With Hrist’s ominous parting words ringing in his ears, it would have been an understatement to call Einarr impatient to return to Kjell. Where before he marveled at the Arkona’s speed, especially for a ship of her size and draft, now it would not have been enough had she been able to fly.
He shared his encounter with Hrist only with Eydri, Naudrek, and Hrug, and while they, too, were now anxious to return that word, too, was insufficient. He spent his days pacing the deck, cursing under his breath the alfs and their High Roads for keeping him from his place on the Vidofnir.
His relentless pacing meant he was among the first to notice the unnatural light on the horizon as they approached Kjell. His throat went dry: had the whole island burned, in some dark reflection of their purification of Hohenwerth? He shook his head. No, that couldn’t be. Whatever it was, though, was bad. He tried everything to make himself sleep, but even under the effects of Eydri’s Lullaby he was subjected to terrible nightmares and fitful slumber.
The next day Kjell came into view and he saw smoke before he saw anything else – great inky clouds of it. The largest of these rose from what was obviously Kjellvic, and Einarr could soon see large swaths of untouched forest. That meant, though, that the other two merging pillars of smoke rose from the Hall and the Chapel, respectively.
Liupold could not coax any more speed out of his ship at this stage: he had done all he could in that regard in the days after Einarr’s encounter with the Valkyrie had led to a shift in his mood. He did, however, keep the Arkona at speed for far longer than he otherwise would have dared.
The Arkona sailed into Kjell harbor far faster than anyone considered safe, for this reason. The people on shore seemed on the verge of panic, held in check only by the keen memory of the harbormaster, who recognized them. When a landing craft was put down, Einarr practically flew to its deck. His companions were close behind, followed by Bea, Rambert and Liupold, and every one of them save Eydri manned an oar.
Eydri sang. Even with the boost she lent them, though, Einarr wanted to tear his hear out for how long it was taking. Threads can be cut, Cursebreaker, Hrist had warned. He did not see the Vidofnir in port: that could only mean it had been Runa under threat.
After minutes that felt like hours, the rowboat sidled up to the dock and Einarr leapt out in front of the harbormaster. “What has happened?” He demanded without preamble or introduction.
The harbormaster studied him for a long and wary moment before he answered. “Ah. You are the Lady Runa’s betrothed, are you not?”
“Yes!” It was an effort not to snap at the man, although that he remembered at all could be counted a small miracle.
For his part, the harbormaster was visibly relieved. “Three days ago, Kjell was hit by a raiding ship with a wolf’s head on the prow. They seemed to be looking for something, or someone. I’m afraid no-one seems to know what. Apparently they didn’t find it, because after they sailed off refugees started arriving from the Hall. They had been asking the same questions there, and stealing everything that was not nailed down in the process. The town is still burning, as you can see, but I think we’ve finally got it contained…”
“Good, good,” Einarr broke in at the first convenient moment. “Horses. We need horses. Are there any available?”
The harbormaster gave him a look as though he’d made a particularly bad joke. “With the town still in flames?”
Einarr shook his head. “No. No, of course you’re right. It’s just… I need to get to the Hall.”
“I understand, my lord, but unless you’re wiling to walk, or take that Conehead ship there back around the island, there just isn’t anything.”
Bea spluttered a little. Einarr heard her whisper “C-conehead?” as though she had never heard the insult applied to them before.
“Oh, wonderful.” The harbormaster sounded genuinely pleased about something. He was staring over Einarr’s shoulder. When he turned to look, he saw what would ordinarily have been the sweetest sight imaginable: the Vidofnir and the Ekthyrnir sailed into port together, both of them under full sail.
“Oh, no.” Einarr’s face dropped. “Back in the boat! Everyone, get back in the boat. I have to talk to my Father, immediately.”
In spite of their best efforts, arrows flew between the two longships and the Arkona before Einarr could get between them in their rowboat. He stood in the middle of the rowboat and shouted. “This is Einarr, son of Stigander. Do not fire! Repeat, do not fire!”
Arrow fire tapered off from the Vidofnir first, then from the Arkona as Walter realized that not only had the other ship relented, his Captain was in the line of fire.
A very familiar face peered over the bulwark at their small boat.
“Bardr! By the gods, it feels like forever. Permission to come aboard?”
“For you? Always. Who are those people?”
“Eydri is a Singer. Naudrek and Hrug are friends who helped me out last fall,” he began the introductions with their own people. “Liupold here is Captain of that vessel you’ve been firing on, and Rambert is from his crew. And this–” he gestured. “Is Her Imperial Highness Beatrix Maria Gundahar, Admiral of the Hrist Brigade and recent captive of that damn kraken the Grendel let loose.”
Bardr stared for a long moment, and Einarr could see him doing the mental gymnastics required to accept this. In the end, though, Einarr’s tenure as a Cursebreaker had subjected them all to far stranger circumstances than those.
“Come aboard, then,” he finally answered, after some guffaws and jeering from further back in the boat. “I look forward to hearing just what the hel happened out there.”
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