Tag: Out of the frying pan and into the fire?

6.24 – Tracks

The tunnel stretched on long past the point when fatigue made itself known in Einarr’s thighs. They had walked all day to reach the town in the first place, and now whatever had chased away the residents had also done for them. After a time with no sign that the source of the wailing had followed them, Einarr stopped and shook his head.

“We camp here for the night. These tracks are at least a week old: there’s nothing to be gained by forcing ourselves onward tonight.”

Judging by the groans of relief from Erik and Jorir as their packs dropped to the ground, it was the right call. Runa sat on her bag and began unlacing her boots.

Jorir looked about without moving from where he’d stopped. “Not a lot of room for a proper camp here.”

“Plenty of room to stretch out and sleep, though, and less area we have to guard. We’re all exhausted: let’s take advantage of what looks like a safe area while we have it.”

Runa sighed now. “As much as I hate to say it… what about light? Once that torch goes out, what are we going to burn? Once we wake up, if there’s no light, how will we know we’re headed in the right direction?”

Einarr rubbed his forehead. She made a solid argument. He was saved, though, by his man-at-arms.

Jorir cleared his throat. “Beggin’ yer pardon, milady, but everyone does remember that I’m a svartdvergr, right? I don’t rightly need light to get where I’m going.”

“You don’t?” That was news to Einarr, as well.

“Not as such, no. We use some of the old roots in the walls for a fire that will do for on watch, and then we can rekindle that fire-stick o’ yours when its time to move again.”

Einarr paused a moment, studying Jorir’s face under the wavering torch-light, but saw nothing but the dwarf’s calm, sincere regard. “Well. There you have it, I guess,” he finally said. “Wake one of us when you need relief. In the meantime, it sounds as though we need to strip some roots from the walls.”

***

Einarr lay awake in the dim glow of Jorir’s tiny fire for a good while, watching the dwarf from the corner of his eye. Feeling guilty, truth be told, for agreeing to Jorir’s plan so readily. Even with his dwarven fortitude he had to be feeling the last week in his bones. Einarr certainly was.

After a time of watching the dwarf sharpening their blades without so much as a yawn, taking once or twice a pinch of something from his medicine pouch, Jorir turned his head to stare straight at Einarr. Quit worrying and sleep already, the stare seemed to say. With a mental shrug, Einarr acquiesced.

It was Erik who woke him with a solid kick to the thigh.

“What happened? What’s going on?” Einarr blinked in confusion at his barely seen compatriots.

“Jorir went off to investigate something, about half an hour ago as near as I can tell. Not back yet. I think it’s time we went after him.”

“Yes, of course. Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”

“Because I’ve only just decided he’d been gone too long. Only one who looked worse’n you last night was the Lady, an’ you’ll note I’ve not woken her yet.”

“Perhaps not intentionally,” Runa grumbled. “Nevertheless, I am now awake. Whatever could he have felt the need to chase off after in a place like this?”

Erik shrugged, the gesture barely visible in the fading light of their tiny, nearly-dead campfire.

“Whatever it was, we’d best be off. Erik, if you would?”

It took some coaxing, but their improvised torch from the night before finally kindled on some of the embers. Then they were off. Jorir’s heavier, fresher tracks led in the same direction as the earlier sets they had been following, and before Erik’s brand had begun to singe his fingers they could see a lightening ahead of them. Still, however, the only sign of Jorir were the dwarf’s footprints headed inexorably onward.

The tunnel eventually led shallowly upward, to open into a deep green clearing surrounded by pines. Just in front of that tunnel exit, someone had erected a stock. And hanging in that stock, his elbows pinioned behind him, was a very familiar black-haired dwarf.

Einarr rushed forward. “Jorir? What happened?”

