Tag: Raenshold

9.25 – Bloody Threads

For a moment, the six women stood stunned. Of all the things that had gone mysteriously well, this was the strangest. Reki’s neck prickled in alarm: glancing to right and left, Aema and Eydri looked no easier than she felt.

All around stood spools of thread of all colors, vats of dye, and half-finished tapestries. What truly arrested the attention, though, was the room’s centerpiece.

Urdr’s loom was tall and visibly heavy, the wood so heavily carved and gilt that it was difficult to see how age-darkened the timbers were. On it hung one of those half-finished tapestries: Reki could see the masts of three indistinct ships off to the left, while on the right there was a circle of women – although she could not tell what they were doing. She rather thought she knew anyway.

In front of the loom, though, sat the Weavess herself. Her leathery skin practically crinkled over itself, and her hair hung in lank strings as though she could not be bothered with it. Those falcon eyes, though, looked at the six purported guests who had just charged into her workshop not with anger, annoyance, or even fear, but with amusement. “So you’re finally here.”

Bea took a step forward, her mouth set in a stubborn line belied by the unease Reki read in her shoulders.

“Welcome, your Highness,” the old crone purred.

Beatrix stopped in her tracks.

“Oh, yes, I know who you are, Princess Beatrix Maria Gundahar. I would have known even if my spies had learned nothing.” Urdr’s expression retained its malicious amusement.

Undissuaded, Beatrix strode forward, the point of her sword lowered at the crone. “Step aside.”

Urdr actually laughed, a sound like pinecones scraping against stones. “I know why you have come, you and the troop of Singers that idiot Kaldr brought under our roof. You are here, you think, to destroy my Weaving of Inevitable Victory.”

“If you know that much, then -”

“You are wrong. Even could my weaving be broken by such a paltry thing,” the crone’s gaze lingered contemptuously on Bea’s blade, “the fate that brought you here is different.

“You do not understand.” She clucked, as though in annoyance at poor students. Then, her eyes glittered coldly. “But you will. Tell me, croaker, what is the Art of Weaving?”

The Singers bristled slightly a moment, at both insult and apparent lecture. Whatever trap there might be was still hidden from Reki’s eyes. As such, she wanted to keep the Weavess talking, and so she answered. “Weaving is a means of reading, and sometimes binding, the future, is it not?”

“Good! Very good! Just as the songs say and your matrons claim,” Urdr cackled. She dropped her voice, then. “And yet – common, shallow, and wrong.”

“Unlike your Song – a fleeting, ephemeral touch, vanishing in a heartbeat – Weaving is permanence. Do you not know that the Norns Weave? As their weaving, so is all Weaving. It is blood, and flesh, and bone, the very stuff of life. Not merely Fate, but all that makes it up.

“My threads are not merely the bone and sinew and blood of my Art, and not so different from the bone and sinew and blood of those they bind.” Urdr gestured past her loom to a stack of pale thread, undyed, an empty basin, and a spinning wheel. “My shears are as mighty as a thousand swords. How could it not be, when the Norns themselves are the mistresses of my Art?”

Runa shuddered. Reki, carefully schooling her face, saw Eydri bristle and Bea’s eyes desperately seek an opening, even as the crone held her gaze like a snake.

“I’ll tell you a further secret, children. Weaving binds more tightly if it has a… physical connection to those it rules. Hair is an easy way to do this, although not a particularly effective one. Blood is better.

“Do you know now why you are here?” Urdr’s snaggle-toothed smile was a horrifying void as she stood, moving toward an empty dying basin. As though in concession to her age she moved with bone-creaking slowness, but it was the only such concession she seemed to allow. “Blood of a southern princess. Blood of a Jarl. Blood of song from across all the isles. What a masterful Binding you will become. My line will not end merely as thanes of a forgotten island, or even masters of this sea. Oh no. Far greater things await, for which you shall be the foundation.” She whistled sharply, piercingly.

Four guards rushed into the room – two from behind them, and two from another door she had not noticed – heavily armed and plainly ready for them. From the steel bands about their brows to the leather boots on their feet, Reki had seen no-one at Raenshold with better-kept armor, and if their swords showed signs of heavy use it was surely due to age. Not one of Urdr’s bodyguards appeared to be younger than thirty summers, and each of them had the cold glint of a battle-hardened mercenary in their eyes. Already the door was blocked.

The crone smiled gently, yet all the more hideously for that. “Know despair, for my Weaving lies before you, yet forever outside of your grasp. But even still, be joyous, young ones, for you shall soon become the very foundation of the world.

“Seize them.”


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9.24 – Into the Tower

Reki sat up in alarm. “They’re here?”

“So it sounds.”

“All right, ladies. Everybody up! We have a job to do.”

Eydri sat up and dusted off her skirts as though she hadn’t actually been asleep. For how long, Reki couldn’t begin to guess. Runa and Svana both stirred with a groan, as though they were feeling the lack of sleep from the last two nights. They would need a few minutes, she thought, but that was fine. So did the rest of them.

“Chances are good this caught them by surprise, too,” she said. “If we hurry, and we’re lucky, we might be able to beat them to the weaving room, but we’re out of time for skulking. Gather your things, those of you who have them: I very much doubt we’ll be coming back here.”

