For the first time in a very long time, Kaldr saw the red haze of the battle fury pressing at the edges of his vision. It was a mark of just how exhausted he was that he contemplated accepting it, just this once. When he realized that, he physically shook his head to shake it off. One of them, at least, had to keep his wits about him. Thjofgrir was quite plainly in its grip, as was Naudrek. They must have (reasonably) assumed he would play the Captain here.

He fought off the Song as hard as he fought off the enormous, wounded salamander.

The beast shot its tongue toward where Runa stood over Einarr. All three of them lunged at once to slash at the exposed flesh. For a wonder, their blades bit deep.

The salamander – he was reasonably certain that’s what he was looking at, overgrown though it was – reared back and shrieked in pain, as inhuman a sound as Kaldr had ever heard. Salamander blood splashed everywhere.

He turned his attention back to its gills: the shot would be tricky, but he felt certain it would be the best way to injure the beast.

In and out he darted, trying with every lunge to stab deep within the beast’s gills. Even at full strength, with all of them fighting and fresh, this would have been a difficult fight. Here, their Captain was down, Vali was keening most unpleasantly, and even a quick glance at Runa showed the strain she was under.

Kaldr was panting furiously as the three of them fought off the beast. He wasn’t sure any longer whether or not it mattered if he kept his wits: there was nothing to this fight except to cut and retreat.

Then the very air around them began to vibrate, thrumming in his ears. He spared another glance across the room at Runa.

Her eyes were squeezed shut, and her mouth open wide, but the tone of her voice was shifting subtly downwards, as though intending to twine with Vali’s mad keening.

He hoped she was doing that on purpose, whatever it was. The throbbing of the air in his ears grew worse, until even the beast became distracted by the noise. It thrashed its head this way and that, like a dog with a bee in its ear. Then, it tried to scoot backwards out of the room the same way it had wriggled in. As it did so, it flared its gills.

Kaldr reacted. He lunged for the opening with all his strength, plunging his sword into the exposed inner flesh of the beast’s neck. Blood spurted out around his blade and the salamander began to thrash in earnest.

Naudrek jumped nimbly out of the way before it could slam him against the wall with its head. Thjofgrir took a different approach.

Still under the effects of Runa’s Song, Thjofgrir jumped up to land on the wildly shaking head. Deliberately, one step at a time, he walked up its slimy nose until he stood right beside the beast’s eye. Then, with a scream of Song-fueled rage, he drove his sword point home just behind its eye. With a shudder, the salamander collapsed to the floor and ceased moving.

Runa’s Song shifted, and Kaldr no longer felt the red mist of rage pulsing at his mind. The keening, however, modulated with it, so that the thrumming in the air never ceased. And now, without the battle fury to distract him, Kaldr became aware of something else pulsing at the edges of his mind.

Now it was his turn to shudder, him and the other two who had been doing the actual work of fighting the beast. Suddenly he was a small boy again, alone and hiding in the corner while pabbi railed drunkenly at his mother over… nothing, so far as Kaldr could tell. Some seithir had worked her magic on him, again, and convinced him to give her all his coin. Mother didn’t deserve that, but he knew better than to help. The man’s temper couldn’t abide that.

That memory was followed by a rush of raw emotion, so strong even Kaldr felt himself sinking to his knees. Fear. Anger. Loneliness. Pain, too, but nearly subsumed by the others.

His shoulders shuddering, he turned bleary eyes to the others. Coming down off the battle fury, as they were, it seemed to be hitting them harder. The green light of the statues’ eyes reflected wetly off of Thjofgrir’s cheeks where he knelt, staring silently towards the ceiling.

Naudrek had curled up into a ball on the floor.

And Runa was no longer Singing.

Wait. If she’s not Singing, then where is that thrumming coming from? He didn’t know much about Song magic, but he had heard enough ordinary music to be familiar with the effect. So then, was Vali causing all of this by himself? Kaldr forced himself to his feet under the inhuman, almost physical weight of loneliness that was bearing down on him. He stumbled towards the Singer and nearly choked when he tried to speak. “Runa?”

“We’ve got to get the jar out of here!” Her voice sounded wet with tears, as well. Interesting: he had rarely known Singers to be affected by other Songs.

“How?” It came out as a wail, but how much of the despair was his own he could not guess.

“I don’t know!” She inhaled loudly, a deep, sobbing, shuddering breath. “I can try to give you strength to burst it.”

Kaldr shook his head. That would take too long, he expected. Damn that apparition. The throbbing keening echoing through the room made it almost impossible to think, though. “There’s got to be… some sort of emergency catch. In case one of their own gets trapped.”

He spared a look for Einarr. He was probably the happiest among them, peacefully unconscious and unaware of the havoc around them. Sadly, they could not knock themselves unconscious to escape this, not without handing themselves to the tender mercies of the dvergr. “Help me search?”

“But…” Runa glanced worriedly between Einarr and Kaldr. Pregnant women were often overly emotional. She must have a will of iron to be holding together even this well under the onslaught.

“I think he’ll be fine on his own. We, on the other hand…”

He could just see her nod, one hand at her face. When she rose, it was unsteady. “You’re right, of course. And who knows what will happen to poor Vali after this…”

Kaldr stared. In this situation, it was the ghost she worried about?

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

Einarr’s scream was followed quickly by Runa’s as the light shifted from one, central source of dim white light to a diffuse green. Kaldr spun on his heels, only to see his Prince collapsing to the floor, and the Lady racing across to where he fell.

“What happened?” he called across as he returned his attention to the hall beyond. The beast was far too close for comfort.

“I don’t know!” It was Vali who answered: Kaldr assumed the Lady was examining Einarr. “We finally found the door, but there didn’t seem to be any way to open it from this side. So Einarr drew Bjarkan, and then… this.” Disconcertingly, he cackled.

Kaldr tightened his grip on his sword. This could get very bad, very fast.

