Tag: Sivid

5.24 – Second Chance

That cut on his side was going to be a problem. It wasn’t likely to kill him, he didn’t think, but the blood showed no sign of slowing yet. Well. A bandage was just cloth, and he was wearing plenty of that. Einarr gripped the hem of his tunic and tore.

The fabric came off in a spiral. When he thought it was long enough, he held the strip tightly against Sinmora’s blade and sawed down. Then, gritting his teeth the entire time, he wrapped the makeshift bandage about his chest and over his opposite shoulder to hold the rest of the tunic tight against his wound.

Once it was tied, Einarr tested his work with a pair of deep breaths. That should hold. He looked around the room at the statues, now out of any semblance of order… except the statues of his father and the Jarl had not budged. He furrowed his eyebrows: that was plainly the clue. What else might it mean?

A brightness caught his eye from the floor at his feet: the Valkyrie’s feather. He stooped to pick it up, and Einarr’s fingers tingled as they gripped the shaft. Why she had left it, he could not begin to guess. Carefully, to avoid dripping blood on it, he threaded it through the buckle of his baldric.

His hand brushed against the pouch at his belt, where the wooden broach rested. Mysteries upon mysteries. Einarr sighed. Even should those runes spell out the answer to this puzzle, it was of no use to him here. He shook his head and harrumphed. If the answer was not in the relationship ties between the images, what might it be?

Einarr stepped slowly over to stand before the images of his father and Runa’s. They stood – or sat – implacably, facing each other. The Jarl sat on his throne, looming over all below him, while Stigander stood exhorting unseen hosts. It would be hard to imagine two more different images…

That’s it! For all that Jarl Hroaldr and Stigander were old friends, they were in many ways mirrors of each other. Thus, if his hunch was right, each image would have a mirror of sorts on the floor somewhere.

He thought he had the trick of it, at least. Moving the statues had been cumbersome before. Now he was tired from the fight and wounded besides. Each step across the room reminded him of the shards in his shins, but at least his makeshift bandage quelled the fire in his side.

He slotted Arring, with his massive strength, opposite of Barri, who like Einarr was faster than he was strong. Jorir faced Tyr, the ageless and wise blacksmith against the aged and wise sailor. Einarr frowned at this one, but could think of no more sensible option. Runa, the Jarl’s daughter, would be matched with him, Jarl’s daughter to Thane’s son and so many other mirrors besides.

The real trouble was attached to the image of Erik and Sivid dicing together. Ordinarily, Einarr would have matched each as the other’s opposite… so then, what to do when they were shown together? Einarr paced a lap around the room, pondering this. There were few other options remaining.

He stopped when he once again came face to face with the pairing of Jorir and Tyr, which he had not been happy with. The two had as much in common as in opposition. The image of Jorir, however, showed him working at a forge. Erik and Sivid, on the other hand, were at play. It was so simple he had almost missed it.

Finally, once all the statues were in place, Einarr approached the last remaining depression in the floor with some trepidation. His hands had started to shake, which he blamed on fatigue. That what remained of his tunic was sodden with blood had nothing to do with it. With a deep breath, Einarr took his place in the display.

Instead of a lance of pain through his head there was a grinding noise as the statues all turned on their bases. Some of the pairs rearranged themselves on the floor, leaving a broad open path across the floor of the room. At the end of the path, he could now see a door that had not been there before. Einarr breathed an unconscious sigh of relief as he hurried down the path. He did not think he could face the Valkyrie a second time.

Einarr raised his uninjured hand and pulled on the door. A blinding light flashed.

He stood on the landing of a stairway heading up. Around him on the landing were Jorir, Runa, Erik and Irding. He smiled and opened his mouth to greet his friends, but suddenly the world tried to turn upside down.

Einarr blinked several times, partly in surprise to see he was leaning on Erik’s shoulder – When did that happen? – and partly because the world seemed to have gone blurry around him.

“He’s hurt,” Runa was saying, and he could hear sogginess in her voice. “Come now, quickly, we have to get him someplace flat at least.”

Erik started slowly up the stairs. Einarr tried to lift his feet, but with each step it felt more as though he were being dragged. Something about the situation seemed familiar, and recently so.

“My medicine pouch is down on the boat,” Jorir grumbled.

“Why on earth would you leave it there?” Runa’s question was a good one. She growled in frustration and then began to sing.

The song was like a cool breeze across Einarr’s face, and he relaxed into it. Runa mumbled something about the wound looking bad, and Jorir’s sarcastic rumble answered. He lifted a foot to aid Erik, but the combination of injury and song magic was too much for him right then. Einarr drifted into unconsciousness to the sound of Runa’s voice.


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5.23 – Valkyrie

“Let’s take this more seriously, then, shall we?” With a blast of wind the Valkyrie was in the air, hovering as no natural creature could, her sword leveled at Einarr. He swallowed, cursing the bravado that made him call her out. This was not how he won, not if he had a choice in the matter. He was not Erik or Arring with their massive strength, or Sivid with his speed, and calling her out had been not at all clever.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. On impulse, he dove into a forward roll: the wind of the blade’s passage chased his back, and a small piece of red hair dropped toward the floor.

Einarr rolled back to his feet and took a wild swing towards where the valkyrie had been only a moment before. His blade met only air. He spun on the balls of his feet, searching for his opponent. That was three, right?

“I think not, mortal. You wouldn’t deprive me of the thrill of the contest, would you?”

I was afraid of that. But, how can…?

“I am chooser of the slain, young thief. I must have some way of sorting the chaff from the wheat.”

Of course she could read his mind. As much as he had immediately regretted his choice to call her out, now he regretted it more. Not clever at all. “So now I must fight an opponent who can read my thoughts? That hardly seems sporting.”

“I thought you wanted a challenge. Come, Cursebreaker! Let us test your mettle!”

The same impulse that made him roll forward last time now froze him in his tracks. In that same heartbeat he felt the passage of a blade before his nose. Stone shards flew from the crack that appeared on the floor before his feet, embedding themselves in his legs. He hissed and tried to strike forward at where she must be, but her attack had not yet finished. With a crack of wood, steel pierced through his shield and into the flesh of his arm. A howl escaped his throat. Still he could see neither Valkyrie nor blade.

