Tag: fimbulvulf

6.13 – The Woodsman

The horned wolf stalked a few paces to Einarr’s left and lowered its head, staring down its opponent. It growled and tossed its head as it turned and stalked several steps in the opposite direction. It could not circle its opponent as it wished. When it snarled again, Einarr brought Sinmora up, poised for an overhead strike.

The possessed wolf bounded in for another attack, but as it did it seemed to grow, and its silver fur grew shaggy, green, and mossy. Soon it stood on two feet, no longer a wolf at all. Surprised, Einarr staggered back a step as Einarr and Jorir came to flank him. Runa’s rhythmic chanting had not faltered.

Einarr saw no more wolves: even the one that had watched him hungrily after falling back with its tail between its legs was gone. Now it was just the four of them and a creature that could only be the Woodsman.

A giant, Einarr might have called it even a year ago, although closer in height to the fimbulvulf than to Fraener. The suggestion more than the fact of a pair of legs, and arms like great sweeping tree branches. And, sitting atop the over-broad “shoulders,” the wooden skull of a stag.

The Woodsman gave a roar like the crashing of wood as it closed the distance between itself and the interlopers, even as Runa’s chant built into a crescendo.

The leshy swung at the three men with one club-like arm, turning its whole body with the blow. Einarr hurled himself forward into a roll and felt the wind of the branch’s passing far more closely than was comfortable.

They couldn’t move out of the creature’s path, however, not until Runa finished with her part. Einarr came out of his roll in front of one tree-like leg and hacked at it with Sinmora. The blade embedded itself in the wood, but did little other than knocking free some bark.

The thudding of axes signalled Erik and Jorir’s attempts to slow the unfamiliar monster, to similar effect.

“You almost done?” Einarr called behind him, yanking free his blade. Not that Runa could answer him. He looked up: with a little luck…

The “leg” he stood before was gliding towards him. Now or never. Einarr took half a step back and ran forward, scrabbling up the trunk in hopes of grabbing hold of a branch.

He was in luck. Just as he lost the last of his momentum, Einarr was able to throw his sword arm over a branch jutting out from the creature’s arm as it swung past. Now he was sailing through the air, hanging on by an elbow to what was effectively a tree trying to kill him.

His life had taken a definite turn for the strange somewhere along the line.

At the top of the swing, Einarr managed to loop a leg over the branch he had grabbed hold of and pull himself up.

Moments later, a pulse of energy spread out through the clearing. The Woodsman stopped moving, just for a moment.

That moment was long enough. In that space where the leshy was frozen, Erik and Jorir both buried their axes in its trunk. Arrows flew from Irding’s tree, although it was uncertain what an arrow could do to such a thing. Einarr began to run up the limb he had pulled himself onto.

“It’s done!” Runa’s voice seemed to echo through the clearing. “Let’s get out of here!”

They were not supposed to try to fight the Woodsman. Auna had said they thought it was unkillable, and Einarr could already see why. But as his feet carried him closer to the stag’s head on top of the furious trunk, he could see no way out but forward. A yell escaped his throat as he charged the creature’s head, Sinmora raised high for the strike.

Several things happened at once as he reached the wooden skull. First, Sinmora cleaved into it and it shattered like a rotten log. Second, a vine lashed across his back and caught around his leg. A skull-shattering cry echoed among the trees. And the five companions were hurled bodily from the clearing.

The moon had long since set, and the world was beginning to lighten again, by the time the five reunited around Runa, who was once again tending to a wounded, groaning Irding. Had it not been for the sound, they might have searched for each other a good deal longer.

Erik kindled a small fire from dead tinder near their impromptu campsite, and Jorir promptly set some stones over it for heating water. When Einarr arrived, he was grinding herbs for a poultice for their injured companion.

“So,” he said, his voice low to avoid carrying. “How do we know if we succeeded?”

“We get back and Auna’s people are still there, I think,” Runa answered. Her song magic had done what it could for now. They would have to wait for Irding to regain consciousness on his own, and for Jorir’s poultice to do its job.

Erik grunted. “Tough going, with an injured man.”

“Not like we know if there’s any other help nearby.” Jorir was laying strips of bandage over the poultice herbs now.

“No. And as much as I hate to chance it, we should all try to get some sleep before we go wandering about in the forest again. Be a really stupid reason to get lost, trying to find our way back exhausted.”

“I’ll keep watch,” the dwarf volunteered. “The Woodsman probably still has spies about, an’ I doubt I’ll be sleeping anyway.”

“My thanks,” Einarr nodded at his liege man. He leaned back against the trunk of a nearby tree and shifted his shoulders until he found an almost-comfortable position.

Erik lay back on the ground where he sat, staring up at the canopy. He sounded uneasy when he spoke, but the reasons were all too many and too obvious. “Good night, then.”


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6.9 – Bear

A roar reverberated through the trees as the creature caught the scent of humans. Its unnatural red eyes started directly at Einarr and its lip curled up in a snarl, revealing massive fangs.

Einarr slid Sinmora from her sheath. Avoiding the bear was not an option, not now that it has seen them, not with the look of madness in its eyes.

Erik and Irding moved up to flank him, their axes in hand. Good.

Runa stepped up behind them then, and the sweet soprano of her voice carried past them. It was not the fury-song, however. Instead, she sang to end the rage – not for them but for the bear.

It swayed on its feet as though drunk, Runa’s song warring with some other influence. The Woodsman’s, perhaps?

The horned creature began to look drowsy, and Einarr nudged Irding to begin circling around.

