“You there! What goes on here?” Stigander leveled a finger at one of the better-equipped townsfolk who had joined their ranks.
He blinked and pointed at himself, a dumbfounded look on his face.
“Yes, you! Why have the townsfolk taken up arms against the Thane here?” He hated to phrase it that way, but the odds were good this man still thought of the Usurper that way.
Now the man nodded in understanding. “Thane Ulfr’s men claim you are rebels. Well, his men treat us as thralls, even though we are free men. If it means we are rid of them, rebels we will be.”
Stigander looked again at the man. He was malnourished, and unkempt as one would expect of a drunkard, but his blue eyes were clear and proud.
“I am Stigander, son of Raen, and while Ulfr calls me a rebel I am in fact the rightful Thane. I will remember your resolve.”
The townsman blanched a little as Stigander began shouldering his way back to the front of his crew’s line, but returned to the battle at hand. How many of these people even remember what happened all those years ago? He can’t be much older than Einarr… Stigander growled low in his throat: that line of thinking was a distraction he did not need right now.
Perhaps a hundred feet ahead the road began its steep, switchbacked ascent up the cliffs to Raenshold.
The wolflings had fallen back to the far side of the square and reset their shield wall yet again, in the familiar pattern. Yet again, he and his Vidofnings surged forward to batter it down. This time, though, it did not buckle like so much rotted timber.
Battle screams roared from either side of the square as wolfling warriors fell upon them from both sides at once. Stigander and his crewmen were boxed in. To stay in the square would be foolish, and if they somehow managed to batter through the forward line then they had to worry about wolflings nipping at their heels. That left only one option: turn their own tactic against them. “Fall back!”
Beatrix had been startled to see Einarr’s bride chasing after her into the thick of combat: the Singers, after all, had been meant to stay behind. But, the other girl at least knew enough about combat to keep herself out of danger, and her Song was useful enough.
Bea frowned, though: she could tell they were losing momentum, but not why. Certainly it shouldn’t be fatigue, not with the Singer working her Art. And they weren’t outnumbered, at least not once you counted the local reinforcements. They had to reach the cliff road, though: Lord Stigander had been clear. And yet, they were on the verge of being pushed back. Do I dare let us lean on our back foot?
It was not immediately clear she would have a choice. The wolflings were massing ahead, and her group had been the smallest of the three forces. She frowned. Their forward progress had almost stalled, but if they could make the next intersection she might be able to reroute. The difficulty would be not letting the line fall apart when they inevitably reached the narrow footpaths that were ever-present and never meant for more than one or two abreast.
The Song magic that had been sustaining her thus far cut off with a shriek, not so much of pain or fear as of rage. Bea’s head snapped around: there was Runa, the Cursebreaker’s bride, biting the hand of the wolfling who had tried to capture her. She seemed to have drawn blood, too. The girl stabbed backwards at her assailant with the knife all Singers wore, but Bea didn’t think it had yet drawn blood.
She cursed. Where had the wolfling even come from? This was why fighting through a city was so terrible: even when you thought your back was secure, someone could sneak around behind with a poisoned knife. Perhaps one of Beatrix’s sisters could have let her rival be taken like this, but Beatrix could not – a trait that had often hampered her in Imperial politics.
“Fall back!” If they gave a little ground, Bea could drop back without leaving a hole in the middle of their line. They would just have to find their way forward again from there.
Jorir stood, his axe and golden shield at the ready, just outside of Lord Einarr’s rune circle, staring toward the bulwark.
Someone was in the water. Several someones, he thought, and if this ship wasn’t their target he was a farmer.
Jorir glanced over his shoulder, and wished for the umpteenth time he could tell how close they were to finishing the ritual. Curse that witch and the helspawn she rode in on. I’m a dwarf – I’m supposed to be good with runes! At least he was sure it was doing something: the feeling of magic crackled in the air like lightning.
The gentle splashing in the water went silent, only to be followed by the sounds of boots climbing on wood. Jorir flexed his grip on his axe handle and glanced over at his fellow bodyguard.
Naudrek had set himself for battle nearly as quickly as Jorir had, and without needing Jorir to say anything. With a little luck, that meant the invaders still didn’t know they were discovered.
The first of the invaders appeared over the side of the bulwark, their hair streaming water, with scramasax clenched in their teeth as they climbed the Heidrun’s clinks.
Naudrek moved on cat’s feet over to where the wolfling was emerging from the water, his blade held low, and raised one foot. The sole of his boot impacted the first wolfling’s forehead and he lost his grip, tumbling into the water.
Jorir charged forward, much more noisily, and raised his shield over his head. The edge of the shield hit the second man’s teeth with a gong, followed by another splash.
Now men were coming up the other side, though, three and four at a time. Jorir shared a look with Naudrek before the other man raced back across the deck to fend off that group of attackers. Jorir looked back over his shoulder at Einarr, hoping for some clue that they were nearly done.
He still couldn’t tell. He raised his axe and stepped forward to block as many as he could.
Then the crackling magic at his back went still and the pressure vanished. For a heartbeat, everything was still.
In the next heartbeat, it was as though the world itself exploded. A wave of magic crashed over the deck of the Heidrun and rippled out over the water, towards the fighting in the town.
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