Somehow I missed posting that Tuesday’s chapter was the end of book 3, so there will be no regular post today. The as-yet-untitled book 4 will begin on Tuesday, Jan. 23.
The passing of the storm took with it the ever-present gray of the sky of the ships’ graveyard. If there was one advantage they had on the trip out that they had lacked on the way in, it was the lack of fog – at least for the moment. If there was a second, it was the knowledge that there were no more kalalintu on the island. Still, these were small mercies at best, and the sharpest eyes on the crew had one task: spotting. Everyone else took their turn at the oars, shoving off of submerged sand bars to the calls of the spotters.
Einarr was not among those set to spotting. The foresight spoken of by the Oracle and the foresight required for that task were very different things and so he, too, was among those whose prime task was “hurry up and wait.”
Not that this was without its upside: the sun, now that it had emerged, shone off the water brightly enough to make him squint when he looked over the side. The spotters would be seeing spots for hours after they got through this. He gripped his oar and stared out towards the horizon.
The Vidofnir, her sail furled against errant gusts of frigid wind, crept forward through the shallows with a caution belied by the crowing rooster’s head on her prow. The oars extended out like a hundred hands to push off the shallows by the calls of those within. Seemingly at random, the lumbering longship would veer quite suddenly, the sandbar ahead undetected until the last moment by those within.
Once, as her halting forward progress seemed to become more sure of itself, the Vidofnir shuddered to a halt on a bar the spotters had missed. Then men swarmed from within, carrying what tools they had to dig at the submerged sand until she could start forward again. One of these men, shorter than the rest, grumbled about the lack of powder kegs aboard, but it seemed the rest ignored his complaints.
Once Vidofnir floated free again the men swarmed back onto her broad back and stomped their feet to warm them, hoping their trouser legs would dry before they froze in the wind, and then the sea-steed continued on again, her caution renewed.
For hours this halting, tremulous progress continued, until finally the sand bars fell away and a large rock, more truly an island than the one they had just left, reared up out of the sea ahead of them. The sea had worn away a narrow canyon that split the rock, and were it not for the tide through that canyon even it would be impassable.
Stillness fell over the Vidofnir as she entered the canyon, as of a collective holding of breath. She paused there a long moment, the ship’s eyes blinking away the glare of the sun so they could focus on the shadowed water below and the known danger it hid. Her hold was full to bursting now, and it was a weighty wealth indeed.
On deck, gripping his oar tight enough to whiten his knuckles, Einarr forcibly expelled a breath he knew he could not hold long enough to pass through the chute. The troublesome rock had been nearer this end of the canyon than the other – much nearer. Jorir still grumbled about the lack of explosives on board, and just this once Einarr thought the dwarf might be on to something. However, it was typically only Imperials who packed gunpowder on their boats, and then it was to power the machines that launched sea fire.
Einarr closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled again. Eira preserve us. For a split-second, he wished he still had the Isinntog. He didn’t know how to make it work, of course, but Reki might. He shook his head, banishing the wishful thinking.
“Hold!” The call came from the prow. Almost as one the rowers reversed for one stroke. Sufficient, at their current speed.
“You’ve spotted the hangup?” Stigander asked from his place amidships.
“Nay, sir. Not the hangup.”
“Then why have we stopped?”
“You’d best come see, sir.” The spotter’s voice was uncertain, flustered.
The thunk of Stigander’s boots against the deck boards was loud as he tromped up to have a look at what the spotter did not wish to say. He leaned over the prow to look down into the water and a groan escaped his lips.
“Pick up the pace, gentlemen,” was all he said.
Einarr stopped his father with a look as he passed by, an eyebrow raised.
Stigander leaned over in response to the unspoken query and whispered: “Sea serpent.”
Einarr blinked a few times and nodded. Svarek, next to him, began muttering what sounded like a prayer to Eira, but it seemed he was the only other person to hear. Probably a sea serpent would leave them alone. Something about a longship failed to trigger their predatory instincts the way a dromon could. But every once in a while…
“Oars in!” Stigander ordered, and it was the second shock in as many minutes for most of the crew. The urgency in his voice brooked no delay.
“Brace for a swell!”
The oarsmen planted their feet even as the spotters ducked behind the prow just as a massive swell lifted the Vidofnir’s stern and thrust her forward, carrying her far past the place they all thought they remembered the hangup being. Water sloshed over the deck, cresting the stern and breaching the oar ports.
Silence reigned on the deck for a few moments before Einarr could find voice to give the question that now floated in his brain.
“Was that the serpent’s wake that carried us?”
Stigander’s jaw dropped. When he picked it back up, a chuckle welled up from his chest. “It may well have been!”
Now the laughter spread around the crew, a sound of relief at least as much as merriment. As it died down the rowers went back to their rows and the spotters resumed their positions in the prow.
“Let’s get out of here.”
