The giant serpent patrolled back and forth before their hiding place, its belly crackling in the leaf mold. Sorcery gleamed blue along its scales and glittered on its spread hood.
"The ship won't leave without us," Sinbad said. This time he almost believed himself.
"I am sorry to say you're right," said Gunnar. He was hunched uncomfortably beneath the cave's low roof.
"You're saying you want to be stranded on Snake Island?"
Gunnar gave him a speaking look. "Do you want the others to come looking for us?"
They both regarded the huge viper outside.
"Maybe not," said Sinbad.
He settled on his haunches. Gunnar crouched, and eased the muscles of his neck.
"I don't suppose you have a mongoose in your pocket?" Sinbad asked.
Gunnar shrugged. "Not right now."
"At home," said Sinbad, "when we came across a snake, we pinned its head with a forked stick."
"I don't have a forked tree trunk in my pocket either," said Gunnar. He spoke so solemnly that Sinbad couldn't tell if he heard his own innuendo or not. And people said the Northmen were jolly, all drinking and dick jokes. What did they know.
Shadows lengthened, the sun settled, and the air began to cool off--especially inside their little cave. They leaned against each other, shoulder on shoulder.
The third time Sinbad's head nodded and jerked up again, Gunnar said quietly, "Go ahead. I'll wake you if something happens."
Sinbad scoffed, and pinched himself to keep the drowsiness at bay. "Don't snakes ever get sleepy?" he complained. "Magical snakes are the worst snakes."
He stared gloomily at the serpent. It was moving more slowly now, but still moving, the rising moon painting it silver.
"Huh," said Gunnar.
"Magical snakes," said Gunnar.
"Yessss?" Sinbad asked patiently.
Gunnar crept forward in the cave, getting a little too close to the opening for Sinbad's comfort.
"You are not going to try to feed yourself to the snake so I can get away," said Sinbad at once. "So stop it."
Light eyes flashed at him in the dusk, and for a moment Sinbad could have sworn he saw a laugh in them. "Magical sleep, for magical snakes."
"What, like--" Sinbad wiggled all his fingers sorcerer-style-- "SLEEEEEEP."
Gunnar paid no attention to that, which was what it deserved. He busied himself with something in his hands, looked like a flat rock and a sharp rock.
Sinbad moved up warily to take a closer look. Gunnar was carving something into the flat rock with strong, straight strokes, scraping them good and deep. Fresh white scars appeared against the dull stone.
"What is it?"
"Svefnthorn," said Gunnar.
"Bless you," said Sinbad.
Gunnar looked to the ceiling for a moment. "Svefnthorn," he repeated. "I heard about it in stories when I was a boy. Its sting brings magical sleep."
"For magical snakes?"
He finished the carving, which was jagged with hooks on one end, and neat with a curlicue on the other. It did look like a stinger, of sorts.
"Now," said Gunnar, and dropped onto his belly. He wormed his way toward the little cave opening, like Sinbad's own personal giant serpent.
Careful, Sinbad wanted to say, and didn't. He wouldn't permit himself to think about anything happening to Gunnar. Instead he stared at the viper with all his might, thinking sleepy thoughts.
Just as the giant tail passed all the way to the side of the opening, right before the viper doubled back on itself to turn around, Gunnar poked the runestone out beneath the leaf-mold and right into its path. Then he crept backward until his shoulder pressed Sinbad's again. Sinbad let out a tight breath and wrapped a hand around Gunnar's wrist. Sleep, he thought. Have nice snake dreams.
The snake slithered right over the hidden stone, got all the way across, doubled back on itself for another pass across the cave-mouth. Sinbad's stomach dropped. He had almost thought it might--
The crackling of scales in the leaves slowed. Slowed. Stopped. The hood folded in, the great head sank down.
If snakes could snore, this one would have.
Sinbad squeezed Gunnar's arm gratefully, and scrambled out of the cave. He hauled Gunnar out through the little opening much as he'd originally hauled him in--it was more of a Sinbad-sized hiding place--and they leapt over the giant tail-tip and ran pell-mell down the slope leading to the sea.
After the fifth round of toasts to Snake Island--more specifically, toasts to never seeing it again--everyone scattered slowly to their berths, Tiger on midnight watch.
"Sleeping?" asked Sinbad, poking his head into the little cubby Gunnar had claimed for his own. Gunnar finished pulling his tunic off over his head and blinked at him. The great muscles of his shoulders gleamed in the candle's light.
"Me neither," said Sinbad, when Gunnar didn't answer. "How come you never mentioned Saveffen-- thing-- before?"
"It was only a story," said Gunnar. He hesitated a moment, holding his tunic in front of him like a bashful bride. Then he turned and hung it on a hook. Below his trews, his feet were bare on the smooth deck. He turned back, looked steadily at Sinbad, his pale eyes gentle.
"I want to hear your stories," said Sinbad. "Even the unpronounceable ones. Haven't you figured that out yet?"
"I admit," Gunnar said, "I had hoped."
Sinbad came forward and into the circle of his powerful arms, which held him gently and almost tentatively. Sinbad grasped Gunnar's shoulders, stretched up into his kiss, and suckled fiercely at him until the arms tightened with a surge.
"There," said Sinbad against Gunnar's panting mouth. "Come on, then."
Lying across Gunnar's expanse of bare chest, the hammock swinging beneath them, Sinbad yawned.
"Go ahead," said Gunnar, much as he had in the cave.
"You'll wake me if something happens?" Sinbad echoed wryly. "Don't you ever get to sleep?"
Gunnar shrugged, his eyes lazily searching Sinbad's face with a peaceful full-fed look Sinbad had never seen before.
"How about I wake you if something happens," Sinbad said firmly. "How about you get some rest from saving my ass all the time."
Gunnar stroked Sinbad's ass without comment, his fingers broad and warm across the sensitive skin. Sinbad grinned.
Then he lowered his head to Gunnar's chest and slowly traced a shape with his tongue, the best he could remember it, the many sharp edges and the long line sweeping down to the graceful curl.
By the time he finished, Gunnar was asleep, his hand gone limp in the small of Sinbad's back.
"Well, what do you know," Sinbad whispered. He watched him long into the night.