“What’s this?” Erik paused to look back at Einarr.
“Stop and listen a minute. Hear that?”
After a moment, a growl came from low in Erik’s throat. “Better us than the repair crew.”
Einarr nodded and pushed forward. Father and Bardr, at least, needed to know, and the rest probably should as well. Jorir, at minimum. Everyone whose attention he caught he gestured at his ear. Listen.
Stigander was near the front of the group, paused near a somewhat less rotted-looking ship than most of the others on this section of beach.
“Father,” Einarr said from behind the man’s shoulder. When Stigander’s only response was a turned head and a raised eyebrow, he continued. “We’re approaching the kalalintu flock.”
“Erik heard them, too.”
Stigander nodded. “Spread the word that every man is to have his cotton balls to hand.”
“Once you’re done, get back up here to the front. We need your eyes.”
Half of a grin turned up one side of his mouth. “Understood.”
Einarr combed through the dross within another of the rotted hulks they had passed, cotton balls tucked into the cuffs of his gloves. Thus far, it had yielded a barrel of ancient vinegar that may once have been mead and a handful of silver combs and ladies’ jewelry. Valuable, certainly, but nothing like what they were hoping to stumble into. He dusted off his palms against his trousers and was just about to leave the wreck when he stopped.
Something didn’t sound right. Einarr hurriedly pulled the wads of cotton from their place at his wrists and jammed them in his ears.
Outside, nothing appeared to have changed. His fellow Vidofnings combed other wrecks in much the same state as the one he had just left, with evidently similar results. He reached to pull out one of his ear plugs but stopped. The boat he had just left had not had a masthead when he went in. Now it’s shadow seemed to display a great winged serpent. His hand crept toward Sinmora’s hilt.
From behind him and above, the low gobbling chatter than one expects of seabirds became a haunting, ethereal trill as the shadow’s source opened its beak.
“Cover your ears!”
Some of the Vidofnings, accustomed to Stigander’s tone of command, acted before they realized the source of the order was Einarr. Others, startled, looked up to see what was going on. Their eyes widened and they scrambled for the cotton wads they had tucked about themselves, but too late. Even those who had obeyed reflexively were not all safe: some of them fumbled their cotton balls, others were simply too slow.
In every case, the result was the same: the relaxation of the face into a dull, vacant expression. Horror clutched at Einarr’s throat when he realized that Reki was among them. How are we supposed to dispel this if our Singer is out?
He turned around and drew Sinmora with a hiss of steel, but the kalalintu that had been in hiding now flapped ten feet above the ground.
Jorir, Bardr, Erik, and Stigander were looking about as frantically as he, hoping someone had shown the sense to bring a bow. The few who had, though, were already wandering dumbly after the monstrosity that would feast on their bones if they were incautious.
Jorir seemed to have an idea. He put a finger to his lips for silence and then tapped at his temple, hoping they would take the hint. The dwarf’s face went slack and his shoulders relaxed and he began to trudge up the beach, in pursuit of the song.
Clever! Einarr followed suit, his sword held loosely, as he followed after the kalalintu flapping slowly away from the beach. As the shore became rocky soil he risked a glance over his shoulder. He then had to suppress a smile when he saw that all of them had caught on to Jorir’s pantomime.
The band of entranced sailors trudged on towards a large plateau of rock that dominated its surroundings. As they drew closer, the sound of the flock grew clearer. The people of Attilsund claimed they had little trouble with kalalintu in this area, but the flock sounded no smaller than any of the ones they had fought on their way to Svartlauf. His grip tightened on the hilt of his blade, only for a moment. Well, not for long.
Finally their aerial guide stopped moving forward, flapping in lazy circles over the top of the plateau. It’s song still filtered through the cotton balls, tempting Einarr to sleep. At least with his ears stopped it was bearable. There was only one way up for the sailors, and that was a narrow trail switch-backing up the shallowest path.
Einarr swallowed. They would be vulnerable on that path, and there were only five of them who might be able to stop one of the birds who decided they didn’t want to wait for dinner. His eyes darted between the backs of the men just ahead of him. With as high up as the thing was, he might be able to go unnoticed while borrowing a bow.
Ah, he has one. With a little careful maneuvering, Einarr managed to position himself behind Henir as their mob started up the narrow path. Getting it from him without being seen would be a little trickier, but so long as there was a moment when the circling kalalintu couldn’t see him… Now.
Einarr slipped the bow off Henir’s shoulder and onto his own in a moment when the plateau’s ledge blocked the view of the still-singing creature. He reached out for the man’s quiver just as Henir stepped back out of the shade of the plateau. Hastily, Einarr dropped his hand and took on the vacant expression again.
Slowly they filed up to the top of the plateau, where most of the Vidofnings stood milling about like sheep under the influence of the kalalintu’s song. All around them were haystack nests filled with silvery eggs, being watched over jealously by some of the flock.
About half of the kalalintu took to the air. The singing one continued to fly in small circles above the heads of its captives. The rest formed a larger ring in eerie silence and flew in counterpoint to their singer.
Einarr snatched an arrow from Henir’s quiver and fired it at the singer above. The arrow flew true, and the song broke off with a startled squawk.
Tcheh. He’d hoped to drop one, but ending the song was the critical thing. Even now his fellows were blinking back to full consciousness as the circling kalalintu launched into raucous chatter.
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