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.
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