“At least not before Lord Stigander has reclaimed Breidelstein,” Runa agreed. “And who knows what will happen in the meantime.” The girl slung her pack over her shoulder, alert more quickly than Reki had thought possible. “Let’s go. The sooner we wreck that loom, the sooner we get back where we belong, and the sooner Father gets freed.”

Svana moved only a little more slowly, but she, too, was ready to be gone from this place.

“We all remember how to find the weavings, correct?”

One by one, they nodded. “All right. In that case, let us make haste cautiously.”


Escaping their chambers was easy. Surprisingly, the guards were not at their post, with no sign of their whereabouts.

The streets and alleys of Raenshold were perversely easier to navigate unnoticed now, as warriors girt themselves to repel raiders below and children scrambled – either for a good vantage point or for a place to hide, depending on their age and temperament. Bea rushed straight for the tower at the main gate, the sword on her back all the excuse she needed to shoulder through the crowds as though she were rushing to the defense of the town below.

Reki and the others slipped quietly through her wake, never falling far behind, but always maintaining their composure as Singers. No-one, under these circumstances, was going to question them.

No-one, that is, except the men still standing guard at the entrance to the tower. They took one look at the group of women quick-stepping their direction and moved to stand shoulder to shoulder, blocking the door.

Svana opened her mouth to Sing, but Reki held up a forestalling hand. A lullaby was one thing in the middle of the night. Now? Now, even if it worked they would draw more attention to themselves. “We need to figure out a distr …”

Before Reki could finish, Bea strode forward.

“Stand aside,” Beatrix demanded, and in that moment she was not just the Imperial Princess, she was the commander of a fleet.

It was not good enough. “The Lord has commanded no-one is to come in or out of here until the raiders are repelled.”

To her credit, Bea hardly even blinked. “Oh? And are you going to tell him that’s why the Lady Urdr had no bodyguard? We were sent to ensure her safety.”

“The Lady Urdr’s bodyguard team is still up there,” the other guard snapped. “What sort of idiots do you take us for?”

“That’s last night’s team,” drawled the first guard. “They haven’t been relieved yet.”

“What are you talking about? Of course they haven’t. Shift change isn’t for another hour.”

Reki and Aema exchanged a glance from behind Bea as the two guards began to argue. With a nod, they slipped around to either side and went for the door.

The guards, caught up in their argument, paid them no heed. Amused, Reki did not fail to note that the second guard kept leading his fellow around by the nose. Why that would be, she could only guess, but she was glad of it.

The door closed behind them with a thunk, and Svana slid the bar into place. Now instead of yelling at each other the two guards – both the gullible one and the insolent one – pounded on the door, shouting after the women to let them in. If Reki were to guess, only about half of the protests were sincere.

That shouldn’t have worked. Why did that work? She shook her head. We need to hurry.

Reki set her concerns aside for the moment, to be addressed later. Up the tower they went, to the third floor where they had heard Ulfr and Urdr the night before. They passed no-one as they raced upwards save for thralls, who seemed utterly unconcerned about the commotion outside.

Don’t get cocky, Reki reminded herself. Once we’ve wrecked the weaving, we still have to escape. It hardly bore thinking of, how they might be treated if they were caught and made prisoners in truth. Ulfr had ordered Runa broken for no better reason than information she did not have: under threat of rape Reki, too, would break the taboo, and once she was free there might not be much left of Breidelstein for Lord Stigander to reclaim. Best for all if it did not come to that, and for that reason… “Runa.”

“What?” The girl sounded a little winded, but they did not dare let up.

“Do you remember how your ‘rescuers’ got you to the harbor before?”

“Well enough.”

“You could lead us down it?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” They crested the third flight of steps. Ahead, Reki saw the door they had watched last night, only now it stood open. Perversely, sunlight streamed out into the hallway, though it would have made no sense for the Weavess to work in a windowless room. “There it is.”

Bea’s hand rested on the hilt of her sword as she watched the door. Aema passed about the water skin she had managed to keep with her. Reki, too, kept a wary eye on the Weavess’ room as she sipped from the skin, half expecting the Weavess’ actual bodyguards to come boiling out of the room at any moment.

At long last the companions exchanged a nod of readiness. Bea’s sword hissed out of its sheath and she led the surge into the Weavess’ workshop. Inside, amid the baskets of thread, Urdr relaxed on the bench of her loom, a look of amusement on her papery face. Otherwise, they were alone.


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9.14 – Breidelstein

The captain of the wolf-headed boat they rode on finally deigned to introduce himself to the circle of Singers he had aboard when the noon sun hung high in the sky. The man wore a wolf pelt over his shoulders, pinned to the cloth of his tunic with gold-and-ivory pins. Reki raised an eyebrow: somehow, given how long she had been left to bake in the sun, she had not expected the Captain to be wealthy enough for such ostentation. Her eyes ached from the brightness, and she had accepted hours ago that she would have a painful sunburn to deal with.

Still, even beyond the rich pins, the Captain was not the sort of man she would have expected. He seemed almost bloodless, of the sort who is nearly impossible to rattle, as he actually looked down his nose at his distinguished ‘guests’ standing before him, encircled by their ‘honor guard’ and denied even a shawl or a cloak for shade. “Good day to you, ladies,” he began. “I hope you are enjoying your stay aboard my ship?”