Immediately the possessed bear’s eyes snapped to follow the movement, wide awake again. The three men froze, and Runa’s song grew louder and more insistent. Einarr’s mind was clear, his body relaxed, but even his eyelids began to feel heavy.

Erik sighed loudly, replacing his axe in its loop on its belt, and rolled his shoulders back to limber them. “We don’t have time for this.”

“I don’t think so, old man.” Irding cracked his knuckles. “I’ve got this one.”

Erik opened his mouth as though to protest, but evidently thought better of it. He folded his arms as his son readied himself.

With a primal yell, Irding charged into the clearing as though into a glíma ring. The bear lowered its head, ready to toss its assailant with its massive stag horns. Irding clinched with the beast, grabbing hold by those selfsame horns. Then followed a test of strength, with each grappler attempting to throw the other.

Had Irding wrestled a stag soothed by the song magic, he might have had a chance. A bear with antlers, however, was still fundamentally a bear – song magic or no. The creature twisted its head down and Irding lost his footing. Only for a moment, but that was all it took for one massive paw to send him flying for the edge of the clearing.

Einarr nearly started forward to help, but a cry from Runa kept him from it. The foliage writhed and twisted towards her feet, and even with Jorir’s help it was all he could do to keep her free of the bramble and focused on the song.

Erik took half a step forward, but Irding was not to be defeated so easily. Already he was rising from the ground, beating the needles from his trousers as he watched the bear, waiting for an opening. When the bear stumbled again, he rushed in low.

Having failed to best the creature locked with its antlers, Irding sought to get in close for the second round. Erik’s jaw dropped as he realized what his son – correction, his idiot son – intended, but it was too late to stop him.

The bear caught Irding in a hook with its front paw and tossed him up in the air, rearing up to continue playing with its prey. When the creature had reached its full height, just before it could slam Irding back down to the ground with another swipe of its paw, Erik’s shoulder impacted with its belly.

The bear looked down, somewhat perplexed by the not-furry creature that now had its arms wrapped around the bear’s middle.

Irding tumbled to the ground, only a little more gracefully than a sack of onions.

The bear roared again, giving off the impression of a shrug, but before it could wrap its forelegs about Erik’s back the big man had slipped out from beneath the creature’s grasp.

Irding rose to his feet unsteadily, but the strange creature’s attention was still on Erik even as it fought off the effects of Runa’s song.

A note of panic was rising in Runa’s voice. Certain, now, that the other two had the creature well in hand, Einarr turned his full attention to the vines that crept around their feet. Tendrils had begun to grip the leg of his trousers, and Jorir was tearing at several that had begun to wrap about Runa’s legs. And this is when the Woodsman isn’t paying attention?

A quick yank had his feet free again, and he joined Jorir in tearing at the vines that converged on Runa. Einarr questioned, at this point, whether her singing was doing any good, but judging by her expression something was actively fighting her attempt to put the Woodsman’s servant to sleep.

The bear gave a roar, and Einarr risked another glance over at the other fight. Irding had locked its horns in the clinch again, but this time his father lay on the creature’s back in a very familiar posture to Einarr: It was much the same move he had used to knock out the fimbulvulf on Svartlauf. The bear, between the lack of air to breathe and the song designed to induce relaxation, was losing the fight to remain conscious.

With a nod, Einarr turned back to his still-singing fiancée and pursed his lips in thought. Nodding, he scooped Runa up by the waist and set her on his shoulders. Vines trailed from her skirt, but of the ordinary kind that did not writhe under their own power. He kicked his feet to keep the vines from getting a grip on his own legs and moved toward the clearing where Erik and Irding were lowering the now-unconscious bear creature to the forest floor.

Irding looked pale, and he breathed heavily, but he insisted to Einarr and Erik both that the was fine.

“If you say so…” Einarr did not bother to hide his dubiousness, but Irding waved him off again.

Before they set off into the forest again, he turned to Runa. “Keep an eye on him, would you? I suspect he’s broken something.”

Runa nodded. “Of course. But not, I think, a something the herb-witches or apothecaries would be able to do much about.”

Einarr grumbled. “Time to move on, people, before we draw any more attention to ourselves.”


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1.27 – Chase

The giant’s steps fell like boulders as he entered the room and stopped. Einarr peeked around the treasure mountain he had ducked behind. The giant stood, his blue-white body draped about with filthy furs, and stared at the now-empty pedestal with eyes as black as midnight. Einarr bit off a silent curse. All thirty-plus feet of the giant had stopped immediately in front of the door, and thanks to the dwarf he knew Einarr was in here somewhere.

“Come out, little man.” The giant’s voice boomed from above. “You return what you stole now, I can still let you go.”

What sort of fool does he take me for? Einarr waited, crouching behind his stack. Sooner or later, the jotün would move, and then he could make a break for it. The odds were high that only place the jotün would ‘let’ Einarr go was a stewpot.

A tree-trunk leg lifted and fell with the familiar feeling of an earthquake. “If you don’t come out, I will find you!”

Like hel you will. A second foot-quake rattled the treasure mountain over his head. Einarr risked another glance around toward the door. Just a little farther…

The tree-trunk leg lifted, and the pile of metal Einarr hid behind rattled again. Einarr dashed for the gap.

“My lord, there he goes!”

I should have killed that dwarf. Nothing for it now but to run and hope. His odds of surviving a fight with a giant were nonexistent. He was under the threshold of the door now, though, but the giant’s steps were already shaking behind him. He cast a look over toward the dwarf’s door.

