Tag: Order of the Valkyrie

3.30 – Rite of Passing

The only difference Einarr could see in the barrow cave this morning from when they had left was the lack of shades hovering ominously between himself and the Allthane’s would-be barrow. “Where do you want us?”

Reki strode deeper into the cave without looking back? “You? With me. The rest of you should guard the entryway to the room with the ship for now.”

“Against things coming out or things getting in?” Irding sounded sheepish, but it was a good question.

“Yes. And remember you’re basically on your own against anything that does try to stop me. We’ve no guarantee all of the revenants fell last night.”

Nervous chuckling came from behind Einarr before Troa answered for the group. “Understood.”

Reki may have nodded in response. “Now. Einarr. As I understand it, my predecessor was your stepmother? You were involved in her funeral?”

“Mm.”

“Good. I need you to lash a raft and find the Allthane’s remains. There should be bones, at least. Then get a few things from the old barrow to go down with him.”

“Ah… of course. And you need me to do all of this…”

“You have an hour.”

Einarr frowned. He turned around to face the others in the group. “Irding, Troa. Sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to handle the raft. Jorir and I will come help if we locate everything else we need in time.”

The three he named looked rather more pleased than offended to be taken off guard duty when the most likely opponent would be insubstantial. The rest of the team took their positions in the entryway, to a man their mouths set in a grim line. Einarr had no desire to fight the shades again, solid forms or not, so he could hardly blame them. “The rest of you… good luck. We’re counting on you.”

Even with the help of his three friends, Einarr passed a tense hour searching the cave for the Allthane’s remains. The grave ship, piled high with gold, contained no bones. Neither did the floor around it. Finally, though, his search carried him over to where the ghostly feast had been set up. Where before there had been nothing, it seemed here were the bones of every man who had fallen to the cannibals.

“How does one tell the bones of a king from the bones of a sailor?” Einarr muttered as he lifted another skull. Handling them sent shivers up and down his spine, and he found himself wanting to wipe his hands every time he rejected one.

“Is it too much to ask that they leave his crown on his pate?” Jorir’s grumblings were of a kind with Einarr’s own.

Einarr growled. “Jorir, I’ll get this, you go pick out some fitting grave goods for the revenant of a thane.”

“You sure?”

“No. But the Oracle seemed to think highly of my perception… maybe that will help? All else fails, we pile the raft high with skulls.”

“As plans go, not the worst I’ve heard.”

“Mm. Go. At least one of us can get away from the charnel miasma.”

Jorir stopped mid-step. “Miasma?”

“Haven’t you felt it?”

“Nay. Just the usual darkness of an old battlefield. …Methinks your superior vision is serving you well already, milord. Find the source of the miasma -”

“And find the body of the Allthane.”

***

Einarr and Reki stood on the shore of the deep water pool that dominated the main cavern, the others arrayed around them to bear witness. At every man’s feet was a torch, and in every man’s hand an arrow, its head wrapped in oil-soaked cloth. Ahead of them floated a crude raft patched together out of boards cut from the Allthane’s rotting grave ship. Some of the ends were already charred, from the abortive funeral three centuries earlier.

The song Reki sang over the ancient royal bones was not what she had sung for the sailors who fell against the Valkyrie, sending them on to Valhalla. Nor did it bear any resemblance to the song Runa had sung at Astrid’s funeral. No. This song was one Einarr had rarely heard, for it was the song of those who were destined for Hel’s dank domain. There was no joy in it – not for a peasant, and less for a fallen king. Little wonder the Allthane had resisted.

A faint green glow arose from the center of the raft, reflecting off the gold Jorir had so carefully selected.

Einarr’s shoulders tensed. He nocked his arrow but did not yet touch it to the torch at his feet. Other witnesses stirred around him. Are we too late? Reki had said by mid-morning, but it was impossible to get a sense of time down here.

The tempo of the Song remained steady, either because it must or because Reki did not see. Einarr swallowed. The cue was soon. With luck, it would be soon enough.

A pair of burning green embers formed in the air above the raft. Then, above them, a ghostly crown faded into existence, less substantial than the fog that had hemmed Einarr’s group in on the beach.

There was the first cue in the music. All around him, arrows blazed to life. Einarr, too, lit his arrow. The crackle of fire was soon followed by the stretching sound of drawing bows.

The outline of a face came into being, now, below the crown and around the eyes. It was the Allthane, not as he imagined himself to be but as he had appeared after Einarr shattered the illusion of the feast. The hair on Einarr’s arms stood on end.

A clawed, ghostly hand stretched out towards the observers.

The song shifted, now, and the minor key grew strident.

Einarr loosed. The whistling of arrows filled the cavern. The first of them – Einarr’s own arrow, he thought – pierced the half-formed face of the Allthane’s shade and the ghost dissipated. Even as the arrow sank beneath the ocean with a plunk this was oddly satisfying. The corners of Einarr’s mouth pulled up into a grim smile as the planks of the raft caught and the gold once again looked like gold.


