Tag: Barri

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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5.4 – Hasty Departure

Reki came to dinner the evening after their fragrant baths looking satisfied with herself, and Runa came looking chastened. Einarr felt a little sorry for her: if she had spent the entirety of his quest to the Jotünhall in seclusion, as he believed she had, surely this was unnecessary? Moments later, he remembered what he had been told about “tuning,” and felt a little less sorry. Shaking his head, he swung a leg over the bench to take a seat next to his betrothed anyway. The smell of lavender tickled his nose, but on her it brought a smile to his eye.

He set to on the night’s stew, but this was not to be a night for eating and conversing amongst themselves – or with the other apprentices, as he had learned the young women universally were. The oaken crone, the leader of their Circle of Elders, stood at the head of the table as they were eating.

“It is good, from time to time, to have visitors from the Clans. It ensures that we do not grow so wrapped up in our own matters that we forget the wider world. However, brief though it was, on the morrow it will be time for our guests to depart. A matter of no small urgency has been brought to our attention, and while they seek the tools they need to fix it, so have we preparations to make. Do not fail in your quest, and return to us when you have completed it.”

Reki stood. “Honored Amma, you have our thanks. Even were it not for the quest, I should beg our leave of you in the morning. There are many more men who were exposed to the corruption you discovered in us back in port.”

The old woman inclined her head. “Then go forth. Speak with Sor down on the docks: tell him we sent you, and that you require one of his fishing boats. A longship is too large to gain entrance to the Tower.”

Einarr swallowed and wiped his moustache before answering. “My thanks, honored Amma.”

Quiet fell again around the hall as everyone returned to eating. As the low buzz of conversation started back up, Runa elbowed Einarr to get his attention.

“I’m coming with you,” she muttered into her bowl.

He, too, kept his voice low and his face forward as he replied. “Is this something the Matrons have decreed?”

“Something I have decided myself.”

“I’m against it. Who knows what we’ll run into there.”

“I have an idea. You’ll need me.”

“No.” It was far too dangerous. She did not push him farther, but he would have to watch her.

***

The next morning, when the sky was still the pale blue of early morning, the nine set out for East Port and their waiting companions. As early as it was, though, Reki and Runa both rushed about as though they wanted to be gone an hour before.

“Easy, now,” Trabbi was saying. “It’s not like a few extra minutes is going to kill anyone.”

“Are you sure about that?” Reki snapped.

“Enough.” Einarr stepped in. “We do need to hurry, but racing about like this isn’t helping anyone. Who are we still waiting on, anyway?”

“One of your porters,” Barri drawled.

“Then we’re not waiting on anyone.” Sivid sounded reluctant. “Saetild wanted to keep him behind, said he was worse off than the rest of us. Not that it makes much sense to me.”

“Amma Saetild is one of the best among us with medicine and the healing songs. If she wishes to keep the man behind, there’s a reason. Thus, let’s be off. The sooner we’re back in port, the sooner I can treat everyone else.” Reki scooped up her pack and strode down the path toward the forest, not waiting to see if anyone else followed.

One by one, led by Einarr, they did, and soon were walking beneath the canopy of oak leaves once more. The morning light filtered through the leaves above, turning subtly green. The atmosphere in the forest this morning did much to lift Einarr’s spirits. After the cleansing he’d had at the hands of the Matrons the lingering unease from the battle against the cult had finally faded – reason enough for cheer, he thought. And if evading Wotan’s spies to steal his wife’s distaff was perhaps one of the more foolish things he had ever tried, it felt more like a game than like a matter of life or death.

A rustling from out in the woods caught his attention, and Runa’s voice called out from its direction. “Einarr, come see!”

He blinked, and looked behind him down the path. Einarr did not see Runa there, nor ahead when he double-checked. With a shrug, he turned off in the direction of her voice. May as well see what she wants.

The path opened before him, lusher and more full of life than the road had been, and he wondered why the road did not pass through this way, instead.

“Oh, Einarr, it’s wonderful!”

What could she possibly have found in a forest like this? She couldn’t have been off the path for more than a few minutes. …And why couldn’t he see her yet? “Runa? Where are you hiding?”

