Tag: Bardr

9.4 – A New Quest

It was with a heavy heart and no small amount of trepidation that the Vidofnir once more entered the harbor at Kjellvic. Liupold returned to the Arkona, although the dromon did not immediately weigh anchor. The Eikthyrnir followed Stigander up to the docks, where the two ships were met by the harbormaster, whom Einarr had spoken to before.

He wasn’t sure if it was a positive sign or not that it was only the harbormaster who greeted them. On the one hand, it was probably a good sign that the people of the town were more interested in putting their lives back together than driving them off with torches and pitchforks. On the other hand, it also led him to doubt Trabbi’s claim.

“What news from the Hall?” The Harbormaster asked in response to Stigander’s hail.

Stigander shook his head. “Nothing but ash. The bastard took the Jarl and the Lady.”

Now fire sparked in the other man’s eye. “They what?”

“I thought Bollinn was back. Didn’t he say?”

The harbormaster shook his head. Probably, from what he knew of the Brunnings, they were trying to avoid panicking the townspeople. “I’ll call up the militia. Be surprised if they didn’t want to join you.”

Father and son nodded in tandem, then Einarr paused. “What happened to the mayor?”

The harbormaster gestured broadly at the town behind him. After a pause, he sighed. “They found him on the green. Gutted. Couldn’t tell you if he was still alive when the fire swept through.”

Einarr winced. Stigander merely nodded again. “That’s of a piece with what little news has come out of Breidelstein.”

“It’s true, then?”

“So it seems. It’s well past time I dealt with Ulfr’s treachery, anyway. …Is the shipwright about?”

“Oh, aye. You’ll find him down where he always is. He’ll be right glad to have your ship off his hands, I wager. …Oh, but, my Lord? You might warn your men against too much drink while they’re in town.”

“Surely no-one actually believes that calumny?”

“None as know you, no. Not many others, I wager, but you know what drink can do to a man’s wits.”

Stigander hummed, and then they were off.


As soon as Einarr laid eyes on the rams-head prow he knew the ship to be at least the equal of any he’d seen in Eskiborg. The wood seemed to glow from within, and the shipwright had seemed to know just from looking at him how Einarr would want to run his ship. It was no Eikthyrnir, to outrace anything she came up against, but neither was it a Bjorn, thick and bulky and tough but slow. It was, like the beast on her prow, built for balance.

The shipwright – who was otherwise quite happy to take Stigander’s coin – stared sullenly at him as he examined the new ship. His new ship. “She’s beautiful,” Einarr said, running his hand down the klinks.

“You better believe she is. An’ I’ll wager she’s as eager to fight as you lot are. Just keep the bloody wolves away from here, wouldya?”

“By the time we’re done with them, you’ll not have anything to worry about save some pelts,” Stigander’s voice was quiet and level as he answered.

Oddly, that did nothing to ease the other man’s glower. Instead, he pocketed their coin and mumbled a “pleasure doin’ business with you” before wandering off to elsewhere in his workspace.

Einarr shrugged then turned his attention back to the ship. She had fewer benches than the Vidofnir, but that was fine. She was likely to be running at half crew until they took Breidelstein at least, anyway. The awning stretched a good ten feet back from the mast, and could be collapsed quickly at need through an ingenious series of catches to roll up in itself. Einarr would have to study that, and have Jorir take a look as well.

“Where is Jorir, anyway? I’d have thought he’d want to be here for this.”

“He did, but he had some business with the smith. There’ll be time enough for you and all your crew to take it in – later. Right now, I want to hear all about what happened with the elves while you inspect her.”

Einarr chuckled. Oh. Of course. “Sounds good, pabbi.”


A handful of Vidofnings gathered that night at the lone public hall of Kjellvic, one of the few structures left largely untouched by the Wolfling’s raid, to share stories and recruit sailors for this next expedition. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind what they had to do.

The sun had well set, although it was still far too early for people to be too deeply into their cups, when Einarr called for the attention of the hall. The townspeople had fallen to the sort of merrymaking only possible after a hard day’s work when one has just escaped catastrophe, and was in danger of turning rowdy later. That meant, however, that this was the perfect time.

“Good people of Kjellvic,” Einarr shouted over the din, raising his tankard high. The room began to quiet almost immediately. “On behalf of my father and all the Vidofnings, I thank you for your trust in our friendship. What has happened here, while we were away, is the result of the usuper’s cowardice and envy.”

Someone in the back of the hall jeered.

