Einarr cut his shout of surprise short as frigid water closed over his head. The thing that had hold of his leg yanked again, pulling him farther down. Then the downward pull stopped, although the creature did not let go. In that moment, the rope about his waist grew taut and he felt the water begin to move the other direction. His friends were pulling him up, the creature still attached to his leg.
The pause in downward pressure was a brief one, however. What felt like a hundred needles dug into his calf, and then the tug-of-war began between the men aboard the Gestrisni and the creature of the deep. More air escaped his mouth as he screamed involuntarily and he looked at his captured leg.
Staring back at him were the murderous eyes of a great eel, its jaw clamped around his calf. Already his lungs began to burn and the rope cut into his waist, but he hardly noticed between the teeth digging in to the muscle and the primal fear engendered by those eyes. Sinmora was at his belt, but he could think of nothing save getting to the surface, out of the water. Einarr reared his head up and lent his energy to those pulling on the rope even as the eel’s teeth tore into his leg. Better that than to let the creature drown him and feast on his entrails.
Abruptly the creature changed direction, surging up towards the surface – still without letting go. Einarr was able to grab a gulp of fresh air as the rope slackened with the sudden shift before the eel dashed off at an angle to the boat. In desperation he took hold of the rope about his waist in both hands and kicked at the jaws that dragged him along.
“Kill it!” He cried as the rope grew taut again, bringing his head once again above the water. “Kill it now!”
An arrow sailed through the air to land in the water near where the eel gripped Einarr’s leg. He took a deep breath and tightened his hold on the rope.
Another arrow flew and the eel convulsed, but did not stop. Jorir’s arrow – at least, he thought it belonged to the dwarf – now marked the path of the eel through the water. Einarr kicked at the creature again, but his boot just slid over its back. The eel paid him no more mind than any other struggling prey, which galled Einarr to no end. Still he did not dare draw his sword, as much out of worry to lose it in the deep as reluctance to let go of the rope.
Another pair of arrows flew, landing near the one that marked their target, and Einarr was glad of the torch he had placed. Without it, they almost certainly would have been unable to see the eel at all.
The rope was more than tight now: the eel was still fighting its way forward, but it seemed to be tiring, and they were not moving nearly so fast as they had been. The Gestrisni had not put down a sea anchor: it must be pulling them along, as well! A laugh tried to escape his throat, but it transformed midway into a groan. His leg was mostly numb, but not numb enough to dull the pain of those teeth.
A fourth arrow embedded itself in the eel’s back, farther forward this time, and it stopped its struggle. Even in death, however, it did not release its grip on his calf. When the men on the boat reeled Einarr in, they also brought in the giant eel that had thought to make a meal out of him.
When the eel had been hauled aboard in the net left for them and Einarr sat against the railing in a puddle of seawater Runa and Jorir set to work mending the wound on his leg while Erik and Irding began to butcher their catch.
Einarr laughed, his quiet chuckle growing into a full-throated guffaw. Everyone else aboard looked at him as though he’d snapped. He shook his head at the deck before throwing it back to look up into the foggy dimness. “Next time, someone else gets to be the bait.”
Erik was the first to laugh, and laughed the hardest. Runa didn’t seem to think it was funny in the slightest, but he at least got a chuckle out of Irding and Jorir.
“How far did it pull us?”
“Far enough that I can’t see your torch,” Irding answered. “Although I think if we just row backwards a ways we’ll find it again.”
Einarr frowned, contemplating his options. Finally, he decided: “Do it. Once the light comes back into view, let’s place another one before we move forward again.”
For hours the Gestrisni’s crew plied its way down the path opened by the unfortunate eel, placing torches where they could, with a little luck, mark their way home. How they would find their markers again after they went out, everyone tried not to think too hard about. Even an extinguished torch, they hoped, would be better than nothing.
After a time which was not identifiable to anyone on board the mist began to lighten around their boat again. Einarr still stood at the tiller, his leg bandaged but not yet fully whole. Perhaps it was something to do with their proximity to the tower, perhaps it was some unknown property of the eel, but even with Jorir’s medicines Runa’s song had not been able to fully heal the wound. He barely noticed it, in truth, except when he shifted his weight too suddenly. Everyone aboard held their breath, this time.
The fog around them began to thin, and soon his friends resolved from shadows to ghosts to flesh and blood once more, wherever they stood on deck.
The cry of gulls, muffled but somehow still nearby, reached their ears. Once more the oars dipped into the water, and as the Gestrisni glided forward a spire seemed to jut up out of the water, as though it aimed to pierce the white sky above. Einarr’s eyes followed the upward movement of the tower until it was lost in the mist, to where birds flocked about its upper reaches.
They had arrived.
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