Tag: ship combat

10.5 – Blockade Run

The beat of Hàkon’s drum changed, subtly, from the rower’s cadence to a battle drum as the men hastily donned their maille. Eydri caught Einarr’s eye as he approached and inclined her head in acknowledgement. Good: it seemed she knew exactly what he had in mind. Einarr took up a position just forward of the mast and looked out over the water, studying their enemies.

It was a blockade, like the wolves had tried to keep them in Breidelsteinn harbor. There, though, they had used a runic trick and who knows how much of their store of good luck to confuse the wolves. Einarr still couldn’t believe how well that worked: the fleet Captain must have been incompetent as well as unlucky to botch things that badly. He was not willing to assume that of Kaldr.

They could scatter, and try to meet back up after losing their tails. Dangerous, but possible, if either he or Kormund knew where Stigander was headed next. Einarr didn’t, which meant probably Kormund didn’t either, so that was out. He frowned.

“Naudrek. Keep your eyes on the Vidofnir. Let me know the moment you see a signal.”

“Aye, sir!”

“How’s Hrug holding up?” Getting past that previous blockade had taken a lot out of both of them, but the one-armed sorcer had been overextending himself for a lot longer than that.

Jorir cleared his throat as he held up Einarr’s maille shirt. “Bored, near as I can tell. You’ll have to ask him if he’s up for another miracle.”

Einarr grunted and pulled the shirt over his arms. “I’d best go do that, then.”

The fact that he didn’t know already was irksome, but there hadn’t been a great deal of time for discussion since Hrug’s last ‘miracle.’ Things had been moving entirely too quickly on this expedition for niceties such as making sure your sorcerer wasn’t working himself to death.


The lookout on board the Eikthyrnir spotted what looked like a gap in the wolfling’s line. There was a tense moment aboard the Heidrun while Einarr and Jorir considered whether it was a trap, and whether or not such a trap was worth trying anyway. Einarr didn’t see much choice in the matter: either they made a break for it or they settled on the island behind them. Jorir urged caution.

Eventually, though, they agreed to spring the trap. There was no more time to dither. Stigander pulled the Vidofnir forward to be the point of their spear. Einarr took the right flank, while Kormund came up on the left.

Every third man aboard the Heidrun stood guarding the rowers with shields and axes. Another third had their bows limbered and a few of their scant remaining arrows to hand. They could not afford more than one, maybe two volleys here. The idea, though, was to move quickly enough they would not need more than that.

Stigander’s hunting horn echoed over the water and the Vidofnir began its rush.

Kormund’s horn joined Stigander’s as the Eikthyrnir also surged forward.

With a long breath, Einarr brought his own horn up to his mouth and joined his voice to theirs. Hàkon’s cadence shifted slightly as the oarsmen began to row with all speed. The voices of all five Singers lifted over the waves in the wake of the hunting horns call, and they were committed.

Behind Einarr, seated on the deck near Eydri and Runa, Hrug traced the now-familiar runes of a ward at his knees. He had insisted he had the wherewithal to fight, and Einarr was in no position to argue. Let Kaldr sneer all he wants: I’ll not scorn a tool at my disposal.

The three ships surged through the water for the gap in Kaldr’s line. It should be sufficient, barely, for their wedge to slip through with a little luck and a lot of speed.

A cloud of arrows in the sky showed when they had entered bow range. Einarr set his mouth and watched, waiting.

A second volley flew their way. More of these landed on the deck or planted themselves in shields, but still most flew wide. The wind was excellent for sailing, but evidently giving their archers trouble. Einarr glanced down at Hrug, but his one-armed friend showed no sign of having toyed with the wind.

Finally the people on the deck of the wolfling ships looked recognizably human to Einarr. A third flock of arrows rose into the sky. “Archers! Fire!”

The answering volleys from the Vidofnir, the Heidrun, and the Eikthyrnir were striking home even as the three ships came into boarding line range – of one ship. Einarr groaned to see that one of the ships on the edge of the gap was pulling back and firing again. If they weren’t careful, they would be encircled. Maybe even if they were careful.

He signalled for Hàkon to speed his cadence. Some of the slower oarsmen might have trouble keeping up if they held it for a long time, but for a short sprint they should be able to manage.

The ship ahead of them was still falling back, although even from here Einarr could see boarding lines being readied. He caught himself settling into a fighting stance and shrugged his shoulders: it was far too early for the Captain to be preparing to fight – not hand to hand, anyway. He glanced behind them.

