Tag: Stigander Raenson

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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5.22 – 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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5.21 – Relational Maze

Einarr stumbled through the door, blinking at the flash of light that had momentarily blinded him. Frowning, he looked about the room to see that it was filled with… not really statues, they weren’t solid enough for that, but more images of people he knew, all frozen in place in poses that spoke of daily life. There was Father, looking as though he was exhorting his crew, there Runa bent over a tafl board, there Jorir behind an anvil. Jarl Hroaldr sat tall in his throne, leaning forward as though passing judgement, while Erik and Sivid sat dicing. He furrowed his brow: this was rather eerie, but he was not at all certain what he was intended to do here, and there did not seem to be any doors.

Well. Perhaps a closer examination of the room would reveal the trick of it. Einarr wound his way through the ephemeral images of his friends and family, searching for some bit of writing on wall or floor that would point him in the right direction. Finally he came to the center of the room, where stood a broad pedestal, nearly waist-high. In the center of this pedestal, a good five paces away from the edge, an open book rested on a stand. My only hint, and it’s bound to be in runes. With a sigh, he climbed up onto the pedestal and walked toward the book.

Einarr’s skin prickled as he approached the book: it seemed to almost crackle with the magic of the gods. If that was any measure, this book would dwarf the Isinntog in power. He stepped up to the stand and rested his hands on the edges before looking down.

The page it was opened to was covered in runes, but as he stood blinking at the page he saw the Imperial script appear between the lines. Halfway down the first page, he looked over his shoulder, but still saw only the unmoving images of people he knew. The book. It’s describing what I’m doing right now. How…?

Out of curiosity, he tried to turn the page forward, but it was stuck. With a shrug, he flipped backwards. Everything was described in exacting detail – their journey to the Tower, the memory chambers, Erik and Irding’s victory over a stenjätte (there was a stenjätte in the tower?), and Jorir and Runa’s victory in a game of tafl.

Unnerved, Einarr took another lap around the room, looking for any other clue as to how he would escape – or who might be working such a spell on the book. Eventually, his feet brought him back to the book in the center of the room. The text from before was gone. Instead, in the center of one page, were these lines:

Prince of virtues   inspirer of men
Remember your burden   shared among many
Reorder your thoughts   aid also your friends
And open the path

It was doggerel, not what he expected of Wotan at all… but perhaps a raven familiar cannot quite appreciate poetry the same way? Whatever the case, it was the closest thing to a clue he had found.

The room was filled with images of the people in his life, and he could not honestly say that among those his eye was drawn to he was more imposed upon than imposing. Runa, perhaps, and he thought it balanced with the Jarl and with Jorir… but Einarr knew better than to think his father wanted to reclaim Breidelstein for his own benefit. And how many men on the crew helped him because they liked him, and how many because he was Stigander’s son?

Einarr shook his head. If that was true, then there must be some pattern among the images standing in the room that would let him open the door. First, he would attempt to put the images in some semblance of order.

Contrary to appearances, they were solid statues, although they moved with relative ease once he rocked them out of the depressions they sat in. He would start, he decided, by arranging them according to how he knew them – from the ship, from Kjell, and so on.

Some of the statues, he quickly discovered, were far heavier than others, even relative to their size. The Jarl, for example, was beyond his strength to budge, and his father moved only with great difficulty. He frowned: why could he move Erik and Sivid – who, interestingly, were all in one piece – with ease, but not Father and not Jarl Hroaldr?

As he braced himself again to shove his father’s statue out of its depression, he happened to look down. In the floor, a shallow groove ran between those two statues. Of course: Jarl Hroaldr was Father’s childhood friend, and this was something to do with relationships. He stopped trying to move the statue of his father: that friendship was too important to all three of them, and likely Runa besides.

Then he stopped in his tracks. If that was the case, that meant there would be something connecting to the Jarl’s statue to mark where Runa’s was supposed to go. And, given Einarr’s relationship to Runa, very likely there would be a connection to Stigander, as well. He went in search of Runa’s statue, which had been moved up against a wall early in his sorting attempt.

When he returned with it, however, he saw that there were two possible places that could be intended for Runa – and if he got one in a valid spot that was still wrong, he didn’t know if he could move it again. Runa, then, he left, and then went in search of a statue of Trabbi or Captain Kragnir of the Skudbrun. This was beginning to make sense, but if he didn’t want to be trapped in here forever he needed to get on it. Even the light statues weren’t precisely easy to move, after all.


