No, I'm not the one in OKC, but my guest is.
I first introduced you to my friend Joshua Unruh earlier this year when he brought you his Young Adult novella, Teen Agents in the Plundered Parent Protocol. Well, he's back with his latest masterpiece, Saga of the Myth Reaver: Downfall.
I'd love to tell you more, but I haven't been able to read it yet. It will be released very soon. Meanwhile, I'll let Josh give you some insight into the book. AND he snuck me an advance of the first chapter so I could share it with you. Take it away, Josh!
|Hella fab cover art by Amy Nickerson|
Epic Fantasy and Neo-Noir Collide!
Noir: Everyday men and women drowning in the murky, corrupt waters of their own flaws.
Saga: Peerless heroes fighting epic battles yet ultimately doomed to fail.
At the crossroads of these two literary traditions stands the Saga of the Myth Reaver.
The Nine Worlds have never seen a hero like Finn Styrrsson. Blessed with an unmatched thirst for victory and the supernatural strength and vigor to slake it, Finn might have been the greatest warrior-king his people had ever known. But he was born the youngest of eight princes with a conniving eldest brother who won’t abide the threat Finn poses to his rule. Despite Finn’s unfailing loyalty, he is forced from his home to forge a new destiny.
Already a powerful warrior and deadly reaver, Finn discovers that he above all others is equipped to kill the monsters, the giants, the myths that besiege Midgard. He becomes the Myth Reaver and a living legend.
Yet despite his prowess and fame--indeed because of them--Finn never wins that which he most desires. He never finds a home. After a lifetime spent battling dread monsters and shining demigods, Finn realizes that in all the Nine Worlds, there is only one enemy whose defeat can give him the renown he so richly deserves.
Whether it's in search of glory or a glorious death, Finn always overlooks his true enemy. That mistake will be his downfall.
1. Brotherly Love
Five winters is too young to start breaking bones. But two of my older brothers were foolish enough to let me get my pudgy child’s hands on them, so I broke their bones anyway.
The twins wore identical wicked grins as they approached me. At first I thought little of it. Though rarely cruel, my numerous siblings were nevertheless a scourge upon me, as all older brothers are to the younger. So it was that the twins came to me where I played and called me names. I knew better than to react, so they decided to throw rocks along with their taunts.
I weathered the storm of stones, already wily enough to know that any retaliation would result in a beating, until one particularly well-thrown rock hit me just below my left eye. I had recently seen a warrior return from a-viking with an empty socket. The sight had terrified me. In my child’s mind, my brother Skulli had nearly put my own eye out. I lost my temper.
I roared my tiny battle yell and leapt at Skulli. His face grew slack with shock as I hurtled toward him, his arm pulled back with another stone to throw. One tiny hand found his throat while the other grabbed his poised wrist. He fell to the ground beneath me, and I forced his wrist farther and farther back until the arm gave a moist snap. I’d never heard such a noise before but found it irresistibly satisfying. Skulli’s screams climbed high and shrill. I turned on Snorri, his twin, and watched Snorri’s eyes widen with shock and terror.
A red haze descended over my vision as I looked into the pained, terrified faces of my brothers. I remembered nothing for a while except for rage, though when the red receded, my second-eldest brother Hallbjorn pinned my spindly arms to my sides and lifted me off one of the twins. My throat was raw, but still I screamed defiance. Hallbjorn shook me like one of our sisters’ dolls and bellowed in my ear.
“Look around you, lad; the battle’s over! And ’tis a battle you’ve won, you tiny bear shirt!”
I stopped yelling long enough to turn my attention toward the beaten, bloody, broken messes that had been my twin brothers. Indeed, they looked as though they’d been mauled by a bear cub, not attacked by a boy four winters their junior. I went limp in Hallbjorn’s grip, suddenly very tired. He slung me over his shoulder like a full grain sack and said, “Now you must visit our father and see if you survive the war.”
That was how I came to stand under the full force of Styrr’s mighty scowl.
Among the mightiest of all the Northmen kings who ever ruled, Styrr Warborn governed with courage and greatness. Styrr was a well known wrecker of mead-benches, shatterer of foes, scourge of tribes, and taker of many tributes. This rampager and terror to raven-feeders grew into kingship and became a generous giver of rings, prudently purchasing loyalty in peace that had been hard bought with his sword arm in battle. That was one good king.
