Without needing to be told, the men on Kaldr’s ship formed ranks behind their Captain. The messenger would see, at least, that he kept proper discipline aboard his own ship. Not that it necessarily mattered what the messenger saw.
The man who appeared over the bulwark was long and lean and more than mean enough to ply the waves alone, even if his lumpy nose and thick brow did suggest he’d lost more than a few brawls. As the messenger bowed and introduced himself, Kaldr could not help but notice that they had already attracted an audience. Urek leaned over the rail of his own ship, a smug grin plastered over his face, while on the other side Vittir and Broki watched with interest. At least they got off my ship.
“Welcome aboard. I’m afraid you’ve arrived during the boring part of the hunt, though,” Kaldr answered the messenger.
“Have I? That was not my understanding of the situation here.”
“I rather assumed not. But you see, we have our quarry trapped here. There is only one way out of Lundholm, and we have it blocked. Soon or late, the villagers will grow tired of the rebels, and then they will be driven into our nets.”
The messenger hummed, evidently unimpressed. “If that’s the case, then there should be no trouble at all. Thane Ulfr demands your presence at Raenshold, to answer the charges laid against you by your fellow captains. You are to make all haste to the capitol and present yourself before Lord Ulfr without delay. In your absence, Urek, as next most senior captain, will take charge of the fleet. Should the rebels fall into your net as you expect during your absence it may mitigate our lord’s ire.” The man had the nerve to sound skeptical.
“I see.” He did see: somehow, he had lost the trust of his Lord. Could Ulfr have found out the witches had help escaping? No, unlikely at best, and they would have poisoned everyone’s minds had they stayed.
Kaldr wanted to rant and rage, as his father always had every time he was caught by a witch. But there were two things he had learned from the man that had served him in good stead. The first was, never trust a witch, and the second was that a calm demeanor would see him through every time. Thus, he turned on his heels to face his men without so much as another glance at the messenger. “Men, it seems our mission is at an end. Rund, send up the signal that our scout must return immediately. The rest of you, make ready to sail. We’ll be pressing on through the night, I’m afraid.”
He saw angry glares among his crew, but all of them were directed at the Thane’s messenger. To their credit, every last man answered ‘aye’ and moved about their business. Before many minutes passed, he was left alone with Thjofgrir and the messenger. “Have you other business here?”
“No, sir. But do not forget that Lord Ulfr’s eye is upon you.”
“I have never for a moment forgotten my duty to my lord.”
“As you say, sir.” The messenger kept his face entirely impassive. “If you will excuse me, then…”
Kaldr dismissed the man with a wave of his hand and turned his attention to more urgent matters. Pitching his voice low, he addressed his Mate. “Thjofgrir, when Inja returns, make sure Vittir and Broki get his report.”
“What, not sure Urek can read?” Thjofgrir said with a quiet laugh.
“Sure he would ignore it, rather. The messenger could hardly have chosen a worse juncture to arrive…”
“It’s not too late to sink him.”
“No, Thjofgrir. That would make more trouble, not less. Even if we could then point to our success here. No, at this point I think we just have to hope Urek doesn’t make a dog’s dinner out of what should be a straightforward capture.”
Thjofgrir’s answering laugh said what he thought of that, but he turned to see about his duties nontheless.
A chortle floated across the gap between ships, and Kaldr turned to see Urek’s smug grin. “I guess even Lord Ulfr runs out of patience sometimes. How does it feel to know you’ve brought his ire down on your own head?”
“I don’t know, Urek. How does it feel to know you won’t have me around to pull your sorry ass out of the fire?”
Urek guffawed as Kaldr moved amidships to survey his crew’s preparations.
It was another hour before Inja made it back to their ship, and when he did he looked troubled.
“I couldn’t find out what it was, but they’re plotting something, sir.”
Kaldr exhaled and let his shoulders drop. “It’s no longer our concern, I’m afraid. Give Thjofgrir your report: he’ll make sure it gets to the other ships.”
That report was all they were waiting on. Even as Thjofgrir was in conference with the two more reliable of the captains remaining, Kaldr was directing the crewmen disconnecting his ship from the rest of the blockade. Done properly, this could cost them some hours. Done improperly, though, it could cost them their lives: a cost Kaldr was certain Lord Ulfr would be unwilling to pay. Even at the worst extremity, the Thane would want to hand down Kaldr’s fate himself.
Finally, though, as the sun lowered in the late afternoon sky, Kaldr and his disfavored ship set back out upon the waves, leaving Stigander and his rebels behind them. This would be a long, tiring, and pointless journey. He only hoped Urek could net their prey. If not, this entire enterprise would be nothing but a waste of time and men.
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