Naudrek sniffed, and nodded, and was joined in agreement by Kaldr and Thjofgrir.

“Why fish?” Einarr asked. Whatever it was, they were sure not to like the reason.

“Maybe they want to bury us in mackerel?” Naudrek asked with a shrug and half a smile.

Even Kaldr chuckled. “Unlikely. But whatever the smell is coming from, I don’t think we really have a choice but to go on, do we?”

He was right: there was no way to go but forward, and had not been for quite some time – even if they could have gotten back out of this pit. Einarr nodded. “Be on your guard. Vali, give Runa a hand if you can. Everyone else, same as before.”

Runa gagged a little. “Faugh! That’s strong. Smells like a warehouse full of blubber.”

“At least it’s not… rancid… Dammit.” Einarr’s remembrance of the whaler’s warehouse on Langavik started a cascade, and suddenly he knew what they were smelling. “That’s a lot of whale oil. I don’t know what we’re going to find, for sure, but shields ready.”

A chorus of “Aye, sir,” traveled around the circle, and then they formed up.

The stairway down was broader than the passages above had been, so although Einarr couldn’t guess why he wasn’t going to complain. Rather than travel down single-file, he formed a circle of guards around Runa in the center, with himself on her left and Naudrek on the right while Kaldr and Thjofgrir took point and rearguard, respectively. Nothing would get to Runa if he had any say in the matter.

Down they went, cautiously, one step at a time with their shields held ready. The fish smell only grew stronger.

They had gone perhaps twenty steps down, deeper into the earth, when Einarr heard a popping sound from overhead. He tensed.

From the ceiling just ahead of Kaldr, from a divot that would ordinarily have looked just like part of the scrollwork, an intense blast of the fishy smell of whale oil was followed immediately by a gout of flame.

Runa ducked, throwing her arms up over her head instinctively. It was a good reflex, but in the moment unnecessary: Kaldr managed to raise his shield in time to block the blast of flame.

“Is everyone all right?” Kaldr asked as the last sparks fell out of the air.

Einarr glanced around at the rest of the group. “So it appears. How’s your shield?”

“A little singed, but it should hold up.”

“Good.” He frowned, contemplating a ward he had inadvertently taught himself in his time with the alfs. No good. No time, and I don’t think I could get all of us at once. “Let’s keep going. Eyes open, everyone.”

He was reminding himself as much as any of them. Any loose stone could trigger another blast of fire, so far as he knew, and he had no idea how quickly – or even if – it could burn again.

Fifteen steps further down, Einarr heard another pop.

“Shields!” He yelled, even as a gout of flame shot toward them – this time from the wall right next to him. He only barely managed to pivot in time to shield Runa, let alone himself, from the blast. He growled as the handle and boss of his shield heated against his arm, but not from any burn.

Einarr was beginning to understand why so many thought the dvergr intractable asses.

“Let’s move!” He bellowed. His voice echoed even over the dying fwoosh of flame. Vali vanished, almost certainly retreating into his jar on Runa’s shoulder.

The next blast came from behind. Thjofgrir did not escape unscathed: there was a smell of burning hair perceptible even over the smell of whale oil as he whirled to bring up his own shield against the onslaught. Runa, as the only one without a shield, patted out the sparks as the blast faded.

“My thanks, Lady.”

Then they were moving again, with no time for Runa to respond.

The stairway wound about and curved, much as the paths above had, and for all their hurry every handful of steps they would be forced to freeze and weather yet another blast of flame, from which direction none of them could say.

When a blast struck at them from near the floor ahead of them Kaldr, his face twisted in annoyance and, probably, pain (the boss of his shield was beginning to glow from the heat). “We’re doing this wrong,” he announced with his usual calm.

“What do you mean?” Naudrek was a little out of breath. Actually, it looked like they all were.

As the spout of flames seemed to retreat back into its origin, Kaldr took a big breath. “We’re treating this like a boarding action, but it’s not. Rather than racing ahead and praying we block the next shot of fire, why not go slowly and form a shield wall?”

