Tag: Song Magic

5.26 – Poultice

Runa’s song had become little more than a buzzing in the background of Jorir’s attention as he bruised the honeyed leaves in the mortar and prayed the other two would hurry up.

At least Lord Einarr didn’t seem to be growing any worse now. Given enough time, the song magic could probably handle it. Only, they didn’t have that much time. Einarr needed to be back on his feet before they approached their goal, or they might not make it out. At least, Jorir didn’t think any of them would be willing to leave him behind. Even Irding, though new to the crew, seemed to have taken to the Captain’s son.

“Feathery leaves and flat flower clusters, right?”

Jorir nearly jumped out of his skin at Erik’s sudden voice behind him. “Right.”

“There aren’t any white ones, but I found some that are kind of pink?”

He turned around to see the big man holding a pot with the flower he spoke of and rolled his eyes. “Yes, also yarrow. Let me clip some before you take it back. Irding should be looking for the touch-me-nots. …See if you can’t find some woundwort, while you’re at it.”

Finally. That was two of the three plants he needed. If the wound were less grievous, he might try to poultice with just these elements. Under the circumstances, though, Jorir thought it better to be safe. He pinched the yarrow stems and scraped the tiny leaves into his mortar and returned to mixing.

Minutes passed, and still no touch-me-nots. Jorir looked up from his task in irritation. He didn’t think he could wait much longer to apply the poultice – both for the potency of the herbs and the state of his Lord.

On the far side of the room, Erik and Irding appeared to be arguing at a whisper over two plants with yellow flowers – neither of which looked like a touch-me-not from this distance. With a growl, he stood up and hefted the heavy mortar.

“What is taking you so long,” he growled as he approached the two. “…Are you seriously arguing over a buttercup and a goldenrod? Neither of those are what I sent you for.”

Irding frowned down at the goldenrod he had in his hand. “Not a whole lot of yellow flowers out here.”

How does anyone not know a touch-me-not? “It looks like a drinking horn with a wide mouth. Next thing I know you’ll bring me wolfsbane for woundwort!”

“Wolfsbane I know,” Erik rumbled.

“That’s something, anyway. Hurry it up a bit: the longer this takes, the worse it gets.” Jorir turned and walked back towards his Lord on his sickbed.

“So… what does woundwort look like?” Irding’s voice carried across the floor.

Jorir could not suppress a growl. “It’s a small plant. Little cones at the top covered with purple petals. Just bring the whole pot, if you find it.”

Sounds of affirmation followed Jorir back to the center of the room, but he was not hopeful. Oh, they would try, certainly, but he rated their odds as low. He returned to pulverizing the concoction with somewhat more force than before.

“Ha!” Erik’s voice boomed across the room. Not many moments later, a pair of touch-me-not stems appeared on the floor at Jorir’s knee. “Those, yes?”

“Yes, those.” Jorir breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you. Any luck on the woundwort?”

“Still working on it.”

“Fine. This will do for the moment, but keep looking.” He plucked the flowers off the stems and tossed them into the mortar.

Runa was beginning to look tired, but the paste was finally ready. Jorir turned to his patient: Einarr still looked waxy, and his breathing was labored, but finally Jorir had something to help the body along. He met Runa’s eye. “I’m going to untie his bandage now.”

She nodded, and Jorir’s fingers moved to the sodden knot of cloth that had kept Einarr from bleeding out long before. He tugged once, then twice, and all he elicited was a groan from the patient. Shaking his head, Jorir took his eating knife from his belt and sliced the strip near the knot.

Once the cut was uncovered, and it was a long one, blood welled slowly up. Too slowly for Jorir’s liking, but at least it still flowed. He began to dab the sticky mixture across the red gash in his Lord’s side. As he went, the redness faded from the skin almost immediately, as mind and body went to work knitting the flesh with fresh resources. It was incredible healing, even considering the song at work.

Jorir had treated perhaps half the wound when Irding appeared at his side. “Is this the woundwort?”

The dwarf glanced up at the young man. “That’s a thistle.”

“Why would an herb-witch want thistle?” Irding’s confusion was audible as he wandered back into the room in search of the otherwise common herb. Jorir allowed himself a smirk: it would be a good question, in an ordinary herb-witch’s hut. Here, though, where they were obviously being tested?

Jorir neared the end of the gash and his paste at once. Soon he would have to test whether that stack of muslin was suitable for bandages: he hoped it was. The tester seemed to have given them the materials they would need, so long as they could make use of them.

