The cushions caught fire almost immediately, and soon the room was choked with a thick, oily black smoke – far thicker and more pungent than ordinary cloth and feathers should produce. An unearthly wail came from somewhere in the room, even though it had been empty of dvergr when they kicked open the door.

Jorir shared a look and a nod with Brandir, and then as one they pulled the door closed behind them. Whatever that had been, he had no desire to face it in the midst of a conflagration. “Ready yourselves,” he warned the others.

He needn’t have bothered. Gheldram shouldered between Jorir and Brandir and braced with his shield, his massive hammer held ready.

In the hall ahead, the sounds of thrashing grew louder and wilder, and the wail became an angry shriek. This was not precisely what Jorir had expected when he threw that torch.

“Here it comes,” he growled.

The door to the outermost temple burst open once more, the heavy doors this time flying off their hinges as a head like a giant serpent’s charged through.

Even lit in the glow of the fire behind it, its scales were a mottled greenish-black, more of a void of color than an actual color itself. Its eyes, though, glowed like molten gold. It opened its mouth wide to hiss at the four dvergr standing against it, and Jorir saw black corruption dripping down its fangs. Not that it mattered: its mouth was large enough, it could swallow any one of them whole.

He raised his axe anyway. This was not a creature they could set free if there was any help for it. On Gheldram’s other side, Brandir also took his fighting stance. Mornik moved behind them, and from the corner of his eye Jorir could see him limbering a brace of knives.

The snake hissed again and drew back its head, ready to strike. The four dvergr held their positions, watching it warily. They would only have a heartbeat to move.

“Now!” Jorir bellowed. He couldn’t have explained how he knew any more than he could read runework, but he knew. His four old friends sprang apart as the snake’s head lashed forward. Jorir leapt into a roll. When he came to his feet again, he charged the snake’s side, just below its head.

It had buried its fangs in the stone floor. The delay in getting them out gave them all just enough time to rush in for an attack. Jorir brought his axe down in a mighty overhand swing.

It didn’t so much as scratch a scale.

He sprang back, frowning. The serpent, its fangs nearly free, shook its head back and forth, as though something had actually hurt it. He looked at Gheldram, but the young smith shook his head: his hammer had not phased it, either.

Jorir looked again: something seemed to be wrong with the snake’s eye: there was a clear ooze flicking back and forth across the surface. Had Mornik damaged its eye?

Well, Hel, he thought, amusement dancing under the surface. This was going to be terrible, but the creature’s weakness was at least easy enough to see, if they dared to attack it. He started crab-walking back toward the center of the room, never taking his eyes from the monster.

Behind it, the fire raged. A small voice in the back of his mind wondered why they hadn’t seen any acolytes, come to put out the fire, yet – but, of course, the monsters of Malúnion were not known for discriminating between sources of food. Maybe they would be lucky and spot a broken scale the next time it reared up: that had to be better than trying to strike its eyes or the inside of its mouth.

A crashing sound came from within the temple: the giant snake was still lashing its tail about, evidently discomfited by the fire. The black, oily smoke grew thicker: its smell alone was enough to make Jorir feel nauseous.

I’m a fool.

The fire was plainly injuring the poor beast – probably, under the circumstances, an ordinary viper transformed by the dark magics of the priest – but its blood and venom both were corruption. If its flesh was burning, and its flesh was thoroughly corrupted, then what would happen if the uncorrupted breathed that smoke?

“Kill it! Quickly! We have to shut that door!”


Kaldr found the next staircase. This one led not to a long hall of prison cells, but to a shorter – although more opulent – one of priestly chambers. Several sturdy wooden doors, reinforced with iron bands, lined each wall, but at the far end of the hall stood one that appeared to have been painted white and decorated with golden scrollwork. Einarr couldn’t have said why, but he felt sure that was where they would find his bride. Without waiting for discussion he started down the hall, ignoring the other rooms.

“My Lord?” Kaldr asked, catching up.

“Another hunch. We’re starting there.” Einarr pointed ahead at the ostentatious door.

Kaldr shrugged, and the three men fell into step behind their Prince without another word.

Einarr was mildly surprised to find that the door was not locked. He frowned at the door for a long moment, wondering if this could be a trap. With a small, exasperated sigh, he put his hand on Sinmora’s hilt and shouldered open the door. Trap or not, they would have to investigate here.

