Excerpt: THE BROKEN SWORD by Poul Anderson (Open Road)

AndersonP-TheBrokenSwordPoul Anderson‘s The Broken Sword was published the same year as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), and draws on some of the same Scandinavian mythology and history to create its fantasy world. The novel has been described as “a masterful tale of men, elves, and gods that is at once breathtakingly exciting and heartbreakingly tragic.” A winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, Anderson is considered by many to be one of the masters of “golden-age” speculative fiction. The Broken Sword was recently released in eBook by Open Road Media, as well as 16 of the author’s other novels.

Here’s the synopsis:

In his greed for land and power, Orm the Strong slays the family of a Saxon witch—and for his sins, the Northman must pay with his newborn son. Stolen by elves and replaced by a changeling, Skafloc is raised to manhood unaware of his true heritage and treasured for his ability to handle the iron that the elven dare not touch. Meanwhile, the being who supplanted him as Orm’s son grows up angry and embittered by the humanity he has been denied. A pawn in a witch’s vengeance, the creature Valgard will never know love, and consumed by rage, he will commit a murderous act of unspeakable vileness.

It is their destiny to finally meet on the field of battle—the man-elf and his dark twin, the monster—when the long-simmering war between elves and trolls finally erupts with a devastating fury. And only the mighty sword Tyrfing, broken by Thor and presented to Skafloc in infancy, can turn the tide in a terrible clashing of faerie folk that will ultimately determine the fate of the old gods.

Read on for a two-chapter excerpt.

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Chapter 2

Imric the elf-earl rode out one night to see what had happened in the lands of men. It was a cool spring dark with the moon nearly full, rime glittering on the grass and the stars still hard and bright as in winter. The night was very quiet save for the sighing of wind in budding branches, and the world was all sliding shadows and cold white light. The hoofs of Imric’s horse were shod with an alloy of silver, and there was a high clear ringing in the gloom as they struck the hard ground.

The elf-earl rode into a darkling forest. Night lay heavy here, but from afar he saw a ruddy glimmer of fire. When he came there he saw it shone through cracks in a little hut of mud and wattles huddled under a great gnarly oak from whose boughs Imric remembered the Druids cutting mistletoe. He could sense that a witch lived here, so he dismounted and rapped on the door.

A woman who seemed old and bent as the tree opened it and saw him standing there, the broken moonlight sheening off his helm and byrnie and his horse shimmering-white and mysterious, cropping the frosty grass behind him.

‘Good evening, mother,’ quoth Imric.

‘Let none of you elf-folk call me mother, who have borne tall sons to a man,’ grumbled the witch, but she let him in and hastened to pour him a horn of ale. Imric had to stoop inside the tiny hovel and clear away a litter of bones and other trash ere he could sit.

He looked at her with the strange slant eyes of the elf-folk, all cloudy-blue without pupil or white. There were little moon-flecks drifting in Imric’s eyes, and shadows of ancient wisdom, for Imric had dwelt long in the land when the first men came. But he was ever youthful, with the broad forehead and high cheekbones, the narrow jaw and the straight thin-chiseled nose of the elf lords. His hair floated silvery-gold, finer than spider silk, from under his horned helmet down to his wide red-caped shoulders.

‘’Tis long since the elves have been abroad among men,’ said the witch.

‘Aye, we have been too busy in the war with the trolls,’ answered Imric in his voice that was like a wind blowing through ancient trees far away. ‘But now there is truce, and I am curious to find what has happened in the last hundred years.’

‘Much, and little of it good,’ said the witch. ‘The Danes have come from the east, burning and plundering and breaking English lords. They are nigh to overrunning all the western islands.’

‘That is not bad.’ Imric stroked his long mustache. ‘Before them the Saxons came with fire and death, and before them the Picts and Scots, and before them the Romans, and before them the Brythons and Goidels, and before them – but the tale is long and long, nor will it end with the Danes. And I, who have watched it almost since the land was made, see naught of evil in it, for it helps pass the time. I were fain to see these new folk.’

‘Then you need not ride far,’ said the witch, ‘for Orm the Strong has taken land here and his hall is but the ride of a night or less to the east on a mortal horse.’

‘A short trip for my windy-maned stallion. I will go.’

‘Hold – hold, elf!’ For a moment the witch sat muttering, and only her eyes had life, gleaming red out of the firelight’s monster shadows. Then of a sudden she cackled in glee and screamed, ‘Aye, ride, ride, elf, to Orm’s house by the sea. He is gone a-roving, but his wife will guest you gladly. She has but newly brought forth a son, and he is not yet christened.’

At these words Imric cocked his long pointed ears forward and his ivory-white face tautened. ‘Speak you sooth, witch?’ he asked then, low and toneless like wind blowing through unpeopled heather.

