Tag: Fraener the Jotün

6.13 – The Woodsman

The horned wolf stalked a few paces to Einarr’s left and lowered its head, staring down its opponent. It growled and tossed its head as it turned and stalked several steps in the opposite direction. It could not circle its opponent as it wished. When it snarled again, Einarr brought Sinmora up, poised for an overhead strike.

The possessed wolf bounded in for another attack, but as it did it seemed to grow, and its silver fur grew shaggy, green, and mossy. Soon it stood on two feet, no longer a wolf at all. Surprised, Einarr staggered back a step as Einarr and Jorir came to flank him. Runa’s rhythmic chanting had not faltered.

Einarr saw no more wolves: even the one that had watched him hungrily after falling back with its tail between its legs was gone. Now it was just the four of them and a creature that could only be the Woodsman.

A giant, Einarr might have called it even a year ago, although closer in height to the fimbulvulf than to Fraener. The suggestion more than the fact of a pair of legs, and arms like great sweeping tree branches. And, sitting atop the over-broad “shoulders,” the wooden skull of a stag.

The Woodsman gave a roar like the crashing of wood as it closed the distance between itself and the interlopers, even as Runa’s chant built into a crescendo.

The leshy swung at the three men with one club-like arm, turning its whole body with the blow. Einarr hurled himself forward into a roll and felt the wind of the branch’s passing far more closely than was comfortable.

They couldn’t move out of the creature’s path, however, not until Runa finished with her part. Einarr came out of his roll in front of one tree-like leg and hacked at it with Sinmora. The blade embedded itself in the wood, but did little other than knocking free some bark.

The thudding of axes signalled Erik and Jorir’s attempts to slow the unfamiliar monster, to similar effect.

“You almost done?” Einarr called behind him, yanking free his blade. Not that Runa could answer him. He looked up: with a little luck…

The “leg” he stood before was gliding towards him. Now or never. Einarr took half a step back and ran forward, scrabbling up the trunk in hopes of grabbing hold of a branch.

He was in luck. Just as he lost the last of his momentum, Einarr was able to throw his sword arm over a branch jutting out from the creature’s arm as it swung past. Now he was sailing through the air, hanging on by an elbow to what was effectively a tree trying to kill him.

His life had taken a definite turn for the strange somewhere along the line.

At the top of the swing, Einarr managed to loop a leg over the branch he had grabbed hold of and pull himself up.

Moments later, a pulse of energy spread out through the clearing. The Woodsman stopped moving, just for a moment.

That moment was long enough. In that space where the leshy was frozen, Erik and Jorir both buried their axes in its trunk. Arrows flew from Irding’s tree, although it was uncertain what an arrow could do to such a thing. Einarr began to run up the limb he had pulled himself onto.

“It’s done!” Runa’s voice seemed to echo through the clearing. “Let’s get out of here!”

They were not supposed to try to fight the Woodsman. Auna had said they thought it was unkillable, and Einarr could already see why. But as his feet carried him closer to the stag’s head on top of the furious trunk, he could see no way out but forward. A yell escaped his throat as he charged the creature’s head, Sinmora raised high for the strike.

Several things happened at once as he reached the wooden skull. First, Sinmora cleaved into it and it shattered like a rotten log. Second, a vine lashed across his back and caught around his leg. A skull-shattering cry echoed among the trees. And the five companions were hurled bodily from the clearing.

The moon had long since set, and the world was beginning to lighten again, by the time the five reunited around Runa, who was once again tending to a wounded, groaning Irding. Had it not been for the sound, they might have searched for each other a good deal longer.

Erik kindled a small fire from dead tinder near their impromptu campsite, and Jorir promptly set some stones over it for heating water. When Einarr arrived, he was grinding herbs for a poultice for their injured companion.

“So,” he said, his voice low to avoid carrying. “How do we know if we succeeded?”

“We get back and Auna’s people are still there, I think,” Runa answered. Her song magic had done what it could for now. They would have to wait for Irding to regain consciousness on his own, and for Jorir’s poultice to do its job.

Erik grunted. “Tough going, with an injured man.”

“Not like we know if there’s any other help nearby.” Jorir was laying strips of bandage over the poultice herbs now.

