by Steve Baxter
Un norse aide un slann à retrouver un vaisseau slann après moultes aventures.
"Cétait les jours de gloire des slanns. Le
Portail Warp était une arche de seize
kilomètres de haut, construite dans la meilleure
obsidienne. Elle flottait au-dessus du pôle
gelé du monde et tournait avec la planète.
Youre drinking alone? The strangers voice
rasped against the friendly hubbub of the tavern.
Erik lowered his tankard and thought it over. Between campaigns, Erik the one they called Erik the Were always drank alone. Everyone knew that.
So who was this? He had made enough enemies on his many campaigns. Had one found him now?
The weight of his battle-hardened axe pressed against his thigh. He turned slowly, wiping froth from his moustache.
A rich purple cloak swaddled the stranger. No face could be seen in the hoods shadows. The stranger stood utterly still, like a lizard.
Yes, I drink alone, Erik growled.
Then let me buy you another one. The stranger reached out a gloved arm.
Erik wrapped the thin wrist in one hand. The stranger spat like a snake and snatched back his arm. Beneath its covering the flesh had been cold.
I mean no offence. Trembling, the stranger sat on a precarious stool opposite Erik. He had no drink and he kept his hood over his head. I know of you, he hissed, breathing hard. You are Erik. A mercenary. A fighter whose fame passes far beyond your forsaken Norsca. Erik caught a glimpse of yellow eye deep inside the hood. You have just returned from Araby?
The stranger shrugged. He indicated the rest of the tavern, half-armoured Norsemen waving money at serving women. I can see it was a rewarding trip, the stranger said drily. But youre not a man to throw money around, are you?
Erik remembered Araby...
The sunlight stamped down on fire-hot sand, scalding the blond bodies of the Norsemen. He stood ready with the ulfwerenar, the wolf-kin. The werewolf warriors howled their discomfort.
The metal of his sword burnt his hand. He closed with Arabs whose breath stank of spices and who fought with knives clutched in long teeth; a growl built deep in his throat and he felt his lips stretch around a thrusting jaw; a red mist covered the sun and his teeth sank into the dark flesh
Erik the Were.
His breath rattled in his throat. The stranger was watching him. He forced himself to relax, to loose his grip on his tankard.
I risk my life for my pay. Why throw it at some fat barman?
Raucous singing drifted through the crowd.
Ah. The stranger cocked his head. Im no expert on your aboriginal music, but I can make out the sentiments. Companionship, the bond of death. Again the shadowed head swivelled at Erik. And where are your companions, Erik?
Erik worked his hand around his tankard. I choose my own company, he growled.
Really? The stranger leaned closer; his sibilant hiss turned to a whisper. You see, I know why they call you the Were. You have a trace of the ulfwerenar in your veins, but your blood is not pure. You are both wolf and man... but you are neither wolf nor man, are you?
Ive seen your type before. The wolf in you makes you a formidable warrior... the little you dare release. But you are a warrior wary of himself. Eh, Erik? And none of your comrades in arms, human or Were, see you as one of your own. Do they, man-were? How many of them will drink with you now? Is your wolf blood a gift or a curse, Erik?
Erik slammed one fist on the tabletop. Heads turned. When they met his glare they turned away.
What do you want?
My name is Cotza. The stranger stood. I travelled here to find you. I have an assignment for you. A challenge for the great and courageous Erik the Were. A journey to the northern wastes; a search for ancient treasure... I have a room in the tavern called the Dragons Tooth. Come at dawn. Cotza reached into a deep pocket and threw a handful of coins onto the table. Here, he said. Until then, drink and forget your loneliness, man-were. And he turned and strode out of the tavern, his gait awkward and rolling.
With a snarl of disgust Erik brushed the coins onto the floor.
A little before dawn Erik settled his account and left the tavern.
His breath frosting over his beard, he walked through Ragnars
deserted streets. At the edge of the little town he climbed a small
Pine-clad mountains swept down from behind Erik and pushed ridged finders into the sea. The stars began to die; frost glistened. The lights of Ragnar and a dozen other small towns glittered in the fjords.
Mist covered the sea, and the mournful sound of a longboats dragon horn floated out of the fog. Grumbling voices drifted up to him out of Ragnar. The house of the Husthing the town council shouldered its way above the mass of squat buildings, its bell tolling the hour.
It was all very ordinary, human, comforting. Erik shivered and turned away, and looked to the north. Darkness clung like smoke to the northern earth, oblivious to the dawn.
Far to the north lay the great waste. It was a land of night. That lingering dark was the banner of the Chaos Powers.
Something in him stirred. He touched the mat of fur that covered his upper cheek. The cloaked strangers words had carried truth. Erik was a solitary man. Other could sense the seeds of Chaos in him, the traces of were-blood, even when the physical signs went unnoticed.
He remembered a child goaded day after day by his fellows a child who wasnt like the others, a child who was thick-set, hirsute...
That child had never dared to do what it longed to do, to howl and bark and bite into the throats of his tormentor. For what if the wolf refused to subside, what if the wolf overcame the little boy and trapped him somewhere inside?
Erik the Were. A child terrified of himself.
The stranger had seen into his most secret heart. Erik felt exposed, weakened; anger coursed through his thoughts. He pulled his cloak tighter around him and stalked back into town.
He rapped at the door of the Dragons Tooth. The innkeeper was fat and bald. He grumbled as he led Erik up to Cotzas room.
Erik pushed the door. There was no bed in the room. A large iron bath held water that steamed in the draught from the door. A massive trunk stood open in one corner. On a table a plate was stacked with damp greenery. It looked like seaweed. The dish was garnished with the mashed-up remains of insects.
Cotza stood motionless in the center of the room, facing Erik. He still wore his purple cloak.
What are you, Cotza?
Cotza nodded, the hoods shadow falling over his chest. I expected you...
No more games. Erik strode towards him.
Cotza raised thin arms. Erik brushed them aside and grabbed handfuls of cloak. The material was rich and thick, but it parted easily.
Cotza cried out. It sounded like a child weeping. The remnants of the cloak fell away, and Erik stood back and stared.
Cotza ressembled a toad streched upright to stand like a man. His face was mottled, his mouth wide; a white throat bulged. Eyelids like plates slid across yellow eyes. He wore a suit of something like rubber; fine pipes embedded in the suits were wrapped around Cotzas limbs and torso. From one pipe water was leaking. Blue feathers protuded from the neck of the suit, and china-blue tattoos covered webbed hands.
The great mouth opened and a forked tongue flickered. You are satisfied, strong man?
Youre a Slann. Erik felt numb, unable to react.
Cotza bent to pick up his torn cloak; Erik saw how his legs hinged outwards like a frogs. Obviously Im a Slann. But not just a Slann. He stroked the feathers around his neck. I was once an Eagle Warrior. High rank, too. He waved Erik too a chair and walked awkwardly to the door, pushed it shut. As he moved Erik saw how the rubber suit showered his face and neck with water.
Erik sat. But Slann never leave Lustria.
Of course not! How bright are you this morning. The Slann limped to the table and picked up the plate of food. He waved it at Erik. Breakfast?
Erik eyed the insects. No.
The Slanns tongue wrapped like a fist around particles of food. Cotza kept talking as he ate, the words coming from the back of his mouth. Theres no such thing as never, my friend. But it is true that the Slann hardly ever travel. Its such a fuss. He waved a webbed thumb at the bath, the rubber suit. You may know were amphibians.
The word meant nothing to Erik.
I need to be warm and wet, said Cotza impatiently. Your damn country is cold and dry. So I have to carry my own warmth and wetness. The tongue flicked at the insects. And youve no idea how hard it is for me to get decent service in these taverns.
What do you want from me, Cotza?
Ah, the man of action. Straight to the point, eh? What do you know of the Slann?
Erik shrugged. What I need to know.
Which is how to kill them with the least effort, I imagine. The Slann pushed aside his plate and patted delicately at his lips. Erik, let me tell you about the Slann. We are the worlds oldest race. Some legends say we built the world, and others besides. We travelled between our worlds in great ships like longboats among the stars. Do you understand?
I understand youre telling me childrens story.
Cotza rolled huge yellow eyes. Try to let me penetrate your ignorance, Norseman. Our star boats travelled by passing through Warp Gates. There was a Warp Gate on this world, far to the north of Norsca. But on the other side of the Warp Gates was a strange ocean, an ocean ridden with Chaos. The boats sailed this sea to the stars, you see, and Chaos ah filled their sails. One day the ocean broke from our control. Contact with other worlds was lost. The Gates became centres of instability and horror. We Slann retreated to Lustria, and degenerated into the barbarism we endure today.
Erik removed his horned cap, loosened his fur in the steam-laden air. How do you know this?
Legends. The Slann have tales of the past, garbled of course, and so do the Elves. Cotzas frog face split into a wide grin. Legs bent, throat working, he looked more toad-like than ever. There are many legends, and they fit together, like the pieces of a shattered plate. Do you understand?
