4.26 – A New Deal

Einarr froze a moment, frowning, certain that he’d offended her but not sure why. Then, unbidden, the memory of the bird-thing’s transformation forced itself to the forefront of his brain again and made his stomach twist. Reki was no monster, but everyone was going to be on edge today.

Some more than others, it appeared. One or two of the younger deck hands were still cowering beneath the railing, covering their heads or hugging their arms tight across their chests, their eyes still plainly fixated on one of the two monstrosities that had revealed itself today. Einarr left them their privacy: either Runa’s song could mend their minds or it couldn’t, but there would be no honor in calling them out for cowardice.

Runa was tending the wounded, still, a very full water skin in her hand. He would give her time for her voice to rest – and maybe see if he couldn’t help Reki out with that as well. Decided, now, he headed back to where his father and Captain Kragnir still stood. They were not arguing – not yet – but from the set of their shoulders they couldn’t be far off.

“This is not a matter of trusting your honor, Stigander,” Kragnir was saying. “The boy has already tried to steal his bride once. My Jarl would have my head if I left her unsupervised on your ship.”

“So instead you want to keep her aboard a ship with the ones we just rescued her from? Who may not even be men anymore?”

“They surrendered themselves to be made into thralls. Would a beast do that?”

“A cunning one, aye.”

Einarr cleared his throat.

Both Captains turned to glare at him. “What?”

“Father, not all of the men have reacted well to what they saw today. I suspect it may be the same for them. What if some of the Brunnings – those who might be uneasy, say, with the new thralls and their strange cult – came aboard? It’s not like we’re in any position to go raiding now.”

“You are proposing that I send the feeble-minded to guard the honor of our Lady?” Captain Kragnir’s eyes appeared ready to pop out of his skull and his face began to redden.

“Who said anything about the feeble-minded? I’ve seen the cultists exposed for what they are three times now: you’ll not get me aboard ship with one, let alone your crew of thralls. Even if you do cut out their tongues so they can’t spread their filth.”

“My son does have a good head on his shoulders, when he bothers to use it.” Stigander grumbled. “What’s more, he’s right about something else, as well. We’d be hard-pressed to defend ourselves right now, let alone go raiding, and we do have business with the Conclave. Send over Trabbi and some of the others while you train your new ‘prizes,’ and we’ll make sure to take care of any wounded you get while defending us on our way there. It even keeps the young Lady out of harm’s way should there be a fight.”

Kragnir’s glare fell on Einarr, but he said nothing. After what felt like a long time, he seemed to realize there was nothing to say – nothing reasonable, anyway. With a growl, the Brunning Captain gave a nod and a wave of his hand.

“Think on taking their tongues, Captain,” Einarr said, meeting the man’s eye again. “We don’t know how they win converts, after all.”

Captain Kragnir harrumphed, and Einarr refused to push the issue. When he turned, he saw Bollinn speaking with Jorir: one way or another, the thralls would be dealt with. Finally, it felt as though the day were at an end. The wave of exhaustion that had pushed him back from the front lines early in the fight against the Grendel started to reassert itself, and with it came an unaccustomed queasiness.

Einarr blinked and looked at the sky: at some point, afternoon had started to dim into twilight. No wonder he felt tired, then. Given the fighting that day, both inside the cave temple and on the open waves, surely none would blame him if he were to rest until Snorli had supper prepared. Wish I could wash first…

On his way to his bedroll, Einarr glanced over the side: however far they may have floated since battle’s end, it looked as though there was still blood in the water. Even if he convinced someone to help him back aboard, taking a dip would just leave him bloody and salted. He folded his legs beneath him on top of his blanket and practically fell backwards. Halfway down he stopped when what felt like a knob of glass jabbed into his ribs.

Einarr sat up with a jolt and felt the color drain from his face as his throat clenched. The post-battle nausea was definitely not normal… but that could hardly be called a normal battle, either. He swallowed and tamped down on the feeling before turning to find out what it was that had tried to stab him.

Sitting in the middle of his bedroll, as though he had placed it there himself, was an Imperial-style painted ceramic jar with a knob in the center of the lid. Einarr furrowed his eyebrows. Those red figures on the black background seemed familiar, somehow. “Where did this come from?”

He did not realize he’d spoken aloud until someone answered him – Asi, from three berths down. “It’s not yours?”

“I mean, I suppose I’m the one that found it, back in the Allthane’s stash… could’ve sworn I’d tossed it, though.”

“Huh. Might hang on to it this time. You don’t look so good.”

Einarr grunted. “Nothing a good sauna wouldn’t solve, I don’t think. I’ll check with the Singers later.”

He would, if he still felt sick once their voices had a chance to rest. In the meantime, he had no intention of moving from this spot until dinner called.


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4.27 – Coming Soon

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4.25 – Unnatural Selection

The volley of arrows flew in a flaming arc from the Vidofnir across to the enemy vessel. At the peak of that arc, the crew brought their axes down into the deck boards. Not one of them missed, despite the fact that they all seemed to be crowded around the mast – in the area the Grendelings had actively avoided traversing.

Time seemed to slow for Einarr as the last of their flaming arrows buried themselves in the damaged deck of the enemy vessel. Moments later, the enemy crew was gone, vanished into the maw of the creature that replaced them. Einarr had a far better view of the monstrosity this time than the one on board the Grendel: he wished he hadn’t.

The first thing he saw was the crimson beak that shot upward – not the beak of a seabird, but of a massive squid – once again far more massive than should have been able to fit beneath the deck of a longship. Then the beak retracted and in its place climbed a curtain of tentacles that writhed in the rain.

