The sun touched the water’s edge and the sky took on the color of red gold. The tide would begin to ebb soon, but the crew of the Vidofnir had not yet taken up oars and her sail was still furled. Fifteen years ago, they had fled their homes, and for fifteen years the start of every voyage was marked the same way. Stigander stood in the stern, his feet set wide and his arms crossed as he looked out over his men. Einarr joined him.
Reki stood in the prow of the boat, her cloak thrown open and her head exposed. Her skin washed amber in the light of sunset, and her straight white hair looked as though it were made of spun gold. How her previous crew thought she could be bad luck, Einarr could not understand. What clearer portent of wealth ahead could there be? She opened her mouth, and in low dulcet tones began the recitation they all awaited.
Leafy rug lies under
Lee of rock ridge, the
Free-hearted Raen’s hold
High built, its vigil born
To guard men above gold.
Grant plenty, pious king,
But forget not folly
Of fate-dabbler’s design.
It was his grandfather’s story, the founding of Raenshold well-nigh seventy years ago. Before Raen came to power theirs had been a weak clan, really not much more than a scattering of freeholds across the Breidelsteinn archipelago. Over the course of a decade, Grandfather had transformed Breidelsteinn from the laughingstock of the seas to one of its foremost powers. He had been only forty when he made Stigander the captain of their fleet and settled in to complete the fortress at Raenshold and administer their lands.
The time drew near. A whisper rippled through the crew, no louder than the lapping of water on the hull, as Reki continued to recite. Hands moved to oars, but they did not yet push off. The cue had not yet come.
Raen’s folly, a fair lass
Flax-haired, by eye-gleams held:
Urdr did he woo, under
Umber moon she swooned.
No troth spoke though one she
Took: the ring-breaker Raen
She would wed. When sea-steed
Stole Raen, Urdr did remain.
A low grinding of sand against the hull marked the moment the Vidofnir pushed off the kjelling shores.
Unwisely wooed, Urdr
Bore Ulfr, boy-child of
Greyed eyes, guileful blade.
Threads Urdr traced, fiber spun
While wolf’s fangs he forg’d.
To seek redress on swan’s road
Their uncut thread binds all.
Einarr had been six when his half-uncle and the woman his grandfather had set aside appeared at Raenshold, and had only heard second-hand what happened. His maternal grandparents had requested he come for the summer, and so as they sailed for the summer’s hunt on the waves, Father had left Mamma and him at their freehold. When they all returned late that fall, it was like a black haze hovered over the island. The Vidofnir sailed near enough to port that Einarr could see men dangling like fruit from the hanging tree.
That was when they had been attacked by every longship already in port. Einarr remembered the look on his father’s face when the man had been forced to choose between leading an assault against the force had taken their home and protecting his wife and son. Though it had only lasted for a moment, that was the face of a man in agony.
His father wore that same look now, as he did every time they reached this point of the song and the oars dipped into the water. The Vidofnir had wintered that year at Mamma’s freehold, and that was where Einarr lived until he was old enough to sail with Father. By then, they’d pieced together what happened.
Ulfr did usurp, and Urdr does
Under cursèd thrall snarl
Mountain’s men, and entomb’d
Raen maltreats. Raven-wine
By Art bound, and by Art’s touch
Alone undone: hie home,
Raen’s sons, soon your birthright
Save, and cut the woven chain.
Those who did not row knocked their blades against their shields. Those who did opened their mouths and let loose with the ululating black song – the cry of a warrior who will die for their cause. Einarr closed his eyes and joined them, ignoring for the moment that he was the one person aboard who was not allowed to do so. Stigander was unlikely to produce a second heir now.
As the black song died down, Einarr opened his eyes again and glanced sidelong at his father. The look of anguish from the story was already fading into the sorrowful, grim determination that had become so familiar. With a pang, he realized that this was the first time since he’d come aboard that it had not been one of his stepmothers up there. He leaned over to whisper in Stigander’s ear “You alright?”
His father’s only response was a curt nod, followed by a wan smile before he strode forward toward the middle of the Vidofnir. Einarr did not miss that Bardr thrust a skin at his father, nor the way Stigander drank from it. He sighed: perhaps later he would join his father under his awning and drink until the dawn with him. It would be better for both of them than the melancholy solitude that threatened.