Tag: Jorir

6.19 – Forest Chase

Einarr could not get past the idea that this was somehow still a trap. The troll, apparently guileless, led them up to the ridge, to the place where he was apparently accustomed to climbing back up. There was one immediate problem.

“I can’t climb that,” Runa stated. Even had she dressed like a man, in trousers, Einarr expected that would have been the case. She simply hadn’t had the opportunity for much rock climbing in her life.

“Erik? Are you up to carrying a passenger?” Einarr was already thinking of alternate solutions: it was not a tall ridge, but the hand holds looked tricky. Einarr was quite certain he would not have the strength to take a second person.

The big man stared dubiously at the rock wall before them. As he opened his mouth to answer, however, Runa screamed.

The troll, without so much as a by-your-leave, scooped Runa up in one grimy paw and tossed her over his shoulder. She looked faintly green as he turned and put that same paw up on the wall.

Einarr drew Sinmora and leveled it at the creature. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The troll turned its head to look at the warriors following it, its expression that of a befuddled hound. “Troll help music lady. Music lady fix bad-head. Come. We climb.”

The troll started up. Runa squawked and clutched at the greasy skin that the monster wore by way of clothing. Reluctantly, Einarr sheathed his sword once more and shared a dubious look with Jorir and Erik. There was nothing to be done, though – not just at the moment, anyway – and so he climbed after, keeping as sharp an eye on the brute as the ascent would allow.

Eventually, though, they came to the top of the ridge and the line of evergreens that Einarr had noted earlier. The troll stood patiently, making no move to leave them behind – but Einarr wondered if he had forgotten Runa was thrown over his shoulder.

“Run now?” It asked, sounding hopeful.

“No. Now you put her down, and then we follow you like we did below.”

“Oh.” It had the temerity to look disappointed. “Puny ones move faster? Poison light soon.”

Poison light? The sun? “Fine. But the Lady walks on her own.”

The troll heaved a sigh, but set Runa down without further complaint. “Troll cave this way.”

Then he was off at a lope, and Einarr was stunned to realize it probably didn’t think this was fast. It was probably moving at about a horse’s trot – but a horse’s trot is still faster than most men could run, let alone dwarves.

Einarr called back over his shoulder: “Jorir! I’ll mark trail. Catch up as you can!” And that was all the breath he could spare for a while. Not that marking a trail was particularly difficult: neither the troll, nor he, nor Erik, paid much attention to the brush as they crashed through it. Most likely they left a trail a blind man could follow.

The troll led them in essentially a straight line through the underbrush, over fallen logs and through brambles (although nothing so thick as they had seen below), and soon Runa, too, was having trouble keeping up. The troll had not so much as looked back. Perhaps, if they simply stopped running and hid in the forest until daybreak…? But no. Runa had promised the benighted creature help, and he would not make her go back on her word. “Troll!”

“Man!” A sound like chuckling carried back toward them. “Nearly there.”

“Slow down! Music lady not so fast as you.” Neither was Einarr or Erik, but the troll only needed Runa.

The troll stopped to look back at the panting humans. Impatiently, Einarr thought. “Poison light soon. Must cave be.”

“Why were you so far out in the first place?”

“Talk later. Cave now. Music lady shoulders?”

Einarr was about to refuse again, but Runa raised a forestalling hand as she half-stumbled past him.

“No, it’s fine.” She took a deep breath. “He smells bad, and I’ll want a bath, but it’s fine.”

Einarr glared at the troll, but Runa paid him no mind as she stepped forward. “More gently this time, if you please.”

For a wonder, the troll not only understood but obliged, setting Runa upright on his shoulder as delicately as though she were made of glass. Einarr frowned. Something about this didn’t mesh with what Afi had taught him about trolls. Was it perhaps loyalty to another of its kind – its mate, perhaps? Or was Runa right – was this his Calling coming to the fore once again? If that was so, was that even a troll?

Einarr shook his head: he had no more time to wonder, as the brute was loping off again, this time with his bride on its shoulder. And there was no way in all the Realms he would let them out of his sight.

The troll’s path led them out of the strip of forest and into another meadow in the shadow of the mountain, and by the time Einarr could see firelight coming from the mouth of the cave the horizon had turned from indigo to grey. Whatever his faults, the troll had been honest with them thus far. Thus far. It’s too early to relax. There’s still no promise the cure for whatever “bad-head” is won’t involve eating us.

The troll came to a stop by the fire just outside of a large granite cave mouth where the edge of the field began to slope up into the mountain. As Einarr and Erik jogged to a stop, Einarr nearly gagged as the smell of rot assailed his nose from within the cave. Runa was patting frantically at the creature’s shoulder to be let down and taking quick, shallow breaths. For the smell to affect her this much even after riding on the troll’s shoulder all this way… Einarr was suddenly glad to be a sailor.

“Music lady fix bad-head now. Inside.”

Runa turned her face from the cave mouth, trying to smell less of it. She still looked as though she wanted to throw up. “No.”


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6.20 – Coming Soon

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6.18 – Troll

With a thud as hard as one of the boulders he had been tossing, the troll whose presence Einarr had suspected showed himself. A hideous specimen even for the breed, he glared at them with red eyes from beneath a heavy brow. The stench of unwashed flesh assaulted Einarr’s nose.

