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Beyond the Sunset

Posted on Wed Sep 6th, 2017 @ 8:56pm by Echo of Valandhir
Edited on on Mon Sep 25th, 2017 @ 9:07pm

Chapter: [FB] He Disappeared in the Dead of Winter
Location: approx. 30 Miles off the Broken Island, West of Nordheim’s coast.
Timeline: Aevar Asbiornson is searching for Sea-Kings lost ship

The ship’s mighty body groaned as the whirling winds brushed it’s flank, spraying cold water across the dragon’s deck. Bare feet firmly planted on the wet wood Aevar Asbiornson leaned firmly on the steering beam, adjusting the ship’s course just so to have the wind drive them into a regular angle against the waves. A grey wall of water rolled towards them, raising the dragon’s bow high, ere they rode down the back of the wave, water clashing in on them. The dragon creaked and groaned but made it across the heavy waves without too many problems.

Aevar looked up to the masts, the huge rectangular sail was only on half, he could not afford for the heavy wind to damage their main mast, the triangular sail was full in the wind, it helped him with maneuvering in the restless seas. At the moment the dragon relied fully on sails for speed and maneuvering alike, the oars were drawn in and most of the men not needed to handle the sails, sat crouched inside the ship’s walls. Aevar wanted his crew to preserve their strength best that he could.

Thorleif, his second, approached him. Easily taller than Aevar with powerful shoulders, the grim warrior moved with an absolute ease across the dragon-boat. To many eyes Thorleif was an anomaly in this crew, almost fifteen years older than Aevar himself, many wondered why the old wolf had chosen to follow Aevar instead of leading his own boat and crew. He was as good a steersman as Aevar was, and with many respected years to his name. Reaching Aevar, he put a strong hand on the beam, helping to steady the steering oar. “The wind is restless, new clouds… a small storm is coming.”

The words held no accusation, nor complaint. Thorleif had been there, three weeks ago, in Thule, when Steinolfr Sneggison had sought out Aevar. At the time Aevar had been planning on refitting and repairs to the Winterdragon and on a quiet winter after. But Steinolfr’s face had been lined with worry and determination. It had taken two horns of mead to calm him enough to talk.

“King Finnur did not return… he had to go, to try what his father Halfdan failed to do, put the ancient debt to rest. He HAD to try, too many doubted him already…” Steinolfr had sighed, putting the horn down hard.

“How many of the clans have such debts?” Aevar had asked dryly, he knew the stories of the raids on the Islands beyond the sun and the results. “The only family who ever managed to break that debt were Angrbroda’s people and they found themselves a talisman warrior to do it.” Even as he had spoken, like his father would have, he could not help the fascination, the memories. Beyond the Sea of Storms, many leagues to the west, lay islands, broken lands, ruins of a lost age. Riesland, land of giants, his people called it, and no Vanir in living memory had ever made it beyond the outer islands.

“No one knows how many do endure,” Thorleif had interjected. “It is not spoken off, but if the Sea-King did not return, we have to go find him.”

Aevar had to smile, even at the memory, Thorleif was not a man of doubt, or hesitations. If he saw something needed doing, he did it, or found someone to do it. In this case his words had been fuelled by the trust that Aevar had experience navigating beyond the Island of the Sea-Serpent, that he had been out there with Asbiorn in the nameless years of their exile.

Their eyes met and Aevar did not need to ask whether Asbiorn was sure about the storm. If he said a storm was coming, then it was certain. “Take the beam.” he told his comrade, waiting until two hairy paws grabbed the steering oar and kept the dragon on course.

Hastily Aevar pulled a leather band up from under his wet tunic, the blue crystal dangling was icy cold. The stone was maybe the most important legacy his father had left him with - an old sunstone, and the knowledge how to use them. On journey like this, with days and days of cloudy skies, when he could not see sun nor stars, such a stone was invaluable. He placed it on his hand watching for the colours to subtly change, the blue becoming darker on one end and brighter at the other. That’s where the light came from, the moons could confuse that a bit around dusk and dawn but sunset was still three hours away. With a new sense for the exact direction they were headed, Aevar took the steering oar again, adjusting their course ever so slightly. “Get the men onto the oars, we can be under land before the storm hits.”

Thorleif watched him intently. “The island of the Sea Serpent?” he asked softly, trying to confirm a guess he had.

