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5.2 – Wise Women’s Table

“Please, be seated. There’ll be no leaving until morning at the earliest anyway.” The old matron moved deftly to the side of the door and began shooing their party in, towards the long table with its pot of stew – rabbit, if Einarr’s nose didn’t lie. He allowed himself to be swept into the Hall and to a place at the table.

There were nine of them, and eight empty bowls set along the table. Given that Runa had been sent to stand at the back with the servants, that accounted for all of them. Einarr had never known Singers to be able to divine: perhaps there was something to the rumors about the wood? Einarr shrugged and settled on the rough wooden bench.

“Now. I know why our wayward apprentice has come, although she shall be expected to explain her tardiness.” The crone spoke as she settled herself back into the seat at the head of the table. “I was surprised to hear that the daughter of Fjori was returning to the Hall. Is the sun troubling you again?”

“Not at all, Amma.” Reki was near breathless, as though she actually were a child addressing her grandmother. “During a recent raid, we found a chest filled with instruments. I convinced my Captain that the Conclave might wish to buy them.”

The old crone snorted. “Buy them. Feh. We shall have a look in the morning.”

“Thank you, Amma.” In the worst case scenario, they would be demanded as hospitality gifts. For all that the Vidofnir needed the coin, Einarr would be hard pressed to see that as a loss if the Matrons were able to answer his questions.

One of the other old women at the table – more like a willow in stature than like the oak of her superior’s mein – was staring at them as they settled. Einarr stared a challenge back at the woman’s face, but she appeared not to notice. Once everyone was seated, she waved imperiously towards the back of the room.

A young woman in plain white wool stepped hurriedly forward.

“Add some extra nutmeg to tonight’s mulling, and a good amount of angelica.”

The girl curtsied and hurried out the back of the hall.

Reki’s brows drew down in concern. Evidently that combination meant something to her. “Is something amiss?”

“Yes, child,” said the willowy crone, her voice somewhat less desiccated than her oaken superior. “There is corruption at work among you… on all of you save the apprentice and him.” She pointed at Trabbi.

“Corruption?” Barri stood, shock warring with offense on his face.

“Sit down, Barri.” Einarr could share neither emotion with the man, and even he heard weariness in his voice. “Think. Did any of us feel entirely well after that last battle?”

“The Heir of Raen knows of what I speak?” The willowy crone’s surprise sounded genuine.

“Unfortunately. Of those of us here, the Lady Runa and Trabbi are the only two who did not come into direct contact with the black blood of those monsters. I know I, for one, felt ill following that battle, and it had nothing to do with fatigue.”

Sivid was nodding along. “I, too, felt strangely ill, although I put it down to my own imagination.”

“But tell me,” Einarr sat forward, leaning over his bowl and absently reaching for the stew ladle. “How could you tell?”

All six of the crones at the head of the table burst into laughter at the question, the sound of rustling leaves and water burbling over stone. “We are called the Matrons of Song, are we not?” Asked the oaken leader of the crones.

When Einarr nodded, she continued. “The world sings to us, and in this way we can see your plight… Cursebreaker.”

Einarr wanted to swear. On top of everything else, she could see that?

The willowy crone cackled. “And why wouldn’t we? These herbs I’ve ordered, they will hold the corruption at bay – for a time.”

The headmistress cleared her throat. “Such matters are better discussed in the bright light of day. For now, there is stew and bread aplenty, and berries besides. Eat and be welcome.”

A third Matron, this one plump and warm like the grandmother Einarr remembered, clapped her hands and three of the young women in the back of the hall stepped off to the side and began to play.

It was a quiet, contemplative tune, and before Einarr had finished half his stew he felt the tension of the summer’s journey begin to melt away. By the time they had finished their meal, as they all sat around sipping at the spiced mead, every last one of them was fighting an exhausted sleep.

“Rest, children.” Through half-lidded eyes, Einarr saw the oaken crone standing over them. “Rest now, for on the morrow there is work to be done.”

