Einarr and Jorir stood, back to back, as the three remaining wolflings at the boatyard came warily forward. He would be a prime target, he knew, but whether his uncle would want him alive or dead was an open question. It seemed, though, that the two of them had some reputation already.

Some unspoken word seemed to pass among the wolflings: all at the same moment, they broke for the cover of the trees. Einarr turned to race after them, but then something else caught his eye.

Smoke. There was still at least one of the raiders around, trying again to set a blaze. Einarr growled. “Jorir! Stay on them. I’ll search out the rat.”

Jorir gave a grunt of acknowledgement even as he jogged off into the forest. With a shake of his head, Einarr took a deep sniff of the morning air. The smoke was coming, it seemed, from behind him.

The man would want to escape before the full light of dawn. Burning the ships was probably the main objective, but Einarr would be surprised if there hadn’t been a distraction elsewhere in town. That meant he needed to hurry if he wanted to catch the arsonist. He, too, set off at a jog, but he only made it a few paces before he froze in his tracks.

The smell had not been behind him – not quite. As he moved back toward the village, though, the boat house itself had come into view. Or, rather, the flames that engulfed its dry wood. Where the waterlogged ships had not wanted to catch at all, the outbuilding had apparently gone up all too easily. Einarr stooped to kneel, to trace the runes again, but as he did so a silhouette dashed across in front of the building. Found you.

With one last, regretful look at the boathouse, Einarr took off after the man responsible for the blaze. He could only hope that either Hrug or the town fire brigade would arrive on scene quickly enough to save the shop: he had to catch that man.

Einarr took off at a dead run straight from his crouch. The arsonist wove between trees and around buildings in a way that would have been bewildering in a less familiar setting, a burning brand still in hand, sweeping over every wooden thing he passed. The man was leading him towards the green – away from the river. He must have another mission in town. But, what?

No good could come of it, whatever it was. Straightening for a moment, Einarr slowed enough to shout at the top of his lungs “Fire! Fire at the boathouse!”

Einarr took off again, his legs pumping as fast as he dared in the dim morning twilight, as he ran after the red trail of the arsonist.

He raced out into the very middle of the village green – emptied, naturally, by the attacks elsewhere in town – and trailed the torch along the grass as he changed direction.

Oh no you don’t. The grass was too damp and too trampled to really catch. He cornered hard, trying to shorten the space between them. Where is he going now?

Einarr could see the man he chased now, not that it helped him much. Blond hair, braided. Maille, which suggested there would be a boat waiting on the water, rather than the raiders swimming up. Perhaps broader of shoulder than Einarr but certainly no taller. He looked, from the back, as average as a man could. That wouldn’t matter, though, if Einarr could simply catch up. He pumped his legs faster.

Now he knew what the man was headed for: the smokehouse and the drying shed.

There was no time to limber a bow, even if he had taken it with him. There were no stones he could see along the road – not large enough, anyway, to slow the arsonist. Once more, Einarr begged his legs for more speed. The people of Lundholm would not go hungry on their account.

Faster! Faster!

The arsonist stood just a few paces back from the smokehouse now. The man raised his arm by his head and threw the torch like a spear.

It flew true, somehow, and landed with a clatter on the lid of a súrr vat. It kindled almost immediately.

Einarr launched himself forward. His shoulder plowed into the back of the man’s knees, and both men went down.

Einarr rolled to the side, out from under the wolfling. The arsonist grunted in pain as he landed flat on his back a second time in less than a minute, but he was on his feet only moments after Einarr.

“What have you done?” Einarr demanded.

The wolfling grinned – a singularly unpleasant expression. “Merely exterminated a few pests.”

With a roar of rage that had nothing of red about it, Einarr lunged forward with Sinmora and cleaved his shield in half.

The arsonist was not smiling any longer. He danced back two paces and drew his axe. Behind them, the fire that had so quickly kindled the whey vat was licking at the pole of the shed and the wall of the smokehouse.

The wolfling actually howled before dashing forward, his axe held high overhead.

Einarr brought Sinmora around and dug the edge of her blade into the man’s wide-open side. For his trouble, the arsonist’s axe buried itself in his shoulder.

The flames behind the arsonist were audibly crackling. Einarr spared a glance over his opponent’s shoulder as the man spat blood. He needed to end this quickly if he wanted to save any of the food stores.

The wolfling twisted his axe sideways as he wrenched it out of Einarr’s shield arm. Two could play at that game, and the wound was sucking at Sinmora’s blade. With a flick of the wrist he turned the blade and drew her out of the man’s side.

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For three weeks, Einarr let the question rest despite the way it rode around on his shoulders like a troublesome pet. He was no coward, he reminded himself every time a chance to speak in private vanished. At the end of the last week of Wintersmonth, an idea occurred to him.

“Father, I’ve heard the Kjellings speak well of the reindeer here on the island. Shall we go hunting?”

“A fine idea, my boy. Nothing like a little sport to keep a body warm during the Ice.”

Three hours later, skis on their feet, axes on their belts and bows on their backs, the two men glided over the surface of the snow through the sparse spruce wood not far north of where the Vidofnir was moored for the season. They pulled a sledge between them, not yet occupied by the prize they sought.