In that same moment, the great stupid man-beast threw back its head and roared. It swung its club overhead so fast it whistled. Einarr drew Sinmora and hefted his shield: he had hoped to avoid this, but not really expected to. Erik and Jorir, too, had set themselves for battle, even as Runa hopped backward a few paces.

The troll charged straight down the middle and brought its thigh-size club down. Jorir flung himself to the side. The impact of the club against the ground sent gravel flying. Jorir rolled to his feet, though, apparently unharmed, shook his head, and dashed in towards the troll’s feet.

Erik had to dodge a backhanded sweep as the troll brought its club back up, but that too was an opportunity. He rose from under the swing of the troll’s arm and chopped at its elbow. Blood welled, and the creature roared, but it seemed Erik’s strike had been just off the mark: it could still use its arm.

Einarr moved in, then, as the creature tried to focus on Erik and avoid Jorir’s harrying of its legs at the same time. Its back was wide open, and Sinmora cut a broad swath across it. He had to be missing something, though: the troll that had flushed them out by throwing rocks would have to be a clever specimen, and this one was not fighting like he had any brains at all.

As though on cue, the gash that he had just opened along its back began to knit itself together. Einarr bit off a curse: how were they supposed to drop the thing, or even drive it off, if they couldn’t hurt it?

Is that why it fought stupidly? Because it had never needed to learn to fight well? That gave him the sliver of an idea. Einarr gave up on large, sweeping cuts: he had Erik for those, and Jorir to keep it on its toes. The Vidofnings would be the wolf pack, and the troll a stag, and soon enough the sun would rise or the troll would decide they were too much trouble.

Erik began to circle the creature, hacking at the arm that held the club at every chance. It wasn’t long before he, too, realized that he wasn’t actually hurting the beast – or not enough to matter.

“Keep going!” Einarr called as he hacked down at the thickly muscled neck. “Time is on our side!” Especially if Runa…

Yes. She was beginning to Sing, the same Song she had used on the boat early that spring to keep his strength up. The same song she had bottled to get him and Erik and Tyr through the storm around Svartlauf. So long as her voice held out, they could hold.

So long as Runa had stayed silent, however, the troll had been content to focus its ministrations on the three warriors among them. Now that the voice of a Singer rang over the fields, Einarr realized his error.

With a mighty kick, the troll sent Jorir tumbling away from its knees. The dwarf rolled to his feet almost immediately, but even in the dark Einarr could tell he looked winded.

Einarr moved in to strike at the creature’s hideous face right as it began to swing its club in a full circle around it. He felt the wind driven from his lungs even as he saw Erik be bowled aside like firewood.

And then the troll charged at Runa.

Einarr found sufficient air to dash to his feet. He was not aware of crossing the distance, only that one moment he saw the troll’s aim – Runa – and the next he was there, between the avalanche of beast-man and his bride.

He set his feet and braced his shield for the coming blow. “Over my dead body.”

The troll’s momentum bowled it into Einarr and pushed him back a distance of several paces – right through where Runa would have been, if she had not had the good sense to get out of the way.

“Music lady need,” the troll grunted. Einarr rocked back on his heels, surprised.

“You can’t have her.” He held Sinmora ready, even though he knew there was little he could do with his blade.

“Music lady need. Fix head-bad. Music lady take.”

Einarr rolled his eyes and hoped Runa would forgive him what he was about to say. For all he knew, ‘fix head-bad’ would still mean ‘throw in stew.’ “‘Music lady’ woman mine. ‘Music lady’ no take.”

“Einarr… perhaps we should go with it.”

“You want to end up in a cookpot?”

“I didn’t say we trust it. But have you ever heard of a troll seeking help before?”

Einarr shook his head.

“Then might I suggest this is your Cursebreaker calling, bringing us a new puzzle to solve and maybe even a new friend to make?”

“Yes! Yes! Music lady come, fix head-bad, troll no hurt music lady friends.”

“There are hours left until daybreak. What have we got to lose, really?”

Einarr had a few ideas. Chief among them, their heads. But this, right here, was not a fight they could win now. Reluctantly, he nodded. “Fine. We’ll see what it wants.”

He turned to their erstwhile opponent. “Troll. Music lady will come. Rest of us, also come. Troll no harm music lady or warriors?”

“Troll no harm. Troll-friend now. High honor.”

Einarr was sure it was. To the trolls, anyway. As the creature lumbered happily off toward the ridge, he rubbed his forehead. If Runa was wrong, this could get very bad, very quickly.


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6.17 -Heavy Fire

For the first time since they’d landed here in the middle of that terrible storm, Einarr could see the night sky. He had thought, of course, that by seeing the stars they would be able to guess where in the sea they had been taken. It was not to be.

In other circumstances, he would have loved being able to show this sky to Runa. The moon was a brilliant silver orb, and all around it shone more stars than any man could hope to count, so brightly that the sky itself seemed a shimmery blue rather than black. But the sight that was so beautifully vibrant above also proved that they were in no place Einarr could even guess at. He could not see a single constellation that might help point their way home.

He shared his watch with Jorir, but while the dwarf knew herb-craft better than Einarr expected any man of the clans to he had made plain he was no navigator. The stars were beyond his ken. Still, however, for the best that Runa watched with Erik. He was the best fighter of the four of them, but also the most reckless. Einarr heaved a sigh: that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“What’s on yer mind?” Jorir asked from his perch at the top of the rise.

“Where are we?”

“The Isle of the Forgotten, we’ve been told. I think the Lady might be better equipped to tell you that than I.” Jorir did him the courtesy of not feigning ignorance of the question, at least.