Not much light reached the passage, but what did was just enough to prove they were out of time. A fleshy-looking white rod impacted with the wall, just at the edge of what Kaldr could see, and then vanished again.

“Runa? Is he all right?”

“He’ll be fine, I think. The backlash knocked him out, but -”

The beast’s chirrup, from down the hall, sounded more like the hunting cry of a wyrm at this distance. Whatever it was, there wouldn’t be much choice but to fight it.

“But?”

“But his breathing is normal. I’m not sure… no! Damn these dvergr! It’s the statues!”

An unnerving giggle echoed through the chambers, plainly from the apparition.

“Explain. Quickly.” Kaldr took a step back from the doorway so that he would be half-hidden by the stone and motioned for Thjofgrir and Naudrek to do the same. It was starting to sound like Vali would be little help here.

“Sculpting is the Art of Defense. It basically cancels static magic.”

Thunderous footsteps sounded in the hall, far too close to the door.

“It’s not great for me, either, but I’ll do what I can.”

Kaldr met eyes with Thjofgrir. The other man gave a familiar wry grin. Naudrek looked grim as he limbered his shoulders and neck. They were in for the fight of their lives, but it looked like they were all up for it.

Kree-ee-ee!

The noise reverberated so loudly Kaldr worried it would bring down the ceiling on them, dvergr work or no. Then it stuck its head inside, even as a glowing green mist rose up around them all. Are you trying to help us or not, Vali? Even if he was, Kaldr wasn’t certain how helpful thick fog was going to be here.

The beast’s head was shaped like a snake’s, but instead of dry scales here they saw moist, slimy-looking skin and gill slits, like a fish might have. Between the cheeks and the gills, little tentacles writhed like worms in a frill around its head.

“Now!” Kaldr shouted, unnecessarily. Thjofgrir was already in motion, his blade held in both hands and his shield still slung over his shoulder. It hissed as blood welled up from the cut, but even from this angle Kaldr could tell it was just a shallow strike.

The creature’s head had fit through the door, but it was having to fight to get its shoulders in. Kaldr lunged forward and cut at the gills. Its skin felt preternaturally tough, though, so even though he knew it to be a solid hit, it too merely welled with a thin line of blood.

Naudrek, in the center, saw both of these blows glance off the beast’s slimy flesh. He stood a moment longer, studying the creature. Then, with a nod to himself, he took a step back and then leaped onto its nose, sword-tip first.

The beast let out another of its shockingly loud chirps and shook its head, this way and that, trying to shake off the prey that had stuck its nose. Well. It didn’t like that.

Kaldr was up next to its neck, now, even as its first four-toed leg was wriggling through. Each of those toes had claws as long as a dagger, and likely just as sharp.

The eerie, mad laughter echoed through the room again, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. The fog no longer seemed to glow in and of itself, but rather little balls of what he could only term ghost fire hung in the air around the beast’s head. Kaldr could see it squinting against the light, sideways membranes squeezing to cover most of the eye.

There was something strangely familiar about the form of this beast, but Kaldr did not have time to dwell on it. He stabbed his sword forward, straight into the gills.

It hissed and tried to close its gills around his sword.

He hopped back. Too hasty. What else might work?

Then the beast got its second leg in. Now that its shoulders were through the door, there was very little to bar the slimy creature from getting to all of them. Very little, save for the four of them. Kaldr had to do better than that.

Naudrek had gained his footing again, just long enough to retrieve his sword from its nose and plunge it down again. It hissed and reared up, trying to dislodge the offending creature on the ceiling. While it was stretched up on its toes, Kaldr hacked at them.

This time, his blow did what he expected it to, and three of the beast’s webbed toes were sheared off.

That got its attention. It twisted its head around and bit at Kaldr.

Naudrek, still on its nose, drew out his sword again and stabbed at the inside of the jaw, just behind the row of sharp, needle-like teeth. Amazingly, he did not lose his sword to its bite.

And that was when Vali, the apparition bound to a jar, began to wail.

Kaldr was only aware of it at first as a prickling on the back of his neck and a feeling of deep unease, even above fighting this monstrosity that had been chasing them for who knows how long through these accursed tunnels. But then the feeling of unease grew until it felt like the room was vibrating with it, and with the hollow rage of a spirit forever bound to – what?

Even the hungry beast seemed to shiver at the sound – right up until Thjofgrir took its other foreleg at the knee. Now it lay, half inside their only sanctuary, on its chest, hissing and chirping and biting around itself left and right. Kaldr almost felt sorry for it: it was now down two legs. They would have to kill it, if they could.

That was the moment that Runa began to Sing.

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

Einarr hurried his crew along as best he could, but Thjofgrir’s injury was going to be an issue until Runa’s song had a chance to do its work. The beast – whatever it was – would still be slowed somewhat by the rubble in the way, but they couldn’t exactly move full speed right now, either. He had taken the rear since Kaldr was bearing Thjofgrir, but that meant he couldn’t carry Runa. He was actually impressed at how well she was maintaining her Song at this pace, but it wasn’t going to gain them any time. They needed either an exit or a hiding place, and they needed it fast. Not that he had the first clue what a hiding place would even look like in this circumstance. There had to be something he could do to slow it down, just a little more.

But, as with the rest of the paths, there was no sign of any supports holding up the ceiling, nor were there cracks in the wall he could exploit. The idea of runes flitted through his mind again, but he shook his head firmly. No runes, not unless it was absolutely critical. Not when he didn’t know what sort of magics the dvergr might turn against them.

“Hey!” Naudrek’s voice rang down the tunnel from up ahead. “I think I found something!”

With great relief, Einarr scooped Thjofgrir’s other arm across his shoulder. “We’re coming!”

Now that there were two of them carrying the other man’s weight they went faster, although still no faster than Runa could move while Singing.

Naudrek and Vali led them into a wide-open room with a narrow entrance – narrow enough that two men could effectively hold off any number of assailants, if they were fresh. None of them were anything like fresh, but still Naudrek moved to bar the door as the last of their crew staggered in. Kaldr joined him as Einarr helped Thjofgrir to sit and Runa turned her full attention to mending his injured leg.