Fear was not an emotion the Vidofnings were accustomed to, in the main. However, as the wall of webbed flesh climbed the mast and rose up toward the clouds, farther than even the tales told of kraken could hope to reach, there was not a man among them but felt a cold shiver of dread up their spine.

“Fall back! All hands – to oars!” Stigander’s order rang loud and clear across the deck of the Vidofnir. The helmsman threw his weight against the rudder even as the back line of archers fought to turn the sail. Despite the mass of writhing flesh that now tore through their sail to perch at the top of the mast, the enemy ship seemed stable for now.

The thing on top of it was another matter. Einarr could not tear his eyes away as he slung his bow over his shoulder: he would have to deal with the string later. If there was one thing to be glad of as he lunged for the end of an oar, it was that Jorir had just sharpened his blade. He threw his back into rowing while the new monstrosity twitched and writhed, sprouting feathered wings in nonsensical locations at impossible angles.

Stigander’s cadence was harsh and rapid, and slowly the Vidofnir began to pull away from the cultist’s vessel. The mass of wings and tentacles perched atop the mast twitched and writhed, until Einarr thought he could see its beak poking out through the top. A groaning of wood suggested that the mast would not hold out much longer – although it was hard to tell if the mast would go before the burning deck or not.

The creature beat its wings and the groaning became a cracking, somehow still audible over the sound of wind through the thing’s feathers. Three more convulsive wing beats brought the monstrosity fully into the air, and as its tentacles released the mast the shattered wood tumbled down into the sea.

Stigander’s cadence had ceased at some point during all this as every eye aboard the Vidofnir was drawn to the abomination that now, somehow, flew overhead. Part of Einarr thought they had wasted their last volley on the ship that now foundered not a hundred yards away from their port bow… not that he thought shooting that thing would do any good.

The monstrosity turned a ponderous circle in the air and flapped off back the way they had come. A moment later, Einarr heard the Brunning’s war cry, which still did not manage to drown out the thunder-clap of a reinforced keel tearing through the clinks of the last enemy’s bow or the tooth-grating keening that came from below its deck.

“Stand down.” Stigander was audibly weary, as well he might be at this stage of a battle. Down by a third of her crew, battle-scarred, and out of ammunition, the Vidofnir was out of the fight… but if Captain Kragnir couldn’t manage a single enemy vessel on his own, he deserved to lose.

***

As boarding actions go, the Skudbrun’s had been straightforward. Robbed of whatever it was that had been below their deck before the Brunning charge had broken its cage, the warriors aboard the last of the cultish vessels folded quickly. When Stigander brought the Vidofnir alongside the Skudbrun, Kragnir was in the midst of branding the surrendered as thralls.

“…You sure that’s wise?” Stigander called across.

“Perhaps not,” Kragnir answered, his words accentuated by the sizzle of flesh. “But it is Correct.”

Jorir made a disapproving noise from farther back in the ship – too far back, Einarr was sure, for the Brunnings to hear. Probably it was, in fact, very unwise to even think of these warriors as men any longer. On the other hand, when one’s enemies became no longer human, but merely beasts… well, that way lay depravity. Einarr shook his head.

“What kept you?” Kragnir had turned, now, and moved to face Stigander on the Vidofnir.

“An old grudge and a difficult fight.” Stigander shook his head. “Our little ruse failed to deceive the Grendel.”

Boots on deck stopped next to where Einarr stood, and an elbow reached out to jostle him. “’An I were you, I’d not let the Lady on board with all those so-called prisoners,” Jorir whispered.

Einarr nodded, slowly. He would not fault the truth of his own eyes, although he could not blame the other Captain for his reluctance: even still, those sailors had forsaken their humanity. “I have an idea.”

He found Reki and Runa both amidships, treating the wounded among their number. Einarr cleared his throat to catch their attention: Runa beamed at him even as she kept singing, but when Reki looked at him with her albino eyes it was jarring in a way it had not been since she came aboard. Still he beckoned her over.

“What is it?” she croaked.

He offered her his water skin as small consolation for requiring her voice further. “Captain Kragnir is taking prisoners off one of the boats.”

Reki’s grimace could have frozen the rapidly calming sea around them, but she took a swig of the proffered water.

“I thought I recalled you wanting to pay a visit to the Singer’s conclave, though, and I believe Runa is still expected there…”

Reki nodded, taking another swig before wiping her mouth on the back of her arm. “I’ll have a word with the Captain. Good thinking.”

She took two steps towards the two Captains, paused, and then thrust the water skin back at his chest.


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4.24 – Fire Rain

Einarr limbered his bow as the enemy ships came into view. The storms that carried them after the Skudbrun swirled together, each intensifying the others, so that sheeting rain obscured their targets and threatened to render their assault worse than useless. Still, even under its own rainstorm the Grendel had burned.

The Vidofnir’s prow ducked as it crested a wave and entered the storm once more. There had been few issues with traction against the Grendel simply because of where they had engaged her: not so here. Their ally was in view, however, and also within the tempest.

“Draw!” Bardr gave the order. The Vidofnings at the prow raised their bows and prepared to fire, but held. Bardr now walked along their ranks, lighting their arrows from the torch in his hand. Idly, Einarr wondered how many arrows, and how much pitch, they had left after this volley. At least one more, judging by the deckhand off to the side busily wrapping pitched cloth about arrowheads.

“Aim!”

Einarr lifted his bow towards the mast of the nearest vessel – their only possible target at this stage. He took a deep breath to steady his arm and his mind. Over their heads, the flames danced in the wind and raindrops hissed away from their touch. A gust howled, high overhead, and the Vidofnir tilted to port under its influence. Right about now, Einarr might actually welcome a Valkyrie ship – especially if it had sea-fire.

