The order was given, and Arring tossed a rope across to the rowboat. Einarr lashed the boats together and pulled himself up onto the old, familiar deck. Grinning broadly, he clasped arms with Arring before turning around to offer a hand up to those who wished for one.
“Where’s Father?” He asked as soon as the last of them was aboard, still grinning at everyone around him. His companions were all looking around, some more bemused than others.
Arring pointed towards the bow, where Stigander stood waiting in a cleared area just ahead of the mast, his arms crossed but looking just as pleased to see Einarr. Next to him was Reki, and he felt as much as saw Eydri tense. Now was not the time for that conversation, though. He straightened the hem of his tunic and strode forward.
Stigander appeared to be listening to something Reki was muttering. The albino woman never once took her eyes from Einarr’s group. What had happened between her and Eydri? Surely there must have been something. Still, Stigander nodded, and as Einarr drew up with the mast a grin split his thick yellow beard.
“At last, my troublemaker returns to us!” Stigander laughed and reached out his arms.
Einarr met the gesture in kind, taking his father in a manly embrace for just a moment.
“Welcome back, son,” Stigander said more quietly.
“Thank you, Father.” He clapped his father on the shoulder once more before turning. “And now I’m afraid there are introductions to be made and common cause to be made.” He ran through the introductions a second time, this time starting with Bea, followed by Liupold, and then the others in order of their respective rank. He did not fail to notice that Eydri and Reki both seemed to avoid looking at one another.
“And that’s where we stand, Father,” he finished.
“I see. Welcome aboard, I suppose.” Stigander watched Bea quietly, the way a cat watches a hunting dog.
“The honor is mine,” Bea said smoothly, extending her hand. “I understand one of my ships gave you some trouble last spring: for that, you have my apologies.”
Stigander hummed and turned his attention to Liupold. “Captain Liupold of the Arkona. My Mate informs me that your ship is apparently not to blame for the sacking of my friend’s land?”
“That is correct, Captain. The Arkona arrived earlier today bearing your son and the others following a service they performed in Imperial waters.”
That got a raised eyebrow from Stigander, and Einarr knew they would have a great deal to discuss later.
Liupold was still speaking. “We arrived to find the town already in flames and sent a boat ashore to determine what had occurred here. We were still determining that when your two ships arrived and opened fire on us.”
“An unfortunate misunderstanding.”
“And, under the circumstances, an understandable one. But we had not yet learned the identity of the raiders when we had to break off to secure this cease-fire.”
Stigander turned to Einarr. “The Hall?”
Einarr shook his head. “Also hit. Also burning, I think, but the harbormaster didn’t know how bad, and everyone else was too busy putting out fires. And we do know one thing, actually. The ship responsible had a wolf’s head on the prow.”
Stigander looked stricken. “We have to get to Kjell Hall.”
“You know that ship, Father?”
“In my time, I have known three ships to bear that animal. Two of them are long since broken, but all three of them were terrors of the sea. Bardr! My horn.”
“In the meantime… Captain Liupold, your Highness. Do you intend to see this through? Or, having delivered your cargo, will you return south to safer waters?” He did not say flee, but all among them heard it.
Bea straightened, as haughty as ever a princess could be. “We shall see it through, shan’t we, Captain? The Cursebreaker is of great interest to me.”
Einarr rolled his eyes, fairly certain she couldn’t see, and groaned internally. She would complicate matters greatly.
“I was just about to say the same, your Highness,” Liupold was saying.
“Very good. Then if you would kindly return to your ship, so no-one decides I have made hostages of you, we should be underway.”
The three ships slipped from the harbor almost without further incident. However, where the Vidofnir and the Eikthyrnir could simply reverse course, the Arkona had to be turned about. While this was not a difficult maneuver, it did slow their progress. Einarr wondered idly if the harbormaster had paid any attention to what was going on out on the waves.
Just a few hours later, the two longboats and an Imperial rowboat beached themselves just up the river from the narrow bay near the Hall. The forest appeared untouched, which was a mercy. Whatever they had done, there would be survivors even out here.
Still, only a relatively small party was sent up the forest trail. Einarr and Stigander, Reki, Captain Kormund, Bea, Rambert, and Jorir – who had been just as pleased to see him, in his way, as Stigander. “We’ve much to discuss, you and I – once we’ve confirmed the safety of your Lady, of course,” he’d said.
“You’re right, we do. Glad to see you well.”
That had been the end of it, for the time being. Now the seven of them hurried up the bay trail toward Kjell Hall. Einarr spotted chop marks in the forest around the trail, although he could not discern their purpose.
When the Hall came into view in its clearing in the trees, it was a burnt-out husk. Men still moved within the confines of its walls, searching among the ashes for who-knew-what. Stigander took off at a run for the walls, and the rest of the party followed after.
“Trabbi? Trabbi, is that you?”
The old retainer rose from the pile of ash he sifted through to look, numb, at the man who addressed him. “You’re too late.”
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