And saw the fimbulvulf guarding it. That’s what it had to be doing. The wolf’s eyes tracked Einarr, its ears pricked, but it did not move from its spot laying against where he knew the door to be. When the wolf bared its fangs, Einarr changed trajectory. There has to be another way out. The front door was shut tight, and no light shone from beneath it.

The crackle of fire caught Einarr’s attention, off to the side of the room, and the bubbling of broth. Even if there was no way out from the kitchen there was probably at least a place to hide. To get there, however, he had to cross most of the width of the hall, and the pounding of Fraener the Jotün’s steps was far too close for comfort.

Einarr raced under the table, trying not to trip over the chewed remains of bones. He risked a glance over toward the wolf. It growled, and he could see the muscles in its haunches coiled for a lunge. He swallowed a yell and poured on more speed.

There. Einarr cornered hard left. He was now separated from the relative security of the kitchen by a mere twenty feet of open space. Einarr pulled reserves of speed from his legs he hadn’t known were there.

The wolf bounded to its feet, lunging under the table. The Jotün was only a moment away. Einarr dove into the space under the door, too short for the wolf’s snout, and rolled free on the other side.

The kitchen was dominated by an iron cauldron, which was what he had heard bubbling over the blaze that burned hot enough to make it hard to breathe. More sacks and crates were stacked against the walls in here. More interesting, though, was the small door he thought he saw in the wall through the haze of fire.

The wolf growled outside the door, and Einarr could hear it scratching as though it was trying to get its paw in after him. No time to lose. He darted into the gap between a pile of sacks and a crate of onions as big as his head.

The door flew open just as Einarr was slipping into the narrow gap between the crate and the wall and he cursed himself silently. He hadn’t gotten a good look, but he thought there’d been a gap in cover around that little wooden portal.

The sound of snuffling near the gap he had just slipped through warned him against staying put. Einarr sidled the other direction, stepping as softly as he could on the uneven footing of the bottom lip of the crate.

“Is that where our little rat is hiding, then?” The jotün’s laugh was like a thunderstorm.

Einarr came to the corner of the crate and dashed across the gap between it and the next one. For the moment, the wolf still growled at the original gap. Einarr took that as his opportunity to put some space between them. This crate, too, was too close against the wall to allow him to run, and so he scooted sideways through the narrow gap toward his goal on the back wall.

The wood beneath his feet shook. A cloud of flour – or perhaps just dust – shook free. The crate began to move. Einarr looked up to see the enormous blue-white fingers of the jotün gripping the wood above his head.

Einarr inwardly cursed as the crate seemed to fly in an arc through the air. He could see his goal now, but waves of heat from below warned him against the jump.

All he has to do is give this box one good shake and I’m done for, though. Rather than risk being shaken into the stewpot, Einarr stepped off his now-moving ledge and dropped to the floor – far nearer the fire than was comfortable, but not in it.

The flagstones seemed to rush up toward him far more quickly than Einarr liked. He allowed himself the luxury of closing his eyes, just for a moment. When he opened them, he flexed his knees to absorb the coming impact.

Just as soon as his boots touched the flagstone he was moving again, dashing for the dwarf-height portal in the wall.

The fimbulvulf saw him almost immediately, snarling and yipping after him but unwilling to go any closer to the cookfire than he already was. He thought he heard a confused rumble from the jotün, but between the noise of the wolf and the sound of the fire he could not be sure.

That the jotün was unwilling to toss or drop the box saved Einarr’s skin.

There were two portals, he saw now that the fire was not obscuring his vision. One of them would be waist-high on the jotün who was still turning to release his burden. The other was shoulder-height on Einarr, and had a cord attached to the top but no handle. Praying to Eira for her blessing in rescuing the torc, Einarr yanked on the cord.

The wooden door swung down. Einarr ducked, fearing that he was about to be pinned. Instead, it stopped half-way. The smell of refuse wafted from the opening.

The jotün had freed his hands now. His foot was raised, and would in only a moment fall on this side of the cooking fire.

Einarr flung himself into the stinking darkness, followed by the sound of the jotün’s thunderous laugh.


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1.24 – Giant’s Palace

In the next heartbeat Sinmora was in Einarr’s hand. He pressed himself against the central pillar as he raised the sword to parry the dwarf’s blade. That was a long drop off the other side – one he definitely did not intend to take himself.

Axe struck long sword and the dwarf jumped backward, eyeing the drop himself.

“You could have just opened the door and been on about your business, you know.”

“Just like you could have turned back after your friend got chomped. My master is most displeased about his dog.”

“The wolf should be fine. My friend, on the other hand…”

“Got what he deserves.” The dwarf lunged again, striking out at Einarr’s chest from his position on the high ground.

Clang! This blow, too, was parried. Einarr edged up a step and struck at the dwarf’s inside arm.

The dwarf dodged back. He, too, was wary of the long drop. Caution wasn’t going to win this fight, then.

“If you put your axe down and open the door, neither of us has to die.”

“I let you through, my master kills me. I kill you, he rewards me. Now, which would you choose?”

Einarr shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He lunged upward, his body low to the stairs, and slashed at the dwarf’s knees.

His opponent jumped, and Einarr was forced backwards to avoid the plunging axe aimed for his head.

The dwarf drove the axe with such force that the head bit into a join in the stone stairs. He tugged on the handle, but it was wedged fast.

Einarr saw his opportunity and seized it. He surged forward, shoulder first, knocking the dwarf up the stairs and away from his weapon. Before the dwarf had time to blink Einarr followed through with a backhand strike to his mouth. The crunching sound suggested he’d broken teeth. A flat-footed kick landed on the dwarf’s face and he stumbled backward another step.

