Tag: Ulfr

10.35 – In Raen’s Hall

From the time the three groups of their forces rejoined at the base of the cliff road almost to the tower gate, all they saw was the backs of the defenders fleeing before them. For all that Stigander did not want to slay more of his clansmen than he had to, it made him more than a little worried his half-brother had turned them all into cowards.

With two switchbacks left before the gates the wolflings set up a defensive line. Stigander raised his shield and charged, all his allies hot on his heels. The man who had rallied the line plainly had some skill, or there would not have been one at all. It was not enough to let them hold, or even offer more than token resistance, though. The line buckled like thin kindling.

Stigander refused to give up the momentum of his charge, and so they kept going. Running up the road was not generally recommended, even for a young man, but when they came up to the last stretch before the gate Stigander was not even winded. Ahead, about half the number of warriors as had tried to hold below now bristled from the gate house like a hedgehog.

They were about as fearsome as a hedgehog, too. Blades clashed against shields for two exchanges before Ulfr’s men were once again overcome with – what? Stigander hoped it was doubt, induced by Einarr’s runes, but he saw fear on more faces than he was truly comfortable with. Where he would expect the defense to be growing more fierce, it instead seemed to be the opposite.

It had been sixteen years since Stigander had set foot in his father’s hold, but in spite of everything done to the city below the courtyard looked almost exactly as he remembered it save for one, small detail: there were no people. Not that he expected to see the movements of daily life when an invasion was happening, but still there should have been someone – even if only messengers running from the crumbled battle lines to their supposed thane.

It was not until he flung open the door to the Hall, his men flanking him in victory, that he remembered the differences in the vision the Oracle had given him. He stopped. His father’s hall, built large, felt twice as empty without the rugs and tapestries and trophies. Cold, and barren, and he suspected even if there were a fire in the hearth it would be the same. His father’s seat sat empty on its low dais.

A man sat on the edge of the dais, his sword held upright with its point resting on the flagstones between his feet, watching the door as a man who has accepted his fate. Blood was spattered across the man’s face and tunic. His expression was calm and resolute, although his eyes were hooded. This could only be Kaldr, the Captain who had caused them so much trouble on their journey here. On the floor behind him, Stigander saw a headless corpse and an expansive puddle of blood.

Stigander had only seen his half-brother once, and that in passing, but he had no doubt whose corpse that was. Although he had long harbored the hope that he would not have to kill Ulfr, would not become a kinslayer, he was still surprised to feel sorrow at the man’s passing. Was I truly so foolish as to believe he would not have to die? He clenched his fist, but still his arm shook.

As Stigander took in the scene before him, Kaldr spoke. “Lord Stigander Raenson. The usurper, your half-brother, is dead. As the slayer of your kin, and a steadfast enemy of your approach, my life is forfeit should you wish to claim it.”

Stigander tore his eyes away from the fallen body of the usurper to look more closely at the one who had slain him. “Why?”

“The blood price must be paid…”

“That is not what I asked!” He snapped in spite of himself. “As early as this morning, you called this man Lord, and yet you slew him. Why?”

Kaldr’s mouth tightened and he lowered his gaze toward the floor. “Because I learned the truth and knew he must die. By the laws of the Althing, it should be the rightful Thane who dispenses justice, but to go from the rule of a usurper to that of a kinslayer… it was too much.”

Stigander nodded slowly, chewing over the man’s words. This should not be complicated, and yet… He stepped up onto the dais and walked slowly towards the corpse sprawled on the ground. Ulfr’s body still clutched Grjóthrun in both hands, his grip proclaiming that he had never before used a sword. Stigander reached down to grasp his brother’s head by its hair and lift it up. The man’s grizzled hair stuck out in every direction where it had slipped free of the cut-off braid. Its face was contorted with rage and desperation: at least Ulfr had not died a coward. Stigander placed the head back near its former body. He turned and stepped back off the dais, not caring that his boots had picked up some of the blood.

Facing Kaldr once more, he drew his father’s sword. He held it upright, studying the blade as he spoke. “Very well, Kaldr Kerasson. Stand, and hear the judgement of the Thane of Breidelstein.”


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10.34 – The Ice Wolf

“What?” Ulfr demanded, his smug certainty suddenly evaporating into angry confusion. A vein twitched at his temple as his eyes grew wide.

Kaldr’s blood boiled in fury, not merely at the truth of having been ensorcelled – enthralled! – but at the lack of mettle of the man who had controlled him. With the practice of long years, he forced his emotions down. This was a battle like any other. Calmness was the order of the day.

The sounds of battle drifted in through the arrow slits. The Vidofnings drew nearer at a rapid clip, if Kaldr was any judge of matters. Thjofgrir had not held, and although he hoped his Mate had not fallen Kaldr was glad.

“Have you forgotten, Usurper?” Kaldr breathed out his icy rage. “By your own words, if I go to seek justice, I will forget, and you will escape.”

He chuckled bitterly. “No, perhaps you will not escape this time. Breidelstein cannot hold Stigander back now, if the men defending the hold have even a fragment of my doubt. By all reports, they have more than that. But that seems an un-fitting end for a man of your stature, does it not?

“So you command that I go. I will not. You command that I forget. I will not. Consider it my last loyalty, as Breidelsteinn’s Ice Wolf. If justice cannot be had… then only injustice remains, does it not?”

“You cannot!” Ulfr responded, a hint of desperation beginning to enter his voice. “You are bound in the Weaving! You should not be able to even think such things!”

“Have you forgotten so easily, Thane, your loyal captain’s advice about relying on magic?” Kaldr advanced on the throne, marveling at the ease of it. He drew his blade with a slow, satisfying rasp. “Magic fails. I do not know what the ritual performed on Stigander’s ships did – but something has unraveled. The Witch’s threads have slipped – and I am unbound.”

He paused. “Your crimes against Breidelsteinn and its people demand death, but I do not wish to kill an unarmed man. Draw your sword and die on your feet, if you are a man at all.”

