Tag: Troa

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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3.30 – Rite of Passing

The only difference Einarr could see in the barrow cave this morning from when they had left was the lack of shades hovering ominously between himself and the Allthane’s would-be barrow. “Where do you want us?”

Reki strode deeper into the cave without looking back? “You? With me. The rest of you should guard the entryway to the room with the ship for now.”

“Against things coming out or things getting in?” Irding sounded sheepish, but it was a good question.

“Yes. And remember you’re basically on your own against anything that does try to stop me. We’ve no guarantee all of the revenants fell last night.”

Nervous chuckling came from behind Einarr before Troa answered for the group. “Understood.”

Reki may have nodded in response. “Now. Einarr. As I understand it, my predecessor was your stepmother? You were involved in her funeral?”

“Mm.”

“Good. I need you to lash a raft and find the Allthane’s remains. There should be bones, at least. Then get a few things from the old barrow to go down with him.”

“Ah… of course. And you need me to do all of this…”

“You have an hour.”

Einarr frowned. He turned around to face the others in the group. “Irding, Troa. Sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to handle the raft. Jorir and I will come help if we locate everything else we need in time.”

The three he named looked rather more pleased than offended to be taken off guard duty when the most likely opponent would be insubstantial. The rest of the team took their positions in the entryway, to a man their mouths set in a grim line. Einarr had no desire to fight the shades again, solid forms or not, so he could hardly blame them. “The rest of you… good luck. We’re counting on you.”

Even with the help of his three friends, Einarr passed a tense hour searching the cave for the Allthane’s remains. The grave ship, piled high with gold, contained no bones. Neither did the floor around it. Finally, though, his search carried him over to where the ghostly feast had been set up. Where before there had been nothing, it seemed here were the bones of every man who had fallen to the cannibals.

“How does one tell the bones of a king from the bones of a sailor?” Einarr muttered as he lifted another skull. Handling them sent shivers up and down his spine, and he found himself wanting to wipe his hands every time he rejected one.

“Is it too much to ask that they leave his crown on his pate?” Jorir’s grumblings were of a kind with Einarr’s own.

Einarr growled. “Jorir, I’ll get this, you go pick out some fitting grave goods for the revenant of a thane.”

“You sure?”

“No. But the Oracle seemed to think highly of my perception… maybe that will help? All else fails, we pile the raft high with skulls.”

“As plans go, not the worst I’ve heard.”

“Mm. Go. At least one of us can get away from the charnel miasma.”

Jorir stopped mid-step. “Miasma?”

“Haven’t you felt it?”

“Nay. Just the usual darkness of an old battlefield. …Methinks your superior vision is serving you well already, milord. Find the source of the miasma -”

“And find the body of the Allthane.”

***

Einarr and Reki stood on the shore of the deep water pool that dominated the main cavern, the others arrayed around them to bear witness. At every man’s feet was a torch, and in every man’s hand an arrow, its head wrapped in oil-soaked cloth. Ahead of them floated a crude raft patched together out of boards cut from the Allthane’s rotting grave ship. Some of the ends were already charred, from the abortive funeral three centuries earlier.

The song Reki sang over the ancient royal bones was not what she had sung for the sailors who fell against the Valkyrie, sending them on to Valhalla. Nor did it bear any resemblance to the song Runa had sung at Astrid’s funeral. No. This song was one Einarr had rarely heard, for it was the song of those who were destined for Hel’s dank domain. There was no joy in it – not for a peasant, and less for a fallen king. Little wonder the Allthane had resisted.

A faint green glow arose from the center of the raft, reflecting off the gold Jorir had so carefully selected.

Einarr’s shoulders tensed. He nocked his arrow but did not yet touch it to the torch at his feet. Other witnesses stirred around him. Are we too late? Reki had said by mid-morning, but it was impossible to get a sense of time down here.

The tempo of the Song remained steady, either because it must or because Reki did not see. Einarr swallowed. The cue was soon. With luck, it would be soon enough.

A pair of burning green embers formed in the air above the raft. Then, above them, a ghostly crown faded into existence, less substantial than the fog that had hemmed Einarr’s group in on the beach.

