Category: Jotunhall

1.34 – Homecoming

By the time the Gufuskalam made landfall in the Kjelling lands, not far from where the Vidofnir once again moored, nearly a month had passed since they departed Kem. The seas were smooth and the wind friendly, thanks probably in part to the presence of the Isinntog, and Erik could now move about with the aid of a crutch acquired during their resupply.

Erik was at the rudder as the Gufuskalam approached the shore under the orange light of sunset, his mending leg extended out straight ahead of him. Einarr, for his part, was just as glad to have to row: it helped distract from the gnawing anxiety that had built over the course of their return. I have the Isinntog in hand, he reminded himself. And I have a friend who is explicitly loyal to me. Surely this will settle things.

It was no longer even strange thinking of the ruddy-faced, black-haired dwarf as a friend: after more than a month largely confined to a skiff like the Gufuskalam, the only other option was hatred. For his part, Jorir was presently sounding the depths off the prow and watching for rocks, even as he regaled them with a tale from before he was trapped on Svartlauf.

“Easy does it,” Jorir interrupted himself.

Einarr’s oar scraped sand. He pulled it in as Tyr did the same on the other side, moments before they heard the low grind of wet sand against their hull. Jorir vaulted the side of the boat, landing with a splash. Once he was out of the water, Einarr tossed him the line. A moment’s thought gave him another idea, and he, too, hopped out of the Gufuskalam.

“What are you doing, boy?”

Einarr waded toward the back of the boat, where the still-frigid water came nearly to his chest. “Making it easier for Erik to get out.”

Tyr raised his hands in a “what can you do” gesture, and Einarr heard Erik’s answering guffaw. He probably did not, in fact, need the help out, but Einarr still thought it better to ease the transition. Better to be doing something by far. He had wanted to provide something extra for Erik’s sacrifice, but now that extra would become Jorir’s reward.

“Line secure,” came the call. Only a moment later, the stern lodged itself on the sandy shore. Einarr pulled himself into the boat from the water side to see Tyr offering Erik a hand up from his seat near the tiller.

“Go on ahead. I’ll be right after.”

Erik accepted Tyr’s shoulder for balance as he sat on the edge of their boat and swung his legs out over the shallows. Once his feet dangled, he lowered himself the rest of the way down and balanced against the boat until Tyr passed down his crutch. Einarr waited until Tyr had descended to pull the treasure sack from beneath the deck boards. Only then did he join the other three on shore where they set to making a camp for the night.

* * *

The spruce wood their path led them through in the morning was in full bloom. That, combined with the knowledge that his father was already returned, lightened Einarr’s heart as they stood at the head of the path for Kjell Hall. “Before we continue,” he said. “I just want to say it has been my honor to travel with all of you. Thank you for accompanying me on this quest.”

His odd moment of sentimentality was met by laughter from the two who had joined with the Vidofnir, and statements to the effect that there had nearly been fighting over who would be released to go. Jorir, though, said nothing, and his expression had something of the odd twist it had shown when he received the tafl king as a token of his oath. In the full light of day, it almost looked… wistful.

“But. I’m sure the Jarl’s lookouts already know we’re here. We should get going.”

* * *

Einarr led his crew up to the open gates of the Hall, stepping two strides outside. “Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, and his companions have returned from their quest!”

“The son of Stigander and his crew are well-come to this Hall,” came the formal response – somewhat less warm than the response his father had gathered last winter, but that was only to be expected. He could not help breathing a sigh of relief: that they were invited in at all meant that the Jarl had probably not changed his mind.

When Einarr stepped through into the perpetual dimness of the Hall, he saw his father striding across the room toward him, arms outstretched. “You made it!”

Before he could blink, Einarr was clapped into one of his father’s infamous bear-hugs. “Good to see you, too, pabbi.”

“What kept you? I thought you’d beat us here.” Then he looked more closely at his son’s companions and his brows knit. “Where’s Erik?”

“On his way.” Einarr offered a smile of reassurance. “He’s not moving so quick right now, but I’ll let him tell you why.” He shifted the weight of the shield on his shoulder, his eyes scanning the room and not finding the one face he hoped most to see. “Any luck on your hunt?”

“Not as much as I’d like, but unless I miss my guess you’ve brought something.”

He turned his attention back to Stigander’s cheerful face. “A few somethings. Before that, though, there’s someone you should meet.” He gestured behind himself for the dwarf to come forward.

Once again, Jorir went even a step farther than Einarr expected. When he stepped up to Einarr’s side, the dwarf knelt.

“Father, this is Jorir, who swore to me on Svartlauf under circumstances better described later. He has served admirably and well in the time since, and so I am pleased to call him my liege-man.”

Stigander raised his eyebrows, but the expression was proud. “Well well well. Rise, Jorir, and I will welcome you among the Vidofnings. We three shall discuss this later, however, when the company is not quite so public.”

“Agreed, and I believe I see Erik coming up on the palisade.”

Stigander spared a look outside. Einarr wished he could have spared his father more of the shock of seeing one of his strongest warriors hobbling along on a crutch, but it was not to be.

“It’s why you beat us here. We took a detour to find a healer.”

Stigander nodded, mute for but a moment. “Since everyone’s here, you’d best be on with it.”

Anxiety grasped Einarr’s belly, but he nodded. His first step towards the Jarl’s throne was hesitant. Deep breath. One step at a time. Einarr swallowed, and then strode forward as though his father’s kingdom still outranked the Jarl’s. As he walked, he slipped the Isinntog out of the sack he carried. Two paces from where Jarl Hroaldr sat, staring with what to Einarr felt like contemptuous amusement, he dropped to one knee and bowed before his father’s oldest friend.

“My Lord Jarl. At the dawning of spring, you sent me forth on a quest to prove my devotion to your daughter, and declared that the artifact you sent me after was to be her morning-gift. Today I return to you with the Isinntog, as you demanded.” He held the torc between his hands as though about to crown someone with it and raised it toward the jarl. “I have fulfilled the quest you asked of me, my lord, and I would ask that you now fulfill the promise it rested on.”

