Tag: Tyr

9.5 – War Footing

All the new crew members needed time to arm themselves and see to their affairs, but that suited Einarr and the Vidofnings just fine. Einarr, in particular, had some matters to attend to regarding his new ship. Thus, it was decided that the three ships would sail to war one week hence.

On board the newly-christened Heidrun, Jorir and Naudrek went over the same inspection that Einarr had with his father just days before. Eydri sat on the bulwark, repeating the Lay of Raen to Tyr for what was probably the hundredth time as she worked to memorize it. She and Reki, together with the Battle Chanters from the Eikthyrnir and the Skudbrun, would sing it together as they left Kjell harbor. If all went well, this would be the last voyage the sons of Raen had to begin this way. Meanwhile, Hrug and Vali took each other’s measure in some strange way that Einarr did not fully understand.

“So?” Einarr asked as Naudrek and Jorir were coming to the end of their inspection and looking satisfied. “What do you make of Arkja and his crew, now that you’ve had some more normal sailing around them.”

“Good hardworking boys,” Jorir answered promptly, plopping down on the deck beside his Lord. “I think Arkja knew we were suspicious of him: he seemed more than eager to please.”

“You don’t think he’ll turn coward on us?”

Now Jorir hummed. “I think, so long as he’s not placed under too great a strain, you haven’t much of anything to worry about. Not sure I’d go making him an officer, mind. Hey, Vali – what think you?”

“Oh, aye. Arkja’s loyal enough. Just make sure he’s in front of you when the seas are rough.”

“That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. The man asked to swear to me, and I’m out of excuses to put him off. You two spent the end of last summer watching him. If there’s a reason I should refuse, I need to know it.”

Jorir shrugged. “You’ll be taking some sort of oath from everyone who comes aboard this ship, won’t you? Just have him swear the same.”

Vali shook his head slowly. “The trouble is, we didn’t see the sort of situation that might lead a man like Akel to break.”

“Akel? Who’s Akel?”

“Oh, uh. Right. He was the Mate aboard the Althane’s ship. You remember.”

Einarr nodded. Vali had warned him about Arkja and used the Althane’s Mate as an example.

“So I don’t see any reason not to take him aboard, or even to let him swear to be your man, but I would consider his advice carefully, especially where it concerns the wellbeing of others.”

“Worth doing with most advice, I find. Very well. I’ll trust your judgement.”

Jorir smirked. “I expect no less, by now. So. We’ve told you about the Forgotten men. What can you tell us of Breidelstein?”

Einarr looked sheepish. “Hasn’t Father talked about it? I was only a boy. I’m afraid my recollections aren’t likely to be all that helpful.”

“That’s hardly the point,” Naudrek put in. “We’re about to put our necks on the line for your boyhood home. We want to know what we’re fighting for. And we want to know you remember what we’re fighting for.”

“…Ah. Well, all right then. I guess I should start by saying that, until winter before last, I wasn’t rightly sure I cared if we got our home back. The sea was my home. And then I met Runa again.”


At long last, the Vidofnir and her two allies – fortified with sailors from the Skudbrun, which could not be repaired in time – were fully on war footing. The Vidofnir led the way out of the harbor under oars, and the beat of the cadence drum carried the promise of violence to come.

Once they were out of the harbor the three ships raised their sails and turned north. The drumming continued all that afternoon and into the evening, as the four Singers raised their voices together for the Lay of Raen.

Leafy rug lies under
Lee of rock ridge, the
Free-hearted Raen’s hold
High built, its vigil born
To guard men above gold.
Grant plenty, pious king,
But forget not folly
Of fate-dabbler’s design.

The four voices twined together, echoing over the water between the ships while the drums continued to play. Einarr, for the first time at the helm of his own ship instead of standing by his father’s side, felt a shiver run down his spine at the eerie sound.

Raen’s folly, a fair lass
Flax-haired, by eye-gleams held:
Urdr did he woo, under
Umber moon she swooned.
No troth spoke though one she
Took: the ring-breaker Raen
She would wed. When sea-steed
Stole Raen, Urdr did remain.

Unwisely wooed, Urdr
Bore Ulfr, boy-child of
Greyed eyes, guileful blade.
Threads Urdr traced, fiber spun
While wolf’s fangs he forg’d.
To seek redress on swan’s road
Their uncut thread binds all
.

The mood aboard ship – Einarr assumed all three ships – had nothing of the melancholy he was used to. No: this time was different in every regard. This time, the ritual was performed not for remembrance but for determination. The Weavess and her usurper son would, finally, after sixteen long years, face justice for their crimes.

Without realizing he did so, Einarr joined his own voice to the voices of the Singers.

Ulfr did usurp, and Urdr does
Under cursèd thrall snarl
Mountain’s men, and entomb’d
Raen maltreats. Raven-wine
By Art bound, and by Art’s touch
Alone undone: hie home,
Raen’s sons, soon your birthright
Save, and cut the woven chain.

He was not alone. He heard his Father’s voice, and Tyr’s. Erik. Sivid. One by one, all the Vidofnings who had been with the ship for even half of those years raised their voices, until it was less a Lay and more of a Chant. They were declaring their enemy’s crimes before sea and wind and sky, and this time they would not be turned back.


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7.9 – Temple

The Shroud, Melja said, was stored in an inner chamber of the village’s temple to the gods. The morning, like most mornings on the island, was bright and clear even under the fluttering canopy of birch and ash as Melja led Einarr down an unfamiliar path.

The path sloped gently upward here, and the ground became less marshy as they went. Between the warm morning sun and the birdsong floating through the branches, Einarr was momentarily tempted to forget the serious errand they were on. With a sigh and a question he brought himself back to reality: “So why is the Shroud here, anyway?”

