The Middish call this river Ironblood. They sit on rowboats made of twigs, catch bottomfeeding fish on twine, and think themselves masters of the water. They wallow in mud and piss themselves at the first sign of trouble.
Hakon stood at the bow of the Vlarrøk, staring ahead. Fresh blood was drying on the wood, a recent offering to Vlar.
We men of iron and blood have given truth to this river’s name. It is ours now.
The Ironblood was huge and sprawling, hundreds of feet from shore on either side. The gray water churned here or there from the current eddying on stones just below the surface. The Vlarrøk was something between a galley and a longship, with a deep keel that meant they would need to avoid those rocks.
Hakon did not bother calling out what he had seen. His shipmaster, Geir, would see them too. He was a hard man, missing an ear and a chunk of his scalp where an axe had removed it, but his eyes were as good as Hakon’s. He barked orders to the rowers and the rest of the crew, and his orders were followed.
On the shore, they passed a sandy shore dotted with shacks and hovels. A Middish fishing village. Hakon did not divert their course to reave it. He had no need of more thralls or sacrifices, and there were other longships on the Ironblood that would find it soon enough.
Besides, we have a destination in mind, Hakon thought.
He heard shouting from belowdeck. One advantage to sailing on the Vlarrøk was that there was a belowdeck—typical reaving longships were a single deck, exposed to the elements at all times. The Vlarrøk borrowed from the style of southern galleys enough that Hakon had private quarters of his own, cells for captives, and a hold. As well as a deck entirely for rowers, letting it fight the currents of the Ironblood effortlessly.
The shouting persisted for too long. Hakon turned and arched a brow at Geir. His man frowned, nodded, and hurried down to see what was the matter. Hakon looked ahead, scanning the furthest distance upriver that he could see. The Ironblood wisted and turned as it cut through the Midlands, and much of the shore was densely wooded. It made visibility poor.
That will serve our reavers well. They will not see us coming until their choices have dwindled.
The low visibility would be an asset later, but now it was a minor nuisance. Hakon had planned their trip upriver carefully, and he intended for each step to proceed according to that plan.
The shouting stopped. A short time later, he heard Geir approach and stand beside him.
“Trouble?” Hakon said.
“Nothing,” Geir said. “The huge Kriegar bitch, causing trouble again. The one we picked up when Taerbjornsen slew Jarl Braun.”
Hakon knew the woman. A good warrior by all accounts. But, like any who refused to bend the knee after her jarl was slain, she was relegated to the life of a thrall. Pulling oars at sea, hauling supplies on land. She was not so much huge as she was broad, but regardless she was freakishly strong.
“If she is this much trouble, kill her and be done,” Hakon said. “She refuses to fight for us.”
“She rows harder and faster than any two men. On their best day. And she does it while spitting curses at us.” Geir said. “Besides, I still think that I can break her.”
“Do you?” Hakon shrugged. “Very well. Do not let it trouble me again.”
“Yes, my jarl.”
Jarl. The word sat ill on Hakon’s shoulders. He was, nominally, the jarl of a small hold back in Svarden. Geir and some of the others crewing the Vlarrøk had been with him since then, and still used the title on occasion. But it meant nothing to him. Like all the jarls of the north, he was sworn to the Jarl of Jarls. The Taerbjornsen.
More important today was his role as the High Priest of Vlar. As Vlar’s emissary to the surface, he was Taerbjornsen’s right hand. He directed the entire hierarchy of Vlar’s priesthood. He had great works to do. And he was as much responsible for the coming war as the Jarl of Jarls was.
More, he told himself. As you and he both well know.
He did not correct Geir. No offense had been meant. Besides, there were more pressing matters to attend. Hakon squinted as he stared into the distance.
“Geir,” he said. “Halt us up there, behind those trees. Before the bend.”
“Heard,” Geir said. He whirled around, barking orders to the rest of the crew.
They had made good time. Too good, really. Sunset’s not for a few hours yet.
Up ahead, Hakon had spotted the first significant obstacle they would face since they began sailing up the Ironblood. Stone fortifications were just barely visible, rising over the treeline.
That would be the Caedian city of Torva. A stone citadel built on an island in the middle of the river, with high arched bridges spanning to both shores. An old Cassaline fortification, the Caedians squatted in the ruins of that fallen Empire. Both shores held sprawling settlements full of Middish peasants.
Under different circumstances, Hakon would have kept a few additional longships with him. They would descend upon Torva, reave its wealth and people, and leave a smoking ruin for the crows. But he was not here to raid. He had no interest in Torva. More than that, he had no interest in Torva noticing him.
His goal was not to terrorize Caedia. That was left to the many ships reaving up and down the coast, and to the men already roving the Midlands. Hakon had a very different target in mind. A different people, that had not yet heard of Vlar’s coming supremacy over the southern lands.
The Vlarrøk waited in muddy shallows, hidden by the forested shore. The ship maintained strict silence at Hakon’s orders. When the sun fell behind the horizon he had a thrall brought up on deck.
