I have begun to fear this quest a futile one. My honor depends upon the success of this voyage, but it has been near to a year, and we have not seen so much as a sign, nor heard more than the usual rumors. Often we must subsist on dry meal biscuits for weeks on end until we come across a trading post, but our supplies are nearly gone. My father’s prized longship, the Stormbringer, is the jewel of his fleet, but it was designed for speed and maneuverability, not cargo, and this voyage has stretched overlong. My men—though they are some of the most fearsome and hardy thanes in my father’s formidable army—have been hungry, cold, filthy, and restless for months on end.
Morale is failing, but I cannot return to my aging father a failure yet again. Never have I disappointed him in battle; indeed, as firstborn son and prince of Asgard, I have brought to Odin’s halls more plundered booty and spoils of war than any other of his thanes, yet he spurns me for my lesser deeds, my paltry indiscretions. I am a warlord like none other in his ranks, his chosen heir, yet he demeans me for petty reasons, for harmless slights with whores and maids. Every day he threatens to make my younger brother, Baldr, king in my stead.
This is my chance to win his eternal favor, and so I cannot turn back.
Finally, we have come across a promising lead. While docking for repairs and supplies, Fandral vanished into a nearby tavern, as he is wont to do, but returned so quickly it earned him many a jest from the other men. Upon reporting to me, I learned that he came across the sister of a local thane who had gone missing—apparently lost at sea with the rest of his merchant crew. When I questioned why this should be of any matter to me, Fandral went on to say that there was a single survivor from the crew, and that he swore in the name of Valhalla’s shining gates that they had encountered a strange creature.
I immediately returned to the tavern with Fandral to question the sister, who pointed out the survivor to us, sitting solitary in the corner. On approaching him, I discovered that where there was once a great bulk of muscle there hung sunken skin on weary bones. His face was haggard, his eyes stricken, and his beard unkempt. He drank his mead with an unsteady hand.
I sat in the chair across from him, Fandral at my back, ready to meet any threat that might come from behind, and ordered a drink of my own.
“Greetings, stranger,” I said to him. “Might I inquire about your adventure? I have heard such stories, but I must say I doubt the truth of them.”
He did not answer right away. “Doubt all you like. I know what I saw—what I heard. But I do not expect an outsider to believe me when not even my own kith does.” At this he took a steep draught, the ale dribbling down his beard.
I drank from my own mug. “I do not doubt the truth of your words, friend, but can you tell me what it is you saw? I have heard other such stories.”
He wiped his sloppy chin with his hand, barely throwing me a glance. “We were sailing for Alfheimr to trade furs for spices, but a sudden storm blew us off course. This was no ordinary storm, I tell you—it was bewitched. It arose from nowhere, accompanied by the strangest sound on the wind, like a melody. There was not a single cloud in the sky or even a shift in the breeze, then suddenly our ship was tossed about the waves like a toy, and I watched men be swept into the sea all around me. I will never forget their screams, but we could do nothing for them. Then came the rocks—we were dashed against them, over and over, and I clung to the mast with all my strength. Others tried to hang on, but…”
He took another swift drink. “Soon, my captain and I were alone, the ship being decimated, sinking, the sail torn to shreds, but I thought myself blessed because we were approaching an island. It was exotic and lush, with sand so white I mistook it for snow, and rocks so smooth and black they seemed to have been polished… I had never seen anything like it.
“We were about to abandon ship and head for shore when we heard it—that strange, melodious sound again, clearer and closer now. I would not have thought it possible, but it was singing. Before I realized, I was thrown overboard by the captain, my head being dashed against a rock. The water was so clear I glimpsed the dozens upon dozens of other ships sunken in the lagoon—longships and knörrs alike, from several countries. I floated back to the surface, bleeding, disoriented, but managed to heave myself over some drifting debris. The current took me back out to sea—and you can scoff and jibe all you like; yes I was woozy and yes my skull had taken a blow, but I swear on Freya’s sweet tits that I saw my captain swimming towards the rocks, unheeding of anything but a white figure sitting upon them.”
At this, I sat up straighter, leaning in. “A white figure?”
“Aye, a white figure, perched up there on the rocks like a seabird, singing.”
“What manner of figure was it?” I demanded, my heart pounding with anticipation—this was the most coherent and most detailed tale I had yet heard of this mysterious entity. “A beast? A monster? A spirit?”
The drunken man leaned in, finally looking me dead in the eyes, and though they were sallow and intoxicated, I saw no deceit. “A woman,” he whispered.
“A woman,” I repeated.
“Aye, a woman. A white woman, with black hair, and a voice so beautiful there is no escaping it. I tell you, I tried to swim back, no matter how beaten and senseless I was, I tried, but the current was too strong. My captain had been trying to kill me, to have her to himself, but he saved my life. I passed out on that debris and was picked up by a knörr by chance. I thought myself lucky, until I was spurned by my own people—my own neighbors, my own family.” He finished off his drink with a swig and then threw down the mug, bellowing in his hoarse voice for another.
The barmaid sneered at him as she brought him his drink, but he ignored her. Her eyes lingered on me and she bent a little dramatically at the waist to ask if I needed another as well. I gave her bosom a generous inspection, but declined.
“Friend,” I said to the woeful stranger, “I believe you. Tell me, where were you when you heard this singing—when the storm began? Could it be found again?”
At this, he raised his brow. “Why would you want to know, after what I have just told you?”
“That is not your concern.” I removed a sack of gold coin from my satchel and set it on the table in front of him. His eyes blew wide at the sight as he rummaged through the bag. “Now, friend, tell me everything you remember.”