Aevar shook his head. “We passed Broken Island during the night, my friend.” He had been on the oar for most of the night, sleeping a little in the morning and returning to his duties. “The Island of the Sea-Serpent is leagues behind us and to the south. I thought you might have sensed it.”

The last was an explanation, not one Aevar needed to give, but one he wanted to add. The crew did not know exactly where they were, if the skies were clear, the stars might tell them something, but they’d not care. Such was the trust awarded to a steersman - and also the obligation that came with it. Aevar had not meant to deceive Thorleif about how far West they were, how far from waters that the Vanir usually braved.

Thorleif heaved a heavy breath. “I cannot sense our position, Sea-Lion, much as the stories claim such things. Those were the Elder Days.” He shrugged, suddenly tensing, his shoulders going stiff and his eyes gazing across the angry grey waters.

Aevar did not waste questions on asking what was wrong. With a sharp whistle he alerted Ottarr and gestured him to get the men on the oars. If Thorleif reacted like that, the grey old widowmaker had just decided to become angry.

Ottarr reacted with reliable speed, chasing the men up, who pushed the long oars out, one man per oar at the moment, they would reserve using two per oar for rougher seas. The ship shuddered and Aevar felt the steadying course as the oars began to give the ship direction. “How bad is it?” he asked, as the ship turned slightly and they continued on a North-Western course.

Thorleif had relaxed, whatever it was he had felt, it had passed. “Something… restless, an anger rising from the deep…” he shook his head. “The sea will rage come nightfall.” With that he headed forward to take lead of the oars, for which Aevar was more than grateful. He worked well with Ottarr, but with Thorleif it was easier. Thorleif knew him and often predicted what Aevar needed when it was needed, giving him the best maneuvering he could work with.

An endless hour dragged by, the wind became stronger, the sea rose and a steady if still fine rain began to pour from the clouds. Two times Aevar hastily checked their heading, they were still on course, North-by-Northwest, as the people of the south said, Half-to-Midnight, was the Vanir expression. His eyes were trained at the sea before them, watching for anything that he could spot in the grey veils of rain. It had been long years since he had been so far out, back then his father had been the steersman and the people on the ship had been weird strangers from Cymeria, who’s errand they better not asked, nor got told. Now he was on his own.

A vague form became apparent ahead, nothing more but a shade, a shape rising from misty veil of rain. The call of the stafnbúar , the watchpost, confirmed the sighting of rocks in the water. Aevar corrected course at once, the tower of rocks heralded land indeed - but also watched over a maze of shoals that no ship should risk. Thorleif again had sensed his intentions, calling one side of the oars to half-strength, allowing the ship to shift course more easily. Ottarr adjusted the triangle sail, and the Winterdragon rushed by the dangerous zone.

A shiver in the steering oar told Aevar they had come into the drift, a rushing gulf of icy water that formed a soft curve around the southern island. He allowed the ship to be carried by the drift, it would bring them right to the eastern shores of the Island, where they could anchor safely and wait the storm out.

“Fallen Toelfaeringer athwartship!” Balki, the stafnbúar shouted, his voice almost drowned out by the wind.

Hastily Aevar’s eyes followed the direction, searching the waves for what Balki had spotted. At first he saw nothing, but then it took shape, like a ghost from the mists - a shattered dragon-boat lay ashore, on the south-eastern tip of the island. It must have come in beyond the shoals but must have come into the rocky reefs that flanked the island. It was a death-trap, Aevar knew. The broken boat was about the size of the winter, maybe a little longer. It was hard to tell by only seeing the wreck, but he could see her bow - and artfully carved serpent-head with a stone in it’s mouth. Finnur’s ship - he had reached the edge of the world and failed here.

“They ran her up the sandbar, when they were damaged.” Thorleif observed dryly. “They might have made it ashore, the tide has not yet claimed the wreck.”

“I doubt the boat broke from hitting the sandbar,” Aevar replied, carefully keeping them off the shores, the reefs were still too close.

“All that lived when the boat hit the sand might still be alive.” Thorleif was unmoved, it was not the first failed ship he saw, nor the first Sea-King he heard of dying on far shores. Such was life of the Vanir, and the Grey Lady demanded their souls when she thought them right. “Question is, can you put us ashore safely?”

“Anchoring grounds are less than two miles to midnight,” Aevar replied, the ship was already turning towards the North-Eastern shores of the island. “There is a bay protected enough for us to wait the storm out too.”

