The sun touched the water’s edge and the sky took on the color of red gold. The tide would begin to ebb soon, but the crew of the Vidofnir had not yet taken up oars and her sail was still furled. Fifteen years ago, they had fled their homes, and for fifteen years the start of every voyage was marked the same way. Stigander stood in the stern, his feet set wide and his arms crossed as he looked out over his men. Einarr joined him.

Reki stood in the prow of the boat, her cloak thrown open and her head exposed. Her skin washed amber in the light of sunset, and her straight white hair looked as though it were made of spun gold. How her previous crew thought she could be bad luck, Einarr could not understand. What clearer portent of wealth ahead could there be? She opened her mouth, and in low dulcet tones began the recitation they all awaited.

Leafy rug lies under
Lee of rock ridge, the
Free-hearted Raen’s hold
High built, its vigil born
To guard men above gold.
Grant plenty, pious king,
But forget not folly
Of fate-dabbler’s design.

It was his grandfather’s story, the founding of Raenshold well-nigh seventy years ago. Before Raen came to power theirs had been a weak clan, really not much more than a scattering of freeholds across the Breidelsteinn archipelago. Over the course of a decade, Grandfather had transformed Breidelsteinn from the laughingstock of the seas to one of its foremost powers. He had been only forty when he made Stigander the captain of their fleet and settled in to complete the fortress at Raenshold and administer their lands.

The time drew near. A whisper rippled through the crew, no louder than the lapping of water on the hull, as Reki continued to recite. Hands moved to oars, but they did not yet push off. The cue had not yet come.

Raen’s folly, a fair lass
Flax-haired, by eye-gleams held:
Urdr did he woo, under
Umber moon she swooned.
No troth spoke though one she
Took: the ring-breaker Raen
She would wed. When sea-steed
Stole Raen, Urdr did remain.

A low grinding of sand against the hull marked the moment the Vidofnir pushed off the kjelling shores.

Unwisely wooed, Urdr
Bore Ulfr, boy-child of
Greyed eyes, guileful blade.
Threads Urdr traced, fiber spun
While wolf’s fangs he forg’d.
To seek redress on swan’s road
Their uncut thread binds all.

Einarr had been six when his half-uncle and the woman his grandfather had set aside appeared at Raenshold, and had only heard second-hand what happened. His maternal grandparents had requested he come for the summer, and so as they sailed for the summer’s hunt on the waves, Father had left Mamma and him at their freehold. When they all returned late that fall, it was like a black haze hovered over the island. The Vidofnir sailed near enough to port that Einarr could see men dangling like fruit from the hanging tree.

That was when they had been attacked by every longship already in port. Einarr remembered the look on his father’s face when the man had been forced to choose between leading an assault against the force had taken their home and protecting his wife and son. Though it had only lasted for a moment, that was the face of a man in agony.

His father wore that same look now, as he did every time they reached this point of the song and the oars dipped into the water. The Vidofnir had wintered that year at Mamma’s freehold, and that was where Einarr lived until he was old enough to sail with Father. By then, they’d pieced together what happened.

Ulfr did usurp, and Urdr does
Under cursèd thrall snarl
Mountain’s men, and entomb’d
Raen maltreats. Raven-wine
By Art bound, and by Art’s touch
Alone undone: hie home,
Raen’s sons, soon your birthright
Save, and cut the woven chain.

Those who did not row knocked their blades against their shields. Those who did opened their mouths and let loose with the ululating black song – the cry of a warrior who will die for their cause. Einarr closed his eyes and joined them, ignoring for the moment that he was the one person aboard who was not allowed to do so. Stigander was unlikely to produce a second heir now.

As the black song died down, Einarr opened his eyes again and glanced sidelong at his father. The look of anguish from the story was already fading into the sorrowful, grim determination that had become so familiar. With a pang, he realized that this was the first time since he’d come aboard that it had not been one of his stepmothers up there. He leaned over to whisper in Stigander’s ear “You alright?”

His father’s only response was a curt nod, followed by a wan smile before he strode forward toward the middle of the Vidofnir. Einarr did not miss that Bardr thrust a skin at his father, nor the way Stigander drank from it. He sighed: perhaps later he would join his father under his awning and drink until the dawn with him. It would be better for both of them than the melancholy solitude that threatened.


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The Gufuskalam launched out of the storm and into the calm waters beyond it. Rain and sleet still pelted Einarr’s back, but he hardly noticed it now.

Black, water-slicked cliffs shot from the ocean’s surface up fifty feet or more. Above, the black-leaved forest where the fimbulvulf was said to dwell loomed over them, rapidly swallowing their view of what lay inland. Before it was hidden from view, Einarr saw massive stone walls rising up from near the center of the island. The roof was also stone, he thought, and the entire edifice was nearly three times the size of Kjell Hall. It stood on four stone pillars that shot up from the forest floor. There was nothing it could be save the Jotünhall.

More of these massive pillars lined a path or a road of sorts down from the hall to the water’s edge through a break in the rock wall. The cliffs retreated from the water in the path made by the pillars. In the shadow of one of these pillars Einarr thought he saw a rocky cove.

