Einarr kept his eyes locked on Jorir as he was marched to the front of the Hall, and Jorir could feel the weight of their disappointment heavy on his shoulders.

Soggvar stood. Despite his sickly appearance, his legs were just as strong as Jorir remembered, and his hands steady. “So,” he said, walking to the front of the dais to examine his prisoner. “This is the leader of the barbarians I was told wandered our paths. I don’t know why you came here, human, but your kind has no place in these lands.”

Jorir cleared his throat. “My Thane.”

Soggvar ignored him, perhaps listening to what the shaman was again whispering in his ears. What new poison could this be?

“But since you ignored all warnings, rejoice! You and your companions will go to be with your gods tomorrow.”

Panic tried to close Jorir’s throat. If they did that… “My Lord!”

Both Einarr and the Thane turned to look at him. Einarr’s eyes were surprised, Soggvar’s contemptuous.

“What?” They both said at once.

“My Thane,” Jorir tried again, more clearly addressing Soggvar. “This man is the Cursebreaker. He can free our land from its terrible circumstances.”

“Indeed, by the flow of his blood. His, and his companions.”

Jorir was entirely certain that was not what the Oracle had foreseen. “No, my Thane. By the strength of his hand and the quickness of his wit, if only you would pay it heed.”

The shaman began to laugh, a raspy hideous cackle. “I said, did I not, that this one had forsaken you? See how hard he tries to save the worthless barbarian scum – barbarian sorcerer, no less.”

Soggvar made a calming gesture with his hand and the shaman lapsed into quiet chuckling.

“These barbarians trespassed deep within the Paths of Stone. Furthermore, they slew the beast we had trained into a guardian, and now we must train a replacement. By all our ancient laws, the first alone is enough to earn them death. Tell me, smith: do these laws now mean nothing to you?”

Jorir gaped, unable to find the words to answer, knowing that anything he said would only make their circumstances worse.

“Get out of my sight, smith. You, take the human away. Make sure they are well entertained: it is their last night among the living, after all.”


Late that evening, Jorir crept up to a servant’s entrance to the fortress. Already there, keeping quietly to the shadows, were three other dvergr: Brandir, a younger smith named Gheldram, and a locksmith by the name of Mornik. He nodded in greeting to each of the three. “Is everything ready?” He whispered.

“Just waiting on the signal,” Brandir answered, just as quietly. As hastily conceived as their present plan was, they knew that Soggvar’s court often drank late into the night. Brandir’s sister worked in the Thane’s kitchens, and many years ago she had obtained a large quantity of sleeping draught.

They didn’t have long to wait. Jorir had only just stepped into the shadow of the wall when the servant’s gate began to open. Peeking out from the other side was a comely young lass bearing a passing resemblance to Brandir. “Swiftly now, and quietly. They’re all snoring in their cups, but it took a tolerable large dose to put his lordship under.”

“My thanks,” Brandir said, just as quietly. “Go on back to your post. We wouldn’t want to raise anyone’s suspicions.”

The four of them slipped inside, and their benefactor sent them all off with a quick smile and a “good luck” before she hurried back off towards the scullery.

“That’s little Jennora?” Jorir muttered as Mornik peeked around the corner, looking for sentries.

“The very same.”

“Hard to believe she’s grown up already.”

“That’s what happens when you miss a pair of centuries.”

Mornik motioned them forward, and they hurried on toward the dungeon’s entrance.

Jennora had been thorough. Ordinarily, there would be a guard on the entrance to the dungeons – and, technically, there was. He, however, slept just as soundly as they’d been told the dvergr in the Hall did. Unfortunately, he lay sprawled across the doorway.

Once they were in they moved faster. There should be plenty of warning down here, even if someone was unlucky enough to be given a dinner patrol, and all the skulking in the world would not help them if the men of the Hall woke up before Einarr was rescued and they were out again. Jorir helped himself to one of the torches ensconced on the wall as they went.

Finally, after a wrong turn or two and far more time than any of them liked, they heard a cough and the croaking of parched throats. Jorir stopped in his tracks and swallowed.