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5.10 – Into the Tower

Tendrils of mist extended inward toward the tower that rose from the water like some giant’s spear, curling about the Gestrisni and obscuring what rocks might yet hide beneath the surface. Even now that their target was in sight it was slow going.

They wound their way through the reef in silence save for the dip of the oars and the lapping of water on their hull, each and every one of them worrying over what lay ahead. Just as in the thick of the fog, here too Einarr found it impossible to judge the passage of time. First the cave, now the fog: it would be nice, he thought, to be under a properly sunny sky for a time once they were finished here.

After what felt like an eternity of tense floating, the shadow of the tower covered their boat, the thing itself looming from its rocky perch to split the heavens. Carefully they rowed toward a set of man-sized steps carved into the rock flanked by much smaller jagged spires, perfect for mooring their boat. Either the gods were mocking them and this apparent entrance was illusory, or people were occasionally required to venture here legitimately.

The Gestrisni carefully moored from bow and stern across the stairs, Einarr hopped over the railing and onto the bottom of the stair. Turning, he offered his hand to Runa. “My lady.”

She smiled coquettishly, a small blush kissing her cheeks, as she stepped up on the rail and accepted the hand. “Many thanks, milord.”

Erik chuckled and Irding had the poor grace to roll his eyes. Jorir, at least, saw nothing strange about the exchange. Runa ignored them as she joined her betrothed on the step.

“What, jealous, men? I can help you across too – if you think you need it.”

Now Erik roared, the sound of his laughter echoing off of water and stone alike. “Fat chance o’ that. Stand aside, boy, let me show you how it’s done.”

Irding moved hurriedly toward the bow while Einarr tugged Runa up the steps a goodly distance as Erik sauntered across the deck. Then the big man turned, dropped into a momentary lunge, and with two long strides launched himself from the deck. He landed hard on a step not far below Einarr, still several up from the water’s surface, as the Gestrisni rocked violently behind him.

Jorir swore as only a dwarf can swear, and Irding looked pale: now it was Einarr’s turn to laugh, although he did so somewhat more reservedly than Erik had.

“Well come on, you two. The sooner we’re back in East Port, the sooner we can actually unwind for a bit.”

Irding grunted as he, too, landed on the stairs after a somewhat less exuberant jump than his father’s. “Are all raiding seasons this… eventful with the Captain?”

“Not hardly.” Einarr pressed his lips together. Irding had been eager for this adventure: how much more overwhelmed must Svarek feel, after ghosts and monsters and corrupted blood? The men needed rest, maybe even more than they needed more men, but Stigander was surely aware of that even more keenly than Einarr.

Jorir landed almost as heavily as Erik had, although once again not trying to best the man’s long jump. “Shall we?”

With a nod, Einarr and Runa started up the stairway. The others fell in behind.

The path marked by the cut-in stairs spiralled around and up the rock. It could have been no more than eight feet vertically from the water to the tower’s foundation, but it was a steep spiral and by the top of it even the men’s legs burned a little with exertion. Runa, who was not used to such labors, was breathing heavily before the top.

The path finally ended before a smooth round stone set into the rock at eye height. Runes were carved in a ring around the outside, and the stone itself showed a labyrinthine pattern of concentric circles. There was no apparent handle, or even a sign of which way the stone would move to open the passage.

None of this appeared to deter Runa, who stood studying the design while she caught her breath. After a few minutes she began tracing a path through the labyrinth pattern on the portal stone with her finger.

“What is it?”

“Be very glad,” she muttered. “That you brought me along. Reki and Aema are more experienced Singers than I am, but they have spent their lives out raiding whereas I have had little to do with my time other than study. …There it is.”

As she spoke, her finger reached the center of the labyrinth and she pressed down. That first press was followed by several more in diverse locations around the stone. A grinding sound emanated from behind the wall, and the stone began to roll away into the rock.

“So what was that?”

“A puzzle lock, of course. And a fairly straightforward one once you understand the clue.”

“Clue? You mean the runes?”

“What else would I mean? We’d best be going through before it decides to close on our heads.”

Einarr looked up into the passage and frowned. Though it had been carved as steps, it was, at least here, nearly as steep as a ladder. “Jorir. You first. Then I’ll give Runa a hand up, then the rest of us will follow.”