“There. Do you see it?”

Erik raised his hand to shade his eyes from the new-found sun and nodded.

“I think we should land there.”

“Aye, Captain.” Even Tyr’s voice was weary of their journey.

“Once we’ve made land, you two should rest here. Reprovision if you can. I need to go in alone.”

Erik looked like he wanted to protest.

“I think we should all take some time to rest and dry off before anyone ventures into the island.” Tyr’s voice was firm, and it was hard to mistake that for anything but the voice of experience. “That cove is going to be in shadow all day. If I may, I would like to suggest we get a little closer to the island, weigh the sea anchor, and warm up while we have sunlight.”

Einarr considered a moment before nodding crisply. “You’re right. None of us is in good shape after that storm. Let’s at least get close enough we’re not likely to be seen from the island and take a few hours to dry out.”

***

The three-man crew of the Gufuskalam found a sweet spot, not far from the cliffs, where most of the waves were cut by a rocky reef. All three of them sprawled in the sun, enjoying the feel of the sun on their faces as it dried their bodies, their clothes hung from the yardarm in the wind.

“Yer pabbi gets it, boy, but don’t be surprised if ye’re cut down to deckhand anyway,” Tyr was saying.

Einarr chuckled in wry humor. “If that’s the worst price I pay, I’ve got the kindest Captain on the seas.” It wasn’t just his Captain he’d betrayed, or even just his Father. It was his grandfather’s entire line, and their hope of the future.

“You do, Einarr. You do.” Erik’s voice was uncommonly solemn, especially given the mellow feeling that had descended on them as they floated in the sun.

Einarr raised his head to look at his crewmate. “You speak from experience?”

“More than a little. You know what I was doing before I signed on to the Vidofnir?”

“Nope.” Erik had joined the crew four years before Einarr was even a deckhand. “Father always told me the crew’s past was none of my damn business.”

Now it was Erik’s turn to laugh. “Yer pabbi found me drunk and beat to a pulp in a ditch. Decided to give me a chance when I got up swinging. I may be the only man alive who’s gotten a job for punching his new Captain in the jaw.”

Tyr laughed. “I remember that. Tell ‘im why you were in yer cups in the first place, though.”

Erik made some embarrassed sounding noises. When he didn’t answer, Tyr did.

“He felt guilty, he did, because the Weaver booked passage on his old boat in the first place.”

“I was just a deckhand on a freeboat, sure, but Raenshold was still home. If I’d known what the nither intended…”

“You don’t have to prove your loyalty to me.” Einarr shifted his shoulders uncomfortably, staring up into the sky. “Especially not after I went and tried to steal a bride…”

“Her idea, wasn’t it?”

“Doesn’t matter. I wasn’t forced.”

“No, you weren’t. But neither was she, which matters – to yer pabbi and the Jarl.”

Einarr sighed and stood up. “Maybe. We’ve lounged enough, though. We should hide the boat.” He snatched his pants off the yardarm and beat them against the side to loosen the salt-stiffness, shivering a little as the breeze reached him again.

“Einarr.” Tyr caught his eye as he, too, stood to dress again. “If anyone understands doing something dumb to win the object of his affections, it’s Stigander. And it was obvious to all of us why you felt like you had to go so far.”

“Thanks.” The fact that the rest of the Vidofnings understood didn’t make him feel any better about it, of course.

***

The Gufuskalam slipped quietly into the small, shadowed cove as the sun was nearing the horizon that evening. Erik lowered the anchor into the water with nary a sound even as the weight sunk beneath the water’s surface.

The cove itself was most like a tiny fjord, and once inside its fingers the three men worked by starlight alone. Einarr had intended to enter the island alone, while his companions slept if he had to, but there would be no climbing those walls before daybreak at the earliest, and more likely noon the next day.

“I still want you two here on the boat. Even with all three of us we couldn’t do more than try to evade the fimbulvulf, and we may need to leave quickly.” Einarr tried again to convince them. They were his friends, and he didn’t want to turn this into a test of authority.

“And I’d still be happier if you had someone to watch your back,” Erik countered. “I promised the Captain we’d bring you back safe.”

“Please, Erik. This is my quest.”

“You’re Stigander’s son, all right,” he grunted.

“Proudly.”

“Your quest or not, Erik’s right. I can’t send you up there alone any more than he can. We also won’t need both of us to ensure the boat is ready when you need to leave. Take Erik.”

Einarr exhaled loudly enough that it was nearly a growl. “Fine. I suppose it won’t be bad to have someone watching my back while I’m up there.”

“Yer damn right it won’t.” Erik clapped him on the shoulder. “Now let’s get to it.”

“We’ll be back as soon as we can, but we don’t know what else might be on this island.”

“With a fimbulvulf and a jotün?” Tyr’s question sounded skeptical.

“They’ve got to eat something, right?” Einarr’s joke produced a round of nervous laughter. He tied the sack to his belt and tossed a rope over to catch on the rocky face he would have to climb to get to the island proper.


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