For more than a fortnight they sailed on, following the charts as best they could as they weathered the ordinary spring storms. While there had been more than a few cold, wet nights, Einarr was just as glad that was all they had faced so far: an island that could drive Grandfather out, and that had earned the name of “Thorn Deep,” was sure to have something unpleasant waiting – especially given Einarr’s calling. Thus, he took the blustery weather as a blessing.
Right up until black storm clouds appeared out of a blue sky off to the north and began speeding toward Einarr and the Heidrun.
It was Troa who spotted the clouds first, and announced their presence with a dread-laced “Oh, Helvíti.”
Einarr looked up and understood immediately. “Cult ship approaching! Prepare for battle! Guards to the Singer.”
Captain or not, heir or not, Einarr was in far less danger than Eydri. Not everyone aboard had experienced combat with the svartalfr cult, but they should at least have heard about it by now. There was a jangle of maille as the warriors dressed for battle and an air of grim determination fell over the ship.
Please don’t let them have one of those horrors…
Einarr, too, pulled on his maille and helmet, then stepped up beside Naudrek as the guards formed around Eydri.
“Ready the fire arrows,” he ordered. “We want to avoid boarding as long as we can.”
“Yes, sir… Is it really one of those demon ships you talked about?”
“Probably. Need the arrows ready before we can see that, though.”
“Of course, sir.” Naudrek was a good man, but he was not as practiced a Mate as Jorir. No matter: Jorir was quite right about where he was most needed now.
Damn it, though, why did we have to run into one of these things on this trip? Einarr would have been perfectly happy avoiding them for the rest of his days. Unlikely, of course, considering he was a Cursebreaker.
The black storm cloud that heralded the approach of a demon ship bore down on the Heidrun as they readied themselves. Those who already wore their maille watched the horizon grimly, awaiting the first sight of one of the demon-headed black ships. The wind lashed at their faces. Raindrops had begun to sting Einarr’s skin by the time the shadow of the cult ship appeared in the storm.
“Brace yourselves, men! Not only are we fighting in a storm, even in death the enemy can kill you – or worse. This first volley of fire arrows is critical: you’ll have plenty of time to adjust your aim for the wind. Steady yourselves, now.”
There was a general shifting of feet on the deck, but no-one spoke. Visibility dropped precipitously as the two ships closed. The wind began to howl.
“Light volley!” Einarr shouted to be heard over the wind. “Ready!”
The archers drew back, the tips of their arrows bright spots of light against the black clouds above.
As promised, he held them at this command for longer than usual, waiting for a steady moment or a break between gusts. At last, one came.
“Fire!” The arrows streaked through the air like shooting stars, all intent on destroying the evil that sailed this sea. One or two of them winked out under the onslaught of the storm carried in the belly of the demon ship, and one or two more missed their mark, but the rest scored their hit. One caught in the sail, which began to smolder darkly.
There would be no time for a second volley – not that Einarr had really expected one. The ships were too close now for anything but boarding – or perhaps a ram or Sea-Fire, if this were a dromon. Some detached corner of Einarr’s mind wondered if an alliance with the Empire would grant them access to that sea-fire of theirs. The rest of his mind was focused on the enemy ahead. “Prepare for boarding!”
Einarr stepped back to join the men who had circled about Eydri. The fanatics hated Song Magic and hunted Singers: that was how Father had lost Astrid. Einarr did not intend to let them have his friend. The rest of the crew scrambled: bows were tossed back toward the command circle, and the archers took up the boarding lines.
Eydri began to Sing, and almost immediately the red Fury began to pulse at the edges of Einarr’s vision. It was easy to ignore after the last year: Einarr hated how used to it he had grown.
The black-painted prow sliced through the water and turned sharply. Boarding lines flew from both decks.
No sooner had the lines drew taught than men from both ships were up, contesting for the right to board the other’s ship.
Einarr’s men were strong. Much stronger than they had been last summer when they stormed the cult’s island to rescue Runa: some few of the cultist helspawn made it across, but most were on the back foot. Einarr harrumphed even as he slid Sinmora from her sheath.
One of the cultists rushed the “command” circle protecting Eydri. Everyone’s weapons were out and ready, but Einarr stepped forward with a growl. This was not a man he faced: it was a mad dog, and he would see it put down. He stepped forward and raised Sinmora high over head, his shield firmly in place. On the second step, as the clamor of battle carried across the deck and over the water, he brought his blade around and separated the cultist’s head from his shoulders. Einarr stepped back quickly: the corrupting black blood dripped from Sinmora, and spatters darkened his glove, but had not touched him.
“No quarter!” He bellowed. A savage yell was the best answer he could have hoped for. Eydri sang louder.
Einarr strode across the deck to peer at the battle on the other ship and frowned. On the one hand, the demon ships must be destroyed with prejudice. On the other hand… “Fall back!” He ordered as he saw the cultists starting to cluster around the mast. “Naudrek – a torch!”
The Heidrunings hurried back across the boarding lines, cutting the enemy lines as they went and unhooking (most of) their own. Einarr stood at the bulwark, torch in hand, and waited. When everyone was returned, he tossed the torch on the demon ship’s deck. “Full sail! Get us out of this squall, Naudrek.”
As the Heidrun sliced through the waves away from the demon ship, purifying flames began to lick up the boards of its bulwark, and a thick black smoke rose up to feed the cloud overhead.
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