***

Einarr awoke with a start to the clear light of early morning filtering in through the door of an unfamiliar hall. He patted his chest to find that he had been stripped down to just a tunic and breeches. Horror rising in his gullet, he blinked to clear his vision and cast his eyes around.

There, at the foot of the mat he’d been lain in, the rest of his clothes were folded neatly with Sinmora laid across the top. So why did they put us all to sleep, then?

He snatched up his clean-smelling clothes and began to dress. Somehow there was no longer even a hint of darkening from the blood that had nearly covered him in the battle against the cultists.

…Purification of the corruption. Of course. He exhaled loudly and finished dressing, a smile now tugging at the corners of his mouth. They were not some Jarl’s hall full of warriors, whose only recourse against monsters such as those was bloodshed: they were wise women, and the Conclave of Singers could be counted on to act for the benefit of the Clans. When he snugged Sinmora’s belt about his waist and strode out into the daylight, a jaunty tune popped into his head and he began to whistle.


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If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have  other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

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5.1 – Matrons of the Hall

East Port on the island of Breidhaugr sat like a village in the island’s plains, small and quiet and unassuming. Even still, the paint on the wooden buildings did not flake, and the people they passed smiled and greeted the newcomers to port in a friendly way even when they didn’t seem to be trying to sell something. Einarr felt himself relaxing as they tramped through town on their way to the Hall Road.

Nine all told left East Port for the Skald’s Hall: Runa, Trabbi, Barri and another Brunning, and Einarr were joined by Reki and Sivid with a pair of deck hands to carry the chest full of ancient instruments they had found in the ship-barrow.

The Hall Road wandered west through the meadow that seemed to dominate this island toward the hardwood forest at its center, and the party for the most part was content to bask in the normalcy of birdsong and the wind through the grass.

“Mind your step as we enter the Whispering Wood,” Reki announced as they drew near to the hardwood forest ahead. “It is not quite tame.”

“What do you mean?” Trabbi rumbled.

“There are mischievous spirits within, who will whisper in unwary travellers’ ears to lure them off the path. They mean no harm, we think, only their sense of time is… off.” Runa’s grin was as mischievous as any sprite.

Reki sighed. “Yes, but so long as you stick with the little princess here and myself, you shouldn’t have any trouble. These are just whispers, not full-blown hallucinations like the Oracle trials.”

Runa rolled her eyes. “Where’s the use in a good haunting if you can’t have a little fun with it?”

“My lady Runa.” Reki’s voice sounded like an exasperated tutor’s at this moment. “Were you told why you had been summoned?”

“No?”

Reki sighed again. “I think I have an idea. Never mind. Just keep with us and keep to the trail and you’ll reach the Hall without issue.”

Einarr could not keep a chuckle from escaping his throat. Runa was just as impish as ever, and just like always no-one else seemed to get the joke. He shook his head when the others started to ask what was funny. “After the ship-barrow, you’re worried about a few will-o’-wisps? I’m sure Reki can handle getting us through here.”

Now the others laughed, a little sheepishly, and Einarr gestured for Reki to lead the way. He fell in next to Runa and Trabbi, a little further back in the line, and took her hand even as she gave him a look of feigned hurt. Trabbi raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

The road crossed over a stream not two paces before it entered the shade of the oaks, and the friendly burbling of water over rocks was of a piece with the warm light filtering through the canopy and the open space between the trees. The road was clearly marked as it continued to wind, and here and there Einarr spotted grassy clearings where one might settle for a meal or an afternoon nap. He found it hard to credit that this wood might be haunted: it seemed more likely the sort of rumor the local huntsmen would spread about to preserve their turf. He cast a glance down at Runa, one eyebrow raised.

“Don’t let your guard down. How do you think people are enticed?”

Einarr grunted and did not press her on the matter, although he heard murmurs from the other men in the party that sounded similarly skeptical.

The sun had begun to set by the time their road led out of the forest and into the broad clearing around the Hall of Skalds, and with the changing of the light the rumors of a haunting became more believable. He was barely aware of it until he felt his shoulders relax as they stepped out and saw the vividly painted sky above the hall. A breeze picked up, and with the rustling of the leaves on the trees came the faint sound of whispers.

