IT BEGAN, as things ever so often do, with a chance meeting at the right time.
Anders was walking down the rough-hewn wooden stairs, away from the muddy main street of Tikka's Landing, and down towards the stone jetties where the fisherfolk plied their trade. The odour of fish guts mixed with the salt-smell of the sea, but a strong wind off the water prevented the smells from becoming truly noxious.
It was late afternoon, and soon the small fleet of fishing boats would be back with their second catch of the day. The fishwives would be out shortly with their gutting-knives, to work swiftly at the great long tables where mackerel, herring, and the occasional huge tuna would be piled, but for now the women sat and mended nets, chatting and laughing, picking deftly at the tangled strands lying across their laps.
Anders rested his bulk upon a low stone wall and took his ease. He balanced his long-hafted battle-axe, the tool of his trade, across his knees and let his gaze wander. He had just finished three weeks of duty as a caravan guard, helping to see a diverse load of pots, pans, cloth (mostly wool) and other sundries to the small town of Tikka's landing, a regular run that a trading company out of Ostovo made every few months.
Anders' pay rested snugly in the purse on his belt; although doubtless the first coins would be spent on food, drink, and a bed to sleep in for the first time a nearly a month, for the moment Anders was content to feel their weight in his purse, a physical manifestation of the fruits of his labour.
He shifted slightly, letting more of his weight rest upon the smooth stones of the wall, feeling the afternoon sun warm his large frame. Spring was well along, and he would have to give thought to shearing his hair and his great brown gorse-bush of a beard before the summer heat made such things unbearable. Much sooner than that, of course, he would need to find more work, but that search could lay by for a day or three. A night or two with a roof over his head would certainly do him no hurt, Anders decided.
The warmth of the sun in his bones, and the feel of the fresh wind on his face, were starting to lead Anders into a drowse, when a sudden sharp increase in the volume of chatter from the fishwives caught his attention. He straightened and looked up, and the reason for commotion was plain to see. Tikka's landing was a natural harbour, nestling at the bottom of a V-shaped indentation of coastline. Turning into the harbour, some 800 yards away, was a warship.
Anders stood swiftly and gripped his axe tightly in his hands, but then relaxed. His first thought was that the Landing was being raided, but then he saw the pennon of Prince Castamir, lord and sovereign of the land, flying from the mainmast. The ship's warboards were down, and the crew, clearly visible, gave no sign of hostile intent. Nevertheless, Anders climbed the rough-cut timber steps back up to the main street. Friendly signs or no, he had no intention of being caught at the jetties should things go amiss. These were uncertain times. Reaching the higher elevation of the main street, Anders turned, thrust the butt-end of his battle-axe into the dirt, and rested his arms on the axe's broad head.
The warship was a snaekkje, painted black from stem to stern, a shallow-drafted vessel fit for coastline or river, sporting some thirty oars by Anders's quick reckoning. She was sleek, a fast runner that swiftly ate up the distance to the jetties. Already the shipmaster had ordered the oars to be raised, and the snaekkje was coasting smoothly, following a straight line to the longest jetty in the harbour. The jade green water swelled and rippled away smoothly before the ship's sharp black bow, and the vessel dropped more and more speed by the simple inertia of its passage. As it reached the jetty, the snaekkje was at a bare crawl.
Neatly done, thought Anders. No stranger to the sea, he had seen many pilots and shipmasters attempt this simple-seeming maneuver, but very few as well as the shipmaster of this black coast-hugger. Already, the docking lines were being tossed onto the jetty, and some of the few menfolk who were not out with the fishing fleet made the lines fast against the heavy metal cleats that lined the main jetty. Anders hefted his axe and turned away. If he wished fresh food and drink, best he get it now, he thought, before the ship finishes docking and twoscore thirsty sailors are clamouring for ale.
It hadn't taken a genius to predict the nature of the company at Tikka's Rest, the Landing's sole inn, that evening. Anders only just managed to polish off some stewed mackerel and some potatoes fresh from the inn's own garden when the first of the warship's crew began spilling into the tiny inn. It wasn't long before everyone knew that the ship was the Trakai, a snaekkje out of Gotland, heading north on business for Castamir. They were a friendly enough lot, given to the sort of rough jests and clowning that one would expect for a group of mostly young men who had been shipbound for a time. More than one jack of ale slopped over onto a table, and more than one man stumbled (or was pushed by a comrade) and landed on his backside in the sawdust.
Anders was a little overwhelmed by the sheer press of bodies in the Rest, especially after the relative solitude of his scouting and escort duties through the forest from Ostovo. Although he had originally intended to sleep the night in the common room of the inn, the arrival of the Trakai had put that idea to rest. He had already decided to part with a little more of his hard-earned coin in order to have a bed to himself, with a door to shut out the rest of the world. Anders had just gotten up to make his way up the stairs, draining the last of the ale from his jack, when there was a tug on his sleeve. He turned in mild surprise, uncertain what to expect, and found himself looking into the face of one of the sailors.
"My shipmaster would like a word with you, if you don't mind, sir," the fellow said.
Anders followed the shipman, who gestured silently at the door. Anders stepped outside, and took a moment to breathe in air that was free of woodsmoke and pipesmoke, burnt stew and ale. The sun had set while Anders had taken his meal and sat with the company of the Tikka's Rest, and it was twilight. A few stars were visible in the deepening blue sky, and the crickets had begun their evening song. The sailor pointed to a group of men gathered round a small bonfire, down by the water to the north of the jetties, where the land sloped down to form a beach of sorts.
"Just down there, sir," said the sailor.
"Thank you," said Anders. The shipman nodded and stepped back inside the Tikka's Rest to join his comrades.
It was that time of evening when all the senses seem sharper, and every sound amplified: the rise and fall of talk and laughter from the inn, the dirt scraping under Anders's feet as he walked towards the beach, the snapping of sparks from the driftwood bonfire below, and beneath all of it, the gentle lapping of the sea against the shore. As Anders approached the gathering by the bonfire, he could make out the shapes of four men, and the sounds of their low conversation beneath the crackling of the fire. The light of the blaze ruined any chance of night vision, so Anders had to step quite close to make out any of the men, and they turned as he approached.
One of them slapped his thigh and laughed as Anders stepped into the light of the bonfire. "Damme, foresters are a shaggy lot, but I knew there was only one as shaggy as you! Anders, ye bastard!"
Anders smiled in recognition. Here was an old friend.
"Rugen. Well met," said Anders as he stepped towards his old friend. The shipmaster stood up, and the two of them clasped forearms and smacked each others' shoulders. Anders chuckled in genuine pleasure. "Well met, Rugen, you bloody sea rat."
Rugen was a stocky fellow like his friend, but a bit taller and less broad across the shoulder. The shipmaster's hair was a honeyed blond, bleached out by the salt and the sea. His face was deeply tanned, contrasting sharply with his thinning hair, and a wisp of a beard grew round his mouth.
"Sit down, man," he said to Anders. "Grab a stump." Anders shifted a block of wood nearer the fire and rested his bulk on it, nodding to the others who sat there.
"Anders, that fellow there is Iestyn, an old friend of mine from the Landing." An elderly fisherman tilted his head towards Anders.
"This is Jensen, who up until tonight was the Trakai's warmaster," - Rugen gestured at a burly redheaded fellow in a linen shirt and with a wide leather baldric - "and this bugger is Lankin, who's just brought me a load of bother." The last member of the group, a slightly built man in black with a finely trimmed goatee, smiled and shook his head ruefully.
"And this, gentlemen, and I do use that term bloody loosely," said Rugen, "is Anders, the fellow I was telling you about. He might be the answer to our problems, Odin willing." Anders sat up a little straighter. "Easy now, Ru," he said. "I'm not sure I like being talked about, and I'm damned leery about being anyone's answer to anything."
Iestyn laughed and handed Anders a darkened glass bottle. "Wise man. Have a drink."
Anders took the proffered bottle, but his expression was still grim. Rugen laughed. "By the Hammer, man! You look like a fellow on his way to his best friend's funeral. It's nothing as bad as that."
Anders took a swig of the bottle - applejack, local brew - and passed it on to Jensen. He nodded for Rugen to continue.
"Right then," said Rugen. "Well, I've signed on as master of the Trakai in the service of Prince Castamir. Jensen here - " he pointed to the fiery-headed man - "is one of Castamir's warmasters, assigned to the same vessel. But when we came ashore here at the Landing, who do I find waiting for me but this bugger?" He gestured at Lankin, who gave a crooked grin. Rugen took a swig from the bottle and passed it on. "Lankin's a herald for the Prince, sent to meet me here. Seems the Prince needs the flame-head for some higher duty. Can't think why, he's a lazy sod." All the men round the fire laughed, Jensen the loudest.
"So here I am, with a bunch of sodding fighters, and nary a man to mind them, let alone drill the sodding crew, most of whom are as fresh as newborn kittens," grumbled Rugen. Iestyn chuckled as he tipped the bottle. "Which brings me" - Rugen grinned evilly - "to you, Anders."
"Aye, well." Of course, Anders had already seen which way the wind was blowing, as Rugen had meant him to, and had been considering his choices as Rugen wound up. "Job?"
"Sail up the coast to Skaggerak, to join with three other ships and take care of a local pirate," replied Rugen.
"Duties?" Anders gave the bottle a greeting and sent it on its way.
"Warmaster of the vessel, with full rights and responsibilities."
"Guild regular, plus a commander's share in any prize."
"Bonus for pulling a friend's arse out of the proverbial?"
Rugen laughed. "You get to keep the bottle."
Anders eyed the bottle sourly, which had come round to him again. It was much the lighter for its travels. He tilted it back and drained it. "Done, you thieving bastard. But starting tomorrow. I want one bloody night with a roof over my head before I'm off again."