“No. And as much as I hate to chance it, we should all try to get some sleep before we go wandering about in the forest again. Be a really stupid reason to get lost, trying to find our way back exhausted.”

“I’ll keep watch,” the dwarf volunteered. “The Woodsman probably still has spies about, an’ I doubt I’ll be sleeping anyway.”

“My thanks,” Einarr nodded at his liege man. He leaned back against the trunk of a nearby tree and shifted his shoulders until he found an almost-comfortable position.

Erik lay back on the ground where he sat, staring up at the canopy. He sounded uneasy when he spoke, but the reasons were all too many and too obvious. “Good night, then.”


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5.15 – Altered Memory

The edge of the spiral staircase he hurtled toward marked a bright line between safety and the abyss beyond. Jorir twisted around in midair, reaching with the axe in his hand for the steps.

The axe bit caught with a thunk in a join. He hissed in pain as it dislocated his shoulder.

Einarr’s boots scraped against the steps, and Jorir had a moment’s panic that his future master would kick his lifeline free. Instead the sound was followed by the creaking of the door’s hinge and the solid sound of wood against stone as he pulled it closed behind him.

Jorir blew through flared nostrils before climbing hand over hand up the haft of his weapon until the lip of the stair was within reach. Then, with a heave, he pulled his chest up over the stone and swung his legs around. For a moment he lay there, catching his breath and enjoying once more the sensation of being alive.

“Right,” he said aloud to the empty chamber. “Now for the next unpleasant task. Time to go talk to my erstwhile master.”

***

That part, at least, played out the way he remembered. Now Jorir was following his new master through the passages leading away from the midden and towards his own domain on the island. Every step of the way, his decision to surrender to the man had become more and more obviously the right one – even if in the event he hadn’t realized it.

After far longer than Jorir thought it should have taken him, Einarr finally arrived at the stair leading down to the water. Rather than taking the obvious path, though, the red-haired man stood gobsmacked at its top. Jorir shook his head. Fine. My turn, I guess.

Jorir charged, his boots slapping against the smooth stone of the floor here.

Einarr pivoted to see what was coming and his eyes grew wide, but he had no more time to react. Jorir barreled into Einarr’s belly shoulder-first, and they both went tumbling down the spiral staircase.

Down they fell, Jorir and the man who was his ticket off this island. Why did I ever think this was a good idea? He threw his weight to the left to avoid bashing his head against the edge of a step. Thankfully the cave below was a much shorter distance than the surface. He managed to avoid rolling into the wall at the foot of the stair, but barely, and took his time dusting himself off from the fall.

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

“Oh, because fighting me worked so well for you before.” Please don’t think too hard about that.

“You mean in the way that it gave me time to get what I came for?”

Jorir shook his head. “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.”

Jorir barked a laugh, although for a different reason than the first time around. “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 sheath 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.”

Jorir shrugged, unhooked the axe from his belt and tossed it off to the side before dropping to his knees. Einarr kicked it farther away as he backed away toward the rope Jorir had indicated. That’s going to be an issue.

Einarr bound him hand and foot, tightly enough that he thought he might lose blood flow to the area, and then circled back around to face his captive. End of the rope in hand, and Sinmora’s blade pointed at Jorir’s throat, Einarr faced the dwarf. “Now. Swear to me before the gods that you intend us no ill.”

The dwarf’s face turned sober. He remembered this oath well: it was among the strongest among his clan. “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, but stood in silence for a long moment. His arm twitched back, and Jorir suppressed the urge to flinch.

Did I make it?

Finally, after what felt like an eternity of kneeling on the stone, his new master turned the sword around to offer Jorir the hilt.

***

Jorir’s eyes snapped open, his face covered in sweat, to see that he still stood in the room full of bubbles, and he still felt every bruise he’d taken in that altered memory – although, oddly, not the shoulder injury. He was not about to complain about that, although it looked as though he would have to search for his axe.

The path to the doorway was clear. Good. It also seemed as though the bubbles were no longer hunting him – even better. Then he glanced over his shoulder.

All four of the others were in the room, staring blankly off into space with horrified expressions on their faces. Not one of them was unmarked by injuries, and a good number of them more serious than Jorir’s bruises. Irding was bleeding from an eye, and Einarr from the corner of his mouth.

