Tag: Masquerade! Paper faces on parade…

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.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.25 – Blood Binding

The Allthane nodded solemnly. “We had been adrift at sea for weeks when the storm washed us up here. What little food we had left was washed away, and I was not the only one killed as we battled the storm. When they found themselves on such a pitiful bit of land as this, the survivors in my crew began to build a barrow for those of us who had fallen. The funeral was held, yes, but when the flames reached our bodies the survivors were overcome by hunger. …And I do not know who among my men is guilty.”

Einarr’s throat constricted at the thought of the feast that had been tempting them for hours now.

“You did well not to eat at my table. For your foresight I will grant you the boon of safe passage off this rock: heed my words and go, for should you tarry I may forget myself.”

Einarr set his jaw, considering. His odds of persuading the Allthane further seemed slim. “We will leave this cavern, but it is not my ship to command. Perhaps our Singer will have an idea what to do.”

None of the dead offered any sort of an answer as he stalked off towards his men clustered by the tunnel up and the exit. No shades barred their way out of the cave, nor were there any remaining above ground as the twelve men emerged from the domain of the ghosts, blinking, into the light of a midday sun. Einarr could not help but breathe a sigh of relief as they emerged into daylight: others, including the two former freeboaters, were not so reserved.

“Father probably has the whole ship scouring the island for us by now. Let’s get our findings and get them back to the Vidofnir.”

***

Einarr took the lead as they marched down the beach toward the waiting ship, hauling their findings awkwardly among them. As soon as the Vidofnir appeared past a bend he could see activity swarming about the ship: perhaps if the repair crew had scavenged sufficient lumber it would explain why they had not run across search parties on their way back. Or, given the size of the sandbar, the search parties may well have given up ages ago. He walked faster.

Not many minutes later they were spotted, and several figures from the swarm split off from the Vidofnir to come and greet them. At the lead, despite having to vault down off the deck, was the burly blond figure of Stigander.

Einarr did not stop his string of men to await the arrival of the other Vidofnings: there was a decision to be made, and he had a feeling he would have some convincing to do if he wanted anyone to pay him any heed. In spite of everything, though, he grinned to see his father racing in their direction.

“Sorry to -” He began, but before he could finish his thought his father’s fist swung out on a giant roundhouse and caught him across the jaw. Einarr dropped the findings he had been carrying. As he righted himself, he lifted a hand to rub at the soon-to-be bruise. “Ow.”

“That,” his father puffed through his moustache. “Was for letting me think you were dead all night.”

Then Stigander pulled him into a bear hug, nearly cracking a rib in the process. “And this is for making it back. What happened?”

“Sorry, Father. I’d have been back if I could have. We were a little trapped.”

“Obviously.” Stigander bent to begin picking up some of the items he’d knocked to the ground. The rest of the crew was beginning to arrive as well.

“I’m afraid we got an invitation we couldn’t refuse… from the shade of the Allthane himself. He holds court in a cave under the plateau, every night I expect.”

“Explain.”

Einarr recounted the events of the night before, briefly.

“And he just let you go?” Irding asked, incredulous.

“Once we’d shattered his illusion? Yes, more or less.”

Stigander narrowed his eyes. “What’s the catch.”

“We must be gone by sunset, lest he and his ‘forget themselves’ again and do unto us as was done to the Yrsirmar the other night. …Oh, by the way, I found a pair of survivors. Arnskar, Kragnir, get up here.”

The two men practically bounced with excitement as they hurried forward at Einarr’s call.

“These two were caught in the spell when we got there, and were helpful in getting us out. Since they lack a ship, and we lack a handful of sailors…”

“We’ll talk about that later. Right now I want you to explain why we shouldn’t just cast off now and get out of here.”

“Father, have I said anything of the sort?”

“It’s written all over your face. Out with it.”

“The Allthane’s ship disappeared how long ago?”

“Centuries.”

“And in all that time, they’ve been trapped in a torment of undeath – all because someone or ones on their crew decided a funeral pyre was a waste of precious meat.”

Stigander blanched. “They turned cannibal?”

With a nod, Einarr agreed: “Some of them did. And the Allthane’s shade doesn’t know which. By this point everyone down there has eaten human flesh. They trap you with their feast. …And I want to send them on, if we can figure out how.”

Stigander’s sigh of exasperation came out as nearly a growl. “You know it’s not properly any of our business.”

“And yet, if it is within our power, it is the right and proper thing to do.”

Stigander gave his son a sideways look as they carried their haul the rest of the way to the Vidofnir. “Have I ever told you how much you take after your mother?”

“Often enough.”

Arnskar cleared his throat from behind them in the line. “If I may be so bold, sirs, I ‘spect if we can do this, the old Allthane wouldn’t mind us helpin’ ourselves to some of the gold down there.”

Einarr snorted. “Even if he did, what could he do about it?”

Now he got a different kind of look from his father.