The torc was lifted from his hands. Jarl Hroaldr examined it, still standing, and spoke. “You have demonstrated your devotion amply enough, but you still have not demonstrated your ability to provide. You bring me her morning-gift, but there is still the matter of a bride price, still the matter that you have no hall, and still the matter that you have no men to crew the ship you also lack.”

“I beg your pardon, jarl, but that is no longer strictly true. We left as three, and returned as four.”

Jarl Hroaldr’s lip curled in a sneer. “I see one svartdvergr. You have no men. Even should we accept your dwarf, however, there is still the matter of a bride-price, of which I will accept none until you have a hall. Or did you intend to give me grandchildren aboard your father’s ship?”

Laughter rose up around the hall: Einarr blushed.

“I accept the Isinntog as we agreed, and as proof of your intentions toward my daughter. I shall not attempt to marry her off until you have returned to me with proof of lands of your own, and at least a handful of loyal men, or until five years have passed.”

Einarr’s blush turned to a blanch. Five years, to undo the Weaving or found a new holding. “I understand,” he said.

“Excellent.” Now Jarl Hroaldr smiled, and for the first time in a long time Einarr thought it friendly. “Rise, and enjoy the merriment.”

“My thanks. If I may, there are some few gifts I should like to present those who helped me.”

The Jarl raised his arm in assent, and Einarr turned to face the rest of the room. It was odd having so many eyes on him – odd, but not bad. “Well then, first off, Father. This would have been impossible without Erik and Tyr along, although I understand competition was fierce.”

Stigander came forward slowly, evidently a little perplexed as to why he would be honored even still.

Einarr pulled the gold flagon from his sack. “I saw this during my search, and since the best one on the ship was buried with Astrid I thought you should have it.”

“Thank you, son.” Stigander’s voice was unacustomedly quiet, and he slipped back into the crowd as soon as Einarr nodded.

“Tyr. Without your quick thinking by the kalalintu islands, I don’t think we all would have made it to Svartlauf in the first place.” Tyr came forward a little less reservedly than his father had. His place in the quest had definitely entitled him to a reward. “I’m afraid everything I saw that you might have had use for was sized for the giant, but I thought you might find something to do with these.” He handled the string of rubies almost as reverently as he had the Isinntog just minutes before.

The older man grinned, and Einarr knew he, too, was thinking of his wife. “Lovely.”

Tyr tucked the rubies into his belt and melted back into the crowd. Einarr was down to two, and choosing who to honor first was one of the more difficult choices he had ever made. In the end, he settled on “Erik.”

He paused to give the burly man time enough to hobble forward on his stick into the clearing ahead of Einarr.

“Your bravery and sacrifice on the island of Svartlauf is worthy of more than I am capable of rewarding. Thank you, my friend, and I hope you find some merit in this.” Einarr now held out the giant-sized ivory ring with pearls. It seemed to shine in the dimness of the Hall, but thankfully was not nearly so effeminate as the Isinntog had been. Erik turned it over in his hands before blinking and peering at the inner ring.

“There is more merit in this gift than you give it credit for,” he said as he bowed his way back out and into the crowd.

“And now, finally, Jorir, if you will step forward.”

The dwarf moved unhesitatingly, either to spite the Jarl’s scorn or because it did not reach him.

“When you swore to me, I had my misgivings, and yet over the past weeks you have been as loyal a retainer as I could have asked for. If it were not for your efforts, we might have lost Erik before we reached Kem. As your lord, it falls to me to equip you. Please, take this shield, and use it well.”

“Gladly.”

Einarr could not later have said how he managed it, but in a single smooth motion Jorir accepted the golden shield from his hand and pressed his forehead against Einarr’s knuckles. Einarr stood a moment longer, perplexed once again by the level of loyalty his liege-man displayed. He did not notice that the rest of the hall was surprised into stillness until he, too, slipped away from the Jarl’s seat.


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2.1 – Coming Soon

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1.33 – To Catch a Thief

Einarr took off at a sprint down the pier. The two could not have got far yet, and he remembered their faces. Jorir kept up admirably well, despite his shorter legs.

“You remember what they look like?” Einarr asked between breaths.

“Well enough.”

They pulled up short where the pier met dry land. There were only two ways the boys could have gone; a disturbance in the dockside market crowd said the answer was left. A heartbeat later Einarr, too, was dashing off after the ripples his fish made as it swam through the crowd.

He did not hear the dwarf’s footsteps pounding after him; a glance over his shoulder revealed Jorir examining something on the pavement. A glance was all he could spare, however, as the crowd was reluctant to be shouldered aside a second time in so short a period.

Scowling, Einarr gathered his breath without slowing. “Stop! Thief!”

Now the crowd parted for him easily. He began to close on the fugitive more quickly: it seemed some of the people farther ahead didn’t care to let the boy escape either. Bellowing like that had been risky: while Kem was at least nominally Northern, and the Gufuskalam was here on legitimate business, this close to Imperial waters it was still chancy.

“Thief!” He yelled again for good measure.

A dark-haired man in a butcher’s apron sauntered towards Einarr from down the street, clutching the boy’s arm in his outsized hand. The treasure sack was nowhere to be seen. “This the brat you’re looking for?”

“One of ‘em. Where’s your friend?”

The thief spat at the ground. For his trouble, Einarr boxed his ear.

“Seems like every other week this one an’ his lads are in and out of the guard-house.” The butcher jerked the young man forward and offered his arm to Einarr. “Do as you will.”

Einarr gripped the arm hard enough the boy winced. “Come with me.” Hopefully Jorir got the other one.

* * *

Jorir had, in fact, found the other one. He returned to the Gufuskalam only a few minutes after Einarr did, dragging his prisoner rather more unceremoniously than Einarr had. From the looks of them, Tyr hadn’t gone overboard without a fight. Both boys were shoved down on unattended crates on the pier, where a somewhat drier Tyr had joined his crewmates.

“These the ones?”

“Them’s the ones.”

“I think this is what you were looking for?” Jorir handed the sack he carried in his other hand to Einarr.

A quick glance inside revealed that everything was accounted for. He inclined his head to the dwarf in thanks. “Now. What to do with the two of you.”