“You’ve never seen a sky like this before either, then.”

“Never. Although…” As his voice trailed off, Einarr heard the sound of a body sliding down a grassy slope, and then the dwarf’s footsteps approached. “If we’re tryin’ ta avoid the attention of a troll, now might not be the moment to talk about this.”

Einarr nodded. “You’re right, of course. My turn on the rise?”

“If you would.”

Off in the distance, further along the trail they had been following, there was a great crash of stone cracking against stone. Einarr cracked a wry smile, knowing nobody else would see it. “It seems I was right.”

“Quite. It also seems as though your troll is hunting elsewhere.”

“For now. Perhaps.” With a nod to himself, Einarr bent over and half-crawled up the slope of the hill. At the top, he stretched out on his stomach to make a less obvious target for anyone who happened to be looking. Or throwing.

Another crash, this one from the way they had come. What was it doing? Einarr knit his brow: the only answers that occurred to him were ones he definitely did not like – ones that suggested this troll was far more clever than ordinary. He would move them if he thought they were in danger of being hit by a flying rock, or if it seemed like the creature was otherwise close to finding them, but he’d meant what he told Runa. If it came down to it, the four of them could probably defeat the troll, or at least drive it off. But there would be a price, and probably a heavy one, and he needed them all in good health to get out of here.

Over the course of the rest of his watch, Einarr listened as the stones narrowed gradually in on their location. While they came nearer, he still didn’t think the troll knew where they were. He sat up to begin scooting down the slope.

A blast of earth and rocks pelted him from behind, throwing him forward into a tumble down the hill. A curse escaped his lips as he somersaulted down the slope: “Shit!”

Erik and Runa were already up by the time he regained his feet, and Jorir was tossing his pack over a shoulder. It hardly seemed necessary, but Einarr gave his order anyway. “Run!”

No-one tried to argue. Erik threw his baldric over a shoulder and took off. Runa and Jorir were right behind. Was this proof that the troll knew where they were, and would soon be on top of them? No, and it was also possible that by running they had given themselves away, much like a grouse in the woods. It was also possible, probable even, that the next stone would have landed in the middle of their camp.

The rocky trail shone silver in the starlight. They raced for it, stones exploding from the ground around them as they went. Einarr took the lead. They would be more visible on the path. He turned alongside it, hoping the others would follow suit.

The ground beneath his feet was rough and stone-pocked, and would have been even without the troll’s attentions. Einarr was forced to slow after the third time his ankle turned under him and threatened to send him crashing to the ground.

The trail was leading them closer to the ridge. Einarr paled but did not slow as he realized the trap they were in – how the troll hunted. They could not leave the path, as they had no other way to find the village. But the path was no safe haven, not here. Auna had warned them, but he had not understood. He set his jaw and ran faster.

Ahead of him, the ground shook, although it was not the sound of stone on stone that assaulted Einarr’s ears this time. He raised his head and pulled up out of his headlong run to stop. They could run no farther, for there, on the trail ahead of them, stood a man the size of a bear that made the huldrekall look handsome. Its skin appeared dark grey in the starlight, and its broad, drooping nose obscured the rotted mouth from which fetid breath blew. Long shanks of lank black hair hung from its head and blended with the black skin it had draped itself with.

The troll had found them.


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6.16 – Through the Hills

One of the younger huldra showed them to a trail that, she said, would lead eventually to the human village on the north shore of the island. Then, without another word, she vanished as though she had never existed. Einarr stood blinking, surprised that the person he had been about to thank could be there when he opened his mouth and gone before any sound left it.

“The hulder are hidden ones,” Runa said softly by way of explanation.

Einarr shook his head, disbelieving, and started down the trail. It bothered him, a little, how baldly ignorant he was about these matters. Would any of them have made it this far if he hadn’t given in to Runa? If she were not his intended bride, this would be utterly intolerable.

The trail the huldra set them on meandered like a deer track, although it was too wide and well-established to be only that. Best of all, it led away from the battlefield between the hulder and the leshy, and probably out of the territory controlled by either group. “Good riddance,” he muttered as he hiked. “If I’m ever attacked by grass again, it will be too soon.”

Erik, in the rear, managed to hear him and laughed. “And it’ll take a lot of beer to get me raspberry picking for a while.”

Now all of them laughed, Runa’s musical notes rising above the earthy rumble of the men’s chortling.

“So let’s hurry up so we can get off this rock, shall we?” Without waiting for an answer, Einarr picked up the pace.

***

The sun approached its zenith as Einarr followed the trail out of the heart of the wood and into the sparsely treed hills beyond. As he crested a hill at the outer edge of the wood, he stopped. All around them stretched rocky meadows where elsewhere he might have expected to see goats foraging. Elsewhere, because they had been warned this was a treacherous area to travel in, although Einarr could see no sign as to why. Off to his left, a ridge rose above the hills in the same pale stone as below, and beyond it the mountain that would anchor this island in any normal sea.

The path continued on, of course, although the packed, loamy dirt of the forest had given way to lighter, rockier ground – almost gravel. It almost looked like someone maintained the trail. Well, there was really nothing for it. With half a shrug, Einarr started down the slope ahead of him, towards where they were told they would find people.

The further they went on, however, the stronger Einarr’s feeling grew that they were being watched. He could not keep himself from glancing up at the sky, gauging how much daylight they had left to get past here and to the town. He had done this several times already when movement from atop the ridge caught his eye.

