In the end, they had to dispatch Hrug to assist with burning what remained of the city. There simply wasn’t enough left which would burn hot enough to properly cremate those slain in Eskidal, but a funerary circle added the strength of Hrug’s will to the flames and reduced the charnel ground to ash. The midday sky behind them was orange-lit gray from the blaze as the fleet made its slow exit from the shallow waters around the island.
When the smell of smoke no longer filled his nostrils, Einarr called Hrug aside to discuss the nugget of an idea he’d had while they were scavenging for supplies. They had several weeks still to go on the water, after all: that might be long enough to make contact with some old friends who would also like to see these madmen put out of their misery.
Another month on the water took the fleet to within sight of the island chain mentioned in the cultist’s documents found on Kem. A week ago, Einarr and Hrug had attempted their ritual, but there was no way to know if it worked or not.
Now the green mounds of Kratíste were before them, and soon it would be moot whether his message reached Beatrix or not. Still, with no intelligence yet about the islands before them, this was about as close as they dared to come – a fleet of ships was not a subtle thing, after all.
Einarr gave the signal and all but one other boat dropped its sails and backed water. This was followed by a splashing of sea anchors. Now the Heidrun and the Lúmskulf sailed forward alone, to land on an unobserved section of beach and scout out what lay ahead.
The Heidrun set a circuitous course toward the south, approaching the islands obliquely. If Fortune were on their side, they would be able to spot a likely landing place without being spotted – or at least noted – themselves.
After another hour like this, Einarr spotted small drakken, quite obviously on patrol. He frowned, thinking: they could keep going as they were, and when they were eventually noticed they could claim to be freeboaters, and perhaps a little lost.
He glanced back at his crew and smiled to himself: no freeboater ship was ever as well-equipped as his Heidrunings now were, and some aboard the Lúmskulf were better.
“Take us a little further out from shore,” he ordered. “Then we’ll drop sail and wait for nightfall, go in under oars. It’s been a while since most of us have been on a proper raid, I think: I hope no-one’s gotten rusty.”
The comment was met by a wave of laughter.
Naudrek dropped the sea anchor when Einarr gave the word, and the Lúmskulf pulled up alongside. Kaldr seemed pleased when he heard the plan.
“Why do I feel like you’re surprised?”
“Because I am, a little.” Kaldr chuckled, quietly enough that Einarr almost didn’t hear it. “You are, from time to time, somewhat hasty, my lord. Or perhaps the dvergr is rubbing off on you.”
“And you, my friend, appear to have learned to relax.” Had they been on the same ship, Einarr would have clapped Kaldr on the shoulder. “Any thoughts on where to come in from?”
“Thjofgrir spotted shadows on the coast just a little ways back from here: probably a cove or a fjord we could hide in.”
“Good. We’ll go there, provided we can find it again by starlight.”
The good news was, the patrol ships all disappeared at sunset. The bad news was, nothing appeared to replace them. Einarr stood, staring across the water, as the last rays of sunset disappeared over the horizon and the sky became deep indigo. They were lucky: there was a full moon, so no-one would be tempted to light a torch. It also meant any human watchers would have an easier time seeing them, but there were always tradeoffs.
The question was, with no sentries at night, what hunted there?
“Kaldr? Jorir? Any thoughts?”
“Not much choice but to go on, is there?” Jorir grumbled. “If they’ve got monsters guarding the water, well, we’ve dealt with monsters before.”
“I’m afraid Jorir’s right. Unless you want to lead the fleet to war with next to no understanding of our enemy, we haven’t much choice.”
With a sigh, he nodded to himself. “You’re right, of course. Out oars!”
Einarr was proud of his men: they brought their oars into place with nary a scrape of wood nor a splash of water. Now they just had to maintain that. “Forward, now. Quickly and quietly.”
The two directives were not, quite, mutually exclusive, but it was a difficult thing to manage. Einarr noted every splash of water on the oars, and flinched when a pair accidentally clacked together, even though the bigger danger was probably staring up at them from under their hulls.
He let the Lúmskulf take the lead: it was Thjofgrir, after all, who had spotted the cove. Behind the other ship’s outline, the bulk of the island grew ever larger. Under the light of the moon, the towering oak forest looked like tufts of hair on a giant’s head, and Einarr shook his own to rid himself of the image.
The moon was beginning to set by the time the Lúmskulf and the Heidrun nosed their way into the inlet Thjofgrir had noticed. A quick look around told Einarr it was a promising place, and a good place to hide their boats while they searched for the actual stronghold.
That was when a wave crested under his hull and caused both ships to roll precariously. At the same time, a deep rumbling growl carried across the water to them.
I knew this was going too well. “Jorir? Any thoughts?”
“Whatever that creature is, it’s in the forest. Probably thinks we look tasty.”
“You don’t think it’s related to that strange wave?”
“It could be, but I doubt it. Even if it is, what could we do?”
Einarr hummed. He didn’t like it, but Jorir was right, of course. And after that fimbulvulf the jotun kept, he didn’t figure he had much room to worry about land monsters. “Very well. Find a good open spot for beaching, then we need to find a way to hide ourselves.”
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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