Nothing in the Songs: part 4
The sound of crashing waves met my ears and the smell of salt filled my nose well before I could see the water. Have I made a wrong turn somewhere? Have my wanderings through this dark wood taken me off course? The sun never rose nor did it sink low enough to extinguish all of its light. The sky was too bright to see stars. The moon was too unpredictable to use as a guide. All this made for poor navigation through thick forest.
The waves grew louder as they broke upon an unseen rocky coastline. I trekked further. Ocean spray cooled my face and the thick trees broke into open space ahead of me. The din grew more deafening with every stride. I stepped out of the shadow of the trees and found myself standing on the edge of a sea cliff. I gazed out over the gray, undulating water to the mountains on the other side. I had not strayed. My goal lay beyond this stretch of angry water, but how would I cross it.
A sheer drop with flesh-ripping rocks would be the first obstacle. I searched below for a vessel to cross the water below. A tattered sail whipped around a thin mast in the savage winds, catching my eye. The small boat lay on its side in a rare patch of smooth stone beach among the serrated towers of stone jutting up all around it. Getting down to it would be a challenge.
I leaned over the ledge precariously, searching for a safe path to the water below. My foot slipped and I thought I would fall to my death. I scrambled back to solid ground, showering gravel and hunks of sod over the cliff.
When I regained my footing and dusted myself off, I could not help but feel eyes upon my back. I casually moved my hand to the Ulfbhert sword on my belt. When I spun to meet the gaze of what was watching me, I drew the blade with a flash of steel. There before me stood the dark figure I had seen before, in the clearing. This was no trick of the light. I could see through this figure.
It moved out of the woods and towards me with unnatural fluidity, like a breeze gently pushed a wisp of smoke. As it drew closer, its features became clearer to me. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth, a beard, broad shoulders, strong legs, and an ax hanging from its grasp. Though I could see through this apparition, I could not see through the ax it carried. It appeared quite tangible.
Then, there were others. They each moved out of the woods in the same floating manner. They wore different armor, furs, rough woven cloth. Each of them bore ghastly wounds. They had been stabbed, hacked, flayed, bent, twisted, and gutted. Each gripped a weapon in ghostly hands. Chipped blades, notched bows, and rusted axes hung menacingly at their sides. For a moment, I thought I recognized these men. Some of them at least.
These must be the lost souls the old man spoke of. Warriors who died in battle like me, but did not make it to the hall of their fathers. Had I killed these men? Was this my work?
“Hello,” I said, trying diplomacy first.
There was no answer but a sneer from the few I cared to look at. At that moment, I was certain they had come to fight. I struck first, swinging my sword into the middle of the first, but my blade passed through him like smoke. He raised his ax to strike me, but I lifted my sword to stop it.
The Ulfbhert cut through the rotting haft, sending the ax head tumbling over the cliff. Another stabbed with a spear and I deflected its point to the ground. I stomped on the shaft just behind the spearhead, snapping it off. I tried another cut through the spearman with the same result as before. The shade with the bow lifted it and knocked an arrow. I charged him. I could not deflect arrows, but I could destroy his bow.
I hacked into the bow just as he began his draw. The wood split and snapped open like a spring, flinging one end into the ground and the other into the branches overhead. The bowman reached out and grabbed my drake skin jerkin and tugged on it. Another swung a sword and I tried to roll away but the bowman would not release me. I sent the blade glancing off the edge of my Ulfbhert and tried again to wriggle loose.
The shade did not release me. He pulled me in closer and hissed in my ear.
“Suffer as we suffer.”
I pulled my knife from my belt and cut the sleeve of the jerkin away, freeing myself again. They all came at me at once. I did all I could to deflect strikes and avoid their grasping cold fingers. They feared no blade and they pressed on me without letting up. They forced me to the cliff’s edge and still I fought them. I stole a glance over the edge at the jagged rocks below, like the open jaws of some great beast. Beyond the rocks, churning white water swirled in a bowl-shaped hollow in the stone. When the waves came in, the bowl filled with water.