He stopped. “Did anyone else see that?”

“See what?” Runa, for all that they still had miles to go before sunset, looked winded in a way that she had not in the forest.

“Up there.” He pointed towards the top of the ridge. “I thought I saw a creature.”

“From all the way out here?” She sounded skeptical. “It would have to be as large as a bear, wouldn’t it?”

“Are you sure it wasn’t?” Jorir asked.

“A bear wouldn’t be watching us as we cross its territory, and I’m certain something has been.”

Runa opened her mouth again, but Erik cut her off. “No, I’ve felt it too. Like the hairs on the back of my neck prickling.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Einarr said, shrugging again. “Let’s just hurry on, so whatever it was doesn’t decide to come ‘investigate’ while we sleep.”

He walked faster now, the gravel crunching under his feet, but the sense of being watched only grew stronger – and hungry. Whatever that was, the creature on the ridge or something else, Einarr hoped the island was small enough they would not have to spend the night in the land it claimed. When the sun was setting, however, they were still traipsing through the same rocky, hilly meadows. Here and there they passed jagged boulders along the path – some of which appeared to have once blocked the trail. For once, Einarr thought he might know what claimed this land, although he could not bring himself to be happy in this knowledge.

“We’ll have to camp,” he said finally. “Let’s put our backs to a rise between us and the ridge. Double watch, no fire.”

“Einarr?” Runa seemed perplexed.

“My old afi taught me some bushcraft. We only ever went out tracking deer, but he taught me the signs for some more dangerous creatures, as well. And there’s been troll-sign all over these hills.”

Jorir cursed. Erik smacked himself in the forehead, as though realizing what he’d missed. Runa, though, moved from perplexed to skeptical.

“You said something was watching us all afternoon, though. Trolls can’t go in sunlight.”

“Not direct sunlight, no. But you see that thick line of trees on top of the ridge? An especially canny troll could move about under there during the day without too much trouble, I expect.”

Runa did not look convinced. When she opened her mouth to protest again, Einarr held up a placating hand. “Just, humor me? I could have been wrong about being watched. I’m certain about the troll sign. And if I’m wrong, all we’ll have given up is one night’s fire.”

“Oh, very well.”

He smiled at her, then, and clapped her on the shoulder. “Thank you. I’d rather not have to fight off a troll at all, but if I must, better to do it now than when we’re loaded down with supplies.”

“I wasn’t aware there was a special way one needed to fight trolls.”

“There isn’t. They just don’t go down, not without a terrible fight.”


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6.15 – The Test

The five spent a second night in the windowless meeting hall, although while the door was still guarded this time they were not alone. The hulder had moved their wounded to biers lain about the hall. Some of the huldrakall were up and about, looking as restless as Einarr felt. Wanting, he expected, to be out defending their village again that night, but not healthy enough to be of use.

Irding sat against the wooden wall, one of a handful with broken bones who could do little other than laugh ruefully and accept their position. Jorir had been conscripted to help tend to the wounded. Runa, sitting on a large rock in the center of the hall, sang a peaceful melody. Einarr didn’t think there was any magic in it, but it served its purpose of soothing nerves. Mostly.

Einarr and Erik tried not to join the most restless of the warriors in their pacing. A niggling little voice in the back of Einarr’s mind suggested that, if it had failed, it would be his fault. They had been told, after all, not to fight the Woodsman, and he had gone and bashed its head in. If that had actually been a head, of course. So, instead of pacing, Einarr allowed himself to chew his lower lip.

After a time, the sound of fighting drifted through the walls. It sounded… less fierce, somehow, than the other night, although from their windowless cage it was impossible to tell how the battle actually went. Now he did pace, a growl emanating from low in his throat. Were those cries animal puppets of the Woodsman, or were they hulder? He could not tell.

As gradually as it arose, the sound of fighting faded away. Einarr froze in his tracks. The battle was over he was sure, but to what result? He stared at the door, as though he could see the result of the spell in the grain of the wood.

A hand reached out to touch his arm and he started.

“Come and sit down, love,” Runa murmured softly. “Rest. We will learn in the morning.”

“Who can rest?” Despite his words, he allowed himself to be led over towards the center of the hall.

“The exhausted and the wounded. Sit, and I will sing again.”

“Your voice?”

“Just fine, thank you. Their herb-witches have brewed something restorative in the water.”

Einarr settled himself on the ground beside her, knowing she was right but intending to maintain vigilance through the night anyway. He could sleep once he knew he hadn’t accidentally destroyed the hulder. Runa’s song held no more than the common magic tonight, after all – that known to soothe the nerves of man and beast alike.

***

When Einarr awoke, the door stood open and daylight poured in. Runa smiled down at him, looking as though she had not moved since she lulled him to sleep. That, surely, was nonsense, though: she could not have failed to take her own advice, could she?

“Did we win?” That was not quite what he’d intended to ask, but close enough.

“You can ask Elder Auna yourself. She’s waiting on us.”

Einarr scrambled hastily to his feet. “And you didn’t wake me?”

“Of course she didn’t. You deserved your rest. Huld knows you’ve got your work cut out for you, from what your dwarf says.”

“I see.” Einarr offered the elder huldra a respectful bow, then hesitated. “The fisherman we met on the shore called this place accursed, the Isle of the Forgotten. Is that true?”

