Once again they stood before the hasty flag Jorir had constructed to mark their find. Even in the fog, Einarr could see the frosty puffs of his breath.
“This may have been a terrible idea.” They were the words on everyone’s mind, he was sure.
“So, what next?” Jorir asked the practical question. “I don’t intend to just stand around here and freeze.”
“No. No, you’re right. We can’t just stand around doing nothing. Do we try going the opposite direction, or do we try cutting across the bog? Men?”
“Awfully cheap enchantment if we can get out of it just by turning around,” grumbled Irding.”
“Agreed, although sometimes the simplest tricks are the most effective.”
“I don’t think it will be that simple, either.” Tyr shook his head. “On the other hand, this is a lot to portage through that swamp. It might be worth trying. And if night falls, we have plenty of firewood handy.”
“Furthermore,” Troa ventured. “Right now, we’re walking in circles on a beach, so we know it’s not natural. You know what’s easy to do in a swamp, even without interference?”
“Walking in circles. Right. Well, let’s give this one more try, heading east this time. If it gets dark, or much colder, we’ll light a fire here.”
As soon as they tried to turn east, it was as though the air itself resisted them. Einarr tried to resist the temptation to hope that meant the easy solution would save them.
Before long it became clear that was not the only thing they had to resist. The further east they pushed, the harder it was to avoid veering into either the marsh, on the one hand, or the sea on the other. And yet, after something approaching another hour, they once again found themselves face to face with the flag. A chorus of groans rose from Einarr’s team.
“Well, we knew it wouldn’t be that easy, I suppose.” He sighed. This meant their next best option involved porting their find through the swamp behind them. Assuming the distortion wouldn’t take hold there, too, as it might. But, there was something else amiss.
Einarr furrowed his brow. They had been walking for, as a guess, three hours now. And it had been around noon when they ventured out in search of their missing hunters. Which meant the daylight should have faded into evening by now, if not night. And yet, the light had not changed since they emerged from the cave.
This time he did not bite off his curse. “Blast and damnation, I missed it. All right, men. We’ve been out here a long time already, between our search and rescue and trying to break free of this beach. Unless I miss my guess, we’re all feeling it by now, but there’s one more thing to do before we can call it a day.”
A series of grumbles followed, but Einarr was not deaf to the relief they hid.
“Everyone with an axe, we need wood for a bonfire. Everyone else, help me build a ring.”
Einarr had worried, for a time, if the damp wood cut from the hull of the ship would actually light – or if their kindling would, for that matter. It took several tries, but as night finally fell the stack caught. Now the ten men sat around the fire, large enough and hot enough that those on the other side were difficult to see, and dried their boots.
Boti had some small luck fishing while the rest prepared the fire, and so they were able to at least take the edge off their hunger. For his part, Einarr was unsatisfied, and he suspected that carried over, but there was little more they could have done about it.
One benefit of the darkness and the fire was to make it impossible to tell if the fog still clung to the beach like barnacles. Einarr found himself hoping someone among the crew would see their flame and come to the rescue when they did not return tonight. Hoping, in spite of the suspicion that any rescuers would quickly become as trapped as they themselves had.
Erik started to rumble a ribald shanty Einarr had heard a few times previous – most likely something the man had picked up when he was a freeboater, although it was hard to know for certain. Whatever magic the song might have had was aimed at inducing cheer – or at least that was the effect when an ordinary man sang it. Soon the rest of the team was joining in – either laughing and clapping along or, here and there, jumping in for a verse of their own.
Einarr smiled and let them. That he could not quite bring himself to revel didn’t mean they could not enjoy themselves. Probably for the best that he be the only one to chew over what they would do tomorrow.
He blinked and looked over his shoulder, away from the fire. He could have sworn he’d seen something, but when he looked directly there was nothing within the firelight. Einarr shrugged a shoulder uncomfortably and returned to his thoughts. If they could rig up some sort of hand cart in the morning, venturing across the marsh might be their best bet…
There it was again. Only now when he turned his head to look, he saw a sickly green mist rising from the brush line of the swamp. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, not wanting to believe what he saw.
As chance would have it, Irding sat to his right. Einarr tapped the man’s shoulder to get his attention and pointed behind them. When Irding looked back, he seemed confused.
Jorir, on Einarr’s left, noticed the exchange and glanced back as well. Only, his glance turned quickly into a horrified stare. “Ghost light.”
Now Einarr groaned, even as he lunged forward to steal a brand from out of the fire. “Make ready for company, men!”