The years had taught him many things, and he’d earned every wrinkle. And among the first things one learned out in that hot and arid land was that heavy fur cloaks were not the ideal way to dress for the midday heat in the summer. Another was that it was always a bad idea to wear horned hats. You were just asking for a hunter to put an arrow into your behind and pretend he thought you were a buffalo. All in good fun, of course. And better not to dwell on the reaction a real bull buffalo would have if you crossed his path.
Still, unless his aged eyes were deceiving him or the spirits were up to their old tricks again, the twenty men staggering up the path in the sun were not only dressed in fur – what seemed like bear fur of all things – but some of them were also wearing horned hats. Strong Buffalo immediately discarded the spirits as a possibility because while spirits might be unfathomable and capricious, these guys were clearly bonkers.
He stood and held up a hand. “Greetings travelers.”
The men stopped, milled around and seemed, by popular vote, to elect the largest of their number to the front of the group. He was the biggest person that Strong Buffalo had ever seen, and under the dirt, seemed to have impossibly yellow hair. He was also the only member of the group not looking around as if they expected to be attacked by rabid wolves at any moment. His expression was more akin to irritated stupidity.
“I am Thor.” The man’s voice was deep and powerful, like the rumbling of thunder before a spring rainstorm.
Strong Buffalo considered this for a while. “Not much of a name, is it?” He didn’t even stop to consider the fact that the light-skinned stranger who looked nothing like anyone he’d seen before spoke perfect Anasazi. But this was understandable, since life was much simpler if one didn’t look too closely at things.
Fury briefly crossed the other man’s expression, but was soon replaced by a resigned expression that somehow seemed out of place on the man’s broad features. “Look, we don’t want any trouble. Just a place to rest and some food.”
“What’s wrong with the other men?”
Thor looked back over his bedraggled group of followers and shrugged. “Just a bit shell-shocked, I guess. They thought we’d never make it to the western coast of this continent in the storm. And then there was the Tsunami which left our boat miles inland. And the attack by your neighbors. Arrows and the screaming tend to affect morale.” He scratched his beard contemplatively. “Generally, things haven’t been going well at all ever since we left Roskilde. If I had to choose one episode, though, I’d say the cannibals in Brazil were probably the worst part. Or maybe the Mongols.”
Strong Buffalo nodded sagely. He had no idea what the other man was talking about. “What can you give us in payment for the food?”
“We have metals.”
“What are metals?”
The large man rolled his eyes in a way that Strong Buffalo thought was a bit rich coming from someone who smelled like the less pleasant parts of a week-dead woodchuck, but the process of bargaining had begun.
In the end, the leader’s large fur cloak was deemed acceptable to pay for a few days of food and shelter. “Provided, of course,” Strong Buffalo had told him, “that you wash it first.”
Off in the distance, thunder boomed over the hills as the men walked up to the village embedded in the cliff side.
The spirit was clearly not a happy spirit. Whatever it had been eating out on the astral plane seemed to have given it a bad case of indigestion, and a single glance made it obvious that the conversation would not be an enjoyable one.
“What is the meaning of this insult?” the smoky wraith demanded.
Strong Buffalo was not really in a state to answer this or any other question. The substances he had consumed in order to speak to the spirits made it very difficult to concentrate. Plus, he had these recurring visions of some kind of animal with a remarkably long nose that he’d never seen before in his life. It was pink, and used its ears to fly, while holding a feather in its nose. It was very distracting.
He tried, however. “What insult, oh dark lord of the air?”
“How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not a dark lord of anything? Do you really think a dark lord would appear at your command just because you decided to smoke dried cactus? What’s up with that, anyway? I tried it, and all I get is gas.” The spirit paused, obviously even more irritated at having been sidetracked. “The insult of having another deity living under the roof of the village.”
“This Thor fellow. Seems to be a god of thunder. Not from around here, of course. None of the other goods admits to having met him before.”