“I know. We have allowed him his games for far too long… But, at last, we have what we need to retake our home and re-grow the friendship between our two lands! We have, however, only three ships, two of which are under strength. When the Vidofnir sails forth to unravel the Weaving, and take back our lands and rescue our friends, who among you will sail with us to rescue your Lord the Jarl and the Lady Runa?”

A loud cheer went up, and Einarr, Jorir, and Bardr spent the rest of the night talking, man-to-man, with the volunteers.


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9.2 – Vidofnir

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.”

“Sir!”

“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 ruin. 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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9.1 – Burn

With Hrist’s ominous parting words ringing in his ears, it would have been an understatement to call Einarr impatient to return to Kjell. Where before he marveled at the Arkona’s speed, especially for a ship of her size and draft, now it would not have been enough had she been able to fly.

He shared his encounter with Hrist only with Eydri, Naudrek, and Hrug, and while they, too, were now anxious to return that word, too, was insufficient. He spent his days pacing the deck, cursing under his breath the alfs and their High Roads for keeping him from his place on the Vidofnir.

His relentless pacing meant he was among the first to notice the unnatural light on the horizon as they approached Kjell. His throat went dry: had the whole island burned, in some dark reflection of their purification of Hohenwerth? He shook his head. No, that couldn’t be. Whatever it was, though, was bad. He tried everything to make himself sleep, but even under the effects of Eydri’s Lullaby he was subjected to terrible nightmares and fitful slumber.

The next day Kjell came into view and he saw smoke before he saw anything else – great inky clouds of it. The largest of these rose from what was obviously Kjellvic, and Einarr could soon see large swaths of untouched forest. That meant, though, that the other two merging pillars of smoke rose from the Hall and the Chapel, respectively.

Liupold could not coax any more speed out of his ship at this stage: he had done all he could in that regard in the days after Einarr’s encounter with the Valkyrie had led to a shift in his mood. He did, however, keep the Arkona at speed for far longer than he otherwise would have dared.

The Arkona sailed into Kjell harbor far faster than anyone considered safe, for this reason. The people on shore seemed on the verge of panic, held in check only by the keen memory of the harbormaster, who recognized them. When a landing craft was put down, Einarr practically flew to its deck. His companions were close behind, followed by Bea, Rambert and Liupold, and every one of them save Eydri manned an oar.

Eydri sang. Even with the boost she lent them, though, Einarr wanted to tear his hear out for how long it was taking. Threads can be cut, Cursebreaker, Hrist had warned. He did not see the Vidofnir in port: that could only mean it had been Runa under threat.

After minutes that felt like hours, the rowboat sidled up to the dock and Einarr leapt out in front of the harbormaster. “What has happened?” He demanded without preamble or introduction.

The harbormaster studied him for a long and wary moment before he answered. “Ah. You are the Lady Runa’s betrothed, are you not?”

“Yes!” It was an effort not to snap at the man, although that he remembered at all could be counted a small miracle.

For his part, the harbormaster was visibly relieved. “Three days ago, Kjell was hit by a raiding ship with a wolf’s head on the prow. They seemed to be looking for something, or someone. I’m afraid no-one seems to know what. Apparently they didn’t find it, because after they sailed off refugees started arriving from the Hall. They had been asking the same questions there, and stealing everything that was not nailed down in the process. The town is still burning, as you can see, but I think we’ve finally got it contained…”

“Good, good,” Einarr broke in at the first convenient moment. “Horses. We need horses. Are there any available?”

The harbormaster gave him a look as though he’d made a particularly bad joke. “With the town still in flames?”

Einarr shook his head. “No. No, of course you’re right. It’s just… I need to get to the Hall.”

“I understand, my lord, but unless you’re wiling to walk, or take that Conehead ship there back around the island, there just isn’t anything.”

Bea spluttered a little. Einarr heard her whisper “C-conehead?” as though she had never heard the insult applied to them before.

“Oh, wonderful.” The harbormaster sounded genuinely pleased about something. He was staring over Einarr’s shoulder. When he turned to look, he saw what would ordinarily have been the sweetest sight imaginable: the Vidofnir and the Ekthyrnir sailed into port together, both of them under full sail.

“Oh, no.” Einarr’s face dropped. “Back in the boat! Everyone, get back in the boat. I have to talk to my Father, immediately.”


In spite of their best efforts, arrows flew between the two longships and the Arkona before Einarr could get between them in their rowboat. He stood in the middle of the rowboat and shouted. “This is Einarr, son of Stigander. Do not fire! Repeat, do not fire!”