Melja did not answer for the space of a few strides. “It is imprisoned here, under the watchful gazes of god and runemaster alike.”

“But it’s an item?”

“Aye, so it is. And?”

“How do you imprison an item? It’s not like they go anywhere on their own.”

“Ordinarily, I would agree. But the Shroud seems to operate under its own set of rules. It took the finest runemasters of its day to catch the thing, and no few Art Practictioners besides, so if it starts to stir we reinforce its cage.”

Einarr made a noise like understanding and fell quiet. Melja had known he was a Cursebreaker before he ever agreed to teach Einarr, and was taking him out here anyway: perhaps Einarr was just being paranoid.

The path continued to rise in elevation, if slowly, and soon Einarr began to see oaks in among the ash and birch and beech. Around midmorning a clearing opened before them, broad as a field. At the far side, with the forest nestled comfortably behind it, stood an unassuming, whitewashed building with a pair of towers rising from its roof. The two men paused for a moment at the edge of this clearing.

Einarr, suddenly curious, asked “Who lives here?”

“This is Wotan’s temple, in the main, but also Tyr and Eira.”

“Eira, truly?” The Vidofnings tended to worship her, when they worshipped. Perhaps it was a good sign?

“Wotan is not the only god skilled at runecraft.”

“I suppose not.” Still, the pit in his stomach seemed to grow larger by another stone. He did not often offer up prayers to Eira, but as they neared the unassuming temple one passed his lips.

“Is something the matter?” One of Melja’s upswept eyebrows was raised even higher than usual.

Einarr shook his head. “Just – it’s been a long summer. Some of what I’ve been through already has me jumping at shadows, is all.”

Melja chuckled, not unkindly. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss those instincts: they could save your life one day. I have, however, taken extra precautions already this morning. Watch your step, do nothing in haste, and we’ll make it back to the village in one piece.”

“Of… of course.” Einarr knew Melja was probably right, but that did little to soothe his nerves as the big elf pulled open the temple doors.

Light slanted into the somewhat dusty chamber from behind them. At the far side of the room, a carving of Wotan in his sorceror’s robes, a raven perched on either shoulder, stood flanked by one-handed Tyr, the just, and merciful Eira, the healer.

Melja strode across the room, his eyes passing with long familiarity over the rows of benches, the statuary, and the pools of light beneath the windows. Einarr had no doubt the alfr would have seen instantly had something been amiss, and that thought was the one that finally allowed him to relax a little.

Melja led them past the priestly purification chamber and down a narrow, but well-made, wooden ladder into the cellar. Someone mortal evidently lived here: the cellar was filled with roots and aging mead. Einarr blinked a few times, and then realized they were not alone in the cellar.

Standing by the far wall was an alfr nearly as burly as Melja, a woodcutter’s axe at his hip and a scroll in hand. He greeted them in the tongue of the light elves.

Melja and Einarr returned the greeting – Einarr by rote, as one of the few phrases he had memorized since arriving at the Shrouded Village.

“Has anything changed?” Melja asked, his voice low.

“Not a thing. It seems restless in there, but not fully awake.”

“Good. The boy will be assisting me as part of his training. I need you to provide backup.”

“With pleasure.”

The guard stepped aside, and Melja traced a complex series of runes Einarr could not track in front of the door. It swung open.

Inside, in the center of the room, a diaphanous crimson cloth lay tumbled over a table. Every now and then, as though a breeze tugged at it, the cloth would twitch. If he had not been prepared, Einarr would have thought it odd for a cloth to be stored in such a way and seen nothing else out of the ordinary. After a month’s training with Melja, however, his vision was more acute.

Concentric circles were inscribed on the floor about the table, and every one of them ringed with runes. The walls and ceiling, too. Einarr recognized the individual runes, of course, and could even work out what some of the combinations would do – but as he stared about the room he felt his jaw drop. This ward work was so far beyond anything Melja had even hinted at.

“The work of generations,” Melja volunteered. “Don’t let this intimidate you: reinforcing the wards is fairly straightforward.”

“Ah, yes. Of course. What do you need me to do?”

“First, focus. Close your eyes and breathe deeply with me.”

It was an exercise Melja had him do frequently, particularly when he judged a task more complicated than usual. This time, Melja joined him at it. With a long exhale, the alfr opened his eyes.

“Now we inspect what came before. The Shroud is forever testing its bonds, and while there are a few places more likely to show wear, we cannot take that for granted.”


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7.1 – Reunion

It was unlikely that the public hall in East Port had seen a celebration of this magnitude in the whole of its existence.

After the purification ritual, Stigander and Bollinn agreed that some sort of relaxation was in order. The Matrons, unexpectedly, agreed and, what’s more, declared that they would host the feast. Perhaps it was simple relief at no longer having the sword of the black-blooded monsters hanging over the island, but Einarr suspected their jubilance had more to do with the knowledge Runa had brought back.

After the toasts and the speeches had been made – or at least the first round of them – Einarr led Arkja and four of his men over to where Stigander sat conversing with Tyr and Bollinn.

“Father.”

“Son. You did good work out there.”

Einarr shrugged. He’d accomplished his task, sure, but if it weren’t for him they’d have been back a lot sooner, too. “Father, in exchange for their help getting off the island, I told these men I might be able to get them a berth on the Vidofnir.”

Stigander turned fully to face the group. Arkja stood flanked by Hàkon, Saergar, Rig and Oskar. From the corner of his eye he caught sight of Vali leaning ostentatiously against the wall.

“We’re mighty low on crew, certainly. Been a rough season. Any of you men gone raiding before?”

