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We’re inching along toward publication of ALREADY COMES DARKNESS. Stay tuned for an announcement of its release date!
By the time the clouds burned away, the sun was high and Raef’s stomach was rumbling, the early morning fish long forgotten, but no sooner had Raef stood than the ship appeared, rounding the final bend in the fjord’s long journey, slipping through the last of the fog.
Raef, rooted to the spot, his heartbeat quickening, could only stare. The ship was small, manned by only four or five men if necessary, and the beast on its prow had been removed, as was customary in friendly waters. And yet its presence in this isolated, uninhabited piece of water was unnerving, no matter how few warriors it could hold. Seldom, even in summer, did ships venture so far up the fjord.
Up in the nest, the air was still, but Raef could see by the patterns on the surface of the fjord that the winds were brisk, and the ship’s grey sail was full. It would not be long before she made landing. Returning to the fire, Raef gathered every weapon he could carry and then hurried down into the valley, intent on reaching the shore before the ship.
He chose to wait and watch on a small point of land that arced out into the fjord. Should the ship aim for the shallow waters and safe beach at the mouth of the river, his position would give him a good look at the crew. Crouching between boulders, Raef watched a sea eagle cut across the sky and waited, the sharp wind numbing his cheeks.
The ship drew close, its prow pointed toward the river mouth, and Raef peered out at it, expecting to see men working the sail, to see the oars splashing into the water to guide her to land, to see a helmsman at the rudder, but he saw nothing. The sail rippled, the thick wool snapping in a gust of wind, but her deck was empty and the oars were stowed or missing. She was abandoned.
Raef, wondering if perhaps the crew had jumped ship, frightened or forced overboard, but suspecting that something more cunning was at work, stayed hidden. The sheer strake was unburdened by shields, but high enough to conceal a crouching man. The rudder might be fixed in place with ropes, the sail left in the care of the wind, all for the sake of stealth and surprise. Isolf had shown cunning in his capture of Vannheim; such an ambush would appeal to him. And so Raef waited.
The ship, with a groan and a shudder that made Raef wince, slid up against the rocky beach. The sinking tide would leave her stranded before nightfall, her hull riding slick, kelp-covered rocks instead of salty waves. But no orders were shouted and no men leaped over the side, splashing to shore with spears in hand. All was silence and still Raef waited.
Clouds filtered in from the west, high ones this time, streaking the sky with orange and pink as the sun sought the horizon. The winds that had battered the fjord by day vanished, leaving calm waters to lap against the shore. The fish would be stirring, searching out insects that walked the water, and the birds would be watching for telltale signs of silver scales in the blue fjord.
As the light died, so did Raef’s suspicions, and at last he allowed himself to rise and, rounding the curved shore to the beach, approach the strange ship, axe at the ready. No arrows were launched to pierce him, no spears were hurled to savage him, and Raef hauled himself over the sheer strake and landed with light feet on the smooth deck.
The ship was not deserted. A funeral pyre had been built at the stern. The wood was unburnt and freshly cut, rich with the scent of pine. A nest of kindling, ready to spark, sprouted from the sturdy logs. The body was richly dressed in a thick fabric of shimmering gold, the cloth threaded through with delicate strands of silver and copper, and for a moment Raef could not bring himself to look upon the woman’s face, for in his mind he saw Siv’s green eyes and red-gold hair.
But it was not Siv. She was a stranger to Raef and yet the sight of her caused Raef’s heart to leap, for surely she was golden-haired Freyja herself. Raef took a deep breath and looked closer. She was adorned with gems. A thick rope of gold hung from her neck, the bright metal cradling stones of icy blue. Her hair was free and loose save for a single small braid that caressed her temple. There, entwined with her golden locks, was a strand of silver. She bore a pair of rings, one crusted with glittering black gems, the other small and plain and yet made from the finest copper. And yet despite all those riches, a strange thing caught his eyes. A single golden arm ring encircled her upper arm, lost against the rich cloth, its serpent head chasing after the tail. A fitting prize for a warrior or shieldmaiden, but this woman did not have the look of battle about her. Her shoulders were slender, her hands smooth, her skin unscarred. Raef bent closer, drawn in by the well-worked gold, for he had never seen finer craft, when he saw something that took the breath from him.
There, at her throat, a pulse.