Odin and Tyr looked fondly on Styrr in matters of war, but the mighty Warborn was most blessed by Freyja during the long years of his rule. Or perhaps what seemed to be Freyja’s gifts were truly curses from those gods of war. Most kings were fortunate to claim two or three sons, and luckier still if even one managed to survive long enough to continue his rule. My father sired prince after prince until they numbered seven in all. Then came a healthy smattering of daughters, each one more comely than the last, able to fetch a high price in either dowry or treaty.
But all was not well with so many Styrrssons. A first son was crown prince. A second was a strong right arm to his elder brother. A third felt almost from birth the push of gentle hands on his back, thrusting him into the wide world to make his own fortune. After that, a king’s sons had only a handful of options: pious poverty, honorless banditry, the assassin’s dagger, or the poisoner’s draught. Lastly, and only if they boasted great strength in arms and could inspire true loyalty, a lesser son might have chosen civil war. Brother pitted against brother. Two sons could tear a nation apart, but seven could lay waste to the whole world. And there were always sons-in-law who might look with greedy hearts and itchy palms upon the Warborn’s kingdom.
With each new birth, war loomed in the future of my father’s kingdom, as cold, life-stealing, and inevitable as winter.
My father hoped to stave this off by instilling a strident sense of duty in each of us. And by not creating any additional potential contenders. Once again, the gods or Norns had the last laugh...in the form of a shockingly powerful and charismatic youngest son. Me.
I was last of Styrr’s twelve children. The long years and royal jealousies between me and my brothers stacked up like sharpened spears. This was especially true with Grímarr, the eldest and most sure heir to father’s throne.
Grímarr disliked me from the cradle. He distrusted me, saw evil and fault even in a mewling babe. Once I toddled about enough to be out from under mother’s skirts for any length of time, Grímarr decided I, as the coddled baby, needed a lesson in humility. This was why he convinced Snorri and Skulli that I needed a thrashing. Fiery haired and fiery tempered, quick to fight even as children, and nearest my own age, they were just the brothers to give my well “earned” beating.
But it was they who had been bloodied. And now Styrr demanded that I make an accounting of myself. It had not started out well.
“Styrrssons will not fight amongst themselves. Not now, not ever. And certainly not with help from outside the family!” Styrr bellowed at me.
Outrage filled me, but I could only squeak out “I fought alone,” before his baleful scowl silenced me again.
“Boy, don’t you lie to me,” he said coldly. “How did you alone do all that to your brothers?”
I did my best to meet his heavy glare, but my knees knocked in terror. I curled my fingers into tiny fists to keep my hands from joining them. Styrr’s hall was empty as he sat upon his kingly seat, but he would have looked down on me regardless. I was but a child while Styrr was...well, he was Styrr.
“Father,” I began, but my thin voice cracked. I snapped my jaw shut and took control of my jangling nerves. I began again, and this time my voice held strong. “Father, my brothers came to me, challenging me to a fight. I gave them what I thought they wanted. Is this not the Northman’s way?”
At my words, Father’s mouth fell open in surprise, and his bristling beard relaxed. He sat back in his high seat and considered me for a long moment. Just as I felt sure the harangue was to begin again, he burst into hearty laughter. He stood from his throne and thumped down the steps to stand beside me. He slapped me on the back.
“That it is, lad, that it is. You’ve the fine beginnings of a man’s mind. Someday you’ll have a man’s strong body to match.” He waggled a finger at me. “When that day comes, you must be a mighty right-hand to Grímarr while he’s in my place. Styrrsson will not turn upon Styrrsson; I won’t have it. Duty, loyalty, honor. These, more than any strong arm or stout shield, will preserve my kingdom past my final breath.”
Styrr stared at me in sternness, but when he realized I’d taken the lesson to heart, a grin cut across his sharp features. He shook his shaggy head at me. “Imagine, a true berserker! And before you’ve seen even six winters. I’m mean, lad, but that has to come from your mother’s side of the family.”
He winked at me. It made me smile. He smiled back, and we laughed and laughed together. But from the corner of my eye, I saw my brother Grímarr tucked around the door that led to the family rooms behind the hall. His calm face was like the mask for which he was named. But his eyes weighed me. With my father’s lesson still in my ears, I had an insight beyond mere child’s wisdom. I understood what my eldest brother must wonder.
Would I obey Father’s law and become Grímarr’s greatest thane? Would I take the throne by force and leave him as only rotting meat? Or would our people support me in revolution no matter what Father, Grímarr, or I commanded?
I vowed to myself at that moment that neither he nor any of my other brothers would have to wonder about my loyalty. I inscribed my father’s admonition upon my child’s heart. I would be the greatest thane my father, my brothers, or any king could ever hope for. Neither life nor glory would come before this vow, even if keeping it meant something I could never have expected. Even if it meant leaving my father’s house forever.