Jorir puffed up his chest, pleased to be given the point position. “Very well, milord.”

The dwarf checked to be sure his shield and his axe were secure before stepping up to the door. He threw a challenging glare at Einarr and Erik both before measuring the distance. With a nod, he rubbed his hands together and crouched down.

His leap for the ledge of the first stair was more impressive than Erik’s long jump off the boat by far, although Einarr had seen its equal once: when they fought beneath Fraëner’s hall on Svartlauf. Jorir caught the ledge with his fingertips easily before pulling himself fully up on the stair.

Irding let out a low whistle, but wisely declined to comment.

“Your turn, milady.” Jorir turned and offered his hand to assist his Lord’s betrothed.

Einarr took a knee to allow Runa to step up on it. Steadying herself on his proffered hand, she accepted Jorir’s hand and made the step with a minimum of stretching.

“My thanks, noble svartdvergr. You are a credit to your tribe.”

“Lady, I am so long removed from my clan that the ill now spoken of us may well be true. For now, though, I believe we have more important matters to hand.” Without another word, Jorir turned and began making his way up the steep stair, one long step at a time. Einarr and the others soon followed.


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5.6 – At the Blue Hall

The public hall where Einarr found the Vidofnings and Brunnings was surprisingly large for a town no bigger than East Port. If Einarr had to take a guess, most of their custom came from ships such as their own, here to call on the Conclave.

A cheer went up as the door swung open under Reki’s hand. Inside the hall was as warm and cheery as one might expect at the end of a good season of raiding. With a grin, Einarr moved to join his crewmates with a drink while Reki went to report to Stigander. All eight of their party were able to breathe a sigh of relief when they saw that there had, in fact, been no transformations as of yet – only the complaints they had grown used to of nausea and headaches as though their crews had both contracted a lingering flu.

Even Reki’s news did not dampen their enthusiasm: if anything, the fact that they had found their “cure” before the corruption had claimed anyone was another victory over the madmen of the cult. Then it was Einarr’s turn.

“I’ve been given another impossible quest, I’m afraid, Father.”

“Feh. Do skalds give any other kind?”

“Not likely.”

“Well, what is it now?”

“I’m to travel to the Tower of Ravens and steal Frigg’s distaff out from under the noses of Huginn and Muninn.”

Stigander looked just as confused as Einarr had. “What in the depths of all the seas do you need that for?”

“Untangling fate, they say, and ridding us of the cult’s corruption for good.”

His father shook his head and wiped his hand down his moustaches, his expression changing from amusement to consternation and back again. “Well, if there’s anyone in this lot who can manage it, I’d lay my odds on you.”

Sivid could do it, if it weren’t for his accursed luck. “Thank you, Father. The Matrons said the tower required a smaller boat to reach: I’m to pay a call on a fisherman in the morning regarding the use of a boat. I’d like to take some of the crew along.”

“Long as they’re up for it, same as before. …This distaff, you said it untangles fate?”

Einarr nodded, and his father harrumphed. There was no need to say it: such a thing could easily break the Weaver’s curse on their homeland. He turned back to the hall full of his fellow Vidofnings.

“All right, everyone! Just like this spring, I need a few of you to venture out in a little fishing boat with me. This time we’re braving the wrath of a god!”

His pronouncement was followed by a peal of laughter, even by those who had heard the Matrons’ pronouncement at the Conclave.

Jorir, to no-one’s surprise, was the first to step forward. “Come hel or high water, I’m with ye.”

Einarr inclined his head at his man-at-arms. “Thank you, Jorir. Who else?”

The next man to step forward was gangly Irding, neither as tall nor as muscle-bound as his father but with the same brown hair and reckless grin. “Sounds like fun. I’ll give it a go.”

Erik’s head snapped around to look at his son. “You sure about that? We got into a heap o’ trouble going after the Isinntog.”

“I know. That’s why it sounds like fun.” Irding grinned at his father, and Erik laughed loudly.

“Who’m I kidding? Of course it does. Count me in, too.”

Einarr’s mouth curled in a half-smile. Irding looked a little less happy at the prospect now that Erik was also along, but it would be good for them. “Great. Anyone else? I expect we’ll have to work our way past traps, and if anyone knows how to read runes it would be a help.”

“I already told you, I’m coming,” Runa said, standing at the table.

“No, you’re not. There’s no telling what sort of violence we might come across.”