Ulfr bore no weapon, though the great blade, Grjóthrun, hung in the Hall as the sign of his Thaneship. The Usurper scrambled from the throne toward the hanging sword. “Does your fifteen-year oath mean nothing to you?”

“Strange you should say that, Ulfr, considering that you were just mocking me for my loyalty.” Kaldr strode easily after the fleeing man. “But if you think about it, you’ll see that my oath demands this.”

Ulfr grasped Grjóthrun and turned, confusion evident on his face as he raised the blade in unpracticed hands. Kaldr responded with the feral grin of a wolf who has captured his prey. “As you said – I am fated to be loyal to Breidelstein’s Thane.” And a man who makes thralls of his free subjects is no Thane.

Ulfr opened his mouth – to protest, likely, that Kaldr had made his point for him – then stiffened as he realized the true meaning of Kaldr’s words.

The sounds of fighting echoed more strongly through the Hall. They were at the gate, by the sound of things, but if Thjofgrir could not hold the gate would crumble. He maintained his icy smile, though it did not touch his eyes. “Stigander and his men draw near, Ulfr. One way or another, it ends.”

Ulfr raised the blade with a shout and lunged at Kaldr, throwing himself entirely off-balance and nearly falling on his face. He had spent decades in indolence, and Kaldr was a Captain of warriors, trained as a warrior himself from his youth. Kaldr stepped aside easily and struck, his blade steady and sure. Ulfr’s body collapsed to the stone floor, his head rolling over twice before coming to rest in the rapidly expanding pool of his own blood.

“You lived as a coward and a tyrant. For honor, you should have died as a dog, executed by the rightful Thane when he retakes his place.” He regarded the headless body of the man who had raped his home for so long. “But we cannot permit Breidelstein go from the hands of a Usurper to those of a Kinslayer.”

This would be his last act, in all likelihood, but it would be the act of a free man. The price for killing one of the Thane’s blood – no matter how deserved – would need to be paid. But with his sacrifice, Breidelstein would be able to move forward.

I wish I could see it.

Kaldr did not give a second glance to the body on the floor, but moved to sit on the edge of the dais by the foot of the throne. He rested his sword point-down between his feet, his elbows on his knees, and took a deep breath as he awaited his Fate.

When the door swung open not many minutes later, he faced the true Thane with the equanimity he had always prided himself on.


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10.33 – Ulfr

Lord Ulfr relaxed back in his seat as though the response bored him. “Your place is defending the Hold, Captain Kaldr. Or have you already forgotten how tenuous your position here is?”

“Not at all, my lord.” Kaldr tasted bile as he realized he could feel nothing but loathing for his Thane. He dares call himself a wolf? Kaldr cleared his throat, trying to ensure his voice was steady. “My Lord, I fear the day is lost. Our men are losing their will to fight.”

“Then remind them what my displeasure feels like!”

“My lord, the lash can only take you so far. Sooner or later, the lashed man will take hold of the whip and turn it against his master. Already word has reached me that your warriors are beginning to question whether or not the Hold is worth defending.”

“What are you saying?”

“I am saying that, whether or not you are Lord Raen’s true-born son, whether or not he acknowledged you as heir, you have not been behaving as a Thane should. Tell me, Lord, what your father said when named you heir?”

“My father is an old, senile fool. What does it matter?”

“It matters, Lord, because I suddenly cannot remember the event. Granted I was young and inexperienced at the time, but such an event would have echoed throughout the Clan. Especially since the rebel leader had been well-liked, as I recall. I, who have counted myself among your most loyal servants, cannot think of a single reason we would have acclaimed you as Thane. —Wait, that’s not quite true. I can think of one. The Lady Witch.”

Lord Ulfr actually rolled his eyes. Kaldr had to be mistaken, but for a moment it seemed as though there was amusement glinting over that petulant face. Amusement, where he had expected anger at the aspersion cast against the witch. “Sixteen years is a long time, Kaldr. Are you certain your sudden anger is not twisting your memory?”

“Quite the opposite, I assure you. In the time since you have taken power and driven off the rebels who now assault our shores, you have driven Breidelstein – the prosperous city your father made – into penury. You have rewarded the boot-lickers and the stupid while driving the competent and the honorable to seek their fortunes elsewhere. You have stripped your father’s hall of all its comfort and its warmth – and for the life of me, I cannot fathom why.”

Lord Ulfr had sat up straight while Kaldr was talking, and now sat smirking down at his subject, a wicked light gleaming in his eye. “You call yourself loyal and yet you question me now, of all times? Fine. I will answer your questions, Kaldr. I am the Thane, and all of you, my Captains, exist to obey me.”

“You have always thought of my mother as a chain about my neck, Kaldr, but you’re wrong. Mother is my sword and my shield, and the reason I sit here on this throne before you. It was Mother’s plan that made everyone on Breidelstein acknowledge me, the eldest son, as the true heir of Raen. It was her masterpiece: the tapestry that brought all of these islands under my thumb and bound everyone to my service. You say I should fear my own lash? Hardly. Not one person living here has the wherewithal to challenge me, because we have bound their fates in a tapestry. I am well aware that Mother has let no small amount of your blood. Think of it as medicine, to rid the land of Breidelstein of its imperfections. You should be proud: your own body has been used to perfect this country under my rule.”

Kaldr rocked back on his heels involuntarily. Did Ulfr know what he was confessing to?

“Sixteen years ago, Mother and I sailed to these islands, determined to make my father acknowledge me. We had been poor, before, but through her Weaving Mother had managed to save up enough to buy us passage here. While we sailed, she began work on her masterpiece. By the time we arrived, all that was left to do was one single, finishing touch. We walked openly into this very hall and stood before my father and declared ourselves. The man had the audacity to claim he had no son besides Stigander! So when we returned to our room, Mother finished the piece. Oh, there was some fighting at first, and then some more after the Vidofnir came back with my baby brother, all unawares. But Breidelstein is mine, and it always will be. Fate binds it to me.”

