Tag: Trabbi the loyal retainer

9.3 – Wolfling Raid

Stigander froze in his tracks, then seemed to sway a little as the words hit him harder than any physical blow. “Too late?” he finally managed.

Einarr and Trabbi both moved to where Stigander stood poleaxed. Einarr arrived first, despite the old fisherman being much closer. “What do you mean, too late?”

Trabbi, his face as ashen as the rest of him, shook his head slowly. “The raiders been gone for days, now. All that’s left here is to save what remains. Build again, if we find the Jarl.”

Stigander recovered himself. “I think you’d better come down to the Vidofnir with us, have some food and drink. Then you can tell us what happened.”

Trabbi nodded as though still half-dazed. “I think that might be a good idea. Can’t tell you when I last ate.”


Three days before the Arkona, the Eikthyrnir and the Vidofnir narrowly avoided doing battle in the harbor, a drakken with a wolf’s head on the prow arrived. They made no pretense of friendship: this was a raid, and the wolf’s raiders were searching for someone.

Stigander.

As soon as they saw the Vidofnir wasn’t in port, they made sure everyone at the Hall – and, Trabbi supposed, likely everyone in the town – knew that they had come for the thief Stigander and the ship he had stolen from Breidelstein, the Vidofnir. The wolflings were trying to draw them out.

The battle at the Hall was the worst any of them had seen in years. The men of the Skudbrun fought valiantly, and gave chase, but just yesterday had limped back, unable to follow further. They did confirm one thing, though.

Trabbi stared into the ale in the wooden tankard they had brought him. “The Wolfling ship – we never got its name – had both the Jarl and the Lady Runa aboard. Captive.”

Stigander’s face had gone red with rage, and Einarr saw his beard twitching in time with the muscle over his jaw. “He has the nerve to call me a thief?”

Einarr, though, was preoccupied with another bit of that story. “Was she unharmed?”

The odds that the Jarl had been taken without a fight, and therefore without injury, were almost nil. Trabbi sighed. “As near as Bollinn could tell. She was gagged and tied to the mast when he saw her, and my Lord was trussed up like a boar. Also gagged: apparently their Captain wasn’t willing to deal with my Lord’s temper.”

Stigander had calmed a little. “No. He wouldn’t be.”

“Father?”

“The Captain of the ship that razed Kjell is most likely Ulfr son of Urdr. My half-brother, and your uncle.”

Einarr hesitated a moment, then hummed agreement into his own cup. “It couldn’t be anyone else, with the story Trabbi told.”

“I’d hoped to have a little longer to muster forces…”

Einarr shook his head. “We should have realized we were out of time last summer, when I came back with the Örlögnir. I’ve already lived longer than most Cursebreakers manage, and it seems like every time I turn around someone has raised the stakes on me. My ship is ready?”

“Assuming it wasn’t damaged in the assault on the town. Even after last fall, I’ve only got a skeleton crew I can spare you.”

“I’m sure that will work itself out.”

“I imagine,” Trabbi interrupted. He looked and sounded much more alive now that he was out of the smoking ruin and fed. “I imagine that, if you put round the town what you’re doing, you’ll have a good number of able bodies wanting to get their own back against the raiders.”

“See?” Einarr looked more seriously at Trabbi now. “How badly was the Skudbrun damaged?”

“You’d have to ask Bollinn, but I’m sure they’ll be itching to go.” Ulfr had Jarl Hroaldr, after all.

Now Einarr turned to the foreigners in their midst. “You have delivered me, as promised, to my father’s ship and my own people. I have no more hold on you, and if you wish to return the Princess to Imperial waters, not a soul will hold it against you. On the other hand…”

Liupold shook his head. “For myself, I would chase this justice with you, and I know that there are many among my crew who admire you for your work on Hohenwerth. There are just as many, however, who despise the Clans beyond all reason. My Mate among them. I fear I must return south with the Arkona.”

Einarr inclined his head. He had expected as much, but they were going to be facing the entire strength of the land that used to be home, with whatever navy and whatever loyalty the Weaver and her bastard son managed to forge.

Bea, however, straightened her shoulders. “I will come. As a token of goodwill, let us say.”

“Your Highness!” Liupold protested.

“I have made up my mind, Captain. This Cursebreaker intrigues me, and I believe it is not only in my Patron’s interest but the interest of the Empire to ensure his success and continued survival. I will go.”