It was a woman. She had been comely, before the rapes and beatings taken during many days confined in the Vlarrøk’s hold. Her golden hair was tangled and filthy, her sun-kissed skin was bruised and bleeding, and her clothes—never fine, but once clean and well-made farmer’s garb—were shredded and stained. Her face showed signs of weeping recently, but she faced Hakon with dry eyes and a stoic expression.
For a moment, when Hakon looked into her face, it was another that he saw. He felt his stomach drop, and he clenched his jaw.
Focus, he told himself. There is work to be done.
The moment passed. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to the bow of the ship. She stayed silent, stoic. Perhaps she did not wish to give Hakon or his men the satisfaction of hearing her beg or scream. Perhaps she was simply tired of begging and screaming.
“Have you been on this river before?” he asked her, speaking her mother tongue.
She gave no answer, her split lips forming a tight line.
“Your suffering will be less if you answer me,” Hakon lied.
After a moment of silence, she finally spoke. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t—I don’t think so.”
Of course not. She was taken on the northern shores of the Midlands, what the Caedians call the Loheim. Most likely she never left that shore. These Caedians have no soul. This river has never tasted her flesh or blood before.
Hakon could have taken local thralls along the Ironblood, but they were attempting to go unnoticed. This was an inconvenience, but one Hakon was ready for. It simply meant the ritual would have to be a bit more involved. He ripped the rags of her shirt off in a single rough motion. She still did not react. By now she was used to men baring her flesh.
Hakon drew the hooked knife off his belt, and began a quiet chant to Vlar. Now the woman’s eyes finally widened. She had not witnessed any of the other sacrifices. She had not realized what was in store for her.
“Wait…” she said. “Stop!”
Too loud. Hakon nodded to two of the men nearby. Not priests, but sworn men, devoted to the Vlari priesthood. They stepped forward and grabbed the woman by her arms. She started to wail, but one of them quickly grabbed her jaws. He forced them open wider and stuffed a cloth down her throat, muffling her screams.
The men oriented the woman so that she was facing the bow, Hakon standing just behind her. He continued chanting as he reached around and slid the knife into the base of her belly. She began to struggle, but Hakon’s men held her fast. Her muffled cries grew louder, but still quiet enough.
Hakon kept his prayer knife honed to a razor edge. Her flesh parted easily, and he continued to chant as he gutted her. Blood and viscera began to spill down the front of the ship and into the water below. Hakon shoved his left hand inside her belly, until it was soaked in hot blood. It did not take long for him to paint the runes he needed. Runes across her body, runes across the ship, and runes on his own flesh.
He bound her to the Vlarrøk in blood, and then bound both of them to Hakon.
An abomination, came an unwanted thought. But necessary, he reminded himself.
When the ritual was done, she had ceased most of her choked cries. She still lived for the moment, Hakon was sure, but she was stupefied by the gutting. At his gesture, one of his men stepped forward with a rope. They looped it over her neck, tied the other end to the bow, and dumped her over.
It wasn’t a long drop. He wasn’t sure if it broke her neck or not, but if it didn’t he knew she would bleed out soon enough. She was still alive when her feet hit the water, just barely, and that was all Hakon needed. She was submerged to the knees, her bloodsoaked legs trailing in the river and her body thumping against the ship.
Hakon glanced at Geir. His man stood a short distance away, expression inscrutable. Waiting Hakon’s word.
“Go,” Hakon commanded. “I will guide us.”
The connection was complete. Hakon felt the river singing to him.
The Vlarrøk cut through the river like a vast, sleek ghost. They kept no lights on board, and the sky was overcast and moonless. As Hakon had foreseen. He could feel the water all around them, feel the current of it, the ripples of every rock and beast.
Geir and the crew could not see the stones that might be their downfall. But Hakon could feel them. He guided his ship through the water as they grew closer to the bridge-city ahead.
It was past nightfall, and Torva was relatively quiet. Even so, voices carried over the water. Lights from lanterns, torches, and lamps gleamed on the surface of the river. On the shoreside, they saw the Middish city—a chaotic mass of wooden hovels and filth. On the other side, the old Cassaline fortification rose up. A stone castle, with multiple walls and towers. A huge arched bridge connected them. Hakon knew there was another bridge just like it on the far side of the island citadel.
The bridge was enormous, and high above the waterline. It had been built by the Empire to allow ships to pass beneath it. The Vlarrøk was larger than a Caedian fishing vessel, but some trade barges were of a similar size. Regardless, old Cassaline war cogs were larger than either, and sat high in the water. The top of the Vlarrøk’s mast did not come close to scraping the bottom of the bridge.
They passed Torva in silence. No shouts of alarm sounded out from the men in the castle towers. Hakon guided them for a few hours more, until he felt his connection to the river begin to fade.
His own strength was fading with it. The ritual had taken more out of him than he realized. He turned and began walking towards his chambers belowdeck.
“Jarl?” Geir asked.
Hakon paused. His head hurt. “Halt there,” he gestured to a nearby rocky shore. “Wait until light.”
“Heard,” Geir confirmed with a nod.
Hakon took another step towards the hold, then hesitated. “Geir,” he said.
“Cut her down, let the river take her. Have the blood scrubbed off in the morning.”
“It will be done,” Geir said.
“Good,” Hakon said. “We want to make a good impression when we arrive.”