By fate, the seiðr’s prophecy, and the Jarl’s command, six men sail together to the island of Volva that the sins of Glera Syori might be atoned for! But are any of them prepared for the horror they face when the watery dead bring their wrath to bear?!
The Karvi’s dragon-headed prow cut through dark waters toward the island of Volva, eight of thirteen rowing benches vacant. Tarben Usvang bore the brunt of a silent push through scattered glaciers, his body searing in pain. Between strokes, when Vali was not looking, he stole bitter glances at his tribesmen. If they could not muster the orka to help him with the rowing, how could he trust that they would raise their weapons when death was upon them?
Vali shouldered Sven, the laziest of the party, Tarben thought, as he took hold of the tiller and pushed. Winds from the south died many moons ago. Vali had warned the men that the ship would need their orka to make shore, and they agreed.
Many things they agreed to, thought Tarben. Perhaps they were hibernating, reserving what they could for the moment the Karvi’s belly licked on solid ice. Gunter caught the glimmer of a dagger in Tarben’s glare and heaved forward in his row, grunting clouds of breath into the chill, still air.
“Push east,” whispered Vali to the men. “Hel’s realm lies close and wide. Approach from the east and we hang loosely from the rim of her mouth.”
Now that Vali’s attention was on the men, Bjorn and Asger began their push. Seals in droves surfaced and plunged like night raiders made of ink.
Tarben should not have been on the ship.
The old seiðr back home in Glera Syori said the gods willed him here. She drew his lot the day the fish began to wash ashore, black and festering. It was the work of the draugr, she said, and many were the sins to be atoned for. Einhor, Jarl of Glera Syori, would have sent out one-hundred of his men to bring the fish back to the rocky shores, but the seiðr assured him that only five would do.
Tarben could see why the gods chose Sven to atone. Draped in clean furs and skins, Sven took a hands-off approach in all his deeds, though the blood spilled by his whispers in the dark were known to many, save for Jarl Einhor and Vali. Behind a dozen mysterious deaths in the fields of Glera Syori were the pristine and plump hands of Sven the tiller.
Bjorn and Asger were twins, blonde-headed behemoths cut and marred from a hundred raids, across four seas in every direction. But not here. Never had they ventured near the island of Volva where a hundred nameless, faceless victims of their raids could reach up from the depths and swallow them whole. Their vice is the spray of warm blood across their faces, thought Tarben. But what of the man called Gunter?
The twins tossed hooks into the blunt edge of the ice and pulled the Karvi sideways to shore. Disgruntled gulls scattered and cursed.
“What business do birds have here?” said Gunter.
“They watch us approach,” said Vali. “Volva has a thousand eyes to watch its prey.”
The crackle of untested ice pierced the silence as Bjorn and Asger leapt ashore. Sven stood by the tiller still, inspecting his wares. Gunter watched Vali rise.
“We are not here to plunder, this was agreed to before we took our leave. Our families will soon starve if the fish are not brought back to the shores of Glera Syori. The Jarl has put his trust in the signs that we are the few to remedy this situation. Signs aside, I know what your kinsmen think of you. Greed and lust for blood lives in all of us. But now, we must look back on the treachery we have wrought and undo the curse that plagues our people. We do not leave until that time,” Vali announced.
“To Hel with what our kinsmen think,” Sven bellowed. “Not a drop of blood has fallen by my hands. I am here in support of Glera Syori and her shores, nothing else. I have naught to atone for.”
“If the draugr do not come for you, then you have spoken the truth,” said Tarben. “I have heard they only seek the guilty.”
“Then I have nothing to worry about,” said Sven, an impish grin emerging.
They took their shields and axes and joined the twins on the slick shore. Gunter kept close to the wide swath of Sven’s dark furs, holding his eyes steady on the whitewash of ice that ran for what seemed an eternity.
“Have you seen them before?” said Sven to the twins.
Asger smiled at his brother. “We see them every night in our dreams. We will not leave this place until we dream while we are awake. And then, we will take as many of them as we can back to Hel’s mouth with us.”
“Shame,” sighed Bjorn. “All the lives we took, silver and gold piled up for us higher than the mountains, and we will never see the great halls of Valhalla. My brother and I will camp here tonight. Let death find us sooner than later.”
Vali paused. “I prefer you camp with us, but if you desire a quick death then that is your choice. What do you say Asger?”
Asger thrust his great axe into the ice. “We will die together, here on the shore.”
“Fools,” whispered Sven.
They left the twins to camp on the icy shore of Volva and trudged toward the dark pines.
They have accepted their guilt, thought Tarben. It would be nice to have two more shields though.
“How do you know each other?” asked Tarben.
The small fire crackled from the wet wood that Gunter and Tarben had chopped. Nothing alive could be hunted or cooked on Volva. They built the fire for warmth and nothing more. Sven ripped at a piece of dried meat before answering the question.
