Tag: kalalintu

3.12 – Vanishing

The first thing that caught Einarr’s attention about the cave was the scattering of skulls not five paces in. Someone had thought to take shelter here, long ago, and been eaten by kalalintu. At least, he assumed as much: it was possible they had died of starvation before the kalalintu nested above, but the other possibility seemed the more likely.

The walls were solid stone as far as he could see, although the torchlight fell short of the back. His light held aloft like a brand, his other hand rested on Sinmora’s hilt for reassurance.

Slowly he walked deeper into the cave. Nothing. No cracks in the walls where they might have pressed forward, no gaping pits in the floor they might have fallen through, no tracks, no new blazes. Einarr spun on his heel as his mind raced, searching for anything he might have missed.

He glanced down at Jorir as his eyes roved about the room, but the dwarf’s brows were furrowed in consternation.

From nearer the entrance, Tyr cursed to the sound of rolling stones. Einarr shouldered his way back, swallowing hard to ignore the pounding of his pulse.

“What happened?” Tyr stood bent over, his leg held out at an odd angle with his boot under a lip of rock virtually indistinguishable from the floor.

“Went to take a look at a weird shadow and a rock turned under my foot. Give me a hand, will you? I think I’m stuck.”

Einarr and Jorir nodded as Jorir took hold of the man’s foot while Einarr bent to try and turn the rock trapping him to open the gap a little. After much careful prying and pressing, he gave a shove. The rock shifted.

Tyr, braced to pull himself out of the gap as soon as the pressure lifted, staggered back a step or two. Einarr, from his position near the ground, stared into the hole he had made.

“…I think I might know what happened to our two missing scouts.”

***

The slab of stone seemed as though it must have been deliberately placed, although Einarr could not have guessed how or by whom. It was almost as though it hung on a hinge. On the other side, the rock sloped steeply downward, curving towards the center of the plateau.

Einarr had straightened quickly after the passage was revealed to him. Probably the passage would submerge not long after it rounded the corner, at which point his men were probably dead… but he had to check.

“Charcoal. Does anyone have a stick of charcoal or some chalk?”

Odvir brandished a sharp triangle of shale. “Where are we going?”

“Through there.” Einarr pointed at the passage he’d just seen and Odvir nodded. Moments later a sign was scratched on the stone of the wall and they were through, clambering carefully down the incline.

Einarr shivered as they rounded the corner of the passage. No sign of water, yet, but the temperature was falling with every step they took. It would be hard to forgive himself if he killed two men in such a stupid way.

Jorir grumbled about the pace Einarr set, but it sounded half-hearted to his ear.

About fifty feet further on the passage opened out into a broad cavern – far broader than Einarr would have expected the tiny island could have supported. Torchlight glinted off the water forming much of the cavern floor.

Einarr jumped as a voice echoed through the room. He called out. “Hello?”

“Boti! Wake up, man, they found us.” Einarr still couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from, but the excitement it carried was palpable.

“Troa?”

“We’re over here. Follow the wall to your right – and watch your step. There’s more than just wet rock down here.”

Einarr clambered over the rocks, the rest of the team hot on his heels. “We’re coming. Can you move?”

“I’m fine. Boti got a nasty knockabout finding this place… and, well, there’s something you need to see.”

Einarr nearly tripped picking up his pace to get to where they were. When he looked down to see what it was, dread sank in his stomach.

The torch in his hand illuminated the still-clothed skeletal remains of a chief or a captain. The skeleton’s fingers clutched at its throat. He stopped, furrowing his brow, and bent closer. The captain’s sword still hung from his bones, and the hilt showed no sign of rust.

Einarr shook his head and continued on. Tempting as it was to look and see, to rob a captain of his sword – even in death – seemed wrong. And that was before taking into account the spirits haunting this place.

He could see Troa’s shock of straw-colored hair in the flickering light now. Einarr stepped over the remains of the strangled Captain and hurried the last several paces past tide pools and jagged rocks to where the other man was rousting Boti back to consciousness. The man had the beginnings of a bruise covering the side of his face, and if he’d passed out down here that was hardly the end of it. Fortunately, he did seem to be blinking back to consciousness.

Einarr gave a low whistle to see his crewmate’s injury. “What did I need to see, though?”

Troa pointed ahead into another side chamber. From what the torchlight revealed, the entirety of the floor in there appeared to be covered with water. It couldn’t possibly be deep, however.

Catching the firelight of the torches, magnifying it against the water, were piles of gold and jewels; valuables of all sorts the like Einarr had never seen. Even on Svartlauf.

“What… how did this get here?”

Boti groaned as Troa sat him up. “Who knows? I can’t tell if we’re looking at the Allthane’s barrow or the horde of some survivor who couldn’t take the seclusion. Either way…”

Einarr nodded in agreement. “Either way, it’s what we came here looking for. Let’s get out of here, bring another team or two in the morning. In the mean time, we haven’t quite finished with that hulk up above.”

“Aye, sir.” Troa pulled Boti to his feet, the semi-conscious man’s arm slung over his shoulder.

Einarr took two steps back the way they had come. Then, in the same instant, each and every one of their torches snuffed out.


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3.9 – Investigation

The screams of terror from off in the distance brought Einarr out of his half-doze immediately. Almost before he knew it he was back on his feet, pulling on his chain shirt and reaching for his sword.

He was not the only one. From all over the ship he saw bodies moving about. Stigander lit a torch and watched, his lips pursed. He didn’t try to stop them, though, only ordered caution. With grunts of assent, the fifteen who rousted themselves to investigate vaulted back out of the Vidofnir.

Stigander stopped Einarr a moment after he left the deck and thrust a torch into his hand. “You’ll want this. You have a spare?”

“I do.”

Stigander nodded and stepped back from the railing as Einarr dropped to the sand below.