“I’m just over here, in a clearing.”

This was beginning to seem strange, but Runa did have a fondness for pranks. This was exactly the sort of thing he could see her doing back in her father’s holdings.

…Only they weren’t on Kjell island. And both Singers had warned them against leaving the road in the Whispering Wood. Einarr stopped in his tracks. In every direction, all he could see was lush greenery, very little of which he recognized. I am an idiot.


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5.3 – Medicinal Bath

Three paces outside the door of the hall his tune trailed off and he stopped, now seeing what was in store for them.

Set up in the Hall yard were two large wooden tubs on a platform over a bonfire. Steam rose up into the midsummer morning, and the air smelled strongly of peppermint and lavender. It was true that Einarr had wanted a bath for weeks now. For all that these were washing tubs, however, this looked more like a scalding pot.

The plump Matron looked up from her nalbinding and hailed him with a smile. “Good morning!”

“I think that my companions and I should make a poor meal, honored Amma.”

To her credit, and Einarr’s relief, she laughed. “You’ll not be cooked unless you stay in too long. ‘Tis a bath, but for the herbs to work it must be hot.”

“More purification?”

“As much as we can do. The corruption has had long to work on your men: we must drive it back as hard and as fast as we can if you are to succeed in your quest.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. This was the first any such quest had been mentioned to him, although that there would be one did not surprise him.

“Well, up you go. There are baskets above for your things.”

When he stepped over the side of the tub, it was as though someone had brewed medicinal tea in a hot spring. The fragrance filled his nose and threatened to make him cough, it was so strong. Still, he thought he would prefer not to grow tentacles, and so he breathed shallowly until he could grow used to the odor. His feet turned pink almost immediately, but too hot or not he intended to take full advantage.

Barri and Sivid emerged from the hall as he was scrubbing his arms. By the thunderstruck look on both their faces, he knew exactly what they were thinking. “Good morrow! Come on in, the water’s fine.”

“Are you sure we’re not being softened up for a pudding?” Sivid asked as he climbed the platform.

Einarr belly laughed. “Would you eat something that smelled like this?”

Barri coughed. As eloquent a response as Einarr could hope for, he laughed again.

***

All nine of their party had been steeped and scrubbed before the sun had crested the forest canopy, and with Runa returned to them they fell to the morning’s porridge with berries and cream. That was when the oaken crone took her seat at the head of the table – although Einarr noted that she was not eating. For a time, she merely sat in silence.

Impatient, Einarr broke her reverie between bites. “I understand there’s some sort of quest you require of us?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line and looked flatly at Einarr. “Yes. I suppose Saetild said something this morning?”

“Is that her name? The cheerful, plump one? We haven’t actually been introduced to any of you.”

The oaken crone sighed, the sound like rustling leaves. “Quite.”

“So? What sort of horrific danger do I have to face in order to save us all from the corrupted blood of the cult that kidnapped Runa?”

Now it was the crone’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Rather cynical for one so young.”

“Honored Amma. My year began with the issuance of a purportedly impossible quest by Jarl Hroaldr after our ill-conceived attempt to elope, during which I had to not only avoid the giant’s notice, but also fight his dog and his dwarf. We both know I’m going to have to take the quest, so let’s not mince words about what I’m getting myself into.”

She lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “There is an order to these things, but since it has already been breached…”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “Some ways to the east of here, a tower sits upon a solitary rock jutting up out of the sea. From the water, you cannot see the top of this tower, but birds constantly flock about it, for it is the Tower of Ravens. It is said that Huginn and Muninn make their homes there when their master does not have need of them.”

Einarr looked at her as he continued to eat. So far, this didn’t sound too terrible.

“At the top of the tower, under the protection of Huginn, Muninn, and their guards, is a distaff made of hazel wood and inlaid with ivory: the Őrlögnir.”

Einarr nearly choked on his porridge while the other Vidofnings failed to suppress a laugh. “I need a magical what now?”

“A distaff – you know, like your Mamma used to keep fibre untangled while she spun?”

“Yes, I know what a distaff is. How is that supposed to help us here, with the cult or the corruption or anything?”