“Oh, yes, if we can get it to the ship, and it won’t drag us down in the water, there’s enough gold to buy six ships down there, and hire crew besides.” He nearly added ‘if we’re willing to rob a barrow’ – but that was what brought them here in the first place.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.24 – Unification

“Once upon a time, I too was a young man,” the Allthane began. “Strong of thigh and quick of wit, I was a thorn in the side of our chieftain. Though all knew it, none dared admit that the Chieftan I was bound to serve, as my father before me, had grown weak and stingy with age. He also had no heir, and the loss of his sons is what many blamed for his temperament. I, young upstart that I was, thought it wrong that our clan should be forced to labor under such a chieftain until the end of his days when the rulership should pass to another.

“Yes, my unification of the clans began with a challenge to a man barely acknowledged as a Jarl. Hardly an auspicious beginning, was it not? And yet.

“This Jarl, though he had no reason to, accepted my challenge, and did not even appoint a shield-bearer for the fight. I sometimes wonder, even now, if he was seeking death. If that is what he sought, well, I fear I was the one to give it to him. The duel was rather one-sided, even with all of the handicaps given to one challenging the chieftain.

“After that, it was generally agreed among the other men of the clan that the one with the temerity to stand up to the old chieftain should become in fact the new leader. Why none of them had done so before, I never learned. Never cared to learn, for in accomplishing my goal I had also gathered for myself a loyal following.

“Our ships were yet in good stead, and it being still early in fall at the time, I sent a boat out in search of those which had not yet returned, to inform them of the good news and instruct them to return home and swear fealty. …That boat never returned.” The Allthane looked down for a long moment before finally setting his goblet on the arm of his throne.

“Those who were still at sea, or at least some of them, had remained loyal to the old chieftan… or had merely taken this as an opportunity to cut themselves loose. At any rate, it was not something I was capable of letting stand. They had their winter in whatever port they happened to find, for none of them returned home that fall, and in the spring I led the rest of our ships in search of the turncoats.

“The first set I found sheltering under the banner of the Atlanings. For generations our two clans had feuded, and so there was no cause to hesitate. We warred with the Atlanings for a month, and we crushed them. Their thane bent his knee and swore fealty to me.”

Einarr sat staring at the Allthane, afraid that if his focus wavered he would be lulled into sleep by the tale. Some among the shades and skeletons were already falling asleep where they sat. Evidently not even the Allthane could be excused from a long story, badly told, in this hall. He went on in that vein for some time: Einarr tuned him out after the third conquest, told exactly as dryly as the first. If nothing else, this explained the desire of the unnamed shade to skip over this portion of history.

After a time, how long he truly had no idea, Jorir stomped on his toe to keep him from nodding off. He gave the dwarf a grateful nod. From the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Tyr blinking rapidly and elbowed him in the ribs. The older man coughed and nodded in turn. Finally it seemed as though the Allthane was wrapping up his tale.

“And thus it was,” he droned, “that I was granted the title of King of the North and crowned Allthane.” He took a drink from the goblet sitting on the arm of his chair, blinking at the mostly drowsing audience.

Before the Allthane could grow angry with anyone and spoil the Vidofning’s chances of freedom, Einarr stepped forward off of the bench… stone? He had been leaning against with a slow clap. “My lord.”

When the Allthane turned his wrathful eyes on Einarr, Einarr could now see the shade beneath the illusion even there. Flesh clung to the bones of his face with not an ounce of meat beneath, and instead of eyes Einarr thought he saw burning fire. “Have you come to mock me, then?”

“Nay, my lord, but to bury you.” He stepped forward slowly and lowered his hands. “For three hundred years you and your men have endured this torture, and for three hundred years you have added to your number those unlucky enough to wash aground here on the same isle you wrecked on. Has this not gone on long enough?”

“It’s no use.” The Allthane’s voice was oddly wet here. Had he still been human in the slightest, Einarr would have thought he struggled not to weep. “’Twas the wreck that killed me, sure, and many of my best men… but the pile of gold you witnessed earlier was my burial mound, assembled by those who remained of the crew. And yet, here we are, with only this half-remembered feast to console us. Begone, you, and trouble us no further. Take your crew and leave this place. Leave this island, or come the rising of the moon we shall come for you as we have come for so many others.”

The golden brightness faded, and before the five living men stood uncounted shades and skeletons, each of which glowed with faint ghostlight.

Einarr did not immediately turn to go, although he motioned his companions to head back towards the others. “If you have received the proper funeral rites, what binds you to this place?”

The remains of the Allthane shook his bony head, lank hair brushing back and forth against his shoulders, and laughter echoed from his chest. “Why? Would you offer to take on tasks left three centuries undone?”

“He might,” Jorir said. Of the four, he had stubbornly remained. “The Oracle named him Cursebreaker.”

If a corpse could seem surprised, the Allthane did. “Well. Had I tasks which required doing before I could rest, perhaps I would give them to you. But that is not what binds us here.”

Einarr spread his hands. “What, then?”

“Cannibalism.”

