Einarr kept one hand on the low ceiling as he walked, bent half-over, down the passageway the runes had revealed. It was dark, but the far end of the passage was also open. Light filtered in from both ends: brilliant white from ahead, and the warm yellow of a torch from behind.

The passage was smaller than anything else they’d seen in the so-called Holy Mount, plainly sized for a single dvergr (or perhaps two) at a time. Still they went warily: not all dangers came in large forms, and that was doubly true when dealing with the mad followers of Malúnion.

At the far end of the tunnel, Einarr pressed himself against its wall and peered out into the room beyond.

In it, he saw a large stone slab, about the right size for a human body, with ropes drilled through it. Against the far wall stood a table, covered in implements whose use he could not guess at, and a door. The room was lit from above, by some means that seemed to mimic true sunlight, and otherwise empty. Einarr stepped out of the shadows of the tunnel cautiously, and the others followed.

“What is this place?” Naudrek wondered aloud.

“The Weaver-witch used to have a table like that,” Kaldr mused. “We found it while we were clearing out the dungeons. Only, hers wasn’t nearly so clean.”

Einarr nodded, suppressing a shudder. “Runa said she’d used human blood to dye her threads.”

Abruptly, horror filled his belly and closed his throat. Where was Runa?

He had seen enough of this room, he thought: recklessly, he pulled open the door that stood near the tool-covered table.

“Wait!” Thjofgrir called. When Einarr looked over his shoulder, he saw the others rushing towards him.

Nothing had happened. “I don’t think this is the sort of chamber you trap,” Einarr said, answering their obvious worries. “It’s possible he has some sort of alarm set up on this door, but this feels like a place that gets used a lot.”

A feminine voice came from the far side of the door. “Einarr?”

Einarr grinned and flung the door open the rest of the way. “Runa!”

His wife, looking faintly green, reclined in the center of a large, iron-barred cage in the middle of the room wearing nothing but her shift. She appeared to be alone. As the four men streamed in, she got unsteadily to her feet – although she couldn’t quite stand up straight.

Relief flooded her face. “Einarr! You made it. Thank goodness.”

“Of course I made it. How are you? Have they done anything to you?”

“No, I’m fine. I don’t even think the food was tainted – except with peppermint.”

“Peppermint?”

She made a face. “Literally everything they gave me tasted of peppermint. I think I must have vomited on their priest.”

Kaldr looked troubled. “We were imprisoned for quite some time ourselves. They’ve had you here for ages now: do you know what they wanted you for?”

She shook her head. “Something about a vessel. I don’t know what he meant by that, though… and I should dearly love to get out of this cage.”

“Of course.” Einarr turned his attention to the lock and frowned.

Thjofgrir put a hand on his shoulder. “Allow me.”

Einarr and Runa both took a step back from the door of the cage as Thjofgrir raised his massive sword and brought the pommel down on the lock hard enough to smash it. The noise rang in Einarr’s ears.

Naudrek and Kaldr hurried over to guard the door while Thjofgrir stepped back, inspecting his hilt, allowing Einarr to be the one to open the door and free his bride. She half-stumbled out of the cage and into his arms.

After a quick embrace, he asked, “Where’s Vali?”

Wordlessly, Runa pointed to a corner of the room none of them had noticed. “I haven’t seen him since we fought off the salamander in the tunnels.”

Einarr frowned. “Troubling. Can you still carry his jar? It wouldn’t be right to just leave him behind.”

She nodded and hurried over to the corner where the painted jar sat. She still looked stiff, although as she moved she visibly loosened up. For a long moment she studied the jar before shaking her head and tucking it under her arm.

“Something wrong?”

“I don’t know. We’ll want to take a closer look at it later. Until we know for sure, it’s probably for the best if he stays asleep, though.”

“As you say, my Lady. Have you got your things? The longer we stay here, the more likely someone is to come investigate,” Kaldr said from his post by the door.

“Of course.”

Not many minutes later, Runa had gathered the few things she had carried from the pile they had been unceremoniously tossed in, dressed herself properly, and stood ready with Vali’s jar once again under her arm. “Okay. I’m ready.”


Panting and nauseous, Jorir stood looking on the corpse of the giant serpent they had unintentionally awakened by burning the lower hall. Smoke still billowed out from around its body, which would keep them from blocking the rest of the smoke in the doorway. It didn’t matter that the doors were well and truly down now: the smoke would infect anyone who ventured in here.

“Let’s go,” he croaked. “We can’t stop this, and we have a job to finish.”

Coughing, Brandir nodded his head in agreement while Gheldram helped Mornik back to his feet. Either the acolytes would come to clean up this mess, or the fire would spread further in the temple. He just hoped he hadn’t facilitated monsters like the ones they had faced on the docks at the svartalfr hideout.

Gheldram and Mornik had just limped into the stairwell leading to the next level when Jorir turned around. Something had changed… the heat on his back felt more intense, suddenly.

He didn’t truly know what any of that meant, only that something was seriously wrong. He spun back towards his friends and tackled Brandir, sending them both tumbling down the stairs and into Gheldram and Mornik.

The whole room shook, and the sound of calamitous thunder was followed by a gout of flame that nearly singed Jorir’s boots.

That was one way to get their attention.

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Jorir jumped back, away from the latest strike of the snake’s jaws. Flames licked around its body from inside the temple, and the smoke in the room was thick and cloying. Even if it hadn’t been corrupted it would have been giving them issues. As it was, he was beginning to feel a little queasy.

If only there were some way we could hurt it without jumping into its maw… But, perhaps there was one. Scale armor was flexible, after all. While the scales overlapped, they were only attached on one side. If Jorir could plant his axe under one of them, and perhaps even pry it up, that would give them an advantage. Unfortunately, the angle he would have to strike at would be nearly impossible from the ground.

Now. How to get up on its back? Their battle had not been so fierce as to dislodge convenient stone blocks from the ceiling, after all. His eye lit upon one of the doors that still hung akimbo off of one of its hinges. He hadn’t the foggiest how they were going to shut up that room again, although they plainly would have to, but right now the door could be their key to victory.

“Keep it occupied!” Jorir bellowed over his shoulder. Without looking to see who heard him, he sprinted for the wildly tilted door. It was steep, but he could do it.

Jorir’s first foot pounded against the temple door. Ahead of him, the snake’s body writhed and he felt its baleful gaze fall on him. Then it shook its head again, its eyes squeezed shut, as Jorir raced up the surface of the door.

