Tag: Isinntog

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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5.6 – At the Blue Hall

The public hall where Einarr found the Vidofnings and Brunnings was surprisingly large for a town no bigger than East Port. If Einarr had to take a guess, most of their custom came from ships such as their own, here to call on the Conclave.

A cheer went up as the door swung open under Reki’s hand. Inside the hall was as warm and cheery as one might expect at the end of a good season of raiding. With a grin, Einarr moved to join his crewmates with a drink while Reki went to report to Stigander. All eight of their party were able to breathe a sigh of relief when they saw that there had, in fact, been no transformations as of yet – only the complaints they had grown used to of nausea and headaches as though their crews had both contracted a lingering flu.

Even Reki’s news did not dampen their enthusiasm: if anything, the fact that they had found their “cure” before the corruption had claimed anyone was another victory over the madmen of the cult. Then it was Einarr’s turn.

“I’ve been given another impossible quest, I’m afraid, Father.”

“Feh. Do skalds give any other kind?”

“Not likely.”

“Well, what is it now?”

“I’m to travel to the Tower of Ravens and steal Frigg’s distaff out from under the noses of Huginn and Muninn.”

Stigander looked just as confused as Einarr had. “What in the depths of all the seas do you need that for?”

“Untangling fate, they say, and ridding us of the cult’s corruption for good.”

His father shook his head and wiped his hand down his moustaches, his expression changing from amusement to consternation and back again. “Well, if there’s anyone in this lot who can manage it, I’d lay my odds on you.”

Sivid could do it, if it weren’t for his accursed luck. “Thank you, Father. The Matrons said the tower required a smaller boat to reach: I’m to pay a call on a fisherman in the morning regarding the use of a boat. I’d like to take some of the crew along.”

“Long as they’re up for it, same as before. …This distaff, you said it untangles fate?”

Einarr nodded, and his father harrumphed. There was no need to say it: such a thing could easily break the Weaver’s curse on their homeland. He turned back to the hall full of his fellow Vidofnings.

“All right, everyone! Just like this spring, I need a few of you to venture out in a little fishing boat with me. This time we’re braving the wrath of a god!”

His pronouncement was followed by a peal of laughter, even by those who had heard the Matrons’ pronouncement at the Conclave.

Jorir, to no-one’s surprise, was the first to step forward. “Come hel or high water, I’m with ye.”

Einarr inclined his head at his man-at-arms. “Thank you, Jorir. Who else?”

The next man to step forward was gangly Irding, neither as tall nor as muscle-bound as his father but with the same brown hair and reckless grin. “Sounds like fun. I’ll give it a go.”

Erik’s head snapped around to look at his son. “You sure about that? We got into a heap o’ trouble going after the Isinntog.”

“I know. That’s why it sounds like fun.” Irding grinned at his father, and Erik laughed loudly.

“Who’m I kidding? Of course it does. Count me in, too.”

Einarr’s mouth curled in a half-smile. Irding looked a little less happy at the prospect now that Erik was also along, but it would be good for them. “Great. Anyone else? I expect we’ll have to work our way past traps, and if anyone knows how to read runes it would be a help.”

“I already told you, I’m coming,” Runa said, standing at the table.

“No, you’re not. There’s no telling what sort of violence we might come across.”

“You’re invading the tower of Huginn and Muninn. You need someone familiar with magic, who can read runes. I’m coming.”

Aema, the Brunning’s battle-chanter, stepped forward. “You’re hardly the only one here with those qualifications.”

“No, but I’m the only one here with those qualifications who isn’t needed here. You and Reki both have crews to tend, full of men doused with corrupted blood, and I do not. I may be a Jarl’s daughter, but that doesn’t make me useless.”

“Maybe not,” Trabbi rumbled, “but if anything should happen to you your Father will have my head. He may even if you go along and nothing happens.”

Runa met her erstwhile suitor’s eyes. “On my word of honor, I will not allow that to happen.”

Trabbi scowled back. “You have no more place on that boat than I do, my Lady.”

“That is where you’re wrong.” She turned her attention back to Einarr, and he felt the old familiar thrill. “What was it that the alfr gave you in the wood?”

