Tag: Snorli

4.27 – Aftermath

The black storm blowing around the last of the cult ships had begun to dissipate before the Skudbrun and the Vidofnir limped out of the fullest extent of its shadow. As the sky grew brighter, some of the crew brightened as well, as though the horrors of the mysterious cult were banished with the weather.

Einarr envied them, in a way. He lay back on his bedroll, determined to rest until dinner. He’d only been fighting all day, after all, and that was reason enough. Never mind the strange nausea that gripped his throat, or that he now knew why a Cursebreaker had been named. Who else could be expected to deal with fanatics like those? Sighing, he rolled over, only to find himself face to face with that blasted jar.

A grumble of annoyance escaped Einarr’s throat and he contemplated pitching the thing overboard again. But, no: perhaps Runa would want it, or if not Runa one of the men’s wives ashore. Still, it was more than strange that it should find its way back to the ship like this.

His irritated contemplation was cut off by the aroma of grilled fish and the call to food. Finally. His stomach had finally started to settle as the day’s gory work grew more distant, and Einarr expected food to cure the end of it. Food, and a flask or two of whatever cask they opened up.

Einarr pried himself up off his blanket on the deck, his muscles grown as stiff as his blood-soaked clothes. Most of the rest of the crew looked equally sore: they had earned their rest this day. It was only a shame they had not been able to loot the cult ships… or then again, perhaps not.

The sound of a man retching carried forward from the aftcastle. Einarr winced, knowing he’d felt the same not long before, and joined his fellows in pretending it hadn’t happened. The atmosphere on the ship felt brittle tonight: tight smiles that touched no-one’s eyes, friends whose eyes refused to meet, and not one voice was heard to speak of the day’s victory. Einarr frowned as he approached Snorli and the night’s meal. He could not truly blame anyone, but this could be trouble if it persisted. Well, give them a day to process everything.

They ate in near-silence. Those who did speak did so in hushed tones, and what little Einarr was able to catch had more to do with the Conclave ahead than the storm behind. With a dissatisfied grunt, Einarr filled a skin with ale and moved to join Jorir and Erik in silence.

The Skudbrun still ran just ahead of them, and the difference in the day’s fight was plain in the twilight. Its rails were unbroken and its sail largely whole even if it was painted in the same black blood that had drenched everyone who fought.

It was good that they had a friendly escort for this journey: there were few aboard the Vidofnir fit to fight at present. Even still, if the Skudbrun itself was healthier, the crew still aboard must have been just as brittle. Even over the rush of wind and the crash of waves against the two hulls, as they ate the sound of shouting carried to the deck of the Vidofnir.

Erik grunted. “Anyone care to lay odds they’re fighting about the thralls?”

“No bet.” Einarr shook his head. “Anyone raised to Captain should have better sense than to take monsters in men’s clothing as thralls.”

“Madness takes many forms.” Jorir let that statement hang, and a shiver ran down Einarr’s spine.

At length, Erik broke the silence that descended. “Your man at arms is a bundle of cheer, isn’t he?”

Einarr hummed and looked straight at the dwarf. “But rarely wrong, that I’ve seen.”

“Unless I misread that Bollinn fellow, the issue will resolve itself by dawn.”

There were other concerns that followed that statement, and Bollinn had been a good man to have at his back. “Then let’s hope Captain Kragnir doesn’t come down on him too hard in the morning.”

Erik raised his flask to that, and Einarr and Jorir brought theirs up in agreement. As the light fell, so did silence over the deck of the Vidofnir.

Some hours later, as Einarr lay awake staring at the moon, the splash of a man overboard reached his ears. He started to rise when no cry went up from either ship: had the night watch not seen?

The second splash came from ahead of the Vidofnir, where the Skudbrun ran as a black silhouette against the indigo sky. Even as Einarr focused on the other ship a smaller silhouette launched away from the deck, arms and legs flailing in the air as though they were trying to fly before plunging downward into the icy deep.

Einarr swallowed, worried for a moment about who was throwing whom aboard the other ship. He heard no fighting, however, even as another shape took flight from the deck and plunged towards the sea. No Brunning – no warrior – would allow themselves to be thrown overboard without a fight. I hope Bollinn isn’t punished too severely for this.

