The hallway that Einarr crept down, following the sound of the voices, was not long. What struck him as strange, though, was how empty it was. The guards who had passed earlier never returned – assuming they were, in fact, guards and not priests or thralls on some errand. They knew they were under assault, though – and could guess at what the attackers were after. So then, why?

A large double door stood closed ahead of them, and the light from around its edges was bright like an aurora. The chanting came from inside.

The five stole up to the door and listened, but could hear nothing save the same chanting that had drawn them here in the first place. If the layout inside were typical of surface temples, the odds were good they could slip in unnoticed… but based on what Jorir had said of this cult, Einarr was not impressed with the chances of anything about them being normal.

Still, he wasn’t certain how much choice he had. There was no cross-corridor here, to look for another entrance. He scowled at the door, as though that would change anything, and stepped up to push it a shoulder’s width open.

Despite the loudness of the echoing chants, when Einarr pressed his eye to the opening he could tell it was only sparsely filled. He furrowed his brow, but still saw no better chance. Einarr sidled through the door, stepping as swiftly and as softly as he could manage on the still-carpeted flagstone.

There were guards in the room, it seemed, although they were stationed about the altar at the far side. Even as brightly lit as this place was, however, it did not reach all corners, and he did not think they could see him.

The focus of all in the room was the white-haired svartaflr at the altar, leading the other monks in their chant. That Einarr could make out no fresh blood at the front, nor any signs of struggle, gave him hope. Slowly, Einarr crept around the outskirts of the temple, keeping his back to the wall.

Barri and Bollinn, seeing the same two side-doors Einarr did, each with a guard stationed in front of it, split off the other direction. One of them, they hoped, must hide Runa. The challenge was going to be getting past the guards without inciting a melee.

The guard at attention ahead of them may as well have been a statue for all the life they could see in him, and the helm that covered his head effectively obscured whether he was man or monster. Not that it mattered, where Runa was involved.

Sivid slipped past Einarr, followed only moments later by Jorir. The dwarf could be wickedly cunning, Einarr knew from experience, and Sivid was sometimes too clever by half. Einarr nodded to himself and let them take the lead.

When they drew near enough that it seemed inevitable the man would notice them, Jorir dashed forward on his toes, right in front of the guard.

“Wh-!” The guard started to cry out, not so oblivious that he could miss a dwarf nearly treading on his toes. That was when Sivid moved in, his hand slipping under the helmet to cover where a man’s mouth would be even as his knife sunk between the guard’s ribs under his arm.

Muffled protests came from under the helmet as Sivid grimaced but did not remove his hand. Then the guard began to slump, and Einarr slid in to help lower him against the wall. Sivid shook his hand as though it were in pain. The guard’s knees locked of their own volition, and so he appeared mostly upright as the three Vidofnings slipped through the door behind him.

The passageway they entered was in many ways akin to the secret passage they had left not long before: the floor was bare flagstone, the walls were rough-cut stone, and every ten paces or so they passed a lantern. The passage seemed to curve around the outside of the large temple room they had just left, moving inexorably towards the back. If this didn’t lead to a short-term prison cell, it would lead to priestly quarters. Either of which could hold Runa. Einarr walked faster.

Finally they came to a small, unassuming wooden door – the first change of any sort they had run across since entering the passage. Einarr reached for the handle, anxiety clawing at his stomach, and more frantically as time went on. Let this be it.

He saw Sivid’s hand raised for him to wait even as he undid the latch. A corner of his mind shrugged: nothing for it now. He practically tossed the door to the side and dashed through.

The room on the other side was not the one he expected to see. The passageway opened into a broad room lined with not cells but cages, and those each easily big enough for a large bear… or a troll. Einarr’s lips curled in distaste. A pair of larger doors sat in the back wall, and across from them stood an open doorway, much like the one they had just exited. Barri’s brassy head was just emerging from the passage and into the twilight of the larger area.

He looked again. There was a fifth door, one he had somehow almost missed, opposite the closed back doors. That one had to lead out into the temple, where they would present the sacrifice.

“She’s in here.” Einarr barked the words as though he were on deck and not deep in enemy territory. He found he could not care at this moment. “She has to be.”

Einarr set off, looking in every cage he passed until he came to an intersection. A low growl rose in his throat: this was going to take forever. …But that stack of crates off to his left might help. His boots thudded against the wood as he leapt up towards the top. He was so close now: he would never forgive himself if the cult got to her before he did. Runa…


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For a long moment, all five men stared in shock at the figure on the floor. Finally, though, Einarr was able to focus on her face.

“That’s not Runa.”

Barri and Bollinn blinked, looking harder. Sivid shrugged, as though trying to rid himself of a weight.

“…Are ye sure?” Jorir ventured to ask, even his voice hesitant.

Einarr didn’t answer, merely stepped forward to take the poor woman by her shoulders and roll her over on her back. With the hem of one of her sleeves he wiped the blood from her face. The unfortunate woman would have been thirty if she were a day, and her face would have been long even if her ordeal had not rendered it haggard.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Moisture glistened on Barri’s cheeks. “Thank the gods.”

Einarr started to nod, then noticed the pendant that showed through a rent in her bodice. Carefully, trying to touch the rapidly cooling flesh no more than he had to, he lifted it for all to see. It was the emblem of the Singers. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I think we might know what’s in store for her if we don’t hurry.”