***

When they arrived, silence reigned. The freeboaters’ ship could have been just another derelict on the shore. Einarr could not catch even a hint of movement from the deck, although the soft glow spoke of a lit lamp. Cautiously, he approached, torch held high out in front of their band. Weapons littered the sand around their feet. Many of them were still sheathed.

And then he noticed the smell, not of battle but of death – of bile and blood and waste that spoke of fear. He stepped forward again and the torchlight revealed an arm lying on blood-stained sand.

The body laying near that severed arm wore a chain shirt. Even sprawled in undignified death, his shield was slung over his shoulder. A raid?

The bodies they found were all similarly equipped, although all wounded differently. “Looks like we’d have been in for a rude awakening in the morning,” Einarr muttered.

“Can you really fault them?” Erik grumbled. “Plain as day their boat’s done for.”

Einarr nodded, his attention still on the body at his feet. He crouched down for a better look: what could have taken the man’s arm off? He sighed and shook his head: there were still kalalintu on the island, but they weren’t typically of a mind to dismember their prey, or to leave perfectly good food laying on the beach like this. The island wasn’t that big: could there be a bear?

He shook his head. A bear made no sense, and would have left tracks on the sand.  The only ones he saw were human. Standing, Einarr looked around the beach. Other dark lumps, that at first he had taken for bits of flotsam or rocks, now suggested strewn corpses. He shuddered. “Let’s have a look on deck. Maybe we’ll find something there.”

He picked his way around the fallen warriors littering the sand over to the side of the boat and handed the torch to the next behind him. He had a feeling he knew what he was going to find, but pulled himself onto the deck of the freeboater’s ship anyway. He took the torch back to allow the rest to join him and turned to survey the damage.

The deck was all but deserted. Einarr paced slowly back towards the stern as a stream of footfalls fell on wood behind him. A few embers glowed in the hearth around a heavy iron pot. Here and there he saw a blanket or a pair of boots laid out to dry, but no more corpses.

Not until the torchlight touched the very back of the aftcastle, that was. Einarr stopped, staring. Four men, one of whom appeared to be the man who had so roundly rejected their offer of aid.

The mens’ faces were sallow and drawn, almost as though they had been desiccated, their eyes frozen open so wide they might not have had eyelids any longer. There was not a drop of blood to be seen in the torchlight. If Einarr hadn’t known better, he’d have guessed they had been rotting here for months.

The screams echoed again in his mind: the sound matched the expression he saw on these faces. “It’s as though… they died of fear,” he mused.

A grunt answered from over his shoulder. “But what could do that to a group like this?” Irding’s voice was breathy.

“You know the answer to that as well as I do.” Einarr pressed his lips into a thin line. He sighed, and then turned to face the rest of the group. “Anyone else find anything?”

No-one answered. Einarr couldn’t tell if that was because they’d come to the same conclusions he had, or if they couldn’t quite process what they’d seen. It had been a very long day, after all. “In that case, we should get back. It seems as though there’s nothing left to save here anyway.”

When he handed the torch back out of the boat, Einarr happened to look back toward the aftcastle. It could have been the light, he supposed, but it seemed like he saw a sickly greenish glow coming from where the bodies had lain.

He shook his head and vaulted back to the ground, his boots landing hard in the blood-stained sand. Once he’d retaken the light he set a demanding pace back toward the Vidofnir and the protection of Reki’s tired voice.

***

“We have returned, Father!” Einarr announced from the shore in the shadow of the Vidofnir.

Stigander’s head popped over the side of their boat and he nodded. He, too, seemed to glow, but it was with the warm light of fire. “Come aboard.”

The men who had gone to investigate did so with perhaps more relief than any of them would care to admit to, at least under ordinary circumstances. For a time they all stood in silence, enjoying the warmth and light coming from their own hearth while their Captain studied their faces.

“Well?” He asked finally.

Einarr met his father’s eye with a level gaze of his own. “The villagers were right.”


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3.7 – Battles’ End

The quick man had at the end not been quick enough, and the enemy leader wasted a precious moment in shock. The first man still stared in horror at the blade protruding from his chest when Arring lunged past him and the blade of his axe took off the enemy leader’s arm at the elbow.

“It’s not too late to retreat,” he growled. The other man’s answer was to let his ally slide from the blade, but his face had gone pale.

“Have it your way.” Arring brought his back foot forward and kicked, hard. The enemy leader went flying again, even as the crack of bone said his chest was caved in. Tveir.

Now he turned. Snorli faced three men, but after Arring he was the man on watch best equipped to deal with that. Haki, though, looked like he might be in some trouble. The man stood watching his opponents, panting, as they circled him the way wolves might circle a deer.

Arring let loose another battle roar and bulled forward at the nearest of the two. It was enough to distract the man from Haki, and then axe met long sword in the bind.

His new opponent snarled, and Arring met it with a feral grin before sliding inside the man’s guard to cut at his knee.

His opponent’s leg buckled with the force of the blow and he howled. Another of the assault squad dashed by him to catch his wounded comrade under the shoulder.

They’re retreating? At least they know when they’re beaten. Arring was inclined to let them go. Some of the others started to pursue.

“Stand down. Our job is here. If they come back we can beat them like the curs they are.”

***

Einarr lunged toward a kalalintu that had come just within reach and nearly tripped over the carcass of one of its fellows. Reki’s battle chant had become a song of Endurance he knew not how long ago, and he was fairly certain it was the only reason any of them could still fight. Sinmora slashed across its back and the creature crumpled. How many is that now?

When the fury had faded he had been relieved to see that they had broken away from the cliff face the creatures were trying to drive them off of – but somehow it felt like there were always more kalalintu.

Except… did he hear them any more? The sea-bird shrieks had blurred and been forgotten ages ago, but now they actually seemed to be gone. Einarr looked up: they stood in the center of a field littered with bodies, not all of them monsters. Sinmora nearly dropped from his hand. He cleaned it on a feathered wing and sheathed his blade before he could lose hold of it.

