Tag: Don’t split the party!

6.19 – Forest Chase

Einarr could not get past the idea that this was somehow still a trap. The troll, apparently guileless, led them up to the ridge, to the place where he was apparently accustomed to climbing back up. There was one immediate problem.

“I can’t climb that,” Runa stated. Even had she dressed like a man, in trousers, Einarr expected that would have been the case. She simply hadn’t had the opportunity for much rock climbing in her life.

“Erik? Are you up to carrying a passenger?” Einarr was already thinking of alternate solutions: it was not a tall ridge, but the hand holds looked tricky. Einarr was quite certain he would not have the strength to take a second person.

The big man stared dubiously at the rock wall before them. As he opened his mouth to answer, however, Runa screamed.

The troll, without so much as a by-your-leave, scooped Runa up in one grimy paw and tossed her over his shoulder. She looked faintly green as he turned and put that same paw up on the wall.

Einarr drew Sinmora and leveled it at the creature. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The troll turned its head to look at the warriors following it, its expression that of a befuddled hound. “Troll help music lady. Music lady fix bad-head. Come. We climb.”

The troll started up. Runa squawked and clutched at the greasy skin that the monster wore by way of clothing. Reluctantly, Einarr sheathed his sword once more and shared a dubious look with Jorir and Erik. There was nothing to be done, though – not just at the moment, anyway – and so he climbed after, keeping as sharp an eye on the brute as the ascent would allow.

Eventually, though, they came to the top of the ridge and the line of evergreens that Einarr had noted earlier. The troll stood patiently, making no move to leave them behind – but Einarr wondered if he had forgotten Runa was thrown over his shoulder.

“Run now?” It asked, sounding hopeful.

“No. Now you put her down, and then we follow you like we did below.”

“Oh.” It had the temerity to look disappointed. “Puny ones move faster? Poison light soon.”

Poison light? The sun? “Fine. But the Lady walks on her own.”

The troll heaved a sigh, but set Runa down without further complaint. “Troll cave this way.”

Then he was off at a lope, and Einarr was stunned to realize it probably didn’t think this was fast. It was probably moving at about a horse’s trot – but a horse’s trot is still faster than most men could run, let alone dwarves.

Einarr called back over his shoulder: “Jorir! I’ll mark trail. Catch up as you can!” And that was all the breath he could spare for a while. Not that marking a trail was particularly difficult: neither the troll, nor he, nor Erik, paid much attention to the brush as they crashed through it. Most likely they left a trail a blind man could follow.

The troll led them in essentially a straight line through the underbrush, over fallen logs and through brambles (although nothing so thick as they had seen below), and soon Runa, too, was having trouble keeping up. The troll had not so much as looked back. Perhaps, if they simply stopped running and hid in the forest until daybreak…? But no. Runa had promised the benighted creature help, and he would not make her go back on her word. “Troll!”

“Man!” A sound like chuckling carried back toward them. “Nearly there.”

“Slow down! Music lady not so fast as you.” Neither was Einarr or Erik, but the troll only needed Runa.

The troll stopped to look back at the panting humans. Impatiently, Einarr thought. “Poison light soon. Must cave be.”

“Why were you so far out in the first place?”

“Talk later. Cave now. Music lady shoulders?”

Einarr was about to refuse again, but Runa raised a forestalling hand as she half-stumbled past him.

“No, it’s fine.” She took a deep breath. “He smells bad, and I’ll want a bath, but it’s fine.”

Einarr glared at the troll, but Runa paid him no mind as she stepped forward. “More gently this time, if you please.”

For a wonder, the troll not only understood but obliged, setting Runa upright on his shoulder as delicately as though she were made of glass. Einarr frowned. Something about this didn’t mesh with what Afi had taught him about trolls. Was it perhaps loyalty to another of its kind – its mate, perhaps? Or was Runa right – was this his Calling coming to the fore once again? If that was so, was that even a troll?

Einarr shook his head: he had no more time to wonder, as the brute was loping off again, this time with his bride on its shoulder. And there was no way in all the Realms he would let them out of his sight.

The troll’s path led them out of the strip of forest and into another meadow in the shadow of the mountain, and by the time Einarr could see firelight coming from the mouth of the cave the horizon had turned from indigo to grey. Whatever his faults, the troll had been honest with them thus far. Thus far. It’s too early to relax. There’s still no promise the cure for whatever “bad-head” is won’t involve eating us.

The troll came to a stop by the fire just outside of a large granite cave mouth where the edge of the field began to slope up into the mountain. As Einarr and Erik jogged to a stop, Einarr nearly gagged as the smell of rot assailed his nose from within the cave. Runa was patting frantically at the creature’s shoulder to be let down and taking quick, shallow breaths. For the smell to affect her this much even after riding on the troll’s shoulder all this way… Einarr was suddenly glad to be a sailor.

“Music lady fix bad-head now. Inside.”

Runa turned her face from the cave mouth, trying to smell less of it. She still looked as though she wanted to throw up. “No.”


