The passing of the storm took with it the ever-present gray of the sky of the ships’ graveyard. If there was one advantage they had on the trip out that they had lacked on the way in, it was the lack of fog – at least for the moment. If there was a second, it was the knowledge that there were no more kalalintu on the island. Still, these were small mercies at best, and the sharpest eyes on the crew had one task: spotting. Everyone else took their turn at the oars, shoving off of submerged sand bars to the calls of the spotters.
Einarr was not among those set to spotting. The foresight spoken of by the Oracle and the foresight required for that task were very different things and so he, too, was among those whose prime task was “hurry up and wait.”
Not that this was without its upside: the sun, now that it had emerged, shone off the water brightly enough to make him squint when he looked over the side. The spotters would be seeing spots for hours after they got through this. He gripped his oar and stared out towards the horizon.
The Vidofnir, her sail furled against errant gusts of frigid wind, crept forward through the shallows with a caution belied by the crowing rooster’s head on her prow. The oars extended out like a hundred hands to push off the shallows by the calls of those within. Seemingly at random, the lumbering longship would veer quite suddenly, the sandbar ahead undetected until the last moment by those within.
Once, as her halting forward progress seemed to become more sure of itself, the Vidofnir shuddered to a halt on a bar the spotters had missed. Then men swarmed from within, carrying what tools they had to dig at the submerged sand until she could start forward again. One of these men, shorter than the rest, grumbled about the lack of powder kegs aboard, but it seemed the rest ignored his complaints.
Once Vidofnir floated free again the men swarmed back onto her broad back and stomped their feet to warm them, hoping their trouser legs would dry before they froze in the wind, and then the sea-steed continued on again, her caution renewed.
For hours this halting, tremulous progress continued, until finally the sand bars fell away and a large rock, more truly an island than the one they had just left, reared up out of the sea ahead of them. The sea had worn away a narrow canyon that split the rock, and were it not for the tide through that canyon even it would be impassable.
Stillness fell over the Vidofnir as she entered the canyon, as of a collective holding of breath. She paused there a long moment, the ship’s eyes blinking away the glare of the sun so they could focus on the shadowed water below and the known danger it hid. Her hold was full to bursting now, and it was a weighty wealth indeed.
On deck, gripping his oar tight enough to whiten his knuckles, Einarr forcibly expelled a breath he knew he could not hold long enough to pass through the chute. The troublesome rock had been nearer this end of the canyon than the other – much nearer. Jorir still grumbled about the lack of explosives on board, and just this once Einarr thought the dwarf might be on to something. However, it was typically only Imperials who packed gunpowder on their boats, and then it was to power the machines that launched sea fire.
Einarr closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled again. Eira preserve us. For a split-second, he wished he still had the Isinntog. He didn’t know how to make it work, of course, but Reki might. He shook his head, banishing the wishful thinking.
“Hold!” The call came from the prow. Almost as one the rowers reversed for one stroke. Sufficient, at their current speed.
“You’ve spotted the hangup?” Stigander asked from his place amidships.
“Nay, sir. Not the hangup.”
“Then why have we stopped?”
“You’d best come see, sir.” The spotter’s voice was uncertain, flustered.
The thunk of Stigander’s boots against the deck boards was loud as he tromped up to have a look at what the spotter did not wish to say. He leaned over the prow to look down into the water and a groan escaped his lips.
“Pick up the pace, gentlemen,” was all he said.
Einarr stopped his father with a look as he passed by, an eyebrow raised.
Stigander leaned over in response to the unspoken query and whispered: “Sea serpent.”
Einarr blinked a few times and nodded. Svarek, next to him, began muttering what sounded like a prayer to Eira, but it seemed he was the only other person to hear. Probably a sea serpent would leave them alone. Something about a longship failed to trigger their predatory instincts the way a dromon could. But every once in a while…
“Oars in!” Stigander ordered, and it was the second shock in as many minutes for most of the crew. The urgency in his voice brooked no delay.
“Brace for a swell!”
The oarsmen planted their feet even as the spotters ducked behind the prow just as a massive swell lifted the Vidofnir’s stern and thrust her forward, carrying her far past the place they all thought they remembered the hangup being. Water sloshed over the deck, cresting the stern and breaching the oar ports.
Silence reigned on the deck for a few moments before Einarr could find voice to give the question that now floated in his brain.
“Was that the serpent’s wake that carried us?”
Stigander’s jaw dropped. When he picked it back up, a chuckle welled up from his chest. “It may well have been!”
Now the laughter spread around the crew, a sound of relief at least as much as merriment. As it died down the rowers went back to their rows and the spotters resumed their positions in the prow.
“Let’s get out of here.”