Tag: dwarf

2.14 – Heart of a Dwarf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Einarr.

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

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

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

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

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

“Do not do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My lord, I cannot.”

“Step back.”

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

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

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

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

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

Silence filled the meadow.

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

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

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

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


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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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1.25 – Treasure Room

Back down the crates he went, dropping from board to board until his feet landed on flagstone once more. The room he needed was all the way across the hall. Dashing across the open floor was tempting, but such was the call an animal would make. That he had seen no sign of the jotün did not mean he could not be discovered. Better to slip around the edges of the room, where he could hide if the need arose, than to dash across the floor and be caught in the open.

As he dashed across the doorway of a room that smelled like smoke – a kitchen, perhaps – Einarr heard a deep, rumbling wheeze from elsewhere. It sounded similar to how he thought a mountain might breathe. Glad I didn’t just cut across the room. Someone’s there, and I’m not sure if I’d rather it were the wolf or Fraener. From there he was extra careful to step as quietly as his boots would allow on the flagstone.

The door to the treasure room stood barely ajar, although wide enough that a man could slip through with only a little squeezing. Inside, the treasure room was piled high with jewelry and coins and gems, most of it far too large for Einarr to contemplate taking with him. Still, though, Erik and Tyr deserved some reward for all of this.

He picked his way through the hoard, his eyes open for gifts for his crewmates even as he looked for the Isintogg. A string of rubies sized for a human woman would please Tyr’s wife the next time they made port in Ringvassoya, and so they went into his sack alongside a golden flagon for his father. He nearly mistook a gold-colored shield engraved with an eagle for a coin. Once he realized what it was, he slung it over his shoulder for Erik.

Erik should get something extra, too. He searched as he stepped carefully along between the piles of treasure. He has mistresses everywhere, it seems like, so something valuable… There. A large ivory ring – really more like a torque for a human – set with pearls. It clinked against the treasures already in his sack when he dropped it in.

Einarr froze when the sound of an indistinct voice carried into the treasure room. Either the giant was muttering to himself, or the dwarf had woken more quickly than Einarr expected, because even fimbulvulfs could not speak. Carefully, now, and mind your exit.

There was light in the room from outside, but climbing up to escape through a window with his prize was a daunting idea. Whether it was more daunting than racing across the floor of the hall while the jotün attempted to squash him remained to be seen.

He tiptoed around another haphazard pile of treasure, his eyes turned upward, looking for where the jotün might have decided to display a goddess’ torque. Surely an item like that, as magical as it was said to be, would merit a pedestal, at least.

He risked climbing one of the piles of gold coins for a better view of the room. The metal was slippery underfoot, coins the size of dinner plates sliding around as he tried to sneak up the side of a miniature mountain. There must be a stand, or something…

There. In the very center of the room, as far again from Einarr as he was from the door, a slender ivory pillar stood – fifteen feet tall if it was an inch. At its top, a tiny star caught the light and twinkled against the twilight of the treasure room. That has to be it. He looked down to begin his descent and stopped cold. The footing had been slippery on his way up: how would he get back down without alerting the giant to his presence?

Finally, he set his jaw. The shield he had claimed for Erik was big enough he could stand on it, and the slope of the pile was steep enough it should slide. The only concern was how many coins it would dislodge as he went. He had no better ideas, however. Einarr removed the shield from where he had slung it over his shoulder and held it against the coins beneath his feet as he put his first foot in front of where a man would carry it in battle. With a deep breath, he hopped forward with his back foot and leaned into the slope.

Einarr hardly dared breathe as his shield-sled carried him down the pile toward the floor in a jangle of sliding metal. The slide was over almost as soon as it had begun, and the sound of the shield moved from the tinkle of coins to the grating of metal on stone.

He let go of the edge of the shield and let momentum carry him forward three steps. Only then did he allow himself to exhale.

Einarr hefted the shield again and froze as a voice from outside once again reached his ears. He re-slung the gift and impromptu vehicle across his back and crept as quickly as he could to place another stack of treasure between himself and the door to the vault.

The floor vibrated twice, then stopped. Einarr tiptoed across the flagstones, being careful always to keep something between the door and himself. He was well and truly alone, here, and he did not rate his odds against a jotün highly.


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1.24 – Giant’s Palace

In the next heartbeat Sinmora was in Einarr’s hand. He pressed himself against the central pillar as he raised the sword to parry the dwarf’s blade. That was a long drop off the other side – one he definitely did not intend to take himself.