The two young men sat sullenly, not yet seeing an escape.

“You see, as the son of a Thane, ordinarily I’d have my choice of punishments. Couple of strong backs like yours would make valuable thralls. I could gift you to my future father-in-law.” Now they looked nervous. That’s more like it. “Lucky for you, I don’t have room for two more people on that little boat of mine.” He waited until their expressions brightened, as though they thought they might get away with it after all.

Einarr smirked. “Or maybe not so lucky. In the process of stealing from me, you also attacked an unconscious man, and tried to drown another of my men. Back home, I’d be well within my rights to have you executed. I could hand you over to the guard and let you take your chances with the gallows.” Not that he would, even if he had a home port, but if he could put the fear of the gods in these two so much the better. “…Hm. Now there’s a thought. You see, I have little enough coin on me, and I expect to owe a fair amount to Master Mathis, there, who has been so kind as to treat the man you assaulted. Master Mathis, would you have a use for a pair of strong backs and deft fingers that plainly have nothing better to do with themselves?”

The apothecary studied them for a moment. “Not I. Keeping thralls in the city is frowned upon. But my brother-in-law maintains a homestead elsewhere in the Islands, and is forever complaining about a lack of hands to keep up with the work.”

“There you go, then,” Einarr said, looking at the boys as if that sealed the deal. “As you were so foolish as to steal from a Prince, plainly what is required is for you to learn the value of honest work. Master Mathis, will you accept these two scoundrels as payment for your services to my friend there?”

The apothecary’s smile was thin and not at all pleasant as he looked over the two thieves as one might inspect a horse. “Yes, I think a farm is just the place for a pair like the two of you, and I suspect I will more than make up for the loss in the foodstuffs of my sister’s gratitude.” He extended a hand toward Einarr, and the two shook on the deal. “Now, since that is dealt with, I’ve already explained to Tyr the treatment your patient will require while you sail. The medicines are in an oilcloth, I’m sure he can point it out if one of you will be taking charge of the care. He should recover his senses any time now.”

“We appreciate it. Will he… will he walk again?”

Mathis shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s too early to say. The knee didn’t seem to be too badly damaged, so it is possible.”

“Thank you. …Your brother-in-law, he is a good man, yes?” Einarr whispered the last: most men saw the value in treating their thralls well, but there were always exceptions.

The apothecary nodded. “My pleasure. And now,” he turned his attention to the newly-minted thralls, who were looking around as though for an escape route. “I must be going, before these two get it into their thick heads to do something stupid. Again.”

Mathis took the boys by their ears and led them off towards his apothecary.

“Well. That took gratifyingly little time. We should be able to get out with the next tide. Tyr, do we have the coin to reprovision?”

“Already seen to.”

“Wonderful. Next stop, Kjell Hall!”


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1.32 – Physician

Einarr had been sure the map was because the harborman didn’t expect he could read right up until he saw the directions that were sketched therein. “Many thanks,” he said, gesturing with the paper. Then he had set out with Jorir into the twisting warrens of Kem’s back streets, glad he had left the bag of treasures stowed under the Gufuskalam’s deck.

“Have you ever been here before,” he asked Jorir quietly.

“Not recently enough to be any help,” the dwarf grumbled back.

“Wasn’t after help. Harborman’s map covers that.” Einarr glanced sidelong down at his new liege-man. “What’s got you so sour of a sudden?

“A man’s life hangs by a thread, and mine’s tied t’it. You’d be sour, too.”

Ah. That. He turned to the left down a not-quite-muddy street, shaking his head. “My apologies. Neither Tyr nor I doubt that you’ve done everything in your power to keep Erik alive. That was a far stronger oath you swore back on Svartlauf than I asked for: it should have been enough on its own, but…”

“Fine.”

“I will release you if you wish. We have no hall, and only my Father’s ship, to return to.”

“You think me so fickle?”

“I’m not sure what to think of you.” Einarr shrugged. “But, I think this is the place.” He gave the courtesy of a rap on the door before stepping inside the healer’s shop.

Einarr’s first impression was of stepping into the home of an herb-witch. Shelves filled with vials and bottles and tiny sacks lined the walls, and the spicy smell of bog myrtle hung in the air. He also smelled something metallic, though, and no herb-witch he’d ever known kept a stock this large. They appeared to be the only two people in the room. “Hello?”

Einarr had to look twice to believe what he saw when a man’s head popped up from behind the counter. It was uncommon, but not unheard of, for a man to be trained in song-magic, but this was no Singer’s place, and no Northern man would be allowed near the apprenticeship of an herb-witch. The face that appeared, though, had the bearing of an Imperial – the second surprise. “I am Mathis.” He glanced at the dwarf as he stood, his height nearly identical to Einarr’s. “Might I ask what brings such an interesting company to my apothecary?”

“My friend, back on our skiff. He’s injured. The harborman sent us.” Truth be told, Einarr wasn’t entirely certain about trusting Erik to some Imperial “apothecary,” but he thought seeking out a Singer here would likely be fruitless.

“Can you be more specific?” Mathis was already gathering supplies into a sack, however.

Jorir spoke up. “Took a nasty hit to the leg. It’s crushed. I think I’ve managed to break the fever, and I’ve got it splinted best I could, but it still doesn’t look right t’me.”

“How long ago?”

“About ten days.” Einarr could ignore for now the strangeness of a male herb-witch: his manner was the same as the best ones in the more northerly ports.

Mathis tisked. “Well, I’ll have a look.” Several vials and smaller sacks moved from the shelf behind his counter into the bag he packed. “Gerrit! Mind the counter. I’m headed to the docks.”

***

As they drew near the pier, Einarr sped his pace as the sound of shouting carried over the water, forcing Jorir to break into a jog. He heard a splash from the direction of the Gufuskalam. Moments later, a pair of scruffy-looking teenagers dashed past their little party. Einarr didn’t get a good look, but he thought they were more likely Imperial than of the North. Einarr loped forward, anxious to find out what had happened on their skiff.

