The Last Northman
By: Jenean McBrearty

Raymund followed the bright red blood fallen on the snow that had not been broken by a boot, and knew his prey was soon tire from the loss of each precious drop. If he could stop, slow his heartbeat, maybe the wound would have a chance to heal a bit, but Raymund would keep pressing him forward up the mountain even though he was tired too. From breathing icy air, from losing half his food when a forest cat challenged him despite the fire he'd lit to warm his lungs. He'd flung the deer meat behind him, and the cat forgot Raymund and went in search of a familiar scent.

He'd heard the cat wail, and turned to see a shadow drag the body into the woods. Pollard! He wouldn't give Anthony Pollard time to tear away the fur let alone sink his teeth into the warm flesh and blood. He gathered his weapons, bow, arrow quiver, and a pistol with three cartridges left, and ran towards the agonized howl before it could float away on the winter breezes.

My God, it was a cave! He could rest there. Sip some water. All he had to do was finish Pollard off, capture the cat's carcass, and return to its half–hidden entrance. What a feast he'd make of the cat, and the pelt would be fine wrap for his hands. Maybe Pollard had no weapons and strangled the cat. There would have been a short struggle, but one that left Pollard bleeding.

"Of all of us, you're the strongest and the best fighter, and it will take someone like you to finally overcome the last White Man. They were a clever, powerful Earth specie. They had to be to subdue the peoples of the Selenia," Moran told him the night he was commissioned by the Council. "Find him, Raymund, and their ilk will never again oppress any of our people. Come, sit with the Elders and hear the stories of cruelty and the unfairness the White Man perpetrated on our people. They with their slide rules and medicines, their potions and inventions that turned out heads and made us worship gadgets instead of nature."

That night of storytelling was a year ago, by the Northmen's reckoning. Pollard had a week's head start, traveling towards the Old Land, and, piece by piece, Raymund had managed to construct layers of clothing from the cloth the women gave him. Soon, he needed more than clothes.

He looted what remained in the stores, as Pollard did, for thick–soled shoes and heavier pants. Then a coat instead of just a sweater. The colder it became, the bulkier the clothing became, and the harder it was for him to walk apace. The mountains, especially, proved dangerous. He wasn't as agile as Pollard in the cold.

"Once you cross over to Northmen's territory, you'll be at great risk," Moran had warned. "Pollard knows how to steer different kinds of boat while you know only how to guide a raft. Don't follow him past Assam. If you haven't killed him by them, turn back."

Why hadn't he obeyed? Perhaps because none of the tribes knew for sure if all the other Northmen were really dead. They'd been rooted out on every continent, and long been dead in the South Sea Islands. But few Selenian tribes had settled in the vast forests of Northambria. Scouting parties swore they'd killed every Northman they saw, but what of the ones they might not have seen? Maybe Pollard was in contact with them, somehow. If so, Raymund would be famous if he could claim to have killed them all, and had their heads to prove it.

"How far is Assam from us, Moran?" Raymund had wanted to know.

"Seven thousand miles, give or take a few … "

"And Northambria's forests?"

"Fifteen hundred miles more," Moran said. "You cannot make that kind of trip alone."

He was not alone. He had determination in his limbs, and the Northman couldn't travel as quickly as he might, burdened by the urn carrying his dead wife's ashes. Raymund could overcome him. There were animals to ride. Bikes in the cities. If he was lucky, he'd find an old, working car and some gasoline. "Other tribes of Selenia will help me along the way."

"Not everyone is a friend just because they do not have pale skin, Raymund. We will not have paradise when the last Northman is gone."

"Then why kill the Northmen at all?"

"Because of what they did centuries ago."

It made sense when Moran said it, and he had been right about the other tribes. He was stripped of his coat and boots, and driven out of Bartha. He shot two deer, and skinned them as he did the fleet animals on the Serengi Plain. He was not accustomed to women's work. They were the ones who did the tanning and the sewing of the skins. But he knew enough to make holes, and thread strips of hide through them to hold them together, and to make a hat to keep his head and ears warm. He would have to kill more animals, bigger ones, to survive the winter he'd heard about.

