Their vigil over Sivid’s work seemed to last for ages, even though the fact that no other guards arrived suggested he made fast work of the lock. A grinding of stone on stone signalled the opening of the door.

“We’re in,” Sivid confirmed.

All five men vanished through the doorway, with Einarr in the lead and Sivid bringing up the rear. The door closed behind them with the sound of stone on stone and a muffled click.

The narrow stair was ablaze with the blue-burning lanterns that illuminated the streets, but no guards waited inside to greet them. Einarr frowned, but did not hesitate: haste was their ally right now, and he was most of the way to the first corner when Sivid closed the door behind them.

Down they went, blades still drawn as they rushed for the bottom and the cell where Runa was held. Barri raced at his shoulder just a half-pace behind, aiming to strike at anyone who managed to dodge Einarr’s shield.

No guards rushed up to meet them.

Surely that couldn’t have been all of them, could it? Einarr scowled, now, and held up his shield to warn those behind him he intended to slow his descent. A handful of steps later the five came to a stop in the now eerily silent stairwell.

Einarr sheathed his sword and started looking about at the walls. “Something’s not right. There should be more of them.”

Sivid, too, was scowling. “You’re right. I don’t like this.”

The next lantern was two steps farther down from Einarr. He stepped down and reached for it. “Grab a light. Let’s not get stranded in the dark down there, at least.”

Then he was moving again, not running this time but still at a decent clip, the lantern held in place of his sword. If he was wrong he would have to do some quick juggling, but a certainty in his gut suggested he was not.

The silence continued all the way to the bottom of the stair. Einarr was beginning to feel as though he were in a pit rather than a castle dungeon, and the impression was not helped by the cold blue-purple lights they carried.

The bottom of the stair was a small antechamber carved from the living rock, much as the stairs themselves had been, with a single small door leading into a larger chamber. Einarr raised his lantern high as he stepped through, the feeling of wrongness from before slowing his steps.

The chamber walls curved off to either side, broken up now and then by a barred door, for as far as the light of their lanterns stretched. Einarr pursed his lips before moving off to the right, Jorir and Sivid in his wake, to begin peering into the cells. The Brunnings took the left-hand wall.

I’m missing something, Einarr thought after peering into yet another empty cell. Surely by now Runa should have realized they were there? Unless… A stone dropped in Einarr’s belly. What if they’d moved her after he and Sivid had retreated earlier?

A high-pitched, almost wheezing laughter rose from the edge of the darkness at the far side of the chamber. Einarr whirled around, lifting the lantern for a better look, but he needn’t have bothered. Another had flared to life, revealing a sallow-faced man with stringy hair and the armor of a guardsman. The ring of keys at his belt said he was a gaoler.

“Wheee heee hee,” he half-wheezed again. “Thought you’d come back, we did. Decided to show you our hospitality, we did.”

“What have you done with the Lady? Not six hours ago I heard her down here.”

“The lady, you say?” The ill-looking gaoler laughed again and nearly choked on the sound. “The lady is well taken-care of, sirs, and I’m afraid you’ve more important problems to concern yerselves with.”

A crooked grin, filled with crooked yellow teeth, spread across the gaoler’s face and he gave a strong tug on a rope that hung behind him. “Farewell, me hearties. Lord Urkúm sends his regards.”

The gaoler slid to the side and out of sight even as a much larger door behind him swung open. A primal scream rang out from beyond that door as out stumbled a hideous she-troll, a massive club clutched in her equally massive fist.

The she-troll screamed again, her eyes red with madness, and charged straight for Einarr, her bare dun breasts swinging pendulously with every step as she brought the club up in a two-handed grip over hair the color of dirty straw.

Einarr tossed his lantern at her head, not caring if it hit, and Sinmora rasped from its sheath. He bought himself just enough time to fling himself out of the way of her first strike with the tree-sized weapon.

