The storm sluiced the blood from the deck as the Vidofnir rowed, searching for the edge of it, hoping nothing further happened. Astrid’s body was tied to the deck where she fell. It would be too much to bear for any of them, let alone Father, if she were to wash overboard.
Even with the sail furled the mast creaked ominously until they had cleared the storm. Once they dropped the sea anchor, most of the crew swarmed over the ship, checking for damage. Einarr helped his father tend his stepmother’s body under the Captain’s awning. Somehow, she was the only casualty from their ship, and the Grendel had paid in blood for the honor. “This doesn’t make sense,” he blurted, arranging Astrid’s arms so that her hands lay folded on her stomach.
“It never does, son.” Stigander’s voice was raw, his eyes bloodshot. Astrid may have been his fourth wife, but her loss was just as bitter as Grimhildur’s had been six years ago. He stepped up toward the bedroll-turned-bier, a pot of ointment in his hands.
“That’s… that’s not what I meant. I’m sorry, Father.” It was unreasonable to expect him to be paying attention to the oddness of the Grendel’s attack – even if he was the Captain – under the circumstances.
“You don’t have to stay. I can take care of this.”
“Yes, Father.” Heaving a sigh, Einarr straightened and stepped softly out from under the canvas. He had liked Astrid, dammit, but Father required him to put on a public face while Stigander could not.
His steps rang out when he moved amidships, however. The crew would mourn later; the ship came first. He spotted Bardr standing near the mast. “How bad is it?”
“Bad enough. I think this is the worst of it.” He patted the column of wood. “We’ll have to replace it this winter. We can reinforce, but with the time we’ll lose to that we might not make Silringshold before the ice sets in.”
Einarr blew air through his thick red moustache, shoving aside a momentary pang of regret for Raenshold – the home he had never seen. “What are our other options? Is there another friendly hold nearby?”
“Have to check the charts to be sure.”
He knit his brow. His father had the charts, so far as Einarr was aware, and now was not the time to disturb him.
Three men pulled Erik up from over the side of the boat, shaking his soaked head. Two more men were waiting with wool blankets.
“What happened,” Einarr and Bardr asked at the same moment.
“Damage below the water line. Don’t think there’s enough wood to patch it and the mast. Wherever we’re going, we’ll have to row.”
The men were not going to like that. Hel, Einarr didn’t like that with no land in sight.
A slow, heavy step sounded from behind them and Stigander’s blond head glowed nearly white in the sun. “We’ll make for Kjell Hall.”
Everyone, even the Captain, took their turn at the oars, and with every silent dip of the paddles beneath the water’s surface they remembered Astrid and her song magic. Occasionally someone would try to get a rowing chant going, but none of them had trained in the song magic and it was a weak, tremulous thing. Those who were not rowing were subdued, warring within themselves between gratitude that they hadn’t lost more and grief for the giant presence that had vanished.
After a week of rowing the Vidofnir slipped into the bay and up the river that led to Kjell Hall, its shallow keel skimming across the water’s surface. It was good that the raid had been a success, for Kjell Hall was the hold of Jarl Hroaldr, and even an old friend did not winter at the King’s Hall without gifts.
The bay was long and narrow, and the mouth of the river broad, such that one could only tell by brackishness where one ended and the other began. The shallow white sand beach proceeded only a few feet from the high tide mark before being met by the open spruce wood that covered most of the island.
Stigander ordered the Vidofnir beached just past the salt-water line and the crew was allowed to debark. A gentle wind blew up over the water towards the interior of the island, cutting through Einarr’s heavy wool cloak. Einarr nearly envied Sivid and the others who were ordered to make fast the ship: they were still moving.
It was only a moment, however, and then they were moving again, walking openly up the forest path from the beach toward Kjell Hall on the highest point of the island. Patches of snow glowed white where the morning sun had not yet reached.
A hunting horn sounded as they stepped out of the wood and into the wide swath of now-dormant farmland surrounding the Hall. Ahead of them stood the great Hall of Jarl Hroaldr, King of the Cold Sea and childhood friend of Captain Stigander, Thane of Raenshold. The gates were opening to reveal the warm light of fire and the rolling laughter of those already present under the great upturned boat of a roof. The Vidofnings tramped through the palisade surrounding the hall after their Captain, who stopped two paces outside the door.
“Hail to ye!” A voice bellowed from within. “Stigander and his Vidofnings are well-come to Kjell.”
“Hail, my Jarl, and many thanks.” Only now, with the proper invitations, did Stigander allow himself and his men to enter the hall. “I’m afraid we’ll have to impose on you for a time. The Vidofnir needs repair, and the winter ice is too near at hand.”
The Jarl laughed. “There will always be a place for old friends at my Hall. For tonight, be merry, and we will see about business on the morrow.”
Einarr stepped to the side when he entered. Jarl Hroaldr was visibly scanning the faces of the crew.
“Stigander, where is your lovely wife?”
His father’s face contorted. “Awaiting entry to Skaldsgarden.”
The mood of the hall was quenched, and Hroaldr’s face fell. “I’m so sorry. Will you allow me to see to the burial arrangements?”
Stigander gave a bitter half-smile. “I’m afraid she cannot be sent off from Raenshold now. That would be most gracious.”
Hroaldr nodded, waving his hand in invitation for Stigander to come and sit at the head of the hall with him. Einarr found an open seat elsewhere, but as he was lowering himself a flash of gold caught his attention. He looked up. Time seemed to stop. There, reclining on a cushion near the Jarl, the fairest woman Einarr had ever seen laughed with one of the serving wenches. Her hair was the color of spun flax, her lips the vibrant pink of fireweed, her skin as pale and fair as the rein rose. Is that . . . Runa?