Promised Land

A Fantasy Short Story by Gustavo Bondoni

Promised Land

by Gustavo Bondoni

 

When the Viking pantheon gets pushed out of Scandinavia by an encroaching new religion, they set sail to find new lands.
 

Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages.  He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest science fiction novel is Splinter (2021), a sequel to his 2017 novel Outside. He has also published four monster books: Ice Station: Death (2019), Jungle Lab Terror (2020), Test Site Horror (2020) and Lost Island Rampage (2021), two other science fiction novels: Incursion (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).

In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award.  He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

 
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More TTTV stories by Gustavo Bondoni: https://talltaletv.com/tag/gustavo-bondoni/

 

“I don’t wear shorts,” said Leif for about the millionth time. “I’m a Viking. Vikings don’t wear shorts.”

Eric, who was also a Viking, but was, in fact, wearing shorts, simply shook his head. He had stopped arguing with Leif about this issue a few days before. Pausing in his work to look at his friend bundled in furs and a bearskin cape, he had to admit that Leif certainly looked the part. Anybody anywhere near the shores of the North Sea, and even down to the Mediterranean would take one look at him and run for his life. It never did any good, of course, since Vikings were notoriously good at throwing things such as spears and axes into the backs of fleeing villagers, but it was an automatic response, bred over hundreds of years because the death it entailed was just slightly less certain than that offered by standing one’s ground.

Unfortunately, though, as far as Eric could ascertain, the swamp they were currently wading through wasn’t anywhere remotely near the North Sea. From the way the inhabitants acted, it could possibly be Italy. Italians were supposed to be slightly unbalanced, and Eric had never met any, so he supposed that was where they might be. But he had a terrible feeling that they had gone much too far to the south for this to be the case. Besides, he thought he would have heard about it if the Italians had had skin so black as to look blue.

Anyway, things had started to go wrong too long ago for them to be anywhere near Europe.

***

They had been following the coast of a large landmass for a few weeks, heading straight south for reasons that it wasn’t Eric’s place to question, and could best be described as political. The coastal cities had initially been large, civilized, whitewashed towns into whose harbors the Viking longships were accepted as “traders”, which was normal practice when the townsfolk were armed, organized and capable of turning a fleet into unidentifiable bits of floating wreckage if the “Viking” routine were attempted or even hinted at.

But these towns had gradually disappeared as the Vikings continued south, eventually coming to small villages built of mud huts that looked about as able to defend themselves as the average European freehold, which is to say not at all. These were peacefully passed up as unlikely to contain anything of value.

Eric had wanted to stop to explore, look around, do some pillaging and raping with possibly a slight burning down of a few villages thrown in just on general principles in order to calm the restlessness he had been observing among his crew, normally the best-behaved group of murdering barbarians anywhere on the high seas.

But Thor, who, unfortunately, had chosen Eric’s longship as his command craft, just shook his head and told him to forget it.

Eric was tempted to argue, but remembered that the last flagship had sunk because Thor had accidentally hit it with a lightning bolt after he became frustrated due to an argument with one of the crew members regarding some fine points of religion.

It was another few weeks before Thor finally relented. They had been sailing beside a jungle for days and the restlessness of various crews in the Viking fleet had made them slightly rowdy, with twenty dead, twelve maimed, and one fellow tied to the top of a mast during a particularly nasty thunderstorm, who now spent his time looking over the railing and drooling while shouting physically unlikely things about the reproductive habits of the inhabitants of Roskilde to anyone who ventured near him.

Finally, a gap appeared in the trees. In the clearing stood a small village, roughly circular in form and with walls that appeared to be built out of thick saplings.

Eric gave Thor a hopeful look. Thor rolled his eyes.

“All right,” he said, “if you must…”

Eric whooped, gave the order to attack and placed his horned helmet firmly on his head. His battle-axe, of course, never left his person.

