Magic Gifts Page 17

"Left," Tracy said. Her voice was perfectly calm.

"I see it," Ghastek said.

Another pair sparked to the right, about a foot off the ground. Then another, and another. All around us the eyes fluoresced, clustered around tree trunks, staring from the underbrush, peering from behind rocks.

"What are they?" Tracy asked.

"Uldra," Ghastek said. "They're nature spirits from Lapland. They live mostly underground. I wouldn't provoke them. Stay in the clearing."

The eyes stared at us, unblinking.

An blast of icy cold ripped through the clearing. The uldra vanished as one. On the ground, the deer moaned.

Here we go.

I reached into my backpack and pulled out a small leather satchel, a small plastic bear full of honey, and a canteen. No turning back now. I got up off the log and walked over to the center of the glade where a large stone waited. Ghastek's and Tracy's vampires trailed me.

I brushed the leaves from the stone. The inside of the rock had been hollowed out into a stone basin, large enough to hold about three gallons of liquid.

"When the draugr appears, don't talk to him," I said. "The longer we talk, the more time he has to lock onto our scent. We'll have to fight to get clear anyway. No need to make things harder."

No response.

"Ghastek? Do you understand me?"

"Of course," he said.

"The Cherokee's have set protective wards on the mountain. If we make it to the pillars by the road, we're safe."

"You said this before," Ghastek informed me.

"I'm just reminding you." This wouldn't go well.

I set the canteen on the ground and pulled the drawstring cord securing the pouch. It opened into a square of leather in the palm of my hand. Inside lay six runestones chiseled from bone, a handful of beat-up silver coins: two with the etching of sword and hammer and four with the viking raven.

I cast the runes into the basin. They clicked, rolling from the stone sides. It took me a second to unscrew the canteen. Ale splashed on the runes, drenching the bone in liquid amber. The scent of malted barley and juniper wafted up. The mist snapped at it like a striking snake.

"Patience, Håkon. Patience."

I poured the rest of the ale out, emptied the honey into the basin and stirred it with a branch. Magic spread from the runes into the honey and ale. I reached in and took the runes out, all except two: the rune of enemy binding and Þjófastafur, the rune that prevented theft.

The mist hovered by me.

I took a deep breath, grabbed the deer by the head and heaved it onto the basin. Moist brown eyes looked at me.

"I'm so sorry."

I pulled a throwing knife out and slit the animal's throat in a single quick swipe. Blood gushed into the basin, hot and red. The deer thrashed, but I held its head until the blood flow stopped. The basin was a third of the way full. I stepped back and hefted the coins in my hand. They jingled together, sparking with magic.

"I call you out, Håkon. Come from your grave. Come taste the blood ale."

Magic pulsed through the glade, ice-cold and shockingly powerful. It pierced my skin, ripping its way all the way into my bones. I recoiled. Panic crested inside me like a huge black wave. Every instinct I had screamed, "Run! Run as fast as you can."

I clenched my teeth.

The air reeked of fetid, decaying flesh. It left a sickeningly sweet patina on my tongue.

The mist congealed with an eerie moan and a creature stepped forth to the basin. A thick cloak of half rotten fur hung off his shoulders, shielding the chainmail that covered him from elbow to the knee. The fur had thinned to long feathery strands, smeared with dirt. Long colorless hair spilled from his head in tangled mess. His skin was blue, as if he had an intense case of argyria.

The draugr dropped by the basin, dipped his head, and lapped the blood like a dog. Death had sucked all softness from his flesh. His face was a leathery mask of wrinkles, his nose was a misshapen nub, and his lips had dried to nothing, baring a mouth full of long vampiric teeth. His eyes were awful: pale green, and completely solid, as if made of frosted glass. No iris, no pupil, nothing. Just two dead eyes behind an opaque green membrane.

I gave him a couple of seconds with the blood and squeezed the runes. They warmed my skin, forging a link to the two left in the blood ale. "That's is plenty."

The undead raised his head. Blood dripped from his chin. A voice came, hoarse, like the creaking of trees in the wood. "Who are you, meat?"

Not good. "I've come to trade. Fair trade: fresh meat for an answer."

The draugr dipped its head toward the blood. Magic pulsed from the runes. The creature let out a long sound half way between a sign and a growl.

Ghastek's vampire moved to stand next to me.

The undead swiveled to the bloodsucker. "You bring me dead meat?"

