When the sun set that evening, Einarr was as glad for the end of the day’s labors as he was for the return of their scouts. Lundholm would recover: probably without too much trouble, even, for while Urek had instructed his raiders to do as much damage as possible, they had avoided doing much to the villagers themselves.
Still, the cleanup had been back-breaking and tedious. Erik, rising from his work at the boathouse, inspecting their ships, was the first to spot them. He lifted a big hand high in the air and waved. “What ho! Welcome back!”
That signalled the end of work as surely as the setting sun and everyone made their way to the green to hear from the scouts.
“It’s not an easy road,” Troa warned. “Even without the ships, the way is steep, and the forest presses in on either side.”
“In two separate places we had to clear a deadfall from the road,” Boti added. “Those were apparently what kept the old monk away: he seems to be in fine health, and bade us tell you he will arrive with the season’s first and second honey within the fortnight.”
A woman’s voice in the crowd said “oh, thank the gods.” All three scouts smiled as though they had expected that response.
“And the monk accepts that we must go past his hermitage?” Stigander sounded thoughtful.
“Yes,” Troa answered. “I spoke with him myself. He was mostly glad to know the way had been cleared, because he is old and the trees were heavy.”
Stigander’s lips parted in a smile. “Excellent! We leave at first light.”
The wolflings did not launch a second raid on the town that night. When dawn broke and the alarm had not sounded, a quiet cheer went round the waking men of fleet and village alike. As they rose they each headed for the boat house as they chewed a small bit of dried salmon for strength.
Elder Vilding waited for them at the boat house. Stigander, in the lead, motioned the men behind him to wait. “You have our thanks,” he said, offering a small bow.
“And you, ours. I only wish we could have carried out our agreement properly.”
Stigander accepted this with a gracious nod of his head.
“I have sent a guide on ahead to the first fork. He will ensure you do not lose the path.”
“You have my thanks, again.”
A wry smile cracked the old man’s face. “Now go. Give ‘em Hel.”
Stigander grinned, and then they moved on. Each Captain took his place at the bow of his own boat, and then their men put their shoulders to it and lifted.
With no small amount of groaning, of men and wood alike, the Vidofnir, the Heidrun, and the Eikthyrnir rose into the air and began trundling forward like a trio of monstrous centipedes.
The forest road was narrow, as Troa had said. Einarr expected it would also be steep, once they were a little farther inland. Still, it was nothing their crews couldn’t handle. He resettled his shoulder under the weight of his ship. This would be a long portage: perhaps among the longest he had ever attempted. But for all of that, it might just do the trick.
When night fell, the three crews sat atop a mountain with their guide and rested for the evening. In the morning they pressed on, still tired and sore but glad to be past the worst of it.
Mist hung in the air along the road that morning, lending the world around a feeling of unreality. And yet, with the clear sky above and the warm light filtering through the mist, Einarr could almost forget the burden he bore on his back as they made their way down the far side of the mountain. Someone started up a rower’s cadence song. Before long, men all up and down the line were singing it together.
The road led around a series of tight hairpin turns – tight enough and steep enough that it was tricky to maneuver the boats through – but only a little later leveled off. Through the trees ahead, Einarr could see the blue-gray sparkle of the ocean.
“Look ahead!” He called in cadence. “Nearly there!”
Everyone’s spirits picked up at that, and with their spirits rose their pace. The forest opened up ahead of them, and almost before they realized they stood on the edge of a meadow. Off to their left was a small stone house. Smoke rose from the ceiling vent. That must be the hermitage: Einarr could hear buzzing off in the distance.
The road tapered off into nothing from here, but already they could see the grey, rocky shore ahead, and beyond it the beckoning sea.
The cadence song was now replaced by cheerful banter amongst the men. Someone proposed a race: his Mate shot it down.
Einarr maneuvered his Heidrun to move parallel to the Vidofnir so that he could speak quietly with his father.
“We’re not going to just leave the wolflings at the fjord, are we?”
His father shook his head. “If we attack them, we lose one of the primary advantages of slipping out this way. If we don’t, sooner or later they’re going to try raiding Lundholm again. And this time, we won’t be there to help. And that is why tactics must be complemented with both strategy and ethics. No matter the short-term advantages it would gain us, I cannot abandon the town to the wolflings. Not when I’m the one who brought them in the first place.”
Einarr nodded as his boots crunched in the stones on the beach. “You first, father.”
Without breaking his stride at all, Stigander led the head of the Vidofnir into the cold ocean water before them. With only the tiniest of splashes they set the Vidofnir down in the water where she sat groaning on the beach, waiting.
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