With a series of nods the five rose and started for the stair they had descended. Only, at some point during their battle, the door had been closed behind them – nearly as seamlessly as the dungeon door above had been. Bollinn cursed. Einarr merely sighed.

“Sivid?”

“Worth a shot. Gotta do something about the good light, though.”

Einarr nodded in agreement. “Let’s go check the room the gaoler vanished into.”

The others exchanged some strange looks, but Einarr ignored them until they were inside the guardroom.

“What did he mean?” Bollinn asked, crossing his arms as they stepped into the apparently empty room.

“Nearly got ourselves trapped in the stairwell before. Can’t see the mechanism if you’ve got a real flame. And that gaoler has to have gone somewhere.”

They marked time by the staccato spurts of cursing that drifted across the dungeon from Sivid’s progress – or lack thereof – on the door. All of them were aware of two things while they searched, however. First: the gaoler clearly had an escape route from this room, as he was nowhere to be found. Second, and more importantly, too much time was passing.

Finally, after a fourth spate of cursing reached their ears, Barri kicked at the wall and the sound came back hollow. All four men in the room exchanged a silent look.

“Someone go get Sivid, will you? Barri, let’s see if we can’t get through there.”

***

The hollow spot opened up on a passage not much wider than a broad man’s shoulders, lit sporadically with the same blue lanterns they had seen throughout the circle fort. Einarr led the way, Sinmora once again in hand, as they hurried down the narrow passage in the pool of normal light provided by Barri’s torch. The sound of their boots on the stone was loud in Einarr’s ears, but better that than to arrive too late.

At one point, not too far back from the gaoler’s cell, the passage split. One path curved back the way they had come, more or less. A scrap of cloth that could have been from the gaoler’s tunic was caught on a hook in the wall going that way.

“So that’s how he locked us in there with that beast.” Jorir grumbled.

Einarr grunted. “But he’s not the one we’re after, and I’ll bet good ivory that we can get into the keep proper on this other path.”

“How much good will that do us?” Bollinn called up from behind, blowing out his moustache.

Einarr was moving again before he answered, his strides devouring the ground under him. “You see any sign of a temple or an altar outside? No? Me, neither. So it’s probably inside, somewhere protected. Especially since the lord of the keep seems to be this high priest we’ve heard about.”

No-one else voiced any complaints, unless one wished to count the loud breathing of the dwarf as he half-jogged to keep up. Eventually their pool of natural light met the end of the occasional pools of blue. Shortly thereafter, Barri’s torch illuminated the inside of a door.

Einarr held up a hand for silence, slowing his own steps to tiptoe the remaining few feet. Not that caution at this point was likely to aid them much, but it was also unlikely to hurt. He pressed his ear to the crack at the edge of the door.

Outside, a pair of boots tramped past, but no voices accompanied them. Einarr pressed his lips together, hardly daring to breathe, until he could hear them no longer. When they had not returned after a long count of ten, he unhooked the latch.

The door slid to the side on ingeniously tiny, nearly silent runners. Einarr wasted a few breaths ensuring he would remember the design: he had never seen its like, but perhaps someday he could make use of the trick. Then he stepped out of the recessed panel that hid their passageway and into a broad flagstone hallway. Rugs were laid to run along its length, and while the local lights seemed to wash everything in the gray of twilight, Einarr was reasonably certain those rugs were predominately crimson.

Moments later the rest of the team had emerged from the passage and Sivid was very carefully closing – but not latching – it behind them. They spread along the wall they had emerged from, placing themselves in shadow as they sought a clue as to where to go.

The sound of chanting from down the hall raised the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck. Without waiting, he stole down the hallway towards the sound. It was, at the very least, a place to start. Now if only I’m not too late…


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Their vigil over Sivid’s work seemed to last for ages, even though the fact that no other guards arrived suggested he made fast work of the lock. A grinding of stone on stone signalled the opening of the door.

“We’re in,” Sivid confirmed.

All five men vanished through the doorway, with Einarr in the lead and Sivid bringing up the rear. The door closed behind them with the sound of stone on stone and a muffled click.

The narrow stair was ablaze with the blue-burning lanterns that illuminated the streets, but no guards waited inside to greet them. Einarr frowned, but did not hesitate: haste was their ally right now, and he was most of the way to the first corner when Sivid closed the door behind them.

Down they went, blades still drawn as they rushed for the bottom and the cell where Runa was held. Barri raced at his shoulder just a half-pace behind, aiming to strike at anyone who managed to dodge Einarr’s shield.

No guards rushed up to meet them.

Surely that couldn’t have been all of them, could it? Einarr scowled, now, and held up his shield to warn those behind him he intended to slow his descent. A handful of steps later the five came to a stop in the now eerily silent stairwell.

Einarr sheathed his sword and started looking about at the walls. “Something’s not right. There should be more of them.”

Sivid, too, was scowling. “You’re right. I don’t like this.”

The next lantern was two steps farther down from Einarr. He stepped down and reached for it. “Grab a light. Let’s not get stranded in the dark down there, at least.”

Then he was moving again, not running this time but still at a decent clip, the lantern held in place of his sword. If he was wrong he would have to do some quick juggling, but a certainty in his gut suggested he was not.