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3.23 – Telling of Tales

“Very good, my Lord. In that case, let me begin with how I won the Isinntog from the Jotün Fraener of Svartlauf.”

“The who of where?”

“Ah, but surely my Lord should know that story! It was ancient when my grandfather was still a babe. Once, long ago, the elves of Skaergard created a torc of surpassing beauty and dedicated it to the goddess Eira. The torc was all of silver, inset with thousands of tiny diamonds, and on each end bore the head of a dragon holding an anchor in its mouth. Inside were inscribed runes that gave it power over the wind and storms.” Einarr may not have been trained as a Singer, but there was no man of the clans worthy of the name who could not tell a rousing story.

“One of the Jotuns, by the name of Fraener, came to the isle of Skaergard after hearing of the wonders of the Isinntog intending to steal it for himself…” The story continued on in this vein, speaking of the vile tricks Fraener had played, and the blood he had shed, in order to win the torc for his own. Once it was in his hands, however, he found that it would only fit the first knuckle of his smallest finger. Satisfied nonetheless, for still he had secured the power of the goddess’ artifact, he left Skaergard and came to the winter island now known as Svartlauf. This island was only accessible, even by him, with the aid of the Isinntog, and so he and his dog made their new home protected from the wrath of the elves by the storm that raged about the island.

“And that brings us to where I come in,” Einarr said after a time, dearly wishing he could have something to drink that would not poison his mind. “In order to win the hand of my fair maiden, her father set me a series of tasks. The first of these was to steal from the Jotun Fraener the Isinntog, which he had so long before stolen from the elves.” He had their attention, he was sure. Once he’d finished this tale, he would ask Jorir to tell the tale of their encounter with the Order of the Valkyrie on their way to visit the Oracle of Attilsund – although he had no intention of sharing the results of their visit.

As he came to the thrilling conclusion of the tale – somewhat modified, of course, to ignore that he had yet more tasks to accomplish – many of the spirits in the crowd burst into cheers. It was probably the first fresh story they had heard in centuries.

“Jorir, where are you, you rogue?”

The svartdverger ambled out of the crowd to stand near his liege lord.

“Surely you’ve a tale to tell, as well now. What about our battle on the sea, not two months ago?”

“We dwarves, well we’ve not got the knack for the telling of tales like you humans do, but I reckon I can give it a whirl. Y’see, milord’s father determined after we rejoined the crew from that self-same mission to Svartlauf that this was going to be a big summer. There was much to do, after all, and already they had lost some weeks waiting on our return.”

Einarr smirked to note that he glossed over his own newness to the crew, but rather than correct him simply merged back into the crowd. Best to be a good audience now, so that when one of the specters inevitably decided to tell a tale of his own they could carry out the plan appropriately.

“Well, the story of Einarr’s family is a long one, and a sad one at that, and doesn’t have much ta do with where I’m going except to set me on the path. You see, I knew about the Oracle living on Attilsund, on account of I’d seen ‘er before, I had. Given the task at hand, that I’d just heard first-hand from their Singer, I thought it might behoove us all to go and pay the Oracle a little visit.”

“Not six weeks out of harbor, and what should we see cutting across the waves but an Imperial dromon – headed straight for us, no less, and the wing and spear painted on her sail.”

Jorir may have claimed dwarves lacked the knack for storytelling, but if Einarr was any judge the dwarf’s telling of that battle bested his own of the trip to Svartlauf. Einarr actually enjoyed listening to his liege-man tell of that battle, even including the part where he himself got scolded for recklessness on the field of battle. Einarr laughed and clapped along with everyone else as Jorir finished up the tale.

He was about to encourage Tyr to tell a story – something from longer ago than last winter, probably. He certainly had plenty of years to choose from – when one of the Allthane’s men took the bait.

“Well, since we’ve newcomers and all, I suppose it might be worth telling this one again.” This was not the show-off, but it was one of the spirits who had been making a nuisance of themselves since the hall dance.

“Everyone knows how the Allthane came to be, of course -”

“I’m afraid not!” Einarr called out.

“How can you not know the tale of how the North was finally unified, once and for all?” The man was indignant, now. Good.

“Because no-one has held the chair of Allthane for three hundred years,” Tyr answered. Now the men in the crowd – all save five of them – jeered and scoffed.

“Ah, but it’s true. How many of you knew the meaning of the wing-and-spear our good dwarf spoke of?”

Silence descended on the hall.

“For my part, I will gladly hear the tale of how our glorious host brought all the tribes under his thumb, for few save the Singers now know it.” Einarr broke the silence. “It is a feat that has not been equalled since.”

The Allthane cleared his throat from behind where Einarr stood facing the gathering. “In that case sit quietly and listen well, for never again shall you have the chance to hear it straight from the man himself.”


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3.7 – Battles’ End

The quick man had at the end not been quick enough, and the enemy leader wasted a precious moment in shock. The first man still stared in horror at the blade protruding from his chest when Arring lunged past him and the blade of his axe took off the enemy leader’s arm at the elbow.