The ship righted itself, and in a moment of calm the order finally came. “Fire!”

Twenty arrows screamed across the gulf between their two vessels, straight and true. Their target seemed to rear up, cresting a wave, as the volley reached them, and fire embedded itself in the enemy’s deck and sail. Thank you, Eira.

That there were even twenty of them available to fire right now spoke of how hard the oar crew labored: that there were only twenty available spoke of how hard a summer this had been already. Einarr accepted a second wrapped arrow and nocked it to his string.

The crew of the ship they had fired on last looked like rats as they scurried about on deck. Einarr could not tell from here if they were looking to put out the fires or prepare a counter-volley. Strangely, the thought did not worry him. All that mattered in this moment was his next arrow.

Runa’s voice rang out over the storm – a variation Einarr had only rarely heard, and yet this was twice in one day. It was the opposite of the battle chant, in many ways, sung most often for the old and the feeble-minded. He felt an unusual clarity settle around his shoulders, and a small smile parted his lips. Brilliant, my love.

“Draw!” Once more Bardr began moving back and forth among them, lighting their arrows as they prepared to fire. The torch smoked heavily in the rain, but did not begin to gutter. Yet.

Einarr drew back his nocked arrow. They would hit again, he was sure: Runa was the bearer of the Isinntog, which meant that they had the attention of the goddess. And if they had the attention of the goddess, she would not abandon them against foes such as these.

“Aim!”

The archers aboard the Vidofnir moved with greater confidence this time, he thought, bolstered by the last volley and by Runa’s song. Hit, and catch! He urged the fire dancing above his head just before the order came:

“Fire!”

Their arrows launched as though they had been fired by one man, and if the winds moved some few around it was to the amusement of those who fired. The arrows all landed in a rough circle surrounding the mast of the enemy ship.

The rats aboard the other ship ceased their scurrying, now: that was definitely a counter-volley they had organized.

“Shields!” Einarr bellowed. He thought Bardr would forgive him the indiscretion, under the circumstances. Even being the one to notice, he barely raised his in time for no fewer than three arrows to strike into it.

Some few weren’t so lucky. Einarr heard two or three cry out in pain. When he risked a glance, he saw men being helped back toward where the Singers could tend to their wounds. With a harrumph, he turned back around, studying the enemy ship for signs of a true blaze.

He was not disappointed. Those same rats he’d seen organizing a counterattack now scrambled every which way even as their helm turned to starboard, effectively breaking off their pursuit. Einarr was too far to see sparks, but he thought he caught the darkening of smoke surrounding their mast.

Stigander’s voice rose above the storm: do not engage. Let them sink or swim as they could – the Skudbrun was waiting, and Einarr didn’t think they had many more volleys remaining.

The Vidofnir turned off to port, leaving the enemy ship and its horrific underbelly to founder in its own storm. That just left two more. Einarr and the other archers nocked their third volley of arrows as they waited to narrow their distance from the third ship. Once again they drew, and once again fire rained down on their enemies.

Einarr let out a whoop when he saw the second volley flying through the storm toward the forward-most ship. He could not yet see the Skudbrun, but the Brunnings had seen them. The rest of the archers processed what he had seen almost as quickly, and with just as much enthusiasm. Now they stood a chance.

Bardr distributed the next volley’s worth of fire arrows among the team – the last, unless Father had more arrows stashed below deck somewhere – but if luck and the goddess’ blessing held, one more should be enough. The enemy vessels burned like pine for all of their blackness. Still, Bardr waited to call the volley until they were alongside their enemy – not near enough for boarding, but near enough to look them in the eye as they fired.

“Draw!”

As before, one of the young deckhands moved among the shallow ranks of archers with a torch, lighting the arrow wraps behind him.

“Aim!”

What were they doing over there, though? It seemed as though the enemy ship paid no heed to the Vidofnir and the tiny motes of fire they were about to launch towards their own ship. Instead, they were gathered amidships: Einarr thought he saw defiant stares on the faces of men with axes raised high, as though they were about to cut into their own boat…

“Fire!”


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4.23 – Changing Tide

Einarr had Sinmora at the top of her swing when a pair of shoulders barreled into his knees from behind. His eyes widened in shock as he fell, moments before yet another tentacle shot across the open space where his head had been.

A man among the archers screamed. Einarr caught a glimpse of hair even redder than his own on the struggling Vidofning above and flinched. There was nothing he could do from here. Skora. I’m so sorry.

An arrow flew up from behind them, but even as it bounced off the monstrosity’s tough hide Einarr heard the sickening crunch of bone and their crewman went limp. He rolled to the side, off the back of the man who had tackled him and saved his life.

It was Sivid. Einarr offered the mousey man a hand back to his feet and a nod of appreciation, although the latter was waved off as the smaller man limped back towards where the archers were preparing to launch another volley. Einarr shook his head to clear it: there was only one thing to be done right now, and that was break free. He raised Sinmora high overhead again, waiting for the moment when Irding’s blade withdrew and he could strike.

If there was one benefit to the soaking rainstorm that surrounded the Grendel, it was that the monstrosity’s blood did not cling to the deck and the crew as it might have. Even still, the fetid stink was beginning to work on Einarr’s insides as he brought his blade back down with force. His efforts were rewarded with not one, but two spurts of the foul black liquid – one from Sinmora’s strike, and one from the team behind him. A section of the foul flesh fell to the deck between them and the first of the three arms slid away from the prow. What I wouldn’t give for a bath house at the end of this…

Another pair of arms reached for the Vidofnir, but hesitated. It seemed the thing was not insensate to pain. Rather than grab for the ship again, it used these arms to slap at its side. Two more men went overboard, and soon there was a cloud of red in the water where they disappeared. For perhaps the first time in his life Einarr wished he had an Art, that he might use it to curse the beast.

