Kallan gazed upon the six wide longships nestled within the waters of the River Raum that lapped 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 onboard.
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 impaled his shoulder. 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 with its hoof. Deciding to leave Freyja to Rune, Kallan tugged Astrid’s reins, leading him toward the ships.
Rune lunged forward, snatching her arm and forcing her to hault.
“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 stearn voice, unsure if she delivered.
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, hilt first, to Rune. Rune took the blade and sheathed it in his belt.
Again, Kallan moved to turn 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 Asrtrid 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 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, the old man 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’s 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 supplying 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 on their ship.
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 in 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, intentionally forcing him to catch it with his impaled shoulder.
Rune omitted a groan as he bit back the pain. He pulled off the stopper 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 Kallan, Rune busied himself with a swift kick to the collection of furs that had been dumped into 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 himself into the pile of furs with a groan as Kallan kneeled on the furs behind him where she 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, sheath 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! Sheath 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 release a second sleugh 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 up 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 sounding rip 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 herself 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 the 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.
In unison, a handful of those who had raised the roller logs proceeded to untie the sail fastened to the yardarm. They took up the halyards and, together, hoisted the yardarm to the tip of the mast, where the flag of Gunir, encrusted with the boar’s head encircled with runes, snapped in the wind.
Before they could finish tying off the lines and securing the sheets, the sails billowed. The increased speed was instant and, for the moment, Kallan forgot Rune’s drunkenness, his bloody shoulder, or the Dark One sitting behind her, coddling the tiller like a boy happy with a new stick.
The wind grazed Kallan’s face, and she inhaled deep the fresh breeze allowing her a moment’s peace. One by one, the ships’ sails unfurled and caught the wind that pushed them through the water.
She exhaled, slowly releasing her breath in an attempt to remain unnoticed by Bergen’s men. The wind whipped her hair about as she looked to the vibrant greens of Alfheim along the banks of the river. Ahead, the land rose and fell with the Raumelfr, moving and twisting with the river as the winds carried the ships through the water.
“You’ve never set sail before?” Rune asked as drowsiness, pain, and mead took the better part of him.
Kallan startled at the interruption, reminding her of the company she kept aboard her enemy’s vessel.
“Of course I have,” she said. “I grew up on the banks of the Kattegat.” Kallan sat back into the pile of furs. “I could never grow tired of the sea.”
With the sails billowed, the rowers pulled in their oars and deposited them onto the floorboards, filling the ship with a collection of clunks and thuds. Stretching out among the barrels, sea chests, and ropes strewn about on the deck, Kallan watched, horror-stricken, as the Ljosalfar men on board proceeded to scratch, amuse, and relieve themselves overboard.
Quickly, Kallan readjusted her seat, settling for a view of the stern, where Bergen sat, relaxed and bare-chested. Rune’s head bobbed about sleepily as Kallan shifted her gaze from Bergen to the gunwale, to the hem of her skirts, and to Rune, who gave a sudden jerk to force himself awake. The gnawing awareness of her enemy’s presence nagged at her consciousness.
At last, with much hesitation, Kallan raised her eyes to Bergen, who had fixed his full attention on her like a mountain cat stalking a lone, limp deer. The massive black of his eyes glared, loathing her presence there on his ship as much as she hated being there. Despite shifting her position to better face Rune, Bergen’s dark eyes continued to dig into her.
Rune dozed again. His hand clutched tightly to the empty flask as Kallan clasped her hands to contain the urge to attack. Bergen’s scowl burrowed deeper, until the side of her head burned from his glare. Abandoning all regard, and embracing her resolve, Kallan met Bergen’s eyes and mirrored his cold dead stare.
They glowered in silence, their scowls saying so much more than any throng of insults could ever say. Both held their stance, neither willing to break, both daring the other to be the first to weaken, to break the silence, to—
“Enough!” Rune barked, “We have three days ahead of us and I’ll be damned if I spend every bit of this voyage with the two of you snarling at each other!”