Far to the north of here, across the Sea of Darkness, lies the lost Warp Gate. It is the centre of a region so damaged that no material thing can survive, and around that in turn lie the Chaos Wastes.
Now. We will have to penetrate the fringes of the Wastes, travel to places no mortal has seen in hundreds of years
Erik reached out and grabbed one skinny shoulder. Slow down, Slann. What are you talking about.
The Slann hissed, nodding. My apologies. I will explain. Please. Erik relaxed his grip; Cotza rubbed his flesh. Why venture to such a place? I will tell you. The Elves have a story...
They were the great days of the Slann. The Warp Gate was an
arch ten miles high, constructed of the finest obsidian. It loomed
over the frozen pole of the world and turned with the planet.
It was the heart of a glittering city. There were stars inside the Gate. Slann traders passed through the Gate in their star boats to a million worlds; a hundred races mingled in the Gateway city.
One day fire billowed out of the Gate. Death and destruction rained over the Gateway city. Cubic miles of ice turned to slush. Now a landing craft came lurching out of the Gate. Damaged in some unknowable accident, it trailed fire. It flew hundreds of miles before ploughing into the ground.
There were no survivors. The Slann cordoned off the area. The wrecked star boat sank hissing into melted ice.
Slowly the ice froze over. The city was rebuilt. Gradually, over centuries, the incident was forgotten...
Erik thought it over. Hed travelled in longboats convoys to
the New World often enough to pick up a little navigators lore.
Yes, the world was round. And it turned like a top around a spindle
somewhere to the north. But other worlds? Star boats?
He stood, gathering up his armoured cap. Ive told you Slann, Ive no need to hear your childrens tales.
Cotza hissed. Of course not. Since no human woman is likely to bear you children of your own. Is that right, were-man?
Erik turned his back and walked to the door.
You see, Cotza said, the wrecked boat flew far enough south to leave it close enough to reach. It is only a few hundred miles to the north of here, across the Sea of Darkness on the ragged edge of the Wastes. I intend to find that crashed Slann boat, and I want you to come with me.
Erik hesitated, turned. No mortal creature has ever travelled so far north and survived.
Cotza smiled. No mortal creature have taken the precautions we will take. He looked at the Norseman intently. Well, Erik? Will you join me?
Erik shook his head. I will not throw away ùy life for a Slanns dreams.
Cotza opened his mouth wide. Ah, but what dreams do you have, Erik? Are they human or Were? Listen to me. There is nothing for you here. It will be a great adventure. Perhaps we will start a few legends ourselves...
Erik grinned. Of course, theres one small problem.
How will you find this star boat? The Wastes are large...
The Slann nodded rapidly. There is a way. The old Slann made a map, showing the wreck. It was drawn on an indestructible parchment. This map survived the fall of the Slann; it has become a priceless artifact.
Eriks interest stirred. You are moving from fable to fact, Slann. Show me the map.
Cotza grinned, throat wobbling. I dont have it. Ive never even seen it.
But I know where it is.
And I want you to steal it for me. Here. The Slann scuttled to his trunk. He rummaged through a disorderly pile of cloaks, spare pipe suits and food parcels. He drew out a small leather purse, spilled it on the floor before the Norseman.
Erik looked down. Gold coins; scores of them. They bore a scowling frog visage.
The face of Mazdamundi, Lord of All the Waters of the World Pond, said Cotza. Call this an advance. Against unimaginable wealth to come.
Erik looked up and studied the grinning Slann. Where?
Cotza hissed in satisfaction. Have you ever visited Kislev?
Erik knew Kislev.
Kislev is in the chill north of the Old World. Its great cities Urskoy, Praag, the sea port of Erengrad stand on rivers that drain a continent.
Kislevs fortune is its trade. Its curse is its location. For Kislev is a buffer between the Old World and the servants of Chaos, who roam the Wastes to the north.
Two hundred years ago, said Cotza, there was an Incursion of Chaos. Thousands of lives were lost. Praag was laid waste. But at last the Champions of Chaos were put to flight. In one famous victory, the Governor of the port of Erengrad defeated a Chaos Prince, seized his booty.
Among the grisly trophies the severed limbs, the skull fragments the Governors men found a treasure. It was a map, printed on an indestructible parchment...
What Erik needed was a way to get to Erengrad. He found a small whaling boat in Ragnar harbour. Its timbers were stained with blood; a necklace of sharp teeth draped the crude dragons head at its prow. The corpse of a whale bumped against the hull.
Erik found the boats master in a tavern. He was a fat, cheerful Norseman called Bjorn. Over a couple of tankards, bought with Slann money, Bjorn told Erik tales of how the boat worked the Great Western Ocean. Now it was on its way to Erengrad to sell its latest catch. Over more tankards Erik talked his way into a berth.
The lights of Ragnar disappeared into the freezing fog. Bjorn handed Erik a bone-handled knife. This is a whaler, he growled. Not a damn pleasure yatch.
Erik sighed and stripped off his furs.
There were twenty Norsemen in the crew, all broad and well-muscled. They plastered grease over their faces and hands to keep out the chill winds, and with Erik sliced their way into the carcass of the whale.
On the evening of the tenth day Bjorn grabbed Eriks shoulder. Erik was flensing a man-sized slab of meat; whale epidermis lay at his feet like discarded clothed. He straightened up, the muscles of his shoulders aching as they never had before. He was coated with blood and bits of blubber.
Bjorn pointed. Erengrad, he said. Well dock soon.
Erik grinned at Bjorn, feeling dried blood crackle over his face. Thanks.
Bjorn snorted and clapped Eriks back with one huge hand. Listen, you earned your passage. If you ever need a job, find me.
I need to clean up.
Bjorn shrugged. Then dip a bucket over the side. The waters fresh here; were already in the mouth of the Lynsk...
Erengrad spread around the mouth of its river. Shadowed hills cupped the city to the north. In the gathering twilight Erik could see coach lights gleaming from onion-shaped cupolas.
An island sat like a mile-wide toad in the river mouth. It bristled with docks. A broad bridge arched from the island to the mainland; the bridge stood on wooden piles wider than a mans height.
The whaling boat nuzzled against one of the piles. Erik saw tough wood coated with seaweed and barnacles. A ladder of rusty iron was stapled to the pile. Erik and the rest of the crew filed up the ladder to the bridges [b?]road surface. Then, grinning with anticipation, they made their way towards the city.
Carts and coaches of all kinds crowded the bridge; the air was thick with the scent of horses, of tar, fish, fresh-cut timber, with the babble of a dozen tongues. A party of merchants clattered past on a truck piled high with casks of wine and oil. Their sing-song voices drifted over the hbbub; white teeth flashed in dark faces. Estalians, Bjorn said, pointing. From Magritta, maybe.
Bjorn, when do you leave?
After a day and a night, Bjorn growled. At dawn. Long enough to unload and get credit. You coming?
Dont wait for me.
Bjorn nodded, showing no curiosity; then, wit a backward grin, he melted into the evening crowd.
Erik spent the night quietly., attracting no attention. He hired a room, ate and slept, kept his mind a blank.
The following afternoon he took a walk through the bustling heart of Erengrad. Temple towers loomed over streets of low government buildings. Pale lawyers, clerics, civil servants eyed him curiously.
The palace of the city Governor was a jumble of cupolas and minaret. Effete, Erik decided. It was surrounded by a wall of granite twice Eriks height. He eyed it speculatively. Then he returned to his room.
Dawn had already touched the sky when he arose. The whaler was due to leave very soon. He imagined the crew drifting out of the taverns, rubbing their eyes and gathering their furs...
He tied a thong of leather around his waist, pushed into it his heavy iron axe and his short sword of beaten bronze. Then he slipped out of the room.
A dozen campaigns had taught Erik how to move his bulk in silence. Now he moved like a shadow through the sleeping streets of Erengrad. He approached the Governors palace from its darker side, the western. Outside the palace wall he waited a dozen precious breaths. No movement; only the peal of a bell.
Then he scrambled up and over the wall, fingers digging into crevices in the granite. He landed softly and hurried into shadow.
He was in a rich garden. Loamy flower beds were criss-crossed by gravel paths. The palace itself sat in the heart of the greenery. It looked like a sweetmeat in fancy wrapping, Erik thought in disgust.
Light crept higher into the sky; more bells tolled somewhere outside. There were no guards. Nothing moved.
Erik walked over the silent soil of a flower bed to the palace. The doors were squat and massive, but there was a window at head-height protected only by an iron grill. A moment with the blade of his axe and the grill scraped free. He lowered the grill into a spray of flowers and put his hands on the window ledge
A footstep like thunder. A growl like a shout in a cavern. A breath on his neck, damp and stinking. Careless, careless
He whirled, reaching for his sword.