There was the first cue in the music. All around him, arrows blazed to life. Einarr, too, lit his arrow. The crackle of fire was soon followed by the stretching sound of drawing bows.

The outline of a face came into being, now, below the crown and around the eyes. It was the Allthane, not as he imagined himself to be but as he had appeared after Einarr shattered the illusion of the feast. The hair on Einarr’s arms stood on end.

A clawed, ghostly hand stretched out towards the observers.

The song shifted, now, and the minor key grew strident.

Einarr loosed. The whistling of arrows filled the cavern. The first of them – Einarr’s own arrow, he thought – pierced the half-formed face of the Allthane’s shade and the ghost dissipated. Even as the arrow sank beneath the ocean with a plunk this was oddly satisfying. The corners of Einarr’s mouth pulled up into a grim smile as the planks of the raft caught and the gold once again looked like gold.


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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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3.28 – Duelling the Shade

Einarr prowled around the clearing formed by the Allthane’s shades, his focus narrowing in on his opponent. With Troa and Jorir at his back, he had nothing to fear from the ring of enemies and so he waited, watching for his chance.

The Allthane’s sword may have grown rusty, but Einarr thought the man’s spirit still remembered the fight all too well. And then there was the shield-bearer. He had neither axe nor sword nor knife in hand… that Einarr could see. The hand that gripped the shield could hide a small blade, after all, and he did not miss the sheath that hung empty at the man’s belt.

Treachery? Einarr pursed his lips. Fine. He tensed his thighs, his eyes darting between the two. As his eyes fixated on the Allthane, Einarr hurtled forward. He raised Sinmora overhead –

— And struck for the shield-bearer, who had moved to intercept the blow he thought Einarr intended to land. Sinmora’s blade sank into the emaciated flesh of the shade’s shield arm but did not shear through as it had before. Einarr growled and kicked at the shade’s half-severed arm, pulling his sword free. The brittle bone beneath snapped under the force of the kick. Einarr bared his teeth at the revenant.

Neither broken arm nor feral grin seemed to faze his opponents, however. The shield-bearer did not even drop the shield, although one more good hit would give the creature no choice. But now the Allthane was whirling around his shield-bearer, his sword a blur in the sickly green light, and it was all Einarr could do to catch the blows on his own sword or shield.

He growled as the Allthane’s blade hacked at him, as viciously as a warrior under the battle fury. In a moment when the Allthane’s blade was stuck in his shield, Einarr cut for the revenant’s knees.

The shield-bearer slid between them at the last moment and Sinmora clanged against the steel boss of the shield. Einarr turned the backswing to cut again at the creature’s battered arm as he raised his own shield overhead.

The Allthane’s blade came loose. So did the shield-bearer’s arm, still attached to the shield. A hand axe fell onto the back of the boards. Einarr looked up in time to see the Allthane’s blade descending toward his shoulder. He sprang backwards and the blade made sparks against his chain shirt.

Einarr grimaced now. The Allthane really was a cut above the rest of his men. Even the shield-bearer seemed more fragile, although not by much. And Einarr would have to take out the shield-bearer before he could go after the Allthane – at least if he wanted to avoid an axe in his back, that is. Momentarily he regretted the lack of the battle-fury, but Reki was only one woman. The rage would do him no good against wisps of fog.

Einarr flexed his fingers against the grips of both sword and shield. Two on one was hardly his ideal duel, but he could do it. The shield-bearer picked up the shield with his remaining arm: Einarr’s first task was to take him out of the fight. Even without the axe that had fallen to the sand below, he could keep Einarr from his goal.

Einarr shrugged his shoulders, hoping to be rid of the feeling of baleful eyes watching. Which, of course, they were, but they were also becoming a distraction. Only two of the revenants mattered right now, and they were inside the ring with him. Einarr growled as the shield bearer took up his place in front of the Allthane.

From the corner of Einarr’s eye, he saw Jorir kick back one of the circling observers. Not alone.

He spat. “What sort of a coward uses a shield-bearer in this day and age?”

