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.”
“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.