The Long Retreat No. 78

The journey wasn’t as bad as Hrothgar had expected. Alongside the river, the ground was flat, and a bed of evergreen needles kept the undergrowth to a manageable level. To their right, a hedge of shrubs and small trees, feeding off the fertile ground at the river’s edge, hid the river from easy view. Even so, their pace was slow. Almost an hour had passed by the time they drew near to the fort, and the sun was on the cusp of setting.

“We’ll see if we can’t catch someone’s eye,” Alfhilde said, holding up a hand to call them to a halt. She slipped her pack off, undid the cinch at its top, and pulled out the cloak stashed inside. She gave it an experimental wave, then turned toward the hedge.

Before she could go any further, a terrible noise reached his ears: war-cries, ontr by the thousands, their shrieks and howls easily carrying the half-league from the bridge to the place where Hrothgar stood. Men roared in reply, and then there came the confused noises of battle: metal on metal, cries of pain, trumpets, and the odd thunderclap Hrothgar gathered might be magic.

Alfhilde listened for a moment. Hrothgar saw her shoulders stiffen and the set of her jaw grow more determined. “We haven’t a moment to lose,” she said, and turned to push through the hedge toward the river.

Then, all at once, four things happened.

First, a group of ontr appeared over the rise away from the river, small ones, but numerous. The beasts caught sight of them, screeched at each other, and ran toward them.

Second, Sif made a strangled noise; her eyes rolled back into her head, and she slumped to the ground, a puppet with all her strings cut.

Third, an ontling—the largest Hrothgar had ever seen—followed the small ones over the hill. The creature stood three yards tall, if not more, and wore patchwork armor, constructed from bits and pieces of leather and steel: trophies from its past victories, debris from the places it had destroyed, anything it could get its claws on.

At the top of the hill, the ontling paused, sweeping an imperious glare across them. It showed bloodstained tusks in a terrible imitation of a grin, then bellowed at its underlings. They redoubled their charge.

Fourth, and finally, as Hrothgar was putting Jakob down next to Sif and drawing the hatchet at his belt, Falthejn Arnarsson crashed through the hedge a dozen yards upriver, answered the ontr chief with a bellow of his own, and ran at the foe, sword drawn.

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