The oaken crone had the pained look of someone forced to explain matters to a particularly dull child. “What did I say it was made of?”

“Hazel and ivory.”

“Very good. And what are the properties of hazel and ivory?”

“I’m supposed to know that, how?”

“Gah!” She threw a hand up above her head. “Do they teach our warriors nothing? Hazel for wisdom and purification, ivory for purity. Applied correctly, the Őrlögnir can break any curse or purify any corruption. Now do you see?”

“…I think I’m beginning to.”

“Good. I recommend you prepare yourself. The sooner you leave to seek the Tower, the more of your crewmen you can save.”

More questions rushed to Einarr’s lips, but the oaken crone was already striding stiffly out of the room. He turned to Reki, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

“Ask me this afternoon. I must go before the Conclave with Sivid now, to haggle.”

Einarr suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “Of course. Good luck.”

Reki nodded, her mind already on what she might say to persuade the crones, as Einarr tried to get an answer out of Runa – only to discover that she, too, had left the room at some point over breakfast. Einarr sighed in exasperation and shoved another spoonful of porridge in his mouth.


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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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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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4.20 – Respite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Father, I-”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grendel would pay.


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4.19 – Boarding

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

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

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

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

“Explain,” his father ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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4.17 – Pursuit

For a moment Einarr stared dumbly after her. It had only been a few months since he’d seen her, and yet he could not tear his eyes away. His reverie was finally broken when Barri, his winter rival, elbowed him in the ribs. Einarr turned to look and the man wagged his eyebrows before gesturing for Einarr to go on ahead.

He rolled his eyes, but took the invitation. Neither Jorir nor Sivid would board before him, under the circumstances. If he’d been the one member of the crew who could not die before they visited the Oracle…

The others followed right on his heels, the treacherous rocking of the plank under their feet largely ignored as they rushed for the deck of the Vidofnir. Sooner or later the cult would turn up a foe that was not repulsed by the sun, and they needed to be well clear before that occurred.

“Everyone’s aboard?”

Erik shook his head, his eyes glued to the familiar skinny frame of Sivid, still below.

“Oy!” Einarr called down. “What d’ye think ye’re doing? Get up here!”

“Don’t worry about me.” Sivid didn’t move save to rub his palms together where he stood. “I’ll meet you all back at Kjell Hall this winter, if I don’t catch up to you sooner.”

“Are ye mad?” Jorir answered before Einarr could, but the sentiments were the same. “Ye’re death won’t even do any good down there.”

“Sometimes, dwarf, a man just needs to test his luck. I’ll see you all this winter!” Sivid gave them no more time to try and persuade him. Blade in hand, he dashed back out onto the pier.

Einarr furrowed his eyebrows. He knew the man’s luck ran in strange currents, but no matter where Sivid thought he was in terms of luck Einarr could see no purpose to this sacrifice.

Erik, too, was scowling down at the pier, although Einarr thought he detected more than a hint of stoic resolve in the set of the man’s jaw. Erik took hold of the plank connecting them all to the pier and started to pull. “Sivid, you rat! Now who’m I s’posed to fleece at dice?”

Sivid did not answer. Arring came up to see what the commotion was, blinked, and then grinned.

Einarr frowned at the strong man. “What’s so funny?”

“You’ll see.” Arring then wandered a few paces further down the deck, towards the far end of the aftcastle. A low growl escaped Einarr’s throat and he turned to watch what would surely be the end of a good man. It was every man’s right to choose when and how to die… but this just seemed so fruitless.

Those who had been waiting their return already pulled at the oars, with Stigander himself calling the cadence. Down on the pier, no fewer than three monstrous bodies already lay at Sivid’s feet.

A line snapped tight. Sivid’s hands flew up in the air instinctively even as his face hit the stone below. Einarr blinked, unable to quite credit the sight of Sivid being pulled in like a fish on a pike. Then a splash echoed in their ears even as the figures on the pier pressed closer to the end.