“Gunter is my hands and feet. Whatever I need, he gets for me.”
“I’ve known Gunter to be a tanner,” said Vali. “That does not make him a servant.”
“What do you owe him that you are so eager to please?” asked Tarben.
Gunter stared into the darkness beyond the trees.
“He owes me nothing, save for the fact that we are both men of Glera Syori. He is a kind soul, nothing more. Tell them Gunter.”
“What do you suppose is out there?” said Gunter, squinting in the light of the fire.
“Blue flesh, black blood…vengeance,” said Vali hoarsely.
Gunter returned his gaze to the fire. “So, we have come here to die? All of us?” he asked.
“I only bring who the Jarl orders me to bring. He puts much faith in what the seiðr has to say. Scattered bones and warm blood…of these things I know nothing. It has always been our way.”
“You do not fear for your life?” said Gunter.
“Jarl Einhor trusts the seiðr, and I trust Jarl Einhor. He would not send me here to die.”
“Maybe Fenderoth thought the same thing about you, Vali,” said Tarben.
Fenderoth had been the scourge of the sea. As the Jarl’s most trusted friend, he had successfully sailed more raids than any three men of Glera Syori combined. Under his command, Jarl Einhor had become the wealthiest man in four directions. A failed raid in the middle of winter, led strangely by Vali, ended his life.
Blood surfaced on Vali’s cheeks. He swelled and leaned in toward the fire, a frostbitten hand clenching the handle of his axe.
“Back to the sea with you, farmer,” Vali grunted. “What would you know about Fenderoth?”
I’ve hit a nerve, thought Tarben.
“I only know the songs of Fenderoth are many, sung by all. His ability to escape the jaws of defeat is legendary. Even the crows, jealous scavengers, call his name from the rooftops. A raid during winter is unheard of. A legend, whose veins ran cold with salt water, drowning in the sea of his birth is also unheard of,” snapped Tarben.
“Yes, I remember the man,” said Gunter.
“Quiet!” said Vali.
The sharp lines of a smile shot up beneath the furs covering Sven’s mouth. He enjoyed accusation, though not on his account.
“I was there, blast you. Only Sven and I returned from that dreadful voyage. The sea swallowed many that day. While you tilled the frozen soil for crumbs, we battled the sea. Fenderoth’s favor with the gods ran out. There is nothing more to it.”
“Beautiful furs he had though,” said Sven.
A cat, black as night, crept out from the shadows, rubbing its frosty nose against the trunk of a gnarled pine. Gunter held his hand out and rubbed his fingers together, as if offering a morsel to the mysterious feline. It slunk his way and leapt into his lap.
“See, there is life on Volva after all,” he said smiling.
The cat perched on Gunter’s thigh, swatting at his hanging braids like dangled fish. It scratched his left cheek and Gunter lifted his head. “Bloodthirsty little cur,” he exclaimed, and tossed the cat into the fire. Charred wood scattered and Sven laughed into the sky. Gunter rubbed his cheek.
The fire spat and churned, and the burning cat leapt from the flames at Gunter. It grew to the size of a man on fire and throttled him around the neck.
“Draugr!” said Vali, tossing a small hand axe into the draugr’s back. It did not waver. Tarben rose and swung his axe over his shoulder.
Gunter’s face exploded in shades of red and blue and purple. He grasped at the draugr’s face, its fetid skin sloughing off in gobs of black oil that showered down on him. It shoved its thumbs into his eyes and roared a laughter like thunder in the wake of a storm.
“Help him,” said Sven, startling back into the cover of the trees.
Tarben came down on the draugr’s back, his axe singing in the still air. His stroke went through the draugr and sunk into Gunter’s chest. Black water erupted from the draugr’s body and it vanished, leaving Gunter soaked in his own blood.
Sven ran to Gunter’s twitching body and dug his hands into soiled pockets.
“No plunder,” said Vali. “We agreed.”
“It was mine to begin with,” shot Sven. “He brought his own coin from Glera Syori. This is not plunder, it is what I paid him and I’m taking it back. What need does he have for coin anymore? He is dead—Tarben saw to that.”
Sven fumbled a dozen silver coins in his hands.
“Scavenger,” said Tarben. “So he was not merely a kind soul—you paid him. What work did he do for you, Sven the tiller? Did he till the soil for you with the blood of farmers? Did he pave the way for the riches of the dead to fall into your pockets? I’ve seen the bones in my own field. Did you keep the heads, or toss them to the birds?”
“You will die tonight, Tarben, for your false accusations,” said Sven. He picked up his axe and steeled himself against his kinsmen.
The sound of steel on steel clanged in the distance. Southern winds quickened, howling through the pines, carrying the cries of Bjorn and Asger along a tempest wave that squelched the light of the fire. Vali took his axe.