The silence continued all the way to the bottom of the stair. Einarr was beginning to feel as though he were in a pit rather than a castle dungeon, and the impression was not helped by the cold blue-purple lights they carried.

The bottom of the stair was a small antechamber carved from the living rock, much as the stairs themselves had been, with a single small door leading into a larger chamber. Einarr raised his lantern high as he stepped through, the feeling of wrongness from before slowing his steps.

The chamber walls curved off to either side, broken up now and then by a barred door, for as far as the light of their lanterns stretched. Einarr pursed his lips before moving off to the right, Jorir and Sivid in his wake, to begin peering into the cells. The Brunnings took the left-hand wall.

I’m missing something, Einarr thought after peering into yet another empty cell. Surely by now Runa should have realized they were there? Unless… A stone dropped in Einarr’s belly. What if they’d moved her after he and Sivid had retreated earlier?

A high-pitched, almost wheezing laughter rose from the edge of the darkness at the far side of the chamber. Einarr whirled around, lifting the lantern for a better look, but he needn’t have bothered. Another had flared to life, revealing a sallow-faced man with stringy hair and the armor of a guardsman. The ring of keys at his belt said he was a gaoler.

“Wheee heee hee,” he half-wheezed again. “Thought you’d come back, we did. Decided to show you our hospitality, we did.”

“What have you done with the Lady? Not six hours ago I heard her down here.”

“The lady, you say?” The ill-looking gaoler laughed again and nearly choked on the sound. “The lady is well taken-care of, sirs, and I’m afraid you’ve more important problems to concern yerselves with.”

A crooked grin, filled with crooked yellow teeth, spread across the gaoler’s face and he gave a strong tug on a rope that hung behind him. “Farewell, me hearties. Lord Urkúm sends his regards.”

The gaoler slid to the side and out of sight even as a much larger door behind him swung open. A primal scream rang out from beyond that door as out stumbled a hideous she-troll, a massive club clutched in her equally massive fist.

The she-troll screamed again, her eyes red with madness, and charged straight for Einarr, her bare dun breasts swinging pendulously with every step as she brought the club up in a two-handed grip over hair the color of dirty straw.

Einarr tossed his lantern at her head, not caring if it hit, and Sinmora rasped from its sheath. He bought himself just enough time to fling himself out of the way of her first strike with the tree-sized weapon.

Where did they find a troll? Einarr was quite certain he did not want to know the answer to that. No wonder, though, that there was no proper firelight to be had here. Trolls wouldn’t tolerate it, and neither would a good number of other monsters.

The troll bellowed again and swung the club over her head. She seemed to be staring at Jorir’s shield. Einarr swallowed against a dry throat as she swung and the hollow clang of wood on gold rang out in the chamber. The force of her swing knocked the dwarf back a good three feet, but he seemed otherwise unharmed.

If only we could have brought Reki with us… Einarr charged in at the troll’s back, knowing even as he did so that it was futile, hoping to buy the Brunnings time enough to do something about her. He hacked across her back with Sinmora. A thin line of dark blood appeared, and was just as quickly reabsorbed into her body. He spat a curse.

Sivid moved in now, slashing with blade and hand axe at once even as Jorir cut viciously at her knee. If the she-troll hadn’t been enraged before, she certainly was now.

The chamber grew brighter – not a lot, and not enough to change the quality of the light, but brighter – as the Vidofnings continued their futile sword dance about the she-troll. Yes. More. Come on. More fire.

Fire – real, yellow fire – was the only hope they had against the creature without access to certain forged magics they lacked unless Jorir could figure out how to make his shield become flame again. Still they danced about the troll, distracting her, because to do otherwise was to leave their allies undefended while they prepared the means of her defeat.

Sivid dropped hastily to a crouch – maybe not hastily enough, as when he stood his axe hand hung limp.

Einarr cut at the beast’s hamstrings. That’s right. Leave him alone for a bit, pay attention to me.

A bowstring sang, and a star of brilliant warm light shot towards the she-troll’s ribs.

In the same moment, the light grew near as bright as day and as warm as a campfire. Jorir wasted only a moment staring at the shield in surprise. Whatever he had done, it had worked, and now he charged at the troll shield first.

She roared again, this time in pain, as the flaming arrow embedded itself in her side. That was a wound that wouldn’t just heal immediately: she charged at Barri, who held another fire arrow already nocked, ignoring Jorir as though she had forgotten him.

That was her fatal mistake. Barri loosed once more, striking her knee this time. That stumble provided Jorir all the time he needed. He leapt for the she-trolls shoulders, raising the now-burning shield above his head. As the svartdverger landed, he brought the edge of the shield down like an axe on the back of her neck. The metal bit deep, and the troll collapsed to the ground, dark blood oozing from the wound that had nearly decapitated her.

The others approached, Einarr and Sivid still catching their breath, as Jorir stepped down from the she-troll’s back.

“Nicely done.” Einarr patted his liege-man on the shoulder. “How’d you get it to work?”

“Desperation’s all I can figure. We should be getting on, now that the beast…”

The beast was no longer a beast. Where just moments before had lain a slain she-troll was now a flaxen-haired woman in soiled velvets.