It was a giant, at least three times Eriks height. The giant thumped a chest the size of a small room. His huge belly was swathed with the skin of three oxen; three boneless ox heads dangled from his hip, mouths gaping.
The giant bent over Erik and thrust forward a moon-like face. Erik peered into filthy nostrils that were wider than his fist. The great mouth opened in pleasure, revealing teeth like flagstones.
The giant clapped huge hands together, pinning Eriks arms to his sides. Erik felt his ribs grind, his lung strain. He gripped he handle of his axe with fingers that pounded with trapped blood.
Think, he told himself. Use his strenght against him
The giant grunted and squeezed harder. Silently Erik called to his were blood. His jaw ached as if growing; the muscles of his back grew supple and strong. He fixed his eyes on a particularly corroded tooth. Then he arched his spine backwards, lifted both feet and slammed his heels into the base of the tooth.
The giant stared, as if puzzled. Erik kicked again and again. Enamel crunched beneath his feet. At last pain found its way to the giants brain. He roared. Eriks skull rattled. The huge fingers relaxed, just slightly; the giant began to straighten up.
Erik braced his feet against a stubble-thick chin and shoved as hard as he could. He flew backwards out of the giants grasp; he wrapped his arms about his head before he could hit the palace wall but, as hed intended, he passed with a bump through the window frame and rolled into the palace.
He landed on his back in a darkened room. A hand like a side of beef crashed through the window after him. Carpet-roll fingers wriggled; the giant bellowed in frustration.
Erik pushed himself to his feet, ribs grating, and scuttled away from the window. Then he stood stock still, eyes closed, blood rushing in his ears. Gradually the Were subsided.
When his thoughts had cleared of their red tinge he hurried into a corridor. Widely spaced lanterns cast pools of light. He heard raised voice, the clatter of footsteps.
He grinned into the darkness. He hefted the axe in his hand. He had maybe seconds. Working by instincts he ran through the rambling corridors.
He came to a carved doorway. Gold handle. A human guard who stared at him with wide, startled eyes
A single blow to the windpipe. The man fell, unconscious and silent. There was an ornate lock; a thrust of Eriks shoulder and he was in the room.
The Governor was dressed. He sat calmly on the edge of his bed, a small, portly, middle-aged man. I heard the commotion. Ive expected you, Norseman.
Erik stared wildly about the walls. Was the map here?
I have a network of ears, the little man said mildly. Strands of Norse-blond hair lay over his bare scalp. I need to know, you see. And there is a whaling crew in town who have been bragging about a mysterious Norseman who buys ale with Slann gold...
There. In a gold frame, a parchment of china blue. There was a thick red line that looked like the coast of Norsca.
A drumbeat of running footsteps. There was no more time. Erik smashed the frame with a blow of his axe, pulled out the parchment and thrust it into his tunic.
Norseman! the Governor snapped. Do you know what youre stealing? That map is a trophy of our victory over the Incursion. A memorial to thousands of lost human lives.
Despite his urgency Erik hesitated. So?
Give it to your Slann master and you betray your race.
Erik stared at the serious, brave little man. He remembered the seductive words of Cotza : Outcast, neither man nor Were... what is your loyalty, Erik?
Erik spat onto the Governors thick carpet. Then he turned and ran out of the room.
A party of soldiers to his left. Erik ran right, booted feet pounding on carpet. He came to a kind of crossroads. He paused. The chasing party was closing, waving polished swords. And ahead there was another troop. They saw him and began to run at him.
Erik waited, let them rattle so close he could feel the draught from their waved swords
then ducked to the right. The two parties clattered into each other in a jumble of swords and ornate helmets.
He came to a window, kicked out the grill, somersaulted to the garden below. He was in a battered flower bed. The sky was light enough to show traces of blue. The giant lurched towards him, one finger probing at a bloody tooth.
Erik saluted him. Then he sprinted at the wall and took it in a single vault.
He ran across the bridge, dodging early traffic. Breath rasped in
his lungs. He risked a look back. Soldiers filled the bridge like a
thick fluid; they shouted threats and shoved aside cowering
The little whaling boat had already cast off. It was about twenty paces from the quay. The crew, swearing and bleary-eyed, hauled at rigging. Bjorn saw him and waved. Erik didnt slow. He sailed off the bridge and smashed into the water a bodys-lenght short of the boat; two quick strokes and the grinning Norsemen were hauling him over the side.
Soldiers gathered on the bridge. Spears and arrows sailed over the boat and plopped into the water. The Norsemen fished them out and threw them back, spitting insults at the Kislevites.
Erik lay in the bottom of the boat, panting. The smell of whale blood was like a welcome home. Bjorn stood over him, mouth twisted in amusement.
Erik made to speak, but Bjorn waved him to silence. Tell me later. Haul on this. Weve got work to do. And he handed Eril a rope.
Erik sighed and struggled to his feet.
On his return to Ragnar Erik made for Cotzas lodging.
Now, the Slann hissed. Now we begin. He drooled over the map, black tongue wriggling. Erik watched for a moment, flesh crawling at the reptilian strangeness of the Slann, remembering the Erengrad Governors accusation of betrayal.
Suddenly he was disgusted with himself. He turned to leave.
Cotza rasped : Wait! Norseman, where are you going?
You have your map. Ive been paid. Thats it.
The Slann walked up to him, pasted feather rustling. But I want you to travel with me. Follow this map; find the ancient treasure.
Venture into the Wastes, for an idle frog dream?
Cotza showed no reaction to the insult. He said smoothly, I offer you riches.
You offer me death.
The Slann stared into his eyes, white throat working. I offer you salvation, Erik. A way to face the Wastes... a way to face yourself. Are you afraid of that?
Anger and disgust boiled in Erik. His fists bunched. The Slann stepped back rapidly.
Erik breathed hard, tried to remain composed. Cotza, he spat, Ive fought with Slann. Youre like no Slann Ive ever heard of. Slann are ritualistic. Governed by arcane practices. For a Slann there s no looting; no individual glory. But you youre greedy. Ambitious. Selfish. Grasping. Devious. Erik barked contemptuous laughter. Almost human... What are you, Cotza?
Cotza shook his wide head impatiently. Must all Slann be alike? Are all humans alike? How little of the world you have seen, Norseman. How little you understand.
Erik studied the quivering Slann for a few more seconds, then turned once more. Goodbye, Cotza.
Norseman! I leave Ragnar in six days. Remember my offer...
Another murky dawn broke over Ragnar. Erik left his lodgings,
holding his furs closed against the chill. He walked through frosted
streets towards the harbour.
Ragnar was unusually busy. Light shone already in the Husthing. Carts clattered along the cobbled roads, grease lanterns making arcs of light in the darkness. Mist billowed from the nostrils of horses.
Erik reached the harbour. All along the waterfront metal clanked, wood thumped, men swore. Light moved over a row of ten longboats. Today Cotza was leaving for the north, and he was creating quite a spectacle.
Erik walked along the rough harbour wall and stood over a longboat and its crew, relishing the familiar sight of their preparations for departure. The boat was at least fifty paces long. It rode high in the brisk waves; as it pitched Erik could see water streaming off the boats overlapping timbers. Strands of seaweed clung to iron bolts with heads as big as his fist.
A forest of oars now spouted from the boats side; shouting sailors dipped them into the grey water. The light caught the boats dragon prow. The wooden beast stared into the sea.
A team of mighty warhorses, towering over their human handlers, was led onto one boat. The handlers overseer was a bluff, plump Norseman. He cursed his men continually.
He turned at Eriks approach.
The big Norseman grinned and clapped Eriks shoulder. Ah, my mysterious friend! You are joining our crazy voyage with the frog man?
I... dont know yet, Erik admitted. But if I do Ill be glad youre there.
Bjorn shook his hand, then returned to work.
The sky brightened and the square sails of the boats were furled and unfurled. The sails all bore a brilliant sun-symbol.
The emblem of the Emperor Mazdamundi, a voice hissed behind Erik. The ruler of the sun. Shining over these frozen barbarians.
Erik turned. Cotza stood there in a fresh cloak of purple; he tossed back the hood to reveal a wide grin. Jets around his neck sprayed mist into his face.
Why the horses?
You will see when we land on the coast of the Wastes. The Slann pulled his hood over his head and walked along the harbour wall. Then he stopped, turned his face to Erik, waiting.
Erik glanced toward Ragnar, his mind a whirl. Not one person on all this stretch of coast, he reflected, would wonder where he was this morning. None would miss him
Chaos, Cotza whispered. Its in your blood, Erik. Face it, man. You have no choice.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, Erik walked after him.
The convoy of longboats pushed cautiously through the ice floes.
The fur-clad Norse sailors respectfully mucked out the warhorses,
shifted and lashed the tons of cargo. They laughed, joshed and
wrestled each other; for the first few days Bjorns tongue was
But as they moved further north the men grew subdued. A sheet of darkness fluttered like a flag across the northern sky, even at noon. It was a constant reminder of their destination, and many a blond head turned to that mysterious gloom.