Einarr risked a glance up. White flickered in his peripheral vision and he hurried to follow it. No matter how fast he turned, however, the creature was always just a hair faster. The effort threatened to make him dizzy, and the shards in his legs throbbed with every step.

Rather than continue the futile effort, Einarr stopped. With a deep breath, he closed his eyes and listened. It had not been by sight, thus far, that he had evaded her blows but by reflex. He would wait, still, for that same reflex to guide his blade.

Her voice echoed through the room. “Let this strike be engraved on your soul.”

That didn’t sound good. His focus wavered, just for a moment. Enough to remind him of his own weakness. He tried to put the thought from his mind, and mostly succeeded. Well enough, at least, that when the urge to move came he twisted and brought Sinmora around. Steel rang against steel.

Einarr grinned, although the pressure on his blade was enormous. His arm shook with the strain of it. In the tales he sometimes heard about blind warriors with preternatural skill, but he had never credited them much. Perhaps there was something to those stories after all.

It wasn’t enough. Sinmora’s tip, braced against the stone of the floor, gave way with a scrape and a spark. The blade practically flew back from the blow as the valkyrie’s blade cut deep into his ribs. White-hot agony flared from the wound as he stumbled backwards, clutching a hand to his side. He hardly noticed the shards in his legs now.

The Valkyrie hummed. “Not bad, Cursebreaker. But how long do you think you can keep that up?”

“That was five by the terms you set,” Einarr said through gritted teeth. Blood ran down his side and arm, and his shins felt hot and wet. His shield was nearly broken, but even if it was whole he would have trouble holding it now.

The valkyrie’s chuckle filled the room with its statues. “Was it, Cursebreaker?”

He could feel the ball of emotion that was the Valkyrie circling him, now, as though she were a wolf and he the rabbit. With a little luck, he could take two more. He hoped. Einarr pressed his arm against the slice on his side. He couldn’t afford to lose too much blood here.

“Somehow this is unsatisfying.”

So she intended to continue insisting the first two were invalid? That rankled, but Einarr was far more focused on keeping pressure against the wound in his ribs than on calling her out. If she intended to attack him again, all he could do would be to weather the storm.

Einarr stood clutching his broken shield, Sinmora at the ready. His eyes remained closed, listening. Concentrating. Waiting for the Valkyrie to strike. Feeling the sticky wetness of blood on his side. On his hand. He felt no urge to dodge, or freeze. No need to do anything at all. After a while, Einarr opened his eyes.

He was alone in the room once more. The statues had once again been scattered about the room, seemingly at random. Something glowed at his feet: when he looked down, he saw a single feather. Einarr furrowed his brow. Why…?


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5.22 – Mortality

There was no statue of Trabbi, the loyal retainer, or of the former Captain Kragnir – but there was one of Bollinn who replaced him, which would fill the same role. On he went, connecting a figure of Bardr pouring over sea charts to Stigander, and on back through the crew and the Kjellings. Something strange happened when he found himself face to face with a simulacrum of the apothecary from Kem. Ordinarily he would have paired him with Erik, given the events on the island, but Sivid had not been there at all, and the only image of Erik had them together.

His next best guess was, as with Jorir, to connect the man to himself. He thought he knew where he would have to stand for that, as there was no simulacrum of himself to be found on the floor.

Einarr dripped with sweat by the time he slid the statue of Jorir into place. That was the last one, though, and as he expected there was still an empty depression on the floor, with connections running to several other figures. With a deep breath, he stepped down into the last remaining depression.

At first, nothing happened. Then, when he was running over who might be improperly tied, lightning lanced through his brain. A scream of pain tore out of his throat at the sudden onslaught. Einarr dropped to his knees.

When he recovered his feet, Einarr stumbled over to the stand where the verse of his clue had been.

The bit of doggerel was no more – or at least the page had been turned. In its place, he saw these words writ large:

Fool! Lack you wisdom as well?
Mortal ties such as these are easily severed
Think ye deeper.

A sound like thunder cracked. Einarr, his head still aching, winced. When he looked back up, he realized he was no longer alone in the room.

Standing between the images of the Jarl and his father, the tip of her sword planted between her feet, was a woman beside whom even Runa would appear plain. Long auburn hair hung in a braid past the bottom of her gleaming breastplate, and on her head was a golden-winged helmet so finely worked the feathers looked real. Even in her floor-length skirt there could be no doubt she was dangerous: the giant white eagle wings on her back alone would have dispelled that notion.

Einarr’s mouth went dry even as his palms grew clammy. “A V-v-v-valkyrie?” he asked under his breath as he dropped to his knees. He knew sneaking in here for the Örlögnir was always going to be riskier than going after the Isinntog, but somehow he had still not expected this.

“Do not fool yourself, young warrior. That you have come this far is because you were allowed to, but even when the cause is just my Lord’s forbearance is finite.” The Valkyrie’s voice was a deep alto, but sharp and clear like good steel.

“Of course, great lady.”

“You may have a second chance.”

Einarr lifted his head and opened his mouth to thank her, but the valkyrie was not done yet.

“If you can survive five exchanges in battle with me.”

Einarr felt his face grow pale. Survive five rounds against a real, honest-to-goodness Valkyrie? He swallowed once more, trying to find his voice. “And should I refuse, or fail?”

“Your soul is mine.”

“To become Einherjar?”

She smiled a wolf’s smile. “To be cast down to Hel. You will die as a thief, should you die here.”

He swallowed again. I don’t have to land a hit. I just have to not get hit. No problem. He did not find this particularly reassuring. What he said, though, was “It seems I have no choice.”

The Valkyrie nodded. “Make ready, then.”

With the scrape of steel on steel, the comforting weight of Sinmora was in Einarr’s hand. He raised his shield and stood at defense, studying his opponent.