“I’m afraid so. This village used to care for a forest on Kem. The humans began to pay us less and less mind, and fewer and fewer sought our blessings. Then, one day, we realized we had not seen a man in over a year, and the forest had changed around us. We were no longer on Kem, but here.”

Runa gave a small shudder. “It’s terrible, when you think about it. I’m given to understand that the Woodsman is even older than Auna.”

“More primal, rather. But that is hardly important. You came in search of a mast, and we will gladly allow you to cut a suitable tree.”

“We did it, then? The leshy is contained?”

“I… believe so. Certainly its puppets seemed aimless last night. This has happened before, of course, when the leshy has taken significant damage and had to reform, but even if that were the case you say you were still fighting when the spell took effect. I judge you to have kept your end of the bargain, and therefore I shall keep mine.”

“You have our thanks. Tell me, are there more people here on the island? Thus far we’ve met you and the fisherman who took us in out of the storm…”

“There is a human town on the far side of the forest, although I cannot promise you will like the inhabitants. If you wish to go there, you must pass by the foothills, and that is a treacherous path.”

“I understand. Thank you, Elder Auna.”

She swayed, like a tree in the wind, in answer. “Good fortune to you. Remember that you have made yourselves a friend to us, and do not hesitate to call on that friendship should you require it.”

“We will.”

Auna turned then and left the meeting hall. When she had vanished from sight, Einarr turned on his heel and walked stiffly over towards where Irding lay recuperating, beckoning the others to follow.

He crouched beside Irding, who once again lay back against the wall, his eyes half-lidded as though he had been drugged. Likely he had been.

“All right. We’ve secured ourselves a mast, or at least the ability to make one. Hopefully any other lumber we need to fix the boat, as well. That still leaves food and water, and charts if there are any to be had here. Auna says there’s an actual town on the island: that’s probably our best chance to resupply before we try to escape. And we still don’t know how one escapes this place. I say we chance it.”

“Count me in,” Irding mumbled. Whatever they had given him, it was much stronger than willow bark.

“Sorry, Irding. I’m not taking you deeper into this forest until your ribs are recovered.”

Irding managed to look offended by that even through the haze of the hulder medicine, but all that escaped his lips was a sound akin to a squawk before Erik backed Einarr up.

“He’s right. You need time to mend before we go back to rowing for our lives. Rest up: we’ll handle this.”

Irding grumbled, but there was nothing he could have said just then to convince them to take a wounded man along. “On one condition,” he finally conceded. “You have to tell me anything interesting that happens. Anything.”


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6.14 – Aftermath

Einarr awoke after fitful sleep as the world around them grew lighter with the daybreak. True to his word, Jorir still stood near the embers of last night’s fire, looking fresher than any man had right to after the day they’d had yesterday: something to be said for dwarven constitution, Einarr thought.

“Morning,” he said with a groan as he sat up.

Jorir hummed, poking the ashes of their fire with a stick.

Einarr yawned and stretched, missing his bed roll from the Vidofnir. “You up for another long day’s slog?”

“It’s not me you should worry about.” Jorir stabbed down at the ashes with particular vigor, revealing a bit of still-glowing charcoal. “It’s the boy and your lady.”

Einarr chuckled. ‘The boy’ could only be Irding, who had to be within a handful of years of Einarr’s own age – but with as long as dwarves lived, would any of them be more than children? “Runa’s hardier than you give her credit for, I think. Or stubborn enough as to make no difference. And if our invalid needs a rest, we’ve more than one pair of shoulders big enough to carry a load.”

“Who’re you calling invalid?” Irding did not sit up as he spoke.

Einarr smirked. “You,” he called over his shoulder.

“Well, okay then. Fair enough.” There was a long pause, filled with some pained grunting, as Irding pushed himself to sit. When he spoke again, he was a little breathless. “I really wish I could deny that right now.”

“We’ll get back to Auna’s village, and unless I miss my guess she’ll have some way of actually healing that.”

“You think?” Irding seemed to be in good humor, even if his side did obviously pain him. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa sit up and rub at her eyes.

Einarr could only shrug. “Maybe? I don’t rightly know what the Art of the hulder can do. But there’s only one way to find out.”

Runa stood, moving over to stand near the remnants of the fire as though looking for warmth. “I doubt they’ll have actual healing magic that surpasses the song seithir, although I could be wrong. Likely, however, they’ll have herb lore we don’t.”

Jorir harrumphed.

“No-one disputes your skill,” she continued. “But you are a blacksmith by trade, not an herb-witch or Imperial apothecary, and even herb-witches speak of long-lost formulae.”

“As fascinating as this is,” Erik rumbled from behind Einarr. “I’d rather not be here when the Woodsman’s thralls return.”

Einarr nodded. “Oh, good, you’re up. I agree, we should be off. Irding? You up for walking right off the bat?”

“Depends. Is the alternative getting flung around like a sack of turnips? Because I could really do without that again.”

***

The group of five moved through the Woodsman’s forest without more than the usual entanglements that day. They were attacked by neither beast nor bird, and the creeping vines that had reached out to tangle their feet the day before seemed once more to be ordinary vines.

Einarr tried not to be suspicious at how easy their task had apparently been, and to take heart in the hope of aid once they returned. Nothing had actually been promised, he reminded himself, save the friendship of the hulder. Surely, though, that must be worth some healing, some food, and the freedom to cut a new mast?

