The Vidofnir and the Grendel slipped past one another in the half-light of the underground river, the passengers of each staring at the other in shock. For the moment, the Grendelings did not appear monstrous, although Einarr was certain that would change the moment battle was joined.

Stigander reacted first. “Onward, men! Put your backs into it!”

The order broke the stillness, but Einarr was not the only one who continued to stare across the inlet at the hated foe. He would be very surprised indeed if his father was not among them. Had it not been for the nearing sounds of their pursuers’ ships they might have stopped to fight, then and there. Thankfully, Stigander had too cool a head on him to succumb to that temptation.

The creatures manning the Grendel were coming back to life as well, although it was difficult to tell what they did in the half-light as the Vidofnir sped past. Einarr thought he could guess, even without the whistling splashes of arrows fired in haste, that soon there would be another boat on their tail. Let them come.

Then he had no breath left for thought, or anything save the blistering cadence Stigander called from amidships as they raced for the cave mouth and the comparative safety of the open sea.

The light from outside, so dim-seeming on their initial approach, grew brighter and larger as Vidofnir and Skudbrun shot forward, at the limits of speed either boat could coax from oars alone.

The wind whipped up choppy waters outside the protection of the cave, and as the Vidofnir shot out into the open air her bow reared up like the rooster of her namesake. A moment later, as the Vidofnir came back down heavily, the Skudbrun also reared. Their sails unfurled and caught the wind, and now speed of storm was added to speed of oar.

Still, there was less time than anyone aboard either ship would have liked before the black Grendel emerged from within the deeper blackness of the island, and with it the other ships of that demon’s fleet.

Einarr, even as he kept up with the rowing cadence, sought some sliver of advantage they might take in the nearby waters. To simply flee, without at least bloodying the noses of the Grendelings? Of the ones who had tried to make a sacrifice out of his Runa? The idea could hardly be borne.

He glanced up: he could see the same feelings in the set of his father’s shoulders and the hard-eyed glare he cast around the ship even as he kept the rowers on pace. Einarr grunted, turning his focus back to the work at hand.

Five strokes later, Irding came by to trade places. “Captain wants you.”

Einarr nodded, sidestepping out of the way even as Irding slipped in where he had been. His arms and back were warm from exertion, and he stretched his arms as he strode towards the mast, his father, and Bardr.

“What’s our best ambush strategy?”

Stigander glanced to the side at Einarr. With a nod, Bardr took over the cadence call. The wind from the island storm still whipped about their ears. Given what they now knew about the inhabitants, Einarr would not be surprised if they had some means of tethering the storm to their ships.

“We’re down to two. North, or south.”

Einarr nodded, waiting.

“On the north side of that island over there -” Stigander pointed to a large rock, just large enough that a handful of pine trees could cluster on its top. “Is naught but open ocean. We disappear behind it for a moment, then either us or the Skudbrun continues on while the others aim to come in behind.”

“Think they’re dumb enough to fall for that?”

“Dumb? Probably not. Mad? Maybe. Still might be the better option.”

Einarr cocked an eyebrow, waiting.

“On the other side of that island -” Stigander here indicated a much larger one ahead of them to the south. “Is a reef. If we’re careful, we can lure them in and wreak some havoc.”

“But this is their home turf.”


Einarr frowned. This should have been an easy call. “Then we’re plainly better off in the open water… aren’t we?”

“Most likely.” Stigander gave him a sidelong look that was hard to read. “But if you can’t be confident in your own decisions, your crew will never follow you.”

Einarr opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, gaping like a fish. He flushed a little, glad of the wind lashing his face. “Oh.”

“Oh. You make me regret commissioning that ship, it goes to Bardr.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Very good. Now, as it happens, that means we all three agree. Hard starboard!”

Even as the sail turned, Bardr moved aft and fired a handful of flaming arrows into the air.

“…How will the Skudbrun have the first idea what that means?”

“You don’t seriously think the landing party were the only ones doing any work, do ye?”

The deck of the Vidofnir tilted underfoot as the ship bent her course to their will. As though they were one, the Skudbrun followed after, her course taking her to the left of the island while the Vidofnir’s went to the right.

The four ships behind them – only four? – changed course as well, their blackened demonic heads churning over the waves like hunting dogs. Certainly they had the scent: now it was just a matter of turning that against them.

The Vidofnir cleared the northern coast of the island and veered hard to port. Someone tossed out the sea anchor: the ship sides groaned in protest against the sudden slowing, and then the angry howling of their pursuers was loud again.

The Skudbrun, for her part, skated on to the north in a wide, sinuous pattern that belied her speed.

The Vidofnings held their breath, even as the bounding demon ships of their pursuers charged past, one on either side of the forested rock. Three of them continued after the Skudbrun. The fourth ship had shed its speed as it nosed around the little island to come face to face with the Vidofnir once more. A guttural howling rose over the wind of the black storm that carried the ship along. It was the worst possible chance, and yet no-one aboard the Vidofnir minded: the only ship which had not been fooled was the Grendel.