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The area of the yard in front of the dungeon entrance was, if anything, more heavily guarded than the front had been. As Einarr had feared, their hasty disposal of the torch before had given them away and made getting back in much harder. He glared at Sivid, despite knowing why: should Runa be lost, Jarl Hroaldr would need to name a new heir and Einarr would need to find a new bride. Should Einarr fall, the Cursebreaker fell, and with him all hope of reclaiming their home. It was not a fact he liked to dwell on. Thankfully, the situation ahead of them demanded too much attention to allow room for such things.

Ahead of the dungeon door stood twenty warriors, who for all their helms revealed could as easily have been monsters as men. Einarr was abruptly reminded of the Grendelings appearance under the effect of Astrid’s battle-chant. He frowned. “Looks like it’s four apiece. Think we can kill them quick enough not to draw more from around front?”

“Dicey,” Bollinn muttered. “Wish our distraction had drawn a few more men away from the keep.”

Jorir grunted, scowling at the group blocking their way. “Always like that, isn’t it? Anyone a quick shot with their bow?”

Barri nodded. “Maybe even fast enough.”

Sivid agreed. “Between the two of us, I’m sure we can cover you.”

“Good,” Einarr breathed. “I think we’re gonna need it. …Jorir, you come in from the left and I’ll take the right if you’ve got center, Bollinn.”

The hook-nosed man nodded.

“Fast and quiet. Give us to a slow count of ten to get in place, would you?” Einarr directed the question at the two archers, who also indicated agreement. He breathed out, suddenly nervous. “All right. Fast and quiet.”

Jorir dashed off to the left, both faster and quieter than a man would expect of any dwarf, while Einarr hurried a distance to the right, ducking down an alley to put a building or two between himself and the Skudbrun’s Mate. Even a slow count of ten didn’t give them very long to get in position before –

The first arrow whizzed through the air, lodging itself underneath the helmet of one of the guards near the edge of the group. He crumpled.

Time’s up. Einarr pressed his lips together in a grim line as he charged out of the byway toward the stone door they had found earlier.

Another arrow sailed through the air, and another guard crumpled. The guard Einarr charged at looked about himself in a frantic way. Einarr did not give him a chance to figure out what was going on: he cut upwards with Sinmora and the guard’s head snapped backwards unnaturally with a spray of dark blood. Ein.

A few paces ahead of him, a flash of gold caught Einarr’s attention as one of the warriors toppled like a tree, taken out at the knee. A second flash of Jorir’s axe took the enemy’s head before silent shock could transform into a scream. A third man fell to an arrow even as Bollinn impaled another on his blade through his maille.

Now their enemies were reacting, however. The next arrow clanged loudly off of one of their enemies’ helmets even as Sinmora struck another in the throat. Tveir. Jorir tackled the one who tried to run, his ears probably still ringing from the arrow. They were running out of time.

Sivid was charging into the yard now even as another pair of arrows found their targets. Barri’s boast had been no idle one, with shooting like that.

“Cover me!” Sivid made a beeline for the dungeon door. Between him and it were six of the remaining ten guards. Bollinn was locked down. Jorir was still getting back to his feet after dispatching the tackled guard.

Einarr growled and the man who would have been his next target dashed away. All yours, Barri. If they wanted to succeed, they had to get Sivid to the door.

One of the two guards on Bollinn had put his back to Einarr: that was a mistake. Einarr dashed forward and kicked hard at the back of the man’s knee. He staggered forward and then Einarr was moving again, running hard for the cluster blocking Sivid’s path. Bollinn joined him four paces later.

“My thanks,” the other man breathed, his pace not slacking.

Einarr only grunted, his attention on the fight ahead.

Sivid got there first, his own sword flashing like a silver fish at the first of the guards in his path. He knocked the helmet from his opponent’s head.

The face that was revealed there belonged to neither man nor beast, nor any strange hybrid of the two. Einarr pulled up short, but only for a heartbeat. Long enough for Sivid’s blade to flash again and the monstrous head to be parted from its body.

Einarr shook his head. He couldn’t afford to waste time gawking. Sivid was no slouch, but it would be the worst sort of cowardice not to assist with a mob like that. He surged forward, hacking at the nearest guardsman.

Bollinn surged ahead even as another pair of arrows whistled past Einarr’s ears, embedding themselves in the eyes of two more helmets.

Moments later, Bollinn, Einarr and Sivid all stood in front of the dungeon door, catching their breath. Moments later they were joined by the other two.

“We get everyone?” Barri asked as he jogged up, the last to join them.

“Seems so.” Einarr had been watching their little battlefield for signs of life and finding none. “Sivid? Whenever you’re ready.”

Sivid took a deep breath and nodded. “Let’s get to it, then.”

Einarr moved to stand behind the man, his arms folded in a defiant gesture. “We’ve got your back.”

The mousey little man turned his attention to the stone door, now ignoring the world around him. The others joined Einarr, forming a ring to shield the man who worked at the hidden lock.


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“I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news,” Einarr said when the crews were assembled on the deck of the Vidofnir. “The bad news, some of you already know. This is definitely a stronghold for some sort of cult, and it seems like a well-established one.”

