Einarr kept his eyes locked on Jorir as he was marched to the front of the Hall, and Jorir could feel the weight of their disappointment heavy on his shoulders.

Soggvar stood. Despite his sickly appearance, his legs were just as strong as Jorir remembered, and his hands steady. “So,” he said, walking to the front of the dais to examine his prisoner. “This is the leader of the barbarians I was told wandered our paths. I don’t know why you came here, human, but your kind has no place in these lands.”

Jorir cleared his throat. “My Thane.”

Soggvar ignored him, perhaps listening to what the shaman was again whispering in his ears. What new poison could this be?

“But since you ignored all warnings, rejoice! You and your companions will go to be with your gods tomorrow.”

Panic tried to close Jorir’s throat. If they did that… “My Lord!”

Both Einarr and the Thane turned to look at him. Einarr’s eyes were surprised, Soggvar’s contemptuous.

“What?” They both said at once.

“My Thane,” Jorir tried again, more clearly addressing Soggvar. “This man is the Cursebreaker. He can free our land from its terrible circumstances.”

“Indeed, by the flow of his blood. His, and his companions.”

Jorir was entirely certain that was not what the Oracle had foreseen. “No, my Thane. By the strength of his hand and the quickness of his wit, if only you would pay it heed.”

The shaman began to laugh, a raspy hideous cackle. “I said, did I not, that this one had forsaken you? See how hard he tries to save the worthless barbarian scum – barbarian sorcerer, no less.”

Soggvar made a calming gesture with his hand and the shaman lapsed into quiet chuckling.

“These barbarians trespassed deep within the Paths of Stone. Furthermore, they slew the beast we had trained into a guardian, and now we must train a replacement. By all our ancient laws, the first alone is enough to earn them death. Tell me, smith: do these laws now mean nothing to you?”

Jorir gaped, unable to find the words to answer, knowing that anything he said would only make their circumstances worse.

“Get out of my sight, smith. You, take the human away. Make sure they are well entertained: it is their last night among the living, after all.”


Late that evening, Jorir crept up to a servant’s entrance to the fortress. Already there, keeping quietly to the shadows, were three other dvergr: Brandir, a younger smith named Gheldram, and a locksmith by the name of Mornik. He nodded in greeting to each of the three. “Is everything ready?” He whispered.

“Just waiting on the signal,” Brandir answered, just as quietly. As hastily conceived as their present plan was, they knew that Soggvar’s court often drank late into the night. Brandir’s sister worked in the Thane’s kitchens, and many years ago she had obtained a large quantity of sleeping draught.

They didn’t have long to wait. Jorir had only just stepped into the shadow of the wall when the servant’s gate began to open. Peeking out from the other side was a comely young lass bearing a passing resemblance to Brandir. “Swiftly now, and quietly. They’re all snoring in their cups, but it took a tolerable large dose to put his lordship under.”

“My thanks,” Brandir said, just as quietly. “Go on back to your post. We wouldn’t want to raise anyone’s suspicions.”

The four of them slipped inside, and their benefactor sent them all off with a quick smile and a “good luck” before she hurried back off towards the scullery.

“That’s little Jennora?” Jorir muttered as Mornik peeked around the corner, looking for sentries.

“The very same.”

“Hard to believe she’s grown up already.”

“That’s what happens when you miss a pair of centuries.”

Mornik motioned them forward, and they hurried on toward the dungeon’s entrance.

Jennora had been thorough. Ordinarily, there would be a guard on the entrance to the dungeons – and, technically, there was. He, however, slept just as soundly as they’d been told the dvergr in the Hall did. Unfortunately, he lay sprawled across the doorway.

Once they were in they moved faster. There should be plenty of warning down here, even if someone was unlucky enough to be given a dinner patrol, and all the skulking in the world would not help them if the men of the Hall woke up before Einarr was rescued and they were out again. Jorir helped himself to one of the torches ensconced on the wall as they went.

