The dvergr who faced Thjofgrir was matching him blow for blow, keeping them both locked in the clinch. Other than Arring, Einarr would be hard-pressed to find a man stronger than Thjofgrir, but these were dvergr. Furthermore, they were corrupted dvergr. Rather than wait for the corrupted dvergr to pull his trick, Einarr and Kaldr both charged him, their blades leveled at his back.

As an attack, it failed utterly as the dvergr spun and batted away both their blades in one smooth movement. As a distraction, however, it was a wild success. Thjofgrir rebounded from the clinch and buried his blade across the dvergr’s back. “I had him,” Thjofgrir growled as the corrupted dvergr crumpled to the floor.

“Maybe so,” Einarr allowed, catching his breath. “But it looked to me like he was playing with you. These are monsters, not men, and you never know when they’re going to show their true colors.”

Thjofgrir hummed but offered no more protest.

Einarr, after a quick glance across all of them showed only minimal exposure to the blood, nodded and continued down the hall. Without another word, the others jogged after him.

They encountered no more guards before they reached the hallway Mornik had mentioned. As he rounded the corner, though, Einarr stopped to gape.

The hallway ahead seemed to stretch on for miles, although that should have been impossible – they were inside a mountain, after all – and the walls were nothing but one door after another, with almost no space in between. The space behind those doors couldn’t be anything but cramped, even for a child. Einarr shuddered to think how Runa might be taking such confined captivity.

“Naudrek, you’re with me on the right. Kaldr, Thjofgrir, you take the left. We leapfrog down the line. Any captives who aren’t immediately hostile can go free if their blood is still red.”

A noise of agreement came from all three men together, and they began working their way down the line. When they had gotten about halfway down, leaving the doors open for a handful of unfortunate, weeping dvergr women, Naudrek stopped.

“Come take a look here,” he said.

In front of him, instead of another room, was a steep, unlit stairway heading deeper into the mountain.

“We haven’t found anyone up here with even a hint of magical talent, nor anyone who seems to have been captured recently enough,” Einarr mused. “I think we need to head down.”

Kaldr raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

“No,” Einarr answered with a rueful smile. “Just a hunch. Only, based on what I saw before, a woman like Runa is going to be a much more valuable prisoner for them than anyone we’ve seen here.”

“Valuable as a hostage?” Kaldr’s question was reasonable, but that wasn’t it.

“As an experiment.” He felt sick saying it, but that was what he had seen among the svartalfrs. “They make a target out of Singers – maybe those who practice other Arts, as well, but Singers for sure. Part of it is, they claim to hate magic – any magic that doesn’t come from their ‘god,’ anyway. But there was a she-troll we had to fight our way past in their fortress, before. A she-troll, who had once been an ordinary Singer.”

“How do you know?” Naudrek looked vaguely green as he asked the question.

“After we killed her, she turned back.”

“By the gods…” Thjofgrir breathed.

Kaldr shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense, though, that the dvergr cult would be creating monsters like that. Not with how Brandir said they’ve sold themselves here.”

“Doesn’t it? Wouldn’t they need an all-powerful army to defend Nilthiad during Ragnarok?” Einarr shook his head. “Even if no one outside these halls knows about it, we’ve seen plenty of evidence already that they’re turning their own members into monsters, and that’s proof enough for me. There’s a rather significant measure of madness involved in whatever the Squiddies touch.”

“And what if your hunch is wrong?” Naudrek challenged.

“Then we fight our way back up here, I suppose. But I don’t think it is. I think they’ll have Runa much further in than this.”

There was nothing more to be said to that. The others followed him down the staircase, another glowing rock in hand to light their way.

At the bottom was another long hallway, although in this one the doors were spaced somewhat further apart. The cages, while larger, were mostly empty. One or two were occupied, but their occupants were both chained and drugged into a stupor. Einarr did not like to think what that suggested about their mental state, or how controlled they were. They moved on: as horrible as this was, they could not lose sight of their goal. Runa was in here somewhere, and Runa was with child. Please let them be unharmed…


Now that they were well and truly separated from the humans, Jorir and the other dvergr ran down the halls without a care for who they alerted. They had – not entirely selfishly – taken on themselves the task of causing mayhem in the Holy Mount of the Deep Wisdom sect. Once upon a time, he had tried to bridge the gap between the squiddies and the rest of the dvergr: for his trouble, he had been cursed: never more would his smithing produce magic, nevermore would he be able to so much as recognize the runes. And, when he raised the alarm, he had been exiled for his trouble.

This may have been a little personal from the beginning.

Jorir’s mouth curled into a rictus of a grin. With the capture of the Lady Runa, they had just made this very personal. He was going to enjoy this.