Einarr groaned again and his eyelids fluttered. Jorir nodded as he dabbed on the last of the paste: remarkable vitality on that one, and a good head on his shoulders. A worthy lord, even if perhaps a little fragile. He laid one of the pieces of muslin down across the wound. As he pressed it into place, a white glow caught his eye. What might that be… a feather? He shook his head. Time enough to ask Einarr about it after he was bandaged.

With a groan, Einarr’s eyes finally opened. “Uh? Hello. Would someone mind telling me why I have straw stabbing into my back?”


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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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4.24 – Fire Rain

Einarr limbered his bow as the enemy ships came into view. The storms that carried them after the Skudbrun swirled together, each intensifying the others, so that sheeting rain obscured their targets and threatened to render their assault worse than useless. Still, even under its own rainstorm the Grendel had burned.

The Vidofnir’s prow ducked as it crested a wave and entered the storm once more. There had been few issues with traction against the Grendel simply because of where they had engaged her: not so here. Their ally was in view, however, and also within the tempest.

“Draw!” Bardr gave the order. The Vidofnings at the prow raised their bows and prepared to fire, but held. Bardr now walked along their ranks, lighting their arrows from the torch in his hand. Idly, Einarr wondered how many arrows, and how much pitch, they had left after this volley. At least one more, judging by the deckhand off to the side busily wrapping pitched cloth about arrowheads.

“Aim!”

Einarr lifted his bow towards the mast of the nearest vessel – their only possible target at this stage. He took a deep breath to steady his arm and his mind. Over their heads, the flames danced in the wind and raindrops hissed away from their touch. A gust howled, high overhead, and the Vidofnir tilted to port under its influence. Right about now, Einarr might actually welcome a Valkyrie ship – especially if it had sea-fire.

The ship righted itself, and in a moment of calm the order finally came. “Fire!”

Twenty arrows screamed across the gulf between their two vessels, straight and true. Their target seemed to rear up, cresting a wave, as the volley reached them, and fire embedded itself in the enemy’s deck and sail. Thank you, Eira.

That there were even twenty of them available to fire right now spoke of how hard the oar crew labored: that there were only twenty available spoke of how hard a summer this had been already. Einarr accepted a second wrapped arrow and nocked it to his string.

The crew of the ship they had fired on last looked like rats as they scurried about on deck. Einarr could not tell from here if they were looking to put out the fires or prepare a counter-volley. Strangely, the thought did not worry him. All that mattered in this moment was his next arrow.

Runa’s voice rang out over the storm – a variation Einarr had only rarely heard, and yet this was twice in one day. It was the opposite of the battle chant, in many ways, sung most often for the old and the feeble-minded. He felt an unusual clarity settle around his shoulders, and a small smile parted his lips. Brilliant, my love.

“Draw!” Once more Bardr began moving back and forth among them, lighting their arrows as they prepared to fire. The torch smoked heavily in the rain, but did not begin to gutter. Yet.

Einarr drew back his nocked arrow. They would hit again, he was sure: Runa was the bearer of the Isinntog, which meant that they had the attention of the goddess. And if they had the attention of the goddess, she would not abandon them against foes such as these.

“Aim!”

The archers aboard the Vidofnir moved with greater confidence this time, he thought, bolstered by the last volley and by Runa’s song. Hit, and catch! He urged the fire dancing above his head just before the order came:

“Fire!”

Their arrows launched as though they had been fired by one man, and if the winds moved some few around it was to the amusement of those who fired. The arrows all landed in a rough circle surrounding the mast of the enemy ship.

The rats aboard the other ship ceased their scurrying, now: that was definitely a counter-volley they had organized.

“Shields!” Einarr bellowed. He thought Bardr would forgive him the indiscretion, under the circumstances. Even being the one to notice, he barely raised his in time for no fewer than three arrows to strike into it.

Some few weren’t so lucky. Einarr heard two or three cry out in pain. When he risked a glance, he saw men being helped back toward where the Singers could tend to their wounds. With a harrumph, he turned back around, studying the enemy ship for signs of a true blaze.

He was not disappointed. Those same rats he’d seen organizing a counterattack now scrambled every which way even as their helm turned to starboard, effectively breaking off their pursuit. Einarr was too far to see sparks, but he thought he caught the darkening of smoke surrounding their mast.

Stigander’s voice rose above the storm: do not engage. Let them sink or swim as they could – the Skudbrun was waiting, and Einarr didn’t think they had many more volleys remaining.