Irding chewed yet more willow bark, even as he rode on his father’s back. He had finally accepted the aid around midday – and for the best, as he was moving slowly enough the others were making ready to insist.

Even without the delays of a clinging wood the afternoon grew long before they reached the battle lines. The ground appeared even more torn up than usual, as though the fighting between leshy and hulder had been especially fierce while Runa carved their inscription for them.

When they had left the morning before, the torn up ground of the battlefield stopped a good distance yet from the hulder village, and so on their return they expected to return to virgin forest before they saw any sign of the spirits. When the huts suddenly became visible from just beyond the edge of the torn-up ground, then, Einarr stopped in his tracks.

The village itself had been spared, it appeared, but signs of the fighting were visible in its paths in the form of wounded warriors and those who tended to them. With a sigh, Einarr shook his head and continued on. Irding lifted his head to see why they had paused. A low whistle escaped him.

The five of them made it perhaps a hundred yards into the village before the familiar, wizened figure of Auna appeared in front of them, seemingly out of nowhere. “Have you succeeded, then?”

Runa stepped forward to stand even with Einarr. “The spell activated late last night, with the leshy in the clearing with us.”

“And you all survived?” Auna’s shock was visible.

Einarr glanced over his shoulder toward Erik and Irding. “It was a near thing, I’m afraid. Did it work?”

“I… not so well as I hoped, if that’s the case. The battle was fierce last night.”

“So it seems,” Jorir grumbled. “Perhaps tomorrow night will be the proof.”

“Let us hope so. You did not try to fight it?”

Einarr shrugged. “Didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It showed up before Runa had finished the inscription. But I think we all felt the spell go off before I coshed it on the head.”

She brought slender wooden fingers up to her mouth, then shook her head. It worried her, plainly, but all she said was “Come. You have done us the service we asked. We will see to your injuries, and tonight we shall see if you bought us some reprieve.”

“You have my thanks, Elder Auna,” Einarr said with a respectful bow before following her deeper into the village.


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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.

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Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

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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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.

6.12 – Wolves

The exposed slate of the cave walls shone white in the moonlight, a gaping maw of blackness beneath daring them to enter the Woodsman’s lair. Einarr whistled through his teeth – one long, one short, one long again. Rustling in the underbrush signaled his companions’ arrival, and so Einarr pointed ahead at what Runa had found. “Perhaps we haven’t entirely lost fortune’s favor?”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Jorir grumbled. “How do we know he’s not at home?”

Runa kept her voice to a whisper when she snapped back. “We wouldn’t have any way of knowing that even if we’d arrived in the middle of the afternoon.”

“Think you’re up for climbing a tree, Irding?” Einarr was thinking aloud more than anything. “We’ll need a lookout anyway.”

“Think I’ll manage somehow. I don’t suppose I could get another pinch of willow bark to chew?”

With a harrumph, Jorir tossed him a small pouch. “Don’t use any more than you have to. That’s all I have.”

Irding hummed even as he helped himself to a pinch of the pain-killer. “Right. Up I go.”

The forest around them began to stir as Irding, injured and in pain, rather loudly scaled a nearby oak. There was no time to waste. “Runa. Let’s go.”

Runa was moving before he finished speaking, slipping out into the clearing as silently as she had moved the night they had attempted to elope. Einarr thought it best not to question why she was so skillful at sneaking. Knowing what he already did of her as a child suggested an answer, anyway. He followed close behind, and Erik just a pace behind him.

No sooner had they crossed the threshold from shadow to moonlight than the forest behind them came violently to life once more. Irding wrapped arms and legs about the trunk as the tree began to shake, although it did not seem able to do more than that. Grimacing, Irding shimmied up to hug the tree at a good height to see around.

On the ground, Runa had in hand the small chisel and hammer that Auna had provided her. She knelt beside the bare slate at the entrance to the cave and began to chant under her breath even before she brought the tools to bear. Einarr, Jorir, and Erik took up positions around her, weapons drawn.

No sooner had the chisel clinked against the stone than the first wave hit. The grass grabbed at their boots, even as flocks of birds dived at them. That they were pecking at Einarr’s head and not clawing with talons told him they not owls, but that was cold comfort here. He used Sinmora not as a sword but as a swatter, waving it about to keep the creatures off his head. The birds did, slowly, die at their feet, but none of them kept a kill count.

Runa’s voice grew to be audible over the din of screeching birds, and the steady beat of the chisel kept time.

Einarr slashed through a cloud of the Woodsman’s possessed minions, knocking one from the air and guarding his head from the rest. In the momentary gap caused by Sinmora’s passing, he saw silver-furred wolves stalking out of the wood from all directions.

The wolf directly in front of him had antlers. It snarled, showing larger than average teeth.

Einarr stilled, his attention fully on the new threat. The birds flew off as though dismissed.

The wolves prowled forward. Except for the one, they all appeared to be normal. Einarr met the glare of the antlered wolf from under his lowered brow and raised Sinmora. He would claim this challenge.

The wolf snarled again and lunged forward. In a heartbeat the antlered wolf closed the distance, and Einarr frantically swung Sinmora down to turn its bite. No natural wolf could be so quick: a gift of the leshy, perhaps?

Einarr could spare no more time on consideration. The antlered wolf snapped at his legs again and again, with odd twists of the head as he dashed back out to strike again. Trying to trip Einarr with the horns. Sinmora cut its hide, but shallowly.

Runa still chanted over the nearly inaudible beat of her hammer and chisel.

