Fire And Lies
Kallan gazed upon the six wide longships nestled within the River Raum, its water lapping at their sterns. The wood whined against the current. The keel of each ship rose up and out of the river, reaching to the skies at each end where they curled into themselves at the top of each bow and stern. Several of the men had settled the yardarms into the trestles and were preparing the sails while others raised the mast of each ship. With a series of ropes, raw strength, and the aid of the mast step, the Ljosalfar pushed the masts upright until they rose like six great monoliths to the sky.
Bergen’s men quickly secured the masts into the keelson within the hull as the Ljosalfar collected fresh water from the river, pouring it into large barrels for drinking. Others dumped their weapons and mail into their sea chests.
Kallan jerked to Rune’s gentle voice and she shot him a look of loathing as he took her arm.
“Don’t,” she said, yanking her arm free. She glanced at his wounded shoulder where the stub of an arrow shaft still protruded. Blood seeped from the wound, sending a bout of worry through Kallan. She glanced at Freyja. The white mare, with fur more than an arm in length, pawed at the ground. Deciding to leave Freyja to Rune, Kallan tugged Astrid’s reins and led him toward the ships.
Rune lunged forward, snatching her arm and forcing her to stop.
“You know I have to do this,” Rune said, holding Kallan inches from his face.
“Do you?” she said.
“If you go back to Lorlenalin now, Bergen will follow,” Rune said. “He will kill you.”
“You think he can kill me,” Kallan said.
“I don’t underestimate Bergen. Neither should you.”
“You are his kin,” Kallan said. “Order him not to.” She felt the amount of desperation that came with her words, and cursed herself for being anything but hateful toward Rune.
“There are certain orders Bergen will not heed.”
“Arrest him,” Kallan said.
“He is my brother.”
“Kill him.” Kallan attempted a stern voice.
Rune breathed deep, visibly steadying his nerves.
“Not for you, nor the gods,” he said. “Not for a chance to end this war.”
Irate with his answer, Kallan sent a surge of Seidr through her arm. Her energy flowed from her core to her flesh and into Rune’s hand that held her in place.
Anyone else would have jumped at the pain. Anyone else would have pulled away at the sharp twinge of agony. But the Beast within Rune rose up. A shadow, much like her Seidr, took form, threw back its wolf head, and roared. It consumed Kallan’s Seidr, draining the energy, taking it in as if it needed it, craved it, and devoured it. The Beast drank of her Seidr until it disarmed her, and she broke the connection, withdrawing her powers, leaving the Beast unsated and Rune unharmed.
Rune tightened his hold as Kallan felt the bear-sized wolf-like Beast within Rune settle back into a shapeless, silent shadow.
“What is it?” Kallan asked.
Rune narrowed his eyes with a thought Kallan couldn’t read.
“I protect you by keeping you,” Rune said. “The only way I can do that is if you come with me to Gunir.”
“I want to go home,” Kallan said. “No matter if you claim I have a choice or not…” Kallan yanked her arm again. This time, Rune released her. “So long as I go to Gunir, you take me against my will. I say again, Ljosalfar. Nothing has changed between us.”
Taking up Astrid’s reins, Kallan marched toward the ships, sending Rune into a second lunge as he caught the reins and Kallan’s hand. She tightened her grip, refusing to relinquish her horse to her enemy.
“If a prisoner you are, then you can’t be left alone with Astrid, now can you?” Rune said. He tried again and, succeeding this time, snatched the reins from Kallan.
Kallan clenched her jaw and, letting Rune have her horse—for now—she proceeded to the ships.
“Your dagger,” Rune said.
Kallan turned back with a fire in her eyes that willed Rune dead. Unsheathing her dagger, she extended her weapon, blade first, as if to attack. She held her position in the time it took Rune to hold his breath. Just as quickly, she turned the blade around and handed it to him, hilt first.
Rune took the blade and sheathed it in his belt.
Again, Kallan turned back to the ships.
“Your pouch,” Rune added.
Kallan flashed a loathsome look.
“You’re a prisoner after all,” he said, smirking.
Pouring all her hate into the action, Kallan unfastened the belt from her waist, yanking it free before it was fully untied, and threw it into Rune’s chest.
“Are you finished?” Kallan asked, and Rune grinned.
