tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Smoke-Girl & her Northern Ghost

The Smoke-Girl & her Northern Ghost


*** This is a one-off, written in a single afternoon and it's based on a couple of things.

One of them is a Frank Frazetta painting done back in 1978. I don't know if the title is correct, but what I saw was called "Night Winds". The other thing was a line spoken in the film "The Thirteenth Warrior", so if you can imagine those two things inspiring me, then I guess that I can say that it doesn't really take all that much to make me write a story, huh?

The opening scene in this is based on an actual event which occurred late one night in 969AD, and the rest happens about two weeks later, but I didn't catch the actual date (in December) until it was almost written, so I'd just like it if the reader could just move it back about a month, 'kay?

The event at the start actually happened, and the names of the Emperors, the Empress, and the description of the duties and purpose of the Varangian Guard are all correct as well as the descriptions of the nomadic tribes mentioned. At the time of the incident, the age of the Vikings was well into its decline and at that point in time, almost all of the Varangian Guard were Norsemen of some kind, and most were Vikings.

The descriptive adjective "Varangian" is a Greek one and had nothing to do with the Viking age. The Varangian Guard saw service for a few hundred years after this incident, but by then it was composed of more Norman and Saxon stock. If you consider the distance in geographic terms - almost across the known world at the time, it seems implausible, but the pay was good enough to ensure that there would always be hopefuls showing up at the gate to apply, believe me.

Everything else is the fantasy, especially the meeting which I've placed somewhere in southern Romania.



He heard the call as the cry rang through the great common hall of their quarters, outside of his personal lodging room. Grabbing his sword and his bearded long-axe, Gunnar ran along with the rest, prepared to lay down his life for Nikephoros II, the current Byzantine emperor.

But time was against them, it seemed. Nikiphoros lay dead, brutally hacked down as he'd tried to run, by the look of things.

Only a little away and almost at his feet and just across the threshold of the doorway where he stood lay the servant who had raised the initial alarm which had been heard and relayed through the palace. That servant now lay writhing in agony with a bolt protruding from between his shoulder blades, just a little too high up to have been fatal and quick-acting enough to prevent the desperate cry in the first place.

Gunnar stepped over him and walked into the large chamber holding onto that sheathed longsword and the axe. The unfortunate servant lay screaming and Gunnar was annoyed.

He'd been having a bath and now stood naked and dripping as he looked around himself. Many of the staff and the countless advisers, augurers, and courtiers gasped and stepped back as he walked slowly around the corpse. He looked around himself at the collection of what he thought of as human cattle. This easily might have happened while a great many of these sheep had been present, though the time of day said otherwise.

The Emperor himself, ruling head of the Eastern Roman Empire lay murdered in his own Imperial bedchamber. Gunnar supposed that even he and the other Varangians couldn't be everywhere at once.

If they'd been kept any closer, they might as well have stood in to fuck the empress for him.

Nikiphoros was an old man, after all.

Many of the Varangian Guard were housed in the Bucoleon Palace a short distance away, but that was only so that the court wouldn't need to be exposed to and kept upset by the appearance of the large and fearsome mercenaries, though the term was a little ill-suited in their case.

Though they were considered an elite part of the Byzantine army, they were much more used as the Imperial bodyguards. Sworn to protect the emperor with their lives by an oath which universally bound them by their honor as well as their lives and above all, their reputations, the Guard were feared and loathed by many, for they often proved themselves to fit their reputation for fearlessness a little beyond the conventional meaning of the word.

Fearless they were and they also stood to protect their charge with their blood if need be, and spilling a little of that only seemed to make them happy. If it happened and they lived, they only bound their wounds and grinned as they went on.

They were well-treated and with good reason.

These wild northmen could not be bought.

That was why they were here, after all.

They were considered a part of the army, but there was always a contingent of them near to the man. Just not near enough tonight, it seemed to Gunnar. He shook his head and called over to Olaf, his old friend and veteran companion in Swedish, "Can you find out what he knows and try to quiet him a little before I kill him just to shut him up?"

