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In 1066 upon the death of Edward the Confessor, Harald Hadraada, King of Norway challenged for the crown of England, claiming it was his through his bloodline. He led a large force of over 400 longships to England and after a few initial victories was defeated during the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, by Harold Goodwinson. Only 24 longships returned to Norway.
Two weeks later Harold Goodwinson and his army, exhausted by the forced-march from York to Hastings, were defeated William the Conqueror. And the rest they say is history. Or is it?
Questions remain. What happened to the Vikings after Stamford Bridge? Where did they go? What did they do?
Well Legend of the Last Vikings is just one possibility…………..
But why an Alternate Ending?
When I started researching the book, I was amazed to discover that the Silk Route was not just one route, but instead a whole network of routes reaching from Eastern Europe and criss-crossing Asia. As such I had to decide which of these routes my characters would travel along. Before I could make this decision I had to research the routes. In doing so I found so much fascinating information on each, trying to decide which route to “travel” was not easy. Even though I eventually settled upon a route, I did not want to waste potential stories so decided to write an alternate ending which in effect gives the reader a two-for-one.
Chapters 1 - 33
I was going to give a summary of the chapters 1 to 33 but have decided that too much action, adventure, character building and meaning would be lost in doing so, so I have kept this to a minimum by providing the following synopsis.
Synopsis Chapters 1 – 33
On returning home to Norway after defeat at Stamford Bridge in 1066AD, our hero, Ulf Uspakson, herald to King Harald Hadraada, realises an era is over. Then he remembers the story of a Swedish Viking Adventurer, Yngvar Vittfarne (Yngvar the Far Travelled), who went missing on a journey to the East and in a last fling of youth decides to try and trace him – somewhere on the Silk Route. No easy task!
The alternate ending starts at Chapter 34 with the conclusion of the adventure in the Taklamakan desert – or is it?
After leaving Shanguo and crossing the Tien Shan mountains, the crew, as I affectionately call this motley group, follow the course of the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya) to the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. They then cross the Karakum and Barsuki deserts, they loop around the top of the Aral sea. Approaching Astrakhan from the North East, they are tired and weary after such an arduous journey. As always trouble awaits and the crew will have to summon physical and mental strength from reserves hidden deep within themselves.
About the Book
A finalist in the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Competition. It has a 4 Star Amazon rating and reviews of the book can be found at https://goo.gl/qVHd4G
The Companion at the rear contains character descriptions, historical companion, place name lexicon and maps.
The eBook (ePub & Pdf) can be purchased and downloaded online for US$3.99 at https://goo.gl/85yZtV
The Hardback, Paperback and Kindle can be purchased online from Amazon at https://goo.gl/qVHd4G
Both the hardcover and paperback measure: 14 x 2.2 x 21.6 cm.
In the words of one reviewer:
“….much smaller than the typical hardcover. It may seem an odd thing to remark on, but there is a satisfying heft to the book and it is easy to carry around, fitting nicely in a pocket in my windbreaker.”
The masses of reed beds gave away the fact that we were approaching fresh water. That they stretched out for mil upon mil indicated it was a large river. Islands of reeds could be seen out in the river. Slowly but surely the smell of fresh water intermingled with the smell of human habitation until the latter superseded the former.
Just as the smell of human habitation increased, so did the occurrence of fishermen’s shacks, then houses, until at last we were well and truly back in this eastern city of canals and bridges.
We meandered our way through the city, overwhelmed at its size, business, noise and bustle. It was at total odds with the quiet, open expanses of the desert and steppe. Not even Otrar and Tengi Kent were comparable in size or activity.
Finally, after a few wrong turns, we found ourselves in the silversmiths’ row. It felt as if I were being reacquainted with a long-lost friend. Eventually we came to Balgichi’s shop, although it could never be called a shop. I rapped on the door and a female voice from the inside called out,
“Ver iz dort?”
“I don’t profess to understand what you’re saying, young lady, but I believe you have a young man of mine…”
The door flew open and Serakh, Rat and Pesakh burst out. Rat flung his arms around me and thumped me on the back and shouted,
“ULF! At last! We have been waiting and waiting and had almost given up. We have ridden the approaches day after day and scoured the port looking for you…”
Then he realised his predicament and withdrew all embarrassed. Not one of the crew laughed, but the grins on their faces told me that they understood.
“Come in, come in,” said Pesakh.
We entered the shop and it struck me that what had before been choked with books, maps and manuscripts, was now totally bare. Only a light layer of dust covered the floor.