The kalalintu that wing had belonged to had fallen across the body of Henir. Of the thirty men who had gone to seek their fortune, six had fallen to the bloody birds, and the rational voice in his head whispered that they had been fortunate to lose so few. Still he could not look away. When Henir fell, the arrow he had not had a chance to fire remained stuck to the string.

He swallowed the gorge that threatened to rise and strode over to where Jorir stood tying a bandage for Irding. This made eleven men they had lost so far this summer, between the Valkyries and the kalalintu. Most summers they lost none. “How is he?”

“Well enough, I wager, but we’ll need to watch him for fever. More importantly -”

“What about you?”

Jorir snorted. “I was bloody worthless in that fight, right up until Fari over there hadn’t any more use for that brace of knives he carried. But I’m not wounded. You, though, you look like you’ve been through hell.”

Henir and Fari. They’d been like brothers. At least they would sup with the gods together. “I’ve had better days. …Father. Erik.”

The others were joining them in ones and twos, picking their way across the battlefield.

“Einarr. These things seem awfully tough compared to the flocks this spring to you?”

He nodded. “Smarter, too. Makes me wonder what else we’re up against.”

“Wonder later.” Stigander looked around and sighed. “For right now, we need to get our men down from here and build a proper pyre for those as need it.”

“Yes, sir,” came the unanimous reply.

“I don’t think they’ll try for us again after that thrashing we gave them, but let’s all be a little quicker when someone tells you to cover your ears, got it?”

A chorus of aye’s answered Stigander, and they went to work carting the bodies of the fallen down the narrow trail that had led them to their end in the first place. It was awkward work, but with three men to a body they still had enough people for an honor guard both before and behind their procession.

Down on the beach, Irding and Svarek were dispatched to alert the watch and the repair crews, respectively, of what had occurred. The rest of them, meanwhile, were to gather wood and what funeral goods they could find from about the beach. It was far from ideal, but better a poor funeral than none at all.

His arms half-full of wood, Einarr’s gathering took him over near his liege-man. “What think you, Jorir? Are we going to find anything here that’s worth all this?”

“Find something? Sure. Whether or not its worth what we pay for it, well, only time will tell.”

“Ah, here’s something.” Einarr brushed the sand away from the lid of a half-buried trunk with his free hand, then thought better of it and set down the wood he’d gathered. “Help me dig this out, will you?”

The trunk the two uncovered appeared to have once belonged to a Singer, or perhaps an entire troupe of Singers, and was filled with all manner of instruments and jewelry. Einarr shared a look with Jorir: this should make a fine funerary offering.


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3.6 – By Man & Monster Beset

The chatter of kalalintu from above rattled Einarr’s nerves. They were starting to feint at diving, trying to keep their prey from escaping, nudging them ever closer to the ledge. Not good. “Henir!”

The blond man snapped his head around and Einarr tossed his bow back to him. The archer wasted no time nocking another arrow. He studied the sky, looking for a promising target.

The others had woken up by now. Some of them stuffed their ears, just in case one of the creatures began to sing again. Everyone drew arms.

Another kalalintu dived for the Vidofnings, and Henir took the shot. His arrow caught its shoulder and the wing collapsed, sending the creature tumbling to the ground where the rest of the crew could make short work of it.

Arrows soared. More found their marks than not, based on the furor above, but it hardly seemed enough. Einarr stood poised, his shield hand empty, Sinmora ready. Step by step, circle by circle, he saw the plateau ledge growing nearer.

A kalalintu dived over his head. Einarr leapt, reaching with his free hand to catch its silver-scaled tail. It flapped harder, its powerful wings nearly strong enough to pull Einarr off his feet. He dug his heels in and threw his weight backward.

The kalalintu rotated around its tail to pummel Einarr with its gigantic wings and he was forced to lower his head. Still he swung Sinmora around in a blind arc. His blade bit flesh, but not deeply.

A moment later, the creature shrieked in his face and the wings let up for a moment. Einarr risked a glance up and saw Jorir pulling his axe from the creature’s side.

Now the kalalintu’s attention was divided between the human grasping its tail and the dwarf, and now both men struck out at the same moment. Sinmora slashed across its breast in a wicked backhand at the same moment that Jorir embedded his axe in its belly. The creature fell to the ground.

“Thanks. Was that your count or mine?”

Jorir laughed. “You kidding? That shallow cut o’ yours wouldn’t kill a dog.”

“And you’d never have got a chance at it if I wasn’t keeping it busy.” He was already watching the sky again, looking for another opportunity.

“You mean if you hadn’t pulled it down on your head? You’re lucky you don’t have a beak in your skull. Call it a tie?”

Einarr grunted in response. All around them now the kalalintu were swooping down to beat at the Vidofnings, as though Einarr’s catch had triggered a rage in them.

Reki’s voice rose above the din. Finally! Einarr felt the red haze of the battle fury stirring and he roared a challenge at the circling monsters above.

***

Arring had volunteered for the first watch not because he was uneager to see the island, but because the freeboaters had left an uneasiness in his breast. He thought most of the others were the same: they were unusually vigilant today, even for men of the Vidofnir.

Hours passed in this way, as near as Arring could tell in the overcast. Once someone from the repair crew returned, to measure again the chink in the hull Einarr had found, but otherwise all was quiet.

This circuit began as uneventfully as all the rest. Only, when he approached the prow to look out at the highest point, men were moving further up the beach. None of them Vidofnings. He gave a low whistle to alert the rest of his men.

Arring swung down out of the Vidofnir to land lightly in the sand below. “What ho, gents,” he called to the men who now swaggered down the beach towards him.

“Our Cap’n has reconsidered yer most generous offer of assistance.” The man spoke from the head of the oncoming party. His voice was oily. “We’ve been sent to see to it.”

“Have you now. Well I’m afraid you’ll have to wait. Our Captain gave strict orders to see to the repair of our ship first, and since they’ve not yet returned with materials your boat will simply have to wait.”

“Ah, good sir, I think you mistake my meaning.” Their spokesman dry-washed his hands.

