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.

“Troa.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Do you see what I see?”

“…Aye.”

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.”

“Of course.”

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.


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The first thing that caught Einarr’s attention about the cave was the scattering of skulls not five paces in. Someone had thought to take shelter here, long ago, and been eaten by kalalintu. At least, he assumed as much: it was possible they had died of starvation before the kalalintu nested above, but the other possibility seemed the more likely.

The walls were solid stone as far as he could see, although the torchlight fell short of the back. His light held aloft like a brand, his other hand rested on Sinmora’s hilt for reassurance.

Slowly he walked deeper into the cave. Nothing. No cracks in the walls where they might have pressed forward, no gaping pits in the floor they might have fallen through, no tracks, no new blazes. Einarr spun on his heel as his mind raced, searching for anything he might have missed.

He glanced down at Jorir as his eyes roved about the room, but the dwarf’s brows were furrowed in consternation.

From nearer the entrance, Tyr cursed to the sound of rolling stones. Einarr shouldered his way back, swallowing hard to ignore the pounding of his pulse.

“What happened?” Tyr stood bent over, his leg held out at an odd angle with his boot under a lip of rock virtually indistinguishable from the floor.

“Went to take a look at a weird shadow and a rock turned under my foot. Give me a hand, will you? I think I’m stuck.”

Einarr and Jorir nodded as Jorir took hold of the man’s foot while Einarr bent to try and turn the rock trapping him to open the gap a little. After much careful prying and pressing, he gave a shove. The rock shifted.

Tyr, braced to pull himself out of the gap as soon as the pressure lifted, staggered back a step or two. Einarr, from his position near the ground, stared into the hole he had made.

“…I think I might know what happened to our two missing scouts.”

***

The slab of stone seemed as though it must have been deliberately placed, although Einarr could not have guessed how or by whom. It was almost as though it hung on a hinge. On the other side, the rock sloped steeply downward, curving towards the center of the plateau.

Einarr had straightened quickly after the passage was revealed to him. Probably the passage would submerge not long after it rounded the corner, at which point his men were probably dead… but he had to check.

“Charcoal. Does anyone have a stick of charcoal or some chalk?”

Odvir brandished a sharp triangle of shale. “Where are we going?”

“Through there.” Einarr pointed at the passage he’d just seen and Odvir nodded. Moments later a sign was scratched on the stone of the wall and they were through, clambering carefully down the incline.

Einarr shivered as they rounded the corner of the passage. No sign of water, yet, but the temperature was falling with every step they took. It would be hard to forgive himself if he killed two men in such a stupid way.

Jorir grumbled about the pace Einarr set, but it sounded half-hearted to his ear.

About fifty feet further on the passage opened out into a broad cavern – far broader than Einarr would have expected the tiny island could have supported. Torchlight glinted off the water forming much of the cavern floor.

Einarr jumped as a voice echoed through the room. He called out. “Hello?”

“Boti! Wake up, man, they found us.” Einarr still couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from, but the excitement it carried was palpable.

“Troa?”

“We’re over here. Follow the wall to your right – and watch your step. There’s more than just wet rock down here.”

Einarr clambered over the rocks, the rest of the team hot on his heels. “We’re coming. Can you move?”

“I’m fine. Boti got a nasty knockabout finding this place… and, well, there’s something you need to see.”

Einarr nearly tripped picking up his pace to get to where they were. When he looked down to see what it was, dread sank in his stomach.

The torch in his hand illuminated the still-clothed skeletal remains of a chief or a captain. The skeleton’s fingers clutched at its throat. He stopped, furrowing his brow, and bent closer. The captain’s sword still hung from his bones, and the hilt showed no sign of rust.

Einarr shook his head and continued on. Tempting as it was to look and see, to rob a captain of his sword – even in death – seemed wrong. And that was before taking into account the spirits haunting this place.

He could see Troa’s shock of straw-colored hair in the flickering light now. Einarr stepped over the remains of the strangled Captain and hurried the last several paces past tide pools and jagged rocks to where the other man was rousting Boti back to consciousness. The man had the beginnings of a bruise covering the side of his face, and if he’d passed out down here that was hardly the end of it. Fortunately, he did seem to be blinking back to consciousness.

Einarr gave a low whistle to see his crewmate’s injury. “What did I need to see, though?”

Troa pointed ahead into another side chamber. From what the torchlight revealed, the entirety of the floor in there appeared to be covered with water. It couldn’t possibly be deep, however.

Catching the firelight of the torches, magnifying it against the water, were piles of gold and jewels; valuables of all sorts the like Einarr had never seen. Even on Svartlauf.

“What… how did this get here?”

Boti groaned as Troa sat him up. “Who knows? I can’t tell if we’re looking at the Allthane’s barrow or the horde of some survivor who couldn’t take the seclusion. Either way…”

Einarr nodded in agreement. “Either way, it’s what we came here looking for. Let’s get out of here, bring another team or two in the morning. In the mean time, we haven’t quite finished with that hulk up above.”

“Aye, sir.” Troa pulled Boti to his feet, the semi-conscious man’s arm slung over his shoulder.

Einarr took two steps back the way they had come. Then, in the same instant, each and every one of their torches snuffed out.