That left Einarr and Vali to examine their momentary shelter. Einarr laid his shield by Runa’s side so there was at least a little light for her to work with. Sweat beaded her brow, although it was no warmer in this room than it had been in the passages beyond. Perhaps she was more exhausted than she let on.

As he got a good look at the room, though, he wished he had it with him. The light itself was steady, but at that distance and that angle it cast strange shadows over the multitude of carved beasts that lined the walls. He saw creatures as mundane as stags, wolves, and bears, but also coiling dragons and hideous sea creatures. There were even a few that looked not unlike tafl pieces. Each and every statue that he passed, Einarr saw that the eyes were set with some sort of faintly glowing green gem.

They had nearly completed a circuit of the room, without finding any other exit, when the beast’s incongruous chirp echoed into the room. Everyone turned to look towards the door, Thjofgrir still massaging his injured leg as Runa took a moment to rest her voice.

“How’s it feeling?” Einarr asked Thjofgrir.

“Better.” He suited action to words and pulled his boot back on. “We had another hour, I’d be right as rain.”

Einarr nodded. That was more or less what he’d expected. “Right then. Stay off it for a bit longer, I think, then go backup Kaldr and Naudrek. Runa, rest up while you can. Won’t be long. We’ll keep looking for another way out of here.”

Runa gave him a wan smile even as she drew the water skin from her belt. She raised it to her mouth and drank long and deeply.

Einarr turned his attention back to the problem at hand, but by the time he completed his circuit of the room with its eerie statues he still hadn’t found anything that looked like a way through.

Then Vali gave a quick, quiet whistle from the far side of the cavern. Einarr crossed the room at a trot, sparing a glance for his wife who still sat near where she had treated Thjofgrir. She looked less pale, he thought, although in the dim light of his shield it was difficult to be certain. Vali was still waving him on, though.

“What did you find?” he asked as he drew near the apparition. He was fairly sure he heard the familiar wet slapping footsteps of their pursuer again.

“It’s well-hidden, but I think I’ve spotted the passage.”

“Oh, thank the gods.”

“Gods, or ghosts?” Vali winked at him mischievously, then sobered again. “But really, don’t thank me yet. We still have to figure out how to get it open.”

“Show me.”

It was a door, as cleverly concealed as the one they had found initially, just before bypassing the elemental traps at the very top of the Paths. Only this one was locked – as Vali was able to confirm. Probably this was an access hatch for the poor sots sent to clean up after the fools who dared the tunnels.

Einarr took a deep breath. Before, it had taken all of them to push open a stone door like this – only that one hadn’t been locked, or even seemed to have a catch. This one was plainly designed to open only from one side – the other one.

A continuous stream of chirps echoed through the room now, and Einarr imagined he could hear the scraping of claws over the wet smack of the beast’s footsteps. They had found their exit, but they were out of time. He drew out his chalk once more and inscribed a – Bjarkan. The Rune of Liberation.

Please let this work. He willed the rune to life.

A moment later, lances of white fire seemed to stab into his eyes and ears. For a moment, all the world was pain. And then it grew black.


Runa whipped her head around at Einarr’s unexpected scream of pain. The men at the door were ready to fight, and so was she if she had to, but she had expected danger to come from the other direction.

Einarr clutched at his head and sank to his knees – and then the shield winked out.

Runa was on her feet in a heartbeat, wondering if she could make it across the floor in the pitch darkness without falling flat on her face.

The question quickly became moot. All around the chamber, the eyes of the fantastic carved beasts began to glow, as green as ghost light.

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

Vali’s warning left Einarr thunderstruck: hadn’t they just passed a deadfall? “Another one?” He managed to say eventually.

“And in better repair than the one before. You’ll never make it through here carrying the lady: not sure you will anyway.”

“It’s fine. Put me down: I’ve rested enough.”

As Einarr opened his mouth to ask if she was sure, the beast’s ear-piercing chirp rang through the passage again. The sound alone was enough to dislodge some of the looser stones. Instead, he turned to Vali as Runa climbed down off his back. “Can you see where the keystones are?”

“Not well. I’ll do my best to warn you, but…”

“Fine. Let’s go!” There was no time for arguing or explanations: Einarr felt certain the creature was gaining on them with every step.

Vali looked thoughtful for a moment, then his eyes brightened as an idea occurred to him. He floated forward through the passage, and in his wake bits of stone along the walls and ceiling illuminated in the virulent green of ghost light. Every last one of these was placed such that Einarr had to dodge around it – and some of them he nearly stumbled into anyway. Einarr was as thankful for the ghost’s presence as he was shocked they had done as well as they had.

The wet sounds of the beast’s footsteps were clearly audible now, and moving quickly. And it almost certainly wouldn’t care about this deadfall, much like it hadn’t cared about the one before. There was not room to carry Runa, so he reached back and grabbed her hand. “Faster!”

He and Naudrek ran faster, pulling Runa along in their wake. When Naudrek danced around a protruding lance of stone highlighted by Vali’s ghost light, Einarr didn’t even think what he needed to do. He pulled Runa forward in a spin, as though they were dancing, and both their feet left the ground as Einarr turned so that the lance passed just above his back.

Then his feet touched the ground again, and Runa’s as well, and they were running again. It was a move that he would have to remember the next time he found himself at a Hallingdanse – although Sivid was sure to show him up almost immediately.

A moment later he heard a muffled curse from Thjofgrir, but there was no following rumble of moving stone so he must not have hit the keystone.

How are its feet still wet? We must have run a mile at least! He didn’t know where the thought came from, except that it touched on the nature of the beast: it didn’t matter, right now – and never would, if Einarr had his way. Even before this chase, none of them had been in any condition to fight a monster of the deep.