He leapt from the top of the ramp, his axe held high, as the last beleaguered hinge gave way and the door crashed to the ground.

Jorir landed on his feet in the middle of the serpent’s back and immediately began to slip: he let one foot continue forward even as he thrust the other foot back so that in the end he sat astride the overgrown snake like a horse. Not quite how he’d intended to land, but it would suffice.

He brought his axe down in a shallow slice, aiming for the edge of one of the scales near his foot.

It caught the edge of the scale. Behind him, he heard the beast hiss in pain. Then he twisted the axe so that the scale began to separate from the body.

That was when he heard a low, rumbling noise that permeated the room. The beast he sat on seemed to be vibrating along with it… was it growling? Jorir hadn’t known snakes could do that.

It didn’t matter. He jammed his booted toe under the lifted scale and cut again with his axe. This time he was able to pry it up at a good angle. Jorir started kicking at the underside of the scale, trying to pry it free.

“Look out!” Brandir’s voice cut through the chaos.

Jorir glanced over his shoulder and saw the massive maw of the snake thrusting towards him. He dove, grabbing for the edge of the loose scale to break his fall on the way down.

It tore off in his hands. Again the snake hissed loudly in pain and threw its head up towards the ceiling.

Jorir tossed the scale aside and resettled his grip on his axe. The gap was a little higher than he might like, but it was still a gap. He leapt again, swinging his axe overhead, and planted its blade in the soft, revealed flesh. Black blood welled up from the cut and from the hundreds of small pricks where the scale had separated from the skin. He hung briefly from the axe to pull at a nearby scale, already loosened by his efforts. As he dropped back to the ground, one of Mornik’s daggers buried itself in the new-found vulnerability.

The snake thrashed its midsection. Jorir scrambled backwards, even as he saw Brandir clinging to his own axe, still embedded in the corrupted flesh of the serpent.

Brandir gave a battle cry and brought his feet up against the loosened scale. He kicked against the scale at the same moment he wrenched his axe free, launching himself into a flip to land near Gheldram. A second scale tore free of the enraged beast before them.

Then Gheldram ran forward and brought his hammer up in a ferocious upward blow. It landed considerably lower than the flesh they had revealed, but Jorir could see the scales above growing looser. Between the fire on its tail and the dvergr in front, the serpent’s fight was growing both weaker and more desperate. Now they just had to finish it before the smoke overwhelmed any of them.


A sound like a far-off explosion rumbled through the priest’s chamber. Einarr looked up, surprised, only to see the others still searching diligently. Not that they had found anything particularly out of the ordinary. If it weren’t for the black-blooded acolytes, Einarr might have mistaken this for the room of one of the priests who had married him.

They had searched the entire room. They had even turned out the drawers of the dvergr’s desk and dresser. And still, no clue as to where Runa might be kept. He was just about to order a retreat to one of the other doors when his eye once again fell upon the portrait and mirror atop the dresser.

With a growl, he grabbed the portrait and turned it over. The frame came open easily, as though it were often removed. On the back of the portrait, three words were scrawled in badly drawn runes. He wanted to laugh: without his training under Elder Melja, he would have been lost, but this was plainly the key they had been seeking.

“Open. The. Door.” Einarr read aloud, pressing a trickle of his will into the words as he was suddenly certain the priest did regularly.

There was a click, and near the headboard of the bed, a panel in the wall slid open. Kaldr gave him a flat look, and Einarr shrugged. “There had to be something. But even if our princess isn’t back there, we’re sure to find something interesting. Come on.”

Without waiting, Einarr ducked into the secret passage in the high priest’s chamber. His gut still told him this was where he would find Runa, and he was still inclined to trust it.

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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 cushions caught fire almost immediately, and soon the room was choked with a thick, oily black smoke – far thicker and more pungent than ordinary cloth and feathers should produce. An unearthly wail came from somewhere in the room, even though it had been empty of dvergr when they kicked open the door.

Jorir shared a look and a nod with Brandir, and then as one they pulled the door closed behind them. Whatever that had been, he had no desire to face it in the midst of a conflagration. “Ready yourselves,” he warned the others.

He needn’t have bothered. Gheldram shouldered between Jorir and Brandir and braced with his shield, his massive hammer held ready.

In the hall ahead, the sounds of thrashing grew louder and wilder, and the wail became an angry shriek. This was not precisely what Jorir had expected when he threw that torch.

“Here it comes,” he growled.

The door to the outermost temple burst open once more, the heavy doors this time flying off their hinges as a head like a giant serpent’s charged through.

Even lit in the glow of the fire behind it, its scales were a mottled greenish-black, more of a void of color than an actual color itself. Its eyes, though, glowed like molten gold. It opened its mouth wide to hiss at the four dvergr standing against it, and Jorir saw black corruption dripping down its fangs. Not that it mattered: its mouth was large enough, it could swallow any one of them whole.

He raised his axe anyway. This was not a creature they could set free if there was any help for it. On Gheldram’s other side, Brandir also took his fighting stance. Mornik moved behind them, and from the corner of his eye Jorir could see him limbering a brace of knives.

The snake hissed again and drew back its head, ready to strike. The four dvergr held their positions, watching it warily. They would only have a heartbeat to move.

“Now!” Jorir bellowed. He couldn’t have explained how he knew any more than he could read runework, but he knew. His four old friends sprang apart as the snake’s head lashed forward. Jorir leapt into a roll. When he came to his feet again, he charged the snake’s side, just below its head.

It had buried its fangs in the stone floor. The delay in getting them out gave them all just enough time to rush in for an attack. Jorir brought his axe down in a mighty overhand swing.

It didn’t so much as scratch a scale.

He sprang back, frowning. The serpent, its fangs nearly free, shook its head back and forth, as though something had actually hurt it. He looked at Gheldram, but the young smith shook his head: his hammer had not phased it, either.

Jorir looked again: something seemed to be wrong with the snake’s eye: there was a clear ooze flicking back and forth across the surface. Had Mornik damaged its eye?

Well, Hel, he thought, amusement dancing under the surface. This was going to be terrible, but the creature’s weakness was at least easy enough to see, if they dared to attack it. He started crab-walking back toward the center of the room, never taking his eyes from the monster.

Behind it, the fire raged. A small voice in the back of his mind wondered why they hadn’t seen any acolytes, come to put out the fire, yet – but, of course, the monsters of Malúnion were not known for discriminating between sources of food. Maybe they would be lucky and spot a broken scale the next time it reared up: that had to be better than trying to strike its eyes or the inside of its mouth.