That gave the dwarf just enough time to regain his balance and counter-surge. He bent at the waist and charged forward in a tackle. Einarr backpedaled a step or two, but tightened his stomach in time to avoid being winded.

For his trouble, the dwarf got a knee to the jaw. He spat blood but did not let go. Einarr’s lips curled into the rictus of a snarl as he brought his elbow down on the base of the dwarf’s skull.

Now the dwarf slumped, releasing his grip about Einarr’s waist as he slipped to the rough stone stair beneath their feet.

Einarr puffed air through his moustache. Finally. He started to pick his way around the dwarf’s unconscious form, and then an idea hit him. He turned, only for a moment, and pocketed the key that the dwarf kept on a thong about his neck. “I’ll be taking that.”

Now Einarr took the rest of the stairs back to the landing, stepping as softly as he could. He opened the door and bent over to peek through.

What he saw made little sense: flagstones the size of carts, and wooden pillars that rose beyond what he could see from his hiding place. He neither heard nor felt the thunderous steps of the Jotün, and so he slipped outside the dwarf-sized door embedded in the giant-sized wall and locked it behind him.

He turned. Staring upward, the tree-like pillars were the legs of an oversized table and chairs. Crates and barrels and sacks were piled haphazardly against the walls. I wonder if this is how rats see the world? It was a struggle not to gawk. The room reeked of stale sweat and rotted meat. Einarr wrinkled his nose as he surveyed the room, looking for a better vantage point.

The table legs were too smooth to climb, and the bench likely wouldn’t get him any better of a view. Besides, if he climbed the table he might have to see where that smell was coming from. Instead, he moved in front of the stacks along the wall. A stack of potato sacks looked like it would do, but more promising was the pyramid of crates in the corner ahead.

The nearer he drew, the better the crates looked. The slats were rough-hewn, with enough space between that he could use them as hand- or foot-holds. Up he went, pulling himself up the outside of the boards like an oversised inchworm. At the top of each crate he took the time to look around the room, not wanting to go any higher than he had to in order to locate his goal.

He scaled three chests in this manner before he could see across the top of the jotün’s table and get an idea of what sort of a hall this solitary giant kept.

The top of the table was littered with the remains of past meals, dirty dishes and bones alike. Einarr forced himself to look away from the carnage of the table to study the walls.

There were doors about the hall into other rooms. This in itself was unusual, although he wondered why the Jotün bothered: the only one closed was the one he had locked behind himself. The third thing he noticed was that the owner did not, in fact appear to be home. No figure slept in the bed behind the large double-doors in the back, just as he had not felt the giant’s footsteps earlier. If Fraener was out about the island hunting, that was so much the better for Einarr – provided, of course, he was not hunting the Gufuskalam.

One door stood closer to closed than the others, and it was through there Einarr spotted the glint of gold. There we go.


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1.21 – The Search

Erik’s weight on Einarr’s narrow shoulders slowed him considerably as he made for the inlet where the Gufuskalam waited with Tyr and their supplies. The man had tried to protest, but every time anything so much as brushed his injured leg he paled.

For Erik’s part, he limped on his good leg, dragging the bad one behind and panting with exertion. The fimbulvulf was restrained, at least for now, which meant that Einarr had some time to search out an entrance to the Hall. But before he could allow himself to do that, he had to get Erik to Tyr. The old sailor had been around long enough to know a touch of medicine.

Blood had begun to well from the leg as the wounds warmed, but the initial freezing had been a boon. More worrisome was the bone: he hoped it was something Tyr could set.

Erik slowed. Einarr glanced at his friend: the man’s face had grown pale.

“Come on. Nearly there.”

Erik nodded, his jaw slack.

“Talk to me, Erik. Stay awake. You can pass out once you’re back on the boat.”

“Right, right.”

Shock was setting in. This could be bad.

“Look, you can see where it gets lighter up ahead. We’re almost out of the woods, and then Tyr will fix you up.”

“Oh, gods. You ever been treated by him?” He still sounded dazed, but at least talking would keep him conscious. Einarr could probably carry him across his shoulders if he had to, but it wasn’t something he wanted to test, either. “Man’s got the touch of a mule.”

“Well let’s hope Father finds us a new Battle Chanter while he’s out hunting the Grendel, then, eh?”

“Yeah.” He grunted in pain, but they were emerging out of the woods and onto the top of the cliff face they had scaled just hours before.

Einarr helped Erik lean against a tree trunk and took the rope from about his shoulders. “I’m going to tie a harness and then try to get Tyr’s attention. We should have enough rope I can get you down there, at least.”

“Might I suggest… a fire?” Erik was still breathing heavily, and the dazed look was returning to his eye.

“Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. Stay with me, here.”

“Right. Sure. Just really… tired over here for some reason.”

“You’re not allowed to pass out until you’re back on the Gufuskalam, understand? That’s an order.” Einarr tugged the last knot tight.

Erik chuckled feebly. “Yes, sir.”

“Ah, there we go.” Einarr took two steps and jumped to catch hold of a dead branch on a sick-looking pine. It snapped halfway up, and Einarr smirked in satisfaction as he landed in the snow. “Fire won’t be much for heat, but it should at least get Tyr’s attention down there.”

“Hey, kid.” Erik’s voice was labored, but he was trying to stay awake at least. Einarr tried not to twitch at being called ‘kid’ again after so many years as he struck flint against the flat of his blade. “Thanks. Jus’ wanted to… make sure… I said that.”

“Stay with me, Erik.” The branch was now a burning brand. He waved it over his head, staring at the Gufuskalam below as though he could will Tyr to look their direction more swiftly.