“It’s not too late to retreat,” he growled. The other man’s answer was to let his ally slide from the blade, but his face had gone pale.

“Have it your way.” Arring brought his back foot forward and kicked, hard. The enemy leader went flying again, even as the crack of bone said his chest was caved in. Tveir.

Now he turned. Snorli faced three men, but after Arring he was the man on watch best equipped to deal with that. Haki, though, looked like he might be in some trouble. The man stood watching his opponents, panting, as they circled him the way wolves might circle a deer.

Arring let loose another battle roar and bulled forward at the nearest of the two. It was enough to distract the man from Haki, and then axe met long sword in the bind.

His new opponent snarled, and Arring met it with a feral grin before sliding inside the man’s guard to cut at his knee.

His opponent’s leg buckled with the force of the blow and he howled. Another of the assault squad dashed by him to catch his wounded comrade under the shoulder.

They’re retreating? At least they know when they’re beaten. Arring was inclined to let them go. Some of the others started to pursue.

“Stand down. Our job is here. If they come back we can beat them like the curs they are.”

***

Einarr lunged toward a kalalintu that had come just within reach and nearly tripped over the carcass of one of its fellows. Reki’s battle chant had become a song of Endurance he knew not how long ago, and he was fairly certain it was the only reason any of them could still fight. Sinmora slashed across its back and the creature crumpled. How many is that now?

When the fury had faded he had been relieved to see that they had broken away from the cliff face the creatures were trying to drive them off of – but somehow it felt like there were always more kalalintu.

Except… did he hear them any more? The sea-bird shrieks had blurred and been forgotten ages ago, but now they actually seemed to be gone. Einarr looked up: they stood in the center of a field littered with bodies, not all of them monsters. Sinmora nearly dropped from his hand. He cleaned it on a feathered wing and sheathed his blade before he could lose hold of it.

The kalalintu that wing had belonged to had fallen across the body of Henir. Of the thirty men who had gone to seek their fortune, six had fallen to the bloody birds, and the rational voice in his head whispered that they had been fortunate to lose so few. Still he could not look away. When Henir fell, the arrow he had not had a chance to fire remained stuck to the string.

He swallowed the gorge that threatened to rise and strode over to where Jorir stood tying a bandage for Irding. This made eleven men they had lost so far this summer, between the Valkyries and the kalalintu. Most summers they lost none. “How is he?”

“Well enough, I wager, but we’ll need to watch him for fever. More importantly -”

“What about you?”

Jorir snorted. “I was bloody worthless in that fight, right up until Fari over there hadn’t any more use for that brace of knives he carried. But I’m not wounded. You, though, you look like you’ve been through hell.”

Henir and Fari. They’d been like brothers. At least they would sup with the gods together. “I’ve had better days. …Father. Erik.”

The others were joining them in ones and twos, picking their way across the battlefield.

“Einarr. These things seem awfully tough compared to the flocks this spring to you?”

He nodded. “Smarter, too. Makes me wonder what else we’re up against.”

“Wonder later.” Stigander looked around and sighed. “For right now, we need to get our men down from here and build a proper pyre for those as need it.”

“Yes, sir,” came the unanimous reply.

“I don’t think they’ll try for us again after that thrashing we gave them, but let’s all be a little quicker when someone tells you to cover your ears, got it?”

A chorus of aye’s answered Stigander, and they went to work carting the bodies of the fallen down the narrow trail that had led them to their end in the first place. It was awkward work, but with three men to a body they still had enough people for an honor guard both before and behind their procession.

Down on the beach, Irding and Svarek were dispatched to alert the watch and the repair crews, respectively, of what had occurred. The rest of them, meanwhile, were to gather wood and what funeral goods they could find from about the beach. It was far from ideal, but better a poor funeral than none at all.

His arms half-full of wood, Einarr’s gathering took him over near his liege-man. “What think you, Jorir? Are we going to find anything here that’s worth all this?”

“Find something? Sure. Whether or not its worth what we pay for it, well, only time will tell.”

“Ah, here’s something.” Einarr brushed the sand away from the lid of a half-buried trunk with his free hand, then thought better of it and set down the wood he’d gathered. “Help me dig this out, will you?”

The trunk the two uncovered appeared to have once belonged to a Singer, or perhaps an entire troupe of Singers, and was filled with all manner of instruments and jewelry. Einarr shared a look with Jorir: this should make a fine funerary offering.


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2.20 – The Third Trial

They finished their lunch in silence. For his part, Einarr kept turning over in his head Jorir’s revelation – the one he plainly did not wish to speak more of. He wasn’t quite certain what to make of his father’s new scrutiny, either. That ‘cursebreaker’ had the ring of a title about it. I’m not entirely certain I like the sound of that.

He found that he had little appetite left. None of the others seemed terribly interested in more food, either: another handful or two of nuts, or a dried fish, and all five of them were on their feet again.