Neither Allthane nor guard rose to the bait. Well, he hadn’t really expected the taunt to work: those two operated off of a different era’s morés. The shield-bearer squared his stance and raised the battered shield into position.

Einarr brought his own shield up to guard his neck and shoulders even as he launched himself back into the attack. At the last instant he turned his shield to the side to strike the Allthane’s shield high with his edge. He heard the splintering of wood as they struck, and lashed out with Sinmora to take the shield-bearer’s head.

The Allthane was chanting again, but that did not stop his shield-bearer from crumpling to the ground at Einarr’s feet. He kicked the shield away from the center of the circle.

While Einarr was preoccupied there, however, the Allthane’s chanting voice had come around behind him. A prickling on the back of his neck was all the warning he had that a strike was imminent.

Einarr dove forward. Dread constricted his throat.

Steel clashed with gold, and the sound rang like a bell behind Einarr. He rolled to his feet.

Behind him, standing where Einarr had not a moment before, Jorir had caught the blade. The Allthane pressed against the golden shield from the Jotun’s horde, and the shield seemed made of golden flame.

“Now, milord!” The dwarf strained under the pressure the Allthane exerted against the shield.

The Allthane stared not at the dwarf, or even at his foe, but at the shield itself, and the circle of revenants cringed away now. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

Einarr leapt forward and brought his long sword up for a mighty cut. Sinmora slashed through the Allthane’s scraggly neck.

In the same instant, Troa’s blade cut halfway through the shade’s emaciated side. Troa spun past the crumpling Allthane and pulled his sword free as Einarr’s momentum carried him several paces towards the ring of shades that still surrounded them.

He wanted to be annoyed at Troa. The man had interfered in a duel, after all… but a duel against the shade of a cannibal? The man had lost all honor in life, and shown little after death. Einarr’s breath came quick and heavy now, but he did not drop his guard. The shades encircling them began to waver, now. Some wandered off into the mist. Others, the show over, rejoined the main battle. Their nearest target? The three men in their midst who had just slain their leader.

Troa and Jorir took up their positions on Einarr’s flank again, just as they had fought their way over here.

“How can someone so accursed good at tafl be so very bad at field strategy?” Jorir grumbled.

Einarr had no answer for him, but now the revenants began to close in on them again and there was no time left to answer.


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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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3.15 – Lost in the Mist

Once again they stood before the hasty flag Jorir had constructed to mark their find. Even in the fog, Einarr could see the frosty puffs of his breath.

“This may have been a terrible idea.” They were the words on everyone’s mind, he was sure.

“So, what next?” Jorir asked the practical question. “I don’t intend to just stand around here and freeze.”

“No. No, you’re right. We can’t just stand around doing nothing. Do we try going the opposite direction, or do we try cutting across the bog? Men?”

“Awfully cheap enchantment if we can get out of it just by turning around,” grumbled Irding.”

“Agreed, although sometimes the simplest tricks are the most effective.”

“I don’t think it will be that simple, either.” Tyr shook his head. “On the other hand, this is a lot to portage through that swamp. It might be worth trying. And if night falls, we have plenty of firewood handy.”

“Furthermore,” Troa ventured. “Right now, we’re walking in circles on a beach, so we know it’s not natural. You know what’s easy to do in a swamp, even without interference?”

“Walking in circles. Right. Well, let’s give this one more try, heading east this time. If it gets dark, or much colder, we’ll light a fire here.”

As soon as they tried to turn east, it was as though the air itself resisted them. Einarr tried to resist the temptation to hope that meant the easy solution would save them.

Before long it became clear that was not the only thing they had to resist. The further east they pushed, the harder it was to avoid veering into either the marsh, on the one hand, or the sea on the other. And yet, after something approaching another hour, they once again found themselves face to face with the flag. A chorus of groans rose from Einarr’s team.

“Well, we knew it wouldn’t be that easy, I suppose.” He sighed. This meant their next best option involved porting their find through the swamp behind them. Assuming the distortion wouldn’t take hold there, too, as it might. But, there was something else amiss.