A crashing sound came from within the temple: the giant snake was still lashing its tail about, evidently discomfited by the fire. The black, oily smoke grew thicker: its smell alone was enough to make Jorir feel nauseous.

I’m a fool.

The fire was plainly injuring the poor beast – probably, under the circumstances, an ordinary viper transformed by the dark magics of the priest – but its blood and venom both were corruption. If its flesh was burning, and its flesh was thoroughly corrupted, then what would happen if the uncorrupted breathed that smoke?

“Kill it! Quickly! We have to shut that door!”


Kaldr found the next staircase. This one led not to a long hall of prison cells, but to a shorter – although more opulent – one of priestly chambers. Several sturdy wooden doors, reinforced with iron bands, lined each wall, but at the far end of the hall stood one that appeared to have been painted white and decorated with golden scrollwork. Einarr couldn’t have said why, but he felt sure that was where they would find his bride. Without waiting for discussion he started down the hall, ignoring the other rooms.

“My Lord?” Kaldr asked, catching up.

“Another hunch. We’re starting there.” Einarr pointed ahead at the ostentatious door.

Kaldr shrugged, and the three men fell into step behind their Prince without another word.

Einarr was mildly surprised to find that the door was not locked. He frowned at the door for a long moment, wondering if this could be a trap. With a small, exasperated sigh, he put his hand on Sinmora’s hilt and shouldered open the door. Trap or not, they would have to investigate here.

He wasn’t really certain what he expected to find in this room: rows of cages, perhaps, like he had rescued Runa from before, or victims chained to the wall but this… was shockingly ordinary. Opulent, yes, but, not really that much different from his own chambers at Raenshold. Panic started to rise in his belly: had he been deceiving himself and trusting his eyes too much?

“Search the room! There’s sure to be something of use in here.”

He followed his own instructions, turning to the dvergr-sized dresser immediately to his right. It, too, appeared perfectly ordinary – far more ordinary than he would expect, frankly, from the bed-chamber of a high priest of Malúnion. There was a small portrait sketch of a young dvergr woman, a hand mirror, and what Einarr guessed were personal totems, although he did his best to avoid touching those.

Kaldr voiced the thought that was ringing through Einarr’s skull: “This doesn’t make any sense.”

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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 dvergr who faced Thjofgrir was matching him blow for blow, keeping them both locked in the clinch. Other than Arring, Einarr would be hard-pressed to find a man stronger than Thjofgrir, but these were dvergr. Furthermore, they were corrupted dvergr. Rather than wait for the corrupted dvergr to pull his trick, Einarr and Kaldr both charged him, their blades leveled at his back.

As an attack, it failed utterly as the dvergr spun and batted away both their blades in one smooth movement. As a distraction, however, it was a wild success. Thjofgrir rebounded from the clinch and buried his blade across the dvergr’s back. “I had him,” Thjofgrir growled as the corrupted dvergr crumpled to the floor.

“Maybe so,” Einarr allowed, catching his breath. “But it looked to me like he was playing with you. These are monsters, not men, and you never know when they’re going to show their true colors.”

Thjofgrir hummed but offered no more protest.

Einarr, after a quick glance across all of them showed only minimal exposure to the blood, nodded and continued down the hall. Without another word, the others jogged after him.

They encountered no more guards before they reached the hallway Mornik had mentioned. As he rounded the corner, though, Einarr stopped to gape.

The hallway ahead seemed to stretch on for miles, although that should have been impossible – they were inside a mountain, after all – and the walls were nothing but one door after another, with almost no space in between. The space behind those doors couldn’t be anything but cramped, even for a child. Einarr shuddered to think how Runa might be taking such confined captivity.

“Naudrek, you’re with me on the right. Kaldr, Thjofgrir, you take the left. We leapfrog down the line. Any captives who aren’t immediately hostile can go free if their blood is still red.”

A noise of agreement came from all three men together, and they began working their way down the line. When they had gotten about halfway down, leaving the doors open for a handful of unfortunate, weeping dvergr women, Naudrek stopped.

“Come take a look here,” he said.

In front of him, instead of another room, was a steep, unlit stairway heading deeper into the mountain.

“We haven’t found anyone up here with even a hint of magical talent, nor anyone who seems to have been captured recently enough,” Einarr mused. “I think we need to head down.”

Kaldr raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

“No,” Einarr answered with a rueful smile. “Just a hunch. Only, based on what I saw before, a woman like Runa is going to be a much more valuable prisoner for them than anyone we’ve seen here.”

“Valuable as a hostage?” Kaldr’s question was reasonable, but that wasn’t it.

“As an experiment.” He felt sick saying it, but that was what he had seen among the svartalfrs. “They make a target out of Singers – maybe those who practice other Arts, as well, but Singers for sure. Part of it is, they claim to hate magic – any magic that doesn’t come from their ‘god,’ anyway. But there was a she-troll we had to fight our way past in their fortress, before. A she-troll, who had once been an ordinary Singer.”

“How do you know?” Naudrek looked vaguely green as he asked the question.

“After we killed her, she turned back.”

“By the gods…” Thjofgrir breathed.

Kaldr shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense, though, that the dvergr cult would be creating monsters like that. Not with how Brandir said they’ve sold themselves here.”

“Doesn’t it? Wouldn’t they need an all-powerful army to defend Nilthiad during Ragnarok?” Einarr shook his head. “Even if no one outside these halls knows about it, we’ve seen plenty of evidence already that they’re turning their own members into monsters, and that’s proof enough for me. There’s a rather significant measure of madness involved in whatever the Squiddies touch.”

“And what if your hunch is wrong?” Naudrek challenged.

“Then we fight our way back up here, I suppose. But I don’t think it is. I think they’ll have Runa much further in than this.”

There was nothing more to be said to that. The others followed him down the staircase, another glowing rock in hand to light their way.

At the bottom was another long hallway, although in this one the doors were spaced somewhat further apart. The cages, while larger, were mostly empty. One or two were occupied, but their occupants were both chained and drugged into a stupor. Einarr did not like to think what that suggested about their mental state, or how controlled they were. They moved on: as horrible as this was, they could not lose sight of their goal. Runa was in here somewhere, and Runa was with child. Please let them be unharmed…


Now that they were well and truly separated from the humans, Jorir and the other dvergr ran down the halls without a care for who they alerted. They had – not entirely selfishly – taken on themselves the task of causing mayhem in the Holy Mount of the Deep Wisdom sect. Once upon a time, he had tried to bridge the gap between the squiddies and the rest of the dvergr: for his trouble, he had been cursed: never more would his smithing produce magic, nevermore would he be able to so much as recognize the runes. And, when he raised the alarm, he had been exiled for his trouble.

