NICOR



NICOR, by Matthew Quinn:

Crows cawed in the distance. The Danes sitting in the longship began muttering ominously. Geiri Jorgenson, a dark-haired beardless boy of thirteen summers, leaned forward to listen.

“Is that the other ship over there?” he asked his friend Halvor Skallagrimson, a big red-bearded man who sat across the aisle.

Halvor nodded. “Aye,” the older man said. His ordinarily-jovial face was hard as rock. “Something’s wrong.” He pointed.

Geiri’s gaze followed his gesture to the riverbank where the other longship lay beached. Blood soaked the second ship’s sails. A mutilated hand peeked out between two of the shields lining its length. A cloud of crows rose from the beached vessel as the longship drew near.

He swallowed.

Annar Svendson, the towering Danish commander, rose from his oar. “Take us to the side,” he ordered, teeth gritted and hand on his sword. The steersman obeyed.

Geiri rose from the rowing-bench as they pulled alongside the other longship. Upon seeing what lay inside, he sank back down, his morning meal fighting its way into his mouth.

Mutilated corpses lay scattered throughout the ship and on the ground nearby. All of them bore long slashing wounds and their empty eye sockets indicated the crows had been at them for some time.

While Geiri struggled with his roiling stomach, scarred and swarthy Ejnar Olafsson vaulted into the second ship. Annar followed. Geiri forced himself to peek over the side and watch the two inspect the dead. Annar tore through the bodies, as if he were looking for someone.

“This is strange,” Ejnar said. “Nobody stripped them.”

Annar continued rooting through the pile of dead, apparently oblivious to his subordinate. Then, suddenly, he cried out and sank to his knees.

“Sir?” Ejnar asked. “What’s wrong?”

Annar turned to Ejnar. Geiri could see his lord’s face twisted with pain. When he spoke, his voice sounded empty and flat.

“Do you remember who we were supposed to meet?”

“Fálki Snorrason, sir?”

Geiri’s eyes bulged. Annar’s foster brother!

Annar nodded and pulled something from underneath a corpse. It was a cracked sword with the image of a dragon worked into the blade. A severed hand heavy with rings hung from it.

“Whose do you think this is?” Annar asked gravely.

Geiri’s heart leaped into his throat. Oh gods! That’s Fálki’s!

“I’m sorry, sir,” Ejnar said quietly. The big man thought for a moment. “He might not be dead.”

Annar snorted. “He wouldn’t show any man his back.” He shook his head. “We can mourn later. Right now we need to figure out what happened.” Annar rose to his feet and surveyed the ruined ship. “Do you see any unbroken weapons?”

“No sir. Whoever attacked these men must have taken the best for themselves.” Ejnar thought for a moment. “Perhaps they didn’t get everything.”

He whistled and two more huge warriors jumped into the ravaged longship. Geiri watched the foursome rummage through the heaps of slain, not reacting at all to the stench of excrement from opened bellies and the rotting flesh.

They found only two unbroken weapons, both buried under several dead men. One was an ordinary spear, the other a fine two-handed axe with writhing serpents cut into the blade.

“You were the first one over the side,” Annar said to Ejnar. “The axe is yours.”

Ejnar grinned and took the weapon from his lord. “Thank you, sir.”

Annar picked up the spear and tossed it into the ship.

“Whoever gets it first can have it.”

The other men threw themselves after the weapon. The rush for the spear quickly turned into a brawl. Geiri hung back. He didn’t need an extra spear that badly.

“And when you’re done,” Annar called out, “Come down here and help gather wood and brush. We’ll give these men a good send-off to Odin and then bed down for the night. We can search for whoever did this in the morning.”

* * *

“Kill the whoreson!”

The shout tore Geiri out of his dream of gold rings and a naked Anglish woman and cast him into muddy, bloody reality.

He scrambled to his feet, fumbling with his spear. You’re too damn slow. Enemy should be all over you. Ignoring the pain from his rowing-blistered hands, he got a good grip on his weapon.

Something roared behind him. Loki’s balls! What’s that?