After Bartha, he avoided the cities. There was nothing left in the stores anyway. Most were hollowed–out buildings where people had lit fires for warmth and burned most of them to their foundations. The streets were as impassible in every land he traversed, and just as noisy. Rassas, Politus, Q'lla. The roads were pot–holed and crumbling, lined with abandoned vehicles that appeared to have been lived in. Everywhere there was blood spatter. On walls, windows, sidewalks —remnants of the Great Wars of Liberation from the Northmen. Everywhere there were people dying now too, the bodies displaying the blackened flesh of disease, and in the larger intersections, bodies with no heads or limbs, the results of the executioners sword.

"You come from the South," an itinerant merchant once said to him. "I recognize the tattoos on your face. I am Yadel, a Ranteria."

"You speak Wabi!' Raymund said. "I'm tracking a Northman. Have you seen him?"

"There are no Northmen left. You chase a phantom."

"No, no. There was one left. He came to Langoon. We killed his wife, but he got away and is headed back to the wreckage of the great sky ship."

Yadel laughed. "Mythology, my friend. if he's made it this far, you'll never catch him. The Northmen sprang from the snow drifts. Their blood runs cold as a snake's, and the wind carries their messages. We've known that for thousands of years. Has he let you see him?"

"Yes, I catch sight of him, but he disappears. Then, ahead of me, a mile or two, I see him walking … I don't know how that can that be as I am running and he is just walking … But, one day, I will overtake him." Raymund took out his pistol. "I saw him drop this. I stopped to pick it up, but disappeared again when I looked up."

"You checked to see if it was loaded. To admire it. Yes?"

"Of course. It's a fine tool. One of the few I learned how to use."

"Your enemy knows you well. He bought himself time. If he has one tool, perhaps he has two?" Raymund turned his eyes away in shame. "You came through Assam?" Yadel continued, "Then you saw the Sea of Marmara … did you know last winter, there was ice on the sea and the snow was eighteen inches thick and lasted through April? Do you know what that means?"

"The Northman's doing," Raymund said, and spat on the ground.

"There's been no ground fuel for generations. No gasoline or kerosene for over five–hundred years. True, no one has known how to make any of the great machines work either since the Northmen were killed. But the winters are getting colder, lasting longer, and that means that all the people you see in Assam will begin to move south. Perhaps as far south as Langoon. Already, many have left the warring countries, looking for food." He saw Raymund eying his baskets. "If you catch the Northman, it would be better if you bring him here so he can teach us how to make the machines give us light and heat. Together, we three will be the richest men on Selenia."

"He must die!" Raymund said.

"Then we must live in darkness. Oh well, I am old. It doesn't matter for me, but for you? Think on it, well."

Yabel offered him fruit and crude bread, and Raymund filled a pouch he'd made from the deer's testicles. The advice, he left behind. He had no need for it because he was younger than the Northman by at least ten years, and had been hunting for three. He knew the kudu, the gemsbok, and the tsessebe grazing areas, could fell one of them with one throw of his spear, and brought his mother fine meat and hides.

Raymund had pressed on, and it seemed to him he was always going uphill even on flat land. Upwards, always upwards. He'd never seen so many trees, and such color in the leaves! But, if he met a man with gloves, he would rob him, kill him if necessary, as his fingers were always stiff with cold. It seemed, also, he tired more easily, and needed to rest more. Especially when the trees all turned green, and the upward climb exhausted him. He turned around, and felt himself reel. The empty villages seemed like buttons sewn on green and orange–speckled cloth, and the shadows on the meadows were gigantic swathes of purple.

These were the mountains Moran had warned him about, where the air is thin, and can freeze the throat. "Keep your neck warm, if you want to swallow without choking," he'd said. "Your enemy is not just the Northman; it is the cold white world from which he came."

"How can he live then?" Raymund had asked. "He looks like us only his skin is pale."

"He has wiles and ways and his science that takes the place of strength and speed. Glass gives his eyes the sharpness of youth. Potions and powders rescue him from sickness. And he makes machines that do his bidding." Perhaps, but now it was the forest cat's claws that challenged the Northman. What protection would his wiles and science provide him now?