That’s madness. “Ulfr,” — no ‘Lord’ for him now, nor ever again — “…do you understand what you are confessing? This witchcraft, this madness, goes beyond mere treason! Even if you drive off Stigander, you’ll be pulled down by your own Captains and people — myself among them — once I share the truth.” Even weakened, he was more of a warrior than Ulfr – younger, stronger, faster. The Usurper could not stop him.

The madman on the throne laughed as though bored. “Kaldr, Kaldr, Kaldr. My ever-loyal Ice Wolf. We have danced this dance before, you and I, so very many times. When Falkenjorg shook free after a long raid and rebelled — do you not remember your first hunt? Of returning to confront me after your victory with the words pledged by a dying man? Or your doubts after I ordered the waste of Aldvik? Truly, you are so quick to doubt that I would have had you executed long before had Mother not insisted that your talents were of use to me …and were you not so amusing.”

“Why —”

“— Would I tell you? It’s almost tiresome how you always ask the same questions. I tell you because, even knowing, you cannot escape. What will happen is what has always happened.” Ulfr’s eyes blazed with merriment. “You will storm out in your righteous fury, swearing to rally the Captains and the people, to overthrow me for the good of Breidelstein. I surely cannot stop you from doing so, alone. Within ten paces, you will forget why you are angry. Within twenty, our words. Within thirty, all your anger, and you will return to ask and serve my will, as you always have. After all, it is your Fate to be a loyal captain in the service of Breidelstein’s Thane. So go, Ice-Wolf, go and know the hopelessness of your defiance, and that you serve at my pleasure.”

Kaldr stiffened, staring at the indolent figure on the throne. He could not remember, not truly, but he did not doubt the madman’s words. But here, now, at the Fall of Breidelstein, he could feel the bonds that held him unraveling. He clenched his jaw and raised his face to the Usurper, expression clear and proud. “No, Ulfr. I will not go. Let us end it, Thane.”


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10.32 – Unraveling

A wave of blinding light swept over the town below and through the war room. Kaldr staggered where he stood. So did everyone else in the war room, and for a long moment the sounds of fighting in the city below fell silent. What… was that?

Whatever it was, the direction of the battle below would be decided on the ground. One side was bound to recover first, and they would win the day. He walked over to the window and waited. While he waited, he massaged his temples as he looked out on the battle below. Whatever else the burst had done, it had given him a headache. But a mere headache won’t help the rebels.

Evidently it was more than just a headache for some. The shield walls – the very core of his bait and encirclement strategy, which had been whittling away at the rebel invaders – began to buckle. It was not long before the battle lines began to push once more toward the cliff road and Raenshold. Thjofgrir had arrived just minutes before the shockwave had passed over, and he confirmed the worst of what Kaldr had pieced together: not only had the townspeople decided to take up arms, some of the sailors and guards were questioning whether Lord Ulfr was worth defending. Thjofgrir said nothing of Kaldr’s own men, and Kaldr assumed nothing.

Did they have enough healthy men to blockade the cliff road? They might, if they placed themselves on top of one of the switchbacks… But morale was so low as to be almost nonexistent. If the rebels pushed too much farther, it was likely that their defense would crumble. There might even be turncoats on the ground, if there weren’t already.

If only this blasted headache wasn’t clouding his thoughts!

He would be fine, he was sure, if the witch hadn’t been bleeding him down in the dungeons. His confinement – he hadn’t bothered to ask how long it was – had left him weakened.

“Thjofgrir, take command of the switchbacks and hold them.”

His Mate nodded an acknowledgement and dashed off. Thjofgrir would buy them time, and Kaldr would find the men to hold even if he had to join them himself. They must, else they would allow the true-born son of Raen to be cast from his throne in favor of the usurper brother.

The blood beat in his temples like a drum.

Ulfr is not true-born, but bastard.

He shook his head: where had that come from? Whatever its source, he knew the thought for truth. Bastard or not, however, Ulfr had the right of the throne. He was the elder brother, and acknowledged by his father.

Was he? When did that happen, and how? …Why did we acclaim him as our Thane?

Kaldr felt as though someone were stabbing blades of light through his eyes and he staggered again, catching himself on the window ledge before he collapsed to the floor. He scoured his mind, searching for answers and finding only uncertainty and more questions.

One after another, he remembered the thousand insults that Ulfr had given. His own father, half-starved and thrown in the dungeon to rot. His Hall, stripped of warmth and life to pay for – what? His Captains, chosen not for any particular skill but for fawning sycophancy and absolute loyalty, sent hither and yon for – what? His people. The people of Breidelstein, taxed beyond all reason both in coin and in labor, for – what? And there, looming in the background of it all, the hunched, cackling figure of his Lady Mother, the witch. The Weaver-witch.

Kaldr pressed his palm into the cold stone of the window ledge and pushed himself to standing while all these thoughts ran through his head. For a while, he stood, staring blankly at the stones he was pressing under his palms. This has to end. He raised his head, his hawk’s gaze fixed on the horizon, and squared his shoulders. Then he turned and stalked wordlessly toward the door.

“Sir, where are you going?”

“Lord Ulfr’s Hall. I have questions.”


For the third time that day Kaldr crossed the courtyard between the tower gate and the Thane’s Hall. The sky was brilliantly blue, but thunderheads trailed in his wake. No guards tried to stop him as he reached the hall where Ulfr sat: they had all been called down to aid in the defense. If Thjofgrir could not hold the road, Ulfr would fall.

His head pounded again when he realized a new point of discord: he did not care, just now, if Ulfr fell.

He raised his arms and did not hear the clink of chains, nor miss the weight of iron about his wrists. With all his rage-born strength, he flung the doors wide. The heavy wood struck the stone walls dully. Kaldr marched forward, his fists clenched at his sides.

Ulfr now lounged in the Thane’s seat, the very image of an indolent, petulant youth in the body of an aging man. How long does he spend on those braids every day, wondered the rebellious part of Kaldr’s mind. It was the only part that seemed coherent right now.

“My Lord.”