Two of the five stepped forward – Arkja, and Saergar.

“For farmers, the others came by their sea legs easily,” Einarr put in.

Stigander harrumphed. “And they know what sort of a boat this is?”

“They’ve heard the Lay, Father, and some of what’s happened this past year.”

Stigander hummed now, studying the five for a long moment. “Gods know we need men. Come to the docks in the morning. I’ll put you to the test.”

Hàkon, Oskar and Rig tugged at their forelocks and said they would. Saergar, answered as a true sailor: “Aye, sir.”

That left Arkja, who stood clenching and unclenching his fist as though locked in indecision. “My lords, there is one other thing.”

Stigander and Einarr both raised an eyebrow at this.

“It’s been on my mind since the cave on the island, y’see…” He turned to face Einarr square. “I would swear to you, lord, if you’ll have me.”

Einarr blinked, more than a little taken aback. His father looked as though he was torn between amusement and taking offense.

Movement in the periphery caught Einarr’s attention: Vali had started upright from his position against the wall and was shaking his head. There is a certain strain of cowardice, he had said, that is reckless as regards himself, but craven where others are concerned.

Einarr smiled warmly at Arkja. “It’s a bit awkward, having men sworn to me when I’m still serving on my father’s ship. I know, there’s Jorir, but that was a special circumstance.”

“We do, however, have a second ship under commission,” Stigander rumbled. “I expect it to be ready for next season.”

“My thought exactly, Father. So, to avoid any more confusion, why don’t we wait until we’ve claimed my ship?” That would give them the rest of the season to prove the man, at least.

Arkja stiffened momentarily, but then his shoulders relaxed again. “Of course, my lords. That does, indeed, make good sense.”

He lowered his head to them and wandered off, not looking entirely mollified, Einarr shrugged and turned his attention back to Stigander and the others.

“Well played,” his father murmured. “You have questions regarding that one’s character?”

“A few. Something Vali said before we sailed stuck with me.”

“But he’ll not be an issue for me?”

“I don’t think so. He’s eager to prove himself.”

Stigander hummed. Arkja would probably be watched, aboard, but Einarr thought he would have no trouble getting there. “At any rate. We three were just discussion this Vali you brought back…”

“Yes, what about him?”

“Is he really…?”

“A ghost? So far as I can tell, yes.”

“Then how…?”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea. He’s bound, somehow, to that Imperial jar that’s been following me around since the incident with the Althane.”

“But a jar can’t move!”

“So you’d think. You have no idea, though, how many times I threw that one away, only to have it reappear in the most improbable places. Saved Runa, though, this last time.” Einarr motioned for Vali to join them. As the ghost appeared to saunter over from his place against the wall, Einarr continued. “Apparently I triggered something when I picked the jar up in the ship-barrow, so until I either die or otherwise break that connection Vali and I are stuck together. At least, that’s how Runa explained it.”

No sooner had Vali crossed the distance to join them, curiosity writ large on his earnest face, than Tyr and Bollinn engaged him directly. Perhaps because they saw the other figures coming up behind Stigander.

“Runa tells us,” came a wizened old woman’s voice. “That you wish to learn the runes.”

Stigander gave his son a sharp look.

Einarr scratched at the back of his head sheepishly. “Ah, yes, you see… Father, I think I need to. Just in order to survive. If Runa hadn’t insisted on coming along, I don’t think we’d have made it.”

Stigander harrumphed and crossed his arms.

“The boy is right,” croaked the Matron. “And he is wise to seek aid.” She paused here, long enough for Stigander to start to relax and Einarr to straighten.

“And yet,” she went on. “One of our prentice Singers is hardly an appropriate teacher. Oh, I’ve no doubt the girl has tried -” she held up a hand to shush Einarr before he could interrupt. “But even her knowledge is yet shallow. Come with us on the morrow, and we will discover a more suitable teacher for you.”

“Thank you, Lady. So long as my father does not object, I shall take you up on your offer.”

Stigander waved a dismissive hand. “Fine.”


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5.24 – Second Chance

That cut on his side was going to be a problem. It wasn’t likely to kill him, he didn’t think, but the blood showed no sign of slowing yet. Well. A bandage was just cloth, and he was wearing plenty of that. Einarr gripped the hem of his tunic and tore.

The fabric came off in a spiral. When he thought it was long enough, he held the strip tightly against Sinmora’s blade and sawed down. Then, gritting his teeth the entire time, he wrapped the makeshift bandage about his chest and over his opposite shoulder to hold the rest of the tunic tight against his wound.

Once it was tied, Einarr tested his work with a pair of deep breaths. That should hold. He looked around the room at the statues, now out of any semblance of order… except the statues of his father and the Jarl had not budged. He furrowed his eyebrows: that was plainly the clue. What else might it mean?

A brightness caught his eye from the floor at his feet: the Valkyrie’s feather. He stooped to pick it up, and Einarr’s fingers tingled as they gripped the shaft. Why she had left it, he could not begin to guess. Carefully, to avoid dripping blood on it, he threaded it through the buckle of his baldric.

His hand brushed against the pouch at his belt, where the wooden broach rested. Mysteries upon mysteries. Einarr sighed. Even should those runes spell out the answer to this puzzle, it was of no use to him here. He shook his head and harrumphed. If the answer was not in the relationship ties between the images, what might it be?

Einarr stepped slowly over to stand before the images of his father and Runa’s. They stood – or sat – implacably, facing each other. The Jarl sat on his throne, looming over all below him, while Stigander stood exhorting unseen hosts. It would be hard to imagine two more different images…

That’s it! For all that Jarl Hroaldr and Stigander were old friends, they were in many ways mirrors of each other. Thus, if his hunch was right, each image would have a mirror of sorts on the floor somewhere.