On seeing Eric’s ship headed for shore, the entire Viking fleet jumped to full speed at once. The race was on! That village didn’t look big enough to be much entertainment for more than one longship, and he was determined to get there first.

“Faster, you swine!” he roared at his crew.

But, almost immediately, he realized that it would do no good. Gunnar the Younger, may he die toothless of old age and never enter Valhalla, with his experienced sailors would make shore before him.

Eric was helpless to do anything but watch, feeling the bile rising in his stomach. So close!

He was forced to watch as Gunnar’s longship reached the shallows and ground to a halt.

He bitterly observed Gunnar’s men jump overboard and run towards the village, screaming like the berserkers that some of them were, waving large menacing axes at the walls.

That could have been us, he thought.

His own longship was just now cresting the final breakers, fifty meters from shore. And all he could do was watch. And what he saw filled him with incredulity. The village gate, a rickety affair lashed together with what looked like long pieces of grass, actually opened of its own accord in the face of the Viking rush. They were coming out for the slaughter! How unfair could life get? He was going to hear about this from Gunnar for the rest of his days.

He was, however, spared this torment by the fact that, at that precise moment, a large group of black-skinned lunatics wearing nothing but white paint ran out of the village, speared most of Gunnar’s men, hamstrung the rest with stone axes and then stood there, calmly discussing the fight among themselves as if it had been last week’s cricket results, only stopping when a groan from one of the wounded Vikings disturbed the conversation, necessitating that the offender be put out of his misery with a sharp stick.

Eric swallowed. That could have been us, he thought.

In the end, it had taken a full coordinated charge to win the day. And, to make things worse, the villagers had taken one look at the group of massed Vikings, and decided they wanted nothing to do with it at all. When the walls were finally overrun, the village was found to be completely deserted, not a goat or chicken in sight, much less a human being.

As a final insult, quite a few of the Viking berserkers had managed to hurt themselves going over the walls. Eric was depressingly unsurprised to learn that Leif was among the men carried back to their ships on a stretcher.

***

Yes, thought Eric, three weeks later in an almost infinitely more swampy area, Leif is certainly good in a fight, but that’s just about all he’s good for.

Unfortunately, however, that could be said about anyone in his crew, the Viking nation in general, and, Eric was increasingly ready to believe, a certain lightning-spewing storm god.

Said deity’s latest orders had the crew very close to mutiny, and Eric found himself spending ever greater portions of his time arguing with them over some of the specifics.

“Can you explain to us what, exactly, we’re doing?” Today, the question had come from Haraldr, but Eric knew that the source could just as easily have been any of the others, so he wasn’t at all surprised. By this time, a certain amount of fatalistic resignation was becoming an intrinsic part of his being. He just sighed.

“What, again?”

“Yes. We’ve got very bad memories,” said Haraldr. Eric wasn’t certain if Haraldr was being insubordinate or if he was just incredibly dense, but, on balance, he decided to assume the latter. Reasons for this choice abounded and included, but were not necessarily limited to the tangible evidence of his crew’s denseness, accumulated over long years of observation. A second, and much more immediate motive was that the quantity of tempered and sharpened metal objects in possession of his crew made it healthier in the short term just to answer the question. The long term psychological effects of having this kind of conversation as often as now seemed likely was something that Eric preferred not to dwell on at that moment.

“We’re building a temple to celebrate the might of Thor.” He said. Having been answering the same question for five days in a row, he had it pretty much down pat.

“So why are we walking around in a swamp?”

This was actually a new one. The swamp had been Thor’s latest brainstorm, coming, as it did, just that morning.

“We’re looking for stones, rocks and boulders to build the temple with.”

“Why? There’s plenty of wood in the trees. Let’s just build him a wooden temple.”

“Because Thor can only be correctly venerated in a permanent stone structure.” Even as he said it, Eric knew that unless his crew was even dumber than he thought, this wasn’t going to convince anybody. The places of worship traditionally dedicated to Thor ranged from small improvised altars in the middle of the nearest convenient snowfield, to a small clearing on the deck of a longship. As a rule, any surface large enough to sacrifice a chicken on was deemed holy enough. In light of this, a wooden temple built out of the spectacular trees they had seen since landing here would probably qualify as the greatest temple to Thor in the history of Thordom.