Liupold looked to Einarr and Stigander for assistance and found none. Neither did Trabbi, the Jarl’s retainer, look inclined to stop her. Finally he sighed. “In that case, I would ask that you fight on my behalf, as well.”

She beamed. “Of course. I will send you with a missive in my own hand, in case Father should object.”

Liupold rolled his eyes, and Einarr suddenly wondered if all highborn women were so overbearing. “Well,” he said, to change the subject. “In that case, it sounds as though we should get back to town. And… hope my uncle’s slander did not take hold.”

Trabbi nodded, slowly. “I think you have little to fear, there. Lord Stigander and his crew are well-known, after all, not only for your friendship to Lord Hroaldr but also for your generosity in town.”

That was true, as far as it went, but Einarr was uneasy nonetheless.


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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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4.28 – 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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4.5 – 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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4.4 – Massacre

Bulging eyes stared blankly out of the gray-blue face of the hanged butcher. Black scabbed-over gashes formed runes on the man’s chest.

“Trabbi… what didn’t your captain tell us?” Einarr could not tear his eyes from the scene that faced them.

A sigh sounded from over his shoulder. “We stopped, or tried to, twice before Mikilgata, in search of information about the ship we chased. Both times, a town the size of Kjellvic, and everyone…” Trabbi trailed off.

“Any sign of who did this?” If ever there was an impetus for the clans to join together, this would be it.

“Not thus far.”

Einarr cleared his throat and forcibly turned his head back to the street, where Trabbi and Bardr both stared over his shoulders, into what had once been a warehouse. That the sun beat down on their shoulders only made what they found inside worse. Einarr reached back without looking and pulled the door to behind him. It still wouldn’t latch.

“There has to be some sign of who did this. I can’t believe an entire town would go down without a fight…” He had to clear his throat again. “And is there any point to a massacre like this if no-one is around to spread a warning?”

The other two only shook their heads. It was hard to think there was a point to this sort of slaughter even then… and certainly those who worked such acts tended not to last long on the sea. To raid and pillage was one thing. This… this was quite another.

Now Einarr met the eyes of his chaperones. “Come on. We won’t learn anything standing around here.”

***

Everywhere they checked was the same. Oh, the bodies varied, of course, as did the means of death… but where there was a rune-carved body they found blood, and nowhere else. No arrows left behind, though some had plainly been shot. What footprints may have existed were long since obscured by wind or the tread of the searchers. Now what?

“What did your Battle Chanter make of this when you saw it before?” Bardr asked Trabbi.

The old fisherman just shook his head. “Something wicked, something vile… nothing unnatural.”

“A crew that must be purged, then?” Einarr could credit that for one massacre. Two perhaps not.

“So she said. We have no reason to doubt her.”

“Save for three instances of… this, now.”

Trabbi grunted, but did not look as offended as Einarr had half-expected.

“We’re missing something, I think, and it’s making my skin crawl. Bardr, do you think Reki would be able to tell anything?”

“Maybe, if they made use of Song in their attack.” Doubt filled the Mate’s voice.

“Why wouldn’t they…? Oh.” The Grendel, when they had attacked last fall and murdered Astrid, had used no Song Magic in their attack. Then Einarr furrowed his eyebrows. “You think they’re connected?”

“I think we have to consider it, under the circumstances. It’s entirely possible they know they’re being pursued.”

“But even if they know that, how would they know their pursuers would break off like this?”

Bardr had no answer for that question.

“Let’s see if Reki has any ideas for us.” Einarr turned back towards the wharf, a feeling on the back of his neck as though he were being watched. Three steps later he stopped. Something had moved, just at the upper edge of his vision. He looked up.

“What in the world…” The image before Einarr’s eyes made no sense, but it was unmistakably runic.

“By the gods…” Trabbi breathed, his voice as appalled as Einarr’s. Bardr stood staring, stunned.

Einarr turned his head to look at his one-time rival. “Tell me someone on your ship knows how to read runes?”

“One or two of us, I think. Does no one on the Vidofnir?”

“Not unless Reki does. Father doesn’t think much of fortune-tellers.”

Bardr snorted and shook his head, dismissing the shock. “No. Never has. But I’d be surprised if most Singers didn’t have at least some knowledge of the runes. Let’s go.”

The Vidofnir’s Mate took the lead, striding back to the ships at a fast enough clip that Einarr nearly had to run to keep up.

***

The three men hurrying down the docks were the first to return from their excursion into the city. Stigander stood waiting at the top of the Vidofnir’s gangplank, while Captain Kragnir was inspecting his hull from the deck.

