It was unlikely that the public hall in East Port had seen a celebration of this magnitude in the whole of its existence.
After the purification ritual, Stigander and Bollinn agreed that some sort of relaxation was in order. The Matrons, unexpectedly, agreed and, what’s more, declared that they would host the feast. Perhaps it was simple relief at no longer having the sword of the black-blooded monsters hanging over the island, but Einarr suspected their jubilance had more to do with the knowledge Runa had brought back.
After the toasts and the speeches had been made – or at least the first round of them – Einarr led Arkja and four of his men over to where Stigander sat conversing with Tyr and Bollinn.
“Son. You did good work out there.”
Einarr shrugged. He’d accomplished his task, sure, but if it weren’t for him they’d have been back a lot sooner, too. “Father, in exchange for their help getting off the island, I told these men I might be able to get them a berth on the Vidofnir.”
Stigander turned fully to face the group. Arkja stood flanked by Hàkon, Saergar, Rig and Oskar. From the corner of his eye he caught sight of Vali leaning ostentatiously against the wall.
“We’re mighty low on crew, certainly. Been a rough season. Any of you men gone raiding before?”
Two of the five stepped forward – Arkja, and Saergar.
“For farmers, the others came by their sea legs easily,” Einarr put in.
Stigander harrumphed. “And they know what sort of a boat this is?”
“They’ve heard the Lay, Father, and some of what’s happened this past year.”
Stigander hummed now, studying the five for a long moment. “Gods know we need men. Come to the docks in the morning. I’ll put you to the test.”
Hàkon, Oskar and Rig tugged at their forelocks and said they would. Saergar, answered as a true sailor: “Aye, sir.”
That left Arkja, who stood clenching and unclenching his fist as though locked in indecision. “My lords, there is one other thing.”
Stigander and Einarr both raised an eyebrow at this.
“It’s been on my mind since the cave on the island, y’see…” He turned to face Einarr square. “I would swear to you, lord, if you’ll have me.”
Einarr blinked, more than a little taken aback. His father looked as though he was torn between amusement and taking offense.
Movement in the periphery caught Einarr’s attention: Vali had started upright from his position against the wall and was shaking his head. There is a certain strain of cowardice, he had said, that is reckless as regards himself, but craven where others are concerned.
Einarr smiled warmly at Arkja. “It’s a bit awkward, having men sworn to me when I’m still serving on my father’s ship. I know, there’s Jorir, but that was a special circumstance.”
“We do, however, have a second ship under commission,” Stigander rumbled. “I expect it to be ready for next season.”
“My thought exactly, Father. So, to avoid any more confusion, why don’t we wait until we’ve claimed my ship?” That would give them the rest of the season to prove the man, at least.
Arkja stiffened momentarily, but then his shoulders relaxed again. “Of course, my lords. That does, indeed, make good sense.”
He lowered his head to them and wandered off, not looking entirely mollified, Einarr shrugged and turned his attention back to Stigander and the others.
“Well played,” his father murmured. “You have questions regarding that one’s character?”
“A few. Something Vali said before we sailed stuck with me.”
“But he’ll not be an issue for me?”
“I don’t think so. He’s eager to prove himself.”
Stigander hummed. Arkja would probably be watched, aboard, but Einarr thought he would have no trouble getting there. “At any rate. We three were just discussion this Vali you brought back…”
“Yes, what about him?”
“Is he really…?”
“A ghost? So far as I can tell, yes.”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea. He’s bound, somehow, to that Imperial jar that’s been following me around since the incident with the Althane.”
“But a jar can’t move!”
“So you’d think. You have no idea, though, how many times I threw that one away, only to have it reappear in the most improbable places. Saved Runa, though, this last time.” Einarr motioned for Vali to join them. As the ghost appeared to saunter over from his place against the wall, Einarr continued. “Apparently I triggered something when I picked the jar up in the ship-barrow, so until I either die or otherwise break that connection Vali and I are stuck together. At least, that’s how Runa explained it.”
No sooner had Vali crossed the distance to join them, curiosity writ large on his earnest face, than Tyr and Bollinn engaged him directly. Perhaps because they saw the other figures coming up behind Stigander.
“Runa tells us,” came a wizened old woman’s voice. “That you wish to learn the runes.”
Stigander gave his son a sharp look.
Einarr scratched at the back of his head sheepishly. “Ah, yes, you see… Father, I think I need to. Just in order to survive. If Runa hadn’t insisted on coming along, I don’t think we’d have made it.”
Stigander harrumphed and crossed his arms.
“The boy is right,” croaked the Matron. “And he is wise to seek aid.” She paused here, long enough for Stigander to start to relax and Einarr to straighten.
“And yet,” she went on. “One of our prentice Singers is hardly an appropriate teacher. Oh, I’ve no doubt the girl has tried -” she held up a hand to shush Einarr before he could interrupt. “But even her knowledge is yet shallow. Come with us on the morrow, and we will discover a more suitable teacher for you.”
“Thank you, Lady. So long as my father does not object, I shall take you up on your offer.”
Stigander waved a dismissive hand. “Fine.”
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