He wasn’t really certain what he expected to find in this room: rows of cages, perhaps, like he had rescued Runa from before, or victims chained to the wall but this… was shockingly ordinary. Opulent, yes, but, not really that much different from his own chambers at Raenshold. Panic started to rise in his belly: had he been deceiving himself and trusting his eyes too much?

“Search the room! There’s sure to be something of use in here.”

He followed his own instructions, turning to the dvergr-sized dresser immediately to his right. It, too, appeared perfectly ordinary – far more ordinary than he would expect, frankly, from the bed-chamber of a high priest of Malúnion. There was a small portrait sketch of a young dvergr woman, a hand mirror, and what Einarr guessed were personal totems, although he did his best to avoid touching those.

Kaldr voiced the thought that was ringing through Einarr’s skull: “This doesn’t make any sense.”

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 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.

 

For the first time in a very long time, Kaldr saw the red haze of the battle fury pressing at the edges of his vision. It was a mark of just how exhausted he was that he contemplated accepting it, just this once. When he realized that, he physically shook his head to shake it off. One of them, at least, had to keep his wits about him. Thjofgrir was quite plainly in its grip, as was Naudrek. They must have (reasonably) assumed he would play the Captain here.

He fought off the Song as hard as he fought off the enormous, wounded salamander.

The beast shot its tongue toward where Runa stood over Einarr. All three of them lunged at once to slash at the exposed flesh. For a wonder, their blades bit deep.

The salamander – he was reasonably certain that’s what he was looking at, overgrown though it was – reared back and shrieked in pain, as inhuman a sound as Kaldr had ever heard. Salamander blood splashed everywhere.

He turned his attention back to its gills: the shot would be tricky, but he felt certain it would be the best way to injure the beast.

In and out he darted, trying with every lunge to stab deep within the beast’s gills. Even at full strength, with all of them fighting and fresh, this would have been a difficult fight. Here, their Captain was down, Vali was keening most unpleasantly, and even a quick glance at Runa showed the strain she was under.

Kaldr was panting furiously as the three of them fought off the beast. He wasn’t sure any longer whether or not it mattered if he kept his wits: there was nothing to this fight except to cut and retreat.

Then the very air around them began to vibrate, thrumming in his ears. He spared another glance across the room at Runa.

Her eyes were squeezed shut, and her mouth open wide, but the tone of her voice was shifting subtly downwards, as though intending to twine with Vali’s mad keening.

He hoped she was doing that on purpose, whatever it was. The throbbing of the air in his ears grew worse, until even the beast became distracted by the noise. It thrashed its head this way and that, like a dog with a bee in its ear. Then, it tried to scoot backwards out of the room the same way it had wriggled in. As it did so, it flared its gills.

Kaldr reacted. He lunged for the opening with all his strength, plunging his sword into the exposed inner flesh of the beast’s neck. Blood spurted out around his blade and the salamander began to thrash in earnest.

Naudrek jumped nimbly out of the way before it could slam him against the wall with its head. Thjofgrir took a different approach.

Still under the effects of Runa’s Song, Thjofgrir jumped up to land on the wildly shaking head. Deliberately, one step at a time, he walked up its slimy nose until he stood right beside the beast’s eye. Then, with a scream of Song-fueled rage, he drove his sword point home just behind its eye. With a shudder, the salamander collapsed to the floor and ceased moving.

Runa’s Song shifted, and Kaldr no longer felt the red mist of rage pulsing at his mind. The keening, however, modulated with it, so that the thrumming in the air never ceased. And now, without the battle fury to distract him, Kaldr became aware of something else pulsing at the edges of his mind.

Now it was his turn to shudder, him and the other two who had been doing the actual work of fighting the beast. Suddenly he was a small boy again, alone and hiding in the corner while pabbi railed drunkenly at his mother over… nothing, so far as Kaldr could tell. Some seithir had worked her magic on him, again, and convinced him to give her all his coin. Mother didn’t deserve that, but he knew better than to help. The man’s temper couldn’t abide that.

That memory was followed by a rush of raw emotion, so strong even Kaldr felt himself sinking to his knees. Fear. Anger. Loneliness. Pain, too, but nearly subsumed by the others.

His shoulders shuddering, he turned bleary eyes to the others. Coming down off the battle fury, as they were, it seemed to be hitting them harder. The green light of the statues’ eyes reflected wetly off of Thjofgrir’s cheeks where he knelt, staring silently towards the ceiling.