Sure enough, another of the wolfling ships – Einarr thought it was Kaldr’s, although he couldn’t say for certain – was trying to sneak behind them. This was about to get very, very messy.


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10.1 – Dawn Assault

With the tapestries in hand, Einarr had thought they might gain some time to breathe and regroup. For the space of a night, he thought he’d been right. They’d prayed the confusion in their enemies would continue and sailed all through the night, sleeping in shifts.

Einarr wakened at the break of dawn and rose, stretching, his arms still aching with fatigue from the day before. “Damn them all to Hel.”

Approaching from the East, nearly obscured by the light of the rising sun, were ships. Only a fool, at this point, would bet on these being anything other than part of the wolf fleet. Einarr cupped a hand to his mouth. “Draken incoming!

With a series of groans and muttered curses, the men of his Heidrun roused themselves. Belatedly, someone sounded the warning bell. Moments later, it was taken up by the other two ships, and soon followed by the rattling of maille as the men armed themselves.

Then it was as though meteors flew from the sun as the wolf fleet launched its first volley of fire arrows and combat was joined.

“Will we be returning fire, my lord?” Jorir asked from beside him.

Einarr frowned. It was risky, but he needed to be mindful of how many arrows they had already spent. “No, not this time.”

The dwarf merely grunted, as though he agreed. “Hold your fire, men! Shields up, be ready for the assault!”

Captain Kormund’s Eikthyrnir made the same call, veering south where Einarr veered north. In the middle, the Vidofnir plowed doggedly ahead, and she did return fire.

Einarr nodded to himself. Father should draw their fire that way. Perhaps, if they had only a little good luck, the effect of that rug would be waning. Eydri had said the Weavess had plainly needed to maintain it, and now she couldn’t.

Now came the test, though: boarding lines flew.

“Keep them off us!” Einarr bellowed. He thought he knew what Father had in mind, but for it to work he and Kormund needed to be free to engage on their own terms.

His oarsmen were nimble, and what few the shield wall could not block were handled readily by axe or by sword. Now Einarr grinned as the Wolfling ships, like their totem creature, focused their attention on the ship which decided to stand and fight.

Kormund had already zipped most of the way around the wolves’ flank as though he intended to flee. Einarr knew better, but he hoped the enemy captain did not.

As the Heidrun sailed out of the wolves’ encirclement, they passed near enough to the leader of the pack for Einarr to spot its captain, and as he did he was struck by an odd sense of unreality. The man barking orders on the deck of the other ship could be none other than the man who had stolen the women before! The Singers and Bea had all seemed to think him grounded, though. What was he doing out here? Einarr shook his head: now was not the time to worry over such matters.

In just that moment, the enemy captain looked up and straight at Einarr. The two men locked eyes, and a predatory grin spread over the mouth of the man called Kaldr.

A shiver ran along Einarr’s spine. That man knew exactly what they were trying. “Prepare to repel boarders!” Einarr ordered.

He was too late, or they were too close for it to do any good. This time the lines caught fast.

“Eydri!” At the sound of her name, the battle chanter began to Sing, and Einarr felt the familiar touch of the battle fury on his mind. With a deep breath, he forced himself to focus on the enemy ship. Giving in to the fury as a Captain was never wise. Against a man like Kaldr, he suspected it would be death.

Still, he too drew his sword, and flanked by Jorir and Naudrek stalked toward the bulwark and the wolfling ship.

In the moments their walk took, the first clash had already occurred on the ropes over the water, and then there were Wolflings on the Heidrun’s deck.

Sinmora flashed and men fell. Einarr knew his father wished to minimize casualties, but he would not spend his crew here. Not when they were seemingly no closer to gaining the Hold.

Then the smell of smoke filled the air and fire rained down on the deck of Kaldr’s ship. Now it was Einarr’s turn to grin as the wolves assaulting his ship turned in surprise.

“Press them,” he ordered, and the call was echoed by both Jorir and Naudrek.

Chaos followed as the wolflings tried to get back to their own ship in any way they could. Kormund was back with the Eikthyrnir, and whether or not Kaldr had forgotten about them, his men certainly had.

As his men climbed on the bulwark to follow, though, Kaldr’s men began to cut the lines.

