When the Vidofnings gathered for supper that evening, they were joined by the greatest part of the Skudbrun’s crew – all of both ships, in fact, save those left to keep watch. In the Wandering Warrior that night, an air of confusion quickly turned to the sort of friendly banter they had all enjoyed the previous winter.

At some point in the middle of the first round of drinks, Stigander and Kragnir stood on a table near the center of the room and called for attention.

“Gentlemen!” Stigander began. “It is with great pleasure that I see the friendship between our two crews is undiminished after this last spring. It gives me great hope for the success of our coming mission… which I’m afraid is nowhere nearly so happy as our reunion tonight. So, first, a toast to one another’s health.”

The cheer that went up around the room was somewhat muted, as was probably to be expected after that introduction. A chorus of thunks marked the end of the toast as the men knocked their mugs against the tables. Stigander nodded, and now Captain Kragnir stepped forward.

“Gentlemen, for the last three weeks we have pursued a ship with a demon’s head that rides a storm black as night.”

Murmurs of recognition rose from most of the Vidofnings.

“We give chase because to do otherwise would be unconscionable. Last fall, a ship matching this description murdered your Battle Chanter. Three weeks ago, this ship stole away my Jarl’s daughter on her way to meet with an elder Singer.”

Now there were no murmurs, only the widened eyes of shock and pursed lips of anger.

“Einarr and I,” Stigander continued. “Were approached early this afternoon by Trabbi. I am sure I don’t need to explain to anyone why I have decided that aiding our brothers from Kjell in finding the foul demon-ship has become our first priority. Bardr informs me that we can be ready to leave the day after tomorrow.”

Captain Kragnir opened his mouth again. “Here, then, is to the demon hunt!”

There was nothing muted about the cheers for the toast this time, although the undercurrent was less one of camaraderie and more of anger. Einarr, leaning against the back wall, drained his cup to this toast. It would have been a decent ale, had he been able to taste it.

Einarr looked around the room, trying to be glad to see the two crews united, looking for his best path forward to the bar for a refill. Maybe he could goad Erik into a drinking contest tonight… the man would drink him under the table, but that didn’t seem like a bad place to be under the circumstances. Not when the alternative was worrying about Runa, and why they had taken her when they had murdered Astrid.

***

Getting stone-cold drunk always seems like a better idea when it’s happening than it does the morning after, and this morning was no exception. Einarr awoke on the floor beneath the table Erik had drunk him under the night before with, blessedly, no room to think about anything other than his aching head and the heaviness of his limbs. Which, he supposed, had been the point.

Einarr rolled out from under the table with a groan, not terribly concerned about why he had been left there. Probably due to Father’s disapproval. The fact that he did not seem to be the only one asleep on the tavern floor barely registered. Bleary, he shoved his hair back out of his face, his eyes scanning the room for something to wet his whistle with.

Stigander growled from across the room. “So you’re up, are you?”

“…’lo, Father.”

“I trust you got it out of your system last night?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Fine, then. Go help load the ship. Bardr and I will double-check the manifest.”

“Yes, sir.”

Stigander thrust a skin of water into his hands as Einarr trudged for the door. “We’ll get her back, and get vengeance for Astrid while we’re at it. Keep it together.”

Einarr paused, his hand on the door, to nod in agreement. Then he stepped out into the bright light of morning, blinking against the light and his hangover.

***

At the dawn tide, two days following the announcement of their venture, two ships slipped out of Mikilgata Harbor onto a calm sea, the sound of their oars plying the water the only sign of movement beyond the harbor master counting the rather generous tolls they had left.

On board the Vidofnir, the Skudbrun’s Mate consulted with Bardr, finalizing the heading they would take in pursuit of the demon-headed ship. There had been some hope, initially, that someone would spot the storm on the horizon, but in vain. Einarr listened with half his attention to the discussion: the other half paid more attention than truly necessary to the cadence of the rowing. If he did not, he would only dwell on the singular problem that stood before him. His stepmother’s murderers had his betrothed under their power. Why?

Eventually, though, when the harbor was little more than a smudge behind him, a gangplank was passed between the two ships and the Skudbrun’s Mate returned to his own crew and the sails were unfurled. Their heading: east by southeast, towards where the Skudbrun had lost sight of the storm – and where the Vidofnir had broken off her chase before.