Reki heaved a sigh that sounded surprisingly relieved for how she had been talking. “We were lucky. Let’s not count on our return to port being that easy.”

The hall ahead stood like a dark smudge in the twilit meadow, alike to Kjell in form but bearing the weight of centuries of lore and magic. Were it not for the Singers they escorted, the men might have elected to camp in the meadow and approach in the morning. Reki and Runa, however, felt no such inclination. When the two women strode toward the square of firelight that marked the door their escorts had no choice but to follow.

“We are Runa Hroaldrsdottir and Reki Fjorisdottir, currently aboard the Vidofnir,” Reki announced from the threshold. “We and our escorts seek shelter from the Matrons of Song this night.”

“Be welcome, Singer of Snow, apprentice.” The voice belonged to an old woman, as dry and brittle as unfired clay, but still hinting at its former glory. Unmistakable, however, was her irritation at Runa.

“Thank you, honored Amma.” Runa answered calmly with a deep curtsy, as though she did not hear the rebuke in the Matron’s voice. Einarr schooled his face, both to avoid wincing at the dressing-down he thought she was likely to receive and revealing he was impressed by her composure.

Honored Amma, am I?” An old crone at the far end of the Hall stood, and now Einarr had a face to put with the voice. The woman who now strode toward them could have been sister to one of the old oaks outside: stocky, her former height bent and gnarled but not broken, she carried a walking stick that at present was used only for gesticulating.

“If I were honored by you, child, the wind wouldn’t have carried word about your antics this last spring. If I were honored by you, child, you would be able to join the adults at the Hall table. As it is I see only a spoiled brat in front of me. Go stand by the back while we welcome the Singer of Snow and your escorts.”

Now Runa had the good grace to look abashed. “Yes, Amma.”

The crone harrumphed and turned her attention to the rest of the party. “Well. You might as well have a seat, and please forgive our young apprentice for any trouble she may have caused you. There’s plenty of food: the wind and the wood told us you would arrive this evening.”


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If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have  other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

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Book Five: Einarr and the Tower of Ravens

Having just escaped from the demonic fleet of the strange cult, Einarr and the crew of the Vidofnir are in need of some way to fight the horrors unleashed and eliminate the cult for good. Fortunately, it just so happens that those who are experienced in the ways of magic and story tend to accumulate wisdom as well as lore…

4.28 – Duel

Captain Kragnir’s face was flushed scarlet with rage as he faced his Mate in the middle of the challenge circle. Bollinn, for his part, seemed possessed of a colder anger.

“Give me a reason why I shouldn’t challenge you for command?” Bollinn’s voice carried across the water, level and firm. “When you accepted their surrender, you put our crew in danger, and tried to bring our Lady into the same hazard. Had we reached home it would have been not just our crew, but all of the Jarl’s domain.”

“Jarl Hroaldr charged me to take the defeated as thralls. By challenging me, you challenge our lord.”

“I think even our Jarl would have looked at those creatures and ordered their execution. If you cut them, they bleed black – same as those monstrosities they hid in their boats. Give them half a chance in battle and they no longer even resemble men. If my choices are to drown or to challenge you, then lift your sword.” Bollinn dropped into a ready stance, his eyes glued to his Captain’s.

“So be it.”

Then the two men were in the clinch, long sword against hand axe, and the rest of the Brunnings cheered from the circle. More than half of them looked to be cheering for Bollinn.

On the deck of the Vidofnir, wagers were quietly being placed – not just for who would win, but for how they would win. Einarr ignored the organizer when the whispers came around to his ear, his mouth set in a grim line. Meanwhile, across the way, Bollinn was weaving around his Captain’s guard like a dog worrying a bear.

The Mate may not have had the raw power of his Captain, but Bollinn more than made up for that with the speed and skill he had displayed down in the circle fort. Three times Einarr noted a moment where Bollinn could have ended the fight, but didn’t – waiting, he would guess, for his Captain to yield and take the lesser loss of face.