Naudrek had curled up into a ball on the floor.

And Runa was no longer Singing.

Wait. If she’s not Singing, then where is that thrumming coming from? He didn’t know much about Song magic, but he had heard enough ordinary music to be familiar with the effect. So then, was Vali causing all of this by himself? Kaldr forced himself to his feet under the inhuman, almost physical weight of loneliness that was bearing down on him. He stumbled towards the Singer and nearly choked when he tried to speak. “Runa?”

“We’ve got to get the jar out of here!” Her voice sounded wet with tears, as well. Interesting: he had rarely known Singers to be affected by other Songs.

“How?” It came out as a wail, but how much of the despair was his own he could not guess.

“I don’t know!” She inhaled loudly, a deep, sobbing, shuddering breath. “I can try to give you strength to burst it.”

Kaldr shook his head. That would take too long, he expected. Damn that apparition. The throbbing keening echoing through the room made it almost impossible to think, though. “There’s got to be… some sort of emergency catch. In case one of their own gets trapped.”

He spared a look for Einarr. He was probably the happiest among them, peacefully unconscious and unaware of the havoc around them. Sadly, they could not knock themselves unconscious to escape this, not without handing themselves to the tender mercies of the dvergr. “Help me search?”

“But…” Runa glanced worriedly between Einarr and Kaldr. Pregnant women were often overly emotional. She must have a will of iron to be holding together even this well under the onslaught.

“I think he’ll be fine on his own. We, on the other hand…”

He could just see her nod, one hand at her face. When she rose, it was unsteady. “You’re right, of course. And who knows what will happen to poor Vali after this…”

Kaldr stared. In this situation, it was the ghost she worried about?

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.

 

Troa stopped suddenly enough that Einarr nearly ran into his outstretched arm. Better that, though, than to fall into the crevasse that had brought him up short.

“Did we choose the wrong path?” Einarr wondered.

Troa shook his head. “Not likely. I think she had her own path past all this. Probably some sort of bridge, here.”

“Think you can jump it?”

“No chance. And I’d be very surprised if you could.”

Einarr had to agree. “Okay. So she destroyed her bridge once she was past. Now we just need to find a path. There’s nothing up here, though.”

Troa ran his hands along the walls on both sides of the tunnel before he agreed to that. “I think I see something, but you’re not going to like it.”

Einarr followed Troa’s gaze down into the crevasse and groaned. There, about eight feet down, a trio of levers stuck out of the rock. “You’re right. I’m not. And it looks like it’s just out of reach, too… What’s that?”

“What’s what?” Troa turned around to look where Einarr pointed.

“I think it’s another one of Urdr’s… hints.” Einarr bent down to pull the roll of bark out from the tiny crack it was wedged in on the edge of the crevasse. “So you’ve sacrificed a friend just to catch one old woman, have you?” He read. “Best choose carefully: the wrong lever will kill your support. Or don’t: I don’t mind if you die here. …Bah.”

Troa glanced down into the crevasse again. “So if we pull the wrong lever, we’re both dead.”

“Seems like it. And you’re both lighter and better with traps than I am.”

The scout swallowed. “I won’t let you down, milord.”

“If you fail, we’re both dead, the witch lives, and the weaving remains. Be absolutely sure of your choice.”

“I understand.” Troa looked uncomfortable, but he dropped his sword and shield and got down on his belly. He started inching over the ledge.

“So long as you do.”

As Troa lowered his chest over the ledge, Einarr got down on the ground as well to grab hold of his ankles. It was for the best that Troa was not much bigger than Sivid: Einarr could only just get the grip he needed. Worse, Einarr’s shoulders and fingers very quickly let him know exactly what they thought of this position. “What does it look like?”

When Troa answered, his voice carried much less strain than Einarr felt. “I see them. There are three levers, all completely unmarked. This is going to take me a minute.”

Please make it a short minute. “I understand.”


“No, wait, not that one!” Runa cried as Jorir started to move one of the plates on the puzzle lock. Quickly the dwarf shoved it back into place.

“Ye said the fourth from the bottom right, did ye not?”

“I did. I must have miscounted. It’s the one right above that.”

“I thought we already did that one?”

“That was a temporary place while we moved others out of the way. It should slot into that hole you just made and finish this up.”

