For five days they sailed east, by oar as often as by wind, before they caught so much as a glimpse of a reef in the water. Even then, it was little more than a damp spot, big enough for the skua nest it held and nothing else. It was too late in the year for eggs, but Irding checked anyway. Fresh eggs were a rare treat on the water, after all.
Over the next two days they saw more small rocks, much like the bird’s nest. Once in a while they would spot a seal slipping back into the water: that, too, would have provided some nice variety in their diet of gravlax and hard tack had they only had a javelin to catch one with. For all that Runa was the one least accustomed to eating like a sailor, however, she only complained once, and that was when the pack of hard tack she was bringing up from below got drenched by a rogue wave.
After just over a week out of port, Einarr realized that the haze on the horizon was not just haze, and not so far away as the horizon: they were sailing into a bank of fog in the middle of an otherwise sunny and warm day.
“Well that’s not natural,” Erik grumbled.
Jorir raised an eyebrow. “Think we’re getting close?”
“Hm. More than likely. Runa?”
“Probably, yes. You wish me to sharpen your eyes?”
Einarr peered forward as the song began to pour forth from Runa’s mouth, but as they grew nearer the fog became if anything more impenetrable. Finally, as their boat slipped into the mist and the air grew dim around them, he told her to stop. “It’s not working. I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way.”
“Through this? As careful as I can. Watch for rocks, everyone.”
Runa shook her head, but did not explain.
“If you know something, now would be a really good time to tell us.” Einarr tried not to growl at her.
She shook her head again. “I don’t, really. It’s just that for the song not to pierce the fog, that probably means its magical. And there’s no telling what might be hiding in a magical fog.”
“So long as the Tower of Ravens is, we’ll deal with whatever it throws at us.”
“As you say.” She sounded dubious, but as she was the one experienced in magic he let it pass.
“Steady as she goes! We run aground here and paying Sor for his boat will be the least of our worries.”
A chorus of ‘aye’s echoed from out of the mist, and only then did Einarr realize he could see no-one but Runa. Jorir, the next closest, looked like nothing more than a shadow. Here goes nothing…
The mist began to swirl about his feet, the only sign they were still moving save the creak of the oars and the occasional thump against a rock. He had to resist the urge to hold his breath in the muffled field of the mist.
After a while – none aboard could have said how long – the air began to grow brighter. As they continued, the forms of his companions resolved into flesh and blood once more. Einarr raised his head hopefully, eager to catch a first glimpse of the tower. The sight that greeted him instead was the open ocean. The position of the sun said they were now facing West – back the way they had come. “What devilry is this?”
“Perhaps the best circumstance we could hope for.” Runa’s voice now sounded weary, as though she had expected no more. “The fog exists to keep people away from the sanctum of the bird-spies. I had feared much worse than a maze.”
Einarr swore. That she was almost certainly right made no difference: they were ill-equipped for such a challenge, and would have been even in the Vidofnir. But ill-equipped or no, there was no way around what they had to do. “Turn her around, boys. Let’s try this again.”
Not all of the groaning came from the old wood of the boat as Erik and Irding hauled on the oars and Einarr pulled at the tiller. “Since we’re dealing with a maze, I guess we need to be a bit more methodical about this.”
Once more they edged into the fog, Einarr wracking his mind, trying to figure out a way to track their progress in this situation. When the fog grew dim again and he heard the characteristic thump of an oar pushing off a rock, he thought he might have a method. “Stop!”
There was a hurried splash and a scraping sound from the oars as one of them came into contact with another rock.
“Those rocks we just found – light a torch, I want to have a look.”
A glowing ball of light appeared aft of the tiller and shortly resolved into Runa. At this proximity, in the glow of the torch, her hair shone like gold.
“Thank you, my dear,” he murmured.
“How far away do you actually think you’ll be able to see these torches?”
“I don’t know, but I aim to find out.” He took the proffered torch and strode forward to where Erik and Irding held their oars out of the water. He held the torch out over the water, leaning over the railing himself in search of a crack to wedge the light into.
“Ah! Let’s try there. Erik, a rope.”
“What are you even thinking of?” The big man’s voice rumbled out of the darkness.
“A way to mark our path, I hope. Come on, tie it around my waist. I think I can just reach.”
With the rope secured about him and Erik bracing the other end, Einarr climbed over the railing. He hooked his top foot around a slat and braced the other against the hull as he leaned out over the water. The crack he had spotted in the rather damp rock was just barely within reach of the base of the torch, which he jammed forward.
“Okay, Erik. Pull me in!”
Something cold wrapped itself around the leg braced against the hull and pulled. Einarr let out a surprised yell as the cold water closed over him.
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