Tag: someone may have read too many campy ghost stories as a girl

3.27 – Breaking Through

The torrent of undeath would have no end if someone did not take out the Allthane. Einarr knew the responsibility was his, both as his father’s son and as the one who had noticed the source of their trouble. He lunged forward and ran through one of the shades that pressed him. He cut at another and tried to catch his liege-man’s attention.

“Jorir!” To be heard over the drone and Reki’s song and the clash of battle he found he had to shout.

Finally, though, the dwarf grunted in recognition.

“We’re going to take the head off this beast. Watch my back?”

“Always.”

Now Einarr grunted his acknowledgement even as he kicked away yet another of the undying corpses that swarmed about. The shortest path to the Allthane’s position led directly past where his father was embroiled in the thick of the fray. With a nod, he began cutting a swath that direction.

As he neared where Stigander battled, one of the other Vidofnings staggered backwards. His father’s flank was exposed, now: Einarr slipped in to fill the gap, now fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with him once more. Jorir slipped in on the other side.

Stigander grunted, grateful to see Einarr still in the fray. “This is endless!”

“Allthane’s reviving them!” Einarr cut off a shade’s arm at the elbow as he raised his sword to block a blow aimed at his head. “I’ll take care of it!”

“An’ I’ll take care o’ ‘im.” Jorir added, scowling out at the press of shades.

Einarr ducked behind his shield to avoid another overhand blow, then offered his father half of a grin. “See? We’ll be fine. Just keep them off us?”

Stigander blew through his moustache as he eviscerated one of the creatures. “Fine.” He risked a glance over his shoulder and whistled before jerking his head forward, back to the fight. “Take Troa, too.”

Jorir growled even as he took another down at the knees. Troa, though, had already joined them, and Einarr was not about to complain about having someone on his other flank. The throng was thick that direction.

“Stay on me!” Einarr shouldered his way towards where the low drone of the Allthane’s voice still sounded. The metal boss of his shield caved in an enemy’s skull like it was rotten fruit and he stood over the body, hacking at the next creature in his path.

Jorir and Troa caught up swiftly, and the three warriors slashed their way through the enemy line with what swiftness they could manage. It was not a battle requiring a great deal of skill, except perhaps in dodging. Though they may have been warriors in life, their skills had atrophied with their muscles. It was, however, both tiring and tiresome. Shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, they kept the ravening undead from overwhelming any of them. Once this was over, they all deserved the strongest drink Einarr could find. He did not care to think what sort of diseases the creatures might spread, given the opportunity.

A fresh wave seemed to come directly for them as they approached the Allthane’s position, just inside the ring of torches. At first Einarr believed this was a matter of the newly raised specters rejoining the battle, but with every step the three men were pressed harder. He spared a glance up, past the line, and his eyes locked with the burning green orbs of the Allthane.

The reanimated dead and the clamor of battle faded to no more than a background annoyance. Einarr screamed a challenge over the din of melee all around them. He slashed down with Sinmora. His opponent fell, cut clean in two, and Einarr stepped over its body. Suddenly the path was clear: there was only open sand between Einarr and the endlessly droning Allthane.

He growled, stalking forward like a cat towards its prey. Jorir and Troa never strayed from his flanks.

The Allthane chanted more loudly, and Einarr felt rather than saw the crowd of restless dead behind him grow thick once more. It could have been a curtain writhing in the wind and dark for all Einarr cared.

“Lay down your swords.”

The shade of the Allthane said one word clearly, the drone of his own magic stopping momentarily. “No.”

“We cannot save you and your men. But we can end your torment.”

The Allthane resumed his chant.

“Lay down your swords!”

His opponents answer could not have been clearer had he spoken it aloud: the gaunt shade of the Allthane drew his own sword. Once, it would have been a blade fit for one who held the loyalty of all the clans. Now, even it was rusting away under the influence of the wet salt air and centuries of disuse.

“Look at your blade. How can one who calls himself Allthane bear to wield it?” The sword would be no less deadly for that, however, should the shade break his guard. Einarr sank a little deeper into his stance and clapped Sinmora’s hilt against his shield. The Allthane’s shield-bearer stepped into position, and they did the same.

The feeling of crowding behind him dissipated. Einarr shrugged, getting used to the feeling of open space once again.

“They’re drawin’ back,” Jorir confirmed.

“That’s because this is a duel now. Should be interesting: I’ve never dueled someone who actually used a shield-bearer before.”

“Don’t get fancy. Remember why we’re here.” Then the feeling of his liege-man and his crewmate disappeared from his back as they stepped away to face the throng.

Einarr and the Allthane began to circle the clearing, watching one another for the barest weakness. Troa and Jorir haunted the corners of Einarr’s peripheral vision, ever wary against one who might try to disrupt the duel. All around them, the writhing curtain of specters in green and black milled, their eyes burning like a row of candle sconces.


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3.26 – A Little Illumination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reki began to sing.

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

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

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

The shades were solid. It was time to fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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3.24 – 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?”


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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.”


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3.16 – Ghostly Assault

“Make ready for company, men!” Einarr rose, burning brand in hand, and turned his back to the blaze. Nothing seemed to have materialized from the ghost light yet, but he would not be caught unawares when and if it did.

