Author’s Note: Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa. This should have been posted months ago. Between March and June of this year, we moved twice – once halfway around the world – and when I wasn’t actively involved in packing/unpacking, I suddenly had the Young Master at home all the time, rather than at Montessori school. None of this was conducive to writing. So, today you will get this last chapter. Then, sometime next week or perhaps in the first part of the new year, there will be a definitive announcement as to my next project. And, at some point in there, this website will be getting rebuilt, as recent changes appear to have broken my old design.
Some months later, the remainder of the Fleet sailed into Breidelstein harbor, Bea’s Valkyrie ships integrated into their number and most of their dead laid to rest off the coast of the cursed isle. The charred bones of Arring and Thjofgrir rode in state, along with one or two others, to allow the people of Breidelstein the chance to pay their respects, as well.
Someone must have ordered a lookout for the fleet, because as they sailed into port, the streets were lined with somber crowds. It looked as though the entire city had come out to welcome them back. They had sent no word ahead, so perhaps this – as well as the anxious mood of the crowd – was understandable.
As they neared the piers, three ships moved out ahead of the rest: The Heidrun, the Lúmskulf, and, between them, the Vidofnir.
When Stigander stepped to the gangplank and raised a fist high overhead, the crowd erupted into cheers. Soon, he was joined on the pier by Einarr, then by Kaldr, and then, after another moment, by Bea, who grinned at the crowd before her. Her appearance occasioned some little surprise, but not enough to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.
These four strode at the head of a long procession of warriors, Captains and crews together, up the cliff road to Raenshold. There, they were met at the gate by Uncle Gorgny, steward during Stigander’s absence, and Runa with Alfvin, flanked by what looked like everyone who lived in the Hold. Einarr blinked in surprise to see how much little Alfvin was grown in less than a year. He still managed to smile at everyone as Stigander accepted back the crown and sword of his office.
Runa, their son on her hip, fell in beside him as the procession continued on toward the main hall, now larger by the residents of Raenshold. “Welcome home.”
“I’m glad to be home. What did I miss?”
“Other than me, I presume?”
He glanced down, wary, but her expression was impish. He wrapped an arm around her waist, between her and Alfvin. “Of course.”
“He’s not talking yet, but he can walk. Or, more accurately, he runs. Everywhere.”
It was all Einarr could do not to laugh. He was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be funny for long. “That’s my boy, I guess.”
Alfvin giggled and grabbed at Runa’s ear. When she had distracted him again – Einarr had no idea with what – she continued. “Still no sign of any trouble from our little adventure in Svartalfheimr, but we’re watching.”
The procession neared the doors of the Thane’s Hall now, and all fell silent. Stigander made a gesture, and the guards flanking the doors threw them open.
It had not, in fact, been the entire population of the hold who had come to greet them at the gates, for the Hall, too, was packed with people. Certain familiar faces stood out to Einarr: there was his father-in-law, Jarl Hroaldr. His presence, at least, was no surprise: he had probably stayed to play with his grandson. There, the old men from the Althing before they left – Kjartan, and Geirleif, Tore and Olaf and Thorgnyr. Surely they had not stayed here the entire time? Or was the idea that they had returned ahead of the fleet more troubling?
The Hall was eerily silent as the procession marched up the center of the Hall. When Stigander and Einarr took the first step up towards the dias, however, a low rumble began in the back of the room, and as the returning column filled the hall to bursting it grew into a full-throated cheer.
Stigander raised his arms and, as though on command, the crowd fell silent once more. “And now,” he intoned, “for the second time in less than a year, the Althing is convened, so that all may know the results of our quest.”
* * *
Unlike in the spring, the Althing stretched on, long past what was customary and to the point where some wondered if Breidelstein would be required to host the entire fleet of ships over the winter. This would be no small feat for a country as prosperous as Breidelstein had been under Raen. As things were now, having only just escaped from Ulfr and the Weavess? It would be ruinous. Oh, there was glory to be shared, and honor to be gained, and there could be no doubt that the men who had joined the fleet would gain much face on their return home, but already it began to strain the thin coffers that they had hardly begun to rebuild. Einarr found his time more and more taken up with the daily running of Breidelstein and he stopped following the Althing.
Runa caught Einarr worrying over it one night and suddenly discovered that she had business to attend to with the other Singers. Some hours later, when she returned, he was too tired from running after Alfvin to worry about much of anything.
