Fires cast twisting shadows on the streets, the predawn gloom just now bright enough to light the stretches between them. A flaming boulder soared overhead and crashed through a wooden building a hundred yards away. Debris clattered to the road as another fire roared to life. Altælfgard’s walls had fallen to the ontlig catapults twenty minutes ago, and judging by the sound of their war cries, the ontr were already amidst the city’s streets. Falthejn heard a shriek—a child? He spun on his heel, and spotted three people running down the road toward him, a man, a woman, and a girl of about ten.
Three ontr, youthful runts but dangerous nevertheless, rounded a corner after them, pounding toward them with single-minded ferocity. Falthejn drew his sword and ran toward them, but he could tell he would be too late. The woman saw him, and hope flashed in her eyes for a moment. As Falthejn stopped, her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in horror. In a flash, the ontr were upon them, and Falthejn turned away. Over the gruesome sound of ontr tusks rending flesh, he forced himself to focus.
Five minutes earlier. An ontlig axe in hand, he drew his arm back. Possibilities danced through his mind. He threw the axe, it turned over once— no, twice, and struck the ontling in the arm. Missed it completely. Lodged in its neck. He swung his arm forward and let go. The axe turned over twice and lodged in the ontling’s neck. It hissed at him, then gurgled as it slumped to the ground. Falthejn sighed and kneeled next to the dead crossbowman. Sometimes a man’s fate was ironclad. He closed the corpse’s eyes, took the crossbow lying nearby, and set off at a run.
A boulder soared overhead and crashed through a wooden building a hundred yards away. Debris clattered to the road as another fire roared to life. Falthejn raised the crossbow and aimed down the street as the family came into view. “Move!” he shouted.
They scurried to the other side of the street, and the ontr came into view. Falthejn saw the possibilities fanning out before him, adjusted his aim to match one of them, and fired. The bolt hissed through the air, striking one of the ontr in the forehead. It clawed at its face for a moment, then collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.
The ruined building shifted further, then toppled completely. The little girl’s scream cut off abruptly, as dust rose from the section of road where her family had been standing. Falthejn swore, focused again—
A flaming boulder soared overhead and crashed through a wooden building a hundred yards away. Debris—
Falthejn jumped as someone put a hand on his shoulder, losing the trance entirely. He blinked. The candle had burned out some time ago, leaving his tent dark. He turned. “Leif Ansgarsson,” he said, bowing his head.
Ansgarsson said, “It’s time, unless you’ve changed your mind.”
Falthejn shook his head.
“Good. If they break through in the night—”
Ansgarsson’s eyes narrowed. “There will be confusion in the streets. Bring out as many of the people as you can.”
Falthejn nodded, took his sword belt, and pushed past Ansgarsson out of the tent.
“Arnarsson.” Ansgarsson waited for him to stop. “You can’t save them all.”
Falthejn’s head drooped. After a moment, he straightened, gave no answer, and strode purposefully into the night.