When he reached the Gufuskalam, Einarr received his second shock of the day. Tyr was just then pulling himself from the water, cursing a blue streak. On board, the deck boards were tossed about. Erik still lay with his foot in the air, but he had acquired a rather red mark on the left side of his face. “What happened here?”

“Thieves is what happened, and right cheeky ones at that!”

Jorir led Mathis down to the patient, explaining quietly what had already been done, what had seemed to help and what hadn’t.

“Thieves? The wisest sailor on the Vidofnir, and you got taken down by thieves?”

Tyr glowered at him. “You won’t be laughing when you think about what they were after. Bastards kicked Erik in the face, knocked me into the water, and made off with the whole cursed sack!”

“Godsdamn!” Einarr kicked at the concrete under his feet. “I saw them on our way here.” Chasing down a pair of thieves on his own left him at a disadvantage. Taking Jorir meant hoping the dwarf could keep up. Taking Tyr meant he left the two unknowns alone on their boat, and while he didn’t think Jorir would try to take off without them… “Tyr, go ahead and dry off, keep an eye on things. Give Mathis a hand if he needs it. Jorir, we have some thieves to catch.”

The dwarf’s black beard split in a wicked-looking grin.


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The End of Book One Approaches

UPDATE: Patreon poll is live!

So I’ve been calling it out in the comments for a couple weeks now, but this is the official announcement. There are exactly three chapters remaining before the end of Book One.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride so far, and I hope you’ll stick with me for Einarr’s next adventure.

In the next several days, I will be posting a poll on my Patreon, accessible to subscribers at the $10/month level, to help determine the direction of Book Two. If the format allows, I will leave this poll open to comments in case you have an Awesome Idea that is not reflected. (If not, I will also create an open thread to allow for this.) I cannot promise when/if I will get to these Awesome Ideas, but don’t be surprised if they start showing up on later polls…

1.31 – Kem Harbor

For more than a week the Gufuskalam sailed south, pushing as hard as its crew could drive the boat with sail and oar, and for more than a week the black-haired dwarf on board hovered over the injured sailor who had been given into his care. If Erik did not seem to be improving, neither did his condition seem to worsen. He even regained consciousness a few times. In spite of his better judgement, Einarr found his attitude toward Jorir softening. Even Tyr could acknowledge his efforts were genuine.

Mid-morning of the eighth day, Einarr stood up to stretch and caught sight of land on the horizon. “Hey Tyr, double-check the chart, will you?”

The older man was still unrolling the parchment when he answered. “That should be the place, and if I’m right we can make landfall today.”

Einarr whooped, the last week’s worry lightening in a rapid burst of exuberance. Jorir looked up like a spooked cat before his gaze darkened to a glare.

“Don’t disturb me patient.”

“Does he look any more disturbed now than he was five minutes ago?” It was a nagging concern of Einarr’s that his friend had hardly stirred during their journey. He still breathed, though, and the leg looked a little better since it had been elevated. “If you’ve got nothing better to do than fuss you can help me row. The sooner we make port, the sooner we can find us a proper healer.”

“An’ how will we be paying this healer?”

“All else fails? It can come out of Erik’s share. Given the choice between keeping his leg and having a pretty for a mistress, I’m sure he’d choose the leg.”

“You might hide that bauble about yer neck, then, before we go ashore. Anyone who sees it will know it’s the most valuable thing aboard.”

Einarr nodded. “Good thinking. I hadn’t intended to keep wearing it, mind, although it’s been good having the goddess of winds on our side this trip.”

“’Course not.”

* * *

The Flatey Islands were among the southernmost lands controlled by the thanes and jarls of the north, and the influence of the Empire could be seen even before one made port. The harbor was built up, and ships of all sizes docked to either side of concrete piers. Those piers were the first, most obvious sign of the southern influence, though the roads that came into view behind them were pale dirt. Two- and three-story buildings rose up behind the harbor, but if the building materials were the same the construction still looked alien to Einarr.

A man in official-looking robes with a pair of glass lenses resting over his nose already stood at the pier as the Gufuskalam nosed between two larger karves that sat high in the water, their hulls evidently empty for the moment. The wood of their hull knocked against the pier and the harborman motioned for Einarr to toss him the docking line.

A moment later their skiff was tied and Einarr took a large step up onto the concrete pier.

“Welcome to Kem. What business are you on?”

“We require a healer.” He gestured toward where Erik lay, his leg still held up by a rope tied above the yardarm.

The harborman’s eyes widened to see the extent of the injuries. “I’ll say. …How?”

“Fimbulvulf. This was the nearest port where we thought there might be aid.”

“I see. …Well, for a boat this size, there is just the small matter of the harbor tax, and then I believe I can direct you where to find a capable healer.”

Einarr suppressed a groan. He had not expected to need coin on this voyage, given their route and their goal, and so had little on him save the gifts from the jotünhall. “How much?”

“For a craft that size, and given the nature of your business, two silver marks per day.”

Einarr growled, but he already heard the knocking of wooden planks. What would be pocket change for his father was going to be a near thing for the four of them. “Tyr, I believe you’ll find some silver belowdecks. Will you pay the man?”

“Already got it.” Tyr met Einarr’s eyes and held it for a long time, his expression saying plainer than words that they would not have many days’ toll for this.

“Thanks.” Einarr nodded his understanding to Tyr, and the marks were passed from Tyr’s hand to Einarr’s to the harborman’s. “Now. You said you had a name for me.”

“Indeed. This way, please, and I will sketch you a map.”

Jorir stepped up to the prow of the Gufuskalam. “If it’s all the same to you, my lord, I would come along.” When Einarr gave him a questioning look, he continued. “His condition’s not changed in days, and anything more I could do for him at this point Lord Tyr could, as well. It might be good if I talked ta the healer meself.”

Tyr looked amused every time the dwarf called him a lord, but had not yet told him to drop it.

“You may be right at that.” Einarr reached down to give the dwarf a hand up to the pier. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”


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1.30 – Field Medicine

With Erik down, Tyr took the rudder and left the rowing to the strength of youth. Tempting as it was to let out the sail to travel nearly halfway around the island, everyone aboard worried that the jotün would notice something amiss. They were not safe until they crossed out through the storm. And so, Einarr rowed while Tyr kept their course and Jorir wrapped Erik in every woolen blanket on the boat and battened him to the deck.