They made landfall on a beach crisp with ice. Erik clambered into the water with the rest. The cold stabbed through the wool and fur that swathed his legs. Swearing, the Norsemen hauled their longboats high up the beach!. The warhorses clattered through the wavelets, snorting, utterly fearless.
The coast was a sheet of barren rock. The wall of darkness loomed over the beach, dwarfing the tiny Norse camp.
Using their war axes the Norse broke up one of the longboats and built a series of fires. The flames cast little puddles of light into the hostile darkness. That first night Cotza let them break open casks of mead, and the foreign shore rang with songs of the Norse warrior gods. But, despite the drink, few slept easy.
The next morning Cotza began to reveal his plan. First sweating workers carried bricks from the longboats and began to construct a crude smelting oven. Then, some yards away, another longboat was taken apart and the fat timbers of its keel laid out in a rectangle about twenty paces long. Erik worked with the rest as a framework twice as tall as a man was erected over the rectangle.
Cotza stalked about the site, his flat face poking out from under a woolen cap. His jaw was wreathed in steam. He pointed and hissed instructions to the cursing Norsemen.
After some hours he let the men take a break and began patrolling around the hut-like construction, poking and pulling at joints. At last he seemed satisfied and stood back.
Erik walked up to him. You are constructing an elegant little house, Slann. What do you intend to do? Grow flowers on the ice?
The Slann spread his mouth wide in his parody of a grin. The best is to come, my friend. You are a fighting man. There is a battle formation called the turtle. Do you know it?
Memories returned to Erik. Of a dozen men huddled under a carapace of upheld shields, cutting their way into an enemy horde
Yes. I know the turtle.
Well, then. This hut is to be our turtle. We will ride inside its shell into the mouth of darkness... all the way to the star treasure. Now, the armour! He clapped his gloved hands.
Grumbling, the Norsemen got to their feet and began hauling metal plates from the longboats.
Cotza brought a sample of the armour to Erik. It was a helmet. The Norseman turned it over in his hands. It had a lustre like old silver.
Mithril armour, hissed Cotza.
I know what it is. Ive seen it. Never held a piece before. Too damn expensive.
Cotza hauled his coat higher around his neck. Mined by the Dwarfs of the smith-city of Zhufbar. Too hard to work except by magical means.
Erik handed back the helmet. So they say.
And shot through with charms against the Powers of Darkness.
And on this legend youre going to gamble our lives?
Cotza did not reply. Steam puffed from his slit nostrils. Erik turned. The pile of unloaded armour had grown taller than a man. Ill say one thing, Slann. Youre not short of resources.
As you say, Erik, I am gambling my life. I have no interest in economy.
Now Cotzas design became clear. Under the Slanns direction the Norsemen began to plate the armour over the structure. The mithril was too hard to work or pierce, so they used huge iron clips to staple it to the wood.
The smithd carried ladles of iron from their oven. They poured the iron like toffee into the gaps between the armour plates. Metal dripped to the ground; snow flashed to steam.
Snow was packed over the cooling joints. Then the smiths beat at the hardening metal with massive hammers. Walls of metal began to build up, shining softly in the low polar sunlight. Even the floor of the turtle was lined with armour.
The labour continued for a day and a night.
Erik touched one twinkling wall. The armour had retained its curved forms here he could recognise a chest plate, there a broad helmet pushing out the surface. It gave the plating a crusted look oddly reminiscent of a real turtle shell.
He stood there, pulling at his moustache. Then he stepped inside the turtle and began kicking at the mithril plates. Iron seals cracked and plates tumbled to the snow. The Norsemen stood back and watched, bemused. Cotza came stamping into the turtle. Norseman! What in the name of the Under-Light do you think youre doing?
Panting, Erik faced the Slann. Im saving your life, frog.
By kicking apart my turtle?
Erik bent and picked up a back-plate. A rough rim of iron clung to it. Mithril armour might stop assault of the Powers. But this pig-iron certainly wont. Cotza stared at him, his throat working. Then what do you suggest? he rasped.
Overlap the mithril armour. As we overlap the planks that make up a longboats hull. Caulk it up with iron, as we caulk our boats with animal hair. Then you will be surrounded by an unbroken shell of mithril.
For long seconds Cotzas breath sawed through his nostrils. Then he turned and stamped out of the turtle. He summoned Bjorn. Do as he says.
When all but one wall of the turtle had been finished, the warhorses were led in. They were divided in two teams of six and were to stand on twin belts of thick leather. The belts were crusted with strips of mithril, and they passed in continuous loops over wooden rollers. The horses, stamping and neighing, were tethered into place by a web of leather harnessing.
Erik stared at this arranement and scratched his head. I admit to being baffled, Slann. How can the horses draw the turtle if they themselves are carried within it?
Cotza laughed and patted the nose of one of the huge animals. You will see my friend.
The warhorses peered at him with contempt, and after a few moments the Slann shied away.
Now provisions were lugged into the turtle: lamp grease, furs, tight bales of hay, Cotzas trunk, food and skins of water. Erik noticed the Slanns heavy bath being dragged from the boats.
The irreverent Norseman fixed a longboats dragon head to the box-like turtle. Its wooden eyes peered into the mists of the Wastes.
At last Erik took his place with the Slann inside the machine. The last plates were stapled into place. The molten iron caulking filled the turtle with smoke. Erik coughed until Cotza produced a ring of gold about a foot across, which he fixed to an overhead beam. A cold breeze played out of the ring and over Eriks face. He watched wisps of smoke disappear our of the ring.
Just a little gimmick, Cotza murmured.
Now the arctic daylight was shut out. Cotza and Erik lit grease lamps and suspended them around the cabin. In the lamps yellow light the turtle seemed an absurdly cosy place, the hulking horses reduced to fireside pets.
Three heavy bangs on the shell. Bjorn, Erik realized, signalling that all was finished.
Cotza opened his mouth wide. It begins! Now, Erik. The horses!
He handed a bemused Erik a heavy crop, and together they began to work the horses. The beasts neighed and dipped their heads, but at least their huge hooves began to move, pulling at the leather belts. With a sudden jolt the turtle lurched forwards.
You see it now! Cotza cried. The horses drag the belts and the belts drag the turtle, inch by inch to our prize
Erik heard a cheer from the watching Norsemen. He made out Bjorns muffled voice. I will wait for you here, my mysterious friend. Bring me back a Slaanesh love daemon! There was ribald laughter.
Excitement growing in him, Erik urged the horses harder. With the sunlight glittering from its enchanted shell the turtle began to crawl northwards.
The warhorses worked tirelessly, apparently not needing sleep. As he fed them Erik patted their great nuzzles and talked to them seriously.
Cotza took a disc from his trunk. He showed it to Erik. It was polished and black, about the size of a dinner plate. The disc was obsidian. It bore a dim representation of a landscape, of piles of grey ice. The picture looked to Erik like an etching, a drawn thing of lines and shading. Then Cotza wiped off the picture with his sleeve and returned the disc to Erik, grinning.
The picture slowly redrew itself. It reminded Erik of watching frost gather on glass. But the view it showed was slightly changed, as if drawn from a different place.
An obsidian mirror, the Slann explained. As used by the great emperor Mazdamundi, to study his empire as if through the eyes of a flying bird. It will serve as a window in the wall of our turtle.
Erik peered into the murky plate. Silently he promised himself that if it ever looked as if they were about to drive him into a crevasse hed kick a hole in the damn wall and see for himself.
Cotza spread his map over the turtles floor and squatted over it, legs folded under him. He pored over the map, comparing details with what he saw in his disc. He used his mirror and map to pick a way through the jumbled landscape. If he wanted to steer the turtle he would goad one team of horses harder; the turtle would swing about with a teeth-jangling scrape.
The polar cold lanced through the thin metal of the turtles shell. Erik hung furs over the inside surface of the shell; the furs trapped the horses body heat and the temperature became tolerable.
Cotza had Erik set up his metal bath and light a small fire below it. Steam filled the turtle. The horses snorted complainingly and tossed their heads; to Eriks disgust, Cotza discarded his suit of tubes and stripped to his yellow-grey skin. He squatted happily in the water, his nostrils poking above the surface.
Erik spent long hours working at his muscles, keeping them hard and fast, or resting with his back to the wall of mithril armour. When he slept he wore his weapons.
As they headed further north the sun disappeared from the sky. When the obsidian plate was turned towards the Wastes the sky turned into a thing of whirls and jagged lines.
The warhorses snorted, their huge legs working.
Erik started awake. The turtle rocked, swaying like a drunkard as
it crawled on its way. The Slann sat in his bath. He clung to its
sides with widespread webbed fingers. His eyes were fixed on Erik.
What is it?
Erik pressed his ear to the metal wall. He heard voices, like girls laughing teasingly, receding from and approaching the mithril. And there were scents like fine perfumes; he felt blood pool in his loins...
