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.
“Do you see what I see?”
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.”
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.