The sun in the eye of the storm may have been warm enough by comparison, but the island itself had not yet escaped winter’s chill. More than once as they scaled the rock face Einarr and Erik both nearly lost their footing thanks to the thin layer of hoarfrost that covered the stone.
Einarr grimaced as he gripped the lip of the cliff with bare fingers and felt the wet bite of snow against his skin. He pulled himself up onto the ground above and into the windward side of a snow drift, then hurried out of the way so Erik could do the same. He beat the snow off the knees of his trousers and gauged their surroundings as Erik followed him over the lip. He patted the sack at his hip to reassure himself Runa’s gift had not been lost.
The surface of Svartlauf was covered in a thick forest of trees and shrubs with dark, almost black needles in spite of the snow. The air hung silent and still, with not so much as a chattering squirrel to relieve the heavy atmosphere. The two men exchanged a look before stepping softly forward into the wood. Snow crunched beneath their feet despite their best efforts. Erik adjusted the rope looped across his chest. The idea was ludicrous, but it felt as though so much as a broken twig would alert the fimbulvulf to their presence – no matter where it happened to be.
Game trails criss-crossed the overgrown forest floor through never-melting snow. Einarr and Erik picked their way across these, avoiding the largest of them where they could, speaking only in whispers when they had to speak at all, wending their way toward the stone Hall in the center of the island they had glimpsed from the water.
It was Erik who first realized they had attracted the attention of the wolf. He held up his hand for Einarr to wait. When Einarr quirked an eyebrow at him, he pointed first at his ear, and then off to their left.
Einarr turned his head enough to look from the corner of his eye.
A silver-furred fimbulvulf, easily as big as a dray, watched them with red eyes. A low growl carried over the underbrush to Einarr’s ear. He moved his hand to rest on Sinmora’s hilt.
“If I distract it,” Einarr murmured, still not turning to look directly at it. “Will you be able to take it down?”
Erik openly studied the giant wolf. “Watch me.”
Einarr nodded, then crouched down, his hand searching for a rock under the drifted snow. At the same time, Erik moved off in the direction they had been going in. Einarr lost sight of him in the underbrush almost immediately.
His fingers closed around a smooth stone. Got you.
In one motion he stood and drew back his arm. The wolf had turned its gaze after Erik, but that wasn’t where Einarr wanted its attention. He pitched the stone in his hand as hard as he could, and it struck the giant wolf in the snout. It yelped, snapping its head back around to Einarr. The fimbulvulf growled, crouching as though to pounce.
“Over here, you mangy cur!” Einarr took off down the path Erik left behind him, hoping the man would quickly find a good spot for an ambush.
The giant wolf was right on his heels. Einarr only kept ahead of it by virtue of the narrowness of Erik’s path through oversized trees. He could often feel the moist wind of the creature’s breath on his back, and then he would dive into a nearby bramble or duck around a tree to try and slow it.
Einarr dodged around a skinny spruce, paying more attention to the fimbulvulf behind him than to the ground he ran across. Instead of the ordinary sinking of snow, his boot struck unyielding ice. He slid, windmilling his arms to remain upright.
The ice patch was narrow. The sliding foot struck solid earth again and Einarr pitched forward, his other foot planting solidly on the ground through the snow. The sound of shattering wood rang through the forest. He glanced over his shoulder.
The fimbulvulf had bitten clean through the spruce tree where Einarr’s head would have been if not for the ice. It shook its head, splintered wood dropping from its jaws, and lowered itself to strike again.
Any time now, Erik. The trail he had initially followed had turned off just a few steps before Einarr dodged around that tree.
The wolf lunged for him, and Einarr leapt to the left. He felt a chill as the jaw snapped closed just inches from his leg.
Movement from the branches of a large pine caught Einarr’s eye for just a moment. Not close enough. He turned his full attention back to the great silver beast that fully intended to make a snack out of him. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to edge around so that when the fimbulvulf came for him again he would move closer to where Erik lay in wait.
The beast growled, its breath riming the trees to either side.
“That’s right, you overgrown puppy,” Einarr muttered. “Come and get me. I’ll be a tasty little snack.”
It snarled, and the noise shook snow free from branches. It must have heard him. A cocky grin spread on Einarr’s face and he crouched, ready to spring in any direction to avoid the beast’s jaws.
The giant wolf gathered itself for another lunge, its eyes fixed on Einarr. It swished its tail as it shifted from foot to foot, waiting for the moment when its prey might be off-guard.
Einarr feinted left. The fimbulvulf twitched forward, but didn’t bite at the maneuver. He grinned.
Einarr spun on the ball of his foot and took off at a sprint towards the tree where Erik hid. The sound of breaking branches told him the wolf had taken the bait.
“Raaaah!” Erik yelled as he plunged toward the beast’s back. The fimbulvulf stopped in its tracks, looking around for the source of the attack. At the last moment it twisted, nearly faster than the eye could follow. Instead of the hairy silver back of the wolf, Erik plunged face-first toward the snow-covered ground.
