Naudrek sniffed, and nodded, and was joined in agreement by Kaldr and Thjofgrir.

“Why fish?” Einarr asked. Whatever it was, they were sure not to like the reason.

“Maybe they want to bury us in mackerel?” Naudrek asked with a shrug and half a smile.

Even Kaldr chuckled. “Unlikely. But whatever the smell is coming from, I don’t think we really have a choice but to go on, do we?”

He was right: there was no way to go but forward, and had not been for quite some time – even if they could have gotten back out of this pit. Einarr nodded. “Be on your guard. Vali, give Runa a hand if you can. Everyone else, same as before.”

Runa gagged a little. “Faugh! That’s strong. Smells like a warehouse full of blubber.”

“At least it’s not… rancid… Dammit.” Einarr’s remembrance of the whaler’s warehouse on Langavik started a cascade, and suddenly he knew what they were smelling. “That’s a lot of whale oil. I don’t know what we’re going to find, for sure, but shields ready.”

A chorus of “Aye, sir,” traveled around the circle, and then they formed up.

The stairway down was broader than the passages above had been, so although Einarr couldn’t guess why he wasn’t going to complain. Rather than travel down single-file, he formed a circle of guards around Runa in the center, with himself on her left and Naudrek on the right while Kaldr and Thjofgrir took point and rearguard, respectively. Nothing would get to Runa if he had any say in the matter.

Down they went, cautiously, one step at a time with their shields held ready. The fish smell only grew stronger.

They had gone perhaps twenty steps down, deeper into the earth, when Einarr heard a popping sound from overhead. He tensed.

From the ceiling just ahead of Kaldr, from a divot that would ordinarily have looked just like part of the scrollwork, an intense blast of the fishy smell of whale oil was followed immediately by a gout of flame.

Runa ducked, throwing her arms up over her head instinctively. It was a good reflex, but in the moment unnecessary: Kaldr managed to raise his shield in time to block the blast of flame.

“Is everyone all right?” Kaldr asked as the last sparks fell out of the air.

Einarr glanced around at the rest of the group. “So it appears. How’s your shield?”

“A little singed, but it should hold up.”

“Good.” He frowned, contemplating a ward he had inadvertently taught himself in his time with the alfs. No good. No time, and I don’t think I could get all of us at once. “Let’s keep going. Eyes open, everyone.”

He was reminding himself as much as any of them. Any loose stone could trigger another blast of fire, so far as he knew, and he had no idea how quickly – or even if – it could burn again.

Fifteen steps further down, Einarr heard another pop.

“Shields!” He yelled, even as a gout of flame shot toward them – this time from the wall right next to him. He only barely managed to pivot in time to shield Runa, let alone himself, from the blast. He growled as the handle and boss of his shield heated against his arm, but not from any burn.

Einarr was beginning to understand why so many thought the dvergr intractable asses.

“Let’s move!” He bellowed. His voice echoed even over the dying fwoosh of flame. Vali vanished, almost certainly retreating into his jar on Runa’s shoulder.

The next blast came from behind. Thjofgrir did not escape unscathed: there was a smell of burning hair perceptible even over the smell of whale oil as he whirled to bring up his own shield against the onslaught. Runa, as the only one without a shield, patted out the sparks as the blast faded.

“My thanks, Lady.”

Then they were moving again, with no time for Runa to respond.

The stairway wound about and curved, much as the paths above had, and for all their hurry every handful of steps they would be forced to freeze and weather yet another blast of flame, from which direction none of them could say.

When a blast struck at them from near the floor ahead of them Kaldr, his face twisted in annoyance and, probably, pain (the boss of his shield was beginning to glow from the heat). “We’re doing this wrong,” he announced with his usual calm.

“What do you mean?” Naudrek was a little out of breath. Actually, it looked like they all were.

As the spout of flames seemed to retreat back into its origin, Kaldr took a big breath. “We’re treating this like a boarding action, but it’s not. Rather than racing ahead and praying we block the next shot of fire, why not go slowly and form a shield wall?”