When Einarr opened his eyes the next morning, it was to the whistle of wind across the Vidofnir’s rails, the slate-gray sky above, and the dull ache of overworked muscles not yet ready to be worked again. He sat up, blinking blearily: those around him appeared no more alert than he was.
Einarr growled low in his throat as he pushed himself to his feet. Where was… Ah. There they are. Near the stern, Stigander and Bardr stood debating in hushed tones between bites of breakfast.
Already know what they’re discussing. This is awful weather to set out in. Einarr twitched his nose when he caught the cold freshness of rain on the wind. Food first. Worry about sailing in this later.
That they would be sailing today, one way or another, was almost unquestioned. There was a storm on the wind, yes, but with all the sandbars and submerged rocks around this island he didn’t think father or Bardr either one would want to risk being blown from their mooring.
Einarr took his bowl from Snorli with a wordless half-smile that was not returned. The cook was staring off at the horizon to the southeast. The direction the wind blew from.
“I smell it, too.”
“Then turn around and look.”
The sky over the southeastern horizon was near as black as the storm the Grendel rode in on last fall, and even from here the swirling of the clouds could be seen.
“Eira preserve us…” Einarr breathed. “Excuse me. I believe I need to go speak with Father and Bardr.”
Snorli grunted, but Einarr hardly noticed. His eyes were still glued to the spectacle the cook had called attention to. He shoveled his breakfast into his mouth without tasting it as he moved.
That Captain and Mate had seen the storm clouds already was never in question. That they weren’t sure how best to deal with it was equally clear as Einarr approached, still spooning porridge into his mouth, still staring at the horizon.
“Why are you letting everyone sleep still? Shouldn’t we be hauling Vidofnir up the beach?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Bardr nearly snarled.
“And I’m telling you, there’s nothing natural about that storm. We get back on the water, we find the Grendel, or one of her allies.” Stigander crossed his arms, his mouth set in a stubborn line.
“Father… we’re down nine men already.”
“It’s been one day since we pacified the haunting on this island. One. And that only two days after the kalalintu attack.”
Bardr nodded again. “The men are exhausted.”
“And you want to try to get through the shoals and go after the Grendel… in that?” Einarr could not believe what his father was suggesting.
“If it means a chance at Astrid’s murderers?” Stigander glowered under his brows. “This is the closest I’ve been to those whoresons all season.”
“Is it? All we can see is the storm, not if anyone is crazy enough to be riding it.” Venturing out in that would be suicide, the way they were now.
“Captain, you’ll get your chance for vengeance. Whatever the Grendel is after, we none of us will let her get away with it. But are you willing to throw away Raenshold to do it?”
Now it was Einarr’s turn to nod. There had been times, if he was honest, that he doubted if Raenshold was attainable at all… but to throw the dream away for as slim a margin as this? Even if Stigander survived it, the Vidofnir would shatter. “Father. Let’s not forget our goal, shall we? We’ll find another chance at the Grendel, a surer chance, and then we can wreak vengeance for Mother. But right now, that storm is coming up fast.”
Stigander growled. Einarr worried, for a moment, that he would plant his feet like a mule, but then his father blew air through his moustache in a noisy sigh. “Godsdammit, why do you have to be right? Fine.”
Stigander strode towards the cauldron bubbling with the morning’s porridge and bellowed. “On your feet!”
All through the morning the storm raged, the Vidofnings sheltering in the upper chamber of the cave where just the day before they had conducted rites for the old Allthane. As heavy as the Vidofnir was, they had managed to beach it properly, and even found a few rocks near the bog line they could tie to.
When the winds’ shriek died to a low moan and the sky had lightened from black to the grey of a cloudy midafternoon, the Vidofnings ventured forth from the dubious protection of the Cave of Revenants into the freezing drizzle of the storm’s wake.
Thanks in no small part to the weight in her hold, Einarr was sure, the Vidofnir lay exactly where they had left her, surrounded by bones and driftwood blown up from the shoals. They could still catch the afternoon tide, if they hurried.
From the sounds of things, that was the plan. No sooner had they reached the beach than the men were directed to move the Vidofnir back to the water’s edge. Sivid dashed up to undo the mooring lines while the rest of them moved into position along the sides of their boat.
Stigander, his shoulder to the keel, called a cadence. “One! Two! Heave!”
Vidofnir groaned against the sand as she slid back down towards the shallows. Couple more like that and we’re in business.
The cadence sounded out, and again they heaved. Now the stern was in the water and their load was lighter… although she was already riding much lower in the water than usual.
“Last push, men!”
And then the Vidofnir was in the water and the crew was clambering up the side to take their position at the oars. Now they just had to hope that there was still a clear path through the sand bars from here.
In spite of their exhaustion and soaked feet – and trousers – Einarr’s crew was in high spirits as they returned to the Vidofnir late that morning. The sun said it was nearly midday: as they stepped out of the marsh and onto the sandbar Einarr exchanged a look with Reki. They’d been luckier than any of them had any right to expect. A chuckle rose up from his chest.
