Einarr knew which way was out only because he could still feel cooler air on his back. Ahead of him, fire spouted from every surface and smoke filled the air. The only thing louder than the crackle of flames was the occasional scream of a horse.
He kept his arm up as a mostly futile shield against the worst of the heat, trying to remember if the stableboy kept his tools on the right or the left. Taking a gamble, he checked left.
A puff of flame shot up from the floor when he stepped on straw flooring, the dust igniting immediately. He drew back long enough for the tiny fireball to go out. This was the right way, then, and if the picket rope wasn’t already burning he should be able to cut it and free the horses soon.
A black mass rose up before him: the wall of the first stall, he thought. He lowered his arm and still couldn’t see the rope in the confusion of flames before him. He couldn’t waste time searching, though, not half-blind as he was. He moved around to face what he thought was a stall, raised Sinmora overhead in both hands, and cut down with enough force to split a log.
A momentary tug of resistance told him he’d done it. That should at least give the horses on this side a fighting chance. Einarr pivoted on his feet and pressed toward the other side. He coughed and half-stumbled, suddenly light headed. Come on. Just one more, and then you can get out.
He almost stumbled again as he brought his sword overhead, but here, too, he felt the rope give way under the blade. Good. Now I just need to…
Einarr swayed on his feet. The smoke was getting to be too much. Where was the exit? He had gone along the left side, and when he cut that one the door should have been on his left. He was facing the opposite way now, so…
The furry bulk of a horse bumped up against his side and stopped. He didn’t question how or why, just wrapped his fingers into its mane and let the brave creature half-drag him out into the fresh air.
Outside, still clinging to the mane of the dray he’d borrowed from the alfen village, he saw the fire brigade moving buckets of water. None of them paid him any attention.
Armad, Eifidi, and Hridi were nowhere to be seen. Not that he was sure he’d be able to tell the two women apart at this point.
He coughed and blinked to clear his vision. The horse was not who he’d come here to save. He patted the dray on the neck and headed back toward the hall, only stumbling a little.
For the second time that night, a scream cut the air. This time, a woman’s. Einarr ran, mentally cursing himself for a fool.
In the short time since he had left to free the horses, the scene in the hall had become chaos. Armad stood on the table, waving a hunting spear around like a flag. The woman dressed as a Lady was the one who had screamed: Eifidi, if he still had their game straight in his smoke-addled head. That meant Hridi, dressed as the nursemaid, was the one holding at bay the Muspel Shroud with a tall candelabrum.
The diaphanous crimson cloth writhed and stretched like a jellyfish in the water. Candlelight reflected off its folds in a way that might, under other circumstances, have been beautiful. But the candelabrum was beginning to give, and Hridi’s face was nothing less than desperate.
For the second time that night, Einarr drew Sinmora. You eat magic these days, right? Only one way to find out if it would work against the Shroud: he rushed to Hridi’s side.
She glanced over at him, the look on her face chiding him without words for taking so long to get here. He rolled his shoulder in a half shrug: he had no excuse, and so he hoped she would not demand an answer.
The Shroud was currently tangled in the arms of the candelabrum. Einarr lunged forward and cut at it once, twice, three times – but Sinmora’s blade did not even manage to do as much as the late Jarl’s hunting knife.
Einarr frowned as the candelabrum jerked in Hridi’s grasp. The Jarl had managed to damage it, at least. He changed his grip on the sword, holding it in both hands with the point down. Please work.
The Shroud untangled itself and began to slip through the arms of the candelabrum as Sinmora descended.
Sinmora pinned the cloth against the flagstone floor, her tip wedged neatly in a join. A smile began to steal onto Einarr’s face as the cloth continued to struggle.
The sound of tearing fabric wiped any hint of relief from Einarr’s face. Still Sinmora did nothing more than any other blade might.
With a sound like rotted cloth, the Shroud tore free of where Einarr and Sinmora had it pinned.
Hridi didn’t even have time to scream. The cloth wound itself about her body and plastered itself against her face. In the next moment, the true Lady Regent was gone, leaving Armad and his nursemaid, the body double, standing in the hallway, stunned.
The Shroud, moving faster than even a diving hawk or a hunting trout, shot across the room to the hearth and up the chimney.
Sinmora dropped to the ground with a clatter of steel on stone. Einarr’s jaw hung open. He had failed: how could he have failed?
The pleading eyes of the boy turned to him now. Einarr worked his jaw, trying to find his voice. There were no words of comfort he could offer the boy, not truly. Slowly, he bent to pick up Sinmora. As the blade slid home in its sheath, he turned to Armad.
“I have failed you here, young Lord. I will not do so again. I will stop the Shroud, and your family will be avenged.”
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