The main problem with this reasoning being that Thor was not himself lately. This would normally have been an improvement, as Thor was, at the best of times, ill-humored, unpredictable, and, to put it politely, stupid. Ideal Storm God / War God material, in other words. Unfortunately, however, since leaving Norway, he had been even worse than usual: introspective and moody letting fly with his thunderbolts for even the slightest of transgressions. He was mainly mad at the followers of the new Christan God, who had taken most of his worshippers, but had no compunction about taking his frustrations out on whomsoever happened to be nearby at the time. So, if Thor asked for a stone temple, you gave him a stone temple, even if the crew drove you nuts arguing about it.

Haraldr, with every intention of doing precisely that, raised his finger. Unexpectedly, however, he halted suddenly in mid-gesture and turned a decidedly alarming shade of white, pointing at something behind Eric’s back.

Eric, staking his life on the assumption that Haraldr was probably too stupid to think of something as elaborate as trying to make him turn around in order to stab him in the back, turned to look. He quickly understood Haraldr’s shock.

They were surrounded by a large group of tall, black-skinned men in white paint, spears at the ready.

There being nowhere to run, Eric decided to sweet talk their way out of the situation.

“Er, hi,” he said by way of preamble.

This seemed to go down not at all well with the natives. They murmured angrily among themselves and made violent spearing motions at the Vikings, which Eric didn’t like the look of at all. A taller, slightly older man towards the front seemed to be trying to calm them down.

But, Eric thought, maybe he’s the head cook and they’re discussing recipes.

After a while, however, the men did settle down. They seemed, for the moment content to glare at the Viking group (it would have been incorrect to describe them as a horde in their current state of mind), and did so for quite a while, the tension so thick it was almost visible.

The standoff finally ended because, under the combined effects of the enormous heat, the strenuous march through the swamp, and the fact that he was covered in bearskins from head to foot, and was also wearing a heavy horned helmet, Leif keeled over with a splash.

Eric thought that the entertainment value would have been higher had it not happened in front of a large band of potentially murderous enemies, and the fact that Leif had already fainted due to the oppressive heat on each of the last five days.

Eric just shrugged at the leader of the natives.

“He’s a Viking,” he said. “Vikings don’t wear shorts.”

***

Two conflicting visions flashed across Eric’s mind as the natives herded them at spear-point down a well-worn footpath that the Vikings had somehow missed. In the first, Eric imagined the natives recognizing him as a superior being and holding a feast in his honor. In this vision, Eric presided at the head of the table. In the second vision, Eric also saw himself at a table during the same feast. He had some kind of tentacled fruit in his mouth and was served, lightly grilled, as the main course.

Since he preferred to avoid being lightly grilled (or, for that matter, boiled, fried or even just marinated in garlic sauce), Eric worried as the group was led onwards along the path. He fretted as he noted that the path the Vikings had somehow missed seemed roughly parallel to their earlier path, and allowed them to undo in five easy minutes what had taken them four hours of disgusting wading through swamps earlier that day. He nearly fainted when, through the foliage came the unmistakable smell of cooking meat.

But, when they finally came to a final bend at the end of the forest path, what greeted them was not the grisly scene of a primitive, disordered native camp fully immersed in a cannibalistic orgy, but the grisly scene of a primitive, disordered Viking camp. In all honesty, it must be admitted that the camp was full of natives, as well as Vikings, but they didn’t seem to be in the process of actually eating the European visitors.

Considering the fact that the groups were of approximately equal size and the amount of war materiel possessed by each side, the fact that there was a notable absence of any sort of hubbub, particularly of the type generated by individuals being beheaded by Viking axes or turned into pincushions by native spears, Eric deduced that some kind of agreement must have been reached.