“It’s lovely,” Reki answered through clenched teeth. She struggled not to squint at the man. “Although the accommodations seem a little spare. Tell me, are all of your lord’s guests treated so warmly?”

The corner of his lip curled in a sneer. “I should think you would be glad of the light. It can’t be healthy, being always hidden away from view like that.” Reki seethed, but the man wasn’t done. “You should be honored. You are the first sorcerers of any stripe to set foot on my deck, and you’re being escorted to the Lord himself. A rare honor indeed.”

Bea stepped forward. “Now wait just a moment-”

“Hold your tongue, woman.”

Beatrix was so surprised she actually did.

“I do not hold with the use of Song, or of any of the other so-called Arts. They make men disinclined to rely on their own power. That I have allowed not one but six of you aboard is a testament to my devotion to Thane Ulfr. While you are aboard you will not be ill-treated, but neither will you be allowed to wander about at your leisure, nor to conceal your doings. I do not trust those who can so freely manipulate men’s hearts. Some call this a failing: I call it wisdom. And now, please, I hope you enjoy the rest of your journey. We should reach port early on the morrow.”

As the Captain turned on his heel and stepped away, his boots clicking on the deck as though he were perpetually walking on stones, Reki’s jaw dropped.

Runa’s face had gone red, and not from the sun. “Who does he think,” she started to mutter.

“Well.” Eydri said, sounding as nonplussed as Reki felt. “That explains a few things.”

“More than I cared to know, truth be told,” Reki answered. “How does a man like that come to be a captain at all – let alone a rich one?”

Aema shook her head. “Does it matter? We know now that we’re stuck like this until he sees fit to escort us up to Raenshold. Here, Reki, you can at least sit in my shadow. It’s not much, but…”

“Thank you Aema. I’ll take you up on that.” Reki shifted a little bit and sank down onto the deck. The other woman’s shadow was poor shade at best, but it was still better than nothing.


Breidelstein harbor was broad and deep, with high cliffs rising to either side and up behind the port town itself. As they drew near, a path up the cliffs became visible, and Reki got her first glimpse of Raenshold where it squatted over the port like an overprotective hound.

The town was unnaturally subdued as they were led through it under armed guard, and it had nothing to do with the six of them. If it had, the people they passed would have either stared or pointedly looked away. Instead, they went on with their day as though nothing out of the ordinary was going on. A surprisingly high portion of the city appeared unwell. Malnourished, really. It was as though Ulfr had proven to be unskillful at rulership after he seized the reins of power.

Reki snorted quietly and suppressed a smirk – not at the people’s misfortune, but at the fate common to usurpers. Would men never learn? Leadership was a skill like any other, and rulership passed from father to son so that the skill could be taught. Would be taught, barring gross incompetence, as a consequence of raising the heir.

The walk up the road leading to the Hall was steep even after accounting for the switchbacks. No matter what else Reki wanted to say about Stigander’s father, the man had good tactical sense. This may well have been one of the most defensible locations she had ever seen. Were it not for the Weaver’s treachery, it might never have fallen.

She glanced over. Beatrix walked between the rest of them and the sheer drop below, as though she, too, were guarding them. She couldn’t help but like the Imperial Princess, so very different from the Lady Runa and not just in culture. How she could have been mistaken for a Singer was a mystery none of them had an answer to yet, but for her part Reki was glad to have someone along who thought like a warrior. Later, when they finally slipped the leash of their guards, they could wonder about things like that. Right now, though, Reki needed to be preparing herself to face lord Stigander’s half-brother.

It felt impossible, and yet she knew it was not, not truly. All she knew about the man she had learned from the Lay, but that should be enough to extrapolate from. That and the (ahem) quality of the man who had been sent to capture them. And she was almost out of time: the grim stone walls of Raenshold towered over their party now. Their so-called honor guard did not slow as they neared the gate, though Reki wished they might. The time was at hand.


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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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2.13 – Fidelity & Honor

“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My lord, surely you jest?”

“Not at all.” The Jarl’s face was open and honest, as though the thought never crossed his mind that Einarr might be bound by another oath.

Einarr risked a glance back at the hall: his father’s face was grim, as was Bardr’s. Erik and Tyr looked concerned. Now he glanced down to Jorir, and unless Einarr was very much mistaken that was fear he saw there. Runa, though, gave him an encouraging smile and nod, trying to convince him to go ahead and accept. As though she did not know what her father asked of him.

Einarr set his mouth and turned his attention back to the Jarl. “My lord Jarl, every man under my Father’s command has sworn to return and reclaim Breidelsteinn.”

“Do you not have your own ship, your own crew, now?”

“Why would that matter?”

The Jarl blinked now. “Is Raenshold truly even a memory for you? Is it not merely the stories your father’s men tell to while away the time as you wander the waves? I am offering you the security of your own lands with my daughter’s hand.”

