That priest wouldn’t have come alone, or even just with a single attendant. Einarr and his companions clattered up the stairs, abandoning all pretense of stealth in favor of speed. When they emerged into the hallway, however, they found themselves in the middle of a swarm of grey-skinned acolytes. The passage was packed almost too tightly to fight. Probably the priest had been unsure what was happening, and they awaited some sort of signal. They didn’t get their signal, but they got something “better:” fresh meat.

With a shout, the acolytes fell upon Einarr and his friends. Down the hallway, over the clamor of their own fight, Einarr could just make out the sounds of another battle going on. That must be Jorir, Einarr thought. He turned to face the sound of the other battle and lashed out at the closest dvergr in his path. “This way!”

It had been a long time since Einarr found himself in this sort of a scrum, but not so long that he had missed it. He found, however, that the rhythm which had served him so well against the svartalfrs on his way to the docks in their fortress, and against the revenants of the Althane, once again worked to his advantage here.

He stood shoulder to shoulder with Naudrek and Thjofgrir and Kaldr, with Runa protected in the middle, and they made their way, step by hacking step, slowly towards their dvergr friends and the exit where they had agreed to meet.

The trouble with this sort of extreme close-quarters fighting was that it was slow, and over time you were certain to become injured. If you let it go on too long, it could become death by a thousand cuts. This was compounded by the fact that every time they struck an enemy they had no way to shield themselves from the corrupting black blood. Einarr already began to feel unwell, although he could not say for certain if it was only in his own mind. Thankfully, with their ring of blades, Runa was not being exposed. Also thankfully, Einarr was much stronger than the last time he had faced a wave of enemies such as this.

After what felt like hours, but couldn’t have been, they reached the place where Jorir and his kin stood with their backs to the secret passage, securing the way out.

The dvergr looked awful. They were splattered with quantities of the black blood and covered in small slashes besides. Their eyes were bloodshot. Mornik, standing behind the other three, struggled to suppress a cough. Jorir’s face brightened when he saw Einarr and his crew cut their way through the last rank of enemies to join them.

“Get inside!” Einarr ordered. “We’ll close the door behind us!”

“Thank you!” Jorir gasped, and the four dwarves blocking the entrance backed further up into it. Runa was next, followed by Einarr and Kaldr, and then with a final slash Thjofgrir kicked the support and the door fell closed behind them. A shriek of pain and rage came from the other side: Einarr guessed that the heavy stone door had caught one of them.

The closed-off passageway suddenly seemed very quiet, compared to the bedlam they had just left. Einarr took a deep breath. “Everyone in one piece?”

“More or less.” Gheldram offered a wan, wry smile.

“What happened to you guys?”

“One o’ their cursed beasts,” Brandir spat. “And then, in spite of everything, I’ll swear ta ye that all the acolytes here were in that damned hallway.”

“You didn’t see anyone down there?” Kaldr was incredulous.

“Just a snake as thought we were mice,” Jorir answered. “And only that after I decided to apply a little fire to the situation.”

Mornik coughed, underscoring the point.

In spite of himself, Einarr snapped. “Then where in Hel’s lair is that shaman?”

Jorir shook his head. “I think I know where we’ll find him… but if we go tonight, we’ll only kill ourselves. Even assuming he would be there at this time of night.”

Runa put a hand gently on Einarr’s arm – careful to avoid the inky splatters. “He’s right, Einarr. Not one of us is in any condition to fight right now. We need a quiet place to recover.”

Einarr looked at the delicate fingers that somehow deigned to reach for him, not quite comprehending at first. “You’re right, of course. Brandir, if we get back to the bathhouse, will they let us rest there again?”

After a long moment’s thought, he nodded. “She’s dependable. I can lead the way, but… we’re going to need you big folk to make sure we all make it in one piece. That beast nearly did us in.”

“It would be an honor.”


Their infiltration had taken long enough that the unrest in the streets had mostly calmed by the time they left the temple district, but it seemed to have taken its toll on the Thane’s men as much as it did on the uncorrupted dvergr. The streets were deserted, and they did not pass a single lighted window. They moved as quickly and as quietly as they could, but by the end of it Gheldram was supporting Mornik – the smaller dvergr seemed to have taken the worst of it.

When they arrived at the familiar bathhouse, Einarr thought for a moment the proprietress was going to turn them away. That is, until she caught sight of Mornik. Based on her reaction, Einarr thought they might be more than simply friends.

Once she spotted him, she clapped both hands to her mouth in a familiar gesture of shock and ushered the party of nine into the baths. She cast a sidelong look at Runa as she passed, but when Runa twined her arm about Einarr’s she was evidently satisfied.

“Have you a stock of medicinal herbs?” Runa asked as the last of the men stumbled into the bathing room.

“Some, yes. Why? What happened to them?”

Runa just shook her head, even as she scribbled a list of herbs on a scrap of paper from her pack. “Can you get me these? As much as you can, please.”