“You’re invading the tower of Huginn and Muninn. You need someone familiar with magic, who can read runes. I’m coming.”

Aema, the Brunning’s battle-chanter, stepped forward. “You’re hardly the only one here with those qualifications.”

“No, but I’m the only one here with those qualifications who isn’t needed here. You and Reki both have crews to tend, full of men doused with corrupted blood, and I do not. I may be a Jarl’s daughter, but that doesn’t make me useless.”

“Maybe not,” Trabbi rumbled, “but if anything should happen to you your Father will have my head. He may even if you go along and nothing happens.”

Runa met her erstwhile suitor’s eyes. “On my word of honor, I will not allow that to happen.”

Trabbi scowled back. “You have no more place on that boat than I do, my Lady.”

“That is where you’re wrong.” She turned her attention back to Einarr, and he felt the old familiar thrill. “What was it that the alfr gave you in the wood?”

“Some bauble he thought would help us through the tower, though at the moment I can’t see how.” That had been the way of Runa’s gifts, too, given as they left to seek the Jotünhall.

“Give it here.”

Einarr shrugged and removed the bird-shaped brooch from the pouch at his belt. “Doesn’t the use typically become plain when you need it?”

All three Singers rolled their eyes at him even as Runa took hold of the brooch and blanched.

Einarr couldn’t help the question. “What is it?”

“Let us hope the use becomes plain, because while I can read the runes, they look like so much nonsense.”

Reki threaded her way through the room to take a closer look. She raised pale eyebrows and let loose a low whistle. “Well, at the very least your elf-gift should actually be of use. How did he get this, though?”

“See, Runa? I’m sure we’ll be able to muddle through-”

“So long as you have someone who can read the runes. You need me, and one way or another I’m coming.” Runa’s jaw was set. Einarr turned to Bollinn.

The new Captain of the Skudbrun sighed. “I don’t think there’s any stopping her at this point. Over my own better judgement, I’ll allow it.”

Runa smiled in triumph. Einarr hoped she wouldn’t regret her insistence.


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4.28 – Duel

Captain Kragnir’s face was flushed scarlet with rage as he faced his Mate in the middle of the challenge circle. Bollinn, for his part, seemed possessed of a colder anger.

“Give me a reason why I shouldn’t challenge you for command?” Bollinn’s voice carried across the water, level and firm. “When you accepted their surrender, you put our crew in danger, and tried to bring our Lady into the same hazard. Had we reached home it would have been not just our crew, but all of the Jarl’s domain.”

“Jarl Hroaldr charged me to take the defeated as thralls. By challenging me, you challenge our lord.”

“I think even our Jarl would have looked at those creatures and ordered their execution. If you cut them, they bleed black – same as those monstrosities they hid in their boats. Give them half a chance in battle and they no longer even resemble men. If my choices are to drown or to challenge you, then lift your sword.” Bollinn dropped into a ready stance, his eyes glued to his Captain’s.

“So be it.”

Then the two men were in the clinch, long sword against hand axe, and the rest of the Brunnings cheered from the circle. More than half of them looked to be cheering for Bollinn.

On the deck of the Vidofnir, wagers were quietly being placed – not just for who would win, but for how they would win. Einarr ignored the organizer when the whispers came around to his ear, his mouth set in a grim line. Meanwhile, across the way, Bollinn was weaving around his Captain’s guard like a dog worrying a bear.

The Mate may not have had the raw power of his Captain, but Bollinn more than made up for that with the speed and skill he had displayed down in the circle fort. Three times Einarr noted a moment where Bollinn could have ended the fight, but didn’t – waiting, he would guess, for his Captain to yield and take the lesser loss of face.

Kragnir’s swings became less wild as rage gave way to wariness. Too late, however: Einarr could see the path of the duel, and the Skudbrun’s Captain was rapidly running out of options. Einarr looked away from the fight to see a grim look on his father’s face, some paces to his left. Stigander must see the same thing Einarr did, perhaps even more plainly: having pressed Bollinn to the challenge, it was Kragnir who would fall this day.

Stigander shook his head and turned away from the duel. Resolved, Einarr turned his head back towards it even as Kragnir dropped to his knees.

Bollinn stood before his former Captain, his axe extended for a final strike, and swallowed. “Yield.”

“Finish me, then.” Kragnir’s voice was weary, to Einarr’s ear.

“No.”

The former Captain of the Skudbrun was the only one who looked shocked.

