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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Not without some trepidation, Einarr and the others led the two Singers back to the warehouse where they had found the hanged butcher. Aema covered her mouth with a cloth as they approached to avoid the worst of the smell. Reki’s shoulders shuddered once under her heavy cloak, but she did not hesitate. The door swung open under her palm and she stepped across the threshold.

She stepped no closer to the hanged man, however. His slow spin carried him around so that he very shortly faced the living in the door.

Seithmathir,” Reki read.

“Magic-man?” Einarr furrowed his eyebrows, confused. It was odd for a man of the Clans to study the Arts, of course, but never a reason to kill a man that he’d heard of.

“Evidently.” Reki paused a long moment. With her hood still up, Einarr couldn’t tell if she was studying the body or trying to maintain composure. When she spoke again, her voice was hushed. “I think this was carved before they hung him.”

Einarr shuddered as Reki backed away from the corpse.

“We’ll want to burn the town before we leave, if we don’t find anyone left alive.”

Aema nodded. “And if we do, make sure they see to all the bodies. The last thing we need is a port full of the restless dead.”

Bardr grunted in agreement as Reki stepped back outside the warehouse.

“Surely this wasn’t all?”

“No. This was the smallest part of it.” Trabbi led the way this time, back to the square that had confounded all three of them before.

Along the wall of a particularly large warehouse, several bodies were strung up by their wrists and ankles, all with the same wound patterns as the hanged man. These bodies framed a longer message that had apparently been burned into the stone wall. The two Singers stood staring for a time, concentrating on the long message in a nigh-dead alphabet.

“For the sin of harboring witches,” Aema began, haltingly. “The people of Langavik have been punished according to…”

Reki picked it up here. “According to the righteous dictates of Urkúm, High Priest of Malúnion. Let all who come here know…”

“…Know that the time of seithir is at an end, and all who practice such foul magics will be punished.” Aema’s voice sounded somewhat breathless as she finished reading aloud the proclamation.

“This is madness!” Einarr had never heard either of those names before, but the idea of giving up the use of Song Magic – or Weaving, or any of the other Arts – was preposterous.

Trabbi looked just as flummoxed as he felt. If no-one was trained in the Arts, then how would anyone control their effects? Song would not go away just because no more Singers were trained. Cloth would still be necessary, as would the blacksmith’s art.

It was Bardr who had the sense to ask the question they all wanted the answer to. “Who is Malúnion?”

Both singers shook their head.

“It’s an old Elven name, but I couldn’t tell you more than that,” Reki answered. “Maybe Tyr has an idea? He’s been around long enough, who knows what bits of lore he may have picked up.”

Aema cleared her throat. “Urkúm… I believe that’s a svartalfr name.”

All three men groaned.

“So you’re saying we have a svartalfr fanatic, of some god none of us has ever heard of?” Bardr rubbed his forehead.

“So it appears.” Reki sighed. “Not very honest of them to decry magic like this, though. Someone among them learned to Paint, I think.”

“You mean because of how the runes are burned into the rock?” Einarr, too, had found that strange.

“I do.”

Trabbi looked thoughtful. “Could it be, then, that the Imperials themselves are behind these massacres?”

Aema shook her head. “Let’s hope not.”

***

“So there you have it,” Reki finished as both crews gathered on the dock under the fiery orange sunset. “All things considered I think it likely the crew that captured the lady Runa and the crew that killed my predecessor are probably a part of this same cult. I also think it likely, based on the state of the bodies of the town, that we are at least a week behind our target still.”

Stigander and Captain Kragnir frowned at the story the five of them had brought back not an hour previous, but for the moment said nothing.

“Does anyone among the crew recognize the name Malúnion?” Aema directed the question out towards the crew. It was a gamble, but with a little luck…

Jorir spat a curse.

“Can I take that as a yes?”

“Oh, aye.” The svartdvergr shouldered his way forward through the crowd. “Wish I didn’t. Right bastards, are ‘is followers, an’ I will lay coin that this High Priest has convinced some of the others to join him on this damn-fool crusade. Anything that doesn’t come from their pissant demigod is by definition unclean, and Malúnion has nothing to do with the Arts.”

