Tag: Never trust a swarthy dwarf

3.21 – Enticement of Food

Einarr once more offered Jorir the hilt of his sword in token of their pledge, and the dwarf grasped it without hesitation.

“A test, my lord?” Jorir raised an eyebrow, his voice held low.

“I was the one on trial, I think. Well, we gave them a story, anyway.”

“You!” The show-off from the circle thundered, striding into the ring in his spectral fury. “That was no challenge. You planned this!”

“Are not sword dances typically agreed on?” Einarr kept his voice light. If he played this right, the only one to lose honor would be the enraged ghost. “What matter if it was friendly or otherwise?”

“The sword dance is a sacred trial by steel, and you have defiled it! What dispute was this meant to settle?”

“Good sir, I believe you are mistaken. The sword dance is a ritual, true, but one which contains a story. Have we not accomplished that?”

The figure of the show-off wavered, turning almost transparent even as it tried to elongate.

“Stand down!” The voice of the Allthane only seemed to bellow, but it was sufficient to bring the spectre back to its human form. “You forget yourself, and you forget the point of the hallingdanse. The newcomers have impressed me, but you have only served to remind us all of things better left forgot.”

It worked?

“The hallingdanse is over, and the table yet groans with the weight of food. Surely by now our guests have worked up an appetite.”

“Ah…” Even as Einarr was about to object, the light shifted and the room was once again dominated by the feast table and the glow of light reflected off of gold. Even knowing the smells were illusory, the sight of platters of fish – real fish, not the dolphin centerpiece – and the steaming confections like nothing Jarl Hroaldr had ever served now made Einarr’s mouth water. It was true: the hallingdanse had left him hungry.

Jorir, too, stared at the table with wide eyes. He swallowed before turning his head to look at his liege lord. Einarr met his liege man’s gaze and nodded: by winning the hallingdanse, they had left themselves weak to the lure of the spectral food.

Tyr walked up behind them and clapped their shoulders, grinning at each of them. “Well fought out there.”

“Thanks.” Einarr could not keep the dryness from his voice.

“Ready for the harder battle?”

“Not much choice, now is there?” Jorir drawled.

Tyr’s grin disappeared and he turned his face to Einarr. “Not much, no. Any idea how to break us out of the Allthane’s thrall?”

“Not yet. I’d thought to ask for a boon, but somehow I doubt he would wish to hear what I would request.”

Tyr grunted. “You’re likely right, although you may also be on the right track. Now get out there and mingle: we’ll think of something.”

Einarr grumbled. “I’m sure we will. I just hope we can do it quickly enough.”

“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”

Einarr harrumphed and made his way back into the crowd of spirits. When one of them thrust a plate into his hand he took it, not looking at what it held, pretending he couldn’t smell it. Likewise when a cup was pressed into his other hand. That at least he did not have to feign disinterest in: he remembered well the appearance of the liquid without its glamour.

A figure cut across his path, intent on something on the other side of the feast, and it seemed strangely solid. He drew his eyebrows down, remembering the half-alive man from the ring of dancers. Survivors? Perhaps of the freeboaters?

If there were freeboaters caught up in the Allthane’s feast, surely he should try to break them free, as well. Perhaps that was where the key lay? Not in his own men’s freedom, but in that of those who had come before?

He shook his head. No, no-one who claimed to be the Allthane would insist on such disloyalty. Still, though, should he win their freedom perhaps he could also win their loyalty.

Still, though, he was not quite back at the beginning. Should he be able to get through to the captive freeboater, the other man might have valuable insights. It was worth a shot.

Now he mingled with purpose. Einarr had been so surprised by the man’s aspect during the dance that he had not remembered his face, and so he studied each and every man he passed with the intent to pierce their disguise.

So intent was he on his task that he nearly tripped over Jorir, who had evaded all plates and instead been caught up in a game of tafl on the periphery.

“My apologies, gentlemen. Don’t let me interrupt your game… Jorir, is that the piece I think it is?”

“Aye. You’d find his ploy familiar, too. Only, after I win, I’ll not be giving my king away.”

“See that you don’t.” Given the associations Jorir had placed on that piece before, the alternative seemed uncomfortably like being given to the ghosts himself. Now he leaned over and whispered to his warrior. “Keep your eyes open. At least one other man at this feast is alive.”

Jorir nodded. “If I see him, I’ll be sure to tell him.”

Einarr clapped him on the shoulder, nodding in turn. The dwarf was clever: that was no misunderstanding. He meandered back out into the crowd, still studying the men about him in search of one who was actually a man.