It was a good idea. Einarr wished he’d thought of it himself… but he had spent most of his life as a freeboater. Kaldr had much more experience fighting on land than he did. He nodded his assent. “A solid plan. We’ll still need to protect Runa, though. Thjofgrir, are you comfortable going down backwards?”

The big man grimaced, but nodded his assent. “Don’t see as there’s much choice in the matter.”

With a shrug, Einarr looked over at his current Mate. “Say something if we need to rotate, then. Sorry, Runa, this might get a little snug.”

The men gathered shoulder to shoulder – the only way that four shields could form a shield wall around another person – and started back down the stairway.

Not one of them could tell what would trigger the next pop and gout of flame: there did not seem to be any loose stones, and no-one had tripped over anything – and yet, there was nothing magical about this. A concealed tube would spray forth whale oil at the same moment something struck a spark, igniting the oil.

As another gout of flame sprayed forth from near the ceiling, Einarr growled in annoyance. He’d had just about enough of this interminable stairway and its inexhaustible flamethrowers that were in the process of destroying their shields. Certainly he wouldn’t trust his in a battle after this – and if it weren’t outright destroyed, it might just glow forever, he was afraid. The char was already obscuring his light rune, and the light had in no way faltered. He’d caught his breath some time ago, but the awkward pace and the constant vigilance had rendered him altogether too conscious of the fatigue building in arms and legs.

The dvergr were certainly trying to make good on their promise of death to all intruders. Dammit, Jorir, this had better be worth it.

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.

 

A clicking sound, like a knife being stropped, sounded twice and abruptly the tunnel was plunged into darkness. Runa froze in her tracks, blinking, her eyes straining for any light. “Einarr?”

She disliked how tremulous her voice sounded just there, but there was nothing she could do about it now. She cleared her throat and called again. “Einarr? Kaldr?”

Nothing, and still she could not see. She wasn’t certain why she expected there would be any light, but it didn’t keep her from wishing.

“Lady Runa, did you see what happened?” Thjofgrir asked from behind her.

She took a deep breath, calming her breath if not her nerves. “I’m afraid not. Vali? Can you tell what happened?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t see it personally, but I think I can guess. Sit tight: I’ll be right back.”

He can see in this? …Of course he can, what am I thinking. “All right. We’re not going anywhere like this.” Runa folded her legs under herself and crossed her arms. She’d known as soon as it was mentioned that bringing Vali along would be worthwhile, but she hadn’t had any idea just how worthwhile.

Vali’s faint luminescence walked forward over the surface of the tunnel. When he got to about where Einarr had been standing when the light went out, Runa could at last see clearly that there was no-one there – Vali’s faint silvery glow painted the walls a bluish color in the empty passage. He examined the walls and the ceiling around him, and then began to sink down into the floor – taking, of course, the light with him.

He stopped when the floor was up to his shins, as though he was wading in the ocean. “Hm. Best not do that, I think.”

“Why? What’s there?”

“Another one of those dwarven barriers. I could push through, but there’s no telling if I could get back again. But I’m sure now: There’s a trap door here, on a shutter. Einarr and Kaldr are down below.”

Panic began to rise in Runa’s throat, but she swallowed it hard. That would do no-one any good. So now what do we do?


Einarr landed hard on his feet and groaned – his knees were greatly displeased by that landing, but it ensured he did not impale himself or shatter anything. Rising on still-vibrating legs, he had a look around.

The floor was littered with unnaturally sharp stalagmites – almost certainly dvergr work, although he could not see how. Halfway across the room, Kaldr stood, evidently examining the wall before him. Einarr made his way through the stalagmites to where his Mate stood. “So how bad does it look?”

Kaldr looked over his shoulder at Einarr, his face expressionless. “Not great.”

Einarr didn’t have to go much further to see what the issue was. “Did they polish these walls?”

