“Draken, dead ahead!”
Sailing into view ahead of them, almost like a mirror image, came three draken bearing sails in the red and yellow of Ulfr’s Breidelstein.
“Make ready!” Stigander’s voice rose over the water from the Vidofnir, echoed moments later by Kormund and Einarr. Einarr’s heart pounded in his chest like it hadn’t since he was still a deckhand, and suddenly he wondered if he was really ready to be Captain. Or ready to retake their homeland, for that matter. Fifteen years is a long time…
“To arms!” He ordered again, this time breaking free of the paralysis that threatened to grip his legs. He didn’t have to be sure, he just had to do. Just like everything else since the Oracle had named him Cursebreaker. The chainmail slid over his head as easily as it ever did.
Easier, in some ways. Runa was ahead, captive and bound by the same hands that held his grandfather and all the other men of Breidelstein in thrall. When he thought of it that way, how could he even think of hesitating?
The ships ahead were near enough now that Einarr could make out their prow totems – not one of them a wolf. Well, that was fine. He could hardly expect the usurper to sally forth so early.
His men were readying bows, now – everyone aboard, really, save for Bea and Jorir. She stood, spear in hand, just ahead of him and to the left, with Jorir on the right. Einarr shook his head: there were far worse choices for a bodyguard, he supposed, and if she were ahead of him that meant he could keep an eye on her.
They were almost in range. “Ready volley!” Wait for it…
Arrows launched from all three ships almost at once, and only a few landed in the water. The counter-volley came at almost the same moment, and the slower among the Heidrunings had to scramble to raise their shields in time. Arrows sprouted from the deck and from shields, but Einarr heard none of the inevitable cries of pain from his deck. “Again!”
Once more, bows drew back, and on his command they loosed arrows and raised shields once more. The time for arrow fire was nearing its end, however: some few of the missiles launched from their opposites were javelins, now.
“Prepare to board!”
About half of his crew shouldered their bows and moved to ready the boarding lines. The other half kept their shields raised, guarding their fellows. Einarr looked on approvingly: this was the start of a good crew, he thought. Hopefully most of them would survive the battles to come.
Eydri’s battle hymn began to take hold on the edges of his mind. He acknowledged it, but did not let himself sink fully under its sway. That was a luxury that was not afforded to Captains: those who lost themselves in its grip were brutally effective – right up until the rage got them killed. Usually sooner rather than later.
Now the enemy boarding lines launched. Einarr could feel the blood pumping in his veins as he drew Sinmora, still resisting the heady call of the battle chant. It would get easier with time, he knew – just so long as he did resist it.
There was no more time for contemplation. The boarding lines grew taut. Quick as a thought, the first wave of men were up and racing along their precarious footing to be the first to reach the other deck.
The enemy sailors, too, were racing across the ropes, trusting in long practice and good luck to keep them out of the water. Where the two forces met in the middle, they clashed, and there were usually two fates possible in that first clash: either you won, and the other man fell, or you lost, and fell to the water below, to swim and hope you could escape being crushed between the ships.
The men of the Heidrun, since they were few in number and mostly still green, had been instructed in a cleverer way of fighting. They were not to clash like rams, horns against horns, on the boarding lines. Instead their first rush was to evade the enemy and slip past to the deck beyond, while those who remained behind defended the Heidrun and their captain from a place of better footing. Einarr had the idea from watching Sivid, and it had the benefit of taunting the enemy while they were securing their own footing.
It seemed to be working. He heard very few splashes, and of the few who fell even fewer were Heidrunings, men of Kjell or experienced sailors either one.
That also meant, however, that the fighting was harder on his own deck. Bea and Jorir closed ranks so that the three of them stood back to back, just behind the first line of defenders.
One man, a fellow built like Stigander but with a wild red mane the color of Einarr’s, crashed through the line of defenders to close with Einarr. He studied the man’s face: could this be an uncle, or a cousin?
Family or not, he was fighting in deadly earnest, and so Einarr did not hesitate to do the same. They exchanged three blows. On the fourth, Einarr buried Sinmora’s blade in his shoulder. The blade slid free and the man clutched at the wound, stumbling backward with a scream of rage and pain. He might live, if their Singer got to him quickly enough, but that had been his sword arm. He would never fight again.
The battle was almost over before it began. Not long after the red-headed bear withdrew, the enemy captains sounded the retreat.
Once their men had cut their way back aboard the Heidrun, and the enemy sailors had fled, the boarding lines were drawn back. Bea stared in consternation at the fleeing ships.
“That was all it took to send them off? Why did your father fear these men so?”
Einarr shook his head. “They were testing us. Those were scout ships. And those men, some of them anyway, are kin. Father does not fear them, he fears for them.”
Bea hummed. She did not look convinced.
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