“You’re sure?”

She opened her mouth to say of course, but then thought better of it. She took a few moments to confirm her arrangement. “I’m sure.”

“Fine.” Jorir stretched up to reach the last of the pieces and shove it into place. Then he stepped back and crossed his arms, waiting.

With a slow grinding noise the door slid open. Beyond it was a long, straight hallway. Water trickled down the walls and pooled shallowly on the floor. Runa smelled brine.

Jorir grunted. “We must have been going down all this time. That’s taking us below sea level.”

Runa hummed in agreement. “No place else to go but forward, though.”

“None. And that is why I’m sure it’s another trap.”


Einarr’s shoulders were on fire. His fingers were cramping, and he was sure Troa’s feet must be as numb as his face was red. A steady scraping sound came from below where Troa worked by the light of his rune. “Almost ready?”

“I found the mechanism the levers control. It’s almost the same as the one on the doors. Just hold on: I’ve nearly bypassed her little booby trap.”

“Hah! Glad to hear it. Will that open the path?”

“It should.” The scraping sound continued. Moments later, Einarr heard a snap, but it was not followed by cursing. Instead, a rope ladder dropped from the ceiling down into the crevasse – which was not actually bottomless, as revealed by Troa’s light rune. If the trap had sprung, Troa could have survived the fall.

Troa stowed his knife and the thin steel picks he had been using and grabbed hold of the ladder. “You can let go now.”

Einarr nodded. It took him a minute to convince his cramped fingers to relax, but once they did Troa performed a rather impressive flip to right himself and descend the ladder. Einarr tossed Troa’s shield on his back and slid the man’s sword through his baldric. It was awkward, but far preferable to the other options.

At the bottom of the crevasse, they saw before them a very regular rectangular doorway. Einarr smelled brine, and the rock up ahead was distinctly damp. “She has us going underwater. I don’t like it.”

“No. But forward is the only way.”

With a nod of agreement, they stepped into the hallway – as straight and regular as the door behind them. Almost immediately a shutter slammed closed, blocking their retreat. Einarr felt cool air on his foot and looked down: the shutter had clipped his boot. With a grimace, he continued on.

About halfway down the hallway, he could see that it ended in a wall, with yet another lever up near the ceiling. That was also the moment he heard the sound of many shutters opening, followed by the sound of rushing water. The hallway began to fill with seawater.


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Table of Contents


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.

Hi, Everyone! Allene here. We’re going to try something special with book 8, assuming I don’t exhaust myself in the process. In an effort to get my rankings higher on TWF and RRL, I’m aiming to post two chapters/day for the next two weeks (so, 28 chapters in 2 weeks, or what will probably be most of the book), and then go straight into book 9 when it’s done. Wish me luck!

Captain Kormund turned downright broody as the Eikthyrnir sailed away from their ill-fated ambush. It seemed he was also troubled by the other ship’s behavior.

No-one on board could explain why they had started to board and then simply disengaged. Some agreed with Einarr – plainly there was some sort of power struggle happening, as no rational captain would break off an attack at that moment. Others held with Vari, that the whole matter was an elaborate display of dominance.

What the Captain thought, no-one was sure. He ordered a double lookout, set them on course, and then retired to the stern of the ship, where he stared out over the water. No-one was willing to disturb him at this, at least not yet.

At dawn the next day, the dromon was once again visible behind them. It was plain when a sailor noticed its return by the moment they let out a curse entirely unrelated to what they had been about at the time. By breakfast there was not a soul aboard not speculating about the dromon save the Captain and his Mate.

The chatter became a dull roar of consternation and excitement as the day wore on, until there were some who forgot their duties as their speculations grew ever wilder.

“Enough!” Captain Kormund roared at this point, and chatter ceased.

“I don’t know any more than you, right now,” the Captain admitted. “About how they beat us at every turn, or why they let us go like they did, or why they’re after us in the first place. But they are unmistakeably after this ship.”

A brave voice piped up from among the sailors. “But why can’t we give ‘em the slip?”

The Captain shook his head. “I don’t know how they tracked us at night, and I don’t know how they found us again after they broke off yesterday. But what I do know is – we’re not licked yet.”

A cheer of agreement traveled around the deck.

“We’ve got a good wind now, although nought but empty seas for quite a distance. We’re bringing back the one hour rowing shifts, but I’m keeping us under full sail. If they can keep up with the Eikthyrnir with her at a full clip, I’m going to have to get clever.”

