To celebrate and honor reaching 500 followers on Twitter, I promised to post an excerpt of my current WIP: Draugr.
First, a little backgroud:
Leif Halfdan spends his immortality working as a historical consultant and detective on the police force. One morning, he is called to consult with an Archaeological operation in the Highlands of Scotland. A necklace with his name carved on it has been found in an 800-year old grave. He agrees to go, much to the aggravation of his Sidhe girlfriend. After a fight, he leaves Adele behind, unsure if they’re still together.
On the way to Scotland an anonymous stranger calls him with a dire warning to stay away from the dig and a curse that threatens death to any who stray too close. Disturbed, he arrives, but is quickly saddled with two greenhorn students, Carrie and Seamus. The three of them get lost on their way to the site, and pass a night in the wilds. This scene is what happens while they’re camping.
Scene Begins Here
Hours later, the siblings disappeared into the depths of the tent. Leif sat by the dwindling fire, his jetlag ensuring he wouldn’t get to sleep for hours. Regardless, he didn’t mind an evening without the constant yammering of university students.
He tapped a stick on the ground, enjoying the wet thudding sound it made in the mud. Those polar gloves had long since proved themselves useful, and he felt vaguely grateful to Adele for reminding him to pack them ten minutes before he left. It was the only thing she’d said to him. He shifted and stirred the coals in the bed of the fire with his stick. His phone sat in the tent, useless and dead. Even if he had been in a good place with her, he wouldn’t have been able to communicate anyway.
Sitting back, he tilted his head and stared at the sky. A billion stars glimmered back at him, a clear reminder that civilization – and cell signal – was a long way off. He sighed and closed his eyes. How had he managed to screw everything up so badly?
“Here I am,” he whispered to the indifferent sky. “Leading two bonehead college kids into the middle of nowhere. My girlfriend hates me, and some random necklace from my long-dead past somehow shows up in Scotland. What a way to screw up.”
Nothing answered him. The sounds of the night around him continued: the crackling of the wood, the rustling of the trees, the call of a nocturnal creature. He couldn’t hear much else, not even the soft roar of a road nearby.
Sleep flirted with his eyelids, gently tugging them downward. The ache in his shoulders had nothing to do with his fatigue, however. To his left, his backpack stood open, and, shrugging off the tiredness, he fished inside it for his notebook. Flipping through to the right page, he tilted it so that the dwindling firelight illuminated the last words of the poem:
From the darkness, where can one man hide?
No safe place from folly or pride.
Hot be heart and breath and bone.
Viking hoard be cold as stone.”
What did it mean? Throughout the last two days, since he stepped off the plane, the words dogged the back of his mind. If this curse was only the ramblings of an angry student, why did they choose him as the recipient? Monumentally stupid, considering he could bring down the full weight of the Beryl Bay police force for this kind of threat.
Even if he entertained the notion of a real-life curse on the dig site, the spell-weaver had it wrong. There was no hoard where they’d be excavating. According to the email Smitty sent before he’d left, the dig excavated a simple settlement on an open stretch of land in front of a small mountain. A farm, or at best a small town. A handful of potential buildings. The necklace had been found under a hearth stone, which was common for small valuables.
He stirred the fire, stoking the coals. Norse hoards were placed where great, powerful men put them: in burial mounds known as tumuli, or in cairns. And in both cases, the reasons were the same – either to hide the riches away from enemies that would steal it, and to send the dead off in style. Why would anyone want to curse an as-yet nameless and unremarkable farmstead?
He tapped the dirt, thinking. In his experience, it was probable a tumulus existed, depended on who lived there. No way to tell until he reached the site. And, said a voice in his head, no way to know how Freydis had died.
That brought him up short. Could the necklace and the curse be connected? Somewhere in the darkness, an owl hooted, and he snorted, shaking the notion – and the fatigue – from his shoulders.
In the thousand or so years he’d lived, some things stay the same.