The Vidofnir turned off to port, leaving the enemy ship and its horrific underbelly to founder in its own storm. That just left two more. Einarr and the other archers nocked their third volley of arrows as they waited to narrow their distance from the third ship. Once again they drew, and once again fire rained down on their enemies.

Einarr let out a whoop when he saw the second volley flying through the storm toward the forward-most ship. He could not yet see the Skudbrun, but the Brunnings had seen them. The rest of the archers processed what he had seen almost as quickly, and with just as much enthusiasm. Now they stood a chance.

Bardr distributed the next volley’s worth of fire arrows among the team – the last, unless Father had more arrows stashed below deck somewhere – but if luck and the goddess’ blessing held, one more should be enough. The enemy vessels burned like pine for all of their blackness. Still, Bardr waited to call the volley until they were alongside their enemy – not near enough for boarding, but near enough to look them in the eye as they fired.

“Draw!”

As before, one of the young deckhands moved among the shallow ranks of archers with a torch, lighting the arrow wraps behind him.

“Aim!”

What were they doing over there, though? It seemed as though the enemy ship paid no heed to the Vidofnir and the tiny motes of fire they were about to launch towards their own ship. Instead, they were gathered amidships: Einarr thought he saw defiant stares on the faces of men with axes raised high, as though they were about to cut into their own boat…

“Fire!”


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4.21 – Red Vengeance

The Vidofnings had fought like madmen before their Singers were unleashed. Now, with both Reki and Runa driving them on, Runa was almost inclined to feel sorry for the creatures attached to the Grendel.

Almost, that is, until she considered the cult they were attached to. What they did to Singers – and very likely other Artists. What they had done to themselves.

That last was on full display now that the battle chant was in force. The creatures might have the rough shape of men, but that was where the resemblance ended. Needle-toothed mouths could be anywhere, from the end of tentacle-like hands to the center of a warrior’s chest to, seemingly, the entirety of the head. Likewise eyes were mismatched and misplaced: some you might have sworn were blind were it not for the uncanny accuracy with which they fought back against the Vidofnings.

Runa could not help but worry as Einarr, his strength not only restored but enhanced by the currents of song in play, pressed forward into the fray, deep into the heart of the Grendel. Smoke was thick, there, and here and there a tattered remnant of sail fluttered, still smoldering, to the deck. Already they had crippled the ship, but the Grendelings had done as much to the Vidofnir in the fall.

Another beast fell to the deck under the force of Einarr’s blade, writhing. Behind the creature she saw what looked like a wide berth around the mast. The smoke there was thicker, as though more than just the sail had been set alight. Not that the Vidofnings would have time to loot the Grendel under the circumstances anyway, not with the Skudbrun under such heavy fire.

Already Runa wished for water, although the smoke was little more than a tang on the air from the deck of the Vidofnir.

Einarr did not venture into the break in the line, at least, although she could not tell what he was doing. The battle-fury left him enough sense to avoid a potential inferno, at least. Neither, though, were the Grendeling beasts willing to venture nearer the mast – and that looked like more than animal cunning. Not one of them so much as stepped toward the mast from where they stood, save only when pressed hard by a Vidofning.

While she watched the creatures flowed around the outside of the perimeter to fill in the gaps as they were opened. It was a strange way of moving, as though there were something within that perimeter that frightened them more than being overrun.

Runa’s eyes were glued to Einarr’s strong back as he readied himself for his next opponent. All around him the battle raged. What does he see? She took another deep breath and nearly choked.

One of the beasts vaulted over its neighbor to his left, landing on the deck with a heavy thud of taloned feet. It snarled in Einarr’s face, but this must have been the moment he was waiting for.

Einarr lunged forward, driving his shield into the creature’s belly as he swung low with Sinmora, towards its thighs. The creature took a half-stride backwards and then it hesitated. Sinmora bit deep into the beast’s leg and it spurted black blood.

Einarr leaned back now, bringing his back leg up for a kick to the creature’s more-or-less normal chest before swinging again at its front leg. Any normal warrior would have tried to dodge, but the only way it could have gone was back.

Sinmora bit deep, nearly severing the leg at the knee. Again it took the blow, rather than risk moving an inch closer to the mast. On the backswing he took off the creature’s foot, but then his voice rang out, clean and pure over the din of battle. “Fire and pitch!”