“What news?” Stigander asked.

“We haven’t seen a living soul.” Trabbi shook his head. “It’s just like all the others, Captain.”

Captain Kragnir cursed. “Not one?”

Bardr shook his head. “Not a one. But if there is someone capable of interpreting runes, we have need of their assistance.”

Captain Kragnir whistled, and several of the Brunnings came forward on the deck. On the other side of the dock, the cloaked figure of Reki stepped slowly forward.

“All right, gents!” Kragnir boomed. “We’re dealing with the same sick bastard as before – only this time, there’s scribbling to be read! One of you lot knows the old runes, right?”

“Herrid do, sir, only he went out with the rest.”

“…Herrid? Really?” Kragnir shook his head, although Einarr had no idea why that would be strange. “And he’s the only one o’ you lot?”

“I know it,” a feminine voice purred from farther back on the Skudbrun. “But if it’s the same as before, I don’t know that it will help you.”

“It can’t hurt to check, Aema. Go with them. Maybe the runes will tell you something the atmosphere didn’t last time.”

“As you say.” A moderately pretty woman stepped forward from among the Brunnings. She could have been Runa’s aunt, from her appearance.

“I, too, will go.” Reki’s sultry voice made the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck stand on end.

“Is that necessary, Reki?” Stigander asked.

“Perhaps not. I merely wish to see for myself what sort of creature we are dealing with here. Or does my Captain disdain me so much he would allow his heir to venture forth, but not his Singer?”

A viper’s tongue on that one, when she wanted it. Einarr was impressed, even as Stigander gave in.

“Good. The five of us shall return when we have something to report.”


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4.3 – The Search Begins

For two weeks the ships pressed on, following the last path the Skudbrun had for the storm, certain that it would only dissipate when those who rode its winds willed it.

Even the last known path of the storm, however, was nearly a week old by the time they put out to sea. Every available hand was put on watch duty, searching for storm or sign of land. Even when Einarr was not on watch duty he watched, however. What else was he supposed to do? Even still he could not escape a growing sense of unease and listlessness.

Finally, three weeks out from Mikilgata, Stigander realized they were nearing Langavik and called a detour. Perhaps, with a little luck, someone there would have news for them.

It was the first spot of good news Einarr had heard in three weeks. Still he kept his eyes trained on the horizon. Runa was strong, true, but she was already under their power. The faster they spotted their target…

“You’ll do no-one any good this way, you realize,” Jorir grumbled from his side.

Einarr jumped. How long had the dwarf been standing there? “I’m fine.”

“Your pallor says otherwise. And you haven’t blinked since noon. Take a rest before you end up sea-blind.”

“I… what?”

Jorir harrumphed. “Think, man. Watch shifts are half-length, aren’t they? Why do you think that is?”

Einarr shrugged and continued scanning the horizon.

“Eyestrain and glare, milord. Eyestrain and glare. I know you’re worried about that lass o’ yours, but the same can be said for every man aboard these ships. Surely you don’t think her so delicate as to wilt the moment she’s out of the sun?”

Now Einarr did look down. After-images of the flat horizon swam over his boots. “No. I’m actually more worried what might happen if she provokes them.”

“Go. Sleep. I’ve got some leaf you can chew if you need it. Rest your eyes: you need those. And have some faith in your woman!”

Einarr chuckled under his breath. “Have you been talking with Father?” He shook his head, suddenly exhausted. “Nevermind. You’re right. I’ll take a break.”

Jorir harrumphed again as Einarr trudged away from his vigil at the railing. He would need to be coherent to learn anything in the port, after all – and there was no way he wasn’t going out looking for information.

***

Langavik had more in common with Apalvik or Attilsund than with Kem or even Mikilgata, but this was neither a raid nor a resupply. The long, narrow harbor was lined by stone warehouses, though, which only turned to public halls and homes some ways back. These waters were in the middle of prime whaling territory, and so those warehouses would most likely be very well insulated and used for processing their catch.

Whaling territory, though, meant that someone would have had a weather-eye out for storms, and one as unusually violent as the one they sought was bound to have been noted. Even as their two ships slipped into the harbor Einarr moved to join the small group of men who were to go ashore. When Bardr furrowed his eyebrows to see him there, Einarr challenged him with a look. We’re seeking my betrothed, he thought. Are you really going to keep me back here?

In spite of a long, weighing look, Bardr did not actually move to keep Einarr aboard. He could have, technically, although Einarr had a suspicion his father would take his side instead of the Mate’s.