He and Brandir approached a wide double-door, leading – he thought – into the outermost temple area. As one, they kicked forward with heavy boots and the doors flung open. It looked like a gathering place, anyway: there were long benches with comfortable-looking cushions, and the walls were draped with ridiculous quantities of cloth. He snatched a torch from its sconce and flung it forward into the room.

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.

 

Grim-faced, Jorir drove the butt of his axe into the solar plexus of the man he had just disarmed. He fell to the ground and did not get up.

From the corner of his eye, Einarr saw one of the black-blooded dvergr coming up on Gheldram from behind. He lunged and embedded Sinmora in its chest. That didn’t drop it, but it did give Gheldram the time he needed to face his new attacker.

Meanwhile, Kaldr had slid in behind where Einarr had been, in order to deftly drop another. His blade flickered, and the corrupted dvergr fell neatly into three pieces.

Einarr turned his attention back to the fight, only to discover that the pursuers had all been dealt with. He nodded to himself, watching as the others also took stock of their situation. Brandir holstered his axe. None of them were soaked in the blood, like the Vidofnings had been when they first fought the abominations, but at the same time they were all splattered with it.

Einarr shrugged his shoulders, uncomfortable – but not, thankfully, feeling sick to his stomach. “Is there anywhere we can bathe around here? The hotter, the better.”

The leader of the dvergr nodded, his gaze locked on a dark patch of mud on the ground in front of him. “This way. I only hope it’s as empty as I expect.”


Three hours later, they soaked in the near-scalding water of what (from the smell) must have been a volcanic hot spring. Einarr was shocked to learn that, during the day, this was actually a fairly popular bath – but, then again, these were dvergr lands.

As a bonus, Mornik was on friendly terms with the proprietor, so the loft of the building would provide a convenient place to hide – at least while they decided what to do. That was where they had stowed their belongings while they took advantage of the sulfurous water. Einarr had already turned a remarkable shade of pink, and several of the others were in much the same state.

“You’ll be pleased to know,” Mornik was saying. “That your Lady appears unharmed. Most displeased, and caged like an animal, but unharmed.”

“So far,” Brandir muttered darkly. Einarr couldn’t help but agree.

“But where is she?” Einarr tried not to snap. Now was not the time for rushing headlong into things, but it was still difficult. “And… was she alone?”

Mornik cleared his throat. “Alone? Well, save for the acolytes. But, well, that’s the thing. And the reason I got caught.”

“Well, go on,” Jorir grumbled.

“She’s in the Mount.”

Einarr shared a confused look with Kaldr and the other humans. The dvergr, though, went pale to a man.

“What does that mean?” Thjofgrir ventured to ask.

Jorir stared at the surface of the water, not evidently seeing it, and his voice was quiet. “That’s their stronghold.”

“Who’s stronghold?” It was Naudrek pumping for information this time.

“The thrice-damned cult’s,” Brandir said, his voice stronger that Jorir’s but just as troubled. “If she’s there, they must have plans for her. She might not even be human when she comes out.”

Einarr dropped his head in his hands and groaned. The spring water was uncomfortably warm on his face, but it hardly registered. “It’s the svartalfr cave all over again.”

Jorir sighed. “Looks like it.”

Kaldr cleared his throat. “I beg your pardon, but as bad as I’ve heard that was, this may be worse. Didn’t you tell me yourself, Jorir, that their magic is a twisted thing? What about–”

“The babe!” Einarr sat back up abruptly with a swish, wet red hair flinging droplets behind him.

All four dvergr roared at once, “The what?”

“Are ye insane?” Jorir added.

“We didn’t know, when we left. We didn’t figure it out until after it was too late to turn back.”

“I don’t know what their foul magics might do to a babe, but I’d rather not find out.” Mornik shuddered, his voice grim. “But the only way we’re getting anything out of there is if we take the whole place, and I don’t think we’re ready.”

Einarr perked up his ears. “Ready?”

“No. No, we’re not – quite.” Brandir agreed. “But… you are the Cursebreaker? You have proof of this?”

“Aye,” Jorir and Kaldr answered together.

“The Oracle herself named him,” Jorir answered. “Even without her signs, that would have been enough for me.”

Kaldr continued. “He destroyed the black weaving laid upon our home for twenty years – and that is only the most recent of his exploits.”

“Good enough. And he’s plainly fought against the cult before: all to the good. Give me two days and I can have the final pieces in place.”

“Two days?” Einarr felt his spirits falling as quickly as they had risen. “Anything could happen in two days. I don’t even know how long we’ve been down here.”

“I’m afraid it’s the best I can do. If we are to have any hope of escaping the Mount alive, there are friends to rouse. We will not take the Mount unless the dvergr reclaim the Hall.”

