Hastily, they reformed into a circle. A single giant cat was bad enough, especially since they could count on it being corrupted. But two?
“They must be mates,” Troa gasped as he ducked a tentacle.
“You think?” Thjofgrir cut at the tentacle as it withdrew, with no apparent effect.
“Otherwise they’d be fighting each other, I think.”
Based on the farm cats Einarr had encountered, he expected that was right. A paw swiped at him, and he narrowly dodged all but the edge of it. The new welt on his sword hand shouldn’t interfere too much with his grip, he hoped. “Not sure that helps us.”
“It most assuredly does not.” Kaldr sidestepped as the other beast took a swipe at him.
The cats started circling again, taking a tentative swipe now and then with paw or tentacle. Einarr, watching them as they watched him, had a thought.
“Troa,” he muttered in the comparative quiet. “Ready your bow. When I give the word, Jorir and I will take one. Kaldr, you and Thjofgrir take the other. Troa, take your shots as you can.”
“Aye, sir,” echoed around their huddle.
They shifted around so that Troa stood in the center. Einarr heard the distinctive sound of stretching a bow string.
“Ready,” Troa whispered.
“On my mark.” Einarr watched as the cats circled, testing them, waiting for the key moment. “Now!”
Einarr and Jorir charged.
Kaldr and Thjofgrir charged in the opposite direction.
Troa’s bowstring twanged.
Einarr took a flying leap towards the monster’s shoulder, hoping to injure the tentacle as well as the leg.
While he was still in the air, Jorir made a mighty chop against the creature’s foreleg. It danced back, but Jorir froze. Einarr brought Sinmora straight down into the base of the creature’s neck. It should have been a killing blow.
Einarr blinked in surprise as his blade met no resistance. His vision clouded momentarily as his head went through where the cat’s neck should have been. Then the ground was rushing up uncomfortably fast, and it was all Einarr could do to land on his feet. He was still a young man, but his knees groaned. He rose slowly to his feet and looked at Jorir. “Did you just see that?”
The dvergr nodded, then hefted his axe again. “We’d best go give the others a hand.”
Jorir was moving even as he spoke, and Einarr did not wait for him to finish, either.
Kaldr and Thjofgrir looked to be having a harder time of it – and no surprise. Einarr charged in again, this time aiming to hamstring the beast that was most assuredly real. He nodded to Troa as he ran past: the scout had seen it, too – and possibly an arrow pass through the double, as well.
“Hey!” Thjofgrir tried to object when Jorir batted a tentacle away from him.
“Not real,” Jorir answered the unstated.
“Don’t take your eyes off this one,” Einarr added. “If it has the cunning of a hound, it will try to confuse us again.”
The fight redoubled, then. Einarr dove under its belly, raking Sinmora along the soft flesh there.
The cat screamed. He’d drawn blood, evidently, but it was only a flesh wound. Which, on further reflection, he thought he should be grateful for: had he gutted it then and there, he most assuredly would have been doused in its blood.
No sooner had he regained his feet than it lashed out at him with one of its tentacles. This time, the wide pad at the end grabbed hold of his middle and squeezed.
Troa and Kaldr converged on the tentacle at almost the same moment. Kaldr’s blade embedded itself in the squid-like tentacle that had grabbed hold of his prince, followed by two arrows in quick succession. Blood sprayed: it was hard to tell for certain in the light of Einarr’s shield, but the stench was foul – more like a swamp than like iron.
The cat leapt over their heads and across the clearing to stand once again near its double – which, despite having no-one attacking it, still bled from the tentacle that had nearly been severed and a belly wound. Einarr blinked, already uncertain which was which despite the fact that they had only just moved.
Kaldr and Jorir exchanged a look. Thjofgrir sighed dramatically.
Troa fired off two arrows in rapid succession, one at each beast. “Left, milord.”
“My thanks.” Einarr raised Sinmora and charged once more into the fight. The handle seemed to pulse in his hand in time with his heartbeat. Glancing down, he saw that it was not merely a welt on his hand: it bled, and the dark red of his blood mixed with the deeper darkness of the monster’s. Hel and damnation. There were purifying rituals: he would worry later.
Sinmora’s pulsing reminded him of something, though. There was nothing saying it would work, of course, but it couldn’t hurt to try. The double was obviously magical, after all. He focused, and the blade itself began to pulse. Einarr thought he could actually hear the chiming of bells in tune with the pulsation. Once again he launched himself into the air, aiming for the beast’s shoulder. This time, though, he faced a giant paw sweeping around to smack him out of the air.
Einarr twisted around and brought Sinmora’s edge down, not on the shoulder of the great cat, but on its toe. It screamed again, and again blood spurted from out of the deep gouge he had cut in its paw. He thought his twist had carried him away from the worst of the blood spray, at least.
Sinmora gave a much larger pulse, and an audible chime, and then the double winked out of existence.
Then the cat yanked its injured paw back, and the momentum sent Einarr flying backward. His flight was stopped by the trunk of a massive pine tree – thankfully with no branches to impale him. He grunted involuntarily.
That was when he realized Sinmora was still embedded in its paw.
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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