Finally, after a wrong turn or two and far more time than any of them liked, they heard a cough and the croaking of parched throats. Jorir stopped in his tracks and swallowed.

“You’re sure you saw him?” Kaldr’s voice asked.

“I could hardly mistake him at this point. It looked like he was in no great favor, either, too.”

“M-my lord?” Jorir called. His ordinary voice sounded loud to his ears.

“Who’s there?” Einarr asked again, a hard edge to his raspy voice this time.

“A svartdvergr in no great favor. Keep talking: we’re going to get you out.”

A third voice laughed. Jorir thought it was Thjofgrir. “He was right, Captain. Rescue is at hand.”

Mornik went to work on the heavy iron lock.

“I knew you’d come for us, once I saw you up in the Hall.” Einarr laughed, too, very plainly relieved.

“Even if I hadn’t sworn to you…” That got Jorir a sidelong look from Brandir, but he shrugged it away. Now was not the time to explain any of that. “We haven’t much time. The Hall is sleeping, but we have no way of knowing when they might awaken.”

“I understand. Have you seen–”

“Got it!” Mornik exclaimed. There was a click, and the door opened a crack.

“One down,” Naudrek drawled. “Four to go. We’re chained to the walls in here.”

The four dwarves nodded to one another and streamed into the room. Before long, all four Men stood rubbing their wrists where the shackles had held them.

Gheldram whistled. “You must really have given them some trouble. They don’t usually pull out the constricting shackles unless they mean business.”

Thjofgrir smirked. “We had the temerity to kill their pet.”

Gheldram nodded. “That would do it.”

“Let’s go. If we’re lucky, we can still find your things in the storeroom down here,” Brandir said, even as he peered back out into the hall. “We’re clear. Let’s go.”

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.

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Jorir took a little of his remaining coin, small though it was, to visit the bathhouse that night. He would give Thane Soggvar no excuse to abuse him that he could avoid. The next morning he put formal braids in his beard and – for the first time in many a year – wore the chain of his Guild. There would be some, he was sure, who questioned his right to it. They were welcome to do so. One of the things these two months had allowed him to do was learn just how many in Nilthiad agreed with him – quietly or otherwise. The number was significant. He tromped out through Brandir’s smithy.

“You’re sure I can’t persuade you to just leave town?”

“Quite. Or are you anxious to join me in the human world?”

“Not especially.”

“Then I really can’t. You already know if I disappear they’ll take it out on you. I’ll return.”

“I hope you’re right.”

On those doubtful words, Jorir stepped out into the daylit – if dim – streets of Nilthiad and started on his way for Thane Soggvar’s hall.

The dull placidity of the streets of Nilthiad struck Jorir as even more wrong today than they had yesterday. Even knowing that for most of these people this was just an ordinary day did not change that. As he neared the Thane’s hall, a snippet of conversation drifted across the street to his ears – idle gossip, really. If he were anyone else, he might have dismissed it as both preposterous and unimportant: humans had been captured in the Paths of Stone. Dread tied itself about his legs like lead weights. He remembered all too well the vision the Oracle had given him.

Too soon he stood before the gates of Iron and Brass. They seemed taller than he remembered, somehow – or perhaps it was just the enormity of the quest he followed. With a deep breath, he stepped to the threshold and announced himself to the guards.

“Jorir the Cursed. You are expected.” The dvergr at the gate, the butt of his halberd still pressed against the ground, gestured behind him and another dvergr stepped forward out of the shadows. “You will be escorted to the Hall of the King, where you will humble yourself before our Lord.”

The guard plainly had nothing more to say to the outlaw who stood before him: he returned his hand to grip his halberd and stood in stoic silence, staring out at the road.

Jorir harrumphed but followed the other dvergr without further protest.

The Hall was torchlit and nearly choked with smoke. In spite of that, it was as full as any alehouse at supper – a crude mockery of merriment. Some of the faces he recognized: others were new. Jorir wondered if he had become too accustomed to the manners of the surface folk in his century-plus in Midgard: he could not understand how Lord Soggvar tolerated it. He kept his face neutral as his guard led him towards the Seat of the Thane.

