Five members of Team Dan squinted against grit blown up by departing Red Claw dragons. Tall trees bowed under the fan of great wings that blotted the sun. The flight from the Red Claw base at Ghoul River left them with reddened noses and cold-bleary vision. From a hillock, they surveyed a forested island lost in the vast wilderness of the Blight. Only Vikings were crazy enough to build a settlement here. Smoke from cook fires rose from higher ground that overlooked a number of dragon-prow longships, accompanied by the ever-present echo of wood chopping.
"I don't see Rabelus," said the bro Pete. Their former mentor, master of Eolca's academy, had called the mission.
Zena, the Red Sorceress, shared a smug grin with blonde wizardress Bonnie. "You guys are really looking for Valkris. You can put your eyes back in your heads. She doesn't need us as escorts."
"Then why did Rabelus drag us from our cozy villa?" Ed blew a stream from either nostril.
Dan traipsed gingerly downhill through tall marsh grass, swatting at midges. "Cool it, men. We've always fantasized about doing the dark realms, which we can't do without the world's greatest sorceress."
"Over there!" Bonnie called out.
A mass of dark clouds roiled up over a glade. With a loud snap, an electric bolt scorched a man's backside, sending him in headlong flight toward the river. A chorus of raucous laughter added insult.
The spell caster came in view: a blonde girl of about four, wearing a brown dress, thumbs to middle fingers in a summoning gesture.
"Boogity," Pete said. "They're teachin' 'em young these days."
Bonnie took his arm to point out an approaching delegation. "No child learns magic that young. There's Rabelus--we'll ask him what's going on."
White-bearded Rabelus wore his academy robe of royal blue. With him was a red-bearded giant and a woman with pale, pulled-back hair, who scooped up the child.
"This is Ejulf," Rabelus began, "brother of the clan leader Odkeitl, and Valkris you already know."
"Not as well as we thought." Dan pushed at his glasses.
"Ah yes--this is her daughter Vasdis," Rabelus clarified. "Her man was killed a-Viking against the Cymoors."
Ejulf delivered a backslap to Pete that would have sent dentures flying if he had any. "Vasdis will someday be great sorceress like her ma. Har har!"
No one had recognized the sorceress in a domestic role, wearing gray instead of black. She still disdained the translator stone. You spoke with her only if you spoke Norse.
Rabelus lead the way to camp. "Something of great import happens here today in this gathering of clans. Eolca is extremely interested in the outcome. Odkeitl is pitted against another jarl called Hjorvald, who plans to invade eastern Nordland."
"That's a hot one," Ed said. "Valkris could sink their fleet with a sneeze."
"Which is the purpose of the duel." Rabelus faced Dan squarely. "We need outside observers. Odkeitl can't act without being the aggressor, and he's tired of Hjorvald just waiting for his chance."
"So the jarls duel," Zena surmised.
Rabelus shook his head. "Don't discount Viking politics. If Hjorvald wins, he still has Valkris to content with. That's why he and Odkeitl won't be the combatants."
"Then who will?" Bonnie asked with dread certainty.
"Valkris and a woman named Hulda. Their side stipulates no magic; Odkeitl stipulates no armor."
None of the Dans could make their mouths work.
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