Axe struck long sword and the dwarf jumped backward, eyeing the drop himself.

“You could have just opened the door and been on about your business, you know.”

“Just like you could have turned back after your friend got chomped. My master is most displeased about his dog.”

“The wolf should be fine. My friend, on the other hand…”

“Got what he deserves.” The dwarf lunged again, striking out at Einarr’s chest from his position on the high ground.

Clang! This blow, too, was parried. Einarr edged up a step and struck at the dwarf’s inside arm.

The dwarf dodged back. He, too, was wary of the long drop. Caution wasn’t going to win this fight, then.

“If you put your axe down and open the door, neither of us has to die.”

“I let you through, my master kills me. I kill you, he rewards me. Now, which would you choose?”

Einarr shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He lunged upward, his body low to the stairs, and slashed at the dwarf’s knees.

His opponent jumped, and Einarr was forced backwards to avoid the plunging axe aimed for his head.

The dwarf drove the axe with such force that the head bit into a join in the stone stairs. He tugged on the handle, but it was wedged fast.

Einarr saw his opportunity and seized it. He surged forward, shoulder first, knocking the dwarf up the stairs and away from his weapon. Before the dwarf had time to blink Einarr followed through with a backhand strike to his mouth. The crunching sound suggested he’d broken teeth. A flat-footed kick landed on the dwarf’s face and he stumbled backward another step.

That gave the dwarf just enough time to regain his balance and counter-surge. He bent at the waist and charged forward in a tackle. Einarr backpedaled a step or two, but tightened his stomach in time to avoid being winded.

For his trouble, the dwarf got a knee to the jaw. He spat blood but did not let go. Einarr’s lips curled into the rictus of a snarl as he brought his elbow down on the base of the dwarf’s skull.

Now the dwarf slumped, releasing his grip about Einarr’s waist as he slipped to the rough stone stair beneath their feet.

Einarr puffed air through his moustache. Finally. He started to pick his way around the dwarf’s unconscious form, and then an idea hit him. He turned, only for a moment, and pocketed the key that the dwarf kept on a thong about his neck. “I’ll be taking that.”

Now Einarr took the rest of the stairs back to the landing, stepping as softly as he could. He opened the door and bent over to peek through.

What he saw made little sense: flagstones the size of carts, and wooden pillars that rose beyond what he could see from his hiding place. He neither heard nor felt the thunderous steps of the Jotün, and so he slipped outside the dwarf-sized door embedded in the giant-sized wall and locked it behind him.

He turned. Staring upward, the tree-like pillars were the legs of an oversized table and chairs. Crates and barrels and sacks were piled haphazardly against the walls. I wonder if this is how rats see the world? It was a struggle not to gawk. The room reeked of stale sweat and rotted meat. Einarr wrinkled his nose as he surveyed the room, looking for a better vantage point.

The table legs were too smooth to climb, and the bench likely wouldn’t get him any better of a view. Besides, if he climbed the table he might have to see where that smell was coming from. Instead, he moved in front of the stacks along the wall. A stack of potato sacks looked like it would do, but more promising was the pyramid of crates in the corner ahead.

The nearer he drew, the better the crates looked. The slats were rough-hewn, with enough space between that he could use them as hand- or foot-holds. Up he went, pulling himself up the outside of the boards like an oversised inchworm. At the top of each crate he took the time to look around the room, not wanting to go any higher than he had to in order to locate his goal.

He scaled three chests in this manner before he could see across the top of the jotün’s table and get an idea of what sort of a hall this solitary giant kept.

The top of the table was littered with the remains of past meals, dirty dishes and bones alike. Einarr forced himself to look away from the carnage of the table to study the walls.

There were doors about the hall into other rooms. This in itself was unusual, although he wondered why the Jotün bothered: the only one closed was the one he had locked behind himself. The third thing he noticed was that the owner did not, in fact appear to be home. No figure slept in the bed behind the large double-doors in the back, just as he had not felt the giant’s footsteps earlier. If Fraener was out about the island hunting, that was so much the better for Einarr – provided, of course, he was not hunting the Gufuskalam.

One door stood closer to closed than the others, and it was through there Einarr spotted the glint of gold. There we go.


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1.23 – Dwarven Tunnels

The dwarf stood from his seat at the table and brushed his hands off on his trousers as Einarr pocketed the king Runa had sent with him. He did not miss that his guide hooked an axe onto his belt before setting off, nor that the dwarf evidently felt no need of a cloak where they were going.

“Right this way, sir.”