“Thor is a god?” Strong buffalo asked. It seemed logical enough and might explain the fact that he was half again as tall as anyone else, the strange lightning strikes that demolished a nearby butte as he washed the cloak in the stream and, most of all, the silly-sounding name. Why was it that gods, who, one assumed, had infinite resources, both mental and magical, had such trouble picking names?
“What did you think he was, a pixie?”
“Oh, shut up. What I’m saying is that you’ve brought another god into your village, and both the rain god and the mother goddess are absolutely furious, so you can expect flooding and a few million locusts unless you get him to leave before the next full moon.”
“Why the next full moon? Is the goddess being lenient?”
“No. She’s off to bug Jehovah about borrowing some locusts, and she’s staying for the chariot races.”
“Oh. Well, I’ll see to it, then.”
“Just one question. That pink flying thing. What is it?”
“Man,” the spirit said, shaking its head. “You really need to lay off the cactus.”
Ingvar woke with a start. The sun shining through the unglazed window told him it was time to go, time to get moving. He tried to remember where they were, made an effort to recollect which of the men were still alive, but soon gave up. He’d find out eventually.
His legs protested the need to get up, but his bladder overruled them, and he went off to find somewhere to relieve himself, preferably someplace where his hosts wouldn’t take umbrage and hit him with a barrage of poisoned arrows or poisoned spears or poisoned blowgun darts. He’d had just about enough of people launching poisoned projectiles at him but there was really nothing he could do about it short of letting them hit him.
The city they’d been allowed to spend the night in was like nothing he’d seen before, and over the past three years or so, he’d seen just about everything there was too see on Earth. He’d seen enough, in fact, that he preferred not to see anything new anymore. All he truly desired was a small patch of farmland near a fjord. But he really didn’t like his chances of ever seeing that again. All because a stupid good of thunder who shall remain unnamed decided that it was a good idea to go find a new territory.
Anyhow, the entire city was a series of terraces built into a hollow inside a huge overhanging cliff. Great for when it rained, of course, although it didn’t seem to rain much in these parts.
Ingvar turned and drew his sword. The voice that had come from behind him wasn’t anything like the voices he was used to hearing. The voices he was used to hearing had the lyrical qualities of drunken sailors who had gargled glass. And those were his friends. His enemies normally addressed him in tones more akin to the dying scream of an injured whale, and then threw something poisoned at him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” The owner of this voice, a heavenly contralto that sounded nothing like a large marine mammal, stood before him, holding her hands out in front of her. She was a young woman with dark skin and black eyes that matched her hair. “I’d heard there were visitors, and I wanted to see for myself. I didn’t know you were so different. I’d never seen hair the color of dried buffalo dung before.”
“Er… Thank you?”
She beamed. “You’re welcome! I’m Graceful Reed, by the way. Strong buffalo is my father.
“Oh, I’m Ingvar.”
She giggled. “Are you a god as well?”
“You have a silly name. Only gods have silly names, and Ingvar is just about the worst I’ve heard. Are you a god? Or was your mother cursed with a stammer?”
He was beginning to understand why Vikings seldom stopped to chat with the women they encountered along their raids. While Ingvar was a bit squeamish about the things they did do when they encountered said women, he began to see that perhaps it wasn’t just a vulgar expression of brutality. Maybe earlier Vikings had tried to talk to the women and had learned their lesson.
Ingvar also cursed Thor’s presence. Wherever the god went, people around him could understand each other. Although the god claimed that this made it possible to avoid having to fight other tribes, the Vikings had found that what it really allowed was for other tribes to lull them into a false sense of security before poisoning them. Or, even worse, selling Thor the franchise rights to a supposedly interesting religion. That hadn’t gone well even by their standards.
He decided to take control of the conversation. He gave her a stern look and said, “No. I’m not a god,” in a firm voice. Unfortunately, she just stood there studying him critically, as if waiting for him to do something entertaining with the laws of the universe, which kind of ruined the effect. It was further marred by his next question. “Could you tell me where I can relieve myself?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“I need to pee,” he said, making an unmistakable gesture.