Einarr felt as though he had been struck by the stone door above. “What did you say?”


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.23 – Telling of Tales

“Very good, my Lord. In that case, let me begin with how I won the Isinntog from the Jotün Fraener of Svartlauf.”

“The who of where?”

“Ah, but surely my Lord should know that story! It was ancient when my grandfather was still a babe. Once, long ago, the elves of Skaergard created a torc of surpassing beauty and dedicated it to the goddess Eira. The torc was all of silver, inset with thousands of tiny diamonds, and on each end bore the head of a dragon holding an anchor in its mouth. Inside were inscribed runes that gave it power over the wind and storms.” Einarr may not have been trained as a Singer, but there was no man of the clans worthy of the name who could not tell a rousing story.

“One of the Jotuns, by the name of Fraener, came to the isle of Skaergard after hearing of the wonders of the Isinntog intending to steal it for himself…” The story continued on in this vein, speaking of the vile tricks Fraener had played, and the blood he had shed, in order to win the torc for his own. Once it was in his hands, however, he found that it would only fit the first knuckle of his smallest finger. Satisfied nonetheless, for still he had secured the power of the goddess’ artifact, he left Skaergard and came to the winter island now known as Svartlauf. This island was only accessible, even by him, with the aid of the Isinntog, and so he and his dog made their new home protected from the wrath of the elves by the storm that raged about the island.

“And that brings us to where I come in,” Einarr said after a time, dearly wishing he could have something to drink that would not poison his mind. “In order to win the hand of my fair maiden, her father set me a series of tasks. The first of these was to steal from the Jotun Fraener the Isinntog, which he had so long before stolen from the elves.” He had their attention, he was sure. Once he’d finished this tale, he would ask Jorir to tell the tale of their encounter with the Order of the Valkyrie on their way to visit the Oracle of Attilsund – although he had no intention of sharing the results of their visit.

As he came to the thrilling conclusion of the tale – somewhat modified, of course, to ignore that he had yet more tasks to accomplish – many of the spirits in the crowd burst into cheers. It was probably the first fresh story they had heard in centuries.

“Jorir, where are you, you rogue?”

The svartdverger ambled out of the crowd to stand near his liege lord.

“Surely you’ve a tale to tell, as well now. What about our battle on the sea, not two months ago?”

“We dwarves, well we’ve not got the knack for the telling of tales like you humans do, but I reckon I can give it a whirl. Y’see, milord’s father determined after we rejoined the crew from that self-same mission to Svartlauf that this was going to be a big summer. There was much to do, after all, and already they had lost some weeks waiting on our return.”

Einarr smirked to note that he glossed over his own newness to the crew, but rather than correct him simply merged back into the crowd. Best to be a good audience now, so that when one of the specters inevitably decided to tell a tale of his own they could carry out the plan appropriately.

“Well, the story of Einarr’s family is a long one, and a sad one at that, and doesn’t have much ta do with where I’m going except to set me on the path. You see, I knew about the Oracle living on Attilsund, on account of I’d seen ‘er before, I had. Given the task at hand, that I’d just heard first-hand from their Singer, I thought it might behoove us all to go and pay the Oracle a little visit.”

“Not six weeks out of harbor, and what should we see cutting across the waves but an Imperial dromon – headed straight for us, no less, and the wing and spear painted on her sail.”

Jorir may have claimed dwarves lacked the knack for storytelling, but if Einarr was any judge the dwarf’s telling of that battle bested his own of the trip to Svartlauf. Einarr actually enjoyed listening to his liege-man tell of that battle, even including the part where he himself got scolded for recklessness on the field of battle. Einarr laughed and clapped along with everyone else as Jorir finished up the tale.

He was about to encourage Tyr to tell a story – something from longer ago than last winter, probably. He certainly had plenty of years to choose from – when one of the Allthane’s men took the bait.

“Well, since we’ve newcomers and all, I suppose it might be worth telling this one again.” This was not the show-off, but it was one of the spirits who had been making a nuisance of themselves since the hall dance.

“Everyone knows how the Allthane came to be, of course -”

“I’m afraid not!” Einarr called out.

“How can you not know the tale of how the North was finally unified, once and for all?” The man was indignant, now. Good.

“Because no-one has held the chair of Allthane for three hundred years,” Tyr answered. Now the men in the crowd – all save five of them – jeered and scoffed.

“Ah, but it’s true. How many of you knew the meaning of the wing-and-spear our good dwarf spoke of?”

Silence descended on the hall.

“For my part, I will gladly hear the tale of how our glorious host brought all the tribes under his thumb, for few save the Singers now know it.” Einarr broke the silence. “It is a feat that has not been equalled since.”

The Allthane cleared his throat from behind where Einarr stood facing the gathering. “In that case sit quietly and listen well, for never again shall you have the chance to hear it straight from the man himself.”


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.22 – Unexpected Allies

Einarr’s eyes rolled up into his head as the warm odor of food tried to fill his nose, his mouth, take over his mind.