Einarr furrowed his brow. They had been walking for, as a guess, three hours now. And it had been around noon when they ventured out in search of their missing hunters. Which meant the daylight should have faded into evening by now, if not night. And yet, the light had not changed since they emerged from the cave.

This time he did not bite off his curse. “Blast and damnation, I missed it. All right, men. We’ve been out here a long time already, between our search and rescue and trying to break free of this beach. Unless I miss my guess, we’re all feeling it by now, but there’s one more thing to do before we can call it a day.”

A series of grumbles followed, but Einarr was not deaf to the relief they hid.

“Everyone with an axe, we need wood for a bonfire. Everyone else, help me build a ring.”

***

Einarr had worried, for a time, if the damp wood cut from the hull of the ship would actually light – or if their kindling would, for that matter. It took several tries, but as night finally fell the stack caught. Now the ten men sat around the fire, large enough and hot enough that those on the other side were difficult to see, and dried their boots.

Boti had some small luck fishing while the rest prepared the fire, and so they were able to at least take the edge off their hunger. For his part, Einarr was unsatisfied, and he suspected that carried over, but there was little more they could have done about it.

One benefit of the darkness and the fire was to make it impossible to tell if the fog still clung to the beach like barnacles. Einarr found himself hoping someone among the crew would see their flame and come to the rescue when they did not return tonight. Hoping, in spite of the suspicion that any rescuers would quickly become as trapped as they themselves had.

Erik started to rumble a ribald shanty Einarr had heard a few times previous – most likely something the man had picked up when he was a freeboater, although it was hard to know for certain. Whatever magic the song might have had was aimed at inducing cheer – or at least that was the effect when an ordinary man sang it. Soon the rest of the team was joining in – either laughing and clapping along or, here and there, jumping in for a verse of their own.

Einarr smiled and let them. That he could not quite bring himself to revel didn’t mean they could not enjoy themselves. Probably for the best that he be the only one to chew over what they would do tomorrow.

He blinked and looked over his shoulder, away from the fire. He could have sworn he’d seen something, but when he looked directly there was nothing within the firelight. Einarr shrugged a shoulder uncomfortably and returned to his thoughts. If they could rig up some sort of hand cart in the morning, venturing across the marsh might be their best bet…

There it was again. Only now when he turned his head to look, he saw a sickly green mist rising from the brush line of the swamp. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, not wanting to believe what he saw.

As chance would have it, Irding sat to his right. Einarr tapped the man’s shoulder to get his attention and pointed behind them. When Irding looked back, he seemed confused.

Jorir, on Einarr’s left, noticed the exchange and glanced back as well. Only, his glance turned quickly into a horrified stare. “Ghost light.”

Now Einarr groaned, even as he lunged forward to steal a brand from out of the fire. “Make ready for company, men!”


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3.14 – Unnatural Chill

The crack of falling stone echoed through the cave and Einarr flinched from the noise, reflexively covering his ears. His men did, as well.

As the sound died down and the ringing in their ears subsided, it became plain that their ears were not the only thing wounded in the onslaught. The slab they had just fought their way past was now cracked, and perhaps nearly broken. Einarr’s mouth curled into a frown: on the one hand, it would be simple to find again, and possibly worthwhile breaking the slab altogether. On the other hand, he still wasn’t certain what all they were dealing with on this island, or what might set them off.

He shook his head to clear it and strode towards the mouth of the cave. “We’ve a boat to finish scavenging, assuming no-one else found it before we got back.”

***

Mist had settled down on the sandbar again by the time they found Jorir’s flag and the boat it marked, although the light suggested it was still midafternoon and a chill breeze blew. “All right, lads, let’s finish this up and get back home. We stick together from here on out.”

A chorus of ‘ayes’ made its way around his team, and as a unit they streamed in through the giant crack in its hull.

In truth, now that they had returned to the derelict, the treasures they found here seemed small. It was difficult to forget the wealth piled underground, but Einarr was not willing to chance leaving here with anything less than a full hold. Rather than go back inside after removing an arm load of mostly ivory, Einarr decided someone should parcel the stack out in lots.