The Grendelings pressed forward harder then: they had not abandoned their wits along with their humanity, it appeared. That would not help them. Already Runa could see the back ranks of archers lining up with flaming arrows. As one on Bollin’s call they launched. The volley of flaming arrows struck the deck around the mast as the Vidofnings began to press forward from the railings. By sword or by flame, the Grendel would fall.

“Fyrir Astrid!” Einarr’s voice sounded again as he fought his way around the perimeter. The deck wood began to smolder, and then finally catch. The cry echoed around amongst the other Vidofnings: for all but the newest members of the crew, this was personal.

Runa started at a crack of wood from amidships. The deck was already beginning to give way. Slowly the flow of battle began to turn, and Reki’s song shifted with it. It was all Runa could do to keep up. This would never do: if she were to be a proper wife for Einarr, she would have to do better than this.

***

Einarr allowed the withdrawal to happen around him, waiting to join the rearguard. He had been forced out of the vanguard, and so his honor insisted he stay for this. His honor, and the remaining nugget of suspicion at what they might have been avoiding around the mast.

A keening wail seemed to rise up from under the smoldering deck boards, an eerie sound that stood the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck on end and propelled the withdrawing forces back towards their own ship at speed. All trace of red faded from Einarr’s vision at the sound, although none of Runa’s gift of alertness.

Einarr froze where his leap backward had left him, watching. What was that?

Then a different smell reached his nose: still smokey, but with none of the sweetness of pitch or the perfume of wood. This was acrid and sharp.

“Fall back!” Jorir’s voice sounded from near the boarding lines with an urgency that was near panic. “Back! Move!”

That was not a tone Einarr was accustomed to hearing from his normally staid liege-man. He ran, and counted it no shame. Neither did any of his fellows, racing for the boarding lines or leaping across the gap between their ships.

Einarr was the last. No sooner had his feet touched the Vidofnir’s deck than the line was cut and men were jumping to the oars without bothering to shed their maille.

The crack of wood this time was louder, and thick black tentacles rose up around the Grendel‘s mast. He swallowed: that didn’t look like smoke.


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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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4.19 – Boarding

The clink of chain was the only sound to be heard from the deck of the Vidofnir as her crew waited to see who would take the bait and whose Captain had a better head on their shoulders. When only the Grendel turned to face the Vidofnir, some may have spared a thought for their allies on the Skudbrun. Most, however, grinned feral grins and laughed unpleasant laughs: for almost a year now, this was a chance they had wanted.

Reki approached the mast, a full waterskin in hand. “On your command.”

Stigander nodded and opened his mouth to say something, but Einarr cut him off.

“Wait – I think we’ll be better off without the Song magic for this fight.”

“Explain,” his father ordered.

“Back in the cave, when we were escaping, Runa hardly sang at all. When she did, it was like her voice was a beacon to the creatures.”

“…Creatures?” Reki’s skepticism was not out of place: she was one of the few who hadn’t been there.

Stigander nodded slowly. “Under the influence of Astrid’s song, the Grendelings looked more like monsters than men.”

“In their fortress-temple, too.” Einarr paused, then shook his head. There wasn’t time for that now. “At any rate, I think we’re better off doing without the battle fury. As long as we can manage.”

Stigander studied Reki’s face grimly for a long moment before nodding agreement. “And we’re doubling their bodyguards. Get Runa up here. No-one gets through to either Singer.”

Einarr jerked his head in acknowledgement. Runa, he saw, was somehow at the forecastle with Barri and Bollinn. Why would they allow her up there? Why she was there was almost beside the point, however: she needed to be further back, and now. Einarr jogged forward, not yet worried about the rain or waves that were beginning to shake the Vidofnir.

“You two fighting? We can use all the hands we can get.”

“We’ll be guarding the Lady Runa, all the same to you.” Bollinn drawled.

“Fine. Go join Reki and the other bodyguards amidships. We’ll handle them.”

Barri shot a baleful look at Bollinn, but the man was thoroughly outranked. They stepped back towards the Vidofning Singer, but Runa made them wait.

“What about you, Einarr?” She raised her head defiantly into the wind, the rain stinging her cheeks well past their usual comely shade.

“These are the nithers who murdered Astrid, Runa.” As if he would let other men – even other Vidofnings – take his chance at vengeance from him. He would fight at his father’s side, and they would destroy those who sought to harm their family.

Runa nodded silently, her mouth pursed in an unhappy line, but she followed her two bodyguards from the Skudbrun as they shouldered their way through the crowd gathering at the fore to face their enemy. Of those aboard, there would be precious few who did not want a chance at the Grendelings.