Geiri spun, spear out. The tip of his weapon nearly caught Kerr Throatcutter as he rushed past. The skinny hatchet-faced Dane turned and fixed Geiri with a one-eyed glare.

“Careful, boy,” he growled.

Geiri began to stutter an apology, but the older man cut him off. “Someone’s attacking the camp. Follow me.”

The pair approached the edge of the clearing where they camped beneath the half-moon. Ahead of them, through cottony fingers of fog creeping in from the surrounding reeds, Halvor and another man struggled with an attacker Geiri could not quite see.

“You go left,” Kerr ordered. “I’ll hit him from the right.”

Just one attacker? Geiri wondered. Is it a berserker? Geiri gripped his spear tightly. Fear-sweat soaked his hair. If the intruder was one of the savage men who wore the bearskin, he might not come out of the battle alive.

Despite his fear, Geiri obeyed, drawing near the pyre where they’d burned Fálki’s men. Kerr circled to the right and then charged, sword ready to drink blood.

Geiri hesitated a moment, drew in a breath, and joined the attack.

He managed only three paces when something big slammed into him, sending him tumbling. He crashed into the mud and found himself pinned beneath Halvor.

“Halvor?” Geiri asked, poking at his friend’s shoulder. “Halvor, get off me.” The fallen Dane did not respond.

Grunting with effort, Geiri pushed himself into a sitting position. Halvor’s body slid downward, leaving a trail of something wet and hot on Geiri’s leather jerkin.

“Halvor . . .” Geiri began. Then he saw what the intruder had done.

Dark wounds marred Halvor’s face. The moonlight reflected off bone peeking through the gore. The cuts on Halvor’s neck looked less severe than those of his face, but the red-bearded man spattered blood when he breathed.

Oh gods. He looked down and saw glistening organs peeking out of a massive gut wound. Geiri scrambled up. He had to get old Sven, or Annar. They’d know what to do.

Halvor’s head rolled back. The skin split open around the neck wounds even further. Blood spilled into his furs.

“No,” Geiri gasped. He knelt by his dying friend and shook him. His hands came away sticky with slime. Geiri gagged. What in all the hells is this? None of the sagas ever mentioned slime on a dead warrior.

Something hissed from the reeds. Geiri looked up and saw a figure silhouetted against the fog. He got the impression of a man, but he had never seen a man hunched over like that. He had also never seen a man with slime dripping from his body.

The figure stepped forward, but shouting erupting behind Geiri stopped it in its tracks. The young Dane glanced behind him. Men were running his way, torches and weapons in their hands.

With a hiss, the intruder vanished back into the fog.

* * *

The following morning, the camp buzzed with activity. Several warriors guarded the edges of the clearing, weapons in hand, while others tramped through the swamps looking for the attacker’s trail. Geiri just sat near Halvor’s body, stunned.

Weeping is for women, Geiri thought, blinking back tears. Crying will dishonor him. He stared out onto the stagnant river.

Annar’s shout grabbed his attention. “Hearken to me!”

Once the men quieted, Annar whistled. Sven, a white-bearded warrior older than Annar himself, stepped forward. He looked at Halvor’s corpse and the slime spattered on it and spat on the blood-drunk earth.

“A nicor attacked last night,” the older man declared solemnly. “Probably attacked the other ship too.”

A water-monster? Before he left his impoverished village to serve Annar, Geiri remembered his father and the old men talking around the hearth-fire about flesh-hungry creatures from the bogs. But the stories, like the words of men who drank mead to escape the hard farming life for awhile, had an unreal quality to them.

The figure in the fog was very real.

Geiri watched as Annar gathered his oldest, most experienced warriors to his side. One of them was Kerr, whose ugly visage had been further marred by bruises and cuts. They spoke quietly among themselves.

Eventually, the conversation ended and Annar stepped out from among his warriors. “We sleep on the ship tonight,” he ordered his men.

The Danes muttered among themselves. Several of the men grumbled about how this was running away. Some spoke of leaving on their own to hunt the mysterious attacker through the swamp.