Lost in these musings, he almost didn’t realize that he had been separated from the rest of his group and herded at spear-point towards an area largely clear of men from either band, in the center of which stood two figures deep in conference. Clearly visible was Thor’s enormous bulk, understandably blocking any view that might have been had of his companion. From what little could be seen, Eric got the impression that Thor was talking to his shield.

While unsurprising, this did little to boost Eric’s confidence. Eric thought that it was in particularly bad taste for Thor to go completely nuts at this moment, and, even if it was unavoidable, a traditional deity such as Thor should not be seen talking to his shield in this embarrassing way and would be much better served by going off into a secluded corner of the woods and drooling quietly to himself for a bit.

It was with the idea of giving his god a good telling off, lightning bolts or no lightning bolts, that Eric approached. Unfortunately, this idea died out immediately when he saw that the shield was talking back. As a matter of fact, the shield not only had a painted face which Eric could now see had moving mouth parts and eyes, but it also had short arms, one of which was holding a tiny spear, identical in design to that of the natives, as well as diminutive legs, on which it was standing.

Eric gaped.

“Bamaku,” said Thor, “this is Eric, the captain of my flagship. Eric, this is Bamaku, the ancestor God. He seems to hold sway hereabouts.”

“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Eric.” Said Bamaku.

Eric shook himself into action. There was a time when he would have been extremely put out by the fact that an animated shield was speaking to him, not to mention that it spoke to him in words he could understand. Fortunately, the long sojourn from Europe with Thor on board had led him to take just about anything in stride, no matter how stupid. He still goggled a bit at this new godly apparition, who evidently understood at least part of what was worrying him.

“You are among Gods now,” said Bamaku, “if we feel it necessary for you to understand us, you most certainly will, my good man.”

This was new to Eric, whose religious experiences had, thus far been limited to Thor, who tended to use the language with somewhat less finesse. Gods were not supposed to speak in long sentences complete with verbs and things. Perhaps, he mused, knowing that now was absolutely the wrong time for that sort of thing, but unable to help himself, Thor’s inability to speak any better than the average four year old might be linked to other traits, such as the occasional difficulty in buttoning his bearskin cloak, without, at best, getting his buttons crossed up, or, at worst, losing his temper completely and razing a medium-sized city.

“Thor,” said Bamaku, “was just about to explain what, exactly, you are doing here.”

“I was?” said Thor.

But Eric, knowing the IQ of his God and also having been through this already, came to the rescue.

“We’re building a temple,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because, ” said Eric with the unmistakable air of someone on familiar ground, finally, “without a temple, there is no way to venerate Thor in a way befitting of his stature.”

“And why,” retorted Bamaku, with the air of someone who has enormous doubts as to Thor’s stature but cannot adequately express his disdain due to the fact that his face is just painted on, “would you want to do that?”

As well as being unable to convey his enormous lack of respect for Thor’s belief that he needed a temple here on Bamaku’s turf, Bamaku was also unable to convey the anger that was building up inside. Sadly, Eric was quite inexperienced at reading the subtleties of the facial expressions of animated shields.

“Why? Well to impress and convert the unwashed heathens, of course.”

“Of course.” By this time, Bamaku’s voice was so cold that even Eric noticed something was wrong. An embarrassing silence ensued as he tried to decipher what it might be.

“Oh.” He said, finally.

“Quite,” said Bamaku. “Glad that’s settled. So I’ll just leave you to get back on your little toy boats and going back to wherever it is you came from.”

“No.” said Thor, stamping his foot. Thunder rolled in the distance.

Bamaku looked miffed.

“Look here, old fellow, there’s absolutely no call for that. It’s very bad form to come into another God’s playground and try to steal his toys. Sorry old fellow.” This last was directed at Eric, who made signs to he God that it was perfectly all right, no harm done.

“Tell that to Jehovah.” Said Thor grumpily.

Eric exchanged a shrug with Bamaku, indicating that he, too, was unaware of what was going on.

