Introduction - When Vikings Ruled Their World
Many of us have the misconception that the Vikings had remained, within reason, localised and focused on conquests adjacent to their homes in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. How wrong could we be?
Yes, there were the early attacks close to home, but their realm had no bounds and their incursion into Europe and western Russia in a relatively small time slice of three hundred years, sculpted the culture of these mediaeval countries for centuries to come.
A furore Normannorum libra nos, Domine! - From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord!
This is the horrific cry that would be drawn out of many a final breath of clerics and their followers as the Vikings laid waste to kingdoms and bishoprics alike as early as the eighth century.
Depending upon which language or dialect, similar cries of warning resounded across Europe from the west to the east. Repeat raids over the ninth century and beyond meant that their prime targets, Scotland, England and Ireland could never rest comfortably.
The Viking fleets grew exponentially in size and range as a product of wealth extracted from their spoils. Neither oceans, seas, nor rivers were safe from Viking plundering such were the versatility of their craft.
They extended their fighting territory not only by ship range, but by building remote strongholds or longphorts, fortified coastal bases not only in Ireland and Scotland, but as far south as Germany and France.
During winter Vikings would remain at these bases rather than head home to face the impossibly unnavigable icy seas to the far north.
Most unnerving of all was when large Viking groups decided to forego their typical pillaging raids to pursue large-scale, permanent conquests.
It was debated over the centuries about why Vikings resorted to conquest and settlement of foreign lands. Not because the small amount of arable farmland in their northern homes could no longer support the growing population, but to create their own power bases outside these homelands.
The conquered lands were forums where ambitious Viking pirates with low standing in the pecking order back home could escape these stigmas, improve their fortunes, and become their own masters.
From there the Vikings targeted the early mediaeval Franks, the forerunners of the French, Dutch, west Germans and Belgians.
It took years, but eventually, the Vikings received significant resistance from the Franks, as they had from every kingdom they had plundered earlier.
Where else could they go but those lands that had exhibited weakness before?. England was again a prime target. She was relatively tiny compared to the aggregated size and strength of the Frankish countries and more importantly was not unified; a collection of small kingdoms. To Englanders, the Vikings became the Great Fleet as they marched the length and breadth of the land.
Three legendary Viking kings; Ivar the Boneless, Hafidan and Ubbi, led the charge, the culmination of which saw the conquest of York, a bloodbath that had not been seen before and leaving York the largest Viking stronghold in all of England for more than a century.
It was only Alfred the Great in the Kingdom of Wessex who could stem the Viking bleed tide. Again the Vikings gave in when it all became too hard and allowed Wessex to remain under England rule. The Norse zone, stretching throughout all of England except for Wessex, was known as Danelaw.
It was not long after Alfred’s death that his son Edward the elder and his warrior sister stood up and launched campaign after campaign to the soon to be vanquished Vikings as they fled England.
So the pattern repeated. The Vikings, finally driven from England, rolled on to their next conquest. By the early nine hundreds they had moved once again into Ireland. This time using more sophisticated, versatile longboats, using the seas and rivers to wreak their havoc.
Unsurprisingly, the strength of the Vikings came in numbers as their wealth and manpower grew. Whilst all of Ireland’s attacks were being rained down by a sizeable proportion of the Norse Vikings via Scotland and England, there were still significant forces extant in the longphort bases in southern and western Europe.
A Viking fleet of more than a hundred ships left the base on the Loire and approached the northern shores of the borders between Spain and Portugal. Defenders of the Christian kingdom repelled the attackers, who pressed on southward to the Muslim nation of Cordoba. There they sacked Lisbon and Cadiz leaving a wake of devastation before eventually being defeated by a local Muslim army.
Again the pattern repeats. Once more the Vikings; so near yet so far.
The Vikings’ conquests were never well planned. They would blunder their way through but sooner or later would be forced to retreat; their axiom ‘live to fight another day’. All bravado and not a lot of brains. The dose was repeated over and over.
Whether it be France, Spain, or later what is now known as Italy, the Vikings leading their flotilla would eventually sail home with much less riches and pride than they had anticipated before embarking.
