There's a saying; a red dawn brings bloodshed.
Unfortunately, from where I was standing, that red dawn seemed to be guaranteed. We were in orbit above Aurvandil's Toe, drifting above the night-side of the planet. But the system's star - a red dwarf - was starting to make its presence known. The first sliver of the sun was creeping out from behind the world, splashing a sanguine light across our humble defensive fleet, and through my ship's bridge.
We numbered no more than a dozen, and the Dain's Legacy must have carried half our guns. The archaic cruiser set me in mind of some ancient beast from the primordial ocean's depths; his hull was egg-shaped, and made up of a patchwork of re-fitted armour plates, while his main battery trailed from his stern, mounted on half-a-dozen, immense mechanical tentacles.
The rest of us were no more than gunboats or monitors, huddled behind the Legacy like fish trailing in the wake of a storm-whale.
I caught myself running a hand through grey hair, before idly massaging the mess of scars that webbed my jaw. Far too old to ache anymore, but the memory wasn't about to fade any time soon.
"Captain." The tentative call came from my comms officer. The lad behind the communications console - name of Wiglaf, if memory served - was like so many on my crew; pale of face, and slight of build. The red coat of the Brandir uniform hung loosely from his shoulders, and the hand-axe thrust through his belt was as well-buffed as it had been on the day he earned it.
He was barely old enough to have notched his blade. In either sense of the phrase.
"The Legacy is hailing the fleet, sir," he added.
"Let's hear it," I replied, with an idle gesture.
There was a mumble of static from the bridge's speakers, before a stern female voice cut through.
"This is Captain Horne," she began. The Legacy's iron-willed commanding officer of some renown. I've got my fair share of stories about the good Captain. And not all of them are suitable for polite company. "I'm sure you all know why we're here..."
My eyes wandered to the planet beneath us. Aurvandil's Toe was an ugly lump of blasted rock, if ever I've seen one. But it was a Brandir lump of blasted rock, and I'll be damned if it wasn't going to stay that way.
"There's a Lorian invasion fleet inbound," Horne said. Same old story; we hold a world, they try to take it. Try being the operative word. "Our scouts place them one hour out." She paused. "Our reinforcements won't get here for three."
So we were on our own.
"I'm going to say this bluntly," Horne added. "Initial reports suggest they have five cruisers."
Well, that was a nice little note of overkill.
"Five..." The gasp came from Wiglaf, his eyes wider than the barrel of a two-ton cannon. "Brand's fist."
"Steady," I replied. But my ship - the monitor Habrok's Bane - echoed his sentiments. She was a stubborn lass at the best of times, but the sudden wave of unease she was sending me wasn't entirely in character.
"Easy, old girl," I murmured, laying a gentle hand against a bulkhead. If my ship was spooked, things were only going to go from bad to worse.
"We will engage them ascended," Horne continued. "We'll take position at the Blackscale Pass. That is where we will hold them."
I couldn't help but grimace. The plan was ugly. Sound, but ugly nonetheless. I knew as well as any that our best bet was to hit the Lorians before they could complete their interstellar journey through tunnel-space. Those narrow, labyrinthine passages would stop them from bringing their numbers to bear. But the short-range fire-fights that entailed were about as pretty as a black-boar in heat.
"Prepare for ascension," Horne said. "The Legacy will lead. See you in the tunnels."
"You heard the Legacy," I said, and glanced to my helmsman; who was, in fact, a helmswoman. But that didn't change my orders. "Ride his wake, and take us up."
"Yessir," replied the young lass - by the name of Finn - as she clung grimly to the Bane's wheel. I watched her for a moment; she was willowy in build, and I was almost surprised she had the strength to heave around a warship. But her expression was fixed, stern. It took balls of brass to make helmsman; even on a monitor. And Miss Finn certainly seemed to be no exception, anatomical difficulties aside.
Ahead of us, the Legacy powered up his main drive. The stern-mounted disk spun amidst an ethereal blue glow, while his tunnel-drive - tusks jutting from his prow - sought to rupture real-space, and drag the vessel into the labyrinth. It was with a coiling flash of ghost-light that the cruiser found an entry point, and he began to slide ponderously into the gateway rent between tunnel-space and the material realm.
We were caught in the Legacy's wake; tendrils of ghost-light leaping from the cruiser to the Bane's hull, threatening to fling us into the tunnels. I could feel the labyrinth's magic tugging at my ship; arcane energies crackling through the air like static. I caught my balance against a bulkhead, watching both Finn and our course.
"Steady as she goes," I said. But it wasn't necessary. The Bane herself had already informed me - in a suitably haughty manner - that our course was good.
It was with a sedate pace befitting of her age that the Bane slipped into tunnel-space, departing the material plane emerging into the stygian darkness of the labyrinth.
"Nicely done, Miss Finn," I said, and my compliment almost extracted a smile from our dour helmsman.
"Lights," I ordered. But they were hardly needed; the search-lights studding the Legacy's hull - throwing dazzling beams across the labyrinth's walls - were more than adequate for us to manoeuvre by.