“Well,” Einarr said. His voice felt unnaturally loud after the long silence. “Lead the way.”

Jorir nodded and quick-stepped back toward the path. I should have a word with him about that… but not in front of everyone. Maybe if he could learn what the Oracle had actually told his liege-man it would clear matters up.

Einarr didn’t mind the idea of having a calling, per se. But for that calling to be cursebreaking… that was troubling. Urdr was supposed to be the exception among Weavers, after all, not the rule.

The trail entered a series of steep switchbacks up a nearly sheer granite face.

“Watch your step,” Jorir warned.

Einarr shuddered at the idea of the last vision hitting when a single misstep could send any of them plummeting to their doom. With every step he half expected the sound of bells to ring on the wind, heralding the final test… but with each step all he saw was the trail and the granite face beside him.

The air burned in Einarr’s lungs by the time the trail opened back out into a meadow once more. There were no trees now, and the grasses and shrubs grew low to the ground. He stepped to the side to stand in the grass and catch his breath while Stigander and Arring completed their climb and the sound of bells rang in his ears.

He blinked, and the mountainside was replaced by a large, dimly recognized room. The tapestries hanging on the stone walls were warm and properly abstract, suggesting rather than showing animals and plants, and a large and detailed sea chart was spread out on the table dominating the center of the room.

Standing with him around the table was a white-haired version of his father, Reki, Erik, Jorir… and Runa, also looking older but no less lovely for the matronly cast to her face. I can win her.

“Every last Clan of the north has suffered at the hands of the Order of the Valkyrie. Why will none of the other thanes see that together we have a chance?” Einarr heard the words coming from his own mouth, saw his own fist bang against the table. Oh. So that’s what the situation is.

“Oh, they see it,” Stigander rumbled. “But someone would have to be chosen to lead the navies. They worry more about what that someone might do with command of so many ships and warriors once the threat is eliminated than they do about the Order or the Empire.”

“They’re worried I’ll decide to name myself Althane? Are they crazy?”

“It’s been tried before,” said Jorir. “By rulers older and supposedly wiser than you.”

“Bah. We’ve only just got Breidelsteinn back under control.”

“And not quite that.” Erik crossed his arms. “A couple of the more westerly Jarls are just biding their time, methinks. A lot of trust was lost while we were all out at sea.”

“That was none of our doing, but you all see my point.”

“There’s not many outside our waters who know that, though, son, and if they did it wouldn’t necessarily help us. There’s not a lot within the Allthing with quite the experience we’ve had, and they all have their own priorities to consider as well.”

“You’re right, of course, Father.” Einarr looked back down at the map and snorted. “So. I guess that means the first question is how I convince them, first, to trust me and, second, that doing away with the Valkyries is in their best interest.”

“Start with a story, my lord.” Reki’s low voice had not lost its purr in the years since she joined the Vidofnir. Einarr turned his attention to the Singer’s red eyes and waited. “Tell them, over drinks at the hall perhaps, how the Hunters nearly wiped us out while we still wandered. Tell them of the battle that lead you to swear vengeance. That alone might win you a few.”

“Many of them have already heard the story.”

“Have they? The times I’ve overheard you speaking of it, you’ve said nothing of the actual battle.”

“’At’s a good idea, Reki. Why don’t you let me handle that part: I’ve a fair bit of experience spinning yarns over drinks.”

“Thanks, Erik. I never quite know where to begin.”

The big man laughed. “That is because you didn’t do nearly enough stupid shit while we were roaming.”

Einarr and Stigander both shook their heads, each laughing under their breath.

“All right, so that’s a good place to start. What else might help?”

Jorir glared up at him like he was being stupid. “You’ve got an actual plan in place for winning this, don’t ye? Give them some inkling what it is. Ye’ll be relying on independent action in a buncha different places anyway – why not let them know that. Put their minds at ease a bit.”

“Those independent forces are still going to have to coordinate together, but if they’re not fully under the command of the central force… Father? Do you think that would actually make a difference?”

“For some, maybe. Don’t expect it to allay everyone’s suspicions, though.”

“Of course.” Einarr looked across the table: Runa was biting her lip, as though she were weighing something. “Well, my love? Do you have an idea.”

“Um. Well, there is something I could do to help. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, though.” Runa glanced over at Reki, and suddenly her expression seemed less weighing and more nervous.

Reki’s attention was turned toward the map, and she didn’t seem to catch the look.

“There could be a Tune that might convince them.” Runa emphasized the word tune strangely. Reki’s head snapped up: daggers of ice seemed to shoot across the table at the other Singer.


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2.16 – Desperate Battle

One down, five to go… Four. Einarr stared through the gap in the circle where his fallen opponent had been and set his jaw. A cry of shock from the other side of Arring said his partner had felled another, but already more Valkyries rushed towards their circle. In only a moment, the two fallen would be replaced by four more. A hollow space opened up in his belly: if there were this many men to deal with the two of them, the fight was going badly all over.