“We will see who dies tonight,” said Tarben, as they rushed through the tree line to the sounds of battle near the shore.
Bjorn heaved his great axe with one hand, blocking the crashing waves with his wooden shield. Asger cringed behind his shield as the wind and water pounded against him. The Karvi bobbed and swayed to the sounds of death approaching. Even now, the anchored hooks the twins had secured to the ice began to strain and jostle in their hold.
“We join you in death!” Vali bellowed to the twins as they approached the shore.
Tarben slowed his charge toward the water. I cannot let the tiller have my back, he thought. In the midst of battle he might ease his axe into my skull.
The waves were unnaturally large, like sheets of dark sky tossed down by the gods above.
“I see nothing,” said Asger.
A gull, fighting back the whip of the wind, hovered above the twins. Its wings spread into the slick hands of a draugr wielding a blade. It dropped down on Asger, severing his shield and arm in one fail stroke. His face painted in the familiar warmth of blood, Bjorn pushed his brother aside and cleaved the draugr’s torso, black water freckling the untainted ice.
“Come for me, Odin!” echoed Bjorn to the sea. “Do not close the gates of your hall tonight.”
They came from the water. At least a dozen draugr sloshing through sand and stone, blue and black skin like bruised pools of sap, came upon the shore. Asger swung his axe blindly as the stump of his shoulder rained red. The draugr trampled him in their march. From the water walked a draugr, tall as the Karvi was wide, with furs and skins of seaweed draped over its shoulders and the fletching of sunken arrows jutting from its chest.
Vali’s blood boiled.
“I killed you. Back to Hel with you, Fenderoth.” Vali crashed his shield into the giant, shards of wood and chips of green paint scattering to the wind. He laughed and hacked a frenzy into Fenderoth’s legs, but the giant would not yield. A wave crashed over them. When Tarben looked again, the Karvi’s captain was skewered high in the air by a pike, limp and flailing. Fenderoth stretched his gaping maw and bit, removing Vali’s head from his shoulders. The remaining draugr fell upon Bjorn; black water crashing as he cursed the gods of the living and the dead.
Sven backed away until he bumped into the front of Tarben’s shield.
“They come for you next,” whispered Tarben.
Sven fell to the ice and pleaded.
“I’ve spilled no blood,” he said. “They have no rights to me, I am innocent! Go back to the sea. I am blameless.”
Tarben’s eyes widened as he stared at the waning tide.
Has he spoke the truth? Do the gods see a pure heart where I thought none existed?
The water settled and the draugr withdrew, collapsing on the ice like melted sculptures. Southern winds whistled across calm waters as the Karvi gently kissed the blunted ice. The gulls argued again and the backs of seals could be seen surfacing near the shore. All was as it was before the men arrived.
Sven cackled, tears of joy streaming down his ruddy face.
“They heard me,” he said. “I told you my hands were clean, Tarben. It’s as you said, ‘the draugr only seek the guilty.’ “Now what do you have to say?” He stood and brushed the ice off his wares.
“I say the day is not over yet,” said Tarben.
Why does he still live? Tarben thought as his shoulders cried out for relief. Sven sat in a bench opposite Tarben. For each stroke Sven took, Tarben took two. The lazy bastard is too busy counting his coin between strokes.
“Do you still think I had anything to do with the bones you found in your field?”
“You are not a very godly man then, Tarben Usvang. If you truly believed in the gods then you would not doubt me. My judgement has passed. Though, now that I think about it, maybe you put the bones in that field. You were quick to lay blame on all of us, but what about your blame? What have you been accused of that the Jarl saw fit for you to take part in this voyage?”
“Vali killed Fenderoth, which I know to be true. The twins took more than their fill, ignoring their share for the gods. Gunter, by your hands, put those bones in my field: all sons and daughters of Glera Syori. But I am at an impasse as to why you are still alive. Perhaps you have fooled the gods as you have fooled the Jarl.”
“Perhaps you will take matters into your own hands and try to kill me before we reach dry land,” Sven scoffed.
“I am not as bold as you, tiller.”
Sven stopped rowing and stood. He opened his furs and exposed his chest.
“Now is your chance, farmer. Maybe you came here to find guilt by murdering an innocent man? Come take your guilt, and may the draugr drag you down to the depths. What will you tell the Jarl when I am absent?”
“The Jarl did not send me here, the seiðr did.”
“So you are a holy man now? Why would the seiðr send a godless farmer to save the shores of Glera Syori?”
“Someone has to tell the tale of the night the water walked,” said Tarben.
A seal leapt from the sea and, becoming a draugr in mid-air, wrapped its corpse-like arms around Sven the tiller and pulled him into the depths.
S.H. Mansouri is a biologist and writer of all things fiction. He lives with the love of his life, Cymphonee, in sunny California.