“Hold,” Einarr called now. Whatever Kaldr had planned, the solution was not to charge headlong onto the man’s ship. The Singers had spoken of a man with ice in his veins, and so it might be that he would prove a harrier. If so, then the key was to pace themselves, as well.

As quickly as they had closed, the Usurper’s ships withdrew again, back the way they had come but not out of sight. Einarr scowled over the water every time they crossed his field of view, just out of engagement range. The Vidofnir, the Heidrun, and the Eikthyrnir resumed their retreat under sail.

“Still,” he mused aloud, “It seems Eydri was right about that so-called rug of ‘inevitable victory.’ We caught them by surprise there.”

Jorir cleared his throat as though there was something caught in it. “Maybe so,” he grumbled. “But I’m not sure how much good it actually did us if we did.”

“He pulled back rather than risk panic in his men when Kormund joined the fray. That helps us, I think.”

“Maybe so. Maybe so.” The dwarf did not sound convinced.


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4.21 – Red Vengeance

The Vidofnings had fought like madmen before their Singers were unleashed. Now, with both Reki and Runa driving them on, Runa was almost inclined to feel sorry for the creatures attached to the Grendel.

Almost, that is, until she considered the cult they were attached to. What they did to Singers – and very likely other Artists. What they had done to themselves.

That last was on full display now that the battle chant was in force. The creatures might have the rough shape of men, but that was where the resemblance ended. Needle-toothed mouths could be anywhere, from the end of tentacle-like hands to the center of a warrior’s chest to, seemingly, the entirety of the head. Likewise eyes were mismatched and misplaced: some you might have sworn were blind were it not for the uncanny accuracy with which they fought back against the Vidofnings.

Runa could not help but worry as Einarr, his strength not only restored but enhanced by the currents of song in play, pressed forward into the fray, deep into the heart of the Grendel. Smoke was thick, there, and here and there a tattered remnant of sail fluttered, still smoldering, to the deck. Already they had crippled the ship, but the Grendelings had done as much to the Vidofnir in the fall.

Another beast fell to the deck under the force of Einarr’s blade, writhing. Behind the creature she saw what looked like a wide berth around the mast. The smoke there was thicker, as though more than just the sail had been set alight. Not that the Vidofnings would have time to loot the Grendel under the circumstances anyway, not with the Skudbrun under such heavy fire.

Already Runa wished for water, although the smoke was little more than a tang on the air from the deck of the Vidofnir.

Einarr did not venture into the break in the line, at least, although she could not tell what he was doing. The battle-fury left him enough sense to avoid a potential inferno, at least. Neither, though, were the Grendeling beasts willing to venture nearer the mast – and that looked like more than animal cunning. Not one of them so much as stepped toward the mast from where they stood, save only when pressed hard by a Vidofning.

While she watched the creatures flowed around the outside of the perimeter to fill in the gaps as they were opened. It was a strange way of moving, as though there were something within that perimeter that frightened them more than being overrun.

Runa’s eyes were glued to Einarr’s strong back as he readied himself for his next opponent. All around him the battle raged. What does he see? She took another deep breath and nearly choked.

One of the beasts vaulted over its neighbor to his left, landing on the deck with a heavy thud of taloned feet. It snarled in Einarr’s face, but this must have been the moment he was waiting for.

Einarr lunged forward, driving his shield into the creature’s belly as he swung low with Sinmora, towards its thighs. The creature took a half-stride backwards and then it hesitated. Sinmora bit deep into the beast’s leg and it spurted black blood.

Einarr leaned back now, bringing his back leg up for a kick to the creature’s more-or-less normal chest before swinging again at its front leg. Any normal warrior would have tried to dodge, but the only way it could have gone was back.

Sinmora bit deep, nearly severing the leg at the knee. Again it took the blow, rather than risk moving an inch closer to the mast. On the backswing he took off the creature’s foot, but then his voice rang out, clean and pure over the din of battle. “Fire and pitch!”

The Grendelings pressed forward harder then: they had not abandoned their wits along with their humanity, it appeared. That would not help them. Already Runa could see the back ranks of archers lining up with flaming arrows. As one on Bollin’s call they launched. The volley of flaming arrows struck the deck around the mast as the Vidofnings began to press forward from the railings. By sword or by flame, the Grendel would fall.

“Fyrir Astrid!” Einarr’s voice sounded again as he fought his way around the perimeter. The deck wood began to smolder, and then finally catch. The cry echoed around amongst the other Vidofnings: for all but the newest members of the crew, this was personal.

