Einarr staggered to his feet, trying desperately to catch his breath. Thankfully, the others seemed to have the cat well in hand – for now, anyway. He watched as they ducked and weaved around the creature, taking their shots as they came. Thankfully, too, Sinmora had done more than just devour its double. It was favoring the injured foot heavily: probably, soon they would have to worry about the beast trying to run away. Which meant Einarr really needed to get his sword back.

He could breathe again: that was sufficient. Einarr raised his shield and barreled back into the fight. Kaldr, on his left, acknowledged him with a glance.

“Cover me.” Einarr ducked his head and ran on, shield first, to get closer to the big cat’s paw. The trouble, of course, would be getting close enough to knock the blade free without getting stepped on: the beast was easily as big as a fimbulvulf.

It growled, and Einarr heard its tentacles whip out at the others. He was being ignored, and for now that was fine. For just a moment, the injured paw touched the ground.

Jorir ran across, under its belly, and chopped at one of the hind legs. Here, too, the injured paw touched down for just a moment, as though to steady the massive body.

Einarr readied himself. If he timed it just right, he thought he could grab Sinmora during one of these momentary shifts.

The great cat danced about, taking cut after cut – and inflicting several of its own, to be sure. It was also starting to backpedal: there could not be much time before it decided there were tastier morsels elsewhere.

When Thjofgrir’s blade cut deep into the other foreleg, Einarr saw his best chance. As the claws touched the earth once more, he dashed forward. His hand closed on Sinmora’s hilt, his grip somehow firm in spite of the earlier wound. Einarr pulled.

The monstrous cat screamed.

It wheeled on its hind leg and dashed off into the forest, its double popping back into existence before it was fully out of sight.

The others gathered around Einarr. For a moment, they all stood watching its flight through the forest. Finally, Einarr took a deep breath. “Is everyone all right?”

“I think, my lord, we should be asking you that,” Jorir grumbled.

“A little sore, is all. Was anyone else wounded, though? And how bloody are you? A proper purification is probably beyond me, but I’m certain I could manage a stop gap until we return to camp.”

“It didn’t touch me,” Troa answered. “But I suspect it would be wise for you four.”

Twenty minutes later, after Einarr traced a purifying rune on each of them (including Troa), they too were running off into the forest, on the trail of the strange cat they hoped would lead them to the Hold.


Ordinarily, a cat would be difficult to track, especially at night. Ordinarily, however, that cat would not be wounded, bleeding, and bigger than a horse.

As dawn broke, the five men crouched in the underbrush on a ridge north of the rather imposing fortress maintained by the priesthood of Malúnion. Below, the fortress walls stretched upward at least three stories. The early morning sun made the walls glow like pale gold, and the tower in their center thrust toward the sky like a spear of the gods. Below, within the walls, a town was waking up in shadow.

Kaldr gave a low whistle. “Did those maniacs really build this?”

Jorir grunted. “Unlikely, I think, unless they brought in my kin to do it. But I expect this place was like Nilthiad – conquered from within.”

Einarr contemplated venturing down the ridge and exploring the fortress himself. His legs twitched, but before he could stand Kaldr spoke again.

“We should head back to camp. Now that we know where to send our teams, scouts will be better equipped to get the information we need.”

Reluctantly, Einarr nodded. “You’re right, of course. And this will give us a leg up on plotting our strategy.” Just because Kaldr was right didn’t mean he had to like it.

Their trek cross-country back to their camp was far less eventful than the nighttime journey had been, although it did provide them a better opportunity to study the lay of the land. From the ridge, the land sloped steadily downward toward the shore where the boats were beached. The forest was mixed evergreen and seasonal, and if Einarr was any judge, he thought it looked unusually healthy – especially if it had creatures such as that cat hunting it. He took a cutting of some berry bushes as they walked by, with the intention of having them inspected by Eydri and Hrug.

When they strolled back into camp around mid-morning, they were greeted by a great deal of hustle and the anxious faces of their subordinates. Eydri stormed up to them, with Naudrek right behind. “There you are! What happened to you?”

Einarr gave a lopsided grin. “The biggest cat you ever saw, and the location of the Hold.”

“Bah. Oh, by the gods, you look terrible. Hrug set up a purification circle down by the water if anyone needs it.”

“Thank you, Eydri. I think we’ll take advantage of that. Troa, will you see to it they know where to find the fortress before you come down?”

“Of course, sir.”

As much as Einarr would have preferred to rest, now was not the time. The rest of the day was spent gathered over the makeshift table the guard crew had put together, making plans based on the charts as they knew it – and as they grew to know it over the course of the day, as scouting parties filled in the gaps of their knowledge.

One party reported that, while the beast was likely corrupted by the cult, it may not actually have been kept by the cult: they found a cave on the northeast side of the island that fairly reeked of cat – and had blood spatters just outside the entrance. They had not ventured into the cave to confirm any of this, of course, and Einarr gave his pardon for that immediately. He wouldn’t have either, under the circumstances – although it might become necessary to put the beast down before they began their assault on the island. If all went well, he thought, he and Kaldr should have a strategy and a message for the fleet early the next morning.