“What…? Where is everything?”
Balgichi Simatov came out from the back, “It is all gone to Kyiv.”
“Kyiv? But why? You said that it was your books that kept you here.”
“And so it was. Well, I want to be near my grandchildren. When they arrive, that is.” He gave Rat and Serakh a soulful look.
“Am I missing something?” I asked.
“No,” replied Rat with a grin plastered over his face. “Only that Serakh and I were married two months ago.”
“So now we have a Missus Rat, eh? Ah, I know what it was, you couldn’t wait to dip your wick, eh?”
“No, it’s not like that…” he started.
Blushing, Serakh tugged his shirt.
“Oh, you’re teasing again,” said Rat.
“I surely am. Do you mean to say that I missed your wedding? And a feast?”
“Yes. Sorry.” he said, looking like a scolded child. He then added quickly, “But Lydia and Iksander were here.”
“Ah. Well then, we’ll just have to have another celebration. We have a long and interesting story to tell.
Sven, are you going to introduce Tsai Ming or what?”
“I think ‘or what’ should about do it” said Sven.
“Who is Tsai Ming?” asked Rat.
“Sven’s wife, of course.”
“Sven’s wife! Sven has a wife? Where is she?”
Little Tsai Ming was brought forward and Sven placed a protective arm about her as best he could.
“She is Sven’s wife!” exclaimed Rat and Pesakh together, staring at the diminutive but beautiful Tsai Ming.
“But she is so small,” said Rat.
Serakh elbowed Rat in the ribs and he winced. Serakh and Tsai Ming had made eye contact and both smiled broadly. Now they could look forward to the journey to Kyiv in company other than that of ten boorish men.
“Rat, when did they leave for Kyiv?”
“Seven weeks ago, tomorrow.”
“Well they should be there by now,” said Sven.
“Yes, they should. Well, why are we standing here? We have just crossed the world and are thirsty and hungry.”
Teasing Serakh, I said, “Well then, are you going to just stand there or are you going to cook for us… or… are we going out?”
“I think we’ll go to a tavern,” she said. “There’s too many to cook for at this late hour.”
“Just as well,” said Sven. “I don’t think there’s enough beer here for a double celebration. Or is it a triple celebration?”
“Who cares?” said someone. “It’s a celebration whichever way you look at it.”
Tsai Ming whispered something in Sven’s ear.
“Tsai Ming would like to change into something more comfortable before we go out.”
“Alright. Make it quick, though—we’re all hungry.”
Tsai Ming and Serakh disappeared into the back of the shop and emerged a short while later in splendid female attire. A few whistles emanated from the crew.
“That’s enough of that,” chorused Sven and Rat, which brought on a reply of “Woo-hoos”.
As we walked into the tavern the sight of a diminutive but beautiful oriental woman clad in shimmering green silk turned just about every man and woman’s head in the place. She instinctively moved close to Sven, who draped an arm across her shoulder.
While we ate Ibn led the recounting of our travels in, around and across the Taklamakan and the Kingdom of Qocho, with the help of his diary. Like most young men their age, Pesakh and Rat were visibly upset on having missed out on so much high adventure. I had to remind him that he had caught a wife instead of desert sand in his nostrils, which pacified him a little.
The recounting of the story led to others in the tavern taking an unusually high interest in what was being said. As the night wore on, eavesdropping turned to blatant interest in proportion with the amount of beer being consumed. Eventually we found ourselves the centre of a fairly large crowd. The beer flowed as quickly as the story, and commentary on what was being told was not withheld. As with any story, there were those who didn’t believe a word of what was said. Unsurprisingly it was discovered that most of the doubters had never been beyond the boundaries of Hardzy-Tarkhan. Nevertheless they stayed for the duration of the tale.
Now that we were in closer proximity to the Black Scorpion headquarters I had tried to scan the crowd that night for anyone who may give the slightest indication of being a Scorpion. I noticed that Kalas was also doing the same. Despite my efforts I did not identify anyone who showed signs of being one.
When we left the tavern that night, we left with many looks of admiration and the tavern keeper did not charge us for our meal, saying that never before had he had such good business and could we come again tomorrow. I told him that tomorrow we would be gone, on our way to Kyiv.
Once outside, I called Kalas over. “Did you pick up anyone who had the telltale signs of being a Scorpion?”
“No. But news of our storytelling will undoubtedly spread. If a smart Black Scorpion should hear of it he would not take long to come to the obvious conclusions.”
“Unfortunately true. Oh well, we’ll just have to keep our wits about us.”