“I did not wish to challenge you in the first place, and I see no reason why any other Kjelling should learn of this. You will live. When we return home, we will say you have decided to retire. And none of us will ever say a word about why. Isn’t that right, men?”

An affirming shout rose, first from the Brunnings and then from the Vidofnings.

“Are we agreed?”

Slowly, reluctantly, Kragnir nodded his assent. Einarr did not know if the man had a family ashore, or any other trade to turn to, but even without those things it was a fair agreement.

“Back to work, men, and weigh anchor! The Lady Runa was expected weeks ago.”

***

As the uneventful weeks passed following the battle against the Grendel and her allies, Einarr felt his unease begin to dissipate. Runa’s presence, and that of no few friends from Kjell Hall, surely helped. Even so, that uneasiness still lingered at the periphery of his awareness. I’m sure it’s just that we’re so undermanned…

He shook his head, trying to clear away the unseasonably gloomy thoughts, as Breidhaugr’s green shores drew nearer. Here they would find a shipwright for the Vidofnir, and here they would have a chance to recruit men for their lost cause (that might not be so lost as he had thought).

The Skudbrun, now under Bollinn’s command, led the Vidofnir around the north shore of the island until they arrived at East Port – the only town on the island. Compared to Mikilgata, East Port was both small and bright: there would be a shipwright, although more than likely only one. Einarr hoped he would be good. As the Vidofnir docked, Trabbi approached Einarr.

“Been talking with Lady Runa’s guard,” he said without preamble.

“And?”

“And as her betrothed we think you ought to join us as we escort her to the Skald’s Hall.”

Einarr cocked an eyebrow and, unable to keep mockery from his tone, replied. “Are you sure? After all, I might try to run off with her again.”

Trabbi actually laughed. “I don’t think anyone save maybe the Jarl believes you would. And even if you were that stupid, how would you get off Breidhaugr?”

“I’m sure she’d think of something.” Einarr rolled his eyes. “But no, I’m not dumb enough to try and elope when we’re already promised.”

“And that is exactly what we decided. Are you coming?”

“Yes, I rather think I am. I may have some questions to ask of the Matrons of the Hall.”

Trabbi shrugged as though that were unimportant and clapped his former rival on the shoulder. “Good to have you along. I’ll make sure the Captain knows. We leave straightaway after docking.”

Einarr shook his head, suppressing a chuckle. For a man he’d bested at glìma not four months back, the fisherman was surprisingly friendly. But if Einarr would be joining the escort, he had tasks to accomplish as his father’s heir before they docked.

 


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4.27 – Aftermath

The black storm blowing around the last of the cult ships had begun to dissipate before the Skudbrun and the Vidofnir limped out of the fullest extent of its shadow. As the sky grew brighter, some of the crew brightened as well, as though the horrors of the mysterious cult were banished with the weather.

Einarr envied them, in a way. He lay back on his bedroll, determined to rest until dinner. He’d only been fighting all day, after all, and that was reason enough. Never mind the strange nausea that gripped his throat, or that he now knew why a Cursebreaker had been named. Who else could be expected to deal with fanatics like those? Sighing, he rolled over, only to find himself face to face with that blasted jar.

A grumble of annoyance escaped Einarr’s throat and he contemplated pitching the thing overboard again. But, no: perhaps Runa would want it, or if not Runa one of the men’s wives ashore. Still, it was more than strange that it should find its way back to the ship like this.

His irritated contemplation was cut off by the aroma of grilled fish and the call to food. Finally. His stomach had finally started to settle as the day’s gory work grew more distant, and Einarr expected food to cure the end of it. Food, and a flask or two of whatever cask they opened up.

Einarr pried himself up off his blanket on the deck, his muscles grown as stiff as his blood-soaked clothes. Most of the rest of the crew looked equally sore: they had earned their rest this day. It was only a shame they had not been able to loot the cult ships… or then again, perhaps not.

The sound of a man retching carried forward from the aftcastle. Einarr winced, knowing he’d felt the same not long before, and joined his fellows in pretending it hadn’t happened. The atmosphere on the ship felt brittle tonight: tight smiles that touched no-one’s eyes, friends whose eyes refused to meet, and not one voice was heard to speak of the day’s victory. Einarr frowned as he approached Snorli and the night’s meal. He could not truly blame anyone, but this could be trouble if it persisted. Well, give them a day to process everything.