Without a second thought, Jorir sprang back towards his Lord’s companions. Aren’t they also your companions, a voice in the back of his head whispered. He ignored it.

“Time to end this,” Jorir growled. With a leg sweep, he brought his liege lord to his knees and slapped him across the face. Three times he did this, until Einarr began to blink rapidly and his eyes started to refocus. Then he moved on – Irding appeared the next most critical.

“What happened?” Einarr sounded dazed.

“Help me wake the others. I’ll explain later.”


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5.14 – Raven Dreams

Jorir held out a hand to stop the other two even as Runa charged forward. “Hard enough to get through this without anyone else stirring the air. No sense facing more than you have to.”

Erik grunted. Irding, youth that he was, looked as though he wanted to scoff – right up until he opened his mouth.

Jorir snorted as realization dawned on the young man’s face. “Besides. As his man at arms, I’m next.”

Irding drew his brow down, a different thought occurring to him. “How do you know what we face will be bad?”

“I don’t, really. But we’re being tested by a pair of ravens. That tells me we’ll be seeing death and battle.”

Erik’s face was set in a grim mask, visible even through the beard. “The dwarf is right, son. Best brace yourself.”

Irding shifted uncomfortably and said no more. Jorir turned his attention back to the room full of glowing bubbles. With a hum so low it was nearly a growl, he started forth, his mind carefully blank of everything save the obstacles in his path.

He had hoped, briefly, that his reduced stature would make his passage easier, but it was not to be. He stepped forward and held his breath as an errant bubble passed right through his leg without popping. Nothing happened. Okay then. It’s not just if they touch you. He ducked and weaved and rolled his way across the room, until he finally saw a clear path to where Einarr and his Lady waited. Jorir breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped through the door to guard them, facing the top of the stairs beyond.

Erik and Irding were not far behind him, looking shaken by whatever it was they had seen but not otherwise harmed. It seems I was lucky.

“Shall we continue?”

“Yes, my lord.” Jorir began his steady tromp up the stairs, positioned in the middle of the steps so that none of the reckless youths behind him might dash past. Erik would never learn that he, too, fit that description by Jorir’s reckoning.

The second door they came to looked nearly identical to the first. Jorir stretched and caught hold of the door pull: on the other side was another room filled with the same glowing bubbles as the first floor. Jorir quirked an eyebrow.

“Again?” Irding said from behind. “This tower isn’t half so dangerous as I expected.”

Jorir allowed himself the luxury of a mental groan. Thanks for that, man. At the very least he could be the one to test that, instead of his lord. “Might I have the honor of going first, my lord?”

Einarr gestured forward, and Jorir stalked in. He dodged the first bubble that came for him, and the second, but unlike the first floor it was as though these were actively seeking his head. It wasn’t long at all before three right together rushed towards his face.

He could not dodge: there was nowhere to go. Instead, he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes as the cold, filmy membrane covered his face.

When he opened his eyes, he stood before a very familiar and much-hated forge in a monstrously large cave. Something that happened while I was Fraener’s slave, then? There were no shortage of other places his trial could have taken place: at least here there were a limited range of indignities he could have to relive.

Footsteps sounded from one of the natural side passages. From the sound alone he could tell it was not the giant. Men, then, come to steal from Fraener much as I tried. That doesn’t narrow it down much. “You may as well come the rest of the way in,” he growled. “I already know you’re there.”

The man who stepped forward out of the darkness beyond his forge-fire’s light was the last one he expected to see: red-haired, obviously strong but not over large, with a distinctive sword at his hip. Einarr?

“Yes, of course. My apologies, sir dwarf, but I did not expect to find anyone smaller than a tree on the island.”

Jorir laughed, but there was little mirth in it. “Sit down. Have a drink, rest a bit by the fire.”

Einarr blinked. He was suspicious, of course. He had every right to be, under these circumstances. “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?”

Jorir snorted. It hadn’t been poisoned the first time, technically. Just a brew that didn’t tend to agree with humans. “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 jotünhall, 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.”

Einarr sighed. “Of course it won’t…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? If you win, I will take you there. If you lose, I will give you to the master for dinner.” It had been a very long time since Jorir had anyone to match wits with: Fraener was stone dumb, and most of the men who came treasure hunting here preferred to solve problems with their swords. As for feeding him to the giant, it was one of Fraener’s requirements of his thraldom.