More fire sailed across the gap to embed itself in the chitinous flesh of the beast across the way. The wail was louder this time, though no less chilling, and the second of three tentacles loosed its grip on the Vidofnir. It did not retreat, though, as much as the Vidofnings might have wished it would. No: this arm raised itself up in the air to slam down into the water next to the Vidofnir. A span to the right would have capsized them: Einarr heard muttered prayers from among his crewmen but could not take the time to join them. That second arm was already raising back up, only this time he thought it was going to strike at the crew.

Einarr gulped air, trying to catch his breath, and brought Sinmora up to strike as it did.

A third volley of fire filled the air between their two ships. With a scream, the demonic octopus withdrew the last of its tentacles. Einarr watched as an inky black blob pushed itself out of the hole in the Grendel’s deck, uncounted arms still whole, and rolled itself into the sea. Einarr wanted to be relieved when it slipped into the water, its black blood forming a trail as it swam away. Wanted to, but could not. He swallowed, but it was not enough to wet his suddenly dry throat. “What…” he started.

“Was…” Erik continued, his face a mirror of shock.

“That?” Stigander demanded, looking square at Jorir.

The dwarf shook his head. “Something that should not be.”

“Will it come after us?”

“I don’t think so, not right now anyway.”

“Can it be killed?”

Jorir again shook his head, this time adding a helpless shrug.

“Father.” Einarr interrupted before Stigander could demand more answers his liege-man plainly did not have. He still felt sick, and there was at least one more matter that was more urgent. “I think Jorir is as clueless as the rest of us, here.”

Stigander harrumphed but did not press the dwarf further.

“How did you know there was something there?”

“The keening. It… it sounded like something I heard before I left home. Never saw it, though it always set my teeth on edge.”

Stigander growled. “Fine. All right, men, row for all you’re worth! The Brunnings are waiting.”

Einarr stepped over next to where Jorir leaned against the side of the boat. “So what do you place the odds at that each of those other ships will have something equally wrong filling their holds.”

The dwarf exhaled loudly, blowing the edges of his black moustache. “Too high. Hand me your blade, I’ll make sure she’s sharp before we catch up.”

Without a word, Einarr handed his sworn vassal the sword. Soon the sound of steel on a whetstone could be heard over the rapid cadence of the ships rowers and the wind billowing in the sail. Ahead, the nearness of the thick storm clouds showed they were catching up to their targets.

Einarr retrieved his sword, and it was immediately followed by Erik’s axe at the blacksmith’s whetstone. Already they were nearly out of time for sharpening, but at the promise of another fight like the last one it was worth it. Meanwhile, their reserves of pitch had been brought forward, and quivers’ worth of arrows had their heads wrapped to rain fire on their foes. Sinmora’s edge glinted brightly, even in the overcast light, as he sheathed his blade once more and went to join the ranks of archers. Already there had been plenty of glory to go around today: for the best if they did not have to risk any more of their men in boarding.


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4.22 – Black Horror

A report as of the snapping of planks rang out over the ocean, echoing loudly off the rocks that had hidden the Vidofnir from three of their four pursuers. Everyone aboard stopped in their tracks and turned to stare at the burning Grendel, half expecting the ship to have cracked in two somehow.

If only it had been that straightforward. Smoke billowed up from the deck, even under the constant barrage of rain from the Grendel’s storm, but the fire had not yet caused their enemy to capsize. Instead, several tendrils of blackness extended upwards, waving about where the mast had been. One of them had wrapped itself about the mast and was waving it about in the air. Were it not for that one tentacle, they might have mistaken them for smoke.

“Row! Row, you fools!” Jorir shouted, and some of the Vidofnings began to stir themselves – Stigander among them. It wasn’t going to be fast enough.

The Grendel’s mast went sailing overhead, just barely missing their own sail. Einarr turned to face the last, desperate gasp of their foe, shield and sword at the ready. How are we supposed to fight this thing?

Not with the battle fury, that much was certain. Even if they hadn’t all just come down from it, Einarr was sure this thing was the source of the keening that had shattered the effect before. The distant sound of splashing said the Grendelings – those who still lived, anyway – were abandoning their ship.

A tentacle stretched across the gap between their ships – widening, now, but only slowly. A triad of arrows embedded themselves in the blackish flesh, but it did not seem to care.

“Kraken?” Someone asked, incredulous.

“Can’t be.” Einarr shook his head, not that he expected anyone to be looking at him. “Its body is under their deck. Somehow.”

If they weren’t careful, it would soon be on their own: that first tentative tentacle grabbed hold of the Vidofnir’s railing. Others were trailing in their direction, but the one in the lead mattered most right now. He charged forward and hacked downward with Sinmora once, twice, three times before he even managed to draw blood.

“Erik! Arring! Where are you?” If Sinmora could barely scratch the thing…

Erik’s laughter sounded from two paces behind him. “You telling me you can’t even break free of a little octopus without my help?”

A moment later a pair of axes drove into the break in its hide like wedges and black blood sprayed out over the defenders. The tentacle flinched but did not let go.

“Some octopus. Anyone care to wager whether it’s going to eat us or just bust open our ship?” Einarr was not really in the mood for Erik’s jokes, but it was better to roll with them. The big man laughed again even as he was drawing his battle-axe back for another swing.

