The Allthane nodded solemnly. “We had been adrift at sea for weeks when the storm washed us up here. What little food we had left was washed away, and I was not the only one killed as we battled the storm. When they found themselves on such a pitiful bit of land as this, the survivors in my crew began to build a barrow for those of us who had fallen. The funeral was held, yes, but when the flames reached our bodies the survivors were overcome by hunger. …And I do not know who among my men is guilty.”
Einarr’s throat constricted at the thought of the feast that had been tempting them for hours now.
“You did well not to eat at my table. For your foresight I will grant you the boon of safe passage off this rock: heed my words and go, for should you tarry I may forget myself.”
Einarr set his jaw, considering. His odds of persuading the Allthane further seemed slim. “We will leave this cavern, but it is not my ship to command. Perhaps our Singer will have an idea what to do.”
None of the dead offered any sort of an answer as he stalked off towards his men clustered by the tunnel up and the exit. No shades barred their way out of the cave, nor were there any remaining above ground as the twelve men emerged from the domain of the ghosts, blinking, into the light of a midday sun. Einarr could not help but breathe a sigh of relief as they emerged into daylight: others, including the two former freeboaters, were not so reserved.
“Father probably has the whole ship scouring the island for us by now. Let’s get our findings and get them back to the Vidofnir.”
Einarr took the lead as they marched down the beach toward the waiting ship, hauling their findings awkwardly among them. As soon as the Vidofnir appeared past a bend he could see activity swarming about the ship: perhaps if the repair crew had scavenged sufficient lumber it would explain why they had not run across search parties on their way back. Or, given the size of the sandbar, the search parties may well have given up ages ago. He walked faster.
Not many minutes later they were spotted, and several figures from the swarm split off from the Vidofnir to come and greet them. At the lead, despite having to vault down off the deck, was the burly blond figure of Stigander.
Einarr did not stop his string of men to await the arrival of the other Vidofnings: there was a decision to be made, and he had a feeling he would have some convincing to do if he wanted anyone to pay him any heed. In spite of everything, though, he grinned to see his father racing in their direction.
“Sorry to -” He began, but before he could finish his thought his father’s fist swung out on a giant roundhouse and caught him across the jaw. Einarr dropped the findings he had been carrying. As he righted himself, he lifted a hand to rub at the soon-to-be bruise. “Ow.”
“That,” his father puffed through his moustache. “Was for letting me think you were dead all night.”
Then Stigander pulled him into a bear hug, nearly cracking a rib in the process. “And this is for making it back. What happened?”
“Sorry, Father. I’d have been back if I could have. We were a little trapped.”
“Obviously.” Stigander bent to begin picking up some of the items he’d knocked to the ground. The rest of the crew was beginning to arrive as well.
“I’m afraid we got an invitation we couldn’t refuse… from the shade of the Allthane himself. He holds court in a cave under the plateau, every night I expect.”
Einarr recounted the events of the night before, briefly.
“And he just let you go?” Irding asked, incredulous.
“Once we’d shattered his illusion? Yes, more or less.”
Stigander narrowed his eyes. “What’s the catch.”
“We must be gone by sunset, lest he and his ‘forget themselves’ again and do unto us as was done to the Yrsirmar the other night. …Oh, by the way, I found a pair of survivors. Arnskar, Kragnir, get up here.”
The two men practically bounced with excitement as they hurried forward at Einarr’s call.
“These two were caught in the spell when we got there, and were helpful in getting us out. Since they lack a ship, and we lack a handful of sailors…”
“We’ll talk about that later. Right now I want you to explain why we shouldn’t just cast off now and get out of here.”
“Father, have I said anything of the sort?”
“It’s written all over your face. Out with it.”
“The Allthane’s ship disappeared how long ago?”
“And in all that time, they’ve been trapped in a torment of undeath – all because someone or ones on their crew decided a funeral pyre was a waste of precious meat.”
Stigander blanched. “They turned cannibal?”
With a nod, Einarr agreed: “Some of them did. And the Allthane’s shade doesn’t know which. By this point everyone down there has eaten human flesh. They trap you with their feast. …And I want to send them on, if we can figure out how.”
Stigander’s sigh of exasperation came out as nearly a growl. “You know it’s not properly any of our business.”
“And yet, if it is within our power, it is the right and proper thing to do.”
Stigander gave his son a sideways look as they carried their haul the rest of the way to the Vidofnir. “Have I ever told you how much you take after your mother?”
Arnskar cleared his throat from behind them in the line. “If I may be so bold, sirs, I ‘spect if we can do this, the old Allthane wouldn’t mind us helpin’ ourselves to some of the gold down there.”
Einarr snorted. “Even if he did, what could he do about it?”
Now he got a different kind of look from his father.
“Oh, yes, if we can get it to the ship, and it won’t drag us down in the water, there’s enough gold to buy six ships down there, and hire crew besides.” He nearly added ‘if we’re willing to rob a barrow’ – but that was what brought them here in the first place.