If even half of the Brunnings aboard agreed with their Mate, he shouldn’t be. Not unless Captain Kragnir truly was gripped by some sort of madness. Einarr shrugged his shoulders uneasily and dropped quietly back to his bedroll. He counted time now by the splashes of thralls as they were cast into the deep. As Jorir predicted, before grey dawn lightened the sky the splashing ceased.

Shortly after true dawn, the Skudbrun dropped its sea anchor. As the Vidofnir pulled up alongside, Stigander gave the order to drop their own. On the deck of the other ship, Bollinn stood with square shoulders facing their Captain. Both of them had bare steel in hand.


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4.28 – Coming Soon

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4.1 – An Unexpected Arrival

When the Vidofnir had emerged from the narrow fjord that served as a gateway to the ship-barrow, someone spotted the black storm clouds that had washed over the island on the southeastern horizon. The sail was unfurled and they gave chase, building speed faster than wind alone with the oars. For three weeks they chased the storm this way, always headed vaguely southeast and ever more convinced that the storm itself was unnatural. Chased, but never gained. In the middle of the third week, Snorli approached the Captain and Mate.

“We must put in to port soon, sirs. We’ve a week’s worth of water and mead left, at best.” They could live off of fish for so long as they had water, but once that was gone…

Reluctantly, Stigander agreed and the order was given to make for Mikilgata Harbor, not many days west of them in territory nominally held by Thane Birlof. Not exactly friendly territory, but safe enough if they kept their noses clean. In this way the Vidofnings found themselves holed up in the guest bunks offered at the Wandering Warrior on the port’s edge.

The benefit of a place like this, of course, was that finding buyers was a simple, if not straightforward affair, and as their first week in port passed they converted no small amount of their treasure from gold to gems or more ivory to lighten their hold.

The drawback, however, was that there were very few men interested in going out to sea, and even fewer that Stigander would feel comfortable bringing aboard. So, for the most part, they waited and they drank until the hold was empty enough to accommodate the food and fresh water they required.

Two days before Stigander planned to leave, when most of the Vidofnings were gaming to while away the hours or off in search of a good training field while Snorli and Bardr arranged for the delivery of supplies, a familiar figure trudged into the Warrior and leaned on his arms at the bar.

Einarr, going over the manifest with his father, looked twice before he realized who it was in front of him. He was on his feet, heading for the bar himself, before he had time to consciously process what he was doing.

“Trabbi?”

The old man looked up, weariness and desperation obvious in his face. “Oh, good. When we saw the Vidofnir in port…”

“We? Are you on the Skudbrun now? …Never mind, come sit down.” Truth be told, Einarr hadn’t given the man a second thought since their glìma match in the spring, but even if the fisherman had taken up whaling there wasn’t much that should have brought him this far out.

“For the moment, yes. Lord Stigander, sir.” Trabbi greeted Stigander as he took a seat at their table and slumped against it.

“Trabbi.” Stigander’s voice held a note of caution. After all, the last time they had spoken with this man, he had been competing with Einarr for a bride. “What brings you to Mikilgata?”

“He was relieved to find us, so nothing good.”

“Oh, aye, nothing good at all.” Trabbi looked around for the master of the bar, who was nowhere in sight. He shook his head, sighing. “That letter your new Singer had when you came back last time? It was summoning Runa for – and I quote her – ‘Singer business.’”

Trabbi’s eyes scanned the room again, although less like he was looking for something and more like a man taking in his surroundings. “My Jarl, he asked me to go along as bodyguard – not that he mistrusted the men of the Skudbrun, but that he wanted someone who would stand out less on shore. What else could I do but agree to that?

“Only… on the way… a storm blew up, and riding the winds was a black-headed ship…”

“So then Runa is…” Einarr sat back, stunned. He couldn’t say the word… couldn’t admit to himself the possibility that she might have been murdered the same way Astrid was.

“Kidnapped.” The word Trabbi supplied was far less despair-inducing than the one Einarr had come up with, but still it took a moment for father and son to process what they’d heard.

“Kidnapped?” Stigander was the first to recover.

“Kidnapped. …And I’m no warrior, but I’m to blame… We lost sight of that strange storm they rode four days ago.”

Einarr met his father’s eyes with a wordless plea.

Stigander nodded once, slowly. “You say the Skudbrun is in port? Here?”

