Tag: Allthane

6.28 – Reap the Whirlwind

Päron? Einarr knit his brows in confusion. Why was she calling it a pear? Päron… Päron… Runa’s story had seemed oddly specific. Päron… “Päronskaft? As in, the imp who spun gold?”

Against all reason, the creature froze and the howl of an angry wind rose above the wailing.

Runa’s voice rose above the wind as well, singing more normally now, and slowly the revenant was absorbed into the whirlwind. Einarr stood watching, wary, even as Jorir and Erik fell back to regroup at his side.

The whirlwind did not advance. Something new seemed to be taking shape within it, blown up from the dust of the street. Slowly it resolved itself, indistinct at first, into the shape of a man.

The reformed revenant stepped forward, through the last vestiges of the whirlwind, looking less tattered and somehow more real than he had before. A leather jerkin hung from his bony shoulders, and the longsword in his hand, held point down, looked better tended. The wailing ceased.

Einarr and his companions were not able to recover their footing quickly enough to take advantage of the creature’s lowered guard, however. In the next heartbeat, the gaunt grey revenant had brought its blade up in a two-handed grip that shielded its body.

Einarr brought Sinmora back up to ready even as Erik and Jorir hefted their axes once more. Einarr had many questions for Runa, but they would have to wait.

Einarr charged forward, a battle cry bursting from his throat. He had duelled the Allthane: now that the revenant was apparently solid the four of them should be more than capable of handling it.

Jorir was only a half-pace behind, though he did not yell. Erik, who did, soon pulled ahead of all of them. His axe came down in a mighty chop.

The revenant hopped backwards with surprising nimbleness as Erik’s axe plowed into the ground.

Thus began an intricate dance, the three living men circling the revenant. Each striking when they saw an opportunity, but rarely connecting. The revenant had, Einarr thought, been a better swordsman in life than the Allthane had, or at least his skills had atrophied less before death.

Before long it became plain to Einarr that they were being toyed with. This “Päron” never once struck back, even when Einarr deliberately left an opening in his guard. It was trying to tire them out – and why not? With the unflagging strength of the dead, it would long outlast its oh-so-mortal attackers.

Worse, it seemed to be working already. Einarr knew he had begun to tire even before Runa named the creature. Erik’s face had gone red, and while Jorir did not yet look tired, Einarr could tell he was beginning to slow down.

Runa had attached three epithets to the creature’s supposed name. One of them, Lecher, Einarr could think of no acceptable way to exploit. Perhaps, however, there was an answer in one of the others. Päron the Avaricious, and the Vain. There had been those traces of gilding on the sword before…

Einarr hopped backward out of the clinch, where his most recent blow had brought him. The revenant smelled like the grave. Erik and Jorir moved in to strike.

“What a waste of gold, putting it on a sword hilt,” Einarr sneered. Jorir’s axe cut at its leg even as Erik chopped higher up. As expected, it jumped over Jorir’s cut and ducked Erik’s in the same movement.

“What sort of man pours his money into a bejewelled sword? It’s a weapon, not a bauble for some woman.” Einarr dashed in to take another swing at the revenant’s chest. It dodged again, but it felt somehow sloppier.

Erik smirked. “Must’ve been compensating, don’t you think?”

Jorir dashed back in for another attack, grinning. “I don’t know any warriors who waste money on fancy swords like that. Only kings and the impotent.”

That got it. The gaunt face of the revenant still managed to contort in rage despite the decayed muscles and another howl rang out.

For one brief moment, Einarr regretted goading the creature to attack. The sword may have once been gilt and bejewelled, but its owner was still a fine swordsman. Then he and Erik and Jorir were wrapped up in the battle to bring the creature down. Its attacks were vicious, and every bit as quick as its defense had suggested. Einarr contorted in ways he hadn’t thought possible to avoid its blade.