“What’s this? Even with food in hand, still you do not eat!” One of the spectral revelers approached, his arms outstretched. It took Einarr only a moment to recognize him as the show-off from the ring.

“Mm? Oh, I do have a plate. I’m afraid my friends and I have much on our minds. If we do not eat, it is only because worry fills our bellies.”

“No worries allowed here, my friend.” He stressed that word in an exceedingly unfriendly way. “Eat! I promise, your cares will vanish with the first morsel.”

“Such a thing will not do, I’m afraid.” Einarr glanced about, hoping there was a table within arm’s reach, to no avail. “Some things simply demand contemplation, and to fail to consider them is the height of indiscipline. Now if you will excuse me, there is someone I am looking for.”

“Oh? How fascinating.” The show-off approached far closer than Einarr was comfortable with. He could feel the cold of the grave emanating from the specter’s body. “Tell me who it is, perhaps I have seen them.”

“I didn’t get a good look at their face, and I’m afraid I know no-one’s name here.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.”

Einarr wanted to groan as a force pressed briefly down against the plate in his hand. When it vanished the plate was lighter.

“He w-” Einarr cut himself off as the show-off’s hand lifted, a mess of unidentified food clutched in his fingers. Einarr pressed his lips together as he realized what the man intended, but not before a morsel made its way through.

“Relax. Join the feast. Have fun.” The spirit smiled maliciously and thumped Einarr on the back as he stalked away into the crowd. Einarr nearly choked trying not to swallow the tainted food. A warm sensation flooded his mouth.


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3.13 – Darkness

For a long moment, darkness and silence held sway. Einarr strained his eyes and his ears, but no light seeped into this cavern from above, and the only sound that reached his ears was the occasional plink of a drop of water falling into a pool below. Finally he heard the distinctive scrape of a fire striker. In the moment before the first spark died without catching, he thought he saw a skeletal figure poised to strike.

Sinmora rasped from her scabbard. He held his blade outstretched, on guard.

The striker sounded again. Again, the torch did not catch. Again, he saw his enemy. Caught, this time, a hint of cloth that suggested it might be the captain he had nearly tripped over earlier.

Now two strikers sounded. He hoped he wasn’t the only one to have seen the apparition… hoped this was not the thing that had killed the freeboaters.

A torch caught and flared to life. Einarr blinked: the skeleton now once again lay prone on the ground, its fingers clutching its neck. Confused, he looked over at Jorir as he sheathed his sword. The dwarf’s hand was on his axe handle, but he had not drawn.

“Tell me you saw that, too,” he muttered.

The dwarf nodded once. “Probably no one else, though. Not in that light.”

Einarr nodded, then strode forward, once again stepping over the cadaver as though it wasn’t there. Jorir, however, was not as forgiving: he stopped long enough to smash the brittle skull with the back of his axe.

“What was that about?” Odvir’s confusion was audible in his voice.

“Never leave an enemy on the field behind you.” Jorir’s answer was flat.

“An… enemy?” It was Irding’s turn to sound skeptical now.

“Aye. An enemy. Surely you’ve not forgotten why svartdvergers are such good miners, have you?” Jorir pointed at his eye. “While you’re remembering that, best remember that the dead walk on this island. Some of them may have ears.”

Einarr could not quite repress a smile when he heard a series of gulps behind him. “Let’s get back to that boat.”

***

Einarr came to the end of the steep passage they had followed down and stopped, staring, at the panel that once again barred their way. Even from this side it appeared to be solid stone, but that wasn’t truly the problem. The problem was the slope they stood on, and the smoothness of the stone under their feet.

“Almost makes you wish we had Arring with us, doesn’t it?”

Erik, at least, chuckled.

“Right. Well. There has to be some way to move it from this side, or there wouldn’t have been anywhere nearly so much gold down there.”

Jorir hummed. “Floor near the walls is like to have more traction than in the center.”

“Here’s hoping it’s enough.” Einarr stepped over to the corner, looking for any break between the hanging slab and the wall that they might be able to use for leverage. He scuffed a boot against the ground under his feet. “Mm. Maybe. No place to put a lever even if we had one, though.”

He paused a moment, considering . “Fjorkar, take the other side. Everyone else, brace us. Erik, Geiti, you fall in last. You’ll have the best footing of any of us here.”

“Aye, sir!” The response to this was somewhat more enthusiastic than the situation warranted, but he could understand wanting to be back in the sea air after the oppressiveness of the cave.

