One down, five to go… Four. Einarr stared through the gap in the circle where his fallen opponent had been and set his jaw. A cry of shock from the other side of Arring said his partner had felled another, but already more Valkyries rushed towards their circle. In only a moment, the two fallen would be replaced by four more. A hollow space opened up in his belly: if there were this many men to deal with the two of them, the fight was going badly all over.
Four men became eight. Einarr could spare no thought for the shallow cuts that got through his guard or for the fate of his fellows. Three times his boot nearly crushed Bardr’s nose as he dodged a blow. Three times he moved in time, but on the third he stumbled.
“Einarr!” Arring lunged, ignoring for a moment the flock of vultures trying to peck out their eyes. Einarr’s shoulder slammed into his crewmate’s back, but the man didn’t budge.
“Thanks,” he grunted. Einarr took the opportunity to lash out with a boot toward one of the Valkyries within range. He heard the satisfying snap when foot hit nose, and the sailor cursed even as blood began to flow down his face.
Such a minor thing was not enough to knock the fight out of a Valkyrie, of course. Einarr launched himself off Arring’s back with a roar. Sinmora whistled as the blade drove for the man’s skull.
He, too, had allies, though. A saber flashed, and instead of the sound of steel biting flesh it was steel striking steel that rang out.
Einarr snarled, ripping his blade back to cut thrice at the three men ahead of him. Blood bloomed on their tunics. Two of them turned a sickly green and dropped to their knees, clutching their stomachs as though to hold in their innards. The third snarled back.
Moist heat gushed from Einarr’s calf. Pain would come later. That was a deep one, but not as deep as the one the Valkyrie got in return. If he lived, he would never father another child.
Einarr’s lungs burned. Even under the full strength of Reki’s song fatigue slowed his arms and fear clutched at his throat. This was like no other battle he had seen. It seemed as though there were no end to the Valkyries, even though their hunting parties were never more than two ships together. Their assailants had ebbed, if only for a moment. He inhaled deeply, smelling sour bile and the iron tang of blood.
Arring’s voice rang out. “Behind you!”
Einarr turned. A javelin – not a crossbow bolt, a javelin – hurtled for his breast. Ah, so that’s why I didn’t feel anything. There was no time to dodge. There was no time to bring his shield or sword to bear. The fates had decreed that this moment was his time.
Einarr lowered his eyelids, accepting his fate. In the moment before they closed, Arring’s sturdy figure seemed to fly into the path of the javelin.
Einarr’s eyes flew open again when he saw what was happening. He screamed in denial.
The javelin found the weak point in Arring’s mail. Blood spurted from his back even as Einarr dashed forward to catch his crewmate… his friend. The world went red.
The next thing Einarr was aware of, he stood alone in a pile of corpses. At his feet lay Bardr and Arring, both gone. A few other lone figures remained of the Vidofnir’s crew, each surrounded by a ring mound of bodies. Jorir. Reki. Erik. One or two others… Father.
He strode to where the others gathered around Stigander, the wound in his leg somehow vanished. “Father.”
“Einarr.” The words were calm and level, but both knew the other’s heart at this moment.
“How many are left?”
“Just those you see here.”
Einarr nodded, looking down at his blood-stained boots. “Where will you take us now?”
Stigander’s voice was tired when he finally answered. “I don’t know.”
“You’re not giving up?” He lifted his head to meet his father’s gaze with a challenge.
Stigander shook his head.
“I’ll be damned if I know how we’re supposed to win back Raenshold with just the few of us, though. And this just cost us everything we’ve earned towards winning the hand of your bride.”
“It was always going to be a matter of wits, Father. Our birthright was stolen from us by guile, and by guile it shall be won.”
“We will still require force of arms to back up our wits, son. After this, we’ll be lucky to find enough men to crew our ship, let alone turn our cause from doom.”
“We’ll find a way. If for no other reason, Father, than the battle here today.”
Now his father looked alarmed, but Einarr did not give him the chance to interrupt.
“The Order of the Valkyrie has wronged the sons of Raen and the men of Breidelsteinn this day – grievously. And they will pay, Father.”
“They already have, Einarr. Look around you. We were outnumbered, and yet it is we who yet live.”
“Are you really all right with that, Father?”
“Even our entire clan does not have the resources to go after the Order of the Valkyrie. Others have tried, and wiped themselves from the map in the process.”
“Then we shall gather other clans to our cause.”
“You realize they’ve an agreement with the Empire, right?”
“So be it. The Vidofnir is my home, and her crew my family. I will not allow this to stand.” He heard the coldness in his own voice as the words left his mouth. He had never experienced rage as a cold thing before, but in this moment it was right. The Order of the Valkyries, and by extension the Empire, would not rest until every Clan was wiped out – their hunters today showed that well enough. If defending his kin meant taking the battle to them, then so be it.
“I swear before all of you, by steel and by stone, by the one bound beneath a tree and she who stirs the winds, that our kin shall be avenged, even if it takes my whole life to do it.”
He stood there, staring, for a long moment before he realized that his father was frozen rather than speechless. The sound of silver bells drifted to his ears on the wind from out of nowhere.