The cheer went around again, a bit more enthusiastic this time. Einarr nodded to himself. This was a very different ship than his father ran, but Kormund managed it masterfully. Einarr would be shocked if each and every one of these men weren’t as loyal to their captain as Erik or Tyr were to his father.

“That’s what I like to hear. Now, get to it! I want the first team manning their oars before the lookouts are back to their posts.”


They rowed under sail for as long as the wind was with them, but still the Valkyrian ship remained on their tail. Einarr began to wonder if they really were under the command of the Valkyrie that had nearly killed him last summer, and if so what reason she might have for coming after him. When he caught himself thinking this, he snorted. “That was a stupid jest, and you know it.”

He did, but he would have sounded more convincing, even to himself, if the other ship did anything other than gain on them, slowly but surely. And Einarr was not the only one beginning to fall prey to the more ludicrous theories.

Finally, though, the Captain turned them to the north after days of sailing, not knowing if or when the dromon would decide to attack in earnest. There would be another tiny archipelago, or shallows, or some other hazard that they could use to lose the dromon. Anything, he thought, to break the monotony of the chase.

The wind turned against them and they furled the sail. Even then, rowing against the wind, they only managed to gain a little on the other ship. Mutterings started again among the sailors, in spite of the confidence built from the Captain’s earlier speech. It should have been impossible for a dromon of that size, especially one with sea fire, to keep up with a longship built for speed over the open ocean. And yet, for more than a week now it had kept pace or gained on them. Dark mutters of black magic and captive vindstenger became more frequent around the deck of the ship.

Dark shapes were coming up on the horizon, somewhat larger than the rocky atoll they had played hide and seek in before. If they couldn’t lose the dromon here, Einarr thought they would have to hope for a storm – or they would have to catch the Order ship by surprise, which he felt less confident in since they had been trounced the other day.

The islands that rose into view as the Eikthyrnir scudded northward seemed somehow familiar to Einarr, in a way that left him feeling fainly queasy. He didn’t think he’d ever been near to Eskiborg, however.

One island in particular caught his eye. It rose tall out of the water, like the hand of a giant or a god. Dark cliffs fell toward water almost as dark, with no hope of a beach or a cove for shelter. Einarr’s breath caught in his throat: all this lacked to be the island where they had rescued Runa from the cult was a roiling storm above.

“Sir?” He hurried to where the Captain stood before the mast, his gaze continually scanning the horizon.

“What is it?”

“Where are we, exactly?”

“Somewhat north of where we wished to be, I’m afraid.”

“No, sir, this is important. Are we near Langavik?”

The captain’s mouth twisted in distaste. “What’s left of it, yes.”

A groan escaped from Einarr’s chest. “This is an evil place, sir. Please, even if it means we cannot shake our tail, do not tarry here.”

That got a furrowed brow and crossed arms from Captain Kormund. “Explain.”


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For a long moment, all five men stared in shock at the figure on the floor. Finally, though, Einarr was able to focus on her face.

“That’s not Runa.”

Barri and Bollinn blinked, looking harder. Sivid shrugged, as though trying to rid himself of a weight.

“…Are ye sure?” Jorir ventured to ask, even his voice hesitant.

Einarr didn’t answer, merely stepped forward to take the poor woman by her shoulders and roll her over on her back. With the hem of one of her sleeves he wiped the blood from her face. The unfortunate woman would have been thirty if she were a day, and her face would have been long even if her ordeal had not rendered it haggard.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Moisture glistened on Barri’s cheeks. “Thank the gods.”

Einarr started to nod, then noticed the pendant that showed through a rent in her bodice. Carefully, trying to touch the rapidly cooling flesh no more than he had to, he lifted it for all to see. It was the emblem of the Singers. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I think we might know what’s in store for her if we don’t hurry.”

With a series of nods the five rose and started for the stair they had descended. Only, at some point during their battle, the door had been closed behind them – nearly as seamlessly as the dungeon door above had been. Bollinn cursed. Einarr merely sighed.

“Sivid?”

“Worth a shot. Gotta do something about the good light, though.”

Einarr nodded in agreement. “Let’s go check the room the gaoler vanished into.”

The others exchanged some strange looks, but Einarr ignored them until they were inside the guardroom.