Einarr rushed to the aftcastle. Arring, hand over hand, was pulling in a rope, and now over the sound of a person being dragged through the water came cries of outrage from Sivid. A peek over the stern confirmed that Sivid, in spite of his protestations, was now climbing the rope that still wrapped about his leg.

For a long moment, all Einarr could do was stare. Arring had been among those to visit the Oracle, as well: could he know about Sivid’s luck? Laughter welled up in his chest as the thought faded.

He was still laughing quietly when Sivid’s soaked head appeared over the Vidofnir’s railing, spitting water and cursing at the strong man who had so rapidly reeled him in.

Arring laughed in his face. “You nearly keelhauled yourself, you know? If I hadn’t heard the commotion you’d be underwater right now.”

Sivid did not look mollified, but he did snap his mouth closed. Einarr shook his head and looked back out towards the pier.

Even in the strange half-light of the circle fort behind them the movement on the pier was unmistakable. The forward-most line of the creatures was still, but beyond them was a moving swarm of bodies, all flowing into the ships at dock. Einarr raised his voice to call over his shoulder. “Draken aft!”

Likely they still had a little time before the ships were prepared, but to douse the lights would disadvantage them more than their pursuers. Stigander increased the rowers’ cadence. What I wouldn’t do for a favorable wind right now…

Then the Vidofnir rounded the first bend in the cave and the pier dropped out of sight. Certain, now, that Sivid was securely aboard, Einarr hurried forward to take his place on one of the undermanned oars. Haste would be their best ally here: to a man the others joined him.

For a time, all they heard was the creak of wood and the call of three separate cadences – the Vidofnir’s, the Skudbrun’s, and the enemy’s.

They rounded another curve, and the grey light of a storm at sea began to make itself known, at first hardly noticeable over the blaze of torchlight, but growing stronger by the minute as they rowed. Einarr took a deep breath, trying not to hope for an easy escape.

A black shape appeared ahead of them on the water, rowing as languidly inward as the Vidofnir and Skudbrun were hurried outward.

“Draken, dead ahead!” Came the call from the forecastle.

“Port side – oars in! Evade!” Stigander barked.

Einarr was starboard, and they held their oars steady against the Vidofnir’s side while they waited. The unknown draken pressed itself against the far wall of the cave. As the two ships slipped past each other, Einarr did a double-take. He wasn’t likely to ever forget the demon’s head carved at the prow of that boat, or the blackness of the wood. That was the Grendel.


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4.16 – Hammer & Anvil

Trapped. Five of them to fight of dozens of the local guards and protect Runa, when the wall of men ahead of them appeared nearly as solid as stone. If they could just reach the Vidofnir they could escape, but it would take a miracle for them to get that far. A miracle, or…

“Runa?”

“I Sing, and before you know it we’re buried. They will fixate on my voice.”

Einarr growled and drew Sinmora. “Fine. Wait till we’re already bogged down, then, but we’re going to need you.”

Then he lowered his shoulder behind his shield and raised Sinmora overhead. His feet dug in to the stone pier, and then he was off, the others forming a kite behind him with Runa in the middle. Einarr’s shield struck the waiting shield wall of the defenders with a tremendous crash.

His aim was true: he drove into the space between two guard’s shoulders and their shields turned with him – not much, but enough to open a breach. Einarr slashed down with his blade and cut deep into the defender’s shoulder. Black blood welled around the steel.

Einarr yanked his sword free just moments before Jorir barreled into the guard’s knees and buried his axe in its hamstring. Momentum carried Einarr over the hole just opened even as Bollinn took down the guard on his other side.

As though they had trained for exactly this moment, the defenders curled around to come at the flying wedge from the sides and rear. Einarr hacked at them as they came within reach, but he could not care if they lived or died so long as he was able to continue driving forward.

Inch by inch, the six outsiders fought their way toward the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun and relative safety. With every inch, Einarr thought certain the next one would be their last. Finally, about halfway down the pier, they stalled. The crowd ahead seemed twice as thick as the one they had just fought through, and the grunts of exertion from Sivid and Barri on the rearguard sounded fatigued.

A long, thin blade swept over Jorir’s head and slashed across Einarr’s bicep. He roared – not in pain, although the fire of a fresh wound definitely made itself known – but in anger totally unrelated to the battle-fury.