Four men became eight. Einarr could spare no thought for the shallow cuts that got through his guard or for the fate of his fellows. Three times his boot nearly crushed Bardr’s nose as he dodged a blow. Three times he moved in time, but on the third he stumbled.

“Einarr!” Arring lunged, ignoring for a moment the flock of vultures trying to peck out their eyes. Einarr’s shoulder slammed into his crewmate’s back, but the man didn’t budge.

“Thanks,” he grunted. Einarr took the opportunity to lash out with a boot toward one of the Valkyries within range. He heard the satisfying snap when foot hit nose, and the sailor cursed even as blood began to flow down his face.

Such a minor thing was not enough to knock the fight out of a Valkyrie, of course. Einarr launched himself off Arring’s back with a roar. Sinmora whistled as the blade drove for the man’s skull.

He, too, had allies, though. A saber flashed, and instead of the sound of steel biting flesh it was steel striking steel that rang out.

Einarr snarled, ripping his blade back to cut thrice at the three men ahead of him. Blood bloomed on their tunics. Two of them turned a sickly green and dropped to their knees, clutching their stomachs as though to hold in their innards. The third snarled back.

Moist heat gushed from Einarr’s calf. Pain would come later. That was a deep one, but not as deep as the one the Valkyrie got in return. If he lived, he would never father another child.

Einarr’s lungs burned. Even under the full strength of Reki’s song fatigue slowed his arms and fear clutched at his throat. This was like no other battle he had seen. It seemed as though there were no end to the Valkyries, even though their hunting parties were never more than two ships together. Their assailants had ebbed, if only for a moment. He inhaled deeply, smelling sour bile and the iron tang of blood.

Arring’s voice rang out. “Behind you!”

Einarr turned. A javelin – not a crossbow bolt, a javelin – hurtled for his breast. Ah, so that’s why I didn’t feel anything. There was no time to dodge. There was no time to bring his shield or sword to bear. The fates had decreed that this moment was his time.

Einarr lowered his eyelids, accepting his fate. In the moment before they closed, Arring’s sturdy figure seemed to fly into the path of the javelin.

Einarr’s eyes flew open again when he saw what was happening. He screamed in denial.

The javelin found the weak point in Arring’s mail. Blood spurted from his back even as Einarr dashed forward to catch his crewmate… his friend. The world went red.

The next thing Einarr was aware of, he stood alone in a pile of corpses. At his feet lay Bardr and Arring, both gone. A few other lone figures remained of the Vidofnir’s crew, each surrounded by a ring mound of bodies. Jorir. Reki. Erik. One or two others… Father.

He strode to where the others gathered around Stigander, the wound in his leg somehow vanished. “Father.”

“Einarr.” The words were calm and level, but both knew the other’s heart at this moment.

“How many are left?”

“Just those you see here.”

Einarr nodded, looking down at his blood-stained boots. “Where will you take us now?”

Stigander’s voice was tired when he finally answered. “I don’t know.”

“You’re not giving up?” He lifted his head to meet his father’s gaze with a challenge.

Stigander shook his head.

“Good.”

“I’ll be damned if I know how we’re supposed to win back Raenshold with just the few of us, though. And this just cost us everything we’ve earned towards winning the hand of your bride.”

“It was always going to be a matter of wits, Father. Our birthright was stolen from us by guile, and by guile it shall be won.”

“We will still require force of arms to back up our wits, son. After this, we’ll be lucky to find enough men to crew our ship, let alone turn our cause from doom.”

“We’ll find a way. If for no other reason, Father, than the battle here today.”

Now his father looked alarmed, but Einarr did not give him the chance to interrupt.

“The Order of the Valkyrie has wronged the sons of Raen and the men of Breidelsteinn this day – grievously. And they will pay, Father.”

“They already have, Einarr. Look around you. We were outnumbered, and yet it is we who yet live.”

“Are you really all right with that, Father?”

“Even our entire clan does not have the resources to go after the Order of the Valkyrie. Others have tried, and wiped themselves from the map in the process.”

“Then we shall gather other clans to our cause.”

“You realize they’ve an agreement with the Empire, right?”

“So be it. The Vidofnir is my home, and her crew my family. I will not allow this to stand.” He heard the coldness in his own voice as the words left his mouth. He had never experienced rage as a cold thing before, but in this moment it was right. The Order of the Valkyries, and by extension the Empire, would not rest until every Clan was wiped out – their hunters today showed that well enough. If defending his kin meant taking the battle to them, then so be it.

“I swear before all of you, by steel and by stone, by the one bound beneath a tree and she who stirs the winds, that our kin shall be avenged, even if it takes my whole life to do it.”

He stood there, staring, for a long moment before he realized that his father was frozen rather than speechless. The sound of silver bells drifted to his ears on the wind from out of nowhere.