Thane Birlof’s waters were even less friendly to Jarl Hroaldr’s Thane than they were to the sons of Raen. Still, Trabbi nodded.

“We’ll go back to your ship with you, speak with Captain Kragnir. I think, all things considered, my crew will be more than willing to help you go after the scum.”

“You have my thanks.”

All three men stood and headed for the door, the manifest tucked beneath Stigander’s arm.

***

Trabbi led them through the port, his shoulders more square than they had been in the bar. The Skudbrun was moored in an out-of-the-way location where it wasn’t likely to be seen by anyone too loyal to the supposed thane. This placed it on the same dock, although much farther back, than the Vidofnir. Bardr looked up and watched as the three of them passed by, but he did nothing to interfere.

The Skudbrun looked exactly as she had when they had come after Einarr and Runa in the Gufuskalam that spring. Captain Kragnir, a white-haired man who only looked small in comparison to Stigander, stood on the deck near the gangplank. Whether he was looking for their party or for porters, who could tell.

“I hear you’ve had a run-in with our old friends, Captain,” Stigander drawled.

“So it appears, Captain.”

“May we come aboard?”

Captain Kragnir stepped to the side and motioned for the three men to join him.


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3.32 – Casting Off

When Einarr opened his eyes the next morning, it was to the whistle of wind across the Vidofnir’s rails, the slate-gray sky above, and the dull ache of overworked muscles not yet ready to be worked again. He sat up, blinking blearily: those around him appeared no more alert than he was.

Einarr growled low in his throat as he pushed himself to his feet. Where was… Ah. There they are. Near the stern, Stigander and Bardr stood debating in hushed tones between bites of breakfast.

Already know what they’re discussing. This is awful weather to set out in. Einarr twitched his nose when he caught the cold freshness of rain on the wind. Food first. Worry about sailing in this later.

That they would be sailing today, one way or another, was almost unquestioned. There was a storm on the wind, yes, but with all the sandbars and submerged rocks around this island he didn’t think father or Bardr either one would want to risk being blown from their mooring.

Einarr took his bowl from Snorli with a wordless half-smile that was not returned. The cook was staring off at the horizon to the southeast. The direction the wind blew from.

“I smell it, too.”

“Then turn around and look.”

The sky over the southeastern horizon was near as black as the storm the Grendel rode in on last fall, and even from here the swirling of the clouds could be seen.

“Eira preserve us…” Einarr breathed. “Excuse me. I believe I need to go speak with Father and Bardr.”

Snorli grunted, but Einarr hardly noticed. His eyes were still glued to the spectacle the cook had called attention to. He shoveled his breakfast into his mouth without tasting it as he moved.

That Captain and Mate had seen the storm clouds already was never in question. That they weren’t sure how best to deal with it was equally clear as Einarr approached, still spooning porridge into his mouth, still staring at the horizon.

“Father.”

“Einarr.”

“Why are you letting everyone sleep still? Shouldn’t we be hauling Vidofnir up the beach?”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Bardr nearly snarled.

“And I’m telling you, there’s nothing natural about that storm. We get back on the water, we find the Grendel, or one of her allies.” Stigander crossed his arms, his mouth set in a stubborn line.

“Father… we’re down nine men already.”

Bardr nodded.

“It’s been one day since we pacified the haunting on this island. One. And that only two days after the kalalintu attack.”

Bardr nodded again. “The men are exhausted.”

“And you want to try to get through the shoals and go after the Grendel… in that?” Einarr could not believe what his father was suggesting.

“If it means a chance at Astrid’s murderers?” Stigander glowered under his brows. “This is the closest I’ve been to those whoresons all season.”

“Is it? All we can see is the storm, not if anyone is crazy enough to be riding it.” Venturing out in that would be suicide, the way they were now.

“Captain, you’ll get your chance for vengeance. Whatever the Grendel is after, we none of us will let her get away with it. But are you willing to throw away Raenshold to do it?”

Now it was Einarr’s turn to nod. There had been times, if he was honest, that he doubted if Raenshold was attainable at all… but to throw the dream away for as slim a margin as this? Even if Stigander survived it, the Vidofnir would shatter. “Father. Let’s not forget our goal, shall we? We’ll find another chance at the Grendel, a surer chance, and then we can wreak vengeance for Mother. But right now, that storm is coming up fast.”

