To their credit, Einarr’s companions did not caution him about noise. Likely they knew it would be fruitless. Still, his improved vantage did little to aid his search. Reckless abandon seized him, though, and rather than climb back down Einarr hurried from cage-top to cage-top, searching for any sign of flaxen hair while the others searched on the ground. The frantic energy of his search found release through his feet as he ran softly across the bars of the cages – although perhaps not as softly as he might have.

“Is someone there?” A sweetly feminine voice called, a few rows down from where Einarr searched. His heart jumped into his throat at the sound.

“Runa?” He almost didn’t dare ask it, although there was no mistaking the voice. Einarr dropped down from the top of the cage to the floor with a soft thud. “Runa, we’re coming.”

A long moment of silence followed, punctuated by “Einarr?”

She had been expecting rescue, he thought, but not him. That stung, although logically there was no reason she should have expected him to come. What sort of coincidence was it, after all, that led them into contact with the Skudbrun while they resupplied?

He skidded around a corner and saw, down the row, a pale hand gripping a bar and a flash of golden hair. The Brunnings arrived just moments after he had, at the other end of the row – and just in time to see a grin of relief split his features. Then his feet were in motion again, sprinting down the line until he stood before her, his breath still coming heavily.

Even in the subterranean light of the cage room, light came back into her eyes. As the others fell in around Einarr, she smiled. “I knew someone would come. I never dared dream, though…”

“We ran into Trabbi in port after you were taken… are you all right? They haven’t done anything to you?”

Even as she shook her head she looked pleased. “No, I’m fine. I got a little bruised when they took me, but nothing serious. …Is one of you going to open the door, though?”

Einarr blinked, surprised, and stepped to the side. “O-oh, of course.”

Sivid now stepped up to the door, moving almost as hastily as Einarr had been. “Don’t you worry, milady-”

“We’ll have you out of here right quick,” Barri interrupted. For the best that he did not try to claim she was now safe. Not one of them could be called safe until they were out of this blasted cavern – a passage to Hel’s domain, as any skald would call it.

Not long after, the lock creaked open and they opened the door to the cage that held Runa with only a little rattling.

Runa didn’t waste a moment. No sooner was the door swinging open than she took three quick steps to stand on the open ground of the stone passageway. Even as dirty as she was after her weeks in captivity, she was lovely. “Follow me.”

“What? Why?”

“Because they brought me in the back way. Unless you want to go back out through the temple with me?”

That sounded like a solid reason to Einarr. The men exchanged a shrug even as she headed for the two closed doors in the back of the cage room. No sooner had Jorir closed the door behind them than they heard the shouts of guards from the prison they had just vacated.

***

The series of passages Runa led them down at a full run made their path to reach the prison seem straightforward in comparison. Finally, though, they came to what appeared to be a servant’s entrance, the sound of pursuit still far too close for comfort.

“What’s through here?” Bollinn asked.

“The courtyard… I think. This is around where I woke up when they were transferring me.”

“Good enough. We can manage something from here.” Einarr had finally managed to wipe the grin off his face, but now that she was here in front of him it was still difficult to look away. He made himself, now, his attention turning to the door ahead of them and the likely fight on their hands once they went through it. One more deep breath, and then he put his shoulder down to burst through the door.

The door opened out from one of the low buildings scattered about the yard and into chaos. Soldiers swarmed, but Einarr could see neither rhyme nor reason to their movements. Surely they weren’t still in confusion over the remnants of the fight at the dungeon door? He shook his head: that was impossible, and they had little time. Einarr cut to the right along the edge of the building.

An arrow sailed over his shoulder, catching one of the monstrous soldiers in the mouth as he opened it to call an alarm, and then Barri dashed out after him.

“Good shooting,” he called over his shoulder but did not slow. Barri grunted back.

Barri’s arrow only bought them a moment, however. Even as Einarr rounded the corner into one of the innumerable side streets that led inward toward the keep more shouts went up. Their prize was in hand, though, if they could only make it back to the ship.

A pair of hastily chosen turns down even narrower alleyways brought Einarr to a stop in a small courtyard. Dammit. The others skidded to a halt behind him.

“My lady,” he ventured. “How has your voice held up?”

“For the best if I don’t need to Sing.”

Well that was a non-committal answer. He looked her straight in the eyes. “But if it comes to a fight, you can?”

“I believe so.”

“Good. Let’s go, then.”

The six of them raced for the docks, hoping all the while that Einarr and Sivid’s earlier scouting would be enough of an advantage to get them there ahead of the monstrous soldiers.

When they tore through the gate and found the gate guards still standing placidly, as though nothing had happened – and could still hear the sounds of pursuit through the streets behind – they thought they might have made it. Einarr began to pay more attention to the ebullience of the run than to why they ran.