“Einarr’s right, though,” Jorir rumbled. “We cannae just let the Lady Runa languish in one of Malúnion’s cages. Especially not if she’s with child.”

“It’s the Mount. It’s only gotten more impregnable since you left, Jorir: I’m not sure there’s anything we can do until everything is in place.”

“Messengers walk, rumors fly. But, fine. What if Lord Einarr and I went to investigate on our own?”

“Are ye mad?” This was Mornik, as he decided he’d had enough and stepped out of the water and into a towel. “Just earlier, when we had to fight that posse of theirs? That’s because I wasn’ t light enough on my feet – and you’re twice as heavy. Not to mention you’d be hampering yourself with a human along”

“I hardly think I’d be a hindrance in an investigation like this,” Einarr bristled.

He shook his head. “You’re too tall. I don’t care how sneaky you are, when you stand a full chest higher than anyone else on the street you’re going to stand out.”

“…Oh.”

“ ‘Oh’ is right. Now stop talking nonsense and we can get down to business.”

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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.

 

There was, on the outskirts of Nilthiad as on the outskirts of most cities, a rough part of town, where most people weren’t going to ask too many questions so long as you didn’t go making a big deal out of yourself. It was to a small, apparently abandoned house in a neighborhood such as this that Brandir led them all. Not one of them breathed easily until the doors and window had been covered with furs and a single oil lamp lit.

Once they were as secure as they could be, though, Einarr and Jorir both breathed a rather noisy sigh of relief. As the other dvergr dusted off seats and settled around the room a grin spread slowly over Jorir’s face, cutting a thick white gash of teeth through his black beard.

“By the gods, it’s good to see you. …But what in Valhalla’s name possessed you to follow me here?”

Einarr cleared his throat. “The way you vanished, we were all pretty sure you were in trouble. What else could we have done, then?”

The other humans in the room nodded, and Jorir sighed. “So it always is: in trying to avoid a vision, I brought it about.”

Einarr sat up straighter: everyone else just looked puzzled. “Wait, you saw –”

“Everything that happened in the Hall, almost down to the word. That’s why we made that raid tonight.”

“Let me tell you, it took some real convincing. That was more than a decade’s worth of planning we used tonight, not to mention exposing the three of us.” Brandir gestured to himself and the two other dvergr in the room.

“If we hadn’t, though, we’d have left Nilthiad to the mercies of Malúnion and his priests. The next thing in the vision was at an altar where one of us – at least – was going to die.”

“…Are you sure we’ve forestalled that?”

Jorir shook his head ruefully and shrugged. “She said there was more time left than I thought, and they weren’t true visions, but…”

“I understand. As for you three… you have my thanks. Our thanks. But now, I have one more thing I must ask of you.”

Brandir nodded knowingly. “The lass you mentioned.”

“My wife. They have her, and if women are set apart then I shudder to think might be happening to her.”

“Lady Runa always was headstrong. Still, I’m surprised you let her come along.”

“Tell me, Jorir, when was the last time she couldn’t talk her way into anything she wanted? Besides, she said she’s also in your debt.”

“She… did? Whatever for?”

Einarr only shrugged. Brandir, over by the door, chuckled.

“Never thought I’d see the day. You didn’t just swear to this human, Jorir. But. The lass in question is your wife.”

“Yes. Runa…” He had to clear his throat to stop himself waxing poetic about her: that was unlikely to be appreciated or helpful. “Long golden hair, fair skin, brilliant eyes. Has a rather… impish disposition, I would say.”

Thjofgrir snorted. “I believe the word you’re looking for is tart.”

Einarr gave him a sour look. “And she’s a Singer. That’s what really has me worried, honestly, given what I know about the cult.”

Brandir frowned and shared a look with Gheldram and Mornik. “And that’s something any Acolyte would be able to tell. Mornik, do you still…?”

“I know someone who can get in, yeah. I’ll be back.” Without another word, the stealthy dwarf slipped out through the furs.

“Now.” Einarr crossed his arms and turned his attention to Brandir – who really did look like he could be Jorir’s cousin, the more he looked. “A couple of Seasons ago, we fought against a stronghold of Malúnion’s cult. What can you tell me about its hold here?”


The six men stayed holed up in that rathole – as Brandir called it – for the rest of that night and all the next day. Late in the evening there was a commotion outside and Gheldram, as the least recognizable of their number, poked his head out to see what was the matter.

A moment later he came back in. “It’s Mornik! He’s being chased – by the Thane’s men!”

There was no longer any way around it: they were going to have to set themselves against the Thane by fighting his men. Einarr already had his maille halfway on, as did the other humans. Jorir and Brandir were not far behind.