Much of what remained in the hold was ivory, in fact, and most of it already carved into trinkets or keepsake boxes. In some ways, that was even better than gold, as it would weigh less heavily on the Vidofnir’s hold, and there was always someone who would pay exorbitantly for it. One of these turned out to be a complete tafl set: that he resolved to claim for himself, as a gift.

One piece in the pile stood out not because of its workmanship – which was still excellent – but because of the plainness of its material. It was a simple ceramic urn, painted in the old Imperial style. Somehow it felt warm in his hands in spite of the unseasonable chill in the air. The jar was painted well, of course, and the paint was exquisitely preserved… but the more he thought about it, the less he could justify the space it would take in the hold. As fragile as it must be, even if it survived the voyage, even if they found a buyer, they would be hard pressed to get a worthwhile price for it. Einarr shrugged and tossed the jar off to the side, where it thudded into the sand.

“It looks like we’re about done in there,” Jorir said. He carried a portrait that had somehow survived the ravages of time – or at least its frame had. Einarr couldn’t see the painting itself from this angle.

“I thought so, too. What’s that you’ve got?”

“Someone’s vanity. Canvas doesn’t seem too rotted, even with the wet air.”

“Great. Add it to the stack over there, then.” Einarr pointed to one of the smaller piles. Unless it was backed with boarding, it was going to be a pain for anyone to carry… but if the frame was actually gold as it appeared, it was likely worth it.

One by one his team returned, carrying more ivory or sometimes a bit of gold or silver they had missed earlier in the day. Einarr shivered: the light was still that of a foggy afternoon, but the temperature now felt like the dead of winter.

“I think we’ve got it. Let’s load up and head back to the Vidofnir.”

Erik nodded. By the redness of his nose, Einarr was not the only one feeling the cold.

***

They marched down the sandbar to the west, unwilling to tramp through the bog with their arms filled with gold and ivory. Einarr kept the sound of the ocean always on his right. They walked for more than half an hour, though, and saw no trace of the rest of the crew, or any other derelicts. Perhaps they’ve already headed back? It was always possible that there was a stretch of sand that did not play host to a wreck or two.

Einarr shrugged his shoulders and continued on. At last, after nearly an hour of trudging along the shore, the shape of another ship hove into view. It was not the Vidofnir. The masthead was wrong, and as they drew nearer he could see it was a well-preserved derelict, frozen in a familiar attitude. He pressed on, increasingly sure that they should have seen sign of another team by now.

Until he saw Jorir’s flag, still planted in the sand where he had marked their find.

Einarr stopped short, staring. The sound of the sea was still on his right. There were no footsteps in the sand ahead of him.

“Troa.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Do you see what I see?”

“…Aye.”

Einarr bit off a curse. “Hand me half your load. You take the lead… How is Boti?”

“Still a bit disoriented.”

“Fine. Just… make sure I haven’t just led us all in a circle, would you? Get us back to the Vidofnir.”

“Of course.”

It should not have required a tracker, following the sand bar down around the outside of the island to reach their destination. It was a straight path. And yet…

An hour later, they found themselves back at Jorir’s flag.


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3.12 – Vanishing

The first thing that caught Einarr’s attention about the cave was the scattering of skulls not five paces in. Someone had thought to take shelter here, long ago, and been eaten by kalalintu. At least, he assumed as much: it was possible they had died of starvation before the kalalintu nested above, but the other possibility seemed the more likely.

The walls were solid stone as far as he could see, although the torchlight fell short of the back. His light held aloft like a brand, his other hand rested on Sinmora’s hilt for reassurance.

Slowly he walked deeper into the cave. Nothing. No cracks in the walls where they might have pressed forward, no gaping pits in the floor they might have fallen through, no tracks, no new blazes. Einarr spun on his heel as his mind raced, searching for anything he might have missed.

He glanced down at Jorir as his eyes roved about the room, but the dwarf’s brows were furrowed in consternation.

From nearer the entrance, Tyr cursed to the sound of rolling stones. Einarr shouldered his way back, swallowing hard to ignore the pounding of his pulse.

“What happened?” Tyr stood bent over, his leg held out at an odd angle with his boot under a lip of rock virtually indistinguishable from the floor.