Olaf walked over and picked up the man, carefully turning him over and grimacing as the screams were now sung a lot nearer to his ears. "Did you see this happen?" he asked several times in Greek and the stricken servant, still screaming in agony from the drawing of each breath nodded.

"Is the one still here? Which one?

Speak server. Who?"

The servant could barely raise his hand, but he managed it eventually and Olaf looked over.

"He was shot in the back," the man said, "He saw little if anything."

"True," Olaf nodded with a grunt, as he reached to grasp the bolt. The poor man howled and cried out piteously. Now that he had his arm up, he tried to reach behind him to draw it out.

"Do you want it out?" Olaf asked, and the man nodded.

The bolt was wrenched free in one pull and the scream on the man's lips was halted suddenly. He gaped into space ahead of himself as the obstruction in his artery was now gone. With nothing to impede the flow anymore, his blood spurted freely into his chest cavity from just above his heart and the servant breathed his last shocked gasp.

Olaf let him fall forward onto his face and stood up, looking to be certain that he wore none of the blood.

"Well that's better then," he said with a small smile.

Gunnar regarded the one who had been pointed out, "Dead from a bolt in the back."

"Yes," the man nodded, making no attempt to hide the small hunting crossbow that he held or the blood from the murder on his hands. The other guardsmen formed a quick informal huddle which lasted only seconds before they all got to one knee and bowed to the murderer, John I Tzimiskes.

The Varangian presence was misunderstood by many at the time. Most held the belief that they were loyal to the man who held the empire, but that wasn't entirely correct. They'd sworn their oaths to protect the man who occupied the position and not particularly to the man himself. While he lived, their oaths kept them prepared to lay down their lives for the emperor, unlike the Roman Praetorian Guard which had murdered many of their emperors themselves.

With Nikephoros dead, there was no purpose to any loyalty in that direction and so, knowing what was bound to occur anyway, their act was their pledge to defend the emperor -- the new emperor.

Even some emperors themselves were hazy as to the purpose of the large and wild northmen, sometimes using them at critical points and times in their battles. The sight of the Vikings as they waded in and the cheerfulness with which they disregarded their own wounds while they cut down any who even tried to stand against them was far past unnerving to many. It had happened before that when the Varangians had appeared on the field, the opposing army fled and it began the rout.

It had no effect on the outcome, but the sound of the brutes as they sang while chasing down the runners and the loud laughing as they hacked them to pieces went a long way to cementing an obviously true legend.

John looked around the room as everyone knelt.

Only one person; one Varangian remained standing.

"You have killed your own uncle," the tall and muscled northerner said quietly in Greek, still quite naked and unashamed, though not dripping as much now. He ignored the stares of the serving women.

John was Armenian, but he knew Greek well and nodded, "He was my guide and tutor in all things of strategic importance. He helped in my rise often. In return, I urged and helped him to ascend to the position of Emperor. I was to be given command of the eastern armies so that I could continue to defend us from the eastern tribes. That was our pact.

But when one ascends to any office of importance," John smiled a little, "it is best and prudent to find and prepare someone as a replacement for when the time comes to move higher again."

He smirked with a shrug, "It is even more prudent to prevent that one's rise at some point. So my uncle stripped me of my command over his imaginings. He had more than enough enemies to assist me, so I have helped him one last time to rise." He chuckled a little as he looked up.

Gunnar nodded with a curt grunt, understanding everything -- or most of it. He wouldn't give voice to his thoughts, but he rather suspected that there was a multi-layered plot here. John had been sent far away and yet he was here this night.

That meant that he must have crossed the Bosphorus river, well-masked by the convenient storm which raged outside at the moment and been smuggled into the palace. The man's wet footwear said as much to him. Gunnar wanted to curse the lax and easily-bought palace guardsmen. Varangians would never have allowed his easy passage into the palace no matter what disguise or pretext had been offered.