“Stop! No, don’t come. An ambush is what happened. And what’s -”

Jorir didn’t get to finish that statement, although its meaning was soon made abundantly clear as a volley of arrows rained down on the little clearing. Sinmora was out of its sheath and in Einarr’s hand as he leapt across the few paces separating him from his man at arms. In one fluid motion he sliced the ropes binding Jorir and spun to face their attackers.

Erik, for his part, shoved Runa behind him and moved to block the mouth of the tunnel as he hefted his axe.

Thank you, Erik. The man may have no intention of settling down, but there were a multitude of reasons why he never lacked for company.

Their assailants were showing themselves now: fishermen, it looked like, and farmers mostly. All but one of them were armed with axes or harpoons in addition to their bows. That one must have been their leader, and in addition to the rough-looking scramasax he clutched in his hand he had a hide coat thrown over his shoulders. These must be the townspeople, then – or some of them.

“We mean you no harm,” Einarr ventured. “Although we will not hesitate to defend ourselves. Are you the people of the town?”

The man with the scramasax grinned ferally at the two in the center of the ambush. “We’ve a right to defend our property, ‘aven’t we?”

Einarr frowned. “What, pray tell, are we accused of, then?”

“Theft. Trespass. And the destruction of the town, as it is now uninhabitable.”

Einarr offered a smile that was meant to be reassuring, although somehow he thought it missed its mark. “Gentlemen, please. We will of course pay the tavern keeper for the food we ate under his roof, but-”

“Oh, aye, and you’ll pay dearly at that. Now, men!”

As one, almost as though they were practiced at this, the men from the town charged the four companions.


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4.24 – Fire Rain

Einarr limbered his bow as the enemy ships came into view. The storms that carried them after the Skudbrun swirled together, each intensifying the others, so that sheeting rain obscured their targets and threatened to render their assault worse than useless. Still, even under its own rainstorm the Grendel had burned.

The Vidofnir’s prow ducked as it crested a wave and entered the storm once more. There had been few issues with traction against the Grendel simply because of where they had engaged her: not so here. Their ally was in view, however, and also within the tempest.

“Draw!” Bardr gave the order. The Vidofnings at the prow raised their bows and prepared to fire, but held. Bardr now walked along their ranks, lighting their arrows from the torch in his hand. Idly, Einarr wondered how many arrows, and how much pitch, they had left after this volley. At least one more, judging by the deckhand off to the side busily wrapping pitched cloth about arrowheads.

“Aim!”

Einarr lifted his bow towards the mast of the nearest vessel – their only possible target at this stage. He took a deep breath to steady his arm and his mind. Over their heads, the flames danced in the wind and raindrops hissed away from their touch. A gust howled, high overhead, and the Vidofnir tilted to port under its influence. Right about now, Einarr might actually welcome a Valkyrie ship – especially if it had sea-fire.

The ship righted itself, and in a moment of calm the order finally came. “Fire!”

Twenty arrows screamed across the gulf between their two vessels, straight and true. Their target seemed to rear up, cresting a wave, as the volley reached them, and fire embedded itself in the enemy’s deck and sail. Thank you, Eira.

That there were even twenty of them available to fire right now spoke of how hard the oar crew labored: that there were only twenty available spoke of how hard a summer this had been already. Einarr accepted a second wrapped arrow and nocked it to his string.

The crew of the ship they had fired on last looked like rats as they scurried about on deck. Einarr could not tell from here if they were looking to put out the fires or prepare a counter-volley. Strangely, the thought did not worry him. All that mattered in this moment was his next arrow.

Runa’s voice rang out over the storm – a variation Einarr had only rarely heard, and yet this was twice in one day. It was the opposite of the battle chant, in many ways, sung most often for the old and the feeble-minded. He felt an unusual clarity settle around his shoulders, and a small smile parted his lips. Brilliant, my love.

“Draw!” Once more Bardr began moving back and forth among them, lighting their arrows as they prepared to fire. The torch smoked heavily in the rain, but did not begin to gutter. Yet.