What felt like hours later they turned away from the island, into the squall surrounding it. The oars tried to pitch out of Einarr’s frozen hands. Tyr fought with the rudder. Einarr was pleased to see Jorir taking his new position seriously: it seemed like every time he looked up he was either shielding Erik’s face from a breaking wave or mopping the man’s face – of sweat or seawater or rain, who could tell. And yet, for all of this, the storm seemed lighter now than it had when they broke through the first time.

When they all four made it through to the open seas outside the eternal storm, Einarr breathed a sigh of relief. The cold had nearly killed them on the way in, when they had Runa’s song to bolster them. That they hadn’t needed it this time was well-nigh miraculous.

“Thanks to Eira!” Jorir exclaimed, sitting back on his heels now that the sun shone on his shoulders again. “It’s the Isinntog that got us out, after all. ‘At’s why Fraener was so keen on keeping it.”

“And why you had to leave once you determined you couldn’t stop me?”

“Aye, and that. But you’ll not regret having me along.”

“With the oath you took? I should hope not.”

“Now will someone give me a hand with these sodding blankets? He’ll overheat in the sun, but they’re soaked.”

Einarr pulled in the oars, glad for the chance to move about a bit. While he unwrapped Erik’s wool cocoon, Tyr let down the sail. His hand brushed against his friend’s face as he worked: Erik’s face may as well have been on fire, as hot as it was. Einarr looked up from under his brows at the ruddy dwarf

He saw the look. “I’ll do what I can. But the quicker we get to Kem, the better.” A long pause followed, while Jorir dug about for the herbs he wanted. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’a said he got what he deserved.”

“What sort of oath did you offer the jotün when he caught you?”

Jorir snorted. “I promised him my smithing services, nothing else, until such time as he was no longer willing to provide food and materials. Old bastard never did hold up his end of the bargain.”

“Huh.” He still wasn’t sure how far he could trust his new liege man, but for the moment he seemed sincere enough. If he tended Erik well it would go a long ways toward remedying his past offences. “I believe you.” To his surprise, he did. “Once we get to Kem, I may have other tasks for you.”

“I will serve as I can.” While they spoke, the dwarf had mashed the herbs he chose into a pungent poultice that he then dabbed on Erik’s forehead. Einarr noted he only applied about half of it there. “That should serve to keep the fever down, and maybe numb the pain a little while I work on the leg.”

Tyr had long since cut away the pant leg on the afflicted side. The leg itself was a swollen mass of red-and-purple flesh, shading yet darker around where the fimbulvulf’s teeth had pierced the skin. Einarr shook his head: he may have threatened to toss Jorir overboard if Erik died, but even a skilled herb-witch might have trouble here. I can be reasonable and still make him prove himself.

Jorir trundled toward the prow of the Gufuskalam. “Might be a good idea to move what you can to the back,” he said, crouching down to lift up a deck board. “I’ll need this for the splint, and maybe one other besides.”

Tyr’s brows drew down, but Einarr stopped him from speaking with a raised hand. “We can deal with that. Is there anything else you need?”

Jorir drew his thick eyebrows down, studying his patient. “If there’s some way to rig up a sling, it would be good to let the blood drain out of his leg. Shame ye didn’t think ta bring a jar o’ leeches; they’d bring the swelling down right quick, and probably make him more comfortable besides.”

Tyr spat over the side. “Leeches are hard to come by in Kjelling lands. Too cold, not enough marshland.”

The dwarf harrumphed, sliding the deck board underneath Erik’s leg as carefully as he could. The unconscious man’s face twisted in spite of the precautions. “As ye say. Thus, if we can hang a sling from the yardarm it will at least keep his blood flowing.”

Einarr eyed the oar setup. “So long as we’re under sail it shouldn’t be too much of a problem, should it?”

Tyr studied the mast for a long moment. “I can make it work. First sign of a storm, though, and he’ll need to be moved.”

Jorir nodded, not looking up. With the leg resting on its board, he had moved to dabbing the remaining poultice on the least-healthy looking portions of the badly injured thigh.


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1.29 – Escape from Svartlauf

“That piece was given to me before I left on this journey by the woman who will be my bride, so do not scorn it. I’m afraid I’m still going to have to bind you until we’re underway on my boat.” Einarr strode behind Jorir and swiftly wrapped the rope about his wrists in a figure-eight pattern.

“Better than staying here, an’ it’s not like I’ve given you much reason to trust my word. …Satisfied?”

Einarr finished tightening the rope around Jorir’s wrists and let his hand drop to the long tail he’d left to keep hold of the prisoner. “Yeah. Lead on.” He patted the dwarf’s axe that now hung at his own belt near Sinmora.

A small hallway led off from the main chamber they had tumbled into. The Isinntog was now so bright Einarr was tempted to take it off, but that would require trusting the dwarf enough to loose his leash. Instead he squinted against the silvery glow as the sound of water lapping against rock reached his ears.

Jorir led Einarr to a small wooden pier jutting out into an underground stream – the source of the lapping noise. Tied at the pier was a small fishing boat, sized such that the dwarf could have operated it alone.

“It’ll be a bit cramped, but it’ll get us to your boat.”

“Seems seaworthy enough. Get in.”

Jorir shrugged, as though he had been half-expecting something else, and climbed into the prow of the boat. Einarr didn’t trust the dwarf enough to let him row out to the Gufuskalam, and so he would have to sit on the deck boards still trussed.

The seat was uncomfortably narrow and low to the deck when Einarr took his place at the oars. Nothing he couldn’t bear with, however. He slipped the dwarf’s half-hitch and cast off towards the waters inside Svartlauf’s storm.

The only sound was that of the oars slipping through the water until the mouth of the cave came into view around a bend, bright white against the blackness of the rock. “All right, blacksmith, you’ve got until we escape the storm to convince me of your sincerity.”