That was the moment when the bright, clear tones of Runa’s voice sounded over the din of melee. It was only a few moments, but fatigue and pain fled from his body even as the rearguard roared their defiance and Einarr made another step forward.

If the press of enemies had been close ahead, however, now they were pressed on all sides. Einarr would swear that he could feel Runa’s breath on the back of his neck. At the very least, the sounds of battle from the end of the pier were also nearer. He cut at the legs of the monstrous guard ahead of him and followed it up with a vicious kick to the groin. His foe doubled over even as he lost balance and tumbled over: at least some things could be relied on.

Einarr cut to the side as he stepped forward and felt his blade once again bite flesh. His stomach roiled at the smell of the black blood that now splattered his face, but there was nothing to be done. One thing alone mattered, and that was reaching the ships.

Though they wore armor, nothing about these guards now appeared human in Einarr’s sight. The last time this had happened, it had been under the effects of Astrid’s battle chant. So, why now? He roared again, allowing the little voice in the corner of his mind to go about its business. Man or monster – on this field, all were one.

Ahead of them a blaze of light flared – real, yellow fire, so bright it was almost blinding. Their freedom was scant feet ahead: near enough he wanted to laugh, but still too far.

Now Runa’s voice sounded again, this time in the all-too-familiar rhythm of the Battle Chant. Even before it had begun to take hold of his mind, however, it was joined by the familiar, sultry voice of Reki, and a third voice Einarr did not know. With all three Singers in agreement, Einarr surrendered to the red haze of the battle fury.

What before had looked like a twisted dark elf in armor now appeared truly monstrous, all teeth and blood-red eyes, with gaping maws in places where no mouth should ever be – sometimes showing through the armor without compromising it. Einarr hacked about himself, twin desires warring in his breast even now. He knew he must reach the blaze of light, or he would perish. He knew with just as much conviction, however, that to leave the abominations alive would be the death of many others.

He chopped down with Sinmora. An arm that was not an arm, still gripping its sword, fell in his path and he stepped forward. Somehow their circle of six remained intact as they cut their path through the putrid wall of their enemies.

Arrows fell around them but not among them, fletched in the colors of Kjell and Breidelstein. One struck a creature’s shoulder and knocked him forward, off-balance. Einarr cut up and across and took the creature’s head.

Runa’s voice dropped out of the trio even as Reki’s song shifted. The haze began to clear from Einarr’s eyes. On the other side of the new-fallen creature was three feet of empty space and the blaze of light that was every torch aboard the Vidofnir and, beyond it, the Skudbrun.

As the vision ahead of him resolved into sense, Einarr let out a whoop. The light was not just to encourage them. It would also allow them to board. Erik and Irding slid a plank down towards the pier with a mighty shove. It hit the stone pier with a mighty thunk even as Runa slipped between Einarr and Bollinn. The ache of fatigue in Einarr’s shield arm subsided as Runa took that opportunity to squeeze it.

“Thank you,” she mouthed. Then she scrambled up the plank, and Einarr was left with the memory of that touch imprinted beneath maille and tunic alike.


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4.15 – Breaking Out

To their credit, Einarr’s companions did not caution him about noise. Likely they knew it would be fruitless. Still, his improved vantage did little to aid his search. Reckless abandon seized him, though, and rather than climb back down Einarr hurried from cage-top to cage-top, searching for any sign of flaxen hair while the others searched on the ground. The frantic energy of his search found release through his feet as he ran softly across the bars of the cages – although perhaps not as softly as he might have.

“Is someone there?” A sweetly feminine voice called, a few rows down from where Einarr searched. His heart jumped into his throat at the sound.

“Runa?” He almost didn’t dare ask it, although there was no mistaking the voice. Einarr dropped down from the top of the cage to the floor with a soft thud. “Runa, we’re coming.”

A long moment of silence followed, punctuated by “Einarr?”

She had been expecting rescue, he thought, but not him. That stung, although logically there was no reason she should have expected him to come. What sort of coincidence was it, after all, that led them into contact with the Skudbrun while they resupplied?

