Einarr once more offered Jorir the hilt of his sword in token of their pledge, and the dwarf grasped it without hesitation.
“A test, my lord?” Jorir raised an eyebrow, his voice held low.
“I was the one on trial, I think. Well, we gave them a story, anyway.”
“You!” The show-off from the circle thundered, striding into the ring in his spectral fury. “That was no challenge. You planned this!”
“Are not sword dances typically agreed on?” Einarr kept his voice light. If he played this right, the only one to lose honor would be the enraged ghost. “What matter if it was friendly or otherwise?”
“The sword dance is a sacred trial by steel, and you have defiled it! What dispute was this meant to settle?”
“Good sir, I believe you are mistaken. The sword dance is a ritual, true, but one which contains a story. Have we not accomplished that?”
The figure of the show-off wavered, turning almost transparent even as it tried to elongate.
“Stand down!” The voice of the Allthane only seemed to bellow, but it was sufficient to bring the spectre back to its human form. “You forget yourself, and you forget the point of the hallingdanse. The newcomers have impressed me, but you have only served to remind us all of things better left forgot.”
“The hallingdanse is over, and the table yet groans with the weight of food. Surely by now our guests have worked up an appetite.”
“Ah…” Even as Einarr was about to object, the light shifted and the room was once again dominated by the feast table and the glow of light reflected off of gold. Even knowing the smells were illusory, the sight of platters of fish – real fish, not the dolphin centerpiece – and the steaming confections like nothing Jarl Hroaldr had ever served now made Einarr’s mouth water. It was true: the hallingdanse had left him hungry.
Jorir, too, stared at the table with wide eyes. He swallowed before turning his head to look at his liege lord. Einarr met his liege man’s gaze and nodded: by winning the hallingdanse, they had left themselves weak to the lure of the spectral food.
Tyr walked up behind them and clapped their shoulders, grinning at each of them. “Well fought out there.”
“Thanks.” Einarr could not keep the dryness from his voice.
“Ready for the harder battle?”
“Not much choice, now is there?” Jorir drawled.
Tyr’s grin disappeared and he turned his face to Einarr. “Not much, no. Any idea how to break us out of the Allthane’s thrall?”
“Not yet. I’d thought to ask for a boon, but somehow I doubt he would wish to hear what I would request.”
Tyr grunted. “You’re likely right, although you may also be on the right track. Now get out there and mingle: we’ll think of something.”
Einarr grumbled. “I’m sure we will. I just hope we can do it quickly enough.”
“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”
Einarr harrumphed and made his way back into the crowd of spirits. When one of them thrust a plate into his hand he took it, not looking at what it held, pretending he couldn’t smell it. Likewise when a cup was pressed into his other hand. That at least he did not have to feign disinterest in: he remembered well the appearance of the liquid without its glamour.
A figure cut across his path, intent on something on the other side of the feast, and it seemed strangely solid. He drew his eyebrows down, remembering the half-alive man from the ring of dancers. Survivors? Perhaps of the freeboaters?
If there were freeboaters caught up in the Allthane’s feast, surely he should try to break them free, as well. Perhaps that was where the key lay? Not in his own men’s freedom, but in that of those who had come before?
He shook his head. No, no-one who claimed to be the Allthane would insist on such disloyalty. Still, though, should he win their freedom perhaps he could also win their loyalty.
Still, though, he was not quite back at the beginning. Should he be able to get through to the captive freeboater, the other man might have valuable insights. It was worth a shot.
Now he mingled with purpose. Einarr had been so surprised by the man’s aspect during the dance that he had not remembered his face, and so he studied each and every man he passed with the intent to pierce their disguise.
So intent was he on his task that he nearly tripped over Jorir, who had evaded all plates and instead been caught up in a game of tafl on the periphery.
“My apologies, gentlemen. Don’t let me interrupt your game… Jorir, is that the piece I think it is?”
“Aye. You’d find his ploy familiar, too. Only, after I win, I’ll not be giving my king away.”
“See that you don’t.” Given the associations Jorir had placed on that piece before, the alternative seemed uncomfortably like being given to the ghosts himself. Now he leaned over and whispered to his warrior. “Keep your eyes open. At least one other man at this feast is alive.”
Jorir nodded. “If I see him, I’ll be sure to tell him.”
Einarr clapped him on the shoulder, nodding in turn. The dwarf was clever: that was no misunderstanding. He meandered back out into the crowd, still studying the men about him in search of one who was actually a man.
“What’s this? Even with food in hand, still you do not eat!” One of the spectral revelers approached, his arms outstretched. It took Einarr only a moment to recognize him as the show-off from the ring.
“Mm? Oh, I do have a plate. I’m afraid my friends and I have much on our minds. If we do not eat, it is only because worry fills our bellies.”
“No worries allowed here, my friend.” He stressed that word in an exceedingly unfriendly way. “Eat! I promise, your cares will vanish with the first morsel.”
“Such a thing will not do, I’m afraid.” Einarr glanced about, hoping there was a table within arm’s reach, to no avail. “Some things simply demand contemplation, and to fail to consider them is the height of indiscipline. Now if you will excuse me, there is someone I am looking for.”
“Oh? How fascinating.” The show-off approached far closer than Einarr was comfortable with. He could feel the cold of the grave emanating from the specter’s body. “Tell me who it is, perhaps I have seen them.”
“I didn’t get a good look at their face, and I’m afraid I know no-one’s name here.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem.”
Einarr wanted to groan as a force pressed briefly down against the plate in his hand. When it vanished the plate was lighter.
“He w-” Einarr cut himself off as the show-off’s hand lifted, a mess of unidentified food clutched in his fingers. Einarr pressed his lips together as he realized what the man intended, but not before a morsel made its way through.
“Relax. Join the feast. Have fun.” The spirit smiled maliciously and thumped Einarr on the back as he stalked away into the crowd. Einarr nearly choked trying not to swallow the tainted food. A warm sensation flooded his mouth.