Time erases many things. But never greed. Greed endures. Whoever called him, be they disgruntled archaeologist or misguided local or some malicious spell-caster, obviously there was something worth excavating aside from the odd potsherd or farm tool.
Something stirred in the darkness beyond the glowing embers. Leif yawned and put the notebook down. He got to his feet slowly and kicked still-damp dirt toward the noise.
“Shoo. Shoo. Nothing here for you. If there were food here, it’d be eaten. Go on.”
The noise stopped, and he held his breath a moment to listen. The owl had ceased its hooting. Something curdled in his gut and he stood, holding the stick a little tighter than was necessary.
A snuffling grunt sounded close by. A badger? He waved his arms and stomped around, hoping to drive it away. And then, a stench, putrid and rank, rose around him, and he gagged.
“Shit, what is that?”
He held a hand to his mouth. That smell – that miasma held death and rot. Blood and images of grinning corpses overtook his vision as quickly as he could think, and he stumbled, nearly burning his feet in the dying fire. Panic took root in his gut and lit up his skull. Scrambling to his backpack, he yanked out his knife and brandished it. He had to run! Where could he hide? Valhalla rose all around him.
And just as quickly as it arrived, the stench and panic dissipated, and Leif was left crouched by the tent, shaking and sweating. A shuffling noise behind him made him whirl, still grasping his knife.
“What’s going on? Ugh, what’s that smell,” said Seamus, fingers pinching his nose. His brown hair stood on end, and he squinted at the weak glow of the embers. Leif dropped his knife with a shudder and shook his head. His fists clenched behind his back, and he fought to master his emotions. When he did open his mouth, his voice sounded husky, like he’d been screaming.
“Prob…probably just a small badger or wildcat with a kill. Go back to bed, it’s nothing.”
Seamus furrowed his brow at him and frowned. “Yeah, that didn’t sound like nothing. You had a knife, man.”
He swallowed, and bent down to retrieve it. He waited a moment, brushing the mud off the blade. He felt Seamus’ eyes on him, and finally, he said, “Anxiety, perhaps. It’s been a long day and I suppose I’m a little jumpy. Jet-lagged, for sure. Sorry.”
The young man looked nonplussed, but didn’t comment. Leif sheathed the knife and buried it in his backpack as deep as it would go, then stood and stared out into the blackness. Like a tangible thing, it pressed in at all sides. No longer peaceful or welcoming, the wilds of Scotland now seemed menacing. He clasped his shaking hands behind his back once more and squared his shoulders. Yes, it must be the hour, and the sleep deprivation.
Just a badger, he told himself. Go to bed. Nothing there but shadows and dark thoughts, you old warrior.
He drew his sleeping bag from his backpack, and crawled after Seamus into the roomy tent. Warmed by body heat and the soft breathing of the kids he watched over, he fell asleep within moments.
In the pale morning light, a rune drawn in blood dripped from the siding of the tent, black as ink. The carcass of a badger, skinned and badly mangled, hung from a tree branch overhead.
Five hours later, the three straggled back into town, cold, scared, and silent. Carrie called her uncle, crying and going on about boggarts and animal cruelty. Not exactly an academic experience, finding the corpse of a small animal and a bloody message on the flimsy wall of the tent you’re sleeping rough in. Leif could hear Smitty on the other end of the phone, trying to soothe his niece and convince her not to call the police or jump on the next flight home.
They spent the afternoon in a pub, soaking up the warmth from the fire and the people. The Land Rover showed up, and they left after a hot supper, grateful for civilization and an escape from the nightmares of the wild.
Leif remained quiet the whole ride back to base camp. Someone had been out there in the darkness. Someone who knew them and where they were going. What kind of person would stalk and kill a wild animal? What was the point?
It followed that if this stranger would do that, perhaps they’d also call him with a bizarre curse?
As he watched the heather and gorse pass by on the ride, he felt unease seep into his bones.