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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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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When the crew of the Vidofnir learns that Jarl Hroaldr’s ship is now actively hunting the same demon-headed crew that murdered Astrid, and that the princess Runa has been kidnapped, a hasty alliance is formed.

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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The passing of the storm took with it the ever-present gray of the sky of the ships’ graveyard. If there was one advantage they had on the trip out that they had lacked on the way in, it was the lack of fog – at least for the moment. If there was a second, it was the knowledge that there were no more kalalintu on the island. Still, these were small mercies at best, and the sharpest eyes on the crew had one task: spotting. Everyone else took their turn at the oars, shoving off of submerged sand bars to the calls of the spotters.

Einarr was not among those set to spotting. The foresight spoken of by the Oracle and the foresight required for that task were very different things and so he, too, was among those whose prime task was “hurry up and wait.”

Not that this was without its upside: the sun, now that it had emerged, shone off the water brightly enough to make him squint when he looked over the side. The spotters would be seeing spots for hours after they got through this. He gripped his oar and stared out towards the horizon.

The Vidofnir, her sail furled against errant gusts of frigid wind, crept forward through the shallows with a caution belied by the crowing rooster’s head on her prow. The oars extended out like a hundred hands to push off the shallows by the calls of those within. Seemingly at random, the lumbering longship would veer quite suddenly, the sandbar ahead undetected until the last moment by those within.

Once, as her halting forward progress seemed to become more sure of itself, the Vidofnir shuddered to a halt on a bar the spotters had missed. Then men swarmed from within, carrying what tools they had to dig at the submerged sand until she could start forward again. One of these men, shorter than the rest, grumbled about the lack of powder kegs aboard, but it seemed the rest ignored his complaints.

Once Vidofnir floated free again the men swarmed back onto her broad back and stomped their feet to warm them, hoping their trouser legs would dry before they froze in the wind, and then the sea-steed continued on again, her caution renewed.

For hours this halting, tremulous progress continued, until finally the sand bars fell away and a large rock, more truly an island than the one they had just left, reared up out of the sea ahead of them. The sea had worn away a narrow canyon that split the rock, and were it not for the tide through that canyon even it would be impassable.

Stillness fell over the Vidofnir as she entered the canyon, as of a collective holding of breath. She paused there a long moment, the ship’s eyes blinking away the glare of the sun so they could focus on the shadowed water below and the known danger it hid. Her hold was full to bursting now, and it was a weighty wealth indeed.

On deck, gripping his oar tight enough to whiten his knuckles, Einarr forcibly expelled a breath he knew he could not hold long enough to pass through the chute. The troublesome rock had been nearer this end of the canyon than the other – much nearer. Jorir still grumbled about the lack of explosives on board, and just this once Einarr thought the dwarf might be on to something. However, it was typically only Imperials who packed gunpowder on their boats, and then it was to power the machines that launched sea fire.

Einarr closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled again. Eira preserve us. For a split-second, he wished he still had the Isinntog. He didn’t know how to make it work, of course, but Reki might. He shook his head, banishing the wishful thinking.

“Hold!” The call came from the prow. Almost as one the rowers reversed for one stroke. Sufficient, at their current speed.

“You’ve spotted the hangup?” Stigander asked from his place amidships.

“Nay, sir. Not the hangup.”

“Then why have we stopped?”

“You’d best come see, sir.” The spotter’s voice was uncertain, flustered.

The thunk of Stigander’s boots against the deck boards was loud as he tromped up to have a look at what the spotter did not wish to say. He leaned over the prow to look down into the water and a groan escaped his lips.

“Pick up the pace, gentlemen,” was all he said.

Einarr stopped his father with a look as he passed by, an eyebrow raised.

Stigander leaned over in response to the unspoken query and whispered: “Sea serpent.”

