The volley of arrows flew in a flaming arc from the Vidofnir across to the enemy vessel. At the peak of that arc, the crew brought their axes down into the deck boards. Not one of them missed, despite the fact that they all seemed to be crowded around the mast – in the area the Grendelings had actively avoided traversing.

Time seemed to slow for Einarr as the last of their flaming arrows buried themselves in the damaged deck of the enemy vessel. Moments later, the enemy crew was gone, vanished into the maw of the creature that replaced them. Einarr had a far better view of the monstrosity this time than the one on board the Grendel: he wished he hadn’t.

The first thing he saw was the crimson beak that shot upward – not the beak of a seabird, but of a massive squid – once again far more massive than should have been able to fit beneath the deck of a longship. Then the beak retracted and in its place climbed a curtain of tentacles that writhed in the rain.

Fear was not an emotion the Vidofnings were accustomed to, in the main. However, as the wall of webbed flesh climbed the mast and rose up toward the clouds, farther than even the tales told of kraken could hope to reach, there was not a man among them but felt a cold shiver of dread up their spine.

“Fall back! All hands – to oars!” Stigander’s order rang loud and clear across the deck of the Vidofnir. The helmsman threw his weight against the rudder even as the back line of archers fought to turn the sail. Despite the mass of writhing flesh that now tore through their sail to perch at the top of the mast, the enemy ship seemed stable for now.

The thing on top of it was another matter. Einarr could not tear his eyes away as he slung his bow over his shoulder: he would have to deal with the string later. If there was one thing to be glad of as he lunged for the end of an oar, it was that Jorir had just sharpened his blade. He threw his back into rowing while the new monstrosity twitched and writhed, sprouting feathered wings in nonsensical locations at impossible angles.

Stigander’s cadence was harsh and rapid, and slowly the Vidofnir began to pull away from the cultist’s vessel. The mass of wings and tentacles perched atop the mast twitched and writhed, until Einarr thought he could see its beak poking out through the top. A groaning of wood suggested that the mast would not hold out much longer – although it was hard to tell if the mast would go before the burning deck or not.

The creature beat its wings and the groaning became a cracking, somehow still audible over the sound of wind through the thing’s feathers. Three more convulsive wing beats brought the monstrosity fully into the air, and as its tentacles released the mast the shattered wood tumbled down into the sea.

Stigander’s cadence had ceased at some point during all this as every eye aboard the Vidofnir was drawn to the abomination that now, somehow, flew overhead. Part of Einarr thought they had wasted their last volley on the ship that now foundered not a hundred yards away from their port bow… not that he thought shooting that thing would do any good.

The monstrosity turned a ponderous circle in the air and flapped off back the way they had come. A moment later, Einarr heard the Brunning’s war cry, which still did not manage to drown out the thunder-clap of a reinforced keel tearing through the clinks of the last enemy’s bow or the tooth-grating keening that came from below its deck.

“Stand down.” Stigander was audibly weary, as well he might be at this stage of a battle. Down by a third of her crew, battle-scarred, and out of ammunition, the Vidofnir was out of the fight… but if Captain Kragnir couldn’t manage a single enemy vessel on his own, he deserved to lose.

***

As boarding actions go, the Skudbrun’s had been straightforward. Robbed of whatever it was that had been below their deck before the Brunning charge had broken its cage, the warriors aboard the last of the cultish vessels folded quickly. When Stigander brought the Vidofnir alongside the Skudbrun, Kragnir was in the midst of branding the surrendered as thralls.

“…You sure that’s wise?” Stigander called across.

“Perhaps not,” Kragnir answered, his words accentuated by the sizzle of flesh. “But it is Correct.”

Jorir made a disapproving noise from farther back in the ship – too far back, Einarr was sure, for the Brunnings to hear. Probably it was, in fact, very unwise to even think of these warriors as men any longer. On the other hand, when one’s enemies became no longer human, but merely beasts… well, that way lay depravity. Einarr shook his head.

“What kept you?” Kragnir had turned, now, and moved to face Stigander on the Vidofnir.

“An old grudge and a difficult fight.” Stigander shook his head. “Our little ruse failed to deceive the Grendel.”

Boots on deck stopped next to where Einarr stood, and an elbow reached out to jostle him. “’An I were you, I’d not let the Lady on board with all those so-called prisoners,” Jorir whispered.

Einarr nodded, slowly. He would not fault the truth of his own eyes, although he could not blame the other Captain for his reluctance: even still, those sailors had forsaken their humanity. “I have an idea.”

He found Reki and Runa both amidships, treating the wounded among their number. Einarr cleared his throat to catch their attention: Runa beamed at him even as she kept singing, but when Reki looked at him with her albino eyes it was jarring in a way it had not been since she came aboard. Still he beckoned her over.

“What is it?” she croaked.

He offered her his water skin as small consolation for requiring her voice further. “Captain Kragnir is taking prisoners off one of the boats.”

Reki’s grimace could have frozen the rapidly calming sea around them, but she took a swig of the proffered water.

