Stigander lowered his glass and sighed. The fortress was burning, and he hadn’t seen a signal yet. That was very shortly going to become moot, however, judging by the commotion on the docks. At least the blockade was already set up. He didn’t even look over his shoulder before he gave the order, certain that Bardr was where Stigander expected. “We can’t wait any longer. Something must have happened to the lookout. Signal the others.”
Before long the crack of sails could be heard over the fleet once more as the longships closed their circle, trapping the squiddies in their own jar. Or, at least, that was the idea. They hadn’t seen any of the black storm clouds that had marked the monsters in the svartlalfr ships’ holds – not yet, anyway. That might change when they actually put out to sea.
He raised his glass again. Something was off, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what.
A wide open field was all that stood between Einarr’s team and the keep at the center of the fortress. It looked empty, but when Troa rose to begin their dash across the open space Einarr put a hand on his shoulder. “Something’s wrong.”
Movement caught his eye from partway around the killing field. It was another team – and Einarr had no way to stop them. He bit his tongue to keep from crying out. That would not help them, and it would give away their position. Then, he let out a long breath. “Be prepared to move on my mark,” he whispered.
“But you just said -” Irding protested. That earned him a sharp look.
“I know what I said. Situation changed.”
The other team stopped and threw up their arms, as though they were suddenly being buffeted by wind – a wind which Einarr soon felt, too. An unearthly screech filled the air, like the unholy fusion of a raven and a whale. He looked up.
A chill ran down his spine. It was like a hundred birds all sharing one body, with eyes and beaks and wings and legs jutting out at impossible angles and improbable locations. There was no earthly reason it should have been able to fly. And Einarr had seen it before.
It was the beast whose crew had willingly sacrificed themselves to its appetite when it became clear they had lost. It had crawled forth from the wreckage of their hold, a writhing and bubbling blob, and taken on the shape Einarr still could not fully grasp now that it was before him again.
Stigander frowned as he stared at the ships now running across the waves toward the blockade, bristling with oars and, he was certain, both blades and arrows to match. This all looked as he expected it to, but there was an insistent tug on his heart whispering that something was about to go very wrong.
A black shadow passed overhead. He looked up to see a massive, multi-winged bird tearing through the sky toward the fortress. Alarm rose in his belly, but not enough to drown out the nagging anxiety. What am I missing?
A crack of thunder from out at sea made him jump. When he turned around, suddenly he understood.
The open sea behind them roiled with the heavy winds stirred up by the black clouds overhead – black as the clouds that bore the Grendel, what felt like ages ago, and her sister ships on the svartalfr island. And there, between storm clouds and churning sea, were twice as many ships as sailed from the harbor. Now he understood what his instincts had been trying to tell him.
They had sailed the entire fleet into a trap, and now they were caught between the hammer and the anvil. Part of him wished he had Kaldr to hand, but the man’s genius was more suited for the laying of traps like these, rather than escaping them. Indeed, that is almost exactly what they had been trying to do.
“Bardr, do you see what I see?”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“Good. Sound the horns: battle is joined.” This was not the day he intended to die, but if it came it would be an acceptable one.
Irding cursed a blue streak. It seemed he recognized the monster, too. Troa, grim-faced, limbered his bow.
“I’m down to about ten arrows.”
Einarr nodded. “Irding, Arkja, Jorir, do what you can to divide its attention. Troa, take your shots, but don’t waste them. I’ll see if I can’t pin it down somehow.” Damned if I know how, though.
Jorir cleared his throat. “With all due respect, milord, if you will be doing a working, I will be covering you.”
Einarr nodded at the dvergr. “Thank you. Now let’s go. That’s going to be too much for five men alone.”
The other team had the bright idea to scatter: Einarr approved. No matter how big it was, it only had one body and it was blessedly free of tentacles. He was dimly aware of an arrow flying towards the monstrosity, and of one eye closing, but Einarr’s attention was focused inward. As he ran, he drew his chalk from his pouch.
Someone from the other team charged forward and grabbed hold of one of its taloned legs. That… could be brilliant, or it could be his end, or both.
When he was about halfway across the field, Einarr stopped. This should be close enough without making Jorir’s job any harder. Movement caught his eye: a third team had reached the field and was running in to assist. Good. It took a whole ship just to drive one of these things off last time… I wish I could leave this to Hrug.
He started to draw his rune circle on the paving stones. He would need Isa, he was certain, but he very much doubted he had the will to turn the monster into a block of ice, even with the binding circle. An upside-down Yr would turn a ward inward, to keep whatever was inside from getting out, although if he wasn’t careful he would keep his men from dealing with it that way. Wynn could be used to calm it – that would definitely be useful.
Someone from one of the other teams screamed, and when the sound abruptly cut off Einarr knew it had been his death scream. He nearly activated the circle right then, but bit his lip. He had to think carefully, even now: there would only be one chance at this, so he had to do it right.
Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!
This is 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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