Arring sighed and muttered, “I think I am not the one who has made a mistake.” Raising his voice again, he continued. “And how might that be?”

The freeboaters did not deign to answer except by the scrape of steel and the roar of a battle-cry.

“Hop to, men!” There were only ten of them on watch, and perhaps twenty of the freeboaters come to capture the Vidofnir. With a feral snarl, he hefted his axe.

His companions boiled out of the Vidofnir to join him on the sand, join him in the charge up the beach toward those who would rob them of all they had.

Arring’s first blow caught the enemy leader in the stomach and sent him flying back. Two of the enemies were bowled over by his passing. Impressively, he stood again, blood dripping from beneath his chain shirt. Ein?

…No. Credit for guts, though. Rather than limping back away from the fight to observe, the spokesman rushed back into the fray. Then another man had engaged with Arring and he found he had little attention to spare. The man was quick enough he might have given Sivid a run for his money.

Arring’s strength counted for little against a man who could dodge like an adder. Still, he managed to block most of the man’s blows, although those which got through stung ferociously.

In a moment when their axes were in the bind Arring caught movement from the corner of his eye: something rushing towards them. He side-stepped, bringing his opponent’s back in between himself and the onrushing figure of the enemy leader. With the quick man still off-balance, Arring knocked him backwards with a shoulder, right onto his allies’ sword.

Ein.


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3.5 – Between Wind & Water

“What’s this?” Erik paused to look back at Einarr.

“Stop and listen a minute. Hear that?”

After a moment, a growl came from low in Erik’s throat. “Better us than the repair crew.”

Einarr nodded and pushed forward. Father and Bardr, at least, needed to know, and the rest probably should as well. Jorir, at minimum. Everyone whose attention he caught he gestured at his ear. Listen.

Stigander was near the front of the group, paused near a somewhat less rotted-looking ship than most of the others on this section of beach.

“Father,” Einarr said from behind the man’s shoulder. When Stigander’s only response was a turned head and a raised eyebrow, he continued. “We’re approaching the kalalintu flock.”

“You’re sure?”

“Erik heard them, too.”

Stigander nodded. “Spread the word that every man is to have his cotton balls to hand.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Once you’re done, get back up here to the front. We need your eyes.”

Half of a grin turned up one side of his mouth. “Understood.”

***

Einarr combed through the dross within another of the rotted hulks they had passed, cotton balls tucked into the cuffs of his gloves. Thus far, it had yielded a barrel of ancient vinegar that may once have been mead and a handful of silver combs and ladies’ jewelry. Valuable, certainly, but nothing like what they were hoping to stumble into. He dusted off his palms against his trousers and was just about to leave the wreck when he stopped.

Something didn’t sound right. Einarr hurriedly pulled the wads of cotton from their place at his wrists and jammed them in his ears.

Outside, nothing appeared to have changed. His fellow Vidofnings combed other wrecks in much the same state as the one he had just left, with evidently similar results. He reached to pull out one of his ear plugs but stopped. The boat he had just left had not had a masthead when he went in. Now it’s shadow seemed to display a great winged serpent. His hand crept toward Sinmora’s hilt.

From behind him and above, the low gobbling chatter than one expects of seabirds became a haunting, ethereal trill as the shadow’s source opened its beak.

“Cover your ears!”

Some of the Vidofnings, accustomed to Stigander’s tone of command, acted before they realized the source of the order was Einarr. Others, startled, looked up to see what was going on. Their eyes widened and they scrambled for the cotton wads they had tucked about themselves, but too late. Even those who had obeyed reflexively were not all safe: some of them fumbled their cotton balls, others were simply too slow.

In every case, the result was the same: the relaxation of the face into a dull, vacant expression. Horror clutched at Einarr’s throat when he realized that Reki was among them. How are we supposed to dispel this if our Singer is out?

He turned around and drew Sinmora with a hiss of steel, but the kalalintu that had been in hiding now flapped ten feet above the ground.

Jorir, Bardr, Erik, and Stigander were looking about as frantically as he, hoping someone had shown the sense to bring a bow. The few who had, though, were already wandering dumbly after the monstrosity that would feast on their bones if they were incautious.

Jorir seemed to have an idea. He put a finger to his lips for silence and then tapped at his temple, hoping they would take the hint. The dwarf’s face went slack and his shoulders relaxed and he began to trudge up the beach, in pursuit of the song.

Clever! Einarr followed suit, his sword held loosely, as he followed after the kalalintu flapping slowly away from the beach. As the shore became rocky soil he risked a glance over his shoulder. He then had to suppress a smile when he saw that all of them had caught on to Jorir’s pantomime.

The band of entranced sailors trudged on towards a large plateau of rock that dominated its surroundings. As they drew closer, the sound of the flock grew clearer. The people of Attilsund claimed they had little trouble with kalalintu in this area, but the flock sounded no smaller than any of the ones they had fought on their way to Svartlauf. His grip tightened on the hilt of his blade, only for a moment. Well, not for long.

Finally their aerial guide stopped moving forward, flapping in lazy circles over the top of the plateau. It’s song still filtered through the cotton balls, tempting Einarr to sleep. At least with his ears stopped it was bearable. There was only one way up for the sailors, and that was a narrow trail switch-backing up the shallowest path.

Einarr swallowed. They would be vulnerable on that path, and there were only five of them who might be able to stop one of the birds who decided they didn’t want to wait for dinner. His eyes darted between the backs of the men just ahead of him. With as high up as the thing was, he might be able to go unnoticed while borrowing a bow.

Ah, he has one. With a little careful maneuvering, Einarr managed to position himself behind Henir as their mob started up the narrow path. Getting it from him without being seen would be a little trickier, but so long as there was a moment when the circling kalalintu couldn’t see him… Now.

Einarr slipped the bow off Henir’s shoulder and onto his own in a moment when the plateau’s ledge blocked the view of the still-singing creature. He reached out for the man’s quiver just as Henir stepped back out of the shade of the plateau. Hastily, Einarr dropped his hand and took on the vacant expression again.