Einarr blew in his hands and rubbed his palms together for grip as he stepped up to take his place against the slab. “Put your backs into it! Ready?”

Fjorkar leaned in on the other side, and the rest of the team moved in to brace the two of them and lend their own strength.

“On three! One, two, now!” His “now” became a shout of exertion as he dug in feet, shoulders, and hands to try to lift the massive stone slab on its hinge.

A crack of light appeared at their feet. Einarr pulled his back foot forward and pushed against the ground. It bought them another inch.

Einarr saw from the corner of his eye that Jorir had slipped out of the formation and stepped toward the center of the passage. His eyes were intent on that crack of light at the floor, and he stood braced.

“What… are you… doing?” Erik grunted.

“Get me six more inches,” was all the dwarf replied.

Six?! Einarr had to trust his liege man, though. “One inch… at a time…”

A pair of hands moved from bracing Einarr to plant themselves on the stone. For an alarming moment, it seemed as though his boots would slip back, but then some little of the pressure from the slab was taken from Einarr’s shoulders. He gathered strength in his legs and gave another shove.

Fjorkar, too, was redoubling his effort, and one of the men on that corner had the same idea.

After what felt like an excruciatingly long time, the gap between the wall and the floor was large enough for Jorir to make his move. The svartdverger dashed forward into the gap, lowering his head to catch the stone on his shoulders.

The momentum from his dash pressed up against the stone slab. Einarr nearly lost his footing as the door swung upwards, until Jorir stood upright, bearing the weight of the stone on his shoulders and hands.

The rest of the team wasted no time scrambling out through the four-foot gap. Einarr, Erik, Fjoirkar, and Geiti were the last to pass through.

“You two. Go on through, hold it open for the rest of us.”

Erik grunted and motioned for Geiti to follow. He had to get down on his knees to get through that gap, but stood and grasped the edge once he was clear.

Now Einarr glanced over at the other two. “On my mark, we all three dash through at once. Get clear quick, or someone’s like to lose a hand. Ready?”

Fjorkar nodded. From his position, all Jorir could really do was grunt. Einarr decided that had to be assent.

“Mark!” He bent his knees and sprang forward. A moment later, the slab fell closed with a thunderous crack.


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3.6 – By Man & Monster Beset

The chatter of kalalintu from above rattled Einarr’s nerves. They were starting to feint at diving, trying to keep their prey from escaping, nudging them ever closer to the ledge. Not good. “Henir!”

The blond man snapped his head around and Einarr tossed his bow back to him. The archer wasted no time nocking another arrow. He studied the sky, looking for a promising target.

The others had woken up by now. Some of them stuffed their ears, just in case one of the creatures began to sing again. Everyone drew arms.

Another kalalintu dived for the Vidofnings, and Henir took the shot. His arrow caught its shoulder and the wing collapsed, sending the creature tumbling to the ground where the rest of the crew could make short work of it.

Arrows soared. More found their marks than not, based on the furor above, but it hardly seemed enough. Einarr stood poised, his shield hand empty, Sinmora ready. Step by step, circle by circle, he saw the plateau ledge growing nearer.

A kalalintu dived over his head. Einarr leapt, reaching with his free hand to catch its silver-scaled tail. It flapped harder, its powerful wings nearly strong enough to pull Einarr off his feet. He dug his heels in and threw his weight backward.

The kalalintu rotated around its tail to pummel Einarr with its gigantic wings and he was forced to lower his head. Still he swung Sinmora around in a blind arc. His blade bit flesh, but not deeply.

A moment later, the creature shrieked in his face and the wings let up for a moment. Einarr risked a glance up and saw Jorir pulling his axe from the creature’s side.

Now the kalalintu’s attention was divided between the human grasping its tail and the dwarf, and now both men struck out at the same moment. Sinmora slashed across its breast in a wicked backhand at the same moment that Jorir embedded his axe in its belly. The creature fell to the ground.

“Thanks. Was that your count or mine?”

Jorir laughed. “You kidding? That shallow cut o’ yours wouldn’t kill a dog.”

“And you’d never have got a chance at it if I wasn’t keeping it busy.” He was already watching the sky again, looking for another opportunity.

“You mean if you hadn’t pulled it down on your head? You’re lucky you don’t have a beak in your skull. Call it a tie?”

Einarr grunted in response. All around them now the kalalintu were swooping down to beat at the Vidofnings, as though Einarr’s catch had triggered a rage in them.