This may have been a little personal from the beginning.

Jorir’s mouth curled into a rictus of a grin. With the capture of the Lady Runa, they had just made this very personal. He was going to enjoy this.

He and Brandir approached a wide double-door, leading – he thought – into the outermost temple area. As one, they kicked forward with heavy boots and the doors flung open. It looked like a gathering place, anyway: there were long benches with comfortable-looking cushions, and the walls were draped with ridiculous quantities of cloth. He snatched a torch from its sconce and flung it forward into the room.

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.

 

The patrolling guards never saw what hit them. Einarr blinked to realize there were only two who came to investigate, and those two were already down.  They continued on their way.

The passage Mornik led them down showed every sign of having been long forgotten. They passed truly massive spider’s nests and other signs of vermin as they crept down into the mountain and towards whatever horrors might lurk beneath on their way to reclaim Runa. Still, though, they moved cautiously and kept their speech to a minimum: voices carry in caves, after all, and there was no telling who might be listening on the other end.

They had not gone very far, though, before Einarr decided to risk a light. He claimed a loose stone from the ground and inscribed it with a sun rune, willing it to life very dimly – much as he had with his shield in the Paths of Stone.

From time to time they passed small branch passages, some of them no bigger than a crack in the wall, all of which appeared to have been claimed by vermin. When they heard a skitter or a squeak, it almost invariably came from down one of these passages. Little wonder they had been claimed by vermin after something like two hundred years – Jorir had never said when in the upheaval he was exiled, and now was not the time to ask.

At long last, their path led up against a stone door which did not look to have been disturbed for a very long while – although, since this was the route Mornik said he took before, looks were almost certainly deceiving here. The sneakiest of their dvergr companions, Mornik pressed his ear against the blocks that appeared to seal up the passage and listened. The others held their breath. After that seemingly breathless eternity, when Mornik was satisfied that the passage outside was clear, he put his back to the stone just off-center and pushed. Shockingly, the door swung open silently, as though it had been perfectly balanced for just such a circumstance.

Inside the habitable portion, the passages of the cult’s holy place were shockingly bright when compared with the stronghold of the svartalfrs. The walls were done in white limestone, and the fire that burned in the sconces was of the ordinary color. Einarr glanced to Jorir for an explanation, but the dvergr merely shook his head and shrugged.

It was Brandir who had the answer. “They’ve positioned themselves as the path to eternity and a way of ensuring survival through Ragnarok. They promised long-life, and cheating death, and for that their colors are white and gold,” he whispered. The fact that the same cult could have two such different faces was a puzzle to Einarr, but not a puzzle whose answer presented itself just yet.

Now that they were inside, it was time to part ways. Jorir and Brandir, and Gheldram and Mornik, were to split off and head for the outer reaches of the temple to cause yet more chaos. Meanwhile, Einarr and the other men were to seek out the priestly offices where they held their female captives.

As they parted ways, Jorir knelt before Einarr and hung his head. “My lord… forgive me. If it were not for me… for my conflicted loyalties, and my foolish obedience to a summons by a Thane no longer my own, none of you would have been captured, and Runa would not be in danger.”

Einarr smirked. “What are you bowing your head for? Rise. I knew we would have to come here someday, and you warned me what insanity we would face when we fought the svartalfrs. I knew that you were as loyal to your dvergr kith and kin as you were to me.” He offered Jorir a hand and pulled him to his feet. “As much as you are my liegeman, you are also my friend. We’ll save Runa and the babe, both. Good luck out there.”

“And to you.”

The two clasped hands, and then the party split – Einarr and his company heading off to the left, Jorir and his to the right.

There would be no hiding for their group: if they encountered cultists, the only thing they could do would be to kill them quickly. For that reason, Einarr was very glad to see that the ceilings had been built far taller here than in most dvergr architecture, to the point that they could actually all stand up straight. He preferred not to think too closely on why they might have done that, however: the only answer he got was of a she-troll, dead on the ground, and suddenly no longer a troll but a human woman. He shuddered as they rounded a corner.

“What is it?” Kaldr kept his voice low.

“Just… if the squiddies here are as… creative as the svartalfr ones, know that the creature you’re fighting may not be the creature you think you’re fighting.”

He glanced over long enough to see a troubled look on Kaldr’s face: just as well. It had been a terrible thing to be surprised by.

Mornik had given them a general idea of which way to go: after this passage, there would be another to their right, which would bring them into a long hallway lined with widely-spaced doors. Behind these doors were their female captives.

Around that third corner they practically collided with the first patrol they had seen since they entered the secret passage. Einarr didn’t think: he reacted. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sinmora was out of her sheathe and embedded in the dvergr’s belly. Black blood oozed around the crossguard. He gave the blade a twist to free it and sprang back before the corrupted blood could reach his hands.

As quickly as he dispatched that one, the other members of the patrol had not been caught quite so off-guard. One of them was occupied in holding off Thjofgrir’s powerful blows, while the last was dancing circles around Kaldr and Naudrek. Well. I can probably do something about that. He may have been preternaturally quick, but he still didn’t have eyes in the back of his head. Einarr swung Sinmora at the back of his legs, and while Sinmora bit deep it did not go down.

That was when eyes did, in fact, open on the back of its head.

“Aah!” Einarr turned his shout of horror into strength for his attack as he stabbed at the dvergr guardsman’s head. In the same moment, Kaldr and Naudrek buried their blades in its sides and it collapsed to the floor. Now all that was left was the one Thjofgrir fought.

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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.

 

“We’re not going in that way,” Mornik assured them in a whisper.

“We’d have to be fools to try,” Kaldr muttered, staring up the staircase. The approach was a defender’s dream: all it lacked were enclosing walls to make it all but unassailable.

“This way.” Mornik turned back the way they came and wound them through back roads until the main entrance of the Mount was obscured by the mountain itself.

The backside of the mountain was a wide-open, rocky field. The only cover of any sort was the occasional large rock or pile of discarded stone blocks – Einarr could not guess what they had once been part of. He could not see any guards from where they stood, waiting for Mornik’s signal, but he would wager they existed – quite possibly at the perimeter, and maybe on the roof, of the temple built into the top of the mountain. And, based on what he remembered from the last time they had tangled, the sentries’ eyesight was likely to be exceptional.