Where did they find a troll? Einarr was quite certain he did not want to know the answer to that. No wonder, though, that there was no proper firelight to be had here. Trolls wouldn’t tolerate it, and neither would a good number of other monsters.

The troll bellowed again and swung the club over her head. She seemed to be staring at Jorir’s shield. Einarr swallowed against a dry throat as she swung and the hollow clang of wood on gold rang out in the chamber. The force of her swing knocked the dwarf back a good three feet, but he seemed otherwise unharmed.

If only we could have brought Reki with us… Einarr charged in at the troll’s back, knowing even as he did so that it was futile, hoping to buy the Brunnings time enough to do something about her. He hacked across her back with Sinmora. A thin line of dark blood appeared, and was just as quickly reabsorbed into her body. He spat a curse.

Sivid moved in now, slashing with blade and hand axe at once even as Jorir cut viciously at her knee. If the she-troll hadn’t been enraged before, she certainly was now.

The chamber grew brighter – not a lot, and not enough to change the quality of the light, but brighter – as the Vidofnings continued their futile sword dance about the she-troll. Yes. More. Come on. More fire.

Fire – real, yellow fire – was the only hope they had against the creature without access to certain forged magics they lacked unless Jorir could figure out how to make his shield become flame again. Still they danced about the troll, distracting her, because to do otherwise was to leave their allies undefended while they prepared the means of her defeat.

Sivid dropped hastily to a crouch – maybe not hastily enough, as when he stood his axe hand hung limp.

Einarr cut at the beast’s hamstrings. That’s right. Leave him alone for a bit, pay attention to me.

A bowstring sang, and a star of brilliant warm light shot towards the she-troll’s ribs.

In the same moment, the light grew near as bright as day and as warm as a campfire. Jorir wasted only a moment staring at the shield in surprise. Whatever he had done, it had worked, and now he charged at the troll shield first.

She roared again, this time in pain, as the flaming arrow embedded itself in her side. That was a wound that wouldn’t just heal immediately: she charged at Barri, who held another fire arrow already nocked, ignoring Jorir as though she had forgotten him.

That was her fatal mistake. Barri loosed once more, striking her knee this time. That stumble provided Jorir all the time he needed. He leapt for the she-trolls shoulders, raising the now-burning shield above his head. As the svartdverger landed, he brought the edge of the shield down like an axe on the back of her neck. The metal bit deep, and the troll collapsed to the ground, dark blood oozing from the wound that had nearly decapitated her.

The others approached, Einarr and Sivid still catching their breath, as Jorir stepped down from the she-troll’s back.

“Nicely done.” Einarr patted his liege-man on the shoulder. “How’d you get it to work?”

“Desperation’s all I can figure. We should be getting on, now that the beast…”

The beast was no longer a beast. Where just moments before had lain a slain she-troll was now a flaxen-haired woman in soiled velvets.


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The area of the yard in front of the dungeon entrance was, if anything, more heavily guarded than the front had been. As Einarr had feared, their hasty disposal of the torch before had given them away and made getting back in much harder. He glared at Sivid, despite knowing why: should Runa be lost, Jarl Hroaldr would need to name a new heir and Einarr would need to find a new bride. Should Einarr fall, the Cursebreaker fell, and with him all hope of reclaiming their home. It was not a fact he liked to dwell on. Thankfully, the situation ahead of them demanded too much attention to allow room for such things.

Ahead of the dungeon door stood twenty warriors, who for all their helms revealed could as easily have been monsters as men. Einarr was abruptly reminded of the Grendelings appearance under the effect of Astrid’s battle-chant. He frowned. “Looks like it’s four apiece. Think we can kill them quick enough not to draw more from around front?”

“Dicey,” Bollinn muttered. “Wish our distraction had drawn a few more men away from the keep.”

Jorir grunted, scowling at the group blocking their way. “Always like that, isn’t it? Anyone a quick shot with their bow?”

Barri nodded. “Maybe even fast enough.”