Thane Soggvar slumped in his throne, bored or ill or both, looking ill-tempered. Jorir had a sinking feeling he knew exactly how this was going to go. He cleared his throat and bowed.

“My Lord, I have returned, as requested.”

Soggvar glared down at him from his Seat. He looked unnaturally pale for a svartdvergr, and his skin had taken on a bluish tone. “Welcome home, son of the mountains. We have expected you.” The voice was filled with scorn.

Jorir shifted his shoulders, unable to fully control the reaction. If anything, he looked worse than he had in the vision. “I pray you forgive my tardiness, milord.”

Soggvar snorted. “We have endured. What have you discovered during your long exile?”

The sneering tone was impossible to miss. I am too late. This is too similar. “I have discovered the Cursebreaker. The Oracle tells me he will be able to free this land.”

“Well! Cause for celebration indeed! Bring out the mead! …Pah! Oracles. Alfen soothsayers. What need have we of such nonsense?” Soggvar bared his teeth in what Jorir thought was supposed to be a grin. It looked more than slightly predatory. “In the morning, we will make sacrifices, and all will be right in Nilthiad.”

Jorir thought his heart was about to leap from his chest. This was following the vision-test far too closely for Jorir’s liking. He had to wet his lips before he could speak. “My lord?”

Movement from the shadows behind Thane Soggvar’s throne drew his attention. In spite of himself, knowing what he was about to see, Jorir looked.

Another dvergr, dressed in the furs of a shaman, stepped forward out of the shadows. The engraved golden medallion of one of the Thane’s top advisors glittered in the torchlight. If Thane Soggvar looked half-dead, this shaman looked positively cadaverous. He whispered something in Soggvar’s ear, and the Thane nodded.

No. I know what comes next. Please, by the justice of Tyr and the honor of Thor, let this next bit be wrong!

A commotion stirred in the back of the hall, from the same doors that Jorir had just been escorted through. Reluctantly, he turned to look, just in time to see someone throw ale in the face of the human who now stood in the back of the hall, chained as a prisoner. Another quickly followed, but not quickly enough to keep Jorir from seeing a shock of red whiskers on the man’s chin. Resolved, Jorir looked slowly up at the human’s face, knowing quite well who he would see.

Prince Einarr watched Jorir levelly, his proud gaze never faltering.

Jorir’s breath caught. All his worst fears were, in this moment, confirmed.

The random gossip was true. Lord Einarr had, indeed, done something stupid. And he had arrived far too quickly to have been brought all the way from the dungeons, which meant that somehow, they knew.

Thane Soggvar knows I’m tied to this man. Which means the cult knows.

Which meant that everything he’d worked for just got that much harder.

The dvergr standing to either side of Einarr began walking toward the head of the hall. Einarr, chained as Jorir knew he would be, moved with them, ignoring the jeers of the other dvergr in the Hall.

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.

 

Thane Soggvar turned to the advisor standing behind the throne to his left – a cadaverous shaman Jorir did not recognize. In that same moment, his attention was caught by a figure who very much did not belong in this hall: an elven woman in white, her tall and willowy figure exaggerated by the short, stocky dwarves filling this hall. No-one else took any notice of her, but Jorir thought there was something familiar about her flowing white gown and long golden locks.

When he turned back to the hall another figure had joined them, looking nearly as out-of-place as the elf did. He stood tall, tanned as a sailor and strong in the way of the wolf, but beer soaked his otherwise well-groomed beard, turning the shock of red a dirty brown. Lord Einarr watched Jorir levelly, his proud gaze never faltering even as the contents of another tankard were thrown in his face. The dwarves to either side of Einarr moved, and it was only when Einarr moved with them that Jorir realized his liege lord was shackled.

Horror rose in his breast. No! He opened his mouth to protest, but he was cut off.