Ulfr turned dull blue eyes on the Captain he had just this morning released from captivity. “Kaldr. We have won the day, then?”

“Quite the contrary, my lord. When I left the war room, the rebels had nearly reached the cliff road. I’ve ordered our forces to retrench to the switchbacks—”

“Then why are you here?”

“For answers, my Lord.”


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10.31 – Struggle

“You there! What goes on here?” Stigander leveled a finger at one of the better-equipped townsfolk who had joined their ranks.

He blinked and pointed at himself, a dumbfounded look on his face.

“Yes, you! Why have the townsfolk taken up arms against the Thane here?” He hated to phrase it that way, but the odds were good this man still thought of the Usurper that way.

Now the man nodded in understanding. “Thane Ulfr’s men claim you are rebels. Well, his men treat us as thralls, even though we are free men. If it means we are rid of them, rebels we will be.”

Stigander looked again at the man. He was malnourished, and unkempt as one would expect of a drunkard, but his blue eyes were clear and proud.

“I am Stigander, son of Raen, and while Ulfr calls me a rebel I am in fact the rightful Thane. I will remember your resolve.”

The townsman blanched a little as Stigander began shouldering his way back to the front of his crew’s line, but returned to the battle at hand. How many of these people even remember what happened all those years ago? He can’t be much older than Einarr… Stigander growled low in his throat: that line of thinking was a distraction he did not need right now.

Perhaps a hundred feet ahead the road began its steep, switchbacked ascent up the cliffs to Raenshold.

The wolflings had fallen back to the far side of the square and reset their shield wall yet again, in the familiar pattern. Yet again, he and his Vidofnings surged forward to batter it down. This time, though, it did not buckle like so much rotted timber.

Battle screams roared from either side of the square as wolfling warriors fell upon them from both sides at once. Stigander and his crewmen were boxed in. To stay in the square would be foolish, and if they somehow managed to batter through the forward line then they had to worry about wolflings nipping at their heels. That left only one option: turn their own tactic against them. “Fall back!”


Beatrix had been startled to see Einarr’s bride chasing after her into the thick of combat: the Singers, after all, had been meant to stay behind. But, the other girl at least knew enough about combat to keep herself out of danger, and her Song was useful enough.

Bea frowned, though: she could tell they were losing momentum, but not why. Certainly it shouldn’t be fatigue, not with the Singer working her Art. And they weren’t outnumbered, at least not once you counted the local reinforcements. They had to reach the cliff road, though: Lord Stigander had been clear. And yet, they were on the verge of being pushed back. Do I dare let us lean on our back foot?

It was not immediately clear she would have a choice. The wolflings were massing ahead, and her group had been the smallest of the three forces. She frowned. Their forward progress had almost stalled, but if they could make the next intersection she might be able to reroute. The difficulty would be not letting the line fall apart when they inevitably reached the narrow footpaths that were ever-present and never meant for more than one or two abreast.

The Song magic that had been sustaining her thus far cut off with a shriek, not so much of pain or fear as of rage. Bea’s head snapped around: there was Runa, the Cursebreaker’s bride, biting the hand of the wolfling who had tried to capture her. She seemed to have drawn blood, too. The girl stabbed backwards at her assailant with the knife all Singers wore, but Bea didn’t think it had yet drawn blood.

She cursed. Where had the wolfling even come from? This was why fighting through a city was so terrible: even when you thought your back was secure, someone could sneak around behind with a poisoned knife. Perhaps one of Beatrix’s sisters could have let her rival be taken like this, but Beatrix could not – a trait that had often hampered her in Imperial politics.

“Fall back!” If they gave a little ground, Bea could drop back without leaving a hole in the middle of their line. They would just have to find their way forward again from there.


Jorir stood, his axe and golden shield at the ready, just outside of Lord Einarr’s rune circle, staring toward the bulwark.

Someone was in the water. Several someones, he thought, and if this ship wasn’t their target he was a farmer.

Jorir glanced over his shoulder, and wished for the umpteenth time he could tell how close they were to finishing the ritual. Curse that witch and the helspawn she rode in on. I’m a dwarf – I’m supposed to be good with runes! At least he was sure it was doing something: the feeling of magic crackled in the air like lightning.

The gentle splashing in the water went silent, only to be followed by the sounds of boots climbing on wood. Jorir flexed his grip on his axe handle and glanced over at his fellow bodyguard.

Naudrek had set himself for battle nearly as quickly as Jorir had, and without needing Jorir to say anything. With a little luck, that meant the invaders still didn’t know they were discovered.

The first of the invaders appeared over the side of the bulwark, their hair streaming water, with scramasax clenched in their teeth as they climbed the Heidrun’s clinks.

Naudrek moved on cat’s feet over to where the wolfling was emerging from the water, his blade held low, and raised one foot. The sole of his boot impacted the first wolfling’s forehead and he lost his grip, tumbling into the water.

Jorir charged forward, much more noisily, and raised his shield over his head. The edge of the shield hit the second man’s teeth with a gong, followed by another splash.

Now men were coming up the other side, though, three and four at a time. Jorir shared a look with Naudrek before the other man raced back across the deck to fend off that group of attackers. Jorir looked back over his shoulder at Einarr, hoping for some clue that they were nearly done.

He still couldn’t tell. He raised his axe and stepped forward to block as many as he could.

Then the crackling magic at his back went still and the pressure vanished. For a heartbeat, everything was still.

In the next heartbeat, it was as though the world itself exploded. A wave of magic crashed over the deck of the Heidrun and rippled out over the water, towards the fighting in the town.


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10.30 – Ambush

Kaldr had evidently been the last to know he was about to be freed, and for once Lord Ulfr had not stinted on the manpower at his disposal. Once the Lady Mother declared something, it was evidently unquestionable.

Kaldr would still rather the witch be hanged.

He took the stairs two at a time with a steady, even stride. By the time Kaldr reached the top floor and pushed open the door to the war room, he felt like himself again. Inside, the leaders of Kaldr’s guard stood staring at the map of the city laid out on the table before them. Two of them were arguing about some minor point on a plan Kaldr was reasonably sure would do nothing, based on what he had already heard.

