The Vidofnir veered left as the wolfling ship began to circle around in front of them but did not slow her pace.
“Steady!” Einarr ordered. “Be ready to cut lines.”
There was nowhere to go now but forward. Even if they changed directions, the rope behind them was solid. The Eikthyrnir, built for speed as she was, seemed to be having a little trouble maintaining position, but the Heidrun kept to her wing.
They weren’t going to make it. The noose was closing too quickly. Einarr’s fingers tightened around Sinmora’s hilt.
The Vidofnir’s prow nosed into the rapidly-slimming gap that was their only way out.
Abruptly the ship ahead of them surged toward the Vidofnir, boarding lines already aloft. Einarr held his breath: surely his father must have foreseen this. But, how did he intend to break free?
The ship to Einarr’s right had not moved to close the gap created by the foreward ship’s lunge. Another trap?
Did it matter if it were? “Hard to starboard! Drive forward!”
The Heidrun tilted as Arkja leaned into the tiller. It might not be enough to save them, but Einarr was not willing to let the chance pass. There might not be another one. Then the oarsmen redoubled their efforts once more even as the wolfling ship was still struggling to react to its fellow’s abrupt aggression.
Kormund, too, was making a break for freedom. Don’t get bogged down, Father…
“On your word.”
Einarr nodded at the one-armed man, his attention already back out on the wolves circling on the water’s surface.
The starboard-side ship was finally turned to intercept, but Heidrun was already nosing into the space between it and its neighbor. “Hàkon!”
The drummer knew exactly what he was after: he increased his tempo yet again, so that the oarsmen were pulling into a sprint.
The Heidrun crossed over to outside the circle. Boarding lines flew from the wolfling ship, but there was not a thrower alive who could have made that toss. The Heidrun was just out of range. Einarr smirked, satisfaction flowing over his shoulders like water.
“Drop tempo and bring her about. We can’t just leave our flagship behind.”
That was the moment when the Heidrun shuddered and jerked nearly to a stop. Evidently there was an exceptional thrower among the wolves on that ship. Nevertheless, a moment later the lone caught line was severed.
Not a moment too soon, either. Kormund had somehow managed to squeeze through the rapidly narrowing gap left by the impulsive wolfling Captain, but that left Stigander to fend for himself in the center of the circle.
Not for long, however. Einarr grinned as his ship jerked back into motion. The Heidrun and the Eikthyrnir would free the Vidofnir – although it looked like she was doing a decent job of fighting free on her own – and then they would make for the nearest port. Whether or not Kaldr continued to follow, though, Einarr had found a weakness in their fleet.
Kaldr blew the horn to call Frothing Urek’s ship back, half expecting the man not to heed. When he did, however reluctantly, Kaldr released a breath he hadn’t known he was holding and nodded. There would be nothing for it, now, but to track them into port. If the other fleet allowed a fourth encounter they were lost, and so the rebels would make all speed for the nearest freehold. Lundholm, if he recalled aright.
Still, though, that was twice now Urek had deviated from the plan in the name of personal glory. That could not be allowed to stand: not if the fleet was going to have any chance at success. “Thjofgrir.”
“Signal the other Captains to join us here. And set us on course to continue following them.” Despite the rage seething in his belly, he was pleased to note that his face remained placid. Had it not, his Mate would have questioned him.
“As you wish, sir. You should know, however, that the other crews grow restless.”
“I, too, grow restless. Spread it around – quietly – that they escaped us this time because of Urek’s impatience.”
“As you say, sir.”
Kaldr nodded a dismissal, but his Mate was already off about his errand.
Boarding lines passed between the four ships, and within the hour all four Captains were gathered on Kaldr’s deck.
Urek, as expected, looked thoroughly dissatisfied. As well he should, although Kaldr doubted he had the self-awareness to realize why. Kaldr cleared his throat.
“We have lost them, for the moment,” he began. “I very much doubt they will let us catch them again so easily before they reach a port.”
“We’d not have lost them,” Urek spat. “If you hadn’t kept calling me back like some craven fool. I could have ended the rebels.”
“You overestimate your own skills, Urek. Or grossly underestimate theirs. Had I allowed you to go haring off after the Vidofnir, you’d have caught it – or they’d have caught you, and proceeded to send you back to us rather ill-used.”
“How dare you -” Urek started.
Vittir, of all people, spoke up next. “Urek’s right, you know. If you hadn’t been keeping us back like a craven pack of dogs…”
Count on Vittir to regurgitate what the others told him.
“Now, now. Kaldr has a point, too. We’d have netted them all this time, if Urek hadn’t gotten impatient and broken formation.”
“They were about to slip through our much-vaunted formation anyway.”
Kaldr raised an eyebrow. That was not what he’d seen. “I did not call you all aboard to discuss what has already happened, gentlemen, but to discuss how we will smoke them out of port when they finally arrive in one.”
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