“You’re sure you saw him?” Kaldr’s voice asked.

“I could hardly mistake him at this point. It looked like he was in no great favor, either, too.”

“M-my lord?” Jorir called. His ordinary voice sounded loud to his ears.

“Who’s there?” Einarr asked again, a hard edge to his raspy voice this time.

“A svartdvergr in no great favor. Keep talking: we’re going to get you out.”

A third voice laughed. Jorir thought it was Thjofgrir. “He was right, Captain. Rescue is at hand.”

Mornik went to work on the heavy iron lock.

“I knew you’d come for us, once I saw you up in the Hall.” Einarr laughed, too, very plainly relieved.

“Even if I hadn’t sworn to you…” That got Jorir a sidelong look from Brandir, but he shrugged it away. Now was not the time to explain any of that. “We haven’t much time. The Hall is sleeping, but we have no way of knowing when they might awaken.”

“I understand. Have you seen–”

“Got it!” Mornik exclaimed. There was a click, and the door opened a crack.

“One down,” Naudrek drawled. “Four to go. We’re chained to the walls in here.”

The four dwarves nodded to one another and streamed into the room. Before long, all four Men stood rubbing their wrists where the shackles had held them.

Gheldram whistled. “You must really have given them some trouble. They don’t usually pull out the constricting shackles unless they mean business.”

Thjofgrir smirked. “We had the temerity to kill their pet.”

Gheldram nodded. “That would do it.”

“Let’s go. If we’re lucky, we can still find your things in the storeroom down here,” Brandir said, even as he peered back out into the hall. “We’re clear. Let’s go.”

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.

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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.

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! 

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.

 

When the Vidofnir had emerged from the narrow fjord that served as a gateway to the ship-barrow, someone spotted the black storm clouds that had washed over the island on the southeastern horizon. The sail was unfurled and they gave chase, building speed faster than wind alone with the oars. For three weeks they chased the storm this way, always headed vaguely southeast and ever more convinced that the storm itself was unnatural. Chased, but never gained. In the middle of the third week, Snorli approached the Captain and Mate.

“We must put in to port soon, sirs. We’ve a week’s worth of water and mead left, at best.” They could live off of fish for so long as they had water, but once that was gone…

Reluctantly, Stigander agreed and the order was given to make for Mikilgata Harbor, not many days west of them in territory nominally held by Thane Birlof. Not exactly friendly territory, but safe enough if they kept their noses clean. In this way the Vidofnings found themselves holed up in the guest bunks offered at the Wandering Warrior on the port’s edge.

The benefit of a place like this, of course, was that finding buyers was a simple, if not straightforward affair, and as their first week in port passed they converted no small amount of their treasure from gold to gems or more ivory to lighten their hold.

The drawback, however, was that there were very few men interested in going out to sea, and even fewer that Stigander would feel comfortable bringing aboard. So, for the most part, they waited and they drank until the hold was empty enough to accommodate the food and fresh water they required.

Two days before Stigander planned to leave, when most of the Vidofnings were gaming to while away the hours or off in search of a good training field while Snorli and Bardr arranged for the delivery of supplies, a familiar figure trudged into the Warrior and leaned on his arms at the bar.

Einarr, going over the manifest with his father, looked twice before he realized who it was in front of him. He was on his feet, heading for the bar himself, before he had time to consciously process what he was doing.

“Trabbi?”

The old man looked up, weariness and desperation obvious in his face. “Oh, good. When we saw the Vidofnir in port…”

“We? Are you on the Skudbrun now? …Never mind, come sit down.” Truth be told, Einarr hadn’t given the man a second thought since their glìma match in the spring, but even if the fisherman had taken up whaling there wasn’t much that should have brought him this far out.

“For the moment, yes. Lord Stigander, sir.” Trabbi greeted Stigander as he took a seat at their table and slumped against it.

“Trabbi.” Stigander’s voice held a note of caution. After all, the last time they had spoken with this man, he had been competing with Einarr for a bride. “What brings you to Mikilgata?”

“He was relieved to find us, so nothing good.”