I would guess it is a welcoming party from Slaanesh, said Erik drily. The Pleasure Lord of Darkness. He stood, rested lightly on the balls of his feet. He relaxed the strapping around his battle-axe.
The heady laughter whirled around the turtle. Eriks imagination showed him the daemonettes of Slaanesh... Their stigmata the single right breast, the green eyes... and their unbearable beauty. And all the while the subtle scents probed at his mind, stirring his thoughts.
There was a pounding on the shell. It was as if a huge fist were beating against the metal. Cotza screamed. The turtle shook. The warhorses stumbled. Their leader raised his muzzle to the roof and growled like a cat.
And now came another sound: a whirring, a grinding against the metal like a knife-sharpeners stone.
Cotza whimpered. Thats a chain-sword. Theyre trying to cut their way in.
Erik stared at the armour. He grabbed a grease lamp and held it up to the roof, inspecting the seams. Its holding, he breathed.
For how long? the Slann cried. He wrapped his huge face in his hands.
Your Eagle Warrior courage is comforting, spat Erik.
Cotza stared up at the shuddering roof. What by the emperors teeth are they?
Daemonettes, probably, Erik said, recalling old battles. They fight as if insane. Perhaps there are Warriors of Chaos, humans who have sold their souls to the Pleasure Lord
At that Cotzas huge eyes flicked away from Eriks face. His mouth worked and his hands spread once more over the rim of his bath. Erik noticed the sudden reticence. Now, what did that mean? What was his dubious ally hiding?
The pounding, the grinding went on and on, unceasing. But without breaching the mithril. When he was satisfied of that, Erik resumed his seat and closed his eyes.
Erik had survived many a battle. He didnt let the hammering of Slaanesh daemons, the whimpering of a mysterious Slann, stop a light sleep from stealing over him. But he kept his weapons to hand.
The days in the swaying turtle turned to a blur of noise. Erik
chewed meals of dried meat. His dreams were filled with smiling
women; their cheeks bore a soft down and their eyes were green
Cotza moaned continuously. He stirred in his bath, lost in his own erotic nightmares.
Then it stopped. The turtle rocked to stability. The horses stumbled at the suddenness of it, then found their feet. The belts whirred once moreover their rollers.
Cotza sat bolt upright in his bath. His skin was grey, slick witch slime. Bones showed through limp flesh. Its over, he whispered. Were out of the reach of Slaanesh.
Im sure wed be welcomed back, Erik said.
So were safe. The mithril worked! The Slanns long legs flexed. Then he reached into a pile of supplies and drew out a handful of dried cockroached. Greedily he shoved the insects into his wide mouth.
Erik watched in disgust. The scents of Slaanesh were gone. But his memories populated the silence outside with other servants of Chaos, with an infinite arsenal of silent death.
Cotza feasted. Erik kept his hands on his weapons.
Their passage became smooth. Ominously so, Erik thought. The days passed rapidly. It grew hot. Sweat steamed from the horses. Erik discarded his furs. He stood beneath the Slanns air-breathing ring; a breeze still rustled out of it, but for some reason it didnt refresh him. He wiped sweat from his face, sat again and tried to rest.
Even the Slann complained. Why should it be hot? he whined. It should get colder as we go further north, not hotter.
Erik smiled. I told you. Dont expect experience to be a guide. Not here. Take what comes. And fight it.
The obsidian mirror showed a land of darkness. Cotza held it to the roof and tried to guide their progress by the stars...
Suddenly he screamed. Erik jerked awake and reached for his weapons
and was slammed backwards by a punch in the chest. It could have come from the fist of that Kislevite giant. He felt the wooden floor splinter under him.
He struggled to his feet. There was nothing to see in the flickering light of the grease lamps. But something was smashing its way around the turtle, like an invisible bird. Heaps of supplies were blasted open and scattered around the cabin. The horses roared; their harnesses snapped.
Cotza was picked up bodily, tubes dangling, and slammed face-first against the ceiling. Then he was dropped with a splash into his bath. Norseman! Help me!
The lamps blew out. Now the only light came from the fire under Cotzas bath.
Erik, what is it?
Erik struggled to keep his feet. Its an elemental. A daemon of the air.
Our armour is breached
No. The elemental shoved past him; he felt a meaty slap to the face. Its your breathing ring, Slann. Its got in that way, bit by bit.
Then were doomed.
What? Erik staggered to the bath and grabbed the Slanns shoulders. What in hell are you talking about, Cotza? You Slann are supposed to be great wizards. Use magic. Fight it off with a spell!
The Slann struggled out of his grasp and curled into a ball. I cant, he moaned. I have no magic. Save us, Norseman!
Erik stared at him, unbelieving. Then the elemental hit him in the back and knocked him flat on his face. The creature pounded at his spine, roaring like a gale. Erik gritted his teeth, arms trembling. He howled, arched his back, pushed the hard pads of his paw-hands into the floor. The fur on his face stood erect.
For a few seconds Were fought elemental. Then the daemon slithered from his back. Erik struggled to his feet, fighting the impulse to snap and howl. He had to control the Were, think clearly, find a way to drive out the elemental...
Erik grabbed the rim of the metal bath and pulled it off the fire, tipping out the wailing Slann. Then he rummaged through their piles of supplies until he found a block of lamp grease. He pulled the sticky stuff apart and flung it at the fire.
Flame roared up; heat blasted into his face. The Were flinched; the man stood his ground. The Slann scurried into a corner. Smoke poured through the cabin, making Eriks eyes sting. The horses stamped in complaint. Erik hurled more grease into the blaze.
Hot air blasted up. The atmosphere became a mass of smoke and turbulence. It was as if a second elemental had been released into the cabin.
But this one was controlled by Erik. The elemental slapped at his legs and back. Erik heard it slam into the walls...
But it was weaker. Erik grinned, wiping soot from his face. As hed hoped the elemental was beginning to lose its cohesion in the disrupted air.
There was a wail that filled the cabin. Then air began to rush out of the breathing ring. In a few seconds it was over.
The fire burned steadily now. Erik, coughing, began to relight the lamps. He found Cotza buried in a pile of furs. Erik poked with one booted toe. Come out, he said. Its over.
The Slann uncovered one eye.
Take down your breating ring, Erik growled. It was the only breach in our defence. And it almost killed us.
But well suffocate.
We keep it down until we have to. Understand? Now, help me fix this damn mess.
He walked to the warhorses and began to calm them with firm words.
Cotza hissed like a snake. Erik started awake. Painfully he pulled
himself to his feet. His head pounded. In the days since theyd
closed off the feed the air in the turtle had become thick and
Automatically he looked to the horses. The huge beasts laboured at their treadmill, their coats matted with sweat. The Slann was hunched over his obsidian device. His lips popped together, mouthing words unknown to Erik. Then he said quietly: Erik. We have succeeded.
Erik strode through the swaying cabin and snatched up the plate. It showed the usual murky scene, a sky of loops and whirls over a formless land. But there was something new, a sharp image about the size of Eriks thumb.
Its the star boat, breathed Cotza. See how clear it is? It was designed to travel to other worlds. And so it has survived the centuries of degradation in this forsaken place. It shines in that plate like a pearl in mud
The star boat was a spindle, its prow and stern trailing to needle-fine points. Erik judged the boat to be about five time the length of the turtle perhaps a hundred paces in all. He could see no sails, no oars.
I cant see any clinkering, he said. And... it seems to be closed over, all around. More like a house than a boat. Why should that be?
How would I know?
Why would you roof over a boat? Suppose... suppose it was to move under water as well as over it Erik shook his head.
Or, said Cotza, instead of keeping something out, the closed hull was to keep something in.
Like what? Erik said.
Air? Suppose the ocean this boat sailed is as empty of air as the air is empty of water.
Cotza laughed. The ways of the ancient Slann arent going to be comprehensible to us for a long time. Perhaps not ever.
He took back his obsidian plate and wiped it over. The boats image began to slip below them; Cotza had to tilt the obsidian to trap it. Were passing over the boat, he said. Its buried in the ice...
Were nearly over it. Erik hurried to the horses and pulled at their bridles. The turtle shuddered to a halt. Erik gathered armfuls of hay and scattered them at the feet of the panting animals.
Cotza stampered over the floor of the turtle, scanning the buried boat with his obsidian plate and making crude sketches on a parchment. He showed Erik glimpses of detail : plates of buckled metal, panels covered with obscure rectangular designs. What a treasure! he crooned.
Dont get excited, Slann. We havent worked out how to reach it yet.
Cotza snorted and continued his studying. At last he spread out the results of his labours. It was like a sketch map of the star boat. Here, he said, tapping with a thumb. See how the plates are breached, torn apart? Theres a hole wide enough to let in a man. Even one as broad as you, Norseman, he added jovially.
Erik studied the map, then paced around the turtle. At length he selected a spot and cleared away clutter from the floor. The holes here, he said.
