The screams of terror from off in the distance brought Einarr out of his half-doze immediately. Almost before he knew it he was back on his feet, pulling on his chain shirt and reaching for his sword.
He was not the only one. From all over the ship he saw bodies moving about. Stigander lit a torch and watched, his lips pursed. He didn’t try to stop them, though, only ordered caution. With grunts of assent, the fifteen who rousted themselves to investigate vaulted back out of the Vidofnir.
Stigander stopped Einarr a moment after he left the deck and thrust a torch into his hand. “You’ll want this. You have a spare?”
Stigander nodded and stepped back from the railing as Einarr dropped to the sand below.
When they arrived, silence reigned. The freeboaters’ ship could have been just another derelict on the shore. Einarr could not catch even a hint of movement from the deck, although the soft glow spoke of a lit lamp. Cautiously, he approached, torch held high out in front of their band. Weapons littered the sand around their feet. Many of them were still sheathed.
And then he noticed the smell, not of battle but of death – of bile and blood and waste that spoke of fear. He stepped forward again and the torchlight revealed an arm lying on blood-stained sand.
The body laying near that severed arm wore a chain shirt. Even sprawled in undignified death, his shield was slung over his shoulder. A raid?
The bodies they found were all similarly equipped, although all wounded differently. “Looks like we’d have been in for a rude awakening in the morning,” Einarr muttered.
“Can you really fault them?” Erik grumbled. “Plain as day their boat’s done for.”
Einarr nodded, his attention still on the body at his feet. He crouched down for a better look: what could have taken the man’s arm off? He sighed and shook his head: there were still kalalintu on the island, but they weren’t typically of a mind to dismember their prey, or to leave perfectly good food laying on the beach like this. The island wasn’t that big: could there be a bear?
He shook his head. A bear made no sense, and would have left tracks on the sand. The only ones he saw were human. Standing, Einarr looked around the beach. Other dark lumps, that at first he had taken for bits of flotsam or rocks, now suggested strewn corpses. He shuddered. “Let’s have a look on deck. Maybe we’ll find something there.”
He picked his way around the fallen warriors littering the sand over to the side of the boat and handed the torch to the next behind him. He had a feeling he knew what he was going to find, but pulled himself onto the deck of the freeboater’s ship anyway. He took the torch back to allow the rest to join him and turned to survey the damage.
The deck was all but deserted. Einarr paced slowly back towards the stern as a stream of footfalls fell on wood behind him. A few embers glowed in the hearth around a heavy iron pot. Here and there he saw a blanket or a pair of boots laid out to dry, but no more corpses.
Not until the torchlight touched the very back of the aftcastle, that was. Einarr stopped, staring. Four men, one of whom appeared to be the man who had so roundly rejected their offer of aid.
The mens’ faces were sallow and drawn, almost as though they had been desiccated, their eyes frozen open so wide they might not have had eyelids any longer. There was not a drop of blood to be seen in the torchlight. If Einarr hadn’t known better, he’d have guessed they had been rotting here for months.
The screams echoed again in his mind: the sound matched the expression he saw on these faces. “It’s as though… they died of fear,” he mused.
A grunt answered from over his shoulder. “But what could do that to a group like this?” Irding’s voice was breathy.
“You know the answer to that as well as I do.” Einarr pressed his lips into a thin line. He sighed, and then turned to face the rest of the group. “Anyone else find anything?”
No-one answered. Einarr couldn’t tell if that was because they’d come to the same conclusions he had, or if they couldn’t quite process what they’d seen. It had been a very long day, after all. “In that case, we should get back. It seems as though there’s nothing left to save here anyway.”
When he handed the torch back out of the boat, Einarr happened to look back toward the aftcastle. It could have been the light, he supposed, but it seemed like he saw a sickly greenish glow coming from where the bodies had lain.
He shook his head and vaulted back to the ground, his boots landing hard in the blood-stained sand. Once he’d retaken the light he set a demanding pace back toward the Vidofnir and the protection of Reki’s tired voice.
“We have returned, Father!” Einarr announced from the shore in the shadow of the Vidofnir.
Stigander’s head popped over the side of their boat and he nodded. He, too, seemed to glow, but it was with the warm light of fire. “Come aboard.”
The men who had gone to investigate did so with perhaps more relief than any of them would care to admit to, at least under ordinary circumstances. For a time they all stood in silence, enjoying the warmth and light coming from their own hearth while their Captain studied their faces.
“Well?” He asked finally.
Einarr met his father’s eye with a level gaze of his own. “The villagers were right.”