The giant’s steps fell like boulders as he entered the room and stopped. Einarr peeked around the treasure mountain he had ducked behind. The giant stood, his blue-white body draped about with filthy furs, and stared at the now-empty pedestal with eyes as black as midnight. Einarr bit off a silent curse. All thirty-plus feet of the giant had stopped immediately in front of the door, and thanks to the dwarf he knew Einarr was in here somewhere.

“Come out, little man.” The giant’s voice boomed from above. “You return what you stole now, I can still let you go.”

What sort of fool does he take me for? Einarr waited, crouching behind his stack. Sooner or later, the jotün would move, and then he could make a break for it. The odds were high that only place the jotün would ‘let’ Einarr go was a stewpot.

A tree-trunk leg lifted and fell with the familiar feeling of an earthquake. “If you don’t come out, I will find you!”

Like hel you will. A second foot-quake rattled the treasure mountain over his head. Einarr risked another glance around toward the door. Just a little farther…

The tree-trunk leg lifted, and the pile of metal Einarr hid behind rattled again. Einarr dashed for the gap.

“My lord, there he goes!”

I should have killed that dwarf. Nothing for it now but to run and hope. His odds of surviving a fight with a giant were nonexistent. He was under the threshold of the door now, though, but the giant’s steps were already shaking behind him. He cast a look over toward the dwarf’s door.

And saw the fimbulvulf guarding it. That’s what it had to be doing. The wolf’s eyes tracked Einarr, its ears pricked, but it did not move from its spot laying against where he knew the door to be. When the wolf bared its fangs, Einarr changed trajectory. There has to be another way out. The front door was shut tight, and no light shone from beneath it.

The crackle of fire caught Einarr’s attention, off to the side of the room, and the bubbling of broth. Even if there was no way out from the kitchen there was probably at least a place to hide. To get there, however, he had to cross most of the width of the hall, and the pounding of Fraener the Jotün’s steps was far too close for comfort.

Einarr raced under the table, trying not to trip over the chewed remains of bones. He risked a glance over toward the wolf. It growled, and he could see the muscles in its haunches coiled for a lunge. He swallowed a yell and poured on more speed.

There. Einarr cornered hard left. He was now separated from the relative security of the kitchen by a mere twenty feet of open space. Einarr pulled reserves of speed from his legs he hadn’t known were there.

The wolf bounded to its feet, lunging under the table. The Jotün was only a moment away. Einarr dove into the space under the door, too short for the wolf’s snout, and rolled free on the other side.

The kitchen was dominated by an iron cauldron, which was what he had heard bubbling over the blaze that burned hot enough to make it hard to breathe. More sacks and crates were stacked against the walls in here. More interesting, though, was the small door he thought he saw in the wall through the haze of fire.

The wolf growled outside the door, and Einarr could hear it scratching as though it was trying to get its paw in after him. No time to lose. He darted into the gap between a pile of sacks and a crate of onions as big as his head.

The door flew open just as Einarr was slipping into the narrow gap between the crate and the wall and he cursed himself silently. He hadn’t gotten a good look, but he thought there’d been a gap in cover around that little wooden portal.

The sound of snuffling near the gap he had just slipped through warned him against staying put. Einarr sidled the other direction, stepping as softly as he could on the uneven footing of the bottom lip of the crate.

“Is that where our little rat is hiding, then?” The jotün’s laugh was like a thunderstorm.

Einarr came to the corner of the crate and dashed across the gap between it and the next one. For the moment, the wolf still growled at the original gap. Einarr took that as his opportunity to put some space between them. This crate, too, was too close against the wall to allow him to run, and so he scooted sideways through the narrow gap toward his goal on the back wall.

The wood beneath his feet shook. A cloud of flour – or perhaps just dust – shook free. The crate began to move. Einarr looked up to see the enormous blue-white fingers of the jotün gripping the wood above his head.

Einarr inwardly cursed as the crate seemed to fly in an arc through the air. He could see his goal now, but waves of heat from below warned him against the jump.

All he has to do is give this box one good shake and I’m done for, though. Rather than risk being shaken into the stewpot, Einarr stepped off his now-moving ledge and dropped to the floor – far nearer the fire than was comfortable, but not in it.

The flagstones seemed to rush up toward him far more quickly than Einarr liked. He allowed himself the luxury of closing his eyes, just for a moment. When he opened them, he flexed his knees to absorb the coming impact.

Just as soon as his boots touched the flagstone he was moving again, dashing for the dwarf-height portal in the wall.

The fimbulvulf saw him almost immediately, snarling and yipping after him but unwilling to go any closer to the cookfire than he already was. He thought he heard a confused rumble from the jotün, but between the noise of the wolf and the sound of the fire he could not be sure.