“I thought I recalled you wanting to pay a visit to the Singer’s conclave, though, and I believe Runa is still expected there…”

Reki nodded, taking another swig before wiping her mouth on the back of her arm. “I’ll have a word with the Captain. Good thinking.”

She took two steps towards the two Captains, paused, and then thrust the water skin back at his chest.


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Einarr limbered his bow as the enemy ships came into view. The storms that carried them after the Skudbrun swirled together, each intensifying the others, so that sheeting rain obscured their targets and threatened to render their assault worse than useless. Still, even under its own rainstorm the Grendel had burned.

The Vidofnir’s prow ducked as it crested a wave and entered the storm once more. There had been few issues with traction against the Grendel simply because of where they had engaged her: not so here. Their ally was in view, however, and also within the tempest.

“Draw!” Bardr gave the order. The Vidofnings at the prow raised their bows and prepared to fire, but held. Bardr now walked along their ranks, lighting their arrows from the torch in his hand. Idly, Einarr wondered how many arrows, and how much pitch, they had left after this volley. At least one more, judging by the deckhand off to the side busily wrapping pitched cloth about arrowheads.

“Aim!”

Einarr lifted his bow towards the mast of the nearest vessel – their only possible target at this stage. He took a deep breath to steady his arm and his mind. Over their heads, the flames danced in the wind and raindrops hissed away from their touch. A gust howled, high overhead, and the Vidofnir tilted to port under its influence. Right about now, Einarr might actually welcome a Valkyrie ship – especially if it had sea-fire.

The ship righted itself, and in a moment of calm the order finally came. “Fire!”

Twenty arrows screamed across the gulf between their two vessels, straight and true. Their target seemed to rear up, cresting a wave, as the volley reached them, and fire embedded itself in the enemy’s deck and sail. Thank you, Eira.

That there were even twenty of them available to fire right now spoke of how hard the oar crew labored: that there were only twenty available spoke of how hard a summer this had been already. Einarr accepted a second wrapped arrow and nocked it to his string.

The crew of the ship they had fired on last looked like rats as they scurried about on deck. Einarr could not tell from here if they were looking to put out the fires or prepare a counter-volley. Strangely, the thought did not worry him. All that mattered in this moment was his next arrow.

Runa’s voice rang out over the storm – a variation Einarr had only rarely heard, and yet this was twice in one day. It was the opposite of the battle chant, in many ways, sung most often for the old and the feeble-minded. He felt an unusual clarity settle around his shoulders, and a small smile parted his lips. Brilliant, my love.

“Draw!” Once more Bardr began moving back and forth among them, lighting their arrows as they prepared to fire. The torch smoked heavily in the rain, but did not begin to gutter. Yet.

Einarr drew back his nocked arrow. They would hit again, he was sure: Runa was the bearer of the Isinntog, which meant that they had the attention of the goddess. And if they had the attention of the goddess, she would not abandon them against foes such as these.

“Aim!”

The archers aboard the Vidofnir moved with greater confidence this time, he thought, bolstered by the last volley and by Runa’s song. Hit, and catch! He urged the fire dancing above his head just before the order came:

“Fire!”

Their arrows launched as though they had been fired by one man, and if the winds moved some few around it was to the amusement of those who fired. The arrows all landed in a rough circle surrounding the mast of the enemy ship.

The rats aboard the other ship ceased their scurrying, now: that was definitely a counter-volley they had organized.

“Shields!” Einarr bellowed. He thought Bardr would forgive him the indiscretion, under the circumstances. Even being the one to notice, he barely raised his in time for no fewer than three arrows to strike into it.

Some few weren’t so lucky. Einarr heard two or three cry out in pain. When he risked a glance, he saw men being helped back toward where the Singers could tend to their wounds. With a harrumph, he turned back around, studying the enemy ship for signs of a true blaze.

He was not disappointed. Those same rats he’d seen organizing a counterattack now scrambled every which way even as their helm turned to starboard, effectively breaking off their pursuit. Einarr was too far to see sparks, but he thought he caught the darkening of smoke surrounding their mast.

Stigander’s voice rose above the storm: do not engage. Let them sink or swim as they could – the Skudbrun was waiting, and Einarr didn’t think they had many more volleys remaining.

The Vidofnir turned off to port, leaving the enemy ship and its horrific underbelly to founder in its own storm. That just left two more. Einarr and the other archers nocked their third volley of arrows as they waited to narrow their distance from the third ship. Once again they drew, and once again fire rained down on their enemies.

Einarr let out a whoop when he saw the second volley flying through the storm toward the forward-most ship. He could not yet see the Skudbrun, but the Brunnings had seen them. The rest of the archers processed what he had seen almost as quickly, and with just as much enthusiasm. Now they stood a chance.

Bardr distributed the next volley’s worth of fire arrows among the team – the last, unless Father had more arrows stashed below deck somewhere – but if luck and the goddess’ blessing held, one more should be enough. The enemy vessels burned like pine for all of their blackness. Still, Bardr waited to call the volley until they were alongside their enemy – not near enough for boarding, but near enough to look them in the eye as they fired.

