Naudrek sniffed, and nodded, and was joined in agreement by Kaldr and Thjofgrir.
“Why fish?” Einarr asked. Whatever it was, they were sure not to like the reason.
“Maybe they want to bury us in mackerel?” Naudrek asked with a shrug and half a smile.
Even Kaldr chuckled. “Unlikely. But whatever the smell is coming from, I don’t think we really have a choice but to go on, do we?”
He was right: there was no way to go but forward, and had not been for quite some time – even if they could have gotten back out of this pit. Einarr nodded. “Be on your guard. Vali, give Runa a hand if you can. Everyone else, same as before.”
Runa gagged a little. “Faugh! That’s strong. Smells like a warehouse full of blubber.”
“At least it’s not… rancid… Dammit.” Einarr’s remembrance of the whaler’s warehouse on Langavik started a cascade, and suddenly he knew what they were smelling. “That’s a lot of whale oil. I don’t know what we’re going to find, for sure, but shields ready.”
A chorus of “Aye, sir,” traveled around the circle, and then they formed up.
The stairway down was broader than the passages above had been, so although Einarr couldn’t guess why he wasn’t going to complain. Rather than travel down single-file, he formed a circle of guards around Runa in the center, with himself on her left and Naudrek on the right while Kaldr and Thjofgrir took point and rearguard, respectively. Nothing would get to Runa if he had any say in the matter.
Down they went, cautiously, one step at a time with their shields held ready. The fish smell only grew stronger.
They had gone perhaps twenty steps down, deeper into the earth, when Einarr heard a popping sound from overhead. He tensed.
From the ceiling just ahead of Kaldr, from a divot that would ordinarily have looked just like part of the scrollwork, an intense blast of the fishy smell of whale oil was followed immediately by a gout of flame.
Runa ducked, throwing her arms up over her head instinctively. It was a good reflex, but in the moment unnecessary: Kaldr managed to raise his shield in time to block the blast of flame.
“Is everyone all right?” Kaldr asked as the last sparks fell out of the air.
Einarr glanced around at the rest of the group. “So it appears. How’s your shield?”
“A little singed, but it should hold up.”
“Good.” He frowned, contemplating a ward he had inadvertently taught himself in his time with the alfs. No good. No time, and I don’t think I could get all of us at once. “Let’s keep going. Eyes open, everyone.”
He was reminding himself as much as any of them. Any loose stone could trigger another blast of fire, so far as he knew, and he had no idea how quickly – or even if – it could burn again.
Fifteen steps further down, Einarr heard another pop.
“Shields!” He yelled, even as a gout of flame shot toward them – this time from the wall right next to him. He only barely managed to pivot in time to shield Runa, let alone himself, from the blast. He growled as the handle and boss of his shield heated against his arm, but not from any burn.
Einarr was beginning to understand why so many thought the dvergr intractable asses.
“Let’s move!” He bellowed. His voice echoed even over the dying fwoosh of flame. Vali vanished, almost certainly retreating into his jar on Runa’s shoulder.
The next blast came from behind. Thjofgrir did not escape unscathed: there was a smell of burning hair perceptible even over the smell of whale oil as he whirled to bring up his own shield against the onslaught. Runa, as the only one without a shield, patted out the sparks as the blast faded.
“My thanks, Lady.”
Then they were moving again, with no time for Runa to respond.
The stairway wound about and curved, much as the paths above had, and for all their hurry every handful of steps they would be forced to freeze and weather yet another blast of flame, from which direction none of them could say.
When a blast struck at them from near the floor ahead of them Kaldr, his face twisted in annoyance and, probably, pain (the boss of his shield was beginning to glow from the heat). “We’re doing this wrong,” he announced with his usual calm.
“What do you mean?” Naudrek was a little out of breath. Actually, it looked like they all were.
As the spout of flames seemed to retreat back into its origin, Kaldr took a big breath. “We’re treating this like a boarding action, but it’s not. Rather than racing ahead and praying we block the next shot of fire, why not go slowly and form a shield wall?”
It was a good idea. Einarr wished he’d thought of it himself… but he had spent most of his life as a freeboater. Kaldr had much more experience fighting on land than he did. He nodded his assent. “A solid plan. We’ll still need to protect Runa, though. Thjofgrir, are you comfortable going down backwards?”
The big man grimaced, but nodded his assent. “Don’t see as there’s much choice in the matter.”
With a shrug, Einarr looked over at his current Mate. “Say something if we need to rotate, then. Sorry, Runa, this might get a little snug.”
The men gathered shoulder to shoulder – the only way that four shields could form a shield wall around another person – and started back down the stairway.
Not one of them could tell what would trigger the next pop and gout of flame: there did not seem to be any loose stones, and no-one had tripped over anything – and yet, there was nothing magical about this. A concealed tube would spray forth whale oil at the same moment something struck a spark, igniting the oil.
As another gout of flame sprayed forth from near the ceiling, Einarr growled in annoyance. He’d had just about enough of this interminable stairway and its inexhaustible flamethrowers that were in the process of destroying their shields. Certainly he wouldn’t trust his in a battle after this – and if it weren’t outright destroyed, it might just glow forever, he was afraid. The char was already obscuring his light rune, and the light had in no way faltered. He’d caught his breath some time ago, but the awkward pace and the constant vigilance had rendered him altogether too conscious of the fatigue building in arms and legs.
The dvergr were certainly trying to make good on their promise of death to all intruders. Dammit, Jorir, this had better be worth it.
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