Someone who evidently had not seen the exchange with the show-off took his strange expression to mean that Einarr was choking. Before his vision could truly cloud, a pair of very solid hands was clapping him on the back.

Einarr turned his head and spat out the foul substance – he could not tell what it was by taste, and he did not care to look at it any more now than he had before. “Thank you, friends.”

When he turned to face his benefactors, Einarr blinked. Beneath their illusory feast day clothes, these men were as living as he was. Einarr thought he saw despair in their eyes. He grinned and threw his arms about their necks. “And just the friends I was looking for, too. Come on, and meet the others of my crew.”

Finding a place on the edge of the crowd where they could speak without arousing suspicion was difficult, under the circumstances. Those who had been impressed by his performance at the hall dance wished to congratulate him: evidently the malicious show-off had grown too accustomed to winning. Others would jostle him at any opportunity… and they could not leave the golden light. He tried, and more than once, but each time it was as though the edge of the light formed a wall as solid as stone.

Einarr grunted. This would do. “Show me your hands.”

“Beg pardon?” Confusion was evident on the man’s face.

“Show me your hands.” Einarr held out his own. “Look closely. You’ll see my true nature. I would confirm yours before we go along.”

The other man, who looked vaguely familiar from the ring of dancers, nodded hesitantly. “As you like.”

When he tentatively held his hand out towards Einarr, Einarr clasped it and felt flesh. Einarr nodded: the other man seemed too shocked to say anything.

“Now you.”

The man who had questioned him moved much more confidently than his crewmate had, grasping Einarr’s hand in a firm shake. “So it is you.”

“You’re from the freeboater’s crew?” He kept his voice low, trying not to stand out above the hum of conversation.

“The Yrsirmar, yes. And you were with the group that came to offer aid.”

“I also led the group that came to help later. Not that there was much we could do.” Einarr looked past the man’s shoulder and caught Tyr’s eye, beckoning him over.

“My name is Einarr, son of Stigander, the Captain of the Vidofnir. The man on his way over is Tyr. The dwarf you saw earlier is Jorir.”

The more confident man nodded. “Kragnir. And this here is Arnskar.”

“Good. I’m glad to see you’re still yourselves.”

“Back to bein’ ourselves, you mean.” Arnskar almost stuttered over the words. “Not proud o’ this, but ran so hard from those… those…”

“Spirits.” Einarr filled in. Whatever they looked like wasn’t really important.

“Right. Well. Wasn’t paying enough attention, fell in a hole. Next thing we know we’s at a feast, filling our faces. An’ then the hall dance starts, an’ you’re talking to me like I exist, not like I’m some mask on a stage.”

“Well whaddya make of that, Tyr.” Einarr tried to keep a smile out of his voice. All by accident, and he was still proving the Oracle right.

“Stroke of good luck’s what I make of it,” Tyr grumbled.

“Where’d you last see Jorir?”

“He was aiming to avoid that arrogant prick you couldn’t quite get free of, I think.”

Einarr grunted. “And good luck to him. I just hope he can keep the scoundrel away from here for a while.”

“Sirs… way I see it, we’re all trapped here,” Kragnir started. “What d’ye need us for?”

Now Einarr grinned. “I aim to make it so we’re not all stuck here, and maybe do something about the Allthane’s shade. But I need to know more about this court in order to do it. You’ve been here longer than I: what do you know?”

***

The Allthane knew he was dead, that much was certain. How many of the others did, well, that was another question. Only, the Allthane preferred to pretend he wasn’t dead – so far, nothing that Einarr had not already gathered. Furthermore, Einarr still wasn’t sure he could really blame the Allthane for trying to forget he was a cursed shade stuck wandering a half-drowned rock in the far north.

Where things got interesting was how this played out with the others trapped in the feast with him. The shades, the freeboaters were certain, had been part of the Allthane’s original crew… and Kragnir wondered how many of them had already passed over to the otherworld when the Allthane drew them back. There was a thought that made Einarr shudder every time it occurred to him: to be returned to a mockery of life by the lord you’d served, to fulfill the selfsame function as you had in life, eternally…

Einarr was even more certain that their way out would involve the request of a boon, and just as certain that requesting the honor of burying the Allthane’s remains would earn them a tirade, or worse.

Well. If he could not take the direct approach, plainly his best option was to trick the Allthane into letting go the facade before asking the boon. Between the three of them, with the knowledge gleaned from the Yrsirmarings, they might just have a chance. Einarr squared his shoulders and strode towards where the Allthane once again sat, twirling his goblet morosely.

“My Thane.” Einarr offered a bow that would embarrass an Imperial, he thought, but the Allthane seemed to thrive on melodrama. “We have danced. We have feasted and drank, but nowhere do I hear stories of men’s exploits. May I regale you with a tale or two of my own?”

The Allthane looked up, still bored, but gave a twirling wave that suggested Einarr was intended to begin.

“Very good, my Lord. In that case, let me begin with how I won the Isinntog from the Jotün Fraener of Svartlauf.”