“Draw!”

As before, one of the young deckhands moved among the shallow ranks of archers with a torch, lighting the arrow wraps behind him.

“Aim!”

What were they doing over there, though? It seemed as though the enemy ship paid no heed to the Vidofnir and the tiny motes of fire they were about to launch towards their own ship. Instead, they were gathered amidships: Einarr thought he saw defiant stares on the faces of men with axes raised high, as though they were about to cut into their own boat…

“Fire!”


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Einarr had Sinmora at the top of her swing when a pair of shoulders barreled into his knees from behind. His eyes widened in shock as he fell, moments before yet another tentacle shot across the open space where his head had been.

A man among the archers screamed. Einarr caught a glimpse of hair even redder than his own on the struggling Vidofning above and flinched. There was nothing he could do from here. Skora. I’m so sorry.

An arrow flew up from behind them, but even as it bounced off the monstrosity’s tough hide Einarr heard the sickening crunch of bone and their crewman went limp. He rolled to the side, off the back of the man who had tackled him and saved his life.

It was Sivid. Einarr offered the mousey man a hand back to his feet and a nod of appreciation, although the latter was waved off as the smaller man limped back towards where the archers were preparing to launch another volley. Einarr shook his head to clear it: there was only one thing to be done right now, and that was break free. He raised Sinmora high overhead again, waiting for the moment when Irding’s blade withdrew and he could strike.

If there was one benefit to the soaking rainstorm that surrounded the Grendel, it was that the monstrosity’s blood did not cling to the deck and the crew as it might have. Even still, the fetid stink was beginning to work on Einarr’s insides as he brought his blade back down with force. His efforts were rewarded with not one, but two spurts of the foul black liquid – one from Sinmora’s strike, and one from the team behind him. A section of the foul flesh fell to the deck between them and the first of the three arms slid away from the prow. What I wouldn’t give for a bath house at the end of this…

Another pair of arms reached for the Vidofnir, but hesitated. It seemed the thing was not insensate to pain. Rather than grab for the ship again, it used these arms to slap at its side. Two more men went overboard, and soon there was a cloud of red in the water where they disappeared. For perhaps the first time in his life Einarr wished he had an Art, that he might use it to curse the beast.

More fire sailed across the gap to embed itself in the chitinous flesh of the beast across the way. The wail was louder this time, though no less chilling, and the second of three tentacles loosed its grip on the Vidofnir. It did not retreat, though, as much as the Vidofnings might have wished it would. No: this arm raised itself up in the air to slam down into the water next to the Vidofnir. A span to the right would have capsized them: Einarr heard muttered prayers from among his crewmen but could not take the time to join them. That second arm was already raising back up, only this time he thought it was going to strike at the crew.

Einarr gulped air, trying to catch his breath, and brought Sinmora up to strike as it did.

A third volley of fire filled the air between their two ships. With a scream, the demonic octopus withdrew the last of its tentacles. Einarr watched as an inky black blob pushed itself out of the hole in the Grendel’s deck, uncounted arms still whole, and rolled itself into the sea. Einarr wanted to be relieved when it slipped into the water, its black blood forming a trail as it swam away. Wanted to, but could not. He swallowed, but it was not enough to wet his suddenly dry throat. “What…” he started.

“Was…” Erik continued, his face a mirror of shock.

“That?” Stigander demanded, looking square at Jorir.

The dwarf shook his head. “Something that should not be.”

“Will it come after us?”

“I don’t think so, not right now anyway.”

“Can it be killed?”

Jorir again shook his head, this time adding a helpless shrug.

“Father.” Einarr interrupted before Stigander could demand more answers his liege-man plainly did not have. He still felt sick, and there was at least one more matter that was more urgent. “I think Jorir is as clueless as the rest of us, here.”

Stigander harrumphed but did not press the dwarf further.

“How did you know there was something there?”

“The keening. It… it sounded like something I heard before I left home. Never saw it, though it always set my teeth on edge.”

Stigander growled. “Fine. All right, men, row for all you’re worth! The Brunnings are waiting.”

Einarr stepped over next to where Jorir leaned against the side of the boat. “So what do you place the odds at that each of those other ships will have something equally wrong filling their holds.”

The dwarf exhaled loudly, blowing the edges of his black moustache. “Too high. Hand me your blade, I’ll make sure she’s sharp before we catch up.”

Without a word, Einarr handed his sworn vassal the sword. Soon the sound of steel on a whetstone could be heard over the rapid cadence of the ships rowers and the wind billowing in the sail. Ahead, the nearness of the thick storm clouds showed they were catching up to their targets.

Einarr retrieved his sword, and it was immediately followed by Erik’s axe at the blacksmith’s whetstone. Already they were nearly out of time for sharpening, but at the promise of another fight like the last one it was worth it. Meanwhile, their reserves of pitch had been brought forward, and quivers’ worth of arrows had their heads wrapped to rain fire on their foes. Sinmora’s edge glinted brightly, even in the overcast light, as he sheathed his blade once more and went to join the ranks of archers. Already there had been plenty of glory to go around today: for the best if they did not have to risk any more of their men in boarding.