But like dogs with a bone, they would not let go. The Vikings would eventually head for the east to conquer the Byzantine Empire and other kingdoms that dwelt along the banks of the Black Sea and beyond. The native Slavic people dubbed the Vikings as the Rus. Many of these Viking leaders in the east were the subject of folklore and historians’ writings over the coming centuries as they settled in an area which later became western Russia and today the Ukraine.
The Rus eventually settled down as farmers, assimilating into whichever society they chose.
Some Vikings did remain as warriors and, known as the Varangians, became a highly trained and skilled army, the Varangian Guards, whose sole responsibility was to protect the Byzantine emperors.
This nomadic urge to fight, pillage and plunder, many times beaten off, yet still willing to shake themselves awake from the defeats to come back for more.
Eventually, the female side of Viking royalty and in turn folklore would prevail; commencing with a forthright and focused young woman who would stand up to her father and would represent the beginning of the most lauded line of female Viking leaders and warriors of all time.
She would see the start of a dynasty of Viking explorers, rather than plunderers. Expansions throughout the Atlantic Ocean would be through settlement, community and building relationships.
But this Viking warrior queen ran deeper than that. Her own and her descendants’ explorations would lay a solid foundation of power and wealth; a foundation that would remain embedded in Icelandic folklore for a thousand years. A legacy that would threaten the lives of more than half the population of this sometimes barren but beautiful land.
Chapter 1 - Code Red
Eighteen months had come and gone. The bond between Jack, Agnetha and Danny had become more than cohesive. They were inseparable, to say the least. Their union in life and business, seamless at best, and the icing on the cake. Musketeer-like, to use a literary analogy.
Jack was the driving force within their tiny but powerful clique. His resilience. His initiative. A leader and champion for the twenty-first century.
Jack’s mother, Eva, Agnetha’s brother and sister, Daniel and Julia, and Jack’s hitherto unknown half-sister, Elisabeth, all surviving the trauma of Jack’s initial mission outside the Army.
What better way to start a second life? A renaissance, if you will. Agnetha, a new partner in life. A new career and a shoring up of a life-long friendship with his best mate, Danny.
Danny’s office - Arthur’s Creek, northern Melbourne
8th November 2013
‘Jack, code red. Activate now, mate! Now!’ Danny’s accelerated heart rate was manifested by the higher than normal tone of his delivery in opening their, what was to be, one-sided and brief conversation.
Since Jack, Agnetha and Danny launched their private investigation agency, JADE, they’d agreed they would take on a broad spectrum of clients. So far most of them were day-to-day tasks. Following money trails, skip traces for suspicious spouses and in-house testing of bank security systems.
Their first six months in operation proved fruitful, without leading to a well-funded early retirement. This was their first code red. A means of communication, devised by Danny, so that each or all of them could give the signal to act. What would follow would be an encrypted email that could only be accessed by one of three satellite phones.
Danny had sounded pressured. He knew he was supposed to leave them be. After all, it was their honeymoon, and after the traumatic year in Vilnius they had finally settled in as one extended family in Melbourne. They had finally nailed everything down and had their ducks in a row.
The ceremony was simple and attended by a select few. What awaited was meant to be the pressure valve release of a lifetime. The real celebration of the bond they have. Together. Alone. An exotic beach away from everyone. Before they started their lives together in earnest, a time to reflect and refresh.
Whilst Jack and Agnetha waited patiently for Danny’s encrypted email, they packed everything in their Samsonites, knowing full well that the severity of a code red would mean a quick incursion to wherever the instructions led.
Keflavik international airport, Reykjavík, Iceland
10th November 2013
Flight FI 455 from London Heathrow was the final leg of a broken journey for Agnetha and Jack. What could be compelling enough to draw them away from the warmth of the Maldives at this time of year? Ten hours to London Gatwick Airport. Then the tedium of navigating the transport systems of London, the culmination of which was a two and a half-hour transit on not one, but two trains, from Gatwick to LHR. and a further three-hour flight to Keflavik International.
The twin Pratt and Whitney engines of the Boeing 757 were working in harmony as they orchestrated their descent into Reykjavik. The symmetry of the chaotic yet orderly circular swirl of the jet-stream accentuated by the inhalation and expulsion of the sub-zero air, the product of the heavy snowfall of autumn, was a sight to behold for those that were witness on the ground. The two hundred passengers were deprived of the show, oblivious to the beauty of the jet propulsion’s effect on the sleet and snow.