Einarr and Trabbi spoke at once. “Then what do they want with Runa?”

“Sacrifice, unless I miss my guess.”

Einarr shot up straight from the crate he had been leaning against. Trabbi’s reaction was more subdued, but just as worried. “Sacrifice?”

“Aye. They give proper sacrifices to their god, they’re granted magic for a time. Don’t know how long. Left home before the cult could get a proper hold there.”

Stigander rumbled. “Why leave a message here, and not at either of the two previous sites?”

Aema shook her head now. “I don’t know.”

“I can venture a guess.” Captain Kragnir crossed his arms and frowned beneath his brown beard. “Territory.”

The captain of the Skudbrun gave that a long moment to sink in before he continued. “Massacre like this is as good as a declaration of war. We’ve either crossed into territory they claim, or near enough that they’re making a play for it.”

Now there were mutters from all around the intermingled crews.

“The smart thing to do now would be to call a retreat, come back with a fleet in the spring to put the dogs down.”

Einarr, Trabbi, and Stigander all started forward, but before they could object he continued.

“But they have the princess, and if your dwarven friend is right we haven’t much time. Assuming we’re not already too late. And I do not want to be the one to tell the Jarl why we didn’t come back with his daughter – not while we’ve the slightest chance of rescuing her.”

Stigander nodded sharply. “All there is to do, then, is make sure we get her back alive. Bardr! Bollinn! The charts!”


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Bulging eyes stared blankly out of the gray-blue face of the hanged butcher. Black scabbed-over gashes formed runes on the man’s chest.

“Trabbi… what didn’t your captain tell us?” Einarr could not tear his eyes from the scene that faced them.

A sigh sounded from over his shoulder. “We stopped, or tried to, twice before Mikilgata, in search of information about the ship we chased. Both times, a town the size of Kjellvic, and everyone…” Trabbi trailed off.

“Any sign of who did this?” If ever there was an impetus for the clans to join together, this would be it.

“Not thus far.”

Einarr cleared his throat and forcibly turned his head back to the street, where Trabbi and Bardr both stared over his shoulders, into what had once been a warehouse. That the sun beat down on their shoulders only made what they found inside worse. Einarr reached back without looking and pulled the door to behind him. It still wouldn’t latch.

“There has to be some sign of who did this. I can’t believe an entire town would go down without a fight…” He had to clear his throat again. “And is there any point to a massacre like this if no-one is around to spread a warning?”

The other two only shook their heads. It was hard to think there was a point to this sort of slaughter even then… and certainly those who worked such acts tended not to last long on the sea. To raid and pillage was one thing. This… this was quite another.

Now Einarr met the eyes of his chaperones. “Come on. We won’t learn anything standing around here.”

***

Everywhere they checked was the same. Oh, the bodies varied, of course, as did the means of death… but where there was a rune-carved body they found blood, and nowhere else. No arrows left behind, though some had plainly been shot. What footprints may have existed were long since obscured by wind or the tread of the searchers. Now what?

“What did your Battle Chanter make of this when you saw it before?” Bardr asked Trabbi.

The old fisherman just shook his head. “Something wicked, something vile… nothing unnatural.”

“A crew that must be purged, then?” Einarr could credit that for one massacre. Two perhaps not.

“So she said. We have no reason to doubt her.”

“Save for three instances of… this, now.”

Trabbi grunted, but did not look as offended as Einarr had half-expected.

“We’re missing something, I think, and it’s making my skin crawl. Bardr, do you think Reki would be able to tell anything?”

“Maybe, if they made use of Song in their attack.” Doubt filled the Mate’s voice.

“Why wouldn’t they…? Oh.” The Grendel, when they had attacked last fall and murdered Astrid, had used no Song Magic in their attack. Then Einarr furrowed his eyebrows. “You think they’re connected?”

“I think we have to consider it, under the circumstances. It’s entirely possible they know they’re being pursued.”

“But even if they know that, how would they know their pursuers would break off like this?”

Bardr had no answer for that question.