* * *

To his credit, Jorir had not bored Einarr with begging for his life or babbling. He spoke quietly of his skill as a smith, and during his time on the island he had learned more than a little of carpentry, shipbuilding, and herbs – for the jotün had paid no attention to his well-being unless it should happen to affect his smithing. Jorir preferred that, for even serving Fraener he preferred to avoid his attention when possible.

“If you preferred to avoid his attention, why did you warn him?”

“Oh, envy, partly. But my tunnels were always the most likely way for another thief to get in. I’d have been blamed if I just let you alone.”

Einarr harrumphed and went back to rowing. The dwarf kept up a steady stream of talk: once his skills were in the open, he launched into the story of how he had come to try and steal the Isinntog that now adorned Einarr’s neck. The cave opened out onto a tiny bay some distance around the shore from where the Gufuskalam awaited, but the tiny boat was quick in spite of the size of its load, and within the hour Einarr was able to stand and wave to catch Tyr’s attention.

“And who, pray tell, might this be?” Tyr asked as the fishing boat bumped against the side of their skiff.

“My liege-man, apparently. Former servant of the gods-cursed jotün. Calls himself Jorir.”

Tyr harrumphed even as he gave both man and dwarf a hand into the ship. “And you trust him?”

“If I did, do you think he’d be tied? Little bastard fought tooth and nail to kill me, right up until he decided to surrender and get off this rock. But he has sworn. How’s Erik?”

“Still breathing. Feverish.” Tyr gestured toward where the burly redhead was laid out on the deck, breathing heavily. His leg was splinted but still looked mangled.

“Will he make it to Kjell?” Einarr noted that the dwarf moved as quietly as his stubby legs could carry him towards the sick man, trying to look unobjectionable. Einarr kept one eye on him even as Tyr reached for the sea chart.

Tyr shook his head. “Not with what I can do on the boat. I’ve been studying the charts, though.” He unrolled it, pointing to a nearby chain in the wrong direction. “I think I can keep him alive until we get to the settlement here. Big place, that. They should have an herb-witch if not a songstress we could take him to.”

“Beg pardon,” Jorir interrupted. “This is the one who got chomped by Lord Fraener’s pet?”

“Aye.” Tyr’s answer sounded wary.

“You’ll want the two of you to navigate the storm. If you’ll let me, I’ll see to him. But the sooner you find a real healer, the better.”

“If he dies, I’ll throw you overboard myself.”

“I know you will. But it were no lie when I said I knew a bit of medicine. Enough to be able to splint that leg right, maybe save it for him.”

Einarr shared a look with Tyr. The older man looked nearly as skeptical as he felt, but shrugged. “Worth a shot. I knew that splint wasn’t likely to hold.”

Einarr gave a curt nod. “Very well. Make ready, then: we head for Kem, on the Islands of Flatey.”


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1.28 – Midden Maze

I’m going to regret this, Einarr thought even as he fell. The darkness was nearly complete. Nearly, because the Isinntog about Einarr’s neck gave off a faint white glow.

Einarr’s legs plunged into the moldering kitchen refuse of the jotün and his dwarf. The smell that assailed his nose nearly made him vomit. Putrid meat, rancid fat, and rotting vegetables all mingled together in a slimy slurry that, by some miracle, only came to Einarr’s waist. He covered his nose and mouth with a hand.

Now what? Einarr cast about with his eyes, looking for anything that might be a way out. A dark patch behind a ledge of stone suggested his route. Getting there was like wading through swamp muck. When he pulled himself up onto the ledge he had to take a moment to remove the worst of the filth from his trouser legs and the tops of his boots.

“Now then,” he muttered. “Let’s see about getting off this rock.” The echo of his jogging footsteps followed him down the hallway.

* * *

It was hard to tell how long he had been wandering in the dwarf’s tunnels, and even harder to tell if he was going the right direction or getting turned around on himself. The glow from the torc allowed him enough light to see by, but even by the brighter torch-light before the tunnels had all looked largely the same. Eventually he came to an intersection where three tunnels converged – and no staircase in sight. He sighed, and dropped a thread from his ragged-at-the-hem trousers by the one he had come from, and another as he left to the right. They were hard to see in the dim light of the torc, but they were what he had to hand.

A few hundred paces down, the tunnel split again, and again he turned off to the right, marking his path. I’ll have to find a seamstress when we get back to Kjell Hall if things keep on at this rate. A simple patch, he could manage. Much more than that, however, he knew he would have neither the skill nor patience for.

The tunnel curved around to the left, and eventually he came to another intersection. When he looked down, he saw not one but two threads lain on the ground.

Einarr’s jaw tightened. Screwing with me, is he? He had gone right last time, and ended up back in the same place, so this time he would go left. Just in case, he dropped two more threads. He stepped into the right-hand tunnel and blinked. Unless he was very much mistaken, the light from the torc was brighter now.

He went through three more intersections, choosing almost at random between his paths. If he noticed the light beginning to dim, he would always have to double-back from that path. Hah! That’s useful.

Eventually he came to a chamber that looked as though someone had flipped the first stair chamber on its head. Paths branched out in all directions, and another stone staircase spiraled deeper into the earth from the middle of the room. There was nothing to differentiate one path from any other on this level, but he could see the glow of torchlight from down below. He removed a longer thread this time, intending to affix it to the top stair.

The sound of leather smacking stone was his only warning. He half-turned toward the sound, but not quickly enough. The black-haired dwarf barreled into his side.

Down they tumbled, Einarr and his barely-glimpsed assailant. If we survive this, I’m going to kill this dwarf, he swore to himself as his shoulder bounced off the edge of a step. That was going to leave a nasty bruise. He tossed his weight to his left to avoid going off the edge.

The staircase was significantly shorter than he had anticipated based on the one leading up into the hall. For this, Einarr counted himself lucky even as he rolled into the wall opposite its end. He stood, shaking his head to try and steady his vision. The white light from the Isinntog was as bright as the torches flickering on the walls of what appeared to be a living chamber.

The dwarf was still dusting himself off, but looked otherwise unhurt by the tumble. Einarr drew Sinmora.