As the Vidofnir and Skudbrun slid into two empty spots on the docks, they saw no people around. Einarr furrowed his eyebrows: it was mid-morning, and not a feast day he’d ever heard of. So where was everyone?

Men to his right and left stood with similar looks of consternation painted on their faces. Either the locals had some very strange customs, or something was terribly wrong.

The only sound as they disembarked onto the docks was the drumbeat of boots against wood. The men of the Skudbrun who joined them to a man had their mouths set in grim lines. Almost as if they already know what we’re going to find. The Brunnings said nothing if that was the case, though, and the two teams of men trooped into the eerily quiet city.

The pier was not long, as such things go, but with every step Einarr hoped to see someone moving around on land, even if only to duck between buildings like a frightened rabbit. Trabbi’s face mirrored his own disappointment when they stepped onto solid ground and still saw no sign of life.

Barri – the selfsame Brunning Einarr had dueled during his ill-fated flight with Runa not six months ago – scowled about them. “Brunnings, pair up with Vidofnings. Don’t let anyone go alone.”

“Why?” The question burst unbidden from Einarr’s mouth, but many of his fellow Vidofnings nodded in agreement.

Barri’s mouth twisted around into a grimace. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a port like this. Don’t rightly know what happened… but don’t split up. We lost some good men that way.”

Bardr grunted. “You heard the man. Pair off, don’t get separated. Looking first and foremost for signs of life. Won’t get much information out of dead men or empty buildings.”

A grunt of assent went around the two teams and they paired themselves off. Einarr stepped forward early on, intending to go with whoever among the Brunnings was similarly eager, but Bardr’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. With a roll of his eyes, eager to get on with the search but not eager to be reprimanded for going against the Mate, he waited. In the end, the last three remaining were Einarr, Bardr, and Trabbi.

“I can’t stop you from coming,” Bardr explained. “But I can do everything in my power to make sure you come back in one piece.”

“If you insist.” Einarr shrugged and moved toward one of the apparently empty buildings.

Perhaps more troubling than the silence in the streets, Einarr thought, was the fact that the door to the warehouse was not latched. He paused a long moment after arriving at the door, his hand still resting lightly on the wood that had already shifted under his fingers. The distinctive odor of rancid blubber wafted out through the crack.

Bardr cleared his throat. With a nod, Einarr pushed the door the rest of the way open. His nose was assaulted by the soap-smell of rancid fat overlaid by the metallic tang of blood.

Inside, spatters of blood covered overturned crates. Some of these had unprocessed blubber spilling out. And there, in the center of the room, a bearded man in a butcher’s apron hung from the rafters.


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4.2 – Alliance

When the Vidofnings gathered for supper that evening, they were joined by the greatest part of the Skudbrun’s crew – all of both ships, in fact, save those left to keep watch. In the Wandering Warrior that night, an air of confusion quickly turned to the sort of friendly banter they had all enjoyed the previous winter.

At some point in the middle of the first round of drinks, Stigander and Kragnir stood on a table near the center of the room and called for attention.

“Gentlemen!” Stigander began. “It is with great pleasure that I see the friendship between our two crews is undiminished after this last spring. It gives me great hope for the success of our coming mission… which I’m afraid is nowhere nearly so happy as our reunion tonight. So, first, a toast to one another’s health.”

The cheer that went up around the room was somewhat muted, as was probably to be expected after that introduction. A chorus of thunks marked the end of the toast as the men knocked their mugs against the tables. Stigander nodded, and now Captain Kragnir stepped forward.

“Gentlemen, for the last three weeks we have pursued a ship with a demon’s head that rides a storm black as night.”

Murmurs of recognition rose from most of the Vidofnings.

“We give chase because to do otherwise would be unconscionable. Last fall, a ship matching this description murdered your Battle Chanter. Three weeks ago, this ship stole away my Jarl’s daughter on her way to meet with an elder Singer.”

Now there were no murmurs, only the widened eyes of shock and pursed lips of anger.

“Einarr and I,” Stigander continued. “Were approached early this afternoon by Trabbi. I am sure I don’t need to explain to anyone why I have decided that aiding our brothers from Kjell in finding the foul demon-ship has become our first priority. Bardr informs me that we can be ready to leave the day after tomorrow.”

Captain Kragnir opened his mouth again. “Here, then, is to the demon hunt!”

There was nothing muted about the cheers for the toast this time, although the undercurrent was less one of camaraderie and more of anger. Einarr, leaning against the back wall, drained his cup to this toast. It would have been a decent ale, had he been able to taste it.

