Jorir sat on a large block in Brandir’s smithy, pressing his hands against his knees to keep from pacing. As he had feared, the situation now was far worse than when he had left.

That was fine. It would be fine: he had found the Cursebreaker. All he had to do now was convince the Thane to let him come. Now if only he hadn’t had to slip off like that…

Brandir hammered away on the axe head he was working on – had been since Jorir had landed more than two months ago. Two months since he’d landed. And still, Thane Soggvar had kept him cooling his heels here in Nilthiad. At least he’d been able to make contact with his friends.

The smiths of the Guild – the young ones, who had not been seduced by the fancies of old men and remained true to their Art – were still biding their time. After Jorir had been caught and cursed they had all formed an agreement. Only, he worried he had taken too long. Jorir grumbled. “He went so far as to summon me back. The least he could do is tell me why.”

“I’m shocked you came. He found you, he wanted you back. I highly doubt he actually wants anything else from you.”

“Bah. If he found me, he could find my human friends, and it was time I came back anyway.”

“So you’ve said. Not that you’d ever get permission to bring humans here.”

“Bah,” Jorir said again, hopping down off the block.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Out.” Perhaps he had grown too used to the human way of doing things, but he thought it reasonable to be restless at this point.

“Nothing is going to have changed with the others, either, you realize.”

“I know. I just need to stretch my legs a bit.”

The door shut with a thud behind Jorir. All he could hear from inside the smithy was the striking of Brandir’s hammer. He briefly considered paying a visit to another one of his fellows, but discarded the idea. It was probable that he would be followed, after all, and there wasn’t really any good to be done by a visit. They’d already discussed their plans into the ground. Instead, he went wandering out toward the outskirts of the city. To the temple district.

All around him, his fellow svartdvergr went about as though nothing were amiss. At least, not on the surface.

Oh, he heard the usual background chatter. People appeared to be living their lives, just as they always had. But nothing felt normal. The svartdvergr had always been rougher-edged than their paler counterparts, but that prickly spirit seemed to be gone now. In its place was a quiet stillness as black as the ocean’s depths. Jorir shuddered: just thinking about it made his skin crawl.

He turned at the next cross-street. He would head for the local brewhouse for a pint, or maybe two. It wouldn’t help, but it was at least something to do.

As Jorir settled down at a small table in the corner of the room, a carved bone stein between his hands, he thought it might be worse than unhelpful. Even here, somehow, the black alienation pricked and prodded at the back of his mind, as though there were something malevolent sitting in the shadows and watching.

Now you’re just being paranoid. He shook his head and took a sip of the ale in his cup, then nearly spat it back out. Warm piss? Suddenly wary again, he scanned the room slowly. As his glance traveled, the few other patrons in the brewhouse hastily averted their eyes from him. So that’s how it is. With a sigh, he lay down a coin on the table – more than that slop was worth, but he didn’t care. He knew those stares: he was being watched – but not by anything hidden. He was recognized, and he didn’t particularly feel like brawling.

Almost ostentatiously, he hooked his thumbs over his belt and sauntered toward the exit. He kept his eyes half-lidded so that he could watch from the corners of his eyes, but it didn’t seem like anyone else in the room cared enough to pick a fight, either.

Why did I come back? The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that Brandir was right. The Thane didn’t have any use for Jorir, Soggvar just wanted him under his thumb. Please don’t let Einarr have done anything stupid.

When he got back to Brandir’s, the door was open. Jorir heard the officious tone of a royal messenger through the open door. Instinctively, he put his back to the wall and stood out of sight, listening.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know where he went.” Brandir’s voice was carefully neutral.

“And yet, he is your responsibility. His Lordship the Thane would speak with the exile: if the exile cannot be found, I suppose that means you intend to explain yourself? Perhaps he will be merciful.” The messenger’s voice was sneering and nasal, and didn’t even attempt to veil the threat behind those words.

Jorir is a friend, not my prisoner.” Brandir bristled audibly.

Jorir chose that moment to reveal himself. “And it is quite true he did not know where I was going. I did not know it myself.”

The supercilious dvergr turned. He was shorter than Jorir, and showed an alarming lack of muscle, and yet he still managed to look down his nose at them both. “His Lordship, Thane Soggvar, and his Holiness Thalkham, High Priest of Malúnion, have decided to reward your patience, exile. Present yourself before your Thane at midday tomorrow.” His piece said, the dvergr turned and strode out, brushing past Jorir as though he were inanimate.

Jorir looked at Brandir.

Brandir looked back levelly. “You don’t actually intend to go, do you?”

“I’m not sure I have much choice.”

“You know he only intends to humiliate you.”

“I’ve put myself in service to a human, Brandir. For the century before that, I was a jotun’s thrall. I’m not sure what shame he could heap on me that I haven’t already inflicted on myself. …And it’s my only chance to ask leave to bring the Cursebreaker.”

Brandir sighed. “Have it your way. I’m still not convinced a Cursebreaker is going to do us any good. Our problem is foolish old men, not Black Arts.”