“Who?” said Bamaku.

“Jehovah. New guy. Bushy beard. Thinks he’s a one-man pantheon. Immigrated from the east and isn’t too picky about whose worshippers he steals. From what I’ve seen of his practices, he made his money in sheep or fish or some such drivel.” Thor paused in order to let Bamaku absorb the enormity o the concept. “Sheep! Can you believe that? nouveau riche bastard. Plus, he’s got something like ten religions set up to worship him, all of them discussing niggling little points in the dogma, but it’s all controlled by the same guy. Can you believe it?”

“I believe,” said Bamaku, “that what you are describing is referred to as a franchise system. But I don’t see what it has to do with our little, ahem, situation.”

“Everything. He’s all over Europe and moved into my territory a few years back. Before you knew it, slam, bang, half of my worshippers refuse to come on raids or worse.”

It looked to Eric as though Bamaku knew that saying ‘how so, worse?’ was not a path he wanted to travel down, as that way lay insanity. The inner struggle was visible in the working of the wood. In the end, curiosity won out over intelligence.

“How so, worse?”

“Well, picture this. Here you are, in the middle of a spot of fun, such as attacking a peasant village, and you are about to hack somebody’s arm off with an axe. Suddenly, you remember that you’re supposed to turn the other cheek. You do this, expecting something similar from the villager, who then proceeds to brain you with a hammer. It’s depressing how often I see this happen. So I did the only thing I could. I gathered my most loyal worshippers and set off to find new lands to conquer.”

“How did you choose the most loyal worshippers?” Asked Bamaku, intrigued despite both his better judgment and the fact that he was very disturbed by the phrase ‘new lands to conquer’.

“Strangely enough, they were the last ones I asked,” said Thor with a gleam of, if not intelligence, at least cunning in his eyes. “The first one said no, but he had the terrible misfortune of being hit by lightning immediately. The second one also said no, and can you believe that he was struck too? After that, there seemed to be a mass religious experience and the volunteers poured in.”

“Well, old boy,” said Bamaku, “I feel for you and all that, but I think it would be best if you just mount those boats of yours and, so to speak, leave.”

“No.” said Thor.

“But…”

“No. I don’t care. I’m sick of being on a boat. We’re staying and that’s final.” Thunder rolled ominously in the distance. Bamako said nothing, so Thor continued, “and if you try treachery, such as having your warriors attack my men in their sleep, I’ll blast the whole country to smithereens. Do we understand each other?”

The silence that ensued was broken only by the sound of lightning striking the sea, to the probable annoyance of many fish. Thor didn’t care about this, being, as he was, not the God of fish.

Bamaku, who was a god of fish (quite a separate, but no less solemn responsibility than his role as ancestor God), looked at the sea in annoyance. Unfortunately, there was also a calculating, faraway look in his eyes that did Eric’s nerves no good. It seemed to him that a calculating look in any adversary’s eyes was not good news. Any sign of intelligence higher than that which could have been found in the eyes of a drunken wombat would, to Eric’s eyes, not have been good news.

Intelligence in the eyes of an adversarially-minded God would undoubtedly represent bad news of colossally high caliber.

This feeling was confirmed when Bamaku finally opened his mouth.

“How about a little wager?” he said. “If I win, you leave. If you win, I’ll go, and take my villagers with me.”

And Eric’s spirits sank even further.

***

Eric’s head was spinning. He had one hour to put together something referred to as a football team. The way it had been explained to him was that football was a game in which ten men on each team tried to kick a ball into a net while an eleventh man, who was allowed to use his hands, tried to avoid having the other team kick the ball into his net. The team who kicked the ball into the opposing net the greatest number of times in a measured time period was declared the winner.

After separating from Bamaku, Thor had taken him aside and explained that this game would be tremendously popular in the future, and that it would, in fact be invented by northern Europeans, therefore giving the Vikings an obvious advantage. He tapped his nose conspiratorially at this point.