The dvergr woman lowered her brows as she read the list. “Aye, I have some of these. Some others I might be able to find in the market on the morrow – if you’ve the coin for them. These are all…”

“Purifiers, yes. I’ll gladly pay for what you can provide. As much as you can bring, please.”

The proprietress nodded slowly. “Since it’s for Mornik. Give me a few minutes, I’ll fetch some from my stores.”

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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.

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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.

The remains of Langavik were an inferno behind them as the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun sailed out of port. While the sailors had put the town to the torch, the Singers stood on the dock and performed proper rites for the dead. No-one aboard either ship cared to look back at the horror they had found even as the blaze turned the sky to orange night.

Between the navigators of both crews, Einarr thought they had a good idea where to look… but that may have been the least satisfying conjecture he had ever heard. If there was one thing Einarr was glad of right now, it was his turn on the oars. He threw his back into every stroke, knowing that exhausting himself would be the only way he slept that night – or for most nights after, until his bride was back in his arms.

A dark elf fanatic, helming a cult that sacrificed people. And they had Runa. How could any man rest easy in that circumstance? And so, he rowed, because passing out drunk on the water would not be tolerated.

A few days out from the charred ruins of Langavik, the sky to the north grew dark, as though there were storm clouds just out of sight. With grim certainty, Vidofnir and Skudbrun turned towards the darkness, and before two more days had passed the storm they had sought – and the island they expected – loomed on the horizon.

The island seemed almost to shelter beneath the storm, but even before they passed under the shadow of clouds it looked like one of Hel’s hands reaching up from the underworld. A massive mountain seemed to stretch directly up from the dark waters, its craggy cliffs promising no safe harbor or beach to land on. Above, blackness roiled, although there was little wind below.

The sound of oars slipping through the water and the glow of torches from the decks were all that proved the two ships’ existence on their long, spiralling approach. On board, those who did not row peered towards the coast in search of any sign of habitation, or even simply an inlet where they might put in to continue their search on foot.

Two and a half turns around the island, Einarr spotted a deeper darkness along the coast, within what was now plainly a broad fjord and easily large enough for a longship to enter. “Sound ho!”

Watching sailors from further down the ship hurried up to see for themselves, and Einarr pointed toward the likely entrance to the island.

“The cult is led by a svartalfr, isn’t it? Everything I’ve heard says they prefer to live underground.”

“You think they’d build a dock in a cave?” Sivid sounded skeptical.

“One that size? Why wouldn’t they?”

Sivid had no answer for that. After a brief consultation between Captains and Mates, the two ships turned inwards, toward the hoped-for dock.

***

As the two ships slipped under the mouth of the cave, those aboard held their breath. Torches illuminated the stone walls in warm yellow light – which is more than could be said for their effect outside the underground inlet. As men shifted, chain mail jangled softly. Only the men still at oars – among them the newcomers aboard the Vidofnir – had not yet equipped themselves for battle.

For his part, Einarr hoped it would not come to that – not immediately, anyway. Not until they knew how to get Runa out. Once she was safe her captors could rot. His grip tightened on Sinmora’s hilt at his belt.

The underground river they floated along curved off to the right, and now Einarr could hear the distant echoes of voices from ahead, and see the reflection of whatever it was they used for light against the far wall of the cavern. Whatever they burned, its color was colder.

Stigander ordered their torches extinguished as they came around the bend, plunging the crew of the Vidofnir into near-blackness. A moment later the Skudbrun followed suit, and all were glad the current was slow. Eventually, though, the men’s eyes began to adjust, and even the small amount of cold bluish light from ahead was enough that they could see the outlines of their path.

Ahead, where the light was concentrated if not much brighter, a stone quay could be seen as a matte patch against the rippling water, and shadows seemed to move in the distance.

Stigander held up a hand. The rowers nearest him spread the word to those before and behind – reverse and hold. What the captain expected to see from here, none were certain… but Einarr, too, strained his eyes towards the subterranean harbor before them, hoping against hope that one of those shadows would resolve itself into a human woman with flaxen hair. That, at least, would prove that she hadn’t provoked them into acting hastily.

More likely she was biding her time, waiting for a chance to escape – or so Einarr told himself. He growled and did not look away.

The Skudbrun came up alongside the Vidofnir and a low-voiced question floated across the gap. “What news?”

Stigander shook his head, as though anyone more than five feet away could have seen the action. “Still can’t see. Any closer and we’ll be seen, though.”

Captain Kragnir growled. “Ships aplenty at the dock. You see any familiar-looking banners?”

“Not as yet. …Let’s ease in to the end of the quay. Pretend like we belong there, at least for now.”

Kragnir grunted in agreement, and once again the two ships began to crawl forward. Still Einarr saw no sign of either his beloved or the crew that killed Astrid not quite a year ago.

As they neared the pier, the two human ships weighed their sea anchor. A moment later, just before their hulls would have bumped into the stone edge of the pier, they pulled up short. None of the shadows on shore looked in their direction.

“Good,” Stigander muttered. The less attention they attracted from those on shore, the easier this became.


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