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2.15 – The Second Trial

Einarr rounded a corner in the track he had blindly followed toward the well and breathed a sigh of relief to see his companions there. In terrain such as this, you might not have to fail a test to become hopelessly lost. Stigander and Arring were blinking back out of the dream, confusion turning to understanding and determination.

Jorir stepped back onto the path from the other direction. Whatever his trial had been, he still wore the pain of it on his face.

Einarr caught his liege man’s eye and quirked an eyebrow, but the dwarf only shook his head, slowly, in response.

Now Sivid was blinking back to consciousness. The skinny man swallowed hard, his mouth twisted into a rictus, but in no more than the time it had taken the rest of them to realize their circumstances he had schooled his face again.

“The Oracle doesn’t take kindly to people sharing their trials together,” Jorir stated before anyone could broach the subject. His voice was husky. “Your vision will have been drawn from your own experiences, but it may contain glimpses of things to come… or that have already come to pass.”

“We should continue.” Stigander’s voice rumbled. He, too, looked unhappy at what he had seen, but had more of determination about it than the dwarf.

“Yes, Father.” What did they see? For his part, Einarr had known what sort of man Jarl Hroaldr was, and so his vision had not troubled him unduly. Seeing the reactions of his companions, however, he worried a little about how the other two trials would be.

The path to the Weaver’s Palace continued to wind its way upward, through the ever-sparser forest and into alpine meadows, surpassing even Svartlauf in wildness. They were wild, but Einarr felt no menace in these fields. He would have been hard pressed to say how much of that related to the knowledge that no jotün prowled this island.

As the morning wore on towards noon the clouds dispersed and the wildflowers growing to either side of the path almost seemed to glow in the newfound sunlight. Jorir growled at them not to relax too much here, as the second trial could begin at any time now, but otherwise they walked in silence. The further they climbed, the harsher the path became.

A haze seemed to settle around Einarr’s thoughts. Two steps later, he found himself on the deck of a ship – not the Vidofnir. His first impression was of a dromon: looking about himself, he saw the all-too-familiar wing and spear.

That was the moment when he realized he already wielded Sinmora, and the weight of his hauberk dragged on his shoulders. His shield appeared to be lost, but now Reki’s voice lured him into battle although the Singer was nowhere to be seen.

To his left, Jorir and Erik fought back-to-back and Einarr chuckled to see the smallest member of the crew defending for the one of the largest. To his right was another matter.

A circle of Valkyries had formed around sturdy, staid Arring and looked set to overwhelm him. Having seen that, there was only one thing for Einarr to do: he dashed the half-dozen steps that would bring him to the outside of their circle.

Einarr swung. The light glinted off Sinmora’s blade, and he cut a wide gash across the Valkyrie’s back. To his credit, the man did not cry out, but he did give way as Einarr drove himself like a wedge through their encirclement to join his crewmate at the center.

It was only after he’d broken through that he saw Arring stood guard over the fallen body of Bardr. His crewman must have seen shock in his eyes, because the man’s nod seemed to carry ‘he’s alive’ along with his thanks for the assist. He scooped up their Mate’s shield and stood back-to-back with the other man. Two against six was somewhat better odds than he’d had before, even if his help was the one man onboard who could not be allowed to die. Maybe I am too reckless?

He had no more time for thought. A pair of sabers cut towards Einarr in the same breath. He slammed his shield out to catch the one on his left with a satisfying thud, but then he had only one hand to put behind his longsword parry.

Einarr had no focus for anything but the onslaught of blades. Reki’s song drew him ever deeper into the battle-fury – it was strange, though, and oddly wonderful, to realize that he had all the strength of her song and yet retained all of his faculties. The Valkyries pressed the two of them hard, and with Bardr down between them Einarr had little room to maneuver.

He lashed out with Sinmora at one of the three harrying him. The man looked stunned for an instant as he withdrew the blade and blood welled from beneath his chin. A strangling noise escaped his mouth and the Valkyrie fell. One down, five to go…


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2.7 – Song of War, Song of Peace

The Valkyrian hunter’s aim was steady. Any moment could give him the clear shot he needed to take out Reki.

Einarr ran, every footfall pounding a resounding ‘no’ against the deck of the Geirskögul. A fighter dodged someone else’s blow into Einarr’s path: Einarr shoved past him roughly, not even noticing if it was hunter or Vidofning. Three steps further on his leg lit up with the heat of being cut. It would hurt, later. Now, all that mattered was the crossbowman whose sights were set on Mother/Reki. The reasoning part of his brain flagged that juxtaposition for later thought.

The hunter had his crossbow snug against his shoulder. His finger was on the trigger. Not close enough…

Einarr willed his legs faster. The hot one felt sluggish: it must have been a bad hit. He raised Sinmora for an overhand strike. Almost there…

Two paces from his target, Einarr roared. That caught his attention: the hunter nearly dropped his crossbow when he looked toward the threat and saw near two hundred pounds of red-headed warrior barreling at him.

