The Heidrun ran up the white flag as they approached the freehold Gabriel led them to. Even so, as he waited at the top of the gangplank, while Gabriel approached up the beach, they were greeted by a sturdy older woman wielding a massive axe in one hand and a proper shield in the other. She scowled fiercely at the approaching boat, and Einarr thought she would likely give a good accounting of herself, just on sheer determination.
Then she saw Gabriel and let the axe head drop. “You’re alive? Then, is…?”
Gabriel nodded. “He’s in Breidelstein: they say we can start over there. Kem is gone.”
Relief and fury warred on the woman’s face – relief, he was sure, for the safety of her husband. Fury, he didn’t have to guess at.
“Leave Flatey? Start over? Are you mad?”
“What else are we supposed to do? With Kem gone, we’ve no-one to trade with between here and Breidelstein. No apothecary, no herb witch. One bad winter would kill us all.”
“The lad is right,” Einarr chimed in, still standing on the deck. “It might not even take a bad winter: there are monsters at sea now. Raenshold has men who have fought them before, and a good harbor, and lots of unworked land to boot. I’m afraid the Heidrun isn’t equipped to carry much livestock, but we’ve enough cargo space for anything else you care to bring.”
The woman stood there, staring at both of them, her mouth working soundlessly, for a long time. As the quiet dragged on, the fury faded from her face and her shoulders began to sag.
“You may as well come ashore. We’ll need some time to pack.”
Einarr’s Heidrunings were still gripped with a solemn urgency when they docked once more in Breidelstein. Gabriel’s master waited at the docks for his family – which plainly included Gabriel, no matter what his technical status was. Einarr was pleased that had worked out as well as it had, even with everything else weighing on his mind.
Gorgny also greeted their return at the docks: Einarr was always a little surprised the man was willing to walk down to the port for this sort of thing: he was at least as old as Tyr, and hadn’t spent most of the last twenty years at sea – and that wasn’t accounting for his duties towards Grandfather Raen. Still, if it was Gorgny here and not Father or Kaldr, that meant they were absorbed in other important matters.
Einarr and his commanders disembarked to join him, escorting the former Captain of the League, Thrand, and the seven of them set off at a quick pace for the cliff road. “What’s happened while we’ve been out?” Einarr asked Gorgny.
“I see you’ve returned with another new face, milord?” The old advisor raised an eyebrow.
The meaning was plain. “He’s our captive, but also a refugee. Lone survivor of the massacre of Kem.”
Gorgny nodded. “Representatives have been arriving since not long after you left, milord. I’m sure they are all waiting to learn what you have found out.”
Fair enough. Einarr wasn’t entirely certain how trustworthy Thrand was at this point, either, and that was after traveling with the man. “So long as they allow us enough time to wash the salt off – and maybe for the rest of my crew to finish unloading and do the same. Any other reports of razed settlements?”
“I’m afraid so, milord. The Kjellings ran into one on their way, as did one or two other representatives. The Captain of the Skudbrun seemed particularly disturbed by what he saw.”
“Understandably so. He’s seen it before, too. … Let those who found the massacres know that, should they wish to compare notes, I intend to sweat out the ashes of Kem in the sauna tonight. I would like a chance to speak with them privately. Probably for the best if Father does not attend: I will let him know what I intend.”
“By that same token, before dinner I will be in my chambers with Runa and Alfvin. We are not to be disturbed unless it’s an emergency.”
“Of course, milord.”
Einarr sat in the sauna, a towel wrapped about his waist, his elbows on his knees and his eyes closed. He was glad Bollinn was here: that would make matters easier, even accounting for the close ties between their clans. He still didn’t know who the other two were: he hoped he could count on them to see what was necessary.
Einarr heard a rap on the door. “Enter.”
A blast of cool air reminded Einarr of just how hot it was in here: he stood and dipped some water over the coals. When he returned to the bench, Bollinn sat across from him.
“Good to see you. How’re the Brunnings holding up?”
Bollinn shrugged. “Langavik wasn’t necessarily worse, but everything that followed was. We’ll hold up just fine.”
Einarr nodded. “Where was it?”
Einarr blinked. He had to think a long time to remember anything about them. “Hard to make an example out of a tiny place like that, I’d think.”
“Lots of cloth coming out of Kliftorp in the last five or ten years, and a lot of skillful Weavers.”
“Ah.” Now it made sense.
Another rap came on the door, followed by an unfamiliar, although not unpleasant, voice. “We were told we should visit the sauna tonight?”
“Yes. Please, enter, join us.”
The two who entered were built like Einarr’s father, but much closer to his own age, and bore the scars of many battles. One of them had hair almost as red as Einarr’s – and a nose that had been broken more than once. The other was as blond as Stigander and as paunchy as Erik.
“Tore, Captain of the Sterkerbjorn out of Hrafnhaugr,” the redhead introduced himself.
“A pleasure. Not sure I ever had the pleasure of seeing Hrafnhaugr.”
Tore smirked. “Not much reason for a ship of freeboaters to head that way.”
Einarr nodded his acknowledgment, then turned to the man who looked shockingly like a younger version of his father.
“Serk, of the Björtstag. From Sweindalr.”
Bollinn waved silently: evidently, they’d all been here long enough to become acquainted already.
“Good to meet you both, and I’m glad you came. I’m certain you can guess why I called you all here tonight.”
“Oh, aye, that’s not hard to figure.” Tore settled himself on a bench and fixed a level eye at Einarr. “What I want to know is why?”
Serk, too, took a seat on a bench and settled himself leaning against a wall. “I’d like to know that, myself. I’m not sure there’s really much to talk about, is there?”
“A couple years ago, I might have thought the same. Then the worshipers of a dark demigod named Malùnion kidnapped my wife…”
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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