No surprise to those regular commuters at this time of year. Snow always fell around now and had a purchase on falling during at least three of the four seasons. Even in summer, if you were brazen enough to call it that, temperatures rarely got into double figures. Jack and Agnetha’s Boeing touched down and pushed back on time at 2310.
Their late-night arrival was a blessing in disguise. Under normal circumstances, the weather, the remoteness and the last minute booking into the one and a half star dump of a hotel would cause them to blanch with dismay. But the nature of the call to Jack’s private mobile phone, the number of which was held only by three people, Danny, Agnetha and himself, had cause to shake them both into action once Danny had laid out the detail.
Their propensity for visiting cities with, what one might say, less than ideal taxi regulations continued here as the 1980s Ford cab wove through the narrow streets, dodging people, cats and, of course, other cars whose drivers were sufficiently intrepid and had their vehicle insurance paid up. The snow had transformed the already perilous ride into a deadly game - slipping and sliding, a reminder of those rides Jack was accustomed to back at Luna Park. Only then he knew he had a better than fifty percent chance of going home alive.
They checked in. The honeymoon suite came to mind, but that idea was soon dispelled as Jack and Agnetha looked left and right at their surroundings in this poor excuse for a pension. Jack had better digs in his early days in Afghanistan.
Their breath had to fight to get out as the glacial overhang had left their lips frozen to the point that words were almost impossible to form. Jack merely waved his credit card at the concierge and picked up the key to their double on the third floor. As they traipsed upstairs, lips and throats red-raw from the cold and, even under their thermal gloves, fingers that felt like dwarf stalactites about to plummet to the ground to disturb their sister stalagmites, they both prayed in unison that these godforsaken, poor excuses for hotel rooms were heated, even if it was basic.
Under normal circumstances they wouldn’t be daunted by a cold bed chamber. After all, they did have each other. It was still officially their honeymoon, but as they reached the landing just outside their room they looked at each other and without words knew that the free-spirited love that filled their nights in the Maldives was gone. They wouldn’t undress. They would leap into bed and hold each other close until morning.
Having picked up some takeaway local fare of puffin and jellied sharks’ fin on the way to the pension, a risk in and of itself asking the cabbie to stop somewhere unscheduled in a city they knew little about, they settled into their warming dinner to plan their approach to Danny’s encrypted email.
Jack wasn’t sure if he was shivering from the cold or the life and death mission that was no doubt before them.
They had an early start and needed to get to downtown Reykjavík to meet with Sigur Rós, the patriarch of many large family businesses. The driving force behind the majority of Iceland's wealth.
Corner Borgartún and Nóatún, CBD Reykjavik, Iceland
0900 11th November 2013
Their elevator was express to the forty-second floor in the tallest building in Iceland. It was remotely programmed to allow them to enter the elevator from the lobby once they had called up to Sigur Rós’ security team as instructed in Danny’s despatch the night before.
They were greeted by two of Rós’ personal bodyguards, each at least two metres tall and one hundred and fifty kilograms. Jack and Agnetha were dwarfed by their imposing stature. As it was, they were both well over one hundred and eighty centimetres. After being escorted into the ante-room adjacent to Sigur Rós’ office they waited what seemed an interminable time until they were buzzed in by Lómell, Rós’ personal assistant. Then they were ushered in to Rós’ office to at last meet their mysterious client.
That was all either of them could recall before the lights went out. It all happened so quickly. Ros’ security guys’ stealth belied their size as they applied the chloroform face cloth, followed by a black balaclava with no eye sockets. The latter of which being superfluous given their now state of unconsciousness.
Somewhere remote, near Isafjörծur, northwest Iceland
Jack was blinking his eyes open and shaking his head back to consciousness. His head thumping in time with the sleet as it beat against the sides of the building in which they were held captive. Agnetha was still out of it, but without her hood.
His thinking still affected by the anaesthetic, Jack puzzled, I thought we were supposed to be this guy’s saviour. Danny’s note was unequivocal. Yet here we are, God knows where, brought to bear by God knows whom.