Runa started at a crack of wood from amidships. The deck was already beginning to give way. Slowly the flow of battle began to turn, and Reki’s song shifted with it. It was all Runa could do to keep up. This would never do: if she were to be a proper wife for Einarr, she would have to do better than this.

***

Einarr allowed the withdrawal to happen around him, waiting to join the rearguard. He had been forced out of the vanguard, and so his honor insisted he stay for this. His honor, and the remaining nugget of suspicion at what they might have been avoiding around the mast.

A keening wail seemed to rise up from under the smoldering deck boards, an eerie sound that stood the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck on end and propelled the withdrawing forces back towards their own ship at speed. All trace of red faded from Einarr’s vision at the sound, although none of Runa’s gift of alertness.

Einarr froze where his leap backward had left him, watching. What was that?

Then a different smell reached his nose: still smokey, but with none of the sweetness of pitch or the perfume of wood. This was acrid and sharp.

“Fall back!” Jorir’s voice sounded from near the boarding lines with an urgency that was near panic. “Back! Move!”

That was not a tone Einarr was accustomed to hearing from his normally staid liege-man. He ran, and counted it no shame. Neither did any of his fellows, racing for the boarding lines or leaping across the gap between their ships.

Einarr was the last. No sooner had his feet touched the Vidofnir’s deck than the line was cut and men were jumping to the oars without bothering to shed their maille.

The crack of wood this time was louder, and thick black tentacles rose up around the Grendel‘s mast. He swallowed: that didn’t look like smoke.


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4.18 – Grendel

The Vidofnir and the Grendel slipped past one another in the half-light of the underground river, the passengers of each staring at the other in shock. For the moment, the Grendelings did not appear monstrous, although Einarr was certain that would change the moment battle was joined.

Stigander reacted first. “Onward, men! Put your backs into it!”

The order broke the stillness, but Einarr was not the only one who continued to stare across the inlet at the hated foe. He would be very surprised indeed if his father was not among them. Had it not been for the nearing sounds of their pursuers’ ships they might have stopped to fight, then and there. Thankfully, Stigander had too cool a head on him to succumb to that temptation.

The creatures manning the Grendel were coming back to life as well, although it was difficult to tell what they did in the half-light as the Vidofnir sped past. Einarr thought he could guess, even without the whistling splashes of arrows fired in haste, that soon there would be another boat on their tail. Let them come.

Then he had no breath left for thought, or anything save the blistering cadence Stigander called from amidships as they raced for the cave mouth and the comparative safety of the open sea.

The light from outside, so dim-seeming on their initial approach, grew brighter and larger as Vidofnir and Skudbrun shot forward, at the limits of speed either boat could coax from oars alone.

The wind whipped up choppy waters outside the protection of the cave, and as the Vidofnir shot out into the open air her bow reared up like the rooster of her namesake. A moment later, as the Vidofnir came back down heavily, the Skudbrun also reared. Their sails unfurled and caught the wind, and now speed of storm was added to speed of oar.

Still, there was less time than anyone aboard either ship would have liked before the black Grendel emerged from within the deeper blackness of the island, and with it the other ships of that demon’s fleet.

Einarr, even as he kept up with the rowing cadence, sought some sliver of advantage they might take in the nearby waters. To simply flee, without at least bloodying the noses of the Grendelings? Of the ones who had tried to make a sacrifice out of his Runa? The idea could hardly be borne.

He glanced up: he could see the same feelings in the set of his father’s shoulders and the hard-eyed glare he cast around the ship even as he kept the rowers on pace. Einarr grunted, turning his focus back to the work at hand.

Five strokes later, Irding came by to trade places. “Captain wants you.”

Einarr nodded, sidestepping out of the way even as Irding slipped in where he had been. His arms and back were warm from exertion, and he stretched his arms as he strode towards the mast, his father, and Bardr.

“What’s our best ambush strategy?”

Stigander glanced to the side at Einarr. With a nod, Bardr took over the cadence call. The wind from the island storm still whipped about their ears. Given what they now knew about the inhabitants, Einarr would not be surprised if they had some means of tethering the storm to their ships.

“We’re down to two. North, or south.”

Einarr nodded, waiting.

“On the north side of that island over there -” Stigander pointed to a large rock, just large enough that a handful of pine trees could cluster on its top. “Is naught but open ocean. We disappear behind it for a moment, then either us or the Skudbrun continues on while the others aim to come in behind.”