Einarr grimaced. “Come now, are we barbarians? What think you of tafl?”

“Unfortunately, my board is missing a piece.”

“Is it the king?”

Jorir nodded, and Einarr produced the piece from the pouch hanging limply from his belt. “Let’s play. My king, my defense.”

“As you like.”

Jorir tried to remember how he had played that day, in order to keep as close to the memory as possible. Something about Einarr’s play, though, seemed… wrong. In spite of how this went, it began to look as though he would win. “And here I thought you must be good at this game.”

“Ordinarily, I am.” Einarr’s brow creased, and Jorir saw sweat begin to bead there. He would lose in three. Jorir made his next move, and then finally his lord’s face cleared.

Jorir blinked, and then they were at the top of a tall spiral staircase, Sinmora’s tip digging in to his back while he fumbled for the key. He had lost – hadn’t even cheated to ensure the memory played out properly: why was this different?

…Oh, right. Maybe because the next thing that had actually happened was, he had tried to kill the man on the staircase, fearing Fraener’s wrath.He would have serious trouble doing so now.

“Hurry it up,” Einarr growled.

Jorir 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, axe swung high overhead.

Instead of the expected parry, Einarr danced back two steps. Jorir’s eyes widened as he saw he was about to plunge over the edge of the stair.


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5.10 – Into the Tower

Tendrils of mist extended inward toward the tower that rose from the water like some giant’s spear, curling about the Gestrisni and obscuring what rocks might yet hide beneath the surface. Even now that their target was in sight it was slow going.

They wound their way through the reef in silence save for the dip of the oars and the lapping of water on their hull, each and every one of them worrying over what lay ahead. Just as in the thick of the fog, here too Einarr found it impossible to judge the passage of time. First the cave, now the fog: it would be nice, he thought, to be under a properly sunny sky for a time once they were finished here.

After what felt like an eternity of tense floating, the shadow of the tower covered their boat, the thing itself looming from its rocky perch to split the heavens. Carefully they rowed toward a set of man-sized steps carved into the rock flanked by much smaller jagged spires, perfect for mooring their boat. Either the gods were mocking them and this apparent entrance was illusory, or people were occasionally required to venture here legitimately.

The Gestrisni carefully moored from bow and stern across the stairs, Einarr hopped over the railing and onto the bottom of the stair. Turning, he offered his hand to Runa. “My lady.”

She smiled coquettishly, a small blush kissing her cheeks, as she stepped up on the rail and accepted the hand. “Many thanks, milord.”

Erik chuckled and Irding had the poor grace to roll his eyes. Jorir, at least, saw nothing strange about the exchange. Runa ignored them as she joined her betrothed on the step.

“What, jealous, men? I can help you across too – if you think you need it.”

Now Erik roared, the sound of his laughter echoing off of water and stone alike. “Fat chance o’ that. Stand aside, boy, let me show you how it’s done.”

Irding moved hurriedly toward the bow while Einarr tugged Runa up the steps a goodly distance as Erik sauntered across the deck. Then the big man turned, dropped into a momentary lunge, and with two long strides launched himself from the deck. He landed hard on a step not far below Einarr, still several up from the water’s surface, as the Gestrisni rocked violently behind him.

Jorir swore as only a dwarf can swear, and Irding looked pale: now it was Einarr’s turn to laugh, although he did so somewhat more reservedly than Erik had.

“Well come on, you two. The sooner we’re back in East Port, the sooner we can actually unwind for a bit.”

Irding grunted as he, too, landed on the stairs after a somewhat less exuberant jump than his father’s. “Are all raiding seasons this… eventful with the Captain?”

“Not hardly.” Einarr pressed his lips together. Irding had been eager for this adventure: how much more overwhelmed must Svarek feel, after ghosts and monsters and corrupted blood? The men needed rest, maybe even more than they needed more men, but Stigander was surely aware of that even more keenly than Einarr.

Jorir landed almost as heavily as Erik had, although once again not trying to best the man’s long jump. “Shall we?”

With a nod, Einarr and Runa started up the stairway. The others fell in behind.