Stigander growled. Einarr worried, for a moment, that he would plant his feet like a mule, but then his father blew air through his moustache in a noisy sigh. “Godsdammit, why do you have to be right? Fine.”

Stigander strode towards the cauldron bubbling with the morning’s porridge and bellowed. “On your feet!”

***

All through the morning the storm raged, the Vidofnings sheltering in the upper chamber of the cave where just the day before they had conducted rites for the old Allthane. As heavy as the Vidofnir was, they had managed to beach it properly, and even found a few rocks near the bog line they could tie to.

When the winds’ shriek died to a low moan and the sky had lightened from black to the grey of a cloudy midafternoon, the Vidofnings ventured forth from the dubious protection of the Cave of Revenants into the freezing drizzle of the storm’s wake.

Thanks in no small part to the weight in her hold, Einarr was sure, the Vidofnir lay exactly where they had left her, surrounded by bones and driftwood blown up from the shoals. They could still catch the afternoon tide, if they hurried.

From the sounds of things, that was the plan. No sooner had they reached the beach than the men were directed to move the Vidofnir back to the water’s edge. Sivid dashed up to undo the mooring lines while the rest of them moved into position along the sides of their boat.

Stigander, his shoulder to the keel, called a cadence. “One! Two! Heave!”

Vidofnir groaned against the sand as she slid back down towards the shallows. Couple more like that and we’re in business.

The cadence sounded out, and again they heaved. Now the stern was in the water and their load was lighter… although she was already riding much lower in the water than usual.

“Last push, men!”

And then the Vidofnir was in the water and the crew was clambering up the side to take their position at the oars. Now they just had to hope that there was still a clear path through the sand bars from here.


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3.31 – A Full Hold

In spite of their exhaustion and soaked feet – and trousers – Einarr’s crew was in high spirits as they returned to the Vidofnir late that morning. The sun said it was nearly midday: as they stepped out of the marsh and onto the sandbar Einarr exchanged a look with Reki. They’d been luckier than any of them had any right to expect. A chuckle rose up from his chest.

Reki opened her mouth as though to say something, but then closed it again. With a sigh she, too, started to laugh, and soon the men were talking and laughing with the ebullience of relief.

“All right, Father, your turn,” Einarr called as they approached the ship.

Stigander studied the approaching group, looking for any sign of new injury and finding none. “Welcome back. Everything’s in order?”

“The Allthane lies buried in the frozen deep. And none too soon, either.”

Stigander nodded. “All right, you lot! On your feet. The faster we load the hold, the sooner we can get off this stinking rock.”

The rest of the Vidofnings pulled themselves over the side of the boat with far less alacrity than was their custom, the fatigue of the night before still showing in the eyes and shoulders of all of them. That few hours’ rest they had claimed while the rites were conducted had not been enough, and everyone knew it. Still, though, as the two strings of Vidofnings crossed paths there were congratulatory gestures all around.

Einarr locked hands with his father as they crossed paths, almost as though they intended to arm wrestle.

“Good job out there.”

Einarr nodded. “Take your time with the portage. Don’t think we’re getting out of here before morning anyway.”

Stigander barked a laugh. “You sound like Bardr.”

“Good! That means I might be on to something.”

Now they both laughed, and clapping each other’s shoulders continued on – Stigander to the treasure hold, and Einarr to the deck of the Vidofnir. When he pulled himself up, he saw that Snorli had remained behind, stirring a cauldron over the ship’s hearth that smelled distinctly of mulled mead.

“You are a lifesaver, man!” Einarr grinned at their cook.

“Gotta stay warm while you dry off somehow, right?” Snorli returned the smile without looking away from the horn he was ladling into. “This is the second cask I’ve opened since last night.”

“And we thank you for both of them. You haven’t seen the haul down there: we won’t need to worry about our resupplies the rest of the season.”

“Good.” Snorli handed the steaming horn to Troa, who had arrived just before Einarr. “Certainly you lot deserve the treat. It’s been ages since we’ve had a fight like that.”

Einarr grunted in agreement. A moment later he, too, had a hot drink in hand and was striding across the deck towards his bedroll. He groaned as he folded grateful legs under him to sit, cross-legged, on the blanket.