“Are… you sure you can get us up this?” He asked. Mornik himself, after all, had been spotted before. Presumably on this same path they were about to attempt.

“Moderately. But if we’re to rescue the Lady and your bairn, this is the best option of a bad lot.”

Einarr hummed. But, he supposed, all they had to do was kill anyone who saw them. He rested his hand on Sinmora’s pommel and squeezed the hilt. It couldn’t be too easy, after all, or there’d be no fun at all in it. “Ready when you are.”


Runa knew it was evening only because the priest who examined her had taken to eating his dinner in front of her. As much as she would have liked more than the meager rations the damned Squiddies provided her, she had no interest in his food.

As was fitting for a creature that was no longer human… er, dvergr, rather, his meals bore very little resemblance to food – and certainly not to anything the babe was willing to eat. Even with the taste of peppermint always in her mouth, the sight of his meals turned her stomach.

A long piece of something slimy and black wriggled like a lizard’s tail as he slurped it up.

“Ugh.” That was more than enough. Maybe he was trying to get a reaction out of her, maybe not. Right at this moment, he was getting one whether he wanted it or not. “It’s rude to eat in front of a guest, you know.” Her voice was sodden with contempt.

The head Squiddie (she had no idea what other people called them, but she wasn’t going to give him the dignity of being called a priest) looked up from his bowl, surprised. “Why, my dear, you made it quite clear you didn’t care for the things I ate.”

“I don’t. The sight of it makes me nauseous. I would thank you to take your dinner elsewhere.”

“Nauseous? Is more peppermint required?”

“Most assuredly not!” She took a deep breath. “Look you. This is the second time in my life you Squiddies have put me in a cage.”

Its dvergr face twisted with anger: that was an excellent reason to keep using it, she thought.

“Only the svartalfr Squiddies more or less ignored me. So what in all the lands of Hel is it you want from me?”

“Want? What do we want from you?” The squiddie actually giggled. “You, my dear, will make an excellent vessel.”

She had to stop herself from blanching, but that wasn’t as hard as it might have been. Everything about the head squiddie irritated her. “A vessel? A vessel? I have never been so insulted.”

Instead of looking pleased by her vexation, he actually looked confused. “You should be pleased. It is not every sorceress who is chosen to become a god-vessel.”

She spat. “I come all the way to Myrkheimr, just to find that men everywhere are the same.” She was about to continue: harassing him had been netting good information. Unfortunately, that was the moment the door slammed open and one of the minor functionary Squiddies hurried in in his dvergr-suit.

“What is it?”

“Something is going on down in the town, excellency. Soggvar’s men are having trouble beating it back.”

The head squiddie (so far as she could tell) furrowed its brows. “What do you mean?”

“I mean they’re calling for the Temple Guard, and His Holiness is allowing it.”

“Ugh.” The head Squiddie set down his bowl of half-finished… whatever it was and stood to go. “You’re sure you won’t have any, my dear? It would be a shame for it to go to waste.”

She spat in his face. I was needling him… wasn’t I? Or was he needling me?


Einarr and Mornik crouched in the shadow of a rock pile, watching the movements of the patrols around the building ahead. Somehow, they had all made it across the field, apparently unnoticed. The other six were strung out in pairs, likewise taking advantage of the shadows as best they could.

The chaos in the city streets had helped with that, he thought. When they were about halfway up, a low chime had reverberated over the hill, low but unmistakable. Not too long after that, the patrols had scrambled, and afterward there seemed to be fewer of them.

Mornik said he had found a “back entrance” when he came scouting earlier – really just a secondary mine shaft that the dead shaman and the squiddies either hadn’t found or didn’t care about. After his escape earlier, however, they seemed to be watching the entrance. There were four guards patrolling this small area, and that was just the ones Einarr could see. He frowned: Even if any of them had brought a bow into the Paths of Stone (which they hadn’t – too tight) it wouldn’t have survived any better than their shields had. By the same token, he thought slinging stones was unlikely to take out one of the “squiddies” – not based on how they fought in the svartalfr compound.

A rock shifted. Einarr’s attention snapped to it – and saw Thjofgrir, looking sheepish, alongside an irritated Gheldram.

The guards heard it, too. Best use this to our advantage. As quietly as he could, he drew Sinmora and turned, pressing himself against the rocks, to face the gap between himself and Thjofgrir.

His meaning was plain: the others shifted around, so that when the guards came to investigate they would find themselves surrounded.

It was time to hunt some squid.

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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 two days of waiting dragged out until they felt more like two weeks, but at last Brandir had matters arranged to his satisfaction. The eight of them would be the only ones to venture into the Mount, while a rather sizable number of dvergr caused a distraction in Nilthiad proper.

The path to the Mount from the bathhouse where they hid was long and circuitous, but there was little to be done about that. This area had apparently always been rough, and before the Cult of Malúnion wormed its way into power the Mount had been an especially rich gold mine – on the outskirts, yes, but nearly on the opposite side of the city.

So it was that, as the afternoon began to wear on into evening, the cloaked and hooded figures of four dvergr and four men slipped out of a friendly bathhouse and into one of the narrow footpaths that wound between buildings, carrying little traffic and often well-shielded from view.

Often, however, was by no means entirely. The sun of Myrkheimr – dimmer and redder than the sun of Midgardr, but somehow hotter – was still well above the horizon when their footpath led them to a wide-open field, well-trodden and fallow. They halted, still in the shadow of their alley, while Mornik scanned ahead.

“The proving ground,” Brandir muttered.

Einarr’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Proving ground? What on earth are they proving?”

“Pah.” Gheldram chuckled. “Mettle, mostly. But some of the older smiths – the ones deep in Thane Soggvar’s confidences – have been working on something big the last few decades. Every once in a while they’ll kick the duelists out. Not much after that, there come some rather deafening roars.”

“That sounds… troublesome,” Kaldr mused.

“But also promising.” Einarr’s mind had gone immediately to the Empire’s spigots of sea-fire that had sent many a raider down in an impromptu funeral ship. Were the dvergr developing something similar?

Mornik stood and dusted his knees. “I think we’re clear. Couldn’t see the whole field, though.”

“If your distraction is doing its job,” Naudrek muttered. “There won’t be anyone but us and maybe the odd farmer’s daughter this far out.”

“If.” Brandir started forward again. “We can’t take that for granted, and you know it.”

They all streamed out of the alley single-file, then moved to walk two abreast across the field. After some brief jockeying about, they put all the humans in front. Behind them, the dvergr marched, their axes in hand, in hopes that the men would be taken for prisoners.