Reki’s voice rose above the din. Finally! Einarr felt the red haze of the battle fury stirring and he roared a challenge at the circling monsters above.

***

Arring had volunteered for the first watch not because he was uneager to see the island, but because the freeboaters had left an uneasiness in his breast. He thought most of the others were the same: they were unusually vigilant today, even for men of the Vidofnir.

Hours passed in this way, as near as Arring could tell in the overcast. Once someone from the repair crew returned, to measure again the chink in the hull Einarr had found, but otherwise all was quiet.

This circuit began as uneventfully as all the rest. Only, when he approached the prow to look out at the highest point, men were moving further up the beach. None of them Vidofnings. He gave a low whistle to alert the rest of his men.

Arring swung down out of the Vidofnir to land lightly in the sand below. “What ho, gents,” he called to the men who now swaggered down the beach towards him.

“Our Cap’n has reconsidered yer most generous offer of assistance.” The man spoke from the head of the oncoming party. His voice was oily. “We’ve been sent to see to it.”

“Have you now. Well I’m afraid you’ll have to wait. Our Captain gave strict orders to see to the repair of our ship first, and since they’ve not yet returned with materials your boat will simply have to wait.”

“Ah, good sir, I think you mistake my meaning.” Their spokesman dry-washed his hands.

Arring sighed and muttered, “I think I am not the one who has made a mistake.” Raising his voice again, he continued. “And how might that be?”

The freeboaters did not deign to answer except by the scrape of steel and the roar of a battle-cry.

“Hop to, men!” There were only ten of them on watch, and perhaps twenty of the freeboaters come to capture the Vidofnir. With a feral snarl, he hefted his axe.

His companions boiled out of the Vidofnir to join him on the sand, join him in the charge up the beach toward those who would rob them of all they had.

Arring’s first blow caught the enemy leader in the stomach and sent him flying back. Two of the enemies were bowled over by his passing. Impressively, he stood again, blood dripping from beneath his chain shirt. Ein?

…No. Credit for guts, though. Rather than limping back away from the fight to observe, the spokesman rushed back into the fray. Then another man had engaged with Arring and he found he had little attention to spare. The man was quick enough he might have given Sivid a run for his money.

Arring’s strength counted for little against a man who could dodge like an adder. Still, he managed to block most of the man’s blows, although those which got through stung ferociously.

In a moment when their axes were in the bind Arring caught movement from the corner of his eye: something rushing towards them. He side-stepped, bringing his opponent’s back in between himself and the onrushing figure of the enemy leader. With the quick man still off-balance, Arring knocked him backwards with a shoulder, right onto his allies’ sword.

Ein.


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3.5 – Between Wind & Water

“What’s this?” Erik paused to look back at Einarr.

“Stop and listen a minute. Hear that?”

After a moment, a growl came from low in Erik’s throat. “Better us than the repair crew.”

Einarr nodded and pushed forward. Father and Bardr, at least, needed to know, and the rest probably should as well. Jorir, at minimum. Everyone whose attention he caught he gestured at his ear. Listen.

Stigander was near the front of the group, paused near a somewhat less rotted-looking ship than most of the others on this section of beach.

“Father,” Einarr said from behind the man’s shoulder. When Stigander’s only response was a turned head and a raised eyebrow, he continued. “We’re approaching the kalalintu flock.”

“You’re sure?”

“Erik heard them, too.”

Stigander nodded. “Spread the word that every man is to have his cotton balls to hand.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Once you’re done, get back up here to the front. We need your eyes.”

Half of a grin turned up one side of his mouth. “Understood.”

***

Einarr combed through the dross within another of the rotted hulks they had passed, cotton balls tucked into the cuffs of his gloves. Thus far, it had yielded a barrel of ancient vinegar that may once have been mead and a handful of silver combs and ladies’ jewelry. Valuable, certainly, but nothing like what they were hoping to stumble into. He dusted off his palms against his trousers and was just about to leave the wreck when he stopped.

Something didn’t sound right. Einarr hurriedly pulled the wads of cotton from their place at his wrists and jammed them in his ears.

Outside, nothing appeared to have changed. His fellow Vidofnings combed other wrecks in much the same state as the one he had just left, with evidently similar results. He reached to pull out one of his ear plugs but stopped. The boat he had just left had not had a masthead when he went in. Now it’s shadow seemed to display a great winged serpent. His hand crept toward Sinmora’s hilt.

