For a long while Einarr stood staring over the stern at the four wolfling ships that once more followed in their wake. Why had that ship been called back?
The leader of the pursuing fleet was harrying them, wearing down their morale with every league they followed and every skirmish they forced. If that ship hadn’t been called back, but instead been allowed to nip at their heels, it could have been catastrophic.
Unless the wolflings were also trying to minimize casualties? He didn’t expect it of his uncle, but perhaps if Kaldr hoped to win some of them over it was possible.
“What are they up to?” Arkja muttered from his post nearby. “Why would they just let us go like that?”
Einarr cleared his throat. “What makes you think it would be so easy as that?”
The former de-facto leader of the Forgotten sailors had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Ah, Captain, sir. It’s not that it’d be easy, per se. Just that after all the trouble we had sneaking in, we’re all of us beat. Tired. Ain’t none of us used to this sort of long campaign no more, if we ever were.”
Einarr harrumphed, but nodded anyway. The man wasn’t wrong. “Eskihus was not our only option for a resupply, Arkja. Captain Stigander has a few other options in mind. You let us worry about what they’re up to and concentrate on making it into port with the rest of us.”
“Yes, sir,” he said. The man looked chagrined, but not particularly comforted.
Einarr sighed. Arkja could not be the only one feeling that way. If he was honest with himself, he was starting to as well. With a nod to himself, he walked down the deck to where Eydri waited. She, too, stared pensively back at their pursuers.
Einarr leaned his elbows on the bulwark next to the Singer and spoke out over the sea. “Morale is dropping.”
“And water is wet,” she snapped. “Even if I refresh their bodies,” she went on, less peevishly, “Kaldr’s fleet will wear on their minds. Then you’ll have an anxious, energetic crew. Possibly even a panicky one.”
Einarr winced. A panicky crew could prove deadly at the drop of a hat. “Any thoughts, then?”
Eydri sighed now. “Talk to Bea, too. But the ghost is right about Kaldr. He’s a snake, and the way that fleet is wearing us down he’s certain to be leading it.”
She shook her head. “Sorry. Reki.”
“Do you have something against my father’s Singer?”
She stammered a little before managing a coherent answer. “No. Not… personally. She just puts me on edge a bit. I can still work with her – under her, even, if I have to.”
“Fine. Go on, then.” It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.
“It’s like she said over on the Vidofnir. The man is devious, and I will swear his blood is ice. The fact that he hasn’t yet struck decisively probably means there’s something he wants from us – and I haven’t the foggiest idea what.”
Einarr nodded. “I have some guesses. Where is Bea, anyway?”
“I think she cajoled Irding and some of the others into a game of dice.” Eydri rolled her eyes, but Einarr chuckled.
“More than one way to boost morale. Thanks.”
They sailed on in this way all through that night and on into the next morning, always with someone looking over their shoulders to see if the enemy had given up yet. Every time Einarr gave in and looked himself, the wolflings were still maintaining the pace.
Mid-morning, the Vidofnir abruptly changed course. They headed now between two islands that were little more than large rocks, but some little ways ahead was a larger piece of land. Is that where we’re going, or are we trying to lose our tail?
The Heidrun turned to follow, and it was as though everyone aboard held their breath, waiting.
The Vidofnir deployed oars as Stigander led his allies along the coast of this larger island. They moved quickly – perhaps faster than most of them were comfortable with, given their proximity to shore. It was, however, not enough. The shore curved gently inward, forming a shallow bay, and as they neared the far end of the bay a horn on the Eikthyrnir sounded the alarm.
Just as, rounding the island initially, there had been a collective inhale, now everyone seemed to exhale at the same time. The release of tension was followed immediately by the jangle of maille. Einarr, moving across the deck once again to reach his own gear, looked up across the water.
Arrayed across the mouth of the bay, not covering all of it by far but covering enough, all four of the wolfling ships lay in wait. Einarr’s mouth went suddenly dry and he had to swallow hard to find his voice. “To arms! All hands, to arms! Archers – form up!”
This would measure among the fights of his life, he felt certain. Behind them the apparently wild land of one of the freehold islands: ahead, a blockade they would have to run. It was that, or give up on rescuing the Jarl or retaking Breidelstein anytime soon. The land was a trap: a wall against their backs to force the men forward. Einarr scowled across at the crew scrambling into their armor and belting on their blades. They were jittery.
It did not take him long to spot Eydri. Just who I was looking for. It was time for her to Sing and hope the battle fury would blunt their nerves.
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