Einarr blinked a few times and nodded. Svarek, next to him, began muttering what sounded like a prayer to Eira, but it seemed he was the only other person to hear. Probably a sea serpent would leave them alone. Something about a longship failed to trigger their predatory instincts the way a dromon could. But every once in a while…

“Oars in!” Stigander ordered, and it was the second shock in as many minutes for most of the crew. The urgency in his voice brooked no delay.

“Brace for a swell!”

The oarsmen planted their feet even as the spotters ducked behind the prow just as a massive swell lifted the Vidofnir’s stern and thrust her forward, carrying her far past the place they all thought they remembered the hangup being. Water sloshed over the deck, cresting the stern and breaching the oar ports.

Silence reigned on the deck for a few moments before Einarr could find voice to give the question that now floated in his brain.

“Was that the serpent’s wake that carried us?”

Stigander’s jaw dropped. When he picked it back up, a chuckle welled up from his chest. “It may well have been!”

Now the laughter spread around the crew, a sound of relief at least as much as merriment. As it died down the rowers went back to their rows and the spotters resumed their positions in the prow.

“Let’s get out of here.”


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When Einarr opened his eyes the next morning, it was to the whistle of wind across the Vidofnir’s rails, the slate-gray sky above, and the dull ache of overworked muscles not yet ready to be worked again. He sat up, blinking blearily: those around him appeared no more alert than he was.

Einarr growled low in his throat as he pushed himself to his feet. Where was… Ah. There they are. Near the stern, Stigander and Bardr stood debating in hushed tones between bites of breakfast.

Already know what they’re discussing. This is awful weather to set out in. Einarr twitched his nose when he caught the cold freshness of rain on the wind. Food first. Worry about sailing in this later.

That they would be sailing today, one way or another, was almost unquestioned. There was a storm on the wind, yes, but with all the sandbars and submerged rocks around this island he didn’t think father or Bardr either one would want to risk being blown from their mooring.

Einarr took his bowl from Snorli with a wordless half-smile that was not returned. The cook was staring off at the horizon to the southeast. The direction the wind blew from.

“I smell it, too.”

“Then turn around and look.”

The sky over the southeastern horizon was near as black as the storm the Grendel rode in on last fall, and even from here the swirling of the clouds could be seen.

“Eira preserve us…” Einarr breathed. “Excuse me. I believe I need to go speak with Father and Bardr.”

Snorli grunted, but Einarr hardly noticed. His eyes were still glued to the spectacle the cook had called attention to. He shoveled his breakfast into his mouth without tasting it as he moved.

That Captain and Mate had seen the storm clouds already was never in question. That they weren’t sure how best to deal with it was equally clear as Einarr approached, still spooning porridge into his mouth, still staring at the horizon.

“Father.”

“Einarr.”

“Why are you letting everyone sleep still? Shouldn’t we be hauling Vidofnir up the beach?”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Bardr nearly snarled.

“And I’m telling you, there’s nothing natural about that storm. We get back on the water, we find the Grendel, or one of her allies.” Stigander crossed his arms, his mouth set in a stubborn line.

“Father… we’re down nine men already.”

Bardr nodded.

“It’s been one day since we pacified the haunting on this island. One. And that only two days after the kalalintu attack.”

Bardr nodded again. “The men are exhausted.”

“And you want to try to get through the shoals and go after the Grendel… in that?” Einarr could not believe what his father was suggesting.

“If it means a chance at Astrid’s murderers?” Stigander glowered under his brows. “This is the closest I’ve been to those whoresons all season.”

“Is it? All we can see is the storm, not if anyone is crazy enough to be riding it.” Venturing out in that would be suicide, the way they were now.

“Captain, you’ll get your chance for vengeance. Whatever the Grendel is after, we none of us will let her get away with it. But are you willing to throw away Raenshold to do it?”

Now it was Einarr’s turn to nod. There had been times, if he was honest, that he doubted if Raenshold was attainable at all… but to throw the dream away for as slim a margin as this? Even if Stigander survived it, the Vidofnir would shatter. “Father. Let’s not forget our goal, shall we? We’ll find another chance at the Grendel, a surer chance, and then we can wreak vengeance for Mother. But right now, that storm is coming up fast.”