She, too, took a battle stance, raising her long, double-edged sword until it was vertical. She bore no shield: Einarr had no doubt that should someone get past her native skill those pauldrons and bracers would blunt any blow.

He could not see her feet under the long, heavy skirt. That would make this more difficult, but still not impossible. Not by itself, anyway. Pressing his mouth into a line, he met her gaze and nodded.

The Valkyrie moved almost impossibly fast. In the space between two breaths she had crossed the distance between them, her shoulders turned into the blow she intended to bring down on Einarr’s head. Before sight could become thought he had brought up his shield, and her sword struck the boss like a bell.

He danced back, his hand tingling from the force of the blow even as the ringing continued in his ears. His own blow had swung for her side and somehow been turned away by the very air.

She offered him a nod. “You have decent reflexes, but it will not be enough to save you.”

“I rather hope you are wrong, there. You’re quite quick.”

“That’s not all I am.”

She rushed in again, this time bringing her sword up in an underhand swipe toward Einarr’s legs. He slid to the side, away from the blow, even as he brought Sinmora down and once more steel rang against steel.

“That’s two.”

“You have not yet attacked me seriously.”

“Nor have you. You let me see both of those attacks coming.”

She flashed her vulpine grin again and chuckled. “Perhaps. I rather wanted you to feel you were doing well. I hate for people to die unfulfilled.”

The Valkyrie unfurled her wings, and the tips brushed the heads of two statues ten feet apart. With a blast of wind she rose up into the air and lowered her sword at him. “Let’s take this more seriously, then, shall we?”


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5.17 – Stenjätte

With a wordless shout of rage, Erik came hurtling back into the fray. It wasn’t just his own skin on the line, now that Irding had joined the fight, and that meant losing simply wasn’t an option.

Was it really in the first place? His conscience muttered in the Captain’s voice and fell silent as Erik brought his axe down not on the ankle, which seemed no less sturdy for the whittling it had taken, but instead on the haft of the golem’s blade. A crack ran along the stone haft from Erik’s blow, too slender to have enough strength in rigid rock as it would have in either wood or steel.

“Oh, jolly good. At last you’re getting serious.” The golem actually seemed to smile at that. Erik couldn’t tell if it wanted to lose or if it just wanted a challenge: either way, he had no intention of swimming back, one-armed or otherwise.

Not that it gave him time to ponder the question. The stenjätte yanked its axe up from where it had wedged into the floor and brought it up to its shoulder. Irding leaped over its head to avoid the blow.

A heartbeat later the golem swung again, paying no heed to the fragile state of his weapon. Erik had to jump to avoid being caught by the wide sweep that covered most of the room.

He landed on the bit of the stenjätte’s axe and grinned at his opponent. Now it was a dance, and while Erik couldn’t hope to keep up with Sivid, Einarr, or even the Captain at the hallingdanse he was no slouch.

The golem gave his axe a toss to turn its blade the other way: Erik’s backflip landed him in the middle of the second side and the crack in the handle grew. Then it rotated the blade to face upwards.

Erik, feeling cheeky, ran up the slope of the bit and balanced on the edge. Then it was the stenjätte’s turn to grin.

Erik’s cheeky grin turned to wide-eyed shock as the golem swung upward with both hands. Irding cursed as the space where he stood to harry it from above became a vise of shoulder and ear.

At the top of the swing Erik realized he was headed in an arc for the floor. He had two choices, and one of them was surely fatal. Erik launched himself to the side as the axe came down towards the floor again.

The axe bit plowed into the stone of the floor, throwing up shards and dust, and the sound of the blow was followed by a mighty crack as the stenjätte’s axe handle shattered.

Their opponent laughed. When it straightened, it held the broken axe handle the way one would hold a club.

“Wonderful! I say, if you keep this up perhaps I shall let you keep your arms to swim home.”

“How generous.” Irding spat as though to punctuate his thoughts on said generosity.

“Well I can’t very well just let you pass. You haven’t defeated me yet. And unless I’m very much mistaken, you’re just about out of tricks.”

Erik shook dust from his hair, his wind mostly recovered. “If you think that means anything, you don’t know humans very well.”

The golem laughed again. “Wonderful spirit. All right then, try your utmost. Perhaps you’ll be the mortals to surprise me.”

Erik dropped back into a fighting posture. “Well, Irding, any ideas to take its head?”

“Not sure it would care about that, either. You nearly hacked off its foot and it didn’t even slow down. Someone made the thing: there has to be something keeping it moving.”

“Whenever you’re ready.”

Erik frowned. “So, some source of magic? Runes, maybe, or something that glows?”

“Maybe?”

“I can hear your plotting, you know. It won’t help.”

Erik grunted. “I’ll buy time. You see if you can spot anything it might be.”

He saw Irding nod from the corner of his eye and charged back into the fight. Let’s see if disarming him the rest of the way will work…

Lacking the weight of the stone axe head, the golem was faster than before. Erik dashed in only to be driven back by quick swings of the broken handle.

He sidestepped another pair of swings before bringing his trusty, probably ruined, axe down again on the slender haft. Chips crumbled off the end, but Erik still had no desire to feel its bite.

“Any luck?” He called, dodging another jab and knocking another several inches off the stone rod.

“Give me a minute!”

“You’re wasting your time. You won’t find anything.”

“That-” Erik brought his axe down hard on the haft, breaking off several more inches of crumbling stone. “Remains to be seen.”

“It really doesn’t, I’m afraid.” The golem swung again at Erik, who threw himself into a roll to avoid the blow. “You are right, I have a key, but you’ll not find it about the room.”

Erik sprang up from his roll as the wind from the club passed overhead, just a moment too late to get another strike in on it. “Oh? Since you’re feeling so generous, then, where is it?”

The low rumbling sound that was the golem’s laughter sounded again. “I thought you’d never ask. It’s right here.”

A circle of runes began to glow yellow on its chest. Erik could see no way up there. Irding had managed, once, but Erik wasn’t certain he could reach the golem’s heart from its shoulder. Not without taking a fall. Erik cursed. I should have kept at his foot. Knock him over, get the heart.

“Why are you telling us this?”