Kaldr ignored the map and the leaders of the guard and went straight for the window that looked out over the town. From there, he could see just how badly this had been bungled so far.

“As you can see, sir,” one of the Guardsmen was saying.

“What I can see is that we need to act quickly if we’re going to repel the rebels. …I’ve run across their ships. How do they have so many men on the ground?”

“That’s just it, sir. The men of the town have taken up with the rebels.”

“See that word of that does not leave this room.” If it did, Kaldr would be surprised if the town existed a month from now.

“We had already agreed as much.”

Kaldr nodded: it was good to confirm that the Guard had some measure of intelligence. He studied the fighting below for another minute before turning to the map on the table.

It did not look good. They were too thin on the ground, with the fleet already out of commission and the townsfolk arrayed against them. “Where are our reinforcements stationed?”

The next ten minutes were a flurry of activity. Kaldr sent more dispatches than he cared to count, but at the end of it he thought they had a chance. He looked up, towards the window, and a strange pulsing caught his eye. Kaldr took two steps closer, then stopped. Out over the harbor, something was glowing. It almost seemed to crackle with light. He knit his brow, then shook his head.

“I don’t know what that is, but we need to stop it. Send a messenger to Thjofgrir on my ship: have them send a team of sailors to put an end to whatever sorcery the rebels are working.”

“Yes, sir!”


Irding was never afterward exactly sure what happened. One minute he was driving forward with the right flank, pushing back the wolflings with the aid of the townspeople. He dashed forward into a gap in the line, far too fast for Erik’s warning to be of any use.

Then he was cut off. He realized almost immediately, when the press at his back was not his allies filling the gap but more wolflings. His eyes went wide, and he felt the fear rising in his gorge. He cut at the foe in front of him, his axe slicing neatly across the man’s thighs, and turned.

Erik, his father, was cutting a bloody swath ahead of himself, pushing towards Irding’s position. In terms of absolute distance, it was not far. All he had to do was meet him halfway.

Irding slashed across the back of one wolfling, then another. The third turned to face him as he pushed closer to his own side of the lines. The wolfling gave him a savage grin.

Irding wasted no time with intimidation. He hacked at his opponent’s knee. The wolfling danced back out of the way of the blow, but that let Irding take another step closer toward his goal.

The other man wasn’t done with him yet, though: he stabbed low, for Irding’s legs, forcing him to give ground or try to block. Irding brought the edge of his shield down on his opponent’s wrist hard: the man’s eyes went wide and he stifled a scream.

A fourth man fell to Erik’s blade, and then the two of them stood back to back in the middle of the melee.

“What happened?” Irding asked over the din.

“Ambush! Enemy reinforcements came in from the side. Oh, look, over there. I see Troa and Odvir.”

Irding looked. Their battle line had broken up into little pockets, and while each one fought fiercely this would not end well.

“You see them? Come on.”

Irding and Erik stood back-to-back, fighting their way towards their allies in an elaborate spinning dance. They gained ground by inches, but Irding could feel his arms beginning to burn with exertion.

“How much farther?” He asked in a momentary gap.

Erik was already surging forward. “We’ll get there.”

Irding lunged forward, striking at the leg of one of the wolflings before he could strike at Erik. The gap closed behind him.

“Troa!” Erik bellowed over the din even as he sent another wolfling flying. “This way!”

There was something uniquely tiring – and tiresome – about fighting to incapacitate. Especially when your opponent was under no such constraints. Irding took another chop at another wolfling’s arm and was rewarded with a scream of pain and a spurt of blood as he dropped his shield to hold the bloody stump. That one was out of the fight, at least.

Another gap opened up, allowing Erik and Irding to surge forward once more. Irding nearly tripped over one of the fallen he had not seen until almost too late: when he looked down and saw it was one of the townsfolk, a pair of slashes across her face in addition to the blow that felled her, rage pulsed in his vision. She hadn’t really looked like Mother, not truly except for the hair, but the idea that someone would mutilate one of their own like that…

“Keep it together,” Erik warned. “The time for charging forward is long past.”

“I understand.”


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

10.29 – Pivot

No sooner had Irding’s boots hit the dock than he was off and running, his eyes scanning ahead for his father’s back. Erik was exactly who he wanted at his side in this fight, and not only because the man was his only real tie to the island. After last fall, with the golem in the tower and all that nonsense on the Isle, there were few he would trust to have his back more.

Thankfully he was easy to spot: he was perhaps the biggest of Lord Stigander’s men, excepting maybe Stigander himself. Erik was taking the right flank: Irding hurried to catch up, shouldering his way smoothly through the stream of his allies. Somehow, he managed not to trip anyone up, although the occasional muffled curse said he called it close a few times.

Still, when he reached the front of his father’s line, the big bear of a man rewarded him with a grin. “Thought you were on the left, though?”

Irding offered a cheeky grin in return. “Swapped with Bea. Convinced her I’d do better with some of the old hands.”

“Hah! Who you calling old?”

Irding did not have time for the obvious rejoinder: they finally met with some wolfling resistance. It was odd for it to have taken so long: they were well outside the docks, now. Wouldn’t the town itself usually mount some resistance to a war party? With a mental shrug, he turned his full attention to the battle at hand: so much the better if they didn’t. The Captains wanted this as bloodless as possible, after all.

After all the craziness of last year, Irding found this assault on a city to be refreshingly straightforward. They would press forward, the wolflings would fall back. He would stab forward like a spear, and soon enough the rest of the line was even with his position. Erik looked concerned, but Irding couldn’t fathom why. If the wolfling flank was weak, all they had to do was take advantage of it – wasn’t it?


For the second time, Kaldr’s cell door opened to the blindingly dim light of the corridor without the cackling of the witch. He blinked toward the light, squinting to try to make out who it was.

Oh. Just the guard. It irritated him how rough his voice sounded. He couldn’t have been down here that long… could he? “Am I to be given an extra ration today, then?”