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An empty seat awaited Einarr near where his father lounged, surprisingly far back in the hall. “Not bad, for your first go,” Stigander muttered in his ear. “Did you think to take anything for yourself?”

He shook his head. “The Isinntog was my share.”

His father grunted. “Generosity is well and good, but never forget that running a ship is costly. If you fail to provide for yourself, you fail to provide for your ship and your crew.”

“Yes, Father.”

He grunted again. “So long as you understand. Now come on, and bring that dwarf friend of yours. The three of us had best have a chat with Bardr, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Father.” Einarr did not have to look long to find Jorir: the dwarf had taken up position along the wall near the door, his new shield resting against his legs. At a gesture from Einarr, he fell in behind the two as they stepped outside.

Bardr, it seemed, had left for the temple some time before Einarr’s arrival at the Hall. That he was not back yet suggested something troubled the man, for there were few aboard the Vidofnir of a particularly pious bent.

The path to the Kjelling temple wound through the spruces to a second, smaller clearing not far away dominated by the wooden hall dedicated to the gods and brilliant with wildflowers in the morning sunlight. The door to the hall was in shadow, and Einarr felt the chill as he stepped over the threshold. Bardr sat near the back, his feet propped on the back of the bench in front of him, scowling in the general direction of the altar.

Stigander cleared his throat, and his first mate gave a start. “Guess who’s back?”

Dark-haired Bardr rose smoothly and turned to welcome Einarr, his face relaxing into a smile. “At last! We were worried when you were late.”

“Something came up, we had to make a detour.” They clasped elbows for only a moment before Einarr stepped back. “Bardr, this is Jorir, my liege-man. Jorir, Bardr is first mate on board the Vidofnir.”

“A pleasure, lord.” Jorir bowed. Bardr looked uncomfortable, to Einarr’s eye.

“That’s not really necessary.” He laid a hand on Jorir’s shoulder as the dwarf stood.

“So the Jarl sent you out after a fancy magic bauble for his daughter, and you return with a retainer?”

“That ‘fancy magic bauble’ was not the only thing I liberated from the jotün, no.”

“Evidently not. Well, Jorir, I suppose this means I get to welcome you as our newest Vidofning. Can you fight?”

“At need,” he drawled. “I’m better with a hammer and tongs, though, and no slouch with a bag of herbs. And the only person to ‘ave bested me at tafl in a good long while is milord Einarr here.”

“Before or after you swore your oath?”


Bardr hummed, but before he could say anything more Stigander broke in.

“This complicates matters you know, my boy.”

“I know, Father.”

“I had been intending to make you spend a month swabbing the deck.”

“Only a month? That’s better than I expected.”

“But I can’t very well subject you to that sort of punishment now that you have a man at arms, now can I? Hoping to get out of it?”

Einarr snorted. “Not remotely. When he surrendered, I asked him to swear that he meant us no harm in exchange for getting him off that island. Instead, he swears himself to me by all the gods.”

Stigander turned his head to look at the dwarf, an eyebrow cocked.

Jorir looked pensive. “It’s true. I mainly wanted off that rock, but it’s also true that when your son had the opportunity to kill me, he refrained in spite of everything. I, ah, still didn’t intend to swear quite as strongly as I did… and then he gave me the king he had used in our match. I’ll not look back now, and he’ll not regret it.”

Am I missing something? Why is the tafl king so important to him? Jorir didn’t explain, so when Stigander looked to Einarr for more information all he could do was shrug. “Runa sent me with a few gifts. The king was one of them, and the only other things I had on me at the time I just gave out at the Hall.”

Stigander drew his brows down in a thoughtful expression.

“You are the lord father and Captain of my lord, and I will honor that as well,” Jorir added.

Stigander nodded as though that were never in question. “You are a smith. Have you your own tools?”

“I did, back on Svartlauf, but to get them now would mean fighting lo— Fraener.”

“With the entire ship we could probably manage, if we could get through the storm twice more.”

Stigander grimaced at that. “As much as I would love to take my crew against a jotün, we have more pressing matters at hand.”

“How did the hunt for the Grendel go?”

Stigander’s grimace soured. “Skunked, so far, and we’re not the only ones hunting them. We found no fewer than five other crews who’ve had their battle chanters picked off. Every last one of them talks about the monstrous crew of a ship that rides in with a storm and disappears just as quick.”

“Monstrous? You mean that wasn’t just an artifact of Astrid’s chant?”

“Maybe, maybe not.” He shook his head. “If it is, it’s awfully consistent, and awfully specific to that ship.”

“So does that mean there’s a fleet forming?”

Bardr harrumphed. “More like a pact at this point. For a fleet, someone would need an idea how to find the whoresons.”

Stigander hadn’t finished. “A fleet, though… that might not be a bad idea, anyway.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. It felt as though his father had changed the subject without letting anyone else know.

“I’m going to make you work for it, you know. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time for the sons of Raen to think about building a second ship.” Stigander clapped his son on the shoulder.

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