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Chapter Thirteen

They rode in silence.  At mid-morning, the cavalry came to the bridge over the Svanr River.  Every man in the column had heard of what had transpired here the previous week.  None said a word as Herfinnr, Amundr, and Saegrimr turned aside from the path and dismounted near the bridge.

The three knelt in silence, yet in their silence each was unique.  Amundr lifted his eyes to the heavens and asked for the strength to carry on his father’s legacy.  Saegrimr lowered his face to the ground and begged for the wisdom necessary to guide him in these painful times. Herfinnr looked at them both, appreciative of the sacrifices that had been made here and wondering whether they could do what needed to be done in the days ahead.  After several moments, they all stood and mounted their horses.  They quickly caught up with the column of horsemen and fell in at the rear of the formation.

They rode on in silence for several more hours before pausing briefly to eat and feed the horses.  Herfinnr explained that since they had scouts checking the road ahead and they were such a large force, they could press on after sunset as long as they could still see the road.  They would continue to journey until they came to whatever place the scouts had decided they should rest.  They would wake early and the scouts would take to the road by sunrise so that the army could march the entire day.

They proceeded thus day after day, until at the end of the fourth day of travel Amundr realized that they were approaching the very hill where they had spent their first night on their journey from Eyjolf to Gudmund.  “Follow me,” Herfinnr said, “The Duke has called for all the knights and the captains to meet atop the hill for a council of war.  We should be at Eyjolf by tomorrow afternoon.”

***

The knights and the captains milled around nervously at the top of the hill.  Taken together there were over 250 of them, and they were waiting for the last of the scouts to report in.  The knights were positioned in ranks around the outer edge of the hills, while the captains of the various companies of spearmen were nearest the fire.  After what seemed like hours, the sound of hooves coming up the trail silenced the crowd.  A hardened old man slipped from his steed and knelt before the Duke.

“Milord, we have scouted all the way to Eyjolf.  The vergrinn are in the open plain before the town, but we only make their number to be eight hundreds.”  A murmur arose from the captains.  Eight hundred vergrinn represented no mean opponent, but they had expected almost twice that number.

“And the town?”

“The town was dark, but we could spy men in the citadel, and figures moving upon the walls of the town itself.”

“Then we are in time.  I judge that the remainder must have left these to watch over the city while they sack the villages and homesteads of the surrounding countryside.  We must dispatch these quickly so we may pursue the others.”  A cheer arose from the men atop the hill.  “Our plan is simple.  We will set out at first light.  By mid day we will be within a league of the city.  The infantry will march directly to the city walls and the cavalry will circle around the city and approach from the north.  We will sweep down upon the beasts and skewer them between the horse and the foot.  Hopefully the men of the city will see what is happening and send a sortie out as well.  That should put the terror in those devils!”

The captains of the companies were each tasked with an approach to the city and the final preparations were made.  Harnesses and weapons were checked and re-checked and the soldiers all received encouragement and instruction from their captains before settling down for the night.  It was the third watch of the night when everything went wrong.

***

Amundr was sleeping fitfully.  In his dreams the vergrinn were everywhere.  They were snatching people from villages and slaying cattle for sport.  He somehow knew that they were looking specifically for him, and they knew that the way to get him to come to them was to go after the people.  He woke in a cold sweat.  He half imagined he heard orders being given, and wondered if he wasn’t still dreaming about the final instructions from the captains of the cavalry.  He, Saegrimr, and Herfinnr were sleeping to the southeast of the base of the hill with the rest of the company from Eyjolf.  As his mind cleared of sleep, he still heard the orders being whispered in the darkness in a low, guttural voice.  “Longfang and Blackclaw have taken out the last sentries on this side of the hill.  As soon as we hear back from Left Ear and Snarl we’ll attack.”  Realization dawned on him – he was understanding something that was not human speech!

Amundr was on his feet in an instant, sword in hand and screaming at the top of his lungs.  “Ambush!  The sentries are dead and the vergrinn are upon us!  Wake up!  Ambush!”

A long howl arose in the woods and was answered by howls all around.  The horses whinnied in terror and men all around were beginning to arise groggily from their beds.  Amundr, sword drawn, charged towards the voices that had woken him.

***

The cry echoed up the hillside.  “Awake!  Awake!  The enemy is upon us!”  The men of the muster of Gudmund slowly rallied to the defense of the hill.  At the top of the hill, the Duke ordered the fires to be fed and the standard to be raised as a rallying point.  He looked around in vain for the young Spear Amundr.  He was curious to see what he did in this fight.

In the dim light of the watch fires scattered around the hill the Duke could see shapes moving.  Vergrinn were falling upon the various companies of men camped around the base of the hill, and the men were in chaos.  The horses were pulling at their tethers and men were scrambling for weapons.  As the Duke surveyed the hillside, he realized that the forces to the southeast seemed to be doing the best at holding their own, while those to the southwest were in trouble.  He led his men in a charge down the hill to shore up the forces to the southwest.

***

The reason the forces to the southeast were holding their own was because they had the greatest warning.  Amundr’s cries had roused those around him and while he charged toward the enemy near him they were already rising and reaching for weapons.

Amundr’s blade flashed a dull red in the darkness, and as he approached the vergrinn he saw their consternation.  “You will pay tonight, beasts!” he said as he charged the nearest one.  The consternation of the vergrinn turned to shock.  They had understood him!

Frozen in shock, the first vergrinn fell headless at Amundr’s first stroke.  The second lost a forepaw and the knife it held.  Oddly, none of the vergrinn he could see carried a spear.  They all seemed to carry sharp flint knives.  There were four of them facing him, and they moved as if they were going to surround him.

When using a spear, the weapon’s bulk would have made it difficult to use when defending against multiple foes at once.  A well balanced sword in the hands of an agile young man was another story entirely.  He remembered Herfinnr’s instruction and allowed himself to flow from foe to foe, a macabre dance that saw vergrinn limbs severed and thrusts deep into his foes’ torsos which drew howls of pain and rage.  A second foe fell, missing his leg below the knee.  The third, whose arm had been severed earlier now fell to a thrust through his throat.  Amundr spun towards the last vergrinn, but was knocked aside by its paw.  His sword spun out of his grasp and he looked up into its face, certain his doom had come.  Suddenly from the darkness to his side two more large forms leapt towards him, growling in anger.

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