“Oh, aye, nothing good at all.” Trabbi looked around for the master of the bar, who was nowhere in sight. He shook his head, sighing. “That letter your new Singer had when you came back last time? It was summoning Runa for – and I quote her – ‘Singer business.’”

Trabbi’s eyes scanned the room again, although less like he was looking for something and more like a man taking in his surroundings. “My Jarl, he asked me to go along as bodyguard – not that he mistrusted the men of the Skudbrun, but that he wanted someone who would stand out less on shore. What else could I do but agree to that?

“Only… on the way… a storm blew up, and riding the winds was a black-headed ship…”

“So then Runa is…” Einarr sat back, stunned. He couldn’t say the word… couldn’t admit to himself the possibility that she might have been murdered the same way Astrid was.

“Kidnapped.” The word Trabbi supplied was far less despair-inducing than the one Einarr had come up with, but still it took a moment for father and son to process what they’d heard.

“Kidnapped?” Stigander was the first to recover.

“Kidnapped. …And I’m no warrior, but I’m to blame… We lost sight of that strange storm they rode four days ago.”

Einarr met his father’s eyes with a wordless plea.

Stigander nodded once, slowly. “You say the Skudbrun is in port? Here?”

Thane Birlof’s waters were even less friendly to Jarl Hroaldr’s Thane than they were to the sons of Raen. Still, Trabbi nodded.

“We’ll go back to your ship with you, speak with Captain Kragnir. I think, all things considered, my crew will be more than willing to help you go after the scum.”

“You have my thanks.”

All three men stood and headed for the door, the manifest tucked beneath Stigander’s arm.

***

Trabbi led them through the port, his shoulders more square than they had been in the bar. The Skudbrun was moored in an out-of-the-way location where it wasn’t likely to be seen by anyone too loyal to the supposed thane. This placed it on the same dock, although much farther back, than the Vidofnir. Bardr looked up and watched as the three of them passed by, but he did nothing to interfere.

The Skudbrun looked exactly as she had when they had come after Einarr and Runa in the Gufuskalam that spring. Captain Kragnir, a white-haired man who only looked small in comparison to Stigander, stood on the deck near the gangplank. Whether he was looking for their party or for porters, who could tell.

“I hear you’ve had a run-in with our old friends, Captain,” Stigander drawled.

“So it appears, Captain.”

“May we come aboard?”

Captain Kragnir stepped to the side and motioned for the three men to join him.


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Thane Soggvar turned to the advisor standing behind the throne to his left – a cadaverous shaman Jorir did not recognize. In that same moment, his attention was caught by a figure who very much did not belong in this hall: an elven woman in white, her tall and willowy figure exaggerated by the short, stocky dwarves filling this hall. No-one else took any notice of her, but Jorir thought there was something familiar about her flowing white gown and long golden locks.

When he turned back to the hall another figure had joined them, looking nearly as out-of-place as the elf did. He stood tall, tanned as a sailor and strong in the way of the wolf, but beer soaked his otherwise well-groomed beard, turning the shock of red a dirty brown. Lord Einarr watched Jorir levelly, his proud gaze never faltering even as the contents of another tankard were thrown in his face. The dwarves to either side of Einarr moved, and it was only when Einarr moved with them that Jorir realized his liege lord was shackled.

Horror rose in his breast. No! He opened his mouth to protest, but he was cut off.

Thane Soggvar rose from his throne and took a step towards their captive. “So this is the human barbarian I was told wandered our halls. Bring him forward.”

“My Lord…” Jorir ventured. No-one so much as glanced his way except for Einarr, whose level stare carried a challenge on the back of its disappointment.

“I don’t know how you came here, human, but your kind has no place in my Hall.”

“My Thane.” He tried again, more forcefully this time.

The cadaverous dwarf whispered something in Soggvar’s ear and the Thane nodded.

Jorir blinked in the same moment his Thane began to speak again. When he opened his eyes, the scene had changed.