Einarr grabbed Sinmora and dashed out into the street, just as Mornik’s momentum carried him by the door. The street was oddly deserted, other than the two of them and their enemies. Mornik skidded to a halt behind him.

“You found them?” Einarr barked.

“Yes,” Mornik panted, turning to face his pursuers as well.

The men of the hall didn’t seem to know or care that Einarr was there: he charged past after his quarry and took a slash across the arm for his trouble. Black blood welled up from the wound.

Einarr’s eyes fixed on the sight and he swore, loudly.

Jorir was next out the door, and he, too, swore at the sight of the black blood. There was only one thing black blood could mean.

Einarr barked an order over his shoulder. “Don’t let them bleed on you! We haven’t the means to cure the corruption here.”

Jorir and Kaldr took up positions to either side of Einarr. Kaldr cuffed one on the back of the head with the pommel of his sword – to no effect. “And how,” he asked, “Are we supposed to do that?”

“Just do your best!” Jorir roared, embedding his axe in the belly of one of the corrupted. “We’ll figure something out.”

Mornik vanished briefly into their rathole even as Brandir and Gheldram exited to join the fray.

Einarr wished he had his shield: it, at least, could have been used to block some of the gore. Nothing for it. He swung Sinmora again and decapitated one of the corrupted warriors. “You knew about this?”

“No,” Jorir answered, his voice grim, as he deprived another of its sword-arm. He cut his axe sideways, then, and into its side. “But these are no longer kin.”

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.

 

Without another word, the eight men – four dvergr, four humans – slipped out into the hall to follow Gheldram. In silence they crept through the halls of the dungeon until they reached the storeroom, where they set to searching for the belongings of the humans.

“I had half expected you to have… company by the time we got there,” Jorir admitted to Einarr.

“It was threatened, as you heard. I don’t know why they never came to torture us, but I’m not about to complain. …Is there any–”

“Ah! I found the maille.” Gheldram exclaimed. “Looks like they hadn’t decided what to do with it yet.”

“Even the Brokkrsteel?” Jorir’s jaw dropped.

“Even the Brokkrsteel. Come see!”

Einarr clenched his jaw and tried not to sigh as he followed his rescuers over to the haphazard stash of human-sized gear. The one who had picked the locks – Mornik? – moved over to stand and listen at the door.

The clink of chains sounded in Einarr’s ears as the maille in question slid over his head. He only had to pull a few hairs free. “We can’t leave yet,” he said as he settled it on his shoulders.

“Whyever not?”

“We don’t have everyone.”

Einarr watched Jorir’s expression as he clearly counted in his head the faces he’d seen. “You mean you didn’t lose anyone in the Paths?”

“Not one, although it was a near thing a time or two.”

Jorir nodded slowly. “So then we’re missing Eydri? Anyone else?”

“Not Eydri. Runa. Runa, and Vali. She had his jar.”

Jorir cursed – loudly and roundly. The one who could have been Jorir’s relation clapped a hand over his mouth.

“The lass’ll not be here, I’m afraid,” Brandir said, his tone much more measured. “They don’t catch a lot of women, but the few they do go off for… special treatment.”

Einarr blanched.

“Hurry up. We can’t do a damned thing about it standing around here.”

The dvergr at the door gave a low, rising whistle. “Someone’s awake. Hurry it up!”

“Blast. That was less time than expected.”

“Jennora did warn us,” Gheldram muttered.

Einarr glanced around at his companions. “We’re ready.”

Kaldr, Naudrek, and Thjofgrir nodded their silent agreement, and the party of eight slipped back out into the dungeon halls.

They had only gone a couple of turnings before a shout came from behind them. Someone, it seemed, had already discovered their empty cell.

The dvergr started running, but Einarr and the other humans were right behind. They abandoned all pretense at stealth – eight people, charging down stone corridors, will be noisy under any circumstances. Einarr wished they could go faster, but in the twisting corridors of the dvergr dungeon it simply was not possible. Hang on, Runa.

“There they are!” The cry came from a cross-tunnel.

“Just a little more!” Gheldram called back from the lead. Einarr racked his brain, but he could not think of anything he could do with the runestones in his pocket that would throw the Thane’s men off their track.

Mornik had an idea. Einarr saw him throw some sort of powder into one of the torches as he passed, and it began to emit a thick, choking smoke.

When they made it out of the dungeon halls, they saw the courtyard in an uproar. It seemed as though everyone came out of their stupor at once – which seemed very odd, for a sleeping drug. There was no time to consider why, though: Jorir and Brandir looked both ways, then at each other, and nodded before taking off to their left.