After a tryout such as that, my training began immediately. As I grew, so did my strength and skill at arms. When I finally reached the winter of my manhood, I had become high-born and powerful, the mightiest of men, a binder of a dozen beasts on my first cattle-raid, and holding the strength of thirty men in each grip. Beardless and untested in any combat save one-to-one, I rowed forth with my brothers to weather my first storm of weapons in the name of Styrr Warborn. My destiny held larger battles and foes both more numerous and more dangerous. Yet this battle, even with what came after, always held a special place in my heart. For a young man, a first war was as unforgettable as his first maiden. With a song in my heart and on my lips, I went out to sate the hunger of an eagle’s flock with my father’s enemies. Or, should I fail, with my own body.
The eight of us warred side by side, as comfortable together in the tides of battle as pike in a school. Yet alongside seven mighty princes, I was the mightiest. I fought on the eastern front with the twins, I battled on the western front with Magnus, I protected the rear while Jorund the archer rained down death, and I clashed with the vanguard alongside Hallbjorn and Grímarr. I was everywhere.
I stood with Grímarr when we broke the enemy’s front line and first laid eyes on the head of the opposing tribe, Seaxwulf the Axe-Toothed. Ever one to take advantage of even the smallest opportunity in war, Seaxwulf drew back his javelin and let fly at my eldest brother. I plucked the missile from the air a scant inch from Grímarr’s impassive eye.
I beamed at him, the battle-joy fully upon me. It was a strange moment to feel my heart swell with brotherly love, surrounded as we were by the din of strife and the groans and gasps of the dying. I had shared similar though lesser feelings with my other brothers this very day, but I had not saved any of their lives so directly. I felt ready to burst, such was the affection for Grímarr at that moment. He and I had been far from bosom companions, but I thought perhaps there was a chance his glacial face might melt and grace me with a smile of appreciation and nod of recognition.
Yet without a word or even a brow’s flicker, he turned his back upon me and made for the enemy king.
Still I leapt ahead of him and tore into the huscarls and personal guard of Seaxwulf. I beat back a dozen men with sword and shield, hacking them to pieces so as to clear a path for my brother that he might save the strength of his sword arm for the rival king.
None could stand before my charge; none went unblooded when they entered my death-circle. Finally I burst through the last of his most trusted guardians, and Seaxwulf stood before me. His eyes rolled like a frightened horse's, all white and mad. He swung a sword at me, its tip broken off in the fighting. I carelessly caught his wrist and jerked him past me. He slipped and fell to his knees at Grímarr’s feet. He looked up into the cold stare of my future king, his gaze meeting eyes as bereft of warmth and hope as Hel itself. Grímarr placed the tip of his blade beneath the fallen hall-chief’s chin. To his credit, Seaxwulf still spat defiance.
“You will not face me yourself, Grímarr? You will only sic your father’s brute wolfhound upon me?” Seaxwulf spoke through teeth long since shattered in battle, the source of his honored name. Flecks of blood and foam fell from his lips, caught in the bed of his beard.
My brother removed his sword and allowed the enemy king to stand. Seaxwulf recovered his sword and shield from the muck and grime into which combat had churned his land. The two men squared off in a trial of battle. I loomed over this fight, the shadow of my presence warning all other warriors from either side to stay away.
Grímarr was magnificent. His blade darted in and around Seaxwulf’s guard. Grímarr stabbed into the rival chief’s shield shoulder, forcing him to drop his blocking board. Seaxwulf’s return attack was powerful but clumsy compared to Grímarr’s studied precision. He swung wildly at my brother, but wherever his blade’s edge passed, Grímarr was an inch to the left or right. When finally the Axe-Tooth dropped to one knee, panting in exhaustion, Grímarr kicked the broken sword from his lazy grip.
“Do you yield? Will you and yours pay tribute to the Warborn? And to all kings that follow him?” Grímarr’s voice could have taught icicles how to freeze. Chest heaving, eyes downcast, the exhausted Seaxwulf nodded his head.
Grímarr turned his back on the rival king in disdain, but I still looked upon the tableau proudly, trying to etch every detail into my memory. That was how I saw the furtive movement of Seaxwulf. The sun glinted along the edge of the small knife he’d held hidden on his person. He moved toward my brother, ready to drive the short blade between ribs and into Grímarr’s heart. Seaxwulf was deadly fast as a viper, but I was faster.