 

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.

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon. Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr e-book through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

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.

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

The Vidofnings had fought like madmen before their Singers were unleashed. Now, with both Reki and Runa driving them on, Runa was almost inclined to feel sorry for the creatures attached to the Grendel.

Almost, that is, until she considered the cult they were attached to. What they did to Singers – and very likely other Artists. What they had done to themselves.

That last was on full display now that the battle chant was in force. The creatures might have the rough shape of men, but that was where the resemblance ended. Needle-toothed mouths could be anywhere, from the end of tentacle-like hands to the center of a warrior’s chest to, seemingly, the entirety of the head. Likewise eyes were mismatched and misplaced: some you might have sworn were blind were it not for the uncanny accuracy with which they fought back against the Vidofnings.

Runa could not help but worry as Einarr, his strength not only restored but enhanced by the currents of song in play, pressed forward into the fray, deep into the heart of the Grendel. Smoke was thick, there, and here and there a tattered remnant of sail fluttered, still smoldering, to the deck. Already they had crippled the ship, but the Grendelings had done as much to the Vidofnir in the fall.

Another beast fell to the deck under the force of Einarr’s blade, writhing. Behind the creature she saw what looked like a wide berth around the mast. The smoke there was thicker, as though more than just the sail had been set alight. Not that the Vidofnings would have time to loot the Grendel under the circumstances anyway, not with the Skudbrun under such heavy fire.

Already Runa wished for water, although the smoke was little more than a tang on the air from the deck of the Vidofnir.

Einarr did not venture into the break in the line, at least, although she could not tell what he was doing. The battle-fury left him enough sense to avoid a potential inferno, at least. Neither, though, were the Grendeling beasts willing to venture nearer the mast – and that looked like more than animal cunning. Not one of them so much as stepped toward the mast from where they stood, save only when pressed hard by a Vidofning.

While she watched the creatures flowed around the outside of the perimeter to fill in the gaps as they were opened. It was a strange way of moving, as though there were something within that perimeter that frightened them more than being overrun.

Runa’s eyes were glued to Einarr’s strong back as he readied himself for his next opponent. All around him the battle raged. What does he see? She took another deep breath and nearly choked.

One of the beasts vaulted over its neighbor to his left, landing on the deck with a heavy thud of taloned feet. It snarled in Einarr’s face, but this must have been the moment he was waiting for.

Einarr lunged forward, driving his shield into the creature’s belly as he swung low with Sinmora, towards its thighs. The creature took a half-stride backwards and then it hesitated. Sinmora bit deep into the beast’s leg and it spurted black blood.

Einarr leaned back now, bringing his back leg up for a kick to the creature’s more-or-less normal chest before swinging again at its front leg. Any normal warrior would have tried to dodge, but the only way it could have gone was back.

Sinmora bit deep, nearly severing the leg at the knee. Again it took the blow, rather than risk moving an inch closer to the mast. On the backswing he took off the creature’s foot, but then his voice rang out, clean and pure over the din of battle. “Fire and pitch!”

The Grendelings pressed forward harder then: they had not abandoned their wits along with their humanity, it appeared. That would not help them. Already Runa could see the back ranks of archers lining up with flaming arrows. As one on Bollin’s call they launched. The volley of flaming arrows struck the deck around the mast as the Vidofnings began to press forward from the railings. By sword or by flame, the Grendel would fall.

“Fyrir Astrid!” Einarr’s voice sounded again as he fought his way around the perimeter. The deck wood began to smolder, and then finally catch. The cry echoed around amongst the other Vidofnings: for all but the newest members of the crew, this was personal.

Runa started at a crack of wood from amidships. The deck was already beginning to give way. Slowly the flow of battle began to turn, and Reki’s song shifted with it. It was all Runa could do to keep up. This would never do: if she were to be a proper wife for Einarr, she would have to do better than this.

***

Einarr allowed the withdrawal to happen around him, waiting to join the rearguard. He had been forced out of the vanguard, and so his honor insisted he stay for this. His honor, and the remaining nugget of suspicion at what they might have been avoiding around the mast.

A keening wail seemed to rise up from under the smoldering deck boards, an eerie sound that stood the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck on end and propelled the withdrawing forces back towards their own ship at speed. All trace of red faded from Einarr’s vision at the sound, although none of Runa’s gift of alertness.

Einarr froze where his leap backward had left him, watching. What was that?

Then a different smell reached his nose: still smokey, but with none of the sweetness of pitch or the perfume of wood. This was acrid and sharp.

“Fall back!” Jorir’s voice sounded from near the boarding lines with an urgency that was near panic. “Back! Move!”

That was not a tone Einarr was accustomed to hearing from his normally staid liege-man. He ran, and counted it no shame. Neither did any of his fellows, racing for the boarding lines or leaping across the gap between their ships.

Einarr was the last. No sooner had his feet touched the Vidofnir’s deck than the line was cut and men were jumping to the oars without bothering to shed their maille.

The crack of wood this time was louder, and thick black tentacles rose up around the Grendel‘s mast. He swallowed: that didn’t look like smoke.