He thought he had the trick of it, at least. Moving the statues had been cumbersome before. Now he was tired from the fight and wounded besides. Each step across the room reminded him of the shards in his shins, but at least his makeshift bandage quelled the fire in his side.

He slotted Arring, with his massive strength, opposite of Barri, who like Einarr was faster than he was strong. Jorir faced Tyr, the ageless and wise blacksmith against the aged and wise sailor. Einarr frowned at this one, but could think of no more sensible option. Runa, the Jarl’s daughter, would be matched with him, Jarl’s daughter to Thane’s son and so many other mirrors besides.

The real trouble was attached to the image of Erik and Sivid dicing together. Ordinarily, Einarr would have matched each as the other’s opposite… so then, what to do when they were shown together? Einarr paced a lap around the room, pondering this. There were few other options remaining.

He stopped when he once again came face to face with the pairing of Jorir and Tyr, which he had not been happy with. The two had as much in common as in opposition. The image of Jorir, however, showed him working at a forge. Erik and Sivid, on the other hand, were at play. It was so simple he had almost missed it.

Finally, once all the statues were in place, Einarr approached the last remaining depression in the floor with some trepidation. His hands had started to shake, which he blamed on fatigue. That what remained of his tunic was sodden with blood had nothing to do with it. With a deep breath, Einarr took his place in the display.

Instead of a lance of pain through his head there was a grinding noise as the statues all turned on their bases. Some of the pairs rearranged themselves on the floor, leaving a broad open path across the floor of the room. At the end of the path, he could now see a door that had not been there before. Einarr breathed an unconscious sigh of relief as he hurried down the path. He did not think he could face the Valkyrie a second time.

Einarr raised his uninjured hand and pulled on the door. A blinding light flashed.

He stood on the landing of a stairway heading up. Around him on the landing were Jorir, Runa, Erik and Irding. He smiled and opened his mouth to greet his friends, but suddenly the world tried to turn upside down.

Einarr blinked several times, partly in surprise to see he was leaning on Erik’s shoulder – When did that happen? – and partly because the world seemed to have gone blurry around him.

“He’s hurt,” Runa was saying, and he could hear sogginess in her voice. “Come now, quickly, we have to get him someplace flat at least.”

Erik started slowly up the stairs. Einarr tried to lift his feet, but with each step it felt more as though he were being dragged. Something about the situation seemed familiar, and recently so.

“My medicine pouch is down on the boat,” Jorir grumbled.

“Why on earth would you leave it there?” Runa’s question was a good one. She growled in frustration and then began to sing.

The song was like a cool breeze across Einarr’s face, and he relaxed into it. Runa mumbled something about the wound looking bad, and Jorir’s sarcastic rumble answered. He lifted a foot to aid Erik, but the combination of injury and song magic was too much for him right then. Einarr drifted into unconsciousness to the sound of Runa’s voice.


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3.23 – Telling of Tales

“Very good, my Lord. In that case, let me begin with how I won the Isinntog from the Jotün Fraener of Svartlauf.”

“The who of where?”

“Ah, but surely my Lord should know that story! It was ancient when my grandfather was still a babe. Once, long ago, the elves of Skaergard created a torc of surpassing beauty and dedicated it to the goddess Eira. The torc was all of silver, inset with thousands of tiny diamonds, and on each end bore the head of a dragon holding an anchor in its mouth. Inside were inscribed runes that gave it power over the wind and storms.” Einarr may not have been trained as a Singer, but there was no man of the clans worthy of the name who could not tell a rousing story.

“One of the Jotuns, by the name of Fraener, came to the isle of Skaergard after hearing of the wonders of the Isinntog intending to steal it for himself…” The story continued on in this vein, speaking of the vile tricks Fraener had played, and the blood he had shed, in order to win the torc for his own. Once it was in his hands, however, he found that it would only fit the first knuckle of his smallest finger. Satisfied nonetheless, for still he had secured the power of the goddess’ artifact, he left Skaergard and came to the winter island now known as Svartlauf. This island was only accessible, even by him, with the aid of the Isinntog, and so he and his dog made their new home protected from the wrath of the elves by the storm that raged about the island.

“And that brings us to where I come in,” Einarr said after a time, dearly wishing he could have something to drink that would not poison his mind. “In order to win the hand of my fair maiden, her father set me a series of tasks. The first of these was to steal from the Jotun Fraener the Isinntog, which he had so long before stolen from the elves.” He had their attention, he was sure. Once he’d finished this tale, he would ask Jorir to tell the tale of their encounter with the Order of the Valkyrie on their way to visit the Oracle of Attilsund – although he had no intention of sharing the results of their visit.

As he came to the thrilling conclusion of the tale – somewhat modified, of course, to ignore that he had yet more tasks to accomplish – many of the spirits in the crowd burst into cheers. It was probably the first fresh story they had heard in centuries.

“Jorir, where are you, you rogue?”

The svartdverger ambled out of the crowd to stand near his liege lord.

“Surely you’ve a tale to tell, as well now. What about our battle on the sea, not two months ago?”

“We dwarves, well we’ve not got the knack for the telling of tales like you humans do, but I reckon I can give it a whirl. Y’see, milord’s father determined after we rejoined the crew from that self-same mission to Svartlauf that this was going to be a big summer. There was much to do, after all, and already they had lost some weeks waiting on our return.”

Einarr smirked to note that he glossed over his own newness to the crew, but rather than correct him simply merged back into the crowd. Best to be a good audience now, so that when one of the specters inevitably decided to tell a tale of his own they could carry out the plan appropriately.