For a moment it almost seemed as though the crowing cock of the Vidofnir were in a race against the Skudbrun’s wolf’s-head, but as they turned their new ally ceded the forerunner position to the crew that best knew what they pursued.

Einarr set his mouth even as they pulled the oars in. The Grendel, and whoever she was aligned with, would pay for their depredations in blood, or Einarr was not a Son of Raen. Perhaps, in the process, he might even learn what they were after in the first place.


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When the Vidofnir had emerged from the narrow fjord that served as a gateway to the ship-barrow, someone spotted the black storm clouds that had washed over the island on the southeastern horizon. The sail was unfurled and they gave chase, building speed faster than wind alone with the oars. For three weeks they chased the storm this way, always headed vaguely southeast and ever more convinced that the storm itself was unnatural. Chased, but never gained. In the middle of the third week, Snorli approached the Captain and Mate.

“We must put in to port soon, sirs. We’ve a week’s worth of water and mead left, at best.” They could live off of fish for so long as they had water, but once that was gone…

Reluctantly, Stigander agreed and the order was given to make for Mikilgata Harbor, not many days west of them in territory nominally held by Thane Birlof. Not exactly friendly territory, but safe enough if they kept their noses clean. In this way the Vidofnings found themselves holed up in the guest bunks offered at the Wandering Warrior on the port’s edge.

The benefit of a place like this, of course, was that finding buyers was a simple, if not straightforward affair, and as their first week in port passed they converted no small amount of their treasure from gold to gems or more ivory to lighten their hold.

The drawback, however, was that there were very few men interested in going out to sea, and even fewer that Stigander would feel comfortable bringing aboard. So, for the most part, they waited and they drank until the hold was empty enough to accommodate the food and fresh water they required.

Two days before Stigander planned to leave, when most of the Vidofnings were gaming to while away the hours or off in search of a good training field while Snorli and Bardr arranged for the delivery of supplies, a familiar figure trudged into the Warrior and leaned on his arms at the bar.

Einarr, going over the manifest with his father, looked twice before he realized who it was in front of him. He was on his feet, heading for the bar himself, before he had time to consciously process what he was doing.

“Trabbi?”

The old man looked up, weariness and desperation obvious in his face. “Oh, good. When we saw the Vidofnir in port…”

“We? Are you on the Skudbrun now? …Never mind, come sit down.” Truth be told, Einarr hadn’t given the man a second thought since their glìma match in the spring, but even if the fisherman had taken up whaling there wasn’t much that should have brought him this far out.

“For the moment, yes. Lord Stigander, sir.” Trabbi greeted Stigander as he took a seat at their table and slumped against it.

“Trabbi.” Stigander’s voice held a note of caution. After all, the last time they had spoken with this man, he had been competing with Einarr for a bride. “What brings you to Mikilgata?”

“He was relieved to find us, so nothing good.”

“Oh, aye, nothing good at all.” Trabbi looked around for the master of the bar, who was nowhere in sight. He shook his head, sighing. “That letter your new Singer had when you came back last time? It was summoning Runa for – and I quote her – ‘Singer business.’”

Trabbi’s eyes scanned the room again, although less like he was looking for something and more like a man taking in his surroundings. “My Jarl, he asked me to go along as bodyguard – not that he mistrusted the men of the Skudbrun, but that he wanted someone who would stand out less on shore. What else could I do but agree to that?

“Only… on the way… a storm blew up, and riding the winds was a black-headed ship…”

“So then Runa is…” Einarr sat back, stunned. He couldn’t say the word… couldn’t admit to himself the possibility that she might have been murdered the same way Astrid was.

“Kidnapped.” The word Trabbi supplied was far less despair-inducing than the one Einarr had come up with, but still it took a moment for father and son to process what they’d heard.

“Kidnapped?” Stigander was the first to recover.

“Kidnapped. …And I’m no warrior, but I’m to blame… We lost sight of that strange storm they rode four days ago.”

Einarr met his father’s eyes with a wordless plea.

Stigander nodded once, slowly. “You say the Skudbrun is in port? Here?”