Yes. The Slann nodded excitedly. He stood and clambered into a purple cloak. Well, Erik? Lets see this boat for ourselves.
Erik touched his weapons. He felt reluctant to breach the protecting mithril shell...
But hed come a long way for this. And you can only die once. He grinnedfiercely, raised one booted leg, and stamped down on the deck.
The wooden flooring splintered and broke up. Then his boot reached the clinkered armour beneath. Iron seals cracked and fractured. Soon two plates were loose enough to prise aside. Thats enough, Erik growled, lifting the loosened plates. Lets keep the breach small.
Ice gleamed dully in the hole. Erik probed at it with one finger and jumped back with a yell as ice flashed to steam. The Slann laughed. The normal rules dont work here, remember? he taunted.
Erik glared; then, with the butt of his battle-axe, pushed at the popping ice until it was all vapourized. Tendrils of steam filled the cabin. The Slann sniffed contentedly.
Under the ice the earth was greyish and dead, like fine sand. Erik used the blade of his axe to scoop it out. Then his blade clanged on something hard, metallic.
Erik looked up. The Slann stared into the hole, tongue wriggling out of his lips. Erik bent into the hole and brushed away the remaining layer of dirt.
The hull-metal of the star boat gleamed like polished bronze. The Slann sat beside Erik and touched it in awe. Its perfect, after so many thousands of year, he whispered. But look how its crumpled.
Erik searched through the dirt until he reached the breach in the hull. The last few grains of earth fell into a circular patch of darkness. It was about a arms length wide. Erik stared into it, saw nothing. Give me a lantern.
Cotza brought him a simple candle in a clay bowl. Erik lowered it cautiously into the boat. The flame flickered but burnt on.
So the airs not foul, Cotza hissed.
Erik made out a floor of metal, perhaps ten feet below him. He looked up at Cotza and shrugged. We cant learn anything from out here. Im going in.
Let me hold the lamp.
After checking his weapons Erik swung his feet into the hole. His waist passed through easily, his axe bumping against the lip of the hole. Then he lowered his body until he was dangling from his fingertips.
He let go. His feet hit the metal with a soft thud. He landed at a battle crouch, sword in hand.
Silence. Darkness, broken only by a disc of yellow lamplight above his head. The Slanns silhouetted head appeared. Erik?
Im safe. Theres nothing here. Give me the lamp.
The Slanns bony arm extended into the boat. Erik reached up, took the lamp, turned with the light in his hand
A white face loomed at him, jaws wide and gaping. Erik yelled. He grasped his sword and smashed, smashed again
Norseman! What is happening?
Erik stepped back, breathing hard. There was a chair before him, large and fine enough to be a throne. Now it was covered by fragments of smashed bone. Bone dust drifted in the musty air.
Nothing, Erik said. Theres no danger. It was a skeleton, a thing of bones in this seat, facing me.
The Slanns nodding head reappeared in the hole. Erik laid his lamp on the floor, then reached into the chair and pulled out a shard of a skull. The head had been large, flat. What do you think it was?
Slann, said Cotza. Just like a modern skull perhaps a little larger, a little finer. No doubt weve coarsened since our fall. I think that was a sailor, Erik. A Slann who took this boat to the stars, and who died when the boat ploughed into the ice. Cotza dangled his flippered feet into the hole and dropped through.
Erik raised the lantern and began to explore. They were in a sharp-edged box about as large as the turtle. Erik looked close but could see no joints between the wall plates.
Another skeleton, intact, sat before a table. The table was encrusted with buttons and slivers of glass. The chair held a pool of dust- perhaps the residue of the Slanns flesh. Shreds of some ancient material clung to the wide rib cage.
A spindle the size of Eriks fist hung in the air above the table. Erik looked for wires suspending it, but could see none.
Look at this, he said. Its like... a toy version of the boat. A model.
Cotza peered, poked with a tentative thumb. There was a spark when he touched, a crack like a gunpower cap. The star boat groaned and shifted around them, like a bear stirring in his sleep. Cotza looked about fearfully; Erik heard himself growl.
The model came to rest. The groaning ceased. Cotza looked at Erik. You know what this is, dont you?
Its for controlling the boat. Its like... a rudder. Yes, a rudder. Move the toy and you move the boat. See? Some races have spells which work on the same principle.
Erik peered doubtfully at the model. Well, its like no rudder Ive ever seen...
Now Cotza approached one wall. It was coated with panels of dark glass. Below each panel was a plate covered with a close, unrecognizable script. Obviously this room is only a small part of the boat, murmured the Slann.
So whats in the rest?
Cotza shrugged. Maybe the sails or whatever it was they used to drive this boat. He pushed his broad muzzle close to the black glass. This stuff is obsidian. Come and look...
There was a picture in the obsidian plate. Erik saw stars. And something round and shining. The world? The Slann said, I think were seeing what the sailors saw on this boats last voyage. Erik, its true. This boat really did travel between worlds.
So maybe this cabin is a kind of observation post, Erik mused. Like a look-out posted in the rigging of a longboat.
The Slann nodded absently. His black tongue shot out and licked wide lips. I believe theres more obsidian in this single room than in the whole of Lustria.
He reached up his right hand.
Cotza, dont touch anything. Remember the rudder thing. There might be some kind of protection.
Im a Slann, Norseman, Cotza said haughtily. This is my heritage. If we can get this obsidian loose, it alone will make me richer than I could have dreamed. And who knows what else well find...
The Slann peeled off his right glove and spread webbed fingers.
Cotza touched obsidian. The cabin filled with fire and thunder.
Erik was hurled against a bulkhead. He felt the skin of his face
blister in the sudden heat. His nostrils filled with the scent of
scroching his hair, beard, clothes.
The red glare faded; the noise echoed to stillness. Coughing, wiping tears from dazzled eyes, Erik struggled to his feet.
His weapons were in his hands. Good. He looked around quickly. The grease lamp had blown out, but blood coloured light leaked from the plate Cotza had touched. Above Eriks head he could see the hole leading out of the turtle. And, beyond that, he could see stars.
So the explosion had breached the mithril. They were naked to Chaos. Despair closed around his heart. He shook his head. One thing at a time. He looked for Cotza.
The Slann was crumpled into one corner like a wad of rag. He was staring in disbelief at his right arm. It ended in a stump, a few inches below the elbow. Thick blood pumped like a dismal fountain.
Erik had seen such injuries before. He had seconds to save the Slann. He grabbed the edge of the Slanns robe and tore away a strip. He wrapped the strip around the stump and twisted until he felt the cloth bite to the bone. The blood flow slowed, stopped.
Then Erik got to his feet and picked up the Slann, boosted him through the roof and back into the turtle. It was like lifting a child.
Erik jumped, grabbed the lip of the hole with his fingertips, and hauled himself up. The Slann lay limp on the floor, groaning softly. Erik ignored him, looked quickly around the turtle, weapons to hand.
The horses whinnied and stamped. The air in the turtle was cold, damp. A wind like a fist slammed through the breached roof. Erik reached up with one hand and felt around the breach until his fingers closed around a dislodged mithril plate.
Soft fingers brushed his wrist. He ground his teeth and hauled the plate over the hole. The wind died to a whisper. It wasnt perfect, but it would have to do.
He kicked something in the debris. It was the spindle, the rudder-toy from the star boat; it must have been blown clear in the explosion. He poked it tentatively. There was no reaction. Impulsively he tucked the little model into his shirt.
Now, the Slann. Cotza could still die if the wound wasnt treated. And Erik was determined that he would stay alive until he provided some answers. He reached for a handful of grease and slapped it over the nearest lamp. A small fire roared up. Then he knelt and pulled the shattered right arm out from under the amphibians body. Cotza groaned, stared up at Erik with empty eyes.
Erik thrust the damaged arm into the fire. The Slanns scream was unearthly. He struggled feebly. Erik held the arm fast until he could see that all the blood vessels had shrivelled closed. He lifted the Slann, who was unconscious at last, into his metal bath, and lit the warming fire beneath it.
Cotza slept for hours. Erik waited until the watery eyes fluttered open once more. Loops of slime clung to the Slanns eyelids. He turned his head, looking dimly around the turtle. Then his eyes met Eriks.
Youre no Slann, said Erik quietly. I suspected when you had no magic to ward off the air elemental. Then theres your character. Your greed. Your ambition. Like no Slann. And youre a coward; you could never have been an Eagle Warrior. Now I have proof. That obsidian plate would not have harmed a true Slann. Its time for the truth. What are you, Cotza?
Cotza dipped his head into the murky water, rubbed at slimy nostrils. Then he said : Im human.
Cotza told Erik that he had been born of a peasant family in
northern Bretonnia. He grew to awareness in filth and squalor.
Strutting Breton lords ruled the villages with a severity matched
only by their corruption and incompetence.