Eric wondered how a being could, simultaneously be omniscient (at least omniscient enough to be able to see into the future), while, at the same time, be capable of saying something as colossally idiotic as that. He concluded that it was probably an eternity of eating roasted boar that did it, but this revelation didn’t get him out of having to organize a football team.

What was the point anyway? There could not be any cosmic significance to a game in which even small hand-held weapons were banned absolutely. But, his responsibility was to put together a team and explain the rules to them, so it was this that he would do.

The explaining part, of course, he particularly dreaded.

He chose the ten men he thought looked most athletic, following the long months at sea, and complemented them with Leif, as goal keeper, on the grounds that nobody in their right mind would willingly run towards him, even unarmed. He was, by far, the largest of the Vikings, and despite the obvious drawbacks, looked suitably menacing in his bearskin cloak and horned helmet.

Eric got his team together and explained the rules. He was astounded to discover that not one question was forthcoming. Was it possible that Thor had been correct? Could football be instinctive to Northern Europeans?

Although he would have been prepared to wager a large amount of money against this being the case, he still buckled down and drew up a very basic tactical scheme. The team would be spread evenly over the playing field, with Leif nearest the Viking goal, and Canute the Berserker, the fastest runner on the Viking team, nearest the enemy goal. Eric himself would stand by the side of the field trying to keep his team in some sort of order.

Preparations were just about finished when Thor arrived to inform hin that the game was about to begin. He further explained that due to the extremely sensitive nature of the wager, there would be a neutral referee assigned to the match.

“Don’t worry,” said Eric confidently, “I’ll have Leif work him over a little. He wouldn’t dream of ruling against us.”

“That probably wouldn’t be such a good idea,” said Thor.

“Why not?”

Thor’s reply was drowned out by a small but solid explosion some distnce away. A large man with way too many arms and strange headgear materialized. He was wearing a striped referee’s shirt which must have been a bear to tailor, especially at such short notice. Approaching Thor, they fell into history’s most multi-armed embrace.

“Thor, you old scoundrel,” said the newcomer, “how are things holding up in Valhalla?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been there for a while. I had some trouble with a new God, and he sent a plague of locusts into the main hall. Last I heard, Odin was still trying to get them out of his beard. The rumors also say that he isn’t too keen on seeing me right now, or, rather, that he is, but for reasons other than those that I might prefer.”

Thor turned to Eric and introduced the newcomer as Siva, explaining also that he would be the referee. Said multi-armed being was unable to acknowledge this, as he had already wandered off in search of Bamaku. Thor continued in much quieter tones.

“I wouldn’t let Leif go anywhere near him. They call him the ‘Devourer of Worlds’, and I don’t think a single Viking is going to satisfy him if he gets irritated, but it might just start him off, serving as an appetizer as it were. You have no idea how much trouble I’ll get into if he happens to destroy the planet, the solar system or even the universe as we know it. So try not to get him too worked up, OK?”

Thor punched Eric playfully on the shoulder and walked towards the field, while Eric picked himself off the ground and felt the area for broken bones.

Teams and referee in place, the game began.

Both teams immediately demonstrated beyond the slightest possibility of doubt that not one of the twenty-two players had ever had an inkling of the game before that day. Not one of them could control the ball with his feet, and when, in frustration, they picked it up with their hands, Siva would immediately blow the whistle for a foul.

This, however was the only type of foul that Eric could see being called. Siva was showing what, even by Viking standards had to be considered an extremely relaxed attitude towards homicidal violence. Other than the hand-fouls and out-of-bounds, play was stopped only once, when a native player, obviously dead, was pulled out from beneath a pile of Vikings and replaced with a fresh player from the sidelines.

The mayhem and bodily harm would have continued all day, scoreless, had it not been for this new player. Evidently, being outside the field, caught up with the emotion of being a spectator, he had failed to grasp the underlying concept of what was going on within, specifically, that preserving life and limb was much more important than merely trying to win the game.