Arrow fire tapered off from the Vidofnir first, then from the Arkona as Walter realized that not only had the other ship relented, his Captain was in the line of fire.

A very familiar face peered over the bulwark at their small boat.

“Bardr! By the gods, it feels like forever. Permission to come aboard?”

“For you? Always. Who are those people?”

“Eydri is a Singer. Naudrek and Hrug are friends who helped me out last fall,” he began the introductions with their own people. “Liupold here is Captain of that vessel you’ve been firing on, and Rambert is from his crew. And this–” he gestured. “Is Her Imperial Highness Beatrix Maria Gundahar, Admiral of the Hrist Brigade and recent captive of that damn kraken the Grendel let loose.”

Bardr stared for a long moment, and Einarr could see him doing the mental gymnastics required to accept this. In the end, though, Einarr’s tenure as a Cursebreaker had subjected them all to far stranger circumstances than those.

“Come aboard, then,” he finally answered, after some guffaws and jeering from further back in the boat. “I look forward to hearing just what the hel happened out there.”


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5.22 – Mortality

There was no statue of Trabbi, the loyal retainer, or of the former Captain Kragnir – but there was one of Bollinn who replaced him, which would fill the same role. On he went, connecting a figure of Bardr pouring over sea charts to Stigander, and on back through the crew and the Kjellings. Something strange happened when he found himself face to face with a simulacrum of the apothecary from Kem. Ordinarily he would have paired him with Erik, given the events on the island, but Sivid had not been there at all, and the only image of Erik had them together.

His next best guess was, as with Jorir, to connect the man to himself. He thought he knew where he would have to stand for that, as there was no simulacrum of himself to be found on the floor.

Einarr dripped with sweat by the time he slid the statue of Jorir into place. That was the last one, though, and as he expected there was still an empty depression on the floor, with connections running to several other figures. With a deep breath, he stepped down into the last remaining depression.

At first, nothing happened. Then, when he was running over who might be improperly tied, lightning lanced through his brain. A scream of pain tore out of his throat at the sudden onslaught. Einarr dropped to his knees.

When he recovered his feet, Einarr stumbled over to the stand where the verse of his clue had been.

The bit of doggerel was no more – or at least the page had been turned. In its place, he saw these words writ large:

Fool! Lack you wisdom as well?
Mortal ties such as these are easily severed
Think ye deeper.

A sound like thunder cracked. Einarr, his head still aching, winced. When he looked back up, he realized he was no longer alone in the room.

Standing between the images of the Jarl and his father, the tip of her sword planted between her feet, was a woman beside whom even Runa would appear plain. Long auburn hair hung in a braid past the bottom of her gleaming breastplate, and on her head was a golden-winged helmet so finely worked the feathers looked real. Even in her floor-length skirt there could be no doubt she was dangerous: the giant white eagle wings on her back alone would have dispelled that notion.

Einarr’s mouth went dry even as his palms grew clammy. “A V-v-v-valkyrie?” he asked under his breath as he dropped to his knees. He knew sneaking in here for the Örlögnir was always going to be riskier than going after the Isinntog, but somehow he had still not expected this.

“Do not fool yourself, young warrior. That you have come this far is because you were allowed to, but even when the cause is just my Lord’s forbearance is finite.” The Valkyrie’s voice was a deep alto, but sharp and clear like good steel.

“Of course, great lady.”

“You may have a second chance.”

Einarr lifted his head and opened his mouth to thank her, but the valkyrie was not done yet.

“If you can survive five exchanges in battle with me.”

Einarr felt his face grow pale. Survive five rounds against a real, honest-to-goodness Valkyrie? He swallowed once more, trying to find his voice. “And should I refuse, or fail?”

“Your soul is mine.”

“To become Einherjar?”

She smiled a wolf’s smile. “To be cast down to Hel. You will die as a thief, should you die here.”

He swallowed again. I don’t have to land a hit. I just have to not get hit. No problem. He did not find this particularly reassuring. What he said, though, was “It seems I have no choice.”

The Valkyrie nodded. “Make ready, then.”

With the scrape of steel on steel, the comforting weight of Sinmora was in Einarr’s hand. He raised his shield and stood at defense, studying his opponent.

She, too, took a battle stance, raising her long, double-edged sword until it was vertical. She bore no shield: Einarr had no doubt that should someone get past her native skill those pauldrons and bracers would blunt any blow.

He could not see her feet under the long, heavy skirt. That would make this more difficult, but still not impossible. Not by itself, anyway. Pressing his mouth into a line, he met her gaze and nodded.