“All right, lads. We’ve to keep a lookout… but I’ll be buggered if there’s anything else alive on this rock. Boti, you up for first watch?”

The scout shrugged. Thus far he didn’t seem to have suffered any worse than a headache and a bad goose egg from his knock on the head. “Sure. Someone’s gotta.”

“Thanks. The rest of you…” He turned, then, as he realized what it was he saw from the corner of his eye. “Why is there a jar on my pillow?”

“It was in the cache you found before. Odvir thought you must’ve liked it, since ceramic doesn’t really sell…”

The jar did look familiar, with its Imperial-style painting that had somehow weathered the centuries unchipped, but Einarr shook his head. “There was an ivory tafl set that I wanted, but this… this is just a jar.”

He took a drink of his mead, still staring at the strange jar. I could have sworn I threw that away back then… Einarr shrugged, and turned to the nearest man remaining. He thrust his horn toward the other man. “Hold this for a second.”

Einarr pushed himself up on protesting legs and sore feet. When he picked the jar up, it felt warm to the touch – even accounting for the horn full of hot mead he’d just had clasped in his hands. Odd. He shrugged again and moved aft, towards the sea.

“May the waves carry you to someone who actually has a use for you,” he muttered. Einarr pulled his arm back all the way, twisting for extra force, and pitched the jar as far as he could out toward the open ocean. Even Snorli did no more than shrug. Ceramic was a dicey thing to keep on a longship, as vulnerable in the hold as on deck.

***

An hour passed before the larger group of Vidofnings began to return with sacks full of gold from the ancient horde, and then Einarr and his companions were moving again, stowing the gold in every spare crevice they could find underneath the deck boards. The way people were moving, no one would be up for rowing without a full night’s rest.

Stigander and Erik, to no one’s surprise, carried the largest loads slung over their shoulders as though it was nothing, and their two sacks filled the Vidofnir until she was nearly fit to burst.

“Much still left down there?”

“We didn’t even get half of it,” Erik laughed.

Einarr shook his head. “Maybe now we know why they wrecked?”

“Maybe.” Bardr sounded less amused. “Let’s just hope we’re not too heavy to get out of here.”

Vidofnir’s nimble enough. I’m sure we’ll manage.”

“You mean like we did on our way in, where we almost got a rock through our hull? We’ll be lower in the water now. A lot lower.”

“I think we all decided that was a risk we were willing to take, wasn’t it?” Einarr looked levelly at his father’s first Mate. This plan had been his idea in the first place, after all.

Bardr just grunted, acknowledging that fact as well as his misgivings.

“Long as we all get some proper rest tonight we’ll be fine.” Erik stepped in: Einarr wasn’t sure he was as reassuring as he wanted to be.

“I’m… sure you’re right.” Bardr didn’t sound convinced, but it wasn’t the sort of thing one argued about at this point in a raid.

“’Course I’m right!” Erik laughed and clapped the Mate on his shoulder so hard he nearly stumbled. “Pretty sure that’s why the Captain keeps me around.”


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3.29 – Battle’s End

Surrounded by the ravening dead once more, Einarr and his companions moved shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. Not one of them would leave their backs exposed this way… and now that the Allthane’s chanting had ceased the men of the Vidofnir would be able to end this fight. Einarr frowned as they circled, fighting off the revenants intent on their flesh, searching as he could for a path back to the rest of his father’s crew.

And finding nothing. The restless dead formed a writhing wall between the three of them and the refuge of their allies. He felt as though he had been fighting for hours already.

“All we have to do,” He said, grunting, as he caved in the skull of yet another shade. “Is hold out until Father and the rest break through.”

“Is that… supposed to be encouraging?” Troa asked between breaths.

“It’s what I got.”

Then the revenants surged towards them again and there was neither breath nor break in clangor enough to talk for a time. Despite his best efforts, before the battle ebbed again Einarr had taken more than a few hits from their enemies.

“Hey Jorir?” He panted.

The dwarf only grunted in response. Einarr could only imagine how much worse this must be from his liege-man’s height.

“Any chance of getting your shield to burn again?”

“Not sure—” He paused to cut down one of the opponents he faced. “Why it did in the first place.”

Einarr grunted. That was unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected.

