The remains of Langavik were an inferno behind them as the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun sailed out of port. While the sailors had put the town to the torch, the Singers stood on the dock and performed proper rites for the dead. No-one aboard either ship cared to look back at the horror they had found even as the blaze turned the sky to orange night.
Between the navigators of both crews, Einarr thought they had a good idea where to look… but that may have been the least satisfying conjecture he had ever heard. If there was one thing Einarr was glad of right now, it was his turn on the oars. He threw his back into every stroke, knowing that exhausting himself would be the only way he slept that night – or for most nights after, until his bride was back in his arms.
A dark elf fanatic, helming a cult that sacrificed people. And they had Runa. How could any man rest easy in that circumstance? And so, he rowed, because passing out drunk on the water would not be tolerated.
A few days out from the charred ruins of Langavik, the sky to the north grew dark, as though there were storm clouds just out of sight. With grim certainty, Vidofnir and Skudbrun turned towards the darkness, and before two more days had passed the storm they had sought – and the island they expected – loomed on the horizon.
The island seemed almost to shelter beneath the storm, but even before they passed under the shadow of clouds it looked like one of Hel’s hands reaching up from the underworld. A massive mountain seemed to stretch directly up from the dark waters, its craggy cliffs promising no safe harbor or beach to land on. Above, blackness roiled, although there was little wind below.
The sound of oars slipping through the water and the glow of torches from the decks were all that proved the two ships’ existence on their long, spiralling approach. On board, those who did not row peered towards the coast in search of any sign of habitation, or even simply an inlet where they might put in to continue their search on foot.
Two and a half turns around the island, Einarr spotted a deeper darkness along the coast, within what was now plainly a broad fjord and easily large enough for a longship to enter. “Sound ho!”
Watching sailors from further down the ship hurried up to see for themselves, and Einarr pointed toward the likely entrance to the island.
“The cult is led by a svartalfr, isn’t it? Everything I’ve heard says they prefer to live underground.”
“You think they’d build a dock in a cave?” Sivid sounded skeptical.
“One that size? Why wouldn’t they?”
Sivid had no answer for that. After a brief consultation between Captains and Mates, the two ships turned inwards, toward the hoped-for dock.
As the two ships slipped under the mouth of the cave, those aboard held their breath. Torches illuminated the stone walls in warm yellow light – which is more than could be said for their effect outside the underground inlet. As men shifted, chain mail jangled softly. Only the men still at oars – among them the newcomers aboard the Vidofnir – had not yet equipped themselves for battle.
For his part, Einarr hoped it would not come to that – not immediately, anyway. Not until they knew how to get Runa out. Once she was safe her captors could rot. His grip tightened on Sinmora’s hilt at his belt.
The underground river they floated along curved off to the right, and now Einarr could hear the distant echoes of voices from ahead, and see the reflection of whatever it was they used for light against the far wall of the cavern. Whatever they burned, its color was colder.
Stigander ordered their torches extinguished as they came around the bend, plunging the crew of the Vidofnir into near-blackness. A moment later the Skudbrun followed suit, and all were glad the current was slow. Eventually, though, the men’s eyes began to adjust, and even the small amount of cold bluish light from ahead was enough that they could see the outlines of their path.
Ahead, where the light was concentrated if not much brighter, a stone quay could be seen as a matte patch against the rippling water, and shadows seemed to move in the distance.
Stigander held up a hand. The rowers nearest him spread the word to those before and behind – reverse and hold. What the captain expected to see from here, none were certain… but Einarr, too, strained his eyes towards the subterranean harbor before them, hoping against hope that one of those shadows would resolve itself into a human woman with flaxen hair. That, at least, would prove that she hadn’t provoked them into acting hastily.
More likely she was biding her time, waiting for a chance to escape – or so Einarr told himself. He growled and did not look away.
The Skudbrun came up alongside the Vidofnir and a low-voiced question floated across the gap. “What news?”
Stigander shook his head, as though anyone more than five feet away could have seen the action. “Still can’t see. Any closer and we’ll be seen, though.”
Captain Kragnir growled. “Ships aplenty at the dock. You see any familiar-looking banners?”
“Not as yet. …Let’s ease in to the end of the quay. Pretend like we belong there, at least for now.”
Kragnir grunted in agreement, and once again the two ships began to crawl forward. Still Einarr saw no sign of either his beloved or the crew that killed Astrid not quite a year ago.
As they neared the pier, the two human ships weighed their sea anchor. A moment later, just before their hulls would have bumped into the stone edge of the pier, they pulled up short. None of the shadows on shore looked in their direction.
“Good,” Stigander muttered. The less attention they attracted from those on shore, the easier this became.