“Went to take a look at a weird shadow and a rock turned under my foot. Give me a hand, will you? I think I’m stuck.”

Einarr and Jorir nodded as Jorir took hold of the man’s foot while Einarr bent to try and turn the rock trapping him to open the gap a little. After much careful prying and pressing, he gave a shove. The rock shifted.

Tyr, braced to pull himself out of the gap as soon as the pressure lifted, staggered back a step or two. Einarr, from his position near the ground, stared into the hole he had made.

“…I think I might know what happened to our two missing scouts.”

***

The slab of stone seemed as though it must have been deliberately placed, although Einarr could not have guessed how or by whom. It was almost as though it hung on a hinge. On the other side, the rock sloped steeply downward, curving towards the center of the plateau.

Einarr had straightened quickly after the passage was revealed to him. Probably the passage would submerge not long after it rounded the corner, at which point his men were probably dead… but he had to check.

“Charcoal. Does anyone have a stick of charcoal or some chalk?”

Odvir brandished a sharp triangle of shale. “Where are we going?”

“Through there.” Einarr pointed at the passage he’d just seen and Odvir nodded. Moments later a sign was scratched on the stone of the wall and they were through, clambering carefully down the incline.

Einarr shivered as they rounded the corner of the passage. No sign of water, yet, but the temperature was falling with every step they took. It would be hard to forgive himself if he killed two men in such a stupid way.

Jorir grumbled about the pace Einarr set, but it sounded half-hearted to his ear.

About fifty feet further on the passage opened out into a broad cavern – far broader than Einarr would have expected the tiny island could have supported. Torchlight glinted off the water forming much of the cavern floor.

Einarr jumped as a voice echoed through the room. He called out. “Hello?”

“Boti! Wake up, man, they found us.” Einarr still couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from, but the excitement it carried was palpable.

“Troa?”

“We’re over here. Follow the wall to your right – and watch your step. There’s more than just wet rock down here.”

Einarr clambered over the rocks, the rest of the team hot on his heels. “We’re coming. Can you move?”

“I’m fine. Boti got a nasty knockabout finding this place… and, well, there’s something you need to see.”

Einarr nearly tripped picking up his pace to get to where they were. When he looked down to see what it was, dread sank in his stomach.

The torch in his hand illuminated the still-clothed skeletal remains of a chief or a captain. The skeleton’s fingers clutched at its throat. He stopped, furrowing his brow, and bent closer. The captain’s sword still hung from his bones, and the hilt showed no sign of rust.

Einarr shook his head and continued on. Tempting as it was to look and see, to rob a captain of his sword – even in death – seemed wrong. And that was before taking into account the spirits haunting this place.

He could see Troa’s shock of straw-colored hair in the flickering light now. Einarr stepped over the remains of the strangled Captain and hurried the last several paces past tide pools and jagged rocks to where the other man was rousting Boti back to consciousness. The man had the beginnings of a bruise covering the side of his face, and if he’d passed out down here that was hardly the end of it. Fortunately, he did seem to be blinking back to consciousness.

Einarr gave a low whistle to see his crewmate’s injury. “What did I need to see, though?”

Troa pointed ahead into another side chamber. From what the torchlight revealed, the entirety of the floor in there appeared to be covered with water. It couldn’t possibly be deep, however.

Catching the firelight of the torches, magnifying it against the water, were piles of gold and jewels; valuables of all sorts the like Einarr had never seen. Even on Svartlauf.

“What… how did this get here?”

Boti groaned as Troa sat him up. “Who knows? I can’t tell if we’re looking at the Allthane’s barrow or the horde of some survivor who couldn’t take the seclusion. Either way…”

Einarr nodded in agreement. “Either way, it’s what we came here looking for. Let’s get out of here, bring another team or two in the morning. In the mean time, we haven’t quite finished with that hulk up above.”

“Aye, sir.” Troa pulled Boti to his feet, the semi-conscious man’s arm slung over his shoulder.

Einarr took two steps back the way they had come. Then, in the same instant, each and every one of their torches snuffed out.


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