Kragnir’s swings became less wild as rage gave way to wariness. Too late, however: Einarr could see the path of the duel, and the Skudbrun’s Captain was rapidly running out of options. Einarr looked away from the fight to see a grim look on his father’s face, some paces to his left. Stigander must see the same thing Einarr did, perhaps even more plainly: having pressed Bollinn to the challenge, it was Kragnir who would fall this day.

Stigander shook his head and turned away from the duel. Resolved, Einarr turned his head back towards it even as Kragnir dropped to his knees.

Bollinn stood before his former Captain, his axe extended for a final strike, and swallowed. “Yield.”

“Finish me, then.” Kragnir’s voice was weary, to Einarr’s ear.

“No.”

The former Captain of the Skudbrun was the only one who looked shocked.

“I did not wish to challenge you in the first place, and I see no reason why any other Kjelling should learn of this. You will live. When we return home, we will say you have decided to retire. And none of us will ever say a word about why. Isn’t that right, men?”

An affirming shout rose, first from the Brunnings and then from the Vidofnings.

“Are we agreed?”

Slowly, reluctantly, Kragnir nodded his assent. Einarr did not know if the man had a family ashore, or any other trade to turn to, but even without those things it was a fair agreement.

“Back to work, men, and weigh anchor! The Lady Runa was expected weeks ago.”

***

As the uneventful weeks passed following the battle against the Grendel and her allies, Einarr felt his unease begin to dissipate. Runa’s presence, and that of no few friends from Kjell Hall, surely helped. Even so, that uneasiness still lingered at the periphery of his awareness. I’m sure it’s just that we’re so undermanned…

He shook his head, trying to clear away the unseasonably gloomy thoughts, as Breidhaugr’s green shores drew nearer. Here they would find a shipwright for the Vidofnir, and here they would have a chance to recruit men for their lost cause (that might not be so lost as he had thought).

The Skudbrun, now under Bollinn’s command, led the Vidofnir around the north shore of the island until they arrived at East Port – the only town on the island. Compared to Mikilgata, East Port was both small and bright: there would be a shipwright, although more than likely only one. Einarr hoped he would be good. As the Vidofnir docked, Trabbi approached Einarr.

“Been talking with Lady Runa’s guard,” he said without preamble.

“And?”

“And as her betrothed we think you ought to join us as we escort her to the Skald’s Hall.”

Einarr cocked an eyebrow and, unable to keep mockery from his tone, replied. “Are you sure? After all, I might try to run off with her again.”

Trabbi actually laughed. “I don’t think anyone save maybe the Jarl believes you would. And even if you were that stupid, how would you get off Breidhaugr?”

“I’m sure she’d think of something.” Einarr rolled his eyes. “But no, I’m not dumb enough to try and elope when we’re already promised.”

“And that is exactly what we decided. Are you coming?”

“Yes, I rather think I am. I may have some questions to ask of the Matrons of the Hall.”

Trabbi shrugged as though that were unimportant and clapped his former rival on the shoulder. “Good to have you along. I’ll make sure the Captain knows. We leave straightaway after docking.”

Einarr shook his head, suppressing a chuckle. For a man he’d bested at glìma not four months back, the fisherman was surprisingly friendly. But if Einarr would be joining the escort, he had tasks to accomplish as his father’s heir before they docked.

 


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4.27 – Aftermath

The black storm blowing around the last of the cult ships had begun to dissipate before the Skudbrun and the Vidofnir limped out of the fullest extent of its shadow. As the sky grew brighter, some of the crew brightened as well, as though the horrors of the mysterious cult were banished with the weather.

Einarr envied them, in a way. He lay back on his bedroll, determined to rest until dinner. He’d only been fighting all day, after all, and that was reason enough. Never mind the strange nausea that gripped his throat, or that he now knew why a Cursebreaker had been named. Who else could be expected to deal with fanatics like those? Sighing, he rolled over, only to find himself face to face with that blasted jar.

A grumble of annoyance escaped Einarr’s throat and he contemplated pitching the thing overboard again. But, no: perhaps Runa would want it, or if not Runa one of the men’s wives ashore. Still, it was more than strange that it should find its way back to the ship like this.

