For more than a week, the only real trouble that fell on the three men was the occasional spring rainstorm. Three days into the second week, the day dawned clear and still, and so Einarr and Erik drew out the oars and left the tiller to Tyr for the morning.
Early spring or not, by mid-morning Einarr’s brow was soaked with sweat and none of them had felt so much as a tickle of breeze. Off in the distance, Einarr thought he saw the dark, solid stripe that portended land. Tyr glanced down at the chart as something silver flashed beneath their hull. He jumped to his feet, his eyes wide.
“You said there were islands on our path?”
“Yes,” Einarr said in between breaths. He pressed the oar forward through the air.
“And today was around the time you thought we’d be reaching them?”
The older sailor cursed. “We can’t land there. We’re already too close to the shore.”
Rather than lower the oar back into the water, Einarr and Erik both turned around to look at the old sailor, eyebrows raised in anticipation of an explanation.
“I’m just glad we can’t hear any singing yet. We’ve got candles, right? Stopper your ears.”
“What are you saying, Tyr?”
“I’m saying this area has been infested with kalalintu since I was a boy. Now are you going to get out the candles, or are we going to take our chances on the rocks?”
“Candles. Definitely the candles.” There was a clatter of wood as Einarr and Erik drew back the oars and pulled up some of the deck boards. Tyr kept a lookout over the water.
A splash sounded nearby, like a jumping trout or the flick of a sea snake’s tail. “Quickly now. We’ve been spotted.”
“Got them!” Eric stood upright, a fistful of candles clenched in his hand.
Einarr kicked a deck board back toward its place as he fumbled with the pouch at his belt for his flint.
“Once we’ve done that, we’ll want the hunting horns. … Aw, hel. Hurry!”
A snatch of music floated over the water toward them, beguiling, seductive, but not as sweet as Astrid’s voice had been – as Runa’s was. Einarr was dripping wax in Erik’s ear, who flinched at every hot drop but did not complain. Tyr grabbed one of the other candles from Erik and lit it from the one Einarr used. He cocked his head to the side and started to take care of his own ears.
Erik and Einarr switched places. As Einarr bent his head, he saw the bedraggled-looking head of an albatross surface from below the water.
Tyr was digging in their supplies now, and surfaced with their hunting horns. He tossed the strap of Erik’s over his shoulder, thrust Einarr’s against his chest, and raised his own to his lips.
The albatross’ wings raised up out of the water and it began to flap. The birds were big, but the body that began to rise from the water was still too large for an ordinary albatross. A pair of grotesquely muscled arms extended beneath the wings. The creature continued to flap, its wings still dipping beneath the water, and the white-feathered body became silver feathers. Then the feathers became scales, and it was the tail of a sea serpent that the wings now lifted forth from the water.
Tyr’s cheeks bulged out as he sounded his horn. The kalalintu opened its beak, and in place of the beguiling song emitted a very bird-like screech. Einarr could still hear it through the wax that Erik was just now finishing dripping in his ears, but at least that should be enough to prevent a bewitching. He raised his own horn to his lips and blew.
More of the creatures were approaching, now. They didn’t seem to like the noise of the horns, but even after Erik began to sound off it was not enough to drive off the man-eating kalalintu. Einarr kept blowing even as he drew Sinmora, and he saw Tyr strike with his axe at a kalalintu who braved the noise of their horns to stoop.
The creature dodged the blade of the axe and climbed back up into the sky. There were five of them now, circling their little boat like vultures. The creatures stooped, one at a time, testing each of their defenses. At the first sign of attack, they rolled away and climbed back up into the circle. All the while, a thin note of birdsong was audible through the wax in their ears around their own shouts.
This isn’t working…
And then it got worse. All five of them folded their wings together. One of them tried to wrap its tail around Tyr, beating him about the head with its massive wings. The second lashed at Einarr with its tail, having been stung by Sinmora before and trying not to get in the way of its flock mates. The other three all went after big, burly Erik, who struck out at them with his own axe. They did not flinch, though, even when his blade bit flesh.
The boat rocked. Einarr cut at the kalalintu that had been harassing him, but it was already breaking away. He glanced at Tyr – he, too, was no longer engaged with the grotesque beast. The sound of shouting continued to penetrate the wax in his ears. Einarr snapped his head around to the prow of the boat.
Erik was gone. In the sky, the two who had been harassing Einarr and Tyr flew to join the unsteady retreat of the other three. Dangling beneath them, and surely the cause of their erratic flight, was the muscular figure of Erik.