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.21 – Enticement of Food

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.”

It worked?

“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.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.20 – Sword Dance

Einarr made his opening moves especially eye-catching this round. From his hop-skip out he did a handspring and landed on his toes in a crouch. Rather than rising from his crouch, he bounced around the ring like that, kicking a foot with each bounce, his arms folded. Once he’d completed his circuit he moved to the center of the circle, still kicking with every move. Once he was sure he had their attention, waiting for the inevitable surprise, he leapt straight up into the air and kicked both legs out in front of him. At the apex of his jump he swung them behind and up into the air to land on his hands.

Now he aped some of Jorir’s fancy handwork, partially because it made for a good show but also to give the dwarf an excuse to “challenge” him. When he decided the fancy kicks had had their day, he placed the soles of his feet together and began hopping on his hands.

Then an idea struck. He extended his left leg high in the air and lowered his right down towards the floor. Just when he was sure everyone expected him to come down, Einarr raised his right hand to grab his toe. You can do this. The balance was trickier than he expected, but he had this. From this pose he threw the weight of his horizontal leg outward…

And spun on his palm. Oh, gods, that hurt on the rough stone floor that only looked like polished wood. But it got a cheer from the audience – a cheer he could not quite grin at, under the circumstances.

Thankfully Jorir did not make him wait much longer. The dwarf chose this moment to swagger out into the ring, his arms extended to the audience, his hands seeming to beckon them from cheers to jeers. Four strides into the circle, he pounded a hand against the ground and raised a fist to the air before matching every move Einarr had just made.

When Jorir made it plain that’s what he intended to do, Einarr lowered his feet to the ground and stepped back towards the ring – but not into it. Instead, he pretended as though he were leaning against a wall, his arms crossed, critiquing his liege-man’s performance to the surprisingly solid-looking man behind him in the circle.

Einarr shook his head a little. Now was not the time to focus on that. Right now, he needed to concentrate on beating the spirits who had proposed this contest, for that was likely the only way out. He glanced back at the man again: even after the reminder that the circle was made up of ghosts, he could not see this person as anything other than alive.

Jorir spun on his hand now. I wonder if that’s as painful for his hide as it was for mine? That was his cue, though.

Einarr drove his fist towards the floor – although, with his greater height, he did not actually pound the ground with it – before raising it into the air above his head. Challenge accepted.

Jorir’s dismount from the Thurisaz rune spin was somewhat less graceful than Einarr’s, but not a soul in the hallingdanse seemed to care. Everyone recognized what they intended at this point, and only those who had not cared to share it before knew it was planned.

In the same moment Jorir unhooked his axe from his belt Einarr drew Sinmora, and now the real mutters began from about the circle. Everyone knew the sword dance, knew that it was ceremonial. To use live steel was dangerous, unusual, but not unheard of. Einarr raised his long sword toward the ceiling even as Jorir tapped the haft of his axe against the ground.

No coin changed hands in this circle. Likely gambling had long since lost all meaning among the Allthane’s crew. No matter: they aimed to impress, not to win a pot.

Now they moved into the clash. Einarr made a testing swipe with his sword, which was met easily by his axe. In the rhythm of the dance they both turned toward the crowd to egg them on before the spin took them back into ritual combat.

A pair of testing swipes matched the rhythm of the drum with clashing steel before the dance turned them back around, and then a set of three cuts. Now the tune shifted, and the testing feints were at an end.

Both of them, it seemed, had their battle on the jotunhall’s stair in mind as they came together in the clinch and sprang back again. Einarr was perversely tempted to bark at his liege man, but that would be perceived as an insult too far. Probably by Jorir, as well. Still, though, that meant that soon the dwarf would…

Here it came. Jorir danced back from Einarr’s last lunge a good distance farther than he ordinarily would have and turned, his knees bent. The dwarf ran six paces back towards their duel and launched himself into the air.

Back on the island, had they not been on a stair, Einarr would have slid under the dwarf and cut into his legs without hesitation. Now, though, that was simply not an option. Nor was allowing the dwarf’s momentum to send him barreling into the circle, as would likely have happened if he simply avoided the attack. Instead, Einarr dropped to his knees and raised Sinmora over head. Steel met steel in a thunderous clang.

No sooner had Jorir’s toes touched the ground, though, than Einarr gave a shove with his blade. The dwarf leapt lightly back: perhaps he would have been able to stop himself from hitting the crowd behind them. No matter: an artful dodge, no matter how clever, was still not as well-received as a skillful parry. Both showed skill, but only the former could suggest cowardice.

Now they circled, testing each other’s guards again while the rhythm of the song allowed. Einarr grinned: he saw his chance, and he didn’t mind letting Jorir know he did.

As the music shifted again, Einarr dropped to a low crouch, balancing himself with his hands as he launched a sweeping kick against the dwarf’s stocky legs. Jorir attempted to leap over the sweep, much as Father had last winter, but unlike Stigander Jorir misjudged the height of Einarr’s kick. The toe of his boot caught the back of Jorir’s heel and the dwarf tumbled backwards.