Someone screamed from the other side of the deck, followed by a splash when they were knocked overboard.

“More chopping, less laughing.” Arring grunted, frowning, before hurrying across to deal with this new threat.

Einarr stabbed deep into the tentacle in front of him, to be rewarded by that eerie keening wail from the Grendel. Sinmora popped free just as Erik’s axe bit home again, and then there was a monstrous tentacle thrashing about on deck.

Einarr and Erik danced out of the way, although not before being further doused in its foul blood. The other defenders at the prow rushed in to hoist the thing overboard.

Across the deck, Arring had organized four or five others so that they all struck in sequence before taking the thing itself in a bear hug. The tentacle stretched as the rowers began to pick up speed. Another round of strikes severed it, and then Arring tossed the end overboard as though it were nothing.

Not fast enough, unfortunately. Three more grasping arms wrapped themselves about the Vidofnir’s prow – enough that Stigander gave the order to stop rowing. Einarr heard but could not care as he rushed forward to hack at the sickly black-green flesh that now grappled with the ship he called home.

He was not alone. Like woodcutters, the young warriors of the Vidofnir hacked at the trunk-like appendages with the only weapons they had to hand even as a fresh volley of flaming arrows soared overhead.

Einarr glanced up at the sound, and could not make sense of what he saw rising from beneath the deck boards of the Grendel. It almost seemed to bubble upwards, as though it was made of boiling pitch, but as it rose thick stone-colored carapace seemed to harden around it from the bottom up.

He paused, unable for a long moment to draw his eyes away from the spectacle on the enemy vessel. The flaming arrows that struck it – as most of them did, for there was no way the monstrosity could ordinarily have fit beneath the deck boards – caused another keening wail to rise. Whatever it was, it did not like fire.

The sound of an axe striking hide beside him brought Einarr back to his senses and he caught Irding giving him a dirty look. Einarr shook his head and brought his sword back down into the narrow cut Erik’s son had widened for him – by more than one stroke.

The tentacles were twitching, now, and Einarr could hear the wood of the railing begin to creak and crack. Dammit, no!

Without waiting on Irding to take another blow, Einarr brought Sinmora back around with all of his strength and drove it deep into the wound. The cracking stopped, at least for the moment: it had felt that.

He had no time to appreciate the effect of his blow, however: Irding’s blade was already sweeping down after Einarr’s. A quick twist of the wrist let him pull Sinmora directly back just a hair’s breadth before Irding would have dulled the both of them with his own blow. It was a contest, now, to see who could strike deepest and withdraw most quickly, and the risk of a chipped blade was worth freeing the Vidofnir of her bonds all the more swiftly.


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4.21 – Red Vengeance

The Vidofnings had fought like madmen before their Singers were unleashed. Now, with both Reki and Runa driving them on, Runa was almost inclined to feel sorry for the creatures attached to the Grendel.

Almost, that is, until she considered the cult they were attached to. What they did to Singers – and very likely other Artists. What they had done to themselves.

That last was on full display now that the battle chant was in force. The creatures might have the rough shape of men, but that was where the resemblance ended. Needle-toothed mouths could be anywhere, from the end of tentacle-like hands to the center of a warrior’s chest to, seemingly, the entirety of the head. Likewise eyes were mismatched and misplaced: some you might have sworn were blind were it not for the uncanny accuracy with which they fought back against the Vidofnings.

Runa could not help but worry as Einarr, his strength not only restored but enhanced by the currents of song in play, pressed forward into the fray, deep into the heart of the Grendel. Smoke was thick, there, and here and there a tattered remnant of sail fluttered, still smoldering, to the deck. Already they had crippled the ship, but the Grendelings had done as much to the Vidofnir in the fall.

Another beast fell to the deck under the force of Einarr’s blade, writhing. Behind the creature she saw what looked like a wide berth around the mast. The smoke there was thicker, as though more than just the sail had been set alight. Not that the Vidofnings would have time to loot the Grendel under the circumstances anyway, not with the Skudbrun under such heavy fire.

Already Runa wished for water, although the smoke was little more than a tang on the air from the deck of the Vidofnir.

Einarr did not venture into the break in the line, at least, although she could not tell what he was doing. The battle-fury left him enough sense to avoid a potential inferno, at least. Neither, though, were the Grendeling beasts willing to venture nearer the mast – and that looked like more than animal cunning. Not one of them so much as stepped toward the mast from where they stood, save only when pressed hard by a Vidofning.

While she watched the creatures flowed around the outside of the perimeter to fill in the gaps as they were opened. It was a strange way of moving, as though there were something within that perimeter that frightened them more than being overrun.

Runa’s eyes were glued to Einarr’s strong back as he readied himself for his next opponent. All around him the battle raged. What does he see? She took another deep breath and nearly choked.

One of the beasts vaulted over its neighbor to his left, landing on the deck with a heavy thud of taloned feet. It snarled in Einarr’s face, but this must have been the moment he was waiting for.

Einarr lunged forward, driving his shield into the creature’s belly as he swung low with Sinmora, towards its thighs. The creature took a half-stride backwards and then it hesitated. Sinmora bit deep into the beast’s leg and it spurted black blood.

Einarr leaned back now, bringing his back leg up for a kick to the creature’s more-or-less normal chest before swinging again at its front leg. Any normal warrior would have tried to dodge, but the only way it could have gone was back.

Sinmora bit deep, nearly severing the leg at the knee. Again it took the blow, rather than risk moving an inch closer to the mast. On the backswing he took off the creature’s foot, but then his voice rang out, clean and pure over the din of battle. “Fire and pitch!”