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The clink of chain was the only sound to be heard from the deck of the Vidofnir as her crew waited to see who would take the bait and whose Captain had a better head on their shoulders. When only the Grendel turned to face the Vidofnir, some may have spared a thought for their allies on the Skudbrun. Most, however, grinned feral grins and laughed unpleasant laughs: for almost a year now, this was a chance they had wanted.

Reki approached the mast, a full waterskin in hand. “On your command.”

Stigander nodded and opened his mouth to say something, but Einarr cut him off.

“Wait – I think we’ll be better off without the Song magic for this fight.”

“Explain,” his father ordered.

“Back in the cave, when we were escaping, Runa hardly sang at all. When she did, it was like her voice was a beacon to the creatures.”

“…Creatures?” Reki’s skepticism was not out of place: she was one of the few who hadn’t been there.

Stigander nodded slowly. “Under the influence of Astrid’s song, the Grendelings looked more like monsters than men.”

“In their fortress-temple, too.” Einarr paused, then shook his head. There wasn’t time for that now. “At any rate, I think we’re better off doing without the battle fury. As long as we can manage.”

Stigander studied Reki’s face grimly for a long moment before nodding agreement. “And we’re doubling their bodyguards. Get Runa up here. No-one gets through to either Singer.”

Einarr jerked his head in acknowledgement. Runa, he saw, was somehow at the forecastle with Barri and Bollinn. Why would they allow her up there? Why she was there was almost beside the point, however: she needed to be further back, and now. Einarr jogged forward, not yet worried about the rain or waves that were beginning to shake the Vidofnir.

“You two fighting? We can use all the hands we can get.”

“We’ll be guarding the Lady Runa, all the same to you.” Bollinn drawled.

“Fine. Go join Reki and the other bodyguards amidships. We’ll handle them.”

Barri shot a baleful look at Bollinn, but the man was thoroughly outranked. They stepped back towards the Vidofning Singer, but Runa made them wait.

“What about you, Einarr?” She raised her head defiantly into the wind, the rain stinging her cheeks well past their usual comely shade.

“These are the nithers who murdered Astrid, Runa.” As if he would let other men – even other Vidofnings – take his chance at vengeance from him. He would fight at his father’s side, and they would destroy those who sought to harm their family.

Runa nodded silently, her mouth pursed in an unhappy line, but she followed her two bodyguards from the Skudbrun as they shouldered their way through the crowd gathering at the fore to face their enemy. Of those aboard, there would be precious few who did not want a chance at the Grendelings.

The storm that hovered over the Grendel once again lashed at the Vidofnir and her crew alike, although this time they were ready for her. Fire-tipped arrows sailed across the narrowing gap as Stigander strode up to stand at Einarr’s side. His maille glinted wetly in the light of the fires. Stigander held Hrostlief – Grandfather’s sword – loosely in hand before the inevitable charge. He growled. “Astrid will be avenged.”

As though in answer, Einarr brought his shield to readiness. One of their flaming arrows had caught in the Grendel’s sail and smoldered dully there and Einarr’s lips tightened over his teeth.

The Grendelings answered their volley of fire with arrows of their own, but it was followed only by the sound of iron striking wood or metal. Even now, boarding lines flew from the Vidofnir’s deck. They would not be caught off-guard again.

A sudden gust of wind caused their boarding lines to twist, but it was not enough. Nearly half still caught on the Grendel’s railing, and no sooner were they secure than the first rush of sailors raced across. The sons of Raen gave their men sufficient time to ensure the lines would not be cut before sharing a look and a nod. Father and son brought their swords up for the charge. Then there was only air and water beneath their feet as they sprinted across to the deck of their foe.

Einarr hit the enemy deck at full speed, his boots echoing off their rain-slicked boards. Three steps later he plowed into one of the monstrous Grendelings and knocked the wind from him with the boss of his shield. Bad luck. Einarr brought Sinmora down on the now-exposed back of the man’s -Grendeling’s neck. Ein! …Can we still call them men, at this point?

He glanced to the side, looking for a new target, and saw his father striking down another of their number.

Einarr could feel a touch of the battle fury come upon him unaided and he flashed the next Grendeling in front of him a feral grin. Their blades clashed, sword against axe in the bind. A pair of blows fell against his shield arm from other defenders, but Einarr would not be put off so easily. He swept his leg around to take them in the knees even as he shoved out with the very shield they sought to break. A pair of thuds marked the moment they fell to the deck.

Now he was off-balance, though, and the first Grendeling circled his axe in an attempt to disarm Einarr. He managed to jump back and keep his grip on Sinmora, but the Grendelings were not going to just lay down and die for them.

