“This way,” Jorir said and turned to lead them all further up the mountain.

Einarr turned to look back at the chaos they left in their wake. It had taken some real effort to ensure the acolytes hadn’t taken out a batch lot of dvergr whose only crime was in keeping to the true gods. Mornik – and a few others – had done an excellent job not only freeing them but arming them as they prepared Einarr for his dramatic ‘escape.’ Mornik himself, still evidently not quite recovered, had donned the robes of one of the fallen acolytes. Thus disguised, he had led Einarr out before the high priest could become too suspicious.

Now, their dvergr allies from the outside were holding their own against the circle of corrupted dvergr they faced. With some degree of confidence, Einarr returned his attention to follow his liegeman up the mountain. Everything behind them was well in hand.

As they left the battleground, Einarr turned once more to observe the fight behind them. Once again, the dvergr of Nilthiad stood up for their own defense to allow the Cursebreaker and his friends to do what they had come for. The defenders were on their back foot: in the center of the field, strewn with benches, Einarr could see that the greatest number of the fallen bore the gray skin of the acolytes or the crest of the Thane on their armor – or both.

“Vyssiní kyvernítis tou váthous!” A deep voice boomed over the field. Below, everyone froze. Kaldr and the others all turned to look, as well.

“Pigí káthe gnósis,” it intoned. Down below, the combatants began to move again, but the flow of the battle had changed. The men of the cult fought with renewed ferocity, and the ordinary men of the town were stalled in place.

“Ton opoíon ta plokámia katapioún óla ta prágmata!”

“No,” Jorir breathed, taking a step up next to Einarr.

“You recognize that voice?”

“Kráken-patéras ton nychión!” The cultists’ desperation and ferocity seemed to grow with every word the echoing voice spoke.

“Kraken?” Thjofgrir’s alarm was reasonable: Einarr had caught that word, too.

Jorir nodded. “Ever since we saw the Oracle, I’ve heard that voice in my sleep – regularly. That’s the high priest.”

“Me to sýmfonó sou se kaló!”

“We need to get back down there.” Einarr started back down the hill. He would not falter, and he would not allow more of his allies to fall like that. Kaldr and Naudrek took up places at either shoulder, and the others were only a pace behind.

“Desmévomai gia séna!” The voice echoed over the field, and Einarr felt the frigid depths of Hel in its reverberation. He rested his hand on Sinmora’s hilt.

“Vgeíte éxo kai pníxte tous anáxious…” The air itself seemed to tremble. Something was coming, and the cultists below had a good idea what. Their desperation put him in mind of the cultists who abandoned ship when they fought the svartalfr, just before the horrors that powered their vessel broke free.

He wasn’t going to make it in time. “Retreat!” The word tore from his throat. He didn’t know if anyone below heard him or not: the cultists were pushing back, and their allies were in danger of a rout.

“Me tis skoteinés sou alítheies!”

For just a moment, the world seemed to freeze around them. Then it was as though the air itself split in two. Right above the altar, a tear seemed to open in reality, and on the other side of it they could see the blue-black of the deep sea.

Morale broke, then, in the combatants down below. All of the combatants. Those who bore the Thane’s sigil and those who wore the robes of the Acolytes screamed. Some of them dropped to their knees, clutching their heads.

The uncorrupted dvergr simply broke and ran, but since the cultists were no longer even trying to fight them their rout was merely an escape.

Einarr felt sick to his stomach – and very glad Runa waited on them at the bathhouse, about as far from the chaos here as it was possible to be in Nilthiad – when several of the acolytes on their knees began to transform. Their skin went from ashen all the way to the sickly dark green he remembered from the corrupted beasts he had fought before. Some of them sprouted extra limbs, the tentacles appearing in a burst of black blood. Others’ heads morphed to resemble squid. Briefly, Einarr wondered if one of them had transformed in public at some point, given their name among outsiders.

He had very little time for the spectacle on the ground, however. Despite the inky darkness of the other side of the rift, he could see the shadow of a creature. It was either growing larger or getting closer, and he couldn’t tell which.

When a claw, crimson as a cooked lobster’s, pushed through and took hold of the edge of the rift, Einarr became certain it was getting closer: nothing became that massive that quickly.

The edge of the claw was jagged, and he could see it tearing the rift wider as it pulled the rest of its body forward. Before long, a second claw attached itself to the other side of the rift, and the creature began to emerge. The arms attached to those claws were more like squid tentacles, but just as red as the claws themselves.

Einarr began to run. From the sound of footsteps behind him, the others were as well.

Before long the head emerged. It seemed to look about the field of battle around itself, but that should have been impossible: neither eyes nor eye sockets were visible. It opened its beak, mouth tentacles writhing around it, and let loose a shriek like nothing Einarr had heard before.

It didn’t seem possible that they were so far away from the altar, but no matter how much they ran they never seemed to close the distance.

Now that its head was free the shoulders followed soon after, and the rest of its body slipped from the rift like some sort of perverse birthing. The creature that loomed before them, dominating the field, was a crimson-scaled fish from the waist down, covered in spines. Its torso was vaguely human and hugely muscled, and the two main clawed tentacles were not the only ones it possessed. It shrieked again and lashed out, scooping up friend and foe alike into its monstrous maw.