“Some bauble he thought would help us through the tower, though at the moment I can’t see how.” That had been the way of Runa’s gifts, too, given as they left to seek the Jotünhall.

“Give it here.”

Einarr shrugged and removed the bird-shaped brooch from the pouch at his belt. “Doesn’t the use typically become plain when you need it?”

All three Singers rolled their eyes at him even as Runa took hold of the brooch and blanched.

Einarr couldn’t help the question. “What is it?”

“Let us hope the use becomes plain, because while I can read the runes, they look like so much nonsense.”

Reki threaded her way through the room to take a closer look. She raised pale eyebrows and let loose a low whistle. “Well, at the very least your elf-gift should actually be of use. How did he get this, though?”

“See, Runa? I’m sure we’ll be able to muddle through-”

“So long as you have someone who can read the runes. You need me, and one way or another I’m coming.” Runa’s jaw was set. Einarr turned to Bollinn.

The new Captain of the Skudbrun sighed. “I don’t think there’s any stopping her at this point. Over my own better judgement, I’ll allow it.”

Runa smiled in triumph. Einarr hoped she wouldn’t regret her insistence.


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4.24 – Fire Rain

Einarr limbered his bow as the enemy ships came into view. The storms that carried them after the Skudbrun swirled together, each intensifying the others, so that sheeting rain obscured their targets and threatened to render their assault worse than useless. Still, even under its own rainstorm the Grendel had burned.

The Vidofnir’s prow ducked as it crested a wave and entered the storm once more. There had been few issues with traction against the Grendel simply because of where they had engaged her: not so here. Their ally was in view, however, and also within the tempest.

“Draw!” Bardr gave the order. The Vidofnings at the prow raised their bows and prepared to fire, but held. Bardr now walked along their ranks, lighting their arrows from the torch in his hand. Idly, Einarr wondered how many arrows, and how much pitch, they had left after this volley. At least one more, judging by the deckhand off to the side busily wrapping pitched cloth about arrowheads.

“Aim!”

Einarr lifted his bow towards the mast of the nearest vessel – their only possible target at this stage. He took a deep breath to steady his arm and his mind. Over their heads, the flames danced in the wind and raindrops hissed away from their touch. A gust howled, high overhead, and the Vidofnir tilted to port under its influence. Right about now, Einarr might actually welcome a Valkyrie ship – especially if it had sea-fire.

The ship righted itself, and in a moment of calm the order finally came. “Fire!”

Twenty arrows screamed across the gulf between their two vessels, straight and true. Their target seemed to rear up, cresting a wave, as the volley reached them, and fire embedded itself in the enemy’s deck and sail. Thank you, Eira.

That there were even twenty of them available to fire right now spoke of how hard the oar crew labored: that there were only twenty available spoke of how hard a summer this had been already. Einarr accepted a second wrapped arrow and nocked it to his string.

The crew of the ship they had fired on last looked like rats as they scurried about on deck. Einarr could not tell from here if they were looking to put out the fires or prepare a counter-volley. Strangely, the thought did not worry him. All that mattered in this moment was his next arrow.

Runa’s voice rang out over the storm – a variation Einarr had only rarely heard, and yet this was twice in one day. It was the opposite of the battle chant, in many ways, sung most often for the old and the feeble-minded. He felt an unusual clarity settle around his shoulders, and a small smile parted his lips. Brilliant, my love.

“Draw!” Once more Bardr began moving back and forth among them, lighting their arrows as they prepared to fire. The torch smoked heavily in the rain, but did not begin to gutter. Yet.

Einarr drew back his nocked arrow. They would hit again, he was sure: Runa was the bearer of the Isinntog, which meant that they had the attention of the goddess. And if they had the attention of the goddess, she would not abandon them against foes such as these.

“Aim!”

The archers aboard the Vidofnir moved with greater confidence this time, he thought, bolstered by the last volley and by Runa’s song. Hit, and catch! He urged the fire dancing above his head just before the order came:

“Fire!”

Their arrows launched as though they had been fired by one man, and if the winds moved some few around it was to the amusement of those who fired. The arrows all landed in a rough circle surrounding the mast of the enemy ship.