Rugen squinted at Anders. "That's not the lightfoot I remember. You must be getting old."
"Piss off." Anders arced the bottle in the rough direction of Rugen's head. "I'll see you in the morning, you drunken sot." He stood, a trifle less steady for his negotiations. "Well met, the rest of you."
"Well met," came the replies, none too steady either, to tell the truth.
"G'night," said Anders to the air in general, and made his way to his promised bed.
EARLY THE next morning, Anders walked down the main jetty, smiling up at the sky. “Damn me, but it’s a beautiful day,” he said to himself. The sky was the purest of blue, the gulls were crying, and he felt the warmth of the rising sun on his stout frame. He made his way to the end of the jetty, where his ship lay. “Hello the Trakai!” he called.
The Trakai was a thirty-fived oared snaekkje, and on closer inspection, looked fully seaworthy in the open water. Painted warboards were hung along the sides of the ship. “Good morning, Anders!” boomed the shipmaster. “Get your arse on board, you lazy bollocks! I want to be off with the morning’s tide, and the sun’s on the rise.”
“Keep your shirt on, Rugen,” Anders called back amiably. “I’m not the last of the water-rats you need, you grouchy bastard.”
Anders stepped nimbly onto a thick mooring rope and stepped quickly across to the ship, jumping down onto the deck. Rugen winced at the sound. “Careful, bigod! We’ve not even cast off yet, there’s not need for you stove a hole in my ship, you great bloody whale.”
Anders made a rude gesture at the shipmaster, and walked the length of the narrow upper deck that ran through the middle of the ship from bow to stern, surveying the Trakai. Although he had sailed with Rugen before, he had not sailed on Rugen’s new command. She was a beauty; sleek, painted black, with a narrow beam and a sturdy mast. The oars had also been painted black, and the space amidships had been packed with stores. Salted fish, water-barrels, and a fair store of arrows were all immediately apparent to Anders’ practiced eye. Some of the crew were already aboard, and Anders nodded to a few men he had sailed with before. “By Odin, they grow them big in Gotland,” he muttered under his breath. Anders himself was not a small man, and these fellows were his equal or better in size.
Within the hour, the Trakai had its full crew. Anders kept a close eye on the arrivals, and he was guardedly pleased. They seemed a businesslike bunch, not given overly to talking back and forth, but not moody and sullen either. And then there were the five who were his particular responsibility…
“Well, warmaster,” said Rugen, clapping Anders in the shoulder, “what do you think of your lot?”
Anders turned to Rugen. “Aye, I mind them.” His five ulfhedinn – specialist fighters - were of much the same cast as the rest of the crew. Big buggers, silent but not sulking. They were armed as Anders had instructed: shield and spear, axe and bow. “We’ll see how they go. I’ll take my measure of them on the way to Skaggerak.”
“Is all to your satisfaction, warmaster?” asked Rugen, formally.
“Aye, shipmaster,” responded Anders. “Eighty arrows for every ulfhednar, twenty arrows for every oarsman. Five extra bowstaves, thirty extra bowstrings. Ten extra spears, an axe and dagger on the belt of every oarsman. Warboards secure. Is all to your satisfaction, shipmaster?”
“Aye,” responded Rugen. “One extra sail, five needles and sail-thread, ten extra oars, foredeck and reardeck secure, salted fish and biscuits for all crew for sixty days, water for thirty days. Launch moored to the rear, keel caulked after the last voyage, and she’s as sleek as a seal.” Rugen grinned. “The Trakai is ready to hunt.” He turned to the crew, ready at their oars. “Are you ready, boys?”
“Aye!” came the chorus from two-score throats.
“Cast off!” called Rugen. “Unfurl the sail, port oars push off! Carefully, you bastards!”
The black longship slid smoothly from the jetty, gently moving into open water. Anders stepped lightly from the upper deck to the gunwales, looking over the side and breathing in the sea. He heard the crack as the wind filled the snaekkje’s single sail, and felt the Trakai pick up speed.
Anders sighed with satisfaction. "Underway," he said to himself.
These were the times that Anders loved best, the times he knew he would carry in his memory forever: the jade green days, where rock and pine climbed out of the deep green water to form island upon island, some so small that four seagulls was one too many, some large enough to hold a single dwelling in comfort, some stretching back into the mist, filling the dark corners and shadows of the early evening.
There was beauty here, but it was a terrible, stark beauty: a man could not live an hour in these cold waters, and the rocks would take you and crush you if you came too close. It was beauty without compromise – that of Nature, not of man.
Rugen manoeuvred the Trakai through these waters with ease. The shipmaster had sailed these waters since boyhood, and knew where a break in the surface signalled dangerous rocks, and where it was simply a fallen tree-trunk, adrift in the sea. The snaekkje was made for these waters – a longship with a shallow draft, she slipped through the gaps and passages like an otter. Out of sight of the coast, the Trakai would have had to be careful amidst the great swells, but these were her waters.
Anders leaned over the gunwales, listening to the slap of the water against the ship’s hull. They were close enough to some of the islands that he could smell the scent of pine needles. Two gray seals had been following the Trakai for almost an hour, and he smiled at them as they bobbed up near the side of the vessel. They knew he was watching, and they had been putting on something of a swimming display for his benefit. He gave them a surreptitious wave, and then turned back to the upper deck to inspect his ulfhedinn.
He had come to know them better over the past few days, although he did not yet have a full sense of them. Brynn and Owain, good archers both, although hunters who had too little experience of sea-war; Volund, who followed orders well enough but didn’t do anything until you told him to; Carl, who was an idiot; and Sigurd, a mountain of a man who (if Anders was any judge) noticed a lot more than he let on. Sigurd was no archer, and Anders was unhappy about this, but he had given up on the idea of training Sigurd with a bow after the huge man broke one. All in all, only Sigurd really seemed to qualify as a true ulfhednar – a sea-wolf, a specialist fighter on ship – but Brynn and Owain were handy, and hopefully Carl was not as hopeless as he seemed.
“Okay lads,” said Anders, “formation drill.” He increased the volume of his voice. “Repel boarders to port! On my mark, you have a count of ten. NOW!”
“Shields up! Spears up!” Swiftly the five men brought their shields together to form a wall, cross-hafted spears poking through the gaps. …three…four…ran through the back of Anders’s mind.
“Advance and THRUST!” The five men, still in formation, moved swiftly to the gunwales and all thrust their spears forward in time. …eight…nine…
“Hold! Spears up.” The five men stood at attention, the butts of their spears resting on the deck and the heads pointing towards the sky.
Not bad, thought Anders. Aloud, he said, “Carl, keep your shield square when you thrust, or you open your whole body to attack!” Carl looked owlishly at him. “Keep that shield square, dammit, or I’ll use my axe to show you what I mean!” Anders ignored the chuckles from the oarsmen below him. “Brynn and Owain, give Sigurd more space or he’ll knock you over the side! Return to your starting positions and be ready on my mark!” Anders’s eyes gleamed as he surveyed his men, tensed to spring. “Repel boarders to starboard, NOW!” Sigurd, Volund, and (surprisingly) Carl pivoted, but Brynn and Owain were caught wrong-footed for a moment.
“One of you just died!” shouted Anders, his eyes blazing. “I’m not losing you bastards to any pirate scum, so if anyone goes, it’ll be ‘cause I’VE GONE AND DONE YOU MESELF!” More chuckles from below, but thankfully the ulhedinn could not hear them. “On the ready line,” said Anders in a lower tone; having revved his men up, he did not want to embarrass them (too far) in front of the sailors.
The Trakai lay up in a small cove late that afternoon, close enough to shore that the crew rowed the launch to the cove’s little beach. Anders took to the woods, and was lucky enough to bag a wild pig within an hour. Anders smiled as he hauled the heavy carcass over the rocky slopes. “This will spice things up a bit, no doubt,” he said to himself.
Anders was right – he got a roar of approval from the crew when he hit the beach with the beast over his shoulders. “This’ll go a treat, lads!” he said as he slung his kill to the ground. “Have you got a firepit ready?”
Rugen chuckled. “You’re still more luck than skill, you hairy beastie,” he said affectionately to Anders. “I think you must be half pig yourself.”
Anders grabbed the pig’s legs and swung him up again. “We’ll then I’ll just be off to commune with my brother by myself then, shall I?” The crew laughed, and Anders shook his head, throwing the carcass at Rugen’s feet. “Time for you to do some work for a change. For the sake of Frey, get a firepit ready!”
“I’ll do more than that, bigod,’ replied Rugen. “Tonight’s a night for the good stuff, methinks. Time for a round of akavit, boys!”
If Anders had thought his arrival had brought a roar, it was nothing compared to the response this news brought from the crew. He and Rugen stood there smiling at each other. “Good times, ye bastard,” said Rugen.
Anders nodded. “Aye. Good times.”
THE NEXT day came, as the next day always does. The crew were up just before dawn, at Rugen’s very vocal urging. “He’s not human, that man,” Anders heard one of the crew mutter. By the time the sun was over the horizon, the sail was up and the oars were out. There was a heavy swell, and Anders decided to forgo any further drills for the day, as he feared an injury.
“If this wind holds,” said Rugen, “we’ll be in Skaggerak before midday.” Anders nodded. Last night had been a good break from routine, but he wanted to see the disposition of the other forces that were at the port town already.
“Did Castamir’s envoy give you an idea of how many of us there will be?” Anders asked.
“Aye,” replied Rugen. “Us, two snaekkjes out of Skaggerak itself, and a drakkar from Castamir. One of the Dragons.
Anders whistled, his eyebrows raised. “Castamir must want these reavers’ heads on pigpoles.”