"Check in with the Legacy," I said. "We'd better let Horne know we're here."
As Wiglaf set about contacting the cruiser, I let my eyes settle on the labyrinth's walls. They were roughly-hewn dark stone, or they appeared that way on first glance, at least. I knew all too well that it best not to stare; the subtly shifting shapes and patterns could do more than simply confuse the eyes.
Unfortunately, there was little else to look at. Tunnel-space is hardly renowned for its array of landmarks. And the waiting is always the worst part of an engagement. The tension, the quiet on the cusp of the storm.
Not that we wouldn't be missing that calm when the Lorians arrived.
But it was worse for the shieldlings; those youngsters on the crew, who - had they been marines - were barely big enough to lift a battle-board, and still to notch their axe. Of course, they all knew their lot. The Bane was old; outdated. And so was her Captain. She was still commanded by a Warlock, for a start, and that was a practice that hadn't been used in decades.
"Sir?" The query came from Wiglaf. "If I may, sir, the Bane's a monitor. What can we do against a Lorian cruiser?"
I didn't reply, and my eyes wandered across the Bane's bridge; the wide-eyed Wiglaf at the comm, the dour Finn at the helm, with a look of fear creeping onto her features. At the gunnery command was Archer; quick to smile and quick to laugh, but, for once, even he was silent.
None of them were expecting to make it through this.
Finally, my gaze met Greycroft, the Bane's Chief Warlock; her navigator and mage. He was responsible for guiding us through the labyrinth, and shielding the Bane's hull when battle was met. A stocky man - and one of my few experienced crew - he was implacable as he looked, and a damn-good battle-mage, too. The Brandir fleets could use more men like him. He simply offered me a short nod.
I sighed, and slipped the mono-feed from over my eye, separating myself from the stream of data it displayed.
"You're Harold Wiglaf's son, aren't you?" I asked, looking back to the comms officer.
"Grandson, sir," the shieldling replied. "Frederick Wiglaf, sir."
I had no idea how that generation had evaded my notice.
"What can one monitor do against a Lorian cruiser?" I said. "A dozen ships against an invasion fleet. It's like one man trying to hold the line against a titan." I watched as Wiglaf's Adam's Apple bobbed like a buoy in a storm.
My eyes wandered through the bridge, taking in the archaic consoles, deck-plating dulled with age, and seats furnished in leather so worn it was almost unrecognisable. It was on the faded mural splayed across the back wall that my gaze settled. Almost as old as the ship, it portrayed the defeat of the titan for which the Habrok's Bane was named. Apparently, someone had thought it would be inspiring. I just thought that, if my crew were looking at a painting in the middle of a fire-fight, someone was doing something wrong.
"There's a story," I murmured, leaning against the helm's wheel box. "Back when Our Lady Brand still sat on our throne. After the Shield-Maiden of Midgard led our ancestors, and cleaved our kingdom from the titan's grasp she took their worlds with fire and hammer, claiming them for her champions - for the Brandir. For us.
"Yet even when she took her place as our Warrior-Queen, peace in our kingdom was fleeting." I sighed. "As is too often the case. War was brought to the Brandir again, by nothing more than the misguided wanderings of a shieldling - no older than any man or woman among you. This young lad thought to prove himself in the labyrinth. In these tunnels where so many lives were lost to the titans, a shieldling thought he'd find his name - find his place in Brandir history."
"Brave," murmured Wiglaf.
I couldn't help but chuckle.
"Idiotic," I replied. "But youth is impulsive." Wiglaf grimaced, and glanced to his feet. Well, I had at least given him something to think about.
"What did he find?" The question came from Archer, leaning casually against his console.
"A horde," I replied. "Arms taken from the men and women who stood - and fought - with Brand. A titan's trophies."
Wiglaf gulped. "Did he take...?"
"Of course, how could he not?"
"And I suppose it didn't end well?" Finn asked, characteristically dry.
I sighed, and strolled to the bridge's centre. I found my fingers idly stroking my own axe, the blade rough - chipped and pitted - but familiar and comforting.
"You do not steal idly from a titan's horde," I replied. "Especially without first ensuring that the titan is gone."
Wiglaf gasped. Finn just grimaced.
"The shieldling left with the smallest of trophies - proof of his find. He thought that alone would carve his name in stone beside the heroes of the Brandir. And maybe it would have, had he not been followed.
"The titan knew its horde as well as any creature could, from the grandest of prizes to the most trivial. And it certainly didn't appreciate having one removed. It flew into a rage unlike anything you can imagine, and fell upon the Brandir as nothing short of a force of nature. It tore through worlds - even those that had once been titan-held - and decimated any who stood in its way."
"It destroyed planets?" Wiglaf asked. If his eyes grew any wider, I was sure I'd have to get Archer to pick them up off the deck. But the comms officer's reaction was mirrored in the other shieldlings.
"You've never faced a titan," I said, shaking my head. "And hopefully you never will."
"It's been more than two centuries since the last encounter," Finn said.