“What did he mean?” Bollinn asked, crossing his arms as they stepped into the apparently empty room.

“Nearly got ourselves trapped in the stairwell before. Can’t see the mechanism if you’ve got a real flame. And that gaoler has to have gone somewhere.”

They marked time by the staccato spurts of cursing that drifted across the dungeon from Sivid’s progress – or lack thereof – on the door. All of them were aware of two things while they searched, however. First: the gaoler clearly had an escape route from this room, as he was nowhere to be found. Second, and more importantly, too much time was passing.

Finally, after a fourth spate of cursing reached their ears, Barri kicked at the wall and the sound came back hollow. All four men in the room exchanged a silent look.

“Someone go get Sivid, will you? Barri, let’s see if we can’t get through there.”

***

The hollow spot opened up on a passage not much wider than a broad man’s shoulders, lit sporadically with the same blue lanterns they had seen throughout the circle fort. Einarr led the way, Sinmora once again in hand, as they hurried down the narrow passage in the pool of normal light provided by Barri’s torch. The sound of their boots on the stone was loud in Einarr’s ears, but better that than to arrive too late.

At one point, not too far back from the gaoler’s cell, the passage split. One path curved back the way they had come, more or less. A scrap of cloth that could have been from the gaoler’s tunic was caught on a hook in the wall going that way.

“So that’s how he locked us in there with that beast.” Jorir grumbled.

Einarr grunted. “But he’s not the one we’re after, and I’ll bet good ivory that we can get into the keep proper on this other path.”

“How much good will that do us?” Bollinn called up from behind, blowing out his moustache.

Einarr was moving again before he answered, his strides devouring the ground under him. “You see any sign of a temple or an altar outside? No? Me, neither. So it’s probably inside, somewhere protected. Especially since the lord of the keep seems to be this high priest we’ve heard about.”

No-one else voiced any complaints, unless one wished to count the loud breathing of the dwarf as he half-jogged to keep up. Eventually their pool of natural light met the end of the occasional pools of blue. Shortly thereafter, Barri’s torch illuminated the inside of a door.

Einarr held up a hand for silence, slowing his own steps to tiptoe the remaining few feet. Not that caution at this point was likely to aid them much, but it was also unlikely to hurt. He pressed his ear to the crack at the edge of the door.

Outside, a pair of boots tramped past, but no voices accompanied them. Einarr pressed his lips together, hardly daring to breathe, until he could hear them no longer. When they had not returned after a long count of ten, he unhooked the latch.

The door slid to the side on ingeniously tiny, nearly silent runners. Einarr wasted a few breaths ensuring he would remember the design: he had never seen its like, but perhaps someday he could make use of the trick. Then he stepped out of the recessed panel that hid their passageway and into a broad flagstone hallway. Rugs were laid to run along its length, and while the local lights seemed to wash everything in the gray of twilight, Einarr was reasonably certain those rugs were predominately crimson.

Moments later the rest of the team had emerged from the passage and Sivid was very carefully closing – but not latching – it behind them. They spread along the wall they had emerged from, placing themselves in shadow as they sought a clue as to where to go.

The sound of chanting from down the hall raised the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck. Without waiting, he stole down the hallway towards the sound. It was, at the very least, a place to start. Now if only I’m not too late…


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For two weeks the ships pressed on, following the last path the Skudbrun had for the storm, certain that it would only dissipate when those who rode its winds willed it.

Even the last known path of the storm, however, was nearly a week old by the time they put out to sea. Every available hand was put on watch duty, searching for storm or sign of land. Even when Einarr was not on watch duty he watched, however. What else was he supposed to do? Even still he could not escape a growing sense of unease and listlessness.

Finally, three weeks out from Mikilgata, Stigander realized they were nearing Langavik and called a detour. Perhaps, with a little luck, someone there would have news for them.

It was the first spot of good news Einarr had heard in three weeks. Still he kept his eyes trained on the horizon. Runa was strong, true, but she was already under their power. The faster they spotted their target…

“You’ll do no-one any good this way, you realize,” Jorir grumbled from his side.

Einarr jumped. How long had the dwarf been standing there? “I’m fine.”

“Your pallor says otherwise. And you haven’t blinked since noon. Take a rest before you end up sea-blind.”

“I… what?”

Jorir harrumphed. “Think, man. Watch shifts are half-length, aren’t they? Why do you think that is?”