“Think they’re dumb enough to fall for that?”

“Dumb? Probably not. Mad? Maybe. Still might be the better option.”

Einarr cocked an eyebrow, waiting.

“On the other side of that island -” Stigander here indicated a much larger one ahead of them to the south. “Is a reef. If we’re careful, we can lure them in and wreak some havoc.”

“But this is their home turf.”

“Exactly.”

Einarr frowned. This should have been an easy call. “Then we’re plainly better off in the open water… aren’t we?”

“Most likely.” Stigander gave him a sidelong look that was hard to read. “But if you can’t be confident in your own decisions, your crew will never follow you.”

Einarr opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, gaping like a fish. He flushed a little, glad of the wind lashing his face. “Oh.”

“Oh. You make me regret commissioning that ship, it goes to Bardr.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Very good. Now, as it happens, that means we all three agree. Hard starboard!”

Even as the sail turned, Bardr moved aft and fired a handful of flaming arrows into the air.

“…How will the Skudbrun have the first idea what that means?”

“You don’t seriously think the landing party were the only ones doing any work, do ye?”

The deck of the Vidofnir tilted underfoot as the ship bent her course to their will. As though they were one, the Skudbrun followed after, her course taking her to the left of the island while the Vidofnir’s went to the right.

The four ships behind them – only four? – changed course as well, their blackened demonic heads churning over the waves like hunting dogs. Certainly they had the scent: now it was just a matter of turning that against them.

The Vidofnir cleared the northern coast of the island and veered hard to port. Someone tossed out the sea anchor: the ship sides groaned in protest against the sudden slowing, and then the angry howling of their pursuers was loud again.

The Skudbrun, for her part, skated on to the north in a wide, sinuous pattern that belied her speed.

The Vidofnings held their breath, even as the bounding demon ships of their pursuers charged past, one on either side of the forested rock. Three of them continued after the Skudbrun. The fourth ship had shed its speed as it nosed around the little island to come face to face with the Vidofnir once more. A guttural howling rose over the wind of the black storm that carried the ship along. It was the worst possible chance, and yet no-one aboard the Vidofnir minded: the only ship which had not been fooled was the Grendel.


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2.7 – Song of War, Song of Peace

The Valkyrian hunter’s aim was steady. Any moment could give him the clear shot he needed to take out Reki.

Einarr ran, every footfall pounding a resounding ‘no’ against the deck of the Geirskögul. A fighter dodged someone else’s blow into Einarr’s path: Einarr shoved past him roughly, not even noticing if it was hunter or Vidofning. Three steps further on his leg lit up with the heat of being cut. It would hurt, later. Now, all that mattered was the crossbowman whose sights were set on Mother/Reki. The reasoning part of his brain flagged that juxtaposition for later thought.

The hunter had his crossbow snug against his shoulder. His finger was on the trigger. Not close enough…

Einarr willed his legs faster. The hot one felt sluggish: it must have been a bad hit. He raised Sinmora for an overhand strike. Almost there…

Two paces from his target, Einarr roared. That caught his attention: the hunter nearly dropped his crossbow when he looked toward the threat and saw near two hundred pounds of red-headed warrior barreling at him.

The hunter swung his bow around to Einarr, but too late. Einarr’s swing had already begun, and the mighty blow to defend their battle chanter cleaved the man’s skull in two. Tre.

He turned, seeking his next enemy. The cut in his leg was filed away with other irrelevancies, such as why the Geirskögul apparently didn’t have a Painter, the throbbing in his leg, or how Jorir was managing.

A Valkyrie came for him, then, his face contorted by vengeful rage which he did not know how to properly harness. The man’s vengeance for his crewmate broke against the battle fury of Reki’s song. Fjorir.

Einarr’s count hit twenty-five before Reki’s hymn began to slow and the fury ebbed from his mind and his muscles at once. His arms and legs were on fire, and not just from swinging Sinmora about or hefting his shield: that cut to his leg had nearly hamstrung him, it seemed, and his arms were a mess of shallower wounds.

Some few of the Valkyrian crew surrendered – deck hands, mostly, still green enough to be willing to take their chances as thralls in the north. The Valkyries had no cowards in their ranks.

