Tag: Arnskar

4.20 – Respite

Einarr clashed and clashed again with the Grendeling blocking his path – a creature no bigger than he himself was. He should not have been having so much trouble with this one, but with each bind he found himself another half-step closer to the treacherous drop between their two ships, the water choppy and frothed from the storm the Grendel carried on its back. He ground his teeth together, knowing he should be better than this.

An arrow whistled through the air from the deck of the Vidofnir and those still waiting to board. Einarr dodged to the side and his opponent turned with him – right into the path of the onrushing arrow. Einarr glanced back and saw Arnskar lowering his bow: he raised Sinmora’s hilt to his forehead in thanks before dashing back into the melee.

The Grendelings had not been so difficult to fight last fall, and some corner of Einarr’s brain worried over the question of why even as he joined battle with a third of their number. Whatever the reason, the Vidofnings could not afford to prolong this fight – not with three more ships pursuing their ally.

Another surge of Vidofnings thudded down onto the deck, and Einarr rode their wave back up to his father’s side.

Stigander seemed less tired than Einarr was, at any rate. For the fighting earlier, followed by their mad rowing, to have worn him down should not be surprising – but the weakness still rankled. He lashed forward with Sinmora, glad to be back in the thick of things where he could vent his spleen, and a Grendeling stumbled backwards, the arm nearly cut through at the elbow. Tveir.

“Regretting-” Stigander drove his blade deep into the neckline of a Grendeling’s maille. “Telling them not to Sing?”

“Little bit.” Einarr puffed, cutting at a third enemy even as he ducked the blade of a fourth.

“You’re exhausted. Fall back. Join the bodyguard, tell the ladies they’re covered to Sing if they choose.” Even distracted, Stigander was parrying the blows of three separate Grendelings. He kicked forward and one of the creatures’ knee bent backward.

“Father, I-”

“That was an order, son.” His tone brooked no opposition.

“Yes, sir.” Einarr seethed, although if that Stigander saw him flagging so easily he might be in worse shape than he thought. Einarr swept Sinmora in a wide arc and her blade left only shallow cuts in his targets. He stepped back from the space thus cleared. A heartbeat later, the hole he left was filled by Erik.

“Give your lady five minutes,” the big man laughed. “You’ll be back afore the fight’s over.”

***

Einarr had nearly reached the cluster of men surrounding Reki and Runa before the wave of fatigue truly hit him. He could not quite keep from staggering, although he covered it as best he could.

“Captain Stigander has rescinded the order preventing our Singers from joining battle,” he announced, before shouldering his way in between Bollinn and Jorir. He was, in fact, surprised to see the dwarf back here – until he realized that he was the only one of the assault team that had not joined the bodyguard squad.

“What did y’think ye were doing, racing back out there?” Jorir grumbled.

“Avenging my stepmother, or trying to.” It was some small comfort to Einarr that Barri still looked discontent being stuck back here, away from the fighting.

“Not two hours after raiding their compound and fighting our way back to the ship. I know you’re young yet, but…”

Sivid laughed from the other side of the circle. “Oh, leave off. Don’t tell me you never tried to do it all.”

Runa cleared her throat. “If we’ve been given leave to Sing I rather think that means the Captain would like our help.”

“Quite so,” Reki averred, then paused to hum a moment. “Why don’t you see about freshening up your rescuers. You three, come forward with me a bit.”

Even as Reki left, her chosen guards forming a wedge around her, Runa began to Sing. Almost immediately Einarr’s mind was filled with scenes of early spring, of rebirth and renewal and snowmelt, and he felt the heat and the heaviness begin to slide from his shoulders. He closed his eyes. Many of the scenes he recognized from Kjellvic. Such as walking with the Lady Runa out to inspect the Vidofnir. Only this time, they had nothing to argue over… a heat rose in his face, and he hoped that the others were not seeing the same thing he was.

Almost as soon as he thought that the vision changed and he was diving into the still-icy runoff of a lake, his skin still steaming from a sauna. He cleared his throat: whatever she had done was effective, although neither of those last two was normal. He opened his eyes as her song wound down, and now Reki’s voice began to worm its way into his mind.

Red began to tinge the edges of his vision and Einarr stepped forward, back toward the fray. He was dimly aware of Jorir and Barri flanking him, leaving Sivid, Bollinn, and Kragnir from the island to guard Runa. She would be fine. Reki would be fine. All that mattered now was to destroy the Grendel quickly.

The three of them now stood, each in front of a boarding line, breathing deeply the scent and the sounds of battle. A shout began to well up in Einarr’s breast: he held it back and stepped up on the railing. The smell of smoke tickled his nose.

And then Runa joined in Reki’s song. The taut line beneath his feet swayed as he raced across and the shout, now a roar, burst from his mouth. He was dimly aware of Barri and Jorir behind him, joining in the battle roar, but the fury was already almost overwhelming his senses.

The Grendel would pay.


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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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3.26 – 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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3.22 – Unexpected Allies

Einarr’s eyes rolled up into his head as the warm odor of food tried to fill his nose, his mouth, take over his mind.

