Fighting a Kraken was a losing proposition, ordinarily, even in a longship with a full crew. Einarr didn’t want to think about what their chances were in the Villgås, with only the six of them. Five, really: Runa’s queasiness had not been helped by their abrupt maneuvers. That also meant, of course, that they could not count on her to bolster their stamina for the flight.
All of this ran through Einarr’s mind in the split second after the odor of rotting fish assaulted his nose. The last time he had encountered a kraken, Hrug had devised a clever ritual to destroy the beast’s corruption. This one, at least, seemed to be of the ordinary variety. If they could run quickly enough, they might be able to dodge its grasping tentacles.
“Kaldr! Trade me!”
Wordlessly, Kaldr scrambled back to the stern to take control of the rudder. He probably had the instincts to dodge the hungry beast, but the man’s true strength was in forethought. Einarr, though, had outlived all but one of the Cursebreakers he had ever heard of. More than once he had spotted a way through and taken it without realizing that’s what he was doing. If he was going to gamble on someone’s instincts, it would be his own.
Ahead of them, the sea still churned. Behind them, the whirling maelstrom still grabbed at the Villgås, threatening to turn them back and suck them into the maw of the beast.
“Vali! Up high. Tell me what you see.”
The water off their starboard bow bubbled as though something big were moving just beneath it. “Port twenty-five!”
The ship groaned as her course was abruptly changed, but there could be no faulting her alacrity. The blue-grey tentacle burst up out of the water as they were rowing past it and crashed back into the roiling water, sluicing their deck with foul-smelling water once more.
“Ease off, Kaldr.” They had a clear path forward now.
“No!” Vali’s shout rang across the water as his translucent figure zipped back towards the deck. “Turn about!”
Einarr lowered his brows. “You want me to go back towards the maelstrom’s heart?”
“Better than rowing straight into the maw of the beast. We’re dead-center over the body right now.”
That didn’t make any sense. “Then what’s causing the maelstrom?”
“Not the kraken!”
Einarr swore. “You heard him! Bring us around!”
Another tentacle burst out from under the water’s surface just ahead of the Villgås’s original path. It, too, crashed down into the water, and the waves of its fall rocked the boat precipitously.
“Y-yes?” She sounded miserable – not that he was surprised under the circumstances.
“My bow, and some arrows. Unless you want to be squid food, I need them now, and you’re the only one who can get them.”
He heard a noise that could have been a groan and could have been agreement. It took far longer than he liked, as he called instructions back to Kaldr for their heading, but as they neared the narrow strait Vali said would be safe to sail through she stumbled up beside him. She held out his bow in one hand and the quiver in the other and offered a wan smile.
“Thank you,” he said even as he strung the bow. “Get back amidships. We’ll get through.”
She nodded and stumbled back the way she’d come, clutching her stomach. He sincerely hoped this would not last.
Then began the tense work of breaking free. Einarr stood at the prow, an arrow nocked, and called out directions to Kaldr on the steering oar and Naudrek and Thjofgrir on the oars. Vali provided him eyes in the sky, which was invaluable for getting them through the ever-changing narrow strait between the maw of the beast and the maw of the sea. Occasionally a tentacle would come too close to the Villgås. Einarr only shot if they were in imminent danger of being capsized, but those shots let the kraken know there was something there. The more he shot, the more often he had to shoot.
After what felt like an eternity, when he was down to a single arrow in his quiver, he saw calm waters ahead. A quick glance around confirmed it: one more push should get them past hunting kraken and maelstrom alike. “Lash her steady, Kaldr!” He called over his shoulder. “Lash her steady, and take an oar!”
Einarr dropped his arrow back in its quiver, tossed the bow over his shoulder, and rushed to the oar that would be opposite Kaldr’s. A moment later, he was joined by his Mate for the voyage.
“Hang on, Runa. Double-quick time, men! One last push will see us free!”
Einarr and Kaldr put their backs into it, rowing as hard as they could for the open waters ahead of this impossible strait.
A shadow dimmed the light of the sun: Einarr risked a glance over his shoulder.
The kraken had not given up yet. A tentacle rose high above them, and was about to come plunging down on their deck.
He had not been certain it was actually possible, but somehow they managed to coax just a little more speed out of the Villgås. The tentacle crashed into the roiling water behind them, and the waves of its fall sent them airborn, just for a moment. They landed with a splash that doused all of them once more, washing away most of the fish smell from the deck, and the wind caught their sail once more. The Villgås sailed on.
Naudrek pulled his oar in and sat down with a thump, catching his breath. Thjofgrir also looked winded. Einarr went straight to where Runa leaned against the mast. Her color was already better, and he smiled at her. “Anyone care to venture a guess as to where that came from?”
Runa sat up. “I couldn’t say for certain, but I think that was a guardian. I think we’re getting close.”
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