The hunter swung his bow around to Einarr, but too late. Einarr’s swing had already begun, and the mighty blow to defend their battle chanter cleaved the man’s skull in two. Tre.

He turned, seeking his next enemy. The cut in his leg was filed away with other irrelevancies, such as why the Geirskögul apparently didn’t have a Painter, the throbbing in his leg, or how Jorir was managing.

A Valkyrie came for him, then, his face contorted by vengeful rage which he did not know how to properly harness. The man’s vengeance for his crewmate broke against the battle fury of Reki’s song. Fjorir.

Einarr’s count hit twenty-five before Reki’s hymn began to slow and the fury ebbed from his mind and his muscles at once. His arms and legs were on fire, and not just from swinging Sinmora about or hefting his shield: that cut to his leg had nearly hamstrung him, it seemed, and his arms were a mess of shallower wounds.

Some few of the Valkyrian crew surrendered – deck hands, mostly, still green enough to be willing to take their chances as thralls in the north. The Valkyries had no cowards in their ranks.

Einarr glanced around: Stigander stood, his arms crossed, watching as his fellows hauled valuables from the hold of the Geirskögul across the planks. He took one step forward, intending to assist, and felt the blood running down his leg. He would be no help like this. Best go see Reki. I guess I’ll see firsthand if her healing song is as good as her battle chant.

No few of his crewmates were clustered around Reki when Einarr hobbled up. A bubble of calm surrounded them, supported by the gentle mood of a Singer’s healing song. That song magic could heal at all was a mystery to those outside the Singer’s ranks: it was a magic that played on the mind, typically. Einarr had asked Grimhildr, once, but the answer had made no sense at the time and been quickly forgotten.

Reki’s sultry voice was one of uncommon power: as Einarr relaxed in the field of her song, he watched as wounds knit themselves before his very eyes. Such a wisp of a woman tied to that voice. Will Sivid get to her first, or Erik, I wonder? They were idle thoughts, no more, as he allowed himself to be swept along.

Some few were not so lucky. The crewmen who knew their way around a medicine bag applied compresses or stitches to wounds too deep to heal with the magic alone – Einarr spotted both Tyr and Jorir among the wound-dressers – and the sound of axe hafts drumming on shields said that at least one of their number would henceforth sup with the gods. Idly, Einarr wondered who: when his mind came free of the song he knew the loss would hit him.

Something jostled Einarr’s healing leg. He rolled his eyes downward to see what: Jorir. He offered the dwarf a drunken smile. “Be good as new soon enough. Scratch like this shouldn’t merit more’n the song.”

Jorir snorted. “Sure, you say that now, after I’ve done poulticed it up. That blade near took your leg off. Give me a look at the rest ‘o you now.”

“Fine, fine, worry wort. …Looks like you fared well enough in the battle.”

Jorir chuckled as he looked Einarr over for more serious wounds. Most of them showed new pink flesh where they had already knit together. “I get the impression these so-called Valkyries aren’t used to fighting dvergr.”

“Not too surprising. Most of the clans are human, after all. They’ve been known to defend földvergr villages, though.”

Jorir snorted. “Földvergr. Pretentious.” He paused, still staring at his lord’s arm. “You’re a reckless fighter, if you’ll pardon me saying so. I might be more mindful of my father’s predicament, in your shoes. Else a lot of people are like to be sore disappointed some day.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth to answer, but the dwarf wasn’t done.

“What were ye thinkin’, dashing half way across the ship like that? Nearly got yerself killed that way, an’ for what?”

Now Einarr pursed his lips. If the dwarf had seen that, he had to answer. “He had his sights on Reki… and this is the first time in a long time that our battle chanter has not also held the title of Mother for me.” He didn’t really understand the juxtaposition himself, yet, only that there was a habit of thought involved.

Jorir nodded, his brows drawn down in thought for a long moment.

Einarr hummed. “Well? Is your poultice safely tied? The death-drumming’s been going for a while now. It’s probably time I investigated.”

“Go on, then. They may not have known what to do with me, but they certainly took their pound o’ flesh.”

Einarr sighed, calling together the energy to stand up and leave the comfortable envelope of song magic. “I was afraid of that.” He wiped the palms of his hands on his pant legs, despite the fact that they were dry. Sooner or later, someone was going to have to deal with the Order of the Valkyrie.


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2.6 – Valkyrie!

For the Vidofnir’s first week at sea, they saw no-one. In the second week, three ships crossed their path, from three lands Stigander preferred not to antagonize. Boredom was beginning to set in by the end of that fortnight, although not a man aboard but was glad for clear skies and fair winds.

On the first day of their third week at sea, sharp-eyed Sivid called a warning from his lookout. “Valkyrie, hard to starboard!”

“Valkyries? Here?” Erik’s exclamation of surprise echoed back at them off the water.

Stigander’s order followed soon after. “Hard starboard! Make ready for boarding!”