The proper way to end the fight would be to place the tip of his blade at Jorir’s throat. Einarr felt his arm shake as he raised the sword slowly in that direction, though. No. Instead, he flipped Sinmora around and held the blade under his arm, his hand on top of the hilt as he offered it to his liege man.

That was the moment the show-off of the competition realized they’d been had.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.19 – Dance with the Devil

The tune the musicians played was an unfamiliar one to Einarr, but that hardly mattered. The rhythm was heavy enough no-one could mistake it, and the fundamentals of the hall dance were in the central competition. Everything else was just warm-up.

What quickly became clear was that Einarr had his work cut out for him if he wanted to have a chance against this crew. Even in the early rounds of the dance, the wraiths’ contortions in the center of the circle were almost inhuman. Don’t get swept away… like I could forget who I was competing against.

As if to underscore his thought, the contestant in the center took hold of his ankle with one hand and then jumped through the gap. This would have been ordinary enough if he hadn’t then taken that same foot in an arc over his head and back down to the floor in front of him. It was a move Sivid might have been able to use if he were ten years younger.

Once the show-off had left the floor, Einarr decided it was time to toss his cap in the ring. He pranced out, and bounced down into a crouch and back as he made an initial circuit. Impressing anyone in this circle, except perhaps Tyr or Jorir, would be a challenge, but even if he was no Sivid, he prided himself on his agility. A handspring followed a cart-wheel followed a back flip, and at the end of it he kicked for what would have been the rafters in an ordinary hall. He held his hands out to the side as he twirled another circuit about the ring and retook his place. If the Allthane’s men did not seem overly impressed, neither did their faces appear bored.

Good. A spirit would always have an advantage over a living man in the hall dance, as they were not subject to the physical limitations of the human body: the trick would be to make that advantage not matter.

More celebrants entered the ring for their warm-up after Einarr’s performance – to his surprise, Jorir did as well. Tyr, old salt that he was, had not ventured into the center since Einarr had been a deck hand. Still, it would be interesting to see how a dwarf fared in the hallingdanse.

Based on his warm-up, he might have a better chance of impressing the spirits than Einarr did, simply because the moves favored by dwarves were by necessity different from those that worked best for men of somewhat taller stature. For his warm-up, he spent a great deal of time walking about on his hands, performing all manner of kicks as he did so, and rolling through no fewer than three different bridges.

Eventually, however, it became plain that no-one else intended to join in the competition, and the competitors moved into their more impressive displays.

The show-off from before proved that he was the one to beat. His second round opened with a series of the stomach-churning leg rotations he had shown before, and became stranger from there. The culmination, to Einarr’s mind, was when the pole was set up for him to kick for the rafters, and instead he did a truly beautiful flip over the pole.

Einarr could not quite repress a growl. For all that the ghosts did not have the same physical limitations he did, he was reasonably certain not all of them realized they were dead. Including, he thought, the one who went to such pains to display inhumanly impressive feats of agility.

For three more rounds, both he and Jorir managed to hold their own in the hallingdanse, but he was running out of both stamina and ideas for new feats to try. Probably this circle would have given Sivid a run for his money, and that man was the best living dancer Einarr had ever seen. At the end of the third round, he arranged to re-enter the circle next to his liege-man.

“You aim for one of us to win this, right?” He whispered as other contestants took their turns – those who had not bowed out after the show-off’s latest performance, that is. The number of entrants was dropping rapidly.

“Aye.”

“Next round, let’s sword-dance.” It had been a stroke of genius on his father’s part last winter, if a bit unconventional – but unconventional was what they wanted here.

“With live steel?”

“Unless you happen to have a pair of staves handy. I don’t think the locals do.”

Jorir nodded. “I shall enjoy testing my blade against you once more, then.”

Einarr offered a cocky grin. “You mean when I actually care about looking good? Perfect.”

“Next round then.” Jorir inclined his head towards his lord, and Einarr matched the gesture before turning his full attention back to the dance in the center.

It was plain that they had not hidden their intentions from everyone in the circle, but those nearest did not seem inclined to share the surprise with those further away. The show-off gave his most impressive showing yet, of course, and Einarr suspected most of the other contestants would have dropped out after that performance, but the anticipation in the circle of what the newcomers would do was palpable.

Einarr grinned. Thus far he had ventured forth earlier than Jorir, and so as with last winter he would be the challenged party in the sword dance. That suited him just fine: for a man to challenge a dwarf, while not actually unfair, seemed distasteful at first glance. For a dwarf to challenge a man, however, was right and proper – as it was when the man, hard-pressed, managed to defeat the dwarf. That was simply how the stories were meant to go, and a crowd such as this would surely enjoy such a tale.