Thorleif did not reply to his words directly, there was not time or need for it. It was the trust a crew had in their steersman, trusting that he knew his waters, that he knew where to put them ashore and to find the way across the Neversea if need be.

***

An hour later the Winterdragon had circumvented the small headland and hit the sand inside a small protected bay. The dragon’s bow ate deeply into the soft ground, even as the anchors rattled to secure the ship in the rising gale. The rocks of the island and the bay shielded the ship from the worst, still Aevar preferred needing all his men to push the ship into the water when the time came to losing the ship to the storm. Dragons were made to go aground and be pushed back into the waters if needed, most Vanir invasions made use of that ability.

The skies had turned darker and the clouds were almost black, Aevar could see lightning strike out on the sea. The greenish fork hitting the waters troubled him for reasons he could not quite explain. “Thorleif, get the men ashore. We can find shelter in the caves below the ruins uphill. I hope Finnur’s men thought of the same.”

Thorleif shrugged, while they finished securing the ship, the men following them to the shore of the nameless island. “How could they, not knowing the caves are there?”

“The ruins are visible from the western and southern strand too,” Aevar replied, looking around to get his bearings. “They are the only shelter on this whole island.”

The wind howled across the rocky shore, bending the few barren trees and tearing at the scarce heather in between. Aevar walked at the top of the 40 men strong column, the path they were following was barely visible as it wound up the rough, broken rocks. A part of him shivered, the last time he had followed this path, they had been guided by a strange, grim Cymerian and things had not ended well. He pushed those thoughts aside, what had happened back then was long in the past and the decades had swept it off to the shores of lost days. He was not here to seek trouble, he was here to find Finnur and his crew and bring them back to the mainland.

As he came up to the hilltop, a hard gale almost threw him to the ground. Thorleif’s strong hand steadied him. He stopped, letting the men file past him, last was Ottarr, who made sure that they had not lost a man. As the man walked up to the grassy hilltop, Aevar had no eyes for the ruins of the ancient fortress that rose from the grass, his eyes went back to whence they had come.

The clouds gathering west formed a formidable black bank with the light of setting sun falling between the cracks on the dark seas. Only now he realized that the wind was no longer the steady gale that had driven them here. The wind came at them from the west, pushing the clouds towards the island, again lightning struck the sea illuminating the white-capped billows down there. “Thorleif, did the wind turn that fast?” Aevar asked softly, the winds on the sea of the storms were tricky, and the Lord of Storms had no favourites but Aevar knew that the wind did not naturally shift that fast.

“The Green Witch woke in the deeps from her dreams and she will rise in anger, if she is not appeased soon.” Thorleif’s eyes were fixated on the mass of dark clouds headed towards them, his voice almost devoid of life. “Pray that her wrath spare us, pray for her to spare the world.”

Whatever Thorleif felt in the clouds out there, what the sea told him, it was something beyond Aevar’s comprehension and he was not sure he wished to understand what was natural gift to Thorleif. “Ottarr, we go on, the ruins are over there, avoid the front entrance. The sunset tower has a broken wall that is safe to enter.” he called out to the man awaiting orders, indicating the western tower in the way his people spoke.

This time him and Thorleif were the last to approach the ruins. The fallen fortress sat on the high headland, and might once have guarded an important road long ago, before the sea came to break the land and leave nothing than the rocks and grass on shattered islands behind. A bridge led towards the main gate, Aevar knew from experience that the bridge’s pillars were crumbling and passing them was unsafe at the best of times. He’d avoid trying in the middle of an approaching storm when there was an easier way in.

As they marched closer he studied the building ahead, there was no sign of anyone’s presence but that was easily deceiving from the outside. Strange how much his youthful memories did not fit with what he saw now. Back then he had been fascinated by the ancient giant castle, wondering what men of power, what sorcerers had lived here in the elder days, marvelling at the fine stone-work and intricate windows. Now that he saw the building again another sense settled in, one of dread. The castle ahead was still the ancient stone building he remembered, made by skillful hands and left to the elements for too long. Yet, the more he looked at it, he felt it sat there like a lurking predator, waiting for the prey to walk into the trap. The walls seemed darker than even the dim light on this day might explain.

Thorleif stopped beside him. “What is it, Sea-Lion?” he asked, his eyes drawn together in a worried frown.

“Nothing.” Aevar took a deep breath, he had navigated this place when he had been but a boy, he could do it again without any shades forecasting doom. “It’s just the light of the sunset.”