The rats aboard the other ship ceased their scurrying, now: that was definitely a counter-volley they had organized.

“Shields!” Einarr bellowed. He thought Bardr would forgive him the indiscretion, under the circumstances. Even being the one to notice, he barely raised his in time for no fewer than three arrows to strike into it.

Some few weren’t so lucky. Einarr heard two or three cry out in pain. When he risked a glance, he saw men being helped back toward where the Singers could tend to their wounds. With a harrumph, he turned back around, studying the enemy ship for signs of a true blaze.

He was not disappointed. Those same rats he’d seen organizing a counterattack now scrambled every which way even as their helm turned to starboard, effectively breaking off their pursuit. Einarr was too far to see sparks, but he thought he caught the darkening of smoke surrounding their mast.

Stigander’s voice rose above the storm: do not engage. Let them sink or swim as they could – the Skudbrun was waiting, and Einarr didn’t think they had many more volleys remaining.

The Vidofnir turned off to port, leaving the enemy ship and its horrific underbelly to founder in its own storm. That just left two more. Einarr and the other archers nocked their third volley of arrows as they waited to narrow their distance from the third ship. Once again they drew, and once again fire rained down on their enemies.

Einarr let out a whoop when he saw the second volley flying through the storm toward the forward-most ship. He could not yet see the Skudbrun, but the Brunnings had seen them. The rest of the archers processed what he had seen almost as quickly, and with just as much enthusiasm. Now they stood a chance.

Bardr distributed the next volley’s worth of fire arrows among the team – the last, unless Father had more arrows stashed below deck somewhere – but if luck and the goddess’ blessing held, one more should be enough. The enemy vessels burned like pine for all of their blackness. Still, Bardr waited to call the volley until they were alongside their enemy – not near enough for boarding, but near enough to look them in the eye as they fired.

“Draw!”

As before, one of the young deckhands moved among the shallow ranks of archers with a torch, lighting the arrow wraps behind him.

“Aim!”

What were they doing over there, though? It seemed as though the enemy ship paid no heed to the Vidofnir and the tiny motes of fire they were about to launch towards their own ship. Instead, they were gathered amidships: Einarr thought he saw defiant stares on the faces of men with axes raised high, as though they were about to cut into their own boat…

“Fire!”


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3.33 – Hidden Maze

The passing of the storm took with it the ever-present gray of the sky of the ships’ graveyard. If there was one advantage they had on the trip out that they had lacked on the way in, it was the lack of fog – at least for the moment. If there was a second, it was the knowledge that there were no more kalalintu on the island. Still, these were small mercies at best, and the sharpest eyes on the crew had one task: spotting. Everyone else took their turn at the oars, shoving off of submerged sand bars to the calls of the spotters.

Einarr was not among those set to spotting. The foresight spoken of by the Oracle and the foresight required for that task were very different things and so he, too, was among those whose prime task was “hurry up and wait.”

Not that this was without its upside: the sun, now that it had emerged, shone off the water brightly enough to make him squint when he looked over the side. The spotters would be seeing spots for hours after they got through this. He gripped his oar and stared out towards the horizon.

The Vidofnir, her sail furled against errant gusts of frigid wind, crept forward through the shallows with a caution belied by the crowing rooster’s head on her prow. The oars extended out like a hundred hands to push off the shallows by the calls of those within. Seemingly at random, the lumbering longship would veer quite suddenly, the sandbar ahead undetected until the last moment by those within.

Once, as her halting forward progress seemed to become more sure of itself, the Vidofnir shuddered to a halt on a bar the spotters had missed. Then men swarmed from within, carrying what tools they had to dig at the submerged sand until she could start forward again. One of these men, shorter than the rest, grumbled about the lack of powder kegs aboard, but it seemed the rest ignored his complaints.

Once Vidofnir floated free again the men swarmed back onto her broad back and stomped their feet to warm them, hoping their trouser legs would dry before they froze in the wind, and then the sea-steed continued on again, her caution renewed.

