Tag: Like father like son

6.10 – Grasping Branches

As though on cue, the forest itself seemed to come alive around them. The grass and the twining berry vines that trailed along the ground reached up to grab his boots, and the bushes and brambles around the clearing began to visibly grow into a wall. So much for not attracting attention.

“Run!” Einarr suited words to action and sprinted for the far edge, around the bear, hoping the others would be quick enough to outpace the rapidly coiling plant matter. Runa he had no fear for, as she still sat on his shoulders.

Erik practically stepped on his heels, he was so close, and Jorir was right behind him. There came a crash of breaking branches and a curse from Irding. Einarr turned in time to see the man’s axe raised high.

“Irding, no!”

It was too late. The iron axe blade chopped down into the vegetation and Irding, his breathing heavy, surged forward.

The branches redoubled their growth, seeming to reach after him like grasping claws. Einarr had not been certain until that moment that using a weapon would draw any more attention than wrestling the bear-creature had, but here was the proof. The forest around them erupted into raucous chaos. Crows cawed from all around. Wolves howled. Bears roared – although not from just behind them, thankfully. And even over all of that, Einarr would swear he could hear the plants that hindered them growing.

Irding’s face was pale and pained, and his breath came heavy. Einarr frowned.

“Erik. Carry him.”

The big man grunted, and without waiting for Irding’s inevitable refusal scooped his son up over his shoulder like a sack of cabbages.

Irding gasped in pain, but they had no time to resettle. “Bear with it,” Erik grumbled, and they were off again.

Einarr had no idea how long they’d run before the grasping vines slackened their pace, as though unsure of where their quarry had gone after such a long chase. Einarr had no doubt the plants had been hunting them. Had anything else? He shook his head as he slowed to a jog, and then a stop. “I think we’re clear.”

“For now, maybe,” Runa said. “Are you ever going to put me down?”

Einarr dropped to one knee and unwrapped his arm from around her legs. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten he was carrying her – the weight of another human on his shoulder was not something he could forget while running – but this was the first moment they’d had to pause and catch their breath. Runa trailed her fingers along the line of his jaw as she slipped gracefully down. It was thanks enough, so far as he was concerned.

Erik raised a hand to his forehead and looked around. Irding appeared to have passed out during the run. “Does anyone happen to know if we were even running in the right direction?”

Einarr was reasonably certain they had started out in the right direction, at least, but once they were moving his biggest concern had been keeping them out of the clutches of the forest. He shook his head. “I lost track.”

“I couldn’t tell you if we’re any closer to the lair or nay,” Jorir said, pointing off to their right. “But I’m pretty sure we need to head that way.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow before turning to look. “You mean because it looks the darkest and most impassable?”

Jorir nodded. “It would fit with what we’ve seen so far, wouldn’t it?”

Erik hummed, stepping over to a moderately clear space on the forest floor. “Maybe so. But there’s something else we need to take care of first.”

Kneeling, Erik slung his unconscious son down as gently as he could. “Going to need all of us to keep the lady safe, I think.”

Einarr felt an irrational stab of annoyance. If Irding hadn’t drawn his axe, they would not have been put to flight, and he had only been slowed because he had fought poorly, earlier. Frowning, he shook off such dark thoughts. “Not like none of us have ever been reckless before, right? Runa, will you see what you can do for him?”

She hummed and moved to kneel beside the injured man. With practiced motions – more practiced than he had expected, honestly – she examined his chest under the battered maille. A few minutes later, she shook her head.

“You were right. He broke a rib when the bear was tossing him around like a rag doll.” She cast an accusatory look at Erik. “If you’d been able to carry him more gently, I might be able to Sing him back into the fight, but its aggravated now. We’ll need to set it, and if we cannot let it heal naturally it will weaken him.”

Erik shook his head. “Now look what you’ve done to yourself, my boy.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. “How’s your leg?”

Erik harrumphed but said nothing. He was spared further commentary when Irding awakened with a gasp and a groan.

“Good. Ye’re awake,” Jorir grumbled. “At least now you can look after yerself.”

“Can you set the break?” Einarr thought the chances were good Irding would have to do a fair bit more than hide in a tree to look after himself once Runa began her part. Runa and Jorir both shook their heads.

“Not without bringing the wrath o’ the wood back down on our heads, I think.”

Irding sat up with a grimace and frowned down at the maille now laying on the forest floor beside him. “Surely there must be some way. A sore chest never stopped me before…”

An idea struck Einarr. “Belts. Rethread your weapons on your belts, and we’ll use our baldrics. That should help, shouldn’t it?”

Runa hesitated, thinking it over, before nodding. “It should work. Take off your shirt, Irding.”

