Ekkill looked over at Skári. The youth was doing well for his first night on watch; the cold seemed to trouble him little. The night was dark and fog was rising from the barrows of Haugr Landar. Ekkill turned his attention back out over the rolling barrows surrounding Gullthorpe and sighed. Night detail was always ridiculously dull. He could hear from the nearby inn the sounds of his fellow occupying troops laughing and making merry, and wished he had a tankard of something strong to warm his belly.
This war had gone on for too long. Returning to Sudenway would be a blessing, and he could only hope King Ulfgeirr would have the sense to come to an agreement with Sigurd. This was not a war he could win. It was time to go home. Ulgeirr was young and ambitious and full of strength, yes, but Sigurd had proved himself time and time again of late to be the better tactician.
Gullsthorpe was a small village fairly centrally located in Haugr Landar. It would not be important tactically were it not for the massive gold mine located a little north of it in the larger town of Gullsby. From its position on top of a large hill, Gullsthorpe overlooked Gullsby, and so it was that Ekkill now found himself with Skári guarding some boring little hamlet over winter. The locals did not like them, the weather did not like them, and now Ekkill wondered when they would be relieved for the night.
As if mirroring his thoughts, Skári chose that moment to wonder aloud, "Gods above, what's taking so long? My balls could have dropped off and rolled away out of my trousers an hour ago and I wouldn't have noticed."
Ekkill laughed aloud and looked at him. "Better get used to that, friend, there are many nights left in winter yet." The more he stood with the younger man, the more he liked him. The mention of the old gods over this new one everyone in the village seemed to be raving about was refreshing. Ekkill was in his late fifties, still strong by all accounts but growing a little old for war now. He had followed the Aesir all his life.
As he brooded, he heard footsteps approaching the wall from behind them and turned. Their relief was marching down the road. Skári positively sighed with joy and hurried from the wall to meet them, and Ekkill followed as fast as his aging bones would allow.
"Hail!" called one of the pair coming towards them. "Before you head back for the inn, there's something the captain wants you to check out."
"Us?" Skári complained, "can it not wait for the morning?"
"No, it can't," the man said icily, and he looked back at Ekkill. "East guards reported they heard a disturbance coming from the old farm. Captain says he wants you to make sure it's not a spy from Norheim."
"Alright," Ekkill responded before Skári could complain more, "we'll go."
With that they set off to the east gate with a torch each, and spears gripped firmly in their hands. The farm house was a ruin a few hundred metres from the gate - the old owner had died some decades prior and his children had all found new ways of life, and it had fallen into disrepair.
They came up to the farm gate minutes later, fog obscuring the detail of the house in front of them, so that only the crooked, deformed outline of the collapsed roof was visible. They stopped before going in and gazed into the darkness around them. It was eerily quiet. Their breath misted in front of them and he looked at Skári. The youth was pale and said "I don't like this. It feels... wrong."
Ekkill knew what he meant; something was strange about this. He shook his head and cursed under his breath.
"Wrong or not, we have to go in."
They lowered their spears, points forwards, and entered the farm. They crossed the courtyard quickly and came towards the farm house. Just as they were about to enter, a deep rumble rose in the still air and the ground began to shake.
Bricks and lose mortar crumbled into the already wrecked building in front of them, and Ekkill felt Skári grab his arm in time to stop him falling. They stood there for a good half a minute, grasping each other for support, when, as quickly as it had come, the tremor stopped. He felt Skári let go of his arm, and after bending to catch his breath he turned to thank his comrade.
But Skári was not there.
Ekkill felt his heart rate increase, the cold rush of fear taking his body. There came a clattering of stones falling inside the building and he looked back at the dark hole of the entrance, levelling his spear towards it. Breath coming in short, sharp bursts, he crept inside.
His torch illuminated a fairly devoid space, with rubble strewn across the floor, and weeds and small shrubs pushing through here and there. Moving forwards slowly, he walked through a long hallway, stairs climbing up and away on his left, and a door opening into a living area on his right.
He took the door to the right, and found himself in a humble room with a ceiling sagging under the weight of the collapsed roof above. There was a fireplace on the right of the room, and windows on the left. Across from him was a closed door to another room. In the dust he could see what looked like drag marks leading under this door, and he felt his heart leap into his mouth. He approached the drag marks cautiously, knuckles white on the wood of his spear.
With his torch in his left hand, he was forced to lean the weapon against a nearby dusty old chair and reach for the door knob with his right. Just as his fingertips felt the cool metal of the handle, a gentle scrape like a foot catching a floorboard broke the silence behind him and he whirled around.
Through the glare of his torch he could make out the tall frame of Skári standing on the other side of the room from him. The younger warrior began to walk slowly across the room towards him.
"Damn it, you fool! Are you trying to scare me to death?" Ekkill hissed angrily.
Skári did not reply.
As Skári got closer Ekkill frowned; something about him looked odd. His eyes were glassy and expressionless, and Ekkill realised with a shock that blood trickled from his nose.
Before he could comment, Skári flicked his arm and cut Ekkill's throat with a seax.
His frown deepened into one of confusion and shock, and he spluttered, a little gush of blood escaping his neck and staining his leather vest. His torch slipped from his hand, and the flames blew out unnaturally on the floor. Skári smiled as though waiting for something, though his eyes remained misty and unseeing, and cocked his head to the side. Ekkill tried to breathe, but found he couldn't, and suddenly his legs gave out.
As he staggered onto the chair and knocked his spear to the floor with a clatter, he felt a brief pang of pain from his throat, but he was still quite confused as to why. As he lay awkwardly slumped over the chair, vision darkening and Skári standing over him, he noticed the blood now trickling quickly down his outstretched arm and away to the floor.
As the world darkened into a tunnel, he could have sworn he saw a long, emaciated figure standing in the doorway he had entered through. As he stared, puzzled, struggling to maintain a clear picture of the world and wondering why he found it so hard to do so, the figure's head turned to look at him, light glinting off of pale, misty eyes as it did so.
In Ekkill's confused last seconds of life, he heard, but could no longer see, the figure in the doorway laughing quietly. Its laugh was rasping and harsh and dead-sounding.
Finally, he was afraid.
And then he died.