Tag: Svarek

6.21 – Ghost Town

The trail through the hills, now that there was no longer a troll haunting it, would have been a pleasant hike on any other island. The midday sun was bright, and a crisp breeze played with the grass. It was almost, Einarr thought, like the island was conspiring to keep people from even trying to leave. He shook his head: far better to concern himself with the task at hand. Things were looking up: all they needed was to resupply their ship, and then they could set sail. By the time the town Auna had mentioned came into view, his step felt positively light.

Jorir cleared his throat. “Not to be a worrywart, milord, but have you given any thought as to how we’re going to pay for our supplies?”

“With only the four of us, we’re not exactly equipped to raid the town, are we.” Einarr had the beginnings of an idea, but no way of knowing if it would work.

“I’m sure we would make a game showing of it…” Erik trailed off, a ‘but’ hanging heavily off the end of that sentence.

“But we probably wouldn’t get everything we needed, and we’d probably have to steal a boat in the process. Furthermore, if these are men of the Clans, raiding them while they’re here just seems cruel.”

Runa muttered a relieved thanks to the gods under her breath. No battle chanter was she, and unlikely to become one even after Einarr had his own ship.

“No, Jorir. My intent is to find some likely sailors in town, offer them a chance off this rock. Just think how bitter the old fisherman was: someone’s bound to jump at the idea of a second chance.” At least, he hoped someone would. Preferably several someones, so he could weed out the more malicious breed. Even if Father would tolerate them on the Vidofnir, which he wouldn’t, there was a certain sort of sailor that Einarr did not want on any ship Runa also rode.

Jorir frowned, but before he could object Erik spoke up. “The numbers are in our favor, I suppose.”

“Only,” Runa followed on. “Auna made it sound like the townspeople were… unpleasant, at best.”

Einarr grunted. “There is that. And if we can’t find anyone that Bardr or Father would be willing to have aboard, we can figure something else out.” Not that he had any idea what that might be.

The town ahead of them resolved itself into a collection of stone buildings and thatched roofs that made Apalvik look large. Still, though, it was no smaller than Kjellvic, where they’d found Irding and Svarek. It would do. It would have to.

On the outskirts of town, Einarr paused. “What do you lay the odds are that there’s more than one public hall in the whole town?”

“Low,” Erik and Jorir answered together.

“Good. In that case, keep together. Just like we did in Apalvik, Jorir.”

The dwarf grunted acknowledgement. If he was irritated by the role he had been given, or by the need for it, he did not show it. Based on statements Jorir had made, it sounded as though the svartdvergr nations had earned their reputation for treachery long before Jorir first set out on his quest.

Einarr continued into the town, the streets ahead of him uniformly hard-packed dirt and strangely quiet for late afternoon. Ordinarily Einarr would have expected to see craftsmen and laborers headed home for the night, maybe carrying dinner with them. But with the exception of the occasional dog he saw no-one.

“Auna did say there were people here…” Erik looked around as they walked, scratching his beard.

“Um.” Einarr was just as troubled by this as Erik sounded. While it simplified matters if the goods they needed were just there for the taking, entire towns were not in the habit of just disappearing. “So, what happened to them?”

Jorir cleared his throat. “As much as I hate to ask it, is it any of our concern?”

Runa’s look of shock was not feigned. In a way, it was a shame she would never make a battle chanter: reactions like those would help keep Einarr human.

“No, he’s right.” Erik spoke up, saving Einarr from having to. “As much as we could use extra hands on deck, our primary concern is getting the distaff back to the Matrons so they can cure the others. Unless whatever happened here is going to keep us from getting out of here, we have no reason to spend extra time or energy here.”

Einarr frowned, latching on to something Erik had said. “I think we might, actually. That old fisherman – he told us it was impossible to leave, but not why. Runa, you said you didn’t know of any way of leaving this place, either, but surely someone must have tried. We need to find them, and find out what happened, if we don’t want to end up washing ashore here again.”