Cotza was a weasel-like boy, weak and resentful, despised by his fellows. His only consolation was the tales of the old men of his village. They would recount fantastic legends of lands and times far distant, and Cotza would sit open-mouthed at the edge of their ruminative circles.
And most of all he loved the tales of the old Slann, with their wonderful machines which could spit fire and fly through the air. In his dreams Cotza was a God-Emperor, studying through obsidian his boundless dominions...
Cotza had reached a bitter manhood when, one overcast day, the sergeants of the army of King Charles rode into the local market square. The colours of their helmets plumage shone out against drab mud walls.
The sergeants drew their dandified pistols and gathered the young men, Cotza among them, into a rough platoon. The King, the sergeants said, intended a plundering raid over the border into Estalia. They needed volunteers.
Two men were shot to encourage the rest. Then the peasants were marching away, hand clasped on their heads.
So Cotza found himself recruited into the fyrd the peasant backup to Charles professional troops. He was given a crude heraldic design to sew onto his brown shirt, was supplied with a stubby sword and an axe. He found life in the army of the King brutal and unrewarding. He watched officers strut around the battlefields intriguing against each other and showing off their dazzling standards.
Meanwhile the fyrd was thrust into battle in great disorganized mobs. Peasants died en masse. Cotza was a coward. He hid, ran, earned the contempt of his fellows. But he survived.
There was magic on the battlefield, Cotza learned. While peasants bludgeoned each other in the mud, he watched knights in their enchanted armour ride out and join in battle under magic standards.
He saw strange things. A man suffered grievous wounds to the head, yet fought on. For a few seconds a knight split mysteriously into two copies, baffling his opponents. Massive warriors would inexplicably turn, drop their weapons, and run howling from the field.
And at the centre of it all was a strange figure, a frail-looking old man who could nevertheless walk through a crowded field and have the burliest warrior step aside for him. This was Rufus, a powerful Wizard in the pay of the King. His bony face was masked by a florid beard and he wore a cloak that was stiff with sewn-in runes, shards of bones, bits of shattered blades; habitually he carried faded spell-scrolls stuffed under his arms.
Once he dropped a scroll. It steamed as it lay in the mud. None dared to pick it up for him. Rufus seemed to shimmer as he walked. The aura of power around him was almost tangible. It hurt Cotza to stare too long.
King Charles campaign drew to a muddy close. The ragtaggle army headed back over the Breton border. Cotza thought about returning to the village, to a life of poverty and dirt...
They crossed an old battlefield. The rotting bodies of friend and foe filled the air with a fetid stench. The army made camp; Cotza, exhausted, spread his threadbare blanket across the ground, lay down and closed his eyes. But sleep would not come. He wriggled on the hard ground, suffering the curses of his comrades. There was something wrong. The ground was warm beneath him.
He waited until the dead of night and then, by starlight, lifted the blanket and scraped aside the mud. Then he sat back and scraped aside the mud. Then he sat back and stared, breathing hard. He had found a spell-scroll, dropped and trampled into the dirt, glowing softly like coal burning from within.
Someone groaned in their sleep. Cotza hastily packed the earth back over the scroll and lay down again, heart pounding. This was his chance.
The next morning he made his way to the ornate tent of Rufus, and waited at its entrance until the Wizard emerged. Rufus scowled like thunder. The bits of shattered weapons sewn into his coat glinted at Cotza like hard eyes. Cotza quailed... but he stood his ground. He told Rufus about the scroll. The Wizard asked him to describe it, and as Cotza did so Rufus eyes narrowed thoughtfully and he asked where the scroll was.
Blood pounding, Cotza proposed a deal.
The Wizard mocked his bargaining, eyes burning. But Cotza got his deal. He led Rufus to the scroll. The Wizard lifted it reverently from the ground and returned to his tent, nodding slowly at Cotza as he passed.
It took the Wizard some days to complete his preparations. Then he sent a messenger to summon Cotza to his tent.
Now that the moment was here fear nearly overwhelmed Cotza; but he pushed himself to his feet and followed the messenger, ignoring the curious stares of his fellow peasants. He entered the gloomy interior of the Wizards tent. The Wizard was a vague form in the shadows. On a wooden table lay the stinking corpse of a Slann.
Cotza whimpered and almost fell; he felt a shaming warmth damply down his legs. But, under Rufus directions, he climbed onto the table beside the corpse.
It took three days. The pain was more than Cotza could bear... almost. Then, on the fourth day, he opened new eyes. The world was stained pus-yellow. The Wizard held up a miror.
A Slann face stared back at Cotza.
You see, soldiers even peasant solders share
stories, legends, from all over the world, Cotza told Erik.
I listened to the tales of Elves and Dwarfs, sifted through the
rubbish, searched for grains of truth, sought opportunity...
I remembered those boyhood tales. I learned that the Slann are the oldest race on the planet. Their powers, though lost, were once the greatest. Then I heard the legend of the star boat. I decided that was my chance. In return for the scroll the Wizard gave me gold... And I asked him to make me a Slann. I would seek out the star boat, take its treasure and power.
Erik studied the broken amphibian without pity. You were so stupid as to desire... this? To be a Slann?
It was my childhood dream, whispered Cotza. A chance to reach the machines of the ancient Slann. It was a gamble. For the highest stake for the chance of power such as no mortal has wielded for five thousand years. Perhaps the power to never die.
But youve lost, Erik snapped. You fooled me, but you couldnt fool the Slann machinery. Could you?
Cotza hung his head, nursing his ruined arm. Erik left him. There was no more to be said.
The turtle crawled over the ice like an injured slug. Erik had
tightened the horses harnesses, goaded them into turning their
armoured belts once more. The horses stamped and complained. They
were less willing to work together and progress was slow.
The belts moved with a grind. At least one of the wooden roller was cracked, Erik decided. He tried to fix the loose mithril plates in the roof and floor. But they rattled and slid, and Erik grimly sensed invisible limbs probing into the breached machine.
For the first few days Cotza guided their way with his map and obsidian, but he grew duller and more apathetic. At last he crawled into a pile of furs, dangling his stump of an arm.
The air grew colder. At last frost began to rime the furs suspended over the metal walls. Erik rested with his back to the mithril. Behind the wall he could hear gloating laughter. His own body was a battleground. In his dreams his hands turned to wolf paws which tore his human face. He awoke sweating despite the cold, the fur on his cheeks and hands erect and itching.
The grease lamps leaked dim patches of light. The turtle became a place of shadows, sinister and huge, no longer a sanctuary. He approached the horses, thinking to feed them. They reared at him, shouting like huge cats, a menacing mass of hooves and ragged manes. Erik stumbled back.
Something stirred under a heap of dirty furs. Erik poked aside the furs with a booted toe. The thing that had been Cotza blinked up at him. He stank of blood and urine. A few blue feathers still clung to his skin.
The fake Slann held up his smashed arm. Something was growing out of the stump. It had a tiny face with a mouth that opened and closed. Cotza stared at it emptily.
Erik pushed the furs over the degenerating creature and returned to his resting place. For a long time he clutched his arms around his body, trying to stop his trembling.
They fell under the sway of Slaanesh once more. And once more the
fists of nightmare beat at the shell of the turtle.
This time the roof buckled. Erik clung to a shuddering wall. The horses roared. The Cotza-thing squirmed in his pile of furs, mewling. The turtle was rocked, picked up and dropped; rollers cracked and Erik heard the belts grind the broken wood to splinters. There was a smell of sawdust.
Still the turtle lurched on, its fraying belts spinning. But now Erik heard a sound at first as soft as a heartbeat, a tumble of hooves that grew to a stampede until at last
with a crash like thunder one wall of the turtle imploded. Mithril plates shattered and ripped. The last of the lamps went out and the turtle teetered once, twice, tipped sideways.
Erik tumbled, arms wrapped about his head. Furs and filth and grease rained down over him. He caught a glimpse of a huge, wool-covered face, of horns like swords.
The turtle was left on its side, its rollers spinning uselessly. With a massive laugh of victory, the minotaur stomped away across the landscape.
Erik pushed debris from his body and tried to sit up. The riven armour admitted a gloomy light. Remnants of the snapped belts littered the cabin. The warhorses were a dark crowd that fought and bit at their harnesses. Erik heard toughened leather snap like thread. The animals drummed their hooves against the nearest wall until armour plates tumbled like leaves. Then the horses burst through the wall and galloped away.
Erik pushed his way to his feet. Cautiously he worked his way through the debris to the breached shell and peered out.
The turtle lay in a landscape of rocks, of a few stunted trees. The sky was a dim grey. There was a scent, as if a beautiful woman had passed this way
Nothing moved. And yet Erik sensed inhuman eyes watching, waiting for him. Unprotected he wouldnt survive more than minutes out there. He needed the mithril.