An angry, guttural sound escaped my lips, and I swung my sword with all my incredible strength. I landed a ringing blow on the crown of Seaxwulf’s helm, but the metal did not stop my stroke. Neither did bone, muscle, sinew, or chain. I split our rival king from pate to groin like a side of beef, and he fell on the battlefield in halves.
Seaxwulf’s men who were close enough to witness my mighty stroke threw down their weapons immediately. Grímarr spun at the racket of steel clattering to the ground, and saw what I had done. I held my arms as wide as the broad smile I had for him.
“Seaxwulf’s treachery dies here, brother! We are victorious!”
He stared at me for a long moment, his face unreadable as ever. But his eyes, they betrayed something of what went on in his thought-hoard, something too complex for me to measure. If Grímarr had stood on the opposite side of a chasm and whispered the secrets of the world to me, I would have been more likely to hear and understand them than delve to the bottom of those eyes. Finally, turning on his heel, my eldest brother left my embrace unanswered. It chilled me, and I spun on my heel only to find myself face to face with Hallbjorn.
“Let it bother you only a sliver, littlest brother,” Hallbjorn said. “After all, Grímarr has never been one for showy displays.”
“Aye,” I growled, a sullen self pity falling over me. “But that is no reason to disdain a brother who saved his life. Twice.”
Hallbjorn’s eyes grew tight. “Simple Finn, do you truly not understand?” I shook my head. Hallbjorn sighed. “He fears you, and you alone. You above all our brethren are a threat to Grímarr. He fears that whomever father chooses for the throne, the people will choose you. Finn the mighty, Finn the reaver of hundreds, Finn his father’s beloved.”
Hot rage washed through me. “I would never break father’s law! I love and honor my father by loving and honoring all my brothers. Especially Grímarr, who will be king one day.”
The tightness of Hallbjorn’s features washed away like clean water, and pride shone in his clear eyes. “Know, Finn, that I have never doubted you. Grímarr doubts enough for all.” He looked away toward our eldest brother in the distance. “You must not hate him, littlest brother. But you should fear him.”
I scoffed. “Fear Grímarr? Even you, Hallbjorn the true, would raise a hand to me before he would.”
Hallbjorn’s stare was far away as he said, “It isn’t Grímarr’s hand you ought to be wary of.”
I had no time to ponder Hallbjorn’s cryptic words. Tidings of Seaxwulf’s spectacular end spread across the battlefield like fire in dry grass. Everywhere, his men threw down their weapons to pledge their lives and tribute to Styrr Warborn. My brothers and I were vanquishing heroes, triumphant and soon to be glorified once we returned to our father’s hall.
We sailed back as soon as the tribute and treaties were secured with whatever conniving regent replaced Seaxwulf, our victory burning in our hearts and on our lips. Upon making port, we left the boat and headed straight for the hall. When we entered, I was still unsuspecting, bolstered in blood from crown to heel, and proud of the victory my brothers and I brought home. Alongside my kin, not merely surviving the battle but returning as victors, I would never again feel such camaraderie with anyone as I did in that moment. How might my Norn-thread have woven differently if all my brothers had felt the same way?
Grímarr stepped ahead of us, saluted proud Styrr and said, “We, your sons, return from the field of spear’s din with glad tidings of victory, great king. Each of us acquitted ourselves valiantly, but one of your mighty princes rose head and shoulders above the rest.”
My satisfied smile froze harder than Jotunheimr cliffs as Grímarr turned to me, his face as unsearchable as always. My eldest brother typically spoke tersely, protecting his word-hoard more fiercely than a miser dragon watching its gold. He rarely lied, but he also never said more than need be spoken. One thing I knew, this uncharacteristic praise, true though it may be, was not meant for my good. I'd thought the heat of battle had burned away any worry about my loyalty as noonday sun does to morning mist. I'd thought it had left us brother to brother, future king to future thane.
I had been a fool.
It isn’t Grímarr’s hand you ought to be wary of.
Grímarr, continuing the charade of friendship, clapped his hand on my shoulder. “For every man slain by one of your other sons, Finn slew ten men. For every strike of our blades, Finn hewed three times as often. He split the lie-smith of a king, Seaxwulf, like a lamb for roasting. I am no skald, my lord, no teller of tales, but I need not a silver tongue to tell you your sons did the work of heroes. Only a poet, however, could spin a tale of how your youngest son did the work of mighty Thor himself.”
Styrr beamed down at me, and his voice rang through his hall. “Finn...my greatest son.”