Slowly they filed up to the top of the plateau, where most of the Vidofnings stood milling about like sheep under the influence of the kalalintu’s song. All around them were haystack nests filled with silvery eggs, being watched over jealously by some of the flock.

About half of the kalalintu took to the air. The singing one continued to fly in small circles above the heads of its captives. The rest formed a larger ring in eerie silence and flew in counterpoint to their singer.

Einarr snatched an arrow from Henir’s quiver and fired it at the singer above. The arrow flew true, and the song broke off with a startled squawk.

Tcheh. He’d hoped to drop one, but ending the song was the critical thing. Even now his fellows were blinking back to full consciousness as the circling kalalintu launched into raucous chatter.


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3.4 – Rivals

From where Einarr stood he saw nothing but mist and ocean and the bones of ships. “What happened?”

Sivid’s head popped over the railing from above. “Those freeboaters following us seem to have missed a turn.”

“They’re freeboaters?”

“Pretty sure. Cap’ and Bardr are ‘discussing’ sending aid.”

“What’s there to discuss? Of course we should help them out.”

“And if they’re hostile?”

“We’ll teach them a lesson, of course.”

Sivid laughed and his head disappeared back behind the ship. “Looks like the Captain won that one. We’re coming down!”

***

Their shadow had been rather unceremoniously dumped aground a good half-mile down the coast from where the Vidofnir had made landfall, a good hundred feet out from shore but, for the moment, at least mostly connected by a series of sandbars. Whether that would last with the changing of the tide remained to be seen.

Her crew swarmed about like ants, offloading anything and everything they could carry as though it might help them get off this island again. Their ship certainly wasn’t: where the Vidofnir was gouged, they had a rather horrendous crack.

“Ho there!” Stigander called as they neared the broken vessel.

The crew stopped moving as a unit and turned to look at them.

“I am Stigander Raensson of the Vidofnir, and these are my men. We thought you might like some assistance.”

A figure emerged from the deck and hopped lightly down to squelch in the sand. The brown-haired and bearded man took several slow steps toward them, wiping his hand with a rag. “You’re the boat we kept seeing ahead of us?”

“And you’re the ones who were tailing us.”

“Tailing nothing,” he spat. “We planned out our route in months ago. Go see to your own.”

Stigander raised an eyebrow. “Well, suit yourself, friend. If you change your mind we’ll be up the beach a ways, doing exactly as you suggest.”

They turned, and with a shrug began sauntering back up the sand to the shore proper.

“Wait!” The voice came from behind them. When they turned to see what the commotion was, a younger man from the other boat was hurrying up to speak with the one who had come to send them off. For a moment, it looked as though he would have his ear boxed for his trouble. At the last moment, their spokesman turned it to a clap on the shoulder.

“I’m not sure I like this,” Einarr whispered to his Father.

Stigander nodded. “Walk on, men.”

“Good sirs,” came the suddenly obsequious voice of the spokesman when they were perhaps five steps further on.

The Vidofnings continued walking. The call did not come again.

***

The crew of the Vidofnir split off into three parties. The first, and smallest, was to guard the ship, led by Arring. With the unknown crew stranded here, leaving the boat unattended struck everyone involved as unwise. The second headed east, towards the freeboaters, their first task to find good wood for patching the scar in their hull.

The third party was by far the largest. Had there been anyone to fight on the island, they would have been the raiding party. Einarr shouldered his shield and joined them, hardly alone in the precaution.

“So are we ready to find out what sort of a haul might be waiting for us here?” He half-grinned, clapping Erik on the shoulder.

Sivid laughed. No-one else ventured more than a nervous grin, save Reki. He thought she actually smiled under her hood, but it was difficult to tell.

“You’re not all still worried about the ghosts of sailors, are you? Have some faith in our Singer.”

“It’s not just that,” Irding grumbled. “I don’ know about the rest of ye, but what sort of luck will we be bringing on ourselves like this? Not like the Allthane’s wealth did him much good.”

Sivid laughed again. “If luck’s what you’re worried about, I think I’ve got us covered.”

Erik cocked an eyebrow. “But you’ve terrible luck.”

“I think we can trust him with this one, anyway.” Einarr spoke quickly to avoid forcing Sivid to dissemble. There was plainly a reason the man continually played and lost at dice, based on his Weaving, and if that got around the crew he’d never get in another game. “Are we all here?”

“Captain’s leaving some orders with the others,” Bardr answered. “Give him a few minutes.”

Stigander sauntered up behind his first mate. “I’m what now?”

To his credit, Bardr did not jump. “You were leaving instructions, weren’t you? But it looks as though we’re all here now.”

“Indeed we are. Now. Onward, and let us see if there is anything worth finding on this rock.”

Stigander led the way up the beach. Most of the wrecks they could see were rather thoroughly decomposed, empty skeletons of ships, their contents long ago rotted or washed out to sea or, possibly, buried beneath the sand… but they felt like unpromising places to dig.

Einarr was just as glad most of the crew was on the treasure hunt. He was not so indifferent to the atmosphere on the island as he pretended, and though the fog had lifted the gray haze weighed gloomily on their shoulders.

He shook his head. There was no sense worrying about it now: each and every one of them had known what they were signing up for when they chose this path. The only thing to be done now was to fill their hold quickly and get back to the open ocean, outside the maze of sandbars that trapped so many boats.

It was hard to tell the passage of time under the haze. After they had walked for a period, occasionally pausing to evaluate a wreck for promising finds, a strange noise came to Einarr’s ears. He stopped, closing his eyes to listen.

“…Seabirds?” He muttered, still trying to place it. They sounded almost like the gulls that had flocked about Kem Harbor, but he had seen no feathers along the shore. He shook his head: now he knew the sound. “Kalalintu.”


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3.3 – Grave of Ships

“Port side, push off! Starboard, brace and pole forward!”