Einarr’s opponent pressed forward, and Einarr took a step back, followed by another. He was painfully aware of how close he was getting to the railing and the cold sea below. His opponent lunged in, his axe brandished high, and Einarr met him in the bind again.


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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.”

“Exactly.”

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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For a moment Einarr stared dumbly after her. It had only been a few months since he’d seen her, and yet he could not tear his eyes away. His reverie was finally broken when Barri, his winter rival, elbowed him in the ribs. Einarr turned to look and the man wagged his eyebrows before gesturing for Einarr to go on ahead.

He rolled his eyes, but took the invitation. Neither Jorir nor Sivid would board before him, under the circumstances. If he’d been the one member of the crew who could not die before they visited the Oracle…

The others followed right on his heels, the treacherous rocking of the plank under their feet largely ignored as they rushed for the deck of the Vidofnir. Sooner or later the cult would turn up a foe that was not repulsed by the sun, and they needed to be well clear before that occurred.

“Everyone’s aboard?”

Erik shook his head, his eyes glued to the familiar skinny frame of Sivid, still below.

“Oy!” Einarr called down. “What d’ye think ye’re doing? Get up here!”

“Don’t worry about me.” Sivid didn’t move save to rub his palms together where he stood. “I’ll meet you all back at Kjell Hall this winter, if I don’t catch up to you sooner.”

“Are ye mad?” Jorir answered before Einarr could, but the sentiments were the same. “Ye’re death won’t even do any good down there.”

“Sometimes, dwarf, a man just needs to test his luck. I’ll see you all this winter!” Sivid gave them no more time to try and persuade him. Blade in hand, he dashed back out onto the pier.

Einarr furrowed his eyebrows. He knew the man’s luck ran in strange currents, but no matter where Sivid thought he was in terms of luck Einarr could see no purpose to this sacrifice.

Erik, too, was scowling down at the pier, although Einarr thought he detected more than a hint of stoic resolve in the set of the man’s jaw. Erik took hold of the plank connecting them all to the pier and started to pull. “Sivid, you rat! Now who’m I s’posed to fleece at dice?”

Sivid did not answer. Arring came up to see what the commotion was, blinked, and then grinned.

Einarr frowned at the strong man. “What’s so funny?”

“You’ll see.” Arring then wandered a few paces further down the deck, towards the far end of the aftcastle. A low growl escaped Einarr’s throat and he turned to watch what would surely be the end of a good man. It was every man’s right to choose when and how to die… but this just seemed so fruitless.

Those who had been waiting their return already pulled at the oars, with Stigander himself calling the cadence. Down on the pier, no fewer than three monstrous bodies already lay at Sivid’s feet.

A line snapped tight. Sivid’s hands flew up in the air instinctively even as his face hit the stone below. Einarr blinked, unable to quite credit the sight of Sivid being pulled in like a fish on a pike. Then a splash echoed in their ears even as the figures on the pier pressed closer to the end.

Einarr rushed to the aftcastle. Arring, hand over hand, was pulling in a rope, and now over the sound of a person being dragged through the water came cries of outrage from Sivid. A peek over the stern confirmed that Sivid, in spite of his protestations, was now climbing the rope that still wrapped about his leg.

For a long moment, all Einarr could do was stare. Arring had been among those to visit the Oracle, as well: could he know about Sivid’s luck? Laughter welled up in his chest as the thought faded.

He was still laughing quietly when Sivid’s soaked head appeared over the Vidofnir’s railing, spitting water and cursing at the strong man who had so rapidly reeled him in.

Arring laughed in his face. “You nearly keelhauled yourself, you know? If I hadn’t heard the commotion you’d be underwater right now.”

Sivid did not look mollified, but he did snap his mouth closed. Einarr shook his head and looked back out towards the pier.

Even in the strange half-light of the circle fort behind them the movement on the pier was unmistakable. The forward-most line of the creatures was still, but beyond them was a moving swarm of bodies, all flowing into the ships at dock. Einarr raised his voice to call over his shoulder. “Draken aft!”

Likely they still had a little time before the ships were prepared, but to douse the lights would disadvantage them more than their pursuers. Stigander increased the rowers’ cadence. What I wouldn’t do for a favorable wind right now…

Then the Vidofnir rounded the first bend in the cave and the pier dropped out of sight. Certain, now, that Sivid was securely aboard, Einarr hurried forward to take his place on one of the undermanned oars. Haste would be their best ally here: to a man the others joined him.

For a time, all they heard was the creak of wood and the call of three separate cadences – the Vidofnir’s, the Skudbrun’s, and the enemy’s.

They rounded another curve, and the grey light of a storm at sea began to make itself known, at first hardly noticeable over the blaze of torchlight, but growing stronger by the minute as they rowed. Einarr took a deep breath, trying not to hope for an easy escape.

A black shape appeared ahead of them on the water, rowing as languidly inward as the Vidofnir and Skudbrun were hurried outward.

“Draken, dead ahead!” Came the call from the forecastle.

“Port side – oars in! Evade!” Stigander barked.