Einarr looked around the room, trying to be glad to see the two crews united, looking for his best path forward to the bar for a refill. Maybe he could goad Erik into a drinking contest tonight… the man would drink him under the table, but that didn’t seem like a bad place to be under the circumstances. Not when the alternative was worrying about Runa, and why they had taken her when they had murdered Astrid.

***

Getting stone-cold drunk always seems like a better idea when it’s happening than it does the morning after, and this morning was no exception. Einarr awoke on the floor beneath the table Erik had drunk him under the night before with, blessedly, no room to think about anything other than his aching head and the heaviness of his limbs. Which, he supposed, had been the point.

Einarr rolled out from under the table with a groan, not terribly concerned about why he had been left there. Probably due to Father’s disapproval. The fact that he did not seem to be the only one asleep on the tavern floor barely registered. Bleary, he shoved his hair back out of his face, his eyes scanning the room for something to wet his whistle with.

Stigander growled from across the room. “So you’re up, are you?”

“…’lo, Father.”

“I trust you got it out of your system last night?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Fine, then. Go help load the ship. Bardr and I will double-check the manifest.”

“Yes, sir.”

Stigander thrust a skin of water into his hands as Einarr trudged for the door. “We’ll get her back, and get vengeance for Astrid while we’re at it. Keep it together.”

Einarr paused, his hand on the door, to nod in agreement. Then he stepped out into the bright light of morning, blinking against the light and his hangover.

***

At the dawn tide, two days following the announcement of their venture, two ships slipped out of Mikilgata Harbor onto a calm sea, the sound of their oars plying the water the only sign of movement beyond the harbor master counting the rather generous tolls they had left.

On board the Vidofnir, the Skudbrun’s Mate consulted with Bardr, finalizing the heading they would take in pursuit of the demon-headed ship. There had been some hope, initially, that someone would spot the storm on the horizon, but in vain. Einarr listened with half his attention to the discussion: the other half paid more attention than truly necessary to the cadence of the rowing. If he did not, he would only dwell on the singular problem that stood before him. His stepmother’s murderers had his betrothed under their power. Why?

Eventually, though, when the harbor was little more than a smudge behind him, a gangplank was passed between the two ships and the Skudbrun’s Mate returned to his own crew and the sails were unfurled. Their heading: east by southeast, towards where the Skudbrun had lost sight of the storm – and where the Vidofnir had broken off her chase before.

For a moment it almost seemed as though the crowing cock of the Vidofnir were in a race against the Skudbrun’s wolf’s-head, but as they turned their new ally ceded the forerunner position to the crew that best knew what they pursued.

Einarr set his mouth even as they pulled the oars in. The Grendel, and whoever she was aligned with, would pay for their depredations in blood, or Einarr was not a Son of Raen. Perhaps, in the process, he might even learn what they were after in the first place.


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4.1 – An Unexpected Arrival

When the Vidofnir had emerged from the narrow fjord that served as a gateway to the ship-barrow, someone spotted the black storm clouds that had washed over the island on the southeastern horizon. The sail was unfurled and they gave chase, building speed faster than wind alone with the oars. For three weeks they chased the storm this way, always headed vaguely southeast and ever more convinced that the storm itself was unnatural. Chased, but never gained. In the middle of the third week, Snorli approached the Captain and Mate.

“We must put in to port soon, sirs. We’ve a week’s worth of water and mead left, at best.” They could live off of fish for so long as they had water, but once that was gone…

Reluctantly, Stigander agreed and the order was given to make for Mikilgata Harbor, not many days west of them in territory nominally held by Thane Birlof. Not exactly friendly territory, but safe enough if they kept their noses clean. In this way the Vidofnings found themselves holed up in the guest bunks offered at the Wandering Warrior on the port’s edge.

The benefit of a place like this, of course, was that finding buyers was a simple, if not straightforward affair, and as their first week in port passed they converted no small amount of their treasure from gold to gems or more ivory to lighten their hold.

The drawback, however, was that there were very few men interested in going out to sea, and even fewer that Stigander would feel comfortable bringing aboard. So, for the most part, they waited and they drank until the hold was empty enough to accommodate the food and fresh water they required.

Two days before Stigander planned to leave, when most of the Vidofnings were gaming to while away the hours or off in search of a good training field while Snorli and Bardr arranged for the delivery of supplies, a familiar figure trudged into the Warrior and leaned on his arms at the bar.

