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.
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.”
“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.