He and Sivid had managed to slip back past the gate guards by causing a minor commotion on the far side of the market and disappearing back into the crowd. It had only bought them a moment, but a moment was all they needed. They had been the last pair to arrive: most of the other pairs had remained outside the walls, and those that had not ventured nowhere near the center of the circle.

“The good news is, I’m afraid, qualified. You see, we found her…”

The assembled Vidofnings and Brunnings were subdued as they waited for the promised qualifier. Sivid sat on the railing behind him, having graciously allowed Einarr to make the announcement.

“…In the dungeon of the keep. Healthy, by the sound of things, at least so far, but locked in the dungeon in the center of the hold. …And in slipping out, we were nearly discovered. At the very least they will know that outsiders have broken in to the dungeon stair.”

A grumbling rose among the gathered crews. The expressions of many of the men of the Skudbrun matched Einarr’s mood. Among the Vidofnings, only Stigander’s came close. These were the men who agreed both that the rescue must happen and that there were no good options.

Stigander stepped forward into the area cleared around Einarr and Sivid. “So this is where we stand. The Grendel doesn’t seem to be in port now, so we can focus our attention on the young Lady. Two ships hardly seems sufficient to take on the hold in a straight-up fight, so let’s not waste our time thinking about it. When dinner rolls around, I want ideas.”

Captain Kragnir snorted and shook his head but said nothing. Stigander may not run an orthodox ship, but he did run an effective one.

“We won’t be able to hide back here forever, people. Move!”

That sounded more like a captain to the Brunnings. The men scattered in groups of two and three.

***

Dark thoughts of cowardice floated through Einarr’s mind as he stood once more on the dock, his hood pulled up over his face. Had Sivid not stopped him, they could have had Runa aboard with this island behind them already. What good had reporting in done them? It meant there were now five warriors instead of two who would have to sneak into the dungeon, and three besides who would try to sabotage the walls. Two would have been sufficient that afternoon.

He shook his head. That’s not fair to Sivid, and you know it.

Jorir stood beside him on the deck this time. Sivid was going, too, of course – he knew how to operate the lock. From the Skudbrun, Barri was along while Trabbi awaited, sour-faced, on deck. The skills of a fisherman were not what would be needed tonight. Rounding out their party was Bollinn, Captain Kragnir’s first mate. Hair as blond as Stigander’s glinted out from under the hood which could not quite hide his hooked nose no matter how far forward he pulled it. Einarr had met the man only a few times, but he always came across as a capable sort.

The three men of the distraction should be off the pier and climbing towards the wall, now. It was time to go. Einarr strode down the pier as though he belonged there, impatience hastening his steps. Sivid was right behind him, followed in short order by the rest of their team. All was quiet until they approached the gateless face of the wall nearest the port.

From the top of the wall, warm yellow light sprang into existence as someone lit one of the spear throwers on fire. Cries of alarm drifted down towards them, but Einarr was already running up the road toward the gate. Their window wouldn’t last long.

The market gate stood ajar and unguarded, evidently forgotten for the moment because of the chaos within. Get in and get out – don’t get stuck fighting on the walls, men. Erik and Arring were both up there, and neither was a man the Vidofnir could afford to lose. Of course, he had insisted on being the head of the spear for the infiltration, so did he really have room to complain about the Brunnings not pulling their weight?

The market inside was not alight, but it was thoroughly overturned. Einarr and his entourage – bodyguards? A snide corner of his mind supplied idly – barely slowed as they hurdled overturned barrels and crates to get past the market and into the back streets of the circle fortress.

Once they were away from the commotion at the walls the city felt oddly quiet. Einarr shrugged; the feeling pricked between his shoulders, but if it meant less fighting to do then so much the better. Bollinn’s hood had fallen back as they raced through the market – unfortunate, that. He reached up to tug his back into place and realized that it, too, no longer covered his head. Well.

With a sigh of annoyance he gave it up and picked up his pace. Five men loped through the nearly deserted streets under the eerie purple glow of the local lanterns. Einarr did not slow until they neared the wide open area about the keep itself. This time, rather than being an apparent class of some sort, the field was filled with the armored figures of warriors.

Einarr cursed under his breath. “Looks like the distraction only half worked.”

“Let’s see how things look by the dungeon entrance before we do something desperate, eh?” Sivid answered, his voice low but somehow amused. At what, Einarr could not guess.

He looked at the gambler for a long moment before shaking it off. “Right. Back we go.”


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For two weeks the ships pressed on, following the last path the Skudbrun had for the storm, certain that it would only dissipate when those who rode its winds willed it.

Even the last known path of the storm, however, was nearly a week old by the time they put out to sea. Every available hand was put on watch duty, searching for storm or sign of land. Even when Einarr was not on watch duty he watched, however. What else was he supposed to do? Even still he could not escape a growing sense of unease and listlessness.

Finally, three weeks out from Mikilgata, Stigander realized they were nearing Langavik and called a detour. Perhaps, with a little luck, someone there would have news for them.

It was the first spot of good news Einarr had heard in three weeks. Still he kept his eyes trained on the horizon. Runa was strong, true, but she was already under their power. The faster they spotted their target…

“You’ll do no-one any good this way, you realize,” Jorir grumbled from his side.

Einarr jumped. How long had the dwarf been standing there? “I’m fine.”

“Your pallor says otherwise. And you haven’t blinked since noon. Take a rest before you end up sea-blind.”