They ate in near-silence. Those who did speak did so in hushed tones, and what little Einarr was able to catch had more to do with the Conclave ahead than the storm behind. With a dissatisfied grunt, Einarr filled a skin with ale and moved to join Jorir and Erik in silence.

The Skudbrun still ran just ahead of them, and the difference in the day’s fight was plain in the twilight. Its rails were unbroken and its sail largely whole even if it was painted in the same black blood that had drenched everyone who fought.

It was good that they had a friendly escort for this journey: there were few aboard the Vidofnir fit to fight at present. Even still, if the Skudbrun itself was healthier, the crew still aboard must have been just as brittle. Even over the rush of wind and the crash of waves against the two hulls, as they ate the sound of shouting carried to the deck of the Vidofnir.

Erik grunted. “Anyone care to lay odds they’re fighting about the thralls?”

“No bet.” Einarr shook his head. “Anyone raised to Captain should have better sense than to take monsters in men’s clothing as thralls.”

“Madness takes many forms.” Jorir let that statement hang, and a shiver ran down Einarr’s spine.

At length, Erik broke the silence that descended. “Your man at arms is a bundle of cheer, isn’t he?”

Einarr hummed and looked straight at the dwarf. “But rarely wrong, that I’ve seen.”

“Unless I misread that Bollinn fellow, the issue will resolve itself by dawn.”

There were other concerns that followed that statement, and Bollinn had been a good man to have at his back. “Then let’s hope Captain Kragnir doesn’t come down on him too hard in the morning.”

Erik raised his flask to that, and Einarr and Jorir brought theirs up in agreement. As the light fell, so did silence over the deck of the Vidofnir.

Some hours later, as Einarr lay awake staring at the moon, the splash of a man overboard reached his ears. He started to rise when no cry went up from either ship: had the night watch not seen?

The second splash came from ahead of the Vidofnir, where the Skudbrun ran as a black silhouette against the indigo sky. Even as Einarr focused on the other ship a smaller silhouette launched away from the deck, arms and legs flailing in the air as though they were trying to fly before plunging downward into the icy deep.

Einarr swallowed, worried for a moment about who was throwing whom aboard the other ship. He heard no fighting, however, even as another shape took flight from the deck and plunged towards the sea. No Brunning – no warrior – would allow themselves to be thrown overboard without a fight. I hope Bollinn isn’t punished too severely for this.

If even half of the Brunnings aboard agreed with their Mate, he shouldn’t be. Not unless Captain Kragnir truly was gripped by some sort of madness. Einarr shrugged his shoulders uneasily and dropped quietly back to his bedroll. He counted time now by the splashes of thralls as they were cast into the deep. As Jorir predicted, before grey dawn lightened the sky the splashing ceased.

Shortly after true dawn, the Skudbrun dropped its sea anchor. As the Vidofnir pulled up alongside, Stigander gave the order to drop their own. On the deck of the other ship, Bollinn stood with square shoulders facing their Captain. Both of them had bare steel in hand.


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4.26 – A New Deal

Einarr froze a moment, frowning, certain that he’d offended her but not sure why. Then, unbidden, the memory of the bird-thing’s transformation forced itself to the forefront of his brain again and made his stomach twist. Reki was no monster, but everyone was going to be on edge today.

Some more than others, it appeared. One or two of the younger deck hands were still cowering beneath the railing, covering their heads or hugging their arms tight across their chests, their eyes still plainly fixated on one of the two monstrosities that had revealed itself today. Einarr left them their privacy: either Runa’s song could mend their minds or it couldn’t, but there would be no honor in calling them out for cowardice.

Runa was tending the wounded, still, a very full water skin in her hand. He would give her time for her voice to rest – and maybe see if he couldn’t help Reki out with that as well. Decided, now, he headed back to where his father and Captain Kragnir still stood. They were not arguing – not yet – but from the set of their shoulders they couldn’t be far off.

“This is not a matter of trusting your honor, Stigander,” Kragnir was saying. “The boy has already tried to steal his bride once. My Jarl would have my head if I left her unsupervised on your ship.”

“So instead you want to keep her aboard a ship with the ones we just rescued her from? Who may not even be men anymore?”

“They surrendered themselves to be made into thralls. Would a beast do that?”

“A cunning one, aye.”

Einarr cleared his throat.

Both Captains turned to glare at him. “What?”