Reki opened her mouth as though to say something, but then closed it again. With a sigh she, too, started to laugh, and soon the men were talking and laughing with the ebullience of relief.
“All right, Father, your turn,” Einarr called as they approached the ship.
Stigander studied the approaching group, looking for any sign of new injury and finding none. “Welcome back. Everything’s in order?”
“The Allthane lies buried in the frozen deep. And none too soon, either.”
Stigander nodded. “All right, you lot! On your feet. The faster we load the hold, the sooner we can get off this stinking rock.”
The rest of the Vidofnings pulled themselves over the side of the boat with far less alacrity than was their custom, the fatigue of the night before still showing in the eyes and shoulders of all of them. That few hours’ rest they had claimed while the rites were conducted had not been enough, and everyone knew it. Still, though, as the two strings of Vidofnings crossed paths there were congratulatory gestures all around.
Einarr locked hands with his father as they crossed paths, almost as though they intended to arm wrestle.
“Good job out there.”
Einarr nodded. “Take your time with the portage. Don’t think we’re getting out of here before morning anyway.”
Stigander barked a laugh. “You sound like Bardr.”
“Good! That means I might be on to something.”
Now they both laughed, and clapping each other’s shoulders continued on – Stigander to the treasure hold, and Einarr to the deck of the Vidofnir. When he pulled himself up, he saw that Snorli had remained behind, stirring a cauldron over the ship’s hearth that smelled distinctly of mulled mead.
“You are a lifesaver, man!” Einarr grinned at their cook.
“Gotta stay warm while you dry off somehow, right?” Snorli returned the smile without looking away from the horn he was ladling into. “This is the second cask I’ve opened since last night.”
“And we thank you for both of them. You haven’t seen the haul down there: we won’t need to worry about our resupplies the rest of the season.”
“Good.” Snorli handed the steaming horn to Troa, who had arrived just before Einarr. “Certainly you lot deserve the treat. It’s been ages since we’ve had a fight like that.”
Einarr grunted in agreement. A moment later he, too, had a hot drink in hand and was striding across the deck towards his bedroll. He groaned as he folded grateful legs under him to sit, cross-legged, on the blanket.
“All right, lads. We’ve to keep a lookout… but I’ll be buggered if there’s anything else alive on this rock. Boti, you up for first watch?”
The scout shrugged. Thus far he didn’t seem to have suffered any worse than a headache and a bad goose egg from his knock on the head. “Sure. Someone’s gotta.”
“Thanks. The rest of you…” He turned, then, as he realized what it was he saw from the corner of his eye. “Why is there a jar on my pillow?”
“It was in the cache you found before. Odvir thought you must’ve liked it, since ceramic doesn’t really sell…”
The jar did look familiar, with its Imperial-style painting that had somehow weathered the centuries unchipped, but Einarr shook his head. “There was an ivory tafl set that I wanted, but this… this is just a jar.”
He took a drink of his mead, still staring at the strange jar. I could have sworn I threw that away back then… Einarr shrugged, and turned to the nearest man remaining. He thrust his horn toward the other man. “Hold this for a second.”
Einarr pushed himself up on protesting legs and sore feet. When he picked the jar up, it felt warm to the touch – even accounting for the horn full of hot mead he’d just had clasped in his hands. Odd. He shrugged again and moved aft, towards the sea.
“May the waves carry you to someone who actually has a use for you,” he muttered. Einarr pulled his arm back all the way, twisting for extra force, and pitched the jar as far as he could out toward the open ocean. Even Snorli did no more than shrug. Ceramic was a dicey thing to keep on a longship, as vulnerable in the hold as on deck.
An hour passed before the larger group of Vidofnings began to return with sacks full of gold from the ancient horde, and then Einarr and his companions were moving again, stowing the gold in every spare crevice they could find underneath the deck boards. The way people were moving, no one would be up for rowing without a full night’s rest.
Stigander and Erik, to no one’s surprise, carried the largest loads slung over their shoulders as though it was nothing, and their two sacks filled the Vidofnir until she was nearly fit to burst.
“Much still left down there?”
“We didn’t even get half of it,” Erik laughed.
Einarr shook his head. “Maybe now we know why they wrecked?”
“Maybe.” Bardr sounded less amused. “Let’s just hope we’re not too heavy to get out of here.”
“Vidofnir’s nimble enough. I’m sure we’ll manage.”
“You mean like we did on our way in, where we almost got a rock through our hull? We’ll be lower in the water now. A lot lower.”
“I think we all decided that was a risk we were willing to take, wasn’t it?” Einarr looked levelly at his father’s first Mate. This plan had been his idea in the first place, after all.
Bardr just grunted, acknowledging that fact as well as his misgivings.
“Long as we all get some proper rest tonight we’ll be fine.” Erik stepped in: Einarr wasn’t sure he was as reassuring as he wanted to be.