“It is true, we have lived as vagabonds since the Weaving, and my memories of home are faint and dim, their patchwork filled in by the stories told aboard the Vidofnir. But Raenshold is and ever will be home, and I was born to be a Thane, as was Father before me. You ask me now to settle for a jarldom in foreign waters, and let my birthright be usurped again?” Einarr raised his gaze to meet the Jarl’s, unflinching, and pursed his lips. Anger was beginning to smolder in his breast, and he worried he would say too much.

“You have been a homeless wanderer, sailing from port to port with never an end in sight. While you are unwed, that is fine for you, but I am no father if I allow my one and only daughter to lead that kind of life. Her hand in marriage is bound to these lands by a chain even the gods might not shatter.”

“Bound by you alone, and you hold the key.” Rage threatened to boil up, but if he fought his father-in-law over this he lost, no matter who won. “You say you are my father’s friend, and yet you try to seduce me into betraying him? Nay, Jarl. Runa shall be my bride, and none other, and no other than Raenshold shall be our home.”

“You’re being unreasonable.”

“Actually, I rather think you are. You would make a nithing of me.”

The sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears and the Jarl froze. Einarr looked about, surprised: no-one in the Hall so much as blinked, save one. The strangely familiar lady’s maid with the long golden hair and the elfin features. She curtsied, and as she rose she turned to walk away. The scene in Kjell hall faded with every step she took into the distance, until it was replaced with the alpine meadow where he had first seen the woman. Einarr shook his head to clear it before stepping back toward the path where he had evidently left the rest of his companions. I hope I’m not too far behind.

***

The sound of silver bells rang in Jorir’s ears and he stepped forward over the threshold between reality and dreaming. He didn’t know how it was done, but he had been through the tests before.

The scene in front of his eyes was the last one he expected, however. The light faded, its color yellowing, until he stood in a torch-lit stone hall. To every side svartdverger made merry. It took his eyes a minute to adjust, but when they did he saw the sigil of Chief Soggvar – King of Iron and Brass. I’m… home?

Jorir’s face lit up, for now he recognized the faces of his kinsmen. Some of them he was quite sure were dead, and others he suspected were, but in the world of the Oracle’s trial that did not matter. His eye lit on his brother’s face and he could not smother his astonished grin. He stepped over and put a hand on the other dwarf’s shoulder. “Brotti? What’re you doin’ here?”

“Waiting, little brother. We all are.” When his brother turned to face him, Jorir had a moment’s double-vision: Brotti’s face turned ashen, and the shadow of an axe cut across it. Jorir blinked and the vision cleared.

Jorir smiled again at his brother, but this time it was wan. I had a feeling.

“Go. The Thane would welcome you himself.”

“Aye.” He nodded, studying Brotti’s face even as he clapped him on the shoulder. Living or not, this would likely be the last time Jorir saw him. After a long moment, he turned towards the throne where Thane Soggvar sat looking dour – moreso even than Jorir was used to. Things must have got bad after he left.

Slowly Jorir stepped towards the throne, and slowly he knelt before his chieftain and bowed his head. He felt the large, heavy hand of the king settle on the back of his head with surprising gentleness. It was cold and clammy.

“Welcome home, son of the mountains. We have expected you.”

“I beg you to forgive my tardiness, my king.”

The hand raised again off his head. “It is of no matter. We have endured.”

Have you? “Thank the gods,” he said, as though he had noticed nothing amiss.

“What have you discovered on your long journey?”

“I have found the Cursebreaker.”

“Well! Cause for celebration indeed! Bring out the mead! In the morning, we will sacrifice to the gods for their beneficence!”

Jorir tried to smile in response to the Thane’s enthusiasm, but the signs within his vision suggested he was too late.


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2.12 – Faithless Hospitality

The tinkling sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears. Testing the fidelity of my love for Runa? Nothing simpler… surely that can’t be it, though? Well, no matter. He hefted the sack of treasure slung over his shoulder so the weight rested more comfortably and the coins tinkled again. Walking along the path up towards Kjell Hall, he whistled a jaunty tune. Jorir was only a pace behind him with another sack of treasure, and over this last quest they had filled out the crew of the Hvalaskurdr. His longship Hvalaskurdr. He had a ship. He had a crew. He had brought more gifts than even Jarl Hroaldr could have thought to ask for. If that wasn’t sufficient, even yet lacking a hall of his own, Einarr could rightly accuse the man of faithlessness.

Einarr stepped through the tree line and into the meadow. Not another quarter-mile in, the gate of the palisade around the hall stood open for them. The crew of the Vidofnir awaited inside, with the Kjellings, for news of his success. A broad grin split his wide moustache and he strode on, stopping just two steps outside the door.

“Hail to the Jarl of Kjell! Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, has returned from his quest!”

“Hail, and well-met!” The Jarl’s voice carried out of the hall nearly as cheerfully as it had for Stigander just after their encounter with the Grendel. “The son of Stigander is welcome to my hall!”

Einarr stepped across the threshold and into the shadow of the hall. He reached up to remove his knit cap – when did I put that on? – as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The smells of meat and mead filled his nose, and rowdy calls of greeting and good cheer assaulted his ears. Stigander stepped up in front of him and clapped him on the shoulders, grinning behind his yellow beard.

“We carried word ahead of you, my boy, since you had someone to retrieve. Everyone’s dying to hear it from your own lips, though.”

