Smoke rose from the roof of Jarl Rosta’s hall, but Einarr was certain his men were not the ones who set the blaze. All around him, men roared in the grips of the battle fury as Rosta’s rebels spat defiance at Einarr and his war band. The man he faced, broad-shouldered and red-faced, bellowed and raised his axe to charge.
Einarr settled into his stance and readied his shield. At the last possible instant, he punched forward with the edge of the shield. The axe was deflected harmlessly as Einarr’s shield struck the man hard against the bridge of his nose. Einarr heard a satisfying crunch as the man’s eyes rolled up in his head and he crumpled. What is that now? Tólf? Threttán?
It didn’t matter: the next warrior who thought to end the fighting by taking out the War Leader had arrived. Einarr blew through his long red mustache and reset his stance yet again.
This was a tall, tow-headed man who gave Einarr a large, toothy grin even as he raised his axe in both hands. He carried no shield.
This is ridiculous. Einarr charged this time, and struck out with Sinmora from behind his shield to take the man in his exposed thigh. This man, too, fell, clutching the gushing wound in his leg.
“Breidelings, forward!” Einarr cried, pressing the attack. If they didn’t take Jarl Rosta soon he was liable to escape, and if he escaped they were going to be stuck here on Búethold for gods only knew how much longer.
Arring’s characteristic berserker scream rang over the field of battle.
“Forward!” Einarr called again, although he needn’t have bothered. Already the Heidrunings and Vidofnings surged forward, giving chase to the latest batch of would-be freeholders.
Einarr pressed himself faster, even, than that. He wanted to look the Jarl in the eye before he was subdued.
The smoke grew heavier, much heavier, and Einarr realized it wasn’t just the Hall on fire: the forest was beginning to catch. Or had been set alight. Either way, it just became that much more urgent to end the battle. He raced to the front of the press, scanning the fleeing warriors for any sign of the Jarl.
Movement caught his eye off to the left. A glint of sunlight off of polished metal: not a warrior, that. His men had the pursuit well in hand: he veered off to follow this hidden figure.
He was quick, whoever he was. The figure led Einarr on a merry chase through the wood, crashing through stands of trees and ducking behind bushes, all in an attempt to lose his pursuer. Still, Einarr gained.
Finally, at the far edge of a clearing in the wood, faced with a wicked looking bramble and out of breath, the figure turned to face his pursuer.
The man standing, panting, before Einarr wore a heavy leather jerkin and had a longsword strapped to his side. Despite being plainly old and somewhat tattered, though, his clothes were of fine cloth, richly dyed. “You are Jarl Rosta?”
“I am. Or was, I suppose.”
“Your cause is lost. Surrender now, and my father the Thane may be merciful.”
“What, so I will not be executed, the way the Weavess was? Will he merely make me outlaw until the end of my days?”
“That remains to be seen. But my lord father and those of us from his crew would have peace and prosperity in these islands again. You could not even defend yourselves against two ships of Breidelstein: how long do you think your freehold will last without our protection?”
“Ulfr was a usurper and used us badly. But it had been a full generation since he took power. Stigander is untried and old, and the very first thing he did on taking the throne was exceed his authority. Casting that woman out into the wilderness as an outlaw would have been as sure a death sentence, and yet her bones are still chained to a rock in the harbor. You would have us gamble on the mercy of such a man?”
“Aye, I would. Do you deny that there was justice in her death? Remember that her magic allowed her not only to see but to change the future, and she did so without compunction. Not one but three Singers agreed that was the best possible solution. The sons of Raen wish to end the discord in this land. Will you surrender, so that we can talk about this like civilized men?”
Jarl Rosta hung his head. For a moment, his shoulders stooped, but then he shook his head in violent denial, still looking at the ground beneath his feet. With a desperate growl he jerked his sword free of its sheath. He held it raised in both hands at his back shoulder, and the look on his face was pure despair.
“So be it.”
Einarr raised Sinmora as the man committed to the only cut he could possibly make from that charge and the blade was deflected easily. The Jarl hopped backward, and Sinmora’s blade sliced across his heavy leather jerkin rather than through it. The Jarl was a more practiced warrior than Einarr had expected: he settled down into his accustomed stance.
After his first mad charge failed the Jarl, too, settled into a more sustainable stance. Einarr was not sure if the man typically fought without a shield or not, but he suspected not. A Jarl was too valuable to risk on the field with such an aggressive style.
Einarr advanced cautiously, judging where best to strike. Even in his more cautious stance the Jarl was full of openings. He frowned. Father would still want the man alive, if at all possible. He pulled back to punch the man with the edge of his shield.
That was when Jarl Rosta made his move. Had it not been for the brokkrsteel maille Jorir had insisted he take, Einarr might have taken a mortal blow. As it was, he was sure his ribs would bruise from the blow.
The Jarl was not quite so quick to recover that time. Einarr brought Sinmora’s hilt down hard on the back of his head and the Jarl crumpled to the ground.
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