“Master created me to challenge those who attempt his tower millenia ago. Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve had a proper challenge? Hit my key, if you can!” The golem swung again, this time at Irding. The boy – man – sprawled flat on the floor just ahead of the club.

“By all the conventions of duelling, we beat you when your axe broke.”

“But I exist to fight! So, come!” The golem swung at Erik again.

Rather than dodge, Erik took a deep breath and braced himself. As the improvised club sailed towards his chest, he wrapped both arms around it even as it knocked the breath from his lungs. Probably broke a rib or two. He clung there, desperately gasping for air, as the club continued to sail through the air.

His trajectory changed: Erik scrabbled up the club towards the golem’s arm and once again narrowly avoided being slammed into the floor.

“I say, you are quite heavy. This is not a proper way of fighting.”

Erik roared as he neared the stenjätte’s shoulder. “I’m not a proper man!”

He gathered his legs under himself, staring at the runes that still glowed over where a man’s heart should be. Won’t hurt worse than the wolf’s bite. He launched himself, axe pulled back and ready to strike, across the golem’s chest. When Erik buried his blade in the center of the rune circle, he thought he saw a look of gratitude pass the golem’s face. Then he curled himself into a ball, ready to roll with the fall.

Right up until he collided not with hard stone but with the body of the only other person in the room.


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5.4 – Hasty Departure

Reki came to dinner the evening after their fragrant baths looking satisfied with herself, and Runa came looking chastened. Einarr felt a little sorry for her: if she had spent the entirety of his quest to the Jotünhall in seclusion, as he believed she had, surely this was unnecessary? Moments later, he remembered what he had been told about “tuning,” and felt a little less sorry. Shaking his head, he swung a leg over the bench to take a seat next to his betrothed anyway. The smell of lavender tickled his nose, but on her it brought a smile to his eye.

He set to on the night’s stew, but this was not to be a night for eating and conversing amongst themselves – or with the other apprentices, as he had learned the young women universally were. The oaken crone, the leader of their Circle of Elders, stood at the head of the table as they were eating.

“It is good, from time to time, to have visitors from the Clans. It ensures that we do not grow so wrapped up in our own matters that we forget the wider world. However, brief though it was, on the morrow it will be time for our guests to depart. A matter of no small urgency has been brought to our attention, and while they seek the tools they need to fix it, so have we preparations to make. Do not fail in your quest, and return to us when you have completed it.”

Reki stood. “Honored Amma, you have our thanks. Even were it not for the quest, I should beg our leave of you in the morning. There are many more men who were exposed to the corruption you discovered in us back in port.”

The old woman inclined her head. “Then go forth. Speak with Sor down on the docks: tell him we sent you, and that you require one of his fishing boats. A longship is too large to gain entrance to the Tower.”

Einarr swallowed and wiped his moustache before answering. “My thanks, honored Amma.”

Quiet fell again around the hall as everyone returned to eating. As the low buzz of conversation started back up, Runa elbowed Einarr to get his attention.

“I’m coming with you,” she muttered into her bowl.

He, too, kept his voice low and his face forward as he replied. “Is this something the Matrons have decreed?”

“Something I have decided myself.”

“I’m against it. Who knows what we’ll run into there.”

“I have an idea. You’ll need me.”

“No.” It was far too dangerous. She did not push him farther, but he would have to watch her.

***

The next morning, when the sky was still the pale blue of early morning, the nine set out for East Port and their waiting companions. As early as it was, though, Reki and Runa both rushed about as though they wanted to be gone an hour before.

“Easy, now,” Trabbi was saying. “It’s not like a few extra minutes is going to kill anyone.”

“Are you sure about that?” Reki snapped.

“Enough.” Einarr stepped in. “We do need to hurry, but racing about like this isn’t helping anyone. Who are we still waiting on, anyway?”

“One of your porters,” Barri drawled.

“Then we’re not waiting on anyone.” Sivid sounded reluctant. “Saetild wanted to keep him behind, said he was worse off than the rest of us. Not that it makes much sense to me.”

“Amma Saetild is one of the best among us with medicine and the healing songs. If she wishes to keep the man behind, there’s a reason. Thus, let’s be off. The sooner we’re back in port, the sooner I can treat everyone else.” Reki scooped up her pack and strode down the path toward the forest, not waiting to see if anyone else followed.

One by one, led by Einarr, they did, and soon were walking beneath the canopy of oak leaves once more. The morning light filtered through the leaves above, turning subtly green. The atmosphere in the forest this morning did much to lift Einarr’s spirits. After the cleansing he’d had at the hands of the Matrons the lingering unease from the battle against the cult had finally faded – reason enough for cheer, he thought. And if evading Wotan’s spies to steal his wife’s distaff was perhaps one of the more foolish things he had ever tried, it felt more like a game than like a matter of life or death.

A rustling from out in the woods caught his attention, and Runa’s voice called out from its direction. “Einarr, come see!”

He blinked, and looked behind him down the path. Einarr did not see Runa there, nor ahead when he double-checked. With a shrug, he turned off in the direction of her voice. May as well see what she wants.

The path opened before him, lusher and more full of life than the road had been, and he wondered why the road did not pass through this way, instead.

“Oh, Einarr, it’s wonderful!”

What could she possibly have found in a forest like this? She couldn’t have been off the path for more than a few minutes. …And why couldn’t he see her yet? “Runa? Where are you hiding?”

“I’m just over here, in a clearing.”

This was beginning to seem strange, but Runa did have a fondness for pranks. This was exactly the sort of thing he could see her doing back in her father’s holdings.

…Only they weren’t on Kjell island. And both Singers had warned them against leaving the road in the Whispering Wood. Einarr stopped in his tracks. In every direction, all he could see was lush greenery, very little of which he recognized. I am an idiot.


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5.3 – Medicinal Bath

Three paces outside the door of the hall his tune trailed off and he stopped, now seeing what was in store for them.