Rugen nodded. “Well, they’ve hit Skaggerak’s fishing fleets for two seasons running. That’s a lot of tax revenue for the Prince to kiss goodbye.” Rugen paused to call a direction to the tiller-man, and then turned back to Anders. “They’ll be tough buggers to catch, as well. Crews are all local boys, commanded by Harald’s own brother.”
Anders shook his head ruefully. Harald Longbeard was the jarl of Skaggerak, and had ruled the town and surrounding territory for over twenty years. Harald’s brother Ulrik had broken with the jarl some five years ago, in a fierce dispute over fishing rights that Prince Castamir had been unable to resolve. Ulrik, who earned the name Oathbreaker over the incident, had taken two ships and crews loyal to him and gone rogue, raiding shipping far and wide.
It appeared that the prodigal brother had come home with a vengeance.
"How many ships does Ulrik have?" asked Anders, sitting down against the mast and pulling out a whetstone from his belt pouch.
"Still the two, by all accounts, but they're tough buggers." Rugen remained standing, his eyes on the channel which the Trakai was about to enter. "The Hugin and the Munin. Same crews he left Skaggerak with, give or take a few bodies."
Anders nodded, running the whetstone along the length of his axe's blade. "I heard of them a year or two back, down around Quester’s Rock." He looked down the length of the blade for spottings of rust, and was pleased to find none. "Sharp bunch."
By midmorning, they began to pass the first of Skaggerak’s watchtowers, a timber construction atop a spur of rock that ran almost straight down into the water. Rugen got Sigurd to wave the banner of Castamir, and they saw the blue-gold banner similarly waved by the men of the tower. A minute or so later, the tower was sending up signals of white smoke.
Rugen grunted. “Bloody efficient, these… Skaggerakians.” He scratched his beard. “Skaggerakites?”
Anders laughed. “You can stop waving, Sigurd.” The huge man stopped. “So how much longer, shipmaster?”
“Perhaps an hour, warmaster,” Rugen responded. “At least, as long as this wind continues fair.”
The wind did not hold, but it was still less than two hours before the Trakai came in sight of the outlying dwellings and structures of Skaggerak. But that was not what held their attention. Everyone’s eyes were focussed on the massive vessel floating in the distant harbour.
“By the black wains of Olaf…” said Carl, standing behind Anders.
Rugen whistled. “Castamir’s sent the Red Dragon.”
It was a magnificent ship, perhaps twelve or fifteen feet higher above the waterline than the Trakai, painted from stem to stern in a deep blood red. The port side was facing them, and both Rugen and Anders were silently counting oars. Rugen got there first. “Thirty-five. Bloody hell, that monster ships seventy oars!” He turned to Anders. “Let’s take a look at her decks.”
The two men climbed the mainmast of the Trakai, until they were hanging on the swaying mast some thirty feet above the vessel. Both Rugen and Anders scanned the distant ship carefully. “Bloody great warboards make it hard to see,” said Anders.
“Aye,” said Rugen. “Raised foredeck and reardeck. Looks like… yes, a bloody great spear-tosser mounted on the foredeck.”
“Something on the reardeck as well,” said Anders, squinting to reduce the glare off the water. “Not a ballista, though. Not sure.”
Anders began to climb back down, and Rugen followed him. The shipmaster clapped Anders on the shoulder. “Well, it looks like we’ll be playing poor country cousins on this hunt.” Rugen called out in a much louder voice, “Smooth strokes and strong, lads! We’ve a whole town watching us come to port!”
JARL HARALD Longbeard laid on a mighty feast in his hall. Anders and Rugen sat at the head table, and had an ample view of the proceedings. Many of Harald’s kinsmen and warriors had turned out to welcome the officers of the Trakai, and both Anders and Rugen had also been introduced to Carloman and Dansik, the captain and warmaster of the Red Dragon. They were both tall men, black-haired, with hard countenances. Probably Castamir’s kin, looking like that, Anders thought. They kept themselves at a deliberate distance, as befitted officers of the Prince. Or maybe they’re just pompous asses.
Anders raised his jack to have it filled by a thrall, and drank deeply of the jarl’s ale. Not bad at all. He tore off a chunk of bread, wiping the beef-juice from his plate and popping it into his mouth. It had been a long time since he had enjoyed good cattle-flesh, and like any wise soldier, he took advantage of what opportunities came his way.
Jarl Harald’s chief adviser, a slender, sharp-eyed man named Thialfi, turned to Rugen. “How do you think the weather will break, shipmaster?”
Rugen set his cup down. “The weather looked seeming well to me; I saw no cloud on the horizon when we were in open waters. Nevertheless, these are your waters, master chamberlain, and doubtless you know them best.”
There was a burst of laughter from the jarl and his men sitting at the head table. “Wise man he may be, but do not look to Thialfi for counsel on nautical matters,” said Harald, chuckling. “A more capable manager I have never met, but…”
The chamberlain shared in the general mirth. “Keep me off the deck of a ship, for the love of Freyja!” he laughed, waving his hands. “I know the price of a fish, but I’ve no need to visit one in his home.”
Anders laughed, but also kept half an eye on Castamir’s officers. They sat with stiff spines and square shoulders, their faces carefully neutral. They’re not comfortable here at all, thought Anders. Is there something about the relations between Castamir and his lord of Skaggerak that I should know?
Just then the doors of the great hall opened for a new arrival, and all other thoughts and speculations were driven from Anders’s mind.
Later, he heard from Rugen that her name was Brigid. At the time, Rugen could have told him that her name was Magnus Marlinspike, and he wouldn’t have paid any attention. She was a vision, an absolute vision. Tall and willowy, with a quiet presence that commanded attention, she moved into the hall. “Odin’s beard,” breathed Anders, unaware that he had said this aloud. She was unlike anyone whom Anders had ever seen.
Brigid walked gracefully to the head table, smiling at the men as they stood and waited for her. Anders’s heart started to race as she walked closer to him, taking a seat only two away from Anders himself. Carloman courteously pulled out the chair for her, and she smiled and took her seat. There was a general rustle as the company took their seats again.
Anders tried not to stare, but found himself glancing at her again and again. Her hair was a pale blonde, almost white. Her face looked as if it was carved from ice, pale skin over fine, elfin features. Anders followed the line of her neck, unconsciously tracing her shoulders…
Brigid turned and caught his gaze, her icewater blue eyes appraising, with a hint of amusement. Anders turned a deep shade of red and looked down, but a moment later lifted his eyes to return her gaze, his own expression clearly measuring her in turn. A slight smile, mischievous, lifted the corners of his mouth. She did not look away. Anders felt his pulse quicken. He noticed a slight flush appear beneath her high cheekbones.
Suddenly everyone was standing. Anders stood hurriedly. Longbeard was lifting his cup. “To the commanders and crew of the Trakai! Welcome! Wass hail!” The company lifted their cups and jacks. “Wass hail!” Rugen and Anders received their salutes, and drained their jacks. Everyone sat. Anders, his body humming with the tension of the previous moment, did not dare to look at Brigid, but somehow found himself glancing at her anyway. She was glancing at him as well, but looked away hurriedly.
It was at this point that Anders realized that, somewhere in the last five minutes, he had completely lost himself.
TWO DAYS later found Anders walking with Brigid on a hillside above Skaggerak. The wind blew through the grass, whipping up Anders’s cloak behind him and blowing Brigid’s hair about her head. She was clad in green velvet with gold brocade, a simple gown bound at the waist with an embroidered belt. She moved smoothly across the face of the hill, a smile upon her pale lips, gazing mostly at the ground. Anders walked beside her, moving at a gentle, easy pace, taking in the landscape around him, taking in the town and seaside below, taking in the beautiful woman at his side. He didn’t want to say a word to disturb the moment, so he said nothing. He was lost in a mental tangle, but he wouldn’t have traded his place with any man in the world.
“So you sail in two days’ time,” said Brigid. It was difficult to tell if this was a statement or a question.
“Aye, Brigid. We all do. The Trakai, the Red Dragon, the Kisping, and your brothers on the Belgard. It had turned out that Brigid was a member of the extended family of Harald Longbeard; her mother was sister to Harald by marriage. Brigid’s brothers, Jasper and Henrik, were both young men of ability who had risen to the posts of shipmaster and warmaster, respectively.
They continued to walk. “Did you know Ulrik at all?” asked Anders as they strolled. It was perhaps an impolitic question, but Anders had been wondering about the nature of the man whom they were soon to hunt.
Brigid smiled. Breathtaking, thought Anders. “Not really very well. He seemed a big man, almost larger than life. He laughed a great deal.” She sighed. “The hall was a happier place then, I think.”
“The families of the powerful are not like other families,” said Anders, “as much as they might wish to be. My brother was a bit of a turf-brain, but I never had to worry about him poisoning my broth to make himself Lord of the Isles, or some such thing.”
Brigid laughed. She stopped, and looked at Anders. “Why did you leave your family?” she asked, pushing wisps of hair from her face. Anders smiled ruefully, and shrugged. “There was no life for me there. My father is a farmer, and a good man. My brother is a fisherman, and an idiot, but a good man. I like to believe that I am a good man, but I had no wish for these futures. Nor did I wish to be a smith, or a crofter, or a cooper, and any other such thing. So what was I to do?” He lifted his hands. “I wanted to see the world, and I’m not done looking yet. I miss my kin, sometimes, but I know where they are. They think I’m mad, but there’s a spot for me by the fire should I return.” He shrugged his shoulders. “And that’s the way of it.”
Brigid smiled at Anders. “I agree with you on one thing, Anders of Hestur,” she said. “I believe you’re a good man, too.” She stood on her toes and gave him a kiss on the cheek, swift and sweet. She laughed and took his hand. “Now take me back to town, before the old folk talk even more than they are already.”
