44

Twilight had fallen by the time we neared our destination. The air had grown cold, and my breath misted out like smoke. I was fairly exhausted, but in good spirits. Ahead of me, Skjoldr stalked forward tirelessly, and I admired his stamina. But I had spent the entire day marching through the woods, first all the way to Thirsk and now all the way back to the fort, so I felt that I had a right to be tired. I was certainly going to sleep like the dead tonight. But despite my weariness, I had kept up with the group without difficulty, although Skjoldr had set a reasonable pace for our trek south.

Some of the other men around me were probably a bit tired as well, but none of them would admit it. They were excited about the prospect of going to battle, looking forward to raising arms against their enemy. Even though all of them had been fully trained, and were probably well-experienced in fighting man-to-man, I suspected that most of these brave Nords have never seen a real battlefield or experienced an actual war. I could understand their excitement, as I had felt the same way once, a long time ago. But war held no excitement for me now, I had seen more than my share of it.

The fort was still out of view, but I knew we were close. The sky was a dark grayish blue, getting darker by the minute, but the sky was clear. There were no blizzards on the horizon this time.

Skjoldr had sent one of his men to scout ahead of us to alert the guards at the fort that we were coming as allies. Under the circumstances, it would probably not be wise to arrive unannounced at Fort Frostmoth with almost fifty armed Nords.

I heard someone shouting up ahead. Suddenly, the scout came running up at us, waving his arms. "Chief!" he cried. "Hurry! They are attacking the fort again! They came from the west just before I got there!"

"Come on!" Skjoldr bellowed, drawing his longsword.

My breath caught in my throat. I couldn't believe that Falx would order his army of mercenaries to attack the fort again, I had never even considered such an action. I jumped forward in panic as the Nords all charged after Skjoldr. And our presence here was an unbelievable stroke of luck, I could not believe that we would arrive at the same moment the fort would be attacked, it was an almost supernatural coincidence.

We charged through the trees and down the hillside leading to the fort. Before we even emerged from the trees, we could hear shouts and the unmistakable clang of swords colliding up ahead. Skjoldr led his men across the clearing in the direction of the fort, and in the gloom I could see bodies surging through the doors, dressed in ragged furs and wolfskins. Bright torches along the walls cast the clearing in a threatening orange light.

The Nords let out a fierce war cry as we flooded down to the fort, swords raised. My body, weary and exhausted just moments before, now surged with adrenaline, and I felt no tiredness at all as I ran, my sword raised high.

We descended on the men in wolfskin like wild animals, thrashing and slashing away, knocking them down and stabbing the life out of them. Screams and cries of battle now erupted over the entire inner courtyard as we broke through, more men falling under our swords and axes. I was in the rear of the group, and forced my way into the fort without my sword drawing blood, but the fight was far from over.

The entire courtyard was in chaos, with bodies swirling everywhere, half of them in dark red Legion armor, half of them in dirty wolfskins, struggling amidst the smoke of torches and burning fires.

I ran directly at a pair of men trading sword blows. I leaped at the mercenary, and he hesitated when he saw me and the other Nords, confusion on his face. I slammed into him and drove my sword up between his ribs, and his body crumpled. The Legion soldier stared in surprise at me, holding his sword up.

"We're here to help you!" I shouted over the din. "Go after the ones in wolfskin! The other Nords are on your side!"

Before he had time to respond, I was off to attack another mercenary. They had thrown bottles of burning oil onto the fort buildings, and fire was already creeping up, ready to engulf the entire guards' quarters and Cult office. Bright orange flames covered the walls like burning ivy, and people ran screaming from the doorways. When the attackers came at the unarmed Cultists, myself and some other Nords, Anjolnr among them, cut them off and engaged them in combat.

"Sasha!" someone cried out.

I turned to see Mirisa and her fiance Jeleen stumbling away from the inferno, staring at me in disbelief.

"Get out of here!" I shouted. "Get to safety!"

I didn't have time to tell them anything else, because more armed mercenaries came through the front gates and I had to run after them. The wooden shield strapped to my arm thudded with the impact of a sword, and I twisted around to slash sideways at the man attacking me. My sword edge caught his hip and he yelped in pain, ramming his sword down on me again. I danced back and we traded blows, our swords ringing like hammers on an anvil. He lunged down and I managed to dodge his thrust, before swinging my sword up to slice across his chest from his thigh to his shoulder. He fumbled onto his knees and I stabbed him in the throat, knocking his body over backwards.

Another attacker came at me and I fought him off, moving faster than him. He went down with blood gushing from his chest. All around me, people were running and screaming and fighting. A mob of unarmed workers and Cult members dashed out of the fort to escape the burning buildings. I glanced Liman in the crowd, urging the others tosafety.