That the jotün was unwilling to toss or drop the box saved Einarr’s skin.

There were two portals, he saw now that the fire was not obscuring his vision. One of them would be waist-high on the jotün who was still turning to release his burden. The other was shoulder-height on Einarr, and had a cord attached to the top but no handle. Praying to Eira for her blessing in rescuing the torc, Einarr yanked on the cord.

The wooden door swung down. Einarr ducked, fearing that he was about to be pinned. Instead, it stopped half-way. The smell of refuse wafted from the opening.

The jotün had freed his hands now. His foot was raised, and would in only a moment fall on this side of the cooking fire.

Einarr flung himself into the stinking darkness, followed by the sound of the jotün’s thunderous laugh.


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After what felt like an eternity of creeping, during which he kept expecting to hear the creak of hinges or feel the vibrations of the giant’s steps on the floor, he made it to the pillar on which he had glimpsed his goal.

It was not ivory, he saw now that he stood before it, but instead a rough limestone, and thick enough to hide him from anyone standing at the door. Up we go.

What should have been an easy climb was rendered arduous by his inability to move horizontally around the pillar without exposing himself in front of the open doorway. He was faced more than once with the choice between exposure and an inadequate grip. He chose the grip. His odds of weathering the fall were better than his odds of facing a jotün and escaping with his prize.

When Einarr was about halfway up, he ventured a peek around the edge of the column. The doorway yawned more widely now than it had when he entered, but still he saw no-one. Sweat beaded on his brow, and he wished for a good enough grip to wipe his palms on his trousers as he once again placed the pillar firmly between himself and the door. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that there was nothing behind him but more of the giant’s gold.

Einarr climbed more quickly, now. He could admit, if only to himself, that the idea of being found by the jotün unnerved him. The sooner he accomplished his goal, the sooner he could escape the oversized, frigid Svartlauf.

His hands gripped the lip at the top of the pillar now. Einarr let his feet drop free of the ridges they clung to and swung backwards. This was the riskiest part, because from the moment he pulled himself up there he was vulnerable. By that same token, the longer he hung here the more likely his fingers were to slip.

Einarr heaved. The sleeves of his tunic tightened over his biceps as he hauled first his chin and then his chest over the lip of the pillar.

More than merely reflecting the sunlight slanting in through the room’s single window, the torc that rested on a velvet pillow on the pedestal seemed to shine with its own light. The pure white gold was braided into a ring, and at each knot a diamond was set. The ends of the torque were wrought into elegant dragon heads. On the inside of the arc, its name was inscribed with runes. Each rune was powerful in its own right. Taken together they were fearsome indeed.

For the jotün, it might have fit a pinky. For someone like Erik, the torc would have been just a hair too big to fit over his upper arm. Einarr, being a smaller man, could have worn it about his neck, although that would lead to no end of ribbing from the rest of the Vidofnings. He only hesitated a moment before slipping it around his neck. They still had to leave through the storm again, and they were down a man. A little ridicule was worth the gamble that it would ease their journey out. It felt unnaturally cool against his skin.

Einarr looked around. He could, of course, lower himself back over the lip and try to climb down the same way he came up. The problem being, climbing down over a lip was always more challenging than climbing up it, and there was always the possibility of finding a better way down.

Alas, the best possibility came in the form of a five-foot high stack of coins some feet back from the base of the pillar. With a running start he could probably make it, but he would also destroy all pretense at stealth for his escape.

He lowered himself off the edge of the pillar once more and reached out with a foot for the toehold he had used on the way up.

Einarr still clung to the side of the pillar when the ground shook violently. He clung to the stone with tense fingers. After a long moment, he exhaled. He moved a hand down towards the next ledge.

The shaking this time left Einarr hanging by the fingers of one hand. He looked down. A five foot drop isn’t so bad. Einarr let himself fall those last few feet, landing as softly as he could on the flagstone below. Then he ran as quietly as he could towards the door, making sure to keep a pile of treasure between him and the open passage as he went.

Einarr made it halfway across the room towards the door that way. He thought he might make it. And then a familiar voice struck his ears.

“I knew it, Master! They were after the Isinntog!”

Hel’s bells, it’s the dwarf. Resilient little bugger. Einarr turned on the speed now, aiming for a stack near the door to hide behind until the jotün had passed the threshold.

He wasn’t fast enough. Einarr was in the open space between two stacks when the giant’s foot dropped like a blue boulder into the treasure room.


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Back down the crates he went, dropping from board to board until his feet landed on flagstone once more. The room he needed was all the way across the hall. Dashing across the open floor was tempting, but such was the call an animal would make. That he had seen no sign of the jotün did not mean he could not be discovered. Better to slip around the edges of the room, where he could hide if the need arose, than to dash across the floor and be caught in the open.