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3.11 – Threatening Storm

The repair crew headed out while the others divided themselves as they saw fit. Einarr went with Jorir – no surprise – but also Erik and Irding, Tyr, Troa, Fjorkar, Geiti, Odvir, and Boti. All good, reliable men who had been on the Vidofnir at least as long as Einarr had – well, with two exceptions – and yet he felt uneasy.

His lips pressed into a thin line, he looked over the faces of his team and nodded. “Let’s cut overland to the other shore. It should be faster than following the coast, which will leave more time for the actual hunt.”

They were hardly past the line where hardy scrub concealed the ground beyond the coast when Einarr regretted this decision. Rather than calling the beach where they’d landed a shore, it would be more apt to say it was just another massive sand bar. Beyond was brackish, frigid marsh.

Einarr set his jaw and continued on, leading his team across what dry patches there were, hopping between them when they could and wading – or, sometimes, swimming – when they had no other choice. The fog was beginning to thin, finally: to their right, he could see the hulking shadow of the plateau where the kalalintu nested. Probably the largest piece of high ground in the area.

There were no seabird calls this morning. If it were not for the sound of the men trudging across the marsh, trying to keep warm even in their woolens, all would have been silent. Einarr angled toward the plateau, hoping they could make better progress over there.

The fog had mostly burned away by the time they came out onto a raised bit of “shore” like the one where the Vidofnir was beached, far too close for comfort to the too-quiet kalalintu nest but at least out of the water. To their left were the regal-looking remains of a ship.

Though the fog had cleared, the sky was a heavy gray. Einarr could not quite suppress a growl. “Let’s get to it. Troa, Boti, I don’t like the look of the sky. See if you can find us a place to shelter if we need it?”

“Sure.” Troa laughed. “Not sure how much wetter we’ll get under a little rain, though.”

“Not wet I’m worried about. It’s cold. Or do you want your trousers freezing on you?”

Boti shook his head. “No chance. We’ll head towards the plateau: probably our best bet.”

Einarr nodded his agreement. “See you in a bit, then. …All right! I think we have our obvious first target, but keep your eyes open. Who knows what might’ve gotten tossed around over the years.”

***

Two hours passed, then three, and still no sign of the two Einarr had sent out. As much wealth as the exterior of this derelict had promised, he was now certain it was not the Allthane’s ship. At least we won’t be coming back empty-handed… Where are they?

Einarr looked up at the sky for the hundredth time. “Has anyone caught sight of those two? They should have been back ages ago.”

“Maybe they found something?” Irding ventured.

“Let’s hope that’s all it is. Come on: pack up what you’ve got, and let’s see if we can’t find some trace of our missing pair.”

Jorir pursed his lips in thought. “Give us one moment longer, would you?”

Einarr nodded: it was good to be on the right side of the dwarf’s cleverness. He watched as Jorir dispatched Irding up to cut free a strip of tattered sail. Meanwhile, Jorir went in search of something, eventually settling on a rusted fishing spear. The dark red cloth he tied to the blunt end, and drove what remained of the tip into the sand several paces from the derelict they had been excavating.

Einarr nodded again, satisfied. That would be hard to miss, and should another team come upon the boat it should be easy to determine where they had been, if not where they’d gone. “Ready now?”

“Aye.”

“Right then. Let’s see what sort of trouble those two have stirred up for us today, shall we?” Einarr strode off down the beach, looking for the tracks that would mark where he sent Troa and Boti off.

After marching down the beach for a time, Tyr called up. “Einarr. Too far.”

“What?”

“We’ve gone too far, I think. The plateau’s closer than it should be, and I think they cut back through the marsh.”

Einarr hesitated. His feet were still wet, but his pants were finally starting to feel dry again. On the other hand, what if they’d never made it that far? He shuddered at the thought. “You’re right. We should back up and try to pick up their trail where they split off.”

Now he scowled. He’d chosen those two because they were the best hunters on the team. Einarr hummed, mulling over the other options. “Odvir, you’ve got sharp eyes. Up here with me.”

The trail had been nearly obscured by their passage and the morning’s wind, but between the two of them they spotted signs of a small group entering the marsh. A few paces further in, before their hillock vanished to leave them trudging through the water, Einarr spotted one of Troa’s blazes.

Gradually the hillocks became larger, and the pools of water smaller and shallower, until the island almost felt solid again. They continued to climb through the hardy scrub, the kalalintu’s plateau drawing ever nearer. Einarr pushed out the other side of a thicket of juniper to see that the men’s tracks led directly into a cave in the side of the plateau. He saw no light from within.

Odvir stopped next to him.

“I only see one set of tracks: you?”

The gold-haired man nodded, his mouth grim.

“This cave shouldn’t be that big. Not here,” Einarr mused. “All right, everyone. Partner up. One of you carries a torch, the other is ready to fight. Keep your eyes peeled: this is definitely where they went. They have to be in here somewhere.”