Rumors began to circulate, though, starting among the warriors of the fleet. Whispers that, with as well as the Fleet performed together, unified, perhaps there would be value to the Clans more generally from a similar joining. At first, he thought nothing of it. Truly, it would be a good idea, but he had missed most of a year of his son’s life, and there were precious few of those before Alfvin would have to leave to study under the Oracle. Then he saw an expression on Runa’s face, when two men were discussing it in his hearing, that suggested she was the cat who got the cream. His hackles immediately rose.
Three days later, a servant came to inform him he was wanted for the discussions in the Hall.
The doors of the Hall stood open when he arrived, and as he turned to face the Thanes and Jarls in the room before him he smoothed sweaty palms on his tunic. Inside, Runa offered him an encouraging smile.
Ahead, Stigander stood on the step of the dais, beckoning him forward. Suddenly the expectant looks of the powerful men in the room seemed as heavy as all the stone over Nilthiad. He squared his shoulders and entered anyway. When he reached the dais, he stood shoulder to shoulder with his father and opened his mouth. Before he could ask what this was all about, however, Thane Thorgnyr rose from where he had been seated in deliberations.
“Einarr son of Stigander son of Raen, you have brought great honor upon your head. Not only did you return at the head of the fleet after a successful quest, every man in this Hall recalls how you fought to bring that fleet together in the first place. In the months since you have left, word has reached our domains of other cities razed by these madmen… some in the time since you must have left their island stronghold.”
Einarr bowed his head slightly – he was a prince and a war-leader, but Thorgnyr was Thane to his father-in-law. “Thank you, milord.”
Thorgnyr smirked, and Einarr’s belly went cold. “It has been agreed among the Althing that one is needed whom we can all answer to. We would not have been caught so unawares by the mad cult had we been more trusting of one another. Therefore, for the first time in centuries, the Clans have agreed amongst themselves to acclaim an Althane.”
The cold in Einarr’s belly turned to an iceberg. Surely they couldn’t mean him? He cleared his throat. “My lords. I have spent the first decade of my career at sea as a humble freeboater. I have claimed my birthright, but it still sits strangely on my shoulders. I do not think…”
“You are too modest.” A woman’s voice rang out over the Hall, but not from the Singers conclave. Bea stood up and stepped forward. “Your native wit and wisdom – which, I might add, extends to your choosing of advisors – serve you well, such that even I find myself indebted to you. It is no small thing to earn the gratitude of a Gundahar.”
Thorgnyr inclined his head to Beatrix as to an equal. Any other Imperial likely would have been mortally offended: thankfully, Beatrix was not so minded.
“The Princess speaks what we all believe. Furthermore, she has suggested that such a joining could bring financial benefits to the Clans, as well as security. Furthermore, while you are currently heir to Breidelstein, you are also Lord over no lands. This is a rare combination. However, acclaiming an Althane against his will would, perhaps, be worse than acclaiming no Althane at all. Will you stand before the Althing and permit the vote?”
Einarr gaped, aware that he probably looked rather like a fish. Finally, he managed to speak. “Might I have a word with my wife, first?”
No-one raised any objection. Indeed, Stigander pulled aside a curtain behind the dais and motioned them both back.
Out from under the watchful eyes of all the Clan leaders, Einarr breathed a sigh of relief. He looked at Runa. “Just to be clear, you didn’t… do anything to anyone, did you?”
She blushed, but shook her head. “I didn’t even start the rumors. Those came from out among the men of the Fleet.” She couldn’t quite suppress a girlish laugh.
“Aye,” said a voice from behind him. Einarr jumped: he hadn’t realized anyone else was back here.
“Jorir? What are you doing here?”
“Keeping my ears open for trouble, mostly. But ‘twas me who started putting bees in people’s ears about the matter. I… hope ye’ll forgive the indiscretion.”
Einarr sighed and buried his face in his hand, trying desperately not to laugh in his friend’s face. “Of course. Well. I suppose, then, that I needn’t have worried how you would take it, Runa.”
She nodded, biting her lower lip, and pushed him back towards the curtain. “We’ll work out the succession later.”
Einarr pushed the curtain aside and stepped back out on the dais to stand beside his father. “Very well. I will stand for the vote.”
One by one, the leaders of the Clans stood, and one by one they pledged to follow the lead of the Althane, Einarr the Cursebreaker.
Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!
This is 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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