Stigander stood in the center of the Vidofnir’s deck, his hands pressed against his knees, as he caught his breath. Behind him, Reki sang a Song of Healing, and although he was not terribly wounded he felt the innumberable cuts and strains of a hard-fought battle mending. He had fallen back with Bardr over his shoulder, keenly aware that he was growing too old to lead his men into combat this way. He would remain in back, guarding the Singers, until his strength returned to him.
The fight on the demon ships was even uglier than he had feared: the Clans had already sent many a good warrior on to Valhalla today, and even now their success was far from certain – as was their survival. Sharks churned the red and black water below into a froth, whipped into a frenzy by the blood that continued to sluice off the decks of the clashing fleets. That frothing churn was the only reason the din of battle wasn’t deafening: it muted the water’s echo.
Stigander straightened, surveying the lay of the battle around him. He had rested long enough, he thought: time to wade back out into the abyss. One small mercy: none of these crews had decided to sacrifice themselves to the beasties under their decks this time. Yet. He reset his shield and readied his sword.
As he stepped up to the bulwark, though, one foot poised to race back across the boarding line, a plume of flame illuminated the raging storm behind the demon ships. This was followed by three more in rapid succession, one of them so far down the line of the fleet it looked like someone lighting a candle. He froze, the implications clear in his mind.
Einarr had written Beatrix for help, he knew. If this meant she had come, this could change their relationship with the Empire for a generation or more.
Princess Beatrix Maria Gundahar stood on the forecastle of Blackwing, her personal ship, and watched for their moment. All was as Einarr had led her to expect: the storm, the demon-prowed longships, and blood in the water. Her front runners would soon be in range for sea fire, and then the wicked would fall before the might of the Empire.
She grinned. Convincing Father to let her take a fleet out for this had been easy: it would put the Clans in their debt for a generation, he thought. And, perhaps he was right – Beatrix had only been interested because it was Einarr, and Einarr had saved her life not that long ago.
The din of battle grew loud in her ears. The demon ships were hard to see under the darkness of their stormclouds, and the sheeting rain would cut the range of their sea-fire. Her grin turned to a purse-lipped stare. “Ready the cannons!”
“Aye-aye!” came the cry.
The Blackwing crested another wave, and suddenly they were almost on top of the demon ships. On the far side of them, she could just make out the fleet Einarr had mentioned. “Loose sea-fire!”
The Blackwing’s prow opened up and a gout of flame spouted forth, sweeping over the demon ship. Even the water below burned with the might of the sea-fire, and the deck of the demon ship could also not withstand its heat.
Gouts of sea-fire traveled outward from the Blackwing in both directions as the rest of her fleet followed suit.
Beatrix whooped. “Fire at will!”
The tide of battle turned slowly. Stigander noticed that the defenders were breaking off by ones and twos just before he, too, smelled the acrid smoke of sea-fire. He gave a roar and raised his blade over head – a roar that was answered by every other man of the fleet in hearing range, it seemed. They surged forward, hacking and slashing their way towards the masts of the cultists ships.
Now, of course, was when things were likely to get really dangerous – and with the number of men who had already fallen in battle today, that was saying a great deal. Should even one of the enemy crew decide it was better to sacrifice themselves so their dark god could improve his chance of victory, they might have trouble fighting it off this time – even with the assistance of the Valkyrian Knights and the Imperial Princess. “Don’t let them scuttle their ships!”
Of course, the fire could unleash one of the beasts, too – he had seen as much – but it was a risk they would have to take.
The Knights of the Valkyrie stopped spewing fire at the cultists’ ships and pulled up alongside. “Cast lines!”
She hardly needed to bother: almost before the words were out of her mouth, men from the crew were tossing hooks across to catch the enemy bulwarks. As soon as the ropes were tight they tied them off, and a moment later her men were swarming over the deck to the enemy ships. For once, since she had met the Cursebreaker, Beatrix had absolutely no qualms about taking the fight to the Clans. In this case, though, she supposed she wasn’t really fighting a Clan. She raised her voice to shout over the wind and the waves and the sounds of battle. “Remember why we are here! We fight, today, not against the Northern Clans but against a group of heretics who would corrupt the entirety of us in the name of their own power. Forward!”
“Forward!” Came the answering cry – and not just from her own ship.
Beatrix joined in as well, swinging deftly up and running across the few feet of open, churning sea without so much as a breath of hesitation. They had taken the fight to their enemies, and the poor fools were so wrapped up in the battle at the harbor mouth they wouldn’t even realize until it was too late.
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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