The light no longer reached the water’s edge when the sound of wet footfalls against the stone floor of the cave began to echo behind them. Einarr wished he could be surprised, but if the monster had given up that easily he doubted the dvergr would have bound it. That it was bound to the area was almost certain: probably they were lucky they hadn’t run into it while they were swimming.

The footfalls did not seem to be gaining on them, or at least not very quickly, but Einarr could already hear a new problem from up ahead: howling wind.

What now? At this rate, he was going to start looking for deadfalls around every corner. Einarr took a deep breath, considering. The passage seemed reasonably wide here, even if it was still far too short for comfort. “Everyone hears that, right?”

Nods all around.

“Who feels like they’re in any condition to fight?”

“Well, if we have to…” Thjofgrir shrugged.

“So then it’s safe to say, even after our little impromptu nap, none of us are really in great shape?”

“That is my impression as well,” Kaldr answered.

Einarr nodded. The slapping noises had grown louder. “Then if we’re not in any condition to fight whatever that is, we need to pick up the pace. Go!”

None of them needed to be told a second time, even if Runa did still look dangerously pale under the light of his shield. Naudrek took long, loping strides even in the cramped conditions, and if Runa had to scramble to keep up she did still manage.

A long, low chirp echoed out through the tunnel behind them. Whatever it was, it sounded big. Big, and inhuman.

“I don’t suppose there’s anything you can do to slow it down?” Naudrek asked over his shoulder.

“You want me to use more runes now? Right after my clumsy circle almost got us eaten?”

“I for one would rather handle this the old-fashioned way,” Kaldr put in. Einarr had to agree this time. He’d use them again if he had to, but if they could throw their pursuer off without it would be better.

They held no pretense of stealth, but Einarr thought the creature that pursued them was not likely tracking them by sound anyway.

As they loped along, Einarr had his eyes open for any sort of a side passage or some loose rock – anything to slow it down. The dvergr had promised them death for entering these tunnels, but what sort of prince would Einarr be if he simply accepted such a thing?

The passageway stretched on. The light from his shield only illuminated a few paces ahead of Naudrek at the pace they were keeping: they could stumble into nearly anything this way, and it was sure to be at least as deadly as the creature behind them. Einarr stretched out his arms to drag his fingers along the walls. If they could find a crack or a crevice, like the one that had led them to the hall of pits and the stairway down, perhaps they could give the monster the slip. His fingers would find an opening long before his eyes did, under these circumstances.

The frog-like chirrup echoed through the hall again. Einarr didn’t know what would make a noise like that, but he was entirely certain he did not want to meet it.

Naudrek started to quicken his pace again, but Einarr slowed him again. He could hear Runa panting behind him already. Any faster, and one of them would have to carry her – which wouldn’t actually gain them any speed. Not for the first time, he wished he’d had a good reason to insist she stay home, and take Eydri instead. Then he wouldn’t be risking his wife and his heir in this mad journey.

His fingers caught on a sharp edge.

Before he thought about it, he moved his fingers to his mouth to suck at the blood that welled up from the cut. It was nothing serious, he thought, but neither was it an actual passage they could take advantage of. And now the creature would have the scent of his blood. Brilliant move, Einarr.

He shook his head and jogged on after Naudrek. There was nothing they could do about that now, and it would stop bleeding soon enough so he could keep feeling for a side-passage.

When they came to an actual fork in the path, Einarr was delighted.

“Go about fifteen paces down one leg, then we double back and take the other,” he instructed Naudrek. They would lose some of their lead, but if he was right that the hunter could smell them it might well throw it off their trail.

Another idea struck him. “Vali – can you obscure our trail?”

“How do you mean?”

“I think it’s got our scent. Can you cover it?” He was starting to feel a little winded, himself.

The apparition frowned, floating backwards just in front of Naudrek. “I can try? I can’t say I’ve ever tried something like that before.”

“Try, then. When we start down the second fork, try to make sure it goes down the first one.”

“Sure thing, chief.” Vali winked out of sight just as Naudrek was turning them around to double back.

Einarr thought he could hear the scraping of claws against the stone. Please let this work.

It chirruped again. It was definitely closer, but still not so close that he could see it in the shield light.

As they turned, he scooped Runa up into his arms and breathed one word to them all: “Run.”

At their new, breakneck pace, they all skidded a little making the turn into the second fork of the path, but they made the turn. What’s more, they caught no glimpse of the beast on their trail.

About thirty paces down the second passage, Vali popped up in front of them again. “I’ve done what I can. It won’t fool it forever, though, and it’s going to be mad when it catches the trail again.”

Einarr paused long enough to set Runa back on her feet, and then they were moving again at Naudrek’s ground-eating lope.

“So what did you do?”

The ghost shrugged. “I made it colder? I don’t really know how to describe it. I also hid your light.”

Einarr nodded, and none of them slowed. They still had no idea how to get out of here, and the farther behind they left the beast the better.