As he dashed across the doorway of a room that smelled like smoke – a kitchen, perhaps – Einarr heard a deep, rumbling wheeze from elsewhere. It sounded similar to how he thought a mountain might breathe. Glad I didn’t just cut across the room. Someone’s there, and I’m not sure if I’d rather it were the wolf or Fraener. From there he was extra careful to step as quietly as his boots would allow on the flagstone.

The door to the treasure room stood barely ajar, although wide enough that a man could slip through with only a little squeezing. Inside, the treasure room was piled high with jewelry and coins and gems, most of it far too large for Einarr to contemplate taking with him. Still, though, Erik and Tyr deserved some reward for all of this.

He picked his way through the hoard, his eyes open for gifts for his crewmates even as he looked for the Isintogg. A string of rubies sized for a human woman would please Tyr’s wife the next time they made port in Ringvassoya, and so they went into his sack alongside a golden flagon for his father. He nearly mistook a gold-colored shield engraved with an eagle for a coin. Once he realized what it was, he slung it over his shoulder for Erik.

Erik should get something extra, too. He searched as he stepped carefully along between the piles of treasure. He has mistresses everywhere, it seems like, so something valuable… There. A large ivory ring – really more like a torque for a human – set with pearls. It clinked against the treasures already in his sack when he dropped it in.

Einarr froze when the sound of an indistinct voice carried into the treasure room. Either the giant was muttering to himself, or the dwarf had woken more quickly than Einarr expected, because even fimbulvulfs could not speak. Carefully, now, and mind your exit.

There was light in the room from outside, but climbing up to escape through a window with his prize was a daunting idea. Whether it was more daunting than racing across the floor of the hall while the jotün attempted to squash him remained to be seen.

He tiptoed around another haphazard pile of treasure, his eyes turned upward, looking for where the jotün might have decided to display a goddess’ torque. Surely an item like that, as magical as it was said to be, would merit a pedestal, at least.

He risked climbing one of the piles of gold coins for a better view of the room. The metal was slippery underfoot, coins the size of dinner plates sliding around as he tried to sneak up the side of a miniature mountain. There must be a stand, or something…

There. In the very center of the room, as far again from Einarr as he was from the door, a slender ivory pillar stood – fifteen feet tall if it was an inch. At its top, a tiny star caught the light and twinkled against the twilight of the treasure room. That has to be it. He looked down to begin his descent and stopped cold. The footing had been slippery on his way up: how would he get back down without alerting the giant to his presence?

Finally, he set his jaw. The shield he had claimed for Erik was big enough he could stand on it, and the slope of the pile was steep enough it should slide. The only concern was how many coins it would dislodge as he went. He had no better ideas, however. Einarr removed the shield from where he had slung it over his shoulder and held it against the coins beneath his feet as he put his first foot in front of where a man would carry it in battle. With a deep breath, he hopped forward with his back foot and leaned into the slope.

Einarr hardly dared breathe as his shield-sled carried him down the pile toward the floor in a jangle of sliding metal. The slide was over almost as soon as it had begun, and the sound of the shield moved from the tinkle of coins to the grating of metal on stone.

He let go of the edge of the shield and let momentum carry him forward three steps. Only then did he allow himself to exhale.

Einarr hefted the shield again and froze as a voice from outside once again reached his ears. He re-slung the gift and impromptu vehicle across his back and crept as quickly as he could to place another stack of treasure between himself and the door to the vault.

The floor vibrated twice, then stopped. Einarr tiptoed across the flagstones, being careful always to keep something between the door and himself. He was well and truly alone, here, and he did not rate his odds against a jotün highly.


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Einarr stood in the dirt ring cleared for glíma, studying his opponent. For a hundred feet around it the field was filled with people watching and cheering and drumming. Jarl Hroaldr and all those at Kjell Hall gathered around.

This occupied only a small fragment of Einarr’s attention. More important by far was the swarthy, salt-and-pepper brick of a man standing across the ring from him – Trabbi. The man’s chest and arms were just as muscular as Father’s, and while his beard was thick it was also short and neat. The two men wore only trousers and boots, and the breeze tried to raise goosebumps on their bare arms. Einarr dropped into a fighter’s crouch, and his much larger rival did the same. Among the Vidofnings, the only man smaller than Einarr was Sivid. If there was one fact of wrestling that had been impressed on Einarr, though, it was that size was not as important as it appeared to be.

“Begin!” Jarl Hroaldr gave the signal, and the two men charged to the center of the ring, their arms joining in the clinch.