Runa nodded emphatically, as though that was exactly why she wanted to investigate why the town was empty. The corner of Einarr’s mouth curled in amusement, but he let it slide.

“We should find the public hall anyway. That’ll give us a place to sleep and a place to discuss, if nothing else. And who knows: maybe someone else will be hiding out in there who knows what’s going on.” Their decision made, and their mood somewhat improved as a result, they set off down the street.

From the street, the abandonment of the town seemed complete. Here and there doors stood open, or shutters, their insides stripped bare in apparent haste. The people had left, then, and with at least a little warning. That was both good and bad. Bad, because they were less likely to find someone capable of answering questions. But good, because it meant the townspeople had a better chance of being alive – wherever they were.

Finally, as the sky transitioned from dusk to true dark, they stood before the signboard of a public hall: The Salty Maid, it read. Here, too, the door stood open, and the interior was dark. But it was a place to begin. Einarr stepped across the threshold.


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5.10 – Into the Tower

Tendrils of mist extended inward toward the tower that rose from the water like some giant’s spear, curling about the Gestrisni and obscuring what rocks might yet hide beneath the surface. Even now that their target was in sight it was slow going.

They wound their way through the reef in silence save for the dip of the oars and the lapping of water on their hull, each and every one of them worrying over what lay ahead. Just as in the thick of the fog, here too Einarr found it impossible to judge the passage of time. First the cave, now the fog: it would be nice, he thought, to be under a properly sunny sky for a time once they were finished here.

After what felt like an eternity of tense floating, the shadow of the tower covered their boat, the thing itself looming from its rocky perch to split the heavens. Carefully they rowed toward a set of man-sized steps carved into the rock flanked by much smaller jagged spires, perfect for mooring their boat. Either the gods were mocking them and this apparent entrance was illusory, or people were occasionally required to venture here legitimately.

The Gestrisni carefully moored from bow and stern across the stairs, Einarr hopped over the railing and onto the bottom of the stair. Turning, he offered his hand to Runa. “My lady.”

She smiled coquettishly, a small blush kissing her cheeks, as she stepped up on the rail and accepted the hand. “Many thanks, milord.”

Erik chuckled and Irding had the poor grace to roll his eyes. Jorir, at least, saw nothing strange about the exchange. Runa ignored them as she joined her betrothed on the step.

“What, jealous, men? I can help you across too – if you think you need it.”

Now Erik roared, the sound of his laughter echoing off of water and stone alike. “Fat chance o’ that. Stand aside, boy, let me show you how it’s done.”

Irding moved hurriedly toward the bow while Einarr tugged Runa up the steps a goodly distance as Erik sauntered across the deck. Then the big man turned, dropped into a momentary lunge, and with two long strides launched himself from the deck. He landed hard on a step not far below Einarr, still several up from the water’s surface, as the Gestrisni rocked violently behind him.

Jorir swore as only a dwarf can swear, and Irding looked pale: now it was Einarr’s turn to laugh, although he did so somewhat more reservedly than Erik had.

“Well come on, you two. The sooner we’re back in East Port, the sooner we can actually unwind for a bit.”

Irding grunted as he, too, landed on the stairs after a somewhat less exuberant jump than his father’s. “Are all raiding seasons this… eventful with the Captain?”

“Not hardly.” Einarr pressed his lips together. Irding had been eager for this adventure: how much more overwhelmed must Svarek feel, after ghosts and monsters and corrupted blood? The men needed rest, maybe even more than they needed more men, but Stigander was surely aware of that even more keenly than Einarr.

Jorir landed almost as heavily as Erik had, although once again not trying to best the man’s long jump. “Shall we?”

With a nod, Einarr and Runa started up the stairway. The others fell in behind.

The path marked by the cut-in stairs spiralled around and up the rock. It could have been no more than eight feet vertically from the water to the tower’s foundation, but it was a steep spiral and by the top of it even the men’s legs burned a little with exertion. Runa, who was not used to such labors, was breathing heavily before the top.

