One week following the birth of the new Prince Alfvin, Thane Stigander of Raenshold sent out letters to everyone he – or his father – had ever called a friend. The selfsame League that had tried to conscript Einarr on the eve of his wedding was now seeking allies more broadly among the clans, and neither Einarr nor Stigander had any doubts they would be just as ruthless about it. Then, while Breidelstein repaired its warships and sharpened its blades for war, Einarr took his father’s advice to concentrate on his wife and his new son.

At the end of the first month the Skudbrun arrived, with word not only from Jarl Hroaldr but also from his Lord. Feathers were not so ruffled over Runa’s marriage that Thane Thorgnyr would blind himself to the reality over the waves. Another month passed, however, and then a third, with no word from any of the other Clans. The mood in the Hold grew tense.

Then, at last, another boat arrived in Breidelstein harbor – no bigger than the Villgås, and in far worse repair. She was crewed by only a pair of men, who rowed for the docks with an air of desperate relief.

The men were messengers from Kem, and when they were taken up to the Hold with their messages, the mood went from tense to outright grim.

Stigander met them in the main hall. When they were shown in, one of them knelt. The other, with a wild look in his eyes, took an extra step forward. “Milord, please -”

Bardr placed himself between the messenger and his Thane. The messenger stopped where he stood, but kept talking.

“Please, Lord Thane. Help us. Kem is… Kem is…”

“Kem is what?” Bardr demanded.

“Gone, sir.” The other man spoke quietly without raising his head. “The boy and I left our freehold for supplies, only when we arrived… when we arrived, the city was naught but a smoking ruin.”

“If’n you please, milord,” said the younger, more spooked of the two. “Lord Einarr showed me mercy, some years ago when I was nothin’ but a footpad. So we thought…”

Stigander grunted. “I’d been wondering what was happening. But Kem’s an awful long way to sail in a little skiff like that. Where did you resupply?”

“We foraged, milord,” said the older man. “We tried to stop at two or three other cities on our way, but they were all the same.”

Stigander pressed his lips into a line and nodded. “You’ve done well to reach us. Gorgny, see to it that they are fed and bathed, and rewarded appropriately, then find them some place to stay in the city.” He turned back to the two messengers. “I’m afraid things are likely to get worse before they get better. Go, and take what comfort you can in having found a safe harbor.”

As Gorgny led the two bedraggled men from the hall to see to Stigander’s instructions, Stigander motioned a servant forward. “Fetch Einarr, Reki, and Eydri to my study, then ready another messenger for Kjell.”

“Yes, milord.”


Runa had been displeased at being left out of Stigander’s summons, but then Alfvin had woken up and demanded food. She had sighed and waved Einarr out the door. He arrived at his father’s study just ahead of Reki and Eydri, who both mirrored on their faces the concern he felt. He rapped on the door.

Immediately his father’s voice called out. “Come.”

“Father. You called?”

Stigander looked up from the table and laid his quill down. “Good. You’re all here. Come in, shut the door.”

Reki looked up as she pulled the door to behind her. “Something has happened, then.”

“We’ve just had messengers from Kem. Or, rather, refugees. You remember Langavik?”

It took Einarr a moment to place the name, but when he did he shuddered. Eydri looked blank, of course: of the three, she was the only one who hadn’t seen it.

Reki drew her brows down. “There’s been another massacre?”

“Several, from the sound of things, on the route between Kem and here.” He sighed. “I’ve only just heard of this today, mind, so all I can do is speculate, but…”

Einarr knew exactly what his father was thinking: he thought it, too. “You’re thinking it’s the League.”

“Aye, I am.”

“But Langavik was destroyed by an enclave of the cultists.” Reki’s protest was obligatory, but weak.

Stigander nodded in acknowledgment of the point. “True enough, and the League’s purpose is ostensibly to fight against the cult. However…”

“However,” Einarr cut in. “We know that they are more than willing to resort to underhanded tactics, and we do not have any clear idea how they marshaled support for their League in the first place. Most places you go, after all, are unaware of and untouched by the Squiddies.” The League had tried to enthrall Einarr and his entire crew on their way back from Thorndjupr. If they applied force like that on a larger scale, it could easily turn horrific.

“My thoughts exactly. I’m sending word to Hroaldr and Thorgnyr so that our fleets can join together.”

“But we lack information.” Einarr frowned, pondering. “We could go to Kem – perhaps even should go to Kem – but if we send a fleet and find nothing then we’ve wasted time and supplies that would be better spent elsewhere.”

“Exactly.”

Einarr looked up. “I’ll take the Heidrun, and the messengers if they’re willing to return. Eydri, are you up for this?”

His Singer nodded eagerly: she had seemed dissatisfied ever since the wedding, and Einarr couldn’t even really fault her for that. When she’d signed on with him, after all, it was with the reasonable expectation of excitement.

Stigander grunted. “Good. My thought exactly. Choose your crew carefully, and remember a pigeon roost.”

“I will, Father.” Now he just had to explain to Runa what was going to happen. “Might I suggest sending Kaldr and Thjofgrir out towards Blávík? We know the League held that land only two years ago: if we can get someone on the ground there, it might answer a lot of questions.”

“A good plan. Not Kaldr, though: he’s got a cool head and a keen mind, but I’m not sending anyone in without a Singer to hand at least. …Sivid, I think, and his own ship if he succeeds.”

Sivid? As Captain? Einarr blinked and stifled a laugh. He wasn’t certain if he envied or pitied the man’s new crew. Reki, though, nodded in approval. “A solid choice. With your leave, Stigander, I will travel with Sivid for this expedition. He will need a Singer, and I would like to see the situation for myself.”

“Very well. Good fortune to you all. I look forward to your return.”

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

So begins what I expect to be the final book of The Adventures of Einarr Stigandersen. After four, almost five, years and fourteen books, I’m ready to move on to other projects – and I’m sure Einarr is ready for me to do so, as well – if only so I stop tormenting him! Fear not, however: my intention is to start a new serial, although not a purely free one. Look for a poll or an announcement from me in the next few weeks as I firm up my ideas.

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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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