After three days of sneaking and scouting and planning, Troa reported that the rest of the fleet had been spotted off the southern coast. That meant two things: there was only so much time before the Squiddies moved, and they needed to move first.

At dawn on the fourth day since they abandoned their initial camp, the crews of the Heidrun and the Lúmskulf crept towards the fortress below in small teams. Each team had a variation on the same goal: enter the fortress, cause mayhem, and open the way for the main assault of the fleet. They were all aware of the giant cats that seemed to be in two places at once and the not-men who had assaulted the camp. They had been warned of other abominations they might face. No-one expected this to be pretty or easy.

Kaldr remained on the ridge, along with Thjofgrir, Eydri, Hrug, and Arring. Their task was to observe the taking of the fortress from the outside and send up a signal for the waiting fleet.

Einarr’s team was filled with old, familiar faces. Jorir, of course, who guarded his liege lord like a hound guards its master. Then Irding, and Arkja, and Troa. Einarr wished he could have brought Vali along, but they had not yet found a way to reawaken the ghost from his jar.

As they crouched in the bushes, a narrow stretch of open ground all that separated them from the fortress walls, Einarr found himself wishing for a great deal more time. “It looks to me like the best way in would be underground,” he muttered.

Jorir, at his side, harrumphed. “You’re starting to think like a dvergr. I don’t agree, though.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow and waited for his liege man to go on.

“That is old masonry. You can tell by how weathered it is. It looks as though they’ve kept it free of moss, but I wager it wouldn’t be hard to just slide a block free. The difficulty comes in knowing who – or what – is on the other side.”

That didn’t sound terribly easy to Einarr. Perhaps there was a dvergr trick to it? “Wouldn’t that take a long time and be noisy? I think we may just have to go looking for a thrall’s gate.”

Troa shook his head. “We’ve circled this fortress twice. There aren’t any.”

“No…! Then how do they get rid of…?”

“I suggest everyone avoid swimming in the harbor.”

Jorir, though, was still studying the wall. “No, I can do it. But I’ll need the rest of you on lookout while I do.”

Einarr didn’t see many other choices at this point. There weren’t likely to be crowds they could hide in, after all. He nodded, their course now set. “Arkja, how are you with a bow? Think you can keep up with Troa?”

“I’ll do my best, milord.”

“Good. See that you do. Irding, you and I will patrol a perimeter – make sure nothing sneaks up on us from down here. Troa, Arkja, take care of anyone too observant on the wall.”

When they were certain the coast was clear, Jorir dashed across the killing field. His maille didn’t even clink. A moment later, the sound of metal tapping stone reached their ears. An initial glance made it look as though Jorir were right: if they could give him time to work, he could open the hole they needed.

“Now it’s on us. Good fortune, everyone.”

Hours passed. Other than Jorir’s persistent tapping on the wall, they heard nothing but the occasional trill of birdsong. Certainly there were no more of the cats yet – and it had been big enough, it would have had trouble maneuvering inside city walls. As the sun neared its zenith, Einarr fancied he could see a sliver of light in the crack Jorir was introducing into the wall. That was also when he heard the sounds of struggle from Irding’s direction. Einarr spun on his heel to go assist, but even as he did, two bowstrings twanged and quiet settled around them once more. He returned to his own patrol, only to find himself face to face with one of the not-men.

A strangled cry of surprise leapt from his throat, but his body was faster. Sinmora came to hand and beheaded the monster. He stood still a long moment, waiting to be sure it wasn’t going to get back up in spite of everything. And that was when he heard a cry of surprise from Arkja and Troa, whose attention was focused on the walls and who were encumbered by their bows. This time Einarr did run.

He reached the two scouts at the same moment Irding did. They were backing towards Jorir and the wall and firing as they went. Their arrows, however, appeared to be doing nothing to the handful of not-men who approached with blades drawn. Einarr cursed. Obviously, they had been spotted some time ago: this was obviously an ambush. He lowered Sinmora and charged at one who was about to bury his axe in Troa’s arm. The worry that their entire plan was foiled put fire in his blood.

Irding put himself between Arkja and a cursed warrior wielding a pair of hunting knives.

The initial surge out of the forest had been only a handful, but Einarr could see movement in the shadows already. With two strikes he took the legs out from under the axe man in front of him and then, on the back swing, buried his blade in its chest. Irding dispatched the knife wielder with similar speed, but it would do them little good.

“Jorir? Are you nearly done?”

“Aye. One good blast would open it now.”

Einarr growled as he caught another cursed warrior’s axe on his shield and answered it with a sword to its belly. He didn’t want to draw that much attention if he could avoid it. “And without one?”

“I break up the stone with my axes. Not great on the blades.”

And probably another hour’s worth of work. The not-men were coming out into the killing field in greater numbers now. Soon, it wouldn’t matter if they hadn’t notified anyone inside: this fight would be plain for all to see. “Fine. Trade me places.”

 

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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