From behind him and above, the low gobbling chatter than one expects of seabirds became a haunting, ethereal trill as the shadow’s source opened its beak.

“Cover your ears!”

Some of the Vidofnings, accustomed to Stigander’s tone of command, acted before they realized the source of the order was Einarr. Others, startled, looked up to see what was going on. Their eyes widened and they scrambled for the cotton wads they had tucked about themselves, but too late. Even those who had obeyed reflexively were not all safe: some of them fumbled their cotton balls, others were simply too slow.

In every case, the result was the same: the relaxation of the face into a dull, vacant expression. Horror clutched at Einarr’s throat when he realized that Reki was among them. How are we supposed to dispel this if our Singer is out?

He turned around and drew Sinmora with a hiss of steel, but the kalalintu that had been in hiding now flapped ten feet above the ground.

Jorir, Bardr, Erik, and Stigander were looking about as frantically as he, hoping someone had shown the sense to bring a bow. The few who had, though, were already wandering dumbly after the monstrosity that would feast on their bones if they were incautious.

Jorir seemed to have an idea. He put a finger to his lips for silence and then tapped at his temple, hoping they would take the hint. The dwarf’s face went slack and his shoulders relaxed and he began to trudge up the beach, in pursuit of the song.

Clever! Einarr followed suit, his sword held loosely, as he followed after the kalalintu flapping slowly away from the beach. As the shore became rocky soil he risked a glance over his shoulder. He then had to suppress a smile when he saw that all of them had caught on to Jorir’s pantomime.

The band of entranced sailors trudged on towards a large plateau of rock that dominated its surroundings. As they drew closer, the sound of the flock grew clearer. The people of Attilsund claimed they had little trouble with kalalintu in this area, but the flock sounded no smaller than any of the ones they had fought on their way to Svartlauf. His grip tightened on the hilt of his blade, only for a moment. Well, not for long.

Finally their aerial guide stopped moving forward, flapping in lazy circles over the top of the plateau. It’s song still filtered through the cotton balls, tempting Einarr to sleep. At least with his ears stopped it was bearable. There was only one way up for the sailors, and that was a narrow trail switch-backing up the shallowest path.

Einarr swallowed. They would be vulnerable on that path, and there were only five of them who might be able to stop one of the birds who decided they didn’t want to wait for dinner. His eyes darted between the backs of the men just ahead of him. With as high up as the thing was, he might be able to go unnoticed while borrowing a bow.

Ah, he has one. With a little careful maneuvering, Einarr managed to position himself behind Henir as their mob started up the narrow path. Getting it from him without being seen would be a little trickier, but so long as there was a moment when the circling kalalintu couldn’t see him… Now.

Einarr slipped the bow off Henir’s shoulder and onto his own in a moment when the plateau’s ledge blocked the view of the still-singing creature. He reached out for the man’s quiver just as Henir stepped back out of the shade of the plateau. Hastily, Einarr dropped his hand and took on the vacant expression again.

Slowly they filed up to the top of the plateau, where most of the Vidofnings stood milling about like sheep under the influence of the kalalintu’s song. All around them were haystack nests filled with silvery eggs, being watched over jealously by some of the flock.

About half of the kalalintu took to the air. The singing one continued to fly in small circles above the heads of its captives. The rest formed a larger ring in eerie silence and flew in counterpoint to their singer.

Einarr snatched an arrow from Henir’s quiver and fired it at the singer above. The arrow flew true, and the song broke off with a startled squawk.

Tcheh. He’d hoped to drop one, but ending the song was the critical thing. Even now his fellows were blinking back to full consciousness as the circling kalalintu launched into raucous chatter.


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2.26 – Jorir’s Pledge

Blue sky greeted Einarr’s eyes when they opened, and grass beneath his hands and neck that was soft rather than scratchy. He furrowed his eyebrows, trying to recall how he had wound up on the ground and failing. Already the details of the mushroom-visions had faded from his mind, leaving him with only the feeling of strangeness that comes after a particularly vivid dream.

What good are the mushrooms if you can’t remember what you saw? He sat up, shoulders first, and looked around.

In the morning light, the meadow was a brilliant green, studded here and there with a pop of color from wildflowers. The grass still rustled in the mountain wind, and the sound was punctuated with the occasional trilling of a bird or chirp of a cricket.

Sivid, too, was sitting, although he was no longer blinking the sleep from his eyes. Father and Arring were just beginning to stir, although it seemed odd that last night’s brew would affect them more than him or Sivid. It took Einarr another minute or so to realize that Jorir was not with them.