“Well, the story of Einarr’s family is a long one, and a sad one at that, and doesn’t have much ta do with where I’m going except to set me on the path. You see, I knew about the Oracle living on Attilsund, on account of I’d seen ‘er before, I had. Given the task at hand, that I’d just heard first-hand from their Singer, I thought it might behoove us all to go and pay the Oracle a little visit.”

“Not six weeks out of harbor, and what should we see cutting across the waves but an Imperial dromon – headed straight for us, no less, and the wing and spear painted on her sail.”

Jorir may have claimed dwarves lacked the knack for storytelling, but if Einarr was any judge the dwarf’s telling of that battle bested his own of the trip to Svartlauf. Einarr actually enjoyed listening to his liege-man tell of that battle, even including the part where he himself got scolded for recklessness on the field of battle. Einarr laughed and clapped along with everyone else as Jorir finished up the tale.

He was about to encourage Tyr to tell a story – something from longer ago than last winter, probably. He certainly had plenty of years to choose from – when one of the Allthane’s men took the bait.

“Well, since we’ve newcomers and all, I suppose it might be worth telling this one again.” This was not the show-off, but it was one of the spirits who had been making a nuisance of themselves since the hall dance.

“Everyone knows how the Allthane came to be, of course -”

“I’m afraid not!” Einarr called out.

“How can you not know the tale of how the North was finally unified, once and for all?” The man was indignant, now. Good.

“Because no-one has held the chair of Allthane for three hundred years,” Tyr answered. Now the men in the crowd – all save five of them – jeered and scoffed.

“Ah, but it’s true. How many of you knew the meaning of the wing-and-spear our good dwarf spoke of?”

Silence descended on the hall.

“For my part, I will gladly hear the tale of how our glorious host brought all the tribes under his thumb, for few save the Singers now know it.” Einarr broke the silence. “It is a feat that has not been equalled since.”

The Allthane cleared his throat from behind where Einarr stood facing the gathering. “In that case sit quietly and listen well, for never again shall you have the chance to hear it straight from the man himself.”


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3.22 – Unexpected Allies

Einarr’s eyes rolled up into his head as the warm odor of food tried to fill his nose, his mouth, take over his mind.

Someone who evidently had not seen the exchange with the show-off took his strange expression to mean that Einarr was choking. Before his vision could truly cloud, a pair of very solid hands was clapping him on the back.

Einarr turned his head and spat out the foul substance – he could not tell what it was by taste, and he did not care to look at it any more now than he had before. “Thank you, friends.”

When he turned to face his benefactors, Einarr blinked. Beneath their illusory feast day clothes, these men were as living as he was. Einarr thought he saw despair in their eyes. He grinned and threw his arms about their necks. “And just the friends I was looking for, too. Come on, and meet the others of my crew.”

Finding a place on the edge of the crowd where they could speak without arousing suspicion was difficult, under the circumstances. Those who had been impressed by his performance at the hall dance wished to congratulate him: evidently the malicious show-off had grown too accustomed to winning. Others would jostle him at any opportunity… and they could not leave the golden light. He tried, and more than once, but each time it was as though the edge of the light formed a wall as solid as stone.

Einarr grunted. This would do. “Show me your hands.”

“Beg pardon?” Confusion was evident on the man’s face.

“Show me your hands.” Einarr held out his own. “Look closely. You’ll see my true nature. I would confirm yours before we go along.”

The other man, who looked vaguely familiar from the ring of dancers, nodded hesitantly. “As you like.”

When he tentatively held his hand out towards Einarr, Einarr clasped it and felt flesh. Einarr nodded: the other man seemed too shocked to say anything.

“Now you.”

The man who had questioned him moved much more confidently than his crewmate had, grasping Einarr’s hand in a firm shake. “So it is you.”

“You’re from the freeboater’s crew?” He kept his voice low, trying not to stand out above the hum of conversation.

“The Yrsirmar, yes. And you were with the group that came to offer aid.”

“I also led the group that came to help later. Not that there was much we could do.” Einarr looked past the man’s shoulder and caught Tyr’s eye, beckoning him over.

“My name is Einarr, son of Stigander, the Captain of the Vidofnir. The man on his way over is Tyr. The dwarf you saw earlier is Jorir.”

The more confident man nodded. “Kragnir. And this here is Arnskar.”

“Good. I’m glad to see you’re still yourselves.”

“Back to bein’ ourselves, you mean.” Arnskar almost stuttered over the words. “Not proud o’ this, but ran so hard from those… those…”

“Spirits.” Einarr filled in. Whatever they looked like wasn’t really important.

“Right. Well. Wasn’t paying enough attention, fell in a hole. Next thing we know we’s at a feast, filling our faces. An’ then the hall dance starts, an’ you’re talking to me like I exist, not like I’m some mask on a stage.”

“Well whaddya make of that, Tyr.” Einarr tried to keep a smile out of his voice. All by accident, and he was still proving the Oracle right.

“Stroke of good luck’s what I make of it,” Tyr grumbled.

“Where’d you last see Jorir?”

“He was aiming to avoid that arrogant prick you couldn’t quite get free of, I think.”

Einarr grunted. “And good luck to him. I just hope he can keep the scoundrel away from here for a while.”

“Sirs… way I see it, we’re all trapped here,” Kragnir started. “What d’ye need us for?”

Now Einarr grinned. “I aim to make it so we’re not all stuck here, and maybe do something about the Allthane’s shade. But I need to know more about this court in order to do it. You’ve been here longer than I: what do you know?”