“Let’s see if Reki has any ideas for us.” Einarr turned back towards the wharf, a feeling on the back of his neck as though he were being watched. Three steps later he stopped. Something had moved, just at the upper edge of his vision. He looked up.

“What in the world…” The image before Einarr’s eyes made no sense, but it was unmistakably runic.

“By the gods…” Trabbi breathed, his voice as appalled as Einarr’s. Bardr stood staring, stunned.

Einarr turned his head to look at his one-time rival. “Tell me someone on your ship knows how to read runes?”

“One or two of us, I think. Does no one on the Vidofnir?”

“Not unless Reki does. Father doesn’t think much of fortune-tellers.”

Bardr snorted and shook his head, dismissing the shock. “No. Never has. But I’d be surprised if most Singers didn’t have at least some knowledge of the runes. Let’s go.”

The Vidofnir’s Mate took the lead, striding back to the ships at a fast enough clip that Einarr nearly had to run to keep up.

***

The three men hurrying down the docks were the first to return from their excursion into the city. Stigander stood waiting at the top of the Vidofnir’s gangplank, while Captain Kragnir was inspecting his hull from the deck.

“What news?” Stigander asked.

“We haven’t seen a living soul.” Trabbi shook his head. “It’s just like all the others, Captain.”

Captain Kragnir cursed. “Not one?”

Bardr shook his head. “Not a one. But if there is someone capable of interpreting runes, we have need of their assistance.”

Captain Kragnir whistled, and several of the Brunnings came forward on the deck. On the other side of the dock, the cloaked figure of Reki stepped slowly forward.

“All right, gents!” Kragnir boomed. “We’re dealing with the same sick bastard as before – only this time, there’s scribbling to be read! One of you lot knows the old runes, right?”

“Herrid do, sir, only he went out with the rest.”

“…Herrid? Really?” Kragnir shook his head, although Einarr had no idea why that would be strange. “And he’s the only one o’ you lot?”

“I know it,” a feminine voice purred from farther back on the Skudbrun. “But if it’s the same as before, I don’t know that it will help you.”

“It can’t hurt to check, Aema. Go with them. Maybe the runes will tell you something the atmosphere didn’t last time.”

“As you say.” A moderately pretty woman stepped forward from among the Brunnings. She could have been Runa’s aunt, from her appearance.

“I, too, will go.” Reki’s sultry voice made the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck stand on end.

“Is that necessary, Reki?” Stigander asked.

“Perhaps not. I merely wish to see for myself what sort of creature we are dealing with here. Or does my Captain disdain me so much he would allow his heir to venture forth, but not his Singer?”

A viper’s tongue on that one, when she wanted it. Einarr was impressed, even as Stigander gave in.

“Good. The five of us shall return when we have something to report.”


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For two weeks the ships pressed on, following the last path the Skudbrun had for the storm, certain that it would only dissipate when those who rode its winds willed it.

Even the last known path of the storm, however, was nearly a week old by the time they put out to sea. Every available hand was put on watch duty, searching for storm or sign of land. Even when Einarr was not on watch duty he watched, however. What else was he supposed to do? Even still he could not escape a growing sense of unease and listlessness.

Finally, three weeks out from Mikilgata, Stigander realized they were nearing Langavik and called a detour. Perhaps, with a little luck, someone there would have news for them.

It was the first spot of good news Einarr had heard in three weeks. Still he kept his eyes trained on the horizon. Runa was strong, true, but she was already under their power. The faster they spotted their target…

“You’ll do no-one any good this way, you realize,” Jorir grumbled from his side.

Einarr jumped. How long had the dwarf been standing there? “I’m fine.”

“Your pallor says otherwise. And you haven’t blinked since noon. Take a rest before you end up sea-blind.”

“I… what?”

Jorir harrumphed. “Think, man. Watch shifts are half-length, aren’t they? Why do you think that is?”

Einarr shrugged and continued scanning the horizon.

“Eyestrain and glare, milord. Eyestrain and glare. I know you’re worried about that lass o’ yours, but the same can be said for every man aboard these ships. Surely you don’t think her so delicate as to wilt the moment she’s out of the sun?”