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 week passed, and Einarr’s sacrifice made no difference in the number of people brought in by the Thane’s men. No one who went in ever came out. But, at the end of the week, the “auspicious day” was set. Those who remained on the outside would be ready in plenty of time.

When the day arrived, the allied dvergr took up their axes and their maille and took up position around the field of sacrifice on the back side of the Holy Mount. Jorir went alone, as though he were attending the event, armed as was his right – but perhaps carrying a little more than one might ordinarily expect.

He needed to be here, both for the sake of subverting the vision and to ensure Einarr was not unarmed when the time came. He felt wildly out of place as he approached the front row of benches before the altar. He was the only dvergr there who did not bear the gray complexion of those corrupted by Malùnion. Still, although it made his skin crawl, he took up a position near the front and sat, ignoring those around him.

It seemed like they were kept waiting for hours more, although it couldn’t have been. Jorir was disturbed to realize how many had fallen to the Squid. When the trickle of observers finally stopped, a pair of acolytes in white robes bearing golden censers filled with foul incense came up the center aisle. Behind them walked the cadaverous shaman of Jorir’s vision, and behind him was Thane Soggvar. The Thane took his place in front of the benches for his men while the shaman, his trusted advisor, climbed up to the altar itself and turned to address his captive audience.

Jorir was struck once again by how unfortunate the choice to paint themselves as representatives of the light was: the white cloth and the gold trim rendered their sickness starker by contrast. Skin, which ordinarily would have seemed ashen, now looked as gray as the grave, and the shaman’s eyes were pools of blackness.

The shaman raised bony hands towards his captive audience and a smile floated over his sunken features. “Rejoice, my children,” he called out over the crowd. Jorir thought he could see knees shaking under the shaman’s robes, but the voice was as strong and clear as ever.

“Rejoice, for the day of salvation is at hand! For today we will purge from our ranks the unbelievers, and we will offer a sacrifice which will please our Lord most greatly. The Cursebreaker himself has offered his body to us!”

The audience was silent. The shaman went on in that vein for quite some time. Jorir found himself tuning him out just to maintain focus on the task before him. Had Jorir listened, he would have grown far too angry to have stuck with the plan.

When it felt like the shaman was finishing up, the first words that caught Jorir’s ears were “…And soon we will move south and take the lands of the földvergr – lands which should rightfully have been ours! – And we will unite all dvergr as we should have been from the beginning. Rejoice, for our salvation is nigh!”

The shaman waved his hand, and one of the acolytes struck a large chime that stood by the side of the stage.

“Bring forth the unclean, that their blood may feed our God!”

Jorir caught himself holding his breath. This was the true test. Would they, in fact, bring out Lord Einarr first, so that no more dvergr had to die? Or would he be forced to sit and watch as some of his kin were slaughtered in the name of this horror?

There was a long pause where nothing happened. Jorir saw annoyance flash on the old shaman’s face, and he started to motion the acolyte again.

Before the chime could ring a second time, however, a familiar-looking dvergr strode out. Behind him, in chains, walked the proud figure of Einarr, and Jorir felt he could breathe again. He could guess at what the delay was in the Squiddies’ pageant, but it didn’t matter.

The familiar-looking dvergr kept marching across the dais until the chains attached to Einarr’s cuffs pulled tight. Einarr had stopped, directly in front of the stone slab where they intended to slit his throat, and turned to face those in attendance. Jorir studied his face, but if Einarr had spotted him he made no sign of it.

“It is true that am here today to provide your salvation, but I warn you: it may not be as enjoyable a spectacle as you were expecting. In fact, I suspect you will find the entire experience rather unpleasant.” He raised his bound hands in front of his chest and, with one swift motion, jerked his arms down and to his sides. The shackles fell away, and even from where he sat Jorir could not tell if they had been unlocked or broken.

There was no time to speculate. In the next instant, he was on his feet and rushing the dais. Chaos erupted on the edges of the assembly as arrows rained down on the heads of those who were meant to be there.

Mornik, from his position closer to the edge of the stage, took the chain he still held and lashed the nearest acolyte with the shackles. The robed figure dropped like a stone.

Jorir pulled Einarr’s brokkrsteel maille out from where he carried it under his cloak, buckled to the shoulders of his own maille, and held it out to him. “I am glad to see you are well, milord.”

“Me, too.” Einarr grinned at him as he took the maille and pulled it over his head. Jorir already had Sinmora ready.

Einarr threw the baldric over his shoulder.

Kaldr, Naudrek, and Thjofgrir all rushed onto the stage now from their places with the ambushers. Brandir and Gheldram were both leading the assault on the assembly, and would not be joining them here.

“Is everything ready?” Einarr asked, freeing the ends of his hair from the maille.

“Hours ago,” Thjofgrir drawled. Naudrek chuckled, and even Jorir was forced to agree.

Now freed of his burdens, Jorir drew his own axe. “Let’s go, then.”

“Where are the Thane and the Priest?” Kaldr asked.

Jorir could think of very few directions they could have even tried to escape. The question was, which one was most likely? Then he shook his head: he knew where they were headed. “This way.”

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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

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

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

 

Einarr 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.”

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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.

 

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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