The path marked by the cut-in stairs spiralled around and up the rock. It could have been no more than eight feet vertically from the water to the tower’s foundation, but it was a steep spiral and by the top of it even the men’s legs burned a little with exertion. Runa, who was not used to such labors, was breathing heavily before the top.

The path finally ended before a smooth round stone set into the rock at eye height. Runes were carved in a ring around the outside, and the stone itself showed a labyrinthine pattern of concentric circles. There was no apparent handle, or even a sign of which way the stone would move to open the passage.

None of this appeared to deter Runa, who stood studying the design while she caught her breath. After a few minutes she began tracing a path through the labyrinth pattern on the portal stone with her finger.

“What is it?”

“Be very glad,” she muttered. “That you brought me along. Reki and Aema are more experienced Singers than I am, but they have spent their lives out raiding whereas I have had little to do with my time other than study. …There it is.”

As she spoke, her finger reached the center of the labyrinth and she pressed down. That first press was followed by several more in diverse locations around the stone. A grinding sound emanated from behind the wall, and the stone began to roll away into the rock.

“So what was that?”

“A puzzle lock, of course. And a fairly straightforward one once you understand the clue.”

“Clue? You mean the runes?”

“What else would I mean? We’d best be going through before it decides to close on our heads.”

Einarr looked up into the passage and frowned. Though it had been carved as steps, it was, at least here, nearly as steep as a ladder. “Jorir. You first. Then I’ll give Runa a hand up, then the rest of us will follow.”

Jorir puffed up his chest, pleased to be given the point position. “Very well, milord.”

The dwarf checked to be sure his shield and his axe were secure before stepping up to the door. He threw a challenging glare at Einarr and Erik both before measuring the distance. With a nod, he rubbed his hands together and crouched down.

His leap for the ledge of the first stair was more impressive than Erik’s long jump off the boat by far, although Einarr had seen its equal once: when they fought beneath Fraëner’s hall on Svartlauf. Jorir caught the ledge with his fingertips easily before pulling himself fully up on the stair.

Irding let out a low whistle, but wisely declined to comment.

“Your turn, milady.” Jorir turned and offered his hand to assist his Lord’s betrothed.

Einarr took a knee to allow Runa to step up on it. Steadying herself on his proffered hand, she accepted Jorir’s hand and made the step with a minimum of stretching.

“My thanks, noble svartdvergr. You are a credit to your tribe.”

“Lady, I am so long removed from my clan that the ill now spoken of us may well be true. For now, though, I believe we have more important matters to hand.” Without another word, Jorir turned and began making his way up the steep stair, one long step at a time. Einarr and the others soon followed.


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Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by!

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have  other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available. I just reworked my reward tiers, so I hope you’ll give it another look.

3.23 – Telling of Tales

“Very good, my Lord. In that case, let me begin with how I won the Isinntog from the Jotün Fraener of Svartlauf.”

“The who of where?”

“Ah, but surely my Lord should know that story! It was ancient when my grandfather was still a babe. Once, long ago, the elves of Skaergard created a torc of surpassing beauty and dedicated it to the goddess Eira. The torc was all of silver, inset with thousands of tiny diamonds, and on each end bore the head of a dragon holding an anchor in its mouth. Inside were inscribed runes that gave it power over the wind and storms.” Einarr may not have been trained as a Singer, but there was no man of the clans worthy of the name who could not tell a rousing story.

“One of the Jotuns, by the name of Fraener, came to the isle of Skaergard after hearing of the wonders of the Isinntog intending to steal it for himself…” The story continued on in this vein, speaking of the vile tricks Fraener had played, and the blood he had shed, in order to win the torc for his own. Once it was in his hands, however, he found that it would only fit the first knuckle of his smallest finger. Satisfied nonetheless, for still he had secured the power of the goddess’ artifact, he left Skaergard and came to the winter island now known as Svartlauf. This island was only accessible, even by him, with the aid of the Isinntog, and so he and his dog made their new home protected from the wrath of the elves by the storm that raged about the island.

