For a day and a half they rowed in short shifts, although by the morning of that second day Einarr could see what the captain was leading the Valkyrian ship toward. Just ahead in their path stood a collection of tiny, rocky islands not unlight the ones where Einarr had fought off a flock of kalalintu with Erik and Tyr the year before. The sort of waters one typically tries to avoid – unless, of course, he idea is to lose a tail, or to lay in wait.
“Half speed,” Captain Kormund ordered. With a gesture, he personally relieved the man at the tiller.
All that afternoon they wove in and out of the rocks, sometimes moving deliberately into full view of the Valkyrian ship before ducking back into hiding behind one of the larger rocks. The Eikthyrnir had the sleekness and swiftness of the deer on her figurehead, but that did not make her prey.
That night, the sea anchor was dropped near the center of the grouping in a place sheltered by the rocks. Come morning, no-one should still be fatigued from rowing.
As the sun rose, with the dromon now also approaching the rocks, the Eikthyrnir crept out of the grouping to lay in wait behind one of the larger exterior masses – one large enough to be thought a small island.
Einarr and Naudrek prepared to board. Eydri conferred with the regular Singer aboard, coordinating to ensure they harmonized properly. For hours they held like this.
A sound like a rushing waterfall came suddenly from their stern. Einarr turned in time to see the last of the gout of flame dying, far short of the Eikthyrnir’s hull, let alone her mast. Now flames flickered on the surface of the water itself.
They had sea-fire. And that was plainly a warning shot. But, how did they know where the Eikthyrnir hid? Or even that the ship was hiding, rather than fled? Those thoughts were quickly tamped down as Einarr raced for the stern. Battle was at hand, and thus there would be no time for pondering why.
More questions arose, though, when he reached the stern. The two watchers had been felled by a single arrow apiece – one in the throat, the other, more impressively, through an eye. If they could do that, why had there not been a volley of arrows?
“To oars!” The order came in the moment Einarr stood staring dumb at the two fallen men, but about half the crew took up oars. The rest took up position to repel boarders with Einarr. Hrug, he saw, was strapping a shield to his stump. Did he intend to fight with his off hand? Einarr checked his grip on his shield and drew Sinmora.
Still he wondered why they had not yet launched a proper volley. The Eikthyrnir had been caught unawares in her own ambush: had the dromon wished, the battle could be already over, the ship ablaze and half her crew dead to arrow fire – especially if they had the sort of archers aboard who could take a man in the eye like that. What was going on? Why risk boarding?
He was out of time for wondering. The other ship, too, had been coming about, and now boarding lines flew in both directions.
Two voices raised in harmony and Einarr felt the battle fury begin to build. If the Valkyrian ship wanted a fight, a fight they would have. He hacked through an enemy line that tried to find puchase just ahead of him, and then their own lines drew taut.
He was not among the first across the lines, out of long habit more than anything else. On the Vidofnir, his father had forbidden it: he was the only heir, and likely to remain so. He was, however, among the first of the second wave, after the initial clash over open water. No sooner had he leapt up to the bulwark, however, than the lines fell slack again, tumbling a good number of sailors from both sides into the water.
Einarr braced himself, but something stopped the boats before they could collide and crush their sailors between them. They had hardly even crossed swords, and already this was one of the strangest battles Einarr could remember. What was going on?
He was not to have his answer then, as the boarding lines were cast off of both ships and lowered to allow sailors to climb back aboard. Another gout of flame issued from the bow of the dromon, as though warning them against trying to board again, and the other ship unfurled her sail and turned for open ocean.
The battle chant stopped before the fury could take full hold – thank the gods for perceptive Singers – and leaving the boat in confusion.
Mate Hraerek’s voice cut across the noise on the deck, encapsulating the moment. “What in Hel’s name just happened?”
“That’s the Order. Not only did they force that fight, they broke it off, too.” Einarr said to no-one in particular. He remembered Naudrek’s jest from the other day. Actual Valkyrie or not, it did look like someone’s orders got countermanded. “So who ordered the attack, and who ordered the belay?”
“Was it belayed, or was the whole action just a warning?” Vari wondered from just behind Einarr.
“What do you mean?”
“Their Captain obviously figured out that we were trying to drive them off with an ambush. Really, I’ve never seen the Captain outmaneuvered like that before. If the Order has leaders like that…” He trailed off, then shook his head. “Anyway, like I was saying. Neither shot of sea-fire came anywhere near us. They released no volleys. That whole thing looked like a warning to me, like they wanted us to know they could crush us whenever they wanted. So if that’s the case, why are they following us?”
“Maybe they want us to lead them somewhere?”
“That’s my thought. Only, where?”