He rolled. Instead of landing on his belly, he tucked so that his shoulder took the brunt of the fall and tumbled over to crouch in the snow.
The fimbulvulf growled at both of them now, baring its fangs.
“You all right over there?” Einarr did not take his eyes from the giant wolf as he spoke
“Fine. Now what?”
“Don’t get eaten?”
The fimbulvulf lunged. Einarr dove to the left and felt the ice-touched wind of the creature’s jaw as it snapped closed on the air between them. Erik was rising at the same moment, staring warily at the rangy wolf’s head that was now between them.
It jerked its head, glancing at each of them in turn. Einarr tensed, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet. Erik was stronger, but he was faster. He would try to draw its attention again.
Erik was dropping down into a crouch, his right hand creeping toward the axe at his belt. Einarr pursed his lips: he would rather not kill the beast, if he was honest. For all they knew, it was the jotün’s pet.
The fimbulvulf growled again, a rumble that shook the trees around them. Einarr jumped back into a slightly wider clearing. The beast spasmed after the fleeing prey, and Erik took that as his moment to try for the its back again.
Once again, however, the creature displayed its uncanny reflexes. Rather than lunging after Einarr, the fimbulvulf brought its nose around and snapped. Its jaw closed around Erik’s leg with a sickening crunch.
Erik howled, and the sound was oddly vulpine for such a bear-like man. Blood stained his trousers where the great icy teeth had broken the skin. It was thanks to that same ice, however, that there was only a little blood.
“Erik!” Einarr started that direction, but was pulled up short by the wolf that had now turned its full attention on him. “All right, you mongrel. That’s how you want to fight?” A rasp of metal carried over the snow, and Sinmora was in his hand. The wolf would learn that he, too, had fangs.
The fimbulvulf lunged for Einarr, now. He sidestepped, bringing Sinmora around to strike at the great silver wolf. The clash of sword against fang vibrated in Einarr’s palms and frost rimed the blade where it had met the tooth.
Einarr jumped back. He needed to put some distance between himself and it, to see its next move when it did.
Erik rose again, his hand on a tree for balance, near the wolf’s hind leg. His red-stained leg did not seem quite straight, or quite solid. The fimbulvulf snarled. Einarr allowed a low growl to well in his own chest.
It lunged for him again, and again he deflected the bite with his blade. In the lunge, the fimbulvulf’s tail brushed past Erik. Einarr lost track of his friend again. The wolf demanded his full attention as they returned to their stand-off.
The wolf did not lunge for him again. Instead the fimbulvulf lurched to the side, biting at the base of its tail like a common dog.
Einarr nearly lost the opening to confusion. At the last moment he charged in, and with the flat of the blade landed a mighty blow on the wolf’s slender, tree-sized shin.
The fimbulvulf yelped and turned again to snarl at Einarr, but now its attention was divided by the feeling of something pulling at its fur. It snapped alternately at Einarr and the unexpected thing crawling up its back, too aggravated to actually hit either of them, but its thrashing also kept Einarr from the attack.
Erik appeared over the slope of the fimbulvulf’s shoulders, pulling himself forward toward the creature’s neck by the strength of his arms. In spite of himself, Einarr grinned to see his crewmate reappear.
He dodged forward, worrying at the fimbulvulf’s legs to keep its attention divided, smacking it with the flat of his blade where he could.
“I’ve got it!” Erik’s voice was a little breathless from exertion, but carried none of the pain Einarr would have expected.
Einarr ducked and rolled out from behind the fimbulvulf’s forepaws. When he turned again to look at the wolf, Erik was clinging to its fur with one hand and his good leg tossed over its spine. The other flopped limply against its shoulder while his other arm wrapped about the creature’s neck in a stranglehold. For the first time, Einarr thought he saw fear in the wolf’s eyes.
“Try not to kill it!” They were civilized, after all, and civilized men did not kill one anothers’ dogs.
Feeling the pressure around its throat, the fimbulvuf rolled. Erik yelled in pain as the full weight of the wolf rolled over his leg, but his grip would not be so easily dislodged. Erik squeezed, and the wolf began to pant. It rubbed up against a tree, trying to dislodge this new assailant. Erik grimaced as his shoulder rammed into the rough bark, but did not let go. Compared to the roll, that was nothing.
By the time Einarr had gathered enough green wood to hobble the fimbulvulf – at least until it woke up – it lay unconscious on the forest floor. Without a word Einarr handed a handful of flexible branches to his friend to strip the bark from and set about tying figure eights around its legs with some already stripped. The wolf’s breath sent icy puffs of fog up into the atmosphere.
“Come on. Let’s get you back to the ship. Tyr will know what to do about that leg.”
“What… about… the Isintogg?”
“We took care of the wolf. I think I can manage the rest.”