“And that brings us to where I come in,” Einarr said after a time, dearly wishing he could have something to drink that would not poison his mind. “In order to win the hand of my fair maiden, her father set me a series of tasks. The first of these was to steal from the Jotun Fraener the Isinntog, which he had so long before stolen from the elves.” He had their attention, he was sure. Once he’d finished this tale, he would ask Jorir to tell the tale of their encounter with the Order of the Valkyrie on their way to visit the Oracle of Attilsund – although he had no intention of sharing the results of their visit.

As he came to the thrilling conclusion of the tale – somewhat modified, of course, to ignore that he had yet more tasks to accomplish – many of the spirits in the crowd burst into cheers. It was probably the first fresh story they had heard in centuries.

“Jorir, where are you, you rogue?”

The svartdverger ambled out of the crowd to stand near his liege lord.

“Surely you’ve a tale to tell, as well now. What about our battle on the sea, not two months ago?”

“We dwarves, well we’ve not got the knack for the telling of tales like you humans do, but I reckon I can give it a whirl. Y’see, milord’s father determined after we rejoined the crew from that self-same mission to Svartlauf that this was going to be a big summer. There was much to do, after all, and already they had lost some weeks waiting on our return.”

Einarr smirked to note that he glossed over his own newness to the crew, but rather than correct him simply merged back into the crowd. Best to be a good audience now, so that when one of the specters inevitably decided to tell a tale of his own they could carry out the plan appropriately.

“Well, the story of Einarr’s family is a long one, and a sad one at that, and doesn’t have much ta do with where I’m going except to set me on the path. You see, I knew about the Oracle living on Attilsund, on account of I’d seen ‘er before, I had. Given the task at hand, that I’d just heard first-hand from their Singer, I thought it might behoove us all to go and pay the Oracle a little visit.”

“Not six weeks out of harbor, and what should we see cutting across the waves but an Imperial dromon – headed straight for us, no less, and the wing and spear painted on her sail.”

Jorir may have claimed dwarves lacked the knack for storytelling, but if Einarr was any judge the dwarf’s telling of that battle bested his own of the trip to Svartlauf. Einarr actually enjoyed listening to his liege-man tell of that battle, even including the part where he himself got scolded for recklessness on the field of battle. Einarr laughed and clapped along with everyone else as Jorir finished up the tale.

He was about to encourage Tyr to tell a story – something from longer ago than last winter, probably. He certainly had plenty of years to choose from – when one of the Allthane’s men took the bait.

“Well, since we’ve newcomers and all, I suppose it might be worth telling this one again.” This was not the show-off, but it was one of the spirits who had been making a nuisance of themselves since the hall dance.

“Everyone knows how the Allthane came to be, of course -”

“I’m afraid not!” Einarr called out.

“How can you not know the tale of how the North was finally unified, once and for all?” The man was indignant, now. Good.

“Because no-one has held the chair of Allthane for three hundred years,” Tyr answered. Now the men in the crowd – all save five of them – jeered and scoffed.

“Ah, but it’s true. How many of you knew the meaning of the wing-and-spear our good dwarf spoke of?”

Silence descended on the hall.

“For my part, I will gladly hear the tale of how our glorious host brought all the tribes under his thumb, for few save the Singers now know it.” Einarr broke the silence. “It is a feat that has not been equalled since.”

The Allthane cleared his throat from behind where Einarr stood facing the gathering. “In that case sit quietly and listen well, for never again shall you have the chance to hear it straight from the man himself.”


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3.22 – Unexpected Allies

Einarr’s eyes rolled up into his head as the warm odor of food tried to fill his nose, his mouth, take over his mind.

Someone who evidently had not seen the exchange with the show-off took his strange expression to mean that Einarr was choking. Before his vision could truly cloud, a pair of very solid hands was clapping him on the back.

Einarr turned his head and spat out the foul substance – he could not tell what it was by taste, and he did not care to look at it any more now than he had before. “Thank you, friends.”

When he turned to face his benefactors, Einarr blinked. Beneath their illusory feast day clothes, these men were as living as he was. Einarr thought he saw despair in their eyes. He grinned and threw his arms about their necks. “And just the friends I was looking for, too. Come on, and meet the others of my crew.”

Finding a place on the edge of the crowd where they could speak without arousing suspicion was difficult, under the circumstances. Those who had been impressed by his performance at the hall dance wished to congratulate him: evidently the malicious show-off had grown too accustomed to winning. Others would jostle him at any opportunity… and they could not leave the golden light. He tried, and more than once, but each time it was as though the edge of the light formed a wall as solid as stone.