For the first time in what felt like a long time, Jorir smiled. “I think… you might find it more relevant than it first appears.”

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Einarr had Sinmora at the top of her swing when a pair of shoulders barreled into his knees from behind. His eyes widened in shock as he fell, moments before yet another tentacle shot across the open space where his head had been.

A man among the archers screamed. Einarr caught a glimpse of hair even redder than his own on the struggling Vidofning above and flinched. There was nothing he could do from here. Skora. I’m so sorry.

An arrow flew up from behind them, but even as it bounced off the monstrosity’s tough hide Einarr heard the sickening crunch of bone and their crewman went limp. He rolled to the side, off the back of the man who had tackled him and saved his life.

It was Sivid. Einarr offered the mousey man a hand back to his feet and a nod of appreciation, although the latter was waved off as the smaller man limped back towards where the archers were preparing to launch another volley. Einarr shook his head to clear it: there was only one thing to be done right now, and that was break free. He raised Sinmora high overhead again, waiting for the moment when Irding’s blade withdrew and he could strike.

If there was one benefit to the soaking rainstorm that surrounded the Grendel, it was that the monstrosity’s blood did not cling to the deck and the crew as it might have. Even still, the fetid stink was beginning to work on Einarr’s insides as he brought his blade back down with force. His efforts were rewarded with not one, but two spurts of the foul black liquid – one from Sinmora’s strike, and one from the team behind him. A section of the foul flesh fell to the deck between them and the first of the three arms slid away from the prow. What I wouldn’t give for a bath house at the end of this…

Another pair of arms reached for the Vidofnir, but hesitated. It seemed the thing was not insensate to pain. Rather than grab for the ship again, it used these arms to slap at its side. Two more men went overboard, and soon there was a cloud of red in the water where they disappeared. For perhaps the first time in his life Einarr wished he had an Art, that he might use it to curse the beast.

More fire sailed across the gap to embed itself in the chitinous flesh of the beast across the way. The wail was louder this time, though no less chilling, and the second of three tentacles loosed its grip on the Vidofnir. It did not retreat, though, as much as the Vidofnings might have wished it would. No: this arm raised itself up in the air to slam down into the water next to the Vidofnir. A span to the right would have capsized them: Einarr heard muttered prayers from among his crewmen but could not take the time to join them. That second arm was already raising back up, only this time he thought it was going to strike at the crew.

Einarr gulped air, trying to catch his breath, and brought Sinmora up to strike as it did.

A third volley of fire filled the air between their two ships. With a scream, the demonic octopus withdrew the last of its tentacles. Einarr watched as an inky black blob pushed itself out of the hole in the Grendel’s deck, uncounted arms still whole, and rolled itself into the sea. Einarr wanted to be relieved when it slipped into the water, its black blood forming a trail as it swam away. Wanted to, but could not. He swallowed, but it was not enough to wet his suddenly dry throat. “What…” he started.

“Was…” Erik continued, his face a mirror of shock.

“That?” Stigander demanded, looking square at Jorir.

The dwarf shook his head. “Something that should not be.”

“Will it come after us?”

“I don’t think so, not right now anyway.”

“Can it be killed?”

Jorir again shook his head, this time adding a helpless shrug.

“Father.” Einarr interrupted before Stigander could demand more answers his liege-man plainly did not have. He still felt sick, and there was at least one more matter that was more urgent. “I think Jorir is as clueless as the rest of us, here.”

Stigander harrumphed but did not press the dwarf further.

“How did you know there was something there?”

“The keening. It… it sounded like something I heard before I left home. Never saw it, though it always set my teeth on edge.”

Stigander growled. “Fine. All right, men, row for all you’re worth! The Brunnings are waiting.”

Einarr stepped over next to where Jorir leaned against the side of the boat. “So what do you place the odds at that each of those other ships will have something equally wrong filling their holds.”

The dwarf exhaled loudly, blowing the edges of his black moustache. “Too high. Hand me your blade, I’ll make sure she’s sharp before we catch up.”

Without a word, Einarr handed his sworn vassal the sword. Soon the sound of steel on a whetstone could be heard over the rapid cadence of the ships rowers and the wind billowing in the sail. Ahead, the nearness of the thick storm clouds showed they were catching up to their targets.

Einarr retrieved his sword, and it was immediately followed by Erik’s axe at the blacksmith’s whetstone. Already they were nearly out of time for sharpening, but at the promise of another fight like the last one it was worth it. Meanwhile, their reserves of pitch had been brought forward, and quivers’ worth of arrows had their heads wrapped to rain fire on their foes. Sinmora’s edge glinted brightly, even in the overcast light, as he sheathed his blade once more and went to join the ranks of archers. Already there had been plenty of glory to go around today: for the best if they did not have to risk any more of their men in boarding.

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With the morning light came the sound of metal striking metal from deep within the cave, rousing Einarr from his uneasy rest. The glow of fire lit the walls, even though Einarr’s had long since burnt itself to ash.