“Oh,” she giggled. “Our men usually go off the side of the cliff.”
Ingvar looked down. “There are houses down there.” He didn’t care about the people as such, but there were parts of his anatomy that he’d grown fond of, places where, given a choice, he’d prefer not to get shot with a poisoned dart.
“Don’t worry about it. We told them not to build there, and we told them why. They’ll just have to live with it.”
He shrugged and got into his stance. After a few moments, he turned back to her. “Do you mind? I can’t go if you’re watching like that.”
She giggled evilly and walked off, leaving Ingvar with comforting visions of the village around them burning and Slender Reed running out of one of the houses, ablaze and with a couple of axes buried in her back. Thus relaxed, he went about his business, ignoring the enraged protests from below.
Bjorn was big, even for a Viking warrior. He towered above most of them, and his head even came up to Thor’s nose. He’d be the first one sent in when storming a compound, since arrows tended to be ineffective, and even poison only gave him a pleasant buzz.
Ingvar and Thor studied him from the shadows. “What in the world is he doing?” the god asked.
With infinite restraint, the Viking captain answered. “He is making a pot.”
“Yes. A pot.”
They stood in silence for a few moments.
“Why?” Thor asked.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Then I’ll ask him.” The god lumbered over to where the man was stooped over a strange apparatus consisting of a wheel and a pedal. On the wheel was a mass of clay, slowly taking shape. After taking a minute to study it, Ingvar concluded that Bjorn was creating a sculpture of a jellyfish with most, but not all, of its tentacles hacked off.
“What is the meaning of this?”
Bjorn looked up at the god with a dreamy look in his eyes. “Making a pot. Happy. Peaceful. No arrows.”
“Pot making is for women. You are a Viking. What will you tell your ancestors when you get to Valhalla?”
“No arrows. Valhalla far away,” the man replied, slurring most of his words.
“It might be closer than you think,” the god growled, as thunder rumbled in the clear sky and static lifted the hairs on Ingvar’s arms.
This was never a good sign, so Ingvar decided to intervene, no matter how unwise that course of action might be. “Excuse me, Thor.”
“What? Can’t you see I’m aiming? This is going to be a tricky shot, since I have to get the lightning around that overhang in order to hit him.”
“Yes, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Do you really think it’s a good idea to hit him with a thunderbolt right now?”
“Of course it is, he’s useless to us!”
“While that may be true, it’s also true that your thunderbolts tend to break a great many things other than what you’re aiming at. If you reduce this particular village to rubble, you may indeed kill Bjorn-”
“Good, that’s all I want,” the god interrupted, raising his hammer.
“Be that as it may,” Ingvar said, rapidly. “You’ll also very probably kill the rest of us. And the survivors are likely to be roasted and eaten by the surviving villagers, who will probably be miffed for calling down lightning and generally blowing their little city to bits. You don’t want that, do you?”
Thor thought about it for a while, before reluctantly lowering his hammer. “I guess not. But what should we do about Bjorn?”
Ingvar thought about it. He thought how peaceful this place and its inhabitants were. How nice it would be if, after all this wandering around the globe, they could finally settle down here and just stop. Even though the god assured them that if they kept moving east, they would eventually make it back to Norway. Ingvar didn’t want to keep moving east. He wanted to stop here, enjoy the peace that this small, hidden corner of the planet offered. Maybe even grow old here and marry that infuriating native girl.
All in all, it would be a good life.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Ingvar told his god. “It can’t last.”
Strangely enough, the peace lasted for a few days. Much to the god’s consternation, more and more men became addicted to the serene peace of making pottery. They weren’t very good at it, and the clay usually hardened well before any piece was finished, but they didn’t seem to mind. Even the incessant ridicule the men of the tribe subjected them to for involving themselves in such feminine activity was ignored.