Einarr was starboard, and they held their oars steady against the Vidofnir’s side while they waited. The unknown draken pressed itself against the far wall of the cave. As the two ships slipped past each other, Einarr did a double-take. He wasn’t likely to ever forget the demon’s head carved at the prow of that boat, or the blackness of the wood. That was the Grendel.


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Trapped. Five of them to fight of dozens of the local guards and protect Runa, when the wall of men ahead of them appeared nearly as solid as stone. If they could just reach the Vidofnir they could escape, but it would take a miracle for them to get that far. A miracle, or…

“Runa?”

“I Sing, and before you know it we’re buried. They will fixate on my voice.”

Einarr growled and drew Sinmora. “Fine. Wait till we’re already bogged down, then, but we’re going to need you.”

Then he lowered his shoulder behind his shield and raised Sinmora overhead. His feet dug in to the stone pier, and then he was off, the others forming a kite behind him with Runa in the middle. Einarr’s shield struck the waiting shield wall of the defenders with a tremendous crash.

His aim was true: he drove into the space between two guard’s shoulders and their shields turned with him – not much, but enough to open a breach. Einarr slashed down with his blade and cut deep into the defender’s shoulder. Black blood welled around the steel.

Einarr yanked his sword free just moments before Jorir barreled into the guard’s knees and buried his axe in its hamstring. Momentum carried Einarr over the hole just opened even as Bollinn took down the guard on his other side.

As though they had trained for exactly this moment, the defenders curled around to come at the flying wedge from the sides and rear. Einarr hacked at them as they came within reach, but he could not care if they lived or died so long as he was able to continue driving forward.

Inch by inch, the six outsiders fought their way toward the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun and relative safety. With every inch, Einarr thought certain the next one would be their last. Finally, about halfway down the pier, they stalled. The crowd ahead seemed twice as thick as the one they had just fought through, and the grunts of exertion from Sivid and Barri on the rearguard sounded fatigued.

A long, thin blade swept over Jorir’s head and slashed across Einarr’s bicep. He roared – not in pain, although the fire of a fresh wound definitely made itself known – but in anger totally unrelated to the battle-fury.

That was the moment when the bright, clear tones of Runa’s voice sounded over the din of melee. It was only a few moments, but fatigue and pain fled from his body even as the rearguard roared their defiance and Einarr made another step forward.

If the press of enemies had been close ahead, however, now they were pressed on all sides. Einarr would swear that he could feel Runa’s breath on the back of his neck. At the very least, the sounds of battle from the end of the pier were also nearer. He cut at the legs of the monstrous guard ahead of him and followed it up with a vicious kick to the groin. His foe doubled over even as he lost balance and tumbled over: at least some things could be relied on.

Einarr cut to the side as he stepped forward and felt his blade once again bite flesh. His stomach roiled at the smell of the black blood that now splattered his face, but there was nothing to be done. One thing alone mattered, and that was reaching the ships.

Though they wore armor, nothing about these guards now appeared human in Einarr’s sight. The last time this had happened, it had been under the effects of Astrid’s battle chant. So, why now? He roared again, allowing the little voice in the corner of his mind to go about its business. Man or monster – on this field, all were one.

Ahead of them a blaze of light flared – real, yellow fire, so bright it was almost blinding. Their freedom was scant feet ahead: near enough he wanted to laugh, but still too far.

Now Runa’s voice sounded again, this time in the all-too-familiar rhythm of the Battle Chant. Even before it had begun to take hold of his mind, however, it was joined by the familiar, sultry voice of Reki, and a third voice Einarr did not know. With all three Singers in agreement, Einarr surrendered to the red haze of the battle fury.

What before had looked like a twisted dark elf in armor now appeared truly monstrous, all teeth and blood-red eyes, with gaping maws in places where no mouth should ever be – sometimes showing through the armor without compromising it. Einarr hacked about himself, twin desires warring in his breast even now. He knew he must reach the blaze of light, or he would perish. He knew with just as much conviction, however, that to leave the abominations alive would be the death of many others.

He chopped down with Sinmora. An arm that was not an arm, still gripping its sword, fell in his path and he stepped forward. Somehow their circle of six remained intact as they cut their path through the putrid wall of their enemies.

Arrows fell around them but not among them, fletched in the colors of Kjell and Breidelstein. One struck a creature’s shoulder and knocked him forward, off-balance. Einarr cut up and across and took the creature’s head.

Runa’s voice dropped out of the trio even as Reki’s song shifted. The haze began to clear from Einarr’s eyes. On the other side of the new-fallen creature was three feet of empty space and the blaze of light that was every torch aboard the Vidofnir and, beyond it, the Skudbrun.

As the vision ahead of him resolved into sense, Einarr let out a whoop. The light was not just to encourage them. It would also allow them to board. Erik and Irding slid a plank down towards the pier with a mighty shove. It hit the stone pier with a mighty thunk even as Runa slipped between Einarr and Bollinn. The ache of fatigue in Einarr’s shield arm subsided as Runa took that opportunity to squeeze it.