Finally, just up ahead, Einarr saw the walls of the passage grow smooth again. Thank the gods! He had to fight the urge to pour on more speed, though: he suspected Runa was already having trouble keeping her feet, and getting through the deadfall would not end their race.

He practically leaped over the last few feet and past the final glowing keystone for the deadfall and did not slow his pace. A curse from Thjofgrir made him turn his head to look: the big man had tripped and rammed his shoulder into that selfsame keystone. Ghost light clung to the arm in question, although Vali quickly extinguished it.

The walls of loose stone began to rumble, and bits of debris fell from the ceiling in thin streams.

“Run!” Einarr bellowed back, knowing that he already was.

Thjofgrir righted himself and half-stumbled back into his run, his fatigue made worse by the extreme stoop he was forced to move in. Larger, fist-sized rocks started to tumble from the ceiling, as the keystone began to slowly slide down the wall.

Further down the hall, at the very edge of what Vali’s ghost light still illuminated, a massive silver-grey rod shot out and collided with the wall ahead of it. Einarr only got a glimpse, it moved so fast, but that hastened the deadfall.

Thjofgrir propelled himself forward, trying to get out of the way of the fast-descending rubble. As he stretched out into his desperate dive, he collided with Kaldr, sending them both sprawling to the floor.

Einarr, Naudrek, and Runa all stopped in their tracks, turning to see.

The deadfall gave way and several tons of rubble came crashing to the floor of the cave. This one, evidently, had also been a deeper deadfall than the one before, as the rock nearly filled the passage behind them.

Kaldr rolled to his back and sat up. “Thjofgrir? Are you all right?”

Kaldr’s Mate looked up, a pained expression on his face. “I’m trapped. Go on: that thing’s going to burrow through this just like it did the other.”

“That just means we’ll have to hurry. Runa, catch your breath quick as you can. We’re going to need your voice.”

She nodded silently, it looked like she was already working on that.

“Now, come on. We’ve got some digging to do.”

All three standing men moved up to the fallen rock. Einarr thought it shouldn’t take them very long to dig him out, based on how the rocks had arranged themselves, provided his feet had escaped crushing.

“What are you doing?” Thjofgrir protested. “You really think I’m going to be able to walk? Run!”

“Yes, actually,” Kaldr answered, cool and unflappable as ever.

“Just hold on. We’ll have you out of there soon enough, and Runa will fix you up right away.” Einarr had already started shifting stones. They could hear the angry chirps of whatever the beast behind them was, but it sounded like this was enough rock to stymie even it, at least for a while.

Thjofgrir was only buried about halfway up his calves, and the stone was as loose as Einarr thought here on the edge of the fall. With all the strength their exhausted muscles could muster the three of them moved stone until Naudrek and Kaldr could take Thjofgrir’s arms and haul him out from underneath.

His feet were tender, but not bloodied, and while he could put no weight on his left leg, his right was fine. Runa began the Song of Healing even before he was fully upright, and if her voice sounded tired it did not diminish the strength of her Song. They started off again, Thjofgrir leaning on Kaldr’s shoulder and limping as quickly as he could. Einarr moved into the rear and they started to jog, just as the sound of tumbling stone started up again. The beast had found its way forward.

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

They all covered their ears involuntarily at the creature’s angry shout. A small cascade of dirt and pebbles were dislodged from the rough ceiling here.

Naudrek dropped into a run again even as Einarr opened his mouth. Einarr stepped to the side as Runa picked up her skirts and started to follow after Naudrek. “Kaldr, Thjofgrir, this stone looks loose. Try to drop the ceiling, then catch up. Vali, see if you can’t give them a hand.”

“Sir!” Kaldr bellowed in agreement.

“Good fortune.” Then Einarr, too, ran after Naudrek.

Kaldr turned where he stood to look at the passage around them while Thjofgrir loosened up his arms. Based on the quality of the stone here, this was almost certainly intended to be a deadfall. Why it hadn’t triggered, Kaldr couldn’t guess, but he would certainly use it to his advantage. Fortune would have nothing to do with it. “Ready?”

“Let’s bust some walls.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about being used as a glorified lamp,” Vali groused, “but I’d hurry if I were you. I got a look at it before. It’s quick, and slippery, and it could get both of you in its mouth whole.”

“My thanks for the warning – and the light, however irksome that may be.” Kaldr drew his sword. “We could use the extra eyes, too, to be frank. There’s bound to be a weak spot that will send all this loose stuff tumbling down.”

Vali chuckled. “Is that all? Try over there.” He pointed to a section of the wall that looked much like any other.

Kaldr moved to inspect the section of face that Vali indicated. It did, indeed, look like all they would need to do would be to dislodge one stone in order to bring it all down. Unfortunately, that spot was right in the middle of the deadfall. If they simply knocked it loose, they would bring the trap down on their own heads, and their shields were definitely not up to a rockfall of that magnitude.

Kaldr frowned, staring at the spot. “Vali… how big is the beast?”

“Massive.”

Kaldr thought he could hear the wet footfalls behind them again – and a scratching noise, too. “Big enough it could brush the wall here without really trying?”

“Probably.”

He didn’t have time to deliberate: there was only one path forward he could see, anyway. He drew the knife from his belt and wedged it into a vertical crack in the stone. Assuming the deadfall trap was only malfunctioning and not outright jammed, their pursuer should trigger it when he brushed against the handle. He didn’t like this sort of gamble, but sometimes the odds were just against you. “Let’s go.”

“That’s all?” Thjofgrir actually sounded disappointed.

“Afraid so. We should hurry: even if this works, I don’t think it’ll stop the beast for long.” Kaldr started to trot down the passage, then paused. “Hey, Vali? Earlier, you said you made the entrance to this passage colder. I don’t suppose you could make my knife warmer?”

The apparition shook his head. “I’m a ghost, not spawn of Hel.”

Kaldr shrugged. “Too bad. We’ll just have to hope, then.” And he took off at a dead run after Einarr’s party, with Thjofgrir and Vali close behind.