“Quickly now. If there were wolves on our trail, we won’t know it until we’re surrounded. The sooner we’re moving, the better.”


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3.26 – A Little Illumination

Reki heard their story with a small, sad smile. When it was over she shook her head. “I may know a way… but you must ask yourself if it is worth the lives of any more of the crew, or how many Vidofnings we can afford to spend here. We are already short-handed.”

In the end not a man objected to the course. Einarr did not venture to guess how many were convinced, like him, and how many merely wished to avoid losing face, but once again the decision was unanimous. As the sun set the Vidofnings set a wide perimeter of torches about the beach and prepared themselves for battle. Reki stood tall on the bow, using the carved rooster’s crowing head for balance. That the Allthane would take their continued presence as an excuse to an attack was plain. They merely needed to be ready for whatever horror had set upon the freeboater’s ship.

The two surviving freeboaters were among those on the deck of the Vidofnir, guarding Reki’s back should some of the shades attempt to circle around for her. She was, after all, the lynchpin of this fight.

Einarr and Stigander stood as a two-man line, ahead of all the others, facing the island. That, too, had been contentious, but in the end it was the Thane’s prerogative to lead the charge. The rest of the Vidofnings, save those set back to guard Reki, formed up behind them.

They stood in their battle lines, waiting, almost motionless, as the moon appeared over the deceptively calm sea and the scrub of this so-called island. Still there was no sign of either fog or ghost light. Some in the back rows began to mutter restlessly.

As the moon rose above the level of the plateau a thin mist began to build outside the ring of torches. As it grew thicker a little mist found its way inside, close to the ground at first but then rising as far as a man’s knees. Einarr readied his blade at the same moment, in almost the same motion, as his father did.

“This isle belongs to the dead.” The Allthane’s voice seemed to whisper out of the fog from every direction at once. “And the dead shall take back what is theirs.”

With the shade’s words the torches shifted in color from the welcome yellow light of the living to the sickly green of ghost light. The fog behind began to glow as well, and from it were paired sparks of concentrated green, as though the specters eyes burned with the ghost light. Einarr swallowed against his unease at the sight: even though he had expected it, the move tried to awake a primal fear he was unaccustomed to.

With the change in the light, the dead advanced into the circle of torches. Einarr set his shield.

Reki began to sing.

The notes that poured forth from the bow of the Vidofnir were a far cry from the voice they were accustomed to hearing. Sharp, staccato, and discordant, the sound set Einarr’s teeth on edge.

However unpleasant it was for the Vidofnings to hear, however, it was worse for the Allthane’s crew. The shades who had entered the circle seemed to flicker and waver, until finally they were revealed for what they truly were. Blackened flesh stretched tight over hollow bellies and displayed ribs in stark relief. Lank hair hung in clumps from half-bald scalps. The skin on their faces stretched too tightly over cheekbones, their eye sockets empty of all save the malevolent green fire as they worked their jaws in anticipation of the hot blood of the living.

Stigander clapped the pommel of his sword against his shield. A moment later, the rest of the Vidofnings answered in kind.

The shades were solid. It was time to fight.

Einarr raised Sinmora overhead. In the same breath, he and Stigander began the charge forward into the ghastly forces ahead of them. When Einarr clashed with the first of them, Sinmora cut through the creature’s shoulder with a sound like striking rotted wood.

He had no chance to savor the ease with which the first one fell. Immediately three others set upon him with sword and claw. He hacked the sword arm from the first and ran the second through, only to realize the motion had left his back open to the third.

Einarr whirled to try to defend against the last one, ignoring for the moment the claws scrabbling at his chain shirt from one-arm. There was no time even to bring his shield to bear.

At the last second the emaciated corpse stiffened. A blade very like his own protruded through its ribs, and over the creature’s face he saw his father’s illuminated in the ghost light.

Einarr nodded his thanks and turned back to the melee. There was not time for more: even that was almost too much. Jorir had come up even with them and taken down one-arm in the moment he thought the other would be the end of him.

The Vidofnings gave no ground, but the onslaught of the dead felt as though it would be endless. For every one they took down, it seemed as though three more took their place.

Eventually, Einarr grew conscious of a low drone underlying the sounds of battle and the chant of their Singer. He hopped back from the clinch and sliced his current opponent through its hollow belly. In the moment of quiet that bought him, he cast around, looking for the source of the drone.

The sound had a familiar quality to it, as of a voice he had heard recently. Einarr’s eyes were drawn to the edge of the lighted circle, where the Allthane stood back from the onslaught. His mouth was moving… and the low drone had a similar cadence to the story he had told the night before. And, all around him, the specters that had fallen were taking on new bodies. Einarr set his mouth in determination.


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3.5 – 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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