“Give me one reason I shouldn’t run you through, dwarf.”

 

“I want to offer you a deal. Once that torc leaves this island, anyone still here is trapped. He’ll have my head if I’m here when that happens. I can gamble on beating you in a fight, or I can lead you off this rock – provided you take me with you.”

“Why should I trust you? Three times now you’ve tried to kill me, four if we count alerting your master.”

The dwarf barked a laugh. “Because I can see which way the wind’s blowing. Lord Fraener owns me for trying exactly the same gods-damned stunt you’re up to, but I’ll be buggered if I don’t think you might actually manage it. Make me your prisoner and take me to your Captain if it makes you feel better.”

Einarr raised a skeptical eyebrow and did not sheathe his sword.

“This is me surrendering, fool.” As if to prove his point, the dwarf folded his hands against the back of his head. “There’s rope over against the wall if you feel the need to bind me.”

“I might just do that. Drop your axe on the ground and kneel.”

With a shrug the dwarf unhooked the axe from his belt and tossed it off to the side before dropping to his knees. Einarr picked it up as he moved to grab the rope the dwarf had indicated, walking backwards to avoid taking his eyes off the treacherous creature. “You can have this back once you prove yourself.”

The dwarf just shrugged and re-folded his hands behind his head. A minute later Einarr returned, rope in hand.

“Now. Swear to me before the gods that you intend us no ill.”

The dwarf’s face turned sober. “By steel and by stone, by the one bound beneath a tree and she who stirs the winds, I, Jorir, shall cause no harm to you or yours. By axe and by spear, by flame and by frost, I swear myself to your service. So shall it be until the heavens perish or my lord releases me.”

Einarr nodded, satisfied. That was actually more than he’d asked for. He studied Jorir a long moment. Then he offered Jorir Sinmora’s hilt. In spite of himself, he was still surprised when the dwarf clasped the hilt and kissed the hand that held it.

“I, Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, scion of Raenshold, and the blessed ones above have heard your oath, and I swear in their name to honor it. By my hand you shall be given red gold, and rings shall spill from my hands for your fingers. I shall count you among my advisors, and defend you against the ravages of your enemies, for so long as a man have brothers he is well-defended.” He sheathed Sinmora. “So shall I swear, by steel and by stone, by flame and by frost. May she who stirs the winds carry word of my oath, that it may be inscribed before the heavens. The wrath of the heavens is great against those who forsake such vows.”

Now he hesitated. He had taken little from the treasure vault, and all of it as gifts for others – but those items were not all he had on him. He thrust his hand into the sack where he carried the gifts from the vault. “I fear I have little of value which I am free to give at this moment. In token of your oath, please accept the tafl king from our match earlier.”

Jorir’s face took on an odd expression as he accepted the finely carved and polished wood, as though he thought something funny. Einarr, too, found it more than a little ridiculous.

“That piece was given to me before I left on this journey by the woman who will be my bride, so do not scorn it. I’m afraid I’m still going to have to bind you until we’re underway.”

The dwarf shrugged and held his wrists together behind his back.


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1.27 – Chase

The giant’s steps fell like boulders as he entered the room and stopped. Einarr peeked around the treasure mountain he had ducked behind. The giant stood, his blue-white body draped about with filthy furs, and stared at the now-empty pedestal with eyes as black as midnight. Einarr bit off a silent curse. All thirty-plus feet of the giant had stopped immediately in front of the door, and thanks to the dwarf he knew Einarr was in here somewhere.

“Come out, little man.” The giant’s voice boomed from above. “You return what you stole now, I can still let you go.”

What sort of fool does he take me for? Einarr waited, crouching behind his stack. Sooner or later, the jotün would move, and then he could make a break for it. The odds were high that only place the jotün would ‘let’ Einarr go was a stewpot.

A tree-trunk leg lifted and fell with the familiar feeling of an earthquake. “If you don’t come out, I will find you!”

Like hel you will. A second foot-quake rattled the treasure mountain over his head. Einarr risked another glance around toward the door. Just a little farther…

The tree-trunk leg lifted, and the pile of metal Einarr hid behind rattled again. Einarr dashed for the gap.

“My lord, there he goes!”

I should have killed that dwarf. Nothing for it now but to run and hope. His odds of surviving a fight with a giant were nonexistent. He was under the threshold of the door now, though, but the giant’s steps were already shaking behind him. He cast a look over toward the dwarf’s door.

And saw the fimbulvulf guarding it. That’s what it had to be doing. The wolf’s eyes tracked Einarr, its ears pricked, but it did not move from its spot laying against where he knew the door to be. When the wolf bared its fangs, Einarr changed trajectory. There has to be another way out. The front door was shut tight, and no light shone from beneath it.

The crackle of fire caught Einarr’s attention, off to the side of the room, and the bubbling of broth. Even if there was no way out from the kitchen there was probably at least a place to hide. To get there, however, he had to cross most of the width of the hall, and the pounding of Fraener the Jotün’s steps was far too close for comfort.

Einarr raced under the table, trying not to trip over the chewed remains of bones. He risked a glance over toward the wolf. It growled, and he could see the muscles in its haunches coiled for a lunge. He swallowed a yell and poured on more speed.

There. Einarr cornered hard left. He was now separated from the relative security of the kitchen by a mere twenty feet of open space. Einarr pulled reserves of speed from his legs he hadn’t known were there.

The wolf bounded to its feet, lunging under the table. The Jotün was only a moment away. Einarr dove into the space under the door, too short for the wolf’s snout, and rolled free on the other side.

The kitchen was dominated by an iron cauldron, which was what he had heard bubbling over the blaze that burned hot enough to make it hard to breathe. More sacks and crates were stacked against the walls in here. More interesting, though, was the small door he thought he saw in the wall through the haze of fire.

The wolf growled outside the door, and Einarr could hear it scratching as though it was trying to get its paw in after him. No time to lose. He darted into the gap between a pile of sacks and a crate of onions as big as his head.

The door flew open just as Einarr was slipping into the narrow gap between the crate and the wall and he cursed himself silently. He hadn’t gotten a good look, but he thought there’d been a gap in cover around that little wooden portal.