***

The Allthane knew he was dead, that much was certain. How many of the others did, well, that was another question. Only, the Allthane preferred to pretend he wasn’t dead – so far, nothing that Einarr had not already gathered. Furthermore, Einarr still wasn’t sure he could really blame the Allthane for trying to forget he was a cursed shade stuck wandering a half-drowned rock in the far north.

Where things got interesting was how this played out with the others trapped in the feast with him. The shades, the freeboaters were certain, had been part of the Allthane’s original crew… and Kragnir wondered how many of them had already passed over to the otherworld when the Allthane drew them back. There was a thought that made Einarr shudder every time it occurred to him: to be returned to a mockery of life by the lord you’d served, to fulfill the selfsame function as you had in life, eternally…

Einarr was even more certain that their way out would involve the request of a boon, and just as certain that requesting the honor of burying the Allthane’s remains would earn them a tirade, or worse.

Well. If he could not take the direct approach, plainly his best option was to trick the Allthane into letting go the facade before asking the boon. Between the three of them, with the knowledge gleaned from the Yrsirmarings, they might just have a chance. Einarr squared his shoulders and strode towards where the Allthane once again sat, twirling his goblet morosely.

“My Thane.” Einarr offered a bow that would embarrass an Imperial, he thought, but the Allthane seemed to thrive on melodrama. “We have danced. We have feasted and drank, but nowhere do I hear stories of men’s exploits. May I regale you with a tale or two of my own?”

The Allthane looked up, still bored, but gave a twirling wave that suggested Einarr was intended to begin.

“Very good, my Lord. In that case, let me begin with how I won the Isinntog from the Jotün Fraener of Svartlauf.”


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3.21 – Enticement of Food

Einarr once more offered Jorir the hilt of his sword in token of their pledge, and the dwarf grasped it without hesitation.

“A test, my lord?” Jorir raised an eyebrow, his voice held low.

“I was the one on trial, I think. Well, we gave them a story, anyway.”

“You!” The show-off from the circle thundered, striding into the ring in his spectral fury. “That was no challenge. You planned this!”

“Are not sword dances typically agreed on?” Einarr kept his voice light. If he played this right, the only one to lose honor would be the enraged ghost. “What matter if it was friendly or otherwise?”

“The sword dance is a sacred trial by steel, and you have defiled it! What dispute was this meant to settle?”

“Good sir, I believe you are mistaken. The sword dance is a ritual, true, but one which contains a story. Have we not accomplished that?”

The figure of the show-off wavered, turning almost transparent even as it tried to elongate.

“Stand down!” The voice of the Allthane only seemed to bellow, but it was sufficient to bring the spectre back to its human form. “You forget yourself, and you forget the point of the hallingdanse. The newcomers have impressed me, but you have only served to remind us all of things better left forgot.”

It worked?

“The hallingdanse is over, and the table yet groans with the weight of food. Surely by now our guests have worked up an appetite.”

“Ah…” Even as Einarr was about to object, the light shifted and the room was once again dominated by the feast table and the glow of light reflected off of gold. Even knowing the smells were illusory, the sight of platters of fish – real fish, not the dolphin centerpiece – and the steaming confections like nothing Jarl Hroaldr had ever served now made Einarr’s mouth water. It was true: the hallingdanse had left him hungry.

Jorir, too, stared at the table with wide eyes. He swallowed before turning his head to look at his liege lord. Einarr met his liege man’s gaze and nodded: by winning the hallingdanse, they had left themselves weak to the lure of the spectral food.

Tyr walked up behind them and clapped their shoulders, grinning at each of them. “Well fought out there.”

“Thanks.” Einarr could not keep the dryness from his voice.

“Ready for the harder battle?”

“Not much choice, now is there?” Jorir drawled.

Tyr’s grin disappeared and he turned his face to Einarr. “Not much, no. Any idea how to break us out of the Allthane’s thrall?”

“Not yet. I’d thought to ask for a boon, but somehow I doubt he would wish to hear what I would request.”

Tyr grunted. “You’re likely right, although you may also be on the right track. Now get out there and mingle: we’ll think of something.”

Einarr grumbled. “I’m sure we will. I just hope we can do it quickly enough.”

“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”

Einarr harrumphed and made his way back into the crowd of spirits. When one of them thrust a plate into his hand he took it, not looking at what it held, pretending he couldn’t smell it. Likewise when a cup was pressed into his other hand. That at least he did not have to feign disinterest in: he remembered well the appearance of the liquid without its glamour.

A figure cut across his path, intent on something on the other side of the feast, and it seemed strangely solid. He drew his eyebrows down, remembering the half-alive man from the ring of dancers. Survivors? Perhaps of the freeboaters?

If there were freeboaters caught up in the Allthane’s feast, surely he should try to break them free, as well. Perhaps that was where the key lay? Not in his own men’s freedom, but in that of those who had come before?

He shook his head. No, no-one who claimed to be the Allthane would insist on such disloyalty. Still, though, should he win their freedom perhaps he could also win their loyalty.

Still, though, he was not quite back at the beginning. Should he be able to get through to the captive freeboater, the other man might have valuable insights. It was worth a shot.

Now he mingled with purpose. Einarr had been so surprised by the man’s aspect during the dance that he had not remembered his face, and so he studied each and every man he passed with the intent to pierce their disguise.

So intent was he on his task that he nearly tripped over Jorir, who had evaded all plates and instead been caught up in a game of tafl on the periphery.

“My apologies, gentlemen. Don’t let me interrupt your game… Jorir, is that the piece I think it is?”

“Aye. You’d find his ploy familiar, too. Only, after I win, I’ll not be giving my king away.”