A few of the more inebriated crew had linked arms and were marching down the centre of the street singing an old Viking song.
He smiled and said, “With this lot?”
I smiled and said, “I know, I know.”
That night we slept the sleep of the dead.
Towards sunset of the next day Sven and I made to leave the others in the now empty and somewhat drab and moribund book shop. The vacant shop seemed to have adopted an air of melancholy. We felt it safer for the crew to lie low until it was time to move, so only Sven and I went out on the search for water transport out of Hardzhy-Tarkhan. I closed the door and we walked past the row of silversmiths, who were closing shop for the day. The pungent smell of their labours were still lingering as we moved on towards the Bolshie Izady.
There we scanned the harbour and noticed a few knars still moored to the quay. We casually perched on a few bales of wool and started scanning the crowd for the telltale signs of Black Scorpion activity. Satisfied there was none, we walked around the harbour checking the waterlines on the knars. We selected two which rode higher in the water than the others. I walked up to the quayside, placing a foot on a bale of cotton and resting my elbow on my knee, I called out to a sailor on the deck,
“You there! Sailor! Where can I find your captain?”
He eyed me curiously, and continuing his work, feigning disinterest he drawled back,
“And just who wants to know?”
“Lord Uspakson, that’s who!” snapped Sven his hand moving to the pommel of his sword for effect. “And make your answer quick if you want to see the end of this day!”
“You heard him” I said cocking an eyebrow.
The unarmed sailor’s eyes widened with recognition and a flash of fear crossed his face. He quickly pointed along the quay.
“In the fourth building along. That one there. The tavern” he said hurriedly pointing to a grey, two story stone building.
“And what would his name just happen to be?”
“Ranald. Ranald Christianson”.
“Thank you” I said flipping him a coin, which I followed up with “If anyone asks, be sure to forget we were ever here”.
“Aye, aye sir” replied the sailor with a grin from ear to ear.
At that we turned and headed in the direction of the tavern.
On entering, we hung back in the shadow of the entrance hall and scanned the crowd in relative anonymity. The crowd was rowdier than normal having probably consumed too much alcohol and not enough food. We could only see one Viking crew in the place. A few of the Viking sailors had harlots perched on their knees, their hands positioned on the more ample parts of the women’s anatomy. None of the hands had been pushed away.
Sven turned to me, I told him,
“You approach him. It would be better if I was not seen. Ask him to meet us outside on the opposite side of the street in no less than a quarter hour. If he needs to know my name, whisper it. The last thing we need is to have our names broadcast around Hardzhy-Tarkhan.”
Even as I said this I had an uneasy feeling that our presence had already been noticed.
Sven nodded and turned to go. As he approached the table a number of heads turned his way as he asked for the captain by name. A short discussion followed and the captain pushed the whore off his knee. The woman gave Sven a malevolent stare, cursing and spitting on the floor in front of him as she was pushed off. Sven pointedly ignored her. Getting no response she eyed up a few of the surrounding tables before seating herself on the knee of another customer. Her smiles and attention displaying all the virtues of a lover and a mother. I wondered if the new customer knew what he was in for?
The captain made to stand but Sven placed a hand on his shoulder and shook his head indicating that he need not do so. More conversation followed with Sven indicating my position with an inclination of his head. A number of faces immediately turned my way. I briefly stepped into the light to be seen. The captain nodded his acknowledgement and Sven arose and came back to me.
“He will meet us outside with his first mate in a quarter hour.”
“Good. Lets go find somewhere to watch and wait.”
“What for?” asked Sven.
“If I am right, you’ll see soon enough.”
“It’s not what I’m thinking is it?”
“More likely than not”.
“Oh no” moaned Sven.
The last vestiges of twilight were lingering when we exited the tavern. Almost directly opposite the tavern entrance an alley disappeared into the heart of Hardzhy-Tarkhan. A doorway at the end of the alley shrouded in shadow was deep enough to give us an ideal view of the tavern entrance. We could watch the comings and goings in total anonymity.
Over the next few minutes a number of locals entered and a few inebriated customers staggered out. And then an all too familiar figure stepped out of the tavern and stood in the fading light examining the immediate vicinity. His boots immediately identified him. For the second time that day Sven’s hand moved to the hilt of his sword. I placed a restraining hand on his forearm and said,
“Not now” I whispered. “Wait a moment. I think a dagger will be the weapon of choice here.”
We continued to watch the Black Scorpion from our hiding place. He continued to scan the street and after a moment or two began walking directly towards us.
