The sounds of merriment drifted through the porthole near Brandr’s hammock, where he lay staring at his hands in a sliver of moonlight. Even after some trick of Brook’s had cleaned up the entire assault team, he had scrubbed his hands over and over with sand and seawater, and still he could feel hot blood running across them. Brandr had killed men before, but he hadn’t realized how an axe or a knife provided such distance from death. Today, he had torn out a man’s throat with his bare hands, thrust his fingers inside a man’s body and literally ripped his heart out. During the fight, it had all seemed so natural, so right, tearing into a herd of prey alongside his pride, testing his strength and right to lead. Once the Ruby was taken, however, the sheer brutality of his actions slammed into him. Brandr had left the bragging and boasting to Brook, Morgana and Corvus, wary that the shakes in his hands might also make his voice betray him.
Faint strains of a merry jig momentarily broke his reverie. Rosie had broken out her fiddle, and it sounded like Brook was leading a percussion section comprised of buckets, pans, and clashing blades. The laughter and stamping feet of the dancers faded in and out of the din. A shrill squeal suddenly cut through the revelry, followed by an echoing slap and an even higher-pitched shriek. Conchobhar seemed to have taken a pinch out of the wrong backside and paid the price. The music was overwhelmed by a wave of raucous laughter at the gnome’s discomfiture, but as the hilarity faded, a clear, high voice broke into the first few notes of a popular shanty. Sandara, steering the crew’s emotion before their amusement at Conchobhar’s flailing led to further abuse.
Brandr leaned back in his hammock as Sandara’s voice was lost in the tide of voices joining the song. What would she think of his worries? Sandara was a devoted follower of the Pirate Queen, who had little tolerance for weakness or doubt, but she was also a kind-hearted woman, always ready with a reassuring word or healing hand for her shipmates. The woman was a mystery. Even after inviting him to her bed, Brandr still had no idea what Sandara held in her heart. Perhaps it would be best to keep his own doubts in the dark until he had a better understanding of the mysterious, beautiful woman.
He wished he could talk to Gahiji, or Ivar, or even his grandfather. Soon after his encounter with the sea lion, Ivar had begun teaching Brandr the fighting style of the Ulfen warriors. Axes large and small, broadsword and shield, always focused on outright assault, on destroying the foe as quickly and thoroughly as possible without trickery or finesse. He had also taught the young boy how to harness the berserkergang, the feared battle-rage that made Ulfen raiders so feared, but he had never mentioned sprouting claws or thinking like a beast. Still, Ivar might have known something about the strange transformations Brandr had experienced.
Gahiji had confined his teachings to sailor-craft, climbing, tracking, even swimming during the brief summer days when a dip wouldn’t prove lethal in mere minutes. Sometimes, as they sat watching the stars wheel overhead, Gahiji would tell stories of the strange constellations of the south, and the animal spirits that dwelled among them. Thinking back, Brandr thought that the old Bandu might have been hinting at his experiences in the lion-dream, but he didn’t think he could expect much sympathy. Gahiji had always been cold and hard, even with those he cared for.
Brandr found himself staring at his hands again, clenching his fists as he turned them, milky pale in the moonlight. It reminded him of his last meeting with his grandfather, Bjorn the Bloody Axe. The old man had sat hunched before the huge fire roaring in his room, wrapped in the thick fur of a great white bear. Brandr had just just learned how to stoke the embers of his anger into a roaring conflagration, and had accidentally broken Ivar’s arm in a practice bout. Rather than being angry, the old raider had beamed with pride, and hustled the boy into the Bloody Axe’s chambers before taking himself off to Cook to get his arm set and bound.
Bjorn stared into the fire while Brandr recited the events of the day, loosing a faint chuckle when he got the part about splitting Ivar’s shield and breaking the bone beneath. He gestured the boy closer, until Brandr could feel the few, treasured wisps of his mustache curl and crisp in the heat. Bjorn grasped his chin and forced Brandr to meet his eyes, something he had been afraid to do since the first time he had been presented to the old man as a small boy. He felt a chill in the pit of his belly as those cold, pale eyes trapped his gaze.
“Well, boy, it seems my blood hasn’t turned completely to milk and honey. You felt the fire of the berserkergang today? Good, good… Many warriors burn with the fury of battle, but a leader needs to be cold, cold enough to send friends to their deaths. Can you embrace the ice as you have the fire?” The old man’s grip tightened on Brandr’s chin as he stretched his other hand into the heart of the flames and curled it into a fist. Rather than recoil from the roaring heat, it was the fire that retreated from that withered white claw. Brandr felt the warmth leach out his skin as the fire died down to embers, then cold, grey ashes.
“Has your heart turned to ice, boy? It must, if you want to lead.”
Brandr snapped awake, shivering in the sultry warmth of the Shackles night. The party above decks rolled along, a rhythmic chant suggesting that some sort of contest was going on, perhaps drinking, perhaps arm-wrestling. He thought back to his time hunting with the lioness, to how natural it had felt to leap onto a bull, bring it down with his claws and rip out its throat with his teeth. He remembered how it had felt to gut a fellow man with his hands, the strength and power that had coursed through him as he was drenched in the lifeblood of a defeated foe. He pictured Harrigan, swimming directly into the maw of the largest creature Brandr had ever seen, and emerging triumphant. He imagined himself facing such a monstrous foe saddled by his compunctions, and every possible outcome ended is his death, and the death of his crew.
Brandr reached deep inside, rooting out his misgivings and doubts. He buried them in ice, a glacier of calm resolve. He would need every scrap of power he could muster to seize the Hurricane Crown, even if it cost him his very humanity.
He headed up to join the party. There were friends to celebrate, rivals to cow, and Sandara to woo. The future Hurricane King was greeted with a chorus of cheers as he stepped on deck.