Its rage seemed focused on Jorir, though, and it was Jorir that drew it out. In the moment it overextended, all three Vidofnings struck together. Jorir embedded his axe in its foot, pinning it in place. The back of Erik’s axe knocked its head back, so that it stood nearly straight. And then Sinmora clove the revenant in twain, from head to toe.

There was no blood. Instead, the revenant’s body began to crumble like ancient parchment until there was nothing left but a pile of fine dust at their feet. A breeze came up and swept even that away.

Einarr stood still for a long moment after. The spirit had seemed to have an affinity for wind, so none of them were willing to credit their victory so quickly. After a long moment had passed in silence, save for the whistling of the wind, they all sheathed their blades.

“Runa,” Einarr said, straightening and taking a deep breath. “How did you know?”

“How did I know what?” That innocent tone didn’t fool Einarr.

“How did you know what story to tell? And how did you get from there to Päronskaft, of all things?”

Runa gave a small, mysterious smile. “My Singer training comes in handy sometimes.”


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6.26 – Spirit Bait

Before Einarr put his new recruits to work, curiosity burned a question through his lips. “What was it drove everyone out of the town, anyway?”

Arkja shrugged, shaking his head helplessly. “Some sort of ghost, we all figured. Right up until people started keeling over, bleeding out their ears.”

Einarr looked at Runa, who shook her head. “It might still be some sort of ghost Or it might not. I’d never heard of a leshy before, either.”

He nodded. “So when everyone fled the town…?”

“Broad daylight. A group of folks in the town square all died at once when the wailing picked up, and that were the last straw.” This from one of the men Einarr had pegged as a farmer.

Einarr frowned. They would have to deal with that spirit, one way or another. He stared at the mouth of the tunnel that had led them here and set his jaw. The four of them, against some sort of malign spirit. Einarr wasn’t even sure how it would manage to kill someone by bursting their ears.

Yes, technically it wasn’t just the four of them now. Arkja might even be able to hold his own in a fight, with some capable backup. But those seven were to see about supplies, and Einarr wasn’t about to send them off without the closest thing to a warrior they had.

Which left the four of them to take on a spirit of unknown abilities, when they were really in no condition for dealing with one at all. He shook his head. “No time like the present. Runa, do you think ear plugs might work against this thing?”

“Can’t hurt to try.”

Well, it could, depending on how the creature was bursting ears, but it was the best idea he had. And it would certainly make the wailing more bearable. Thus.

Einarr was in no hurry to pour hot wax in his ears again, though. He turned his attention to one of the three farmers in Arkja’s group. He was going to have to get names soon. “Do you know where we might come by some loose cotton or wool?”

“Believe so, Lord. Me neighbor raises sheep, she does. Imagine I kin get some clean wool from there.”

“Good! See to it. Enough for all of us to plug our ears. …Don’t bother trying to hide what we’re up to.” A riot at this point seemed unlikely at best, and the attempt might earn them some goodwill. The man was already on his way off to his neighbor’s.

“There’s that accounted for. Runa, Jorir, if either of you has an idea for beating back a ghost that won’t turn into another debacle like the Allthane did, I’m all ears.”

***

The escape tunnel, dug during spare moments by Arkja beginning long before the advent of the ghost, seemed no less threatening now that they were marching towards danger, their pockets full of wool roving. Einarr was coming to the conclusion he just didn’t belong underground.

They didn’t have a plan. Einarr would have been much happier if they had. One of the hazards, though, of being on the Isle of the Forgotten was that its inhabitants had been, largely. So whatever this was they faced, neither Singer nor dwarf had ever encountered as much as a scrap of a legend.

There were two different creatures it sounded similar to, at least: a nokken, since its victims seemed to drown, or a draugr. Einarr did not like the idea that the two types of spirit shared a common source, but under the circumstances it was an idea worth entertaining. Not that he had any idea how to send an ordinary draugr back to its grave: the Allthane had been able to communicate, however removed from reality it was. He was reasonably certain most draugr couldn’t speak, though.