The storm that hovered over the Grendel once again lashed at the Vidofnir and her crew alike, although this time they were ready for her. Fire-tipped arrows sailed across the narrowing gap as Stigander strode up to stand at Einarr’s side. His maille glinted wetly in the light of the fires. Stigander held Hrostlief – Grandfather’s sword – loosely in hand before the inevitable charge. He growled. “Astrid will be avenged.”

As though in answer, Einarr brought his shield to readiness. One of their flaming arrows had caught in the Grendel’s sail and smoldered dully there and Einarr’s lips tightened over his teeth.

The Grendelings answered their volley of fire with arrows of their own, but it was followed only by the sound of iron striking wood or metal. Even now, boarding lines flew from the Vidofnir’s deck. They would not be caught off-guard again.

A sudden gust of wind caused their boarding lines to twist, but it was not enough. Nearly half still caught on the Grendel’s railing, and no sooner were they secure than the first rush of sailors raced across. The sons of Raen gave their men sufficient time to ensure the lines would not be cut before sharing a look and a nod. Father and son brought their swords up for the charge. Then there was only air and water beneath their feet as they sprinted across to the deck of their foe.

Einarr hit the enemy deck at full speed, his boots echoing off their rain-slicked boards. Three steps later he plowed into one of the monstrous Grendelings and knocked the wind from him with the boss of his shield. Bad luck. Einarr brought Sinmora down on the now-exposed back of the man’s -Grendeling’s neck. Ein! …Can we still call them men, at this point?

He glanced to the side, looking for a new target, and saw his father striking down another of their number.

Einarr could feel a touch of the battle fury come upon him unaided and he flashed the next Grendeling in front of him a feral grin. Their blades clashed, sword against axe in the bind. A pair of blows fell against his shield arm from other defenders, but Einarr would not be put off so easily. He swept his leg around to take them in the knees even as he shoved out with the very shield they sought to break. A pair of thuds marked the moment they fell to the deck.

Now he was off-balance, though, and the first Grendeling circled his axe in an attempt to disarm Einarr. He managed to jump back and keep his grip on Sinmora, but the Grendelings were not going to just lay down and die for them.

Einarr’s opponent pressed forward, and Einarr took a step back, followed by another. He was painfully aware of how close he was getting to the railing and the cold sea below. His opponent lunged in, his axe brandished high, and Einarr met him in the bind again.


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4.16 – Hammer & Anvil

Trapped. Five of them to fight of dozens of the local guards and protect Runa, when the wall of men ahead of them appeared nearly as solid as stone. If they could just reach the Vidofnir they could escape, but it would take a miracle for them to get that far. A miracle, or…

“Runa?”

“I Sing, and before you know it we’re buried. They will fixate on my voice.”

Einarr growled and drew Sinmora. “Fine. Wait till we’re already bogged down, then, but we’re going to need you.”

Then he lowered his shoulder behind his shield and raised Sinmora overhead. His feet dug in to the stone pier, and then he was off, the others forming a kite behind him with Runa in the middle. Einarr’s shield struck the waiting shield wall of the defenders with a tremendous crash.

His aim was true: he drove into the space between two guard’s shoulders and their shields turned with him – not much, but enough to open a breach. Einarr slashed down with his blade and cut deep into the defender’s shoulder. Black blood welled around the steel.

Einarr yanked his sword free just moments before Jorir barreled into the guard’s knees and buried his axe in its hamstring. Momentum carried Einarr over the hole just opened even as Bollinn took down the guard on his other side.

As though they had trained for exactly this moment, the defenders curled around to come at the flying wedge from the sides and rear. Einarr hacked at them as they came within reach, but he could not care if they lived or died so long as he was able to continue driving forward.

Inch by inch, the six outsiders fought their way toward the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun and relative safety. With every inch, Einarr thought certain the next one would be their last. Finally, about halfway down the pier, they stalled. The crowd ahead seemed twice as thick as the one they had just fought through, and the grunts of exertion from Sivid and Barri on the rearguard sounded fatigued.

A long, thin blade swept over Jorir’s head and slashed across Einarr’s bicep. He roared – not in pain, although the fire of a fresh wound definitely made itself known – but in anger totally unrelated to the battle-fury.

That was the moment when the bright, clear tones of Runa’s voice sounded over the din of melee. It was only a few moments, but fatigue and pain fled from his body even as the rearguard roared their defiance and Einarr made another step forward.