Einarr shrugged and continued scanning the horizon.

“Eyestrain and glare, milord. Eyestrain and glare. I know you’re worried about that lass o’ yours, but the same can be said for every man aboard these ships. Surely you don’t think her so delicate as to wilt the moment she’s out of the sun?”

Now Einarr did look down. After-images of the flat horizon swam over his boots. “No. I’m actually more worried what might happen if she provokes them.”

“Go. Sleep. I’ve got some leaf you can chew if you need it. Rest your eyes: you need those. And have some faith in your woman!”

Einarr chuckled under his breath. “Have you been talking with Father?” He shook his head, suddenly exhausted. “Nevermind. You’re right. I’ll take a break.”

Jorir harrumphed again as Einarr trudged away from his vigil at the railing. He would need to be coherent to learn anything in the port, after all – and there was no way he wasn’t going out looking for information.

***

Langavik had more in common with Apalvik or Attilsund than with Kem or even Mikilgata, but this was neither a raid nor a resupply. The long, narrow harbor was lined by stone warehouses, though, which only turned to public halls and homes some ways back. These waters were in the middle of prime whaling territory, and so those warehouses would most likely be very well insulated and used for processing their catch.

Whaling territory, though, meant that someone would have had a weather-eye out for storms, and one as unusually violent as the one they sought was bound to have been noted. Even as their two ships slipped into the harbor Einarr moved to join the small group of men who were to go ashore. When Bardr furrowed his eyebrows to see him there, Einarr challenged him with a look. We’re seeking my betrothed, he thought. Are you really going to keep me back here?

In spite of a long, weighing look, Bardr did not actually move to keep Einarr aboard. He could have, technically, although Einarr had a suspicion his father would take his side instead of the Mate’s.

As the Vidofnir and Skudbrun slid into two empty spots on the docks, they saw no people around. Einarr furrowed his eyebrows: it was mid-morning, and not a feast day he’d ever heard of. So where was everyone?

Men to his right and left stood with similar looks of consternation painted on their faces. Either the locals had some very strange customs, or something was terribly wrong.

The only sound as they disembarked onto the docks was the drumbeat of boots against wood. The men of the Skudbrun who joined them to a man had their mouths set in grim lines. Almost as if they already know what we’re going to find. The Brunnings said nothing if that was the case, though, and the two teams of men trooped into the eerily quiet city.

The pier was not long, as such things go, but with every step Einarr hoped to see someone moving around on land, even if only to duck between buildings like a frightened rabbit. Trabbi’s face mirrored his own disappointment when they stepped onto solid ground and still saw no sign of life.

Barri – the selfsame Brunning Einarr had dueled during his ill-fated flight with Runa not six months ago – scowled about them. “Brunnings, pair up with Vidofnings. Don’t let anyone go alone.”

“Why?” The question burst unbidden from Einarr’s mouth, but many of his fellow Vidofnings nodded in agreement.

Barri’s mouth twisted around into a grimace. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a port like this. Don’t rightly know what happened… but don’t split up. We lost some good men that way.”

Bardr grunted. “You heard the man. Pair off, don’t get separated. Looking first and foremost for signs of life. Won’t get much information out of dead men or empty buildings.”

A grunt of assent went around the two teams and they paired themselves off. Einarr stepped forward early on, intending to go with whoever among the Brunnings was similarly eager, but Bardr’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. With a roll of his eyes, eager to get on with the search but not eager to be reprimanded for going against the Mate, he waited. In the end, the last three remaining were Einarr, Bardr, and Trabbi.

“I can’t stop you from coming,” Bardr explained. “But I can do everything in my power to make sure you come back in one piece.”

“If you insist.” Einarr shrugged and moved toward one of the apparently empty buildings.

Perhaps more troubling than the silence in the streets, Einarr thought, was the fact that the door to the warehouse was not latched. He paused a long moment after arriving at the door, his hand still resting lightly on the wood that had already shifted under his fingers. The distinctive odor of rancid blubber wafted out through the crack.

Bardr cleared his throat. With a nod, Einarr pushed the door the rest of the way open. His nose was assaulted by the soap-smell of rancid fat overlaid by the metallic tang of blood.

Inside, spatters of blood covered overturned crates. Some of these had unprocessed blubber spilling out. And there, in the center of the room, a bearded man in a butcher’s apron hung from the rafters.


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