“His Lordship the Thane has summoned you to his Hall.”

Kaldr’s eyebrows rose. “The Thing is convened?”

The gaoler shook his head even as he took hold of the chain that still trailed between Kaldr’s two hands. “On your feet.”

Slowly, stiffly, Kaldr rose and followed the man out. If he wasn’t to be tried, then why had Lord Ulfr summoned him?

After what felt like an interminable number of stairs, they came to the entrance of the tower and stepped out into the bright light of day. Kaldr had to stop and lift the crook of his elbow to shade his light-starved eyes. He could hear fighting in the distance.

He was not given more time to observe, or even adjust to the light. His gaoler tugged on his lead chain and nearly pulled him from his feet. Kaldr followed.

As the door was flung open to the Hall, Kaldr could see that Lord Ulfr had waited only impatiently. The Thane paced, his hands gripped behind his back and his shoulders hunched forward as he stared at the groove he was trying to wear in the floor.

“The prisoner kneels before you, my Lord,” the gaoler announced.

Ulfr turned to the source of the voice and stared at him from feral, angry eyes. “Unchain him and begone,” he spat.

The gaoler cast a pitying look at Kaldr as he turned to obey. Kaldr was reluctantly impressed: he did not even sigh at the peevishness of their Thane. The chains fell free from Kaldr’s wrists, and he allowed himself the luxury of chafing at the wrists once. Then he raised his head and looked levelly at his Thane.

“Why am I summoned?”

For a long moment, Ulfr did not answer, merely continued his pacing even as he stared at Kaldr with those same half-mad eyes in that florid face. Kaldr waited.

Finally, the Thane spat on the ground at his feet. “You are to take command of the city defenses.”

Kaldr was momentarily stunned. This was quite a reversal. Before he could ask why, however, his Thane volunteered an answer.

Mother says the threads are clear and you are our only chance at holding what is rightfully ours. Acquit yourself well and I will pardon your earlier treachery. Fail, and we fall. Am I understood?”

“Perfectly.” Kaldr snapped his mouth shut on the word. He could not trust himself to say more: this meant that he owed his freedom, not to his Thane but to the weaver witch, who had until now taken such delight in bleeding him for her foul magics. It took all the restraint he had not to grind his teeth just then.

“Good.” Ulfr turned back to his pacing. Kaldr knew a dismissal when he saw one: he turned stiffly on his heel and marched back out of the hall. Free, at least for now. There was a room in the tower, above the witch’s workshop: he would conduct his defense from there.

As he crossed the courtyard yet again, he summoned one of Lord Ulfr’s passing thralls. “Find me Thjofgrir.”

The man grew pale, but stammered out his promise to try. That was enough to make Kaldr give him his full attention.

“Thjofgrir should be with my crew in the city. Don’t tell me you don’t know how to find them?”

“N-n-n-no, sir, it’s just…”

“Just?”

“It’s just, we can’t get there. The rebels hold that part of the city.”

Kaldr breathed out his nose. “Fine. Go about your business, then.” If the rebels were already that deep into Breidelstein, things were dire indeed.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

10.27 – Spear Thrust

Einarr’s clansmen fought like desperate men, or cornered animals, each believing themselves alone. Einarr had come to expect better discipline from men under Kaldr’s command: was he not here, then, either? Bea and Jorir guarded his flanks, and while the pressure never seemed to let up neither did they seem to be in much danger. Occasionally one would make it past his guards, and Einarr would have to fight as well: as much as he hated cutting down his fellow clansmen, he preferred those moments to the ones where he was free to observe and wonder.

He had heard, of course, that Ulfr was a poor Thane – but only ever third-hand. Father, naturally, took that as a matter of course. But to have the evidence so plainly before his face was galling. Cursed or not, he thought it would almost be better if these men never knew what they had been reduced to under the Usurper.

Eydri paused: Einarr glanced toward his Singer, but she had only stopped to take some water. While no man of the Clans would deliberately shoot a Battle Chanter, there was always the risk of a stray arrow.

Einarr pressed his lips together: this was dragging on too long. He glanced at Bea and at Jorir and nodded. He brought Sinmora up behind his shield and stepped further into the fray. Now was not the time for half-measures, and desperate men broke easily.

Bea and Jorir matched him, foot for foot, as they pressed forward. As Einarr expected, the blockade crew yielded before their onslaught. Soon, they had reached the Heidrun’s bulwark.

Einarr stood for a moment, contemplating the boarding line. They could cross, and take the fight entirely to the blockade ship, but…

The cry came from deep within the blockade line, three different voices at almost the same instant. “It’s cut!”

“Pull back!” Einarr ordered.

The wolfling ships, unmoored from the line and still caught by boarding lines, began to rotate. Soon, they would cross the blockade even if they did nothing.

They were not about to do nothing. The wolflings could not be allowed to cut the boarding lines, not until all their crew were back aboard. With a predatory grin, Einarr jumped up on the bulwark. “We’ll help defend the lines.”

The fighting was still fierce aboard the wolfling vessel, but even there it felt like a ship that had lost its captain. Maybe it had: that would explain the lack of fortitude among its men. If so, however, that made for a shocking number of ships with either bad captains or none at all. Could Ulfr be even worse than we’d thought?

His men were through, now, and lined up in rows. Half had taken oars, and the others had reclaimed their bows. Einarr climbed back up on the bulwark of the wolfling ship. “As soon as you’re both over, cut the lines.”

Jorir grunted even as he took off a man’s leg at the knee. Beatrix, though, was right behind Einarr.

He dashed nimbly across the boarding lines and turned to wait for his man at arms.

It looked as though Jorir was having trouble breaking away. The dwarf could vault up on the bulwark with no issue, normally, but the wolflings pressed him hard.

Einarr took up his own bow. They couldn’t wait much longer, but he could help. He drew, sighting carefully. This would all be for naught if he shot his own liege man by mistake. His arrow flew.

