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.
“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.