He returned his father’s smile in kind, certain that Stigander saw the warmth of his affection behind it. Soon, very soon, they would find a way to reclaim their birthright, and then Stigander could be the thane they all knew he should have been.

The Jarl’s voice rose above the crowd. “Come! Show us the proof of your valor!”

“Well, go on.” Stigander took his cap from him and offered a wordless nod of appreciation to the dwarf.

All eyes – Vidofning and Kjelling alike – were on Einarr and his liege-man as they strode the length of the hall towards the clearing in front of Jarl Hroaldr’s seat.

The light shifted, and Einarr caught a glimpse of Runa, sitting with her lady’s maid in the corner. It was strange: Einarr had thought the maid was a mousey little brown-haired woman, but today the one who attended his love had elfin grace and ridiculously long gold hair – fairer, if it were possible, than Runa’s. He took in so much with a glance before his eye was drawn back to the princess. She sat with her hands pressed against the seat and her shoulders thrust forward, looking up at him furtively from under lowered brows. When she met his gaze, she bit her lower lip. His heart began to race. My lady…

The Jarl cleared his throat: evidently Einarr had been staring. Abashed, he knelt before his father’s friend and set the sack down in front of him with a clatter of precious metal.

“My lord Jarl, I have returned under my own sail and with my own crew, bearing gold and treasure in accordance with the tasks you have placed upon me.” He opened the sack and reached down in among the silver and gold and jewels, looking for the artifact he knew the Jarl would want. There it is. He reached both hands down into the treasure sack and carefully began to remove the goblet.

“In token of these accomplishments, I offer you the Fierbinte, taken from the Imperial city of Krasimirburg during our raids.” He raised the goblet by its stem, resting its base on his other hand to keep it steady. The cup was solid gold and encrusted with rubies and sapphires over every inch of the outside. Inside, it was perpetually filled with a blood-red wine that never seemed to spill. “According to the Imperials we questioned, it is said that the one who drinks from the Fierbinte shall know neither disease nor the progress of time for a full turning of the seasons, but that the god of war shall be their constant companion.”

Jarl Hroaldr reached out to cup the goblet’s basin with both hands and lifted it overhead. A cheer rose up around the hall from the Kjellings: the Vidofnings, Einarr was certain, wanted no part of such a thing. Not until they reclaimed their home.

Once the cheering had died down, the Jarl turned and set the goblet carefully on the table as though it were capable of spilling. His attention returned to Einarr. “Rise, Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen. Your dedication is most admirable, and so I am willing to overlook that you have not gained a hall. Rise, and take the hand of Runa, and make Kjell your home henceforward. My Thane, Lord Hragnar, sails for Kjell even as we speak to take your oath to him and this land.”

The hall fell silent. To Einarr, the sudden stillness felt as though the world were crashing around his ears. His face felt slack. “I… what?”

“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a Jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My Lord, surely you jest?”


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2.8 – Butcher’s Bill

The days following the battle with the Valkyries were somber, as well they should be: five Vidofnings fell to the Order’s hunters. Three of them had remembered Raenshold better than Einarr himself did. Those five had ridden the enemy ship to the afterlife in a blaze of glory, and left five more empty berths on the Vidofnir.

If there was one bright spot, it was the treasure they had found in the Geirskögul’s hold, packed into every spare inch beneath the deck boards of the Vidofnir. The morning after the funeral, Stigander had directed them north to a friendly port, only a little out of their way. No-one could quite get out of their head, though, what those five newly empty berths meant.

As the Vidofnir prepared to dock at the Apalvik pier – larger than Kjellvic, but still no match for the bustle of Kem – Stigander called Einarr aside.

“We’ll be in port a few days while we find a buyer for our takings, so I want you to do something for me. Take Bardr and Jorir and head into town, see if you can’t find us a few more hands.”

“Yes, Father… but, you’re leaving this to me?”

“’Course I am. How else are you supposed to build a crew for the new ship? Bardr’s got a good eye for people, he’ll point you in the right direction – and with your liege-man along you’ll weed out anyone who has a problem with svartdvergr. Hopefully anyone who’ll be bothered by Reki, too.”

Einarr nodded. “I understand, Father. I will find us worthy successors to Arngeirr and the others.”

Stigander clapped him on the shoulder, a broad smile spreading under his pale yellow moustache. “Happy hunting, then.”

***

Bardr passed by no fewer than three public houses before finding one that suited his criteria. “Too nice, and the patrons will turn up their noses at a ship like ours, even assuming they aren’t already signed on with someone. Too rough and, well, I think you can guess.”

Einarr nodded as they settled into a corner table, scanning the faces in the room for potential prospects. Too rough a place would attract men who were little more than scoundrels, and Stigander was not interested in a sailor he couldn’t trust. He nudged Jorir with the back of his hand and dropped a small stack of silver in front of the dwarf. “Mind picking up the first round?”

He snorted. “Assuming there’s anything worth drinking in this place. Back in a few.”

Bardr nodded as Jorir sauntered off towards the center of the room. “Good call. Who watches him, and why?”