Einarr heard pounding feet coming up behind him: glancing over his shoulder, it was the other three. A moment later there was another loud chirrup and the crashing of stone against stone. Troublingly, the rockfall did not seem to quiet the beast at all.

“No luck?” Einarr asked as Kaldr and the others fell in behind him. They had kept a more moderate pace, both in deference to Runa and in hopes of letting the others catch up more easily.

“Not enough, I’m afraid. I liked that knife, too.”

“We all get through this, I’ll have Jorir make you a new one, exactly how you want it.”

Kaldr snorted and said no more. No-one did: they all had focused their energy on finding a way to give it the slip.

The passage wound on for quite a while, as featureless as they had come to expect outside of the flaming stairs and the vestibule of javelins. Einarr could not yet hear the wet footsteps they knew meant the beast was approaching, but its occasional high-pitched chirp was definitely getting closer. He thought, briefly, of pulling out his Óss runestone again… but the dvergr had done something that interfered with the runes. In this place, he wasn’t certain he could trust even Wotan’s rune. Best to save those for when there was no other way, and he didn’t think they’d run out of options yet.

“See anything?” he asked Naudrek after a while, but the other man just shook his head and kept running. Runa was getting winded again: they were asking too much of her, and he feared for the child.

Einarr sighed. He felt like he’d been reliant on Vali’s strange powers too much this trip… and yet, the ghost had come along as a scout. “Vali! We need you to zip ahead. Anything strange or unusual you see – anything at all – report back.”

“Will do.” This time, at least, he didn’t look cross over the matter.

A glance over his shoulder showed Runa gamely pushing on, but she needed far more than their unexpected sleep earlier. It wouldn’t slow them appreciably at this point, so Einarr held up a hand for those behind him to wait. With no explanation whatever, he dropped to one knee.

“I beg your pardon?” Runa asked, perplexed.

“Hop on. I’ll carry you.”

A stubborn look flitted over her face, but it softened almost immediately. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Why do you think I am?”

They were coming into another area of rough rock walls and loose stone. Somehow they’d managed to avoid triggering the last one, although the beast had not been so lucky. Nothing for it but to pray…

“Wait!” Vali came zipping back, almost as quickly as he’d raced off.

Without question, the others skidded to a stop. “What is it?” Einarr asked.

“Deadfall – right over head. One wrong step from where you are and you’ll all be buried.”

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If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

The light no longer reached the water’s edge when the sound of wet footfalls against the stone floor of the cave began to echo behind them. Einarr wished he could be surprised, but if the monster had given up that easily he doubted the dvergr would have bound it. That it was bound to the area was almost certain: probably they were lucky they hadn’t run into it while they were swimming.

The footfalls did not seem to be gaining on them, or at least not very quickly, but Einarr could already hear a new problem from up ahead: howling wind.

What now? At this rate, he was going to start looking for deadfalls around every corner. Einarr took a deep breath, considering. The passage seemed reasonably wide here, even if it was still far too short for comfort. “Everyone hears that, right?”

Nods all around.

“Who feels like they’re in any condition to fight?”

“Well, if we have to…” Thjofgrir shrugged.

“So then it’s safe to say, even after our little impromptu nap, none of us are really in great shape?”

“That is my impression as well,” Kaldr answered.

Einarr nodded. The slapping noises had grown louder. “Then if we’re not in any condition to fight whatever that is, we need to pick up the pace. Go!”

None of them needed to be told a second time, even if Runa did still look dangerously pale under the light of his shield. Naudrek took long, loping strides even in the cramped conditions, and if Runa had to scramble to keep up she did still manage.

A long, low chirp echoed out through the tunnel behind them. Whatever it was, it sounded big. Big, and inhuman.

“I don’t suppose there’s anything you can do to slow it down?” Naudrek asked over his shoulder.

“You want me to use more runes now? Right after my clumsy circle almost got us eaten?”

“I for one would rather handle this the old-fashioned way,” Kaldr put in. Einarr had to agree this time. He’d use them again if he had to, but if they could throw their pursuer off without it would be better.

They held no pretense of stealth, but Einarr thought the creature that pursued them was not likely tracking them by sound anyway.

As they loped along, Einarr had his eyes open for any sort of a side passage or some loose rock – anything to slow it down. The dvergr had promised them death for entering these tunnels, but what sort of prince would Einarr be if he simply accepted such a thing?

The passageway stretched on. The light from his shield only illuminated a few paces ahead of Naudrek at the pace they were keeping: they could stumble into nearly anything this way, and it was sure to be at least as deadly as the creature behind them. Einarr stretched out his arms to drag his fingers along the walls. If they could find a crack or a crevice, like the one that had led them to the hall of pits and the stairway down, perhaps they could give the monster the slip. His fingers would find an opening long before his eyes did, under these circumstances.

The frog-like chirrup echoed through the hall again. Einarr didn’t know what would make a noise like that, but he was entirely certain he did not want to meet it.

Naudrek started to quicken his pace again, but Einarr slowed him again. He could hear Runa panting behind him already. Any faster, and one of them would have to carry her – which wouldn’t actually gain them any speed. Not for the first time, he wished he’d had a good reason to insist she stay home, and take Eydri instead. Then he wouldn’t be risking his wife and his heir in this mad journey.

His fingers caught on a sharp edge.

Before he thought about it, he moved his fingers to his mouth to suck at the blood that welled up from the cut. It was nothing serious, he thought, but neither was it an actual passage they could take advantage of. And now the creature would have the scent of his blood. Brilliant move, Einarr.

He shook his head and jogged on after Naudrek. There was nothing they could do about that now, and it would stop bleeding soon enough so he could keep feeling for a side-passage.

When they came to an actual fork in the path, Einarr was delighted.

“Go about fifteen paces down one leg, then we double back and take the other,” he instructed Naudrek. They would lose some of their lead, but if he was right that the hunter could smell them it might well throw it off their trail.

Another idea struck him. “Vali – can you obscure our trail?”