He spied Pollard resting, bleeding, leaning against a green tree whose limbs, he thought, shielded him from Raymund's eyes. But the blood spots gave his whereabouts away. He neared the wounded man warily, remembering Yadel's warning that Pollard might have two tools, but the man didn't look up. He was holding a small silver urn close to his chest, and in his other hand was a paper book.

"Here me, Great Odin," Raymund heard Pollard whisper. "There are none alive who can sing my praises, nor stand with me to fight, but I will make a case for myself, to please you. Welcome me into Valhalla. I have endeavored to be truthful in word and faithful in deed. For your honor, and for the honor of my wife, I have brought you the fruit of my perseverance: her ashes. No man has aided me, or shown me hospitality. I have relied upon myself and my industry and discipline to come to your sacred place. I fear not death. I fear only regret that I could not save the seeds of progress you gave to Selenia. For this, I ask your forgiveness. All was lost when Isolde was taken from me."

With one swift move, Raymund kicked the book on incantations from Pollard's hand, and the Northman raised his eyes. "It is good that I am run out, and that I have no sword …." Pollard said, weakly. Raymund kicked the urn this time, and the lid popped off. He reached down and spilled the ashes on the snow; the wind made them dance. The he knelt next to the Northman, pulled off his gloves, and slipped them over his half–frozen hands. Perhaps the Northman's boots would fit him as well.

He dragged him from under the tree, and wrenched the right boot from his foot. Too small. "Damn you, Pollard," he said, and removed a knife from his belt. He would need the bullets for game. He knelt next to the Northman. "You are the last one. I will take your ears and your evil hands back to Langoon, and let them know, you will never enchant another …" With all his strength, he plunged the knife into Pollard's chest, and regular spurts of blood let him know he'd hit the heart. When it quit beating, Pollard's eyes stared heavenward, and he breathed no more.

Raymund slowly reached one hand to Pollard's right ear, then stopped short. A stillness had settled over the mountain. Raymund couldn't even hear himself breathe. And where did the moving shadow come from? He looked upwards into the face of a tall, one–eyed blond Northman, who seemed to grow taller by the second. The giant reached down, scraped blood and ashes from the snow, closed his fist, and, when he opened it, there stood the most beautiful Northwoman Raymund had ever seen.

Perhaps it was the golden aura that surrounded her that kept her from shivering, although she wore no clothing other than a white silken shift embroidered with gold flowers. On her head was a garland of pink roses entwined in her shimmering yellow hair. And her eyes, ice blue, beheld the fallen man with such love and sorrow, that Raymund threw the knife that slew him away from himself. He drew back in fear, yet she made no move toward him. Rather, she stepped gently from the giant's palm, and went to Pollard's side. She turned, then, and looked into the fierce face of the red–cloaked man. Unafraid. So tiny at the feet of one who could crush her under his boot as he could squash a bug.

"I will sing the praises of this warrior. I will tell of his many great deeds," she said, "as it is written that no man dies as long there is one who will bear witness to his valor. I will remember him for eternity as the goodly husband that he shall ever be. An honorable man, who knew his duty and rejoiced at the coming of our dear child. We were the last on Selenia, Father Odin. Welcome Anthony pollard into your Great Hall, I pray you. He has honored the gods by living the Nine Noble Virtues."

She stepped back, and the giant reached down his hand. Boldly, she stepped onto his fingers, and made her way to his palm. The giant made a fist again, and when he opened it again, blood and ashes scattered in the wind.

Raymund turned his face away from the light that descended from the giant's gleaming helmet. He shielded his eyes, and turned back around as he heard the sound of flapping wings. Three angels in battle mail and laced silver sandals, their wings as wide as the condor, hovered above Pollard, then stepped in the snow beside him. By his shoulders, they lifted him to the hand of the giant who continued to grow before Raymund's eyes.

"Have mercy!" Raymund cried. "I didn't know … I didn't know, I swear I didn't know this was a sacred place! Punish me, but don't kill me, for I am far from my home and my family deserves to know my fate!"

