Jorir took a little of his remaining coin, small though it was, to visit the bathhouse that night. He would give Thane Soggvar no excuse to abuse him that he could avoid. The next morning he put formal braids in his beard and – for the first time in many a year – wore the chain of his Guild. There would be some, he was sure, who questioned his right to it. They were welcome to do so. One of the things these two months had allowed him to do was learn just how many in Nilthiad agreed with him – quietly or otherwise. The number was significant. He tromped out through Brandir’s smithy.

“You’re sure I can’t persuade you to just leave town?”

“Quite. Or are you anxious to join me in the human world?”

“Not especially.”

“Then I really can’t. You already know if I disappear they’ll take it out on you. I’ll return.”

“I hope you’re right.”

On those doubtful words, Jorir stepped out into the daylit – if dim – streets of Nilthiad and started on his way for Thane Soggvar’s hall.

The dull placidity of the streets of Nilthiad struck Jorir as even more wrong today than they had yesterday. Even knowing that for most of these people this was just an ordinary day did not change that. As he neared the Thane’s hall, a snippet of conversation drifted across the street to his ears – idle gossip, really. If he were anyone else, he might have dismissed it as both preposterous and unimportant: humans had been captured in the Paths of Stone. Dread tied itself about his legs like lead weights. He remembered all too well the vision the Oracle had given him.

Too soon he stood before the gates of Iron and Brass. They seemed taller than he remembered, somehow – or perhaps it was just the enormity of the quest he followed. With a deep breath, he stepped to the threshold and announced himself to the guards.

“Jorir the Cursed. You are expected.” The dvergr at the gate, the butt of his halberd still pressed against the ground, gestured behind him and another dvergr stepped forward out of the shadows. “You will be escorted to the Hall of the King, where you will humble yourself before our Lord.”

The guard plainly had nothing more to say to the outlaw who stood before him: he returned his hand to grip his halberd and stood in stoic silence, staring out at the road.

Jorir harrumphed but followed the other dvergr without further protest.

The Hall was torchlit and nearly choked with smoke. In spite of that, it was as full as any alehouse at supper – a crude mockery of merriment. Some of the faces he recognized: others were new. Jorir wondered if he had become too accustomed to the manners of the surface folk in his century-plus in Midgard: he could not understand how Lord Soggvar tolerated it. He kept his face neutral as his guard led him towards the Seat of the Thane.

Thane Soggvar slumped in his throne, bored or ill or both, looking ill-tempered. Jorir had a sinking feeling he knew exactly how this was going to go. He cleared his throat and bowed.

“My Lord, I have returned, as requested.”

Soggvar glared down at him from his Seat. He looked unnaturally pale for a svartdvergr, and his skin had taken on a bluish tone. “Welcome home, son of the mountains. We have expected you.” The voice was filled with scorn.

Jorir shifted his shoulders, unable to fully control the reaction. If anything, he looked worse than he had in the vision. “I pray you forgive my tardiness, milord.”

Soggvar snorted. “We have endured. What have you discovered during your long exile?”

The sneering tone was impossible to miss. I am too late. This is too similar. “I have discovered the Cursebreaker. The Oracle tells me he will be able to free this land.”

“Well! Cause for celebration indeed! Bring out the mead! …Pah! Oracles. Alfen soothsayers. What need have we of such nonsense?” Soggvar bared his teeth in what Jorir thought was supposed to be a grin. It looked more than slightly predatory. “In the morning, we will make sacrifices, and all will be right in Nilthiad.”

Jorir thought his heart was about to leap from his chest. This was following the vision-test far too closely for Jorir’s liking. He had to wet his lips before he could speak. “My lord?”

Movement from the shadows behind Thane Soggvar’s throne drew his attention. In spite of himself, knowing what he was about to see, Jorir looked.

Another dvergr, dressed in the furs of a shaman, stepped forward out of the shadows. The engraved golden medallion of one of the Thane’s top advisors glittered in the torchlight. If Thane Soggvar looked half-dead, this shaman looked positively cadaverous. He whispered something in Soggvar’s ear, and the Thane nodded.

No. I know what comes next. Please, by the justice of Tyr and the honor of Thor, let this next bit be wrong!

A commotion stirred in the back of the hall, from the same doors that Jorir had just been escorted through. Reluctantly, he turned to look, just in time to see someone throw ale in the face of the human who now stood in the back of the hall, chained as a prisoner. Another quickly followed, but not quickly enough to keep Jorir from seeing a shock of red whiskers on the man’s chin. Resolved, Jorir looked slowly up at the human’s face, knowing quite well who he would see.

Prince Einarr watched Jorir levelly, his proud gaze never faltering.

Jorir’s breath caught. All his worst fears were, in this moment, confirmed.

The random gossip was true. Lord Einarr had, indeed, done something stupid. And he had arrived far too quickly to have been brought all the way from the dungeons, which meant that somehow, they knew.

Thane Soggvar knows I’m tied to this man. Which means the cult knows.

Which meant that everything he’d worked for just got that much harder.

The dvergr standing to either side of Einarr began walking toward the head of the hall. Einarr, chained as Jorir knew he would be, moved with them, ignoring the jeers of the other dvergr in the Hall.

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