Their manacles were old and oxidised. Had not been used for years. Yet they were effective. Jack’s struggles against the clasps were futile, and without lock picks he had to cede to their immovability.
Jack peered out what he believed was the only window in the shack in which they were held captive. The red and grey grime built up on the perimeter of the glass and frame meant that the aperture for viewing anything of import was all the more reduced.
What he did see was a veil of empty beauty. Layers of snow, but still relatively thin allowing some of the volcanic rock cooled over millions of years into a surreal hexagonal form, to lurch above the arctic white of the crisp snow. Beyond the near distance, the contrasting grey hue of the boiling water and steam spewing forth from the subterranean geothermal activity was melting any proximal snow and ice, clearing the way for the red and yellow tinges of the sulphur and copper deposited over the millennia.
Jack mused as he absorbed the sights of a land truly foreign to him, if I didn’t know better I could be anywhere in this solar system other than Earth. The otherworldly surroundings of this makeshift prison cell had left Jack uncharacteristically on the back foot.
Mesmerised by the sneak preview of the environs, Jack didn’t notice Agnetha stirring and groaning from the after-effects of the chloroform. She remained speechless. Lost for words, that’s a change from the norm my darling, Jack thought fondly, hoping Agnetha couldn’t read his mind.
Jack wasn’t himself. Accustomed to taking control of just about every situation that confronted him, here he was, shackled to an old rocking chair in a land that he had no idea about. Nor had he the opportunity to perform any research prior to the code red. Unlike Vilnius last year, he was vulnerable. Underprepared. Only Agnetha to back him up. No SVR elites to come to their rescue, and more importantly no Danny.
He hadn’t even met this Sigur Rós, but he wouldn’t mind betting that there would be as much intrigue in this Norse assignment to unravel as there was last year. Little did Jack know that the origins of the mysterious landscape he could just see through the murk of the only window in his confinement cell would provide the same backdrop through the ages that would define what made Sigur Rós sufficiently paranoid to engage Jack’s team.
As Jack’s mind wandered again, he started to convulse, noticing Agnetha re-entering unconsciousness as his thoughts turned to his blurred vision of what he could see out of that single portal to the outside world. Surely, I haven’t been taking in the landscape long enough for it to be dark outside. Although this is the Arctic Circle and the transition from day to night is smoothly continuous. The change imperceptible.
Between his convulsing and his increasingly heavy eyelids Jack realised that Sigur Rós had administered a drug more complex than chloroform. Slow release, designed to allow the victim to establish their surroundings before being re-secured in their state of insentience, only to be released when Rós was good and ready.
Everything then went the deepest shade of black. Again!
Somewhere remote, near Isafjörծur, northwest Iceland
At least twenty-four hours later
0900 12th November 2013
Jack and Agnetha were finally stirring. It would seem that their re-awakening was more permanent this time, yet they were still groggy from the aftereffects of whatever magic potion Sigur Rós’ goons had administered almost two days ago.
The only exit or entry portal that Jack could see from his fettered position was a door that was securely locked with two chains and bolts at symmetrically located points on the left side of the door jamb.
The door itself consisted of rotting timber of massive thickness, with cross members manufactured in what appeared to be the same termite infested timber. One thing though, the cross-members just might have provided enough support to prevent a handcuff-free Jack Carpenter from kicking the door in.
Jack was musing on the way out of his anaesthetised stupor about the combined strength of the layers of centuries old wood, if only I wasn’t shackled, I reckon I could land enough power…
CRASH!... All Jack saw from the other side of the room was the number fourteen boot-sole come rushing through what looked rapidly less and less like a door. Splinters flew everywhere, adorned by the combination of dust clinging closely to the decades old spiderwebs that were once attached to the hinges.
A tall, dark form burst through the door that Jack recognised as one of the security guards from Rós Tower a couple of days prior. He had both arms fully laden with three large tomes, layers of grime had formed making their old green covers almost unrecognisable.
Following close behind was Lómell, Sigur Rós’ personal assistant. No need to buzz us in Lómell, we’re already here, as captive an audience as you’ll ever see, Jack’s sardonic thoughts heralding the return of his wry sense of humour after two days in the mental wilderness.