The walls became rougher, and a little looser, when a series of chirrups echoed through the halls at ear-piercing volume, followed by the crash of stone.

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 guardian? What do you mean?” Kaldr’s brows lowered.

“Just that.” Runa sighed. “The High Roads of Ljosalfheim require magical knowledge particular to the alfs to even find, let alone enter. The dvergr will be no more keen to allow mortals into their realms: if the entrance to the paths is a physical place, it stands to reason that there would be gates or guardians or such, if only to keep treasure-hunters at bay.”

Einarr hummed. “Given that Ystava took me along the High Roads, the dwarves – especially the svartdvergr – may well be less welcoming of outsiders.”

Kaldr nodded. “Then we must be even more on our guard.”

“Agreed. Vali, we’ll be counting on your sharp eyes.”

“I haven’t got any eyes, though?”

Einarr rolled his own. “However it works for you, then. We couldn’t have got past that kraken without you.”

The ghost smirked even as he started up into the air. “Sure couldn’t.”

As Vali rose up to hover, almost invisible, in the air above the deck, Kaldr cleared his throat. “I was actually hoping you could give us some idea what else we might be facing.”

She offered a chuckle, but looked as though she regretted it immediately. “I’m afraid I haven’t the foggiest… Einarr, be a dear and get the waterproof satchel from my things? There should be some peppermint in there.”

“Peppermint?”

“To settle my stomach.”

Einarr was halfway across the deck to their awning when Vali called down. “You’re all looking for a barren island, right?”

“That’s right”

“I found one. Bearing northeast from here, just past the horizon.”


The island Vali found was massive – easily as large as the stories told of some of the larger Imperial lands. As they approached, it became plain what the next gate to pass was: they had to find the entrance first. There may have been some mosses and lichens that called the island home, but from the sea this was land that appeared to support nothing. Dry, reddish-brown dirt spread over its entire surface, broken only by the rocks that lay strewn across the plain. They had to sail for an hour just to find a beach where the Villgås could land.

Around them, everything was eerily quiet. There did not even appear to be shore birds, which put Einarr on edge. He could think of two reasons, now, why the island would be uninhabited: the kraken, and whatever it was that kept the birds away. When he vaulted over the bulwark to help beach their boat, the splash of their boots in the water and the gentle rushing of the waves were the only noises he heard.

Even the scraping of the gangplank as Thjofgrir slid it into place seemed unnaturally loud. Einarr gave Runa his hand as she descended the plank, but his attention was on the land around them.

Vali was already ashore. Naudrek carried his jar: if they didn’t intend to leave the ghost behind, they would need it.

“Did you see anything when you were up above?” Einarr asked him, but Vali shook his head.

“Afraid not. Nothing but rock and dirt and glacier.”

Einarr grunted. While it was entirely possible that there was magic keeping creatures away from this place, it still stood his hair on end. He looked up, checking the path of the sun through the sky. Mid-afternoon. Fine. “All right, everyone. Unload everything – and I do mean everything – off the Villgås and make camp. I’m going to set up a ward. It should mean nothing bothers the boat while we’re exploring, but it’ll keep us out too in the interim. And be cautious. This place could just be warded, or it could be that something nasty lives here we just haven’t seen yet.” He hummed, considering. “Vali, I’m going to be relying on you again. While we’re setting up here, scout around. Make sure there’s nothing hiding nearby that will try to sneak out and bite us in our sleep.”

The ghost smirked. “What, and miss all the fun of unloading water casks? How will I ever bear up?”

“You mean miss the chance to taunt the rest of us, don’t you?” Einarr half-chuckled at the thought of Vali popping up out of the lid of one of the casks, then shook his head. Vali was a joker, which was good, but losing precious supplies to a joke would not be. “There’ll be time enough for your japes once we’re settled in for the night.”

“Aye, sir.” Vali’s amused chortle carried back over the empty ground as he floated off on his mission.

Once he was safely out of earshot,Kaldr leveled a flat look at Einarr. “You make the most interesting friends, my lord.”

“Indeed. A cursed blacksmith, a ghost in a jar, a magic-hating strategist… makes life more fun, doesn’t it?”

Kaldr’s only reaction to hearing himself included on that list was a slight widening of the eyes before his normally calm expression returned. “Indeed.”

Runa took Vali’s jar from Naudrek and placed it firmly on the ground while the other four climbed back aboard the ship and began unloading. Einarr, meanwhile, took a sharp-edged rock from the ground and used it to begin drawing a ward very similar to the one he had used on the Heidrun at Thorndjupr. While he worked, he was dimly aware of the tramp of boots up and down the gangplank. After a while, as he was nearly finished, he heard Runa’s sweet voice begin to sing – nothing in particular, that he could tell, although the cheerful tune still lifted his spirits.

He would give them the afternoon and evening to rest and recover from their narrow escape the day before. Tomorrow would bring hard travel of a different sort, and unknown dangers besides. For tonight they could be merry, and he could finally celebrate Runa’s good news.

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.