Bergen broke his grimace first and Kallan lowered her eyes. A flash of fur and the tip of a tail granted Kallan a welcomed distraction as she watched a white ship cat pounce atop a rat.
“Ottar!” Bergen called, suddenly interested on a certain point at the head of the ship.
While picking at his fingers with the point of his dagger, the wide-shoulder man glanced up from where he leaned against the fore trestle. Pushing himself upright, Ottar ambled to the stern. A large scar carved into his right shoulder flashed as he moved, holding Kallan’s attention longer than she had intended.
Stopping over Kallan, Ottar turned his hateful eye down with a cold glare.
“What is it, Dokkalfr?” he growled. “Never seen a real man in that Mountain City of yours?”
Kallan dug her fingers into her skirts and, with all her will, forced her head low.
“That’s right, Dokkalfr. Bow your head to your superior.”
Swiping her dagger from Rune’s waist, Kallan was up, holding the blade to Ottar’s face. Once more the crew was taking up arms, waiting to attack as before.
“Kallan! Sit! Ottar! Move along!” Rune said. “Kallan!”
“Fine,” Kallan retorted and dropped down back to the furs.
“You’ll end up dead if you don’t keep your head about you,” Rune muttered, swiping back the dagger as the crew eased back to their places.
“Let me go,” Kallan hissed. Rune relaxed back into the trestle, leaving Kallan’s retort unchallenged as Ottar made his way toward Bergen. After a quick shuffle, Bergen passed the tiller to Ottar, who took Bergen’s seat.
Glancing away from the side oar, Kallan raised her face just in time to see Bergen unfasten his belt. Heat climbed her neck as she lowered her head and closed her eyes. Anger grated against the resounding laugh that eructed from Bergen.
“Something wrong, princess?” Bergen jeered with rich vulgarity. “Did they neglect to teach you an appreciation for men?”
Kallan curled her fingers in want to pool her Seidr.
“Give me one night,” Bergen offered in a low tone that slid down Kallan’s neck. “I’ll flesh out your education—”
“Bergen!” Rune roared as Ottar released another bout of laughter. “Ottar! That’s enough,”
The big brute swallowed mid-guffaw and, with resumed silence, governed the side oar as Bergen moved on to conduct his business.
“He won’t touch you,” Rune said. Tears stung her eyes, and Kallan jerked her face away where Rune couldn’t see the tip of her reddened nose. “He doesn’t take his woman,” Rune tried again. “That’s not Bergen’s style. He prefers—”
The heavy clomp of Bergen’s boots confirmed his return and, in a torrent of billowed skirts, Kallan rose to her feet. Slamming her shoulder into Bergen’s, Kallan plodded to the front of the ship, paying no mind to the catcalls and jeers as she went.
“What did you do?” Bergen asked, watching the wind whip Kallan’s hair into the folds of her skirts as she came to stand near the ship’s bow.
“I’m not sure.” Rune stared, his brow still furrowed.
Bergen’s face stretched into a wide grin.
“You know how to pick them, don’t you,” Bergen said, shuffling his seat to the furs beside Rune. Exhaling, he dropped to the floor and leaned into the trestle.
“Why not let her go, Brother?” Bergen said. “She doesn’t want to be here anymore than she’s wanted here. You could send an arrow to her back or I could pluck her off tonight while she sleeps.”
“She won’t sleep,” Rune said as he watched Kallan hug herself against the chill. “And she has to come with us.”
Bergen scoffed dismissively. “Well, of course, she has to come with us.” He snorted. “But why take a prisoner to kill on ceremony when we can just kill her here? If she’s too much of a pain to haul back home…” Bergen’s mood seemed to lift as if an idea came to him. “It’ll boost the men’s spirits.”
Rune kept his eyes fixed on the fore, watching, guarding to ensure none of his men stepped out of line.
“We’ll have lost nothing by killing her here,” Bergen finished.
“There are greater enemies out there with greater happenings than any of us are aware of,” Rune said. “And unless we combine our efforts we will never see the end of this conflict.”