“How do you mean?”

“I think it’s got our scent. Can you cover it?” He was starting to feel a little winded, himself.

The apparition frowned, floating backwards just in front of Naudrek. “I can try? I can’t say I’ve ever tried something like that before.”

“Try, then. When we start down the second fork, try to make sure it goes down the first one.”

“Sure thing, chief.” Vali winked out of sight just as Naudrek was turning them around to double back.

Einarr thought he could hear the scraping of claws against the stone. Please let this work.

It chirruped again. It was definitely closer, but still not so close that he could see it in the shield light.

As they turned, he scooped Runa up into his arms and breathed one word to them all: “Run.”

At their new, breakneck pace, they all skidded a little making the turn into the second fork of the path, but they made the turn. What’s more, they caught no glimpse of the beast on their trail.

About thirty paces down the second passage, Vali popped up in front of them again. “I’ve done what I can. It won’t fool it forever, though, and it’s going to be mad when it catches the trail again.”

Einarr paused long enough to set Runa back on her feet, and then they were moving again at Naudrek’s ground-eating lope.

“So what did you do?”

The ghost shrugged. “I made it colder? I don’t really know how to describe it. I also hid your light.”

Einarr nodded, and none of them slowed. They still had no idea how to get out of here, and the farther behind they left the beast the better.

The walls became rougher, and a little looser, when a series of chirrups echoed through the halls at ear-piercing volume, followed by the crash of stone.

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If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

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Kaldr took up position just inside the circle of warm air, surprised at himself for his easy agreement. Nothing he said was false, and his clothes seemed to be growing drier by the second. Only, he felt none of his usual apprehension about sorcery. Indeed, primarily what he felt was the comfort of a thick fur blanket, and drowsy.

Behind him, the others had all but collapsed to the ground, sitting around Einarr and supporting him while he slept. How restful that sleep was, given that he was somehow powering this respite of theirs, Kaldr could not guess. They, too, all looked drowsy, but that was only natural. When you went into a steam room after a long winter’s day chopping wood, or hunting, it was only natural to feel a bit drowsy.

He didn’t think much of it when Runa rested her head on Einarr’s arm and drifted off into sleep, as well. She shouldn’t even be here! She was holding up remarkably well, considering her condition and her physical… well, not really frailty, but certainly she was sheltered and soft.

The passage moving ahead was empty and dark. Kaldr roused himself and paced around the edge to look out over the water. If that connected to the open sea – which he thought it did – they could not assume it was safe. After a time, he stirred himself again and completed his circuit.

While he was walking, Vali emerged from his jar and floated, observing the others. Kaldr could admit to himself that the ghost made him uncomfortable, even though Einarr seemed to like him. He continued to pace in a circle, keeping guard around the others.

Thjofgrir yawned. He, too, looked on the verge of sleep. Naudrek had taken out a dice cup and was tossing the dice, then scooping them up without looking at them. Plainly trying to stay awake.

“Hey,” Vali said, swooping down to hover just outside Einarr’s circle. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

Kaldr rolled his head and suppressed a yawn before he answered. “Better than freezing to death, isn’t it?”

“Hmm. Maybe.” The apparition seemed uncertain. Kaldr continued his slow walk around the edge of the circle. Truth be told, he wouldn’t mind sitting to rest, either. Perhaps Naudrek would trade places with him?

Vali continued. “It’s just, I think his runes are being interfered with. There’s a black, sort of smoky taste to the magic.”

Kaldr stopped, blinking. “Excuse me… taste?”

“That’s right. Normally, his Lordship’s magic is kind of… apple-like? I don’t know: it’s been a long time since I’ve eaten real food to remember the taste. But it’s crisp and clear and sort of refreshing. And here there’s something else.”

Kaldr eyed the runes on the floor. Was that even possible? He did feel lethargic – but was it more lethargic than the circumstances would account for? He felt his eyelids beginning to droop and started his pacing again. “So what would you have me do?”

“Are you dry?”

Kaldr had to think over that one. “Yes,” he drawled, finally. “Everything but my feet in my boots.”

“Is the Lady dry?”

Lady Runa was, of course, sound asleep on Einarr’s shoulder. Her outer clothes looked dry, of course, but he would have to wake her up to be sure. He tried once more to shake off the lethargy as he reached out a hand to shake her shoulder. Naudrek and Thjofgrir had dozed off while he spoke with Vali.

Runa’s eyes fluttered, but she did not wake. Kaldr clasped a hand around her boot, and very carefully felt at the folds of her skirts. If she woke now, he was as good as dead.

“Mostly,” he answered the apparition.

“Okay. Good. I have a bad feeling about this, so we have two options. One: you can destroy the working. Striking out the lines should break the enchantment and wake everybody up. Two, I can consume it – but I make no promises about leaving you the light on his Lordship’s shield. It’s kind of blended in amongst the rest of it and hard to separate out.”

Kaldr yawned. Was it really as critical as all that? He reached out a hand to shake Einarr’s shoulder. He slumped over, leaning against Naudrek’s sleeping back, and snored more loudly. He appeared to be fully dry.

The sound of an oar slipping out of the water came to his ears – an oar, or a fish jumping. Kaldr had been right about the water. Vali was right: Kaldr reached out with his hand and smudged the lines of Einarr’s sorcery.

At once the warm breeze ceased to be. The passage felt even colder now that it was gone – but Kaldr already felt more awake. He met Vali’s eyes and gave a small nod of appreciation that was returned in kind.

Something splashed in the water again and Naudrek jerked himself awake. Good instincts on that one. He kept himself awake longer than any of the others, too.

“What’s going on?” He still sounded half-asleep, but Kaldr could let that go.

“Not sure. Something in the water.”

Naudrek ran a palm down his face and rose to his feet, shaking Einarr by the shoulder to rouse him. That left Kaldr free to see to Thjofgrir. If they could let the Lady sleep, however, he thought they probably should.