It would have worked beautifully if the dvergr who came spilling out of the wood on the far side of the field had been soldiers, or even temple acolytes. Instead, Einarr and Thjofgrir found themselves face-to-face with the (equally surprised) leaders of a gang of thieves.

For a long moment, the two groups stood staring at each other before one of the thieves drew himself up to his full height, bristling.

“Hey now, what’s the meaning of all this? This is our turf. If those thralls are your spoils, you’d best be turning them over to us now.” He looked right past the four humans to the dvergr standing behind. Einarr bristled but bit his lip. Their ruse would not be helped if he protested his status here.

Brandir and Gheldram both blustered forward.

Gheldram puffed up his chest. “Thralls? These are the humans those thrice-cursed apostates freed! I fear the god’s wrath if we do not take them back.”

The thief who had been speaking sized Thjofgrir up like he was a cow. “You expect me to believe that a big lummox like that escaped? You’re no Acolyte – but your crew must be new. Hand them over, or I’ll show you just who’s on top in the back streets.”

With a sigh, Brandir tugged at the heavy chain around his neck. “We haven’t time for this. If we must fight, then let’s get it over with.”

The other dvergr – even Mornik, whom Einarr would not have expected – also made a show of drawing attention to their matching chains. One or two of the thieves ’ gang blanched, but not their leader.

“So that’s how it’s going to be, then. Fine.” He turned back to his men – there were at least twelve of them, but under the circumstances it was difficult to be sure. “Take the humans, kill the rest. Those chains’ll fetch a pretty price.”

With a toothy grin, Einarr drew Sinmora. Kaldr, Thjofgrir, and Naudrek all drew their weapons, as well. That was when the bandit leader seemed to realize he’d miscalculated.

It was too late.

One on one, a dvergr could usually outmatch a human of similar experience. They were stronger, heartier, and despite their short stockiness, they were often faster. Dvergr blacksmiths had an additional advantage: their profession trained their strength, without diminishing the rest, and they were in high demand in Midgard, which meant they often had seen combat.

Twelve thieves against four dvergr smiths, the smiths might have had a rough time. The bandit’s mistake, however, was in discounting the humans.

Five minutes later, the gang of thieves had been given a sound drubbing and sent on their way – hopefully wiser for the experience. Brandir had given them instructions, but Einarr doubted very much if they would carry them out. Then, the group of eight set on its way again.

Once they were out of the exposed field, Einarr chuckled. “Hey, Jorir. Remember the last time we gave a group of would-be thieves a lesson like that?”

Jorir chuckled, too. “That I do. Wonder if these’ll be as helpful.”


Myrkheimr’s moons were a trio of small, rough affairs, as though the real moon had been split into pieces and they were all that remained. Still, though, it provided some light in the night as they drew near the holy place of the cult in Nilthiad.

A wide-open space had been cleared around the path to the Mount’s entrance, and the path was a broad, shallow staircase made of white marble. Glimmers of gold peeked out from the joins. Tall, fluted columns lined the staircase, and at its base – as well as every ten feet of its length – were stationed a pair of guards. Acolytes of the temple, Mornik said. In the distance, Einarr heard the sounds of battle coming from the city.

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.

 

Grim-faced, Jorir drove the butt of his axe into the solar plexus of the man he had just disarmed. He fell to the ground and did not get up.

From the corner of his eye, Einarr saw one of the black-blooded dvergr coming up on Gheldram from behind. He lunged and embedded Sinmora in its chest. That didn’t drop it, but it did give Gheldram the time he needed to face his new attacker.

Meanwhile, Kaldr had slid in behind where Einarr had been, in order to deftly drop another. His blade flickered, and the corrupted dvergr fell neatly into three pieces.

Einarr turned his attention back to the fight, only to discover that the pursuers had all been dealt with. He nodded to himself, watching as the others also took stock of their situation. Brandir holstered his axe. None of them were soaked in the blood, like the Vidofnings had been when they first fought the abominations, but at the same time they were all splattered with it.

Einarr shrugged his shoulders, uncomfortable – but not, thankfully, feeling sick to his stomach. “Is there anywhere we can bathe around here? The hotter, the better.”

The leader of the dvergr nodded, his gaze locked on a dark patch of mud on the ground in front of him. “This way. I only hope it’s as empty as I expect.”


Three hours later, they soaked in the near-scalding water of what (from the smell) must have been a volcanic hot spring. Einarr was shocked to learn that, during the day, this was actually a fairly popular bath – but, then again, these were dvergr lands.

As a bonus, Mornik was on friendly terms with the proprietor, so the loft of the building would provide a convenient place to hide – at least while they decided what to do. That was where they had stowed their belongings while they took advantage of the sulfurous water. Einarr had already turned a remarkable shade of pink, and several of the others were in much the same state.

“You’ll be pleased to know,” Mornik was saying. “That your Lady appears unharmed. Most displeased, and caged like an animal, but unharmed.”

“So far,” Brandir muttered darkly. Einarr couldn’t help but agree.

“But where is she?” Einarr tried not to snap. Now was not the time for rushing headlong into things, but it was still difficult. “And… was she alone?”

Mornik cleared his throat. “Alone? Well, save for the acolytes. But, well, that’s the thing. And the reason I got caught.”

“Well, go on,” Jorir grumbled.

“She’s in the Mount.”

Einarr shared a confused look with Kaldr and the other humans. The dvergr, though, went pale to a man.

“What does that mean?” Thjofgrir ventured to ask.

Jorir stared at the surface of the water, not evidently seeing it, and his voice was quiet. “That’s their stronghold.”

“Who’s stronghold?” It was Naudrek pumping for information this time.

“The thrice-damned cult’s,” Brandir said, his voice stronger that Jorir’s but just as troubled. “If she’s there, they must have plans for her. She might not even be human when she comes out.”

Einarr dropped his head in his hands and groaned. The spring water was uncomfortably warm on his face, but it hardly registered. “It’s the svartalfr cave all over again.”

Jorir sighed. “Looks like it.”

Kaldr cleared his throat. “I beg your pardon, but as bad as I’ve heard that was, this may be worse. Didn’t you tell me yourself, Jorir, that their magic is a twisted thing? What about–”

“The babe!” Einarr sat back up abruptly with a swish, wet red hair flinging droplets behind him.

All four dvergr roared at once, “The what?”

“Are ye insane?” Jorir added.

