Along the shore of the inlet stood a grove of trees that hung out over the water. To its left, a stretch of sand glowed in the moonlight: they could hardly ask for a better location to go ashore and conceal the boats.
Once the Heidrun and the Lúmskulf were camouflaged by the trees, the twin crews made a cold camp. About twenty men stayed behind to guard the ships and ensure all was in readiness. Everyone else formed into teams to search the island. Then, they were off. Probably there was no cause for haste, given the protections they had seen on the islands during their approach. By the same token, however, sooner or later someone was going to spot the fleet sitting at anchor, and at that point their situation would grow significantly worse.
Einarr was moving in a group with Jorir, Kaldr, Thjofgrir, and Troa: Eydri had been disappointed, but her knowledge was more likely to be valuable with the ships than scouting. The forest at night was disorienting at best, although in other circumstances – and with the right company – it could have been pretty. The oak branches swayed in a breeze that never reached the forest floor, causing the dappled patches of moonlight and shadow to shift unpredictably.
Troa led the way, with Jorir right behind him: the svartdvergr couldn’t quite match the scout for stealth, but he more than made up for it with his dvergr senses. Einarr came next, flanked by Kaldr and Thjofgrir – neither of whom, he thought, would actually be any better if it came to a fight in these circumstances. But, no matter.
They had gone perhaps an hour into the forest, drawing ever farther away from their ships and the other search crews, when a low, groaning rumble made Einarr’s ears strain. “Shh!”
Everyone froze. The sound came again.
“Beast, or tree?”
Troa glanced up at the branches overhead. Their sway did not seem to have changed. “Beast, I think.”
Kaldr grunted in agreement: Einarr saw his shield shift on his shoulder. “Has anyone spotted any tracks?”
Jorir shook his head. “Not yet – not in this light. Even dvergr have trouble tracking beasts under the moon.”
“We’ll just have to keep going, then. Keep your wits.”
He was certain the admonishment was unnecessary, on one level, but on another it was critical. They moved on, and as they went Einarr found it more natural to rest his hand on Sinmora’s hilt.
A peculiar, not entirely pleasant odor crossed his nose. Einarr sniffed, then had to stifle a cough. “I think we’ve entered its territory,” he whispered.
“Aye, we have,” Jorir agreed. “Come look at this.”
It was hard to make out in the dark, but there, plain as day, were marks from claws being dragged through the dirt. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but that looks feline to me.”
“Based on the scratches in the trees, maybe,” Troa mused. “Only, I’ve never heard of a cat that big before.”
“Nor I,” Einarr answered. “But we have to remember who we’re dealing with here. I fought a Singer who had been turned into a Troll: making a cat five times its normal size shouldn’t be that difficult.”
Thjofgrir sniffed then, and chuckled. “If that’s a cat, best check your boots. Someone just stepped in cat shit.”
Einarr’s eyes went wide, and suddenly he was glad no-one could see his face. He cursed, perhaps more loudly than he should have. “Privy or no privy, a giant cat’s hunting ground is no place to be at night. We should move on.”
“Of course, sir.” Thjofgrir’s voice was still amused: Einarr hadn’t hidden anything.
The growl sounded again, closer this time. Now Einarr smiled in spite of himself. “So, funny thing about cat shit. It can cover our scents.”
“Tromping through cat excrement will cover our trail, you say?” Kaldr asked, his shield up and his sword drawn.
“It should have! I’m rusty, but I’m not that rusty.”
“Lord Einarr is right.” Troa’s voice was calm, but his posture was just as tense as everyone else’s. “When hunting alone, it is considered wise to scent yourself with the waste of the creature you hunt.”
At the edge of the clearing where they now stood shoulder to shoulder, they could see a pair of giant green cat eyes glowing from the shadow of the forest.
Thjofgrir, incongruously, belly-laughed and banged his blade against his shield. “Nothing like a fight to get the blood pumping. Maybe we’ll be lucky and it will be tasty.”
“Not likely.” Einarr steadied his stance and glanced down at Jorir, on his right. Sure enough, the dvergr was already steady as a rock, waiting for the beast to pounce.
“More likely it’s some sort of corrupted horror. Not that we’ll be able to tell in this light.”
“My lord,” Jorir rumbled, never looking away from where the cat crouched. “If I may, now might be an excellent time for a little light. I will cover you while you inscribe.”
Einarr frowned. They were out in the open, on the one hand, and any light he made would be a beacon to their enemies. On the other hand, this cat was the only other creature they had seen all night, and lighting their footing would help tilt the odds of this fight. “All right.”
Einarr stepped back. Jorir stepped over. Neither of these actions had finished when the cat leapt out of the clearing, clearly sensing a weakness. Tentacles lashed at Jorir and at Troa, at either end of the line, and the black-striped face snarled even as it swiped at Kaldr.
Jorir, to his credit, chopped at the tentacle that had swiped for him without a second’s hesitation.
Einarr finished drawing the light rune on his shield and activated it. Then he glanced off to his side and realized: there were two of them.
The beasts snarled again, weirdly in sync, and flinched back from the sudden brightness. If there were two of them, though… “Form a circle!”
“A what? Why?” Kaldr slashed at the beast’s face with his sword, buying himself enough space to glance over and back at Einarr. “By all the gods, where did that one come from?”
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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