Thane Birlof’s waters were even less friendly to Jarl Hroaldr’s Thane than they were to the sons of Raen. Still, Trabbi nodded.

“We’ll go back to your ship with you, speak with Captain Kragnir. I think, all things considered, my crew will be more than willing to help you go after the scum.”

“You have my thanks.”

All three men stood and headed for the door, the manifest tucked beneath Stigander’s arm.

***

Trabbi led them through the port, his shoulders more square than they had been in the bar. The Skudbrun was moored in an out-of-the-way location where it wasn’t likely to be seen by anyone too loyal to the supposed thane. This placed it on the same dock, although much farther back, than the Vidofnir. Bardr looked up and watched as the three of them passed by, but he did nothing to interfere.

The Skudbrun looked exactly as she had when they had come after Einarr and Runa in the Gufuskalam that spring. Captain Kragnir, a white-haired man who only looked small in comparison to Stigander, stood on the deck near the gangplank. Whether he was looking for their party or for porters, who could tell.

“I hear you’ve had a run-in with our old friends, Captain,” Stigander drawled.

“So it appears, Captain.”

“May we come aboard?”

Captain Kragnir stepped to the side and motioned for the three men to join him.


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“Erik.”

The burly man nodded, rain streaming from the end of his beard.

“You’re not going to make me fight you, too, are you?”

“Cap’n’s mighty unhappy, Einarr, but he don’t want you dead an’ he don’t want either of us injured. Sent me to give you an offer.”

“And?”

“You come back aboard the Vidofnir and Runa goes to the Skudbrun, so everything’s done proper-like. Trabbi’s on board over there, but between we three and the fishes he’s not as unhappy about all this as the Jarl. Cap’n Stigander wants a word or three with Trabbi, thinks they can work something out.”

“How do we know this isn’t just some sort of trick? If my father sent a priest along…” Runa’s eyes were wide, as though the thought of marrying Trabbi instead of Einarr kindled fear in her.

“Runa.”

She turned her gaze to him, her eyes pleading.

“Runa, even if this all goes south, your father had his choice of suitors. I know he’s getting old, but I don’t believe you would be treated poorly. If we refuse, there are now two ships worth of men I would have to fight off before we could escape. On the other hand, I think there’s a good chance my Father will be able to work something out. Will you trust me?”

She opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. Runa pursed her lips and lowered her eyes before finally nodding her acquiescence.

“Thank you. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we might not end up outcast after all.”

“Captain’s going to want words with you no matter what happens, you realize,” Erik put in.

“That’s fine.”

Barri and the other two Brunnings were standing, now, but prevented from rejoining battle by Erik’s muscular frame. Now the big man turned and addressed them. “You heard me. Go ahead and take your princess aboard, and tell your Captain that Captain Stigander Raenson of the Vidofnir requests permission to board.”

If it had been someone with less presence than Erik, or if Barri had been less honorable of a man, Einarr might have worried about treachery from the Skudbrun. As it was, though, he was able to clasp Runa’s hands in his own with a genuine smile of encouragement. “Don’t worry. It’ll all work out.”

He let Barri take Runa’s arm. Her worried gaze never strayed from Einarr as Barri carried her up to the Skudbrun on his back.

Einarr looked at Erik, squinting a little against the wind trying to blow rain in his eyes. “I’m getting busted back down to deckhand, aren’t I.”

Erik barked a laugh. “Wouldn’t suprise me.”

***

When the storm died down, both Skudbrun and Vidofnir were still tethered to the small skiff Runa had acquired for her daring escape. With many agreements shouted across the waves, the boats were brought alongside one another and planks were extended between their two railings. Standing in front of the gangplank on the Vidofnir was Stigander, a cask of mead under one arm, flanked by Bardr and Einarr. On the other side stood the captain of the Skudbrun with his first mate and Trabbi. Einarr searched their deck for sign of Runa, but did not see her.

Stigander cast a pointed look over his shoulder at his son before beginning. “Under flag of truce,” he called across. “I, Captain Stigander Raenson request permission to come aboard for the purpose of mediation with Trabbi Aridson.”