“Thank you,” she mouthed. Then she scrambled up the plank, and Einarr was left with the memory of that touch imprinted beneath maille and tunic alike.


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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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Einarr was among the first to slip, cloaked and hooded, off the Vidofnir’s deck and onto the stone pier below. Moments later he was joined by Sivid: Jorir had argued long and hard for the “honor” of accompanying his liege, but the jump to the pier was awkwardly long even for the humans. With stealth a prime concern, they could not risk exposure so early.

In truth most of the crew would venture down, each searching the underground settlement as they saw fit – all but the largest and clumsiest among them, in fact, which meant Jorir was in good company waiting on deck. Likewise from the Skudbrun, Trabbi was among those who were forced to wait on more favorable circumstance.

Sivid adjusted the hood of his cloak before meeting Einarr’s eyes. The man gave a slight nod, and the two of them hurried down the pier on soft soles. Einarr kept them to a fast walk as they neared the more congested areas of the docks. Once or twice he nearly lost track of the mouse-like man when Sivid would dart around a group that blocked the way, but each time found his partner waiting and watching for him on the other side.

“Thanks,” Einarr muttered as they emerged from the pier onto dry land.

“No problem. Can’t go getting separated this early, now can we.”

“Not at all. Any thoughts on where we should start?”

“If I was looking for some place to keep a sacrifice before the event – which I suppose I am – I’d start by looking for a temple of the offending god.”

Einarr opened his mouth and realized he had nothing witty to say to that. Shrugging, he settled on: “Well, let’s have a look then.”

***

The cave led upward from the dock at a steep angle and quickly narrowed. Here and there Einarr spotted a small side-passage, but given the smells that wafted through them, they had more about them of a slum than of holy ground. Still, it was not very long before Einarr and Sivid involuntarily slowed.

Rising up ahead of them was a smooth stone wall. From high above – a hundred feet if it was ten – the same bluish-purple flames illuminated the passage dimly. It looked like…

“A hold? Here?” Sivid finished the thought for him.

Einarr exhaled, more loudly than he really intended. They could be in a great deal more danger than they had anticipated. “So it would seem.”

“We should go back, report to the Captain.”

“What do we really have to report yet? We should at least try to get inside the walls.”

“And what happens when we can’t get out again?”

Einarr shrugged. “We’ll find a way. Come on.”

Sivid was a gambler and had been for as long as Einarr could remember. All strangeness about ‘luck’ aside, the man knew a good bet from a bad one. So when Sivid made no more objection to Einarr’s suggestion, the younger man was reasonably certain they had a decent chance of managing it.

The pair moved down the long stone road towards the gate of the keep, matching their movements to the other passers-by as best they could. The wall to their right continued on, smooth and unbroken and the color of steel in the strange light as it curved around away from the water.

“I feel like we should have seen a gate by now,” Einarr muttered after a time.

“I feel like we’re walking around a city designed by a paranoid man,” Sivid grumbled. “My best guess says the main gate is on the far side of the keep. Less convenient for day-to-day operations, but also more problematic to assault. Especially with how strong those walls look.”

Einarr glanced up involuntarily. If Sivid’s hunch was right, that meant the top of these walls could bristle with spears like a hedgehog. If Sivid was right, that meant their two ships had no chance of prevailing in an assault. He shrugged a shoulder to rid himself of the uncomfortable tightness building there. His chain mail jangled.

When none of the other travelers reacted to the sound of armor, Einarr relaxed a little. There were other ways to prevail than force, after all.

Finally they could see ahead a dark gash in the wall: the gate. Einarr and Sivid both risked a glance behind them: the water was no longer visible even as a reflection on the walls. Einarr harrumphed, and heard Sivid’s snort. He resettled his hood, trying to ensure his human features were thoroughly obscured. Still, Einarr wondered if that mattered. The crew of the Grendel had seemed to be human, after all… at least when he hadn’t been under Astrid’s battle-fury.

Einarr stopped in his tracks. Odd. Why had he not realized that before now? He shook his head and hurried three steps to catch up with Sivid. They would be within sight of the gate guards soon. Now was not the time.

On the far side of the gate stood an open marketplace. Four or five people would be allowed through unhindered, and then the next handful would be stopped. Well. As hard to find as this place was, it was unlikely many crews found their way by chance. Probably most of these people were well-known here. Einarr glanced at his partner, trying not to swallow. Maybe Sivid had been right?

They were too close now to turn back, though – not without drawing more attention. Einarr hung back a little, pretending to browse at the stalls outside the gates while he watched for an opportunity to enter. Sivid, too, was watching for his chance to cast the dice… metaphorically speaking, thankfully.

A crowd approached from within the gates, and then the wiry Sivid was on the move. Einarr didn’t see how he did it: in the space of two breaths, he had gone from his position outside the gates to take up a spot, perched on something, within, grinning at Einarr.

My turn. Einarr thought he would have poor luck slipping through a crowd like Sivid had. Instead, he watched for one going the other direction and tried to blend in at its edge.