The boat began to row in their direction. Thank the gods. Einarr set the brand down over the lip of the cliff, the fire over the open water, and turned back inland. “Okay, Erik. Let’s get you in the harness.”

The burly man lay unconscious in the snowbank, his back still propped up by the tree trunk.

***

With Erik out cold, Einarr had to get Tyr up the cliff face in order to safely lower Erik back down, but eventually they managed. The older man looked grim as he promised to do what he could, but Einarr was sure Erik would pull through. The Vidofnings were tough, after all.

Now, as the sun dropped toward the treetops in the distance and the light began to fade, Einarr crept through the forest on his own and started at every sound. Tyr had tried to convince him to stay on the boat for the night, but the longer he waited the more likely the wolf would have freed itself. Deeper into the forest he moved, and nearer to the great Hall at its center. Einarr shivered in spite of his heavy wool cloak: the farther into the forest he went, the colder it grew. He thought he was further inland than where they had fought the wolf, now, but he could not tell for certain.

Einarr would need to find shelter of some sort before night fell, and it would need to be some place the fimbulvulf wouldn’t fit. He blinked, and realized only then that the growing darkness was not just a matter of the thick wood. Hel. He scanned his surroundings.

A brighter patch of forest caught his attention, not too far off, and within he could see the dark grey stone of one of those strange pillars. Worth a shot.

The terrain opened up a little as he approached the pillar, so that the light of the rising moon actually reached the ground. Inside a clearing, the pillar rose from a pile of smaller rocks and pierced the darkening sky. Einarr pursed his lips: this did not look promising.

The ground shook beneath his feet, and then a pause. Then it happened again. Einarr looked up in the second pause, just before a third shaking tumbled loose some of the smaller rocks about the pillar.

A man with skin the color of a frozen corpse waded through the forest as though it were tall grass and whistled. The fimbulvulf bayed in response, but the sound did not cover the noise of a rolling stone from the clearing ahead.

Now he saw a blackness in the rocks around the bottom of the pillar, a hole revealed by the tremors of the jotün’s steps. Einarr didn’t think twice about the dubious safety of such a cave: it would keep him out of the fimbulvulf’s jaws and the jotün’s pot alike, and it might even give him a place to light a fire for the night.


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1.20 – Fimbulvulf

The sun in the eye of the storm may have been warm enough by comparison, but the island itself had not yet escaped winter’s chill. More than once as they scaled the rock face Einarr and Erik both nearly lost their footing thanks to the thin layer of hoarfrost that covered the stone.

Einarr grimaced as he gripped the lip of the cliff with bare fingers and felt the wet bite of snow against his skin. He pulled himself up onto the ground above and into the windward side of a snow drift, then hurried out of the way so Erik could do the same. He beat the snow off the knees of his trousers and gauged their surroundings as Erik followed him over the lip. He patted the sack at his hip to reassure himself Runa’s gift had not been lost.

The surface of Svartlauf was covered in a thick forest of trees and shrubs with dark, almost black needles in spite of the snow. The air hung silent and still, with not so much as a chattering squirrel to relieve the heavy atmosphere. The two men exchanged a look before stepping softly forward into the wood. Snow crunched beneath their feet despite their best efforts. Erik adjusted the rope looped across his chest. The idea was ludicrous, but it felt as though so much as a broken twig would alert the fimbulvulf to their presence – no matter where it happened to be.

Game trails criss-crossed the overgrown forest floor through never-melting snow. Einarr and Erik picked their way across these, avoiding the largest of them where they could, speaking only in whispers when they had to speak at all, wending their way toward the stone Hall in the center of the island they had glimpsed from the water.

It was Erik who first realized they had attracted the attention of the wolf. He held up his hand for Einarr to wait. When Einarr quirked an eyebrow at him, he pointed first at his ear, and then off to their left.

Einarr turned his head enough to look from the corner of his eye.

A silver-furred fimbulvulf, easily as big as a dray, watched them with red eyes. A low growl carried over the underbrush to Einarr’s ear. He moved his hand to rest on Sinmora’s hilt.

“If I distract it,” Einarr murmured, still not turning to look directly at it. “Will you be able to take it down?”

Erik openly studied the giant wolf. “Watch me.”

Einarr nodded, then crouched down, his hand searching for a rock under the drifted snow. At the same time, Erik moved off in the direction they had been going in. Einarr lost sight of him in the underbrush almost immediately.

His fingers closed around a smooth stone. Got you.

In one motion he stood and drew back his arm. The wolf had turned its gaze after Erik, but that wasn’t where Einarr wanted its attention. He pitched the stone in his hand as hard as he could, and it struck the giant wolf in the snout. It yelped, snapping its head back around to Einarr. The fimbulvulf growled, crouching as though to pounce.

“Over here, you mangy cur!” Einarr took off down the path Erik left behind him, hoping the man would quickly find a good spot for an ambush.

The giant wolf was right on his heels. Einarr only kept ahead of it by virtue of the narrowness of Erik’s path through oversized trees. He could often feel the moist wind of the creature’s breath on his back, and then he would dive into a nearby bramble or duck around a tree to try and slow it.

Einarr dodged around a skinny spruce, paying more attention to the fimbulvulf behind him than to the ground he ran across. Instead of the ordinary sinking of snow, his boot struck unyielding ice. He slid, windmilling his arms to remain upright.

The ice patch was narrow. The sliding foot struck solid earth again and Einarr pitched forward, his other foot planting solidly on the ground through the snow. The sound of shattering wood rang through the forest. He glanced over his shoulder.

