Suddenly the ice sheets began to explode and crack around them as iron cannonballs smashed into the ice, shattering the once stable plates and threatening to tip them into the freezing cold water, Demanor leapt into the air changing into a parakeet and flapping above the razor shards of ices whilst Strike and Korra threw various items into the water in an effort to lighten themselves and stay out of the water. Looking around Korra recognised the ships closing in on one side of the ice sheet, they bore the royal blue griffon banner of the Sapphire Island’s Imperial Fleet, the personal warships of his excellency the Emperor of the Sapphire Islands; Strikes’s attention had been drawn to the other side of the ice sheet where a handful of ships in a similar style were engaged with the Imperial Fleet, Strike recognised the green House Folder livery displaying a gold peregrine falcon, he has been on one of their ships before. A House Folder ship with an ice plough mounted to the front plowed towards them through the already broken ice and a familiar voice, that of the chef James shouted down “Get onboard quickly!”
Ignoring Strikes’ cry of “But they poisoned us!” as the two of them recognised Mikhails ship, Korra persuaded him to climb onboard, although as he duck a flying cannonball Strike demanded “What in Odin’s eyesocket is going on here?”
“I’ll tell you everything once we get out of here” shouted a strained voice, looking up Strike could see Captain Mikhail wrestling with the wheel of his ship, struggling to make himself heard above the din of battle; shouting for oil and a lamp, Strike dipped his arrows in the oil, lit them and began to fire a hail of burning death towards the Imperial vessels, a number of them striking home and one of the ships was soon ablaze; from the lead ship a figure in blue robes strode to the prow of the ship, Korra grimaced as she recognised the regalia of an Imperial War Wizard. The blue robed man, gestured with his hands and blue fire burst forth, starting to melt a channel through the ice, it would only be moments before the Imperial Fleet was able to smash into the much outnumbered vessels of House Folder and obliterate them; holding his breath, Strike drew back his bow-string and fired, a single arrow catching the war wizard in the chest and sending him sprawling to the deck, blue fire already fading.
“The Erinyes! She’s going down!” cried one of the sailors as a House Folder ship gave up the ghost and began to sink below the water, screaming men plunging into the icy depths
“We can’t spare the time to help her” cursed Mikhail “they’ll soon be through that ice sheet and then we’re done for!”
“Head for the shore” shouted Strike, relying on his knowledge of these frigid waters, “lose them in the fog banks!” Mikhail nodded and spun the wheel; Korra meanwhile had headed below deck and was assisting the ships sawbones performing triage on a number of injured crew, he explained that, after their last encounter, they had returned to the Sapphire Islands to tell the Emperor that they had been unsuccessful in obtaining one of the stone men, but that Captain Mikhail had heard or seen something horrible in his audience with the Emperor, so much so that he ordered all House Folder ships to set sail, immediately, shortly after they came under attack by the Imperial Fleet. Mikhail, it seemed, had fled to the cold waters of the Northland hoping that his excellent navigational skills would enable them to lose the Fleet.
Lurking in the fog, Mikhail quietly ordered all the men to remain as silent as possible before gathering their new passengers, Demanor returned to her elven form and landed quietly on the deck as Mikhail explained, that when he had arrived at the Imperial Court he had witnessed a creature like Demanor but with grey skin and evil fangs being treated as an honoured guest; through his contacts he had been able to discover that the creature had been bought there aboard a vessel of the Imperial Fleet. Realising that the Emperor must have either allied with the creatures or been co-erced by them, he gathered his House Fleet, but his contact must have sold them out and they were set upon by the Emperor’s ships.
Strike told him that the fog would not hide them for long and that their best chance would be to go ashore on the Northlands and send the boat out to sea, with any luck the Imperial Fleet would follow the boat and destroy it, not realising they had escaped; realising that they would have to give an impression of the crew still being aboard, Captain Mikhail grimly ordered the dead be lashed to their posts and the wheel fixed in place to send the ship out to sea and then the remainder of the crew, Korra, Demanor and Strike lowered rowing boats gently into the water and made for the shore.
Strike looked down at his newly red dyed left hand, he recalled the look of shock and surprise on Mikhail’s face when he had gathered up the blood of the slain shortly before leaving the vessel and had Demanor perform a ceremony to dye his left hand permanently, the traditional sign of Northlands leadership (had he not slain the last of the chieftains after all?) James, the young chef had been quite perturbed by it and had asked Korra what he was doing, she explained that Strike was attempting to claim the rulership of the Northlands and that this ceremony was part of it. Trying to shake of his black mood, Strike thought about the only chief of the North unaccounted for, an ancient orc known as the Rugorim, chief of the orc one-eyes, he had served as an advisor to Ragnar and would have to be dealt with if Strikes’ claim was to be successful.
Jogging ashore they soon came across the signs of a small village as they headed inland, Strike raised his red hand and approached, the gnarled orc villager chief Urut was skeptical but had respect for the old ways, including hospitality, in return for a token of friendship he agreed to provide them with food and lodgings in the village; nodding Strike drew out the dagger that he had taken from Ragnar and presented it. After a pregnant pause whilst Urut looked at the dagger he nodded and gestured for them all to follow him to his longhouse at the centre of the village. Korra asked if they had a village tale-teller and was directed to an old man with a greying beard called Ulric, a strip of cloth covered one of his eyes, identifying him as a one-eye or shaman; Korra began to tell stories of Strikes bravery and skill in combat, although Ulric did question his suitability saying that Strikes’ poisoning of Ragnar was well known and such weapons were not the northland way.
Chief Urut seemed to have less concern about how Ragnar had been killed, saying it was enough that such an abomination had been removed from the world, he also told them how the Rugorim had visited their village a few days before, he had a creature who looked like Demanor with him but he had pale white skin and black hair; Rugorim had tried to convince Urut to ally his tribes with his forces, but Urut was proud and said what need did the Northlanders have of allies? Rugorim smiled and said that he would give Urut three days to re-consider, and that when he returned he hoped that the chief would have a more reasonable answer.
Full of drink and food, as everyone fell asleep on furs in the longhouse, Demanor (who had been huddled near the fire throughout) fell into a fitful dream haunted sleep; in her dreams she was walking amongst a small elven settlement, it came under attack from barbaric northland humans and orcs, in the midst of the carnage walked a small smiling elven child, as an orc ran towards the child, raising a notched axe, it suddenly collapsed, bursting into flame. A fur wearing orc with one snaggled fang grinned lopsidely and said “This is the one”, he reached a hand out to the elven child, who took it and, still smiling walked off into the night with northlanders, the settlement collapsing into a flaming ruin behind them.
A scream dying on her lips Demanor woke up, the noise waking Korra; as Demanor explained her dream she saw that one-eye Ulric was also awake, he nodded and said “Yes I saw it too, I believe it to be a vision of the past, I recognised the orc, it was the Rugorim, but much younger than he is now.”