“I’m… sure you’re right.” Bardr didn’t sound convinced, but it wasn’t the sort of thing one argued about at this point in a raid.
“’Course I’m right!” Erik laughed and clapped the Mate on his shoulder so hard he nearly stumbled. “Pretty sure that’s why the Captain keeps me around.”
The only difference Einarr could see in the barrow cave this morning from when they had left was the lack of shades hovering ominously between himself and the Allthane’s would-be barrow. “Where do you want us?”
Reki strode deeper into the cave without looking back? “You? With me. The rest of you should guard the entryway to the room with the ship for now.”
“Against things coming out or things getting in?” Irding sounded sheepish, but it was a good question.
“Yes. And remember you’re basically on your own against anything that does try to stop me. We’ve no guarantee all of the revenants fell last night.”
Nervous chuckling came from behind Einarr before Troa answered for the group. “Understood.”
Reki may have nodded in response. “Now. Einarr. As I understand it, my predecessor was your stepmother? You were involved in her funeral?”
“Good. I need you to lash a raft and find the Allthane’s remains. There should be bones, at least. Then get a few things from the old barrow to go down with him.”
“Ah… of course. And you need me to do all of this…”
“You have an hour.”
Einarr frowned. He turned around to face the others in the group. “Irding, Troa. Sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to handle the raft. Jorir and I will come help if we locate everything else we need in time.”
The three he named looked rather more pleased than offended to be taken off guard duty when the most likely opponent would be insubstantial. The rest of the team took their positions in the entryway, to a man their mouths set in a grim line. Einarr had no desire to fight the shades again, solid forms or not, so he could hardly blame them. “The rest of you… good luck. We’re counting on you.”
Even with the help of his three friends, Einarr passed a tense hour searching the cave for the Allthane’s remains. The grave ship, piled high with gold, contained no bones. Neither did the floor around it. Finally, though, his search carried him over to where the ghostly feast had been set up. Where before there had been nothing, it seemed here were the bones of every man who had fallen to the cannibals.
“How does one tell the bones of a king from the bones of a sailor?” Einarr muttered as he lifted another skull. Handling them sent shivers up and down his spine, and he found himself wanting to wipe his hands every time he rejected one.
“Is it too much to ask that they leave his crown on his pate?” Jorir’s grumblings were of a kind with Einarr’s own.
Einarr growled. “Jorir, I’ll get this, you go pick out some fitting grave goods for the revenant of a thane.”
“No. But the Oracle seemed to think highly of my perception… maybe that will help? All else fails, we pile the raft high with skulls.”
“As plans go, not the worst I’ve heard.”
“Mm. Go. At least one of us can get away from the charnel miasma.”
Jorir stopped mid-step. “Miasma?”
“Haven’t you felt it?”
“Nay. Just the usual darkness of an old battlefield. …Methinks your superior vision is serving you well already, milord. Find the source of the miasma -”
“And find the body of the Allthane.”
Einarr and Reki stood on the shore of the deep water pool that dominated the main cavern, the others arrayed around them to bear witness. At every man’s feet was a torch, and in every man’s hand an arrow, its head wrapped in oil-soaked cloth. Ahead of them floated a crude raft patched together out of boards cut from the Allthane’s rotting grave ship. Some of the ends were already charred, from the abortive funeral three centuries earlier.
The song Reki sang over the ancient royal bones was not what she had sung for the sailors who fell against the Valkyrie, sending them on to Valhalla. Nor did it bear any resemblance to the song Runa had sung at Astrid’s funeral. No. This song was one Einarr had rarely heard, for it was the song of those who were destined for Hel’s dank domain. There was no joy in it – not for a peasant, and less for a fallen king. Little wonder the Allthane had resisted.
A faint green glow arose from the center of the raft, reflecting off the gold Jorir had so carefully selected.
Einarr’s shoulders tensed. He nocked his arrow but did not yet touch it to the torch at his feet. Other witnesses stirred around him. Are we too late? Reki had said by mid-morning, but it was impossible to get a sense of time down here.
The tempo of the Song remained steady, either because it must or because Reki did not see. Einarr swallowed. The cue was soon. With luck, it would be soon enough.
A pair of burning green embers formed in the air above the raft. Then, above them, a ghostly crown faded into existence, less substantial than the fog that had hemmed Einarr’s group in on the beach.
There was the first cue in the music. All around him, arrows blazed to life. Einarr, too, lit his arrow. The crackle of fire was soon followed by the stretching sound of drawing bows.
The outline of a face came into being, now, below the crown and around the eyes. It was the Allthane, not as he imagined himself to be but as he had appeared after Einarr shattered the illusion of the feast. The hair on Einarr’s arms stood on end.
A clawed, ghostly hand stretched out towards the observers.
The song shifted, now, and the minor key grew strident.