A little bit later, Einarr stood shoulder to shoulder with the others, peering out over the water for any sign of the source of the noise. “What happened?” he asked.

Kaldr shook his head. “Ask Vali. He explained it to me, but it didn’t make a lot of sense.”

Einarr nodded. “I did not expect that to put me out like that. Thank you for handling the watch.”

Kaldr grunted. He hadn’t exactly done anything out of the ordinary. He’d almost gotten them all killed, in fact – if it hadn’t been for Vali’s warning.. “I heard a pair of splashes. You don’t think we’d be getting draugr in here, do you?”

“Gods, I hope not. The properly buried sort were bad enough… Whatever it was, it seems to be gone now.” He turned and knelt to wake Runa. Without the influence of the magic, she woke easily.

“Wh–”

“No time,” Einarr said, cutting off her inevitable question. “We need to get moving again.”

She nodded her understanding and, with a stiffness born of fatigue, she levered herself up off the floor. “Fine. But I expect someone to tell me why I was asleep on the floor of the cave while we move.”

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If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

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For a moment Naudrek merely floated, a pained expression on his face, but he did not let go his air, and after a moment he swam on.

Then a blast of even colder water slammed into Einarr’s side. Thanks to the moment’s warning from Naudrek, he was able to keep Runa from slamming bodily into the wall at the low cost of a shock to his knees. He hardly even felt it!

Worryingly, the water was starting to feel warmer, and Runa was not looking good. She hadn’t yet let go of her air, but he didn’t want to gamble on how long that would last.

He kicked off from the wall, hoping to hurry past the cross-current. Almost immediately, though, he was shoved back toward the cave wall. He tried to turn himself to take the impact again, but this time his legs tangled in Runa’s skirts. She reached down totry to pluck them away, but Einarr could tell immediately it wouldn’t be enough.

Just then, a surge of water came from behind them. Instead of impacting the wall, Einarr found himself being pushed along by Kaldr, with Thjofgrir helping Runa.

Thank the gods. Hagall and Kaun, to warm and dry us… no. Kaun is as like to scorch us. Sol. Sun and wind is what we need. Relieved of some of the burden of pressing forward, aiding Kaldr as much as Kaldr aided him, Einarr found he had a moment to think of what to do to save them from freezing after they exited the water. But, try as he might, he could not come up with an inscription with just those two runes, not in his current state.

It was not long after they all made it past the cross-current that the water began to grow shallower once more, and soon Einarr’s head was above water and he was trudging once more up the more-noticeable slope of the tunnel floor. Behind him, he heard Runa’s initial gasp for air, followed by no small amount of coughing. He glanced over his shoulder to see that she leaned heavily on Thjofgrir’s shoulder as he pulled them both towards the shallows of the frigid water.

Einarr and Kaldr, as they too emerged, leaned on each other’s shoulders. All of them were worn thin at this point – but their coming enforced rest was a cold comfort at best. Protection. Will that make for a proper … no. What I really need is like a whirlpool of warm air. …

That line, too, led nowhere.

Everyone’s lips and fingers were blue as they all stood shivering on once-again dry rock. Moving around would generate some heat, but not enough.

“Toss your cloaks around someone else’s shoulders. Huddle up,” he managed to say through numb lips and chattering teeth. It was a wonder anyone could understand him, but they did. Einarr stepped to the middle this time and drew out a piece of very wet, very cold chalk. He chafed it between his palms a little and was gratified to see that it still left white on his hands.

“Stamp your feet or something. Move around a bit. Keep us all from freezing while I try to figure out what Master Melja would do.”

“Y-y-y-you mean we hhhhhave to keep moving?” Runa complained. “I’m… so… tired. Can’t we just huddle up like this and go to sleep?”

She had dark circles under her eyes, but otherwise her skin was the blue-white of an iceberg. She probably was legitimately exhausted, too, but…

“Not if you want to wake up again. Come on. Have some trust.”

If he could have let her draw the inscription, he would have. But he had only a fuzzy idea of how it should look, and his mind was foggy too. He started to draw.

, for the warmth of the sun. His companions swayed in the circle around him.

, to move the air and warm their whole bodies and dry their clothes. The rhythmic stamp of their feet assured him no one had yet succumbed, despite their long stint in the water.

He pressed his chalk to the ground, thinking to draw , but that still seemed wrong. Kaldr groaned, a sleepy sound. Then, it hit him.

They were all exhausted, all wounded. To continue on, to reach their destination and aid their friend, they needed stamina. Rest and comfort. They needed .

He blinked several times rapidly. He was starting to have trouble staying awake himself. “Just… a little… longer,” he told them, distantly aware that he was slurring his words. That was fine: there was only one thing he needed to do now. He pressed his fingers against the triangle of runes he had just drawn and poured his will into the enchantment.


Runa, standing in the circle as her beloved had ordered, was only half-conscious when a warm breeze began to play around her ankles. It felt warm even though it was blowing through the wet fabric of her dress, which was impressive. She blinked, re-focusing her eyes.

There, on the floor of the tunnel in the middle of the circle, a neat triangle of runes glowed with light like sunlight. Einarr sat on the floor, his back to her, his hands still touching his diagram. She took a deep breath, and realized that her fatigue no longer felt so overwhelming. She let herself relax a little, her shoulders drooping as the warm breeze brought blood back to her skin.

Then she looked more closely at Einarr. Something didn’t look right. His shoulders slumped forward, and as she dropped to her knees to put a hand to his shoulder, she realized that his mouth hung open. A sound like a muffled shriek escaped her throat, and she put a hand to her mouth.

“My lady?” Kaldr, too, sounded groggy, and like his lips were still numb. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s Einarr, he’s…” She looked up at Kaldr, panic plain on her face.

“Not possible,” Naudrek said. “The runes are still going. I can feel myself drying out as we speak.”

“Yes, but look at him!”