As well, he thought about it and knew that the empress Theophano was a legendary beauty who'd come from humble beginnings as the daughter of a tavern-keeper in Sparta. The emperor before this now-dead one had fallen for her beauty and married her against the many objections of his family and advisors. The couple had been happy, but try as she might, Theophano could not cross the wall of ill-will which the many of the courtiers had erected.

With the untimely death of Romanos II at only twenty-four, Theophano had forged an alliance with his successor, Nikiphoros, an unattractive but very successful general over twice her age.

Gunnar had a feeling that the doors of the Imperial bedchamber had been left unlocked. He wanted to ask the question of just where her Highness had been when this began, but he now doubted that he'd ever get his chance. And anyway, ... what was the point?

Nikiphoros was dead.

He looked over toward the new emperor and bowed.

"Will you not pledge your protection to me and do you refuse to kneel as well?" John asked rather pointedly.

Gunnar knew what he would have preferred to do, but he knelt then, "My pardons, Your Excellency. I accept your legitimacy, but I have asked for my release from imperial service some time ago."

He looked up, "I began in the service of Emperor Constantine. I served through the latter part of his reign and then I served Emperor Romanos. Then I served Nikiphoros here.

I have held to my task and served well for over twenty years. I am a Northman, sire, and now I wish to allow another, younger man to take my place in your service.

In my heart, " Gunnar lied, "I would be pleased to carry on, but I am an old warrior now and not as able to protect you and yours as I once might have. Time changes us all."

The polite refusal was the Varangian's right, and to do anything other than accept graciously would have gone a way to casting John in a bad light on the very night that he held his dream in his hand.

He bowed his head only a little in more of a nod and thanked the naked warrior for his service and duty, noting that he granted the release as his first official act. Gunnar bowed again and left the room. On his way out, he noticed the way that the Imperial widow looked at him for a moment before she turned her adoring gaze on the next emperor that she hoped to win to her bed.

John wasn't as pleased about it at all a few days later when he was informed that when an emperor passed on, the Varangians held the right to take from the treasury as much as they could carry. Since this was in addition to their pay, it meant that a retiring member of the guard could go home a very wealthy man.

Gunnar had already gone for his share over the deaths of the past two emperors and this marked his third and last time. He went that very night and was gone early in the morning the following day with a pair of horses. He wasn't a subject of the empire in any way. He was only an employee and that agreement was now ended.

But he wasn't stupid. He took nothing of size, and preferred only gold. It was heavy, he'd grant, but it was a lot more compact and if one packed it right, it made little to no noise.

His horse was a large war mount out of necessity, and the other horse was one that he'd been given by Olaf as a parting gift for their long service together.

He'd had enough, and none could say that he hadn't done his share. As well, Gunnar was respected and even feared a little by some of his cohorts for the things that they'd seen him do in combat. The more usual Norse peoples were well- represented among the Guard, though the majority were of Swedish background. Gunnar was a minority of one.

He was a Finnar, the word meaning that he was Finnish of Swedish extraction. His mother was Finnish and it was from her that he received many of his latent abilities as well as his very long white-blonde hair. His father was a Swede, descended from a long line of warriors who had once sought to augment and improve their existence by going 'a-viking'. It said something that after finding himself in Finland and looking at one particular girl as she tended to her family's goats, her pleasant and very interested smile and her considerable charms had caused the large Swede to stay.

Even Gunnar's surname harkened back to a different time. 'Fornjot' meant 'ancient giant' and if there was any truth to that, well a little of it at least had come to him. Gunnar stood nearly seven feet tall and though he'd come seeking employment along with many others in the service of the Byzantine court, it might be said that his size and strength had gone a long way toward sealing the deal for him.

He'd still been a boy when he'd arrived, though a large one at just shy of eighteen. Most eighteen year-olds no matter who they are lack the power to fight for very long or very hard, but Gunnar had been taught well by his father and even had a few scars to prove it, since he'd fought in defense of his village from bandits a few times already.

Even so, he'd been looked at a little askance at the time due to his tender age. The ones in charge of determining who would be taken only smiled, but one of them smiled for a different reason, since he could see something in the big lad.