Thankfully, the interior of Thane Soggvar’s hold was far smaller than the inside of either the svartalfr ring fort or Raenshold. They only had to dodge one more group of guards before they found themselves in a dim lane, the wall to their left, and what Einarr would call a thrall’s door just ahead.

“Halt!” The cry came from ahead of them, just beyond the thrall’s door. Einarr gripped Sinmora’s hilt, ready to draw.

“Wait. Not here.” Jorir whispered, holding out an arm to block his liege lord’s path.

Before Einarr could ask for an explanation, it became apparent. Even as their enemies were charging forward, Gheldram was coiling a large weighted rope about his arm. He gave a sudden dash forward and cast his net.

Their enemies tangled themselves quite satisfactorily, although there was no time to appreciate his handiwork. Mornik had quite literally kicked open the door. Naudrek and Thjofgrir led the way through.

“That won’t hold them for long,” Brandir said, slightly winded, as he pushed the door closed behind him. “This way. There is a place prepared.”


Runa’s back ached, and it had nothing to do with the babe. She sat up off the hard stone slab the dvergr acolyte had lain her on – again. She must have undergone these examinations a dozen times just since she’d awakened, and every time was the same. A pair of svartdvergr in pale robes would carry her – against her every protest, and even if she offered to walk, which she had tried once or twice – into this room. There was the slab, and a window with a terrible view, and they would tie weights on her arms and legs to keep her from leaving. Then another dvergr, this one plainly a priest, would enter and check her over, as though he were inspecting livestock, and then leave. If she moved an inch before he left, he would lash her across her back. She had tested this, too.

But, once they had finished with their nonsense, she was allowed to sit up until the dvergr came to carry her back to her cage.

They had not done anything else to her – not that she could tell – and she was certain the babe still lived. They laced all her food with peppermint now – even the meat.

This was entirely too much like how the priests of Malúnion had treated her.

The dvergr entered the room again, surely to carry her back to the cage – cage! – they locked her in. “Well. Faster than usual today.” She did not bother to hide her scorn. It was the least they deserved. “What’s it to be today? Staring at the walls again?”

The acolytes ignored her tart words. She wasn’t entirely certain they even heard them, although they seemed to understand the priest’s words well enough. One of them grabbed her bare ankles, and the other took her roughly under her arms. Briefly she thought about struggling, but the last time she’d done that she’d been unceremoniously dropped on her tail and dragged back to the cage by her ankles.

She glared daggers at Vali’s jar, sitting inert in a corner of the room where she was bound, as the key turned in the lock. Naturally, he wouldn’t wake up, not even to let her vent, let alone to investigate.

Someone was going to pay. And it wasn’t going to be the ghost.

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.

 

Jorir sat on a large block in Brandir’s smithy, pressing his hands against his knees to keep from pacing. As he had feared, the situation now was far worse than when he had left.

That was fine. It would be fine: he had found the Cursebreaker. All he had to do now was convince the Thane to let him come. Now if only he hadn’t had to slip off like that…

Brandir hammered away on the axe head he was working on – had been since Jorir had landed more than two months ago. Two months since he’d landed. And still, Thane Soggvar had kept him cooling his heels here in Nilthiad. At least he’d been able to make contact with his friends.

The smiths of the Guild – the young ones, who had not been seduced by the fancies of old men and remained true to their Art – were still biding their time. After Jorir had been caught and cursed they had all formed an agreement. Only, he worried he had taken too long. Jorir grumbled. “He went so far as to summon me back. The least he could do is tell me why.”

“I’m shocked you came. He found you, he wanted you back. I highly doubt he actually wants anything else from you.”

“Bah. If he found me, he could find my human friends, and it was time I came back anyway.”

“So you’ve said. Not that you’d ever get permission to bring humans here.”

“Bah,” Jorir said again, hopping down off the block.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Out.” Perhaps he had grown too used to the human way of doing things, but he thought it reasonable to be restless at this point.

“Nothing is going to have changed with the others, either, you realize.”

“I know. I just need to stretch my legs a bit.”

The door shut with a thud behind Jorir. All he could hear from inside the smithy was the striking of Brandir’s hammer. He briefly considered paying a visit to another one of his fellows, but discarded the idea. It was probable that he would be followed, after all, and there wasn’t really any good to be done by a visit. They’d already discussed their plans into the ground. Instead, he went wandering out toward the outskirts of the city. To the temple district.

All around him, his fellow svartdvergr went about as though nothing were amiss. At least, not on the surface.

Oh, he heard the usual background chatter. People appeared to be living their lives, just as they always had. But nothing felt normal. The svartdvergr had always been rougher-edged than their paler counterparts, but that prickly spirit seemed to be gone now. In its place was a quiet stillness as black as the ocean’s depths. Jorir shuddered: just thinking about it made his skin crawl.

