The exposed slate of the cave walls shone white in the moonlight, a gaping maw of blackness beneath daring them to enter the Woodsman’s lair. Einarr whistled through his teeth – one long, one short, one long again. Rustling in the underbrush signaled his companions’ arrival, and so Einarr pointed ahead at what Runa had found. “Perhaps we haven’t entirely lost fortune’s favor?”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Jorir grumbled. “How do we know he’s not at home?”
Runa kept her voice to a whisper when she snapped back. “We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that even if we’d arrived in the middle of the afternoon.”
“Think you’re up for climbing a tree, Irding?” Einarr was thinking aloud more than anything. “We’ll need a lookout anyway.”
“Think I’ll manage somehow. I don’t suppose I could get another pinch of willow bark to chew?”
With a harrumph, Jorir tossed him a small pouch. “Don’t use any more than you have to. That’s all I have.”
Irding hummed even as he helped himself to a pinch of the pain-killer. “Right. Up I go.”
The forest around them began to stir as Irding, injured and in pain, rather loudly scaled a nearby oak. There was no time to waste. “Runa. Let’s go.”
Runa was moving before he finished speaking, slipping out into the clearing as silently as she had moved the night they had attempted to elope. Einarr thought it best not to question why she was so skillful at sneaking. Knowing what he already did of her as a child suggested an answer, anyway. He followed close behind, and Erik just a pace behind him.
No sooner had they crossed the threshold from shadow to moonlight than the forest behind them came violently to life once more. Irding wrapped arms and legs about the trunk as the tree began to shake, although it did not seem able to do more than that. Grimacing, Irding shimmied up to hug the tree at a good height to see around.
On the ground, Runa had in hand the small chisel and hammer that Auna had provided her. She knelt beside the bare slate at the entrance to the cave and began to chant under her breath even before she brought the tools to bear. Einarr, Jorir, and Erik took up positions around her, weapons drawn.
No sooner had the chisel clinked against the stone than the first wave hit. The grass grabbed at their boots, even as flocks of birds dived at them. That they were pecking at Einarr’s head and not clawing with talons told him they were not owls, but that was cold comfort here. He used Sinmora not as a sword but as a swatter, waving it about to keep the creatures off his head. The birds did, slowly, die at their feet, but none of them kept a kill count.
Runa’s voice grew to be audible over the din of screeching birds, and the steady beat of the chisel kept time.
Einarr slashed through a cloud of the Woodsman’s possessed minions, knocking one from the air and guarding his head from the rest. In the momentary gap caused by Sinmora’s passing, he saw silver-furred wolves stalking out of the wood from all directions.
The wolf directly in front of him had antlers. It snarled, showing larger than average teeth.
Einarr stilled, his attention fully on the new threat. The birds flew off as though dismissed.
The wolves prowled forward. Except for the one, they all appeared to be normal. Einarr met the glare of the antlered wolf from under his lowered brow and raised Sinmora. He would claim this challenge.
The wolf snarled again and lunged forward. In a heartbeat the antlered wolf closed the distance, and Einarr frantically swung Sinmora down to turn its bite. No natural wolf could be so quick: a gift of the leshy, perhaps?
Einarr could spare no more time on consideration. The antlered wolf snapped at his legs again and again, with odd twists of the head as he dashed back out to strike again. Trying to trip Einarr with the horns. Sinmora cut its hide, but shallowly.
Runa still chanted over the nearly inaudible beat of her hammer and chisel.
One of the wolves tried to slip between Einarr and Jorir while Einarr focused on the leader. As though they were of one mind, prince and dwarf pivoted. Sinmora slipped between its ribs even as Jorir’s axe laid open its belly.
The kill came with a price, however. The pack leader could not let such an opportunity pass. Einarr howled as its jaws closed about his calf and pulled.
Einarr did not go down. He yanked his sword out of the dead wolf and hacked at the pack leader, but already the creature had hopped backwards, licking Einarr’s blood off its chops.
Another wolf tried for his other leg. Einarr twisted out of the way and brought his blade down to cut across the side of its neck.
The pack leader took his attention from Einarr long enough to growl at the wounded interloper. The opportunist put its tail between its legs and hurried off to join the assault on Erik.
The big man was, of all things, laughing. Perhaps after their encounter with the fimbulvulf that spring, a pack of normal wolves seemed less threatening? Einarr shook his head and refocused on the pack leader. To either side of him, Jorir and Erik fought off the ordinary beasts, their task made easier by the wolves’ focus on Runa in the center.
Arrows flew from above, as carefully placed as Irding could manage. Still Einarr’s focus was on the pack leader. It, too, stood back now, evaluating its opponent much like Einarr evaluated it.
Runa’s chanting grew louder and faster. Did that mean she was almost done? Einarr settled back into his stance, his eyes locked on the red ones of the antlered wolf.
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