The others in his team were looking about, trying to spot whatever it was that had set Einarr off. Slowly – more slowly than he would have liked, some of them seemed to see it and reached towards the edge of the fire in search of brands they, too, could wield against the insubstantial.

Erik, burning wood in hand, circled the bonfire to flank his son, his eyes fixed on the glowing green fog. “What’s going on here?”

“Not sure. But I saw that same light when we went to investigate the freeboaters’ ship. From the bodies on deck.”

Tyr growled as he took up a position near Jorir. “Shoulda said so then.”

“Would you have?”

“Yes. …But I suppose you’re still young enough you’ve not yet learned to trust the evidence of your eyes.”

Einarr harrumphed.

“But if these spirits are aiming to end us tonight, these flaming sticks won’t help us much more than our steel. Keep the fire high, and don’t let them drive you away from it if there’s any other choice.”

“At the same time, I doubt the spirits will care very much if we burn to death.” Einarr’s voice was grim. “Watch yourselves, men, and stick together.”

The mist ahead of them swirled and billowed like smoke, although there was no wind to stir it. Forms began to take shape in the fog, and they billowed upward until they appeared like sickly green rods ahead of the gathered Vidofnings. Einarr crouched and held his brand as though it were a sword.

As he watched, the spectral mist coalesced into skeletal figures, each armed with sword or axe made of the same ether as their bodies. He lost count of the number of figures forming out of the mist – they seemed innumerable.

The Vidofnings were outnumbered. Possibly outmatched, as well. Einarr swallowed hard. There had to be a way through this, though. One that didn’t end with them either drained of life or burned to death. The spectral warriors advanced in silence and Einarr adjusted the grip on the brand that now felt utterly inadequate to the task at hand.

There was no more time to worry about his men: the ghostly figures were in striking distance, now. A bony arm raised a sword overhead to strike at Einarr, leaving his ribs exposed: Einarr jabbed forward with the burning brand. The mist withdrew from the fire, but the skeleton did not seem to care. The blade fell now, headed for Einarr’s head, and he danced back half a step and to the right. His arm felt cold where the ghost blade had brushed near it.

Now what? If even fire did not faze these spirits, was all lost?

Jorir swept his fiery club through the forearms of the one that came for him, and its arms and axe dissipated. The spirit seemed not to care about the loss of its arms: it kept approaching at the same slow, steady pace as before.

Even still, there had been an effect. Einarr slashed across the breast of the same spirit he had narrowly avoided moments before. Its head and shoulders seemed to float away, dissipating as they went, and now it was half of a ghost that kept moving towards him.

He gritted his teeth and swiped again, the fire describing a red-gold arc across the sickly green of the ghost light. This time he cut at the knees, and the feet and shins fell away so that it was only a torso coming for him. This, perhaps, he could do something about… at least for a while.

“Slash, men, don’t stab!”

Einarr had no idea how long this went on for, but for every spirit they dissipated in this way it seemed as though two more took their place. Eventually, after long enough that Einarr was thoroughly winded, he noticed that the flame was beginning to flicker… and that it was far closer to his hand than he was comfortable with.

“Jorir, cover me!” The dwarf was not in much better shape than he was, but all he needed was a moment. When he heard Jorir’s defiant roar, hopefully in answer, he hurled the flickering brand end-over-end through their enemies. He did not see how many of them were damaged by the projectile, for he had already turned to seek a new one from the bonfire that still burned brightly behind him.

Fresh stick in hand, Einarr turned back to the fight. Whoever’s tending the fire deserves an extra share.

Jorir whipped his flickering brand wildly, trying to cover both his own body and the hole Einarr had left behind.

“Your turn!” Einarr shouted as he lunged back into the line, hoping he wouldn’t have to cover both his liege man and Irding on his other side.

Jorir, with his blacksmith’s hands, kept a hold of his old weapon even as he, too, turned to take hold of a fresh one. The spirits, however, seemed to be prepared this time. No sooner had the dwarf turned his back than three of them surged into the gap he had left.

Einarr whipped his weapon through the space where they stood, but it took several strokes to fully dissipate one of them. He panted, knowing he could not keep up even as Tyr, on the other side of Jorir, turned to aid.

It was no use. The spirits had an in, and now it was all Einarr could do to keep Jorir from being struck in the back. He roared. You will not burn my liege man!

The dwarf was quick, thank the gods, and whirled back into the fight only a moment later… but that moment was still too long. Einarr could already feel himself being forced away from the fire, not by the mysterious forces that had tried to drown him in the sea earlier that day but by the relentless onslaught of ghosts.

“Stick together, men! Don’t let them separate us!”

One by one, the Vidofnings were forced to choose between stepping into the fire fighting their way across to join the cluster around their Captain’s son.

Slowly, relentlessly, they were driven away from the safety of their bonfire and into the treacherous, freezing bog behind them. The ghost light surrounded them, now, even as more specters emerged from it.

Einarr did not know where they’d been driven until a deep black hole opened in the wall of ghost light. They were back at the cave they had only narrowly escaped that afternoon.


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