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The repair crew headed out while the others divided themselves as they saw fit. Einarr went with Jorir – no surprise – but also Erik and Irding, Tyr, Troa, Fjorkar, Geiti, Odvir, and Boti. All good, reliable men who had been on the Vidofnir at least as long as Einarr had – well, with two exceptions – and yet he felt uneasy.

His lips pressed into a thin line, he looked over the faces of his team and nodded. “Let’s cut overland to the other shore. It should be faster than following the coast, which will leave more time for the actual hunt.”

They were hardly past the line where hardy scrub concealed the ground beyond the coast when Einarr regretted this decision. Rather than calling the beach where they’d landed a shore, it would be more apt to say it was just another massive sand bar. Beyond was brackish, frigid marsh.

Einarr set his jaw and continued on, leading his team across what dry patches there were, hopping between them when they could and wading – or, sometimes, swimming – when they had no other choice. The fog was beginning to thin, finally: to their right, he could see the hulking shadow of the plateau where the kalalintu nested. Probably the largest piece of high ground in the area.

There were no seabird calls this morning. If it were not for the sound of the men trudging across the marsh, trying to keep warm even in their woolens, all would have been silent. Einarr angled toward the plateau, hoping they could make better progress over there.

The fog had mostly burned away by the time they came out onto a raised bit of “shore” like the one where the Vidofnir was beached, far too close for comfort to the too-quiet kalalintu nest but at least out of the water. To their left were the regal-looking remains of a ship.

Though the fog had cleared, the sky was a heavy gray. Einarr could not quite suppress a growl. “Let’s get to it. Troa, Boti, I don’t like the look of the sky. See if you can find us a place to shelter if we need it?”

“Sure.” Troa laughed. “Not sure how much wetter we’ll get under a little rain, though.”

“Not wet I’m worried about. It’s cold. Or do you want your trousers freezing on you?”

Boti shook his head. “No chance. We’ll head towards the plateau: probably our best bet.”

Einarr nodded his agreement. “See you in a bit, then. …All right! I think we have our obvious first target, but keep your eyes open. Who knows what might’ve gotten tossed around over the years.”

***

Two hours passed, then three, and still no sign of the two Einarr had sent out. As much wealth as the exterior of this derelict had promised, he was now certain it was not the Allthane’s ship. At least we won’t be coming back empty-handed… Where are they?

Einarr looked up at the sky for the hundredth time. “Has anyone caught sight of those two? They should have been back ages ago.”

“Maybe they found something?” Irding ventured.

“Let’s hope that’s all it is. Come on: pack up what you’ve got, and let’s see if we can’t find some trace of our missing pair.”

Jorir pursed his lips in thought. “Give us one moment longer, would you?”

Einarr nodded: it was good to be on the right side of the dwarf’s cleverness. He watched as Jorir dispatched Irding up to cut free a strip of tattered sail. Meanwhile, Jorir went in search of something, eventually settling on a rusted fishing spear. The dark red cloth he tied to the blunt end, and drove what remained of the tip into the sand several paces from the derelict they had been excavating.

Einarr nodded again, satisfied. That would be hard to miss, and should another team come upon the boat it should be easy to determine where they had been, if not where they’d gone. “Ready now?”

“Aye.”

“Right then. Let’s see what sort of trouble those two have stirred up for us today, shall we?” Einarr strode off down the beach, looking for the tracks that would mark where he sent Troa and Boti off.

After marching down the beach for a time, Tyr called up. “Einarr. Too far.”

“What?”

“We’ve gone too far, I think. The plateau’s closer than it should be, and I think they cut back through the marsh.”

Einarr hesitated. His feet were still wet, but his pants were finally starting to feel dry again. On the other hand, what if they’d never made it that far? He shuddered at the thought. “You’re right. We should back up and try to pick up their trail where they split off.”

Now he scowled. He’d chosen those two because they were the best hunters on the team. Einarr hummed, mulling over the other options. “Odvir, you’ve got sharp eyes. Up here with me.”

The trail had been nearly obscured by their passage and the morning’s wind, but between the two of them they spotted signs of a small group entering the marsh. A few paces further in, before their hillock vanished to leave them trudging through the water, Einarr spotted one of Troa’s blazes.

Gradually the hillocks became larger, and the pools of water smaller and shallower, until the island almost felt solid again. They continued to climb through the hardy scrub, the kalalintu’s plateau drawing ever nearer. Einarr pushed out the other side of a thicket of juniper to see that the men’s tracks led directly into a cave in the side of the plateau. He saw no light from within.

Odvir stopped next to him.

“I only see one set of tracks: you?”

The gold-haired man nodded, his mouth grim.

“This cave shouldn’t be that big. Not here,” Einarr mused. “All right, everyone. Partner up. One of you carries a torch, the other is ready to fight. Keep your eyes peeled: this is definitely where they went. They have to be in here somewhere.”

Einarr looked to Jorir: his liege-man was already limbering his axe, so Einarr unhooked the torch from his belt. It took three tries for a spark to catch, but finally it flared to life. Einarr stepped from the dubious light of day into the dark of the cave, the dwarf at his side.


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