One of the wolves tried to slip between Einarr and Jorir while Einarr focused on the leader. As though they were of one mind, prince and dwarf pivoted. Sinmora slipped between its ribs even as Jorir’s axe laid open its belly.

The kill came with a price, however. The pack leader could not let such an opportunity pass. Einarr howled as its jaws closed about his calf and pulled.

Einarr did not go down. He yanked his sword out of the dead wolf and hacked at the pack leader, but already the creature had hopped backwards, licking Einarr’s blood off its chops.

Another wolf tried for his other leg. Einarr twisted out of the way and brought his blade down to cut across the side of its neck.

The pack leader took his attention from Einarr long enough to growl at the wounded interloper. The opportunist put its tail between its legs and hurried off to join the assault on Erik.

The big man was, of all things, laughing. Perhaps after their encounter with the fimbulvulf that spring, a pack of normal wolves seemed less threatening? Einarr shook his head and refocused on the pack leader. To either side of him, Jorir and Erik fought off the ordinary beasts, their task made easier by the wolves’ focus on Runa in the center.

Arrows flew from above, as carefully placed as Irding could manage. Still Einarr’s focus was on the pack leader. It, too, stood back now, evaluating its opponent much like Einarr evaluated it.

Runa’s chanting grew louder and faster. Did that mean she was almost done? Einarr settled back into his stance, his eyes locked on the red ones of the antlered wolf.


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

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.

6.11 – Field Dressing

Einarr kept a nervous watch while the others saw to Irding’s field dressing, neither of them certain how much good a watch would do in a wood where the trees themselves might rise up against you. Erik, being not terribly skillful with medicine, inspected his son’s maille while Runa and Jorir did what they could for his ribs.

“That bear ripped into it pretty good, Irding.” Disgust filled Erik’s voice. “You’re sure the stenjätte didn’t damage it?”

Irding grunted in pain. “Jorir checked it over on the boat, same as yours.”

“Is it still wearable?” Einarr did not look back at them. Worrying about wolves at this point probably wouldn’t do them any good, but he had heard them, earlier. A wolf pack ambush, now, might be more than they could handle.

“Oh, sure, long as nothing tries to stab him in the chest again. The links aren’t broken – quite – but they’re more than a little bent out of shape.”

“It’s not like – oof – I’m going to be doing much fighting for a while anyway.” The strain was audible in his voice. “My bow cracked same time my ribs did.”

Einarr and Erik both groaned at that revelation, although it would have been a small miracle if it had not done so.

“Use mi-” Einarr started.

“Use mine,” Erik said at the same moment, his voice more insistent. “I’m better off in the thick of things anyway.”

“You sure you can draw that?” Jorir sounded skeptical, but Irding laughed.

“If the old man can pull it, I can pull it.”

Before the one-upmanship could go any farther, Einarr interrupted. “If you’re done, we should get moving again.”

“I think we’ve done what we can,” Runa said.

“Then let’s go.” Einarr re-shouldered his own bow and checked that Sinmora was clear in its sheath. They’d sat around too long already, and the forest had begun to grow restless around them.

As they left the small clearing they had claimed, the foliage closed in behind them.

Irding’s wound slowed them, and as the light in the wood grew warmer with the waning of the day they still had not spotted the cave Auna had told them to look for.

“We’re lost, aren’t we.” Runa finally said what they had all been thinking for several hours.

Einarr looked at the trees surrounding them. “In a wood like this? We could be walking in circles a hundred feet from our goal and never know it.” He growled, annoyed. “If we don’t find a way to blaze our trail, we’ll never get out of here. Has no-one seen any rocks?”

They didn’t dare cut their signs into living wood, not in the Woodsman’s territory, and neither Runa nor Jorir had charcoal on them. In a less overgrown wood they could have used dead twigs or leaves, but he didn’t trust those not to be gobbled up by the rapidly growing vines. That left rocks, or carving into the soil itself.

The others all shook their heads. With a sigh, Einarr drew Sinmora. They had to do something, and if the battlegrounds were anything to judge by, this might be safe. “If this brings the leshy’s servants down on our heads, I’m sorry.”

Without another word, Einarr plunged the point of his sword into the earth to carve a large arrow in the dirt.

Silence reigned. For a long moment, none of them dared move. Einarr strained his ears, listening for any sound of outrage from the wood around them. When it did not come, he sheathed his sword again. “Right. Let’s go.”

The light grew feeble, and Irding’s breathing ever more labored. The huldra were counting on them, and the longer this took, the more tenuous their position became. Even still, Einarr knew they would have to stop and seek shelter soon. A miserable camp that would be, with no fire and no liquor, but he had trouble seeing any way around it.

“We should find a place to rest,” he said aloud after taking another brief survey of the wood around them.

“Auna is expecting us tonight, is she not?” Runa reminded him.

“I rather got the impression that she was hoping, not expecting,” Erik rumbled. “She said herself that none of the huldraken had ever reached the lair. She can hardly fault us for not finding it in one day.”

“Runa’s right.” Irding said, although they could all hear the strain in his voice. “I’ll be fine. We should keep going.”

“The forest becomes a battleground at night,” Einarr said. “And we’re going to want to observe the clearing before we just go sailing in – which will be difficult with you panting like a warhound. We’re camping.”

He heard no further objection, and his companions spread out to search for a decent place where they could all curl up on the ground within view of each other.