RUGEN GRINNED as Anders came aboard. “Ah, it’s good to find a safe harbour, milad.” The tall captain clapped Anders on the shoulder. Anders smiled ruefully, and shook his head. “It’s not like that, Ru. We haven’t, for one thing. And there’s not exactly an understanding between us, not… exactly. It’s just…well…”
Rugen, his hand still on Anders’s broad shoulder, looked closely at Anders. “Save me, Anders,” he said at length. “You’re done.” Anders turned a deep shade of red. “Could be,” Anders admitted, raising his eyebrows. “Could be I’m lost, my friend. Just lost.”
The shipmaster’s smile broadened. “You poor bugger.” He chuckled. “Freyja help you. She’s a bonny wee lass, and a fair catch, if it comes to that.”
Anders nodded. “Aye, she would be a fair catch indeed. But I’ve no idea what happens now…”
Their leavetaking had been painful, awkward. They had sat in a corner of Jarl Harald’s hall, across a table from each other. Their eyes rarely left from gazing at the ground.
“I’m sorry I have to go,” Anders said, and he truly meant it. He had a duty to perform, and he had given his word to see it through, but he wished that his duty was a little further off.
“I know you’re sorry, just as I know that you must do this. It’s only…” she looked up, clasping his hand. “Well… just be careful, that’s all.” She looked up at him. “Don’t do anything foolish.”
There was something more on the tip of her tongue, Anders could tell; but she was not saying it. He was not one to push – let her say what was on her mind when it was right for her. Nothing blooms before its time.
“I’ll be careful. I’ll do what needs be, but I’m too fond of this skin to wish to lose it for no damn good reason.”
Brigid’s face was like a statue. “I’m glad, Anders.”
“Oh, lass.” He squeezed her hand. She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. He felt her press against him, and then felt her slip away, like a wave drawing back from the shore. When he opened his eyes, he saw her walking away rapidly, her back straight and her shoulders square. Anders clenched his fists and stood. He felt something in his left hand, and opened it up to see.
Brigid had pressed a small brooch into his hand as she left. A golden love-knot, with a green stone at its heart.
“GENTLEMEN!” Harald Longbeard’s voice boomed across the harbour, and brought Anders back to himself. The jarl of Skaggerak stood at the end of the central quay, a great fur mantle draped over his shoulders. “Good hunting! The blessings of my lord Castamir and my own house go with you.” Harald raised his arm. “A pair of golden arm-rings to the man who brings me Ulrik’s head. Wass hail!”
“Wass hail!” came the answering cry from more than two hundred throats. The drums of the oarmasters began to sound, as the fleet loosed their slips and cast off, out of the harbour and down the coast.
Within the week, they had reached the great eel-yards off King’s Head. Row upon row of fencing stretched out from the headland into the ocean, and Anders watched as men and women scurried from their huts on shore onto the walkways above the eel-fences, checking and unloading the nets. It was just after spawning, so the yards were full of busy activity.
The crew of the Trakai had ample opportunity to sample the fruits of the villagers’ labour that evening. “Fresh stewed eel,” exclaimed Carl, smacking his lips in appreciation. “Say what you like about the meat of the land, but nothing beats the flesh of the sea.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Owain, idly waving a piece of dripping eel-meat about at the end of his dagger. “I could’ve done with a little more land-meat before we left Skaggerak.”
“I think the warmaster got his fill of land-meat, mind you,” said Carl slyly, winking at the others. There was a moment of shocked silence. Anders made to rise, but before he could do anything more than lean forward, Sigurd had stood up. In a single smooth motion as he rose, the huge man lifted Carl by the belt and jerkin and simply heaved. Carl disappeared into the night. The company heard a surprised yell, and then a splash. Sigurd sat down again in the sudden silence. “Sorry, warmaster,” Sigurd rumbled. “I get a bit of a nervous twitch sometimes. I don’t mean no harm.” The entire company erupted into laughter, drowning out the sounds of Carl’s cursing and splashing.
The small fleet stood off the eel-yards for a few days, waiting for word on the current location of Ulrik Oathbreaker and his snaekkjes, the Hugin and the Munin. Anders spent the time profitably, drilling his own small band of ulfhedinn (including a suitably contrite Carl), and coordinating his drills with Danask and the larger component of sea-wolves aboard the Red Dragon. The Kisping and the Belgard had no specialists, relying solely on their fighting crews. Anders watched Brigid’s brother Henrik put the oarsmen of the Belgard through combat drill. They weren’t bad, to Anders’s eye; but his own experience had taught him that there was no real replacement for a dedicated contingent of sea-wolves in those vital first few moments of hand-to-hand fighting.
Still, Henrik’s drills reminded Anders that it was time to integrate the ulfhedinn’s combat practice with combat drills for the rest of the crew. Although the specialists could buy the Trakai those first few moments, if the crew was not ready to crash in shortly thereafter, the ulfhedinn would pay for those first moments with their lives.
Although some grumbled, the majority of the crew fell to it with a will, and those who complained did so quietly, out of the hearing of Anders, Rugen, or (strangely enough) Sigurd.
BOTH ANDERS and Rugen had become tired of waiting. It was obvious that Ulrik was never going to hit the eel-yards, not with four ships anchored off King’s Head. In fact, it appeared that Ulrik had gone to ground; the fleet had no word of any sightings of the raider or his ships anywhere.
Carloman held a commanders’ meeting aboard the Red Dragon, and the impatience of the general company was beginning to show in its leaders.
“He’s a crafty old fox,” said Rugen, “and he’s holed up in some comfortable burrow somewhere. He can afford to sit tight longer than we can. Our only chance is to flush him out.” Byrntooth, the morose captain of the Kisping, shook his greying head from side to side. “Ulrik’s been up and down these coasts since we were all boys. If he wants to hide, we’ll never find him. And if we go a’looking, he’ll slip out of his hiding spot and raid the eel-yards.” Sterken, Byrntooth’s warmaster, nodded in approval of his shipmaster’s observations.
“And what of the mackerel grounds in Jensen’s Bay? And the salmon traps up the Peipus River?” asked Carloman, shortly. “The seal station off Linder Rock? Who protects them from Ulrik while we sit here?”
Anders privately agreed with the captain of the Red Dragon. However, he did not, in truth, know what the answer to their puzzle was. Ulrik certainly knew these waters better than anyone, and they couldn’t protect every area at once.
“When the obvious strategies are found wanting, it’s time to turn to trickery.” The officers turned their heads in surprise towards Jasper, Harald Longbeard’s nephew and shipmaster of the Belgard. Jasper’s eyes gleamed, and his brother Henrik had the smile of the badger who ate the mole. Jasper continued: “My brother and I have a plan that we think might snare our wayward uncle…” The rest of the officers leaned in closer to the two young brothers.
THREE NIGHTS later saw the Trakai and its crew nestled into a bend of the Peipus River. The night was cloudy, with next to no moonlight, which suited Anders and Rugen. They wished to remain concealed, or at least appear to have that intention.
Although they were supposed to alternate watches, they were both awake. Neither could sleep, both in anticipation of what was to come, and because of the uncertainty which surrounded Jasper and Henrik’s plan.
“Like a salmon in a laxakar,” Jasper had said, referring to the V-shaped traps which fisherfolk used to catch the salmon on their spawning runs. And, in truth, Jasper’s plan did fit this closely. The Trakai was the bait; it had the appearance of a single ship sneaking up the Peipus River to spy out Ulrik and his boats. The opportunity to pick off one of the fleet hunting him was a temptation Ulrik was unlikely to resist. However, the Kisping and the Belgard had slipped quietly upriver two nights ago, using all of the stealth at their disposal.
When Ulrik’s ships attacked, then, the Kisping and the Belgard would come racing downriver. “Ulrik is a canny captain, and he’ll likely break off and flee for the ocean,” Byrntooth had protested. Jasper had nodded his head, smiling, and Henrik had said, “That’s where the Red Dragon will be – right at the mouth of the river. Ulrik’s ships will have nowhere to go, caught between three snaekkjes and a great drakkar.”
Of course, all of this was predicated on the idea that Ulrik actually was somewhere on the Peipus. Under his blanket in the cold night, Anders observed this to Rugen, not for the first time. Rugen sighed. “One guess is as good as another, lad, and you know it as well as I.”
Anders nodded. True or not, it didn’t really make him feel any better.
In the near-total silence and darkness, the movement next to Anders was startling. Despite his surprise, Anders kept his voice to a low whisper. “Who in the Nine Worlds is fidgeting about at this hour?”
A huge silhouette blocked out what little moonlight there was. “Oh. Good eve, Sigurd. What is it?”
Sigurd’s rumble was as soft as the huge man could make it. “Carl has something to tell that you really need to hear. You and the shipmaster both.”
Anders sat up straight, and nudged Rugen to get his attention.
“Understood,” he whispered to Sigurd. Where is he?”
“Right here,” came a whisper from somewhere in front of Sigurd. Anders hadn’t even seen the man in Sigurd’s shadow. “I’m sorry to bother you, Warmaster, but…”
Anders brushed this away impatiently. “Never mind that. What is it I need to hear?”
Carl coughed nervously. “Well, Warmaster, it’s like this… I spent my time in Skaggerak with a few of the boys down at the Bay’s Bounty, one of the dockside inns,” Carl began.
Rugen snorted. “One of the dockside slutshacks, ye mean.”
There was a pause. Then, “Well, mebbe so, but I wasn’t doin’ no harm to anyone,” protested Carl. “Ow – okay, Sigurd, okay! Anyways,” Carl continued, “I was there in the common room, sizing up the fancies, when I hear two of them chatting away in Thieves’ Cant. I doubt they were aware that I know the trick of it – “
“And I don’t want to know how you know it – “ interjected Rugen.
