For more than a fortnight they sailed on, following the charts as best they could as they weathered the ordinary spring storms. While there had been more than a few cold, wet nights, Einarr was just as glad that was all they had faced so far: an island that could drive Grandfather out, and that had earned the name of “Thorn Deep,” was sure to have something unpleasant waiting – especially given Einarr’s calling. Thus, he took the blustery weather as a blessing.

Right up until black storm clouds appeared out of a blue sky off to the north and began speeding toward Einarr and the Heidrun.

It was Troa who spotted the clouds first, and announced their presence with a dread-laced “Oh, Helvíti.”

Einarr looked up and understood immediately. “Cult ship approaching! Prepare for battle! Guards to the Singer.”

Captain or not, heir or not, Einarr was in far less danger than Eydri. Not everyone aboard had experienced combat with the svartalfr cult, but they should at least have heard about it by now. There was a jangle of maille as the warriors dressed for battle and an air of grim determination fell over the ship.

Please don’t let them have one of those horrors…

Einarr, too, pulled on his maille and helmet, then stepped up beside Naudrek as the guards formed around Eydri.

“Ready the fire arrows,” he ordered. “We want to avoid boarding as long as we can.”

“Yes, sir… Is it really one of those demon ships you talked about?”

“Probably. Need the arrows ready before we can see that, though.”

“Of course, sir.” Naudrek was a good man, but he was not as practiced a Mate as Jorir. No matter: Jorir was quite right about where he was most needed now.

Damn it, though, why did we have to run into one of these things on this trip? Einarr would have been perfectly happy avoiding them for the rest of his days. Unlikely, of course, considering he was a Cursebreaker.

The black storm cloud that heralded the approach of a demon ship bore down on the Heidrun as they readied themselves. Those who already wore their maille watched the horizon grimly, awaiting the first sight of one of the demon-headed black ships. The wind lashed at their faces. Raindrops had begun to sting Einarr’s skin by the time the shadow of the cult ship appeared in the storm.

“Brace yourselves, men! Not only are we fighting in a storm, even in death the enemy can kill you – or worse. This first volley of fire arrows is critical: you’ll have plenty of time to adjust your aim for the wind. Steady yourselves, now.”

There was a general shifting of feet on the deck, but no-one spoke. Visibility dropped precipitously as the two ships closed. The wind began to howl.

“Light volley!” Einarr shouted to be heard over the wind. “Ready!”

The archers drew back, the tips of their arrows bright spots of light against the black clouds above.

“Aim!”

As promised, he held them at this command for longer than usual, waiting for a steady moment or a break between gusts. At last, one came.

“Fire!” The arrows streaked through the air like shooting stars, all intent on destroying the evil that sailed this sea. One or two of them winked out under the onslaught of the storm carried in the belly of the demon ship, and one or two more missed their mark, but the rest scored their hit. One caught in the sail, which began to smolder darkly.

There would be no time for a second volley – not that Einarr had really expected one. The ships were too close now for anything but boarding – or perhaps a ram or Sea-Fire, if this were a dromon. Some detached corner of Einarr’s mind wondered if an alliance with the Empire would grant them access to that sea-fire of theirs. The rest of his mind was focused on the enemy ahead. “Prepare for boarding!”

Einarr stepped back to join the men who had circled about Eydri. The fanatics hated Song Magic and hunted Singers: that was how Father had lost Astrid. Einarr did not intend to let them have his friend. The rest of the crew scrambled: bows were tossed back toward the command circle, and the archers took up the boarding lines.

Eydri began to Sing, and almost immediately the red Fury began to pulse at the edges of Einarr’s vision. It was easy to ignore after the last year: Einarr hated how used to it he had grown.

The black-painted prow sliced through the water and turned sharply. Boarding lines flew from both decks.

No sooner had the lines drew taught than men from both ships were up, contesting for the right to board the other’s ship.

Einarr’s men were strong. Much stronger than they had been last summer when they stormed the cult’s island to rescue Runa: some few of the cultist helspawn made it across, but most were on the back foot. Einarr harrumphed even as he slid Sinmora from her sheath.

One of the cultists rushed the “command” circle protecting Eydri. Everyone’s weapons were out and ready, but Einarr stepped forward with a growl. This was not a man he faced: it was a mad dog, and he would see it put down. He stepped forward and raised Sinmora high over head, his shield firmly in place. On the second step, as the clamor of battle carried across the deck and over the water, he brought his blade around and separated the cultist’s head from his shoulders. Einarr stepped back quickly: the corrupting black blood dripped from Sinmora, and spatters darkened his glove, but had not touched him.

“No quarter!” He bellowed. A savage yell was the best answer he could have hoped for. Eydri sang louder.

Einarr strode across the deck to peer at the battle on the other ship and frowned. On the one hand, the demon ships must be destroyed with prejudice. On the other hand… “Fall back!” He ordered as he saw the cultists starting to cluster around the mast. “Naudrek – a torch!”

“Aye, Sir.”

The Heidrunings hurried back across the boarding lines, cutting the enemy lines as they went and unhooking (most of) their own. Einarr stood at the bulwark, torch in hand, and waited. When everyone was returned, he tossed the torch on the demon ship’s deck. “Full sail! Get us out of this squall, Naudrek.”

As the Heidrun sliced through the waves away from the demon ship, purifying flames began to lick up the boards of its bulwark, and a thick black smoke rose up to feed the cloud overhead.


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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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