By now, the Legion soldiers had realized that the Nords were not their enemies, and they teamed up to fight off the attacking mercenaries, cornering a few of them and killing them without difficulty. The attackers, realizing that they were outnumbered, started retreating. I ran after one of them and tackled him, slamming his head down hard on the cold ground. He clumsily tried to fight me off, but I cracked my sword hilt down on his head, knocking him out. Legion soldiers ran after some of the other retreating mercenaries.

"I surrender! I surrender!" one of them cried, throwing down his weapon.

The courtyard was filled with smoke, and I gasped for breath, looking around frantically. Burning embers floated in the air like fiery snow. I crawled off the unconscious mercenary and stumbled toward the center of the main courtyard, in between two massive roaring fires, as the guards' quarters and the Cult offices went up in flames. I heard terrified shouting coming from up above, and saw someone dangling out one of the second floor windows. I ran over to him and helped guide him down to the ground, and then grabbed him before he could run off.

"Is there anyone else?" I shouted. "Anyone else left inside?"

"I don't think so," he blubbered, coughing from the smoke. "I didn't see anyone ..."

"Get out of here, then," I said, pushing him off, and he ran for safety.

Fire engulfed the entire building, and a huge towering column of smoke rose up into the air. There was nothing more to be done. We could not have extinguished the fire no matter how hard we tried. The battle was over, and the dead littered the fort, most of them wearing wolfskins. But the damage had been done.

Someone came up beside me and took my arm. It was Anjolnr, a wild-eyed look of victory on his face, and blood smeared down his sword.

"Come on," he urged. "We cannot do anything to help now."

"The attackers?"

"Dead or run off. We're going after them, don't worry. Now we must help the Legion take account of their dead and wounded."

"What about ours?"

"We have four injured," Anjolnr said, a trace of pride in his voice. "But all alive."

I looked up one more time at the raging ball of fire that used to be the Cult office, and then allowed Anjolnr to lead me away from the fort. There were still a few Legion soldiers running around, trying to save whatever they could, but it was a useless task.

We left through the front gates, and I saw a gathering crowd of Legion soldiers and Nords out front, helplessly watching the fort burn. Some of them fell to their knees, defeated and exhausted, their faces smeared with ash or spattered with blood. But most of them watched the flames with a sense of injustice, their anger taking the place of despair.

Far to the left of the main crowd, I could see members of the Imperial Cult taking care of some of the wounded. And to the right in front of the Legion soldiers, they had their few prisoners sitting on the ground. There were four of them, all dirty and scowling.

"Where is Captain Cavorian?" I asked loudly.

"Here," came a deep voice.

I turned and saw Cavorian a few feet away, walking toward me. His helmet was off, and a bloody gash marked his forehead, but he looked otherwise uninjured.

"I'm sorry," I said, not knowing what else to say. "We would have come sooner, but I had no idea they would risk another attack so soon. It's a miracle that we arrived when we did."

"I was told you were dead," Cavorian said simply, ignoring my apology.

"I'm not. It's a long story."

"Are you in command of these Nords?"

"No, the clan chief from Thirsk is in charge," I explained.

As we walked to where Skjoldr and the other Nords were, Cavorian explained: "We had a few minutes warning. The last of the men from Raven Rock were just returning, and they happened to discover the attacking force sneaking along the shore. We had just enough time to get our armor on before the attack started. If not for that, they would have taken us completely by surprise." By the sound of his voice, I could tell that Cavorian was furious at himself for not anticipating a second attack. He most likely blamed himself for not being better prepared.

Skjoldr had survived the battle unscathed, and was now standing around with some of his warriors, calmly ignoring the curious and suspicious looks from the Legion soldiers around them. Two Nords were sitting on the ground nearby, one of them cradling a wounded arm, and the other wincing in pain as a hot brand was placed against his thigh to cauterize a wound.

The fact that none of the Nord warriors had been killed was another minor miracle, although we had arrived to the battle somewhat late. The Legion, I knew, was not so lucky, as I had seen several Legion bodies lying among the dead. If we had not arrived when we did, the cost in lives would have been much higher, but that was small consolation.

"Clan Chief Skjoldr Wolf-Runner," I said formally. "This is Captain Lucius Cavorian of the Imperial Legion."

Skjoldr stood tall and proud, taller than Cavorian by several inches. "We are here to help you," he said firmly, extending his hand in a show of cooperation.

Cavorian glanced briefly at me, and then nodded and shook Skjoldr's outstretched hand. "And the Legion is very grateful for your help," he said.