Now Einarr did look down. After-images of the flat horizon swam over his boots. “No. I’m actually more worried what might happen if she provokes them.”

“Go. Sleep. I’ve got some leaf you can chew if you need it. Rest your eyes: you need those. And have some faith in your woman!”

Einarr chuckled under his breath. “Have you been talking with Father?” He shook his head, suddenly exhausted. “Nevermind. You’re right. I’ll take a break.”

Jorir harrumphed again as Einarr trudged away from his vigil at the railing. He would need to be coherent to learn anything in the port, after all – and there was no way he wasn’t going out looking for information.

***

Langavik had more in common with Apalvik or Attilsund than with Kem or even Mikilgata, but this was neither a raid nor a resupply. The long, narrow harbor was lined by stone warehouses, though, which only turned to public halls and homes some ways back. These waters were in the middle of prime whaling territory, and so those warehouses would most likely be very well insulated and used for processing their catch.

Whaling territory, though, meant that someone would have had a weather-eye out for storms, and one as unusually violent as the one they sought was bound to have been noted. Even as their two ships slipped into the harbor Einarr moved to join the small group of men who were to go ashore. When Bardr furrowed his eyebrows to see him there, Einarr challenged him with a look. We’re seeking my betrothed, he thought. Are you really going to keep me back here?

In spite of a long, weighing look, Bardr did not actually move to keep Einarr aboard. He could have, technically, although Einarr had a suspicion his father would take his side instead of the Mate’s.

As the Vidofnir and Skudbrun slid into two empty spots on the docks, they saw no people around. Einarr furrowed his eyebrows: it was mid-morning, and not a feast day he’d ever heard of. So where was everyone?

Men to his right and left stood with similar looks of consternation painted on their faces. Either the locals had some very strange customs, or something was terribly wrong.

The only sound as they disembarked onto the docks was the drumbeat of boots against wood. The men of the Skudbrun who joined them to a man had their mouths set in grim lines. Almost as if they already know what we’re going to find. The Brunnings said nothing if that was the case, though, and the two teams of men trooped into the eerily quiet city.

The pier was not long, as such things go, but with every step Einarr hoped to see someone moving around on land, even if only to duck between buildings like a frightened rabbit. Trabbi’s face mirrored his own disappointment when they stepped onto solid ground and still saw no sign of life.

Barri – the selfsame Brunning Einarr had dueled during his ill-fated flight with Runa not six months ago – scowled about them. “Brunnings, pair up with Vidofnings. Don’t let anyone go alone.”

“Why?” The question burst unbidden from Einarr’s mouth, but many of his fellow Vidofnings nodded in agreement.

Barri’s mouth twisted around into a grimace. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a port like this. Don’t rightly know what happened… but don’t split up. We lost some good men that way.”

Bardr grunted. “You heard the man. Pair off, don’t get separated. Looking first and foremost for signs of life. Won’t get much information out of dead men or empty buildings.”

A grunt of assent went around the two teams and they paired themselves off. Einarr stepped forward early on, intending to go with whoever among the Brunnings was similarly eager, but Bardr’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. With a roll of his eyes, eager to get on with the search but not eager to be reprimanded for going against the Mate, he waited. In the end, the last three remaining were Einarr, Bardr, and Trabbi.

“I can’t stop you from coming,” Bardr explained. “But I can do everything in my power to make sure you come back in one piece.”

“If you insist.” Einarr shrugged and moved toward one of the apparently empty buildings.

Perhaps more troubling than the silence in the streets, Einarr thought, was the fact that the door to the warehouse was not latched. He paused a long moment after arriving at the door, his hand still resting lightly on the wood that had already shifted under his fingers. The distinctive odor of rancid blubber wafted out through the crack.

Bardr cleared his throat. With a nod, Einarr pushed the door the rest of the way open. His nose was assaulted by the soap-smell of rancid fat overlaid by the metallic tang of blood.

Inside, spatters of blood covered overturned crates. Some of these had unprocessed blubber spilling out. And there, in the center of the room, a bearded man in a butcher’s apron hung from the rafters.


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