He found a breastplate and helmet among the debris of one wall; he tied on the breastplate with a strip of leather and jammed the helmet on his head, ignoring the scratching of its pig-iron rim. He searched for shreds of drive belt. Strips of mithril still clung to the bits of frayed leather; Erik wrapped the shreds around his limbs. He fashioned crude mittens and boots. He swathed his face with belt material, leaving only slits for his eyes.
Then encased in mithril, axe and sword to hand, and with the rudder-toy still lodged inside his shirt he left the turtle.
A kind of slime coated the machine; it dripped like mucus over Erik. The dragon head had gone. There were teeth marks in the neck stump.
Something called after him. Erik... Help me. And another, tiny, voice echoed the first mockingly : Erik... Erik...
Cotza was lost. Erik couldnt help him. He didnt look back.
The land seemed empty of light. It was neither day nor night. At times the horizon seemed impossibly distant, at times absurdly close, as if the world itself were swelling and subsiding like the chest of a breathing giant.
Erik shook his head. He was on the border of the Wastes themselves. The rules dont apply, he growled to himself. He stumbled on.
Occasionally the lid of clouds would break and Erik could make out the stars. They flickered and wavered, as if seen through tears; but they were there. Erik squinted up at them, searching for the North Star. When he found it he turned his back and limped onwards. South. Always south.
Occasionally he heard rumbling over the horizon, saw flashes of light. The hordes of Slaanesh...?
Erik ran until his lungs rattled in his chest, away from the terror. But there was no sanctuary. Even at the quietest hour, even in the most lifeless wasteland, ghostly fingers clutched at him, prying and probing. He would whirl, weapons ready; but there was nothing there.
They were watching him. Biding their time. Perhaps arguing over the spoils. He shook his head and stamped onwards. He didnt dare sleep. He knew that if he lost consciousness he would not be allowed to regain it.
The days wore away, and with them his strength. Finally his knees buckled. He slumped to the ground, pressed face down by the weight of his armour. Dust crept over his legs and buried them.
No From somewhere he found the strength to push himself upright, to drag his calves from the malevolent dirt. Then, with a howl of defiance, he drove one foot ahead of the other.
His howl had been a wolfs, he realized. He dug his fingers into palms that seemed thicker, more padded, than before. All his life he had battled to retain his humanity. Only on the battlefield had he used his Were power. But now his human strength was draining and the wolf was emerging. Would he die an animal, his mind full of blood and death?
Eyes half-closed, body crusted with scraps of mithril, Erik the Were stumbled on through the deadly landscape.
Dimly he noticed that the land was changing. The trees disappeared and the dust was replaced by a surface that was smooth and yielding. A coarse black grass sprouted from the pitted ground. A tuft of grass wrapped around Eriks foot. He clattered to the ground.
The earth was warm. Body hot. With his ear to the surface Erik could hear a thumping. Like a huge heartbeat. Groggy, disgusted, he tried to rise, push himself away from this ground of flesh. But strands of the black hair-grass wrapped themselves around his ankles and wrists, pinning him.
A face pushed out of the epidermis beneath him. A human face; the face of a boy. Fur sprouted over high cheekbones. The boy cried and stared into Eriks eyes. Erik, he said softly. Erik...
Erik struggled against the thongs of hair. The tortured face was his own, as a child.
Now there was a soft growling. The face was lengthening. Whiskers sprouted from the stretching muzzle and a wide mouth grinned, filled with razor teeth. It was the face of a wolf. A female. She licked her lips, flicked her pink tongue at him.
Her body thrust out of the epidermis, wriggled against his. The body was a human womans. Erik barked softly, aroused. His armour was in the way; he began to shrug it aside. The lithe body of the female moved beneath him
No His voice was a growl.
He ripped free one arm and touched his face. There was a suggestion of a muzzle; the bone of his jaw ached unendurably, as if they were being stretched. No, no, no
The human words seemed to cut through his hot, muddled thoughts. He pulled free his limbs. The hair-grass ripped out by the root. The land bled. He stood erect, breathing hard. It was an effort to keep his balance, not to drop to all fours.
The wolf-face laughed at him; the body writhed. But now Erik could see that the eyes were green, that the body had a single right breast.
The stigmata of Slaanesh. Laughing, the daemon sank once more beneath the surface.
There was a snorting, a clattering of hooves behind him. Erik whirled around.
The warhorses. They ran towards him in a mist of sweat and saliva. Their hooves left little bloody craters in the living earth. Sudden hope filled him. If he could catch, mount one of them...
The horses drew closer, still packed together. Now he could see how the heads and limbs of the horses thrust at random out of the herd. Nostrils flared and eyes rolled as the dozen heads snapped and bit at each other; legs clattered at random into the ground, some broken and dangling.
Eriks hopes evaporated. He clutched his sword, braced his legs. This was no ally of Eriks. The herd was a single creature, a bag of dark skin out of which protruded the remnants of the warhorses. The horse-thing was a chimera, a monster of Darkness.
The chimera struggled to a halt just before Erik; the nearer horses tried to rear, and twenty hooves waved at the Norseman. Erik faced it, sword and axe ready
There was a bulge in the sack of flesh. A reptilian face thrust out towards him. A wide mouth opened. Two arms pushed out, beseeching. Erik. The voice was muffled. For pitys sake. Im still alive, and sane, inside this thing. Help me!
The horse-thing reared again and advanced, looming over him. And now a face erupted out of the right arm of the buried Cotza-thing, a tiny caricature of Cotzas.Erik, it hissed. Erik. It lunged at his throat, snapping like a snake.
Erik smashed at it with his axe. Cotza wailed in agony. A hoof caught Eriks chest. Armour spun away, gleaming. More hooves rattled over his head, his back.
He lost his axe. He went down, arms over his head. Under the flailing hooves the living ground turned to a bloody pulp. There was a smell of urine and sweat.
He reached deep inside himself, sought all the Were strength in his being. And unleashed it.
With a howl that was at once wolf and human, he rose to his feet and stabbed at the thing above him, thrusting again and again.
There was blood and dirt and pain. Erik crawled away, slumped to the ground, looked back. The chimera still raged. But it was being held from him, pushed back by a darker shape that growled and leapt. Shining teeth ripped throats and gouged eyes.
It was a wolf. For one second it looked at Erik with a kind of understanding. Then it turned, scrambled onto the multiple back of the roaring chimera, and fought on.
Erik struggled to his feet, pulled tattered armour around him, and staggered away.
The land turned to dust again. Then ice crunched beneath his feet.
Erik shivered with the renewed cold. But he rejoiced. It was a
natural cold, a sign that he was leaving the shadow of the
Day and night resumed their cycle. The stars no longer wavered. Erik dared to sleep, huddled in a blanket of snow.
He reached an empty coast. The frozen sand crackled. A single longboat remained. Bjorn saw him approach, hailed him, came running from the little camp to great him
then hesitated a few paces away. Erik? he asked doubtfully.
Erik opened his mouth then licked his lips, worked his stiff tongue and tried again. Bjorn. What is it?
So it is you, the Norse overseer said wonderingly. But youve changed...
He took Eriks arm and led him to the edge of the sea, bade him stare at his own reflection in a sheet of ice. Erik saw a smooth face, a thing tangle of beard, cheekbones that were low and free of fur. The mark of the wolf had gone.
Erik looked back to the northern shadow... to where his despised Were half had remained to save him from the chimera. Perhaps it fought on even now.
Come on, Bjorn said, wrapping an arm around Erik. Lets get you to the camp. Weve got stew and mead... and well set off for Norsca in the morning. Ill bet youve quite a story to tell.
Norsca... He would return a hero, and fully human. No longer Erik the Were. Erik the man.
Inside his shirt he could feel the slim form of the model star boat, warm against his skin. A toy for his son one day...
Life stretched ahead of him like a sunlit room.
Yes, he told Bjorn. Quite a story.
La suite : Wood and Iron/Webcrash (par Slereah)
Vers le début des années 90, Stephen Baxter
devait écrire une suite de "The Star Boat", mais
l'effondrement progressif de Games Workshop Books fit qu'il
dû se remettre le livre sous le bras, avant de le
republier en 1998 sous le titre "Webcrash".
Nos deux protagonistes sont Metaphore (c'est en fait le
pseudo du vrai bonhomme dans le monde virtuel), un
navigateur, et Numinus Torca, dont j'ignore ce qu'il est
exactement. Dans l'histoire d'origine, il est un
"héritier déchu du Trône de Plutonium"
(ohohoh). Un gouverneur planétaire en fuite ? Un
Sensei ? Enfin bref, c'est un gens guère gentil qui
veut organiser des rébellions contre l'Imperium et ce
genre de choses.
Voilà donc l'histoire de comment le monde de 40000
a trouvé celui de Battle et failli le
détruire. A priori, il reste encore la navigatrice en
Norsca et la Norse dans l'Imperium ! L'histoire est un peu
tordue par moment, mais on mettra ça sur le compte de
la transition de Warhammer à un autre univers.