It was the end of the last raid before the winter’s ice, and yet the sun was bright and the weather warm. The longship Vidofnir skated across the smooth surface of the ocean under sail, the sounds of merriment carrying across the water from its deck. They would live well this winter. Einarr leaned against the side, drinking in the scene as he sipped from the skin in his hand.
On the aftcastle, a group of six sat casting the bones. Big, heavyset Erik threw down the cup. “Eight!”
“No way. That’s three eights in a row,” Sivid objected.
“Read ’em and weep.” He lifted the cup to reveal a three and a five. “That puts you out, don’t it?”
Sivid laughed. A few people among the onlookers groaned, but everyone on board knew he was awful at dice.
Captain Stigander’s deep belly laugh sounded from amidships. “Remember how I handle the fleecing of crewmen, gents.”
“How could they forget?” Einarr laughed. His father had a habit of reminding them. In fairness, it was uncommonly generous. If you gambled all your money away before the next raid, whoever won it from you had to loan it back – with interest, of course, but not as much as the counting houses charged. He hopped down off the railing and scanned the horizon. “Besides, I’m sure Erik could use the help this winter.”
“Always,” the big man boomed.
“Come on, let’s have a cask,” someone called.
“Haven’t you had enough?”
“Oh, come now, dear, don’t be like that,” Astrid said, flowing out of the crowd toward the Captain. Einarr’s black-haired beauty of a stepmother was also the Vidofnir’s battle chanter. “It’s clear sailing all around, and not a thing between us and port.”
A cheer went up from among the men. She was as much a sailor as any of the rest of them.
“Captain’s right, though.” Bardr spoke up, appearing at Stigander’s left. “Aren’t you on duty?”
Most of the men laughed. The one who’d called for a cask grumbled, as did one or two others. Einarr took half a step forward to find the shirker, and stopped. A cold wind tickled the back of his neck. He looked up, alarmed, and scanned the horizon.
“Make fast the rigging!” came the call from the crow’s nest at the same moment Einarr spotted the dark clouds billowing up from the south.
“Somethin’ unnatural ’bout that storm,” Einarr said. He couldn’t tell if anyone heard. He had work to do now, too, in the face of a squall like that.
The storm rolled in as quickly as it appeared, and the bright light of midday was replaced by dim twilight and stinging rain before they had finished battening down. Somewhere in there, Astrid began to sing, warming their arms and bolstering their strength with her song magic. Einarr looked up to scrub the water from his brow with a beefy forearm and nearly dropped the rope in his hand.
“Hey!” His crewmates shouted their objection even as he tightened his grip, but his attention was out over the water.
“Oy!” He slapped the man ahead of him on the shoulder and pointed out across the waves. “Do you see what I see?”
His crewmate nodded. “Draken, dead ahead!”
Cresting the waves ahead of them, the prow of another longship cut toward them. It’s dragon’s head was oddly misshapen and painted black. The unknown ship approached the Vidofnir at a rapid clip, and now he could make out the foreshortening of the snout. Not precisely a dragon’s head. More like a demon’s. Einarr felt a chill run up his spine that had nothing to do with the weather.
“Make ready!” he shouted. He could just make out movement from the deck of the enemy ship – and enemies they were. They were readying boarding lines. In this weather! The call went up from other parts of the ship, as well.
Astrid’s song became a hymn of battle. Einarr felt the muscles in his shoulders tense as the warmth in his blood began to stoke the battle-fury. With the initial burst of strength, he secured the rope that before five men had trouble pulling.
A boarding line caught the side of the Vidofnir.
“Grendelings, forward!” he heard from the enemy ship. More boarding lines flew across the remaining feet between their boats. The sound of scraping steel rang out from all sides, and Einarr felt the familiar, comfortable weight of his long sword in his hand.
The axe-men from the Grendel raced across the already sodden boarding lines or leapt across the gap, landing with a heavy thud on the Vidofnir‘s deck. Einarr slashed at the Grendeling in front of him and steel rang against steel. The scoundrel took half a step back before swinging again with his axe. Einarr twisted and felt the wind of the axe’s passing against his shoulder. He brought his sword down on his opponent’s wrist. The axe, with hand still attached, clattered to the deck. In one motion, Einarr brought Sinmora back up and slashed at the villain’s throat. The blade cut deep. Ein!
The figure that collapsed before him seemed more monster than man. He could barely hear Astrid over the clash of steel, but her song still worked its magic.
He lunged at a monster that stood just two steps from one of the Grendel’s boarding lines, and the blow sent the raider tumbling into the icy deep between the two ships. Tveir!
The Vidofnir pitched over a larger wave. Einarr’s boots began to slide on the rain-slick deck as it lurched. Alarm overrode fury for an instant and allowed him to catch his footing. The sea would not embrace Einarr this day.
The fury did not reassert itself. Suddenly clear-headed, he looked around. The raiders – now clearly men again – were fleeing back to their own ship. Cowards. He heard an axe clatter to the deck of the forecastle – someone surrendering. Evidently, the Grendel wasn’t willing to wait for all its crew. The boarding lines were already flying. Something’s wrong. Where’s Mother? Why isn’t she singing us down?
A circle of Vidofnings gathered on the aftcastle, and he could see his father’s back where the man knelt. Einarr shoved his way back, afraid he already knew what had happened.
The crowd around Captain Stigander was thick before Einarr got there, and as he elbowed through to the center of the circle a single sob sounded over the pounding rain, shaking the old man’s shoulders. Einarr looked down: a pair of gold coins already held his stepmother’s eyes closed. Blood stained her kirtle and pooled under her back. He felt his own throat tighten, but did not ask the question that tore at it. He stepped around the outside of the clear space to stand behind his father and rest a hand on his shoulder.
“And who is manning the oars?” He asked instead, his voice husky. “Let’s move, people.”
|Table of Contents||1.2 – Aftermath|