Most of the patrons noted the presence of a swarthy dwarf in the hall with an indifferent shrug or a glance out the corner of their eye before turning back to their own business. Fewer watched warily in case of trouble, plainly expecting that Jorir would be the cause of it in one way or another. Of the remaining patrons, about half were curious to see a dwarf in their tavern, while the other half sneered.

“This at least tells us who not to approach,” Einarr murmured. “The curious ones, what do you make of them?”

Bardr pursed his lips and hummed. “One or two of them might be worth talking to. Got a hunch most of them aren’t looking for a new ship right now, though. Look at how they’re drinking, how they’re dressed.”

“Mm. Not a desperate lot, this bunch.”

“Not as such, but ‘desperate’ isn’t really the qualification we’re looking for.” Bardr pressed his lips together, scanning the room, as Jorir returned to his seat.

Einarr slid one of the mugs over in front of himself. “Thanks.”

Jorir grunted. “Fine. Mind tellin’ me why we’re here when the rest of the crew is back at the boat?”

“Recruiting. Thought you’d have guessed that.”

“Ah.” He shook his head. “Somehow didn’t think yer Pa would be big on bringing in new blood.”

“Gotta keep our strength up if we want to take our holdings back. Not like my uncle will just roll over for us when we sail back into port.”

“Einarr, you see the man over in the corner, trying not to look at us now? Looks like Erik’s Ma and Sivid had a love child?”

Einarr tried not to laugh at the description as he nodded that he saw the man.

“Try talking to him.”

He chuckled as he stood. “Sure he’s not one of Erik’s get? I’d be surprised if the man didn’t have near as many sons as mistresses.”

“Does it matter if he is?”

“Depends. Here goes nothing.” Einarr took a long swig from the mug Jorir had brought to their table before sauntering off across the room. He felt eyes following him, and thought them largely a different set than the ones that had followed Jorir. Many of the men who had been indifferent to the dwarf alone were interested in the man the dwarf was with.

“Mind if I join you?” He asked the man, who did indeed look like he could be Erik’s much smaller brother – or son.

“Seat’s empty,” the stranger grunted.

“My thanks.” Einarr swung a leg over the chair and leaned his elbows on the table, hoping the casual display also came off as unthreatening. “You from around here?”

“Hereabouts.” The stranger watched him warily, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Looking for a berth?”

“Friend might be.”

“Your ‘friend’ a warrior?”

“He’s a fair hand, yeah, with axe or sword and shield.”

Einarr studied the man openly for a long moment. “Well, I might have a berth to offer, if this ‘friend’ of yours is loyal and true, and meets a few other qualifications. The dwarf you were staring at is on the crew, and our Singer is an albino. Your ‘friend’ is still interested, tell him to come find the Vidofnir at the docks and to say Einarr sent him. We’re only in port until we find a buyer for our recent acquisitions, so tell him not to wait too long.”

“I’ll be sure to let him know, yeah.” The man’s face brightened now, and suddenly Einarr had a better feeling about him.

“You have any other friends in this town who might be looking for such a berth? We had a few open up just recently.”

The man shook his head. “’Fraid not. I stick out like a sore thumb around these parts.”

Einarr shrugged. “Fair enough. If Father likes you, I imagine you’ll fit right in with us. Although…” He remembered the pretense, now. “If your ‘friend’ shows up, what name should I expect?”

“Irding. Irding Eriksson.”

Inwardly, Einarr groaned. Outwardly, he shook the man’s hand. “Pleasure. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe our Mate is trying to catch my attention.” This oughta be interesting. One down, four to go.


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2.4 – The Song of Raen

The sun touched the water’s edge and the sky took on the color of red gold. The tide would begin to ebb soon, but the crew of the Vidofnir had not yet taken up oars and her sail was still furled. Fifteen years ago, they had fled their homes, and for fifteen years the start of every voyage was marked the same way. Stigander stood in the stern, his feet set wide and his arms crossed as he looked out over his men. Einarr joined him.

Reki stood in the prow of the boat, her cloak thrown open and her head exposed. Her skin washed amber in the light of sunset, and her straight white hair looked as though it were made of spun gold. How her previous crew thought she could be bad luck, Einarr could not understand. What clearer portent of wealth ahead could there be? She opened her mouth, and in low dulcet tones began the recitation they all awaited.

Leafy rug lies under
Lee of rock ridge, the
Free-hearted Raen’s hold
High built, its vigil born
To guard men above gold.
Grant plenty, pious king,
But forget not folly
Of fate-dabbler’s design.

It was his grandfather’s story, the founding of Raenshold well-nigh seventy years ago. Before Raen came to power theirs had been a weak clan, really not much more than a scattering of freeholds across the Breidelsteinn archipelago. Over the course of a decade, Grandfather had transformed Breidelsteinn from the laughingstock of the seas to one of its foremost powers. He had been only forty when he made Stigander the captain of their fleet and settled in to complete the fortress at Raenshold and administer their lands.

The time drew near. A whisper rippled through the crew, no louder than the lapping of water on the hull, as Reki continued to recite. Hands moved to oars, but they did not yet push off. The cue had not yet come.

Raen’s folly, a fair lass
Flax-haired, by eye-gleams held:
Urdr did he woo, under
Umber moon she swooned.
No troth spoke though one she
Took: the ring-breaker Raen
She would wed. When sea-steed
Stole Raen, Urdr did remain.