The fimbulvulf had bitten clean through the spruce tree where Einarr’s head would have been if not for the ice. It shook its head, splintered wood dropping from its jaws, and lowered itself to strike again.

Any time now, Erik. The trail he had initially followed had turned off just a few steps before Einarr dodged around that tree.

The wolf lunged for him, and Einarr leapt to the left. He felt a chill as the jaw snapped closed just inches from his leg.

Movement from the branches of a large pine caught Einarr’s eye for just a moment. Not close enough. He turned his full attention back to the great silver beast that fully intended to make a snack out of him. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to edge around so that when the fimbulvulf came for him again he would move closer to where Erik lay in wait.

The beast growled, its breath riming the trees to either side.

“That’s right, you overgrown puppy,” Einarr muttered. “Come and get me. I’ll be a tasty little snack.”

It snarled, and the noise shook snow free from branches. It must have heard him. A cocky grin spread on Einarr’s face and he crouched, ready to spring in any direction to avoid the beast’s jaws.

The giant wolf gathered itself for another lunge, its eyes fixed on Einarr. It swished its tail as it shifted from foot to foot, waiting for the moment when its prey might be off-guard.

Einarr feinted left. The fimbulvulf twitched forward, but didn’t bite at the maneuver. He grinned.

Einarr spun on the ball of his foot and took off at a sprint towards the tree where Erik hid. The sound of breaking branches told him the wolf had taken the bait.

“Raaaah!” Erik yelled as he plunged toward the beast’s back. The fimbulvulf stopped in its tracks, looking around for the source of the attack. At the last moment it twisted, nearly faster than the eye could follow. Instead of the hairy silver back of the wolf, Erik plunged face-first toward the snow-covered ground.

He rolled. Instead of landing on his belly, he tucked so that his shoulder took the brunt of the fall and tumbled over to crouch in the snow.

The fimbulvulf growled at both of them now, baring its fangs.

“You all right over there?” Einarr did not take his eyes from the giant wolf as he spoke

“Fine. Now what?”

“Don’t get eaten?”

The fimbulvulf lunged. Einarr dove to the left and felt the ice-touched wind of the creature’s jaw as it snapped closed on the air between them. Erik was rising at the same moment, staring warily at the rangy wolf’s head that was now between them.

It jerked its head, glancing at each of them in turn. Einarr tensed, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet. Erik was stronger, but he was faster. He would try to draw its attention again.

Erik was dropping down into a crouch, his right hand creeping toward the axe at his belt. Einarr pursed his lips: he would rather not kill the beast, if he was honest. For all they knew, it was the jotün’s pet.

The fimbulvulf growled again, a rumble that shook the trees around them. Einarr jumped back into a slightly wider clearing. The beast spasmed after the fleeing prey, and Erik took that as his moment to try for the its back again.

Once again, however, the creature displayed its uncanny reflexes. Rather than lunging after Einarr, the fimbulvulf brought its nose around and snapped. Its jaw closed around Erik’s leg with a sickening crunch.

Erik howled, and the sound was oddly vulpine for such a bear-like man. Blood stained his trousers where the great icy teeth had broken the skin. It was thanks to that same ice, however, that there was only a little blood.

“Erik!” Einarr started that direction, but was pulled up short by the wolf that had now turned its full attention on him. “All right, you mongrel. That’s how you want to fight?” A rasp of metal carried over the snow, and Sinmora was in his hand. The wolf would learn that he, too, had fangs.

The fimbulvulf lunged for Einarr, now. He sidestepped, bringing Sinmora around to strike at the great silver wolf. The clash of sword against fang vibrated in Einarr’s palms and frost rimed the blade where it had met the tooth.

Einarr jumped back. He needed to put some distance between himself and it, to see its next move when it did.

Erik rose again, his hand on a tree for balance, near the wolf’s hind leg. His red-stained leg did not seem quite straight, or quite solid. The fimbulvulf snarled. Einarr allowed a low growl to well in his own chest.

It lunged for him again, and again he deflected the bite with his blade. In the lunge, the fimbulvulf’s tail brushed past Erik. Einarr lost track of his friend again. The wolf demanded his full attention as they returned to their stand-off.

The wolf did not lunge for him again. Instead the fimbulvulf lurched to the side, biting at the base of its tail like a common dog.

Einarr nearly lost the opening to confusion. At the last moment he charged in, and with the flat of the blade landed a mighty blow on the wolf’s slender, tree-sized shin.

The fimbulvulf yelped and turned again to snarl at Einarr, but now its attention was divided by the feeling of something pulling at its fur. It snapped alternately at Einarr and the unexpected thing crawling up its back, too aggravated to actually hit either of them, but its thrashing also kept Einarr from the attack.

Erik appeared over the slope of the fimbulvulf’s shoulders, pulling himself forward toward the creature’s neck by the strength of his arms. In spite of himself, Einarr grinned to see his crewmate reappear.

He dodged forward, worrying at the fimbulvulf’s legs to keep its attention divided, smacking it with the flat of his blade where he could.

“I’ve got it!” Erik’s voice was a little breathless from exertion, but carried none of the pain Einarr would have expected.

Einarr ducked and rolled out from behind the fimbulvulf’s forepaws. When he turned again to look at the wolf, Erik was clinging to its fur with one hand and his good leg tossed over its spine. The other flopped limply against its shoulder while his other arm wrapped about the creature’s neck in a stranglehold. For the first time, Einarr thought he saw fear in the wolf’s eyes.

“Try not to kill it!” They were civilized, after all, and civilized men did not kill one anothers’ dogs.