The noise became more distinct as he crept down the narrow, winding passageway. I wonder what sort of smith would set up in such a place?

Several minutes passed, and Einarr knit his brows. The tunnel had already continued on far longer than he had expected, but still he heard the rhythmic clinking sound of a distant forge hammer from up ahead.

The tunnel jogged sharply left, and then directly back in the other direction before opening out into a broad cavern. Like the tunnel behind him, the walls of the cavern did not appear to be man-hewn, and yet the sheer scope of the room suggested that very fact.

He pressed on, stepping softly over the smooth stone floor and moving from stalactite pillar to stalagmite as he crept across the room toward the source of fire at the center of the cavern. The clanging sound never faltered.

As he crept ever closer, the source of the noise resolved itself into a sensible form. The fire burned hot, and next to the fire was an unusually short anvil. Working at this anvil, on some project Einarr could not determine, was a black-haired dwarf. Unless Einarr missed his guess, not all of the dwarf’s visible scars were from his forge.

“You may as well come the rest of the way in,” the dwarf growled. “I already know you’re there.”

Einarr blinked, a little nonplussed. The dwarf shouldn’t have been able to hear him over the noise of his anvil. He stepped out from behind the stone pillar he had sheltered behind. “Yes, of course. My apologies, sir dwarf, but I did not expect to find anyone smaller than a tree on the island.”

The dwarf laughed, but was no mirth in it. “Sit down. Have a drink, rest a bit by the fire.”

“Am I to understand that you’re extending hospitality to me? That, according to the dictates of the gods, you will see to it that I come to no further harm on the island?” He could not keep the disbelief from his voice.

The dwarf snorted. “Fine. Don’t, then. Why are you here.”

“I don’t suppose you’d be able to tell me how to get to Fraener’s Hall, would you?”

“You want to go to the jotün’s hall, do you? Can’t see why anyone would want to do that.”

“Even still, I fear I must go. Do you know the way?”

“Oh, aye, I can take you there. But it won’t be for free. And you probably won’t thank me for it if I do.”

“Of course it won’t.” He sighed: all he had on him was the rope and the sack with Runa’s gift. “I’m afraid I haven’t anything of value on me. Perhaps some sort of a contest? A… game of wits, perhaps?”

“You would riddle with me?” The dwarf sounded unnaturally gleeful at the prospect. “If you win, I will take you there. If you lose, I will give you to the master for dinner.”

Einarr suppressed a groan. Why is it always riddles? I hate riddling. “Come now, are we barbarians? What think you of tafl?”

The dwarf’s face took on a crafty look. “Unfortunately, my board is missing a piece.”

“Is it the king?” Bless you, Runa. How did you ever guess?

The dwarf nodded sagely. Einarr pulled the king from out of the sack where it rested.

“Let’s play. My king, my defense.”

“As you like.”

The dwarf moved away from the fire and spread his board out on the ground of the cave. He set out the game pieces in an unfamiliar pattern. No matter, though; the layout determined tactics, not strategy, and the key to this game was fluid tactics. Einarr studied the board as the dwarf worked, mentally trying and discarding several opening moves.

The dwarf played cautiously at the outset – too cautiously, Einarr thought. Within five moves he’d nearly opened his path to the edge of the board. He was just starting to get cocky when he noticed the smirk his opponent wore. In the next move he was cut off from escape.

By his tenth move, Einarr was beginning to sweat. He hadn’t lost yet, but the dwarf was making him work for it harder than anyone other than Runa had in a long time.

Five more turns passed, with Einarr’s guards getting picked off slowly but surely. As he sat, contemplating his next move, a feeling of deja vu struck. I’ve seen this pattern before. …That’s right. A slow smile spread across his face, despite his attempts to quash it. I tried to corner Runa with this once. Tried, and failed miserably. In three turns she’d crushed the offense, with no more pieces left than he had now.

“Not really sure you have anything to be smiling about,” the dwarf said.

“Mm? Oh, I’m just thinking about the bragging rights I’ll have when I escape your master’s pot and poison the soup on my way out.”

“Are you now.”

Einarr didn’t think the dwarf believed him, but he looked up from under his eyebrows at his opponent and made the first move. “I am. It’s not what I came here for, but how many people can say they slew a jotün in his own hall?”

The dwarf continued on as he had been, apparently not recognizing the shift in tactics. “Not all that many, I’d wager.”

Einarr made his next move. “Now, now, one wager at a time. Raichi, by the way.” Einarr knew he looked smug as he signalled his impending victory, and right now he didn’t care.

The dwarf looked confused, still not seeing the same hole in his line that Einarr had missed those few months ago. He moved to block what he thought Einarr was doing, which left exactly the path free that Einarr had left for Runa.

“Tuichu. I win.”

“So you do.” The dwarf blinked, poleaxed.

“So now you will take me to the jotünhall, as we agreed, and I will not have to figure out how to poison your master.”

“Of course, my young sir. If you will just follow me?” The crafty note was back in the dwarf’s voice. Einarr would have to watch him.

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