“Don’t look now,” said Troa, his words punctuated by the sound of steel hitting rotted flesh. “But I think it’s just about done.”

Einarr could feel Troa urging their circle to turn, pressing Jorir’s shoulder into his side even as Troa’s presence grew lighter. He kept the rotation going, and soon faced back the way they had come.

Einarr whooped and kicked the legs out from under one of the remaining shades. “Come on, now. Just like we did to get over here in the first place!”

***

As dawn broke Einarr, Troa and Jorir rejoined the rest of the crew of the Vidofnir, to a man battered, bruised and often bleeding. The fight wasn’t over yet, though, not for Einarr and a handful of others. Reki’s song had allowed them to take out the horde of restless dead – for the meantime. But without the funeral songs and the proper rituals, they would be back.

Someone had lit a fire down near the water line, and from it the wind carried the smell of hot mead. Reki coughed, and Snorli handed her a steaming horn of it.

Wouldn’t mind some of that myself… Einarr ambled down towards the cauldron. Arnskar and Kragnir were among those seeing to the wounded. From the looks of it, Einarr thought they might have been lucky. After fighting off the kalalintu, they couldn’t have afforded to lose many in that fight, no matter that everyone was willing.

Stigander, farther forward, near where the main clash had taken place, gave Bardr a hearty clap on the shoulder and came down after the three of them.

“You three ready for the hard part?”

Einarr tried to laugh, but it came out as a grunt. “You mean protecting an exhausted Battle Chanter while exhausted ourselves? Ready as I can be.”

“Good. We’re counting on you.”

“Your son knows that all too well, milord,” Jorir said. “But it might do to remind him once in a while he’s no good to anybody dead.”

“I didn’t hear you complaining about my plan until after we took out the Allthane. And wasn’t someone grumbling about being given backup out there?”

“Yes, well.”

The other three all laughed as they approached the fire and its warmed mead. Snorli had a pair of horns ready for the Captain and Einarr as they approached, and two more were filled just a moment later for Jorir and Troa. All four newcomers at the fire raised their cups to Reki before drinking.

“I will be ready as soon as I’ve finished my drink, gentlemen,” she purred.

“Take your time.” Einarr took a drink of his own and let the hot sweetness warm his bones. “I’m not going to complain about a few minutes’ breather.”

“I don’t think any of the men will.” Stigander gave his cup a swirl. “But we’d best not rest for too long, or we’ll lose our opportunity.”

She cleared her throat. “Exactly that.”

Jorir raised an eyebrow. “Is your voice going to be up to more singing tonight? That fight must’ve put you through the ringer…”

“I’ll be fine. You boys worry about your part, let me handle mine.”

“As you wish.”

Troa took a long swallow, plainly glad for the moment’s rest as well. “How long do you think we have?”

Reki folded her fingers around the horn and held it under her nose. “If we’ve not completed the rites by mid-morning, we’re too late.”

Einarr grimaced, and caught the others in the same expression.”Fine.” He took a long swig of his mead. “In that case – Troa, meet me at the battle line as soon as you’re finished. I know better than to think you don’t already know the best route to the cave. I want to hear every step of it.”

“Of course.” Scouts had been sent out with Troa the day before basically as soon as the plan was hatched. There hadn’t been time to share that knowledge before sundown, though, but Einarr could think of nothing else they would be seeking.

Einarr sighed and stared down in his horn. Only half-empty, and his belly feeling pleasantly warm already. It had been a long day, and it was about to get longer yet. He poured the rest of the horn down his throat. “Take your time. I’m going to go get my blood flowing again, clear my head before we start out.”


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3.10 – Search Parties

Stigander knitted his eyebrows at his son’s declaration. “Explain.”

“Those screams we heard? Those were the death-screams of their captain and a few others. Four warriors were quite literally frightened to death on their wreck. Others were torn apart on the beach while they prepared another raid on us. The restless dead walk this isle.”

Stigander nodded. “We expected as much, did we not?”

“Aye. We also expected the kalalintu to be not much of a threat, though.”

“So, what? We should cut our losses and go?”

“Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t,” Irding grumbled. “Vidofnir’s not ready to sail again.”

Einarr shook his head. “I wasn’t suggesting that, Father, although it might be the sensible course to take. But we have nine berths open, and another ship to fill besides. Not to mention what we’ll owe on that ship.”