The first two through the door entered without fanfare. Not so the third and final member of the trio.
‘Captain and Dr. Carpenter, welcome to Iceland, more specifically Súðavik, a somewhat lonely outer suburb of Isafjörծur.’ Finally, they meet their mysterious client. Sigur Rós. His introduction delivered in a well-educated English, a deep and refined accent no doubt the product of an Oxbridge education.
‘I believe you have already met Lómell, albeit very briefly, and allow me to introduce Magnus, one of my twin protectors.’ Turning to Magnus without taking a breath, Rós continued, firstly to Magnus then back to Jack and Agnetha. ‘Magnus, drop those books on the table you’ll do yourself an injury.
‘Now, Jack and Agnetha, if I may be so informal?’ Rós swivelled one hundred and eighty degrees to address them. ‘Let’s get down to business.’
Motioning Lómell to remove the manacles, Rós revealed what Jack and Agnetha had waited two days to hear. Now made all the more complex by the forty-eight hour hiatus that they had just experienced.
‘I had no alternative but to put you through such a bizarre ritual. Rites of passage in the true sense of the words. A necessary evil given my present tenuous circumstances.
‘As it is, I have those that envy my position. Mere mortals, but with means at their disposal, and hardly legal, that would facilitate their ability to take down my empire and relieve me of my wealth and power. But now, other factions have surfaced. More legend based, fanatical and less susceptible to conventional means of protection.’ Rós paused to reflect and pointed at the three dusty volumes on the wooden table in the centre of the room.
‘These books represent powerful forces from bygone days. The book of Icelandic Sagas, the Northern Grimoires, the book of Icelandic magic, and the only existing first edition of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, a confessional benchmark for the entire island with its well-practiced theological accents.’ Jack and Agnetha were unshackled but didn’t flex a muscle, all the while focused on Sigur Rós’ discourse, knowing that his explanation would reach its inevitable conclusion sooner rather than later.
‘There are modern-day Icelanders still practicing ancient mediaeval spells and incantations in their efforts to achieve a return to the halcyon days of the Icelandic Sagas. The Lutherans, the majority of whom are good people, also have minority sects within that would seek to return Iceland to the sixteenth century.
‘They see my wealth, fifty percent of Iceland’s entire GDP, a threat to this vision of an ancient rural, post-apocalyptic Iceland. A vision they will stop at nothing to achieve.’ Jack and Agnetha remained silent throughout, awaiting the burning question. Why compromise their trust as he had done over the past two days?
‘Back to the here and now. My paranoia had reached such proportions that I could trust no-one. I had taken it upon myself to research both your pasts, given each of you only converged recently following very diverse paths to your eventual coming together last year. SVR. Lithuanian Mafija. Teutonic Knights and Australian Special Forces training. You must admit a recipe for disaster if applied in combination against me. A formula for success and ultimate protection if harnessed as a positive.’ Rós then motioned them to rise and follow him, Lómell and Magnus through a rear door they hadn’t noticed before, mainly because they were shackled to the chairs facing in the opposite direction. As he did so he also motioned to Magnus to gather the three Bibles of the Eras and bring them through
As he was striding along, giant steps for a giant man, of at least two hundred centimetres, he continued, ‘My sources were thorough. You have indeed checked out as a genuine possibility as an answer to my prayers.
‘Lady and Gentlemen, our command centre. Your pay cheque, one million US dollars should you succeed in eliminating all threats to the nebulous hold my empire has on survival. A bonus half million if you locate my kidnapped wife, Unn, and deliver her to safety.’ Sigur Rós elucidating the second part of the assignment with equal parts anxiety and sadness in his voice. Both Agnetha’s and Jack’s hearts skipped a beat.
‘Your reputation last year precedes you and your qualifications are second to none in bringing about historical revenge to those who would usurp what is not rightfully theirs.’
Agnetha and Jack turned to face each other as they entered the command centre with a ‘here-we-go-again’ look.
Their thoughts synchronised and focused on the Code Red delivered what seemed so long ago now, but was only seventy-two hours prior. What have you gotten us into now, Danny?!