Einarr drew back his nocked arrow. They would hit again, he was sure: Runa was the bearer of the Isinntog, which meant that they had the attention of the goddess. And if they had the attention of the goddess, she would not abandon them against foes such as these.

“Aim!”

The archers aboard the Vidofnir moved with greater confidence this time, he thought, bolstered by the last volley and by Runa’s song. Hit, and catch! He urged the fire dancing above his head just before the order came:

“Fire!”

Their arrows launched as though they had been fired by one man, and if the winds moved some few around it was to the amusement of those who fired. The arrows all landed in a rough circle surrounding the mast of the enemy ship.

The rats aboard the other ship ceased their scurrying, now: that was definitely a counter-volley they had organized.

“Shields!” Einarr bellowed. He thought Bardr would forgive him the indiscretion, under the circumstances. Even being the one to notice, he barely raised his in time for no fewer than three arrows to strike into it.

Some few weren’t so lucky. Einarr heard two or three cry out in pain. When he risked a glance, he saw men being helped back toward where the Singers could tend to their wounds. With a harrumph, he turned back around, studying the enemy ship for signs of a true blaze.

He was not disappointed. Those same rats he’d seen organizing a counterattack now scrambled every which way even as their helm turned to starboard, effectively breaking off their pursuit. Einarr was too far to see sparks, but he thought he caught the darkening of smoke surrounding their mast.

Stigander’s voice rose above the storm: do not engage. Let them sink or swim as they could – the Skudbrun was waiting, and Einarr didn’t think they had many more volleys remaining.

The Vidofnir turned off to port, leaving the enemy ship and its horrific underbelly to founder in its own storm. That just left two more. Einarr and the other archers nocked their third volley of arrows as they waited to narrow their distance from the third ship. Once again they drew, and once again fire rained down on their enemies.

Einarr let out a whoop when he saw the second volley flying through the storm toward the forward-most ship. He could not yet see the Skudbrun, but the Brunnings had seen them. The rest of the archers processed what he had seen almost as quickly, and with just as much enthusiasm. Now they stood a chance.

Bardr distributed the next volley’s worth of fire arrows among the team – the last, unless Father had more arrows stashed below deck somewhere – but if luck and the goddess’ blessing held, one more should be enough. The enemy vessels burned like pine for all of their blackness. Still, Bardr waited to call the volley until they were alongside their enemy – not near enough for boarding, but near enough to look them in the eye as they fired.

“Draw!”

As before, one of the young deckhands moved among the shallow ranks of archers with a torch, lighting the arrow wraps behind him.

“Aim!”

What were they doing over there, though? It seemed as though the enemy ship paid no heed to the Vidofnir and the tiny motes of fire they were about to launch towards their own ship. Instead, they were gathered amidships: Einarr thought he saw defiant stares on the faces of men with axes raised high, as though they were about to cut into their own boat…

“Fire!”


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4.16 – Hammer & Anvil

Trapped. Five of them to fight of dozens of the local guards and protect Runa, when the wall of men ahead of them appeared nearly as solid as stone. If they could just reach the Vidofnir they could escape, but it would take a miracle for them to get that far. A miracle, or…

“Runa?”

“I Sing, and before you know it we’re buried. They will fixate on my voice.”

Einarr growled and drew Sinmora. “Fine. Wait till we’re already bogged down, then, but we’re going to need you.”

Then he lowered his shoulder behind his shield and raised Sinmora overhead. His feet dug in to the stone pier, and then he was off, the others forming a kite behind him with Runa in the middle. Einarr’s shield struck the waiting shield wall of the defenders with a tremendous crash.

His aim was true: he drove into the space between two guard’s shoulders and their shields turned with him – not much, but enough to open a breach. Einarr slashed down with his blade and cut deep into the defender’s shoulder. Black blood welled around the steel.

Einarr yanked his sword free just moments before Jorir barreled into the guard’s knees and buried his axe in its hamstring. Momentum carried Einarr over the hole just opened even as Bollinn took down the guard on his other side.