The sound of snuffling near the gap he had just slipped through warned him against staying put. Einarr sidled the other direction, stepping as softly as he could on the uneven footing of the bottom lip of the crate.

“Is that where our little rat is hiding, then?” The jotün’s laugh was like a thunderstorm.

Einarr came to the corner of the crate and dashed across the gap between it and the next one. For the moment, the wolf still growled at the original gap. Einarr took that as his opportunity to put some space between them. This crate, too, was too close against the wall to allow him to run, and so he scooted sideways through the narrow gap toward his goal on the back wall.

The wood beneath his feet shook. A cloud of flour – or perhaps just dust – shook free. The crate began to move. Einarr looked up to see the enormous blue-white fingers of the jotün gripping the wood above his head.

Einarr inwardly cursed as the crate seemed to fly in an arc through the air. He could see his goal now, but waves of heat from below warned him against the jump.

All he has to do is give this box one good shake and I’m done for, though. Rather than risk being shaken into the stewpot, Einarr stepped off his now-moving ledge and dropped to the floor – far nearer the fire than was comfortable, but not in it.

The flagstones seemed to rush up toward him far more quickly than Einarr liked. He allowed himself the luxury of closing his eyes, just for a moment. When he opened them, he flexed his knees to absorb the coming impact.

Just as soon as his boots touched the flagstone he was moving again, dashing for the dwarf-height portal in the wall.

The fimbulvulf saw him almost immediately, snarling and yipping after him but unwilling to go any closer to the cookfire than he already was. He thought he heard a confused rumble from the jotün, but between the noise of the wolf and the sound of the fire he could not be sure.

That the jotün was unwilling to toss or drop the box saved Einarr’s skin.

There were two portals, he saw now that the fire was not obscuring his vision. One of them would be waist-high on the jotün who was still turning to release his burden. The other was shoulder-height on Einarr, and had a cord attached to the top but no handle. Praying to Eira for her blessing in rescuing the torc, Einarr yanked on the cord.

The wooden door swung down. Einarr ducked, fearing that he was about to be pinned. Instead, it stopped half-way. The smell of refuse wafted from the opening.

The jotün had freed his hands now. His foot was raised, and would in only a moment fall on this side of the cooking fire.

Einarr flung himself into the stinking darkness, followed by the sound of the jotün’s thunderous laugh.


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1.26 – The Isinntog

After what felt like an eternity of creeping, during which he kept expecting to hear the creak of hinges or feel the vibrations of the giant’s steps on the floor, he made it to the pillar on which he had glimpsed his goal.

It was not ivory, he saw now that he stood before it, but instead a rough limestone, and thick enough to hide him from anyone standing at the door. Up we go.

What should have been an easy climb was rendered arduous by his inability to move horizontally around the pillar without exposing himself in front of the open doorway. He was faced more than once with the choice between exposure and an inadequate grip. He chose the grip. His odds of weathering the fall were better than his odds of facing a jotün and escaping with his prize.

When Einarr was about halfway up, he ventured a peek around the edge of the column. The doorway yawned more widely now than it had when he entered, but still he saw no-one. Sweat beaded on his brow, and he wished for a good enough grip to wipe his palms on his trousers as he once again placed the pillar firmly between himself and the door. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that there was nothing behind him but more of the giant’s gold.

Einarr climbed more quickly, now. He could admit, if only to himself, that the idea of being found by the jotün unnerved him. The sooner he accomplished his goal, the sooner he could escape the oversized, frigid Svartlauf.

His hands gripped the lip at the top of the pillar now. Einarr let his feet drop free of the ridges they clung to and swung backwards. This was the riskiest part, because from the moment he pulled himself up there he was vulnerable. By that same token, the longer he hung here the more likely his fingers were to slip.

Einarr heaved. The sleeves of his tunic tightened over his biceps as he hauled first his chin and then his chest over the lip of the pillar.

More than merely reflecting the sunlight slanting in through the room’s single window, the torc that rested on a velvet pillow on the pedestal seemed to shine with its own light. The pure white gold was braided into a ring, and at each knot a diamond was set. The ends of the torque were wrought into elegant dragon heads. On the inside of the arc, its name was inscribed with runes. Each rune was powerful in its own right. Taken together they were fearsome indeed.

For the jotün, it might have fit a pinky. For someone like Erik, the torc would have been just a hair too big to fit over his upper arm. Einarr, being a smaller man, could have worn it about his neck, although that would lead to no end of ribbing from the rest of the Vidofnings. He only hesitated a moment before slipping it around his neck. They still had to leave through the storm again, and they were down a man. A little ridicule was worth the gamble that it would ease their journey out. It felt unnaturally cool against his skin.

Einarr looked around. He could, of course, lower himself back over the lip and try to climb down the same way he came up. The problem being, climbing down over a lip was always more challenging than climbing up it, and there was always the possibility of finding a better way down.

Alas, the best possibility came in the form of a five-foot high stack of coins some feet back from the base of the pillar. With a running start he could probably make it, but he would also destroy all pretense at stealth for his escape.

He lowered himself off the edge of the pillar once more and reached out with a foot for the toehold he had used on the way up.

Einarr still clung to the side of the pillar when the ground shook violently. He clung to the stone with tense fingers. After a long moment, he exhaled. He moved a hand down towards the next ledge.

The shaking this time left Einarr hanging by the fingers of one hand. He looked down. A five foot drop isn’t so bad. Einarr let himself fall those last few feet, landing as softly as he could on the flagstone below. Then he ran as quietly as he could towards the door, making sure to keep a pile of treasure between him and the open passage as he went.

Einarr made it halfway across the room towards the door that way. He thought he might make it. And then a familiar voice struck his ears.

“I knew it, Master! They were after the Isinntog!”

Hel’s bells, it’s the dwarf. Resilient little bugger. Einarr turned on the speed now, aiming for a stack near the door to hide behind until the jotün had passed the threshold.

He wasn’t fast enough. Einarr was in the open space between two stacks when the giant’s foot dropped like a blue boulder into the treasure room.


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