Anders gave him an annoyed glance, realized the ineffectiveness of this in the darkness, and muttered, “Belay it, Ru, or we’ll be here all night.”
“So, anyways,” Carl went on, unaware in his nervousness of the muttered exchange, “they was sayin’, ‘I hear Lady Brigid’s got her hooks into one of the warmasters…’”
Anders felt himself flush scarlet. Good old darkness, he thought.
“…and the other one says, ‘Or this outlander’s got his meathook into her, more likely’ – leave off, Sigurd! Ow! You told me to say it as I heard it!’”
“Thank you, Sigurd. Leave him be,” said Anders, his voice firmly under control. He was almost certain that he had heard a snort from Rugen.
“So anyways, the first one says, ‘The Dodger will give her a right thrashing when he gets back. He’s a right strict one for that sorta thing, worse than his brother.’”
Anders felt the hairs on his neck rise up. “The Dodger?” Surely that didn’t mean…
Sigurd interjected. “Carl had no idea what it meant. I do. The Dodger is an old nickname for Ulrik himself.”
Rugen said slowly, “The Dodger will give her a right thrashing when he gets back…”
There was silence. Then Rugen said, “Thank you, Sigurd, you’ve done the right thing. Very much so. Please take Carl with you.” Anders and Rugen waited for the two ulhedinn to depart.
Anders sighed, deeply, feeling as if he were being deflated. “Oh, Loki’s mother…”
“Then you think the same as I,” said Rugen flatly.
“Of course I do,” replied Anders hoarsely. “It’s Ulrik they were talking about, Ru. He and Harald only pretended to fall out. They’ve been playing the old game to fox the Prince. Ulrik ‘steals’ his brother’s goods, so no tax need be paid on them. And Harald can claim the damage against Castamir’s pledge of protection. He turns a neat profit, without paying a bloody dime.” He sighed. “And then we show up to spoil the party…”
“Aye, Anders,” said Rugen. “We’ve been set up.”
The next few minutes saw a rude awakening for the ship’s pilot, a local navigator assigned by Jasper to help guide the Trakai through the trickier portions of the Peipus River. The man choked off a gasp as he felt a cord tighten around his windpipe, and then went completely still when he felt the edge of Anders’s knife pressing against his trachea.
“You’ve got one chance, and one chance only,” hissed Rugen, next to the terrified man’s ear. “We know we’ve been tricked. If you tell us which ships are going to ambush us, we’ll let you live. Well?”
The pilot, the whites of his eyes showing even in the dark night, nodded frantically. Rugen released the tension on the cord by a fraction.
“The Kisping and the Belgard,” the man croaked hoarsely. “They’re due to come tomorrow, pull up alongside as friends, and then board you.”
Rugen looked at Anders. Anders nodded. Rugen tightened the pressure on the cord again, until the pilot’s eyes rolled up in his head and the man fell into unconsciousness. Rugen then let the cord slip, stopping short of killing the man. “Tie him up well and good,” Anders said to Sigurd, who was waiting patiently behind them. “Stow him in the hold. He’ll live if we do, and that’s as good a chance as I feel like giving him.”
Anders could see Sigurd’s toothy grin as he grabbed the man in one hand, holding the pilot like a sack of flour.
“So that’s it then,” said Rugen, gloomily. “The Kisping and the Belgard on us, and the Hugin and the Munin on Carloman. Four against two becomes two against four, just like that. Tricksy bastards.” He shook his head.
Anders clapped his hand on Rugen’s shoulder and said, “We’re not done yet. The advantage of surprise is with us, now. When we meet those two tomorrow, it’ll be on our terms, and those sneaky little water-rats will have no idea what hit them. Besides, we’ve got to get word to the Red Dragon, if we can. They’re in this as deep as we are, and they’ve no idea that we’ve been sold out. We’ve got to get down to the mouth of the Peipus and warn them. Ulrik’s ships must not be anywhere on this bloody river; tricks or no tricks, they can’t afford to get bottled up. They’ll be on open water, waiting to jump on Carloman. If Jasper and that longfaced arse Byrntooth are upriver where they should be, we’ve got a chance if we cast loose right now. If their ships are downriver, then we’ve a harder task ahead, but we still need to try.”
Rugen nodded. “The nail on the head, my lad; there’s the bloody nail on the bloody head. Alright, let’s get the crew in fighting order, you get your sea-wolves ready, and then it’s haul away anchor! Timber, sail and steel, me lad,” Rugen grinned mirthlessly, “someone’s going to get right messed before we’re done.”
THE TRIP downriver was nerve-wracking. They inched through the water, because their pilot was now useless to them, they were in near total darkness, and they were trying to be as quiet as they could in order to catch any possible sound of the Kisping or the Belgard. Rugen stood at the bow of the ship, practically hanging over the water to see any possible danger, while Anders stood at the stern, keeping an eye out behind for any nocturnal pursuit.
False dawn, with its hint of sunlight to come, saw the whole crew on edge. Rugen cursed as he saw the short distance they had traveled in the night. “Full on, lads!” he shouted. “To the ocean, and to hell with those who stand in our way!”
Anders nodded. There was no point in a discreet profile now. They were out of position for no good reason; Jasper and Byrntooth would rightly guess that their trap had been discovered. By his estimate, they had a good half-day before they reached the mouth of the Peipus; the treacherous Skaggerak captains had done their work well in separating their enemies.
Anders sent Volund, who had good distance vision, up the mainmast to keep an eye out for the Kisping and the Belgard. If they were further upriver, wondering where the Trakai was, there was still a chance to reach the Red Dragon before the trap was sprung.
The quiet of the early, true dawn was split apart by a hideously eerie screeching noise. Both Anders and Rugen recognized it immediately, but the majority of the crew did not. “Settle down, lads!” called Rugen. “The sky’s not falling.” He cursed. “It’s a bloody signal. Ulrik must have spies along the river-banks.” The first screech was followed by a second, then a third. Anders, looking for them now, noted the flight of the arrows, which had been fitted with hollow bulbs at the tip, perforated to make a loud whistling noise. “East bank, by that great fir tree,” he said to Rugen. “Wish we had time to send a party ashore and silence the bastard.”
Rugen’s face was grim. “We’ve no time for anything at all now, save to row and pray. They’ll be coming hard at us now. Their quarry’s fled, and now they know it.”
The next hour was spent anxiously. Rugen eased the pace of the rowers slightly, so as to keep some energy with the oarsmen in the event of a fight, which now seemed likely. Both Rugen and Anders kept glancing up towards Volund, looking for some indication of the location of their pursuers. When his call finally came, they were almost relieved to hear it. “Sails on the river!” cried Volund. Anders and Rugen looked at each other. From which way?
The entire crew gave a shout of joy. Anders and Rugen grinned at each other. “Hard at it, boys,” roared Rugen. “You row for our lives!” The Trakai leapt forward like a hound loosed from its leash, surging with the strength the oarsmen had kept as a last reserve.
A moment later, however, they heard another call from Volund. “Boom downriver, five hundred yards! Log-boom downriver, five hundred yards!”
“Bastards.” Rugen ground his teeth. “So that signal wasn’t just for the ships. Ulrik’s shut the bloody door on us.”
Anders was already moving. “Ulfhedinn, to the bow! Bring axes!” He turned back towards Rugen. “Shipmaster, I’ll need some oarsmen, if you will.” Rugen nodded. Anders shouted, “Front five, port and starboard, ship oars and move to the bow! Rear five, port and starboard, ship oars, string bows and grab arrows! Take positions on the deck to cover us!” He added, in a lower tone, “May Odin smile on us, Ru.”
“You especial, you crazy bastard,” replied Rugen. “All remaining oarsmen, quarter pace!” he shouted. “Bring us to within ten yards of the boom! Keep your axes ready at your sides; we’re in the right thick of it now!”
Knotted ropes had been thrown over the sides, and the men were scrambling down the sides of the Trakai, ready to jump. The sense of urgency in the air was palpable. Anders, having made sure of his supporting archers on the deck of the ship, was the last to make ready.
“Let’s go!” he cried, as he pushed off from the side of the hull. The water was bracingly cold. “Swim, ye bastards! To the boom, quick as you can!” He could hear nothing but the splashing of bodies in the swift-moving river. Fortunately, the current was with them, and with a few strokes they were at the log barrier.
Anders hauled himself up, shaking his hair out of his eyes and peering at the log boom. “It’s secured with rope, not chain,” he told his men. “Sigurd, I want you to cut the connecting ropes. Volund, Carl, I want you to use your spears to push the logs apart once Sigurd has cut the ropes. Owain and Brynn, axes and shields out. Move to the left and right of Volund and Carl. Cover them from arrow fire, and be ready to repel the enemy. We can’t see anyone right now, but I guarantee you this boom is protected. Sailors, spread out on the boom and get your shields up. Protect the ulfhedinn!”
Anders cursed. The boom was four logs thick. “Push the logs away from us, not towards us,” he called in final instruction. “Come on, boys. If we don’t break this boom, everybody dies!”
Anders instinctively ducked as he heard the hiss of arrows. “Move, sea-wolves!” he shouted. “Sailors, shields up towards both banks, even if you can’t see the archers.” Anders’s troops were already up and moving unsteadily on the logs. By his reckoning, no more than five archers were firing on them. There must be more than this, thought Anders. We’re not that lucky.
The shore was perhaps sixty metres or so away on either side; although some arrows from the northern bank were skipping close to the ulfhedinn and sailors, no one had been hit. Anders was crouched on the boom, trying to keep an eye on his men at the same time as watching both banks of the river for any surprises. Sigurd had positioned himself above the first of the thick ropes binding the boom together, and brought his war-axe down in a mighty chop that reverberated throughout the log-boom.