The sound of humming and the clatter of wood drifted over the meadow from the temple behind him.

Einarr grunted and stood. He slapped at the legs of his pants to clear off the grass that had clung to him overnight and half-turned to look.

Even in the clear light of morning the temple seemed to glow with an inner light. That was definitely where the noise was coming from, and once Einarr turned his attention that way he could also hear the low murmur of conversation. Aha. He straightened and stretched out some of the stiffness that always came of sleeping on the ground.

With a roll of his head and a pop from his neck, Einarr ambled over towards the temple. Jorir stood near the edge of the stone dias, his now-familiar black braids shaking in counterpoint with his head and in time with the clacking sound. Einarr lifted one eyebrow and climbed up to join his swarthy liege-man.

Dominating the center of the temple was a loom that could have come up to a jotün’s knee and as broad as Erik at the shoulders. The glow seemed to come from the warm pine wood of its frame. The Oracle stood in front of the loom, her hands flying from side to side as she worked the shuttles that produced the continual clacking noise.

Her golden hair could not obscure the silver-white dress that clung to her body like a cascade of water. On another woman – perhaps even one of her apprentices – it might have been alluring. On the Oracle it was stunning.

Her weaving slowed as Einarr took in the sight ahead of him.

Jorir cleared his throat. “Milord, you’ll affect her Weaving up here.”

“Oh! My apol-”

“Don’t be so hasty, Smed Världslig.” The Oracle’s voice rang like a bell when she spoke, and both men started. “The Weave of the World has called him up here, and none other. The Cursebreaker will stay, for such is the way he will learn his work.”

“As you wish, my lady.”

She did not answer, though her weaving sped again until the shuttles were moving so fast Einarr nearly couldn’t see them and the sound of knocking wood became a nearly continuous drone. Lord and Warrior stood in silence as she continued her work, and now it was not only the loom and the shuttles which seemed to glow from within but the threads themselves.

The Oracle turned to the side as part of her weaving, just for a moment, and Einarr thought he could see what Jorir’s answer was going to be. The pattern seemed clear, although he could not have said why, and he wasn’t at all certain he liked what he saw.

After a timeless period had passed – Einarr could not have said if it was minutes or hours or even days – the tapestry in front of them was complete and the Oracle stepped to the side.

“Your instincts told you true, Jorir,” she began. “And you have fulfilled what I asked of you on your first visit. The Cursebreaker stands before me.”

“Jorir, surely I must be mistaken, but just to be sure. What was the payment asked of you last time you were here?”

The dwarf cleared his throat. “I was to bring you here.”

“Ah.” Annoyance tugged the corners of his mouth into a frown.

“All is as the world weaves it,” the Oracle intoned. “I required your presence here to complete the weaving I performed for him previously, it is true. But it is also true your father has need of my guidance, and that you have need of guidance and wisdom both.”

She stepped over and stood before him, meeting his eyes with steel-grey ones of her own. “You can see the pattern in the weave before you?”

“I see a pattern, certainly.”

She nodded, as though that were his expected response. Given her trade, it may well have been a foretold one. “Good. The ability to see clearly in such a way is a rare gift, and it will allow you to follow your calling.”

Einarr stared at the newly finished tapestry as her words sank like a stone in his gut. “I was afraid you were going to tell me something like that.”

“Afraid? Why? Those who are tasked as Cursebreakers are seated at the head of the Table of Heroes.”

“Because they are only ever called in times of great peril.”

“Aye. And such is upon us.”


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2.8 – Butcher’s Bill

The days following the battle with the Valkyries were somber, as well they should be: five Vidofnings fell to the Order’s hunters. Three of them had remembered Raenshold better than Einarr himself did. Those five had ridden the enemy ship to the afterlife in a blaze of glory, and left five more empty berths on the Vidofnir.

If there was one bright spot, it was the treasure they had found in the Geirskögul’s hold, packed into every spare inch beneath the deck boards of the Vidofnir. The morning after the funeral, Stigander had directed them north to a friendly port, only a little out of their way. No-one could quite get out of their head, though, what those five newly empty berths meant.

As the Vidofnir prepared to dock at the Apalvik pier – larger than Kjellvic, but still no match for the bustle of Kem – Stigander called Einarr aside.

“We’ll be in port a few days while we find a buyer for our takings, so I want you to do something for me. Take Bardr and Jorir and head into town, see if you can’t find us a few more hands.”