The Valkyrie moved almost impossibly fast. In the space between two breaths she had crossed the distance between them, her shoulders turned into the blow she intended to bring down on Einarr’s head. Before sight could become thought he had brought up his shield, and her sword struck the boss like a bell.

He danced back, his hand tingling from the force of the blow even as the ringing continued in his ears. His own blow had swung for her side and somehow been turned away by the very air.

She offered him a nod. “You have decent reflexes, but it will not be enough to save you.”

“I rather hope you are wrong, there. You’re quite quick.”

“That’s not all I am.”

She rushed in again, this time bringing her sword up in an underhand swipe toward Einarr’s legs. He slid to the side, away from the blow, even as he brought Sinmora down and once more steel rang against steel.

“That’s two.”

“You have not yet attacked me seriously.”

“Nor have you. You let me see both of those attacks coming.”

She flashed her vulpine grin again and chuckled. “Perhaps. I rather wanted you to feel you were doing well. I hate for people to die unfulfilled.”

The Valkyrie unfurled her wings, and the tips brushed the heads of two statues ten feet apart. With a blast of wind she rose up into the air and lowered her sword at him. “Let’s take this more seriously, then, shall we?”


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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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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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4.18 – 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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4.5 – Runes

Not without some trepidation, Einarr and the others led the two Singers back to the warehouse where they had found the hanged butcher. Aema covered her mouth with a cloth as they approached to avoid the worst of the smell. Reki’s shoulders shuddered once under her heavy cloak, but she did not hesitate. The door swung open under her palm and she stepped across the threshold.

She stepped no closer to the hanged man, however. His slow spin carried him around so that he very shortly faced the living in the door.

Seithmathir,” Reki read.

“Magic-man?” Einarr furrowed his eyebrows, confused. It was odd for a man of the Clans to study the Arts, of course, but never a reason to kill a man that he’d heard of.

“Evidently.” Reki paused a long moment. With her hood still up, Einarr couldn’t tell if she was studying the body or trying to maintain composure. When she spoke again, her voice was hushed. “I think this was carved before they hung him.”

Einarr shuddered as Reki backed away from the corpse.

“We’ll want to burn the town before we leave, if we don’t find anyone left alive.”

Aema nodded. “And if we do, make sure they see to all the bodies. The last thing we need is a port full of the restless dead.”

Bardr grunted in agreement as Reki stepped back outside the warehouse.

“Surely this wasn’t all?”

“No. This was the smallest part of it.” Trabbi led the way this time, back to the square that had confounded all three of them before.

Along the wall of a particularly large warehouse, several bodies were strung up by their wrists and ankles, all with the same wound patterns as the hanged man. These bodies framed a longer message that had apparently been burned into the stone wall. The two Singers stood staring for a time, concentrating on the long message in a nigh-dead alphabet.

“For the sin of harboring witches,” Aema began, haltingly. “The people of Langavik have been punished according to…”

Reki picked it up here. “According to the righteous dictates of Urkúm, High Priest of Malúnion. Let all who come here know…”

“…Know that the time of seithir is at an end, and all who practice such foul magics will be punished.” Aema’s voice sounded somewhat breathless as she finished reading aloud the proclamation.

“This is madness!” Einarr had never heard either of those names before, but the idea of giving up the use of Song Magic – or Weaving, or any of the other Arts – was preposterous.

Trabbi looked just as flummoxed as he felt. If no-one was trained in the Arts, then how would anyone control their effects? Song would not go away just because no more Singers were trained. Cloth would still be necessary, as would the blacksmith’s art.

It was Bardr who had the sense to ask the question they all wanted the answer to. “Who is Malúnion?”

Both singers shook their head.

“It’s an old Elven name, but I couldn’t tell you more than that,” Reki answered. “Maybe Tyr has an idea? He’s been around long enough, who knows what bits of lore he may have picked up.”

Aema cleared her throat. “Urkúm… I believe that’s a svartalfr name.”

All three men groaned.

“So you’re saying we have a svartalfr fanatic, of some god none of us has ever heard of?” Bardr rubbed his forehead.

“So it appears.” Reki sighed. “Not very honest of them to decry magic like this, though. Someone among them learned to Paint, I think.”

“You mean because of how the runes are burned into the rock?” Einarr, too, had found that strange.

“I do.”

Trabbi looked thoughtful. “Could it be, then, that the Imperials themselves are behind these massacres?”