“See that you don’t.” Given the associations Jorir had placed on that piece before, the alternative seemed uncomfortably like being given to the ghosts himself. Now he leaned over and whispered to his warrior. “Keep your eyes open. At least one other man at this feast is alive.”

Jorir nodded. “If I see him, I’ll be sure to tell him.”

Einarr clapped him on the shoulder, nodding in turn. The dwarf was clever: that was no misunderstanding. He meandered back out into the crowd, still studying the men about him in search of one who was actually a man.

“What’s this? Even with food in hand, still you do not eat!” One of the spectral revelers approached, his arms outstretched. It took Einarr only a moment to recognize him as the show-off from the ring.

“Mm? Oh, I do have a plate. I’m afraid my friends and I have much on our minds. If we do not eat, it is only because worry fills our bellies.”

“No worries allowed here, my friend.” He stressed that word in an exceedingly unfriendly way. “Eat! I promise, your cares will vanish with the first morsel.”

“Such a thing will not do, I’m afraid.” Einarr glanced about, hoping there was a table within arm’s reach, to no avail. “Some things simply demand contemplation, and to fail to consider them is the height of indiscipline. Now if you will excuse me, there is someone I am looking for.”

“Oh? How fascinating.” The show-off approached far closer than Einarr was comfortable with. He could feel the cold of the grave emanating from the specter’s body. “Tell me who it is, perhaps I have seen them.”

“I didn’t get a good look at their face, and I’m afraid I know no-one’s name here.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.”

Einarr wanted to groan as a force pressed briefly down against the plate in his hand. When it vanished the plate was lighter.

“He w-” Einarr cut himself off as the show-off’s hand lifted, a mess of unidentified food clutched in his fingers. Einarr pressed his lips together as he realized what the man intended, but not before a morsel made its way through.

“Relax. Join the feast. Have fun.” The spirit smiled maliciously and thumped Einarr on the back as he stalked away into the crowd. Einarr nearly choked trying not to swallow the tainted food. A warm sensation flooded his mouth.


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3.19 – Dance with the Devil

The tune the musicians played was an unfamiliar one to Einarr, but that hardly mattered. The rhythm was heavy enough no-one could mistake it, and the fundamentals of the hall dance were in the central competition. Everything else was just warm-up.

What quickly became clear was that Einarr had his work cut out for him if he wanted to have a chance against this crew. Even in the early rounds of the dance, the wraiths’ contortions in the center of the circle were almost inhuman. Don’t get swept away… like I could forget who I was competing against.

As if to underscore his thought, the contestant in the center took hold of his ankle with one hand and then jumped through the gap. This would have been ordinary enough if he hadn’t then taken that same foot in an arc over his head and back down to the floor in front of him. It was a move Sivid might have been able to use if he were ten years younger.

Once the show-off had left the floor, Einarr decided it was time to toss his cap in the ring. He pranced out, and bounced down into a crouch and back as he made an initial circuit. Impressing anyone in this circle, except perhaps Tyr or Jorir, would be a challenge, but even if he was no Sivid, he prided himself on his agility. A handspring followed a cart-wheel followed a back flip, and at the end of it he kicked for what would have been the rafters in an ordinary hall. He held his hands out to the side as he twirled another circuit about the ring and retook his place. If the Allthane’s men did not seem overly impressed, neither did their faces appear bored.

Good. A spirit would always have an advantage over a living man in the hall dance, as they were not subject to the physical limitations of the human body: the trick would be to make that advantage not matter.

More celebrants entered the ring for their warm-up after Einarr’s performance – to his surprise, Jorir did as well. Tyr, old salt that he was, had not ventured into the center since Einarr had been a deck hand. Still, it would be interesting to see how a dwarf fared in the hallingdanse.

Based on his warm-up, he might have a better chance of impressing the spirits than Einarr did, simply because the moves favored by dwarves were by necessity different from those that worked best for men of somewhat taller stature. For his warm-up, he spent a great deal of time walking about on his hands, performing all manner of kicks as he did so, and rolling through no fewer than three different bridges.

Eventually, however, it became plain that no-one else intended to join in the competition, and the competitors moved into their more impressive displays.

The show-off from before proved that he was the one to beat. His second round opened with a series of the stomach-churning leg rotations he had shown before, and became stranger from there. The culmination, to Einarr’s mind, was when the pole was set up for him to kick for the rafters, and instead he did a truly beautiful flip over the pole.

Einarr could not quite repress a growl. For all that the ghosts did not have the same physical limitations he did, he was reasonably certain not all of them realized they were dead. Including, he thought, the one who went to such pains to display inhumanly impressive feats of agility.

For three more rounds, both he and Jorir managed to hold their own in the hallingdanse, but he was running out of both stamina and ideas for new feats to try. Probably this circle would have given Sivid a run for his money, and that man was the best living dancer Einarr had ever seen. At the end of the third round, he arranged to re-enter the circle next to his liege-man.

“You aim for one of us to win this, right?” He whispered as other contestants took their turns – those who had not bowed out after the show-off’s latest performance, that is. The number of entrants was dropping rapidly.

“Aye.”

“Next round, let’s sword-dance.” It had been a stroke of genius on his father’s part last winter, if a bit unconventional – but unconventional was what they wanted here.

“With live steel?”

“Unless you happen to have a pair of staves handy. I don’t think the locals do.”

Jorir nodded. “I shall enjoy testing my blade against you once more, then.”

Einarr offered a cocky grin. “You mean when I actually care about looking good? Perfect.”

“Next round then.” Jorir inclined his head towards his lord, and Einarr matched the gesture before turning his full attention back to the dance in the center.