“Father, not all of the men have reacted well to what they saw today. I suspect it may be the same for them. What if some of the Brunnings – those who might be uneasy, say, with the new thralls and their strange cult – came aboard? It’s not like we’re in any position to go raiding now.”

“You are proposing that I send the feeble-minded to guard the honor of our Lady?” Captain Kragnir’s eyes appeared ready to pop out of his skull and his face began to redden.

“Who said anything about the feeble-minded? I’ve seen the cultists exposed for what they are three times now: you’ll not get me aboard ship with one, let alone your crew of thralls. Even if you do cut out their tongues so they can’t spread their filth.”

“My son does have a good head on his shoulders, when he bothers to use it.” Stigander grumbled. “What’s more, he’s right about something else, as well. We’d be hard-pressed to defend ourselves right now, let alone go raiding, and we do have business with the Conclave. Send over Trabbi and some of the others while you train your new ‘prizes,’ and we’ll make sure to take care of any wounded you get while defending us on our way there. It even keeps the young Lady out of harm’s way should there be a fight.”

Kragnir’s glare fell on Einarr, but he said nothing. After what felt like a long time, he seemed to realize there was nothing to say – nothing reasonable, anyway. With a growl, the Brunning Captain gave a nod and a wave of his hand.

“Think on taking their tongues, Captain,” Einarr said, meeting the man’s eye again. “We don’t know how they win converts, after all.”

Captain Kragnir harrumphed, and Einarr refused to push the issue. When he turned, he saw Bollinn speaking with Jorir: one way or another, the thralls would be dealt with. Finally, it felt as though the day were at an end. The wave of exhaustion that had pushed him back from the front lines early in the fight against the Grendel started to reassert itself, and with it came an unaccustomed queasiness.

Einarr blinked and looked at the sky: at some point, afternoon had started to dim into twilight. No wonder he felt tired, then. Given the fighting that day, both inside the cave temple and on the open waves, surely none would blame him if he were to rest until Snorli had supper prepared. Wish I could wash first…

On his way to his bedroll, Einarr glanced over the side: however far they may have floated since battle’s end, it looked as though there was still blood in the water. Even if he convinced someone to help him back aboard, taking a dip would just leave him bloody and salted. He folded his legs beneath him on top of his blanket and practically fell backwards. Halfway down he stopped when what felt like a knob of glass jabbed into his ribs.

Einarr sat up with a jolt and felt the color drain from his face as his throat clenched. The post-battle nausea was definitely not normal… but that could hardly be called a normal battle, either. He swallowed and tamped down on the feeling before turning to find out what it was that had tried to stab him.

Sitting in the middle of his bedroll, as though he had placed it there himself, was an Imperial-style painted ceramic jar with a knob in the center of the lid. Einarr furrowed his eyebrows. Those red figures on the black background seemed familiar, somehow. “Where did this come from?”

He did not realize he’d spoken aloud until someone answered him – Asi, from three berths down. “It’s not yours?”

“I mean, I suppose I’m the one that found it, back in the Allthane’s stash… could’ve sworn I’d tossed it, though.”

“Huh. Might hang on to it this time. You don’t look so good.”

Einarr grunted. “Nothing a good sauna wouldn’t solve, I don’t think. I’ll check with the Singers later.”

He would, if he still felt sick once their voices had a chance to rest. In the meantime, he had no intention of moving from this spot until dinner called.


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4.25 – Unnatural Selection

The volley of arrows flew in a flaming arc from the Vidofnir across to the enemy vessel. At the peak of that arc, the crew brought their axes down into the deck boards. Not one of them missed, despite the fact that they all seemed to be crowded around the mast – in the area the Grendelings had actively avoided traversing.

Time seemed to slow for Einarr as the last of their flaming arrows buried themselves in the damaged deck of the enemy vessel. Moments later, the enemy crew was gone, vanished into the maw of the creature that replaced them. Einarr had a far better view of the monstrosity this time than the one on board the Grendel: he wished he hadn’t.

The first thing he saw was the crimson beak that shot upward – not the beak of a seabird, but of a massive squid – once again far more massive than should have been able to fit beneath the deck of a longship. Then the beak retracted and in its place climbed a curtain of tentacles that writhed in the rain.

Fear was not an emotion the Vidofnings were accustomed to, in the main. However, as the wall of webbed flesh climbed the mast and rose up toward the clouds, farther than even the tales told of kraken could hope to reach, there was not a man among them but felt a cold shiver of dread up their spine.