He skidded around a corner and saw, down the row, a pale hand gripping a bar and a flash of golden hair. The Brunnings arrived just moments after he had, at the other end of the row – and just in time to see a grin of relief split his features. Then his feet were in motion again, sprinting down the line until he stood before her, his breath still coming heavily.

Even in the subterranean light of the cage room, light came back into her eyes. As the others fell in around Einarr, she smiled. “I knew someone would come. I never dared dream, though…”

“We ran into Trabbi in port after you were taken… are you all right? They haven’t done anything to you?”

Even as she shook her head she looked pleased. “No, I’m fine. I got a little bruised when they took me, but nothing serious. …Is one of you going to open the door, though?”

Einarr blinked, surprised, and stepped to the side. “O-oh, of course.”

Sivid now stepped up to the door, moving almost as hastily as Einarr had been. “Don’t you worry, milady-”

“We’ll have you out of here right quick,” Barri interrupted. For the best that he did not try to claim she was now safe. Not one of them could be called safe until they were out of this blasted cavern – a passage to Hel’s domain, as any skald would call it.

Not long after, the lock creaked open and they opened the door to the cage that held Runa with only a little rattling.

Runa didn’t waste a moment. No sooner was the door swinging open than she took three quick steps to stand on the open ground of the stone passageway. Even as dirty as she was after her weeks in captivity, she was lovely. “Follow me.”

“What? Why?”

“Because they brought me in the back way. Unless you want to go back out through the temple with me?”

That sounded like a solid reason to Einarr. The men exchanged a shrug even as she headed for the two closed doors in the back of the cage room. No sooner had Jorir closed the door behind them than they heard the shouts of guards from the prison they had just vacated.

***

The series of passages Runa led them down at a full run made their path to reach the prison seem straightforward in comparison. Finally, though, they came to what appeared to be a servant’s entrance, the sound of pursuit still far too close for comfort.

“What’s through here?” Bollinn asked.

“The courtyard… I think. This is around where I woke up when they were transferring me.”

“Good enough. We can manage something from here.” Einarr had finally managed to wipe the grin off his face, but now that she was here in front of him it was still difficult to look away. He made himself, now, his attention turning to the door ahead of them and the likely fight on their hands once they went through it. One more deep breath, and then he put his shoulder down to burst through the door.

The door opened out from one of the low buildings scattered about the yard and into chaos. Soldiers swarmed, but Einarr could see neither rhyme nor reason to their movements. Surely they weren’t still in confusion over the remnants of the fight at the dungeon door? He shook his head: that was impossible, and they had little time. Einarr cut to the right along the edge of the building.

An arrow sailed over his shoulder, catching one of the monstrous soldiers in the mouth as he opened it to call an alarm, and then Barri dashed out after him.

“Good shooting,” he called over his shoulder but did not slow. Barri grunted back.

Barri’s arrow only bought them a moment, however. Even as Einarr rounded the corner into one of the innumerable side streets that led inward toward the keep more shouts went up. Their prize was in hand, though, if they could only make it back to the ship.

A pair of hastily chosen turns down even narrower alleyways brought Einarr to a stop in a small courtyard. Dammit. The others skidded to a halt behind him.

“My lady,” he ventured. “How has your voice held up?”

“For the best if I don’t need to Sing.”

Well that was a non-committal answer. He looked her straight in the eyes. “But if it comes to a fight, you can?”

“I believe so.”

“Good. Let’s go, then.”

The six of them raced for the docks, hoping all the while that Einarr and Sivid’s earlier scouting would be enough of an advantage to get them there ahead of the monstrous soldiers.

When they tore through the gate and found the gate guards still standing placidly, as though nothing had happened – and could still hear the sounds of pursuit through the streets behind – they thought they might have made it. Einarr began to pay more attention to the ebullience of the run than to why they ran.

When the road opened out into the docks, however, his hopes crashed like a wave against the rocks. Soldiers formed a barricade across the pier. Further on, in the darkness at the end of the quay, the sound of battle carried to Einarr’s ears, even as the thunder of pursuit grew louder with the howls of their pursuers.


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