"Yes, and before Arvak arrived, Fensalir had three moons. Not one."
Leaning on the helm's wheel-box, Finn's stern expression flickered, a note of concern in her eyes.
"And don't assume that means there are no more out there. Brand didn't get all of them."
"But it didn't try to claim the planets?" Archer asked.
"This creature wasn't interested in conquest. It wasn't trying to create a new realm for the titans. It just wanted revenge.
"Of course, a marauding titan doesn't go unnoticed," I said. "News reached Brand herself soon enough. And the Warrior-Queen wasn't about to stand by and see her people killed. She rallied a force - eleven chosen men. Eleven honoured heroes of the Brandir. Including Lor."
"Lor?" The question was on every shieldling's lips, but Wiglaf was the first to voice it. "Lor was a Brandir?"
"One of Brand's bravest and strongest," I replied, turning to catch the young officer's gaze. I couldn't help but chuckle at his expression of horror. "Yes, the father of the Lorians fought at Brand's side. Now, there's a story they don't like to tell.
"But, yes. Brand set out to meet the titan head on. But the creature was unpredictable and cunning. It would tear through a world, killing and destroying, before fleeing back to the labyrinth, hiding in the tunnels.
"Every day, the creature cost more lives, yet Brand and her eleven chosen couldn't pin it down. The Warrior-Queen knew that if they were to stop it, they would have to take the fight to the titan."
Absentmindedly, I slipped my axe from my belt, laying the weapon across my hands. My eyes fell to the blade. The design was old, the metal dull.
"It was then they found the shieldling. That poor creature was cowering with his feeble prize - the trophy that had cost the Brandir so much. Brand and her eleven men were far from sympathetic. He was press-ganged into their band, and ordered to lead them to the titan's horde."
"No more than the coward deserved," Finn spat.
I nodded grimly. "And I'm sure he would have agreed. Not that he was given a choice. So thirteen men set out into the labyrinth to slay a titan.
"They found it adding to its horde. Prizes won from those few who had stood against it. But in true form, Brand was determined to make it suffer for every life it had taken. She stepped up to face the creature - an abominable beast with quicksilver skin and iron bones. Ancient beyond reckoning, with a cruel intelligence and a vicious cunning.
"She fought as only our Warrior-Queen could - with hammer and fury. But it wasn't enough. She fought the titan on its home-ground, and it had the advantage. The creature fell upon her, and the Shield-Maiden was forced back.
"Seeing their Warrior-Queen bested, her eleven chosen faltered - they stood by and watched - Lor among them - as Brand was beaten down.
"But one spirit held firm. The thirteenth man - that wretched shieldling - stood his ground. Where Lor and ten others stood by and sought safety, it was the shieldling who stepped up. Taking the trophy stolen from the titan's horde, he went to Brand's aid.
"He struck a single blow, before the beast swatted him away as nothing more than an irritation. But he had done enough. In the titan's moment of distraction, Brand took her chance. Her hammer struck one, final blow, destroying the beast."
I paused, listening to the sudden silence that had filled the bridge.
"Brand entered the labyrinth with eleven men and a shieldling. She left with one Brandir and eleven men," I said.
My eyes swept across the bridge meeting the gaze of each member of my crew. Wiglaf was still wide-eyed, but his expression was one of awe. Archer was grinning. Finn was standing, her expression stern, but eager.
A smile crept onto my lips, and I met Greycroft's gaze. He just offered me another short nod.
"You asked me what a monitor can do against a cruiser," I said. "If a man can slay a titan, a monitor can damn well take out a cruiser. And if a Brandir shieldling can step up where Lor himself stood by, a Brandir monitor can damn well stand and face whatever weapons the Lorians throw against us."
The atmosphere had changed; it was tense, charged. The shieldlings were still anxious, but they were no longer resigned to death. And the Bane herself was roused. An old strength, an old battle-lust she'd all-but forgotten was back.
I slipped my axe back into my belt. It may have been old and pitted, but it still held a blade. It still had some use left in it.
As had this old man and his ancient ship.
"That's it, old girl," I murmured, running a hand over a bulkhead.
"Sir," Wiglaf began. "What happened to the shieldling?"
I smiled. "He survived," I said, and found myself kneading the scars on my jaw. "For quite some time to come, in fact. Brand saw to that - she treated his wounds herself. And he kept his trophy."
The Bane murmured her approval.
Just a monitor; maybe. But that ancient monitor that had once been a shieldling's prize. And both her and her Captain had once been among a Shield-Maiden's chosen men.
I let my gaze wander across my bridge crew once more, meeting their anxious, attentive eyes.
"This day will be yours," I said. "The Bane and I will see to that."
There was no cheer, no passionate cries. Just simple expressions of comprehension, and a new found faith in both their ship and her Captain. And I could ask for nothing more.
"Here we go again, old girl," I murmured, throwing a final glance to the Bane's mural.
I turned back to Wiglaf, and settled my mono-feed back into place.
"Lieutenant Wiglaf. Beat to quarters."
A red dawn indeed.