The grinding sound continued and the Vidofnir began to slow. The sail fluttered disconsolately as the tailwind faded away.

“Put your backs into it!” Stigander added his weight to one of the starboard oars before the order was fully out of his mouth.

Einarr stowed his bow and jumped on to one of the port side oars. The fog was growing thicker with every moment.

The first notes of Reki’s song floated out over the Vidofnir, clear and low, and Einarr felt his arms warm and the fatigue of rowing begin to melt away. “Heave!”

More men joined on the oars. He could hear the creaking of wood from a second ship, now, even over the grunts of exertion from the Vidofnings. There was no going back at this point, not with someone else blocking the channel behind them.

The Vidofnir groaned loudly as she came free of the rock she had lodged on. Water splashed against the hull as she resettled herself. She was a sturdy boat, though: with a little luck, the damage would be minor.

“Good job, men. Looks like we’re poling forward from here. Lookouts forward: let’s see if we can’t avoid the next one.”

If the other ship hit the same rock they did, Einarr never heard it. He spent the remainder of their passage in the chute peering up into the fog, an arrow nocked, hoping he would see a kalalintu before its song could stupefy him. He was not alone in this.

The fog grew colder as the Vidofnir slipped out of the chute and into the maze of shallows on the other side. Here, at least for now, there was no wind.

“Oars out, boys.” The heavy fog seemed to suppress sound: Stigander’s order felt oddly muted, as did the song Reki still sang.

A swell rose from the direction of the open ocean and rocked the Vidofnir shoreward. “Mind the bottom. Sand bars everywhere out here.”

An eternity could have passed that way, or mere minutes, and not one of them would have known the difference. The only way to tell the passage of time was the intermittent calling of depth from the prow.

The bones of a ship rose off a sandbar to the port side after they had traveled this way for a time. A droplet of condensation rolled down Einarr’s neck and he shivered as another ocean swell tried to push them off-course.

“Steady as she goes.” Father may well have been speaking to himself as much as his men, although Stigander was ordinarily a man of steady nerves. Einarr could not remember a less welcoming place than the one they approached. I can see why the locals think it’s haunted.

The keel of another longship rose up out of the fog to starboard, the boards cracked and half-eaten by brine and time. His eyes still scanning the sky for any sign of kalalintu, Einarr stepped over to stand at his father’s shoulder. “Are you sure coming here was a good idea?”

“Would I have put it to a vote if I was?” Stigander muttered back. “But it’s a little late to turn back now, don’t you think?”

Einarr grunted. “Have you seen any sign of our shadow since we left the channel?”

Stigander shook his head. “I’m hoping they turned back.”

“Heard them when we were stuck on a rock back there.” Einarr snorted. “I’ll lay odds they didn’t. Who’d have thought someone else was desperate enough to try coming here the same time we did, though.”

Now it was his father’s turn to snort. “No sign of beasties?”

“Nor ghosts, unless you want to count this abominable weather.”

Stigander nodded. “Stay on your guard. Not much farther. Probably be a lot more derelicts from here on.”

***

As they approached the beach, they came to a point where they could almost rely on the locations of the wrecked husks of boats to show their path.

The mist thinned a little as they neared the shore. Everywhere Einarr looked he could see the remains of ships not so fortunate as their own – ships that probably hadn’t planned on coming here in the first place, he thought. There weren’t many clan Captains who would want to gamble their honor on a venture like this.

The keel of the Vidofnir groaned as its momentum carried it partway up the beach. The men aboard became a flurry of movement, securing the ship on the beach and lowering the sail – the fully ordinary motions of landfall on an island entirely out of the ordinary.

His task completed, Einarr hopped down onto the shore and followed the port side back towards the water line. The familiar planks were older than he was, but the pitch still held and the board felt smooth and familiar as he ran his palm down the side of the boat even as frigid water washed over his boots.

He stood in water up past his knees before he found the wound. A white scar ran across three planks on the bottom, narrowly missing the keel.

“How bad’s it look?” Erik called down.

“Could be worse. A couple wedges and a good coat of pitch should get us back to port.”

“Good,” Stigander rumbled. “Check the other side while you’re down there, would you?”

“Yessir.” Einarr waded back to the shore, ignoring the bite of cold against his wet legs. The water was still up to his ankles when a crash of shattering wood and sailor’s shouts split the air from some small distance on the other side of the Vidofnir.


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3.2 – Icy Seas

Over the course of a week the seas plied by the whalers of Attilsund and, now, the Vidofnir grew colder, until it felt more like they were out early in the spring rather than the middle of summer. That they had not yet seen floating ice did not reassure Einarr about the lack of icebergs in the area.

No ice did not mean no thing, however. Occasionally, through the fog off to the east, he thought he saw the shadow of a ship. When he mentioned it to Bardr, the man nodded and doubled the watch.

The move from calm seas to rough waters was just as gradual. They were a week and a half out from Attilsund when they started doing battle with the sail, and a few days beyond that the currents grew mischievous.

The mysterious ship was closer, when it appeared again, although still too far to make out its banner. The Vidofnir assumed a battle footing until they once again lost sight of their shadow

Svarek was tasked with helping Sivid watch the sounding line, just as Irding joined Erik wrestling the sail. The sea was wearing them down, and their target had not yet come into view through the mist that always seemed to obscure the horizon line. And they whale these waters?

On the thirteenth day, a dark shape seemed to rise in the mist out on the horizon. “Land ho!” came the cry from the forecastle.

“Ready oars!” Stigander ordered.

One hour passed, then another, before they felt the waters begin to tug at their boat in earnest and the sounders called a warning. “Hard starboard!”

The oarsmen put their backs into the turn. A moment later a gust of wind puffed into the sail and chilled their necks. Then the true challenge began.

Einarr’s forearms bulged as he fought with his oar, his ears straining for orders from Captain or sounding line. The Vidofnir pitched underfoot. He could be grateful, at least, that there was no rain to slick the deck.