The guard stopped the leader of the group he had joined. Einarr’s heart raced, and more when he realized he did not understand the words they exchanged. He lowered his head, just in case anyone was looking at his face, and focused on breathing quietly. It was only a short exchange: almost before he realized his supposed group began walking again, and Einarr with them. He was in.


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The remains of Langavik were an inferno behind them as the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun sailed out of port. While the sailors had put the town to the torch, the Singers stood on the dock and performed proper rites for the dead. No-one aboard either ship cared to look back at the horror they had found even as the blaze turned the sky to orange night.

Between the navigators of both crews, Einarr thought they had a good idea where to look… but that may have been the least satisfying conjecture he had ever heard. If there was one thing Einarr was glad of right now, it was his turn on the oars. He threw his back into every stroke, knowing that exhausting himself would be the only way he slept that night – or for most nights after, until his bride was back in his arms.

A dark elf fanatic, helming a cult that sacrificed people. And they had Runa. How could any man rest easy in that circumstance? And so, he rowed, because passing out drunk on the water would not be tolerated.

A few days out from the charred ruins of Langavik, the sky to the north grew dark, as though there were storm clouds just out of sight. With grim certainty, Vidofnir and Skudbrun turned towards the darkness, and before two more days had passed the storm they had sought – and the island they expected – loomed on the horizon.

The island seemed almost to shelter beneath the storm, but even before they passed under the shadow of clouds it looked like one of Hel’s hands reaching up from the underworld. A massive mountain seemed to stretch directly up from the dark waters, its craggy cliffs promising no safe harbor or beach to land on. Above, blackness roiled, although there was little wind below.

The sound of oars slipping through the water and the glow of torches from the decks were all that proved the two ships’ existence on their long, spiralling approach. On board, those who did not row peered towards the coast in search of any sign of habitation, or even simply an inlet where they might put in to continue their search on foot.

Two and a half turns around the island, Einarr spotted a deeper darkness along the coast, within what was now plainly a broad fjord and easily large enough for a longship to enter. “Sound ho!”

Watching sailors from further down the ship hurried up to see for themselves, and Einarr pointed toward the likely entrance to the island.

“The cult is led by a svartalfr, isn’t it? Everything I’ve heard says they prefer to live underground.”

“You think they’d build a dock in a cave?” Sivid sounded skeptical.

“One that size? Why wouldn’t they?”

Sivid had no answer for that. After a brief consultation between Captains and Mates, the two ships turned inwards, toward the hoped-for dock.

***

As the two ships slipped under the mouth of the cave, those aboard held their breath. Torches illuminated the stone walls in warm yellow light – which is more than could be said for their effect outside the underground inlet. As men shifted, chain mail jangled softly. Only the men still at oars – among them the newcomers aboard the Vidofnir – had not yet equipped themselves for battle.

For his part, Einarr hoped it would not come to that – not immediately, anyway. Not until they knew how to get Runa out. Once she was safe her captors could rot. His grip tightened on Sinmora’s hilt at his belt.

The underground river they floated along curved off to the right, and now Einarr could hear the distant echoes of voices from ahead, and see the reflection of whatever it was they used for light against the far wall of the cavern. Whatever they burned, its color was colder.

Stigander ordered their torches extinguished as they came around the bend, plunging the crew of the Vidofnir into near-blackness. A moment later the Skudbrun followed suit, and all were glad the current was slow. Eventually, though, the men’s eyes began to adjust, and even the small amount of cold bluish light from ahead was enough that they could see the outlines of their path.

Ahead, where the light was concentrated if not much brighter, a stone quay could be seen as a matte patch against the rippling water, and shadows seemed to move in the distance.

Stigander held up a hand. The rowers nearest him spread the word to those before and behind – reverse and hold. What the captain expected to see from here, none were certain… but Einarr, too, strained his eyes towards the subterranean harbor before them, hoping against hope that one of those shadows would resolve itself into a human woman with flaxen hair. That, at least, would prove that she hadn’t provoked them into acting hastily.

More likely she was biding her time, waiting for a chance to escape – or so Einarr told himself. He growled and did not look away.

The Skudbrun came up alongside the Vidofnir and a low-voiced question floated across the gap. “What news?”

Stigander shook his head, as though anyone more than five feet away could have seen the action. “Still can’t see. Any closer and we’ll be seen, though.”

Captain Kragnir growled. “Ships aplenty at the dock. You see any familiar-looking banners?”

“Not as yet. …Let’s ease in to the end of the quay. Pretend like we belong there, at least for now.”

Kragnir grunted in agreement, and once again the two ships began to crawl forward. Still Einarr saw no sign of either his beloved or the crew that killed Astrid not quite a year ago.

As they neared the pier, the two human ships weighed their sea anchor. A moment later, just before their hulls would have bumped into the stone edge of the pier, they pulled up short. None of the shadows on shore looked in their direction.

“Good,” Stigander muttered. The less attention they attracted from those on shore, the easier this became.


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