Not many minutes later, Runa’s voice came to his ears, drifting as though on the wind through a tall berry bush. Einarr crept off to where she had disappeared into the bushes. “What is it?” he whispered.

“Look.”

There, not fifty feet further on from where they crouched in the bushes, Einarr could see the soft glow of rocks in the moonlight. They rose above the underbrush: from here, he could tell no more. He nodded at Runa before creeping forward.

Ahead of him, a bright spot in the near-blackness of thick forest at nightfall, was a clearing with a large cave in the center of it. No underbrush encroached past the ring of sturdy oaks that surrounded the rise of slate: there was only grass and moonlight, and an apparently empty cave.


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

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.

6.10 – Grasping Branches

As though on cue, the forest itself seemed to come alive around them. The grass and the twining berry vines that trailed along the ground reached up to grab his boots, and the bushes and brambles around the clearing began to visibly grow into a wall. So much for not attracting attention.

“Run!” Einarr suited words to action and sprinted for the far edge, around the bear, hoping the others would be quick enough to outpace the rapidly coiling plant matter. Runa he had no fear for, as she still sat on his shoulders.

Erik practically stepped on his heels, he was so close, and Jorir was right behind him. There came a crash of breaking branches and a curse from Irding. Einarr turned in time to see the man’s axe raised high.

“Irding, no!”

It was too late. The iron axe blade chopped down into the vegetation and Irding, his breathing heavy, surged forward.

The branches redoubled their growth, seeming to reach after him like grasping claws. Einarr had not been certain until that moment that using a weapon would draw any more attention than wrestling the bear-creature had, but here was the proof. The forest around them erupted into raucous chaos. Crows cawed from all around. Wolves howled. Bears roared – although not from just behind them, thankfully. And even over all of that, Einarr would swear he could hear the plants that hindered them growing.

Irding’s face was pale and pained, and his breath came heavy. Einarr frowned.

“Erik. Carry him.”

The big man grunted, and without waiting for Irding’s inevitable refusal scooped his son up over his shoulder like a sack of cabbages.

Irding gasped in pain, but they had no time to resettle. “Bear with it,” Erik grumbled, and they were off again.

Einarr had no idea how long they’d run before the grasping vines slackened their pace, as though unsure of where their quarry had gone after such a long chase. Einarr had no doubt the plants had been hunting them. Had anything else? He shook his head as he slowed to a jog, and then a stop. “I think we’re clear.”

“For now, maybe,” Runa said. “Are you ever going to put me down?”

Einarr dropped to one knee and unwrapped his arm from around her legs. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten he was carrying her – the weight of another human on his shoulder was not something he could forget while running – but this was the first moment they’d had to pause and catch their breath. Runa trailed her fingers along the line of his jaw as she slipped gracefully down. It was thanks enough, so far as he was concerned.

Erik raised a hand to his forehead and looked around. Irding appeared to have passed out during the run. “Does anyone happen to know if we were even running in the right direction?”

Einarr was reasonably certain they had started out in the right direction, at least, but once they were moving his biggest concern had been keeping them out of the clutches of the forest. He shook his head. “I lost track.”

“I couldn’t tell you if we’re any closer to the lair or nay,” Jorir said, pointing off to their right. “But I’m pretty sure we need to head that way.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow before turning to look. “You mean because it looks the darkest and most impassable?”

Jorir nodded. “It would fit with what we’ve seen so far, wouldn’t it?”

Erik hummed, stepping over to a moderately clear space on the forest floor. “Maybe so. But there’s something else we need to take care of first.”

Kneeling, Erik slung his unconscious son down as gently as he could. “Going to need all of us to keep the lady safe, I think.”

Einarr felt an irrational stab of annoyance. If Irding hadn’t drawn his axe, they would not have been put to flight, and he had only been slowed because he had fought poorly, earlier. Frowning, he shook off such dark thoughts. “Not like none of us have ever been reckless before, right? Runa, will you see what you can do for him?”

She hummed and moved to kneel beside the injured man. With practiced motions – more practiced than he had expected, honestly – she examined his chest under the battered maille. A few minutes later, she shook her head.

“You were right. He broke a rib when the bear was tossing him around like a rag doll.” She cast an accusatory look at Erik. “If you’d been able to carry him more gently, I might be able to Sing him back into the fight, but its aggravated now. We’ll need to set it, and if we cannot let it heal naturally it will weaken him.”

Erik shook his head. “Now look what you’ve done to yourself, my boy.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. “How’s your leg?”

Erik harrumphed but said nothing. He was spared further commentary when Irding awakened with a gasp and a groan.

“Good. Ye’re awake,” Jorir grumbled. “At least now you can look after yerself.”

“Can you set the break?” Einarr thought the chances were good Irding would have to do a fair bit more than hide in a tree to look after himself once Runa began her part. Runa and Jorir both shook their heads.

“Not without bringing the wrath o’ the wood back down on our heads, I think.”

Irding sat up with a grimace and frowned down at the maille now laying on the forest floor beside him. “Surely there must be some way. A sore chest never stopped me before…”

An idea struck Einarr. “Belts. Rethread your weapons on your belts, and we’ll use our baldrics. That should help, shouldn’t it?”

Runa hesitated, thinking it over, before nodding. “It should work. Take off your shirt, Irding.”

“Quickly now. If there were wolves on our trail, we won’t know it until we’re surrounded. The sooner we’re moving, the better.”


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

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.