A note in Jorir’s voice caught Einarr’s ear. “Well, spit it out. What’s the matter?”
“Only this. How many more skirmishes like that can we take?”
Einarr frowned. “That probably depends on how many volleys we have to fire. You’re concerned about supplies, then.”
“Aye. That, and manpower.”
“You’re right, of course.” Movement caught Einarr’s eye from the deck of the Vidofnir. “That’s Bardr, signalling a conference. You, Tyr, and Eydri, and Vali with me.”
“Not that I question your wisdom, but why the ghost?”
“Same reason as Tyr. Experience.”
Jorir harrumphed but said no more.
Half an hour later, all three Captains were gathered on board the Vidofnir with their Mates and advisors. Einarr had brought the largest contingent, but neither Father nor Captain Kormund so much as batted an eye.
Stigander locked eyes with Tyr and nodded in greeting. “Tyr.”
“You see anyone you know on those ships?”
“One or two.”
“Good.” Stigander turned his attention now to the other Captains. “How are your crews holding out.”
“Well enough, Father, but…”
Captain Kormund shook his head. “The men are getting tired, Stigander, and we’re going to need not just food and water but arrows and pitch and bandages before long.”
Jorir made a rumbling noise that might have been a chuckle as Einarr nodded.
“Exactly. Is there still a town near Afi’s old freehold?” It had been safe enough for him to summer there after Breidelstein fell, after all.
Stigander frowned. “I haven’t heard if they recovered or not. But there’s not often a lot of news coming out of the smaller islands like that, so we might not have. And if they’re not terribly happy to see me, there were others nearby.”
“Why would they have anything to hold against us?”
Stigander raised his eyebrows. “You were there. You can’t tell me you didn’t know.”
Einarr’s answer was to look at his father with greater confusion.
The older man sighed. “Those raiders who burned the town and killed your grandparents? They were Ulfr’s men, under a false flag. Looking for us.”
Nevertheless, Stigander nodded to Bardr, who stepped away to give their new heading to Arring at the tiller. That done, Stigander turned back to their conference. “Now then. Tyr, you said you caught sight of some familiar faces during the fighting?”
“Oh, aye. And some of them men I’d never have expected to see live this long, let alone taking the helm.”
Tyr settled himself on a barrel near the mast. “Let’s start with the dangerous one – the one our Singers warned us about.”
Reki scowled. “Kaldr.”
Einarr perked up. “You remember him? Was he as odd about magic before the Weaving?”
“Oh, aye. But you see, I remember his pabbi, too. Man was always blaming his own mistakes on ‘bewitchment,’ and it seemed like he was always in some sort of trouble. But however weird he is about the Arts, that’s not what makes him dangerous.”
Eydri nodded in agreement. “He’s devious as a snake, and just as bloodless.”
“You say ‘devious,’ I say ‘clever,’ and he plainly has a good head for strategy. Is he still following us?”
Einarr glanced back into the wake of their passage and pursed his lips. “Yes.”
“I’d have been more surprised if he wasn’t,” Hraerek grumbled, and Captain Kormund nodded in agreement.
“Plainly he intends to harry us into submission,” Stigander said, his arms crossed. “Just as plainly, we need time to rest the men and resupply our ships if we’re going to win back the Isles. But we’ve already set course to deal with just that. What of the others?”
“Men who, I think, would have long since retired under you or Lord Raen, that I saw. None of whom would have gained their own ship in that circumstance. I suspect the Usurper chose his Captains based on toadying and biddability more than skill. If you can believe it, Stigander, it looks like little Frothing Urek has a commission.”
Stigander snorted. “Him? The one who you could goad into a fight by disagreeing over the weather?”
“The very same.” Tyr chuckled along with his old Captain.
“I wonder if he ever grew out of that?”
“If not,” Kormund mused. “We can use that. He’s also, presumably, the sort who can’t back down?”
“If he’s the same as he used to be, yes.”
Einarr shook his head. “And he’s a Captain? Well. If he’s working under Kaldr, he’s not going to tolerate this harrying strategy. That gives us something we can try, at least.”
The conference continued in this way throughout the rest of the day as the three ships sailed for one of the outlying islands, tailed by three of the wolfling ships keeping just out of bow range. Eventually Einarr sent Vali back to the Heidrun with the plan as it existed.
“And Vali? Ask Hrug to be ready to destroy those rugs when we make landfall.”
The ghost gave a wry smile and a mocking salute before winking out of existence. Einarr shook his head and turned his attention back to their discussion.
Captain Kormund and Hraerek, his Mate, stared, agog.
“Did you… not know about him?”
Kormund cleared his throat. “I had heard you had a ghost among your crew, but…”
“But the sheer insolence of it!” Hraerek chuckled. Bardr smirked.
“Far be it for me to tell you how to run your ship…” Kormund cleared his throat, plainly intending to do just that until Stigander raised a forestalling hand.
“I’ve seen no sign since his return from Svartlauf that suggests discipline slips under his command.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Stigander nodded acknowledgement. “Be cautious, however. The friendlier you are with your crew, the worse it will be when you have to make the hard call.”
Einarr swallowed, then inclined his head in return. He had thought of that, long and hard, after taking Hrug’s hand the previous fall. But, in the end, he knew he could be no other way.
“There is one last thing we must consider, Father.”
“Will our hunters strike at us in port?”
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