Stigander growled. Einarr worried, for a moment, that he would plant his feet like a mule, but then his father blew air through his moustache in a noisy sigh. “Godsdammit, why do you have to be right? Fine.”

Stigander strode towards the cauldron bubbling with the morning’s porridge and bellowed. “On your feet!”

***

All through the morning the storm raged, the Vidofnings sheltering in the upper chamber of the cave where just the day before they had conducted rites for the old Allthane. As heavy as the Vidofnir was, they had managed to beach it properly, and even found a few rocks near the bog line they could tie to.

When the winds’ shriek died to a low moan and the sky had lightened from black to the grey of a cloudy midafternoon, the Vidofnings ventured forth from the dubious protection of the Cave of Revenants into the freezing drizzle of the storm’s wake.

Thanks in no small part to the weight in her hold, Einarr was sure, the Vidofnir lay exactly where they had left her, surrounded by bones and driftwood blown up from the shoals. They could still catch the afternoon tide, if they hurried.

From the sounds of things, that was the plan. No sooner had they reached the beach than the men were directed to move the Vidofnir back to the water’s edge. Sivid dashed up to undo the mooring lines while the rest of them moved into position along the sides of their boat.

Stigander, his shoulder to the keel, called a cadence. “One! Two! Heave!”

Vidofnir groaned against the sand as she slid back down towards the shallows. Couple more like that and we’re in business.

The cadence sounded out, and again they heaved. Now the stern was in the water and their load was lighter… although she was already riding much lower in the water than usual.

“Last push, men!”

And then the Vidofnir was in the water and the crew was clambering up the side to take their position at the oars. Now they just had to hope that there was still a clear path through the sand bars from here.


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In spite of their exhaustion and soaked feet – and trousers – Einarr’s crew was in high spirits as they returned to the Vidofnir late that morning. The sun said it was nearly midday: as they stepped out of the marsh and onto the sandbar Einarr exchanged a look with Reki. They’d been luckier than any of them had any right to expect. A chuckle rose up from his chest.

Reki opened her mouth as though to say something, but then closed it again. With a sigh she, too, started to laugh, and soon the men were talking and laughing with the ebullience of relief.

“All right, Father, your turn,” Einarr called as they approached the ship.

Stigander studied the approaching group, looking for any sign of new injury and finding none. “Welcome back. Everything’s in order?”

“The Allthane lies buried in the frozen deep. And none too soon, either.”

Stigander nodded. “All right, you lot! On your feet. The faster we load the hold, the sooner we can get off this stinking rock.”

The rest of the Vidofnings pulled themselves over the side of the boat with far less alacrity than was their custom, the fatigue of the night before still showing in the eyes and shoulders of all of them. That few hours’ rest they had claimed while the rites were conducted had not been enough, and everyone knew it. Still, though, as the two strings of Vidofnings crossed paths there were congratulatory gestures all around.

Einarr locked hands with his father as they crossed paths, almost as though they intended to arm wrestle.

“Good job out there.”

Einarr nodded. “Take your time with the portage. Don’t think we’re getting out of here before morning anyway.”

Stigander barked a laugh. “You sound like Bardr.”

“Good! That means I might be on to something.”

Now they both laughed, and clapping each other’s shoulders continued on – Stigander to the treasure hold, and Einarr to the deck of the Vidofnir. When he pulled himself up, he saw that Snorli had remained behind, stirring a cauldron over the ship’s hearth that smelled distinctly of mulled mead.

“You are a lifesaver, man!” Einarr grinned at their cook.

“Gotta stay warm while you dry off somehow, right?” Snorli returned the smile without looking away from the horn he was ladling into. “This is the second cask I’ve opened since last night.”

“And we thank you for both of them. You haven’t seen the haul down there: we won’t need to worry about our resupplies the rest of the season.”