“Looks like it.”

That meant, unless they could figure out a way to keep the trap above open long enough to get up a rope and across to the other side, they were stuck down here, separated from the rest of the group. Unless the others decided to drop down here, which… Einarr really hoped they didn’t. “Let’s have a look around. Maybe there’s a passage out of here.”


Runa took another deep breath, clamping down on the sudden wave of fear that swept over her. She’d known she might get overly emotional when she was expecting, but she hadn’t expected it to be quite this soon. Calm yourself. You’ve gotten through worse with him. Then she opened her eyes and looked straight at Vali. “So they have it warded. We really should have expected as much. Can you mark out the edges of the trap for us? Or maybe find the mechanism?” Even if this could be done with magic, mechanically made much more sense.

Vali frowned. “I’ll try.”

All the lore said that a ghost should, if nothing else, be able to spread their essence around like that, and she already knew he could glow when he wanted to. Whether or not there would be a mechanism to find on the top of the trap was, of course, an entirely other question.

Vali moved about over the area of floor Einarr and Kaldr had disappeared through, searching carefully for cracks or something obviously mechanical. Finally, after far too many minutes, three lines appeared in the floor. Two of them cut horizontally across the floor from wall to wall. The third went straight between the midpoints of those two lines.

Naudrek, peering over Runa’s shoulder, whistled. “That’s the trap door?”

“That’s the trap,” Vali confirmed.

“Not even a ledge around the outside. How do the dvergr get past it?”

“My guess is,” Runa answered, “they don’t. Kaldr was right up above: the dvergr almost certainly have a series of secret passages only they know how to find. …If they do have to pass this, though, I expect they have some sort of key to disable the shutter.”

“Great!” Thjofgrir, further back, sounded enthused. “Then all we need to do is -”

“What? Find the keyhole? And if we do, even if we can figure out how to disable it, Einarr and Kaldr are both down there!” Deep breath, Runa. He didn’t mean any harm.

“Bah,” Thjofgrir almost sounded like he was laughing. “Getting those two out of there is the easy part, once we find a keyhole. You leave that part to me.”


Einarr blew through his mustache in consternation. He and Kaldr sat in the middle of the floor, surrounded by stalagmites that could easily pierce their feet through their boots if they tried to climb, and waited. There was, quite literally, nothing else to do. There were no exits. There were no hand-holds, nor anything to loop a rope over. Even if there were, the ceiling was at least sixty feet up. Their one hope lay with Runa.

Schick.

Einarr looked up. That was the sound he’d heard as the floor opened up beneath his feet.

Only this time, it was followed by a pair of very loud bangs.

The shutters did not close again. Far above, he could just see the outline of Thjofgrir leaning over the edge of the trap door. There was no mistaking the grin in his voice, though. “You two need a hand?”

The end of a rope danced in front of Einarr’s eyes.

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.

 

Troa stopped suddenly enough that Einarr nearly ran into his outstretched arm. Better that, though, than to fall into the crevasse that had brought him up short.

“Did we choose the wrong path?” Einarr wondered.

Troa shook his head. “Not likely. I think she had her own path past all this. Probably some sort of bridge, here.”

“Think you can jump it?”

“No chance. And I’d be very surprised if you could.”

Einarr had to agree. “Okay. So she destroyed her bridge once she was past. Now we just need to find a path. There’s nothing up here, though.”

Troa ran his hands along the walls on both sides of the tunnel before he agreed to that. “I think I see something, but you’re not going to like it.”

Einarr followed Troa’s gaze down into the crevasse and groaned. There, about eight feet down, a trio of levers stuck out of the rock. “You’re right. I’m not. And it looks like it’s just out of reach, too… What’s that?”

“What’s what?” Troa turned around to look where Einarr pointed.