Stigander pressed a hand to his forehead and pulled his hand back through his hair. “Right. Glad to hear we’re thinking of the same things. Get some sleep. We’ll figure this all out in the morning.”

***

When Einarr awoke the next morning it was to silvery fog so thick he couldn’t see the men to either side of them on the deck. The smell of salt pork called to him, though, and so he was reassured that he was not alone on board. A silly concern, ordinarily, but after what he’d seen last night…

“So who all managed to sleep last night?” He made his voice light and jocular as he approached the hearth and the source of the meaty smell. There were only a handful of men up yet and clustered around the warmth of the breakfast pot, and each and every one of them looked as haggard as he felt.

“How does one typically sleep when the presence of murderous spirits has just been graphically confirmed?” Jorir grumbled. He hadn’t gone along last night, but had awakened when they returned.

“That depends, I rather think, on how exhausted one is beforehand.” Erik, too, took on a half-joking tone which was nearly spoiled by a yawn. “For my part, morning came too soon.”

“No joke.” Einarr sat on the deck between the dwarf and the burly man to warm his hands over the embers. “But we can’t just sit on our hands back here. We’ve an island to search and a boat to fix.”

“That we do, although we’re not likely to do much of either before this fog lifts.” Snorli’s voice sounded from out of the mist as he stepped up to join them and lifted the lid on the pot. “Well, grab your bowls. This cooks much longer and it’ll be mush, not dumplings.”

Those were the magic words. As if on cue, everyone who hadn’t already been hovering over the pot arrived, wooden bowls in hand, and the Vidofnings fell to eating. Even in those close quarters Einarr could make out the faces of less than half the other Vidofnings.

It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Stigander’s voice rang across the deck, clear as a bell although he was nowhere to be seen. “We’ll be forming teams today,” he announced. “The repair crew hasn’t changed. The rest of us will form groups of ten and all search in our own area. The sooner we find what we came for the sooner we can get out of here, and hopefully avoid more personal run-ins with the local monstrosities.”

Einarr pursed his lips. The idea made some sense, but nevertheless left him uneasy. “What does Reki think of this idea? Weren’t we counting on her songs to ward off the dead?”

Rather than letting Stigander convey her meaning, the low-voiced woman answered for herself. “I believe it sensible.” She cleared her throat, but not before Einarr caught hoarseness in it. “By spreading out our forces, we maximize the amount of ground we cover while minimizing the danger to any one group. While I intend to participate in the search, I believe that, barring some emergency during the day, my voice is best preserved for warding the Vidofnir at night.”

Einarr bowed his head in the direction her voice came from. “As you say, it is best that your voice be preserved.”

Stigander took too paces towards where the Vidofnings gathered for breakfast and emerged from the fog. “Bardr and I will each take a team. Einarr, you take one as well. That’s three: I want two more groups. We’ll draw lots for them. I’m passing around a bowl: if you’re interested, drop in your ring.”

Most of the Vidofnings passed the bowl and continued to eat, but there were more than enough clinks of metal against wood to round out the teams and then some. Einarr went over in his head who he would choose for his team as he chewed: Jorir, obviously, or the dwarf would never forgive him. Erik, if the man wasn’t leading a team of his own. Who else?

“Is that everyone?” Bardr asked, only partially obscured by the thick fog.

Unnaturally thick fog? Einarr shook his head to rid himself of the thought. The idea was ludicrous. No-one else answered Bardr, either.

“Very well then. Captain, would you do the honors?”

Stigander cleared his throat and turned towards where Bardr was holding out the bowl. The sound of clinking metal carried across the deck. Eventually, he read out the first name: “Arring takes a team.”

Another long moment of clinking rings followed, and then Father spoke again. “And the last team will be led by… Sivid?”

Einarr’s eyebrows jumped in surprise. Sivid? It was odd for him to step up like this. He had to be counting on that strange luck of his turning in his favor… but the idea left a queasy feeling in Einarr’s stomach. This seemed like one Hel of a gamble.

“Finish your breakfast and arm yourselves, then meet on the beach immediately. Daylight’s wasting.”

“Such as it is,” Erik muttered.


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3.7 – Battles’ End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” came the unanimous reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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