The path finally ended before a smooth round stone set into the rock at eye height. Runes were carved in a ring around the outside, and the stone itself showed a labyrinthine pattern of concentric circles. There was no apparent handle, or even a sign of which way the stone would move to open the passage.

None of this appeared to deter Runa, who stood studying the design while she caught her breath. After a few minutes she began tracing a path through the labyrinth pattern on the portal stone with her finger.

“What is it?”

“Be very glad,” she muttered. “That you brought me along. Reki and Aema are more experienced Singers than I am, but they have spent their lives out raiding whereas I have had little to do with my time other than study. …There it is.”

As she spoke, her finger reached the center of the labyrinth and she pressed down. That first press was followed by several more in diverse locations around the stone. A grinding sound emanated from behind the wall, and the stone began to roll away into the rock.

“So what was that?”

“A puzzle lock, of course. And a fairly straightforward one once you understand the clue.”

“Clue? You mean the runes?”

“What else would I mean? We’d best be going through before it decides to close on our heads.”

Einarr looked up into the passage and frowned. Though it had been carved as steps, it was, at least here, nearly as steep as a ladder. “Jorir. You first. Then I’ll give Runa a hand up, then the rest of us will follow.”

Jorir puffed up his chest, pleased to be given the point position. “Very well, milord.”

The dwarf checked to be sure his shield and his axe were secure before stepping up to the door. He threw a challenging glare at Einarr and Erik both before measuring the distance. With a nod, he rubbed his hands together and crouched down.

His leap for the ledge of the first stair was more impressive than Erik’s long jump off the boat by far, although Einarr had seen its equal once: when they fought beneath Fraëner’s hall on Svartlauf. Jorir caught the ledge with his fingertips easily before pulling himself fully up on the stair.

Irding let out a low whistle, but wisely declined to comment.

“Your turn, milady.” Jorir turned and offered his hand to assist his Lord’s betrothed.

Einarr took a knee to allow Runa to step up on it. Steadying herself on his proffered hand, she accepted Jorir’s hand and made the step with a minimum of stretching.

“My thanks, noble svartdvergr. You are a credit to your tribe.”

“Lady, I am so long removed from my clan that the ill now spoken of us may well be true. For now, though, I believe we have more important matters to hand.” Without another word, Jorir turned and began making his way up the steep stair, one long step at a time. Einarr and the others soon followed.


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If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

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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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3.2 – Icy Seas

Over the course of a week the seas plied by the whalers of Attilsund and, now, the Vidofnir grew colder, until it felt more like they were out early in the spring rather than the middle of summer. That they had not yet seen floating ice did not reassure Einarr about the lack of icebergs in the area.

No ice did not mean no thing, however. Occasionally, through the fog off to the east, he thought he saw the shadow of a ship. When he mentioned it to Bardr, the man nodded and doubled the watch.

The move from calm seas to rough waters was just as gradual. They were a week and a half out from Attilsund when they started doing battle with the sail, and a few days beyond that the currents grew mischievous.

The mysterious ship was closer, when it appeared again, although still too far to make out its banner. The Vidofnir assumed a battle footing until they once again lost sight of their shadow

Svarek was tasked with helping Sivid watch the sounding line, just as Irding joined Erik wrestling the sail. The sea was wearing them down, and their target had not yet come into view through the mist that always seemed to obscure the horizon line. And they whale these waters?

On the thirteenth day, a dark shape seemed to rise in the mist out on the horizon. “Land ho!” came the cry from the forecastle.

“Ready oars!” Stigander ordered.

One hour passed, then another, before they felt the waters begin to tug at their boat in earnest and the sounders called a warning. “Hard starboard!”

The oarsmen put their backs into the turn. A moment later a gust of wind puffed into the sail and chilled their necks. Then the true challenge began.