‘Aye, by Sathanas I swear it.’ The old woman rocked to and fro, squatting in her rags before the dim coals that spattered her face with red. The shadows flowed out of corners and chased each other across the walls, huge and misshapen and noiseless. ‘Go see for yourself.’

‘I would not venture to take a Dane-chief’s child. He might be under the Aesir’s ward.’

‘Nay, elf, nay. Orm is a Christian, but an indifferent one, and his son has yet been hallowed to no gods at all.’

‘Ill is it to lie to me,’ said Imric thinly.

‘I have naught to lose,’ answered the witch. ‘Orm burned my sons in their house, and my blood dies with me. I do not fear gods or devils, elves or men. But ’tis truth I speak.’

‘I will go see,’ said Imric, and stood up. The scales of his byrnie rang together like little silver bells. He swept his great red cloak around him and went out and swung onto the moon-white stallion.

Like a rush of wind and a fleeting blur of moonlight he was out of the forest and across the fields. Far and wide the land stretched, shadowy trees and silent hills and rime-whitened meadows asleep under the moon. Here and there stood a lonely croft, dark now, huddled beneath the great star-crusted sky. There were presences moving in the night, but they were not men – he sensed a distant wolf-howl, the green gleam of a crouched wildcat’s eyes, the scurry of furtive feet under the mighty oak-roots. They were aware of the elf-earl’s passage and shrank deeper into the shadows.

Erelong Imric rode up to Orm’s garth. Here the barns and sheds and houses were big, of rough-hewn timbers. The great hall stood with its carven dragon heads like a hill-ridge against the shining star clouds, but after Imric had over-leaped the fence it was to a lesser dwelling that he rode. The dogs smelled him and snarled, hair a-bristle, but ere they could bark he had turned his terrible blind-seeming gaze on them, and they crawled off whimpering in fear.

He rode like a wandering night-wind up to the house and looked in a window. Moonlight shafted in over the bed, limning Aelfrida’s lovely slumbrous face in soft silver and a cloudiness of unbound silken hair. But it was on the babe beside her that Imric gazed.

The elf-earl laughed within the locked mask of his cold beautiful face, and rode north again. Aelfrida moved in her sleep, woke, and looked at the little one beside her. Her eyes were still clouded with uneasy dreams.

Chapter 3

In those days the elves and other folk of faerie still dwelt upon the earth, but even then a strangeness hung over their holdings, as if these wavered halfway between this world and another; and there were places which might at one time be a simple lonely hill or lake or forest and then at another gleam forth in all the ancient splendor of the true dwellers. Now and again the gaunt bare crags of the northern highlands known as the elf-hills might be seen by men as halls and castles, and thus they were shunned.

Imric rode to the grim form of Elfheugh, which he saw as a castle tall and slender-spired, having gates of bronze and floors of marble, hung with the fairest shifty-patterned tapestries of magic weave and crusted with great blazing gems. In the moonlight the faerie folk were dancing on the green before the castle, but Imric rode by into the courtyard. His horse’s hoof-beats echoed hollowly from the massive outer walls, and the dwarf thralls hurried forth to attend him. He swung to the ground and hastened into the keep.

The clear unwavering light of the tapers was broken into a shifting, tricky dazzle of many colors by the gems and the gold in the walls. Music breathed through the vaulted rooms, rippling harps and keening viols and the voices of flutes like mountain brooks under darkling pines. The patterns on the rugs and tapestries moved slowly, like live figures. The very walls and floors, and the groined ceiling in its dim blue twilight of height, had a fluid quicksilver instability, they were never the same and yet one could not say just how they changed.

Imric went down a staircase, his byrnie chiming in the stillness. Of a sudden it grew dark about him, save for the occasional bloody light of a guttering torch, and the cold dark air of the inner earth filled his lungs. Now and again a clash of metal or a shuddering wail echoed down the rough-hewn water-dripping corridors, but Imric paid no heed. Like all elves, he had a rippling liquid cat-grace in his movements, he went swift and silent and easy as a questing wind down into the dungeons.

Finally he paused before a great door of brass-barred oak. It was green with moss and dark with age and cold with the dew of the inner earth, and only Imric had the keys to the three mighty locks. These he opened, muttering certain words, and swung the ponderous door back. It groaned, for three hundred years had passed since last he had opened it.

A woman of the troll race sat within the little cell. She wore only the bronze chain, heavy enough to anchor a ship, which fastened her by the neck to the wall. Light from a torch ensconced outside the door fell dimly on her huge squat mighty-muscled form. She had no hair, and the green skin moved on her bones. As she turned her great hideous head to Imric, her wolf-toothed mouth snarled. But her eyes were empty, two deep pools of utter blackness in which a soul could drown, sinking down forever into nothingness. For nine hundred years she had been Imric’s captive, and she was mad.