Einarr glanced around: Stigander stood, his arms crossed, watching as his fellows hauled valuables from the hold of the Geirskögul across the planks. He took one step forward, intending to assist, and felt the blood running down his leg. He would be no help like this. Best go see Reki. I guess I’ll see firsthand if her healing song is as good as her battle chant.

No few of his crewmates were clustered around Reki when Einarr hobbled up. A bubble of calm surrounded them, supported by the gentle mood of a Singer’s healing song. That song magic could heal at all was a mystery to those outside the Singer’s ranks: it was a magic that played on the mind, typically. Einarr had asked Grimhildr, once, but the answer had made no sense at the time and been quickly forgotten.

Reki’s sultry voice was one of uncommon power: as Einarr relaxed in the field of her song, he watched as wounds knit themselves before his very eyes. Such a wisp of a woman tied to that voice. Will Sivid get to her first, or Erik, I wonder? They were idle thoughts, no more, as he allowed himself to be swept along.

Some few were not so lucky. The crewmen who knew their way around a medicine bag applied compresses or stitches to wounds too deep to heal with the magic alone – Einarr spotted both Tyr and Jorir among the wound-dressers – and the sound of axe hafts drumming on shields said that at least one of their number would henceforth sup with the gods. Idly, Einarr wondered who: when his mind came free of the song he knew the loss would hit him.

Something jostled Einarr’s healing leg. He rolled his eyes downward to see what: Jorir. He offered the dwarf a drunken smile. “Be good as new soon enough. Scratch like this shouldn’t merit more’n the song.”

Jorir snorted. “Sure, you say that now, after I’ve done poulticed it up. That blade near took your leg off. Give me a look at the rest ‘o you now.”

“Fine, fine, worry wort. …Looks like you fared well enough in the battle.”

Jorir chuckled as he looked Einarr over for more serious wounds. Most of them showed new pink flesh where they had already knit together. “I get the impression these so-called Valkyries aren’t used to fighting dvergr.”

“Not too surprising. Most of the clans are human, after all. They’ve been known to defend földvergr villages, though.”

Jorir snorted. “Földvergr. Pretentious.” He paused, still staring at his lord’s arm. “You’re a reckless fighter, if you’ll pardon me saying so. I might be more mindful of my father’s predicament, in your shoes. Else a lot of people are like to be sore disappointed some day.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth to answer, but the dwarf wasn’t done.

“What were ye thinkin’, dashing half way across the ship like that? Nearly got yerself killed that way, an’ for what?”

Now Einarr pursed his lips. If the dwarf had seen that, he had to answer. “He had his sights on Reki… and this is the first time in a long time that our battle chanter has not also held the title of Mother for me.” He didn’t really understand the juxtaposition himself, yet, only that there was a habit of thought involved.

Jorir nodded, his brows drawn down in thought for a long moment.

Einarr hummed. “Well? Is your poultice safely tied? The death-drumming’s been going for a while now. It’s probably time I investigated.”

“Go on, then. They may not have known what to do with me, but they certainly took their pound o’ flesh.”

Einarr sighed, calling together the energy to stand up and leave the comfortable envelope of song magic. “I was afraid of that.” He wiped the palms of his hands on his pant legs, despite the fact that they were dry. Sooner or later, someone was going to have to deal with the Order of the Valkyrie.


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2.6 – Valkyrie!

For the Vidofnir’s first week at sea, they saw no-one. In the second week, three ships crossed their path, from three lands Stigander preferred not to antagonize. Boredom was beginning to set in by the end of that fortnight, although not a man aboard but was glad for clear skies and fair winds.

On the first day of their third week at sea, sharp-eyed Sivid called a warning from his lookout. “Valkyrie, hard to starboard!”

“Valkyries? Here?” Erik’s exclamation of surprise echoed back at them off the water.

Stigander’s order followed soon after. “Hard starboard! Make ready for boarding!”

The ship that approached on the horizon at a full clip was obviously Imperial even from this distance: she sat too high in the water, two rows of oars sped her along toward the Vidofnir, and on the triangular sail they flew the wing-and-spear symbol of the Imperial Order of the Valkyrie.

Longships were fast: Imperial dromon could sometimes keep up. Unless, that is, they were actually Valkyrian dromon, in which case (some whispered) they were propelled by captive vindstenger.

Einarr settled his chain shirt over his shoulders and it fell with comfortable heaviness. The rest of the crew was outfitting themselves similarly, all save Jorir. He had left Svartlauf with only the axe at his belt, and as of when they sailed had added only a helmet and the golden shield to his equipment: fitting armor for a dwarf was outside the experience of the smithy in Kjellvic. With a grim set to his jaw he took up the shield and took his place by Einarr’s side.