It was a good idea. Einarr wished he’d thought of it himself… but he had spent most of his life as a freeboater. Kaldr had much more experience fighting on land than he did. He nodded his assent. “A solid plan. We’ll still need to protect Runa, though. Thjofgrir, are you comfortable going down backwards?”

The big man grimaced, but nodded his assent. “Don’t see as there’s much choice in the matter.”

With a shrug, Einarr looked over at his current Mate. “Say something if we need to rotate, then. Sorry, Runa, this might get a little snug.”

The men gathered shoulder to shoulder – the only way that four shields could form a shield wall around another person – and started back down the stairway.

Not one of them could tell what would trigger the next pop and gout of flame: there did not seem to be any loose stones, and no-one had tripped over anything – and yet, there was nothing magical about this. A concealed tube would spray forth whale oil at the same moment something struck a spark, igniting the oil.

As another gout of flame sprayed forth from near the ceiling, Einarr growled in annoyance. He’d had just about enough of this interminable stairway and its inexhaustible flamethrowers that were in the process of destroying their shields. Certainly he wouldn’t trust his in a battle after this – and if it weren’t outright destroyed, it might just glow forever, he was afraid. The char was already obscuring his light rune, and the light had in no way faltered. He’d caught his breath some time ago, but the awkward pace and the constant vigilance had rendered him altogether too conscious of the fatigue building in arms and legs.

The dvergr were certainly trying to make good on their promise of death to all intruders. Dammit, Jorir, this had better be worth it.

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Their vigil over Sivid’s work seemed to last for ages, even though the fact that no other guards arrived suggested he made fast work of the lock. A grinding of stone on stone signalled the opening of the door.

“We’re in,” Sivid confirmed.

All five men vanished through the doorway, with Einarr in the lead and Sivid bringing up the rear. The door closed behind them with the sound of stone on stone and a muffled click.

The narrow stair was ablaze with the blue-burning lanterns that illuminated the streets, but no guards waited inside to greet them. Einarr frowned, but did not hesitate: haste was their ally right now, and he was most of the way to the first corner when Sivid closed the door behind them.

Down they went, blades still drawn as they rushed for the bottom and the cell where Runa was held. Barri raced at his shoulder just a half-pace behind, aiming to strike at anyone who managed to dodge Einarr’s shield.

No guards rushed up to meet them.

Surely that couldn’t have been all of them, could it? Einarr scowled, now, and held up his shield to warn those behind him he intended to slow his descent. A handful of steps later the five came to a stop in the now eerily silent stairwell.

Einarr sheathed his sword and started looking about at the walls. “Something’s not right. There should be more of them.”

Sivid, too, was scowling. “You’re right. I don’t like this.”

The next lantern was two steps farther down from Einarr. He stepped down and reached for it. “Grab a light. Let’s not get stranded in the dark down there, at least.”

Then he was moving again, not running this time but still at a decent clip, the lantern held in place of his sword. If he was wrong he would have to do some quick juggling, but a certainty in his gut suggested he was not.

The silence continued all the way to the bottom of the stair. Einarr was beginning to feel as though he were in a pit rather than a castle dungeon, and the impression was not helped by the cold blue-purple lights they carried.

The bottom of the stair was a small antechamber carved from the living rock, much as the stairs themselves had been, with a single small door leading into a larger chamber. Einarr raised his lantern high as he stepped through, the feeling of wrongness from before slowing his steps.

The chamber walls curved off to either side, broken up now and then by a barred door, for as far as the light of their lanterns stretched. Einarr pursed his lips before moving off to the right, Jorir and Sivid in his wake, to begin peering into the cells. The Brunnings took the left-hand wall.

I’m missing something, Einarr thought after peering into yet another empty cell. Surely by now Runa should have realized they were there? Unless… A stone dropped in Einarr’s belly. What if they’d moved her after he and Sivid had retreated earlier?

A high-pitched, almost wheezing laughter rose from the edge of the darkness at the far side of the chamber. Einarr whirled around, lifting the lantern for a better look, but he needn’t have bothered. Another had flared to life, revealing a sallow-faced man with stringy hair and the armor of a guardsman. The ring of keys at his belt said he was a gaoler.