He turned at the next cross-street. He would head for the local brewhouse for a pint, or maybe two. It wouldn’t help, but it was at least something to do.


As Jorir settled down at a small table in the corner of the room, a carved bone stein between his hands, he thought it might be worse than unhelpful. Even here, somehow, the black alienation pricked and prodded at the back of his mind, as though there were something malevolent sitting in the shadows and watching.

Now you’re just being paranoid. He shook his head and took a sip of the ale in his cup, then nearly spat it back out. Warm piss? Suddenly wary again, he scanned the room slowly. As his glance traveled, the few other patrons in the brewhouse hastily averted their eyes from him. So that’s how it is. With a sigh, he lay down a coin on the table – more than that slop was worth, but he didn’t care. He knew those stares: he was being watched – but not by anything hidden. He was recognized, and he didn’t particularly feel like brawling.

Almost ostentatiously, he hooked his thumbs over his belt and sauntered toward the exit. He kept his eyes half-lidded so that he could watch from the corners of his eyes, but it didn’t seem like anyone else in the room cared enough to pick a fight, either.

Why did I come back? The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that Brandir was right. The Thane didn’t have any use for Jorir, Soggvar just wanted him under his thumb. Please don’t let Einarr have done anything stupid.

When he got back to Brandir’s, the door was open. Jorir heard the officious tone of a royal messenger through the open door. Instinctively, he put his back to the wall and stood out of sight, listening.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know where he went.” Brandir’s voice was carefully neutral.

“And yet, he is your responsibility. His Lordship the Thane would speak with the exile: if the exile cannot be found, I suppose that means you intend to explain yourself? Perhaps he will be merciful.” The messenger’s voice was sneering and nasal, and didn’t even attempt to veil the threat behind those words.

Jorir is a friend, not my prisoner.” Brandir bristled audibly.

Jorir chose that moment to reveal himself. “And it is quite true he did not know where I was going. I did not know it myself.”

The supercilious dvergr turned. He was shorter than Jorir, and showed an alarming lack of muscle, and yet he still managed to look down his nose at them both. “His Lordship, Thane Soggvar, and his Holiness Thalkham, High Priest of Malúnion, have decided to reward your patience, exile. Present yourself before your Thane at midday tomorrow.” His piece said, the dvergr turned and strode out, brushing past Jorir as though he were inanimate.

Jorir looked at Brandir.

Brandir looked back levelly. “You don’t actually intend to go, do you?”

“I’m not sure I have much choice.”

“You know he only intends to humiliate you.”

“I’ve put myself in service to a human, Brandir. For the century before that, I was a jotun’s thrall. I’m not sure what shame he could heap on me that I haven’t already inflicted on myself. …And it’s my only chance to ask leave to bring the Cursebreaker.”

Brandir sighed. “Have it your way. I’m still not convinced a Cursebreaker is going to do us any good. Our problem is foolish old men, not Black Arts.”

For the first time in what felt like a long time, Jorir smiled. “I think… you might find it more relevant than it first appears.”

Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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For more than a fortnight they sailed on, following the charts as best they could as they weathered the ordinary spring storms. While there had been more than a few cold, wet nights, Einarr was just as glad that was all they had faced so far: an island that could drive Grandfather out, and that had earned the name of “Thorn Deep,” was sure to have something unpleasant waiting – especially given Einarr’s calling. Thus, he took the blustery weather as a blessing.

Right up until black storm clouds appeared out of a blue sky off to the north and began speeding toward Einarr and the Heidrun.

It was Troa who spotted the clouds first, and announced their presence with a dread-laced “Oh, Helvíti.”

Einarr looked up and understood immediately. “Cult ship approaching! Prepare for battle! Guards to the Singer.”

Captain or not, heir or not, Einarr was in far less danger than Eydri. Not everyone aboard had experienced combat with the svartalfr cult, but they should at least have heard about it by now. There was a jangle of maille as the warriors dressed for battle and an air of grim determination fell over the ship.

Please don’t let them have one of those horrors…

Einarr, too, pulled on his maille and helmet, then stepped up beside Naudrek as the guards formed around Eydri.

“Ready the fire arrows,” he ordered. “We want to avoid boarding as long as we can.”

“Yes, sir… Is it really one of those demon ships you talked about?”

“Probably. Need the arrows ready before we can see that, though.”

“Of course, sir.” Naudrek was a good man, but he was not as practiced a Mate as Jorir. No matter: Jorir was quite right about where he was most needed now.

Damn it, though, why did we have to run into one of these things on this trip? Einarr would have been perfectly happy avoiding them for the rest of his days. Unlikely, of course, considering he was a Cursebreaker.