On the very first ball he received, he controlled it, avoided a lunging tackle from the final defender, and found himself face to face with Leif and the Viking goal. He ran straight at Leif, who, surprised to find such easy pickings, put his head down and charged. They came together with a bone-jarring crash, immediately followed by the sight of Leif picking the stunned player above his head and breaking him in half over his knee. Eric winced.

Only after the body was dragged off the field did Eric notice that the villagers seemed to be celebrating. Unnoticed by all, the late lamented villager had kicked the ball into the net just before meeting his end. A high price to pay, but the damage had been done.

At this point, Eric was sick to his stomach. He was tired of this. Having been dragged from his beautiful hills and icy fjords, to this sweltering, god-infested hellhole, was something he could take. Being asked to build a temple from nonexistent stone that had to be dragged out of a swamp by his idiotic crew could also be endured. Now he was responsible for a team of murderers who, under no account were to offend the referee because he might destroy the known universe. Even this, he would suffer.

But the mere thought of getting back onto a longship with Thor and sailing off somewhere that might, potentially, be even worse, was not something he was prepared to consider. They had to win this game. The only sensible alternative was suicide.

But there was no chance of his team scoring a goal. They were hopeless. They hadn’t yet managed to keep the ball in their possession for more than three seconds in a row in what had transpired of the match. Eric knew that they were doomed, so he began to cast around for a large rock to throw at Siva’s head. He knew that when the world was destroyed, he would have a hell of a time explaining it to the bewildered spirits of his friends, family, and to be brutally honest, everybody else, but he considered this an acceptable price to pay in order to avoid the consequences of losing the match.

But then, just as his fingers closed upon an acceptable missile, a miracle!

Canute the Berserker, who had been doing considerable damage to the physiques of the local defenders, but had as yet to touch the ball, seemed to notice, amid his shrieking laughter that the enemy goalie had picked something from the ground. It was the ball, but Eric didn’t think Canute actually cared or was even aware of it.

All Canute knew was that the goalie had picked something off the ground, and that this was an unforgivable provocation. He ran towards the goalkeeper, picked him off his feet and hurled him into the air with seemingly superhuman strength. Brought to new berserk heights by this feat, he ran off the field completely, into the sea, and across the breakers, following which he was lost from sight and, presumably, drowned.

The goalie, meanwhile, landed in a boneless lump inside the net, still clutching the ball. Siva signaled the center of the field, signifying that it was a fair score, and that it was a tie game: 1-1! The locals were all over him in protest, but, after much shrugging by Siva (a captivating sight with that many arms), they were forced to concede the goal or forfeit the game.

Eric felt the will to live return all of a sudden, along with the nervous tension of knowing that the next goal would decide the outcome. He knew there was almost no time left.

The villagers stopped a Viking attack at about midfield and the ball bounced towards Leif. He ran towards it, much closer than the nearest villager, but suddenly slowed. He would still reach the ball first, but it would be a close thing.

Two steps away from the ball, Leif collapsed. The red, nearly purple color of his face made it plain that the heat had gotten to him. Again.

The unopposed villager kicked the ball into the unguarded net and ran off to climb a tree in celebration.

It was over. They had lost.

***

Only Eric’s pathological fear of drowning, something very logical, considering that he was a Viking, kept him from contemplating suicide more seriously as the Horde mounted the longships.

Bamaku was being a god sport, damn him.

“If you sail straight to the west,” he was saying, “you’ll find a beautiful, lush fertile country which, in the future, will be known as Brazil. The natives are friendly and the local deities aren’t too powerful. You should be all right.”

Thor just glared at him and mounted the last boat. They were off.

Eric noted that they were moving west, across the vast ocean. His death-wish had, by this time, subsided, replaced by a sort of smoldering anger mixed with the certainty that, no matter what Thor tried, it would inevitably be just one screwup after another.

Well, he thought, if worst comes to worst, we can always teach those Brazilians a thing or two about football.

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