Ingvar was of two minds about this. On one hand, he was happy to have a few days of peace, while on the other, he was worried about his men’s sanity. Under normal circumstances the Vikings would have sliced the offenders into small cubes before, with their blood up, looking for more offenders, even imaginary ones. Failing that, they’d attack each other, or trees that gave them attitude. Even rocks.
As the god had wandered off, probably to some incestuous party on the astral plane, the only other person who shared Ingvar’s concern seemed to be Strong Buffalo, the village elder. As the days went by, he became more and more nervous, and would often jump at any rock that slid down the cliff. He spent most of his time stomping on grasshoppers that didn’t look as though they meant any harm.
By sunset off the third day, the old man was a wreck, and when he walked past with a determined look in his eye, Ingvar decided it might be expedient to follow.
Strong Buffalo made a beeline to the women’s complex were most of the Viking horde was sitting at the pottery wheels, and most of the village men were amusing themselves by watching them. Upon entering, he looked over them for a moment. “You call that pottery?” he sneered. “Most of that useless stuff is already hard.”
The Vikings ignored him.
“I know what the problem is. The problem is that you can’t make the wheels spin fast enough. Even our women can make the wheels go faster than that. And you’re even luckier you’re here with us! The people north and south of us don’t even have wheels – they’re an Anasazi secret! You clumsy oafs would have to form the clay by hand. You! Who can’t even spin wheels as quickly as my daughter.
Slowly, imperceptibly at first, but surely, the wheels began to gain speed. Towering mounds of clay, some of it nearly dry after hours of spinning, began to sway dangerously. And still the old man taunted.
“Maybe you should go into the fields and help pick berries like little girls. When you reach womanhood, you may tell us so we can find you husbands.”
The wheels spun even faster. Droplets of clay spattered the walls and the onlookers. One of the men took a half-hardened shard in the eye. “Hey,” he said. “Maybe you girls should be more careful.” Raucous laughter ensued.
But there was no stopping the horde. While the physical and psychological damage they’d suffered on their interminable journey made them crave peace and monotony, the berserker instinct had not died. The wheels became a blur, causing more and more shards to fly.
The native’s laughter soon turned to angry murmurs. Action followed as one of the guys on the front row, fed up with being pelted, walked to the nearest wheel, Bjorn’s, picked up the clay deformity therein and dropped it on the Viking’s head.
The Viking looked up at him and stood. The native swallowed as he now looked up at the tower of muscle looming above him, but relaxed when Bjorn smiled beatifically at him. The Viking then, quite calmly began to strangle him.
Somebody came to the rescue. Somebody else threw a punch…
It was a bruised and battered Viking group – they were in no condition to call themselves a horde of any sort – that began walking east once more. Despite the pain and a loose tooth, Ingvar considered it a victory. For the first time in ages, they hadn’t suffered any casualties more serious than a black eye when dealing with a native village.
Now all they had to do was keep going east and north until they got to Roskilde. They’d already walked a long way. How much further could it be?
He found himself humming a little war song – the only kind he knew – as he walked. His companions insulted him, but they ached too much to take any action to stop him. It was much too hot to try to catch him and cut off his lips with an axe.
© November, 2014 Gustavo Bondoni.
Gustavo Bondoni is an experienced writer from Argentina. He has published over 100 stories in ten countries and four languages. He was a winner of the National Space Societies Return to Luna Contest and the Marooned Award for Flash Fiction in 2008. His fiction has appeared in the Texas STAAR English Test cycle, a Bundoran Press anthology, The Rose & Thorn, Albedo One, The Best of Every Day Fiction and other places. Longer works include an ebook novella entitled Branch (Wolfsinger Press, 2014), a short fantasy novel The Curse of El Bastardo (2010), and two reprint collections, Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011, Dark Quest Books). His website is www.gustavobondoni.com.ar and his blog can be found at http://bondo-ba.livejournal.com/.