Annar raised a hand, silencing them all. “We’re not running away. I have a plan.”

* * *

Whunk, whunk, whunk.

Something climbed the side of the longship. Geiri clutched his spear tightly and feigned sleep.

Through squinting eyes he could see a shadowy form clambering over the shields. Moonlight glinted in its great froggy eyes. Panic-stricken thoughts raced through his head. The creature from the fog had come calling.

Thunk. Thunk. One scaled foot ground on the deck, followed by another. The intruder drew near. Fear squeezed Geiri’s stomach.

Not me. Not me. Not me.

It stepped over him and approached Egill Fasteson, another youth of thirteen summers. It bent down, a lethal array of claws emerging from its long fingers.

“Kill it!” Annar roared. The supposedly-sleeping Danes surged upward all around the creature. The interloper recoiled. It was then Geiri got a better look at it.

It had the shape of a man, but men didn’t have green scales instead of skin and mouths brimming with fangs. It hissed and snapped as they crowded it toward the stern.

Ejnar struck first, slamming his new axe into the monster’s cheek. The blow sent it staggering, but when its head snapped back, Geiri’s jaw dropped. Ejnar’s blow, which would have halved the head of any Dane, had barely scratched the creature.

Murder lit its bulging eyes as it retaliated. The creature’s lashing claws did unto the Dane what he would have done unto it. Ejnar’s hulking body slammed into the deck, minus most of its head.

The creature wasn’t finished. Its eyes locked on Annar. It surged forward, swatting a man over the side.

Kerr stepped between the nicor and his lord. The creature tilted its head and hissed. Kerr’s grip tightened around his sword. “Remember me, you son of a whore?” Kerr growled, lips drawn back in a nasty snarl. “We finish it tonight.”

Yes we will, Geiri agreed as he crept up behind the monster. His spear, a gift from Annar, had never tasted blood before. Perhaps the creature was more vulnerable from behind.

Geiri lunged. Kerr lunged.

The nicor was faster. It spun, backhanding Geiri. He crashed into several others, sending them sprawling. With its other hand, it caught Kerr’s sword and twisted it away.

Kerr lived just long enough for a look of surprise to cross his face. Then the nicor rammed its lethal claws through his leather and furs, straight into his chest. The creature tore Kerr’s ribcage asunder and hurled his mangled corpse into the river.

Geiri saw the moonlight reflected in the creature’s eyes. An idea hit him.

“The eyes!” he screamed above the din. “Go for the eyes!”

The Danes surged forward, jabbing at its face.
They could not get close enough. Two men who tried went down, rendered headless and gutless by whirling claws.

Then their luck changed. The nicor slashed and missed, burying its claws in the wood behind the row of shields. The creature shrieked and tore at the wood, but could not get loose. Eske Carrson, a stout Dane with a missing nose, seized the opportunity and drove his spear straight into the monster’s face.

Though the spearhead caught on the socket, its tip neatly split the creature’s right eye in two. Blood and fluid spattered Geiri’s face. The nicor shrieked.

Its claws took a bloody revenge, ripping five long wounds in Eske’s chest. However, a blow meant for Annar missed. Annar took advantage. He rammed his sword straight into the creature’s remaining eye. The nicor tried to dodge, but the glancing blow it received was enough.

The eye burst. The monster howled and blindly lunged. The warlord ducked under its attack and sent it tumbling.

The men swarmed about the fallen creature, hammering it with spears, axes, and swords. Although they inflicted many small wounds, no one attack did significant damage. Though the nicor tried to rise, the Danes kept knocking it down.

They could not keep up the blizzard of ineffective attacks forever. The monster managed to squirm between two men and scramble to its feet. It lashed out blindly. Its claws caught the ear of short Arnlaug Thorsson, who barely had time to swing at the beast before it stepped away, carrying his ear with it.

Inspiration glittered in Annar’s eyes. “Force it over the side!” he roared.

Geiri stood beside two other Danes and rammed his spear into the creature’s gut. Though their weapons barely penetrated, the force of their blows lifted it over the shields. The creature toppled howling towards the water and managed to grab hold of a shield.