“Wheee heee hee,” he half-wheezed again. “Thought you’d come back, we did. Decided to show you our hospitality, we did.”

“What have you done with the Lady? Not six hours ago I heard her down here.”

“The lady, you say?” The ill-looking gaoler laughed again and nearly choked on the sound. “The lady is well taken-care of, sirs, and I’m afraid you’ve more important problems to concern yerselves with.”

A crooked grin, filled with crooked yellow teeth, spread across the gaoler’s face and he gave a strong tug on a rope that hung behind him. “Farewell, me hearties. Lord Urkúm sends his regards.”

The gaoler slid to the side and out of sight even as a much larger door behind him swung open. A primal scream rang out from beyond that door as out stumbled a hideous she-troll, a massive club clutched in her equally massive fist.

The she-troll screamed again, her eyes red with madness, and charged straight for Einarr, her bare dun breasts swinging pendulously with every step as she brought the club up in a two-handed grip over hair the color of dirty straw.

Einarr tossed his lantern at her head, not caring if it hit, and Sinmora rasped from its sheath. He bought himself just enough time to fling himself out of the way of her first strike with the tree-sized weapon.

Where did they find a troll? Einarr was quite certain he did not want to know the answer to that. No wonder, though, that there was no proper firelight to be had here. Trolls wouldn’t tolerate it, and neither would a good number of other monsters.

The troll bellowed again and swung the club over her head. She seemed to be staring at Jorir’s shield. Einarr swallowed against a dry throat as she swung and the hollow clang of wood on gold rang out in the chamber. The force of her swing knocked the dwarf back a good three feet, but he seemed otherwise unharmed.

If only we could have brought Reki with us… Einarr charged in at the troll’s back, knowing even as he did so that it was futile, hoping to buy the Brunnings time enough to do something about her. He hacked across her back with Sinmora. A thin line of dark blood appeared, and was just as quickly reabsorbed into her body. He spat a curse.

Sivid moved in now, slashing with blade and hand axe at once even as Jorir cut viciously at her knee. If the she-troll hadn’t been enraged before, she certainly was now.

The chamber grew brighter – not a lot, and not enough to change the quality of the light, but brighter – as the Vidofnings continued their futile sword dance about the she-troll. Yes. More. Come on. More fire.

Fire – real, yellow fire – was the only hope they had against the creature without access to certain forged magics they lacked unless Jorir could figure out how to make his shield become flame again. Still they danced about the troll, distracting her, because to do otherwise was to leave their allies undefended while they prepared the means of her defeat.

Sivid dropped hastily to a crouch – maybe not hastily enough, as when he stood his axe hand hung limp.

Einarr cut at the beast’s hamstrings. That’s right. Leave him alone for a bit, pay attention to me.

A bowstring sang, and a star of brilliant warm light shot towards the she-troll’s ribs.

In the same moment, the light grew near as bright as day and as warm as a campfire. Jorir wasted only a moment staring at the shield in surprise. Whatever he had done, it had worked, and now he charged at the troll shield first.

She roared again, this time in pain, as the flaming arrow embedded itself in her side. That was a wound that wouldn’t just heal immediately: she charged at Barri, who held another fire arrow already nocked, ignoring Jorir as though she had forgotten him.

That was her fatal mistake. Barri loosed once more, striking her knee this time. That stumble provided Jorir all the time he needed. He leapt for the she-trolls shoulders, raising the now-burning shield above his head. As the svartdverger landed, he brought the edge of the shield down like an axe on the back of her neck. The metal bit deep, and the troll collapsed to the ground, dark blood oozing from the wound that had nearly decapitated her.

The others approached, Einarr and Sivid still catching their breath, as Jorir stepped down from the she-troll’s back.

“Nicely done.” Einarr patted his liege-man on the shoulder. “How’d you get it to work?”

“Desperation’s all I can figure. We should be getting on, now that the beast…”

The beast was no longer a beast. Where just moments before had lain a slain she-troll was now a flaxen-haired woman in soiled velvets.


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