Sigurd looked down to survey his handiwork, and cursed. “The rope’s twined with wire, warmaster!” he called to Anders.
Damn. No, we’re not that lucky. “Can ye do it, Sigurd?” Anders shouted back, as an arrow hissed past his hand like a striking snake.
“Yessir. Take me longer, though.” Sigurd was already raising his axe and bringing it crashing down again.
There was a curse from Brynn. Anders looked up. The man did not appear to be wounded. “Are you alright, Brynn?” he called.
“Aye, warmaster,” came Brynn’s reply, through clenched teeth. “Bloody arrow skipped up off the logs and caught me shin! I kin stand, mind.” Even as Brynn was speaking, another arrow whistled just past his head. “Cowardly little shites!” he swore.
Too long, thought Anders. We’re going to get hurt. Just as he was readying his axe to help with the cables, he saw movement from the northern bank. The reavers were putting their a small skute into the water, and piling as many people into it as they could. “Launch on the north bank!” shouted Anders. There was a loud cracking noise, and the boom shifted. Everyone struggled to maintain his balance. “One down, warmaster,” called Sigurd.
“Well done, Sigurd, keep at it!” Anders and the rest on the sailors were now standing on the boom, two ranks deep. “Front rank, shields low,” he called, readying his axe. “Second rank, shields higher. Seaxes out, this will be close and bloody.”
The air was filled with noise – the chunk of Sigurd’s axe hitting home, the hiss and whistle of the arrows around them, and the occasional thud as one of them bit into a shield or a log, the creak of the boom on the water itself, and the distant shouts and oarsplashes from the approaching skute. Anders heard, watched, calculated, yet felt strangely distant from it all, as if he was watching it from some high vantage point.
The thought came unbidden into his head. She lied to me. She must have lied to me. She knew.
Anders shook his head. Well, she’s not bloody here now, is she? Best tend to yourself.
The reaver boat was almost within range. “Ready!” he shouted. There was a whine of cables parting, and the boom shuddered once more. One of the sailors cried out as he lost his balance and fell into the river.
“Two down, warmaster,” came the call from Sigurd.
“Well done, man! Give us some warning on the third one, if ye can.”
Anders looked down to make sure that the fallen sailor was all right. The fellow was climbing out of the water, but he had lost his shield and seaxe. “Get back to the Trakai!” called Anders to the waterlogged man.
The reaver skute pulled up to the remnants of the boom with a bump. The firing from the southern bank had ceased as their fellow raiders arrived at their goal. Anders could count some ten men in the launch. We’re in trouble, he thought.
“Sigurd, keep at it! Everyone else, shove those pricks back into the water!”
“Sir!” called Sigurd. “Third one’s going to – “
The cable snapped, pitching all of Anders’s men into the river, and casting all of Anders’s plans to Hel.
The next few moments were a whirl of confusion, sound and sensation, as Anders managed to get himself to the surface of the water. He could barely see for the splashing chaos around him.
Amazingly, Sigurd had held his position on the final row of logs in the boom. However, the enemy skute was very close to him, and Sigurd had his axe up and at the ready to defend himself. The rest of Anders’s ulfhedinn and sailors were still in the water.
They will have to look after themselves for the moment. Anders hauled himself up onto the boom, next to Sigurd. “Keep chopping!” Anders shouted, as he tightened his grip on his own axe which he had - thankfully – held secure. “We’ve got to clear this boom, by Tyr, or everybody dies!”
Sigurd wasted no time on words, but returned to his work on the fourth binding rope with a mighty swing. With only one line of logs still together, every one of Sigurd’s blows was sending a massive vibration throughout the entire boom, and Anders was damn near pitched into the water a second time.
The enemy launch was having difficulty, as some of the great timbers floating free were getting in the way of their boat. Another massive shudder through the boom, and Anders struggled to keep his balance. He risked a moment to look backwards, and saw in an instant that most of his fighting crew swimming back to the Trakai, which was now less than five metres away. Sailors on the bow were taking aim at the enemy skute, and he hoped that they were good shots, or he was going to get feathered in his spine. Before he turned back to face the pirates, he thought he saw Owain – or perhaps Brynn, the two looked bloody identical – trying to reach the log boom.
“Get to the ship, lads!” he called, without taking his eyes off the approaching enemy a second time. “There’s only enough room for me anyways!”
The boom shuddered a third time. Two of the raiders from the enemy skute had managed to reach the boom, and were making their way towards Anders, who stood between them and Sigurd. The closest drew an axe from his belt, as the second one drew a long, serrated seaxe.
Anders shifted into a fighting stance as best he could, widening his feet and dropping his hips. “Are you ready, you bastards?” he taunted them. “It’s time for PAIN!”
This slowed the second fellow down slightly, but the pirate with the sword, a long-limbed ape of a man, simply bared his teeth in a humourless grin and charged at Anders. Anders, who had been hoping for this response, suddenly jumped up and down, hard, on his end of the log they were now both standing upon. As his end went down, the other fellow’s end went up. Very suddenly. The man’s eyes widened as he sought to keep his balance, all thoughts of attack or defence forgotten. Anders swiftly moved across the log, timing the swing of his axe with the upward bounce of the bobbing log. Anders slid his hands from a wide grip to a tight one, increasing the torque of his upward swing. The pirate’s jaw simply exploded, and the man tried wetly to scream as he fell into the river.
Another massive shudder was too much for Anders. Trying to recover from his swing while also trying to keep his balance left Anders spinning into the river.
Even as he fell, Anders was thinking, great Odin, I’m a sitting duck for that second bugger. Hoping to avoid a slashed face as soon as surfaced, but not wanting to abandon Sigurd, Anders stayed underwater and swam a distance down the log, close – he hoped – to where Sigurd was.
He surfaced, but water could be deceptive for distance, and he was still far too close to the second pirate. He felt a hot sting across the side of his head, as he did not quite manage to evade the man’s long knife. The fellow was crouched low, holding onto the log with one hand, slashing at Anders with his knife in the other.
Anders reached up, trying to grab the man’s arm and pull him into the water. He missed, however, and the pirate hissed in triumph as he prepared to slash backhand at Anders’s face.
Suddenly the man grunted and catapulted backwards off the log, an arrow in his shoulder. At the same time, there was another enormous CRACK! from the boom, and Sigurd roared in triumph. Anders began to swim for the Trakai, which was beginning to bump into the chaos of timbers. There was another great splash, which he hoped was Sigurd taking to the water. It was an agonizing few seconds that felt much longer as Anders swam for the snaekkje, expecting a seaxe or arrow between his shoulder-blades at any moment. Within moments, however, hands were pulling him up the rope and over the side, and he collapsed like a clubbed eel against the gunwale.
Across from him, he saw Sigurd, panting and gasping. He reached across and clasped the huge man’s hand. “Well done,” breathed Anders. “Bloody well done.”
“Well done, lads!” he shouted, his energy returning. “We’ve won ourselves a fighting chance!” The Trakai was already picking up speed through the tangle of logs that was the remains of the boom.
Rugen clapped Anders by the arm, and pulled him up. “Well done, my friend. Cheers, man.” Anders grinned back at his friend. “Aye, well, someone had to get this misbegotten crate moving.”
Rugen eye’s widened. “Misbegotten crate? There’ll be words between us when this is all done, my lad, you mark me.” Anders laughed. “How’s the distance? Will they catch us, Ru?”
Rugen’s face grew grim. “It’s going to be tight, Anders, bloody tight. With the sail up and this current, we’ll keep ahead of them as long as we keep hard at the oars. I’ll need my sailors back, thank you very much.”
“And welcome to them.” Anders looked back at the sailors, who were already making their way to the lower deck and their places at the oars. “They did well, shipmaster. They shaped right bloody well.”
“So did your sea-wolves, warmaster,” replied Rugen. He laughed. “I’ll tell you, it was bloody entertaining from this vantage point. Ye could have sold tickets for that little skirmish, and nobody would be asking for their coin back.”
“So glad we gave you your money’s worth. It was wet work, that’s for damn sure. How long till we reach the mouth of the Peipus?”
Rugen scowled. “Well, since I’ve no trust for our local navigator, I’m not as sure as I’d like… but my best guess would be an hour, barring no further surprises like that bloody log-boom.”
“Here’s hoping,” agreed Anders. “Well, I’d best leave you to tend to your ship, and I’ll see to my men. They did a fine job. I’m quick to let them know when they’ve cocked it up, they might as well hear me say something complimentary.”
“You’re getting soft in your old age,” said Rugen. Anders made a rude gesture as he walked back along the narrow upper deck.
If the fight on the boom had been hard work for Anders’ ulfhedinn, the race to the sea was harder for Rugen’s sailors. Although they had the wind and the current, so did the Kisping and the Belgard; so it was down to the strength in the shoulders and backs of the oarsmen. Anders sat with his men in the stern of the Trakai. Although their two pursuers were still out of sight to all save the watchman on the mainmast, they still looked over the stern periodically.
Anders squatted next to Brynn. “Let’s have a look at that shin, fellah,” he said.
Brynn shifted onto his backside and extended his left leg onto the rough wood of the deck. He winced as he did so. Anders rolled Brynn’s wet trouser leg back to look at the man’s shin. His eyes narrowed. The front of Brynn’s shin was a mess, perhaps six inches below the knee; there was a coin-sized area where the skin was already beginning to purple, and below that a section of flesh that looked like it had been scraped clean off.