Sivid agreed. “Between the two of us, I’m sure we can cover you.”

“Good,” Einarr breathed. “I think we’re gonna need it. …Jorir, you come in from the left and I’ll take the right if you’ve got center, Bollinn.”

The hook-nosed man nodded.

“Fast and quiet. Give us to a slow count of ten to get in place, would you?” Einarr directed the question at the two archers, who also indicated agreement. He breathed out, suddenly nervous. “All right. Fast and quiet.”

Jorir dashed off to the left, both faster and quieter than a man would expect of any dwarf, while Einarr hurried a distance to the right, ducking down an alley to put a building or two between himself and the Skudbrun’s Mate. Even a slow count of ten didn’t give them very long to get in position before –

The first arrow whizzed through the air, lodging itself underneath the helmet of one of the guards near the edge of the group. He crumpled.

Time’s up. Einarr pressed his lips together in a grim line as he charged out of the byway toward the stone door they had found earlier.

Another arrow sailed through the air, and another guard crumpled. The guard Einarr charged at looked about himself in a frantic way. Einarr did not give him a chance to figure out what was going on: he cut upwards with Sinmora and the guard’s head snapped backwards unnaturally with a spray of dark blood. Ein.

A few paces ahead of him, a flash of gold caught Einarr’s attention as one of the warriors toppled like a tree, taken out at the knee. A second flash of Jorir’s axe took the enemy’s head before silent shock could transform into a scream. A third man fell to an arrow even as Bollinn impaled another on his blade through his maille.

Now their enemies were reacting, however. The next arrow clanged loudly off of one of their enemies’ helmets even as Sinmora struck another in the throat. Tveir. Jorir tackled the one who tried to run, his ears probably still ringing from the arrow. They were running out of time.

Sivid was charging into the yard now even as another pair of arrows found their targets. Barri’s boast had been no idle one, with shooting like that.

“Cover me!” Sivid made a beeline for the dungeon door. Between him and it were six of the remaining ten guards. Bollinn was locked down. Jorir was still getting back to his feet after dispatching the tackled guard.

Einarr growled and the man who would have been his next target dashed away. All yours, Barri. If they wanted to succeed, they had to get Sivid to the door.

One of the two guards on Bollinn had put his back to Einarr: that was a mistake. Einarr dashed forward and kicked hard at the back of the man’s knee. He staggered forward and then Einarr was moving again, running hard for the cluster blocking Sivid’s path. Bollinn joined him four paces later.

“My thanks,” the other man breathed, his pace not slacking.

Einarr only grunted, his attention on the fight ahead.

Sivid got there first, his own sword flashing like a silver fish at the first of the guards in his path. He knocked the helmet from his opponent’s head.

The face that was revealed there belonged to neither man nor beast, nor any strange hybrid of the two. Einarr pulled up short, but only for a heartbeat. Long enough for Sivid’s blade to flash again and the monstrous head to be parted from its body.

Einarr shook his head. He couldn’t afford to waste time gawking. Sivid was no slouch, but it would be the worst sort of cowardice not to assist with a mob like that. He surged forward, hacking at the nearest guardsman.

Bollinn surged ahead even as another pair of arrows whistled past Einarr’s ears, embedding themselves in the eyes of two more helmets.

Moments later, Bollinn, Einarr and Sivid all stood in front of the dungeon door, catching their breath. Moments later they were joined by the other two.

“We get everyone?” Barri asked as he jogged up, the last to join them.

“Seems so.” Einarr had been watching their little battlefield for signs of life and finding none. “Sivid? Whenever you’re ready.”

Sivid took a deep breath and nodded. “Let’s get to it, then.”

Einarr moved to stand behind the man, his arms folded in a defiant gesture. “We’ve got your back.”

The mousey little man turned his attention to the stone door, now ignoring the world around him. The others joined Einarr, forming a ring to shield the man who worked at the hidden lock.


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