Set up in the Hall yard were two large wooden tubs on a platform over a bonfire. Steam rose up into the midsummer morning, and the air smelled strongly of peppermint and lavender. It was true that Einarr had wanted a bath for weeks now. For all that these were washing tubs, however, this looked more like a scalding pot.

The plump Matron looked up from her nalbinding and hailed him with a smile. “Good morning!”

“I think that my companions and I should make a poor meal, honored Amma.”

To her credit, and Einarr’s relief, she laughed. “You’ll not be cooked unless you stay in too long. ‘Tis a bath, but for the herbs to work it must be hot.”

“More purification?”

“As much as we can do. The corruption has had long to work on your men: we must drive it back as hard and as fast as we can if you are to succeed in your quest.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. This was the first any such quest had been mentioned to him, although that there would be one did not surprise him.

“Well, up you go. There are baskets above for your things.”

When he stepped over the side of the tub, it was as though someone had brewed medicinal tea in a hot spring. The fragrance filled his nose and threatened to make him cough, it was so strong. Still, he thought he would prefer not to grow tentacles, and so he breathed shallowly until he could grow used to the odor. His feet turned pink almost immediately, but too hot or not he intended to take full advantage.

Barri and Sivid emerged from the hall as he was scrubbing his arms. By the thunderstruck look on both their faces, he knew exactly what they were thinking. “Good morrow! Come on in, the water’s fine.”

“Are you sure we’re not being softened up for a pudding?” Sivid asked as he climbed the platform.

Einarr belly laughed. “Would you eat something that smelled like this?”

Barri coughed. As eloquent a response as Einarr could hope for, he laughed again.

***

All nine of their party had been steeped and scrubbed before the sun had crested the forest canopy, and with Runa returned to them they fell to the morning’s porridge with berries and cream. That was when the oaken crone took her seat at the head of the table – although Einarr noted that she was not eating. For a time, she merely sat in silence.

Impatient, Einarr broke her reverie between bites. “I understand there’s some sort of quest you require of us?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line and looked flatly at Einarr. “Yes. I suppose Saetild said something this morning?”

“Is that her name? The cheerful, plump one? We haven’t actually been introduced to any of you.”

The oaken crone sighed, the sound like rustling leaves. “Quite.”

“So? What sort of horrific danger do I have to face in order to save us all from the corrupted blood of the cult that kidnapped Runa?”

Now it was the crone’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Rather cynical for one so young.”

“Honored Amma. My year began with the issuance of a purportedly impossible quest by Jarl Hroaldr after our ill-conceived attempt to elope, during which I had to not only avoid the giant’s notice, but also fight his dog and his dwarf. We both know I’m going to have to take the quest, so let’s not mince words about what I’m getting myself into.”

She lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “There is an order to these things, but since it has already been breached…”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “Some ways to the east of here, a tower sits upon a solitary rock jutting up out of the sea. From the water, you cannot see the top of this tower, but birds constantly flock about it, for it is the Tower of Ravens. It is said that Huginn and Muninn make their homes there when their master does not have need of them.”

Einarr looked at her as he continued to eat. So far, this didn’t sound too terrible.

“At the top of the tower, under the protection of Huginn, Muninn, and their guards, is a distaff made of hazel wood and inlaid with ivory: the Őrlögnir.”

Einarr nearly choked on his porridge while the other Vidofnings failed to suppress a laugh. “I need a magical what now?”

“A distaff – you know, like your Mamma used to keep fibre untangled while she spun?”

“Yes, I know what a distaff is. How is that supposed to help us here, with the cult or the corruption or anything?”

The oaken crone had the pained look of someone forced to explain matters to a particularly dull child. “What did I say it was made of?”

“Hazel and ivory.”

“Very good. And what are the properties of hazel and ivory?”

“I’m supposed to know that, how?”

“Gah!” She threw a hand up above her head. “Do they teach our warriors nothing? Hazel for wisdom and purification, ivory for purity. Applied correctly, the Őrlögnir can break any curse or purify any corruption. Now do you see?”

“…I think I’m beginning to.”

“Good. I recommend you prepare yourself. The sooner you leave to seek the Tower, the more of your crewmen you can save.”

More questions rushed to Einarr’s lips, but the oaken crone was already striding stiffly out of the room. He turned to Reki, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

“Ask me this afternoon. I must go before the Conclave with Sivid now, to haggle.”

Einarr suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “Of course. Good luck.”

Reki nodded, her mind already on what she might say to persuade the crones, as Einarr tried to get an answer out of Runa – only to discover that she, too, had left the room at some point over breakfast. Einarr sighed in exasperation and shoved another spoonful of porridge in his mouth.


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5.2 – Wise Women’s Table

“Please, be seated. There’ll be no leaving until morning at the earliest anyway.” The old matron moved deftly to the side of the door and began shooing their party in, towards the long table with its pot of stew – rabbit, if Einarr’s nose didn’t lie. He allowed himself to be swept into the Hall and to a place at the table.

There were nine of them, and eight empty bowls set along the table. Given that Runa had been sent to stand at the back with the servants, that accounted for all of them. Einarr had never known Singers to be able to divine: perhaps there was something to the rumors about the wood? Einarr shrugged and settled on the rough wooden bench.

“Now. I know why our wayward apprentice has come, although she shall be expected to explain her tardiness.” The crone spoke as she settled herself back into the seat at the head of the table. “I was surprised to hear that the daughter of Fjori was returning to the Hall. Is the sun troubling you again?”

“Not at all, Amma.” Reki was near breathless, as though she actually were a child addressing her grandmother. “During a recent raid, we found a chest filled with instruments. I convinced my Captain that the Conclave might wish to buy them.”

The old crone snorted. “Buy them. Feh. We shall have a look in the morning.”

“Thank you, Amma.” In the worst case scenario, they would be demanded as hospitality gifts. For all that the Vidofnir needed the coin, Einarr would be hard pressed to see that as a loss if the Matrons were able to answer his questions.

One of the other old women at the table – more like a willow in stature than like the oak of her superior’s mein – was staring at them as they settled. Einarr stared a challenge back at the woman’s face, but she appeared not to notice. Once everyone was seated, she waved imperiously towards the back of the room.