Einarr’s forearms bulged as he fought with his oar, his ears straining for orders from Captain or sounding line. The Vidofnir pitched underfoot. He could be grateful, at least, that there was no rain to slick the deck.

For what felt like hours they fought their way past hidden shoals and unpredictable winds. Now Einarr saw ice when he looked up and, when he had a moment to breathe and looked behind them, their shadow, following the same approach to the ship-barrow that the Vidofnir had plied. “Looks like we’ve got competition, boys!”

Their shadow-ship bore a blue and white sail, and still they were too far to make out the creature on their banner.

“Let ‘em come!” Erik’s laughter was met with cheers from elsewhere on deck.

“Let’s see if they’ve got the guts for what comes next.” Stigander crossed his arms and stared dead ahead. “Mind your oars! Prepare to retract on my word!”

“Aye, sir!” The Chute was ahead where, based on the sea charts and their best reckoning, the safest route forward would take them up a narrow channel between two large rocks jutting up out of the sea.

Stigander took his time getting the Vidofnir lined up to shoot the gap.

A cold wind filled their sail. “Row for all you’re worth, boys!”

They put their backs into it, unsure even now if the channel would be wide enough for their ship, hoping momentum might carry them through a tight squeeze.

The cliffs drew up rapidly on either side. As the cock’s head of the Vidofnir entered the shadow of the rocks they seemed to loom overhead.

“Oars in!”

With one practiced motion and the clatter of wood striking wood, the oarsmen stowed their oars.

“I want half of you on battle footing. Be on the lookout for kalalintu, or any hostile movements from the ship that’s tailing us. The rest of you stay put in case we have to pole off the rocks.”

Einarr moved to battle footing, feeling only a little bad for those who were too slow to escape oar watch. He wasn’t likely to shiver less than they, and while the possibility of a kalalintu attack was a real danger, they didn’t exactly stir the blood.

“Portside nudge.”

His father’s voice echoed twice as loud off the water’s surface and the rock walls, even over the whistling wind, and Einarr started. Calm down. We’ll make it.

The gobbling screech of kalalintu floated down the chasm to his ears, but the winged fish remained out of sight. Einarr glanced up: the sky had shaded from blue to silver since they’d entered the chute.

“Starboard nudge.”

Einarr managed not to jump that time. The wind seemed to be dying down, though, and he thought he heard the tell-tale creaking of wood from off behind them. It seemed odd, though, that he could not see them now.

He blinked. It wasn’t just the sky that had gone grey: the cliff ledges far above were shrouded with haze, as well as anything more than about a hundred feet forward or back of the Vidofnir. It seemed to have gotten colder, as well: when he exhaled, he could see his breath.

A low muttering rose around the deck of the Vidofnir as the others noticed this as well. Einarr thought he heard some of the men praying forgiveness from the ancestors for what they were about to do. Not that it was likely to do much good. Well. If it came down to it, they could sacrifice some of whatever they found to grant the shipwrecked spirits a proper rest. But first, they had to make it through the chute to the isle of wrecks.

The Vidofnir rocked and wood ground against stone.


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3.1 – Leaving Attilsund

Bardr must have purchased miles’ worth of extra rope for this expedition, and as much fresh water as they could store. Even still, it was a short journey from Attilsund, and spirits were high as they loaded the Vidofnir with supplies for a six-week trek to investigate the ship barrow.

To Einarr’s mind, most of the crew were too focused on the potential rewards once they got there by half. He didn’t doubt they could do it, of course, but those who failed to respect the sea were often claimed by her. For his part, he joined his father in reviewing the local charts.

The waters of Svartlauf seemed an apt comparison indeed. While there was unlikely to be an eternal tempest surrounding this area, the rock formations suggested terrible winds indeed.

“I’m glad we’ve a Singer with such a powerful voice,” he said at one point, tapping a particularly narrow passage where the currents were likely to be troublesome. “I’m not sure we would have been able to hear Astrid over these winds. What do you make of this? Will we fit?”