Einarr, going over the manifest with his father, looked twice before he realized who it was in front of him. He was on his feet, heading for the bar himself, before he had time to consciously process what he was doing.

“Trabbi?”

The old man looked up, weariness and desperation obvious in his face. “Oh, good. When we saw the Vidofnir in port…”

“We? Are you on the Skudbrun now? …Never mind, come sit down.” Truth be told, Einarr hadn’t given the man a second thought since their glìma match in the spring, but even if the fisherman had taken up whaling there wasn’t much that should have brought him this far out.

“For the moment, yes. Lord Stigander, sir.” Trabbi greeted Stigander as he took a seat at their table and slumped against it.

“Trabbi.” Stigander’s voice held a note of caution. After all, the last time they had spoken with this man, he had been competing with Einarr for a bride. “What brings you to Mikilgata?”

“He was relieved to find us, so nothing good.”

“Oh, aye, nothing good at all.” Trabbi looked around for the master of the bar, who was nowhere in sight. He shook his head, sighing. “That letter your new Singer had when you came back last time? It was summoning Runa for – and I quote her – ‘Singer business.’”

Trabbi’s eyes scanned the room again, although less like he was looking for something and more like a man taking in his surroundings. “My Jarl, he asked me to go along as bodyguard – not that he mistrusted the men of the Skudbrun, but that he wanted someone who would stand out less on shore. What else could I do but agree to that?

“Only… on the way… a storm blew up, and riding the winds was a black-headed ship…”

“So then Runa is…” Einarr sat back, stunned. He couldn’t say the word… couldn’t admit to himself the possibility that she might have been murdered the same way Astrid was.

“Kidnapped.” The word Trabbi supplied was far less despair-inducing than the one Einarr had come up with, but still it took a moment for father and son to process what they’d heard.

“Kidnapped?” Stigander was the first to recover.

“Kidnapped. …And I’m no warrior, but I’m to blame… We lost sight of that strange storm they rode four days ago.”

Einarr met his father’s eyes with a wordless plea.

Stigander nodded once, slowly. “You say the Skudbrun is in port? Here?”

Thane Birlof’s waters were even less friendly to Jarl Hroaldr’s Thane than they were to the sons of Raen. Still, Trabbi nodded.

“We’ll go back to your ship with you, speak with Captain Kragnir. I think, all things considered, my crew will be more than willing to help you go after the scum.”

“You have my thanks.”

All three men stood and headed for the door, the manifest tucked beneath Stigander’s arm.

***

Trabbi led them through the port, his shoulders more square than they had been in the bar. The Skudbrun was moored in an out-of-the-way location where it wasn’t likely to be seen by anyone too loyal to the supposed thane. This placed it on the same dock, although much farther back, than the Vidofnir. Bardr looked up and watched as the three of them passed by, but he did nothing to interfere.

The Skudbrun looked exactly as she had when they had come after Einarr and Runa in the Gufuskalam that spring. Captain Kragnir, a white-haired man who only looked small in comparison to Stigander, stood on the deck near the gangplank. Whether he was looking for their party or for porters, who could tell.

“I hear you’ve had a run-in with our old friends, Captain,” Stigander drawled.

“So it appears, Captain.”

“May we come aboard?”

Captain Kragnir stepped to the side and motioned for the three men to join him.


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1.14 – Setting Sail

The morning after Einarr’s defeat of Trabbi, the Vidofnir set forth in search of the Grendel missing three of its crew – Einarr, of course, plus two of their hardiest warriors: Erik and Tyr. It was all Stigander could spare. The morning after that Einarr led his companions down to Runa’s cove and the waiting skiff, newly dubbed the Gufuskalam. Runa and the Jarl came to see them off, she looking worried and he relieved to see them go.

While Erik and Tyr made one last check of their provisions, Runa caught Einarr’s hand in her own. “Promise me you’ll come back?”

He did not try to repress a smile. “Of course I will. What sort of fool would abandon you?”

She nodded, slowly, and if he was not mistaken sadly, and pressed a small sack into his hands. “Take these. May they speed you on your journey.”

“Thank you. I’m sure they will.”

He did not look in the sack until the island vanished from view. On top was a note.

My dearest Einarr, it read. The island of Svartlauf is hidden behind an eternally raging storm and hunted by a fimbulvulf, two things which I know my father has not told you. There may be other dangers as well, so I have sent gifts that I hope will bring you victory. The small crystal bottle contains my song of strength. Open it when yours fails and remember me. The other is the tafl king, so that you might always keep your wits about you. Be careful, my love, and return in victory!