For hours this halting, tremulous progress continued, until finally the sand bars fell away and a large rock, more truly an island than the one they had just left, reared up out of the sea ahead of them. The sea had worn away a narrow canyon that split the rock, and were it not for the tide through that canyon even it would be impassable.

Stillness fell over the Vidofnir as she entered the canyon, as of a collective holding of breath. She paused there a long moment, the ship’s eyes blinking away the glare of the sun so they could focus on the shadowed water below and the known danger it hid. Her hold was full to bursting now, and it was a weighty wealth indeed.

On deck, gripping his oar tight enough to whiten his knuckles, Einarr forcibly expelled a breath he knew he could not hold long enough to pass through the chute. The troublesome rock had been nearer this end of the canyon than the other – much nearer. Jorir still grumbled about the lack of explosives on board, and just this once Einarr thought the dwarf might be on to something. However, it was typically only Imperials who packed gunpowder on their boats, and then it was to power the machines that launched sea fire.

Einarr closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled again. Eira preserve us. For a split-second, he wished he still had the Isinntog. He didn’t know how to make it work, of course, but Reki might. He shook his head, banishing the wishful thinking.

“Hold!” The call came from the prow. Almost as one the rowers reversed for one stroke. Sufficient, at their current speed.

“You’ve spotted the hangup?” Stigander asked from his place amidships.

“Nay, sir. Not the hangup.”

“Then why have we stopped?”

“You’d best come see, sir.” The spotter’s voice was uncertain, flustered.

The thunk of Stigander’s boots against the deck boards was loud as he tromped up to have a look at what the spotter did not wish to say. He leaned over the prow to look down into the water and a groan escaped his lips.

“Pick up the pace, gentlemen,” was all he said.

Einarr stopped his father with a look as he passed by, an eyebrow raised.

Stigander leaned over in response to the unspoken query and whispered: “Sea serpent.”

Einarr blinked a few times and nodded. Svarek, next to him, began muttering what sounded like a prayer to Eira, but it seemed he was the only other person to hear. Probably a sea serpent would leave them alone. Something about a longship failed to trigger their predatory instincts the way a dromon could. But every once in a while…

“Oars in!” Stigander ordered, and it was the second shock in as many minutes for most of the crew. The urgency in his voice brooked no delay.

“Brace for a swell!”

The oarsmen planted their feet even as the spotters ducked behind the prow just as a massive swell lifted the Vidofnir’s stern and thrust her forward, carrying her far past the place they all thought they remembered the hangup being. Water sloshed over the deck, cresting the stern and breaching the oar ports.

Silence reigned on the deck for a few moments before Einarr could find voice to give the question that now floated in his brain.

“Was that the serpent’s wake that carried us?”

Stigander’s jaw dropped. When he picked it back up, a chuckle welled up from his chest. “It may well have been!”

Now the laughter spread around the crew, a sound of relief at least as much as merriment. As it died down the rowers went back to their rows and the spotters resumed their positions in the prow.

“Let’s get out of here.”


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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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2.1 – Catching Up

An empty seat awaited Einarr near where his father lounged, surprisingly far back in the hall. “Not bad, for your first go,” Stigander muttered in his ear. “Did you think to take anything for yourself?”

He shook his head. “The Isinntog was my share.”

His father grunted. “Generosity is well and good, but never forget that running a ship is costly. If you fail to provide for yourself, you fail to provide for your ship and your crew.”

“Yes, Father.”

He grunted again. “So long as you understand. Now come on, and bring that dwarf friend of yours. The three of us had best have a chat with Bardr, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Father.” Einarr did not have to look long to find Jorir: the dwarf had taken up position along the wall near the door, his new shield resting against his legs. At a gesture from Einarr, he fell in behind the two as they stepped outside.

Bardr, it seemed, had left for the temple some time before Einarr’s arrival at the Hall. That he was not back yet suggested something troubled the man, for there were few aboard the Vidofnir of a particularly pious bent.

The path to the Kjelling temple wound through the spruces to a second, smaller clearing not far away dominated by the wooden hall dedicated to the gods and brilliant with wildflowers in the morning sunlight. The door to the hall was in shadow, and Einarr felt the chill as he stepped over the threshold. Bardr sat near the back, his feet propped on the back of the bench in front of him, scowling in the general direction of the altar.