Someone who evidently had not seen the exchange with the show-off took his strange expression to mean that Einarr was choking. Before his vision could truly cloud, a pair of very solid hands was clapping him on the back.

Einarr turned his head and spat out the foul substance – he could not tell what it was by taste, and he did not care to look at it any more now than he had before. “Thank you, friends.”

When he turned to face his benefactors, Einarr blinked. Beneath their illusory feast day clothes, these men were as living as he was. Einarr thought he saw despair in their eyes. He grinned and threw his arms about their necks. “And just the friends I was looking for, too. Come on, and meet the others of my crew.”

Finding a place on the edge of the crowd where they could speak without arousing suspicion was difficult, under the circumstances. Those who had been impressed by his performance at the hall dance wished to congratulate him: evidently the malicious show-off had grown too accustomed to winning. Others would jostle him at any opportunity… and they could not leave the golden light. He tried, and more than once, but each time it was as though the edge of the light formed a wall as solid as stone.

Einarr grunted. This would do. “Show me your hands.”

“Beg pardon?” Confusion was evident on the man’s face.

“Show me your hands.” Einarr held out his own. “Look closely. You’ll see my true nature. I would confirm yours before we go along.”

The other man, who looked vaguely familiar from the ring of dancers, nodded hesitantly. “As you like.”

When he tentatively held his hand out towards Einarr, Einarr clasped it and felt flesh. Einarr nodded: the other man seemed too shocked to say anything.

“Now you.”

The man who had questioned him moved much more confidently than his crewmate had, grasping Einarr’s hand in a firm shake. “So it is you.”

“You’re from the freeboater’s crew?” He kept his voice low, trying not to stand out above the hum of conversation.

“The Yrsirmar, yes. And you were with the group that came to offer aid.”

“I also led the group that came to help later. Not that there was much we could do.” Einarr looked past the man’s shoulder and caught Tyr’s eye, beckoning him over.

“My name is Einarr, son of Stigander, the Captain of the Vidofnir. The man on his way over is Tyr. The dwarf you saw earlier is Jorir.”

The more confident man nodded. “Kragnir. And this here is Arnskar.”

“Good. I’m glad to see you’re still yourselves.”

“Back to bein’ ourselves, you mean.” Arnskar almost stuttered over the words. “Not proud o’ this, but ran so hard from those… those…”

“Spirits.” Einarr filled in. Whatever they looked like wasn’t really important.

“Right. Well. Wasn’t paying enough attention, fell in a hole. Next thing we know we’s at a feast, filling our faces. An’ then the hall dance starts, an’ you’re talking to me like I exist, not like I’m some mask on a stage.”

“Well whaddya make of that, Tyr.” Einarr tried to keep a smile out of his voice. All by accident, and he was still proving the Oracle right.

“Stroke of good luck’s what I make of it,” Tyr grumbled.

“Where’d you last see Jorir?”

“He was aiming to avoid that arrogant prick you couldn’t quite get free of, I think.”

Einarr grunted. “And good luck to him. I just hope he can keep the scoundrel away from here for a while.”

“Sirs… way I see it, we’re all trapped here,” Kragnir started. “What d’ye need us for?”

Now Einarr grinned. “I aim to make it so we’re not all stuck here, and maybe do something about the Allthane’s shade. But I need to know more about this court in order to do it. You’ve been here longer than I: what do you know?”

***

The Allthane knew he was dead, that much was certain. How many of the others did, well, that was another question. Only, the Allthane preferred to pretend he wasn’t dead – so far, nothing that Einarr had not already gathered. Furthermore, Einarr still wasn’t sure he could really blame the Allthane for trying to forget he was a cursed shade stuck wandering a half-drowned rock in the far north.

Where things got interesting was how this played out with the others trapped in the feast with him. The shades, the freeboaters were certain, had been part of the Allthane’s original crew… and Kragnir wondered how many of them had already passed over to the otherworld when the Allthane drew them back. There was a thought that made Einarr shudder every time it occurred to him: to be returned to a mockery of life by the lord you’d served, to fulfill the selfsame function as you had in life, eternally…

Einarr was even more certain that their way out would involve the request of a boon, and just as certain that requesting the honor of burying the Allthane’s remains would earn them a tirade, or worse.

Well. If he could not take the direct approach, plainly his best option was to trick the Allthane into letting go the facade before asking the boon. Between the three of them, with the knowledge gleaned from the Yrsirmarings, they might just have a chance. Einarr squared his shoulders and strode towards where the Allthane once again sat, twirling his goblet morosely.

“My Thane.” Einarr offered a bow that would embarrass an Imperial, he thought, but the Allthane seemed to thrive on melodrama. “We have danced. We have feasted and drank, but nowhere do I hear stories of men’s exploits. May I regale you with a tale or two of my own?”

The Allthane looked up, still bored, but gave a twirling wave that suggested Einarr was intended to begin.

“Very good, my Lord. In that case, let me begin with how I won the Isinntog from the Jotün Fraener of Svartlauf.”


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