Einarr smiled and tucked the note carefully into the pouch at his belt. He wasn’t sure how much practical good either of those things would be, but the gesture still warmed him from the inside out. He stowed Runa’s offerings in the box beneath his seat at the tiller.

A breeze caught in his hair, and he offered a devilish grin to his two companions. “Time to sail, boys. Gods but it’s good to be off the rocks again.”

“How true it always is,” Erik agreed while Tyr continued to call their rowing cadence.

“Ease off a bit and I’ll let the sail down.”

Erik caught Tyr’s attention and they pulled the oars in as Einarr stepped forward to unfurl the sail. The still-cold wind filled their sail and caught his cloak, contrasting with the warmth on his shoulders of the spring sun. The Ice existed, Einarr thought, to make sure one appreciated the freedom to sail.

Tyr stood up and stretched. “So how much do you think the Jarl hasn’t told you?”

Einarr snorted. “What, you think the Captain’s childhood friend would withhold information from me?”

“Yes,” the two men said at once.

“You’d have to be blind to see he still doesn’t want to allow the match,” Eric continued.

“So anything he can do to make your quest harder…” Tyr trailed off.

“He’s going to try to do.” The right side of Einarr’s mouth curled in an unhappy smirk. “Runa tells me there’s a storm around the island and a fimbulvulf.”

Erik thrust his head forward in surprise. “A what? By the gods, is he trying to kill you?”

Einarr just shrugged.

“If the Captain knew that…”

“He’d have held off on pursuing the Grendel and we’d be on the Vidofnir right now. But I only found out a minute ago, myself.”

Tyr whistled.

“Not that it matters. I said I’d do it, and I am my father’s son. Besides, we’ve got a few weeks before we need to worry about it, and right now the weather is perfect. I say we see what our little Gufuskalam can do!”

His friends voiced their agreement with a cheer.

***

As the sun dipped below the horizon in a blaze of gold and red and purple that blinded the three men on their skiff, Erik stepped to the mast to furl the sail for the night while Einarr took the tiller. He would have first watch, and was glad that the sky was still clear. Overcast skies on their first night out of port would be an ill omen, because while the other two men slept, he would keep their drift on course.

Tyr was pulling out food from their stores for dinner – a cask of ale, some hard tack, and gravlax. There would be no cooking aboard the Gufuskalam, for there was no room in which to light a fire, but they would not go hungry at least.

“You ready for six weeks of this?” Tyr’s voice was a low rumble as he shared out the portions, evidently thinking along the same lines as Einarr.

“We’ll manage.” Erik bit down into the hard tack and followed it up with a swig of beer. “Always have before.”

Einarr nodded. “I think our course takes us close to some small islands partway through, too.”

Tyr grunted and broke off a piece of bread to pair with a bite of the sweet-salted salmon. “Two-edged sword, is what that is.”

Einarr shrugged. “We’ll get by. If anyone knows more tricks for getting through a long sea voyage than you, it’s Father.”

This got a laugh from the gruff man. “I taught him half what he knows, back when he was your age.”

Nobody ever bothered Tyr about retiring, because age had barely touched him. Save for snow-white hair and lines on his face, he still kept up with men half his age. Einarr and Erik both chuckled.

“That is exactly what I meant.”


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1.13 – Glíma

Einarr stood in the dirt ring cleared for glíma, studying his opponent. For a hundred feet around it the field was filled with people watching and cheering and drumming. Jarl Hroaldr and all those at Kjell Hall gathered around.

This occupied only a small fragment of Einarr’s attention. More important by far was the swarthy, salt-and-pepper brick of a man standing across the ring from him – Trabbi. The man’s chest and arms were just as muscular as Father’s, and while his beard was thick it was also short and neat. The two men wore only trousers and boots, and the breeze tried to raise goosebumps on their bare arms. Einarr dropped into a fighter’s crouch, and his much larger rival did the same. Among the Vidofnings, the only man smaller than Einarr was Sivid. If there was one fact of wrestling that had been impressed on Einarr, though, it was that size was not as important as it appeared to be.

“Begin!” Jarl Hroaldr gave the signal, and the two men charged to the center of the ring, their arms joining in the clinch.

Einarr’s arms strained against strength born of pulling fish from the sea. Trabbi pulled right and Einarr stepped in, allowing his opponent the throw. No sooner had his back touched the ground than Einarr kicked his legs back into Trabbi’s knees. Einarr sprang back to his feet as the older man fell. A hand reached out to grab his ankle and he danced backward.