For what felt like hours they fought their way past hidden shoals and unpredictable winds. Now Einarr saw ice when he looked up and, when he had a moment to breathe and looked behind them, their shadow, following the same approach to the ship-barrow that the Vidofnir had plied. “Looks like we’ve got competition, boys!”

Their shadow-ship bore a blue and white sail, and still they were too far to make out the creature on their banner.

“Let ‘em come!” Erik’s laughter was met with cheers from elsewhere on deck.

“Let’s see if they’ve got the guts for what comes next.” Stigander crossed his arms and stared dead ahead. “Mind your oars! Prepare to retract on my word!”

“Aye, sir!” The Chute was ahead where, based on the sea charts and their best reckoning, the safest route forward would take them up a narrow channel between two large rocks jutting up out of the sea.

Stigander took his time getting the Vidofnir lined up to shoot the gap.

A cold wind filled their sail. “Row for all you’re worth, boys!”

They put their backs into it, unsure even now if the channel would be wide enough for their ship, hoping momentum might carry them through a tight squeeze.

The cliffs drew up rapidly on either side. As the cock’s head of the Vidofnir entered the shadow of the rocks they seemed to loom overhead.

“Oars in!”

With one practiced motion and the clatter of wood striking wood, the oarsmen stowed their oars.

“I want half of you on battle footing. Be on the lookout for kalalintu, or any hostile movements from the ship that’s tailing us. The rest of you stay put in case we have to pole off the rocks.”

Einarr moved to battle footing, feeling only a little bad for those who were too slow to escape oar watch. He wasn’t likely to shiver less than they, and while the possibility of a kalalintu attack was a real danger, they didn’t exactly stir the blood.

“Portside nudge.”

His father’s voice echoed twice as loud off the water’s surface and the rock walls, even over the whistling wind, and Einarr started. Calm down. We’ll make it.

The gobbling screech of kalalintu floated down the chasm to his ears, but the winged fish remained out of sight. Einarr glanced up: the sky had shaded from blue to silver since they’d entered the chute.

“Starboard nudge.”

Einarr managed not to jump that time. The wind seemed to be dying down, though, and he thought he heard the tell-tale creaking of wood from off behind them. It seemed odd, though, that he could not see them now.

He blinked. It wasn’t just the sky that had gone grey: the cliff ledges far above were shrouded with haze, as well as anything more than about a hundred feet forward or back of the Vidofnir. It seemed to have gotten colder, as well: when he exhaled, he could see his breath.

A low muttering rose around the deck of the Vidofnir as the others noticed this as well. Einarr thought he heard some of the men praying forgiveness from the ancestors for what they were about to do. Not that it was likely to do much good. Well. If it came down to it, they could sacrifice some of whatever they found to grant the shipwrecked spirits a proper rest. But first, they had to make it through the chute to the isle of wrecks.

The Vidofnir rocked and wood ground against stone.


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3.1 – Leaving Attilsund

Bardr must have purchased miles’ worth of extra rope for this expedition, and as much fresh water as they could store. Even still, it was a short journey from Attilsund, and spirits were high as they loaded the Vidofnir with supplies for a six-week trek to investigate the ship barrow.

To Einarr’s mind, most of the crew were too focused on the potential rewards once they got there by half. He didn’t doubt they could do it, of course, but those who failed to respect the sea were often claimed by her. For his part, he joined his father in reviewing the local charts.

The waters of Svartlauf seemed an apt comparison indeed. While there was unlikely to be an eternal tempest surrounding this area, the rock formations suggested terrible winds indeed.

“I’m glad we’ve a Singer with such a powerful voice,” he said at one point, tapping a particularly narrow passage where the currents were likely to be troublesome. “I’m not sure we would have been able to hear Astrid over these winds. What do you make of this? Will we fit?”

Stigander hummed in thought. “Hope so, otherwise we’ll have to back out and circle around, come in over here.”

Einarr shuddered. “You mean where we’d have to pole off the rocks to get anywhere? I’ll take my chances with the chute. That was bad enough in the Gufuskalam.”

“Which reminds me. Has anyone thought to ask about kalalintu?”

“No more than an ordinary harassment,” Bardr put in. “A flock, maybe two. Nowhere near a colony.”

“That’s something.” Einarr glanced up to see Irding and Svarek hovering just within earshot of their conversation. “A moment.”

The two newcomers to the crew tried to make themselves look busy as he approached. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Ah, no trouble, sir.” Svarek started, but he wouldn’t look at Einarr while he said it.

“Bollocks. You two are nervous as fresh-weaned deer, and I’m quite sure I saw you joining in with everyone when we voted. Out with it.”

Irding scratched the back of his skull sheepishly. “Ah, well, it’s like this. We were talking in the square earlier, nothin’ too serious, about what we might find out there. One of the village boys must’ve overheard, ‘cause he comes by and tells us we’re fools fer goin’, ‘cause even if we get past the rocks we’ll have spirits to deal with.”

“Spirits?” Einarr raised an eyebrow.

“The restless dead,” Svarek filled in.

Now Einarr smiled, shaking his head. “Lads, if that’s all you’re worried about, get back to work. Even if the island is haunted, we’ve got one of the finest Singers I’ve ever met. She’ll keep our courage up, and so long as we’ve got that spirits can’t touch us. Okay?”

They both nodded, although Einarr thought he saw them swallow first. “Good work, finding that out though. Now get back to work. We’ll be sailing soon.”

Bardr raised an eyebrow as he returned to the table where the charts were spread out.

“One of the locals brought up the possibility of spirits.”

“Ah.” Bardr nodded. With as many sailors as were likely unburied on that island, it was a reasonable concern, but not one they were totally unprepared for.

“I’m sure she does, but Reki does know the grave songs, right?”

“I’ve never met a Singer who didn’t,” Stigander grumbled. “But I’ll confirm.”