“We didn’t know, when we left. We didn’t figure it out until after it was too late to turn back.”

“I don’t know what their foul magics might do to a babe, but I’d rather not find out.” Mornik shuddered, his voice grim. “But the only way we’re getting anything out of there is if we take the whole place, and I don’t think we’re ready.”

Einarr perked up his ears. “Ready?”

“No. No, we’re not – quite.” Brandir agreed. “But… you are the Cursebreaker? You have proof of this?”

“Aye,” Jorir and Kaldr answered together.

“The Oracle herself named him,” Jorir answered. “Even without her signs, that would have been enough for me.”

Kaldr continued. “He destroyed the black weaving laid upon our home for twenty years – and that is only the most recent of his exploits.”

“Good enough. And he’s plainly fought against the cult before: all to the good. Give me two days and I can have the final pieces in place.”

“Two days?” Einarr felt his spirits falling as quickly as they had risen. “Anything could happen in two days. I don’t even know how long we’ve been down here.”

“I’m afraid it’s the best I can do. If we are to have any hope of escaping the Mount alive, there are friends to rouse. We will not take the Mount unless the dvergr reclaim the Hall.”

“Einarr’s right, though,” Jorir rumbled. “We cannae just let the Lady Runa languish in one of Malúnion’s cages. Especially not if she’s with child.”

“It’s the Mount. It’s only gotten more impregnable since you left, Jorir: I’m not sure there’s anything we can do until everything is in place.”

“Messengers walk, rumors fly. But, fine. What if Lord Einarr and I went to investigate on our own?”

“Are ye mad?” This was Mornik, as he decided he’d had enough and stepped out of the water and into a towel. “Just earlier, when we had to fight that posse of theirs? That’s because I wasn’ t light enough on my feet – and you’re twice as heavy. Not to mention you’d be hampering yourself with a human along”

“I hardly think I’d be a hindrance in an investigation like this,” Einarr bristled.

He shook his head. “You’re too tall. I don’t care how sneaky you are, when you stand a full chest higher than anyone else on the street you’re going to stand out.”

“…Oh.”

“ ‘Oh’ is right. Now stop talking nonsense and we can get down to business.”

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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.

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

 

There was, on the outskirts of Nilthiad as on the outskirts of most cities, a rough part of town, where most people weren’t going to ask too many questions so long as you didn’t go making a big deal out of yourself. It was to a small, apparently abandoned house in a neighborhood such as this that Brandir led them all. Not one of them breathed easily until the doors and window had been covered with furs and a single oil lamp lit.

Once they were as secure as they could be, though, Einarr and Jorir both breathed a rather noisy sigh of relief. As the other dvergr dusted off seats and settled around the room a grin spread slowly over Jorir’s face, cutting a thick white gash of teeth through his black beard.

“By the gods, it’s good to see you. …But what in Valhalla’s name possessed you to follow me here?”

Einarr cleared his throat. “The way you vanished, we were all pretty sure you were in trouble. What else could we have done, then?”

The other humans in the room nodded, and Jorir sighed. “So it always is: in trying to avoid a vision, I brought it about.”

Einarr sat up straighter: everyone else just looked puzzled. “Wait, you saw –”

“Everything that happened in the Hall, almost down to the word. That’s why we made that raid tonight.”

“Let me tell you, it took some real convincing. That was more than a decade’s worth of planning we used tonight, not to mention exposing the three of us.” Brandir gestured to himself and the two other dvergr in the room.

“If we hadn’t, though, we’d have left Nilthiad to the mercies of Malúnion and his priests. The next thing in the vision was at an altar where one of us – at least – was going to die.”

“…Are you sure we’ve forestalled that?”

Jorir shook his head ruefully and shrugged. “She said there was more time left than I thought, and they weren’t true visions, but…”

“I understand. As for you three… you have my thanks. Our thanks. But now, I have one more thing I must ask of you.”

Brandir nodded knowingly. “The lass you mentioned.”

“My wife. They have her, and if women are set apart then I shudder to think might be happening to her.”

“Lady Runa always was headstrong. Still, I’m surprised you let her come along.”

“Tell me, Jorir, when was the last time she couldn’t talk her way into anything she wanted? Besides, she said she’s also in your debt.”

“She… did? Whatever for?”

Einarr only shrugged. Brandir, over by the door, chuckled.

“Never thought I’d see the day. You didn’t just swear to this human, Jorir. But. The lass in question is your wife.”

“Yes. Runa…” He had to clear his throat to stop himself waxing poetic about her: that was unlikely to be appreciated or helpful. “Long golden hair, fair skin, brilliant eyes. Has a rather… impish disposition, I would say.”

Thjofgrir snorted. “I believe the word you’re looking for is tart.”

Einarr gave him a sour look. “And she’s a Singer. That’s what really has me worried, honestly, given what I know about the cult.”

Brandir frowned and shared a look with Gheldram and Mornik. “And that’s something any Acolyte would be able to tell. Mornik, do you still…?”

“I know someone who can get in, yeah. I’ll be back.” Without another word, the stealthy dwarf slipped out through the furs.

“Now.” Einarr crossed his arms and turned his attention to Brandir – who really did look like he could be Jorir’s cousin, the more he looked. “A couple of Seasons ago, we fought against a stronghold of Malúnion’s cult. What can you tell me about its hold here?”


The six men stayed holed up in that rathole – as Brandir called it – for the rest of that night and all the next day. Late in the evening there was a commotion outside and Gheldram, as the least recognizable of their number, poked his head out to see what was the matter.

A moment later he came back in. “It’s Mornik! He’s being chased – by the Thane’s men!”

There was no longer any way around it: they were going to have to set themselves against the Thane by fighting his men. Einarr already had his maille halfway on, as did the other humans. Jorir and Brandir were not far behind.

Einarr grabbed Sinmora and dashed out into the street, just as Mornik’s momentum carried him by the door. The street was oddly deserted, other than the two of them and their enemies. Mornik skidded to a halt behind him.

“You found them?” Einarr barked.

“Yes,” Mornik panted, turning to face his pursuers as well.

The men of the hall didn’t seem to know or care that Einarr was there: he charged past after his quarry and took a slash across the arm for his trouble. Black blood welled up from the wound.

Einarr’s eyes fixed on the sight and he swore, loudly.

Jorir was next out the door, and he, too, swore at the sight of the black blood. There was only one thing black blood could mean.

Einarr barked an order over his shoulder. “Don’t let them bleed on you! We haven’t the means to cure the corruption here.”