Eske, still wincing in pain, snatched up the great axe from Ejnar’s corpse. He cried out to Odin and brought the weapon down onto the creature’s hand. With a scream, the monster tumbled into the river. A scaly severed finger clunked on the deck at Eske’s feet.

“It’s running away!” Eske shouted. Geiri rushed to the side to see the creature swimming down the river, trailing ribbons of blood.

Annar’s eyes narrowed in fury. “After it!” he roared.

The Danes rushed to the oars. Geiri strained alongside the others. The ship ground off the riverbank. Soon the longship bore down on the monster. It cocked its head in the direction of the longship and snarled, then bolted into the bog.

“Beach the ship!” Annar shouted. “We’ll take the bastard on foot!”

The men ran the ship aground and spilled over the side, literally baying for blood. Geiri forced himself to be among those first off the boat. Annar’s noticed me, he told himself. If I kill that spawn of Jormungand and the village whore, he’ll surely reward me. His heart pounded in his chest, but he forced himself on.

“It went this way!” someone shouted. A trail of slime andfootprints, some filled with blood, lay ahead.

They followed the gruesome trail until they came to a sudden stop. Geiri pushed himself to the front of the group and saw what delayed them.

A rocky promontory lay ahead. In the center of that hill yawned a cave. Blood stained its rocky mouth. Their prey had gone underground.

Annar muscled his way to the front. “What are we waiting for?” he shouted. “Let’s go down there and kill it!”

Geiri swallowed a lump in his throat. “Yes sir,” he said. He stepped toward the nicor’s hole, only to be rudely shoved aside.

Arnlaug stepped into the cave. “That scaly son of a bitch took my ear,” he growled. “I’m going in there to get it back.”

The other men shouted and clapped at his bravery. Geiri scowled, but a small part of him he tried to ignore was actually thankful someone else went in first.

Coward, he reproached himself.

The Danes followed Arnlaug into the cave. Darkness fell around them, broken only by shafts of moonlight entering through holes in the ceiling. They had not gone far when they discovered the passage ahead was flooded.

“It’s gone for a swim,” Arnlaug growled.

“Should we follow it?” Geiri asked. The creature had come out of the water, after all. Even blind, it could have the advantage.

Arnlaug glared at Geiri. “You don’t want to finish what you started?” He snorted. “Fine. I’ll go in myself.”

Arnlaug climbed down into the pool and vanished below the surface. A long moment passed before he came back up. “The passage opens up at the end. There’s air there, and I bet the bastard’s there too.” He grinned. “Let’s kill him.”

Arnlaug disappeared back under the water. Several others pushed past Geiri and dove after him. Geiri gripped his spear, remembered Halvor had not yet been avenged, and followed.

The water seeping through the gaps in his leather and furs was not too cold. Geiri’s clothing pulled him down as he swam, and he had to kick upwards periodically so his knife did not catch on the cavern floor.

Moonlight glimmered on the water ahead as the tunnel rose up. The Danes ahead of him emerged from the water without trouble. If the nicor was there, it was not attacking.

Then one of the Danes fell back into the water. Blood poured from his savaged throat, surrounding Geiri with a crimson cloud. The red warmth caressed him through his clothes. He choked back down vomit. Ignoring his nausea, he forced himself forward.

When he emerged from the water, he saw the others had gained the upper hand. They hemmed in the blinded monster and hewed at it with their weapons, sometimes drawing blood and sometimes not. The nicor lashed at them with its claws, but the men easily dodged its attacks.

Despite its wounds, the creature was still not without its strengths. Eske was not fast enough and caught a wicked slashing blow on his thigh. He staggered and the nicor leaped, knocking him aside and fleeing into the shadows.

“After it!” Arnlaug shouted.

Geiri followed them into a dark passage, keeping his hands tight on his spear in case of ambush. He felt his heart in his throat but forced himself to keep his breathing steady.

The tunnel opened up into another cavern where moonlight streamed in through cracks in the ceiling.

