barefoot over the wet, hard-packed sand at the edge of the ocean, the foamy seawater splashing around his ankles.
The night before had brought with it a torrential storm. Howling wind kicked up wild waves that crashed over the beach and reached far beyond the normal tide line. Rain pelted Chase’s hotel room window in a loud staccato, fat drops hitting the window glass as if fired from a machine gun. Lightning flashed in such a rapid succession it reminded Chase of strobe lights on a dance club floor.
There had been no mention of the coming squall during the evening’s weather report. It had blown up out of nowhere, it seemed, and the squall did little to relax Chase. He’d spent the better part of the night pacing and counting lightning flashes, trapped in his hotel by the ferocity outside.
The sun was just now beginning to breach the horizon, a pale rose glimmer glinting off the ocean in the far distance. Overhead, the wind scudded clouds across the sky and broke up the last of the thunderheads.
Clad in cargo shorts and a loose white T-shirt, Chase had walked out onto the beach fully intending to take a slow, relaxing stroll along the water’s edge. His good intentions lasted all of five minutes before he broke out into a jog, burning off some of the energy that had accumulated in his system during the previous night’s forced confinement.
The beach was deserted and littered with debris washed ashore during the storm. Driftwood, sanded smooth and gray by the water, lay like old bones against the dun sand. Seashells were sprinkled liberally along Chase’s path, clam and mussels mostly, but a few conchs as well. Hermit crabs scuttled about, burying themselves to keep out of reach of the gulls that swooped low over the dunes.
Chase had only run about a half mile when he spotted something in the distance. Too large to be driftwood, too small to be a beached whale, it was lying barely out of reach of the lapping waves. As he drew closer, his heart began to thud in his chest.
It was a man.
Covered in grit, his oddly primitive clothing plastered to his body, the man lay facedown on the sand, unmoving. Chase toed him gently in the ribs, then jumped back as if worried the body would explode on contact.
When it remained whole, if sodden, Chase squatted and felt for a pulse. He found one, but it was weak, barely registering under his fingers. The man’s chest was still. He wasn’t breathing.
Chase dropped to his knees, grabbed the man’s broad shoulder and heaved him up onto his side before pounding hard between the man’s shoulder blades with the heel of his hand. He was rewarded when the man sputtered and coughed, then sprayed the beach with a mouthful of seawater. Chase eased him onto to his back after his coughing quieted and he’d taken a couple of deeper breaths.
Pale blue eyes the color of Arctic ice blinked open, the confusion in them swiftly giving way to anger. A hand shot up and thick fingers twisted in the fabric of Chase’s shirt, then pulled him down until the tips of their noses nearly touched.
“Hvor er jeg? Der hvor er min mannskap?” the man snarled, his upper lip curling over his teeth.