“After you.” Einarr followed a full two paces behind, shortening his stride to avoid catching up with the trundling gait of the dwarf and dearly wishing he still had Erik along. Don’t let him give in, Tyr. He would just have to watch his own back this time.

The firelight from the dwarf’s forge cast eerie shadows on the cavern walls as he led Einarr further in, toward the hall where his prize lay hidden.

Eventually the cavern narrowed again into a tunnel not unlike the one Einarr had entered from initially. This time, though, within five paces it opened back out into a circular room from which more tunnels set out in all directions. Rising from the center of the room was a giant-sized pillar, into which were carved dwarf-sized steps.

“How long did it take you to learn your way around down here?”

The dwarf snorted. “Long enough to design the place, and not a moment longer. My master has no interest in the subterrain.”

“Is that so.” A man could be lost forever down here… Rather than leaving it to chance, Einarr dropped a loose thread from his tunic near the mouth of the tunnel they had exited. The dwarf’s hand fell from the axe handle as Einarr looked up.

“So you never said what brought you here.” The dwarf was probing.

“You’re right, I didn’t.”

“Well?”

“Surely there are a limited number of options that would bring a man through the storm to Svartlauf?”

“Oh, aye.” The dwarf rested his hand on the head of his axe as he began the ascent. “But since you’ve already said you didn’t come for his head, I think it would be good to know what item I’m helping some stranger to steal.”

“Would it? I would think that would be more damning when he finds out. Assuming, of course, that is in fact what I’m here to do.”

The dwarf snorted now. “I’ve been outside recently enough to know you for one of the human raiders.”

“Oh?”

“Aye. And unless matters’ve changed a great deal in the meantime, a northerner would fall on their own sword before they helped a jotün. So since we’re imprisoned here, and you said you didn’t need to kill Lord Fraener, the obvious conclusion is you’ve come to steal one of the treasures he brought with him.”

The monstrous men of the Grendel came inexplicably to mind. “Things in the north may be a little more complicated than you remember.”

The dwarf hummed and climbed faster.

Eventually, after climbing farther than Einarr would have thought possible from the cave without ever catching sight of the sky, the stairway terminated in a landing and a stone door.

“My master’s hall is through here.” The dwarf stood to the side, resting both hands casually on the head of his handaxe and staring fixedly at the blank stone wall across the landing.

“What… part of the hall?”

“The main chamber. This is my private entrance.”

“In that case, please. Go ahead.” Einarr had no desire to allow the black-haired, scarred dwarf behind him. Whether he loved his master or not, he knew Einarr intended the jotün harm, and there was profit to be had by betraying Einarr to his master.

“I must return to my forge. My master will be most displeased if I am delayed further.”

“I won’t keep you. Only, the landing is narrow and I do not think I will fit past you.” It was a gamble. Dwarves were not often offended at accusations of broadness, but Einarr was not a large man, which could put the lie to his excuse.

Indeed, the dwarf glared at him for a long moment. When Einarr did not attempt to retract his claim, he grumbled and pulled a key on a chain from within his tunic.

“Tell me, sir dwarf, what did you intend to do when I stepped forward and found the door locked? Would I have had time to accuse you of betrayal, or would there have been an axe in my back before I blinked?”

The dwarf only continued to mutter words in his own tongue. The latch clicked.

“Your lack of an answer is answer enough. Now. Go on through.”

The dwarf removed his key from the lock and hid it back inside his shirt. “Tell me, sir raider, if someone came to steal from your Captain, what would you have done?”

“Slain the man before I played a game of tafl with him. Go on.”

“Go to hel.” The dwarf spun on his heel, the hand that had been reaching for the handle instead unhooking the axe from his belt. He leaped at Einarr, blade swung high overhead.


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1.22 – The Cave

With the morning light came the sound of metal striking metal from deep within the cave, rousing Einarr from his uneasy rest. The glow of fire lit the walls, even though Einarr’s had long since burnt itself to ash.

The noise became more distinct as he crept down the narrow, winding passageway. I wonder what sort of smith would set up in such a place?

Several minutes passed, and Einarr knit his brows. The tunnel had already continued on far longer than he had expected, but still he heard the rhythmic clinking sound of a distant forge hammer from up ahead.

The tunnel jogged sharply left, and then directly back in the other direction before opening out into a broad cavern. Like the tunnel behind him, the walls of the cavern did not appear to be man-hewn, and yet the sheer scope of the room suggested that very fact.