“Fall back! All hands – to oars!” Stigander’s order rang loud and clear across the deck of the Vidofnir. The helmsman threw his weight against the rudder even as the back line of archers fought to turn the sail. Despite the mass of writhing flesh that now tore through their sail to perch at the top of the mast, the enemy ship seemed stable for now.

The thing on top of it was another matter. Einarr could not tear his eyes away as he slung his bow over his shoulder: he would have to deal with the string later. If there was one thing to be glad of as he lunged for the end of an oar, it was that Jorir had just sharpened his blade. He threw his back into rowing while the new monstrosity twitched and writhed, sprouting feathered wings in nonsensical locations at impossible angles.

Stigander’s cadence was harsh and rapid, and slowly the Vidofnir began to pull away from the cultist’s vessel. The mass of wings and tentacles perched atop the mast twitched and writhed, until Einarr thought he could see its beak poking out through the top. A groaning of wood suggested that the mast would not hold out much longer – although it was hard to tell if the mast would go before the burning deck or not.

The creature beat its wings and the groaning became a cracking, somehow still audible over the sound of wind through the thing’s feathers. Three more convulsive wing beats brought the monstrosity fully into the air, and as its tentacles released the mast the shattered wood tumbled down into the sea.

Stigander’s cadence had ceased at some point during all this as every eye aboard the Vidofnir was drawn to the abomination that now, somehow, flew overhead. Part of Einarr thought they had wasted their last volley on the ship that now foundered not a hundred yards away from their port bow… not that he thought shooting that thing would do any good.

The monstrosity turned a ponderous circle in the air and flapped off back the way they had come. A moment later, Einarr heard the Brunning’s war cry, which still did not manage to drown out the thunder-clap of a reinforced keel tearing through the clinks of the last enemy’s bow or the tooth-grating keening that came from below its deck.

“Stand down.” Stigander was audibly weary, as well he might be at this stage of a battle. Down by a third of her crew, battle-scarred, and out of ammunition, the Vidofnir was out of the fight… but if Captain Kragnir couldn’t manage a single enemy vessel on his own, he deserved to lose.

***

As boarding actions go, the Skudbrun’s had been straightforward. Robbed of whatever it was that had been below their deck before the Brunning charge had broken its cage, the warriors aboard the last of the cultish vessels folded quickly. When Stigander brought the Vidofnir alongside the Skudbrun, Kragnir was in the midst of branding the surrendered as thralls.

“…You sure that’s wise?” Stigander called across.

“Perhaps not,” Kragnir answered, his words accentuated by the sizzle of flesh. “But it is Correct.”

Jorir made a disapproving noise from farther back in the ship – too far back, Einarr was sure, for the Brunnings to hear. Probably it was, in fact, very unwise to even think of these warriors as men any longer. On the other hand, when one’s enemies became no longer human, but merely beasts… well, that way lay depravity. Einarr shook his head.

“What kept you?” Kragnir had turned, now, and moved to face Stigander on the Vidofnir.

“An old grudge and a difficult fight.” Stigander shook his head. “Our little ruse failed to deceive the Grendel.”

Boots on deck stopped next to where Einarr stood, and an elbow reached out to jostle him. “’An I were you, I’d not let the Lady on board with all those so-called prisoners,” Jorir whispered.

Einarr nodded, slowly. He would not fault the truth of his own eyes, although he could not blame the other Captain for his reluctance: even still, those sailors had forsaken their humanity. “I have an idea.”

He found Reki and Runa both amidships, treating the wounded among their number. Einarr cleared his throat to catch their attention: Runa beamed at him even as she kept singing, but when Reki looked at him with her albino eyes it was jarring in a way it had not been since she came aboard. Still he beckoned her over.

“What is it?” she croaked.

He offered her his water skin as small consolation for requiring her voice further. “Captain Kragnir is taking prisoners off one of the boats.”

Reki’s grimace could have frozen the rapidly calming sea around them, but she took a swig of the proffered water.

“I thought I recalled you wanting to pay a visit to the Singer’s conclave, though, and I believe Runa is still expected there…”

Reki nodded, taking another swig before wiping her mouth on the back of her arm. “I’ll have a word with the Captain. Good thinking.”

She took two steps towards the two Captains, paused, and then thrust the water skin back at his chest.


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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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