Trabbi stood, not bothering to slap the dust off, and the crowd cheered. They moved into the clinch again. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa watching anxiously. He tried to put it from his mind.

Einarr slid his hands up his rival’s arms to clasp them behind the man’s head. The older man’s head lowered with little resistance. Einarr’s eyes widened when he realized what was about to happen. Trabbi abruptly let go of his shoulders and lunged forward, knocking the wind from his rival’s chest even as he took hold of Einarr’s wrist to wrench the arm backwards.

Einarr twisted around to avoid the break and kicked at Trabbi’s hip. The man jumped backwards, releasing his grip on Einarr’s arm. They both dropped back into a crouch and began circling the ring. The crowd cheered wildly, and Einarr couldn’t tell for who. He spat, watching his rival.

Trabbi started the charge this time, and Einarr saw his opportunity. He went low, driving his shoulder into his rival’s stomach and lifting Trabbi’s legs as he straightened. Einarr rolled into the throw. Trabbi’s momentum carried him over to land on his back with Einarr sitting on his chest.

“Yield,” Trabbi wheezed. “I yield.”

Einarr stood and helped the other man to his feet. The crowd went wild with cheering. Jarl Hroaldr had to shout to be noticed above the din. Eventually, it quieted enough that he could speak. “Victory goes to Einarr, son of Stigander, Captain of the Vidofnir. The betrothal between my daughter and Trabbi has been annulled, although what you thought you were defending her from eludes me.”

“The Lady Runa is a strong, intelligent woman, my lord. I defended her against a future she did not wish, and claim her in hopes of fulfilling one she does.”

“Forgetting, for a moment, the things we spoke of last winter: tell me, boy, what makes you think I will give her hand to you? Given your actions of the past week, why should I not have you executed? Banished?” Jarl Hroaldr’s voice was cold. “You ran away with my daughter and betrayed my trust in your own father. Why should I now entrust her to you?”

“I did only what I thought was right, based on the wishes of the Lady Runa herself. I ask you, what is worse – a lifetime, potentially short, of wandering, or a longer one with a mate you do not love, and who I think does not love you?”

Trabbi shook his head. “The boy is right. I’d have treated her kindly, of course, but it is no accident that I have not remarried.”

“Against my better judgement, I will not pronounce him a criminal. However, I shall require tasks of him if he wishes to court my daughter.”

“Name your task, my Jarl, and I shall do it.”

The Jarl nodded once. “But first, let us retire to the Hall. I seem to smell another snowstorm on the wind.”

***

Kjell Hall was abuzz that evening with drinking games and the excited chatter of men recounting the afternoon’s match. The Vidofnir was to sail the next morning in search of the Grendel, and Einarr sat near the head of the room with his father, Runa, and the Jarl.

“Since both your father and Trabbi forgive you, and I know my daughter well enough to recognize when something is her idea, I have decided on your first task.” The Jarl’s voice was level, and his tone suggested that the request would be eminently reasonable. Doubt chewed on Einarr’s stomach nonetheless.

“The goddess Eira was once possessed of a torc studded with diamond and fashioned of gold filigree so pure it shines white – the Isinntog. It is said to have power over ice and storms. You know it?” He waited for them to nod. “The Isinntog was given into the care of the elves of Skaergard many hundreds of years ago to await Eira’s awakening, but it was stolen from them by the jotün Fraener and taken to Svartlauf. Bring me the Isinntog, and it shall be your morning gift for Runa.”

Einarr paled a moment, then nodded boldly. Stealing the Isinntog from a jotünhall was supposed to be the easy task? “Certainly any jewelry less fine would be too drab for her. I will return with this treasure.”

The Jarl nodded; that was the response he’d expected. Stigander clapped him on the back, hard, with a hearty laugh. “Sounds like we each have our impossible quests then, doesn’t it? For you a legendary torc, for me a rogue ship that travels with the storms.”

Einarr laughed in agreement, although he could not put more than half his heart into it. “Is there a boat sufficient to carry me there and back?”

“Runa’s little skiff, if you can find a man or two willing to help you crew it.”

“That I think I can do. Father, may I take a few of my comrades for this?”

“If they’re willing to go.”

“Thank you, Father.” Einarr rose and left to ask some of his fellow Vidofnings who might be willing to join him on such a quest.


1.12 – Negotiations 1.14 – Setting Sail
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