Jorir now stood in the chapel field, a meadow half-way up Eylimi’s Mountain, above the mines. In the center of the meadow, in a direct line from the chapel doors, stood a stone slab carved with runes and dedicated to the gods of sea and storm. There had been no such thing here when Jorir had left, but the blood-stained granite had plainly seen heavy use in the pair of centuries since. Jorir’s kinsmen stood about the altar, awaiting the presentation of the sacrifice, but he heard no livestock.

Dread sank like a stone in his gut: there was only one way this was likely to go.

A murmur arose from the crowd around him. He turned and saw his kinsmen parting to allow three figures through. Two guards, and the sacrifice.

Einarr.

The man he had sworn his life to for so long as he had use of it. Impulsively, but sincerely. And the man who could save not just himself but the entire holding.

And the man he called Thane was about to sacrifice him to the gods.

Jorir’s feet felt rooted in place, and he could not tear his eyes away from his lord’s face. Bloodied, as though he had been beaten in the dungeon that Jorir had failed to save him from. An iron band was clasped about his neck, and a chain led from it to the hand of one of Einarr’s escorts.

Einarr turned cold blue eyes to Jorir, and the weight of their accusation jolted him out of his shock. He ran forward to the clear space in front of the altar where Soggvar stood with his unfamiliar advisor, somehow looking even more deathly under the morning light.

Two steps from the old king, Jorir fell on his knees and pressed his forehead into the grass. “My lord, please do not do this.”

“Do not do what?”

“When I left, we did not even have this altar. Now you are about to sacrifice a man on it?”

“Blood sacrifices have placated the gods and allowed us to continue our work.”

“But men? Are there no cattle? Have we descended to savagery?”

“The human is a trespasser here and no connection to any of us. I fail to see the problem.”

Now Jorir looked up, betrayal warring with shock in his eyes. He could find no rational response to the implications of his Thane’s assertion. “My Lord, he is the Cursebreaker! If you sacrifice him, it will never end!”

Soggvar turned his head to allow his deathly shaman to whisper in his ear.

“The sacrifice of the Cursebreaker is what the gods demand of us. Step back.”

“My lord, I cannot.”

“Step back.”

“Who is this shaman, my lord? Why does he pour poison in your ears?”

“He is my priest, blacksmith. Return to your place.”

“My lord, I have sworn!” The words ripped from his mouth. “He is my liege lord, and my friend. I cannot allow you to sacrifice him.”

“You have renounced your clan?” Distance had filled the thane’s voice, the sound of surprise and disappointment.

“No, my thane.” He rose, unbidden, not caring anymore if he incurred Soggvar’s wrath. “But since you say the gods demand the sacrifice of a man, let them take this cursed soul instead of his.”

Silence filled the meadow.

“Everyone here is bound by a grim fate – no less is he. I have sworn my life to his service and I have sworn my life to the clan. Therefore, my blood should serve just as well as his, and the curse shall not trouble me in the afterlife. I shall sup with the gods, and perhaps see your true selves again, for your ‘priest’ leads you astray, my king.”

“And now you claim to understand the will of the gods? You, a common smith?”

“Not as such. But blood sacrifice has never been a part of our ways, and your priest advises you to murder the man I was told might be able to save us. What else could that be but the influence of Hel?”

Thane Soggvar opened his mouth to speak and froze. Silver bells rang out over the meadow.


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“Runa is my only child, and likely to remain so. He who marries her will become my heir. Rise, son, and take the hand of the prize you’ve fought so hard for.”

Raenshold. The Jarl was asking him to forswear Raenshold… his father… his birthright… and accept a jarldom in its place? Einarr shook his head as he climbed unsteadily to his feet, certain he must have heard wrong. “My lord, surely you jest?”

“Not at all.” The Jarl’s face was open and honest, as though the thought never crossed his mind that Einarr might be bound by another oath.

Einarr risked a glance back at the hall: his father’s face was grim, as was Bardr’s. Erik and Tyr looked concerned. Now he glanced down to Jorir, and unless Einarr was very much mistaken that was fear he saw there. Runa, though, gave him an encouraging smile and nod, trying to convince him to go ahead and accept. As though she did not know what her father asked of him.

Einarr set his mouth and turned his attention back to the Jarl. “My lord Jarl, every man under my Father’s command has sworn to return and reclaim Breidelsteinn.”