A low grinding of sand against the hull marked the moment the Vidofnir pushed off the kjelling shores.

Unwisely wooed, Urdr
Bore Ulfr, boy-child of
Greyed eyes, guileful blade.
Threads Urdr traced, fiber spun
While wolf’s fangs he forg’d.
To seek redress on swan’s road
Their uncut thread binds all.

Einarr had been six when his half-uncle and the woman his grandfather had set aside appeared at Raenshold, and had only heard second-hand what happened. His maternal grandparents had requested he come for the summer, and so as they sailed for the summer’s hunt on the waves, Father had left Mamma and him at their freehold. When they all returned late that fall, it was like a black haze hovered over the island. The Vidofnir sailed near enough to port that Einarr could see men dangling like fruit from the hanging tree.

That was when they had been attacked by every longship already in port. Einarr remembered the look on his father’s face when the man had been forced to choose between leading an assault against the force had taken their home and protecting his wife and son. Though it had only lasted for a moment, that was the face of a man in agony.

His father wore that same look now, as he did every time they reached this point of the song and the oars dipped into the water. The Vidofnir had wintered that year at Mamma’s freehold, and that was where Einarr lived until he was old enough to sail with Father. By then, they’d pieced together what happened.

Ulfr did usurp, and Urdr does
Under cursèd thrall snarl
Mountain’s men, and entomb’d
Raen maltreats. Raven-wine
By Art bound, and by Art’s touch
Alone undone: hie home,
Raen’s sons, soon your birthright
Save, and cut the woven chain.

Those who did not row knocked their blades against their shields. Those who did opened their mouths and let loose with the ululating black song – the cry of a warrior who will die for their cause. Einarr closed his eyes and joined them, ignoring for the moment that he was the one person aboard who was not allowed to do so. Stigander was unlikely to produce a second heir now.

As the black song died down, Einarr opened his eyes again and glanced sidelong at his father. The look of anguish from the story was already fading into the sorrowful, grim determination that had become so familiar. With a pang, he realized that this was the first time since he’d come aboard that it had not been one of his stepmothers up there. He leaned over to whisper in Stigander’s ear “You alright?”

His father’s only response was a curt nod, followed by a wan smile before he strode forward toward the middle of the Vidofnir. Einarr did not miss that Bardr thrust a skin at his father, nor the way Stigander drank from it. He sighed: perhaps later he would join his father under his awning and drink until the dawn with him. It would be better for both of them than the melancholy solitude that threatened.


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1.9 – Spring Thaw

For three more long winter months, Einarr attempted to court the Princess Runa, and for three more long winter months Stigander attempted to nudge the Jarl toward acceptance. Fortune was not in their favor, however, and the Jarl would not budge. The sons of Raen understood the reason all too well, but that made it no easier for Einarr to bear. Not when Trabbi the fisherman – Trabbi, who had not once sailed out of Hroaldr’s territory; Trabbi who had no ambition outside his fleet of fishermen; Trabbi, who was nearly as old as Stigander, whose chief virtues were loyalty to his Jarl and an established homestead, whose affection for the girl more resembled a fond uncle’s than a lover’s – was the favored suitor.

Einarr seethed each and every time that Trabbi stepped in before him to speak with Runa, and seethed more to remind himself of the cause. The Jarl did what he believed best for his daughter and his own holdings, and attaching either of them to the cursed line of Raen was not likely to be either. He stopped short of cursing his grandfather. Tempting as it was, he had no hand in the Weaving that drew calamity on his descendant’s line.

For her part, Runa accepted his attentions with a smile that was merely polite, and gave Trabbi as little encouragement as she could manage. Einarr almost pitied the man, in truth, because he suspected in the end none of the three parties involved had much say in the matter.

Eventually, though, the soothsayers and the wind proclaimed that spring was on its way. Soon the Vidofnings would be able to refit and prepare for the first expedition of the new year. On the first clear day of the thaw, Einarr volunteered to give their ship its initial inspection. He wanted – needed – to get away from the Hall and the stifling awkwardness that had settled in the air as the months passed. The cold stares Einarr got from the Jarl only made things worse, of course: that their presence this winter was suffered for the sake of his friendship with Stigander was plain. The more Einarr had pushed himself forward, tried to show himself a good match despite his handicaps, the less welcome he felt.

Snowdrops were beginning to show their heads, he noticed as he skied over the still-snowy field surrounding the hall. The idea flitted through his head to collect some on his way back, but before he could settle on the idea a voice reached his ears.

“Wait.” The sweet note that carried halfway across the field to him was Runa’s voice. “Wait, please.”

Einarr stopped and twisted to look behind him. The fur of her cloak was dyed crimson, and drew his eye to the long blond braid that caressed her figure. He sighed, obliging, as she closed the distance. She would make an excellent wife. But not for me, at this rate.

“Thank you,” she said. Her face was already red from the cold.

“You shouldn’t come out this way alone. There are wolves about, even in your father’s holdings.” He affected formality; since the Jarl did not intend her for him, it would be best to put some distance between them.

“I’m not alone, now am I, so long as you allow me to walk with you.”