That was the moment Vali made his appearance. It started as a shiver running through the wolflings, and then an unearthly howl began, like wind whistling over the mouth of a sunken cave. The wolflings shared trepidatious glances.

Vali made himself visible, superimposing his own form over that of the dwarf’s. For added effect, Einarr thought, the ghost did not keep himself to the dwarf’s, or even his own, size. Einarr blinked, hardly believing it himself: there, as though growing out of Jorir’s own body, was a spirit nearly three times Einarr’s size.

The wolflings panicked, racing for the farthest possible point from the apparition. Jorir looked about himself in apparent confusion, but only for a moment. With a shrug, he made his way across the boarding line. It was only when he turned to cut it that he saw what had frightened them off, and then he laughed.

“So? Anything?” Einarr asked as Vali vanished from the old ship and appeared, normal size again, on the deck of the Heidrun.

“Not much. Kaldr’s ship is in dock, and Kaldr himself has been removed fom command.”

“You say ‘not much,’ but that means a good deal. Good work, Vali.” Einarr turned to the rest of the crew: they were starting to lag behind the others. “Heidrun, move out!”


The appearance of dirt and decay only grew stronger as they drew nearer to Breidelsteinn town.

Einarr let out a low whistle. “What happened here?” he said, to no-one in particular.

Eydri, sipping at her waterskin, stepped forward. “What usually happens under a usurper. I saw all the signs when we were his ‘guests.’ They abuse their power, without understanding the responsibilities it entails. There’s a reason usurpers are almost universally reviled. And a reason why rulership is inherited.”

Einarr nodded, then swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. No. The clan elders will simply have to accept Father in the Thane’s seat, if Grandfather can’t be.

Eydri chuckled, her eyes warm, but did not explain.

“All we have to do is destroy the Weaving,” he reminded himself. “Once that’s done, the rest of Ulfr’s support should vanish… shouldn’t it?”

“For some, perhaps. I have never dealt with a working on this scale before, but… some people may have grown used to the shackles placed on their loyalty, and not realize they are free for some time after the Weaving is shattered.”

He thought on this for a moment: it made sense. There was a reason Battle Chanters would typically Sing their warriors down out of the battle fury, after all. It took time for calm to return. “I understand.”


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

10.25 – Honor

At some point after Lord Ulfr ordered him imprisoned, between his irregular meals and while he ran beginner exercises to keep his body spry, the noise of the key in the lock surprised him. For once, he had not heard the old crone’s cackling first. This was most irregular.

Kaldr sat down and leaned against the wall to observe his new visitor.

Even the dim light from the hall was now enough to make Kaldr squint: he peered at the newcomer, but all he could make out was the silhouette of a man.

“Has the Thing finally been assembled?” His voice came out like a croak.

A familiar voice tsked. “What have they done to you?”

“Thjofgrir?”

“It must really be rough if you can’t even recognize your own Mate.”

Kaldr offered a wan smirk. “More that I can barely see you right now. It seems I’m to be kept in the dark in more ways than one.”

“Ain’t that the truth. You’ll be in here a long time if you’re waiting on the Thing to assemble. The rebel ships are on their way again, only our glorious Thane seems to have lost the ability to track them.”

“Tell me, Thjofgrir. If we had been at Lundholm, would things be any different?”

“Is that why you’re so calmly accepting this?” His Mate shook his head. “We might not have lost two Captains, if you had been leading that fight, but are we really worse off for their absence?”

Kaldr allowed himself a derisive snort. “Maybe not.”

“Look, Kaldr, the men and I have been about the town. The people are a hair’s breadth from rioting. Even if Lord Ulfr defeats the rebels, he loses – and I’m not so sure he can defeat them at this point.”

“Whether or not Lord Ulfr is a suitable Thane is not the question at hand here. He is the rightful Thane.”

“I’m not so sure you’re right about that, Captain. If I’m right, a fight against the rebels just might spark the people in the town to join them. And no Thane rules for long after the people turn against him. If you say the word, Captain, we’ll all follow you out of here. It might not be so bad, being a freeboater for a while. There are plenty of other clans who’d be happy to have us as mercenaries…”

“No.”

“Pardon?”

“No. I will not flee like a coward or a common criminal. I have staked my pledge behind Lord Ulfr’s banner, and I intend to see this through.”

He could feel Thjofgrir’s weighing look. Eventually, his second-in-command sighed. “I had a feeling you’d say that. Have it your way. I’ll do what I can to keep the men in line, but their sympathies lie with the town. As do mine.”

“As do mine, in truth. But if things in the town are ever to improve, we must break the hold the Lady Mother has over her son’s mind. …You should go. I hear her in the hall. I wonder how much blood she will let this time…”

“What did you say?”

“Never forget, Thjofgrir. The problem is not Lord Ulfr. The problem is the weaver-witch.”


The Vidofnir led Einarr’s and Kormund’s ships directly for Raenshold. The fact that Urdr had been deprived of her original “weaving of inevitable victory,” or whatever she’d called it, did not mean she could not start a fresh one. The odds were considered good, though, that the longer they took the more likely she could build one up. Thus, they drove straight for Breidelstein.

When the island came into sight on the horizon the three ships weighed anchor and the Captains once more gathered on the deck of the Vidofnir. Sivid sat on the bulwark, staring towards home with a look of annoyance on his face. His broken arm was tied up in a sling: broken bones could only heal so quickly, even with Song Magic, which meant that he was stuck on the ship for the final fight. Einarr gave a wave of greeting, which was answered by a tight-lipped smile.

Their strategy meeting that night was brief. Not much had changed, frankly, from the last time they had made it as far as the harbor, save the number of enemy ships. They had not truly had time to rest at Lundholm, but if the Norns were on their side they shouldn’t need to do much fighting.

This set Sivid cackling from his watchpost, still leaning on the bulwark.

Kormund scowled at him. “What, praytell, is so funny? Stigander, I know you keep a loose ship, but still…”

Stigander and Einarr, and those in the conference who had traveled with them for any length of time, looked amused.

