There was no statue of Trabbi, the loyal retainer, or of the former Captain Kragnir – but there was one of Bollinn who replaced him, which would fill the same role. On he went, connecting a figure of Bardr pouring over sea charts to Stigander, and on back through the crew and the Kjellings. Something strange happened when he found himself face to face with a simulacrum of the apothecary from Kem. Ordinarily he would have paired him with Erik, given the events on the island, but Sivid had not been there at all, and the only image of Erik had them together.
His next best guess was, as with Jorir, to connect the man to himself. He thought he knew where he would have to stand for that, as there was no simulacrum of himself to be found on the floor.
Einarr dripped with sweat by the time he slid the statue of Jorir into place. That was the last one, though, and as he expected there was still an empty depression on the floor, with connections running to several other figures. With a deep breath, he stepped down into the last remaining depression.
At first, nothing happened. Then, when he was running over who might be improperly tied, lightning lanced through his brain. A scream of pain tore out of his throat at the sudden onslaught. Einarr dropped to his knees.
When he recovered his feet, Einarr stumbled over to the stand where the verse of his clue had been.
The bit of doggerel was no more – or at least the page had been turned. In its place, he saw these words writ large:
Fool! Lack you wisdom as well?
Mortal ties such as these are easily severed
Think ye deeper.
A sound like thunder cracked. Einarr, his head still aching, winced. When he looked back up, he realized he was no longer alone in the room.
Standing between the images of the Jarl and his father, the tip of her sword planted between her feet, was a woman beside whom even Runa would appear plain. Long auburn hair hung in a braid past the bottom of her gleaming breastplate, and on her head was a golden-winged helmet so finely worked the feathers looked real. Even in her floor-length skirt there could be no doubt she was dangerous: the giant white eagle wings on her back alone would have dispelled that notion.
Einarr’s mouth went dry even as his palms grew clammy. “A V-v-v-valkyrie?” he asked under his breath as he dropped to his knees. He knew sneaking in here for the Örlögnir was always going to be riskier than going after the Isinntog, but somehow he had still not expected this.
“Do not fool yourself, young warrior. That you have come this far is because you were allowed to, but even when the cause is just my Lord’s forbearance is finite.” The Valkyrie’s voice was a deep alto, but sharp and clear like good steel.
“Of course, great lady.”
“You may have a second chance.”
Einarr lifted his head and opened his mouth to thank her, but the valkyrie was not done yet.
“If you can survive five exchanges in battle with me.”
Einarr felt his face grow pale. Survive five rounds against a real, honest-to-goodness Valkyrie? He swallowed once more, trying to find his voice. “And should I refuse, or fail?”
“Your soul is mine.”
“To become Einherjar?”
She smiled a wolf’s smile. “To be cast down to Hel. You will die as a thief, should you die here.”
He swallowed again. I don’t have to land a hit. I just have to not get hit. No problem. He did not find this particularly reassuring. What he said, though, was “It seems I have no choice.”
The Valkyrie nodded. “Make ready, then.”
With the scrape of steel on steel, the comforting weight of Sinmora was in Einarr’s hand. He raised his shield and stood at defense, studying his opponent.
She, too, took a battle stance, raising her long, double-edged sword until it was vertical. She bore no shield: Einarr had no doubt that should someone get past her native skill those pauldrons and bracers would blunt any blow.
He could not see her feet under the long, heavy skirt. That would make this more difficult, but still not impossible. Not by itself, anyway. Pressing his mouth into a line, he met her gaze and nodded.
The Valkyrie moved almost impossibly fast. In the space between two breaths she had crossed the distance between them, her shoulders turned into the blow she intended to bring down on Einarr’s head. Before sight could become thought he had brought up his shield, and her sword struck the boss like a bell.
He danced back, his hand tingling from the force of the blow even as the ringing continued in his ears. His own blow had swung for her side and somehow been turned away by the very air.
She offered him a nod. “You have decent reflexes, but it will not be enough to save you.”
“I rather hope you are wrong, there. You’re quite quick.”
“That’s not all I am.”
She rushed in again, this time bringing her sword up in an underhand swipe toward Einarr’s legs. He slid to the side, away from the blow, even as he brought Sinmora down and once more steel rang against steel.
“You have not yet attacked me seriously.”
“Nor have you. You let me see both of those attacks coming.”
She flashed her vulpine grin again and chuckled. “Perhaps. I rather wanted you to feel you were doing well. I hate for people to die unfulfilled.”
The Valkyrie unfurled her wings, and the tips brushed the heads of two statues ten feet apart. With a blast of wind she rose up into the air and lowered her sword at him. “Let’s take this more seriously, then, shall we?”
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