“Where is the bast–” Arnlaug began before the creature dropped shrieking on them from an overhanging ledge.

Unfortunately for the monster, two of the Danes had their spears up and caught the creature on the spearheads. They tossed it forward, slamming it onto the stone floor of the cavern.

Geiri rushed forward to join in the renewed attack, but then the glint of moonlight on metal caught his eye.

A row of swords lay neatly against the cavern wall near a pile of rotten bog plants. Many bore nicks or notches, just like the weapons the Danes themselves carried.

Oh gods. It takes trophies. Just like we do. He thought back to the captured Anglish weapons hanging above Annar’s seat in the timbered hall back home.

“Son of a whore!” Annar shouted.

Geiri turned to see his lord behind him, kneeling next to a mutilated corpse. “Who is–” Geiri began before he got a good look at the face.

Though the dead man’s nose was crushed and his jaw hung sideways, enough of the face remained intact for Geiri to recognize him. Fálki!

Annar turned away from the corpse, his expression murderous. He strode toward the struggling mass of man and monster.

As his lord approached, Arnlaug got lucky. The nicor twisted away from another man’s sword-blow, exposing a gap between two thick scales on its belly. Screaming with anger, Arnlaug rammed his spear forward. The long iron spearhead buried itself in the creature’s vitals. Arnlaug twisted it, raising the monster’s screams to new heights. The maddened Dane leaned on the spear, forcing the creature onto the ground.

Annar approached Sven. “Spear,” he demanded. The older warrior handed Annar his weapon, then stepped aside and allowed the warlord to approach the dying monster.

“This is for Fálki, you horse-humping bastard.” Annar rammed the spear through the nicor’s throat. Geiri winced at the sound of the metal spearhead grinding on the stones beneath the monster’s neck. He forced himself to watch as Annar slowly worked the creature’s head off with the wide spearhead. The warlord then knelt, slipped his hand into the creature’s fang-lined mouth, and took up the fallen foe’s head.

He turned to the assembled Danes. “Back to the ship,” he ordered.

* * *

“Six men lost,” Annar said when the warriors gathered around the voyage’s second funeral pyre. “Can we take a rich monastery with only nineteen?”

“Bah!” Arnlaug shouted. He hefted the serpent-carved axe Annar gave him. “The fat monks of the White Christ will be easy pickings!”

“And let’s not forget cattle and women of the villages!” Eske shouted, his wounds weakening his voice. “We’ve got two ships now! More room!”

Annar nodded. “Perhaps. But what if they raise an alarm? Nineteen warriors might be fine to raid a monastery or village, but what happens if we encounter some real men-at-arms? Might be prudent to stop at the Orkneys first, pick up more men.”

The others muttered among themselves. More men would mean a greater chance of survival, but it meant a smaller share of the loot.

Halvor and Geiri had once talked about all the rewards fighting could bring: cattle, golden arm-rings, and women to cook their meals and warm their beds. Geiri tried to summon up all the benefits the coming raids would bring, but the visions of loot faded, soaked with the blood he had seen shed by the monster’s claws.

Geiri inhaled, steeling himself. The Norns had spoken. It was their time to die, and they died well. The images of the dead men receded, but they did not vanish.

Annar’s voice seized his attention. “We’ll get more men at the first settlement we find. Then to Angland!”

The Danes roared. Geiri cheered too, trying desperately to think about monastic gold and Anglish wenches, but his cries were half-hearted. The night’s battle with the nicor had been his first taste of combat, and it was bitter indeed.

Annar motioned Geiri forward. He had apparently spotted the young man’s long face.

As Geiri approached, Annar fished into his furs and withdrew a silver ring.

“Arnlaug is not the only man who deserves a reward, my boy. Your idea helped us kill the beast and avenge Fálki.” He handed Geiri the ring.

“Th — thank you, sir,” Geiri stuttered. He slipped on the ring. The other warriors cheered. Geiri smiled sheepishly, but his heart hung heavily in his chest. I thought the Viking life would be better than scraping a living out of the bogs, he thought. It doesn’t seem so grand right now.