When the road opened out into the docks, however, his hopes crashed like a wave against the rocks. Soldiers formed a barricade across the pier. Further on, in the darkness at the end of the quay, the sound of battle carried to Einarr’s ears, even as the thunder of pursuit grew louder with the howls of their pursuers.


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Sivid hopped down from the crate he had perched himself on, oddly buoyant now that they were past the guards. He jerked his head toward one of the many streets leading away from this little market and turned to go.

“You’ve heard something?” Einarr spoke quietly as they left the crowded square.

“I have an idea, certainly.” Sivid’s voice was equally low, and light as though they were sharing a private joke. “Only, this place is going to be even worse than we thought.”

“Oh? You mean it gets worse than fifty-foot sheer walls lined with throwing strings?”

“Mm-hmm.” Sivid peered down a cross-alley before continuing on at his rapid clip.

“So, what, is this high priest we think we’re looking for the chieftain here?”

“You got it.”

Einarr groaned. It had been the worst thing he could think of: why did it have to be right? With only two ships of men, one of which was still under strength, their chances of taking a hold like this one approached zero. Einarr frowned, now. “If assault wasn’t off the table before, it certainly is now. Which means what we really need is a good way to sneak in.”

“And determine whether or not that’s where your lady is really being held. But I suspect that to be the case.”

Einarr grunted, then grimaced. “Let’s hope the bastard doesn’t have a thing for human women.”

“Or that this god of his prefers his sacrifices unsullied.”

“Either way. If he lays a finger on her…” Einarr clenched his fists.

Sivid nodded. “Easy, though. No sense worrying about that until we’ve found her.”

***

They kept to the quiet passages as much as they could – paths that ran behind buildings and other spaces less frequently used – but this was still a hold, and any good hold would have a broad yard surrounding the central fortress area where the soldiers could train or the children could play.

Here, when Einarr and Sivid inevitably reached the end of their secluded paths, Einarr was not certain what he was seeing. It almost looked like glíma practice, for the men in the yard were practicing hand-to-hand maneuvers… except their maneuvers had more in common with brawling than wrestling. The keep that sat at the center of the yard beyond them seemed to tower above them, its top lost in shadow.

“Let’s see if there’s anything more interesting on the other side, shall we?” Sivid murmured, and Einarr nodded his agreement. Surely the entire keep could not be surrounded by brawlers.

Another street lay just to their left, cutting back into the longhouses that surrounded the keep. Rather than turn around in their tracks, the two Vidofnings continued around the outside of the yard until they reached it.

They did not seem to have drawn undue suspicion as they slipped down this secondary path. As they moved through these surrounding streets, though, Einarr began to feel as though there were eyes all about, following their furtive movements.

They emerged again a quarter circle around the keep, ahead of another gate but still within sight of the edge of the training group. If this was a proper circle fort, it would be better to check the next exit for signs of life. Sivid barely paused before continuing on to the next side-street.

Around they walked through the empty streets this close to the temple keep of Malúnion, and with every step the sensation of being watched – of being followed – grew between Einarr’s shoulder blades. He cleared his throat.

“Perhaps we should go back, let Father know what we’ve found.”

“Don’t let them spook you, boy.” Sivid did not look back at Einarr this time, simply continued to watch ahead as they moved. “If they had anything on us, they’d have moved already. We committed to this gamble, we need to see it through.”

“R-right.” Einarr cleared his throat a little. Something about the keep here had him even more on edge than he’d thought. …But if Runa was in there, and if they had the right island she must be, how could he turn back now?

The gate on the far side of the keep was smaller than either of the other two they had seen thus far and made of the same stone as everything else. They might have missed it were it not for the way its archway was formed in the surrounding wall and the iron bars that reinforced it. Einarr hummed in consternation. Sivid merely sighed.

“Odds that’s the door we want anyway?” Einarr murmured.

“High. If a door like that doesn’t lead to a dungeon…”

Einarr grunted his agreement and slipped out into the broad, empty stone yard of the temple keep, Sivid only a pace behind. That the yard was empty save for them on this side of the keep did nothing to soothe Einarr’s nerves.

He paused a moment to examine the door and scowled: there was no apparent latch. Sivid brushed past him, though, and quickly found the mechanism Einarr had missed.

“Once we’re in there we’re as good as trapped, you realize,” the smaller man murmured, the door still closed under his palm.

“Didn’t you just tell me we had to see this plan through?”

“Oh, aye. Just making sure your guts hadn’t turned to water all of a sudden.” The words were harsh. From any other man, it would have demanded a duel. But, because it was Sivid and because the weird light still allowed Einarr to see the teasing glint in his crewmate’s eye, the taunt earned Sivid little more than a scowl and a gesture to continue.

The door scraped open slowly under Sivid’s palm to reveal a cut-stone stairway headed down. The two men exchanged a look of uneasy surprise and slipped through the arch. When Sivid was three steps down, Einarr pressed his back against the heavy door, pressing it closed with a muffled click.


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