For the Vidofnir’s first week at sea, they saw no-one. In the second week, three ships crossed their path, from three lands Stigander preferred not to antagonize. Boredom was beginning to set in by the end of that fortnight, although not a man aboard but was glad for clear skies and fair winds.
On the first day of their third week at sea, sharp-eyed Sivid called a warning from his lookout. “Valkyrie, hard to starboard!”
“Valkyries? Here?” Erik’s exclamation of surprise echoed back at them off the water.
Stigander’s order followed soon after. “Hard starboard! Make ready for boarding!”
The ship that approached on the horizon at a full clip was obviously Imperial even from this distance: she sat too high in the water, two rows of oars sped her along toward the Vidofnir, and on the triangular sail they flew the wing-and-spear symbol of the Imperial Order of the Valkyrie.
Longships were fast: Imperial dromon could sometimes keep up. Unless, that is, they were actually Valkyrian dromon, in which case (some whispered) they were propelled by captive vindstenger.
Einarr settled his chain shirt over his shoulders and it fell with comfortable heaviness. The rest of the crew was outfitting themselves similarly, all save Jorir. He had left Svartlauf with only the axe at his belt, and as of when they sailed had added only a helmet and the golden shield to his equipment: fitting armor for a dwarf was outside the experience of the smithy in Kjellvic. With a grim set to his jaw he took up the shield and took his place by Einarr’s side.
“We raid villages, they raid us. Right bastards to fight, and this far north that’s a hunting expedition. If we’re lucky, they’ve already hit some other ships: it’ll slow ‘em down.”
Jorir grunted. “And if we’re unlucky?”
“If we’re unlucky they have sea fire, and then this is a real short trip. They don’t take prisoners. Keep your wits about you: they’re quick.”
The dwarf hefted his shield and his lips parted in a savage grin. “Then I guess I get to put this gift o’ yourn to the test.”
Tyr angled the Vidofnir to the side, aiming to miss the Valkyrie’s spur long enough for the rowers to get the oars in. A whistling noise was their only warning.
“Shields up!” Stigander bellowed. A moment later, the first volley struck, arrows thudding into wood or clinking against metal or slipping beneath the waves.
In the breath before they could ready another volley, boarding lines flew from the Vidofnir to the Valkyrie ship – the Geirskögul, according to her prow. Reki took up the battle chant, her sultry voice luring each of them to the fury. She will be popular among the crew, Einarr thought even as the melody began to play on his own mind.
Boarding lines flew toward the Vidofnir, and he could see the Valkyries readying their gangplanks. Metal rasped: the Vidofnings waited, blades in hand.
The lines drew taut, and the planks shot across the gap from the other side. No sooner had the thud of wood sounded than the Vidofnings were up and over, racing to take the fight to them. Speed was of the essence: allowing the Valkyrie onto their own ship was tantamount to suicide. This way at least kept their boat above the waves.
Einarr joined his crewmates in their mad rush, the battle fury pulsing at the edges of his vision.
The race to board was a draw: the two crews met in the middle. The sound of splashing said that men had been knocked overboard, although that did not necessarily mean they were out of the fight. In this moment there was only one thing Einarr cared about: reaching the hunters on the Geirskögul. The Imperials would regret bringing the fight to the Vidofnir.
The way cleared. Two steps ahead of Einarr stood a man with the bearing of a serpent coiled to strike, his saber in hand. A heartbeat later and Sinmora vibrated in his hand when steel met steel.
They danced. The Valkyrie’s blade darted in and out, seeking a weakness in Einarr’s defense even as Einarr slashed forward and drove his opponent back a step, then two. Awareness of the Vidofnir ahead of him was his warning that they had circled. A reverse cut gave him the momentum to circle back the other way, putting his enemies in front of him where they belonged.
As a side benefit, it also caused his opponent to misjudge his footing. Einarr hissed as the saber sliced across his forearm, but his long sword was already swinging back around to hack into the opening that cut had left him. In the next instant he buried Sinmora in the man’s ribs. Ein!
The battle became a blur. The deck of the Valkyrie ship was in chaos, and Einarr was driven ever forward by the pounding rhythm of Reki’s potent battle chant. Another hunter crossed his path, a blade in each hand. Einarr charged, Sinmora raised for an overhead strike.
The hunter crossed his blades and lunged. Sinmora caught on the hand guards. Einarr sprang back a step, growling. The hunter smirked and slid his front foot back into a guard. He bounced a little on the balls of his feet.
Cocky scoundrel. Einarr rolled his shoulder, bringing his shield back into position. Anyone wielding two swords was either very green or very good: the way the hunter blocked suggested he was good. He stepped left, aiming to circle his opponent, but the hunter followed him only with his eyes. Einarr took another, testing step and the hunter stilled, watching him from the corner of his eye over his shoulder.
Einarr lunged, slicing out with Sinmora toward the hunter’s kidneys, and his growl became a roar.
Ztang! The first saber flashed, and where a heartbeat before it had been raised in a guard, now it had once again deflected his blow. The second saber flashed now. Einarr knew it’s trajectory even without seeing it. He had just that bare heartbeat before it would embed itself in his exposed ribs.
He whirled on his left foot. Instead of his ribs, the saber thudded into the wood of his shield. Einarr yanked hard on the shield, and then his opponent was down to a single blade. Even that blade would do him no good now, however, for he was also off-balance. Sinmora struck true. Tveir.
As the hunter fell, Einarr saw a momentary clear path through to one of their crowssbowmen, his bow trained on Reki.