“Yes, Father… but, you’re leaving this to me?”

“’Course I am. How else are you supposed to build a crew for the new ship? Bardr’s got a good eye for people, he’ll point you in the right direction – and with your liege-man along you’ll weed out anyone who has a problem with svartdvergr. Hopefully anyone who’ll be bothered by Reki, too.”

Einarr nodded. “I understand, Father. I will find us worthy successors to Arngeirr and the others.”

Stigander clapped him on the shoulder, a broad smile spreading under his pale yellow moustache. “Happy hunting, then.”

***

Bardr passed by no fewer than three public houses before finding one that suited his criteria. “Too nice, and the patrons will turn up their noses at a ship like ours, even assuming they aren’t already signed on with someone. Too rough and, well, I think you can guess.”

Einarr nodded as they settled into a corner table, scanning the faces in the room for potential prospects. Too rough a place would attract men who were little more than scoundrels, and Stigander was not interested in a sailor he couldn’t trust. He nudged Jorir with the back of his hand and dropped a small stack of silver in front of the dwarf. “Mind picking up the first round?”

He snorted. “Assuming there’s anything worth drinking in this place. Back in a few.”

Bardr nodded as Jorir sauntered off towards the center of the room. “Good call. Who watches him, and why?”

Most of the patrons noted the presence of a swarthy dwarf in the hall with an indifferent shrug or a glance out the corner of their eye before turning back to their own business. Fewer watched warily in case of trouble, plainly expecting that Jorir would be the cause of it in one way or another. Of the remaining patrons, about half were curious to see a dwarf in their tavern, while the other half sneered.

“This at least tells us who not to approach,” Einarr murmured. “The curious ones, what do you make of them?”

Bardr pursed his lips and hummed. “One or two of them might be worth talking to. Got a hunch most of them aren’t looking for a new ship right now, though. Look at how they’re drinking, how they’re dressed.”

“Mm. Not a desperate lot, this bunch.”

“Not as such, but ‘desperate’ isn’t really the qualification we’re looking for.” Bardr pressed his lips together, scanning the room, as Jorir returned to his seat.

Einarr slid one of the mugs over in front of himself. “Thanks.”

Jorir grunted. “Fine. Mind tellin’ me why we’re here when the rest of the crew is back at the boat?”

“Recruiting. Thought you’d have guessed that.”

“Ah.” He shook his head. “Somehow didn’t think yer Pa would be big on bringing in new blood.”

“Gotta keep our strength up if we want to take our holdings back. Not like my uncle will just roll over for us when we sail back into port.”

“Einarr, you see the man over in the corner, trying not to look at us now? Looks like Erik’s Ma and Sivid had a love child?”

Einarr tried not to laugh at the description as he nodded that he saw the man.

“Try talking to him.”

He chuckled as he stood. “Sure he’s not one of Erik’s get? I’d be surprised if the man didn’t have near as many sons as mistresses.”

“Does it matter if he is?”

“Depends. Here goes nothing.” Einarr took a long swig from the mug Jorir had brought to their table before sauntering off across the room. He felt eyes following him, and thought them largely a different set than the ones that had followed Jorir. Many of the men who had been indifferent to the dwarf alone were interested in the man the dwarf was with.

“Mind if I join you?” He asked the man, who did indeed look like he could be Erik’s much smaller brother – or son.

“Seat’s empty,” the stranger grunted.

“My thanks.” Einarr swung a leg over the chair and leaned his elbows on the table, hoping the casual display also came off as unthreatening. “You from around here?”

“Hereabouts.” The stranger watched him warily, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“Looking for a berth?”

“Friend might be.”

“Your ‘friend’ a warrior?”

“He’s a fair hand, yeah, with axe or sword and shield.”

Einarr studied the man openly for a long moment. “Well, I might have a berth to offer, if this ‘friend’ of yours is loyal and true, and meets a few other qualifications. The dwarf you were staring at is on the crew, and our Singer is an albino. Your ‘friend’ is still interested, tell him to come find the Vidofnir at the docks and to say Einarr sent him. We’re only in port until we find a buyer for our recent acquisitions, so tell him not to wait too long.”

“I’ll be sure to let him know, yeah.” The man’s face brightened now, and suddenly Einarr had a better feeling about him.

“You have any other friends in this town who might be looking for such a berth? We had a few open up just recently.”

The man shook his head. “’Fraid not. I stick out like a sore thumb around these parts.”

