As afternoon faded into evening the last stragglers made it back to the Heidrun. Svarek had managed to acquire some cabbages and fresh fish ashore and was currently boiling them into one of his marvelous soups. Everyone looked discouraged. Everyone, that is, except for Einarr’s team and Hrug. They were merely resigned.
“I’m afraid I gave you some bad advice earlier. Had I known how poorly thought of Ragnar was when Grandfather left, I’d have come up with some other way of asking around.”
He heard a few scattered grumblings, but no-one interrupted.
“The bad news is, the only public hall in town is not a place you can – or should, I think – stay. Anyone who doesn’t come with me will have to stay on the ship.”
Svarek snorted. “Bread’s full of rocks, anyway.”
“Oh, you too?” Einarr chuckled, then sighed. “The good news is, between the herb-witch and the rune sticks I know both where to go and who to bring with me. Hrug and I will ward the ship before we leave—”
The sorcerer held up his hand in mute protest.
“Don’t be so surprised, old man. We talked about this. If we do these wards properly they won’t need you here, and I very well might. I mislike what that old woman said about ‘Hel’s domain.’ I hope she’s just being macabre, but…”
“But we all follow the Cursebreaker,” Eydri finished.
“Yes, that. So I’m only taking a handful of people with me, and the rest of you get to stay put and guard the ship.” Against what, he could not guess, but he wasn’t about to put them off their guard that way. “Now. Coming with me – and no arguments, now, we all talked this over very carefully among ourselves. Hrug, Naudrek, Eydri, Troa, Finn, and Odvir. Ready yourselves for the expedition. Everyone else, you know what to do.”
The sky was shading from pale grey to dark grey. Out over the water, movement caught Einarr’s eye. A lone fishing boat sped across the surface of the water, its oars creating their own wakes in the still surface of the water. Despite the strange, desperate speed of the rowers, however, the boat seemed to be slowing – and sinking. The closer to shore it drew, the lower in the water it sat.
“Hey, that fisher needs help!” Odvir exclaimed.
“…Yeah, you’re right.” Einarr was about to order his men to oars, but then Eydri held out a forestalling arm.
“We can’t help.” Eydri looked pale.
The water around the hull of the boat seemed to be writhing, as though grey tendrils reached up and roiled around its sides. They could hear the shouts and pounding of the fishermen aboard as they tried to fight off whatever it was that had now stopped them in the water.
Then a crack like thunder echoed over the surface of the water and the boat broke in two. Now the voices of the fishermen turned to cries of fear as skinny black bodies dragged the capsized boat and all its occupants beneath the surface.
“What did we just watch?” Naudrek asked, his voice hollow with sickened wonder.
“I had wondered,” Eydri started. “What the old herb witch meant when she called this island Hel’s domain. I think… I think we know, now.”
Einarr grunted agreement, his eyes glued to the place where the water still roiled from the death-struggles of the fishermen. “Be on your guard, everyone. Hrug, let’s get started.”
The ward Einarr and Hrug laid over the ship was surprisingly similar to the one Elder Melja had maintained over the Crimson Shroud, except that it was set to keep things out rather than in – in this case, things that were not alive. It would draw its power from the entirety of the crew, which would distribute its need to the point that no one should be unduly inconvenienced. This was in place before the midnight watch began.
At dawn, Einarr and his team shouldered their packs and tramped across to the dock. Svarek would take command while they were gone: the young wanderer had proven himself steady and reliable over the course of the last year. And with that, Einarr led the others back through the town.
Even dawn could not bring cheer or color to the streets of this town. Einarr noted with interest, however, that now it was the women who were out and about, sweeping yards and doing the ordinary, day-to-day tasks that keep a town from squalor. Still, though, he saw no children. Perhaps, given what they knew about the island, this was rational on the part of the people. It did not make it less unnerving, however.
The townsfolk, for their part, shied away from the travelers as they passed, and it was plain they did not intend to speak to the strangers. Thus it was that Einarr and his companions passed through the town in silence.
The forest pressed hard against the edge of the town to the north and fell into the gloom of twilight. Eydri and Finn lit torches.
The forest was not, in fact, black pine – or at least not entirely – but a mix of hard and soft wood. But, like everything else on the island, the colors were dulled and greyed, only reinforcing the feeling of death and decay that seemed to hang over everything.
“According to the herb witch,” Einarr reminded them. “We need to follow the old road north until we reach the standing stones. After that things get trickier.”
“Tricky – how?” Odvir asked, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Ghost-light, lost in the mist tricky, I’m afraid. That’s why you and Troa are with me, frankly.” They were two of the only ones on board who had faced the Althane two years ago.
“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Troa groaned.
“Let’s keep going, though. The sooner we get to the ruins of the old hold, the better.”
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