"No. Dead meat guards me. Dead meat has no power over the ale. If you want to talk to dead meat, that's between you and it."

The draugr rose above basin, shoulders hunched over. "Dead meat speaks?"

Ghastek shifted the vampire another step.

"I wouldn't," I told him.

The vamp halted. "Who are you?"

Would it kill him not to screw with my thing?

The draugr leaned on the stone. "I'm Håkon, son of Eivind. My father was a jarl and his father before him was one. The blood ale calls to me. Who are you, meat, that you interrupt my feeding?"

"I'm Ghastek Sedlak, Master of the Dead."

The draugr's mouth gaped wider. The creature rocked back and forth. "Dróttinn of the dead. I am dead. Do you style yourself my master too, little dead meat?"

Full stop. "Don't answer that. Your ale is getting cold, Håkon. Have a taste."

The runes in my hand cooled. The undead took a step toward me, then turned, as if drawn by a magnet, dropped on his knees and drank deeply, sucking up the blood in long greedy swallows.

"How did you come to be here?" Ghastek asked.

Damn it all to hell.

The draugr turned its unblinking eyes to the vampire and raised his head from the blood for a moment.. "We came for gold."

"All the way from Norseland?"

The draugr shook its head and drank.

"Kate," Ghastek said. "Make him talk. Please."

How do I get myself into these things? I gripped the runes. The draugr ducked down, trying to lick the blood, got within two inches of the red surface and stopped.

"From Vinland. The north skrælingar had brought us gold to trade for weapons. They told us they bartered with the southern tribes for it. They said the southern skrælingar were soft. They were farmers, they said. Our seers had scryed the source of the gold, in the hills, not far from the coast. We took two ships and went looking for it."

"Did you find the gold?" Ghastek asked.

The draugr reared back, his teeth on display. "We found woods, and giant birds, and skrælingar magic. We were retreating when a skrælingar's arrow found me."

"Is that why you rose? To punish the native tribe?" Ghastek asked.

He just wouldn't stop talking.

The draugr's clawed hands scratched the stone of the basin. Magic snapped from him, flaring like a foul banner. The hair on the back of my neck rose.

"To punish them? No. I rose to punish the ingrate dogs who threw me into a hole in the ground like a common thrall. Not one of them bothered to even place a stone to mark my grave. I killed some of them and ate their flesh, but a few still lived. I've searched for them, but I can't find them."

"You can't find them, because they've been dead for a thousand years," I told him. Damn it. Now Ghastek had me doing it.

The wrinkled mask of the draugr's face twisted in derision. "So you say."

Ghastek's vamp leaned forward. "If you're so powerful, why don't you just leave?"

"He can't. The Cherokee wards are locking him in. No more questions."

"In that case-"

I brought my fist down on the vamp's bald head. God, that felt good.

The vamp whipped around, glaring at me in outrage.

"Shut up," I told him and turned to the draugr. "Blood ale, undead. If you want any more, you will give me my boon."

The draugr rose, slowly. His fur mantle closed about him. Cold spread from him. My breath turned into a wisp of vapor.


"How do I find Ivar The Dwarf?"

"He lives in a hidden valley," the draugr said. "Travel to Highlands and find Cliffside lake. At the north edge of the lake, you will see a trail leading you to the mountain scarred by lightning. Make the offering of gold, silver, and iron, and the dwarf will permit you to enter."

I released the runes and backed away. "The blood ale is yours."

"It's grown cold."

I kept backing up.

Magic accreted around the draugr like a second cloak. "I do not want it. I want my blood hot."

Mayday, mayday. "That's not the deal we made."

I passed the stick guarding the road.

"I make deals and I break them."

The wooden stick between us shivered in the ground.

"There is no escape, meat."

The cocoon of the draugr's magic burst with icy fury, snapping at me with dark fingers. The stick shot from the ground and pierced the draugr's head.

I ran.

Behind me a wail of pure fury tore through the forest and Ghastek's voice barked, "Secure the creature!"

Magic exploded with mind-numbing intensity. My eyes watered. The breath in my lungs turned into a clump of ice. The path veered right. As I took the turn at a break neck speed, I saw the draugr, towering over the trees, a mantle of dark magic streaming from his shoulders as he ripped a vampire in a half with his colossal hands.

"I have your scent," the giant roared. "You won't escape!"

The translucent flood of magic crested the edge of the glade and rolled down, chasing me.

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