Einarr loosed. The whistling of arrows filled the cavern. The first of them – Einarr’s own arrow, he thought – pierced the half-formed face of the Allthane’s shade and the ghost dissipated. Even as the arrow sank beneath the ocean with a plunk this was oddly satisfying. The corners of Einarr’s mouth pulled up into a grim smile as the planks of the raft caught and the gold once again looked like gold.
Surrounded by the ravening dead once more, Einarr and his companions moved shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. Not one of them would leave their backs exposed this way… and now that the Allthane’s chanting had ceased the men of the Vidofnir would be able to end this fight. Einarr frowned as they circled, fighting off the revenants intent on their flesh, searching as he could for a path back to the rest of his father’s crew.
And finding nothing. The restless dead formed a writhing wall between the three of them and the refuge of their allies. He felt as though he had been fighting for hours already.
“All we have to do,” He said, grunting, as he caved in the skull of yet another shade. “Is hold out until Father and the rest break through.”
“Is that… supposed to be encouraging?” Troa asked between breaths.
“It’s what I got.”
Then the revenants surged towards them again and there was neither breath nor break in clangor enough to talk for a time. Despite his best efforts, before the battle ebbed again Einarr had taken more than a few hits from their enemies.
“Hey Jorir?” He panted.
The dwarf only grunted in response. Einarr could only imagine how much worse this must be from his liege-man’s height.
“Any chance of getting your shield to burn again?”
“Not sure—” He paused to cut down one of the opponents he faced. “Why it did in the first place.”
Einarr grunted. That was unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected.
“Don’t look now,” said Troa, his words punctuated by the sound of steel hitting rotted flesh. “But I think it’s just about done.”
Einarr could feel Troa urging their circle to turn, pressing Jorir’s shoulder into his side even as Troa’s presence grew lighter. He kept the rotation going, and soon faced back the way they had come.
Einarr whooped and kicked the legs out from under one of the remaining shades. “Come on, now. Just like we did to get over here in the first place!”
As dawn broke Einarr, Troa and Jorir rejoined the rest of the crew of the Vidofnir, to a man battered, bruised and often bleeding. The fight wasn’t over yet, though, not for Einarr and a handful of others. Reki’s song had allowed them to take out the horde of restless dead – for the meantime. But without the funeral songs and the proper rituals, they would be back.
Someone had lit a fire down near the water line, and from it the wind carried the smell of hot mead. Reki coughed, and Snorli handed her a steaming horn of it.
Wouldn’t mind some of that myself… Einarr ambled down towards the cauldron. Arnskar and Kragnir were among those seeing to the wounded. From the looks of it, Einarr thought they might have been lucky. After fighting off the kalalintu, they couldn’t have afforded to lose many in that fight, no matter that everyone was willing.
Stigander, farther forward, near where the main clash had taken place, gave Bardr a hearty clap on the shoulder and came down after the three of them.
“You three ready for the hard part?”
Einarr tried to laugh, but it came out as a grunt. “You mean protecting an exhausted Battle Chanter while exhausted ourselves? Ready as I can be.”
“Good. We’re counting on you.”
“Your son knows that all too well, milord,” Jorir said. “But it might do to remind him once in a while he’s no good to anybody dead.”
“I didn’t hear you complaining about my plan until after we took out the Allthane. And wasn’t someone grumbling about being given backup out there?”
The other three all laughed as they approached the fire and its warmed mead. Snorli had a pair of horns ready for the Captain and Einarr as they approached, and two more were filled just a moment later for Jorir and Troa. All four newcomers at the fire raised their cups to Reki before drinking.
“I will be ready as soon as I’ve finished my drink, gentlemen,” she purred.
“Take your time.” Einarr took a drink of his own and let the hot sweetness warm his bones. “I’m not going to complain about a few minutes’ breather.”
“I don’t think any of the men will.” Stigander gave his cup a swirl. “But we’d best not rest for too long, or we’ll lose our opportunity.”
She cleared her throat. “Exactly that.”
Jorir raised an eyebrow. “Is your voice going to be up to more singing tonight? That fight must’ve put you through the ringer…”
“I’ll be fine. You boys worry about your part, let me handle mine.”
“As you wish.”
Troa took a long swallow, plainly glad for the moment’s rest as well. “How long do you think we have?”
Reki folded her fingers around the horn and held it under her nose. “If we’ve not completed the rites by mid-morning, we’re too late.”
Einarr grimaced, and caught the others in the same expression.”Fine.” He took a long swig of his mead. “In that case – Troa, meet me at the battle line as soon as you’re finished. I know better than to think you don’t already know the best route to the cave. I want to hear every step of it.”
“Of course.” Scouts had been sent out with Troa the day before basically as soon as the plan was hatched. There hadn’t been time to share that knowledge before sundown, though, but Einarr could think of nothing else they would be seeking.
Einarr sighed and stared down in his horn. Only half-empty, and his belly feeling pleasantly warm already. It had been a long day, and it was about to get longer yet. He poured the rest of the horn down his throat. “Take your time. I’m going to go get my blood flowing again, clear my head before we start out.”