“Such a thing would hardly be proper, under the circumstances.”

“Oh, come now. I only wish to talk with you, and you are far too much the gentleman to try anything.”

“Am I?”

“Aren’t you?” She raised an eyebrow at him.

He laughed in spite of himself, lowering his head to hide the smile he could not quash. “As you wish, my lady.”

“Excellent.” Runa closed the distance between them and threaded a hand about his arm, under the cloak to leave his sword-hand free.

“My lady. . .”

“There is no impropriety in a young man escorting a woman this way, especially at her request.” She played at haughtiness, teasing him for his formal mask.

He looked over at her, about to protest, but sighed instead. The look of her sea-blue eyes brooked no opposition and the feel of her bosom pressed against his arm sapped his will. “Well then, since you insist, let us continue.”

It was not until they were starting down the switchbacks leading to the beach that she spoke again. “You know that my father has formally proposed my betrothal to Trabbi?”

“I wish I was surprised.”

“They haven’t been exactly subtle, have they.” She sighed. “Why must I marry a graybeard?” She wailed, and the change in tone was enough to make Einarr jump, even with her arm wrapped around his own.

“So Father has failed, then. …That may be partially my fault. If I had backed off after that Hall dance…”

“I would still be engaged, but I would be even more trapped.” Runa looked at him, her eyes as earnest as he had ever seen them. “You do love me, don’t you?”

Einarr looked at her sidelong, trying to ignore the unseasonably low cut of her dress, trying equally to find the strength to lie. “Yes,” he breathed, his heart winning over his head.

“Then if I tell you I have a plan…?”

“That may depend on the plan.”

She nodded once and fell silent again. Einarr offered her a hand for balance going down the steep path crossing from the forest to the beach. He could see the ship, now, and from here it looked as though nothing untoward had happened, but a thorough inspection was what he had come out to do.

“You know when I decided I would marry you?”

“When?”

“When you teamed up with me to bring in the goats all those years ago.” She couldn’t quite stifle a giggle, and it lightened Einarr’s mood enough that he smiled.

“Has your father told you why he is against it?”

“Yes. I’m afraid I can’t quite bring myself to worry about it, though, and the Weaving must be nearly unraveled by now.”

He pursed his lips. He wasn’t at all sure of that, not after the encounter with the Grendel last fall.

“Will you take me away?”

“To what? A life on the run, with neither hearth nor hall nor port of call?” He recoiled at the idea, ashamed that some small part of him was still tempted.

“Am I not worth fighting for?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing?”

“Playing a courtly game you can’t win. My father won’t change his mind for that. I see three choices, only one of which is likely to be acceptable to both of us.”

“Oh? And what would those be?” Einarr started up the ladder leading to the Vidofnir‘s deck, only half listening as he tried to find the argument that would convince him not to go along with it.

“First: we accept my father’s judgement and I marry Trabbi.”

Einarr twitched. It was the safest option, but the thought of losing her to a man his father’s age was physically painful.

“Not acceptable to me, and I don’t think to you either. Two: you take me like a common serving girl. We aim to get caught, preferably after I’m with child. Surely then Father will yield.”

He turned his head to stare down at her, wide-eyed, hardly able to believe what she was suggesting.

She cut him off before he could object. “Somehow, I think you too much Stigander’s son to go along with that.”

“I am appalled you even thought it worth mentioning.” That traitorous corner of his mind noted that she mentioned no personal objection to the plan. He was doubly betrayed when the thought kindled desire. He stamped it down.

“Indeed. Three: we get a boat and sail away. On the first island we come to, we wed.”

He sighed and did not answer immediately. The idea was tempting, but it would be a betrayal of everything his Father had taught him. He was standing on the deck by the time he trusted himself to answer, and at that point she was halfway up the ladder. He needed to look her in the eye for this.

No sooner had her second slipper met the deck boards than he took her by the shoulder and spun her to face him, affecting more anger than he felt. “What sort of man do you take me for? The Sons of Raen do not steal wives. You really think I could let some pretty face – even one like yours – convince me to betray my own father? To end their friendship like that?”

“Not a face, perhaps, but what about a voice?”

His mouth hardened. “You wouldn’t.”

“I could.” Despite the difference in their heights, she managed to peer down her nose at him. Then her face fell. “But you’re right. I wouldn’t, even though I do not love him. You would abandon me?”

He stared at her for a long moment, weighing how serious she appeared and how much he wanted her against the combined wrath of Hroaldr and Stigander. He would be surprised if anyone at Kjell Hall did not realize how he felt. It would make him a renegade, the very scion of cursed Raenshold cast out as a traitor to their Thane, but as he gazed on her the last of his resolve melted away. He knew his answer to her question. “No…. No, I cannot abandon you. You put me in a difficult position, my lady.”

“Just as my father has placed me in one.”

He clasped both her tiny hands in his own, nodding and hoping she understood his agreement. “Runa.” The name tasted sweet on his tongue, and at that moment it was the only word he could say. A long moment passed before he remembered his task. “I have work that must be done before I can return to the hall. Will you aid me in my task?”

“I will, my lord.” A playful smile curled the corners of her mouth.


1.8 – Dance Fight! 1.10 – Runaway Bride
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