“I think it’s another one of Urdr’s… hints.” Einarr bent down to pull the roll of bark out from the tiny crack it was wedged in on the edge of the crevasse. “So you’ve sacrificed a friend just to catch one old woman, have you?” He read. “Best choose carefully: the wrong lever will kill your support. Or don’t: I don’t mind if you die here. …Bah.”

Troa glanced down into the crevasse again. “So if we pull the wrong lever, we’re both dead.”

“Seems like it. And you’re both lighter and better with traps than I am.”

The scout swallowed. “I won’t let you down, milord.”

“If you fail, we’re both dead, the witch lives, and the weaving remains. Be absolutely sure of your choice.”

“I understand.” Troa looked uncomfortable, but he dropped his sword and shield and got down on his belly. He started inching over the ledge.

“So long as you do.”

As Troa lowered his chest over the ledge, Einarr got down on the ground as well to grab hold of his ankles. It was for the best that Troa was not much bigger than Sivid: Einarr could only just get the grip he needed. Worse, Einarr’s shoulders and fingers very quickly let him know exactly what they thought of this position. “What does it look like?”

When Troa answered, his voice carried much less strain than Einarr felt. “I see them. There are three levers, all completely unmarked. This is going to take me a minute.”

Please make it a short minute. “I understand.”


“No, wait, not that one!” Runa cried as Jorir started to move one of the plates on the puzzle lock. Quickly the dwarf shoved it back into place.

“Ye said the fourth from the bottom right, did ye not?”

“I did. I must have miscounted. It’s the one right above that.”

“I thought we already did that one?”

“That was a temporary place while we moved others out of the way. It should slot into that hole you just made and finish this up.”

“You’re sure?”

She opened her mouth to say of course, but then thought better of it. She took a few moments to confirm her arrangement. “I’m sure.”

“Fine.” Jorir stretched up to reach the last of the pieces and shove it into place. Then he stepped back and crossed his arms, waiting.

With a slow grinding noise the door slid open. Beyond it was a long, straight hallway. Water trickled down the walls and pooled shallowly on the floor. Runa smelled brine.

Jorir grunted. “We must have been going down all this time. That’s taking us below sea level.”

Runa hummed in agreement. “No place else to go but forward, though.”

“None. And that is why I’m sure it’s another trap.”


Einarr’s shoulders were on fire. His fingers were cramping, and he was sure Troa’s feet must be as numb as his face was red. A steady scraping sound came from below where Troa worked by the light of his rune. “Almost ready?”

“I found the mechanism the levers control. It’s almost the same as the one on the doors. Just hold on: I’ve nearly bypassed her little booby trap.”

“Hah! Glad to hear it. Will that open the path?”

“It should.” The scraping sound continued. Moments later, Einarr heard a snap, but it was not followed by cursing. Instead, a rope ladder dropped from the ceiling down into the crevasse – which was not actually bottomless, as revealed by Troa’s light rune. If the trap had sprung, Troa could have survived the fall.

Troa stowed his knife and the thin steel picks he had been using and grabbed hold of the ladder. “You can let go now.”

Einarr nodded. It took him a minute to convince his cramped fingers to relax, but once they did Troa performed a rather impressive flip to right himself and descend the ladder. Einarr tossed Troa’s shield on his back and slid the man’s sword through his baldric. It was awkward, but far preferable to the other options.

At the bottom of the crevasse, they saw before them a very regular rectangular doorway. Einarr smelled brine, and the rock up ahead was distinctly damp. “She has us going underwater. I don’t like it.”

“No. But forward is the only way.”

With a nod of agreement, they stepped into the hallway – as straight and regular as the door behind them. Almost immediately a shutter slammed closed, blocking their retreat. Einarr felt cool air on his foot and looked down: the shutter had clipped his boot. With a grimace, he continued on.

About halfway down the hallway, he could see that it ended in a wall, with yet another lever up near the ceiling. That was also the moment he heard the sound of many shutters opening, followed by the sound of rushing water. The hallway began to fill with seawater.


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Table of Contents


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.