Annar raised a hand to silence his men.

“Now get back to the ship!” he roared.

* * *

Six weeks and a detour to Orkneyjar later, the Danes fell upon an Anglish village. They’d looted half the town and a nearby monastery before someone managed to raise an alarm. Then it was time to run, before enemy soldiers got there.

Geiri and the others rushed to the longships, carrying gold, sheep, and the occasional struggling woman.

“Quickly!” Annar shouted.

They vaulted over the side of the beached ships and rushed to the oars, a few remaining on land to help push. Slowly — too slowly — the longships slid into the ocean. Once the oars bit water, those already aboard added their strength to those behind and both vessels slid into the river. The men behind scrambled aboard and joined their compatriots at the oars. By the time the Anglish soldiers arrived, the Danes were well away.

Geiri watched the Anglish brandish their weapons futilely as they rushed toward the shoreline. The Danes had only lost one man during the raid and they’d gained much.

But despite their victory, Geiri wasn’t happy. His gaze returned to the column of smoke behind them, his thoughts returning to the screams and blood.

“All right, my boy?” Annar asked.

Geiri nodded. “Yes sir.”

Annar slapped him on the back. “First time you’ve fought against men, eh?” The Danish warlord smiled. “This’ll lift your spirits.”

He turned and reached into a sea-chest. He pulled out a silver arm-ring, carved to look like a coiling serpent.

“You deserve another,” he said. He gestured expansively to the loot behind them, gold in many cases still slick with the blood of the men they’d killed to take it. “None of this would be possible without you helping kill that monster, and you performed just as well against the Anglish too.”

Geiri remembered the screams of surprised Anglish as the Danes spitted them on their spears, but his lord was watching. Hesitantly, Geiri slipped the ring on. Back home, he’d seen men at the village wandering around with the arm-rings. How proud they were to have gone a-viking, how the pretty girls marveled at them. It would be nice to have a wife — preferably two, or even three — and raiding the Anglish would go a long way toward getting one.

The first thing coming to his mind, however, was not glory or the possibility of wooing, but the coldness of the metal arm ring. It was cold like the flesh of the men who died fighting the nicor. Cold like the bodies they’d heaped on the pyre.

He forced the thoughts away. It was dishonorable to be ungrateful to one’s lord.

“Thank you, sir.”

Annar laughed. “You earned it, my boy.”

A squabble broke out on the other end of the ship. Geiri craned his neck to look over Annar’s shoulder. Two of the older men fought over a girl roughly Geiri’s age. She was comely and would be even more so once her bruises faded.

But she whimpered. Her sounds of pain reminded him of Eske, whose wounds had festered. He’d slowly died in the days after the battle with the nicor, before they got to Orkneyjar.

Annar walked away to restore order, leaving Geiri alone. He looked once more back over the water, toward the smoke rising from the ravaged Anglish village.

We are nicors.

__________________________________________________________

Matthew W. Quinn (b. 1984) grew up in Marietta, Georgia. After graduating from the University of Georgia with degrees in magazine journalism and history, his career has seen him reporting for one newspaper, editing two more, reporting for an online news service and a sports magazine, blogging for a cloud-computing firm and two film companies, and collecting Twitter feeds for online ad campaigns. His reporting has brought him into contact with presidential candidates, television celebrities, and notable authors and once earned him a commendation from the Georgia Department of Veterans’ Service.

Throughout all this, he has written science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His first sale was in late 2006, when he sold “I am the Wendigo” to the webzine CHIMAERA SERIALS. 2009 saw the sale of “Skirmish at the Vale’s Edge” to BattleCorps, the official BattleTech tie-in site. He made his first professional-level sale, “Coil Gun,” to PRESSURE SUITE: DIGITAL SCIENCE FICTION #3 in 2011. In 2012, he self-published four short stories (including “Wendigo”) for Amazon’s Kindle, sold “Nicor” to HEROIC FANTASY QUARTERLY, and completed his first original novel BATTLE FOR THE WASTELANDS, currently under consideration by a publisher and several agents.

www.accordingtoquinn.com


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