His irritated contemplation was cut off by the aroma of grilled fish and the call to food. Finally. His stomach had finally started to settle as the day’s gory work grew more distant, and Einarr expected food to cure the end of it. Food, and a flask or two of whatever cask they opened up.

Einarr pried himself up off his blanket on the deck, his muscles grown as stiff as his blood-soaked clothes. Most of the rest of the crew looked equally sore: they had earned their rest this day. It was only a shame they had not been able to loot the cult ships… or then again, perhaps not.

The sound of a man retching carried forward from the aftcastle. Einarr winced, knowing he’d felt the same not long before, and joined his fellows in pretending it hadn’t happened. The atmosphere on the ship felt brittle tonight: tight smiles that touched no-one’s eyes, friends whose eyes refused to meet, and not one voice was heard to speak of the day’s victory. Einarr frowned as he approached Snorli and the night’s meal. He could not truly blame anyone, but this could be trouble if it persisted. Well, give them a day to process everything.

They ate in near-silence. Those who did speak did so in hushed tones, and what little Einarr was able to catch had more to do with the Conclave ahead than the storm behind. With a dissatisfied grunt, Einarr filled a skin with ale and moved to join Jorir and Erik in silence.

The Skudbrun still ran just ahead of them, and the difference in the day’s fight was plain in the twilight. Its rails were unbroken and its sail largely whole even if it was painted in the same black blood that had drenched everyone who fought.

It was good that they had a friendly escort for this journey: there were few aboard the Vidofnir fit to fight at present. Even still, if the Skudbrun itself was healthier, the crew still aboard must have been just as brittle. Even over the rush of wind and the crash of waves against the two hulls, as they ate the sound of shouting carried to the deck of the Vidofnir.

Erik grunted. “Anyone care to lay odds they’re fighting about the thralls?”

“No bet.” Einarr shook his head. “Anyone raised to Captain should have better sense than to take monsters in men’s clothing as thralls.”

“Madness takes many forms.” Jorir let that statement hang, and a shiver ran down Einarr’s spine.

At length, Erik broke the silence that descended. “Your man at arms is a bundle of cheer, isn’t he?”

Einarr hummed and looked straight at the dwarf. “But rarely wrong, that I’ve seen.”

“Unless I misread that Bollinn fellow, the issue will resolve itself by dawn.”

There were other concerns that followed that statement, and Bollinn had been a good man to have at his back. “Then let’s hope Captain Kragnir doesn’t come down on him too hard in the morning.”

Erik raised his flask to that, and Einarr and Jorir brought theirs up in agreement. As the light fell, so did silence over the deck of the Vidofnir.

Some hours later, as Einarr lay awake staring at the moon, the splash of a man overboard reached his ears. He started to rise when no cry went up from either ship: had the night watch not seen?

The second splash came from ahead of the Vidofnir, where the Skudbrun ran as a black silhouette against the indigo sky. Even as Einarr focused on the other ship a smaller silhouette launched away from the deck, arms and legs flailing in the air as though they were trying to fly before plunging downward into the icy deep.

Einarr swallowed, worried for a moment about who was throwing whom aboard the other ship. He heard no fighting, however, even as another shape took flight from the deck and plunged towards the sea. No Brunning – no warrior – would allow themselves to be thrown overboard without a fight. I hope Bollinn isn’t punished too severely for this.

If even half of the Brunnings aboard agreed with their Mate, he shouldn’t be. Not unless Captain Kragnir truly was gripped by some sort of madness. Einarr shrugged his shoulders uneasily and dropped quietly back to his bedroll. He counted time now by the splashes of thralls as they were cast into the deep. As Jorir predicted, before grey dawn lightened the sky the splashing ceased.

Shortly after true dawn, the Skudbrun dropped its sea anchor. As the Vidofnir pulled up alongside, Stigander gave the order to drop their own. On the deck of the other ship, Bollinn stood with square shoulders facing their Captain. Both of them had bare steel in hand.


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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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4.25 – 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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