Einarr prowled around the clearing formed by the Allthane’s shades, his focus narrowing in on his opponent. With Troa and Jorir at his back, he had nothing to fear from the ring of enemies and so he waited, watching for his chance.
The Allthane’s sword may have grown rusty, but Einarr thought the man’s spirit still remembered the fight all too well. And then there was the shield-bearer. He had neither axe nor sword nor knife in hand… that Einarr could see. The hand that gripped the shield could hide a small blade, after all, and he did not miss the sheath that hung empty at the man’s belt.
Treachery? Einarr pursed his lips. Fine. He tensed his thighs, his eyes darting between the two. As his eyes fixated on the Allthane, Einarr hurtled forward. He raised Sinmora overhead –
— And struck for the shield-bearer, who had moved to intercept the blow he thought Einarr intended to land. Sinmora’s blade sank into the emaciated flesh of the shade’s shield arm but did not shear through as it had before. Einarr growled and kicked at the shade’s half-severed arm, pulling his sword free. The brittle bone beneath snapped under the force of the kick. Einarr bared his teeth at the revenant.
Neither broken arm nor feral grin seemed to faze his opponents, however. The shield-bearer did not even drop the shield, although one more good hit would give the creature no choice. But now the Allthane was whirling around his shield-bearer, his sword a blur in the sickly green light, and it was all Einarr could do to catch the blows on his own sword or shield.
He growled as the Allthane’s blade hacked at him, as viciously as a warrior under the battle fury. In a moment when the Allthane’s blade was stuck in his shield, Einarr cut for the revenant’s knees.
The shield-bearer slid between them at the last moment and Sinmora clanged against the steel boss of the shield. Einarr turned the backswing to cut again at the creature’s battered arm as he raised his own shield overhead.
The Allthane’s blade came loose. So did the shield-bearer’s arm, still attached to the shield. A hand axe fell onto the back of the boards. Einarr looked up in time to see the Allthane’s blade descending toward his shoulder. He sprang backwards and the blade made sparks against his chain shirt.
Einarr grimaced now. The Allthane really was a cut above the rest of his men. Even the shield-bearer seemed more fragile, although not by much. And Einarr would have to take out the shield-bearer before he could go after the Allthane – at least if he wanted to avoid an axe in his back, that is. Momentarily he regretted the lack of the battle-fury, but Reki was only one woman. The rage would do him no good against wisps of fog.
Einarr flexed his fingers against the grips of both sword and shield. Two on one was hardly his ideal duel, but he could do it. The shield-bearer picked up the shield with his remaining arm: Einarr’s first task was to take him out of the fight. Even without the axe that had fallen to the sand below, he could keep Einarr from his goal.
Einarr shrugged his shoulders, hoping to be rid of the feeling of baleful eyes watching. Which, of course, they were, but they were also becoming a distraction. Only two of the revenants mattered right now, and they were inside the ring with him. Einarr growled as the shield bearer took up his place in front of the Allthane.
From the corner of Einarr’s eye, he saw Jorir kick back one of the circling observers. Not alone.
He spat. “What sort of a coward uses a shield-bearer in this day and age?”
Neither Allthane nor guard rose to the bait. Well, he hadn’t really expected the taunt to work: those two operated off of a different era’s morés. The shield-bearer squared his stance and raised the battered shield into position.
Einarr brought his own shield up to guard his neck and shoulders even as he launched himself back into the attack. At the last instant he turned his shield to the side to strike the Allthane’s shield high with his edge. He heard the splintering of wood as they struck, and lashed out with Sinmora to take the shield-bearer’s head.
The Allthane was chanting again, but that did not stop his shield-bearer from crumpling to the ground at Einarr’s feet. He kicked the shield away from the center of the circle.
While Einarr was preoccupied there, however, the Allthane’s chanting voice had come around behind him. A prickling on the back of his neck was all the warning he had that a strike was imminent.
Einarr dove forward. Dread constricted his throat.
Steel clashed with gold, and the sound rang like a bell behind Einarr. He rolled to his feet.
Behind him, standing where Einarr had not a moment before, Jorir had caught the blade. The Allthane pressed against the golden shield from the Jotun’s horde, and the shield seemed made of golden flame.
“Now, milord!” The dwarf strained under the pressure the Allthane exerted against the shield.
The Allthane stared not at the dwarf, or even at his foe, but at the shield itself, and the circle of revenants cringed away now. It was an opportunity not to be missed.
Einarr leapt forward and brought his long sword up for a mighty cut. Sinmora slashed through the Allthane’s scraggly neck.
In the same instant, Troa’s blade cut halfway through the shade’s emaciated side. Troa spun past the crumpling Allthane and pulled his sword free as Einarr’s momentum carried him several paces towards the ring of shades that still surrounded them.
