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.”