Feeling the pressure around its throat, the fimbulvuf rolled. Erik yelled in pain as the full weight of the wolf rolled over his leg, but his grip would not be so easily dislodged. Erik squeezed, and the wolf began to pant. It rubbed up against a tree, trying to dislodge this new assailant. Erik grimaced as his shoulder rammed into the rough bark, but did not let go. Compared to the roll, that was nothing.

By the time Einarr had gathered enough green wood to hobble the fimbulvulf – at least until it woke up – it lay unconscious on the forest floor. Without a word Einarr handed a handful of flexible branches to his friend to strip the bark from and set about tying figure eights around its legs with some already stripped. The wolf’s breath sent icy puffs of fog up into the atmosphere.

“Come on. Let’s get you back to the ship. Tyr will know what to do about that leg.”

“What… about… the Isintogg?”

“We took care of the wolf. I think I can manage the rest.”


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1.19 – Svartlauf Island

The Gufuskalam launched out of the storm and into the calm waters beyond it. Rain and sleet still pelted Einarr’s back, but he hardly noticed it now.

Black, water-slicked cliffs shot from the ocean’s surface up fifty feet or more. Above, the black-leaved forest where the fimbulvulf was said to dwell loomed over them, rapidly swallowing their view of what lay inland. Before it was hidden from view, Einarr saw massive stone walls rising up from near the center of the island. The roof was also stone, he thought, and the entire edifice was nearly three times the size of Kjell Hall. It stood on four stone pillars that shot up from the forest floor. There was nothing it could be save the Jotünhall.

More of these massive pillars lined a path or a road of sorts down from the hall to the water’s edge through a break in the rock wall. The cliffs retreated from the water in the path made by the pillars. In the shadow of one of these pillars Einarr thought he saw a rocky cove.

“There. Do you see it?”

Erik raised his hand to shade his eyes from the new-found sun and nodded.

“I think we should land there.”

“Aye, Captain.” Even Tyr’s voice was weary of their journey.

“Once we’ve made land, you two should rest here. Reprovision if you can. I need to go in alone.”

Erik looked like he wanted to protest.

“I think we should all take some time to rest and dry off before anyone ventures into the island.” Tyr’s voice was firm, and it was hard to mistake that for anything but the voice of experience. “That cove is going to be in shadow all day. If I may, I would like to suggest we get a little closer to the island, weigh the sea anchor, and warm up while we have sunlight.”

Einarr considered a moment before nodding crisply. “You’re right. None of us is in good shape after that storm. Let’s at least get close enough we’re not likely to be seen from the island and take a few hours to dry out.”

***

The three-man crew of the Gufuskalam found a sweet spot, not far from the cliffs, where most of the waves were cut by a rocky reef. All three of them sprawled in the sun, enjoying the feel of the sun on their faces as it dried their bodies, their clothes hung from the yardarm in the wind.

“Yer pabbi gets it, boy, but don’t be surprised if ye’re cut down to deckhand anyway,” Tyr was saying.

Einarr chuckled in wry humor. “If that’s the worst price I pay, I’ve got the kindest Captain on the seas.” It wasn’t just his Captain he’d betrayed, or even just his Father. It was his grandfather’s entire line, and their hope of the future.

“You do, Einarr. You do.” Erik’s voice was uncommonly solemn, especially given the mellow feeling that had descended on them as they floated in the sun.

Einarr raised his head to look at his crewmate. “You speak from experience?”

“More than a little. You know what I was doing before I signed on to the Vidofnir?”

“Nope.” Erik had joined the crew four years before Einarr was even a deckhand. “Father always told me the crew’s past was none of my damn business.”

Now it was Erik’s turn to laugh. “Yer pabbi found me drunk and beat to a pulp in a ditch. Decided to give me a chance when I got up swinging. I may be the only man alive who’s gotten a job for punching his new Captain in the jaw.”

Tyr laughed. “I remember that. Tell ‘im why you were in yer cups in the first place, though.”

Erik made some embarrassed sounding noises. When he didn’t answer, Tyr did.

“He felt guilty, he did, because the Weaver booked passage on his old boat in the first place.”

“I was just a deckhand on a freeboat, sure, but Raenshold was still home. If I’d known what the nither intended…”

“You don’t have to prove your loyalty to me.” Einarr shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, staring up into the sky. “Especially not after I went and tried to steal a bride…”

“Her idea, wasn’t it?”

“Doesn’t matter. I wasn’t forced.”

“No, you weren’t. But neither was she, which matters – to yer pabbi and the Jarl.”

Einarr sighed and stood up. “Maybe. We’ve lounged enough, though. We should hide the boat.” He snatched his pants off the yardarm and beat them against the side to loosen the salt-stiffness, shivering a little as the breeze reached him again.

“Einarr.” Tyr caught his eye as he, too, stood to dress again. “If anyone understands doing something dumb to win the object of his affections, it’s Stigander. And it was obvious to all of us why you felt like you had to go so far.”

“Thanks.” The fact that the rest of the Vidofnings understood didn’t make him feel any better about it, of course.

***

The Gufuskalam slipped quietly into the small, shadowed cove as the sun was nearing the horizon that evening. Erik lowered the anchor into the water with nary a sound even as the weight sunk beneath the water’s surface.

The cove itself was most like a tiny fjord, and once inside its fingers the three men worked by starlight alone. Einarr had intended to enter the island alone, while his companions slept if he had to, but there would be no climbing those walls before daybreak at the earliest, and more likely noon the next day.

“I still want you two here on the boat. Even with all three of us we couldn’t do more than try to evade the fimbulvulf, and we may need to leave quickly.” Einarr tried again to convince them. They were his friends, and he didn’t want to turn this into a test of authority.