The black storm cloud that heralded the approach of a demon ship bore down on the Heidrun as they readied themselves. Those who already wore their maille watched the horizon grimly, awaiting the first sight of one of the demon-headed black ships. The wind lashed at their faces. Raindrops had begun to sting Einarr’s skin by the time the shadow of the cult ship appeared in the storm.

“Brace yourselves, men! Not only are we fighting in a storm, even in death the enemy can kill you – or worse. This first volley of fire arrows is critical: you’ll have plenty of time to adjust your aim for the wind. Steady yourselves, now.”

There was a general shifting of feet on the deck, but no-one spoke. Visibility dropped precipitously as the two ships closed. The wind began to howl.

“Light volley!” Einarr shouted to be heard over the wind. “Ready!”

The archers drew back, the tips of their arrows bright spots of light against the black clouds above.

“Aim!”

As promised, he held them at this command for longer than usual, waiting for a steady moment or a break between gusts. At last, one came.

“Fire!” The arrows streaked through the air like shooting stars, all intent on destroying the evil that sailed this sea. One or two of them winked out under the onslaught of the storm carried in the belly of the demon ship, and one or two more missed their mark, but the rest scored their hit. One caught in the sail, which began to smolder darkly.

There would be no time for a second volley – not that Einarr had really expected one. The ships were too close now for anything but boarding – or perhaps a ram or Sea-Fire, if this were a dromon. Some detached corner of Einarr’s mind wondered if an alliance with the Empire would grant them access to that sea-fire of theirs. The rest of his mind was focused on the enemy ahead. “Prepare for boarding!”

Einarr stepped back to join the men who had circled about Eydri. The fanatics hated Song Magic and hunted Singers: that was how Father had lost Astrid. Einarr did not intend to let them have his friend. The rest of the crew scrambled: bows were tossed back toward the command circle, and the archers took up the boarding lines.

Eydri began to Sing, and almost immediately the red Fury began to pulse at the edges of Einarr’s vision. It was easy to ignore after the last year: Einarr hated how used to it he had grown.

The black-painted prow sliced through the water and turned sharply. Boarding lines flew from both decks.

No sooner had the lines drew taught than men from both ships were up, contesting for the right to board the other’s ship.

Einarr’s men were strong. Much stronger than they had been last summer when they stormed the cult’s island to rescue Runa: some few of the cultist helspawn made it across, but most were on the back foot. Einarr harrumphed even as he slid Sinmora from her sheath.

One of the cultists rushed the “command” circle protecting Eydri. Everyone’s weapons were out and ready, but Einarr stepped forward with a growl. This was not a man he faced: it was a mad dog, and he would see it put down. He stepped forward and raised Sinmora high over head, his shield firmly in place. On the second step, as the clamor of battle carried across the deck and over the water, he brought his blade around and separated the cultist’s head from his shoulders. Einarr stepped back quickly: the corrupting black blood dripped from Sinmora, and spatters darkened his glove, but had not touched him.

“No quarter!” He bellowed. A savage yell was the best answer he could have hoped for. Eydri sang louder.

Einarr strode across the deck to peer at the battle on the other ship and frowned. On the one hand, the demon ships must be destroyed with prejudice. On the other hand… “Fall back!” He ordered as he saw the cultists starting to cluster around the mast. “Naudrek – a torch!”

“Aye, Sir.”

The Heidrunings hurried back across the boarding lines, cutting the enemy lines as they went and unhooking (most of) their own. Einarr stood at the bulwark, torch in hand, and waited. When everyone was returned, he tossed the torch on the demon ship’s deck. “Full sail! Get us out of this squall, Naudrek.”

As the Heidrun sliced through the waves away from the demon ship, purifying flames began to lick up the boards of its bulwark, and a thick black smoke rose up to feed the cloud overhead.


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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.

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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Not without some trepidation, Einarr and the others led the two Singers back to the warehouse where they had found the hanged butcher. Aema covered her mouth with a cloth as they approached to avoid the worst of the smell. Reki’s shoulders shuddered once under her heavy cloak, but she did not hesitate. The door swung open under her palm and she stepped across the threshold.

She stepped no closer to the hanged man, however. His slow spin carried him around so that he very shortly faced the living in the door.

Seithmathir,” Reki read.

“Magic-man?” Einarr furrowed his eyebrows, confused. It was odd for a man of the Clans to study the Arts, of course, but never a reason to kill a man that he’d heard of.

“Evidently.” Reki paused a long moment. With her hood still up, Einarr couldn’t tell if she was studying the body or trying to maintain composure. When she spoke again, her voice was hushed. “I think this was carved before they hung him.”

Einarr shuddered as Reki backed away from the corpse.