Einarr shrugged. “Fair enough. If Father likes you, I imagine you’ll fit right in with us. Although…” He remembered the pretense, now. “If your ‘friend’ shows up, what name should I expect?”

“Irding. Irding Eriksson.”

Inwardly, Einarr groaned. Outwardly, he shook the man’s hand. “Pleasure. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe our Mate is trying to catch my attention.” This oughta be interesting. One down, four to go.


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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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1.26 – The Isinntog

After what felt like an eternity of creeping, during which he kept expecting to hear the creak of hinges or feel the vibrations of the giant’s steps on the floor, he made it to the pillar on which he had glimpsed his goal.

It was not ivory, he saw now that he stood before it, but instead a rough limestone, and thick enough to hide him from anyone standing at the door. Up we go.

What should have been an easy climb was rendered arduous by his inability to move horizontally around the pillar without exposing himself in front of the open doorway. He was faced more than once with the choice between exposure and an inadequate grip. He chose the grip. His odds of weathering the fall were better than his odds of facing a jotün and escaping with his prize.

When Einarr was about halfway up, he ventured a peek around the edge of the column. The doorway yawned more widely now than it had when he entered, but still he saw no-one. Sweat beaded on his brow, and he wished for a good enough grip to wipe his palms on his trousers as he once again placed the pillar firmly between himself and the door. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that there was nothing behind him but more of the giant’s gold.

Einarr climbed more quickly, now. He could admit, if only to himself, that the idea of being found by the jotün unnerved him. The sooner he accomplished his goal, the sooner he could escape the oversized, frigid Svartlauf.

His hands gripped the lip at the top of the pillar now. Einarr let his feet drop free of the ridges they clung to and swung backwards. This was the riskiest part, because from the moment he pulled himself up there he was vulnerable. By that same token, the longer he hung here the more likely his fingers were to slip.

Einarr heaved. The sleeves of his tunic tightened over his biceps as he hauled first his chin and then his chest over the lip of the pillar.

More than merely reflecting the sunlight slanting in through the room’s single window, the torc that rested on a velvet pillow on the pedestal seemed to shine with its own light. The pure white gold was braided into a ring, and at each knot a diamond was set. The ends of the torque were wrought into elegant dragon heads. On the inside of the arc, its name was inscribed with runes. Each rune was powerful in its own right. Taken together they were fearsome indeed.

For the jotün, it might have fit a pinky. For someone like Erik, the torc would have been just a hair too big to fit over his upper arm. Einarr, being a smaller man, could have worn it about his neck, although that would lead to no end of ribbing from the rest of the Vidofnings. He only hesitated a moment before slipping it around his neck. They still had to leave through the storm again, and they were down a man. A little ridicule was worth the gamble that it would ease their journey out. It felt unnaturally cool against his skin.

Einarr looked around. He could, of course, lower himself back over the lip and try to climb down the same way he came up. The problem being, climbing down over a lip was always more challenging than climbing up it, and there was always the possibility of finding a better way down.

Alas, the best possibility came in the form of a five-foot high stack of coins some feet back from the base of the pillar. With a running start he could probably make it, but he would also destroy all pretense at stealth for his escape.

He lowered himself off the edge of the pillar once more and reached out with a foot for the toehold he had used on the way up.

Einarr still clung to the side of the pillar when the ground shook violently. He clung to the stone with tense fingers. After a long moment, he exhaled. He moved a hand down towards the next ledge.

The shaking this time left Einarr hanging by the fingers of one hand. He looked down. A five foot drop isn’t so bad. Einarr let himself fall those last few feet, landing as softly as he could on the flagstone below. Then he ran as quietly as he could towards the door, making sure to keep a pile of treasure between him and the open passage as he went.

Einarr made it halfway across the room towards the door that way. He thought he might make it. And then a familiar voice struck his ears.

“I knew it, Master! They were after the Isinntog!”

Hel’s bells, it’s the dwarf. Resilient little bugger. Einarr turned on the speed now, aiming for a stack near the door to hide behind until the jotün had passed the threshold.

He wasn’t fast enough. Einarr was in the open space between two stacks when the giant’s foot dropped like a blue boulder into the treasure room.


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1.23 – Dwarven Tunnels

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

“Right this way, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re right, I didn’t.”

“Well?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

The dwarf hummed and climbed faster.

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

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

“What… part of the hall?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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1.22 – The Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s play. My king, my defense.”

“As you like.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you now.”

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

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

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

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

“Tuichu. I win.”

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

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

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


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