The Grendelings pressed forward harder then: they had not abandoned their wits along with their humanity, it appeared. That would not help them. Already Runa could see the back ranks of archers lining up with flaming arrows. As one on Bollin’s call they launched. The volley of flaming arrows struck the deck around the mast as the Vidofnings began to press forward from the railings. By sword or by flame, the Grendel would fall.

“Fyrir Astrid!” Einarr’s voice sounded again as he fought his way around the perimeter. The deck wood began to smolder, and then finally catch. The cry echoed around amongst the other Vidofnings: for all but the newest members of the crew, this was personal.

Runa started at a crack of wood from amidships. The deck was already beginning to give way. Slowly the flow of battle began to turn, and Reki’s song shifted with it. It was all Runa could do to keep up. This would never do: if she were to be a proper wife for Einarr, she would have to do better than this.

***

Einarr allowed the withdrawal to happen around him, waiting to join the rearguard. He had been forced out of the vanguard, and so his honor insisted he stay for this. His honor, and the remaining nugget of suspicion at what they might have been avoiding around the mast.

A keening wail seemed to rise up from under the smoldering deck boards, an eerie sound that stood the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck on end and propelled the withdrawing forces back towards their own ship at speed. All trace of red faded from Einarr’s vision at the sound, although none of Runa’s gift of alertness.

Einarr froze where his leap backward had left him, watching. What was that?

Then a different smell reached his nose: still smokey, but with none of the sweetness of pitch or the perfume of wood. This was acrid and sharp.

“Fall back!” Jorir’s voice sounded from near the boarding lines with an urgency that was near panic. “Back! Move!”

That was not a tone Einarr was accustomed to hearing from his normally staid liege-man. He ran, and counted it no shame. Neither did any of his fellows, racing for the boarding lines or leaping across the gap between their ships.

Einarr was the last. No sooner had his feet touched the Vidofnir’s deck than the line was cut and men were jumping to the oars without bothering to shed their maille.

The crack of wood this time was louder, and thick black tentacles rose up around the Grendel‘s mast. He swallowed: that didn’t look like smoke.


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4.20 – Respite

Einarr clashed and clashed again with the Grendeling blocking his path – a creature no bigger than he himself was. He should not have been having so much trouble with this one, but with each bind he found himself another half-step closer to the treacherous drop between their two ships, the water choppy and frothed from the storm the Grendel carried on its back. He ground his teeth together, knowing he should be better than this.

An arrow whistled through the air from the deck of the Vidofnir and those still waiting to board. Einarr dodged to the side and his opponent turned with him – right into the path of the onrushing arrow. Einarr glanced back and saw Arnskar lowering his bow: he raised Sinmora’s hilt to his forehead in thanks before dashing back into the melee.

The Grendelings had not been so difficult to fight last fall, and some corner of Einarr’s brain worried over the question of why even as he joined battle with a third of their number. Whatever the reason, the Vidofnings could not afford to prolong this fight – not with three more ships pursuing their ally.

Another surge of Vidofnings thudded down onto the deck, and Einarr rode their wave back up to his father’s side.

Stigander seemed less tired than Einarr was, at any rate. For the fighting earlier, followed by their mad rowing, to have worn him down should not be surprising – but the weakness still rankled. He lashed forward with Sinmora, glad to be back in the thick of things where he could vent his spleen, and a Grendeling stumbled backwards, the arm nearly cut through at the elbow. Tveir.

“Regretting-” Stigander drove his blade deep into the neckline of a Grendeling’s maille. “Telling them not to Sing?”

“Little bit.” Einarr puffed, cutting at a third enemy even as he ducked the blade of a fourth.

“You’re exhausted. Fall back. Join the bodyguard, tell the ladies they’re covered to Sing if they choose.” Even distracted, Stigander was parrying the blows of three separate Grendelings. He kicked forward and one of the creatures’ knee bent backward.

“Father, I-”

“That was an order, son.” His tone brooked no opposition.

“Yes, sir.” Einarr seethed, although if that Stigander saw him flagging so easily he might be in worse shape than he thought. Einarr swept Sinmora in a wide arc and her blade left only shallow cuts in his targets. He stepped back from the space thus cleared. A heartbeat later, the hole he left was filled by Erik.

“Give your lady five minutes,” the big man laughed. “You’ll be back afore the fight’s over.”

***

Einarr had nearly reached the cluster of men surrounding Reki and Runa before the wave of fatigue truly hit him. He could not quite keep from staggering, although he covered it as best he could.

“Captain Stigander has rescinded the order preventing our Singers from joining battle,” he announced, before shouldering his way in between Bollinn and Jorir. He was, in fact, surprised to see the dwarf back here – until he realized that he was the only one of the assault team that had not joined the bodyguard squad.

“What did y’think ye were doing, racing back out there?” Jorir grumbled.

“Avenging my stepmother, or trying to.” It was some small comfort to Einarr that Barri still looked discontent being stuck back here, away from the fighting.

“Not two hours after raiding their compound and fighting our way back to the ship. I know you’re young yet, but…”

Sivid laughed from the other side of the circle. “Oh, leave off. Don’t tell me you never tried to do it all.”

Runa cleared her throat. “If we’ve been given leave to Sing I rather think that means the Captain would like our help.”

“Quite so,” Reki averred, then paused to hum a moment. “Why don’t you see about freshening up your rescuers. You three, come forward with me a bit.”

Even as Reki left, her chosen guards forming a wedge around her, Runa began to Sing. Almost immediately Einarr’s mind was filled with scenes of early spring, of rebirth and renewal and snowmelt, and he felt the heat and the heaviness begin to slide from his shoulders. He closed his eyes. Many of the scenes he recognized from Kjellvic. Such as walking with the Lady Runa out to inspect the Vidofnir. Only this time, they had nothing to argue over… a heat rose in his face, and he hoped that the others were not seeing the same thing he was.