“If the Norns are on our side, you said.” Einarr smirked. “Well, the Usurper is kept in power by a Weavess who practices their dark Art, and -” He gave a momentary pause.

Sivid did not disappoint. “The Norns always correct their weave.”

Kormund furrowed his brow and stared at them, still plainly at a loss.

“It’s rather more literally appropriate here than usual, is all,” Stigander said. Kormund seemed to relax a little.

“For more than fifteen years,” he went on. “The weave over Breidelstein has been drawn more and more out of true by the Weavess. We are about to be as shears for the Norns. So far as they’re concerned, I suspect our petty, political aims matter not one whit.”

“I rather suspect,” Einarr drawled. “That we’re happier that way.” He remembered, again, the threat black-winged Hrist had left him with. As much as he wanted to believe the Aesir and the Vanir weren’t all like that, he wasn’t certain he could.

“I suppose the only question left is, do we push on through the night?” It would leave their men tired for the assault. On the other hand, it would also afford a better opportunity to catch the Usurper’s forces by surprise.

Stigander crossed his arms and lowered his chin. “If you think your men are up for it, I say yes.”

Nods of assent quickly followed from Kormund and Einarr. Then, with that settled, they each returned to their own ship and weighed anchor once more.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

10.24 -Audience

Kaldr walked swiftly forward into the chamber, his chain dragging on the ground behind him. “My Lord, I pushed my ship as fast as she could go.”

“The journey from Lundholm should be possible in half the time it took you to arrive.”

Kaldr stopped. His Thane was evidently in no mood to be reasonable: it was, in theory, possible to cover the distance that quickly. If you had a following wind the entire way, and if you pressed your crew to row the entire distance. The wind had not been so kind, and he had been unwilling to drive his crew to either mutiny or exhaustion – the two most probable results of such a demand. “The winds were unfavorable, my Lord.”

Ulfr snorted. He still lounged across his father’s chair, which always made him look like a petulant teenager despite the gray in his hair and the wrinkles on his face. Saying as much, of course, was not generally considered wise.

Abruptly, he swung his legs down off the arm of the chair and sat up straight, leaning forward toward Kaldr. “What was unfavorable has been your behavior ever since the rebels entered our waters. First I had to curry favor with those witches you captured so the thrice-cursed Matrons will continue to leave us alone.” Ulfr pushed himself forward out of the chair to stand on his dais.

“Then, after they escape – with some of Mother’s most important workings, mind – she tells me you had a hand in their escape. When the girl was critical to my keeping the upper hand over the rebels. Mother’s Weaving is never wrong.” Ulfr gesticulated wildly. “Then Urek’s pigeon arrives. What was I supposed to think when he said you were a rank coward, that you had let the rebels slip through your grasp not once, not twice, but no fewer than three times? Hm?”

Kaldr lifted his chin to meet his Thane’s eyes. He would not be so easily cowed. “You know my methods of hunting, my Lord. This hunt was no different from any other. Had I not been precipitously called back, the rebels would have been in hand in short order.”

“Wrong again, Kaldr. Broki’s pigeon arrived this morning. The rebels launched a sneak attack on your vaunted blockade. Urek and Vittir are dead, and Broki’s ship is hardly seaworthy.”

“If a sneak attack was successful, then surely it was the watch to blame.” There was only one way out of Lundholm. Wasn’t there?”

“They were attacked from the open water, behind their position.” Ulfr spat the words.

Kaldr blinked, unable to entirely cover his surprise. They shouldn’t have been able to get to the open water from there. So, how?

“Kaldr Kerasson, I hereby strip you of your rank and privileges. I find the allegations of treason against your Thane credible. You shall await the pleasure of the Thing in the dungeon.”

Kaldr swallowed, but bowed his head in acceptance. If such was the Thane’s pleasure, he could wait a little. Or, perhaps, Lord Ulfr would calm down and come to his senses. It was true that, on the surface at least, the sequence of events could lead one to believe him a traitor. That he was not was, for now, immaterial.

The guard moved forward to once again take hold of Kaldr’s chain.

“Take him away.”

The guard bowed his head and strode brusquely out of the room. Kaldr found himself faced with the option of walking or being dragged by his wrists: he chose the former.

The path to the dungeon took him back across the yard to the tower of the gate house. Before, it had seemed as though those few he passed ignored him. Now something irrational in his mind tried to convince him they laughed. As always, he ignored it, and walked to his fate with the pride and dignity of an innocent man, which scandal could not touch.


The weaver-witch – Lord Ulfr’s Lady Mother, he corrected himself – waited for Kaldr at the door to his cell, making no attempt to hide her glee at his predicament.

“What do you want?” If there was a hard edge to his voice, he thought it could be excused under the circumstances.

Lady Urdr smiled even more broadly and brought a hand to her collar. “Why, I only wished to welcome you back, Captain Kaldr. It seems you and I will be sharing a roof for the forseeable future, so I thought I might be neighborly.”

Kaldr managed not to snort, but it was a near thing.

Lady Urdr’s smile did not touch her eyes as she moved in to whisper – loudly – in his ear. “Welcome to my parlor, little boy. We’ll have such fun here. Perhaps you’ll even take part in some of my work.”

Kaldr raised an eyebrow and looked down his nose at the crazy old woman. She cackled. His jailer opened his cell and he stepped in, grateful to be shut away from her. As the door closed on his back, darkness fell around him.

Over the next… while – Kaldr found it difficult to measure the passage of time from inside a cell with neither light nor air from the outside – he grew accustomed to the sound of cackling laughter from the dungeon hallway, and the stifling closeness of his cell.

That laughter always presaged one of Lady Urdr’s visits. One would think, as the only person he ever saw, he would have grown fonder of the woman – or perhaps not. It was not in his nature, after all, to grow fond of any witch, and she was a particularly sadistic one. She bled him regularly: he could never quite make out why, but he was sure she was up to no good. It was never enough to keep him from the training he had devised for himself, though. He could not, after all, afford to grow weak while he awaited the pleasure of the Thing.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.