He wanted to be annoyed at Troa. The man had interfered in a duel, after all… but a duel against the shade of a cannibal? The man had lost all honor in life, and shown little after death. Einarr’s breath came quick and heavy now, but he did not drop his guard. The shades encircling them began to waver, now. Some wandered off into the mist. Others, the show over, rejoined the main battle. Their nearest target? The three men in their midst who had just slain their leader.
Troa and Jorir took up their positions on Einarr’s flank again, just as they had fought their way over here.
“How can someone so accursed good at tafl be so very bad at field strategy?” Jorir grumbled.
Einarr had no answer for him, but now the revenants began to close in on them again and there was no time left to answer.
The torrent of undeath would have no end if someone did not take out the Allthane. Einarr knew the responsibility was his, both as his father’s son and as the one who had noticed the source of their trouble. He lunged forward and ran through one of the shades that pressed him. He cut at another and tried to catch his liege-man’s attention.
“Jorir!” To be heard over the drone and Reki’s song and the clash of battle he found he had to shout.
Finally, though, the dwarf grunted in recognition.
“We’re going to take the head off this beast. Watch my back?”
Now Einarr grunted his acknowledgement even as he kicked away yet another of the undying corpses that swarmed about. The shortest path to the Allthane’s position led directly past where his father was embroiled in the thick of the fray. With a nod, he began cutting a swath that direction.
As he neared where Stigander battled, one of the other Vidofnings staggered backwards. His father’s flank was exposed, now: Einarr slipped in to fill the gap, now fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with him once more. Jorir slipped in on the other side.
Stigander grunted, grateful to see Einarr still in the fray. “This is endless!”
“Allthane’s reviving them!” Einarr cut off a shade’s arm at the elbow as he raised his sword to block a blow aimed at his head. “I’ll take care of it!”
“An’ I’ll take care o’ ‘im.” Jorir added, scowling out at the press of shades.
Einarr ducked behind his shield to avoid another overhand blow, then offered his father half of a grin. “See? We’ll be fine. Just keep them off us?”
Stigander blew through his moustache as he eviscerated one of the creatures. “Fine.” He risked a glance over his shoulder and whistled before jerking his head forward, back to the fight. “Take Troa, too.”
Jorir growled even as he took another down at the knees. Troa, though, had already joined them, and Einarr was not about to complain about having someone on his other flank. The throng was thick that direction.
“Stay on me!” Einarr shouldered his way towards where the low drone of the Allthane’s voice still sounded. The metal boss of his shield caved in an enemy’s skull like it was rotten fruit and he stood over the body, hacking at the next creature in his path.
Jorir and Troa caught up swiftly, and the three warriors slashed their way through the enemy line with what swiftness they could manage. It was not a battle requiring a great deal of skill, except perhaps in dodging. Though they may have been warriors in life, their skills had atrophied with their muscles. It was, however, both tiring and tiresome. Shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, they kept the ravening undead from overwhelming any of them. Once this was over, they all deserved the strongest drink Einarr could find. He did not care to think what sort of diseases the creatures might spread, given the opportunity.
A fresh wave seemed to come directly for them as they approached the Allthane’s position, just inside the ring of torches. At first Einarr believed this was a matter of the newly raised specters rejoining the battle, but with every step the three men were pressed harder. He spared a glance up, past the line, and his eyes locked with the burning green orbs of the Allthane.
The reanimated dead and the clamor of battle faded to no more than a background annoyance. Einarr screamed a challenge over the din of melee all around them. He slashed down with Sinmora. His opponent fell, cut clean in two, and Einarr stepped over its body. Suddenly the path was clear: there was only open sand between Einarr and the endlessly droning Allthane.
He growled, stalking forward like a cat towards its prey. Jorir and Troa never strayed from his flanks.
The Allthane chanted more loudly, and Einarr felt rather than saw the crowd of restless dead behind him grow thick once more. It could have been a curtain writhing in the wind and dark for all Einarr cared.
“Lay down your swords.”
The shade of the Allthane said one word clearly, the drone of his own magic stopping momentarily. “No.”
“We cannot save you and your men. But we can end your torment.”
The Allthane resumed his chant.
“Lay down your swords!”
His opponents answer could not have been clearer had he spoken it aloud: the gaunt shade of the Allthane drew his own sword. Once, it would have been a blade fit for one who held the loyalty of all the clans. Now, even it was rusting away under the influence of the wet salt air and centuries of disuse.
“Look at your blade. How can one who calls himself Allthane bear to wield it?” The sword would be no less deadly for that, however, should the shade break his guard. Einarr sank a little deeper into his stance and clapped Sinmora’s hilt against his shield. The Allthane’s shield-bearer stepped into position, and they did the same.
The feeling of crowding behind him dissipated. Einarr shrugged, getting used to the feeling of open space once again.
“They’re drawin’ back,” Jorir confirmed.
“That’s because this is a duel now. Should be interesting: I’ve never dueled someone who actually used a shield-bearer before.”