Almost as soon as he thought that the vision changed and he was diving into the still-icy runoff of a lake, his skin still steaming from a sauna. He cleared his throat: whatever she had done was effective, although neither of those last two was normal. He opened his eyes as her song wound down, and now Reki’s voice began to worm its way into his mind.

Red began to tinge the edges of his vision and Einarr stepped forward, back toward the fray. He was dimly aware of Jorir and Barri flanking him, leaving Sivid, Bollinn, and Kragnir from the island to guard Runa. She would be fine. Reki would be fine. All that mattered now was to destroy the Grendel quickly.

The three of them now stood, each in front of a boarding line, breathing deeply the scent and the sounds of battle. A shout began to well up in Einarr’s breast: he held it back and stepped up on the railing. The smell of smoke tickled his nose.

And then Runa joined in Reki’s song. The taut line beneath his feet swayed as he raced across and the shout, now a roar, burst from his mouth. He was dimly aware of Barri and Jorir behind him, joining in the battle roar, but the fury was already almost overwhelming his senses.

The Grendel would pay.


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4.19 – Boarding

The clink of chain was the only sound to be heard from the deck of the Vidofnir as her crew waited to see who would take the bait and whose Captain had a better head on their shoulders. When only the Grendel turned to face the Vidofnir, some may have spared a thought for their allies on the Skudbrun. Most, however, grinned feral grins and laughed unpleasant laughs: for almost a year now, this was a chance they had wanted.

Reki approached the mast, a full waterskin in hand. “On your command.”

Stigander nodded and opened his mouth to say something, but Einarr cut him off.

“Wait – I think we’ll be better off without the Song magic for this fight.”

“Explain,” his father ordered.

“Back in the cave, when we were escaping, Runa hardly sang at all. When she did, it was like her voice was a beacon to the creatures.”

“…Creatures?” Reki’s skepticism was not out of place: she was one of the few who hadn’t been there.

Stigander nodded slowly. “Under the influence of Astrid’s song, the Grendelings looked more like monsters than men.”

“In their fortress-temple, too.” Einarr paused, then shook his head. There wasn’t time for that now. “At any rate, I think we’re better off doing without the battle fury. As long as we can manage.”

Stigander studied Reki’s face grimly for a long moment before nodding agreement. “And we’re doubling their bodyguards. Get Runa up here. No-one gets through to either Singer.”

Einarr jerked his head in acknowledgement. Runa, he saw, was somehow at the forecastle with Barri and Bollinn. Why would they allow her up there? Why she was there was almost beside the point, however: she needed to be further back, and now. Einarr jogged forward, not yet worried about the rain or waves that were beginning to shake the Vidofnir.

“You two fighting? We can use all the hands we can get.”

“We’ll be guarding the Lady Runa, all the same to you.” Bollinn drawled.

“Fine. Go join Reki and the other bodyguards amidships. We’ll handle them.”

Barri shot a baleful look at Bollinn, but the man was thoroughly outranked. They stepped back towards the Vidofning Singer, but Runa made them wait.

“What about you, Einarr?” She raised her head defiantly into the wind, the rain stinging her cheeks well past their usual comely shade.

“These are the nithers who murdered Astrid, Runa.” As if he would let other men – even other Vidofnings – take his chance at vengeance from him. He would fight at his father’s side, and they would destroy those who sought to harm their family.

Runa nodded silently, her mouth pursed in an unhappy line, but she followed her two bodyguards from the Skudbrun as they shouldered their way through the crowd gathering at the fore to face their enemy. Of those aboard, there would be precious few who did not want a chance at the Grendelings.

The storm that hovered over the Grendel once again lashed at the Vidofnir and her crew alike, although this time they were ready for her. Fire-tipped arrows sailed across the narrowing gap as Stigander strode up to stand at Einarr’s side. His maille glinted wetly in the light of the fires. Stigander held Hrostlief – Grandfather’s sword – loosely in hand before the inevitable charge. He growled. “Astrid will be avenged.”

As though in answer, Einarr brought his shield to readiness. One of their flaming arrows had caught in the Grendel’s sail and smoldered dully there and Einarr’s lips tightened over his teeth.

The Grendelings answered their volley of fire with arrows of their own, but it was followed only by the sound of iron striking wood or metal. Even now, boarding lines flew from the Vidofnir’s deck. They would not be caught off-guard again.

A sudden gust of wind caused their boarding lines to twist, but it was not enough. Nearly half still caught on the Grendel’s railing, and no sooner were they secure than the first rush of sailors raced across. The sons of Raen gave their men sufficient time to ensure the lines would not be cut before sharing a look and a nod. Father and son brought their swords up for the charge. Then there was only air and water beneath their feet as they sprinted across to the deck of their foe.

Einarr hit the enemy deck at full speed, his boots echoing off their rain-slicked boards. Three steps later he plowed into one of the monstrous Grendelings and knocked the wind from him with the boss of his shield. Bad luck. Einarr brought Sinmora down on the now-exposed back of the man’s -Grendeling’s neck. Ein! …Can we still call them men, at this point?

He glanced to the side, looking for a new target, and saw his father striking down another of their number.

Einarr could feel a touch of the battle fury come upon him unaided and he flashed the next Grendeling in front of him a feral grin. Their blades clashed, sword against axe in the bind. A pair of blows fell against his shield arm from other defenders, but Einarr would not be put off so easily. He swept his leg around to take them in the knees even as he shoved out with the very shield they sought to break. A pair of thuds marked the moment they fell to the deck.