No, they did not have a plan. But if (and it was a mighty if) the spirit was drowning people on dry land in the middle of the day, they thought they had a prayer.

Einarr blinked and realized they were approaching the tunnel exit. He shook his head, trying to clear it, as they began the ascent up into the Salty Maid. Now was not the time to be worrying.

The streets of the town looked, if anything, even emptier in the bright light of midday. Wind whistled between the buildings and created an eddy out of sparse dried leaves.

How much time was left in the season? Was that even the same here? Einarr froze momentarily, but shook it off. Time enough to worry about that later. Focus. They had a ghost to kill – or at least drive off. And it was going to take each and every one of them to pull it off. The town square was just past the sign of the Salty Maid, and that was where the spirit had been most active.

There was one thing the victims all had in common, Arkja had been able to tell them: they had all been telling stories when they died. It didn’t seem to matter what kind of story: the wise old man sharing legends with a younger man and the fisherman boasting about his catch met the same fate.

Which explained why the wailing began when it did, at least – and why it didn’t follow them into the tunnel. And it gave them a way to draw out the spirit, although not one Einarr was happy about. Once they knew that much, though, Runa insisted.

The woman herself stood in the center of the square, looking supremely confident. “Once upon a time,” Runa intoned, her ears already stopped with wool. Einarr, Erik, and Jorir now put in their own plugs, and the world took on a muffled feel. He was glad one of them was confident, at any rate.

Even through the roving Einarr could hear the wailing begin.

“A great hero fell into ignominy and was cursed, banished to the shores of the Isle of the Forgotten.” Runa’s intonation moved slowly into the syncopated rhythm of the Song of Sight, a song to pierce the veil and strip away illusions. That Runa knew it was the only reason they thought they had a prayer.

Einarr, Jorir, and Erik moved into a circle around their Singer, their weapons in hand, as they searched for the strange spirit that had an issue with stories.

“This hero wandered the Isle alone for many years, until his shame and his solitude drove him mad. Eventually the hero died, but his shade could not rest easy.”

The wind that whistled through the streets tugged at Einarr’s beard and stood his hackles on end. That was a wind belonging to the depths of winter. Still, though, he saw nothing.

“The shade continued to wander, alone, for another long time. And then, finally, someone else found their way to the Isle’s shores.”

Something down the street, down past the Maid, stirred up a dust cloud as it raced towards the four in the square.


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3.31 – A Full Hold

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.”


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3.30 – Rite of Passing

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?”

“Mm.”

“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.”

“You sure?”

“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.


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3.29 – Battle’s End

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?”

“Yes, well.”

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.”


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3.28 – Duelling the Shade

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.


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3.27 – Breaking Through

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?”

“Always.”

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.


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3.26 – A Little Illumination

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.


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3.25 – Blood Binding

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.”

“Explain.”

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?”

“Centuries.”

“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?”

“Often enough.”

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.


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3.24 – Unification

“Once upon a time, I too was a young man,” the Allthane began. “Strong of thigh and quick of wit, I was a thorn in the side of our chieftain. Though all knew it, none dared admit that the Chieftan I was bound to serve, as my father before me, had grown weak and stingy with age. He also had no heir, and the loss of his sons is what many blamed for his temperament. I, young upstart that I was, thought it wrong that our clan should be forced to labor under such a chieftain until the end of his days when the rulership should pass to another.

“Yes, my unification of the clans began with a challenge to a man barely acknowledged as a Jarl. Hardly an auspicious beginning, was it not? And yet.

“This Jarl, though he had no reason to, accepted my challenge, and did not even appoint a shield-bearer for the fight. I sometimes wonder, even now, if he was seeking death. If that is what he sought, well, I fear I was the one to give it to him. The duel was rather one-sided, even with all of the handicaps given to one challenging the chieftain.