“Don’t get fancy. Remember why we’re here.” Then the feeling of his liege-man and his crewmate disappeared from his back as they stepped away to face the throng.
Einarr and the Allthane began to circle the clearing, watching one another for the barest weakness. Troa and Jorir haunted the corners of Einarr’s peripheral vision, ever wary against one who might try to disrupt the duel. All around them, the writhing curtain of specters in green and black milled, their eyes burning like a row of candle sconces.
Reki heard their story with a small, sad smile. When it was over she shook her head. “I may know a way… but you must ask yourself if it is worth the lives of any more of the crew, or how many Vidofnings we can afford to spend here. We are already short-handed.”
In the end not a man objected to the course. Einarr did not venture to guess how many were convinced, like him, and how many merely wished to avoid losing face, but once again the decision was unanimous. As the sun set the Vidofnings set a wide perimeter of torches about the beach and prepared themselves for battle. Reki stood tall on the bow, using the carved rooster’s crowing head for balance. That the Allthane would take their continued presence as an excuse to an attack was plain. They merely needed to be ready for whatever horror had set upon the freeboater’s ship.
The two surviving freeboaters were among those on the deck of the Vidofnir, guarding Reki’s back should some of the shades attempt to circle around for her. She was, after all, the lynchpin of this fight.
Einarr and Stigander stood as a two-man line, ahead of all the others, facing the island. That, too, had been contentious, but in the end it was the Thane’s prerogative to lead the charge. The rest of the Vidofnings, save those set back to guard Reki, formed up behind them.
They stood in their battle lines, waiting, almost motionless, as the moon appeared over the deceptively calm sea and the scrub of this so-called island. Still there was no sign of either fog or ghost light. Some in the back rows began to mutter restlessly.
As the moon rose above the level of the plateau a thin mist began to build outside the ring of torches. As it grew thicker a little mist found its way inside, close to the ground at first but then rising as far as a man’s knees. Einarr readied his blade at the same moment, in almost the same motion, as his father did.
“This isle belongs to the dead.” The Allthane’s voice seemed to whisper out of the fog from every direction at once. “And the dead shall take back what is theirs.”
With the shade’s words the torches shifted in color from the welcome yellow light of the living to the sickly green of ghost light. The fog behind began to glow as well, and from it were paired sparks of concentrated green, as though the specters eyes burned with the ghost light. Einarr swallowed against his unease at the sight: even though he had expected it, the move tried to awake a primal fear he was unaccustomed to.
With the change in the light, the dead advanced into the circle of torches. Einarr set his shield.
Reki began to sing.
The notes that poured forth from the bow of the Vidofnir were a far cry from the voice they were accustomed to hearing. Sharp, staccato, and discordant, the sound set Einarr’s teeth on edge.
However unpleasant it was for the Vidofnings to hear, however, it was worse for the Allthane’s crew. The shades who had entered the circle seemed to flicker and waver, until finally they were revealed for what they truly were. Blackened flesh stretched tight over hollow bellies and displayed ribs in stark relief. Lank hair hung in clumps from half-bald scalps. The skin on their faces stretched too tightly over cheekbones, their eye sockets empty of all save the malevolent green fire as they worked their jaws in anticipation of the hot blood of the living.
Stigander clapped the pommel of his sword against his shield. A moment later, the rest of the Vidofnings answered in kind.
The shades were solid. It was time to fight.
Einarr raised Sinmora overhead. In the same breath, he and Stigander began the charge forward into the ghastly forces ahead of them. When Einarr clashed with the first of them, Sinmora cut through the creature’s shoulder with a sound like striking rotted wood.
He had no chance to savor the ease with which the first one fell. Immediately three others set upon him with sword and claw. He hacked the sword arm from the first and ran the second through, only to realize the motion had left his back open to the third.
Einarr whirled to try to defend against the last one, ignoring for the moment the claws scrabbling at his chain shirt from one-arm. There was no time even to bring his shield to bear.
At the last second the emaciated corpse stiffened. A blade very like his own protruded through its ribs, and over the creature’s face he saw his father’s illuminated in the ghost light.
Einarr nodded his thanks and turned back to the melee. There was not time for more: even that was almost too much. Jorir had come up even with them and taken down one-arm in the moment he thought the other would be the end of him.
The Vidofnings gave no ground, but the onslaught of the dead felt as though it would be endless. For every one they took down, it seemed as though three more took their place.
Eventually, Einarr grew conscious of a low drone underlying the sounds of battle and the chant of their Singer. He hopped back from the clinch and sliced his current opponent through its hollow belly. In the moment of quiet that bought him, he cast around, looking for the source of the drone.
The sound had a familiar quality to it, as of a voice he had heard recently. Einarr’s eyes were drawn to the edge of the lighted circle, where the Allthane stood back from the onslaught. His mouth was moving… and the low drone had a similar cadence to the story he had told the night before. And, all around him, the specters that had fallen were taking on new bodies. Einarr set his mouth in determination.
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.