The other people in my father’s hall, man, woman, child, warrior, smith, or farmer, raised a cheer loud enough to shift the roof’s timbers. Thatch and dust sifted down and obscured the now stony faces of my brothers. I peered at them in turn. Tall Hallbjorn, bristling Magnus, bouncing Osvald, dark-eyed Jorund, and tussling Skulli and Snorri; each suddenly only had eyes for my father. All of them shifted half a step away from me and toward Grímarr. I looked from the betrayers up into Styrr’s noble face and saw a total lack of understanding at Grímarr’s maneuvering. I looked at my mother, a beatific smile barely concealing the tears welling in her eyes.
The crush of my father’s celebrating subjects propelled me onto the dais until I was pressed between my parents. My father clapped my back, and I did my best to return his proud smile. Knowing it might be the last time I’d embrace her, I lifted my mother and spun her, much to the whooping delight of the crowd. My father laughed from his belly, deep and loud in my ears even over the triumphal din. It stabbed me to my heart because I knew I would soon replace mirth with bitter shame.
Finally, I looked at Grímarr. That look was in his eyes once again, the same one that had filled me with such dread on the battlefield. His motives flashed like a leaping salmon, still too fast and far too slippery for me to catch. Perhaps it was merely satisfaction at knowing once and for all if my father would elevate me past him.
I knew now that my other brothers would forever follow Grímarr’s lead in the name of father’s peace if nothing else. And bright Grímarr, shining Grímarr, first in birth, first in kingly wisdom, and, save for me, first in battle prowess, would never, ever trust a thane as powerful and beloved by his people as I.
But Grímarr didn’t know, none of my brothers could know, about my childhood vow of loyalty. He couldn’t understand how deeply our father’s law had etched itself into my heart in the years since. Now my brother's conniving gambit left me only one way to fulfill that law.
I turned to my father’s people and lifted my hands to signal them to silence. It took some time, but eventually the tumult died down to rumbles and, finally, to hissed whispers.
“Grímarr’s words do me too much honor,” I said to the throng. Then, though it cut me to do so, I spoke not as myself, but instead as a preening, puffed up fool. “But not by much.”
The laughter that erupted from both my father and his people cut deeper than could any axe strike. With a heavy heart, I had to cut them back, even deeper, and sever myself from them forever.
“In fact, I believe what Grímarr is suggesting, and I agree wholeheartedly, is that the lands of Styrr stretch across my wide shoulders like a child’s garment pulled thin across a warrior’s back. I must either exchange that garment for one larger, perhaps as large as Midgard itself, or--” I faltered as I looked into Grímarr’s impassive face. “Or tear it asunder.”
The hall fell silent. Many faces looked to me in confusion.
“Son, what are you saying?” Styrr asked, hurt and bewilderment making his voice hollow in my ears. I turned to him.
“I’m saying it’s time for me to leave these tiny lands and find a destiny greater than mere thane to Northmen kings.” I looked away before I could see my father’s face fall. “And there’s no time to strike but when the iron is glowing. Enjoy the victory festivities, father, mother, brothers. I’ll see to my own departure.”
I stepped down from the dais, my father’s silence, his sadness, his sense of betrayal, like a wall behind me. My mother let one quiet sob escape, and the wretched noise caused me to hesitate on the final step. But the outburst lasted only a moment before she clamped down on her emotions, setting me free to continue without a backward look. I stalked past my brothers, staring straight ahead so as to make no eye contact with any of them. Nor did I look into the face of any of my father’s subjects. My grim visage focused only on the door at the far end of the hall. If I had looked away from it for even a moment, my resolve would have vanished like breath.
As I neared the door, a hulking, cloaked figure detached itself from the crowd of horrified onlookers. Despite my resolve to see nothing until I had shaken the dust of that hall from my boots, my eyes flickered toward the hooded face of this man. Much to my shock, I saw the piercing eyes of my brother Hallbjorn looking back at me. How he had made it from the front of the hall to the rear and found time to disguise himself, I’ll never know. However he had managed it, Hallbjorn had decided it important enough to give me a farewell even though any sign of his support could undo what I had wrought. I wanted to be angry that he would chance a civil war, but I could not slap away this final gift.
Somewhat against my will, I looked into his eyes. A world’s worth of words passed between us without a sound. He nodded once, making plain his understanding of Grímarr’s plan and his approval for my own in one curt motion. I never slowed, never missed a step, never gave anyone cause to pass a second glance over this cloaked man. I moved by Hallbjorn and continued out into the harsh, cold sunlight. I swore to myself the flicker of my eyelids came from the sudden brightness and not from tears no Northman reaver should ever shed.