“And I’d still be happier if you had someone to watch your back,” Erik countered. “I promised the Captain we’d bring you back safe.”

“Please, Erik. This is my quest.”

“You’re Stigander’s son, all right,” he grunted.

“Proudly.”

“Your quest or not, Erik’s right. I can’t send you up there alone any more than he can. We also won’t need both of us to ensure the boat is ready when you need to leave. Take Erik.”

Einarr exhaled loudly enough that it was nearly a growl. “Fine. I suppose it won’t be bad to have someone watching my back while I’m up there.”

“Yer damn right it won’t.” Erik clapped him on the shoulder. “Now let’s get to it.”

“We’ll be back as soon as we can, but we don’t know what else might be on this island.”

“With a fimbulvulf and a jotün?” Tyr’s question sounded skeptical.

“They’ve got to eat something, right?” Einarr’s joke produced a round of nervous laughter. He tied the sack to his belt and tossed a rope over to catch on the rocky face he would have to climb to get to the island proper.


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1.14 – Setting Sail

The morning after Einarr’s defeat of Trabbi, the Vidofnir set forth in search of the Grendel missing three of its crew – Einarr, of course, plus two of their hardiest warriors: Erik and Tyr. It was all Stigander could spare. The morning after that Einarr led his companions down to Runa’s cove and the waiting skiff, newly dubbed the Gufuskalam. Runa and the Jarl came to see them off, she looking worried and he relieved to see them go.

While Erik and Tyr made one last check of their provisions, Runa caught Einarr’s hand in her own. “Promise me you’ll come back?”

He did not try to repress a smile. “Of course I will. What sort of fool would abandon you?”

She nodded, slowly, and if he was not mistaken sadly, and pressed a small sack into his hands. “Take these. May they speed you on your journey.”

“Thank you. I’m sure they will.”

He did not look in the sack until the island vanished from view. On top was a note.

My dearest Einarr, it read. The island of Svartlauf is hidden behind an eternally raging storm and hunted by a fimbulvulf, two things which I know my father has not told you. There may be other dangers as well, so I have sent gifts that I hope will bring you victory. The small crystal bottle contains my song of strength. Open it when yours fails and remember me. The other is the tafl king, so that you might always keep your wits about you. Be careful, my love, and return in victory!

Einarr smiled and tucked the note carefully into the pouch at his belt. He wasn’t sure how much practical good either of those things would be, but the gesture still warmed him from the inside out. He stowed Runa’s offerings in the box beneath his seat at the tiller.

A breeze caught in his hair, and he offered a devilish grin to his two companions. “Time to sail, boys. Gods but it’s good to be off the rocks again.”

“How true it always is,” Erik agreed while Tyr continued to call their rowing cadence.

“Ease off a bit and I’ll let the sail down.”

Erik caught Tyr’s attention and they pulled the oars in as Einarr stepped forward to unfurl the sail. The still-cold wind filled their sail and caught his cloak, contrasting with the warmth on his shoulders of the spring sun. The Ice existed, Einarr thought, to make sure one appreciated the freedom to sail.

Tyr stood up and stretched. “So how much do you think the Jarl hasn’t told you?”

Einarr snorted. “What, you think the Captain’s childhood friend would withhold information from me?”

“Yes,” the two men said at once.

“You’d have to be blind to see he still doesn’t want to allow the match,” Eric continued.

“So anything he can do to make your quest harder…” Tyr trailed off.

“He’s going to try to do.” The right side of Einarr’s mouth curled in an unhappy smirk. “Runa tells me there’s a storm around the island and a fimbulvulf.”

Erik thrust his head forward in surprise. “A what? By the gods, is he trying to kill you?”

Einarr just shrugged.

“If the Captain knew that…”

“He’d have held off on pursuing the Grendel and we’d be on the Vidofnir right now. But I only found out a minute ago, myself.”

Tyr whistled.

“Not that it matters. I said I’d do it, and I am my father’s son. Besides, we’ve got a few weeks before we need to worry about it, and right now the weather is perfect. I say we see what our little Gufuskalam can do!”

His friends voiced their agreement with a cheer.

***

As the sun dipped below the horizon in a blaze of gold and red and purple that blinded the three men on their skiff, Erik stepped to the mast to furl the sail for the night while Einarr took the tiller. He would have first watch, and was glad that the sky was still clear. Overcast skies on their first night out of port would be an ill omen, because while the other two men slept, he would keep their drift on course.

Tyr was pulling out food from their stores for dinner – a cask of ale, some hard tack, and gravlax. There would be no cooking aboard the Gufuskalam, for there was no room in which to light a fire, but they would not go hungry at least.

“You ready for six weeks of this?” Tyr’s voice was a low rumble as he shared out the portions, evidently thinking along the same lines as Einarr.

“We’ll manage.” Erik bit down into the hard tack and followed it up with a swig of beer. “Always have before.”

Einarr nodded. “I think our course takes us close to some small islands partway through, too.”

Tyr grunted and broke off a piece of bread to pair with a bite of the sweet-salted salmon. “Two-edged sword, is what that is.”

Einarr shrugged. “We’ll get by. If anyone knows more tricks for getting through a long sea voyage than you, it’s Father.”

This got a laugh from the gruff man. “I taught him half what he knows, back when he was your age.”

Nobody ever bothered Tyr about retiring, because age had barely touched him. Save for snow-white hair and lines on his face, he still kept up with men half his age. Einarr and Erik both chuckled.

“That is exactly what I meant.”


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