Einarr surveyed the landing below and frowned. That would have been a brutal fight even without everything that came before. They had, in the end, put the cursed warriors down and their knights to rout, but the toll had been heavy. “Jorir.”
“Here, my lord.”
“We hold the fortress town and the first floor, and the men are exhausted. Detail a team, as energetic as you can manage, to fetch Kaldr and the others. Meanwhile, the rest of us who can move will see to the wounded and secure this level.”
“As you wish, milord!”
Einarr nodded, already seeking out the next face he needed – Troa. They would have to divide up the work yet further, and roughly half the men down here underground were out of action.
The scout had a bloody rag tied around his arm when Einarr found him, and he looked pale. Still, though, he was both upright and active. “Troa!”
“Yes, sir!” It was a credit to the man that he was still sharp.
“I’ve sent Jorir and a few others out to bring Kaldr’s team. You take some men and gather up the wounded… over there, I think.” Einarr pointed to what looked like a defensible spot. “We’re fortifying here, for now.”
Troa’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Aye, sir!”
Truth be told, Einarr didn’t like giving up the initiative this way – but if he didn’t give his men at least a little time to rest here none of them were going to make it out alive. Now that that was dealt with, Einarr began grabbing people more or less at random. Two men he posted on the stairs up, and another two at the door to a ramp leading down – and Einarr was certain he didn’t like the look of that. Then, he took Svarek, Arkja, Naudrek and Hakon down a wide, level passage.
Before long, he heard the lapping of the sea, and the smell of brine was in the air. “I’ll lay odds that we find a harbor at the end of this,” he muttered.
Arkja chuckled. “No bet.”
“Let’s just hope its already empty?” Hakon said. “I don’t fancy taking on a whole harbor with just the five of us.”
That earned him a sharp look from Arkja, but Einarr held up his hand for peace. “There’s no cowardice in accepting your limits. That’s why we’re retrenching in the first place.”
“As you say, my lord.” Arkja’s voice was tight, but Einarr decided to let it pass. Up ahead, the watery light from the blue torches grew more intense, if not exactly brighter, and the sea-smell was definitely stronger. Einarr pressed himself against a wall and crept forward. The others followed his lead.
They needn’t have bothered creeping. What they saw would have looked very like an ordinary harbor, save for two things. First, there was no sign of daylight out over the water. Even on the svartalfr island there had been a lighter blackness marking the harbor mouth. Second, there was nothing larger than a two-man skiff still docked, and not a soul in sight.
Naudrek whistled, and in the emptiness the sound was far louder than he could have intended. “Lord Stigander must be having a rough time of it,” he said.
“You’re probably right,” Einarr agreed. “Only, where are all the dock workers?”
“I imagine that’s who we fought on the landing. Some of them, anyway,” Arkja suggested.
“You think they’d waste their knights on the docks?” Naudrek asked, surprised but sincere.
“They wouldn’t have had to, unless the cursed needed to be closely watched. “ Einarr pressed his lips in thought. “They saw us coming, and they had plenty of time to station those knights on the landing. Probably the knights brought the cursed from the harbor once they launched their fleet… I don’t think we need to worry about enemies from the harbor unless Father fails.”
That was a line of thought he didn’t care to pursue under the circumstances. No-one else seemed interested, either, and silence fell for a heavy moment. “Split up,” he ordered eventually. “I’ll take Naudrek right. The rest of you go left. We’ll meet back here.”
Jorir’s team arrived only moments before Einarr’s returned from their investigation of the harbor – which had been just as empty, and just as ordinary, as it first appeared. Experience told him they would have something terrible, and they would keep it underground.
Eydri and Hrug looked tired, but as well as could be expected. Kaldr and Naudrek looked like they had seen better days, and Thjofgrir as well, but slung across Thjofgrir’s back was the unconscious Arring. He still breathed, at least: Einarr could see that much as he hurried up to greet them.
“Those blasted cats is what happened,” Kaldr grumbled. “Two of them this time – two real ones, so it felt like four. Right as we were about to signal the fleet. Hrug got it off while we were fighting them, but…”
Einarr nodded understanding. “I’m glad you all made it in one piece, at least. Arring… Arring seeks to be reunited with his family.”
Kaldr raised an eyebrow. “I thought he was a bachelor.”
“Widower, I’m afraid. When the Usurper was taking over Breidelstein, his family was killed.”
Kaldr looked pained, but Einarr shook his head. “You’re not so much older than me that you had any hand in it, and it’s not really relevant just this moment. How was the situation at sea?”
“Difficult to say for sure, except that they were laying in wait for the fleet, too. I’m afraid our plan led them right onto the cultist’s anvil. The storms from the demon ships made it hard to tell what was happening, but I know they managed to clear out the ships inside the harbor.”
Einarr groaned. Fortune favor you, Father. He had no more energy he could afford to spend on that, however. He shook his head and turned to Eydri. “How is your voice? Think you can handle some healing? Hrug and I can see to purifying everyone.”
“Yes, I’ll be fine.” She looked at him, and wrinkled her brows as she studied his face. “You look pale. What has happened?”
“It’s nothing. Just an arrow in the leg and too much rune working.”
She pursed her lips. “That’s not nothing. Sit down on the step and I can at least do something about that leg.”
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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