As though they had trained for exactly this moment, the defenders curled around to come at the flying wedge from the sides and rear. Einarr hacked at them as they came within reach, but he could not care if they lived or died so long as he was able to continue driving forward.

Inch by inch, the six outsiders fought their way toward the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun and relative safety. With every inch, Einarr thought certain the next one would be their last. Finally, about halfway down the pier, they stalled. The crowd ahead seemed twice as thick as the one they had just fought through, and the grunts of exertion from Sivid and Barri on the rearguard sounded fatigued.

A long, thin blade swept over Jorir’s head and slashed across Einarr’s bicep. He roared – not in pain, although the fire of a fresh wound definitely made itself known – but in anger totally unrelated to the battle-fury.

That was the moment when the bright, clear tones of Runa’s voice sounded over the din of melee. It was only a few moments, but fatigue and pain fled from his body even as the rearguard roared their defiance and Einarr made another step forward.

If the press of enemies had been close ahead, however, now they were pressed on all sides. Einarr would swear that he could feel Runa’s breath on the back of his neck. At the very least, the sounds of battle from the end of the pier were also nearer. He cut at the legs of the monstrous guard ahead of him and followed it up with a vicious kick to the groin. His foe doubled over even as he lost balance and tumbled over: at least some things could be relied on.

Einarr cut to the side as he stepped forward and felt his blade once again bite flesh. His stomach roiled at the smell of the black blood that now splattered his face, but there was nothing to be done. One thing alone mattered, and that was reaching the ships.

Though they wore armor, nothing about these guards now appeared human in Einarr’s sight. The last time this had happened, it had been under the effects of Astrid’s battle chant. So, why now? He roared again, allowing the little voice in the corner of his mind to go about its business. Man or monster – on this field, all were one.

Ahead of them a blaze of light flared – real, yellow fire, so bright it was almost blinding. Their freedom was scant feet ahead: near enough he wanted to laugh, but still too far.

Now Runa’s voice sounded again, this time in the all-too-familiar rhythm of the Battle Chant. Even before it had begun to take hold of his mind, however, it was joined by the familiar, sultry voice of Reki, and a third voice Einarr did not know. With all three Singers in agreement, Einarr surrendered to the red haze of the battle fury.

What before had looked like a twisted dark elf in armor now appeared truly monstrous, all teeth and blood-red eyes, with gaping maws in places where no mouth should ever be – sometimes showing through the armor without compromising it. Einarr hacked about himself, twin desires warring in his breast even now. He knew he must reach the blaze of light, or he would perish. He knew with just as much conviction, however, that to leave the abominations alive would be the death of many others.

He chopped down with Sinmora. An arm that was not an arm, still gripping its sword, fell in his path and he stepped forward. Somehow their circle of six remained intact as they cut their path through the putrid wall of their enemies.

Arrows fell around them but not among them, fletched in the colors of Kjell and Breidelstein. One struck a creature’s shoulder and knocked him forward, off-balance. Einarr cut up and across and took the creature’s head.

Runa’s voice dropped out of the trio even as Reki’s song shifted. The haze began to clear from Einarr’s eyes. On the other side of the new-fallen creature was three feet of empty space and the blaze of light that was every torch aboard the Vidofnir and, beyond it, the Skudbrun.

As the vision ahead of him resolved into sense, Einarr let out a whoop. The light was not just to encourage them. It would also allow them to board. Erik and Irding slid a plank down towards the pier with a mighty shove. It hit the stone pier with a mighty thunk even as Runa slipped between Einarr and Bollinn. The ache of fatigue in Einarr’s shield arm subsided as Runa took that opportunity to squeeze it.

“Thank you,” she mouthed. Then she scrambled up the plank, and Einarr was left with the memory of that touch imprinted beneath maille and tunic alike.


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1.27 – Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My lord, there he goes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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