If the press of enemies had been close ahead, however, now they were pressed on all sides. Einarr would swear that he could feel Runa’s breath on the back of his neck. At the very least, the sounds of battle from the end of the pier were also nearer. He cut at the legs of the monstrous guard ahead of him and followed it up with a vicious kick to the groin. His foe doubled over even as he lost balance and tumbled over: at least some things could be relied on.

Einarr cut to the side as he stepped forward and felt his blade once again bite flesh. His stomach roiled at the smell of the black blood that now splattered his face, but there was nothing to be done. One thing alone mattered, and that was reaching the ships.

Though they wore armor, nothing about these guards now appeared human in Einarr’s sight. The last time this had happened, it had been under the effects of Astrid’s battle chant. So, why now? He roared again, allowing the little voice in the corner of his mind to go about its business. Man or monster – on this field, all were one.

Ahead of them a blaze of light flared – real, yellow fire, so bright it was almost blinding. Their freedom was scant feet ahead: near enough he wanted to laugh, but still too far.

Now Runa’s voice sounded again, this time in the all-too-familiar rhythm of the Battle Chant. Even before it had begun to take hold of his mind, however, it was joined by the familiar, sultry voice of Reki, and a third voice Einarr did not know. With all three Singers in agreement, Einarr surrendered to the red haze of the battle fury.

What before had looked like a twisted dark elf in armor now appeared truly monstrous, all teeth and blood-red eyes, with gaping maws in places where no mouth should ever be – sometimes showing through the armor without compromising it. Einarr hacked about himself, twin desires warring in his breast even now. He knew he must reach the blaze of light, or he would perish. He knew with just as much conviction, however, that to leave the abominations alive would be the death of many others.

He chopped down with Sinmora. An arm that was not an arm, still gripping its sword, fell in his path and he stepped forward. Somehow their circle of six remained intact as they cut their path through the putrid wall of their enemies.

Arrows fell around them but not among them, fletched in the colors of Kjell and Breidelstein. One struck a creature’s shoulder and knocked him forward, off-balance. Einarr cut up and across and took the creature’s head.

Runa’s voice dropped out of the trio even as Reki’s song shifted. The haze began to clear from Einarr’s eyes. On the other side of the new-fallen creature was three feet of empty space and the blaze of light that was every torch aboard the Vidofnir and, beyond it, the Skudbrun.

As the vision ahead of him resolved into sense, Einarr let out a whoop. The light was not just to encourage them. It would also allow them to board. Erik and Irding slid a plank down towards the pier with a mighty shove. It hit the stone pier with a mighty thunk even as Runa slipped between Einarr and Bollinn. The ache of fatigue in Einarr’s shield arm subsided as Runa took that opportunity to squeeze it.

“Thank you,” she mouthed. Then she scrambled up the plank, and Einarr was left with the memory of that touch imprinted beneath maille and tunic alike.


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4.5 – Runes

Not without some trepidation, Einarr and the others led the two Singers back to the warehouse where they had found the hanged butcher. Aema covered her mouth with a cloth as they approached to avoid the worst of the smell. Reki’s shoulders shuddered once under her heavy cloak, but she did not hesitate. The door swung open under her palm and she stepped across the threshold.

She stepped no closer to the hanged man, however. His slow spin carried him around so that he very shortly faced the living in the door.

Seithmathir,” Reki read.

“Magic-man?” Einarr furrowed his eyebrows, confused. It was odd for a man of the Clans to study the Arts, of course, but never a reason to kill a man that he’d heard of.

“Evidently.” Reki paused a long moment. With her hood still up, Einarr couldn’t tell if she was studying the body or trying to maintain composure. When she spoke again, her voice was hushed. “I think this was carved before they hung him.”

Einarr shuddered as Reki backed away from the corpse.

“We’ll want to burn the town before we leave, if we don’t find anyone left alive.”

Aema nodded. “And if we do, make sure they see to all the bodies. The last thing we need is a port full of the restless dead.”

Bardr grunted in agreement as Reki stepped back outside the warehouse.

“Surely this wasn’t all?”

“No. This was the smallest part of it.” Trabbi led the way this time, back to the square that had confounded all three of them before.

Along the wall of a particularly large warehouse, several bodies were strung up by their wrists and ankles, all with the same wound patterns as the hanged man. These bodies framed a longer message that had apparently been burned into the stone wall. The two Singers stood staring for a time, concentrating on the long message in a nigh-dead alphabet.