“I… what?”

Jorir harrumphed. “Think, man. Watch shifts are half-length, aren’t they? Why do you think that is?”

Einarr shrugged and continued scanning the horizon.

“Eyestrain and glare, milord. Eyestrain and glare. I know you’re worried about that lass o’ yours, but the same can be said for every man aboard these ships. Surely you don’t think her so delicate as to wilt the moment she’s out of the sun?”

Now Einarr did look down. After-images of the flat horizon swam over his boots. “No. I’m actually more worried what might happen if she provokes them.”

“Go. Sleep. I’ve got some leaf you can chew if you need it. Rest your eyes: you need those. And have some faith in your woman!”

Einarr chuckled under his breath. “Have you been talking with Father?” He shook his head, suddenly exhausted. “Nevermind. You’re right. I’ll take a break.”

Jorir harrumphed again as Einarr trudged away from his vigil at the railing. He would need to be coherent to learn anything in the port, after all – and there was no way he wasn’t going out looking for information.

***

Langavik had more in common with Apalvik or Attilsund than with Kem or even Mikilgata, but this was neither a raid nor a resupply. The long, narrow harbor was lined by stone warehouses, though, which only turned to public halls and homes some ways back. These waters were in the middle of prime whaling territory, and so those warehouses would most likely be very well insulated and used for processing their catch.

Whaling territory, though, meant that someone would have had a weather-eye out for storms, and one as unusually violent as the one they sought was bound to have been noted. Even as their two ships slipped into the harbor Einarr moved to join the small group of men who were to go ashore. When Bardr furrowed his eyebrows to see him there, Einarr challenged him with a look. We’re seeking my betrothed, he thought. Are you really going to keep me back here?

In spite of a long, weighing look, Bardr did not actually move to keep Einarr aboard. He could have, technically, although Einarr had a suspicion his father would take his side instead of the Mate’s.

As the Vidofnir and Skudbrun slid into two empty spots on the docks, they saw no people around. Einarr furrowed his eyebrows: it was mid-morning, and not a feast day he’d ever heard of. So where was everyone?

Men to his right and left stood with similar looks of consternation painted on their faces. Either the locals had some very strange customs, or something was terribly wrong.

The only sound as they disembarked onto the docks was the drumbeat of boots against wood. The men of the Skudbrun who joined them to a man had their mouths set in grim lines. Almost as if they already know what we’re going to find. The Brunnings said nothing if that was the case, though, and the two teams of men trooped into the eerily quiet city.

The pier was not long, as such things go, but with every step Einarr hoped to see someone moving around on land, even if only to duck between buildings like a frightened rabbit. Trabbi’s face mirrored his own disappointment when they stepped onto solid ground and still saw no sign of life.

Barri – the selfsame Brunning Einarr had dueled during his ill-fated flight with Runa not six months ago – scowled about them. “Brunnings, pair up with Vidofnings. Don’t let anyone go alone.”

“Why?” The question burst unbidden from Einarr’s mouth, but many of his fellow Vidofnings nodded in agreement.

Barri’s mouth twisted around into a grimace. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a port like this. Don’t rightly know what happened… but don’t split up. We lost some good men that way.”

Bardr grunted. “You heard the man. Pair off, don’t get separated. Looking first and foremost for signs of life. Won’t get much information out of dead men or empty buildings.”

A grunt of assent went around the two teams and they paired themselves off. Einarr stepped forward early on, intending to go with whoever among the Brunnings was similarly eager, but Bardr’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. With a roll of his eyes, eager to get on with the search but not eager to be reprimanded for going against the Mate, he waited. In the end, the last three remaining were Einarr, Bardr, and Trabbi.

“I can’t stop you from coming,” Bardr explained. “But I can do everything in my power to make sure you come back in one piece.”

“If you insist.” Einarr shrugged and moved toward one of the apparently empty buildings.

Perhaps more troubling than the silence in the streets, Einarr thought, was the fact that the door to the warehouse was not latched. He paused a long moment after arriving at the door, his hand still resting lightly on the wood that had already shifted under his fingers. The distinctive odor of rancid blubber wafted out through the crack.

Bardr cleared his throat. With a nod, Einarr pushed the door the rest of the way open. His nose was assaulted by the soap-smell of rancid fat overlaid by the metallic tang of blood.

Inside, spatters of blood covered overturned crates. Some of these had unprocessed blubber spilling out. And there, in the center of the room, a bearded man in a butcher’s apron hung from the rafters.


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“Erik.”

The burly man nodded, rain streaming from the end of his beard.

“You’re not going to make me fight you, too, are you?”

“Cap’n’s mighty unhappy, Einarr, but he don’t want you dead an’ he don’t want either of us injured. Sent me to give you an offer.”

“And?”

“You come back aboard the Vidofnir and Runa goes to the Skudbrun, so everything’s done proper-like. Trabbi’s on board over there, but between we three and the fishes he’s not as unhappy about all this as the Jarl. Cap’n Stigander wants a word or three with Trabbi, thinks they can work something out.”

“How do we know this isn’t just some sort of trick? If my father sent a priest along…” Runa’s eyes were wide, as though the thought of marrying Trabbi instead of Einarr kindled fear in her.