Brynn grunted with pain as Anders felt both areas with his thumbs. Anders looked up at the ulfhednar, who was looking down none too kindly upon his commander. Anders smiled. “Sorry, lad,” he said. “But the news is good. No pieces of the arrow in your leg. You’ve probably got a deep bruise where the arrowhead hit” - he pointed to the coin-sized bruise – “and I’ll need to clean the grazes from the fletchings so they don’t get infected. River-water can be filthy.” He looked at Sigurd. “Speaking of which, I’ll get you to do the same for my little souvenir,” he said, gesturing to the side of his head where the blood had caked. Sigurd nodded.
LITTLE CHANGED within the next hour, save that both Anders and Brynn were far less likely to catch river-fever. Rugen was in the bow, watching for any blockage in the river that might slow them down. Incredibly, the sailors were maintaining their gruelling pace, and according to their lookout, the Trakai had gained slightly on the Kisping and the Belgard.
“The sea! The sea!” came the sudden call from Volund. Everyone on the ship raised his head to the man who excitedly shouted from the mainmast. “Five hundred metres due west! Three sails! The Red Dragon is fighting two snaekkjes!”
There was a roar from the entire crew. Anders dashed forward to consult with Rugen. Even as he ran, he felt the Trakai increase its pace, without even a word from the shipmaster.
“What’s the plan, Ru?” asked Anders as he caught up to his friend.
“If we have a clear shot, I’d love to take one of Ulrik’s snaekkje’s amidships, with as little warning as possible,” replied Rugen. “Left to its own, the Red Dragon will make mincemeat of a single craft, and then we’ll have a shot at turning on the final two together. I’m going to have to call it on the fly.”
Anders nodded. “Where do you want us?”
“Stay by the mainmast and wait for my orders.”
Anders slapped his friend on the shoulder, and made for the middle of the ship, calling, “Sea-wolves! Make ready at the mainmast!”
Although the air was full of noise – the grunts of the sailors, the slap of the oars against the water, the creak of the timber, the snapping of the sail – Anders felt as if he completely alone, watching events as if he was in a dream. All of his attention was focused upon the scene ahead of him.
The mouth of the river was now clearly visible from the upper deck of the Trakai, and beyond it, three ships locked in battle. The Red Dragon was holding its own; one of Ulrik’s longships had smoke coming from its midsection, and neither of the snaekkjes had really managed to inflict any serious damage upon the drakkar. The larger ship’s warboards were peppered with arrows, but the greater height of the Red Dragon was helping Castamir’s soldiers to win the archery battle.
“Ready spears and shields, boys,” said Anders to his ulhedinn. “If I’m any judge, we’ll be boarding one of Ulrik’s sodding ships.” His men nodded. Brynn, despite his injury, had a wolfish grin upon his face. Keep note of this one, boyo, Anders thought to himself, this one’s got the fire in his belly.
The river widened into a delta as they approached the sea, and with a shift of the wind, the smell of the salt was in everyone’s nostrils. The Trakai was no more than two hundred yards away from the closest of Ulrik’s snaekkje’s, but the reavers did not appear to have noticed that all was not going according to plan.
Anders would not have thought it possible, but the Trakai put on a further burst of speed, seeking to close with the nearer of the two snaekkjes before Ulrik’s men knew they were there. The longship slowed slightly as it bit into the mixture of currents at the mouth of the Peipus, but picked up speed again as it hit the flow of freshwater at the centre of the delta.
“We’re going to bloody nail them,” Anders heard Carl mutter behind him, and indeed it did look likely. A hundred metres away, and still the snaekkje had not noticed the Trakai, so intent was it on circling the Red Dragon, like a hungry wolf.
Fifty metres. Anders held his breath.
Twenty-five metres. The second of Ulrik’s longships, coming out from behind the Red Dragon, could see the onrushing Trakai as clear as day. They frantically shouted at the crew of the oblivious vessel, but it was too late. The Trakai’s bow, hardened at the tip, was dead set at the middle of the snaekkje’s hull.
Fifteen metres. “Hold on, boys!” roared Anders, as he gripped a rope encircling the mainmast.
One final sweep, and the sailors quickly lifted and shipped the oars, then held on to whatever they could.
The noise was unbelievable – an earthquake could be nothing compared to the chaos of ramming a ship, thought Anders. Although he had tried to hang on as best he could, Anders found himself flung to the deck. As he tried to stand, he felt the sky and deck swimming around him.
As he finally got to his feet, he heard Rugen call the order to unship the oars. Bloody hell, thought Anders, we must have stoved in the side of Ulrik’s ship. One quick glance at the scene confirmed it. The reaver snaekkje had a gaping hole amidships, and water was already pouring into its hold. The whole vessel was listing dramatically to starboard. Rugen’s oarsmen were frantically backing water, in an effort to avoid being drawn into the doomed vessel’s collapse.
A shout from the bow brought Anders fully to his senses. Although the two ships had collided only briefly, it had been enough time for some of Ulrik’s raiders to leap from their doomed longship onto the Trakai. Rugen, his sword out and swinging, was finding himself hard pressed.
“C’mon, boys!” shouted Anders as he hefted his battle-axe. Some of the oarsmen had leapt from their places to help Rugen, but the situation could fall apart rapidly without the arrival of Anders and his ulfhedinn.
By Anders’s rapid count, some seven raiders had managed the leap from the enemy ship to the Trakai. One of them was down already, bleeding from his guts, but one of Rugen’s sailors was down as well. Rugen himself was backing away along the upper deck, trying to buy time. One raider in particular, a huge fellow with a fearsome boar’s-head helm, was preventing Rugen from breaking contact completely.
Anders raced past Rugen, keeping his body position low, aiming a swipe at the big fellow to put him off his aim, and crashing stomach-height into the next reaver. The stocky warmaster put his shoulder into the man, and the fellow went flying. Sigurd and Brynn were hard on Anders’s heels, and blew past Anders into the next rank of fighters before they had time to react to Anders’s attack.
Anders, in the meantime, was pivoting to face the man he had run past, and was barely able to fall to the timbers in order to avoid the axe-sweep that would have disembowelled him otherwise. Anders rolled with a curse, feeling the massive fellow’s axe-head bite into the deck of the Trakai. He took advantage of the man’s momentary difficulty in prising his weapon free to kick the fellow squarely on his knee-cap, scrambling quickly to his feet as the boar-helmed man howled in pain.
The man was limping now as he approached Anders, but his undiminished fury was plain to see behind a screen of boar-tusks. Rugen, whom Anders had momentarily forgotten, stepped in to aim a thrust at the fellow’s stomach, but the enraged warrior swept Rugen’s blow aside with his axe, then thrust the axe-head forward directly at Anders’s face.
Anders ducked the thrust, dropping his hips and keeping his back straight, then rose up with his own axe to hook his axe-head behind his opponent’s weapon. He pulled back mightily, bringing his surprised enemy staggering forward, off balance. Even as the man was stumbling forward, Anders kicked him savagely in the groin, twisted his weapon free of his opponent’s, and brought his axe around in a massive sweep that connected with the man’s neck, half-severing the fellow’s head and dropping him to the deck, dead in an instant.
Anders immediately looked towards his next possible opponent, only to see that there was none. Sigurd and Brynn had carried their charge straight into the remainder of the pirates, who had fallen back under the two’s combined assault, and become easy prey for the long spears of Carl, Owain, and Volund, not to mention the biting long daggers and axe-heads of the oarsmen on the lower deck. The fight, brief and savage, was finished.
Anders, breathing hard, leaned on Rugen, who stood panting beside him. “Bloody hell, Ru,” he said, “when does this day’s business end?”
Rugen snorted, caught between laughter and gasping for breath. “Fame and fortune, my lad… bloody fame and fortune. This day ends when Ulrik’s head is on a pig-pole.”
Anders’s face grew grim. “Aye, so it does.” His face could have been carved from stone. “And another reckoning on this day’s heels.” Rugen looked away.
Sigurd, his broad chest slick with sweat and blood, came striding up behind Rugen. “Warmaster,” the ulfhednar said, “a thought, before we sling these bodies over the side. Do we even know what Ulrik looks like? For all we know…”
Anders nodded. “Aye. I think I’ll go have a chat with our captured navigator. Will ye join me, Sigurd?” The huge fellow’s teeth grinned whitely.
“Quickly, damn you,” growled Rugen. “Carloman’s got the other pirate bastard well in hand, but the Kisping and Belgard will be along any time now.”
Anders waved a hand in acknowledgement as he and Sigurd headed to the lower deck.
In truth, Anders had never been greatly enamoured of any ship below the waterline: the roll of the ship was far more obvious, and the creaks and groans of the ship’s timbers made a fearsome din. The oarsmen were at rest now, leaning over their oars and breathing heavily as they passed great waterskins back and forth. At the bow below deck sat the traitorous navigator, hunched and trembling. The fellow would have been right at the point of impact when we rammed, realized Anders. By these ten finger-bones, I would not have wanted to be in his shoes then. Anders smiled. Serves the little bastard right.
“Well, you lucky fellow, it looks like you won’t drown after all!” roared Anders, as he strode forward to stand before the navigator. “Sigurd, help the fellow up!”
The ulfhednar grabbed the slightly built man in one massive fist. The fellow squawked as Sigurd lifted him completely off his feet.
“Mind you, we still haven’t decided whether we toss you over the side, ropes and all, or put you down on dry land,” said Anders amiably. “So do yourself a favour, me lad.” The navigator nodded vigorously. “Describe Ulrik for me, will you?”
The small man blinked, thrown by the question. Sigurd straightened his arm, causing the fellow to strike his head against the hull. “Ow!” cried the fellow, struggling. “I heard the question! Give me a moment…”
Thud. “Ow! Alright, alright! He’s a big fellow, a match for his brother in height and breadth, but bald as an egg. He has a long scar that runs half down one side of his face, from ear to mouth. That’s all I know… wait, he has a raven tattoo on the back of one hand; his right, I think.”