Einarr grunted. This would do. “Show me your hands.”

“Beg pardon?” Confusion was evident on the man’s face.

“Show me your hands.” Einarr held out his own. “Look closely. You’ll see my true nature. I would confirm yours before we go along.”

The other man, who looked vaguely familiar from the ring of dancers, nodded hesitantly. “As you like.”

When he tentatively held his hand out towards Einarr, Einarr clasped it and felt flesh. Einarr nodded: the other man seemed too shocked to say anything.

“Now you.”

The man who had questioned him moved much more confidently than his crewmate had, grasping Einarr’s hand in a firm shake. “So it is you.”

“You’re from the freeboater’s crew?” He kept his voice low, trying not to stand out above the hum of conversation.

“The Yrsirmar, yes. And you were with the group that came to offer aid.”

“I also led the group that came to help later. Not that there was much we could do.” Einarr looked past the man’s shoulder and caught Tyr’s eye, beckoning him over.

“My name is Einarr, son of Stigander, the Captain of the Vidofnir. The man on his way over is Tyr. The dwarf you saw earlier is Jorir.”

The more confident man nodded. “Kragnir. And this here is Arnskar.”

“Good. I’m glad to see you’re still yourselves.”

“Back to bein’ ourselves, you mean.” Arnskar almost stuttered over the words. “Not proud o’ this, but ran so hard from those… those…”

“Spirits.” Einarr filled in. Whatever they looked like wasn’t really important.

“Right. Well. Wasn’t paying enough attention, fell in a hole. Next thing we know we’s at a feast, filling our faces. An’ then the hall dance starts, an’ you’re talking to me like I exist, not like I’m some mask on a stage.”

“Well whaddya make of that, Tyr.” Einarr tried to keep a smile out of his voice. All by accident, and he was still proving the Oracle right.

“Stroke of good luck’s what I make of it,” Tyr grumbled.

“Where’d you last see Jorir?”

“He was aiming to avoid that arrogant prick you couldn’t quite get free of, I think.”

Einarr grunted. “And good luck to him. I just hope he can keep the scoundrel away from here for a while.”

“Sirs… way I see it, we’re all trapped here,” Kragnir started. “What d’ye need us for?”

Now Einarr grinned. “I aim to make it so we’re not all stuck here, and maybe do something about the Allthane’s shade. But I need to know more about this court in order to do it. You’ve been here longer than I: what do you know?”

***

The Allthane knew he was dead, that much was certain. How many of the others did, well, that was another question. Only, the Allthane preferred to pretend he wasn’t dead – so far, nothing that Einarr had not already gathered. Furthermore, Einarr still wasn’t sure he could really blame the Allthane for trying to forget he was a cursed shade stuck wandering a half-drowned rock in the far north.

Where things got interesting was how this played out with the others trapped in the feast with him. The shades, the freeboaters were certain, had been part of the Allthane’s original crew… and Kragnir wondered how many of them had already passed over to the otherworld when the Allthane drew them back. There was a thought that made Einarr shudder every time it occurred to him: to be returned to a mockery of life by the lord you’d served, to fulfill the selfsame function as you had in life, eternally…

Einarr was even more certain that their way out would involve the request of a boon, and just as certain that requesting the honor of burying the Allthane’s remains would earn them a tirade, or worse.

Well. If he could not take the direct approach, plainly his best option was to trick the Allthane into letting go the facade before asking the boon. Between the three of them, with the knowledge gleaned from the Yrsirmarings, they might just have a chance. Einarr squared his shoulders and strode towards where the Allthane once again sat, twirling his goblet morosely.

“My Thane.” Einarr offered a bow that would embarrass an Imperial, he thought, but the Allthane seemed to thrive on melodrama. “We have danced. We have feasted and drank, but nowhere do I hear stories of men’s exploits. May I regale you with a tale or two of my own?”

The Allthane looked up, still bored, but gave a twirling wave that suggested Einarr was intended to begin.

“Very good, my Lord. In that case, let me begin with how I won the Isinntog from the Jotün Fraener of Svartlauf.”


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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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