“Runa.”

She turned her gaze to him, her eyes pleading.

“Runa, even if this all goes south, your father had his choice of suitors. I know he’s getting old, but I don’t believe you would be treated poorly. If we refuse, there are now two ships worth of men I would have to fight off before we could escape. On the other hand, I think there’s a good chance my Father will be able to work something out. Will you trust me?”

She opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. Runa pursed her lips and lowered her eyes before finally nodding her acquiescence.

“Thank you. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we might not end up outcast after all.”

“Captain’s going to want words with you no matter what happens, you realize,” Erik put in.

“That’s fine.”

Barri and the other two Brunnings were standing, now, but prevented from rejoining battle by Erik’s muscular frame. Now the big man turned and addressed them. “You heard me. Go ahead and take your princess aboard, and tell your Captain that Captain Stigander Raenson of the Vidofnir requests permission to board.”

If it had been someone with less presence than Erik, or if Barri had been less honorable of a man, Einarr might have worried about treachery from the Skudbrun. As it was, though, he was able to clasp Runa’s hands in his own with a genuine smile of encouragement. “Don’t worry. It’ll all work out.”

He let Barri take Runa’s arm. Her worried gaze never strayed from Einarr as Barri carried her up to the Skudbrun on his back.

Einarr looked at Erik, squinting a little against the wind trying to blow rain in his eyes. “I’m getting busted back down to deckhand, aren’t I.”

Erik barked a laugh. “Wouldn’t suprise me.”

***

When the storm died down, both Skudbrun and Vidofnir were still tethered to the small skiff Runa had acquired for her daring escape. With many agreements shouted across the waves, the boats were brought alongside one another and planks were extended between their two railings. Standing in front of the gangplank on the Vidofnir was Stigander, a cask of mead under one arm, flanked by Bardr and Einarr. On the other side stood the captain of the Skudbrun with his first mate and Trabbi. Einarr searched their deck for sign of Runa, but did not see her.

Stigander cast a pointed look over his shoulder at his son before beginning. “Under flag of truce,” he called across. “I, Captain Stigander Raenson request permission to come aboard for the purpose of mediation with Trabbi Aridson.”

“Under flag of truce, and with full consideration of the long friendship between Kjell Hall and Raenshold,” the other captain answered. “I, Captain Kragnir Hokarson, grant permission to come aboard.”

Only then did Stigander step up onto the gangplank and stride across to the other ship, followed by Bardr and Einarr in quick – if not hasty – succession. Einarr steadied himself with his knees when a swell rocked their two boats with him in the middle of the plank. His father was presenting Captain Kragnir with the cask as a ceremonial gesture of goodwill – a gesture whose importance Einarr well knew was magnified by his actions.

The Fates did not decide to drop him between the two boats for his earlier temerity, and moments later he was able to complete the crossing. Captain Kragnir led them back to the Captain’s awning. Runa stood outside of it, red-faced and wringing her delicate hands. Einarr wished he could go to her, comfort her, but under the circumstances feared that would only make matters worse. Trabbi looked her way, pursed his lips – in frustration, anger, or concern Einarr could not tell – and did not look again.

The six men settled around the low table in the center of the sheltered area – Brunnings on one side, Vidofnings on the other. Kragnir opened the cask Stigander had brought as a peace-offering and poured everyone a cup of the sweet brew. Once they had all drunk, the ceremony was concluded.

“What is there that the wandering Son of Raen believes must be discussed?” Trabbi opened. The bitterness in his voice planted a rock in the bottom of Einarr’s belly.

“Perhaps the unwillingness of your bride?”

“My Jarl asked me to marry his daughter and keep her safe and well. To what part of that am I supposed to object?”

“He did not even mention her happiness?” Einarr had not intended to speak, but the words would not be contained.

“If this is also not something you wished, I believe we have a solution where you can back out and no-one has to lose face,” Bardr interrupted

“I will confess to mixed feelings on the idea of wedding a girl my sons’ age.”

Stigander nodded. “As would I, in your situation.” He looked sidelong at Bardr, who had the good grace to look embarrassed. “What say you to a duel?”

“Captain, I may lead a fleet, but it is a fleet of fishermen. I hardly think that a test of swordsmanship…”

“Glima, though?”

“Wrestling?”

“Wrestling. We may be getting on in years, but unless I miss my guess you’re not slowing down just quite yet. Your experience versus my son’s youthful vitality.”

Trabbi set his jaw and turned his gaze to study Einarr.

“Loser yields the right to marry the princess.”

“I won’t throw the match,” Trabbi warned.

Einarr met the man’s weighing eyes. “You’d be a coward if you did.”

“Just so long as that’s understood.”

“Of course.” Stigander shrugged as though he’d expected nothing else.

“In that case, I agree. Runa should stay on board the Skudbrun until we return to Kjell Hall. My Jarl would never forgive me if I allowed her to remain with the man who tried to steal her away.”

Einarr opened his mouth to protest, but before a sound could escape Stigander had already answered. “Agreed.”

Not two steps after he had left the awning, Runa had thrown her arms about Einarr’s neck. “Easy, easy. We’ve got it all settled.”

“I heard. You think you can win?”