Aema shook her head. “Let’s hope not.”

***

“So there you have it,” Reki finished as both crews gathered on the dock under the fiery orange sunset. “All things considered I think it likely the crew that captured the lady Runa and the crew that killed my predecessor are probably a part of this same cult. I also think it likely, based on the state of the bodies of the town, that we are at least a week behind our target still.”

Stigander and Captain Kragnir frowned at the story the five of them had brought back not an hour previous, but for the moment said nothing.

“Does anyone among the crew recognize the name Malúnion?” Aema directed the question out towards the crew. It was a gamble, but with a little luck…

Jorir spat a curse.

“Can I take that as a yes?”

“Oh, aye.” The svartdvergr shouldered his way forward through the crowd. “Wish I didn’t. Right bastards, are ‘is followers, an’ I will lay coin that this High Priest has convinced some of the others to join him on this damn-fool crusade. Anything that doesn’t come from their pissant demigod is by definition unclean, and Malúnion has nothing to do with the Arts.”

Einarr and Trabbi spoke at once. “Then what do they want with Runa?”

“Sacrifice, unless I miss my guess.”

Einarr shot up straight from the crate he had been leaning against. Trabbi’s reaction was more subdued, but just as worried. “Sacrifice?”

“Aye. They give proper sacrifices to their god, they’re granted magic for a time. Don’t know how long. Left home before the cult could get a proper hold there.”

Stigander rumbled. “Why leave a message here, and not at either of the two previous sites?”

Aema shook her head now. “I don’t know.”

“I can venture a guess.” Captain Kragnir crossed his arms and frowned beneath his brown beard. “Territory.”

The captain of the Skudbrun gave that a long moment to sink in before he continued. “Massacre like this is as good as a declaration of war. We’ve either crossed into territory they claim, or near enough that they’re making a play for it.”

Now there were mutters from all around the intermingled crews.

“The smart thing to do now would be to call a retreat, come back with a fleet in the spring to put the dogs down.”

Einarr, Trabbi, and Stigander all started forward, but before they could object he continued.

“But they have the princess, and if your dwarven friend is right we haven’t much time. Assuming we’re not already too late. And I do not want to be the one to tell the Jarl why we didn’t come back with his daughter – not while we’ve the slightest chance of rescuing her.”

Stigander nodded sharply. “All there is to do, then, is make sure we get her back alive. Bardr! Bollinn! The charts!”


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4.4 – Massacre

Bulging eyes stared blankly out of the gray-blue face of the hanged butcher. Black scabbed-over gashes formed runes on the man’s chest.

“Trabbi… what didn’t your captain tell us?” Einarr could not tear his eyes from the scene that faced them.

A sigh sounded from over his shoulder. “We stopped, or tried to, twice before Mikilgata, in search of information about the ship we chased. Both times, a town the size of Kjellvic, and everyone…” Trabbi trailed off.

“Any sign of who did this?” If ever there was an impetus for the clans to join together, this would be it.

“Not thus far.”

Einarr cleared his throat and forcibly turned his head back to the street, where Trabbi and Bardr both stared over his shoulders, into what had once been a warehouse. That the sun beat down on their shoulders only made what they found inside worse. Einarr reached back without looking and pulled the door to behind him. It still wouldn’t latch.

“There has to be some sign of who did this. I can’t believe an entire town would go down without a fight…” He had to clear his throat again. “And is there any point to a massacre like this if no-one is around to spread a warning?”

The other two only shook their heads. It was hard to think there was a point to this sort of slaughter even then… and certainly those who worked such acts tended not to last long on the sea. To raid and pillage was one thing. This… this was quite another.

Now Einarr met the eyes of his chaperones. “Come on. We won’t learn anything standing around here.”

***

Everywhere they checked was the same. Oh, the bodies varied, of course, as did the means of death… but where there was a rune-carved body they found blood, and nowhere else. No arrows left behind, though some had plainly been shot. What footprints may have existed were long since obscured by wind or the tread of the searchers. Now what?

“What did your Battle Chanter make of this when you saw it before?” Bardr asked Trabbi.

The old fisherman just shook his head. “Something wicked, something vile… nothing unnatural.”

“A crew that must be purged, then?” Einarr could credit that for one massacre. Two perhaps not.

“So she said. We have no reason to doubt her.”

“Save for three instances of… this, now.”

Trabbi grunted, but did not look as offended as Einarr had half-expected.

“We’re missing something, I think, and it’s making my skin crawl. Bardr, do you think Reki would be able to tell anything?”