"I seek to be given a chance," Gunnar had said, but the Greeks only told him that he ought to go home and come back in a little time. Gunnar countered that he'd come from his home for this all alone and had traveled at least five hundred leagues and over a year for this. He respectfully asked again for only a chance.

The only Northerner there in the group spoke for Gunnar then and they reluctantly sent for someone to whip the youngster's ass so that he would leave with his tail between his legs. Gunnar said nothing more aloud and only mouthed the chants which his mother had taught him as he waited in the warm sunshine in the back-courtyard of a palace in what had once been known as Constantinople, and then Byzantium by the Romans. One day far into the future, it would change its name again and be known as Istanbul.

A large Dane stepped out into the glare of the sunshine, rather annoyed to be pulled out of the arms of a wench in the afternoon for this. The girl had been good enough to hold his interest over the previous evening and all of the night and the following day up to now. For being ordered away, he now wanted to kill somebody.

"You'll regret this, boy," the seasoned warrior said.

Gunnar only looked and ran his fingers over one ear, pulling the whitish hair on that side behind it. Seeing that the other held a javelin, he guessed that it must be the weapon of choice to begin with and reached to hold his own in his hand.

He didn't know what to expect at the time, but the Dane threw his javelin then and Gunnar threw his even faster as he raised his shield, seeing how the other one flew.

His shield was pierced a little and rather than try to pull the weapon out and waste time, Gunnar dropped the shield, drawing his axe over his shoulder as he began to run.

The Dane stared at the distance which Gunnar's javelin had come through his own shield and drew his sword. A man with an axe was a bit slower in his swing, he reasoned, and in that time, a sword had time to bite hard.

The clash really wasn't one; the Dane swinging a hair too soon. Gunnar slammed his left foot down to slow a little just as he swung. There was a sword singing in the air before him, but it passed by and in that time, Gunnar's wide bearded axe had the other's left arm clean off below the shoulder and was deep into his ribs.

The Dane knew that he was done, but he tried to stab anyway. Gunnar saw the intent in that face and wrenched his axe. The agony of that stopped everything for the Dane and with the axe free, Gunnar swung around over his head and almost but not quite removed the Dane's head, though the result was the same.

Gunnar said nothing. He only pulled out his axe and his javelin and walked back.

"Are there any more?" he'd asked as he looked up.

Today it was two decades later and an older and scarred veteran was going home.

Now he thought to himself, he just had to get from Byzantium to his home in Finland with his haul. He wasn't even certain that he wanted to go back there, but unless he found a place where he could live out his days in a little peace and comfort on the way somewhere, that was where he was headed.


This was the worst turn of cruel fate, she thought as she ran her legs off and wanting something to occupy her mind now that she had a little space while she ran over a mostly featureless valley floor.

All that she saw ahead of her was a line of darker darkness and she guessed that it was a forest or something where she might rest and hide a little. She just had to get there, rest to get her wind back and run on.

She didn't know whose feet to lay this at, any more than she knew about anything else in her past beyond a point. The little that she knew for certain was that as far as she knew, she was a descendant of nomadic wanderers from both sides. At least the thinking might take up a little time as she ran, since she still had no idea which warlord was responsible for this. Otherwise, she knew herself and she'd waste precious moments looking over her shoulder and probably land on her nose if she tripped in the darkness. Her ribs were already hurting her.

And this was no game.

From her mother's side, she had some Qashqai blood and what was more, she'd learned things which most women never got the opportunity to know here where women were expected to know 'womanly' things because of it. For one like her, it was little more than a joke.

She'd forgotten the name of her grandmother, there never seeming to be enough time to get an answer from her mother if she asked to be reminded as they'd worked. She'd never met the woman.

But she did know that her grandmother had been captured in a raid -- if you could call one man grabbing a girl as she washed clothes and carrying her off a raid. The thing of it was, by what her mother told her, that her grandmother had suddenly found herself rather surprisingly married and happy with a Kipchak warrior who had come down far from the steppes to look for a bride and well, ...

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