Stigander cleared his throat, and his first mate gave a start. “Guess who’s back?”

Dark-haired Bardr rose smoothly and turned to welcome Einarr, his face relaxing into a smile. “At last! We were worried when you were late.”

“Something came up, we had to make a detour.” They clasped elbows for only a moment before Einarr stepped back. “Bardr, this is Jorir, my liege-man. Jorir, Bardr is first mate on board the Vidofnir.”

“A pleasure, lord.” Jorir bowed. Bardr looked uncomfortable, to Einarr’s eye.

“That’s not really necessary.” He laid a hand on Jorir’s shoulder as the dwarf stood.

“So the Jarl sent you out after a fancy magic bauble for his daughter, and you return with a retainer?”

“That ‘fancy magic bauble’ was not the only thing I liberated from the jotün, no.”

“Evidently not. Well, Jorir, I suppose this means I get to welcome you as our newest Vidofning. Can you fight?”

“At need,” he drawled. “I’m better with a hammer and tongs, though, and no slouch with a bag of herbs. And the only person to ‘ave bested me at tafl in a good long while is milord Einarr here.”

“Before or after you swore your oath?”

“Before.”

Bardr hummed, but before he could say anything more Stigander broke in.

“This complicates matters you know, my boy.”

“I know, Father.”

“I had been intending to make you spend a month swabbing the deck.”

“Only a month? That’s better than I expected.”

“But I can’t very well subject you to that sort of punishment now that you have a man at arms, now can I? Hoping to get out of it?”

Einarr snorted. “Not remotely. When he surrendered, I asked him to swear that he meant us no harm in exchange for getting him off that island. Instead, he swears himself to me by all the gods.”

Stigander turned his head to look at the dwarf, an eyebrow cocked.

Jorir looked pensive. “It’s true. I mainly wanted off that rock, but it’s also true that when your son had the opportunity to kill me, he refrained in spite of everything. I, ah, still didn’t intend to swear quite as strongly as I did… and then he gave me the king he had used in our match. I’ll not look back now, and he’ll not regret it.”

Am I missing something? Why is the tafl king so important to him? Jorir didn’t explain, so when Stigander looked to Einarr for more information all he could do was shrug. “Runa sent me with a few gifts. The king was one of them, and the only other things I had on me at the time I just gave out at the Hall.”

Stigander drew his brows down in a thoughtful expression.

“You are the lord father and Captain of my lord, and I will honor that as well,” Jorir added.

Stigander nodded as though that were never in question. “You are a smith. Have you your own tools?”

“I did, back on Svartlauf, but to get them now would mean fighting lo— Fraener.”

“With the entire ship we could probably manage, if we could get through the storm twice more.”

Stigander grimaced at that. “As much as I would love to take my crew against a jotün, we have more pressing matters at hand.”

“How did the hunt for the Grendel go?”

Stigander’s grimace soured. “Skunked, so far, and we’re not the only ones hunting them. We found no fewer than five other crews who’ve had their battle chanters picked off. Every last one of them talks about the monstrous crew of a ship that rides in with a storm and disappears just as quick.”

“Monstrous? You mean that wasn’t just an artifact of Astrid’s chant?”

“Maybe, maybe not.” He shook his head. “If it is, it’s awfully consistent, and awfully specific to that ship.”

“So does that mean there’s a fleet forming?”

Bardr harrumphed. “More like a pact at this point. For a fleet, someone would need an idea how to find the whoresons.”

Stigander hadn’t finished. “A fleet, though… that might not be a bad idea, anyway.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. It felt as though his father had changed the subject without letting anyone else know.

“I’m going to make you work for it, you know. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time for the sons of Raen to think about building a second ship.” Stigander clapped his son on the shoulder.


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1.34 – Homecoming

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

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

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

“Easy does it,” Jorir interrupted himself.

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

“What are you doing, boy?”

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

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

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

“Go on ahead. I’ll be right after.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laughter rose up around the hall: Einarr blushed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gladly.”

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


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1.30 – Field Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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1.28 – 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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