The elf-earl looked down at her, but not into her eyes. He said softly, ‘We are to make a changeling again, Gora.’

The troll-woman’s voice rumbled like thunder out of the earth’s inmost deeps. ‘Oho, oho,’ she said, ‘he is here again. Be welcome, you, whoever you are, out of night and unending chaos. Ha, will none wipe the sneer off the face of the cosmos?’

‘Hurry,’ said Imric. ‘I must make the change ere dawn.’

‘Hurry and hurry, autumn leaves hurrying on the rainy wind, snow hurrying out of the sky, life hurrying to death, gods hurrying to oblivion.’ The troll-woman’s crazy voice boomed hollow down the corridors. ‘All ashes, dust, blown on a senseless screaming wind, and only the mad can gibber the music of the spheres. Ha, the red cock on the dunghill!’

Imric took a whip from the wall and lashed her. She cowered and lay down, and quickly, because he liked not the slippy clammy cold of her flesh, Imric did what was needful. Thereafter he walked nine times widdershins about her where she squatted, singing a song no human throat could have formed, a song which certain beings had sung once, shambling around a strangely carved monolith, to bring forth the fruits of a quaking steamy world. As he sang, the troll-woman shook and swelled and moaned in pain, and when he had gone the ninth time around she screamed so that it pierced his ears and rang in his skull, and she brought forth a man-child.

It could not by the human eye be told from Orm Dane-chief’s son, save that it howled fiercely and bit at its mother. Imric cut its cord and took it in his arms, where it lay quiet.

‘The world is flesh dissolving off a dead skull,’ mumbled the troll-woman. She clanked her chain and lay back, shuddering. ‘Birth is but the breeding of maggots in the crumbling flesh. Already the skull’s teeth leer forth, and black crows have left its eye-sockets empty. Soon a barren wind will blow through its bare white bones.’ She howled as Imric closed the door. ‘He is waiting for me, he is waiting on the hill where the mist blows ragged on the wind, for nine hundred years has he waited. The black cock crows—’

Imric locked the door anew and hastened up the stairs. He had no liking for making changelings, but the chance of getting a human baby was too rare to lose.

When he came out into the courtyard he saw that a storm was brewing. A rising wind drove a wrack of clouds across the heavens, great flying black monsters from which the moon fled wildly over the sky. Like mountains in the east, the lightning-veined storm clouds boiled darkly over the horizon. The wind hooted and howled.

Imric sprang to the saddle and spurred his horse south. Over the crags and hills they went, across dales and between trees that writhed in the gale. The fleeing moon cast fitful white gleams over the world, and Imric was like such a wind-swift flitting phantom.

Swiftly, swiftly he raced, with his cloak blowing like bat-wings and the moonlight glittering briefly on his mail and his eldritch eyes. He rode along the eastern sea-cliffs with the surf roaring and snarling at his feet and spindrift blowing cold on his cheeks. Now and again a lurid lightning flash showed the waste of running waters and the storm marching out of the east. Thunder bawled ever louder in the darkness that followed the boom and bang of great wheels across the sky. Imric spurred his horse to yet wilder flight – he had no wish to meet Thor, out here in the storming dark with naught but loneliness around for many miles.

Into Orm’s garth he leaped and up to Aelfrida’s window. She was awake, holding her child to her breast and whispering comfort to him. Her hair blew around her face, almost blinding her.

There came a sudden glare of lightning like white fire. She could not see in that terrible flare, and the thunder that went with it was like a hammer-blow. But she felt the baby fall from her arms, she snatched for him, and then she felt the dear weight again as if it had been laid there.

Imric laughed aloud as he rushed back through the storm. But of a sudden he heard his laughter echoed, a howl in the raving darkness, and he reined in with his breast gone cold. Through a last break in the clouds came a shafting icy-white moonbeam, limning the figure which galloped with the east wind across Imric’s path. A brief glimpse he had, seated on his plunging horse, of the mighty cloaked form that outran the wind, the huge eight-legged horse and its rider with the long gray beard and the shadowing hat. The moonbeam gleamed on the head of his spear and on his single eye.

Hoo, halloo, there he went through the sky with his troop of dead warriors and the fire-eyed hounds barking like thunderclaps. His horn screamed in the storm, the hoofbeats were like a rush of hail drumming on the roof; and then the whole pack was gone and the rain came raving over the world.

Imric snarled, for the Wild Hunt boded no good to those who saw it and the laughter of the one-eyed huntsman had been mockery. But – he had to get home now, lightning was cracking all around him and Thor might take a fancy to throw his hammer at an elf. Imric held Orm’s son in his cloak and struck spurs into his stallion.

Aelfrida could see again, and she clutched the yelling boy in her arms. He should be fed now, if only to quiet him. He suckled her, but bit until it hurt.

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