“We’ll want to burn the town before we leave, if we don’t find anyone left alive.”

Aema nodded. “And if we do, make sure they see to all the bodies. The last thing we need is a port full of the restless dead.”

Bardr grunted in agreement as Reki stepped back outside the warehouse.

“Surely this wasn’t all?”

“No. This was the smallest part of it.” Trabbi led the way this time, back to the square that had confounded all three of them before.

Along the wall of a particularly large warehouse, several bodies were strung up by their wrists and ankles, all with the same wound patterns as the hanged man. These bodies framed a longer message that had apparently been burned into the stone wall. The two Singers stood staring for a time, concentrating on the long message in a nigh-dead alphabet.

“For the sin of harboring witches,” Aema began, haltingly. “The people of Langavik have been punished according to…”

Reki picked it up here. “According to the righteous dictates of Urkúm, High Priest of Malúnion. Let all who come here know…”

“…Know that the time of seithir is at an end, and all who practice such foul magics will be punished.” Aema’s voice sounded somewhat breathless as she finished reading aloud the proclamation.

“This is madness!” Einarr had never heard either of those names before, but the idea of giving up the use of Song Magic – or Weaving, or any of the other Arts – was preposterous.

Trabbi looked just as flummoxed as he felt. If no-one was trained in the Arts, then how would anyone control their effects? Song would not go away just because no more Singers were trained. Cloth would still be necessary, as would the blacksmith’s art.

It was Bardr who had the sense to ask the question they all wanted the answer to. “Who is Malúnion?”

Both singers shook their head.

“It’s an old Elven name, but I couldn’t tell you more than that,” Reki answered. “Maybe Tyr has an idea? He’s been around long enough, who knows what bits of lore he may have picked up.”

Aema cleared her throat. “Urkúm… I believe that’s a svartalfr name.”

All three men groaned.

“So you’re saying we have a svartalfr fanatic, of some god none of us has ever heard of?” Bardr rubbed his forehead.

“So it appears.” Reki sighed. “Not very honest of them to decry magic like this, though. Someone among them learned to Paint, I think.”

“You mean because of how the runes are burned into the rock?” Einarr, too, had found that strange.

“I do.”

Trabbi looked thoughtful. “Could it be, then, that the Imperials themselves are behind these massacres?”

Aema shook her head. “Let’s hope not.”

***

“So there you have it,” Reki finished as both crews gathered on the dock under the fiery orange sunset. “All things considered I think it likely the crew that captured the lady Runa and the crew that killed my predecessor are probably a part of this same cult. I also think it likely, based on the state of the bodies of the town, that we are at least a week behind our target still.”

Stigander and Captain Kragnir frowned at the story the five of them had brought back not an hour previous, but for the moment said nothing.

“Does anyone among the crew recognize the name Malúnion?” Aema directed the question out towards the crew. It was a gamble, but with a little luck…

Jorir spat a curse.

“Can I take that as a yes?”

“Oh, aye.” The svartdvergr shouldered his way forward through the crowd. “Wish I didn’t. Right bastards, are ‘is followers, an’ I will lay coin that this High Priest has convinced some of the others to join him on this damn-fool crusade. Anything that doesn’t come from their pissant demigod is by definition unclean, and Malúnion has nothing to do with the Arts.”

Einarr and Trabbi spoke at once. “Then what do they want with Runa?”

“Sacrifice, unless I miss my guess.”

Einarr shot up straight from the crate he had been leaning against. Trabbi’s reaction was more subdued, but just as worried. “Sacrifice?”

“Aye. They give proper sacrifices to their god, they’re granted magic for a time. Don’t know how long. Left home before the cult could get a proper hold there.”

Stigander rumbled. “Why leave a message here, and not at either of the two previous sites?”

Aema shook her head now. “I don’t know.”

“I can venture a guess.” Captain Kragnir crossed his arms and frowned beneath his brown beard. “Territory.”

The captain of the Skudbrun gave that a long moment to sink in before he continued. “Massacre like this is as good as a declaration of war. We’ve either crossed into territory they claim, or near enough that they’re making a play for it.”

Now there were mutters from all around the intermingled crews.

“The smart thing to do now would be to call a retreat, come back with a fleet in the spring to put the dogs down.”

Einarr, Trabbi, and Stigander all started forward, but before they could object he continued.

“But they have the princess, and if your dwarven friend is right we haven’t much time. Assuming we’re not already too late. And I do not want to be the one to tell the Jarl why we didn’t come back with his daughter – not while we’ve the slightest chance of rescuing her.”

Stigander nodded sharply. “All there is to do, then, is make sure we get her back alive. Bardr! Bollinn! The charts!”


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