“Under flag of truce, and with full consideration of the long friendship between Kjell Hall and Raenshold,” the other captain answered. “I, Captain Kragnir Hokarson, grant permission to come aboard.”

Only then did Stigander step up onto the gangplank and stride across to the other ship, followed by Bardr and Einarr in quick – if not hasty – succession. Einarr steadied himself with his knees when a swell rocked their two boats with him in the middle of the plank. His father was presenting Captain Kragnir with the cask as a ceremonial gesture of goodwill – a gesture whose importance Einarr well knew was magnified by his actions.

The Fates did not decide to drop him between the two boats for his earlier temerity, and moments later he was able to complete the crossing. Captain Kragnir led them back to the Captain’s awning. Runa stood outside of it, red-faced and wringing her delicate hands. Einarr wished he could go to her, comfort her, but under the circumstances feared that would only make matters worse. Trabbi looked her way, pursed his lips – in frustration, anger, or concern Einarr could not tell – and did not look again.

The six men settled around the low table in the center of the sheltered area – Brunnings on one side, Vidofnings on the other. Kragnir opened the cask Stigander had brought as a peace-offering and poured everyone a cup of the sweet brew. Once they had all drunk, the ceremony was concluded.

“What is there that the wandering Son of Raen believes must be discussed?” Trabbi opened. The bitterness in his voice planted a rock in the bottom of Einarr’s belly.

“Perhaps the unwillingness of your bride?”

“My Jarl asked me to marry his daughter and keep her safe and well. To what part of that am I supposed to object?”

“He did not even mention her happiness?” Einarr had not intended to speak, but the words would not be contained.

“If this is also not something you wished, I believe we have a solution where you can back out and no-one has to lose face,” Bardr interrupted

“I will confess to mixed feelings on the idea of wedding a girl my sons’ age.”

Stigander nodded. “As would I, in your situation.” He looked sidelong at Bardr, who had the good grace to look embarrassed. “What say you to a duel?”

“Captain, I may lead a fleet, but it is a fleet of fishermen. I hardly think that a test of swordsmanship…”

“Glima, though?”

“Wrestling?”

“Wrestling. We may be getting on in years, but unless I miss my guess you’re not slowing down just quite yet. Your experience versus my son’s youthful vitality.”

Trabbi set his jaw and turned his gaze to study Einarr.

“Loser yields the right to marry the princess.”

“I won’t throw the match,” Trabbi warned.

Einarr met the man’s weighing eyes. “You’d be a coward if you did.”

“Just so long as that’s understood.”

“Of course.” Stigander shrugged as though he’d expected nothing else.

“In that case, I agree. Runa should stay on board the Skudbrun until we return to Kjell Hall. My Jarl would never forgive me if I allowed her to remain with the man who tried to steal her away.”

Einarr opened his mouth to protest, but before a sound could escape Stigander had already answered. “Agreed.”

Not two steps after he had left the awning, Runa had thrown her arms about Einarr’s neck. “Easy, easy. We’ve got it all settled.”

“I heard. You think you can win?”

He smirked now, lowering his voice to avoid being heard to insult his rival. “Against a fisherman? Come now.” His face fell then and he shook his head. “Even if I don’t, though, I think it might not make much difference for you. After what we did, Trabbi would be well within his rights to cancel the engagement.” It might matter for him, though, depending on how forgiving the Jarl felt.

She took a deep breath and held it for a moment, nodding before she let it out. He thought she might have been about to protest. She looked as anxious here as she had earlier, on the boat, when he was fighting off her countrymen.

“You’re that worried I’ll lose?”

She shook her head. “I’m worried you’ll be hurt.”

Bardr and his father were nearly to the gangplank, but Einarr found a moment to wrap her in his arms and kiss her hair before hurrying on.


1.11 – Capture 1.13 – Glìma
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For three days the sky was clear and the wind was fair, and Einarr kept one hand on the tiller while he and his stolen bride spoke of many things, laying plans for how they would live once they were officially wed – and occasionally trading kisses. For all her various skills Runa knew nothing of navigation, and so when night fell they would drop anchor in spite of the pursuers they expected but could not see and sleep. Einarr was glad that Runa did not push herself at him, for after so many hours in such close proximity he would have been hard pressed to refuse. For all that they remained chaste, however, it was no small feat of endurance.