Runa couldn’t tell if Kaldr was humoring her or genuinely alarmed as well, but the Mate knelt down beside his Lord and reached out a hand to feel for a pulse. Just then, before Kaldr could lay cold-reddened fingers against Einarr’s throat, Einarr’s shoulders heaved and he produced a tremendous snore.

“Oh.” Runa offered a wan smile by way of apology. She felt like she was normally sharper than this. Naudrek and Thjofgrir both chuckled – not, she thought, at her overreaction.

Kaldr, too, gave a thin smile. “Conscious or not, his sorcery seems to be affecting him, as well. We do not appear to be in immediate danger: likely the dvergr thought it worthwhile to give the wetting a chance to kill us, even if we happened to make it out of the water. Perhaps it would be worth our while to pause here – at least long enough for the sorcery to do its job.”

Next

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If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

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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.”

“What? Why?”

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.

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

 

Burned hair. Singed sleeves. Blistering skin on arms and legs and – yes – even faces. Einarr and his band rotated their way down the flaming hell of the staircase, and with every blast of flame their fatigue grew. Even Runa, much to Einarr’s shame – did not escape burns. Long before they reached a landing at the bottom, she began to Sing to maintain their stamina.

When, finally, all five of them stood on the first level ground they had come across in what felt like hours – and may have actually been – they stood for a long minute in their shell, panting and looking about the room they had come to.

It was, by all appearances, an empty room. A passage continued on some thirty feet ahead of them. The walls here, too, were carved, but where the intricate scrollwork and fanciful figures there served to conceal the nozzles of their fire traps, the carvings here were definitely martial in nature.

“Is everyone all right?” Einarr asked, knowing full well that everyone was injured, and began to lower his shield.

Thjofgrir, too, began to relax. “Well as can be expected, I think. Our shields are ruined, though.”

“Better our shields than our bodies,” Kaldr answered. His eyes still scanned the room suspiciously, and Einarr thought he saw gooseflesh on the man’s neck.

Einarr hummed in agreement. “We could all use a break,” he started to say, when a very familiar pop sounded from the opposite wall.

As one – almost – they raised their overheated, charred shields to defend against another blast. But what came their way here was not more fire.

It was javelins.

And the “almost” was Thjofgrir. His shield lagged just a heartbeat beyond the others – due to fatigue or his awkward posture or his burns, Einarr could not guess. But that heartbeat made all the difference.

Most of the javelins bounced off their shields, or even fell short. But Einarr and Naudrek both felt the heavy impact of the javelin against their shields – where it stuck. Thjofgrir cried out in pain. When Einarr risked a glance over his shoulder, he saw the big man clutching his shoulder with his sword arm. Then the man growled and brought the shield up anyway, knocking the shaft of the javelin to the side.

That was the first volley.

“Kaldr! Shield him. Naudrek – shield Runa and me. Runa, I need you to use the Healing song.” Einarr dropped his shield, the javelin still lodged fast in the wood.

Thjofgrir was already gingerly pulling at the shaft of the javelin, but not having any luck dislodging it. It didn’t take Einarr long to see why: the head of the javelin was barbed. They were angon, not mere javelins. Einarr drew his belt knife as he moved to assist and the first notes of the Song of Healing flowed over them.

That was when the second volley flew, barbed heads coming at them again from seemingly every direction.

Without thinking, Einarr turned to shield the wounded Thjofgrir with his back. He heard a curse from Naudrek, but nothing really registered beyond keeping their wounded friend alive. He brought his knife up towards Thjofgrir’s shoulder. “This is going to hurt.”

One of the angon crashed into the center of his back. The impact made him stagger, but curiously he felt no blood, and he was not impaled. The brokkrsteel. Once again, he had Jorir’s foresight to thank for his own life – but now was not the time. Without wasting another breath, he slashed across the shoulder wound with the knife, opening it up enough to extract the barbs of the angon.

Thjofgrir was going to need more than just the Song of Healing, but now that the angon was out they should be able to bandage it. It looked as though the Song was already working to stanch the flow of blood.

As quickly as he had come to aid, Einarr spun out and picked up his half-destroyed shield. It was unweildy with the javelin stuck through it, but their best hope of survival was to ignore that and fight on.

Thjofgrir still held his wound closed with his hand, but he was steadier on his feet already. They had to get out of here.

As the volley of angon finished, Einarr took a deep breath. “Run for the tunnel!”

Runa, unable to Sing and run at the same time, threw her arms about Einarr’s neck and rode on his back as they frantically tried to escape the hail of fire.

Kaldr held back, letting Naudrek move forward into the lead so that he could assist Thjofgrir – which Einarr appreciated, even as he was entirely unsurprised by it. Those two had been working together for at least a decade now.

Now that they were moving again it was a constant barrage, as though there were layers upon layers of whatever was launching these, and each one would reset itself. Einarr felt sluggish: the angon tore through Runa’s skirts, which trailed behind them like a flag, and scratched across his calf, but somehow he managed to shield both their bodies from the wicked tips. Even still, he was not that much ahead of Kaldr and Thjofgrir when he rushed through the threshold of the tunnel and stood, panting, while Runa set herself down and smoothed her skirts. She gave him a grateful smile as she continued to Sing.

Naudrek proved himself once again: as Thjofgrir and Kaldr staggered through, he thrust a long, thick cloth at Kaldr. “For the arm.”

“Be quick,” Einarr said, his breathing still coming in gasps. “The dvergr aren’t likely to have set things up to give any respite at this point.”

Kaldr did not waste any breath answering: he simply nodded his acknowledgment as he deftly tied the cloth around Thjofgrir’s shoulder. Thjofgrir tested the binding by rolling his arm – as well as the ceiling would allow – and gave his Captain a nod.

“We’re ready.”

“Good.” Einarr gestured for Naudrek to lead on even as he spoke. “Runa, when you think Thjofgrir’s shoulder is put back together well enough, we could really use that other Song.”

Einarr’s legs were beginning to feel like jelly, and his arms weren’t much better, but he was plagued by the certainty that to stop now would mean death.

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