Stigander hummed in thought. “Hope so, otherwise we’ll have to back out and circle around, come in over here.”

Einarr shuddered. “You mean where we’d have to pole off the rocks to get anywhere? I’ll take my chances with the chute. That was bad enough in the Gufuskalam.”

“Which reminds me. Has anyone thought to ask about kalalintu?”

“No more than an ordinary harassment,” Bardr put in. “A flock, maybe two. Nowhere near a colony.”

“That’s something.” Einarr glanced up to see Irding and Svarek hovering just within earshot of their conversation. “A moment.”

The two newcomers to the crew tried to make themselves look busy as he approached. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Ah, no trouble, sir.” Svarek started, but he wouldn’t look at Einarr while he said it.

“Bollocks. You two are nervous as fresh-weaned deer, and I’m quite sure I saw you joining in with everyone when we voted. Out with it.”

Irding scratched the back of his skull sheepishly. “Ah, well, it’s like this. We were talking in the square earlier, nothin’ too serious, about what we might find out there. One of the village boys must’ve overheard, ‘cause he comes by and tells us we’re fools fer goin’, ‘cause even if we get past the rocks we’ll have spirits to deal with.”

“Spirits?” Einarr raised an eyebrow.

“The restless dead,” Svarek filled in.

Now Einarr smiled, shaking his head. “Lads, if that’s all you’re worried about, get back to work. Even if the island is haunted, we’ve got one of the finest Singers I’ve ever met. She’ll keep our courage up, and so long as we’ve got that spirits can’t touch us. Okay?”

They both nodded, although Einarr thought he saw them swallow first. “Good work, finding that out though. Now get back to work. We’ll be sailing soon.”

Bardr raised an eyebrow as he returned to the table where the charts were spread out.

“One of the locals brought up the possibility of spirits.”

“Ah.” Bardr nodded. With as many sailors as were likely unburied on that island, it was a reasonable concern, but not one they were totally unprepared for.

“I’m sure she does, but Reki does know the grave songs, right?”

“I’ve never met a Singer who didn’t,” Stigander grumbled. “But I’ll confirm.”

***

When the Vidofnir put off from Attilsund with the evening tide, it was with an odd mix of sobriety and ebullience. Reki, as she stepped to the bow of the ship to begin the recitation, carried silence in her wake: there were two who had not yet heard the Song of Raen, for they had not been in port long enough at Apalvik to warrant its recitation. Truth be told, were it not for the dangerous waters they approached, they might have let it slide for the few days they had been here.

Watching the new crew’s reactions to the Song was interesting. Svarek wept – as some few did, their first hearing, although it felt to Einarr as though there were a personal note to it. Irding, on the other hand, stood by his father’s side, clenching and unclenching his fist. He’s going to fit right in.

Then, as the last lines faded over the water, Einarr sidled back to the prow to join his own father, Bardr, and Jorir with a cask of mead. Knowing he was their way of breaking the curse brought them little closer to actually doing so, after all.

Dawn this far north, when it came, was crisp and bright, with little of the warmth you might see in the sky farther south.

“All right, you lot, let’s move!” Bardr was bellowing to bring those still addled by last night’s drink to their feet. “We’ve got two weeks before the waters get rough, and we’ve still got a few things left to repair from those thrice-cursed Valkyries.”

Einarr yawned, well aware that they were all above the water line, and not much more troublesome than a split in a deck board or a weak patch of sail. It would have been nice, though, if Bardr had shown a little consideration for the morning after the recitation.

The rest of the crew was stirring, with about as much enthusiasm as Einarr felt. Fine. We’re up. Best get moving or I’ll freeze. He stood, stomping his feet in his boots to start the blood flowing. It was strange, though: they had only just left Attilsund, and already the temperature seemed to have dropped rather drastically. Mentally, he cursed.

“Eyes open for ice, everyone.” They might not see any today, but with as unseasonably cold as the air was Einarr wouldn’t be surprised to see a floe or two. This was going to be a long few weeks.


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