It was plain that they had not hidden their intentions from everyone in the circle, but those nearest did not seem inclined to share the surprise with those further away. The show-off gave his most impressive showing yet, of course, and Einarr suspected most of the other contestants would have dropped out after that performance, but the anticipation in the circle of what the newcomers would do was palpable.

Einarr grinned. Thus far he had ventured forth earlier than Jorir, and so as with last winter he would be the challenged party in the sword dance. That suited him just fine: for a man to challenge a dwarf, while not actually unfair, seemed distasteful at first glance. For a dwarf to challenge a man, however, was right and proper – as it was when the man, hard-pressed, managed to defeat the dwarf. That was simply how the stories were meant to go, and a crowd such as this would surely enjoy such a tale.

Now it was Einarr’s turn to enter the circle. Still wearing a grin, he did a hop-skip out into the ring.


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3.18 – Allthane’s Feast

“You’re about to go engage a dead man in a battle of wits. I’m coming.” Tyr dusted off his palms as he stepped over toward the other two.

“We’ll be relying on you, then.” Einarr clapped the old sailor on the shoulder.

“Y’got that right.”

“Let’s get to it, then.” Einarr turned from the gathering of his men to face the spectral display and swaggered forward into the light.

He raised a hand and called out to announce their approach. “Hail, my lord!”

“Hail, travelers.” The king’s voice was weary, but he stood to greet them anyway. “We have been waiting for you.”

“My apologies for the delay.”

“I do hope my men were not overly forceful with my invitation.”

“Merely a miscommunication, I’m afraid. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Well you are guests here on my island, are you not? What host would not extend a fitting welcome to those unlucky enough to wash up on these shores? Come! Eat, drink, and be merry, for all who wreck here are lost.”

“We will join you, then.” Does he not realize, then, what we spoke of earlier? Einarr hoped so.

“Wonderful! Please, come, enjoy my hospitality and while away the endless hours.”

Einarr shared a look with Tyr and Jorir. Tyr nodded once, in approval. Jorir shrugged, as though he, too, was not entirely certain how to take that.

Suddenly about him he realized he could hear the accustomed sounds of a feast now, where earlier the cave had been as silent as the artwork Erik had used to describe it. He could catch a whiff, here or there, of roasted meat, as well, as though the illusion were fading into reality.

Not good. Einarr’s breast fluttered as he realized how much more real the feast felt up close. It was to the best that he had Jorir and Tyr along, and that they had left men on the outside to break them free should the need arise.

Einarr took a tankard and pretended to drink as he moved among the other revelers – revelers who, as he moved closer, appeared not-quite solid, or as though their feast day clothes hid nothing but bones. He tried not to shiver: unnerving as it was, he had been granted a boon here. Easier by far to remember the sort of feast one was at when the illusion was thin in spots.

Easier still not to eat when the main course appeared to be dolphin. No-one hunted dolphins. They were a sailor’s best friend, as true as a hound on land. Had the Allthane been so decadent, or was it another artifact of the illusion? Einarr could not tell.

“What a curious table you have set, my Thane,” ventured Jorir. “I see dolphin steaks and Imperial confections… how did you come by such a spread?”

“Oh, one does what one must. The dolphin had been a nuisance for years, interfering with the walrus hunts and stealing fish right from the nets. Finally Svagnar over there… where is Svagnar?”

“’E took sick, ‘e did, milord,” rasped one of the skeletal figures around the table. “Said ‘e had a splitting ‘eadache.”

The skeleton whose head Jorir caved in, perhaps?

“Anyway, finally Svagnar decided enough was enough, got a bunch of the boys together to take him down. Once they’d hunted dolphin, though, we just had to try it. I tell you, some of the best meat around.”

“So this is that same dolphin, then?” Einarr could hear that his voice was faint. The idea of eating dolphin, even one killed as a nuisance, made him feel vaguely ill.

“The very same.”

The food isn’t real. Erik had known that from the very beginning. He had, too, but it was difficult to remember with his eyes and nose claiming otherwise.

Einarr glanced down at the drink in his hand: it no longer looked like mead, even in the golden glow of the feast, but rather stank of fetid marsh water. He managed not to grimace, but he no longer worried about accidentally drinking from the cup, either.

“Tell me, my lord, where was it the dolphin was slain?”

“Just off the southern cape. Come! Eat! Enjoy the bounty of the sea, and the talents of my cooks!”

“…My lord,” Tyr ventured. “There is no southern cape here. Only shifting sandbars and bog.”

“Nonsense!” The Allthane slammed his goblet down on the table, and before Einarr’s eyes the cave walls became dressed stone draped with tapestries far richer than anything he had seen in his visions of Raenshold. The golden glow remained, and now he heard the thin strains of a fiddler’s warm-up. “This is Heidirshold! You mean to tell me you have arrived now, just in advance of the Allthing, and you did not even know that?”

The Allthane seemed to have, at best, a tenuous grasp on reality… although under the circumstances, Einarr wasn’t certain he could blame the man. Spirit?

“Gentlemen! It seems the food is not to the newcomer’s liking. Who will join us all in the hallingdanse?”

“My lord-” Einarr started to beg off that, as well, but Jorir stopped him with an elbow in his side.

“I don’t think we can get out of this,” the dwarf whispered. “Just don’t forget that we’re dancing with ghosts.”

Einarr nodded. “My lord, we’d love to.”

The music picked up, and a drum and a fife joined the fiddle. Before Einarr could blink, the spirits who had been milling about the table, filling their ghostly mouths with insubstantial food, were now forming a circle off to the side. The cup Einarr had held without drinking was no longer in his hand. The men to either side began the side-stepping line dance that marked the outer ring of a hallingdanse.

Einarr waited. He would not be the first in the center. He intended to win – ghosts or no ghosts.


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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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