When the final boat sat with the waves lapping her hull and their crews sat resting their shoulders and their thighs on the shore, a figure appeared in the door of the hermitage. He wore the skin of a bear as a cloak, the creature’s snout extending past the old man’s head.
Einarr was the first to notice him. He raised an arm in greeting. For a long while Gotlief, the hermit, did nothing more than stare at them. One by one, though, the rest of the fleet greeted him in silence – all except Bea, who watched with one eyebrow raised. Do the Imperials not have holy monks?
Finally, when the old monk was satisfied, he raised both arms into the air, the bear’s paws moving with his own clenched fists. Then a war cry broke the stillness, and even Einarr jumped at the ferocity of the man’s voice. The startlement only lasted a moment, however, and the hills echoed with their answer.
Einarr and Stigander exchanged grins, and then Stigander turned his face to the sky. “All aboard!”
The arrival of Lord Ulfr’s messenger came only a day after the successful, if unwise, raid against Lundholm. Early enough that Kaldr wondered if Urek had sent the message earlier than he thought, or if his Thane was also dissatisfied with his service. He flared his nostrils in a loud exhale.
“Trouble, sir?” Thjofgrir, ever-attentive, asked.
“I’m afraid we will be unable to see our plans to fruition. It seems our Lord has grown impatient.”
Thjofgrir frowned, following his Captain’s gaze out to sea to the little skiff dancing over the waves on its way to their blockade, Ulfr’s sigil plainly visible on its sail.
“Shall I ready the fire-arrows, sir?”
It was a measure of his annoyance that Kaldr did not answer immediately. But, without much hesitation, he shook his head. “If the messenger cannot be persuaded to wait a little for our quarry to come to us, then we shall just have to return. As galling as that is.”
Thjofgrir, too, took longer to respond than was his wont. For a long moment he stared at Kaldr, but in the end the words out of his mouth were still “as you say, sir.”
What does Lord Ulfr think he’s doing? He’s never been this impatient before, and I’ve never failed to capture my quarry. So, why…?
The tiny karve drew closer at an alarming rate. While that boat could be faster than a longship, this was still too fast for the messenger to have been dispatched from Raenshold. That meant a pigeon had traveled from Urek to the Thane to one of the other outlying islands… he shook his head. That was too unbelievable. That weaver-witch must have something to do with it.
Movement caught his eye from the other ships in his fleet: boards were being stretched across, and there was no discussion aboard Broki’s ship as Vittir strode across. Urek, as he might have expected, was already leaning against the bulwark by his own plank without so much as a by-your-leave. The man wore one of the most self-satisfied grins Kaldr could remember seeing. Perhaps Lord Ulfr is right. This mission isn’t under my control anyway.
“What goes on?” Vittir asked as the two from that side trotted up.
Kaldr pursed his lips, his words coming out short and clipped. “Ask Urek.”
The man himself answered with a braying laugh, his boots clomping on the deck as he swaggered over to join the other Captains.
“Well, Urek, I hope you’re pleased with yourself. Our Lord acted unusually swiftly, for your having just dispatched that bird yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” Urek laughed again, even going so far as to slap his thigh. “Coward, I sent that bird after they slipped our noose in that shallow harbor.”
Thjofgrir’s hand went to the blade at his belt. Kaldr held out a hand.
“Wait. Listen to what he has to say. I’m sure it will be …educational.” Kaldr could hear an edge in his voice. He wondered if anyone else did.
“Kaldr, it was painfully obvious from the beginning that you never intended to actually catch these thrice-damned rebels. I couldn’t begin to say why – oh, wait, I could. But that’s a matter for you to take up with Lord Ulfr.”
Kaldr felt his jaw tense. This… this idiot had the gall to imply he was a traitor? In front of other Captains, no less! Wait. He took a deep breath: the man was probably trying to bait him into something stupid. Before his promotion, Urek had all but lived to fight duels. He spoke low, keeping iron discipline over his voice. “I see. Was there anything else?”
“Does there need to be?” Urek did not laugh, at least not out loud, but one look at his eyes told Kaldr he still was.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “And you two. Do you agree?”
Broki shook his head sadly. “No, Captain. I was pleased to be selected to come along on this hunt: you are known as one of the best hunters in the fleet.”
“Speak for yourself, sheep,” Vittir snarled. “Urek’s right. Kaldr hasn’t got a speck of real fight in ‘im. Comes of being so scrawny, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Kaldr glanced up at the sky from under his eyebrows,wondering if the gods would, just this once, smite the idiots.
He had no time to go farther than that, however: the thump of two wooden hulls caught his attention.
“Ho there!” A voice rang out from over the water. “I come in the name of the Thane! Permission to come aboard?”
With a mental sigh, Kaldr nodded at his Mate. “Permission granted. Throw him a line.”
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