A young woman in plain white wool stepped hurriedly forward.

“Add some extra nutmeg to tonight’s mulling, and a good amount of angelica.”

The girl curtsied and hurried out the back of the hall.

Reki’s brows drew down in concern. Evidently that combination meant something to her. “Is something amiss?”

“Yes, child,” said the willowy crone, her voice somewhat less desiccated than her oaken superior. “There is corruption at work among you… on all of you save the apprentice and him.” She pointed at Trabbi.

“Corruption?” Barri stood, shock warring with offense on his face.

“Sit down, Barri.” Einarr could share neither emotion with the man, and even he heard weariness in his voice. “Think. Did any of us feel entirely well after that last battle?”

“The Heir of Raen knows of what I speak?” The willowy crone’s surprise sounded genuine.

“Unfortunately. Of those of us here, the Lady Runa and Trabbi are the only two who did not come into direct contact with the black blood of those monsters. I know I, for one, felt ill following that battle, and it had nothing to do with fatigue.”

Sivid was nodding along. “I, too, felt strangely ill, although I put it down to my own imagination.”

“But tell me,” Einarr sat forward, leaning over his bowl and absently reaching for the stew ladle. “How could you tell?”

All six of the crones at the head of the table burst into laughter at the question, the sound of rustling leaves and water burbling over stone. “We are called the Matrons of Song, are we not?” Asked the oaken leader of the crones.

When Einarr nodded, she continued. “The world sings to us, and in this way we can see your plight… Cursebreaker.”

Einarr wanted to swear. On top of everything else, she could see that?

The willowy crone cackled. “And why wouldn’t we? These herbs I’ve ordered, they will hold the corruption at bay – for a time.”

The headmistress cleared her throat. “Such matters are better discussed in the bright light of day. For now, there is stew and bread aplenty, and berries besides. Eat and be welcome.”

A third Matron, this one plump and warm like the grandmother Einarr remembered, clapped her hands and three of the young women in the back of the hall stepped off to the side and began to play.

It was a quiet, contemplative tune, and before Einarr had finished half his stew he felt the tension of the summer’s journey begin to melt away. By the time they had finished their meal, as they all sat around sipping at the spiced mead, every last one of them was fighting an exhausted sleep.

“Rest, children.” Through half-lidded eyes, Einarr saw the oaken crone standing over them. “Rest now, for on the morrow there is work to be done.”

***

Einarr awoke with a start to the clear light of early morning filtering in through the door of an unfamiliar hall. He patted his chest to find that he had been stripped down to just a tunic and breeches. Horror rising in his gullet, he blinked to clear his vision and cast his eyes around.

There, at the foot of the mat he’d been lain in, the rest of his clothes were folded neatly with Sinmora laid across the top. So why did they put us all to sleep, then?

He snatched up his clean-smelling clothes and began to dress. Somehow there was no longer even a hint of darkening from the blood that had nearly covered him in the battle against the cultists.

…Purification of the corruption. Of course. He exhaled loudly and finished dressing, a smile now tugging at the corners of his mouth. They were not some Jarl’s hall full of warriors, whose only recourse against monsters such as those was bloodshed: they were wise women, and the Conclave of Singers could be counted on to act for the benefit of the Clans. When he snugged Sinmora’s belt about his waist and strode out into the daylight, a jaunty tune popped into his head and he began to whistle.


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5.1 – Matrons of the Hall

East Port on the island of Breidhaugr sat like a village in the island’s plains, small and quiet and unassuming. Even still, the paint on the wooden buildings did not flake, and the people they passed smiled and greeted the newcomers to port in a friendly way even when they didn’t seem to be trying to sell something. Einarr felt himself relaxing as they tramped through town on their way to the Hall Road.

Nine all told left East Port for the Skald’s Hall: Runa, Trabbi, Barri and another Brunning, and Einarr were joined by Reki and Sivid with a pair of deck hands to carry the chest full of ancient instruments they had found in the ship-barrow.

The Hall Road wandered west through the meadow that seemed to dominate this island toward the hardwood forest at its center, and the party for the most part was content to bask in the normalcy of birdsong and the wind through the grass.

“Mind your step as we enter the Whispering Wood,” Reki announced as they drew near to the hardwood forest ahead. “It is not quite tame.”

“What do you mean?” Trabbi rumbled.

“There are mischievous spirits within, who will whisper in unwary travellers’ ears to lure them off the path. They mean no harm, we think, only their sense of time is… off.” Runa’s grin was as mischievous as any sprite.

Reki sighed. “Yes, but so long as you stick with the little princess here and myself, you shouldn’t have any trouble. These are just whispers, not full-blown hallucinations like the Oracle trials.”

Runa rolled her eyes. “Where’s the use in a good haunting if you can’t have a little fun with it?”

“My lady Runa.” Reki’s voice sounded like an exasperated tutor’s at this moment. “Were you told why you had been summoned?”

“No?”

Reki sighed again. “I think I have an idea. Never mind. Just keep with us and keep to the trail and you’ll reach the Hall without issue.”

Einarr could not keep a chuckle from escaping his throat. Runa was just as impish as ever, and just like always no-one else seemed to get the joke. He shook his head when the others started to ask what was funny. “After the ship-barrow, you’re worried about a few will-o’-wisps? I’m sure Reki can handle getting us through here.”

Now the others laughed, a little sheepishly, and Einarr gestured for Reki to lead the way. He fell in next to Runa and Trabbi, a little further back in the line, and took her hand even as she gave him a look of feigned hurt. Trabbi raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

The road crossed over a stream not two paces before it entered the shade of the oaks, and the friendly burbling of water over rocks was of a piece with the warm light filtering through the canopy and the open space between the trees. The road was clearly marked as it continued to wind, and here and there Einarr spotted grassy clearings where one might settle for a meal or an afternoon nap. He found it hard to credit that this wood might be haunted: it seemed more likely the sort of rumor the local huntsmen would spread about to preserve their turf. He cast a glance down at Runa, one eyebrow raised.

