Einarr could hear the breath in his throat as he stumbled again in the corridor. Ahead of him, Naudrek didn’t look much better off – and this was after Runa had returned to the Song of Stamina. They weren’t even running, just now, merely trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other. There was only so much their bodies could handle, after all, and the dvergr traps were rapidly pushing them past it.
Almost like the dvergr had promised death to any who came this way.
The thought was fleeting, and unhelpful. Einarr quickly returned his focus to getting them all past whatever they were going to run up against next.
Naudrek stopped in his tracks and held up a hand for the others to wait as well. He shook his head, like he was trying to get water out of his ears, took a deep breath, and held it. A moment later, he let it go with an audible pah. “Does anyone else smell seawater?”
Dutifully, Einarr took a deep breath of his own: yes, that was definitely a sea-smell down here, in tunnels which had thus far been entirely dry. They must have left behind the sections of tunnel that were also used by dvergr when they ventured down that staircase. Though their exertions had masked it, the air down here had the chill that was common to all caves. Getting wet was going to be a problem. The floor remained smooth: he glanced down, and in the stretch of his light he saw no sharp spikes – but the floor was distinctly damp looking.
“Boots in your packs, everyone. Roll up your trousers – Runa, tie up your skirts as best you can. Thjofgrir, how good a swimmer are you?”
“Best on our boat,” he answered, gesturing at Kaldr, and Einarr didn’t think he was merely boasting.
“Good. Runa, give Thjofgrir the jar. You’re going to have enough trouble as it is with your clothes if we have to swim, there’s no sense weighing you down more with a jar full of water.”
He was hoping they wouldn’t have to do more than wade, and if that was the case this would allow them all to put on dry boots when they were past the water. If it wasn’t, though, they were still better off in the water with bare feet.
In spite of everything, it felt good to take off his boots. He flexed his toes against the damp stone floor and wondered just how cold the water ahead would be. Soon, everyone stood barefoot in the light of his shield, and Thjofgrir now held the jar upside down over his shoulder. Vali had not made any protests – at least, not yet – so Einarr said nothing. It might, maybe, keep the jar from filling with water, but whether that would be a boon or not when they were swimming he could not guess.
“All right. Forward, then.”
On they trudged, and the farther they went the more water they splashed through. It increased almost imperceptibly at first, their footsteps moving only slowly from wet smacking sounds to gentle splashes. Almost before they knew it the water was up to their ankles, and painfully biting cold. Runa made quiet growling noises as the icy water lanced at her ankles and her shins. Einarr could sympathize, but he was glad she made no complaints. There wasn’t really anything he could do about it.
They continued on, and soon the water was splashing around their knees. It seemed to be rising faster now, although the slope of the floor was still too shallow to draw attention to itself otherwise. Einarr thought he felt the water swirling around his rapidly numbing ankles, as though they were walking into a current. He only considered a moment. “Runa, come ahead of me.”
He offered her a rakish grin, even though there was nothing funny about their situation. “Why, so I can be the one to catch you if you fall, of course.”
Naudrek, ahead, shook his head and chuckled. She laughed, looking pleased, and complied. He had made a joke out of it, but it wasn’t, really. Runa had traveled some, but she was not a sailor.
Einarr drew in a muffled gasp as the water began climbing up his thighs and soaking his trousers. By the gods, that’s cold! His knees and his shins still ached from the icy water, but he was starting to have trouble feeling his toes. He turned his attention downward, which helped him keep his feet a little better now that they were nearly numb.
Before long, the water was creeping up over their waists, and it became clear that all their supplies would also be soaked. I hope our water skins are sealed tight. There was no point lifting their packs over their heads, even if they’d had the strength to spare. The passage had not grown any taller down here, and Einarr could see, not that far ahead, the surface of the water lapping at the roof. The current was definitely getting stronger, too. So far Runa had managed to keep her feet in spite of everything, but still he stood ready to keep her from being washed away.
The water lapped now about his armpits. I hope my chalk survives the passage. I should think about how to dry us out on the other side. That, of course, assumed there was another side: he tamped down on the idea of a dead end hard. Drowning would be an effective end, but hard to ensure in a flooded section like this. Probably the water was meant to sap their strength and soak them through, for something on the other side to finish the job.
Naudrek, still in the lead, took several deep breaths and plunged beneath the surface of the water. Runa pressed a hand against the ceiling as she imitated him, with Einarr and the others right behind.
Einarr was a little surprised that the cold could still shock him, but as it closed over his head it did. He managed not to let go of his breath as he slowly batted his eyes open. Naudrek swam ahead, still within the circle of light from Einarr’s damaged shield. Behind him, Runa struggled forward. Her skirts dragged her downward, and the current caught the cloth so that it swirled around her legs.
Einarr could not see the bottom. If they drowned here, their bodies would be gone forever. He kicked forward and took Runa’s arm over his shoulder. He could get her through like this, he was certain.
Naudrek was suddenly shoved from the side and struck up against the wall of the passage.
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