The ruins of Eskidal bore a striking resemblance to what remained of Kem, save for one minor detail: there were no runes. Even on buildings which were still more or less intact, neither Einarr nor Hrug could find a trace of a fire rune, and never mind that the fire had plainly burned hot – perhaps as hot as the Muspel shroud. It was a puzzle – right up until they reached the central square.
The square was only lightly touched by the fire, somehow, although ordinarily you would have expected the fire to burn hottest in the center – that was strange by itself, and enough to set Einarr, Hrug, and Eydri looking for the remains of a ward. While they were preoccupied with that, however, The other three, however, were looking a little higher, and so they were the ones who noticed.
“Um, Captain?” Irding called from across the square.
“What is it?”
“Did we ever do anything about those beasties that escaped the demon ships?”
Einarr grimaced and shook his head, knowing Irding couldn’t see him. He broke off his search for runes and crossed to where Irding stood looking up. “Just the kraken, and only by chance. Why?”
“I think the flying one might have been here.” He pointed.
Above, almost at rooftop level, long gashes had been cut into the walls. They looked like the chops made in a practice dummy, if the student was a giant.
“The flying one, with eyes and beaks and wings in all the wrong places?”
“Not sure what else would be big enough to do that, are you?”
“A dragon?” He thought he might rather face a dragon, under the circumstances. Then he shook his head. “A joke. I highly doubt they could bring a dragon properly under their control, and if it wasn’t controlled, they wouldn’t live long enough to use it.”
Irding nodded. “More or less my thought, yeah.”
“That still doesn’t explain the fire, though. I’m going to keep searching for signs of magic. Well spotted, Irding. Keep up the search.”
Mid-afternoon that day, well before the light began to fade, the search teams gathered together on the beach in front of their boats. The mood was subdued.
With a deep breath, Einarr started them off. “First of all, did anyone find any survivors?”
Some of the others in the crowd exchanged uncomfortable looks.
“With all due respect, with the sort of slaughter as happened in the streets, do you really think there were survivors?” A voice asked from the crowd.
Einarr glanced down at the ground, disappointed but not surprised, before looking in the direction of the voice. “No, not really. But if there had been, we would have wanted to get their story first. It was the story of a survivor, after all, that led us this far. My team and I came across some interesting results, but I should like to hear from the rest of you, first.”
Bardr stepped forward. “Then let the Vidofnir start things off with the obvious. The attackers, whoever they were, used fire to drive the people of the city out into the streets, where they were slaughtered wholesale. Once we moved closer to the city center, however, we found evidence that this was almost certainly an attack by the worshipers of Malùnion: on the walls of a temple to the true gods, we found imprecations against them, and their magics and Arts, painted in blood. Reki read them for us, as the Vidofning most familiar with runes.”
They went around in this way, each group reporting what they had found. Many of them, as Einarr had suspected, were too taken aback by the apparent ferocity of the carnage to note much more than the obvious conclusion – or, perhaps, simply unlucky in their search. One other team came across the giant claw marks, as well, and suggested that they could mean a dragon had been responsible instead of the cult. It would explain the apparent heat of the fires, after all. Einarr gave a half-smile, amused and sorry to have to burst their bubble.
“We saw those claw marks, too,” he said, when everyone else had reported their findings. We also found a runic ward around the city center – a very old one, probably dating to the early days of the city if not to its founding. Unfortunately, though, the runes painted on the temple point to the squiddies, and there is a monster associated with the squiddies that could make those claw marks.”
The crowd fell silent and stared at him, expectantly.
“A few years ago, my wife was captured by this selfsame cult – some of you have heard this story already. I did not yet have my own ship, but my father’s Vidofnir and the Skudbrun of Kjell managed to claim her back and take down a full four enemy ships, each of which traveled under the umbrella of a black squall and carried, instead of cargo, an abomination beneath its deck. One of them could fly, and it was pretty easily big enough to have made those cuts.”
“So, a bird, instead of a dragon?” Someone in the back asked. “I’ll take feathers over scales any day.”
Einarr shook his head, smiling a little. “You would? I’d rather fight the dragon. The dragon’s very blood won’t be corrupted, and its scales may be softer than the abomination’s skin. Furthermore, the sight of a dragon isn’t likely to drive a man mad – except, perhaps, for gold. Has anyone got a fletcher aboard?”
Four or five men, scattered throughout, said they had.
“Good. Before we leave we’ll send men into the forest. Make as many arrows as you can. We’ll need pitch, too, and any cloth we can scavenge. The more flaming arrows we can fire, the better this fight will go.” He paused, thinking. I wonder if there is any way I can make contact with Beatrix or Liupold? Sea fire would be a boon where we’re going. “Is there anything else?”
Aema stepped forward. “There’s still the matter of the unburied dead.”
Einarr was a little surprised to see she was still on the Skudbrun. “I suppose there’s not really much left to burn for a pyre, is there.”
Aema shook her head in agreement.
“In that case, while we are gathering wood for arrows, we will also bring whatever brush we can and pile it in the city. That should provide the tinder. The rest, I will leave to you and your sisters.”
Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!
So begins what I expect to be the final book of The Adventures of Einarr Stigandersen. After four, almost five, years and fourteen books, I’m ready to move on to other projects – and I’m sure Einarr is ready for me to do so, as well – if only so I stop tormenting him! Fear not, however: my intention is to start a new serial, although not a purely free one. Look for a poll or an announcement from me in the next few weeks as I firm up my ideas.
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