Now it was Einarr’s turn to enter the circle. Still wearing a grin, he did a hop-skip out into the ring.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.18 – Allthane’s Feast

“You’re about to go engage a dead man in a battle of wits. I’m coming.” Tyr dusted off his palms as he stepped over toward the other two.

“We’ll be relying on you, then.” Einarr clapped the old sailor on the shoulder.

“Y’got that right.”

“Let’s get to it, then.” Einarr turned from the gathering of his men to face the spectral display and swaggered forward into the light.

He raised a hand and called out to announce their approach. “Hail, my lord!”

“Hail, travelers.” The king’s voice was weary, but he stood to greet them anyway. “We have been waiting for you.”

“My apologies for the delay.”

“I do hope my men were not overly forceful with my invitation.”

“Merely a miscommunication, I’m afraid. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Well you are guests here on my island, are you not? What host would not extend a fitting welcome to those unlucky enough to wash up on these shores? Come! Eat, drink, and be merry, for all who wreck here are lost.”

“We will join you, then.” Does he not realize, then, what we spoke of earlier? Einarr hoped so.

“Wonderful! Please, come, enjoy my hospitality and while away the endless hours.”

Einarr shared a look with Tyr and Jorir. Tyr nodded once, in approval. Jorir shrugged, as though he, too, was not entirely certain how to take that.

Suddenly about him he realized he could hear the accustomed sounds of a feast now, where earlier the cave had been as silent as the artwork Erik had used to describe it. He could catch a whiff, here or there, of roasted meat, as well, as though the illusion were fading into reality.

Not good. Einarr’s breast fluttered as he realized how much more real the feast felt up close. It was to the best that he had Jorir and Tyr along, and that they had left men on the outside to break them free should the need arise.

Einarr took a tankard and pretended to drink as he moved among the other revelers – revelers who, as he moved closer, appeared not-quite solid, or as though their feast day clothes hid nothing but bones. He tried not to shiver: unnerving as it was, he had been granted a boon here. Easier by far to remember the sort of feast one was at when the illusion was thin in spots.

Easier still not to eat when the main course appeared to be dolphin. No-one hunted dolphins. They were a sailor’s best friend, as true as a hound on land. Had the Allthane been so decadent, or was it another artifact of the illusion? Einarr could not tell.

“What a curious table you have set, my Thane,” ventured Jorir. “I see dolphin steaks and Imperial confections… how did you come by such a spread?”

“Oh, one does what one must. The dolphin had been a nuisance for years, interfering with the walrus hunts and stealing fish right from the nets. Finally Svagnar over there… where is Svagnar?”

“’E took sick, ‘e did, milord,” rasped one of the skeletal figures around the table. “Said ‘e had a splitting ‘eadache.”

The skeleton whose head Jorir caved in, perhaps?

“Anyway, finally Svagnar decided enough was enough, got a bunch of the boys together to take him down. Once they’d hunted dolphin, though, we just had to try it. I tell you, some of the best meat around.”

“So this is that same dolphin, then?” Einarr could hear that his voice was faint. The idea of eating dolphin, even one killed as a nuisance, made him feel vaguely ill.

“The very same.”

The food isn’t real. Erik had known that from the very beginning. He had, too, but it was difficult to remember with his eyes and nose claiming otherwise.

Einarr glanced down at the drink in his hand: it no longer looked like mead, even in the golden glow of the feast, but rather stank of fetid marsh water. He managed not to grimace, but he no longer worried about accidentally drinking from the cup, either.

“Tell me, my lord, where was it the dolphin was slain?”

“Just off the southern cape. Come! Eat! Enjoy the bounty of the sea, and the talents of my cooks!”

“…My lord,” Tyr ventured. “There is no southern cape here. Only shifting sandbars and bog.”

“Nonsense!” The Allthane slammed his goblet down on the table, and before Einarr’s eyes the cave walls became dressed stone draped with tapestries far richer than anything he had seen in his visions of Raenshold. The golden glow remained, and now he heard the thin strains of a fiddler’s warm-up. “This is Heidirshold! You mean to tell me you have arrived now, just in advance of the Allthing, and you did not even know that?”

The Allthane seemed to have, at best, a tenuous grasp on reality… although under the circumstances, Einarr wasn’t certain he could blame the man. Spirit?

“Gentlemen! It seems the food is not to the newcomer’s liking. Who will join us all in the hallingdanse?”

“My lord-” Einarr started to beg off that, as well, but Jorir stopped him with an elbow in his side.

“I don’t think we can get out of this,” the dwarf whispered. “Just don’t forget that we’re dancing with ghosts.”

Einarr nodded. “My lord, we’d love to.”

The music picked up, and a drum and a fife joined the fiddle. Before Einarr could blink, the spirits who had been milling about the table, filling their ghostly mouths with insubstantial food, were now forming a circle off to the side. The cup Einarr had held without drinking was no longer in his hand. The men to either side began the side-stepping line dance that marked the outer ring of a hallingdanse.