“Aevar, come here!” Ottarr’s voice cut into their conversation. “You were right, they are here!”

Without hesitating further, Aevar hurried down the uneven hill to reach the hole in the wall of the western tower. He could see a man standing with Ottarr, it was Snarri, one of Finnur’s crew. “We hid down there,” Snarri just said. “I swear to you, it was something that pushed the ship onto that accursed reef. I could almost see it.”

“We all almost see things when the fog is thick enough.” Aevar interjected firmly, pulling his shoulders up to stare at the man sternly. He could not have any rumours spreading here, stories of monsters of the sea, or curses, much as the men loved them, would only help to incapacitate both crews. “Where is the Sea-King?”

Snarri pointed down into the hole. “Down there. He was wounded when we fought in that grave.”

“What grave?” Thorleif asked, having caught up, the fact that he talked into a conversation his steersman had with a different crew, told Aevar how much Thorleif disliked all of this.

“If Finnur did not share his tale with you, his reason for going, then I shall not share either.” Snarri replied with a slight smirk, meant to put both of them in place.

Aevar did not rise to the bait. “Show Ottarr your men, Snarri,” he replied firmly. “Ottarr, have Gunarr look after the injured, you can tell me during the night how many we have.” Getting additional men aboard held it’s own troubles, from overloading the boat to simply not having much space. It would take careful planning. Without further discussion Aevar climbed down the hole, Finnur’s men had set a guard-post in the room behind but otherwise retreated deeper into the chambers below.

He found Finnur in the rooms one level above in the tower. The warrior sat with his back to the wall, face pale and drawn from exhaustion. Beside him lay Nagelring his sword, and while he kept himself ready to fight, there was a tiredness in his whole demeanour that Aevar only knew too well. When he came up the stairs Finnur smiled slightly. “I heard you speak down there… should I be surprised it was you, who risked crossing the angry seas when the Lord of Winter is not far any more?”

Aevar squatted down opposite of Finnur, the Sea-King was a full decade younger than him, though that had never mattered between them. “You gave Steinolfr enough worry to seek me out.” he replied with a smile. “He’d be loath having to hold a Thing at Midwinter to discuss your vanishing.”

“Steinolfr… he would know,” Finnur replied. “His father Sneggi’s grandfather Skúli was there when it all began.” He shivered and drew his cloak more firmly around his shoulders.

Aevar realized that Finnur’s side was bandaged, he was burning with fever. Without much ado he slipped off his own warm winter cloak, wrapping it around the younger man. “If it was in his great-grandfather’s day, then it is not a debt from the Raid beyond the Sunset, that had Angrbroda’s ilk cursed until her kin found themselves some help.” he observed, rummaging through his memory what other expedition or raid had been lost out here to incur some kind of debt.

“If my family is still cursed from that one, we have forgotten.” Finnur admitted, his eyes straying outside. “My father’s great-grandfather Ulfár died out here after the great tempest. Eleven ships perished on these shores as the sea raged, many drowned, many lost. Ulfár died of his wounds out there and his comrades could not bury him in our ways. So they burned his body and put his ashes into a vessel they had found. When my father became Sea-King he vowed to return his great-grandfather’s remains and give them to the sea, so no revenant or Wiedergänger may haunt him. He died trying… and when I became Sea-King, the clans held me to my word. I had to…”

“The Clans are idiots.” Aevar replied, “a bunch of dung-eating mule-herders, the lot of them. There is one swift way to bury that stupid idea once and forever.” He’d have to go through a dozen or so fights to kill the worst of them, but once they got the message, they’d leave it well enough alone. “And if a Wiedergänger ever knocks on your hall’s door we send him right after them.”

Finnur chuckled, shaking his head. “And you would do it, my friend. But it is not necessary. I have found the urn in the grave where they left it. The thing guarding the place disliked parting with it, but I convinced it… the way you would prefer.”

“And giving as good as it got, from the looks of it.” Aevar rose and walked back to the broken stairwell. “Thorleif, find some broken wood down there, I need a fire up here. And if you have any of that nasty weed you fed me when after the sea-serpent…”

He heard a barked laugh from Thorleif. “Be sure of it, Sea-Lion. I never leave shore with you, without taking witch-root along, wait up there, this won’t take long.”

Not long after a small fire was burning in a corner of the room, and Finnur was sipping on a bitter draught to bring his fever down. Outside the storm raged on.

 

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