Odin's cradled Pollard's tiny human form close to his heart as a mother would cradle her child. "Hear me, Mortal," he said to Raymund. "He brought you reason, letters, imagination, and numbers, and you rejected them all. You are not worthy of the ravens' gifts, but as they can be both blessing and curse, I bestow upon you Memory and Thought, and leave you to your ignorance. Go home." He extended his arm, and the Valkyrie, once again appeared and bore Pollard's body upwards until Raymund could no longer see them for the descending storm clouds. Indeed, he could no longer see mighty Odin as the gray mist fell into dusk.

Raymund, now heard his heart–beat and saw his breath hang in the air. He'd have to find the cave or freeze to death. He grabbed hold of the cat, and dragged it behind him, floundering wildly as he searched frantically for the cave's entrance. He didn't know why the mountain god didn't kill him, but, in front of a decent fire, with fresh–cooked meat to eat, gloves to warm him, another pelt to cover him, he felt as safe as a man could feel is a strange place with strange happenings. Safe enough to, finally, rest. Tomorrow, he would find the urn. Moran might not believe his story of the mountain god, but he would believe the evidence of Pollard's death.

***

The fire went out before morning, but Raymund wasn't cold. He feasted again on the cat meat, and drank the last of spring water from his canteen. A sudden gust of wind surprised him: it was warm. Perhaps the coals were still hot.

He held his hands over them and felt no warmth. Was the forest on fire? He gathered up what he could carry, including cooked meat wrapped in the cats pelt, and walked outside to a barren hillside. The stately green trees were gone, as was the snow. For miles he saw nothing but rocks, and boulder jutting out from the empty ground. The wind blew hot now, like the winds of Langoon. Yet, how could it be?

He easily found Pollard's urn and its lid, and started down the mountain, soon slipping and sliding on the hard dirt beneath his feet. He'd have to be careful. The incline was steep and there was no vegetation to hold onto. He hesitated to discard his animals hide clothing. Maybe this lull in the cold was normal for this part of Selenia, and the cold would return when the winds shifted.

He walked on for miles, carefully but quickly now that he was walking downwards. Before the sun reached its apex, he was below what had been the green–tree line. But where were the colorful trees, the ones with the red and yellow leaves? There was nothing on the hills, not even grass. The entire country was nothing but endless wasteland —like the Assam Desert without sand.

He spied a well. Had it been hidden by the vines and plants that once surrounded the cottages that dotted the hillsides? He brought up half a bucket of clean water and filled his canteen. The stream that ran near the village was gone. He turned and scanned the horizon. Every slope and peak was nothing but a mound of dull brown dirt.

"It can't be," he said. "Winter doesn't last a night–time." The image of Odin, like a desert mirage, loomed in front of him. He shed his gloves, hat and coat. This was like his land now. He could easily walk home with only his crudely–made pelt shoes. All he need do was keep walking downwards, southward, and join the people along the roads and streets, carrying what they could, leaving what they couldn't, walking south towards the Marmara Sea that once separated Langoon from Assam. Was all of Selenia like this? Was he witnessing the long–prophesized end to the Diaspora of the Hundred Tribes of Selenia?

But he saw no joy in their trek. Nor did they pray or cry. They just walked, and as they fell, one after another from the heat and the dry air, the only word he heard from their lips was 'water.' Did they know not all water was born in the mountains? Maybe they remembered, and thought about digging wells, so why didn't they stop and do it? Had they, as Odin said, chosen ignorance?

Raymund told no one he was the one who killed the last Northman, or that he carried the urn in case he stumbled on another well —or in case someone would put his ashes in it and sing his praises when he died. With every mile he felt the hot wind at his back, and when he would turn around, he saw that the dust from Odin's mountain had swallowed all behind him. The peaks grew ever smaller. The hills leveled out. The terrain was now even, flat, divested of everything cold and pale.

Why was his flask always full of water when there was none to be found on the land? He soon lost count of the bodies he saw strewn along the roads, they became invisible. Perhaps because he knew he need not fear death. He would live long enough to reach Langoon, and see the bones of his family. He would sing their praises forever … alone. Forever.

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