Rune tore his gaze from Kallan.
Bergen leaned closer as if eager for the moment to speak privately.
“I know you,” he whispered with a darkened look to his eye. “You don’t go gallivanting after wenches.” Bergen added a subtle nod toward the front the ship where Kallan stood.” What goes on, Brother?”
Rune pulled his thoughts to his core where the shadow of a wolf-bear slept.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Not yet.”
“The least you could have done is let her sail with Gunnar,” Bergen said. “He hates everyone equally.”
As Bergen settled back into the trestle, Rune rose and, without a second look to his brother, made his way to the bow.
Grabbing the mainstay to keep his balance against the jostling ship, Rune came to stand beside Kallan who stared into the cold winds.
“You can cry if you must,” Rune said. “I can see it. You’re trying too hard to keep your head together.”
He ignored the scowl Kallan gave in exchange for his words.
The spray of the sea added to the chill in the air, but neither shivered as if proving their own strength and stubbornness to the other.
“You’re as stubborn as ever,” Rune said. Kallan permitted a scoff and gazed back to the waters ahead where the boat’s stern cut into the river’s surface, pushing its way through the waters.
“You won’t even permit yourself a shiver despite the ruthless winds of this air.”
Rune noted the subtle rise of her chin as if defying the winds as much as him.
“They mean no harm, really,” Rune tried again, gentler this time.
“Don’t they?” Kallan said, and Rune saw her reddened eyes.
He followed the pale curve of her cheek, to her ear and down the lines of her neck. The only movement was of her hair whipping wildly about by the wind. With a sigh, Rune looked back to the river.
“You think you can take me, force my hand, and hide behind the call of guest,” Kallan said.
“Your demeanor is as cold as this wind,” Rune said. “And you are a guest.”
“I am your prisoner,” Kallan said. “No matter what title you give me, I am not free to return to my people.”
“You are not wearing shackles, your highness. You are not at the mercy of my men.”
“Then send me home.”
Her plea was not lost on Rune.
“I can’t do that, princess,” Rune said.
“And why not? Don’t have the ego to spare?”
Rune sighed as Kallan restored her venom.
“If I let you go,” he said. “Bergen won’t let you live. He would be more than willing to lead the hunt.”
Kallan scoffed, and Rune leaned against the bow, forcing Kallan to look at him. “He would find you, bind you, and if he felt merciful, his men would only kill you.”
“So what then?” Kallan said. “You claim to keep me safe by keeping me here with them?”
“Not them, princess,” Rune said. “Me.”
“Then accompany me to Lorlenalin,” Kallan pleaded, desperation heavy on her voice. “Let me escort you to my city where I may call you guest.”
“I can’t do that, princess.”
“Ugh!” Kallan growled. “Again with that name.”
“Why do you hate it so?”
Kallan turned a cold shoulder to Rune.
“I get it,” he said. “You want to go home. You have your promises to keep and your orphans to feed. But I have a war to end and questions that need answering.”
Kallan gazed upon the river ahead. The wind blew cold, but Kallan stood strong against the chill. She looked on the brink of tears and Rune battled back the urge to hug her there.
“You claim I am your guest,” she said. “Yet you proceed with actions my captain would call an act of war.” Kallan turned her full attention to Rune. “You have captured Lorlenalin’s queen, carried me from the city while your brother attacked. Your aggression has been made clear.”
“You name any instant within the last moon that I have ever harmed you,” Rune said, “and I’ll set you free at the first sign of nightfall.”
Kallan turned her face away.
“No?” Rune asked. “Didn’t think so.”
Without a word, Rune trudged back to the stern and dropped himself back onto the pile of furs, ignoring the banter of laughs exchanged between Bergen and his men.
At the bow, Kallan stared, still idle, still unmoving, distant and dead to the world around her. As Bergen’s men jeered, she gave no sign that she was aware of her surroundings and she sank back into the depths of her mind, back into the black chasms where she harbored the remnants of her iron wall.