Anders nodded to Sigurd, who set the navigator back, none too gently, in his position at the bow of the ship. “Well, let’s have a look,” said Anders, and the two returned to the upper deck.
The other marines had already laid the bodies of the pirates in a row across the deck. Anders surveyed them. They all had beards or moustaches, and full heads of hair. Save perhaps… Anders walked over to the corpse of the man he had felled, and gingerly tipped the fellow’s boar’s-head helm back. It was not an easy task; the man’s neck was half-severed, and the head had more inclination to leave with the helmet than stay with the rest of the body. The head beneath the helmet was completely bald.
“Ah.” Anders signalled to Sigurd, who came over to examine the body. Anders pointed out the puckered pink scar that slashed across the man’s face, from ear to mouth. Sigurd lifted up the corpse’s right arm, and Anders pulled off the heavy leather gauntlet. On the hand beneath was a tattoo of a raven, inked in blue. Sigurd looked at Anders, who nodded. “Shipmaster!” called Anders. “Our quarry’s right here – we got the bugger and didn’t even know it!”
“Well done, warmaster!” came Rugen’s answering shout. “But leave off your celebrations for the moment, if you will. Carloman has sight of the other two snaekkjes, and we need to craft some further mischief before this day is done!”
Anders called his acknowledgement, then turned to Sigurd. “I have one task to finish before we move on,” he said, drawing his seaxe from his belt. “Fetch me a sack, like so” – he made a space with his hands – “and stuff a goodly amount of salt into it.” Returning with my spoils indeed, thought Anders grimly.
The rest of the battle was a simpler affair than they would have imagined. The Kisping and the Belgard came flying out of the river-delta, only to face the wrath of a fully outfitted Red Dragon. Trying to turn and flee back up the river, they discovered the Trakai had tucked in behind them.
Trapped, the two traitorous shipmasters had surrendered without a fight, and now both they and their warmasters lay in the hold of the Red Dragon, clapped in irons. The surviving reavers who had not died or jumped ship joined them. The two victorious ships had divided their men in order to crew the additional two vessels.
Now all four ships returned to Skaggerak, for a final accounting. Anders had stationed himself in the bow of Rugen’s snaekkje since the warships had turned for Harald Longbeard’s domain, and there he had remained. In one hand he held a golden brooch, and in the other, a burlap sack. The sun dipped below the horizon, and the first of the stars became visible in the sky. Anders, as if emerging from a reverie, heard footsteps come close behind him.
“Good eve, Anders.” It was Rugen.
Anders did not wish to be rude to his friend, but he felt at a loss for words. “Good eve, Rugen,” he managed.
“Mate… I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry, old friend.”
“And me, Ru, and me.” Anders sighed. “I don’t know what to say either. I don’t think I will until I see her.”
HARALD LONGBEARD was, above and beyond anything else, a survivor. He offered no fight to the warfleet that entered his harbour. Harald had played his last trump card on the Peipus River, and was not about to play out a losing hand. Carloman had explained the likely outcome the day before, as he had met with Anders, Rugen, and his newly appointed captains in the great fore-cabin of the Red Dragon.
“He’ll surrender without a fight,” said Carloman, sighing. Dansik nodded behind him. “Harald is a rich man, with many friends in these islands. This setback will cost him dear – come damn close to bankrupting him – but he’ll remain the power in these parts for a fair time to come.”
Anders’s eyebrows rose in disbelief. “So he keeps his head, and treason bedamned?”
Carloman shook his head. “Aye, warmaster. Though he’ll have precious little to adorn his head with, when Castamir’s taxmen get through with him. That’s what it was about all along, of course.”
Rugen laughed grimly. “A rather energetic way of avoiding the taxmen. Until we spoiled the show.”
“Aye,” said Anders moodily, “until we spoiled the show. Well,” he said, rising, “I’ll be having words with him on the morrow, and we’ll see how he wriggles out of it.”
Carloman looked at Anders in alarm, and raised a hand. “Easy now. Harald is not to be harmed. My lord Castamir’s advisors will be coming soon to arrange for reparation payments. Our job is to sit on the lord of Skaggerak until they arrive.”
Anders smiled. “Don’t worry, captain. I’ll do no harm to the precious Jarl. All I wish to do is collect a debt.”
Harald Longbeard’s hall had changed little since the last time Anders had seen it. There were certain differences, of course – the ulfhedinn of the Red Dragon standing guard at the many doors of the meadhall, and the absence of any soldiers in the colours of Skaggerak – but Jarl Harald still sat at the head of the high table, still arrogant, still the ruler of his city. His famous beard tumbled over his ermine robe, and his hands gripped the arms of his huge oaken chair. The slender-hipped chamberlain, Thialfi, stood at Harald’s right hand. He was not holding his composure as well as his master; all trace of mirth was gone from the man’s face, and sweat was visibly running down the fellow’s face and neck.
Brigid was there, too, a few places down from Lord Harald. Anders did not allow himself to look at her.
Carloman was winding up his speech to the jarl of Skaggerak. Anders had barely registered anything of what the shipmaster had said. He was only waiting for his cue.
“And finally,” Carloman said, “Anders, warmaster of the Trakai, has a debt to claim against your lordship.”
There. His cue. Willing his legs to move, Anders strode towards the high table. Even as he walked, Anders felt his anger returning, giving an aggressive arrogance to his stride. Harald noticed the insolence of the warmaster’s gait, and his eyes narrowed. He perched forward in his throne, a bird of prey with pride unbroken.
“My lord Harald Longbeard,” began Anders, his tone removing the title of any respect. “When we left Skaggerak, you made us all a promise.”
Harald’s brow momentarily furrowed in uncertainty. He doesn’t remember, thought Anders, the bastard doesn’t even remember.
“You promised a pair of golden arm-rings,” said Anders. Harald’s head snapped up. “To the man who brought you Ulrik’s head,” Anders finished flatly. He opened and upended the burlap sack in his right hand. Rough salt spilled to the floor, followed by the ruined head of Harald’s brother. It thudded, wetly, then began to roll. Anders stopped it with his boot.
The hall filled with murmurs. “I am here to claim my promised reward,” said Anders, not taking his eyes from the lord Harald’s. The murmuring grew louder, then suddenly stopped as Harald rose.
Harald said nothing. He looked down upon Anders with utter aristocratic contempt, and wordlessly stripped two thick bands of reddish gold from his own arms. He cast them to the ground before Anders, where they clinked together on the rush-strewn floor. Then, silently, Harald returned to his chair.
Anders was not finished. “I repay my debts also,” he said to the silent, brooding jarl. Anders stepped forward to where Brigid sat, and allowed himself to look at her for the first time.
In her eyes, he saw grief, pain, and fear. In his eyes, she saw nothing.
Nothing at all.
Anders laid the golden love-knot in front of her with a soft click, clearly audible in the hall. It seemed as if everyone was holding his or her breath.
Brigid looked at him, her eyes red, her mouth trembling.
Anders said, simply, “You shouldn’t have lied to me.” Then he turned, picked up the arm-bands from the floor, and bowed to the jarl. He walked directly out of the hall, and never looked back.
ANDERS SAID little on the return journey. The shipmaster and crew, sensing his mood, left him largely alone. When Anders asked to be let ashore on the Bight of Colm’s Inch, Rugen decided to throw a small farewell party. There was a closeness to the gathering, founded upon the times they had faced together. Anders made sure to say his farewells to everyone in turn. He congratulated Brynn on his wound – a good souvenir to remember the battle by, he said – and commended Owain, Volund, and Carl for their courage.
Speaking privately to Sigurd, Anders allowed himself a brief smile. “Give my regards to Fealthow, Sigurd. I believe he is still the commander of Lord Castamir’s intelligence agents?”
Sigurd leaned back and laughed heartily. “Well done, Anders, well done. I should have expected nothing less from one of Prince Hakon’s former heralds. When did you become aware of my double identity?”
“After you directed us to Carl’s overheard conversation. I take it we weren’t figuring out the trap quickly enough?”
Sigurd snorted. “You weren’t figuring it out at all. I thought I was going to have to tip my hand and reveal my true purpose.”
“Well, let’s just say that Lord Castamir had a suspicion that Harald was playing a double-game,” said Sigurd.
“Ah.” Anders nodded. “I had forgotten what it felt like, to be the last one to know everything. And I’m not even curious to know how you know about my old life.”
Sigurd smiled. “Then you truly have put intelligence work behind you.”
“That I have, my friend, that I have.” Anders stood up, and clapped Sigurd on the shoulder. “Whatever your reasons, you fought well and stood at my shoulder. Thank you. Fair winds and following seas, my friend.”
Sigurd stood as well. “Fair sailing to you, warmaster. It was an honour to fight under your command.”
Anders’s last words were to Rugen.
“Farewell my friend,” he said to the thick-bearded captain. He clasped Rugen’s arm. “We have had good days together.” Anders sighed. “But this last turn of events has left a sour taste in my mouth. I can think of no joy to be found in this craft, not now, anyway. I will have to find some other trail to follow.”
“Aye,” the shipmaster responded. “I’ve seen it in you, since the battle at the mouth of the Peipus. I wish you luck, my friend. I hope you find your trail.”
“I hope so, too. Well,” said Anders shouldering his pack, “best begun soonest.” He bowed to his friend, who laughed and slapped Anders on the back.
Then Anders turned, and began marching from the shore up the steep hill of Colm’s Inch. And where do I go? he thought to himself, as he began to fight his way through brush, following a game-trail. A branch whipped against his forehead, and he cursed.
Wherever it is, I hope there’s not so many bloody trees.