“For the sin of harboring witches,” Aema began, haltingly. “The people of Langavik have been punished according to…”

Reki picked it up here. “According to the righteous dictates of Urkúm, High Priest of Malúnion. Let all who come here know…”

“…Know that the time of seithir is at an end, and all who practice such foul magics will be punished.” Aema’s voice sounded somewhat breathless as she finished reading aloud the proclamation.

“This is madness!” Einarr had never heard either of those names before, but the idea of giving up the use of Song Magic – or Weaving, or any of the other Arts – was preposterous.

Trabbi looked just as flummoxed as he felt. If no-one was trained in the Arts, then how would anyone control their effects? Song would not go away just because no more Singers were trained. Cloth would still be necessary, as would the blacksmith’s art.

It was Bardr who had the sense to ask the question they all wanted the answer to. “Who is Malúnion?”

Both singers shook their head.

“It’s an old Elven name, but I couldn’t tell you more than that,” Reki answered. “Maybe Tyr has an idea? He’s been around long enough, who knows what bits of lore he may have picked up.”

Aema cleared her throat. “Urkúm… I believe that’s a svartalfr name.”

All three men groaned.

“So you’re saying we have a svartalfr fanatic, of some god none of us has ever heard of?” Bardr rubbed his forehead.

“So it appears.” Reki sighed. “Not very honest of them to decry magic like this, though. Someone among them learned to Paint, I think.”

“You mean because of how the runes are burned into the rock?” Einarr, too, had found that strange.

“I do.”

Trabbi looked thoughtful. “Could it be, then, that the Imperials themselves are behind these massacres?”

Aema shook her head. “Let’s hope not.”

***

“So there you have it,” Reki finished as both crews gathered on the dock under the fiery orange sunset. “All things considered I think it likely the crew that captured the lady Runa and the crew that killed my predecessor are probably a part of this same cult. I also think it likely, based on the state of the bodies of the town, that we are at least a week behind our target still.”

Stigander and Captain Kragnir frowned at the story the five of them had brought back not an hour previous, but for the moment said nothing.

“Does anyone among the crew recognize the name Malúnion?” Aema directed the question out towards the crew. It was a gamble, but with a little luck…

Jorir spat a curse.

“Can I take that as a yes?”

“Oh, aye.” The svartdvergr shouldered his way forward through the crowd. “Wish I didn’t. Right bastards, are ‘is followers, an’ I will lay coin that this High Priest has convinced some of the others to join him on this damn-fool crusade. Anything that doesn’t come from their pissant demigod is by definition unclean, and Malúnion has nothing to do with the Arts.”

Einarr and Trabbi spoke at once. “Then what do they want with Runa?”

“Sacrifice, unless I miss my guess.”

Einarr shot up straight from the crate he had been leaning against. Trabbi’s reaction was more subdued, but just as worried. “Sacrifice?”

“Aye. They give proper sacrifices to their god, they’re granted magic for a time. Don’t know how long. Left home before the cult could get a proper hold there.”

Stigander rumbled. “Why leave a message here, and not at either of the two previous sites?”

Aema shook her head now. “I don’t know.”

“I can venture a guess.” Captain Kragnir crossed his arms and frowned beneath his brown beard. “Territory.”

The captain of the Skudbrun gave that a long moment to sink in before he continued. “Massacre like this is as good as a declaration of war. We’ve either crossed into territory they claim, or near enough that they’re making a play for it.”

Now there were mutters from all around the intermingled crews.

“The smart thing to do now would be to call a retreat, come back with a fleet in the spring to put the dogs down.”

Einarr, Trabbi, and Stigander all started forward, but before they could object he continued.

“But they have the princess, and if your dwarven friend is right we haven’t much time. Assuming we’re not already too late. And I do not want to be the one to tell the Jarl why we didn’t come back with his daughter – not while we’ve the slightest chance of rescuing her.”

Stigander nodded sharply. “All there is to do, then, is make sure we get her back alive. Bardr! Bollinn! The charts!”


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3.30 – Rite of Passing

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm.”

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

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

“You have an hour.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure?”

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

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

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

Jorir stopped mid-step. “Miasma?”

“Haven’t you felt it?”

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

“And find the body of the Allthane.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A clawed, ghostly hand stretched out towards the observers.

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

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


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3.26 – A Little Illumination

Reki heard their story with a small, sad smile. When it was over she shook her head. “I may know a way… but you must ask yourself if it is worth the lives of any more of the crew, or how many Vidofnings we can afford to spend here. We are already short-handed.”