“After that, it was generally agreed among the other men of the clan that the one with the temerity to stand up to the old chieftain should become in fact the new leader. Why none of them had done so before, I never learned. Never cared to learn, for in accomplishing my goal I had also gathered for myself a loyal following.

“Our ships were yet in good stead, and it being still early in fall at the time, I sent a boat out in search of those which had not yet returned, to inform them of the good news and instruct them to return home and swear fealty. …That boat never returned.” The Allthane looked down for a long moment before finally setting his goblet on the arm of his throne.

“Those who were still at sea, or at least some of them, had remained loyal to the old chieftan… or had merely taken this as an opportunity to cut themselves loose. At any rate, it was not something I was capable of letting stand. They had their winter in whatever port they happened to find, for none of them returned home that fall, and in the spring I led the rest of our ships in search of the turncoats.

“The first set I found sheltering under the banner of the Atlanings. For generations our two clans had feuded, and so there was no cause to hesitate. We warred with the Atlanings for a month, and we crushed them. Their thane bent his knee and swore fealty to me.”

Einarr sat staring at the Allthane, afraid that if his focus wavered he would be lulled into sleep by the tale. Some among the shades and skeletons were already falling asleep where they sat. Evidently not even the Allthane could be excused from a long story, badly told, in this hall. He went on in that vein for some time: Einarr tuned him out after the third conquest, told exactly as dryly as the first. If nothing else, this explained the desire of the unnamed shade to skip over this portion of history.

After a time, how long he truly had no idea, Jorir stomped on his toe to keep him from nodding off. He gave the dwarf a grateful nod. From the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Tyr blinking rapidly and elbowed him in the ribs. The older man coughed and nodded in turn. Finally it seemed as though the Allthane was wrapping up his tale.

“And thus it was,” he droned, “that I was granted the title of King of the North and crowned Allthane.” He took a drink from the goblet sitting on the arm of his chair, blinking at the mostly drowsing audience.

Before the Allthane could grow angry with anyone and spoil the Vidofning’s chances of freedom, Einarr stepped forward off of the bench… stone? He had been leaning against with a slow clap. “My lord.”

When the Allthane turned his wrathful eyes on Einarr, Einarr could now see the shade beneath the illusion even there. Flesh clung to the bones of his face with not an ounce of meat beneath, and instead of eyes Einarr thought he saw burning fire. “Have you come to mock me, then?”

“Nay, my lord, but to bury you.” He stepped forward slowly and lowered his hands. “For three hundred years you and your men have endured this torture, and for three hundred years you have added to your number those unlucky enough to wash aground here on the same isle you wrecked on. Has this not gone on long enough?”

“It’s no use.” The Allthane’s voice was oddly wet here. Had he still been human in the slightest, Einarr would have thought he struggled not to weep. “’Twas the wreck that killed me, sure, and many of my best men… but the pile of gold you witnessed earlier was my burial mound, assembled by those who remained of the crew. And yet, here we are, with only this half-remembered feast to console us. Begone, you, and trouble us no further. Take your crew and leave this place. Leave this island, or come the rising of the moon we shall come for you as we have come for so many others.”

The golden brightness faded, and before the five living men stood uncounted shades and skeletons, each of which glowed with faint ghostlight.

Einarr did not immediately turn to go, although he motioned his companions to head back towards the others. “If you have received the proper funeral rites, what binds you to this place?”

The remains of the Allthane shook his bony head, lank hair brushing back and forth against his shoulders, and laughter echoed from his chest. “Why? Would you offer to take on tasks left three centuries undone?”

“He might,” Jorir said. Of the four, he had stubbornly remained. “The Oracle named him Cursebreaker.”

If a corpse could seem surprised, the Allthane did. “Well. Had I tasks which required doing before I could rest, perhaps I would give them to you. But that is not what binds us here.”

Einarr spread his hands. “What, then?”

“Cannibalism.”

Einarr felt as though he had been struck by the stone door above. “What did you say?”


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