“Valkyrie?”

“We raid villages, they raid us. Right bastards to fight, and this far north that’s a hunting expedition. If we’re lucky, they’ve already hit some other ships: it’ll slow ‘em down.”

Jorir grunted. “And if we’re unlucky?”

“If we’re unlucky they have sea fire, and then this is a real short trip. They don’t take prisoners. Keep your wits about you: they’re quick.”

The dwarf hefted his shield and his lips parted in a savage grin. “Then I guess I get to put this gift o’ yourn to the test.”

Tyr angled the Vidofnir to the side, aiming to miss the Valkyrie’s spur long enough for the rowers to get the oars in. A whistling noise was their only warning.

“Shields up!” Stigander bellowed. A moment later, the first volley struck, arrows thudding into wood or clinking against metal or slipping beneath the waves.

In the breath before they could ready another volley, boarding lines flew from the Vidofnir to the Valkyrie ship – the Geirskögul, according to her prow. Reki took up the battle chant, her sultry voice luring each of them to the fury. She will be popular among the crew, Einarr thought even as the melody began to play on his own mind.

Boarding lines flew toward the Vidofnir, and he could see the Valkyries readying their gangplanks. Metal rasped: the Vidofnings waited, blades in hand.

The lines drew taut, and the planks shot across the gap from the other side. No sooner had the thud of wood sounded than the Vidofnings were up and over, racing to take the fight to them. Speed was of the essence: allowing the Valkyrie onto their own ship was tantamount to suicide. This way at least kept their boat above the waves.

Einarr joined his crewmates in their mad rush, the battle fury pulsing at the edges of his vision.

The race to board was a draw: the two crews met in the middle. The sound of splashing said that men had been knocked overboard, although that did not necessarily mean they were out of the fight. In this moment there was only one thing Einarr cared about: reaching the hunters on the Geirskögul. The Imperials would regret bringing the fight to the Vidofnir.

The way cleared. Two steps ahead of Einarr stood a man with the bearing of a serpent coiled to strike, his saber in hand. A heartbeat later and Sinmora vibrated in his hand when steel met steel.

They danced. The Valkyrie’s blade darted in and out, seeking a weakness in Einarr’s defense even as Einarr slashed forward and drove his opponent back a step, then two. Awareness of the Vidofnir ahead of him was his warning that they had circled. A reverse cut gave him the momentum to circle back the other way, putting his enemies in front of him where they belonged.

As a side benefit, it also caused his opponent to misjudge his footing. Einarr hissed as the saber sliced across his forearm, but his long sword was already swinging back around to hack into the opening that cut had left him. In the next instant he buried Sinmora in the man’s ribs. Ein!

The battle became a blur. The deck of the Valkyrie ship was in chaos, and Einarr was driven ever forward by the pounding rhythm of Reki’s potent battle chant. Another hunter crossed his path, a blade in each hand. Einarr charged, Sinmora raised for an overhead strike.

The hunter crossed his blades and lunged. Sinmora caught on the hand guards. Einarr sprang back a step, growling. The hunter smirked and slid his front foot back into a guard. He bounced a little on the balls of his feet.

Cocky scoundrel. Einarr rolled his shoulder, bringing his shield back into position. Anyone wielding two swords was either very green or very good: the way the hunter blocked suggested he was good. He stepped left, aiming to circle his opponent, but the hunter followed him only with his eyes. Einarr took another, testing step and the hunter stilled, watching him from the corner of his eye over his shoulder.

Einarr lunged, slicing out with Sinmora toward the hunter’s kidneys, and his growl became a roar.

Ztang! The first saber flashed, and where a heartbeat before it had been raised in a guard, now it had once again deflected his blow. The second saber flashed now. Einarr knew it’s trajectory even without seeing it. He had just that bare heartbeat before it would embed itself in his exposed ribs.

He whirled on his left foot. Instead of his ribs, the saber thudded into the wood of his shield. Einarr yanked hard on the shield, and then his opponent was down to a single blade. Even that blade would do him no good now, however, for he was also off-balance. Sinmora struck true. Tveir.

As the hunter fell, Einarr saw a momentary clear path through to one of their crowssbowmen, his bow trained on Reki.


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