Thane Soggvar rose from his throne and took a step towards their captive. “So this is the human barbarian I was told wandered our halls. Bring him forward.”

“My Lord…” Jorir ventured. No-one so much as glanced his way except for Einarr, whose level stare carried a challenge on the back of its disappointment.

“I don’t know how you came here, human, but your kind has no place in my Hall.”

“My Thane.” He tried again, more forcefully this time.

The cadaverous dwarf whispered something in Soggvar’s ear and the Thane nodded.

Jorir blinked in the same moment his Thane began to speak again. When he opened his eyes, the scene had changed.

Jorir now stood in the chapel field, a meadow half-way up Eylimi’s Mountain, above the mines. In the center of the meadow, in a direct line from the chapel doors, stood a stone slab carved with runes and dedicated to the gods of sea and storm. There had been no such thing here when Jorir had left, but the blood-stained granite had plainly seen heavy use in the pair of centuries since. Jorir’s kinsmen stood about the altar, awaiting the presentation of the sacrifice, but he heard no livestock.

Dread sank like a stone in his gut: there was only one way this was likely to go.

A murmur arose from the crowd around him. He turned and saw his kinsmen parting to allow three figures through. Two guards, and the sacrifice.

Einarr.

The man he had sworn his life to for so long as he had use of it. Impulsively, but sincerely. And the man who could save not just himself but the entire holding.

And the man he called Thane was about to sacrifice him to the gods.

Jorir’s feet felt rooted in place, and he could not tear his eyes away from his lord’s face. Bloodied, as though he had been beaten in the dungeon that Jorir had failed to save him from. An iron band was clasped about his neck, and a chain led from it to the hand of one of Einarr’s escorts.

Einarr turned cold blue eyes to Jorir, and the weight of their accusation jolted him out of his shock. He ran forward to the clear space in front of the altar where Soggvar stood with his unfamiliar advisor, somehow looking even more deathly under the morning light.

Two steps from the old king, Jorir fell on his knees and pressed his forehead into the grass. “My lord, please do not do this.”

“Do not do what?”

“When I left, we did not even have this altar. Now you are about to sacrifice a man on it?”

“Blood sacrifices have placated the gods and allowed us to continue our work.”

“But men? Are there no cattle? Have we descended to savagery?”

“The human is a trespasser here and no connection to any of us. I fail to see the problem.”

Now Jorir looked up, betrayal warring with shock in his eyes. He could find no rational response to the implications of his Thane’s assertion. “My Lord, he is the Cursebreaker! If you sacrifice him, it will never end!”

Soggvar turned his head to allow his deathly shaman to whisper in his ear.

“The sacrifice of the Cursebreaker is what the gods demand of us. Step back.”

“My lord, I cannot.”

“Step back.”

“Who is this shaman, my lord? Why does he pour poison in your ears?”

“He is my priest, blacksmith. Return to your place.”

“My lord, I have sworn!” The words ripped from his mouth. “He is my liege lord, and my friend. I cannot allow you to sacrifice him.”

“You have renounced your clan?” Distance had filled the thane’s voice, the sound of surprise and disappointment.

“No, my thane.” He rose, unbidden, not caring anymore if he incurred Soggvar’s wrath. “But since you say the gods demand the sacrifice of a man, let them take this cursed soul instead of his.”

Silence filled the meadow.

“Everyone here is bound by a grim fate – no less is he. I have sworn my life to his service and I have sworn my life to the clan. Therefore, my blood should serve just as well as his, and the curse shall not trouble me in the afterlife. I shall sup with the gods, and perhaps see your true selves again, for your ‘priest’ leads you astray, my king.”

“And now you claim to understand the will of the gods? You, a common smith?”

“Not as such. But blood sacrifice has never been a part of our ways, and your priest advises you to murder the man I was told might be able to save us. What else could that be but the influence of Hel?”

Thane Soggvar opened his mouth to speak and froze. Silver bells rang out over the meadow.


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