A mistake in timing could be the death of me, but staying on this cliff with these angry souls would surely mean my death. I waited for the water to go out again. I slashed and hacked, shattering weapons. I stole another glance. A wave was rolling in.
Resheathing the sword, I turned and kicked off of the cliff as hard as I could, leaping out into nothing. The bowl was almost empty. I fell, arms and legs flailing, wind rushing in my ears. Wicked rocks rushed up at me. White knuckles gripped the Ulfbhert. In an instant, foamy water rushed into the bowl, filling it completely and spilling over the sides.
I splashed through the surface and frigid water shocked the air from my lungs. I plunged downward in a column of bubbles. I struggled up to the surface for a breath. The current tried to suck me out into thrashing waves and tearing rocks. I fought against the pull, swimming for my life. When the bowl had finally drained low enough, I kicked off the bottom and grabbed ahold of the wall. Water rushed in again, trying to strip me from safety. I held fast though slick algae tried to slough me from my holds.
Climbing, I fought the current again. I was finally able to flop myself over the top. I lay flat on my back on a bed of nails, catching my breath. When I started to shiver, I realized, I needed to start a fire immediately and dry out. Drunk with exhaustion and bitter cold, I stumbled to the boat I had seen from above, collecting bits of the driest driftwood along the way.
Placing a fistful of dry seagrass on the beach, I stacked the smaller bits of wood around it. I took another tuft of seagrass and crunched it up on my hands, breaking up the fibers. I placed that bit at the bottom of the seagrass and stick construct.
With shaking hands, I struck the hunk of flint against the back of my knife. Sparks flew into the nest of grass but none ignited. I tried again and again. Perhaps everything around here was too wet. My fingers were numb, but still, I tried. Finally, a large spark fell directly into the nest and an ember glowed. Smoke swirled into the air. Cold air pressed against me from the water and blew the ember out onto the rocks where it quickly died.
I cursed and placed myself between the water and the nest to block the wind. Flint flashed on steel several more times before another ember could catch. The little wisp of smoke arced and waved into the air. I blew gently on it and it grew, glowing brighter and brighter until the grass burst into flame.
In an instant, the fire had engulfed the cone of grass and sticks. I fed gradually larger bits of wood onto the fire. The dancing flames warmed me until my fingers and hands regained their dexterity. I stripped my wet clothes off before I noticed the lost souls circling about me again.
I lifted the Ulfbhert into one hand and a flaming log in the other. The shades flinched back away from the flame. I jabbed forward with the fire and the spirits lurched back. I knew that they would not come near me when I had a fire, so I set out to collect more wood with my makeshift torch. The shades kept their distance, but none of them left me. They followed at the edge of the firelight, watching me closely.
I brought armfuls of driftwood to dry by the fire until I needed it. Once I had collected enough, I set to work on the boat. Before I righted it, I inspected the bottom of the hull. It was a miracle that the hull was intact. After I turned the boat upright, I untangled rigging and mended the torn sail. One oar was missing, so I fashioned one from a bit of my firewood.
I rarely turned away from the spirits, but when I did, I cast my gaze out over the thrashing surf and the mountains beyond. Those waves would be a challenge to get beyond. And once I had, that ocean would fight me the whole way to the other side.
Once the boat was ready, I waited for a change in the weather. When none came, I accepted that I would depart as it was. With my firewood running out and my fire dying, it was time to go.
Rolling up in a bit of oiled canvas I found in the boat, I bid the spirits farewell and pushed the boat out into the water. I jumped in and paddled with all my might. The bow dipped and lifted with every wave splashing over and onto me. The water beaded and rolled off the oiled canvas. I struggled onward with every stroke.
Soon, the waves shrunk and I found myself in open water. I unfurled the sail and tied it down. The sail inflated, catching that pesky wind that put out my fire. The wind blew back to shore, so I tacked against it, zig-zagging into the raging sea.
I looked to the mountains whenever I could and wondered what nightmares awaited me there.
Thank you for reading. Make sure to stop by next Friday for part 5 of this 6 part series. I wanted to write something a little more along the lines of traditional dark fantasy but, of course, with my twist on it.
Until next week,