“Maybe, if they made use of Song in their attack.” Doubt filled the Mate’s voice.

“Why wouldn’t they…? Oh.” The Grendel, when they had attacked last fall and murdered Astrid, had used no Song Magic in their attack. Then Einarr furrowed his eyebrows. “You think they’re connected?”

“I think we have to consider it, under the circumstances. It’s entirely possible they know they’re being pursued.”

“But even if they know that, how would they know their pursuers would break off like this?”

Bardr had no answer for that question.

“Let’s see if Reki has any ideas for us.” Einarr turned back towards the wharf, a feeling on the back of his neck as though he were being watched. Three steps later he stopped. Something had moved, just at the upper edge of his vision. He looked up.

“What in the world…” The image before Einarr’s eyes made no sense, but it was unmistakably runic.

“By the gods…” Trabbi breathed, his voice as appalled as Einarr’s. Bardr stood staring, stunned.

Einarr turned his head to look at his one-time rival. “Tell me someone on your ship knows how to read runes?”

“One or two of us, I think. Does no one on the Vidofnir?”

“Not unless Reki does. Father doesn’t think much of fortune-tellers.”

Bardr snorted and shook his head, dismissing the shock. “No. Never has. But I’d be surprised if most Singers didn’t have at least some knowledge of the runes. Let’s go.”

The Vidofnir’s Mate took the lead, striding back to the ships at a fast enough clip that Einarr nearly had to run to keep up.

***

The three men hurrying down the docks were the first to return from their excursion into the city. Stigander stood waiting at the top of the Vidofnir’s gangplank, while Captain Kragnir was inspecting his hull from the deck.

“What news?” Stigander asked.

“We haven’t seen a living soul.” Trabbi shook his head. “It’s just like all the others, Captain.”

Captain Kragnir cursed. “Not one?”

Bardr shook his head. “Not a one. But if there is someone capable of interpreting runes, we have need of their assistance.”

Captain Kragnir whistled, and several of the Brunnings came forward on the deck. On the other side of the dock, the cloaked figure of Reki stepped slowly forward.

“All right, gents!” Kragnir boomed. “We’re dealing with the same sick bastard as before – only this time, there’s scribbling to be read! One of you lot knows the old runes, right?”

“Herrid do, sir, only he went out with the rest.”

“…Herrid? Really?” Kragnir shook his head, although Einarr had no idea why that would be strange. “And he’s the only one o’ you lot?”

“I know it,” a feminine voice purred from farther back on the Skudbrun. “But if it’s the same as before, I don’t know that it will help you.”

“It can’t hurt to check, Aema. Go with them. Maybe the runes will tell you something the atmosphere didn’t last time.”

“As you say.” A moderately pretty woman stepped forward from among the Brunnings. She could have been Runa’s aunt, from her appearance.

“I, too, will go.” Reki’s sultry voice made the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck stand on end.

“Is that necessary, Reki?” Stigander asked.

“Perhaps not. I merely wish to see for myself what sort of creature we are dealing with here. Or does my Captain disdain me so much he would allow his heir to venture forth, but not his Singer?”

A viper’s tongue on that one, when she wanted it. Einarr was impressed, even as Stigander gave in.

“Good. The five of us shall return when we have something to report.”


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4.3 – The Search Begins

For two weeks the ships pressed on, following the last path the Skudbrun had for the storm, certain that it would only dissipate when those who rode its winds willed it.

Even the last known path of the storm, however, was nearly a week old by the time they put out to sea. Every available hand was put on watch duty, searching for storm or sign of land. Even when Einarr was not on watch duty he watched, however. What else was he supposed to do? Even still he could not escape a growing sense of unease and listlessness.

Finally, three weeks out from Mikilgata, Stigander realized they were nearing Langavik and called a detour. Perhaps, with a little luck, someone there would have news for them.

It was the first spot of good news Einarr had heard in three weeks. Still he kept his eyes trained on the horizon. Runa was strong, true, but she was already under their power. The faster they spotted their target…

“You’ll do no-one any good this way, you realize,” Jorir grumbled from his side.

Einarr jumped. How long had the dwarf been standing there? “I’m fine.”

“Your pallor says otherwise. And you haven’t blinked since noon. Take a rest before you end up sea-blind.”

“I… what?”

Jorir harrumphed. “Think, man. Watch shifts are half-length, aren’t they? Why do you think that is?”

Einarr shrugged and continued scanning the horizon.