Jorir and Kaldr took up positions to either side of Einarr. Kaldr cuffed one on the back of the head with the pommel of his sword – to no effect. “And how,” he asked, “Are we supposed to do that?”

“Just do your best!” Jorir roared, embedding his axe in the belly of one of the corrupted. “We’ll figure something out.”

Mornik vanished briefly into their rathole even as Brandir and Gheldram exited to join the fray.

Einarr wished he had his shield: it, at least, could have been used to block some of the gore. Nothing for it. He swung Sinmora again and decapitated one of the corrupted warriors. “You knew about this?”

“No,” Jorir answered, his voice grim, as he deprived another of its sword-arm. He cut his axe sideways, then, and into its side. “But these are no longer kin.”

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.

 

Without another word, the eight men – four dvergr, four humans – slipped out into the hall to follow Gheldram. In silence they crept through the halls of the dungeon until they reached the storeroom, where they set to searching for the belongings of the humans.

“I had half expected you to have… company by the time we got there,” Jorir admitted to Einarr.

“It was threatened, as you heard. I don’t know why they never came to torture us, but I’m not about to complain. …Is there any–”

“Ah! I found the maille.” Gheldram exclaimed. “Looks like they hadn’t decided what to do with it yet.”

“Even the Brokkrsteel?” Jorir’s jaw dropped.

“Even the Brokkrsteel. Come see!”

Einarr clenched his jaw and tried not to sigh as he followed his rescuers over to the haphazard stash of human-sized gear. The one who had picked the locks – Mornik? – moved over to stand and listen at the door.

The clink of chains sounded in Einarr’s ears as the maille in question slid over his head. He only had to pull a few hairs free. “We can’t leave yet,” he said as he settled it on his shoulders.

“Whyever not?”

“We don’t have everyone.”

Einarr watched Jorir’s expression as he clearly counted in his head the faces he’d seen. “You mean you didn’t lose anyone in the Paths?”

“Not one, although it was a near thing a time or two.”

Jorir nodded slowly. “So then we’re missing Eydri? Anyone else?”

“Not Eydri. Runa. Runa, and Vali. She had his jar.”

Jorir cursed – loudly and roundly. The one who could have been Jorir’s relation clapped a hand over his mouth.

“The lass’ll not be here, I’m afraid,” Brandir said, his tone much more measured. “They don’t catch a lot of women, but the few they do go off for… special treatment.”

Einarr blanched.

“Hurry up. We can’t do a damned thing about it standing around here.”

The dvergr at the door gave a low, rising whistle. “Someone’s awake. Hurry it up!”

“Blast. That was less time than expected.”

“Jennora did warn us,” Gheldram muttered.

Einarr glanced around at his companions. “We’re ready.”

Kaldr, Naudrek, and Thjofgrir nodded their silent agreement, and the party of eight slipped back out into the dungeon halls.

They had only gone a couple of turnings before a shout came from behind them. Someone, it seemed, had already discovered their empty cell.

The dvergr started running, but Einarr and the other humans were right behind. They abandoned all pretense at stealth – eight people, charging down stone corridors, will be noisy under any circumstances. Einarr wished they could go faster, but in the twisting corridors of the dvergr dungeon it simply was not possible. Hang on, Runa.

“There they are!” The cry came from a cross-tunnel.

“Just a little more!” Gheldram called back from the lead. Einarr racked his brain, but he could not think of anything he could do with the runestones in his pocket that would throw the Thane’s men off their track.

Mornik had an idea. Einarr saw him throw some sort of powder into one of the torches as he passed, and it began to emit a thick, choking smoke.

When they made it out of the dungeon halls, they saw the courtyard in an uproar. It seemed as though everyone came out of their stupor at once – which seemed very odd, for a sleeping drug. There was no time to consider why, though: Jorir and Brandir looked both ways, then at each other, and nodded before taking off to their left.

Thankfully, the interior of Thane Soggvar’s hold was far smaller than the inside of either the svartalfr ring fort or Raenshold. They only had to dodge one more group of guards before they found themselves in a dim lane, the wall to their left, and what Einarr would call a thrall’s door just ahead.

“Halt!” The cry came from ahead of them, just beyond the thrall’s door. Einarr gripped Sinmora’s hilt, ready to draw.

“Wait. Not here.” Jorir whispered, holding out an arm to block his liege lord’s path.

Before Einarr could ask for an explanation, it became apparent. Even as their enemies were charging forward, Gheldram was coiling a large weighted rope about his arm. He gave a sudden dash forward and cast his net.

Their enemies tangled themselves quite satisfactorily, although there was no time to appreciate his handiwork. Mornik had quite literally kicked open the door. Naudrek and Thjofgrir led the way through.

“That won’t hold them for long,” Brandir said, slightly winded, as he pushed the door closed behind him. “This way. There is a place prepared.”


Runa’s back ached, and it had nothing to do with the babe. She sat up off the hard stone slab the dvergr acolyte had lain her on – again. She must have undergone these examinations a dozen times just since she’d awakened, and every time was the same. A pair of svartdvergr in pale robes would carry her – against her every protest, and even if she offered to walk, which she had tried once or twice – into this room. There was the slab, and a window with a terrible view, and they would tie weights on her arms and legs to keep her from leaving. Then another dvergr, this one plainly a priest, would enter and check her over, as though he were inspecting livestock, and then leave. If she moved an inch before he left, he would lash her across her back. She had tested this, too.

But, once they had finished with their nonsense, she was allowed to sit up until the dvergr came to carry her back to her cage.

They had not done anything else to her – not that she could tell – and she was certain the babe still lived. They laced all her food with peppermint now – even the meat.

This was entirely too much like how the priests of Malúnion had treated her.

The dvergr entered the room again, surely to carry her back to the cage – cage! – they locked her in. “Well. Faster than usual today.” She did not bother to hide her scorn. It was the least they deserved. “What’s it to be today? Staring at the walls again?”

The acolytes ignored her tart words. She wasn’t entirely certain they even heard them, although they seemed to understand the priest’s words well enough. One of them grabbed her bare ankles, and the other took her roughly under her arms. Briefly she thought about struggling, but the last time she’d done that she’d been unceremoniously dropped on her tail and dragged back to the cage by her ankles.

She glared daggers at Vali’s jar, sitting inert in a corner of the room where she was bound, as the key turned in the lock. Naturally, he wouldn’t wake up, not even to let her vent, let alone to investigate.

Someone was going to pay. And it wasn’t going to be the ghost.

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