He pressed on, stepping softly over the smooth stone floor and moving from stalactite pillar to stalagmite as he crept across the room toward the source of fire at the center of the cavern. The clanging sound never faltered.

As he crept ever closer, the source of the noise resolved itself into a sensible form. The fire burned hot, and next to the fire was an unusually short anvil. Working at this anvil, on some project Einarr could not determine, was a black-haired dwarf. Unless Einarr missed his guess, not all of the dwarf’s visible scars were from his forge.

“You may as well come the rest of the way in,” the dwarf growled. “I already know you’re there.”

Einarr blinked, a little nonplussed. The dwarf shouldn’t have been able to hear him over the noise of his anvil. He stepped out from behind the stone pillar he had sheltered behind. “Yes, of course. My apologies, sir dwarf, but I did not expect to find anyone smaller than a tree on the island.”

The dwarf laughed, but was no mirth in it. “Sit down. Have a drink, rest a bit by the fire.”

“Am I to understand that you’re extending hospitality to me? That, according to the dictates of the gods, you will see to it that I come to no further harm on the island?” He could not keep the disbelief from his voice.

The dwarf snorted. “Fine. Don’t, then. Why are you here.”

“I don’t suppose you’d be able to tell me how to get to Fraener’s Hall, would you?”

“You want to go to the jotün’s hall, do you? Can’t see why anyone would want to do that.”

“Even still, I fear I must go. Do you know the way?”

“Oh, aye, I can take you there. But it won’t be for free. And you probably won’t thank me for it if I do.”

“Of course it won’t.” He sighed: all he had on him was the rope and the sack with Runa’s gift. “I’m afraid I haven’t anything of value on me. Perhaps some sort of a contest? A… game of wits, perhaps?”

“You would riddle with me?” The dwarf sounded unnaturally gleeful at the prospect. “If you win, I will take you there. If you lose, I will give you to the master for dinner.”

Einarr suppressed a groan. Why is it always riddles? I hate riddling. “Come now, are we barbarians? What think you of tafl?”

The dwarf’s face took on a crafty look. “Unfortunately, my board is missing a piece.”

“Is it the king?” Bless you, Runa. How did you ever guess?

The dwarf nodded sagely. Einarr pulled the king from out of the sack where it rested.

“Let’s play. My king, my defense.”

“As you like.”

The dwarf moved away from the fire and spread his board out on the ground of the cave. He set out the game pieces in an unfamiliar pattern. No matter, though; the layout determined tactics, not strategy, and the key to this game was fluid tactics. Einarr studied the board as the dwarf worked, mentally trying and discarding several opening moves.

The dwarf played cautiously at the outset – too cautiously, Einarr thought. Within five moves he’d nearly opened his path to the edge of the board. He was just starting to get cocky when he noticed the smirk his opponent wore. In the next move he was cut off from escape.

By his tenth move, Einarr was beginning to sweat. He hadn’t lost yet, but the dwarf was making him work for it harder than anyone other than Runa had in a long time.

Five more turns passed, with Einarr’s guards getting picked off slowly but surely. As he sat, contemplating his next move, a feeling of deja vu struck. I’ve seen this pattern before. …That’s right. A slow smile spread across his face, despite his attempts to quash it. I tried to corner Runa with this once. Tried, and failed miserably. In three turns she’d crushed the offense, with no more pieces left than he had now.

“Not really sure you have anything to be smiling about,” the dwarf said.

“Mm? Oh, I’m just thinking about the bragging rights I’ll have when I escape your master’s pot and poison the soup on my way out.”

“Are you now.”

Einarr didn’t think the dwarf believed him, but he looked up from under his eyebrows at his opponent and made the first move. “I am. It’s not what I came here for, but how many people can say they slew a jotün in his own hall?”

The dwarf continued on as he had been, apparently not recognizing the shift in tactics. “Not all that many, I’d wager.”

Einarr made his next move. “Now, now, one wager at a time. Raichi, by the way.” Einarr knew he looked smug as he signalled his impending victory, and right now he didn’t care.

The dwarf looked confused, still not seeing the same hole in his line that Einarr had missed those few months ago. He moved to block what he thought Einarr was doing, which left exactly the path free that Einarr had left for Runa.

“Tuichu. I win.”

“So you do.” The dwarf blinked, poleaxed.

“So now you will take me to the jotünhall, as we agreed, and I will not have to figure out how to poison your master.”

“Of course, my young sir. If you will just follow me?” The crafty note was back in the dwarf’s voice. Einarr would have to watch him.


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