Einarr looked to Jorir: his liege-man was already limbering his axe, so Einarr unhooked the torch from his belt. It took three tries for a spark to catch, but finally it flared to life. Einarr stepped from the dubious light of day into the dark of the cave, the dwarf at his side.


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3.10 – Search Parties

Stigander knitted his eyebrows at his son’s declaration. “Explain.”

“Those screams we heard? Those were the death-screams of their captain and a few others. Four warriors were quite literally frightened to death on their wreck. Others were torn apart on the beach while they prepared another raid on us. The restless dead walk this isle.”

Stigander nodded. “We expected as much, did we not?”

“Aye. We also expected the kalalintu to be not much of a threat, though.”

“So, what? We should cut our losses and go?”

“Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t,” Irding grumbled. “Vidofnir’s not ready to sail again.”

Einarr shook his head. “I wasn’t suggesting that, Father, although it might be the sensible course to take. But we have nine berths open, and another ship to fill besides. Not to mention what we’ll owe on that ship.”

Stigander pressed a hand to his forehead and pulled his hand back through his hair. “Right. Glad to hear we’re thinking of the same things. Get some sleep. We’ll figure this all out in the morning.”

***

When Einarr awoke the next morning it was to silvery fog so thick he couldn’t see the men to either side of them on the deck. The smell of salt pork called to him, though, and so he was reassured that he was not alone on board. A silly concern, ordinarily, but after what he’d seen last night…

“So who all managed to sleep last night?” He made his voice light and jocular as he approached the hearth and the source of the meaty smell. There were only a handful of men up yet and clustered around the warmth of the breakfast pot, and each and every one of them looked as haggard as he felt.

“How does one typically sleep when the presence of murderous spirits has just been graphically confirmed?” Jorir grumbled. He hadn’t gone along last night, but had awakened when they returned.

“That depends, I rather think, on how exhausted one is beforehand.” Erik, too, took on a half-joking tone which was nearly spoiled by a yawn. “For my part, morning came too soon.”

“No joke.” Einarr sat on the deck between the dwarf and the burly man to warm his hands over the embers. “But we can’t just sit on our hands back here. We’ve an island to search and a boat to fix.”

“That we do, although we’re not likely to do much of either before this fog lifts.” Snorli’s voice sounded from out of the mist as he stepped up to join them and lifted the lid on the pot. “Well, grab your bowls. This cooks much longer and it’ll be mush, not dumplings.”

Those were the magic words. As if on cue, everyone who hadn’t already been hovering over the pot arrived, wooden bowls in hand, and the Vidofnings fell to eating. Even in those close quarters Einarr could make out the faces of less than half the other Vidofnings.

It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Stigander’s voice rang across the deck, clear as a bell although he was nowhere to be seen. “We’ll be forming teams today,” he announced. “The repair crew hasn’t changed. The rest of us will form groups of ten and all search in our own area. The sooner we find what we came for the sooner we can get out of here, and hopefully avoid more personal run-ins with the local monstrosities.”

Einarr pursed his lips. The idea made some sense, but nevertheless left him uneasy. “What does Reki think of this idea? Weren’t we counting on her songs to ward off the dead?”

Rather than letting Stigander convey her meaning, the low-voiced woman answered for herself. “I believe it sensible.” She cleared her throat, but not before Einarr caught hoarseness in it. “By spreading out our forces, we maximize the amount of ground we cover while minimizing the danger to any one group. While I intend to participate in the search, I believe that, barring some emergency during the day, my voice is best preserved for warding the Vidofnir at night.”

Einarr bowed his head in the direction her voice came from. “As you say, it is best that your voice be preserved.”

Stigander took too paces towards where the Vidofnings gathered for breakfast and emerged from the fog. “Bardr and I will each take a team. Einarr, you take one as well. That’s three: I want two more groups. We’ll draw lots for them. I’m passing around a bowl: if you’re interested, drop in your ring.”

Most of the Vidofnings passed the bowl and continued to eat, but there were more than enough clinks of metal against wood to round out the teams and then some. Einarr went over in his head who he would choose for his team as he chewed: Jorir, obviously, or the dwarf would never forgive him. Erik, if the man wasn’t leading a team of his own. Who else?

“Is that everyone?” Bardr asked, only partially obscured by the thick fog.

Unnaturally thick fog? Einarr shook his head to rid himself of the thought. The idea was ludicrous. No-one else answered Bardr, either.

“Very well then. Captain, would you do the honors?”

Stigander cleared his throat and turned towards where Bardr was holding out the bowl. The sound of clinking metal carried across the deck. Eventually, he read out the first name: “Arring takes a team.”

Another long moment of clinking rings followed, and then Father spoke again. “And the last team will be led by… Sivid?”

Einarr’s eyebrows jumped in surprise. Sivid? It was odd for him to step up like this. He had to be counting on that strange luck of his turning in his favor… but the idea left a queasy feeling in Einarr’s stomach. This seemed like one Hel of a gamble.

“Finish your breakfast and arm yourselves, then meet on the beach immediately. Daylight’s wasting.”

“Such as it is,” Erik muttered.


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