Behind the fortifications, making a last-ditch stand

Here’s another little bit of my Viking story, THE FLAME OF BATTLE. Dyrfinna’s troops are on a little bit of mountain, which they’ve fortified against the enemy. They’re outnumbered ten to one, and Dyrfinna is waiting — hoping — for the arrival of the rest of the fleet before they all get killed.

Some of her crew were up and whispering near the fortifications. One of them was Ostryg. “What’s happening?” Dyrfinna whispered as she joined them.
He gestured for her to stoop, then pointed out to the road. Stooping, she looked. For a while she could see nothing. Then there was a small flicker of movement in the rocks near the road. Too big to be a bird or pika. She focused on it. Yes: A person with a fur cap, crouched among the stones, trying to hold very still.
“Huh,” she said, stepping back into the shelter of the rocks so her words wouldn’t travel down the road to where the spies were hiding. “How many?” she whispered.
“We think five people,” Ostryg said. “Scouts.”
“Too bad they’re out of arrow range,” Dyrfinna said wistfully.
“We shouldn’t waste our arrows on anything that wouldn’t be worth shooting,” he said pedantically.
It wasn’t like Dyrfinna was going to fling a quiver of arrows at them just for wasteful fun. She held back her exasperated sigh. “Any sign of anybody else there?”
“Nothing that we can hear or see.”
Gefjun brought Dyrfinna her breakfast – a sea-biscuit and some fish – and Dyrfinna was surprised by her friend’s gesture.
“Thank you,” she said, accepting the wooden bowl. She’d been looking over the rocks out at Nauma’s lines. The stars were still out, but she expected Nauma’s army to be moving into battle formation soon. Her people were already up and around, and Nauma’s were, too – she could hear their quiet talk, even from this distance.
“You can come with me if you like,” she said to Gefjun. “I’m just getting the fighters in order before all the fun starts.”
“I’d like to,” Gefjun said. “I’ve got to get to the wounded and bring the fighters water.”
Dyrfinna nodded. She’d completely forgotten about that. “Actual warfare is a lot different than a game of King’s Table,” she confessed to Gefjun. “Especially the part where I constantly want to throw up.”
“Why?” she asked.
Dyrfinna looked at her fighters. Some of the men, who she’d known since she was a little girl, were joking with each other, telling rude stories about other battles that they’d fought in.
“It’s hard to order the deaths of all these people,” she said quietly. “I’m their commander. I led them into this. We’ve all had a better chance at survival up here – have a better chance at taking out more of our enemy, and we’ve also managed to pull them off the water, so they’re here instead of traveling to Birka. But what’s going to happen next is going to be … difficult.”
Gefjun lay a hand on her shoulder. Dyrfinna leaned in toward her. They stood like that for a minute. Dyrfinna thought of old days at Gefjun’s house, playing with herbs, trying to tame her rooster, playing warriors around the streets of town, learning swords and weapon skills with their swordmaster that Dyrfinna’s father had hired long ago.
“Stay alive, friend,” Dyrfinna said.
They kissed each other on the cheek, the way they used to do every evening when their parents called them home.
A great stir came from Nauma’s lines. They squeezed each others’ hands and Dyrfinna was walking to the front lines, taking her shield down from her back, pulling the sword loose from her scabbard.
“Here we go,” she said to the captain Hakr and to Skeggi, who was right there of course.
Ragnarok yawned and peeked up over his shield. “Where’s the fun?”
Thwack went an arrow into his shield. The shield popped back upon the hit.
Everybody ducked back behind the rocks, except for the captain, who was holding up his shield.
“Look at you shy kittens,” Hakr said. “That was just the first raindrop. Wait until it starts to pour.”
Dyrfinna held her shield at the ready. “Did anybody see that archer, by any chance?”
They all peered out into the forest down the hill, but no movement gave the archer away. If it had been a sniper, maybe they could take her out ….
A sudden wave of arrows from downhill. Several slammed into Dyrfinna’s shield so hard that their impact would have knocked her off her feet if she hadn’t braced herself.
A man screamed to her right, a bloodcurdling sound that made Dyrfinna flinch.
Gefjun quickly ran to him. “I hate arrows,” she said. “Get back from him, people. Get back. Lie down.” Another moan that rose into a scream as the man, on the ground, arched his back, an arrow sticking out of his belly. Gut-shot. One of the worst, most painful ways to die.
Your first casualty, Dyrfinna thought to herself. Welcome to command.
A shout from below. A second wave of arrows screamed in, but the shout allowed Dyrfinna to duck before they started. The other fighters did, too, and the deadly-barbed wave seemed to have no effect on her people this time. Thank goodness.
“More arrows for our archers,” she remarked, standing and rolling her neck. “Those of you on the back lines, gather what arrows you can find and deliver them to our archers.”
“Those of you who aren’t helping with casualties,” Gefjun added as she and several others loaded the still-screaming wounded man onto a stretcher to get him off the front lines.
As soon as they moved him, two shieldmaidens came to the front with shields and armor, ready to fight. One of them tapped sword hilts with the man next to her, both saying quietly, “Kill ‘em all” as they did.
The main brunt of Nauma’s attack was taking place on the road that Dyrfinna’s small force had blocked with a wall of stones. None of the attackers had tried the hill yet, as far as Dyrfinna knew, but she had some of the warriors lined up along the ridge out of sight, waiting impatiently to start avalanches on any comers.
The enemy came up the hill like a red tide, holding their red shields in front of them, and Nauma’s archer stopped firing so they wouldn’t be hit by friendly fire. Dyrfinna’s bowwomen kept shooting, though, as they were high up, hidden in a tree or a rocky crag over their heads.
Please don’t give your positions away, Dyrfinna thought at them. If they find you, all bows will target you, trying to pick you off until they succeed.
The red tide rose to the top of the hill, her bowwomen picking off Vikings through the gaps in the shields. But they kept coming, and at the top of the pass, they charged.
“Don’t let them lure you out,” she said to her fellow warriors. “Make them come to you.”
“The stories aren’t as exciting when we wait for them,” Ragnarok complained.
Dyrfinna shook her head. “But I need you to stay alive as long as possible until the Queen’s fleet arrives.”
She prayed that their fleet would arrive. Had they all capsized? This was not a question she needed to answer right now.
Because the tide of Nauma’s red shields had finished rising, and suddenly, all at once, they pulled out their swords in a loud shing of metal that was so wide and stretched so far that it made her physically ill for a moment. This was a very large army. Who were Dyrfinna’s crew against this huge onslaught, a little shipload trying to hold them at bay?
“It beats being killed entirely off on the water,” she muttered, then screamed like a hawk and swung at an oncomer.
Metal clashed metal as swords met, and the percussive boom of shields striking shields rang up and down the battle line.

###

You can preorder THE FLAME OF BATTLE right now!

In the flame of battle, even the innocent get burned…

Dyrfinna is a born commander. She bests her peers in dragon riding, sword fighting, and battle strategy. So when the Queen calls the people of Skala to battle to revenge her murdered daughter, Dyrfinna outfits a ship and brings a crew.

Once in the field, Dyrfinna leads her troops to victory in a series of hard-fought battles against overwhelming odds. Yet a commander is raised over her, and because of his clumsy leadership, a great disaster results in the massacre of a quarter of the Queen’s army. Then the commander unfairly blames a second disaster on Dyrfinna. The wrong stroke of her sword could undo everything she’s ever worked for, earn her the fury of her friends … and exile to certain death.

But you can’t keep a true warrior down. When things are darkest, a flame rises out of the desolation.