“You’ll get nothing more from me,” Kallan said.
“A battle of wills, then?” Rune asked.
“To the death,” Kallan said.
Rune nodded as if understanding the challenge as he led Astrid and Freyja down to the water’s edge where a lone ship had docked parallel to the shore.
“Your Majesty,” cried an old man with a pock-marked face who waved from the nearest ship. Rune gave a nod and led the horses to the river bank. Kallan watched Rune pull a saddlebag from Freyja’s pack then passed the horses to the old man.
Over the side of the longboat, Freyja then Astrid followed the old man onto the deck. As the horses stepped in, the ship tipped high on its side. When they made their way to the mast, the ship moved with them and then violently rocked, forcing the old man to cling to the mast for balance.
The ship steadied and Kallan watched the old man give a hearty pat to Astrid’s deep russet neck while ogling the unusual breed that was Freyja. Paying more mind to the white, silken locks of the draft horse, the old man caught his ankle on a large mass of orange and white as a cat scampered across the ship in pursuit of a rodent. With a slew of curses, he recovered his balance and tied the reins to the mast alongside a handful of fjord horses and a black courser mare—blacker than the shadow’s umbra.
“That is Gunnar,” Rune said as he returned to Kallan’s side. “He is our horse master.”
Kallan paid Rune no mind as she watched Gunnar hold a bucket of grains for Astrid, who buried his nose into the food.
“Gunnar cares for horses far more than people,” Rune assured her. “Astrid is safe. Come.”
When she refused to take his hand, Rune wrapped an arm around her back and guided her down to the boats where he stopped at the nearest ship.
The edge of the water sloshed onto the sands as Rune escorted Kallan to the gangplank. She took in the ropes and the tie lines and the grand oak strakes that overlapped each other. Men—Ljosalfar—had taken their seats on top of their sea chests. Others had already positioned their oars through the oar ports. A few were preoccupied with fastening their shields to the side of the ship.
The instant weight of seventy sets of eyes turned her way as Kallan touched her foot to the deck of the ship, stepping down into the first of enemy territory. Kallan raised her face to the sudden silence that blanketed the ship. The cold stares of the Ljosalfar war-men bore down with reminder that, at one point or another, she had attempted to kill each and every one of them. Her blood burned with hate as she slowly took in every face staring back with as much loathing as she harbored for each.
From enemy to shipmate.
Kallan steadied her breath and ached for a sword.
Without a word, she released the gunwale as Rune came up behind her, stopping long enough to acknowledge his men and supply orders. Extending a hand, he directed Kallan to the ship’s stern. Her muffled footfalls sounded too clearly over the river’s gentle waves as she glanced from port to starboard, taking in each set of eyes that condemned her presence.
With a jerk, Kallan stopped too suddenly as she approached the aft. There, Bergen’s bare back greeted her. From shoulders to waist, thin, pale scars, made visible by the sun’s light, marred the length of his back, and, for a moment, she wondered when and where he had received such a lashing. Unaware of her arrival, he bustled with a rope at the side oar next to a small cage where, inside, two ravens were perched. One slept while the other was busy picking the fleas from its feathers.
Behind her, Rune closed in, preventing her from bounding back the way she came and running, full speed, to shore. She clenched her fist with the urge to fire.
“Do I have to remind you who is king?” Rune said, jarring Kallan’s thoughts just as she finished plotting her escape.
“By a random chance granted to you by a few seconds and Freyr’s sense of humor,” Bergen retorted.
“I have to shove this damn arrow head through my shoulder and I’d prefer a heavy dose of mead to do it, now give me the booze!”
Bergen flashed a grin as he moved the cage of ravens to the deck.
“Father always did say mother was too soft on you,” Bergen said, tossing a flask to Rune and intentionally forcing him to catch it with his impaled shoulder.
Rune groaned as he bit back the pain. He pulled the stopper out with his teeth and downed half the flask. Alert, Kallan studied Bergen, who returned her glower with one of his one as he wound a rope. Beside her, Rune busied himself with a swift kick to the collection of furs that had been dumped in a pile against the stern-side trestle where the men had stored the roller logs.
“Kallan.” Rune spoke gently, pulling her attention from Bergen.
“Don’t talk to me as if you know me,” Kallan said. “You are doing me no favors.”