Now he was off-balance, though, and the first Grendeling circled his axe in an attempt to disarm Einarr. He managed to jump back and keep his grip on Sinmora, but the Grendelings were not going to just lay down and die for them.

Einarr’s opponent pressed forward, and Einarr took a step back, followed by another. He was painfully aware of how close he was getting to the railing and the cold sea below. His opponent lunged in, his axe brandished high, and Einarr met him in the bind again.


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4.18 – Grendel

The Vidofnir and the Grendel slipped past one another in the half-light of the underground river, the passengers of each staring at the other in shock. For the moment, the Grendelings did not appear monstrous, although Einarr was certain that would change the moment battle was joined.

Stigander reacted first. “Onward, men! Put your backs into it!”

The order broke the stillness, but Einarr was not the only one who continued to stare across the inlet at the hated foe. He would be very surprised indeed if his father was not among them. Had it not been for the nearing sounds of their pursuers’ ships they might have stopped to fight, then and there. Thankfully, Stigander had too cool a head on him to succumb to that temptation.

The creatures manning the Grendel were coming back to life as well, although it was difficult to tell what they did in the half-light as the Vidofnir sped past. Einarr thought he could guess, even without the whistling splashes of arrows fired in haste, that soon there would be another boat on their tail. Let them come.

Then he had no breath left for thought, or anything save the blistering cadence Stigander called from amidships as they raced for the cave mouth and the comparative safety of the open sea.

The light from outside, so dim-seeming on their initial approach, grew brighter and larger as Vidofnir and Skudbrun shot forward, at the limits of speed either boat could coax from oars alone.

The wind whipped up choppy waters outside the protection of the cave, and as the Vidofnir shot out into the open air her bow reared up like the rooster of her namesake. A moment later, as the Vidofnir came back down heavily, the Skudbrun also reared. Their sails unfurled and caught the wind, and now speed of storm was added to speed of oar.

Still, there was less time than anyone aboard either ship would have liked before the black Grendel emerged from within the deeper blackness of the island, and with it the other ships of that demon’s fleet.

Einarr, even as he kept up with the rowing cadence, sought some sliver of advantage they might take in the nearby waters. To simply flee, without at least bloodying the noses of the Grendelings? Of the ones who had tried to make a sacrifice out of his Runa? The idea could hardly be borne.

He glanced up: he could see the same feelings in the set of his father’s shoulders and the hard-eyed glare he cast around the ship even as he kept the rowers on pace. Einarr grunted, turning his focus back to the work at hand.

Five strokes later, Irding came by to trade places. “Captain wants you.”

Einarr nodded, sidestepping out of the way even as Irding slipped in where he had been. His arms and back were warm from exertion, and he stretched his arms as he strode towards the mast, his father, and Bardr.

“What’s our best ambush strategy?”

Stigander glanced to the side at Einarr. With a nod, Bardr took over the cadence call. The wind from the island storm still whipped about their ears. Given what they now knew about the inhabitants, Einarr would not be surprised if they had some means of tethering the storm to their ships.

“We’re down to two. North, or south.”

Einarr nodded, waiting.

“On the north side of that island over there -” Stigander pointed to a large rock, just large enough that a handful of pine trees could cluster on its top. “Is naught but open ocean. We disappear behind it for a moment, then either us or the Skudbrun continues on while the others aim to come in behind.”

“Think they’re dumb enough to fall for that?”

“Dumb? Probably not. Mad? Maybe. Still might be the better option.”

Einarr cocked an eyebrow, waiting.

“On the other side of that island -” Stigander here indicated a much larger one ahead of them to the south. “Is a reef. If we’re careful, we can lure them in and wreak some havoc.”

“But this is their home turf.”

“Exactly.”

Einarr frowned. This should have been an easy call. “Then we’re plainly better off in the open water… aren’t we?”

“Most likely.” Stigander gave him a sidelong look that was hard to read. “But if you can’t be confident in your own decisions, your crew will never follow you.”

Einarr opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, gaping like a fish. He flushed a little, glad of the wind lashing his face. “Oh.”

“Oh. You make me regret commissioning that ship, it goes to Bardr.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Very good. Now, as it happens, that means we all three agree. Hard starboard!”

Even as the sail turned, Bardr moved aft and fired a handful of flaming arrows into the air.

“…How will the Skudbrun have the first idea what that means?”

“You don’t seriously think the landing party were the only ones doing any work, do ye?”

The deck of the Vidofnir tilted underfoot as the ship bent her course to their will. As though they were one, the Skudbrun followed after, her course taking her to the left of the island while the Vidofnir’s went to the right.

The four ships behind them – only four? – changed course as well, their blackened demonic heads churning over the waves like hunting dogs. Certainly they had the scent: now it was just a matter of turning that against them.

The Vidofnir cleared the northern coast of the island and veered hard to port. Someone tossed out the sea anchor: the ship sides groaned in protest against the sudden slowing, and then the angry howling of their pursuers was loud again.

The Skudbrun, for her part, skated on to the north in a wide, sinuous pattern that belied her speed.

The Vidofnings held their breath, even as the bounding demon ships of their pursuers charged past, one on either side of the forested rock. Three of them continued after the Skudbrun. The fourth ship had shed its speed as it nosed around the little island to come face to face with the Vidofnir once more. A guttural howling rose over the wind of the black storm that carried the ship along. It was the worst possible chance, and yet no-one aboard the Vidofnir minded: the only ship which had not been fooled was the Grendel.


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