“We must not kill him. Only knock him out.”
In the now almost dark the Scorpion did not see us until he was almost upon our hiding place. On spying us he checked. Jumping forward I cried,
Sven leapt forward drawing his dagger in a fluid movement and rapped the fast turning Scorpion on the crown of his head. His head snapped back and he crumpled into a heap at Sven’s feet. I was always amazed at how fast a big man like Sven could move.
“Nicely done. Quickly drag him in here” I said to Sven indicating our hiding place. Sliding his hands under the Scorpion’s armpits, Sven dragged the man into our niche and propped him up in a corner of the doorway. He tore a sleeve off the man’s shirt and gagged him with it. He then used the other sleeve to bind his hands. The black, multi-faceted scorpion tattoo with its unique number was clearly visible on the man’s left shoulder.
“Right we are then.” Sven said.
Just as he stood the tavern door opened again and a narrow beam of light played across the now dark street. It was the captain and his mate. They too stood for a moment and then seeing us made their way over.
“My Lord Uspak……..” the captain began.
“Captain Christianson” I said cutting him short. “It’s a pleasure” I beamed.
“How can I be of service” he asked coming straight to the point.
“You can take me and my crew up river tonight and put us ashore somewhere north of Itil.”
“Tonight?” he said rubbing his chin looking at me almost sideways.
“We want to leave Hardzhy-Tarkhan unseen, for reasons I shall make known once we are underway.”
“Does it have anything to do with the Black Scorpion you have in the doorway” asked his mate pointing to the unconscious Scorpion?
I sighed, “Yes it does. Quite a lot in fact.”
The captain’s face lit up. “Well then we’d be only too glad to help. Those damned Scorpions have cost me a lot of money. Getting rid of that accursed Dromon has made trade in this area a lot safer.”
“….and more profitable” interjected the mate.
“Are you not waiting for more cargo to take back?”
“No, no. We have what we want. Anymore and it’d make the ships too damned heavy at portage. No. We’re ready to go now. How soon can you be at the quay?”
“In about half an hour.” I said smiling.
“Ahem” coughed the mate. “There’s just the question of our fee.”
“Of course” I said. “I propose three gold coins on boarding and three when we disembark?”
I left the question hanging. The captain and his mate looked at each other and in unspoken agreement they nodded. The captain turned to me and said,
“Very well we’ll meet you at the quay within the half hour.”
“What are you going to do about the Scorpion?” asked the mate.
“Oh leave him to us. He won’t be bothering anyone or any ships again.”
Smiles crossed their faces.
“Sven bring the Scorpion” I ordered turning towards the direction of the shop.
Sven hefted the Scorpion like a sack of corn. The Scorpion grunted and a muffled cry came from behind the gag as he was flung across Sven’s shoulder. I removed my dagger and rapped him on the crown again. The Scorpion again cried out before sagging limply. The captain and his mate were positively beaming at our treatment of the Scorpion.
On entering the empty shop Balgichi said,
“My, my. And just what has the cat brought in?”
“A scorpion to play with sire” retorted Sven.
“Yes indeed. All we need now is a spider. This one is well known in Hardzhy-Tarkhan.”
“We gathered as much. He was responsible for tipping off the Dromon which we tangled with, oh, a lifetime ago now.”
“Well he won’t be known for much longer” said Sven. “What shall I do with him?”
“Strip him and tie him tightly to a chair in the back room”.
“Totally strip……? There are women present!” he exclaimed.
“Very well. To his undergarments then.”
Satisfied with the compromise, Sven and the other men got on with the job of stripping and securing the Scorpion.
The securing complete we returned to pick up our packs. We traipsed through the back room again and on unspoken command stood around the now conscious Scorpion. The cold on his near naked body was already making him shiver. As he watched us the malevolence in his eyes was plain to see. I addressed him,
“Now listen here you” I growled waiving my dagger under his nose.
“I know who you are and I know your evil purpose in life. We are leaving now and I pray I will never lay eyes on you again. For if I do, nothing, not even the Horsemen of Valhalla will be able to stop me from gutting you. If you manage to get free and escape, go to Baku and stay there - forever!”
Turning to Sven I said, “Bring his boots.”
Now fear and panic mixed with pleading flashed through the Scorpion’s eyes and across his face. We turned our backs on him and started exiting the shop. Rat and Peksah already had the horses ready outside. Sven dangled the boots in front of the Scorpion as we left. The thump of the chair tipping over onto the wooden floor could be heard over the closed door.