Einarr’s arms strained against strength born of pulling fish from the sea. Trabbi pulled right and Einarr stepped in, allowing his opponent the throw. No sooner had his back touched the ground than Einarr kicked his legs back into Trabbi’s knees. Einarr sprang back to his feet as the older man fell. A hand reached out to grab his ankle and he danced backward.

Trabbi stood, not bothering to slap the dust off, and the crowd cheered. They moved into the clinch again. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa watching anxiously. He tried to put it from his mind.

Einarr slid his hands up his rival’s arms to clasp them behind the man’s head. The older man’s head lowered with little resistance. Einarr’s eyes widened when he realized what was about to happen. Trabbi abruptly let go of his shoulders and lunged forward, knocking the wind from his rival’s chest even as he took hold of Einarr’s wrist to wrench the arm backwards.

Einarr twisted around to avoid the break and kicked at Trabbi’s hip. The man jumped backwards, releasing his grip on Einarr’s arm. They both dropped back into a crouch and began circling the ring. The crowd cheered wildly, and Einarr couldn’t tell for who. He spat, watching his rival.

Trabbi started the charge this time, and Einarr saw his opportunity. He went low, driving his shoulder into his rival’s stomach and lifting Trabbi’s legs as he straightened. Einarr rolled into the throw. Trabbi’s momentum carried him over to land on his back with Einarr sitting on his chest.

“Yield,” Trabbi wheezed. “I yield.”

Einarr stood and helped the other man to his feet. The crowd went wild with cheering. Jarl Hroaldr had to shout to be noticed above the din. Eventually, it quieted enough that he could speak. “Victory goes to Einarr, son of Stigander, Captain of the Vidofnir. The betrothal between my daughter and Trabbi has been annulled, although what you thought you were defending her from eludes me.”

“The Lady Runa is a strong, intelligent woman, my lord. I defended her against a future she did not wish, and claim her in hopes of fulfilling one she does.”

“Forgetting, for a moment, the things we spoke of last winter: tell me, boy, what makes you think I will give her hand to you? Given your actions of the past week, why should I not have you executed? Banished?” Jarl Hroaldr’s voice was cold. “You ran away with my daughter and betrayed my trust in your own father. Why should I now entrust her to you?”

“I did only what I thought was right, based on the wishes of the Lady Runa herself. I ask you, what is worse – a lifetime, potentially short, of wandering, or a longer one with a mate you do not love, and who I think does not love you?”

Trabbi shook his head. “The boy is right. I’d have treated her kindly, of course, but it is no accident that I have not remarried.”

“Against my better judgement, I will not pronounce him a criminal. However, I shall require tasks of him if he wishes to court my daughter.”

“Name your task, my Jarl, and I shall do it.”

The Jarl nodded once. “But first, let us retire to the Hall. I seem to smell another snowstorm on the wind.”

***

Kjell Hall was abuzz that evening with drinking games and the excited chatter of men recounting the afternoon’s match. The Vidofnir was to sail the next morning in search of the Grendel, and Einarr sat near the head of the room with his father, Runa, and the Jarl.

“Since both your father and Trabbi forgive you, and I know my daughter well enough to recognize when something is her idea, I have decided on your first task.” The Jarl’s voice was level, and his tone suggested that the request would be eminently reasonable. Doubt chewed on Einarr’s stomach nonetheless.

“The goddess Eira was once possessed of a torc studded with diamond and fashioned of gold filigree so pure it shines white – the Isinntog. It is said to have power over ice and storms. You know it?” He waited for them to nod. “The Isinntog was given into the care of the elves of Skaergard many hundreds of years ago to await Eira’s awakening, but it was stolen from them by the jotün Fraener and taken to Svartlauf. Bring me the Isinntog, and it shall be your morning gift for Runa.”

Einarr paled a moment, then nodded boldly. Stealing the Isinntog from a jotünhall was supposed to be the easy task? “Certainly any jewelry less fine would be too drab for her. I will return with this treasure.”

The Jarl nodded; that was the response he’d expected. Stigander clapped him on the back, hard, with a hearty laugh. “Sounds like we each have our impossible quests then, doesn’t it? For you a legendary torc, for me a rogue ship that travels with the storms.”

Einarr laughed in agreement, although he could not put more than half his heart into it. “Is there a boat sufficient to carry me there and back?”

“Runa’s little skiff, if you can find a man or two willing to help you crew it.”

“That I think I can do. Father, may I take a few of my comrades for this?”

“If they’re willing to go.”

“Thank you, Father.” Einarr rose and left to ask some of his fellow Vidofnings who might be willing to join him on such a quest.


1.12 – Negotiations 1.14 – Setting Sail
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