“A’right,” Rune said, half-smiling. “Sit down, princess. Help me with my shoulder, wench.”
Rune dropped onto the pile of furs with a groan as Kallan kneeled behind him and quickly went to work, grateful to busy her hands.
“The head didn’t go all the way through,” Rune said as Kallan rolled up her sleeves. “You’ll have to—”
Kallan pulled her dagger from Rune’s belt and the crew jumped to arms.
War-men drew their bows, raised axe and sword, while Bergen raised a black blade seeping Seidr, all before Kallan’s dagger moved to Rune’s wound.
The Beast within Rune roared, drawing Kallan’s focus to the sudden battle between Bergen’s blade and Rune’s Shadow Beast.
“Stand down!” Rune bellowed. “Bergen, sheathe that sword!” he ordered as if he too felt the fight of the Shadow Beast.
No one moved as they exchanged nervous glances.
The Shadow Beast stood down, but barely.
Rune must be fighting it, Kallan concluded and silently considered how much strength it was taking Rune to hold back such a creature in his state.
Gazing down the length of the Seidr-blade, Kallan met Bergen’s black eyes. In a fluid movement, she positioned the flat of the dagger over the arrow’s shaft, slammed her palm into the flat of the blade, and drove the arrow the rest of the way through Rune’s shoulder.
Rune howled, and the Shadow Beast rose up. Kallan felt the Beast fly toward Bergen’s sword, and she fired a small blast of Seidr, striking Bergen’s blade. The Shadow Beast feasted, for a moment, on Kallan’s Seidr, giving Rune time enough to recover and pull back on the Beast. But, too late, the men had jumped.
A Ljosalfr released an arrow pinning Kallan’s skirts to the deck as another mashed a fist into Kallan’s hair. Pulling her head back, he pressed a blade to her throat.
“Enough!” Rune shouted. “Ottar! Release her! Bergen! Sheathe that sword!”
The large brute that was Ottar released Kallan. Coughing, she fell to the deck of the ship. A visible line of blood marked her neck as Bergen reluctantly returned the great sword to his back. With Bergen’s compliance, the crew stood down.
Taking hold of the arrow’s tip, Kallan pulled the head through Rune’s shoulder. Rune released a second slew of curses and the wound freely bled.
“Give me a reason, Dokkalfr,” Bergen said. “Just one.”
With contempt, Kallan shoved her blade back into Rune’s waist.
“Watch it,” Rune said.
Ignoring Rune, Kallan matched Bergen’s scowl as she began tearing strips of cloth to dab at Rune’s wound.
“You couldn’t use an apple?” Rune asked.
Kallan glared at Rune and ripped another strip of fabric.
“An uksit took my pouch,” she said.
With each strip of cloth Kallan made, a ripping sound carried over the ship. Saying nothing, she resumed her work as Rune threw his head back and gulped down the rest of Bergen’s mead. The sweat on his forehead beaded as he dropped the empty flask to his lap.
“Where j’you find the cloth?” Rune asked, dragging his tongue through his stupor.
Again, Kallan met Rune’s glossed eyes as she tore another strip. Behind her, Bergen led a wave of grins that passed through the ship as Kallan made rags of Rune’s tunic.
Attempting to down the empty flask before remembering it was empty, Rune suddenly realized the severity of his drunken state.
“Hey, Bergen,” Rune slurred. “What’s in this stuff?”
Kallan sat down against her pile of furs as Bergen flashed a grin that matched the gleam in his eye.
“What happened to your shirt?” Bergen asked, dropping himself at the tiller as Rune examined the frayed ends of his tunic.
“Move out!” Bergen bellowed, failing to answer Rune’s question.
One by one, with gangplanks raised, the ships pushed off from shore. Several men waded waist high in the water, passing the logs from shore to the rowers. With fluid precision, the rowers passed the logs overhead and laid them into the trestles. After climbing on board, the last of the men settled themselves into their places along the hides and floorboards.
Thirty rowers lined each side of each ship. Those who climbed from the water slogged to their sea chests and settled in place. The rowers took up their oars and pushed off land while the seaside oarsmen began rowing. They found their rhythm and, within minutes, the river’s current carried them. The wind picked up and shortly thereafter, they found a favorable wind.
“Drop the sails!” Bergen shouted from the side oar.