He caught her watching him several times, and she caught him at least once. She had been singing for the joy of it, and the music bolstered his tired mind. His eye fell upon the flaxen braid hanging below her hips on the seat and took in the perfection of her form. She turned to look over her shoulder at him, and a tightness spread across his stomach. He felt his face heat in a blush as he looked away, but not quickly enough to miss the hunger in her own eyes. No. Bad enough to steal her away; you will not have her until you are properly wed.

On the fourth day a storm blew up. The sky turned dark, and Einarr furled the sail and took up oars. He wasn’t sure how much he could do, but he had to at least try to keep them on course. Runa sang of warmth and light and the strength of a man’s arms, and the song magic fortified him. Einarr battled the waves to keep them on course, and while she sang he did not feel the chill of the rain or the strain of his arms. But not even song magic could make his vision pierce the veil of rain.

He did not know how long he had fought the storm when the sound of metal striking wood raised his hackles. He turned to look over his shoulder without letting go of the oars. Behind them, their approach masked by the sheeting rain and the rumbling thunder, the Skudbrun of Kjell Hall loomed. The sound that had alerted him were the two hooks now embedded in the side of their skiff that secured a pair of boarding lines. Einarr thrust the oars forward and Runa took charge of them.

Einarr drew Sinmora and stood between her father’s ship and Runa, expecting even in that moment it would be hopeless. He would fight, of course, but with these odds…

The first man down the rope was one Einarr recognized from long ago. Seven years ago, he had been the one to defeat the team of Einarr and Runa in their goat-game, and all winter long they’d had a friendly rivalry going on. “Barri.”

“Einarr.”

Einarr glanced back at Runa: the princess’ eyes kept darting between the two men, nearly as worried for Barri’s fate as for Einarr’s. “I don’t suppose there’s any way you’d let us settle this with arm-wrestling – for the Princess’ sake?”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Should’ve thought of that before you took off with her.” Barri took a testing swing toward Einarr with his own blade, which was easily parried.

“I did. But that includes her.” Now Einarr slashed at Barri with the blunt edge of his blade. This, too, was parried.

Barri shrugged, and then the fight began in earnest.

Under ordinary circumstances, Einarr thought he’d be more than a match for Barri at swordplay. These were not ordinary circumstances, however, and between his inability to give ground without putting Runa in harm’s way and the awkward swing he used to strike with Sinmora’s blunt edge Barri actually had the edge. Time and again metal struck metal, Einarr’s saving grace the fact that he could prevent his opponent’s maneuvering just as much as his own movements were limited.

Finally, Barri tried to skewer Einarr on the tip of his sword and forgot his guard. It was only a moment, but that was enough. Einarr raised Sinmora to his opposite shoulder and swung.

The flat of the blade struck the other man across the face and he stumbled to the deck, stunned. A small scream escaped Runa’s lips.

“He’ll be fine,” Einarr said. “Whether or not we will is another question.”

“Be careful,” was all she said. Another Brunning was right on Barri’s heels, pressing forward to get ahead of where his crewmate was beginning to stir, and then he was fighting again. Blades clashed, and a second Brunning fell to the deck, stunned. A third advanced, axe raised, even as Barri took his feet once more.

Over the clang of sword against axe, the solid thunk of a hook embedding itself in the wood caught Einarr’s attention. He glanced up, hardly daring to take his attention away from one of Runa’s countrymen, to see another boarding line attached to the side of their little skiff.

“Einarr, enough.” Tears filled her voice and nearly distracted him from a blow that would have taken his sword arm off at the elbow. “I can’t bear to see anyone get hurt here.”

“Tell that to the Brunnings,” he grunted, bringing Sinmora’s haft down on the back of his opponent’s neck.

A swarthy bear of a man was sliding down the third boarding line, an axe at his belt and an unfamiliar grim expression riding on his otherwise familiar features. Einarr stood ready to duel the newcomer, too, even after the cinnamon-colored braids and beard resolved themselves into the uncharacteristically grim face of Erik, one of his Father’s best men.


1.10 – Runaway Bride 1.12 – Negotiations
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