***

When the Vidofnir put off from Attilsund with the evening tide, it was with an odd mix of sobriety and ebullience. Reki, as she stepped to the bow of the ship to begin the recitation, carried silence in her wake: there were two who had not yet heard the Song of Raen, for they had not been in port long enough at Apalvik to warrant its recitation. Truth be told, were it not for the dangerous waters they approached, they might have let it slide for the few days they had been here.

Watching the new crew’s reactions to the Song was interesting. Svarek wept – as some few did, their first hearing, although it felt to Einarr as though there were a personal note to it. Irding, on the other hand, stood by his father’s side, clenching and unclenching his fist. He’s going to fit right in.

Then, as the last lines faded over the water, Einarr sidled back to the prow to join his own father, Bardr, and Jorir with a cask of mead. Knowing he was their way of breaking the curse brought them little closer to actually doing so, after all.

Dawn this far north, when it came, was crisp and bright, with little of the warmth you might see in the sky farther south.

“All right, you lot, let’s move!” Bardr was bellowing to bring those still addled by last night’s drink to their feet. “We’ve got two weeks before the waters get rough, and we’ve still got a few things left to repair from those thrice-cursed Valkyries.”

Einarr yawned, well aware that they were all above the water line, and not much more troublesome than a split in a deck board or a weak patch of sail. It would have been nice, though, if Bardr had shown a little consideration for the morning after the recitation.

The rest of the crew was stirring, with about as much enthusiasm as Einarr felt. Fine. We’re up. Best get moving or I’ll freeze. He stood, stomping his feet in his boots to start the blood flowing. It was strange, though: they had only just left Attilsund, and already the temperature seemed to have dropped rather drastically. Mentally, he cursed.

“Eyes open for ice, everyone.” They might not see any today, but with as unseasonably cold as the air was Einarr wouldn’t be surprised to see a floe or two. This was going to be a long few weeks.


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1.18 – Eternal Storm

Mid-morning the day after Einarr and Tyr reunited with Erik, no kalalintu had yet shown themselves on the island. This, they agreed, probably related to the albatross heads Erik had staked around his camp, which in the darkness neither Einarr nor Tyr had noticed.

Erik, it seemed, had fought just as hard as Einarr and Tyr, but been fortunate enough to be grabbed by beasts from one of the smaller, less-populated islands. Some few escaped, but whether they would find welcome among one of the other groups none of the three could guess. Once the sun was down, Erik had lit his signal fire with hope, rather than expectation, of rescue.

Since they had already landed, and proven the island relatively safe, the three agreed to take the day for fishing and tending to their little boat. They would have no more opportunities before Svartlauf, and Runa had warned of an eternal storm and treacherous, rocky shoals. When they finally cast off the morning after, it was well-rested with replenished stores.

For another week they were blessed with smooth sailing, save for the occasional drizzle. Then the drizzles became full rainstorms, and before long their little boat was sailing through a squall even more ferocious than the one which had injured the Vidofnir last fall.

“Furl sail!” Einarr ordered as the prow of their ship nosed into the tempest. He bent the full strength of his arms to keeping their Gufuskalam on course while Erik tried to tie the billowing sail out of the wind and Tyr readied the oars.

Each and every one of them had pulled their knit caps as far down over their ears as they would go. Sleet pounded on the bow, freezing fingers and noses and ears where they still stuck out under their hats. Einarr gripped the tiller, knuckles white with more than cold. The storm obscured his vision, but not enough to entirely hide the rocks they rowed towards.

“Steady!” Einarr called over the storm. Erik and Tyr fought the ocean with oars that kept trying to jump out of their grasp. Water streamed down their faces and soaked their beards and their cloaks, and their hands were red from the cold.

Tyr started chanting a rower’s cadence, although the lack of a drummer left it feeling hollow.

Einarr’s nose felt like ice. He watched the ocean ahead of them for rocks, doing battle against the water with rudder rather than oar in their fragile skiff.

A strange current caught the Gufuskalam and pulled them sideways as the water swirled around the rocks. Einarr leaned into the rudder, trying to correct before they were dashed against the jagged pillar now looming ahead of them. “Starboard!”

At the last moment the Gufuskalam turned, just barely scraping by the rock. Einarr spared a glance for his crewmates. They slumped, frozen by the storm and wearied by hard sailing, but still struggling to make it through to their goal in the eye of the storm.

“Come on, men! No surrendering to a storm!” It was hard to tell if his friends heard over the howl of the wind and the lashing of sleet, but at least they were still moving. His own hands felt like ice as they gripped the tiller. Much more of this and frostbite might be the least of the damage.

“Nearly there,” he called a little later, still trying to encourage his friends. The hull thumped against a rock he had not seen beneath the water. It seemed his own vigilance flagged. At least there had been no crack of breaking wood with the impact. Einarr shook his head and shifted his footing, aiming to keep his balance.

A chiming noise sounded over the wind from the sack at his belt. At first it meant nothing. He blinked twice: another large rock loomed, dead ahead.

“Hard to port!” He hauled on the tiller.

Erik saw the rock just in time to flatten his oar against the side of the Gufuskalam.

Einarr heard the crystal chime again. What can that even be? He knew they’d have been lucky to hear the song of a battle chanter over the howl of this storm.

A battle chanter? …The crystal bottle! A little extra strength will go a long way toward getting us through to the island. Runa’s song of strength. How she had bottled it, Einarr could not guess, but the reminder of its existence fanned the flame of hope in his breast.

He fumbled with the ties on the sack with numb fingers until it opened. Even within the bag and in the stormy darkness the bottle seemed to glimmer from its place on top. Einarr lifted the bottle by its neck even as reverent gratitude filled him.

The stopper, too, was crystal, and Einarr pulled it carefully free. Even before the stopper was clear of the bottle the clear tones of Runa’s voice sounded over the howl of wind and sleet. Within moments his friends both had a firmer grip on the oars, and his own mind and body felt alert again. Undaunted, they battled the storm while the princess’s voice sustained them.


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