“Eyestrain and glare, milord. Eyestrain and glare. I know you’re worried about that lass o’ yours, but the same can be said for every man aboard these ships. Surely you don’t think her so delicate as to wilt the moment she’s out of the sun?”

Now Einarr did look down. After-images of the flat horizon swam over his boots. “No. I’m actually more worried what might happen if she provokes them.”

“Go. Sleep. I’ve got some leaf you can chew if you need it. Rest your eyes: you need those. And have some faith in your woman!”

Einarr chuckled under his breath. “Have you been talking with Father?” He shook his head, suddenly exhausted. “Nevermind. You’re right. I’ll take a break.”

Jorir harrumphed again as Einarr trudged away from his vigil at the railing. He would need to be coherent to learn anything in the port, after all – and there was no way he wasn’t going out looking for information.

***

Langavik had more in common with Apalvik or Attilsund than with Kem or even Mikilgata, but this was neither a raid nor a resupply. The long, narrow harbor was lined by stone warehouses, though, which only turned to public halls and homes some ways back. These waters were in the middle of prime whaling territory, and so those warehouses would most likely be very well insulated and used for processing their catch.

Whaling territory, though, meant that someone would have had a weather-eye out for storms, and one as unusually violent as the one they sought was bound to have been noted. Even as their two ships slipped into the harbor Einarr moved to join the small group of men who were to go ashore. When Bardr furrowed his eyebrows to see him there, Einarr challenged him with a look. We’re seeking my betrothed, he thought. Are you really going to keep me back here?

In spite of a long, weighing look, Bardr did not actually move to keep Einarr aboard. He could have, technically, although Einarr had a suspicion his father would take his side instead of the Mate’s.

As the Vidofnir and Skudbrun slid into two empty spots on the docks, they saw no people around. Einarr furrowed his eyebrows: it was mid-morning, and not a feast day he’d ever heard of. So where was everyone?

Men to his right and left stood with similar looks of consternation painted on their faces. Either the locals had some very strange customs, or something was terribly wrong.

The only sound as they disembarked onto the docks was the drumbeat of boots against wood. The men of the Skudbrun who joined them to a man had their mouths set in grim lines. Almost as if they already know what we’re going to find. The Brunnings said nothing if that was the case, though, and the two teams of men trooped into the eerily quiet city.

The pier was not long, as such things go, but with every step Einarr hoped to see someone moving around on land, even if only to duck between buildings like a frightened rabbit. Trabbi’s face mirrored his own disappointment when they stepped onto solid ground and still saw no sign of life.

Barri – the selfsame Brunning Einarr had dueled during his ill-fated flight with Runa not six months ago – scowled about them. “Brunnings, pair up with Vidofnings. Don’t let anyone go alone.”

“Why?” The question burst unbidden from Einarr’s mouth, but many of his fellow Vidofnings nodded in agreement.

Barri’s mouth twisted around into a grimace. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a port like this. Don’t rightly know what happened… but don’t split up. We lost some good men that way.”

Bardr grunted. “You heard the man. Pair off, don’t get separated. Looking first and foremost for signs of life. Won’t get much information out of dead men or empty buildings.”

A grunt of assent went around the two teams and they paired themselves off. Einarr stepped forward early on, intending to go with whoever among the Brunnings was similarly eager, but Bardr’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. With a roll of his eyes, eager to get on with the search but not eager to be reprimanded for going against the Mate, he waited. In the end, the last three remaining were Einarr, Bardr, and Trabbi.

“I can’t stop you from coming,” Bardr explained. “But I can do everything in my power to make sure you come back in one piece.”

“If you insist.” Einarr shrugged and moved toward one of the apparently empty buildings.

Perhaps more troubling than the silence in the streets, Einarr thought, was the fact that the door to the warehouse was not latched. He paused a long moment after arriving at the door, his hand still resting lightly on the wood that had already shifted under his fingers. The distinctive odor of rancid blubber wafted out through the crack.

Bardr cleared his throat. With a nod, Einarr pushed the door the rest of the way open. His nose was assaulted by the soap-smell of rancid fat overlaid by the metallic tang of blood.

Inside, spatters of blood covered overturned crates. Some of these had unprocessed blubber spilling out. And there, in the center of the room, a bearded man in a butcher’s apron hung from the rafters.


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4.2 – Alliance

When the Vidofnings gathered for supper that evening, they were joined by the greatest part of the Skudbrun’s crew – all of both ships, in fact, save those left to keep watch. In the Wandering Warrior that night, an air of confusion quickly turned to the sort of friendly banter they had all enjoyed the previous winter.