In truth, Wintersmonth was a terrible time to go hunting. If there were deer to be found today, they would be in the wood, though, taking advantage of the wind break it offered. Einarr knew this; Stigander had taught him everything he knew about hunting, just as he was teaching him the proper way to run a ship.

Stigander paused a moment to straighten his back and lift his face to the sky. He let out a loud breath, the steam billowing upward like a tiny cloud. “It’s good to get out of the hall for a few hours.”

“It does get rather stuffy in there. You know what I’m looking forward to, though?”

“What’s that?”

“The excuse to do a long sauna plunge after we get back.” Einarr half-chuckled.

Stigander grinned. “Yep. That’ll be a nice cap to our hunting.”

Einarr scanned his eyes over the needle-picked snow on the ground in the forest, his mind casting about for a way to begin. “Father, do you intend to remarry?”

“Perhaps. I hadn’t given the idea much thought yet. Surely that can’t be what’s been bothering you all month, can it?”

Maybe the question had been too natural. “I overheard Bardr talking to you about …Princess Runa.” He’d nearly forgotten the title. That would have revealed more than he really wanted to.

“Oh, at the funeral?” He seemed strangely amused.

“She told me the Jarl is thinking about giving her to you.” It was surprisingly difficult to keep his voice neutral.

Stigander shook his head, chortling. “She must have misunderstood. I’ve been trying to convince him that you’d be a good match. Bardr thinks so, too.”

“You have?”

He nodded now. “You don’t seriously think I didn’t notice, do you? But he’s not terribly enthused by the idea.”

Einarr snorted. “What, you mean the Jarl isn’t fond of the idea of consigning his daughter to wandering with the heir of Raenshold?”

Stigander harrumphed. “Not even remotely. Especially not with my bad fortune.”

At least he accepts that it is bad fortune. In the moment of silence that followed Einarr spotted not only cloven hoofprints in the snow, but also a trace of blood. “Hah! Father, over there.”

Einarr tossed the sledge rope he carried over a tree limb and poled over to the crimson stain on the snow.

Their quarry had bounded north from here. Interspersed within the hoofprints, Einarr spotted the tracks of a lone wolf. He turned his head to look over his shoulder: Stigander was only a few paces behind, the second sledge rope hanging from the same branch as its twin. He pointed in the direction the trail was headed. “Two for one! If we’re lucky, there’s a wolf pelt to be had.”

Stigander grunted and turned off to move parallel to the trail, angling his skis to walk up the slope. Einarr followed, and as he moved he unslung the bow from his back and began the process of limbering it. A cold bow would quickly become a broken bow, after all.

Not many minutes had passed before Einarr could hear the angry snarling of a wolf from the near distance. He exchanged a glance with his father, also unlimbering his bow, and they glided forward.

In a small clearing just ahead of them, reindeer and wolf faced each other. Had there been a full pack of wolves, the prey would already be fallen. Now one large, if emaciated, white wolf clashed with a young doe, circling each other in search of an opening. Her foreleg was cut up from an earlier clash with the wolf. It had a gash on its shoulder, likely the result of a well-aimed kick. Einarr drew. A deep breath for focus, and he loosed his arrow toward the wolf.

Two arrows flew in parallel, and two arrows embedded themselves in the wolf – one in the neck, one in the ribs. It recoiled and whimpered but did not look away from the reindeer. Einarr drew and loosed again. Half a moment later, his father’s second arrow arced towards the deer’s neck.

Einarr’s shot buried itself deeper in the wolf’s chest, and now the creature turned to face this new, unseen threat. Father and son shared a glance. When Stigander nodded and reached for a third arrow, Einarr unhooked his axe and propelled himself out into the clearing.

Stigander’s second arrow also found flesh, but could not pierce the muscle in the doe’s neck to bring her down. Two more arrows followed it in quick succession, and then Einarr was too focused on the wolf, visible against the snow primarily by its face and the bloodied fur around its wounds.

The wolf bared its teeth and snarled at Einarr where he crouched on his skis. You’re not half so vicious as you look. Come and try me. Instead, it backed toward the edge of the clearing. At the same time, the reindeer was tossing its head, looking for an escape route.

He let the wolf go. The coat was nice, but the meat would leave something to be desired. The deer, on the other hand, now that would be good eating. Another arrow shot out for the creature as it tried to bound away, and Einarr sent his axe after it. Thock-thunk – the two projectiles struck true against the back of the doe’s head. Stigander’s arrow pierced just below the right ear, and the back of the axe-head knocked against the base of her skull. The doe crumpled.

As Einarr moved to retrieve his axe and finish the job, Stigander finally glided forward into the clearing.”Nice shot.”

“You, too, Father.” The cloud of steam he exhaled carried with it a good portion of the excitement of the hunt. “Let’s get her field-dressed and head back?”

“Indeed. And then, another sort of hunt begins.” Stigander looked at his son out of the corner of his eye and laughed as Einarr grinned.

1.5 – Tafl  1.7 – Feast in the Hall
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