He smirked now, lowering his voice to avoid being heard to insult his rival. “Against a fisherman? Come now.” His face fell then and he shook his head. “Even if I don’t, though, I think it might not make much difference for you. After what we did, Trabbi would be well within his rights to cancel the engagement.” It might matter for him, though, depending on how forgiving the Jarl felt.

She took a deep breath and held it for a moment, nodding before she let it out. He thought she might have been about to protest. She looked as anxious here as she had earlier, on the boat, when he was fighting off her countrymen.

“You’re that worried I’ll lose?”

She shook her head. “I’m worried you’ll be hurt.”

Bardr and his father were nearly to the gangplank, but Einarr found a moment to wrap her in his arms and kiss her hair before hurrying on.


1.11 – Capture 1.13 – Glìma
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For three days the sky was clear and the wind was fair, and Einarr kept one hand on the tiller while he and his stolen bride spoke of many things, laying plans for how they would live once they were officially wed – and occasionally trading kisses. For all her various skills Runa knew nothing of navigation, and so when night fell they would drop anchor in spite of the pursuers they expected but could not see and sleep. Einarr was glad that Runa did not push herself at him, for after so many hours in such close proximity he would have been hard pressed to refuse. For all that they remained chaste, however, it was no small feat of endurance.

He caught her watching him several times, and she caught him at least once. She had been singing for the joy of it, and the music bolstered his tired mind. His eye fell upon the flaxen braid hanging below her hips on the seat and took in the perfection of her form. She turned to look over her shoulder at him, and a tightness spread across his stomach. He felt his face heat in a blush as he looked away, but not quickly enough to miss the hunger in her own eyes. No. Bad enough to steal her away; you will not have her until you are properly wed.

On the fourth day a storm blew up. The sky turned dark, and Einarr furled the sail and took up oars. He wasn’t sure how much he could do, but he had to at least try to keep them on course. Runa sang of warmth and light and the strength of a man’s arms, and the song magic fortified him. Einarr battled the waves to keep them on course, and while she sang he did not feel the chill of the rain or the strain of his arms. But not even song magic could make his vision pierce the veil of rain.

He did not know how long he had fought the storm when the sound of metal striking wood raised his hackles. He turned to look over his shoulder without letting go of the oars. Behind them, their approach masked by the sheeting rain and the rumbling thunder, the Skudbrun of Kjell Hall loomed. The sound that had alerted him were the two hooks now embedded in the side of their skiff that secured a pair of boarding lines. Einarr thrust the oars forward and Runa took charge of them.

Einarr drew Sinmora and stood between her father’s ship and Runa, expecting even in that moment it would be hopeless. He would fight, of course, but with these odds…

The first man down the rope was one Einarr recognized from long ago. Seven years ago, he had been the one to defeat the team of Einarr and Runa in their goat-game, and all winter long they’d had a friendly rivalry going on. “Barri.”

“Einarr.”

Einarr glanced back at Runa: the princess’ eyes kept darting between the two men, nearly as worried for Barri’s fate as for Einarr’s. “I don’t suppose there’s any way you’d let us settle this with arm-wrestling – for the Princess’ sake?”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Should’ve thought of that before you took off with her.” Barri took a testing swing toward Einarr with his own blade, which was easily parried.

“I did. But that includes her.” Now Einarr slashed at Barri with the blunt edge of his blade. This, too, was parried.

Barri shrugged, and then the fight began in earnest.

Under ordinary circumstances, Einarr thought he’d be more than a match for Barri at swordplay. These were not ordinary circumstances, however, and between his inability to give ground without putting Runa in harm’s way and the awkward swing he used to strike with Sinmora’s blunt edge Barri actually had the edge. Time and again metal struck metal, Einarr’s saving grace the fact that he could prevent his opponent’s maneuvering just as much as his own movements were limited.

Finally, Barri tried to skewer Einarr on the tip of his sword and forgot his guard. It was only a moment, but that was enough. Einarr raised Sinmora to his opposite shoulder and swung.

The flat of the blade struck the other man across the face and he stumbled to the deck, stunned. A small scream escaped Runa’s lips.

“He’ll be fine,” Einarr said. “Whether or not we will is another question.”

“Be careful,” was all she said. Another Brunning was right on Barri’s heels, pressing forward to get ahead of where his crewmate was beginning to stir, and then he was fighting again. Blades clashed, and a second Brunning fell to the deck, stunned. A third advanced, axe raised, even as Barri took his feet once more.

Over the clang of sword against axe, the solid thunk of a hook embedding itself in the wood caught Einarr’s attention. He glanced up, hardly daring to take his attention away from one of Runa’s countrymen, to see another boarding line attached to the side of their little skiff.

“Einarr, enough.” Tears filled her voice and nearly distracted him from a blow that would have taken his sword arm off at the elbow. “I can’t bear to see anyone get hurt here.”

“Tell that to the Brunnings,” he grunted, bringing Sinmora’s haft down on the back of his opponent’s neck.

A swarthy bear of a man was sliding down the third boarding line, an axe at his belt and an unfamiliar grim expression riding on his otherwise familiar features. Einarr stood ready to duel the newcomer, too, even after the cinnamon-colored braids and beard resolved themselves into the uncharacteristically grim face of Erik, one of his Father’s best men.


1.10 – Runaway Bride 1.12 – Negotiations
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