“Don’t let your guard down. How do you think people are enticed?”

Einarr grunted and did not press her on the matter, although he heard murmurs from the other men in the party that sounded similarly skeptical.

The sun had begun to set by the time their road led out of the forest and into the broad clearing around the Hall of Skalds, and with the changing of the light the rumors of a haunting became more believable. He was barely aware of it until he felt his shoulders relax as they stepped out and saw the vividly painted sky above the hall. A breeze picked up, and with the rustling of the leaves on the trees came the faint sound of whispers.

Reki heaved a sigh that sounded surprisingly relieved for how she had been talking. “We were lucky. Let’s not count on our return to port being that easy.”

The hall ahead stood like a dark smudge in the twilit meadow, alike to Kjell in form but bearing the weight of centuries of lore and magic. Were it not for the Singers they escorted, the men might have elected to camp in the meadow and approach in the morning. Reki and Runa, however, felt no such inclination. When the two women strode toward the square of firelight that marked the door their escorts had no choice but to follow.

“We are Runa Hroaldrsdottir and Reki Fjorisdottir, currently aboard the Vidofnir,” Reki announced from the threshold. “We and our escorts seek shelter from the Matrons of Song this night.”

“Be welcome, Singer of Snow, apprentice.” The voice belonged to an old woman, as dry and brittle as unfired clay, but still hinting at its former glory. Unmistakable, however, was her irritation at Runa.

“Thank you, honored Amma.” Runa answered calmly with a deep curtsy, as though she did not hear the rebuke in the Matron’s voice. Einarr schooled his face, both to avoid wincing at the dressing-down he thought she was likely to receive and revealing he was impressed by her composure.

Honored Amma, am I?” An old crone at the far end of the Hall stood, and now Einarr had a face to put with the voice. The woman who now strode toward them could have been sister to one of the old oaks outside: stocky, her former height bent and gnarled but not broken, she carried a walking stick that at present was used only for gesticulating.

“If I were honored by you, child, the wind wouldn’t have carried word about your antics this last spring. If I were honored by you, child, you would be able to join the adults at the Hall table. As it is I see only a spoiled brat in front of me. Go stand by the back while we welcome the Singer of Snow and your escorts.”

Now Runa had the good grace to look abashed. “Yes, Amma.”

The crone harrumphed and turned her attention to the rest of the party. “Well. You might as well have a seat, and please forgive our young apprentice for any trouble she may have caused you. There’s plenty of food: the wind and the wood told us you would arrive this evening.”


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If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have  other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available. I just reworked my reward tiers, so I hope you’ll give it another look.

 

4.23 – Changing Tide

Einarr had Sinmora at the top of her swing when a pair of shoulders barreled into his knees from behind. His eyes widened in shock as he fell, moments before yet another tentacle shot across the open space where his head had been.

A man among the archers screamed. Einarr caught a glimpse of hair even redder than his own on the struggling Vidofning above and flinched. There was nothing he could do from here. Skora. I’m so sorry.

An arrow flew up from behind them, but even as it bounced off the monstrosity’s tough hide Einarr heard the sickening crunch of bone and their crewman went limp. He rolled to the side, off the back of the man who had tackled him and saved his life.

It was Sivid. Einarr offered the mousey man a hand back to his feet and a nod of appreciation, although the latter was waved off as the smaller man limped back towards where the archers were preparing to launch another volley. Einarr shook his head to clear it: there was only one thing to be done right now, and that was break free. He raised Sinmora high overhead again, waiting for the moment when Irding’s blade withdrew and he could strike.

If there was one benefit to the soaking rainstorm that surrounded the Grendel, it was that the monstrosity’s blood did not cling to the deck and the crew as it might have. Even still, the fetid stink was beginning to work on Einarr’s insides as he brought his blade back down with force. His efforts were rewarded with not one, but two spurts of the foul black liquid – one from Sinmora’s strike, and one from the team behind him. A section of the foul flesh fell to the deck between them and the first of the three arms slid away from the prow. What I wouldn’t give for a bath house at the end of this…

Another pair of arms reached for the Vidofnir, but hesitated. It seemed the thing was not insensate to pain. Rather than grab for the ship again, it used these arms to slap at its side. Two more men went overboard, and soon there was a cloud of red in the water where they disappeared. For perhaps the first time in his life Einarr wished he had an Art, that he might use it to curse the beast.

More fire sailed across the gap to embed itself in the chitinous flesh of the beast across the way. The wail was louder this time, though no less chilling, and the second of three tentacles loosed its grip on the Vidofnir. It did not retreat, though, as much as the Vidofnings might have wished it would. No: this arm raised itself up in the air to slam down into the water next to the Vidofnir. A span to the right would have capsized them: Einarr heard muttered prayers from among his crewmen but could not take the time to join them. That second arm was already raising back up, only this time he thought it was going to strike at the crew.

Einarr gulped air, trying to catch his breath, and brought Sinmora up to strike as it did.

A third volley of fire filled the air between their two ships. With a scream, the demonic octopus withdrew the last of its tentacles. Einarr watched as an inky black blob pushed itself out of the hole in the Grendel’s deck, uncounted arms still whole, and rolled itself into the sea. Einarr wanted to be relieved when it slipped into the water, its black blood forming a trail as it swam away. Wanted to, but could not. He swallowed, but it was not enough to wet his suddenly dry throat. “What…” he started.

“Was…” Erik continued, his face a mirror of shock.

“That?” Stigander demanded, looking square at Jorir.

The dwarf shook his head. “Something that should not be.”

“Will it come after us?”

“I don’t think so, not right now anyway.”

“Can it be killed?”

Jorir again shook his head, this time adding a helpless shrug.

“Father.” Einarr interrupted before Stigander could demand more answers his liege-man plainly did not have. He still felt sick, and there was at least one more matter that was more urgent. “I think Jorir is as clueless as the rest of us, here.”

Stigander harrumphed but did not press the dwarf further.

“How did you know there was something there?”

“The keening. It… it sounded like something I heard before I left home. Never saw it, though it always set my teeth on edge.”

