The two days of waiting dragged out until they felt more like two weeks, but at last Brandir had matters arranged to his satisfaction. The eight of them would be the only ones to venture into the Mount, while a rather sizable number of dvergr caused a distraction in Nilthiad proper.
The path to the Mount from the bathhouse where they hid was long and circuitous, but there was little to be done about that. This area had apparently always been rough, and before the Cult of Malúnion wormed its way into power the Mount had been an especially rich gold mine – on the outskirts, yes, but nearly on the opposite side of the city.
So it was that, as the afternoon began to wear on into evening, the cloaked and hooded figures of four dvergr and four men slipped out of a friendly bathhouse and into one of the narrow footpaths that wound between buildings, carrying little traffic and often well-shielded from view.
Often, however, was by no means entirely. The sun of Myrkheimr – dimmer and redder than the sun of Midgardr, but somehow hotter – was still well above the horizon when their footpath led them to a wide-open field, well-trodden and fallow. They halted, still in the shadow of their alley, while Mornik scanned ahead.
“The proving ground,” Brandir muttered.
Einarr’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Proving ground? What on earth are they proving?”
“Pah.” Gheldram chuckled. “Mettle, mostly. But some of the older smiths – the ones deep in Thane Soggvar’s confidences – have been working on something big the last few decades. Every once in a while they’ll kick the duelists out. Not much after that, there come some rather deafening roars.”
“That sounds… troublesome,” Kaldr mused.
“But also promising.” Einarr’s mind had gone immediately to the Empire’s spigots of sea-fire that had sent many a raider down in an impromptu funeral ship. Were the dvergr developing something similar?
Mornik stood and dusted his knees. “I think we’re clear. Couldn’t see the whole field, though.”
“If your distraction is doing its job,” Naudrek muttered. “There won’t be anyone but us and maybe the odd farmer’s daughter this far out.”
“If.” Brandir started forward again. “We can’t take that for granted, and you know it.”
They all streamed out of the alley single-file, then moved to walk two abreast across the field. After some brief jockeying about, they put all the humans in front. Behind them, the dvergr marched, their axes in hand, in hopes that the men would be taken for prisoners.
It would have worked beautifully if the dvergr who came spilling out of the wood on the far side of the field had been soldiers, or even temple acolytes. Instead, Einarr and Thjofgrir found themselves face-to-face with the (equally surprised) leaders of a gang of thieves.
For a long moment, the two groups stood staring at each other before one of the thieves drew himself up to his full height, bristling.
“Hey now, what’s the meaning of all this? This is our turf. If those thralls are your spoils, you’d best be turning them over to us now.” He looked right past the four humans to the dvergr standing behind. Einarr bristled but bit his lip. Their ruse would not be helped if he protested his status here.
Brandir and Gheldram both blustered forward.
Gheldram puffed up his chest. “Thralls? These are the humans those thrice-cursed apostates freed! I fear the god’s wrath if we do not take them back.”
The thief who had been speaking sized Thjofgrir up like he was a cow. “You expect me to believe that a big lummox like that escaped? You’re no Acolyte – but your crew must be new. Hand them over, or I’ll show you just who’s on top in the back streets.”
With a sigh, Brandir tugged at the heavy chain around his neck. “We haven’t time for this. If we must fight, then let’s get it over with.”
The other dvergr – even Mornik, whom Einarr would not have expected – also made a show of drawing attention to their matching chains. One or two of the thieves ’ gang blanched, but not their leader.
“So that’s how it’s going to be, then. Fine.” He turned back to his men – there were at least twelve of them, but under the circumstances it was difficult to be sure. “Take the humans, kill the rest. Those chains’ll fetch a pretty price.”
With a toothy grin, Einarr drew Sinmora. Kaldr, Thjofgrir, and Naudrek all drew their weapons, as well. That was when the bandit leader seemed to realize he’d miscalculated.
It was too late.
One on one, a dvergr could usually outmatch a human of similar experience. They were stronger, heartier, and despite their short stockiness, they were often faster. Dvergr blacksmiths had an additional advantage: their profession trained their strength, without diminishing the rest, and they were in high demand in Midgard, which meant they often had seen combat.
Twelve thieves against four dvergr smiths, the smiths might have had a rough time. The bandit’s mistake, however, was in discounting the humans.
Five minutes later, the gang of thieves had been given a sound drubbing and sent on their way – hopefully wiser for the experience. Brandir had given them instructions, but Einarr doubted very much if they would carry them out. Then, the group of eight set on its way again.
Once they were out of the exposed field, Einarr chuckled. “Hey, Jorir. Remember the last time we gave a group of would-be thieves a lesson like that?”
Jorir chuckled, too. “That I do. Wonder if these’ll be as helpful.”
Myrkheimr’s moons were a trio of small, rough affairs, as though the real moon had been split into pieces and they were all that remained. Still, though, it provided some light in the night as they drew near the holy place of the cult in Nilthiad.
A wide-open space had been cleared around the path to the Mount’s entrance, and the path was a broad, shallow staircase made of white marble. Glimmers of gold peeked out from the joins. Tall, fluted columns lined the staircase, and at its base – as well as every ten feet of its length – were stationed a pair of guards. Acolytes of the temple, Mornik said. In the distance, Einarr heard the sounds of battle coming from the city.
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