“Do you not have your own ship, your own crew, now?”

“Why would that matter?”

The Jarl blinked now. “Is Raenshold truly even a memory for you? Is it not merely the stories your father’s men tell to while away the time as you wander the waves? I am offering you the security of your own lands with my daughter’s hand.”

“It is true, we have lived as vagabonds since the Weaving, and my memories of home are faint and dim, their patchwork filled in by the stories told aboard the Vidofnir. But Raenshold is and ever will be home, and I was born to be a Thane, as was Father before me. You ask me now to settle for a jarldom in foreign waters, and let my birthright be usurped again?” Einarr raised his gaze to meet the Jarl’s, unflinching, and pursed his lips. Anger was beginning to smolder in his breast, and he worried he would say too much.

“You have been a homeless wanderer, sailing from port to port with never an end in sight. While you are unwed, that is fine for you, but I am no father if I allow my one and only daughter to lead that kind of life. Her hand in marriage is bound to these lands by a chain even the gods might not shatter.”

“Bound by you alone, and you hold the key.” Rage threatened to boil up, but if he fought his father-in-law over this he lost, no matter who won. “You say you are my father’s friend, and yet you try to seduce me into betraying him? Nay, Jarl. Runa shall be my bride, and none other, and no other than Raenshold shall be our home.”

“You’re being unreasonable.”

“Actually, I rather think you are. You would make a nithing of me.”

The sound of silver bells filled Einarr’s ears and the Jarl froze. Einarr looked about, surprised: no-one in the Hall so much as blinked, save one. The strangely familiar lady’s maid with the long golden hair and the elfin features. She curtsied, and as she rose she turned to walk away. The scene in Kjell hall faded with every step she took into the distance, until it was replaced with the alpine meadow where he had first seen the woman. Einarr shook his head to clear it before stepping back toward the path where he had evidently left the rest of his companions. I hope I’m not too far behind.

***

The sound of silver bells rang in Jorir’s ears and he stepped forward over the threshold between reality and dreaming. He didn’t know how it was done, but he had been through the tests before.

The scene in front of his eyes was the last one he expected, however. The light faded, its color yellowing, until he stood in a torch-lit stone hall. To every side svartdverger made merry. It took his eyes a minute to adjust, but when they did he saw the sigil of Chief Soggvar – King of Iron and Brass. I’m… home?

Jorir’s face lit up, for now he recognized the faces of his kinsmen. Some of them he was quite sure were dead, and others he suspected were, but in the world of the Oracle’s trial that did not matter. His eye lit on his brother’s face and he could not smother his astonished grin. He stepped over and put a hand on the other dwarf’s shoulder. “Brotti? What’re you doin’ here?”

“Waiting, little brother. We all are.” When his brother turned to face him, Jorir had a moment’s double-vision: Brotti’s face turned ashen, and the shadow of an axe cut across it. Jorir blinked and the vision cleared.

Jorir smiled again at his brother, but this time it was wan. I had a feeling.

“Go. The Thane would welcome you himself.”

“Aye.” He nodded, studying Brotti’s face even as he clapped him on the shoulder. Living or not, this would likely be the last time Jorir saw him. After a long moment, he turned towards the throne where Thane Soggvar sat looking dour – moreso even than Jorir was used to. Things must have got bad after he left.

Slowly Jorir stepped towards the throne, and slowly he knelt before his chieftain and bowed his head. He felt the large, heavy hand of the king settle on the back of his head with surprising gentleness. It was cold and clammy.

“Welcome home, son of the mountains. We have expected you.”

“I beg you to forgive my tardiness, my king.”

The hand raised again off his head. “It is of no matter. We have endured.”

Have you? “Thank the gods,” he said, as though he had noticed nothing amiss.

“What have you discovered on your long journey?”

“I have found the Cursebreaker.”

“Well! Cause for celebration indeed! Bring out the mead! In the morning, we will sacrifice to the gods for their beneficence!”

Jorir tried to smile in response to the Thane’s enthusiasm, but the signs within his vision suggested he was too late.


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