Arkja stood examining a doorpost that seemed to have escaped the worst of the blaze. Einarr could make out an old and rather worn carving of runes – a blessing of protection on the house, he was sure. But on top of that, and much fresher, were other and different runes, drawn much more crudely.
“This…” he paused, inspecting it a little more closely. “This is part of the inscription that was used to burn the city down. If the Muspel Shroud was still around, it would have been drawn to this like a moth to a lamp.”
Jorir harrumphed. “No doubt the Shroud was a troublesome thing to deal with… but I wonder if it wouldn’t be a help, under the current circumstances.”
“Not sure how. I expect it would show up, discover there was nothing left to burn, and then move on.”
Jorir shrugged but did not try to explain himself.
“Let’s continue on. I think we’ve found everything we’re going to right here.”
They combed the ruins of Kem until the light began to fail. The only living thing anyone saw were crows, come to pick among the coals for anything that might still be edible. Nothing living, however, did not mean they found nothing.
When it was nearly time to turn back to the ship for the night, they reached the central square of the city. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, Einarr was certain they would have found it packed at any time of the day or night. Market stalls would have abounded, selling hot food or fresh vegetables or any number of goods. The buildings of Kem were taller than in most Clan cities, and there would have been people living on the upper levels.
And when the fire swept through, they would have been trapped. Einarr shuddered at the thought.
There was, however, a massive standing stone in the very center of the square, exactly where Gabriel remembered – and apparently untouched by flame. And, as they had hoped, someone had left a message burned into the stone.
Burned? There could be a Painter here, we’re close enough to the Empire, but I feel like I’ve seen that before.
He glanced over to see Jorir standing beside him. “Does that look familiar to you?”
The svartdvergr blinked, then shook his head. “It’s written in runes, isn’t it? All I see is a gray blur.”
The teams all met back up on the Heidrun just before sunset, as they had agreed. It was a somber meeting: no-one could face destruction such as they saw on the island and be easy with it. Once the wards were drawn, Einarr looked around at his crew and asked the expected question. “What did everyone find?”
Hrug’s findings, as reported by Arring, were consistent with what Einarr had found, save that they hadn’t made it as far as the square. There had been traces of some rune workings that had perplexed Hrug, and they had taken time to investigate those.
Eydri, however, offered Einarr a mysterious smile when it was her turn to report. “Of physical evidence, we found no more than either of your groups. However, I think you might be interested in this.”
Irding ushered forward the sunken, disheveled figure of a half-starved man, his hair as wild as his eyes and his body smeared all over with ashes.
“He tells me his name is Thrand, and he hails from Blávík. He has a rather interesting tale to tell.”
The man who stepped forward, out of the protective line of people that sheltered him from notice, fidgeted with his fingers, and his eyes darted this way and that, as though he expected a monster to pop out at him at any moment. His eyes lit on Einarr’s face for a moment longer than they focused on anything else and he squinted at him, as though he were trying to remember something.
“Hello, Thrand. My Singer tells me you have a story I should hear.”
“Y-y-y-yes, milord.” He fell silent again. Just when Einarr was about to prompt him again, Thrand began. “I am… I was the Captain of a League ship. At the beginning of the season, my boat was among those sent out to hunt down and destroy enclaves belonging to the thrice-damned Squid Lovers.
“We’d rooted out two or three enclaves already when we got word that one of their demon ships had been spotted around Kem–”
“Wait. Rooted out? What direction did you come from? Are you to blame for those other settlements around here that were razed?”
“Each and every one of them was deep in the corruption of Malúnion.” He said it with almost crazed conviction. For the moment, Einarr would let it pass. “So yes, we rooted out two or three enclaves before we got credible word that the infection had spread to Kem.
“I didn’t hesitate. We sailed here as quickly as I could make my ship run – and you’ve seen, milord, how fast she can be.”
Einarr looked at the decrepit man again, but still had no idea who it could be. “When we got here, sure enough, there was a demon-headed longship headed into the port. Needless to say, after our successes up to then, we gave chase. Chased it right into the harbor here.”
Einarr stared mutely at the man. Brave was one word you could use for what sounded like this man and his ship had done, but Einarr thought idiotic more appropriate. When he found his voice, he said, “Go on.”
“Well, milord, what we found was… what we found was a mess. We attacked the demon ship. Then … then…” He shook his head, trying to clear it at least enough to talk.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was like the streets started boiling, and there were monsters among the men of the city, attacking other men of the city… only it was more like a slaughter. Most of the Flatings had no chance. My men had no real chance, and we’d been training for this day. … The Squid-lovers were doing something. Some sort of ritual, I thought – there was a lot of screaming involved. We… we were the ones who set Kem on fire. It seemed like the least we could do, after what we’d wrought.”
Einarr rested his chin in his hands, thoughtful. Then something odd the man said struck him. Something about how Einarr knew what the man’s ship was capable of stuck out. “Do I… know you?”
Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!
So begins what I expect to be the final book of The Adventures of Einarr Stigandersen. After four, almost five, years and fourteen books, I’m ready to move on to other projects – and I’m sure Einarr is ready for me to do so, as well – if only so I stop tormenting him! Fear not, however: my intention is to start a new serial, although not a purely free one. Look for a poll or an announcement from me in the next few weeks as I firm up my ideas.
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