In the end not a man objected to the course. Einarr did not venture to guess how many were convinced, like him, and how many merely wished to avoid losing face, but once again the decision was unanimous. As the sun set the Vidofnings set a wide perimeter of torches about the beach and prepared themselves for battle. Reki stood tall on the bow, using the carved rooster’s crowing head for balance. That the Allthane would take their continued presence as an excuse to an attack was plain. They merely needed to be ready for whatever horror had set upon the freeboater’s ship.

The two surviving freeboaters were among those on the deck of the Vidofnir, guarding Reki’s back should some of the shades attempt to circle around for her. She was, after all, the lynchpin of this fight.

Einarr and Stigander stood as a two-man line, ahead of all the others, facing the island. That, too, had been contentious, but in the end it was the Thane’s prerogative to lead the charge. The rest of the Vidofnings, save those set back to guard Reki, formed up behind them.

They stood in their battle lines, waiting, almost motionless, as the moon appeared over the deceptively calm sea and the scrub of this so-called island. Still there was no sign of either fog or ghost light. Some in the back rows began to mutter restlessly.

As the moon rose above the level of the plateau a thin mist began to build outside the ring of torches. As it grew thicker a little mist found its way inside, close to the ground at first but then rising as far as a man’s knees. Einarr readied his blade at the same moment, in almost the same motion, as his father did.

“This isle belongs to the dead.” The Allthane’s voice seemed to whisper out of the fog from every direction at once. “And the dead shall take back what is theirs.”

With the shade’s words the torches shifted in color from the welcome yellow light of the living to the sickly green of ghost light. The fog behind began to glow as well, and from it were paired sparks of concentrated green, as though the specters eyes burned with the ghost light. Einarr swallowed against his unease at the sight: even though he had expected it, the move tried to awake a primal fear he was unaccustomed to.

With the change in the light, the dead advanced into the circle of torches. Einarr set his shield.

Reki began to sing.

The notes that poured forth from the bow of the Vidofnir were a far cry from the voice they were accustomed to hearing. Sharp, staccato, and discordant, the sound set Einarr’s teeth on edge.

However unpleasant it was for the Vidofnings to hear, however, it was worse for the Allthane’s crew. The shades who had entered the circle seemed to flicker and waver, until finally they were revealed for what they truly were. Blackened flesh stretched tight over hollow bellies and displayed ribs in stark relief. Lank hair hung in clumps from half-bald scalps. The skin on their faces stretched too tightly over cheekbones, their eye sockets empty of all save the malevolent green fire as they worked their jaws in anticipation of the hot blood of the living.

Stigander clapped the pommel of his sword against his shield. A moment later, the rest of the Vidofnings answered in kind.

The shades were solid. It was time to fight.

Einarr raised Sinmora overhead. In the same breath, he and Stigander began the charge forward into the ghastly forces ahead of them. When Einarr clashed with the first of them, Sinmora cut through the creature’s shoulder with a sound like striking rotted wood.

He had no chance to savor the ease with which the first one fell. Immediately three others set upon him with sword and claw. He hacked the sword arm from the first and ran the second through, only to realize the motion had left his back open to the third.

Einarr whirled to try to defend against the last one, ignoring for the moment the claws scrabbling at his chain shirt from one-arm. There was no time even to bring his shield to bear.

At the last second the emaciated corpse stiffened. A blade very like his own protruded through its ribs, and over the creature’s face he saw his father’s illuminated in the ghost light.

Einarr nodded his thanks and turned back to the melee. There was not time for more: even that was almost too much. Jorir had come up even with them and taken down one-arm in the moment he thought the other would be the end of him.

The Vidofnings gave no ground, but the onslaught of the dead felt as though it would be endless. For every one they took down, it seemed as though three more took their place.

Eventually, Einarr grew conscious of a low drone underlying the sounds of battle and the chant of their Singer. He hopped back from the clinch and sliced his current opponent through its hollow belly. In the moment of quiet that bought him, he cast around, looking for the source of the drone.

The sound had a familiar quality to it, as of a voice he had heard recently. Einarr’s eyes were drawn to the edge of the lighted circle, where the Allthane stood back from the onslaught. His mouth was moving… and the low drone had a similar cadence to the story he had told the night before. And, all around him, the specters that had fallen were taking on new bodies. Einarr set his mouth in determination.


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