“Good.” Snorli handed the steaming horn to Troa, who had arrived just before Einarr. “Certainly you lot deserve the treat. It’s been ages since we’ve had a fight like that.”

Einarr grunted in agreement. A moment later he, too, had a hot drink in hand and was striding across the deck towards his bedroll. He groaned as he folded grateful legs under him to sit, cross-legged, on the blanket.

“All right, lads. We’ve to keep a lookout… but I’ll be buggered if there’s anything else alive on this rock. Boti, you up for first watch?”

The scout shrugged. Thus far he didn’t seem to have suffered any worse than a headache and a bad goose egg from his knock on the head. “Sure. Someone’s gotta.”

“Thanks. The rest of you…” He turned, then, as he realized what it was he saw from the corner of his eye. “Why is there a jar on my pillow?”

“It was in the cache you found before. Odvir thought you must’ve liked it, since ceramic doesn’t really sell…”

The jar did look familiar, with its Imperial-style painting that had somehow weathered the centuries unchipped, but Einarr shook his head. “There was an ivory tafl set that I wanted, but this… this is just a jar.”

He took a drink of his mead, still staring at the strange jar. I could have sworn I threw that away back then… Einarr shrugged, and turned to the nearest man remaining. He thrust his horn toward the other man. “Hold this for a second.”

Einarr pushed himself up on protesting legs and sore feet. When he picked the jar up, it felt warm to the touch – even accounting for the horn full of hot mead he’d just had clasped in his hands. Odd. He shrugged again and moved aft, towards the sea.

“May the waves carry you to someone who actually has a use for you,” he muttered. Einarr pulled his arm back all the way, twisting for extra force, and pitched the jar as far as he could out toward the open ocean. Even Snorli did no more than shrug. Ceramic was a dicey thing to keep on a longship, as vulnerable in the hold as on deck.

***

An hour passed before the larger group of Vidofnings began to return with sacks full of gold from the ancient horde, and then Einarr and his companions were moving again, stowing the gold in every spare crevice they could find underneath the deck boards. The way people were moving, no one would be up for rowing without a full night’s rest.

Stigander and Erik, to no one’s surprise, carried the largest loads slung over their shoulders as though it was nothing, and their two sacks filled the Vidofnir until she was nearly fit to burst.

“Much still left down there?”

“We didn’t even get half of it,” Erik laughed.

Einarr shook his head. “Maybe now we know why they wrecked?”

“Maybe.” Bardr sounded less amused. “Let’s just hope we’re not too heavy to get out of here.”

Vidofnir’s nimble enough. I’m sure we’ll manage.”

“You mean like we did on our way in, where we almost got a rock through our hull? We’ll be lower in the water now. A lot lower.”

“I think we all decided that was a risk we were willing to take, wasn’t it?” Einarr looked levelly at his father’s first Mate. This plan had been his idea in the first place, after all.

Bardr just grunted, acknowledging that fact as well as his misgivings.

“Long as we all get some proper rest tonight we’ll be fine.” Erik stepped in: Einarr wasn’t sure he was as reassuring as he wanted to be.

“I’m… sure you’re right.” Bardr didn’t sound convinced, but it wasn’t the sort of thing one argued about at this point in a raid.

“’Course I’m right!” Erik laughed and clapped the Mate on his shoulder so hard he nearly stumbled. “Pretty sure that’s why the Captain keeps me around.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm.”

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

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

“You have an hour.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure?”

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

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

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

Jorir stopped mid-step. “Miasma?”

“Haven’t you felt it?”

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

“And find the body of the Allthane.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A clawed, ghostly hand stretched out towards the observers.

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

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


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When I was very young, and was first introduced to science fiction, I read a lot of things that objectively (and metaphorically) hurt my feelings and outraged my received opinions. … Most things I read, actually. It’s part of what attracted me to science fiction, the ability to put myself in another situation where […]

via Listening So Hard That It Hurts — Mad Genius Club