Einarr waited. He would not be the first in the center. He intended to win – ghosts or no ghosts.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

3.17 – Underground

The maw of the cave seemed to yawn behind them as they were pressed ever back. It offered an opportunity, though: he could see no ghost light from within its dubious shelter. They could make a stand there…

…Although it seemed they would quickly do so with steel rather than flame. His flaming brand was nearly reduced to a glowing stick, as were many others from the cluster of Vidofnings. Jorir must have lost his secondary flame some time ago, and now the fire of the “fresh” one burned near his fingers.

Some of the others had already switched to steel, and bore the marks of it in sunken faces and wide eyes. Einarr was both amazed and grateful that they still had everyone… but the vengeful spirits who had them nearly surrounded would not be satisfied so easily.

Worse, they had all been fighting for hours. Even Erik and Jorir must be starting to tire. The mouth of the cave was not so wide that it would take all of them to cover it.

Einarr stepped around, using one lip of the cave mouth to protect his shoulder. It was far from ideal, but it was all he had. “Fall in beside me!”

They did, with Tyr and Boti unabashedly falling into the secondary line for a breather. Three others, essentially at random, were also shoved behind the main line. It would be their turn again soon enough.

It seemed merely getting them to the cave, with the barrow hidden down below, was not the spirits’ sole objective. Still they drove the men back, step by step, closer to the broken slab of stone they had left behind them.

Only the broken slab seemed to be missing, as they drew closer. Rather than cracked rock, in the dim glow of the ghost light and their failing weapons, he saw only an abyss of blackness. Dread clawed at his gut, but they were powerless to stop the spirits drive deeper into the cave.

That was when a blast of ether slammed into him from the apparently solid wall to his right.

***

Einarr awoke some time later not to the expected darkness of the cavern below, or even to the filtered daylight of the cave above, but to the golden glow of a grand feast. He sat up and groaned, lifting a hand to his head to feel for damage. The side of his face was tender, but he felt nothing sticky like blood.

The rest of his team was slowly coming to, as well. None of them seemed unduly harmed by the… tumble, if he had to guess, down the steep passageway, and so Einarr turned his attention to the strange scene playing out in the middle of the cavern, where earlier he would have sworn was not just water but deep water.

A feast table now dominated the room, set all in gold that seemed to glow from within. On it were all sorts of tempting foods, from suckling pig to brilliantly shining apples to a whole walrus that seemed to take up half the table by itself, and men of the north – clan Heireidung, unless he was mistaken – gathered around to partake in the bounty.

The man at the head of the table was dressed more richly than any clan chief Einarr had heard of, all in red sable and dark blue shot through with thread of gold. He was big – easily as big a man as Erik, with the same pale blond hair of his father and grandfather. The man sat, a massive jeweled goblet in hand, watching the merriment of his men but not joining in it. He appeared troubled by something… morose… The sorrow of the grave?

It was the Allthane’s barrow we stumbled across this morning, and casually spoke of looting. Einarr wanted to kick himself for his own stupidity – stupidity that had nearly gotten him and his men killed. Cautiously he rose from the damp stone beneath him.

His boots were dry. How long had they been out? Or was it merely a part of the apparition before him? Einarr looked down, not expecting to see anything by the light of the spectral feast before them but seeing anyway. He was not wearing his ordinary sea boots: these were dress boots, made of rabbit skin and died as crimson as the Allthane’s tunic. His trousers, too, were not his ordinary sea wear, nor was his tunic. He was dressed for a feast – for the feast set out ahead of them.

The others, too, were now rising, and as they stood they, too were transformed into celebrants. Confusion mixed with delight on many of their faces, and became calm certainty on the wisest among them.

Tyr spoke the warning first. “You realize this is a trap, right?”

“Undoubtedly,” Einarr answered. “But I’m not sure it’s one we can avoid at this point. We’ve been trapped since the fog fell: maybe this will be our way out?”

“Eat and drink nothing of that table.” Jorir somehow sounded even more grim than Tyr. “If you get swept up in the feast, you’re trapped.”

“Seen this before, have you?”

“Not personally, but the stories leave an impression.”

Einarr pursed his lips. “If that’s the case, I don’t want anyone over there who doesn’t have to be. Irding, Boti, you keep an ear open. Sooner or later Father will send a search party.” Here he hesitated. He wanted to tell Erik to stay behind as well, as the man was nothing if not impetuous, but…

Jorir took the decision from him, in a way the man was sure not to object to. “Erik, will ye watch our backs? If it looks like one o’ us is starting ta lose it, we’ll need someone to snap us out of the enchantment.”

Erik smirked: he knew exactly why this was being asked of him and not, for example, the level-headed Tyr. “Yes, I’ll stay back. Come now: I like a feast as well as the next man, but you know what this one lacks?”

“What?”

“The smell of meat and ale. Look at that spread – pretty as a picture. And just as lifeless. I’m good.”

Einarr nodded. “Thanks, Erik. What about you, Tyr?”

“You’re about to go engage a dead man in a battle of wits. I’m coming.”


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents