Seven years earlier
The soothsayers claimed snow was coming, even though they should ordinarily have had another month. Even though it was bright and sunny over the Hall. But it was unwise to go against the soothsayers in matters of weather or fate, and Captain Stigander set several of his best lookouts up into trees to watch the horizon.
“Not you,” Stigander said when Einarr started to climb a tree.
“What? Why not?” He didn’t want to whine. He’d been a deckhand long enough not to whine, but his voice cracked on the ‘what’ to make it sound like one.
“Deckhands operate on deck. Go help bring in the goats.”
“Yes, sir.” His fingers only itched a little with the urge to climb: once they were up there, they probably weren’t coming down for quite a while, and that would be boring. More boring than wrestling goats, certainly, and there were always a few. He dashed off across the meadow to join the goat-herds, already headed further into the interior of the island.
“Hey-yo,” he called as he caught up. Many of the other boys responded in kind. Most of them did not yet even have the haze of downy stubble that was beginning to grace Einarr’s chin.
The goats had already wandered out from the rockiest area of the island when they found them, perhaps sensing the impending storm as the soothsayers did. The goat-herd hailed the group from a distance of fifty paces. “What news?”
“The Ice descends,” answered one of the few boys there older than Einarr, a hint of melodrama in his voice.
“Ugh,” groaned the goat-herd. “Seriously?”
“That’s what we’re told.”
They moved around behind the herd of goats and began marching forward in a line, back toward the Hall. The goats, of course, mostly ignored them, slipping between legs or kicking back when they got tired of being kneed by walking teenagers. Then someone had the idea to make a game of it; whoever carried or led the most goats back to the winter pen, won. Anyone who hurt a goat by accident got a penalty to their count. It was understood that anyone who hurt a goat on purpose would be thrashed by everyone else.
Einarr had wrestled three does and a young buck into the pen when he noticed a small slip of a girl out among them, her pale blond hair mussed half out of its braid, laughing as she clung to the neck of a particularly headstrong doe that was trying to break for the rocks.
What is she even doing out here? He thought, breaking off from the doe he had been trying to corner. Thankfully the other goat was slowed by the weight of a child hanging on its neck and Einarr was able to get in front of it. The doe stopped just shy of ramming into Einarr and planted her feet, her nostrils flaring. The doe plainly didn’t think she could dodge him with this weight she couldn’t get rid of.
Before the goat could buck and try to throw off its cargo, Einarr bent over and took hold of its slender legs. “You can let go now.”
Once the girl released the goat, he scooped it up over his shoulders. The doe, of course, tried to fight, but with its legs restrained there was a limit to what it could do. “I’ll carry this one back for you.”
“Thanks!” The girl was still a little breathless. “Don’t you try to steal my count, though!”
“Nope, this one’s all yours.” A laugh tried to well up from his belly, but he repressed it. Somehow, he didn’t think she would take that kindly.
“Okay then. I’m Runa.”
“Nice to meet you, Runa. I’m Einarr. Is it fun, having the princess’ name?” They both started walking back toward the pen. Einarr ambled, really, since she wouldn’t have been able to keep up with his longer legs.
“Being the princess is great – except when they try to keep me from playing with the boys.”
Surprised, Einarr nearly let go of the goat that still struggled on his shoulders. That would have ended badly for all three of them. What’s the Princess doing out… oh. Well, she wants to play, let’s see if she can win.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Princess. Come on, we’ll be a team. We’re sure to win, that way.” He was pretty sure he was near the lead before, and it would have been miraculous if she’d managed to get even one goat before this one.
Is that . . . Runa? He shook his head and finished his descent to the bench. Even if it was the princess, she probably didn’t remember him. She had been perhaps ten the last time he’d seen her, and he fourteen. She was a woman, now, and Einarr could think of any number of men more likely to be chosen as her husband. “Heir of Raenshold” meant very little these days. He took a bowl of venison stew and began talking with the men to either side of him, trying not to stare.
Erik, on his left, was talking with one of the Kjellings about the attack on their ship. Einarr couldn’t count the number of times they’d all talked it over when they were off rowing duty, but it still didn’t make any sense. Where had the storm come from? No-one knew. How had the Grendel operated freely in that weather? Some thought it was a ghost ship, filled with the spirits of drowned sailors. Einarr doubted it.
So did the Kjelling Erik was talking to. “If that had been a ghost ship, they wouldn’t have settled for just Astrid.”
“That’s the part that worries me,” Einarr jumped in, the black demon’s head fresh in his mind. Runa was still a distraction from the corner of his eye, but this had been gnawing on him since the attack. “It wasn’t like they settled for Mother at all. They barely even bothered with the rest of us – just enough to keep us away from their target.”
“You think she was targeted?” Erik took a swig of his mead.
“Doesn’t it look that way to you?”
“How could they even have been sure she was there,though?” The man on the other side of Erik leaned forward as he asked the question and looked over at Einarr.
Einarr shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s just what it looks like to me.” That wasn’t quite true: he did have an idea, but it wasn’t one he was certain he could credit. Runa was nodding earnestly at something one of the other Kjellings was saying to her; Einarr blinked, and made himself look back at Erik and the other man. As his eyes flicked across the room, it seemed like Bardr was studying her, as well. Oh, no. Not her, man. “While we’re asking questions, though, why would they risk attacking another ship in a storm?”
“Especially without a battle-chanter of their own,” Erik grumbled.
“They didn’t… you’re right, they didn’t. Or if they did, she wasn’t singing, which amounts to the same thing.”
“You’re sure they weren’t agents of one of the Empires?”
“I… suppose it’s possible?” Einarr hadn’t considered that. From the looks of it, neither had Erik. Finally, though, he shrugged. “Well. Father will want the blood price in blood, I expect, no matter who they are.” He took another mouthful of stew and glanced back toward the princess. When did she grow up?