The ship that approached on the horizon at a full clip was obviously Imperial even from this distance: she sat too high in the water, two rows of oars sped her along toward the Vidofnir, and on the triangular sail they flew the wing-and-spear symbol of the Imperial Order of the Valkyrie.

Longships were fast: Imperial dromon could sometimes keep up. Unless, that is, they were actually Valkyrian dromon, in which case (some whispered) they were propelled by captive vindstenger.

Einarr settled his chain shirt over his shoulders and it fell with comfortable heaviness. The rest of the crew was outfitting themselves similarly, all save Jorir. He had left Svartlauf with only the axe at his belt, and as of when they sailed had added only a helmet and the golden shield to his equipment: fitting armor for a dwarf was outside the experience of the smithy in Kjellvic. With a grim set to his jaw he took up the shield and took his place by Einarr’s side.

“Valkyrie?”

“We raid villages, they raid us. Right bastards to fight, and this far north that’s a hunting expedition. If we’re lucky, they’ve already hit some other ships: it’ll slow ‘em down.”

Jorir grunted. “And if we’re unlucky?”

“If we’re unlucky they have sea fire, and then this is a real short trip. They don’t take prisoners. Keep your wits about you: they’re quick.”

The dwarf hefted his shield and his lips parted in a savage grin. “Then I guess I get to put this gift o’ yourn to the test.”

Tyr angled the Vidofnir to the side, aiming to miss the Valkyrie’s spur long enough for the rowers to get the oars in. A whistling noise was their only warning.

“Shields up!” Stigander bellowed. A moment later, the first volley struck, arrows thudding into wood or clinking against metal or slipping beneath the waves.

In the breath before they could ready another volley, boarding lines flew from the Vidofnir to the Valkyrie ship – the Geirskögul, according to her prow. Reki took up the battle chant, her sultry voice luring each of them to the fury. She will be popular among the crew, Einarr thought even as the melody began to play on his own mind.

Boarding lines flew toward the Vidofnir, and he could see the Valkyries readying their gangplanks. Metal rasped: the Vidofnings waited, blades in hand.

The lines drew taut, and the planks shot across the gap from the other side. No sooner had the thud of wood sounded than the Vidofnings were up and over, racing to take the fight to them. Speed was of the essence: allowing the Valkyrie onto their own ship was tantamount to suicide. This way at least kept their boat above the waves.

Einarr joined his crewmates in their mad rush, the battle fury pulsing at the edges of his vision.

The race to board was a draw: the two crews met in the middle. The sound of splashing said that men had been knocked overboard, although that did not necessarily mean they were out of the fight. In this moment there was only one thing Einarr cared about: reaching the hunters on the Geirskögul. The Imperials would regret bringing the fight to the Vidofnir.

The way cleared. Two steps ahead of Einarr stood a man with the bearing of a serpent coiled to strike, his saber in hand. A heartbeat later and Sinmora vibrated in his hand when steel met steel.

They danced. The Valkyrie’s blade darted in and out, seeking a weakness in Einarr’s defense even as Einarr slashed forward and drove his opponent back a step, then two. Awareness of the Vidofnir ahead of him was his warning that they had circled. A reverse cut gave him the momentum to circle back the other way, putting his enemies in front of him where they belonged.

As a side benefit, it also caused his opponent to misjudge his footing. Einarr hissed as the saber sliced across his forearm, but his long sword was already swinging back around to hack into the opening that cut had left him. In the next instant he buried Sinmora in the man’s ribs. Ein!

The battle became a blur. The deck of the Valkyrie ship was in chaos, and Einarr was driven ever forward by the pounding rhythm of Reki’s potent battle chant. Another hunter crossed his path, a blade in each hand. Einarr charged, Sinmora raised for an overhead strike.

The hunter crossed his blades and lunged. Sinmora caught on the hand guards. Einarr sprang back a step, growling. The hunter smirked and slid his front foot back into a guard. He bounced a little on the balls of his feet.

Cocky scoundrel. Einarr rolled his shoulder, bringing his shield back into position. Anyone wielding two swords was either very green or very good: the way the hunter blocked suggested he was good. He stepped left, aiming to circle his opponent, but the hunter followed him only with his eyes. Einarr took another, testing step and the hunter stilled, watching him from the corner of his eye over his shoulder.

Einarr lunged, slicing out with Sinmora toward the hunter’s kidneys, and his growl became a roar.

Ztang! The first saber flashed, and where a heartbeat before it had been raised in a guard, now it had once again deflected his blow. The second saber flashed now. Einarr knew it’s trajectory even without seeing it. He had just that bare heartbeat before it would embed itself in his exposed ribs.

He whirled on his left foot. Instead of his ribs, the saber thudded into the wood of his shield. Einarr yanked hard on the shield, and then his opponent was down to a single blade. Even that blade would do him no good now, however, for he was also off-balance. Sinmora struck true. Tveir.

As the hunter fell, Einarr saw a momentary clear path through to one of their crowssbowmen, his bow trained on Reki.


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