At some point in the middle of the first round of drinks, Stigander and Kragnir stood on a table near the center of the room and called for attention.

“Gentlemen!” Stigander began. “It is with great pleasure that I see the friendship between our two crews is undiminished after this last spring. It gives me great hope for the success of our coming mission… which I’m afraid is nowhere nearly so happy as our reunion tonight. So, first, a toast to one another’s health.”

The cheer that went up around the room was somewhat muted, as was probably to be expected after that introduction. A chorus of thunks marked the end of the toast as the men knocked their mugs against the tables. Stigander nodded, and now Captain Kragnir stepped forward.

“Gentlemen, for the last three weeks we have pursued a ship with a demon’s head that rides a storm black as night.”

Murmurs of recognition rose from most of the Vidofnings.

“We give chase because to do otherwise would be unconscionable. Last fall, a ship matching this description murdered your Battle Chanter. Three weeks ago, this ship stole away my Jarl’s daughter on her way to meet with an elder Singer.”

Now there were no murmurs, only the widened eyes of shock and pursed lips of anger.

“Einarr and I,” Stigander continued. “Were approached early this afternoon by Trabbi. I am sure I don’t need to explain to anyone why I have decided that aiding our brothers from Kjell in finding the foul demon-ship has become our first priority. Bardr informs me that we can be ready to leave the day after tomorrow.”

Captain Kragnir opened his mouth again. “Here, then, is to the demon hunt!”

There was nothing muted about the cheers for the toast this time, although the undercurrent was less one of camaraderie and more of anger. Einarr, leaning against the back wall, drained his cup to this toast. It would have been a decent ale, had he been able to taste it.

Einarr looked around the room, trying to be glad to see the two crews united, looking for his best path forward to the bar for a refill. Maybe he could goad Erik into a drinking contest tonight… the man would drink him under the table, but that didn’t seem like a bad place to be under the circumstances. Not when the alternative was worrying about Runa, and why they had taken her when they had murdered Astrid.

***

Getting stone-cold drunk always seems like a better idea when it’s happening than it does the morning after, and this morning was no exception. Einarr awoke on the floor beneath the table Erik had drunk him under the night before with, blessedly, no room to think about anything other than his aching head and the heaviness of his limbs. Which, he supposed, had been the point.

Einarr rolled out from under the table with a groan, not terribly concerned about why he had been left there. Probably due to Father’s disapproval. The fact that he did not seem to be the only one asleep on the tavern floor barely registered. Bleary, he shoved his hair back out of his face, his eyes scanning the room for something to wet his whistle with.

Stigander growled from across the room. “So you’re up, are you?”

“…’lo, Father.”

“I trust you got it out of your system last night?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Fine, then. Go help load the ship. Bardr and I will double-check the manifest.”

“Yes, sir.”

Stigander thrust a skin of water into his hands as Einarr trudged for the door. “We’ll get her back, and get vengeance for Astrid while we’re at it. Keep it together.”

Einarr paused, his hand on the door, to nod in agreement. Then he stepped out into the bright light of morning, blinking against the light and his hangover.

***

At the dawn tide, two days following the announcement of their venture, two ships slipped out of Mikilgata Harbor onto a calm sea, the sound of their oars plying the water the only sign of movement beyond the harbor master counting the rather generous tolls they had left.

On board the Vidofnir, the Skudbrun’s Mate consulted with Bardr, finalizing the heading they would take in pursuit of the demon-headed ship. There had been some hope, initially, that someone would spot the storm on the horizon, but in vain. Einarr listened with half his attention to the discussion: the other half paid more attention than truly necessary to the cadence of the rowing. If he did not, he would only dwell on the singular problem that stood before him. His stepmother’s murderers had his betrothed under their power. Why?

Eventually, though, when the harbor was little more than a smudge behind him, a gangplank was passed between the two ships and the Skudbrun’s Mate returned to his own crew and the sails were unfurled. Their heading: east by southeast, towards where the Skudbrun had lost sight of the storm – and where the Vidofnir had broken off her chase before.

For a moment it almost seemed as though the crowing cock of the Vidofnir were in a race against the Skudbrun’s wolf’s-head, but as they turned their new ally ceded the forerunner position to the crew that best knew what they pursued.

Einarr set his mouth even as they pulled the oars in. The Grendel, and whoever she was aligned with, would pay for their depredations in blood, or Einarr was not a Son of Raen. Perhaps, in the process, he might even learn what they were after in the first place.


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