It was good to sail with a full crew again. Naudrek had ceded the post of Mate back to Jorir in good graces, now that the svartdvergr was returned to them. Eydri and Hrug were back in their proper places as well, and Vali’s jar was stowed unobtrusively below. Erik had gone with Sivid, but Irding and Arring had come aboard the Heidrun, as had Svarek and the men from the Forgotten Isle. The rest of his crew he filled with volunteers in consultation with Sivid and Kaldr.
The refugees who had arrived from Kem were given a chance to come along. The younger man – who looked vaguely familiar to Einarr, and not at all like someone of the Clans – took them up on it. The older man declined, but also asked that they pay a visit to his farmhold and bring back his wife and their children – a request easily agreed to.
Now, after a week’s hasty preparations, Einarr and the Heidrun set sail for the southwest, where lay Kem on the borders of Imperial waters. Einarr smiled to see Runa and little Alfvin on the docks, watching them leave. For his part, he felt much better knowing they were here, guarded by all the forces his father could muster. She seemed less happy, but the duty of the prince was to lead their forces into the fray, whatever that might be.
Heidrun, too, seemed to be ready to go. Perhaps it was a trick of the wind, but the ship itself felt eager under Einarr’s feet, like a horse feeling its oats. Einarr grinned. It was good to be back on the whale-road.
Unbidden, the image of the body hanging in the warehouse in Langavik came to mind, and his grin turned to a shudder.
Two months – at least – after it was attacked, the ruins of Kem still smoked and smoldered in places. Einarr stood on the deck of the Heidrun staring in stunned silence at the empty pier and the wreckage beyond. No-one aboard spoke.
Finally, after his mind had begun to work again and the silence stretched into a goad, he took a deep breath. Standing here would accomplish nothing. “Naudrek, the ship is yours. Jorir, you’re with me – Gabriel, you too. Eydri, Hrug, choose a handful of men. We’ll split into four groups and quarter the city. The trail’s already long cold, which means we need to be thorough. Be back at the ship by dusk: if there are hungry dead about, we can ward the Heidrun.”
A chorus of ‘aye’s traveled around the deck. Einarr also brought Arkja and Svarek, while Irding went with Eydri’s group and Arring with Hrug’s. Einarr felt somewhat better at that: that meant that all three of their groups had someone who knew at least a little magic, and every one of those sorcerers had at least one powerful warrior with them.
Then they were off, the group commanders trudging down the ash-stained pier at the head of their teams – and it was trudging, for each and every one of them.
Once they had turned off the main road onto one of the innumerable narrow side-streets, Jorir cast a look at Gabriel. “Did you an’ yer Pa set fire to the city, or was it like this when you got here?”
The young man shook his head. “Pa? Me Pa’s dead ten years. The old man’s my master… you didn’t realize?”
Einarr raised an eyebrow. “You seem to be on awfully friendly terms with him for a thrall.”
Gabriel smirked at that. “Maybe so. He’s never gone so far as to adopt me, officially, but that’s how he treats me. You have no idea who I am, do you?”
“None. I’m sorry: it’s been an eventful few years.”
“You sold me into thralldom, to pay the apothecary. ‘Twas about what the life of a common footpad was worth, I suppose.”
Einarr and Jorir both stopped in their tracks, the rest of their group sharing looks of confusion.
“That was you?” they asked together.
“That was me. But no, the city was already burned when we got here. If it hadn’t been…” He looked pointedly down at the ground, into the corner where the charred wall of a building still rose from the road, and poked a toe into the ash. What was plainly a human bone rolled free.
“Charnel. I agree: I’ll take the smell of wet ash over the smell of rotting bodies any day. On the other hand, it does complicate our search somewhat.”
Einarr looked around where they stood. Off to the left stood a mostly intact two-story building. “That looks like a promising place to start.”
Inside, they found overturned furniture and splatters of blood, obvious even under the thin coating of ash and soot. Overturned, broken jars were everywhere, but Einarr could not guess at what they might have held. He picked one of them up to examine it more carefully. “The apothecary, you say. He was some sort of relation of your master. Did you find him?”
There was a long pause before the young man answered. “No. Not that that means much under the circumstances.”
“Well. If we find a camp of survivors, so much the better, but that’s not what we’re looking for. The cultists carved up dead bodies: I don’t expect the League to be quite that brutal. Fan out. Once we’ve searched this building we’ll move on to the next.”
“And, if you don’t mind me asking, what are we looking for?” Arkja asked.
“Something unusual, or out of place.” Einarr answered. If we’re lucky, they’ll have left a message someplace for any interlopers who happened by.”
Jorir harrumphed. “And if we’re unlucky, it will have gotten gobbled up by the fire.”
Everyone but Gabriel chuckled. He looked thoughtful. “I think I know where they might have left a message like that.”
Einarr looked at him, waiting.
“There’s a big monument in the town square – not much more than a giant slab, really, carved with the world tree and various doings along its height. They’d be far from the first to scrawl on it, and I’d be surprised if the fire could have touched it.”
Einarr nodded. “Good. We’ll check it out when we get there. We’re better off sticking with the method, though, rather than haring off after an obvious sign that may not exist.”
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
“My lord?” Arkja called from the far side of the house. “What do you make of this?”
Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!
So begins 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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