Stigander froze in his tracks, then seemed to sway a little as the words hit him harder than any physical blow. “Too late?” he finally managed.
Einarr and Trabbi both moved to where Stigander stood poleaxed. Einarr arrived first, despite the old fisherman being much closer. “What do you mean, too late?”
Trabbi, his face as ashen as the rest of him, shook his head slowly. “The raiders been gone for days, now. All that’s left here is to save what remains. Build again, if we find the Jarl.”
Stigander recovered himself. “I think you’d better come down to the Vidofnir with us, have some food and drink. Then you can tell us what happened.”
Trabbi nodded as though still half-dazed. “I think that might be a good idea. Can’t tell you when I last ate.”
Three days before the Arkona, the Eikthyrnir and the Vidofnir narrowly avoided doing battle in the harbor, a drakken with a wolf’s head on the prow arrived. They made no pretense of friendship: this was a raid, and the wolf’s raiders were searching for someone.
As soon as they saw the Vidofnir wasn’t in port, they made sure everyone at the Hall – and, Trabbi supposed, likely everyone in the town – knew that they had come for the thief Stigander and the ship he had stolen from Breidelstein, the Vidofnir. The wolflings were trying to draw them out.
The battle at the Hall was the worst any of them had seen in years. The men of the Skudbrun fought valiantly, and gave chase, but just yesterday had limped back, unable to follow further. They did confirm one thing, though.
Trabbi stared into the ale in the wooden tankard they had brought him. “The Wolfling ship – we never got its name – had both the Jarl and the Lady Runa aboard. Captive.”
Stigander’s face had gone red with rage, and Einarr saw his beard twitching in time with the muscle over his jaw. “He has the nerve to call me a thief?”
Einarr, though, was preoccupied with another bit of that story. “Was she unharmed?”
The odds that the Jarl had been taken without a fight, and therefore without injury, were almost nil. Trabbi sighed. “As near as Bollinn could tell. She was gagged and tied to the mast when he saw her, and my Lord was trussed up like a boar. Also gagged: apparently their Captain wasn’t willing to deal with my Lord’s temper.”
Stigander had calmed a little. “No. He wouldn’t be.”
“The Captain of the ship that razed Kjell is most likely Ulfr son of Urdr. My half-brother, and your uncle.”
Einarr hesitated a moment, then hummed agreement into his own cup. “It couldn’t be anyone else, with the story Trabbi told.”
“I’d hoped to have a little longer to muster forces…”
Einarr shook his head. “We should have realized we were out of time last summer, when I came back with the Örlögnir. I’ve already lived longer than most Cursebreakers manage, and it seems like every time I turn around someone has raised the stakes on me. My ship is ready?”
“Assuming it wasn’t damaged in the assault on the town. Even after last fall, I’ve only got a skeleton crew I can spare you.”
“I’m sure that will work itself out.”
“I imagine,” Trabbi interrupted. He looked and sounded much more alive now that he was out of the smoking ruin and fed. “I imagine that, if you put round the town what you’re doing, you’ll have a good number of able bodies wanting to get their own back against the raiders.”
“See?” Einarr looked more seriously at Trabbi now. “How badly was the Skudbrun damaged?”
“You’d have to ask Bollinn, but I’m sure they’ll be itching to go.” Ulfr had Jarl Hroaldr, after all.
Now Einarr turned to the foreigners in their midst. “You have delivered me, as promised, to my father’s ship and my own people. I have no more hold on you, and if you wish to return the Princess to Imperial waters, not a soul will hold it against you. On the other hand…”
Liupold shook his head. “For myself, I would chase this justice with you, and I know that there are many among my crew who admire you for your work on Hohenwerth. There are just as many, however, who despise the Clans beyond all reason. My Mate among them. I fear I must return south with the Arkona.”
Einarr inclined his head. He had expected as much, but they were going to be facing the entire strength of the land that used to be home, with whatever navy and whatever loyalty the Weaver and her bastard son managed to forge.
Bea, however, straightened her shoulders. “I will come. As a token of goodwill, let us say.”
“Your Highness!” Liupold protested.
“I have made up my mind, Captain. This Cursebreaker intrigues me, and I believe it is not only in my Patron’s interest but the interest of the Empire to ensure his success and continued survival. I will go.”
Liupold looked to Einarr and Stigander for assistance and found none. Neither did Trabbi, the Jarl’s retainer, look inclined to stop her. Finally he sighed. “In that case, I would ask that you fight on my behalf, as well.”
She beamed. “Of course. I will send you with a missive in my own hand, in case Father should object.”
Liupold rolled his eyes, and Einarr suddenly wondered if all highborn women were so overbearing. “Well,” he said, to change the subject. “In that case, it sounds as though we should get back to town. And… hope my uncle’s slander did not take hold.”
Trabbi nodded, slowly. “I think you have little to fear, there. Lord Stigander and his crew are well-known, after all, not only for your friendship to Lord Hroaldr but also for your generosity in town.”
That was true, as far as it went, but Einarr was uneasy nonetheless.
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