Stigander growled. “Fine. All right, men, row for all you’re worth! The Brunnings are waiting.”

Einarr stepped over next to where Jorir leaned against the side of the boat. “So what do you place the odds at that each of those other ships will have something equally wrong filling their holds.”

The dwarf exhaled loudly, blowing the edges of his black moustache. “Too high. Hand me your blade, I’ll make sure she’s sharp before we catch up.”

Without a word, Einarr handed his sworn vassal the sword. Soon the sound of steel on a whetstone could be heard over the rapid cadence of the ships rowers and the wind billowing in the sail. Ahead, the nearness of the thick storm clouds showed they were catching up to their targets.

Einarr retrieved his sword, and it was immediately followed by Erik’s axe at the blacksmith’s whetstone. Already they were nearly out of time for sharpening, but at the promise of another fight like the last one it was worth it. Meanwhile, their reserves of pitch had been brought forward, and quivers’ worth of arrows had their heads wrapped to rain fire on their foes. Sinmora’s edge glinted brightly, even in the overcast light, as he sheathed his blade once more and went to join the ranks of archers. Already there had been plenty of glory to go around today: for the best if they did not have to risk any more of their men in boarding.


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4.20 – Respite

Einarr clashed and clashed again with the Grendeling blocking his path – a creature no bigger than he himself was. He should not have been having so much trouble with this one, but with each bind he found himself another half-step closer to the treacherous drop between their two ships, the water choppy and frothed from the storm the Grendel carried on its back. He ground his teeth together, knowing he should be better than this.

An arrow whistled through the air from the deck of the Vidofnir and those still waiting to board. Einarr dodged to the side and his opponent turned with him – right into the path of the onrushing arrow. Einarr glanced back and saw Arnskar lowering his bow: he raised Sinmora’s hilt to his forehead in thanks before dashing back into the melee.

The Grendelings had not been so difficult to fight last fall, and some corner of Einarr’s brain worried over the question of why even as he joined battle with a third of their number. Whatever the reason, the Vidofnings could not afford to prolong this fight – not with three more ships pursuing their ally.

Another surge of Vidofnings thudded down onto the deck, and Einarr rode their wave back up to his father’s side.

Stigander seemed less tired than Einarr was, at any rate. For the fighting earlier, followed by their mad rowing, to have worn him down should not be surprising – but the weakness still rankled. He lashed forward with Sinmora, glad to be back in the thick of things where he could vent his spleen, and a Grendeling stumbled backwards, the arm nearly cut through at the elbow. Tveir.

“Regretting-” Stigander drove his blade deep into the neckline of a Grendeling’s maille. “Telling them not to Sing?”

“Little bit.” Einarr puffed, cutting at a third enemy even as he ducked the blade of a fourth.

“You’re exhausted. Fall back. Join the bodyguard, tell the ladies they’re covered to Sing if they choose.” Even distracted, Stigander was parrying the blows of three separate Grendelings. He kicked forward and one of the creatures’ knee bent backward.

“Father, I-”

“That was an order, son.” His tone brooked no opposition.

“Yes, sir.” Einarr seethed, although if that Stigander saw him flagging so easily he might be in worse shape than he thought. Einarr swept Sinmora in a wide arc and her blade left only shallow cuts in his targets. He stepped back from the space thus cleared. A heartbeat later, the hole he left was filled by Erik.

“Give your lady five minutes,” the big man laughed. “You’ll be back afore the fight’s over.”

***

Einarr had nearly reached the cluster of men surrounding Reki and Runa before the wave of fatigue truly hit him. He could not quite keep from staggering, although he covered it as best he could.

“Captain Stigander has rescinded the order preventing our Singers from joining battle,” he announced, before shouldering his way in between Bollinn and Jorir. He was, in fact, surprised to see the dwarf back here – until he realized that he was the only one of the assault team that had not joined the bodyguard squad.

“What did y’think ye were doing, racing back out there?” Jorir grumbled.

“Avenging my stepmother, or trying to.” It was some small comfort to Einarr that Barri still looked discontent being stuck back here, away from the fighting.

“Not two hours after raiding their compound and fighting our way back to the ship. I know you’re young yet, but…”

Sivid laughed from the other side of the circle. “Oh, leave off. Don’t tell me you never tried to do it all.”

Runa cleared her throat. “If we’ve been given leave to Sing I rather think that means the Captain would like our help.”

“Quite so,” Reki averred, then paused to hum a moment. “Why don’t you see about freshening up your rescuers. You three, come forward with me a bit.”

Even as Reki left, her chosen guards forming a wedge around her, Runa began to Sing. Almost immediately Einarr’s mind was filled with scenes of early spring, of rebirth and renewal and snowmelt, and he felt the heat and the heaviness begin to slide from his shoulders. He closed his eyes. Many of the scenes he recognized from Kjellvic. Such as walking with the Lady Runa out to inspect the Vidofnir. Only this time, they had nothing to argue over… a heat rose in his face, and he hoped that the others were not seeing the same thing he was.

Almost as soon as he thought that the vision changed and he was diving into the still-icy runoff of a lake, his skin still steaming from a sauna. He cleared his throat: whatever she had done was effective, although neither of those last two was normal. He opened his eyes as her song wound down, and now Reki’s voice began to worm its way into his mind.

Red began to tinge the edges of his vision and Einarr stepped forward, back toward the fray. He was dimly aware of Jorir and Barri flanking him, leaving Sivid, Bollinn, and Kragnir from the island to guard Runa. She would be fine. Reki would be fine. All that mattered now was to destroy the Grendel quickly.

The three of them now stood, each in front of a boarding line, breathing deeply the scent and the sounds of battle. A shout began to well up in Einarr’s breast: he held it back and stepped up on the railing. The smell of smoke tickled his nose.

And then Runa joined in Reki’s song. The taut line beneath his feet swayed as he raced across and the shout, now a roar, burst from his mouth. He was dimly aware of Barri and Jorir behind him, joining in the battle roar, but the fury was already almost overwhelming his senses.

The Grendel would pay.


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