Consciousness returned slowly to Einarr, and when it did it was made more uncertain by the dearth of light. But, he could feel his body again. Everything ached, except his head. His head felt like someone had driven spikes into his temples. Even still, he was aware of the hair that felt plastered across his forehead.
Cold metal bands encircled his wrists. He must be in chains, because he could tell his arms were dangling from those bands. He deliberately blinked his eyes. After a few moments, he saw that there was light: dim and red like a torch or a campfire, but light. He tried to raise his head to look around, but fresh stabs of pain shot down his neck and he groaned.
“Einarr?” Kaldr’s voice sounded from out of the darkness. “Einarr, is that you?”
“Unfortunately,” he croaked. His throat was parched, but he highly doubted anyone could move enough to give him a drink. “What happened?”
Kaldr tried to answer, but the sound came out strangled and he fell to coughing. Einarr was definitely not the only one bound like this, then.
Naudrek cleared his throat. “Those creepy statues around the room killed your rune – and a bunch of other things. You passed out – the Lady called it backlash. Vali went mad – we haven’t the foggiest why. The rest of us killed the beast – biggest salamander you ever did see, and you know what one of the guards called it? Fluffy.” Naudrek paused to clear his throat again, rather more forcefully this time.
Kaldr took up the tale. “So after the beast finally goes down we have to find another way to open that accursed door. Meanwhile, Vali’s still wailing fit to break a heart – or a mind. For a minute back there, it sounded like he might manage. He shut up once we got the jar out of the room, at least. So we start down the hallway on the other side of the door.”
“Haven’t gone very far,” Thjofgrir started as Kaldr coughed again. Had anyone had a drink since they were captured?” “Haven’t gone very far when the world starts going fuzzy. Next thing I know we’re all on the floor, and there’s these creatures coming at us with chains – I’d call them dvergr, but they had big bug eyes and a long nose.”
“That’s the last thing I saw, too,” Kaldr confirmed. “Then the world went black. Next thing I know, we’re here.”
Einarr wanted to cry. All of that, and still they were caught by the dvergr? “Is Runa here?”
“So, no. Fine. Does anyone know how long we’ve been here?”
“It’s hard to say, Captain,” Naudrek answered. “They’ve fed us three times – if you want to call it that. They don’t seem to care much what condition we’re in so long as we’re alive, though.”
“I see.” He saw rather more than he wanted to see, honestly. Runa was missing, and either Vali was with her or he was somehow asleep again. And Jorir had said, back before they infiltrated the svartalfr cave, that his own home had fallen under the sway of that same cult. He did not care to probe too deeply what fate might await them if they couldn’t get out of this dungeon. Just as bad were all the things they could intend for Runa – or have already done to her. To her, and to the babe. He growled.
“Fine. So somehow we need to break out of this, find Runa, and find Jorir. Then we need to go back up those thrice-cursed tunnels, get in our boat, and wash our hands of this place. Sound about right?”
Noises of agreement came from around their cell.
“So. What have we tried so far?”
The only answer was the rattle of chains. Was someone shaking their head?
“It’s like the shackles were fitted for us specifically – there’s not an inch of give there. The chains are looped over a hook overhead, but we only know that because they let us down when they feed us – and that by a hook from outside the cell.” Einarr thought he heard a note of despair in Kaldr’s calm voice. “None of us has been able to manage it ourselves. Something about the leg irons is keeping us all stuck sitting, too, never mind that it’s our ankles bound.”
Einarr frowned. The dvergr were known for elevating their smithing into an art – did that mean it was an Art? He snorted: on the subject of unknowables, that was low on the priority tree. “I had a bit of chalk still in my pocket when the backlash knocked me out, but I don’t have enough play to lower my arms. Does anyone else?”
“I’m afraid not,” Naudrek answered to more clinking.
Einarr swore. This was looking worse and worse: just how paranoid were these svartdvergr? “So our best hope is for Jorir to learn we’re here and decide to free us. Once he knows we’re here, I’m certain he’ll do everything in his power to ensure we’re freed… but I suppose until that happens we just have to trust in the Norns.” Now he sighed. “I don’t suppose they’ve given any of you a clue what they plan to do to us? Surely they don’t intend to hold us here forever?”
“No, not forever,” Thjofgrir answered, black humor heavy in his voice. “Just until they decide to execute us.”
Einarr opened his mouth to swear again, but then the enormity of what they faced hit him as hard as the ache in his muscles had. He groaned and slumped back against the wall. “All right. So when was the last time they fed you… and please tell me they bring water.”
“Oh, aye, there’s water. It’s warm, and it tastes worse than it smells, but it wets your throat for a little.” Naudrek gave a bitter chuckle. “And I haven’t the foggiest when they fed us last, or when they’ll feed us again. It’s never enough to fill you up, so your belly just settles into a constant dull ache.”
“The guard has changed twice since the last time they brought their …porridge,” Kaldr answered. “I’ve been counting the passage of boots in the hall. So we should be getting some respite before too long.”
Einarr nodded, not really thinking about whether or not they could see him. When the guard came to feed them – whenever that was – he would try to palm the chalk he remembered having in his pocket. Hopefully it would still be there. Hopefully, too, he would actually be able to help their situation then.
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